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Adore You

Chapter Text

1.

Summer had just begun to touch down on the south coast of England when Harry had arrived at the house by the shore. The leaves were a bright-lit green at the crown of the trees, and the rose buds on the bushes had long since begun to flower. Only miles from Brighton, the crisp, biting wind was gone and replaced by the pleasant flutter of a tame ocean breeze.

Harry had disembarked at the private, gated community from a town car only hours earlier, but already he felt a probing sense of drowning. It had nothing to do with the fresh summer air, the close proximity to the sea, or the large, breathing mansion his father had purchased the spring subsequent to Harry’s eighth birthday. No, the grand summer estate was of great wealth, and far from a sore spot to the eye. However, it was the company, the dreadful members of its environs that seemed to smother each vessel of pumping blood in his body.

As a young boy he had adored visiting the summer haven during the holidays, had been absolutely delighted the moment he laid eyes on the property for the first time each year. There he could swim in the sea, lounge about under the beams of the frying sun, and bike along the gravel roads for hours. But, the older he became the less he found himself able to endure the pressured ambience his family provided.

These days, university was where he thrived, studying law and jurisprudence, living alone in the local pupil housings far from people operating under the family name. Twenty years of age, he was emancipated from all but his heritage and trust fund, which with infortune ultimately did not account for less than anything. Having failed to visit the southern mansion for the last three years since his mother and father had stopped consistently requesting his presence, he wasn’t thrilled this particular summer when they had all but escorted him there in person.

The reason behind this was unbeknownst to Harry, and had the decision lain in his hands he would have rather worked in a diner, sweating at the fryers and waiting tables for the entirety of the holidays until his university once more commenced, than spend over two months in Deansville. He had only budged once his mother mentioned his financial position as a final resort. There were things he was obliged to do. He was a van Styles son after all.

He’d unpacked his two suitcases in his old room that morning, on the second floor in the west wing. It still looked the very same as when he’d last seen it; fiction on the bookshelves, a radio on the wooden desk, record player on the bureau, and the bedspread an unflattering, pale champagne. The room was spacious, and could fit at least three more beds, rather than the expensive sofa and layers of decoration that lavished every room of the house in similar fashion. The entire mansion in Deansville — much like his parents’ home up north — was embellished redundantly at the agency of the woman of the house. Harry, however, profusely preferred the moderate flat in the school housings… the one his father had acquired him as he’d received his acceptance letter from the prestigious university two years ago.

Now, as he stared across the property from his window, eyes on the beach waiting past the oaks that framed the impeccably green lawn, he felt his shoulders sag in defeat. He was there, and there was nought to do about it.

**

Afternoon tea was served on the patio, the wide table overlooking the expanse of the back yard. A couple of acres stretched before them, perfectly attended to bushes and trees adorning the grounds with colourful flowers. Harry’s most dear instalment of the garden was the gazebo. It was located at the end of the property, under the high oaks, near the wicket that constructed the very origin of a stone path leading all the way to the shore. The gazebo itself was relatively hidden, too far from the mansion to be spotted behind the garden. It had been painted a summery yellow with white corners when Harry was twelve, and the tiny porch was built in a pale grey marble. Harry had used to love spending his afternoons there, reading and having the occasional, secret smoke. Something inside him hoped desperately it still smelled the same.

Harry smiled gratefully as the maid carefully refilled his coffee cup, and repressed a pleased hum as he finally took a sip. The drive down to Deansville had exhausted him — or perhaps the fatigue was simply a result of the company, which had only surrounded him for a few hours.

“You shouldn’t consume so much coffee, dear,” tsked Harry’s mother disapprovingly. “That’s your second cup. Petunia, bring the man some tea instead.”

“Sorry, Mum,” he apologised. “I’m afraid the car ride has worn me out.”

The maid tied her hands behind her back. “Would you like me to bring you something for any disturbances, sir?”

“Nonsense.” Mrs van Styles waved her off. “Have a lie down after tea, and you will feel better.”

Harry watched his mother’s round, violet hat defeat the breeze, the brown curls rounding her ears beneath it struggling slightly worse. “I’m fine, Petunia. Thanks,” he reassured, and took another sip of the beverage.

His father cleared his throat at the head of the table. “When did your sister say she’d arrive, son?”

“Last we spoke she told me Saturday morning, in company of her husband, of course.”

Harry had not seen his sister since Christmas, as she nowadays resided in Paris. Her husband was a wealthy politician, who happened to agree increasingly with Harry’s own father’s policies. The arrangement had worked out surprisingly smoothly, and as far as Harry was aware, his older sister was happy. Whilst Harry socialised properly for the first time in weeks with his parents, he longed for her arrival, wishing desperately for a comrade to share his misery.

“Just in time for the big hurrah!” nodded Mr van Styles, clearly pleased.

“Absolutely terrific,” agreed his wife almost giddily, wiggling a brow at Harry as she sipped from her tea.

Harry glanced from one end of the table to the other. “Pardon me. What big hurrah?”

“Oh!” said Mr van Styles, appearing inexplicably delighted. He squeezed his hands together, explaining to Harry, “We are throwing a garden soirée this Saturday! The entire community have confirmed their attendance. Your mother has been planning the event for weeks.”

“Exciting, isn’t it, Harry?” she said loudly, nodding at him expectantly until he reluctantly copied the gesture.

“How wonderful,” he lied.

His mother clasped her hands on the table, the lipstick on her mouth not a bit out of place as she nailed him with her grey eyes. “Harry, you must dress impeccably. Jean-Pierre will help you get sorted. I presume you don’t have a fresh suit yet?”

“No, Mum.”

“Did you bring the cufflinks you were given on your eighteenth birthday, son?” inquired his father.

“Of course.”

Mrs van Styles grinned widely at her husband. “Excellent! Wear them, please.”

Harry frowned in confusion. The investment in his appearance seemed unusual, even for the two of them.

His father winked at him. “I’ve got a couple of entirely new Dapper Dax’s. To tame those curls of yours.”

“Oh,” said Harry in surprise. Those were rare, even so to people of their wealth.

Taking an extremely slow swig of her tea, Mrs van Styles finally disclosed the secret behind the hurrah.

“We invited our new acquaintances from uptown. You’ve simply got to meet their oldest son!” she said with a flourish, and suddenly it became abundantly clear as to why his parents had so adamantly demanded he join them in Deansville for the entirety of the summer.

Harry’s older sister was already married, and now went by Mrs Gemma van der Hollande, and it was only a matter of time before she would carry Mr and Mrs van Styles’ first grandchild. Meanwhile, Harry, away at university, had so vigorously hoped he would escape any meddling hands in his personal life. Not so lucky, clearly.

He stared quietly at the table, the corners of his mouth lowering in sync with his heart sinking down his gut. He heard the sound of more tea pouring into porcelain cups, the rustle of the tree branches, and felt the prominent scent of lemon cake. In that moment, he despised Deansville more than he ever had.

He wished not even to know the name of this family his parents had in mind, or who the son was. He already knew he was of most certainty handsome, polite, and presumably inordinately wealthy, if the giddy look in his father’s eyes spoke of anything. Harry desired nothing less than drowning at the bottom of the ocean.

“He is twenty-six, Harry,” revealed Mrs van Styles as though it was a secret to be cherished. “He is studying to be a doctor at a university not far from your Yorkinshare. Only has a year left before he is eligible to practice medicine. Very smart boy.”

Harry’s father nodded, eyebrows arched as he indubitably waited for Harry’s welcoming smile. It didn’t come.

“And he is oh-so dashing!” added his mum, nodding encouragingly. When he still didn’t reply, she looked at their maid. “Isn’t he, Petunia?”

“Very handsome,” agreed Petunia bashfully, and a faint pink coloured the apples of her cheeks, unveiling the truth behind the words.

“There is something rather pleasing about his looks,” even Mr van Styles hummed. “Quite dapper, or am I wrong, Lillian?”

“Not at all, Richard, not at all. With those parents, nothing short of dazzling could have come out,” she chuckled heartily, and her husband joined her not a moment too late.

Harry cleared his throat. “I think perhaps I will go for that little lie down now, if you would excuse me. Mum. Dad.”

“Oh,” said his father, and stood up as Harry rose from his seat, napkin grasped in his lap. “Of course.”

“Don’t forget dinner at seven. On the dot!” Mrs van Styles called after him, as he left the patio with a searing concoction of anger and distress stirring in his gut.

**

Harry’s sister, along with her husband and multiple heavy suitcases, had arrived early Saturday morning as expected. Her hair was bleached and curled upward as demanded by the current trends, and an artificial flower sat tucked in the band of her round, yellow hat. Relieved to see her face, Harry had embraced her for a full two minutes.

Gerard van der Hollande spoke English, but he carried a heavy French accent that Harry found increasingly annoying. He didn’t pronounce the letter ‘H’, and each time he were to address Harry by name it took him several moments to force the sound from the roof of his mouth. Harry knew the man was only looking to be polite, but he had never quite been able to help his slight resentment toward the man who stole his sister out of the country.

The soirée his parents had planned commenced at six o’clock that evening, and as Harry reluctantly emerged outside through the patio doors he was instantly submerged in loud conversation and live jazz. Though Harry didn’t tend to enjoy these events, he would admit his mother did have excellent taste in music and decoration. The garden before him was beautifully garnished with light strings and lanterns, the people milling about in swanky outfits and sipping on upscale beverages. The men were dressed in dark suits, most of them — similarly to Harry’s own — patterned in thin stripes. As for the women, the latest fashion called for knee-length flapper dresses, feathery shawls, and long pearl necklaces that reached their lower stomach. Everyone appeared every bit as wealthy as they wished, and while Harry wasn’t a fan of the redundancy, he did enjoy a neat pair of braces and the contemporary hat.

Magically turning up at Harry’s side as he joined the crowds, his sister linked their arms. “Thank you for finally joining us,” she said, the sarcasm light on her tongue.

He shrugged. “Figured I’d shave off an hour, or so. It’s easier to socialise with these people once the alcohol has set in.”

Gemma chuckled, and the delicate feather attached to the side of her headpiece, that matched her dress, tickled Harry’s ear. He bumped her shoulder with his.

“Word in the house this afternoon had it Mother and Father are introducing you to someone special tonight…?” said Gemma gently, as if unsure of how he would feel about this particular statement.

He gritted his teeth. “They can introduce us all they want. Doesn’t have to mean anything.”

“You know it does,” she sighed, patting his wrist. “They expect you to comply.”

Harry shook his head. “I’m not going along with this. They practically blackmailed me to come, only to stuff a marriage down my throat.”

“You know, you might like him,” she said quietly. “You won’t know until you meet him. I love Gerard with every bit of my heart, even though I never expected to.”

“I’m sure he’s a slimy prick,” he simpered.

Gemma cackled loudly, and he snorted, rolling his eyes with a tiny grin.

“Harry.” Their mother’s voice cut through their laughter, and Harry’s smile fell.

Repressing the urge to groan juvenilely, Harry pressed his lips down as he turned around, watching his mother approach. She was dressed in an elegant, bone white dress, the pearl necklace around her neck extensive and shining in the evening light. Her hair was wavy and fastened in a short do, following the newest trends, naturally.

Mrs van Styles placed a silky glove on his elbow.

“Darling,” she said, her red lips never ceasing to smile pleasantly at her guests. “How is it you are joining us an hour late?”

“My apologies, Mum.”

“I have guests waiting to meet you,” she chided, and her fingers squeezed around his arm; he wasn’t getting away. “This way, dear.”

She steered him between the crowds through the garden, leaving his sister behind on the patio. Every so often they stopped, greeting one neighbour or another member of the community. Harry smiled politely and engaged in conversation, secretly hoping to procrastinate as much as manageable. The less time spent knowing whomever his parents’ ideal suitor was, the better. His mother gave him a knowing glance at the third stop, and quickly excused them. Drat.

By the time his mother’s firm grip on his elbow began to relent, they had reached the end of the garden. The yellow gazebo stood prettily in the right corner, watching the party guests mill about and sip on various alcoholic beverages. Past its corners and the tangle of bushes, Harry could spot the beach, although, the sound of the evening waves was almost undecipherable against the jazz currently performed by the live band. Mrs van Styles’ steps slowed by the time they reached the gazebo, a slow smile spreading on her lips as her complete demeanour changed from determined to self-assured.

Harry followed the direction of her gaze, and found it alighted on a small group of people chatting in a circle. There was a man and a woman about his parents’ age, dressed equally as elegantly in suit and gown. The man was tall, a greying moustache growing atop his lip, and by his side he grasped a fashionable cane. The woman was rather short and petite, but along with the rest of the group she irradiated importance and evidently wealth, from the way their chins were held high and poised, to the sparkling jewellery and the hefty watches attached to their wrists.

There was another girl, who appeared close to Harry’s age. Her hair was bleached like Gemma’s, but she was smaller, and seemed unbothered with hiding her boredom as she stared uninterruptedly into her flute of champagne.

By her side stood a man, significantly taller than both women, but not quite as sturdy and broad as the older men. His shoulders were simultaneously neat and muscular beneath the striped suit, and his hands were carefully grasping a glass of neat whiskey. Beneath an in vogue hat, his hair was a soft, caramel brown. It swooped gently over his forehead, probing only somewhat into his blue — perhaps even cerulean — eyes. Despite the notably unmodern hairdo, he was almost overwhelmingly handsome in his slacks, and the small, upward curve of the corner of his mouth had something almost playful sparking in his eyes. The cheeky impishness on his mid-twenties face was alarmingly attractive, and Harry couldn’t recall ever being privy to a man so inexplicably enticing at first glance. There was something rather aesthetically pleasing to his smart clothing, mixed with his sharp eyes and confident stance.

Steadfastly neglecting the pinch in his stomach procured by the man’s evident beauty, Harry perused the company he was in. As his mother lead him toward the gathering, he quickly assessed the situation.

The oldest couple were presumably married, standing closely with rings on their fingers. The artificially blonde girl’s looks resembled the woman’s so much it was eerie, and thus she had to be a daughter of the couple. The rest were harder to place, but the only man appearing respectably appropriate for Harry from the van Styles’ perspective, was undeniably the handsome boy with the blue eyes.

Harry despised him immediately.

Quickly, Harry sidestepped his mother’s path, and swiftly snatched a colony cocktail off a waiter’s tray. He downed a third of the triangle shaped glass before his mother managed to tug painfully at his wrist, scowling disapprovingly through her grey eyes. Harry only reaffirmed his stony grasp on the beverage, swallowing another swig of the gin based drink as they approached.

“Johannah! Derek!” greeted Mrs van Styles gracefully, and the older pair swivelled, large smiles erupting on their faces.

“Lillian!” the woman, Johannah, cheered delightedly, and Harry was instantly struck by a similar pair of azure eyes. Some genes, she seemed to have passed on to the young man, who must’ve been her son. The two of them exchanged their obligatory pecks, and the man, who had to be Derek, cordially placed a kiss to Mrs van Styles’ hand.

“So lovely to see you again, Lillian. It’s a wonderful party you have thrown. Stunning, stunning,” he complimented.

“Thank you, Derek. You are the most kind,” she affably replied. “And this must be your daughter.”

“This is Charlotte,” smiled Johannah warmly, rubbing the girl’s arm. “And, of course, our oldest son, Louis.”

Harry pretended not to notice the tiny glance the woman sent him at the name of the latter.

The girl curtseyed diminutively. “Nice to meet you, Mrs van Styles.”

The older bloke, with the blue eyes, took her hand and shook it politely. “It’s my great pleasure to see you once more, Mrs van Styles.”

His voice was soft, but raspy, inexplicably reminding Harry of the chocolate his father used to bring home from Switzerland, or perhaps a sweet honey from France. Furthermore — and worst of it all — he sounded completely genuine. Harry’s mouth tasted bitterly of grapefruit and Luxardo Maraschino liqueur.

Lillian van Styles kept a winning, close-lipped smile on her face, and squeezed Harry’s arm. “Derek, Johannah… Louis. This is my son, Harry Edward van Styles. Harry, this is Mr and Mrs Tomlinson, and their family.”

Harry could feel Louis’ attentive eyes land on him, and he shifted uncomfortably on his feet as he forced a small smile onto his lips. Louis’ gaze didn’t waver.

“What a handsome boy you’ve got, Lillian,” chuckled Johannah kindly, and shook Harry’s hand. “The photographs your parents have shown us at dinner do not do you justice, my dear. I’m Johannah.”

“Pleasure to meet you,” he declared quietly, and respectfully squeezed both of their hands, before eventually taking a small step back, deliberately retreating from the spotlight. He expected his mother to take over, to start conversing as was her specialty — socialising — but before Harry could start measuring his chances of escaping, Louis himself took a step forward, extending own his palm.

“Harry,” he said, his voice clear, and yet entirely raspy and ridiculously sultry. His blue eyes beneath that brown fringe remained closely on Harry’s face. “I’m honoured to finally meet you. Your parents have told me so much about you.”

Oh, boy.

Harry swallowed strenuously, and reluctantly took his hand, feeling Louis’ firm but careful grip close around his own. Harry let go as fast as manageable. “Nice to meet you, also.”

He didn’t have to look sideways to confirm his mother’s smirk, and the Tomlinsons’ probable satisfaction. Personally, Harry wished nothing more than to call a taxi service, and start packing his suitcases.

“Louis,” said Harry’s mother amicably. “Harry, here, is currently studying law at Yorkinshare. He is starting his third year next autumn.”

Louis’ mouth twisted into an appreciative grin. “So I’ve heard, ma’am. Yorkinshare is not far from my school.” His sharp eyes met Harry’s. “Myself, I finish my medicine degree next spring. I study at Bradshaw. Perhaps you’ve heard of it?”

“I have,” muttered Harry, glancing away. He took a slow sip from his colony cocktail, and ended up draining the half-filled glass. He felt his mum’s heel press into the side of his shoe.

Louis cleared his throat. “Law must be truly fascinating. How many years have you got left until you’re allowed to practice, Harry?”

He refused to meet his eyes. “Three,” and he intended to be neither married nor engaged before he graduated, for that matter.

For a small moment, silence was cast over the group. Harry could still feel Louis’ intent stare on him, and he wasn’t sure what to think of it. Surely, the older boy could decipher the situation for what it was? There was no need for pleasant conversation, because Harry wanted no part in this ludicrous endeavour by the hand of their families.

Not waiting for the cows to come home, Harry ended up vividly waving in a waitress to exchange his empty glass for a full one. He began consuming before his old drink was retrieved, eyes looking everywhere but at the boy across from him.

“It’s an incredible garden you have, Mrs van Styles,” said Louis’ voice. “I must say I especially adore the gazebo.”

“Why, thank you, darling!” chirped Harry’s mother. “As a matter of fact, the gazebo is Harry’s favourite spot to read during the day. The summer mornings turn it particularly charming.”

“Is that so?” hummed Louis, and when Harry threw a quick glance up he found his eyes softly browsing over his face. “Reading is one of my dearest passions, as well. It must be heavenly.”

Mrs van Styles nudged Harry’s arm.

“Sure is,” he agreed fleetingly. The alcohol did not so much as scold his throat anymore.

“Personally, I love to sit on our porch swing at dusk. The sundown is gorgeous from our view.”

“Oh, it must be, Louis,” retorted Mrs van Styles, voice candied and far too benevolent to ring without agenda to Harry’s acquainted ears. “Derek, your property is just stunning.”

Harry listened half-heartedly as his mother began discussing the estate with the Tomlinsons, slowly but surely emptying his second drink of only the start of the evening. At one coincidental point, his eyes found Charlotte, Louis’ younger sister, and it appeared her champagne flute was nearly empty as well. He met her eyes, and soon received a tiny quirk of her lip. He only tuned back in to the ongoing conversation when he heard his mother’s unusually bright laughter.

“You simply must join us for Sunday brunch! Eleven o’clock, dear?” she requested eagerly.

“It would be my absolute pleasure, Mrs van Styles,” laughed Louis, and Harry’s brows shot up his forehead, belatedly realising what was happening without his consent. “I would love nothing more than to join you tomorrow.”

“Terrific!” grinned Mr Tomlinson, jovially patting the back of his son’s shoulder. “Now, where is that husband of yours, Lillian?”

She shook her head, to the guests’ amusement. “Too busy handling our service. I suppose if you want things right, you have to keep a short leash on the staff.”

The Tomlinsons laughed exuberantly, and before long they were exchanging brief goodbyes for the time being. Harry watched as Charlotte once more curtseyed, the rest exchanging kisses and handshakes. He shook the Tomlinson couple’s hands, and before he knew it Louis had quickly grasped his, and was softly squeezing his palm.

“So lovely to meet you, Harry,” he said quietly, his piercing, blue eyes staring right into his without inhibitions. Harry forced a stiff nod, and as he removed his hand, he felt Louis’ fingers linger for the shortest of moments. It was barely noticeable, but Harry had felt it.

Following his mother along the small path through the garden, he wondered if she was finally pleased, knowing she’d introduced her bait to a family who were interested in hers.

“Nice, wasn’t he?” she sighed.

“The Tomlinsons?” he asked, feigning oblivion. “Sure.”

She elbowed him lightly. “I mean Louis, of course. So, handsome, or what do you think?”

“Sure,” he replied curtly.

She stopped, frowning at him as she took the nearly drained glass from his hand. “What was the matter with you over there? Behaving like an alcoholic. Louis was perfectly nice to you, and you completely neglected his attempts at conversation!”

Harry’s teeth sank into his cheek, keeping himself from saying something he would positively come to regret.

“Now, go socialise,” she ordered. “Don’t drink any more. We have guests tomorrow.”

The first thing he did out of her sight was snatching a bottle of white rum from the kitchen.

**

The morning after his parents’ hurrah, Harry awoke at six AM to the sound of his sister slipping into his room.

He had spent the remainder of the soirée intensely avoiding the Tomlinsons, and especially their son, sneaking out of sight each time he spotted so much as the brim of his hat. At one point he had seen Louis’ eyes find him across the garden, and had in panic hidden behind a tree with the bottle of rum as his sole comrade.

He had never quite enjoyed the flashy, extravagant events. Before he had moved out of his parents’ house up north to attend university, he had learned to endure and persevere, believing that someday it would become a bearable chore to socialise with these people — these people whom he perpetually found discussing the wellbeing of their finances and properties, and never proved to care particularly for cultural phenomenon, or intellectual entertainment in general. Two years later, he now understood that unless a miracle — or an extreme tragedy — occurred, he would never find himself comfortable at these functions.

His sister, who was several years his senior, had always been more suitable for the family’s lifestyle. Yet, it seemed even she had taken precautions to manage surviving the aforementioned evening.

“What are you doing?” he groaned quietly as she claimed the empty side of his bed. The room was still dim, but he could spot a strip of sun slipping around the corner of the blinds.

“Woke up sick,” muttered Gemma, making herself comfortable beneath the covers.

“Pregnant?” he asked, being a bit of a prick.

She kicked his leg. “Alcohol.”

He pressed his face further into the pillow, voice muffled. “Was it as bad for you as it was for me?”

“Doubt it.”

He squeezed his eyes shut, releasing a quiet moan as the memories resurfaced in pieces and finally compacted into one. When he had arrived a few days ago he could barely believe he had two full months to spend in Deansville, and now with the additional weight on his shoulders he wasn’t sure he would make it through half.

“I met him,” whispered Gemma, nudging Harry’s calf with her big toe. “He was very charming. Quite the looker.”

Harry rolled over, scowling indignantly at her over the duvet.

“I’m aware you don’t want this,” she sighed, “but he wasn’t a slimy prick. He was perfectly nice.”

“So? It won’t matter if he is. Mum and Dad still want to shove me into a marital bed with him.”

Gemma chuckled, and reached out to pat his fluffed hair. “Yes, but it might make it more endurable.”

Harry looked at her, a painful wrinkle between his brows. “I want to go back to Yorkinshare,” he whispered.

She stared back at him, sadness tugging at the corners of her lips. “I know, baby brother.”

They returned to silence at that, and after a successful attempt at keeping his distressing thoughts at bay, Harry fell back asleep for another few hours.

The second time he awoke that morning, the sun was fighting a sumptuous battle with the blinds, and the room around him was brighter than should’ve been possible. The alarm clock on the nightstand disclosed there were only thirty minutes until the arranged brunch with the Tomlinson son, and Harry’s deep wish to depart from the balcony on the third floor re-emerged at the fact.

Drawing one last inhale from the lavender scented sheets, he braced himself for the day to come. Frankly, he had no clue how to persevere, or how to handle his parents’ imminent attempts at making him interested in Louis Tomlinson. He wondered briefly if Louis would look at him in that same attentive way today, if he would act as charming and polite. He vigorously hoped not. He hoped Louis would prove difficult and unbearable — even to Lillian and Richard van Styles.

Gemma had left his room, Harry realised as he parted with the bed and found the other side vacant. She was presumably downstairs with everybody else — it was only Harry’s thing to perpetually make a business out of being as late and absent as possible.

Harry took a protracted shower, in vain trying to rid himself of the previous evening, and search for some sort of strength lingering somewhere inside him. When he couldn’t find much, he stepped out and began to dress. There were a pair of bright slacks in his drawers that seemed casual enough, and he chose an appropriate dress shirt to fit on top, tucking it in, naturally. He opted to leave a few buttons of his shirt open due to the warm weather, and proceeded to tame the curls at the top of his head. His dark brown hair was shortly cropped at the sides, and with the help of his father’s Dapper Dax gel he combed the curls at the top back. It was still rather wavy, but he felt presentable enough.

Twenty minutes past eleven, he lethargically began to make his way downstairs, dreading every bit of the meal to come. Through the large windows of the downstairs area, he could quickly spot the table on the patio, which had already been made and waited patiently under the shadows of a parasol. As expected, everybody were by this time gathered outside, Harry as per usual the last to arrive.

Taking a breath, squaring his shoulders (and begging for a miracle entailing some sort of cancellation from the Tomlinsons), Harry stepped out on the patio. All he had to do was throw a casual glance to his left, to find his father and Louis Tomlinson amicably chatting under the morning sun.

It was truly too much for the time of day.

At this early hour, Louis had arrived adorning grey slacks, and a white dress shirt that hadn’t been buttoned all the way up, either. A pair of braces sat snugly across his chest, and another one of them hats pushed his brown fringe into his eyes. Today, his sharp, blue eyes were hooded by round sunshades, and as he sat lounged on one of the sun chairs next to Harry’s father, left ankle resting atop the opposite knee, Harry felt another pinch in his stomach. Louis was undeniably handsome, and yet Harry desired nothing more than turning on his heel and disappearing.

He spun around, and headed for the opposite end of the patio, where Gemma and Gerard were engaged in quiet conversation, her smaller hand held in both of his.

“Morning,” he greeted, interrupting them without remorse.

“Morning, ‘Arry,” said Gerard benevolently, and Harry ignored him in favour of reaching down to place a small kiss to his sister’s cheek.

“Hi,” she smiled. “Sleep alright?”

“Just fine, thanks,” he hummed, keeping his gaze furthest possible from the other side of the patio. Still, his eyes caught on Louis’ profile next to his father, and was unable to help noticing his tan complexion against the white shirt he adorned.

“Our guest is over there,” Gemma pointed out, bumping into his shoulder.

He sighed. “And why do you think I’m here?”

She rolled her eyes. “You petty little prick. Go over and greet him. Our parents will be pleased, and they might cut you some slack during brunch.”

Harry would under no circumstances initiate a conversation with the man. He wanted no part in this preposterous arrangement.

“Harry!” gasped Mrs van Styles from the doorway. “There you are, I have been looking all over for you.”

Internally sighing, Harry fastened a strained smile on his face, and turned around to find his mother in a yellow dress and hat, eyes silently berating him for being late. In his periphery, he saw Louis quickly rising from his seat, tugging his braces in order. As he began to approach, he pulled his round sunshades off and tucked them into the breast pocket of his shirt.

“Harry,” he said warmly as he reached the spot where he was huddled, forcing Harry to turn and face him. “My sincerest apologies. I completely failed to notice you had joined us.”

He extended his hand, and Harry compelled his own arm to move, avoiding Louis’ blue eyes at all costs. He shook his hand carefully, Louis’ fingers firm but comfortable enough around his.

“Hey,” he ultimately replied and stepped back, leaving Louis at a slight loss of words at his succinctness. However, he quickly recovered, and tipped his head to the side.

“I’d like to thank you for inviting me to join you this morning.”

Harry had most certainly not invited Louis to brunch.

He glanced away nonchalantly. “Welcome.”

Feeling Louis’ gaze on him, Harry gnawed on the inside of his cheek, trying and failing to quench that prominent sense of discomfort in his gut. It would’ve been easier if Louis’ eyes weren’t so ridiculously blue, and he didn’t look at him with such intrigue.

“Well,” said Mr van Styles good-naturedly. “Now that we are all here and sound, shall we take a seat?”

“Yes,” agreed Harry instantly, and rounded Louis with fast steps, eagerly retreating from his proximity. The man wasn’t taller than him, but he was six years older, and the manner in which he held himself was secure to a much greater extent, and light years more authoritative. Furthermore, the way his eyes kept settling on Harry’s was slightly unnerving, and he fled with aggressive enthusiasm.

Mr van Styles naturally claimed the head of the table, and his wife sat down on the other end. Harry managed to seat himself next to his sister, by his father side, with Gerard across the table from him. Louis, located diagonally from Harry, seemed at a total ease next to the Frenchman and Mrs van Styles, and Harry viciously hoped it wouldn’t last long.

Petunia, the maid, began to serve beverages at command, and Harry completely disregarded his mother’s scowl as he asked for black coffee. At her side, Louis was drinking tea with a splash of milk. Harry couldn’t stand him, and his evident immaculateness. No wonder his mother was in love; he drank tea with a splash of milk.

“So,” said Mr van Styles as they had begun to eat. “Louis, do you live on campus at Bradshaw?”

“No, sir,” he replied politely. “I live in my own house in a calmer area, just a short car ride away. Ever heard of Bellmore?”

Of course they had heard of Bellmore. Who hadn’t? It was every poor man’s dream to reside in a place as neat, green, and decadent. Harry, though, wondered if it wouldn’t be lonely to live in one of those grand villas, in total solitude. He had never understood the notorious hunger for the exclusive, luxurious district, or less so why Louis of all people would wish to live amongst snobs and old people. Louis was young, only twenty-six, and the area was closer to Yorkinshare than Bradshaw, anyhow.

“Naturally,” nodded Mr van Styles. “It is a very nice community, and a good estate investment, too.”

“It’s very quaint,” agreed Louis. “I love the greenery surrounding the property. The trees and bushes are beautiful in the spring. I never thought I could fall in love with a garden before I saw it for the first time.”

Quaint was the last word Harry would have used to describe the swanky neighbourhood. It was redundant, and grossly overpriced.

“Sounds marvellous,” said Gemma amiably, and Harry resisted the urge to kick her leg under the table.

“Have you ever been, Harry?” inquired Louis, attention landing on him.

He forced his lips to move, and subsequently buried his nose in the coffee cup. “Once or twice.”

Louis nodded expectantly. “And what did you think?”

He cleared his throat, shrugging testily as his eyes traced the pattern on the porcelain. “Pricy.”

Richard and Lillian laughed, and Gerard began chuckling quietly as he nursed his tea. Gemma seemed to roll her eyes at their arrogant manners, but Harry couldn’t hear any sort of response from Louis Tomlinson himself. Sneaking a glance, he found Louis studiously watching him, something calculative in his shrewd eyes.

“Obviously it’s expensive, Harry,” tutted his mother, shaking her head with a fond smile that she directed at Louis. “If you wish to live comfortably, that’s just the way it goes. Now, more tea?”

Louis smiled. “Please.”

The brunch resumed with conversation solely consisting of Louis, Louis’ leisures, and Louis’ education. The interrogation was rather ridiculous, although, Harry did enjoy watching his parents’ favourite potential suitor hardly catch a moment of reprieve throughout the long process of their queries. Harry was devotedly prepared to watch him break, to find the fracture in the bone that had got to be hiding somewhere, and hear the man eventually reply with an answer that would be far from good enough. Louis couldn’t be stainless, could he? Every person had flaws, and Harry’s parents would expertly find it, and change their minds.

Unfortunately, that moment never came. Louis spoke good-naturedly and freely, never once breaking a sweat at the many questions slung his way from all corners of Harry’s family. And throughout, Louis didn’t stutter, didn’t fumble over his words, and every so often his eyes would alight on Harry, speaking as though to him even though he never uttered sound, and then subsequently watch every reaction on his objecting face. It was extremely trying, and though Harry should have been able to decipher every piece of Louis by now, he hadn’t. It vexed him disturbingly.

“And are you engaged in politics?” quizzed Gerard eventually, arching a critical brow. For the first time, Harry’s eyes willingly flickered to Louis, who let out a barely decipherable, nervous breath as a light blush began to creep up his neck. Harry’s lip tugged in amusement, finally seeing Louis shed some sweat under the hot interrogation. Smugly, Harry suddenly found a surprising appreciation of Gemma’s French husband.

“I’m afraid only as an occasional recreation,” admitted Louis, and Harry tried and failed to hide his smile, smirking down at his lap. Before anyone could let a condescending chuckle slip out, however, Louis leaned closer to the table, his eyes settling evenly on Gerard’s.

“You know, sir, even though most of my involvement includes voting and following the politics at an at most ordinary rate, I have always been extremely interested in civics and history. Naturally, politics are a massive part of that. The works of our society, and how it develops and recreates from the past is fiercely fascinating, especially how so many vastly different incidents can compile into something altogether ground breaking. You can see it in numerous variations of history, not only war and politics, but in art, fashion, literature, and music. It’s all connected, and the more I’ve learned the more amazed I find myself. I’m constantly fumbling in the midst of a world filled with so much knowledge, and wonder — in different shapes, and perhaps not of the most conventional definition of the term.”

Louis inhaled softly.

“Mr van der Hollande, I wish I did have more time to invest in politics, but for the moment I am focusing on my medical studies. It has been my dream to become a paediatrician since I was a teenager, when one of my younger siblings, as Mr and Mrs van Styles may know, passed away during the influenza that has plagued so many families. Since then I have made it my sole mission to get my degree, to help as many children and families in our country as manageable. If I could help only one child, I’d consider my purpose fulfilled.”

Louis finished with a small, humble smile, leaning back in his chair as the rest of the table sat in quiet, Harry himself staring at Louis unblinkingly.

“And it is completely understandable why you have chosen to lay our interests elsewhere,” concluded Mr van Styles, nodding comradely at Louis. His wife and daughter instantly agreed, both grinning appreciatively at the Tomlinson boy with approving tilts of their mouths.

And damn it if Harry wasn’t impressed. And he absolutely detested it.

“I agree with Mr van Styles,” nodded Gerard, and returned to his tea without a shrug. And that was that. Harry instantaneously retracted his previous comment about the Frenchman. Unreliable bastard, he was.

“So, you’re into art and literature?” inquired Gemma brightly, and her leg nudged Harry’s beneath the table, knowing both were subjects he held a deep penchant for.

“Yes, I am,” confirmed Louis, seemingly delighted at the new topic of conversation. “Music, particularly.”

Gemma’s hand laced over Harry’s wrist atop the table, pearl bracelet cold against his skin. “Harry, as well. He owns every vinyl you could possibly find. Lew Brown, Jimmy Dorsey, Benjamin Sparks, Luna Lowe — you ask for it!”

Louis’ eyes found Harry’s for the first time in a few minutes, and this time there was a sweet smile on his lips, as though he was genuinely charmed. “Really? I’m a massive fan of Walter Donaldson.”

“Yeah,” nodded Harry quietly, teeth sinking into his plush bottom lip. “He’s great.”

When he looked up next, he found the older boy still staring softly at him, the corners of his mouth tilted upward. When Harry directly met his eyes, his lips formed into a full grin, and the skin under his eyes crinkled delicately. Suddenly overwhelmingly aware of the silence around the table, Harry broke the gaze and looked away, certain his mother and father had watched every bit of the short exchange with hawk eyes, and were presumably rubbing their hands and laughing like lunatics on the inside.

Exhaling hotly, Harry found a bitter anger building in his gut. It infuriated him the manner in which Louis had to behave: so attractive, and charming Harry’s parents into an infatuation Harry would never escape. He needed the brunch to end; simply being under the constant scrutiny of Louis’ intrigued eyes was taxing enough. Dealing with his entire family at once on top of it was thoroughly draining.

“Pardon me,” he huffed, and stood from the table. His family looked up in surprise, and of course Louis just had to tactfully rise from his seat, before Harry could round his chair and retreat into the house.

Behind him, he heard his mother invent a quick excuse, and the click of her heels against the floors followed him the entire path he chose through the living room, past the first restroom, and into the large kitchen. There were a couple of maids in service, but Harry ignored them and grabbed a simple glass from a cupboard, filling it with cold tap water. Before he had emptied it, Mrs van Styles stepped into the kitchen. Her brown hair was still fastened tightly under the hat, and the colour on her lips was smudge-free, despite having consumed an entire breakfast. The woman stopped a few feet from Harry, crossing her arms.

“And what do you think you are doing, young man?” she inquired sternly, and her eyes displayed the major indignation her voice didn’t convey — quite.

Harry sighed, wholly exhausted of the notion that he was to simply go along with these antics.

“Mum,” he said, voice poised in a cooler tone than he had used in years. “I’m no fool; I recognise what you and Dad are doing.” He waited for a response, but his mother did no more than arch a careless brow. He firmly shook his head. “I am not entering a courtship with that man!”

Mrs van Styles’ face hardened, and she took a slow step toward him. “Louis Tomlinson is a fine man, from a fine family,” she said in a low voice. “It is your duty to your house to commit to a fine man. You have strolled about with your own ideas for too long, Harry, but it’s time you realise that it’s not appropriate for a man like you to choose just about anyone you’d come across.”

Harry stared at her imploringly. “I’m not ready to marry, Mum. Why can’t it wait?”

“Why should it? You are twenty years old. The Tomlinsons are interested, and Louis is more than eligible.”

“Because I ask you to!” exclaimed Harry. He could feel everything boiling beneath the surface of his skin. “It should wait on behalf of your consideration of my feelings.”

Mrs van Styles’ hard gaze narrowed even further. “Consideration? Since you were born, you have been your father’s and my first priority! You were raised in the best of worlds, with anything you could have asked for and more. You have always been privileged to anything, and especially that precious university of yours, with a flat on campus. All of it is by virtue of your father’s connections.”

She took another approaching step.

“Since you arrived this week you have been behaving outrageously. Don’t you think it is the most opportune moment to reimburse your parents for the trouble they have gotten into for your sake for the last twenty years?”

“That’s not fair,” he growled through gritted teeth.

His mother purposely strode forward until there were only inches separating their chests. She stared up at him, barely reaching his chin, but there was something so authoritative about her demeanour that he was left feeling dauntingly subordinate.

She stared him coldly in the eye. “Remember why you came to Deansville in the first place, son.”

And if that wasn’t a threat, he didn’t know what was.

**

The days following the brunch, Harry spent most of his time as far from his parents’ proximity as manageable. He would go for walks in the morning, keeping himself busy during the afternoons with books, reading and writing in the gazebo. He would occasionally come along with his sister and her husband when they went for swims in the sea, but mostly he preferred to keep to his own business.

Each time he’d come in contact with his parents, his insides seemed to pull in different directions, twisting painfully whilst he feebly attempted to veil how miserably he felt. There was nothing to be done with the situation he found himself in. He couldn’t prevent his parents from associating with the Tomlinsons, and couldn’t stop them from inviting their son over to proceed with their obvious agenda. Harry couldn’t leave; he was forced to stay lest his parents stop paying for Yorkinshare. It wasn’t fair, but it was a foolproof plan they had constructed.

Most of the time he remained alone and unbothered during the day, but even as he profusely tried, dinner at seven o’clock each evening was inescapable.

Three days after the brunch with the Tomlinson son, they were dining on the patio, Harry silently poking at the duck he’d been served. Though Harry didn’t intend to act anything more than necessarily polite toward his parents, they didn’t seem bothered by his sullen appearance. They chatted elatedly throughout dinner, and never once addressing him.

He hadn’t heard anything regarding the Tomlinsons since Sunday, and he hoped — although aware of the staggering odds — that his parents had changed their minds. Just as he believed he had victored through another dinner without a mention of Louis or his family, ready to retreat to his room, Mrs van Styles cleared her throat.

“Harry, dear,” she said, and he sunk back down into his chair, heart sinking. “Since you missed us at afternoon tea, tomorrow we are visiting the docks at Wellbridge.”

He waited for it.

“Please, dress nicely.”

Brilliant. A secret ploy to bring him along to meet the Tomlinsons. There was no room to decline the invitation either, as he was expected to join their activities and behave during these two months in Deansville.

Harry nodded reluctantly, eyes dark as he watched his mother’s mouth shape into a sly smile. He detested her, and the entire situation had his skin crawling as he watched her pleased smirk. Mrs van Styles had finally after all these years introduced him to an older, eligible man, and she had certainly already began planning the commencement of their courtship. Derek and Johannah Tomlinson appeared to be on the very same page. What bothered him something as fiercely, was that Louis didn’t seem to mind. Rather, he insinuated… interest. Harry wasn’t at all certain of how to deal with that prospect.

He left the table, throwing his napkin to the table with a lot more vigour than appropriate. He sent his father an angry scowl, and disappeared inside.

He didn’t want it, he didn’t need it, and he refused to end his summer with a fat diamond on his left hand. Louis Tomlinson could shove off to where he came from.

**

At midday on Thursday, Harry accompanied his family to Wellbridge, an area a few miles east. Gemma was wearing a light, faintly pink dress with a cloche hat, lipstick on her mouth, while Harry and Gerard had dressed similarly in knee-length shorts, dress shirts, and gambler hats to acclimate to the weather. The summer was getting warmer each day, and as Harry stepped out of the car he felt the heat wrap around him like a glove.

Wellbridge was a posh location by the shore, most likely named after the wide dock that prevailed along the beach, and a good fifty yards into the sea. Along the boardwalk, bars, restaurants, and shops had been set up, and at the end of the dock there were people jumping into the sea and climbing back up on the few ladders attached. It was a lively area, and it was one of the few places Harry tended to enjoy in Deansville.

“Let’s go,” prompted Mrs van Styles once the car had been parked, and her husband took her hand and placed it at the crook of his elbow as they began onto the boardwalk. Gerard gently captured Gemma’s palm in his, and their fingers linked between them as they strolled, Harry rolling his eyes in annoyance at their affection. Disgusting, honestly.

They came across various couples and families as they ventured, passing by ice cream shops, and bars that had yet to open for the day. Harry would have killed for something alcoholic to ease his humming nerves, but it seemed the world wasn’t on his side as of late.

The predictable and inevitable moment came into the works as they reached Mr van Styles’ most beloved gelato parlour: a place called Hoot, where they inhabited a soda fountain, endless rows of liquor, and countless flavours of the Italian ice cream. During the three years since Harry’s last visit, the shop hadn’t seemed to change in any noticeable manner, and it reminded Harry of being a teenager, sitting at the bar counter and tirelessly attempting to persuade the barkeep into adding liquor to his milkshake. He wondered if Carl still worked there.

By the entrance of Hoot, stood the Tomlinson family. There were more of them on this day, as three additional girls had joined the fray, all somewhat younger than Charlotte. The girls were all brunettes, dressed in colourful dresses and hats, and were altogether an admittedly adorable bunch. Just like at the soirée, Charlotte was standing by her brother’s side, this time a slight hint of amusement on her face as Louis was leaning down and murmuring something into her ear.

Today, Louis appeared to have also dressed in shorts to accommodate the weather, but there were braces attached to the hems, and his caramel hair was freed of any hats. The breeze from the sea was pulling at his fringe above the same round sunglasses he had adorned on the previous Sunday, and Louis was gently tucking it into place every so often. His skin looked as warmly tanned as before, and the man was just as infuriatingly attractive as on any other day.

“Derek,” grinned Mr van Styles elatedly, gaining the Tomlinsons’ attention. Derek Tomlinson chuckled merrily, and instantly took his hand, shaking vigorously as they greeted one another.

“Oh, Lillian,” sang Johannah, kissing her cheek. “You absolute beauty. And Gemma, you pearl. Come, meet my daughters.”

Greetings were exchanged in split directions, Gerard seemingly already acquainted with Mr Tomlinson and his wife, while Gemma curtseyed prettily before the man. Harry nodded at Charlotte, who gave him a slight smirk back, and he quickly found he quite liked her; neither of them was particularly interested in the antics of their families.

“Hi,” said Louis’ voice, and Harry finally let his eyes alight on the man. He’d taken off his shades like at the brunch, and he was appraising Harry with an upward quirk to his lip. His eyes trailed across him, that impish twist to his mouth sticking, meanwhile Harry forced himself to focus on keeping an even respiration. Louis extended his hand, slowly shaking Harry’s as he met his eyes. “How good to see you again, Harry.”

“Likewise,” he replied, and tied his hands behind his back, glancing down at his shoes. He felt his sister’s hand on his arm, squeezing for comfort.

“How have you been?” inquired Louis, gaze lingering on his face.

“Just fine,” he assured shortly. Louis nodded, and awkwardly cleared his throat after a moment when Harry didn’t return the pleasantries.

“Louis has been helping his father plan the remodelling of our guest house,” supplied Johannah Tomlinson, eyes sliding over Harry before landing on Mrs van Styles. “Impeccable taste, this one.”

Of course. The man was God’s definition of perfection, according to any potential mum-in-law, at least.
“You’re boasting, Mum,” said Louis, shaking his head, and surprisingly there was just the barest indication of disapproval written on his face. Harry had never seen him anything other than civil, and was momentarily entertained. “I merely offered my opinions.”

Johannah rolled her eyes affectionately. “You’re too modest, Louis.”

Mrs van Styles shared a fond look with her, both of them acting as though it was the silliest thing they had ever heard.

Derek clasped his hands together, swiping a glance across the group before settling on Harry’s father. “Richard, what do you say we all grab a bite?”

“Terrific idea, Derek. We would be delighted to.”

“Actually,” interrupted Louis, drawing everyone’s attention. His eyes were on Harry. “I had intended to ask Harry if he wouldn’t terribly mind accompanying me for a short stroll on the beach?” His brows arched, looking at him with a smile. “Promise I won’t keep you long.”

Harry felt each pair of eyes fall his on his face, and there was suddenly an uncomfortable warmth building beneath the surface of his skin. His father was waiting impatiently, eyes staring into the side of his face.

“Sure,” he muttered, unable to stand the suspense that was causing an all too prominent blush on his cheeks.

Eyes brightening significantly, Louis grinned. “Excellent. Don’t let us keep you, though, Dad. Why don’t you move along, and we will catch up with you?”

“Brilliant idea, Louis,” nodded Mrs van Styles.

Louis gestured to his right. “Shall we, Harry?”

Harry refused to look at his parents, sure their faces were several shades of pleased, and instead gave his sister a helpless glance before hesitantly following Louis, departing from the group. His heart began thumping heavily against his ribcage as he joined Louis’ side, nerves sparking at the realisation that he wouldn’t be able to escape, and was forced to exchange more than just the minimum of pleasantries with the man.

“You have to forgive my forwardness,” said Louis from Harry’s right, somewhat abashed. “I’ve been dying for a moment with you alone,” he admitted. “It can be a rather pressured ambience with our families present.”

No kidding, Harry thought, and enthusiastically pretended not hear the part with Louis’ confession.

They reached the short wooden steps leading down to the sand, and as they descended, Louis began undoing his shoes and gestured for Harry to follow his lead. Harry silently complied, tugging his shoes off, and watched as Louis straightened up, his fringe tousled across his forehead.

Ready, Louis held his palm out toward him. Insides twisting in complete disdain, Harry stared at it hostilely.

“Your shoes,” clarified Louis, brow quirked patiently.

“Oh,” breathed Harry, relief flooding his veins. “I’m alright,” he told him, and Louis only looked at him for a moment before he shrugged, and began to make toward the water.

Louis remained quiet until they reached the very edge of the shoreline, where the sand was wet under the constant maintenance of the waves.

“This is one of my favourite places in Deansville,” he said as they started to stroll along the sand, shoes held in their hands. The wind was playing uninterruptedly with his hair, and seemingly unbothered, Louis pulled his sunshades from his pocket, and placed them back over his nose. “The sand is unbelievably smooth. Barely any rocks. It feels like a beach from a book sometimes, especially in the mornings. I sometimes walk all the way from the east origin to the west end.”

He waited patiently for a response, but when Harry didn’t reply even after a full minute, he slowed his pace, and gently tapped Harry’s arm, just once, before locking his hands behind his back again. Shocked at the briefest moment of physical contact, Harry’s eyes widened painfully, flickering over the man in alarm.

“Harry, I…” said Louis. “I’m aware I might be coming off too forward again. I know you didn’t expect to be here right now, but… I’d love for you to tell me something about you. At brunch we only seemed to be talking about me. A shame, really, when you’re sitting across from me.”

Flattery. Boy.

“So?” prompted Louis around a modest grin.

Holding back a grunt, still a bit unsettled, Harry shrugged, eyes keeping to the ground. “I dunno what you wish to find out.”

“Anything. Do you read?”

“Yes.”

In Harry’s periphery, Louis was possibly raising a waiting brow. “Anything in particular…?”

Harry sighed, curling his toes around the sand beneath his feet. “Fiction.”

“Of what kind?”

Harry repressed an irritable huff, but only because Louis sounded genuine when he asked, as though he really did wish to know. Harry kept his eyes down, but he could feel the man’s near presence by his side as they continued to stroll.

“Of the romance, fantasy, and science variety.”

“The best sort, then. Ever ventured into horror?”

Harry frowned. “No?”

Louis let out a small chuckle at his reaction. “It’s occasionally quite gory, but there certainly is something fascinating about it. Much like science-fiction, it’s intriguing.”

Harry stopped for a slight moment and squinted dubiously at him, properly appraising the older man for the first time since they’d stood on the dock.

Louis laughed. “I’m not creepy. I promise, dear.”

Dear. Harry rapidly averted his gaze, something tight bundling in his chest as they continued.

“And music? Your sister said you are an enthusiast?” asked Louis after a few moments of silence.

“Something of the sort.”

“Who is your favourite?”

Harry sighed. Louis really didn’t put a leash on his curiosity, did he? “I don’t know.”

“It is a difficult choice, I presume,” hummed Louis. “There are many talented people at this time, so much music it’s difficult to settle on just one performer. Jazz has always spoken particularly to me, though. The band at your parents’ party was immensely talented.”

“They’re called The Jackson Boys,” supplied Harry, for the first time speaking without a moment of thought beforehand. He bit his lip, silently scolding his own eagerness for conversation for once regarding something interesting. He couldn’t talk with Louis, though. In fact, not bonding with Louis was essential. Louis shouldn’t like him.

The older boy grinned. “I will definitely try my best to procure their vinyl.”

Harry forced his eyes to relocate to the beach once more, and remained silent as they walked, sand slipping in between their toes and over their feet.

“Have you listened to any Jack Hylton?” asked Louis after a while. “You seem like the type.”

“Yes.”

“Did you hear his latest track? I like it a lot.”

Painting the Clouds With Sunshine. Harry had heard it, too.

“It’s great,” he mumbled, coming into a stop. His eyes had caught on something far out on the sea — perhaps a boat, he couldn’t quite tell — and watched over the water for a moment. At the end of the horizon, the various shades of blue melted into one. In the middle somewhere, the water appeared in its darkest form, almost matching Louis’ azure eyes. Almost.

“Forgive me, Harry…” murmured Louis by his side, voice quiet as not to break the serene moment for him. “You strike me as a rather opinionated person, but you don’t ever seem to say much. I can’t help but wonder if you’re just quiet in general, or if it has something to do with my presence in particular?”

Well, Harry did have opinions. A few of them, actually. A couple of them about Louis’ apparently insatiable curiosity. However, there were different levels of the definition of the word. Take his mother, for example: gruesomely anal, and controlling to a point Harry had felt like his house were a prison growing up. Harry had lived through twenty years of her unreasonable ideals, and at this point he was biting at the worst of it. So, no, he did not consider himself opinionated as such, but yes, he did have a thing or two to say about particular matters.

“Look,” he said, turning around and staring back at Louis’ shaded eyes. “I did not expect to be here, yeah? I hadn’t even planned to be in Deansville this summer, so…”

Louis nodded. “Perhaps we can just make the best of it then?” He raised a hopeful brow.

Boy. Louis didn’t get it. Or maybe he did, and just preferred to neglect it.

“Let’s go back.”

“As you wish.”

They walked almost all the way to the docks in silence, Harry keeping a slight distance and choosing to wade through the ankle-deep water. Along the way, they passed people swimming in the sea and tanning atop their towels on the beach. A group were playing kick-around with a football, all of them at ease under the warming sun. Harry, however, felt hot despite the cool water licking around his calves. There was a pit of scorching chagrin curling somewhere inside him. Most of it sizzled at the fact that his mother had gotten what she wished for, played him like a fool into the hands of some bloke whose family she’d acquainted, only he had been aware throughout the whole process, and could do nothing but stand by and let it happen. The rest, felt tricked because somehow Louis wasn’t a total pest.

“Do you know of Niall Horan?” inquired Louis after a moment.

Harry stopped, feeling a small wave rush around his legs. He corrected the position of the hat atop his head. “Yes. Why do you ask?” he squinted.

Louis shrugged. “He’s a friend of a friend. I knew he was studying law at Yorkinshare, so I figured you might be of his acquaintance. Are the two of you friends?”

They had had a few courses together this past year. “Yes.”

“Have you known him long?”

“You ask a lot of questions,” said Harry disapprovingly.

“It’s how you find things out,” replied Louis easily.

Getting slightly indignant and fed up, he told him, “It’s rude.”

“How come?”

Harry rolled his eyes, exasperation practically leaking from his ears.

“Wow,” breathed Louis all of a sudden.

“What?” he said, not bothering to veil his annoyance. The sunglasses were still hiding Louis’ eyes, and he couldn’t tell what he was staring at.

Louis frowned, mouth slightly ajar. “Your eyes are so green. It must be the ocean — they’re amazing.”

Harry stilled, taken aback. Louis had complimented him before, if in a lot subtler manner, but somehow Harry was caught entirely off guard. His eyes had always been green, a colour he had inherited from his father, and never had he especially enjoyed the fact. Louis looked at him as though he’d never seen anything like it before, and Harry didn’t know what to do.

“It is a colour,” he said stiffly, staring at the older boy petulantly. “Ever seen grass, or trees?”

Louis’ lip pulled, and that boyish look on his face returned. “A gorgeous colour, mind. And I like trees. Grass, too, as a matter of fact. Do you like grass?” he said, a spark flickering to life in his smile.

“Oh, my God,” exhaled Harry, and swivelled, instantly starting to walk away.

“I was joking, Harry!” called Louis, but there was laughter in his voice. For whatever reason, Harry’s face felt red, and he refused speak to this man one more time before they got back to the dock.

Louis quickly caught up with him, and spent the remainder of the stroll whistling, good-natured and quiet. It was a pretty tune, but Harry was internally a mess of emotions. Louis had turned from annoyingly polite, to somewhat cheeky, and Harry’s frustration with the situation in general wasn’t handling it well. Louis never seemed put off at his rude behaviour, either, and when Louis was discussing literature and music, Harry found it difficult maintain a solid facade.

They returned to the dock, and neither of them put their shoes back on as they made their way up the steps. They headed in the direction of the gelato parlour, and it wasn’t until Harry could spot the Hoot sign down the boardwalk that Louis spoke again.

“Thank you for joining me, Harry,” he said, voice warm as he removed his round sunglasses again. The wind had done a bit of a number on his hair, which was askew and severely tousled. It wasn’t unattractive. “I apologise for my overwhelming plethora of questions. I will try to keep a rein on my curiosity in the future.”

His eyes were still glinting with something, though, and part of Harry hated it, because that moment on the beach could easily be depicted as banter, and he wasn’t meant to be bantering with Louis Tomlinson. The other part, significantly smaller in size but just as ferocious, was embracing the pinch in Harry’s stomach that appeared each time he was struck by this man’s stupidly handsome face.

Harry looked back at him, watching a small, impish grin spread on his face. His laughter from the beach, bright, cackling, and inexplicably charming, kept ringing in Harry’s ears.

It had not been a moment. That little thing on the beach, it was not a moment. It was forgotten.

“Let’s find our families, Louis.”

Louis’ smile didn’t dissipate. “Okay, love.”

Clenching his teeth, Harry ignored the second term of endearment of the day, and headed purposefully down the boardwalk. Louis trudged along, but thankfully he didn’t attempt at starting another conversation.

They eventually found the rest of their company at one of the posher restaurants in Wellbridge, already dining outside on the dock under the boiling sun. Harry’s neck was warm as they returned, and he could spot delicate beads of sweat at the temples of Louis’ head. His brown hair was damp at the spots, and Harry forced himself to keep from staring at it. He didn’t know what it was, but Louis extracted a strange mixture of feelings inside him, and he more than once ended up gazing angrily at the side of his head anyway.

“Look at your feet!” gasped Johannah Tomlinson in horror as they returned. “And Harry!”

The sand was still sticking to their feet and ankles, and even farther up Harry’s calves.

“It’s was a beach stroll, Mum,” sighed Louis. “A little sand is to be expected.”

She inspected them carefully. “Hope you didn’t ruin your clothes.”

Mrs van Styles took hold of Harry’s wrist, voice quiet yet demanding. “Put your shoes on, for God’s sake, Harry.”

Rolling his eyes, he sat down on one of the free chairs at the end of the table. As he began brushing the sand off his feet, Louis took place by his side, between him and Charlotte. They both cleared themselves of sand and dust, treading their shoes back onto their feet in silence.

Richard van Styles took it upon himself to order in food for both of them, and after a few minutes Harry was presented with pasta with a wine sauce. Figuring he had earned the right to ignore his company for a while, he indulged in his own appreciation of pasta, and did his best to pretend Louis Tomlinson wasn’t sitting right by his side, arm inches from his. Still, his hushed conversation with his sister cut through Harry’s concentration.

“Are we still going midnight swimming, Lou?” mumbled Louis’ sister, turning her head closer to his. Harry frowned, just a bit intrigued.

“Hush,” whispered Louis back. “Definitely, Lots, but remember what we said last time.”

“No, I know,” she promised. “Tell Liam to come?”

“‘Course.”

“And the whiskey…?” asked Charlotte, and Harry’s eyes widened. He kept his eyes on the plate before him, listening for Louis’ reply.

The man chuckled. “No problem. Just don’t go fucking flinging yourself off the dock, though.”

She laughed, and the first real smile Harry had ever seen on her erupted on her face. Louis was evidently close with Charlotte, and when he pondered it, it did seem as though she was only really happy when talking to him.

Slightly shocked at Louis’ manner of speech, though — Harry had almost begun to think Louis was incapable of profanities — he poked at his pasta in distress. Louis only seemed to confuse him the more he was exposed to his company.

“That was you, you knob head,” hissed Charlotte at Louis, and Harry’s front teeth sank into his bottom lip, another wave of confusion washing over him.

He thought he had started to figure Louis out; polite, calm, handsome, and as boring as the next man with few exceptions, and essentially a mother’s ideal son. Today, so many new sides of this man had sneaked up on him, and he definitely did not like it. But he also wondered, slightly amused, what in the world Johannah Tomlinson would do if she knew her son brought his younger sister out for nightly rounds at a dock with his friends. He wondered where this side of him fit into the puzzle.

But, anyhow. It did not matter, did it? In the end, Harry had no intention of indulging in this courtship, and he had no interest in what Louis was actually like. He was not about to get invested, either. While his parents could compel him to be at their dinners and outings with the Tomlinsons, they couldn’t actually bring him to utter either ‘yes’ or ‘I do’.

As lunch finished up, Harry felt Louis’ knee nudge his underneath the table. Jolting in alarm, he found the man looking at him, head tilted toward him while his hands rested safely in his lap. His eyes shone so impossibly blue, and still glinted something unbearably pretty. Harry sucked in a breath, glued his teeth into his cheeks, and furrowed his brows into a scowl, but couldn’t for the sake of him glance away.

Louis’ grin only widened, and as though he were still thinking of that moment on the beach, he pressed his leg against his, and firmly kept it there for rest of the meal.

Chapter Text

2.

The first letter Harry ever received from Louis Tomlinson arrived at the mansion two days after the beach stroll in Wellbridge, and it was accompanied with a thick parcel.

Harry was in the kitchen, acquiring something to consume for breakfast, as per usual having chosen to omit the meal his family tended to eat as a collective on the patio every morning. His mother had strolled in as he finished up, plate topped with a couple bread rolls and orange juice. She was already dressed, and her hair was done even though the clock hadn’t even struck nine. She wore a smirk that Harry knew didn’t bode well on his end.

From behind her back, she presented a thick, brown parcel that she extended toward him.

“It’s from Louis Tomlinson,” she said as he took it, content in a manner which stung Harry’s very bone marrow. He looked up at her in disdain, but Mrs van Styles didn’t utter a word more, and retreated as quickly as she’d appeared.

Infuriated with his mother’s behaviour, Harry glowered at the parcel in his hands, addressed to himself in a neat handwriting. He left his breakfast on the worktop, and ascended up the stairs in a hurry to the second floor, closing the door to his room behind himself. The parcel was quite heavy, and as he sat down on the edge of his bed, he wondered what in the bloody world Louis Tomlinson had sent him, and why.

He opened the package, and out slipped a brown letter, which was sealed and also addressed to him. The object that carried the weight was a book. Harry frowned at it in confusion, appraising its battered, black cover with meagre hostility. The back was notably worn, and the pages had begun to yellow. On the cover page, blood red lettering presented itself, and underneath was a picture of a pale woman, bleeding from the neck. Lucille and the Healers, read the title.

Hoping for an explanation, Harry placed the old book on his nightstand, and opened the letter, finding scribbles filling almost a full page of parchment.

My dearest Harry,

I am writing in hope to keep in touch with you despite my untimely departure from Deansville. I would have wished for nothing more than spend the days in your company, but unfortunately I have travelled back to Bradshaw for the better of the week to take part in a special course, that will hopefully prove very useful in the line of my profession. I wish I could see you in person. You have captured me by my heart, and receiving the privilege of perhaps learning more about you would warm even the deepest parts of me.

In the parcel, as you may have noted, is a horror book, written by Anthony Burns. It is the first horror fiction I ever acquired, and I know it will from now on be under the possession of another worthy soul. Readers like us know what it means to care for and appreciate literature for the grand pieces of art that they are. Take care of it.

I am imploringly hoping for a letter in response to mine. Perhaps you could tell me about your favourite books? I would cherish anything you’d be willing to share with me.

My dearest regards,
Louis William Tomlinson.

Harry’s body flooded with exasperation. Mentally picking up a pen, he jotted down, Dear Louis. Take your book and your love letter, and stay in Bellmore for the rest of the summer. Thank you. Harry.

He groaned, running a hand over his face and through his curls in pure frustration. He hated the parts of him that actually wished to write back, to discuss literature in manners that would blow even Louis away. He never got to have a discourse on these matters at school, or with people of his calibre. He was studying jurisprudence, and there wasn’t room for the art that Louis so dearly adored. This wasn’t good. Louis wasn’t supposed to already be in love with the things that Harry treasured the most.

Harry covertly glanced at the book resting atop the nightstand, brows furrowed so hard his face eventually began to ache in dull throbs. His fingers itched, but his mind heatedly disapproved. He shouldn’t do it. So, defying every rational thought, Harry reached for the book, flipped it over, and scanned the back summary.

He sighed. Internally swore. And opened the first page.

**

The sea was becoming warm enough for a comfortable morning swim. Harry had come into a hesitant routine of starting his day with a couple laps in the sea, and remained on the beach for several hours until he was certain that breakfast had finished on the patio. He tended to bring his books, each morning spending a few hours frying under the sun on the family’s private section of the beach. From there the gazebo wasn’t far, and if the sun got too much he would relocate into the shadows, where the gazebo was most of the time shaded by the tall trees in the garden.

In the afternoon, the sun managed to sneak through the oak branches, and though they covered enough, the gazebo was still illuminated by specks of sunshine. Harry had spent most of his Thursday inside, reading and listening to jazz on the radio he’d placed on the opposite end of the bench he was perched on. He had propped himself up on a few cushions, and with a pair of round shades on his nose, he had finished two books that day.

“What are you doing?” inquired his sister’s voice from the entrance. His head snapped up, slightly startled at the intrusion. No one ever seemed to disturb him here, but there his older sister stood, leaning against one of the white pillars holding up the ceiling. Her bleached hair was twisted into a knot at the back of her head, and her dress was light and green beneath the long pearl necklace hanging from her neck. “Can I come in?”

“Of course,” he allowed, but his eyes returned to the book he had just started. His bones were still tingling with the exhilaration from the previous book’s ending, though, and he wasn’t sure he had enough concentration left to spare for this one. Perhaps he needed a break.

After carefully removing a pile of books and turning off the radio, Gemma took a seat on the bench, by his feet. Her fingers tapped his knee. “Gerard and I were thinking of driving over to Brighton in a few days. Would you like to come? You could browse the town on your own while we look at furniture.”

Getting out of town for a day was definitely tempting. Despite that he hadn’t seen Louis or the Tomlinsons for a full week, save for the letter he had been sent, he was still in perpetual dread of their inevitable turn-up. The thought of a whole car ride with Gerard almost cancelled it out, but he did think a complete day without concern would do him good.

“Sure,” he answered, and flipped to the next page of his novel.

“Okay,” she said, biting her lip. “Good. Just thought I’d ask while I’m here. I actually came to tell you that the Tomlinsons have come by.”

Harry looked up, brows drawing together. “When?”

“They are still here. Louis asked for you.”

Harry’s eyes hardened. “I’m staying here.”

“I know. I told him you were here, and…” She glanced down sheepishly.

“What?” he demanded.

“I offered to take him,” she sighed. “He’s outside.”

Harry’s head slumped back against the wall behind him, and he groaned loudly. “Jesus Christ, Gemma.”

He turned his head to search through the window by his side, and after a few moments he spotted him by the oaks, hands tied behind his back and eyes set on the ground. He’d dressed in shorts and a loose dress shirt today, and for the first time his hair had been swept from his forehead. Instead of in its usual fringe, it flopped above his forehead, the ends combed back to the side. It looked almost too good on him, but Harry was much too frustrated to appreciate it.

“I’m sorry, H,” apologised Gemma. “Be nice.”

She patted his knee one last time, before standing from the bench and leaving the gazebo. Harry groaned once more, squeezing his eyes shut as he waited for Louis’ eventual greeting. He had hoped Louis would choose to stay away after he hadn’t received a response to his amorous letter. Again, no such luck.

“Hello, Harry,” said Louis’ voice from a bit of a distance, and Harry opened his eyes, keeping his sigh internal.

“Hey,” he replied, but didn’t move from his spot, knees still tucked up and the book resting against his thighs.

Louis remained at the entrance, concern in his eyes. “I’m not disturbing you, am I?”

Well.

“I guess not,” he muttered. He didn’t think his mother would appreciate it if Louis returned to his family after being kicked out of the gazebo.

Louis tentatively stepped inside, eyes perusing the round room with an admiring look on his face. His lip quirked upward as his eyes slid over pile after pile of books, spread out at various places. There were a few on the windowsills, and several more surrounding the spot where Harry had been sitting for the last couple of hours. Louis quietly sat down on the bench on Harry’s right, careful as though afraid to ruin the ambience, as if he knew how important it was to him.

“You really do love to read,” he stated, very much charmed, and also notably pleased. His eyes dragged over one of the piles, and he momentarily stilled after presumably reading titles on the backs. He leaned down, and reverently picked up one of the novels from where it rested atop a pillow. It was black, and Harry realised all too late it was the one Louis had gifted him with. “My book,” he said happily.

Harry swallowed, teeth sinking into the cushion of his lip. “Yeah. Thanks.”

Louis grinned at him, eyes bright. “Have you already finished it?”

Shame twisted inside of Harry. He had tried so hard not to finish the book after reading the first chapter, because he knew he wasn’t supposed to indulge in matters that involved Louis. In the end, he hadn’t been able to help himself.

“Yes,” he regretfully admitted. His brows drew into a frown, shoulders tightening protectively.

“What did you think?” asked Louis, excitement evident on his face as he waited for Harry to reply.

Annoyed with himself, Harry retorted, “It was disgusting.” They weren’t supposed to bond. It was the truth, too. His mouth added on, “And Lucille is an idiot, by the way.”

Louis chortled, but there was something inexplicably creamy in his voice as he asked, “And did you like it?”

Detesting himself a little bit more, he reluctantly confessed, “Yeah.”

Thankfully, Louis didn’t comment on his reply, only stroked the black cover with such a nurturing hand that Harry instantly felt a nudge of shame for disparaging it. Louis smiled to himself, and gently placed it on the padded bench by his side.

“So, you received my letter.”

“I did.”

Louis’ voice was quiet, but not accusing. “I wasn’t sure. Since you didn’t write me back, I wondered.”

“I’m not much of a writer,” lied Harry.

Louis’ eyes glanced around the gazebo, scanning over the multiple rolls of parchment, both used and untouched, that littered the benches and windowsills, along with pens and several bottles of ink. His eyes came back to Harry, and he arched a brow, waiting for a better explanation.

Harry scowled, anger that wasn’t really directed at Louis himself blossoming within his chest. “Why are you here?”

“My family wished to come by, but you weren’t at the house when we arrived. Your sister took me here.”

Exhausted by the pretences, Harry snapped his book shut with a smack, and sat up properly. Taking off his sunglasses, he nailed Louis with indignant eyes. “I mean, why are you here at all?”

Louis looked down shortly, before clearing his throat as he stared at him meaningfully. “I thought that was implicit…”

Harry’s shoulders slumped pathetically. “But why are you going along with it? What your parents want? I don’t know about you, but it’s not as though I was asked for opinions.”

A small crease formed in Louis’ forehead, and his eyes had dimmed just slightly in colour. “Because I want to get married,” he answered earnestly. “I wish to be married, and have children. When your parents told me about you, you quite frankly felt like a dream. And… to be quite honest with you, if you tried to get to know me I think you’d like me back.”

To Harry, his words chimed without point.

“But I never wished for a courtship,” he said, staring at him impatiently.

Louis slowly shrugged. “Sometimes we are caught by surprise, by things we didn’t expect. Sometimes for the better.”

Harry spoke slowly and determinedly. “I don’t want to get married,” he told him. “You might as well tell your parents you changed your mind, and end this.”

“And lie?” huffed Louis, perturbed by the suggestion. “Why should I lie?”

“Because I’m not appropriate for you?” said Harry, voice slightly higher due to the vexation shoving around in his chest. “I don’t want any part of this. I don’t want you.”

He expected Louis to be put out, but he didn’t expect his face to fall in the way that it did. It wasn’t conspicuous, not really, but Harry saw it when his lips tugged down on their own accord, and the spark in his eyes dissipated entirely.

“Why not?” asked Louis, lips pursed as if to keep face. “You don’t know me.”

“I know enough.”

He sighed, long-suffering. “Elaborate, please.”

Harry wanted to tear off his own hair. “You just said it. You want a marriage, and to have children.”

Louis squinted at him quizzically. “And you never intend to have either of those things?”

“Well,” stuttered Harry. “Eventually. Not now.”

“Why not now?”

His hands dropped into his lap. “Because I… I’m not — I’m still studying.”

Louis regarded his face. “Are any of your classmates married?”

“Yes, but —”

“Are they happy?”

“Yeah, but Louis —”

He met his eyes. “What?”

He looked at him helplessly. “That’s not me.”

“Why not?”

Bloody hell.

“Would you —” Harry struggled to keep his calm. “Just stop asking all these questions! My answer is final.”

Louis didn’t reply, and Harry gratefully leaned back against the wall behind him. The sun was still breaking in through the windows, but he could see it slowly descending down the sky on the horizon across the sea. For a long moment, the gazebo was silent, and Harry wondered if he had genuinely disheartened Louis by rejecting the courtship he had intended with him. Keeping his head firmly angled away, he snuck a glance at the man from the corner of his eye.

Louis had bent down to rest his elbows on his knees, hands clasped underneath his chin. To Harry’s dismay, he did seem a bit despondent, but also thoughtful. The wrinkle between his furrowed brows had deepened, but his eyes were set to his left, like he was pondering something with care.

Louis cleared his throat once more after a few minutes, but his voice was still a bit grainy. “And why are you unable to terminate this on your own? Why should I be the one to dismiss it?”

Harry’s heart sank, and his throat ached around the quiet words. He stared at his knees. “Unless I cooperate for the entirety of the summer, my parents aren’t paying for my university. I can’t tell them no.”

Louis digested this for another few minutes. “So…” he said eventually. “You wish for me to tell my parents that it’s not going to work between us?”

“Please,” exhaled Harry, a heated spark of hope suddenly bubbling in the middle of his gut. For a moment he felt lighter, intently watching Louis think for a long minute, heart in his throat.

“Let me strike you a deal, Harry,” he said softly, and Harry’s bubble of hope burst, and fell to the ground in irreparable pieces. “If you spend the rest of the summer with me, going along with this courtship, and you try to get to know me… If you do your best, without putting up a fight or pretend, and then decide you still don’t wish to marry me, I will tell my parents it’s not working out. But, you have to genuinely try. If you don’t, you’ll have to deal with your family yourself.”

Harry swallowed against the hard knot that had formed at the top of his throat. His frown probably had transformed into a pool of misery, and he felt choked with every breath he drew.

“How about I give you a day to think about it, love?”

“Fine,” whispered Harry, fighting against the tears about to spill over. It wasn’t like he had a choice. “Whatever.”

If Louis noticed the moist in his eyes, he didn’t say anything.

**

There wasn’t much pondering in the works for Harry, before he came to the conclusion that he did. There really wasn’t anything he could do but accept Louis’ bargain, and cooperate with him for the rest of the summer. At the very least, he knew for sure that Louis would end the courtship at Harry’s demand, as long as he played along.

Furthermore, if he pleased Louis, by genuinely trying, he would automatically satisfy his parents as well. They wished for him to marry Louis, and as long as he behaved they would believe it was all working out. It was a long game, but now Harry could win it. He could manage to nod along, and he most definitely could tell Louis at the end of the summer that he still refused to become his husband.

It took him a few hours to fully accept the decision; in his mind he had naively hoped all of this was a nightmare, one that would end soon enough. He still wasn’t happy with the situation, and what annoyed him particularly was the question of why Louis would insist he put his walls down, and get to know him. It wouldn’t change the ending of the story, either way.

He didn’t hear from Louis for a couple days after the conversation in the gazebo, and he quickly realised that Louis was still letting him contemplate his decision. A fleeting thought considered just leaving it, letting all of it simply ebb away, but he knew that it wouldn’t be that easy. If he never got back to Louis, their parents would still arrange meetings to pair the two of them together. As far as Harry knew, Louis wasn’t going to initiate another visit to see him until he conveyed his decision.

Sat at dinner on Sunday evening, Harry was grinding his teeth, chewing each bite of the roast they had been served that night over and over until there was hardly anything left to swallow. He had been bracing himself all afternoon, and by dessert he had consumed more than two glasses of port wine before finishing the one piece of pecan pie. By his side, Gemma was chatting quietly with Gerard, who was leaning against the edge of the table, listening intently. Their case of arranged marriage gone terrifically right wasn’t helping him in the slightest.

As dinner was dwindling down, Harry forced himself to speak before the opportunity passed. He quenched the pride he’d been struggling vigorously with throughout the day, and cleared his throat.

“Father,” he said, deliberately addressing Mr van Styles in favour of his mum.

The older man looked up in slight surprise; Harry hadn’t inducted a conversation with his family on his own since the night they introduced him to Louis Tomlinson. “Yes, son?” he said, eyes encouraging.

He kept his voice light. “I was only wondering why we have yet to visit the Tomlinsons.” He felt his mother’s shocked eyes stare into the side of his face, and at his side he knew Gemma was just as confused. “I mean, they have been to see us a few times now, and I just thought it’d might seem disrespectful not to return the amity.”

His father stared at him with wide, large, green eyes, confusion evident in every feature on his face. His mouth hung just a tad ajar, and he scratched his jaw in perplexity. Glancing to his right, Harry found his mother scarcely better off, suspicion glowing behind her pupils. Gemma and Gerard remained in befuddled silence, sharing mutual glances of concern every other moment. Harry ignored it, and arched his brows expectantly at his father. He would admit, however, that it did feel just a bit satisfying to render his family speechless. As long as he kept them on their toes, he felt a little bit better about himself.

“Err,” hesitated Mr van Styles. “That’s correct, Harry. Lillian, why haven’t we?”

“I don’t know, Richard,” she replied almost theatrically. “Harry certainly is right.”

“Well,” said Harry, voice still breezy. “Why don’t you propose we come over? Soon.”

“Soon,” he heard his mother repeat under her breath, and his lip tugged diminutively in amusement.

“Very well,” smiled Mr van Styles. “We will, Harry. Don’t let this matter worry you no more.”

He nodded. “I won’t, Dad.”

Dinner concluded only minutes later, and Harry felt decidedly accomplished as he left the patio. He had after all gotten the ball rolling, and astounded his parents almost overwhelmingly. Despite their mostly collected exteriors once the surprise had settled, he was eminently aware that his mother wasn’t going to buy his behaviour.

It was rapidly confirmed by the clicking of heels that followed him inside the house, and as he reached the staircase, he felt his mother’s manicured nails dig into his arm.

“What are you up to?” she hissed, and he spun around, freeing himself of her painful grip.

“Whatever do you mean, Mum?” he replied innocently, gut dropping elatedly at the sight of her disconcerted expression. “I can’t wait to see the Tomlinsons. Louis, in particular. He did look outrageously handsome the other day, didn’t he?”

Her eyes hardened. “I don’t know what you have in mind, but in no way are you going to destroy the relationship we have built with Derek and Johannah. If you take one step out of line, you can forget your fund and that university of yours.”

“Gee, Mum,” he huffed. “I can’t believe you think so little of me. Now, excuse me. I have correspondence to attend to.”

He disappeared upstairs without a glance behind, but he was sure his mother was still standing at the bottom of the stairs, seething in her spot. Even when everything fell into place to fit her ideals, she wasn’t pleased. Harry wondered if perhaps it was an irremovable trait among all perfectionists. He also wondered if it meant she didn’t possess the ability be happy. He couldn’t say he cared particularly about the answer in that moment.

**

Despite Gemma’s multiple concerned queries if whether or not Harry really didn’t need her and Gerard to come along for the visit to the Tomlinsons, Harry travelled in a town car alone with Lillian and Richard. The Tomlinsons resided farther from the shore, in what was mostly considered the north of Deansville. The south coast town wasn’t the most sizable, but as they drove through the city it was clear that it was ridiculously luxurious. Each property subsisted with at least a couple acres of distance to the next neighbour, and as they passed along the avenues through the centre of Deansville, only high-end stores, cafés, and the occasional bistro were recognisable.

The Tomlinson mansion was located atop a slight hill, at the end of a cul de sac. The property was surrounded by oaks, and to Harry’s faint surprise the greenery had a way of making the mansion seem comfortable and intimate rather than flashy. But even so, as he walked up the polished stone path up to the front porch, he appraised the building with wide eyes. It had a slim Victorian touch to the architecture, and the door was in a burnished walnut hue. The house was bigger than his family’s, and as they neared, Harry angled his head back and found the exterior dramatically staring back.

“Gosh,” he muttered under his breath. He felt his mother’s eyes on him not a second later, and he instantly adjusted his facial expression, simpering back preciously at her mistrustful gaze.

Mr van Styles rang the bell at the door, and Harry patted down his shirt and ran a hand over his gelled-back hair. Earlier that day, his father had nodded with approval as he caught him combing his hair back with the Dapper Dax he had given him in advance of the party a couple weeks ago, and Harry had felt bitterly guilty that he was susceptible to the wizardry of the stupidly brilliant hair wax.

The person who answered the door was a redheaded maid, dressed traditionally in a black and white outfit just like at Harry’s family’s place. She curtseyed politely, and stepped aside as they entered, seemingly expecting them.

“Mr and Mrs Tomlinson are in the living room, sir,” she said. “This way, sir. Ma’am.”

Harry followed along with his family, glancing around the first hallway and taking everything in. The interior of the house was much similar to his own parents’ mansion — modern, yet ancient in the way that it felt inappropriate to touch — but unlike at the van Styles’ there were small signs of children residing there at every other corner. It almost looked refined, and it had a burnished look to every wooden surface. Contrasting the luxury of it all, were toys that had yet to be cleared from the floor, and though the Tomlinsons obviously kept a maid, it appeared as though they didn’t mind.

“Charming, isn’t it, Harry?” gushed his mother, practically thrilled as she sauntered through the house.

“Absolutely,” he agreed, and had no clue if it was a lie or not.

“Very, very solid,” hummed Mr van Styles. “Incredible property.”

Harry almost rolled his eyes at their praise. His parents evidently had a fat crush on the Tomlinsons — them, and their money. He was fairly certain his father’s eyes sparkled as they passed beneath a glowing crystal chandelier.

Mr and Mrs Tomlinson were indeed waiting in the sitting room. The afternoon sun was beaming into the room through wide panoramic windows, that disclosed of a gigantic backyard. A neat patio was located just outside the windows, but it wasn’t as wide as at the van Styles’.

“Mr and Mrs Tomlinson, your guests have arrived,” announced the maid.

Johannah instantly spun around, rising from the sofa with a bright smile. Her blue eyes warmly appraised them, and Harry felt her stare probe slightly harder as it landed on him. Staying true to what he had vowed, Harry approached the pair with faux enthusiasm.

“Mrs Tomlinson,” he greeted affably as he rounded the sofa, and he clearly noticed the way her brows rose on her forehead as he addressed her. “It’s a pleasure to see you again. Thank you for letting us visit.”

“Oh,” she said, surprised at his unusual behaviour. “Don’t fret. You are so welcome here, Harry.”

He smiled warmly, and shifted to Louis’ father. “Mr Tomlinson. Good to see you, sir.”

“And you, son. Terrific,” he nodded politely, shaking his hand with a firm squeeze. He seemed pleased, but as they cordially greeted his parents he knew the two of them were still befuddled with this new charm he had acquired.

“Once again,” sighed Harry’s mother once they had been invited to sit down around the shiny coffee table. “Your home is just marvellous.”

Johannah waved her off. “Oh, you’re too kind, Lillian. I apologise for the mess. We would have had it thoroughly cleaned had we known sooner.”

Harry couldn’t spot a dot of dust, but he also knew the standards these people lived by and didn’t comment.

“It’s our fault, Johannah. We should have given you a much more respectable notice,” apologised Harry’s father.

Derek Tomlinson shook his head. “You’re nothing but welcome here, Richard.”

“Actually,” said the man, voice slow but engaging, and Harry glanced at him from the corner of his eye, mildly displeased already. “Harry, here, was very eager to come visit. It’s not often he wishes to come along to see our friends, but for some reason he just hasn’t been able to contain his excitement today.”

“Is that so?” smiled Johannah.

“Oh, yes,” agreed Mrs van Styles, her hand stroking Harry’s arm twice from the other side of him, but there was nothing but coldness seeping up his arm at the touch. Harry slowly began to feel imprisoned by the two people at his sides. “I reckon it might have something to do with that gorgeous son of yours.”

Christ on a stick.

Harry felt his cheeks warm as the older couples began to laugh, and it took every ounce of his restraint not to kick his mum in the shin. How subtle, and simply hilarious. The gratified look in their eyes was too much.

“Now, don’t be embarrassed, darling,” said Mrs van Styles, sharing a pleased grin with Johannah Tomlinson.

“Perhaps we all would like some afternoon tea?” deflected Mr Tomlinson, leaning forward in his seat. “Yes?”

“Absolutely, Derek.” Johannah looked at Harry, smiling quickly. “Louis is actually right outside, dear. He won’t be hard to find.”

Harry, knowing when he was being dismissed, nodded politely and stood, retreating from the living room whilst hearing the older people’s chatter behind him. Following the nearest corridor, he found a door that led straight outside onto the patio, and he inhaled in relief as he felt the warm air envelope him. This entire affair was mortifying.

He only got a moment of reprieve, because indeed Louis was not hard to find. Harry could hear his voice before he had barely closed the door behind him. He glanced around, and quickly found him down the grass lawn, at least forty yards away. There was a guesthouse west of the lawn, eminently matching the main mansion, if only smaller and less decadent. The grey facade looked warm against the wooden porch and the Palladian windows, and framing the guesthouse were green bushes of some kind. Harry abruptly flinched, and almost yelped the moment a football came flying toward the house, and thankfully landed safely against the cushions of the bush.

He looked up, and found Louis jogging toward it, tugging the brown ball free. Not far off, were the group of little girls from the other week in Wellbridge, all of them in dresses, but wearing wide grins on their faces. Harry slowly began to approach, listening as Louis laughed and commended one of them on their impressive kick. The older boy was adorning shorts and a casual, pale shirt, his hair back in the usual fringe, and he seemed immensely engaged in teaching his little sisters how to play football. Harry’s stomach felt tight and weird as he neared him, unsure of how to get on with this.

“Hey,” he finally said, only twenty yards away. Louis, who had just been teasing one of the girls, looked up in surprise, and instantly straightened up properly once his eyes reached Harry’s face. Harry cleared his throat, awkwardly raising his hand in a small wave.

“Harry,” exhaled Louis, hurrying to adjust the clothes on his body. He brushed his fringe from his eyes, blue irises staring back at him with surprise that slowly melted into slight dubiousness. “Um,” he fumbled. “What are you doing here?”

Harry swallowed, fingers tugging nervously at the sides of his trousers. He didn’t know where they stood anymore, or how Louis felt about him even coming over to see him. “I, um… Well.” He arched a brow, hoping desperately that Louis would understand without having to explain.

“Lou!” One of the little girls tugged on the end of his shirt, leaving Harry hanging. “We’re playing footie!”

Louis looked down for only a moment, keeping his eyes on Harry as he untied her fingers from the fabric of his shirt. He kept her hand in his for few seconds. “Daisy, I’m sorry. That’s gonna have to be it for today. But you girls keep playing, yeah? But don’t kick in the direction of the house again!”

He squeezed her hand, and took a few jogging steps toward Harry. He brushed his fringe into place once more, and came into a stop in front of him, while Harry shifted on his feet, not knowing where to look. Louis was dreadfully handsome with a meagre sheen of sweat at his temples and hairline, and Harry was by then humiliated enough. He still couldn’t quite believe he was there, in that moment, about to admit defeat and tell a man he was agreeing to be courted. Because no way in hell would Harry be the one doing the wooing. That much was self-evident.

“I didn’t know you were coming today,” said Louis’ voice tentatively, turning softer as he progressed. “I would have cleaned up. You look lovely, Harry.”

Harry’s teeth gnawed on the inside of his lip, and he rigidly clasped his fingers behind his back, hesitantly glancing up from beneath his lashes. His proud arse could barely receive a compliment properly. “My parents are here.”

“Oh,” breathed Louis, but this time his face shaped into a frown as he looked back at him. “Is that — is that why you’re here…?”

“I suggested it,” choked Harry, cheeks instantaneously heating up at the confession. He glared at his own feet, face red, and still uncomfortable at the thought of going through with this. He had accepted it, but it didn’t feel good. Two months of schmoozing Louis’ family, pretending that he was oh-so enticed with their son? Spending afternoons with him, and seeing his own mother’s satisfied smirk and smug eyes at each mention of his name? It was something he had to do to pull through, but he felt nauseous at the thought of giving his family what they wanted — even if it was only a mere ruse.

“Hey,” Louis replied quietly, taking a short step forward just to briefly reach out and tap Harry’s upper arm. It was quick and light, just like at the beach. “Let me give you a tour of the property, yeah?”

Harry nodded in response, and sidled up with Louis as he gestured toward the guesthouse. Louis strolled in an even pace, and they remained in silence for the first couple of minutes as Harry fervently tried to recuperate. He despised the warmth that still coloured his skin crimson, and he couldn’t have been able to explain the amount of gratefulness he felt when Louis didn’t attempt discussing the matter, or what this signified for the two of them. If he could choose, he would rather not have it mentioned at all for the rest of the summer.

Harry followed him up the two steps of the porch leading into the house, and watched as he unlocked the brown, wooden door with a key he pulled from the pocket of his shorts. Louis ran another self-conscious hand through his hair as he fit it into the jack and twisted, meanwhile Harry tried not to let his nerves show. His heart was beating just a tad faster than normal, and he hated how insecure he suddenly felt. He didn’t know exactly how much Louis expected out of this arrangement, and it was nibbling on his brain cells.

Louis opened the door, and graciously stepped aside to let Harry enter first. Harry crossed the threshold without glancing back, and found himself looking at a modest foyer. Immediately to his right was an average sized living room, and to the left was a short corridor that seemed to lead into a kitchen, while a large staircase waited on the opposite side of the entrance. Louis followed Harry inside, and gestured toward his right, to the living room. There was a wide couch with velvet cushions, and the walls that weren’t windowed were overlaid by bookshelf upon bookshelf, that were all filled eminently with books. On top of a coffee table were what looked like floor plans or layouts for construction work, and Harry digested all of it in a matter of seconds, and decided as quickly that he wasn’t at all unimpressed.

“Excuse the mess,” said Louis. “My father wants to remodel.”

There wasn’t much of a mess, but Harry still asked, “Why?”

“I tend to spend my summers in Deansville, but I always stay in the guest house. I’m a little old to live with my family, really, but I want to keep close. To my sisters, especially.”

Harry frowned, his voice coming out gravelly due to his drumming heart. “But why remodel?”

Louis shrugged, a little smile on his lips. “Lack of an end to the abyss of perpetual dissatisfaction?”

Suppressing the spontaneous urge to release a dry chuckle, Harry pressed his lips down. Louis may have inhabited some of the same perspective as Harry when it came to the views on their families. He didn’t know to what degree, though. Clearly, they weren’t on the same page in regards to everything.

“This is the sitting room,” announced Louis when Harry didn’t offer anything more. “Whenever the weather is dull, I read in here. There’s a record player by the bureau, too, although, I couldn’t bring all my records with me from Bellmore.”

Harry took a few hesitant steps around the couch, nearing the closest bookshelf. There, the backs of the books were faded and looked worn, as though read multiple times over, carried in bags, and placed under the bleaching sun. There was one spot that was empty, the space wide enough to fit just one book.

“I keep my favourite novels here,” disclosed Louis reverently. “They’re mostly horror and romance.”

Harry swiftly averted his gaze from the empty slot, and pursed his lips. “Organised,” he commented.

Louis shook his head. “This is the sitting room, like I said. My bedroom, on the other hand, will have you gasping. It looks a bit like your gazebo, but with taller piles of literature, and lots of more parchment rolls.”

Harry watched him tentatively smile at him, brows slowly rising encouragingly. It was obvious that he wished for Harry to indulge in the conversation, but Harry wasn’t sure what he wanted to say, or if he wanted to talk at all. After a longer moment, Louis seemed to give up, and strolled back toward the front door.

“Upstairs is my bedroom. It’s just one area, with a separate bathroom. It’s almost like a loft, but I absolutely adored it as a teenager, though, I didn’t actually move in here until I was about your age.” Louis waited for a response, but he was quicker to move on this time. “The kitchen is here.”

Harry walked into the wood scaled room, finding an island in the middle, and a dinner table in the corner of a couple panoramic windows. It overlooked the east end of the lawn, and not far off began the small woods of oaks. It was admittedly cozy, and the table fitted at least the gaggle of sisters that belonged to Louis.

“No maid?”

“Only until lunch,” retorted Louis. “Do you like it? The guest house?”

Harry looked away. “I suppose.”

Louis pursed his lips, watching him in silence for a moment where Harry uncertainly shifted on his feet. Silence between them was nothing new, but when Louis controlled it, it left Harry feeling anxious.

“Let’s sit,” said Louis, his voice just barely hinting on authoritative. He calmly strode over to the dining table, and sat down on the far side, nodding toward the chair directly in front of him. Unsure of what to do, Harry complied, and pulled out the chair. He was there, and trying, but it was confusingly difficult.

Louis leaned on his elbows atop the table, slightly bent forward as he smiled a tad. “This suddenly feels entirely too formal. Sorry.” He bit his lip, his left brow arching as he looked up at Harry. “This is you agreeing to my suggestion, yeah?” he genuinely asked, benevolent.

Harry swallowed, and nodded.

“But, Harry…” said Louis, eyes still settled evenly on his. “You don’t to really talk to me. And you’re here, but not really. I can’t get to know you if you don’t communicate, and if you choose not to… I don’t know what to do.”

Harry huffed, because this wasn’t at all easy for him, alright? “What do you expect from me? From this? I’m here. I’ve taken you up on your offer.”

Louis looked a bit helpless. “I wish that you would please try. I want to talk to you. You seem so intelligent, and interesting, and I would love nothing more than to have a free conversation with you.”

“Perhaps I don’t like to talk.”

“But you do.”

Harry lifted a defiant brow. “How would you know?”

“I have seen you speak with your sister. And if I remember correctly, I do believe there was a moment in your gazebo where you spoke perfectly candidly.” He tipped his head to the side. “You also have no problem conveying your feelings when requested to do so… like right now.”

Crossing his arms, Harry shrugged. “I don’t really have anything to discuss.”

“That’s okay,” said Louis easily. “I hope you understand what I mean, though, when I say that I’d rather you argue with me like this than not talk at all.”

Harry was half a second from pressing his lips sealed in pure defiance, but it seemed Louis had called the move before he had even begun to make it. Louis’ lips stretched into a wide grin, and the skin beneath his eyes crinkled deeply as his bright blue eyes shaped into slim slits.

He released a breathy chortle, and shook his head. “Is it so hard to see why I’m not about to let you go right away…?”

Harry’s stomach felt eerily strange, and he had no clue of how to use his mouth to produce retorting words.

“Can we agree that if you disagree with me, you’ll say so? Instead of keeping quiet?” asked Louis.

Internally, Harry zipped up his gut and procured every piece of strength and mental stamina he possessed. Keeping Louis relatively happy was part of the bargain, he guessed, and it was not as though he had the choice to back out of the deal.

“I’m giving you your book back,” he muttered petulantly. “Your bookshelf looks incongruous and weird without it.”

Louis grinned, so evidently pleased. “I think it will make do. I’m pretty certain Lucille’s content being under your care.”

“Well… Lucille’s an idiot, so.”

Louis’ eyes rested on Harry’s face for a long moment, unblinkingly regarding him with an unfamiliar tenderness. Naturally, Harry had understood that the somewhat older bloke did inhabit a sort of sensuous infatuation with him, but it was unusually distinct as he admirably observed him like this from across the table. Harry, who never seemed to know what to do with himself whenever Louis would watch him this openly, cast his eyes down, a tiny wrinkle forming between his brows. It was wearying, how Louis constantly behaved wholly self-assured with few exceptions, while Harry floundered through every minute in his presence.

“Would you like me to give you another horror book?” he inquired with enchanted eyes, lip pulling amiably.

Harry shook his head, dismay seeping up his spine. “I can’t simply accept you giving me your favourite literature.”

“Why not?” he asked innocently.

“It’d be rude,” he huffed, although, it had more to do with his reluctance to habituate himself with the other man than anything else. He had a prominent feeling that Louis wasn’t fooled.

“I thought you didn’t care what I thought?”

Well. Drat.

“…when did I say that?” he replied dubiously.

Louis shrugged, hinting on a smile that was highly aware as he looked at him, and said, “Perhaps you didn’t.”

Harry felt deeper into the abyss than ever then, and he shook his head, glancing away. He wanted to leave, and he wanted to tell Louis off because he was very positive this was nowhere near considered polite conversation, but he knew neither of it was a viable option. He could only bite the bullet, and endure.

“Aren’t you going to show me the rest of the property?” he asked, keeping his voice from grumbling, yet still couldn’t quite manage to meet Louis’ eyes.

“Absolutely,” he nodded. “My apologies.”

They stood from the table, and Harry quietly followed Louis as they exited the kitchen, and eventually left the guesthouse. Louis locked the front door behind them, and Harry drew a breath of relief the moment they left the building. It seemed as though the hardest part of the day’s visit had concluded, and as Louis proceeded to guide him through the back yard and around the mansion, he seemed to be right.

They ambled around the wealth in relative silence, Louis doing most of the talking as he dove into small anecdotes about whatever he was showing Harry for the moment. It appeared Louis had grown up with the mansion, spending each and all of his holidays at the summer haven in Deansville. He had many stories that involved his younger siblings, and even though he was a lot older than most of them, they were evidently a big part of his life. He remembered that Louis had lost a sibling once, and he hoped that the older boy didn’t actually mind going over these nostalgic memories, even though he had initiated it himself.

Harry was aware Louis wanted him to talk, but he still found it difficult. It wasn’t like he disagreed with Louis on every of his notions, and he simply didn’t know what he was supposed to talk about. Louis noticed it of course, but he didn’t bring the subject up again, only resorted to forming inquiries.

“Are you into art?” he asked, after showing him a few paintings on the second floor of the main mansion. They had entered from the front, Louis choosing to omit passing their parents in the sitting room.

“Yes,” replied Harry. Louis waited for him to elaborate, and he bit his lip, “…but not this way.”

Louis nodded, like he had figured as much. Portraits of ancestors didn’t appear particularly thrilling to him, either. “Then what do you prefer?”

“I like Monet,” he murmured, keeping his voice low. “I admire his choice of colour, and his technique. The small strokes of his brush tend to give a very vibrant, but simultaneously timeless look. I’m sure decades from now he will be as appreciated.”

Louis nodded slowly, eyes warm with commendation. “I very much agree, love.”

They resumed the tour, Harry pushing away every piece of him that wanted to acknowledge Louis’ endearment, aware that it probably wasn’t optimal for his sanity if he were to take inventory of his feelings each time Louis uttered something of an affectionate nature.

“Shall we go back outside?” wondered Louis as they descended down the large staircase. Harry could hear his parents’ voices from the room nearby, and quickly agreed. Louis silently jerked his head in the direction to go, and they slipped past the arch leading into the living room, where their families were still sat. Harry was fairly sure he saw Mr Tomlinson notice them, but Louis didn’t stop so he didn’t, either.

Outside, the little girls had stopped playing football, but were now sitting in a circle on the trimmed grass beside the patio, braiding crowns with multiple different-hued flowers. The flowers didn’t look wild, and resembled more than a bit the potted stems and the flowers planted in the soil in the garden. Harry tamed his amusement into a small smirk meanwhile Louis seemed to roll his eyes.

“Louis! We’re making princess crowns!” said one of the young girls.

“I can see that, Fizzy,” replied Louis, and sat down on the edge of the patio, feet on the grass. He patted the spot by his side, and Harry tentatively settled next to him as the other man gave him a small smile. “Harry, this is Félicité, Phoebe, Daisy, and Doris.”

None of them could be older than eight, Doris evidently the youngest. Her hair was inexplicably red, and couldn’t be older than four.

“Hi,” greeted Harry, and received vague waves in return, all of them too invested in their flowers.

“Jack would have been about fourteen now,” mumbled Louis, shoulder brushing Harry’s just lightly to gain his attention. Harry’s head whipped to face him, and saw Louis push his brown fringe from his eyes as he watched his sister wind stems together.

“Is that your brother who passed away?” asked Harry, uncertain if he should ask or not.

Louis hummed. “Charlotte was still so young, and I was a teenager. He was our little brother, and then… Well, it was rough. It took my parents a while to want more kids, but then… they all just happened,” he said, gesturing to the four girls in front of him with adoring eyes, face bright again.

“M’sorry for your loss,” whispered Harry, staring at the side of his face.

Louis turned, face closer than ever. “Thank you,” he said, genuine and soft.

Harry gave a tight smile in response, pulling his lips into his mouth. It had been a strange afternoon, one that would presumably be difficult to digest, but in this small moment he didn’t feel uncomfortable. For the short while, he didn’t mind sitting there by Louis’ side.

They watched the girls craft, Louis joining in after a few minutes, helping Doris get it right. His slender fingers were surprisingly deft, overlapping the stems in tight plaits, and soon he was helping all of them tie the ends together.

“You can have mine, Harry,” said Phoebe, and Harry’s cheeks warmed as she stared at him with big, blue, round eyes.

“Are you sure you don’t want it yourself?” he asked shyly. “You worked so hard on it.”

She shook her head determinedly. “I have so many already! It will look pretty on you.”

“I agree,” said Louis, eyes on the crown he was finishing. He looked up, blue depths sparkling. “You look amazing.”

Cheeks aflame, Harry turned to Phoebe and nodded. “Okay,” he stuttered. “Thank you, Phoebe. That’s very nice of you.”

She leaned over to where he was still sitting by Louis, and carefully placed it on his head. Behind him, Harry could hear the patio door opening, adult voices slipping out into the fresh air.

“See!” exclaimed Phoebe, her juvenile voice loud and bright. “Pretty!”

Louis’ shoulder nudged Harry’s again, and Harry found him quietly appraising him. He tipped his head to the side, and Harry’s heart began pounding as he reached toward his face. Like he could sense the slight disquiet in him, Louis carefully avoided Harry’s skin, and only pushed a flower into place by his temple.

“Yeah,” he hummed, agreeing. “Very pretty.”

Swallowing, Harry’s muscles strained in place for some reason, he relaxed as Louis retreated. But, behind him, he could hear Johannah Tomlinson’s voice.

“I reckon my boy is a little bit smitten with your son, Lillian.”

Harry couldn’t exactly deny it. Louis was interested, and for the rest of the summer Harry had agreed to date him. It was a courtship he hadn’t asked for, but one that he was now completely webbed into.

As they bid their goodbyes to the Tomlinson family not much later, Louis took his hand for a cordial shake. Before Harry could let go, though, Louis took a small step closer, and kept their hands locked for a longer moment between them.

“Will you come see me tomorrow?” he timidly asked, eyes unusually abashed as his thumb brushed over the surface of Harry’s hand.

Harry nodded hesitantly, replying, “I guess so.”

“Maybe I can take you for a walk?”

“Where?”

Still grasping Harry’s hand in a comfortable grip, Louis answered as though it was the simplest thing in the world. “Anywhere you’d like, love.”

Chapter Text

3.

He saw Louis almost every other day for the following couple of weeks.

The next day, he travelled by car alone to the Tomlinson mansion in uptown Deansville, grateful that this time he wasn’t accompanied with his parents. Gemma had offered her condolences once she had seen his face upon returning home the previous day, flower crown held in his hand — his mother having demanded he take it off the moment they were sat in the town car, on their way back home.

Louis took him on a walk through the woods in the local environs that day. Harry couldn’t remember visiting this part of Deansville when he was young, but naturally it turned out as beautiful as the rest of the town. The paths in the woods had been cleared enough to walk comfortably, and there were no mosquitoes or much wildlife anywhere. As they strolled, Louis gave his best shots at pulling Harry into conversation, and that day, he didn’t let so much as a minute roll by without asking a question, or prompting Harry into debate.

Harry deliberately tried to lower his guard when Louis coaxed him into discourse about music, and he found it more effortless to talk when the subject was literature, rather than personal matters. Louis would try every once in awhile to extract something of larger significance out of him, but he was also extremely content whenever Harry would go on an exceedingly short, but opinionated rant about an author, or a particular poem they were discussing.

The second letter Harry ever received from Louis arrived halfway into the new week. Also this came in company of a parcel, one that was heavier and bigger than the last. That morning, his mother brought the package to the table during breakfast on the patio, and handed it over with a smirk on her face. Harry quelled the displeasure in his gut, and accepted the parcel with a mock smile on his lips.

“Is that from Louis?” wondered Gemma, leaning in to catch a glimpse of it. It was hefty, and Harry had a feeling he knew exactly what it contained.

“Oh, yes,” leered Mrs van Styles. “He delivered it himself this morning.”

“Oh,” muttered Harry, surprised that Louis hadn’t asked to see him when he’d come by. Not that he really minded, but it seemed curious. Perhaps Louis had figured out how Harry felt about his previous gift. Seeing as it was quite undemanding to predict the content of the parcel, that very reason was probably exactly why he hadn’t requested to see him in person. Almost amusingly covert, in Harry’s opinion.

He brought the package to his room after breakfast, and sat down on his bed to open it. Much like the last time, a separate letter fell out, also addressed to him on top of the same stationery paper in Louis’ handwriting. Harry peeked into the parcel, and found not one, but two different books waiting inside. Sighing in exasperation, Harry placed the parcel on the nightstand next to his drying flower crown, and brought the letter to his lap. This one was decidedly longer than the last, and the tiny changes in their relationship were suddenly notable.

My dearest Harry,

I’m aware that you declined my offer to gift you with any of my books, but you see, I sometimes find it hard to restrain myself. Perhaps my mention of this will irk you, but I often find myself pondering whether or not you sometimes say things just to say them, to irk me.Most of the time I do think that that is the case. But, Harry, I don’t mind. Don’t stop. Whenever you talk I feel blessed. Your words are kisses breathing on my skin.

However, I don’t want to deprive you of the privilege of knowing the same sensations I feel in my bones whenever I am struck by the magic that is this type of literature yourself. I would never want you to miss out. I would gladly reiterate every word of my most beloved novels if that were what it takes, but you are a reader — an ardent, one of a kind reader. I hope you don’t take offence by my assumptions, but I do think I know that.

These two books are mine, but I wish nothing more than for you to keep them, to cherish them as I have. The first one, I chose with the reasoning that you might have found Lucille in the previous book naive, and at times a fool. Moonshine by Alaya Johnson, surrounds the life of a daughter from demon hunting family, in a world where supernatural creatures are known beings. The daughter decides to fight for their equal rights, engaging in a battle for social justice. Something about you has struck me, and I believe that this is a story you will greatly appreciate.

The second book, I’m afraid, was a victim of my admittedly shameful, momentary, and solely superficial contemplation. The cover of the book matches your eyes, and lately I have not been able to keep my thoughts in order. The memory of how they looked on the beach that day in Wellbridge sits solidly in my heart.

You have told me you are not much of a writer, and I’m ashamed I neglected to acknowledge that at the time. Perhaps you only write for yourself, to journal your deepest thoughts, or construct worlds that only otherwise would have existed in your brain. Endlessly curious as I am, I would love to read anything you have created, but I am reining myself in. I would never pressure you to write me back, and I think you know that, too. I’m content in knowing you’re aware of how I feel. I want you to know me.

Ultimately, I would like to formally thank you for putting up with me. Thank you.

My dearest regards,
Louis William Tomlinson

Harry glanced over at the books waiting on his bedside table, releasing a small sigh. Louis’ generosity felt wrong, especially when Harry knew that now there were doubtlessly two new holes in his shelf, slots left achingly vacant the moment Louis had pulled each book from its place. Furthermore, Louis was being selfless and kind, gifting him with things that mattered to Harry. There was obvious effort behind his choices, and it was far too much. Louis must have known that Harry wasn’t going to reciprocate his romantic feelings, hadn’t he? The whole bargain was constructed on the notion that Harry wanted no part of a courtship.

Additionally, Harry hadn’t neglected to digest the words Louis had written about his eyes. Despite of being aware that Louis had more interest in him than the other way around, it seemed foreign that he would ponder those sorts of matters. When they talked, and took strolls together, was Louis thinking about his eyes? Was he matching the colour to the hue of his book covers? Harry certainly was not immune to Louis’ handsomeness, but he wasn’t fantasising about blue pools and heavenly skies. He had never compared the ocean to Louis’ irises… surely?

After receiving the second letter from Louis, Harry was extremely alert to Louis’ actions whenever they were together. They had been seeing one another — much to their parents’ satisfaction — for almost two weeks by then, and their tentative conversations had slowly progressed into something flowing, and almost completely comfortable. Harry didn’t feel as nervous in his presence anymore, yet he was often still picking and choosing his words with care. He didn’t want Louis to think he was becoming interested, and though Louis had never attempted any sort of intimacy between them, he recoiled whenever Louis so much as brushed their arms together.

One morning, Louis had been invited to join the van Styles family for breakfast, and arrived at nine o’clock, wearing shorts and braces, hair in a soft fringe beneath a gambler hat. He greeted Harry with gentle smile, and after breakfast they retreated from the mansion for a stroll down the beach. They left their shoes and socks in the gazebo, Louis’ eyes obvious as they found his old books on Harry’s windowsills. He didn’t comment, but Harry knew he was very pleased.

The weather had barrelled on with the same unusual heat. England had never been prone to this sort of warmth, and the papers told them each day that the heat wave of a decade was upon them. Louis’ legs were tan and the hairs gently bleached by the sun, the hot weather notable at his temples where beads of sweat were forming. He was wading through the water, waves brushing as high as his calves, while Harry followed slightly behind, muttering agreements to Louis’ lengthy and complex monologue about Jane Austen’s literature.

“Harry,” said Louis out of the blue, glancing over his shoulder, eyes tapered under the shade that the brim of his hat provided.

“What?” he asked, jumping slightly as a bigger wave splashed droplets of cold water up the inside of his thigh.

“You just agreed that Mary Shelley is better than Jane Austen.”

Harry slowed, staring back at him with uncertainty. “Yeah?”

“How much Mary Shelley have you read?” inquired Louis dubiously.

“…some,” he admitted, and Louis turned completely, facing him with a growing grin.

“I thought you’d never read horror fiction?” he said around a smile.

Heat crawled up Harry’s neck, rapidly growing in size and colour as it spread across his cheeks. He could feel it burning at his neck, his fingers fumbling with a loop in his shorts. “I may have happened to… procure a few whilst in Brighton with my sister the other day.”

Louis’ eyes brightened significantly, and Harry’s insides twitched as the other man took an approaching step through the water. Another wave crashed into his side, wetting as far as his knee. “You could have had some of mine, you know,” smiled Louis softly. “I would have gladly given them to you.”

“I don’t want to take from you,” muttered Harry. “They’re yours.”

Louis’ hand reached out, and Harry’s stomach jumped as he felt his thumb and index finger carefully touch his waist. For the first time, Louis’ caress didn’t relent, and his hand affectionately remained in the spot, meanwhile Harry’s back stiffened like a board, his nerves thrumming vibrantly. Louis looked up at him, blue eyes positively the very same shade as the sky above them.

“Nothing would make me happier, though,” he said, the foot of distance between their bodies too intimate for Harry to handle. He took a step back.

“I’m not going to let you give away all your favourite fiction. You adore this genre, and some of those books are very difficult to come by.”

Louis determinedly shook his head. “It’s no problem.”

Harry huffed. “Just, keep them. Okay?”

“But —”

“Louis!” hissed Harry. “Stop.”

Louis did stop, and he looked taken aback by Harry’s outburst. “I — I’m sorry.”

Harry stepped out of his proximity, the hand on his waist falling away. “Whatever. Let’s keep going.”

He strode ahead of him, water suddenly feeling colder against his skin than before. He hadn’t meant for Louis to know about his suddenly insatiable hunger for more of that particular genre. After reading Anthony Burns and Alaya Johnson (and the third book that had been pure romance), he had found himself staring at his own collection of fiction with a helpless sensation in his gut. Nothing of it in that moment compared to the thrill in his bones each time he closed Louis’ books. Lucille may have been an idiot, but he had read it from start to finish three times over. He had needed more, and after discussing the matter with a bookstore owner in Brighton, he left with multiple of Mary Shelley’s most famous works. Louis wasn’t supposed to know that he had gotten under Harry’s skin — that he had had an effect on him. Literature was one of Harry’s most precious passions, and now Louis was privy to the fact that he had had an impact on it.

It was vexing, and Harry resisted the urge to rub his eyes in emotional fatigue. Everything about Louis was overwhelmingly confusing. Despite how hard he tried, Louis seemed to slip into his cracks without his attention.

He startled when he felt ticklishly light fingers on the inside of his forearm. Louis’ hand was warm, firm, but careful as it slid toward Harry’s wrist, and the contact sent shivers up his neck. “Love,” said his voice warily. Harry swallowed, heart thumping harder. “I didn’t mean to upset you.”

“M’not upset.”

“You seem quite upset, actually.”

“I’m not upset,” he protested tightly. Perhaps too firmly, because a snicker slipped from Louis’ lips without delay, and seemingly so without his permission.

“I’m sorry, darling,” he chuckled, free hand covering his mouth for a short moment as indignation built further up Harry’s chest. “I didn’t mean to laugh. I apologise for my manners, but that was simply the worst lie I’ve heard.”

“I wasn’t lying,” he lied, and internally groaned at how utterly pathetic he sounded.

Louis seemed amused, though, and his hand slid from Harry’s wrist, down to the heel of his palm. Before Harry had registered it, their fingers were solidly linked, hands clasped warmly against one another. “It’s okay. I’m being rude anyways.” He tugged on his hand, moving forward along the shoreline. “Come on. Tell me exactly what you thought about Mary Shelley, please.”

It was the first time Harry had so much as touched Louis, save for greeting handshakes, and his stomach contorted with intricate feelings he could barely even decipher. Louis’ skin was warm, and his thumb brushed over his hand once every few minutes. He squeezed tighter when Harry voiced an opinion he liked, and at points he would laugh, and tug Harry closer to his side. He didn’t let go until they reached the gazebo at the end of the stroll, and even so he was evidently reluctant to do so. Harry had no clue to how he should feel.

After a fortnight, Louis had become a fixture in his life in Deansville. It was becoming easier to accept that this would be the case for the remainder of the summer. Louis wasn’t terrible, either, and most of the time it was liberating to discuss his interests with someone who understood, and cared so dearly. But, the intimacy was clearly growing between them, and it was obvious how rapidly their attitude and behaviour around one another had transformed.

Louis’ curiosity was endless, and it was horribly vexing how he would perpetually question, and poke holes in Harry’s feeble attempts at keeping a distance. Louis would analyse every discussion, always searching for the reasoning behind Harry’s answers to his never-ending inquiries. Most of the time, to his immense dismay, Harry’s facade broke after only one or two. Louis contained an uncanny ability to demolish every wall of his, and all of it by simply making Harry reflect and ponder over his own trains of thought. It was frustratingly confounding, and most of the time ended up throwing Harry into a state of pettishness, which in turn, to his massive bewilderment, Louis only appeared to quite enjoy.

“Can I ask you something, darling?” murmured Louis one day. They were sat on the porch swing at the Tomlinson mansion, overlooking the yard. They had spent the afternoon at the house, Johannah and Derek away for the day, and leaving them with the girls. The swing was moving steadily in small motions beneath them, Louis’ thigh pressed along the side of Harry’s. Moments of personal contact weren’t rare all of a sudden, and Harry was gradually becoming used to it.

He leered at him from the corner of his eye. “Since when do you hesitate?”

The older man shrugged, shoulder rubbing against Harry’s. “It’s a different sort of question,” he warned cautiously.

Harry glanced back at him briefly, apprehension yet to take over. “Okay.”

Louis’ voice was slow, as though mindful not to offend. “Can I ask why you are so intent on going to university at Yorkinshare in the first place, studying law? Wouldn’t a fresh start without your parents’ funds be quite ideal to you?”

Harry almost chuckled. “In what world?” he said, incredulous to a point his eyes hurt from the look he threw the other man.

“I know the question must sound ludicrous, but think about it…” he said, and his thigh pressed further against Harry’s. “You would have rather stayed back to work a low man’s job for the entirety of the summer than come to Deansville in the first place.”

He stared back at Harry’s eyes, two deep wrinkles written into his forehead. It was the first time he had even mentioned the conversation they’d had in the gazebo, that day when he proposed the bargain. Since then, in a petty mood, Harry had let the fact slip, hissing it at Louis whilst in a minor argument.

“Let me ask you, love… Why are you so set on being a lawyer? If you could choose anything in the world, would you still decide to be an attorney?”

Harry’s eyes slowly fell to his knees, thoughts hesitantly beginning to strum into life. He blinked, and everything abruptly tangled into knots and simultaneously ran wild through his brain. Why did Louis always do this? was the first full query he could decipher in the mess. His heart was suddenly pounding faster than ever, and his throat increasingly felt tighter.

“It’s always been the — the plan,” he stuttered, realising for the first time that he had never ever given it a thought, that he had never for a moment considered something else. Even though his passions lay elsewhere, on the other side of a room full of options, he had never once contemplated not studying law and jurisprudence. It had always been the plan: go to university at Yorkinshare, get an education, and join his father’s top class firm, and eventually take it over.

“Oh, my God,” he breathed, elbows landing on his thighs, chest constricting painfully. “I’m… the same. I’m just the same as every other idiot running round the block around here.”

Why did he want be a lawyer? Where did he ever get that idea? He couldn’t recall. It was what his father did, what he was supposed to do.

And he… was a product of his class. Of his family incessantly conforming to the conventional, and he hadn’t even realised it. All his life he had thought he was different, yet he was in the very same situation as any son or daughter of the same type of family was.

He sat there, reading his books, or stood in the midst of a crowd at every event his parents threw, and judged each guest, scrutinising their choices of clothing and accessories. He was just as bad. There was Dapper Dax in his hair, wasn’t there?

“I’m useless,” he whispered, but he was too stunned for tears. What the fuck.

“Jesus Christ, Harry,” said Louis, his voice snapping him back to life. “That is not what I wanted you to think. I just… I’m always stupidly searching for discourse, to evaluate things from different perspectives. I didn’t think you’d react this way —”

“Shut up,” exhaled Harry, hand slapping against Louis’ bicep. It was a bit rough, but his hand remained there in a faint apology. He stared across the lawn, seeing nothing as the thoughts ran into a spinning mess in his brain.

Louis’ voice was quiet. “I was only curious because of the way you always seem to talk about your family, and… this.”

“I’m a hypocrite,” said Harry, blunt and cold.

“You’re not a hypocrite,” protested Louis soothingly. His hand landed on top of Harry’s, where it was still resting on Louis’ arm. His hand barely twitched at the contact, Louis’ skin warm and comfortable. “Quit the bloody dramatics for a moment, love. Perhaps you just need to figure out what it is you want, you know? It’s very difficult when there’s a lot of pressure on your shoulders. Some people need more time, and that’s okay. Maybe you do want to be a lawyer? Keep in mind that you’re only twenty, and it’s also okay to want the same things as your parents do.”

Harry huffed, shaking his head in dismay. “Other people are completely set by now. And I am, too, I guess.”

Louis’ fingers grasped Harry’s tightly, and even though Harry couldn’t see him where he was leaning against the backrest behind him, he felt like Louis was genuinely concerned. “We’re raised a certain way,” the older man muttered. “Perhaps we grew up nicer than the average bloke, but for some of us it happens so fast that we don’t even get a chance to look around, or think. Have you ever sat down, and thought really hard about what it is you would like to be doing for the rest of your life?”

Harry rigidly shook his head. “No — no, I guess not.”

“Maybe you should,” whispered Louis, and when Harry turned his head to look at him, his lip pulled into a small, sad smile.

Harry groaned pathetically, and slid down the seat, collapsing by Louis’ side. His head landed against the edge of the backrest, feeling the porch swing sway back and forth under the impact. He sensed Louis’ shoulder near his temple, but didn’t bother moving away, too wrapped up in his head. Louis’ words had slid into his ears and fallen down his gut, where they were now stuck, swirling and swirling in a circle.

He almost jerked in surprise when he felt Louis squeeze his hand almost too firmly, and glanced down at where they were clutched solidly atop his own thigh. It shouldn’t have felt this right; Louis was part of the problem, wasn’t he? Just another commodity of his appalling upbringing. Still, having the sensation of the other man breathing by his side, soothingly rubbing his thumb across the top of his hand, he felt better. Confused and angry, he pressed his eyes shut, head settling against Louis’ shoulder.

“Are you alright, sweetheart?” wondered Louis.

“I don’t know.”

“It’s going to be fine.”

Harry twisted his head to face him, meeting his eyes from only a few inches of distance. He stared at him, brows furrowed tightly as he regarded Louis’ handsome, caring face. And it didn’t make sense. Louis was a gigantic part of the problem, yet he was the only person willing to discuss it, to actually talk to Harry about it without an ounce of condescension. Better yet, he initiated it.

It took Harry so long to actually say anything at all that eventually he simply ended up sitting there, staring at his face, completely stunted like an idiot.

The situation was too complex. Harry’s parents wanted him to attend university, didn’t they? They needed him to have an excellent education, to be something they could boast and be proud of. It wasn’t logical for them to take away his tuition money. Bitterly, he thought, they had practically brainwashed him into thinking that law was what he wanted, even as far as believing they would legitimately take it away in fear of losing something that they had forced on him. Or perhaps it was all about pride, and the threat wasn’t empty. Perhaps their pure righteousness would stand in the way of even something as vital as their reputation. They just had to win.

Disquiet burned inside every piece of Harry’s body, everything turning into mush around his skeleton. He felt pointless — no, useless. Did he want to be lawyer? Or was that simply a notion created by his parents while he was still an impressionable teenager? He hated Louis’ perpetual curiosity, but not for the first time had he discovered something completely new about himself in result of it.

Meanwhile his mind was splitting in opposite directions, Louis’ thumb kept rubbing over his hand. Harry only came back to once his free hand rose to gently pat Harry’s cheek — the one that wasn’t already pressed to Louis’ shoulder. Harry, who was staring grimly at nothing, felt his tummy skip at the touch. Fingers entwined notwithstanding, this was the most intimate contact they had ever had, and it was… Harry wasn’t sure.

“Don’t worry too much now, yeah?” murmured Louis quietly, voice cotton and filled with genuine care, fingers remaining against his cheek. “Things have a way of working themselves out.”

Harry swallowed, and frowned, squeezing his eyes shut harshly as he felt Louis place a very first, sweet kiss to his eyebrow. If he felt a bit like crying, Louis was the only one who had to know.

**

The next love letter he received from Louis, arrived only a day later, almost as if the moment Harry had left the Tomlinson mansion, Louis had sat down to scribble down every passionate thought within him. Harry brought the letter to his room and sat down on the edge of his bed to read, as had become a tentative habit these days. The flower crown was still resting beside his bed, completely dried, but gorgeous still.

He opened the envelope that had arrived without a package for the first time, front teeth sunk into his bottom lip. His thoughts were still running in split ends when it came to his family, but he didn’t possess the energy to go through everything yet. Louis had shifted his attention to the problem, but at the very same time he was the only soothing part of it. Harry felt like a living construction of chaos.

My dearest Harry,

I oftentimes find myself thinking about your smile. Your face expresses so much more than your mouth allows, and your eyes seem to betray every thought that your mind wishes to keep hidden. Staring into your green irises, I almost feel as though I am cheating, or committing a terrible crime. Your thoughts are yours to keep, but I can’t help myself from searching for more.

You could easily see the reasoning behind why thus your eyes would be my favourite thing about you. I would love nothing more than to know your mind as well as your soul, but it is not fair. I prefer to care for what you are willing to give me, than steal what is yours to dictate.

This is how I end up with your smile. When you smile you give me something; something warm, and sacred. When you smile you choose to give me a part of yourself, and each moment you do I feel green vines tangling around me as though you were tying me to your bones. You entice me in every possible way. I’m hopelessly enamoured.

Harry, I never meant to cause any more trouble in your life than I already have. Yesterday I could tell that I had started something without my intention, and I am humbly asking for your forgiveness. Your concern is mine, and through every of your hardships I intend to be there for you to lean on me. Every piece of you that I earn, I cherish with my deepest care, and I hope that you are aware that I would care for you in the very same manner. Talk to me, confide in me. I will safeguard every thought.

My dearest regards,
Louis William Tomlinson

Harry stared at the letter, reading the first few paragraphs over and over until each word had settled permanently in his mind.

“What in the,” he muttered, brows drawing together as a mixture of shock and indignation churned in his gut.

Your face expresses so much more than your mouth allows, and your eyes seem to betray every thought that your mind wishes to keep hidden. Staring into your green irises, I almost feel as though I am cheating, or committing a terrible crime.

Louis spoke as though he knew things that Harry hadn’t even intended to share. He had written an apology for being aware of more than Harry was willing to give him, and it was… What did he think that he knew? With the conversation they had had only the previous day, Harry felt like he didn’t even know himself. Was Yorkinshare actually what he wanted? Or was it something he’d been bred to conform to? He didn’t possess the faintest clue.

And now Louis thought he knew him? Everything was a tangled mess in his head already. Yes, they had spent every other day in one another’s company, and Harry knew that he hadn’t kept a solid guard up throughout. He had talked to him about music and art, and most of all literature, but they never seemed to venture any deeper than that. The previous day had been the exception, and suddenly it didn’t sit right with Harry. Louis had sunk so deep into his life these past weeks that he had been part of Harry’s newest realisation, and that was… unnerving.

They were closer than he had realised. Harry stared at the letter for a short second, and then swiftly proceeded to shove it away into the drawer. No. This wasn’t right. Harry had no intentions of marrying Louis. No way.

He stood, anger sizzling in his bones as he stalked across the room to his mirror. He bent forward, resting against the bureau beneath, lungs becoming increasingly laboured. His heart felt strangely heavy in his chest as he stared up at his own reflection, green eyes hard under angry, dark eyebrows. His hair was gelled with the freaking Dapper Dax wax, and his teeth were gritted so hard it was verging on painful. His life felt more like a disaster than ever.

A hanger hung from the top of his closet, an outfit already prepared for the evening. Louis had asked Mr van Styles’ permission to take Harry out for the entire evening a couple days ago, and at the time Harry had been curious, as Louis had insisted the events of the night should remain a surprise. Now, he had half a mind to make a call to uptown Deansville and cancel, but the rest of him wished to chew the man out in order of his ridiculous presumptions in person. Louis did not know him, despite what he may have thought. That notion was preposterous.

Harry kicked the bureau; unable to stand anything that came with this redundant and unbearable world. He left his room in a whirlwind of fury, shoes harsh against the floors, and shoulders and neck stiff with tension that didn’t relent. He needed to get away, and fast. The gazebo wasn’t far enough.

He passed the room that belonged the Gemma and her husband on the way out, the door ajar and revealing a vacant room. Ignoring the slight rarity, he veered down the corridor in the direction of the stairs, but ultimately he didn’t make it far. As he passed the upstairs restroom in their wing, he found Gerard in the doorway, hurrying inside as the sounds of vomit against water echoed against the tiles. Harry stopped in his brisk haste when he spotted his sister on her knees before the toilet, coughing and spluttering.

“Gemma?” he asked in confusion, concern wrapped around his throat.

“Harry,” she gasped, glancing over her shoulder. Her hairline was beaded with sweat, and her arms were clasped over her stomach, Gerard having grasped her bleached hair in his hand to keep it from her mouth.

“Are you alright?” he asked dumbly.

“I’m fine,” she waved him off. “I’m good. Don’t worry about it. Have fun on your date tonight, sweetie. Don’t mind me. I’m just a little nauseous.”

He hesitated, but eventually nodded. “Okay.”

It took him a moment to leave, but he knew she’d be fine with Gerard to care for her. Still, all anger he had until that moment felt rising under his skin, about to explode somewhere within him, seemed to evaporate into dust. He was left with a strange sensation in his chest as he slowly padded back to his room. His brain was telling him one thing, but he couldn’t for the life of him let himself process that. Not right then.

He returned to his room, and curled up on his bed, protectively wrapping his arms around his upper body. It had been a horrible day so far, and he was by no means looking forward to seeing Louis that evening. The feeling of the kiss he had planted against his brow the previous day kept playing on a loop in his head, his arms prickling as he remembered the intimacy between them that he hadn’t quite considered all those hours ago. Where they really heading… there? His tummy anxiously twisted. He didn’t know how this had happened, and less why so fast.

By the time Louis arrived at the van Styles mansion, Harry had built up quite a bit of a mood. His hair was styled, and he had dressed appropriately for a night out on the town in slacks and a proper suit jacket, but his face was sombre and eyes lacking of spark. He wasn’t sure what to expect, but he expected Louis, and that was enough to put a damper on his mood.

The older man pulled up in a black town car, and stepped out of the backseat, correcting the suit jacket atop his chest. Harry watched through the window beside the door, glancing at him from the corner of his eye as he made his way up to the front porch. Naturally, he was dressed impeccably; striped suit on, shoes furbished, braces just that perfect amount of noticeable by the button stances of the jacket, and his caramel hair pulled up just slightly and nudged to the side. He looked sharp, and a hot wave flushed through Harry as he came closer. Harry detested him. He really did, he told himself.

The doorbell rang, and in the living room Harry’s father stood up, glancing down at his wristwatch as he tugged his belt in order. “About time,” he muttered, as though perturbed the clock had run two minutes past the designated time Louis had promised to pick Harry up.

Harry didn’t open the door, opting to let Louis wait on the porch until Mr van Styles had made it through the hallway. He could see him shift on his feet outside, tugging at his sleeves and squaring his shoulders.

“Harry, Goodness’ sake,” said Mr van Styles, hurrying toward the door. “Let the man inside!” He shook his head incredulously, reaching for the door handle himself and pulling it open. “Louis!”

Louis’ voice was bright, and he greeted Harry’s father with a firm, amicable handshake. “Richard! A pleasure to see you again! I apologise if I’m a bit late.”

“That is no problem,” promised Mr van Styles, shaking his head. Harry snorted.

“Oh,” said Louis, stopping in his tracks as his eyes for the first time found him. “Harry, I didn’t you see you there. My manners are just terrible today,” he chuckled. His eyes softened, hand touching Harry’s arm. “Hi, darling.”

“Hey,” he greeted coldly, recoiling from the touch, but remaining in his spot against the wall, hands locked behind his back. Louis’ eyes were confounded, but he only showed a smidge of it, before turning back to Mr van Styles.

“Richard,” he said, meeting Harry’s father’s eyes earnestly. “We won’t be far tonight. We will be in town, but I would rather keep the location private for the moment. It’s meant to be a surprise.”

Mr van Styles chortled cordially. “That’s just fine, son. Have him home by ten, yes?”

“Of course,” promised Louis. He turned to Harry, and extended his hand. “Harry, love. Shall we?”

“Sure,” he replied curtly, and proceeded to stride right past him, ignoring his hand in favour of stalking toward the car without a glance back. He knew Louis and his father were staring after him, but he couldn’t be bothered.

“…Alright,” he heard Louis say, quickly bidding Mr van Styles a good night. His steps catching up to him were audible against the stone path, and he reached him before he had even attempted to open the door to the car. Louis swooped in, swiftly pulling it up and holding it for Harry with a guarded expression on his face.

Harry firmly averted his eyes, and climbed into the car without a word. It took a moment before Louis closed the door behind him, but when he did it was with a gentle push. He entered the vehicle from the other side, and gave the driver an address Harry hadn’t heard before. It was a while since he had been out in Deansville, but for all he knew, Louis drank whiskey, and under inebriation jumped off docks with his pals. Perhaps he was taking him somewhere funky. It wasn’t like he could take one glance at Louis’ blue eyes, and figure out all of his secrets.

Evidently able to feel the ambience in the car, Louis remained silent. Harry felt small looks thrown his way, but he prevailed, keeping his eyes on the road in front of them. It wasn’t until they were almost in the centre of town that Louis spoke up, worry easily discernable in his voice.

“Are you quite alright, my love?” he asked delicately. Harry sent him an indignant glare, but didn’t reply. The older man gazed back in cautious silence, thinking hard. “Is it something I have done?”

Unable to bite his tongue any longer, Harry sneered, “Why don’t you stare into my eyes, and find out?”

If Louis was surprised, he only showcased the barest hint of it. His mouth slid ajar, bottom lip moving a fraction as he obviously hesitated, thinking thoroughly before speaking. Harry glowered at him with a sour contortion on his face, brows drawn and lips pulling down as he awaited his retort.

“You were offended,” stated Louis warily, “because… I implied I knew more about you than you want.”

Harry expired a hard puff of air, facing away and turning his scowl out the car window.

“Harry, sweetheart…” he said sincerely, actually sounding a smidge bewildered, like he found himself out of depth. “I only meant to apologise for that.”

“Can’t you hear how assumptive you sound?” asked Harry incredulously. “You think you know me better than you do.”

“Well,” he argued, voice attentive not to upset him further. “Perhaps I do know you. I’ve spent so much time with you recently, and that’s how the whole process works.”

Harry’s face darkened. “You don’t know me.”

Appearing to change tactics, Louis sighed. “The entire letter was an apology.”

“I don’t need your apologies,” he growled. “Just stop acting like we’re more than a terse arrangement.”

Inhaling hotly, Louis’ eyes turned harder, and his voice was stiff as he spoke again. “Are you upset with the fact that I was presumptuous, or simply that I have gotten to know you against your initial wishes?”

Harry’s teeth clenched, unable to stand it when Louis was right. He angled his face away, and as the taxi came into a stop, he pushed the door open without waiting for confirmation that they were in the right place. In his periphery he saw Louis throw the driver a few quid, quickly exiting the vehicle on his side.

“So, I’m correct?” he said as Harry rounded the car. “You’re mad that we’re growing closer. Isn’t that what you agreed to, though? You agreed to getting to know me.”

Harry stubbornly crossed his arms, coming to stop by Louis on the pavement. He wasn’t quite sure where they were, but there was loud music blasting from what looked like a diner across the street, and the area was crowded with young people about their age. He wasn’t able to respond to Louis’ words, because indubitably he was correct, and it seemed the man knew so as well. Louis shook his head, apparently exhausted with Harry’s behaviour. His hands grasped Harry’s arms just above his elbows, his hold solid and sure. As Harry kept his arms crossed, Louis stared up at him with diligence.

“Baby, I try so hard to respect your boundaries. I apologise for doing things that I know you might find difficult, and I’m aware that this situation is hard for you. All I have asked is for you to be open to me, but now you’re angry because I asked your forgiveness?”

Miffed by the stupid nickname, he tightly forced out, “I am mad at what you said. You don’t know everything, Louis.”

“I’m not pretending to. But I know some, and maybe more than you think.” His voice turned suddenly strained. “I don’t want to intrude on your life more than I already have. I wish you’d —”

Harry frowned in sudden bewilderment, watching Louis deflate, his blue eyes slipping to the ground between them. “What?”

Louis pressed his lips, and his grasp on Harry’s arms relented a fraction. “I care so unbelievably deeply for you. I wish you’d meet me halfway.”

Goodness.

Why was it so difficult to flip him one? Why did his muscles blatantly refuse to step out of his hold, and why did Louis’ face look like it did? Why were his eyes that hue of azure, and why did his pleads drill into Harry’s flesh like this? He knew Louis liked him, but it had been so easy to ignore up until this point, where he was staring him in the eye and forcing him to acknowledge it.

“I don’t want to get married,” he choked hoarsely.

Louis vigorously shook his head. “Forget about the marriage bit,” he implored. “Just be with me. I’m not holding anything over your head, or judging you. I don’t give a fuck if your parents want us to be together, and I won’t say a word if you give in for just a night. We’ve got a pub, unlimited measures of alcohol, and jazz right in there — Harry, I.” He looked almost desperate. “You don’t understand the extent of my feelings here.”

Harry’s voice felt muffled, throat still coarse as he processed Louis’ words. The pride was tying a noose around his neck, and if he uttered a syllable in resignation it’d be the equivalent of stepping off the edge of a stool. Still, something tugged on his ankles. Something urged him to let go. Louis’ eyes, the sound of his voice, and a concrete longing to relax and feel unconfined again.

Eyes cast on the ground, his body turned lax as he folded. “Louis,” he said inaudibly. “I’m…”

Quickly discerning the situation for what it was, Louis nodded, hands slipping down to tie their fingers together. He pulled him closer, thumbs soothingly stroking over his skin. “Come on, love,” he said timidly.

Swallowing, Harry nodded. “Okay.”

Louis’ lip pulled into a smile. “Good,” he murmured.

He released one of Harry’s hands, but kept the other in his as he led them down the pavement. Releasing a laboured breath, Harry urged himself to finally get a grip on the night. Fighting with Louis hadn’t exactly come to anything but a declaration of feelings, and the words had bit into his skin. He wanted to forget it, but it was impossible now. He frowned as he followed Louis, chest still constricting somewhat as he for the first time took a moment to glance around the area properly.

It wasn’t quite dark yet, but the vast majority of the people around them had evidently consumed some amount of alcohol, and several of them were floundering helplessly through the crowds. There were multiple bars and pubs open along the street, clusters of people milling in and out of all of them. The sound of a live jazz band became louder the farther down the street they progressed, and by the time they came into a stop, they had reached what looked like a diner, only there was a long queue originating at the entrance, leading far down the pavement.

“This is Traqueria,” said Louis, pulling Harry into his side until his shoulder was plastered to the back of his. “Stay close.”

Harry didn’t have time to reply before Louis strode right up to the front of the queue, completely ignoring the enraged calls from people already lined up. He kept a firm grip on Harry’s hand, never letting him venture farther than a step away, and when they reached the front, he slid his arm snugly around Harry’s waist.

“Trip!” he exclaimed, shouting to be heard over the loud music blaring from inside the diner. The bouncer — a bulky man dressed in a black suit, seemingly in his mid-thirties — looked up, eyes lighting up the moment they registered Louis’ face.

“Tommo!” he called back. “S’been a while!”

“Sure has,” he agreed, and pressed Harry further into his side. “Oi! This is my boy, Harry. Will you let us in, yeah? Trying to impress him, you see.”

Trip’s eyes ran over Harry, giving him a thorough once-over. “Pretty,” he commented, and gestured for them to enter. Beside them, several complaints were expressed from the queue, but Louis only grinned and slapped the bouncer’s arm.

“Cheers, pal!” he shouted, and tugged Harry with him inside.

The moment they crossed the threshold, it was like entering a different world. From outside, the place may have presented itself like a normal diner, but Harry was sure he had never seen anything like it. The music was almost unfathomably loud, saxophone, trumpets, and drums singing through stage amplifiers without reprieve. There wasn’t a space in the room where there wasn’t a pair of feet, the throng of people almost perilously thick.

“The bar!” shouted Louis, pointing toward his left, even though Harry couldn’t spot it. Louis tugged on his hand, but before he could follow, a woman stumbled out of the crowds. Her dress was black and reached her knees, but glistened with sparkling pearls sewn into the fabric. The pearls around her neck reached mid-stomach, and there were silver hued gloves stretched up her elbows. A feathery shawl was tangled in her arms, and the dark lipstick painted across her mouth was smudged at the corners.

“Oh, my,” she exhaled the moment her eyes alighted on Harry. Her breath was tinged with alcohol that landed against his chin, and he repressed the urge to cringe. Her gloved hand grasped at his shirt, and dropped down his chest, his tummy jumping as the fingers touched the spot right above his belly button. Before it sank any further, Louis was there, gripping her wrist and carefully manoeuvring the woman’s palm in a different direction.

“Pardon me, dear,” he told her. “Unfortunately, this one is spoken for.”

She made a face, nose scrunching into wrinkles, but only shrugged before spinning around to presumably find somebody else to bless with her attention. Louis only chuckled in amusement as he watched her sift through the crowd, throwing Harry a grin. He smirked, and grabbed his hand, beginning to move in the direction of the bar again as Harry felt strangely fazed by the casualness Louis was expressing.

The crowd was tight, and it took several minutes until they made it all the way across the room. Harry found it hard to see much of anything inside, apart from various headpieces and black jackets. They discovered the bar counter farthest possible into the diner, and Louis located an empty slot at the end, near the wall. The counter stretched along the entire wall, at least ten bartenders at work along the desk. The shelves behind them were filled with row after row of liquor and spirits, neon lights framing each layer. Finally, Harry had a view of the place, and spotted the stage all the way across the bar. Couples were dancing to the music, and it wasn’t at all silly.

Louis rested his left arm atop the bar counter, and met Harry’s eyes as he lifted their entwined fingers, placing a gentle kiss against Harry’s knuckles. “Can I pick your drink?” he asked, gaining back his attention.

“Only if I can choose yours.”

“Sounds fair,” he agreed, still cradling Harry’s hand against his own chest, and it didn’t seem like he was intending to let go anytime soon. Harry wasn’t unaccustomed to the feeling, but as of late Louis’ search for a more intimate contact between them was growing. It only extended as far as tangled hands, pet names, and the press of limbs here and there, of course, but Harry’s nerves were still ticking each moment Louis reached for him. He didn’t quite comprehend it, because it should have been easy to simply tell the man to bugger off. As Louis’ free hand stroked his wrist, it wasn’t easy all of a sudden.

“How about a Mary Pickford?”

“What’s in it?”

“It is white rum, Maraschino liqueur, and pineapple juice. The first time we met you were downing colony cocktails, and then I spotted you emptying a bottle of rum,” he grinned. “I think you’ll like it.”

Harry glanced away with pink cheeks, remembering how he had caught his eye over the garden for a few seconds that night. “You saw that? I was avoiding you.”

“I figured,” murmured Louis affectionately, and placed another small kiss to Harry’s knuckles. “What’s my drink?”

“Highball,” he supplied. “Soda, and whiskey.”

Louis smiled. “Sounds about right.”

Harry shrugged. “I figured, you know, since you like to take Charlotte out for a midnight swim with your mates, while you get drunk on whiskey.”

Louis arched an incredulous brow, stunned.

“See?” he muttered. “You don’t know everything.” He turned away, and caught glimpse of a free bartender. “Oi!” he called, gaining his attention. “A Mary Pickford, and a Highball.”

“On it,” the barkeep confirmed.

“On the contrary,” argued Louis after a moment. “That you know this just means that we both know more about each other than we think.”

Well. Drat.

“Two tequila shots with that,” demanded Harry, staring after the bloke behind the counter. He glanced at Louis’ smirk. “Each.”

Louis cackled then, throwing his head back with crinkled eyes, while Harry shook his head in annoyance. Louis grinned impishly, fingers tightening around Harry’s as they waited for their drinks to be served. His skin felt red every time he so much as peeked at the older man, and it was terribly vexing. He hated that Louis always seemed to win without much effort, even though he never took pride in it.

“Four tequila shots,” said the bartender as he placed a square of shot glasses in front of them, placing a saltshaker and two lemon quarters by the side. He returned with a highball glass and the cocktail, and swiftly left once Louis had deposited a few pound notes in his hand.

Left hand free from Louis’ grip for the first time since standing out on the pavement, Harry reached for the cocktail, taking a small sip. The taste of rum was slightly hidden by the juice, but the liqueur felt heavy on his tongue. He poked at the cherry poised on the edge of the glass, contemplating whether to eat it first or save it for last.

“How’d you like it?”

“It’s nice,” Harry admitted, and as the woman who had been sat on the bar stool on his right left the spot, he jumped up to sit. Louis instantly stepped closer, shooting their drinks across the surface of the counter along with him. “Yours?” he asked, giving him a brief glance.

“It’s whiskey and soda. What could go wrong?” he amicably retorted.

“Give me,” murmured Harry, turning to face him, and waited for Louis to hand him the tall glass. Louis carefully slid it across counter, their cold fingers rubbing as he received it. He took a slow sip, the whiskey harsh against the back of his throat. He hummed in agreement, but didn’t give it back.

“Nice?” inquired Louis, voice almost too low to hear as the jazz blared on.

Harry took another swig of the drink, deciding on not returning it quite yet. He nodded, eyes elsewhere as he regarded the people around them. There didn’t seem to be sober person in the diner, and the bar was at a constant rush of people holding out notes in attempts to get served. A woman had sat down on top of the counter, but no one seemed to mind even as she was putting up quite the show, pushing her breasts up and smirking at the men and women surrounding her.

“Let’s finish these,” suggested Louis, sliding the shots toward them. He pulled his jacket off, picking out his wallet before throwing it behind the counter when none of the bartenders were looking. Harry watched as he licked a stripe over the top of his hand, pouring salt on top of it, and proceeding to take the lemon in the same hand. In swift motions, he licked the salt off his hand, downed the tequila shot, and subsequently bit into the lemon. He didn’t wince, but his left eye twitched admittedly quite adorably.

“Your turn,” he said, and Harry shrugged, reaching for the saltshaker. Tequila had never been his favourite type of liquor, but it was a deliberate road to inebriation. He hadn’t been drunk in a while, and as he bit into his lemon, he could feel his mind brightening in tune with the alcohol already.

Louis chuckled, lips curled into a fond smile. “Got half of that in that dimple of yours.”

Harry coughed, and wiped his thumb at the side of his face. Apparently he wasn’t thorough enough, because Louis’ finger was there, gently rubbing a few drops from the corner of his mouth, face only inches away. He grinned when he finished, lips pressed together, but unable to keep his eyes from crinkling.

“Stop smiling like that,” requested Harry politely, chin angled upward.

“Like what?”

“Like that.”

“I’m not quite sure what you mean?”

“Stop,” he murmured, palm pushing at Louis’ shoulder. The liquor was already having its say; he would have never touched him even this tamely if he hadn’t started drinking.

Louis’ head tilted to the side, lips still taut into a grin. “I’ve got no idea what you’re on about, love,” he teased.

Harry rolled his eyes, and reached for the second pair of shots. “Together?”

“Alright,” smirked Louis, and they quickly swallowed down the tequila. Harry squeezed his eyes shut as he finished, biting into the lemon as Louis laughed brightly once more.

“I thought you liked tequila!”

“I do!” he promised. “It’s just a bit gross.”

Louis cackled, shaking his head with another one of those smiles as he took a sip from the Highball still half-filled atop the counter. Harry returned to his Mary Pickford, and made the choice of downing all of it in one go. He cringed for a brief second as the momentary nausea hit his stomach, but it swiftly surpassed. Christ.

“You okay?” asked the blond bartender across the counter.

“Splendid, thanks. Two more shots, mate,” he requested, and thanked the bloke as he nodded and went to fetch two new glasses.

“Big fan of the spirits, are you?” smiled Louis.

“Massive,” he affirmed. The shots were placed atop the bar, and Louis fumbled out another couple of quid. Harry may have been taking advantage of his limitless generosity.

He licked his hand and dosed it with salt, not waiting for Louis before going through the motions for a third time that night. He shook his head as the alcohol slid down his throat, mind lighter than it had been all evening. Louis followed his lead, and proceeded to swallow down the last of his whiskey to quench the aftertaste.

Harry released a laugh, finger poking the very corner of Louis’ left eye. “This twitches when you drink…” he stated, but Louis only caught his finger in his hand, and pressed a light kiss to it. Harry’s cheeks warmed once again, and his eyes trailed down to Louis’ chest, suddenly too embarrassed to meet his eyes. Louis’ affection was so… so… It was hard to process, but simultaneously his body tingled with something strange.

“You’ve got to dance with me,” said Louis all of a sudden, eyes wide and serious. “Right now.”

Harry looked up, glancing over at the stage where a woman had now stepped out, dressed to the nines in a flapper dress and a feathered headpiece, microphone held in a dainty hand.

“She’s the most brilliant woman I have ever heard,” Louis almost gushed. “Her name is Karolina. Come on, baby.”

It appeared he didn’t have much of a say in the matter, Louis tugging him off the bar stool and making a fast beeline toward the dance floor. People were already dancing to the music, the woman’s voice gorgeously vibrating through the speakers surrounding the diner when the two of them swooped onto the floor, Louis pulling Harry closer by the hand.

“Would you like to lead?” he asked, brows arched.

Normally Harry would have said yes, but it wasn’t often he had danced in places like this, and the thought of touching Louis’ waist created an unreasonably scary swirl in his gut. So, he shook his head, and let Louis place a warm palm at the small of his back, notably lower than was most definitely necessary. A thrill shot up his spine as Louis carefully pressed closer, grasping his hand in his.

"I've got my mind set on you,” sang the woman into the microphone, the drums and trumpets creating a jazzy pace that the crowd elatedly swung along to.

“Hope you know how to dance like this, darling,” smirked Louis, and his grin was suddenly cheeky, blue eyes sparkling with something Harry hadn’t seen in awhile. Before Harry had registered what was going on, Louis was moving, arms solid around him as he dove into the rhythm of the music. He lead well, and without a doubt knew what he was doing as he lifted their arms and spun Harry twice on the spot, before catching him and seamlessly resuming with a laugh at Harry’s breathless lungs. His eyes were slim slits as the skin beneath crinkled, and his grin was wider than ever.

Alright, Harry thought, smile spreading on his face. He could roll with this.

His hand tightened around Louis’, and before long he was evenly matching his pace. It had been a while, but he knew how to dance, and he could see in the older man’s eyes how much he appreciated it. The songstress’ voice was perfectly fitted to the vibrant music, and they moved with such ease among the couples surrounding them. Louis’ eyes turned soft each time Harry so much as grinned at him, and for the moment it was so easy to forget that they weren’t just two blokes who had met in a jazz bar at university.

The song came to a close after a few minutes, and Harry was breathless, his entire body light and jovial. Louis’ eyes were shining under the colourful lights hanging from the ceiling, and as the woman continued into a slower tune he pulled Harry to himself, arms winding around his waist. Harry’s belly fluttered as he felt the older man’s frame against his own, Louis’ body warm and comforting.

“Told you she’s great,” said Louis sweetly.

“I wasn’t doubting it.” Harry swallowed, hands light on his shoulders.

They were quiet for a minute where Karolina crooned on, Harry glancing down at their feet as he felt Louis’ eyes browse across his face. They were too penetrative, and everything felt far too real whenever he would drill those blue things into Harry’s.

Louis’ voice brought his eyes up. It was filled with so much wonder and adoration that a shiver slowly spread across Harry’s back. “You are so beautiful right now, you’ve got no idea.”

He swallowed against a hard lump at the bottom of his throat. Why did he perpetually have to do that? Why did he have to say things that were so unbelievably hard to ignore? He was looking at him with such tenderness, voice so raw and honest. No one had ever said something of that sort to him. The fact that he wasn’t allowed to reciprocate it was cutting a wide wound along his chest.

“Louis…” he groaned, looking away, past the other man’s shoulder. He felt his hands push him closer.

“What?”

“Don’t do that.”

“Tell you you’re handsome?”

He shrugged, giving him a pointed stare. “And stuff.”

“But I want you to know how I feel,” said Louis, gazing at him earnestly. “What is the point if I don’t tell you?”

“I just can’t —” Harry shook his head. “Not right now.”

Louis frowned. “Why not now? If not now, when?”

“Please — don’t,” he begged.

Louis’ eyes hardened. “You can’t simply forbid me to share any sort of emotional sentiment with you.”

“I know, because that sounds ridiculous,” he huffed. “But every time you start with that, it’s like —” He drew a breath, shaking his head. “I need alcohol.”

He stepped out of Louis’ grip, heading back toward the bar, pressing through the crowd. Louis didn’t let him get far before placing a hand on his hip, presumably not to lose him in the hot mess of inebriated people. Harry ignored the touch, but his stomach churned with something indecipherable as he found a spot along the bar counter.

“Harry,” said Louis, anger notable in his voice when he caught up with him. “Please, don’t walk away from me while we’re having a discussion.”

“I’m sorry,” he offered flatly, catching sight of a free bartender. “Oi! Two vodka sodas, please.”

Louis pulled a stack of notes from his pocket, slapping a couple atop the counter. He threw Harry a disapproving look, but it had more to do with his avoidance of the subject than anything else. Louis’ hair still flopped delectably above his forehead, and the braces were slightly out of order along his chest. He adjusted one, arching an indignant brow at Harry.

“What’s the problem then?”

Harry sighed, turning away. The bartender placed two glasses in front of him, snatching up the money, and Harry instantly put one of them to his lips.

“Can you please stop ignoring me?”

Harry let out a noise of frustration. “You’re so romantic all the time,” he complained, even though it was the last trait he would ever disparage when it came to anyone. Any other time it would have been ridiculously alluring, but the entire situation corrupted it into something hard to swallow. Furthermore, it was obvious Louis had taken offence when he retorted.

“Would you rather I was a prick then?” he sneered, voice loud to be heard against the noise of the diner. “I could go find somebody else to put my hands on, if that’s the sort of thing that gets you hot.”

Harry stomach twisted uncomfortably at his words, and his face drew into a frown. That was most certainly not what he would like, and it felt so palpable how much he detested the very idea of that when his lips pulled down on their own accord. He scowled at the other man, turning away to finish his drink with a sad twitch to his lip.

Louis sat down on a bar stool that cleared out, chest only inches from Harry’s side. He felt his eyes on the side of his face, and a familiar heat began crawling up his neck.

“Are you a virgin?”

Harry stilled, muscles turning into stone simultaneously as his eyes widened so much it hurt. Completely stunned, he turned his head. “What?” he whispered.

Louis shrugged defiantly. “I’m just trying to get to know you — since I don’t. And hey, you want me to be crass? I can be crass.”

Harry gaped at him, categorically scandalised. “I didn’t ask you to be crass!” he exclaimed when the initial shock had dissipated. “And I didn’t ask for invasive questions.”

Louis reached for the vodka drink waiting on the table. “It wouldn’t have been invasive if you had just let me act like a normal gentleman.”

“Let you?” he hissed through his teeth.

“You asked me not to be romantic.”

Harry stared at him pure disgust. Louis shook his head, and emptied the entire glass in one long go.

“Shit,” he swore, coughing against the harsh burn of the alcohol. His hand tentatively extended toward Harry’s, eyes apologetic as he linked their hands without much of a response from Harry’s end. “I’m sorry,” he sighed, wholly sincere. “I’m being terrible, aren’t I?”

He was, but admittedly so was Harry. Neither of their behaviour tonight was appropriate.

Louis’ knee nudged Harry’s, hand tugging him closer as the music was still shooting throughout the diner. The people around them were getting drunker and raunchier, and the two of them were probably contributing with their share to the chaos.

“Yes,” replied Harry quietly after a moment, but let Louis pull him in between his knees. He looked back down at him, fingers fiddling with themselves until Louis’ hand caught one of them, entwining them reverently.

“So?” he inquired, voice softer and eyes tender. “Are you? A virgin?” His voice was sweeter than ever when he continued. “I won’t be mad if you’re not. I don’t expect anything. You’re a pretty boy, who can do whatever he pleases. If he does desire it, that is.”

Harry swallowed, heart racing nervously in his chest. “I’m not answering that, Louis.”

“Why not?” he murmured, leaning up, closer. His free hand reached to caress his face, fingers adoring on the edge of his jaw. “I wish to know everything about you. I wouldn’t tell a soul.”

Harry’s heart felt a second from bursting.

“Louis,” he deflected. “You’re always asking too many questions.”

“Baby…”

Perturbed by the nickname, he pushed Louis’ hand from his face, brows furrowed as he gazed back at him disapprovingly. “M’not telling you.”

“Don’t you trust me?”

“Louis,” he said, voice colder. “You forget yourself.”

At that, Louis’ face turned solemn, and his blue eyes lost the spark that had been glistening there for the last couple of minutes. “Right,” he replied, retreating a few inches. “You would rather be anywhere but here, yeah?”

Harry’s chest constricted painfully, hearing the words coming out of Louis’ mouth twisting all of his emotions awry. “That’s not it,” he whispered, throat coarse with despair that appeared to originate from somewhere within his chest.

Louis frowned, eyes tinged with sadness. “It is, though, isn’t it?”

“It’s not,” said Harry, but it felt so pointless. Exasperation began puttering in his gut, because he couldn’t just explain the chaotic mess that had been boiling inside him for so long. So, ultimately, he said the only thing he knew for certain. “I don’t want to get married, but you do, and it’s not going to work.”

“What are you afraid of?” groaned Louis loudly. “Being committed? Or allowing yourself to want something that your parents endorse?”

Harry’s eyes flashed. “I’m not afraid.”

“Of course you are,” laughed Louis, infuriatingly incredulous. “What is it that goes through your head when I tell you you’re beautiful? What do you think? That I’m going to whisk you away, lock you in my Bellmore villa, and load you with a bunch of babies and housework? You’re a man for Christ’s sake! If you were a woman, I’d let you do anything you wished, too.”

“Stop thinking that you know me!” spat Harry through his teeth.

“Actually,” said Louis, shrugging. “I don’t! Because you won’t let me in. You’re constantly keeping your guard up. I think I’ve seen you completely unfettered twice in the last few weeks I’ve been with you.”

“I’m trying, Louis!” he yelled, backing away from him as he spoke, unbalanced and noting the alcohol in his body more than he had all evening. “But obviously it’s not good enough! Why do you want me anyway, mate? All you do is complain about me! I’m never good enough for anyone —”

Before he could finish the sentence, his back crashed into something, or rather, someone. Harry stiffened, wincing whilst spinning around to face whomever had been victimised by his complete sloppiness, an ominous feeling seeping down his spine. And yes, there was a man behind him, grasping two pints that appeared to have been full before Harry had come barrelling into him. The man was as tall as Harry, but his eyes were aflame with something intimidating.

“Yeah,” said the bloke in a Welsh accent, staring from his ruined dress shirt to Harry’s face. “Never good enough, eh? Clearly.”

“Hey, mate,” interrupted Louis from behind, so close Harry nearly startled upon hearing him. The older man was there faster than should have been possible, pulling his wallet from his pocket. “Keep a few quid, yeah? For the trouble.”

The bloke chuckled in disbelief, shaking his head as though the entire situation was absolutely ludicrous. His voice was haughty, and entirely degrading as he laughed, “Money? Do I look like I need your fucking change, pal? Why don’t you teach your boy some manners, huh? Could use a good dress down, that —”

It happened so fast that the movement barely registered through Harry’s brain as he saw it happening. As if in slow motion, he watched how Louis’ fist flew up without any sort of previous inclination, nailing into the man’s face with a repulsive sort of crack that drilled into Harry’s very core. He heard the shocked yells erupt around them, but most of all he noticed the blood that flooded down the bloke’s shirt, his nose broken and crying rivers.

“What the fuck, Lou,” he whispered, hand flying up to cover his mouth in shock, eyes alighting on the man’s quivering fist. He had punched the guy, just like that.

“Oi!” called a furious, large man, dressed in dark attire. He was pushing through the crowds, eyes on Louis.

“Shit,” he swore by Harry’s side, voice strained. The man barrelling toward them was presumably a bouncer, but it was decidedly not Louis’ friend from earlier that night. Louis quickly grabbed a fistful of the back of Harry’s jacket, and began towing him in the opposite direction of the muscular man. Harry stumbled behind Louis, heart pummelling quick and fast against his ribs as he threw a glance behind them.

“Hey!” yelled the man, but Louis didn’t stop, and soon they were almost running through the throng of people, who made no effort to help the bouncer out. Harry’s neck felt hot, and for a couple of minutes his brain only digested various scents of smoke and perfumes, and subsequently the elbows jutting out, belonging to dancing couples.

“Fucking cunt!” shouted the bloke with the broken nose behind them as they slipped through the dance floor, and Louis stopped for a moment just a long enough to flip him two fat V’s.

They fell out on the pavement outside the bar from what seemed like a back door behind the queue, and Louis began to vigorously shake his hand the second they were at a safe distance from the building, swearing to himself as he flexed his fingers at intervals. Harry stood as though paralysed, mouth opening to say something, but nothing came out. Everything that had happened from the moment he bumped into the angry bloke was a blur. It wasn’t until Louis waved in a taxi that pulled up to the curb that he regained the ability to speak.

“Louis!” he called, blinking rapidly. His voice was painfully loud against the night sky, his hearing muffled after being exposed to the noise inside the diner for the last couple of hours. “What are you doing?”

“Getting out of here, before that guard catches up to us!” Louis nodded down the street, and Harry followed his gaze, indeed finding the darkly dressed man from earlier farther down the pavement.

Heart in his throat, and emotions piled on top of one another, he ran toward the taxi. “You’re such an idiot!” he exclaimed as he saw the bouncer catching up. He rounded the car, nearly tripping on the edge of the curb. “Why’d you punch him?!”

“He was a proper knob,” said Louis, flinging the door open on his side of the vehicle. “Being a prick to you!”

“I don’t need you to defend my honour!”

Harry ducked into the car, and met Louis in the middle of the backseat, the two of them slamming the doors shut on either side as Louis rattled off Harry’s home address in the general direction of the driver. The car lurched into speed, and Harry swallowed as he saw the bouncer thrust a finger at their car as it passed him by. He turned to Louis, but hesitated for a short second when he saw him clutching his right hand against his chest, face contorted in pain.

“I wasn’t going to let the wanker talk all kinds of rubbish about you. You’re better than any scrub he could manage anyway.”

“Shut up,” hissed Harry. He was tired of his endearments, and obvious affection. He grasped Louis’ injured wrist, and brought his hand to his lap to examine the damage. “Give me that.”

“I’m almost a certified paediatrician, you know…” muttered Louis, and gritted his teeth as Harry straightened out his fingers atop his thigh. “I can handle it myself.”

“Do you look like a child?”

Louis snorted, and Harry shook his head in exasperation. Louis was clearly insane. Punching blokes at jazz bars, Jesus Christ. Perhaps he preferred him romantic — Ha.

He carefully ran a finger over his knuckles, able to feel the swelling under his own skin. Louis’ skin was soft, but had broken at several spots, creating tiny red cracks in the surface. He didn’t bleed, but it looked bruised and damaged, and had to hurt. Harry flipped his hand over, and Louis hummed out a groan as he pressed his thumbs to the heel of the palm. He rubbed conscientiously, making sure only the knuckles were harmed.

Louis’ thumb twitched under his touch. “Verdict?”

“You are an idiot,” he concluded, but kept his hands around Louis’. “And you need ice.”

Despite everything, Louis’ lip pulled. “Eventful evening, eh?”

Harry shook his head, glancing out the window. “Think I preferred it when you weren’t punching people.”

Louis’ hand twisted in his grasp, and the bruised hand tangled warm fingers between Harry’s. His voice was a bare hum. “I’ll be sure to remember that, sweetheart.”

They spent the rest of the drive in silence, Harry’s eyes lingering on Louis’ hand where it rested atop his thigh, slender and bruised. He had to genuinely think before he could even remember what they had been fighting about when he’d clumsily caused the controversy. In all honesty, the whole night seemed like a blur in that moment. His body did not inhabit the strongest soldiers against alcohol, and it seemed neither did it when it came to Louis. He kept slipping in through his cracks. Furthermore, the man just… wouldn’t give up. He never relented. Harry had been fighting him all night, and yet here he was, head resting against the backseat, serenely quiet as their fingers pressed intimately in total comfort.

He found him beautiful. The emotions those words had procured within Harry were hard comprehend.

The car stopped at the curb outside the van Styles mansion, and Harry blinked alive. Louis smiled softly at him, nodding up the stone path where the lamp at the door was still lit. It was far past ten, but that didn’t matter. “I’ll walk you to the door, love.”

Harry nodded, and released Louis’ hand, pushing the door open. The fresh air hit his cheeks as he stepped out. Far from the diner, everything suddenly appeared quieter than usual. The night was dark, and there was barely a breathing life around them. Harry shifted on his feet as he waited for Louis to join his side, looking up from the ground as he heard him approach. Louis made no effort to head down the stone path, though. He took Harry’s hand as he reached him, brows furrowed as he pulled him closer.

“Why won’t you let me woo you?” he asked, mumbling it with sadness in his eyes. Harry’s breath stuttered, the look on Louis’ face so unfairly gorgeous, even despite the sorrow there.

He swung their hands a bit. “Why won’t you stop asking questions?” he murmured back.

Louis smiled, only one corner of his mouth pulling a tad. “Because I am helplessly enamoured with you, and all I want is for you to let me get to know all of you.”

A traitorous thrill fired up his chest at the confession, but Harry frowned, keeping his voice as quiet. “Why should I? It’s not like I know you, either. You act like such a gentleman, but then you suddenly shout profanities and punch worthless pricks in the nose.”

Louis lifted a shoulder in a meagre shrug. “I may talk like a gentleman, but I’m not Jesus. At least I make an effort,” he added, and his knee nudged Harry’s.

He swallowed, staring back into his eyes. “I make efforts, too. All the time. This entire thing is — it’s not easy.”

“Am I that intolerable?”

“You know it’s not you,” whispered Harry.

“Do I?” His knee pressed further into Harry’s. “‘Cause you act like I’m a pest.”

“I don’t…!” he protested weakly.

A smile tugged at the corner of Louis’ lip, and his eyes suddenly changed. “You know what?” he mumbled, words so staggeringly raw. “I kind of like it.”

Harry’s heart made a double beat, the sultry undercurrent in Louis’ words pinching his tummy. “Like it?”

He nodded. “I had a good time tonight… Fight aside, you’re the wildest thing I’ve ever known, and it’s got nothing to do with breaking rules, or being disobedient. You’re just… magnificent.”

“Stop,” he whispered, heart working harder.

Louis stepped closer. “Why?” he hummed, brows arching delicately on his forehead, his quiff unruly and askew. “I like it when you’re lavishing me with your words, and you… you like this.” His bent knee fitted in between Harry’s, and his heart fumbled through the beat.

“I — I don’t,” he stammered.

Louis hesitated, but he didn’t look convinced. His free hand rubbed his own jaw for a second, eyes half-lidded as he stared back at Harry, whose knees were dangerously close to melting like butter. “Did you have a good time tonight? Answer without lying.”

Harry’s skin prickled. “Yes.”

Louis pursed his lips, voice sultry and unnerving. “I think you like me, despite everything else. I am not trying to be a prick, it’s only my honest opinion.”

Harry stared at him, and in that moment Louis’ hand came to rest at the small of his back. He nearly jumped at the touch, feeling the warmth of his palm at the lowest part of his back, putting just the slightest of pressure against him. He took a small step forward under the impact, and he didn’t realise how close they were until his stomach brushed Louis’. It was dauntingly intimate, but he felt alright, even as he stared back at the older boy with tension crawling up his sides. He didn’t think that this was permitted within a mile of a traditional courtship.

“I have consumed a lot of alcohol,” informed Louis, head angling forward while his fingers stroked Harry’s skin through the back of his jacket. His forehead bumped into Harry’s. “And I want to do something that is by no means allowed,” he confessed.

Harry knew he wasn’t near sober, either, but his nerves were quivering helplessly in his body, his breath stuttering each time he felt Louis exhale against his skin. His breath landed on Harry’s mouth, warm but light like a thin breeze. He met Louis’ eyes, half-lidded and darker than he had ever seen them. He may have spoken like a gentleman, but his eyes looked nothing but sinful when he nudged his face against Harry’s, until the bridges of their noses slotted side by side.

Harry had no clue what do, mind split in different directions. Part of him was vibrating under the firm hold of Louis’ hands, another contemplating what in the world was occurring and what it meant for their arrangement, and a third, gasping for air as Louis’ face rested against his.

He smelled warm, musky. Like cologne. Like a man. He smelled in a way that Harry wanted to burrow further into him until his nose was pressed to the curve of his shoulder. Louis’ grip tightened around him as he shakily exhaled, breath embarking on Louis’ mouth. Eyes closed, he felt Louis’ hand leave his, relocating to his hip. His fingers felt heavy, significant as they squeezed around his waist. He was holding him securely to his body, pressed impossibly close. He felt his thigh slotted between his own, and it was more than he had ever experienced.

“You’ve got to tell me no, because I… I can’t —” Louis’ rough voice disappeared into low moan, that seemed to originate from the very bottom of his throat. “You’re too much for me to handle, baby.”

Harry released a soft moan against Louis’ lips, and promptly collapsed into his arms. He practically fell into his open mouth, groaning as his warm lips captured his. Louis’ hands instantly squeezed around him in sure motions, and Harry’s palm reached out — just to touch, to feel across Louis’ chest between them. And God. He was unimaginably soft and firm all at once, just like when it came to every action he made.

Harry fumbled against him, heart pounding in an utterly painful manner against his ribs. Their mouths tangled in a wet mess, breaths uneven and lips searching for more even though they were as close as they could manage. Harry moaned defencelessly, his weight completely relying on the other man’s body. He felt Louis’ response against his mouth, his dark groan sending thrill after thrill down Harry’s skin.

“Oh,” whined Harry against his lips, and he could feel how Louis’ body jolted at the word. Before a moment had passed, his mouth took control of the messy situation, where they had finally gotten close enough: Louis’ hands grasping desperately at Harry’s body, Harry fawning over his chest, and their mouths attached in warmth, and untidily moving in a deep, hurried unison.

Louis formed structure in the web of emotions at that point. He affirmed his grip on Harry, and swivelled them until his back smacked against the side of the car. His lungs coughed out a breath, the surface behind him hard and uncomfortable, but it was forgotten the moment where Louis pressed his body against Harry’s, thigh firmly tucked between his. His heart jumped into his throat when Louis’ hands ventured lower, and sank down his sides. Harry’s stomach felt strange and light, fluttering frighteningly as Louis’ right hand slid around the curve of his arse.

Their mouths were still a mess, motions rigid, as concentration had suddenly relocated elsewhere. Harry’s belly dropped each time Louis squeezed around him, touching him so intimately. His hands were everywhere, close and firm, and a little unnerving pressing Harry’s hips up to meet his, like he couldn’t get enough of him. Harry was barely aware of what filthy sounds were escaping them, limbs intertwined and snug. It was scary, but it also felt like little fireworks erupting inside of him.

Louis rolled his hips, and Harry gasped into his mouth, feeling Louis’ extremely prominent crotch against his. Louis’ groan was the naughtiest sound he had ever heard, and his head fell back against the car behind him, unable to breathe for a long moment. Louis’ lips left his mouth, but reattached at his jaw, teeth scraping against his throat in hungry motions. Harry had never thought Louis would take it this far, to be moaning into his skin as he invasively felt down Harry’s body.

“Uh,” he whimpered as Louis rutted his hips up against his once more, fingers shaking as he pressed closer. He felt lost, but in some sort of euphoria that couldn’t possibly be wrong.

Louis’ hair brushed over Harry’s jaw, and Harry’s hands slid up without his permission, grasping hold of it in firm grips. Louis moaned at the tug of his hands, the sound higher and prettier, and his teeth sank into the skin under Harry’s jaw, throwing him into a gasp of pain.

Abruptly, the car they were leaning against honked, and both of them startled in shock. Three long, heavy seconds passed before either of them managed to collect themselves.

“Christ,” exhaled Louis, leaning up to suck a slick kiss from Harry’s raw, barely recuperated, bitten lips. “I don’t want to let you go.” But his hands left Harry’s lower body, and reached up to touch the edges of his jaw. His eyes were dark as they found his. “You are so beautiful right now.”

It was almost the very same sentence he had uttered on the dance floor, back at the jazz bar. Harry had no clue if it meant something, but his response this time was so different it almost scared him. He felt warm.

Louis kissed him on the mouth, short and sweet, but Harry’s body yearned to pull him in, to keep him for more. He couldn’t manage to do so. Louis had to go, and his bones were already threatening to give out from beneath him.

“Tomorrow,” said Louis, voice hoarse and raw, and there was a promise in there that had Harry’s tummy fluttering with a feeling he had never felt before. The older man reluctantly took a step back, letting Harry up from the car, feeling entirely debauched. He stepped onto the pavement on weak knees, and watched as Louis adjusted in his slacks, throwing him a quick grin, before taking his hand and placing a last kiss to his knuckles. “See you soon.”

He nodded silently, and couldn’t tear his eyes off him as he opened the car door and ducked inside. The taxi sped away the moment the door came shut, and Harry was left staring as it disappeared down the street.

All he knew right then, was that his lips throbbed with a dull ache, wet and raw from Louis’ mouth and teeth. His body felt as though in a state of incompetence, muscles soft, and bones unreliable under him. For all he knew, his knees would give out within a minute.

He lethargically made his way toward the house. He had no idea what time it was, but he didn’t care. The image of Louis flooded his brain, and he couldn’t stop from shivering at the fresh memories that had only just been created.

He quietly pressed the door handle down, stepping into the quiet house on light feet. He hoped his parents had gone to bed, and there wasn’t an interrogation awaiting him in the living room. He closed the door behind him, and ran a hand over his hair, exhaling hotly.

Woah.

“Hello, there,” said a voice from his right.

Harry flinched, nearly jumping out of his skin upon hearing his mother’s voice. He found her, in the very same spot he had stood earlier that evening, leaning against the wall. Right there, with a view that stretched all the way up the driveway, she was perched with steaming cup of tea in her hand. She didn’t say a word more as she looked at him evenly, only lifted her cup, and took the slowest, unbearably smug sip a person in history had ever managed.

She had seen exactly what had occurred outside. Everything she had ever wanted had fallen into place.

Harry slowly turned away, eyes closing in the purest distress he had ever felt at once. Oh, dear.

Chapter Text

4.

Harry woke up the morning following his date with Louis staring up at the ceiling, as his lids rapidly blinked over his eyes. His mind remained foggy for another few minutes, slowly, gradually, feeling the cogwheels in his brain work into motion, processing, processing, and processing.

He had… snogged Louis against a taxi. Thoroughly so. Against a taxi, inside which there had most certainly been a person. He had let Louis feel him up, and press himself against his body in an entirely distasteful manner. And Louis had… punched a man in the nose. Broken someone’s nose, to be more specific. He’d declared his feelings several times over, and had groaned in that tremendously low voice, hands so firm and touching him so intimately…

Harry’s eyes flew back open, his heart beating fast. “Gemma…!” he shouted, panic quickly rising in his chest.

The door to his room opened only a minute later, his sister poking her head inside with a tired frown. “What are you yelling for?”

“We have to go to church.”

She frowned at him. “What are you on about? You’re still in bed, Harry.” He shifted under the duvet, eyes abruptly flickering back to the ceiling. “Are you okay?”

“Uh-huh,” he breathed, nodding as he focused on inhaling slowly. His mother had seen everything.

He swallowed thickly, feeling his stomach curl into a tight ball, hefty like a rock inside him. The previous night was a complete blur of messy memories: yelling, dancing, fighting, and drinking. Kissing. A plethora of arresting memories of lips, tongues, and thighs.

Harry nearly whimpered, hand flying up to press his lips shut before he did something equally as embarrassing. Like, cry.

He heard his sister walk across the floor, the bed dipping as she sat down on the edge. “You don’t look entirely well, H.”

No kidding. He barely knew how to comprehend everything that had happened. Last night had been different from the start. Before they had even arrived at the diner they had had their first real fight, where Harry hadn’t even attempted to bottle down his emotions. He had yelled at him, and Louis hadn’t hesitated to argue back. The liquor they then proceeded to consume seemed to have nudged their feelings closer to the tip of their tongues, and they’d meticulously expelled them at one another.

Christ. They had been utter pricks last night, hadn’t they? Even Louis, who may have been the worst. He’d been upset, perhaps even hurt, when Harry had insulted his gentlemanly ways, and had delivered a shockingly disrespectful response. Of course, Harry had thrown a fit then, thoughtlessly causing a scene in the midst of the diner, and inadvertently gotten a bloke a broken nose, only because he’d been quite reasonably upset about his ruined dress shirt.

Louis — polite, gentle, and sensible Louis — had punched someone. Harry immediately berated the brief thought that wondered if his hand was alright.

“Harry?” his sister prompted, and he threw her a short glance, eyes quickly returning to the ceiling above them. Gemma’s hand closed around his leg over the covers, squeezing worriedly.

“We… um,” he stammered.

Her brow furrowed. “What? Louis?”

“Uh-huh.” He swallowed. “Last night.”

“What happened?” she whispered, hand stroking over his shin. “Did you fight?”

Harry squeezed his eyes shut. The fighting wasn’t even close to disquieting. Fighting was a jog in the park. Snogging on the other hand. Snogging someone he shouldn’t like, someone he by no means was allowed to touch even if he did feel an amorous connection to him? Horrid.

“Don’t tell anyone,” he begged anxiously.

She firmly shook her head. “Of course not.”

“We snogged,” he revealed, heart bumping up to a ferocious speed. Gemma gazed back at him from above, brows knitting deeper. He hid his eyes behind a hand, wincing to himself. “Against a taxi. And we touched.”

“Underneath your clothes?” she asked, her voice a note higher than usual.

“No!” he loudly objected, and bit into his bottom lip. “But it was… intimate.”

To his startling surprise, Gemma’s face gently slipped into a look of amusement, some sort of fondness lingering in her eyes. “Harry, it’s not a big deal. Gerard kissed me before we were engaged, too. It happens. When you’ve got feelings for one another it’s natural you want to be close.”

Harry exhaled another hot breath, his chest constricting aggressively. “I am not in love with him!”

“I don’t mean in love. I mean amorous feelings. He’s handsome, and charming, isn’t he?”

“I don’t!” he flatly denied, eyes wide and heart fluttering strangely. He glanced away, but he could feel her looking at him, considering.

“What?” she asked quietly, poking his chin with her index finger, not entirely forceless.

“We kissed,” he murmured. “You’re not supposed to kiss someone you’re courting until… Well. And, Mum saw.”

At that, however, Gemma’s face did contort. “What do you mean Mum saw?!” she whispered, mouth hanging open.

Harry groaned. “We were late home, and she was obviously waiting up by the door! When I got inside she was staring me down, making it abundantly clear she’d seen all of it.”

“Oh,” breathed Gemma, forehead wrinkling with sympathy.

Harry’s skin felt taut across his whole body. “What am I going to do? I’m not marrying him.”

“Harry…” she sighed, and he wasn’t even sure what it meant. All he knew was what he absolutely did not want, and he had no clue of what he did, possibly, maybe, wish for.

Lost in thought, he nearly jumped out of his skin upon hearing a rapt knock on the door. He hoped with all of his might that it wasn’t his mother — whom he was planning to never look in the eye again for the rest of his life — sinking further into the mattress beneath him as Gemma invited the knocker inside.

Petunia, their maid, stood in the doorway, eyes apologetic as she noticed Harry still in bed. “Mr Tomlinson is here to see you, sir.”

Harry’s eyes felt halfway out of their sockets by the time his brain had digested the information, a wave of anxiety rushing through his veins. The morning wasn’t shaping up well.

Eyes shut in pure defeat, he felt his sister pat his fluffed hair. “I’ll take care of him while you get dressed.”

“I’ll…” he choked. “Tell him I’ll be down.”

Left to himself in his room to dress, he pulled himself from bed and to the mirror. He looked like a pure mess, hair askew and curls tangled unmanageably. His skin looked puffy, while his eyes were wide and inexplicably green against the morning light. He tossed a cardigan he hardly ever used atop a white shirt, running his hands through his hair, in vain attempting to tame the disarray atop his head.

He stumbled downstairs in normal slacks, rumpled and plausibly smelling like the previous night’s adventures. As it turned out, the older boy was awaiting him in the living room, looking significantly more upbeat. The moment he laid eyes on Harry, his mouth shaped into something breathless, eyes following his every movement. Harry’s nerves were strumming inside, completely unsure of what anything from the previous night meant, or what was to be expected from now on.

“Harry,” said Louis adoringly. His eyes were too blue, crinkles deep in the skin beneath. As he cautiously approached, Louis didn’t hesitate to grasp his hand.

“Hi,” he breathed, all of a sudden self-conscious about his appearance. He had never, not for a moment, in Louis’ presence even considered the way he looked or dressed. As Louis gently tugged him to himself, eyes openly appraising him, he felt his neck heat up, the warmth reaching his cheeks and chest.

“Hey,” hummed Louis, lip twitching upward in appreciation as Harry’s body pulled up flush against his. Harry’s knees felt shaky already then, before Louis’ hand disappeared from his, relocating to the small of his back.

“You’re here,” he whispered timidly, unsure of how to behave. Louis’ face was too close, and Harry was practically trembling in his grasp. Unreasonable and confusing, that.

“Told you I’d come see you,” he responded quietly, leaning in as though to kiss him. Harry’s skin felt red, his head momentarily blanking, eyes falling shut on instinct. He felt Louis’ breath ghost over his lips, but the sensation disappeared. “You’re heart-stoppingly stunning, did you know?” his mouth murmured against Harry’s jaw.

Harry’s lungs were out of breath, respiration suddenly shallow and working with vague material. He swallowed for the fiftieth time, feeling the barest brush of Louis’ cheek against his own, eyelashes fluttering.

“Hi.” Louis’ upper lip touched his.

“Hi,” he croaked, practically melting as Louis’ bottom lip nudged closer.

A loud noise of someone clearing their throat interrupted the scene before Harry managed to collect himself, and they ripped apart in a flash. Louis instantaneously retreated, positioning himself within a respectable distance as they glanced in the direction of the sound. Louis looked sheepish, but not entirely shamefaced.

Harry found his sister in the doorway, Gerard turning up behind her shortly. Gemma’s brow was raised pointedly at Harry, and his jaw clenched. There were no romantic feelings growing at the bottom of his chest. No.

“Hello, Gemma. Mr van der Hollande,” greeted Louis, nodding politely.

“Louis,” said Gerard, and by the slightly narrowed look he threw him Harry knew that either Gemma had already let the secret slip, or he had figured on his own, watching the two of them awkwardly shuffle in their spots. He hoped for the latter.

“Lunch is in an hour, boys,” said Gemma, her husband’s arm winding around her waist, hand landing atop her tummy. “Are you joining us, Louis?”

“If you’ll have me.”

“Of course,” she said easily. “You’re always welcome to.”

Harry swallowed, knowing his mother’s official reaction to the scandalous incident the previous night was imminent. In front of him alone, he didn’t doubt for a second that she would express exactly how pleased she was that he had given in to Louis’ efforts, but he didn’t possess the faintest idea of what feelings she actually inhabited when it came to her unmarried son engaging in sexual activities. What they had done was absolutely forbidden, and that his mother knew the extent of it was mortifying. It had been naughty, and stupid. And had felt so incredibly good.

Harry’s two hands closed around Louis’ on their own accord, and for a second he was completely rocked as Louis rejected the touch. He had never once acted with hostility, and soberly initiating contact for the first time, Harry’s stomach dropped as Louis ripped his hand away. Eyes large and confused, he looked up, but found Louis cradling his hand, face twisted into a pained grimace. Zoning in on it, he noticed the red, purplish spots spreading around the bruised knuckles.

“Can I see your hand?” mumbled Harry, reaching for it again. This time Louis complied, and let him carefully take it in his. The knuckles were indeed badly bruised and swollen, and he wondered if the reason it had gotten this bad was the lack of ice. They had after all spent a bit of time outside the van Styles mansion before Louis got to go home and take care of it.

“Must have been some punch,” he said, realising it was the first vague compliment he had ever given him.

Louis shrugged, lip quirked upward as he watched Harry carefully examine it, front teeth dug into his lip. “Broke a nose, didn’t it?”

“Harry!” His mother’s voice was loud, and definitely hinting on shrill as she appraised the two of them huddled close. Harry found Gemma and her husband having vacated the living room — no clue of when that happened — and had been replaced by his mother’s tense shoulders. “Louis,” she said, swallowing conspicuously. “I wasn’t aware you were here today.”

“Oh,” said Louis, entirely unaware of the fact that this woman had watched him sexually debauch her son. Harry wanted nothing more than sink through the floor as Louis approached Mrs van Styles, hand extended. “Lillian! How are you?”

“Splendid,” she said shortly, shaking his hand. Harry winced when she didn’t return the pleasantries, and shook his head a fraction at Louis when the older man glanced back at him.

“Harry,” said Mrs van Styles sharply. “Get dressed. We’re having a guest over for lunch.”

Confused, but still too humiliated about what his mother had witnessed only hours ago, he didn’t question it. He gave Louis a small look, and as he retreated from the room he noticed in his periphery how Louis moved, as if to follow him.

“Louis.” Mrs van Styles’ voice was just as sharp as when she’d addressed her own son. Louis aborted the movement, almost as though the instinct to follow Harry had been unintentional, and he knew he had made a gross mistake. Following Harry upstairs, to his room where he had meant to get changed and ready no less, was practically downright outlawed. Harry watched a blush spread across Louis’ face, the older man shamefully locking his hands behind his back as Harry’s mother continued. “Why don’t you join Gemma and Gerard outside? Now.”

Harry quickly resumed in fast steps, hands sweaty and chest inflated with something he couldn’t explain. It was light, like some kind of exhilaration, all of it the result of Louis’ actions. He felt strange, in an elated way. He had never had a wish to be touched. Not like this, in the form of Louis’ skin brushing over his, his hands stroking his waist. The mere thought of Louis standing inside his bedroom shouldn’t have turned his bones soft. He knew he had done things the previous night, naughty things, but in sober daylight it was a hundred times scarier.

He returned downstairs after a shower, having combed back his hair, and dressed in proper clothes. After an unfamiliar second glance in the mirror, he trudged out of his room just in time for lunch. He wondered how Louis had fared; if Mrs van Styles had approached him regarding the matter. The very thought of Louis being confronted about it, made Harry’s stomach sway nauseously. He barely knew how to address it himself, and each time he thought of it, a warm blush began to creep across his chest.

Outside on the patio, the rest of his family were already seated. For once, they hadn’t waited for Harry to join them. It was unusual, but he didn’t think much of it until his eyes caught on the spot by Mr van Styles’ right. His brain struggled to understand the situation. Reverend Buckley was sitting on the added chair at the table, grey-haired and dressed in black. Harry was not a regular church-goer, and neither were his family, and the fact that the local minister was sitting there at their table was extremely absurd.

He stared with wide eyes as he took his usual spot, finding Louis where Gemma was usually located at a normal meal. Confounded, he cleared his throat, eyes flicking around the table and catching Gemma staring into her empty plate, meanwhile he felt the prominent restlessness of Louis’ leg, jumping by his side.

“Harry,” said his mother, voice calm and exuberant once more. “This is Reverend Buckley. Your father and I invited him over for lunch today.”

“It’s a pleasure to meet you?” he said, uttering the sentence almost like an inquiry.

“And you,” replied Reverend Buckley, smile warm but mismatching the purposeful look in his eyes.

Several shades more confused, Harry frowned as the food was served around the table. Louis hadn’t so much as glanced at him since joining the group, and as the meal carried on the conversation was scarce, filled with only the occasional small talk with the reverend. Everything was, at best, stilted, something palpable in the air just waiting to pop. Louis was unusually quiet, and Harry desperately prayed his mother hadn’t had any words with him. Clearly, what they had done wasn’t unforgivable, or Louis wouldn’t be dining with them, but something felt off.

“Harry,” said his mother at the end of lunch, gaining his attention. Her pearl necklace glistened beneath the sun, her smile strained. “I want you to know that we did not intend for Louis to be here for this conversation, but he might as well be, given the circumstances. Reverend Buckley is here to discuss something of grave importance with you.”

Gemma promptly ducked her head, Gerard glancing away by her side. Louis only seemed to inch away from him as Harry looked his way, lips pressed. Harry didn’t understand.

Reverend Buckley cleared his throat. “I suppose I will take this as my cue to lead the way through this discussion your parents wished for us to have.” He nudged his glasses into place atop his nose. “Harry,” he said, sighing his name in a weirdly benevolent yet berating tone.

Harry frowned while staring back confusedly, realisation having yet to dawn on him.

“Your parents have told me a lot about you, you see. You are a stellar student at the prestigious Yorkinshare university up north, your academics have been nothing but outstanding, and you intend to work with your father at his law firm post graduation. That is a marvellous start in life you have procured, and you should be very proud of yourself. I know your parents are.”

Reverend Buckley smiled encouragingly, as Harry sat petrified in his seat.

“Now, you are only twenty,” he continued optimistically. “It is a beautiful age. You are young, and vibrant, full of life and feelings. Feelings that we sometimes cannot escape, or control. They fly through us in many forms, love and lust perhaps the strongest of the sensations we will ever feel.”

Harry felt a sickly, ominous feeling trickle down his very core. Oh. Oh, dear.

The reverend still smiled, but this time it was serious. In Harry’s periphery, Gemma was pressing her lips down so hard the edges had whitened, and Gerard looked as though he would have rather been investing money in the opposing political party than stay in his seat for another minute. Harry stared across the table, stiff as a stick, incapable of so much as blinking.

This wasn’t happening.

“It has come to my attention that you have found a suitable arrangement, with Mr Tomlinson.”

It was indeed happening.

“I offer my sincerest well-wishes to the both of you. Life, you see, comes with many gifts, and love is a wonderful one. In a marriage, we trust, care for, and believe in one another. This gift is a thing to marvel at. Love is pure,” he paused, “but can often be confused with something else. Lust.”

Nay.

“Lust is a gift that is far more difficult to discern. It has wills of its own, and does not always think rationally,” he said, and his voice soon turned deliberate. “Your virtue, Harry, is one of God’s most luxurious gifts. It is precious gift that should be nurtured, and safe-kept until the very right moment.”

He was being… reprimanded. Or, you know, personally attacked by his mother and father, in front of his entire family. His face burned with humiliation. Gemma was a syllable from laughter, and Harry’s skin was aflame with shame that crashed over him in waves that didn’t stop, anger merging with absolute mortification while Louis was right there, by his side, listening to every word of Reverend Buckley warning him not to give up his virginity too soon.

He glanced around the table, finding Louis silently keeping his eyes downcast, while his mother, who was staring at her lap, appeared as uncomfortable as his father on the other end of the table.

It seemed about right. His parents could not handle a problem touching down on something more personal than the date of a wedding, entirely unable to confront their son with something this important in fear they might get too close to his true emotions. Instead, they had to sit him down in front of the whole family, including the man he supposedly were to marry, to humiliate him in the worst possible way. If they’d ever talk to him, perhaps they would know how he felt about such matters as making love, and this wouldn’t be an issue.

“Do you understand what I am saying, Harry?” asked Reverend Buckley.

“Uh-huh,” he forced out, the sound course and bitter, eyes hard on the porcelain on the table. He nearly flinched when he felt Louis’ hand land atop his leg, underneath the table where no one could see. His lungs seemed to give out, and he coughed, eyes widening as Louis’ palm sensually rubbed over his trousers. His eyes flickered in his direction, but Louis was still keeping his gaze cast away as he listened to the reverend talk, hand comforting and gentle.

“Harry?”

“I do, Reverend Buckley,” he choked, throat tight as the hand suddenly crept farther and farther up his thigh. “I understand.”

“Very good,” he nodded, pleased as he met eyes with Mr and Mrs van Styles. Louis’ thumb touched the inseam of Harry’s trousers, and his hand flew up to cover Louis’ with his own, in panic keeping it from rising any farther, heart pounding against his ribs.

“Very well,” said Mrs van Styles, clasping her hands atop the table. “And you understand, too, Louis?”

“Of course, Mrs van Styles. I would never dream of disrespecting your family in such a way,” he retorted earnestly, calm and genuine. His hand squeezed around Harry’s thigh, and Harry’s grip tightened around his fingers. The entire scenario was absolutely absurd.

The lunch wrapped up not much later, Harry forced to shake the reverend’s hand with a faux grin, chest constricting as his mother told Louis he better be off as well. Louis didn’t seem deterred, only grasped Harry’s hand and tugged him outside on the front porch with him. With the illusion of privacy, his injured hand cradled Harry’s waist, the other resting over the small of his back.

“That was interesting,” he murmured, eyes turning into slits as he grinned amusedly. Harry’s cheeks were still burning with heat, and Louis’ left thumb touched his chin. “Sometimes I wonder if your parents know you at all.”

That, was something Harry had asked himself on numerous occasions.

He tried to ignore the second blush that coloured his neck, when Louis leaned in and gently kissed his jaw. “They know about last night, don’t they…?”

“Mum saw,” breathed Harry, practically vibrating under Louis’ touch. He couldn’t seem to help it. All rationality flew out the window each time Louis so much as neared him.

“I don’t really care,” whispered Louis covertly, tugging him closer. “You’re too beautiful not to touch.” He frowned. “Are you okay, though?”

“Not really,” he found himself admitting. Louis looked at him with furrowed brows, expecting him to go on. When he didn’t, Louis pursed his lips.

“You don’t regret it, do you…?” he asked, forehead wrinkled and eyes suddenly a tad wounded.

Harry swallowed, gazing back at him as a tug war commenced somewhere inside him. After a longer minute, one side won. “No,” he sighed, softening against him.

Louis’ eyes brightened once more, and he smiled almost bashfully. “Good.”

The front door opened behind Harry then, before Louis could so much as kiss him, and Gerard strode out onto the porch with two arched brows. He was older than Louis, and when he stared him down there was obvious authority in his stance.

“You need to leave now, Louis,” he said, and his voice wasn’t harsh, but neither was it particularly friendly.

“Of course. I’ve overstayed my welcome,” replied Louis, lip twitching upward as he caught Harry’s eye. “I’ll see you later, baby,” he murmured, and placed a tiny kiss on the top of his hand, before retreating down the driveway with a casual wave.

Harry stared after him with a tumble of confusing emotions ripping his insides to shreds.

**

The following love letter that arrived at the van Styles mansion came only days after Reverend Buckley’s visit. Harry still could not look either his mother or father in the eye, and still felt shame rising beneath the surface of his skin whenever his thoughts wandered back to the incident by the taxi. The reverend’s words had had an impact on him. Harry may not have been a studious Christian, but did agree with some of their beliefs, which Louis was not yet aware of, and it seemed neither were his parents.

He hadn’t seen Louis since the lunch, the older boy perhaps putting in some distance out of respect toward the van Styles family for the time being, but that didn’t seem to deter him from sending his letters. They would arrive every so often, each one as amorous and lavished with endearments as the other. Some of it was still difficult to process, but Louis had a good tendency of making it delicate, his pen creating sweet and vague metaphors that all compacted somewhere in the back of Harry’s mind, lingering as he progressed through his day.

Sat on his bed, legs tucked in under himself, he opened Louis’ new letter. Sometimes they came in parcels with books, most of them new these days rather than taken from Louis’ own bookshelf as Harry continued to make it perfectly obvious how he felt about stealing Louis’ beloved belongings. Today, though, the letter had come on its own. It was the first letter since their date, and Harry wondered if Louis would mention it. He probably would. He not only had a tendency to obscurely compare Harry’s eyes to nature, but also inhabited one of discussing things Harry refused address in person, recounting his feelings and his comprehension of a moment they’d shared. It was a bit like respectable shouting into the void, as Harry never wrote back. He still couldn’t find the ability to.

Harry doubted Louis would let the other night slide without bringing it up at least once. Louis always tugged at Harry’s limits, intentionally or not. As he unfolded the long parchment, he murmured the words to himself. Sometimes he wondered what Louis would sound like, expressing his romantic sentences out loud rather than on paper.

My dearest, Harry,” he hummed, eyes scanning over the paragraph. “I can’t sleep. I’m lonely without you. Every night I close my eyes, and —” He stopped, heart jumping up his throat. His eyes, in pure horror, abruptly flew over the page, panic rising in his chest as his cheeks broke into flames. The further he read, the warmer he felt, his hands turning sweaty as he imagined Louis actually writing this untidy mess of alarming thoughts. His neat and elegant wording had turned into a rumble of words that Harry couldn’t comprehend without blushing, and experiencing the overwhelming need to hide his face. As he reached the end, his mouth fell open in shock.

“Gemma!” he shouted, for the second time that week hollering throughout the house. He read the letter over and over, words mixing and entwining in intricate bundles. He could not do this. He could not do this. He could not do this.

“What’s got you crying mayday, love?” asked Gemma as she finally entered his room. “Gerard said you sounded like a wounded soldier about to die.”

Harry sprung from his seat, pulling her inside and toward the bed as his stomach swirled in nauseating turns. “Gemma,” he said, expression pained and tinted with embarrassment as he sat her down.

“What?” she asked, confused. “What is going on?”

He crawled into a ball atop the bed by the headboard, shoving the parchment across the bedspread, subsequently tying his arms around his legs. She threw him a concerned glance, before bringing it up to look.

My dearest, Harry,” Gemma tentatively began, reading aloud. “I can’t sleep. I’m lonely without you. Every night I close my eyes, and I find you hiding in my mind. Each thought of you, and my body is suddenly aflame with desire —” She gasped, eyes flying up to Harry, and he immediately wanted to hide. “This is a naughty letter!” she whispered.

Trust him, he was aware. He refrained from whimpering.

Gemma’s eyes rapidly skimmed it over, eyes widening so much they seemed halfway from dropping from their sockets.

You’ve burned into the back of my lids, and at night I am perpetually heated as I imagine you and me. In my dreams you are a living match, and you’re lighting every piece of me on fire. I can’t think, I can’t read, and as I am writing this letter I am barely capable of constructing sentences. You are all I see —”

She resumed in silence once more, her mouth open as she read the sultry words Louis had tied together. Harry’s heart beat hotly, and his mind never stopped racing as he nervously imagined what had been written. After another couple minutes, Gemma’s hand slapped his arm.

“…in my mind I can feel your skin against mine, and you’re shivering beneath me. Under my touch you’re burning as bright as my longing for your —” Gemma stopped, her hand cupped over her mouth in shock.

Harry winced, cheeks burning as he ripped the parchment from her. He folded it, tucking it against his laboured chest.

The ending was almost the hardest to digest.

Harry, my sweetest love, each time I am near you I wish for nothing more than touching you. I’m sweating, keeping myself in chains. I’m insane.

I’m afraid you’ve really got me now, baby.

Yours sincerely,
Louis William Tomlinson

Yours.

Sincerely.

If Harry hadn’t known it, he certainly did now. Furthermore, it seemed like Louis had no inhibitions when it came to anything. He had made it plentifully clear how he felt about Harry, and all of it wasn’t entirely unwelcome, but very much daunting. Frightening.

“That is a naughty letter if I have ever seen one,” said Gemma. “Blimey, that’s bold. If you’d so much as show one sentence of that to Mum, he’d be done for. I’m impressed.”

“What do you mean?” hissed Harry aggressively. “It’s dirty!”

She slowly shook her head, untying the letter from Harry’s protesting fingers. “I am a bit shocked, I’ll admit, but this only shows how much he trusts you. He really does like you, H.”

Like him? Tame. Louis had just declared himself Harry’s own. And it scared him shitless. One heated snog, and suddenly they were married, with children on the way, and Harry was lying underneath Louis, his hands roaming his body and touching him in incriminating places, whilst Louis’ mouth rambled poetic about his inner thighs.

Enough.

“Aw,” hummed Gemma softly. “He called you his dearest. Not just his dearest Harry, but his dearest.”

“What’s the difference?” he lamented, exhausted and distressed. It was a feeling he was beginning to get used to.

She cast him a hard look. “The comma. It’s a huge difference.” She sighed at his perplexed expression. “I genuinely feel sorry for Louis, you’re obviously a halfwit.”

He ripped the letter from her hand, and launched a pillow at her face. “Get out of my room.”

**

Upon seeing Louis after his erotic letter, Harry was fidgeting nervously as the older boy strolled up to the gazebo. Harry could see him through the window, dressed to the nines in slacks and a white dress shirt, hair lifted into a loose quiff that hung a bit to the side in that untrendy, but inexplicably handsome manner. It was obviously deliberately styled, and the braces across his chest were tightly pulled, not an inch out of order. For a moment, Harry wondered if Louis was actually as nervous as him.

He greeted him inside, Harry self-consciously fixing his gambler hat atop his head. It was of no matter, though, because as Louis sat down by his side he instantly removed it upon permission, running a timid hand through Harry’s soft curls.

“I love you hair like this,” said Louis quietly, thumbing the delicate strands. Putty in his hands, Harry shivered as his fingers slid down and brushed the sharp edge of his jaw. “I love this, too,” murmured Louis. “Inhumanly defined… You’re the most beautiful man I’ve ever met. Could barely believe it when I first laid eyes on you.”

Harry chewed on his lip. He didn’t know how to reply.

Louis’ hand slid down his chest, palm flat over his pecs until it landed at the small curve of his hip. “Do you know…?” he asked, strangely serious as his eyes met Harry’s. “Harry, do you know how perfect you are?”

He shook his head a fraction, finding himself in a state of incapability. He had never felt so useless, and rendered so by someone’s mere words. It wasn’t nearly the pointless type, because it mattered. Somehow, when Louis looked at him, it mattered. He was still struggling with how they had come to this, but the part of him that thrived under Louis’ touch refused to let anything get in the way of it. The only catch was that Louis might have believed it meant more.

“Am I rendering you speechless with my outstanding way with words…?” teased Louis, face inches from Harry’s, lip quirked cheekily.

“Would that please you?” he managed, eyes trained on the way Louis’ eyebrows were naturally rounded above his eyes.

“Seeing as that would be a terrible pinch in your side… If lied and said no, would you let me dream for a bit?”

“I don’t thrive on your unhappiness,” he protested, pressing his index finger into Louis’ cheek.

“Well,” he mumbled in response, gaze cast down, watching Harry’s lips as he spoke. His hand rested on his waist. “Sometimes I wish you’d write me back… I never know how you feel about me.”

“Mystery, isn’t it?” he tried, an uncomfortable knot in his tummy.

Louis’ eyes looked sad. “I tell you everything, and then I have to investigate you for answers.”

“That was weeks ago. I’m open with you now,” he protested, even though they both knew it wasn’t true to the complete extent.

His nose nudged his, inching further into his space until Harry’s back rested against the wall behind him. “I know, I know… But I want,” he began, stalling for a short moment as Harry felt his mouth ghost over his. “I want you to tell me what you want.”

“What I want?” he asked, wrinkle between his brows.

Louis’ mouth touched his, and Harry’s heart fumbled through the beat. Louis’ hand squeezed his hip as he slowly nodded, their eyes shut, and lips brushing. “Yes,” he confirmed sultrily. “What you want.”

Understanding washed over him, hot and nerve-wracking. “I,” he breathed, but he had no clue of what to say. Or what he wanted, or what Louis wanted him to say. Instead of talking, he lifted his chin up, sliding his lips across Louis’. The other man’s grip on his side hardened, and he moved impossibly nearer, closing the miniscule distance between him.

His mouth was hot, thin but soft lips wrapping around Harry’s plush ones in slow, heated movements. His tongue nudged his mouth open after only a minute, and thrills caused Harry’s skin to shiver as they rushed down his sides. His entire body felt ticklish and his muscles loose, hand unsteady against Louis’ jaw. Louis’ hair brushed over his forehead, and their noses dug into one another’s cheek, Harry’s tummy tingling with something that resembled desire as Louis’ front teeth bit into his bottom lip, pulling lightly.

“How did you like my letter?” he asked, placing another sucking kiss on his mouth. Harry didn’t know the answer to that. He knew that he liked this, and that it felt amazing, but whenever his brain caught a moment of rationality he knew that it was bad and forbidden.

“Interesting,” he decided on, exhaling the word as Louis’ mouth traced his jaw. He gripped onto his braces, pulling him closer. The windowsill was cutting into his back as Louis leaned over him, but it was easily neglected in favour of the way Louis’ lips felt trailing over his skin.

“Good interesting?” His teeth scraped against his pulse point.

Harry’s breath stuttered. “Dirty.”

“I couldn’t help myself.” Louis pressed a kiss to the same spot, before sinking down to the curve of Harry’s shoulder, his breath warm against his skin. His right hand fell from his waist to his thigh, nearing the inseam.

“Louis,” said Harry, nerves trembling. “I’m.”

Louis’ head lifted, pupils blown, but eyes altogether gentle as he regarded Harry’s wrecked and swollen mouth. His lips reattached to his when Harry didn’t continue, and he felt Louis’ hand round his hip, pulling him closer until he rested on his side. He heard Louis hum in appreciation into his mouth as his hand gripped his arse, and Harry jumped against him, suddenly blanching completely.

He whimpered, pulling back as Louis followed him, hands remaining where they were intimately attached to his body. “Louis,” he whispered, heart thumping heavily as he felt each of his inhales against himself. “I’ve never,” he confessed, eyelashes fluttering as his lips hovered over Louis’. He felt breathless, Louis’ face not an inch away. “Never.”

“No?” frowned Louis, but didn’t move back. Harry shook his head nervously. Louis didn’t back off, but his hand left his lower body, trailing up to sweetly caress his side above the fabric of his shirt. “I thought you had,” he murmured. “Thought you refused to tell me because you hadn’t waited.”

Harry shook his head determinedly, their noses bumping. Louis’ eyes were still closed, lips tickling Harry’s chin. “Waiting is important to me,” he admitted, quiet but firm. “You… I know I want to wait, but I also… This is — I want, but.”

“Not too much?” He felt Louis nod against him, his arms hugging Harry lovingly to himself. He was practically resting his full weight atop him, shivering madly as Louis’ rubbed his side. “Don’t worry,” he mumbled, loud enough for Harry to hear. His lips just barely brushed Harry’s ear, and shivers ran down his spine.

He wasn’t sure, but he thought Louis had added something more, almost inaudibly.

“I’ll make it special,” Louis had whispered, and it was a promise.

He left Harry a useless mess that day, his words playing on a loop over and over in the back of his head. Since their date, there was obviously a gargantuan change in their relationship. It hadn’t been long, but now it was like Louis thought he had… won. That he won Harry over, finally. And perhaps he had, in the sense that he found him attractive, both physically and when it came to who he was, but. It was lust, wasn’t it? Like Reverend Buckley had said, lust was easily confused with love. Harry wasn’t in love. Right? Louis had clearly mistaken one for the other.

What did he think? That everything they had fought about the night of their date had dissipated? That Harry’s hostility toward marriage had evaporated because they had grown closer? Louis wasn’t bad, nowhere near impossible to imagine a life with, but the concept still caused angry stabs in his stomach. He wasn’t getting married. Not now. He had a year left of school, and he didn’t need anything more for the time being. And Louis… he was right there, constantly. His lips, his hands, and his vulnerable eyes whenever he expressed his concern regarding Harry’s feelings toward him.

I’ll make it special. Assumptive, infuriating, naive, outrageously romantic, and unbelievably adorable.

His brain had automatically imagined what it would be like. He thought he was fairly certain Louis hadn’t waited, and had made love to someone else in the past. Perhaps that was why he didn’t mind in case Harry had, too. He wondered if Mr and Mrs Tomlinson knew, or if they even expected their twenty-six year old son to wait. Not everybody did these days, but Harry had always felt an unusual inclination to do so. Perhaps it hadn’t ever crossed his mind not to wait — he had never met a man that had turned his mouth into a floundering mess, and limbs to syrup before.

The thought of making love to Louis made him nervous and fidgety, but it didn’t make him as frightened as it may have a month ago. Louis proclaiming himself Harry’s — that was bloodcurdling. He knew Louis had dove into this affair with every intention of convincing him to marry him, but whenever he actually expressed that in real time, Harry was left anxiously twisting in his spot.

Louis came back to the van Styles mansion a few days later to join them for dinner. It seemed Harry’s parents had come to terms with the situation, pleased that Harry hadn’t made a fuss about the conversation with the reverend. Not that he was on speaking terms with the two of them. No, he had no intentions of interacting with them more than absolutely necessary.

Louis arrived a few minutes before seven, grinning at Harry over the maid’s shoulder as he stepped through the front entrance. “I’m here to see my dearest,” he announced. “I can’t seem to stay away. He’s too wonderful.”

Blushing deeply, Harry battled with the inner urge to tell Louis not to take him for granted. To tell him that this wasn’t happening. He was becoming fairly sure Louis wouldn’t want to marry him if he were against it, and wouldn’t make it an issue if Harry ultimately said no. However, Louis had genuine feelings for him now. It wasn’t a shallow infatuation, and he considered himself Harry’s in all ways possible. The thought of hurting him was hardly bearable. Harry didn’t want to cause him any more pain than necessary, yet his brain argued that Louis had to understand. He had gone into this informed. But… he hoped to God Louis didn’t think this was a solid deal yet. The thought of him actually inhabiting the ability to break Louis’ heart was insufferable.

When the maid retreated into the kitchen, Louis greeted him with a soft kiss on the chin. They joined the rest of the family outside, where Gerard seemed invested in a long recount of the polo match he and Mr van Styles had attended that afternoon. Seeing the two of them, Gerard broke into a grin, and instantly pulled them into the conversation. Harry’s family were quickly buttering up to Louis again, his impressive charm having worked its magic over the past week.

Harry, who had never enjoyed the sport that was really only available to the wealthy percentage, began muttering sarcastic comments under his breath, watching Louis’ mouth twitch in tiny amused reactions to his words. Ten minutes in, Louis’ elbow bumped into his arm, playfully telling him to put it out. It was small reprimand, but Harry, ever stubborn, pressed his knee into Louis’ leg, using as much force physically possible without knocking him to the side. In return, Louis’ hand covertly reached back, arm winding around Harry’s back before digging two fingers into his side, causing him to conspicuously squirm against him. Promptly, Harry dug his heel into Louis’ foot in retaliation.

He may have been passive aggressively expressing his annoyance toward Louis’ assumptive words from the other day. It wasn’t the same irate twist in his gut this time as the last, though. The day of the date, he’d been furious at Louis thinking he knew him. This time, what perturbed him was the fact that Louis seemed a step ahead of him, and there was a grand risk of Harry ending up forced to hurt him. Another tiny part wanted his full attention to be directed at himself. Given that, Harry wasn’t sitting on his brightest behaviour.

“Ow,” complained Louis, throwing him an annoyed stare.

“Harry,” gasped Mr van Styles, grey brows knitting above his eyes. “What is the matter with you?”

He huffed. “Nothing. I slipped.”

Louis leered at him, but amusement did seem to linger somewhere around his eyes. Harry sent him a small grimace, and Louis affectionately caught his hand, placing a tiny kiss atop his knuckles like he always seemed to do. “Are you bored, darling?”

“I’d like to eat,” he replied, raising a pointed brow at the table awaiting them.

Mr van Styles said, “Wait for your mother to call to the table. I don’t know what is the matter with you today, son.”

Harry pressed his lips down, and untangled his hand from Louis’, locking both of them behind his back. Back straight and chin high, he averted his gaze from the group of men, just in sync with the overwhelming need to escape crawling up the back of his throat. He noticed Louis silently appraising him, far from oblivious.

Dinner commenced ten minutes later, Louis opting to sit down by Harry when Gemma didn’t claim her usual seat. Harry’s sister, dressed in a pink, knee-length dress and a matching, faint headpiece with a feather sitting atop her bleached hair, was attached to her husband’s side. The two of them were chatty, and shared numerous prolonged touches and stares. Harry refused to look at them for more than two seconds.

His mother conversed zealously about a meeting she’d had with Mrs Dorsey, a woman from London, where Mrs Tomlinson, too, had been present. Harry didn’t listen, closing his ears whenever his mother so much as asked for the salt. Louis was listening politely as per usual, nodding along and grinning at all the right moments. A pair of sunglasses sat tucked into his suit pocket, and whenever he inhaled the item rose on his chest, sliding a tiny fraction out of place. Distracted from everything else, Harry followed the movement, fingers itching to tuck the glasses safely into place.

However, the stubborn piece of him that had stayed silent over the past week had caught momentum once more, and he absolutely refused to create further intimacy between the two of them. Instead he sat on his chair, silent and stilted, next to his family — men and women dressed in expensive clothing brands, luxurious jewellery, hairs bleached and drenched in Dapper Dax. His hand touched his temple, once, where a small loose curl had escaped confinement. He wondered if he was a bigger hypocrite than he’d ever been; early to dinner, dressed up, and sat next to a man who was more or less his fiancé.

The clinking of glasses ultimately brought him back to the present. He found Louis studiously watching him in his periphery, unbeknownst to how long he’d been doing so, but he refrained from looking back. He trained his eyes on where Gerard was carefully clinking his glass of dessert wine with a silver spoon, beginning to stand. Harry stared passively as the man placed a tender hand atop Gemma’s shoulder, smiling at the rest of them serenely.

“Dear, Richard. Lillian.” He raised his glass in their respective directions. His voice was calm and earnest as normal, but there was a spark in his eye that never depleted. “The day I was given your permission to marry my unbelievable Gemma Anne van der Hollande, I couldn’t have imagined a day where I’d ever feel as light, as happy, and filled with such optimism. Anything could happen, every prospect could have an outstanding outcome, and there wasn’t a thing possessing the ability to drag me down.” His eyes adoringly watched his wife, chuckling warmly. “Then came the day she said yes.”

Gemma’s lips fought a grin, but eventually failed, brown eyes shining like lanterns.

“She said yes, and that feeling tripled. I could catch the moon. Then… we married, and every day since has been the best of my life. Ma chérie, I love you more every minute of every day. Je t’aime.” He brought her hand up to kiss it lightly. “What I did not know then, on the day of our wedding, was that the best day of my life had yet to arrive.”

He paused briefly, Mr and Mrs van Styles watching in immobile silence. Harry couldn’t breathe.

“Lillian, Richard, Harry, and Louis; our dear family,” said Gerard, and neon lights sparked against the pale canvas of Harry’s mind. He had included Louis as a part of their family. “By far, the happiest day of my life is telling you that we are expecting.”

It was almost as though being lost in vacuum, emotions and thoughts subdued into hardly anything, only he heard Louis’ intake of breath. It was the only thing his brain seemed capable of registering. His eyes flickered aside to see Louis’ blue ones turning round, and filling up with a striking awe at the revelation. Harry’s gaze immediately averted from his face, the expression there frightening the living daylight out of him.

Blanching and breathless, he watched the scene unfold before his eyes: his mother’s noise of explicit delight, his father’s apparent impotence of talking, and Gemma and Gerard’s nauseating kisses.

“When did you find out?” whispered Mrs van Styles, tears brimming her grey eyes, as she pressed the back of her hand to her red lips. Her hat was tilted, and untidy mascara uncharacteristically framed her waterline.

“A few weeks ago when we visited Brighton,” said Gemma, smiling hugely. Transparent pearls glistened in her eyes as she reached out to squeeze her mother’s free hand atop the table. “We have only been waiting for the right time. Tonight was just perfect. We are all here. I’m just so happy.”

Gerard watched her with the softest expression Harry had ever seen on his face, and he nearly jumped out of his skin when Louis’ hand wrapped around his knee, thumb rubbing over the fabric of his slacks. Harry couldn’t turn to look at him in fear of what he’d find written on his face.

“Champagne!” shouted Mr van Styles all of a sudden, abruptly standing from the table.

“Oh, Dad!” laughed Gemma exuberantly, grin permanent on her lips.

Mr van Styles purposefully marched toward the door, calling for their maid. “Petunia!”

“Yes, but inside, Richard!” ordered his wife. “It’s getting cold!” Mrs van Styles’ smiling eyes returned to the table, lips taut, and Harry didn’t know if he had ever seen her happier. He was certain she had never looked at him like this in his entire Goddamn life. “Let’s head inside for drinks!” She laughed as she stood, exhilarated, and strode over to actually hug Gemma around the shoulders, eyes watery and zealous.

Harry couldn’t move as the three of them headed inside, his mum’s heels clicking against the patio floor, her stride lavished with bliss. Teeth already gritted, he attempted to swallow around the fat knot building at the bottom of his throat.

“Babe?” Louis’ voice was far away, but the concern was evident. Harry flinched, cringing away from him. His body felt too big for his own skin. “Hey,” said Louis seriously. “Are you alright? Amazing news, yeah?”

He couldn’t talk, throat raw and hurting against every swallow. His muscles didn’t cooperate when he desperately tried to open his mouth to speak. He couldn’t, and Louis’ palm searched for his, but conclusively landed in the curve of his shoulder, thumb stroking the line of his jaw. His palm was warm and significant against his skin, and Harry’s heart thumped exhaustively.

“Want to go inside, sweetheart?”

Louis gently led him from the chair and into the living room, unbeknownst to the hurricane catching speed within him. They entered the room together, Louis choosing the sofa on the opposite side of Gemma and Gerard, Harry’s father elatedly pouring elite champagne into flutes, whilst Mrs van Styles relaxed in the armchair by Louis’ immediate left, appearance dreamy. She hardly even noticed as Louis’ hand resided in full view on top of Harry’s upper thigh, comfortable yet wildly tossing Harry’s insides about.

Conversation was light and euphoric, Gemma and Gerard lost in some sort of trance where only the two of them existed. Mr van Styles was blissfully sucking on a cigar, his wife animatedly discussing the topic at hand. How long was Gemma? Had they thought of any names yet? Were they planning on moving to a bigger property now that children were in their imminent future?

“They should at least consider something closer to home,” sighed Mrs van Styles, bracelet clinking against the flute she was nursing. “Imagine going back and forth that often.”

“Personally, I think they should move back to England,” chuckled her husband, aware it wasn’t option due to Gerard’s job. A puff of smoke escaped the corner of his mouth.

Harry’s mother’s eyes relocated to where he was tucked in by Louis’ side on the sofa, close enough to feel the scent of Louis’ costly cologne. “You know where would be perfectly ideal to raise children?” she sighed, gaze unusually lazy as she regarded them. Louis raised an encouraging brow, and she continued, “I think Bellmore would be just lovely.”

Harry’s heart stopped. Everything proceeded, but Harry stopped functioning. Louis’ hand squeezed his thigh, palm warmly stroking inappropriately high across it. Harry coughed strenuously, looking up to see Louis biting his lip, presumably to keep a large smile down.

“It truly would be,” he replied calmly, hand rubbing Harry’s leg once more.

Mrs van Styles hummed happily, and Louis leaned further back against the backrest, the scotch resting in his free hand swishing in circles with the gentle twist of his wrist. Harry watched it spin, and kept on doing so. He watched the dark liquid swivel, round and round, the movement resembling the hurricane rapidly growing inside him, gaining speed and momentum. He watched until his head spun, until his eyes were watering, and he couldn’t breathe.

Everything that had passably coexisted inside was suddenly rioting, refusing to cooperate, or live another second in this strange, unbearable scenario where everything felt like a cage, reducing him to someone’s prop, that they could do whatever they pleased with. Where he didn’t have a choice, and where he was never good enough to make his own decisions. Where his mother never glanced at him with a note of genuine care.

He rose from his spot, Louis’ hand sliding off him. He couldn’t look back as he strode away, exiting without a word through the patio door in rigid, laboured motions. His throat was closing in on itself, heart heavy, and eyes filling with hot tears. He kept going, heading through the darkness coming down on the garden, embracing it as it enveloped him and swallowed him whole. He couldn’t see his feet on the grass, but he could hear the waves washing up against the shore, hiccupping as the tears all but slipped over the edge.

He strode until the gazebo came into sight. A lamp was lit inside, and it redirected his aimless feet toward it, longing for something warm and comfortable. It was the only place he felt completely at peace. He entered, and fell into a heap of limbs on the floor, wrapping his arms around his legs, as his respiration got tougher to control. His shoulders shook, his breathing struggling fiercely with his lungs.

“Darling, are you okay?”

Harry looked up to find Louis there, on the threshold, looking down at him worriedly. His hair flopped above his forehead, one of the braces threatening to slip off his shoulder. Watching him there, caring enough to follow him out here, Harry’s breath hitched, and he broke into tears. Louis gasped at the fact, and instantly sank to the floor in front of him, reaching out to touch him. The tears burned crisply on his cheeks, and he blinked against them, lashes wet, and squeezing his eyes shut he felt Louis’ hands grasp his wrists, thumbs stroking gently.

Harry swayed slowly as he cried, Louis scooting closer until his face hovered in front of his, hands soothingly running up his arms. He was close enough that Harry’s legs were in the way, and Louis carefully untangled his arms, lifting Harry’s right leg enough to place it over his own thigh, moving further into his proximity. Harry’s left leg fell lax to the floor, and Louis propped his own foot behind Harry’s hip, thigh resting on top of his.

Closely knit, only inches from one another’s chest, Louis touched his skin were beads of tears shaped tracks. “You’re not okay,” whispered Louis, the corners of his mouth pulling down in devastated slopes. His thumbs carefully patted his cheekbones, as Harry’s breath calmed a notch. Louis sighed, and pressed a tiny, tiny kiss to his nose. Another one landed on his left cheek, light and barely there. He continued, small doses peppering across Harry’s wet cheeks, kissing the tears away.

He ended up crying harder, the tenderness of it, so caring and perfect, making him shake within Louis’ arms. Louis pulled him in, cradling him against his shoulder, and once again it didn’t make sense. Louis wasn’t supposed to be this. He wasn’t supposed to be the only person who had ever made him feel this way. Harry couldn’t understand, couldn’t handle it.

“Harry,” exhaled Louis, fingers carding through his hair. “What’s wrong?”

“Everything,” he wailed, quivering down to the core of his being.

“Tell me,” begged Louis, following his rocking body attentively. “You can tell me anything. Haz… please.”

His hands cupped his face, and Harry looked up, sniffling and coughing slightly as he met Louis’ blue, blue eyes that weren’t far from tearing up, either. That Louis could cry just because Harry was doing so was overwhelming, and everything felt like far too much. He had carried that horrific feeling for weeks, and he hated it. He couldn’t stand it anymore.

He stared back at Louis’ eyes, and the other man gazed back, deep wrinkles in his forehead, hair askew, and arms holding Harry in an unbreakable grip. Harry doubted Louis would ever let go, lest he specifically asked him to. And that didn’t only refer to the embrace.

Louis’ lips touched his. Harry’s eyes fluttered close, and Louis’ nose pressed into his sensitive skin. His mouth tasted like it always did, warm, sometimes like coffee, or herbal tea. In that moment there was nothing but him, though, just him and his scent, and his mouth on Harry’s. Tonight, Harry swam in a lake of overbearing emotions, and Louis. He was tentative, careful not do something inappropriate, only humming in slight appreciation as Harry kissed back, tears yet falling.

He was wonderful. Everything about him was wonderful. Everything about him. Everything.

“Lou,” sniffled Harry, heart breaking apart.

Louis was kind. Louis was considerate. Louis understood him, and Louis shared his interests. Louis could scorch him with fiery sensations he had never felt in his life. Louis made him feel like he was ripping into shreds. Louis was the best thing, but his very presence in Harry's life stood for everything he had ever despised about it.

Louis’ lips — perfect, solid, and soft — kissed Harry’s again, their legs yet tangled where they sat on the floor. Harry shivered, Louis nudging closer as Harry went lax, collapsing in on himself. He was exhausted, and the tears picked up speed as his face rested against the other man’s, crying harder than he had all night. Eyes shut, he felt Louis’ arms reaffirm around his body, pulling him close one more time. One last time.

“I’m sorry.” His breath hitched, words fumbled and raw. “I can’t do this, Lou, I’m.” He shook his head vigorously where it had slid down to the curve of his shoulder. “I can’t anymore. I don’t… want this.”

Louis’ body had turned still around him, and Harry could feel him fight to keep his breaths even. But his chest stuttered, and Harry hiccupped, something inside writhing so bad it hurt.

“You don’t want what?” asked Louis, but he knew. Of course he knew. The silence, and the tension, was palpable the short moment before Harry spoke. The word broke worlds.

“Us.”

The gazebo felt suddenly cold, the atmosphere converting as Louis’ hands ceased to move in soothing motions over Harry’s back. It was quiet, and Harry’s eyes blinked open, an icy waterfall cooling him down to the very ends of his toes. Cheek against Louis’ shoulder, he couldn’t see much more than his jaw and the underside his chin. He saw him swallow.

He didn’t ask what he had done. He didn’t ask what had changed. He didn’t move. The tiny lamp atop the window provided the sole light, and it was sallow and dim enough that Harry could only barely decipher Louis’ features. It was darker outside than usual, and it felt fitting. Unable to move, Harry exhaled, breath landing on Louis’ skin, where the stubble on his neck had only just begun to grow back. Louis shivered, voice sombre and quiet.

“Is it because it’s your parents’ wish for us to marry, or because of who I am, in particular?”

Harry’s face scrunched up, and a horrible sob ripped through his chest. His hand came up to cover his face, which by instinct turned into Louis’ body in search for help and comfort, but Louis didn’t respond. He didn’t move, didn’t tuck him in, didn’t attempt to console, and Harry realised that Louis was not going comfort him as he broke his heart. Harry had to get on with it. This wasn’t fair to him.

He had to finish it, and he had to do it without ambiguity. “Both,” he lied, and he hated it.

This silence was worse. It was worse than anything Harry had ever experienced.

“Get off,” said Louis. He was petrified under Harry’s body, and his voice was so cool and unlike him that Harry internally startled, an irrational emotion of rejection catching flame inside him. The feeling was twisted, and Harry had never felt so selfish.

Rigidly, he leaned up from his chest, removing himself as quickly as manageable. Louis didn’t want him near him, and the least he could do was spare him of physical contact. Another sob escaped him, but Louis remained where he sat as Harry tucked in on himself, red eyes continuing to pour like there was no end to it. It legitimately felt like he would feel like this forever.

Louis’ eyes lifted from the floor, and he looked so distraught Harry lost his breath, as though someone had punched him in the gut. Louis’ blue eyes were bluer than ever before, shining in dark azure. His dress shirt was ruffled, his jacket left at the mansion, braces out of order. His grey slacks had ridden up, socks visible, and his buffed shoes shined under the light of the lone lamp in the corner. There was no one more gorgeous than him, and the image could have been a painting, placed next to Mona Lisa herself. She’d have been forgotten by his side.

Harry shifted where he sat, and his hand bumped into something on the floor. Louis’ eyes followed the movement, body still immobile and unreadable. Harry glanced down, and found a black book waiting on the floor beneath the nearest bench. The cover was worn, pages yellowed, crimson lettering scratching over the dark background. Harry picked it up, thumbs caressing the beaten surface for a moment, before reverently placing it in front of Louis. He didn’t know that would be the last drop — he only knew he couldn’t keep it.

“Here,” he choked, throat closing like a noose was pressing it shut, as Louis’ gaze abruptly flew up to meet his for the first time. Harry’s skin pricked; Louis’ eyes burned.

“No,” he said, and he sounded like razor blades ripping across skin. “Do not do that to me, I beg of you.”

“But it’s yours,” whispered Harry, as Louis hardly even blinked as he scowled back at him. “It’s always been yours.”

Crestfallen, Louis finally moved, shaking his head, lips tightly pressing shut. His eyes were watery as he nailed Harry with glowering, blue irises. “You’ve got no proper reason.”

It was almost frightening, seeing him hurt, angry, and anguished all at once. Harry’s heart was beginning to slowly tear at the seams. He felt a heartstring dislodge as Louis wiped a hand over his eyes.

“You eventually want to get married, and you want to have children,” he said, voice brittle as he rambled. “You want everything I do, even if the time frame is warped. I’d wait for you, Christ. I’d wait forever, but you just lied to me — you get that thing in your eye when you do — and, I.”

He said it as though the equation didn’t add up, as if there was a giant question mark poised above their heads, trying desperately to get it right. Louis inhaled, and the sense of query evaporated.

“You just can’t go along with it because of your unbelievable struggle with pride.”

Harry shrank where he sat, discomfort gripping him like a vice. Louis sighed, or groaned — Harry wasn’t sure, but he sounded exhausted and frustrated all at once. His eyes cut into his.

“You need to get a grip, Harry!” he exclaimed, and Harry physically jumped, shoulders jerking back as his eyes widened. “You’re so incredibly obvious — your family issues are transparent.”

Louis shook his head, incredulous.

“You cannot stand your mother, nor your father, and you can hardly talk in front of them when you’re angry. And in return, they are desperate to control you, so you lash out in moderate measures: you’re late, and stiff, and absent. You can barely crack a joke in front of your family, and I’m doubting you even know who you are in their presence.”

He ran a hand through his hair, exhaling hotly, leaving it tousled and awry.

“And I notice it!” he promised, expression sad and tired all at once. “I see the difference in you when you’re talking about music, and the things you like. When you’re discussing Monet, you’re a completely separate person! Harry, I understand what a colossal weight it has been on your shoulders throughout your life to deal with your family. Hadn’t Jack passed away, I doubt my life would have been any different from yours! But…”

Harry swallowed, blinking against hot tears. Another heartstring ripped off.

“But, Christ, Harry,” spat Louis. “You don’t even know if you like the school you’re studying at. All you know is that it keeps you away from your parents. You’re so tired of being controlled that you can’t even focus on yourself. On who you really are, or what you really want. You can’t even see that the five years at Yorkinshare only ensure you a future back at the van Styles trap.”

Harry’s flesh burned. Louis face was tinted with despair.

“Don’t you understand that a marriage wouldn’t be another chain around your neck? It’d liberate you from them. You could do whatever you wanted! But you’re so scared of conforming to the conventional, as if it makes you shallow, or a bad person. Reality check, pal: you’re already taking their money, and only to get a degree you’ll end up using to work with your own father! Marry me, or not — in this precise moment you are still looking at the very same outcome.”

Louis’ eyes softened, his entirety breathless, rough, and teary as he stared at Harry.

“You better sort yourself out for your own sake. I bloody hope you do, because I love you so unfathomably much. Just remember that when you’re done, I won’t be here waiting for you, because you fucked it up. Because you let something that I know you feel is right go, and only ‘cause you couldn’t see past your Goddamn mummy issues.”

He shook his head, tears spilling over, wholly incredulous. Louis only remained on the floor for another minute, shoulders heaving as sorrow enveloped him, closing shut, solid and tight. He wiped at his eyes, knees visibly shaking as he stood up. He headed toward the door, and hesitated for a second, but didn’t look back, almost as though he didn’t dare to.

Harry inhaled, every piece of him dishevelled and disarrayed. He stared at his knees, couldn’t look at Louis, and could only hear the same words, echoing against the ceiling. It was a tough pill to swallow. Every word of it was the slit of a razor across his skin. Every syllable created a separate wound, and each letter ripped him apart from the inside.

The tears rolled over the edge when Louis exited the gazebo, and walked out. Out of… out of everything.

I won’t be here.

Harry’s chest broke in two, an earthquake slitting through the midst of his torso, and letting his intestines pour onto the floor. He felt wide open, broken up in clear paragraphs for the first time in his life. He had been a floundering mess of unfinished thoughts, notes, and jotted drawings, but Louis had read between the lines. He had deciphered every unclear letter, and discerned the shapes of his sentences, torn apart his pages where they didn’t make sense, and rearranged all of it until it was a picked, finished edition that was finally legible.

Every expression that had erupted on Louis’ face reiterated in flashes striking through Harry’s mind. They were salt in his wounds, because even though Louis had ripped him apart, piece by piece, he’d known that he was being truthful. Louis’ tears sizzled like oil in a hot pan against his skin.

Harry couldn’t move. He couldn’t lift a finger.

He had said he didn’t want him. He had said out loud that Louis himself was part of the issue. He hadn’t told a lie so foul and dirty in the entirety of his life.

His own tears slid from the corners of his eyes across his cheeks. They shaped tracks over his tender skin, dropping from the edge of his jaw, gathering at the curve of his nose, and wetting his lips. He couldn’t break a muscle into movement. There was a hefty, invisible cloud around him, misty and petrifying. Each bone stiffened into immobility, his shoulders carrying tons of air that seemed to suddenly oppose him. He didn’t know how long he remained in the same spot, staring into darkness, replaying Louis’ words in bundles and paragraphs, over, and over, and over, and over again.

A raw sob shook him alive, perhaps half an hour following Louis’ departure. It cut his throat open. It hurt. Breathing hurt. He couldn’t —

“Harry! Are you okay?” He felt his sister touch his shoulder, no recollection of how she had appeared. He heard her voice from what appeared like a mile away. “Louis left. Gerard said he was crying — what’s going on?”

“He left,” cried Harry, air screaming and protesting, struggling wildly through his body. His lungs shook, unable to handle his heaving chest and galloping heart all at once. His quivering hand reached for the book, grasping its side and painfully jabbing it against his own chest. Oxygen failed him, nature refusing to help him as he fought for air. His eyes squeezed shut so hard, yet he couldn’t stop seeing stars glitzing against the canvas of his mind.

His sister was speaking, but he couldn’t discern a word of it. All he could see was Louis’ face, and there was nothing in his ears but Louis’ sharp, direct, and joint-crushing voice. He had summed him up so easily, as though he had known the moment he met him. Perhaps Harry had been an open book from the start. Perhaps every damn person in the world knew the moment they threw a glance at his front cover, and thought cliché.

And… Screw you, Harry thought. Screw his parents for ruining him, for killing his very vitality. He hadn’t even realised how much he’d confined his true self in their presence until Louis said it to his face. He hadn’t even realised he was still doing it. That he still couldn’t even genuinely smile at something trivial whilst being sat at that godforsaken dinner table. That he hadn’t even smiled when his sister announced her pregnancy. He would become an uncle to a real child, and he hadn’t possessed the capability of cracking a grin. He hadn’t congratulated her, hadn’t said a single, darning word.

I won’t be here.

No, he wouldn’t. The only person who had ever completely understood him, and had never flinched an inch, letting him work it all out himself without intruding until the moment Harry pushed it too far. He got toppled over the edge, because Harry stomped the plank he’d stood on.

Harry clung to his book for dear life as Gemma sat by his side, petting his hair, and stroking his back. He couldn’t let it go. Louis had left it, and he could not for anything in the world let it sit against the dark and cold floor. Lucille had never deserved his unwarranted criticism, and Louis shouldn’t have traded her off for some stupid boy’s happiness. She deserved better, and the stupid boy deserved nothing more or less than he ended up with.

“I didn’t ask for him!” he wailed at Gemma, hours later inside his own bedroom when the clock had long since struck midnight. He hadn’t asked to break his heart, or to be lodged in a situation so skewed and difficult to understand. He hadn’t asked for Louis. For his smile, his azure eyes, and his weirdly untrendy, floppy hair that felt like silk between his fingers. He hadn’t asked for a courtship, or a marriage. He hadn’t fucking asked.

He couldn’t stop crying. Not even when his skin was pink and raw, his breathing having yet to return to normal even hours after Louis left. Shock had turned to sorrow, and sorrow now into a flammable anger, that gripped a confining hold around his ribs, pushing him breathless every other minute.

Louis had strolled into his life easily enough, asked him to be his, and tangled his fingers around his heartstrings. It had never been a finished arrangement, yet Harry had managed to end up in a situation where they felt so strongly for one another, where each second of the end had felt like dying. And now he was left with the emotions of a culprit, guilty of destroying them, like all this time he’d been tossing vases over concrete. They had eventually shattered, and Harry hadn’t even been aware they were filled with the stems of something growing, something growing powerful and sure, entwining them like magnetic forces. Pulling Louis’ fingers from his heart was more painful than he had ever imagined.

The vases, and their content, were spread around the floor in the gazebo, near where they had met for the first time. Petals bloodied and ruffled, stems broken and cracked open, thorns crushed, and all of it fading into a murky, brown, lifeless hue.

Harry lost hue. In the aftermath he felt shallow, like a shell of the person who used to live there within. Empty. All of a sudden, Louis’ absence was notable everywhere. Anywhere. In moments and places he hadn’t even expected.

It was obvious when Gemma would leave for the day with Gerard, their parents already out, and Harry would have the property to himself. Even after a couple of days, he wasn’t able to sleep through the night. Left alone to the mansion, he realised that he hadn’t felt lonely in long time; Louis had perpetually kept him busy.

It was less tangible when Harry would trail out to the gazebo, read for hours just to hide, before suddenly he’d feel empty, and lost. His wristwatch would tell him it was noon, and it’d take him a moment to realise that he felt restless and strange because Louis hadn’t joined him that hour. That he hadn’t sat down by his side, linked their hands, and hummed quietly as they attended to their respective novels.

Furthermore, no new letter arrived every other morning. Louis’ gorgeous stationery paper, his neat writing, and careful wording — none of it landed in the mailbox, and Harry found himself going through every old letter he had ever been sent in pure desperation and distress. There were dozens, several of which purely dedicated to literature, but also a few depicting the way Louis felt each moment he saw Harry smile. Louis had been so unsettlingly honest, and unambiguous. It was even clearer then.

One letter elaborately discussed Mary Shelley, even though they’d had a full-bloomed argument regarding her approach to writing the day Louis found out Harry had procured his own horror fiction. Louis’ need for discourse was perpetual and insatiable, and even after they’d talked for hours, he still had points to make, jotting them down in a letter Harry couldn’t fight him on, because he knew Harry wouldn’t write him back.

Harry felt horrible all over then, reminded of the way he’d treated Louis. It wasn’t all bad, given the positions they’d launched at, however, towards the end it wasn’t as innocent. Louis had asked him, concerned about his feelings, and why he wouldn’t write him back, and Harry had evaded it without a hint of consideration. Perchance if he had told him then, Louis wouldn’t have thought they were more solid than they were, and he wouldn’t have been as hurt.

It was neither here nor there, though. It had all unfolded already, and as Harry reread Louis’ letters, his praises and amorous declarations, and was reminded of how Louis had told him he was in love with him that night, the tears started to fall. They never stopped for long, anyhow.

His hands found Louis’ most heart-wrenching letter. I’m afraid you’ve really got me now. Yours sincerely, Louis William Tomlinson. He pressed it to his chest, and cried until he wasn’t physically able to any longer.

At dinner that night, Harry gingerly descended down the stairs, hair unattended to, eyes red-rimmed and yet stinging. He hadn’t so much as left his room all day, stomach growling for substance, his head too exhausted to care.

Gemma frowned worriedly as he walked through the doorway, hand cradled over her slightly rounded belly.

“Harry,” she sighed, taking his hand as he slumped into the seat by her side. The table was only made for three tonight, he noted, but didn’t ask. “Dad and Gerard are having dinner with a political friend tonight,” explained Gemma, appearing to have noticed his lame glance around the table.

He didn’t reply, eyelids slowly closing on their own accord. He was so profoundly tired, and his head never let him rest, not once allowing even the briefest moment of reprieve. Every day only seemed to get harder.

“Harry!” He didn’t open his eyes, knowing his mother was staring at him in shock from the other side of the table. He heard her sit down in her permanent spot, ordering the maid to serve them with the snap of her fingers. “What on earth is going on with you?” she bit out, voice sharp and hostile. “Have you been out of bed at all today? Look at that hair.”

He only looked up when he felt Petunia’s presence on his left, filling his plate and pouring red wine into his glass. Tenderloin, sauce, potato gratin. He wasn’t all that hungry anymore. Wine, on the flip side.

They ate in silence, Harry’s chews lethargic and apathetic. Gemma sent him comforting smiles every so often, pressing her shin against his calf now and then to make sure he knew she was there in case he needed her. He didn’t make so much as a sound, though, simply swallowing down each bite a challenge in its own. He didn’t even want to think anymore.

“That’s enough.” Mrs van Styles’ voice cut through the air. Harry’s eyelids were heavy, and he wanted to sleep. “This is unacceptable.”

“Mum…” said Gemma quietly in Harry’s peripherals, reaching out to momentarily touch their mother’s wrist.

“Harry, this is out of line,” she continued, head shaking as her arms crossed over her puffed chest. “You’ve been a complete mess for almost a full week. I don’t know what is wrong with you, but you better get yourself together. Take a shower, leave the property, and go see Louis. You’ve not seen him at all lately, don’t you think he’s worried?”

Harry’s mind writhed under the headache that had been a constant fixture recently. Shoulders drawn, he stared at his half-empty plate, impassive and silent. Louis wouldn’t be there.

“Mum, I…” whispered Gemma. “I don’t think they are seeing each other anymore.”

Harry didn’t know that hearing it aloud would make him damn near vomiting.

His mother’s voice was low and stern. “Excuse me?”

Harry’s stomach spun. His head felt like mud.

Gemma twisted nervously in her seat, anxiously glancing between her mother and brother. Her ankle hooked around Harry’s under the table, but she didn’t speak for him again. Mrs van Styles’ posture was stiff, and her shoulders tense, as her narrowed eyes ripped into Harry.

“What have you done, Harry?” she asked, every word stinging bitterly against the surface of his skin.

“Mum!” begged Gemma. “Don’t blame him, he is obviously distraught! Sometimes it doesn’t work out.”

“But it does. In this household, it does.” It was authoritative, a voice hardly worth arguing against. Except, there was nothing she could do. Louis and Harry were finished. Louis had said he wouldn’t be there.

Harry’s heart had increasingly begun to pound in thicker, heavier motions, the nausea in his gut stirring faster and faster. His mother looked like he felt; complexion wan, appearing almost sickly, hand clutched over her heart.

“I’m calling Johannah immediately. This must be sorted.”

Harry chuckled despite himself, the sound void of amusement. Something verging on hysteric crawled out with his words. “And tell her what? That her son better propose right this instance? He’s a grown man, for Christ’s sake.”

The older woman’s grey eyes flashed. “You know very well what the deal was. If this isn’t fixed, Yorkinshare goes.”

Harry chuckled again, but this time the sound was broken up with a painful hiccup. His eyes began to well up, lashes fighting wetly against the tears that accumulated. “Do you hate me that much?” he whispered, voice cracking roughly. The same pain he had felt since a child had never hurt as much.

By his side, Gemma glanced up, brows furrowing confusedly. His mother looked almost completely fazed. Her bottom lip moved, but nothing of substance came out.

“You don’t actually wish for me to quit university, do you?” he sniffled. “You’re just doing it to spite, and punish me.”

His parents were constipated with so much pride they threatened to sacrifice something they wanted themselves, just because Harry disobeyed them in another matter. He despised them for it, yet… he wasn’t any better, was he? Louis had said that Harry was tossing away something that was right, only because he couldn’t see past his other issues. Evidently, his mother had the same problem. His parents shunned university, and Harry rejected Louis only because he was something his parents desired more than anything.

Mummy issues. Harry appeared not be handling it particularly well. He couldn’t see past it, Louis had said. It blinded him to even his own personal wishes.

All of it should have been handled separately, but that wasn’t how it had unfolded. Everything had tangled into impossible knots, Harry’s anxiety acting up at the most inopportune moment, and directing the business end toward the wrong person. He had snapped that night, when his mother had mentioned children. As of late he had felt caged, and severely overwhelmed, and the urge to cut loose had been screaming without stop into his ear. He’d chosen to cut Louis from the equation in order to breathe a little easier, but in reality he had only deprived himself of another thing that made him feel alive. Gemma, literature, art, music… Louis was up there. He was one amongst the things that painted his insides bright.

It still confused him, had his thoughts running mad, never ceasing to spin around in circles he couldn’t catch up to. What did he want? What desires did rest upon his heart? For so long he’d been telling himself a marriage was the last thing on earth he would ever let them tie him to — he couldn’t remember the last time he imagined it with a genuine smile on his lips. Because he knew it wouldn’t be up to him who the husband would be. The faceless man of his dreams wouldn’t be standing at the altar; his parents’ dream would be.

But, what if his parents’ ideal suitor wasn’t even a slight cry from what Harry ached for? What if someone could be both?

His mother, yet stunned into silence, struggled to find something to say. Harry once again found himself shedding heated tears, shoulders stuttering unevenly in pace with his heavy lungs. He hadn’t cried in front of his mum since he was a child, and he had never felt so vulnerable sitting down the table from her. Gemma’s hand closed around his wrist, squeezing tightly as though she could feel his pain inside of her. Incredible as she was, he doubted she could completely encompass the extent of it. They hadn’t grown up with the same mother. Not really.

“I’m not trying to hurt you, boy. I’m trying to make you see reason.”

He shook his head. “But if I can’t marry Louis, and you take away uni, then what was the point from the start? I might as well pack my bags, and get a job down at the docks.”

Mrs van Styles remained silent, perhaps perturbed he’d finally caught the hole in the plan. Maybe they had known how much he hated them, and had used it against him from the start. Without money and school there was no possibility of escaping them, and he’d be forced to rely on his family. Only, their goal — Louis — had helped him understand that it may not have been so simple. He had said it: a fresh start without their wealth should have been ideal for him.

But even as he contemplated walking out, he couldn’t quite figure it out. They had talked about it once before, on the porch swing at the Tomlinson mansion. Louis had asked why he even wanted to go to Yorkinshare, and he hadn’t possessed a proper answer, only hearing his own voice repeating that it was what he was supposed to do.

Had he been so set on not doing what his parents wanted that he hadn’t realised what he did want? Evidently. He had scarcely even glanced around, and contemplated for a moment if whether or not it was his lectures and courses he enjoyed, or simply the environment lacking of the right type of pressure. Law school was easy in comparison to all of this, but he did he genuinely like it? In that moment, he wasn’t sure.

He stared at his mum, her grey eyes watching right back as her face stayed indifferent. He could see it, though, the unsettled flicker in her gaze, mutual understanding beginning to creep onto the table between them. He could walk off, and she’d have nothing. She could cut off his funds and thereby university, and he’d have nothing. Each one began or ended with Harry’s ultimate emancipation, only he had no clue if it would be negative or positive.

The third option would be to leave it.

His mother stood, retreating as it hung above them in the air. She swallowed thickly as she left her plate, walking inside without another sound. She wasn’t done, Harry knew that, but today it felt like she had folded. A small victory, it was, yet Harry didn’t feel as though he had won. How could he win when the war he fought was opposing his own mother? The only person who he ever had asked for.

Gemma’s hand clenched around his wrist. “I didn’t know it was this bad.”

He jerked off half a shrug, sniffling slightly. “Whatever.”

He could hear the confusion in her voice, even as his eyes remained on the plate below him. “But, I just don’t understand…” she whispered. “What happened with Louis?”

He swallowed against the knot scratching against the bottom of his throat, voice hoarse and scuffed. “I pushed him away because of Mum and Dad, and he knew it.”

Simple enough.

Ha.

Gemma’s words were low, earnest. “You love him, don’t you?”

Yeah.

“Does it matter, though?” was his retort. “He said he wouldn’t be here when I was done figuring everything out.”

“Because you pushed him away when he wanted to be there throughout all of that stuff,” she said determinedly. “So, stop being a knob. Screw Mum and Dad, and what they say, because deep down I think you finally know what you want.”

Perhaps she was right. Perhaps a silly boy was what he desired, even if he had messed up that situation already. He briefly wondered if Louis could forgive him, for all of the things, or if it was too late.

**

It rained that evening, for the first time all summer. Harry had retreated from the mansion, and sat huddled on the usual bench in the gazebo when the first drops hit the roof, and painted transparent patterns against the windows.

Temple resting against the suddenly cool surface of the window, lashes lazily blinking as he gazed across the scenery splayed out before the gazebo, the sky was greyer than he had seen it in over a month. The sand on the beach grew darker, wetter, and the ocean seemed to provoke itself into series of disruptive waves. Harry wasn’t entirely sure why, but it called to him. He hadn’t felt the sensation of cold rain against his face in so long, or felt the wind tug menacingly at his hair. As he discarded his book on the windowsill and exited the gazebo, he related to the sharp stabs of spitting rain, and the dull sky that appeared to contort rigidly above him. He even hoped for thunder.

He made it to the beach, keeping far enough for the waves not to reach him, save for the bits the winds stole from its surface and mixed with the unforgiving rain. His shoes soon turned muddy with clay-resembling sand, feet heavy as he proceeded along the shoreline. The sharp rain bit at his cheeks until they were humbled and red, yet he thrived under the punishing feeling. Perhaps it was human nature to thrive under self-pity — he wasn’t sure. He did know that for a moment it felt as though he deserved it.

Maybe he was being too hard on himself, maybe he wasn’t. Since dinner he hadn’t been able to think of much else than Louis, meanwhile the same two words the man has uttered echoed against the inside of his frontal bone. Mummy issues. Most people’s reaction to the same upbringing would have been to bend over backwards in search for their parents’ approval, but Harry’s instincts were rebelliously kicking and screaming for the opposite result. Which one was more pathetic he had yet to decide. Either way, Louis was probably right. Marriage could liberate him, if he was willing to look past the part where he’d please his parents. Being mature, he shouldn’t have seen it as an issue, but evidently the situation was what it was. He probably needed to gear himself, and suck it the fuck up if he were to ever get a hold of anything.

If he wanted to get a hold of Louis, that was. And he did.

As he ventured farther and farther from the van Styles property, crossing the line where their land ended, he found himself getting colder as the weather raged on, and his thoughts flashed like the lightning sizzling across the sky.

Suddenly it wasn’t about what his family desired or not, or even what Harry wanted. What mattered was Louis, and what it would take to keep him. Louis had from the very beginning been crystal clear about what he intended to be in his future, and Harry knew that he had to be receptive toward those pursuits if they were to make it work between them. Louis was a considerate person, though, who no doubt knew what it took to build something, and was positively willing to compromise.

I’d wait for you forever.

Harry found himself miles from the van Styles mansion. The sky still offered no more than ashy clouds, and his hair was plastered against his forehead, ears cold and skin prickled with goose bumps. The evening was turning into night, and the beach began to feel hostile rather than comforting. Shivering beneath his wet clothes, he turned around, heading back the same path. His racing mind had brought him farther than expected, and it took him nearly an hour to make the trek. His cold bones protested as though halfway petrified, and the wind began to hurt against his exposed skin.

Miserable, wet, and freezing, he returned to the property. The gazebo was still illuminated by a lit lamp sitting on the windowsill, the yellow light leading him like a boat to a lighthouse. He longed for a hot shower, but couldn’t allow himself to leave the gazebo quite yet. The punishing weather had scratched fiercely at his body, but it felt like a he’d needed it. His mind was refreshed, as though the last hour had written new ink into his bones. He knew what he wanted, and suddenly it felt a little easier to ask for it.

Chapter Text

5.

My dearest, Louis,

I would have come to see you person, but as it is I am afraid you wouldn’t want me there. A big part of me is scared of rejection, which is silly, because I have already hurt you twice over. Perhaps I’d deserve it.

At any rate, this letter is first and foremost an apology of sorts. Everything you told me, you were right about. I’ve been confused and unsure of what I’ve wanted for as long as I can remember, and when you stepped into my life, being you and unravelling me from the centre of my entity, I was pushed to the ends of my wits. I have never met someone who has undone me in the ways you have, made me question so much about myself, and evoked feelings so vehement and uncontrollable.

I haven’t known how to handle it — you, specifically. I still don’t. It has all happened so fast. As of this moment, I haven’t come to a decision concerning my education at Yorkinshare, and neither do I know how I feel in regards to it, or my stance in my family in general. I believe those, and particularly the latter, are things that will take time to figure out. I hope you understand.

However, as I have struggled with these matters, you have been a factor that may have suffered a great deal at the agency of my disorientation. I earnestly beg your forgiveness for everything I have done to cause you any pain. You deserve better.

Furthermore, I cannot promise my views on certain issues have fully transformed; I am yet working on fully digesting every new revelation that has descended on me. Of one thing I am sure, though, and that is how I feel about you. I am not a new person, and some things about me may never change. I’ll perhaps never find myself at peace at our families’ houses, or dinner tables. I may not ever agree with Lucille, or sometimes you. I am still Harry, mummy issues and pride complex included, and while I hate that, and hate me, I know that you love me.

I’ve come to the daunting realisation that I cannot be without you. I don’t know myself yet, or entirely comprehend the abyss of affection I harbour for you, but I think the moment you left me I knew this one thing: I want you, because of who you are. I am more than willing to meet you halfway.

You said you would have waited for me, and I desperately hope that this recess in the midst of our trial can be just that — a small pause before we carry on. Our verdict has yet to come, I suppose, but my decision as one of the two jurors is unambiguous.

I am yours to have if you wish.

Yours sincerely,
Harry.

Chapter Text

6.

The storm had disintegrated as rapidly as it had appeared. The morning after Harry’s impromptu beach hike in the thunderous weather, the sky was as immaculately blue as ever. The sun seemed hell bent on reimbursing them for the few hours void of scorching heat, and had returned more ferocious than all summer.

“Till the clouds roll by,” Gemma had told him with an encouraging grin that morning, and Harry had tried to reciprocate her optimism, but inside he was twisting something unprecedented. He’d posted his first letter to the man he hoped to reconcile with, the man who he knew loved him, but still couldn’t be sure of. Louis had explicitly told him he wasn’t to be strung along, but Harry didn’t know if the situation they currently found themselves in applied to the sentiment.

Harry was willing to compromise, to work onward with what they had. It was what Louis had wanted, and he hoped sincerely that Louis would accept his apology for how he had treated this whole arrangement. He hoped, and he waited. Admittedly, only a day and a half had passed by, but the prospect of never hearing back from Louis was enough to drive him up the wall. He finally understood how Louis might have felt at the start, anxiously waiting for a godforsaken reply from the boy he admired.

Joining his sister and her husband at the beach the following day just before noon, he quietly listened to their peaceful chatter. In her bathing suit, Gemma’s rounded tummy was tentative but prominent, and that Harry would become an uncle to her child seemed unbelievable, but the more thought he spent on the fact he found a surprising sense of excitement if he dug deep enough. Of course, such thoughts as babysitting his sister’s children led him further, and memories of Louis with his darling sisters were suddenly petrified within his mind. For a short moment, an image of the future flashed to life: the two of them sitting on the porch of their own house, Louis tan and in a handsome dress shirt and braces, grinning with a dazzling effect at Gemma’s multiple kids running round the front yard. For a moment the sudden image startled him, but as it settled he felt a thick knot building at the bottom of his throat. It truly was a case of not knowing what he had until it was gone.

He had heard the stories Gemma had told him of some of her French girlfriends; their significant others treating them poorly, cheating, or arguing irrationally. Trouble, and more trouble to come, but as he went over the successful marriages he knew of, he didn’t think he had ever been told of someone as gentle and kind as the man he’d gotten to know over the summer. Louis had driven him crazy at points, and rendered him thoroughly angry, but in hindsight he knew that to a large degree he had blamed Louis for more than was fair. Finally, as they’d had their first kiss, their relationship took such a fast turn Harry felt dizzy. He suddenly found himself submerged in a shaky haze where Louis made his knees weak. When Harry had ended what they had, something changed even faster. Louis didn’t just turn his body physically useless, but also his brain. He’d realised how much Louis meant. And now he was gone. If Louis didn’t wish to have Harry back, then at least Harry would know what he’d lost.

“Kids,” said a man’s voice, and Harry opened one eye to find his father standing by Gerard’s sun chair, beach towel and newspaper under his arm.

“Dad!” greeted Gemma happily, and grinned as she received a kiss on the cheek from Mr van Styles. Harry glanced away, and stared in the opposite direction as his father settled down on his left, humming pleasantly to himself.

“Nice to see you up and about, son,” said his father, and Harry merely arched a brow whilst being addressed by his father properly for the first time in several days. He wondered if his mother had discussed the argument they’d had in front of Gemma, and figured that either way it didn’t matter. He found himself in a strange state where they could either toss him out on the street, or shove him into med school, and he wouldn’t care. What he cared about was Louis.

“Here.”

It took Harry a minute before he realised that once again his father was talking to him. He looked up, and almost started in shock at the item that his father was holding out toward him. Toes curling around the sand he’d dug his feet into, Harry stared at the black cover of a thick book, crimson writing over the top.

His father cleared his throat. “I found it in a shop in Brighton.”

Harry stared helplessly, unsure of what to do, how to completely fathom it.

“Take it,” said his father softly. Harry carefully accepted the book, swallowing thickly as the older man once again cleared his throat, eyes averting, turning to watch the ocean before them. Harry couldn’t rip his gaze off the novel he reverently held in his hands. “I happened upon the gazebo the other day, and I had a look at some of these books I always find you head first in. I didn’t know you enjoyed this type of fiction.”

Harry stared with wide, awed eyes.

“I went to Brighton,” continued Mr van Styles, “because I figured you couldn’t be running around with these barely functional novels. One of them was nearly falling apart as I picked it up!” He shook his head. “I put your new copies on the bureau in your room. I also found this. The shop owner said the author is fairly popular, but this one particular story isn’t easily acquired. Paid a pretty pound for the location of that one… Supposedly it’s about this Lucy girl, who encounters some sort of vampires.” He waved dismissively. “Don’t ask me more, I don’t know enough about this stuff.”

Harry’s throat painfully dry, he shook his head. “No, it’s — It’s okay,” he said hoarsely, something sharp and simultaneously warm cutting into his chest. He gently stroked the brand new cover, fingertips adoringly brushing the red letters, and the picture of a pale woman bleeding from the neck. “Her name’s Lucille.”

Mr van Styles hummed, and for a long time they sat silently in one another’s company, the older man watching the waves wash up against the shore, Harry marvelling at the situation he found himself in. He clutched onto the book for dear life.

Ten minutes into the silence, Richard van Styles said, without looking in his direction, “We don’t hate you, Harry.”

It wasn’t loud, and it wasn’t quiet, and it definitely wasn’t a ‘We love you’, but it was the most honest declaration of affection Harry had received from his father in years, and it mattered more than any fight they’d ever had. He wasn’t naive enough to believe everything had suddenly changed, but it was important enough to have tears brewing in his eyes. He couldn’t find enough strength to thank him for the book, but he had a feeling his father on some level understood.

The four of them spent the next couple of hours on the beach. Harry didn’t return to the gazebo until the rest of the company decided they’d had enough of the sun, and by then his skin already felt a bit sore. He’d always had a paler complexion, and today the sun had been particularly harsh. Rubbing his left arm, he turned on the radio, and cranked one of the windows open to let some fresh air into the room. Sitting down on the bench, he brought his new copy of Lucille and the Healers with him. He carefully placed it on the windowsill, on top of a small pile of two books already waiting in the spot, and sighed quietly. Closing his eyes, he listened to the placating sound of Jack Hylton’s summer tune.

“Hello.”

Slowly, Harry’s eyes opened. He blinked, gradually getting used to the sunlight once more. There was a small crick in his neck from leaning against the wall, and his brain felt gooey from falling asleep in the middle of the afternoon. He wasn’t entirely certain what time it was, but it seemed late.

“It’s me. Did I wake you?”

Heart thrumming nervously, Harry turned his head, finding him stood on the threshold. Hands stuffed into the pockets of his trousers, his shoulders were drawn upward self-consciously.

“Yeah,” replied Harry honestly. He carefully rearranged himself, sitting up properly as he worried his lip. He could feel his heart in his throat. He suddenly felt overwhelmingly aware of every fraction of his body.

“I can come back another time.”

“No!” Harry shook his head, movement abruptly wrought with so much anguish. Welling up, he blinked furiously. “Stay. Louis, please stay.”

“Okay.”

Inhaling sharply, Harry reached for him, but he was stood too far away. Climbing to his feet, he crossed the open space between them until he could feel Louis’ even breath against his own chin. His blue eyes looked tired, and the wrinkle between his naturally rounded brows was deep enough that Harry knew this hadn’t been easy for him. He was inches from Harry’s touch, but felt so far away.

“Louis —”

“Did you mean it?” asked Louis’ strenuous, low, yet firm voice. His fringe dipped into his eyes, and Harry’s heart stuttered in his chest. “All of it? Any of it?”

Harry’s insides twisted at the thought of Louis not knowing whether or not to trust his words. But he had come, even if just to find out. Nodding slowly, seriously, Harry blinked at the tears accumulating at his waterline. Louis’ stare was sombre, but his fingers extended between them, hands apprehensive as they grasped the side-seams of Harry’s button down above either hip. Breath catching at the feeling of Louis’ touch that he had missed for so long, he expired a rough breath through his nose.

“Don’t want to be without you,” he whispered, fingers shaking as they tentatively knitted in Louis’ shirt. He shook his head, tears slipping out the corner of his eyes as he blinked.

Louis swallowed, and Harry could feel his chest moving beneath his hands, heart beating steadfastly beneath his fingers. “What changed?” he asked, jaw tight.

Harry’s eyes slipped to Louis’ chin, where a few days worth of scruff had grown. Inhaling, he said honestly, “I know what I want.” His voice was quiet and grainy, but it felt loud in the silent room. “I finally realised what you already knew, and it hit me hard… Been thinking a lot, and I’m trying to salvage what I can before it is too late.”

“Where do I fit into that?”

“Wherever you want,” whispered Harry. He shrugged, but it wasn’t at all that simple. “With me,” he corrected, hands tightening over the other man’s chest. “Anywhere you want with me.”

Louis’ frown was still hard, and desperation clung on to every piece of Harry: to his voice, and the way he grasped at him, hands sliding up his shoulders.

“Everything I said was the truth,” he said, begging. “I’m still working on certain things, but I know how I feel when it comes to you.” He shook his head when Louis didn’t answer. “I’d do anything.”

“Anything?” he asked.

“Anything you want, you can have it,” he implored, and in his mind he was rephrasing it: Take me, for God’s sake. “I told you how I felt.”

“Even if you… love me,” said Louis carefully, eyes unnerving, and never leaving Harry’s. “I still want things you don’t.”

Harry shook his head, shivering against the warmth of Louis’ body. “I’m willing to compromise. I will do anything.” When Louis didn’t particularly react to that statement, he frowned in confusion. “I thought that was what you wanted all along?”

Louis’ palms flattened out against Harry’s sides as he leaned back on the pillar behind his back. Harry’s chest deflated in relief as he felt Louis relax slightly under his hands. “It’s not what I wanted, Harry,” he sighed. “No.”

Not understanding, Harry stared confusedly at him. His chest felt tight inside, unsettled that he didn’t know what Louis meant.

“What I wanted was for you to see me,” he said, sounding resigned. “I wanted you to look at me, and not see a subject endorsed by your parents. I didn’t want you to see a threat, or another person trying to tie you down. I just wanted you to see me, Louis, a normal man who was falling in love with you.”

Oh.

Swallowing, Harry felt shame rising beneath his skin. “Is that what you really meant when you said you wanted us to know each other?”

Louis shrugged, a tiny twist to his lip. “You’re quite difficult to work with, you know.”

Chuckling despite himself, Harry lifted his hand to rub at his drying eyes. Louis caught it on the way down, grasping it in his and pulling it to his lips. Harry silently watched as he placed a gentle kiss to his knuckles.

“I’m sorry for how mean I was last time I saw you.”

Shrugging, Harry looked down. “I deserved it.”

“You didn’t deserve anything.”

“But I needed it.”

Louis stared at him for a long moment, brows furrowed and jaw clenched. His eyes almost looked wet, and Harry’s heart clenched. “Harry —”

“Please, don’t leave me,” he interrupted. His free hand shook as he pressed his fingers to the spot beneath Louis’ jaw. His heart pounded fiercely. “Don’t leave me,” he repeated. “Please.”

Staring at him with his blue, deep, gorgeous eyes, Louis sighed. “I love you, Harry,” he said. “That much hasn’t changed in a week.”

Expiring another sigh, Louis tugged him closer by the arm, placing Harry’s hand on his shoulder before winding his arms around his waist. Tummy fluttering, Harry didn’t wait to bury his nose in the crook of his shoulder, eyes squeezing painfully as he inhaled his familiar scent. He had missed him so much it hurt.

Harry felt Louis shiver as his breath brushed over his neck, and in return he felt his hands reaffirm their grip on his body. “Tell me, Harry,” he whispered, and as he spoke, Harry realised how much it genuinely scared him. “Tell me, so I don’t make a fool of myself one more time trying and failing to win your heart.”

Hands searching for intimacy, Harry’s fingers slipped into Louis’ soft, brown strands of hair. Stroking against his scalp, he quivered as he exhaled against his warm skin. Murmuring, he said, “I’m scared of a lot, but when I’m with you I feel like there’s no real reason to be. I won’t run away. As long as you want me, I’m going to stay.”

“I want you forever.”

Pressing his face into Louis’ shoulder, Harry tucked himself as close as he could possibly manage. “M’yours,” he breathed, verging on a moan, verging on a sniffle. He wasn’t sure in which direction he was heading, his emotions piling on top of one another.

Louis squeezed around him, swaying slightly under the impact of his weight. “You’ve got every part of me, sweetheart.”

Lifting his head, Harry met Louis’ eyes that suddenly radiated nothing but warmth and security. He tentatively combed Louis’ caramel fringe back through his fingers, thumb landing at the corner of his left eyebrow and hovering lightly. “I’m a complete mess, Lou.”

“I don’t mind taking time figuring everything out together.”

“That’s all I need.”

Louis tilted his head aside for a moment, and something familiar sparkled in his blue eyes shortly. “What about a kiss?”

Cheeks warming, Harry nodded willingly, heart pumping hotly as Louis’ right hand reached up to cradle his jaw. Tentatively reaching up to encircle Louis’ same wrist with his own hand, Harry closed his eyes as Louis’ thumb gently stroked over his pink cheek. A moment later, he felt him lean in and place a careful, but firm kiss onto his lips. Flashes of electricity sparked throughout Harry’s body, like light bulbs turning on and off at fast intervals, fiery and hot, making his breathing rough. He knew Louis felt the very same when he heard his soft groan against his mouth, and by then he already knew that within every word they’d just exchanged there was nothing but truth.

**

Louis’ lips tasted sweet. It wasn’t a sugary type of sweetness, but rather as though a testament to his personality. His kisses were soft, although a little rough around the edges. His beard that had grown out for the last few days kept rubbing against Harry’s skin, and though it was far from unpleasant it left his cheeks raw. His hands, however, they were always gentle. The best feeling in the world was his fingertips on Harry’s sensitive skin.

His thumbs rested at the very corners of Harry’s mouth, and his nose pressed into the spot just on the left of Harry’s as he tenderly sucked on his lips.

“M’sorry,” hummed Louis against him, to which Harry released a feeble, protesting noise, tightening his fingers in the back of Louis’ hair. His pinkies rested at the nape of his neck, where he’d just found out his skin was unnaturally soft. “Will let you go eventually. Just can’t yet.”

“Don’t,” moaned Harry, pushing his mouth against him, and firmly roped his right leg around Louis’ calf.

Louis closed his eyes, and inhaled through his nose as though the proximity of their bodies overwhelmed him. “If you do that I’m not going to be able to control myself.”

Something syrupy melted throughout him. He swallowed. “I want to.”

“No, you don’t…” said Louis, but his fingers sank down to Harry’s hips, and a large grin tugged on his mouth. “You’ve just missed me.”

Harry’s eyes fluttered shut. “Thought that was clear. Are you very pleased?”

Louis’ front teeth bit lightly at Harry’s bottom lip, and his stomach jumped at the feeling. “Very much so…” He kissed him softly. “… very much in love with you.”

Harry sighed happily, and laced his arms around Louis’ neck. He gave the shell of Louis’ ear a small peck, digging his nose into his hair. For the last hour they had been stood against the same pillar, in the doorway of the gazebo. It didn’t feel real yet. It felt like they could do whatever they wanted, and it wouldn’t quite count when they stepped outside.

“My father bought me a copy of Lucille,” murmured Harry, lips nudging Louis’ tan neck.

“Hm?” mumbled Louis, and suddenly the entire scene on the beach bubbled out of him. Every feeling, every brief thought, it all left him without resistance. Shuddering as he spoke, he realised how right it felt telling Louis all of it without holding anything back. He had never felt so relieved, getting something that felt like thick glue off his chest.

Louis listened without interruption, silently stroking Harry’s back as he stuttered through the sentences, practically shaking as the argument with his mother came up. It felt so strange that while the subject was difficult to discuss, Louis made it easy to speak. He had never once judged him, and unlike Gemma he somehow had come to fully understand the relationship that had developed between Harry and his parents.

Sniffling quietly as he finished, his head rested on Louis’ shoulder. His fingers grasped at his shirt, and though he was plastered to his body he couldn’t get close enough.

“I think your dad may have wanted to make peace,” murmured Louis.

“That’s why he bought me the books?”

“I was referring to the last bit, particularly.” Louis’ thumbs rubbed his waist. “They don’t want you to abandon the family, and I think if you were to tell me to leave you now, they wouldn’t touch your funds.”

Frowning, Harry blinked with wet lashes. “I won’t, though. I want you.”

“Right,” inhaled Louis, and pressed a kiss to his hair.

Harry swallowed against a hiccup, burrowing further against him. “And this wedding… thing.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.” He swallowed. “When would that be?”

Louis raised his head, and he met Harry’s eyes properly. “Whenever we wish for it to be,” he said seriously. “We could be quick, and get married in a chapel near home, and spend midterm somewhere warm and beautiful. Or… perhaps we get married here. Next summer, when I’ve finished my education, and we’ve had time to adjust.”

Bewildered, Harry stared at him. “We would be engaged an entire year before we’d marry.”

“I know our parents would wish for us to marry as soon as possible, but I…” He lifted a shoulder in half a shrug, voice slow and sure. “I want you to be happy. And though you say you want me, this entire ordeal has only just settled for you. I think you need some time, and I am willing to wait for it.”

The hard knot at the bottom of Harry’s throat that had just begun to disappear returned at a rapid speed. It was a compromise, one that considered both of their feelings and needs simultaneously. They weren’t even close to officially engaged, but right then Harry had never felt more certain in his life. Louis was the best thing that could have happened to him.

Voice shaking, he said, “Summer’s not over yet. You might change your mind.”

Releasing a snorting laugh, Louis shook his head. “Don’t think you’re getting away, sweet cheeks.”

Harry brushed a fallen eyelash off Louis’ cheek. “Wouldn’t dream of it, Lou.”

**

They tentatively fell into a new routine, one where covert meetings and thorough snogging sessions were in play. To be fair, they weren’t hiding the fact that they were back to seeing each other as such, but Harry didn’t explicitly come forward to say so. Louis had never announced his visit the day they reconciled, and they simply continued not to. Louis would come over after breakfast, meet him by the beach or outside the property, and they’d go for long walks in the oak woods and along the beach. Most of the time they’d end up in the gazebo, or occasionally against a tree.

“I think there’s a bump in the back of my head,” complained Louis when Harry for the third time that morning pushed him against the nearest oak to bite at the spot behind his ear. He didn’t appear particularly bothered when Harry told him he’d kiss it better, though.

He felt a bit naughty, he’d admit that. He had always had the notion that certain things within a relationship should come at a respectful pace. They weren’t so much as engaged, but all of a sudden Harry wanted more than was strictly allowed, and at times he could barely keep his hands off the other man. He still believed the big things were to be left to a potential wedding night, but it was easy to forget the reasoning behind that when his legs were weak and knees shaking as Louis’ hands roamed over him.

One day Harry took Louis to Hoot, the gelato parlour he had frequented as a teenager. There, he taught him the perfect recipe for an Elle, as he had named the drink several years ago.

“An Elle?” said Louis inquisitively as Harry persuaded the barkeep into giving them permission to mix their own beverage, and with the consent he began pointing at bottles rowed up on the shelves.

“Liquor and liqueur,” nodded Harry as he mixed pure vodka into the plain milkshake he’d ordered with a spoon. “L and L.”

“That looks very disgusting, love.”

Sending him a glare, Harry pulled the chocolate liqueur from the counter and poured two tablespoons into the mix. “The cream in the milkshake masks the vodka, and liqueur makes the chocolate taste a bit sharper.”

Arching a dubious brow, Louis glanced at the milkshake. “I can see how you were a teenager coming up with this.”

Harry slid the tall glass across the bar. “Just drink it, halfwit.”

“Halfwit? That’s blasphemy.”

Sucking a sip from the straw thrust into the mixture, Harry proceeded to lean into Louis’ space until his mouth was a mere breath away. “Stop talking.” His hand landed on his thigh, and he inched closer until their lips brushed. “Stop talking,” he whispered.

Needless to say, Louis had the drink without much fuss. Cream flavoured kissing may have been Harry’s favourite type from then on.

It was strange to think that if he hadn’t been so stubborn, they could have had this a long time ago. Perhaps if Harry hadn’t struggled, they’d have been touching and muttering endearments against one another’s skin weeks earlier. When he uttered the thought, Louis surprisingly objected, declaring that if Harry’s relationship with his parents would have been any different, they may have never even met.

“You might’ve been engaged to some slimy knob already.” He shook his head determinedly. “Can’t have that.”

“I’d have taken you as my mistress, would you have wished,” smirked Harry cheekily.

Louis kissed his knuckles. “I’d do anything just to keep you around.”

Harry peeked at him over the top edge of his book, pressing his toes into Louis’ ankle. The bench in the gazebo was a bit small for two. “Lucky, aren’t you? That you’re promised to me.”

“Luckiest man in the world.”

Louis was more than generous with his compliments, as he had always been. Words that used to have Harry’s insides twisting hostilely were now making him blush, cheeks turning a faint pink. As they sat on each side of the bench, backs resting against a pillar attached to the wall, as they had often come to do, Harry could barely believe his luck. Louis’ gorgeous eyes, his soft hair, the tiny constellation of freckles on his left cheek, and his firm but comfortable body… That small crease in his forehead above his left brow whenever he was devoured by an exciting book, his gentle thumb stroking the inside of Harry’s wrist whenever they silently read in one another’s company… To think Harry a mere fortnight ago would have thrown this away was unbearable.

Knowing what he had, right in this moment, he wouldn’t have traded it for anything.

As much as they kissed, and as much as they shared quick banter over disagreements regarding trivial matters, they a lot of the time found themselves like this, in a comfortable silence. They often read, listened to music, wrote, or simply kept their arms around each other as they did nothing. Even when they weren’t talking it was evident that they were meant to be.

Inevitably, Harry’s parents found out about their reunion eventually. Harry was fairly sure that Gemma had guessed they might’ve been together again, especially upon catching him smile at the mention of Louis’ surname at dinner a couple days after it happened, a small bruise visible at the end of his jawline. She hadn’t said a word then, but he wouldn’t have minded if she had.

About a week past the occurrence, the two of them had returned to the gazebo from a short afternoon walk, but ultimately not made it far. Sat on the grass lawn outside the small building, Louis tugged Harry into his side, latching his right arm around his shoulders whilst his left hand cradled his cheek.

“You know how much I love this?” he asked, stroking his jaw lovingly.

Looking up at his face as he held him close, Harry nodded. “You’ve said,” he whispered.

“When did I say that?” mumbled Louis, bending down closer. Their lips were a mere inch apart.

A feeling of falling dropped through Harry’s stomach, and a warm blush crept up his neck. “When you said you’d make our first night special.”

He waited patiently for Louis’ response, feeling his breath blow softly across his lips. He was too close to gauge his reaction, but Harry could feel something heated curl around them. “Oh,” was what he eventually answered with, and Harry didn’t so much as inhale before Louis kissed him with a new sort of firmness. Usually Louis was good at keeping himself within reins, but Harry could feel him vibrating against him, breath desperate, and groan needier than he’d ever heard it.

“Lou,” whimpered Harry when the kiss turned wetter, deeper.

“M’sorry,” he apologised, but still held him as close as he could. Fingers cramping around Louis’ shirt, Harry exhaled, the rest of his body lax in his arms. “Sorry.”

Pursing his lips, Louis gave him a gentle peck, thumb light at the corner of his mouth where he liked to keep it. Harry’s tummy fluttered, and a brief thought breezing by wondered if it was possible to be this enamoured with someone he had used to want nothing to do with.

Someone clearing their throat, who positively was neither Louis nor Harry, interrupted the moment. Stiffening, Harry’s eyes opened, and he hesitantly glanced in the direction of the noise. Granted, they had not exactly been ambitious trying to hide, and they were bound to be found out at some point. However, being caught by his father, whilst in the midst of indecency, was not ideal.

Mr van Styles stood a few yards from the wicket, presumably on his way back from the beach. He carried a newspaper and a hat, his face tan but adorning a blank expression. Held in Louis’ arms, although no longer attached to his mouth, Harry gazed back uncertainly, mouth hanging ajar. He hadn’t known yet how to properly explain to his parents the present situation, but… this would have to suffice. It seemed.

He could hear Louis swallow, cheek still hovering by the older man’s shoulder. “Good day, sir,” he greeted, managing to muster up as much dignity as needed not to falter in front of Harry’s father.

“Louis,” said Mr van Styles, and his voice sounded surprised. It might have solely been due to the scene in front of him, or perhaps even that he hadn’t expected his son to ever go along with the family wishes, Harry thought.

A long moment of silence quivered thickly between them, Harry and Louis on the grass, Mr van Styles still stood in the same spot not far off. Gradually, the man seemed to collect himself. He reaffirmed his grip on his bearings, squared his shoulders, and raised his chin.

“Glad to have you back, son. Good evening,” and without much ado, he carried on through the garden toward the house. As he disappeared behind some bushes, a whistled tune could be heard.

Shocked, Harry stared after him, brows knitted and confusion tugging at the muscles in his face. “Is he… is he happy I’m happy? Or just that you’re back?”

Biting down a wide grin, Louis tapped Harry’s nose. “I think perchance both.”

And that seemed to be that. Harry’s father didn’t mention it, or what he’d seen, and neither did his mother or sister, though, it was clear that they were both aware. Harry continued spending time with Louis as he had done, keeping to themselves the vast majority of the time. Louis took him back to Traqueria, where they got drunk on Highball and Mary Pickford drinks, swung to jazz, and slow-danced to the ballads, Harry resting his head against Louis’ shoulder even though he was taller, placing kisses at the curve of his neck that smelled like cologne.

Naturally, it didn’t take long before Mrs van Styles invited Louis over for tea as often as she could conduct it, placing him next to Harry at the table, and doubtlessly imagining pompous proposals taking place at each sitting. Harry passionately ignored her obvious looks, and Louis persuaded Harry to come over to the Tomlinson mansion and spend time with his family. Despite unsure of his feelings toward Louis’ parents, he enjoyed seeing his sisters. Charlotte joined them a day on the beach, and Harry found a shockingly exuberant personality within the quiet girl, and was quickly enticed with her bright laughter. Louis loved that, of course, and instantly suggested Charlotte should come along with them to Wellbridge the following day.

Everything was going well, and Harry doubted he had ever felt so secure with a person who wasn’t his own sister. His friends at university were lovely, but as much as he cared for them, he hadn’t heard from them, or attempted to keep in touch all summer. Time seemed to roll by quicker than ever, and before Harry knew it they were a week into August. The weather was just as warm, but he had gotten used to the season, and everything that had come with it.

Blanket spread across the grass not far from the patio at the Tomlinson mansion, Harry had cuddled up to Louis as they were reading. Louis had found a new book that week, and could barely put it down during his leisure spare, meanwhile Harry was skimming through one of the novels he’d already finished years ago. Focus elsewhere, he heard the clinking of porcelain from the house, Johannah’s voice praising the pie their maid had baked that morning whilst Derek offered agreements.

Eyes trailing after Louis’ youngest sister, Doris, as she clumsily hunted after a yellow butterfly, Harry snuggled closer, digging his nose into Louis’ shirt beneath his armpit. He felt him tighten his arm around him, fingertips pressing into the back of his shirt, gaze on the book. “So,” he said.

“So?” hummed Louis back distractedly.

“So, would you take my name if I said yes?” He watched Louis’ gaze still slightly, focus on the letters turning off. “I’m not proposing,” he added seriously. “Just so you know.”

Louis chuckled, and dropped the book to wrap both of his arms around Harry’s torso, planting a small kiss on his nose. “Do you want me to? Take your name, that is?”

“I don’t know,” answered Harry honestly, fingers grasping Louis’ upper arm, able to feel his chest moving against himself where they lied.

Louis shrugged. “I always figured you would like to disassociate yourself with the van Styles name, but it’s your choice, naturally.” He frowned. “Louis van Styles sounds a bit odd on the tongue.”

“Harry Tomlinson, too.”

Louis bit his lip, the corners of his mouth tugging upward. “I could get used to it…”

“You could, couldn’t you?” he muttered, and tugged on one of his braces. It snapped against his chest, and Louis caught his hand, keeping him from ‘damaging sacred art’ as he’d once put it when Harry wouldn’t quit teasing him, doing it over and over again. Hand confined by Louis’ smaller one, Harry closed his eyes, revelling in the sweet proximity of his warm body.

His lips nudged the spot between Harry’s brows as he amiably asked, “Are you getting used to the idea of married life?”

“Yeah…” He felt Louis’ eyes on his face, and though it was a careful reply, he was too comfortable to look up and meet them.

“Really?”

“Yes,” he said honestly, finger pressing into Louis’ thumb.

“How so?”

“You know…”

“I don’t,” he chuckled.

Opening one eye to send him a small scowl, Harry huffed, “You just wish for me to tell you all the ways I imagine being with you. You get off on it.”

Cackling loudly, Louis proceeded to press closer, hovering over him. “Get off on it…” he repeated, scoffing. “If that’s what you call it. Fine.”

Lifting his free hand to let his fingers sift through the hair at Louis’ nape, Harry gazed up at his smiling, blue eyes. “I was joking.”

“You weren’t.”

“I was! But now that I know…”

“Untangle your legs from mine right this instance, Harry,” ordered Louis, shaking his head at him exasperatedly. “We’re right in front of the majority of my family.”

Grinning impishly, Harry licked his lips indecently, making Louis sigh and avert his eyes even though he couldn’t manage to refrain from smiling at Harry’s antics.

Undoing Harry’s hand from his hair and relocating it to the blanket above his head, Louis said, “I am fairly certain my mother is sending me dark looks from the patio. She believes I’m being obtrusive. Would you please let me make some space between us, dear?”

Harry snorted. “You’re not exactly snogging me.”

“Still obscene.”

He licked his lip. “You could be snogging me.”

Louis gave him a look. “Yeah, you’d like that, wouldn’t you?”

Raising his head, even uncomfortable as it was lying on his back, Harry brushed his chin against Louis’. “As if you wouldn’t.”

Seemingly giving in, Louis slowly nodded against him, nose bumping into his cheek. He leaned down, letting Harry put his head down on the ground, mouth ghosting over his lips. “Very much would… but not here.”

Louis about to lean away, Harry’s brows pulled together, and he roped his arms around Louis’ neck, locking him in a hard embrace as he placed a firm kiss onto his mouth. He heard him grunt in protest, but Harry didn’t keep him long. Free from his arms, Louis shoved him off as Harry laughed.

“You absolute menace, Harry.”

Harry shifted closer, rolling his eyes as he caught Louis’ suspicious stare. “I’m not going to.”

“Promise? I don’t want to subject my sisters to more than they’re capable of handling, alright?”

Chuckling, Harry nodded, hands reaching for Louis’ chest and carefully slipping under his braces. Sighing, Louis embraced him gently. “I can be good,” mumbled Harry as Louis picked up his book, and they fell back into their original state. “See?”

“I see it.” Louis’ lips brushed over the shell of Harry’s ear, sending shivers down his sides, and making his stomach jump as three pretty words were whispered into his ear. “I love you.”

Warm and at ease, Harry nodded, worrying his lip as his thumb stroked over Louis’ chest. “I know,” he whispered.

**

Everything was going well. Excellent, even. Louis seemed to very much agree, and he was perpetually making sure they were on the same page. It wasn’t necessary, but Harry could see why he did it.

Mid August was nearing, and in September university was set to resume business. That an official engagement would commence at the end of summer only seemed logical. Harry could see his mother’s concerned looks whenever Louis left the property without having serenaded his deepest, loving feelings for her son, and as amusing as it was, it was getting on his nerves. Despite having agreed to a future with Louis, his mum disturbed him, and he was convinced that if she were to have what she wanted, then it’d be handed to her in the manner that the two of them pleased.

Mostly he managed to control himself in her presence, but sometimes one of her looks would be a smidge too difficult to handle. The previous evening, sat inside the living room, he had seen the way she’d knitted her fingers and stiffly tugged on her own wedding ring whilst staring at Louis, as though the motion would magically help the cause. Internally hardening and biting his cheek, he’d slid his hand onto Louis’ upper thigh, squeezing until Louis’ fingers closed around his wrist, and a thick vein in Mrs van Styles’ neck looked about ready to pop. She’d gone to bed early that night, and as Harry returned to the mansion the following morning after a quick ocean swim, he had yet to see her again.

An official engagement did seem logical. Returning home, up north, a new chapter was set to begin, and Harry didn’t find it at all unappealing. Only, Louis had yet to propose.

Determined not to reflect any further on the matter, he headed upstairs to clean up and get ready for the day. Louis had promised to come see him at noon, and it was already nearing eleven as he exited the shower. Humming quietly, he dried his skin with a towel, stepping into pants and brown slacks. Mind drifting off to sweet places, he found himself replaying moments he’d shared with Louis, thoughts lingering on the feeling of his hands, or lips, like they so often did when his brain was left with a free moment. After choosing a white dress shirt, he opted to add a vest on top of it, lazily doting a bit of cologne under his jaw. Twenty minutes past, he descended down the staircase, planning to wait outside until Louis would join him later on. A small pep in his step, he headed past the living room entrance, and would have passed it unknowingly had he not heard a familiar laugh.

Frowning, he came into a stop. Taking a step back, he glanced into the room, confirming what he’d suspected as he saw Louis on the sofa in the midst of it. Brows knitted, he glanced at the watch on his wrist, verifying the fact that Louis was indeed significantly early. It was far from an issue, but it was the fact that he hadn’t been alerted to his arrival that bewildered him. He could have been sent for, but instead Louis was sitting at the coffee table with Harry’s father in the armchair close by, talking amicably with pleasant smiles on their faces.

Swallowing, he was ready to walk into the living room and greet his intended, when Louis seemed to reach into the pocket of the jacket he’d laid on the seat by his side. Heart in his throat, Harry watched him extract a small, navy blue, velvet box.

Oh.

Oh.

A deep, pink blush began expanding across his chest. It crept up his throat, and coloured his cheeks, warming his neck and back. He abruptly felt so hot, the flush crashing over him like a thick wave, while a completely new, weird feeling coiled in his gut. Taking two steps back, he disappeared around the corner of the wall, running a shaky hand through his hair.

How could so much change in just two months? Arriving in Deansville in June, he’d told himself he’d be in and out of town in the blink of an eye, planning to persevere and leave no trace behind. As it had turned out, clocking in he’d entered one person, and clocking out exited someone almost entirely different. Among his schoolmates back at Yorkinshare, he’d been somewhat known for being thoroughly uninterested in the antics of their wealthy families. Returning, he’d be engaged. How? they would presumably ask, and he would answer that, well, he met a boy. A man. The best man he could have ever imagined being his betrothed.

Hurrying outside through the kitchen door, his stomach fluttered, and a quick smile pulled on his lips. Breathless, he made a beeline for the garden, sitting down to catch his breath on one of the benches, surrounded by rose bushes. It was happening, and it made him nervous, and a bit scared, but it was Louis.

Unsure of how long he’d waited, he glanced at his watch when he eventually spotted Louis leaving the house and stepping out on the patio. It wasn’t noon yet, but Louis looked for him, gaze searching the property as far as he could see. Watching him, Harry had to press a hand to his stomach, a flutter so sensuous inside him he felt genuinely motion sick. That gorgeous man had no clue to the feelings he created within Harry. Seeing Louis perk up the moment his eyes found him only made it worse.

“Heaven’s sake,” he muttered as Louis neared him, chiding himself as butterflies volleyed up his throat. “Get a grip.”

“Are you talking to yourself?” asked Louis, raising a brow as he grasped Harry’s hand, subsequently giving his knuckles a greeting kiss. He sat down by his side, smile bright and the soft skin around his eyes crinkling passionately.

“Yes,” he replied honestly, gnawing on his bottom lip. Louis had shaved again, and his hair was down in the unmodern, cheeky fringe Harry deeply adored. Just the thought of what hid in the jacket Louis had hung over the back of the bench made his belly tingle. “When did you arrive?” he whispered, because he simply had got to do it. “You’re ten minutes early.”

“Just now,” lied Louis. He tilted his head to the side. “Are you complaining?”

Inhaling, sharp and quiet, Harry’s teeth sunk into the inside of his lip, forcing down the gargantuan smile threatening to spread across his face. He shook his head, certain he was failing to keep his dimples from becoming visible in his cheeks. As much was affirmed when Louis gently touched face.

“Didn’t think so, sweetheart,” he grinned contentedly.

“I’d like a kiss,” requested Harry, voice quiet, but tinged with unfettered happiness.

“What he asks for, he shall have,” said Louis, tone humorous, but Harry’s bones were about to melt as he lifted his hands to cradle his face. Fingers slipping into his hair behind his ears, he whimpered softly as Louis fitted his lips against his, moving with a comfortable ease that shouldn’t have made him feel such desperate, scorching things. “I love the way you sound,” murmured Louis, palm warm and heavy where it had come to rest over Harry’s belly.

And Harry wanted him all over himself.

Leaning closer as Louis retreated, he frowned, fisting his shirt between his fingers. “Lou.”

Shaking his head, Louis stood, a blinding smile illuminating his breath-taking, blue eyes. “Come on, H. Got so many important things to do today. Let us go.”

That new, strange tingling in his tummy erupted once more, and Harry could do nought but nod and take Louis’ hand. “Where are we going?” he asked, heart making two beats a second.

Frowning, Louis looked at him. “The pier by the wharf. You wanted to go today, didn’t you say?”

“Oh.” Blinking, a little caught off guard, Harry nodded. “I forgot.”

Giving him a sweet smile, Louis’ thumb caressed the top of his hand. “Let’s go, darling.”

Advancing toward the mansion, Harry glanced behind them, and more precisely at the jacket Louis had left on the bench. “Love, don’t you need your jacket?” he asked, eyebrows furrowed.

“It’s a little hot for it, don’t you think?” He tugged on Harry’s hand, and he reluctantly complied. Louis grinned at his bothered expression. “I think we’ll manage fine, sweetheart.”

Needless to say, Louis did not propose that day on the pier. To be fair, the wharf wasn’t the most romantic of places, and perchance not exactly appropriate for the gesture. Considering the situation that evening in his room, Harry supposed if he were to be proposed to by someone his family endorsed, the proposal itself would most plausibly occur for them to see it. It was only how it was to be done, and processing the fact Harry sighed quietly, tugging the duvet further up his shoulder. He adored Louis, but Louis was after all the romantic, big gesture kind of man.

The subsequent morning, Harry joined his family on the patio for breakfast. Gemma’s belly was rounder and more protruding than it had been all summer, and it was obvious she absolutely loved it. Gerard was constantly by her side, and sat at the table that morning Harry missed Louis by his. Somehow the affection between his sister and her husband that he’d always found annoying, now made him ache for Louis more and more. He had him, but he wanted him there, at all times.

He had a swig of coffee, listening silently as his family chewed and sipped on tea, chatter quiet and serene. His mother looked brighter than he’d seen her in days, and indubitably it had to do with what had evidently been Louis asking Mr van Styles for his blessing the day before. Her pearl bracelet clinked against the porcelain cup in her hand, the smile on her face pleased and calm. Harry’s teeth bit into his cheek, repressing the urge to roll his eyes.

“Mum, you look just… rejuvenated this morning,” he said, because something inside his brain decided on acting a knob that morning.

He felt Gemma’s hard eyes on his face, but their father only hummed in agreement, appraising his wife with a cordial smile. “You look wonderful as always, Lillian.”

“Thank you, Richard. And Harry,” she added on, throwing him a glance. Harry simpered silently, internally grimacing childishly. “Actually,” said his mother, garnering his attention once more. “Your father and I have decided to throw another soirée here. The Tomlinsons have agreed to organise and host it with us. Isn’t that terrific? Even your grandparents are coming down for the occasion, darling!”

He stared at her, muscles stiff, lips pressed.

“What is the occasion?” he managed to get out, even though he knew, and he could see it in his mother’s eyes that she was very aware of it. He supposed some things would never change.

Voice melodic, she tweeted, “Well, it is the end of the summer. Folks are leaving town, returning to their homes and jobs, and we found it a marvellous idea to end the holidays like we started it. I spoke to Mrs Dorsey, and she just adored the concept. She’ll be helping us arranging the flowers!”

Gaze lowering to the table, Harry nodded in faint resignation. “And when is this event?”

“Thursday, at one o’clock!”

Right.

“Splendid,” he said. Well.

He’d agreed to this, and he had come to the conclusion that being with Louis was what he wanted more than anything else. He had never desired something as much as he did Louis, but… Their families were planning a party where Louis probably was to propose to him, and it was clearly to be quite the spectacle. Remembering seeing Louis chatting with his father, he wondered if Louis was genuinely in on the idea… and he didn’t like that. Except for the actual proposal, he didn’t like any part of the whole concept.

That feeling didn’t pass. The pit of dismay he harboured didn’t relent, and during the days leading up to the event, on which Louis ultimately did not propose on either one, it only grew. The thought of Louis getting down on one knee, in front all these people he didn’t know, or possess the smallest bit of affection for, just seemed pompous, and nothing like Harry would have wanted. He had never given much thought to what his perfect proposal should have been like, because as a teenager in his ideal world he wasn’t even certain if he would be on the knee, or other way around. The one thing he knew was that no scenario involved his parents, or a community full of pretentious one per centers. He… well. He thought Louis knew him better than that.

Overlooking the property from the window in his room the day of the event, he was certain of what would take place that afternoon. His mum had spent the whole morning getting the garden properly decorated, and it twinkled with flowers, garlands, and lights, despite the daylight. It was gorgeous, naturally, but Harry had never found much appreciation for such things.

The genuine tuxedo that the maid had left in his room was dark and thinly striped, with open notch lapels. The vest underneath matched its darkness, just like the bowtie, meanwhile the dress shirt was white as snow. A cane had been left by its side, but Harry didn’t intend to carry it. You know, in case the urge to whack it at someone got too overwhelming.

Groaning in dread as he watched the guests trickle into the garden, beginning to fill up the property, he squeezed his eyes shut. Marrying Louis was what he wanted, because then he could have him forever, but if they followed their parents’ lead right from the start, what was to say they would ever stop?

Taking his precious time getting ready, it was nearly two o’clock when he joined the on-going party outside. The garden seemed filled to the brim, and Harry had to brace himself for several moments before he stepped off the patio to make his way down the lawn. Inhaling, he stepped into the throng of people, feigning smiles at the ones who noticed him. Taking moment to get oriented, he finally spotted his mother by the roses, chatting with Harry’s grandfather, the older Mrs van Styles’ hand tucked in the crook of his elbow. Steering clear of that direction, he found Gemma in a different corner, her and Gerard proudly showing off her growing belly to anyone who looked mildly interested.

Sighing, he ventured toward a waiter, gripping a colony cocktail off the tray, pausing and adding a Bee’s Knees for good measure.

“Thirsty?”

Swivelling, he came face to face with Charlotte. Her big eyes appraised him quietly, clearly noting the two alcoholic beverages held in his hands. Her bleached hair was pinned and curly, lips red, but appearing light-years more innocent than most women wearing the colour. Her dress was knee-length as usual, and it shimmered in tiny Swarovski crystals.

Shrugging, Harry offered her the lemon juice based drink. “Bee’s Knees?”

“Sure,” she said, verging on a laugh as she continued. “Better take that off your hands lest you get too much of that gin in your system. Doubt Louis will be too pleased if you can’t even manage to say the right word today.”

Staring at the cocktail in his hands, he lifted a brow, biting on his bottom lip. “Right,” he replied, sighing quietly. Everybody knew, and nobody bothered to even keep it a secret. He gently squeezed Charlotte’s hand. “I’ll see you in a bit, yeah, love?”

“Alright, Harry.”

He turned, and instantly gripped a new glass off someone’s tray, not bothering to look what it even was. It took him two minutes to down the drinks, and before long he was working on a third and fourth. People came up to him to chat, but more often than not left him be after not receiving much to work with. Located at the corner of the garden, by a bush sculpted like a pillar, he watched the guest list mill about, all of them there to celebrate his imminent engagement. There wasn’t one person in that moment he would have liked to spend a second talking to, and he hated it.

As though to contradict the statement, the crowds opened up, and he found Louis suddenly in the midst of it all. He was dressed to the nines in a black tuxedo with peaked lapels, bowtie on, shoes shined and sparkling under the warm sun, hair pulled back from his face properly with gel. Handsome, absolutely dashing he was as he shook someone’s hand, socialising exuberantly with a toothy grin on his face, and crinkles at the corners of his eyes. He looked happy, and Harry wished so bad that all of this could make him feel the same things. But it didn’t.

Across the space, Louis’ eyes caught his. Blue, like the ocean. Harry’s belly fluttered, and his breathing felt laboured. He loved him so much. But he didn’t love this.

“Hello,” Louis seemed to mouth from a distance, and Harry’s lips tugged into a smile on their own accord. For a moment they simply watched one another, Louis’ brow arched over a demure grin, Harry worrying his lip as he regarded him back, feeling every inch of the love he held for him tingle in his bones.

Disrupting the moment, someone walked into Louis’ space, grabbing his attention for a second. Stealing the opportunity, Harry grabbed another two drinks, and slipped away from the centre of the party. His legs felt like clay going stale, emotions tangled into knots as he slowly walked away, heading down the property where nobody seemed to have ventured.

The gazebo came into view, yellow and wonderful like it had always been. The safest place in the whole world. Sat inside on the padded bench, among his books and writings, the radio playing a couple tunes on low volume, he felt a nudge better. Nursing the drinks he’d brought, he stared at his shoes on the floor, the corners of his mouth still pulling down with sadness. When he’d first seen Louis ask permission to propose, he’d been filled with pure happiness. He wondered if he was just being childish now, not getting it exactly how he wanted it.

“I know my man isn’t a fan of the social festivities, but I figured he’d last longer than an hour…” Squinting, one eye closed, Harry looked up to see Louis on the threshold, shutting the door behind him as he entered the gazebo. “Thought I might find you here, love.”

“You found me,” he shrugged, gaze returning to the glass in his hands. A third of a green lime drink still loitered at the bottom of it.

Louis settled down on the bench next to him, his thigh brushing against his as he tugged off his tuxedo jacket, laying to rest by his side. “I see you’ve started on the gin.” Harry raised the glass, silently offering him the last of it, but Louis shook his head. “I don’t like the mint garnish.”

Taking the drink from Harry’s hand, Louis placed it on the windowsill behind them, before gingerly letting his hand slide onto Harry’s thigh, thumb at the top and fingers reaching toward his inseam. He leaned into his side, eyes carefully watching Harry’s brooding face. His hand, light and always gentle, rubbed affectionately in its spot. “Some party they’ve thrown us, eh?”

Muscles stiff, Harry pursed his lips. “You didn’t help your parents plan it?”

Louis’ chuckle was questioning. “No?” He looked at him confusedly. “Is that what you thought?”

Frowning, he turned his head to watch him properly, brows furrowed as he moved into Louis’ proximity. He saw the slight incredulousness in his eyes, and quickly looked away. He felt Louis’ shoulder bump into his, hand squeezing around his thigh.

“Did you ask my father for his blessing?” he wondered.

“Yes,” replied Louis honestly, voice earnest but soft.

Harry nodded, but his gaze didn’t leave the floor under their polished shoes. He could see a hint of Louis’ socks peek out below the hem of his dark slacks, and he focused on where fabric met leather.

“Remember the first time we sat in here?” murmured Louis. “It was the first proper conversation we ever had, where you didn’t press your mouth shut each time I asked you a question.” He smiled. “You more or less told me to bugger off, and then I did, what I believe, is a form of blackmail.”

“Wasn’t blackmail,” objected Harry, throwing him a look. Seeing him raise a brow, he sighed. “I didn’t possess much of a choice, right, but… I’m glad you did it now.”

“Well,” said Louis quietly, “by then you’d already charmed my pants off with those pretty, mostly hostile and angry, green eyes of yours. I had to have you.”

“You succeeded.”

Louis grimaced, but his eyes remained warm. “Did I? Because you, also right here in this gazebo, then told me to leave you.” Harry stared back at him, frowning harshly as he met his ungrudging eyes. “Don’t apologise,” he said before Harry had even begun to open his mouth. “Because, in here, where we are sat right now, we reconciled.”

“I’m sorry,” said Harry anyway.

Louis rolled his eyes, a smile erupting on his face. “Shut up, I’m talking, baby.” He reached up and lightly tapped Harry’s chin, hand falling down to cradle his neck. “What I wanted to arrive at, is that we’ve had a lot of important, beautiful moments in here. This gazebo has been your spot for a long time, and I think that I am the only person who has really been allowed to feel as at home in here.”

Harry nodded, teeth sinking into the inside of his bottom lip. Memories seemed to flash through his mind as Louis talked, and his chest tightened with the emotions this man created between them.

“I know that I was very hard on you when we broke it off. I said some quite hurtful things, that I know may have been difficult for you to process.”

They had been, but he had needed those things to be said. This summer Louis had opened him to himself in ways he might have never been able to manage himself. Suddenly, it felt like he didn’t know where the hell he would be if he didn’t have Louis.

“I want to apologise for the way those things came out, but mostly I want to say thank you.” His thumb caressed the line of Harry’s jaw, so much adoration and love conveyed in one small touch. Harry swallowed. “Despite our arguments and where we stood within those, coming to this point, where we are in this moment, was very hard for you. I might not know to what extent you’ve struggled, but I know it hasn’t been easy. What I’m thanking you for is choosing me.”

Louis’ blue eyes drilled holes into Harry’s.

“You chose me, and us, all of that,” he gestured in the direction of the party, moving off the bench slightly, “over all of your inhibitions, and for that I am eternally grateful.”

Harry’s heart felt like it was about to crack open. He couldn’t do this. He couldn’t go out there, because then he wouldn’t be honest with Louis. He had gladly chosen to marry Louis, and he would love being his husband, but doing it the way that everybody else seemed to want — he didn’t choose that.

“Louis, I can’t go out there and — and.” He inhaled, throat hurting as his eyes began to water. Louis’ cerulean irises gently stared back. “Lou, I don’t want a proposal in front of a bunch of people I don’t even know. I can’t do that. I can’t do that, just because it’s how things are meant to be done.”

The gazebo was quiet, almost completely silent. Harry’s heart fumbled over a beat, and he glanced down, wondering if Louis could hear it, too. Inhaling, his breath shook as he looked back up. To his overwhelming surprise, when he met his eyes Louis was smiling, muscles pulling so hard on his lips that his eyes formed into crescent resembling slits.

“I know,” he whispered, and promptly sank down on one knee.

Harry’s mouth fell open, eyes wide was golf balls as he looked down at where Louis kneeled in front of him. His heart — his poor heart — beat faster than he thought possible, stuttering as though it were about to break from the excruciating labour. Louis’ eyes were shining like stars.

“My dearest,” he said serenely, smile unbreakable. “Harry Edward van Styles.”

Oh, boy. This man would be the death of him.

“I have already told you how strong and brave you are, and how thankful I am for it.” He attempted to bite down his massive grin, but it was futile. “Every day, I am thankful for a thousand other things about you. Every time you touch my hand, my heart grows in size and shakes my entire body as it beats so hard I can barely breathe. Every time you look at me, with your gorgeous grass coloured eyes —” he laughed quietly as Harry’s mouth pulled into teary eyed smile, “I’m genuinely afraid it’s a moment from collapsing. Every time you say my name — if it’s exhaled softly against my mouth when I kiss you, or if it’s hissed furiously at me while we’re fighting about stupid things — my skin prickles, and I realise how goddamn lucky I am that I get to be with someone who excels in speaking a name in a manner that summarises my entire entity. Because my world revolves around you. If you call my name, I’m there. If you tell me to go, I’m gone. If you would whisper my name against my mouth and ask me for more, I’d give the whole world to you if I could, because it all belongs to you.”

He gazed at Harry earnestly, hand slipping into the pocket of his slacks. Harry couldn’t rip his eyes off Louis’ for a moment even to look at the velvet box in his hand.

“I need you. I love you.”

Harry swallowed thickly, breathlessly staring into his eyes as he opened the little box below his vision.

“Will you marry me?”

He didn’t know how thoroughly he was crying until he felt the tears slide onto his throat, dropping from the edge of his jaw, accumulating at the corner of his nose. Of course Louis knew. Of course he did. He always knew, and he continued to exceed his expectations every moment they were together. Everybody else could believe whatever they wished, but Louis always understood.

He collapsed into his arms, breath silently hitching and shoulders shaking as he clung to him with all of his might. He felt him place the box somewhere else, arms then latching around his waist and hugging him as close as possible. “Yes,” whispered Harry, nodding seriously, nose bumping into Louis’. “Yes, I will.”

He felt Louis’ breathless smile against his mouth as he pressed close, his insides begging for the presence of his body against himself. He could barely breathe as they kissed, hands tugging Louis closer, and Louis’ hands tugging on his clothes as though he felt everything they way that Harry did. He had never met someone so in tune, who fit him so well.

“Where have you been my entire life?” he moaned, thrills shooting up his spine as Louis’ hands pressed against his lower back.

Louis exhaled, eyes aflame as they met Harry’s. “Waiting for you to come along.”

The world seemed to still around them. All he could see was Louis’ hungry eyes, and all he felt was his thigh between his own, begging for more. He shivered, brow furrowed as their heaving chests met in the middle. Without speaking, eyes never leaving his, Harry took Louis’ hand, placing it flatly over his own stomach. The fire in his eyes only grew, and Harry swallowed, tummy fluttering nervously.

When Louis wound his arms around his waist and placed him on the floor beneath himself, he had never been so certain of something in his entire life.

**

“I could do this forever,” whispered Harry, fingers carding through Louis’ caramel hair as his head rested atop his chest. It was loose and unruly; a work of Harry’s hands as he’d felt Louis’ mouth against his skin, warm and wet around him only minutes earlier.

“Lucky you,” mumbled Louis, eyes half lidded. His skin was still burning hot against Harry’s chest where his shirt had been ripped open. He could still feel everything; blush high on his cheeks, leg muscles weird after nearly cramping from tension, Louis’ hot breath in his neck and against his lips. After finishing, Louis had turned into log against his side, breath heavy and turning calm. Harry could lie there for eternity, images replaying and warming him from the inside out.

“And it gets better?”

Louis chuckled, nodding lazily. “It gets better.”

He placed a kiss on Harry’s chest, slowly rising to lean on his elbow. Harry watched him, stomach curling as he appraised his bare chest, slacks undone and slipping off his hips where he hadn’t pulled them up properly. The hair on his chest, and the trail leading into his pants…

“Stop looking at me like that,” reprimanded Louis. “I might not make it through.”

Defying him, Harry leaned up and wrapped his arms around his naked waist, inhaling his scent at the bottom of his throat. “Want to bet?”

He placed a careful kiss to his Adam’s apple, keening when Louis’ fingertips for a moment gently tickled his back. Louis’ palm flattened out against his spine, pressing him close to himself as he leaned forward to fetch the little velvet box off the bench.

“Look what I found,” whispered Louis, opening the box as Harry shifted in his arms to see.

The ring that waited in the box was one of the most beautiful creations Harry had ever seen. The band was ancient, white gold delicate and yet thicker than most engagement rings. In the middle, on top, a large diamond was woven into the gold, tinier stones embellishing its sides.

“It’s like you,” said Louis, voice still hoarse. “Modest, but bloody gorgeous, and blinding like the sun on the inside.”

“I love it,” whispered Harry, watching it with large eyes. It looked so significant, sat there in the dark, velvet cushion.

As if he knew, like he always always did, Louis said softly, “You don’t have to wear it now. Put it on when you’re ready.”

Harry honest to God didn’t know what he’d do if he didn’t have this man, one so benevolent, who valued and was so unbelievably considerate of the feelings he harboured.

“Okay,” he nodded, breathing the word against Louis’ skin.

It took them nearly a quarter of an hour to get their clothes into order, stopping to kiss every few moments, fingers lingering on each other’s belts and bowties. Harry couldn’t tear his eyes off Louis’ face for longer than a couple seconds at a time, and Louis swatted at him even though he wasn’t any better.

“Am I presentable?” asked Louis after he had tucked the velvet box into Harry’s pocket, mumbling that it now was his keep safe.

Harry regarded him for a moment, biting his lip to keep from chuckling at his disarrayed hair and red, bitten lips. “Perfect,” he answered, and kissed him on the spot below his high cheekbone.

Hand in hand, they strolled back to the party, arms swinging lazily between them. The band that had been arranged for seemed to have begun playing their set, and as they approached the crowds of people, Louis kissed Harry’s knuckled like he so often did.

“Don’t start laughing when my mum comes asking why I haven’t stopped the party to propose to you yet.”

Releasing a laugh, Harry reached out to brush some of Louis’ hair into somewhat of an order. “Promise.”

Joining the crowds, Harry kept Louis’ hand in his, unable to bite down his grin as they navigated through the party, avoiding the people they didn’t want to speak to, and hiding behind bushes to kiss a little more.

“Did he do it right?” asked Charlotte when she found them sipping on Mary Pickfords, not an inch separating their faces as they talked quietly. When Harry turned, she was looking at him, brows arched.

“Yes,” he said, nodding happily. “He did.”

“And you said the correct word?”

Grinning, he nodded again, whilst Louis sent her playful, narrowed look. “Yes, I did.”

“Good,” retorted Charlotte, smirking at them. “Have fun tonight,” she added, before leaving them to themselves.

“I like her,” said Harry, leaning into Louis as he watched her go.

“Well, lucky for you, she’ll be your sister-in-law.”

“Ah,” sighed Harry, “the best part of marrying you.”

Louis shook his head, eyes flat. “Pure blasphemy, that.”

“You’re not sacred, Lou,” teased Harry, heart making a double beat. “Besides, I thought the world revolved around me?”

Louis squinted at him, fighting a large smile as he tied his arm around Harry’s back, and said, “I think there’s a rule that says that what you say in proposal speeches can’t be used against you.”

Grinning back, dimples deep in his cheeks, Harry brushed their mouths against one another for a short moment. “Fair enough, future husband.”

**

It took a bit of time to spread the news. Charlotte was the first to know, and during the rest of the party where Louis was meant to propose, their parents kept gathering for hushed conversations, throwing not so covert glances in their direction, while Louis drunkenly laughed into Harry’s neck. When he didn’t make a scene in the middle of the party, it was obvious that Mr and Mrs Tomlinson were upset, and Harry’s parents more than. Harry didn’t care, and neither it seemed did Louis.

It took Harry a while to find the courage to wear the ring in front of his family. Louis never questioned it, and never pressured him to make the move. Instead he talked about travelling to Brighton, so they could find an engagement ring for Louis that Harry approved of.

The ring sat in the velvet box in his bureau, and Harry only ever took it out when he knew he’d be uninterrupted to stare at the gorgeous diamonds within the ancient gold. Every time, he would try it on, marvel at the perfect fit, getting used to the slight weight atop his finger. It wasn’t difficult to carry, and it sat comfortably around his finger without shifting out of place. Each time he took it off, putting it back in the box and hiding it, the empty feeling seemed stronger. He missed it, even when he’d only worn it for a few minutes.

He showed it to Gemma two days after the party, and she gawked at the diamonds for so long he wondered if she was just shocked, or was planning to steal it.

“Congratulations,” she’d finally said, kissing his head and hugging him close for a long minute. “Told you he wasn’t a slimy prick.”

He nearly whacked a pillow in her side, before he remembered she was carrying his baby niece or possible nephew.

The summer holidays came to a close, and Harry could see his parents becoming so frustrated they looked on the verge of simply asking what the godforsaken problem was. The look on their faces each night Harry returned to the mansion without a ring on his finger was wildly amusing, and they kept waiting for a proposal at each dinner they organised with the Tomlinsons, which were growing rapidly in number. One night Harry almost thought his mother would snap when Louis kissed him on the mouth, long and sweet, in front of all of them, fingers ringless and tied atop the table.

However, it did have to come to an end. They were set to return up north in two days, both of them having stayed in Deansville far longer than planned. The Tomlinson family had invited all of them over for a final dinner, and Harry had been wearing his ring all afternoon as he finished off a new book Louis had given him a few days prior. As he descended downstairs, joining his family for the drive uptown, he hadn’t taken it off.

They arrived by six, the five of them strolling up to the porch at the front of the grand mansion. Ringing the bell with his right hand, Harry stuffed his left into the pocket of his slacks, biting his lip in modest anticipation. It was the maid who opened the door, greeting them warmly and announcing the arrival.

“Hello, Jenny,” greeted Harry, smiling as the young maid blushed furiously. “Nice to see you again.”

Louis, followed by Mr and Mrs Tomlinson, appeared in the hallway then, his eyes brightening as he greeted his guests, lastly giving Harry’s lips a quick peck when most of the attention was being occupied by his mother. As their families proceeded into the living room, Louis pulled Harry to himself, placing another soft kiss to his lips.

“Are you flirting with our maid again? She looked like you did when I’d sent you that letter.”

Snorting, Harry shrugged. “What can I say? She likes me.”

“Come on,” complained Louis. “She’s only supposed to have a crush on me.”

Harry arched a brow. “You flirt with her?”

“So, you can flirt, but I can’t?”

“I can flirt, because —”

Louis leaned into his space. “How about I flirt with you?” he murmured, and captured Harry in a kiss that made his toes curl. He moaned quietly, a little tired from the day, and slightly nervous as he prolonged the kiss. Louis’ left hand pressed him closer, but the other one trailed down, about to link their fingers at their side. His fingers nudged the white gold, and, slowly ending the kiss, he looked down at Harry’s hand.

“You’re wearing your ring?” mumbled Louis, brows furrowed deeply as he examined Harry’s left hand, thumb brushing over his fingers and the surface of the big diamond.

“Is that okay?” asked Harry, staring into his deep, blue eyes.

Louis sighed, and tugged him into a hug, lacing his left arm around his waist, the other still cradling Harry’s ring-adorned hand between their chests. “I love you, Harry. Nothing would make me happier.”

They strode into the dining room hand in hand, taking a seat next to one another when Mrs Tomlinson invited them all to sit. The table was big and long to fit everybody in, even though only the oldest Tomlinson girls seemed to be joining them. Despite having been over for dinner several times, it always felt a little strange with so many people at the table. Strangely, Harry sort of enjoyed it.

Charlotte took a seat next to Harry, and as dinner commenced she had him in stitches by the time his plate had been filled. Gemma looked highly amused, and Louis was rolling his eyes as his little sister stole his fiancé’s attention from him. The meal seemed to fly by swimmingly, it appearing like Gerard and Derek having stumbled on a particular interest in one another for whatever reason. Even as Louis and Harry were clearly making matters somewhat difficult, it seemed their families had woven into one without adversity.

Before long, dessert was served, and Harry was grinning exaggeratedly at the maid whilst Louis squinted and poked at his waist under the edge of the table.

“Stop it,” he muttered. “You’re going to break her heart when we leave on Tuesday.”

Harry gasped. “Are you jealous?” His hand reached for Louis’ cheek, pinching playfully as Louis firmly gripped his wrist. “Baby!”

“Don’t be a little twat —”

“Oh my — what is that?” asked Mrs Tomlinson. She’d completely stopped, glass lifted halfway to her mouth, eyes wide and staring at Harry’s hand where it was held in Louis’ grip.

Gaze rapidly flickering between the ring on his third finger and Mrs Tomlinson’s giant eyes, Harry inhaled, his breath stuttering. Having completely forgotten, he was caught off guard, meeting Louis’ eyes worriedly before he even dared to glance in his own mother’s direction.

“Let me see!” hissed Mrs van Styles, leaning as close as she could manage from across the table. Hand still held in Louis’, Harry tentatively extended them toward her, giving her a full view of the ring. At that point, he knew the entire company could see it, and the tension was palpable as the silence lingered for several moments.

“Is that…” began Derek Tomlinson slowly.

“It can’t be!” squeaked Mrs van Styles, shaking her head vigorously.

Harry swallowed, fingers tightening around Louis’ as they slowly pulled back, hands slipping below the table. Harry could feel Charlotte’s sigh on his left, meanwhile Gerard seemed to whisper something to Gemma, both of who were already aware of the engagement.

“Is it really an engagement ring?” inquired Mr Tomlinson, staring at his son with confused, stern eyes.

“Yes,” replied Louis evenly, sending Harry a smile. “We’re getting married.”

The look on their faces was nearly priceless. It was exactly what they had been begging for all summer, yet the manner in which it had been delivered to them stunned them above all else. Harry’s heart pounded fast and hard, but Louis’ thumb pressed supportively behind the row of his knuckles.

“Well,” stuttered Mrs Tomlinson. “What about the ring your father and I gave you?”

All eyes on Louis, the older boy shrugged, meeting Harry’s gaze. “I figured Harry would like this one better,” he said softly.

“It’s —”

“Beautiful,” breathed Harry, heart pounding painfully against his ribs as their eyes locked. He mumbled, “Wouldn’t want any other.”

Louis couldn’t keep down his smile. “Good,” he whispered back.

When did this happen?” demanded Mrs van Styles, voice sharp and loud trying to interrupt them, eyes yet filled with shock. Next to her, Gemma pressed her lips down to keep from smirking.

“Thursday,” said Harry, smiling at the gorgeous memories from that day. It was a miracle he managed keep decent every moment he was alone with Louis, now that he knew what being with him would be like.

“But you didn’t propose on Thursday,” said Mrs Tomlinson.

“Yes, I did,” corrected Louis, and as he spoke Harry felt like flowers were growing at the tips of his toes, curling around his legs, and spiralling around his torso. “I just chose not to do it in front of a crowd of people. I wanted it to be a romantic, private moment. Not a thing random neighbours I barely know could stare at.”

His mother gawked at him, hand shaking as she reached for her glass of water. “Right,” she whispered, acting almost as though the shock was getting to her bones, too much for her to handle at that moment.

The silence grew around them, but Harry had never felt so calm and secure. Fighting with his parents he had always been fumbling, heart pounding as he nervously tried to make a point. Argumenting here, with Louis, it didn’t matter who won or lost. What mattered was that he got to say his share, and that was that. Winning or losing didn’t change matters. With Louis, he could do anything he wanted.

Harry’s mother broke the silence. “But — but. We have to begin planning then!”

“Oh, my,” exhaled Mrs Tomlinson. “There is so much to do!”

“We’re not getting married until next summer,” said Louis loudly, stopping them before it could progress any further. His voice was firm and authoritative, their mothers’ eyes widening. “We would both rather wait until next year when we’re not as busy with school, and will have had time to adjust to life up north with each other in it. Until then, we are making no sort of plans.”

“And what are you to do until then?” asked Mr van Styles, voice dubious as he looked at Harry.

Swallowing, Harry sent Louis a small, demure look. “I thought perhaps I could come live with Louis while we attend school. Bellmore is closer to Yorkinshare than Bradshaw, after all.” He bit into his lip. “If he’ll have me, that is.”

Louis’ eyes practically sparkled. “Really?”

“Living together?” said Mr van Styles incredulously. “Unmarried?!”

A little breathless, Louis nodded, smile still stretching across his face. “I think so far we have managed to be decent.”

Mrs van Styles lip twisted down. “Yes, we all know how much.”

As Harry’s cheeks warmed at the memories, Louis looked back at her, eventually raising a lone brow, and chuckled. “Fair enough.”

“This is giving me a headache,” sighed Mr Tomlinson, meanwhile Harry beamed at Louis, veins flooding with warmth as his fiancé grinned back in blinding colours.

“How about some champagne to celebrate the news?” suggested Gemma, smiling warmly. “Everything will be sorted once you get back up north. Until then, it is mine and Gerard’s last night, and we would love nothing more than to celebrate Harry and Louis’ engagement.”

The response was mostly silence, and it took a long moment before one of the maids hesitantly inquired if she should bring champagne outside on the patio for a celebratory drink. With Louis’ hand on his thigh, Harry watched Johannah Tomlinson swallow, meticulously folding her spotless napkin.

“Fine,” she decided on. “You are dismissed.”

Charlotte was the first to stand, and soon enough everyone seemed to follow her lead, slowly making their way outside. Louis quickly took hold of Harry’s hand, tugging him with him before anyone could manage to approach them. As they made it out on the patio, the sun was beginning to set, painting the sky in pinks and oranges, creating a gorgeous canvas behind the oak tops.

Before they slipped away, Harry heard Mrs Tomlinson’s resigned sigh. “Louis has always done things a bit like he wanted. I never could manage to have him follow my advice.”

Mrs van Styles huffed in response. “Harry is no better. He’s always been remarkably independent. I suppose those two fit, after all.”

“Did you hear that?” gushed Louis jokingly as he backed down the grass lawn, toward the woods where Harry knew a modest swing had been hung from one of the oaks. It was a spot where they were hidden from view, and Harry planned to take advantage of the fact. “I have your mum’s blessing.”

Releasing a breathy laugh, Harry grasped the braces off Louis’ chest. “The only one you’ll ever get.”

Louis grinned, and instantly leaned into the kiss Harry offered, pulling him close to himself. Harry’s tummy fluttered with butterflies, his body shivering even as his skin tingled with happiness. Looking into Louis’ eyes, he knew he had made the right choice. Tonight at dinner, and not the least the day of his proposal, Harry knew how much Louis had done to make him happy. They had both changed, and compromised so much to make this relationship work. And they had managed. It felt so easy, but it may very well have also been too difficult. Harry realised how much they were both willing to sacrifice, or how willing they were to amend their views, just so they could spend every day of the rest of their lives together.

“Sit,” ordered Harry, pushing Louis down on the old swing. Keeping his balance, Louis gripped the thin ropes holding up the wooden seat, meanwhile Harry cupped his face, staring down at his shining, blue eyes. “Listen.”

“I’m listening.”

“That’s talking,” said Harry. “Actually.”

“I’m very much listening,” whispered Louis, reaching up to link a pair of their hands. As their fingers entwined, Harry let his free hand sift into Louis’ hair, stepping into the V of his legs.

“I’ve never felt good enough,” said Harry, instantly catching Louis’ attention, and turning the moment earnest. His voice didn’t shake, but his breath immediately felt rougher. Louis’ concerned frown, and his gently stroking fingers, encouraged him to go on. “I am… I am always a step behind. Even when I’m doing well, when I’m excelling, I’m the black sheep of the family. Because I’m rude, late, and distant, and I haven’t found a husband. They had to,” he swallowed thickly, “genuinely force me to come, because I didn’t even want to spend the summer with my family, who I hadn’t seen properly for months.”

Biting his lip, his heart pounded heavily.

“Gemma is… She’s always been a step ahead. She’s older than me, but I always felt as though I’m constantly fumbling to catch up. Like, I am supposed to be winning a marathon race against people who are already halfway there.” He swallowed again, blinking over his eyes that always seemed to tear up when he got emotional. “I’ve always searched for approval. As a kid I tried so hard, but eventually I realised that I would never get it. I’d never really get any attention at all. So, I did the opposite, and I have ever since. It’s stuck with me, and I think it’s sort of become a part of me.”

“Lou,” he whispered, squeezing his hand as he looked down at him listening. “I hurt you when I wanted to hurt them. And in the process I simply hurt myself even worse. All I’ve been doing my whole life is worked against myself, and it wasn’t until I met you that I understood how much adversity I’d caused myself.”

He inhaled, stepping closer to Louis until he could feel his chin against his chest, looking up at him adoringly.

“When I’m with you I don’t feel like I have to win anymore. I’m not even racing, and there’s no medal on the other end of the finish line. With you I feel okay. Better than,” he whispered, shaking fingers gripping tight around Louis’ soft hair. “You’re the best thing that has ever happened to me, I think.”

When Harry didn’t continue, Louis gave him the sweetest smile he had ever seen. “You think?” he softly teased.

“Remember the speech Gerard gave, when they announced Gemma’s pregnancy?”

“I do,” nodded Louis.

“You make feel so happy, but I think my happiest day will be when we’re getting married, or having a baby together, or when we’re watching our kid graduate university twenty-five years from now.” He exhaled slowly, shivering as he felt Louis’ other hand soothingly rub the back of his thigh. “All of that is a bit scary, Lou, but you’re not.” He released his hand, and carded it back through Louis’ hair along with his other, pulling back his pretty fringe. “Listen.”

“I’m listening,” promised Louis.

“Louis,” said Harry earnestly, voice filled with every emotion he had ever felt in regards to this man. His blue eyes shimmered in the growing darkness, and Harry had never been so enamoured in his entire life. “When you say you need me, I already need you a thousand times more.”

He felt Louis’ breath shake.

“And when you say you love me, I love you so much more than I will ever be able to say.”

Louis’ eyes looked wet, and his brows pulled down so hard he almost looked pained. “You love me?” he whispered hoarsely.

“I do,” whispered Harry. “I love you so much.”

“Harry.” Louis stood up so fast Harry stumbled backward, gripping hold of Louis’ dress shirt not to fall over. His tummy jumped, heart pounding hotly as Louis firmly gripped his waist. His eyes burned with emotion as they captured his. Harry nodded earnestly, hands sliding up to cup Louis’ jaw. “You are the best thing. Don’t ever feel like you’re a step behind, because all I do is trying to be good enough for you.”

“You already are, Lou,” sniffled Harry, leaning in to kiss his lips. “You already are.”

Mouths tangling into an untidy mess, Harry’s knees weakened, and like he always had, he felt about ready to melt under Louis’ beautiful hands. He could feel Louis’ heart beating under his hand, and he hoped and prayed Louis would continue to adore him as much as he did him. As though he had heard his prayers, so unfathomably in tune with him, Louis tore his lips from his.

“I love you,” promised Louis fiercely, eyes burning with scorching fires. “And I will love you always.”

And Harry felt it.

“I love you more.”