Actions

Work Header

Be with me so happily

Chapter Text

Harry Styles may have had his doubts at first, but by the time the gates to the elephant sanctuary came into view he was one hundred percent positive. Louis Tomlinson hated his guts. Like hated, hated. Like loathed-him-on-sight hated.

From what Harry could tell, he hadn’t even done anything close to insulting enough to warrant the disdain that was Louis Tomlinson’s default expression whenever he looked at Harry. It really wasn’t fair. Especially since he’d been lusting after the man from the second he’d laid eyes on that pretty, pretty face with those pretty, pretty eyes.

Okay, so maybe, maybe, he’d managed to put his foot in it almost immediately when he’d mistaken Louis for a chauffeur.

The thing was he’d been a little tired. A little cranky. He’d just flown 8 hours in skinny jeans that pinched at the love handles he refused to admit he had except for in situations like this and boots he’d picked out for fashion, not comfort. Even his new -- gorgeous -- Gucci blouse had wilted somewhere over the Atlantic. The tigers on it no longer looked fierce, just kind of pathetic. He pet the head of one of them, consoling it, as he glanced at Louis out the side of his eyes.

Louis definitely had not appreciated Harry’s tigers. And okay so maybe it hadn’t helped that Harry had immediately assumed Louis was just his driver instead of the director of the whole fucking sanctuary. But it hadn’t been all Harry’s fault.

It really hadn’t been. Louis had been standing there with Harry’s name scrawled out on one of those white papers drivers always held up awkwardly on the outskirts of baggage claim, and he’d been stood in between the burly men with suits and wrap around sunglasses. Of course Harry had thought he was his chauffeur.

“Oh, um, yeah that’s me,” Harry had said, holding his bag out a little for Louis to take. It wasn’t that Harry was lazy, he wasn’t. Just, every time he tried to tell a driver he could handle his own luggage, it ended in some kind of weird, passive aggressive wrestling match and Harry had just learned to hand it over to begin with rather than make a scene.

Louis had not been impressed. Those blue eyes that--if Harry was being honest--had already seemed a bit arctic to begin with, went glacial as they flicked over Harry’s body in a long derisive sweep.

“Your arm broken then, mate?” He’d asked in a northern accent that would have made Harry feel welcome under different circumstances. These were not those circumstances.

Instead he’d been thrown. And had been left stuttering. Which some might have called endearing in the past, but Harry guessed immediately that Louis, at this moment, would not be one of them. “Oh. Um. No. No. I’ve got it. Sorry. Ummmm.” Stop fucking talking, you idiot. “Let me start over. Hi, I’m Harry Styles.”

This time he’d held out his free hand instead of his bag, and tried out his most charming smile that had won over many a frozen heart. Few could actually resist it. Or so he’d been told.

Louis must have been one of the few. “Charmed,” he drawled and ignored Harry’s hand as he turned toward the exit doors. Fuck.

Harry was left staring after him with that feeling he’d get when he missed the last step in a staircase.

Louis had spoken about three more half-sentences to Harry for the 45 minute drive from the airport to the Styles Elephant Sanctuary. One was explaining who he actually was -- Louis Tomlinson, the sanctuary’s director. After that little bomb Harry had spent about ten minutes trying to reconcile the icy asshole sitting next to him with the image Harry’s mum had painted of one of her most trusted employees. Anne had all but gushed over the perfection that was Louis Tomlinson. It was hard to merge the two into one person.

The next was a question -- asking if Harry needed a rest stop. It had Harry considering that maybe the man was human after all, and he’d taken it as his cue to launch into a -- quite frankly hilarious -- story about a bathroom stall in Wolverhampton. He soon realized Louis had completely tuned him out. He’d finished the story but laughing at one’s own punchline was kind of desperate when the other person in the car remained stony-faced.

The third kind-of sentence was when they’d crested a gentle hill and the gates of the sanctuary came into view. “There,” Louis had said with a tip of his chin and Harry had realized exactly three things in that moment.

One. The beauty of the elephant sanctuary took his breath away in the most cliche sense of the words. He literally stopped breathing. The air in his lungs was gone.

It was the time of day when the world went golden, and everything got just a little magical and the Arkansas countryside spread out before them like an oil painting of old Americana. It made him itch for his journal, desperate to put into poetry the way the light caressed the leaves of the trees, the grass, the old red barn in the distance. It was so different than the view from his flat in London, and something loosened in Harry’s chest. Like a rubber band had been relaxed just when it had been stretched to its almost-breaking point.

Two. Louis Tomlinson took his breath away. He’d known it at the airport under those harsh fluorescent lights that somehow always managed to give him those squiggly lines in the whites of his eyes but had miraculously made Louis look like a vision. He’d known it despite the horribly god awful uniform Louis was wearing -- a polo shirt that was two shades lighter than Louis’ eyes and the ugliest khaki shorts Harry had ever seen but that still somehow highlighted Louis’ perfect peach of an ass, which looked made for Harry’s hands. He’d known it even when Louis had flipped the soft fringe out of his eyes and looked at Harry like he was an old piece of gum that had gotten stuck to his favorite shoes.

So, yes, he’d known then how beautiful this man was. But now, in sunset, Louis was stunning. He was caramel and salt. He was sharp collarbones and soft hips. He was citrus and cigarette smoke. Harry wanted to devour him.

Three. Louis Tomlinson fucking hated him. Sure he hadn’t gotten the warmest, fuzziest vibes from him earlier, but Harry had half-way managed to convince himself that was just because Louis must not be the friendliest person. As the sanctuary came into view, though, Harry realized that couldn’t be true. Because everything about Louis softened in that moment, and Harry knew for certain that Louis wasn’t an awful human. He just hated Harry.

Which was really unfortunate. Because Harry was really very attracted to him, for one. And two, considering Harry was planning on staying at the sanctuary for at least two months it seemed like his immediate future was going to be filled with painfully awkward conversations and snide looks.

Harry pet one of his tigers again with the pad of his forefinger and sighed. He consoled himself with the fact that there was a good chance Louis was straight so the first point was probably moot. And somehow Anne found him delightful, so maybe Harry could win him over eventually.

“Wow,” is all he said instead of spilling out any one of the thoughts that had just tumbled through his head.

“Ah,” Louis said, his eyes shifting toward Harry before snapping back to the road. “He’s eloquent, too.”

Fuck. This was going to be a long two months.

***

“How many hours left, Liam?” Louis asked as he flopped onto the tacky purple and orange couch, limbs going every which way. The loose spring dug into Louis’ ribs but he couldn’t bring himself to move.

“Er,” Liam looked up from his computer. “Like hundreds. Maybe thousands?”

“Oh my god, Liam aren’t you an accountant or something,” Louis threw his forearm over his eyes and knew he was being dramatic. He didn’t care. “Give me an actual answer.”

“Mate, he’s going to be here for, like, months,” Liam said, going back to his spreadsheets he loved so much and tended to like they were his babies. He might be -- might be -- tired of this conversation seeing as they’d been having it for weeks now. “You should probably get used to the idea.”

Months. Louis pulled a face even though no one was watching him -- goddamn Liam and his goddamn spreadsheets.

Louis knew he probably should be nicer to Harry Styles. Honestly, he’d gone to the airport with the vow that he would at least try. Niall had made him promise. Liam had made him promise. That morning he’d stared at his own reflection and repeated the words, I will be civil to the man. But then. But then. Harry Styles had sauntered down that escalator looking like a wet dream come to life and also like Louis’ worst nightmare.

Posh from head to fucking toe in an outfit that could have fed Delilah for a week, at least. He’d walked leading with his hips and it had been obscene. His cock might as well as had an arrow pointed directly at it with the way the bulge was put on display in those painted on skinny jeans. His glossy brown curls had bounced free and beautiful around his shoulders making Louis want to gather them up in his fist and tug them as he guided Harry’s mouth down on his dick.

And the tigers. God. They were so fucking cute. Louis didn’t do cute. Louis especially didn’t do cute when it came to his funders’ ridiculous, privileged lay-about son who had all of a sudden realized there was a life outside his clubs and women and partying lifestyle and decided to ruin Louis’ life.

Why, why, why did he have to wear the tigers?

“You were horrible to him weren’t you,” Niall accused from the doorway. Louis lifted his head just a bit to squint at the Irishman who was lounging casually with one shoulder propped against the jam. He was wearing the unflattering sanctuary uniform but somehow it worked for him. Everything worked for Niall.

“I was perfectly pleasant,” Louis contradicted, collapsing back against the couch again. Niall skip-hopped over and sat directly on his stomach. “Fucking wanker.”

Niall just laughed at Louis’ attempts to push him to the floor. “Admit it, you were a right pissant weren’t you. Did you leave him at the airport?”

“I’ll have you know he’s settling into his cabin now,” Louis said, going for Niall’s weak spot -- his nipples -- in an effort to dislodge the boy from Louis’ body. “In one piece.”

“Physically, maybe. But emotionally? I doubt it,” Niall said slapping at Louis’ hands while trying to protect his nubs at the same time. “Ow, fuck, Louis stop.”

“Get off me,” Louis finally just shoved him and Niall went sprawling to the floor. He didn’t even bother to get up, just laid there smirking at Louis.

“You’re not even giving him a chance,” Liam piped in, still not looking up from his Macbook.

Okay. So maybe that was true. Maybe Louis was being a little harsh. Maybe he’d been dreading this from the moment he’d gotten the call from Anne where she’d informed him that “lovely Harry” wanted to visit the sanctuary. It wasn’t like he could tell his very generous funder -- and quite frankly the woman he owed most of his life to -- that he really didn’t want to be stuck fucking babysitting a spoiled, pampered brat for several months. So he’d gritted his teeth and pretended. No, no it won’t be a problem. (Yes it fucking will.) I’m sure he’ll be a great help. (He won’t, he’ll get in the fucking way.) Can’t wait. (To kill myself before this all happens.)

But Anne had been delighted Louis was finally going to get to meet Harry and Louis couldn’t crush her excitement with the hard truth that he’d been avoiding that fate like the plague. It’s not like there hadn’t been opportunity before. Louis flew periodically to London for different fundraisers and to meet with Anne for progress reports, and sometimes just dinner. Anytime the woman mentioned getting together with Harry, too, though Louis found something to occupy his time.

“The problem is he reminds Louis of Jamie,” Niall said, looking far too comfy and far too smug on the unrelenting tile floor.

“Who’s Jamie?” A deep voice asked. And fuck. Of course it was Harry Edward (and yes Louis did know his middle name it didn’t make him a stalker or anything okay?) Styles standing there, looking fresh as a fucking daisy even after a transAtlantic flight.

He’d swapped the tigers for bumble bees -- was he actually trying to kill Louis? -- but other than that had made no other concessions to either the heat or the situation. The situation that of them being in the middle of Arkansas in an elephant sanctuary that was at least thirty percent giant mounds of shit.

“Absolutely no one of importance,” Louis said pushing himself to his feet. Did he feel a little guilty for how he’d been treating the kid? Perhaps. Did he want to fucking punch Niall in the balls because he’d mentioned Jamie and now he was trying to overcompensate by actually being polite? More likely. “How can we help you Mr. Styles?”

The kid blushed at that and Louis almost died on the spot. Like. If it hadn’t been painful enough already staring into that face, well, this was the final blow. The bit of rose tinted the porcelain skin of his high cut cheekbones, and his dark eyelashes fluttered, covering shy green eyes and he looked like a fucking Disney character come to life.

That combined with the bumble bees. Bloody hell. Two months. Two months. Two months. He just had to survive two months.

“Oh. Um. It’s just … Harry is fine, really, please,” Harry babbled.

Louis had heard him speak a few times. There had been red carpets Harry had walked where the reporters didn’t seem to care that he wasn’t actually famous and asked him questions about fashion and his posh life and sometimes even just about what it was like to be so pretty. (True story. And yes, Louis had maybe searched out the clips.) But Harry had never tripped over his words like he was now.

“Hiya Harry, m’Niall,” Niall bounded up off the floor in some kind of inhuman show of … jolliness? He was trying to make up for Louis. “We’re glad you’re here. That’s Liam over there, and you know Louis,” Niall put his hand up to his mouth as if he was about to divulge a secret “Crankypants Tomlinson is what we call him around here.”

Harry barked out a laugh, then immediately slapped his huge hand over his mouth as if he had surprised himself with the noise of it. What a goober.

Louis looked away, directing a glare at Niall.

“Soon-to-be-unemployed Horan is what we call this one around here,” Louis said in his most intimidating boss voice, but Niall just laughed, ruining the image completely.

Liam finally tore his gaze off his spreadsheets to shake Harry’s hand and then all that was left was awkwardness and shifting glances and this was fucking horrible.

“So…” Louis prompted bouncing on the balls of his feet. He had a feeling he knew what Harry wanted and he really hoped he was wrong.

“Well,” Harry ran a hand through those goddamn luscious locks and took a deep breath, possibly aware that he wasn’t coming off as the most composed person in the world. He puffed out the air and Louis refused to be endeared. Spoiled, pampered brat. That’s what he was. Not cute. Not bumble bees and shyness and lips that were meant for … okay Harry was talking. “I was hoping I could see some of the sanctuary tonight. I know it’s late and all but …” he said the last part in a rush as if expecting to be shot down.

Louis had been expecting it so he couldn’t even be that annoyed. Or rather he was annoyed because that was his normal state when it came to any mentions of Harry Edward Styles, but he was less annoyed than he would be if he’d been blindsided.

“Of course,” he murmured. It’s not like he could say no, could he?

Harry must have sensed the tone. “I mean, it doesn’t have to be tonight, if you’re tired, you don’t have to, I just wanted to maybe…”

“Harry,” Louis held a hand up to stop the waterfall of words. “It’s okay, yeah?”

Why was Louis using his soft voice on the kid? The one he’d always reserved for his siblings. Shit, but something about Harry made Louis want to comfort and soothe and that was absolutely ridiculous. Because he also kind of wanted to hate fuck him into the closest mattress. This was all very confusing and Louis did not like it and this was why he didn’t want him here in the first fucking place.

“Yeah?” Harry asked, that blush still painting his cheeks, his thumb and forefinger twisting one of the many heavy silver rings that graced his long, slender fingers. Perfect for … shit no. Nope. Mind out of the gutter, Tomlinson.

Even if he was kind of cute, Harry Edward Styles was definitely straight. Every time he was seen out and about in London he had a model or an actress hanging off his arm. He’d been linked to no less than twenty-five -- no you’re counting -- women in the past handful of years alone. Lusting after him would be a disaster waiting to happen. And Louis was not a fan of those.

“We can do a fuller tour in the morning, but, yeah, we can go out now,” Louis patted his pockets and realized he didn’t know where the golf cart car keys were.

“Oi,” Liam called from the desk, and when Louis looked over, he tossed him what he’d been holding. Louis snatched the keys out of the air trying to ignore whatever expressions both Niall and Liam were shooting at him.

Harry’s eyes bounced between the trio as if he could sense he was missing some kind of undercurrent, but then he seemed to shake it off and his face absolutely lit with his smile. Louis even took a step back at the force of it. Dimples, and pink lips, and too-big front teeth and eyes that sparkled. This kid wasn’t real.

Louis cleared his throat and braced himself to brush by him.

“Fuck off,” he managed to mouth to Niall and Liam who were both grinning their asses off as if they knew something Louis didn’t.

They didn’t. Louis knew what he was doing. This was fine. He was fine. He hated Harry Edward Styles, and that was that.

Chapter Text

Harry absolutely was not counting the number of sentences that Louis spoke to him. Except he absolutely was counting the number of sentences that Louis spoke to him.

There had been the three in the car. And then four at that dingy little cabin that was supposed to pass as his home for the next two months. And then six whole sentences in the sanctuary’s main office. Six.

Harry was taking it as a win. Six was better than four which was better than three. Improvement!

They were climbing into a funky little golf cart now, mostly in silence, but there didn’t seem to be as much disdain dripping from Louis’ gaze as there had been earlier, so Harry was still feeling optimistic despite the lack of banter.

The golf cart was tricked out and Harry immediately loved it. The rims were gold, there was a dancing Hawaiian man on the dashboard, and the seats had elephants’ faces printed on them. It was his kind of ride.

“So how many elephants are here?” Harry asked and immediately wanted to snatch the words back out of the air. Louis’ glance at Harry as he started the engine was super judgey. And Harry knew he should know the answer to that question but he was nervous, okay? Tired too. Had he mentioned he was tired? TransAtlantic flight and all. “I mean I know there are seven. God I know that. I just … can you tell me about them?”

Louis relaxed at that, and Harry sunk back in his seat relieved. Maybe he hadn’t completely fucked up. Or he had, and then he’d salvaged it.

“Well, we have three African elephants and four Asian ones,” Louis said, his hands easy on the steering wheel. The confidence in which he handled the cart over the dips and bumps in the road they were driving down was kind of sexy. And maybe it had been far too long since Harry had been laid. Or maybe it was just Louis Tomlinson and everything he did was fucking hot.

Harry was leaning toward the second option. Because even when Louis did something innocuous like flicking his soft fringe to the side, Harry’s blood rushed south.

“One of the African elephants is a baby,” Louis continued, oblivious to Harry’s lusting. Which of course was for the best.

“A baby?” Harry clapped, unable to contain his glee. A baby elephant? He wanted to melt out of his seat at the thought alone.

This time the gaze Louis shot him wasn’t derisive. It was … amused? Bordering on affectionate. That couldn’t be right, though.

“Yeah,” Louis said, and his voice was, oh god, so soft. Like tea and blankets on a cold day; like sinking into a lavender-scented bubble bath; like a dear friend’s arms after sad news. Just that one word, it tugged at Harry. “Her name is Precious, which is ridiculous if you ask me.”

Harry giggled. “What should her name be?”

Louis smirked and Harry knew he’d asked the right question. “Bubbles. Or Princess.” Louis said and Harry kind of maybe got a little crush on him right there. Before it had just been completely physical. Harry wanted to fuck him. End of story. But now.

“Well Bubbles is clearly more dignified than Precious,” Harry said, trying to keep a straight face and failing miserably. He’d never been good at that.

“Thank you,” Louis breathed out. “I’ve been trying to tell them that for ages now.”

Harry bit down on his lower lip and was desperately afraid his face was actually going to crack from smiling too big. “And the others?”

Louis turned soft again. The sun was dipping toward the horizon still, but it was that time of year that it would take a while to go completely dark.

“Delilah has taken over responsibility for Precious,” Louis said, taking a sharp bend. The cart’s wheels slammed into a rain-created rut, as branches snagged the top of the vehicle. They were headed deeper into the woods, the ones that lined the little encampment that was the headquarters and living space of the sanctuary. “She’s our old gal. Not a huge fan of people, though so don’t get between her and anything she wants.”

“Uh, yeah,” Harry mumbled turning awkward again. “I guess I should get some safety instructions.”

One side of Louis’ mouth tipped up. “Uh, yeah Harry. That would be wise.”

Okay, so Louis was still mocking him. But it seemed gentler now than it had at the airport. Harry cursed himself for reading into it too much.

“You think I’m …” Harry started, not sure what he was actually trying to say. Clearly Louis thought something. He definitely had hated Harry like three hours earlier, so.

Louis glanced at him, eyebrows raised. “I think you’re what?”

“I don’t know.” Harry flapped his hands like a lunatic. It was frustrating. This was frustrating. He’d never had to work to get someone to like him. Yes, he realized how ridiculous that made him sound. But he was very rich which tended to buy a great deal of good will. He was also kinda pretty with deep dimples that also seemed to buy him a great deal of good will. And to top it off, he was super polite for those who hadn’t been charmed by the first two. “You think I’m an idiot.”

They hit a particularly hard bump, and Harry squeaked a little -- though he staunchly refused to be embarrassed by the sound -- as they flew off the seats and then flopped back down as the wheels hit flat ground again.

“I don’t think you’re an idiot, Harry,” Louis finally said. Quiet. So quiet. Almost so much that it got lost in the wind.

“You think I’m something.” It might be desperate and it might be ridiculous, but he had to say it. Or ask it. It was a plea, even if it wasn’t a question.

Louis smiled, a full out smile and Harry snapped a mental picture of it to hold onto. To keep for sad days. Because even if this man didn’t particularly like Harry, there was something about Louis that made Harry immediately and completely happy. And nervous and weird and fumbly, which wasn’t a word, but whatever.

“I do think you’re something,” Louis said, and then cleared his throat, fidgeting with the collar of his shirt all of a sudden. “So other than Delilah and Precious, we have Jade, Georgie, Frank, Sonny and Cher.”

Harry honked out another laugh, then had to grab the bar as the cart almost tipped on two wheels. Louis was a wild driver. “I’ve got you babe?”

There was a flush along Louis’ neck that Harry found ridiculously intriguing. “I don’t think we’re at the nickname stage yet, Harold.”

Harry giggled again and wished he could stop being a 12-year-old with a crush. Because he was only one of those things.

“Well at least we’ve moved past the despise on sight stage,” Harry said feeling brave and flirty. He blamed the Malibu Bay Breeze he’d downed on the plane, even though the buzz was long gone from his system.

“Have we then?” Louis murmured.

Harry pouted. Gemma said he looked like a grumpy kitten when he did it. Maybe Louis liked grumpy kittens. Who was he to know? “Mean.”

Louis smiled but fell quiet and Harry followed his gaze. They’d broken through the woods into an open field, kilometers wide. Little blue bell flowers turned the ground into a carpet of purple and the Ozark mountains rose up to touch the rose-colored sky in the distance. The very air around them seemed to still, as if it knew the importance of the moment and didn’t want to interrupt it.

Because there in the distance were two small elephants, almost nothing more than silhouettes -- all shapes and shadows. Their trunks tangled together, a solid chest rubbing against a shoulder, a gentle caress made more precious by the sheer size of them. It did something to Harry.

Tears gathered in his eyes and he blinked hard, not wanting them to spill over.

“It’s so beautiful,” his whispered keeping his gaze on the animals who were now brushing against each other, not wanting to risk a look at Louis in case there was something mocking in those expressive eyes.

But Louis’ voice was soft again when he answered. “Never get tired of it,” he said, and Harry finally glanced over. Louis was watching the elephants as well, his eyes crinkled just a bit at the corners his lips pressed as if he were containing a smile. The love all but radiated off him and Harry wondered for a brief second what it would be like to be on the receiving end of such a look. “Georgie and Cher.”

“Hmm?” Harry asked, his eyes still desperately cataloguing every bit of Louis in that moment. The man himself turned and Harry flushed, knowing he’d been caught gawking. He couldn’t meet his eyes, but he did see a flash of humor cross his face before Harry turned away.

“The elephants. Georgie and Cher,” Louis repeated, but there was no irritation in the words. “Two of our Asian elephants. We rescued Georgie from a third-tier circus that was traveling through the southern states here. They were using a cattle prod on her and … yeah. That was not a good day.”

“What? What?” It was like cold water had been splashed in his face. The harsh reality of what the sanctuary actually meant turned the surreal beauty of the scene into something with a jagged edges on its underbelly. Who would do such a thing to such magical creatures? “Were they arrested?”

Louis’ face hardened. “No, they snuck out of town and then scattered and the authorities didn’t seem to care enough to chase them down.” He took a deep breath, and Harry knew it must be a sore subject for him. “We press charges when we can. Sometimes we can’t do enough, though.”

“That’s insane,” Harry ran a hand through his hair, ignoring the sharp pain as his fingers caught the knots. It had been a long day. “We have to be able to do something. They can’t get away with it.”

“It’s been years, Harry.”

Harry shook his head, unwilling to believe Louis had just given up. “It doesn’t matter, they should be in jail. There has to be a way…”

“Hey, welcome to the real world, kid,” Louis said and his voice had lost all its softness. It wasn’t quite back to the cool disdain it had held at the airport, though, because this was different. This was hot and personal and defensive. As if he knew Harry was accusing him of not doing enough. “Sometimes it’s not fair. Sometimes there’s no money you can just throw at a situation to fix it. Sometimes you gotta just take your wins when you can get ‘em.”

 

And ouch. So that’s why Louis hated him. Made sense, but didn’t make it hurt any less. “You think I don’t know about the real world?” Harry asked, shifting in his seat to turn full on toward Louis. The space was so tight his knee pressed against Louis’ thigh, but that wasn’t something he could concentrate on at the moment.

Louis didn’t look at him, just raised one dismissive shoulder and Harry saw red. He tried the breathing technique his yoga instructor had taught him but by the time he’d drawn in air and imagined it filling his lungs three times, he was still as angry as he’d ever been in his life.

“You know what, fuck you, Louis. You don’t even know me.”

That got Louis to look at him. Harry wished he hadn’t as Louis dragged his eyes down Harry’s body. Usually he was pretty confident about his style (pun intended, he giggled), but as Louis’ gaze touched on his mostly unbuttoned shirt, his thick silver rings, his tight jeans with manufactured ripped holes at the knees to end on his soft brown suede Chelsea boots Harry felt gaudy. He felt mocked. He felt like he should be embarrassed about something he knew, he knew, he shouldn’t be embarrassed about.

“Oh, I know you,” is all Louis said when his eyes locked with Harry’s finally after the full-body once over.

Had it just been a moment ago that Harry had found this man soft, kind, affectionate? How had it gone so wrong, so quickly?

“Can we go back now?” Harry asked instead of any of the biting comments he wanted to make. He could be salty with the best of them, but now he was just tired. Dejected. And, even worse, rejected just for who he was and what he looked like.

“Fuck,” he heard Louis whisper under his breath, but the man didn’t apologize as he jammed his foot on the little gas pedal.

The air was heavy between them as they drove back the way they came in silence.

***

Something that felt suspiciously similar to guilt roiled like noxious smoke in Louis’ belly, the tendrils of it crawling up his esophagus to burn the back of his throat as he maneuvered the golf cart over the rutted lane that cut through the woods.

The light was fading, but he could still see how pale Harry was, how his shoulders hunched toward his chin, how the happy energy that had been a constant buzz around him had dimmed.

Fuckity fuck fuck fuck. Louis’ tongue set heavy in his mouth and he swallowed hard. There was a difference between being a sassy shit and actually hurting someone. Especially when that someone could say the word and have Louis fired.

Not that Harry seemed the type to do it. And okay. When had he stopped thinking of Harry as the type to go crying to mommy and daddy in a tantrum over the mean boy at school?

Maybe it had been when he’d teared up as he’d watched Georgie and Cher in the meadow.

He rubbed a hand over his mouth the awkward apology stuck somewhere between his brain and his lips. He’d just mentally kicked himself in the arse for the third time, and was ready to humble himself, when they pulled to a stop in front of Harry’s little cabin. Louis earlier had taken a perverse pleasure in giving him the shittiest one and now the guilt multiplied as Harry just looked at it and sighed.

“Goodnight,” Harry said and he sounded little and tired. Bloody fucking hell. Why couldn’t this kid be an asshole? Why did he wear bumble bee shirts and get upset about abused elephants and smell like sin wrapped in apple pie and look like everything Louis had ever wanted in life.

It made everything so much more complicated, and Louis really, really didn’t want complicated.

“Look, Harry …” Louis started and Harry paused, one foot on the ground, staring at the cabin. “Good night.”

Harry just nodded once, and climbed out of the cart. Louis let his forehead drop to the steering wheel. Fuck.

Louis was glad he hadn’t been able to see Harry’s face when Louis hadn’t apologized. It would have haunted him on the short drive back to the sanctuary’s headquarters. Kind of like the image of Harry’s shoulders drooping haunted him.

“You’re a real tit, Tommo,” Niall said with just one glance at him when he walked in and tossed the keys back onto Liam’s desk. Louis flicked him off but Niall had gone back to watching one of those shite programs he couldn’t get enough of where they followed the dramatics of rich white women with too much time and too much booze.

He crossed in front of Niall -- earning himself a pillow to the head -- to grab an extra pair of sweats he kept in the office’s closet for nights like this when he didn’t want to make the short jaunt to his cabin to change out of the sanctuary's god awful uniforms. He still had a few hours of work to do that he’d put off to go pick Harry up.

“Louis, you know you should be trying to make a good impression, not antagonizing him,” Liam said, his serious, lecturing face firmly in place. “We depend on his family’s generosity to keep this place running.”

As if Louis wasn’t extremely aware of their precarious funding position. Anne and Robin Styles had established the sanctuary six years ago as a personal pet project of Anne’s. But it was expensive as hell to care for and house elephants, and if the Styles money ever dried up they would be screwed. Worse, the elephants would be screwed, which was just … unacceptable.

“Where’s the benefit of the doubt, assholes?” Louis asked, his back to them as he shucked out of his ugly khakis and slipped on the soft joggers.

“Other than the fact that you look like you kicked about seven puppies on the way back here?” Niall called from the sofa. “We know you.”

The words rang harsh in Louis’ ears, an echo of his earlier claim. Fuck, who would have thought Harry would take it so personally?

“I’ll apologize in the morning,” Louis finally said. And he would. He really would. The elephants meant more than some kind of stubborn pride and sharp tongue that had gotten him into trouble.

“Seems like a nice enough bloke,” Liam said as he watched Louis grab one of the ledgers and curl up in the ratty leather chair Louis loved like an extension of himself. He sighed, relaxing into it, letting some of the tension that had ridden him all day long ease out of his muscles.

“And you got that from…?” Louis asked, amused again. Liam was an actual sweetheart, always trying to find the best in people. He’d met Louis at uni and it wasn’t until later that Louis learned Liam -- in a rare deviation from his ability to find the best in absolutely everyone -- couldn’t stand Louis at first. Louis had just been showing affection in the way he had when he was younger and insecure by constantly mocking and ridiculing every aspect of the boy. Lovingly of course. How could he have known Liam wouldn’t appreciate that?

Liam had come around, though. Now they were ride or die for each other. He would literally take a bullet for the boy and knew he could expect the same.

Liam shrugged. “Was polite. Shook our hands and stuff,” Liam muttered because he knew he had no leg to stand on after meeting the kid for thirty seconds.

“So he wasn’t a horrible human being, give him a gold star,” Louis said, but the words tasted sour in his mouth.

“Well considering you thought he would be, it’s at least a step in the right direction,” Liam countered, and ... well, fair. Louis looked away from Liam’s deep brown, steady eyes unable to face the gentle censure that lingered in them.

“He does lots of charity shit,” Niall called from the sofa. There must have been a commercial on for him to turn his attention away from his program.

“Yeah because he’s loaded, what else is he going to do?” Louis asked, well aware he was being cantankerous just to be cantankerous. He’d said he was going to apologize in the morning, okay?

“You should look him up,” Niall said. And then waved a hand dismissing the conversation again as the show flickered back on.

Louis flushed and Liam’s eyes crinkled into slits as he laughed. “Something tells me Louis has already looked him up.”

There was no use denying it so Louis just shot him the bird and buried his head in his ledger. The numbers swam on the page.

He had looked Harry up, long before he’d been informed he’d be babysitting him for two months. It also wasn’t just because he was Anne’s son.

Harry had been a pap favorite even when Louis had been back home in England, despite the fact that he hadn’t actually done anything to make himself famous. He was on the front page of the tabs at least a few times a month, in the company of all his rich, celebrity friends.

Louis had been 22 when Harry really started grabbing headlines at 18.

The first scandal had been when Harry was papped with some princess twice his age on a yacht off the coast of France. Louis still could easily call up the image of Harry in those tiny delicious yellow shorts, his bare tatted chest dripping with water, his curls, which had been much shorter at the time, slicked back, his V-line almost completely exposed. It had been a particular wank bank favorite for Louis at the time.

So maybe he’d told himself he was reading the stories because he knew Anne, or maybe he told himself he was hate-reading the stories because he so despised that lifestyle. But neither of those was really the full truth.

Following the yacht intrigue -- which had turned into three months of will he propose or won’t he propose even though the kid had been a teenager, and ended with nasty cheating accusations that had made Louis feel almost bad for him -- was a string of stories about drugs and debauchery that made even Louis stop reading. He still liked the pictures, though.

When Harry had turned 22 he had gone ghost, only to reemerge two years later on the London scene with longer hair and the same old image as before. That had been a couple years ago, and it didn’t seem like Harry was doing much to disprove the narrative except for a couple staged pictures at charities that would crop up on Twitter. For PR purposes of course.

Which brought Louis back to his current dilemma. When he’d first gotten the call from Anne, Louis had been -- apart from ridiculously annoyed -- confused. After meeting Harry he was even more so.

This wasn’t the type of quick PR visit that could work to turn Harry’s image around. That ship had sailed and sick kids worked better for that anyway. (Which Louis knew Harry had already tried.) Two months in the middle of nowhere Arkansas also was a bit more of a commitment than he would have guessed Harry was willing to make just for some charity work.

None of it made sense. And Louis didn’t like when things didn’t make sense.

“Ahahahah,” Niall cackled from the sofa. “Louis looks him up to wank to him.” Five minutes late to the joke.

“I hate you both,’ Louis muttered, turning his thoughts away from curls and green eyes and deep dimples and long legs and a perfectly pert little … .

It was going to be a long two months.

Chapter Text

Harry studied his reflection in the smudged, cracked mirror and cursed Louis Tomlinson for perhaps the three hundredth time in the past 12 hours.

Louis’ condescension had weighed heavy on his chest, and had prevented him from sinking into the sweet oblivion of sleep that he had so desperately needed. He’d been left counting the cracks in the ceiling of his cabin, and imagining the number of spiders that lived hidden in the dark spaces he couldn’t see. That hadn’t helped with his insomnia. Eventually he’d fallen into a fitful rest, the results of which showed in the bruises beneath his eyes.

The words rattled around in his head now, and he knew he’d taken way longer to get ready than he normally had because of them. Or the look. God that look. He’d changed his outfit four times because of that look and settled for his trademark skinnies and a white t-shirt beneath red and black flannel.

Harry should have been used to it by now. He was, mostly. He knew what people thought of him, what people said about him behind their hands. Harry liked to think it wasn’t actually malicious the way they whispered, just human nature. People liked scandals, and pretty boys who seemed to drink too much and fuck too much and have too much money for their own good.

It had been more confusing than anything else when he’d been 18. His parents had kept both him and his sister mostly sheltered from the press when they’d been growing up. His mum liked a good fundraiser, but she was never a part of London society like her money warranted. They’d lived in a nice but not ostentatious house in Holmes Chapel and had only gone into the city when one of their charities dictated it.

But Harry had come into his money at 18, and he’d felt constrained by the small-town life and the fact that there wasn’t exactly a happening gay scene in Holmes Chapel. So he’d moved to London, making his mum cry because her baby was leaving the nest, and started school in the city. No one ever talked about that. Or the fact that Harry had degrees in both poetry and economics. That didn’t really fit the image.

He’d been there, just trying to find his legs as a student and of course his friends were rich and pretty too, because that’s how it worked. But he’d made other friends at school. They just didn’t get their names in print when Harry was papped with them.

The obsession had taken him off guard. And the focus on some kind of womanizer image. It had gotten bad after he’d been photographed with Charlotte who was good friends with Gemma and had invited them both to spend a week on her yacht that summer. His sister had wheedled him until he agreed to come and all of a sudden the tabs said he was having an affair with the beautiful red-head.

By 20, he’d learned to ignore it. He’d learned to ignore the biting remarks and intrusive questions. It hadn’t been unbearable and to be honest, most people did like him. It still hurt, that quick, immediate judgment that some people made, writing him off as vapid and shallow and wild.

He’d reached a breaking point by 22. He thought a few years away would cool the thirst for gossip about him. It’s not like he was that interesting in the first place. But even when he’d returned to the scene two years later all the same storylines came with him. That’s when he realized he’d never escape it. Until he came out publicly that was. Then maybe the lady part would be replaced by other insinuations.

He’d been ready to be publicly out and proud at 18, but after that first scandal he’d gotten a taste of how vicious the vultures could be and he’d hesitated. The next eight years did nothing to reassure him it would be any better. He was out to all his family and friends of course. And it might even be fairly well known to London society, but for the gossips that bought the rags, he was a certified lothario.

So, he was used to it. Really. But he hadn’t expected it from Louis Tomlinson, director at his mum’s beloved elephant sanctuary. Maybe that’s why the words had hurt more than usual.

The knock on his door interrupted the mopey thoughts and he was grateful. There were times he enjoyed a good strop. Enjoyed sinking into it like a warm bath and getting moody and petulant and stomping around slamming doors. He didn’t indulge often, but when he did, it was full-out. This wasn’t the time for it though. And he was determined to make this work.

So he tipped his chin up, pretended one comment and one look hadn’t torn down all his carefully built confidence, and opened the door.

The current bane of his existence stood on the other side, in a replica of yesterday’s outfit, looking ridiculously soft in the morning light, holding two cups of tea. Louis offered one up to Harry and he took it, the heat of it against his fingertips a little more than what was comfortable.

There was also an apology in Louis’ eyes, and in the way he was standing. It wasn’t his normal cocky stance, of hip popped out to show off his curves. It was turned in a little bit, protective of fragile emotions.

Harry didn’t care that it made him want to gather Louis in a hug and bury his face in that silky hair that again smelled of citrus and cigarettes. He wasn’t going to make it easy on him. Louis’d been a proper dick and Harry had the bags under his eyes to show for it.

“Morning,” Louis said, his raspy voice made even raspier by the early morning hour. It did something to Harry’s gut.

Harry just raised his brows.

“Alright, alright, calm down, Curly,” Louis said, holding out a hand, and Harry almost forgave him on the spot for the dramatics of it. Everything about it was perfect, including the way Louis looked like he was a five year old whose mum was making him apologize to his bratty little sister.

It should be weird that it made Harry glow, but it meant that Louis Tomlinson maybe didn’t hate him after all. Maybe there was even a tiny bit of affection in the way he’d given him a nickname.

See, Harry could win over even the hardest of hearts.

“I’m sorry for last night. I was, and I quote, a ‘real tit,’” Louis did the air quotes gesture and everything. “I was angry about Cher. I’m still angry. And I took it out on you and that wasn’t fair, and I’m sorry.”

Harry smiled because he wanted to. He could hold a grudge, but what fun was that when Louis was just so fucking cute. And ridiculous. He wouldn’t forget that Louis didn’t have the best opinion of him yet, but at least he was the type of man who could own up to his mistakes and actually apologize. That meant there was something Harry could work with. And that changed everything.

“Alright,” Harry said, finally taking a sip of his tea before stepping out onto the porch. He stretched, drinking up the feeling of sunbeams on his face. When he opened his eyes he noticed Louis’ gaze was focused on the bit of his laurels tattoos that had been revealed when he’d done his salutation. Louis’ tongue darted out to wet his lips and Harry smirked. Maybe not so straight. A theory to test later on. For now he was just happy he didn’t have to be moody for his first real day at the sanctuary. He’d been looking forward to this for months now.

“Alright?” Louis’ voice went a little high as his eyes returned to Harry’s face. “Just like that?”

Harry shrugged. “Yup,” he said letting the p pop.

“You’re an odd one aren’t ya, Curly,” Louis said after a moment of studying Harry’s face.

“Oh, you’re catching on.”

Louis laughed, a surprised puff of air between thin lips. Harry wanted to lean down and feel the way they curved against his own. “Alright, then,” Louis stared at him a moment longer as if he were trying to figure out a puzzle, and Harry let him. Reveled in it really. Then he seemed to snap himself out of it and turned to skip down the steps. “Come on, we don’t have all day.”

Harry followed like an eager puppy, his gaze on the way Louis’ ass once again made those horrible khakis bearable. Louis glanced back and Harry snapped his eyes up but not soon enough. There was curiosity on that pretty, expressive face and Harry knew he’d been caught. He grinned, sheepish, and shrugged and Louis turned so he was walking backward, tipping his head to the side. It was disappointing really when he didn’t comment on Harry’s ogling.

“So today I thought we’d give you the full tour and then maybe discuss what you’d like to be doing with your time here,” Louis said smoothly, hopping a bit to turn forward again. If Harry had tried something like that he’d be sprawled out on the ground after tripping over his bambi legs. The way Louis moved though was sure and confident and Harry liked it. He liked watching him in action.

“Okay,” Harry said, because really what else was there to say? He was far from an expert on elephant sanctuaries so he was open to anything, really. When he’d been in Africa a few years back he’d visited one for a few days but had done little more than tour the land and meet the animals.

“Niall and Liam -- you met them yesterday -- they’re the other full-time employees on staff,” Louis said. “We have a few part-time people that cycle through. You’ll meet them as they come, and a vet who’s on call. She lives in the town which is about 20 minutes away, driving.” For some reason Louis was smiling in some fond way over the vet and Harry wondered if he had a thing with her. So, maybe straight after all.

He wanted to pout, but managed to bite his lip before it popped out.

“So the three of you do the majority of the work?” Harry was impressed. It was a huge sanctuary and he couldn’t imagine elephants were the easiest creatures to care for.

“Ha. Yeah,” Louis said. “It can be long hours, but it’s so worth it. We also host researchers who rotate through. Our current batch is studying the way herds treat orphaned babies. Anne really wanted the research component to be made a priority when she created this place.”

Harry nodded. “Yeah, mum tends to focus on that.”

“They’re not much help when it comes to mucking out the stalls and what not though. Then it’s all, oh gotta go write up my notes, Lou.” He was laughing as he said it though, and Harry realized again how much Louis must love this place. His face lit up anytime he spoke about it. It made him that much more beautiful.

“We’re lucky to have you,” Harry blurted out, but didn’t regret it when pleasure tinted Louis’ skin pink. “You love this place. I can tell.”

“Yeah, well,” Louis tried to shrug off the praise, but what could he really say? No I don’t? It would be a blatant lie. “I’m lucky for this place, too.”

“How’d you end up here?” Harry was deadly curious. About every aspect of Louis. But also how three citizens of the United Kingdom ended up in the middle of Arkansas.

Louis shot him a glance from beneath lowered lashes. “Your mum, of course.”

“Well I figured…” Harry prompted. He wanted more.

“She hasn’t told you? Ever?” Louis asked, and now Harry needed to know.

“Um, no.” Harry tried to remember what his mum had said about Louis, but was coming up mostly blank. Anne had always gushed over Louis, and he knew the two had been close for a long time, but it seemed whenever he’d pressed for details, Anne had demurred.

“Ah,” Louis said, and then they were at the headquarters and Harry was left with nothing but more questions. Not fair.

He smiled for Liam and Niall, though, who were both decked out in those uniforms. Harry made a mental note to prod about those.

“Lads,” Louis called out as greeting enough. “Where are the geeks?”

Liam blushed at the question which Harry puzzled over, but he was soon distracted by probably one of the most attractive men he’d ever seen in real life walking through the other door in the room. The man’s skin was dark and smooth, his eyes were some kind of unreal teal color and his body was a perfect V, starting with broad shoulders that strained at his plain blue button down and ending at tapered, narrow hips. His thighs were gorgeous beneath cheap trousers and Harry spared a shiver for all the horrible fashion that his senses were being bombarded with.

The room crackled with energy while all four men stopped in their tracks to watch as the newcomer ran a hand over his shaved head and smiled at them, a quick flash of white teeth. “Tommo, you have a doctorate. You are a geek too,” the man teased and Harry bristled. He had to actively fight the urge to wrap his entire body around Louis and hiss at this outrageously attractive human to stay away. It was not a flattering picture, really.

Instead of completely embarrassing himself like that, though, he merely stepped closer to let their shoulder bump.

Louis glanced over at him, with that curious expression again, as if he were bemused by something Harry had done. He probably was. But, um, something about knowing Louis worked daily in the vicinity of this perfect human was disconcerting. At least with just Liam and Niall around he stood a chance. If Louis was gay, that was.

“Zach, lad, when will you realize your geek status has nothing to do with your brains,” Louis said turning back to Zach. Zach. Even his name was perfect. Stupid, perfect Zach and his stupid flawless face.

“Ah that’s right,” Zach slapped his head and Harry really didn’t like how this banter was developing. It was bordering on flirting. “It’s my complete lack of knowledge about ‘real football.’”

“I don’t make the rules,” Louis shrugged, and Harry glared at both of them.

“If you two are quite finished,” Liam called from his desk and Harry recognized the dour expression on his face as similar to one Harry was sure he himself was sporting.

Ah. Now that was more interesting.

Zach’s beautiful smile fell off his stupid beautiful face as he glanced, uncertain, at Liam.

Oh. Even more interesting.

Harry relaxed a tiny fraction, but wasn’t about to let his guard down. He kept his arm pressed to Louis’.

“Oh, take the stick out of that tight arse of yours, Liam,” Louis moaned. “It’s far too early for that.”

And then three things happened.

One. Liam died of mortification. Like on the spot. Harry truly believed if he could crawl under the desk he would have.

Two. Perfect Zach erupted into a surprisingly unattractive coughing fit, spittle and all, and Harry felt a bit better about his life in general.

And three: Harry elbowed Louis hard in the ribs, because come on, mate, you don’t embarrass your friend in front of his crush. It’s just not done.

Which actually, Four, earned him a rather attractive glare from said small irritated man.

Niall was left biting his nails and looking between them all so fast Harry worried about his neck muscles.

“Er, so okay lads, I’m going to take Harry out to show him the ropes. Can I trust you lot not to burn the place down while we’re gone?” Louis asked, dropping his tea in the bin and heading toward the door Zach had entered through.

Niall saluted him and Louis flicked him off -- a gesture Harry was coming to realize that for Louis could mean anything from hello to make me a cuppa to i hate you -- as he brushed by perfect Zach with his perfect face. Harry did the tight lip smile thing that was appropriate for semi-meeting a stranger and followed Louis out the door, leaving whatever that mess was behind.

***

Louis didn’t want to be impressed.

Somehow in his little heart of hearts he knew that holding on to his shitty image of Harry as a spoilt brat was the only thing that was going to help him survive these two months.

But Harry wasn’t playing the part Louis had assigned him.

In fact he was eager, open to direction and seemed genuinely curious about both the sanctuary and the animals it protected. Goddamn it.

He shouldn’t be surprised. Harry was Anne’s son after all, but Louis had just assumed he’d taken a wrong turn along the way and Anne was just too blinded by mother’s love to notice.

Louis had been almost gleeful when he asked Harry help him muck out the vet’s bay, as Tasha was coming by later to do a check in on Sonny, who had been favouring his left front leg. He was prepared for Harry to live down to his expectations and wiggle out of it.

Instead, he’d stripped out of his flannel leaving him in that translucent white tee that made Louis want to suck on those puffy nipples that pressed against the fabric until Harry was squirming beneath him.

Then he’d picked up the pitchfork, with an inquiring glance at Louis, simply waiting for instructions. God Louis shouldn’t be this turned on when he was surrounded by steaming piles of elephant shit. But that apparently was the power of Harry Edward Styles.

He ended up glaring at the kid because, really. It earned him a bit of a pout that he was going to have to soothe away later, but that he ignored for now.

Harry didn’t complain once.

He hadn’t complained then, and he hadn’t complained when he’d helped Louis haul straw bales from the storage garage, and he hadn’t complained when they were washing down the trucks, and he hadn’t complained when they’d trekked out to fix a bit of fence on the far right corner of the land.

Perhaps Harry been expecting an easy day to get used to it, perhaps he was expecting an easy two months, but he hadn’t voiced a single negative comment about the schedule. Louis always found that diving in helped his newbies get accustomed to the sanctuary quicker. This was life, it was dirty and hot and unrewarding most of the time. Get used to it or get gone. When he did it to part-timers, they complained Louis’ ear off.

It wasn’t that Harry didn’t talk. He did. A lot. He commented on every little thing he did, but it was with happy enthusiasm instead of the bitching Louis was so used to. (“This poo would make excellent fertilizer for mum’s gardens back home. She’s been trying to win first prize for roses against Mrs. Wilts for ages now but always comes in second, poor thing.”) He made terrible jokes and puns at every opportunity. (“Hey Louis. Hey Louis.” “What?” “What did the elephant say to the naked man?” “I don’t know Harry.” “That’s cute but can you breathe through it?” At which point Harry had been doubled over in giggles.) He even sang with a voice that sounded like velvet wrapped pebbles. (Abba of all things.)

By the end of the day, Louis was still clinging to his original image of Harry Edward Styles by the tips of his fingers, but he knew it was a lost cause. Louis had grabbed them both beers from the headquarter’s fridge and he nudged Harry’s shoulders with one of the bottles. He was sat on the second step of the bigger cabin, looking out over the land.

“Here, you’ve earned this,” Louis said. Harry made a face at the beer but took it anyway, and Louis chuckled. “Not your beverage of choice, Curly?”

“I like champagne,” Harry said. “The bubbles are nice.”

And fuck that was cuter than even the bumble bees. It was probably the most Harry thing Harry had said all day, and he’d said a lot of Harry things all day.

“Spose you’re going to make fun of me for that,” Harry said with that little pout that was taking all of Louis’ energy not to kiss away every time he did it. Straight boy was straight. He was also Anne’s son. And that was just a big no in general.

“Nah, Curly. I like a good glass of champagne as much as the next bloke,” Louis said and tried not to feel guilty about how shocked Harry looked that Louis hadn’t taken the bait. “Hey, I’m not a total asshole.”

“You just play one really well?” Harry asked, but there was a bit of mischief in his eyes.

Louis elbowed him lightly in the side and Harry collapsed a bit as if it were a mortal wound, groaning and holding his side. “Oi with the dramatics already.”

“Look who’s talking,” Niall called from the porch. Harry and Louis turned in unison to smile and glare (respectively). “You two smell like shit, has anyone told you yet.”

Louis blushed slightly and tried to scooch a bit away from Harry who shot him a bashful look as he was caught trying to do the same.

“You still smell really good, Lou,” Harry said quietly so that Niall couldn’t hear and … what? Louis had another one of those moments he’d been getting through the day. Like when he’d caught Harry staring at his ass. A time or two thousand. Harry dropped his eyes, a little smile still lingering at the corners of his lips.

Fuck. Louis couldn’t deal with this right now. His brain would probably explode if he tried.

“Because you always smell like a daisy, asshole,” Louis shot back at Niall. “At least we have an excuse for it.”

“You know if you keep up with insults I’m totally rescinding my invitation.”

“Spit it out then Nialler.”

“Alright, crankypants Tommo. I told ya didn’t I, I told ya …”

“Horan,” Louis growled, even as Harry giggled under his breath next to Louis.

“We’re going to do a bonfire once it gets dark. Tasha’s going to stay and Zach and Steve are in, too,” Niall finally said. Louis smirked at the boy’s casual mention of Tasha, even though Louis knew Niall must have dreamed it up to get the pretty vet to stick around for the night.

Harry was practically vibrating with excitement as he glanced nervously between Niall and Louis, as if waiting for Louis to shit all over the invite and tell Harry he couldn’t come or something. God had he really been that big of an asshole?

“But you pigs are uninvited if you don’t shower first,” Niall laughed as he swung back through the door to HQ.

Louis stood up and held a hand out to tug Harry to his feet. “You heard the man. Better go clean up. Wouldn’t be the same without you, Curly.”

He hated the way Harry flushed with pleasure and toddled off toward his cabin with a ridiculous wave that was more a wiggle of his fingers than anything else.

He hated the way the sway of Harry’s hips lingered in Louis’ mind as he made his way to his own cabin. He hated the way the memory of Harry’s biceps bunching as he hauled a feed bag over those broad shoulders swam in his mind when he peeled himself out of his dirt-encrusted uniform. He hated the way he’d watched those long fucking fingers work the delicate webbing of the soft fence that protected the gardens from scavengers.

He hated that his cock was already twitching when he flipped on the shower to let the water heat.

It seemed inevitable that once he got under the hot spray his hand would move to circle the base of his dick. He honest to god tried not to think about Harry while he worked his rapidly hardening length. He tried to think of that hot rugby player he fancied or the big burly man from his favorite porno, but his mind kept coming back to those gorgeous thighs and that soft swell of tummy pushing out against a white tee and those goddamn fucking lips.

Those lips. Louis groaned, slapping his free hand against the slick tiles as he brushed a thumb over his sensitive head, then tugged his foreskin down with a rough drag, just how he liked it. Those raspberry, plush lips were begging to be wrapped around a cock. Louis imagined feeding his into that waiting mouth, with Harry on his knees looking up at him with wide, teary green eyes. Louis would bury his fingers in those curls to guide him down. It would be all hot and wet and tight as the head of his cock slipped into Harry’s throat. Harry would gag just a little but he’d want to be good for Louis so he’d just swallow, his gaze locked on Louis’.

Louis breathing turned shallow and fast as his strokes grew more insistent. Louis would let Harry pull off a bit, and then the boy would take him down again, until his mouth was flush up against Louis’ pelvis. And then he’d hum and Louis would lose it, his fingers tracing down to touch Harry’s vulnerable throat. His thumb would press right there, right against Harry’s Adam’s Apple and Harry’s pupils would blow out so that they were pools of black lust.

Louis cupped his balls with the hand he’d had against the shower wall, tugging just a little at the delicate sack, as his other hand continued its brutal rhythm. So close. Heat pulled at the base of his spine and the image changed to Harry here in the shower with him. His hands on the wall, his legs spread as Louis held his ass cheeks apart to line himself up with that gorgeous, gorgeous hole.

Everything went a little blurry as Louis imagined pressing into Harry’s hot, wet body and then he came. So hard. He came so hard he thought he whited out a bit. He might have even seen fucking stars behind his eyelids.

He was still panting as the water went cool around him, and he tried to will his limbs to move before it turned freezing.

He made quick work of soaping off the grime of the day then climbed out to stare at himself in the mirror. A very fucked out Louis looked back at him and he couldn’t even feel guilt over wanking to Harry because all he felt was relaxed bliss.

As Louis dried off to pull on a not-too-ratty pair of soft joggers he tried not to think too hard about how he’d come when and only when his fantasy Harry had whimpered his name.

Chapter Text

This time when Harry changed his outfit four times it wasn’t because he was afraid he was going to be mocked. It was because he wanted to look good for Louis.

Though he didn’t want to get his hopes up, there had been a noticeable thawing today and Harry wanted to take advantage of it. Maybe even flirt a little if Louis was receptive to it.

He finally settled on a pretty purple shirt with tiny black Mickey Mouse ears all over it. If you didn’t look closely it would just look like a patterned blouse, but Harry liked the little surprise of it when people finally noticed.

As he walked toward the back of HQ he tried not to fiddle with his rings or his hair or the buttons on his shirt, so that he wouldn’t betray his nerves. It didn’t take him long to find the group, he just followed the tunes and the voices and the five meter high flames.

“Harry you made it,” Liam called from where he was standing a little apart from Zach and a man with beautiful long black hair. The other researcher -- Steve -- that Louis had mentioned, Harry guessed. It was confirmed when Liam introduced him around. He also met a Leigh-Ann and Perrie, two local students who helped out a few hours a week, and Tasha the vet. Harry sized her up, remembering that knowing smile on Louis’ face when he’d mentioned her. She was petite, with a pretty, round face, and clear blue eyes; and her strawberry-blonde hair was cut into a short riot of curls that ended at her chin. There wasn’t anything particularly stunning about her features, but when she laughed she became absolutely beautiful and Harry liked her immediately despite his jealously.

And even that faded when he noticed how Niall was deliberately not watching them be introduced, even though he was hovering nearby. He’d even stopped talking mid-conversation once he heard Liam say Harry’s name.

Tasha was just starting to tell him about how she couldn’t drink anything because she was on call waiting for one of her cows who’d been having a difficult pregnancy to go into labor, when Louis arrived.

“Oi, looking quite relaxed there Tommo,” Niall cackled as Louis grabbed a beer from the cooler at the edge of the fire. Harry could have sworn Louis blushed and then looked at him, which sent Niall doubling over in laughter. But Harry couldn’t figure out what inside joke he was missing so he just shrugged at Tasha and scooted over to make room as Louis came to stand beside him.

Louis really was stunning in any light and Harry didn’t think he’d ever get tired of seeing every variation he could. The fire cast a lovely golden glow on those sharp cheekbones, caressed the caramel skin so that Harry thought it might taste like warmed sugar, created shadows in the hollow of his neck.

Louis punched Tasha lightly on the shoulder in greeting and the last remnants of jealousy dissipated when the vet returned the gesture. The brother-sister vibe was strong.

“Hey Tash, Tash…” Niall called from where he was chatting with the blonde part-timer. Perrie.

Tasha rolled her eyes at Harry and Louis but was smiling a little bit as she made her way over to the kid.

Harry leaned down so that his mouth was just by Louis’ ear and he resisted the urge to nibble at the delectable lobe. Just barely. “I feel like I’ve wandered into an episode of Melrose Place,” he whispered.

Louis pulled back a little to meet his eyes, then glanced over where Liam way mooning over Zach, then to where Niall was trying to show off for Tasha. And then he cackled, and it was the sweetest sound Harry had ever heard. He knew he was glowing with the pride of making Louis laugh like that and he didn’t even care. He was apparently going to be shameless when it came to this man.

“Melrose Place, Harry?” Louis asked wiping a tear from his eye. “What are you a 45 year old woman?”

It did nothing to dim Harry’s happiness. He’d made Louis laugh. “Heyyy, it’s a good show. It’s all about character development and the intricate relationships that can develop in close quarters,” he said with a meaningful look at Louis’ friends.

Louis’ eyes were still crinkled as he studied Harry face. “Harold you’re 26, how do you even know about that show?”

“Like you’re such an old man,” Harry teased. “Um, when I lived in Thailand there was this one station that pretty much only played reruns of it. I got … kind of addicted.”

“I have so many questions,” Louis said, but held up his hand. “First though, refreshments.” He dug in the pocket of his soft gray sweatpants that were really a gift to all mankind -- namely Harry -- and pulled out a little blue bottle with silver foil wrapped around the top.

Louis held it out to Harry, who took it with shaking fingers. “You brought me champagne?” Harry whispered, his hand cradling the glass, which was still cold from the fridge. There was a little catch in the back of his throat as he stared at it, and he told himself he was being ridiculous.

When Harry looked back up at Louis, he was fixing his fringe and shrugging simultaneously. “No big deal, mate. Had it in my fridge, wasn’t going to drink it anyway.”

Harry nodded and swallowed, looking back down at the bottle.

“Alright, don’t get all sappy on me, it’s just some bubbly,” Louis said, but there was a weird quiver in his voice. “Celebrating your first day and all, yeah.”

It might be a tiny gesture, but it was a gesture. And Harry realized exactly two things in that moment.

One. Louis Tomlinson didn’t hate his guts. At least not any more. Harry didn’t know exactly what he’d done to turn the tide but he didn’t want to probe it too much in case he jinxed it.

Two. Louis Tomlinson would be far too easy to fall in love with.

“You’re scaring me here, Curly,” Louis said, a little nervous laugh in his voice. “Come on, let’s get some alcohol in ya.”

Harry cleared his throat and tried to pull himself together. Bloody hell, he was a grown ass adult not an inexperienced schoolboy no matter how much Louis made him feel like one. He clasped his fingers tightly around the bottle and followed Louis over to a set of blue camping chairs.

Louis took the bottle and opened it for Harry without asking. The cork made a spectacular little pop when it was pried loose and Harry giggled, excited for the bubbles. Louis handed it back over, his eyes going all crinkly.

“Now, I’ve only got the one, so you’re going to have to settle for tequila or beer after that. Enjoy it while it lasts,” Louis warned.

“Oh, I will,” Harry replied with gusto. “So let me get this straight…”

“Hmmm?” Louis hummed, his eyes on the fire as the group mingled around them.

“Niall is in love with Tasha,” Harry ticked off one of his fingers. “And Liam is in love with Zach.” He ticked off another finger. “But neither of them have told said objects of their affections.” He ticked off a third finger. “And finally both said objects would be very receptive to the advances of the men, but the boys are completely clueless.” He ticked off the last finger.

Louis was smirking by this point, his attention back on Harry. “And that’s what you missed on the last episode of Melrose Place.”

Harry honked out a laugh, delighted. Louis wa a quick one. “Why…?” Harry started but stopped when Louis shook his head.

“I’ve stopped asking why, Styles,” Louis said and some of the amusement slipped out of his voice. “I’ve told them both to go for it, but they’re both too scared, I guess.” He shrugged one shoulder. “Both have excuses of course, but I think that’s the heart of it.”

After taking a moment to study the couples in question, Harry shifted toward Louis again. “I guess it’s easy on the outside, looking in,” Harry said slowly. Louis’ eyes were on his. “It’s hard, though, to make yourself vulnerable like that. It’s probably one of the scariest things in the world.”

“Personal experience, there?” Louis asked his voice light.

Harry shrugged. “Don’t we all?”

“‘Supose.” Louis swigged at his beer, his eyes back on fire. Harry wanted them on him.

“With Jamie?” Harry couldn’t stop the words.

Louis’ face went blank for a moment, his body tense where a second ago it had been pliant and relaxed. Then he took a breath, his eyes on his beer bottle. “So why were you living in Thailand.”

Okay. Not a welcome topic of conversation. Harry didn’t push. “I worked at an orphanage there for about six months. It was a special facility for kids who had been affected by landmines.”

“Wow, that sounds intense,” Louis said, and he was back to how he’d been before Harry had fucked up and asked about Jamie. Thank god.

Harry nodded, taking a sip of the champagne. “It was.”

“You, uh, you do a lot of charity work?” Louis’ nail was digging at the edge of the beer’s label.

“Well, with the mum I have,” Harry tried to deflect. Louis wouldn’t let him.

“But you still don’t have to do that. Don’t have to do this,” Louis waved a hand to encompass the whole sanctuary. “Why do you?”

Harry swallowed the remainder of the bubbly, loving the sugary burn on the way down. It was funny how far they’d come in a day, him and Louis. But yesterday seemed so long ago and here in the night with the fireflies and the low buzz of chatter from new friends and the sweet taste of champagne -- champagne that Louis had throught to bring specifically because he knew Harry liked it -- still on his tongue it seemed natural to share secrets.

“I graduated from uni when I was 22, and by that point everyone who paid attention to tabs in England thought I was some kind of rich, bratty manwhore,” Harry started. Louis cleared his throat and Harry’s suspicions were confirmed. That’s why he’d hated Harry on sight. “It wasn’t okay any more, you know? I wanted to get a job and have a normal life and people were so weird about it. Not only my reputation, which I had stopped even trying to defend, but like the Styles thing didn’t help either. A few business wanted to give me cushy jobs where I didn’t actually do anything; a few others wanted me to sponsor their shit. But most just … didn’t take me seriously.”

That had been the worst part of it all. He’d gotten some interview off his name alone, but so many people wrote him off because they thought they knew him. They thought he was worthless to them. He’d started to feel worthless.

“That was just … my low point,” Harry said, putting the bottle on the ground. He pushed out of his chair to search through the cooler for something sweet, and found a fun little drink with strawberries and a lemon on the label. It would do. Louis’ eyes were on him the whole way back to his seat. Harry twisted the top off and took a sip of the pretty liquid before continuing. “If that’s how the whole world saw me, why not become that?”

“Oh, Harry,” Louis murmured, but Harry didn’t want to look at him, so he took another gulp of the drink. It was delicious and coated his throat.

“It was a bad six months, there.” Harry closed his eyes. He wasn’t ashamed of himself any longer, but there would always be a pit in his stomach when he thought about that time. “Pretty much everything they said about me was true, then. Except for the birds, of course.”

“Of course,” Louis repeated and Harry wondered if he’d actually gotten it. He looked over and somehow the way Louis’ eyes were locked on his face told him he did.

Harry swallowed hard. “My mum actually snapped me out of it. You know told me she loved me but was disappointed, which was pretty much the most brutal thing she could have done. I left for one of her charities for young girls in India the next day. I spent the next two years visiting ones around the world. I busted my ass. I know you expected me not to, but I’ve always busted my ass.”

Louis titled his head. “I’m sorry.” Just as simple as that. Harry loved how easy Louis admitted to being in the wrong.

“That’s the first thing you learn, you know,” Harry continued. “When people hear I’m coming, well there’s the ones who want to baby me, there are ones who want to pretend I’m not there, and there are ones that give me the toughest day of work they can think of hoping I’ll leave.”

Louis laughed at that.

Harry smirked. “It varies, but when they finally accept I’m not going to do that, I’m not going to run away, well they start giving me actual work. And it’s hard. And you have to bust your ass every day just to survive. But, it’s…”

He trailed off not wanting to get sappy, but Louis nodded anyway. “Yeah. It’s worth it.”

They shared a look and there was something like respect in Louis’ eyes and Harry didn’t think the buzzing in his bloodstream had anything to do with the alcohol. “So,” he said. “That’s my story. How did you end up here?”

***

The night had cooled around them, the heat of the day long burned off, leaving behind a fresh summer night that was heavy with promises. And as Harry had pointed out, at least for Niall and Liam, those promises could be of the romantic variety.

Louis was still reeling from Harry coming out so casually to him, so his own romantic promises had just become a lot more real than the fantasy he’d been nursing. But still not wise.

His story. Harry had asked for his story. Right. “I can’t believe your mum never told you,” Louis chuckled, after he sat back down with his second beer in one hand and a bottle of tequila in the other. Shots were going to be had on this here night.

“I don’t have a mum apparently,” Harry said eyeing the bottle with curiosity. “I’ve disowned her for not telling me whatever the story is.”

Louis smirked. “I tried to pickpocket her.”

The reaction was as gratifying as he’d hoped. Harry choked on nothing, his eyes going teary as he coughed and then gaped at Louis. He looked like a fish.

“You look like a fish,” Louis laughed, then reached for the tequila. Harry hadn’t needed as much liquid courage to tell his story, but Louis wasn’t Harry. He took a shot straight from the bottle and Niall hooted at him in the distance. Other than that the rest of the group was leaving Harry and Louis alone, as if they’d sensed and were respecting the little bubble that kept the world narrowed down to just the two of them.

Harry sucked his lips in, and looked even more like a fish. Louis kept his mouth shut this time and handed over the liquor. “I’m sorry, did I hear that right?” Harry asked before wrapping those lips around it. Louis had a quick flashback to his shower activities and shifted, willing himself not to get hard.

“Uh yeah,” Louis squinted one eye at him. “Not my proudest moment, to be honest.”

“I wouldn’t think so, no,” Harry murmured.

Louis reached for the bottle. Took another sip. “It was a long time ago. I was 15 and, um,” Louis took a deep breath focusing on the way his throat still burned from the tequila. “I’d come out to my parents the year before and it wasn’t great. It was actually kind of hell for the 9 months before they decided they couldn’t even stand the sight of me and kicked me out.”

“Oh, Lou,” Harry echoed Louis’ earlier sentiment. He startled slightly when Harry’s fingers found the soft skin at the nape of his neck, his thumb rubbing against the tight muscles there. It was heavenly.

“Like I said it was a long time ago,” Louis tried to shrug it off. He didn’t think much about his family anymore. The pang in his chest had long gone from being unbearable to being more wistful than anything. “But I was kind of on my own, and young and scared shitless, if I’m being honest. I hitched to the city, thinking I could find a bed somewhere. But it was always touch and go. I was kind of desperate at that point and then I saw this really nice looking woman pay for coffee with a wad of bills.”

“Mum,” Harry said, around a mouthful of tequila. At this rate they were going to get fucked. Louis tried to care, but all he could see was Harry in firelight, his skin dewy and fresh, his eyes sharp and focused entirely on Louis. Louis reached for the bottle.

“Yeah,” Louis confirmed. “It was enough to pay for food for like a month and I just, well I wasn’t very smooth obviously. And she caught me.”

“What happened next?” Harry asked when Louis paused.

“She took me to the restaurant that was at the end of the street and bought me lunch.” It still brought tears to his eyes, though maybe it wouldn’t have if he hadn’t been five shots in. But he was and the pang became so much sharper, so much harder to ignore. Anne was everything to him. He shifted to find Harry’s eyes suspiciously moist as well.

“That’s mum,” Harry whispered and Louis could do nothing but nod his agreement.

“She didn’t just give me money and send me on my way either,” Louis said. “She, um, set me up to finish school. Helped pay for my degrees. I mean I worked my ass off at two part-time jobs while I was there, too, but she gave me as much as I was willing to take. It. I’ll never be able to thank her for it.”

“You already have, Lou,” Harry said, his fingers squeezing Louis’ neck again, the tips edging up into his hair. Louis pushed against them, letting the connection ground him. “Just by being you. That’s all she ever wanted.”

“She didn’t even tell you the story,” Louis protested.

Harry lifted one shoulder. “Didn’t have to. She asked you to watch over her elephants. That tells me all I ever need to know.”

“Fuck,” Louis whispered, because otherwise he didn’t know what would come out. He blinked hard.

“Lou,” Harry’s voice was soft in the night. “Thank you for telling me.”

Something shifted in the air, a livewire going taut between them. Louis couldn’t stop taking in every inch of Harry’s beautiful face, flitting from wet, green moss eyes to pale pink bubblegum lips and back again.

“Lou,” Harry said again tugging Louis a little closer with the hand still on the back of his neck. Louis knew he shouldn’t but he let him. He could feel his heartbeat, actually feel it, race against the delicate skin of his wrists. He wasn’t even sure if he was breathing anymore. He wasn’t really sure of anything anymore.

“Oi, wankers, you’re bogarting the tequila,” Niall called from the other side of the bonfire and the world came back in sharp, vicious focus, leaving Louis disoriented and spinning.

When Harry turned to glare at Niall, further popping their little bubble, Louis took the opportunity to spring to his feet.

“Like you need any more liquid encouragement to act like an ass,” he shot back, and he hoped no one else could hear the way his voice wavered. Harry’s eyes were on him, but he refused to look back.

“Ha ha. Dickhead,” Niall said, grabbing the bottle from him, but there was a curious look on his face, as if he were checking to make sure Louis was okay, his eyes flitting to Harry over Louis’ shoulder. Louis nodded just once and Niall’s face relaxed back into a cheery smile. “Tash got called away so we’re going to get wasted in her honor.”

“Well, that sounds like a terrible life decision,” Louis said clapping his hand down on Niall’s shoulder, still refusing to look back at Harry. “Count me in.”

Chapter Text

Harry was dead. Or maybe not. Could he be in so much pain if he were dead?

The question alone proved too much for his fragile brain, which started up the unrelenting jackhammering against his skull once more.

His tongue was glued to the top of his mouth so even swallowing proved impossible. Instead he tried to take stock of his body. His neck was on fire from sleeping (passing out) in the odd position, there was something hard and pointy (not the good hard and pointy) under his thigh and his skin was practically attempting to suck water out of the air it was so dry.

Did he dare open his eyes? It sounded unbearably unappealing, but he could tell he was in no position to just sink into the oblivion of sleep again even if the cruel elves in tap shoes who were performing Riverdance on his frontal lobe would let him.

But then, then, some cruel, evil devil of a person started laughing and the sound stabbed into his eyeball forcing him to pry open the lid if only to improve his aim when he killed said devil.

It was Louis. Because of course it was Louis. Harry kicked a foot out at him and missed by three lengths. Louis just laughed harder.

“My shoes,” Harry unstuck his tongue to croak out, his eyes not on the human personification of sunshine bouncing in front of him but on his feet. He hated his feet. They were ugly and knobby and they currently had no shoes on them. He distinctly remembered having shoes last night.

“You said, and I quote, ‘Shoes are for quitters,’” Louis smirked, his hands on his hips and his laughter mostly under control. He was enjoying this far too much.

“They are for quitters,” Harry muttered closing his eyes again, unable, in his current state, to take in the beauty of Louis Tomlinson.

“Truer words,” Louis clicked his tongue in agreement. “A few of the ladies just got a wee bit concerned when you also proclaimed clothes were for quitters.”

“Not the lads?”

Louis started laughing again. “Never a more receptive audience, babe.”

Harry giggled and it proved too much for his hangover. The next thing he knew he was doubled over and retching into the dry Arkansas dirt because somehow he must have slept outside.

At least he managed to avoid himself.

In an instant, Louis was beside him, his small hand rubbing soothing circles between Harry’s shoulder blades, his other pulling Harry’s curls out of his face. Harry was mortified, but could do nothing to stop the heaves wracking his body.

“Feeling poorly pet?” Louis cooed in mock sympathy, despite the gentle way his palm pressed into Harry’s spine to ground him. “That’s it, sweetheart. That’s it. Better out than in!”

Harry wanted to kill him. Or disappear into a giant hole in the earth where Louis Tomlinson would never see him emptying his stomach contents after passing out all night under a stupid tree. “I hate you,” Harry croaked in between gagging.

That seemed to set Louis off even more, giggling so hard that he plopped back onto his ass from where he’d been squatting.

“You’re not going to hate me soon, when you realize I control the camp’s only supply of paracetemol,” Louis said.

“Did I say hate? I meant love,” Harry said, ignoring the twisting feeling in his chest that had nothing to do with his hangover.

Louis didn’t notice anything, just pushed to his feet, and then hauled Harry to his. The sudden shift in elevation was not kind to Harry and he leaned heavily against Louis’ shoulders as black dots popped in front of his eyes and he concentrated on not throwing up actually on Louis. That would be too much, really. More than he could survive. Beyond the pale. He’d have to leave the country, change his name.

Surprisingly, Louis held perfectly still, his thumbs running over the inside of Harry’s wrist in soothing strokes as if somehow he could tell Harry was on the brink. Ha. Yeah. Somehow. It’s not like Harry looked like actual death or anything. And probably smelled like it too. Super charming. Way to impress the hot guy he wanted to fuck.

Once Harry was confident he could move without losing all control of his stomach again, he prodded Louis forward. He took the hint, and together they made their way oh so slowly across the field back to Harry’s cabin. Louis teased him mercilessly the whole way, but his arms were sure and his hands were gentle. Especially when he tucked Harry underneath his blankets in his blessedly dark room, and then set a glass of water and a packet of painkillers on the bedside table.

Harry might have just imagined dry, soft lips brushing against his forehead, but he carried the feeling into sweet, sweet sleep anyway.

When he stumbled out of his cabin the sun was way past the high point in the sky and he felt somewhat human again.

He found the rest of the crew in the HQ building, gathered around the kitchen’s scarred wood table, half-drunk stained mugs of tea at their elbows. What Harry wouldn’t give for a good cuppa.

“How are you guys not dead?” Harry complained, plopping himself down in the empty seat next to Liam, not yet ready to meet Louis’ eyes. He was worried about the censure that might linger in them, despite the careful way Louis had soothed him earlier. This was the man who had obviously believed Harry’s reputation, after all. This was the man to whom he confessed last night that some of it had been warranted.

Liam clapped a heavy hand on his shoulder as the rest of the assholes stifled laughter behind pressed lips. “It’s a rite of passage, Harry,” Liam said, pompous and amused at the same time. “You’re one of us now.”

At that Harry did look up, too optimistic for his own good, because he wanted to see Louis’ reaction to that. Louis who had so clearly not wanted Harry there in the first place.

But the familiar disdain that had been in every angle of Louis’ body, in every glance from the side of his eyes, was gone. In its place was that humor that had been there this morning when he’d found Harry passed out under the tree. Part affection and part sick pleasure from Harry’s suffering. It was the same look the rest of the table was wearing.

Unable to contain his happiness at being fully welcomed, Harry grinned, looking around the table, stupid and easy for the friendships that bloomed so quickly in camps like this. Everything was always on fast-forward. Maybe it was because the hard, long days made them more desperate to seek out laughter and lightness where they could.

At the thought, Harry found Louis’ eyes and was surprised at how soft and open his face was in that moment before he realized Harry was looking at him. Then he closed off a bit, still smiling, but without that something extra there that had caused Harry’s heart to stutter over itself.

“Alright, newbie, you passed the hazing period,” Louis said, dropping his feet to the floor from where they’d been kicked up on the table. “Now’s your reward.”

Harry perked up even further at that, but refrained from actually clapping. Rewards were nice. Harry liked rewards. He pushed out of the chair not caring if he looked desperately eager. He was.

“Be gentle, Lou,” Niall called out after them as Harry followed Louis from the kitchen. Louis flicked off the room without even turning around, but Harry noticed a flush along the nape of his neck. All of a sudden he had an image of last night, of his hand right there at the top of Louis’ spine, of leaning into each other’s space, of whispered confessions and breathes caught on lips.

“So what’s my reward?” Harry skipped a bit so he was walking in tandem with Louis.

“Patience is a virtue, dear Harold,” Louis murmured, flashing him a coy look beneath shuttered lashes. Harry almost swallowed his tongue. He did trip over air, though that was perhaps less embarrassing. “You’ll have to wait and see.”

***

“You’re a fucking toddler, Harry,” Louis said as he checked the GPS tracker for the third time then took a sharp right.

Harry pouted some more and looked so goddamn fuckable it was insane. Especially considering Louis had now seen him toss his cookies in techno-color. He should not find him so hot.

But Harry was wearing pink, was the thing. With white polka-dots. And he had a scarf wrapped through those locks that were still gorgeous even though they were a little wilted from Harry’s hangover adventures. And he was pouting.

Louis could only take so much, really. All he wanted to do was touch and taste everywhere. He dragged his eyes off the boy and checked the GPS one more time.

Branches caught at the roof of the golf cart as he lifted his foot from the pedal.

“Is this it?” Harry asked, cautious disappointment in his voice.

Louis smirked. “Toddler.”

Harry tumbled out of the cart, all long limbs and faltering grace, to scramble after Louis as he started up the small incline.

“Lou, I have a confession,” Harry said, a little ways behind him. Louis peeped over his shoulder to make sure the boy was going to be able to make it up the dirt hill in those boots. The length of his strides seemed to be compensating for any missing traction. “It’s really important and I think it’s time you know this about me.”

“I’m on the edge of my seat, love,” Louis said, turning away so Harry wouldn’t see his smile.

“I don’t like surprises,” Harry whispered as if divulging state secrets. Goddamn fucking cutie.

“I would never have guessed, Styles,” Louis said instead of dragging him to the ground right then and there.

“I never have you know,” Harry continued, panting just a bit now as it got steeper. “When I was a kid my sister and I would buy my mum presents for her birthday every year…”

“Nice of you,” Louis interjected, unable to resist teasing. It was his nature.

“World’s best son right here,” Harry said, and Louis could hear the grin in his voice. Fuck. Why did he have to be a good sport? “Anyway, my sister would like practice with me before hand. Like you’re not going to tell her, you’re not going to tell her.”

“Before she opened it?”

“Yeah. Because I would try not to ruin the surprise, but I usually didn’t make it,” Harry said on a sigh.

“Oh, quick on the trigger are you lad?” Louis couldn’t help but look back at that. Harry was so pretty when he blushed.

“I really want to say something clever here,” Harry stuttered. “But thinking about you and that in the same sentence is making my head explode. And would probably undercut my protest, anyway.”

And then Louis was thankful they made it to the top because the thought of Harry coming too quickly because he was overwhelmed by Louis. Well. Fuck.

“Ummmm,” is all he managed to drag out of his mouth that had just gone bone dry. He coughed. “So did you ever manage not to ruin the surprise?”

The smug smile slipped as he huffed out a sad sigh. “Tragically never. To this day I still blurt out what I got her before she can open it.”

While it was probably an exaggeration, Louis couldn’t help but be charmed by the picture. And he really needed to stop being charmed by this boy. That way only led ruin.

“So, ta-dah,” he said, since Harry was still just staring at him.

It took a moment for Harry’s eyes to follow Louis’ gesture but when he caught sight of his surprise he gasped.

There not too far beneath them were Delilah and Precious -- much closer than Georgie and Cher had been the other day.

“Oh my god,” Harry said, the words almost lost to the wind. But Louis had been watching him closely. He didn’t want to admit why Harry’s reaction was important to him. It just was. “Is that…?”

“Delilah, yeah,” Louis said and Harry looked at him. There was wonder in those eyes. “And Precious, our baby.”

“Lou, they’re beautiful.”

They were. Louis knew them so well, like he would his own children He knew the scar that zig-zagged across Delilah’s gentle face, he knew the nick that was missing from Precious’ ear, he knew the wrinkles on their thick hides and the way they felt beneath his palm.

Although he tried to never take them for granted, their beauty was that of something familiar. It was amplified by the way he knew Delilah was a cheeky shit just like him, or that Precious went wild over frozen watermelon. But it was different than that shock of wonder of seeing them for the first time.

It was important. It was important how someone saw them. If they saw the beauty.

At this point, Louis knew he shouldn’t be surprised that Harry did. A little part of him whispered that he would never have brought Harry here if he’d just been that shallow man Louis had thought him.

He didn’t know where that left them, though.

So instead of trying to figure it out he grabbed Harry’s wrist and tugged him to the ground. Harry went down easily, but not with any grace, and he floundered a bit as he arranged himself next to Louis.

Eventually they settled, their arms pressing into each other, their pinkies touching where they both rested their palms on the ground.

“Did you know elephants are evolving so they no longer grow tusks?” Louis asked, his gaze on Precious. She was bouncing around, Delilah, her trunk knocking out against the older female’s legs, begging for attention. “Because of the poachers.”

A small, distressed whimper was torn from Harry’s throat. “That’s horrible. Tell me a nice fact instead, Lou. Please?”

What a love.

Louis inched his pinkie closer until it was hooked over Harry’s. Neither of them moved. “There was this zoo once that was getting an elephant,” Louis started on one of his favorite stories. “And when they opened the gate to her cage to let her meet their herd, one of their elephants started running toward them. Then the new one took off too and they met in the middle and essentially jumped into each other’s arms in elephant.”

Harry shifted so that his knee knocked against Louis’. “They knew each other?”

“Well, everyone was confused because nothing in their files indicated that they did,” Louis said. “But then they dug further into it, and it turns out they’d been babies in the same herd in Africa. Hadn’t seen each other in 30 years. But there you go.”

“That’s lovely,” Harry said on a sigh, turning toward Louis.

Louis made the fatal error of looking at him. His eyes were wide and soft and so green, and his gorgeous lips were parted with the joy of the moment, and his skin was just a bit flushed.

“You’re lovely,” Louis said, unable to stop the words.

Harry’s breathed in, a sharp little intake. “Lou.”

His name fell from Harry’s lips so easily. As if all this could be easy.

Harry made him wish that it could be.

He cleared his throat and tried to shift away, look back at the elephants below them, or at the mountains, or at the gathering storm clouds rolling in.

But Harry moved. So quickly. He was in Louis’ lap, his knees brushing against Louis’ hips, one of his big hands cupping Louis’ jaw to force him to meet his eyes.

“No,” Harry said, his voice strong, his gaze intent. Louis felt weak, open, exposed. He licked at his lower lip and Harry tracked the small movement, his already dilated pupils going even darker. “You don’t get to say that and turn away.”

“It’s the truth,” Louis shrugged, helpless beneath him. Louis’ fingers dug into the dirt, unwilling to let his hands trail along Harry’s sides down to the little bum that hovered just above Louis’ groin. He wanted to press Harry closer so the space between them disappeared.

Harry’s thumb touched the corner of Louis’ mouth. “You don’t want it to be true?”

Of course he didn’t. Life would be so much fucking simpler if Harry Styles wasn’t lovely. If he wasn’t kind and funny and smart and ridiculous. “No.”

“But you said it anyway,” Harry said, oh so slowly. Like he was starting to figure Louis out. Which was goddamn dangerous, if you asked Louis.

So Louis didn’t say anything, unwilling to give over anything else. Not when he was so unprepared for what was happening. Not when what he had handed to Harry had slipped out, without careful consideration. Without thought to what the end would feel like. Because there would be an end.

Instead of shifting off of Louis like he might have hoped, Harry’s fingers began to card through Louis’ hair. And then he smiled. A full out, dimples popped, all teeth smile and Louis was done for.

“Fuck,” he whispered, and Harry’s smile only grew. Louis finally let his hands do what they would, and immediately they were on Harry’s hips, on his back, on his ass drawing him against Louis. Harry went, so, so easily, fitting against Louis.
Then all Louis could feel was Harry. The strong lines of his back, the bunched power of his things, his scent in the very air Louis’ drew into his lungs. It was all Harry. Just Harry.

A breath later, Harry’s mouth was on his. They were both a little too fierce, a little too hungry, but Louis didn’t care. He didn’t care about anything except the way Harry tasted, the way his tongue slicked over Louis’. God, it was so good.

Louis’ fingers slipped beneath the hem of Harry’s shirt, the material silky against his knuckles. But nothing compared to the way Harry’s smooth skin burned against his palms. Louis wanted more, and he shifted a bit so that he took control of the kiss. His tongue chased Harry’s into his mouth and then Louis pulled back a tiny bit to take Harry’s lip between his teeth, tugging until he got a whimper -- a beautiful little whimper -- from the boy sitting in his lap.

He rewarded him by dipping his fingers under the waistband of Harry’s jeans to rest on the top swell of his cute little ass. And then he pressed forward, bringing Harry’s cock right up against his. They were both hard.

“Lou,” Harry moaned, tucking his face into the side of Louis’ neck as he rolled his hips, chasing much-needed friction. Harry’s mouth was hot and wet against Louis’ skin as he panted his name again.

That’s when Louis lost all semblance of reality. Because he was actually considering flipping Harry over and taking him there, in the middle of the woods underneath the open sky. Just stripping off Harry’s jeans. Louis wouldn’t even have to undress, all he’d have to do is unzip. He just needed to be in Harry. To feel him tight and warm around his cock and that was his only thought. The one that pounded with each beat of his heart, that shuttered into his lungs with every indrawn breath, that throbbed along with him as he rutted up against Harry. He needed.

And with the way Harry was still breathing Louis’ name against his skin, his mouth against Louis’ Adam’s Apple, his cock thick and hard against Louis’ thigh, he knew Harry needed it too.

So fuck it. Maybe it was a mistake. Maybe it would be a disaster. But logical thought had gone out the window ten minutes ago when Harry had slung his long legs over Louis and climbed directly into his lap.

Just as Louis shifted, though, ready to lay Harry down against the dirt, the sky opened up. It wasn’t just one raindrop, a little warning of the roiling clouds overhead. No. One minute it was nothing but gray skies, and the next it was a fucking torrential downpour.

“Fuck,” Louis yelled out into the void as they were both instantly soaked to the skin.

“Fuck,” Harry echoed and then their eyes met through the sheets of rain and Louis was lost. They both were. The laughter rumbled from where their stomachs pressed against each other, tipping over lips and falling into the air between them, raw and honest.

Louis fell back against the earth, and Harry followed him, then shifted to lay beside him, their shoulders brushing as the water sloshed over their cooling bodies and the dirt turned to mud beneath their backs.

The drops pelted them, but they just giggled, daring nature to ruin the moment. It couldn’t. Nothing could.

Louis turned his head so that he and Harry were breathing the same air. He had to keep his eyes closed, the rain was too fierce, but he knew Harry’s lips were there. Just there. One of them moved so they were pressed against each other and the kiss was quiet and happy instead of fierce this time. It was chaste, mouth against mouth, the barest hint of a tongue as they just let it be what it was. It was far more intimate than the snogging they’d done moments before and Louis was thankful for the excuse not to meet Harry’s eyes. He didn’t know what he would see in them if he did.

More importantly he didn’t know what would be in his.

Then lightening lit up the sky, bright enough to see behind closed lids, and moments later thunder ripped through the quiet evening.

“Ahhhh,” Harry yelled into Louis’ mouth and Louis pulled back to meet Harry’s wide eyes.

Another flash and then a boom and Harry yelled out again, and scrambled to his feet, clearly in a panic. It took Louis a moment to figure out what was happening but when he did he started laughing again. Harry was flailing, his boots unable to find any tread against the slick Arkansas mud. His shirt clung to his broad shoulders, but it was destroyed from the combination of rain and laying on the ground in a thunderstorm. Even his perfect, insane curls were a wet, destroyed mess.

“Louisssss,” Harry yelled and Louis really tried, he tried so hard, not to laugh in his face harder, but he couldn’t help it. Harry looked like a baby deer just learning how to walk while trying to escape from a bunny rabbit, all limbs and elbows and shaky knees. “Ahhhhhh.”

“Oh my god, move Harry,” Louis finally got enough control of himself to push to his feet and nudge Harry back down the hill, back to the golf cart. He made sure to keep a firm grip on the boy’s bicep as they half-slid, half-ran down the hill. Dragging Harry down with him would be less than ideal, but he figured out of the two of them he was most likely to keep them on their feet.

He said a little prayer of thanks as they hit even ground again and the trees got thicker to protect them from the worst of the downpour. It still made him giggle every time there was thunder and Harry would turn those blown out eyes on him and just do that little “Ahhhhh,” scream again, but Louis managed to get them both back into the golf cart without further incident.

They were used to summer storms around here. He would even think Harry, not really a novice when it came to exotic locales, would be used to them too. Apparently that hadn’t made him okay with them, though.

Harry had a death grip on the cart’s bar as Louis navigated through the rain and mud and trees to get them back to camp. He would never admit it, but it was kind of fun. If he commented on that fact, he was pretty sure Harry would actually punch him.

It wasn’t until camp came into view that Harry unclenched a bit. A bit. Not completely. And Louis knew his own face was doing all sorts of crinkly fond things that he in no way could control. He was just thankful Harry was too distracted to watch him.

Only when Louis was pulling to a stop outside his own cabin did Harry seem to take notice. He straightened at the implication that they weren’t about to separate, weren’t going to seek out showers and dry clothes and warm beds on their own. No. It would be together.

It hadn’t even been much of a conscious thought for Louis. He’d made his decision back up on the mountain. No amount of cold water, rain or otherwise, was going to change it.

He peeped back over his shoulder as he jumped from the cart, knowing what he looked like. His clothes were plastered to his slim body, accenting the dip of his waist and the curve of his ass. Not that Harry needed persuading it seemed. But just in case.

And then he took off at a run toward his cabin, knowing he was daring Harry to catch him.

Chapter Text

It was … a lot to process.

Harry sat stunned in the golf cart, the rain pounding down around him, as Louis darted into the cabin. The image of him, wet, dripping, laughing would be tattooed on the back of Harry’s eyelids for a very long time.

The thing was he’d barely recovered from earlier, the kissing and then the rain, and then the goddamn motherfucking thunder and the wild wide back where he was one hundred percent positive they were going to die as Louis just cackled in the seat next to him crashing through the forest like they were Bonnie and Clyde on the run from the law.

It was just … a lot to process.

But the longer he sat here twiddling his thumbs, the longer Louis had by himself to possibly reconsider whatever decision he’d clearly made. And that wouldn’t do.

So he took off. Not quite as sexy or as graceful as Louis, but, well, that was his life and he’d come to accept it. He didn’t need to be sexy or graceful. He just had to appreciate the boy who was.

He crashed through the door with embarrassing desperation and there Louis stood in the center of the room just waiting. And Harry stopped. He just stopped. Stopped breathing. Stopped moving. Stopped thinking. Everything narrowed down to this golden boy who in every right should look like a disaster.

Of course he didn’t, though. Of course. The material of his shirt was near transparent and Harry could make out the dark ink beneath. He wanted to trace every curve and line and swirl of those tattoos with his tongue. Louis’ arms, toned and sculpted, hung loose by his sides and Harry wanted to feel them around him again, holding him, driving him wild. Louis’ hair was slicked back off his face, and it only made his eyes that much more fierce, his cheekbones that much shaper. Harry wanted to kiss along the lines of them and whisper words of worship along the way.

A single bead of water dripped from his hair onto the delicate skin beneath his jaw. Harry couldn’t look away as it trailed down Louis’ graceful neck slipping into the valley created by his collarbones.

Harry couldn’t take anymore. A man could only be so strong.

He was on Louis in a heartbeat, his mouth chasing after the raindrop he knew had already disappeared. It didn’t matter. What was left was Louis’ skin and that was all Harry needed. It was all he’d ever need. And wasn’t that a fucking scary thought?

So he pushed it away and focused instead on the warm boy in his arms. The problem was that he got a bit too distracted, forgot he wasn’t actually cool or suave, and tried to pick Louis up, to let him wrap his legs around Harry’s waist, to carry him to a wall like they did in movies. It didn’t go as planned.

Instead when Harry palmed the back of Louis’ thighs to lift him, Louis went with it, but so did Harry. He hadn’t accounted for the amount of water they’d been dripping onto the floor and his feet went out from beneath him. He really, really, really tried not to drop Louis. It was his only thought as his feet went in every direction, sliding against the slick wood of the floor. Louis was screeching in his ear like a banshee, and clinging to him like a koala which did nothing to help Harry find his balance again.

“Harry what the fuck,” Louis was yelling, his fingers digging into Harry’s shoulder blades, his calves finding purchase behind Harry’s knees. Looking back on it, that was the moment Harry gave up the ghost and let sweet gravity take its toll.

They crashed to the floor, and Harry tried desperately to cushion the blow. He landed hard on his tailbone, but was able to brace Louis so the boy in his arms didn’t go careening off against the hard ground.

“Oh my fucking god, you klutzy giraffe,” Louis was laughing and Harry began to breathe again. “Are you alright?”

Was he? Physically, probably. There were going to be a few bruises for sure, but nothing seemed broken. He wasn’t positive he’d ever recover any last remaining bit of sexiness he’d been holding onto though.

He groaned rubbing a hand over his face and Louis instantly sobered, his fingers touching Harry’s chin, his shoulders, his waist as if reassuring himself Harry was still in once piece.

“I’m fine, I’m fine,” Harry peeked at him over the edge of his hand. “I don’t suppose you’ll buy that that was all planned, right?”

Louis was still watching him carefully, and there was something warm in Harry’s chest at the care Louis continued to show. Even back when he’d been laughing his ass off at Harry being afraid of the thunderstorm, he’d been so, so protective as he helped Harry get down the hill.

He must have seen something in Harry’s face, though, that he was in actuality fine, because his eyes crinkled with humor once more.

“That was part of your seduction plan, huh Styles?” Louis said, shifting so that they were the mirror image of what they’d been on the mountain, Louis straddling Harry’s lap, their bellies pressed against each other.

“It gets all the boys,” Harry said, a smile finally creeping out. It was hard not to match Louis’ energy, and his energy at the moment was highly amused and a tiny bit disgruntled.

“Mmm, what other moves have you been hiding,” Louis said, his lips against the skin behind Harry’s ear. Harry groaned rocking up a bit, his cock recovering from his mortification with surprising speed. Or not so surprising speed considering the softness that was Louis pressed against all Harry’s sharp edges.
“Oh, you know, a little of this,” Harry murmured tugging Louis’ chin so that he could line up their mouths. He wanted to explore. He wanted to sink into that warmth again, to let the world blur into shapes and feelings and Louis’ tongue against his own. So he took. He took everything Louis was willing to give and it was all that mattered.

He didn’t know how long they stayed like that, but he was aching by the time Louis pulled back. “Hmm, that’s nice. What else?”

How was he supposed to talk? How was he supposed to flirt and laugh and banter when the only thing that filled his head was a quiet buzz and the words LouisLouisLouis tangling together into one thought over and over again. He blinked hard, and Louis’ smiling face came into focus.

“Well, then I…” Harry could do this. He was charming. He was cool. He didn’t completely lose his shit when a hot boy’s cock was pressed against his.

He managed to get Louis’ shirt off without much trouble, the pads of his thumbs lingering at the pebbled buds of Louis’ nipples just long enough to draw a moan from Louis. The fabric sloshed against the floor where Harry threw it, but he was far more focused on the chest that was newly exposed to his eyes. Leaning in, he tongued at the “W” in the tattoo that stretched between Louis’ collarbones, then made his way back down to the nipples that were oh so pretty. They were a dustier rose than his own pink ones. They were gorgeous against his mouth.

Louis groaned, burying his fingers in Harry’s hair, rocking down against Harry and everything went gray at the edges.

He should have known then that he was in no state to keep up this practiced seduction. He was too hard, too eager, too easy for everything that was sparking like wildfire between them.

The problem was Louis’ jeans. They were just so goddamn tight, so that when Harry tried to skillfully peel them off the boy while still working his nipples -- well it all went wrong.

The soaking wet fabric stuck to Louis’ thighs and when they both tried to maneuver it so they didn’t have to shift away from each other, Louis somehow got tangled up and went sprawling.

“Oomph.” He landed hard, a mess of limbs and confusion, his cock still straining against his boxer briefs, with his jeans caught only halfway down his legs.

“Oh my god,” Harry’s face flamed as he crawled over to him.

“Styles, you’re dripping on me,” Louis squeezed his eyes shut, still spread eagle on the ground as the rainwater from Harry’s hair trickled onto his face.
“Oh my god,” Harry had no other words. He was about to die. Could the ground open up? Because that would be fantastic. “Are you alright?”

Louis finally opened his eyes and they were laughing up at Harry. “I’ll live, somehow. Though I don’t know if I’ll survive these seduction techniques, love.”

“Oh my god.” Harry knew he was being a broken record, but oh my god.

By this point Louis started laughing again, and he shouldn’t be able to look so undignified and grumpy and sexy and amused at the same time, but he did.

And Harry fell in love with him in that moment.

It didn’t crash into him, it was more a gentle swoop as he watched the way Louis’ shoulders curved in as he laughed, in the middle of a wet pile of shirt and rainwater and ground with his skinny jeans half off, and his hair slicked back and just. Harry couldn’t look away.

“If ever there was any doubt about your lothario image, Styles, you just crushed them,” Louis said, still giggling.

“Heyyy,” Harry pouted but he took it as a good sign that Louis wasn’t kicking him out of the cabin. He pressed back up onto his hands and knees so he was looming over Louis and then he shook his head so that the rest of the water that had been clinging to his curls splashed all over the boy.

“Fucking asshole,” Louis screeched.

Harry giggled. “Yup, that’s the goal.”

Louis groaned and reached out to twist Harry’s nipple between two evil fingers but Harry was too quick. Well he was too quick for Louis, but he still managed to forget about the mess they were in and somehow ended up on his own arse, their legs slotting together as Harry admitted defeat.

“I give up,” he flopped his arms out. “It wasn’t meant to be.”

Louis sat up at that, his face alight with some mischief. He somehow -- through magic Harry was convinced -- extricated himself from his jeans with far more grace than was really fair and then perched himself on Harry’s lap, so their cocks aligned.

He slapped his hands on Harry’s chest. “Shoes are for quitters, Styles, and you are no quitter.”

It was as nonsensical and ridiculous as everything else had been up to this point and if Harry hadn’t just fallen in love with him two minutes ago, this would have been the moment.

“Wasn’t there something about clothes being for quitters, too?” Harry asked, all innocence.

“Why Styles, you saucy minx, you’re right,” Louis said, looking down at Harry beneath him. “We’ll have to rectify this situation at once.”

Harry wondered what his face looked like in that moment. If it was bursting. Because he was. With happiness. With laughter. With love.

This. This was all he’d ever wanted. And it was right here, squirming around in his lap trying to get Harry’s shirt off.

Harry lifted his hips a bit for Louis and somehow -- again through magic, Harry knew -- Louis got Harry’s jeans off too. Then they were damp skin to damp skin. Humor faded into lust as tongues explored bodies but kept coming back to mouths. Long and deep and wet and perfect.

They were both achingly hard again, grinding their hips against each other, when Louis pushed up and away. Harry whimpered, missing him immediately, but Louis just murmured a quick “be right back,” before disappearing from Harry’s eyeline.

It felt cold all of a sudden. Everything had been fast and blurred and laughter and lust and Louis, and now Harry began to register that he was actually in Louis’ space, still kind of wet, and a little off balance.

He pushed to his feet, and stood in the middle of the room, a bit awkward.

When Louis walked out of the bathroom, everything in the air changed. The warmth was back. But where it had been sunshine and light before, now it was more serious, more purposeful.

Louis laid the towel he’d brought with him on the arm of a chair and without looking away from Harry’s eyes, slowly hooked his thumbs into Harry’s briefs and tugged. Then he was naked in front of Louis, hard and flushed and he felt so exposed. So, so exposed in a way that had nothing to do with his lack of clothing.

Louis stepped out of his pants and reached over for the towel. Harry could hear his own breathing, and it was ragged and shallow, but he could do nothing to gain control of it.

There were no words, no teasing, just soft lips that trailed behind gentle hands as they dried wet skin. There was just the air around them, throbbing with promise. There was just the faint blush on Louis’ cheeks that gave away the fact that Harry wasn’t in this alone.

It was gentle and lovely and Harry basked in the careful way Louis touched him.

Louis finished with Harry’s curls, and then before Harry could really process anything Louis quickly toweled himself off, then dropped it to join the mess on the floor.

If Harry could have formed words he would have protested, because he wanted to take care of Louis too. Run his hands over all those lithe muscles and smooth curves. But his thoughts were hazy, molasses. So he just let Louis lead him over to the bed, let Louis gently nudge him until he was surrounded by soft blankets that smelled of citrus. Harry turned his face into one of the pillows and inhaled and it was so much. It was Louis.

Every sense was filled with Louis, overwhelmed by Louis. All he could do was whimper.

“It’s okay, love,” Louis’ voice was muffled against Harry’s skin as his lips explored. “It’s okay.”

And if Louis was telling him that, it must be true. So Harry let go of the last tether he’d been holding onto and let himself be. Let himself sink into every touch, every kiss, every bite of teeth scraping against delicate flesh.

It barely registered when Louis settled between Harry’s spread thighs, but then he took Harry in his mouth and the world went static-y and white. Louis sucked just the tip of Harry’s cock between those gorgeous lips, then pulled away to pant against the wet skin. Shivers cascaded along Harry’s back, down his legs. Everything became amplified.

Somehow he lifted his lethargic arm to cup the back of Louis’ head, his thumb stroking at the silky hair. He could feel Louis’ smile against his cock, and then there was just tongue and mouth and heat and Louis. He took Harry down, deep so deep, until his cock was nudging at the back of Louis’ throat. At the same time, Louis’ fingers dipped behind his balls and pressed against the soft space beneath them.

Harry groaned and willed himself to keep his hips still as Louis massaged his perineum with his knuckle. But when he slipped his hand up to tug gently at Harry’s balls at the same time that he let Harry’s cock hit the back of his throat, Harry couldn’t stop from arching into it.

“Sorry, sorry,” Harry muttered, his feet coming up so they were pressed against the bed, leaving him even more open. Even more exposed to everything Louis wanted to take. To everything Louis wanted to do to him.

“‘S alright, love,” Louis said, dragging his tongue up the vein on the underside of Harry’s cock, up, all the way up, until he dipped into the slit.

“Fuckkk,” Harry’s tongue was heavy. And he just. He couldn’t. There wasn’t. Enough air. It was just. Louis. God. Louis. Fuck. Gorgeous. Love. Fire.

He pressed his palm to his stomach, trying to hold off. But the heat was building at the base of his spine. And this time when Louis took him down again, he held there, Harry’s cock slipping down into his throat. Then he hummed, and it was too much. The pleasure of Louis’ mouth, hot and slick around him.

“Fuck, Lou gonna…” Harry was only able to get the words out because he wanted to warn Louis. That was the only way he forced borderline coherence from his lips.

Louis popped off immediately and tugged on Harry’s balls again, circling the base of Harry’s cock with his other hand. “Mmm, not yet, love.”

Harry cried out and Louis shushed him. “I know, I know,” his lips were pressing gentle kisses and kitten licks into the crease of Harry’s thigh, just letting Harry walk back from the edge.

Then he shifted away, and Harry reached for him, wanting him back. Never wanting him to leave. “Louis.”

It was only a moment before Louis returned with lube and a condom. “Is this okay, love?”

Harry nodded, fast and uncontrolled. “Yeah … yes …fuck yes … please.”

Louis’ eyes crinkled at Harry’s babbling and in another situation, with another person, Harry might have been mortified by how desperate he sounded. But with Louis he just let his knees fall apart.

“Gorgeous,” Louis’ licked his lips, his gaze flitting down to Harry. “Can you wait, love?”

To come. God. Harry’s brain nearly short-circuited at the question, and he knew if he tried to answer it wouldn’t make sense. So he just nodded again, and clenched the clean, crisp sheets beneath his fingers. He could do this. No matter how close he was.

“Good boy,” Louis murmured, and Harry heard the snick of the lube’s cap and then Louis’ fingers were slipping beneath his balls again. When they found his rim, Harry arched, pressing up into the feeling so that the tip of Louis’ finger was pushed inside.

They both groaned in surprise, before Louis tsked him. “So greedy,” he said, but there was fondness in his voice, and his hand was gentle where it pressed down on Harry’s hips to keep him still. Harry gnawed on his lower lip, determined to do better.

And he did. He moaned when Louis fucked into him with that one finger, but he didn’t move. He didn’t move when Louis withdrew only to dip back in again. He didn’t move when Louis pulled out and then tugged on Harry’s rim. He didn’t move when Louis sunk two fingers back in and went searching for that bundle of nerves.

The wave of pleasure that hit Harry when Louis found his prostate sent all his good intentions to hell, though. Pre-come dripped from the head of his cock and his balls went taut against his body.

“Louis,” he moaned into the pillow, still breathing in citrus, still feeling Louis everywhere. God he wanted to see his eyes again.

“So good, love,” Louis said. “Just one more.”

But he wanted. And he wanted, now. “Louis.”

Louis just chuckled, but he moved quicker. Then he pressed up, holding himself above Harry and there. There were those eyes. The blue of them all but eaten up by the black of his lust-blown pupils but still there. Like the ocean, when the sun came out moments after a storm roiled the water. Harry wished he could dive into their depths. He knew he wasn’t making sense, but he didn’t care.

He just smiled up at his boy, as Louis’ cock nudged at his rim, then pushed in. The burn felt so good, so perfect. When Louis was fully pressed against Harry they both stopped. Time became irrelevant in that moment as their eyes locked. They were breathing the same air and it was everything.

Tears welled in Harry’s eyes and he blinked quickly to try to hide them, but there was no hiding anything from Louis in this moment. He was laid, open and bare, for Louis to see. Only Louis. It was … overwhelming.

Louis’ thumb came up to the corner of Harry’s eyes, capturing the moisture there. Harry grabbed his hand bringing it to his mouth, kissing his palm, lips finding the strong lines of his hand. “I’m good. You can move. Please?”

Louis watched him for a moment longer and then finally nodded. And then, god, moved. He withdrew and then plunged back in, a demanding thrust that forced Harry to meet it with eager hips.

They rocked together like that, their mouths panting against each other, as Louis whispered nonsense praise into the quiet of the evening. Harry didn’t even hear the words, just let the feeling of them wrap around every jagged edge he’d ever had, let them smooth down any fear and insecurity and darkness within him. Let Louis’ light wash over him. Let himself bask in the sheer warmth of it all.

He nearly came when Louis shifted and found the right angle to hammer against his prostate, but he remembered his promise just in time.

“Just a little longer, sweetheart, can you do that for me?” Louis asked, shifting back a bit so that he was on his knees between Harry’s spread thighs. His fingers clutched at Harry’s soft hips and Harry knew there would be bruises there tomorrow. He liked the idea. He wanted to be marked by Louis. He wanted a memory of this night that was physical and real and tangible.

“Yes,” he breathed, though he knew Louis didn’t need to hear. He would know.

“So fucking gorgeous,” Louis murmured, slamming back into Harry. They both groaned.

“You,” Harry slurred, his eyes tracing every inch of Louis tight little body. He wished he could see his cock disappearing into Harry. He’d probably come at the sight of it.

Louis seemed to read his mind, and dropped his gaze to where he was fucking into Harry’s ass. “Oh, fuck, Harry.” His movement got sloppy at that, erratic. It was only a few more moments before he was grinding hard against Harry and pulsing into the condom.

Harry nearly cried at the sight of him, gorgeous and falling apart because of Harry. His cock twitched hard, but he clenched his fingers into the sheet again. He’d promised Louis.

“Oh baby, so, so, so good,” Louis was saying as he pulled out of Harry and tied off the condom. There was a bit of a haze between them, though, and all Harry could feel was the throbbing of his rock hard cock.

Then Louis was back between his legs, his fingers dipping into Harry’s fucked out hole, his mouth hovering over the tip of his cock. Harry whimpered as Louis searched out his prostate once more. Just as he rubbed against the nerves, he murmured “now come,” and took Harry back in his mouth.

The sensations slammed into Harry like a fist. His orgasm ripped through him, every muscle of his body contracting at the waves of pleasure that sent hot spurts of come down Louis’ throat. The boy just took it, keeping his eyes on Harry’s face the entire time. It may have been forever or it may have been a minute but when Harry finally stopped coming, Louis pulled off with a final kiss to the over-sensitive tip of Harry’s cock and then made his way up Harry’s body.

Harry lifted a thumb to catch a drop of come on the corner of Louis’ lips and then sucked it into his own mouth. Louis’ eyes went dark as he watched, but then he laughed.

“You’re going to literally kill me one way or another aren’t you Styles,” Louis said, cuddling into the nook under Harry’s arm. He fit perfectly.

“Noooo,” Harry protested, sleepy and lethargic and fucked out beyond belief. “Don’t wanna.”

“Don’t wanna kill me?”

Harry could hear the humor in his voice. Gone was the sex god and in its place was a teasing lover. Harry loved it. He loved both versions.

“The paperwork,” Harry muttered and the last thing he heard before succumbing to the pull of sleep was Louis’ laughter that sounded like wind chimes on a warm summer night.

***

Louis nuzzled further into Harry’s warmth as the boy slipped into sleep. He tried to shut off his brain, to just surrender to the afterglow of amazing sex. But when had his brain ever listened to him? When had he ever not over-thought something?

He really didn’t want to with Harry. That had been … earth-shattering sex. Harry was stunning in every moment, but when he was overcome with pleasure, unable to think or move or speak because of what Louis was doing to him. Well. Louis had never seen anything as beautiful.

It was more than that, though. At the beginning when he’d been all awkward limbs and clumsiness and had fucking dropped Louis on the fucking ground (well almost), it had been just as good. Louis was a sucker for laughter during sex. He’d had one too many partners who just wanted to stare deeply into his eyes and couldn’t find the humor in the sometimes ridiculousness that was fucking. Harry did, though. After he’d recovered from his embarrassment, of course.

And then he’d just been so fucking hot. And it had been so fucking intimate, the way their bodies moved together. God.

He really tried not to think about what came next. There was an expiration date on this that he could either pretend didn’t exist or watch with a sick misery as it crept ever closer.

Either way, in two months time Harry would be gone. And where would Louis be? The problem was that he was already thinking that way after three fucking days. Where would his heart be then? When Harry was ready to walk out of his life.

Was the fleeting pleasure worth the pain he knew was waiting for him?

In the end he wasn’t really sure it mattered. There was no way he was staying away from Harry, if this was something Harry wanted. So he’d have fun while it lasted.

And when the bottom dropped out? Well at least he’d be braced for the fall.

Chapter Text

The opening montage to Grease was the only way Harry could describe the next month with Louis. It was pure. Like Sandy follicking on the beach with Danny, their skin splashed softly with the golden-toned hues of the setting sun; their cheeks painful from the way they couldn’t stop smiling; their bodies slotting together in an easy acceptance of summer and love and happiness.

That’s what it was like with Louis.

They didn’t even try to keep it secret from the rest of the boys. Niall cackled and pounced on them the first time they’d settled into the couch a little too close to each other, his whole body landing across their laps. Harry never condoned violence but he had silently cheered when Louis shoved Niall to the floor with impressive strength.

Liam smiled as if he were their proud parent and then went back to his computer.

No one seemed surprised.

Harry probably blushed a little at their (correct) assumptions, but he was also quite humbled by the way they’d accepted him so quickly. Not only into their tight little family, but as a person for Louis. It was clear that, despite all of their teasing, they were so protective of each other. To get their seal of approval -- albeit through more teasing -- did something warm and fuzzy to the area around Harry’s heart.

The days went by as Harry had expected. The work was hard and grueling but, as always, rewarding. Although he didn’t often closely interact with the elephants -- it was a natural sanctuary -- he did begin to learn their little nuances that made each special.

Delilah was their matriarch and she put up with the younger ones with the benevolence of an old grandmother in a rocking chair smelling of cigarette smoke and memories as she watched the new generation play at her feet.

Precious was Harry’s spirit animal. She was perpetually awkward, her trunk too long for her legs. She loved bubbles and would become enraptured by butterflies. Her soul was the color of pink and blue cotton candy and Harry loved her more than anything.
Cher was a cantankerous little brat sometimes, but could be won over with frozen fruit; while Jade was too high and mighty to interact with the peasants except when they played the Beatles over the barn’s speakers because she loved the Beatles. Sonny was the type of elephant to laugh at his own jokes the hardest if elephants laughed or had jokes. Harry was convinced they did both.

Harry also began to learn the little nuances that made up Louis. Golden, gorgeous Louis. Harry learned that he was a grump in the mornings before his tea -- which heaven help everyone when he didn’t get his cuppa before work. Harry learned that Louis hated the fucking uniforms as much as Harry did, but he “was a goddamn professional” so he wore them mostly without complaint. What it said to Harry was that he cared about and respected the position he’d been given. Harry learned that when Louis watched the elephants, the corners of his mouth would go soft as if he were melting inside.

Harry learned Louis’ favorite movies, his favorite books, his favorite beer; the way he mixed two different cereals into a bowl before eating them, the way his forehead would crease as he tried to make funding numbers work late at night after a long day in the field, the way he was gentle with the part-timers even when the messed up. Though he could be quite demanding of everyone around him to meet his high standards, he ruled the sanctuary with a clear trust in his staff and a forgiving manner that made it easy to admit to mistakes and fostered an environment where no one wanted to make any. Not because of fear. But because they all wanted Louis to be proud of them.

Harry learned, during shared sleepy confidences in the night, about Louis’ family. About his past on the streets, those terrifying times when he hadn’t known if he was going to wake in the morning or have food for the next day. Harry learned about Louis’ struggles to then fit in at the posh school Anne had sent him to, about the way he hadn’t been able to let his guard down around the boys he’d come to view as soft, only because he’d been crafted into stone from his own experiences.

Each piece of the puzzle that made up Louis, pushed Harry further and further in love with him. So much so that Harry lived in fear of the words spilling out without his permission.

Especially during sex. Because holy fucking -- pun intended -- god the sex was incredible. Harry had never had anything like it.

It wasn’t always like that first time. Or it was. Because that first time had been funny and ridiculous and mortifying and then sensual and intimate and overwhelming all at the same time. Harry was pretty sure that could sum up the rest of their sex life.

Sometimes it was hot, all teeth and lips and groping hands in the dark corners of the barn where the thrill of anyone walking in added to the spark they had already created between them.

Sometimes it was hazy and private and Harry floated into that lethargic space of mindless pleasure that made him weak.

Sometimes it was giggly pecks and a quick mutual handjobs in the bathroom on a night at the local pub that devolved into real laughter as Niall stumbled back out after wandering in accidentally with a “for foooooks sake lads.”

Sometimes it was even mortifying, like when they’d attempted a quickie in the shower one morning and Harry had slipped during a particularly ambitious attempt to get his tongue in Louis’ ass and had taken them both out. They’d cracked elbows and knees against porcelain and Louis had looked like a drowned kitten as he huffed for composure under the rapidly cooling water. “You really are trying to kill me aren’t you Styles?”

Harry kept the image tucked into the space beneath his clavicle. He would carry it around forever.

Harry thought that sometimes Louis felt it too. He’d see it in the fond glances Louis shot his way, the lingering touches, the way he worshiped Harry’s body. It couldn’t just be one-sided, this love, right? It couldn’t just be lust for Louis. Harry would know.

At least that’s what he told himself in the moments Louis seemed to hold himself back. In the times where he curbed his smile, or hid his affection with a downward glance as if he was schooling himself not to actually care. Harry hoped he was reading too much into it. Louis still hadn’t told him about Jamie though. And they never talked about what was going to happen at the end of Harry’s time at the sanctuary.

So, that first month was exactly like the Grease montage. He just wondered if he’d wake up one day thinking he was falling into love with someone else only to be laughed at by a bunch of greasers in leather jackets.

Usually at times like this, he’d call his mum. Or Gemma. But for some reason, he wanted this for himself. So he’d employed radio silence toward his family, which, really in hindsight he realized the mistake was on him.

“Hey, are we expecting guests?” Liam asked the room at large about five weeks after Harry had arrived at the camp. They were gathered for a semi-lunch break, which meant Niall and Harry were watching shit television while Liam and Louis were working on the books.

It was a hot one, and Harry had sweated through his first outfit of the morning. He’d changed into some ridiculous dad jorts - yes he realized they were ridiculous -- and a plain white tee to try to cool down for the afternoon.

Louis shifted his attention to the open laptop next to him and tabbed over to the schedule. “Nope,” he said glancing up at the video monitors that clearly showed a large Range Rover headed toward the gates. Something settled into the pit of Harry’s stomach with a certainty he wished he hadn’t had. “I wonder …” Louis trailed off.

Harry closed his eyes and tried not to groan, but Louis must have heard him because when he opened them again, the boy’s gaze was on him. Thoughtful. Harry smiled, a little hesitant, and Louis’ face relaxed a bit.

“We’re about to find out,” Liam muttered as the gate’s intercom buzzed.

“A Mrs. Anne Styles for Louis Tomlinson,” the deep voice of the driver crackled through the audio system, confirming Harry’s worst fears.

“Fuck,” Harry whispered as everyone in unison shifted to him. Louis’ mouth was slightly agape.

Liam wordlessly flicked the switch to open the gates. They all had approximately three minutes to get their shit together as Anne made her way toward the headquarters, but everyone was frozen.

And then they all moved at once. Liam went into panic mode, frantically cleaning up a desk that was already spotless. Niall started fluffing pillows. What? Okay. Louis and Harry turned to each other, their fingers finding flyaway hairs and upturned collars. Harry tried not to think about why both of their first reactions were to groom the other.

By the time Anne waltzed through the door they were all stood in the middle of the room like the world’s most awkward, anxious welcoming party there ever was.

“Darlings,” Anne cried her eyes sweeping over them, amused. Clearly she’d known the state she’d sent them into and was getting a sick pleasure out of it. Harry was going to disown her.

But first he had to put up with being hugged within an inch of his life. Anne kissed his cheek then whispered for just him to hear, “You, mister, have some explaining to do.”

“Yes, mum,” Harry sighed wrapping his arms around her. Despite not wanting to answer the multitude of questions he knew she’d have, he had missed her.

She treated Liam and Niall to the same, though Harry doubted they’d had to face any veiled threats.

Then she turned to Louis.

“Lou,” she murmured, running her hands up and down his arms, just looking at him. Louis swallowed hard and Harry saw him blink back emotions that he probably didn’t want to name.

Harry couldn’t breathe.

“Anne,” Louis said in the same gentle voice that was just for them. They were in their own little bubble now, and Harry honestly didn’t know what to feel.

Finally, Anne hugged Louis and the boy melted into her arms, his head resting against her shoulder. “Love,” Anne murmured against the top of Louis’ head.

They stayed that way for a moment, and Harry could hear his heartbeat in his own ears as he watched them. Everything within him clicked into place, and he really wasn’t in the emotional headspace to deal with it at the moment. Not now. Not in front of his mum. Not when she’d surely launched this surprise attack for a reason.

“Alright, enough of that,” Anne pulled back. “I have been traveling for far too many hours and I need to freshen up.”

“We can put you in Cabin 11,” Liam called from where he’d migrated back to his computer. He no longer was as tied to the machine as he’d once been ever since he and Zach had gotten drunk off margaritas at the mexican place in town. Harry suspected more than just tequilla had made the night special for Liam, but he didn’t want to prod. He just enjoyed the blush that would settle along Liam’s cheekbones every time the researcher was mentioned. And also the fact that Liam looked about three hundred times happier than he’d had when Harry first arrived at camp.

“Oh don’t bother with all that, Li,” Anne said waving him off. “I’ll stay with Harry. He can take the couch.”

Without thinking, his eyes met Louis’. Harry hadn’t stayed at his cabin in the past two weeks. Fuck. He didn’t want to give up a single night in Louis’ bed. How would he sleep without his big spoon wrapped around his back, his warmth lulling Harry to sleep?

Either Anne didn’t notice or didn’t comment on the beat of silence following her proclamation -- though Harry would bet it was the latter and he’d hear about it later.

“Come on, mum, I’ll show you the way,” Harry said, tearing his eyes off Louis. He wondered how long Anne was planning on staying as he grabbed her bags from the porch and started toward his cabin.

It didn’t take long before a swat to his head knocked him a bit off balance. “Heeyyy,” he pouted, looking at the woman who birthed him and had apparently turned on him. “What was that for?”

“That, my dearest loving son,” Anne said with an edge to her voice that undercut the endearments, “was for not calling me for an entire month.”

Harry winced. Yeah. He deserved that. “I was busy.”

“Nope, try again,” Anne said.

“Ummm,” Harry was fucked. He didn’t want to get into the Louis thing. It was too new and fresh and … god it was his. It was just his. And Louis’ of course. But it was theirs and he didn’t want to share it, no matter how much he loved his mum.

But she was watching him now with those hawk eyes of hers. He had to say something. “I just got caught up in this place, you know?” He said, and it wasn’t a lie. Harry felt so far removed from reality, like it was his own sanctuary that he’d found. “I’m sorry, mum, I just didn’t want to think about you know London or the past or anything. I just … wanted to be. Here.”

It was lame, but if he couldn’t be lame with his mum, who could he be lame with? Well apart from Louis.

The tactic seemed to work, because the ridged edge of her shoulders softened. Just a touch. “I get it baby,” she said, her eyes scanning over the compound. “This place is magic. And you didn’t want to break that bubble.”

That was so true. But it applied to his relationship with Louis too. It was magic. He didn’t want to deal with the realities he knew they were going to face.

“Yeah,” is all he said.

Anne stopped to glare at him. “Never do that again,” she said, her voice allowing no room for argument.

“Never,” he promised, wrapping his free arm around her and drawing her close.

They started walking again, just like that, hips bumping as they moved. “You know, not all of London is bad,” Anne said after a few moments of silence.

Harry smiled. “I know. It’s just … better here?”

Anne sighed, so quiet he almost didn’t catch the wistful sound. “You seem happy, baby.”

Harry thought of that morning, just before Louis woke. Their limbs had been tangled in the too-small bed, wrapped in a cocoon of blankets. He thought about the way the sun had glanced along the high arcs of Louis’ cheekbones when they’d drank their tea in the cramped kitchen, both scrolling through their phones quietly. He thought about the way Louis’ muscles had bunched, sweat-slicked and tense, as he’d taken a heavy bag of mulch from Harry. He thought of the thousand moments just like that he’d had over the past month.

It was so simple. “I am.”

***

Anne had booted a pouting Harry out of the kitchen 10 minutes ago, leaving just her and Louis to prepare the dinner for the crew. And if Louis were to be brutally honest with himself, and he tried to be, it really just left Anne to cook the elaborate pasta thing she was dead set on serving.

It always amused him how she would insist on doing all the work, even though she could sit back and be waited on with eagerness. He should have known Harry wasn’t the boy he’d thought he was. Just because he knew how Anne would have raised him.

Anne finally got tired of his awkward hovering, and gave him the peppers to cut up, with a quite patronizing, “don’t think even you could screw this up love,” as she did.

“So,” Anne finally said from the stove, her back to him. He was glad because she would have seen the way he tensed. This is what he’d been dreading since they’d seen her car crest over the hill. The interrogation. “Harry seems to have settled in.”

Louis bit back a manic laugh. Yeah, something like that. Settled into my bed. Louis didn’t think that would go over well. “Mhhmmm,” he hummed, thinking that was safe enough. Maybe if he was lucky he’d even be able to pacify her curiosity with that non-response.

Yeah and pigs could freaking fly.

“So how’s he doing? And you can answer that truthfully,” Anne said, moving to gather up the chopped peppers and sliding an onion onto the space in front of him.

He set the knife down. “Honestly? He’s great,” he said and met her eyes for the first time since he’d walked into the kitchen to her and Harry bopping around to Abba. Something had caught in his throat at the sight of his two favorite people in the world, belting out Waterloo lyrics into a spatula and whisk respectively. “I was worried at first.”

Anne patted his cheek, before turning back to the stoves. “I know you were.”

Louis laughed. “And here I thought I’d hidden it so well.”

She shot him a look over her shoulder. “Oh please, Louis. I’ve known you for a decade. You were annoyed. I thought you’d either get over it or kill each other. I didn’t really care which.”

“Ha! I thought I’d want to kill him,” Louis admitted.

“He’s not Jamie you know.”

Louis shifted his attention to the onion. “I know.”

They worked in near silence for a few moments after that and Louis was thankful. He didn’t know how much Anne could sense from the few minutes of seeing them interact, but the fact that she’d brought up his ex in relation to her son made him suspicious. He didn’t know what to think about any of it.

“And you’re not the same boy you used to be. You know that too, right love?”

Louis bit his lip hard. “I am though.”

“Oh love,” Anne came around the island so she could turn Louis to look at her. “You’re not. Your soul is the same, yes. You’re still that brave, funny, smart-ass kid you were when you tried to lift my wallet.”

A watery laugh escaped at that. God he was emotional lately.

“But,” Anne said, squeezing his arms. “You’ve grown into a man that makes me so proud. Constantly, Lou.”

“Fuck,” he whispered, knowing that wasn’t really the appropriate response. But Anne just smiled, as she always did.

“When you first met Jamie, you were still finding your feet, love,” Anne continued, clearly on a mission to completely wreck him. “You didn’t know which way was up sometimes. He took advantage of that. You’re standing on your own now, though.”

Louis smiled at that. “Why are we even talking about this, again?”

Anne didn’t laugh that off like he’d expected. “I love you, Lou, and I’m so, so proud of you,” she hugged him tight again. “And I want you to be happy.”

“I am,” he whispered as he was engulfed in her cloud of subtle perfume.

“Are you?” She pulled back.

He was saved from answering as Liam and Zach tumbled through the door from the back porch. It was funny to see Zach giggling like a schoolboy with a crush. It looked good on him.
“No,” Anne pointed a finger at them. “You’re not coming in here covered in god knows what. Don’t come back til you’re clean.”

They shuffled back out with a couple “yes, ma’ams” but the moment had been broken and Louis was so thankful. Was he happy? Was he really? Before Harry had arrived he would have answered with a resounding yes. He loved the elephants, he loved the life he’d built for himself at the camp, he even loved the lads and the easy friendships that he established with the part-timers and researchers.

But had he really been happy? Now that he knew the way it felt like to hold Harry in his arms while he slept, snoring lightly into the pillows. Now that he knew what Harry’s face looked like in the setting sun, in the rain, in the shadows created by the moon. Now that he knew what it was like to turn to someone and have them know what he was feeling without having to say it.

Maybe he would have said he was happy before. But now? Now all he could think was that life had been gray and static without Harry.

Which was why he was dreading the endless months that lay ahead of them. It was why he couldn’t quite let himself give into the happiness completely. It would hurt too much to go from the rainbow that was Harry back to that bland world. He knew he’d still find small enjoyments in his life, but he’d tasted something special and he didn’t want to give it up.

That was selfish, though. To hold Harry here, in the middle of nowhere Arkansas, for what? A boy from the streets with trust issues and a knack for snark. What was that to offer to a boy who had the world at his feet?

Thankfully the headquarters began filling with people and he no longer had to think about it. Thinking about it was what go him into trouble.

It was Perrie and Leigh-Ann’s late day and they were the first to be allowed back into the kitchen. Then Steve came in, clearly fresh out of the shower. Tasha was also there, which meant Niall wasn’t far behind, still love-struck and not knowing what to do about it. They were all given tasks -- silverware, plates, wine, searching out extra chairs -- and there was a cacophony of noise and movement as everyone rushed to obey.

Harry passed him at one point, a knuckle tucking up under the back of Louis’ shirt to drag along the skin there. “You alright?” He asked, leaning in close to Louis, as everyone else was distracted.

Louis sunk into the warmth of his body, knowing he’d be missing it for as long as Anne was there. The way he craved Harry’s touch was like sunflowers looking for the sun. He couldn’t resist it. “So alright,” he murmured allowing himself to press his cheek into Harry’s for just the briefest moment of contact. It would have to do.

“Gonna miss you,” Harry whispered against the skin behind Louis’ ear. Then suddenly Harry was cupping the front of his jeans with one of his big hands and slotting himself against Louis’ ass. Their lower bodies were hidden by the island but it was still dangerous. Louis gasped as Harry squeezed gently. Then he was gone, disappearing into the spare room where they’d set up a makeshift dining room table.

He looked up directly into Anne’s eyes and he knew his face was beet red. She just smirked and went back to directing her troops.

The group finally settled around the table, talking over each other as they passed bowls and dishes between them. Liam and Zach stumbled in after everyone had already doled out their servings and were subjected to wolf-whistles and catcalls from the group and some envious looks from Niall.

“Fuck off,” Zach said to the room at large, while Liam buried his face in the man’s shoulder. Fucking adorable was what it was. He met Harry’s eyes across the table and they couldn’t help grin at each other.

“Melrose Place,” Harry mouthed at him and Louis couldn’t stop the giggles, nor could he explain them when Anne asked what had him laughing so hard.

They went through bottles of wine as the conversation ebbed and flowed, layered with teasing over crushes and serious discussions about funding and half-assed pontifications and heated arguments about who clearly was the best teen mom, and Louis just soaked it all in.

Maybe he’d lost his family when he was 15. Or they had lost him, really. Because he was fucking awesome and they should have wanted to know him and they never would now.

But it didn’t matter. Because sometimes family was what you made it. And this was his family now. It was Perrie who blushed when asked about her date with Alex Oxlade, the boy who ran the bookstore in town. It was Niall flicking a green bean at Liam when he got a bit too moony eyed over Zach. It was Anne sloshing wine over the rim of her glass as she railed against the prime minister. It was Harry grabbing Louis’ plate so that he could slide the olives he refused to touch onto it.

It was the feeling of love and friendship and laughter that was in the voices that wrapped around the group in a tangled, protective web keeping them all safe from the night and any realities that lurked outside their tight little circle.

A foot tucked around his ankle under the table and he knew it was Harry’s. Even as the conversation continued easily around them, they met each other’s eyes. And Louis knew that after a lifetime of searching, he’d finally found his home.

Chapter Text

Anne’s visit lasted six days, four hours and twenty-three minutes. Not that Harry was counting or anything.

But … he may have very gently shoved her into her idling Range Rover with a promise to call her more often before slamming the door in her laughing (knowing?!?) face. He barely waited for the car to disappear before he was grabbing Louis by his delicate wrist and yanking him behind him.

The hoots and hollers from the rest of the crew barely phased him as he beelined for Louis’ cabin.

“Oh my god, not everyone has giraffe legs, Styles,” Louis whined from somewhere two arm lengths back.

Harry barely paused as he rounded on Louis, grabbed him around the waist and hauled him up and over his shoulder.

Niall’s laughter was almost drowned out by Louis’ screech of indignation. “Fucking Neanderthal,” Louis yelled, his little fists raining like tiny hammers all over Harry’s back. Harry put a steadying hand on Louis’ ass and kept on keeping on.

Harry did trip over an exposed root, jostling his precious cargo and Louis’ yelling got louder as he dug his fingers into Harry’s side (which was really counter productive if you asked Harry because it just made him ticklish and all the more likely to drop him). “If you fucking drop me, I will actually kill you, Styles,” Louis yelled at full volume.

“Oh, kitten has claws,” Harry murmured probably not very wisely. It of course set Louis off into another round of curses and insults mostly directed at Harry’s long limbs which apparently were reminiscent of a variety of animals.

But the tirade was cut off when Harry threw Louis onto his bed, and the boy bounced once and then settled into the puffy cloud of blankets. Harry was over him in less than a second, his body covering all of Louis, his thigh slotting in between Louis’ legs.

He ran his fingers through Louis’ hair, the heel of his palms coming to rest on each side of Louis’ face. Harry’s thumbs traced along his cheekbones, and he smiled even as Louis scowled up at him, all grumpy and discombobulated.

“Hi,” Harry said against his lips, pecking them in a brief chaste kiss. Just to get a flavor.

“Hhmph.”

“I missed you, baby,” Harry murmured against Louis’ chin, his teeth scraping against the bit of scruff Louis had let grow out.

“I didn’t miss you at all, I hope you go back to your Neanderthal cave and die,” Louis huffed out, but he was melting against Harry.

“OK. I guess I’ll just …” Harry pushed up onto his forearms slightly as if he was going to leave. As if he ever would.

Louis let him get as far as his knees when he finally caved. “Uggg, fuck you, Styles,” he said before reaching up to grab the collar of Harry’s shirt in his fist and dragging him back down until he was sprawled over Louis completely.

“Say you missed me,” Harry was smug now and decided to push his luck. He rolled his hips against Louis’ and they both groaned at the friction.

“I saw you every day you big oaf,” Louis muttered but his lids were heavy and his pupils were blown.

“Say you missed me,” Harry said again, grabbing Louis’ wrists in his hands. They were so small, so delicate, and yet so strong. Just like Louis.

He pinned them to the mattress above Louis’ head with one hand while the other tugged the hem of Louis’ shirt up. Once his nipples were exposed Harry rolled one between his fingers and leaned down until his lips just barely whispered over the other one.

Louis bucked up, seeking his mouth, seeking anything.

“You flatter yourself, Styles. I had my hand after all.”

Stubborn little pixie.

“Oh that felt as good as me, yeah?” Harry didn’t move, just kept them suspended in this delicious standoff. The tension in Louis’ body was phenomenal to feel beneath him. He was about to break. Harry would be there when he did. “Say you missed me.”

Louis pressed his lips together.

Harry brought his thigh up higher so that it nudged against Louis’ cock and balls, trapped painfully in his boxers (beneath his fucking ugly as hell khakis).

“And when you were using that hand of yours, that oh so skillful hand of yours, you weren’t thinking of me? You weren’t think of your cock sliding down my throat? You weren’t thinking of my tongue in your ass? My lips against your rim, all puffy and fucked out with my come dripping from it? You weren’t thinking of my ass hot and tight around your cock as you pounded against my prostate and wouldn’t let me come? Remember that time in the …”

Harry broke off at Louis’ strangled cry, his hips pressing down against Harry’s thick thigh. “Hmm, that’s it baby. All you have to do is say the words. I’ll give you everything you need.”

He knew he was making it impossible for Louis, his fucking stubborn boy. But something about this felt important, the teasing of a few minutes ago taking on weight Harry hadn’t meant it to.

Louis was all but vibrating beneath Harry now, his tongue licking at his lips, his wrists straining against Harry’s hand.

“I missed you so much, Lou,” Harry said, dropping any hint of playfulness from his voice.

Louis opened his eyes at that, and met Harry’s gaze. “Fuck.” He sighed. “I missed you too, Harry.”

Harry thought his heart might burst from it, thought his smile probably looked painful with how wide it was, but Louis just rolled his eyes, used to Harry’s ridiculousness by now.

“That wasn’t too hard, was it?” He grinned happily against Louis’ skin, unable to look at him properly for a minute with the emotion thrumming through his veins.

“Oh fuck you and get on with it please,” Louis said, but there was affection undercutting the words and Harry felt light and free for the first time in a week. God it hadn’t just been the sex that he’d missed. It had been Louis. It had been the intimacies they shared from living in the same space, from sleeping with limbs tangled and breaths mingled, from easy touches they’d had to police around Anne. He’d missed it so fucking much. How was he supposed to leave?

He pushed the thought aside and finally gave Louis what he wanted, his lips closing around the sensitive bud he’d been teasing. Louis arched into his mouth.

It was hot and fast. Neither of them had patience for anything longer. Harry kept Louis pinned beneath him as he undressed his boy. Once they were both naked, Harry flipped him over and prepped him, as quickly as he would allow himself to be sure he wouldn’t hurt Louis. Louis was begging to be fucked by the time Harry got to the second finger, and was keening incoherently by the third. They were both dripping by the time Harry nudged against his rim.

He’d dragged Louis’ hips up, until he was on his knees, his gorgeous, flawless ass in the air. Harry spread his cheeks with his hands, the flesh warm beneath his palms. Louis’ moaned beneath him as Harry just stared at his pretty, pretty hole. Jesus fucking Christ every part of Louis was unbelievable. Every single fucking part of him.

Harry pushed against the tight ring of muscle until he sunk inside Louis’ heat. He would never get tired of this feeling. Louis tended to top, but wasn’t exclusive about it. And while Harry loved, loved, loved being fucked into the mattress by his boy, there was something about being inside Louis that would send him into a different world until he was old and gray and couldn’t get it up. And then he would have the memories.

They were both panting by the time Harry bottomed out -- heh -- and Harry draped himself over Louis’ back until his mouth was right by Louis’ ear. “As good as your hand, yeah?” he teased.

“If you don’t fucking move, you’ll see what I can do with my hands,” Louis grunted, his face smashed into the pillows.

Harry chuckled, but straightened up for better leverage before pulling out to the tip. Then he slammed back in, starting up a brutal, unrelenting pace. Neither of them would last long, but he’d be damned if it wasn’t memorable.

Louis’ hips were chasing Harry’s, and he cried out when Harry shifted his angle to land against his prostate with every thrust. Louis snaked a hand up along his belly until his fingers circled his own cock and Harry let him because he wasn’t cruel. It only took three more strokes before Louis was spilling into his fist. The beautiful cry that tumbled from his lips sent Harry over his own edge.

They both collapsed onto the bed, heedless of the wet spot from Louis. Harry wanted to whisper “I love yous” into Louis’ skin, press them with a hot open mouth until they stuck forever against the sweaty goldeness of it. He settled for gathering Louis against his chest, holding him as closely as he could without being inside him again. God he wanted to be inside him again. It scared him how much he wanted that.

But he was too tired to dwell on it. The adrenalin high he’d been riding for the past half-hour dropped him over a cliff, and he was asleep before he could even think about cleaning off the sticky mess of cum and lube and sweat that glued them together.

***

When Louis woke, he felt disgusting. He remembered drifting off, after he’d watched Harry sleep for far longer than was really necessary. They hadn’t showered after that bout of really amazing sex, so they were a mess.

He groped for this phone to check the time. 2 a.m. Fuck. He knew he couldn’t go back to sleep like this. That’s when he got an idea.

“Babe,” Louis nudged Harry’s shoulder trying to gently wake him up. Harry grunted, rolled and sunk back into the pillows.

“Babe,” he tried again, running his hand down Harry’s back. Nothing. “Styles,” he finally said shoving at Harry. That did the trick and the glare it earned him was fairly hilarious.

“Grumpy kitten,” Louis purred at him, then laughed as Harry’s scowl only deepened. It was a-fucking-dorable. “Come on, love.”

He tugged at Harry’s hand and pulled the reluctant boy from sleep-warm sheets. If the roles had been reveresed, Harry would have claw marks up and down his arms, but Harry was too much of a sweetheart for that, so he just pouted as Louis manuevered him into a pair of boxers.

The pout didn’t disappear as Louis interlocked their fingers, but something softened in his eyes, and he let Louis lead him from the cabin. Everything was quiet, the camp was asleep, and neither of them talked as they made their way toward the forrest. Instead of turning right, though, on the path they usually took, Louis drew Harry deeper into the woods, down the hill, around the boulders. He could do the route blindfolded, so it didn’t matter much when the leaves obstucted the light from the moon. And Harry trusted him to get them wherever they were going. He tried not to think about that too hard.

By the time the pond came into view, the grumpiness had slipped from Harry like a shawl falling to the floor. Somehow, because he was Harry, he realized this wasn’t Louis being annoying to be annoying. It was special.

Louis had discovered the pond on his third week at the camp. It had been a particularly bad day and it had been before he’d convinced Liam and Niall to come join him. It had just been him and a cranky caretaker who he had not gotten along with. Everything in him had been ready to give up, go home, admit defeat. The only thing that stopped him was the unbearable thought of disappointing Anne. So he’d stuck it out and been miserable.

One night he hadn’t been able to sleep because it was so fucking gross and sticky and hot in Arkansas in the summer so he’d gone exploring. He’d only accidentally stumbled upon the pond, but something about the way it was hidden, tucked away, a place he could call his and only his eased something tight in his chest. When things got to be too much, he’d come out here, dip into the cool, dark waters and let everything go.

Harry was watching him with wide eyes now as if he could read every secret Louis had never dared tell him. Maybe he could.

Louis cocked his head, then thumbed off his pants so that he was naked under the sky and the stars and the moon and Harry didn’t even take his gaze off Louis’ eyes.

“Come on then,” he said and then stepped to the edge of the rock and dove right into the water, breaking the smooth mirrored surface. The coolness of it was a shock to the system, but Louis loved it. He loved the way it slicked over his hot, messy body, washing him clean. He loved the way the noise and the confusion of the real world was muffled as he went deeper. He loved the way he became weightless.

He sensed more than heard the splash beside him and they both broke through to the surface a few seconds later.

Harry looked like a fucking mermaid from a fantasy. His curls were slicked back, his lips were rosy, his eyes were deep green in the moonlight. Droplets of water cascaded down the pale column of his neck.

Louis was positive he himself looked like a drowned cat, but he couldn’t be arsed about it. He coudn’t really think about anything but how gorgeous Harry was. Taking advantage of the weightlessness of the water, Louis let his body press against Harry’s, his legs wrapping around his hips, Louis’ arms going around his broad shoulders.

The coldness of the pond kept them from getting too worked up but their groins slotted against each other in a way that was just as intimate as if they were both aching and hard.

“Hi,” Louis said, smiling into Harry’s finally awake face.

Harry slipped on a slick rock, nearly dunking them. “Ooops,” he said, his bashful smile popping those dimples out.

Louis rolled his eyes. He’d be lucky if he survived Harry. But god what a way to go.

“Clumsy giraffe,” Louis muttered with an embarrassing amount of affection in his voice. Harry heard it, though, because his grin only grew wider, his eyes sparkling like a Disney princess. “You look like Ariel.”

Harry’s smile slipped immediately into a pout. “I don’t have red hair though.”

Louis threw his head back, laughing. “Yeah, that’s the problem.”

“Sha la la la my oh my,” Harry started singing. “Looks like that boy’s too shy.”

“Oh my god, what have I done,” Louis interrupted, shoving at Harry’s shoulder. Harry just grinned.

“Ain’t gonna kiss the girl,” Harry’s voice was as beautiful as the rest of them, raspy and clear, cutting through the quiet of the night. “Sha la la la la, ain’t that sad, it’s such a shame, too bad, you’re gonna miss the girl. Go on and kiss the girl.”

Louis leaned in on the last note and pressed his lips to Harry’s effectively cutting off the song. They were both laughing but that died as Harry’s tongue slid into Louis mouth, slow and lethargic. It wasn’t foreplay. It wasn’t leading anywhere. It was just them kissing. It was just an intimacy freely given and freely taken.

When they broke apart again, Louis couldn’t help his smile. Harry was just too fucking much. For a little while they smiled at each other, fingers gently exploring skin as they rocked with the gentle pulse of the water.

“Hey Lou,” Harry said, finally breaking the comfortable silence.

“Hmmm,” Louis hummed, preoccupied with Harry’s damp curls.

“Tell me a secret.”

Louis met his eyes. “What kind of secret?”

Harry shrugged. “Don’t know. It feels like the time for secrets though, doesn’t it?”

It did. It felt like they were the only two people in the world. It felt like they could say anything to each other, reveal the darkest parts of their soul and it would be okay. Because everything that mattered was narrowed down to the two of them, their two bodies slick against each other in the cool water, their hearts pressed together, their lips swollen from kissing.

“The reason I didn’t like you at first was more than just your reputation,” Louis finally said. He didn’t want to consider the words too deeply before he said them because then he’d try to stop himself. But Harry deserved to know. He deserved Louis open and vulnerable, even if it meant the wounds would be that much deeper when Harry left.

Harry just hummed at that, not even surprised to hear Louis hadn’t liked him.

“When your mum first got me a place in that posh private school, I was … well I was broken,” Louis admitted, and it felt like he was showing Harry a part of his soul. He hated talking about his own insecurities, but something about Harry’s wide-eyed gaze let him do it without (too much) fear. “It was about six months in and I was pretty much a social pariah once people found out I’d been homeless.”

“Baby,” Harry murmured and stroked a hand along Louis’ spine.

“Yeah, well. Anyway, that’s when I met Jamie.”

Harry’s shoulders tensed beneath Louis’ palms, but he didn’t interrupt.

“He was, well everyone liked him. He was a charmer.”

Harry winced at that, and Louis rushed to explain. “No, not like you love,” he said. “It was all superficial. Slick and manipulative and disingenuous. But I couldn’t see that then. All I saw was that the popular boy liked me. And as many defenses as I’d built up, there’s something to be said for a little attention from someone after starving for it for years.”

Understanding lit Harry’s eyes. “Yes.”

“Anway, long story short, I was his dirty little secret,” Louis said. He probed at the wound a bit and was relieved to discover it had mostly healed. “Not because we were gay but because I was poor. I didn’t fit in with his rich friends or his posh family. He was embarassed by me.”

“That …”

“What?” Louis prompted when Harry broke off.

“I can’t believe that’s true,” Harry shrugged. “No one could be embarrassed about you. I would want everyone to know.”

“Like your mum?” Louis wished he could swallow the words once they were out.

Harry’s mouth went slack and then pressed into a tight angry line. “That wasn’t about being embarrassed Louis,” he said, the words sharp and jagged at the edges. “Please tell me you don’t think that.”

Louis just shrugged. Not necessairly because he thought that, but because some insecurities weren’t logical.

“Louis,” Harry’s hand came up to cup Louis’ jaw, forcing him to meet Harry’s eyes. They were fierce. So fierce. “I will call her this minute and tell her if that’s what you want. I thought you didn’t want her to know.”

He blinked, because of course. He hadn’t wanted her to know and everything he’d done when she’d first arrived had signaled to Harry that they should keep it secret. “I’m sorry, you’re right. I don’t … I’m being stupid.”

Harry pressed their lips together, hard and quick. “I would never be embarrassed by you.” There were tears in Harry’s eyes, in his voice and Louis sucked in a breath because this had all become far too emotional far too fast.

He blinked hard, because there was suddenly moisture there to be blinked back, and bit hard on his lip to distract himself with pain. “Well…”

“So where do I find this kid and will you bail me out when I punch him the fuck out?” Harry said, and the threat of violence served to actually lighten the heavy mood.

Louis laughed, though it was kind of shaky. “I think he’s married to some boring ass lady, stuck at his father’s company and hating life in general,” Louis said.

“Good,” Harry said, his voice stronger now. “But he deserves to be punched.”

“I egged his car,” Louis said and Harry grinned. “If that helps.”

Harry nodded, but looked determined. “Still needs a good hit,” he muttered and Louis laughed and kissed him, feeling lighter than he had in years. He wanted to tell that Louis to hold on, to know that a strong, kind, funny, hot man was going to want to punch an asshole in the face years later just because he hurt Louis. And that would mean so much. It still meant so much.

“Your turn,” Louis said, and Harry’s face did something funny. Like he was swallowing words he wanted to say. Louis’ attention sharpened as Harry looked away. “What is it?”

When Harry looked back he was composed again, but whatever that had been wasn’t forgotten. Not for Louis.

“I want to write a book. Well. A book of poems. Poetry,” Harry said, and Louis was distracted enough by that to forget the weird moment. For now.

“What? Oh my god, that’s fantastic,” Louis said, wrapping his legs tighter around Harry’s waist. “It will be fantastic.”

Harry was laughing as Louis pressed kisses against his cheeks, against his forehead, against his jaw. “You’ve never even seen my writing.”

“Doesn’t matter, babe,” Louis said, pulling back to meet his eyes. “I know it will be amazing. Because you’re amazing. The way your mind works is amazing. The way you look at the world is amazing.”

“Louis,” Harry choked out.

“It is, Harry,” Louis rushed to assure him. Because he felt like he’d just been entrusted with something precious. “You have these phrases you say. I don’t even know if you think about them, but I remember them all.”

“Wha … what?”

“Like the other day. ‘The summertime and butterflies all belong to your creation,’” Louis recited. They’d been taking a break from the hot sun of the midday, lying beneath a tree, Harry’s head on Louis’ stomach. A butterfly had landed on Louis shirt and he’d giggled with the surprise of it. Harry had looked up at him, the gold in his eyes particularly bright in the sunlight and had said it. Louis had wanted to get it tattoo’d on his body.

“You … you remember that?” Harry asked, looking a little taken aback and Louis wondered if it was weird that he had.

“Umm,” he said before Harry was kissing him again.

“What other ones?” Harry asked and the note of uncertainty convinced Louis.

“You’ll find me in the region of the summer stars,” Louis said. They’d all been sitting around the camfire, Anne included, drinking and chatting and playing music. Harry had been quiet for a long time, staring up at the sky, so Louis had manuevered himself next to him, brushing a knuckle against the outside of his hand, just checking in. Harry had turned those eyes on him and whispered that. Louis had seen the constellations in the freckles on Harry’s cheek and knew he’d always remember those words and that moment and that boy.

It earned him another kiss. “What other ones?”

“All my favorite conversations, they’re always made in the A.M.” That had been a night where they hadn’t been able to sleep because how much they’d been talking. Harry had murmured the words into Louis’ neck, all sleepy and slow, but fighting it. Because that’s when the best conversations were made.

Another kiss.

“Let’s break these clocks and forget about time.”

Another kiss. “How do you remember that?”

Louis shrugged, half embarassed, half smitten. “I remember what you say.”

Harry had that look on his face again. And everything in Louis wanted to know what he was holding back, what he wasn’t saying. Was it what Louis wasn’t saying? It couldn’t be, right?

Harry buried his face in Louis’ neck. “You’re so special, Lou,” he murmured agaisnt the damp skin there. It wasn’t everything that Louis wanted, but it was enough. It had to be enough.

Chapter Text

It was a week after their night at the pond when everything went to shit. Harry should have known something bad was coming, but he’d been in his magical little bubble with Louis where the real world didn’t actually exist.

That bubble burst when he walked into the headquarters one day and found Tasha, ashen and grim, as she held Niall in her arms.

Harry wasn’t sure if he should make his prescense known or back slowly out of the room. But the decision was made for him when he shifted and knocked over the umbrella holder. It crashed against the tiles with a loud bang, drawing both Tasha’s and Niall’s attention.

Niall’s face was tear streaked and the moment he saw Harry, he tore himself from Tasha’s arms and threw himself at the taller boy. Harry had only a moment to brace himelf before Niall slammed into him, his arms wrapping tightly around Harry’s torso. It was instinct more than anything that had Harry gathering the boy in his arms, murmuring soothing words of comfort as he met Tasha’s eyes over Niall’s head.

“What happened,” Harry asked, not sure he wanted an answer.

“It’s … it’s…” Niall started but then broke off on a sob, burying his face back into the nook beneath Harry’s shoulder. Tasha was watching Niall, but met Harry’s eyes after a moment.

“Delilah is not doing well, Harry,” Tasha said, her professional vet voice firmly in place. “It doesn’t look promising.”

A hard knot formed instantly in the pit of Harry’s stomach, but his first thought was Louis. God, Louis. Where was he?

“Does Louis know?”

Tasha nodded. “Yes. He was the one that noticed something was off and called me this morning.”

He needed to get to Louis.

“Where is he?”

“In the barn,” she said after a briefi hesitation. “With her.”

He nodded once, and gently set Niall aside. He was still sniffling a bit, but with Tasha there, Harry knew he’d be okay. Harry, on the other hand, needed to get to Louis.

Fuck, fuck, fuck. Everything blurred a little at the edges as Harry pushed past them and made his way toward the back of the building. The sunlight was too harsh when he got outside, the birds’ song too loud in his ears. Everything should be muted. That’s how it should be right now. It wasn’t though.

Harry stumbled in the direciton of the barn, desperate to get to Louis. When he slid the door open he didn’t see them at first. Then his eyes adjusted to the dim light and he found them. Delilah was in the vet’s bay toward the back wall and Louis stood beside her, looking as small as Harry had ever seen him.

Delilah’s head was bowed, and Louis’ hand rested in the space between her eyes. Harry didn’t dare break the moment between them so he stopped just close enough so that he could be there if Louis needed him, but far enough away to give them their space.

They stood like that, the three of them, for longer than Harry could count. Time ceased to exist. All that was left was this fragile space that knew nothing except the bond that ran strong and true between them.

Finally, Delilah blinked and shifted and Louis’ arm dropped away, back to his side and whatever had held them in its grasp let them all go. Harry sucked in a breath, realizing he hadn’t been able to in the moment before.

Louis’ head was bowed and Harry ached to gather him in his arms. But he refused to intrude. So he was forced to watch as the love of his life held himself rigid with pain.

“She’s a fighter,” Louis finally said, the first words he’d spoken to acknowledge Harry.

“I know,” Harry agreed immediately, stepping closer. He wanted to hold him close to his heart, protect him from all the awfulness of the world. Wanted it to be his right to do that.

Louis cleared his throat, and finally -- god, finally -- turned to Harry. The sadness in his eyes was a knife to Harry’s gut. It hurt. It hurt so fucking much to see him in pain.

“I need to get…”

“Anything. What do we need to get?” He would walk to the ends of the earth for Louis right now. If only he would ask him to.

“Um, nice food, you know?” Louis looked so lost. It was a contrast to the in-charge commander he usually was, directing everyone about with a casual confidence Harry always admired. Their leader.

“Frozen watermelon,” Harry said. “And bananas.”

“Apples,” Louis’ voice wobbled, but he fought it. “She likes apples.”

Harry nodded. “We’ll get her apples, baby.”

Louis blinked hard. “You hear that, girl? We’re getting you your favorites, yeah? You’ll like that.”

Delilah let out a soft hum that surprised both Harry and Louis.

“I think she approves,” Harry said the words breaking just a bit.

They set up a watch, all of them. It wasn’t fair to keep Delilah in the vet’s bay, once they knew there was nothing left to do. She needed to be with her herd. But they kept a close eye on her, taking shifts to follow her tracker. She was sticking close to Precious and they all realized through watching them that both elephants knew what was happening. Delilah was trying to teach Precious everything she could in her short window of time.

“She’s lived a really long life, Harry,” Tasha had whispered to him when they’d passed each other over tea one morning. The vet was there most hours of the day -- every moment she wasn’t needed for another patient. There wasn’t much she could do, but her prescense was reassuring.

“I know,” Harry said. Maybe it made it better. Probably it was still just painful. He wasn’t really fully processing his emotions at the moment, either way. His entire focus was on making sure Louis didn’t fall apart. Or if he did, that Harry was there to catch him.

“It’s old age, Harry,” Tasha continued, laying her hand on his forearm.

Harry nodded because he didn’t want to say something rude or hurtful. She was trying to be helpful. But knowing all that did nothing to ease Louis’ pain, which meant it did nothing for Harry.

“I’ve got to … get Lou his tea,” he managed to get out and Tasha just nodded, her eyes sad, her once happy, sunny face clouded.

They didn’t talk much that week, him and Louis. It didn’t matter though. Harry was there and that’s what was important. There were moments where Louis’ fingers sought his, their hands gripping each other tight There were moments when Louis turned away from him and he was forced to hover on the outside looking in. And that was okay. There were moments where Louis counted on Harry to talk for him and there were moments where he got angry when Harry did. And that was okay. There were moments where Harry thought Louis would break with the slightest brush of wind and there were moments Harry thought he was the strongest man Harry had ever met. And that was okay.

All Harry wanted was to be there for Louis. If that meant there were times he wasn’t doing quite the right thing, well, the ones where he did outweighed those.

Each night, Harry held Louis tight in his arms as neither of them actually slept. As they just breathed in and out and in and out and in and out and the minutes slid into the hours where it was acceptable to be up and about once more.

None of them cried. Even Niall, after that first day. It was an unspoken thing, but everyone adhered to it. So Liam may have hugged Zach a little tighter sometimes. And Steve let his long hair fall over his eyes to hide any emotion in them. And Niall held Tasha’s hand when it got to be too much. But not a single tear was dropped.

Harry worried about it. Worried about Louis. As the days marched on, the tension in the boy coiled ever tighter. When he finally shattered, Harry only hoped that he was there. He didn’t want to see what it would look like if he wasn’t.

***

On the eighth day after Louis had gotten Delilah’s diagnosis, he finally cried.

It was time. He’d pushed Harry to go take a much needed nap because he’d known. And he’d wanted to say goodbye. There was a luxury in that he was thankful for.

Harry had protested, but the boy hadn’t slept in a week, and he was barely keeping his eyes open. Louis had nudged him toward his cabin and promsied to join him after checking in at the headquarters

Instead, he’d pulled up Delilah’s tracker on his phone once more and walked the short distance to find his girl. She had always been a tough nut to crack, his Delilah. She was one of their first elephants and Louis had been so new and untested. Both of them had been ridiculously stubborn and scared and unwilling to admit to it.

Eventually he’d earned her trust though, had shown her that life wasn’t all pain and whips and demands. Sometimes it was soft hands and gentle words and meadows full of wildflowers.

That’s where she was now. Her favorite spot in whole sanctuary. The sun was setting and she seemed like she was watching it go.

“Hello, my girl,” he said, loud enough so she would hear him. He didn’t want to startle her.

She turned soft eyes on him and huffed a greeting of sorts. He settled against her, shoulder to shoulder and together they watched the sun slip below the horizon.

When the stars began to pop out in the sky he knew he should leave. This wasn’t for him, and he shouldn’t be selfish.

He turned to her, placing his hand on the space between her eyes. His spot. She blinked at him.

“Don’t tell the others, but you’re my favorite,” he whispered, the tough hide beneath his palm grounding him. It was so familair, so loved.

She bowed her head, close enough for him to place gentle lips against her skin. They held there for a moment that stretched into infinity. And then he pulled back. Gave her one last pat and turned to walk away.

Harry was waiting for him, because of course he was. He hadn’t even slept, Louis could tell.

Louis had knocked on the cabin door, not even really knowing how he’d gotten there. It swung open immediately and then there was Harry. He gathered Louis in his strong arms and Louis let him, his face pressed against Harry’s chest, his fingers digging into Harry’s back. Harry’s chin rested on top of Louis’ head and he just held him, just rocked him.

That’s when the tears came. The first sob surprised them both. He’d been so strong, almost stoic at times. But there was no need to hold out any longer. It was time. And it was time to let himself grieve.

Harry scooped him up, effortlessly holding him, as he walked over to a chair. He sunk down into it craddling Louis against his chest and murmuring soothing words that Louis couldn’t even comprehend. It didn’t matter.

Louis buried his face in Harry’s neck as the tears came. Every emotion he’d been holding back the past week crashed into him and he clung to Harry as the sobs wracked his body.

It could have been minutes or hours or days, Louis didn’t know. Eventually though he ran out of tears. Harry was still stroking his back, still whispering comforting promises that he knew Louis wasn’t even hearing but needed to voice anyway.

That’s when Louis tipped his face up to Harry. He knew Harry would know what to do, because he trusted Harry to know him. To know what he needed without asking.

And Harry did. He paused for only a moment before he pressed his lips to Louis’. Their tongues slid against each other in a slow, senual tangle that lacked the urgency that usualy drove them to madness. Instead, it was quiet and caring. Harry was there. He was there.

Louis shifted so that he was straddling Harry’s hips, and he let himself be kissed. Harry’s hands were big and solid against his back and Louis felt tiny beneath the reassuring strokes of his hands.

When Louis whimpered, just a little, into Harry’s mouth, Harry finally took action. Louis was thankful, because he hadn’t wanted to ask for it. But God he needed it. In this moment, he needed Harry as intimately and closely as he could get him.

Harry tugged at the hem of Louis’ shirt and Louis pulled back lifting his arms. Once that was taken care of, Harry rid himself of his own shirt and then they were skin to skin and it was all Louis had ever wanted. The heat of his chest, the strong beat of his heart. It was reassuring in a way Louis needed. He need to feel Harry against him. He needed to feel connected to him like this. Just like this.

They didn’t rush it. They just kissed and stroked and breathed together. But eventually Harry nudged him a little and then he was standing. His arms wouldn’t listen to any commands so he just stood there and waited. Harry would take care of it anyway. That’s all that mattered.

And he did. He tugged off Louis’ pants, tapping at his ankle to get him to step out of them. Then he pulled off Louis briefs so that he was completely naked and bare. Harry disappeared for a moment and Louis got cold. So cold. But then he was back, his warm skin calming the shivers that had been about to roll through Louis’ body.

Harry pulled him back down into his lap, and Louis went, oh so willingly. He was hard, but he barely noticed. It wasn’t the flash and heat and spark of the passion that always burned so bright between them. It was something quieter than that. It was gentle. It was comfort. It was love.

There were slick fingers nudging at Louis’ hole and Louis tried to spread his legs wider, all the while not willing to give up Harry’s lips. One slipped in, past the resistance of Louis’ muscles, but Louis mostly ignored it. He wanted Harry. It wasn’t possible without prep, so he put up with it. Harry could sense it too, could sense this wasn’t what Louis needed. He needed Harry.

So he was quick and efficient about it. And then Harry was there, against Louis, pressing into him. Louis sunk down onto him with a quiet sob, the tears gathering in his eyes once more. This. This is what he needed. Once they were flush against each other, Harry fully buried in Louis, Harry craddled Louis’ face in his big palms. He kissed Louis so gently. So gently. He kissed his lips but then he kissed the moisture from Louis’ cheeks, his thumbs rubbing soothing cirlces against Louis’ temples. They rocked together like that until the tension got too much.

Louis whimpered against Harry’s mouth not sure how to ask for more. He didn’t need to, though, because of course Harry knew. He reached beteen them, and grapsed Louis’ hard cock. He pulled on it twice at the same time he thurst in against Louis’ prostate. Louis came, the waves of release rocking his body. He gasped for air as he felt Harry stutter and come in him moments later.

He collapsed against Harry’s chest and Harry settled them so that when he slipped out of Louis, Louis barely registered it, all cuddled up against Harry’s chest.

They stayed there for a long while, Harry’s strong, steady hands on Louis the whole time. Sometimes Louis would start crying, and Harry would let him. Sometimes it was just absolutely quiet except for the drag of skin against skin. Sometimes Louis would startle as his body tried to slip into sleep and he wouldn’ let it. That’s when Harry would just pull him tighter, as if they could crawl into the same space.

Eventually Harry shifted Louis off his lap. He didn’t go far, though. As soon as Louis started to shiver, Harry was there again, his arm around Louis as he guided him to the bathroom. The shower was flipped on and Harry let the water heat up before he tugged Louis in with him. Louis had no stength left, but Harry did. He had enought strength for both of them right now.

Louis just stood there, under the stream, as Harry ran thick fingers through Louis’ hair. The shampoo smelled like Harry and Louis liked that. He tipped his head back so the suds didn’t get in his eyes and Harry hummed softly in approval.

Then Harry was washing him, his hands sure and soapy. He didn’t ask anything of Louis, for which Louis was grateful. Just turned him once so that the water cascaded over Louis’ back. Then they were out of the shower again, and Harry wrapped him in the fluffiest, softest towel. He rubbed the fabric over Louis’ arms, his chest, his legs, his feet.

When he was dry, Harry pushed him toward the bed, flicking off all the lights as they went. They collapsed onto the mattress and turned toward each other, eliminating every bit of space that existed between them.

Harry held him, still there, always there, as the mournful trumpets cut through the quiet night air, the elephants saying their final goodbye.

Chapter Text

The atmosphere of the camp was muted in the weeks following Delilah’s passing. Laughs were brittle and tears came easy. They carried on though. There were other elephants to be cared for, after all, a sanctuary to run.

But all Harry’s focus for that time was caught up on making sure Louis was okay.

Not surprisingly Louis was handling it well. There were arrangements to be made, details to be handled, and that gave Louis something to focus on. Harry tried to help where he could, but this was really Louis’ realm. So he tried his best just to be there, to not get in his way.

The days passed quickly, though. And eventually the easy rythm of the camp resumed. Harry heard Niall crack a joke, and saw Liam flutter his pretty eyelashes at Zach. Normal life was slowly creeping back in, not undermining the grief that hovered over them all, but soothing it. Life went on. The sun went down, and it came back up. The world, it kept turning.

And all of a sudden it was three days before Harry was set to leave. They had all -- every single one of them -- been ignoring the impending departure. It was almost like it wouldn’t be real if they didn’t acknowledge it.

Harry got it, he did. Burying your head in the sand was easier than facing the harsh realities of truth. He especially understood it when it came to Niall and Liam and Steve and the rest of the crew. But he hadn’t really talked about it with Louis and that ate at him every day. It was the proverbial elephant in the room and they danced around it with clumsy attempts that did nothing to convince either of them it wasn’t there.

The timing was awful, for one. How could they have a conversation about their relationship when Louis was still grieving?

The thing, was, though, he’d done nothing to indicate that he wanted to ask Harry to stay. Harry wasn’t sure if it was fair to expect that, but he didn’t feel like he could be the one to initiate that.

God, he loved Louis. And he knew, he knew with a sense of certainty that he’d never felt before, that that seedling of love was only going to grow and bloom and last even through the harsest of frosts. But they’d only known each other for two months. It was so fast. Ridiculously fast to start the conversation of, “Hey, so I think I want to give up my entire life to move to Arkansas so we can be together.”

At best it seemed overwhelming. At worst, god, he could freak Louis out.

So Harry let it happen, the days creeping up thing. There had been moments that might have made sense to broach the topic, but everytime they cropped up Harry could find an excuse not to talk about it. It was too soon, too raw after Deliliah’s death. Then, it was that there would be plenty of time later, before Harry left. Then, it was that he would definitely absolutely do it before he actually got on the plane.

All his promises were empty though, and deep down he knew it. So that’s how he got to the day before his departure without having said a single word to Louis about what was going to happen next. It was funny how he could lay his soul bare for this boy, could tell him everything. But when it came to this all his words disappeared.

“We’re going out tonight,” Niall said to the group at large. “We’ve got to celebrate Harry.”

They were all having tea around the scarred kitchen table, as their mid-afternooon break. Harry met Louis’ eyes and an entire conversation that Harry did not understand passed between them.

“Yeah,” Liam agreed easily, slapping his hand against the table. “Of course we do.” But he shifted a look at Louis from the side of his eyes and Harry wondered what everyone thought. If they knew Harry and Louis hadn’t talked about it. If they knew the topic was a live wire, likely to set them off at the gentlest touch.

“We’re doing shots for sure,” Niall muttered, glaring at them as if they were going to proetst.

None of them did. They needed shots.

They all gathered a few hours later, and piled into Liam’s Range Rover. The part-time girls and Tasha were going to meet them at the bar, but the rest of the crew had shown up to send Harry off properly.

Louis still hadn’t said anything. But he sat next to Harry, clutching his hand the entire drive into the small town.

The place was a dive and Harry loved it immediately. There was an old neon jukebox playing ‘70s rock and the bartender had a long ginger beard and a surly disposition that warmed at the sight of their crew.

“A round good sir,” Niall called out as they all tumbled into a booth. Leigh-Ann and Perrie pulled up chairs when they arrived, but Tasha just sat right down in Niall’s lap and it seemed that was that. Niall grinned the entire rest of the night.

When the cheap beer arrived, everyone grabbed a pint and lifted. “To Harry,” they cheersed, glass tapping glass. Harry refused to admit to the moisture that gathered in his eyes at the simple toast.

He was used to coming into camps and making fast friends. He was charming and hard-working and easy to get along with. Once they got over their initial wariness, most people were actually sad to see him go.

But here. Here was different. Here felt like family. And Harry didn’t want to admit how hard it was going to be to leave them.

He didn’t even want to think about how hard it was going to be to leave Louis.

Louis. Louis who was sitting across from him, in a sinful maroon scoop neck that showed off his collarbones and his sharp angles that contrasted so beautifully with his soft curves. Louis who was flicking his fringe out of his eyes as he watched Harry watch him. Louis who was his actualy heart, his actual soul.

Louis raised his eyebrows at Harry, and Harry knew what he wanted immediately. He nudged his hip against Steve’s so he could slide out of the booth and Louis did the same with Liam on his side.

They came together on the bootleg little dance floor just as Queen switched over to Shania Twain. The rest of the bar booed, but Harry thought it might be the most perfect mooment of his life. Louis slotted himself against Harry’s body, his arms going up around his neck, their bellies pressed togther, and Harry’s hands rested against the top swell of Louis’ ass. Louis buried his face in the space beneath Harry’s clavicle and they just swayed there, barely moving except the slight shifting side to side.

Harry ran one palm up the smooth line of Louis’ back until it cupped his head and then they stopped moving altogether. It was far too inimiate a moment to be shared with an audience, but neither of them could care. So Harry just held onto Louis, as if he just squeezed tight enough they would never have to separate. And Louis clung to Harry just the same.

The last notes of the song faded into something with a faster beat, and Louis pulled back and swung around to grind his hips back into Harry’s groin. But Harry didn’t miss the way the boy wiped at his cheeks and hid his eyes from Harry as he did it.

He didn’t want to push, though. Not here and not now, so he let Louis set the pace. They danced and they laughed and they drank and then they dragged Steve and Zach and Niall out of the booth and danced some more.

By the end of the night, most of the crew were sloshed. Niall and Tasha tried to sneak out before the others, but nothing escaped their notice. They were catcalled and whistled out of the bar, but Niall didn’t even flick them the finger. He was far too happy with the way the night had turned out.

The rest of them piled back into the Range Rover, and Liam, their lovely designated driver, hauled them back to camp.

Harry couldn’t keep his hands off Louis the whole way home. Louis was sat in his lap, his gorgeous ass pressing deliciously against Harry’s hardening cock, his hands in Harry’s curls, his mouth against Harry’s neck.

It was all Harry could ask for, this pleasure of having Louis want him. Desperately. Or it wasn’t all that Harry could ask for. What he could ask for is Louis asking him to stay. Even just hinting that it was something that he’d want. That this thing between them was too huge, too wild, for them to write off as a summer fling.

That wasn’t what Louis was saying with his lips. It wasn’t what Louis was saying with his hips. It wasn’t what Louis was saying with his hands

They were all screaming sex and Harry sort of wished he could scream back that he wanted more. But he was weak. He would take what he could get.

Liam dragged them (far more good naturedly than Harry would have) out of the car about twenty minutes later. He’d dropped off everyone but Zach, who was a calm presence in the passenger seat, and Harry and Louis waved goodnight with the hands they weren’t using to feel each other up.

They tripped through the door into the darkened room and Louis was on him. His mouth was everywhere, his fingers digging into Harry’s curls tugging him closer, always closer.

But Harry had to stop it. If they fucked, that’s all they would do. They’d fuck and then cuddle and then drift off to sleep and then Harry would leave in the morning and he would be leaving his fucking heart on the floor and they would never have even talked about it.

“Louis, Louis,” Harry placed shaking hands on Louis’ hips. All he wanted to do was pull him against his cock, to feel that lovely softness against him. But he had to be strong. For both of them. “Lou, wait.”

That got Louis’ atention and he finally shifted back so that he could look up at Harry’s face.

“Harry.”

The plea broke Harry’s heart. Because that’s what it was. A plea. A plea to let them have this last night without the mess of emotions that would come with talking. A plea to let them end this with sex instead of tears.

Harry should have realized then. Because why would Louis ask that of him if he wanted Harry to stay? If he wanted more?

But Harry had to know. He couldn’t just do this and leave and wonder. He couldn’t just leave Louis. So he begged, himself.

“Please, Louis.”

Somewhere in the minutes between Liam’s car and where they stood now, they both seemed to have sobered a bit, so Harry could see the walls come up behind Louis’ eyes. Brick by brick.

Still, Louis nodded, just once. “I’ll make some tea.”

***

Louis leaned against the counter as the water heated on the tiny stove, his heart pounding. Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck.

It wasn’t that he’d hoped to avoid this conversation, it was just that he’d hoped to avoid this conversation. Couldn’t Harry just give him one last thing? One night where a future without Harry didn’t loom as a dark and depressing reality?

Because what were they going to say? Hey let’s try long distance? That never worked and, with the way Harry was all over the globe, it didn’t even seem feasible. The only other option was for one of them to move to the other and Louis couldn’t abandon his elephants. He also couldn’t ask Harry to give up his life for him either.

Even if Harry was thinking along those lines, Louis couldn’t believe he wouldn’t grow to resent it. To resent being stuck in the woods in Arkansas, resent giving up his posh life for boring ass khakis and a cramped cabin he’d have to share with a boy from the streets who had nothing else to offer.

And Louis knew that the only thing harder than losing Harry completely would be to see that light in his eyes go out. That light that was saved just for Louis. It would kill Louis. Absolutely kill him.

So all that left them was tonight. One more night. That’s all Louis could hope for, and even now that was being taken away from him.

Harry was leaning against the door jam, Louis knew. His eyes on the tight muscles of Louis’ back.

“What’s wrong, Lou?” he finally asked, his voice so soft, so small.

Louis turned to face him, his arms crossed against his chest. To protect his bleeding heart. “What do you want me to say, Harry?”

Harry paled slightly but held his ground. “I don’t know, Louis. Maybe, something? Other than just goodbye, it’s been swell. See you never.”

“What do you want me to say?” Louis repeated, keeping his voice as calm as possible. He didn’t want this to turn into them shouting at each other. That’s not what he wanted his last memory to be. He’d wanted it to be Harry in his arms, both of them tucked under comfy blankets, in the small bed that had become theirs more than Louis’. He’d wanted it to be in that time where Harry was almost awake, but not quite, and buried his face into Louis’ shoulder. He’d wanted it to be quiet sex in the morning as the night gave way to the day.

He wasn’t going to get any of that.

“I want you to say what you’re thinking,” Harry said, his jaw going tight.

“You don’t want me to say what I’m thinking,” Louis said. “Because what I’m thinking is that why the hell couldn’t you have just let us have tonight?”

“Because then that’s all we’d have, Lou,” Harry countered. And Louis saw the bulb go off. “And that’s all you wanted. You don’t want anything more.”

“Wanting has nothing to do with it,” Louis said, shifting his gaze to the floor. He couldn’t look at Harry any longer.

But Harry was having none of that. He crossed the distance between them, his huge hands coming down on Louis’ shoulder, shaking him just a tiny bit to get him to look up.

Louis wished he hadn’t because there was the world, his world, in those eyes. The golds and greens and dark rim of emerald. It was his world.

“What the fuck does that mean? What we want is all that matters.”

Louis huffed out a breath. “Of course you would think that.”

Harry looked like he’d been slapped. “What does that mean?”

Louis shook his head, already wishing he could swallow the words. It was too late, though. They hung between them, ugly and sour and not what Louis actually meant at all.

“What the fuck does that mean, Louis?”

And something broke in Louis. A tangilbe snap. He thought it might be his heart. “It means of course you think us wanting something is enough. You’ve been given everything you’ve ever wanted your whole life. Why can’t it just be that simple? Sometimes it’s not enough, Harry.”

Harry sucked in a breath and Louis hated himself so much. So, so much. The pain on Harry’s face was like a punch to the solar plexus. In fact Louis would have preferred that to seeing Harry like this.

“Wow,” Harry whispered. “So that’s what it comes down to again, huh? I thought … I thought you ...”

The silence was heavy around them. “You thought what?”

There were tears in Harry’s eyes when he met Louis’ and Louis wanted to die. “I thought you saw me. I thought I showed you who I was and for once someone actually saw me. Not my name and not my reputation and not my … charm. Just me.”

Louis was shaking. He wrapped his arms around himself, trying to keep from sliding to the floor. “I did. I do.”

“No,” Harry said, stepping back and it took everything in Louis not to reach for him. “If that’s what you think of me. If you think I thought this,” he waved between them, “would be simple just because we wanted it? You don’t know me. You never actually saw me.”

A sob escaped at that, because no that wasn’t true. He knew Harry. He knew him. “I do Harry.” He needed him to know that. Even if he hated him now. He needed Harry to know that he’d seen him.

But Harry shook his head, and the light in his eyes, the one he saved just for Louis, was gone. Everything Louis had been trying to avoid and he’d ruined it anyway. The cruelty of it robbed him of air.

“I never thought it would be, simple, Lou,” Harry said. “I just thought it would be worth it.”

He turned to walk away, but he stopped just before the door. “I would have given up everything, Louis. If only you’d asked me to.”

And then he was gone.

Louis slid to the floor, eyes blinded by tears. He pulled his legs into his chest and rocked, unable to contain the crushing sadness that was pulsing through his body.

“That’s what you don’t understand,” Louis whispered into the air where Harry had stood. “I could never have asked you to.”

Chapter Text

London, 5 weeks later

“Don’t you look dashing, darling,” Anne said, slipping a glass of champagne into Harry’s hand.

It was the first event Harry had attended since he’d been back in London. He hadn’t been able to say no to Anne on this one, though. It was their annual black-tie fundraiser for the elephant sanctuary and even though Harry had wanted to be literally anywhere in the world other than here, he’d known he would attend. Because it was still important to him.

“I’m only staying for an hour, mum,” he warned because he knew she was trying to butter him to stick around longer. He’d already set his limit, though.

“Of course, whatever you say, love,” Anne murmured, her eyes scanning the crowd. She was preoccupied, had been all evening as they’d gotten ready and made their way to the museum that was hosting the fundraiser. Harry didn’t mind. He’d had too many weeks of Anne’s attention. Her curious eyes, her probing questions.

She’d known something had happened. Harry hadn’t been able to hide his broken heart. But thankfully she’d given him a bit of space. That grace period was coming to an end, though. Soon he’d have to spill out all his hurt and pain and anger.

It had been five weeks and it was still all there, almost as fresh and raw as the day Louis had torn his heart out and slashed into a tiny million pieces. How could he have fallen so hard, so fast? But all he had to do was call up an image of Louis, laughing as Harry scrambled away from him during the thunderstorm, and he knew how.

Harry thought maybe he could hold onto his anger for long enough to heal a little bit. But he couldn’t. Louis had lashed out, and in the moment it had hurt. It had hurt so bad. He knew, though, he absolutely knew that’s not how Louis viewed him anymore.

So all he was left with was the throbbing knowledge that Louis hadn’t been willing to fight for whatever they’d had together. And that hurt more than all the unkind words Louis could sling at him in a heated moment.

“Actually, I’ve change my mind,” Harry said. “I need to go.”

Anne’s attention immediately sharpened on Harry at that. “No.”

“Umm, I love you, mum,” Harry said, slightly taken aback by the vehemence in her voice. “But you can’t exactly tell me what to do anymore.”

Anne raised a brow that spoke volumes and Harry realized his mistake. Of course his mum could still tell him what to do. At any age.

“One hour, Harry,” Anne said. “You promised.”

And there was the guilt. Fuck.

“Fine, but I’m not going to enjoy myself.”

“Oh no, what ever will I do?” Anne said, the sarcastic edge to the words making Harry laugh. “Just … go mingle, love. Schmooze some money out of these poeple’s wallets. They’re too full anyway.”

“Eye on the prize,” Harry said, leaning over to kiss her cheek.

Anne patted his shoulder. “Always.”

He’d promised Anne he’d stay, but he hadn’t promised he’d mingle. So, after grabbing another glass of wine, he edged closer to the open double doors that were letting the cool air into the overheated room. With one last glance around, he slipped out into the night.

The smell of flowers wrapped around Harry and he was immediately back in Delilah’s favorite meadow, Louis’ hand in his, a feeling of peace deep in his heart. Unlike any he’d known before.

It was because his eyes were closed that he didn’t immediately sense the person joining him on the small, secluded patio. When he did notice him, Harry thought he might still be dreaming.

“Louis,” he couldn’t help but murmur, the name falling from his lips like a prayer.

For some reason they weren’t in each other’s arms, and it took Harry a moment to figure out why. Everything in him was telling him to gather the boy up, close against his chest, and then never, ever, ever let him go.

But he’d tried that, and it hadn’t worked. And something precious had broken inside Harry from it. So he leaned back against the baulustraud and waited. Waited for what, he didn’t know.

Louis’ eyes were all over him, sliding down the legnth of his body, touching on his nipples, that were exposed by his barely-buttoned black silk shirt, toching on his wrists, his hips, his legs, then back up to his face.

“Harry,” he finally said, and Harry hadn’t realized just how much he’d missed that voice, that raspy accent that carressed his name. Harry almost gave in, almost reached for him. But he held back.

“I won’t ask what you’re doing here,” Harry said. It was a fundraiser for the sanctuary after all. “But … what do you want, Louis?”

It was an echo of their conversation from weeks prior. Harry begging Louis just to be honest. With himself. With Harry. What do you want?

“I …,” Louis trailed off, finally dropping his eyes off Harry. Then he took a deep breath. “I want for you not to hate me.”

It wasn’t what Harry wanted. But Louis was here, standing in front of him, looking so small and nervous. “Okay.”

The answer surprised Louis enough to get him to look up. Baby steps.

“Okay?” Louis repeated. “Just like that.”

Harry shrugged, one easy shoulder lifting. Probably he looked far more casual about all this than he really was. “I could never hate you Louis. So yeah, ‘okay.’ Just like that.”

“But,” Louis stepped closer and Harry counted it as a victory.

“But what?”

“You. The way you looked at me,” Louis said, his voice wavering just a bit the middle there. He didn’t finish the thought.

Harry cocked his head. “I was sad and upset, Lou. You broke my heart.”

Louis flinched but didn’t back away.

“But I could never hate you. You are impossible to hate.”

“Not quite sure about that,” Louis said, a self-derisive smirk tugging at his lips.

“I am.”

It shut them both up and the silence was back. That awful silence that was nothing like the quiet moments they shared with each other, comfortble and at ease with the absence of words.

“If that’s all you want, Louis, you have it. I don’t hate you,” Harry repeated. Because, he needed something to give. Either way. Either for Louis to turn and walk away, his guilt soothed, or for Louis to throw himself into Harry’s arms. This limbo was too painful.

“I .. um,” Louis stuttered. He’d clearly had a plan, and Harry thought his own easy reassurance might have thrown Louis a bit.

Harry shifted against the cold stone against his back, and the movement drew Louis’ eye. More to the point, it drew his eye to the newly revealed skin of Harry’s shoulder.

“What…?” Louis moved even closer, into Harry’s space. Harry’s pulse fluttered and he dropped his hands to his sides, clenching his fingers into fists to stop himself from reaching for Louis. Nails dug into the soft flesh of his palms, but he couldn’t give in. This mattered too much.

So he held still as Louis pushed the fabric of his silk shirt even further open. Harry heard the soft little intake of air as Louis finally realized what it was. His new tattoo.

He’d gotten it two weeks after returning to London, when the pain had turned from a sharp piercing to a dull ache.

The tip of Louis’ finger pressed against the dark ink lines and he traced them. Slowly.

Harry didn’t dare move.

“Its Delilah,” Louis said, his eyes finally tearing away from the elephant that now took up a decent amount of the space beneath Harry’s shoulder. He didn’t need to confirm it.

“Why?” Louis whispered, his hand coming up to rest so that the center of his palm covered that space between her eyes. The space he’d always rested his hand.

“To carry her with me,” Harry said, his voice raspy and broken. He wanted to cover Louis’ hand with his, but he still couldn’t yet. Not yet. “To carry you with me.”

“Harry,” Louis said and again it was a plea. This time Harry didn’t know for what, though.

So he just waited and when Louis met his eyes once more Harry held his breath.

“Harry, I lied,” Louis said and Harry tensed beneath his hand. “I didn’t come here because I don’t want you to hate me. I came here because I want you to love me.”

***

Everything slowed and blurred at the edges as Louis tore open his own chest and showed Harry his heart. It should make him feel shaky and needy and desperate. But instead he felt stronger than he’d had in weeks. Loving Harry wasn’t something scary. It was the thing that kept the scary things at bay.

If only he’d realized it sooner.

He’d spent the past five weeks in a haze. As expected, the colors that Harry had brought into his life seeped out of it the moment Harry had walked out of his cabin. Louis had been convined that Harry hated him, but he should have known better. Harry wouldn’t hate anyone.

But he’d been so cool, so collected, tonight. Leaning back against the stone wall behind him in all his posh glory. He was gorgeous, of course. So gorgeous. Louis had almost forgotten how it felt to look at him, to have the breath robbed from his very lungs from all the prettiness.

There had been a panicky moment, though, for Louis when Harry had simply shrugged and agreed not to hate Louis. It was as if he were saying, how could I hate you, when I don’t feel anything for you at all? In that moment, everything Louis ever wanted in his life hung at the edge of some kind cliff, only needing a little nudge to fall into the abyss. And if it went over the ledge, it would drag Louis down with it.

So he’d known, this was no time to hedge, to pretend. The words refused to come, though, until he’d seen Harry’s tattoo. And then everything clicked into place. Harry cared. He still cared. Maybe he more than cared. Maybe if Louis took his head out of his ass long enough he’d get to have everything he’d ever wanted.

“Well,” Harry laughed without humor. “That’s…”

“No, wait,” Louis rushed out, because, of fucking course he’d forgotten the most important part.

Harry raised his brows, pressing his lips together to hold back whatever he’d been about to say.

Strong. This love made Louis strong. He could do this. “I didn’t want you,” he winced, squinting his eyes. Fuck he was fucking this up.

But there were crinkles around the corners of Harry’s eyes as if he were holding back a smile.
“Oh my god, Styles, I’m fucking this up, sorry,” Louis said and Harry let out a bark of laughter.

“It’s okay, Lou,” Harry said and finally, finally, Louis saw his Harry there. Open and understanding and oh so gentle with Louis. Always so gentle. “All I’ve ever wanted is to hear what you’re thinking. We can figure it out from there.”

Louis took a deep breath, and nodded. “Ok, well I suppose I should say I love you. That would help.”

“That it would,” Harry murmured and Louis met his eyes. Louis hadn’t removed his hand from where it rested on Harry’s chest.

“But I didn’t want to,” Louis continued. They wouldn’t get through this without being honest with each other. With themselves. “You were so much and it happened so fast. I felt everything for you. Everything. It took two days to fall for you and the rest of the time I was just terrified that I wouldn’t know how to live after you left.”

Harry hummed deep in his throat but didn’t say anything.

“The thing is I found out that I could. Live without you,” Louis continued. Maybe it wasn’t the most romantic thing in the world to say, but Louis was fucking this up anyway, so he might as well go full tilt. “The thing was I could live without you. I think that’s important, Harry. We could so easily consume each other, because this thing between us is so powerful. But we can live apart.”

“Okay,” Harry nodded. “I get that.”

“But. Living without you is not something I ever want to do again,” Louis said. “You brought actual sunshine into my life Harry. Everything cliche you can imagine happened because of you. When you walked out all that was left were the gray skies I’d been living with, thinking they were all I deserved.”

“Oh, Lou,” Harry murmured. “You deserve more than rain clouds.”

Louis nodded, hesitant. “I’m trying to work on believing that.”

A little distressed sound slipped from Harry’s lips. “Louis, you are the sun. You deserve everything.”

Blinking hard, Louis pressed forward. “I um. I’m going to talk to Anne tonight. I’m going to ask her to find a replacement for me, for the sanctuary. So I can move back here. To give us a shot.”

That was met with terrible silence and Louis panicked again. Maybe he was reading this wrong. Maybe Harry thought Louis was crazy for believing that Harry would want something after all that had passed between them. Maybe, maybe, maybe …

His thoughts spiralled and he couldn’t meet Harry’s eyes, the mortification a flush against the back of his neck. It was when he moved to step back, to turn away, to go find a dark corner to cry in, that Harry finally broke.

“Louis,” he whispered, his arms coming up to wrap around Louis, pulling him tight against his chest. Just where he’d wanted to be the whole time. “Baby.”

At that, Louis collapsed against him. The floodgates he’d been shoring up so clumsily broke wide open and he clenched his eyes shut to stop the flow of tears. He let himself just feel Harry’s warm skin beneath his cheek, let himself be lost in the vanilla and spice that was distinctly Harry, let himself press his lips to where Harry’s heart beat. Home. This was home. This is what he’d missing for five long weeks.

“Louis, I love you,” Harry whispered into his hair and Louis relaxed. That must mean he was willing to try. That he wasn’t freaked out by Louis’ offer to move half-way across the world to be with him.

“But you’re being an idiot,” Harry continued and Louis stiffined. “Oh, no, you can just retract the claws, kitten. You had your say. Now it’s my turn.”

That was fair. That’s what he wanted. And the affection in Harry’s voice let him relax back into that happy place he’d found so comforting moments earlier.

“Lou, what do you think I mean when I say I love you? No don’t answer that, it’s rhetorical,” Harry laughed when Louis huffed an irritated breath. “It means I love you. I love everything that makes you who you are. I love that you get grumpy if you don’t get your tea or the air con is too cold in the car. I love that you steal all my covers and pretend I snore…”

“You do…”

“Hush,” Harry patted Louis head back down against his chest and Louis smiled into the skin there. “I love that you’re protective and take no shit but give so much love to the people you care about. I love that you love what you do, Louis. That’s part of who you are. Those elephants, the sanctuary, the family you’ve built there. That’s part of you. And I love you.”

“But…” Louis tried to wrap his head around what Harry was saying. It was a struggle. He’d come here prepared to give up everything. Yes, he’d miss it, but that was nothing compared to how much he missed Harry.

“I love you, Louis,” Harry repeated and Louis was pretty sure he’d never get tired of hearing that. “I’m not sure what you think that means. But to me, it means I would never let you give that part of yourself up. I would never ask you to.”

“But then, what happens?” Louis asked, still trying to keep up, but a little off balance.

Harry sighed, sounding annoyed that Louis wasn’t getting it. “I was going to let you ask me…”

“Ask you what?” Louis felt stupid.

Harry pulled back and rolled his eyes. But then he placed his hands on either side of Louis face, this thumb tracing Louis’ cheekbones like he liked to do. “Ask me to move to the sanctuary, Lou.”

The surprise of it almost had Louis stepping back, but Harry’s hands were sure and steady, holding him in place. “What? I couldn’t ask you that.”

“Oh my god, we’re going in circles.”

Louis was a bit desperate. “No, Harry. I can’t ask you to give this all up. You would hate me eventually.”

Harry narrowed his eyes at Louis. “Do you love me, Louis?”

“Of course,” Louis said almost before the question left Harry’s lips. “Always.”

“Okay,” Harry nodded slowly. “Then why don’t you trust me to know what I want?”

“I do,” Louis protested, but maybe that wasn’t quite true. Harry just waited. “I just … life isn’t that easy. I don’t get to have everything I want.”

“Oh baby,” Harry murmured, pressing a quick, closed-mouth kiss to Louis’ lips. “Sometimes it is that easy. Sometimes love is enough.”

It shouldn’t have rocked Louis, to hear that. But it did. Trusting that idea felt dangerous. He’d been hurt by it before.

He did trust, Harry, though.

“I love the sanctuary, Louis,” Harry cotinued. “I was the happiest I’ve ever been in my entire life there. I’ll still want to travel, but we can manage a couple weeks or months apart. If the rest of the time we get to have each other. In the home we build for ourselves.”

“You’d want to live there?” Louis was still a bit dazed. But the pieces were starting to fall into place.

“Yes, you stubborn ridiculous kitten.” Harry was smiling now, his dimples out in full force. “Who knows what the future holds. Maybe we’ll move back here eventually, or maybe we’ll live there and hate that our kids have American accents. It doesn’t matter. Whatever it is we want, we’ll figure it out. Together.”

“Our kids,” Louis said faintly, an image of Harry holding a mini-version of him making Louis’ knees a bit weak. How would he survive that?”

Harry was smug now, now that Louis had pulled his head properly out of his own ass. “Yup. I want a lot of them. And I want to adopt too.”

“Oh yeah?” Louis let his fingers trail up into Harry’s hair. “I suppose that means you want the whole deal, yeah? Marriage, kids, growing old together.”

“Hmm,” Harry hummed, leaning down into Louis’ space. “That sounds perfect. Now kiss me, you fool.”

As if Louis would ever deny Harry anything.

Chapter Text

EPILOGUE

Anne Styles didn’t consider it meddling. That word had such ugly connotations. No, Anne considered what she did to be helping. That sounded so much better. And it was the truth, so, there.

It had started years ago, when she’d first laid eyes on Louis Tomlinson. She’d been having a truly horrible day. And then this little raggamuffin with sharp blue eyes had tried to pickpocket her and that was just … that wouldn’t do. Anne was a big fan of signs and it seemed the universe had sent her one in the shape of a scrawny boy with a sarcastic tongue and far too many walls for someone so young.

Instead of dragging him off to the nearest watchman, Anne had decided to listen to the universe. And that meant listening to Louis. It hadn’t been easy, she would never pretend it had been. Louis wanted help but didn’t want to admit he wanted it. Earning his trust had been one of the hardest, most rewarding things she’d ever done.

See, it had been so easy to love Louis. He was the sweetest marshmallow at his core. It had been far harder to be patient; to be willing to absorb the claw marks as he lashed out and hold onto him anyway; to see the pain in the eyes and know the worst thing to do would be to offer anything that could taken as pity.

It was everything, though. Watching him grow into a man. To lose the vicious edges that had been hewn from being rejected by the people who were supposed to love him most. To embrace the kindness that was inherent in his soul, and keep the sharp tongue for those who dared hurt anyone he cared about.

It had been years before the idea came to her, though once it had she couldn’t believe she hadn’t seen it earlier.

It was right after Harry had gone through what she liked to call his “lost” period. Louis had been visiting and she’d ended up scheduling lunch with him the same day she had dinner with Harry.

Nothing could have been more clear to her on afterward than that her two boys should be together. Harry was just what Louis needed. Someone who had all the love in the world to give and was just waiting to find the person to shower it on.

And Louis was perfect for Harry.

Harry, her Harry baby. He hadn’t had it easy, despite outward appearances. She’d always known he’d be able to charm his way through life, but she’d also known that ability would come with a dark side. People were attracted to things that shined, but they also liked to break them. She had been so worried the world had broken Harry.

It hadn’t, but he’d been left bruised and shaken.

She’d been so proud of him, the way he threw himself into charity work after that. But she’d always sensed he was still searching for something he hadn’t yet found.

So maybe she’d nudged them toward each other. Maybe she’d dropped hints that Harry should go visit the elephant sanctuary on one of his trips. Maybe she’d raved a little about the boy who ran it, too. Not enough to raise suspicion, but enough to plant a seed.

It had bloomed just like she’d hoped. They’d thought themselves so sneaky when she’d gone to check on her little project. But they were hopeless. Hopelessly in love and hopelessly terrible at hididng it. She’d felt a little guilty about her presense, but she’d needed to make sure her babies were doing okay without her helping hand to guide them along.

She’d been all but planning the wedding when Harry had returned to London, and she’d wondered if what the world hadn’t accomplished, Louis had. Because her lovely boy was broken. It had been a sharp knife to the heart to see him that way, and it took everything in her not to pry.

But, she’d seen them. With her own eyes. Neither of them had looked as happy ever as they had when they were together. So, maybe she’d meddled a little. And laid on a little guilt about Louis attending the fundraiser this year in person, and how much that would mean to everyone. Louis had squirmed, of course, and she’d played dumb and, well it all turned out for the best hadn’t it?

She tried not to be to smug when she’d gotten the call about five months after the fundraiser.

“We’re engaged,” Harry and Louis had yelled in unison over the phone. It had been coming for awhile, but they’d wanted to get Harry settled.

“Details, darlings,” Anne smiled into the phone, picturing them cuddled up on their couch, arms wrapped around each other.

“Well he took me to our pond…” Harry started.

“I was absolutely bricking it,” Louis interrupted, and Anne laughed.

“And it was too cold, obviously, for us to go in, but we sat on the edge of the rock,” Harry continued as if Louis hadn’t said anything. “He’d made this scrapbook…”

“Styles, she doesn’t need to know all the details.”

“She needs to know what an utter sap you are,” Harry said and Anne rushed to agree.

Her babies.

“As I was saying, he made this book of pictures of us, and in the white spaces he’d written all these little quotes from me.”

Louis groaned, clearly mortified by his own sappiness. Anne beamed and tried to pretend there weren’t tears streaming down her face.

“What was the best one, do you think Lou?”

Another muffled groan.

“When you go and I’m alone, you live in my imagination,” Harry sighed. “That one was so sweet.”

“You’re the one who said it, Styles,” Louis chimed in. “You’re the sap not me.”

“But you remembered it,” Harry countered. “Now hush. But, mum, the best part was I got to the end and there was this picture of us, we’re looking at each other, I think Niall took it right?”

“Does it matter?”

“No, no. I think Niall took it. Anyway, and scrawled over it in Louis’ dreadful handwriting, is ‘Be with me so happily?’”

“Oh Louis, you softie,” Anne murmured. That had been the title of Harry’s first published poem. It had been in a small literary magazine with about a thousand subscribers, but Louis had had it framed and hung on their wall. Harry had sent her approximately fourteen pictures of it, all from different angles.

“Slander, I tell you,” Louis muttered.

Harry just sighed happily. “And then he asked me to marry him.”

“We’ll spare you the details about what happened after that,” Louis cut in.

“Boys! Behave,” Anne laughed.

Anne also tried not to feel smug on their wedding day. They held it at the sanctuary, appropriately enough, in a meadow filled with flowers under a sprawling blue sky. It had been a small gathering, but it had been all they’d needed. They’d pledged their love to each other, and there had not been a dry eye in sight.

“And are you two next,” Anne leaned over to Liam after Louis had full out jumped into Harry’s arms when the offiiciant had told him he could kiss his groom, much to the delight of their rowdy audience.

Liam had blushed but hadn’t denied it, and Anne made a mental note that she’d probably be booking another flight back to Arkansas soon.

Anne had definitely been smug the first time she’d watched them hold Rose in their arms. The baby was so, so tiny and they were so, so in love. Louis had hovered over Harry, who sat in the rocking chair on the porch of their big, lovely new house they’d built when they’d realized a shabby little cabin would no longer do the trick for their growing family. Then Charlie had come along. And then the twins, who Harry had fallen in love with on a trip to Africa. Then Margot, who had her daddy’s green eyes and could wrap her grandmother around her finger with the tiniest smile. And then Noah who had his daddy’s deep blue eyes and could twist the entire family around his little finger.

By that time, Anne was spending months of the year at the little sanctuary in Arkansas. She still had her other projects, but this one was her most important. Louis and Harry had built her her own little cottage even.

One night, when the kids were all asleep -- miraculously -- she sat with her two boys on their porch, drinking wine and talking about nothing. They’d all dropped into silence a bit ago to watch the fireflies come out. She glanced over at them, still wrapped up in each other all these years later and decided to head to bed so they could have some time to themselves. They worked hard, taking care of the sanctuary, raising a family, writing poetry, making time for friends. But they never got too busy for each other.

Still, she could help them out a bit, couldn’t she? So she yawned all loud and obvious and pushed to her feet. She met two sets of amused eyes but neither of them protested when she said she was heading back to her cottage.

There were a few more lines on their faces, and a few silver strands in their hair, but they were still her babies. So in love, so happy. It was all she’d ever wanted for them.

She blinked back tears and hoped they didn’t see, but she knew they did.

“Hey mum,” Harry called just as she turned to head down the steps. She looked back just as Louis was snuggling deeper into Harry’s side. “Thank you.”

And in that moment she knew they were thanking her for everything. For taking Louis in, for nudging them toward each other, for interferring when they’d stumbled, for … everything.

“You’ve already thanked me, loves,” Anne swiped at the edge of her eyes. “Just by being you.”