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i carry your heart with me (i carry it in my heart)

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Harry stood with his nose almost against the window, his breath fogging up the glass for a split second as he let out a puff of delighted laughter at the sight before him. He stood rocking on his heels, fingers hooked around the straps of the camera around his neck, a small, unconscious smile on his face as he peered in at the rows of newborns.

Although he had a full schedule and no time to waste, whenever he was commissioned with a shoot at the hospital, Harry couldn’t resist taking a few minutes to look in on the nursery in the maternity ward.

“Which one is yours?”

Harry startled out of his reverie: an old woman, weighed down by an armful of bags from the gift shop beamed up at him.

“None of them. But—" He bent down for a conspiratorial whisper. "—between you and me… I’d take them all home if I could.”

The old woman let out a peal of laughter. “I’ll have to keep an eye on you in that case, young man. You’re not making off with my little Peter.” She pointed out the baby before Harry could ask. “There he is. Isn’t he handsome?”

Harry studied the bundle out of which peeked a wrinkled, red face and a shock of dark hair. “Very handsome,” he declared with a solemn nod, though he couldn’t quite hold back his amused grin. “First grandchild?”

“My only daughter’s first born!” The woman shifted the bags in her arms as she looked at her grandson behind the glass, mesmerized.

“Let me help you with that.”

“Thank you, dear. What a sweet boy you are,” The woman trilled when Harry unburdened her of most of the bags.

Harry gave her a grin and a theatrical bow. “Shall I escort you to the room, mam?” he said in an affected posh accent.

“Yes, please. And do call me Rose, dear. I want to introduce you to my daughter—she had a boyfriend who looked just like you before she married Albert.” Rose squinted up at Harry as they walked down the corridor, Harry’s boots clicking on the vinyl floor. “Well… you’re rather more fetching.”

Harry cackled. “It’s a good thing she married Albert, then, isn’t it? And gave you such a handsome grandson.”

Rose clucked her tongue; she didn’t seem to have caught on that Harry was joking. “He gets it all from my Therese. I’m very fond of Albert, but she certainly didn’t marry him for his looks.”

They found the door ajar, the murmur of conversation just audible. Harry stopped outside, but Rose barged into the room after a cursory knock. Harry peered inside, toes poised just at the threshold of the room. There was a woman in bed with a nurse bent over talking to her.

“I’m back!” Rose announced unnecessarily. She waved a hand at Harry. “Come in! Don’t be shy.”

Harry stumbled into the room, still clutching the bags. “Um, hi.”

The nurse straightened, eyebrows raised and the corner of her mouth twitching, while Rose’s daughter stared, baffled.

The nurse’s smile was indulgent as she looked at the old woman. “Another trip to the gift shop, Mrs Collins?”

The room was crowded with flower arrangements, balloons, and piles of gifts and cards. Therese gave a small huff of laughter and offered Harry a slight smile, obviously confused by his presence. “Hello. You are?”

Harry automatically raised a hand to wave, bags knocking together. “Hello! I’m Harry.” He hurried to set the bags down on a chair. “Congratulations on your baby.”

“Thank you... Harry.” Therese shot her mother a questioning look.

“Doesn’t he look like that old boyfriend of yours, dear?” Rose said, clasping her hands together in front of her chest in excitement.

Therese chuckled, though her brow was still furrowed in confusion. “I suppose,” she said at last after giving Harry a quick look. Her eyes slid to her mother again. “Where did you find him exactly?”

“He offered to help me with the bags, the dear. Though you never did get around to telling me what you’re doing here, if none of the babies are yours.” Rose turned to Harry expectantly.

Harry raised his camera as an explanation. “Um. I’m a photographer. I photograph newborns at the hospital, with their family, usually? I’d just finished a photo shoot.”

“Oh! That sounds lovely!” Rose said.

The nurse made a small sound of recognition. “I’ve seen you around.”

Harry didn’t recognize the nurse, but it was possible. “I’ve had a few commissions here before. Although I do most of the shoots at the studio. Or at the families’ home. I do babies and toddlers, too, not just newborns.”

Therese considered him with obvious interest. “That does sound nice. Have you got a website?”

Harry nodded and pulled a card from the back pocket of his jeans. “It’s really a beautiful family experience. And, like, something you get to keep and can look back on later on.”

Therese nodded, looking down at the card with Harry’s information. “I’ll probably give you a call.”

A grin split across Harry’s face. “Great!”

The rap of knuckles on the door made them all turn their heads. “Excuse me.” Another nurse peeked in; she seemed to be fighting laughter. “Jay, sweetheart, I think your son is about to have a breakdown.”

Jay winced theatrically. “Ah. Thanks, Gina. Tell him I’ll be right out.”

Gina raised a hand to her head in a mock salute and left, the squeak of her shoes following her.

“You have a little one of your own?” Rose asked with a smile.

Jay let out a chuckle after checking her watch with a small frown. “Not so little. But I have kept him waiting for a while, poor thing.” She walked over to the door and turned to Harry with her eyebrows raised. “Visiting hours are over. So, unless you’re staying the night, Mr. Photographer?”

Harry shook his head, widening his eyes innocently. He’d already been at the hospital far longer than he’d planned. He shook Therese’s hand and bent down to give Rose a peck on the cheek before he left. “It was very nice to meet you.”

“I’ll be there when you photograph little Peter, dear. Wouldn’t miss it.”

Harry gave her a warm smile. “We’ll have to get some pictures of the two of you, then. I can tell the camera loves you.”

Rose tittered, pleased at the compliment.

“Get some rest, Therese. And you as well, Mrs. Collins. Nurse Gina is at the end of the hall if you need anything.” Jay held the door open for Harry, who gave a final wave before stepping out of the room.

As they started walking down the corridor together, Jay gave a thoughtful hum and glanced up at Harry appraisingly. “I’m not sure if what happened back there counts as soliciting.”

Harry gaped at her, unsure if she was joking. “I didn’t mean to—It wasn’t—” he stammered, fingers dancing up and down the straps of his camera straps.

Jay’s stern expression dissolved into a playful grin. “I’m joking, love. I told you: I’ve seen you around—I know you’ve got your credentials in order. We don’t let just anyone wander around the maternity ward taking pictures.”

“That was mean!” Harry covered his face with his hands, groaning even as he chuckled, then gave Jay his best innocent expression. “I swear, I was just helping a little old lady.”

His dramatics made Jay laugh, and both of them were still smiling when they reached the open space before the lifts.

“Actually, can I have one of your cards? I think I might like to get in touch with you soon.”

Harry scrambled to get another card, a little surprised. He couldn’t help glance down at Jay’s middle.

Jay caught him at it, grinning at Harry’s embarrassment as she pocketed the card. “Not for me, Harry.” She checked her watch and looked around the empty hall with a small frown, then gave his arm a quick squeeze before starting to walk back toward the corridor. “I’ll call you before the end of the week!”

Harry hit the button to summon the lift, but turned around at the sudden shout behind him.

“Mum!”

Jay was still in sight, just a few feet down the corridor, when a figure sprinted up to her.

Given Jay’s answer to Rose’s question about her son, as well as her youthful appearance, Harry had imagined she had a tween, or perhaps a teenager, but the boy who approached her seemed to be about Harry’s age. He had the same fine, brown hair as his mother, peeking out underneath a beanie, and similar delicate features. Not very tall and with a slight frame, he was swallowed up by an oversized navy blue jacket and the bulk of his mother’s coat draped over his arm.

“Louis, darling, you’re going to overheat in that thing.”

Harry tried not to stare, but he was curious, and he couldn’t help but overhear their conversation. He had to agree with Jay, it was quite warm inside the hospital and Louis was even wearing gloves.

“I’ve been ready to go for half an hour, mum!” Louis whined even as he gave Jay a kiss on the cheek in greeting. “Can we please go already? You know I hate the fucking hospital, and I’ve been here for ages.”

“No swearing,” Jay said immediately. But her face was fond and apologetic as Louis helped her into her coat. “I’m sorry, love. I know I’m running a little late. I’ll make it up to you.”

The lift pinged as it arrived and the doors slid open.

Louis gave a put upon sigh, but shook his head. “Don’t be silly. But can we please just go?”

“Sir, are you getting in?”

The man inside the lift startled Harry, who had been caught up in Louis’ soft voice.

“Yes, sorry.” Harry stepped into the lift with an awkward smile. The button for the ground floor was already lit up, so he stood with his hands behind his back as they waited for the doors to close.

“Wait! Hold the door, please!” Louis’ voice rang out, just as the doors were about to close.

Harry lunged forward to stop them from closing.

“Thanks, mate,” Louis said, slipping inside, shooting Harry a small smile. He turned away from Harry, then did a double take, glancing back at Harry, who was staring at him, so that their eyes met for an instant before Louis looked down, fiddling with his jacket.

“Where did Jay go?” Harry blurted out.

Louis’ head shot up, face twisted in bewilderment. “What?”

Harry grimaced, mortified. “Uh. Sorry. Um... I met Jay two minutes ago. Your mum? I saw she was with you just now. And now she’s not and—Um... you’re Louis, right? I’m Harry. Hi.”

Louis stared at Harry, a little crease between his eyebrows, lips pursed. Harry sucked his bottom lip into his mouth, feeling a little breathless all of a sudden, as he got a good look at Louis. He was stunning up close, and Harry was momentarily entranced by his eyes: a deep blue in the artificial lighting of the lift, framed by long, thick lashes. He looked a little tired and winter pale, but that only made the pink of his lips stand out.

“She had to clock out,” Louis said finally. He shot Harry a few furtive glances, while Harry tried not to stare at how his bottom lip caught between his teeth. “Did you listen in on our whole conversation?”

Harry flushed, twisting the fingers of one hand in the camera strap. “I didn’t mean to.”

“Mhm.” Louis didn’t sound convinced. He peered up at Harry with a slight frown, then down at the camera.

“I’m a photographer. For babies and families,” Harry explained even though Louis hadn’t asked out loud.

The lines on Louis’ forehead faded. “Yeah? Like, those pictures of babies in flower pots and dressed up like bears?”

Harry nodded eagerly. “Sometimes. Depends on what the family wants. But bears and flower pots are a popular choice.”

Louis hummed, the corners of his mouth twitching. “Cute.”

Harry’s mouth curled into a cheeky grin. “You’re cute,” he said without a second thought.

Louis blinked at him in surprise, then visibly bit back a laugh. “Right.”

Harry was struck by the sudden, intense wish to see Louis’ unrestrained smile. Before he could process that unexplainable urge, the doors to the lift opened.

Louis stepped out and started walking off, turning back to waggle his gloved fingers at Harry in goodbye.

The man who had been in the lift with them—and who Harry had completely forgotten about—had to step around him to be able to get out of the lift. But he gave Harry an amused, indulgent smile as he passed.

The lift doors almost closed on Harry as he stared at Louis’ retreating form. He was in time to see Jay dash down a flight of stairs and join Louis by the exit.

“I’m here!” she said, her voice carrying. “No more waiting for my precious boy.”

Louis snuggled up to his mum, looping an arm around her waist as they left the hospital.

Fighting the disappointment weighing down his stomach, Harry headed out into the parking lot, the late November wind so cold his teeth were chattering by the time he reached his car. Shivering in his seat as he waited for the heating to kick in, he decided the disappointment he was feeling was absurd. It wasn’t like he had time for dating. And he had no desire to date, either. Louis was very attractive, but Harry could pick up other pretty boys at a club if he wanted to get laid—maybe not ones with such long eyelashes or the same lovely voice, but. Well, it was done and over. What were the chances that he’d ever meet Louis again, after all?

*

Two weeks later, Harry found himself back at the hospital: caught in the whirlwind at the hospital’s main entrance, long coat whipping around his legs and his hair blowing into his face. Fighting to get his hair under control, Harry stepped to a side to let a couple pushing an old man in a wheelchair exit. He wasn’t expecting anyone to follow them out, but when he moved to go inside, he found himself face to face with Louis, who was leaving. They both stopped in their tracks, staring at each other.

Harry’s stomach did a flip. “Hi,” he said, breathless. He couldn’t help the smile that crept onto his face.

Louis narrowed his eyes, crossing his arms over his chest. “You again,” he said in a dramatic voice, as though they were life-long enemies. But the right corner of his mouth lifted, betraying him.

Harry giggled. “I have fond memories of our first meeting, too.”

Louis’ face scrunched up as he tried to contain a smile. “Do you? Because what I remember is you being nosy and admitting to eavesdropping without any shame.”

Harry laughed, pushing his hair back from his face impatiently. “You said I was cute, though.”

Louis gaped at him comically for an instant before his face screwed up when he caught on that Harry was messing with him. “I said photographing babies is cute.”

Harry pretended to think hard, though he could feel the grin threatening to escape. “You might be right.” Louis stepped aside to let someone pass, and Harry instinctively shifted to block him from the worst of the wind still blowing around them. “I used that to call you cute, is what happened.”

Louis pressed his lips together in a transparent attempt to stop himself from smiling. “It wasn’t smooth, if that’s what you’re thinking. And I wouldn’t have brought it up now if I were you.”

Harry’s stomach felt like he’d downed a whole bottle of soda, bubbling with excitement—he was sure he could get Louis to break and give him a proper smile. He shrugged, affecting nonchalance. “But it gave me a chance to say it again: you’re really cute. Even prettier in the daylight, somehow.”

Louis bit his lip, a smile struggling to break through, shoulders shaking with suppressed laughter. “You’re ridiculous.”

“I thought that was pretty smooth,” Harry protested with an exaggerated pout.

Louis shook his head, still biting back a smile. “Not really, no. Sorry.”

Harry snapped his fingers in a show of disappointment. “I really thought—” he began. Then a fresh gust of wind threw his hair in his face, obstructing his vision and getting in his mouth. He pulled a face. “Ah.”

“Your hair!” Harry heard Louis laugh and he hastened to paw his hair out of his face to see. Louis looked up at him with a smile playing around his lips, and raised his hands before him, gloved fingers wiggling. “May I—?”

Harry nodded, surprised but thrilled. He lowered his head a little, staring at Louis all the while: the shadows of his eyelashes and the tip of his tongue peeking between his teeth as he slipped the beanie off his own head and put it on Harry, carefully fixing the curls framing Harry’s face.

“Thanks,” Harry breathed, skin tingling where Louis’ knuckles had brushed his cheek through the thin material of his gloves.

Louis ducked his head, hiding his smile. “You looked ridiculous and I’m headed home anyway.”

Harry’s face fell, brow furrowing in confusion. “I thought… when I saw you... I thought you were joining us for lunch?”

Louis raised his eyebrows. “‘Us’ who? Who are you having lunch with?”

“Jay. Your mum.”

Realization dawned on Louis’ face. “Oh! You’re the photographer she’s been talking to?”

“I guess? For the charity fundraising event on the seventeenth?”

“Yeah, that’s the one.” Louis let out a huff of laughter, then wrinkled his nose in disgust. “You’re eating in the cafeteria?”

Harry pouted. “That’s the plan. Jay has to go back to work, but this is the only time we could find that worked for both of us.”

“Busy bee, are you?”

Harry pulled at his bottom lip between forefinger and thumb, shrugging. “A bit.”

Louis checked the time on his phone after taking off one of his gloves, holding it clutched in one hand. “Well. My mum started her break five minutes ago, so you better hurry.”

Harry hesitated, considering whether he had the guts to pluck Louis’ phone out of his hand to get his number, and whether the move was bold but charming, or just plain rude. He dithered for too long, however, and Louis slipped his phone back into the pocket of his jacket.

“It was nice seeing you, Harry. Say hi to my mum, will you?” Louis said, knuckling one eye, a slight smile on his face.

Harry reached out to touch Louis’ wrist with the tips of his fingers. “You won’t stay?”

Louis shook his head. “I can’t stand hospital food.”

“You could get something from the vending machine,” Harry said with a winning smile. “My treat.”

Louis widened his eyes in mock amazement. “Very generous,” he quipped. “But I think I’ll pass. I’m knackered.”

Harry sighed, deflating. “What have you been up to? It’s just past noon.”

Louis started to leave, but he was still smiling. “You’re being nosy again,” he sing-songed as he walked backwards for a moment, waving his fingers in farewell.

“Healthy curiosity!” Harry called when Louis was several feet away.

Louis turned to shoot him a brilliant grin, his laughter loud enough to carry back to Harry, who went slack-jawed at the sight. Louis gave a final wave before turning back around and crossing the street, disappearing into the crowd.

Feeling a little dazed, Harry put a hand to his head, running his palm absently over the worn material of the beanie as the wind whooshed around him. After a minute, he remembered that Jay was expecting him and he was running late.

Harry hurried inside, practically running to the cafeteria.

Jay was waiting for him outside the cafeteria, leaning against the wall, apparently texting on her phone, the expression on her face one of amusement. When she caught sight of Harry her smile widened, and her fingers worked speedily for a few seconds before she stepped forward to greet him.

“You’re late,” she said, but she didn’t sound the least bit angry.

Harry mechanically raised a hand to run his fingers through his hair, in his customary nervous gesture, forgetting for an instant he was wearing the beanie. Jay’s eyes strayed upwards, eyebrows raised, lips quirking.

Harry yanked the beanie off his head, blushing to the tips of his ears. “Yeah, um, sorry.” He quickly stretched out an arm with a slight bow, inviting Jay to go into the cafeteria. “Shall we?” he said, voice too high.

Jay give his arm a light pat as she passed. “The vegetable sandwich is an excellent choice.”

*

Harry poked at a beeswax candle with one finger, propelling it forward then letting it roll back toward him. The dark wood of the dining room table was smudged with wax. “Would it be weird to ask his mum for his number?” he mused.

Gemma finished tying the twine around the jar candle in front of her in a neat little bow. “Yes. Really weird. Don’t…” She shook her head at him, widening her eyes in warning. “Don’t do that.”

She set the finished jar candle in the cardboard box at her feet and reached for another one and a bit of twine from the pile. The table was covered with materials for the beeswax candles and dry flower arrangements to sell at the charity fundraising event.

Harry slumped further in his chair, letting the taper candle roll off the table onto his lap . “But what if I never see him again?”

Gemma hummed. “Wait at the hospital exit and see if you get lucky again.”

Harry shot her a dirty look, pouting. “He’s not going to be hanging at the hospital, Gemma. He said he hated it, weren’t you listening? Meeting him there was a one off.”

Gemma raised her head to give him a long, disapproving look. “Also that would be stalkerish and even weirder than asking his mum for his number?”

“Right.” Harry’s forehead hit the solid wood of the tabletop with a thump. “That too.”

Gemma’s cat sneezed as it jumped on the table. Gemma pulled him off the table before it could make a mess, placing him on her lap. “I thought you were ‘too busy’ to date, anyway. Why are you making such a fuss about not getting his number?” she asked.

Harry didn’t lift his head, but turned so he could look at his sister, cheek pressed against the tabletop. “Because he's, like, perfection. I want to look at him all the time.”

Gemma burst into laughter, startling the cat. “I’m going to need you to shut up. Everything coming out of your mouth is too weird right now.”

Harry gave a weak chuckle. “I mean... he seemed nice. It'd be nice to be his friend.” He didn’t mention how he’d given in after he’d got back to his flat after his meeting with Jay and held the beanie to his nose, breathing in the scent of citrus shampoo and a whiff of something sharp and chemical, like an uncapped permanent marker.

“More like it'd be nice to sleep with him,” Gemma said with a snort.

Harry frowned, straightening to prop himself up on his elbows. “That’s not—That would be amazing,” he admitted. “But that’s not what I meant.”

Gemma studied Harry while the cat purred on her lap as she petted him. “Well, I believe what you’re experiencing is called having a hell of a crush.”

Harry let out his breath in an explosive puff. “It’s weird. Any advice?”

“You should probably ask someone else, little bro. I can’t really relate.”

Harry chuckled, then his face twisted in thought. “It’s probably better that I didn’t get his number. If I started seeing him, it would only get worse, right?”

“Right.” Gemma held a palm to her cheek, opening her eyes comically wide. “You might even fall in love! Imagine that!” she gasped in mock amazement.

Harry shoved her leg with his foot under the table, causing the cat to scamper off. “It’s not a joke, Gems. That would be awful,” he moaned.

Gemma grabbed hold of his foot, pinching his toes in his socks to make him squirm. “Love isn’t awful, Harry.” She shook her head, her straight hair swishing with the movement. “Shit. Sometimes I think if you’d seen me dating you wouldn’t have these ridiculous ideas. But you fixated on how it was with mum and dad—”

Harry tugged his foot out of her hold, almost losing his sock in the process, and stood up. “I don’t want to talk about that.”

Gemma got to her feet as well. “You probably should talk about it. To a therapist, ideally,” she said as she started clearing the table.

Harry scowled and gave his chair a shove; it knocked against the table and caused an avalanche of taper candles. He caught Gemma’s unimpressed stare, and with a huff he quickly bent down to pick them up from the floor. When he was done, he stalked off to his room and didn’t come out until dinner time.

*

“These look and smell wonderful, Harry.” Jay lifted a candle jar to her nose from the box they were unpacking and inhaled deeply.

“I kind of want to eat them,” Martha, one of Jay’s friends, said with a laugh.

The event, orchestrated by Jay and an obstetrician colleague, was meant to raise funds for the maternity and pediatric wards at the hospital. The free venue arranged for was a popular shopping centre close to the hospital, and several friends and acquaintances of Jay were involved, setting up stalls for baked goods and crafts—as well as the portable studio where Harry would be working: a simple backdrop and a couple of lights and reflectors. They were offering a studio picture of any child up to age six for a reasonable price, and for just another pound the photograph would be included in a contest for the hospital Christmas calendar. It had been in the works for almost a month, the date set just in time to take advantage of the Christmas shopping spree.

Harry raised a taper candle to his nose. “You could eat these. The ones that don’t have essential oils anyway. But, trust me, they’re not very flavourful.”

The three of them laughed.

“I can’t believe I have to say this again now that my kids are all grown up, but just because something looks and smells wonderful doesn’t mean it tastes wonderful, Martha.”

More laughter followed. It was before opening hour at the shopping centre; they had an hour yet to set everything up.

“Speaking of kids. Where’s your brood, Jay?” Martha asked, hands on her hips. “I thought they’d be helping out.”

“The twins have a birthday party later, and I’ve got Lottie on driver duty. But Fizzy will be around in a while—she has to wake up early for school every day, so I told her we’d manage the set up just fine without her.”

Harry resisted the urge to ask about Louis and whether he would be stopping by later, too. Martha didn’t ask.

It didn’t take long, once the shopping centre opened, for the studio to attract attention. Although it was warm inside, Harry had set up an electric blanket on the raised platform, and he’d brought with him a selection of toys and props to use in the shoots. He was kept busy all morning, until he put up his handwritten sign that he’d be ‘back in a few!’ to take his lunch break.

After lunch, Harry developed a bit of a headache from the noise: the shopping centre was busy on a Saturday so close to Christmas, and the stalls had drawn a considerable crowd.

A queue lined up around the portable studio—among them, naturally, an inconsolable baby. Harry went through four more children, having to coax them to take their hands off their ears so he could take the picture, before he went up to the parents of the crying baby: a little girl, thirteen months old. Harry’s most dedicated attempts at quieting her down were unsuccessful until the mention of a banana resulted in a hiccup. The brief interruption of her cries gave them hope, and Harry rushed back to get the promised treat.

While he was rummaging in his bag, the crying suddenly stopped.

Curious, Harry stepped out from behind the screen. The banana almost fell from his hand when he saw why the baby had stopped crying: Louis. Louis out of his oversized jacket, in black skinny jeans and a maroon jumper with the sleeves rolled back. In their previous meetings Harry had been able to tell Louis had a slight build, but little more. Now his mouth went a little dry at the cut of his waist and the perfect swell of his arse.

The fact that he was holding a baby in his arms was almost overwhelming on top of everything else. The little girl’s face was still tear streaked, but she was smiling at Louis as he bounced her a little on his hip, cooing and speaking to her in a gentle, soothing voice.

Harry approached, his heart thumping in his chest.

“I’m taking you home.” The little girl’s mother sounded tearful as she looked at Louis and her daughter. “That’s the fastest anyone’s ever got her to stop crying.”

The father nodded frantically. “It’s like magic.”

“Baby whisperer,” Harry said in a hushed voice, walking up to them.

Louis jumped at Harry’s sudden appearance. “Ha—” Before he could complete the word, the baby stuck her fingers in his open mouth, making them all laugh.

Louis pretended to munch on her fingers, making ‘nom nom’ noises. Harry bit down on the knuckle of his own finger, shaken at the strength of his attraction to Louis. It only got worse when Louis grinned, wide enough to make his eyes crinkle.

“I have four younger sisters, and, believe me, the magic will probably wear off soon. So let’s get this little girl her picture taken, hm?” Louis said, giving the baby a tickle and giggling along with her before turning to address Harry with a smile. “C’mon, Harry. Now it’s your turn to work your magic.”

The little girl didn’t start crying when Louis set her down on the platform, but Louis remained at Harry’s side, making silly faces and keeping her entertained while Harry snapped a few pictures. Once her parents collected her there was a brief moment of calm, no one waiting in line.

Harry dashed to fetch his sign. “Grab a coffee with me?” he asked Louis, smoothing the front of his beige, checkered jumper. “Please? At least until my ears stop ringing?”

Harry could tell Louis was biting back a grin, though he pretended to sigh as though it were a hardship as he pulled his sleeves down to his knuckles. “All right. I guess you deserve a break.”

Harry threw his hands up and cheered, which made Louis roll his eyes but crack a smile. “Yeah. You definitely need a break.”

Harry laughed, clasping his hands in front of him in delight. “I’m just happy to see you. I didn’t think you’d come.”

Louis fixed his fringe with a delicate movement, peering at Harry from beneath his eyelashes. “I had to finish up some work, but I couldn’t miss it.” His face broke into another grin all of a sudden, and he gave Harry’s side a gentle pinch. “I wasn’t expecting to see such a crowd, but you’re more popular than Santa.”

Harry giggled as they started toward the nearest coffee shop, walking close enough their hands brushed every other step. “Everyone likes to have pictures of their kids, I guess.”

“They do,” Louis agreed. “I think my mum could paper the whole house with pictures of me and my sisters.”

“Well. You there are five of you.”

“That’s true,” Louis said with a chuckle. “Do you have any siblings?”

“An older sister, Gemma.” Harry, who was usually quite a private person, didn’t hesitate to share the story that came to mind at the mention of his sister. “She didn’t like having her picture taken when she was little, and she’d try so hard to get out of it. It drove mum crazy. One time mum went to get a film roll developed, and when they checked the pictures she saw that Gemma had managed to give me bunny ears in every single one of them.”

Between the sense of achievement at having made Louis giggle, and the thrill of his touch when he prodded Harry forward in the queue at the coffee shop, Harry felt positively giddy as they sat down at a table with their drinks. Louis had ordered tea ‘no sugar, splash of milk’. Harry got a latte and poured three packets of sugar in it under Louis’ incredulous stare.

“Got a sweet tooth, do you?”

Harry took a sip of his coffee, humming in agreement. “But very good dental hygiene.” He offered Louis a toothy grin. “I’ve never had a cavity!”

Louis tried to hide his grin behind his mug. “Lucky bastard. I had them all the time when I was a kid.”

Harry made a sympathetic noise. “Were you one of those kids who hated the dentist, then?”

“Oh, definitely. My mum would have to bribe me to get me to go without making a fuss.”

Harry considered him, rubbing his chin. “I have a feeling you made a fuss anyway.”

Louis flicked a sugar packet wrapper at Harry with a mock indignant frown, then let out a  huff of laughter. “Actually, I did.” He covered his face with his hands, groaning. “I should probably apologize to her. I made her life so difficult.”

Harry didn’t know what to make of the hint of bitterness he thought he detected in Louis’ tone. “I’m sure the fact that you still have all your own teeth makes it all worth it for her,” he said, nudging Louis’ foot under the table.

Louis threw his head back in laughter and grinned at Harry without restraint. “I don’t know if my mum had such low standards. She might have been hoping for a proper toothpaste ad smile.”

“Then she must be satisfied too: you’ve got a really nice smile.” Harry opened his eyes wide for emphasis. “Definitely ad worthy.” He was trying to keep the mood light, though he was being completely honest.

Louis blinked at him, cup of tea almost to his mouth, fingers of both hands wrapped around the ceramic, then quickly hid his smile behind his cup.

“Aren’t you going to call me ridiculous this time?” Harry teased, feeling emboldened by Louis’ response.

Louis set his tea down in a deliberate movement. “Yes, I am.” He couldn’t contain his grin, though. “You’re absolutely ridiculous, Harry.”

Harry honked with laughter, almost knocking over his cup of coffee.

Louis kicked Harry’s ankle under the table. “But I am kind of impressed at how you managed to turn around a conversation about cavities. Not quite smooth, but you’re getting there,” he said, reaching across the table to give Harry’s hand a pat.

Harry turned his hand so that their hands were palm to palm, curling his fingers around Louis’ delicate wrist. The next moment Harry felt like his stomach had climbed up to his throat, he was so nervous at the impulsive gesture.

Louis went silent, glancing down at their hands, his face blank. Harry’s eyes dropped to Louis’ mouth, a hint of teeth visible between his parted lips. When he looked back at his eyes, Louis was staring at him.

“I—Um—” Harry faltered. He desperately wanted Louis’ number. He wanted to text him and call him and ask him to meet up. He wanted to get to know him. But he also very much wanted to hold his hand and kiss him and get him into bed. And that was a problem, because Harry didn’t date. And he didn’t do friends with benefits, either; if he wanted to have sex he went out to a club and found someone to hook up with.

Still, the idea that this could be his last chance to bring Louis into his life made him feel sick. He couldn’t expect fate to bring them together again if he let Louis go.

Louis cleared his throat and pulled his hand back. “You should get back, Harry. There’s probably an angry mob by now.”

Harry couldn’t quite manage a strangled laugh. He nodded and stood up, almost upsetting the chair in the process. They walked back together in silence.

Louis was right: there were people milling about, obviously waiting for Harry to return. “It seems the crying scared people off for a bit, but they’re back.”

Harry grunted in agreement, posture slumped. All he wanted at that moment was to go home and weep into a tub of ice cream while he watched Ghost. He startled when Louis gripped his elbow, giving it a little squeeze.

“Just one more hour and you’re out. I was talking to mum, everything is selling really well. And I’m sure you’ll get a few new clients after this, so it’s good for your business too,” Louis said, voice comforting.

Harry smiled weakly. “You’re really sweet, Louis.”

Louis ducked his head shyly. “Please no lines about how you’ve got a sweet tooth,” he said with a breath of laughter, fingers lingering over Harry’s arm.

Harry’s giggle had a touch of hysteria in it. He was going to do it. The thought of never seeing Louis again after this made his stomach hurt. “Louis—”

Louis spoke first. “Can I get your number?” he asked in a rush.

“You want my phone number?” Harry croaked.

Louis bit his bottom lip, tugging at the bottom of his jumper. “Yes?” His fingers clutched at the fabric. “Or not? Because you’re looking at me like I’m asking for your bank account number...”

Harry shook his head frantically, curls flying. “No. I was just—I— Please. Give me your phone?”

Louis pulled his phone out, but held it out instead of handing it to Harry. “Are you sure?” he asked.

Harry wasn’t certain if Louis was teasing or being insecure, but he took the phone from him before he could change his mind. “Absolutely.” When he swiped his thumb across the screen, which had gone black, it didn’t unlock. He frowned at in confusion and tried again.

Louis took the phone from him, chuckling. “It has an unlock pattern.”

Harry stuck his bottom lip out. “Are you a secret agent?”

“I have four younger sisters, remember? And they’re about as nosy as you are,” Louis replied. He tapped at his phone and handed it back to Harry. “Go on then.”

Harry’s stomach stopped hurting, but it was full of butterflies when he saved Louis into his contacts. He’d never given someone he wanted to kiss his phone number. It felt odd.

“Will you stay in case there are any more inconsolable children?” Harry asked, only half joking.

Louis pocketed his phone. “Sorry. Can’t. One of my best mates is celebrating his birthday tonight.” He got on his tiptoes, peering around the crowd. “I’m just going to grab my jacket and say bye to my mum.”

Harry glanced at where a pair of toddlers had started wailing. “What will I do without you?” he moaned.

Louis smiled. “You’ll be fine.”

They stared at each other. Louis seemed to hesitate as he held out his hand, and Harry pulled him into a quick farewell hug before he could lose his nerve. Louis’ hair smelled like citrus shampoo as he expected.

“Have fun with your friends.”

Louis nodded, taking a few steps back. “Call me?”

“I will.”

Harry didn’t think he’d be able to resist. He had no idea what he was doing, but he didn’t want to stop.

*

It was a busy time for Harry around the holidays: themed pictures of babies and young children for gifts and cards in high demand. However, even though business was doing well and he’d claimed not to have any free time, somehow, he found the time to call Louis to meet up that same week. Besides his unabated desire to see more of Louis, Harry was afraid he might not get a chance until after the holidays had passed otherwise.

They met up on Wednesday afternoon in central London. Both the streets and the shops were crowded and chaotic with last minute buyers and tourists, and the weather was horrid—sharp, biting wind and frightfully cold. Harry, who made sure to get his shopping done well in advance and disliked the cold, would have complained extensively if he had been with anyone else. But all the annoyances faded to the background in Louis’ company. He was as fun and absorbing as Harry had imagined: pulling amusing faces when they got stuck in a jam of people; keeping a running commentary about the most absurd decorations and items they came across; and encouraging Harry into impromptu sing-alongs with the Christmas carols blasting inside every shop.

He also poked gentle fun at how Harry’s nose got all red from the cold. But Harry got his revenge when he caught Louis on his tiptoes struggling to reach a box of perfume for one of his sisters. Harry, smirking, had to get it down for him in the end.

“Don’t look so smug, Rudolph,” Louis pretended to grumble, causing Harry to draw some stares when he let out a loud squawk of laughter.

Harry bought Liam a quaint dog ornament for his tree, while Louis piled up bags because he kept finding ‘the perfect gift’ for his mum and sisters, even though he admitted he’d done his shopping the week before.

After he purchased a pair of polka dot socks for his friend Niall, Louis actually slapped his wallet into Harry’s palm. “Don’t let me buy anything else, Harry. I’m a compulsive buyer, if you hadn’t noticed.”

What Harry had noticed was that Louis hadn’t bought anything for himself.

“My sister—she’s a journalist and she has a blog—it’s really popular and she likes to rub it in my face because when we were little I made fun of her for keeping a diary—” Harry shook his head and tucked his hair behind his ear, realizing he was going off topic. “So she writes for a magazine, and she wrote this article last month, about a new trend of ‘self-gifting’ where people just buy themselves stuff without having to, like, make up excuses, or apologize or anything.”

Louis nodded, listening to Harry so attentively a woman had to ask him to move twice because he was blocking the corridor.

“Sounds like something I can get behind,” Louis said with a wink. Then he rested a hand on Harry’s forearm and asked, voice gentle and encouraging, “Was there something you wanted to buy, love?”

Harry gaped at him in surprise then laughed, his face and neck a little hot. “No. I… I meant—” he stammered. “I meant you’ve bought all these things for other people, but you didn’t get yourself anything. And I wanted to—I didn’t want you to be embarrassed if you wanted to.”

Louis stared at him for a second, then a smile, close-mouthed and scrunch-nosed, spread across his face. That particular smile, Harry was almost certain by now, represented Louis’ efforts to hold back a more revealing grin. Harry didn’t bother to rein in his own answering grin.

“I practice self-giving throughout the year, believe me. You should see my closet!” Louis replied at last. “I’m frequently possessed by the shopping frenzy, to be honest.”

“A difficult demon.” Harry gave a solemn nod, affecting a knowledgeable, professional air. “It gets stronger around this time of year. We have our work cut out for us.”

Louis giggled. “Who’s we? Part of an exorcist league now, are you?”

Harry nodded, struggling to keep a straight face. “Yes. And I can be called to duty at any time.”

“Impressive.”

Harry took a few bags from Louis as they began moving again. “I think in your case, though, it’s the holiday spirit that’s responsible for your troubles.”

Louis bit his lip as though in fear. “Is it serious?”

Harry lifted the bags in his hands. “I’m afraid so.” He continued talking as he struggled to disentangle himself from some tinsel that had come loose from the shop awning as they stepped outside. “But you look adorable when you see something you want to buy. You get this look on your face like you just found a chest full of treasure—”

Louis wrinkled his nose, lips twitching. “Shut up. You squealed when you saw that singing snowman figure.” He shifted bags around to help Harry free himself from the tinsel, and fixed the scarf around Harry’s neck and the collar of his coat for good measure.

“I’m in touch with my inner child,” Harry said with a goofy grin.

Louis tweaked Harry’s nose, then smoothed back a few curls that had come loose from under Harry’s beanie, which was actually Louis’. Harry had made an attempt to return it first thing when they had met up, but Louis had refused to take it back, pointing at the new beanie he was wearing when Harry tried to insist.  “Let’s get some hot chocolate before your nose falls off.”

The coffee shop was small and overcrowded, with no place to sit, some people standing around just to get out of the cold.

“I need to sit down.” Harry overheard Louis mutter to himself as they waited for their hot chocolate. The small pout on his face made Harry scan the room again for a place.

“Maybe over there?” he suggested, pointing at a corner by the window.

It turned out Harry was right in his estimation and Louis was small enough to make a seat of the window ledge. Drawing his knees up with his ankles crossed in front of him, Louis leaned back against the glass with a tired sigh while Harry arranged the bags at their feet between them and took off his coat. The next moment, Louis sat up again in an abrupt movement, as though remembering he wasn’t alone. Harry smiled at him as he passed him his mug.

“Thanks,” Louis said quietly. He took a sip and watched Harry shift from foot to foot with his bottom lip between his teeth. “I feel bad sitting here while you have to stand.”

“I’m fine!” Harry said with a chuckle. He rearranged himself so he was half-sitting on the radiator with his bundled up coat as a cushion. “I’ve even got a seat heater.”

Louis giggled into his mug, his posture relaxing. “So what are you doing for the holidays?” he asked. “Going up north?”

“Yep. Christmas with my mum and stepdad. And then my sister and I are going back home to spend New Year’s with some old friends.”

“Home here in London?”

Harry shook his head with a wince. “Home as in childhood home. It’s kind of—I keep calling it home even though I only lived there till I was ten. And my mum’s house and my flat here are home, too. But, I don’t know... I have a hard time letting go of the past, I guess.”

Louis made a soft, soothing sound in his throat. “You know what they say: home is where the heart is. And there’s a little bit of your heart in all of those places. There’s nothing wrong with that.”

The hot chocolate couldn’t really explain the rush of warmth in Harry’s chest.

“Now you’ve got me talking like a Hallmark greeting card, Harry,” Louis went on, making a silly face.

Harry snorted into his hot chocolate. “What about you? D’you still have a house up north?”

Louis sipped at his chocolate. “My grandparents still live in Donny. So we stay with them for Christmas. It’s... um... it’s actually my birthday on the twenty-fourth, so we have two days of celebrating with the whole family—it can get kind of crazy.”

“You’re a Christmas baby?” Harry exclaimed nearly spilling his chocolate.

Harry’s enthusiasm startled a laugh out of Louis. “When is your birthday? Not near the holidays if you think being a Christmas baby is a good thing.”

Harry laughed. “February first. But, like, a Christmas baby is great. For a parent at least. It’s got to be the best gift and the happiest Christmas of your life, with a lovely new baby to take home to the family.”

He was surprised at the slight stiffness in Louis’ smile, but it was gone in a second. “You’re very strange, Harry.”

What might have been an insult coming from anyone else sounded very much like a compliment in Louis’ soft, pensive voice as he looked at Harry with a small smile on his face.

And a short while later, when Louis gave him a peck on the cheek before he went down to the tube station, Harry kind of wanted to burst into Christmas carols.

*

“Here you go, mum.” Harry handed the mug of tea to his mother, leaning down to give her a kiss on the cheek.

He sat on the armrest of the couch with his own mug of hot chocolate, sipping at it as he examined the Christmas tree, his eyes zeroing in on an old ornament: a misshapen ceramic gingerbread man, gone dull with age and missing all but one of his gum drop buttons. Harry had made it for his dad at school when he was eight. His father had loved it. They’d made gingerbread cookies together on Boxing Day that year, Harry remembered.

“You don’t have to keep putting it up, mum,” Harry said in a quiet voice.

Anne shook her head and took a sip of her tea. “Why wouldn’t I? It’s special to you.”

Harry shrugged, chin to his chest, gaze fixed on the mug on his lap.

“Besides, I like having it up there,” she went on. “Otherwise it’s all store-bought.”

“Sorry I never—” Harry stuttered, faltering. That gingerbread man had been the last Christmas ornament he’d made. He’d got into trouble at school, but he’d refused to make any more after that year.

Anne clucked her tongue. “There’s no need to apologise, Harry.” She summoned a smile. “Although Gemma really should. She could have left me at least one.”

When she was fifteen Gemma had stolen all the ornaments she had made through the years of primary school and thrown them out. She’d done it in the middle of the night, so that the garbage truck would come before Anne could get them back.

Harry sipped his drink in silence for a moment, finally looking up to find Anne smiling at him softly. “What?” he asked, mirroring her smile.

“It’s nice to have you home, is all.”

“It’s nice to be home,” Harry said, dunking a biscuit in the hot chocolate. He was wearing worn sweatpants, thick socks, and one of Robin’s old hoodies that was huge on him; he hadn’t even combed his hair that morning. “Relaxing.”

Anne hummed. “You do need to relax, baby. Life isn’t just work.”

Harry’s brow furrowed. “I don’t just work. I go out with friends all the time. And read and work out and cook—”

Anne shushed him. “All right. Point taken. But—”

“But what?” Harry demanded.

“But ‘why aren’t you dating’ is what she’s trying to get around to asking,” Gemma interjected, coming into the living room from the kitchen with her own mug of tea, slipping her phone into the pocket of her dressing gown.

Anne shot Gemma an unimpressed look. “Thanks, dear.”

“No problem, mum.”

Harry pointed at Gemma with the half-eaten biscuit in his hand. “Well, why aren’t you asking Gemma? She’s older than me. Almost thirty.”

Gemma threw a cushion at his head. “I’m twenty six, arsehole.”

Harry glowered at Gemma as he spilled chocolate over himself. She cackled but went to fetch him napkins from the kitchen.

“I know Gemma doesn’t date because she doesn’t want to,” Anne said. “But you won’t because—”

“Because I don’t have the time.”

“Of course, mum. Imagine, if he had a boyfriend how would he find the time to ask me twenty times—I counted—if I’d had the furnace checked,” Gemma scoffed, coming back with a wad of napkins and a dishtowel.

“Well that’s what it took for you to actually do it!” Harry said in outrage.

Gemma raised an eyebrow at him. “That’s not the point and you know it.” She shook her head, stirring her tea idly. “You ruined mum’s holidays hounding her about wearing sun cream and checking her moles.”

Harry whipped his head around to look at his mother, who winced. “You didn’t ruin them. But you do… worry too much, love. That’s what I meant when I said you need to relax.”

Harry glowered at his hot chocolate, but couldn’t really deny it. There were times when Harry just wanted to latch himself to the people he loved most and never let them out of his sight in case anything should happen to them. In winter he worried about treacherous roads and faulty heaters; in summer he urged them to check every mole and not to bathe after a heavy meal. Anne indulged him, even as she tried to assuage his fears. Gemma told him to go to therapy, but always called him afterwards to talk it out.

“How is dating going to help me relax anyhow?” Harry demanded after a minute, tone petulant.

Gemma gave a snort of laughter.

Harry rolled his eyes. “I don’t need to date for that,” he said, flushing when Anne cleared her throat.

“What I’m concerned about is that you might be depriving yourself of a relationship because you’re so focused on watching out for me and your sister,” she said carefully.

“I care about my family. Why is that wrong?” Harry mumbled, kicking his heels against the side of the couch.

“It’s not. But it’s not good to live with so much fear.” Anne reached out for Harry’s hand and gave it a squeeze, looking him in the eyes. “Nothing’s going to happen to us, baby.”

Harry felt tears suddenly threatening to fall. “You don’t know that.”

Gemma went over to him after setting her tea on the coffee table and wrapped her arms around him. “You don’t know that either. And you can’t stop it from happening anyway, baby brother.”

Harry sniffled, dabbing at his eyes with the dishtowel. “Why are you ganging up on me? I’m twenty-one, a lot of people my age aren’t interested in dating.”

“I’m sorry, love. You know I only want you to be happy,” Anne said, her voice shaking.

He sighed. “I know, mum.”

But his mum didn’t understand that Harry didn’t date because he wanted to be happy. And if there was one thing that was clear to him it was that, one way or another, love led to pain and unhappiness.

*

Harry had meant to go straight from his mum’s to Gemma’s house, but he’d received a call for a newborn photoshoot at a hospital in London. The baby had been born earlier than expected, which meant rescheduling, but Harry felt bad turning the parents down. So he’d driven back to London for a night. Before he left his mum’s he texted Louis, in case he wanted to meet up for a few hours.

‘yes please. my flatmate’s gone home and everyone is busy and i’ve been hanging out with 12 year olds 24/7’

Harry texted back: ‘i’ll make it something fun, promise’

Initially, his plan had been to go for a walk and lunch, since he had the photoshoot in the morning and was hoping leave so that he could arrive in time for dinner at Gemma’s. But after Louis’ text, he put some thought into what they could do that would be a little more exciting than just lunch. He bought tickets online for the eleven o’clock session, and hoped Louis wouldn’t think it was stupid.

It wasn’t quite as impressive in the daylight as the strings of fairy lights weren’t visible and the surrounding buildings weren’t lit up. But the sky was a clear blue and the air crisp and fresh while sunlight glinted from the decorations on the towering, fragrant trees.

Louis grinned when Harry walked them over to the outdoor ice skating rink from the tube station where they’d met up.

“It’s prettier when it’s dark out, I’m sorry,” Harry babbled. “But there are usually less people in the morning and I thought it’d be... fun? Maybe?”

Louis pulled Harry into a quick hug, catching him by surprise. “It’s perfect, Harry.”

He kept an arm around Harry’s waist while they went inside the tent to get fitted for the ice skates. Harry couldn’t keep the grin off his face as they sat down on a bench to change into the skates.

“I really needed to get out of the house. I work from home most of the time, and with everyone out of town, I’ve been holed up at my mum’s for the most part,” Louis commented.

“I keep forgetting to ask you what it is you do!” Harry said, struggling into the skate.

Louis eyed Harry’s feet. “I think you might need a bigger size?”

Harry shook his head and managed to fit his foot inside, although the kickback made him almost fall back off the bench, arms windmilling. Louis laughed and grabbed hold of him, pulling him upright.

“Thanks,” Harry gasped, grabbing the other skate. “So? Tell me.”

“I’m a translator. I do medical journals for the most part.”

Harry made a sound of amazement, impressed. English and History had been his best subjects at school. He’d taken French until sixth form and had done well enough, but hadn’t picked it up again once he graduated. Anything related to medicine he avoided like the plague. “In what language?”

“French.”

Harry cracked a grin. “I know a bit of French! Je suis al cinema avec ma compe et me familie.”

Louis laughed and then said something in French, out of which Harry understood ‘tres bien’ and a handful of loose words.

Harry sucked his bottom lip into his mouth, staring at Louis’ mouth. “I have no idea what you just said, but I love your voice.”

Louis ducked his head to hide his smile with the excuse of fixing his skate. “Do you want me to tell you you’re ridiculous in French?”

Harry nodded, fighting to stifle his giggling. “S’il vou plait.”

Louis rolled his eyes, corners of his lips upturned, and reached out to fix the collar of Harry’s coat. “C’mon. Let’s do this.”

Harry was not a great skater. He had an especially hard time turning and he kept skidding and falling on his arse whenever he took a turn too fast. Louis, whose balance was much better, would go to his rescue every time, pulling him back on his feet with a grunt and an ‘Honestly, Harold’ which, unless Harry was deceiving himself, sounded more fond than annoyed.

They didn’t stop still for a moment, cracking dumb jokes while skating circles and laughing at nothing until Harry’s stomach muscles were sore. The sessions were an hour long, but there were still about ten minutes to go when Louis came to a stop instead of skating past the exit as Harry expected.

“Giving up already?” Harry teased.

Louis’ smile was strained. He held onto the skating rink barrier as he stepped onto the rubber mat, teetering on the ice skates’ blades. “I’m doing it for your arse. You’re not feeling it now, but tomorrow you’ll thank me.” He was breathless, voice shaking.

Harry followed him, arms thrown out for balance, to sit down on one of the benches surrounding the skating rink. Louis plopped down and wrenched his coat off, tugging down the collar of the hoodie he was wearing underneath. Harry sat next to him, brow furrowed in concern. He was a little thrown by Louis’ heaving chest and trembling hands. Harry was used to jogging in the mornings and strenuous work outs, and though he imagined his calves and arse would be hurting him tomorrow, he wasn’t tired at all.

“Hey. You all right?” he asked, bringing a hand up to the back of Louis’ neck, massaging in an instinctive comforting gesture.

Louis shot him a quick smile, leaning into his touch a little. “Yeah. I’m a bit out of shape, sorry.”

Harry buried his fingers in his hair at the base of his head, damp with sweat. “You have the perfect shape,” he countered with a crooked grin.

Louis laughed through a groan, breathing still too fast. “Shut up, Mr. ‘I lift weights and box and run and—’”

Harry cackled. “Well. What is it you do? Because it’s clearly working for you.”

Louis jabbed an elbow into Harry’s side. “I have a treadmill. And I play a bit of footie sometimes.”

Harry couldn’t resist running his hand down Louis’ side, fingers digging into the dip of his waist. “That’s perfect, then.”

Louis squirmed, obviously ticklish even though he was wearing a thick hoodie. “Oi. Hands off! I can still kick your arse.” He made a boxing gesture, gloved hands up under his chin, grinning.

Harry wrapped his arms around Louis in a tight hug and pressed his cold nose to his cheek, making him burst into giggles.

Harry’s cheeks hurt from grinning. “You were saying?”

Louis pulled off his gloves and snuck his hands under Harry’s coat, cold fingertips poking at his love handles. Harry screeched and jumped to his feet to escape, wobbling on the blades of his skates. “How are your hands so cold when you’re wearing gloves!?” he cried out.

Louis laughed at him, but grabbed his hand to steady him. “I’m more concerned about your nose. It’s on the verge of frostbite. Let’s get out of the cold, hm?”

Harry raised a hand to rub at his nose, pouting, cross-eyed.

Louis stood up and wrapped an arm around Harry’s waist for the second time that day. “Lunch is on me,” he said, leading them back to the locker rooms.

At the sandwich shop Harry wolfed down some squash soup and a grilled chicken sandwich. Louis drank a lot of tea, and Harry coaxed him into eating some cheese and mushrooms on toast, sparing a brief thought for what Gemma would have to say about his nagging.

They chatted about what they did for Christmas. Harry complained about Gemma’s driving with the ice on the road, and how his mother’s habit of lighting up candles and leaving them overnight was a fire hazard. Louis told him about the birthday cake his mum made and beating everyone at Cluedo.

Time had a habit of running away from Harry in Louis’ company, and it was Louis who had to remind him he had a train to catch.

“See you in 2016!” Harry joked when it was time to say goodbye.

Louis gave an exaggerated eyeroll. “See you on the other side,” he said, though, playing along.

Harry didn’t hesitate to give him a hug this time, cold nose pressed behind Louis’ ear for a few seconds that felt both long and much too short.

*

Preparations for the party had kept Harry occupied, but he exchanged a few texts with Louis in the days leading up to New Year’s. Enough to know what Louis was doing to celebrate the end of the year—dinner with his family and then party at his friend Niall’s flat—which meant there was no reason for Harry to be wondering what Louis was doing as it neared midnight while he was at his own party surrounded by his oldest friends.

“Harry!” Liam called. “Don’t go getting melancholy drunk on me now, mate.” He popped up behind Harry, wrapping his arms around him, trapping Harry’s arms to his chest. “Cheer up it’s almost midnight.”

Harry and Liam rocked side to side in their embrace. “I want to kiss someone,” Harry moaned.

Liam squeezed him, already scanning the crowd. “All right. I’m sure we can find someone. We’ve still got a few minutes.”

Harry shook his head, breaking out of Liam’s hug.

Liam nodded hard, the paper hat on his head pitching forward. “Yeah, c’mon! Everyone here probably wants to kiss you—except your sister. And me. And a few others, maybe. But, like, you can kiss anyone else.”

“I don’t want anyone. I want someone, someone,” Harry whined.

Liam goggled at him. “Is he here?”

Harry heaved a dejected sigh. “No.”

Liam squinted at Harry, thinking hard. “So... you, like, like like someone?” he asked, eyes widening.

Harry pouted and buried his face in Liam’s shoulder. “No. Shut up.”

Liam laughed in delight and surprise. “Shit. That’s so weird.”

Harry hit him in the dick.

“I need to meet him. Have you got a picture? What’s his name? Does he have Instagram?”

Harry groaned, pulling out his phone to check the time. “Go find your date. There’s four minutes left for the countdown.”

“We’re not done talking about this!” Liam said before giving him a big smooch on the cheek and dashing off to find his date.

Harry jumped when a boy he didn’t know came up to him out of nowhere. “Hey. Harry, right?”

Harry peered at him, trying to work out if he knew him or not. He was handsome, with large, warm eyes and a very nice smile. However, all Harry could think of was Louis’ assortment of different smiles, each lovelier than the last. He grabbed a plastic cup that had been abandoned on the table next to him. “Yeah. I’m sorry, but—” he started to get up, empty cup in his hand as an excuse.

He broke off when he felt his phone vibrating in his pocket. “Sorry,” he said again, distracted, gaping at the name on the screen. Louis was calling him.

Harry fumbled to accept the call, even as he stumbled and elbowed his way toward the tiny toilette bathroom, so that he could hear over the music.

“Hello? Louis?” he gasped, closing the door behind him.

“Harry! Happy New Year!”

Harry giggled, his face breaking into a huge grin at Louis’ voice, loud and definitely a little drunk.

“It’s not midnight yet, Lou.”

Louis huffed. “Well. I’m getting a head start. So I can be the first person to wish you a happy New Year! Happy New Year!” His voice broke into a cheer and Harry couldn’t stop grinning, flushing when he caught sight of himself in the mirror.

“Aren’t you going to say it back?” Louis demanded. “‘s rude, Harry. You’re supposed to wish—”

“I wish I could kiss you,” Harry blurted out. It took him a moment to realise he’d even said it out loud. The thought had been on loop in his head all night, pushed to the back of his mind, but there.

In the silence that followed Harry could hear Louis breathing and the faint hum of music. He wondered if Louis was in a bathroom, too.

“You’re ridiculous.” Louis pronounced at last. “And your lips are ridiculous. And I’m so fucking dizzy. And I wish I could kiss you, too.”

Harry bit down on the knuckle of his forefinger. “Louis.”

Louis hummed, drifting into some tune Harry didn’t recognize. “Don’t hang up.”

Harry could hear people in the room outside yelling to get ready for the countdown. “I won’t.”

“Are you going to kiss someone else?” Louis asked suddenly.

Harry shook his head even though Louis couldn’t see him. “I don’t want to kiss anyone else.”

He heard a soft, breathless laugh. “Me neither.”

After a moment the music on the other side of the phone got a little louder, like Louis had opened the door. “It’s starting,” he said. “Ten, nine, eight...”

Harry joined him and they counted down to the end of the year together.

“Happy New Year, Lou.”

Fireworks went off where Louis was and Harry felt the bathroom door rattle from the rousing cheer outside.

“Happy New Year, Harry. Again. I said it before. First one to wish you a happy New Year.”

“You were,” Harry agreed. “Thanks for calling.”

“Thanks for picking up,” Louis replied softly. “And now I kind of need Niall to help me up.”

“You going to be all right?” Harry asked biting his thumb nail, torn between amusement and concern.

“Mhm. Soon as everything stops spinning—”

‘What are you doing on the floor?’ Harry heard a voice with an Irish accent call out. ‘Can you... told you you shouldn’t...’

Harry heard Louis’ distant, slurred ‘Bye Harry!’ before the call got cut off.

“Harry? Are you in there? Are you all right?” Liam called, banging on the door.

Harry opened the door and enveloped Liam in a huge hug. “Happy New Year!”

Chapter Text

When Harry called Louis in the afternoon on January first, the call went to voicemail. He floundered through a rambling message: ‘Um, hi. This is Harry. Uh… wanted to make sure you got off the floor all right? And… er… to wish you a Happy New Year’s Day? I woke up with an awful hangover but Gemma wouldn’t let me sleep because we had to clean up the mess from yesterday. And Pimpernel—that’s Gemma’s cat. He’s named after The Scarlet Pimpernel. I call him Pimp sometimes, just to get on Gemma’s nerves. But he does have, like, a harem. He’s neutered, though. Anyway he was sick on the couch; I suspect he drank some spilled champagne or something. So, yeah, it’s been great. What—’

He got cut off by a jarring beep. Harry debated whether to call again, but decided to take a nap instead. His drawling speech and frequent pauses meant he’d used up three minutes talking shit, but if left to babble chances were he’d end up talking about how much he wanted to kiss Louis, and that was a topic best left alone. His drunken confession had been bad enough. The fact that Louis had said he wanted to kiss him too was something Harry refused to think about.

Louis didn’t call back, but Harry had just got into bed late that night when he got a quick succession of texts.

‘sounds like your day was about as fun as mine’ *sick emoji*

‘fascinating stuff. all that about your sister’s cat’ *laughing cat emoji*

Harry winced in embarrassment, thinking back on his meandering message. Then the next message came through and his face flushed for a different reason.

‘your voice gets even deeper when you’re hungover, did you know?’

‘it’s ridiculous’

Harry buried his hot face in his pillow amid a fit of giggles. After a minute, once he got the giggling under control, he held the phone to his mouth to record an audio text.

“Gemma has an Instagram account for Pimp, if you want regular updates,” he said with a laugh. “And. Um. I hope you’re feeling better. Are you one of those people who get really bad hangovers? I read once they can last up to three days. But I’ve never met anyone who had it that bad.” Harry fumbled to stop the recording when he remembered that there was unlimited time for voice messages. After a moment’s hesitation he sent it to Louis.

The speech bubbles went on for a full two minutes while Harry, any trace of sleepiness gone, waited with bated breath. A grin spread across his face when he received a voice message instead of a text.

‘I feel like I should keep these in case I ever want to blackmail you. You do talk some shit, love.’

Louis’ voice was soft and a little hoarse, his tone light and teasing. Harry was definitely planning on keeping his voice message, and he didn’t think twice before sending off: ‘back in London on Tuesday. Wanna grab lunch?’

*

Once Harry returned to London, he found himself meeting up with Louis at least every other day if only for a cup of coffee or lunch. In two weeks he couldn’t imagine what he’d been doing with his time before he met Louis, since he could dig up free time where he had been so certain there had been none.

*

Harry was running late after a studio session at his flat had gone overtime: coat hanging off his arm so that it trailed on the floor and almost tripped him, and his shirt sticking to his back with sweat from the jog from the tube station to the pub.

He caught sight of Louis sitting in a booth near the back, a soda and a basket of chips in front of him, tapping on his phone. Harry dashed over to him, slipping in next to him instead of across. Louis slid over to give him room with a smile.

“Shit, Lou. I’m sorry. Sorry I’m late! I—”

“Hi.” Louis brushed back some strands of hair sticking to Harry’s forehead and cupped his cheeks, a smile on his face. “Breathe, Harry.”

Harry let out a tremulous laugh, nudging Louis’ hand with his face, body relaxing immediately. “Sorry I’m late,” he repeated, slower this time.

Louis gave his cheek a gentle pat. “It’s all right, love.”

Harry took a gulp of Louis’ soda while Louis finished up on his phone, brow knit in concentration. “All right?” Harry asked as he got comfortable.

Louis pushed the basket of chips toward him. “Hm. Yeah. I messed up and now I’m trying to fix it so my flatmate won’t murder me in my sleep.”

“What’d you do?” Harry asked, words coming out muffled, mouth full of lukewarm chips.

“It’s what I didn’t do. It was my turn to do the shopping and I didn’t,” Louis said with a grimace, finally putting his phone away.

“How come?”

Louis shrugged, resting his elbows on the tabletop and rubbing his temples. “Couldn’t drag myself out of bed and to the store.”

Harry couldn’t tell if he was joking or not.

Harry sat back in his seat after catching the waiter’s eye and signing for a beer. “I didn’t think you were so lazy,” he said, teasing.

Louis’ smile seemed somewhat stilted, to Harry’s chagrin. “Very lazy sometimes,” he said, voice oddly flat.

Harry nudged Louis’ knee under the table. Even though he didn’t understand what it was he’d said that had soured Louis’ mood, he felt like he’d put his foot in his mouth and he was desperate to fix it.

“Yet here you are,” he pointed out with a grin.

Louis bit his bottom lip, tugging at a loose piece of straw from the basket of chips. He glanced at Harry, eyes a little too wide. “I wanted to see you,” he said in a rush. “And you were OK with meeting here, which is so close to my flat, so that was—”

“Convenient,” Harry filled in automatically.

His stomach flip-flopped as Louis blinked at him, expression unreadable. Then his lips curved into a smile and Harry could breathe again.

“That makes it sound so pragmatic. I would have gone as far as three stops on the tube,” Louis said playfully.

Harry could do nothing but stare at him for a long moment. “You’re so fucking sweet, Lou,” he said helplessly. He wrapped his fingers around Louis’ wrist on the table, heart rabbiting in his chest. “Thank you for coming. I really wanted to see you, too.”

Harry had originally meant to lighten the mood, but the words spilled out, unmistakably earnest.

Louis dipped his head with a small laugh, but didn’t pull his hand out from under Harry’s. “Highlight of your day, hm?”

“Yeah, actually.”

Louis kept his head down, but Harry could tell he was smiling. He played with Harry’s fingers, twisting his rings around and tracing the grooves of his knuckles.

“Ridiculous,” he said under his breath.

Harry suspected he was grinning like a loon, and the weird look the waiter gave him when he brought Harry his beer and left them a couple of menu cards strengthened his suspicions.  

“I like your nail polish. Turquoise Lagoon, isn’t it?” Louis said at last.

It surprised a laugh out of Harry. “That’s it!”

Louis flashed him a grin, reaching for his menu. “My sisters are all really into make-up. Especially Lottie. We’re close, so it sticks. She loves the new ‘polka dots’ line, have you seen it?”

Nail polish led them to talking about growing up with sisters, their knees touching under the table while they ate. Then the conversation turned to other subjects. After almost three hours and pointed glances from the person behind the bar, they left. Harry insisted on picking up the bill, since he’d been late, while Louis left a generous tip.

Outside it was growing dark, though it was just past four in the afternoon.

“Which way are you headed?” Harry asked, shrugging into his coat.

Louis pointed toward the left, squinting into the gloom. “I’m just a couple of streets down,” he said, zipping up his jacket.

Harry was caught off guard when Louis suddenly heaved a deep breath, looking like he had a mountain to climb instead of the short distance he’d mentioned. 

“Want to carry me home?” he said, batting his eyelashes.

Harry laughed, reaching out to fix the front pocket of Louis’ jacket, letting his hand linger over his chest. “Tired?”

Louis looked up at him, his face unexpectedly serious. Harry was momentarily distracted by the constellation of freckles on his cheek.

Louis shook his head, lips twisted. “Just being lazy.”

Harry slid his hand up from his chest to cup the side of his neck. “If Sam could carry Frodo up Mount Doom, I can carry you to your flat.”

Louis giggled, squirming so that Harry’s hand was trapped between his cheek and shoulder. “Idiot.”

“Especially since you’re actually hobbit sized and I’m not,” Harry went on with a smirk.

Louis flicked him straight on the nose. “Have some respect for your elders, boy.”

Harry brayed with laughter, holding Louis’ hand to stop him from abusing his face again. “You look well for your, what is it, fifty years?”

Louis tilted his head back to look at Harry down his nose. “I’m still always going to be old enough to know better than you.”

“Those two years of pottie training and learning to use cutlery you’ve got on me make all the difference,” Harry replied, deadpan.

Louis gave a solemn nod. “Definitely.”

They both laughed, leaning into each other. Harry couldn’t believe how much he liked Louis, how well they got along. Harry had friends, good friends, but none of them made him feel quite like Louis did.

“At least let me walk you home?” Harry said, linking their fingers together where he was still holding Louis’ hand.

Louis smiled at him, but shook his head. “The tube’s in the opposite direction. I think I can make it back to the flat on my own, Harry,” he said lightly.

“But—” Harry tightened his grip on Louis’ hand unconsciously, frowning, his mind reeling. “What if—” What if Louis tripped and fell, or got mugged, or a car ran out the road and hit him?

Louis’ eyes widened, looking at Harry with concern and confusion. “Harry, I’ll be fine, love.”

Harry realized he was crushing Louis’ hand and loosened his grip. “Sorry. I worry.”

Louis squeezed his hand instead of letting go. “I’ve noticed,” he said with a small smile. “Your hair will fall out if you worry too much, and we can’t have that.”

“What?” Harry yelped, only half exaggerating his reaction.

Louis dissolved into giggles.

“Now I’m going to be worrying about going bald, too,” Harry whined jokingly.

Louis touched a finger to Harry’s cheek. “You could pull off a neon green mullet, Harold.”

Harry felt his face and chest get warm. “That’s a relief. Thank you.”

Louis pinched his cheek. “But could is not should. Please never get a mullet.”

Harry’s grin was wide enough to make his face hurt. He pulled Louis into as tight a hug as he could manage while they were both wearing their coats.

“Call me or at least text me when you get home?” he mumbled into Louis’ ear.

He felt the tug of Louis clutching at the back of his coat. “I’m rolling my eyes, just so you know.”

But he did as Harry had asked. Not a half hour later he sent a text (‘safe and sound xx’) and a picture of his bare feet, pajama bottoms almost to his toes, propped up on what looked to be a couch.

‘you have cute feet’ Harry replied.

‘weirdo’ Then a minute later: ‘can’t you photoshop a mullet on a picture of yourself? i can’t get it out of my head now’

Harry laughed until his sides hurt.

*

He invited Louis over to his flat for lunch on Sunday, hoping his whole day would be occupied with Louis. No matter how much time they spent together he couldn’t seem to get enough.

Harry prepared what he needed to make lunch and despaired about his hair while he waited for Louis to arrive. When the doorbell rang, he sprinted to the door, bouncing with excitement and nerves.

His stomach swooped at the sight of Louis on his doorstep, cheeks pink from the cold.

“Hi.”

“Welcome. Thank you for coming,” Harry said, moving to a side to let Louis in.

Louis raised his eyebrows. “Should we shake hands? Is there a coat check?” he said, making fun of Harry’s formality.

Harry let out an embarrassed chuckle, fumbling to open the entrance closet. “No. Sorry. But you can leave your coat in the closet.”

Louis shrugged out of his coat with a smile while Harry stared at him, stunning in his blue wool striped jumper and black skinnies.

“I like your jumper,” Louis said casually after looking Harry over.

Harry smoothed both palms down the front of his evergreen jumper. “My mum says it brings out the colour of my eyes,” he said with a grin.

Louis studied Harry, meeting his eyes for long seconds before looking away. “I reckon you stand out no matter what colour you’re wearing, actually.”

The wording was ambiguous, but the nervous fidgeting with the bottom of his jumper and the shy smile on his face as he glanced at Harry said it all. Harry beamed, both his face and his chest warm.

“It’s so good to have you here,” Harry said with a happy sigh.

Louis shocked Harry by drawing him into a hug, standing on his tiptoes to hook his chin over Harry’s shoulder. There was nothing like having Louis, warm and soft, smelling like citrus shampoo and a hint of paint, in his arms.

“I’m always up for a free meal,” Louis joked when they broke apart.

“Well. It’s free, but you’re going to have to work for it. We’re cooking together,” Harry said with an impish grin that showed all of his teeth.

Louis made an exaggerated horrified face. “Give me my coat back—I’m out of here.”

Harry cackled and grabbed hold of Louis’ hand to pull him further into the flat.

Harry had struck a good deal with his flat. It was in a good area, and he had enough room for a kitchen and living room, a studio for the photoshoots, a bedroom, and even a small balcony in which he grew herbs for cooking. He’d scoured second hand stores for vintage furniture, so his décor was eclectic.

He showed Louis around, rambling about the chrome and smoked glass coffee table from the seventies and the sixties Tiffany table lamp; the colourful acrylic painting of a countryside which had been a gift from a childhood friend and now presided the living room; the dark, abstract sequence of photographs of the bloom and death of a flower that he’d found at a university exhibition and which now decorated the main corridor.

Louis studied the collection of photographs of family and friends he had framed in the living room. “Is that your mum?” he asked, pointing her out.

“That’s her.”

Louis looked from the picture to Harry. “You look like her.”

Harry chuckled. “You should see my sister.”

Louis found Gemma in another picture quickly. He nodded. “It’s like my mum and Fizzy.”

Harry made a sound of agreement; he’d seen Jay and Fizzy side by side at the fundraiser event. Louis was drifting toward the pictures of his friends, but, moved by some unexplainable compulsion, Harry cleared his throat and pointed out someone else. “That’s my dad.”

In the picture he’s balancing a five year old Harry on his knee, with Gemma draped over the back of the couch with her arms around his neck.

Louis gave the photograph his attention, standing closer to Harry, their hands brushing. Then he peered up at Harry, brow furrowed as though in deep thought. “Is that a recent picture? You look the same, except blonder.”

Harry was startled into a loud laugh, his somber mood dissipating in a flash. “You’re one to talk. You look like a teenager when you shave!”

“Excuse me, at least I can grow a beard.” He touched two fingers to Harry’s chin. “Unlike others.”

Harry pouted and made to nip Louis’ fingers, making him giggle. “But you couldn’t grow past five foot eight.”

“Oi! I’m five foot nine,” Louis protested.

Harry grinned, glancing down at where Louis had unconsciously raised himself onto his tiptoes. “Right.”

Louis pinched Harry’s side, biting back a smile. “Shut up. And feed me. I was promised lunch.”

-

Harry finished cutting up the onion and swept it from the board onto the pan in a smooth, practiced gesture. Louis was making a mess of cutting up the bell peppers, but he was tapping his foot and wriggling about to the music, and Harry was entranced watching him.

Louis caught him staring and bit his bottom lip through a smile. “You’re going to burn our lunch.”

Harry held his hand out for the knife. “I will not. You’re the one who’s distracted with the music. Gonna cut off a finger with that technique.”

Louis stuck his tongue out but let Harry take over without a fuss, dancing around him while Harry finished cutting up the vegetables.

“Figures you’d like the oldies.” Louis led him into an awkward twirl while Harry was still holding the wooden fork he was using to stir in his hand.

Harry giggled. “My mum and dad used to dance to this song.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. They used to do stuff like that all the time. Gemma thought it was super embarrassing, but I didn’t mind. I don’t know... I felt lucky that they were in love, when a lot of my friends at school had divorced parents.” Harry’s face fell. “I felt stupid, after, though... thinking it would last.”

Louis gave Harry’s hip a squeeze. “That’s not stupid. Every kid hopes their parents will be together forever. How old were you when they separated?”

Harry kept his head down, giving more focus than necessary to the vegetables in the pan. “Um. Ten. But they didn’t get a divorce.” He turned to face Louis, his throat a little tight all of a sudden. “My dad died. From cancer.”

Louis gasped, looking stricken. “Oh, I’m so sorry, Harry.” He moved to embrace Harry immediately. Harry angled his body to keep Louis away from the fire on the stove, but leaned into the hug gratefully.

“Thanks,” he mumbled into Louis’ hair. Louis made no move to let go until Harry pulled back. Harry would have hugged him for longer, but he didn’t want to burn their food. “I’m fine, really.”

Louis rubbed his back while Harry turned off the fire. “You were close?”

Harry nodded, then moved to the cupboard to get some plates. “But that’s kind of—I was so young when he died, and sometimes I wonder what he’d think of me now. I wanted to be a lawyer when I was ten, and I had a girlfriend.” Harry gave a small snort of laughter. “I know he wouldn’t have cared about me being gay. But I just wouldn’t want him to be disappointed in who I am now...”

Louis’ brow furrowed. “I don’t see how he could be anything but proud of you.”

He sounded so sincere, so honest, that Harry found himself blinking back tears. Louis folded him into a hug again, making soothing shushing noises.

“I am a great cook,” Harry muttered after a bit, arms still tight around Louis’ waist.

He felt Louis smile against his neck. “So you keep saying, but I still have to confirm that.”

Harry gave Louis a final squeeze before drawing back. He wiped a few tears from his cheeks and smiled, feeling lighter. “Let’s eat, then. Prepare to be blown away.”

*

Liam’s yawn made his jaw crack as he walked into Harry’s kitchen, joggers low on his hips, scratching his stomach. “Smells like coffee. Is there some for me?” he asked with a smile, ruffling Harry’s hair.

Harry hip checked him toward the cupboard. “Just grab a mug.” He waggled his eyebrows at Liam, grinning. “I’ve got muffins.”

Liam made an appreciative noise. “I love you, brother. Almost makes up for the snoring.”

“You come into my house—into my bed!—and complain—” Harry said with mock indignation, not quite able to hold back his laughter as he prepared his own coffee.

Liam laughed, reaching into the cupboard. “That’s the real reason you won’t date, is it? Can’t have anyone spend the night or they’ll discover your secret.” He turned around with a mug in his hand, a dark blue one with a pattern of tiny stars.

Harry started, making an aborted movement toward Liam. “Not that one!”

Liam froze in position. “OK,” he said, drawing out the word.

Harry sucked his bottom lip into his mouth, running a hand through his hair. “That’s... um... that’s Louis’ mug.”

Liam tilted his head to a side, a slow smile spreading on his face. “Oh?” he asked, eyebrows raised.

Harry made a face and shook out his hair. “Shut up.”

Liam put the mug back, picking out another one with multicoloured cartoon snakes. “This one OK?” he asked, laughter in his voice.

Harry rolled his eyes at him. “You know it is.”

Liam shrugged, still smirking, as he poured himself some coffee. “I don’t know. I’ve been your friend for years and I don’t have my own mug. And that’s a new one, isn’t it? Did you buy it for him?”

Harry handed him the sugar with a pout. “No. I bought it for me. But I hadn’t got around to using it. And Louis liked it. And he said it makes his tea taste funny to use the same mug for anything else, so...”

Liam sat at the table, stirring sugar into his coffee. “So it’s his mug now.”

Louis had been to his flat twice, but Harry had hopes that it would become a regular thing. Enough to warrant Louis having his own mug.

On his second visit Harry had shown Louis his personal photography: his pictures of Nick’s photography lab; of Gemma in a field of flowers; of his mum weeding one summer morning. Outside of work, Harry enjoyed the chance to experiment and to capture different aspects of places and people he loved. It was something very close to his heart, intimate, and he was usually very slow to share it with anyone. But it had felt right to show Louis, and Louis’ response had confirmed his decision. He had dedicated time to each photograph, asking thoughtful, sometimes surprising, questions and making comments about the little things that grabbed his attention, so caught up in it that his tea went cold.

Taking a seat at the table, Harry slid a muffin over to Liam and broke off a bit of another for himself. “I’m not going to make him drink tea that tastes weird, Liam,” he grumbled.

Liam chuckled. “‘course not.”

Harry made as though to take Liam’s muffin from him, frowning. “Louis is very particular about his tea,” he insisted over Liam’s protests.

Liam looked at Harry with his chin propped on his fist, expression deadpan. “You are so gone for him, bro.”

Harry shook his head. “I’m not. I’m just being a good friend. I’m a good friend!”

Liam let out a chuckle, then his expression softened into something earnest and fond. “Yeah, you are. Thanks for letting me stay.”

The heating in Liam’s flat had broken and he was staying with Harry until he could get it fixed.

“Of course. Any time,” Harry said honestly, lifting his hand for a fist bump.

“Aren’t you going to introduce us, though?” Liam said after a moment through a mouthful of muffin.

“Who?” Harry asked, playing dumb.

Liam wasn’t fooled. “Me and Louis. I want to meet him.”

Harry tapped the handle of the spoon against the side of his mug, avoiding Liam’s eyes. “Um. Some time. He’s very busy. Gotta figure out... you know... his schedule...”

Liam snorted. “I thought you said he worked from home? And he certainly seems to make time for you. And you for him.”

Harry hemmed and hawed, nose buried in his mug.

It was true: Louis had a pretty flexible schedule, and Harry had figured out his own to accommodate for time with Louis. He couldn’t quite pinpoint why he was so reluctant to have Liam and Louis meet, except that it felt strange. It wouldn’t be like introducing any of his other friends, for some reason.

And introducing Louis to his friends would officially make him a part of Harry’s life.  And even though Harry had no doubt that he wanted Louis in his life, he wasn’t sure of his role in it. A friend, definitely, but there was more there that Harry was too scared to admit to himself—let alone to his best friend who could read him so well.

*

“I'm not sure we'll get in, Lou,” Harry said, eyeing the queue.

“How long are you willing to wait? The food's really great.” Louis glanced up from his phone where he was texting someone.

“Two minutes,” Harry replied immediately.

Louis chuckled. “It's Friday night. Anywhere we go it’s going to be longer than two minutes, Harold.”

Harry pouted, rubbing his stomach. “I'm starving.”

Louis pocketed his phone. “C'mon, then.”

“Huh?”

Louis took his hand and led him around the street corner, down a narrow street to the back entrance of the restaurant.

A young woman wearing a cook aide’s uniform stuck her head out the door before they had a chance to knock. “Come inside out of the cold but don't touch anything,” she said, opening the door wider to let them in.

They stepped into a loud and busy kitchen. Harry stared, standing very still in place.

Louis rubbed his upper arm. “You can breathe, Harry,” he said, leaning in to whisper into Harry’s ear.

Harry took a deep breath. “Smells amazing.”

Louis didn’t take his hand off Harry’s arm. “Are you hungry enough to eat whatever they give us?” he asked. He contorted his face into a comically stern expression. “Are you brave enough?”

Harry jumped to attention. “Yes, sir,” he crowed, saluting sloppily. Then a grin split his face. “Are we getting spaghetti and meatballs like in Lady and the Tramp?” he asked excitedly.

Louis giggled. “I don’t think so, no. But we're getting leftovers in doggie bags if that works for you,” he joked.

Harry laughed. “Do you know the owner?” he asked curiously.

“Nah. Just the chef. It's why we're getting food but not a table.”

A young man, pink and perspiring in his cook’s uniform, appeared with two bulging plastic bags full of containers. “But you’re getting spectacular food.”

Louis shot him a sharp grin. “Oh, is Bressie working today?”

The boy cackled. “Little shit!” He pulled Louis into a hug before turning to greet Harry. “Hi there,” he said, shouldering the door open. “Let's talk outside, it's boiling in here.”

Louis introduced Harry to Niall, his voice breaking with a violent shiver at the change in temperature.

Niall shook Harry’s hand warmly. “Good to finally meet you.”

“Same,” Harry said.

“Louis said you cook?” Niall said, dabbing some of the sweat from his forehead with a handkerchief.

“Yeah. Nothing too fancy but—”

“He made me fajitas last week. They were amazing,” Louis piped up.

When Harry turned to shoot him a smile he noticed Louis was still shivering, so he wrapped an arm around him, pulling him close. He caught Niall eyeing them with a smirk, but he didn’t say anything.

“Can’t believe you've got four people cooking for you now, Louis,” Niall said, laughing, counting on his fingers. “Your mum. Me, even though we're not roommates anymore. Zayn. And now Harry, too.”

Harry felt Louis shrug where he was tucked up under his arm. “I always offer to return the favour, but no one’s interested!” he said with exaggerated indignation.

“Yeah. Hard pass on that, mate,” Niall gasped through a fit of laughter.

Louis pressed up closer to Harry with a shiver. “Anyway Zayn's not cooking shit these days. He's always out,” he muttered.

Niall looked awkward all of a sudden. “Yeah. I haven't seen him in weeks.”

Harry sucked at his teeth during the tense silence that followed. He hadn’t met Zayn, but Louis looked a little glum whenever he happened to mention him.

“Ah well,” Niall said after a moment. “Harry, you ever tried butternut squash rissotto with pancetta and chévre?”

Harry blinked. “Uh no.”

“You like rice?”

Harry chukled. “Yeah.”

Niall didn’t make it to the end of his sentence before he burst out laughing. “Then you’ll love it.”

Once the laughter died down, Niall handed the bags to Harry to hug Louis goodbye. “Anyway, better get back to work. Enjoy, lads.”

Harry and Louis went back onto the main street, still walking close together. Louis with his hand slipped inside Harry’s coat pocket, his arm around Harry’s waist.

“Speaking of Zayn... he's probably not at the flat. We could have dinner there?” Louis said, glancing up at Harry.

-

Louis’ flat wasn’t far from the restaurant. They raced each other up the stairs, skipping steps and cutting corners, up to the third floor. Harry hoped there wasn’t any soup in the bags. All thought of soup went out of his head when they reached the landing, Louis ahead of him, breathless and giggling as he tried to fit the key in the lock. Harry wanted to drop the bags, press Louis against the wall, and kiss him until their lips hurt.

He shifted his grip on the bags, took a deep breath, and returned Louis’ smile, stomach churning with longing.

Louis insisted they sit down to eat immediately because ‘it’s a crime to reheat this food’. He herded Harry into the kitchen, but promised a tour of the flat once they were done eating.

The flat was warm, with hardwood floors and walls in shades of beige, the furniture discreet and sensible. But it was full of odd knickknacks scattered across different surfaces throughout the living room, kitchen, and even the bathroom: superhero action figures, Happy Meal toys, souvenir seashells and ship models...

“Quite a collection you’ve got here,” Harry said with a laugh, picking up an ashtray with a red lipstick kiss imprint design. “This all yours?”

Louis shook his head, picking up and setting down a can of spray paint that had dripped onto the coffee table. “A lot of it is Zayn’s. But we’ve sort of merged our shit together after five years.”

Harry hummed, taking in the other striking feature about the flat: over half of the living room was taken up with half finished paintings, plastic sheeting thrown haphazardly over the floor. There were also paintbrushes and spatulas in the sink draining board, and jars of dirty paint water in the bathroom. Harry had caught a glimpse of Zayn’s room, packed with stacks of journals and paints. “You paint, too?” he asked pointedly.

Louis bit the inside of his cheek, wiping his hands from the dripping paint on a paint speckled towel thrown over the couch. “No.”

“Zayn’s art kind of takes up the whole flat, doesn’t it?” Harry said, feeling unaccountably irritated by this fact. The flat was small, and it seemed to him Zayn was taking up more than his share of the space.

Louis shrugged, twisting the towel in his hands for a moment before throwing it back on the couch. “It’s fine. He needs the space more than I do.” He signed for Harry to follow him down the corridor to a closed door. “And I’ve got my room, which is an art free zone.”

Harry stepped inside at Louis’ invitation, looking around with interest. It was quite small and felt a little crowded with the bed taking up most of the space, the desk wedged between the bed and the built-in closet, and stacks of books on the floor against the other wall.

“Not quite art free,” Harry quipped, noticing a worn book with pages sticking out, marker imprint on the back of them, at the top of one of the stacks of books. He sat down on the edge of the bed, opening the book to the loose pages.

He stared at them in surprise, catching Louis out of the corner of his eye making an aborted movement toward him with a slight hiss. The pages were all blacked out with black felt-tip pen except for a few words, which spelled out short poems.

Harry looked up at Louis after he’d read through them, mouth agape. The first time he’d seen Louis he’d been in awe of his looks. That feeling had only extended to other aspects of him. A surge of the same wonder spread through Harry now. “You write blackout poetry?” he asked.

Louis tugged at the hem of his jumper. “Yeah? Sometimes.”

Harry studied the pages again; Louis had pressed down hard and fast with the pen, almost furious, the ink bleeding onto the back.

“It’s kind of, erm, stress relief? When I get... frustrated about... life?” Louis murmured.

Harry nodded, looking back at him. “You get to, like, physically cross it out and create something else, make it into what you want it to be.”

Louis’ face relaxed into a surprised, pleased smile. “That’s it.”

Harry slipped the loose pages back into the book and handed it to Louis. “You’re brilliant, Lou.”

Louis rolled his eyes, but the smile lines on his face deepened.

“Just the fact that you channel those feelings into something creative is brilliant.” Harry flailed his arms for emphasis as he leaned back on his elbows on the bed. “I just throw stuff when I get mad.”

Louis chuckled and joined him, crawling onto the bed while Harry scooted back enough to rest his upper back against the wall, toes grazing the floor. “Before it was blackout poetry it was just blackout. If I could have broken something, I would have, believe me.”

“When my mum told me we were moving after my dad died, I flung my dinner plate against the wall. And Gemma’s plate. And my mum’s too,” Harry confessed. His mum had made him clean up the mess on the wall, while she supervised to make sure he didn’t hurt himself. But afterwards she’d brought him in for a hug and held him while he cried himself to sleep.

Louis cuddled up to Harry and gave his belly a rub. “It must have been hard for you.”

“It was,” Harry admitted, covering Louis’ hand with his own.

Harry squeezed Louis’ fingers in an attempt to warm them up as they lay silent for a few minutes. “You should try boxing,” he said absently after a bit. “It’s great to blow off some steam.”

Louis hummed, sounding sleepy. “Mm. I can’t.”

Harry’s eyebrows twitched. He was drowsy too after that heavy dinner, and comfortable with Louis curled up around him. “Why not?” he asked curiously, chin digging into his chest as he twisted his head to be able to squint down at Louis.

Louis stared at him, expressionless, his fingers which had been stroking Harry’s hip going still. “Because... it sounds terribly boring, Harold,” he said finally.

Harry frowned and opened his mouth to argue, but then Louis was tickling him and Harry had to concentrate all his efforts on stopping the attack. And later on not swooping down and kissing Louis breathless once he’d got him pinned under him, giggling and squirming against Harry’s hold.

He couldn’t resist leaning down to nuzzle Louis’ neck for a moment, inhaling the scent of shampoo and that acidic hint he now recognized was pen ink. And then, to stop himself from doing something stupid, he had to scramble off the bed and make up a quick excuse that he’d best get home while there were still buses running.

*

When Harry arrived at the coffee shop, Louis was sitting in a corner, jumper with the sleeves down to his fingertips, nursing a mug of tea with his head down. Harry went over to him and bent down to give him a hug, somewhat awkward because of their position, before Louis had time to get up.

“Hey, Lou. You looked like you needed a hug.”

Louis gave him a faint smile. “Happy birthday, love.”

“Thanks.” Harry draped his coat over the back of a chair. “What do you want to eat?”

Louis twisted his lips with a shrug. “I don’t want anything, thanks. My stomach’s a bit upset.”

Harry made a sympathetic noise. “You should have said. We could’ve rescheduled. Or I could’ve gone over to your flat, made you some soup.”

Louis shook his head. “It’s fine. It’s just a bit of nausea. And I kind of needed to get out of the flat.”

Harry sank down on the chair, halfway through pulling off his scarf. “What’s wrong?” he asked, brow furrowed.

“Nothing.” Louis shooed him off. “Go get your lunch. I have a surprise for you.”

Reluctantly, Harry went to order some coffee and a vegetable sandwich at the bar. When he returned with his food, Louis pulled out a box of cupcakes with pink frosting and rainbow sprinkles. “I didn’t make them, so they must be good,” he said with a small grin.

Harry chuckled and reached for a cupcake. “Thanks, Lou. That’s so sweet,” he said, cheeks bulging from the large bite he’d taken out of the cupcake.

Louis tried to get Harry to talk about his day while he ate his sandwich, but after a bit Harry redirected the conversation back to Louis, who was obviously upset.

“I had a row with Zayn,” Louis admitted at last, the corners of his mouth downturned.

Harry’s hand found Louis’ knee, giving it an encouraging squeeze. “What happened?”

Louis shrugged, drumming his fingers on the table. “It’s stupid.”

“It’s not stupid if it’s upset you,” Harry said firmly.

Louis’ hand shook as he raised his mug to his lips. “Zayn likes to play his music while he’s painting—which is fine, really, usually. But I’ve been—I’m having some trouble sleeping... and I was so tired last night, and I couldn’t sleep.” Louis tripped over the words, looking on the verge of tears. “So I asked him to turn the music down. He got mad, so I got mad. We started arguing… and all this other stuff started coming up…”

Harry gripped the seat of Louis’ chair and with a grunt dragged Louis closer to him, chair screeching on the tiled floor. It startled Louis, who shot him a bewildered look. Harry simply pulled him into a hug. “Can I just say this Zayn sounds like a dickhead.”

Louis breathed a small laugh against his neck. “He is. But he’s also one of my best friends.”

“Then I’m sure you’ll make up, yeah? Once you both cool off a bit,” Harry said soothingly.

Louis nodded a little, his grip on Harry’s thick wool jumper tightening. “I’m sorry I’m being such a downer on your birthday.”

Harry found himself pressing a kiss to the top of Louis’ head. “I love when you’re happy. And I want you to always be happy. But you can be sad with me too. I want the good and the bad, Lou.”

Louis raised his head to look at him, eyes wide. Harry blushed. “You do?” Louis asked, sounding so small it made Harry’s chest clench.

Harry nodded. He hadn’t articulated those feelings until that moment, but he found he meant every word.

Louis hid his face in the crook of Harry’s neck again.

“Why don’t you come over to my flat for a nap? I’ve got a location shoot, so it’ll be quiet,” Harry proposed, rubbing Louis’ back.

Louis pulled back a little to peer at Harry. “Really?”

Harry automatically thumbed at the wetness under his eyes. “Yes. And when I get back I’ll make you dinner. Something light, so it won’t upset your stomach.”

Louis’ voice trembled. “Are you sure? That sounds like an awful way to spend your birthday, Harry.”

“My original plan was to pester you into coming over to my flat for dinner, so…”

Louis bit his lip, then let himself smile. “Ridiculous,” he said, picking some crumbs off Harry’s jumper over his stomach before raising his eyes to meet Harry’s. “Thank you.”

Harry couldn't help but pull him close for another hug.

*

That Friday night Harry went out for a drink with Liam and some friends. But Saturday he went over to Louis’ flat.

Louis greeted him at the door with a smile and hug. “Zayn’s out, so we have the place to ourselves,” he said as Harry stepped inside the flat.

Under other circumstances, that comment might have been suggestive, and Harry couldn’t help the flash of arousal as he took in Louis, whose loose joggers and sweatshirt didn’t diminish his appeal.

“Brilliant,” Harry replied, reaching into the bag he’d brought with him. “I brought chocolates. This family I’ve known since I started the photography business gave them to me for my birthday.”

“You know they’re never leaving this flat, right?” Louis said, taking the box of chocolates with a grin. “I told you I love chocolate.” He started to walk down the corridor while reading the different chocolates on the back.

Harry followed him into the flat, taking off his coat and scarf. “That’s why I brought them.”

Louis glanced at him over his shoulder, turning to face forward in a flash but not before Harry caught his bright grin.

“I have some of Niall’s garlic bread that you liked so much. He stopped by to drop it off a half hour ago,” he said when they reached the kitchen, taking Harry’s coat and scarf from him only to drop them on a chair.

Harry gasped. “Really?” he said, clutching his chest. “For me?”

Louis giggled, pointing at the oven. “For you.”

Harry didn’t immediately move toward the oven, entranced by the sight of Louis’ crinkle-eyed smile. In the brighter light of the kitchen, Harry noticed Louis looked a little wan, but he allowed himself to be distracted by the delicate line of Louis’ wrist and the dip of his waist where he had an arm wrapped around his middle, pulling in his sweatshirt.

Nonetheless, he wasn’t surprised when Louis seemed to wilt after a couple of hours. He made it through an hour of video games, but during dinner he abandoned his second slice of pizza and curled up on the couch with his head on Harry’s shoulder.

Harry ate some more pizza but couldn’t concentrate on the film, too aware of Louis’ weight and warmth against his side. When he came back from washing his hands and fetching them some water, Louis stretched out on the couch with his head on Harry’s lap.

He peered up at Harry, who was transfixed by the thick curve of his eyelashes. “You don’t mind, do you?”

Harry shook his head, mouth dry. “‘course not.”

Louis made a small, contented sound and settled more comfortably. Harry didn’t know what to do with his hands; finally he settled a hand on the arm rest of the couch and the other in the crook of Louis’ shoulder.

Louis patted Harry’s thigh as though in approval, then left his hand there.

After a while, Harry relaxed and gathered enough courage to do what he’d wanted to do from the start, which was touch Louis’ hair, combing his fingers through it carefully. Louis made a quiet sound of pleasure.

“Is this all right?” Harry asked, voice hushed.

Louis gave Harry’s thigh a light squeeze. “Mhm. Although I might fall asleep on you if you keep it up for long.”

Harry brushed the tips of his fingers over the curve of Louis’ cheek, smoothing the hair back from his face. “I don’t mind.”

Harry didn’t even try to pay attention to the film they had on, much more interested in how soft Louis’ hair felt between his fingers.

“This blows,” Louis said suddenly, voice low.

Harry rubbed his knuckles over Louis’ neck, entranced by the delicate baby hairs there. “Hm?”

Louis didn’t look up at him, but his fingers tightened on Harry’s thigh. “I should’ve taken you out somewhere. Or you could have gone clubbing with your friends. Had a proper birthday celebration. Instead you’re stuck here with me: not even eleven and I’m falling asleep on you.”

Harry frowned, breaking out of his reverie. “What are you talking about? I’ve been looking forward to this all week.”

Louis made a soft scoffing noise.

“I’m serious! I just wanted to be with you. I saw Liam yesterday, and Nick’s throwing me a birthday party next weekend, remember?” Harry leaned forward, trying to get Louis to look at him.

“I meant for us to go out. To that photography exhibition you’ve been talking about,” Louis whispered. “And a nice dinner—not bloody pizza.”

“We can go some other time, baby. And I love pizza.” It took Harry a few seconds to realise he’d let slip the endearment.

If Louis noticed he didn’t comment on it. ‘I’m sorry’ was all he said, sounding tearful. “You must think I’m so fucking lazy.”

Determined, Harry coaxed Louis into turning around so Harry could see his face. Louis’ eyes were glittering, his jaw tight with contained emotion. “I don’t think that. I can see you’re exhausted, Lou,” he said quietly.

Louis’ face twisted, his eyes squeezing shut, a tear caught in his eyelashes. Harry sighed, running his fingers through Louis’ hair again.

In the two months he’d known Louis, he had pieced together that Louis had trouble sleeping, which made him tired—and when he was very tired he sometimes got weepy. Harry had tried to talk to him about it once, but Louis was very good at changing the subject. It was obvious to him, however, that it hadn’t been a good week for Louis, and the situation with Zayn made it worse.

“You don’t have to apologise, Lou. I was having a great night.”

Louis bit his lip hard, sniffling, before hiding his face against Harry’s middle.

“Hey, don’t hide from me,” Harry pleaded, trying to keep his tone light.

Louis twisted his fingers in Harry’s jumper. “I don’t want you to see me like this,” he whimpered.

It made Harry’s stomach tie up in knots. “What did I tell you the other day?”

Louis made a questioning noise.

“The good and the bad, Lou.”

He felt Louis‘ shoulders start to shake with quiet sobs.

Harry didn’t know what to do; he’d never been the best at giving comfort—too empathetic, he’d start crying too, or he’d start babbling like an idiot. He clenched his jaw, blinking back the stinging in his eyes.

“I’ve always thought it doesn’t matter what  you’re doing, but who you’re with. You can do nothing special, but with the right person it’s the best thing in the world, you know?” Harry said, thinking out loud, drawing soothing circles on Louis’ back. “And with you... everything feels special.”

Louis sat up, face tear streaked. “The feeling’s mutual,” he said, voice shaky, looking almost comically solemn.

Harry felt hot, butterflies in his stomach and chest tight. “That’s good. That’s... really... good,” he stuttered.

His chest got lighter, though the butterflies only got worse, when Louis’ lips twitched into a small smile. Then he wiped his face with his hands impatiently. “God. I’m a mess. I’m sorry for freaking out on you like this,” he said, voice still a little wobbly.

Harry kept a hand on Louis’ knee, and barely resisted the urge to cup his face, wipe his tears, and kiss him.

“I know what will definitely get us back on track for tonight,” Louis said abruptly with a bit of a grin.

Harry blinked at him. “What?”

“Chocolates,” Louis said with a sharp nod.

Harry laughed.

*

The next weekend Nick organized a birthday party for him at his own house because Harry’s flat couldn’t handle more than a small get together. Nick invited all of Harry’s friends, as well as a bunch of people Harry had met once or twice. He didn’t mind that at all, but the fact that an hour into the party Louis was nowhere to be found had him anxious.

“Where’s your boy, then?” Nick asked, reaching inside a bag for a couple packets of crisps. “He’s going to miss out on the fancy appetizers. All that’s going to be left are stale finger sandwiches and crisps if he doesn’t get here soon.”

“He’s not my boy,” Harry muttered, setting out a couple of plastic bowls for the crisps.

Nick tapped his nose with his forefinger, smirking. “But you want him to be.”

Harry shook his head, reaching inside a cupboard over the fridge.

“Oi. That’s not for the party,” Nick complained when Harry pulled out a bottle of vodka.

“But I’m the birthday boy,” Harry said, sticking out his bottom lip and batting his eyelashes.

Nick rolled his eyes and Harry grinned as he searched for some limes and a knife, familiar with the kitchen layout.

“Is Harry in there?” A voice called following a knock on the door.

“Yeah. I’ll be right out,” Harry replied absently, busy cutting up the lime.

“What is it?” Nick asked, opening the door partially to peek outside.

Harry heard murmurs, but wasn’t paying attention, focused on measuring out the sugar properly. He startled when fingers pinched his sides over his shirt.

“Fucking hell!” he yelped, spilling sugar over the counter. Nick laughed uproariously. Harry whirled around and came face to face with Louis.

“Louis! You’re here!” Harry shouted, leaning in to embrace him. Louis smelled like cologne instead of shampoo, but Harry could make out Louis’ own familiar scent underneath.

“I’m sorry I’m late, love. The GPS lead me astray.”

“I told you I’d drive you.”

“And I told you I had to finish some work. I have deadlines, Harry.” Louis touched a finger to the black velvet bow on the front of Harry’s pale pink shirt. “You look wonderful.”

“You, too,” Harry replied honestly. He thought Louis looked good in anything, but he looked especially smart in his burgundy button-up and tight black jeans.

Nick cleared his throat obnoxiously in the background.

Harry flushed. “Lou, this is Nick.”

With a stab of annoyance, Harry noticed the once over Nick gave Louis before giving him a warm hand shake. “Nice to finally meet you.” Nick raised his eyebrows at Harry. “Does the party finally have your seal of approval? Going to quit moping?”

Harry’s face heated up further. “You want one of these?” he said to Louis, ignoring Nick’s comment.

Louis took a sip of Harry’s drink and made an appreciative sound. “I only came for the free bar.”

Nick chuckled and clapped Louis on the back. “I’ll leave you two to catch up. I told David to keep an eye out, but I left him doggy-sitting one weekend and had to buy a new couch, so his track record isn’t the best.”

“I love your new couch,” Harry commented.

“So do I.” Nick gave a bark of laughter. “My bank account, not so much.”

Harry fetched another glass for Louis and more lime as the door swung shut behind Nick. “We have to drink these in secret. Nobody else is getting such fancy drinks,” he confided.

Louis pressed up close to Harry, rubbing his cheek against his shoulder, looping an arm around his waist. “First I get taken straight to the birthday boy the moment I arrive. Now this. What did I do to get the VIP treatment?”

Harry nuzzled his cheek against the side of Louis’ head. “Just being you,” he replied simply.

Louis gave his side a squeeze, and when Harry shifted to face him, brought Harry in for a hug, arms around Harry’s neck. Harry bent down a bit so that Louis wouldn’t have to compensate their height difference, and wrapped his arms around his waist. Even though it was at least a minute before Louis pulled back, Harry felt it was much too soon.

“Now hurry up. You’re missing your own party, you dolt,” Louis said with a laugh.

-

Harry wrapped his fingers around Louis’ wrist and took him around, introducing him to his friends, stroking the warm, smooth skin over his pulse point with the pad of his thumb whenever they stopped to chat. And Louis let him. He was charming and delightful, and Harry didn’t want to let go.

When he caught sight of Liam, Harry’s hand slipped from Louis’ wrist to his hand, enveloping it in his own. “You need to meet Liam!”

He led Louis over to Liam without letting go of his hand. “Louis, this is Liam. Liam... Louis.”

“So you’re Louis!” Liam exclaimed, eyes flicking down to their entwined hands. Harry didn’t want to let go, and he thought it would be suspicious if he did it after Liam noticed, so he held on.

“I reckon, yeah,” Louis replied, amused.

Liam grabbed Louis’ free hand and shook it enthusiastically. “‘s good to finally meet you.”

“Same.”

Liam shot Harry a grin. “‘s funny, ‘cause Harry’s been really secretive about you.”

Louis glanced at Harry, eyebrows quirking. “Oh?”

Liam nodded after taking a long sip of his drink. “Goes around like he’s cheating on someone with you, ‘s funny.”

Louis seemed torn between amusement and confusion. “I didn’t know I was your dirty little secret, Harold,” he said.

Harry flushed while Liam burst into loud laughter.

“Except he keeps slipping up ‘cause he, like, physically can’t stop talking about you,” Liam went on amid chuckles.

Harry made a strangled noise. “OK. That’s enough,” he cried out, giving Louis’ hand a tug. “There’s still people for you to meet. Nicer people.”

Harry should’ve known introducing Louis to Liam was a mistake; especially a drunk Liam.

“Are there? I’ve kind of lost track, but I feel like I’ve met everyone,” Louis said, lips twitching, but he let Harry pull him away from Liam.

Harry shot Liam a parting glare over his shoulder, but Liam only laughed.

“Sorry about that,” Harry muttered, blushing, once he’d put some distance between them.

“What are you sorry for, love?” Louis asked, biting back laughter.

Harry heaved a deep sigh. “I don’t know.” Before he could explore his thoughts further, he got distracted by the wilting plant on the fireplace mantelpiece. He stumbled over to it, dragging Louis with him.

“Nick’s been neglecting Vivian,” he said, shaking his head.

“What?” Louis said with a laugh.

Harry laughed even as his face pinked again. “Um. The African violets. I gave them to Nick as a housewarming gift.”

“And you named them too?” Louis asked, a slow smile spreading on his face.

Harry felt an answering grin tug at his mouth. “It’d be weird not to. You can’t talk to them without giving them a name.”

“Of course,” Louis said, his expression decidedly endeared.

“And, like, you need to talk to them. So they can grow,” Harry went on, very seriously, before dissolving into giggles.

Louis inspected the plant, face scrunched up with mirth. “I think Vivian might need more water and less conversation.”

Harry’s face hurt from grinning. “You want another drink?” he asked. “You’re a special guest, you get as many cocktails as you want.” He’d had a few before Louis arrived, and then another, and he was feeling pleasantly buzzed. Drunk on alcohol and Louis’ smell and his hand in Harry’s.

“Eh. I’m all right.” Louis wrinkled his nose. “New Year’s kind of put me off drinking.”

Harry chuckled. “You must be the only person going through with a New Year’s resolution.”

Louis stuck his bottom lip out and elbowed him in the side. “Don’t be mean to the sober person.”

Harry responded by pulling him in for another hug. He was an affectionate drunk in general, and with Louis it was even worse. He didn’t want to stop touching him. He had to force himself to let go so he could take a piss.

When he came back from the bathroom, he was a little alarmed to find Louis sitting with Liam, chatting.

Harry joined them, plonking himself on the couch between them. Liam shifted to make room for him, rolling his eyes. Harry took Louis’ hand again, holding it in his lap. Louis didn’t protest, caught up in his conversation with Liam, which, to Harry’s relief, was about football.

His mind wandering, he turned to the close inspection of Louis’ hand. It was much smaller than Harry’s, fine boned with prominent veins. He noticed Louis had a tiny dot of a scar on the inside of his wrist, and two others, so faded they were only visible in a certain light, on the back of his hand.

“How did you get these?” Harry asked curiously, interrupting Liam.

Louis glanced down at what Harry was pointing at and then looked up with a small frown and a strained smile. “God’s sake, Harry. How did you even notice that?”

Harry shrugged, running his thumb over the faint scars.

Louis chucked Harry under the chin. “How did you get a dozen stitches and not have a single mark? That’s a better question.”

Harry wanted to examine Louis’ other hand, but Louis pulled it out of his grasp when Harry reached for it and used it to tilt Harry’s jaw up instead.

“Did he really need stitches, Liam? You were there, right?”

Liam laughed and launched into telling the story of Harry’s skiing accident, effectively derailing Harry. Harry, even in his drunken haze, was impressed by Louis’ knack for sidestepping questions and changing the subject. But he didn’t have more time to dwell on it because he had to correct Liam who was telling the story wrong.

-

“You’ll stay, right?” Harry half-begged once people started leaving around three in the morning.

“Till you kick me out,” Louis agreed.

Harry squeezed his arm as he moved to see off a group of his friends. “Never then. I guess Nick better get used to having us around.”

For a while Harry lost track of him as he bid people farewell. When the last person had left, he found Louis gathering up plastic cups. Harry took his hand and dragged him to the couch, throwing himself on it with a groan and pulling Louis down with him.

Harry let out an 'oof' when Louis’ elbow jabbed into his stomach, his knee digging into his shin.

“Serves you right,” Louis groused with feigned annoyance. “I’m not your teddy bear.”

Harry wrapped his arms around him tightly, giggling when Louis made exaggerated attempts at wriggling out of his hold. “Yes, you are. And I’m very tired. And a little drunk.”

Louis settled down, squeezing between the back of the couch and Harry’s body, half on top of him. “Baby needs to be put to bed?” he teased.

Harry hummed sleepily. “Mhm. Bedtime story, please?”

Louis chuckled, playing with the curls fallen on Harry’s shoulders. After a minute he started talking, putting on a grandiose storytelling voice. “Once upon a time there was a prince called Harold. He was quite ridiculous.”

Harry pouted. “Wasn’t.”

“Oh, yes, he was. A real dunce, actually—” Louis yelped with laughter when Harry pinched his side. “But he had lovely curly locks and dimples, so it made up for that.”

Harry breathed a giggle, keeping his eyes closed, smiling against Louis’ finger tracing over where his dimples appeared, at the brink of a pleasant haze. “And everyone in the kingdom loved him?”

He felt Louis’ breath against his neck accompanied with the weight of his head on Harry’s chest. “Everyone loved him,” he agreed, voice going soft. “Couldn’t help themselves, really. He was their golden prince charming, who made the flowers grow when he talked to them…”

Harry made a small sound of contentment.

“The prince worried sometimes that he wasn’t making the late king proud. And about the weather, and if the harvests were good, and all the affairs of the people of the kingdom, because he was a worrier.”

The corners of Harry’s lips turned down with a prickle of embarrassment at the thought of Louis being so aware of Harry’s anxious tendencies. “He cared about them,” he argued in a small voice.

Louis patted his chest. “He did. But he was only a young prince and he couldn’t control the weather, and sometimes the harvests weren’t so good.”

Harry felt a lump rise to his throat.

“But the prince was so kind and generous, so hardworking, and talented, and clever—”

Harry’s heart sped up and warmth filled his chest at Louis’ words. “I thought he was a dunce?” he mumbled in an effort to not embarrass himself by bursting into happy tears.

Louis flicked his chest with a chuckle. “That too. But everyone loved him anyway. And they were very proud of him.”

Harry breathed in and out a few times in the silence that followed Louis’ soft voice. He felt like he was floating, and he was certain it wasn’t because of the alcohol. He was speechless, overcome with emotion. “I like this story,” he whispered in the end, cuddling up against Louis even closer.

Louis’ breath came out loud, as though he’d been holding his breath. “Good. Because that’s your birthday present.”

Harry nosed against Louis’ hair, smiling. “Missing something.”

“Mm?”

“Good night kiss.” His heartbeat spiked again as he said it.

Louis went still, then he shifted to give Harry a light kiss on the cheek. Harry felt the slight pressure of his nose, the softness and warmth of his lips for an instant. He closed his eyes when he felt Louis settle against him again. He didn’t have time to dwell on anything before he fell asleep.

*

Harry shuffled into the kitchen, stretching his back with a groan. “Where’s my coffee?” he demanded through a yawn.Nick passed him a mug. “That’s the end of your birthday privileges. And I hope you didn’t get slobber on my couch.”

Harry stuck his tongue out. “Like you haven’t got anything worse on it.”

Nick cackled. “Not yet.” Then he gave a forlorn sigh. “Although with the luck I’ve been having lately, all it’s in danger of is ice cream stains.”

Harry clapped him on the back. “You need to get out of the studio more.”

“Never thought I’d be taking dating advice from you. But looks like you’ve turned a new leaf,” Nick said, lips curled.

Harry frowned, munching on a piece of toast. “What? I’m not dating anyone.”

Nick raised an eyebrow. “Aren’t you? Could have fooled me.” He grabbed a slice of toast for himself, looking at Harry significantly while he spread jam on it. “The two of you looked so cute, sleeping together. Like puppies.”

Harry buried his nose in his mug. “When did he go?”

Nick’s smile was sharp. “Around eight, when he heard me coming back from walking Hades. I made him a cup of tea and we chatted for a bit.”

“I hope you weren’t too embarrassing,” Harry said jokingly.

Nick cackled. “I was delightful.” He studied Harry, holding his toast aloft. “I can see why you like him. Pretty little thing.”

“It’s more than that.”

“Oh? Is it? That’s new.” Nick didn’t contain his amusement.

Harry grumped at him. “We’re friends. I have friends.”

“No other friends you want to fuck, as far as I know.” Nick gave his eyebrows a suggestive waggle. “Or are you coming around, Harold?”

Harry flipped him off, laughing. “He’s a good friend, that’s all.”

Nick laughed, then looked at him thoughtfully. “That would be more convincing if I hadn’t seen the way you were looking at him last night. The way you were touching him.”

Harry flushed.

“What are you waiting for?” Nick asked.

Harry ran a hand through the mess of his hair, getting his fingers caught in a tangle. “It’s not just up to me anyway. Who says Louis wants me back?”

Nick snorted. “He wants you back.” He took a large bite of toast. “But, hey, suit yourself. If you don’t make a move someone else will come around and sweep him off his feet right in front of you, though. Think about that.”

Harry did not want to think about that at all.

*

And he didn’t let himself think about what Nick had said over the following week. He had an upsurge of work with Valentine’s Day shoots, and the promise of film night with Louis on Sunday was what kept him going. Harry had been almost relieved when Louis had told him they couldn’t meet up on Saturday the fourteenth because he was spending the night with his younger sisters so that his mum and her husband could go on a romantic weekend, while Lottie was out with her boyfriend and Fizzy on a trip with some friends.

After the week he’d had he was more than happy to accept Liam’s invitation to go out for a drink on Friday evening. Perrie, Jade, and some others of their mutual friends were there as well, arguing over appetizers.

Harry had been eating off Liam’s chips since he arrived, but what he really wanted was another beer. “I need another beer. Liam, get me another beer, please?” he said, making puppy eyes at Liam.

Liam raised his eyebrows. “Being twenty-two hitting you hard, is it?”

Harry groaned and upturned his glass until a few drops at the bottom hit his tongue. “I’ve had a really busy week. So many Valentine’s Day photoshoots. You have no idea how much people love to dress their children up as cherubs. And now I can’t get the bloody red and pink confetti out of my flat.”

Liam laughed, then shook his head as he took a long sip of his beer. “You can do more than take pictures of toddlers in fake angel wings, you know that, right?”

Harry, slumped over the table, shot him a doleful look. “Business is doing great, Liam. I can’t quit now.”

Liam rolled his eyes. “I’m not saying you should drop everything and disappear into the woods to photograph badgers—”

“I’m not even a nature photographer.”

“Shut up. I just think you might want to branch out a little with your own photography. Give yourself a chance for the world to give you a chance.”

Harry’s mouth curved into a slow smile. “That was beautiful, Liam,” he said, hand to his chest.

Liam groaned and punched his shoulder. “I had a surprise for you, but now I want to call and cancel.”

“A surprise?” Harry asked, perking up.

Liam’s disgruntled expression turned into a sly grin, which widened after he read something on his phone. “Yep.”

“For my birthday?” Harry asked, widening his eyes excitedly.

Liam snorted with laughter. “No, Harry. Because your birthday was three weeks ago. Birth day—not the entire month of February.”

Harry sulked. “So why the surprise?”

Liam shrugged as he finished draining the rest of his beer. “It was your boyfriend’s idea.”

“What?” Harry stuttered.

Liam pointed over Harry’s shoulder, eyebrows raised meaningfully. Harry turned his head around so fast he got a crick in his neck.

Louis was there, in faded jeans and a beige jumper. Niall had an arm slung around his shoulder, his hair a blond shock in the dimly lit pub. Harry felt the smile stretching his face as he jumped off the stool automatically, heading toward Louis as fast as he could.

Louis stepped out from under Niall’s arm to greet Harry. Standing almost toe to toe, he looked up at Harry with a smile and gave a little wave.

Harry didn’t hesitate to pull him into a tight hug. He hadn’t seen Louis all week, and even though they had spoken on the phone, it had been driving him crazy, not getting to touch him, to smell him.

Finally, though he could have remained in that embrace for a lifetime, he took a step back, a grin on his face as he turned to Niall. “Hey, Niall. Nice to see you.”

Niall laughed. “I wasn’t sure you had. You almost ran over that poor woman to get to Louis.”

Harry flushed, but Louis gave his hip a comforting pat. “There’s awful lighting here.”

Niall laughed harder and Harry chuckled. “Come meet Liam, Niall.” Settling a hand on the back of Louis’ neck he started leading them over to Liam. Leaning in close, he whispered to Louis as they walked. “I thought you were babysitting your sisters?” he asked.

Louis’ eyes crinkled. “I am. Starting tomorrow morning until Sunday evening. But Lottie offered to stay with them tonight since she’ll be out early tomorrow.”

Harry squeezed the back of his neck, a smile playing on his lips. “Why didn’t you say?” He’d asked Louis to join him and his friends tonight, hoping to see him sooner rather than later, but Louis had told him he couldn’t.

Louis shrugged, lips pressed tight as he tried to reign in his grin. “Thought I’d surprise you.”

It took all of Harry’s will power not to bury his fingers in Louis’ hair and pull him into a kiss. “I love the surprise,” he breathed, loud enough for Liam to hear, as they reached the table.

“I thought you would,” Liam said, eyes lingering where Harry had his hand on Louis’ shoulder, spanning almost the entire width of it.

He had to let his hand drop when Louis disentangled himself to give Liam a quick hug and greet the others while Harry introduced Niall and Liam.

“Is this for me?” Louis asked, perching on the stool next to Harry and reaching for the beer in front of him after a few minutes chatting with the girls.

“Yep,” Harry confirmed. “Courtesy of Liam.”

Louis clinked glasses with Liam. “Cheers, mate.”

Niall set his own beer down on the table with a clunk, clearing his throat, and, to Harry’s confusion, glaring at Louis.

“You guys want to share some appetizers?” Liam asked, oblivious. But Harry was watching Louis and Niall.

Louis rolled his eyes at Niall pointedly and took a long sip of his pint. “Sure. Whatever’s good,” he told Liam, who gave a thumbs up and went over to order at the bar, clapping Harry on the back as he passed.

Niall frowned, talking to Louis over Liam’s empty seat. “Louis, you shouldn’t—”

Louis pursed his mouth in annoyance. “It’s one beer, Niall. I can have a bloody pint, fuck’s sake,” he said in a furious whisper.

Niall gave a little huff, but he looked more concerned than angry. “I don’t want to have to pick you off the floor again.”

Louis took another deliberate sip. “Shut up,” he said firmly.

When he turned to look at Harry, Harry pretended to be engrossed in the condensation on his glass.

“Niall’s very health conscious,” Louis said without prompting, reaching over to mess up Niall’s hair.

Niall batted him away, but his brow unknit. “I follow doctors’ orders.”

Louis raised his glass in a salute. “Good for you.”

Niall dropped the subject once Liam returned with the food. He pronounced the wings to be top notch, and fell into a deep discussion with Jade about some new MP and taxes, of all things, until Louis and Perrie started to sing snippets of songs, testing each other on their musical knowledge, Harry and Liam soon joining in. When they all sang an impromptu rendition of We Will Rock You, half the pub applauded them.

Harry’s sides hurt from laughing and he couldn’t keep his eyes off Louis: smiling wide, a bit of sauce on his chin, face animated as he talked, waving his hands around. At one point he slipped a hair tie from Harry’s wrist without even asking, in an intimate gesture, to give it to Perrie when she complained about the heat, lifting her hair off her neck to fan herself.

Harry only left his daze when Louis excused himself to go to the bathroom, once he was out of sight. Although the image of his arse in his jeans remained imprinted in Harry’s mind.

He noticed a pretty girl eyeing him from another table. Still thinking about Louis’ arse, he must have been staring at her without being aware of it. Their eyes met and Harry gave a polite tilt of his chin, a slight grin still on his face. She must have taken it as an invitation, because she flicked her hair over her shoulder and started walking over to Harry, a friend in tow.

“Shit,” Harry said under his breath, slapping Liam in the arm, interrupting his conversation with Niall. “Save me.”

Liam looked over and bit back a laugh as the girl reached the table, smiling coquettishly at Harry.

“Hi,” she said. “Is this seat taken?”

“Uh—” Harry stammered, shaking his head ‘no’ at the thought of her taking Louis’ seat, but she took it as an answer to her question and perched on the stool, adjusting her skirt.

“Are you guys in a band? You look like such a rock star,” she addressed the last bit to Harry alone. Harry, who was wearing a white blouse with a small rose pattern and black skinnies, was a little thrown. “Love your hair.” She didn’t ask or give warning before she was reaching out to pet his hair, staring at him with very obvious intent.

Her friend stood next to Liam but kept shooting glances at Jade.

Harry leaned away, pretending to reach for a napkin from the dispenser. “We’re not in a band, no.”

“I’m a rapper, though,” Liam butt in, holding back laughter. “And Niall plays the guitar.”

The girl hummed, smile tight, obviously not interested. “So what is it you do?” she asked Harry.

Harry had never had trouble attracting people. On the other hand, he sometimes had difficulty getting rid of the more persistent—and less perceptive—ones. “I'm a photographer,” he said, hoping that would discourage her.

It didn't. “I've actually done some modelling!” she said, batting her fake eyelashes at him. “What a coincidence.”

Harry made a sound of acknowledgement, scrunching up the napkin in his hand while Niall cracked up.

“And I'm looking to expand my portfolio. If you're interested...” she went on while Niall turned pink from laughter.

“Harry only does nudes, though,” Liam cut in with a completely serious expression.

The girl didn't flinch. “I don't mind. I'm very professional.”

Harry grimaced at the heated look she sent him. He stretched in his seat trying to catch sight of Louis.

“Are you looking for someone?” The girl's friend asked.

“Yeah. Um. My—” Harry broke off when he caught sight of Louis at the end of the bar, next to the door leading to the bathrooms. He had his arms crossed in front of his chest, a hint of distaste in the shadow at the corner of his mouth as he looked up at the man who was crowding him up against the wall. Harry inhaled sharply through his nose, blood pounding in his temples.

He heard Liam calling his name, probably noticing Harry’s abrupt change of mood, but Harry didn’t answer. Instead he launched himself off the stool and elbowed his way over to Louis. He knocked into the other man, hard, hands clenched.

Louis started in surprise, staring at Harry wide-eyed.

The man didn’t relinquish his position, pushing back against Harry with his body. “Need anything, mate?”

Harry scowled. “Who are you?” he demanded.

The man puffed his chest out. “An interested party. So get in line, Goldilocks.”

Louis face-palmed at that, looking mortified. “Oh my god.”

Frowning, Harry reached for Louis in a reflex movement. He stopped himself before closing his fingers around Louis’ wrist, however, letting his touch linger but not grabbing hold of him. “I was looking for you, Lou,” he said, trying to block the stranger with his body.

“Were you? You looked plenty busy. Where did you leave your girl?” the man interrupted with a sneer.

“She's not my girl,” Harry snapped, bristling at the man’s audacity. “Louis is my—” He completed the sentence in his head: my boy. The word ‘mine’ filling his head. He bit his tongue, feeling he might be sick.

The man scoffed, watching Harry with a contemptuous smile, before turning to Louis. “Louis, is it? Babe, you can do better than this boy.”

Louis’ lip curled in disgust. “All right, that’s enough.” He gave Harry a gentle push at the hip, prompting him into movement. “Thanks for the company, Dick,” he said as he edged around the man.

“It’s Rick!” Rick said with clear annoyance.

Delving into the crowd, Louis didn’t even turn around to address him. “Yeah, I know!” he called, lifting a hand in farewell.

A part of Harry wanted to laugh, but the heaviness in his stomach wouldn’t let him. He’d never felt such strong jealousy in his life and it was frightening.

“Why didn’t you come back?” he asked miserably, letting Louis shepherd him back to their table. His fingertips felt cool on the hot skin of Harry’s lower back even over the thin fabric of his shirt. “I was worried.”

Louis’ fingers clenched in the fabric. “Well. My seat was taken,” he said quietly.

“I’m sorry,” Harry croaked. “I was trying to get rid of her.”

“Mhm.”

Harry stopped in his tracks, eyebrows furrowed, mouth twisted. “Louis, I don't even like girls.”

Louis ducked his head with a huff of embarrassed laughter. “I know... But all I saw was her in my seat. And she was touching your hair.”

Harry wanted to kiss him, let that Rick and the girl whose name he didn’t even know see. Louis was practically irresistible, looking at Harry under his eyelashes with his bottom lip pushed out in a half-apologetic pout. Harry gripped the front of his jeans and resisted.

“I don't know why people think they can do that,” he said after a moment.

Louis gave him a sidelong glance as they continued on to the table. “I touched your hair the second time we met.”

“But you asked first. And I didn’t mind you doing it. It felt nice, not like I’m part of a petting zoo.”

Louis smoothed his palm up and down Harry’s back. “So what you’re saying is I should’ve marched straight up to the table and saved you from the scary, rude girl lusting after you?”

Harry nodded fervently. “Please don’t leave me again,” he said, stomach twisting at how real the sentiment behind the joking words was.

Louis’ smile looked a little rueful. “C’mon, Harold, I think she must be gone by now.”

Chapter Text

Later at home and over breakfast the next morning, Harry tried to convince himself he hadn’t been jealous or possessive at the pub—he’d been protective. Louis’ body language had screamed uncomfortable and Harry, as any good friend would have done, had come to help him out. He wasn’t very gifted in self delusion, however. He was aware his feelings for Louis were getting out of hand, but there didn’t seem anything to do but carry on as usual. The idea of distancing himself never even occurred to him.

In an effort to distract himself, he spent all Saturday editing and selecting photographs from the shoots that week, and most of Sunday cleaning the house.

Louis came over after dinner, fixing his windswept hair as he stepped into the flat.

Harry stiffened in the middle of taking his jacket to hang it up in the closet. “You’re going to have to change,” he said, managing to keep his tone completely serious.

Louis breathed out a laugh. “What? Why?” he asked, looking down at his outfit. He was wearing black joggers and a red, wool jumper, which might have been a bit of a mismatch with anyone else, but Harry had yet to see Louis look bad in anything.

“I’ve overdosed on red and pink this week,” Harry explained in a pained voice. “I can’t even look at you!”

That was a lie. And he lasted about five seconds before he was lowering his arm to watch Louis giggle at his joke.

“Lottie has a white jumper with big red hearts I could borrow, would that be better?” Louis said, grinning.

Harry groaned. “Shut up. My hoover almost choked on heart confetti.”

A smile still tugging at his mouth, Harry left Louis in the living room deciding which film to watch while he fixed the popcorn in the kitchen. When he entered the living room with the bowl in his hands, he saw Louis perched on the edge of the seat, hands twisted in his lap. He looked up at Harry with a strange expression on his face. Harry’s eyes fell on his laptop, which he’d left open on the coffee table. He’d been going through the pictures from their day trip to Oxford, which he hadn’t had a chance to do before.

“I thought you were taking pictures of the view,” Louis said, in a casual tone.

Harry gulped, still frozen in place. “Yeah, I was.”

“But also of me.”

Harry blinked. “You’re—” He thought it would probably be weird telling Louis how beautiful and captivating he was. “Yeah. Does it bother you?” he said at last, his voice coming out normal despite the knot in his stomach.

Louis considered him, the same unreadable look on his face. “No. It doesn’t bother me.”

Harry gave a sharp nod. “Good. That’s... good. Yeah.” He took one step forward, then another. “Which film are we watching in the end?”

Love Actually. It’s seasonal,” Louis replied, settling back on the couch with the remote.

Harry went over to him, pushing the laptop closed before sitting down. “Lots of people think that’s a Christmas film.”

Louis made a disdainful face. “That’s stupid. It’s good December through February. Like A Nightmare before Christmas works October to December.”

Harry laughed. “Yeah, that makes sense.” He propped his feet up on the coffee table, setting the bowl of popcorn on his lap while clearing his throat in an exaggerated manner to get Louis’ attention.

Louis’ face lit up when he got a good look at the popcorn. “You came to your senses!” he said, immediately sticking his hand in the bowl.

“It’s not as bad as I thought it would be.” Harry still wasn’t a fan of chocolate drizzled popcorn, but Louis spoke about it like Harry did about poutine, so he’d bought some chocolate and melted it for him.

Fifteen minutes into the film Louis was shifting to look at Harry. “You’re not eating,” he said, poking Harry in the stomach.

Harry picked out a bit of popcorn that had escaped the chocolate and popped it into his mouth. “Sure I am.”

Louis shook his head as he carefully picked out some more chocolate free popcorn. “You could have made two separate bowls, you know?” he said, smiling as he stuffed a handful of regular popcorn into Harry’s mouth.

“I bought the chocolate and forgot to get more popcorn,” Harry confessed once he could talk.

Louis only smiled at him, the fondness in his face undeniable. Harry’s eyes flicked down to Louis’ mouth, tracing the curve of his pink lips with his eyes. When he looked up again, he found Louis staring at him. Harry’s breath caught in his chest as their eyes locked. He wasn’t expecting Louis to close the distance between them and press their lips together, a little too hard because he’d overdone the force behind his sudden movement.

Shocked, Harry didn’t get a chance to respond. He felt the pressure and the merest brush of Louis’ lips against his before Louis pulled back, teeth digging into his bottom lip, breath coming fast and shallow.

“You looked like you wanted to do that,” Louis whispered. “You keep looking at me like you want to kiss me. And I don’t understand why you don’t.”

Harry’ mouth was completely dry. “I do want to kiss you,” he said hoarsely.

A corner of Louis’ mouth twitched upward, though his eyes were still apprehensive. “Is there a ‘but’ in there, or are you going to do it?”

There was definitely a ‘but’ in there, but Harry couldn’t for the life of him think of what it was at that moment, when Louis was practically asking him to kiss him.

He cradled Louis’ jaw in both hands and leaned in, slowly this time. The sound of Louis’ quiet, sharp inhalation right before their lips met made heat shoot through Harry’s body.

They started out with quick, timid kisses which gradually became longer, more insistent. Louis melted into the couch as the kiss deepened, pulling Harry closer with a tight grip on the back of his shirt. The taste of chocolate lingered in Louis’ mouth and a hint of saltiness on his lips.

“Chocolate drizzle popcorn is my favourite,” Harry said when they broke apart.

Louis breathed out a giggle. “Perfect. That’s all I wanted. We can go back to watching the film now.” He made as though to settle back in place, a playful grin on his face as he glanced at Harry out of the corner of his eye.

Harry gripped his knee and ran his hand up his thigh, coming to a stop with his thumb a few inches below the crease between thigh and groin. “So you don’t want me to blow you? Because I’d really like to do that right now.”

Louis tilted his head to rest on the back of the couch, stretching the lines of his neck, while he danced his fingers over Harry’s hand on his thigh. He looked at Harry as though he were considering some important matter. “I don’t think my cock tastes like chocolate, though.”

Harry let out a honk of laughter. “Thanks for the head’s up,” he said. He leaned in to mouth at Louis’ neck with a bit of a growl. “I still want to get my mouth on you.”

Harry leaned in to suck a bruise into his neck while Louis squirmed, his grip slipping on Harry’s shoulder, struggling to anchor himself. Harry pressed open mouthed kisses down his neck to the hollow of his throat. But when he hooked his fingers in the collar of his jumper to pull it down to bare more of his chest, Louis stopped him, fingers curling around Harry’s wrist. He threw a leg over Harry’s and straddled him, knocking the bowl of popcorn to the floor.

It was reflex for Harry to try to reach for the bowl as it went flying, spilling popcorn all over.

“Do you want me or the popcorn?” Louis teased, chuckling, pushing Harry to sit back with his hands on his chest, thighs tightening around Harry’s.

“You. Definitely you.”

For a while they just kissed, their hands all over each other until Louis tugged at Harry’s tee shirt to get him to take it off. Louis scratched his dull nails down Harry’s chest, licking his lips. With a sudden smile he traced a line between Harry’s nipples. “One, two, three, four. Cute.”

Harry giggled, ticklish. He grabbed Louis’ hand and brought it to his mouth, biting at the tips of his fingers. “Can I take you to bed?” he asked, fighting back a moan as Louis rocked his hips.

Louis pressed down against Harry again. “Mm. I don’t know if I want to get off you. Feels good like this.” He bent down to nip at Harry’s bottom lip, pinching one of his nipples. “Bet it’d feel even better if I had your cock in me.”

Harry clutched at Louis’ arse with both hands, groaning. “I’m taking that as a ‘yes’.” He caught Louis by surprise when he pushed himself to his feet, hands sliding down to the back of Louis’ thighs to keep him from falling. Louis gripped his shoulders, accidentally pulling on Harry’s hair.

“Ouch,” Harry whined as he walked them to the bedroom.

Louis pet his hair apologetically. “You could’ve taken me to bed without carrying me to bed, Harold.”

Harry grinned. “I’ve been wanting to pick you up since the moment we met.”

Louis bit back laughter, giving Harry’s hair a light tug. “Puns are not a turn on, Harry.”

Harry set Louis down on the bed and crawled up after him between his spread legs, nuzzling at the outline of his cock over his clothes. “No?”

Louis lifted his hips so that Harry could tug his joggers and pants down to his thighs. “No. They’re actually quite—” His breath hitched when Harry immediately went in, tongue first, licking a line up his cock. “—hard to swallow.”

Harry giggled, then glanced up at Louis from under his eyelashes, eyebrows raised. “I’ll swallow, baby.”

“That’s awful,” Louis groaned, half laughing, even as Harry sucked his cock into his mouth.

Harry pulled off, though he kept stroking him, slow and tight, grip slick with spit. “Wordplay doesn’t do it for you?” he teased.

Louis swatted at him, giggling. “Shut up.” His hips bucked when Harry licked the precome gathering on the head of his cock.

Harry spread one of his hands on Louis’ thighs, digging his fingers into the muscle, while he suckled at the head of his cock. When Louis let out a tremulous moan, he sank down the shaft, looking up at Louis again.

“Fuck,” Louis breathed.

As Harry rubbed circles with his thumb in a soothing gesture, he registered a small, raised line of scar tissue just below the crease of his thigh. But Louis’ soft moans of pleasure between hitching breaths focused all of Harry’s attention on his own throbbing cock and in making sure that Louis didn’t stop making those noises.

Louis buried a hand in Harry’s hair, tugging lightly. “I’m gonna come.”

Harry moaned around Louis’ cock, tightening his grip on his hip in encouragement.

Louis didn’t last much longer, coming with a strangled shout, head thrown back. Harry kept his cock in his mouth, licking him clean, until Louis tried to knee him in the side, whining.

Harry sat up, licking his lips, and pulled Louis’ joggers down all the way, helping him out of them. He ran his palms up Louis’ thighs and pressed soft kisses to his lower stomach where his jumper had ridden up.

“Good?” he asked.

Louis hummed in agreement, sounding out of it. Harry chuckled against his stomach and fisted a hand in the bottom of Louis' jumper, but when he started to lift it, Louis' hand shot out to stop him again, gripping his wrist. Harry looked up in confusion. “What's wrong?”

Louis shook his head, but didn’t let go of Harry’s wrist. “Nothing. Come up here and kiss me? Please?” he said, pouting. “I like cuddles after I come.”

Harry couldn’t refuse. He held himself over him, keeping one hand spread on Louis' waist over his jumper. He could feel how tense Louis had gone, such a contrast from a few seconds before. Harry kissed him, gentle and easy, ignoring his own aching erection, until he felt him relax.

“You don’t taste like chocolate,” he said, grinning at Louis. “But you taste sweet.”

Louis rolled his eyes, but he was smiling as he wrapped his legs around Harry’s hips so that Harry’s cock slid over his belly. “You’re ridiculous,” he said, fingertips tracing figures on Harry’s shoulder before trailing up to scratch at the base of his head.

Harry bit back a moan at the friction on his cock. “And you sound so hot too. And don't get me started on how beautiful you look...”

Louis blushed and lowered his legs. “Lie back. I want to make you come.”

Harry rolled onto his back, leaning back against the pillows. Louis moved to pull off Harry's jeans and stared at him from his position at the foot of the bed, tongue darting out to wet his lips.

“Lou...” Harry whined, thumbing at one of his nipples.

Louis shuffled to sit astride Harry's upper thighs. “You're like a fucking wet dream,” he said, wrapping his fingers around Harry’s cock.

Harry moaned at the first touch, Louis spreading precome down his cock. Harry was embarrassingly close just from having Louis on him, half naked, flushed and gorgeous after Harry had just given him an orgasm. When his hair started falling on his face, Louis reached up to fix his fringe, tucking his hair in with one hand while he kept jerking Harry off with the other.

“Fuck, you’re gorgeous,” Harry breathed.

Louis startled mid gesture. He lowered his hand to balance himself as he got on his knees so that he could bend down to kiss Harry while still working his cock, grip tight, panting against Harry’s mouth. “You know how many times I’ve thought about this? About how your cock would feel in my hand? In my mouth? Inside me?”

Harry whimpered, hips bucking. “Louis—”

Louis thumbed at the head of his cock and gave a sucked a biting kiss under his jaw. “Harry. You gonna come for me, babe? Please?”

He squeezed up, breath hot in Harry’s ear and the sensitive skin of his neck, and Harry came, grunting out ‘fuck’s as he rode out his orgasm in Louis’ hand, spilling over his fingers.

Louis sat back on his haunches and sucked two fingers into his mouth, making Harry’s cock jerk. “You taste like salt and vinegar,” he said with affected seriousness.

Harry let out a laugh, throwing his arms out with a satisfied sigh. “Come here, I want some cuddles, too.”

Louis’ act broke and he breathed out a giggle. “Give me a minute. Unless you want come all over you.”

Harry shrugged, closing his eyes, body relaxed. “I don’t mind.”

Harry watched him cross the room toward the ensuite bathroom, appreciating the sight of his bare bottom and legs.

Louis came back a minute later, shaking his hands dry, and tossed him a flannel. “Have you got anything I can wear?” he asked, sounding hesitant.

Harry didn’t want to ruin the moment asking questions and making Louis uncomfortable. “Get whatever you want from the closet.”

Louis didn’t leave the room, but he turned his back on Harry to change out of his jumper into a pajama shirt he’d found in Harry’s closet. He found his pants and pulled them on as well.

“Get under the covers!” he called as he left the room again.

Harry groaned at having to move, but did as Louis had asked, throwing their clothes to the floor to get under the duvet. Louis came back with their phones, setting them on the bedside table before climbing into bed, slipping under the covers, shivering. Harry pulled him into his side and gave him a rub, trying to warm him up.

“Ah!” Harry squeaked when Louis slipped his cold toes between Harry’s calves.

He felt Louis’ shoulders shake with laughter. “I’m cold,” he said, pressing even closer to Harry.

Harry let his hand slip lower, down the curve of Louis’ spine to his arse. “I could warm you up...” he said, only half joking. He wouldn’t mind going again.

Louis gave one of Harry’s nipples a twist. “Don’t even think about it.”

Harry left his hand low on Louis’ back, but slumped in defeat.

“I can feel you sulking,” Louis said with a drowsy giggle. “Don’t be greedy. I had a very long weekend with the twins. Didn’t stop still for a moment. And you’ve finished tiring me out.

Harry gave him a squeeze and kissed his hair. “I’ll take that as a compliment.”

Louis stroked Harry’s naked side down to his hip. “‘course.”

Harry stayed awake until the movement of Louis’ hand slowed and finally came to rest on the dip of his waist. There was a niggling panic in the back of Harry’s mind. But Louis’ even breathing lulled him to sleep before it could come to the front.

*

Harry woke up the next morning to the ticklish sensation of Louis’ fingertips following the line of his jaw and trailing down his neck, the touch light and exploratory.

“’morning,” Harry mumbled, opening his eyes.

Louis smiled at him, looking rumpled and soft in Harry’s pajama shirt that was too big on him. Harry almost didn’t recognize it, as he’d never done up all the buttons like Louis had. He fingered the collar absently, playing with the top button, while they shared a kiss.

The morning sun filtered in through the cracks in the blinds, casting a haze that made it feel like nothing existed beyond the walls of his bedroom.

Louis shifted closer, so that Harry’s half hard cock nestled in the hollow of his hip. “Still interested in round two?” he murmured.

Harry groaned. “Are you kidding?” Forgetting himself, he slipped a hand underneath Louis’ pajama shirt, fingertips just grazing a small, tight nipple, before Louis wriggled out his hold, rolling onto his stomach. He turned to look at Harry over his shoulder. “D’you want to fuck me?”

Harry gaped at him, the rush of blood to his cock making him lightheaded. He palmed at Louis’ arse, hand spread on one cheek, digging his thumb into the crease.

“You want to?” he asked, hooking his fingers in the waistband of his pants.

Louis hummed, pillowing is head in his arms. “Yeah. Want you.”

Harry sat up in a flash. Cautiously, he pulled the pajama shirt up to bunch at Louis waist so that he could see the shape of his body. He smoothed a palm over down the curve of his spine to the dimples at the bottom of his back before pulling down his pants. Harry’s teeth sunk into his bottom lip at the sight of Louis raising himself up on his knees to get them off.

“Fuck, Lou.” He almost fell over off the bed trying to reach into the bedside drawer for the small bottle of lube and a condom. “Gonna—Fuck.”

Louis’ shoulders shook with laughter as he twisted his body to glance at Harry. “Are you all right?” he said. “Think you can do it?”

Harry leaned into to kiss him, hard and biting, quick because of the awkward angle. “I want you so much, you don’t even know,” he said fervently, dry fingertips teasing at his hole and pressing on his taint.

Louis’ breathing hitched. “C’mon, then. Get your fingers in me.”

Harry poured some lube onto his fingers and pet Louis’ hole, nudging his legs a little farther apart with his knee. Louis let out a soft, tremulous moan when Harry pushed in the first finger.

“That’s it. Let me hear you, Lou. I love the sounds you make, fuck.”

Harry soon slipped in a second finger easily. In a few minutes Harry’s cock was fully hard and leaking from the heat around his fingers and Louis’ moans, muffled against the crook of his elbow, as Harry stretched him open.

“Harry, that’s enough, c’mon,” Louis whined.

Harry fumbled to put on the condom with fingers slick with lube. “How do you want it?” he asked.

“Like this. Just do it, please,” Louis breathed, raising himself onto his hands and knees.

Harry tried to regulate his breathing as he guided his cock into Louis, fingers digging into his hips. “Louis. Is this—OK?”

“Mhm.”

Harry’s body felt too hot as he bottomed out. “Lou.”

“‘s good,” Louis slurred, head hanging down between the sharp lines of his shoulder blades. “Fuck, ‘arry.”

Harry pushed the pajama shirt up Louis’ back again where it had slipped down, then spread his fingers out, holding onto Louis’ hips, thumbs touching at the base of his spine, slick with sweat. Then he started to move, Louis gasping and whimpering with every other thrust of Harry’s hips.

Head swimming as he struggled to keep himself from coming, Harry leaned forward, pushing in deep. He rocked his hips in a tight movement, pulling out only minimally.

“Like that. Harry. Don’t stop, please,” Louis panted, reaching for his cock.

Harry wrapped an arm around Louis’ middle, palm flat on his stomach. Louis’ hand knocked against his as he stroked himself, once, twice. Then Harry felt his stomach expand, freeze for a second as he gasped when he came. A split second later he was breathing again and spasming around Harry’s cock.

“That’s it. Fuck, Louis. So hot,” Harry moaned. He pulled out and pushed in deep again, and then he was coming, head going blank as he released into the condom.

Once he’d caught his breath, Harry pulled out carefully. He tied the condom off, squeezed it into its wrapper and tossed it toward the bin, wincing when he missed. With a shrug he threw himself next to Louis who had flopped onto his back, chest heaving, a hand on his belly, which was glistening with come.

Harry kissed his shoulder over the pajama shirt, one hand gripping the inside of his thigh. “Good?”

“Very good.” He used his clean hand to grip Harry’s chin, asking for a kiss. “I need a shower, and I’m going to be feeling you all day, but... it was very good.”

Harry grinned and kissed him again. “The best.”

And it was the best sex Harry had ever had. No one night stand even came close to comparing; he’d never had as much fun, never felt everything as intensely as he had with Louis. He’d take sex with Louis over sex with anyone else without a second thought.

Louis smiled at him, rolling a little into Harry’s arms, kissing his neck and chest absently. They stayed like that for a few minutes, while Louis’ breathing went back to normal and Harry simply enjoyed having Louis in his arms. They both jumped when an alarm went off.

Louis groaned. “Ah, that’s mine.”

Harry’s eyebrows dipped. “Do you have to go somewhere?”

Louis rolled over to reach for his phone on the bedside table and turn off the alarm. “It’s so I won’t forget—”

Harry raised himself up on an elbow, intrigued. “Forget what?”

Louis shook his head, throwing an arm over his eyes. “Stuff.”

“Lou—”

“It’s not important right now,” Louis said mildly. He twirled a bit of Harry’s hair around his fingers, peering at him under his forearm. “What’s important is what we’re having for breakfast.”

Harry was more aware than ever of Louis’ avoidance, but they’d just had amazing sex, and the last thing he wanted to do was quarrel or have Louis get upset.

“What time is it? Too early for brunch?” he asked.

“10:25.”

Harry was about to suggest they shower together, wondering if Louis would let him fuck him again, when he remembered. “Shit.” He grimaced. “I have a family coming over for a shoot, I just remembered.”

Louis raised his eyebrows. “So that’s how it is? You fuck me and then kick me out?” he said with a pout, lifting himself up on his elbows.

“No, no, no, of course not. You can stay. Here in bed, or—” he said quickly.

Louis silenced him with two fingers on his lips. “Love, I was kidding.”

Harry let his breath out in a puff. “Way to give me a heart attack.”

Louis sighed. “Is it alright if I shower before I leave? I’ll be quick.”

“You really don’t have to go,” Harry said, stroking his thumb over Louis’ cheek.

Louis’ mouth quirked. “I do have my own flat, you know. And my bed is about as comfortable as yours.”

Harry cupped his face, leaning in to kiss him. “I’m really sorry. I would have made you pancakes.”

Louis smiled, brushed their lips together again. “Next time.”

*

It didn’t really hit Harry until much later. First he was distracted with the shoot, then with making lunch. After lunch he took a short nap, and later he stressed himself out trying to figure out some paperwork for his upcoming tax returns.

Not until the late afternoon, when he wandered into his bedroom and noticed the condom wrapper still on the floor next to the waste bin, did it really sink in: he’d had sex with Louis.

After the first kiss it had seemed so natural, he had fallen into it without thinking, got caught up in the wonder of getting to touch and be touched by Louis. It had driven all his doubts and fears out of his head. But now they were rushing back with a vengeance.

He found the pajama shirt in the hamper in the bathroom, a little stiff with some come that had got on it. It smelled like Louis. “Fuck.

Harry paced his bedroom for fifteen minutes, running his fingers through his hair until his scalp hurt. Then he called Gemma.

“Harry, hello. What can I do for you?” she answered, sounding cheerful.

Harry sank onto the bed, shoulders hunched. “I messed up, Gems,” he said in a hushed voice. “I messed up.”

There was a short pause. “All right. I'll help you hide the body. Where is it?”

A strangled laugh escaped Harry. “It's almost as bad.”

“Good lord, Harry. What on earth did you do?”

Harry took a deep, tremulous breath. “I slept with Louis.”

Another long silence followed. “Were you that bad?” Gemma asked, laughter in her voice.

“Gemma, I'm serious.”

“OK. I’m sorry. But I’m not seeing the problem here?”

Harry made an impatient sound. “How can you not see it? I’ve ruined everything. This wasn’t supposed to happen. Don’t you understand how I’ve fucked everything up?” Harry’s voice broke. “We were supposed to be just friends. But now we’ve had sex and I—I can’t date him. I can’t.”

“But you were practically dating already!” Gemma countered, exasperated.

Harry clenched his jaw. “I’ve ruined everything,” he repeated.

“Why?” Gemma asked, incredulous. “This seemed inevitable to me. I haven’t even met him, but just hearing you talk about him I can see what’s going to happen: you date, get married, make me an aunt, raise two or three happy children—all the shebang—grow old together—”

“What if we don't though?” Harry cut in, voice low. He stuffed his knuckles in his mouth, trying to hold back a sob. “Mum and dad were supposed to do that. They were in love and they were supposed to raise us and grow old together.”

“Oh, Harry,” Gemma sighed, sounding distraught.

“It was so awful for mum. I’m not strong enough—If something happened to him—” Harry whimpered.

“Why would anything happen to him?” Gemma interrupted, raising her voice. “Harry! Just because mum lost dad doesn’t mean you'll lose anyone you fall in love with! This is completely irrational.”

Harry swallowed thickly. “I’m not in love,” he said, focusing on that.

“Yes you are. Or at least well on your way.”

“How would you know?” Harry snapped, then winced. “Sorry.”

Gemma clucked her tongue. “You need to get your act together Harry, before you do something you really regret. And, just so you know, if there's one thing dad would have been ashamed of it's a coward.”

“Gemma!” Harry cried, but she had already hung up.

-

Harry bit his lip raw, lying in bed, in sheets that still held a hint of Louis’ smell. He turned his phone off, too fearful that Louis would call when he had no idea what to say to him.

As darkness flooded the room, Harry was taken back to when he was a child, after his father had passed. To all the times he’d get home from school and tiptoe into his mum’s room, in gloom no matter the hour,  and climb into bed with her, begging her to hold him.

‘Aren’t you supposed to be in choir?’ she’d ask. Choir or any of the handful of extracurricular activities she had insisted on signing him up for after their precipitate move. Harry would shake his head and lie about the day of the week, or the hour, to explain why he was home, knowing she wouldn’t bother to check. Sometimes she would start to weep, and then she’d tell him to leave. But other times she would hold him, and he’d lie with her in the darkness, listening to her heartbeat for hours.

While their mum was hiding out in her room, Gemma made sure that Harry ate and showered and went to school. But she spent the rest of her time out of the house; at fifteen, pretty and full of attitude, she had been very popular. She made up stories about Anne travelling for work to anyone who asked, even their grandparents. Harry pretended everything was fine as well. Harry and Gemma were both scared their mother would be taken from them, too.

When his mother didn’t let him into her room, he’d sneak up to the attic to look at the picture albums she’d hidden away when they moved. She’d also donated all of their father’s clothes and things. Gemma had a shirt secreted away, which she only shared when Harry cried hard enough he threw up.

One of the days Harry went up to the attic, his chest began feeling tight, and he started coughing. Gemma wasn’t home, and Harry hadn’t wanted to bother his mum. But in the end, he had knocked on the door, wheezing, head spinning. His mum had been forced to get out of bed, shaking as she took out the car and drove them to the ER. She held Harry’s hand so tightly it hurt while they waited. After, she’d had to stop the car on the drive back home because she was crying too hard.

But after that Anne had come around. She soon started working again, so that the money from their orphan’s benefit went into an account for their education instead of being used for groceries and expenses. Gemma started coming back home after class again. Harry made friends at football practice even though he was no good; his mum bought him his first camera for Christmas; and in the spring they worked on the garden together.

When Anne met Robin a year later, and after a few months started dating him, Harry had just been happy to see his mum laughing again. He couldn’t forget those awful months, though. And he saw how, although she stopped flinching at any mention of cancer, she never really talked about his dad, and she never put up the pictures she’d boxed up after his death. She never went back to their old house, either, or even stopped in town.

To Harry it seemed obvious that, in a way, his mum had been broken by his father’s death. She’d put herself together again, but there were cracks that would never go away. Harry didn’t think he could hold up against such a blow, and he was terrified of being shattered.

He knew what he had to do.

-

He drove over to Louis’ flat after dinner time, feeling sick to his stomach. He left his coat in the car and dragged himself up the three flights of stairs, his heart in his throat. A part of him kept screaming he was making a huge mistake.

After he knocked on the door Harry heard raised voices inside the flat, but couldn’t make out what they were saying. A few seconds later the door opened, and Louis peered out. His face broke into a surprised grin when he saw Harry.

“Hey. I wasn’t expecting you! Did something happen to your phone? It goes straight to voicemail and I’ve never known you to turn it off,” Louis said, throwing the door open for Harry and pulling him inside, fingers cold as they wrapped around Harry’s wrist.

“Yeah. Um. My battery died and I couldn’t find my charger,” Harry lied through his teeth.

“Who is it?” A boy around their age, thin, with large, dark eyes, slouched into the room. He was wearing paint spattered clothes, a paintbrush still in his hand. He cocked his head at Harry and glanced down at where Louis was still holding his hand. “Harry, is it?”

Harry nodded, reluctantly stepping forward to shake his hand. “You must be Zayn.”

Zayn held out his hand but didn’t shake Harry’s. “Not sure you want to do that, mate. Unless you fancy getting paint all over you,” he said with a slight grin.

Harry forced himself to smile back. “I work with babies. I’ve had worse,” he joked.

He heard Louis breathe out a small laugh behind him and his stomach clenched tighter.

“Well. I’m gonna get back to my things...” Zayn said, raising his eyebrows at Louis suggestively, a smirk curling around his lips. “Think it might be a good time to put on my music, yeah?”

Louis pulled a face, but he was struggling not to laugh. “Shut up.” He gave Harry’s hand a tug. “Let’s go to my room before you get intoxicated from the smell of paint. D’you want anything to eat or drink?”

Harry shook his head and followed Louis to his room. The moment he’d closed the door behind him, Louis looped his arms around Harry’s neck and pushed onto his tiptoes to kiss him. Harry automatically kissed back, his hands falling to Louis’ waist. Louis’ lips were soft and his mouth tasted like mint toothpaste.

Louis smiled at him. “Up for it, Harold?” he teased, pressing up against him, tangling his fingers in Harry’s hair and tilting his chin up for another kiss.

Instead of kissing him, Harry leaned back with a wince.

“Is something wrong?” Louis asked, forehead wrinkling. “Are you all right?”

Harry swallowed thickly. “I don’t think.. we should... do this.”

“Have sex?” Louis asked, looking confused.

Harry nodded. “Yeah. Last night, and, um, this morning, was... a mistake,” he choked out.

Louis’ face fell, his expression so taken aback it was painful. He dropped his arms from around Harry’s neck, crossing them over his chest, holding onto his elbows.

“I don’t want to... jeopardize our friendship,” Harry said slowly.

“Oh.”

“And I don’t want to be fuckbuddies,” Harry went on, despite how every word threatened to get stuck in his throat.

“Well, that’s fine. I don’t want that either,” Louis said before Harry could continue, the shadow of a smile on his face and his fingertips light on the back of Harry’s hand which was still on his waist.

Harry’s jaw hurt from how tense he was. “But I don’t... I don’t think... dating—I don’t think it’s a good idea.”

Louis stepped back again, this time out of reach. “Right,” he said in a small voice, fingers twisting in the hem of his jumper.

‘I’m sorry’ was all Harry could get out.

Louis shook his head, chin to his chest.

“Still friends?” Harry asked desperately.

Louis glanced up at him, eyes wide. “Yeah. Of course,” he said, voice hoarse.

Harry bit the inside of his cheek. “I—”

Louis blinked rapidly, eyes on the floor. “Actually, Harry. If you don’t mind... I’m kind of tired—”

Harry nodded dumbly. He kept his head down as he went through the door which Louis had opened for him.  Zayn was on his laptop, paintbrush hanging from his mouth. He looked up as they passed through the living room. “Are you leaving? I haven’t even decided what music to play.”

Louis’ smile was more of a grimace. “Sorry, Zayn. Not tonight. Headphones or nothing,” he said, not quite able to stop the quaver in his voice.

Zayn shot Harry a curious, suspicious glance.

“Louis—” Harry whispered when Louis opened the front door.

Louis gave Harry’s arm a pat. “It’s fine, Harry. Honestly. Drive home safe.”

Harry went to grip Louis’ wrist, but Louis recoiled, and Harry’s fingers closed on air. He let his hand fall to his side.

“Good night,” Louis said, voice breaking, before he closed the door.

Harry started sniffling two minutes after he got behind he wheel. He cried himself to sleep that night, curled up in his sheets that smelled like Louis, a crushing weight in his chest.

*

Harry hadn’t spoken to Louis since Monday. Five days. Just five days and it felt like he was suffocating. Liam dragged him to the pub, where Harry tried to drown all the writhing feelings of guilt and regret and fear.

“I can’t believe you broke up with him,” Liam said, for the fifth time, putting down his pint.

“I didn’t. We weren’t dating,” Harry repeated dully.

Liam took another swig of his beer. “You hadn’t fucked. But you were definitely dating.”

Harry shook his head hard, eyebrows pinched. It made his head pound.

“Wasn’t this whole not dating thing supposed to keep you from the pain?” Liam said, gripping Harry’s shoulder in a comforting gesture.

“Yeah.”

Liam rubbed his back, then sighed. “Doesn’t seem to be working anymore, does it.”

Harry stared into the bottom of his glass. “No.”

*

It didn’t occur to Harry that he might run into Jay at the hospital. He finished his shoot and was leaving—for the first time not in the mood to check in on the nursery—when he bumped into her.

“Jay.” He gulped, gripping the straps of his camera tightly. “Hi.”

Jay’s smile didn’t quite reach her eyes. “Harry. How are you?”

“I’m—Um.” Harry nodded, mouth a tight line, unable to say the word ‘fine’. “How about you? And the girls?”

Jay’s posture relaxed a little. “All well, thank you.”

Harry hesitated, biting his lip. “How’s Louis?” he asked finally.

He hadn’t spoken to Louis in nine days. He couldn’t even text him, he had no idea what to say. And the last message in their chat was Harry’s ‘can’t wait to see you!’ from the night they had slept together.

Jay examined him, her face thoughtful. Then she pulled out her phone and checked the time. “Walk with me?”

She started walking down the hall without waiting for an answer. Harry hurried to catch up with her.  “Yes, of course. Um. Where are we—?” he said, falling into step with her.

“We’re just taking the scenic route down to the exit,” she replied.

“Right.”

Jay peered up at Harry as they walked down the corridor. “You’re a good boy, Harry. I can tell.”

Harry hung his head, stomach twisting in shame.

“I’m going to tell you something in confidence. And I trust it will stay between us.”

Harry looked up at Jay. “Yeah, of course. I promise.”

Jay nodded, guiding him down a flight of stairs to the second floor where the consulting rooms for different specialists were. “Has Louis ever told you about his friend Luke?” she began after a moment.

Harry’s brow furrowed. “I think so. He’s a physiotherapist, isn’t he?”

“They went to school together in Doncaster, and his family moved to London at the same time we did, funnily enough. They were good friends, thick as thieves.” Jay looked pained. “It was a difficult summer, with the move and the twins being born and... everything else. But Luke was there for Louis, right up until they started school and some kids decided to pick on Louis.”

Harry came to a stop in the middle of the hall and stared at Jay, distraught. “What? Louis was bullied?”

Jay took a deep breath. “It wasn’t too bad. Just a group of boys who gave Louis a hard time because he couldn’t play football at the time.”

“Why couldn’t he?” Harry asked curiously.

Jay shook her head and kept walking. “Those boys didn’t have a problem with Luke, though. As long as he dropped Louis, who wasn’t ‘cool enough’ to be his friend.”

Harry’s mouth twisted in disgust. “That’s awful.”

Jay stepped aside to let a woman rolling an oxygen tank behind her through as they passed the pneumology consulting rooms. “So when Halloween came around, Luke didn’t invite Louis to his party.”

Harry’s eyes stung. “Shit. Louis must have been heartbroken.”

Jay walked briskly down the hall, past the cardiology area. “He was very upset. I was furious. With two newborns at home, Lottie and Fizzy still so little, and Louis—”

She shook her head, lips pursed. “I was getting no sleep and I was ready to march up to that eleven year old boy and shake some sense into him.”

Harry gave a weak chuckle. “I want to do that right now. How come Louis is still friends with him?”

Jay stopped before another door that led to a staircase. “That’s the thing. Luke came around all on his own. A few days later he came over to apologize, brought Louis a full bag of sweets from Halloween.”

“And Louis forgave him?”

Jay smiled, her face impossibly fond. “Yes. As easy as that. He shared the sweets with the neighbour’s kids, too. Said it’d go bad before he could eat it all.”

Harry’s throat felt tight. “He’s amazing.”

Jay nodded. “He’s my baby. All I want is for him to be happy.” She eyed Harry, arms crossed over her chest. “Apparently you make him happy.”

Harry whimpered.

“I don’t know exactly what happened. And I don’t agree with some of the choices Louis has made with you. But if you care—and it looks like you do—then maybe you should think about what I’ve just told you, and what you can do if you want to keep Louis in your life.”

Harry struggled to swallow past the lump in his throat. “I want that. More than anything.”

Jay surveyed him for a long moment, then opened the door. “Down the stairs and a left through rheumatology and you’ll be at the exit. I need to get back to work. It was nice seeing you, Harry.”

*

Harry pulled at his bottom lip, digging his nail in until it stung. After he’d got home from the hospital he’d spent ten minutes debating whether he should text or call, and an hour and a half gathering the courage to do so. He hit the dial button, running his free hand nervously up and down his thigh. He thought he might be sick when the third dial tone rang and Louis didn’t pick up. Then the call connected.

Harry made a strangled noise in his throat. “Louis.”

“Hi,” Louis said after a brief silence.

Harry bit down on his knuckle. “Hey. I’m... I’m sorry I haven’t called.”

Louis hummed. “It’s fine. Been keeping busy?”

“Yeah...” Harry replied mechanically. “You too?”

“Mhm. I’ve had work. Which is good—got to pay the rent,” he said lightly.

Harry’s fingers curled into a fist over his thigh.  “I missed you,” he whispered. Because that’s something he’d tell him if they were just friends, wasn’t it?

The silence felt like it lasted an eternity though it couldn’t have been more than a couple of seconds.

“It’s been little more than a week, Harry. Don’t be ridiculous,” Louis replied at last. And it felt so reminiscent of their usual exchanges that Harry breathed out a faint laugh. But it was a sobering thought, that he couldn’t go two weeks without feeling the ache of Louis’ absence.

That pain was what Harry had been struggling to avoid, but he felt powerless to stop it now. All he knew was that he needed to talk to Louis, at least. To see him. He needed to keep him in his life.

“I do miss you, though,” Harry said quietly. “Could we—Will you—Are you free Friday night?”

“Um.”

“We could go to the cinema and dinner?” Harry insisted. “We could see that new French film you told me about? Je vais au cinéma avec mon copain? Please?”

Louis made a sound that Harry couldn’t interpret. “I—” Harry’s heart was in his throat as he waited for Louis to answer. “All right, yeah. You need to brush up on your French, maybe the film will help.”

Harry’s breath came out in a rush of relief. “Brilliant. Merci!”

Louis huffed out a laugh and said something in French that Harry didn’t understand, but which he didn’t think it was a stretch to take as ‘shut up’. The suffocating weight in his chest lifted for the first time since that night.

*

“You know this all looks an awful lot like a date, right?” Liam asked, watching Harry with pinched eyebrows from the screen of Harry’s laptop.

Harry finished zipping up his boots, straightening up where he was sitting on the edge of the bed. “It’s not a date. We’re two friends, going out to watch a film and have dinner.”

“Two friends who recently slept together.”

Harry’s fingers slipped as he did up a few buttons of his black ruffled shirt. “That’s—We’re moving past that.”

Liam made a disbelieving noise. “Right.”

Harry ran his fingers through his hair, wincing as his rings got caught in a tangle. “We are. That’s the whole point. We’re going out as friends.”

Liam took a bite of his protein bar, looking unconvinced. “Going to see a weird ass French film in the original, and to dinner at a fancy French restaurant.” He shook his head, rubbing the back of his neck. “Harry, that’s... not—We’re best mates and you made up fifteen different excuses not to go with me to that Batman exhibition.”

“I only made up eleven, the other four were real,” Harry said with a curl of his lips.

Liam was unimpressed by his quip. “My point stands. You’re a shit best mate, you wouldn’t do this if you weren’t—”

Harry didn’t want to hear the end of that sentence. It had been enough hearing it from Gemma, who was still acting a little short with him. “The film’s got some really good reviews—” he protested.

Liam threw his hands up. “You don’t even speak French!”

Harry shook out his hair again, checking his reflection in the mirror on the wall. “There are subtitles.”

“You had to make reservations for the restaurant. Payton didn’t go through as much trouble to ask his girlfriend to marry him!” Liam said.

“Yeah, and I can’t believe she said ‘yes’,” Harry replied with a snort. “She deserved better.”

Liam rolled his eyes. “That’s not the point. Are you taking him roses, too? Box of chocolates?”

Harry’s face went hot. “It’s just some chocolates from this place he likes. I was in the area—”

Liam’s eyes went wide. “Shit. You’re serious.”

Harry pouted. “They’re just chocolates. I bake you, like, three lemon drizzle cakes a year!”

Liam studied him for a long moment as he chewed on the last bit of his protein bar. “I don’t get you at all, bro. Why are you making yourself miserable?” His expression and tone gentled. “Honestly, H. Why don’t you just give it a chance? What have you got to lose?”

Harry sighed, rubbing the top of his thighs. He was certain Liam wouldn’t understand, he was too sensible. He couldn’t understand that Harry felt like he had everything to lose.

“Just wish me luck, will you?” he said quietly.

Liam echoed his sigh. “I’m always rooting for you, mate, you know that.”

*

Harry didn’t know what he had expected, but he was well aware of what he had feared, which was an uncomfortable night full of stilted conversation and a palpable, painful distance. Instead it had been almost normal. With pleasant conversation about the film, and the teasing and laughter that was the usual between them: Louis daring Harry to try the snails and nearly spitting out his wine in Harry’s face when he started chewing; Louis playing along when Harry told the waiter he was a French aristocrat.

There had been less touching, though. No casual hand holding at the cinema. And Louis had shied away from Harry’s hand on the small of his back as they entered the restaurant. He hadn’t petted Harry’s hair once, either.

When they left the restaurant, Harry started walking down the street without a particular destination in mind, not wanting the night to end and afraid to ask in case Louis said he’d rather leave. But Louis started walking with him without question. It was a clear night, the smell of approaching spring in the air.

“Chocolate?” Harry offered, pulling out the small box of chocolates from his coat pocket.

Louis gave him a suspicious look. “How long have you had those there?”

Harry giggled. “Just a few hours, promise.”

Louis took the box from him and held it in both hands, looking down at it with a small frown. “When did you get these?”

The chocolates were from a shop Louis loved—and which was nowhere near Harry’s usual hangouts. “I had a shoot in the area this week,” Harry said, pulling on his bottom lip. 

Louis glanced up at Harry, looking uncertain. After a moment, he opened the circular box, revealing half a dozen chocolates in gold paper baking cups. He inspected them in the light from the street lamp. “Didn’t you get any for you?” he asked, picking out one and closing the box.

Harry had bought the chocolates that Louis liked best: filled with champagne and dusted in powdered sugar. When Harry had first tried them, he’d gagged at the taste and spit it out. Louis had been both amused and indignant.

Harry shrugged. “You know I’m not that into chocolate.”

Louis hesitated, holding the chocolate between two fingers, before his mouth curled into a playful grin. “Don’t you want to share?” he said in a sing-song. Then he bit down on half the chocolate and thrust the other half at Harry, giggling, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand as the liquor filling trickled down his chin.

Harry dodged the chocolate coming at his mouth. “No! Louis!” he whined, laughing.

Louis gasped when Harry’s flailing hands caused him to drop the piece of chocolate on the pavement. “What a waste, Harold, honestly—” he said with a lingering giggle.

Harry, transfixed by Louis’ lips as he licked them clean after swallowing the last bit of chocolate, said nothing. It wasn’t really a conscious decision. Harry simply leaned in and kissed him, cradling his face in his hands. Louis made a surprised sound but kissed him back, clutching at Harry’s coat for balance as Harry forced him to bend back while chasing after the sharp taste of alcohol and chocolate in his mouth. Louis’ tinny sound of discomfort at the position made Harry’s mind catch up with him. He stumbled back, lips tingling.

Louis stared at him, lips parted.

Harry took a tremulous breath. “I shouldn’t have done that. I’m sorry. Fuck.” He tugged on his hair with shaking hands.

Louis wiped his mouth, face set in a frown.

“I didn’t mean to. I’m sorry—” Harry stammered, voice quaking.

Louis wrapped his arms around himself. “You said… you said you didn’t want to... date me.”

A quiet whimper escaped Harry.

Louis’ jaw worked for a moment before he spoke. “So what are you doing? All this, tonight. Did you even think about what it looked like?” He rubbed two fingers between his eyebrows, but the lines on his forehead didn’t fade. “Shit. Stop jerking me around, Harry. Why the fuck did you kiss me?”

Harry scrubbed his face with the palm of a hand. “I’m sorry. I... I can’t help it. You’re just—”

Louis breathed a humourless laugh through his nose. “I didn’t know I was so fucking irresistible. Fuckable but not dateable. I guess I should be flattered.”

“It’s not like that, Louis,” Harry said desperately.

“Then what is it?” Louis demanded. “Because this doesn’t make any fucking sense, Harry!” Some people passing by stared and muttered at his outburst.

“I—” Harry said, but he couldn’t get anything else out.

Louis let out another of bitter huff of laughter, pinching the bridge of his nose.

“And you don’t even know about...” he muttered, trailing off. “Fuck, this is hopeless.”

“Know what?” Harry asked, finding his voice.

Louis shook his head, kneading at his temple with one hand. “Nothing. It doesn’t matter.”

“Lou.”

Louis slapped the box of chocolates on Harry’s chest. “Look, Harry. If you don’t want to date me that’s... that’s fine.” His voice shook, but he kept going. “I still want us to be friends. You said you wanted that too.”

Harry raised a hand to hold up the chocolates, but he let his fingers curl around Louis’ entire hand in a slack grip. “I don’t... I don’t know if I can do that,” he said slowly, coming to the realization in that moment.

Louis blinked at him, then slipped his hand out of Harry’s loose hold.

“But I… I want to explain,” Harry choked out. “If you—can you give me a minute?” But his mind went blank, and he did nothing but fish-mouth while Louis looked at him expectantly.

Louis’ mouth was a tight, downward curve. “I’m going to go home now,” he said, stepping forward to flag a cab as he spoke. “I have an awful headache, and I’m exhausted, and I just want to go home.”

Harry felt like he might be drowning where he stood. “Louis—”

Louis pulled open the door as a cab came to a stop in front of him. “Thanks for the film and dinner, Harry. Take care.”

Harry’s body seemed to unlock at the bang of the door closing. “Louis, wait!”

He watched the cab take off, arms hanging at his sides, swallowing down the bile rising in his throat as the car was lost in the traffic.

Chapter Text

“You’re an idiot. I don’t know what else you expect me to say, Harry.”

Harry sniffled into the tissue. “Don’t be mean. I can’t—” He broke into sobs. “I don’t know what to do.”

Gemma gave a long, loud sigh. “The last time you didn’t know what to do and you asked me for advice you did the opposite of what I suggested.”

Harry curled up tighter into his ball of misery, lying in bed in just his pants, hair tangled, and with a pack’s worth of used tissues around him. He hadn’t left the house all weekend and had cancelled the two shoots he had that Monday.

“I was wrong. I was trying to protect myself, and it didn’t work, and all I did was hurt Louis. That’s the worst. I hurt him. His face when he left—shit. And, now, he, like, thinks I only want to fuck him. That I used him for sex, or something, but I don’t think he’s good enough for me to date!?” Harry’s voice broke into a high pitched whimper. “That’s so wrong. Fuck, Gemma, what do I do?”

Gemma remained silent while Harry cried into the phone. “I can’t tell you what to do, Harry,” she said when he’d calmed down a little.

Harry whined. “But—”

“No, Harry. You know I love telling you what to do, but I can’t this time. Because I don’t know. I honestly don’t know how you can fix this,” Gemma said with surprising gentleness.

Fresh tears spilled down Harry’s cheeks.

“Have you called mum?” she asked after a minute.

“No.”

“Why not?”

“Because I haven’t told her about Louis. I didn’t want her to get the wrong impression,” Harry said miserably.

Gemma sighed. “What about one of your friends?”

“Liam’s never been with anyone for more than three months. And Nick is shit at relationships.”

“And I’m aro, Harry. Shit.” Her breath came out in an explosive puff. “Fine set of advisors you’ve got.”

Harry blew his nose between hiccuping sobs. “Need help.”

“All right. All right, let’s think about this logically,” Gemma said. “The first thing you’ve got to do is apologize. Because what you did was unbelievably shitty. So it has to be a big apology.”

Harry’s brow furrowed as he sat up, listening intently. “OK.”

“And you need to explain. Everything. What happened with mum and dad. All the shit that’s been going through your head. It’s no wonder the poor kid is confused as fuck, you’ve been throwing him the worst mixed signals, it’s crazy.”

“Yeah,” Harry mumbled dejectedly.

“And the third, and this is really, really important, Harry,” Gemma went on. “Are you listening to me? You need to be sure about this. You need to be one hundred percent sure this is what you want. Because if you fuck him up again, you’ve lost him for good and with good reason. And also I’ll probably disown you for being a huge bag of dicks.”

Harry wiped his nose, nodding. “I’m sure, Gemms. I don’t want to lose him like this. I’m not going to give him up.”

Gemma was silent for a moment. “Harry, he might not accept your apology. That’s a possibility you have to be prepared for.”

The thought made Harry’s stomach hurt. “I know,” he said quietly. “But he still deserves that apology. And he deserves to know why I made such a mess of things. I can’t bear the thought of him thinking less of himself because of me. I’ve got to tell him the truth.”

-

Harry’s tears finally dried out after he finished talking to Gemma. He took a long shower and had something to eat. Then he sat down to think. A million ideas came to mind, each more fanciful than the last, and all seeming equally, woefully inadequate. So that, in the end, he decided on something simple and traditional, that he could put into action in as short a time as possible. He couldn’t stomach the thought of Louis upset because of him.

-

Harry organized it between Monday afternoon and Tuesday, recruiting Niall to lend him a hand.

‘hope it all works out’ Niall texted him, once they had figured out the particulars.

Harry went to bed on Tuesday with all the nail polish chipped because he kept picking at it from nerves. He was a little distracted on his shoot early Wednesday morning, and he almost dropped his camera when his phone started ringing just past noon.

“What the fuck, Harry?” Louis said without preamble, voice shrill, when Harry picked up the phone.

“You didn’t like it?” Harry said in a small voice.

“Come get them out of here! Now!” Louis hissed, and hung up.

Harry headed over to Louis’ flat immediately.

When Louis opened the door Harry half expected him to hit him, but he just glared at him for almost half a minute before he started off. “You’re an idiot. You’re such a wanker. What the fuck were you thinking? This is—”

Harry stood in place, twisting his fingers with his hands behind his back. “I wanted to apologize,” he interjected into Louis’ rant.

Louis stopped short, breathing coming a little too fast. He spun around and marched into the living room, where he made a sweeping gesture with his arm. “Some fucking apology. Look at this mess. I would have preferred a damn card.”

Harry grimaced, taking in the broken path of rose petals across the room. It looked like Louis had started to get rid of them but had given up: a broom lay abandoned on the floor next to an upturned dustpan. The splendid bouquet of roses and the box of expensive chocolates Harry had had delivered were on the coffee table. Harry thought it was a good sign that the box had been opened.

“And I already told Niall off for enabling you, the bastard. I’m confiscating his key, see if he gets into my flat again,” Louis rattled on. “I go out and come back to this mess. I swear I don’t know what you were thinking—”

Looking around, Harry suddenly realized something was missing. “Where’s all of Zayn’s stuff?”

His attention centered on Louis, who went abruptly quiet. In the sunlight streaming in through the windows Harry could really appreciate just how pale and tired Louis looked, with dark circles under his eyes and his posture slumped where he was half sitting on the armrest of the couch. A stab of concern shot through Harry.

“He’s gone. He left,” Louis said finally.

“What? Why?”

Louis bit the inside of his cheek, eyes downcast. “He found some place better, where he had more room. Moved in with some other friends.”

Harry frowned. “What about the lease?”

Louis rubbed his face with a sigh. “He paid for this month, but I’m going to be paying double now. Don’t ask me how I’ll manage.”

Harry approached Louis hesitantly. Louis looked up to meet his eyes, looking on the verge of tears. He didn’t protest when Harry moved in to pull him into a hug.

“That bastard,” Harry muttered. “Have you got his address? I’ll go beat him up. I box, remember?”

Louis snuffled into Harry’s shoulder “Stop being ridiculous. I don’t have the energy to deal with you right now.”

Harry tentatively stroked his hair, scratching lightly at the base of his head.

“What are you doing, Harry?” Louis sighed. He didn’t pull away, however.

“There was a card with the flowers. Did you see it?” Harry asked quietly.

He felt Louis nod. ‘I’m so sorry. I messed up. I know I wasn’t making sense. Please, will you let me explain? I don’t want to lose you. I’m so sorry. Please?’ the card read.

“Will you... will you let me explain?” Harry asked.

Louis drew back enough to be able to look at Harry. “Yes, I’ll let you explain,” he said tiredly.

Harry studied Louis’ face, despite his obvious exhaustion and upset, he looked as beautiful as ever. “You need to relax. Get some rest. And you can’t do that here...” His hand slipped from the back of his neck to cup his jaw. “Come home with me?”

Louis’ head reared back. “Harry. We’re not doing this again—”

Harry cringed at that. “No. I mean home to Holmes Chapel,” he explained quickly. “To the house where I lived before my dad died. There’s a guest room, and my sister’s there, too. You can get out of the city, get some fresh air? And I’ll explain, properly.”

Louis looked at Harry thoughtfully. “All right,” he said at last. “But you have to clean this up.”

Harry wasn’t religious, but he felt like he owed something out there fervent thanks for Louis even being willing to give him a chance to explain.

-

After he’d cleared up the living room, Harry persuaded Louis to let him cook lunch for him. It was a quiet lunch, Louis mostly picking at his food and Harry watching him, not knowing what to say. He left for his flat after making arrangements to pick Louis up in his car early the next morning.

“You’re bringing him here?” Gemma asked in surprise when Harry called her that evening.

“You don’t mind, right? I know I should’ve asked you before, but—”

“No, that’s fine. I’m just surprised,” Gemma replied. “He’s just as stupid for you as you are for him, it’s incredible.”

Harry couldn’t help the rush of hope at her words. “He only agreed to let me explain,” he said, trying to manage his expectations.

Gemma scoffed. “He’s still going for a four hour drive with you. And a sleepover. Either he’s a masochist, or he’s stupidly in love with you. I expected him to be angrier, to be honest.”

“Well he did cuss me out for, like, five minutes this morning. And he didn’t really talk to me during lunch.”

“OK! It’s good to know he’s human, at least,” she joked. “And you deserved that.”

“I know,” Harry said quietly.

“Anyway,” Gemma said. “I can’t wait to meet him. I’ll get the guest room ready and have lunch for when you two get here, yeah?”

“Thanks, Gemms.” Harry said seriously. Then, after a pause: “You’re a real gem.”

Gemma groaned. “Hilarious. You’ve been making that joke for over ten years.”

Harry giggled for the first time in days, his heart lighter after taking that first step to fix things with Louis. And, after his conversation with Gemma, full of hope that it might work out between him and Louis after all.

*

By next morning, Harry was back to being anxious, all his cautious optimism overwhelmed by fear. Louis’ behaviour did not relieve it. When Harry picked him up, Louis kicked off his shoes, settled in the passenger seat with his jacket thrown over him like a blanket tucked in place under his chin, put his earphones on, and paid Harry no mind for the following two hours.

Harry didn’t allow himself to be distracted by Louis’ toes peeking out in their striped socks while he drove. A quick glance an hour in showed Louis with his eyes closed, body sagging against the door. Harry wasn’t sure if he was asleep or not. After two hours Harry stopped at a serving station for a break. As the car came to a stop, Louis sat up and pulled his earphones out without Harry having to wake him up. They both got out of the car to stretch their legs and use the toilet, then stood outside for a bit in the sun, which was just starting to heat up at ten in the morning, balancing cups of coffee and tea on the trunk of the car and sharing a packet of biscuits.

“Do you want to talk about it?” Harry asked. “Zayn, I mean.”

Louis turned to squint at him from where he’d been watching the cars passing. “Not really.” He took another sip of his tea. “It just took me by surprise. And it shouldn’t have. Because we’d been arguing for a while, and I get he needed more space for his art—”

“He had his things spread over the entire flat, Louis,” Harry had to remind him.

Louis shrugged. “He’d already started moving out when he told me he was leaving...” He shook his head, jaw tight. “After five years.”

Harry could think of a few choice words to describe Zayn, but he settled on a heartfelt  “Shit.”

Louis let out a breath of laughter, finally meeting Harry’s eyes. “Eloquent.”

Harry dared to give Louis’ toe a nudge. “You said you didn’t want me to ‘pay him a visit’ but the offer still stands.”

Louis bit back a laugh. “Ask me again next month when I’m living off insta noodle so I can pay the rent,” he said with an attempt at humour.

Harry offered him the last biscuit. “That’s unrealistic. We wouldn’t let you do that. I mean your mum, and Niall. And me.”

Louis broke the biscuit in half and popped his half in his mouth, giving him an assessing look beneath his eyelashes as he chewed. “You’re still going to be around next month?”

Harry almost dropped his half of the biscuit. “If you’ll have me,” he said quietly.

Louis wiped his hands on the front of his jeans. “We’ll see,” he replied, but there was a shadow of a smile on his face.

“If not I’ll cook for you and leave it on your doorstep anyway,” Harry said, daring a grin. “Or with one of your neighbours. Who can be trusted not to eat it?”

Harry was pretty sure he caught a smile on Louis’ face before he turned away to look for a bin to throw their trash.

-

Gemma must have been watching for them out the window, because Harry didn’t need to knock before she was opening the front door and letting them in.

“Hi! Come in!” she said, smiling at Louis warmly.

She showed Louis up to the guest room after telling Harry to check on what she had in the oven for lunch. It smelled delicious. Gemma normally didn’t bother cooking anything fancy, and the fact that she had was significant.

Lunch was comfortable. Louis and Gemma talking about the difficulties of freelance writing/translation, and the small floriculture business she had going on.

“It’s still early in the season, so we don’t have much going on in the flower fields,” she told Louis before turning to address Harry, “But you have to show him the greenhouse, Harry.”

Harry hummed in agreement through a mouthful of chicken.

Louis caught Harry’s eye. “No roses, right?” he whispered, leaning closer to Harry to pass the potatoes without prompting.

Harry choked and almost dropped the platter. He coughed to clear his throat, ignoring Gemma’s raised eyebrows. “Um. Mostly orchids and hibiscus.”

Louis’ lips twitched.

-

After lunch, Harry took Louis on a tour of the small town. They walked the streets for a while, taking advantage of the sun and the mild weather. As they were heading to the dirt path that led out to the flower fields, they ran into an old man, white haired and with a walking stick.

“If it isn’t young Harry Styles,” the man said. “Haven’t you seen you around in a while.”

Harry shook his hand. “I was here in January, Mr Armitage,” he reminded him with a smile. “Me and Gemma stopped by your house with some meat pie for you and your wife.”

Mr Armitage made a slight scoffing sound. “I remember. But at my age time isn’t like it is for you young folk. You don’t come around in three months and you might’ve found me dead, for all you know.”

Harry bit back a smile. “Well, I’m glad I didn’t!” he said brightly.

Mr Armitage shook his head at Harry’s humour, and turned to eye Louis. “Who’s this then?”

“Um. He’s a friend of mine from London. Louis.”

Louis held out his hand. “Louis Tomlinson. It’s nice to meet you, sir.”

Mr Armitage shot Harry a knowing look after shaking Louis’ hand, but made no comment. “Going to show him the greenhouse?” he asked conversationally.

“Mhm. And there’s some lovely Iris blooming out in the fields, too.”

Mr Armitage addressed Louis. “Flowers are a pretty sight, but if you fancy some history, the graveyard holds entire generations of folk from town, and a kirk from the times of Mad King George.”

Louis glanced at Harry out of the corner of his eye. “That sounds like it’s definitely worth a visit, sir.”

“And your da could use a bit of a brush up on his grave.”

Harry stiffened, then relaxed when Louis shifted closer so that their arms pressed together, letting his fingers brush Harry’s in a comforting gesture.

“Maybe we can stop by on the way back to the house?” Harry said doubtfully.

“There’s a good lad.” Mr Armitage gave a sharp nod of satisfaction. “What about your mum, then?” he asked suddenly. “I’ve not seen her in twelve years. Not been to see your da once, and him so good to her.”

Harry’s lips pursed, tensing up again.

Louis hooked two fingers around Harry’s. “It was really nice to meet you, Mr Armitage. But we really have to go. Gemma said we had to help her with dinner and we’re running late.” He started walking fast, pulling Harry with him.

Harry caught sight of Mr Armitage’s frown before he had to turn his back on him, stumbling on a rock in the dirt.

“Thank you,” he told Louis as they continued down the path. “Whenever he sees me he asks me that, and I’ve run out of excuses. Sometimes I just want to tell him ‘she doesn’t want to come’ straight to his face and see how he reacts.”

“Well, it’s really none of his business, is it? Who is he?”

“An old school teacher of my dad’s.” Harry sighed, casting his gaze out in the direction of the graveyard. “Me and Gemma go down to my dad’s grave on his birthday. But you don’t need to visit someone’s tomb to feel close to them.”

Louis, who hadn’t let go of his hand, gave his fingers a squeeze. “My mum lost her dad a couple of years after I was born and she says the same thing. Everyone grieves differently. There’s no right or wrong, love.”

Harry thought about his mother, locked up in her room for months, barely functional. “Let’s go see the flowers. Gemma will actually throw a fit if we’re late for lunch.”

-

They wandered down the rows of still budding flowers in the fields for a short while, then headed to the greenhouse, bright with the noon sun streaming in through the glass. Harry liked working in the greenhouse and he was eager to show Louis around.

“It’s hot in here,” Louis said after a minute, dabbing at the sweat on his forehead with his fingertips and fixing his fringe.

“Yeah. Orchids and Hibiscus are tropical, so we have to keep it pretty warm inside,” Harry explained. He didn’t see the heat as anything but a mild discomfort, and the visit was bound to be short enough he didn’t even bother taking off his jacket like he would if he were going to be doing actual work. He carried on, pointing out his favourite flowers while telling Louis about the care needed to grow them.

“That’s interesting...”

Harry turned to look at Louis, surprised at the faintness of his voice. “Lou?”

Louis looked very pale. “I‘m fine. It’s just so hot—” he said, voice weak. He struggled to unzip his windbreaker jacket, fingers slipping.

Harry frowned in concern. “Let’s get out of here.”

He guided Louis back outside with a hand spread on his lower back, over to a patch of shade behind a small tool shed a few feet from the greenhouse. Once he’d helped Louis sit down on an upside down bucket, Harry crouched in front of him. “Louis, what’s wrong, baby?” he asked in a low voice, reaching for his hands, which were limp on his lap.

Louis tipped his head back against the wall of the shed, eyes closed, chest rising and falling rapidly. “I‘m fine—”

“You keep saying that, but you look like you’re about to pass out!” Harry said in a stifled yell.

Louis’ forehead creased and he shushed Harry without opening his eyes. “‘s just a drop in blood pressure,” he slurred. “From the heat.”

Harry’s brow furrowed; the greenhouse was set at about 28 degrees, hardly a sauna. “What can I do?” he asked finally.

Louis slipped one of his hands out of Harry’s and raised it to his face. He knuckled at his eyes, movements sluggish, before tipping his head forward and shaking it a little, as though he were trying to clear it. “Shit.”

Harry squeezed his hand, which was cold and clammy. “Lou. What do I do?” he insisted, feeling sick with worry.

Louis raised his head to look at Harry, blinking slowly. “I need some water. Or a sports drink if you have any? Please?”

Harry nodded, eyes wide, giving Louis’ hand another squeeze. “Yeah. Of course.” He bit his lip. “I don’t want to leave you alone like this. Can you walk? If we cut through the field we’ll be at the house in ten minutes.”

Louis licked his lips, lids heavy as he considered. “Yeah. Yeah. Just. Give me a minute,” he said finally.

Harry rubbed Louis’ knee, wondering if he could carry Louis back to the house, or if he should just call Gemma and have her pick them up in the car. He was a split second from reaching for his phone when Louis stood up, carefully, one hand against the wall behind him for balance.

Harry shot to his feet, prepared to catch him if he fainted. It was reflexive to reach out to steady him, gripping right above his elbows. “All right?” he asked when Louis was upright.

Louis clutched at Harry’s forearms, squeezing his eyes shut and breathing hard through his nose.

Harry braced himself in case he needed to support Louis’ weight. “Let me call Gemma, she can pick us up. Or—” His stomach lurched at the thought. “Do you need an ambulance?”

“No, no!” Louis said quickly, eyes snapping open. “I’m fine—”

Louis,” Harry said, shooting a pointed glance at where Louis was still gripping his forearms.

Louis cautiously let go of him. “I’m a little dizzy,” he admitted. “But I feel better already. I can walk back. Let’s go.”

It took them fifteen minutes to get back, Harry hovering at Louis side, making a grab for him every time he stumbled and asking how he was holding up every two minutes.

“This is a surprise. You’re just in time!” Gemma said as she opened the door. Her smile dropped when she took in their appearance and expressions. “What happened?”

“Can you get a bottle of Gatorade, please?” Harry replied, rushing to Louis’ side when he tripped over the rug as he stepped inside the house.

Gemma looked confused. “What—”

“I need to lie down,” Louis whispered, squirming out from Harry’s arm around his waist and leaning against the newel from the main staircase balustrade.

“Up to the guest room, Gemma, please,” Harry insisted.

“OK.” Gemma dashed off to the kitchen.

Harry hesitated, biting his lip. “I could carry you upstairs?”

Louis shot him a baleful look, then eyed the staircase. He stretched out a hand toward Harry, but shook his head. “Just give me a hand, please? My legs are like jelly.”

Harry helped him up the stairs and led him straight to the bed in the guestroom.

Gemma was right behind him with the sports’ drink and a glass, which she handed to Harry without asking any questions. Harry poured some into the glass while Louis propped himself up against the pillows, mouth pursed and white-lipped as though he were fighting back nausea.

“Here you go, Lou,” Harry said gently, handing him the glass.

Louis’ hands were shaking as he lifted the glass to his mouth, and he drank it with his eyes downcast. When the glass was empty he held it out again and Harry poured him some more. When he was done with that, Louis toed off his trainers and nudged them to the floor before curling up on his side in a tight ball.

“I’m fine, Harry, you can go now, thank you,” he whispered, still avoiding Harry’s eyes.

Harry instinctively glanced back for guidance at Gemma, who was standing by the door, just outside the room, but she had politely averted her eyes.

He crouched down next to the bed, resting his hand close to Louis’ but not touching.

“I just need to rest for a while, really. I’m fine,” Louis said quietly before Harry could speak.

Harry brushed his knuckles against Louis’ arm but Louis recoiled, bringing his arms closer against his chest.

“If you need anything...” Harry said, his lip quivering, but at Louis’ silence he nodded and left the room, leaving the door ajar just in case.

Gemma dragged him downstairs for a cup of tea after one look at his face. Harry could barely hold back tears as he explained what had happened.

His sister gave him a quick hug. “Low blood pressure isn’t a big deal, Harry. Although it can be a bother: I knew a girl at school who passed out in the shower once and cut her cheek open with the tub.” She gripped his shoulders and gave him a shake. “But he’s fine, Harry. So calm down.”

Harry forced himself to smile and nod, but he couldn’t get rid of the lump in his throat.

-

When he checked on Louis a half hour later, peering into the room, he saw Louis was asleep, still curled up on top of the covers.

Harry fretted when Louis missed dinner. And Gemma, who was meeting a friend at the pub, left him with instructions to ‘let Louis rest and get a grip on yourself’. Harry sat in the living room for a while, but finally forced himself to go to bed at ten. He’d woken up at seven and then driven for hours, and after a long shower, he was ready to drop.

-

Harry woke up with his heart racing, an anxious knot in his stomach. It was still dark out and he didn’t feel like he’d been asleep for long. When he reached for his phone to check the time, he saw he was right: he’d been asleep for less than two hours. He started to roll onto his other side to go back to sleep, when he heard noises coming from downstairs.

He expected to find Gemma in the kitchen, but it was Louis, making himself some tea.

“Hey.” Harry was relieved to see him steady on his feet again. “Lou, how are you feeling?”

Louis gave him a small smile. “Peachy.” He pointed with his chin at the kettle. “Tea?”

Harry shook his head ‘no’, pulling at his bottom lip as he looked Louis over. Although he’d regained most of his colour, his face was drawn and he was still in the same clothes, rumpled from sleeping in them. “You should eat something, Lou. You missed dinner,” he said tentatively.

Louis hesitated, but nodded after a moment. “Maybe some toast?”

Harry reached into the cupboard and took out the bread. “Jam? Honey?”

“Butter? I’m supposed to have salt when my blood pressure gets low.”

Harry stuck the toast in the toaster. “Does this happen a lot?” he asked quietly.

Louis disappeared behind the fridge door. “It’s happened before.”

He reappeared with the butter, but didn’t elaborate.

“I was so worried,” Harry confessed. “I don’t know what I would have done if you’d fainted.” He gave a forced laugh.

Louis glanced up from where he was rummaging in the cutlery drawer. “I told you I was fine, love.”

Harry pinched the hot toast between two fingers and set it down on a plate. “Its not very convincing when your voice is shaking and you can hardly stand without keeling over.”

Louis sat down with his mug of tea and busied himself spreading some butter on the toast. “Sorry,” he said softly after a minute, head down.

Harry shook his head, taking a seat as well. “I’m just... just really glad you’re feeling better.”

Louis pressed his cold, bare toes to Harry’s thigh under the table. “At least I got a good sleep out of it. Knocked me out.”

Harry held onto Louis’ foot, rubbing his thumb in circles over the delicate arch while Louis munched on his toast, both of them silent.

“You haven’t asked,” Harry blurted out as the silence stretched on.

“Hm?”

“I owe you an explanation. I’ve been putting it off, but you haven’t asked.”

Louis took a long sip of his tea, studying him with a gentle expression on his face. “Are you ready to talk now?”

Harry nodded slowly, thinking he should have prepared a proper speech, maybe written it out. He bit his lip, trying to organize his thoughts into something that would make sense. “I’ve never dated,” he began.

Louis shrugged. “OK?”

“I’ve never dated because I was terrified of falling in love and it not working out.”

Louis offered him a small, sympathetic smile, nudging him with his toes. “That’s how it goes, love. You can’t know if it’ll work out unless you try.”

Harry traced the web of fine veins on the arch of Louis’ foot on his lap. “I know. But it was more that I was... I was convinced that it couldn’t work out. And that if I let myself fall for someone, I’d end up like my mum,” he said slowly.

Louis’ forehead creased in confusion. “What do you mean? Your mum and dad’s relationship worked out.”

“Yeah. But it didn’t last.” Harry worried his bottom lip between his teeth for a moment. “After my dad died my mum, she was—She wouldn’t stop still, obsessed with getting everything done as fast as possible: the paperwork and the funeral, and then moving to the new house. But once we got there, she suddenly... shut down. She didn’t leave the house for months. She wouldn’t leave her room; didn’t get out of bed. Gemma started learning to cook because we were living off sandwiches and frozen meals for weeks.”

Louis held his hand out, palm up, over the tabletop. Harry took it gratefully.

“It was awful. It was almost like she’d died too, in a way,” Harry confessed in a whisper. He glanced up at Louis: he was sitting very still, expression somber. “And after seeing that happen to my mum—what she went through—I’ve been terrified of the same thing happening to me. I have this anxiety about something bad happening to the people I love. And it can be really... overwhelming?”

“You should see a therapist about that,” Louis said quietly.

“Gemma’s been after me to do it for ages.” Harry straightened his back and forced himself to maintain eye contact with Louis. “And I'm going to do it. Because this irrational fear is why I said we shouldn’t date, Louis. Even though I want to be with you more than anything.”

Louis didn’t say anything. He looked frozen.

“I realised that I was going to miss out on having you in my life because of this fear of something that probably won’t ever happen. And I can’t... can’t bear that,” Harry went on with painful earnestness. “You’re the most amazing person I’ve ever known. I can’t believe how brilliant you are, sometimes. I don’t even have the words, Lou. I’m... I’m so in love with you.” He gave Louis’ hand a squeeze. “And I just hope you can forgive me and give me a chance? I'll do everything to make you happy. That’s all I want.”

Louis lowered his foot from Harry lap, but didn’t pull back his hand. He ducked his head, staring down at the half-eaten toast on the plate for long enough Harry sweated through his tee shirt.

“Lou?” Harry breathed, noticing the wetness pooling in Louis’ eyes.

“I... I need some time... to think about it,” Louis said, voice choked up.

Harry swallowed the lump in his throat. “I get that. I know... I know I messed up. And I’m so sorry I hurt you—”

Louis shook his head, rubbing the back of Harry’s hand with his thumb. “It's not that, Harry. I forgive you, honestly.” He took a deep breath, his voice evening out. “I’m glad you figured this out, because you deserve love and someone who can make you happy.”

“You make me happy. More than anything,” Harry said quickly, with complete honesty.

Louis’ strained smile didn’t reach his eyes.

Harry lifted Louis’ hand to his mouth and pressed a kiss to his knuckles.

“Thank you for being honest with me, Harry,” Louis said, pulling his hand back. “This was very brave of you.”

“You deserved the truth. I couldn’t bear to hurt you.”

Louis wiped his eyes with the back of his hand before setting both hands on the table and pushing himself to his feet. “We should go to bed.”

Upstairs, Louis stopped in front of the closed door of the guest room, arms wrapped around his middle, chin to his chest. Harry stood in front of him, pinching his bottom lip hard in a nervous gesture. He hadn’t dared hope that Louis would simply forgive him and they could pick up where they had been before Harry messed up. But he hadn’t expected Louis to look so miserable, like Harry had rejected him again instead of having told him he was in love with him.

Louis raised his head and looked at Harry for a long moment, lips trembling. Then he threw his arms around Harry’s neck, standing on his tiptoes.

Harry returned the hug with equal fervor, arms tight around Louis. “I love you,” he whispered into his hair. Louis didn’t answer, face buried in the crook of Harry’s neck. With the hand spread in the middle of Louis’ back, Harry could feel how fast his heart was beating. “Louis...”

Louis pulled back and disappeared into the room, closing the door behind him before Harry could react.

Harry lingered in the hall for a few minutes, feeling numb. He was still awake when Gemma came home at four.

-

Next morning they had a late breakfast and took the car back to London. Louis seemed preoccupied, but he turned on the radio instead of using his headphones, and Harry caught a hint of a smile when Harry sang along, letting his voice crack. Harry tried to make light conversation, but he ended up talking to himself for the most part. Though Louis wasn’t rude, he did nothing to keep up a dialogue either.

When at last they arrived in front of his flat, Louis sat still in the passenger seat for a long moment, gripping his knees, bottom lip between his teeth. Then he turned to face Harry, reaching out to stroke Harry’s hair while looking at him with a soft, sad look in his eyes. Harry was almost afraid to breathe, his heart pounding in his chest.

“Lou?”

Louis dropped his hand. He groped for the door handle, eyes still locked with Harry.

“Louis—”

Louis grabbed his overnight bag between his legs and pushed the door open. “Bye, Harry.”

*

Louis didn’t get in touch.

Harry spent the weekend replaying their conversation in his mind. He went over what he’d said, trying to figure out where he’d gone wrong. It didn’t make sense to him. Louis had seemed so willing to give Harry a chance. And even after Harry’s explanation he hadn’t appeared mad or impatient, just sad. Harry didn’t understand it at all.

“Unless he’s put off by my having this... neurosis...” Harry had given up trying to sort out the latest photoshoot for editing and was slumped in his office chair, feet planted on the floor, rolling back and forth while he talked to Gemma.

“Nobody calls it that any more, Harry. You have an anxiety disorder. Maybe a touch of PTSD, even.”

Harry massaged the back of his neck with one hand. “I thought you had a Journalism degree.”

“I also have a therapist who I’ve been seeing for four years. And I read,” Gemma replied. “In any case, do you really think he’d turn you down because of that? Because if he did, then good riddance and he’s definitely not who you thought he was.”

Harry sighed. “No, I don’t think he would. But... I just don’t understand. He—I thought he wanted to be with me, too. Even after everything, he was still talking to me and joking around during the drive and the walk around town. But after we talked that night... it got all weird. He was completely off, I can’t even explain it. And now it’s been almost two weeks and he’s gone ghost.”

“It’s been ten days. And he said he needed time, didn’t he?” Gemma reminded him gently.

“Yeah. But... something’s wrong. I can tell.”

“Harry,” Gemma sing-songed. “Catastrophising is a telltale sign of anxiety...”

Harry knuckled his forehead. “I know. And I don’t want to pressure him. But you didn’t see him—When I dropped him off at the flat, it was like he was saying goodbye... for good.”

Gemma was silent for a bit, while Harry squeezed his eyes against the sting of tears.

“Have you tried to get in touch at all?” she asked finally.

“I texted him. To remind him about Daylight Saving Time.”

“Oh my God, Harry. Seriously?”

“I was desperate.” Harry whined. “And I’ve called him, but he won’t answer the phone.”

Gemma let her breath out in a long exhalation. “I don’t know, Harry. Why don’t you call one of his friends? Or his mum?”

Harry frowned. “You once told me that was weird, calling his mum.”

Gemma hummed. “Well. It’s different now. And, you’re my brother. I hate seeing you like this. And you deserve closure? If he’s not interested then he should have just said so. Or at least given you some kind of reference as to how much time he needed?”

Harry was almost afraid of that. At the moment he was torn between the agony of uncertainty and the hope that the lack of resolution afforded him. It wasn’t pleasant, but it was something.

*

He tried calling Louis again the next day, but it went to voicemail. Harry was never sure if he should leave a message or not, and he ended up breathing into the phone for a few seconds before hanging up with a curse.

It took three tries for him to get ahold of Niall. He wasn’t sure if he believed him when Niall said he’d been at work.

“How are you doing?” Niall asked, sounding hesitant.

“How is Louis?” Harry returned instead of answering.

“Hm. Well. He’s... all right.”

Harry sat up straight with a sharp inhalation, gripping the armrest of the couch. “What’s wrong? Niall, please.”

“Nothing’s wrong,” Niall said quickly. “Only he’s got some stuff going on right now, so he’s a little stressed, that’s all.”

Harry bit the inside of his cheek. “Fuck.”

Neither of them spoke for a bit.

“Look, Harry... Louis is probably going to be pissed at me if he finds out, but I think you should go see him.”

Harry’s grip on the couch tightened, scratching the fabric with his nails. “He’s not answering my calls. I don’t think he’d appreciate me showing up at his flat.”

Niall clucked his tongue. “Louis is being... well, not an idiot. But I think he’s... he’s not thinking clearly. And he’s my best mate. I love him and I want him to be happy over anything, you know?”

“I know,” Harry said honestly, quietly.

“So my advice is go over there and try to talk some sense into him. Or snog some sense into him. But maybe don’t tell him you talked to me, yeah?”

*

Harry went over to Louis’ flat the very next day. He rang the doorbell, heart in his throat, thinking about the last time he’d come over and how terrible that had turned out. Louis opened the door wearing pajama bottoms and a hoodie even though it was three in the afternoon. He stared at Harry in shock while Harry fidgeted in place, feeling like he might start crying at any moment.

“What are you doing here?” Louis whispered.

“I’m sorry. I know you said you needed time, but I needed to see you... It’s been almost two weeks, Lou.”

Louis’ face scrunched up, hands shoved inside the pockets of his hoodie. Abruptly he turned around, walking toward the living room. Harry closed the front door behind him and followed. Louis didn’t seem to have spread out even though he had the space after Zayn moved out. In fact, the flat looked the same as it had when Harry had seen it two weeks ago, down to the now wilting flowers on the coffee table.

Louis curled up in a corner of the couch, knees to his chest. He looked worn out, and Harry wanted nothing more than to wrap him up in his arms. “You can sit down,” he said when Harry stood in place, uncertain.

Harry sat down at the other end of the couch, hands fisted on his lap.

“I’m sorry, Harry,” Louis said after a long moment and a deep breath. “I didn’t think you’d—I should have told you outright that we should stop seeing each other. I didn’t mean to string you along.”

Harry’s throat went tight. “But—”

Louis shook his head, resting his cheek on his knee. “It’s not because I’m mad at you, though. I don’t want you to think that. It’s not you, it’s me. It’s definitely me.”

Harry couldn’t help the shadow of a strangled laugh at those words. Louis let out a small chuckle in response. Then their eyes met and Louis burst into tears.

“Lou—” Harry gasped, shifting closer but hesitant to touch.

Louis hid his face against his knees. “You don’t want to date me, Harry, believe me.”

Harry reached to rest a hand on Louis’ ankle. “I do. Louis, I’m in love with you, I want to be with you. What’s going on, baby?”

This was nothing like the rejection Harry had feared. He didn’t understand anything. Despair crawled up his throat as he sat, feeling helpless and useless, frozen in place, while Louis sobbed into his knees.  

Harry wracked his mind for an answer. His mind jumped to how Louis had refused to take off his jumper or undress in front of him when they’d slept together. He hadn’t given it much thought afterwards, preoccupied with everything else, but it suddenly seemed significant. “Does it have something to do with why you wouldn’t take your top off in front of me?” he asked slowly.

Louis raised his head, face tear streaked, eyes wide and wet.

Harry inched closer, slipping his hand under the bottom of Louis’ pajama bottoms to circle his ankle with his fingers. “Louis, whatever it is, I don’t mind,” he said earnestly. “Do you have a skin condition? Scars from an accident? A bad tattoo? I don't care.”

Louis curled his fingers around the neckline of his hoodie, worrying his bottom lip. “That doesn’t matter,” he said after a moment. “What matters is that I’ve changed my mind. I don’t think we should be together.”

Harry wanted to scream. “I was honest with you. Please trust me, tell me what—”

Louis dried his face with the hem of a sleeve. “You’ll find someone else, Harry.”

“I don’t want someone else! I want you!”

Louis shook his head, his face set. “Trust me. You don’t.”

Harry thought he might throw up. “Lou—”

“Please leave now, Harry,” Louis said, voice calm, determined.

“But—”

In the end he had no choice but to leave, even if he felt like he was suffocating. It all felt like a bad dream, and Harry didn’t know when it had all gone so wrong.

Chapter Text

Harry wanted to hole himself up in his flat for after his break up with Louis. But he had to work, and he couldn’t be moping about when he was working with children and babies and happy families. So he plastered a smile on his face, pushed his pain as deep and far back as it would go and soldiered on, desperate for his day off on Sunday.

On Thursday Harry went down to the hospital. After the shoot he made himself stop at the nursery to look at the babies, which cheered him up minimally. Niall had called, sympathetic and despondent, but resigned. Yet Harry was having a hard time finding it in himself to give up, not with how Louis had acted. He wasn’t sure what he could do, however, if anything.

Deciding he had nothing to lose and everything to gain, he went over to the nurse’s station to talk to Jay. It turned out she was off work, but Harry resolved to call her later. Nonetheless, despite his refusal to be discouraged, he was reluctant to go back to his flat, where all that awaited him were more hours of wretchedness. In an effort to stretch out his visit, he decided to take the alternative, longer route down to the exit Jay had shown him.

He was walking down the corridor on the second floor when he came face to face with Louis, who was rounding the corner. They stared at each other, both frozen in place. Louis looked like he wanted to run in the opposite direction, but he stood still when Harry approached him.

“Hey.”

“Hi.”

“What are you doing here?” Harry asked. Seeing Louis again when he’d been terrified he wouldn’t get another chance felt almost miraculous. He stared without holding back, drinking him in, from the small freckles on his cheeks to the tiny specks of green in his eyes.

“Came to see my mum,” Louis replied, clutching the folder he was holding closer to his chest.

Harry broke out of his trance. “They told me your mum wasn’t working today.”

Louis winced, then his eyes narrowed. “Why were you asking after my mum?” he asked suspiciously.

Before Harry could answer, they were interrupted by a young nurse running up to them.

“Mr Tomlinson, thank goodness I caught up with you!” She rubbed the back of her neck, clearly embarrassed. “I’m so sorry. I forgot to give you the referral slip for the next appointment.”

She handed Louis a piece of paper with a smile. Louis studiously avoided looking at Harry as he took it. The nurse fiddled with the ID badge clipped to her front, looking at Louis with a sympathetic expression.

“Give what we talked about a try, hm? Fatigue is an unfortunate side effect of the medication you’re taking, but a few lifestyle changes can really make a big difference,” she said, with forced cheer and painful earnestness.

Louis nodded, his polite smile painful to look at. “Right. Thank you.”

With a chipper farewell the nurse dashed off down the hall again. Neither of them spoke even after she’d disappeared from sight.

“Louis...” Harry breathed, his ears ringing.

Louis carefully slipped the piece of paper into his folder, head down, hands shaking.

“Are you ill?” Harry asked, his voice breaking on the last word.

Louis raised his eyes to Harry. He opened his mouth as though about to speak, then swallowed thickly. It took two more tries before he managed. “Yeah?” he said at last, almost inaudible.

Harry was afraid he might throw up. “What—Louis—” he choked out.

Louis’ knuckles were white where he was clutching the folder to his chest. “Let’s go down to the cafeteria. We’re in the way.”

Harry followed Louis downstairs, examining every inch of him as they walked, his mind reeling, a litany of ‘no, no, no’ and the memory of when his mother had sat him down and told him his dad was sick playing in his mind.

“Find us a table?” Louis said as they entered the cafeteria.

Harry watched Louis while he was standing in the queue. And as he walked back with a chocolate milk for himself and pineapple juice for Harry. He set the folder down on the table and sat down opposite Harry. Harry didn’t take his eyes off him as he opened the milk, stuck the straw in the carton, and took a sip.

“I’m not dying, Harry, don’t look so tragic.”

Harry couldn’t laugh or even muster a smile. “Please, Louis.”

Louis took a deep breath, fingers drumming nervously on the table. “I have a congenital heart defect,” he said, voice quiet but perfectly distinct.

Harry stared at him, stunned. For a few seconds the only thought that filled his mind was: ‘not cancer’.

“Tetralogy of Fallot. Have you heard of it?”

Still dazed, Harry nodded slowly. “I’ve... I’ve heard the term, I don’t really... know what it means.”

Louis played with the straw, spilling droplets of milk on the tabletop. “It’s four heart problems in one,” he said with a humourless laugh. “I’m not going to give you an anatomy lesson right now.”

Harry worked the cap off his juice bottle for something to do with his hands. “So what... happened?”

Louis took another sip of chocolate milk. “I was diagnosed a few weeks after I was born. My mum was feeding me and I started turning blue because I wasn’t getting enough oxygen. Scared her half to death. She rushed me to the hospital, and they did some tests and found out what was wrong.”

Harry took a moment to try to process what Louis had told him. He’d never seen any pictures of Louis as a baby, and it hurt to imagine him now. “Did you… need surgery?”

Louis nodded. “I had definitive repair surgery at ten months. But they had to operate again when I was four because of a ventricular aneurysm that was causing problems.”

Harry took a sip of juice, his mouth dry, struggling to remember the lessons on human anatomy from sixth form. “So it’s fixed?” he asked helplessly.

Louis gave him a pitying look. “It doesn’t quite work like that, Harry,” he said gently. “When I was eleven I needed another surgery because I had residual VSD leakage—”

Harry must have made some noise of confusion.

“There were some complications with the previous surgery. It happens sometimes. So I needed another operation, which I had right around when the twins were born...” He shook his head, mouth twisted. “Not the best time. I don’t know how mum managed.”

Harry thought back on his conversation with Jay. He couldn’t fathom what it must have been like for her at the time. “But they fixed it then?” he asked, almost desperately.

Louis actually reached for Harry’s hand, stilling his nervous peeling of the bottle label. “Yeah. But I still have some problems, Harry.”

Harry didn’t let Louis draw back, gripping his hand, compulsively trying to warm up his cold fingers. “What problems?” he asked in a whisper.

“Do you know what arrhythmias are?”

Harry nodded numbly. “It’s when you have an irregular heartbeat, right?”

“That’s it. It’s not uncommon for people with heart problems and previous heart surgeries to develop arrhythmias. It started last year, and I needed to have this procedure to make it better. I actually had it two weeks before I met you for the first time.”

The nurse’s words echoed in Harry’s mind. “But... but you still need to take medication?”

“Mhm.” Louis sighed. “And it’s been giving me some trouble, because my blood pressure is too low, and the side effects are shit.”

Harry brought Louis’ hand to his mouth absently, pressing his lips to Louis’ fingers. Despite Harry’s attempts, the tips of his fingers still felt cool. His mind was spinning, thinking about how Louis had admitted he had trouble sleeping, but balked at any attempts to discuss his frequent, abnormal tiredness. The incident at the greenhouse made Harry’s throat close up now. He thought about how Louis struggled to catch his breath after ice skating, and how  he sometimes picked at his food so that Harry had to coax him to eat. But he didn’t really know how much of that was normal for Louis and what was a result of his health issues or the medication he was taking.

Then the realization of why Louis wouldn’t bare his chest hit him: Louis had had open heart surgery. Twice.

Harry wasn’t aware he’d started crying until he felt Louis wiping his cheeks and shushing him softly.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” Harry asked with a sob. “You haven’t been feeling well the entire time we’ve known each other, Louis. Fuck. Why didn’t you tell me?”

Louis ducked his head, biting his lip. “I didn’t want to scare you off.”

“What?” Harry gasped, not understanding.

Louis’ eyes were glistening as he spoke. “Nobody wants to... stay... once they know.”

Harry frowned in confusion. “What are you talking about?”

“Every time. Once they see the scars, and start asking questions.” Louis blinked back tears. “You’re so—I was so into you from the start, Harry. And I thought, maybe, if you liked me enough before you found out... you wouldn’t leave me.”

Harry kissed Louis’ hand again, fervently, even as he sobbed. He had a distant thought that he was making a scene in the hospital cafeteria, but he couldn’t stop himself. Louis said nothing, but Harry could hear his shuddering, hitching breaths like he was struggling not to cry.

Harry’s head snapped up. “But why did you turn me down, then, baby?”

“Because I’m the last thing you need, Harry. You don’t want to deal with this.”

“I do—”

Louis pulled his hand from Harry’s grip and sat back in his chair, looking at him with wet eyes. “No, you don’t, Harry. Nobody wants to, I told you. My own dad left for good once he heard I was sick.”

Harry’s hands tightened into fists. “That’s not your fault! He’s the one who’s an awful person, abandoning his son like that. And I want to be with you!”

Louis dabbed at his eyes with a napkin, shaking his head. “I can’t be so selfish, Harry.”

“Selfish how?” Harry demanded.

“You told me you were scared of losing people, love. That you were terrified you’d go through the same situation your mum did.”

Blood rushed to Harry’s head. “But you’re not... you’re not dying,” he said hoarsely, half a question.

“No. But—” Louis pressed the heel of his palms to his eyes for a moment. “I have a serious heart defect, Harry. It’s not... it’s not going to go away. I’m probably going to need another surgery in ten years. I might live to eighty and I might not make it past fifty.”

Harry felt physical pain at those words.

“And this affects my life. I’m always going to need medication, with all that implies, and regular check-ups. And I’m—Some people with heart problems can run a marathon, but I can’t. And you’re... you’re twenty-two, Harry. And you lost your dad, already. And your mum for a while. And I don’t... I don’t want to do this to you. I can’t. It’s not fair to you.”

Harry sat still for a long moment, clasping his hands in front of him, so tight it hurt. “I’m in love with you.”

Louis gave a tremulous sigh. “I’m sorry. I should have told you from the start. I’m sorry.”

“You don’t think I wouldn’t have fallen for you either way? I don’t understand how anyone could let you go, I really don’t.”

Louis shook his head, his whole face scrunched up in an effort to hold back tears. “You don’t want this, Harry.”

“Shouldn’t you let me decide that?” Harry said, almost angrily. Because he couldn’t stomach seeing Louis like this, pushing him away like he didn’t deserve to be loved. Like he’d somehow tricked Harry into falling in love with him. “I love you. And you... you love me, don’t you?”

Louis whimpered, a tear slipping down his cheek.

Harry reached across the table, palms up. “That’s all that matters. If we both want this—”

Louis made no move to hold Harry’s hands. He took a deep, calming breath. “You don’t really know what this is, though.”

“What?”

Louis looked at Harry in the eyes. “I do love you. But I need you to go home and do some research, and really think about what it means to be with me. The good... and the bad. And I don’t want the choice you make to be out of pity, or because you have something to prove. I want you to think about what’s best for you.” His voice held up until the last bit, when it quavered and broke.

Harry’s heart was so full of love it hurt.

“Take some time and really think about it. And then we’ll talk,” Louis said. And with that he took his folder and left Harry sitting alone, chest aching, face hot from crying, and so overwhelmed he didn’t know what to do with himself.

-

Harry sat in a stupor for he didn’t know how long, watching people come and go and seeing no one.

Until someone tapped him on the shoulder, a portly man in a white lab coat. “Are you quite all right?” he asked in a gentle voice. Harry thought he had a kind face.

“I… I just got some bad news,” Harry replied automatically.

The man’s expression was knowing and sympathetic. “Would you like to talk?” he offered.

Harry frowned, looking the stranger over.

“You can trust me, I’m a doctor…” The man tapped the ID badge clipped on his coat pocket. “PhD, not MD, but it’ll do in a pinch, won’t it?” he said in a light tone.

The quip pulled a lip twitch from Harry. “Are you a psychologist?”

“I’m James,” the man said, sitting across from him. “I work at the hospital as a counselor.”

“’m Harry.”

James folded his hands on the table in front of him. “You said you got some bad news, Harry?”

Harry fussed with the label he’d peeled off the bottle, nodding to his knees. “It’s not cancer,” he clarified, looking up at James, thinking about how when his dad had first taken ill and everyone had whispered ‘is it bad news?’ all the time. “My… my friend... my best friend told me he’s ill. He has… heart problems….”

“I’m sorry to hear that. Has he started treatment?”

“He’s on some medication. And he had surgeries when he was a child.” Harry pinched his bottom lip between his thumb and forefinger. “But I didn’t know. I had no idea.”

James hummed thoughtfully. “I take it this is something he’s been keeping from you for some time.”

Harry nodded, mouth tight. “I… I keep thinking about how he’s been sick these last months and I didn’t notice. There were signs, but I was so fucking self-absorbed I didn’t realize—” He hit his forehead with the heel of his palm and gripped a handful of his hair. “I just thought he had trouble sleeping because he was stressed,” he said through gritted teeth.

James tapped Harry’s wrist with two fingers and waited until Harry released his punishing grip on his hair before speaking. “Are you a doctor, Harry? Or a nurse?” he asked mildly.

“No.”

“Hindsight is 20/20. That doesn’t mean you should have noticed something was wrong. Especially if your friend didn’t want you to know and was making an effort to hide it from you. You have no medical training and had no reason to suspect.”

James’ assertion battled with the gnawing guilt in Harry’s stomach. After a long moment Harry nodded, some of the tension leaving his body.

James folded his hands under his chin. “But now he’s opened up to you. Now you know your friend has this condition. How do you feel about that?”

Harry bounced his leg nervously. “Scared,” he whispered.

James watched him with a sympathetic expression. “What are you scared of?”

Harry struggled to swallow past the lump in his throat. “I’m scared that he’ll… that he’ll—” He couldn’t even bring himself to say it.

James looked thoughtful. “Now, I don’t know exactly what your friend has—”

“Tetralogy of Fallot,” Harry interrupted, stumbling over the unfamiliar name.

James gave a nod and a hum of recognition. “I know that’s a congenital heart defect. I’m not a cardiologist, and every case is different, but from what you tell me he’s been living with these problems his whole life.”

Harry made a small, choked sound of agreement.

“He’s been living, Harry,” James said with significance. “Many people live with heart issues, and there are medical advances taking place that were unthinkable only a few years back.”

“But he’s… he’s never really going to get better! And there’s nothing I can do to help him. He’s… the best… the most amazing… person I know. It’s so unfair.” Harry broke down again.

James reached into his coat pocket for a pack of tissues. “That frustration and even anger, those feelings of helplessness, are normal; it’s hard to see someone we love suffering.”

Harry wiped his face with a tissue, whimpering.

“But we can’t let those feelings overwhelm us. You might not be able to fix your friend’s health problems, but you can be there for him while he lives with them.”

“I don’t know if I’m strong enough,” Harry whispered. “He’s so brave. But I’m… I’m not.”

James gave him a small smile and handed him another tissue. “Only you can decide that. But if there’s one thing I’ve learnt through the years, Harry, it’s that most of the time we are so much stronger and braver than we think we are. Especially when it comes to the people we care about.”

Harry took a moment, biting down on his knuckle, breath hitching with contained sobs. After a few minutes he blew his nose and managed to take a few deep breaths. He felt a little lighter, somehow. At least the urge to curl into a ball and weep had passed for the moment. “Thank you, James.”

James took the hand Harry offered and shook it warmly in both of his. “You’re welcome. That’ll be twenty pounds.”

Harry felt the tug of a smile on his face.

James gave him a number to call if he wanted to make an appointment for a proper session, as he had a private practice besides his work at the hospital, and Harry saved the number carefully in his phone.

-

After the hospital, Harry stopped home to shower and change. And then he went out again to meet Liam at a pub, eyes red and throat sore from crying. Although it was tempting, he didn’t drink himself into a stupor, and he didn’t discuss anything related to Louis with Liam, either. Liam took one look at Harry and pulled him into a big hug, but he didn’t ask any questions: ‘whenever you want to talk‘ was all he said. However, what Harry needed at that moment was to clear his mind and distract himself. With an eye on the American football game playing on the television, they compared notes on a new protein shake and made tentative plans to see Drake in concert. When Harry got home around midnight, he felt almost normal. He thought he might be in shock.

Before he went to bed, Harry sent Louis a text: ‘I love you. Sleep well, baby’

Louis read the text a few seconds after he sent it, but he didn’t reply for ten minutes. When his text came through it was nothing but a moon and a ‘zzz’ emoji. Harry found the first voice message Louis had sent him, months before, and played it a few times, heart in his throat. Then he set his phone down, snuggled under the covers and closed his eyes. It took him a while to fall asleep, but not as much as he had feared.

*

He spent the following morning reading up on Tetralogy of Fallot, looking at diagrams and videos of heart function to really understand what was going on with Louis’ heart. He had to text Louis to ask which type of arrhythmia he had when he found out there were several different ones. Louis replied after a few minutes: ‘atrial fibrillation’. Harry bookmarked several sites about it and left for a couple of photoshoots he had in the city. After, he met up with Nick for lunch.

Then he went home and read some more. There were dozens of treatment options for atrial fibrillation, so he texted Louis to ask what medication he was taking. It was half an hour before Louis replied.

‘you’re really taking this seriously’

Harry wanted to call him, but he contented himself with texting. ‘of course I am. I don’t want you to have any excuse to say no to me’

The speech bubbles appeared and disappeared for five minutes, Harry torn between smiling and anxiously biting his thumb nail.

‘you’re ridiculous’

A wide smile spread across Harry’s face and he stifled a giggle into his palm. Harry had been called ridiculous before, usually meaning to be insulting. He never thought those words could make him as happy as they did coming from Louis.

‘Carvedilol. it’s a beta blocker’ Louis wrote after a moment.

‘thank you. I love you’

‘go to sleep’ Louis shot back with a star emoji.

Harry showered and crawled into bed, tired from a long, busy day, and eyes burning from so many hours glued to his laptop researching. His mind was a jumble of valves and chambers, red and blue. But he felt lighter after his short conversation with Louis, and he fell asleep quickly.

*

Reading up on the medication Louis was taking next morning sobered him up. The list of warnings and possible side effects was depressing. It explained Louis’ fatigue and the perpetually cold hands and feet, the occasional nausea, and the episode of hypotension at the greenhouse. Even his argument with Niall at the pub, so confusing at the time, made sense when he read about the interactions with alcohol.

He found frequent complaints about the side effects of betablockers in forums, though most were from people suffering from hypertension or other forms of heart disease. He eventually found some testimonies of adults living with CHD, but most of what he read on congenital heart disease related to children. Harry had photographed sick babies before, but once he heard ‘she’s going to make it’ or ‘he’s out of danger’ it was over for him—he never stopped to think about what came after. About how in many cases those babies would grow up into adults who had to deal with lifelong health issues.

In the case of CHD accurate prognosis was difficult. There was no precedent for the generation growing up with the latest advances in surgical treatment, so that the medical community could only make educated guesses in relation to them, in terms of future complications and life span. The only thing that seemed certain was decreased exercise tolerance and a need for regular monitoring.

It was a long time before Harry gathered the strength to type it into the searchbar: life expectancy in adults with CHD. It was inconclusive. Some reported much lower life expectancy, others insisted there could be a normal life span.

Eyes burning, Harry closed the tabs and shut down his laptop. Then he lurched to his feet and staggered to the bathroom, dry heaving.

He sat in the bathroom for a long time, stomach roiling. He wondered what it was like for Louis. Was he scared? He thought of Louis’ black out poetry, what he’d said about it being his outlet for frustration. Was he angry? Sad? All of them, probably.

Harry had overheard once that his dad’s initial reaction to his cancer diagnosis had been to cuss out the doctors and nurses and stalk off. His illness had come as a shock, though. His dad was healthy until he wasn’t.

But Louis had never been healthy. Never would be. All the uncertainties Harry had feared, the ‘what ifs’ and statistical improbabilities that caused him such anxiety, had become much more real. He understood why Louis had said what he’d said at the hospital. If they got together, Harry would be signing up for a very real chance of having his heart broken—of losing his boyfriend, his spouse, his life partner, possibly the father of his children, prematurely. The very thing he’d feared for so long, and he’d be walking right into it.

-

Much later, Harry lay in bed staring at his phone, open to his last texts with Louis. It was long past midnight and Harry hadn’t texted him. Louis had last been online more than an hour ago; he’d probably gone to bed wondering why Harry hadn’t been in touch like he had the past two days.

But Harry didn’t know what to say. There was so much to process, so many emotions he couldn’t quite put into words yet twisting in his stomach. With a deep, shuddering breath, he scrolled through his contacts and, after a moment’s hesitation, hit dial.

“Harry? It’s so late, love. Is everything all right?”

Harry swallowed the lump in his throat. “Mum, can I come home?”

“Of course, baby, you don’t have to ask.”

“Thanks, mum,” Harry sniffled, eyes filling up again. “Sorry if I woke you up.”

“What’s wrong, Harry? Why are you crying?” Anne asked urgently.

“I’m not,” he replied, rubbing his eyes roughly. “We’ll talk tomorrow. I... I can’t right now.”

His mum knew him well enough not to keep insisting. After he ended the call, Harry stared at the dark ceiling for fifteen minutes before giving up on sleep and reaching for his laptop.

Looking for something to distract himself, he found himself browsing through punny handmade cards, which made him smile even as he had to keep blinking the blur of tears from his eyes. He placed several orders before he finally turned off his laptop and managed to fall asleep for a few hours.

*

Harry took the earliest train he could find up north, nodding off most of the ride. His mum picked him up at the station in the car, pulling him into a warm, long hug. But she didn’t ask any questions until they reached the house.

“Tea? Or something stronger?” she asked in a light tone, one foot in the kitchen.

Harry shot her a bewildered look. “It’s ten in the morning!”

Anne smiled and caressed his cheek. “Hot chocolate?”

Harry hummed in agreement, leaning into her touch.

“Go get comfortable, I’ll be there in a minute.”

Harry sank into the couch in the living room, feeling a little nervous. However, once his mum returned with hot chocolate in his favourite mug and settled down next to him, he calmed down somewhat.

“I met someone,” he began.

Anne quivered with contained excitement, suppressing a smile. “Oh?”

Harry took a long sip, burning the tip of his tongue.

“What’s his name?” she asked, when Harry didn’t elaborate.

“Louis.” Harry’s voice only shook a little. “We met at the end of November.”

His mum’s smile dimmed a little. “You’ve certainly kept it quiet. You’ve been seeing this boy for almost five months?”

Harry shook his head, running a hand through his hair. “No. It’s... it’s complicated, mum.”

Anne rubbed Harry’s arm soothingly. “I’m listening, love.”

Harry snuggled up closer, making himself small and tucking himself under her chin. “We started off as friends. Best friends, in no time at all. I’ve never hit it off with anyone so quickly.”

“That sounds lovely.”

Harry curled a hand in her soft jumper, keeping the other wrapped around the mug on his lap. “But I... I liked him from the start, mum. And the more I got to know him the more I fell for him. Louis is—there’s no one like him.”

“You’re in love with him,” Anne said softly, not really a question.

Harry nodded, inhaling the familiar, comforting smell of his mum’s jumper. “I am,” he admitted.

Anne threaded her fingers through his hair. “Does he like you back?” she asked carefully.

“Yeah,” Harry replied quietly.

“Then what’s the problem, baby?” she asked, gentle, but clearly confused.  

Harry was silent for a minute as the nervousness rushed back. “Mum, can I ask you a question?”

“Always.”

“If... if you’d known dad was going to get sick, that he was going to... die... would you... would you still have married him?”

He felt his mother’s sharp inhalation, how her whole body stiffened in surprise.

“God, Harry. Where is this coming from?” she said after a moment, voice wavering.

“Please, mum, can you just answer me for once!” Harry whimpered.

After he died, his mum never mentioned Harry’s dad, and if she did it was carefully, vaguely. Harry had wanted to talk about him, had needed to when he was younger, and not just with Gemma. Anne was silent for a long time, though she resumed her stroking of Harry’s hair. Her prolonged silence made Harry’s eyes start to prickle, bile burning his throat.

“Yes,” she said, so quietly Harry almost didn’t catch it. “Yes, I would.” Harry sat up so he could look at his mum in the face. Her eyes were wet, but she looked calm and sure. “I would, Harry. Absolutely. Your father... he was so important to me. I loved him so much. And while we were together he made me so happy. And he gave me the most precious part of my life: you and your sister. I would have married him even if I’d known. Of course I would have.”

Harry’s chest hurt. “Even after how bad it was for you after he died?”

Anne’s composure flickered. “Oh, Harry, sweetheart. That pain was terrible, but what makes it unbearable is knowing how much I hurt you and your sister. You were just a child, and Gemma only fifteen, and I abandoned you both right after you’d lost your dad. I can never forgive myself.”

Tears slid down Harry’s face. “You were depressed, it’s not your fault.”

Anne shook her head tightly, expression twisted in pain. “I should’ve been there for you. And I’ve made so many mistakes...”

Harry pulled her into a hug, both of them crying. Once they calmed down, Anne drew back, wiping her tears impatiently.

“Why are you asking me this, Harry?” she said roughly.

Harry took a shaky breath. “Louis—”

Anne’s eyes widened in alarm. “Is he sick?”

Harry used the bottom hem of his shirt to wipe his face. “He’s got some health issues, yeah.”

Anne’s hands were in fists on her lap. “What kind of problems?” she asked, voice almost sharp.

Harry dabbed under his dripping nose. “He has a congenital heart defect.”

Anne stared at him, obviously expecting more information.

“He needed surgery when he was little, and he has to take medication.”

Anne’s brow knit. “But he’s all right now?”

Harry bit his lip. “Relatively speaking. He’s—It’s never going to go away, mum.”

“But will it get worse?” Anne asked, her voice going high.

“I hope not,” Harry said, and he found himself releasing a small breath of laughter. “But it’s a possibility.”

Anne looked at Harry intently. “Are you sure this is what you want?”

Harry realized his tears had dried up. The whole conversation felt superfluous all of a sudden. Had he ever really contemplated giving Louis up? Louis, who made him happier than anyone in the world? Who had chosen Harry, beyond all odds? He was the luckiest person to get to be with Louis, to share his life with him, for however long. “Yes.”

His mum’s eyes filled with tears and Harry pulled her into a hug again. This time only she cried.

“You’ll have to bring him over so I can meet him,” she said, once she’d calmed down.

“I will. But you should get down to London, too. Meet his mum. I think you two would get along.”

-

After, Harry went to the bathroom to wash his face. He pulled out his phone: two missed calls from Liam and a text from Gemma: ‘?????’.

Harry texted Louis: ‘lou, can i see you tomorrow?’

He pulled at his bottom lip while he waited for Louis to see the text and answer.

‘if you want to’

Harry wanted to, badly. He missed Louis like crazy. They had gone from seeing each other practically every day to painful, intermittent contact.

‘i can’t wait to see you’

Louis didn’t answer immediately and Anne called him over to help with lunch, so Harry pocketed his phone. He didn’t hear a notification while he was cooking or eating lunch, and he forced himself not to check as he settled down for a nap.

And later, for the first time in years, he and his mum talked about his dad. About how he used to love dancing and playing football. How he would wake up the whole family at dawn on Saturdays to go for a walk. How he hoarded magazines and snuck a cigarette in every once in a while. How his favourite thing to eat were scones and how he once scoured twelve different stores looking for a doll Gemma wanted for Christmas. Harry felt closer to him than he had in eleven years. And closer to his mum, too.

On the drive to the station, his phone beeped. Louis’ response was nothing but an alarm clock emoji, which gave Harry pause. He wasn’t sure if it meant ‘come early’ or that he was looking forward to seeing Harry as well.

*

Harry woke up at the crack of dawn, but made himself wait until a more reasonable hour. He tried to do some cleaning, took a long shower, had breakfast, and finally headed out to Louis’ flat. It was almost eleven when he arrived, having made a quick stop at the florist.

Harry rang the door bell, stomach fluttering with nerves but no hesitation. He straightened his back, ran his fingers through his hair one last time, and then the door was swinging open and Louis was before him. They stared at each other for a long moment.

“Hi,” Harry croaked.

Louis looked him over, forehead wrinkling at Harry’s arm behind his back. “Not more flowers?”

Harry bit back a laugh, ducking his head. “Just one.” He offered Louis the rose, getting on one knee in a spontaneous gesture.

Louis clapped a hand over his mouth, goggling at Harry.

Harry’s winsome grin was a touch tremulous as Louis made no move to accept the rose from Harry. After what wasn’t more than a few seconds but felt like an eternity, Louis took the flower.

“Can I come in?” Harry asked, rising to his feet.

Louis hesitated, bottom lip between his teeth, then wrapped his fingers around Harry’s wrist and pulled him inside, closing the door behind him.

Harry noticed how carefully he set down the rose before grabbing a card from the entrance table.

“Care to explain this?” Louis asked, brandishing the card in front of him. “It arrived with the mail this morning.”

Harry blushed, fidgeting in place.

Louis read it out loud: “When I’m near you I get a—” He turned the card to face Harry, pointing at the drawing of a heart standing in for a word. “—hard on.”

Harry had a hard time keeping his grin in check. “I thought it was funny?” he said meekly.

He’d ordered the card delivered the night before last. And had more on the way: I aorta tell you how much I love you. You melt my heart. You’re such a QT, with a picture of an echocardiogram. My heart beets for you. You octopi my heart. He planned to space them out for a few weeks; Louis was in for a surprise.

Louis stared at him for a moment then buried his face in both hands, laughing. “You are the single most ridiculous person I’ve ever met,” he said between giggles.

Harry set free his grin and took a step toward Louis. “Mhm. I don’t know how you put up with me.”

Louis lowered his hands, face pink, smiling hard enough his eyes were crinkled. “Beats me.”

They both laughed. And Harry couldn't believe how much he had missed Louis.

Louis held the card open. “This isn’t your handwriting.”

“No. There wasn’t time to have it shipped to me and then have me mail it to you,” Harry explained. “But the message is mine.”

Louis looked down at the card again, a smile tugging at his lips. “I figured. I hope you paid extra: they wrote ‘I love you’ thirty three times.”

Harry clucked his tongue, feigning annoyance. “It was supposed to be thirty five.”

Louis let out another giggle, then bit his lip again, holding a hand out toward Harry. Harry took it as an invitation and stepped closer.

Louis held the card to his chest with one hand, chin to his chest. “You’re... you’re sure about this?” he asked at last, looking up at Harry wide eyed.

Harry raised a hand to touch Louis, but stopped himself. “Can I?” he asked. He was relieved when Louis nodded, though his face was still solemn. Harry cupped his cheek in one hand and palmed the side of his neck with the other. “I’m sure I’m in love with you. I’m sure I never want to be without you—”

Louis gripped Harry’s sweatshirt over his hip. “You might have to,” he interjected.

“I’ll never choose to be without you,” Harry corrected. “I’m sure I want everything you’re willing to give me. And I’m sure I want to give you everything in return.”

Louis gaped at him.

“Does that answer your question?” Harry said with a lopsided smile.

Louis blinked, fingers tightening their grip. “You’re an idiot.”

Harry gave a breathy laugh, then sobered. “Can I kiss you?” he whispered.

Louis licked his lips, eyes dropping to Harry’s mouth. “This isn’t Pretty Woman, yes, you can kiss me,” he said, voice quavering.

“So I don’t have to pay either—?”

Louis cut him off, reaching up to grip the back of Harry’s head and pull him down into a kiss. Harry thought his heart might beat out of his chest, having Louis’ lips on his again, his body pressed up against his own.

“Just to be clear, this means I love you and I want to date you,” Harry said in a rush when they broke apart.

Louis gave him a peck, fingers tangled in the hair at the base of Harry’s head. “I got that, Harry.”

Harry stroked his hands over Louis’ sides, fitting at his waist. “I just don’t want any more miscommunication.”

Louis went serious, nodding. “No more secrets.”

Harry leaned in to kiss him again, over and over, hyperaware of the way Louis’ fingers were curling and uncurling on his chest. “You taste so sweet,” he murmured.

Louis breathed a laugh, their mouths barely an inch apart. “I had cinnamon crunch for breakfast.”

When Harry licked into his mouth again, slow and languid, Louis let out a quiet moan and fisted his hand in Harry’s sweatshirt.

“It’s worse than I thought,” Harry said, trailing kisses down his neck and coming to a stop with his lips pressed to Louis’ pulse point.

“Hm?”

“How much I missed you. How much I want you.”

One of Louis’ hands found its way between Harry’s legs, gripping him over his jeans. “Yeah, I can see the card wasn’t lying.”

Harry rolled his hips into his touch. “Definitely not.”

Louis untangled his fingers from Harry’s hair and ran his hand down his chest until he reached the waistband of his jeans. His other hand kept rubbing Harry’s cock, digging his heel into the inseam. “I have to tell you something.”

“What?” Harry mumbled, face still pressed to the side of Louis’ neck.

Louis teased his fingers around the waistband of his jeans before unbuttoning them. “I think—” He moved closer, fitting himself to Harry so that Harry could feel how hard he was against the top of his thigh. “I think we should have sex,” he said, voice shivering with laughter.

Harry slid both hands down Louis’ back to get a firm grip on his arse, lifting him onto his tiptoes. “I heart-ily agree.”

Louis groaned and half-heartedly tried to push him off him. “I take it back. Are we going to do this every time?”

Harry cackled, even as he palmed Louis’ arse. “Do what? Puns before buns?”

“Stop it. Shut up!” Louis laughed, swatting at him.

They were both giggling as they walked over to Louis’ bedroom.

Louis tugged at Harry’s shirt as he flung the door open. “Take this off. C’mon.”

Harry pulled his shirt over his head, and Louis put his hands on him, fingers spread. Harry shivered when Louis bit right under his collarbone while thumbing at one of his nipples.

“What do you want to do?” Harry asked, pulling Louis closer, hand spread low on his back, slipping under his jumper.

Louis shifted to rub himself against Harry’s thigh, kissing his neck. “Whatever you want.”

Harry groaned, finding Louis’ jaw and tilting his head up to kiss him. Louis made a small sound at that, clutching at Harry’s elbow, gasping into his mouth.

“Bed. Bed. Bed,” Harry chanted, wrestling out his jeans. “Where’s the lube? Condoms?”

Louis let himself fall onto the unmade bed, fingers at the waistband of his joggers. “In the bathroom. Second drawer.”

Harry finished undressing and headed to the bathroom in the nude. When he came back he found Louis in bed under the covers, with the duvet up to his chin. His clothes were on the floor, including his jumper.

Harry’s lips curled. “Are you naked under there?” he said, keeping his tone light.

Louis’ mouth curved into a smile. “Why don’t you come over and find out?”

Harry grinned and slipped under the covers, setting the lube and condom, and the flannel he’d brought with him, to a side. He held himself over Louis to kiss him while Louis stroked his hair and ran his hands down his back. Then he sat back between Louis’ legs, letting the duvet slide down so they were both uncovered.

Louis went still, keeping his arms by his sides, gripping the bedsheets at the level of his hips. Harry was careful not to look at his chest, focusing on how his throat worked as he swallowed, obviously nervous, chin to his shoulder, eyelashes fluttering against his cheeks.

“Lou, look at me, baby,” Harry whispered, giving Louis’ thigh a soothing squeeze.

Louis slowly turned his head and raised his eyes to meet Harry’s.

Harry reached for the lube, pouring some onto his palm, maintaining eye contact with Louis. “You’re so fucking beautiful.”

Louis didn’t quite manage a smile, but he nudged Harry’s side with his knee. “I suppose I must have something going on for me if I got you in bed.”

“You’re gorgeous.”

Louis gave the tiniest gasp, stomach muscles contracting when Harry wrapped his fingers around his half hard cock and gave him a couple of slow pulls, squeezing the head on the upstroke.

He gripped Harry's wrist, making Harry look up from where he had dropped his eyes to fix his gaze on Louis’ cock. Harry didn’t stop the movement of his hand, though. “You can look, you know?” Louis said in a small voice. “I mean, I know my cock is fascinating, but—”

Harry chuckled. “I do like your cock,” he said, giving it a tighter squeeze.

Louis’ fingers dug into his wrist. “I think you might like my nipples, too.”

Automatically, Harry’s eyes dropped from Louis’ face to his chest: he had small nipples, tight and pebbled. Once he’d made note of that, Harry allowed himself to look at the scars on Louis’ chest. They weren’t as striking as he had imagined, but they were still obviously there.

A fine, white line from just below the hollow of his throat to the end of his sternum. It wasn’t a perfect, uniform scar—it was a little wider a the top and the scar tissue was thicker where it tapered off—and Harry remembered Louis had had two separate open heart surgeries. Another scar, four inches long, ran underneath his right pectoral. It was a uniform line, but it was also more raised than the sternotomy scar. There were also four small, circular scars on his upper stomach, spread out under his ribcage.

Harry met Louis’ eyes again. “I do like your nipples,” he said.

Louis broke into a small grin. “You’re ridiculous.”

Harry mirrored his expression, then bent down to suck at one of Louis’ nipples even as he kept jerking him off. Louis squirmed,breathing in soft, hitching moans, dripping precome over Harry’s knuckles. Harry kissed across Louis’ chest to his other nipple, letting his fingers trail down the underside of Louis’ cock before slipping down to pet his hole after giving his balls a roll.

Louis spread his legs farther, canting his hips up. “Gonna fuck me?” he breathed.

Harry slipped the wet tips of his fingers against Louis’ hole, giving his nipple a gentle tug with his teeth before raising his head to look at Louis. “Mhm. I want to see your face this time.” He straightened and lubed up his fingers quickly before leading them back to Louis’ hole, tracing the rim before pushing in a first finger. “Want to see what you look like when you’re taking my cock. When you come with me inside you.”

Louis whimpered, one of his hands rubbing at the nipple Harry had just had in his mouth, the other gripping the bedsheets by his hip. “Gonna make me come?”

Harry leaned down to kiss him while he fingered him open. “Gonna make you come on my cock,” he confirmed against Louis’ mouth.

Soon he had Louis planting his feet on the mattress, bucking his hips, trying to fuck himself on two of Harry’s fingers. “Fuck, Harry.”

Harry slipped in a third finger and sat back on his heels, his own cock leaking against his thigh. He fumbled for the condom one handed, licking his lips, unable to look away from where Louis was stretched around his fingers. “Want to fuck you every day for the rest of my life,” he muttered, spreading his fingers apart one last time before pulling them out so he could put on the condom.

Louis half laughed, half groaned, giving his cock a lazy tug. “Not with that huge cock of yours.”

Harry giggled, shuffling forward on his knees. “Every other day?”

Louis let out a huff of laughter, wrapping his legs around Harry’s waist as Harry guided his cock to Louis’ hole. “If you’re good,” he said, voice hiccuping when Harry pushed in.

Harry leaned in to kiss him, rocking his hips until he was all the way in. “I’ll make it so good for you, Lou.”

Louis gripped his shoulders, arching up against Harry. “I know.” He squeezed Harry’s sides between his knees. “C’mon, Harry, make me come, love, please,” he panted.

Sweat beaded on Harry’s upper lip as he worked up a rhythm in his thrusts that had Louis whining and scratching at his back, head thrown back in pleasure, cock wet and hot between their bodies.

“That’s it. Fuck, Louis, there you go,” Harry groaned when he felt Louis tensing up. He drew back just enough to be able to see his face when he came, mouth falling open and eyes closed as he went tight around Harry’s cock, the movement of his hand around his cock faltering.

Harry had a few more thrusts left in him before he was coming too, biting down on his bottom lip, fingers digging into Louis’ arse, holding him in place as he rode out his orgasm.

After a moment he leaned down to give Louis a quick kiss, before he pulled out carefully and got rid of the condom in the waste bin, which was within reach of the bed.

“Was that good?” Harry asked, lying down next to Louis, kissing his shoulder.

Louis turned his body to face him, slipping a leg between Harry’s. He cupped Harry’s face, thumbing at his lip, eyes soft. “You know it was,” he said with a smile, his thumb catching in the corner of Harry’s mouth when Harry grinned.

Harry smoothed his hand up and down the dip and swell between Louis’ waist and hip, pressing soft kisses to his face until he’d caught his breath.

“I’m all icky,” Louis murmured.

Harry pressed their lips together one last time before sitting up, reaching for the flannel he’d set aside before.  “I think it’s hot,” Harry said with a grin as he cleaned between Louis’ legs.

Louis rolled his eyes. “Being covered in lube and come,” he said, deadpan.

You covered in lube and come,” Harry clarified, folding the flannel in half for a clean side so he could wipe down Louis’ chest and belly.

Louis started to laugh, but then went stiff when Harry passed the flannel over his sternotomy scar. Harry spread a palm on Louis’ belly. “I thought you didn’t want me to see because you didn’t want me to know, but you’re actually self conscious about these, aren’t you?” he said softly.

Louis gave a one-sided shrug. “They’re not very pretty, Harry.”

Harry shook his head, lips tight. He smoothed his thumb over the smaller scars on his stomach. “What are these from?”

Louis’ brow furrowed a little. “Chest tube drains,” he answered slowly.

Harry traced the scar under his pectoral. “What about this one?”

“From the third surgery.” Louis pointed at the biggest scar. “And this one’s from the first two, in case you missed it.”

Undeterred by Louis’ terse answers, Harry picked out the small scar by his groin. “And this one?”

“Central venous catheter.”

Harry found Louis’ hand, pressed two fingers to his wrist.

“Arterial catheter. And the other ones are from IV lines when I was a baby. Baby skin scars easy,” Louis said, frowning.

Harry kissed Louis’ palm and the smooth skin of his inner wrist. “These scars are from procedures that saved your life.” He bent down to kiss up Louis’ chest. “And I’m so... so fucking glad you’re alive. I can’t believe I’m so lucky to have you in my life.”

Louis ran his fingers through Harry’s hair with a sigh, face relaxing from its frown.

“Every bit of you is beautiful. No exceptions. And I hope someday you can believe that,” Harry said softly, finally moving to lie down next to Louis.

Louis stroked Harry’s face for a long moment before he whispered a soft ‘thank you’ and brushed their lips together.

“‘s just the truth.”

Louis slung an arm around Harry’s waist and snuggled up close, nose to the base of Harry’s throat. “How about a short nap and then you can make lunch?”

Harry chuckled into Louis’ hair. “Sounds good. I cleared my schedule... I was hoping I could stay with you all day.”

Louis kissed his chest, playing with the fine hairs on Harry’s lower back. “I’m not letting you leave this time. I don't want you to change your mind again,” he said lightly.

Harry held him closer. “I was so stupid. I’m sorry—”

Louis shushed him. “Stop apologizing. You had some stuff you had to work out.”

Harry stretched to reach the duvet and throw it over them. “I have the contact number for a therapist. I’m going to call, make an appointment.”

“That’s great, Harry,” Louis said, giving him a squeeze. He drew back a little so he could look at Harry, eyelids a little heavy with sleepiness. “So definitely no regrets this time?” It was said in a teasing tone, but Harry didn’t miss the hint of vulnerability underneath.

He brought Louis into a gentle kiss. “I could never regret you.”

-

Harry woke up before Louis and left him bundled up in bed while he pulled on his pants and sweatshirt and went to make lunch.

It felt natural, when Louis wandered in a while later, right after Harry had drained the pasta and was putting the sauce on the stove, for them to hold each other in a long, tight hug, and then share a few kisses while the sauce simmered.

-

Much later in the afternoon, after a lazy and delicious time cuddling on the couch, Harry went in search of his phone while Louis prepared them a snack. He had a text from his mum that was just a heart emoji, and one from Nick about a wedding shoot he couldn’t cover but that he’d recommend Harry for if he was interested in branching out.

Harry leaned his hip against the writing desk as he typed out his reply. He’d just hit send when he noticed the paper on the desktop. Rather than the whole page being blacked out except for the selected words as usual, the chosen words were boxed into prominence.

My heart,
Your heart
Sit tight

like

book ends.
pages between
us
written with
no
end

Harry sank down to sit on the edge of the bed in a daze. His hand was shaking as he held the paper up to read the words again. And again. Entranced and overwhelmed, he didn’t hear Louis coming.

“It turns out I don’t have to be frustrated or sad to write,” Louis said softly, standing in the doorway. “Being happy works too,”

The ink left smudges on the tips of Harry’s fingers as he ran them over the page. He must have written it while Harry was making lunch. “You’re happy?” he asked hoarsely.

Louis walked over to stand in front of Harry, smiling. “Yeah.” He leaned down to kiss him, tipping Harry’s chin up. “I love you and you make me happy.”

If that was all Harry ever did in his life—love Louis and make him happy—he’d call it a life well lived.

Chapter Text

“About time!” Gemma answered the phone when Harry got around to calling her two days later.

Harry chuckled. “Sorry, I’ve been busy.”

“Spare me the details about all the sex you’ve had and tell me what happened.”

Harry giggled, biting down on his forefinger. “Louis and I are together,” he announced, unable to keep the excitement out of his voice.

Gemma laughed. “I got that. All those emojis and exclamation marks,” she said, referring to the text Harry had sent her. “It was either that or a stroke.” She made an odd sound after the word, and Harry was sure if he could see her face she would have been grimacing.

The word 'stroke' sobered him up, too. And Gemma’s reaction told him what he’d suspected. “Did you—You talked to mum.”

“Yeah.”

“What did she tell you?”

“Not much, actually. She kept crying.”

Harry explained about Louis in more detail than he’d given Anne.

He’d asked Louis beforehand if he could tell Gemma. Louis had shrugged, clearly uncomfortable.

“I won’t if you don’t want me to,” Harry had said quickly.

Louis had sighed. “If you—Unless you change your mind… we’re going to be family, aren’t we? You can tell her,” he’d said in a small voice.

“I’m not going to change my mind, baby.”

Louis ignored him. “You can tell Liam, too. He’s your best friend, isn’t he? You need people to vent to.”

“That’s not—” Harry protested with a frown.

Louis had finally met his eyes, mouth twitching. “It’s fine. I’m going to complain about you to my mum and Niall all the time. Starting with how you burnt the bacon this morning.”

Harry had gasped in outrage in response. “You kept distracting me!”

They had ended up kissing and leaving the conversation unfinished. Louis definitely had a knack for getting Harry sidetracked.

Gemma didn’t say anything for long seconds once Harry had finished giving her an overview of the situation.

“Gemms?” Harry prompted finally.

“Sorry. I was thinking.”

Harry smiled wryly. “At least you’re not crying.”

Gemma hummed. “Well. It’s… not ideal, is it?”

“Louis is perfect,” Harry replied firmly.

“That’s not what I meant.”

“I know,” Harry sighed.

Gemma went silent again, then Harry heard her clap her hands together. “What I think is that congratulations are in order. Baby brother, you found the man of your dreams. That’s definitely something to celebrate.”

A wide smile spread across Harry’s face. “Thanks, Gemma.”

*

Harry saw the screen of Louis’ phone light up, but Louis lunged for it before it could get past a single ring. He kept the phone on his lap for a minute, then, when the advertisement break came on, he gave Harry a peck on the cheek and stood up from the couch. “Gonna get more cereal, be right back.”

Harry frowned at Louis’ retreating back thoughtfully. Reaching for his phone he checked the time. It was the same time the alarm had gone off the morning after their first time together. Harry hadn’t forgotten a single detail despite the disastrous aftermath.

What bugged him was that in the three weeks since they had got together, although they had spent nights at each other’s flats more than once, this was the first time Harry had heard the alarm again, even though it seemed to be a regular thing. But from Louis’ reaction, it was clear he’d made an effort to keep Harry from knowing about it.

Harry jumped to his feet and hurried to the kitchen, making sure to keep quiet.

“Lou, my cereal’s gone soggy—” he said as he pushed the door open.

Louis froze, holding a capsule to his mouth with one hand, glass of water in the other. They stared at each other in silence.

Louis looked away first, ducking his head. He set the glass down on the table in front of him. “That’s because you eat too slowly.”

Harry went over to Louis, leaving his cereal bowl on the counter, and wrapped his arms around Louis’ waist from behind, resting his chin on his shoulder. “Why are you hiding from me?”

Louis felt stiff in Harry’s embrace. “I don’t—” He put one of his hands over Harry’s where it rested on his stomach; Harry could feel Louis’ quick breaths and the tension in his body. “I keep... I keep hoping you’ll forget, I guess? ‘Out of sight, out of mind’ and all that... I don’t know.”

Harry kissed the bare skin of his shoulder where his shirt slipped a little. “I can’t forget, baby.”

Louis let out a defeated sigh, body sagging. “I know,” he whispered.

Harry knew he was thinking about the previous Friday, when they had gone out to celebrate Niall’s promotion and had left after just a couple of hours.

Louis had been irritable since the morning, after a restless night. He’d grouched at Harry for not waking him up when he dropped off while he was supposed to be working on a translation, and whined at the ‘absurd amount of carrots’ during lunch. After Louis almost had a breakdown trying to choose his outfit for that night, Harry was certain they wouldn’t be staying long at the party.

At the pub, Harry had had to talk Louis out of drinking a Red Bull when he’d already had a Mai Tai, and gently suggested they duck out early if he was tired. Louis had refused and kept insisting he was fine. But after another hour slumped against Harry’s side at the bar, he gave up and agreed to go home. Halfway to the flat, however, he’d started crying, startling the cab driver. Harry couldn’t do much more to console him than gather him into a hug.

Seeing as how the medication’s side effects were still troubling him, especially the fatigue, Harry had once asked if he couldn’t stop taking it. Louis told him the doctor didn’t recommend it: leaving a persistent arrhythmia untreated increased the risk of a stroke and put a lot of strain on his heart. Louis had explained with a parodic imitation of his cardiologist, but Harry was well aware that the limitations his health issues imposed on him was a very upsetting subject for Louis.

Harry turned him around to face him. “That’s not what I meant,” he said firmly. “I mean I don’t want to forget. I want to know if you’re not feeling well. I want you to tell me if you’re feeling very tired and would rather stay home, or if you’re stomach’s upset, or whatever. I don’t want you to be alone in this. The good and the bad, remember? I’m here for you.”

Louis played with the curls over Harry’s shoulder, not quite meeting his eyes. “I don’t want to bother you. Or worry you. You got so upset at your sister’s house.”

Harry made a face. “That was because I didn’t know what was wrong. Now I know. And, like, I need to... to learn to worry without... stressing myself out. I’m working on that, Lou, with James. But it only makes me more anxious if I think you’re hiding things from me. Then I’ll start worrying that you’ll be sick and not tell me and I won’t notice and—”

Louis put two fingers over his mouth. “Breathe, Harry.”

Harry nuzzled into Louis’ palm as it slid to cup his cheek. “We said we were going to trust each other, right?”

Louis nodded, taking a deep breath. “Yeah.”

Harry worried his bottom lip, playing with the soft hair around Louis’ ear. “You know... nobody... nobody told me at first. How sick my dad really was.”

Louis’ face fell. “Oh, Harry.”

Harry bit the inside of his cheek. “And I didn’t notice. I should have—”

“You were barely ten, love.” Louis reached up to stroke his wrist.

Harry shrugged. “I guess they wanted to protect me. But it only hurt worse. I felt like I wasted time I could've spent with him.”

“I'm sorry, love.” Louis looked at him sadly, kissed the heel of his palm. “I won't keep you in the dark, I promise,” he went on in a whisper.

“Thank you.” Harry gave him a soft kiss, then drew back to look at him. “My dad would've liked you.” He had been unsure for a long time that his dad would have liked him, but he had no doubt he would have liked Louis.

Louis gave him a small smile. “You reckon?”

“Mhm.”

“My mum is pretty keen on you already,” Louis said, giving Harry a tickle, making him chuckle. “She... she said from the start that I didn’t have to be afraid to tell you about...” Louis put a hand to his chest. “That you didn’t seem the type to run off.”

Harry blinked, surprised. “Oh. That's—” It made him want to call Jay and thank her, and vow to her that he's going to take good care of her son. “She’s right. It wouldn’t have stopped me from falling in love with you. I probably still would have freaked out, though,” he admitted, shame faced. “But because of my own issues. Bit of a coward, in case you hadn’t noticed.”

Louis shook his head, brow furrowing. “You’re not a coward, Harry. You worked through your fears, didn’t you?”  He dropped his eyes for a moment. “You’re still working on them.” Then he raised his eyes to look at Harry straight on. “That's pretty brave, baby.”

Harry kissed him. “It was you. You make me brave.”

Louis gave Harry a small smile and leaned in to kiss him. “I love you.”

Harry echoed him, speaking against his lips, holding him close.

They exchanged a few more quick, soft kisses, before Louis pushed him away. “All right, that’s enough. Stop distracting me,” he said, laughter in his voice, though it faltered a little as he reached for the glass of water. “I need to, um, take my medication.”

Harry leaned down to press his forehead against Louis’ back, so that Louis wouldn’t feel observed, though he wrapped his arms around his waist again. He kissed the top of his spine while Louis gulped down the glass of water with the tablet, and only looked up when he heard him put the glass down on the table.

“Do you think James knows someone I can talk to?” Louis asked quietly.

“I’m sure he does.”

Louis raised both arms to hold Harry to him and leaned back into his embrace. “My mum will be ecstatic. She’s been after me to see a therapist for years.”

Considering Louis had a lot of hang-ups about his health issues, Harry thought it would be very good for him to work with a professional. He wanted Louis to be as happy as possible.

*

“Fuck, Louis.” Harry’s hips stuttered, his grip on Louis’ waist slipping, hands sliding down the wet skin to clutch at his hips instead.

It was hot and humid in the bathroom, and there was a rush in Harry’s ears that was a mixture of his blood pounding and the water from the shower hitting the tiles and the glass panelling.

Louis moaned faintly as Harry kissed over his collarbones and up his neck, taking his time, while he palmed at his arse, fingers dipping between his arsecheeks to tease at his hole. Louis’ grip on Harry’s shoulder tightened in response, and he slid down a little where he was pressed up against the wall. Nonetheless, his hand didn’t falter where it was guiding the slick movement of their cocks against each other as they rocked their hips purposefully.

Harry gasped when Louis thumbed at the head of his cock, then bit at the angle of Louis’ jaw, pressing two fingers against Louis’ hole. “Can I—? Again, please? Lou, baby?” Harry said brokenly.

Louis’ hand slid to the back of Harry’s neck, fingers snagging in his wet hair. Harry drew back from where he was sucking on his neck to look at Louis, who had his head tilted back, eyes closed, brow knitted.

“Yeah,” Louis said finally, opening his eyes. “Want you, love.”

They kissed, eager and sloppy.

“Need lube, condom,” Harry said with a last hard kiss that left Louis gasping, before forcing himself to break apart. He stepped out of the shower, shivering and dripping, and raced to the bedroom. “We should leave some in the bathroom,” he said when he came back.

He had one foot in the shower when Louis put a hand on his chest to stop him.

“What is it?” Harry asked in confusion, pouting. “Why are you getting out?”

Louis held onto Harry’s forearm and stepped out of the shower. “I’m dizzy and I feel faint from the hot water.”

Harry automatically reached out to steady Louis with a hand on his upper arm and the other on his hip. “Wait, let me get you a towel.”

Louis wrapped the towel around himself and hurried out of the stifling bathroom, leaving Harry to shut off the water, which had been turned to come out cold instead of hot.

He followed Louis to the bedroom, his stomach in knots, and found Louis sitting on the towel on the unmade bed: he was still half hard, skin glistening and covered in goose pimples.

Louis looked up at him with a small frown. “Where did you leave the lube?”

Harry stared. “Erm. I thought—”

Louis settled with his back against the pillows, reaching between his legs to grip his cock. He looked at Harry, eyes heavy lidded, breath hitching as he spoke while stroking himself. “You don’t want to fuck me anymore?”

Harry moved toward the bed with a groan. “I do. But, are you—” He sat down on the edge of the bed and placed a hand on the inside of Louis’ thigh, spreading his fingers out and digging into the flesh. “Are you all right to—?”

Louis gave a breath of laughter that was half a moan. “What does it look like?”

Harry squeezed his thigh again, cock throbbing. “Like you want me to fuck you.”

Louis shot him a grin, licking his lips. “What are you waiting for then?”

Harry dashed back to the bathroom for the lube and climbed on the bed on top of Louis, gripping his wrist and leading his hand away from his cock, pressing it to the bed while he leaned in to kiss him.

Louis moaned, half in protest, hips rising to meet Harry’s.

“Let me, let me,” Harry mumbled, almost nonsensical, half formed thoughts as he hurried to slick up his fingers and get them inside Louis, who let his legs fall open.

Harry was desperate for some friction on his cock as he fingered Louis open, transfixed by the sight of Louis laid out in front of him, cock hard and leaking on his belly, chest flushed, lips parted and pink.

Louis kicked him a little as he hooked an ankle over Harry’s shoulder. “C’mon. You had your cock in me not even an hour ago. I’m good.”

When Harry crooked his fingers, adjusting Louis’ leg over his shoulder with his other hand, Louis threw his head back, whimpering. “Fuck, Harry, please.”

Harry scrambled to get the condom, hands shaking as he pulled it on. He pulled Louis’ other leg up to his shoulder, lined up, and in one smooth slide his cock was buried to the hilt. Louis let out a choked gasp, scratching at Harry’s arm.

“You’re so gorgeous, Louis, fuck. Feel fucking amazing. So tight,” Harry babbled, thrusting fast, struggling not to grip Louis’ hips too hard, sliding down to squeeze his arse instead, teasing his stretched rim.

Louis reached for his cock, making high keening noises and cursing.

It didn’t last long. Despite the interruption, they were both keyed up from their activities in the shower and it didn’t take more than a few minutes for Louis to clench tight around Harry and come all over his fingers and chest with a shout. When he could move, Harry didn’t get more than a couple of thrusts in and out, rhythm lost, before he was coming, too.

Louis groaned when Harry pulled out and, lowering his legs back on the bed, lay with one hand on his heaving chest and the other thrown over his eyes.

Harry giggled, giddy from his orgasm. “I still can’t believe it’s always so good. Is that normal?”

Louis burst out laughing, wheezing, and squinted at him, putting his arm down. “I don’t know, Harold. I’ve never had my friends do a survey for satisfaction in their sex lives.”

Harry laughed and bent down to press a random kiss to Louis’ knee while he groped around for his pajama tee shirt to clean them up, feeling disinclined to get up to fetch a flannel or wipes from the bathroom. “Best sex I’ve ever had,” he said with a grin.

Louis still tensed up a little when Harry wiped his chest. “But you wanted to have sex in the shower.”

Harry pressed his lips to the small scars on Louis’ upper stomach. He always tried to sneak in a kiss or two in an effort to get Louis to relax about his scars; he thought it might be working.

“I wanted to have sex, full stop,” Harry said, deadpan, looking up, lips curled.

Louis snorted, rolling his eyes.

Harry pressed another lingering kiss to the base of his throat. “Sex with you. In case you hadn’t noticed, I think you’re really, really hot.” He nipped at Louis’ jaw, then flopped down next to Louis, keeping his hands on him wherever he could reach: resting one hand on the indentation of his waist and tracing the sharp line of his collarbones with the other. “I pretty much always want to kiss you. And touch you. And fuck you.”

Louis hummed, biting back a smile. “Aren’t I lucky?” he said playfully. But his smile, the sweeps of his hand up and down Harry’s forearm and the soft look in his eyes as he looked at Harry said everything.

They kissed, slow and lazy for a while, reveling in each other’s presence and touch.

“Thank you for telling me you weren’t feeling well,” Harry said after a bit.

Louis cracked an eye open. “Would’ve been a bit awkward if I passed out while you were fucking me in the shower.”

Harry couldn’t quite bring himself to laugh. “Have you passed out before?” he asked, a little alarmed at the thought. He remembered what Gemma had told him about her classmate who’d cut her cheek open. What if Louis fainted in the shower and hurt himself?

Louis shifted closer to Harry, rolling onto his side to snuffle at his neck. “Just once, the first week I started with the medication,” he said, sounding drowsy. “But by now I can usually tell when my BP drops and do something about it before I pass out.”

Harry wrapped an arm around him, holding him close, and pulled the sheets up to cover them. He stared at the ceiling for a few minutes gathering his courage. He knew Louis wasn’t asleep though his breathing was evening out because he was tickling down the inside of Harry’s arm, from the crook of his elbow to his wrist, in a hypnotic, soothing movement.

“You’re free from your lease at the end of the month, aren’t you?” Harry blurted out, giving voice to what had been on his mind for weeks.

Louis made a sound of assent.

“I was thinking... If you wanted... you could... move in with me?” Harry said, tripping over the words.

He was relieved when he caught the twitch of Louis’ lips. “So you can have me all the time?”

Harry laughed, even through a ripple of arousal. He snuck in another quick kiss, groaning in his throat. “Sounds perfect to me.”

Louis chased after his mouth, and they got distracted for a few minutes, kissing.

“Will you?” Harry insisted. “We already spend most of the time together, here or there. But if we lived together we wouldn’t need to commute or drive. ‘s very convenient,” he said, mock casual.

Louis smiled, but gave a small shrug. “I don’t know, Harry. Your flat’s rather small, love, and you’ve got your studio, and I need some room for my things, too.”

Harry tangled their fingers together. “I’ve been thinking about that, too. My lease ends in June. And I was thinking in the meantime we could look for a flat together.”

Louis studied him, a small line between his eyebrows. “You want us to rent a flat together?”

Harry nodded, brought their linked hands to his mouth. “Yeah, I do. Does that really surprise you?”

Louis tangled their ankles together. “I just—We’d have to sign a lease together. It’s very—”

Harry raised his eyebrows, biting back laughter. “Official? Permanent?”

Louis pinched Harry’s side with his free hand, blushing.

“I’d marry you tomorrow if you’d have me,” Harry whispered honestly.

Louis looked up at him, face scrunched up in a shy, delighted smile. “You’re so ridiculous,” he said, voice soft. He kept one hand on Harry’s chest, eyes unflinching on Harry’s. “I can’t believe I get to be with you. My very own Prince Harry.”

Harry’s laugh came out a little wet. “Love you,” he choked out.

Louis stroked Harry’s face, catching the wetness pooling in his eyes before it spilled. “You’re so wonderful, Harry. So, so wonderful.”

Harry rolled them so he was hovering over Louis, pressing kisses over his face. “Is that a yes, hm? Will you marry me?” he asked, breathless.

Louis giggled, squirming from Harry’s kisses. “Not tomorrow.”

Harry stilled, looking down at Louis. “But someday?”

Louis tilted his chin up for a kiss. “Of course someday.”

Harry kissed him again. And again.

*

Harry’s flat was too small for two people who worked from home. But it wouldn’t be three full months before they could move somewhere else, and the slight inconveniences didn’t seem very important, anyway. Harry would have taken a lifetime of cramped living to be with Louis.

A month into living together, Harry was coming back from his morning run when he tripped over a stack of Louis’ books on his way to the shower. With a groan, he crouched down to tidy them up. A loose page slipped from between the pages of one of the books. Harry was about to tuck it back in its place when he realised what he was looking at: it was a poem in Louis’ handwriting, no black out, just words on a page.

Think of
How much
Love

that's been wasted.
People
Always
Trying to escape it.
Move on

to stop their heart

breaking.
But there's nothing

I'm running from.
You make me

strong.

Harry bit his lip hard, his heart hammering in his chest. He was no longer running, he wasn’t trying to escape it anymore. And he was happy.

*

Harry peered into the living room, absently wiping a bit of sauce from his hands as he looked at the scene playing out: Lottie and Louis cuddled up on the couch, their heads together as they watched something on her phone, while Fizzy sat with her laptop on her lap, toes tucked under Lottie’s thighs. The twins marched over to Louis, from what Harry could tell so he could settle an argument between them. Louis listened to them, rubbed his chin in thought for a few seconds, then said something that made all four girls laugh.

Harry couldn’t keep the smile off his face, either, even though he couldn’t make out what they were saying.

“Let me give you a hand with lunch, darling,” Jay said, coming up behind him, giving him a tight hug and a kiss on the cheek.

Harry gave her two smacking kisses, one on each cheek. “Thanks, Jay, I’ve got it. Give it fifteen more minutes and we can eat.”

She smiled at him. “How about a glass of wine in the meantime? Quickly, while the kids are distracted.”

Harry laughed and took down two glasses from the cupboard. “Perfect housewarming gift,” he said with a grin, reaching for the bottle of wine she’d gifted them.

Harry saw so much of Louis in Jay, especially when they smiled: all crinkled eyes and sweetness. He had already got along with her when they collaborated for the charity event, and after getting together with Louis she had embraced him with open arms, welcoming Harry into her family with no reserves.

Harry stuck his nose in his glass, inhaling exaggeratedly. “Excellent aroma.”

Jay laughed, swilling the wine in her own glass. “Look at you. I’ll have to tell Dan to find you a job at the winery.”

Harry took a sip of the wine, giggling. “I’m an expert wine connoisseur, madam,” he said in a fake French accent.

Jay bit back laughter. “Have you done that in front of Louis?”

Harry nodded, not quite managing to contort his face into a sad expression, shoulders shaking with laughter. “He did not appreciate it.”

Jay chuckled, then sighed, looking out into the living room with a smile on her face. Louis had raised himself onto his knees on the couch, hugging one of the twins to his chest while Lottie held onto the other, as though they were holding them hostage. There was a lot of animated unintelligible shouting, interrupted by flashing grins and laughter, while Fizzy filmed the whole spectacle on her phone.

“He’s glowing,” Jay said, finding Harry’s hand and giving it a squeeze. “Thank you.”

Harry blushed, torn between a sense of accomplishment and a gnawing sense of guilt that he couldn’t do more. “I love him, I just try to make him happy.”

Jay’s face softened even further. “What else could a mother ask for than someone who loves their child and wants to make them happy?”

Harry set the glass down. “But I can’t—I wish I could do more.”

Jay studied him thoughtfully. “When they first told me Louis’ heart was all wrong—that he needed to have open heart surgery—” She shook her head, face twisted in anguish. “All I could think of was that there had to be something I could do. I’m his mother: I had to be able to protect him, to help him.”

Harry reached out to rub her arm comfortingly, and Jay gave him a wan smile.

“But I couldn’t. It was so hard, Harry, seeing my little boy struggle whenever there were things he couldn’t do like the other children. And then they told me he needed another surgery and I—I felt like such a failure. It seemed impossible that all I could do was sit and watch while my baby went through all that pain again. And again. And that I could never take it away from him.”

Harry’s chest felt tight.

“But I realized that even if I couldn’t fix his heart, I couldn’t make him better like that, I could keep trying to make him as happy as possible.” She took a deep breath, her smile just a little bit rueful. “And that had to be enough.”

By now Harry had seen pictures of Louis as a baby and a toddler: tiny and pale, sitting up in a hospital bed, and at home with bandages peeking out from under his clothes. And pictures like that of any other child: at the beach playing in the sand, the picture so overexposed you could barely see the scar on his chest; at the park on a pile of leaves, bundled up to his ears; unwrapping presents in front of the Christmas tree. “He’s always smiling in the pictures,” Harry said out loud, voice quiet. “In his baby pictures, he’s always smiling.”

Jay’s face went soft. “I tried to give him something to smile about.” She glanced at her children again. “It gets harder as they get older. And I know that sometimes Louis' smiles are nothing more than a front.”

Harry nodded, throat tight.

“But he's letting down his walls for you.”

Harry’s lip wobbled. “I don’t want to hurt him.”

“I know, sweetheart. And I know you've pulled down your own walls for him.” She sighed. “That's love, isn’t it? You open yourself up to joy and leave yourself vulnerable to pain.”

“But it's worth it,” Harry said earnestly.

Jay smiled. “I had four more children after Louis, and I'm on my third marriage. I certainly believe it.”

They both laughed. Harry gave her a hug. “You're amazing, Jay.”

“Shush. That's enough of that. Let's eat!”

*

“Niall, you don’t have to like every single one of my Instagram posts,” Louis said with an eyeroll, glancing up from his phone.

Niall tipped back his beer bottle. “But they’re all good!” He wrapped an arm around Louis and pulled him against his side. “And I’m pumped you decided to start sharing your poems with the world.”

Harry made a sound of heartfelt agreement through his full mouth.

“The world,” Louis scoffed, hiding a smile against Niall’s shoulder.

Niall gave him a shake. “You’ve got thousands of followers all over the world, mate.”

“It’s the power of the Internet and globalization and all that stuff you like to go on and on about,” Liam piped up, shooting Louis a grin.

Louis laughed. “Very good, Liam. It’s nice to know something gets through.”

Harry loved that Louis and Liam had grown close, as he had with Niall. Somehow the four of them fit together. He pulled Louis back to his side of the couch, and pressed a kiss to the side of his head while Louis grumbled half-heartedly about being manhandled before settling against Harry’s side with a content sound. Harry had to eat one handed in their position, but he didn’t mind.

Louis stretched his arm to fist bump Niall. “You’re my favourite follower, though, Ni.”

Niall took his hand and gave it a squeeze instead of bumping it, laughing. “Thanks.”

“I think the—what’s it called—blackout thing is cool. But I like the poems you write from scratch better,” Liam said thoughtfully as he chewed. “And I like how you pair them up with the pictures.”

Louis angled his head to smile up at Harry, patting his chest before hooking his fingers in the unbuttoned collar of his shirt. “Those are Harry’s. They’re brilliant, aren’t they?”

Harry caught Liam shooting them a knowing, amused look, when he managed to look away from Louis’ proud, fond face, for a second.

“Yeah,” Liam agreed. “I’d love to know what you did to convince him to share his personal photography, though.”

Louis turned his head to look at Liam. Harry could see even from an angle, the sharp grin on his face. “Do you, really?” he asked, teasing and insinuating.

Liam made a face. “No. Please.”

Louis giggled and pressed a kiss to Harry’s arm. “Such a dirty mind, Payno. All I did was ask him.”

He was telling the truth. He’d said he was hesitant to post poetry that wasn’t blackout, because: ‘it’s so lame, Harry. Just words on a page’. And when Harry had asked him what he had in mind, Louis had launched into an enthusiastic suggestion that they collaborate. Harry couldn’t say no.

“I don’t—” Liam started to argue with a frown, then rolled his eyes. “You two aren’t exactly shy about PDA or have any notion of what’s tmi.”

Harry laughed, spraying sweetcorn on his lap and over Louis, and nearly dropping his burrito.

“Harold!” Louis protested, like he hadn’t spilled tea on their brand new couch their second day after moving in.

Together, they’d found a flat with space for both of them and space to share. And, Harry, who had been quite thrilled to live on his own when he left home, and had resented his previous flatmate, found that he loved living with Louis.

He loved sneaking into Louis’ office while he was working just for a kiss. Loved when Louis took a break to drop by a shoot in Harry’s studio and charmed parents and children alike. Loved bickering over what to watch on the telly; and closet space; and Louis’ tendency to leave things lying around—tea cups and books and clothes; and Harry’s habit of getting toothpaste all over the sink and ‘overcrowding the balcony’ with his little garden.

He also enjoyed all the sex. And the simple act of going to bed together. He usually fell asleep before Louis, but he normally woke up first, with Louis curled around his back. Harry would turn around and have his fill of looking at Louis until he opened his eyes and complained about being watched while he was sleeping, though he was never able to keep up the pretense of annoyance for long.

Other times, however, Harry would rest his head on Louis’ chest and listen to his heartbeat for a little while, instead. And every morning as he watched Louis take his medication, he knew that every moment he got with Louis was the best thing in his life. That making Louis happy made him the happiest. And no matter what happened, he could never regret getting to love and be loved by him.