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hold on to your stars before they fade

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The first time they meet, it is sunrise, and Harry is naked.

It's not immediately apparent what he's looking at, at first, when Louis approaches at a relaxed pace on his bicycle. He thinks, peering at the pinkish lump in the distance off to the side of the road, that it's just a large piece of rubbish, because the countryside is littered with it these days, the jetsam of an unruly nation who've no consideration for nature anymore, what is this country coming to, and god, he could not sound more like his nan right now.

And then he thinks maybe he needs a new prescription on his contact lenses because the lump looks suspiciously like a prone human body lying in the grass, and then Jesus Christ it's an actual human body, and Louis swerves his bike so hard he nearly ends up adding himself to the body count.

Extracting himself from spinning wheels and the clatter of protesting chains, Louis gingerly brushes gravel out of a long scrape on the side of his left hand. He walks on unsteady feet towards the body while shrill questions whirr through his head to the backbeat of a jackrabbit pulse. He's not sure what the protocol is to check if a person is dead. What if he's treading all over a crime scene right now and destroying evidence that will let a murderer go free? Maybe he should find a long stick to poke it with? Or, like, should he just sort of prod the body with his foot? But he really likes these Vans and if they touch a dead person he'll have to burn them, and shit, what kind of a horrible person is he to be thinking of his shoes when someone has just died?

"Hello," Louis calls out in a wobbly voice.

The corpse stirs.

Not a corpse! Relief smashes him in the chest at the same time that his startle reflex sparks on. The combination twists his body into some kind of advanced yoga pose nobody has even invented yet, and Louis chokes out a weak, "Gah."

Not-a-Corpse clambers with slow limbs onto his feet and blinks sleepy owl eyes at him. "Hello," he says, his voice scratching out lower frequencies than Louis expects.

And it's not like Louis knows anything about him to make any kind of call about what he should sound like or whatever, but, look, he has these tattoos and markings all over his body that belong to a child. Like, a girl child. There is an enormous butterfly emblazoned across his torso, and plump, twin swallows just beneath his collarbone,so forgive Louis if he thinks this guy should sound like a peppy sidekick from a Disney cartoon. On acid, maybe.

"You okay, mate?" Louis says. He takes a cautious shuffle backwards, because hey, the guy is skinny and has a thing for butterflies, but he also is bigger than Louis. Granted, the chances of him pulling a weapon are slim. He's starkers, after all. Unless he keeps a switchblade somewhere really painful.

It's now that Louis notices a ring of small, wilted flowers nestled in his head of dark curls, and Louis would wager his left foot that Not-a-Corpse is friendly with more than a few recreational drugs.

"I'm all right," Not-a-Corpse says, and gives Louis a honey-slow smile that Louis should probably find offensive.

So, okay, he's cute, what with the dimples and freakishly green eyes and all, but he's also probably high as balls and he's naked in a field, so he's probably not exactly meet-the-parents material. Louis' pretty much done with those types; there are pieces of his heart he can't find still.

"Right, okay. D'you want me to call somebody for you? Or, like, the police? You're obviously missing... a lot of stuff. Like," Louis says, with vague gestures to a general area and trying not to look too closely, "pants?"

The way Not-a-Corpse blinks at him it's like they're not even speaking the same language.

Louis tries again. "Did you hit your head or something?" he asks.

"No..." Not-a-Corpse says, though the inflection in his voice suggests he's not entirely sure.

"Okay," Louis says slowly. He doesn't know much about traumatic brain injuries, but if television has taught him anything, it's that he needs to shine a piercing light into the victim's eyes and ask too many questions. He doesn't really want to untangle his bicycle to flash the headlights at this guy, so the questions will have to do. "How many fingers am I holding up?"

The look Not-a-Corpse gives him is like Louis is the crazy one, but he answers anyway, "Three."

"Good. What year is it?"

"Four…" Not-a-Corpse ventures in hesitant question form. Taking a cue from Louis' face, he abandons the guess. "No?"

Well, things aren't looking great. "What's your name?"

"Oh." He blinks, hesitates. "Erm, Harry, I suppose."

"You suppose," Louis repeats.

"Harry," Harry says with more conviction this time. He seems to be warming up to this game, bouncing on his feet slightly.

Louis should really just call the police and let them deal with this. Harry ("Harry", he thinks to himself with double inverted commas of utmost sarcasm) is obviously a bit off in the head, and Louis is but a poor university leaver who studied Lord Byron and shit, and somehow he doubts, whatever Byron's thoughts on the matter, that prescribing laughter is going to cure Harry's affliction.

"What's yours?" Harry asks.

"Er," says Louis, thrown. He scrambles for a fake name. "Louis. It's Louis." He sags, disappointed in his imagination.

Harry repeats his name, rolls it around in his mouth like wine. "I like it."

Louis brightens with a smile before he realises it, and manages to tamp it down with a dry, "That's lovely. Look, d'you need help getting back to... er, where're you from?" He really doesn't know why he's still bothering.

"I don't think you'd know it. But I did come through there," Harry says, pointing far across the plains, where the sun slants orange laminas over a bed of rising stones.

Louis squints. "Er," he says, gauging the general direction; it's all horizon as far as he can tell. He tosses out a wild guess, northwards. "What, like, Swindon?"

"No, just there. The gates." He points insistently and gestures the rectangular shape of the stones, like he's concerned Louis doesn't see them at all.

Oh, but Louis sees them. He pinches the bridge of his nose and drags a heavy palm down his face. This is what he gets for being a good Samaritan -- some lunatic youth taking the piss at arse o'clock in the morning, and a damaged bicycle besides.

"That's funny," he says. "I'm laughing hysterically on the inside. Piss off."

Louis' already turned halfway away when Harry says, "I don't understand," and the genuinely curious note in his voice makes Louis turn back.

"Mate," he says flatly.

"Harry," Harry corrects, eager to help.

"Yeah," Louis dismisses with a curt hand. There are more important things to rectify. "That's-- The thing you keep pointing to? That's Stonehenge."

Harry cocks his head. "It's the Binding Gate."

"Brilliant," Louis says with forced cheer. Someone as delusional as Harry seems to be probably couldn't identify sarcasm even if it slapped him in the face. Louis can't handle this anymore. He ought to have walked away twenty minutes ago. He'll ring the police when he gets home, tell them he's found the asylum escapee they're looking for.

He draws himself backwards to pick up his bicycle. It's mangled, a bit, and unrideable, but not beyond repair. Unfortunately, he doesn't have a kit with him, because honestly, who could have even anticipated that an early morning outing would result in him discovering a not-really-dead body and careening into the grass? His former Boy Scouts troop would tut at his lack of preparedness, but fuck them. He's pretty sure old Baden Powell himself doesn't have a contingency plan for being presented with a tall naked boy who thinks Stonehenge is some kind of mystical gateway to who the fuck knows where.

Harry looks at him expectantly, a tiny, hopeful smile on his lips.

Irritated with both Harry and himself, Louis snaps out, "Bye."

The bicycle trundles alongside him, its misshapen spokes making the wheels clunk on each revolution; it's like walking his bike over a row of cobblestone mountains. Louis grits his teeth, put out with the whole day. He'd come with his notebook for fresh air and solitude and inspiration for the play he thinks he might write, and all he's got to show for it is a massive headache. It's going to be a long walk home. Maybe he'll write a play about how everything's just a bit shit; those always go down well. His grip tightening on the handlebars, he hisses as the previously forgotten scrape on his hand smarts with the stretch.

He tries to remember if they have any Savlon left at home -- there was the time Niall had that run-in with his skateboard and practically had to bathe in antiseptic for two days, and then the other time he'd somehow cut himself in the face with an encyclopedia, and then also when he'd had trouble opening a bag of crisps. It's a long list, and for the first three months of living with him, Louis had spent most of it keeping an eye out for potential new flatmates to take Niall's place in the event that he managed to accidentally kill himself with, like, a balloon or something equally improbable.

Louis brings the wound up for a closer inspection. It's not oozing anything weird, so whatever. Maybe if they don't have Savlon, he can just super glue over it.

In the middle of his ruminations on battlefield wound care, something whispers across his skin, not caution, exactly, and it's not unpleasant, but it makes him whirl around.

What. The fuck.

"Are you following me?" Louis demands of Harry, who's shuffling his feet a short distance away, with at least the courtesy of looking somewhat guilty. "What, have you imprinted on me like some kind of horrible vampire baby?"

"Vampires don't have babies; they can't," Harry explains. "I think that's why they're so angry all the time."

Louis throws up a hand to stop him before any more breath is wasted on the subject. "Why are you following me?"

"I don't know where else to go."

"Home."

For the first time since they've met, Harry looks abashed. He says in a small voice, "I can't."

"Oh." Louis recalibrates, looks him over again. He takes in the slightly fey quality, the open, bright face, the choice of tattoos, and thinks maybe he understands. His mum's brilliant, has always been, loves him relentlessly through all his fuck-ups, but his dad he hasn't seen since probably sixth form, when he came out. Not that he was around much before anyway. Maybe Harry's got people who want out of his life too, or chucked him out of theirs, with no clothes on.

Louis grazes a hand through his hair, torn, and Harry takes a step forward, his eyes following the movement.

"You're bleeding," Harry observes, a furrow in his brow.

"What? Oh," says Louis, pulling his hand down and turning it in the brightening sunlight. The blood's already nearly dried. "Yeah, it's fine."

Harry strides forward with grave intent and picks up Louis' hand. Light dances across his eyes, casts an emerald glow on his skin, and before Louis can freak out about anything, Harry's dropped his hand.

Now Louis can freak out. "What the fuck did you do?" He whips his hand up, turning and turning it like if he looks just one more time the scrape will still be there. In its place is the merest hint of a scar, and even that seems to be fading away as he stares. "What-- Who-- Who are you?"

"I'm Harry." He says it like he's pleased to have been asked.

Louis sputters the heads and tails of words for a while, none of them quite managing to find their other halves.

Okay, so, this is weird. Like, proper, proper weird.

"What are you?" he asks slowly, in the cautious sort of voice people use when a crazy person has his toes curled over the edge of a tall building. But he also thinks he just saw his skin stitch itself back together under Harry's care, so it's definitely possible Louis is the crazy one in this equation.

Harry smiles. "I'm one of the fae. Your folk call us fairies, I think."

For a second, it doesn't register. Once it hits, an impossible sequence of consonants rattles at the back of Louis' throat, and he can't sort through his response options fast enough -- a) punch him in the face; b) run the fuck away; c) laugh till his lungs give out; d) a and b; e) a and c; f) all of the above.

He goes for option Q. "D'you reckon you can fix my bike as well?" he asks, and sort of wants to slap himself, because Q wasn't even one of the choices.

Shaking his head regretfully, Harry says, "We're not very good with metals."

"Right, cold iron and that," Louis muses, remembering the tiny snatches of fairy lore Lottie used to natter about from a well-loved book; the illustrations had been of dainty, miniature humanoids with wings, though, so he's not sure Harry qualifies. He points the bicycle in Harry's direction, picks it up by the handlebars and jabs its front wheel forward. Stainless steel spokes; it's close enough. "'S'not really keeping you away, though, is it?"

"Is it meant to?" Harry asks, befuddled.

Louis sighs. "No. But then I don't think, as a civilisation, we've been trying very hard to keep fairies away anymore. Mostly because you're not supposed to exist," he says with a wry smile.

"But I do."

The mildly worried look on Harry's face makes Louis want to laugh a little, and he almost reaches out a reassuring hand, but stops himself just in time, because naked and also he isn't sure if it's, like, frowned upon to come into physical contact with a fairy if there's no healing involved or whatever -- and here his brain gives a little shuddering giggle at all the sanity it's shedding.

"Yeah, seems like," is the middle ground into which Louis digs his heels.

It appears to mollify Harry enough that the line between his eyebrows smoothes away.

Well, crossroads time. "Right, here's the thing. I'm going to keep walking this way," Louis says, jerking a thumb toward town, "and if you happen to be going the same way, we should walk together, yeah? Because, like, following me silently a few steps behind is just really creepy."

So it's pretty much like everything his mum ever told him and his sisters about Stranger Danger never made it past his eardrums at all, but he's rewarded with Harry's mouth unfurling into the sweetest smile he's ever seen, so he figures it's kind of all right.

Louis considers it for all of one second before shrugging out of his hoodie. It's too big on him anyway, because technically it's Liam's. But Liam's in, like, a one-man competition with himself to be the nicest flatmate ever, and has never asked for it back since Louis secretly borrowed it eight months ago, so Louis probably has squatter's rights to it now. (Also he looks better in maroon than Liam.) He holds it out for Harry.

"Not that I mind, truly, but you'll probably want to cover up. Don't want to cause a scandal; lots of fragile old ladies round here," Louis says, even though they're still several miles away from town.

Shining with gratitude, Harry accepts the hoodie and pulls it on. It just skims the tops of his thighs, and he looks ridiculous, but at least it covers everything important and he won't get arrested for indecent exposure.

"What happened to your clothes, anyway?" Louis asks, turning his bicycle the right way round so they can start walking home.

"Well…" Harry says slowly, frowning a little. He glances back at Stonehenge. "The magic's unpredictable there; I think it's because the gates haven't been taken care of on this side." He gives Louis an apologetic look like he's just accused Louis of being personally responsible for centuries' worth of erosion and graffiti; Louis shrugs. "My clothes got a bit singed on the way in. Out."

Louis scoffs. "A bit?" He looks Harry up and down to make the point, and it makes Harry blush, which is absurd, given that he's been parading around in the altogether up till now. Fairies, honestly.

His brain laughs again, weakly; it's close to surrender.

"Why did you come over, then, if it's so unstable? Mislaid a Ring of Power again, did you?" Louis tuts, amusing himself.

Harry obviously doesn't get it, but the way his mouth turns down at the corners speaks less of confusion than frustration, and Louis itches to squeeze his shoulder again. Before Louis can do anything to fan the brewing storm out of Harry's eyes, Harry says, solemnly, "I had to. They made me go."

"Who did?" Louis demands, his hackles at the ready, and he's within spitting distance of tell me who did this to you I will relieve them of all their teeth. It was always close at hand when his sisters were smaller, and it's the same protective surge that comes over him now, with Harry's face looking like that.

"The Elders," Harry says with a little sigh. "They're these, er--"

"Oh, let me guess. Talky old men who nose about everyone's business and make decisions that only benefit themselves?" At Harry's surprised nod, Louis adds with a sigh, "Yeah, we have those too."

Harry chews his lip, bruising it red. "Have they made you go through a handfasting already, then?"

"A what? No." Like, what even. He's twenty-two. He can barely boil an egg without tripping all the smoke alarms; marriage is for people who don't set the kitchen on fire every time they want a cup of tea.

"That's lucky," Harry says quietly.

Louis raises a concerned eyebrow. "Are you saying you're married?" he asks, a curious stirring of hope in his chest that the answer's no.

"No, that's the problem. I was betrothed, but I didn't want to marry who they chose for me. I don't love her, at all. I barely know her. It wouldn't have been fair to either of us to go through with it. I had to break the troth; I had to," Harry says, which is probably the longest string of sentences Louis' got out of him thus far, and it's clear by the set of his shoulders, the agitation that drives his words, that it means something to him.

So, yay, he's not married, but also, it doesn't actually matter because Louis' not looking for anything right now anyway and, more importantly, they're not even the same species. Louis' brain packs up its things and leaves at this point, a white flag its parting gift. 

"Wait," says Louis, "they chose for you? Like an arranged marriage? Bit archaic, isn't it?"

Or maybe not, considering Harry possibly thinks they're currently in four, the year of our Lord.

"That's how it's always been done," is the explanation.

Louis huffs, peeved on Harry's behalf. "So they chucked you out?"

Harry nods miserably. "Until I see the error of my ways."

"That's stupid," Louis announces.

He's kind of angry now. As far as he can tell, Harry hasn't done anything wrong and he's being made to pay for mistakes that aren't his. Louis stops walking and, before he can think himself out of it, foists a fierce hug on Harry. It takes him a half second, but Harry's arms come up to return it. He leans into Louis like he needs to be held up, so Louis lets him.

"You're all right, love," says Louis, and pretends not to hear the sniffle that Harry pretends not to sniff. "It's their problem, not yours."

It gets awkward when Louis realises Harry still has no pants on, and he slides backwards smoothly, pats Harry on the shoulder and moves along, like he obviously should have done to begin with instead of hugging him. Like, he's known Harry for under an hour. Louis is just a giant ball of bad decisions today.

So he might as well continue the trend. "D'you need a place to kip tonight, then?"

Harry blinks at him with dewy lashes and incomprehension.

"We have a couch you can sleep on, if you want."

Surprise paints over Harry's confusion. "Thank you. That's very generous. From our books and human lore," he says wonderingly, "I didn't expect such kindness. So many of our stories are about humans at war."

Louis shrugs, embarrassed. "Sometimes we do all right. And I mean, in all fairness, from our books, you're supposed to be the size of insects and flit around stealing babies and things."

"We have a lot to learn from each other, then."

"I guess so," Louis says, and bumps his shoulder.

With his bicycle out of commission it'll take probably just under three hours to walk home. In any other circumstance Louis might spend the entire stretch of morning fuming, but he thinks, with Harry at his side, it might not be so bad this once.

Louis tells him about finishing university and the job he's got lined up to teach drama at a secondary school in Leeds, and how he's only here in Salisbury for the latter part of the summer to housesit for his nan while she's off on a long stay holiday with a "friend", and how lovely it was of her to let him bring his friends along. Harry tells him about royal processions and how fairy courts work, and it basically sounds like fairies have just as fucked up a government as Parliament is. The similarity is comforting in its own way.

They encounter a handful of passersby who give Harry the side-eye, but Louis chatters on so Harry's too distracted to notice. He talks about his friends, collected one by one throughout uni until he got the perfect set, friends he can dick around with and cry to and fight with for five minutes and go to the ends of the earth for, and Harry listens to him, smiling the whole while.

By the time they get to the house, it's near mid-morning. The TV's already on, and Louis can hear Liam banging about in the kitchen. Liam likes to do a Sunday fry-up, makes a bounty of eggs and toast and beans and bacon for everyone because he's basically the second coming of Jesus. It's his compassionate, understanding nature that also makes him the most optimal candidate by whom to run the whole hey I found a fairy can we keep him please please please thing first.

Louis sneaks Harry in through the back garden; it's fenced high (all the better for the neighbours not to see what a shit job Louis' been doing with the hedges in his nan's absence) and hopefully keeps prying eyes at bay. He knows what it looks like. Well, actually, he doesn't know what it looks like; his bicycle's all warped and Harry's pantsless and they're sneaking, and that's not really a common enough occurrence to stick a quick label on.

As soon as Louis slides in the back door, Liam shouts from the stove, back turned, "Morning!"

"Hiya," Louis says carefully.

"How'd the writing go?"

"Erm, didn't get much done, actually."

He can see the backs of Niall and Zayn's heads; they're bundled together on the couch in the adjoining sitting room, snorting at something funny on a Horrible Histories repeat. One of them grunts a sleepy greeting at Louis without turning around.

Louis motions Harry inside. He coughs delicately into the back of his hand. "So, er, Liam. Someone I'd like you to meet."

Liam turns, spatula in hand while eggs sizzle in the frying pan behind him. "Oh," he says, his eyebrows coming together and suppressing judgment. He squints. "Is that my sweatshirt?"

"I lent it to him," Louis says. "He needed-- clothes. This is Harry. Harry, Liam."

"Hello, I'm Harry," says Harry blithely, like he's already decided he and Liam are going to be the best of friends.

Liam returns the greeting, awkward, and asks, "D'you need… more clothes?"

Right, yes, that would probably help to make introductions involve fewer raised eyebrows. "Yeah," Louis answers for him, "that'd be great."

"Okay. Watch the beans don't burn at the bottom." Liam pops off towards the utility room to find clean laundry, but not before giving Louis a look that clearly says You are my friend and I support you in all your endeavours, but we will also be having a serious sit-down about this later with tea and those chocolate biscuits I know you've hidden from Niall. Liam is very expressive.

Louis approaches the saucepan with more than a little apprehension and pokes a wooden spoon at a forming bubble. He turns to Harry. "Do you eat people food?" he asks, and frowns for making it sound like a question to a dog. Louis gestures to the baked beans. "I mean, like, this kind of thing."

Peering over, Harry shrugs. "I don't know. I've never tried."

"You want some eggs?" Liam asks, friendly-like, coming back with a pair of grey joggers that Harry slips on gratefully. "We've got more. I could do you up a couple of 'em."

Louis would like very much to hug the shit out of Liam. He holds it in until he can get this next part out. "We," he begins, with a sideways look at Harry, "don't know. Harry's never had to, er, eat this before. He's not from around here, he's a fairy, I found him near Stonehenge, are you also doing the fried tomatoes and mushrooms, I'll have you know those are the best in all of England, and also I like the edges of my eggs crisp, please." 

"I like mushrooms," Harry says helpfully.

"Sorry, what?" says Liam.

"He likes mushrooms," Louis repeats, and shrivels a little bit when Liam radiates consternation at him. "Yeah, I said he's a fairy. Like, magic and that. No, Li, I'm being one hundred percent serious. You know my serious face."

Liam studies him with a critical eye. "Yeah, I know your serious face," he concedes reluctantly. "But… a fairy? Lou. Louis." It's really all he has when he thinks Louis' gone off the edge; given the chance, he'd just say Louis' name repeatedly in increasingly direr tones.

"Oh, you should do your…" Louis taps Harry on the arm. "Your… thing. The, you know, with how you healed my hand. He healed my hand. Like, it was all scraped up and bloody, right, and he made it better. Look."

Liam obliges. "Your hand looks fine, Louis."

Louis makes an exasperated noise. "Yeah, that's what I'm telling you," he says. He casts about the kitchen for something Harry can prove himself with and lands on the frying pan. "Maybe you could, like, burn yourself and then Harry can fix it?"

"What is wrong with you?" Liam asks in a high voice.

"That would be inadvisable," is Harry's simultaneous contribution. "Oh!" he adds, brightening as his eye roams and catches on the back garden, where most of the plants have organised a mass pilgrimage to death's door. Harry scuttles out to the garden and aligns his hands over a bedraggled, brown shrub, concentration hardening his jaw.

Louis grabs Liam by the shoulder to make sure he sees. "Wait for it…" Louis intones.

"What am I-- Oh my god."

Harry leans back. The shrub's as sprightly now as the day his nan planted it, bright and lush, and Louis resists the urge to dance a victory dance all over Liam's personal space. Instead he goes for a high five with Harry, which of course he doesn't understand, and Louis has to guide Harry's hand up to his. Harry is delighted by the process, so they high five again, while in the background, Liam loses his mind.

"This is mad," he says, staring at them.

Louis throws an arm around him. "You'll get used to it. And Harry's really nice, I promise."

He gets another one of Liam's looks, a we're definitely talking about this later even if I have to shackle your ankles to a chair, and then lets it go to give Harry an unsteady but bracing smile. "A mushroom kind of man, then?" he says, summoning his bearings back. "Rumour has it, I do the best mushrooms in all of England."

Liam is Louis' favourite person in the history of ever, and jumps up yet another couple of notches when he shows Harry how he seasons the mushrooms.

That's one down now. He still has Niall and Zayn to contend with, but he's not so worried about them because he has Liam on his side, and basically whatever Liam says is truth. Plus, Liam and Harry are now comparing enthusiastic notes on food prep or something just as incomprehensible, and that can only endear Harry more to Liam, given how between Louis, Niall and Zayn, opening a tin of tuna counts as culinary art.

Eventually, with Harry's careful help, Liam gets everything cooked. "Lou, sound the breakfast gong, please."

"Gong," Louis shouts.

Zayn and Niall clamber over each other and off the couch, trot to the kitchen, and stop short as soon as their feet hit tile.

"Hi?" Zayn says warily.

Louis puts on a neutral face and gestures to each one of them in turn. "Zayn, Niall, Harry. I've invited him to stay for a bit," he says, though he isn't exactly sure how long constitutes a bit. "Turns out, he's a fairy with magical powers. Food's getting cold, let's eat."

As one, Niall and Zayn swivel their heads towards Liam for corroboration.

Liam sighs and nods. "Yeah, it's true."

Niall stares at Harry for a second, like he's waiting for wings to sprout. "Sick," he declares with a grin. Piling his plate high, he points his fork at Harry. "Do you know the Tooth Fairy? She owes me two quid."

"Is that taking into account inflation?" Louis asks.

He ushers Harry towards the table and into a seat, and slides into the one next to him, in case Harry needs the moral support of a person who's known him for more than thirty seconds. As if Harry can tell, he gives Louis a small smile. His dimples make a cameo appearance, and Louis vaguely wonders if all fairies are just as lovely or if Harry's just something extra special.

Niall presses the question about the Tooth Fairy, as he figures that with compounded interest he's now owed, like, twelve thousand pounds. Harry doesn't know her and is puzzled as to why she's in such heavy debt to Niall, so they're all obliged to explain her purpose.

"And then she pays you for the tooth, right, and then takes the tooth and builds, like, a house with it. It's like bricks."

"What? No, she grinds up the teeth and gives the dust to the Sandman so he can sprinkle it in children's eyes to help them sleep."

"That's disgusting. Are you telling me, I've had bits of random children's teeth in my eyes? Ugh, who knows what communicable diseases I've got from them? Do fairies not care about Health and Safety violations? Oh, god, I want to rinse out my eyes now."

They pepper Harry with questions about all the other famous fairies they know, like Cinderella's fairy godmother and the Sugar Plum Fairy and the assortment they remember from Shakespeare, and it's essentially like asking someone if he knows this friend of a friend of your sister's who has the same surname he does and went to school with you but now lives in Turkey.

"We tend to be a bit insular…" Harry says apologetically, when it turns out he's never met or even heard of Tinker Bell, which thoroughly scandalises Niall.

"Well, to be fair, she's also fictional," Liam points out, ladling another helping of baked beans onto Zayn's plate to make up for the bacon he doesn't eat.

Louis tsks Liam, but not for the beans. "A day ago, so was Harry."

"Wait…" says Harry.

"Maybe Barrie knew what he was doing all along," Louis suggests. "Like, consorted with the fairies and got all the inside scoop. And then he had to write it like he made it up, so people wouldn't think he was mental."

While Liam argues, mildly, with him about the likelihood of the Peter Pan author secretly hanging out with fairies and whether Harry will disappear if they don't believe in him, Louis notices out of the corner of his eye Zayn quietly conferring with Harry.

Louis lets Liam finish his side of the debate, then plays his trump card. "There's a fairy sitting at our breakfast table. Anything's possible. I believe in world peace now, and in David Icke." He doesn't really, he just wants to see Liam sputter.

On Harry's other side, Zayn says, "I knew it."

Louis pivots his attention over. "Something to share with the class, Mr. Malik?"

"Brownies exist," he says triumphantly, or at least what passes for Zayn as triumphantly. He operates on sort of a scaled-down model of human emotions, quiet with these little, blink-and-miss tics around the mouth that read the same, whether it's interest or annoyance. When Liam first brought him to a pick-up football game, Louis initially thought he was one of those standoffish, artsy arsehole types, even though Liam promised he wasn't. And then one day Louis made Zayn laugh with something he can't even remember anymore, and it was this big, beautiful, dorky thing, like they were seeing him for the first time, and it has been Louis' mission in life ever since to make him laugh as much as possible. It's totally working.

"Of course they exist," Niall says, confused as to why it even needs to be said.

"I saw one when I was little, in our first house. My mum didn't believe me," Zayn explains while Niall shakes his head in disappointment. "But they exist, Harry just said."

"They're the nicest," Harry enthuses, though Louis suspects it would take a lot for Harry to think poorly of someone. He's probably a bit like Niall that way; Niall comes with a default factory setting of loving everybody on sight.

Niall demands more details about the brownie Zayn's seen, and Louis relaxes into his chair, feeling a weight lift off his shoulders. It's weird, the feeling; it's not what he was expecting. He'd come in, with Harry in tow, anxious that the boys would think he was foaming-at-the-mouth insane and cart him away to a padded cell. It's a relief that they don't, or at least don't think he's any crazier than normal, but more significantly, it's a relief that they actually really seem to like Harry. Like they approve of him.

It's different. Louis isn't used to having his choices approved of. Niall is the only one who can be counted on to make more ridiculous life choices than Louis, but with Niall it's more like yes I can eat the entire contents of our fridge at one go, somebody time me, and with Louis it's like oh I see you are handsome yet emotionally unavailable, challenge accepted. And then Niall gets indigestion for about two seconds, and Louis gets two days of crying over a boy who never deserves it.

Harry looks over and smiles, all soft around the eyes, and something in Louis' stomach gives a little judder. He tells himself it's the beans.

Around a mouthful of toast, Niall asks, "Is your name really Harry, then? Doesn't seem like a proper fairy name, to be honest."

"It isn't," Harry says. "It's really more of an approximation." He tells them his real name; sure enough, it starts with an haitch, and then it's just a string of incomprehensibility after that.

Niall has a go at it, which makes Harry chuckle, and Zayn comes impressively close, earning a round of applause. Liam won't try at all, and when Louis takes his turn, Harry literally shrieks with laughter. He claps his hands over his mouth, eyes wide, like he can't even believe he's capable of such a sound, and it is the best thing ever, and Louis changes his mission in life to include making Harry laugh all the time too.

"Sorry," Harry says from behind his hands. Above them his eyes are crinkly and bright. "It's just that you said, er, what do you call it? A profanity."

Louis pumps his fist proudly. "Which one? Tell me. Is there a human equivalent?"

"Shit," Niall supplies when Harry can't think of one. "Fuck. Twat."

"Titties," Zayn says serenely.

"Arse. Cock. Bumming. Anal," Louis guesses, set on rapidfire. "Piss. Wank. Bollocks. None of these? Niall, come on, I'm sure you've got more."

Liam sighs and tells Harry, "They will literally do this all day."

"You're just jealous you haven't got such a rich vocabulary as the rest of us," Louis sniffs loftily. "Harry, seriously? We haven't hit on it yet? Either your swear words aren't actually swears at all, or fairies are much dirtier than I thought."

Harry just gives him a helpless sort of look and admits, "I don't think I even know half the words you were saying."

Niall makes this weird, kitteny noise, like he does sometimes when he watches the live Panda Cam. "You have so much to learn."

The first thing Louis makes Harry learn is football. It's actually the second thing Harry learns, after Niall teaches him how to operate the Sky HD box, for some reason. He's good at neither of them. Normally it makes Louis impatient and snippy when people, including himself, don't pick things up as quickly as he thinks they should, but on Harry, the vague incompetence somehow works.

They set up footie headquarters in the back garden, where there's a wide enough bed of lawn to play on. He starts Harry off on the basics of passing and receiving, which Louis is pretty sure he mastered before the age of two.

It all goes fine until Harry gets a bit excited and starts planting his foot in all the wrong directions, and nearly brains Liam, who's come out to inspect the newly revived shrub, like he's still not entirely sure it wasn't an elaborate trick.

"Oi," Liam says without much disapproval, as he fetches the runaway ball from behind the hedge. "That's a yellow card."

"Sorry," Harry calls out. He grins at Louis. "I'm not very good at this, am I?"

"Nonsense," Louis lies, though it's honestly like Harry has a massive surplus of limbs, none of which he seems to have full, voluntary control over, so he's less Paul Scholes and more Paul the Octopus, but the octopus was probably more likeable anyway, so he thinks Harry might be fine with that. "You just need more practice, is all."

Harry beams like he totally believes it, and Louis' stomach has a mild kerfuffle with the beans again. 

Liam joins them for a while, which gives Louis a chance to show off and Liam a chance to aim another series of meaningful looks at him. Louis sets his phasers to ignore. He knows what Liam's going to say. It'll be something responsible and sensible like what the fuck are you doing. And Louis will say I'll take care of him I swear, I'll clean up after him and feed him and use fresh newspapers every day. And it'll end with Liam telling him a thousand reasons why not and making all sorts of sense, and Louis will do the opposite anyway. So they might as well skip the preceding part, Louis hopes.

"Listen, Harry?" Liam says finally, withholding the ball in the crook of one arm so Louis can't distract anyone with his frankly amazing dribbling skills. "I've got to talk to Louis for a bit, but Zayn says he'll take you to Oxfam so you can pick up some clothes of your own. That sound all right?"

Louis strains to surreptitiously indicate that Harry cannot leave him alone with Liam, and nearly sprains his neck with the effort. It's no use anyway. Liam never orders anyone around, but somehow his dulcet, Midlands tones get a lot of things done.

"Of course," Harry says brightly, and fails to process Louis' thundering frown.

Niall pops his head out the back door. "Tommo, me 'n Zayn are taking your boyfriend out. Where are the car keys?"

Louis chooses not to acknowledge the first statement. "They're where they always are. You're not driving, are you? Because you don't even know how."

"Why would I need to when I can bum rides off you lot all the time?" It's always like this with Niall, who responds to perfectly legitimate questions like he's the only sane person in the room.

"Go on, then," Liam encourages, guiding Harry towards the door. "I've got a pair of shoes you can borrow for now."

Louis punches the football out of Liam's arm and plays sullenly by himself for a few minutes while Harry wanders away with the others. He doesn't like it when Liam does this to him, mostly because Liam always turns out right, and he doesn't want Liam to be right because he doesn't want Harry to go away, like all the others have. Louis frowns and backpedals the fifteen thousand steps he seems to have taken too far ahead of himself.

He hears the car peal loudly away; Zayn secretly fancies himself a race car driver even in Louis' clunky, secondhand Nissan.

In the kitchen, Liam's got a kettle on, so Louis goes inside and dutifully fetches from his bedroom the stash of biscuits Niall doesn't know about. It involves false panels and mislabelled shoe boxes. When he comes back down, Liam's already got the tea ready and waiting. He can't escape, not when Liam already knows where he lives and has his mobile number and the car's gone and his bicycle's broken. It's like Liam planned it this way all along. Bastard.

Louis sits.

"What do you think you're doing?" Liam asks, not unkindly.

Suppressing the immediate urge for a flippant narration of everything they're doing at this moment, Louis says, "He hasn't got anywhere else to go. I'm just… being nice."

Which is not the first word that comes to mind when Louis thinks of what other people think of him, but Liam got past the cutting, clownish sarcasm years ago, drilled right down to the soft nougat centre. It's the only reason Louis tolerates these heart-to-hearts from him; he knows too much.

"I know you are," Liam says. "You always are. But what d'you think's going to happen?"

"I dunno," Louis admits. He hasn't thought that far. When he'd made the offer for Harry to sleep on their couch, he'd been operating under the impression that it was a one-night only deal, but now he's not so sure. "Just thought I might help him out until he can get on his feet."

"How?" Liam presses. "He hasn't got any money, or papers--"

"Papers?" Louis scoffs. "Have we travelled back in time and space to Nazi Germany?" If Niall were here, Louis would call for an impersonation and it would be hysterical, but Niall's not here to play with him and Liam's still making too much sense.

"You know what I mean. It's not like he can apply for a job or anything."

Louis envisions taking Harry to the local job centre and explaining how Harry lost all his things in a very specific set of fires that targeted all his government, hospital and school records. It could work. "Well, I'm not kicking him out. He's already gone through that once today."

"No, I'm not asking you to. It's just… you can't look after him indefinitely, Lou. And you're moving back up north at the end of the month; we all are."

"I'll work something out," Louis says, though he has no idea what that might look like. He can't explain why he feels responsible for Harry's wellbeing, nor does he care to think about it for too long, but he knows for certain that he isn't going to throw Harry out to fend for himself with nothing but the borrowed clothes on his back.

Liam sighs and says, "All right." The nice thing about Liam is that once he's said his piece, he won't keep badgering you about it, and he never, ever says I told you so, which Louis has deserved on more than one occasion.

"Yeah," Louis says, hoping at least one of them will be convinced. He fiddles with his cup and pokes at a biscuit.

"And then there's also the part where you fancy him," Liam says suddenly.

Startled, Louis' fingers snap a biscuit in two. "I don't."

Liam only frowns at him.

"I don't."

"He's lovely. Not your normal type at all, which is a good thing, really," Liam muses.

A noise of frustration garbles its way up Louis' throat. "You're giving me very mixed signals, Payne. Like, you think he should leave, but you also think he's good for me? What am I supposed to do with that?"

"I don't know." Liam frowns again, at himself this time. "This was a lot easier when you were bringing home total wankers."

Louis throws a half-biscuit at him. "They weren't-- No, all right, they were all arseholes. I'm done with those, thanks."

Reaching over, Liam grips his his shoulder with an avuncular air. "I think maybe you're finally growing up, Lou."

"Shut up, I'm older than you, you twat."

"Yeah, you look it."

Louis tackles him.

When the other boys return, Louis has stopped trying to maim Liam for besmirching his honour, and is snuggled up with him instead on the couch, watching the Sunderland v. Newcastle match. 

"Your heroes have returned," Niall announces. He trips over the threshold, but rights himself quickly and pretends it never happened. "Heroes."

Harry bumbles in after him with a couple of carrier bags in hand, kitted out in some of Oxfam's greatest offerings. He looks good. Like, Louis has to physically pick up his jaw off the floor good. There are scuffed boots and black skinnies involved, and a plaid button-up shirt Harry apparently lost interest in buttoning up halfway through, and a couple of long silver chains that have Zayn's influence written all over them. The wilted flower crown's gone, but one of them's pinched a wild dandelion from somewhere for him to stick behind his ear. It should look stupid. It very, very much doesn't. It's all old, cheap, secondhand stuff, but he looks like he could be a model. He should be a model. Louis' new mission in life is to get him on the next series of Britain & Ireland's Next Top Model; he would annihilate the competition in one second flat.

"You look very nice," Louis says, in a crackly voice he hasn't heard since he was thirteen, which earns him a glowing smile from Harry and makes Liam have to hide a giggle-snort behind his hand.

Zayn glides in, shuts the door. "That's because he rightly decided not to take Niall's fashion advice."

"Vests are the height of class, ask anybody," says Niall. "Keep you cool, too."

Liam vaults over the back of the couch to see what else they bought, approving of Zayn's idea to get Harry some basic toiletries as well, and making appreciative noises at the classic band t-shirts Harry pulls out from the carrier bags. Niall shouts that he picked out the Ramones one, and that they have plans to teach Harry about each band he wears daily.

It gives Louis a chance to sidle up to Zayn and quietly ask, "How much do I owe you?"

Zayn only shakes his head and waves a dismissive hand.

"I know you didn't steal all of it; it must cost something."

"It's cool," Zayn insists, though he side-eyes Louis for the shoplifting implication. "And Harry already asked, too. Nobody owes me anything."

"No, seriously, I must know. Or I will pay you in hugs." Louis wraps sticky starfish arms around him and squeezes, making loud, dreamy noises. He counts five long seconds and still doesn't let go. "Isn't this nice? This is so nice."

"Help," says Zayn. "Help, I'm being hugged."

"You must've done something to deserve it," Liam says, folding Harry's shirts back up.

Louis finally deigns to let go and gives Zayn a manly pat on the back. "There. That was a hug worth one pound." He casts an assessing eye over the small pile of clothing on the table. "Seventy-five, eighty more hugs to go?"

"That didn't cost eighty pounds," Zayn says.

"Aha," Louis yells. "Lower or higher?"

Discretion has never been his strong suit, so it doesn't take a genius to realise he and Zayn are discussing financial debt, and Louis sees the moment it becomes obvious to Harry.

"I appreciate your kindness," Harry says, cheeks pink. "But I don't want to be a burden on you. Is there some work I can do to repay what you've done for me? I don't mind hard work, honestly."

"Toilets," Niall pitches in before Louis can say polite things about Harry being a guest in their home.

Louis whips his head towards him. "Niall."

"He asked."

Harry won't let Niall take it back, though, and makes Niall show him what needs to be done. It turns out to possibly be the best idea Niall's ever had, because Harry is freakishly adept at cleaning, and thorough, and actually seems to enjoy it. Louis' prepared to eat off the toilet after Harry's done with it; it's practically gleaming and it's not even made of materials that are capable of shine.

"Can we take him back to uni with us?" Zayn asks.

It takes Harry almost the whole afternoon, with a break for tea that Niall imposes on him, but he insists on cleaning the rest of the house too. Louis thought it would be considered a success if he and his friends didn't accidentally set fire to anything while they're here, but now they not only haven't singed anything, the house looks better than it ever did since it was built, probably. Louis' nan is going to be so pleased she invited them all to stay.

"Are you a janitor or something, back in fairy land? Like, you clean for a living?" Louis asks, picking up a sheet of newspaper to help Harry wipe the other side of the glass door he's working on.

"Erm," says Harry. "No."

He doesn't seem to want to elaborate, so Louis leaves it. Everyone's entitled to their secrets, he supposes. Unless Harry's secret is that he serial kills for a living, but Louis doesn't think he's really the type. And if so, well, Louis' had a good run at life, and if he has to go, it might as well be when he's still young and pretty.

After Harry's done with the house and it looks like it belongs in a home decorating magazine, Liam absolutely will not let him help with dinner. He gives Harry a bottle of orangeade instead and pushes him out the back door. "Relax," he says. "You've earned it. For, like, a week."

Louis grabs a drink of his own and joins Harry outside, plunking himself noisily next to Harry on the back stoop, complaining about his old bones.

The sun's starting to dip now, swirling pink and orange across the clouds. Harry closes his eyes and breathes, his lips curled up in an almost-smile.

"Thank you," he says to Louis when he opens his eyes again, soft in the fading light. "For letting me stay."

"Yeah, of course," Louis says. He darts sideways glances at Harry; he's pretty sure he can't handle a full-on view of Harry's shadowed cheekbones right now. "It's the least I could do."

Harry shifts. "No, it isn't. You could've left me there. You could've not even bothered to check if I was… okay."

He's starting to pick up some of their words and speaking patterns now, has a bit of a northern edge shaping his vowels. Given that, Louis' surprised he hasn't yet begun describing everything as sick, considering how often Niall does.

"Well." Louis doesn't know how to argue hypotheticals like this. "I'm glad I did. I'm glad we met."

"Me too." Harry smiles; it's like his face is made of actual sunbeams when he smiles, and it's kind of devastating. He takes a swig of his orangeade, coughs with surprise, and giggles. "Tickled my nose."

Louis laughs, leans over to bump his shoulder and doesn't make the return trip. "You'll get used to it."

Harry either doesn't notice or doesn't mind the contact. He squints into the distance. "You think I can make it out here long enough to?"

"Well, Harold, you've got us," Louis says, by which he mostly means me, but he's not letting that one through, as he barely understands it himself, "so I'd say yeah, your chances are pretty good."

Louis knows what Liam said. He knows he cannot fathom how this is supposed to work, what Harry's supposed to do, how he'll even actually live and be and function, because he's a fairy and fairies aren't meant to belong here except in books and, ha, fairytales. But he also knows Harry won't have to do it alone. Maybe it's a reckless promise to make, but it's made, and Louis always keeps his promises.

There's a tap on the door at their backs; Zayn's behind the glass and he mimes eating.

"I don't understand why we never win at charades," Louis says, when he opens the door to go inside for dinner. "That was a damn good charade you did just there."

Liam's made pasta, which Niall declares sick.

"Sick," Harry agrees.

"Thanks, Harry," Liam chuckles.

Somehow, they spend most of dinner discussing Made in Chelsea and how Zayn's productivity drastically plummets whenever a new series is on (he can deny it all he wants, but the data speak for themselves), and then the concept of reality television as a whole. Louis tries to gauge Harry's interest in becoming a top model, and Liam mentions the time he auditioned for X-Factor at fourteen, but didn't make it through the first televised rounds.

"We should try out together next time," Niall says. Niall says a lot of crazy things.

"Oh god, could you imagine?" Louis laughs. "The lot of us foisted upon the world? I don't think they're ready for these jellies, to be honest."

Liam tries to be helpful, turning to Harry. "Jelly means bum. I think."

Niall lets them sort it out and insists to Louis, "What, why? We can all sing. Harry too. We taught him Katy Perry in the car."

Scattershot jealousy pings across Louis' chest. It's like he's missed Harry's first steps or something, and now he gets the inferior camcorder version. But he doesn't want to hear Harry sing, not a bit, because if it turns out Harry's any good at all, Louis' a goner. He can withstand a cute face, right, because sometimes cute faces have completely useless people attached to them. But a cute face and a great voice combined is practically lethal. He already suspects Niall's verdict is true. Harry talks like he's got a voice half made of crystallised honey; add a melody to it, and well, someone will have to fetch Louis an industrial-sized vat of smelling salts.

Niall appears to have a vested interest in hastening Louis' swooning along, and he starts Harry off. "Harry," he asks in a serious announcer voice, "do you ever feel like a plastic bag?"

He skips the second verse, sings Harry through to the chorus, with Zayn filling in the words he still doesn't know because he belts over the song every time it comes on.

It's just one of those songs, so Liam can't help but join in as Niall crescendos up ignite the light and let it shine, and then they're all shouting the next line, but then Niall does this rock star point at Harry, who bursts out a solo 'cause baby you're a firework, and his voice is heart-clenchingly brilliant, and Louis' pretty much weeping on the floor.

It's not fair. Louis is filled with hate. Liam's right; he does fancy Harry, and it's not even been twenty-four hours since he found Harry on the side of the road. He hates everything. Especially Liam and especially Harry and his curly hair and his beautiful face. God.

The whole thing devolves into laughter and Niall doing some inappropriate hip thrusts in his seat when they get to the oh oh oh part, so nobody notices Louis forcibly clawing his way back to equanimity. It's a slog, because now they're trying to teach Harry how to rap the Fresh Prince theme, and it's fucking adorable.

And it's not that he ever thought there was anything lacking with the four of them, but with Harry here, it's like he's belonged the whole time, like he's always been here. Louis has no end of friends; he and the boys hang out with people other than themselves all the time, like Aiden and Ashton and Luke and them, but it's never been this seamless. There's something extraordinary happening, he thinks, except it feels like any other lazy summer day with his best friends, only now they've got one extra. It's brilliant.

After dinner, Harry offers to do the washing up. Louis slides in next to him at the sink. He bumps Harry's hip in a not-at-all shameless fashion, picks up another dishcloth to help. One of those things makes Harry smile down at him with something that looks very much like affection, and Louis' forced to start talking about whatever he can grasp to cover up the relentless thrum of his heart in his chest. It's patently absurd how quickly he's got to this point, when just this morning he seriously considered Harry mentally unsound, but he can't stop it now, can't stop the way his heart stutters and the warmth that diffuses across his skin when Harry smiles like that. He can't help but think it's likely going to be problematic, but he also can't help but want it.

Somehow he holds it together through the rest of the evening. The day's catching up to him; he's been up since before dawn, and there had been falling down and lots of walking involved, and close brushes with insanity, and then also forming a mad crush on an otherworldly being who keeps inducing cardiac arrhythmia in him, and suffice it to say, Louis' pretty knackered.

He pokes around the upstairs linen cupboard and locates an extra pillow and a duvet that isn't too fusty, carrying the lot down to spread on the couch, where Zayn's amazing Harry with the latest Mario Kart. Sneaking towards the back of the couch, Louis unfolds and dumps the duvet on top of Zayn, and Yoshi swerves off the track, to Harry's distress.

"Bastard," Zayn cries, muffled with thick cotton. He paws his way out and narrows his eyes at Louis.

"Turn down service," Louis announces blithely at him. "Got a pillow and a duvet for you, Harry. Erm, if you need anything else, come up and find me, yeah? I'm the first room just left of the stairs."

Harry scrambles off the couch. "Thank you," he says with sincerity so deep Louis might just drown in it. "You've done so much for me."

"Well, you know," Louis says, attempting to shrug it off and finding words too ineffectual.

Apparently sensing something about to go down, Zayn slinks away to the kitchen on stealthy ninja feet. He's not wrong, and Louis must remember to congratulate him on his newly acquired spider senses, because Harry's still looking at him like he can't even believe Louis exists, and Louis basically has two choices: a) run away, or b) kiss him. Except also c) no, really, leave before you do something stupider than usual.

Harry makes the choice for him, leaning in to press his lips to Louis' cheek. He smells like spring.

"Oh," Louis breathes.

"Thank you," Harry says again, pulled back. "You're wonderful."

Too stunned to produce proper syntax, Louis spits out words like a change machine. "Yes, well. This is. I. You also." Finally, he manages, "Well, good night, then."

Harry bids him good night and smiles, and it sets Louis' pulse off racing wild again. And seriously, if this is what it's going to be like with Harry all the time, Louis needs to start looking into the shortest route to the hospital. He'll need a permanent room there. They'll name a wing after him. The Tomlinson Memorial Wing, dedicated to Louis Tomlinson, who cannot bloody well keep his shit together.

He darts upstairs, only to be ambushed by Zayn, who pinches him in the side. Louis yelps and indulges in a bout of unattractive flailing. "Why do you have a death wish?" Louis demands. "You're too young to go."

"That was for sabotaging my race."

Louis looks for an opportunity to retaliate, but none surfaces, as Zayn has foreseen this circumstance, positioned with his arms high across his chest so there are no nipples available to twist in revenge. Life is unfair.

"Did you know you hold grudges excessively?" Louis says with marked disapproval. "That was, like, five entire minutes ago."

"Yeah, and what happened in that five minutes?"

Tutting, Louis asks, "Were you just lurking up here waiting for gossip?"

"Just standing outside my room," he says, like this is a common occurrence, as if the wall outside the guest room is a popular loitering grounds for recalcitrant youths.

Louis turns his nose up. "A lady never tells."

He's got nonchalance down to a science, so Zayn shrugs like he's not bothered whether or not Louis tells him anything. It should send Louis on his way, but it has the opposite effect, which is probably what Zayn intended all along.

One day Louis must find a way to worm into Zayn's brain and steal all his secrets to life, but for now, he blurts, "He kissed me. Like, on the cheek."

"Hm," says Zayn. It's as noncommittal a sound as Louis has ever heard.

"What? What does that mean?" Taking a leaf from Zayn's book, Louis then tacks on, "No, don't tell me. I don't even care."

"Okay."

"I hate you."

Zayn's mouth twitches up. "In the car, you know, when we took him to the shops? Wouldn't shut up about you."

Louis feels himself perk up like he's a dog and a can's being opened. He forces himself to calm down. Like, honestly, Louis. Cramming eagerness far down so it can't leak through his voice, he says, "Yeah? And?"

"Just thought I'd mention it." More shrugging. "He's cool. I like him."

"You and Liam," Louis marvels. "This is the weirdest day."

And of course the most appropriate response is, "You're weird."

For that, Louis attempts a surprise attack, fingers ready to twist into Zayn's side, but Zayn hops out of reach with balletic grace he must have haggled from the devil, because he barely even exercises. Whenever Louis and Liam get a football game going, Zayn just stands on the sidelines, occasionally pretending to referee, but more often smoking and looking prettier than anyone has a right to be, and Louis would absolutely loathe him if he didn't love him so much.

"Go to bed, old man," Zayn says, already halfway down the stairs.

"I was going to," Louis shouts over the banister, "before you attacked me from the shadows, you animal."

"Shut up, you'll wake Harry," Zayn yells back from the bottom step.

"Wasn't asleep," comes Harry's amused voice from the sitting room.

"Sorry, Harry," Louis bellows down the stairs anyway. "Sweet dreams."

He hears Harry laughing a bit, and it lends a little bounce to his step as he heads towards his room. Louis climbs into bed with a happy, tired sigh, pulling the covers up to his chin. Once he's settled and quiet in the dark, it is, predictably, Harry's image that drifts across his mind, the intent in Harry's eyes when he leaned in, the ghost of his breath on Louis' cheek. His stomach twists in sweet and sour spirals as he remembers the press of Harry's lips to his skin, and Louis makes himself think of anything else instead, counting sheep and birds and footballs and every other bit of detritus he's got in his head until he falls asleep.

***

Louis wakes to streamers of sunlight striping the walls through the windowblinds. He passes a hand over his eyes, frowns at the ceiling for a while as leftover wisps of a dream rapidly dissipate into nothing. He thinks there were wizards involved or something, or, like-- Louis' eyes flick wide open. There is a fairy in his house. At least, he's about eighty-seven percent sure he didn't hallucinate all of yesterday.

Swinging his legs over the edge, Louis hops out of bed and pads downstairs. The couch is empty, the duvet rumpled and squashed to one side. He squelches down a rising tide of panic. Maybe Harry just nipped to the loo, or went for a walk, or is playing outside with one of the other boys, or is a figment of Louis' imagination and Louis has developed a mental disorder.

He sweeps a cursory glance around the kitchen, empty. A splash of verdant green from the back door catches his eye, and Louis walks over to inspect the garden, which apparently discovered the Fountain of Youth during the night. It looks amazing; everything's fully recovered from his horrible black thumbs.

Relief floods over him as he spots Harry sitting in a spot of sun, in a far corner of the back garden, conversing animatedly with a little brown sparrow. So, okay, that's just this side of odd, but there is a fairy in his house, so Louis thinks he'll let this one go. That's going to be his bar for weirdness now; he'll probably have to let a lot of things slide from now on. 

Louis sticks his head out the door. "Harry," he bleats, his throat still scratchy with sleep. Clearing it, he tries again. "Harry. Haz." 

A warm smile dawns on Harry's face as he looks over. "Louis."

It doesn't look like Harry intends on moving from his spot, so Louis comes out to stand on the stoop. He peers at the sparrow, who considers him with a cocked head and bright, beady eyes. "Not interrupting, am I?"

"No, no," Harry says, waving him over. "Come. We were making friends."

With hesitant footsteps, Louis approaches. "So… You speak bird…?"

"We understand each other," Harry says, which doesn't actually explain much. "She was just telling me how she nested nearby a few months ago. She thinks your grandmother's nice, leaves seed for the birds, and that bath over there."

"Oh," Louis says weakly when the sparrow chirps what appears to be confirmation. Usually he'd be pleased to pass such a message along, but what can he even tell his nan in this instance? Hey, my friend who talks to birds said they think you're doing a bang-up job. No, I haven't been taking drugs, why do you ask?

"I told her," Harry continues, a slight pink tinge to his cheeks, "generosity runs in the family."

He's never known how to take compliments well, so Louis pushes at Harry's shoulder. "You're embarrassing me in front of the bird."

The sparrow twitters at Harry; it sounds suspiciously like she's laughing, and whatever it is, it's making Harry go even pinker, in a thoroughly attractive way.

"No," Harry murmurs at the bird. He darts a lightning quick glance at Louis, flustered.

"Are you talking about me?" Louis asks with narrowed eyes. The bird looks like a gossipy type. "Do I want to know?"

Harry pats his knee tentatively. "No," he says with an embarrassed smile.

To Louis' surprise, the sparrow hops onto his arm. He's never been this near to a wild bird before; up close it's rather a pretty little thing, actually. The sparrow chatters loudly at him and bobs her head towards Harry, and takes flight, disappearing into the sky.

"What was that about?" he asks.

It takes Harry long enough to hem and haw about it that Louis knows he's lying when he says, "She said it was nice to meet you."

Assuming it's to protect him from hearing something terrible about himself, Louis decides not to push it. Besides, it's a bird; its opinion counts for not very much. Before today, he didn't even know their tiny brains could accommodate opinions.

"I see you've been busy," Louis says, nodding at the hedges.

Harry looks pleased that he's noticed, though, honestly, it's hard not to notice when everything's so vibrant now, in such stark contrast to all the withering Louis let happen before. Even the spiderwebs look lovely, sparkling with dew, and Louis fervently believes spiders to be scourges of the earth who must be destroyed at every available opportunity (by Liam).

"Is it all right?" Harry asks.

"Looks horrible," Louis says conversationally. "It's all… green and, like, healthy. I worked really hard to forget to water it for ages, you know."

Harry studies him for a second, then breaks into a smile. "Reckon you'll just have to work harder next time, then," he says.

Louis is incapable of functioning without sarcasm, so it's something of a relief that Harry gets it. Like, he's so polite and smiley all the time it's hard to tell if he knows how normal communication works or if he's like one of those aliens from Galaxy Quest Niall finds so hysterical. In any case, he gets it, and he's got better hair, anyway.

"Only to have you sabotage me at every step of the way?" Louis sniffs. "Sod that. I've got better things to do with my time."

As proof, he stretches and lies back on the grass, warmed in a patch of sun. After a moment's consideration, he pulls Harry by the elbow to join him. Harry leans back pliantly, easing his long legs out, putting a loose seam between their arms.

Louis squints up at the sky, notes the puffy clouds scudding slowly by. "Ever play this game when you were little?" he asks. "Finding shapes in the clouds?"

"Yeah," Harry says, with a smile Louis feels more than sees. "Yeah, I did."

They let a few clouds pass by, occasionally labelling a porcine one or a shoe, and then one that looks to Harry like a large, disembodied baby's head, which leads to Louis loudly questioning his psychological well-being and Harry kicking his foot. It's nice.

"That one there," Louis decides, pointing up, "is a cat with a, er, frog on its back. So, obviously, the frog has tamed the cat somehow and is riding it to somewhere very important. Business meeting, probably."

"Mm," Harry agrees with amusement.

"Oh, nope, no, I changed my mind," Louis says, as a gentle current moulds the cloud into something new. He waits for it to take form. "Ah. It's an overweight triceratops, mm, questioning its life choices. Having an existential crisis. Little does it know, it won't have to worry about its existence for long."

"What's that?"

"Existential crisis?"

"No, the first thing you said."

"Triceratops? Type of dinosaur. Y'know, like the little impudent one from Land Before Time," Louis says, forgetting for a moment the vast differences between his and Harry's backgrounds. "Oh, erm, sorry, that wouldn't make sense to you."

Harry gives him a sort of helpless, apologetic smile.

Louis feels a bit of an arse. It's easy to overlook what Harry's plight must be like, as Harry's so easygoing it almost always seems as if everything's fine. But Louis can't imagine how he'd even manage to get through five minutes if he were just tossed into some sort of alternate universe where everyone's a stranger and nothing's the same. He wrenches himself up onto his elbows so he can look Harry properly in the eye. "Sorry, Harry. This must be hard; everything's different here, isn't it?"

"Yeah," says Harry. Quick to reassure, he adds, "But it's all right."

"No, it isn't. And I keep throwing it in your face, all the things I know and you don't. How can I make it up to you?"

Harry looks horrified. "No, you've already--"

Forestalling another round of gratitude that Louis won't know how to respond to, he tugs on Harry's hand. "Come on, up. Let's get some breakfast, yeah?"

He leads the way back into the kitchen, roots around for a couple of bowls and spoons, while Harry works the kettle. Liam showed him how yesterday, because Liam teaches dispossessed preternatural beings actual useful life skills instead of sports rules or what each remote control button is for. Well, and Zayn had also explained how the shower worked, so he's marginally less useless than Louis and Niall at imparting functional wisdom.

To even up the score a little, Louis makes a big production of pouring cereal and milk into a bowl. It's an essential skill when Liam's not around.

Harry is appropriately awed. "And the milk goes in after?" he says, with a healthy measure of wryness Louis thoroughly approves of.

"Yes, Harold. I know it's hard to grasp at first, but I've full confidence in your abilities."

Splashing a bit of milk into an empty bowl, Harry says, all cheek, "Oh no, it's all gone wrong already."

Louis shakes his head. "Hopeless. Absolutely hopeless. It's a lucky thing you're so pretty, Curly," he says, tugging lightly on Harry's hair.

"Don't know what I'd do without you," Harry murmurs.

They're veering into an area where Louis might be tempted to say something saccharine, and he can't have that. It's not something he likes to think about, either, what Harry might be doing instead if Louis hadn't happened upon him, so he sidesteps both those thoughts with a flippant, scoffing noise. "You'd be perfectly fine. S'long as you know how to make a good cup of tea, you're doing better than most of the civilised world."

As if to prove Louis' point, Harry proceeds to proportion the milk and water perfectly, and waits for the teabag to steep. They spend the time watching the ticking clock in the kitchen, stealing conspiratorial, amused glances at each other while they play a competitive waiting game. Louis narrows an assessing look at him when it's almost time to fish the teabag out, and Harry only gives him a complacent smile. At precisely two minutes and fourteen seconds, Harry discards the teabag and hands the mug to Louis proudly. 

After taking a test sip, Louis slow claps at Harry's ability to get his tea to the exact strength Louis likes. "Brilliant," he declares. "See? You're doing just fine."

A knock at the front door interrupts whatever Harry might've been about to say. Louis sets the cup down, and Harry follows him curiously to the door, lagging a few steps behind.

"Morning, Mrs. Deakin," Louis says when he opens the door to the elderly neighbour from across the street.

"Hello, Louis dear," she says, and asks after him and his friends. After all the niceties are done, she says, "I couldn't help but notice how well your grandmother's summersweet is growing this year."

"Her what?" Louis says. When she points to the shrub ornamented with bright pink flowers just to the side of the front door, Louis turns towards Harry. "Oh, did you do the front bits as well?"

Harry nods, while Mrs. Deakin tries to poke her head in to see who Louis' talking to.

"Oh, er, yeah, it's my friend Harry who did that," Louis says, moving aside so he can bring Harry to the forefront. "He's brilliant with plants."

"My hydrangeas have been looking a bit peaky," Mrs. Deakin says. "I wonder if…"

So Harry ends up traipsing across the street with her, offering his arm just before they step off the kerb, and Louis counts down the seconds on one hand until Mrs. Deakin's completely taken with Harry's sweetness. Louis can relate.

Louis' tagged along just in case quick explanations need to be made up on the spot for what Harry can do, but Harry's clever enough not to resurrect the hydrangeas right in front of Mrs. Deakin. What this says about Louis himself he's not sure, given how easily Harry had trusted him with his identity and magic. Instead Harry sits in front of the shrub for a while, touches a few leaves, his head cocked to one side like he's listening for something.

"It's quite an involved process," Louis says with confidence when Mrs. Deakin glances at him unsurely. "He's like the dog whisperer, except with, like, gardens."

"Oh," she trills, equal parts intrigued and bewildered.

Eventually Harry stands and tells Mrs. Deakin about the hydrangeas being unhappy from getting waterlogged and the soil not being quite right. She doesn't seem overly concerned that Harry's conveying this information as though it's come straight from the source (though Louis suspects it has), so Louis zones out for a while. He notices where Harry's hands have been that the leaves seem just a little brighter.

Apparently, Mrs. Deakin can tell the difference too. Pleased, she pops inside and comes out again in a flurry to press a rock cake each into their hands, plus a fiver for Harry.

As they cross the street, Louis asks, "I suppose you speak plant too?"

"You just have to be very quiet and listen, is all."

Louis laughs. "I'll never make it as a plant whisperer."

When they get back to the house, Harry turns the five-pound note over in his hands. He holds it out to Louis. "Here, you should have it."

"That's yours, Haz. You earned it," Louis says, pushing his arm back.

"No, but I owe you--"

Louis closes his hands around Harry's, looks seriously him in the eye. "Harry, stop. You don't owe me anything, okay? We're friends, yeah? Friends look after each other," he says and smiles, so Harry will too. "Besides, you cleaned the entire house for me yesterday, and you could've charged, like, a hundred quid for that, at least."

Letting the matter go, Harry says with a smile, "And I made you a tea."

Louis laughs, walking back towards the kitchen. "Yeah, you made me a tea, and-- and it's Niall's now."

His hair still sleep-ruffled and feet propped up on one of the dining chairs with socks askew, Niall sets the half-drunk tea down. "You know the ten-minute rule," he says with a grin.

"Yes, the ten-minute rule. Agreed upon when we were all pissed, mind you," Louis explains to Harry with a sigh. "The ten-minute rule means any food left unattended for more than ten minutes is considered abandoned property and therefore fair game for any Nialls hovering about."

Niall waves like someone might not recognise he's the Niall referred to in Louis' statement. "Yeah, I heard you go out, you didn't come back for ten minutes. So."

Louis aims a slow motion punch at his jaw, and Niall thuds backwards just as sluggishly. He doesn't actually care that Niall's filched his tea, so Louis whirrs a hand through his hair and lets Niall have his rock cake.

"S'all right," Louis says. "Harry'll make me another, won't you, Haz?"

"Yeah." Harry blinks, tilts his head. "You keep calling me that."

A loud yawn rumbles out Niall's mouth. "Means he likes you."

"I like it," Harry says with a wide smile before Louis can find the wherewithal to bluster about Niall talking rubbish all the time.

Niall follows them into the kitchen, apparently having been sidetracked by ten-minute rule tea on his way to assembling his own breakfast. Seeing the cereal box still sat on the counter, Niall grabs it and dips a fist in. "Harry, catch," he says, and tosses a Cheerio at Harry's face.

Whether it's instinct or this is something fairies have extensive practice with for reasons Louis cannot think of, Harry manages to snag the airborne Cheerio in his mouth. He and Niall cheer like they've just shattered an Olympic record, and clearly they're two idiot peas in a pod. Louis can't even quantify how much he loves this moment.

He fills the kettle again, enough to make Niall his own cuppa as well, because he'll still want one. While waiting for it to boil, he watches Harry and Niall continue their game, and it was probably beginner's luck, that first throw. They're making an absolute mess now, upping the ante to several tosses in a row without pause, Cheerios bouncing off each other's noses and skittering across the kitchen tile.

"You're worse than babies, both of you," Louis says. "At least they can keep their food within a one-foot radius." 

"That's because they're strapped into a chair," Niall points out. "This requires skill, Lou. Skill and finesse." It's basically the story of Niall's life that at the same time he says those words, he's trying to execute some gymnastic trickery to catch a series of Cheerios Harry lobs at him, and ends up crashing into a kitchen cupboard. "Ow, shit, ow."

"Christ, Niall, not the teak," Louis says mildly. It's possible he's a terrible person, but this has happened enough times that he knows Niall's secretly made of adamantium and does no lasting damage to himself despite the frequency of his accidents.

Harry knows no such thing, however, so he's crowding up with concern against Niall to see what he's done to himself.

Niall shows him a long scratch along the side of his upper arm where it raked across a corner of the cupboard. His face vacillates between a frown of pain and fascination at the wound pattern.

"Oh, I can help you with that," Harry says. His hand hovers over the abrasion, hesitant. "Is that okay?"

"Yeah, yeah," Niall agrees, though it doesn't look like he knows what he's agreeing to, and Louis remembers that Liam's the only one of them who knows how Harry heals things, so this will be fun to watch.

Two seconds later, Niall's staring at his unmarred bicep with an ever-widening, incredulous grin. He looks up at Harry with stars in his eyes, hugs him sideways, and says, in all seriousness, "I love you. Don't ever leave."

As Harry blushes, Louis raises his mug in salute, lifting it in front of his face so neither of them can see how much he concurs, because if there was ever an apt time for the lyrics hey I just met you and this is crazy Louis has struck gold.

To divert attention away from what he feels must be red creeping up his neck, Louis says, "Just think of all the money you'll save on Savlon, Niall."

Niall hugs Harry again.

Over breakfast that they eat from bowls and spoons like civilised people, Harry asks how they all became friends.

"Well," Louis says, "Liam I met my second year at uni. We lived in the same residence hall and sort of just kept running into each other elsewhere too. Zayn he knew from a course they took together, and brought him round one day. I don't know where we picked up Niall from. He just… moved in without anyone noticing."

Niall shrugs like this is a common occurrence that everyone should reasonably expect. He has a contacts list about twenty miles long, and could probably find a couch to crash on in nearly every country in the world, which is basically how he started with Louis. There had been a party at Louis and Liam's once, and they'd let Niall sleep it off in their living room; he sort of just never left, but no one really minded because Niall is weirdly brilliant at walking the tightrope between adorable and mental, and two years on, Louis can't imagine him not being around.

"He doesn't even attend our university," says Louis, kicking him lightly across the table.

Returning the blow, Niall says, "I'm on my slightly extended gap year."

With a short laugh, Louis prompts, "And by slightly extended, you mean…?"

Niall grins proudly. "Almost two years now. Think I might go for a record three. How about you, Harry? You have fairy universities?"

"No," Harry says. "Nothing formal like that. I had private tutors…"

"That mean you didn't have to take any GCSEs either?" When Harry shakes his head somewhat confusedly, Niall says with a frown, "I want to be a fairy. Could've got out of maths."

"Aren't you convinced you have leprechaun blood anyway?" Louis asks.

"I showed you that picture of my great-grandfather, didn't I? It's possible," Niall says. He turns to Harry. "Right? For humans and leprechauns to-- you know?" To make up for not using a profanity, Niall does a crude but informative hand gesture instead.

Harry gives the question its due consideration. "It's not unheard of, fae and humans," he says, flicking a split-second glance Louis' way. 

An abrupt cheer goes up in Louis' head at this revelation, and if fairies can read minds, Louis is well and truly fucked. But no one's even paying attention to him right now, because Niall has moved on to asking questions about genetic transmission, of all things, and Harry's doing his best to answer them based on stories he's heard about halflings, and Louis is once again struck by how normal this tableau seems, except for the part where it's all incredibly weird.

He tunes back in just in time to hear Niall say, "... and if it's a single major gene locus, right, then that would mean…" and seriously, Louis has no idea where this is coming from. He's known Niall for two years, and half the time he's convinced that Niall was raised by small animals, and the other half that Niall's a secret genius who will rule them all one day.

But today doesn't seem to be the day, as Niall shifts gears and invites Harry to go skateboarding with him, which means Niall will hurt himself somehow, and that'll leave precious little time for taking over the world.

"You can take mine, Harry," Louis offers. "Just remember you can always jump off the skateboard if you can't stop."

Harry looks mildly worried at this, but Niall's already dragging him off to look for the extra skateboard.

Just as they're leaving the house, Liam comes back in from an early morning run. Spying the skateboards under their arms as they wind past him and out the door with a succession of hellos and goodbyes, he says to their backs, "Are you sure that's a good idea?" He looks at Louis, who's stood at the door to see them off. "Is that a good idea?"

"No, probably not," Louis says. "But if Niall cracks his head open, at least Harry'll be able to fix it."

"Oh, right," says Liam, coming in and shutting the door behind himself. "Useful, that."

As it turns out, it's only half useful. Harry and Niall come back about an hour later, while Louis' frowning over his glasses at his laptop with the first month's worth of lesson plans he's been working on, and Harry's holding a bleeding elbow.

Louis flings his glasses off. "What happened?"

Harry gives him a sheepish look. There's dirt on his cheek and trousers, and his left elbow's nearly completely scraped off, along with a few small cuts on both arms. "I fell. A few times."

"He can't use his magic on himself," Niall explains before Louis can ask. "It's, like, against the laws of physics or something."

Louis' tempted to argue that magic, nearly by definition, transcends the laws of physics, but that's probably not a top priority at this point. Besides, given Niall's baffling knowledge of molecular genetics, Louis isn't sure this is an argument he can hack.

"Come on, Harold. Let's get you cleaned up," Louis sighs.

While Niall puts the skateboards away and shouts what sounds like one of several apologies to Harry for introducing extreme sports into his life, Louis leads Harry to the upstairs bathroom, where they've been keeping a treasure chest of first aid supplies in the event that Niall goes outside.

He sits Harry down on the toilet and deposits himself on the floor, setting to work with deft hands. Harry watches in fascination, hissing once when Louis applies disinfectant.

"Sorry," Louis says, glancing up to see Harry grimace. "I always find it's better not to warn people when that's coming, though. The anticipation makes it worse."

Harry's mouth lilts up, the pain forgotten. "Assist a lot of wounded souls in your spare time?"

"I've got four thousand little sisters," Louis says by way of explanation, matching Harry's smile. "Like, the first five years of Fizz's life can basically be measured in metres of bandages used."

"Tell me about her," Harry says.

So Louis talks about his sisters, and how beautiful and irritating they all are, and the mischiefs he and Lottie used to get up to when they were littler, and how he is prepared to kill barehanded anyone who hurts them. When he's finished dressing the wound on Harry's elbow, Louis stops talking and pats his arm, slightly embarrassed at how long Harry let him go on and on about, like, the twins teaching him last Christmas how to plait their hair or whatever.

Harry doesn't seem to mind, smiling softly, his eyes tracking Louis' movements as Louis clamps a hand onto the edge of the sink and levers himself up from the floor.

"Oh, right, and you've got…" Louis says, reaching out to get at the smear of dirt on Harry's cheek. Angling his hand so that Harry's jaw is cradled in his palm, Louis sweeps his thumb over the ridge of Harry's cheekbone, rubs the dirt away.

Eyes fluttering closed for a moment, Harry opens his mouth just slightly, like he's about to speak, but all that comes out is a soft, hitched breath.

Tell a joke, Louis. Say something. Say anything. He doesn't. He can't; every word he knows seems to have deserted him, with only Harry's name spinning through his head, wild and dizzying, and the dirt's long gone but his hand isn't.

He could just lean in. He could just curve right into Harry's space. He could--

"Unh," Zayn grunts, staggering through the bathroom doorway with his eyelids at half-mast.

Words swarm back into Louis' head then; they're mostly obscenities. He jerks his hand away from Harry and stuffs it into his pocket, avoids meeting Harry's eyes. Zayn's blinking stupidly at them, clearly just woken up and having trouble powering on the part of his brain that processes visual information.

"Afternoon," Louis says. He's trying for nonchalant, but there's a sharp edge cutting through, and he has to swallow it down hard before he can muster up a friendly smile to throw Zayn's way.

"Is it?" Zayn mumbles, scrubbing a hand through his hair. Louis doesn't know why he sounds so surprised; Zayn never wakes before noon if he can help it. Squinting at Louis and Harry, he asks, slurry, "What're you doing in here?"

Harry stands up, shows off the dressing on his elbow. "I went skateboarding with Niall."

A look of And nobody stopped you? fleets over Zayn's face.

Rolling his eyes, Louis steps forward to pat Zayn's hair; it's funny and fluffy when he's just stumbled out of bed. "I suppose you'll be wanting us to get out of your way, then."

Zayn shrugs like it doesn't matter to him if they hang out in there while he showers, but Louis wraps his fingers around Harry's wrist and pulls him along and out into the hallway. Zayn gives them a sleepy wave and shuts the door.

"So," Louis says, dropping Harry's wrist. Tension frames his body, buttressed by awkwardness. Louis doesn't know what to do now.

Harry seems to have no such problem. "Thank you for taking care of me," he says, lifting his injured elbow up as evidence. He tips forward and plants a soft kiss to Louis' cheek, just as he did the night before, and it's just as gorgeous and surprising a feeling as it was the first time.

When Harry leans back, he has a smile on his face, and Louis can't help but return it. It's like he's being classically conditioned now around Harry; soon he'll have no control over himself at all and will smile every time he sees him. It's going to be a problem. It already sort of is. There's just something about Harry that ignites all manner of delight in him; he can't turn it off any more than he can suppress a reflex.

And he'll stand there and smile at Harry like an idiot for hours on end given half the chance, so Louis forces himself to turn and head downstairs again.

Niall's pulled out stuff from the fridge to make sandwiches, and Liam starts the assembly line, leaving enough aside for Zayn when he finally makes it downstairs. They don't always do this, eat together, or make sure there's enough left over for whoever isn't around, especially when they'd all had different class schedules and flitted in and out of their flat at odd hours, but it's a habit they've picked up since trundling down to Salisbury together.

They haven't got sick of each other yet, and they've lived in each other's pockets long enough that Louis doesn't suppose they will. There'll be less chance of that anyway once the summer's over, and Liam and Zayn go back for their final year, and Niall continues whatever capricious endeavours he thinks up every day, and Louis moves out for his teaching job. It'll be strange without the boys, strange to be in a flat by himself.

Louis glances over at Harry, who's comparing sandwich heights with Niall and losing by quite a considerable margin, and wonders where Harry will go. If asked, he'd take Harry with him. There's a fair chance he might offer before that. It's stupid, he knows. He also knows he has a bad habit of giving his heart too fast, and he's done it in record speed this time, but there isn't the niggling sensation in the back of his mind that everything's going to eventually fall apart like it always does, so obviously he's doing something wrong.

Liam nudges him with a stealthy elbow. "Stop worrying," he says, low so only Louis can hear him. "We'll help you figure something out."

Fighting the urge to hug Liam's beautiful face, Louis asks, "Why? I mean, I'm not being sarky, but."

It's like Liam's been taking shrugging lessons from Zayn. "Seems like a good lad," Liam says. "Plus, I think Niall's getting really attached, so we'll probably have to keep him around for a while. You know, for Niall."

Louis grins, grateful. "Yeah, Niall. What a little troublemaker," he says loudly.

"What? What did I do?" Niall asks, confused.

"Nothing, you're perfect," says Liam in soothing tones. He pats Niall on the cheek, which puts a satisfied smile on Niall's face.

They gravitate outside, sprawling across the sun-warmed grass. A couple of orange butterflies wing their way through the garden in erratic patterns and circle around Harry for a spell.

"Hi," Harry says happily to the butterflies, craning his neck every which way to trace their movements. "Pleasure to meet you. I'm very well, thank you. And yourselves?"

"Like a Disney princess, this guy," Niall says, chortling.

"He was talking to a sparrow this morning," Louis says, aiming a wry glance Harry's way as he bids goodbye to the butterflies, who carry on their way to do whatever the hell butterflies do. "Like, had a proper conversation with it. I think it slagged me off, too."

Niall cackles. "How do you even you piss off a sparrow?"

"Maybe," Liam proposes, picking off a blade of grass and throwing it at Louis, "it knows about that time you tried to get Ed to run over a crow with his car?"

Louis blows a derisive puff of air through his teeth. "Everyone knows crows are pure evil. It would've been doing the world a favour." In case this makes him look like he ought to be blacklisted by the RSPCA, he adds hastily to Harry, "I didn't really. Ed is notoriously difficult that way. But I do stand by the fact that crows are the vilest of the birds. You can see it in their eyes. Why else would their collective name be a murder? The point sells itself."

"No, it's true; they're not very nice. Quarrelsome," Harry says, nodding, and Louis doesn't have to ask to know Harry's actually been party to a crow squabble first-hand. "But the sparrow wasn't saying anything bad about you."

"Yeah, you told me she said it was nice to meet me," Louis says, side-eyeing him with a healthy measure of scepticism.

"And it was," Harry says, and goes a bit pink, avoiding Louis' eyes. He is by far the most incompetent liar Louis has ever met, and it's darling as fuck.

Eventually Zayn ambles out to join them, and they stay outside for a while, debating intellectually stimulating topics like what the chances are of Kim and Kanye naming any other future children a cardinal direction or maybe an integer. Niall falls asleep, limbs spread clumsily on the grass like an exhausted toddler, so everyone takes turns poking twigs up his nose. It's like that Operation game, fun for the whole family, only better.

It's on Louis' second go that Niall snorts suddenly and rolls over onto his side, startling Louis backwards. Louis falls on his arse and lets out a loud, high laugh.

Niall jolts awake, levelling a look of deep suspicion at a still-laughing Louis and at the other boys, who are unsuccessfully trying to hide their snickers. Niall's hands fly to his face, feeling about for anything out of the ordinary. "What did you do? Did you put something on me?"

Propped up on his elbows now, Louis crosses his ankles daintily and raises a haughty eyebrow. "I'm sure I have no idea what you're talking about."

Niall lunges for his legs first.

Somehow, everyone gets drawn into battle, and it's all a tangle of limbs and unmanly squeals for a while. Zayn loses a shoe in the melee, and Niall invents a whole slew of new vulgarities, and either Harry has never been in a friendly brawl before or is a tactical genius because he's tickling anyone he can get his hands on. When Liam's trousers get pulled halfway down, he declares a ceasefire and that everyone's a winner and possibly also perverts.

Out of breath, Louis flops over onto his back and sees out of the corner of his eye Harry roll next to him, giggling quietly. His shirt's rucked up so the tip of the inked butterfly wing peeks out along the curve of his ribs, and now Louis' breathless for a different reason entirely. It's obviously nothing he hasn't already seen, but back when Harry stood naked in front of him, Louis also thought he was stark raving mad. Now that Harry's actually sane and sweet and sunny, it's a different picture altogether.

Louis itches to reach over and trace his fingertip over the butterfly wing, over the whole thing, really, and the swallows and the dip of Harry's collarbone. As a compromise, Louis jabs him in the side.

With a surprised squeak, Harry curls in on himself. He gives Louis a betrayed look that's all wounded baby animal.

Uncertain, Louis bolsters himself up on one elbow and opens his mouth to apologise, and too late he realises that's pretty much all the opportunity Harry needs to dart his fingers in under Louis' arm with a vicious tickle.

"You bastard," Louis wheezes through his laughter. He can hear the other boys cheering Harry on, so he yells, "I hate you all!"

Harry's leaning over him, so close he blocks out the sun and all Louis can see is his radiant, dimpled face and the frame of his curls, and with the fucking tickling Louis can't decide if he wants to kick Harry or pull him closer. Making a split-second decision, Louis surges up, grabs Harry by the neck, and licks a thick stripe up the side of his face. Harry tumbles away with a startled laugh, and Louis leaps to his feet, declaring obnoxious, unequivocal, eternal victory.

"Boo, foul," Niall calls out from the peanut gallery.

"No one ever said that wasn't allowed," Louis points out. He winks at Harry to keep up the pretence that pulling Harry that close didn't set off all kinds of sparks in his body, didn't make him wish the boys were somewhere far away so he could have made a different choice.

Harry wipes his cheek with the back of his hand, but he's grinning, so Louis figures the licking wasn't too offensive.

The rest of the day they while away with football both outside and on telly; Harry picks Norwich City as his team because he likes the canary on their crest. Louis' just happy the Liverpool bird didn't catch Harry's attention, otherwise he'd have to sever all ties with him.

It's not a particularly exciting evening, but it doesn't have to be. Louis' got his friends and football, and what more could a boy ask for? Well, obviously he could ask for, like, a winning lottery ticket or something, but he's pretty good with what he's got.

As night settles in, one by one the boys shuffle upstairs to bed, until it's just Louis left on the couch with Harry, who's already taken advantage of the extra space by curling onto his side and stretching his legs over Louis' lap. He looks up at Louis like he's about to ask if it's okay, so Louis rolls his eyes with great exasperation and fondness, and pats Harry's shin.

Harry nestles deeper into the couch happily, and it's not long before he's asleep. Louis gently eases himself out from under Harry's legs and switches off the telly. In the ambient yellow glow of the lamp on the side table, Harry looks impossibly young, still as a sculpture, his eyelashes fanning long shadows over his cheeks.

Louis' heart gives a little lurch, and he sits with the ache for a moment before dusting it away. He spreads the duvet over Harry, tucking one end over his bare feet and the other under his chin. It might be the only chance he gets, or at least it might be the only time he'll be anywhere close to brave, so Louis bends down and touches his lips to Harry's cheek.

A soft sigh drifts past Harry's lips, but he doesn't wake.

"Night, Harry," says Louis.

Turning the light off, he slips upstairs, an odd melancholy keeping pace with him. Rather than giving it voice, Louis takes a book with him to bed, a battered paperback Zayn had left lying around a week ago, to keep his mind occupied. He makes it all the way to the end of the second page before his focus scurries back towards Harry again. Louis grumbles quietly to himself and tosses the book aside, giving up.

He sits in bed for a long moment, doing nothing while his mind busily catalogues every interaction he's had with Harry since they met, plucks a daisy petal for each moment he can remember. He likes me, he likes me not, he likes me, he likes me, he likes me, he likes me. Or maybe Louis' just projecting.

Tired of listening to himself, Louis snaps the bedside lamp off and sticks his earbuds in. He picks a playlist at random, letting heavy guitar strains drown his brain out.

Louis wakes in the middle of the night, his iPod on the floor and his throat dry. He fumbles a floppy hand over the nightstand, realising with a groan he forgot to bring a glass of water up with him before settling into bed. He lies there, blinking up at the ceiling for a while, wondering whether to drop back to sleep or get a drink, and decides on the latter by default, since he doesn't fall asleep again.

It takes a second for all his limbs to remember what cooperation means, but he manages to get himself down the stairs on hushed feet. He passes the sitting room; the couch is empty again. This time, Louis doesn't panic. He knows exactly where to look.

He heads to the kitchen, fills two mugs with tap water, and takes them to the back door. As expected, Harry's outside, hunched on the stoop, arms dangling over his knees and his head angled towards the sky, bright with stars.

Louis taps gently on the glass and eases the door open. "Mind if I join you?"

With a smile, Harry shifts over to make room, a hum of gratitude in his throat as he accepts the water.

For a while Louis is quiet, listening to the whisper of the wind, wondering if Harry hears something in it that he doesn't. "D'you miss it?" Louis asks. "Home?"

Harry nods. "Yeah, the familiarity. Everything's so new here. Some of it is absolutely amazing," he says to Louis with a small smile, "and other parts are--"

"Shit?"

With a light chuckle, Harry corrects it to, "Harder to get used to."

"Think you might go back?" Louis asks.

He doesn't know what answer he's hoping to hear. Obviously he likes having Harry around; it feels right with Harry around. But he knows it's hard on Harry, living out of time and place, on the fringes of normality, and uncertainty dogging his steps at every turn.

"I don't know," Harry admits. "What would you do?"

Louis shakes his head as he weighs the scale: forced into a loveless marriage or forced out of his home; it's not a decision he could easily make for himself, let alone someone else. Instead he says, "What does your family think? Or your friends?"

He's been resisting broaching the topic, in case it's a delicate, upsetting subject for Harry. Louis would be plenty upset if he couldn't ever see his mum or sisters again, or the boys.

Harry draws in a deep breath. "My parents died when I was very little," he says, and the even keel in his tone makes Louis think Harry never really knew them at all. "And I don't-- I don't really have friends. Not like you have."

"Charming lad like you?" Louis says, elbowing him. "I find that hard to believe."

The light jostle pulls, as Louis had hoped, Harry's mouth into a small curve, but it turns rueful again as he says, "I'm… different."

There's obviously something Harry's holding back, and Louis doesn't know if he's in a position to push, so he says bracingly, "That's all right. It'd be boring if everyone was the same. You don't have to tell me why, but if you want to, I promise I won't judge. I mean, well, I might judge a little, if it's something really weird, like you eat your own toenails or something. But I'll make sure to be discreet about my judging you. You won't even know I think it's incredibly disgusting."

"But they're delicious," Harry says with a straight face.

Louis snickers. "But seriously," he says, bumping Harry's shoulder, "anything you want to talk about, I'll listen, yeah?"

"Mpnnx," Harry says into his chest.

"Eh?"

Harry looks over, an air of embarrassment about him. "I'm a prince."

Well, that was unexpected. Add a noble steed and a sunset, and Louis' got his very own fairytale. "Is that all?" Louis says instead of asking where Harry's horse is. "I thought it was going to be something more horrifying than that, after you went on about the toenails."

Caught somewhere between amusement and exasperation, Harry pushes him, and Louis falls onto his elbow, laughing.

"Okay, so you're a prince," Louis says placatingly. "No wonder you're so diplomatic all the time. Sounds pretty cool to me, though. If I were a prince, I'd be ordering statues of myself erected on every street corner. Maybe re-conquer Ireland as well. That'd be fun. D'you go around conquering much?"

Harry shakes his head. "I'm more of a figurehead than anything. Political fodder, maybe, ever since the Elders took over when my parents died."

"What do you mean?"

"The marriage? That's for consolidation of land. I don't get much say in it."

Louis doesn't feel much like laughing anymore. He had no idea what he'd hit on a few days ago when he'd suggested the fairies' doings were archaic. "Shit. Why-- I mean, god," he says, unable to corral his thoughts into anything near manageable, not when Harry's been treated like not much more than a commodity. He wants to offer his services in setting all of the Elders' hair on fire, but that's probably not very helpful at this point.

"That's why," Harry continues, "I haven't really got any friends. People don't see me, they only see the title, what it's worth."

Resisting the urge to hug him, Louis says, "You know, over here, when kids don't get to socialise properly, they turn out to be absolute weirdos. But I think you did all right. I mean, like, you're tolerable."  

He must be able to tell what Louis truly means, because Harry grins.

"And you've got friends now," Louis says firmly.

"I know," Harry says, still beaming. "You thought I was deranged when we first met, but you took me home with you anyway."

"That probably makes me the deranged one."

"No," says Harry. "It makes you kind."

Louis doesn't know what to do with that. He's not used to labels that aren't funny or bitchy or ridiculous. People aren't supposed to see past that. But he supposes it's a fair swap, in a way, that he saw something in Harry that had nothing to do with a crown, and Harry's seen what lies beneath his armour.

He sniffs loudly, almost a snort, to dispel the sentiment. "Have you been sitting out here long? Bit chilly, isn't it?"

Harry's eyebrows rise a fraction, like he hadn't considered it until just now. He clambers to his feet, but puts a hand on Louis' shoulder to make him stay put. "I'll be back in a minute," he says, and heads inside.

So Louis sits and tilts his head towards the sky, breathes in the night air. It's been a long time since he did this, since he just sat outside with the stars and nothing else. He squints up; it's a bit blurry without his glasses, but he thinks he can still make out the shape of the Plough.

When Harry returns, it's with the duvet in tow, dragging along the stoop. He makes sure their waters are safely out of the way and billows the duvet open, then cocoons himself and Louis together in it.

"Oh," says Louis, his skin overspreading with warmth that has at least seventy-five percent nothing to do with the duvet. "Thanks, Haz."

Harry budges in closer until they're lined up at their sides. "You're welcome. Lou," he says, like he's trying it out to see how it'll feel. He grins, pleased with the result.

It's funny how much delight Harry derives from something as simple as a nickname, and it's pointless to fight the grin Louis wants to give him in return.

They don't say much more after that, leaning against each other's warmth, and the next thing Louis knows, he's opening his eyes to the sun creeping up behind the fence.

He'd fallen asleep on Harry, literally draped across his knees, while Harry's curved over Louis' back. Louis' arse feels like it's glued to the stoop and his back is probably going to punish him for a couple of days for this, but he can't bring himself to mind too much.

Harry stirs, groaning softly, and accidentally clips Louis in the back of the head with the back of a sleep-heavy hand, which makes Louis chortle into the seam between Harry's knees.

"Ow, Hazza," says Louis without much complaint.

"Wha…?" Harry mumbles. He blinks for a couple of seconds, unfocused. He grunts something raspy and unintelligible, and Louis can feel the slight jolt in his body when Harry finally realises where he is. He pats Louis' head absently. "Oh, hi. Sorry."

Louis hums sleepily and lets himself enjoy Harry's fingers combing through his hair for a minute, but he's starting to wake more fully now, which means his body's becoming more aware of its awkward angles and is sending all kinds of helpful, achey signals along his spine that say Jesus Christ, what have you done to yourself. Sighing, Louis moves, stretching out his muscles with a series of alarming cracks and pops.

"Ugh," he says, easing onto his feet, and wonders if it would be rude to massage the numbness out of his bum in front of Harry.

Harry attempts to stand, but rockets up too quickly, his feet not understanding their purpose and skittering beneath him. His arms pinwheel, which does all of nothing to help him stop toppling over into Louis.

"Whoa," Louis laughs, arms flying out to steady him. "Careful there." He wants to make a jokey comparison between Harry and some kind of newborn farm animal, but can't decide quickly enough which one suits him best and/or is least insulting.

A breathy giggle against his ear makes Louis forget about the joke entirely.

Harry laughs as he rights himself, apparently not noticing Louis' heart doing its best impersonation of a hammer drill.

Louis lets go. To divert suspicion, he pulls a face and sticks his tongue out at Harry.

"You're not going to lick me again, are you?" Harry asks, edging a step backwards.

"Why, Harold, what in the world would make you think such a thing?"

Harry narrows his eyes at Louis, only it's not nearly as menacing as he might think it is and he looks like a myopic old man squinting into the distance. He grins. "Because I'm going to do it first," he says, and clamps his hands to the sides of Louis' face and licks him on the tip of the nose before darting inside in a mad flurry of limbs and laughter.

For a second, Louis remains standing on the stoop, stunned. Then his natural retaliatory instincts kick in, and he chases after Harry. "Come back here," Louis shouts. "Let me rain down epic vengeance on you!"

"That's not an incentive!" Harry calls over his shoulder as he flits through the kitchen, past the sitting room, and then barricades himself in the downstairs toilet.

Louis saunters up to the door and jiggles the locked handle. "I can wait, you know. I've got all the time in the world," he singsongs. His bladder politely informs him otherwise. Louis frowns in its direction and addresses the door again. "Never mind, I've got to use the loo. But this isn't over. I'll be back later to exact my revenge, some time between eight and five."

There's no immediate response, and then, "Is this a trick to get me to come out?"

Laughing, Louis says, "I'll leave that up to you to decide." He clomps up the stairs so it sounds like he's purposely doing that thing where you just march in place with progressively softer footfalls so it sounds like you've gone. Serious business, this.

Once upstairs, Louis nips into the bathroom and blows through his morning routine, decides against shaving. It's summer, he's lazy, the world can deal with his stubble. Besides, he wants to get back to Harry as soon as possible. At Harry. At.

When he comes back downstairs, Harry's fresh from a shower and is sitting companionably with Liam at the dining table, chewing on a piece of toast. Harry glances up with an amused, wary tilt to his mouth, and Louis musters up his most innocent smile, painstakingly modelled after all his sisters' pitch-perfect Wasn't me, Mummy look, which on Louis' face has historically worked on nobody and especially not his mum. Still, Harry could be the first. Louis has hopes.

Louis swans by, reaching out to ruffle Harry's damp hair, and Harry ducks and nearly falls off his chair in the process. He pops back up to ward off Louis' attempts to mash his hands into Harry's face, and it's a hysterically silent struggle, both of them giggling in whispers.

"What are you two doing?" Liam asks, blinking at them, a knot forming between his eyebrows.

"Nothing," they chirp at the same time.

Dissatisfaction alights on Liam's face. "Why do I feel like that's not true?"

"It's because," Louis says, nicking Harry's toast and tearing off a corner for himself, "you have a very suspicious mind, Liam. You ought to get that looked at. Could be fatal."

"I told you, I'll go when you get all your neuroses checked out."

Tutting, Louis pulls out the chair next to Harry and plunks himself into it. "The zombies are coming, Liam. It's only a matter of time."

Liam raises an eyebrow at Harry. "Are zombies real?"

"Not that I'm aware of," says Harry, which lights up a triumphant grin on Liam's face.

"Traitor," Louis accuses.

He aims a little kick at Harry under the table, which starts up another secret tussle, though the way Liam rolls his eyes suggests they're not being that stealthy. Harry manages to trap Louis' foot under his own, and after a moment of futile wiggling, Louis gives up. Harry's foot relaxes, but he doesn't move it, and neither does Louis attempt to ease himself free. He tries not to read into it, only acknowledges that Harry's foot is huge and warm, and that the feeling of contentment diffusing across his skin is a completely unrelated event. 

Liam gets Louis into a discussion about how his club's going to fare for the rest of the season under David Moyes, and Harry, who has no real interest in football apart from casting judgment about how nice their crests and colours are, cleans up the breakfast dishes.

Once he's done, he butts into the conversation apologetically to say, "I'm going to call on Mrs. Deakin, see how her garden is feeling today."

Louis offers to accompany him over there, but Harry shakes his head cheerfully, tells him to stay and get some work done.

"No, don't remind me," Louis whines, though he's nearly done with his lesson planning anyway. It's also a reminder that they won't be here for much longer, that they'll have to figure out where Harry will go. He doesn't let the worry show in his face, smiles instead. "All right, see you later then, Haz."

Later ends up lasting over three hours. Louis isn't overly concerned; throughout the morning he sees Harry across the street every so often listening intently to things in the front garden. Plus Mrs. Deakin is of the fluffy old lady variety that can chatter on about anything under the sun once you get her started, and Harry's probably too polite to edge away.

When Harry does come back, it's with sweat on his brow, a bright smile, and more stuff in his hands than he left with.

Louis greets him and follows him to the kitchen. "You look happy."

Harry sets his things down carefully. A bread pan with dough in it clatters softly on the counter. "Mrs. Deakin gave me this bread to bake; she said all I need to do is pop it in the oven. She gave me a bread starter too, so I can make my own if I want," he says, showing off the glass jar to Louis. Its contents look spongy and vaguely alien. He picks up the bread pan and studies the oven. "I'll do this one for you."

Obviously he means everybody and not just Louis, but that doesn't stop Louis feeling pleased about it.

"And, er," Harry says, after he's got the bread going, "is Zayn here?"

"Dunno, let's find out," Louis says. He fetches his mobile from the dining table and keys in a short text to Zayn: Harry wants you.

His phone chimes and lights up a second later with Zayn's reply of You've confused me with you again, and then Zayn himself glides down the stairs to continue his train of thought, "Don't know why, when I'm so much better-looking."

Louis rolls his eyes, but doesn't argue.

"All right, Harry?" Zayn says.

Harry stuffs a wad of bills into Zayn's hands happily. "There's what I owe you for the clothes and everything. Thank you. You don't know how much that meant to me."

"What? Harry."

Pushing Zayn's hands back, Harry says, "I know you said I didn't owe you anything for them, but, well-- take it, please?"

Louis blinks at the banknotes that Zayn can't decide what to do with. "Harry, where did you…?"

"I cleaned Mrs. Deakin's house," Harry says, his mouth easing into a wide smile, obviously proud of himself. "And she had a friend visiting, Mrs. Moreland, and they both want me to tend their gardens now and do some cleaning, and they'll pay me, every week. Mrs. Deakin said she'd recommend me to some of the other neighbours as well."

With a surprised laugh, Louis says, "You got yourself a job, Harry?"

Harry nods, eyes bright. "I know it's not much, but--"

Louis doesn't care what he has to say next. Well, he does care, but it can wait until Louis' finished hugging him. He flings himself at Harry, so proud, and Harry's arms come up to wrap around him, as encompassing and expansive as his smile.

"Well done, you," Louis says as best as he can with his face buried against Harry's shoulder.

"I know you were worried," Harry murmurs into his hair. "You don't have to be now."

Louis pulls back a little so he can look up into Harry's face. "You can still count on me, you know. Us. Like, you don't have to do this all on your own," he says, though he's not sure he's making a lot of sense. He thinks it's brilliant Harry's gone and figured this out by himself, but he doesn't want it to be because Harry thinks himself dead weight.

"I know," Harry says with a fond smile that makes Louis' chest tighten.

Zayn clears his throat primly, as though he's not certain whether they remember he's still standing there. "So, I was thinking, I might blow some of this on booze?" he suggests, holding up the money. "Celebrate Harry's gainful employment?"

Clapping a hand to his shoulder, Louis says, "Zayn, that is the best idea I've ever heard in my entire life."

"That's because you hold yourself to such a low standard," Zayn says evenly, but his mouth twitches up when Louis flicks him on the arm. He locates the nearest off-licence on his phone, and heads towards the front door, snatching up Louis' car keys from the sideboard in the entrance hall. "Harry, what d'you like?"

"Er," says Harry.

Zayn cocks his head. "Have you had alcohol before?" he asks, and exchanges a surreptitious look with Louis wherein they both accept the solemn responsibility of getting Harry absolutely sloshed. Zayn is a bad influence.

"I've had honey wine."

Louis hums a brief, falling note. "I don't think Bargain Booze carries that. Bring us a selection of the very best they have to offer, Zayn," he says with an imperious wave of the hand.

"Right, Foster's all around, then," Zayn says dryly, and slips out the door with what sounds suspiciously like a snicker.

"Do not bring that piss into my house," Louis shouts after him, but the only response he gets is the sound of the car door slamming closed and the engine revved on. He turns back to Harry cheerfully. "Harold, if you learn nothing else from us, it is imperative that you know which beverages are fit for consumption and which ones taste like sick."

With an amused lilt to his mouth, Harry says, "Okay."

"This honey wine of yours," Louis says, lifting an inquisitive eyebrow.

He asks because he wonders if he might be able to find an equivalent for Harry to make him feel more at home, maybe. But it turns out it's made with, like, morning dew and other shit Louis' pretty sure exists only in fiction, so he gives up the idea.

"I've only had it a few times, at special occasions," Harry says. "Like royal visits and things."

Harry goes on about sitting under the moon and stars during these events, about a clearing they have specially made up for large gatherings, and how they have trees lit in decoration by glow worms. Or at least that's Louis' interpretation of whatever jumble of syllables Harry calls them.

Fittingly, a light bulb flickers on above Louis' head just then. "I know where we should hold our festivities tonight."

He summons Liam and Niall by shouting for them all over the house, discovers Liam's gone out on errands, and sends him a text in all caps. CAMPING. BE THERE, his thumbs demand.

Be more specific, Liam replies, exasperation rolling off each letter.

No, Louis types, and waits for Liam and Zayn to come home so he can make them do all the heavy lifting and pack the necessary gear. Liam hasn't been doing all that horrifying cardio and weight lifting just so Louis can not take advantage of it. He sends Liam a smiley face, and gets a grumpy one back, but it's accompanied by an x so he knows Liam still loves him, however grudgingly.

He helps Harry pack the necessities for the night away and flits around being a chatty nuisance while Harry retrieves from the oven his loaf of bread, which smells amazing, and slices it so they can take it with them. When that's done, Louis rings up a nearby campsite to book a pitch while Harry and Niall play in the garden. Louis doesn't actually know what they're doing, but from where he's sitting, it looks an awful lot like they're running around laughing at butterflies and a fat bumblebee that Niall ducks away from but Harry lets land in his hair. It's so bloody endearing Louis doesn't know what to do with himself.

Liam comes back not long after with groceries and the day's post. "What's all this about camping?" he asks, as Louis relieves him of a carrier bag.

"We're celebrating Harry's passage into adulthood," Louis says, poking his nose into the bag to see what Liam's brought back and making a pleased noise at the jar of Nutella in there. He looks up again to grin at Liam. "He worked out a job for himself with some of the neighbours, gardening and that."

"Hm," Liam says with a mildly impressed nod. "That's not a bad idea. I guess you can stop fretting now."

Louis throws up a hand. "Please, I do not fret. I brood. Handsomely."

Liam's lips quirk upwards briefly. "Just because you dressed as a vampire one Halloween doesn't make you Robert Pattinson, Lou."

"I have just as good a bone structure as he does," Louis clips.

"Mm," Liam intones, patting Louis placatingly on the head. "Yes, of course you do."

Zayn's arrival saves Liam from getting his arm slapped, and despite his earlier, dire proclamation of terrible beer, he's bought some good stuff. Together they ferret out all the old camping gear Louis' nan still keeps around from a bygone era when he and his sisters used to spend part of their summers here. Somehow, though confined to years of storage, the tents and sleeping bags still have a faintly woodsy smell about them, calling up hints of childhood memories, of crackling fires and the crunch of underbrush beneath his feet. Louis smiles to himself for a moment and tucks the memories back away, makes space for new ones.

Once they have everything distributed between Louis and Liam's cars, Liam and Zayn strike off first so they can get the tents set up and scout around the area a bit. Louis pokes his head out the back door to collect Harry and Niall, who've stopped running and are sitting cross-legged in the sun.

"Lads," he says. There was more he had planned to say, but there's a large rabbit sniffing at Harry's knee, and Harry's absolutely chuffed about the company while Niall's irrational hatred of rabbits dints an unimpressed furrow in his brow, and the picture is so far along the spectrum of ridiculous that it swings right back round to normal again.

"Hi," Harry says, looking up, and the rabbit scampers off. He climbs to his feet and pulls Niall up with him. "We were just talking to that rabbit. He was lovely."

Niall brushes past Louis as they head back inside and mutters, with a grin, "Complete tosser. Called me sunshine."

Louis laughs. "Just get in the car, sunshine."

"Bags I get the front seat," Niall calls out, snatching up his holdall and racing out the front door to Louis' car just outside.

Harry, who either doesn't understand what bags means or gives no fucks where he sits, hefts onto one shoulder the rucksack Louis' lent him and smiles as he ambles past over the threshold. He waits while Louis locks the front door, standing to the side of the flagstone path that leads up to it. Once Louis gives the handle an experimental tug and is satisfied he's secured it properly, Harry says, out of nowhere, "Do you know, I really like it here, with you."

A grin blooms on Louis' face before he can even think to tamp it down. "Yeah? Well, likewise," is all he'll allow himself to say. It would be too much otherwise. He's not even sure he could get it out anyway, given how Harry's looking at him with soft, shining eyes, like Louis is some rare, precious thing.

"You're unlike anyone I've ever met before," Harry says, a shallow crease forming between his eyebrows like he doesn't even know himself how they could be standing here together, but it smoothes away quickly with a smile. "Of all the things that could've happened, I met you."

The car horn beeps twice, and Niall rolls the passenger window down. "Right, lads," he calls out with a smirk Louis will definitely put toothpaste in his shoes for later. "Enough with the eye-fucking already; let's get a move on."

Determined to ignore the flush he's sure is rocketing up his neck, Louis shouts, "Keep your pants on."

Niall bobbles his head coquettishly. "Not wearing any."

With a sigh, Louis mutters, "Should've seen that coming." He claps a hand onto Harry's shoulder and lets it slide all the way down to the small of his back, guiding him forward. "Come on, Hazza. Little Miss Princess Niall can't be kept waiting."

"I heard that," Niall says with a censorious, raised eyebrow.

"You were meant to," says Louis, and flips up a middle finger to duel with Niall's for a minute.

Once Harry's bundled into the back seat, Louis skips over to the driver's side and slides in. He sees Niall's kept himself relatively busy while waiting, his iPod plugged into the adapter and a playlist half-composed.

"We're going old school today," Niall announces, and presses play on Hey Ma, to which he and Louis sing and rap along like drunkards, carrying on an ancient inside joke whose origins have long since escaped Louis' memory.

It cracks Harry up to no end, witness to them butchering the song and flinging their arms around to the beat (one arm for Louis, as a responsible driver). Louis watches Harry's face light up in the rearview mirror and feels his own grin stretch for days.

The approach road to the campsite is rough, pitted with shallow holes, which makes the ride in rather bumpy, but they get to pretend it's the bass in their music that's making the car jounce up and down, so it's cool. Harry looks on from the back seat with amusement every time they hit a pothole, and Louis congratulates himself for thinking up the best afternoon ever.

They park and walk to the pitch reserved for them, where Liam and Zayn are have already finished setting up two tents, along with camping chairs enough for everyone set in a crescent around an empty campfire pit. Zayn lounges in one of the chairs, sunglasses on, face to the sky; while Liam gets up to help with the rest of gear they've brought, Zayn just lifts a hand in greeting.

By tacit consensus, Louis and Harry wind up with the smaller, two-person tent.

Harry peers inside. "Cosy," he observes with a half-smile.

Louis tries not to imagine the hushed, midnight conversations they'll have inside the snug confines of the tent, with their sleeping bags side by side and both of them turned towards the other, trying to read each other's smiles and faces in the dark, and accidentally on purpose curling their bodies together in their sleep.

Okay, so Louis isn't very good at not imagining things. He's a theatre type; he can't help it.

They dump their sleeping bags and rucksacks inside, zip up the tent flap, and join the rest of the group around the pit.

"Okay, you're the intrepid leader, Li," Louis says. "What're we going to do today?"

Liam shrugs. "Pub?"

Laughing, Louis throws a handful of grass at him, but the wind carries it away. "We didn't come all the way out here just to go inside again."

"There are things to see," Liam agrees. He pulls an ordnance survey map from his back pocket and spreads it open on the ground, his feet holding down two corners, while Niall slides onto the grass to help him pin down the remaining two. "The owners let me borrow this. Here, we could visit Old Sarum; it's so close by, but we've been here all this while and haven't gone."

Louis makes a noncommittal noise that veers towards disagreement by the time he's done with it. "My granddad took us there when I was little. It's decent, I suppose, if you like that sort of thing." 

"A five thousand year-old piece of your country's heritage? Heaven forbid," Liam says dryly.

"It's just bits of old rock, innit?" Louis says, and gives Liam a lofty, winning smile. It's met by a massive eye-roll, though they both know Louis' not nearly as uncultured as he's pretending to be.

"Is the pub off the table?" Niall asks, but is sufficiently appeased by Zayn opening the coolbox and giving him a choice of its varied, alcoholic contents. "Never mind, I'm good. You lot can explore all you want; I'll keep the beer company."

Zayn chuckles and smacks him lightly round the head. "Harry, what d'you want to do?"

Humming quietly to himself while he looks the map over, Harry points to a little blue symbol of what looks like a wading bird. "What's that?"

"Nature reserve," says Liam, who is exactly the kind of person who'd know map keys off the top of his head.

Louis peers closer at the map. "Oh, that's the chalk downs. You'd like it, Haz. Cartloads of butterflies round this time, and sheep and things." 

A grin lights Harry's face. He nods and says, "All right. There, that's what I want to do."

"Said Harry, to no one's surprise," Louis narrates with a little smirk, but he adds, "I'll go with you, if you like."

Niall cuts in smoothly with, "Said Louis, to--"

Across the pit, Niall's too far away to hit, but Louis flaps a violent hand in his direction anyway. "Shut up."

"Nobody wants to go to Old Sarum?" Liam asks, disappointed. "People from the Iron Age lived there, guys. The Iron Age. And then there were the Romans and Normans and the Plantagenets. Doesn't that blow your mind? All that history concentrated in a single place and we get to walk where they walked?"

"Might be cool," Zayn concedes, and receives a small cheer and a fistbump from Liam.

Niall twists his mouth in consideration. "Okay, I'll go, but only if you buy me one of them wooden bow and arrows from the gift shop. And an ice-cream." He sits up, pleased with his terms, and throws Louis a gigantic wink that misses subtlety by a mile.

It takes Louis a moment to sort through its meaning. Like, ice-cream is great, but it's not like Niall had to go through layers of subterfuge to get Liam to agree to it. It's only when Liam gathers his troops that Louis realises it's only him and Harry left, and that Niall was trying to be coy about leaving the two of them alone, as if it's never happened before. Louis tuts at Niall and shoos them away with big sweeps of his hands.

"Take your valuables with you when you go," Liam calls over his shoulder as he guides Niall and Zayn back towards the carpark and historical adventure.

Louis wants to quip something bitingly clever about what he values most, but the first thing that makes it to his tongue is Harry's name, so he clamps his mouth shut before it can skip past his lips.

It's probably his deepening frown that invites Harry to say hesitantly, "You don't have to keep me company if you'd rather go with the others."

"Nonsense, Harry," Louis says, squeezing his arm. Bypassing all his filters this time, the next thing that sails out his mouth, with all earnestness, is, "There's honestly nothing I'd rather do than spend the afternoon with you. Absolutely nothing."

He regrets it for a nanosecond, because it's kind of a stupid and stupidly forward thing to say, but he remembers Harry's I really like it here with you and thinks maybe his isn't such a terrible admission after all. And then there's also the fact that Harry's smiling brighter than the sun and saying, "Me too," and there's no room for regret for all the warmth taking up every last scrap of space in his chest.

"Come on, then. The reserve isn't very far; we can walk there," Louis says, easing onto his feet. Deciding on impulse that being stupidly forward is the way to go, he holds his hand out for Harry to take.

It is outrageously difficult to keep his smile from splitting his face in two when Harry's fingers lace through his, sliding in as easily and naturally as if they've been doing this for ages. And it continues being difficult keeping his face in line as they walk along; Louis' half-convinced it's going to stay like that forever, like back when he was little and his mum would warn him about his face freezing that way if he pulled one too many funny faces and Lottie would say it's too late. The thought makes him smile even more, and he can't even look at Harry without a giggle burbling up his throat.

He's giddy, is the only word for it, and it's patently ridiculous that simply holding Harry's hand has reduced him to this state.

When they reach the nature reserve, the sun's just beginning to dip, but it's still bright enough to gild the downlands and its rows and slopes of grass and wildflowers that overlook the valley. It's a beautiful sight that Louis' never much appreciated before; he used to run through here, chasing his sisters and sneaking up on resting butterflies, but he'd never really stopped to look.

"This is lovely," Harry says quietly, a slow smile unfurling over his face as he takes in the sweeping panorama.

"See, I knew you'd like it," Louis says, tugging at Harry's hand.

Harry beams some more and squeezes his hand. "You did. Can we-- D'you think we can explore a bit? Is that okay?"

"Harry," Louis laughs. "You don't have to ask permission for anything, all right? Do what you want; I'm right here with you, all the way."

A funny look passes over Harry's face; it's gone in a minute, replaced by something that totters unsteadily between uncertainty and resolution. "All right," he says in a low voice. "Then, maybe I'll just--"

Whatever else Louis might have been expecting, it certainly wasn't Harry's hands coming up to frame the sides of his face, or Harry's feet moving him in towards Louis so there's barely any air between them, or Harry's lips just an inch, less than an inch, from Louis'. They hang in that balance, teetering over the edge for a long moment, but they don't fall. Whether it's Harry trying to draw out the moment or giving Louis a chance to escape isn't clear, but Louis can feel Harry's breath whisper over his lips and he's had enough.

Louis grips Harry's sides. "Kiss me," he rasps into the tiny space between them. 

Harry does. It's a thousand different things at once, Harry's lips pressed against his. Louis feels his stomach swoop to his feet and his nerves spool out with sparks and his heart hammer like it's gone berserk and his Harry so close, so warm and gorgeous. He soars up onto his toes, pulls Harry in tighter, opens his mouth to the taste of Harry's, and there aren't words enough for what it does to him, how the press of their bodies makes him feel whole again.

He can't stand on his toes forever, so Louis drops away, still holding Harry as close as he can get him. They smile stupidly at each other, and Louis' heart feels big enough to break, but he knows it won't, not with Harry here.

"Been wanting to do that a while," Harry admits, once they've got their breath back, his smile turning sheepish. His hands are on Louis' hips, his thumbs buffing lazy little circles over the bone, and Louis wants nothing more than to construct a home right here in Harry's arms.

"Yeah," Louis agrees. He pinches Harry's arm as a diversion, slightly embarrassed by how breathlessly enrapt he sounds, and lifts an eyebrow. "So why didn't you?"

Harry could very well ask him the same question, but instead  he says, "I didn't want you to think-- You were already taking care of me and you put a roof over my head and you were so nice, I didn't-- Not until I'd sorted myself out, getting work, you know? I wanted you to know, I wanted to show you that I could do some of it on my own, that I wasn't just taking advantage of you the whole time."

"Literally the last thing in the world I was worried about. You're incapable of taking advantage," Louis says, tipping up again to peck a swift kiss to his lips. But he adds, "I understand, though. You buy your own diamonds and you buy your own rings."

"... Yes," Harry says, with squinty, bemused eyes, because of course he's never heard Destiny's Child, and there's still so much to teach him and Louis is going to be there every single day of it.

Louis laughs, happy with the entire world. He takes Harry's hand and swings their arms in a big, cheerful arc. "You wanted to explore?"

They wander up and down the steep, curving slopes, occasionally stopping so Harry can chat with passing butterflies. (It's still weird.) Louis picks a large white wildflower and presents it to Harry with a flourish, and Harry tucks it behind his ear with a grin. A goldfinch flutters by to twitter pleasantries at Harry.

"Hiya," says Louis loudly, so he doesn't feel totally left out of the conversation.

When the bird carries on its way, Harry bites his lip and turns to Louis. "D'you remember that sparrow from before? At the house?"

"The one who had a go at me?" Louis clarifies. "Yeah, why?"

"She didn't-- er." Harry blushes. "I mean, she did think it was nice to meet you. And she wasn't insulting you, I don't know why you keep thinking that."

Louis pokes him in the side, making Harry emit a tiny squeak. "Because you wouldn't ever tell me what she said, and it was so obvious that you were lying, you twit," he laughs. To soften the blow of calling Harry a twit, Louis tugs him close with one arm. "You are seriously really bad at lying, though. Like, completely terrible." 

Huffing out a breathy laugh, Harry says, "Do you want to know what she really said?"

"Go on, then."

Harry smiles with slight embarrassment. "She said you did well, picking me as your mate," he says, his face going red again. "But she said the same thing to me too, so, er."

For a moment Louis kind of wants to puff his chest out with pride at being considered bright, even if it's by a common little bird he wouldn't be able to identify out of a line-up, but he remembers, "Wait. That was before… this-- Us, right now. How'd she even know?"

Harry merely shrugs.

"That's mental," Louis remarks mildly. He supposes it's not that crazy relative to everything else that's happened since Harry's arrived, or to Harry's existence, in general. "Got a point, though, d'you think? I mean, maybe not then, but certainly now."

"I thought you were the most beautiful person I'd ever seen when we first met," Harry says out of the blue.

It's such a line, such a corny line that no one would ever, ever fall for, but knowing Harry means it sends a swell of warmth through Louis' chest all the way down to his shoes, and it rebounds to heat his face till he can feel his cheeks colour. He hides it in Harry's shoulder and says, muffled in his sleeve, "That's even more mental. And-- You're not so bad in the face area either, you should know."

Harry laughs softly, its reverberations travelling through Louis' skin where he's pressed into him, and touches his lips to the top of Louis' head. "Oh, good. Thank you." 

By the time they get back to the pitch, the sun's sunk low enough to stain the clouds with a fuzzy peach glow. The others have got back as well, Zayn sitting in one of the camping chairs and idly sketching something, and Niall and Liam presumably on the other side of the tall hedge that verges the pitch. Louis hears before he sees them, a loud hodgepodge of assorted battle cries and the clacking of sticks.

Liam and Niall round the trees, with Niall running towards Louis and Harry with an outstretched wooden sword and a cry of, "Avast, ye knaves!" but stops short when he notices them hand-in-hand, and drops his arm. "Oooh," he intones up and down the scales instead, waggling seriously dirty eyebrows at both of them.

"Don't make that face; you look like an idiot," Louis says, slapping his cheek lightly.

Ignoring the insult, Niall continues with the eyebrows and gives them a thumbs-up, accompanied by a shit-eating grin, then scuttles away to menace Zayn with his toy sword instead.

Liam throws Zayn his sword so he can defend himself and takes Zayn's seat when he gets up to chase after Niall. When Louis and Harry settle themselves in the camping chairs next to him, Liam says, "You missed a great outing. Old Sarum was amazing; you can go right up to the ruins and climb all over. We got swords, too, obviously. And ice-cream."

"Nice," Louis says, absently playing with Harry's hair. "The downlands were good, too."

"I'm a fan," Harry agrees.

Louis continues airily, "Birds and that."

"Yeah," Liam says slowly. "That sounds thrilling."

"I'm incredibly happy with my experience there, Liam," Louis says. He glances at Harry, feeling fondness unfold all over again. "One of the best days of my life, I reckon."

Harry's attempt to bite down a smile is a total failure. "Me too."

Liam narrows his eyes at them. "You're both being weird. Did something happen? No, you know, never mind, I don't think I want to know. As long as you're both fine and healthy and not on crack or anything, we're good."

"What's crack?" Harry asks.

"Oh, now you've corrupted Harold's pure mind. Crack, honestly," Louis says. "You know if I were to do drugs I'd go for something much classier than that. It's like you don't know me at all. That hurts, Li. That hurts me right here." He pats his crotch. 

"Yeah, don't know what I was thinking," Liam says with an eye-roll. He grins suddenly. "Bet Harry could kiss and make it better, though."

Louis is alternately delighted by Liam's sass and appalled. He stands up to yell, "Niall! Liam besmirched one of our honours; I'm not sure which one of us, but there was definite besmirching. Come and defend me-- or us, or whatever."

Niall pops over, with Zayn in tow. "I'm a pirate, though, I don't defend honour, I don't think."

"Well, then, as captain of this…" Louis looks down at the grass beneath his feet. "As self-appointed captain of this land-based vessel, I order you to start."

"Did you know," Liam pipes up, "pirates were actually very democratic? Only during battle did the captain have absolute authority. Learned that from QI."

"Get him, men," Louis shouts, and is chuffed to bits to see no hesitation at all from Niall and Zayn before they charge Liam and tackle him to the ground.

Harry stands and watches the scuffle with amused interest. "This afternoon took a turn."

"I had no idea I wielded so much power over the boys. Could've got so much more stuff done had I known," Louis muses, leaning happily into Harry's side.

"Yeah? Like what?"

Louis looks up into his face, sees Harry smiling down at him. "Dunno. Maybe could've got them to find you earlier, so we could've started this sooner," he says, folding a hand over Harry's.

"You didn't even think fairies existed until a few days ago," Harry says with a laugh.

"Technicalities, Harold. Shut up and let me be sort of romantic for a minute, will you?"

Harry laughs again. "If you must."

"I must," Louis says, and pulls him in for a kiss.

***

Everything's brilliant for about a week and a half. Louis doesn't remember when he's ever been this content, with long, breezy summer days and his boys and Harry by his side.

Harry starts building a name for himself in the neighbourhood; he gets another two referrals, and his clients universally adore him and how their gardens come to life after he passes through, and Louis realises that he's stopped worrying. Harry could stay in Salisbury if he wanted with the foundation he's got here, or he could come up north with the rest of them and work his magic just the same up there. Louis' close to suggesting it, and he thinks Harry might just agree.

In hindsight, it was probably his unmitigated happiness that jinxed it all.

It starts with a mild cough, for which a week's course of Benadryl does exactly nothing. Chills follow, and lethargy, and there's a pallor to Harry's skin that won't go away. Sometimes Harry's eyes go glassy and bright for a minute before he returns to himself. Louis brings him tea and soup, and eventually bundles Harry up to his bedroom so he doesn't have to recuperate on a couch that wasn't made for someone with limbs as long as Harry has.

Harry doesn't object, but asks, scratchily, "Where are you going to sleep?"

"Sofa," Louis says, spinning half-turns in the desk chair he's rolled in from the study and next to the bed.

Frowning, Harry says, "You can sleep here too."

"That was a valiant try," Louis says with a quick smile and a tap to Harry's nose, "but now is really not the time to try to seduce me, Harold."

Hooking the covers over his chin, Harry returns the grin, but, as with everything, he does it with slow intent. "Then when?"

Louis laughs and kicks at Harry's calf. "Once I figure out what's wrong with you, maybe," he says, picking up and flipping open his laptop to look for a symptom checker while Harry lets out a grumbly sigh and pushes himself up a little higher against the pillows so he can participate.

Harry's still alternately intrigued by and suspicious of the Internet, and the way he squints at the webpages stirs another smile onto Louis' face. Louis drags his chair closer so Harry doesn't have to lean so far over, and then, to what appears to be Harry's smug delight, decides to simply move on top of the bed covers, seamed to Harry's side.

"Don't get any ideas about my virtue," Louis says, and kisses the top of Harry's head.

Smiling up at him, Harry takes in a rickety breath and says, "Wouldn't dare."

Harry nestles into his shoulder, heavy with fatigue. Louis doesn't mind; if there was something infectious to catch, he'd have probably caught it by now. And he's still not over the fact that he gets to be this close to Harry without having to throw together a flimsy, made-up excuse, so as long as Harry wants him here, Louis' going to stay right where he is, fuck whatever this illness is.

Still, he kind of wants to figure out whatever this illness actually is, because it's making Harry look awful and shows no signs of leaving, so he clicks through the symptom checker, picking through a list of symptoms he's seen in Harry. He adds excessive sweating to the list just to see if Harry's still paying attention.

"Hey," Harry says, and pokes him in the stomach.

Louis snickers, removing it from the list, which leaves them with eighty-seven possible diagnoses ranging from carbon monoxide poisoning to syphilis. "Ugh, I don't know why I keep trusting these things."

Harry's closed his eyes now, burrowed against Louis. "What does it say I have?"

"Flu, probably. Or TB. Or basically every disease ever discovered," Louis says, registering his dissatisfaction with the process by pulling a face at the screen. "That was the opposite of helpful."

"Oh, well, I--" A coughing fit comes over Harry, and it leaves a jagged rasp in his voice. "It's just a bit of an ague, that's all," he says.

Louis clicks his tongue. "That's not even a thing."

"It'll pass," Harry says, and coughs again.

Louis' not so sure, but instead he rubs his palm up and down Harry's spine and says, "You sound horrible. I'll bring you a tea."

He squeezes Harry's knee and swings himself off the bed. Louis leaves Harry with a smile, but it vanishes as he descends the stairs and passes through the sitting room. He doesn't know what to do; Harry hasn't been getting any better, and while Louis' past bouts of flu suggest that maybe this is something Harry just needs to get over with time and rest, he can't help the worry that lines his chest in lead. What if it's not a common cold? What if he has to take Harry to hospital?

Preoccupied, it takes Louis a second to realise that a) the back door's hanging open, and b) there's a large man standing in the kitchen.

"Jesus fucking Christ!" Louis screeches as soon as his brain clicks on. His hands instinctively sweep out to grab any kind of weapon in the near vicinity. They land on a ceramic vase on the side table, and without thinking, Louis hurls it at the intruder.

He's a good shot. The vase strikes the man in the chest, bounces off and lands neatly in the man's hands, as if Louis had just thrown a rubber ball.

"What the fuck," Louis says, hastening backwards. The fireplace is empty, but he knows there's still a set of wrought iron fire tools to its side, and he reaches blindly, coming up with a shovel.

The commotion brings Niall bounding down the stairs, his eyes wide as he processes the scene. "Whoa. What."

"Please," the man says, setting the vase down gently and raising both hands, palms outturned. "I mean no harm. I'm only looking for the prince."

Louis didn't know it was possible for his heart rate to accelerate to supersonic levels, but there it is. He hesitates, not knowing if he can trust the man. Even so, he realises his hesitation is probably enough of a tell. He steels himself and tightens his grip on the shovel; he doesn't intend to put it down until he can be sure.

"You've got the wrong house, mate," Niall says, taking careful steps towards Louis so he can grab the poker from the fireplace, just in case.

The man shakes his head. "I know he's here. I'm on his side, believe me."

"I don't know what you're talking about," Louis grits through his teeth. "Get out of my house."

"Lou?" Harry croaks from upstairs.

Instantly, the intruder's gaze flicks towards the sound and back to Louis. He raises his eyebrows, not in challenge, exactly, but Louis knows there's no point pretending anymore. There's still a point in keeping his grip on the shovel, though.

Louis sighs, the hint of a growl rippling through. "You've got a visitor, Hazza," he calls out, never taking his eyes off the stranger, who looks like the kind of guy who'd happily rearrange your bones for you if you called him a fairy to his face. "Says he's-- one of yours."

Quietly and out the side of his mouth, Niall mutters, "What the fuck is happening?"

While the three of them remain in their stand-off, Louis hears Harry shuffle out the bedroom and down the stairs.

"Oh! Hello," says Harry, as soon as he sets eyes on the intruder. "What are you doing here?"

"You know him, then?" Louis asks.

Now that it appears no one is in any immediate danger, Louis can pull his focus away from bashing someone about the head with a shovel and onto the littler details. He flicks an assessing glance over the visitor, who's dressed in plain brown, but the cut of his clothing is just unconventional enough to invite attention. He might look at home at a comic convention or something, but definitely doesn't blend in here.

"Yeah, this is… Erm, I suppose you could call him Paul?" Harry suggests, because Paul probably has just as indecipherable a name as Harry really has. "He's the head of my royal guard."

Louis puts the shovel aside and approaches him holding a stiff, wary spine. He extends a hand. "All right?" Louis says, and exchanges a look of bewilderment with Niall when Paul doesn't shake his hand but instead bows his head.

"Wait," says Niall, dropping the poker. "Royal guard? What does that-- Wait."

"Oh. I didn't tell you," says Harry with a sheepish tilt of the mouth. "I'm a prince?"

"You're a fairy prince?" Niall says loudly. His mouth hangs open for a second in disbelief, and then his face brightens, and he taps Louis repeatedly on the arm. "Lou. Lou, that makes you his--"

"Don't say it."

"Fairy princess!" Niall clasps his hands together, folding his arms inward, and bats his eyelashes like a fucking idiot.

Before Louis can tell Niall exactly what he looks like, Paul inclines his head towards Harry and says quietly, "Perhaps we should speak in private, sire?"

"No. My friends stay," Harry says evenly, and Louis has to press down a smile of admiration at the regal bearing that sets Harry's shoulders. But because he's still Harry, he turns to Louis and Niall and says, "If that's okay?"

"Of course," Louis says, reaching out to squeeze Harry's hand. He doesn't miss the way it makes Paul's brow furrow, so he keeps his hold on Harry.

"What are you doing here?" Harry asks again.

Paul frowns some more. "I was worried about you."

"And you're just looking for him now?" Louis doesn't make a habit of directing open aggression towards people who are twice his size, but Paul's simple statement strikes a flare of anger in him that he can't contain. He stalks forward, planting himself between Harry and Paul, and glares. "When I found Harry, he was lying unconscious at the side of the road, with no clothes and no money and no idea what era he was even in. Do you know what could've happened if I hadn't been there? He could be dead for all you know."

It's not until Harry places a soothing hand at the small of his back that Louis even realises he's shaking a little. He hates thinking about it, all the nasty things that might have happened to Harry if Louis hadn't ridden by that morning or if Louis had left him there, naked, friendless and alone. Harry could be in police custody or in an asylum right now, or worse.

"Lou, hey," says Harry, pulling him in. "It's all right. It's not his fault."

It's not all right, but Louis lets Harry calm him. "Sorry," he says, more to Harry than anything. "You should sit; you shouldn't even be out of bed."

Harry hums gratefully as Louis ushers him over to the sofa and wraps the duvet around him. It's like he's holding court, even though his skin is pallid and his eyes kind of puffy and he'd probably prefer to be in bed right now, and he gestures for everyone else to sit. He gives Louis a tired smile, then turns his attention back to Paul, his expression changing again to one of more gravity as he waits for Paul to speak.

"It was more difficult than I'd anticipated to track you, sire," Paul says, by way of explanation. He hesitates, looking over at Louis and Niall.

Niall gets up, his mouth pressed in a thin line. "I'll make tea," he says, and furtively gestures to Louis at his mobile.

Louis nods. He sees his concern mirrored in Niall's face; they're both uneasy about Paul's appearance and what it might mean for Harry. Liam and Zayn are out gallivanting somewhere, and Niall wants to call them back for reinforcements, should they be needed, in whatever shape or form.

If Paul's waiting for Louis to leave as well, he has the good grace not to show it. Instead he addresses Harry. "Sire, you cannot stay here."

"Why not?" Harry asks with a light, puzzled laugh. "I've been doing well. I have friends, and a trade. It's more than what I had before. I can make my way here."

"That's not what I mean."

"Speak plainly, then."

"Illness, sire. Disease. It has taken hold of you already, that much is clear. Our bodies and our blood aren't made for this world. Neither would theirs," Paul says, inclining his head towards Louis, "survive for long were they to enter our realm."

Rationally, Louis gets it. It was never an explicit option that he'd follow Harry back were it to come to that; it's odd thinking about it even, though he supposes it would be nice if it was at least still an option. But the far bigger issue that's set every nerve on edge is, "That means your Elders sent him out here to die?"

Louis sort of means it hyperbolically, because there's no other way he can deal with this sudden influx of horrible information, but Paul shakes his head and says, "Not deliberately. The prince knows the way back. They believed he would encounter hardships here too difficult to manage on his own and that he would return of his own accord, within a day or two at most, and well before the marriage was to take place."

"No offence," Louis says, meaning every offence, "but your Elders sound like a lot of absolute fucking pricks." How Harry managed to turn out so kind in their charge is a mystery for the ages.

Sighing, Paul adds, "They remain optimistic that you will return to fulfil your duties and seal the agreement to unite our land with that of the princess--"

He says another unintelligible fairy-type name that Louis thinks begins with a tee, but it's difficult to give a shit at this point about who's really named what. Mostly Louis would like to punch any fairy that's not Harry square in the face.

Harry fiddles with his fingers for a moment, thinking, and when he looks up, it's with finality. "I'm not going back."

Louis puts a hand over his. "Harry."

"Sire," Paul interjects at the same time. "If you stay, you'll die."

"By my own choice, at least," Harry volleys. He's sick and pale and clammy, but here's a fire underneath that straightens his spine. "Let them lose their precious land. I don't want to be a pawn anymore."

"Hazza," Louis says softly, squeezing his palm. He understands why Harry's saying this, he does, but Louis can't let this happen. There's no way.

Somehow already anticipating what Louis' going to say, Harry shakes his head insistently. "No. You're the one who showed me what my life could be, with friendship and independence and joy and-- and you. How can I go back knowing everything I'm leaving behind?"

"And how can you expect me to just sit here and watch you die, Harry?" He can barely breathe for the sudden surge of anger the moment he says those words, the base of his throat a burning knot.

"I'm not asking you to-- Lou, I can't go back to that, not after all this."

"And I don't want you to, but you heard him. You'll die here. You can't-- I can't--" Louis goes on in fits and starts and can't find the words to say what he wants, when all he wants is for Harry to be okay.

"There is another way," Paul says quietly.

Louis could strangle him with his bare hands. They probably won't fit all the way around, but Louis will damn well try. "Mate," he snaps, "think you could've chimed in a bit sooner?"

"It's not ideal," Paul goes on, heedless of Louis' outburst, "but it's… a compromise."

Apparently, Harry's not the first fairy to have come through and wanted to stay, for whatever reason, and there exists a spell that can make them human. But it's a complicated process grounded in a convoluted rationale that involves obliterating memories and slotting fabricated ones in, and it's like they're in a science fiction film all of a sudden, which would be cool except for how horrible it all is.

"So, you're saying," Louis recaps slowly, "that you have a way to turn Harry human, and he'll have a mum and dad, and birth records, and, and school trophies and everything, but he'll -- we all will lose the memories of him being a fairy?"

Paul nods.

"That means," Louis goes on, the words forming in his mouth with a bitter taste, "we won't remember each other. We won't ever know we've even met."

Again, Paul nods.

Louis kind of wants to slap him for the stoicism. There's a time and place for it, and Harry being on the brink of death is not it. "Well, if you can make him human, can't you just do it now so we can give him some paracetemol and call it a day? Why do we have to forget anything?"

"Protection, ours as well as yours," Paul replies. "Humans are… curious folk. Sometimes too curious for their own good. And for ours. Should people ever find out that fae truly exist, there will be questions. Inquisitions. Hunts. This is the only way it works; it's the only way it's ever worked."

Louis' seen E.T.; he knows Paul's right. Still, he can't hold back a cutting, "Shouldn't your bloody fucking Elders have thought of that before they threw Harry out?"

Paul says nothing, but a twinge in his jaw suggests he agrees.

"See," Harry says sadly, "whether I stay or go, you would be made to forget anyway. Isn't that right?"

"Yes," says Paul, with the grace to look at least a little regretful about it. "Whatever is decided today, no one can remember that you were ever here. It would be too dangerous otherwise."

With a sharp look, Louis homes in on, "Today?"

"I'm afraid the prince doesn't have much time. He has handled these circumstances remarkably well thus far," Paul says with a respectful nod in Harry's direction, "but this illness…" He spreads his hands to encompass the thought he can't articulate, or doesn't want to. 

It doesn't matter; Harry understands. "How long do I have?" he asks.

"Dawn."

"What?" Louis says. "Wait, no. How can you be so sure?"

Paul looks at Louis with grave eyes. "I'm not. But it's a chance we should not take. Ever since he fell ill, his condition has been steadily deteriorating, has it not? You can see it for yourself. You have worried about it yourself, have you not?"

"Stop asking me all these weird inverted questions," Louis snaps. "Yes, Harry looks worse than death warmed up, is that what you want me to say? And yes, I know nothing I've done has made a single shred of difference, and nothing I could do is going to help. I know I haven't been able to take care of him properly."

"Don't, Lou," Harry murmurs. "This isn't your fault."

Louis can only shake his head, too agitated to trust himself with any more words. He bolts to his feet, mutters half a sentence about Niall and the tea, and stalks towards the kitchen.

There's a tea tray all ready to go on the counter, but Niall's concentrating on his phone. He looks up to report, "They'll be back in five, Liam says."

Louis nods and swipes a sleeve under his nose, turning his face away so Niall can't see. "You should go in and sit with Harry." He doesn't add the part about where it's because Harry should have with him a friend who isn't being a selfish prat right now.

In sympathetic silence, Niall rests his hand on Louis' head for a moment, then takes the tea things through to the sitting room.

Alone now, Louis stands in the kitchen, mute and still. The multitude of warring emotions in his head and heart take up so much space and make so much noise, it's a monumental effort to simply keep himself from imploding from the force of it all.

He hears the front door click open and a rabble of hurried greetings and Liam and Zayn's what's going on who is this Harry are you okay. Louis steps outside, not particularly wanting to hear all the same questions raised and the same bleak answers given. He sits on the stoop for a second, but restless limbs and the cacophony in his head make him get up again. Spying his football under a hedge, Louis sweeps it out with one foot and practices dribbling, the precise, intricate moves taking over his focus.

How much time he passes, Louis doesn't know, but eventually his focus runs out, and when he looks up, Harry's standing on the stoop, hands tucked into the pockets of his sweatshirt, quietly watching.

Louis releases a heavy exhale, as if he'd been holding his breath in anticipation all this while. He kicks the football away and comes up to meet Harry.

"Are you angry with me?" Harry asks. He's not scared of it, nor worried; his tone is calm.

Nevertheless, Louis reaches out to him immediately with a reassuring hand, shapes his palm to Harry's cheek. "No, Haz. Never," he says softly. He punctuates the sentiment by wrapping his arms around Harry, the tension in his body leaching away the moment Harry relaxes into him. "I'm just-- I'm angry with everything else."

Louis regularly accuses life of being unfair, but this time he really means it. Regardless of what Harry chooses, he'll have to go through it on his own. Louis won't even know Harry exists afterwards. It's a small blessing, in a way, that he won't know what he's missing, and if he doesn't know, it can't hurt. But it already does.

Harry holds him so tight his arms practically go around Louis twice. "I know," he murmurs into Louis' hair. "I don't want to let you go either."

He knows what choice Harry's going to make before Harry says it. He understands perfectly well it's essentially the least unreasonable among a field of shit choices, but it still makes his heart stop for a second when Harry whispers, "But."

"I know, Harry." Louis pulls back and attempts a smile.

Harry's eyes are wet and rimmed in red, but he does the same. He leans in to rest his forehead against Louis', and they stay like that for a few moments in silence and in understanding.

"Come on," Louis says finally, lacing his fingers through Harry's and tugging him inside to the kitchen. He gives Harry a bracing look. "We have a whole day ahead of us. How shall we best waste it?"

Playing right along, Harry says sweetly, "I don't suppose you'd like to rot our brains with some nonsense on television?"

"What a thoroughly specious question, Harold. That is what I always want," Louis says, reaching over to pinch his cheek.

Harry ducks away from it and bats at Louis' hand with a grin, and for a moment it's like Harry's not sick and Harry's not going away and they're having a normal day like a couple of stupid, normal boys. Louis refuses to be maudlin about it anymore, and he throws his arms around Harry's middle to propel them towards the sitting room.

They stumble, laughing, into the room. It's empty; maybe the boys have run Paul off the property. The thought makes Louis pettily happy.

"Where'd everyone go?" he asks, depositing Harry on the couch.

Sobering a little, Harry says, "I asked Paul to go. He doesn't need to loom around here for the whole day. He'll be back at dawn." Not needing to explain any more than that, Harry just digs around for the remote and tosses it Louis' way. "The boys went upstairs, I think. Looked like they were scheming."

"Sounds about right." Louis flicks the television on as Harry settles in against him. There's bound to be something dumb and distracting on, and they watch cartoons for a bit on Disney. Then Up comes on, and it's cute starting out, and Louis knows what's going to happen, but Harry's never seen it before and is taken with it immediately, so Louis can't click away. When they both end up failing very badly to hold in their sniffles as the Carl-and-Ellie montage comes to a close, Louis can't be sure it's entirely the film, but he's going to blame it on that anyway. He tugs Harry closer, presses his lips to the top of his head. How can he let go?

Zayn comes padding down the stairs, mobile in his grip. He approaches them tentatively. "We've been talking upstairs, and we were thinking, like, maybe if we took pictures or video? Maybe you won't remember us, wherever you end up, but if we had pictures we might remember you, or know we were friends with you somehow, and-- and then we can help Louis find you." He looks as if he might be sick, like he already knows it won't work but is going to damn well try anyway, and Louis loves him so much for doing it.

"Good plan. I like it," Louis declares, grabbing Zayn's phone out of his hands. "Harry, did I ever teach you the word selfie?"

They take a million pictures, post them fucking everywhere. Maybe fairy magic doesn't know about Instagram or Facebook or Louis' laptop hard drive. Zayn draws a portrait of Harry in case all of technology packs it in somehow; Niall pastes post-it notes all over the house with scribblings about Harry; Liam goes out and comes back with alcohol to make it all a little less awful.

Louis drinks slowly, keeps himself well under his usual limit; he's not going to get pissed. He's not going to spend his last night with Harry fuzzy around the edges. Even if he won't remember Harry in the morning, he wants the pretense of clarity, like if he tries hard enough to concentrate on today, he won't forget tomorrow.

There's talk of staying up until dawn, for all the difference that would make, but the alcohol works against them, and it's clear that, as much as they want to spend as much time with Harry as they can before he goes, Harry's still sick and exhausted and needs to be in bed. One by one, they hug Harry goodbye.

"See ya around, Harry," Niall says, trying for a jaunty smile that doesn't make it up to his red-rimmed eyes. "I mean it."

Harry hugs him again. "Yo homes, smell you later," he says in a solemn voice, but Louis can see his dimples pressing in.

"Fuckin' eejit," Niall laughs, and punches him on the arm.

Louis takes Harry upstairs and gets him into bed, tucks one side of the blankets in tight, and slides into the other side of the bed. "Budge up, you're hogging the bed," he says, cramming himself right against Harry.

Harry laughs quietly as he shifts over to make more room. "You're the one who put me here."

Smiling because he can't not when Harry smiles, Louis opens his arms so Harry can settle into him. "Excuses, excuses," he singsongs.

They lie there in the quiet for a minute, Louis holding Harry tightly and Harry's head on his chest. A furrow appears between Harry's eyebrows and he looks up, catches Louis' eye. "Tell me-- tell me everything about you," Harry says. "Something will stick; it's got to. I'll find you."

Louis nods, wanting so much to believe it. "My name's Louis William Tomlinson," he says, stroking Harry's hair, feeling Harry's heartbeat step in time to his. "I'm from Doncaster, I live for football, I'm going to teach drama soon to secondary school kids who will probably be little shits, but it's okay. I know what kids like that need to hear, because I was an absolute shit at that age, too. Did I ever tell you what I did to my maths teacher in year four?"

He talks on and on, piling on details as they come to him. He watches Harry fall into an exhausted sleep and feels the same pulling at his eyelids, try as he might to fight it. As he closes his eyes, Louis tells himself over and over that he won't forget Harry, he won't forget Harry, he won't forget Harry.

He does.

Louis wakes to a bright day, plods through his morning routine. Midway through brushing his teeth, he notices with a bleary stare at the mirror that his eyes are a little red, puffy underneath. Allergies, perhaps.

The rest of the house is still quiet, and no wonder, Louis thinks, spying a mess of beer bottles on the kitchen table. The walls are littered with neon sticky notes, which are likely due to the beer as well. Louis snatches one off to read NIALL WAS HERE! and pastes it back again, in case it was important somehow that they'd established Niall's presence in that spot. It probably meant something when they were all pissed.

He gets the kettle on, and while waiting, checks his phone. He scrolls through Facebook, sees he's been tagged by Zayn in about a dozen photos from yesterday. His thumb dithers over whether or not to untag himself as he looks awful in them, barely smiling at all and his nose red in half the pictures. At least Liam looks just as bad. He doesn't really remember what the photos were taken for; maybe Zayn's starting some artsy series titled My Friends Have All Become Melancholy Drunks.

Leaving the untag option alone for now, Louis pockets his phone and, glancing up, notices the back garden. It looks like shit. Louis groans. Forgot to water it again, one too many days in a row.

Slipping out the back door, he picks up the hose and turns it on the shrubs, startling whole hosts of insects and birds out of the hedges. They all flit away at once, save for a fat little sparrow who sits on the fence to watch him for a while, head cocked to one side. It chirrups a few times, but Louis pays it no mind, and eventually it takes flight to the skies.

Louis goes inside again and makes his tea.

 


 

The first time they meet, it is mid-morning, and Louis' lost.

Also, he's already over his data limit so his mobile's no use. Louis looks at the creased paper in his hand, squinting at it like it'll magically tell him where to go. All Zayn had written on it was the name of the jewellery shop and its address, so Louis can't even call the place to ask if he's anywhere close by.

He texts Zayn and waits, ambling along the street so it doesn't look like he hasn't a clue where he is. Five minutes and no response later, Louis gives up. Zayn's probably off somewhere being fabulous with Perrie, who Louis would absolutely detest for taking up so much of Zayn's time if she weren't so bloody lovely in every conceivable way. Besides, if Louis really hated her, he wouldn't be out here trying to find the shop with the ring Zayn wants Louis' opinion on. And even though Liam, Niall and Louis have been promised equal best man status (assuming Perrie says yes, which is a foregone conclusion), neither Liam nor Niall have been asked for their take on the ring, which Louis intends to lord over them for all eternity.

From what Zayn told him, it's a smallish, nondescript place, been run by the same family since time immemorial, and Louis probably should've asked for a better description than that, like how to get there, for one.

Frowning, Louis ducks into a nearby bakery to see if someone can tell him where he's supposed to be instead. The homey smell of baking bread hits him in the face, and it stirs something deep in him, but he can't quite pinpoint what it is and lets it go. It's warm inside the bakery, and Louis shrugs out of his jacket, takes a look around. There's a smattering of patrons seated throughout the shop, none paying him any mind, so Louis strides up to the counter, behind which a tall young man's got his back turned, fiddling with something in a drawer.

"Hello," Louis calls out. He wants a bell to ding.

The young man turns around, wearing a polite smile. He's got a ballpoint pen tucked into the curls over his ear, one of those with a silk flower attached at the end so customers don't accidentally abscond with them. It should look ridiculous. It really doesn't.

"Hi," he says, like he's got all the time in the world for Louis. His smile widens, pinning in dimples on both sides.

Louis blinks, breathless for a moment with an inexplicable rush of warmth that fills his chest. "Hi," he repeats. Shaking his head slightly, Louis adds, "Listen, I'm not trying to be weird or anything, but have we met before? You look really familiar."

The smile turns slightly bemused. "You know, I was just thinking the same about you. I definitely don't remember that tattoo, though. I like it," he says, indicating Louis' right arm.

And it's the weirdest fucking thing, this tattoo Louis got on a whim a couple of months ago. He'd never felt that deeply one way or another about tattoos, never really intended to get any himself. But he'd gone in one day with Zayn because Zayn had wanted to stop in to discuss his next tattoo with his artist friend, and when Louis saw the art on the wall he'd instantly wanted it, then and there. He still can't explain why. It was only well after the fact that he'd cobbled together the excuse that it relates to a line from Hamlet, which made his students think he was really hardcore about drama, and he's happy enough letting people believe that, because who the fuck even gets a giant sparrow permanently inked into their skin without good reason? Nobody, that's who. Nobody except Louis, who might just be a little crazy, because it suddenly feels worth it now that it's met this stranger's approval.

"Thanks," Louis says to the baker. Well, he looks a bit young to be a baker, an occupation Louis imagines to be largely populated by moustached, robust, Italiany men; he's probably just a shop assistant.

"I've got two myself. Swallows," says Not-a-Baker, pointing just below his collarbone. It's covered; he's wearing what looks like a Ramones t-shirt, and over that's his apron, but somehow Louis can already imagine what the birds look like on his skin. Not-a-Baker fastens a puzzled look over Louis' arm. "Maybe we met before you got that, though."

It feels important somehow that they figure this out, that they find the threads that link them together. They're both northern boys, though from different counties altogether. And Not-a-Baker's got a sister just about Louis' age, a year older, but they went to different universities. They offer up and discard bits and bobs of their separate histories -- schools, jobs, times they've been abroad. Eventually, they stumble onto the fact that they were at the same Script concert several years ago in Manchester, though neither of them remembers meeting the other.

"I'm pretty sure I would have remembered," Louis says, frowning.

"Yeah," Not-a-Baker agrees. He suggests, not very convincingly, "Maybe we've both just got one of those faces."

Louis laughs and shakes his head. "No, you definitely haven't got one of those faces." He wants to say more about Not-a-Baker's face, about the shape of his mouth or the crease of concentration that indents between his eyebrows, but he's afraid it might come out all poetic and weird.

Someone behind Louis clears their throat softly. Startled, Louis spins round to see a woman queueing behind him, and he suddenly remembers where he is and why he'd come in here in the first place.

"Oh," says Not-a-Baker, eyes wide as he notices the new customer, which makes Louis feel marginally better that he wasn't the only one who got carried away and forgot that the rest of the world still existed. "Oh, er, did you…?"

"No, no," Louis says. He gestures the woman forward apologetically and steps to the side.

As she places her order, Louis pulls out his mobile. Still nothing from Zayn, but the digital display tells him that he'd been standing at the counter talking to the shop assistant for upwards of thirty minutes. It's surprising how easy it was to get drawn into conversation with him, especially when Louis had come in with a specific task to accomplish elsewhere, and more than that, it's surprising how much he doesn't want to leave. There's the strangest sense of familiarity there, of warmth and affection and home, that Louis doesn't think he's felt in a long time. He wants badly to keep it.

Louis pretends to be absorbed in a newspaper someone's left behind, stealing the occasional glance towards the counter only to see Not-a-Baker keep looking over at him as if to make sure he's still there. Louis bites down a smile, tucking his chin into his chest.

After the customer's all taken care of, Louis steps up to the counter again. "Sorry," he says. "Didn't mean to interrupt your work."

"No, of course. Did you-- I mean, were you wanting to buy something?"

"I actually came in to ask for directions," Louis says sheepishly. Figuring he might as well ask now, he fishes out Zayn's paper to show him. When it's all sorted and Louis knows how many lefts and rights to take, he says, "Right, thanks. Er."

An awkward beat passes by. Louis doesn't want to go, but he's got his directions and he can't just hang around forever talking to this stranger he feels like he's known for years. He should maybe--

"Listen, my shift finishes in about an hour," Not-a-Baker says in a rush, his cheeks blooming with pink. "D'you want to--"

"Yeah," says Louis. He's coming across overeager; he doesn't care. Besides, it gets him a brilliant grin that grows wider when he says, lifting up his phone, "Let me get your number. That way we won't accidentally miss each other."

"Good. I was going to say 'lunch', by the way, before I was so rudely interrupted."

Louis snickers. "I just got there faster. Keep up, Curly."

He thumbs through the display on his mobile to add a new contact and realises Not-a-Baker isn't actually a person's name, and though he thinks he might use Curly with fair regularity, they don't even know each other's names.

"Oh, god, we haven't even been introduced properly. My name's Louis," he says, extending a hand to the stranger across the counter.

He smiles, sweet as spring. "I'm Harry."