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it's busy this morning in the diner.

"coffee now, please," louis says hurriedly as he shakes some snow off his fringe, jumping up and down a little at the counter. "and make that as fast as possible, could you? i'm freezing my bits off. freezing my bits like that one episode of doctor who when they're all in ponchos and the tardis turns into a freezer. that kind of freezing my bits off. the awful nasty kind."

"is there any other kind of freezing one's bits off?" nick asks as he pops his head up from underneath the counter, mug in one hand and a plate of chips in the other.

"i think i saw a film once where the man was left alone in the arctic – or no, was that when he-"

"please stop talking, darling," nick chides, closing his eyes briefly as he slides the plate down the counter to where fiona is sitting, head in hands.

louis does a dramatic fake gasp because he's louis and nick's nick and harry's still outside being all coy with what's-his-face-with-the-face and it really is too much fun to be him. "how dare you insinuate that i need to shut my mouth, you heathen? the only thing i need to do is continue being my stunningly witty self."

"here's your coffee," nick looks unimpressed as he hands it over. it's louis' favourite look on him. "strong enough to knock out a horse."

"mm, just as i like it."

"i know," nick rolls his eyes and then looks through the window. " harry's outside being a right flirt by the way."

"hm?" louis looks over one shoulder and indeed, there's harry being cheeky and adorable and fluttery eyes with what's-his-face-with-the-face. "takes after his old man, doesn’t he?"

nick snorts and louis arches an eyebrow.

"you couldn't pretend to dislike him if you tried," louis says because, really, harry has nick wrapped around his little finger like nothing else.

"oh be quiet and get out of my sight, would you? you're driving me mad," nick scoffs but louis can see a smile on his lips. "go on."

"scone?" he grins brightly until nick sighs and passes him two in a bag.

"you're very annoying, has anyone told you?" nick asks, leaning in a little with amused eyes, and louis can't help the smile that curls around his lips.

"just you every day for the past ten years, darling."

"well someone needs to say it."

"indeed."

nick raises an eyebrow and louis returns the gesture. nick has nice eyebrows. he also has nice eyes. and nice freckles.

just a generally pleasing face.

"oi, grimshaw!" calls rita from the table behind louis. "can i get some eggs, or are you just going to flirt all day?"

"on it," nick says just loud enough over the din to be heard, eyes not straying from louis', until he shakes his head a bit with a smile, and turns away. "tell harry i said hello, would you?"

"of course."

louis throws a kiss over his shoulder as he goes, battling through the mild crowd of breakfast eaters to the door and pushing himself out, dipping his chin into his scarf to fight against the bitter wind.

"oi, casanova, " louis calls as soon as he get outside. harry looks up from where what's-his-face-with-the-face is whispering into his ear. "i have scones and coffee if you ever want to get your bum over here."

"coming!" harry grins, and louis' heart warms a little bit. harry places his hand's on what's-his- (okay, so louis does know his name, he just likes to be difficult) mark's shoulders and leans up a little to kiss him, while louis rolls his eyes and stuffs his hands in his pockets.

harry skips up to him after, big grin splitting his face, and grabs his scone from louis' hand. "thanks!"

"you're welcome, sunshine," louis pats him on the head. "now up and at 'em, or you'll be late."

harry bites his lip and looks over his shoulder at where he's walking away, and then back at louis with a ridiculous grin for a sixteen year old to have on his face.

"you're shameless."

"yep."

louis is so proud.

 

niall's going absolutely mad in the kitchens by the time louis gets to the inn – a little late because he had to speak to harry's biology professor briefly about how amazing harry is at biology and how he simply must consider this advanced summer program that louis can't afford – and it's predictably about potatoes or salt or something.

"this is missing something, it's missing something!" niall yells loudly just as louis enters, turning his head around sharply, face screwed up as if that was going to help. "louis! louis, what is this missing?"

he jabs a spatula into louis' face and, like, no thank you.

louis hums, pushing the offending item away and smiles bright. "is the soup ready for brunch?"

"no," niall shakes his head a little, his usually smooth brow furrowed. "nothing's ready. it's a disaster."

"i think you're taking that a little too far, love," louis pats his arm quickly. "i'm sure it's absolutely delicious and you're just being humble."

"no, it's awful."

"well then you might as well go kill yourself now because you're useless to me," louis says, looking around the room for the plate of biscuits that niall usually puts out for him. "got any ginger snaps?"

"you're not funny," niall says seriously, hands all tucked up into his big chef's apron.

"i'm kidding, nialler honey, you're going to be fine."

"i'm not so sure."

"well i am so," louis smacks a kiss onto niall's sweet face. "too bad for you."

niall smiles at that, lips all tugged up. "how are you anyways?"

"i'm good," louis grins, scratching at his ear and reaching up to make sure his quiff is still pretty and good and professional. "harry's a little worried about exams coming up, but you know him."

"bless that kid," niall shakes his head fondly.

"he wants to go to oxford or nothing, i swear. he told me yesterday that going to cambridge would be 'disappointing'."

"wow."

"i know."

"oh hey, do you want to join liam and me for dinner tomorrow?" niall asks while stirring something in some sort of skillet. the sleeve on his shirt is a second away from catching fire when josh shoves him an inch away with one hand, chopping onions with the other.

"me and harry or just..?"

"of course, sure," niall wipes his hands off on his apron and almost hits marco in the back of the head. "we just got a new deep fryer so liam's all excited to try it out with other people."

"you two are just adorable," louis says in his singsong voice, only a little bit bitter because his last date with that timothy bloke stan set him up with was awkward and awful and he really really doesn't think that's going to last much longer-

("salt! that's what it needs, salt!" niall yelps loudly from next to him.)

-which is unfortunate. because timothy is tall and pretty and handsome and so so kind and harry liked him a lot and louis had kind of been happy.

for awhile.

but timothy (and why couldn't it be just tim for christ's sake), for all his charms, just wasn't fitting. he was just a bit too odd – too kind for louis' wit and too tall for louis' house and too full of youth for the kind of life that louis had been living for the past sixteen years – and louis can't afford to be with anyone he can't see himself having a proper future with.

because harry comes first.

harry has, and always would, come first.

 

they're in the video store and things are getting a little heated.

"take that back right now," louis says, eyes narrowed. "you have the audacity to say that the dark knight rises is better than the dark knight?"

"i'm just speaking the truth," harry says, rifling through old episodes of i love lucy. "you're blinded by the heath ledger effect."

"i am not."

"you are," harry cocks his hip to the side and looks far more, well, far more louis than he has any right to look. "you, like most people, feel so strong towards heath ledger's performance because of what happened. and i get it, he was incredible, but the sheer power of bane in the third one beats any of the joker's sinister plans."

"how could i possibly have raised such a sick individual."

"it doesn't matter anyways," harry sighs, now moving on to the display of cameron crowe classics. he flips say anything around in his hands. "we're not watching batman."

"but we could be."

"but we're not."

"i'm going to call liam," louis slides his phone out of his pocket and pretends to scroll through his contacts. "liam likes batman more than he likes niall some days."

"we both know that isn't true."

"well-" louis shrugs. "it almost is."

"not quite," harry smiles, holding out elizabethtown and almost famous. "choose."

"let's see," louis takes them both in his hands and narrows his eyes at them. "kate hudson's boobs and too much fake fur?"

"tiny dancer on the bus."

"and that great bit at the end in his house," louis agrees, nodding, and then looks to the other. "or, orlando bloom's beautiful face but subpar acting."

"the maniac pixie dream girl effect."

louis starts counting with his fingers. "the scrapbook that's all sentimental and unrealistic, the part where he cries with his father's ashes, the tap dance to moon river, the consistently awkward dialogue - i could go on."

"i think we've reached a conclusion," harry says, putting almost famous back on the shelf. "you want me to go get popcorn?"

"sure," louis digs his hand into his back pocket and pulls out his wallet. "feel free to buy anything and everything that will rot our teeth in later life."

"will do!"

harry cheerfully leaves the store, skipping a bit in his step while louis turns the dvd over in his hands and meanders over to the checkout.

a couple minutes later he's outside the town market, peering into the glass to see if harry's got the skittles and the smoky bacon walkers crisps because he's starving.

when he finally does find harry - probably looking a bit like a stalker as he stands right up close to the front window – he's being held around the waist by that mark kid in aisle two, red faced and smiling as mark says something to him.

louis looks around the sidewalk, trying not to pry, but he's nosy by nature and can't help looking back at them. they're kissing now, right next to the tower of canned green beans, and harry looks happy.

happy to be sucking face with some kid who's probably just going to break his heart and take away his naïve, gorgeous look on life? when did harry grow up? why wasn't louis informed that this was going to happen?

when harry does leave the store, lips a bit puffy and pinker than usual, he's in good spirits, smiling wide and bright.

louis tries to mimic him, ignoring the sinking feeling in his chest. "did you get enough stuff to give us both so many cavities that small gnomes will be able to live in our teeth?"

"what?"

"nothing," louis shakes himself, smiling. "you ready to go?"

harry looks back through the store window biting his lip, but nods anyways - linking his arm through louis' to pull him along.

 

dinner at nick's is on the menu because it's always on the menu at seven on a wednesday after louis' just picked harry up from some after-school debate club thing.

"i'm starving," harry lets out in a breath, blazer from his fancy private school (that louis had to practically sell a liver to afford) thrown casually over the back of his chair. he's bright and bubbly and so very harry that louis can't contain his grin.

"same. hope nick made some bread rolls."

"stop, you're making me drool just thinking about it," harry smiles, looking around the warm shop. "do you think fincham's gotten taller?"

"hm," louis cranes his neck to see matt over by the register. "i don't think so. maybe it's the hair?"

"or maybe he's feeling particularly good about himself today?"

"fought a vampire?"

"a ghoul?"

"godzilla?" louis shrugs, playing idly with the salt packets. "it's hard to tell."

harry smiles and looks down at his finger nails, picking under one. his hair's so long and dark and curly that louis' considering cutting it himself at this point. he misses the little blond toddler he used to have running around his front porch for a second.

"so where's what's-his-face?" louis asks, shaking the catsup because it gets stuck really easily.

"who- are you talking about mark?" harry gives him an exasperated face. louis resists the urge to reach over and pinch his cheeks.

"right, mark. you two seem serious."

"i guess, so" harry lets one side of his mouth droop and louis frowns. "it's just hard, what with us not going to the same school and all that."

"well he should try harder then," no one is good enough for harry, but that doesn't mean they shouldn't attempt to be. "try harder or get lost, that's my motto."

"i thought your motto was 'never eat week old egg rolls even if they haven't turned green yet'?"

"i have more than one motto, silly," louis sniffs.

"speaking of mark though, how is timothy?" he looks so honest and sweet. "i haven't seen him in awhile."

"me either," louis half mutters under his breath and then grins brightly as nick finds his way over to their table. "hello good squire!"

"hi," nick replies, sounding tired. he pulls out a little pad of paper from the back pocket of his tight jeans and a pencil from behind his ear. "what will it be?"

"a salad and some rice cakes please, i'm trying to watch my weight."

"louis, i have other customers, you know. you aren't the only one in here."

"i can't believe you'd insinuate that i would be wasting your time nicholas. how perfectly rude of you."

"just order something please."

"i already told you, the salad."

"i have see you eat before louis. also i am not stupid," he looks away from louis then, his near-hazel eyes snapping to harry with a smile. "hello harry. how are you?"

"i'm fine," harry says, charming him instantly. louis is amazed. "and you nick?"

"fine, fine. how's that fancy school of yours?"

"i'm becoming a well-rounded individual," harry says smartly. "like stephen fry or something. without the jail time, hopefully."

"good, good," he runs a hand through his hair and then turns back to louis. "now are you honestly going to order, or should i come back later?"

"you wouldn't."

"i would."

"i'll have the cheeseburger, hold the cheese, with onion rings on the side," louis says smiling. he looks over at harry. "and you darling?"

"the pasta with pesto, please," harry orders all innocently.

"jesus christ," nick mumbles as he walks away, shaking his head a bit.

"i swear you two are the most stubborn, most obnoxious people i've ever met," harry says, one hand drumming on the table while the other props up his chin.

"oh hush up," louis flicks out his hair, pushed back down into a fringe, and winks. "tell me all about this matthew fellow."

"louis, it's mark-"

"right, mark," louis winks again, leaning his elbows onto the table. "is he sweet to you? does he call you every night? does he buy you things when you'd least expect it?"

"i'm not talking to you anymore," harry says simply, reaching into his school bag to pull out what is probably some thick novel.

"what, why?" louis grabs at harry's wrists and sees him smile just a little. he throws on his best scarlet o'hara just for kicks. "don't leave me this way, darling, i just don't think i can make it. i'm ever so lonesome."

"mark's fine," harry says through one of his weird, barky laughs. "we're not, like, official or anything but. i don't know. he's nice to me and he likes some okay music and his parents seem to like me - i think you'd like him."

"i doubt it."

"you would!"

"sure, sure," louis starts ripping a serviette into little strips of paper. "whatever you say."

"louis."

"okay, okay," louis looks up and smiles. he's often in awe of the person harry's turned into. "i just want what's best for you. you know that, right?"

harry nods, smiles. "i know."

"good."

 

when they get home that night there's a message on the answering machine.

harry scurries off to go grab a film from their overwhelming collection – something with a young emilio estevez as per louis' request – while louis finds the best cushion to sit on their ratty couch with, sliding his reading glasses onto his face and cuddling up with mabel, scratching under her ears.

"you have one unheard message. press one-one to hear unheard message."

louis stretches across the back of his couch to press said button, grumbling. their telephone was outdated and awful, but with harry wanting to go to uni in a couple of years they couldn't really afford any unnecessary items.

"one unheard message. first message-"

he resists rolling his eyes.

"-hey, louis, it's um. it's greg. greg, uh, james. i was just calling to see how you were and, uh, how harry was, and if the two of you were doing okay. basically. right. so, just call me back when you get this, i guess? it's greg. right."

the answering machine beeps off and the woman on the machine asks if he wants to replay the message but louis has sort of lost all his ability to think.

greg james. holy shit.

mabel nudges his face and whines a bit. louis blindly pats her back.

harry comes down then, a whole slew of eighties films in his hands and a bright smile on his face, but he falters when he sees louis.

"lou?" he asks, face uncertain. "you okay?"

"yeah, of course."

"who was the message from?"

"what," louis shakes himself and then shuts off the machine, turning back around on the couch. "it was no one, don't worry."

"are you sure?"

"course i'm sure. when am i not sure?"

"louis."

"i hope you didn't just grab your favourite because i refuse to watch st. elmo's fire again-"

"louis."

"okay, fine," he huffs, pouting a little as harry slides the outsiders into their dvd player. "it was greg, calling to see how we were."

harry turns around quickly, eyes wide. "you're shitting me."

"nope," louis bites his lip, picks at the lint under his nails a little. "he asked how i was. and then asked after you."

harry nods a bit, brow furrowed. "are you going to call him back?"

"what? no," louis snuggles deeper into their blankets and kicks his feet up on their filthy coffee table. "you remember what happened the last time he called."

"but louis-"

"this isn't open to discussion, harry," he sets him with a look because usually louis' the cool, hip parent, but sometimes he puts his foot down. "greg made up his mind years ago. and so did i."

"but you guys always seemed so great together," harry says quietly, hair blocking his face as he sits on the other side of the couch.

louis sighs, looking over at him, and then back, and then over again.

"i'll call him back," louis mutters, ignoring the way harry's face lights up like a firework at the words. "i'll call him back but that is it."

"okay, fine," harry cheers, blinding grin on his face as he lays down next to louis, fitting his head against louis' ribs.

louis curls a hand through harry's hair and tries to focus on the start of the film, but all he has running through his head is greg james greg james greg james.

 

louis' sorting out bills at the front desk of the inn the next day (tedious, but someone has to do it) when he hears a loud crash. it sounds like it's coming from the kitchen and louis tries not to cry.

it's been a long day and this really, really isn't going to help things along.

"niall, honey," louis says carefully as he pushes the door aside and walks in gracefully. "what did i say about falling over in the kitchen?"

"to not do it anymore," comes niall's bubbly, irish voice from behind the counter. "but lou, you have to taste this sauce, it's the best i've ever made!"

"i-" louis looks around at the pots that are scattered around the ground. "darling you need to stop this."

"just taste the sauce louis!" niall's blond little cheery head appears behind something that's steaming up crazily from the oven. "i promise you. it's incredible. i changed the raspberries to strawberries and boiled the syrup first before-"

"gah!" louis shrieks, causing some chef person that isn't niall (louis used to know his name but he doesn't care right now) to look up quickly. "we can always make a new sauce but we can't make a new you."

he watches niall unsteadily get to his feet and lumber over, giant grin stretching across his face. he holds out a flat, wooden spoon covered in a bright red sauce.

louis looks down at it disdainfully and then back up to where niall's nodding encouragingly.

"oh dear," louis sighs, and then slowly peeks his tongue out to lick at the sauce.

it's incredible.

"heaven almighty," he exclaims, rushing forward to take a generous sip of it again and ignoring niall's smirk. "this is delicious."

"i'm going to put it out for the crepes at lunch!"

"i want to live in a world made only from this sauce."

"and i'm going to put macaroons on top with lemon zest-"

"god that's incredible."

"-and top it off with some fresh raspberries. man."

louis grins at niall. niall grins back.

 

when louis' in the market the next day (looking for a new spatula technically but so far his basket is full of cheetos), he shuffles up behind the baked beans stack and stalks mark-the-bagboy. he's only there for a minute or two when-

"what the hell are you doing?" comes a familiar, dry voice behind him and louis tries not to jump.

"what the hell are you doing?" he asks immediately because nick shouldn't be in the grocery store at this time of day any more than he should. "shouldn't you be walking around and being sarcastic in your diner while listening to shitty music?"

"and shouldn't you be at the inn, giving people brochures on all the lovely hiking paths in the area?"

"oh shut up," louis turns back around to watch this mark kid throw some packages of pasta in a brown bag. "does he look particularly awful to you in any way?"

"who?" nick asks. louis points. "oh, the kid who's had his tongue down harry's throat all week?"

louis doesn't appreciate that.

"you stop talking about my darling in such a crass way," he glares and hears nick snort under his breath. "my harold is a misunderstood soul and sometimes he makes decisions that will probably haunt him for a long time, okay?"

"like father like son."

nick barely even winces when louis smacks him in the chest; louis' almost impressed.

"do you know his parents?" he asks, peering out behind the bean stack and narrowing his eyes at mark-what's-his-face.

"i know everyone," nick says and well, yeah, it's not not true. "they just moved here i think. from newcastle or something, i'm not sure."

"well i don't like him."

"never would have guessed."

"don't you have somewhere to be or something?"

"we ran out of cream."

"you are literally just asking me to make a really bad sexual innuendo."

"fuck off," nick whispers because there are children in this establishment.

"nicholas," louis blinks up at him innocently, letting his (long and very pretty) eyelashes flutter a bit. he takes great satisfaction in the way nick swallows.

"oh stop it," nick chides, eyes narrowed. "i know you know i know you're hot."

"mhm," louis hums, stepping just a little bit closer to him, widening his eyes in that way that always seems to work for harry. "you okay, nick?"

"you're the devil."

"i know darling," louis pats him on the cheek and holds back his smile when he sees the corner of nick's mouth curl up. "now where should we hide the body?"

"what?" nick asks, but at louis' glance back to mark-his-face he just sighs, eyes rolling up to the ceiling.

 

harry's friends from his private school are a little nasally and weird looking and far too into their schoolwork for louis to do much more than smile half heartedly at them when they wander into his home after harry with plaid and socks and pressed shirts and things.

so when his proper real life town friends come over louis cheers a bit.

louis loves zayn.

"honey, i'm home!" louis calls as soon as he's through the door, yanking his coat off and tossing it on their sturdy, but often drowned coat rack. mabel skips out from her hiding spot under the stairs and trails behind him, nipping at his toes.

"hi!" yells back a familiar voice and louis smiles a little because the house had been zayn-less for a week or two recently, and louis can tell how much harry's been missing him.

"i brought leftover chocolate cake!" he says, grinning as he walks into his own living room to find harry and zayn cuddled up under a blanket on the couch together, a box of oreos open in front of them.

"you two are adorable," he tells them, not for the first time.

zayn smiles while harry rolls his eyes, sighing.

"want an oreo?" harry asks, brandishing the box around a little.

"want some cake?" louis asks right back, grinning in what just might make him out to be maniac but he's okay with that.

"of course," harry squirms over, closer to zayn and holds open the blankets a little.

louis plops himself down and squiggles around until he and mabel are comfortable, head against harry's shoulder.

"you guys staying here tonight?" he asks and feels harry's hair brush against his forehead when he shakes his head.

"no," zayn mutters as an old spice commercial plays on the muted television. "my mom says she misses harry or something."

"aw," louis pats at harry's cheek with one hand while grabbing an oreo with another. "is there anyone in this town you haven't charmed into idiocy?"

"i think the new checkout girl at the book shop with the purple hair is still hesitant on me," harry says with a smile. zayn's face turns just a little red at the casual comment and louis mentally adds that to his list of things to make fun of zayn about.

"she's been in town a week."

"exactly."

"you're a menace," louis sighs, looking around at his home. it's a bit in shambles, like usual, all messy corners and frayed edges and things. but it's home. "you should go now, before it gets too dark, okay?"

"alright," they slowly push themselves off the couch, more like slugs than two teenage boys.

zayn elbows harry as they walk over to the foyer, and louis doesn't need to turn his head to be able to tell that they're probably tickling each other, great big smiles on their faces.

he used to wish that zayn and harry would end up together, in some big swooping ceremony, but zayn is tragically, mostly heterosexual. it's a shame.

"call me if you're staying over, yeah?" louis calls out as they're putting their shoes on. he tilts his head back on the couch to see harry give him a nod and then the door's closing and they're gone.

louis sits on his couch with mabel sleeping in his lap until the record stops, looking around at the photos on the mantle piece and the old blanket of harry's over the rocking chair in the corner, before standing up to get some wine from the kitchen.

nothing like a glass of chardonnay and absolutely fabulous on a night off.

 

"it's weird because where i'm from, it was always customary to finish eating the bit of food you had in your mouth before you stuff more inside."

"oh yeah, oldham is just the pinnacle of class," louis drawls loudly. "is there a point to your endless rambles, nicholas, or are you just wasting my time?"

"my point is that you're disgusting," nick says as he holds the coffee pot suspended over louis' mug, half awed, half repulsed look on his face.

"thank you darling," louis stuffs another bit of toast into his mouth before looking up at him again. "moving right along - can you do something about the music in here? it's a little awful."

"it's spector."

"it's awful."

"you're awful."

"sorry to interrupt and all," harry pipes up from where he's eating his muffin on the other side of the table. "but i've got to go pick up the book i left at zayn's last night before school."

"oh right," louis itches at his nose and nick sighs while harry packs up his backpack and swings in over one shoulder, standing up to leave. "well tell him i say hello and ask that he please find himself a nice, muslim girl so his mother can stop calling me to cry about how her son will never be married?"

"will do," harry says with a nod, one hand reaching out to flick his hair from his face. "we're at liam and niall's for seven, right?"

"yep," louis reaches out with an arm to pull harry into a half hug, pressing a kiss to the top of his head. "meet you there?"

"sure."

"love you."

"love you too," harry says before skipping out of the diner, stopping only to wave a hand back at nick.

louis watches him through the window for a minute before looking back up at where nick's still staring down at him, odd expression on his face. "what?"

"nothing," nick pours him a cup of coffee and makes to leave.

"no seriously, what is it?"

"i-" nick stops himself and then his cheeks turn a little red. louis' immediately delighted. "it's seriously nothing."

"nicholas peter grimshaw, don't make me tickle this out of you. you know i will."

"oh for christ's-" nick sighs and then shuffles his hands a bit, shaking out his bracelets. "it's just that when i first met you, you were some kid who just dropped out of uni with a baby and a part time job and now, like. i don't know."

louis swallows. he forgets sometimes that there are still people who remember that terrifying and uncertain and vulnerable time in his life where every day felt like an uphill battle against fate.

nick shrugs, and smiles just a little bit. louis thinks he could fall in love with a smile like that and then shakes himself.

"sorry but i just… i don't know. i didn't expect you to pull everything together so well, but i'm really glad you did." he scratches his ear awkwardly while louis clears his throat, face too warm.

"thank you," he says hoarsely.

"don't mention it," nick replies with, cheeks still flushed. "do you want the bill or-"

"sure," louis says, nodding, and while nick scurries off to get that he tries to control his heart a little.

 

liam answers the door when harry and louis show up at his and niall's twenty minutes later than when they said they would but sooner than they usually do. he's got oven mitts and a big kiss the cook apron on and a sweet smile stretched over his face.

"niall, they’re here!" he calls back into the house before reaching his arms out to give harry a hug. "my god you've gotten taller since i last saw you!"

"bloody sasquatch, isn't he? we're thinking of getting him studied at ucla or something," louis says happily, stepping in to the warmth of their home and immediately smelling some homemade mash potatoes. "can barely keep any food in the house anymore, he just inhales it."

"says you," harry replies evenly, kicking his shoes off at the door and scratching a hand through his hair. "how have you been liam?"

"oh, can't complain," says liam humbly, taking harry and louis' jacket from them and hanging them up in the little closet across the hall. "my mum might come down for a couple nights next week, which is exciting, and we're thinking of re-painting the bathroom upstairs, so it'll be a busy month i suppose."

"you live a crazy life liam payne," louis says serenely, walking down the hallway and into their big kitchen. "now, what are you making me horan?"

"nothing if you keep up that kind of attitude," niall shouts back, head stuck in the oven.

"you wound me, darling."

"ey, shut it."

louis jumps up onto the little stools they have scattered around this massive island and sighs happily, digging into the little bowl of mints niall puts out before big dinners.

"so guess who called me the other day?" he asks as harry and liam trail into the room, chatting amiably.

"who?" niall's managed to get himself out of the oven and instead stands across the counter from louis, snacking on a handful of snow peas.

"greg," louis says and it feels weird to say his name out loud in such a easy manner.

"james?"

"yeah."

"no shit."

"yeah, i know."

"did you talk to him?"

"nah, he left a message," louis looks down at his hands and tries to smile. "asked after the two of us and all, it was very nice."

"that's good," niall nods, brows a little furrowed. "i mean weird, but good. 's weird, right?"

"so weird," if there's one person that knows this whole saga inside and out, it's niall. "the last time we talked was almost a year ago, and now he wants to be back into my life?"

"he probably just feels bad," niall says gently, eyes kind. "he's at that age where people are starting to have kids and things and he probably just realized that he could have had that years ago."

louis hums in agreement before cutting his eyes to where liam's showing harry his singing fish thing. "his fucking fault anyways. well – yeah, it is."

"yeah, the mammoth really missed his chance," niall mutters under his breath while taking a sip of water and louis falters because-

"what did you just call him?"

"hm?"

"you just-" louis wants to scrub his mind. "is that your nickname for him or something?"

"yep."

"i-"

"he's huge louis," niall nods wisely. "so much so that whenever i see pictures of him i imagine a palaeolithic elephant."

"your mind is a fascinating place."

"i know."

"when's dinner?"

"in a few, hold your bloody horses," niall skips around to get at the oven, peering in. "li, could you pass me the oven mitts?"

louis rubs a hand through his hair, watching his two best friends make heart eyes at each other, and tries not to think too hard about how much he wants someone to make heart eyes at.

 

harry and him walk home that night in the dark, stomachs full of niall's delicious meal, a quiet wind blistering through their small town.

"hey," louis says softly because normally they're chatting from one end of town to the other. "you okay?"

"hm?" harry looks up with a faint smile. "of course. are you okay?"

"depends on your definition of okay," louis says and straightens up his nice woollen scarf that liam had knitted for him last christmas. "i mean, if okay is being thirty five and living with a sarcastic teenager who's had more boyfriends than you-"

"i have not!" harry shouts, but there's a grin blooming across his face now. "unless you've only had two which i know for a fact is not true."

"look at you being all cheeky," louis says indignantly, hip bumping harry. "but seriously harry. the last time i went on a date was a year ago. twelve months. three hundred and sixty something days. ninety thousand and eleven hours-"

"that's not the amount of hours in a year, you know."

"whatever."

"and you went on a date, like, a week ago, so you're also a liar."

"i don't care, darling. i am sad. sad and full of loneliness," louis pouts a little because he's still got it. "why does no one want to love me?"

he's mostly kidding.

"i love you," harry says in that way only harry can. "and so does niall and liam and nick and-"

"nick does not love me," louis says, rolling his eyes and hopping over a curb as they cross the street. "nick tolerates me at best."

"i think you two think you're a lot more subtle than you actually are."

"about what?"

"when you- never mind."

"no, what were you going to say?"

"it doesn't matter, don't worry about it."

"harry-"

"hey, i'll race you to the house."

"don't play coy with me, styles. what were you going to say?"

they've reached their own porch now. the light's on and there are a bunch of moths on it, circling around the light like they can't get enough.

harry sits on the swinging chair that they have planted next to the door. "i just mean that you two flirt a lot is all."

"we- how- we do not flirt," louis is appalled. "how do you even know that word? you were a cute seven year old a minute ago."

"and even when i was a cute seven year old you and nick still flirted over breakfast," harry says back and he's becoming far too sharp for louis' liking. "that's never changed."

"oh hush," he sits next to harry on the chair and tucks his knees up under his chin. "he hates me, the whole town knows it."

"the whole town is waiting for you to get together, actually," harry grins back and louis realizes that he is far too sober for this conversation. "rita's got a bet going with alexa that it'll happen within the next month, but stan's got his eye on next tuesday."

"when do you even figure this shit out?"

"what do you think they do at town meetings?"

louis sighs and leans back, looking out onto the clear night while harry cackles next to him.

"speaking of," harry says a little while later. "have you made plans to see timothy again?"

"i don't-" louis takes a deep breath and then smiles sadly. "i don't think he and i are going to make it."

"oh."

"he's really sweet but- i don't know. we're both looking for different things right now. he – okay, so he wants to adopt a bunch of kids, and move to manchester, with all the big lights and that's incredible for him. it's amazing. but, i don't know." louis shrugs and tries to smile. "my life is here."

"oh."

"also he's a chelsea fan, and i am sorry but no."

harry laughs softly at that and louis smiles.

"look, haz," louis reaches a hand out to pass his hand through harry's hair. "i'm sorry. it seems like you won't be having a new parent-thing any time soon."

"that's alright," harry used to be adamant about having a proper family, back when he was seven and got laughed at by some asshole for being an orphan with a weird godfather. "i don't really need another one anyways. i've got you."

and this, louis thinks as he pulls in harry so he can kiss him on the forehead, is why it's all fucking worth it.

 

when louis and harry walk into nick's the next morning it's a bit chaotic.

"we are trying to raise money for the new bridge, nicholas," chides brian as he stands at the counter, a big frown on his face. "and if you could offer your services, it would be a big help-"

"i am not serving free refreshments at a stupid dance-a-thon," nick says as he slides a burger to alexa by the window, displeased look on his face. "if people want my coffee or tea they can come here and buy my coffee or tea."

"it's for charity!"

"it's my livelihood!" nick shouts a little ridiculously and louis wants to pat him on the head. he's just so adorable when he gets angry. "and a dance-a-thon is stupid."

brian gasps (honest to god gasps like in a harlequin romance novel or something that louis certainly does not ever read) while nick rolls his eyes and crosses his arms, glaring a little.

"i haven't seen nick this mad since brian tried to get the music festival in the next town over cancelled due to noise violations," harry whispers as they tip toe over to their seats by the window.

"or that time there was that halloween party across the street and they kept playing the ghostbusters theme song over and over, just loud enough so nick could hear it."

"or that time i brought in mark last week and nick just glared at him for the entirety of the lunch date."

"he didn't," louis says, eyes wide, and looks over at where nick is grabbing at his hair angrily. "so protective over you, i swear."

"i think it's sweet," harry says, a smile curling at his lips.

"you know he used to bring out the yellow pages from underneath the counter so you could sit up on the bar stools and still eat your ice cream when you were little."

"stop it, that's adorable," harry whines, grin unfurling.

"you were the only kid in the whole diner that he would allow to go back into the food storage and eat the strawberries for free," louis says with a smile. "i think he still thinks you're that kid a lot of the time. i know i do."

"aw," harry croons.

"oh shut up you," louis reaches out to flick his nose and then whistles over at nick. "can we have some service over here or something? i'd like some breakfast before i keel over and die from starvation."

"please?" harry cries along with him, both of them watching as nick cuts them a fierce look.

"my stomach is going to concave on itself and then the stomach acids are going to pour over to all my internal organs and i'm just going to sit and die, nick. nick - i'm dying."

"for christ's sake-" nick begins, breaking away from brian and meandering over to their table.

"nicholas, i am not done talking with you!" brian calls after him, raising a hand but nick shoots him a look filled with so much contempt that he shuffles out the door instead, huffing under his breath as he goes.

"i hate that guy," nick mutters darkly while pouring them both coffees. "when i was a kid he was the only one on the whole street who gave out apples instead of candy on halloween."

"heathen," louis says easily, reaching out to poke nick in the ribs. "can we have food now please?"

"pretty please?" harry adds, fluttering his eyelashes for good measure.

louis' taught him well.

"okay, okay," nick sighs, pulling away from the table. "two burgers with a side order of cardiac arrest, coming up."

"you're the best!" louis calls after him, then looks back to harry. "so who's your partner for the dance-a-thon?"

"you're doing that?"

"of course i am," louis says in a dignified manner, moving the mustard around on the table. "someone's got to show that bloody nathan sykes that he isn't the best dancer in town."

"you hate dancing though," harry says, quite sensibly.

"yeah, but i like beating nathan sykes more."

"don't you think this whole thing has gone on long enough?"

"you know my name, not my story."

"louis."

"harold."

harry rolls his eyes but smiles a bit. "i'll be your partner if you want. i mean, mark's visiting family in leeds that weekend any way."

"really?"

"if you want," harry mumbles while louis beams.

"of course i want!" louis pats him on the head twice. "i was up half the night thinking about who i could coerce into being my partner. i toyed briefly with the idea of mrs. malik before i remembered that she's a little insane and she probably doesn't approve of dancing recreationally. and then i thought about tony from two doors down before i remembered his obsession with my collarbones and how he'd probably try to grope me a lot. and then i thought, hey maybe nick wouldn't mind doing that for me, but i think we've all seen and heard nick's opinions on dance-a-thons."

"that we did."

"this is going to be fun!"

"i hope so."

"it will be, i promise."

 

it isn't, not really.

nathan sykes is there when the walk into the school gymnasium, naturally, already stretching for the big event. he's smiling around at everyone but when his eyes meet louis' they're mean and louis has to try very hard not to punch him in the face.

"i hate that guy," he mutter darkly to harry as they pin their numbers on the back of the nice blazers they found at alexa's vintage shop. "we have to beat him."

"i thought this event was about charity and coming together as a community," harry says dryly, looking over to the bleachers in the corner to where zayn is sitting with a hemingway book.

"who the hell told you that?" louis narrows his eyes around at the other contestants, just asking for one of them to want the trophy as much as he does.

"some delusional fellow, obviously."

louis clears his throat and stretches his back, looking over towards where brian is standing with a megaphone, big grin on his face. "i feel like this year is going to be more intense than any year ever."

"you actually say that every single time."

"because it's true every time," he lets his eyes gloss over the event and then sees a familiar quiff of hair in the corner. "i see nick!"

he's not even going to try and take the excitement out of his voice. he's tired and it's not worth it anyways.

"he came?" harry asks as louis grabs onto his wrist, pulling him through the crowd.

"maybe the allure of the two of us dancing made him unable to stay home," louis calls back.

"or he's just here to stare at your arse all night."

louis would turn around to glare at harry but they're already at nick.

"hey," nick says, running a hand through his hair. he looks tired but happy; a fantastic leather jacket over his small shoulders, a thermos under his left arm.

"hey," louis arches an eyebrow. "i thought you didn't like dance-a-thons. i thought you said they were stupid. in fact, i could have sworn that you once made a whole debacle about-"

"hello harry, nice to see you," nick says over top of louis, uncapping the thermos. "want some coffee?"

"please," harry smiles, brightly, and louis feels like he's been replaced a little.

"and you, darling?" nick asks louis, smiling like he knows exactly what he's doing with his stupid face. "would you like some coffee?"

"you're not funny."

"nice coat."

"it's a blazer."

"nice blazer," nick tips him a wink and louis tries very hard not to smile but it probably doesn't work because harry elbows him.

"so why are you here?"

"you know me," nick shrugs, does a half smile. "anything for charity. also brian promised he wouldn't come near me for a month if i provided a beverage stand and that's just too good to say no to."

"nice deal."

"i know, right?"

"all dancers on the dance floor please!" brian yells into his big, ridiculous megaphone. "remember – any pair not dancing for any length of time will be eliminated! i repeat: the last one dancing wins!"

"it's our time to shine, baby," louis says, hopping a little bit on the spot and tossing one arm over harry's shoulders. "let's go show that nathan sy- i mean, let's go raise some money for the cause."

nick laughs and louis winks at him, ignoring harry's sigh because louis' allowed to flirt harmlessly with whoever he pleases. even if it is nick.

and besides it really isn't even flirting anyways.

 

they get to the two hour mark easily enough but by four harry is starting to waver and by the time they hit eight hours even louis is close to tears.

they sway together on the dance floor, harry practically asleep on his shoulder as he snuggles into louis' neck. it's all very sweet and louis hopes that people are snapping pictures because it's been a long time since harry slept on him like a little baby koala.

"come on, love," he whispers in his ear, sleepy eyes narrowing when nathan and his partner (some blonde with glasses) waltzes by slowly. "look alive."

harry mutters something and shuffles his feet a bit, to which louis is grateful.

he looks out around the school gym to the bleachers. there's a scattering of people there, mostly just other contestants who've already been eliminated. zayn's still here, handing out punch and crackers with his mum at a table over by the other side. alexa's chatting with aimee by the entrance and liam and niall are at the back of the bleachers, snogging while holding a sign that says louis and harry 4 gold!!.

nick had left a while back to get more coffee, giving louis a wave from across the gym before he head out into the afternoon sunlight. he's back now though, over in one corner, setting up a coffee machine while rita chats on a chair next to him.

"god i hope there's a break soon," harry mumbles into his neck and louis agrees. his feet have been numb for the past hour and his thighs are starting to feel like two pieces of solid iron. or something equally awful.

"hey tomlinson," nathan calls, eyes narrowed a little. "looks like your partner's about to fall over."

"in your dreams sykes," he sneers back, digging his fingers into harry's ribs to make him jump a little bit. "excited to lose?"

"i should be asking you that question i think."

"whatever."

nathan scowls and dances away, leaving louis to glare at his back. harry pulls his head back to give him an unimpressed look.

"you are a child."

"he started it!"

a piercing whistle goes off then, and they both turn their heads to see brian standing drowsily on a table on the other side of the gym.

"ten minute break!" he calls and harry makes a noise that makes him sound like a dying hippopotamus. louis' vaguely worried.

"you okay, pookie?"

"sleep," harry mutters, putting his arms around louis waist and pulling him over to the bleachers.

"how about coffee instead?" louis says, dragging him over to nick's table, where nick is talking on a mobile, turned half away.

harry mutters and shuffles like a zombie to grab a paper cup of coffee, downing it quickly. louis takes one as well, watching as nick nods a bit and then hangs up his phone, staring at it for a minute.

"you okay?" louis asks him, patting harry's hip in passing as he wanders over to see zayn. "you look all sad and floppy and stuff."

"hm?" nick looks a bit lost too. "i'm fine."

"you're not fine," louis scoffs, reaching out a hand to feel nick's forehead. nick's eyes go cross eyed to stare at it. "you don't feel sick."

"i've been awake for a good couple of hours, love, it's not weird for me to be a little floppy looking." nick's eyes are all hazy and stuff but they're still far too blue and green and hazel and pretty like.

"you have very surprising eyes, you know."

"thank you."

"because when you see them from afar you think they're brown but then you get up close and they aren't brown."

"again, thank you."

"it's not necessarily a compliment."

"well i'm just going to take it as one."

"that's your prerogative i suppose," louis shrugs and then smiles. "but seriously, what's up? was that beyonce on the phone or something? you're all shaky and you only get shaky when beyonce gets brought up in regular conversation."

"it's not beyonce."

"that's a shame."

"it's, um," nick looks down and then looks up abruptly. "my nephew's coming down. to stay. with – with me."

"oh," louis' a little lost. no, louis' very lost. "oh – you. you have a nephew!"

"yeah," nick fiddles with his fingers. "he's my sister's. she lives in blackpool but she's got this job opportunity in america. but, since aiden has-"

"aiden?"

"what?"

"who's aiden?"

"oh, my nephew."

"okay, right, yeah," louis gestures with his hand for nick to continue, holding onto the table with his other so he doesn't fall over from exhaustion (the coffee hasn't set in yet).

"she didn't want aiden to have to start over in the u.s because they have a different school system and all that so… she asked if i could take him."

"and you said yes."

"god only knows why," nick scrubs a hand through his hair. "fuck, i'm not made to take care of a kid! i don't even like kids that much."

"you like harry."

"everyone likes harry."

louis shrugs at that because, well, yes. "how old is he anyways?"

"i don't know," nick itches his ear and sips at one of the coffees on the table. "seventeen i think? i haven't seen him since last christmas."

"well at least he's not small, you know," louis can't imagine nick taking care of someone. nick can barely take care of scrambled eggs most days. "they get pretty easy when they're seventeen. just buy lots of food and make sure you're around to listen whenever they've got things on their minds."

"that sounds easy enough."

"i'm sure you'll be fine, love," louis grins. "when's he coming down?"

"this week," nick nods. then nods again. louis' worried about him for a minute. "i'm really – i don't know what i'm feeling. i don't know what to feel right now."

"do you want a hug?" louis can't remember ever hugging nick before but he also can't remember ever seeing him this pale before so. "i usually give harry a hug when he's feeling weird and stuff."

"i-" if anything the idea of a hug makes nick even more pale. "i'm not sure."

"here i can-" louis walks around the table and then sort of, stands. with his arms out. waiting for something to happen.

"what are you doing?" nick's looking at him like he's insane, which might not be too wrong.

"i feel like this will help," harry's a cuddler, always has been, and louis' not used to having to force people into things like this. "maybe a hug will make you calm down a little."

"we don't hug."

"we could start being friends who… hugged."

"right," nick looks down then shakes his head. "i'm not good at being comforted."

"me neither," louis smiles, as soft as he can. "but i am excellent at comforting, darling, so.."

nick sighs and shakes his head and then steps forward, putting his arms around louis' waist. he smells like day-old coffee and some sort of cologne that is nice. really nice.

louis tosses his arms around nick's neck and pushes himself up on his toes. he's kind of sick of standing, there's been a lot of that tonight, but nick's arms (though rather skinny) are really comfortable. and louis could get used to this, which is really scary.

"you okay?" louis whispers into his shoulder because nick is really tall. louis thinks he might have a thing for tall people. it's a problem. except that it really isn't. "i'm sure it's going to be fine. maybe aiden will be able to, like, juggle or something."

"the ones that juggle are the keepers after all," nick says into his hair.

"of course."

"right."

 

harry and him don't end up winning (fucking nathan sykes) but when they stumble home, half asleep and maybe drooling a little, all louis can think about is how he's maybe just a little bit in like with nick and how much of a problem that's going to be.

 

the next day, while harry's at mark's house "studying" (louis had jokingly thrown a condom at him before he left yelling about bad life decisions), he calls.

"hello?" comes a voice down the end of the line that is distinctly greg james.

"hey," louis says, and then clears his throat because he sounds weird, he knows he does. "hey greg, it's lou."

"louis!" greg greets back, sounding surprised and hesitant and awkward. "how – how've you been?"

"great," louis nods a bit before he remembers that he can't actually see him. he stands up to walk to the kitchen, long phone cord stretching out behind him. "great, i've been great."

"and harry?"

"oh harry's been good," louis smiles a bit, looking at the polaroid on their fridge of the two of them at the fall festival, covered in leaves and grinning bright. "he's busy at school, but he just loves it i can tell."

"that's great."

"yeah," he grabs a carton of soy milk out of their fridge and smells it before taking a quick drink from it. "how're things with you?"

greg's quiet for a minute and then his voice comes down the line clear, "they've been really good lou. really good."

"how's the, uh, deejaying thing?"

"amazing," he sounds like old greg then, like the greg louis used to be head over heels in love with, the greg that was so passionate about music and broadcasting and making people happy that it literally pained him sometimes. "i'm actually going in for an interview with radio one. tomorrow. so, you know, fingers crossed."

"that's incredible," louis finds their bowl of chocolate pudding in the fridge and grabs a spoon, pushing himself up to sit on their disgusting counter. "wow, greg that's - you're definitely going to make it. and when you do we'll listen to your show every day, i promise."

"thanks lou."

"don't worry about it," louis smiles a bit. "so, why did you like – why did you call?"

"i just-" he can tell that greg's biting his lip, even after all these years. "i wanted to see how you were. see if you were happy."

"i am," louis says after he's thought about it for a minute. "i like life right now. it's going okay. plus there was a two for one sale on instant pudding at the market yesterday so harry and i stocked up."

"that's good," greg laughs a bit because louis is hilarious, he really is. "that's really great lou."

it's silent for a minute.

"i, um, well. i wanted to tell you that i'm – i'm seeing someone. have been, for awhile. and she's very important to me."

"oh."

"yeah, and i just wanted you to know," greg says and louis' done his pudding now and he drops the bowl awkwardly into the sink, clanking around as it goes. "her name's ellie. she's a musician in london and – well, she's the first person that's meant a lot to me since you and i were together."

"that's-" louis doesn't know what he's feeling. "that's incredible greg. is she nice?"

"no, just downright awful."

"spitting image of satan?"

"you bet."

louis smiles and scratches what must be month old spaghetti sauce off the counter. "i'm really glad to hear that you're good greg. like really really glad."

"thanks," his voice sounds a bit farther away then. "it means a lot."

"okay, well," louis bites his lip, looks around the empty house. "harry just came in with two hookers and a live chicken all dancing the macarena so i have to go."

greg laughs and then says goodbye and louis sits on his counter for a long time, dial tone in one ear.

 

liam and niall are arguing in the inn's kitchen when he walks in.

"my mother loved your strawberry jam!" liam shouts at niall, face a little red. "she thought it was delicious."

"she hated it," niall snaps back, looking about as angry as niall can get which isn't that angry at all. "there was hatred in her eyes."

"you are taking this way out of proportion."

"you are too blinded by your love for your mother to recognize that she hates me and my cooking and everything about my life-"

"oh stop it right now-"

"so!" louis jumps in the middle, sipping on his fifth coffee of the morning. "can we stop yelling at each other about nothing? you're starting to make the guests a little flustered."

"hey, louis, want a muffin?" niall asks, big bright smile on his face. liam rolls his eyes.

"of course, darling," louis says, clapping a hand onto liam's shoulder and digging his nails in a little so that he will stop doing that puppy-eyebrow thing. "anything i can help with?"

"no," liam huffs.

"right," louis takes his muffin from niall with a smile. "thank you, dear."

"don't worry about it."

"i have to go," liam says looking down at his watch a little sadly. "work and all that."

"okay, fine," niall says glumly like the five year old he is.

they glare at each other for a solid minute until niall breaks away to turn one of the stoves behind him down.

"bye lou," liam says before he walks around the counter to press a kiss to niall's lips.

they kiss for a good ten seconds until liam pulls away smiling and walks to the back entrance, almost bumping into a shelf full of bread rolls as he goes.

when louis turns to look at niall he's grinning hugely.

"what was that about?" he asks, taking a bite from the sinfully delicious muffin.

"it was nothing," niall's chopping up pieces of celery daintily. louis doesn’t trust it for a second.

"niall."

"what?"

"niall," louis sing-songs, skipping around the tabletop to rest his chin on niall's shoulder. "is this your way of keeping the relationship spiced up?"

"maybe," he says, swinging his hips a little and louis bites him on the shoulder. "it's just that we hardly ever fight, and everyone says that's unhealthy so every once and awhile we take turns making a big point about something that doesn't matter to work off some steam."

"how… interesting!" louis says, leaning over to press a kiss to niall's cheek. "i suppose as long as it works."

"speaking of this and that," niall spins around, eyebrow up. "how was greg?"

"who?"

"louis."

"oh i think i hear stan calling me, i better go check out-"

"you don't want to talk about him is that it?"

"talk about who?"

"stop being a wanker."

"i know you are but what am i?"

"why are you being a child about this?"

"says the person who just had a fake fight about jam so they could feel more secure in their relationship," louis mutters, pouting a bit because nick says that his pouts could probably end wars.

also his bum, apparently, but they were both very drunk when he let that one slip out.

"what's his dealio?"

"did you just say dealio?"

"yes."

"who are you, one of the wiggles?"

"you don't want to tell me."

"not particularly, no."

"well," niall takes what's left of the muffin louis' been demolishing and puts it in the pocket of his apron. "you're going to have to eventually."

"we'll see about that."

niall turns then, humming loudly, and louis rolls his eyes.

 

aiden comes to town on a tuesday.

nick, and who louis presumes is aiden, are standing behind the counter at the diner when harry and he come in that morning. nick looks like he's in ultra charm mode, whipping his hands around and talking wildly while aiden looks on, mildly amused.

"that must be grimshaw 2.0," louis says, shrugging his coat off of his shoulders and cozying into his chair. "he's cute."

"he's my age, louis."

"so you don't think he's cute?"

harry blushes and louis can see the way he glances at aiden out of the corner of his eyes. aiden has a the xx t-shirt on. louis thinks the two of them are going to get along swimmingly.

"you think he's cute," louis grins bright, cupping his chin in one hand and leaning in. "you think he sooo cute."

"i also have a boyfriend," harry says sensibly and louis pouts.

"that weirdo?" he flaps his hand around. "forget about him. time to move on to cute, new boys if you ask me."

"louis," harry's holding back a smile, louis can tell. "can you stop saying the word cute please?"

"sure."

"thank you."

he watches harry look out the window casually, twirling his fingers on the table. his hair looks particularly nice today.

"so aiden's pretty cute then, huh?"

"gah!" harry shouts, eyes extra wide. "you need to be put behind bars."

"honey," louis smiles and wiggles his eyebrows. "i would not do well in prison."

"gross!" harry mutters, plugging his fingers in his ears. "gross, gross, gross, gross-"

"hey nick!" louis calls because he wants harry to meet aiden and he wants to meet aiden, but mostly he wants harry to meet aiden because he loves when harry blushes. it's too much fun. "some food please!"

nick rolls his eyes, but comes out from behind the counter with a pen and notepad in hand, aiden trailing behind him awkwardly.

"morning," nick says, a sort-of hesitant smile on his face. "aiden, this is louis and harry. louis and harry, this is my nephew aiden."

"hi!" louis grins, trying not to scare the poor boy off too soon. he's got sharp teeth and (apparently) sometimes he appears a little weird. just a smidge. "you must be aiden!"

nick cocks an eyebrow, "i just told you this was aiden."

"i know, but that's what you're supposed to say when you meet someone new."

"but i literally just-"

"look, does it matter if-"

"yes it does, you lunatic-"

"hi aiden," harry interrupts, smiling shyly. "are you enjoying the town?"

"um, so far," aiden's blushing.

louis takes a good look at him. his hair's all floppy around his head and his eyes are a dark brown colour. he's pale and tall and slim and he's got a couple tattoos on one arm.

just harry's type then, louis thinks with a smile.

"well that's awesome," louis says, nodding a bit. nick gives him a confused look. "it's a cool place. you just missed the dance-a-thon, that was fun. great fun. wasn't that fun, harry?"

"a lot of fun," harry agrees, looking bemused.

"too much fun."

"sounds… like fun," aiden says and louis thinks he's going to like this kid.

"well, it was nice to meet you – but i have to go see mark before my bus gets here," harry says, standing up and stooping to pick his backpack off the floor.

"i'll come with," louis stands as well. "i've got the day off to go get some errands done, and i haven't even met mark yet. i don't know how i've gone this long without a proper introduction, but i have, and that won't stand any longer."

"you don't have to-"

"oh, i want to," louis assures harry, throwing an arm around him and turning to nick.

"you didn't order anything?" nick seems confused, holding his pen over his paper sadly. "did you- what do you want for breakfast?"

"oh, we'll just grab a scone or something," louis gestures to the front counter display. "see you later then?"

"of course," nick nods and then grins brightly aiden, who's staring at his feet. "let's go get you set upstairs."

louis smiles and leads them out of the diner, waving over his shoulder as they go.

 

mark's fine. he's fine.

a little bland, but as harry has pointed out on more than one occasion, louis' more than a little judgemental. although he thinks he's allowed to be a little judgemental when it comes to his son's rather bland boyfriend.

"no he's just bland," louis tells niall over the phone later that day while he's shopping for a new pair of braces. "painfully boring you could say."

"did it actually pain you?"

"when he started in on why he thought that die hard was the best film he'd ever seen i thought i'd actually have to kill him."

"honey," niall says, clanking some pots around on his end. "the boy was probably nervous. you are a little bit much sometimes, you must know that."

"do not patronize me, horan," louis says, holding out a pair of tight tight tight black jeans to see if they would make him look a little slutty or a lot slutty. "i don't appreciate that tone."

"you don't appreciate anything."

"i appreciate a good blow job."

"who doesn't?"

louis grins, a little wolfishly if he's being honest with himself, and then bites his lip because he thinks the jeans are leaning towards too slutty. "do you think black is sluttier than maroon? i need new trousers."

"are you aiming for slutty though?"

"when am i ever not?"

"black, then, i think. i'm pretty sure i seduced liam in some black boxers. or a black shirt," niall makes a weird cough noise. "actually you know what, i just think i walked out of his loo naked and jumped on top of him."

louis snorts, "sounds about right."

"who're you seducing anyways?" he asks and louis has to take a deep breath before he opens his mouth to answer.

"no one, why?"

"you just seem really relationship-focused lately, that's all."

"well i'm not, so," louis pulls the material at the bum of the trousers and then sighs, folding them over an arm and heading to checkout. "but yeah, anyways, harry's boyfriend is a total bust."

"okay, darling," louis feels as if niall is no longer listening. "thanks for telling me."

"don't worry about it," louis says dryly, hanging up his mobile and throwing his jeans onto the sales counter with a bright smile.

 

louis gets a coffee at this sort of awful, very fancy coffee shop just on the outskirts of town on the way back from his shopping extravaganza. there's a line and it's reasonably long and he texts harry hilarious jokes while he waits.

he's just finished with wht did the cheese stick say to the corn casserole? ur corny but i like it. what did the corn casserole say back? ur cheesy but i like it too when a voice behind him startles him, "louis?"

he snaps his head up, turns around and then –

oh.

hey.

"greg," louis says, eyes wide. "hey. hi. you're here."

"i'm here," says greg with a small smile.

"here in town, you're – you're here in town."

"i am."

"right," louis tries to remember how to work his tongue properly. "why're you – what are you doing here? are you like, just passing through?"

"something like that, yeah," greg shrugs, stepping out of the way of a woman behind him because they're sort of in the way of the line of people who actually plan on getting coffee sometime today. "do you want to sit?"

"um, yeah i – um, sure."

greg leads him to a table by the window and louis tries to count backwards from twenty to calm himself down.

it's just that – greg looks the same. he's still tall and slight and his nose still takes up a lot of his face and it still works so well. he's handsome and his smile is kind and it feels like nothing's changed at all.

"you look great," greg says when they settle into their chairs, shrugging off their coats. "how've you been?"

"i – fine. i've been really fine. good, even. scarily good," louis bites his lip, looks over at the counter. "and you, you're off being amazing. how's that been coming?"

"awesome," greg says hesitantly, leaning across the table a bit. "i'm hosting early morning before moyles, starting in march."

"oh my god," louis can feel a grin starting across his face. "that's incredible. holy fuck, that's incredible greg!"

"i know, i-" he nods a bit to himself. "i haven't really wrapped my mind around it just yet."

"i know i don't have the right to be but i am so proud of you," louis says, biting his lip because who knew that weird kid with the too-big smile he met at a library would one day be hosting a show on radio one. "so so proud."

greg's smiling wide. "that means a lot, lou."

"although i do take back my promise to listen to you," louis winks. "i don't wake up that early for anyone, not even newly famous ex-boyfriends."

greg laughs and it feels like old times again.

they make idle chit-chat for a while about louis' mum before louis just cuts to the chase.

"so, gregory," louis says, twiddling his fingers a bit. "were you really passing through? because this town is sort of out of the way from everything and i don't know how you could have just ended up here."

he looks up at greg and greg's looking down at the table, at his own hands.

"not that i'm not happy to see you but-" louis shrugs. "did you want something? or was it just an honest mishap, because if so i'll just smile and nod and let you be on your merry way, i promise. but it doesn't feel like you've just popped in for nothing."

"i was planning on coming round your house because, well, i wanted to see you," greg says. he looks up and louis feels a lump making itself known in his throat. "and harry. things ended so shit before and ellie-"

"ellie?"

"my ellie."

"oh right, sorry."

"anyways, she –" greg shifts in his seat. "she told me i had to sort of reach closure for this -whole thing. and since i didn't want to cut you out of my life completely, i thought maybe you and harry and i could go out and like, talk. for awhile. about everything that happened. running into you here was a surprise for both of us."

"wow," louis doesn't know what to do with his face.

"yeah."

"smart woman, that ellie," louis says, nodding, and then he glances around the coffee shop for inspiration. "i don't know."

"i'm visiting my parents late tonight, so i'll be out of your hair by ten at the latest. we could get some pasta or like, chinese, i don't care. i'll pay and everything."

"you'll pay?" louis says faintly. "now we're talking."

"please lou?" greg asks, looking him right in the eye. "i haven't seen harry in a long time and i really miss that kid."

louis has to bite back something mean and harsh at that, because greg could have seen harry every day for the rest of his life if he'd wanted to sixteen years ago. he chose not to.

"okay," louis says finally, scratching a bit at the stubble on his jaw. "i'll text harry and ask him to meet us at the thai place in town for six."

greg smiles at that, big and brash, and louis smiles quietly back.

 

it's nice, the dinner.

harry is smiling wide while he tells greg all about school and zayn and mark and his music and everything that makes him special. louis is so proud watching him bubble up about all these things – especially when he sees how in awe greg looks while harry expresses his opinions on the bbc in such an intelligent way.

"so this mark," greg says in the exact same way louis did, back when harry had first told him. "does he treat you well?"

"stop!" harry says, eyes wide and a blush scattering across his cheeks.

louis laughs, reaching out to tug a curl on his head and shares a smile with greg.

they get their check over an hour later, when greg's finished his story about going to go see bon iver in leeds where he bumped into three drag queens who insisted on taking him to a club that exclusively played abba.

"they were talking about making me up to be annie lennox so i could join their band," greg says as they take to the streets, his arm slung over harry's shoulders. "then amy - i believe it was amy - said i didn't have the bone structure for lennox. beyonce disagreed. i tried telling them that i wanted to be cher, but they wouldn't listen to me."

"you would have made a great cher," louis grins, bumping his hip into greg's leg. he'd aim for the hip but they're sort of not the same height at all. it used to make snogging against walls a little awkward but. well. they don't have that problem anymore.

"right?" greg smiles, looking around at their tiny town. "man i could go for a coffee. and a donut."

"you could have gotten dessert at the restaurant," sighs louis for the thirtieth time, but greg just ignores him.

"let's go to nick's then," harry decides, leading them off to where the diner's glowing warmly. "best coffee in the entire world."

"probably," louis adds, because there might be better coffee on some island off the coast of the philippines or something, you just never know. "you'll like it."

"i'm sure i will," greg says, ruffling a hand through harry's hair as they cross the street. harry just mostly shrieks and tries to swat him off while louis watches, weary but also happy.

the diner's kind of empty when they get there, just a couple stragglers around the window seats. aiden's sitting at the counter, reading a book and nick – who's making a new pot of coffee – turns to grin at them when they walk in.

"hey," he greets, gesturing to the seats next to aiden on the counter. "you're in luck. cuppa?"

"please," louis says, nudging harry to sit next to aiden and taking a seat for himself. greg sort of awkwardly goes in next to him, looking around with a small smile.

nick turns around with his pot, two mugs and a smile until he sees greg. then his eyebrows cave in. "who's this?"

"oh, sorry," louis says, looking stealthily to his side to notice that harry's chatting to aiden about his book quietly. "greg, this is nick, resident hipster. and nick, this is greg."

"nice to meet you," greg says smiling.

"likewise," nick replies in a tone that isn't very sincere. louis gives him a look. "coffee?"

"sure."

"so," louis starts, darting his eyes over to see aiden smiling at harry, almost like he can't believe harry is real (louis knows the look. he's seen it on hundreds of people's faces before. they took a train to paris for the weekend once and louis had to forcefully drag harry out of the louvre when a crowd of boys on a school trip had spent more time ogling him than the mona lisa). "how's it going with aiden?"

"okay, i think," nick says, bringing another mug from under the table and placing in front of greg. "he's mostly just sat and read a lot. and listened to a lot of music. do they all do that?"

"i think you're going to be fine," louis says sincerely, and nick gives him a grateful look. "do you have any scones left? i could totally go for a scone right about now."

"i'll look in the back," nick says with a wry smile and he nods at greg before puttering off to the storage room.

louis sighs, taking a sip of his coffee and closing his eyes.

it's been a long day.

"this town's nice," greg says softly, and louis cracks one eye open to see him smiling around the room. "really sweet. nice and uh, well, sweet. and like, homely, you know."

"it's just nice?" louis jokes.

"and sweet, yeah," greg widens his eyes comically and louis smiles a bit, looking back down. "you seem close."

"who, me and harry?"

"no you and-" he gestures his chin to the back room. "the guy with the gravity-defying hair."

"nick."

"yeah nick."

"we are close," louis shrugs. "he was one of the first people i met when i first moved here."

nick wanders back in then, a scone in his hand, big smile on his face. "last one!"

"aw, thanks!" louis grins, reaching out to grab it from him with one hand. "you should listen up, nicholas, i was just recounting the very first time we met."

"oh god," nick sighs hugely and carts a hand through his hair. "when you came into here back when it used to be my dad's place, toddler in hand, and demanded some alphabet pasta and a litre of our strongest coffee?"

"it had been a really long week, i remember that much," louis says, ignoring greg's chuckle beside him. "harry had been up half the night with the flu and the last thing i needed was some snotty, hipster boy asking me if i wanted fries with that."

"god i was hilarious."

"i'm pretty sure you also told me my arse was astounding and i flicked you in the nose."

"the start to a marvellous friendship," nick says, eyes twinkling a bit and louis grins back until he feels a poke in his side, and turns to see harry grinning bright.

"see lou, i told you i'm not the only one who reads j.d salinger just for fun," harry exclaims, gesturing at a blushing aiden. "aiden likes books too!"

"your geek is starting to rub off on people, styles," louis warns, pulling at the soft skin of his cheek just to see harry's eyebrows furrow. "run away, aiden, before it's too late!"

harry swats at his face while nick laughs, and even over all the ruckus louis can still see aiden smile quietly, clearly content to stay next to harry's side as long as he'll let him.

 

by the time they wander back to where greg's car is parked it's nearly ten and he's got to get going.

"it was really awesome to see you both," he says as he unlocks it, smiling brightly. "you should come down to london sometime, stay for a couple days. it'd be fun."

"that'd be great," harry grins.

"we’ll see," louis says wearily, trying to tell greg with his eyes that he didn't need to make promises he didn't intend on keeping. "you better get going though, birmingham's a good drive from here."

"right," greg nods, a little frown between his eyebrows. it disappears when he turns to hug harry though. "it was lovely to see you harry."

"you too, greg," harry says, smiling.

"don't be a stranger alright?" greg ruffles up harry's hair again. "you can message me anytime, i don't care."

"okay," harry says and louis really, really wishes he wasn't so fucking trusting all the time.

greg is lovely and sweet and kind, but this whole thing is about closure, not building lasting relationships. he's on radio one now, for fuck's sake. greg is not coming back and louis doesn't even want him to and that's okay. he just wants this to be it.

"night, lou," he says, lumbering over to hug louis, and louis lets himself hug greg back, up on tiptoes so he can stretch his arms around him. he's warm and too tall and still smells as sweet as he always has.

louis pulls back first. "drive safe."

greg nods.

then he gets in his car, waves, and takes the first turn out of their town.

"well," louis says, still staring at the corner greg drove around. "that was fun."

"i forgot how nice he is," harry exclaims, still grinning, and oh no this is bad. "i hope he comes back soon."

"harry, love," louis tugs on his sleeve, pulling him along. "let's go home."

"okay," harry agrees easily, humming a bit under his breath. they pass through the park quickly, and he doesn't speak again until they've passed alexa's shop. "it was nice to see him though, wasn't it?"

"i guess."

"and i think going to london for a weekend sounds awesome," harry's eyes are all lit up like stars. "we could tour universities and go proper sight-seeing and-"

"harry," louis stops them, mouth tight, in the middle of the street. "can you please stop?"

"stop what?"

"stop with all this wistful thinking," louis says, sighing, and then pulls them off the road just in case (although it's unlikely) someone comes speeding along. "because that's what it is: wistful thinking."

"but he said he would," harry looks confused. "why would he offer to let us stay with him if he really didn't want to-"

"i don't know harry," louis snaps. "why wouldn't he? he's the king of breaking promises."

harry pulls him to stop walking. "stop talking to me like that."

"like what?"

"like i don't know you or something," harry practically spits back, eyes narrowed. "i'm not just some stupid kid, louis. i know he broke your heart, okay, i get that."

"it isn't about hearts broken or anything like that," louis says openly and wow, yes, he's wanted to say this for a really long time now. "i got over him the minute you and i ran away to live here. it isn't about that. when he – when he broke his promise about you, about helping me bring you up – well, i. that isn't okay. that is never going to be okay."

harry bites his lip and shakes his head a bit. his breath is coming out loud and white, what with the colder temperature. they should really both go inside – it's winter for fuck's sake.

"i just want to see him," harry says, his brows all furrowed. he doesn't get angry very easily but when he does it's never fun. "i just want to spend time with him. i'm allowed to, alright, i'm allowed to hang out with greg if i want to."

"i never said you weren't-"

"yes you did," harry says. "you did say that. you're trying to put me off seeing him just because you don't like him. just because he fucked up things with you."

"hey," louis says, eyes narrowing. "watch your language."

"whatever," harry says, petulant. louis rolls his eyes.

"i just don't understand this fascination with him," louis drags a hand through his hair, tries to swallow but his throat is dry. "ever since you were a kid and he'd come by once a year, you'd always run out to see-"

"he's funny, he's nice, i'm allowed to like people-"

"niall's funny, liam is nice, nick is both, why was it always-"

"i'm almost seventeen, you can't make me stay-"

"he's not your father-"

"neither are you," harry spits out and then his eyes widen.

louis feels a bit frozen and he's not sure if it's the weather or harry who's made him that way.

"i'm so sorry," harry breathes out and then launches himself into louis' arms, elbows tight around louis' neck. "i'm so sorry, i am so so sorry-"

"harry, it's okay," louis says, suddenly too tired for this conversation.

"no, it isn't," harry shakes his head, and presses his cold nose against louis' throat. his voice sounds choked. "no. no, i've been horrible. that was horrible. i'm so sorry."

"harry-"

"i'm so sorry, i didn't mean it – i just, i was angry, but i didn't-"

"harry, love, please don't cry."

"no, i deserve to cry, i deserve to be sad. i hurt you and that's-"

"love," louis sighs, smoothing down harry's curls with one hand. "it's okay. i forgive-"

"you're more of a father than anyone ever has been," harry says, pulling back to look louis in the eye. it's obvious that he's on the verge of tears and he looks so young it's scary. "i know - i know you've never wanted me to call you that, i get that but – louis, you're my dad. you've always been my dad."

"no, i'm not," louis says, but he's smiling, can't help it. he would move mountains in a second to make harry's life better.

"no, you are, you-"

"i'm not your dad," louis drags his thumb over one of the tears on harry's cheek and then pinches it. "but i am your louis. and i always will be. okay?"

harry coughs once, like he does when he's nervous.

"okay," says harry.

"we'll talk about greg later," louis says, pulling back so they can get out of the fucking cold. "let's go home."

"can we make hot chocolate?"

"of course," louis says, putting his arm around harry's shoulders and leading him away.

 

a week later it's harry's 17th birthday.

at half past one in the morning louis sneaks down into harry's bed and tickles his stomach until he wakes up.

"happy birthday kid," he whispers into the dead of night and when harry grins it lights up the entire room.

"thanks," he says back hoarsely, making room for louis on the small bed and sharing some of the blankets.

they lie together in silence for awhile, harry tucked up under louis' chin, breathing softly, his hair tickling louis on every inhale.

"i remember when you were born," louis says, dragging a hand across harry's back and smiling. "your mum went into labour at some ridiculous time of night and your dad called me from the hospital because he was freaking out."

harry laughs quietly, snuggling deeper into louis.

"and so i caught the next bus and when i got there your dad was as pale as i ever saw him and your mum was screaming her head off like nothing else," louis turns his head to kiss harry's hair. "but by the time morning came around you were out and about, being your adorable little self. and i'm pretty sure we all cried, even though your dad tried to deny it later."

"they always sound so great in your stories," harry says all quiet and gentle like.

"they were great," louis bites his lip. "they were my best friends."

"do you-" harry says softly and then stops himself.

"do i what, love?"

"do you think they'd be, like," harry lets out a little noise and louis holds onto him tighter. "do you think they'd be proud of me? of who i am?"

"oh honey," louis isn't crying, he isn't, not even a little bit. "i think they'd be so proud. they loved you so much, harry. it's insane how much."

harry sniffles and just now louis feels a bit like he did when they first brought him home - a tiny little bundle of blankets, all curled up fists and big eyes - small and perfect and loved. louis feels warm and squiggly and happy. really happy.

he's also sad too because if watching harry grow up has been the best thing in his life then losing his best friends was definitely the worst.

"i love you, kid," louis says to harry.

"i love you too," harry says back.

 

louis throws a party.

"this is amazing," harry says from where he's sat next to zayn on the couch, cheeks red and mouth looking too big for it's face. he's got the shitty scarf louis knitted for him around his neck (louis' proper present, a laptop, already set up in his bedroom) and is surrounded by friends and neighbours on all sides and it's wonderful.

fucking incredible.

"i've got the cake!" niall sing-songs as he sashays into the living room, nudging through the hoard of people in their house to get to the couch.

he plops it down on the table and harry's eyes go wide as he takes in all the berries and the whipped cream and the chocolate drizzle and the amount of hours niall must have spent on it.

"to an amazing kid on his birthday," niall says, hiccupping a bit with wet eyes because he's been there since the very beginning.

"niall…" harry trails off, eyes all sparkly and humble.

"yes, hush you," louis interjects, hip checking niall and smiling around at the guests. "it's time for my speech, get out of the way."

"bastard."

"anyways," louis winks, and then takes in the incredible individual on his couch, all red ears and curly hair and bright eyes. "i want to wish a very happy birthday to my very best friend in the world, harry. i love you despite all your quirks and qualms and that weird way you eat-"

"hey!" harry cries out but he's never looking happier.

"-and the fact that you trip on air sometimes-"

harry gives him an unimpressed look that is contradictory to the bright smile still sparkling on his face.

"but seriously, haz, you're my favourite person and i love you very much. i remember seventeen years ago when you were born - god you were so small. now look at you, bloody giant. i could practically hold you in one hand…" he trails off, eyes a little wet. harry's look a little too shiny too. "we all loved you a lot. love you a lot. anyways. happy birthday, kid."

everyone awws as he reaches over to give harry a hug, pressing a kiss to his ear before letting him at his cake.

"blow out the candles, harry, or i might," niall stage whispers in his ear over the couch and harry spares him a big smile before he leans over and hushes out the candles, letting zayn hug him on one side.

"hey lou?" liam asks from behind him while harry starts cutting the cake, blushing as alexa recounts a story of years past. "niall says he's all out of forks, do you happen to have any more?"

"forks?" louis turns around quickly, eyebrows furrowed. "forks. damn it, i forgot forks."

"oh." liam looks bemused. "well we're going to need lots of forks if anyone is actually going to eat the cake."

"funnily enough i've figured that much out liam," louis says, smartly, and then sighs. "i'll just run down to the market i guess. damn it."

he moves to get out of the room, smiling at rita from where she's leaned up against the mantle with james, and rebecca who's chatting to fincham by the telephone, and aiden who's standing behind harry on the couch, face a little funny while he watches mark kiss harry's cheek on the couch (louis sees right through him), and everyone else who attended this amazing day for this amazing person.

by the time he hits the front door it's already opening and then there's nick standing in the doorway with a bag of plastic forks in one hand and a bag of paper plates in the other.

"you brought forks!" is the first thing that leaves louis' mouth. he may or may not have had a couple glasses of wine already.

"grabbed some from the diner," nick shrugs and then smiles. "figured you can never have enough."

"thank you," louis says, still sort of dazed, and then he grins, bounding over. "you saved the day!"

he jumps a little, to get his arms around nick and then they're standing in the hallway together.

hugging.

again.

nick's so much taller than him, skinnier too, and when his arms come around louis' back to steady him he's so warm. his chin presses against louis' temple and his heart beat matches in time to louis' and it's all so lovely and inviting and wonderful that louis just has to pull away.

"thank you," he says once he's taken a step back. he watches nick blink twice before he nods and then takes to the kitchen, skinny jeans tight and shirt all weird and ironic because he's nick grimshaw and that really is reason enough.

louis smiles down at his feet for a second before shaking himself.

this has to stop.

 

a little under a week after harry's birthday, it's national monopoly day and although most people would ignore a thing like that, their town decides to put on a giant monopoly event.

brian told everyone (in the newsletter he emails and hands out in front of his store three times a week) to meet at the gazebo in the town's square at eight, so harry and louis show up at quarter after with steaming cups of coffee under their chins and thick coats on to protect themselves from the cold weather.

"well," brian sneers, giving them a look as they slide into the back of the crowd. "now that we're all here, i can begin handing out the official pamphlets for the day's events."

"jeez, you'd think we'd committed genocide by the way he's looking at us," louis says, sipping at his coffee daintily.

"as long as we got to the event on time i don't think brian would have a problem with genocide at all," harry replies, squinting around the crowd as if he's looking for someone.

"is zayn coming?"

"no he's visiting relatives in bradford," harry says slowly (well, slower than usual). "i was just wondering if mark was going to… well, he's probably busy."

"too busy for an all-town monopoly marathon?" louis scoffs. "he needs to work out his priorities."

someone behind them shushes them, and when louis looks up brian's glaring at both of them from his podium.

"now," he drawls, narrowing his eyes before smiling brightly and brandishing a pamphlet around. "the instructions are very easy to follow. we have randomly selected half of you to choose partners by way of names out of a hat. they will then meet up with their partners and begin the tournament-"

"we don't get to choose our own partners?" louis shouts, a little outraged.

"no," brian glares at him and harry. "after last year when you changed partners no less than eighteen times throughout the day, we've changed the rules a little."

"not my fault i found a flaw in your system," louis mutters while harry laughs.

"anyways," brian huffs as if the interruption hurt his actual soul or something. "the games will be played throughout the town in various shops that the owners have kindly dedicated to this great day."

he starts clapping and louis, harry, and the rest of the crowd half-heartedly join in.

"now, you will circle these places with your partners and compete against other teams. whichever team is winning after half an hour is named winner, but remember – we're all winners here!"

"how badly does he want to be mayor?" harry asks out of the corner of his mouth.

louis laughs, but quickly school his features into a blank face when brian shoots him a look before getting off his podium and handing a top hat to a lacklustre looking aimee.

"this is going to be a total bust," louis sighs, finishing the last dregs of his coffee. "hey, if we leave now we could be back in our pajamas and watching the lord of the rings special features in twenty minutes."

"we already signed up," harry says, frown on his face. "they're going to go look for us if we leave now."

"why did we ever chose to do this?"

"you're the one that said it would be fun!"

"psh," louis waves him off as aimee gets closer to them. "you're delusional honey."

"pick out a name from the hat, please," aimee says, her face the perfect picture of boredom.

"how much is he paying you to do this?" louis asks, sympathetically as harry dips his hand in.

"he isn't," she says, still looking very much like she'd like to die, and louis pops his hand in too, to quicken the morning along for her.

"cheers," aimee calls as she turns away, getting the next people in line.

louis smiles and then glances down at his little slip of paper.

aiden grimshaw stares up at him.

"looks like it's your lucky day, harry," he grins, turning to harry who's looking down at his own slip of paper with a blank face.

"hm?"

"c'mon, let's switch," louis says, reaching out to grab harry's from him. "i got aiden."

"aiden's here?"

"evidently."

"okay," harry furrows his brow. "why would i want aiden to be my partner?"

"because you're the same age as him and he doesn't have any friends in town yet and you can make him feel more comfortable," louis says easily and harry bites his lip.

"alright, fine," harry agrees, giving louis his slip of paper. "but if they bust us for messing up the game then i'm blaming you."

"yeah, yeah," louis looks down at his new piece of paper.

ian chaloner.

"oh," louis nods to himself. "ian's a nice bloke. this will be nice."

"and if it isn't i'll pretend to get violently ill and message you to pick me up so we can go home," harry says, a little grumpy kitten look on his face. louis grins.

"i've taught you so well."

 

ian ends up being very nice, all bright smiles and kind words and kissing aimee before the two of them head off to mrs. malik's furniture shop, their first stop.

"so aimee, huh?" louis asks, stuffing his cold hands deep into his coat pockets as they walk together. brian even handed out maps, which louis thinks is a little insane, seeing as the entire town is about twelve streets in all.

"yeah," ian says, looking ahead all cheerfully. "just recently though. grimmy set us up."

"oh," louis sort of looks out blankly for a second, a strange feeling in his stomach. "well that's awesome. you two look good together."

"thanks," ian says genuinely, smiling at him sweetly and louis has to resist the urge to pat him on the head because he's more than a little adorable.

mrs. malik's standing outside the store when they get there, wrapped up in a couple scarves and holding a couple bright red pamphlets in here hands. she looks more than a little miserable.

"mrs. malik!" louis greets, smiling as nicely as he can. "how are you?"

"very cold," she says back, mouth set in a tight line. "here are your rule books."

she gives them both a pamphlet (that describes, in overwhelming detail, the rules of monopoly) and gestures for them both to sit at the table just inside the table, where rita and niall are already sitting.

"niall, buddy!" louis grins, taking the spot next to him and shifting through the pieces to see if anyone took the race car.

"i already took the race car so you can just forget about it," niall says unabashedly while he waves to ian who shuffles in the chair across from louis. "now are you two ready to get your arses fucking kicked in monopoly?"

"i think you mean-"

"excuse me," mrs. malik pops her head around the corner of the room. "no cuss words please, this is a family place."

"sorry ma'am," niall says, turning a little pale. mrs. malik has that effect on people sometimes.

"hm," she says, unimpressed, and then – "if you break anything in here you buy it."

"and on that friendly note!" louis says as cheerful as he can manage when mrs. malik has left. "let's get going."

 

it goes well for awhile. they win the first game against niall, but when ian lands on boardwalk in the second game, fearne's hotel blinking up at him innocently, it's all over.

they go to alexa's vintage store for the next game, scheduled against annie, and that's when tragedy strikes.

louis' just about to put a second house on new york ave when ian starts coughing rather violently. he knocks over a glass of water in his giant hand flap to wave off any inquiries on his well being.

"i'm good!" he chokes out, still sounding as if he's hacking out a lung. "all good! it's all good on this side of the table!"

louis looks helplessly on while ian turns bluer and bluer and by the time the ambulance arrives (with brian in the passenger seat looking a cross between worried and excited to be riding in an actual ambulance) the general good-feeling mood of the day has fled.

"i forgot he was allergic to strawberries!" alexa cries, holding the strawberry tarts she'd been handing out all afternoon in one hand.

"right," louis agrees helplessly. he really wanted to join ian in the ambulance; he feels a little responsible for the whole thing after having shoved two tarts into ian's mouth with a keep your stamina up, partner! "well at least he'll be okay now."

"i hope so," annie says and then turns to her partner – a short blond boy that's barely eleven but still managed to make louis pay a hundred dollars for landing on one of the bloody railroads. "now, shall we?"

"okay," the kid says and wait, what-

"where are you going?" louis asks, head whipping around a bit because alexa's retreated back into her store and no one's out and about in the town square.

"the next destination!" annie says, showing him her map; theo's music store is highlighted in red. "sucks about ian but we've got a competition to win, you know what i mean?"

"but-" louis tries not to sound too pathetic but that's probably failing miserably. "but i don't have a partner."

"sucks," says blond boy but he doesn't look sympathetic.

they prattle off with little more than a wave and louis stands there for a good minute, unsure and sad.

 

he ends up in nick's because he's the only person in the whole damn town who hates both town functions and monopoly.

"i hate everyone," louis sulks, stiffly walking to the counter and hoisting himself up.

nick's at the cash, pencil stuck behind one ear, with a pile of bills next to him. the diner's completely empty – even fincham's probably out playing monopoly. that makes louis even sadder.

"hello to you too," nick says pushing his hair back with one hand. "and to what do i owe the pleasure? i thought you were out doing whatever the fuck this town's thought up as their next fundraiser."

"monopoly tournament," louis says, putting his head down on the counter. "iamf mmommos unnngh"

"i beg your pardon?"

"i said," louis shouts, turning his head to the side so he can see all the little crumbs on the counter. "ian was my partner but then he almost died."

"because he was your partner? harsh, mate."

"har har," louis is not impressed with nick's sarcasm right now. "no. he's allergic to strawberries and he had this crazy reaction and then the ambulance came and now he's fine probably, but it was a whole thing."

"wow," nick sounds a little dumbfounded. "that's insane."

"that's not even the worst part," louis says sadly, pushing himself up so he can give nick a heartbreaking look. "because now, see, i don't have a partner. so i can't play."

"you're right, that is the worst thing to come out of that whole ordeal."

"oh you know what i mean-"

"it's not like a man almost died or anything-"

louis reaches over to put his hand over nick's mouth.

his lips are warm, if not a little bit chapped, but that really is to be expected in the winter months. nick gives him an odd look with one eyebrow arched high, but otherwise stands motionless.

"there you go, not too hard to just shut up up sometimes."

nick licks his palm and louis recoils in disgust.

"so," louis says once nick's stopped chuckling. "i saw aiden in the queue. looks like he's really into the whole being part of the town thing. really joining the community."

"oh come on," nick scoffs, smile stretching across his face. "i think we both know why he's suddenly interested in the town'."

"hm?"

"harry," nick says as if it's obviously. "he's absolutely head over heels for your boy, i swear."

"you don't know that," louis says kindly, thinking about aiden's blushing face whenever he and harry bump into him around town.

"i think they've been trading books and music and stuff," nick's eyebrows go up in a you know what that means gesture that makes louis snort. "and they've been texting like mad, i swear, all i hear is clicking in the middle of the bloody night."

"well how do you know it's harry?"

"he always smiles when he picks it up," nick says and louis' entire body sighs at how sweet that is.

"wow i think i love your nephew," louis grins. "i mean other than the fact that he probably wants to - in some way - defile my little darling, he's absolutely perfect."

"he's a good kid."

"he is," louis looks down at his hands and then up again. "you're really great to have taken him in. really nick, it's- it's amazing of you."

"you do for family," nick shrugs.

"i guess so," louis says back, looking down at his hands. he hasn't seen his own family since christmas, and that had been pretty tense. like usual. "so what's new with you?"

"theo just got in a bunch of old vinyl, the chronic among them, and i've been looking for it forever so today's been alright. all things considered."

"the chronic?"

"dr dre," nick says, looking vaguely scandalized. "how do you not know dr dre? he's a legend."

"oh is that the guy from your awful t shirt?"

nick closes his eyes and rubs a hand across his forehead, sighing. "it is not awful."

"it's kind of okay compared to that rihanna one," louis trails a finger on the counter. "that rihanna shirt is pretty awful. like, you should really throw that out. or i could just burn it."

"so, louis," nick says in a loud voice, eyes kind of wide. "what's new with you?"

"oh nothing," louis says flippantly, looking around the empty diner and taking a sip of his coffee. "we got new sheets at the inn and they gave stan a bit of a rash when he carried them up the stairs. also i think i'm getting a cold because when i woke up this morning one of my nostrils was all full of snot. so i couldn't really breath. it sucked. and the new jeans i bought last week are not quite broken in yet, so i've been wearing them all day to try and do that, but that just means that i haven't been able to really bend all day because they're so tight-"

"you wearing them now then?" nick says, a bit of a dirty, sleezy glint in his eye.

"oh stop it, you perv," louis tries not to smile a bit. "you only like me for my bum."

"well it certainly is a contributing factor but…" he wrinkles up his nose a bit and then winks. "nah, you're alright."

"thank you, darling."

"don't worry about it," nick nods a bit, flipping his hand around.

they stare at each other in the silence for a minute, louis side eying the donuts in the glass case on the other side of the counter. he idly thinks about his stomach and if it's really good for him to have a donut. or two. or three.

"can i have a donut?"

"are you going to pay for it?"

"i will if i can pay through friendship and witty one-liners."

nick gives him an unimpressed look.

 

louis eventually goes home, a bag full of brownies under one arm (because nick insisted actually no, that's a lie, louis begged), to find the mailman sitting on his home's steps.

"henry!" he calls happily, reaching in his bag to get a brownie out. "how is it, old chap?"

"my hip's driving me absolutely mad," henry tells him, standing up slowly and leaning against the porch rail. his face is covered in old man whiskers. "i told maureen that it was probably arthritis ages ago, but does the bloody woman listen? no. so now i've got that in my hip, and you don't even want to know what my colon's been up to-"

"you're right henry, i really don't," louis wrinkles his nose a bit, holding out the brownie. "do you want a brownie?"

"i would love one, love," henry drawls slowly, in a way that is eerily similar to harry. "but the diabetes is kicking up again and maureen thinks that if i-"

"it's a gosh darn shame, henry," louis takes a bite out of it instead. it's gooey and perfect. "do you have something for me, then?"

"a package," henry says, holding it out. "'s to harry, but you can sign for it, of course."

"of course," louis scrawls neatly on the yellow form and grins. "thank you for this."

"no probably at all, dear," henry is a charmer.

"you tell maureen i said hello," louis says, waving a bit as henry grumbles off his porch. "and go get that hip checked!"

it's cold inside when louis slips in. he tugs his shoes off and says hello to mabel, reaching into his pocket for his mobile as he slumps himself down on the couch.

he presses one and waits.

"'lo?" harry asks as soon as he picks up, voice all hushed. "what do you want, lou?"

"you got a package and i want to open it," louis replies, flicking a stale cheeto off the couch and moving the parcel in his hands. there isn't a return address that he can see, but there must be one somewhere. that's how the mail works after all.

"i'm in the middle of something here, you know," harry sighs all long suffering, like his life is so hard. "aren't you supposed to be playing monopoly?"

"ian almost died."

"what?"

"it's a long story, i'll tell you later – anyways," louis pats the couch next to him for mabel to hop up, but instead the bloody cat just stares at him, completely uninterested. "can i open it?"

"can't you wait until i get home?"

"i think we both know the answer to that one, harold."

harry sighs.

louis waits.

harry sighs again.

"so can i?" louis asks.

"you know it's against the law to open mail that isn't yours," harry tells him, sounding about as unimpressed as their cat looks. "who's it from anyways?"

"doesn't say," louis moves the box around a little bit, looking for a sticker. "quite heavy though. maybe it's a late birthday present. or gwyneth paltrow's head."

"ha ha," harry drones and louis frowns a bit, because the reference was actually pretty good, thank you very much. "look, i don't care. open it if you want."

louis smiles big, big enough so harry can hear it over the phone.

"look, i don't think i'm going to be home for dinner tonight," harry says, sounding a bit far away, as if he's in motion. "aiden asked me to go get pizza and maybe check out the record shop on fifth, so i figured…"

"so you're just going to drop me like anything to go see some boy, is that it?"

"don't be like that."

"harry 'ungrateful' styles over here."

"hey," harry says in that way he has. louis rolls his eyes but smiles wide. "i promise we can watch something together, later on, but i just thought-"

"i'm joking, love," louis lets his voice go softer. "have a good time, okay? do you have enough money?"

"i think so, yeah," louis can hear aiden's voice, low in the background. "aiden said i could pay him back later if not though."

"alright, well have fun," louis reaches down to pet mabel's fur and gets a half hearted purr in reply. "and remember: don't do anything i wouldn't."

"yeah yeah," he can practically hear the eye roll. "love you."

"love you too."

louis tosses the phone to the other side of the couch and examines the package again, eyeing it from side to side. he's very particular about this sort of thing. the stamp looks extra expensive, practically smells like wealth. louis is suspicious of it immediately.

he holds it out for mabel to smell. "what do you think, love? is it explosives?"

mabel licks her paw and then up and wanders off to the kitchen, knocking over a stack of harry's textbooks on the way.

he doesn't even bother rolling his eyes. it isn't worth it.

 

when harry does get back home, a tomato sauce stain on his nose and a smile on his lips, louis is in the exact same position as before, the package open on the coffee table.

as a kid someone told louis that if he kept his face a certain way for a long time it would set like that. it used to drive him into a panic, but at the moment he feels like if his face stuck in this scowl for the rest of his goddamn life he wouldn't even flinch.

"louis?" harry calls from where he's wandering into the kitchen past him. louis hears pouring water a second later, followed by harry coming back in with a tall glass in his hand. "what's up?"

louis points his chin at the package on the table.

harry's big doe eyes take in the big box, the thick, opened card coming out of the top, and the expensive watch sitting on top of the whole ordeal.

"is that from-"

"yep."

"why would they-"

"hell if i know."

harry nods and sits down on louis' side, careful not to jolt his glass. he reaches for the watch, but louis stops him.

"read the card first," louis says, trying to keep the contempt out of his voice.

harry does, looking at louis cautiously, before burying his nose in the card and squinting his eyes at it, flicking from side to side down the paper. the furrow between his eyebrows gets deeper and deeper until he let out a little angry noise.

"what?" harry asks, eyes dark. he looks up at louis. "what the fuck?"

louis just hums back.

"i'm so-" harry looks like he's struggling for words, his eyes flashing. "how could they just. how could they say these things?"

"they're a bunch of self-entitled assholes who think that flashy watches and country clubs are more important than an actual family unit or whatever," louis lets himself grumble a bit more, digging himself into the couch. "don't worry about it though. honestly, they aren't worth the brain cells."

"and remember, there's always a place for you here if louis is no longer fit to take care of you," harry reads out, his voice quicker than usual. "and then they send me a watch, like the past seventeen years mean nothing."

"i knew that sending your aunt that email would come back to bite me in the ass," louis mumbles, eyes narrowing. his and harry's extended family is complicated at the best of times, but at moments like this it's heightened to the nth degree. "i mention to her once about how you were coming along in school and she passes the information off to everyone she knows."

"what, so they only sent me a watch because i'm smart?" harry asks, teeth digging into his bottom lip.

"welcome to the world of your grandparents," louis sighs, tugging harry back into the couch. he takes the letter out of harry's hands gingerly, and then tosses it across the room, hoping that mabel throws up on it or something. "don't worry about them. they're a bunch of dicks who don't deserve to know you."

"right," harry nods.

"i mean it, harry," louis nudges him with his nose, eyes going cross-eyed in an attempt to make him laugh. it earns him a small smile. "you're better than the lot of them. you've always been."

"i know," he itches under his own chin and meets louis' gaze with bright eyes. "i just. i wish they- i don't know. it's weird to think that it'd be different if my mum. like."

"your mum wasn't too fond of them either," louis says, dry, remembering the day that anne ran away to his house when they were nine. harry lets out a weird little noise from the back of his throat. louis smoothes the hair off his forehead. "i get it though."

"do you?"

"mhm," louis says. "no use dwelling on what could have been."

"right," harry looks at his hands.

louis hums, watching harry carefully. he waits a minute, as harry adjusts his own sleeves, before smiling gently at him.

"we can go burn the card, if you want?" and harry's answering grin is brilliant.

 

on monday morning louis graciously offers to drive harry to his school, forgoing the usual bus option.

"come on, louis!" harry shouts up at him from the bottom floor. louis' trying to see which button-up looks better in his bathroom mirror, holding them up and peering at them. "school starts at eight you know."

"yeah, yeah," louis slides his glasses on, then off, then back on. he always tries to look his nicest on mondays, and the way everything is just facing off against him is just not working. "give me a minute."

he hears something that sounds a lot like "you're impossible", but ignores it in favour of buttoning up his white shirt, sliding his black jacket over his shoulders. he looks nice but there's something missing.

"glasses or no glasses?" he asks, walking out into the hallway so he can lean over the banister and see harry. he's standing near the door, arms crossed and face upset like a little kitten. "what do you think?"

"glasses. now hurry up, please," harry whines.

"i don't think these trousers fit me," louis says while feeling up his own bottom, mostly just to annoy harry. "are they supposed to be this baggy in the leg?"

"you're a grown man louis," louis watches over the banister as harry stomps his feet a little bit. "you're not supposed to wear skinny jeans in the first place."

"i am a sprightly youth."

"you are a self obsessed-"

"i resent that."

"-twat and we need to get going. please."

"yes, yes," louis sighs, skipping down the stairs. he follows a huffing and puffing harry into the front hall to get their shoes on. "jesus, you'll have a heart attack before you're eighteen at the rate you're going."

harry gives him another disgruntled kitten look before opening the door with a whiny noise from the back of his throat. louis sighs again.

 

"we can't – louis don't you dare stop for coffee, i'm already late!"

"harry, my love," louis turns their stereo up (it's rihanna's diamonds which is louis' fucking jam) and parks into the spot just off of nick's. "scone or donut?"

"i need to – i promised george i would get to school early so we could – " harry looks rather helpless. louis watches on, intrigued. "i don't – i need to –"

"scone?"

"please."

"be back in a second," louis says, cheerfully, patting harry on the knee before checking for oncoming traffic and heading out.

nick's is relatively busy. there's a nice buzz through the air and louis even stops to have a quick chat with eleanor from the flower shop. well, until he sees harry staring at him through the window, his big doe eyes narrowed.

"must run, love," louis tells her, leaning down to press a kiss to her cheek. "we'll have to have another one of those boggle nights again though, you and i. that was fun last time."

"of course!" she says, all sunny and bright.

and, speaking of sunny and bright-

"the hell are you doing here, tomlinson?" the ever energetic and charming nick says as he brushes by. his hair's a right mess and his face looks all pale, freckles standing out all the more for it.

"lovely to see you as well, nicholas."

"you know what i mean."

"do you have any fresh scones?" louis asks as he wanders behind nick to the counter. "i don't want any if they're day old. or from a couple of hours ago."

"they're scones," nick's voice is all sandpaper rough, like a cat's tongue. "they're supposed to be hard. just dunk it into your coffee and you'll be living the dream."

louis grins, impishly.

"you're hung over," he says with glee, placing his elbows on the counter so he can rest his chin in his hands.

"i hate you," nick whispers, closing his eyes briefly. when he opens them again louis can see a tired haze mixed in with the blue. "seriously. it's hatred."

"mhm," he grins, reaching over to grab a spoon off the counter, knocking it loudly on the sugar dish. "your supposed hatred does not, in any way, dismiss the fact that you are hung over as fuck right now."

"if a cliff appeared out of nowhere and you were dangling off it, i would wait a really long time before i saved you."

"but you'd still save me."

"can i tell you a secret?" nick leans in and louis mirrors him, their faces inches apart. "sometimes only the thought of your bum in those black jeans you have can get me out of bed in the morning."

"cheeky."

"exactly."

louis laughs, delighted, and leans back. "and my sparkling personality, of course."

"of course," nick grins.

"so anyways," louis says, shaking his head a little. "why did you get pissed on a sunday night in the first place?"

"annie and i were watching that beyonce documentary again," nick runs a hand through his own hair and gives louis a very pointed look. "don't tell me you've never gotten drunk on a sunday."

"not the point, darling," louis smiles his very brightest and nick winks. "now. some scones, please?"

"of course," nick slides a couple of scones from the glass plate just next to them into a takeaway bag. "you know, you don't look half bad in those glasses of yours."

"why, nicholas! that was almost a compliment," louis narrows his eyes in jest, ignoring the little flutter in his stomach-kidney-liver area. "you'll have me swooning if you keep this up."

"wouldn't want you swooning in here," nick says dryly as he passes over two cups of coffee. "you'd probably fall and break a table or something."

"i'm as graceful as a swan," louis says sniffing daintily. "now if you'll excuse me, mr grimshaw-"

a loud honk from outside interrupts him, and he turns to see harry leaning across the open window of their car, face furious.

"-and that's my little hell spawn," louis sighs, turning back around to grab all his things. "i'll see you later, i guess."

"see you," nick calls in farewell before turning around and heading back to the kitchen, grabbing a dish towel off a rack as he goes.

 

harry goes out with mark one night, a bright smile on his face, and then his curfew comes and he's not home.

and then an hour passes and he's still not home.

and then another hour passes.

by one o'clock louis' got the phone in his hands, ready to call the cops or nick or brian or fucking anyone who could tell him where his kid is – and that's when harry opens the door and walks into the house.

there's a second of silence. the calm before the storm. and then-

"where the hell have you been?" louis asks, trying to control the absolute fury that rolls inside him.

"louis i-" harry rubs a hand over his hair and a finger over his chapped, red (too red, too chapped) lips. "i didn't mean to – i'm so sorry-"

"tell me where you were right now, harry," his eyes are probably flashing but he doesn't really care.

"it's-"

"harry."

"we fell asleep," harry says quietly, but it's too quiet and his shirt's buttoned wrong and his lips are too chapped and his shirt's buttoned wrong.

louis closes his eyes.

"how could you be so st-" he cuts himself off because he always promised to never say that word to him, to never make harry feel like he's not worth everything the world can give him. "harry, i'm – i can't – harry, you're seventeen and you've been dating this boy for a month-"

"i know," but his voice is small and his shoulders slump and louis' never seen him like this before. "we didn't – i never-"

"harry," his voice comes out softer than he thought it would.

louis' mad, oh god, louis' fucking pissed. he wants to murder mark while hiding harry away from society for the rest of his life. he wants to blow up buildings and kick over posts and just strangle that kid for coming within a foot of his harry.

"i didn't-" god he can hear the tears in the back of harry's throat. "i didn't mean to, i just-"

"oh darling," and then he's got his arms around harry, harry who's seventeen and growing up way too fast and when did louis let him grow up? he didn't sign up for this.

"i'm sorry," harry whispers into his shoulder and louis just shushes him, because he doesn't know the details, he doesn't even want to know the details, and right now taking care of harry is more important than yelling at some kid.

"just don't scare me like that again, okay?"

"i promise."

"i don't care about what you did or didn't do, it's just that i was worried. don't miss your curfew, alright?"

"i won't, i promise."

"and if you do, please call me, love. the telephone was invented for a reason."

"i will – i – i promise."

"i'd like to not have a heart attack before i'm fifty."

"sorry."

they stand silent for awhile in their badly lit kitchen, before harry pipes up, voice still thick.

"we didn't go all the way," he says carefully, face still stuck in louis' neck. "i just. i just, i wanted to try, like-"

he can't even say it out loud.

"sweetheart, i get it," louis brushes a hand through his thick, curly hair and tries not to cry a bit. "i just want you to be safe, okay? i want you to be safe and healthy and happy and home on time. and i want you to be ready to do something like that. because if you're ready then go for it. hell, i'd be a hypocrite to say otherwise. but if you're not then don't, okay? simple as that."

"okay," harry sniffles.

"okay," louis agrees, pulling back from the hug so he can wipe his thumb over harry's tears. "now how about i make some tea and we'll watch yesterday's x factor? that sound good?"

harry nods and then smiles, and yep, there's louis' beautiful boy.

 

they're in the market, weighed down by a good couple pounds of liquorice and cheesy snacks, when brian pops up from behind the tower of beans with a giant smile.

"hello, townspeople!" he calls, frightening harry into jumping a foot in the air, eyes wide and scared.

"jesus brian, warn a person," louis says, petting harry's head as he hides behind him. "those comparisons between you and the grim reaper are starting to add up, you know."

"pardon?"

"don't worry about it," he waves him off, turning to look harry in the eye to make sure he's okay. he's really bad with surprise attacks, gets jumpy and scattered like a squirrel when things get thrown at him or louis tickles him unsuspectingly or someone yells close by; really when anything happens.

"you okay?" he asks softly, and harry pouts back, eyes wide. "aw, brian, you fucked up my kid."

"louis," brian gasps, disgusted, turning his head one way, the next, and then pointing at louis chest with a finger. "there are children in this establishment, young man."

"yeah and what's worse brian, some swearing or a crazy man who terrifies people?" harry's arms come around his waist, little face peeking into his neck. louis sticks his hand backwards and pats harry's hip fondly.

"why are you both so touchy-feely? it's off putting," brian says, looking vaguely scandalized.

"we've always been this way," louis says, putting on a pout to match harry's. "that's just how we are, i don't know."

"yah," harry echoes.

"now i think we need to go, um, feed the cat or something, brian, sorry," he angles his head down to be able to see harry, burrowed under his armpit and looking up all innocently. if he keeps this up and they play their cards right they could get out of here with no favours indebted to their souls. "harry's got to wash his hair. those curls don't just happen you know."

"they take work," harry says solemnly

"so," brian says, commanding back the attention. "there's a town meeting tonight. an important town meeting. i expect you two will both be there."

louis puts on his biggest, brightest smile. "wouldn't miss it."

"good, good," brian hands them both pamphlets with huge smileys on the front, the word's town meeting! in comic sans along the top. "the directions to the community centre are on the back."

"brian, harry had football games in there when he was four," louis drawls, an unimpressed look on his face. "it's also a block away from everything else in town, why do we need a map?"

"well, i don't know, you could have forgotten," brian says loudly, flapping his hands around, as if they were being the nuisances. "or we could have moved the meeting's location."

"to where? andrew's backyard?"

"you never know."

"actually-"

"we'll be there!" harry interjects, big grin on his face.

"great!" brian says back, delighted, before taking off to the other side of the market, presumably to go scare people and hand out more flyers.

louis reaches behind him to twist one of harry's nippes.

"ow!" harry says as he shifts away, still wrapped around louis' back like a little baby panda bear. "what was that for?"

"felt like it."

"child abuse."

"are you quite finished?" louis asks, peering into their basket. he hums. "this meeting is going to majorly derail our harry potter marathon."

"that's a shame," harry lets go of louis, still pouting more than a little bit. "should we go get some burgers? we could eat them there."

"jesus you're like a landfill or something."

"maybe," harry says, shrugging, and then his little eyes light up. "hey, mark's here!"

"your mark?"

"louis, you know we don't know another mark."

"mhm," louis' eyes narrow playfully, and then he reaches out to pat harry's cheek. "go ahead and say hi, i'll go check out."

"you're the best!" harry says, patting his face back, before he skips over to where mark is stacking a bunch of canned green beans, leaning over to plant a kiss on his cheek.

louis shakes his head and narrows his eyes, but he can trust harry, he knows that. they had a three hour talk about being ready just this morning, and harry said – no, promised – that he would think and wait before he did anything else with mark.

or louis will kill him.

mark, that is, not harry.

 

it's a good thing they pick up burgers because the meeting is as dull as they always are.

"did you get mine? this has onions in it," harry complains as soon as they take their seats; just close enough to the back that no one can look at them directly and but far enough from the back so they don't look like one of those, the people that get late and get glared at, the ones brian calls hoodlums.

"oh gross, onions. did i order onions?"

"you always order onions," harry says, pouting as he swaps their burgers.

"no i don't, onions are gross."

"you have them all the time, what are you talking about?"

"i do not. why would i order onions? i don't like onions. no one likes onions."

"i like onions!" niall calls from behind them, shuffling into the empty spot on their left, liam following after him.

"you like everything, darling," liam tells him kindly, patting him fondly on the head as they both sit. "don't worry though, it's part of your charm."

"i appreciate that, thank you," niall says, grabbing liam's arm and pulling it over his own shoulder, cuddling into it. "did we miss anything?"

"hasn't started yet," louis says through a mouthful of burger, tomato, and onion. he pushes the item in question at niall's face. "do you want a bite?"

"do i ever," niall leans forward eagerly, swallowing half of it in one bite. he looks happy, glowing.

"you look happy," harry tells him, because louis and harry share a brain sometimes.

"you do look happy, what's with that?"

niall looks affronted. "i'm always happy."

"that is true," liam leans over to grab some french fries from the open container on louis' lap, stuffing them into his mouth in a shockingly dignified way. "niall is always happy."

"the two of you are more sickening than usual," louis says, wrinkling his nose because he's eternally happy his best friend met strong, sweet, dependable liam, but they could be a little less cutesie all the time. for his benefit at least. "did something happen?"

"nothing happened," niall says, smiling as he turns in to rest his face in liam's neck. "you two are just being nosy."

"oh my god what is it?"

"it's nothing, louis."

"oh don't give me that, payne, i don't believe it for a second-"

niall reaches over to grab his hand and then smiles brightly, "we'll tell you after the meeting, okay?"

"you better.

"we will!"

"uh huh, sure."

"hey!" harry calls from his right, looking over one shoulder with a smile. "you came."

louis turns around to see nick wandering in, hair mused and eyes tired, with aiden behind him. they both look out of place; nick with his leather jacket and scowl, aiden with his cool hipster shirt and scruffy jaw.

"fucking hate town meetings," nick mutters under his breath, shuffling into the seat directly behind louis. "nothing but shallow problems and brian with a gavel."

"who pissed in your coffee?" louis asks, seeing harry grin bright at aiden out of the corner of his eye.

"society, louis, that's who," nick narrows his eyes and squints at the people filling past him to get into their seats. "they all sit blindly like – like a bunch of sheep or something."

"honey, what did i tell you about reading 1984 before bed?" louis sighs, trying to not let his fondness show. "hello aiden, how're you doing?"

"i'm fine mr styles i – i mean," aiden wrinkles his nose up, realizing his mistake. "i meant –"

"it's fine!" louis waves it off. "you can just call me louis."

"louis, right," aiden looks up at harry and then his big eyes flit to louis. "i'm doing just fine."

"well that's good," louis says, patting him on the head a bit. aiden looks bewildered. "is this your first town meeting?"

aiden nods. harry makes a sympathetic noise at the back of his throat.

"they're actually pretty fun," harry says, eyes alight and smile bright. aiden looks slightly blinded. "brian always ends the meeting with a rant about how the soviet union had it's faults, but their parks were always spotless. it's very entertaining."

nick shuffles his chin onto louis' shoulder while aiden laughs at harry. "can i have a chip?"

louis turns his head a bit, enough that nick's face is a blur of eyelashes and freckles. "what's the magic word?"

"please," nick drawls out dramatically, and louis pops one in his open mouth, laughing a bit. nick blows cool air on the back of louis' neck before slumping back into his seat, chewing on the chip nosily.

louis slides one legs up on his chair to get more comfortable and catches liam eyeing him oddly.

"what is it, mate?" he asks, touching his face self consciously. "do i have something…?"

"no," liam's brow furrows a bit. he casts a look backwards, to where nick has joined harry and aiden's discussion on 90's house music, and then back to louis. "it's nothing."

louis feels a slight blush spread across his cheek, which he promptly ignores, and faces the front diligently.

 

"…which is why putting in a new gazebo in the town's square is at the top of this year's budget plan-"

"hold on," nick says from behind louis, who is almost on his way to sleep. he startles awake, elbowing harry's side accidentally as he sits up. harry makes a wounded gazelle noise and glares at him.

"wait one second," nick is saying, voice agitated. "a new gazebo? what's wrong with the old one?"

"i'm sorry?" brian is saying loudly from up on his podium, gavel in one hand while the other gestures about. "who said that? please remember to announce yourself before the council before any speaking occurs!"

"for fuck-" nick mutters and louis grins, delighted. he looks over his shoulder to see nick heaving himself into a standing position, aiden sat bored next to him. "nick grimshaw. you've known me since i was seven?"

"ah, yes," brian looks so happy up on his little podium. louis hopes he trips off it one day. "proceed."

"i was under the impression that we were more worried about the bridge to the highway?" nick says, voice just nearing snarky. "so i ask again: what exactly is wrong with the old gazebo?"

"well," brian starts off, looking around for inspiration. "it's hazardous first of all."

"what?" nick's face is brilliant. "the only person that's ever gotten hurt in there is you, brian."

"and my ankle was twisted for an entire month, you'll know."

"oh jesus."

"and," brian says pointing his finger. "the paint is peeling off the walls. it's awful."

"um," says a purple head near the front. louis pokes harry in the knee cap.

"is that zayn's bird?"

"sh," harry says, sternly, but he nods with a smile on his lips.

"-someone could paint it?" she's saying, looking around the room with big, pretty eyes. "wouldn't that solve the problem?"

"i'm sorry, miss, but what is your name-"

"zayn could paint it," harry says, voice loud and delighted from next to louis. "zayn's a brilliant painter."

zayn, who is sitting by his mother in the second row, looks like he's attempting to melt into the floor. louis tries as hard not to laugh as he can.

"we could make it a whole project," harry's saying, looking around himself with a grin. everyone's looking back at harry like he's the second coming of christ, which isn't anything new for louis. "me and zayn and perrie? and aiden-" he turns then, to look back at aiden whose eyes are wide- "do you want to help too?"

"um-" aiden says before brian's cutting him off.

"well i suppose then," brian says, rolling his eyes and fixing his grey cardigan. "as long as the paint isn't toxic or some shocking colour…"

harry grins, bright. nick ambles back into his seat, grumbling as he goes. louis takes another bite out of his burger.

 

the meeting lets out at a quarter past eight.

"he's absolutely insufferable," nick says, zipping his jacket up as they head outside.

"makes for a fun time though," louis says, bumping shoulders with him. niall and liam are talking to theo about something, god knows what, and aiden and harry are trailing behind them, being cute teenagers.

nick grumbles. louis smiles.

"you had fun," louis says, grabbing on to nick's wrist with his hand. nick grumbles some more. "you did. you had fun, just admit it."

"maybe a little," nick says, his eyes kind of sparkly, and louis grins.

"good," he says, and then lets go of nick's wrist.

liam insists on their going out for ice cream, and no one can quite say no, especially when harry's eyes light up. they go to florence's shop, because it's the only place in town where they serve proper waffle cones.

liam and niall go up first, holding hands and giggling into each other's necks because they're that cute. as louis shuffles his feet in the queue, next to a bored looking nick who is definitely playing candy crush, liam leans in to kiss niall's temple. twice.

"god they're cute," nick says, still engrossed in his game.

"i know," louis says, heart soaring. "i don't know how i made it through the entire wedding. had to stand up at the front and everything, but my legs almost gave out from all the sweetness."

"what?" nick looks up, eyes confused. "wha- no, i don't mean niall and liam. i meant-" he jerks his head forward.

louis follows his movement to where harry is smiling at aiden. aiden's talking about some band and harry's just staring at him with a lovely, soft little smile. louis' heart aches a bit more.

"oh," louis says. he bites his lip. "you know h is with someone, right?"

nick hums. louis rolls his eyes.

niall and liam eventually meander over to a booth in the corner, giggling like teenagers. harry immediately steps up to the glass pane and puts his hands out over it, peering into the different choices. as if he won't just get strawberry like he does every single time they go here.

aiden asks for bubble gum and harry (after a minute long ponder) eventually caves for the strawberry but then-

"oh damn it," harry says, reaching into his coat pocket with a furrow in his brow. "i forgot to grab my wallet."

"don't worry," aiden says before louis can even get a hand in his own pocket for some change. "i've got it."

"no, aiden," harry says, turning a peculiar colour pink. "you don't have to-"

"it's fine," aiden says, handing over a couple coins and turning back to harry with a shrug. he looks like he's trying very hard to appear cool and collected. it's almost working.

"thank you," harry says, looking down at his ice cream cone. he smiles, small, and then looks back up at aiden, all wide eyes. "i'll pay you back."

"don't worry about it," aiden says.

they stare at each other, harry's eyelashes fluttering and aiden's ears steadily turning red, before louis can't handle it anymore. he clears his throat.

"right," he says, loudly, which stirs both harry and aiden into blushing and stuttering away to sit with niall and liam. "you'll be paying for me as well then, nicholas?"

nick rolls his eyes, but gets out his wallet nonetheless. "what do you want, you heathen?"

louis smiles as bright as he can.

they wander their way to the table within the next minute, both clutching cones of double chocolate brownie (louis) and french vanilla (nick, the posh twat). niall and liam are splitting a banana split and harry's sending aiden these little flirty looks every once and awhile and nick. nick pulls out louis' chair for him, smiling like he almost never does. louis tries to school his face back into neutrality, but he can't help a small smile of his own.

"so," he says a little while later, when everyone is into their ice cream. liam and niall are still acting weird. like, more in love than usual. "what did you two want to tell us?"

niall looks at liam, who nods and smiles and then does a weird thing with his nose.

"come on lou," niall says, standing up. he grins, bright. "i think you need a spoon. from over there. i'll go with you."

"subtle," louis says, following him.

niall leads him over to where the bathrooms are, buzzing a little. his smile is too bright; it hurts to look at.

"what is it?" louis asks, smiling a bit. niall only grins wider. "god, you nut. what's this all about?"

"well," niall says, eyes sparkling. "you know how i've always wanted kids?"

louis' mouth drops open. "no."

niall's smile gets, if it's possible, wider.

"no way," louis' mind is completely blank. "you're kidding me."

"louis."

"niall james horan, are you serious?" louis puts his hands on either side of niall's face and looks deep into his eyes. niall nods.

"oh my god," louis says. he can feel a smile blossom across his own face, and it feels like it's too much. "oh my god. you're going to be a dad."

"i know," niall says, voice pitched high, and then louis' holding him round the neck and trying to jump as little as possible.

niall's arms go tight around him as they both squeal in each other's ears, unable to hold it all in. "i mean, i mean we don't know yet. we just applied for adoption, and it could take months or years, but-"

"but it's happening," louis says in niall's ear, and he feels him nod back.

"it's happening," niall says, voice mystified. louis squeezes him tighter.

"you're going to be the best parent in the world, niall," louis says, pulling back a little so he can see niall's eyes. they're a little wet, but louis doesn't say anything.

"well," niall winks. "the second best at least."

louis smiles and then niall smiles.

"oh hey," niall says, thumbing at louis' rib. "i know you're probably vying for the godfather spot and all."

"naturally."

"but li and i were thinking," niall looks down at his shoes. "well, harry will probably be eighteen by the time we get a baby. if we get one at all."

louis' heart beats louder than it ever has.

"do you think he'd be up for it?" niall asks, a glimmer in his eye.

louis nods, trying to hold it all together.

 

they bid farewell outside florence's. niall and liam are holding hands with a near reverent kind of determination. aiden is being entirely unsubtle with his constant looks at harry, and harry is being stupidly enamoured every time aiden looks at him. and nick.

nick's eyes are kind, and soft, and stupidly lovely.

"well," he says, voice deep and wonderful in the chilly stillness of the night. "good night, then."

"good night, nick," louis says, staring at nick's mouth for a second. it's pink and lovely. "it's been fun."

"it has."

"good night, nick!" harry says, cheerfully. he slips his arm through louis', looking entirely too sweet. aiden skulks up to nick and they all stand together in their weird little foursome for a minute.

"well," louis says, smiling as bright as he can. "i guess we'll see you both tomorrow morning."

"i guess you will," nick says, eyes glinting.

aiden waves oddly with one hand and then drops his head down.

"right," nick says, with an eye roll. "that's our cue then."

he turns to leave, aiden at his side, and then falters. nick turns back with a strange set to his shoulders and then, deliberately, leans in to kiss louis' cheek.

louis freezes.

nick pulls away. louis blinks once.

"good night," nick grins. then he turns once more and walks away.

it takes a second for louis to bring himself back into the moment, and when he does harry is looking at him all smug.

"oh, shut up."

"you like him."

"shut up."

"he kissed you."

"shut up."

"you're blushing."

"shut up."

 

louis comes out of the market one night with two boxes of couscous and a bag of carrots, because harry and him are trying their hand at making dinner tonight. he's humming that weird two door cinema club song nick had played this morning in the diner, and when he looks up to tell harry about it he notices that harry's not on the footpath where he last left him.

instead harry's out in the middle of the town square with mark and as louis approaches, hesitant smile on his face (he's still not big on mr. bland), he sees harry reach out to grab mark's arm, only to have it pulled away quickly.

he stops, watching as harry takes a step towards mark and mark takes one back, saying something that makes harry put an arm around himself and look down.

it isn't until mark leaves, stomping away and rolling his eyes, that louis comes closer, putting a hand out gently to run over harry's tense shoulder.

"hey, love," louis says, eyes narrowing a bit at the retreating back of mark. "what was that about?"

"nothing," harry says tightly, biting his lip so hard it turns white.

"harry, you're talking to the king of fights here," louis says, knocking his hip lightly into harry's so that maybe he'll stop having that awful look on his face. "i know the symptoms. did something happen between you two?"

"i-" harry runs a hand through his hair. "apparently yesterday mark saw me and aiden at the record store shopping and he just flipped."

"oh," louis nods because god how could he have missed this? "so he's jealous."

"i don't know why," harry says angrily, little puppy frown on his face. "it's not like we were doing anything. we just hang out sometimes as friends, it's not a big deal."

"well it obviously is to mark," louis says not unkindly, wrapping an arm around harry's waist. "it's not ridiculous that he'd be jealous of some good looking boy that you get along with."

"but it's stupid," harry says, irritated, pinching the bridge of his nose. "we're just friends, everyone knows that. aiden doesn't like me like that."

"i wouldn't go that far," louis mutters.

"what?"

"nothing."

"he doesn't!" harry breaks away, turning to louis and looking determined. "he would have told me if he did. he would have said something. there's no way that aiden grimshaw thinks of me as anything more than a friend. that's it. that's all there is between us."

"i believe you."

"well you should."

"well i do," louis says gently, reaching out to pat harry's cheek. "so let's go get some take away and we’ll forget that ever happened, alright?"

"okay," harry says, quietly. "but i thought we were cooking tonight."

"oh honey, that was never going to happen," louis says, slinging an arm around harry's shoulders and steering him to the pizza place on birch avenue. "be realistic."

harry laughs and they walk silently for a bit, enjoying the peaceful hustle and bustle of their town.

"i'm sorry about that," harry says just as they're passing nick's. "you shouldn't have to be involved in all of my shitty drama."

"harry, love, i will never complain about having to deal with your drama," louis promises, smiling a bit. "it's been a long while since i was in a proper lover's spat myself. it was nice to go back."

"you were in jealous lover spats?"

"all the time," louis says, eyes all wide and innocent. "on my very first day of uni i was asked out by this bloke in my contemporary critical theory class. and i said yes because i didn't know anyone yet and he was pretty cute but then at the restaurant we went to there was this hot waiter, and he started flirting with me and …jeremy? i think it was jeremy. anyways, he got all jealous even though i didn't even know his last name. and then they got into this spat when we tried to pay and i ended up going home by myself and watching golden girls with anne- your mum instead. pretty insane."

"sounds it," harry says, grinning.

"so yes, young harold," louis says, straightening his shoulders. "i am no stranger to the envious behaviour of young men."

"i don't know," harry says, biting his lip again. "i don't like it. i mean, i get that he just wants me to be his boyfriend, but at the same time i just – i'm not property. and i'm certainly not his property."

"stop it right now or i'll cry," louis says honestly, because he gets emotional when harry shows how much of a well rounded individual he is.

"because, like, a little jealousy is fine, it's great," harry explains, walking a bit slower. "but i don't want it to turn into a thing."

"i get that," louis smiles, knocking his hip into harry's.

harry silent for a second and then - "he's just so frustrating. it drives me crazy."

"who, mark?"

"yeah," harry rubs over his lip. "and aiden too. they're both so hard to read. i don't know."

"look at you, my little romeo," louis says, laughing just a little bit, shucking harry under his chin to lighten the mood. "don't worry about them, okay? they're both dumb teenage boys who know you're a complete catch."

harry rolls his eyes but louis continues, "and heaven knows he isn't my favourite person, but mark's allowed to be a little jealous. you're something he wants to hold on to. i just think you need to be careful about his feelings. and aiden's too. make sure you know what you're doing. okay?"

"okay," harry sighs.

"good," louis smiles, pulling them left around the next corner. "now let's go get some food, alright? i'm starving."

 

six days later it's the annual all-town movie night. harry and louis wait for this day every year with baited breath, eyes wide to think that maybe this year will be the one that brian chooses something other than matilda to watch.

"it's not that i don't love matilda," harry says as they make their way to the town square. they've both got shopping bags full of blankets in each hand and harry's backpack is piled with sweets. "i love matilda. i just wish we could watch something new for a change."

"like brokeback," louis says with sly eyebrows.

"no, not like brokeback," harry says, swatting him away. "something cute and nice. no heartbreak-y bits. maybe a rom-com."

"love a good rom-com."

"who doesn't?" harry asks. "can you imagine watching sleepless in seattle with the whole town? that'd be a riot."

"glorious," louis says, just as they descend onto the wet grass of the square. it's getting dark, and a couple eager beavers have already set up their spots close to the projector screen. niall and liam are snogging on one near the back already, which harry and louis avoid stealthily.

they settle in on a nice patch of grass in the ideal location – close enough to the screen to see, but far enough away to be able to stand up for food without getting yelled at – and snuggle into their blankets.

it's kind of weird, because he sees him every day, but louis misses harry. he works so hard to be at his private school, and he's constantly doing homework; if he's not hitting the books he's out with mark or zayn or aiden. it's a lot to keep track of.

"i missed you this week," louis tells him and harry smiles back, bright.

"i missed you too," he says, flopping over so he's closer to louis on their little nest of blankets. "how's the inn?"

"eh," louis shrugs, more interested in harry. "how's school? did that friend of yours end up getting suspended?"

"who, jade?" harry asks, as if there's more than one. "no, she got off. her parents just donated some money to build a new wing of the library."

"must be nice to be rich."

"i know."

"so that's the price for punching some guy in the face?" louis asks, wanting to clarify. harry nods slowly. "jesus."

"well, no one's tried to look up her skirt since, so," harry says, and then yawns. he looks like a little koala bear. or a frog. a little helpless frog. "so lesson – lesson learned."

"aw, is someone tired?"

"shut up," harry says, giggling a little. "i was helping zayn on some math homework last night and it took longer than i expected."

"look at you, my little genius."

"shush," harry says, covering louis' hand with his mouth. "no more words out of you."

louis rolls his eyes. harry laughs and removes his hand.

"hey h?" louis says sometime later, as they wait for the sky to get darker. people are setting up around them.

"yeah?" harry says, rolling his head to the side so they can make eye contact.

"you're my best friend, you know." louis just doesn't say it enough.

harry's smile breaks his face in half. "i know. you're mine too."

 

zayn finds them during the iconic cake scene. harry and louis are, naturally, cheering bruce! bruce! bruce! when he stumbles up to them.

"matilda again?" he says as a greeting, plopping down next to harry on their blankets. harry's made himself into a little cocoon, so he gently rolls himself across to rest his head on zayn's lap with a smile. louis rolls his eyes at the pair of them, overly fond.

"mhm," harry says. zayn pets his hair back and louis only feels a teensy bit left out. "when did you get here?"

"my mum made me hand out sandwiches with her," zayn says, voice dull. "but only before the movie started. she hates movies, especially this one. she thinks that matilda is a witch and that you're all going to hell."

"oh, naturally," harry says, grinning at louis. louis smiles back. "you're mum's the best."

zayn snorts and shifts back more comfortably on their blankets. mrs. trunchbull is yelling on the screen but louis doesn't really care.

"so, zayn," he says instead, wiggling his eyebrows a bit. "any developments made on she who must not be named?"

zayn's face turns a deep red, something visible even in the darkness of the night, and harry laughs.

"don't you have other people to bother?" zayn asks, voice all tight and squeaky. louis loves embarrassing him more than anything (except maybe embarrassing harry). "you're a grown man for pete's sake."

"you take that back," louis says, narrowing his eyes.

a group behind them shushes loudly. they ignore them.

"aiden told me that you two were talking awfully close to one another in the library yesterday," harry says, a smirk across his face. he wriggles in his little blanket cocoon while zayn glares at him.

"why the heck is grimshaw stalking me in the first place?"

"he wasn't stalking, he just noticed," harry says, rolling his eyes, and louis looks back to the screen. they argue for a bit, back and forth, about perrie and aiden and the painting of the gazebo.

"…and she said she really likes my sketches," zayn says, voice low. louis glances over to see that harry's left his cocoon, sitting next to zayn cross-legged instead. "i don't know."

"that's awesome, zayn," harry says, gently, like he's talking to a woodland creature. "it seems like she likes you."

"i don't know," zayn shrugs. "it's whatever."

harry rolls his eyes but doesn't comment. louis smiles at them fondly, before a loud buzzing interrupts his thoughts. he pulls his phone out of the bag of snacks next to him and checks the caller id: unknown.

"hey," he says to harry, who is munching on some pretzels with extreme dedication. "i'm going to go get this, okay?"

harry nods and louis shifts himself into a standing position, crouching until he gets away from the viewing area, before pressing answer.

"hello?" he asks, idling near the popcorn cart. he's never been a big fan on popcorn (the kernels get stuck in his teeth) but he takes a couple when the man behind the cart offers, smiling.

"louis?" comes a voice that is distinctly his mother's, and louis freezes.

"mum," he says, walking a bit away from the stand. his skin feels weird. "hi."

"hello," his mother says, shortly. louis slips a kernel into his mouth and chews slowly, letting his saliva melt it a bit. he swallows audibly. "how are you?"

"good."

"and harry?"

"he's great, mum," louis says, eating another kernel. it's been a couple months.

"good, that's nice to hear," she clears her throat and louis holds back a sigh. there's always a reason for a call from his mother. always. "now, you may have forgotten, but dan and i are going to switzerland on wednesday and i wanted to make sure you knew."

louis nods and then, feeling foolish, blurts out, "yes, of course."

every time his mother goes on a trip she calls louis, to make sure he has an updated copy of her will, and to make sure he still remembers all the proper passwords and forms to access things. his mother is nothing if not thorough. she was never wealthy when louis was growing up but her husband is now. they take their twins to ski resorts and splurge on christmas presents.

"and everything is accounted for…?"

"yeah, mum," louis clears his throat. the popcorn is drying his throat out and making him feel weird. "everything should be fine."

"hm," she takes a pause. "it was lovely to see you at christmas."

"you too."

"harry's gotten so tall," she says and louis can feel himself twitch, just a little bit. "you must send us new pictures of him to put on the fridge."

"sure."

"he's such a handsome boy," she says and louis looks over to harry himself, laughing with zayn about something. "and so smart. well, what could you expect from anne's son."

"yeah," louis says. he's waiting.

"oh, and remind him that he's welcome here anytime. i know things have been a bit rocky over the last couple of years but-"

"pardon?" louis says. this is it then, this is what's going to set him off (there's always something that does, it's just anticipating it that's the problem). "a bit rocky?"

louis' mother sighs.

"mum, you told me when i took him in that i was ruining my life," louis lets the rest of his popcorn fall to the ground. his blood feels hot under his skin. "you told me that i would never amount to anything, that i was throwing everything i had ever worked for away."

"please don't be so dramatic, louis."

"dramatic?" louis has had this argument too many times.

"yes, louis, dramatic," she sounds all huffed and angry like she always got when he used to fall off trees as a kid. "don't make me out to be the evil witch here, just because i was being logical. when you were eighteen, did i think it was crazy that you took in some infant? yes. it was stupid-"

"it was harry, i didn't have a choice."

"you did have a choice, louis," she snaps back, and wow, this really isn't what he needs tonight. "you had the choice to let harry stay with his family-"

"those posh twats?" louis says, feeling like he's eighteen again, tired and sore and sad all the time. "i couldn't. they made anne's life a living hell, i wasn't about to-"

"i'm not having this discussion again," she says, her voice a note of finality. "call me if you need anything before wednesday, and please don't forget lottie's birthday. okay?"

louis bites his lip. his heart is accelerated, his tongue poised to attack, all for nothing. "okay."

"good night, louis."

"night."

he hangs up. he hangs his head, takes two steadying breaths, and tries not cry from frustration.

"hey, hey," suddenly there's a warm, familiar hand on his waist, under his jacket, and a finger tilting his chin up. nick is standing next to him, face unreadable. louis takes another shuttering breath.

"nick?" he starts, feeling like he's being attacked for a second. "what are you – did you hear that?"

"just the very end of it," nick says, hesitant. "are you okay?"

"of course i am," louis says, shaking his head a bit. "don't be silly."

"you just look a little off, that's all," nick says, peering into his eyes all weird.

"nope," louis says, trying to muster up his energy. "fit as a fiddle, me. when did you get here?"

"oh," nick looks down at his brown chelsea boots (louis will never forgive him for influencing harry so much with fashion). "i was just tossing out some garbage across the way." he nods to where the diner is, the lights dimmed on the inside. "when i saw you i figured i'd pop by. um."

"cool," louis says. he looks over to where harry is on the grass and is surprised to see that aiden's joined him. zayn's making eyes at perrie, who appears to be braiding jesy nelson's (who was harry's first kiss from primary school) hair.

nick nods. then his mouth screws up to one side and he smiles with his eyes. "who was it? on the phone. "

"my mum," louis says, trying not to pout. he's feeling a strange mesh of emotions right now.

"it didn't sound too friendly," nick's eyes are wide and easy, giving louis the option of an out if he wants one. louis doesn't find he needs one. he just smiles and waves his hand a bit, brushing the whole thing off.

"let's just say we're both really good at holding grudges," nick nods. he looks back to where the lights are still on at his diner.

"i should…" he says and louis nods. twice.

"you should get going," louis says. he looks at the freckles on nick's cheek for a second before he mentally smacks himself. "and i should get going."

"right," nick says, like he wants to laugh. his eyes really are too pretty. "i'm going to go then."

"me too."

they turn at the same time. louis bites back a smile.

"not yet," harry is saying as louis wanders back to their area, about to sit back down with them. "not yet, not – now, now, now!"

zayn is off like a rocket just as louis takes his seat. he watches as zayn zigzags through the crowd until he reaches the other end, to where perrie's just got up for some drinks.

"young love?" louis asks and harry smiles in response.

"mhm," he says, and then he drops his head onto aiden's shoulder. aiden looks far too pleased. louis gives him a look and watches as aiden's ears turn red. "boy, i'm tired."

"you're like a little baby," louis coos and harry swats him away.

"i'll be fine," harry says, grumbling.

 

four minutes later, harry is snoring softly on aiden's shoulder. aiden doesn't stop smiling for awhile.

 

harry wakes up as the credits are rolling.

he yawns hugely, snuffling into aiden's shoulder. as louis watches, aiden's face goes carefully blank, like he's afraid of making any kind of reaction. harry blinks his eyes awake.

"oh no," he says, voice gravelly. "did i fall asleep?"

louis hums, reaching out to push harry's hair out of his eyes. harry looks like a disgruntled, tired little cat.

"aw, man," he says, and then looks up. his face turns pink. "oh. sorry, aiden. i didn't mean to. yeah."

"it's fine," aiden says hurriedly. louis rolls his eyes as they apologize back and forth. they're ridiculous. completely ridiculous.

everyone around them is starting to pack up, stuffing blankets into bags and folding lawn chairs. louis is just about to suggest the same when a voice cuts across him.

"harry."

louis looks up to see mark standing next to their little nest. he looks confused and agitated and louis carefully looks back to his toes.

"mark," harry says, scrambling to stand up. his face is open and delighted. "i didn't know you were coming."

"obviously," mark says, his face hard.

harry blinks a bit and then smiles, a bit more hesitant. louis looks determined at the projector screen in front of him, trying to ignore their hushed voices and aiden's stiff body next to him. he reads every stunt person's name. it's a surprisingly long list.

"how was work?"

"oh, like you give a shit," mark says, and okay, that's something that piques louis' interest. he tries his hardest not to move because this is harry's battle. "too busy over there with what's his fucking face-"

"mark," harry says, voice hinting at frustration. "it's just aiden. you know there's nothing there. why are you being like this?"

next to him on the blanket, aiden's hand clenches. louis makes a quick decision.

"hey, aiden?" he asks, softly. aiden still startles. "i'm absolutely exhausted. do you think you could help me fold up all these blankets?"

they make quick work together, folding and stuffing all of their fluffy shit into the plastic bags. by the time they're done, mark's face is a lighter red than before and harry looks tired.

"hey love," louis says, curling his hand around harry's waist. he'd never quite understand teen angst. "you alright?"

"yep," harry says brightly, but louis can see what he really means. harry's eyes aren't saying i want to hang out with my boyfriend tonight! they're saying can we get out of here? now?

"well, we best get going then," louis says, making his tone as regretful as possible. he looks up at mark, whose face is very clearly ticked off. "got to get up early for mabel's vet appointment."

"right," harry says, nodding along. "sorry, mark. i could call you?"

"don't worry about it," he says.

"oh," harry says, biting his lip. louis wills his mouth shut; it's not your fight it's not your fight it's not your fight. "i'll just talk to you later then."

mark leans over and presses his lips to harry's, one hand cupping harry's face and tilting his head back. louis coughs after a second, smiling dangerously at mark when he pulls back.

"say good night to mark, harry," louis says, biting his tongue so he doesn't say anything more. he watches as harry does exactly that and mark wanders off, apron from the market tossed over one shoulder.

"you seriously okay?" louis asks, touching harry's elbow and harry looks up at him with wet eyes.

"not really," he says, voice turning breathy at the end. louis wraps an arm round him, about to lead him home when-

"hey, harry," aiden says, holding one of their bags of blankets. his eyes are bright and his face is eager. "are you okay?"

"yep," harry says, nodding a bit. he clutches onto louis' side a bit more but still keeps up the charade (and if there's one thing that louis taught him, it's how to master that). "we're just going home."

"oh, let me walk you." aiden looks so happy and excited, just to be standing next to harry. it makes louis' stomach twist.

"look-" louis begins, but harry cuts him off.

"that's okay," he says, looking down at the ground. "i'd really rather you didn't. sorry. that sounds shit. it's not you, i'm just tired."

"oh," aiden says. "of course."

"i'll text you tomorrow, okay?" harry asks, always looking for approval, and when aiden nods he smiles wide. "awesome. i'll see you later, aiden."

louis leads them off, arm still tight around harry's shoulders. he waits until they're past nick's (where he can just see nick wiping down tables and jamming out to some booming house track) before he pounces.

"what was that about?"

harry sniffs once and then laughs at himself. "nothing. it's stupid. he just saw me with aiden and got all jealous. i don't know. i don't really want to talk about it."

"fair enough," louis says, hip checking harry and then smiling. "we should talk about more important things anyway. like me. aren't i great?"

harry's laughter rings out through the empty street and louis smiles so wide his face hurts.

 

it only takes a week.

 

when louis gets home on friday night harry's on the front porch swing alone. he's looking down at his hands and sitting there so quietly, calmly, that louis is immediately on his guard.

"hey, you okay?" he calls as he makes his way across the front lawn.

"yeah," harry says, hoarsely.

"harry?" he walks up the steps now, coming to stop right in front of harry. "what's got you so down in the dumps?"

harry looks up then, and his eyes are considerable wetter and redder than louis would like.

"have you been crying?" he asks immediately, sitting down next to him on the swing and quickly getting a hand to push up harry's chin.

"i'm fine," harry croaks out, but his voice breaks on the last word. one big, pale hand works itself up to wipe at his eyes and louis' heart breaks. "i swear, i'm fine."

"harry don't lie to me," louis will kick the ever living shit out of whoever did this to him. "was it zayn? did zayn and you get into a fight?"

he bites his lip but shakes his head, so louis keeps guessing.

"aiden? did ai-"

"it wasn't aiden."

"mark then? was it that asshole mark?"

"he's not-" and that was all the answer louis needed.

"i'll kill him."

"he's not an asshole, louis, you're-"

"what did he do to you?" louis' been hurt before, loads before, but there's no worse pain in this world than watching harry cry. "and don't you dare lie, harry; i want to know now."

"he didn't-" harry's eyes are darting around and his little teeth are biting so hard into his lip it must be painful. "he didn't do anything- it was just-"

"did he pressure you into-"

"no, louis, i told you'd i'd-"

"did he hurt you? in any way, it doesn't have to be physical-"

"no- no he just-"

"harry."

"he broke up with me," harry says.

 

when harry finally falls asleep that night it's three, and the ice cream pot is completely melted.

there are tear tracks down his cheeks and he's curled up within himself on the couch, swathed in the giant lion king blanket they bought together years ago. he looks small, tiny and vulnerable and young, and louis' heart feels like it's breaking when he turns off the television and goes to shut the drapes over the main window.

he pushes harry's curls back off his forehead and leans down carefully to press his lips against it, dragging the end of the blanket so it reaches over his shoulders.

"good night, darling," louis whispers, shuffling over to the rocking chair in the corner to settle down for the night.

he doesn't get any sleep, but he never really expected to.

 

by noon louis is reeling.

he takes a lunch break. he needs a lunch break.

"what the hell are you doing here?" nick asks as soon as he pushes through the door, hair curly, a pair of glasses on his nose.

"i come here every day," louis says back, shifting his bum onto the bar stools by the counter.

"at breakfast maybe," nick says, already pulling out a mug for his tea. "but at lunch you don't come here. you have a job."

"i do, indeed," louis smiles bright. "you're really on top of things, nick."

"no but seriously," nick licks the side of his mouth which should be weirder than it is, but louis' seen it happen every day for a number of years and by this point it's just sort of mildly endearing. "what are you doing here?"

louis sighs, "it's been a long day."

"i can sympathize with that."

"the inn is crazy and niall's trying out this new kind of ratatouille on the guests and i think there might be a spider colony living in my house," he smiles a bit when nick laughs, but then frowns. "oh hey, do you have any of those big chocolate chip muffins?"

"no," nick says. "i can whip up a batch if you want though."

"that'd be incredible," louis sighs, rubbing a hand across his temple.

"any special occasion?"

"well, you know," louis waves his hand around giving nick a significant look. "you know."

"what?"

"you know."

"what do i know?" nick's looking at him like he's mad.

"nicholas," if louis could reach him from over the counter he'd hit him upside the head. "that mark and harry called it quits; i was up half the night making sure he was alright."

"harry finally dumped that loser?" nick leans over the counter casually, not so subtly checking out louis' collarbones as he goes.

"no, apparently mark broke it off."

nick straightens up. "he what?"

"keep it down!" louis hisses, checking over both shoulders. "he doesn't want to whole town coddling him."

"the whole town coddles him anyway," nick says easily and louis shrugs in agreement. "i can't believe that asshole."

"i'm sure he's not an asshole," at nick's incredulous look louis continues. "i mean, a jerk faced pretty boy who's never going to have anyone better, yes, but i'm sure he's not an asshole. per se. he's seventeen."

"still stupid."

"yeah."

"like he's going to find someone better than harry in this town."

"in the country!"

"exactly."

"exactly."

"hm. well he won't be allowed here anymore," nick says, squinting his eyes to peer through the windows on the far end, like mark's going to be wandering around town on a friday at noon. "you can be sure of that."

"you don't have to do that-"

"believe me when i tell you louis, that i take great pleasure in banning that little – that worm from here."

louis tries not to smile. "you really care about him."

"hm?"

"harry."

"oh, well," nick shrugs, bringing a hand up to wipe some sleep or something from his eye. "he's a good kid."

"the best."

"yeah," nick does the tongue thing again and louis probably shouldn't be this turned on in the middle of a diner. "you want the soup?"

louis nods, says, "of course!" and tries not to let the little gnawing in the pit of his stomach spread.

 

they get chinese for dinner and sit quietly in the living room while season three of buffy the vampire slayer plays on their television screen.

louis spears an eggroll with his fork and then turns to harry. "so. are you, um - you okay?"

"i'm fine," harry eats some noodles, staring straight at the tv.

"okay, great," louis looks back to the screen. xander's fighting some vampire badly and it amuses him for a second. and then – "you sure?"

"louis."

"i just want you to be happy. you know that right?" louis asks.

"i know," harry lets out the smallest of smiles and then goes back to his food.

louis sits. he looks at the television. something's happening with vampires, but then again that's most of the show. he squirms - lays back on the couch and then shifts forward again. he cuts his eyes at harry and then back.

just as louis' about to open his mouth again the phone rings.

"i'll get it!" louis jumps about four feet and then runs to the side table, picks up the phone and tucks it under his chin. "hi, this is – ugh, well. pick a reference and pretend i made a joke on it, i'm a little tired right now."

"what?"

"nevermind."

"right, um - is harry there?"

it's aiden's voice. louis wanders into the kitchen, looking over his shoulder to make sure harry's still watching the television.

"aiden, hi," he clears his throat. "harry's a little busy right now."

"oh, right, of course," there's some clanking on aiden's end and then he hears an awkward chuckle. "i don't suppose you could tell him i called?"

"honey, i think it's best if you lay low for awhile," he says softly, because he likes aiden. he's sweet. but right now the last thing harry needs is a sweet boy calling him. "i know that you – like harry. but he's only just broken up with mark. do you know what i mean?"

"who's on the phone?" harry calls from the living room.

"niall locked himself in the bathroom again, i'm talking him through the steps to freedom!" he shouts back and then turns back to the phone, stuffing a stray cheerio in his mouth. "aiden?"

"yeah," he sounds like a properly sad teenager. god, louis belongs on some show.

"i have to let you go now, okay?"

aiden's voice is small. "okay."

"bye," louis says, feeling a little guilty.

he wanders back to the living room with a pop tart, chewing on it thoughtfully.

"what is it?" harry asks, looking away from the television. his eyes look tired but his face is brighter than yesterday, just a little bit happier.

"i was thinking," louis says, leaning on the side of their couch. "why don't you call zayn and ask to stay over there tonight? it could be fun – you guys could play video games and talk about your feelings and braid each other's hair… what do you say?"

"are you trying to get rid of me?"

"never," louis says solemnly, reaching a hand out to pet harry's hair down at the back. "i just thought it might be nice to get some quality best friend time in. also i think zayn might be in the final stages of operation: get perrie, and you don't want to miss planning those blue prints."

harry smiles and then looks down at his hands. "i really haven't properly hung out with zayn for awhile…"

"you go pack your bag, i'll call mrs. malik," louis says, standing and sticking out a hand to help harry up.

"you're the best," harry tells him.

louis tickles him under the chin in return.

 

he drives harry to the malik's. it's dark and cold and he wants harry to spend as little time alone as possible.

"you sure you have everything?" he asks as the idle next to zayn's driveway. "toothbrush, toothpaste, a picture of me, so you don't forget what i look like?"

"of course," harry says, a bitten off smile on his face (it looks wrong there, but it's better than nothing). "you going to be okay without me?"

"it'll be tough," louis says, reaching across to zip up harry's bag more firmly. "but i think i'll survive."

"right," harry looks out the window, biting his lip. "right."

louis notices harry's hand twitching. he looks down and then sighs.

"here," louis says, flicking the switch to unlock both car doors. "i'll walk you up."

"oh, you don't have to-"

louis walks harry up to the door, one hand around his shoulders. harry's been through a break up before, but not like this. louis tugs him in close as he knocks on zayn's door.

"sorry for being so annoying," harry says.

"harry, my heart," louis says, squeezing him a bit. "you could never be annoying."

zayn opens the door with a gentle smile on his face, eyes open wide and careful. he automatically pulls harry in for a hug and harry goes easily, letting out an odd little noise. louis' throat is suddenly tight.

"well," he says, watching as zayn curls his hands around harry's waist. "i guess i'll see you tomorrow, h."

"bye louis," zayn says, eyes sad. his hand rubs small circles on harry's back.

"bye lou," harry says, his face still buried in zayn's neck.

louis heads back to his car, a weird feeling in his chest.

 

it's nearly midnight and for some reason, unfathomable to louis, he's standing on the pavement outside nick's.

"fuck," louis whispers, hopping up and down a little in the slight breeze. "fuck fuck fuck."

he looks around the town and it's completely empty, only the twinkling lights to keep him company. louis slips his mobile out of his tight jeans and unlocks it.

the back screen is a picture of harry and him from two years ago when they took a train ride to edinburgh and ate so many sour skittles that the taste buds on their tongues nearly fell off.

nick sounds half asleep when he picks up his phone, "…hello?"

"hiya."

"..louis?"

"yeah, sorry about this."

"…louis why are you calling me at…" there's a scuffling noise, "at midnight?"

"are you asleep already?"

"i was."

"right," louis coughs a little bit. "do you mind, um. do you mind coming downstairs and opening the door?"

half a second of silence and then – "louis."

"i'm lonely and sad and i would really really love you forever if you could come down and open this door and maybe feed me."

nick sighs for a very long time.

"please nick?" louis bites his lip and feels a bit like crying, which is ridiculous.

"i'll be right down," he says, voice a little hoarse and then there's a click.

 

nick's flat is right above the diner. it's only one room, cramped and covered in bookshelves full of weird movies and vinyl and picture frames.

"who's this?" louis asks after looking around the place for 0.3 seconds, nodding to a portrait of nick outside (all hipster and smiling and sort of hot with sunglasses on) with a young boy crawling on top of his lap, his face bright and happy.

"nosy bugger," grumbles nick, falling on top of the double bed on the other side of the room with a huff. "my godson, rudy."

"he's a cutie," louis says, smiling. his stomach feels weird. he feels weird.

"yeah he is," nick squiggles up on the bed, flopping his arm a little. "louis?"

"god you look like a little baby squirrel here," louis laughs, pointing at another frame on the shelf. his heart is beating too loud through his skull.

"i was about seventeen, fuck off," nick raises himself up on his elbows and when louis glances over his throat goes a little dry. "louis, what's this all about?"

"nothing, i was just-" louis nods. nodding works, nodding is good.

"it's not nothing, lou," he stands up. louis looks down. "it's never nothing with you."

"i'm just having a bad day."

"so you showed up here?" nick's getting closer with every step.

"i – harry is out so i didn't-"

"what is it?" nick stop a foot from louis, and his hands are twitching a bit at his sides. "you can tell me."

louis looks around for something to distract himself. "where's aiden?"

"all night gaming session with matt cardle," nick says, rolling his eyes. "teenage boys confuse me. now, what's up with you."

"nothing, i'm fine," louis is of the believe that if he says those two words over and over they will eventually become true. "i'm fine, nick. one hundred percent fine."

"you're not fine."

"i am fine," it worked when he was fifteen and first realized boys were cute. it worked when his best friends in the world were announced dead. it worked when he had to figure out how to raise a kid and pay a mortgage and have a job.

"louis," nick takes a step closer and now louis has to tilt his head back to see him. "you don't have to be okay all the time."

"i – i'm not."

"you're not a robot, it's okay to have a bad day."

"i know," louis says. there's a swirling growing in his stomach and a gnawing ache in his heart and nick's eyes are so pretty up close. "i know that, don't be stupid, of course i do."

"then tell me what's up," nick puts a hand on louis' waist. "what's all this about?"

louis takes a deep breath, trying to ignore how fire spreads across his body from nick's point of contact, and then – "harry just got his heart broken."

nick doesn't say anything, so louis continues.

"harry got his heart broken," louis says, trying not to shake when the feeling inside his stomach swells. "but the worst part is – it's just the first time. he's going to fall in love so many times, and he's going to be heart broken so many times, and this is just the beginning. because my beautiful boy isn't a boy anymore, he's grown up. and it's – it's just-"

"louis," nick says, putting his other hand on the other side of louis' waist, thumb tracing his ribcage. "louis, take a deep breath-"

"and he's taller than me now too, have you noticed? he's growing up into this big, tall man and pretty soon he's going to leave me here and i-"

"louis-"

"harry's my life, nick," louis stares up into nick's stupidly hazel eyes and tries to subdue the screaming in his head of harry's growing up too fast and i want you to kiss me. "i don't know what i'm going to do when he leaves for university, or gets married, or –"

"louis tomlinson," nick says, sharp. his expression softens when louis stops, biting his lip. "you and i both know exactly what you're going to do when harry goes off to uni. you're going to pack his stuff and drive him to fucking oxford and then visit him every week. you're going to buy a dog and get a new hobby and have your mobile on you at all times, just in case he gets homesick. you're going to be strong, just like you are in everything."

nick is a little out of breath by the time he's finished his little speech, which dampens louis' plans a bit.

only a bit though.

with one hand over nick's on his waist, and the other curled around nick's neck, louis tips up onto his toes and kisses nick square on the mouth.

there's a moment of absolute stillness between them, before nick makes a noise in his throat and clutches louis closer to him.

 

louis rolls off nick and looks up at the ceiling, breathing heavily.

"holy," he starts and then swallows. "holy fuck. that was- wow."

"wow," nick agrees from his place beside him on the bed, panting just as hard. "jesus."

"yeah."

"i mean. wow."

"yeah."

there's a bit of silence and then louis rolls onto his side, propping his head on nick's chest so he can look him in the eye.

"why haven't we done this before?" he asks, a little taken aback at how pretty nick looks in the afterglow. "why has this never been explored between us in great detail?"

nick wipes his thumb over louis' bottom lip and shrugs a little helplessly.

"i mean," louis continues, resisting the urge to goad nick into another round immediately because he's not eighteen anymore. "when you think about how many years we've spent, with that big lump of unresolved sexual tension in between us. it's – it's sickening is what it is."

"maybe that's why it was so good," nick says, his arm curling around louis' back in a way that should feel less familiar than it does. "the build up was so big that the final end was massive. maybe it's a once-in-a-lifetime experience."

"huh. maybe."

"you never know."

 

an hour later they can both confirm that it wasn't just a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

 

they decide to keep it quiet.

"the thing is," louis explains while he buttons up his shirt the next morning. "the people in this town have sort of been making bets about when this was going to happen."

"oh yeah," nick says while he shaves in the bathroom. "alexa told me to get my act together a week ago because she had put twenty quid down on last thursday."

"right," louis jumps into his skinny jeans, which is easier said than done. "so i don't think we should be very hasty about this. i mean i think we can both agree that the sex is fantastic-"

"fantastic," nick agrees in a tone that certainly does not make louis grin big.

"-but we're not sure about the relationship side of things and i don't think we need everyone in town picking and prodding at us until we're both sure of what we are to each other."

"i don't think i've ever heard you sound so mature in my life."

"well, this is important," louis says, leaning against the doorframe in the bathroom, watching as nick gets the last of his neck. "can't jump into things too quickly, you know?"

"i know," he rinses off his razor, pats his face dry with a towel.

"good."

"great," nick grins, looking louis up and down before sauntering over.

his hand reaches to pull louis in by the waist, mouth dipping down to his face. louis lets nick kiss him for a minute, feeling warm and sated and happy, happier than he's been in months.

he pulls away and tries not to smile when nick follows. "i don't mean that we can't, you know, date, we just can't go around telling everyone."

"right," nick agrees, nodding seriously before pressing his mouth against louis' again.

"it's just-" louis says as he pulls away again, ignoring nick's sigh. "i don't want harry to feel weird about this. he just got out of a relationship, i don't want to flaunt my love life in his face."

"understandable," nick whispers, mouth moving across louis' neck now, hands reaching down to squeeze at louis' thighs.

"i mean," louis tries to say but his skin feels tight and the thing nick's doing with his tongue on his collarbone is driving him mad. "what will brian say? or – or niall, or liam, or – or – aiden, or -"

"i'm going to need to you stop talking now," nick says quite huskily in louis' ear before he reclaims louis' mouth.

louis lets himself be pushed up against the sink, one of nick's hands on his chin while the other palms at his bum, and tries not to let the butterflies in his stomach overflow into any other vital organs.

 

it's sort of awkward afterwards because louis' never kept a secret from harry before.

"nick's then?" harry asks while they're walking into town on sunday morning.

"you know what," louis looks anywhere but at harry. "i was thinking that we could go to the other diner in town."

"what?"

"yeah," louis shrugs. "spice it up a bit."

"is there another diner in town?" harry sounds like he knows how much shit louis is full of.

"of course," there must be.

"we've just… overlooked it this whole time?"

"exactly."

"why can't we go to nick's?"

"because i-" louis wrinkles his nose. "it's not that we can't go, it's that we could go somewhere else instead."

"are you avoiding nick?" harry asks and louis laughs so hard it hurts.

"why would you even ask that?" louis chuckles a bit more until harry stops looking at him. "i just thought going somewhere new could be nice."

"well i just want to go to nick's."

"then we'll go to nick's!"

"okay."

"okay."

they start up again, harry giving him an odd look. louis does some quick deep breathing exercises while harry waves to rita who's over at the town gazebo, thinking quickly.

 

it's awkward at nick's too.

nick is awkward.

"hey!" he shouts, just a bit too loud. "what's – how's – what's new with you two?"

louis shakes his head minutely.

"um," nick does the tongue-corner-of-mouth thing. "table two is free."

he wanders off then, coffee jug in one hand, giving louis a significant look behind harry's back. it's all very subtle.

"what the hell is up with him?" harry asks, pretty little face all curious.

"scarlet fever maybe?" louis quips, dragging harry off to sit at table two. they sit. "so how was zayn's anyways? you got home pretty late yesterday."

"it was fun."

"oh, cool."

harry shrugs, resting his chin in the palm of his hand.

louis shrugs too, eyes skirting around the diner until they fall back on nick, who is looking at him from over a plate of scrambled eggs.

nick raises his eyebrow. louis touches his nose. nick scowls. louis grins.

"i hear they're putting in new footpaths over on albert street," harry says, fingers toying with the pack of sugar.

"is that so?"

"zayn said his mum's already complained twice about the noise."

louis nods, wondering if all their conversations were this stilted and uncomfortable. he shifts in his seat a little and shakes the ketchup bottle around.

harry scratches his forehead a little.

"so what are you doing in school?" louis asks because he likes to catch up on this sort of thing but mostly because the silence is killing him.

"in world literature we've just started tolstoy," harry says nonchalantly, like every seventeen year old could read russian literature for fun. "in chemistry we're doing gas law stoichiometry, we just started the peloponnesian wars in ancient history, and i think we're moving on to taoism in religion."

"wow," louis understood about half of that. he always was more of a p.e guy. "sounds fun."

harry shrugs again, but he's smiling a little bit because he loves all this stuff, all the learning that he gets to do at that big private school of his.

"my little genius," louis coos, brushing some stray hairs off harry's forehead. harry ducks and swats at his hands and by the time their normal fry-ups come round it doesn't feel awkward anymore.

well, louis thinks when nick spills coffee on their table accidently. about as not-awkward as they can be under the circumstances.

 

louis feels like a teenager again.

nick and he text constantly, like two preteen girls who have only just got phones. they send each other music suggestions and stupid anecdotes, silly pictures and not-so-silly pictures, all day. louis starts to feel himself light up along with his phone and it's stupid, it's so stupid because he's thirty five years old. it shouldn't feel like this anymore. this hidden, quirky, ridiculous affair shouldn't feel like the best thing he's got going.

but it does, for some reason. it is.

what the hell are jellyfish anyway, nick texts him one afternoon while it's raining and boring and awful.

i had a dream last night where u were u but ur voice was actually adele, louis will text when it's morning and it's slow and lovely. and when he gets a lol back he smiles inanely, stupidly happy for everything around him.

they still see each other every morning and banter over plates of scrambled eggs. but their nights are filled with phone calls and slow laughter.

louis can feel himself falling.

one night harry stays over at his friend george's house to work on a biology paper and nick comes over, holding a bottle of wine and a box of pasta. he cooks, because lord knows louis can't even look at toast without it burning, and it tastes wonderful.

almost as wonderful as nick's mouth tastes.

they kiss slow in the living room, all wandering hands and ridiculous giggles. they meander up the stairs, leaning against the banister while nick peels off his shirt. they fall onto louis' bed together, hot and heated.

it's great. nick is great.

 

he wakes up the next morning to an arm tight around his waist and a voice soft in his ear.

"louis," nick says, all hushed and perfect. "love, i have to go."

louis grumbles at that and pulls nick's arms around himself tighter. he's not exactly sure what is happening, but he knows he doesn't like it.

"i have to go open up the diner," nick whispers, pressing a kiss to louis' neck. louis hums, sated and happy.

"what time?" louis asks, eyes still sewn shut.

"ten to five," nick says and louis groans.

nick laughs at that, and gently rolls louis onto his back. louis blearily looks up through his gucky eyes to see nick grinning down at him. there's a hand rubbing circles on his stomach and another smudging lightly underneath his eye. louis could get used to this.

"good morning," nick says, leaning down to press a kiss over top of louis' heart. louis slides a hand into his hair and hums again, softer. he can feel sleep pulling at him again. "do you want some breakfast before i leave?"

"yes please," louis says smiling as big as he can manage. he can feel nick's smile pressed against the base of his throat. it makes him giddy with love.

 

a couple hours later he's at the front desk on the inn. he can feel the last kiss nick pressed to his skin (on his collarbone with a little "see you later" which made his heart twist and turn and fall so so deep). he bites his lip. he bites his tongue. he can barely hold it in.

and then liam calls.

"clarity inn, louis speaking," louis recites, sorting out the mail on the counter.

"louis, hey," liam says, excited like a little puppy.

"hey liam," louis says, thinking about how nick had made him eggs and toast and had given him the slowest, sweetest kiss ever. "do you want me to go grab niall?"

"no, i, uh-" liam coughs. louis rips open a bill from their electrician. "i wanted to know what your hobbies are."

louis stops reading. his brows furrow.

"i beg your pardon?" he asks.

"your, um, hobbies. do you have any hobbies?"

"why?" louis asks slowly, feeling suspicious and weird. his skin crawls a bit. "why do you want to know?"

"no reason."

"liam."

"nothing, really."

"liam."

"it's nothing."

louis doesn't say anything. he lets the silence speak for itself.

"really, louis. it's – um. yeah."

louis arches an eyebrow and waits. he can be the most patient motherfucker when he sets his mind to it.

"ah, fine!" liam says, voice hysterical. "i'll tell you."

"hurry up then, would you? places to see, people to do."

"niall and i," liam says, hesitant like he was when he asked louis about proposing. "were thinking that you've seemed a little. well. i don't know how-"

"just say it liam-"

"lonely," liam says. louis' heart twists. "you haven't gone on a date in so long…"

louis thinks back to the dinner last night, thinks back to nick's laugh, his long fingers around louis', nick's smile. louis bites his lip.

"i don't," louis coughs. "this-"

"i'm sorry louis," liam says. "we just thought it might be good for you. if we set up an online account. or something."

"oh god," louis groans. he wants to sleep for a hundred years and then kiss nick for an hour. he wants to eat ice cream and snuggle with harry. he wants to tell someone. "no, liam, please tell me you didn't."

"well, it's not technically complete, because the hobbies part is a massive portion of your online profile."

"liam!"

"i'm sorry," liam says. "we just thought. i don't know."

louis smiles softly and tries not to sigh. the mark nick had sucked onto his hand is still beaming up proudly. louis runs a finger over it and tries not to feel ill. "i really appreciate the thought, mate. but please don't do that."

"lou-"

"i'll fine someone when i find someone," louis says, waving as a guest passes by, and then sighing down the phone. "okay?"

liam grumbles. "okay."

louis hangs up shortly after and returns to his mail, a pit of dread at the bottom of his stomach.

 

every year before the big basket auction harry and louis forget to buy baskets entirely and are stuck on the very last day before the auction, mindless searching through the buckets of hideous baskets to try and find one that's decent because all the good ones are gone.

this year is no different.

"i want one that doesn't raise or lower expectations," louis says, eyeing up one of the more modest baskets he's seen. it has a nice little handle and an intricate weaving job. "this is too cute."

"aw," harry says, popping his head out from the giant bucket of baskets to smile at louis'. "i like that one."

"hm," louis says, looking at it again. it's still too cute. he needs something that represents him better. "do you see any baskets with a dragon on them?"

"nope," harry calls out, cheerfully, head completely submerged in the bucket. "but i'm not at the bottom just yet!"

louis sighs. "do you really like this basket?"

"i do," harry says, finally pulling himself out. he's holding a small, blue wicker number in one hand. "i think you should get it."

"alright then," louis says, almost satisfied. he walks over to where harry's still standing, staring into the little blue basket. "you going to get that one?"

"what?" harry blinks up at him, slow, and then shakes his head. "oh, no. i don't know if i'm going to do it this year."

"i beg your pardon?" louis says in disbelief.

"it's just – it's a bit too soon, you know? up until like, two weeks ago, i thought mark would be buying my basket."

"you know what," louis says, plucking the basket from harry's hands. harry looks up at him with wide eyes. "enough moping."

"louis-"

"no, enough. you are going to get this basket, and you are going to stuff whatever we have in the fridge into that basket, and then – and then harry styles you are going to go on a date with someone who isn't mark."

harry bites his lip.

"get back on that horse, h," louis says, a bit softer. harry looks down for a really long time before he nods once, twice.

"okay," he says, a hint of a smile in his voice. "okay, let's do this."

 

the bidding goes well enough to start out with.

zayn fights hardcore for perrie's basket and then acts all cool and collected once he actually has it. liam's little perfect basket, completely with yellow ribbons and full of niall's delicious food, only has one bidder (niall). it's all very cute.

when harry's little periwinkle basket is going up, he tugs on louis' arm and whispers, "that's mine!", which means it's definitely more for an eavesdropper's benefit than louis'. and, sure enough, brian isn't even finished describing it before aiden grimshaw is sticking his arm up in the air.

aiden ends up getting it for fifteen quid, and louis gives harry a reassuring pat on the back when he hesitates.

"what are you waiting for?" louis asks him, pushing him gently towards where aiden's stood at the back, looking awkward with a small basket in one hand. "go on, have fun."

harry nods and then scurries off, slipping his arm around aiden's and leading them away.

a couple of moms from around town get their husbands to bid on their own basket and then louis' is up. it's the same silly wicker pattern, same dumb handles. brian holds it in his arms and then says into the microphone, "let's start the bidding at three pounds," with a smile.

louis takes a bit of offense to that.

a nice looking man in a black blazer bids for it, followed by alexa, who winks at louis before sticking her hand out. louis smiles and laughs, but at the pit of his stomach he just wants the auction to be done with. he wants nick to come in and usher him away and feed him something lovely. he wants to sit on a blanket with him and tell stories of their childhood and sing songs.

the image almost makes louis smile. except – well.

nick's not in the crowd. nick's not planning on buying louis' basket.

and louis knows that it's stupid to even entertain the notion that he would because nick hates these sorts of things, thinks they're dumb, but louis had. louis had maybe thought that he was enough. that knowing louis was there, just as he was every year, with a shitty basket and awful food, he thought maybe that was enough.

apparently not.

the basket ends up going to a man named alex who works as a fireman. he's got great shoulders and a nice smile and he seems utterly thrilled that louis' his date.

louis tries to share the enthusiasm but it's hard.

"your basket looks lovely," alex tells him, looking down at him (because he's a tall man as well). "we could go find a spot of grass somewhere?"

"oh," louis says, helplessly feeling awkward. alex is handsome and charming and lovely. this is so weird. "there's only a packet of strawberry flavoured pop tarts in there, actually. i wouldn't get your hopes up."

alex laughs, low and hearty. it sounds like something louis would make up in a dream (but there's still a nagging low in his belly). "you're something else, aren't you?"

"um," louis says, brilliantly. he coughs.

"how about i take you out for lunch instead?" alex says, smiling winningly at louis. it doesn't do anything to louis' insides at all, not even a slight ruffle. louis is so fucked. "we could go to that place on peter's street, share a slice of cake…"

he raises his eyebrows and winks in a cute way. louis smiles back, feeling weird but unable to really do anything about it. there's still a tightness to his chest that he can't quite enjoy.

"sure," he says to alex, ignoring it as best he can. "let's go."

 

four minutes after alex drops him off at the town square once more with a kiss on the cheek, he's at nick's. he bursts unceremoniously into the diner with a huff and then scans it quickly (his angst has turned to anger, unfortunately for nick. louis doesn't really give a shit).

he finds him pouring jonny some coffee in the corner, but is not delayed. he grabs nick by the forearm, ignoring his protests, and drags him up the back stairs, up to nick's flat.

louis pushes the door open and huffs once more. nick doesn't quite notice it.

"jesus, lou," nick says, scanning up and down his arm for the marks that louis may or may not have dug into nick's skin. on purpose. "what the hell was that all about?"

"where were you today?" louis asks, folding his arms across his chest.

"what?" nick gives him a blank look. louis can't tell how real it is. "i was in the diner, like every day. why are you-"

"god, nick, why-" louis' blood is boiling. he feels hot all over. "why weren't you in the town square? why weren't you there?"

"the square?"

"yes, fucking fuck, nick," louis feels like he's about to explode. "why weren't you there."

"that basket thing?" he looks like a child, a child who knows he's made a mistake but doesn't know what that mistake is yet. "you wanted me there? but i thought-"

"yes, yes, i wanted you there."

"but, louis-"

"you-" louis bites his lip, stops himself, starts again. "you didn't bid on my basket."

nick looks taken aback. "erm. no. no, i didn't."

"why not? why did it not even cross your mind?" louis asks, trying to squash the feeling of disappointment that's been heavy in his stomach ever since alex came up to him with his perfect smile. "i mean, i get we're not exactly shouting it from the rooftops but-"

"well that's it," nick says, hurriedly. "i didn't want you to feel put on the spot, what with you waiting to tell harry and all."

"it's just a basket," louis says, looking at his own feet and trying to ignore how nick is nervously shuffling his feet. he feels worn out. "doesn't mean anything. no one would have known, but it would have been… i don't know."

"nice," nick finishes for him, taking a step closer to louis. "it would have been really nice."

louis looks up to see that nick is already looking down at him, eyes light and pretty and tinged with a teeny bit of regret. nick puts his hand out to rest on louis' waist and louis pretends that his whole body doesn't sing at the touch.

"i fucked up," nick says and louis laughs.

"yeah," louis says, smiling. "you really did."

nick kisses him. louis hums.

"maybe," louis starts when nick pulls away with a smile. "maybe i can tell harry. i mean, he likes you. and it's been long enough, i think."

"really?" asks nick. louis nods.

"really," louis says, kissing nick harder. nick tugs louis' hip in closer and sort of cradles louis' jaw with one hand. it makes his knees wobble.

"i'm a lucky man," nick says, pulling back enough to press a kiss to louis' nose.

"don't you forget it," louis says, smiling, as he pulls nick in again.

 

louis' at home with only pretty little liars and mabel to keep him company, when he hears a familiar clicking noise. the front door shuts.

"harry? that you?"

"yep," harry comes into view, large grin on his face. he's clutching the blue wicker basket to him and his face is nearly split in half by a smile.

"hey," louis says, smiling back even though his stomach is twisted into knots. "what's up?"

"nothing," harry bites his lip and sits down next to louis on the couch. his eyes are sparkling. "it's nothing."

"it's not nothing," louis says. "come on, spit it out."

harry looks down at his hands, clasped in his lap, and then grins again.

"aiden kissed me."

louis' eyes widen against his consent. he tries to look more normal and makes an inquiring noise.

"it was-" harry looks at louis with eyes the size of the moon, all green and bright and happy. "it was lovely. we were down at the bridge and he told me that he had a massive crush on me and it- and then he kissed me. and it was so nice."

"wow," louis says. "that's sounds very romantic."

"it was," harry nods. "he has his hands on my waist and he said i was beautiful-" harry turns red at that, flushed and pleased and so lovely. "-and then asked if i wanted to go out tomorrow night. and it was great?"

he looks to louis again, looking for reassurance. louis smiles as bright as he can.

"it sounds great."

"it was."

"i'm glad," louis tucks his hand on harry's upper back and rubs a small circle there. "you deserve someone who makes you feel special."

"thanks," harry says, face still blushed. he clears his throat. "how was your day? was alex nice?"

"my day was fine," louis says, waving a hand disconcertingly. "now, tell me more about this kiss. were you on the bridge still?"

harry eyes brighten even more as he opens his mouth to explain the whole story, with better details this time, and louis tries his hardest to pay attention. there's a weight in his chest that tugs at him, but he tries as hard as he can to listen and smile, instead of worrying about himself.

 

nick comes over to their table the next morning with a sweet little smile on his face, coffee jug in one hand. his eyes are all bright and happy; it's all louis can do to widen his own eyes in warning before nick's opening his mouth, probably to say something hideously charming and stupid.

louis interrupts him. "i'll have blueberry pancakes, nicholas, and some tea."

nick blinks at him.

"good morning," harry crows cheerfully from the other side of the table, smiling blissfully and completely unaware of all tension. "i'd love a waffle. maybe with some whipped cream and strawberries? if you could."

nick shakes himself a bit and then braces his hand against the third, empty chair at their table, nodding. "no, yeah, that's fine."

"awesome," harry says, blinking prettily. "is aiden here?"

"uh," nick looks around, and then points to the counter, where aiden is handing someone their coffee. "over there."

harry positively beams at that and scatters to his feet, bounding over to where aiden's standing. nick looks more confused than louis' ever seen him.

"okay, wait," he says and louis looks up at him, a little worried. "right. so. number one, is that a thing?" he points back to where harry and aiden are smiling at each other, blushes evident from louis' seat.

louis nods. nick nods back.

"right," he says. "okay then, straight on to number two. you didn't tell him."

"no."

"why didn't you tell him?" nick asks, and from behind the pretty hazel and snarky exterior, there's a little bit of genuine hurt. and fear. "i thought you were telling him."

"i was going to," louis says quickly. "but then he came home, and he was so excited about everything with aiden that i couldn't."

"you couldn't."

"i didn't want to steal his thunder, okay nick?"

nick runs a hand through his hair, looking back over to aiden and harry. they've progressed to coyly touching hands over the counter. harry is doing lots of eyelash flutters (louis would be more proud of him were there not more pressing circumstances at hand).

"look, lou," nick starts, but louis can't let him finish that sentence.

"i'm going to tell him. soon, i promise."

nick looks like he wants to argue back but something stops him. he pours louis a fresh cup of coffee and wanders away.

 

when he gets to work niall is grinning at him suspiciously.

"hello, honey," he greets, raising his eyebrows. he's known niall for fifteen or so years, and he's still surprised by him every day. "do you have any of those rocky road cookies from yesterday?"

"louis," niall says, his voice grand.

"oh no," louis groans. "what did you do?"

"what?!" niall looks affronted. "i didn't do anything! why would you assume i did something?"

"you have the same look on your face that harry used to have when he was two, and did something weird. what weird thing did you do?"

"nothing."

"niall."

"okay, fine," niall says, shrugging his shoulders back. "it's not a big thing anyways. i just wanted to mention something to you."

"what is that thing?"

"okay, so liam and i are meeting with a lawyer tomorrow, to discuss adoption things."

"right," louis says, slowly, dreading the next words out of niall's mouth.

"now this lawyer, right," niall says, wiggling his eyebrows around. "his name is jeremy and he's very nice and-"

"no, niall!"

"-and yesterday when he was over at our place, checking over paperwork, he happened across that picture of you and i from the carnival last year-"

"stop it, please, niall," louis puts a hand in front of his face.

"-and he asked who you were, and seemed very interested," niall says, smiling. he nudges louis' elbow. what do you say?"

"i say no," louis says, hoarsely. it's ridiculous that while he was single no one threw him a bone. but now that he's actually with someone and happy, there's fucking bones all over the goddamn place. "i'm not interested."

"sh, you don't know that!"

"yes, i do, i do know-" louis is exhausted.

"now, i know you were on a date with alex and all," niall says, turning to check on the sautéing kale. "but i think jeremy is exactly your type. you could really lay down the law with him. he could pound your gavel. no? nothing?"

louis breaths in. he breaths out. he goes for it.

"um," louis bites his lip and feels a couple butterflies or bees or killer wasps rise up in his stomach. "what would you say if i told you that i was already dating someone."

niall slaps him.

"jesus!" louis says, jumping back from his abusive friend. "the fuck, niall?"

"you have to be joking," niall says, eyes glinting. "you're joking. stop joking!"

"niall, for fuck's-" louis looks around himself and pulls niall into the cold cellar. niall's expression is as murderous as he's ever seen it. "look, i wanted to tell you. i did, really."

"louis."

"niall."

"are you serious?" he looks like he wants to be happy but he also looks like he's mad. it's weird. "this isn't just because you don't want to go out with jeremy? are you actually with someone? like with someone?"

"maybe," louis says, licking his bottom lip. it's cracked. he should put something on it.

"oh my god!" niall yelps, and in the next second louis is being held by his gangly arms. niall is jumping a bit, which is an interesting sensation, and smiling so bright it's frightening. "this is so good! isn't this good?"

"it's great!" louis says back, a bit disoriented. he stares at the lettuce heads on the shelf behind niall's head for help. they stare back, useless.

niall pulls back and looks him in the eye, suddenly gone serious. "who is it."

it sounds more like a threat than a question. "niall…"

"who," niall says, voice catching oddly. "is it?"

"it might, possibly, maybe, be nick grimshaw. maybe. possibly."

niall stands absolutely still for a second. in that second louis stops breathing and has about twelve mini heart attacks. it's awful.

and then niall is launching himself back into louis' arms and laughing and yelling.

 

so that went well. better than to be expected.

 

and then thursday happens.

as soon as louis leaves the optometrist on thursday night (a quick appointment right after work) he knows something different. it could be the crisp in the air. it could be the sway of the trees.

or it could be the fact that every single person is staring at him.

louis looks around at them all. they all look back, with open, easy smiles on their faces. he can see henry the mailman waving from across the road, looking happier than louis' ever seen him. pixie and aimee are sizing him up from behind big fur coats. theo doesn't even blink.

it's not until iggy jogs by, tossing a "oi! heard about you and nick, mate!" that louis has any indication of what's gone on.

and then his stomach drops.

louis manoeuvres quickly into his car, still idling on the side of the road. now that iggy has broken the ice, every townsperson that louis' seen for an extended period of time is coming up to him. they shout "congrats!" to him from across roads and give him pats on the back. louis doesn't know what to do.

he drives his shitty car off main street and pulls onto a dirt road that leads up to the apple orchard. hands shaking he presses the number 2 on his phone and waits.

"niall," he says before niall even picks up. "niall."

"hello!" niall says, oblivious as always. "what's the craic, mate-"

"niall," louis says, voice as calm as he can make it. niall stops talking immediately (and possibly stops breathing too). "why does everyone in town know about nick and i?"

"um," niall says. "that's a good question."

"niall."

"look, louis, babe, darling-"

"who did you tell?"

"no one!"

"liam?" louis asks and niall sighs down the line.

"okay, fine," niall says. "i kind of told liam."

"who did liam tell?" louis wants to pull out his own hair. this is the definition of the opposite of what he wanted. "jesus, you'd think the two of you didn't know what a fucking secret is."

"liam didn't tell anyone."

"are you sure?"

"positive," niall says and then he makes a uh noise, which does nothing to quell louis' mind. "well. see, there's this one thing."

"what."

"i told liam while we were in the cereal isle of the market. don't hate me."

"niall!" louis has never gotten even remotely exasperated at niall today, but today. boy. "jesus, the story's spreading like wild fire."

"shit lou, i'm sorry," niall says, and louis pinches the bridge of his nose.

"no, it's-" louis sighs out. "it's not your fault. they would have found out any way."

he talks to niall a bit more and then quickly ends the call, taking another deep breath in.

 

everyone knows, he texts nick before starting the car.

i know. i don't care. waffles tomorrow? nick texts back just as louis' pulled into his driveway.

 

when louis enters the house it's quiet.

"jesus," he mutters, still not quite believing of the insane bout of townspeople he calls friends and neighbours. "fucking hell."

he rests his head against the door and then listens to the silence.

"harry?" he calls, toeing his shoes off and sliding his coat off his sleeves. "harry, are you here?"

there isn't a reply. louis sets down his stuff and walks into the living room only to find.

harry. sitting by himself on the couch, in the dark.

"harry?" louis says, softly, sitting down beside him. "are you okay?"

"how could you not tell me?" harry asks, voice small, and louis' heart breaks clear down the middle.

"oh," louis says, feeling like there's no air in his lungs. "oh, honey, no-"

"i had to hear from brian," harry says. he sounds half choked. "i had to hear that my – my best friend was in a relationship, that you were – you didn't tell me. why didn't you tell me? did you think that i didn't deserve it?"

"oh, love," louis wishes he could reach a hand out, wishes he could pet through harry's curls. he can't though, he knows that. he fucked up. "of course you deserve the truth. you're worth more than anyone else, you know that."

"then why didn't you tell me?" harry asks, looking up. his eyes are bloodshot but there's heat behind them. harry doesn't get mad very often. "why did you keep it a secret?"

"i-" all of the reasons, every single thought behind this idea that had made so much sense to louis in the past is suddenly before him. he can't think of a thing that doesn't make him sound like an idiot. "i don't know, love. i don't know. i screwed up."

harry breaths out harsh and shoves the heels of his hands into his eyes. louis slowly puts his hand to rest on harry's knee; he doesn't get kicked and that feels like a small victory.

"nick and i," louis starts, trying to keep himself steady. "we're - he's a lot. he's not a timothy, or an alex, or even a greg. you know what i mean?"

harry doesn't remove his hands but his shoulders twitch a little. louis continues.

"i think he could be it, harry," louis says, his voice a near whisper. "i think he could be it for me, and that's the scariest thing. ever."

"okay," harry says, soft. "but you didn't need to hide that from me."

louis thinks back to when harry was younger, when louis never even allowed other men in the house. he used to ask people to drop him off around the corner, would arrange sleepovers for harry every time he had a date, would break up after four months without fail, in case harry got too attached.

"i'm so sorry," he says, watching harry dry his eyes. "i am so sorry, love."

"i know."

"i never meant to hurt you," louis says. "you're the most important person in my life, always. i'm so sorry."

"it's okay," harry says, laughing at himself a little hoarsely. louis shakes his head because it isn't, it isn't okay. "i was just upset. it's fine."

"it isn't fine," louis says, brushing harry's fringe away from his eyes.

harry bites his lip. he looks up at louis and in that second louis can see anne so clearly it hurts. harry's eyes are green and wet and dark, just like anne's were the night that she told him she was pregnant. it was their second week of uni, free for the first time, and anne cox, louis' best friend since he was four, was carrying des' kid.

"okay," louis says, clearing his throat because it feels too dry. "you must be starving. do you want to go pick up some food?"

"can we just stay here for a minute?" harry asks, and louis nods, shifting himself up so he can sit next to him properly on the couch. harry presses his head to louis' shoulder and breathes for a minute.

"i'm sorry," louis whispers, into the top of harry's curls, and harry just squeezes louis' waist in response.

 

they fall asleep on the couch like that, curled up like kittens. when they wake up in the morning, all dried cheeks and aching backs, harry turns to him with a thoughtful look.

"i just want you to be happy, louis," he says.

and louis, for maybe the first time, just wants to be happy too.

 

it's busy in the diner.

there are people milling about, nosy gits with curious eyes who watch as louis and harry walk up to the counter. matt's frying a hulk of bacon in the back and fiona's on her fourth cup of tea and nick has his glasses on, eyes tired behind them.

people stare, but louis doesn't really care.

"hey," he says, sliding into the bar stool just in front of nick. harry goes into the one beside him, his backpack at his feet. nick looks up with a smile.

"hi," nick says, eyes bright and pretty. "how are you two doing on this wonderful friday morning?"

"well," louis says, spying a plate of waffles behind nick. his heart thumps. "pixie's trying to get me to give her twenty dollars, because apparently she just missed the date for the bet on us."

nick shrugs. "what can you do."

"exactly," louis says. "are those my waffles?"

nick turns a delightful shade of pink at that. louis wants to remember it forever.

"maybe," nick mutters, putting it in front of louis. he looks all bashful and cute. louis leans over and presses their mouths together, just because he can.

"oi," harry says, his face in a wobbly smirk. "stop snogging over those waffles, you'll scare them for life."

"as long as they taste the same," louis shrugs, and then kisses the corner of nick's mouth again, for good measure. "thank you for these."

"no problem," nick says.

aiden appears at his side a moment later, coffee pot in hand. he's very obviously trying to not stare at harry. "good morning."

"morning," louis says, nudging harry's knee under the table. harry nudges his back. they all settle into the moment for a second, harry and louis and their respective grimshaws. it's nice.

"i have to go catch my bus," harry says a second later. nick turns around and comes back with a muffin for him, just as aiden's stepping forward-

"i could walk you to your bus stop? maybe?" aiden says and harry beams.

"that'd be lovely," he says, sliding off his seat and taking the muffin nick gives him with a grin. he turns to louis, face so so happy.

"i'll see you tonight," louis says, reaching out to fix harry's collar.

"yep," harry says, nodding. "love you."

"love you too, kid," louis says, watching as aiden grabs harry's bag for him. "have a good one."

louis watches the two of them leave the diner, shoulders bumping sweetly. they go outside and harry leans up to kiss aiden. it makes louis smile.

he turns around to nick in front of him, nibbling on a piece of bacon. his hair is a mess and his face is too pale and his eyes are absolutely gorgeous. louis might love him a little.

"alright?" nick asks him, a little smile on his face.

"yeah," louis says, smiling back.