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Hello, everyone. Hi, yes, thank you so much for having me.

Today I wanted to talk to you about humanity. Now, I work in technology. That’s not something people usually think of as being connected to humanity. If anything, many believe that technology has robbed of us of our humanity, made us less connected to each other and to ourselves. But if anything, working in technology has made me more connected not only to my own humanity, but to that of others. I have to examine what we want, what we don’t, what we fear, and what we need. I mean that in terms of short-term conveniences, and long-term life improvements. For better or for worse, technology in the modern sense can help us fill many of these gaps.

I have always believed that in life, there are three things that bind us all – love, time, and death. And I believe this to the point I actually have those words painted on the main conference wall at our main London headquarters. Believe me, it’s scared a lot of interns. But I put those words there because they bind us in that we all experience them, we usually fear them, and yet without them we could not exist. Ultimately, these things define us.

We are defined by what we love and who we love, by love we have lost, love we seek, and love we are lucky enough to hold onto. We fear losing love or never finding it or sometimes we fear having it. We are defined by time, and how we spend it. If we spend it wisely, if we will have enough or too much. And then there is death, something we all share and yet do not want to speak about. But why not? Death is something that defines us as simply as love or time, and in the very least we can find positives in those things. Death defines us because we fear it, and we seek to outrun it or thwart it off as long as possible, yes. But the existence of death also means the existence of life, and makes life all the more important, because it is not permeant.

At the base of every human interaction – from ordering our morning coffee to our wedding vows – there are always these three things. And to not face them when they come to us is to fail as human beings.

  • From Notable Talks of 2014, Harry Styles of Kiwi Tech at TED Summit London.

*******

3 Years Later

Harry lived in the very center of the city, in a one-bedroom apartment.

He used to live somewhere bigger, somewhere more quiet. God knows he could have gotten something else, something more grandiose, something with soundproof walls and more than two rooms overall. But he hadn’t wanted it.

He made himself get up at 7:30 AM, on the dot. He always had a shower, opened up the windows., brushed his teeth. Shaved, sometimes. For work, he put on a jumper (frayed at the sleeves from too many washes, even in the delicate cycle) a pair of jeans (dark wash, straight cut) and boots (in need of replacement.) Absolutely no jewelry, since his watches and rings are tucked away carefully and out of sight. He still has all his old suits, with their custom measurements and their designer labels, only now they’re folded up neatly in air-tight plastic garment bags, in a large storage bin under his bed. It’s a tight fit, and a nightmare to pull out, but luckily he has no plans to get to those suits out anytime soon.

He would fix himself a cup of coffee from the rather old coffeemaker on the kitchen counter – it came with the place, and he doesn’t see a point in replacing it as long as it keeps working. No food. No packed lunch, either. He’d have a cup of tea from the community kitchen, and that would be adequate. He’ll figure out dinner later. Takeaway, probably. Definitely. And then he would leave.

Harry still went to work everyday, and he had for nearly the last year and a half.

At the beginning of all of this, he had kept up pace easily. In the beginning he would be in the office when the building doors first opened, wearing a dry-cleaned designer suit and a big smile, and he would leave exactly twelve hours later. In between he had stockholder meetings, creative director meetings, brainstorming sessions, financial sessions. He attended all of them, and contributed to the best of his ability.

Of course, he’d burnt out on that energy, that pure will to have things be normal. Maybe if he tried hard enough he could forget the divorce papers on the table or the house across town that he’d moved out of that had an empty bedroom with petal pink and lavender walls.

But then he’d slowly drawn back on meetings and cut down his hours, until he went a stretch of months when he only showed up to read books or do Sudoku puzzles in his locked office. He had cried a lot during those weeks, but he didn’t like to talk about it, or think about it. If he didn’t talk or think about it enough he could imagine that period of his life had never happened.

He’d like to think he found a balance, now. A regular set of nine to five hours with overtime when needed. He could still attend the required meetings and dress up when needed. He mostly brainstormed a lot. He could design and brainstorm all day. There were other people to worry about the ins and outs, that was the perks of getting his company to the size it was. And if he worked at all, it was enough to make people not worry too much.

It was enough to make him think less about everything.

*******

Every day, without fail, Ed would walk into his office at 2:30.

“Here,” Ed sighed, setting something down on Harry’s desk. A cinnamon bun, covered in congealed white icing and pecans, wrapped in a paper napkin, “Eat it,”

“I’m fine,” Harry murmured. This was also something that happened every day at 2:30.

“Didn’t say you weren’t,” Ed said in return. He pushed the pastry a little closer to Harry with one short finger. Harry ignored it, and Ed let out a sigh.

“C’mon, H,” he said, and it’s enough to make Harry look up, “We both know how this is going to end,”

Right. Ed was going to stand there until Harry at least took a bite, and then he would leave, and Harry would throw the rest away, probably. It was just a matter of how long Harry was going to let Ed stand here and watch him.

Gingerly, he picked up the cinnamon bun and took a bite. A little stale, the icing too sweet and too hard. Too many nuts. He forced himself to chew, swallow, lick the too-firm, too-sweet icing off his fingers to make a point.

“There,” he said carefully, folding his hands in his lap, “Anything else I can help you with, Ed?”

“I need your signature,” Ed relented. His eyes went to the barely-eaten pastry but they didn’t linger as he handed Harry a manila envelope. Inside, there was a small mountain of contracts and forms, and Harry flipped through them, picking up his pen. Ed had already put little X’s in pencil next to the lines were his signature was needed. He steadied his hand, offering the neatest signing he could offer on each line, and then closed the folder and slid it across the desk.

“There you go,” Harry said, “Anything else?”

“Yeah, I got us a move into the city-wide Wi-Fi project,” Ed said.

“Really,” Harry hummed.

“Yeah,” Ed said, and his voice was already resigned, “I met with the executives of the project last week. Honestly, I think we had the bigger dog in the fight here. Brilliant guys, small egos. Probably too small,”

“Mm,”

“Anyways, a few of us on the team are going out on Friday to celebrate,” he said, “You’re invited, of course. We’re using the company tab, so it’s your money, anyways,”

“No, Ed,” Harry shook his head, “Absolutely not,”

“You don’t have to drink,”

“It’s not that,” Harry said, “I have plans on Friday,”

“Really,”

“Yes,” Harry said, “I’ve joined a club. A book club. We meet on Fridays. I’m making lemon bars,”

“Okay,” Ed sighed. Last time Ed had tried to get him to go out, Harry said he had joined a crocheting club. Still. He did have plans on Friday.

“Maybe next time,”

“Right,” Ed said. He didn’t believe him, and he didn’t even try to make it sound like he did.

Ed was a good friend. He’d been Harry’s second in command since the word go and had never questioned him, never left.

Do I have to watch my back around you? Harry used to ask. He always laughed when he said it. It was a conversation for weekends, when Ed would be over at the house, in the back garden or the kitchen table at two in the morning. The second in commands always tries to strike.

That boy of yours is reading you too much Shakespeare. Ed would say. The forgotten brother doesn’t always go after the king.

They hadn’t had one of those talks in a while. But Harry still knew he felt the same way. Ed was good like that. Unflinching, never going to take over unless Harry gave him a green light to do so, and even then he would probably fight him tooth and nail on the decision.

Of course, Harry knew that the board of directors he had started and yet been neglecting had other ideas. But that was another issue. An issue he had managed to control for about two years now and he could continue to do so.

Harry forced himself to pick up the rest of the cinnamon roll, taking a bite out of the corner before setting it back down again.

“Anything else?” he asked, and Ed shrugged.

“Any inspiring Friday words of wisdom you’d like to give to the troops before they head out?”

Harry leaned back and sighed.

“No, but I do have a project,”

“Oh?”

“Yeah. Tell me they can get some overtime if they come in over the weekend and help paint over that thing in the conference room,”

“What thing? The love, time, death painting?”

“This there another thing in the conference room that would need painted over?”

“Well, not really,” Ed admitted, “You sure, though? I mean, it’s kind of a staple,”

“Yeah, it’s time,” Harry shrugged, “They don’t need to see that shit every day,”

“They don’t or you don’t?”

“Just…” Harry sighed and shook his head, “I’ve thought about this alright? Just get rid of it. New leaf and all that,”

Ed paused, just looking at him steadily, and then he sighed.

“Well, you’re the boss,” he eventually relented, and then went out of the office, leaving Harry on his own.

Harry wrapped up the rest of the cinnamon roll and tossed it into his wastepaper basket.

*******

Harry’s Fridays had been busy for a couple months now.

It had started in Sarah’s -- his therapist -- office one afternoon, a Thursday, he remembered. He had been doing his best to answer questions and had eventually just asked her if they could do a round of meditation and a couple yoga poses, since he’d brought his work out bag anyways. She’d agreed. She knew he liked this kind of stuff, that it reminded him of a few years back when yoga was part of his normal routine before he picked up the groceries. As long as he was keeping up with his meetings and answering questions and taking his medication his therapist was fine with letting him do what he wanted in their sessions. It was good, she said, to take some control of his treatment plan.

Harry would’ve preferred a life where he didn’t need a treatment plan at all, but he appreciated the sentiment.

“You know, Harry,” she had said with a smile once they were done, “One of my colleagues is starting a group,”

“A group,” Harry had parroted as he started rolling up his mat. He’d heard of plenty of groups at the office over the last year. General grief counseling, general depression aid session, a men’s only general grief counseling, a men’s only general depression aid session. He’d gone to a few of each and found genuine excuses to never to go again. The workbooks were too cheesy and unhelpful, the guidance wasn’t his style, the people weren’t pleasant to talk to. It was enough to get out of ever having to sit down in a group and lay himself bleeding and bare in front of multiple strangers.

“Yes,” she smiled again, “It’s a program for parents that have…lost children,”

Harry just stared at her, blinking. There were two things very wrong with that sentence. The pitying pause before “lost” being the first, and the second was that in the last several months, Harry hadn’t dared thought of himself as a parent. That had been stripped away from him, left something gaping in his chest. Slapping a label that didn’t fit anymore over top wasn’t going to fill him back up again.

“I see,” he said, and he could already see her expression shift, knowing he would say no.

“Consider going at least once. This one is very patient-oriented. Lots of discussion, not much workbook work or anything. I know you haven’t been a fan of that,”

Except Harry would rather fill in a thousand “How is your grief today” scales in a workbook than talk about the single worst thing that had ever happened to him with other people.

Before he could protest again, she wrote down the room in the building where the first meeting was happening, along with the time and date, and sent him on his way with a reminder to bring in his journal to their next session if he’d like.  

For whatever reason, Harry had taken himself to the therapy building, stood in front of the window where he could already see patients filing into the group, and then walked away the way he had come.

And for another reason he didn’t want to admit to himself, he had kept coming back to the building the same time, the same day, and hadn’t gone away as quickly. Instead, he would find a place where he could stand across the street or close to the corner of the window and just watch as the room filled up and a discussion he couldn’t hear took place.

This Friday was no different. Harry walked the several blocks from his apartment and then paused when he found the building. It wasn’t impressive, only a couple floors high, with flower boxes onto the terrace. If it wasn’t for the bronze plate that said “Counseling Services, by appointment only” right above the address plate, it could have been an ordinary flat complex.

He crossed the street when he saw it and took a seat on the bench that gave him a direct view of the building and waited. From here, he could clearly see the long window on the first floor that gave view to a spare room filled with folding chairs, flowers, stock paintings, and creased and outdated magazines. Slowly, cars began to pull up and people began to walk by and then open the front door. Soon, the circle of chairs was full, and the night began.

Harry stood and risked crossing the street, situating himself on a sidewalk corner that was angled enough that he could see into the room, but not many people would bother looking to see him. He just watched, then, looking at the faces he had grown familiar with over the last few months as they talked, bowed their heads, wrung their hands, set palms on each other’s shoulders. He wondered if they told the same several stories or different ones each time.

Probably the latter. If he allowed himself to think about them, he could probably tell a hundred thousand stories about his daughter, small ones, big ones, ones that no one cared about except him. If he was a different person, he would probably be in there now, blubbering as he talked about her favorite flavor of popsicle or the color of her favorite dress.

Right. It was time to go, then.

So Harry picked up his feet, shuffling away the sidewalk until he was getting closer to breezing past the window, as if he was just passively strolling by. He allowed himself one more glance inside before he left and nearly froze.

One man in the circle was staring directly at Harry. He didn’t seem startled, or even accusatory, just staring back evenly with two bright blue eyes, like he was perfectly aware Harry was there, and watching, and he knew that he had been doing this a while. After a few seconds he blinked and turned back to the circle, tilting his head like he had been asked a question, and he didn’t look back again.

It shook Harry more than it should have. He had been circling this place for months, going through this exact ritual, and no one had looked up at him.

He stared back for only a few moments and then ripped his gaze away, jogging away the street until he was gone, out of view, no way he could find him again.

*******

Harry had only recently started sleeping again.

During those first months, the months of denial and endless productivity, he’d slept like a rock, either too much or not enough, but it was always heavy and dreamless and bearable.

Then, he had nightmares.

They weren’t nightmares for normal people. There were no shadows in the corners or stalkers in the woods or monsters under the bed. There weren’t even hospital beds or IV drips or a doctor entering a room with a face that reminded him of tolling church bells.

No, they were nightmares full of sunny spring days and swing sets, tiny Converse trainers or patent Mary Jane’s left on the grass, high laughter and melted ice cream. Two arms that grabbed around his back and a pair of lips on the back of his neck. Feeling like nothing could go wrong.

That was fixed now. He’d told his therapist very vaguely that he’d had some issues sleeping, and now he took a pill very night that knocked him out cold and dreamless.

He had never been more thankful for those pills that week. It allowed him to go into his office and watch interns and a few new employees paint over words he didn’t believe in anymore, and then he could go home, order his dinner, turn on the news and not dream about the past, or two steady blue eyes gazing at him from a window.

*******

The next Friday, Harry went back to the group against his better judgment. Well, not even his better judgment, it was more like his paranoid judgment. Someone had noticed him. Whatever. That wasn’t a reason he couldn’t walk by. He was just walking. He liked getting out for a walk on Fridays, getting fresh air for a bit. He’d just stroll by. He wouldn’t even look in for that long.

So he got dressed and went out, walking his normal path down the residential neighbors, through the streetlamp-lit sidewalks. When he arrived at the therapy office, he paused for a second, counted three seconds to look through the window, and then kept walking. It wasn’t something he needed to stare at or contemplate. It didn’t need to be a big deal. He kept walking and made it another block before he circled back around. He probably should’ve circled back to his own place, but he found himself pacing back in front of the building again and again, passing it more swiftly each time.

Okay. Maybe ignoring wasn’t working. But this was better than staring from one place, wasn’t it?

Jesus Christ, his therapist would string him up by his toes if she knew he was doing this shit. But if he acknowledged it, well…that was less of a big deal, wasn’t it?

As he passed it for the fourth time, he heard a door open, followed by a flood of voices, and he sighed. The group was out. He had nothing else to watch. He could go home. Or he could walk past the building as slowly as he liked and not have to face anything. Either would be fine.

Except in the next second, a voice called out.

“Oi, Curly,”

Harry blinked, slowing down a bit as he walked around from the building.  

He knew they meant him. He could keep walking. He could run.

But instead, he stopped completely, and turned.

It didn’t surprise him in the slightest that the man from the group was now behind him, the same one that had caught Harry staring at the window the previous week. While the rest of the group was still mingling by the front of the door or walking down the opposite end of the street, towards the tube station, this man was striding directly towards Harry. He looked calm, not angry or curious or…anything, really.

When he got closer, Harry let himself take a breath and he took a moment to take in the person in front of him; slight, wrapped in a denim jacket, his hair a bit too long in the front and falling into his eyes, his eyes and mouth scarred with deep stress marks that shouldn’t be there, not when the rest of him looked barely older than Harry.

When he was close enough, he stopped, and Harry stayed stock still. The man’s face was still neutral, and finally, he sighed, shaking his head.

“Why don’t you ever go in, huh?”

Harry just stared back, blinking.

“I – “ he started, but the man was still talking, plowing right over him like he either didn’t expect a real answer or didn’t want one.

“You’ve got nothing to lose, really,” the man was saying, “We’re a pretty accepting bunch. You know, us in the dead kid club,”

Harry visibly recoiled, and the man chuckled.

“Not a fan of that label?”

No,” Harry said, “No, what the fuck,”

“But I assume you’re one of us?” the man said, his voice a little softer now, “Don’t know why you’d be prowling so much if you didn’t at least know who we were,”

Harry swallowed, looking down at his shoes.

“Yes,” he admitted, “But that – fuck, that doesn’t mean I can talk to a group of strangers – “

“Strangers,” the man said softly, and Harry lifted his head.

“I’m sorry,” he said, and he didn’t know why, exactly. Maybe it was the way he said the word, like it was something bad.

“Why are you sorry? Nothing wrong in being strangers,” the man shrugged, and then smiled, “Actually, my husband used to say to me, ‘I wish we could be strangers again just so I could fall in love with you all over.’ Always thought that was very romantic, don’t you?”

“I guess,” Harry managed, “A bit of line, but sure, romantic,”

The man snorted, shaking his head, “Can I ask you something?”

“I don’t – “ 

 “Son or daughter?”

“What?”

The man titled his head, watching Harry carefully, a bit too carefully.

“Did you lose a son or a daughter?” he asked.

“Um,” Harry swallowed thickly, “Look, I’m sorry for staring, okay? I won’t come back,”

“That’s not what I’m asking. I don’t even care about that,” the man said, shrugging, “You clearly know about our group, and it’s one of the first questions we ask each other. So, I just want to know if you had a son, or a daughter,”

Harry shook his head again, and he wanted to leave so badly, but his feet left frozen by this fucking guy and his fucking line-creased blue eyes and his stupidly simple question.

Eventually, Harry heard himself say, “daughter,” and the man just nodded.

“I lost a daughter, too,” he said, and Harry forced himself to look back up. The man was scanning his face, and then the man’s eyes dropped to Harry’s left hand, “You and your wife divorced? That’s pretty common,”

“Ah,” Harry stuttered, instinctually lifting his hand and prodding at his ring finger knuckle, which after nearly two years still felt too light, “My husband and I are divorced, yes,” 

The other man’s eyes softened a bit.

 “My husband and I are as well,”

“Oh,” Harry said, “Alright,”

“You see?” the man smiled, “Now we’re slightly less strangers,”

“I guess so,” Harry said.

“Where you headed now?” the man asked, “I’m just going to the tube, maybe I can walk with you,”

“Oh,” Harry said, “I, um, I’m headed in the opposite direction. Home,”

“I see,” the man said, “Don’t want to walk a poor stranger to the train station?”

“I’m sorry,”

“I’m kidding. I’ll survive, believe it or not,” the man chuckled, “But maybe come in next time, huh?”

“Maybe,” Harry said, knowing full well he wouldn’t.

The man seemed to sense that, but he just ducked his head as he turned back around, a bit of his fringe falling into eyes as he did so. His hair was pretty long, Harry thought. And so boyish.

“Wait,” Harry called, and the man turned.

“What’s your name?”

The man’s eyes softened, and the corner of his mouth twitched, making the lines of his face crease even deeper.

“Louis,”

Harry nodded, and then brought his hand up, tugging at the skin at the base of his throat as he found the ability to say something else.

“Harry,”

Louis smiled, and then he was turning, walking smoothly down the sidewalk, disappearing around the corner, probably to find the nearest train station.

Harry had to force his feet to move and bring him back home.

*******

Harry was in the middle of sitting at his desk on Monday morning, sketching out yet another design that would probably lead nowhere, when Ed strolled inside. Harry lifted his head, glancing at him for a moment before he let his gaze drop again. Ed didn’t have any stale food to offer him or any papers to sign, so he probably just wanted to check in or have a chat that wouldn’t go anywhere.

“Hey, Ed,” Harry offered.

“Hey,” Ed said, “Julia from accounting just got engaged. I need you to pick up a floral arrangement for her,”

Harry glanced up from his sketchbook, gazing across his desk.

“I thought we had interns to do that,” he said as smoothly as he could. For a moment he almost sounded like he used to, sure and in control and able to actually run a multi-billion-pound business the way it needed to be run.

Ed must have recognized it, too, because the corner of his mouth twitched for a moment, his eyes sparking, before his expression cooled over.

“They’re busy,” he said instead.

“All of them?” Harry countered. He and Ed played this game a lot. He was quite good at it by now.

“Uh huh,” Ed answered easily, “Jake and Rosalie are working the customer service lines. Jai is taking notes on the marketing meeting. Maple, Alex, and Yousef are all in class because they have exams and I gave them the day off. And Brandon is getting my coffee,”

“I see,” Harry said, and finally closed his book and stood up, “Okay, I’ll go,”

It was busy work. Ed was putting him on busy work, because he was fragile and in danger of snapping and he wasn’t doing anything, anyways.

“Great,” Ed said, his voice neutral, like he wasn’t trying to get excited.

“Where am I going, then?” Harry asked, pulling his jacket off the coat rack in his office.

“Someone from PR ordered them from a new place opened up down the block. Three Lilies, I think it’s called? It’s on the order slip,”

“Alright,” Harry said. He reached out a hand and took the order slip Ed was offering him.

“You should go out to lunch while you’re out. Maybe take a walk. Go to the park,”

Harry huffed, shaking his head, “I’m not on a school trip, Ed. I have a job. I’ll pick up the flowers and then be back,”

“Whatever you want. After all – “

“I’m the boss, I know,” Harry sighed, unfolding the order slip so he could read the address and then folding it right back up, “I’ll be back in twenty minutes, tops,”

*******

Three Lilies was nestled in between a post office and a Greek sandwich shop. The store was small and cramped for space, like just about every other shop in this neighborhood, but it looked shiny new, with a neat black and white awning trimmed in sunny yellow, the same color spelling out the shop’s name on the glass. There were arrangements of flowers surrounding the front door and even more pressed against the glass inside, but none of that could have prepared Harry for when he walked in. Inside, it was a jungle of twisting, hanging potted plants hanging from the walls and ceiling, rows of romantic pastel arrangements in glass vases covering the shelves, and another snarl of discount plastic pots and a rows of strawberry and mint plants near the back.

“Hello?” Harry called. He shoved his hands in his pockets, glancing around, leaning forward and ducking his head around to see if you could see anything that wasn’t made of greenery.

“Right here, mate,” a voice called, and Harry took a step forward, glancing to the reception desk. There was a man there, mid-to-late twenties, maybe. Dark hair, round tortoiseshell glasses, wearing a band tee under his black, white, and yellow apron. He had a pot of flowers in front of him, and he was using a sharp pair of scissors to nip to the stem of a chrysanthemum.

Harry blinked. Had he been there before? Maybe he had. It was nearly impossible here to see anything.

Harry stepped forward until he was in front of the desk, and set the order slip on the counter. The man gave it a slight glance, then went right back to trimming the flower in front of him before he picked the flower up, twirling it around between his fingers.

“Bridal showers are the worst in cold weather,” he eventually sighed, tucking the bright pink bloom into the arrangement in front of him, “I mean, look at this. Everyone still wants nice, happy, spring-y colors, and I have to get these things imported, because everyone else wants red and orange, you know, the rustic look, and I have to balance the bridal colors with what I actually have,”  

                                                                                                                               

“Right,” Harry said, drumming his fingers on the counter, “I have an order to pick up,”

“I see that,” the man eventually said, casting his gaze to the slip on the counter.

“Would you mind getting it?” Harry asked, “I’m in a bit of a rush,”

“No, you’re not, Harry,” the man sighed, straightening the vase in front of him, “What do you think for the next one? White or purple?”

Harry just blinked at him.

“How do you know my name?”

“I’m feeling white, honestly. Pink and purple, pink and purple, gives me a fucking headache. I need something to even it out,”

Harry kept staring at the man was he wandered around the back counter with his scissors, eventually snipping a full, white bloom Harry couldn’t name.

“I asked how you knew my name,” Harry repeated as the man came back over, sticking the flower in among the others and then rotating the vase, examining it from all sides.

“Because I know who you are. Obviously,” the man said.

Oh, well, maybe that made sense. Harry sometimes forgot he was still fairly well-known. Recognizable.

“Sorry,” he mumbled, “I’m – I’m sorry, I’d just really like to get these flowers and get back to work,”

“Oh, I know what you’re here for,” the man said, “Julia from accounting, obligatory workplace engagement arrangement. Isn’t that right?”

Harry just blinked as the man keeping looking at the arrangement in front of him.

“My office called you, then,” he said, and the man laughed at that.

“Oh, no, no, no. In fact, there’s no arrangement here for you. There’s no Julia from accounting, either. I’m afraid your friend Edward let that little detail slip,”

“I’m sorry?” Harry asked.

“Oh, right, sorry. See, the thing is, there’s a reason you’re here, and it’s so I could introduce myself,” the florist held out a hand, grinning, “I’m Death,” 

Harry took a step back, glancing at the hand and then back at the florist.

Excuse me?”

“I’m Death,” the man repeated, still smiling and then wriggled his fingers, “You know, you’ll live through a handshake,”

“What the fuck?” Harry gasped, “You’re fucking with me. Jesus Christ. Just get me my fucking flowers – “

“Harry, Harry,” the man sighed, “There’s no flowers. There’s no Julia. There’s just me, and you and I are going to lunch,”

“I am not going to lunch with you,”

“I’m paying, though,”

“I already ate,”

“No, you didn’t,” he sighed, shaking his head, “You haven’t eaten lunch for three weeks straight. I know that because, well, I’m all-knowing and all-seeing and all that shit, but I could see your ribs through your jumper even if I was human,”

Harry blinked again.

“You’re – Death,”

“Yes,” the florist sighed, “Listen, I – hang on,”

He ducked down, retrieving something from behind the counter, and when he lifted up, there was a brown, wilted rose in his hand.

“You like magic tricks, Harry?” he asked, “Because this is a fun one,”

As he held it, the rosebud slowly became less brown, and then it became a pale pink that slowly turned more vibrant, and then the petals were spreading out, growing, strengthening, until he was holding a fully blooming rose. He tucked it into the arrangement, sighing a bit dreamily.

“I could kill it again for effect, but, well, it’s a shame to waste something as pretty as this, huh? Plus, I really think it gives this arrangement exactly what it needed,”

Harry shook his head.  

“Am I losing my mind?”

“Well, yes, but not because you’re seeing me,” the man said, circling the counter and peeling off his apron, “You like deli food? Of course you do, come on,”

*******

Harry, for whatever reason, followed Death.

He followed right down to the small corner deli that Harry had maybe gone to once. It wasn’t too crowded when they walked in, but a few people still turned when they walked in, offering waves and smiles to Death, which reassured Harry that no, the man in front of him wasn’t a hallucination.

“Hey, Niall,” they greeted, and he smiled and returned the waves.

“Hey,” he returned. Harry frowned and grabbed his arm, moving in to whisper in his ear.

“I thought you were Death,”

“For fuck’s sake, Harry, I can’t go around calling myself Death, this isn’t 2006,” Death shook his head, “Humans call me Niall. In fact, you can and probably should call me Niall. I don’t mind my real name, of course, but, makes it easier for humans to process if you use something for palatable,”

With that, he left Harry standing in the middle of the deli as he went to go order their food, and then came over a few minutes later holding baskets of fried food. Popcorn shrimp, corn dogs, macaroni and cheese. It was the kind of food Harry used to eat in university on late nights. Harry just stared at his choices and then forced himself to go to the counter and pick out one of the pre packaged sandwiches from the front case before going back to join Death – Niall, or whatever the fuck – at the table he had picked out.

“Listen,” Harry said as firmly as he could manage, “If this is some kind of joke, you need to tell me right now, because I don’t have time for this,”

“Oh, this isn’t a joke,” Niall said easily, “And you know that. You wouldn’t have followed me if you thought I was just fucking around. Now sit down, you’re creeping me out by just staring,”

“I’m creeping you out,” Harry repeated, even as he went to sit down, “Right. That makes sense,”

“I’m going to ignore that. So. Look,” Niall said, “I wanted to talk to you for a while, actually, but now seems like a good time,”

“A while,”

“Yes, a while. Let me finish one thought. Anyways, I always liked the way you thought about me, you know? It was refreshing. I mean, you painted me on your office wall. Microsoft would never,”

“Is this what this is about?” Harry snapped, “Me covering something in my office I didn’t even like anymore? Something that has nothing to do with you?”

“Oh, no, I could care less about the painting. Really to me, that was just a signal I needed to come pay you a visit,” Niall said, “You can ask me something if you’d like, you know. There’s a veil on our table right now, people can’t understand what we’re saying,”

Harry didn’t move to say anything, so Niall just sighed.

“Okay, it’s going to be like that. How about this? You just eat your lunch, and I’ll give you a little run down of what I am and what I do. That’s always something to fun to break down,” Niall leaned back, tucking his hands behind his head, “First of all, there is no grand room where I measure how long people have. People always think that for some reason. I have that on a tablet. A Kiwi Pad, actually, you’ll be thrilled to know. It’s the twenty first century. Second of all, I measure it, I enforce it, but the time someone has is not up to me. That’s up to someone else. As for who decides that, I don’t like to say. I like to keep it open, depending on the individual belief system of whoever I’m speaking to,” Niall shrugged, and then picked up a corndog, engulfing half of it in one bite, “Third of all, I’d like you to give me a chance. Because I have bad fucking PR, and I’d really like to maybe not be hated so much,”

“That’s rich,” Harry snorted, and Niall sighed.

“Look, I know it sounds weird, but hear me out. I – “

“No, I won’t,” Harry cut in, and he just blinked at him, not saying anything, so Harry pushed forward, “I won’t listen to you,”

“That’s fine,” Niall said mildly, “I’ll just talk, you don’t have to listen, we’ll both eat our lunch, and it’ll be fine and dandy,”

“No,” Harry repeated. He leaned forward, pressing both hands to the table, more to steady his shaking fingers than anything else.

“You took everything from me,” he hissed, “You understand that, don’t you?”

Niall blinked, and then leaned in to whisper as well.

“I don’t take everything, Harry,” he sighed, “I have time limits I have to follow. I take people from one place to another when that time limit arrives,”

“She was five years old,” he said weakly, “My daughter was five years old. There are older people in this world. There are terrible fucking people in this world. You should’ve taken them,”

“I wish I could,”

“Bullshit,”

“I really do, but that’s not how it works. That’s not how I work,”

“Bullshit,” he repeated, and stood up. He didn’t care if people were looking, and he wasn’t bothering to check.

“Fuck you,” he scoffed, “Fuck you for touching her. Fuck you for putting that goddamn tumor in her head,”

“That’s not my jurisdiction,” Niall said weakly, “That’s not in anyone’s jurisdiction. No one gave your daughter cancer except her own cells, Harry. I just came and got her when it was time,”

“Then tell me this. Where is she? Where did you put her?” Harry asked, “And don’t you dare tell a better place,”

“No, she’s not in a better place,” Niall admitted, “She would’ve been in the best place with you, and with – “

“Please don’t say his name,” he said weakly, “Just please don’t say it,”

Niall just sighed and shook his head.

“She should’ve been with you,” he said, “You think I get pleasure out of taking away children? I don’t. I have to, and I’ve always had to,”

Harry squeezed his eyes shut and took a breath, slowly getting up.

“I don’t know why the hell you came and got me,” Harry said evenly, “But I never want to speak to you again. Do not find me, do not worm your way into my life. I don’t need you there,”

“Harry – “

“I’m coping, you know. I’m fine. I’m seeing a doctor and I’m getting out of bed and I’m doing all the normal coping things,”

“I know that Harry,” Niall said evenly, “I also know that’s not enough,”

“Don’t fucking tell me what to do,” he snapped, and then looked over his shoulder. No one was even looking at him.

“The veil’s still up, they still can’t hear us,” Niall said, “Listen, I’m here because I want to help you understand something really fucking shitty, that’s all,”

“I don’t need to understand. I’m angry, and I’m always going to be angry,”

He stood up from the table, then, and Niall didn’t even try to stop him until he was nearly at the door.

“Harry, wait,” he called, and Harry turned around, his hand gripping tightly on the push bar on the door.

“What the fuck do you want?” he snapped, and Niall just sighed, looked around at the people in the deli who still apparently couldn’t hear, and then turned back to Harry.

“You’ll be happy to know that everyone in your office will have forgotten about Julia in accounting by now. Which is great for both of us because I don’t feel like whipping up some flowers right about now,”

Harry just shook his head and then left the deli, slamming the door behind him.

*******

Harry still remembered that on the day he had lost her, the nurses at the hospitals asked if he wanted to see her. The machines had already gone quiet, the life had already left her, and he hadn’t even gotten to be there because in her last few seconds her lungs filled up with fluid and the room had been full of doctors trying in vain to get it out.

Harry had said yes, of course.

He had been there with him. They’d both said yes, and they’d gone together, and they’d held hands, even with the freshly signed separation papers hanging over them.

On the walk, Harry had asked the nurse why they even bothered asking if they wanted to go see her. Of course he wanted to see her, who the hell wouldn’t want to see their child? He was angry, then, but also curious, and also maybe he needed a distraction, something else to be mad at.

“Some people just don’t want that to be their last memory,” the nurse had said calmly. Harry still remembered her face. She had been wearing pink scrubs, and she had red hair and brown eyes and she looked more tired than any person he had ever met, “They want to remember them some other way,”

That concern was futile, was the thing. Harry was never going to first think of her in the hospital bed, too tiny and covered in white sheets and pale and too, too still.

He was always going to think of her in a different hospital room, at nearly midnight, while their surrogate slept on a cot nearby and his ex was crouched next to him, his fingers smoothing over the blankets as Harry tried to memorize her puckered lips and her little hands and her pink, pink face.

“My parents are going to be here in twenty minutes,” the man Harry had once loved said, “Are you going to let them hold her?”

He’d been joking, but Harry honestly couldn’t imagine a time he was going to let go, give her over, give her up to anyone else.

Maybe that was the thing he had the hardest time with. That he hadn’t been able to keep that promise.

*******

The next Friday, Harry was outside the therapy building again.

He didn’t know why he was there again. He only meant to stand, gaze in, and then get on his way home.

He should have walked away two weeks ago when Louis made eye contact through the window, like he knew he had been there. He should have sprinted away for good when he greeted him last week.

But now, the group was letting out, people slowing standing up, offering hugs, going to the door, spilling out onto the sidewalk. And Harry stayed put.

Louis jogged out of the building eventually, readjusting the strap of his leather messenger bag over his shoulder. He was dressed entirely in denim, from his pale wash, shearling-collared jacket to his dark colored trousers. He hadn’t shaved, and there was a beanie covering his hair. He could’ve been a uni student if he hadn’t lifted his head and squinted towards Harry, revealing the clusters of wrinkles around his eyes.  

“I see you’re back,” Louis said as he strolled towards Harry.

“Yes,” Harry answered, shrugging, “I always come here,”

“But you still haven’t come in,”

“Because I never do that,”

“Right,” Louis gave him a wry smile, “Did you come to be a general creep or did you specifically come to creep on me?”

Harry blinked, and Louis shook his head.

“I’m kidding,” he said, “You know I’m kidding, right?”

“I know,” he said eventually, and Louis sighed.

“You’re a weird one,” he said, “Walk me to the tube,”

“I – “

“I know, I know, you live the other way. It’s a block. It won’t kill you to walk it again. Exercise is good for depression, you know,”

Harry didn’t deny the depression thing. They were in the same boat, after all.

So he walked Louis to the tube. They didn’t really say anything more, just walked side by side in silence. Well, as close to silence in London. The air between them was filled with tires on pavement and barking dogs and voices that didn’t belong to either of them.

When they got to the tube stop, Louis grabbed onto the lamppost nearest to the underground entrance and swung around it once, his other arm outstretched as he did.

“What’s your last name, Harry?” he asked.

“I – “ Harry said, “You know my last name,”

“Do I?” Louis asked. He halted, and wrapped himself around the lamppost, his limbs tangled around the metal. He pressed his cheek to it as he looked back at him. Harry coughed.

“A lot of people do, is all,” Harry said.

“Right. Styles. I always thought that was a fake name,”

“Well, it’s not,”

“You sure? Not something you made up to really make a splash in the tech world?” Louis asked, smiling, “I bet your real last name is something really boring. Like Smith or Baker or something,”

“My name is real. I’d call my mum and ask her to get out my birth certificate but I don’t think she’d like getting woken up this late,” Harry said, “Although I put Harry Baker down for restaurant reservations sometimes,”

Louis laughed, shaking his head, “My god, did Harry Styles just make a joke? Two jokes?”

Harry didn’t answer. Instead, he asked another question.

“What about you? What’s your last name?”

Louis tilted his head, lifting his cheek off the metal of the lamppost.

“Guess,”

“Come on,”

“I want you to guess,”

“That’s not fair. You didn’t have to guess with mine,”

“Exactly. That makes it very fair,” Louis smiled again and then untangled himself from the pole, going back to gripping it with one hand and swinging himself around with the other. His bag hung so low down his shoulder that it skimmed the sidewalk, “Come on, guess. Guess anything,”

“Um. Martin,”

“Nope,”

“Smith. Jones. Thomas.”

“No, no, and close,”

“Come on,” Harry said, “Just tell me,”

“Alright,” Louis smiled and halted his movement, his body leaning out over the sidewalk, “It’s Tomlinson. Or it is, now. Used to be abbreviated with something else,”

“Right,”

Louis just smiled again, leaning even farther towards the sidewalk. He looked like he could lean forever.

“Are you a dancer?” Harry asked suddenly.

“Hm?” Louis asked, and then straightened up, pressing himself against the lamppost again.

“You’re very flexible, is all,”

Louis grinned, and Harry shook his head.

“I didn’t mean anything by that,”

“I wouldn’t be mad even if you did,” Louis returned. He wrapped one leg around the lamppost, leaning his body outwards again, “And yes, I dance. I did ballet all through college and uni. Still try to go to the studio a few times a week, but it’s getting a bit harder now,”

He pulled himself back up, enough to steady himself, and then uncoiled his leg from the post and let it drop firmly back onto the sidewalk. He turned, then, and then took a few steps towards Harry, pulling his phone out of his pocket as he did so.

“Can I get your number, Harry Styles?”

“Why do you want it?”

“So I can text you. Or call you. That’s what people normally do with a phone number,”

“I don’t have a phone anymore,”

“You’re joking,” Louis scoffed, “You own the largest technology corporation in the world. You reinvented the smartphone,”

“I don’t have one,” Harry repeated.

Louis shook his head, and then opened his bag and dug around into he found a thick sharpie.

“Well,” he said as he grabbed Harry’s hand and began to work on it with the marker, “Get one by next week,”

He finished writing and then capped the marker and dropped into his bag, and then he disappeared into the tube, leaving Harry with an ink-stained hand and not much else.

*******

On Monday morning, Harry burst into Ed’s office before he could even make it to his own.

“Ed, I need a phone,”

The other man glanced up briefly before returning to his work.

“For your office?”

“No, I – “ Harry said, and then swallowed quickly before speaking, “I need a cell phone,”

Ed’s head snapped up, then, and stayed up.

“Do you,” he said blankly.

“Yes, Ed,” Harry sighed.

“What for?”

“What do we tell people they need phones for? Calls. Texting. A modern revolution of human capacity. All that stuff,”

Ed just gave him a blank stare.

“Come on, just – get me one,” Harry said again.

“Uh huh,” Ed said, and then turned to the door, “Maple, can you come in here in a moment?”

A moment later, one of the interns was strolling in, and then promptly froze when she saw Harry.

“Maple, love,” Ed said easily, “Go down to product holding and get Mr. Styles a Kiwi 9,”

“Um,” Maple blinked and turned back to Ed, “Those are still prototypes, sir,”

“Yes, Maple, and yet they are far better than any 8 on the market right now. Get him one of the final working models and get it all set up for him, please,”

She nodded, and then skittered away, closing the door behind her. Harry exhaled, shaking his head.  

“What have you been doing to those poor interns? That girl was terrified,”

“You would be, too, if you saw a ghost,” Ed looked up, leveling a look over his glasses, “The ghost in that statement is you, by the way,”

“Thanks for clarifying,” Harry said, and then stayed put in the office with his hands in his pockets, expecting Ed to further question on needing a phone for the first time in nearly a year, but he didn’t, just carried on with his work and let Harry be.

Twenty minutes later, Harry was walking out of his VP’s office with the prototype of his latest product in his hand, a sticky note on the front screen with Ed’s cell number written on it, and a second note in his pocket of a number he had copied off his hand a few days prior.

*******

Harry ordered food in that night, and texted Ed a picture of his dinner to assure him that yes, he actually was going to use his phone, and also, yes, he was eating. Then, he selected the only other number he had saved and sent something.

Hi, Louis. It’s Harry.

Almost immediately, there was another message onscreen, and he blinked.

Hi, Harry.

I see you’ve joined us in the 21st century. How are finding it?

 

It’s not bad. My designs aren’t completely terrible, I guess.

He cringed. That was such an unnecessary thing to say. That was something he used to say while laughing hollowly at a launch party. He sent something else just to tone down the last text.

What are you doing?

Prepping for my class tomorrow. Louis replied a few minutes later. You’re not interrupting, by the way. They have a quiz on Thursday, I’m just finishing up their study guides.

What about you? What are you up to?

Nothing, really. I just wanted to say hi.

Wow, I’m glad I’m your set of plans for the evening.

I’m sorry.

 

I’m bad at this.

That’s alright.

 

Are you a teacher, then?

I mean, from what you’re doing tonight.

I’m an English professor at Imperial College. So I’m a teacher with better health insurance.

Oh. Cool.

Harry’s fingers hovered over the keyboard and then he sighed, setting his phone down and setting his face in his hands. This was a text message. This was so fucking simple. Had he really fallen apart that badly?

Well, he had one friend and and Death came to visit him. So maybe the answer was yes.

I’m really sorry. I should go, I don’t know why I’m texting you. He finally sent.

The screen was blank for a while, and then two new messages popped up on his screen.

That’s alright, love. You can talk to me anytime. I feel like it’s my responsibility to get you used to the modern age again.

 

Have a good night, Harry Styles.

He locked his phone and went to bed at that.

His phone was dying, anyways.

He’d forgotten to ask Ed for a charger.

*******

Harry had decided he was going to text Louis at least once a day, just to get back into the habit. He used to have his phone glued to his hand, especially during the bad months, when he felt like he needed to be on top of everything. But now the phone felt almost foreign in his hands, even if it was his life’s work.

It had been going okay. Tuesday he had asked Louis had his day was going. Wednesday Louis had texted him first and they had talked about the autumn cold snap. And now it was Thursday and as Harry was walking into the office building, Louis had texted him complaining that there was a line out of the door to his favorite tea shop and he was already late for class and now his entire day was ruined.

Harry was about to type something back when he heard a sharp giggle, and then a pair of little arms wrapping around his leg about a moment before a small, high voice said “Hi!”

Harry froze, and then looked down, staring helplessly at the little girl who had encircled his leg with her arms. She was smiling up at him with gapped teeth and sparkling eyes, and he couldn’t move, couldn’t even speak.  

“Melissa, darling,” a man called, and then, in another moment, a pair of arms were deftly pulling the girl off of Harry’s leg.

Harry looked up with blank eyes and saw a man in front of him who was bent over, fussing over the girl and straightening her dress. He was a stark contrast from the suits milling around the lobby – rather, he was dressed in black jeans, a tattered shirt, thick boots, had hair that was half shaved and half dyed, a nose ring and twelve earrings in one ear. The man lifted the girl completely into his arms after a moment and straightened up, smiling when he saw Harry looking at him.

“Don’t worry, I’m perfectly allowed to have her,” the man said. He fiddled with something in his pocket and then flashed an ID pass to Harry.

“Building daycare nanny,” the man filled in, even though it said as much as on his ID, “Sorry if she was any trouble,”

“Oh,” Harry said, and then forced himself to smile, “That’s alright. She just startled me,”

“She loves meeting people,” the man said, and then the little girl on his hip grabbed at his wrist, pulling on one of his bracelets.

“Zee!” she said, “Zee,”

“Yes, love. I’m here. And I would’ve stayed with you if you hadn’t run off,” the nanny said before looking back at Harry, “I should get her back to the playroom. Have a nice day, Mr. Styles,”

Harry just nodded and watched them go.

*******

Harry didn’t remember to send Louis a reply text until he got up to his office, and didn’t get a reply until the office was closing up several hours later. Louis apologized, saying that he had been moving in and out of lectures or meetings all day, and he was just getting a free moment. Harry said it was fine and then set his phone down so he could pick up the drafting paper that was scattered around his desk. He’d finally figured out something that could work for their new laptop launch, and he was going to chase the idea until it solidified, even if he had to lock up the office when his brainstorming session was all over.

It was pitch dark outside by the time he finished. He leaned back, stretched, and then got his jacket, packed away his wallet and phone and keys into his pockets, and left his office. He wandered around the rest of the headquarters, checking that every conference room and hallway light was off, and then he took the dark main hallway into the elevator and went down the several stories.

The lobby was equally and empty, save for the late-night security guard who was at the check in desk. Harry offered her a brief nod, which she returned before going back to her magazine, and then he was heading out into the cool, late autumn air.

He didn’t even get a chance to start walking to the tube when he heard a voice behind him.

“Harry,”

He turned, and saw the man from the daycare striding towards him.

“Yes?” Harry said. He still didn’t quite know how the man knew his name, but then again, he’d said his last name that morning and Harry had been well known, once. Still was, although it was hard to remember.

The man smiled as he got closer.

“You and I are scheduled for a little talk tonight,” he said, and Harry frowned.

“I’m sorry?” he said. His hand was already going to his pocket, gripping his keys in case he needed to pull something out. The man was still smiling, although it felt a little tight, like he was placating him, or like he understood Harry just wanted to go home.

“I’m sorry about Niall,” the man said, “He comes on a bit strong. That’s just his style, though,”

“Niall – “ Harry stuttered, and then stepped back, “Who the fuck are you?”

“Easy, easy,” the man said, and he laughed “Fuck, I’m sorry. I hate this part. It’s always more fun to jump right in,”

“I’m leaving,” Harry announced, and he was turning, his feet quick and intent on going right to the subway, riding straight home, and possibly calling the building in the morning to review their daycare employees a bit more thoroughly.

But the man caught his wrist before he could go anywhere.

“Before you pull those worthless keys on me, I’m not going to hurt you,” he said, “I just want to have a discussion,”

“I’m going to miss my train,” Harry said, because for some reason in that moment that seemed like a better excuse to give than “I’m going to call the cops.” The man just shook his head.

“No, you won’t,”

The man lifted his hand, then, and the air around him stuttered, rippling like the surface of a lake after a rock had been cast on it.

“It’s going to be ten thirty for a little while now,” the man said, and Harry just stared at him, blinking.

“I’m Time,” the man provided, “But you can just call me Zayn,”

*******

“I should be going home,” Harry said weakly.  

“You can if you want. There’s nothing holding you here,” Zayn said as he shot a glance behind him, “But something tells me even if there was something holding you here, you wouldn’t care. You would’ve made a break for it by now. So. The fact you’re still here tells me you what to be here,”

Harry just stared at him, and Zayn chuckled, turning back.

“We’re almost there, I promise,”

Where, exactly?”

“Downtown park. Just a couple more blocks,” he said, and then looked back again, “Were you expecting a real answer?”

“I don’t know what I’m expecting, honestly,”

He shouldn’t be here. He shouldn’t be here following a random nanny from his office building who claimed he was Time. Of course, Harry had met Death. And that freezing-time trick sure had been decently convincing.

Still. Just because he was Time didn’t mean Harry had to follow him, especially not after what happened last time. And yet, here he was.

“Can’t you speed up this whole walking process?”

“Maybe. But it’s so nice out tonight,” Zayn shrugged, “Oh, here we go,”

He stopped, and Harry looked over at the iron gate that served as an entrance to an empty-looking public park. Zayn knelt down and fiddled with entrance door, which had been locked with a thin chain. 

“We shouldn’t be here,” Harry said, and Zayn just shrugged.

“Why not? It’s a public park, not a cemetery,”

“Yes, but it apparently has hours,”

“Uh huh,” Zayn said, and then shifted his fingers and the chain fell apart, letting the door swing forward a bit, “Alright, come on,”

“I’m not getting arrested over this,” Harry snapped, and Zayn groaned and looked behind him as he got to his feet.

“For God’s sake, any cop within miles of this place is frozen in time until I say they’re not. You’re not getting in trouble as long as you work with me,”

He pushed the gate door open, then, and looked at Harry expectantly.

“After you,”

“Can’t we do this whole thing at a Starbucks or something? There’s one right behind us,”

“No, we can’t. Now come on,”

Zayn apparently got bored of Harry waiting and went ahead and slipped into the park, and Harry watched him, his dark clothes nearly fading into the black. He considered leaving. It would be easy enough. If Zayn claimed to be who he said he was, he probably wouldn’t care if one human slipped him by.

But instead of leaving, Harry kept moving.

He hadn’t quite lost Zayn, he could still see the glimmer of silver in his ear or the glint off his boots as he walked, could hear the dead autumn leaves under his feet as he walked.  So he trailed after him, pulling his jacket closer around him as he went.

And then Zayn stopped completely and turned sharply, nearly out of sight, and Harry jogged after him, squinting as his eyes were soon assaulted with unexpected light.

He was in the middle of a large tunnel that looked lit from the inside, with no visible lights nearby, and the the walls completely covered with twisting, neon spray-paint art.

“Here we are,” Zayn smiled, and pulled his bag off his shoulder. He got on the ground and leaned over, unbuckling it and flipping open the flap. He pulled out a can with a hot pink cap, and then one with a black cap and then stood back up, leveling the two of them before setting the black one down and picking the the pink instead.

“So,” he said as he shook the can, “Harry,”

“Yeah?”

“I’m going to paint something, and I’m going to talk. I’m going to do this whether you’re here or not, but I’d really prefer if you stayed and listened. You can ask questions after I’m done, but only if you listen first, okay?”

“Is this why we’re here? Because you wanted to vandalize a public park instead of going to a coffee shop or something?”

“I like art,” Zayn said easily, “It’s one of my favorite ways humans spend me, even if some people think it should be illegal in some forms,” 

He turned back, then, pausing in shaking his can.

“So, are you going to listen?”

“Um, I guess,”

“Great,” Zayn smiled, and then pressed down on the top of the can, a mist of paint spraying out and onto the tunnel.

“First of all, my job entails two things. Quantity, and quality,” he says, “First, there’s quantity, which is shitty and boring and I don’t like it. And I don’t want you to go apeshit, because, well, this is kind of where Niall and I work together to a degree,”

“You’re born, and you get a set amount of time. If you’re healthy, have a good family, live in a safe area, all that, you’re going to be a born with time that matches the average lifetime. If you’re born with some medical condition, or your parents live in a house with lead paint or something, you’re going to a bit shorter,”

“But that time changes as you grow up and make different decisions. Say you start smoking a lot, or drinking a lot, or you really like getting blitzed and driving sports cars around crowded motorways. That’s all going to lower your time. You eat healthy, go to yoga, look both ways before you cross the street? Your time to going to be longer. It all depends on what you do,”

“So…it’s not pre-determined?” Harry interrupted.

“I said no questions. But no, it’s not. You’re not tied to a clock; you control the clock. Kind of,” he sighed, “My clocks don’t account for accidents. You could have fifty years left on your clock, but if you get head-on by a drunk driver, it’s going to end right then and there, no controlling that,” he paused and took a long breath before he continued, “Or, if you get sick, that’s not necessarily something you did, but…it still lowers your clock,”

Harry clutched his bands, unclutched them.

“Can I ask a question now?” he managed.

“I can’t tell you how much time you have left, sorry,” Zayn said, “Or how much time she had before the cancer came in,”

“Right,” Harry said. He had a different question, though, “So, what? You wind each person’s clock back every time they pick up a cigarette?”

“Oh God no. Automatic. I just watch, keep track, all that,” he shrugged, “And no big room of clocks, either. I kept all that stuff on a tablet. The twenty-first century is a great thing,”

“Yeah, I’ve heard,” Harry said drily, “Let me guess, is it a Kiwi Pad?”

“Well no shit. What am I going to use, a Samsung? Anyways,” Zayn said, “The whole thing about how I don’t control anything directly, that’s the first thing I need you to understand. I did not cut anything in her life short. I kept track of the seconds and minutes and hours that got subtracted as the cancer cells multiplied, but I did not subtract them on purpose. I can’t force that, I just watch. We all just watch,”

You all?” Harry parroted, “Is it just you and Niall or are there hundreds of things like you ruining my life?”

“No questions,” Zayn said again, “Anyways, like I said, the second thing I deal with is quality, and honestly, that’s what you should be worrying about now,”

“For some reasons you humans think the only way to spend your time wisely is by going to hot yoga or jumping off cliffs or going on gap year vacations to go find yourselves. And honestly, none of those things are bad if they make you happy. But that’s the key. Something’s gotta make you happy,”

“Some people want to spend their day walking their dog, or going surfing, or buying a five-thousand-pound handbag. If it makes you happy, I consider it quality time. Of course, you can’t always do something that makes you happy at all times. But if you’re trying your best, if you’re taking care of yourself and others, then I’m happy,”

“You’re going to tell me I’m not using my time correctly, aren’t you,” Harry interrupted.

“Ding ding fuckin’ ding,” Zayn chuckled, “Look, people grieve. People need time to rebuild and relearn how to live life when they lose someone. I understand. But now…” he shook his head, “Now, I don’t think you’re grieving anymore,”

“Of course I’m fucking grieving,” Harry snapped, “My daughter is dead,”

“I’m aware,” Zayn said coolly, “But I think you’re punishing yourself more than anything,”

Harry opened his mouth, closed it, scuffed his shoe on the sidewalk, tried to open his mouth again.

“If I keep talking will you keep listening?” Zayn eventually asked, and Harry nodded.

“I know you put a lot of time and money into researching her disease, and it still couldn’t save her, and I think you blame yourself for that. But I need you to know that wasn’t worth nothing,” Zayn said. He had picked up another can and he was shaking it up, making a steady clicking noise, “I saw moments, after you’d researched for hours or thrown half a million pounds at researching a new drug that might have a fraction of a chance of doing something, that her clock moved. Maybe just a little bit, but it moved. A few minutes, usually. Hell, I once saw it go up an hour. You gave her a little bit more time, Harry. Please know that,”

“And there are people researching that same disease now because of your money. I’ve seen so many people’s clocks go up a few minutes, hours because of that research. The other day I saw a little boy from Seattle, he has the same thing, and his clock went up a whole day,” he said, “A whole day, Harry. You did that for someone else,”

Harry just blinked, and then lowered his gaze down to the sidewalk.

He only remembered half the time he’d spent in medical and university and public libraries, pulling out tomes dating back to the 1800’s for any sort of clue that could help her, but he remembered the desperation, the sadness, and migraines and the dry eyes and the missed calls and texts piling up on his phone while his ex-husband was in the hospital and he…wasn’t.

It hadn’t done anything concrete then, and he’d sold every single bit of his research and medical patents he’d accumulated when it was all over to any hospital or organization that wanted them. He didn’t even remember who had taken them.

Apparently someone who could put it to better use than he could.

He looked up then, gazing at the opposite wall of the tunnel. Zayn was painting away, spritzing pale blue paint into his work, something that looked like a cartoon Chinese dragon smoking a cigar.

“Why aren’t you angry at me?” Harry asked, and Zayn paused, dropping his arm so that the can hung loosely at his side. He looked over his shoulder, just blinking.

“Why would I be angry?”

“I,” Harry started, and then swallowed, “I’m wasting you,”

Zayn shrugged.

“I know it doesn’t look like it, but I’m very, very old. I’ve seen a lot of people use me both wisely and poorly over the years. I used to get angry a lot at them. I still do, sometimes. But it’s not worth it anymore. I’m just a keeper,” he smiled, “You know I don’t appear physically to everyone, right? I’m here for a reason,”

“Yeah, so clearly you want me to do something – “

“I just want you to remember me, that’s all,” Zayn said softly, “Look, I’m not going to show you your clock. But like or not, you’ve got a hell of a lot of time left. I don’t care if you waste it or not, but…it’s an awful lot of time to waste. I’d just really like it if you not ignore it and wait for it to just drain away,”

Zayn stepped back, then, and dropped onto his haunches so he could pack his paint cans away.

“That’s enough for today,” he said, buckling his bag back up, “You get anything out of this?”

Harry just sighed, his cold breath coiling out in front of him.

“That time I have,” he said, “How am I supposed to spend it?”

“Who knows?” Zayn shrugged as he stood back up, “Get a goldfish, invent another supercomputer, go on a vacation, do cocaine. It’s not for me to figure out,”

The other man – the entity, the thing, the whatever – slung his bag over his shoulder and came over to Harry, patting him on the shoulder.

“Come on,” he said, “There’s a tube station not that far away, and they’re going to be leaving in ten minutes at 10:40,”

“It’s been ten minutes to 10:40 for a while,”

Zayn just smiled, “Walk there with me and I’ll make sure it stays that way,”

*******

“You look like hell,”

Harry glanced up and sighed when he saw Ed was in the doorway of his office. He sat back and rubbed a hand over his forehead, tossing his sketchbook onto the desk.

“I had a weird night,”

“Define weird,”

“Trust me, you wouldn’t want me to,”

“Alright, then,” Ed said, and then came further into the office and held up a large white take away bag, “Do you mind if I eat with you?”

“Do you mean, do I mind if you watch me eat?” Harry asked, and then shrugged, “Sure, I don’t mind,”

He’d actually brought a real lunch with him this time, even if it was just a cold thermos of tea and a plastic container full of leftover noodles. He reached under his desk and brought it out as Ed sat down.

“So,” Ed said before Harry could even pick up his fork and get any noodles on it, “My sister has a friend who’s single,”

“That’s nice,” he said, and Ed sighed.

“Let me rephrase that. A friend who’s single, and gay, and is a chemical engineering PhD with a good sense of humor,”

“I’m very happy for the two of you, then,”

“You want his number?”

Harry glanced up and then quickly looked back down, pushing his fork further around the noodles in his lunch.

“No, I do not, Edward Sheeran,”

“You sure? You know we just bought Grindr, I could hack into their databases and find out if he’s a bottom,”

“That’s illegal. And please don’t do that,” Harry huffed. He paused, pushing his food around more, more quickly saying, “I met someone, anyways,”

He didn’t know where it had come from. It wasn’t even a blatant lie. He very clearly had a “someone” in mind, he just wasn’t sure if he had the right to be talking about him now.

He chose that moment to heap as many noodles onto his fork as possible and shove them into his mouth so he didn’t have to immediately answer Ed’s onslaught of questions.

“Holy shit, are you lying to me? Who is he? When did this happen? Is he the reason you got a phone?”

Harry swallowed thickly and just shook his head, not even bothering to answer all of them.

“He’s…he’s someone, Ed. I don’t know what’s going to happen,”

“How long have you been going out?”

“We’re not. We’re just talking,”

He expected Ed to deflate at that, or to harp on him more, instead he just nodded.

“Shit, I’m happy for you, mate. Like, with – “

Harry and Ed locked eyes before he said the name, and he just swallowed and waved the moment away before pushing on, “You two were good together. Like, ridiculously good. Honestly, I was scared for a while you wouldn’t find someone else,”

Harry just kept looking at him, and he spread his hands out.

“But! You did! That’s good, H. Really good,”

“Yeah,” Harry said, and then picked up another forkful, “I’m trying, I guess,”

He could probably try to a little harder, though.

Especially because the person he’d been “talking” to was an acquaintance he had texted about four times, and stalked at therapy a lot more.

“Awesome,” Ed said, “But you didn’t tell me, where did you two – “

“Oh, look,” Harry said drily, tossing his sketchbook across the desk, “It’s a new laptop design. The thing that keeps this company running,”

Ed glanced at the paper, then up at him, and then sighed and took the book.

“Fine, I’ll take the hint,” he said, “But you’ll telling about this bloke later, right?”

“Sure,” Harry said, “Later,”

*******

Harry didn’t bother hiding when Louis came out of group that Friday. And Louis clearly didn’t expect him to, because he strode right ahead of the crowd and towards Harry, not bothering to pause and chat to anyone around him.

“There’s my favorite lurker,” he chirped. Even though he was close to Harry, he was already angling his body in the direction of the tube station, and Harry forced his feet to fall in step with him.

“How was your, um, week?” Harry asked. Asking about his night was probably not the brightest idea, even if he’d already talked to him all week.

“Fine. Toiled in academia, went home to my dog and watched telly by myself. Thrilling as ever,” he shrugged, “You?”

“I went to work,” Harry said, and then briefly thought about his expedition with Zayn, “And I went to the park,”

“Which park?”

“I don’t remember. But I’m pretty sure it wasn’t legal for me to be there,”

“Well then you’ve definitely had a more exciting week than me,” Louis chuckled, and then lifted up a hand to push his long fringe out of his eyes. Harry watched the movement, from the turn of his wrist to the movement of his fingers through his hair, and then the way his hand fell back down to his side and he looked back over.

“What?” he asked, and Harry opened his mouth and then just shook his head.

“I, uh,” he said, “It’s kind of shitty that this is the only time I get to see you in person,”

“Right,” Louis said, dipping his head. More hair fell into his eyes and he again lifted his hand to push it away, leaving Harry to trail his movement once more.

“Are you saying we should see each other again not outside a therapy office?” he asked, and it took Harry a moment to respond a he watched his Louis’s fingers pulled back, the fabric around his wrist bunching up and then pushing down to reveal pale skin and knobby bones and black and red tattoo ink.

“I, uh, yes. Yeah, I am,” Harry said, and Louis just lifted his chin and looked over at him with a gentle smile, his eyes glinting in the streetlight.

“Can I, um, buy you a cup of coffee sometime?” Harry asked.

Louis lifted a brow.

“Coffee,” he repeated, “Sometime,”

“Yes?”

“You’re asking me on a date,”

“Um,” he scratched the back of his head, “Yes?”

Louis snorted, shaking his head.

“You’re cute,” he said, “But I don’t drink much coffee anymore,”

“Oh,”

“But we can go to dinner,”

Oh,” Harry said, “Oh, alright. Yeah, I can – where?”

Louis just laughed.

“When was the last time you went on a date, Harry Styles?”

The answer was a cold hospital cafeteria during after hours. Coffee in Styrofoam cups and Saran-wrapped sandwiches, clasped hands and silence.

It had been their wedding anniversary. It was also two weeks before the machines in a room upstairs went quiet.

“A while,” he finally said, and Louis nodded.

“Can’t say I’m much better, honestly,” he said, “A new pub just opened up a couple blocks from my place, though. Food’s not bad. I can text you the address?”

“When?”

“Tomorrow night?” Louis asked, “I have no plans,”

“Tomorrow,” Harry repeated, “Okay,”

“Well, then,” Louis smiled, “Tomorrow,”

Louis had arrived at the tube entrance by then, and then reached out, tapping the nearest streetlight pole, the same one he had danced around the previous week.

“Tomorrow,” Harry echoed softly, softly enough that Louis could probably barely hear, but he still smiled gently, and then pushed away from the streetlamp and slipped down into the tube station before Harry could ask anything else.

*******

Harry really, really had forgotten how to go on a date. A first date, no less. His last first date had been in uni, when he was nineteen years old, and it had been with a boy who would later be his husband. He had come straight from the campus tech lab, and he was wearing a science decathlon hoodie from secondary. He was pretty sure that the same rules didn’t apply here.

He showered, shaved even though there wasn’t much on his face to trim off, and then rifled through his closet with his towel still around his waist. Everything that was hung up was comfortable and neutral-colored, which was fine for when he was moping around his office or getting groceries, but not for tonight. Yet he couldn’t bring himself to bust out one of the more colorful shirts that were stowed under bed.

Finally, he settled on a t-shirt, some dark jeans, an old pair of boots. He could wear his leather jacket over it. Maybe in dim pub lights it would look cool and not worn out and vaguely sad. He grabbed his keys, his wallet, and his phone, pulling up the address Louis had sent him as he walked out of his flat and descended his building stairs down to the sidewalk. It was a decent distance away, half way across the city, actually, so he sent Louis a text and then got the first train he could manage could he got down to the tube.

When he finally got off and up onto the street again, it took him a couple times searching before he finally saw a place that had the right name hanging on the window, the brick outside artificially marked and aged down despite the brand-new looking windows and light fixtures. He couldn’t see that many people from the outside, and when he slipped in, he saw most of the tables that were occupied were in the back, and only lit up by a few random rights.

He slid past the bar and instead went searching for the right table, turning his phone over in his hand in case he needed to send a text to get him there. But soon he saw a slightly hunched, golden brown head, and he paused, stopping right at the edge of the table Louis had taken.

“Hi,” he said, and Louis glanced up.

“Hello,” he said, and then flicked his eyes up and down Harry, shaking his head.

“I’d say you clean up nice,” he said, “But you’re wearing the same thing as ever,”

“We’re in a pub,”

“Good to know your pub attire and your stalking therapy groups attire are the same,” Louis said. He was smiling, though. That was…good? Maybe.

“Can I sit down?” Harry eventually asked, and Louis snorted.

“Jesus, you really have forgotten everything about dating,” he sighed, “Yes, you can. You should, actually,”

So Harry lowered himself down and slipped in the booth across from Louis, his fingers soon finding the sticky plastic menu card in front of him.

“So what’s good here?”

“Depends. Do you drink?”

“Not in a while,” Harry admitted, “But yes,”

“Now that’s different,” Louis chuckled, “In the group, it’s usually pretty black or white. Poorly concealed alcoholism or dead sobriety. The latter usually comes with Jesus, but, you know,”

“Oh,”

“I’m somehow in the middle, I should mention,” Louis said, “That being said, their daily brews are usually alright,”

“And food?”

“The Reuben’s not bad,”

Alright and not bad?”

“It’s a pub,” Louis said easily, “Can’t expect much else,”

He stood up, then, and Harry glanced over his oversized blue jumper, his loose jeans, his scuffed white trainers.

“I’ll go order our drinks,” he said, “And our food while I’m at it,”

He reached out easily, grabbing hold of the corner of Harry’s menu, and slid it away from him, instead tucking it against his own chest.

Harry, of course, had to watch his hand move because this was what his life had become.

Louis gave him a smile that made his smile lines bunch up even more than usual, and then he was gone, wandering over to the bar and becoming lost in the near-darkness of the pub.

Harry once again pulled out his phone and turned it over. He had no one to text, no apps to fiddle with, probably no urgent emails to send that wouldn’t go through Ed or someone even lower first. He had no way to fill the space until he heard Louis’s trainers tapping on the floor again.

He looked up, and quickly stood up when he saw Louis carrying two heavy-looking pints with both hands.

“Let me get that,” he said quickly, and he reached out, but of course he moved too quickly, and when he went to grab one glass away, the foam on top spilled a bit, splashing onto Louis’s hand, “Oh, God, shit – I’m sorry – “

But Louis laughed and shook his head.

“I’ll live,” he said, and then lifted his now-empty hand and stuck out his tongue, lapping at the beer foam.

Harry briefly forgot how to breath.

“See? I’m fine. Now sit,” Louis said. Harry backed up a few steps, back to the table, and then did sit down, forcing himself to take a sip of his own drink as Louis sat down as well.

“So, uh,” Harry managed, and then felt his tongue go thick when Louis looked at him expectantly.

“What do you teach?” Harry asked, and then tried not to noticeably wince when he realized Louis had already told him, “Like, I know English, but – are there any certain courses you focus on – “

“Yeah, actually. I have a specialization in Shakespearean and assorted Victorian works,” Louis said, “Plus, I used to run a couple non-profits, too, but, well, that fell by the wayside. Gave me time to go back to school, though, I’m going to be finishing up my doctorate in a few months,”

“That’s – that’s quite impressive,” Harry said, “My, um, my ex was a big fan of Shakespeare, too,”

“A lot of people are. And thanks,” Louis murmured. He stroked the rim of his glass with one finger, his eyes tilted down. He didn’t seem particularly wound up, and his voice was friendly, if not soft, but Harry could see his shoulders were raveled, his gaze cast far away.

“So how long as it been for you?” Harry asked, and Louis lifted his head.

“Since you went on a date, I mean,”

“Oh,” Louis said, his shoulders relaxing a bit, “A couple years, I think. I haven’t…well, honestly I haven’t done anything since the divorce. Work and school kept me busy. But I guess that’s a good thing though, right? Having something else to think about?”

Harry managed to swallow and rubbed the back of his neck.

“Well, I guess it worked better for you than me,” Harry said, and immediately regretted it when he saw Louis’s face crumple in confusion.

“What do you mean?” he asked, but thank God, one of the pub employees came over with two plates of sandwiches and chips, allowing Harry a few minutes to think.

“I just – “ Harry managed when the server walked away, “I tend to overwork myself on a normal basis. I think I just tried a bit too hard after…everything,”

He swallowed, and Louis just watched him.

“And now?” Louis asked gently, “How are you doing now?”

“I’m managing,” Harry finally got himself to say, “It’s…it’s different, now, at least,”

Louis looked like he wanted to ask more, but he sighed.

“Jesus Christ,” he laughed, “I feel like I’m not allowed to talk about anything happy anymore. I mean, this sucks, right? This really sucks,”

“Oh,” Harry said, and then sat back, “Fuck, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean – “

“It’s not you,” Louis sighed, “It’s this conversation. These are the conversations we have in group, by the way, if you ever wanted a taste. How has your life changed? How are you coping? That and a lot of memories and a lot of crying,”

“That sounds – shit, to be honest,”

“Yeah,” Louis shrugged. He reached out a finger, pushing at a chip on his plate, “It really is,”

“Then why do you go back?” Harry asked, and then bit his lip as Louis looked up and shrugged.

“So I can tell myself I’m trying,” he said flatly.

Harry just blinked at him, watching as Louis stared back at him evenly, and then he closed his eyes and sat back, only opening them to stare at his plate.

“I do that, too,” Harry eventually said, and Louis looked at him, his expression blank.

“I try to tell myself that I’m doing alright, that I’m doing my best,” Harry explained, “But, like, you know. Doesn’t work that well all the time,”

Louis nodded, his eyes shifting, and then, slowly, the corner of his mouth lifted.

“This is the most garbage first date I could imagine,”

“But I’d kind of like another one,” Harry said.

He didn’t know where it had come from, and he wasn’t sure he was glad or not that he’d said it, but it was out now.

“Do you,” Louis laughed lightly, “We haven’t even finished our food yet. Or talked about our last severe depressive episode. All the normal things you have to do before you decide on a second date,”

“Yeah, well, I’d still like one, I think,” Harry insisted, and Louis just shook his head, his smile remaining.

“Finish your food,” Louis said softly, “And then we can see if you know for sure or not,”

*******

So when do I get my second date?

Harry blinked at the text Louis had just sent him. He was in his office, was usual, the heaters running to chase off the late autumn chill, with papers spread all over his desk, some of them product sketches and drafts and others legal forms that still needed his signature. Clearly he hadn’t made much progress today.

He reached towards his phone and picked it up, the screen immediately lighting up at his touch as he read the message again. Another popped up while he was still looking.

It’s been nearly a week and you never told me lol.

Not sure. Harry sent off once he unlocked his phone, When would work for you?

Well, I don’t know what you’re doing today but I’m in rehearsal right now and you’re welcome to come over and go to dinner once I’m done.

Rehearsal?

Yeah, when we start a new play for class I like to actually act out the lines with my students. It should take less than an hour.

 

Sure, I’d actually really love to, I need to get out of the office.

Great!

 

Do you know where the campus is?

 

I’m sure I can get there.

 

Okay well we’re in the main university theater, I’m sure someone can tell you where that is. The door should be open and you can come in if you’re quiet.

                                                            

I gotta go. But I’ll see you soon.

 

Harry set his phone down and then stood up from his desk so quickly that the movement made one piece of paper on the desk fall to the floor. He grabbed his phone again and went to go get his jacket and then slipped out into the hall. Even if Louis wasn’t done, the train ride would probably last a little while, and finding the building would take more time. He would just go now.

“Ed,” he called when he saw the other man walking down the hall, talking with one of their engineers, “I’m going out to lunch. I’ll see you on Monday,”

“Oh, alright,” Ed managed, “Hey, have you signed that – “

“No, I haven’t. I will later,”

“The updated Google patent form, H. Can you just do it before you go? It’s important,”

“I’m going on a date, Ed! It can wait,”

“Fuck! Fuck, you’re right,” Ed shouted from behind him, “Have fun, you lonely, fearless bastard!”

Harry managed to laugh as he jogged to the end of the hall.

*******

It took a bit of searching – and a quite a few times asking random, perplexed looking students for directions – before Harry finally found the theater building and the correct performance room inside. When he found the right room, he quietly opened the door, trying to keep it from squeaking, and slipped inside. He ended up on the balcony of the theater, high enough to look down the main stage area. There were two small platform stages at the front and back of the room, the rest consisted of a sunken concrete floor with the chairs rising up along the curved outside of the theater. There was a student on one platform, a girl with a long blonde braid wearing a jumper and a pair of ripped jeans and socked feet.

And then Louis was on the other stage, holding a script but barely looking at it as he recited the lines of the scene with a girl, who by contrast kept glancing at the page in front of her.

“Now, our joy,” Louis was saying, “Although the last, not the least, to whose young love the vines of France and milk of Burgundy strive to interest; what can you say to draw a third more opulent than your sisters?”

“Nothing, my lord,” the student on the other stage read, her eyes finally lifting from the page.

“Nothing?” Louis retorted from the opposite stage. His arms were crossed over his chest, his chin was tilted high.

“Nothing,”

“Nothing can come of nothing. Speak again,”

“Unhappy that I am,” the student read, her eyes can cast firmly to the page, “I cannot heave my heart into my mouth. I love your Majesty according to my bond, no more nor less,”

“How, how Cordelia? Mend your speech a little, lest it may mar your fortunes,”

The student began reading a decently long section of lines, but Harry kept his eyes on Louis, who still had his arms crossed and was now slowly pacing the stage, his gaze firmly on the student reading.

The girl was clearly only reading a part she was painfully unfamiliar with. But Louis obviously knew the part, and the rest of the play, and how to react, what to do, how to act it out.

“ – to love my father all,” the student concluded, and Louis briefly broke his character to give her a nod before starting his own line, his voice rising a bit with manufactured anger.

“What goes thy heart with this?”

“Ay, good my lord,”

“So young, and so untender?”

“So young, my lord, and true,”

Harry noticed that all the students in the seats of the theater had their own copies of the play, and now they were lifting their eyes from the page and instead focus solely on Louis.

“Let it be so!” Louis spoke, and really, he was close to shouting, and it was enough for Harry to reach out for the balcony railing and grip onto it as Louis kept speaking, kept pacing around the stage. He was speaking words Harry understood only from attending countless Shakespearean productions from years prior, and yet still when Louis said them, it was clear the students down below, who had probably never even touched the play, could grasp the meaning of every word.

“Be as well neighbored, pitied, and relieved,” Louis said, his voice now shaking a bit at the end of his speech, either out of emotion or lack of air, “As thou my sometime daughter,”

Louis took a breath, and then rolled up the script between his hands before easily hopping off the stage.

“Alright, now do you guys have a good feel for it?”

There were a few murmurs from everyone there, a few claps, and Louis rolled his eyes but still loosely bowed.

“Remember, I want you all to have read through Act One by Monday, and yes, there’s going to be a test,” he said, “Does anyone have any questions?”

The same girl onstage raised her hand, and he nodded to her, “Yeah, Sammy?”

“Could I maybe read for a new part next time?”

“Of course. You know we shuffle around the roles. Anyone else?”

“You going to keep playing Lear, Professor Tomlinson?” another student asked, and Louis smiled.

“One of you can read if you think you’ve got a feel for it. It can be intimidating, though, that’s why I picked it up for now,”

“That and you’re old, right?”

“I think you’re forgetting I can fail you right now,” he said, but there was nothing weighty in his voice.

He happened to glance up then and his gaze locked with Harry, and he smiled and offered a wave. Harry’s hand felt heavy but he lifted it in a wave as well.

Louis turned back to his students and sighed, “Okay, guys, I have to head out. Now go enjoy your weekend,”

He headed towards the nearest staircase up to the main balcony level after he said, and a few people watched him go, glancing up to the balcony and to Harry as they watched him go.

“Ooh, does Professor Tomlinson have a friend?” one of them shouted, “He never has a friend,”

Louis rolled his eyes but didn’t even respond, just kept climbing until he finally reached the top of the stairs.

“Hey,” Harry offered.

“Hello,” Louis smiled, “How was your day?”

“Better now,” Harry admitted, and Louis lifted a brow.

“Is that you trying to flirt with me?”

“Um, yeah,” Harry said, “I’m trying to do better and all,”

“Right,” he smiled, “Listen, I’m not really feeling dinner right now. I had some food earlier,”

“Oh,” Harry said, “That’s alright, we can get a rain check,”

“No, no, I still want to go out,” he said, “Jesus, I haven’t had a free Friday from therapy drudgery in a while. I just want to make the most of it,”

“Okay, and what does that entail?”

Louis just gave him a glance as he went to get the theater door, “I think you’ll like it,”

*******

It’s a gay bar.

A new one, by the looks of it, but then again, a lot of the bars in the city are new to Harry. He can’t remember the last time he went out to one, it was probably before his daughter was born. He had probably told himself he’d go back when she got older and they could afford a wilder and lengthy date night.

The irony didn’t escape him.

It was pretty small inside, definitely not a dance scene, instead it looked like a regular pub, but with more pride flags and a longer specialty drink menu. He was glad for that; he actually did want to have a conversation with Louis that didn’t involve shouting over EDM.

Louis saw him looking around and he smiled.

“Dance floor is in the back room and it opens up at nine,” he said, “Drinks are all day, though. And they have food if you’re really hungry,”

“Not particularly,”

“Alright then. I’ll go get us some drinks. What do you feel like?”

“I can, um, pay this time. You did the first time,” Harry said, already moving towards the bar, “So what can I get you?”

Louis tilted his head and smiled softly, then lifted his hand and chewed at his thumbnail.

“Lemon drop,”

“Seriously?”

“Yeah,” he said, still smiling. He twisted his hand a little, his thumb circling his mouth, “That’s pretty gay, right?”

“It’s also pretty strong,”

“It’s Friday,” Louis said, and then dropped his thumb from his teeth and instead grabbed for Harry’s hand, “Come on, it’s Friday and I’m not in group for once, humor me,”

“Alright,” Harry laughed, and then shifted his own hand so his skin could touch more of Louis’s hand, “Alright,”

He pulled away, then, and went to the bar and ordered a lemon drop and a vodka tonic from the vest-clad bartender, and then returned to the main floor when he had both drinks. Louis had found a table and he looked up and smiled when Harry came back over.

He got his drink and kept smiling as Harry sat down, and then he lifted his glass to his lips.

“How old are you, Harry?”

“How old am I?”

“Yeah,” Louis nodded, “I never asked,”

“Oh. Ah, I’m thirty-four. Just had a birthday, actually,”

“Birthdays suck, don’t they?” Louis chuckled, and Harry couldn’t help but laugh, too, and nod.

“They really do. I got three birthday texts and one of them was from my dentist,”

“Jesus,” Louis shook his head, “Anyways, we’re not that far apart. M’only a couple years older than you,”

Harry nodded, but couldn’t help that his eyes wandered over Louis’s face, tracking the bunches of wrinkles around his eyes and mouth. Louis clearly caught him, because he lifted up his hand and covered one cheek, squinting his eyes as he did so.

“I know I look a bit older, but you know, sun, stress, and smoking will do that to a person,”

“I’m sorry,” Harry said immediately, “I don’t – I wasn’t – it’s not a bad thing,”

Louis lifted a brow, and Harry leaned forward, trying to keep talking.

“I think – I think you look really good,”

“Do I?” Louis asked, and he tilted his head a bit, enough to make Harry stutter when he tried to speak again.

“Yeah,” Harry said weakly, and then licked his lips and just repeated, “Yeah,”

Louis sat back, then, and Harry leaned forward a bit, almost chasing him, before leaning back in his seat. His hands shuffled against the table top, searching for his drink, and he finally found it and lifted it to his mouth, even though vodka was going to do little to quench his thirst.

“Hey,” Louis said, his smile shifting again, “Let’s stay until nine,”

“Nine?”

“Yeah. When the dance floor opens,” Louis said, “Honestly, I could hang out here for a while, but right now it’s just us and a table full of lesbians. Great for talking, not great for anything else,”

“I haven’t been to an actual, like, club or anything in a while,” Harry said, “Definitely before – “

He swallowed and Louis leaned forward, picking up on his silence.

“Before your daughter was born?”

“I – yeah,”

Louis nodded, and then his fingers clenched around the thin lemon-drop glass stem, and he just gazed forward.

“I, um,” he said, “I don’t know your daughter’s name,”

Harry blinked, looking steadily forward.

“Yeah, I never said it,”

“Well. Remember when I met you how I said the first thing we ask people in group is whether they had a son or a daughter?”

“Yes,” Harry nodded, “I remember,”

“Well, the second thing we like to ask is what their name was,” Louis said, “So, can you tell me what her name was?”

Immediately, Harry shook his head.

“I – I don’t really – no,” he said, “I can’t really think about it. I just – I can’t,”

“That bad, huh?” Louis asked softly.

“Yeah,” Harry nodded, and then looked away, “I know that’s irrational, probably, but I can’t think about her, or about my – my ex, I just, I can’t. I’m sorry,”

“It’s okay,” Louis said softly.

Harry felt something on his hand, and then looked down to see Louis had covered his hand with his own palm. His cheeks flushed and he kept looking down, away from Louis’s gaze.

“My daughter’s name was Miranda,”

Harry lifted his head at Louis’s voice, and the other man still had his hand over top of Harry’s own, but he was looking off into the distance, across the main floor of the bar.

“Was it,” Harry said, and Louis nodded.

“Mm hm,” he said, and then finally turned back to Harry and rubbed the back of his hand, “Pace yourself with that drink, okay? We’ll be here for a while,”

Harry just nodded and went to grab his glass.

“Do you want to tell me your ex-husband’s name, too, while you’re at it?” Harry asked, trying to make his voice joking, and Louis slowly turned back to him and smiled wryly.

“Now why would I do that,” Louis said, “When I’m here with you?”

*******

“Fuck!” Louis shouted over the music.

It was well after ten, and Harry had probably had two and a half drinks, and he was still tipsy, and he was bouncing on a crowded dance floor, under a bunch of flashing pink lights.

He was also the only man there aside from Louis.

“It’s the end of the month! It’s bloody Dyke Night!” Louis shouted, going to grab onto Harry’s shirtfront. He’d had the same number of drinks, but he looked a bit drunker, with his eyes glassy and his cheeks the same bright pink as his lips.

“I – I figured that out,” Harry laughed, and went to grab Louis’s arms. They were nearly steadying each other, which meant they weren’t very steady at all, but at least Louis’s hands were gripping him tightly.

“We should go,” Louis said softly, or at least as soft as his voice could be and still be heard over the music.

“Maybe,” Harry said back, and then Louis was grabbing his hand, pulling them through the crowd and towards the small circle of couches on the dark corner of the dance floor, which were all but empty.

Louis particularly fell down onto on of the couches, and Harry followed him, still laughing.

He’d been laughing a lot.

He couldn’t remember the last night he’d gone out that didn’t involve circling the therapy building or being forced to go to a company party.

And none of those had been this fun.

“Let’s come back,” he realized Louis was saying, and he lifted his head only for Louis to reach out and catch his chin between his thumb and forefinger, “Let’s come back when there are boys here,”

“Sure,” Harry murmured, “Wait, are we looking for boys?”

“No, darling,” Louis laughed, “I’m not looking for anyone if you’re not, either,”

Harry just blinked, his eyes feeling too heavy and his mind feeling too slow.

“This is fun,”

“Good,” Louis smiled, “I’m glad,”

“Is it, like, fucked up?”

“What is?” Louis asked.

“That I’m having fun?”

“No,” he frowned, “Why would it be?”

Harry swallowed, opened his mouth, tried again, and Louis frowned more.

“You’re allowed to have fun,”

“I know that,” he managed, “Or, like, I’m learning at least. It’s not that,”

He shook his head a bit too hard, reached up his hands and brushed them around the sides of his head, touching air. He was drunk. He used to do that when he had long hair because it was the only way to get it out of the way when he was this far gone, until he would reach out and push it back and kiss him on the corner of the mouth and…

Louis was talking.

“So what’s wrong?

“Like, is it fucked up that we’re dating each other?” Harry asked, “Like, because our kids are dead?”

Louis chuckled.

“You don’t seem to have a problem saying that out loud when you’re like this,”

“Just tell me,”

“No, love. It’s actually pretty common. Good God, the drama in our group. There are at least two couples in there right now and all their exes are in there, too,”

“Really?”

“Yeah, it helps people relate,” he said, “I guess it’s easier when someone can understand, you know?”

“Maybe,”

Harry blinked, his vision blurring out.

“She’s dead, Lou,”

Louis’s eyes flashed, his body frozen for a moment, and then he just nodded.

“I know,” he said softly, and then took Harry’s arm, “Let’s get you in a cab, okay?”

“But she’s dead, Lou,” Harry repeated, “I can’t have fun when she’s dead,”

“Yes you can, Harry,” Louis said softly, and then tugged on Harry’s arm.

“Come on, we’ve both had too much, they’ll get us a car if I tell them – “

“Do you miss her?” Harry asked, and Louis stopped, every muscle in his body going still.

“I miss Miranda every second of my life,” Louis said softly, “But I can still miss her and try to be happy. It’s okay. You’re okay,”

He pulled on Harry’s arm again, and his throat felt choked; he had more words to say but couldn’t find them.

Louis was pulling him to the doorway of the dance floor, he was talking to one of the employees, who laughed and promised they could call for a cab.

Harry pushed against Louis’s shoulder as he walked to the door of the bar, and he felt the other man falter, probably not anticipating the weight.

“Am I going to be okay?” Harry asked.

“You’ll be fine in the morning,” Louis said back, reaching up to push back Harry’s wilting fringe, “Everything’s fine in the morning,”

“Come home,” Harry whispered, “Can you please come home?”

“Maybe some other time,” Louis said, and then pushed on Harry’s shoulder.

“Get in the cab, love,” he said, and Harry turned, saw the car in front of him, and then turned back to Louis, blinking.

“I met Death,” Harry said, “He wears glasses and he’s kind of a dick. And I met Time, too. He’s nice. He was a lot of earrings,”

“That sounds interesting,”

“Why aren’t you drunk?”

“I’m drunk, too, darling. But you’re a lightweight. Always been a lightweight,”

“Always?” Harry asked, his brain clouding in confusion, and then Louis just pushed his shoulder again, pushing him into the back seat.

“I’ll order a second car,” Louis said, leaning down, “Just tell them where you’re going, okay? Call me in the morning,”

“Wait,” Harry managed, and then reached out weakly, “Louis, wait – “

Louis closed the door of the car before he could say anything else.

*******

Harry woke up with a headache, and a stirring gut when he remembered last night, what he had said.

Stupid.

He was so stupid, he had to go and cry about everything in front of Louis when they’d just been trying to have fun, and now he probably didn’t want to hear from him again.

This is why he didn’t drink. Or date. Or do anything.

He rolled over, groaning again, and reached out for the water bottle he kept on his beside table. If he couldn’t get Aspirin quite yet, he’d just try to rehydrate.

His hand came in contact with his phone, first, accidentally lighting up the screen, and he groaned and squinted as he looked up, only to notice there was a message onscreen.

Louis: Are you home safe?

Harry paused, his fingers hovering over the phone screen, and then he reached out more and grabbed hold on it, cupping it carefully in his hands and opening up his messages.

Are you mad at me? He typed out, and then waited, his heart skipping a bit when he saw a new message pop up.

Of course not.

I keep ruining these things.

 

Well, I’d like to go on a third date so you can’t have ruined them that badly.

Do you really?

 

Yes, I do.

 

You’re fucking with me.

 

There aren’t many gay men in that support group, are there?

 

No, there really aren’t. But that’s not the only reason I’d like to go out a third time.

 

Harry just winced and rubbed his dry eyes.

I am so sorry.

 

For what? Being sad? I’m sad. It’s fine. I understand. I really do understand, you know, I’m not just saying that.

 

I know. I know, and thank you.

 

He paused before going for another text.

I owe you a third date when I figure out where to go. So you don’t have to plan this time.

 

Alright, then. Glad I cornered you into it.

 

You didn’t corner me.

 

Joke, Styles, a joke.

 

Drink your orange juice and take your Aspirin and I’ll talk to you later, okay?

Alright.

 

Harry tossed his phone to the floor and rubbed his eyes before fully laying back down. He winced as the back of his head burst with pain, but he shut his eyes and rolled over. He would just sleep, and then when he woke up he would feel decent enough to go get himself some painkillers and something to drink.

It was a lie. He hadn’t gone out to drink in a while, but he knew he wouldn’t feel better.

It didn’t stop him from pulling the blankets higher up his shoulders, burrowing down deeply into the sheets, and trying to ignore both the pain in his head and the messages on his phone.

*******

London never thawed quickly. The dirt-caked snow clung on the edges of the roads for as long as it could hold on, and the air remained chilled even when the first flowers started to show up on the trees in the parks.

It was March now, and yet Harry was still wearing his overcoat into work. He had submitted a new design for their next product launch, and he was texting Louis frequently, going out with him when he could. He was still speaking to him, somehow, and Harry wasn’t about to take advantage of that.

Which was why he immediately kicked up the phone when he saw Louis was calling him one afternoon

“Hey,” Harry said, “What’s up?”

“Harry Styles,” Louis said on the other end, “I have a proposition,”

“Do you now,”

“Yeah,” Louis cleared his throat, “We used to have a beach house up north on the shore,”

Harry paused, rubbing at his bottom lip.

“We – “

“My husband and I,” Louis filled in, “Anyways, I got it in the divorce and I haven’t been there yet this year. I was thinking of going up just for the weekend to make sure it’s not falling apart. Would you maybe like to join me?”

“Oh,” Harry said softly, “Are you sure?”

“Of course I am. I’ve had to go up by myself the last few times, I’d actually like to make an event out of it this time around,”

“Okay,” Harry realized he was saying before he could even think threw it, “This weekend?”

“Yeah. I could come pick you up at your place if you’d like, I actually already called off work for Friday so I can come get you that morning,”

“Sure. Sure, that sounds perfect,” Harry said, “I – I’ll let everyone in the office know I’ll be out then,”

He picked up a pen off his desk and flipped it back and forth, tapping one end and the other the other, back and forth, against his desk.

“Should I bring anything?” he asked.

“Just yourself and your clothes. I don’t know if the water will be warm enough but bring swim stuff just in case if you want to go in the sea. I’ll take care of everything else,”

“Alright, if you’re sure,” Harry said, and then stopped and set the pen flat on the desk, “Can’t remember the last time I went to the ocean,”

“Then it’ll be a good weekend for the both of us,” Louis said softly, “Sorry, I have class in a bit, and you probably have work. I just wanted to ask you,”

“I’m glad you did,” Harry said quickly, “I’ll see you Friday,”

“I’ll text you before then, I’m sure. But yeah. I’ll see you then,”

Harry nodded and didn’t pull his phone back from his ear until he heard the tone beep that told him Louis had hung up. He shuffled the papers that had been left on his desk, and then called outside.

“Yousef?” he called. A moment later, the intern that had taken to working with Harry over the last couple weeks poked his head into the office with a smile.

“Yes, Mr. Styles?”

“Can you please set my calendar for the week and make sure it can be consolidated?” Harry asked, tossing his pen onto the desk and then leaning back in his chair, “I’m taking Friday off,”

*******

Louis’s Subaru was idling in front of Harry’s building early Friday morning, early enough the sky wasn’t entirely blue but rather pale and still stained with pink and gray stripes. When Harry got closer to the passenger-side door, he squinted past the slight glare and saw that Louis was sitting in the driver’s side seat, one arm thrown over the wheel, the other holding his phone. He had on a thin jumper, the edges of a pale vest poking through the loose neckline, and a pair of jean shorts that looked hand-cut at his knees. Harry knocked lightly on his window, and Louis started a bit and then looked, reaching up as he did to sweep his hand over his fringe. He rolled the window down and then leaned his head out a bit.

“Hey,” Louis breathed out with a smile, and then there was a click from inside, “Come on in, the boot’s open, too, for your bag,”

Harry nodded and went around the back of the car, depositing his bag in the boot and then going over to the passenger side and opening the door.

“Do you mind if we stop by Starbucks?” Louis asked once Harry was safely inside, “Don’t think I’ve gotten up this early since I had to go out to the beach last year,”

“That sounds great,” Harry said, and Louis looked over at him with a soft smile.

“Here,” Louis said before reaching over, his arm brushing Harry’s knees as he tapped the glove box, “I keep forgetting to back up my phone, so all my music is on CD’s at the moment. Try and find something you like,”

“You sure you don’t want to pick?” Harry asked even as he opened the box. Inside, there was a haphazard pile of shiny CD covers with album art Harry recognized, used to have his own copies in his car and even before that, in a shoebox under his desk in his dorm room so he could play them on his stereo on the nights when he was the only one around in the hall. Nirvana and The Rolling Stones and David Bowie.

But instead, he reached past them and went for a cover in black and white and red.

“Green Day,” he said, not even making it a question, and Louis snorted.

“It was a phase,”

“It’s a good album,” Harry shrugged as he opened it, pausing before he said anything else, “My ex used to love this album,”

“Then let’s not listen to it,” Louis said easily, and then reached over and closed the CD back up.

“I don’t mind. I’m fine with it, it’s not – “ Harry began, but Louis shook his head.

“Just pick something you like,” he said, “Please. I want to here what you like to listen to,”

Harry looked up, and Louis didn’t look angry or sad or really anything. His eyes were just wide and steady and clear, and eventually he smiled.

It was enough for Harry to reach forward, put the Green Day album back, and instead pick something else out. It looked like Prince, but he wasn’t exactly sure, he was moving too fast as he went to open it up. Louis pulled to a stop as a red light washed over the dashboard, and he sighed and looked over.

“We’ll stop for coffee soon, alright?” he said, and Harry just kept his eyes down and nodded as he focused on putting the CD on.

“Hey, cheer up,” Louis laughed and set his hand on top of Harry’s, “It’s a long drive to the shore,”

Harry lifted his head, gazing at Louis and his easy smile.

He felt his mouth twitch up into something that could be called a smile, and Louis laughed as the first parts of the album played.

It was a good start.

*******

When they finally got into the town, Harry could already smell the bitter, cold saltwater, and he leaned towards the half-open window and sighed as he inhaled deeply. He heard Louis laugh, the noise nearly all air, and he just quietly rolled down the window all the way so Harry could breathe in more deeply.

It didn’t take very long for them to pull into a nice-looking neighborhood of beach houses, and then Louis was pulling into the driveway of the nicest building. It was pastel blue with white and yellow trimming, with multiple upper balconies and a twisting staircase up to a final rooftop balcony. There was bushes out front but they looked trimmed down to nearly nothing, probably out of a lack of attention. As Louis cut the engine, Harry could clearly hear the ocean roaring in the distance.

“Um,” Louis said, drumming his fingers against the steering wheel, “Inside is probably a tip and I don’t have food, would it be okay if you went to the shop and got the groceries for the weekend while I clean up? You can have the car, of course,”

“That would be fine, yeah,” Harry said quickly, and Louis nodded.

“Fantastic,”

He got out of the car and Harry crossed over the front of the car to meet him. Louis handed over the keys, and they jangled a bit as his hand shook. He looked up and locked eyes with Harry and sighed, lowering his gaze.

“Sorry,” Louis laughed weakly, looking away again, “Last time I was here with my family, you know,”

“Right,” Harry said, trying to keep his voice even. He was intruding here, a new addition to very old, well-trodden set of memories.

“But I’m happy you’re here,” Louis said quickly as he looked back up, like Harry could hear his thoughts.

Lately, Harry thought that sometimes he could just that.

 “It’s going to be fun, yeah?” Louis said, his voice picking up more easily now, “And it’ll be sunny tomorrow, too,”

“Yeah,” Harry said, and he found himself smiling, “Do you have any requests for food?”

“I’ll text you a list of things I had in mind. But if you want something, get it,”

“Easy enough,”

He reached out for the keys again, and Louis easily handed them over, his hand barely shaking this time.

“Just let me know when you’re on your way back,” he said, and then he was swiftly disappearing into the house before Harry could say anything else.

*******

 

Louis sent him a text saying that the front door was open, so Harry just let himself in, cradling one grocery bag on his hip and carrying his suitcase in the other hand as he did.

“Hello?” he called as he walked into the front foyer of the house. It was wide open, with a long staircase up the side and a wide entrance to a living room off to one side, everything done up with white and navy.

Louis poked his head out of an open door at the end of the front hall and he smiled, motioning with a hand.

“Hey,” he returned, “I’m glad you’re back. I can start dinner while you unpack,”

“Are you sure? I can help,”

“No, no, that’s alright,” Louis insisted as he helped take the grocery bag from Harry, “And I can get the rest of the bags, too,”

“You don’t have to do everything,” Harry said, and Louis shrugged.

“It’s fine. I don’t mind,” Louis said. He started pulling out objects from the bag as he spoke, and as always, Harry’s gaze followed his hands, the way his fingers touched a bag of tomatoes or a paper-wrapped package of fish.

“Is stew okay?” Louis asked, and Harry nodded, his eyes know following the movement of Louis’s bare feet on the tile. He had tattoos on his legs.

“Harry?” his voice came again, and Harry lifted his head and tried not to flush at Louis’s easy but knowing smile, “Is stew okay?”

“Great,” Harry managed, “Um,”

He dug into his pocket and found the keys and then set them on the nearest marble counter, and Louis inclined his head in a silent thank you. Harry grabbed for his suitcase again and then he headed quickly out of the kitchen before he could embarrass himself again.

He could pull it together.

As he climbed the stairs, he traced his fingers over the wall, outlining the paler squares of paint where pictures inevitably used to be. Harry couldn’t tell if Louis had taken them down in the hour or so he had been at the shop or years earlier than that, but of course even without seeing them he knew that there were pictures of Louis, of his husband, of his daughter.

Miranda. There used to be pictures of Miranda here.

And then at the top of the stairs, Harry was confronted with another reminder. A door that was painted a pale purple, a sharp contrast to the other pristine white doors that lined the hallway. Stuck to the front where several little silver stickers of stars, and above all that, a little silver ‘M’ sticker was stuck to the middle of the door, a bit crooked.

Harry swallowed and looked away. He wasn’t supposed to look at the door, he wasn’t supposed to breathe near that door.

Harry hurried down the hallway, found a white door that led to a bedroom, threw his bag down on the bed, and breathed.

He almost felt tempted to pretend that he’d gotten a call from work and needed to hurry to the nearest station and go back to London. But that was childish. There was no reason to run away from something Louis invited him to easily, openly, even if he didn’t fully belong there.

Slowly, he took the bag off the bed and instead just set on the floor, not bothering to unpack his two days’ worth of clothes in the small white dresser. He busied himself by taking fresh linens out of the closet and put them on the bed, and then he opened the small window that looked out to the churning, pale sea so that his room could be filled with the bitter smell of salt. He took another moment to look around the room and run his fingers over meaningless things – the remote to the small TV, the plastic flower arrangement on the bedside table – before he finally forced himself to go back downstairs.

Louis was still in the kitchen, standing over a big red metal pot the stove, slowly stirring a long wooden spoon around the contents of the pot. He glanced up and smiled as Harry came in, tilting his head a bit.

“Is your room okay?”

“Yeah, it’s great,” Harry said, and Louis nodded before looking back to the pot.

“This should be done soon,” he said, “There’s bread in the oven, do you mind taking it out and cutting it up?”

“Of course,” Harry said quickly. He rushed to the oven and wrapped a tea towel around his head before he took out the foil-wrapped bread, and then joined Louis at the counter as he got out a cutting board and knife.

Louis soon turned the stove off and set the pot back, and then got out a couple bowls and ladled out the stew. The small dining table got set out with spoon and glasses of white wine and the bread Harry had cut up, and they sat on either side of the table, eating quietly except Louis would speak up with suggestions for the next couple days.

“The closest town is about twenty minutes away if you want to go out to dinner or see a film or something,” he said as Harry stirred his stew, pieces of seafood bumping over his spoon, “Or we can stay here and be close to the sea, whatever you want,”

“Anything, really,” Harry murmured, and looked up to see Louis was looking at him carefully, but he turned away when Harry looked up. He was still smiling, though.

“This is really good,” Harry said, and it was enough for Louis to turn his head and look at him again, his hand curling under his chin as he did so.

“Thanks. I can’t cook much else, fair warning,” he said, “But, um, I got good at stuff I could make in a crockpot. That and cereal. And sandwiches,”

“You ‘got good’ at it?”

“Mm,” Louis nodded, “When Miranda was sick,”

Harry stopped, his spoon clattering to the edge of his bowl as he lost his grip on it.

“She was sick?”

“Yeah,” Louis said, but didn’t elaborate. He just lifted his own spoon and went back to eating, so Harry did, too.

But when Louis spoke again, it was to say “Thank you,”

Harry’s head snapped up and he frowned.

“Why are you thanking me?”

“For not saying you’re sorry for something that can’t be fixed,”

Harry blinked, and Louis just looked back at him evenly, ducking his head.

“People said that to you, too, didn’t they?” he asked softly, “Said they were sorry? Sorry for your loss, sorry you had to go through that, sorry for everything?”

“Yeah,” Harry said weakly, “I always hated that,”

“I know. Everyone in group talks about how much they hated it,” Louis said, and then sat back, “Hey. I have an idea. Let’s not talk about that this weekend. I have to think about every other weekend, I’m tired of it,”

“Oh,” Harry said, “I’m sorry, I – “

“No, no, it’s fine. I don’t care when we bring it up. I just – “ he sighed, “Remember when I told you you can be happy even after all this has happened?”

Harry felt his throat tighten. Of course he remembered that night. He remembered every sip of alcohol and every flashing light and, unfortunately, every word that had slipped between their lips.

“I remember,” he murmured, and Louis nodded.

“Well then for once,” he said, “Let’s let ourselves be happy,”

*******

It rained all Saturday.

Louis offered to drive them into town and go to lunch and then to do some shopping, but Harry just shook his head.

“You have Netflix here?” he asked, and Louis grinned.

“And Hulu. What are you in the mood for?”

They ended up re-watching some parts of Daredevil and Jessica Jones and Luke Cage, skipping Iron Fist because Louis hated it. There was stew left over from the night before but Louis ordered in some fish and chips from a nearby shop instead, and then some ordered coffees even as the day leaked into late afternoon. The rain was constant, dripping from the windows and driving hard on the roof, and the sound of wind and the wild ocean seemed to batter at every wall of the house.

But Louis had insisted they share a blanket, and had leaned his head on Harry’s shoulder as he sipped at his coffee, and that was enough to make Harry forget that a rainy day at the shore was supposed to be a bad thing.

He put his arm around Louis, and then other man didn’t protest. Not even when Harry stroked his hand over his shoulder, feeling the sharp jab of bone through his skin, and then settled his hand at the soft crook of Louis’s neck.

“Do you want to do something else?” Harry whispered, and Louis lifted his head, his eyes wide and sleepy and dark as he blinked up at him.

“Yeah, but I don’t want to move,”

Harry snorted and shook his head, and then dared to move his other hand and push Louis’s fringe back a bit, let his fingertips linger on his forehead.

What are we doing? Why am I here?

 

Are you okay? Are you lonely? Are you hurting?

The words curled in Harry’s throat and pushed against his lips, and he wanted the answers so bad and yet wanted to keep them away as long as they could, so that whatever they were couldn’t reach in and pry apart whatever was happening.

“I can make dinner,” Harry murmured instead, and Louis shook his head.

“Don’t want you to move, either,” he said, and then his hand was curling Harry’s belly.

“I – “ Harry said, his voice choking, “We have to move eventually,”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Louis chirped, and then his head was resting against Harry’s shoulder again, his hair tickling Harry’s skin, their bodies blended from one touch to another.

Harry closed his eyes, his ears roaring the sound of rain and the TV and his skin burning with touch.

It was easy enough to think maybe this could be it. That this moment could become a loop, and it would be all he ever had to experience, and it would be okay.

*******

The rain spilled into Sunday, too, but Harry wasn’t even disappointed. Louis had a pack of cards in the junk drawer of the kitchen and they sat on the living room floor and played every game they knew, and Harry helped him peel vegetables for dinner and then it was over, and they would be going back to the city in the morning, and Harry didn’t have it in him to be disappointed he hadn’t gotten to go outside.

But then only a few hours he had fallen asleep, he heard the door of his bedroom creak open. His opened his eyes and turned over, seeing Louis’s form in the doorway, and despite himself he grabbed the edge of the sheet and pulled it over his bare chest.

“Lou,” he rasped, the nickname coming easily, and he saw the other man advancing into the room, his footsteps soft and even on the hardwood of the room. He leaned down next to the bed, folding his arms on the side of the mattress and setting his chin down on top of his folded hands.

“Harry,” he whispered, “It’s not raining anymore,”

“Oh,” Harry mumbled, lifting his head enough to look out the small window. It was still streaked in rain, and the sky still looked still and rain, but there was no sound of rain beating on the sides of the house, and he couldn’t see any movement that would suggest rain.

“I guess it’s not,” he finally said, easing himself back down onto the mattress and then turning to look at Louis, “Just our luck,”

“No, no, we can’t just ignore this,” Louis insisted, “Let’s go out now,”

“Out?”

“Yeah, let’s go out. It’s not too cold or anything,” he said. He was grinning, and Harry could see the way his eyes sparkled even in the dark, “Come on. We can go swimming, or just sit on the beach, or something,”

He gripped Harry’s hand, then, and Harry felt his throat get thick as Louis looked up at him.

“Please?” he whispered, and Harry really didn’t have a choice.

“Give me a couple minutes,”

Louis grinned and then he gone, just as quickly and quietly as he had come, and Harry laid in bed a few moments longer, gazing up at the ceiling, before he finally pulled the sheets off himself and fumbled around the room searching for clothes.

He met Louis at the bottom of the stairs a couple minutes later. He had just put on his loosest jeans and a hoodie, while Louis was wearing a giant sweater over a pair of running tights. He smiled and grabbed for Harry’s hand again once he reached the bottom of the stairs entirely.

“Come on,” he said, tugging him all the way across the floor and towards the sliding doors, “Come on, we have just enough time between when the teenagers are going to break onto the beach and when the early morning surfers are going to come out,”

“Okay, okay,” Harry laughed, and just let Louis’s surprisingly strong grip guide him out into the early morning air. The grey sky had just started to break with streaks of pink and orange and white, and it couldn’t even be called sunlight, but it still caught Louis’s hair, making the lightest parts of it look brilliant blonde and the darkest part a pale caramel.

When Harry’s bare feet set down on the cool sand, Louis let go of his hand, and Harry wiggled his fingers weakly, trying to grab for Louis’s hand again. Louis saw him, and his eyes flickered before he smiled.

“Come catch me,” he whispered, and Harry didn’t even have time to open his mouth before Louis was jogging away from me. He looked over his shoulder, watching Harry, his eyes wide and expectant, and it was enough for Harry to force his feet to pump forward. Louis laughed when he saw it, and then turned back around and began full-on sprinting towards the gray stretch of water.

Harry was never a runner. He could barely stay balanced on a treadmill. And now he was half-asleep and stumbling over sand to catch up with a man who was becoming a blur of blue on the horizon, his form obscured by the dying sunlight on the water.

Somehow, though, he managed to catch up with Louis. It wasn’t until he was right on the shoreline, his feet crashing into the cool water until he was ankle-deep into the sea, but still, he caught up. Louis’s hands reached out for his own, and he realized that he was laughing, and Louis was laughing, and his lungs and legs burned probably a bit too much but it felt okay.

“Okay, old man?” Louis laughed, and Harry couldn’t even be mad. He just laughed harder. He could laugh for a long time just like this.

“You’re bright red, you know that?” Louis said, reaching up to cup Harry’s cheek in one hand. He felt his laughter still and then stop, but he was still smiling. That, at least, would never stop. At least not in this moment, with Louis looking at him like this.

“Hey,” Louis eventually said, “Harry?”

“Yeah?” Harry asked, and then he felt a swift kick in his shin, and he winced, but he didn’t even have time to take in that short burst of pain because he felt his clumsy feet tripping and losing traction in the water and the slippery sand.

“Fuck!” he barked, and reached out, grasping wildly for anything to catch him.

He did, at the very least, manage to grab the front of Louis’s jumper, and he heard the man’s laugh turn to a laugh as he tumbled down with him into the water.

“Sh – shit,” Louis blubbered. He gasped, spitting up salt water, and then reached up a hand, pushing back his soaking wet hair, “You piece of shit. You absolutely piece of shit, Harry Styles,”

“You started it,” Harry managed as he shook his head, his wet fringe sticking into his eyes.

“That I did,” Louis finally agreed, “Well, I guess we’ll get a late start. I need to do laundry now,”

“That’s a shame,” Harry said, but his voice faded as he looked forward. He was soaking wet and his heavy clothes were clinging to him and he was cold now, but he couldn’t even focus on that because Louis was right in front of him with the salt water gleaming on his skin and his lashes and hair dark from the water. The other man blinked, looking up, and gave him a look that felt like he knew why Harry was looking, and knew exactly what he had been looking at, and didn’t exactly want him to stop.

“Come here,” Louis said softly, and Harry managed to pull himself a bit across the wet sand until he was pressed closely to Louis, and then the other man was slipping a wet hand behind his head and pressing their cool, salt-specked lips together.

Harry pulled back, but Louis shook his head.

“Don’t stop,” he said, and then laughed weakly, “Darling, please don’t stop,”

He tugged on Harry’s wet hair and Harry just exhaled weakly, and then pressed his lips to Louis’s again, his lungs burning because he didn’t even have the chance to inhale before he had leaned in again. Louis’s mouth was so cold, and he tasted bitter and gritty from the water, but his touch was strong and persistent and his hand kept steady against the back of Harry’s head, holding him steady. He pulled his other hand down, brushing over Harry’s arm, chasing away the goose bumps that were growing there. Harry’s neck ached and he slowly set his cheek down on the wet sand, and Louis followed him, the cold, swallow tide occasionally washing up to wet their hair, lap at their foreheads.

A heat spread through Harry’s belly and his cheeks burned. He suddenly wanted Louis to lift his body up, to press against him and bracket his knees around Harry’s hip. He wanted Louis to purse his thin, bright pink lips and blow air on Harry’s Adam’s apple before kissing it, he wanted Louis to touch the gaps between his ribs, rub at his hipbones with his thumbs. They were wild, fleeting thoughts, so simple, nearly nonsensical, and yet when Harry leaned forward to kiss Louis again and the other man set his fingertips gently on Harry’s lips, he felt something that felt too close to grief roll through him.

“Harry,” Louis whispered. His mouth was bright red and wet, chapped and splitting open near the bottom, “I’m cold,”

Harry blinked, and then reached out to set his hand on Louis’s elbow, rubbing his hand back and forth over the chilled skin.

“We can go in,”

Louis nodded, and a wave brushed over his hair, leaving foam in his splayed-out fringe.

“Let’s just stay here today,” he murmured, “Make some hot drinks, hang out, go out in the sun. I’ll cancel my classes, the kids will be thrilled,”

Harry wanted to tell him no, they should go home, Louis shouldn’t stay here because of him.

But instead, he said “Please.”

Louis smiled, and his eyes flickered down, his eyes shifting.

“Louis,” Harry managed, “Aren’t you cold?”

Louis looked back up, then, and soon his eyes were nearly obscured as they crinkled up and he laughed.

“You know,” he said, “For a second I forgot I was,”

Harry laughed, too, shaking his head. He sat up, and he reached up a hand, brushing thick, wet sand from his hair.

“You can’t just forget that you’re cold,”

Louis sat up to join him and just shook his head, still smiling, his eyes creased and wrinkled.

“Looking at you,” he said, “I think I could forget a lot more than just that,”

*******

 

It turned out that the ideas for the new laptop models Harry had been tinkering with actually had real potential, and soon he was in the offices of all his best engineers, who spent their days trying to figure out ways to actually turn Harry’s sketches into something real. Harry could’ve left them alone in the whole endeavor, but he’d made the company’s first laptop with his bare hands in his and Ed’s first apartment in undergrad, and he wasn’t going to let the technical workings of his own business slip through the cracks now.  

He still called Louis every night, and went out to lunch with him when he could, but Louis was getting swept up in planning the last parts of the semester, and so he had gotten just as busy as Harry had.

They hadn’t kissed since the beach. Louis usually just left their lunches or brief meetings with a peck on the cheek if anything.

It bothered Harry more than it should. He felt like he was chasing the taste of Louis’s lips in his dreams.

As March wound down, Harry had taken to spending every day with his engineers, leaving Ed to once again run all the company meetings. But Ed didn’t even complain, just smiled and told Harry he was glad he was getting into something again. Usually, Harry left with the rest of the engineering department around seven in the evening, but sometimes, he stayed even a few hours after that.

It was eight now, and April would be beating down the door in just a few hours, but Harry was still in the engineering room, marking down one of the technical sketches with a grease pencil. His hands were stained with blue and black pencil marks, as were the sleeves of his university sweatshirt that he had taken to wearing to work. He twisted his wrist, hearing the joints click, and he stepped away from the table. He could see about thirty more glaring errors he hadn’t marked down yet and he had solutions to maybe half of them. He lifted his pencil again and tried to mark a few of the problems down, but his wrist protested, and he just tossed the pencil down and then grabbed his bag from the corner. The mistakes would be there in the morning, too.

As he headed out into the hall, he heard his phone ring, and he picked it up without looking as he glanced around the office, checking for any lights that might have left on.

“Hello?” he asked, but before he could even finish the question he was interrupted.

“Harry,” Louis said on the other hand. His voice sounded a bit tight, a little distorted, but it was still unmistakably him.

“Hey,” Harry said, “Is something wrong?”

“No, not really,” Louis said. His voice still sounded wrong, though, and Harry’s grip on the phone tightened, “Where are you? Are you home?”

“No, actually. I stayed late at work, I was just heading out,” Harry said, trying not to panic too much, “Do you need something?”

“Kind of,” Louis said, “Could you come over?”

“Come over where?”

“My house,”

“Ah,” Harry said. He had stopped moving completely, instead just standing in the middle of the hallway, but he picked his feet up again, moving back towards the elevators, “Are you sure you’re okay? Nothing’s wrong?”

“I’m fine, Harry. I just…I kind of want you to come over,”

Harry reached the elevator and pressed the ‘down’ button, and then lifted his hand and tugged on his lip.

Louis had never asked him to come over to his London house before, never even brought the possibility up.

This couldn’t be nothing.

“I’ll get a cab right over,” he said. He wasn’t sure if a train or a car would get him there faster, but a car was the first thing that came to mind, “Can you get me an address?”

“Oh, an address,” Louis said, like he was surprised Harry was even asking, “Right,”

“Am I supposed to – “

“No, it’s nothing. But yeah. I’ll text you,”

“Okay,” Harry said, and then looked up as the elevator pinged and the doors slid open. He slipped inside, switching his phone to the other ear as he selected the lobby, “Just – I’ll be over soon, okay?”

“Okay,” Louis echoed, and then the line went quiet right before the beep sounded, telling him Louis had hung up. Harry dropped the phone away from his ear and shoved it quickly into his bag, and jogged straight out of the elevator into the lobby when the elevator arrived.

Something was wrong with Louis.

Something had to be wrong with Louis.

His phone buzzed as he went towards the doors of the building, and he glanced at his screen to see a text from Louis with an address on the outer edges of the city. He sighed and shook his head as he got to the sidewalk.

He would find out soon. Whatever it was, he would find out soon.

He raised his arm and waited for a cab to notice him and pull over. 

*******

The neighborhood was wealthy. Very wealthy. Three story houses with front and back gardens, small as they were, wealthy.

Harry didn’t know how much the university paid its theater instructors, but it probably wasn’t enough to pay for this. He tried not to pick that apart too much.

Harry paid for the cab and then stepped out at the right address, tilting his head up a bit to look at it. Three stories, brick outside, classic pointed roof. There were curtains covering one of the front windows but yellow light still leaked through and out onto the neatly kept grass of the front garden and the dying flowers that lined the front of the house.

He sighed when he heard the cab pull away behind him and finally forced himself to go up to the front door and knock. Immediately, there was loud barking inside, and a few moments later, the door opened and a large, black dog rushed up to met him, bumping clumsily against his legs.

“Hey,” Louis’s voice chided weakly. As Harry kept his eyes down on the animal in front of him, a small hand half-covered in a thick sweatshirt sleeve came out to grab at the dog’s collar, “Clifford, hey, no,”

“It’s okay,” Harry said, letting the dog lick his hands. Louis laughed, and this time Harry looked up. Louis had his eyes cast down to the dog, too, but he soon lifted his gaze to look at Harry. His eyes looked dark, as did the skin underneath him, but he was smiling enough for his skin to crease.

“He likes you,” Louis said, and Harry turned his gaze back down to see the dog – Clifford – was still sniffing his hands and trying to lick him.

“Come on,” Louis said, and Harry wasn’t sure if he was speaking to the dog or him, but he still followed Louis inside as he tugged the dog safely back into the house.

“So,” Harry said softly. He pushed the door closed behind him and watched as Louis stroked Clifford’s head and then trailed off to another room, “Is everything okay?”

“Yeah, I told you, everything’s fine,” Louis’s voice came form the other room, and he emerged a moment later with a ruined-looking chew toy that he tossed onto the ground. Clifford clumsily jogged after it, his feet slipping a bit on the hardwood floor until he finally settled down into a heap of curly black fur and started in on the toy.

“Would you like some wine?” Louis asked, and Harry lifted his head and realized Louis had gone back into another room.

“Sure,” he heard himself saying, and then he shuffled to follow Louis, not even bothering to take off his shoes.

It was a living room; he saw when he walked in. A living room with a clear path to a spotless nearby kitchen where Louis was standing over the counter, pouring out two glasses of wine from a nearly-empty bottle.

“I was just thinking,” Louis said with no prompt. He set the bottle down and sighed, shaking his head, “Just thinking,”

Harry nodded and then turned his head, his eyes falling on a set of leather-bound photo albums, sitting closed on a coffee table that sat in the middle of a circle of expensive looking couches.

He could guess what Louis was thinking about.

Louis wandered back over to him and offered him a glass of wine, and Harry took it and drank a bit before setting it down on a near side table. He didn’t really want to drink it, anymore. Not when he saw Louis standing in the middle of the living room, his wrist limp and his fingers lightly clinging onto the glass rim, his eyes cast to the carpet.

“Are you sure everything’s okay?” Harry asked. Louis shook his head and his hand stopped moving, but he didn’t look up.

“It’s been a rough day,”

“Okay,” Harry said, his voice feeling too thick, “I – I have rough days, too,”

“Mm,” Louis hummed. He lifted his glass and tilted it back far, nearly half the glass disappearing into his mouth.

“Are you sure that’s – “ Harry began to say, but Louis cut in.

“What was your daughter’s name, Harry?” he asked softly.

He paused, his jaw working as he just looked over at Louis.

“I can’t,” he said weakly, and Louis sighed.

“Can you please just tell me?” he asked, rubbing a hand over his face, “Please, Harry, I told you, it’s been a hard day,”

“I – “ Harry stuttered, “I don’t know what you want me to do,”

“Damn it, Harry,” Louis snapped, and he dropped his hand from his face and looked over. His eyes were red. Had they been that way before?

“Just stop it,” Louis said weakly, “Stop it,”

“I don’t – “

“Don’t fucking play dumb with me, just stop it! This isn’t the time!” Louis shouted. He was shouting now, his voice reedy and thick with strain. Harry took a step back and blinked.

Louis stopped and looked away, inhaling through his nose, making a sniffling noise. He folded up his arms, pulling them closer to him, and then he went over to the coffee table. Harry tensed.

“Louis,” he said weakly as Louis opened one of the books, “Please, don’t – “

Louis shot him and look and flipped through the plastic-lined pages, fast enough Harry couldn’t see their contents, and then he stopped, his whole body stilling, tensing. His fingers moved forward, pulling one picture out of its place.

Harry felt like he couldn’t breath.

“Louis, please,” he said again, but the other man just shook his head as he came forward, until he was a few feet away from Harry, and he offered him the picture.

“Just look,” he said softly, his eyes wet and spilling over now.

Harry should have left then.

Instead, he lifted his hand, took the picture, looked down.

His own face looked back at him. A younger version of himself by a few years. Freshly thirty, tan, hair down to his shoulders. There was sand behind him, an ocean beyond that. Not the beach house. There were palm trees behind him. Somewhere tropical.

And pressed against his cheek, was Louis.

Smiling so widely, the sparkle of his eyes burning through the picture, but the creases on his face were less intense. His hair was shorter, his fringe not even closer to falling into his eyes.

On Harry’s lap was Miranda.

It was before she had gotten sick, before the possibility of such a thing had even entered their minds. Her hair was dark blonde and curly, ratty and uncombed from beach wind, a straw hat stuck on top to make it look more presentable. Her mouth was open wide to show a mouth of baby teeth.

Harry could nearly hear her laugh.

Her eyes were green. Her dress was purple. Louis was holding her by one hand while Harry kept an anchored arm around her middle.

Harry lifted his chin, and he felt like suffocating when he saw Louis watching him. He thought of the plastic inhaler he used to keep in his bedside drawer upstairs, just in case.

He wondered if it was still there.

If Louis had kept everything in what had once been their house.

And then when Louis spoke, Harry knew there was a very real possibility he would never breath again.

“Our daughter’s name was Miranda,” Louis said, “We spent a year and a half chasing a foster system that fell through, and then when our friend Perrie agreed to be a surrogate, we all threw a party and cried. We got a service that said we wouldn’t know who the biological father was, but I always knew it was you. She had your eyes. We had four and half years with her and then she got a brain tumor. A rare, one in a million case, but our baby girl got it. We only had another nine months after that.” 

Louis grasped Harry’s hands, hard enough to make him drop the picture entirely, and Harry just looked at him. Louis was shaking – his hands, his lips, his shoulders.

“Harry,” he said, “Harry, please say our daughter’s name. Please,”

Harry swallowed hard and gazed back at his ex-husband – and Jesus Christ, when had he ever let that “ex” be there? When he ever let something so permanent end?

“Harry,” Louis said, “We were strangers. We played that game. And it was fun, and we got to be us again without any of this shit. But I need you to come back to me now. I need – “ Louis stopped, and Harry could tell he wanted to say so much, but eventually he just said, “Please just say her name,”

“Louis, I can’t,” Harry got out, and then he was ripping his hands away, stumbling back, “I can’t,”

Harry’s back pressed into the doorframe and he bowed his head, like not seeing this would make it stop happening.  

“Baby, please,” Louis whispered, and he sounded so strained, so desperate, so in need of anything.

There had been a time when the smallest dip in Louis’s mood was like a cavern opening in Harry’s own heart, when he would offer Louis a kiss for every teardrop, when digging a real laugh out of Louis was better than anything else in the world.

He felt it now, too. But for once he felt like he couldn’t do anything to fix it.

“I can’t, Louis, I can’t,”

“But I need you to,” Louis said, and Harry shook his head.

“I don’t owe you anything,” he said tightly, and Louis’s eyes flashed. His hands pulled on Harry’s wrists and then they were gone.

“Yes, you fucking do!”

Louis was yelling again now.

Louis didn’t yell. Louis shouted. Louis made himself heard. Louis didn’t yell except when their puppy tracked mud on the brand new sea-shell pink carpet or Miranda ran away in a crowd and a security guard wasn’t being helpful or when Harry was being a dumbass.

And then Louis was right up in front of him, still yelling.

“You don’t get to stalk me at my fucking therapy office, pull me through this stupid charade, make me think you care anymore, and just ignore this,”

Harry gritted his teeth and pushed his shoulders back, pushing himself away from Louis in any way he could.

“I am not ignoring anything,” he said stiffly, and Louis took another step forward, forcing Harry to shuffle back, ever closer to the wall.

“You won’t even say her name. You won’t talk about her. You pretend like she was never there,” Louis snapped, and Harry blinked before taking one step forward, the sound of his foot stepping on the hardwood echoing in his ears.

“You don’t get to tell me what I think about her,” Harry said, and he realized that he was shouting now, too, “I think about her every day of my life, Louis. There is a massive fucking hole in who am I without her. Without you,”

“Oh, do not start with me,” Louis snapped, “You don’t get to talk about how much you cared about me, how much you missed me after this,”

“But I did,”

“And how the hell do you think I feel?” Louis yelled, “I have cried myself to sleep over you. I haven’t been able to date anyone because I’m still fucking in love with you,”

Harry just blinked, and shook his head.

“You – you’re what?”

Louis crossed his arms over his chest and looked down.

“You should’ve left me alone,” he said bitterly, “You should’ve never come back to see me at therapy if you knew you couldn’t talk to me like this,”

Harry opened his mouth to say something else. All he got out was one weak “Louis” and then the other man was lifting his hand.

“Please get out,” he said.

“Louis – “ Harry tried again. He reached behind him, gripping at the wall so his knees wouldn’t buckle and give out.

“This is my house,” Louis said, and Harry could hear the sniffling and thickness in his voice, “Not yours. Not ours. Mine. And I want you to leave,”

Harry just blinked again, his feet frozen.

He was standing in their house. The house he had cast away to Louis in the divorce but he never expected him to keep. But Louis had kept it, and then he had invited Harry over. And now he was angry, because he thought Harry had forgotten everything, that he didn’t care now.

We could be strangers again.

No, they couldn’t.

They could not exist without baring every piece of themselves to each other. They weren’t built to exist outside of each other.

Harry only flinched when there was soft prodding at his hand, and he looked down to see Clifford nudging at him. Harry lifted his hand, petting him a bit, and the dog rubbed against the touch and looked up at Harry with his big brown eyes, his pick tongue poking out of his newly white snout.

“Hey,” Harry said weakly, “I’m sorry I didn’t come visit you sooner,”

He heard Louis make a weak noise, and then his footsteps were leaving the kitchen, going into the open entrance to the next adjacent room, what had once been one of their bigger entertaining rooms.

“Let your fucking self out,” Louis mumbled, but all the fire was gone from his voice, leaving only damp and smoldering ash.

Harry didn’t bother arguing. He listened until the footsteps of his ex-husband faded into the other room, and then rose higher, up the staircase that sat at the back of the house.

Then, Harry gave Clifford another stroke on the head and went into the living room, put the wine glasses into the sink, and then went to turn the lights off in the kitchen, the living room, the hallway. He picked Clifford’s favorite toy from where Louis had left it in the hallway and led the dog to his old bed that was still in the living room.

He had done the same thing a million times. But now instead of following Louis upstairs, he went out the front door and locked the door behind him.

He wondered if Louis would be angry at him for cleaning up, for putting things back in order, as if he any right to do so.

*******

When Harry had first seen Louis, he had been dancing.

It had been one of the first few days of autumn, but it hadn’t felt like. The trees around campus were only splashed a bit with orange and red, the sky was still clear blue and nearly cloudless, the sun was bright and warm.

Harry had been in a bad mood that day. He still couldn’t remember why. Probably because he had had to stop by the registrar office because even though he knew he was registered for the evening slot of Dr. Edith’s Advanced Computer Programming class, he had gotten into the morning slot instead, and it had overlapped with his senior-level calculus class. And not only had he had that snag, but now he was on the opposite side of campus from his dorm and he had a long walk back.

To ease the long walk, he had cut through one of the main campus lawns, one that was filled with brick arts buildings and flowering trees and other nice things to show visiting students.

There had been a group of arts students on the lawn, and Harry could’ve just walked past them, because he was annoyed and tired and in a hurry.

But he had stopped and looked. There were two people standing on one of the smooth, paved sidewalks, while the others lounged in the grass, watching. They were dancing, and Harry didn’t know shit about dance but it looked like ballet – very technical, very difficult ballet. And yet they were doing it on the sidewalk, in street clothes, and they were still doing alright.

Harry should’ve kept walking after he noticed them. But he couldn’t, because one of them was a boy, and…

Well, Harry couldn’t stop looking at him, to be honest.

He was twirling and moving so much that Harry got a glimpse of him in doses. First it was the swoop of his pale brown hair, and then it was the deep dip of his back at his waist, and then the sharpness of his collarbones, the thin, pink line of his lips, and the flash of blue eyes. Blue, blue, blue eyes, the kind of blue Harry could see from far away, the kind that seemed to duplicate if not rival the clear early autumn sky.

He was small, but he looked too old to be an underclassman. He was wearing black jeans that were slashed at the knees and a white t-shirt and a pair of trainers so battered Harry got the feeling that the boy danced like this in them a lot.

At one point the girl he was dancing with grabbed him around the waist, lifting him easily over her head, her toned arms straining only a bit as she did so.

“Babe!” the boy squawked, “Pez, put me down!”

But he was laughing, and even from far away, it was so heart-clenchingly gorgeous, and the smile that went with the noise…

Harry wanted to go right up to him, see the soft, confused smile on his face when he first saw Harry, and then he wanted to touch his shoulders, his hair, kiss his nose and the curve of his neck, run his tongue along his cupid’s bow.

He couldn’t, though, he forced himself to turn and pace back down the path.

*******

Harry took two separate Ubers to get back to his apartment, and when he finally climbed the stairs and got to his door, he was ready to collapse. The only real food he had was a week-old container of vegetable soup in the fridge but he went ahead and heated some of it up anyways. He didn’t bother taking off his jacket or shoes, at least not yet. He just stood in his kitchen, eating his half-heated-up dinner, and tried to piece this all together.

This had been a mistake. It had been a mistake to come back to that therapy building the first time he saw Louis through the building window. There was a time and a place to meet your ex-husband again, and a therapy group discussing your dead daughter did not fit that time or place.

But then again, maybe it had also been a mistake for Louis to talk to him. And then for him to answer back. And for them to somehow play along with this charade like it made sense, like it would change anything that happened to them.

There was a knock at his door.

Harry sighed, setting his bowl down hard on the counter, and he wandered over to the door. It was too late for anyone to be coming over unless they had a pipe break in their place or some other disaster; hopefully he could deflect having to deal with it.

When he opened the door, he didn’t recognize the man who was on the other side of the threshold. He was nearly Harry’s height; with eyes a few shades darker than his close-cropped hair. He had an easy smile, and he was fully dressed despite the late hour, in a plaid shirt and jeans and boots.

“Can I help you?” Harry asked.

“Right,” the man said, “Haven’t introduced myself. I live across the hall from you,”

“Oh, alright,” Harry sighed, “What’s up? Something wrong in your place?”

“No, not really,” the man smiled, “But you and I are supposed to talk about now,”

Harry just stared at him and blinked. 

Because he knew those words. He’d heard them twice before in the past few months.

“Please don’t say it,” Harry said, and instead of giving him a confused look, the man just opened his arms and smiled sheepishly.

“You’re Love, then?” Harry asked, and the man shrugged.

“That would be me,”

Without hesitating, Harry slammed the door in his face.

There was a persistent knocking a moment later, but Harry set his head in his hands, shaking his head.

“No, no, fuck this,” he muttered.

“Harry?” Love was calling, “Harry, come on, mate, we need to talk eventually,”

“No, we don’t!” Harry shouted, “I don’t need to talk to any of you! Just leave me alone!”

When the knocking disappeared, he sighed, and then when he turned, Love was right behind him, in the middle of his apartment. Harry shrieked, bouncing back and almost falling over his coffee table.

“Sorry about that,” Love clapped his hands, “Usually I do like to be given permission, but, well, I was told you were a bit tricky,”

“You were told,” Harry laughed drily, “You all have a club, do you? Meet up, have some coffee, laugh at my expense?”

“Oh, no. Well, we do meet. No coffee, though. No use for that. And no laughing, only discussion,”

“Right,” Harry laughed, “Listen, I don’t know how to say this nicely, but please leave me the fuck alone. It’s already been a hard night,”

“And why do you think I’m here?” Love asked, and Harry just squinted at him.

“You can talk, but I won’t listen,” he eventually said, and Love laughed.

“Figures,” Love shrugged, “How I make us some tea and you sit down for this?”

“Yeah, sure, whatever the hell you want,” Harry huffed, and went and sat on his couch. He didn’t even reach for his phone to call the cops or security. This was just his life now, apparently. He had had a fight with his ex-husband and had an entity of some kind brewing him tea in the other room.

“So what do I call you, then?” Harry called as he put his feet up on the coffee table. Love’s head poked out of the kitchen, and he gave Harry a curious look, which annoyed him more than it probably should have.

“Your human name,” Harry prompted, “You know, so I don’t get overwhelmed by you or something,”

“Oh,” Love laughed, and then his head disappeared back into the kitchen even as his voice continued, “Liam is fine,”

*******

Harry just glared at Liam for a solid five minutes before he even tried to speak, and when it did, it was a sigh.

“I understand you don’t want me here,” Liam said, and Harry just narrowed his eyes even more.

“Uh huh,”

“But there is something I’d really like to say to you before anything else,”

“What is it?” Harry sighed, “Is it that I shouldn’t ignore you? That you’re a natural part of life? That you have no control over anything at all and I shouldn’t fucking hate you? That – “

“I’m sorry,” Liam cut in, and Harry blinked.

“You’re sorry for what?”

“That’s what I wanted to tell you, that I’m sorry,”

Harry just kept staring back, and then pulled himself up to stare Liam down more fully.

“Yeah, and I repeat, what are you sorry for?”

“For not being enough,”

Harry was silent, and sat back.

“Okay,” he said blankly, and Liam shook his head, lifting his tea cup up and took a sip before speaking again.

“I’m going to tell you something, Harry,”

“Yeah, I’ve kind of gotten the impression that’s what you things like to do,”

“I’m going to ignore that. Anyways, here’s the thing. Soulmates don’t exist. They just don’t. There might be people who are going to be perfect for you in every way possible, but you might be decades apart, or countries apart, or speak different languages, or whatever it may be. So people find the people closest to them that are the best they can do. And sometimes it’s great, and sometimes it’s okay. But I’m there to try to make it okay,” Liam explained. He paused, then, and lifted his chin, shaking his head at the ceiling, “But you and Louis…you were one of those cases that came damn close,”

Harry ducked his head.

“Great, now you’ve told me everything I’ve gone and fucked up?”

“No, I’m telling you that I’m a pretty strong force in this world. And if you want it to work, it can,”

“Great,” Harry sighed, “I’m so glad you told me. This is definitely a pep talk I couldn’t have gotten from any romantic comedy,”

“Well, what can I say. I’m straight forward and at some point people stopped bothering trying to be original with describing me,”

Harry cut a glance to Liam, but he didn’t look angry. He wasn’t even looking at Harry, instead he was just stirring his tea carefully.

“So, like, when all of you hang out and chat about my misfortune,” Harry said, making Liam look up, “Do they get pissed at you? Because I’m guessing they’re a bit jealous people like you the best,”

“What, are you talking about me, Zayn, and Niall?” Liam asked, and he actually laughed, “Honestly, people probably hate me the most,”

“There’s no way in hell,”

“Oh, yeah. They see Niall coming, so there’s an element of padding that comes with it. Most people are pretty indifferent to Zayn, unfortunately. But me? Jesus Christ, people fucking hate me,”  

“How, though?” Harry said, and Liam laughed even harder.

“You fucking hate me. It shouldn’t be that hard to imagine other people hate you, too,”

“People write poems and novels and shit about you. And songs and movies,”

“Niall and Zayn get those, too. They don’t mean anything. And those things aren’t even about me, they’re about people. I’m just what holds them together, or can’t hold them together, and that’s what people hate,”

Liam lifted his mug and took a careful sip of his tea, “Your drink’s probably gone cold,”

“Are we done yet?” Harry said, and Liam just looked at him.

“He’s not worth throwing away, you know”

“I don’t want to!” Harry snapped, “I never wanted to, Jesus. Why don’t any of you understand that?”

He shook his head as Liam just looked at him evenly, not even trying to dole out any sort of half-baked advice.

“I want him; I want him so bad. I want our house and our dog and our dinners with Ed and Perrie and our daughter. I just, I want everything to be normal,”

“You can’t have that,” Liam said, “Not all of it. Not the way it used to be. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying for,”

Harry didn’t say anything. His eyes were burning, his face felt hot. He didn’t want to work this out right now, he wanted to be sad and angry. He wanted to go to bed.

“What do you see when you look at him?” Liam asked softly, and Harry wanted to scream at him, but instead he just ducked his head, focusing on worn spot on the boots he still hadn’t taken off.

“I see…” he swallowed, “I see my entire life. My past and my present and my future, and even the years before I knew him were worth it if everything I did would lead me to him,”

Liam shook his head.

“You see? Soulmate shit. It makes me weep. And there’s been some really overshot-things written about me over the years,”

Harry just glared at him and Liam put his hands up.

“Harry, listen. I think you’re right. He’s your life. And he can be part of this, too. The pain. Actually, he’s probably the best person for it,”

“But I fucked up,”

“I’m going to give you a hint. You really didn’t,” he said, “That boy loves you, Harry. You know how I know? Because I can feel every person’s heartbeat inside mine that is hurting because of me, and he’s right there,”

“That’s really fucking abstract,”

“Yeah, well, I’ve soaked in some things over the years,”

Harry just blinked at him, and then leaned back into the couch.

“Can I ask you why the hell you all came and found me?” he asked, “I mean, you have over seven billion in this world that are all pissed at you, and you take the time out of your lives to come find me,”

“None of us are alive,”

“Just answer my question,”

Liam shrugged and smiled.

“Because we like you, Harry,”

“Because of something I painted on my office wall and said in a TED talk,”

“Because you believed in what you were saying,” Liam said, and then tilted his head, “Go get him. Don’t wait too much, but…maybe wait a little bit. But go do it,”

“Noted,” Harry said, but he sounded tired, his voice completely robbed of anything sort of bite.

“I’ll leave you now,” Liam said, “Sleep well,”

Before Harry could even do anything, Liam was leaning forward and pressing a hand to his forehead.

Harry woke up on the couch, alone, with the tea mugs from last night washed and back in the cupboard.

*******

Harry slipped in an emergency appointment with Sarah the next day.

She didn’t look particularly happy to come in for an additional appointment on a Saturday, but Harry had already offered to pay three times his regular appointment fee for this, and to her credit, she came in with a steady smile.

“Hello, Harry,” she said, “How are we doing today?”

“I’ve been lying to you,” he blurted out, and she just stared at him before frowning. He noticed her finger was nervously picking at the corner of the binder on her lap.

“Oh?” she asked smoothly, “What about, exactly?”

Harry shook his head and locked his fingers together, looking down at his hands.

“I’ve been, um, seeing my ex-husband,”

“Louis?” she asked easily.

“Well, I only have one,” he sighed, “Yeah, um, yes, he would be the one,”  

“Mm,” she nodded, “And why didn’t we discuss this?”

“It’s complicated,”

“Able to talk about in an hour complicated?”

“Maybe. I don’t know. I’ll do my best,”

“Well,” Sarah said wearily, clicking open her pen, “Go on, then,”

*******

The first time they had actually spoken, Louis had been crying.

Harry had been in the campus library, on one of the public computers as he worked on one of his design projects.

Then, he heard something.

“Are you sure there’s not anything?”

The voice was high and strained and shaking a bit, clearly choked with tears. Harry’s head lifted and he cut his eyes to the corner where the sound was coming from, just so he could see what was going on. There was a boy – he thought it was a boy, at least, their back was turned – standing in front of the small office for the director of the student tutor program. He was leaned heavily against the door, his fingers gripping tightly onto the doorframe. Harry could hear the voice of the tutoring director from inside, her voice hushed and quick.

“I’m sorry, but we just don’t have any math-specializing tutors available right now that can see you on such short notice, we usually book sessions a few weeks in advance – “

“But I didn’t have this problem a few weeks ago, and I won’t have it in another few weeks because I’ll be fucking failed out by then!” the boy said, and his voice rose. Harry noticed a few other people turning to look, and his stomach shifted. He should look away.

“Please lower your voice,” the director whispered harshly, and the boy just shook his head.

“Whatever. Sorry for bothering you,” he choked out, and then he was pushing away from the doorframe, turning away, lifting a hand to wipe at his eyes.

Harry tensed.

It was the boy. The boy he had seen dancing on his way to class.

And.

Well.

Harry had to work on this project. But the magical dancer boy had just walked straight back into his life, and he wasn’t about to let him slip by again.

As quickly as possible, Harry saved his file, logged out of his campus account, and then gathered up his stuff as quickly as possible as he strode towards the tutoring office before the boy had even gotten too far away.

“Hi,” Harry said softly, “Um, sorry, I swear I wasn’t trying to eavesdrop, but I’m actually a campus tutor for most of the math and science courses online. I’m not on the clock right now, but, honestly, I’m not doing anything, I’d be happy to step in,”

The boy turned, and out of the corner of his eye Harry could see him glaring at him. Harry winced, but the tutoring director was staring at him easily from across her desk, an easy smile crossing her face.

“Oh,” she said, “Well, alright. Can I have your student ID so I can log in your time?”

Harry gave it to her, and once she had logged him in he turned and went to jog after the boy who was now striding away from the office.

“Hey, um,” he called, “Do you want to get a table?”

The boy turned, his eyes red and brimming with wetness. They were blue. Painful, poetry blue.

“Sure,” he managed, his high voice raspy with use. Harry immediately looked around and then went to drop his things at the first open table he saw, the boy trailing after him and slowly taking the seat across from harry.

“Well,” Harry smiled, “M’Harry,”

The boy didn’t say anything, just squeezed his eyes shut and shook his head.

“Okay. Um,” Harry said, “What exactly do you need help with today?”

“Statistics,”

Okay. That was fairly easy to explain. Harry said as much and the boy just sniffled, looking up.

“What year are you?” the boy asked.

“Second,”

“Jesus Christ,” he mumbled. He raised his hand, wiping his eyes, “I’m a fucking senior, and I still can’t – “

The boy shook his head, making his long fringe shifting and flop over this eyes, “Look, I’m not stupid. Or maybe I am, I don’t fucking know. I have a three point five GPA, I swear, I just – “

“Hey,” Harry interrupted, “It’s okay. Not everyone is good at math,”

“It’s barely math, though, fuck,” the boy snapped, and then covered his face with his hands.

Harry paused, unsure of what to do. He wanted to reach out and grab the boy’s hand, pull it away from his face so he could see the slope of his cheekbones and the weak shadows cast by his eyelashes, because, God, they were long enough to cast shadows.

It was stupid and selfish to think of those things now with this boy sitting across from him gulping back tears. So he tried to push it away, and instead opened his mouth to ask a question.

“What’s your name?”

The boy’s hands dropped, and he looked up at Harry with careful, guarded eyes.

“Louis,” he finally said.

What a pretty name. What a gorgeous, perfect name. Maybe any name he would’ve said would have been perfect in Harry’s mind, but this one…it felt especially so.

“Well, it’s nice to meet you,” Harry said, “And I promise I’ll help you. And, um, if I can’t, I can tell you jokes or something?”

Louis snorted.

“Okay, tell me one,”

“I – “ Harry was prepared for that to actually work, “Um, why did the bicycle fall over?”

“Jesus, I don’t know, why?”

“Because it was two tired,”

Louis blinked at him blankly.

“What the fuck does that mean?”

“Um,” Harry swallowed, licked his lips. Fuck. Fuck fuck fuck, “Like, a bike has two wheels. Two tires. So, like, it’s two, T-W-O, tired, like…um…yeah,”

Louis stared at him for a while longer, and then he laughed. It started out with just a snort, and then he was actually laughing, hard, enough that a couple people at nearby tables lifted their heads just to look or glare at them.

“Fuck,” Louis gasped eventually, “I hope you really are good at math, because that’s fucking terrible,”

“But you laughed,”

Louis gave him a wry smile and then nodded.

“Yeah, alright, I did,” he said. He reached down, then, and got out his bag and dug a textbook out of it, “Okay, teach me,”

*******

Harry showed up to the house again on a Sunday morning.

It had been nearly a week since he had last seen Louis, and he’d had his emergency and regular appointments with Sarah. They’d talked through some things, about inherent issues between the him and Louis, the idea of getting back together, Harry’s hopes, his concerns. They hadn’t done yoga once. Maybe that was good. Maybe that just meant he wasn’t ignoring everything for once.

He hadn’t exactly brought up seeing Louis again in the sessions, so he didn’t have a second opinion. But still, he found himself trailing up the short pathway to what had once been their house.

The neighborhood was quiet, like it always was on Sundays. It was mostly older couples that lived here, and Sundays were big church days for them. He wondered if some of the couples he remembered still lived here, the ones that had always knocked on their door and offered baked goods or their grandchildren’s old toys to Miranda.

Miranda. The name had entered his mind again. That was a good thing, wasn’t it?

There wasn’t an answer right away when he knocked, even though Harry could see weak light coming from the living room window. He heard Clifford barking inside, and if he craned his neck to the side he could see the garage was open and Louis’s car was parked there. Harry glanced up, seeing if he could spot the security cameras he had installed once around the house. Maybe Louis was watching him on the monitor and that’s why he hadn’t answered.

While Harry had his head tilted up, the door opened.

He immediately lowered his chin and met Louis’s eyes. The other man was standing in the doorway with the door tightly clutched in one hand and his coffee mug in the other, his feet covered in socks even though he was wearing a t-shirt and a pair of gym shorts. His gaze was steady, but not angry. Then again, Harry wouldn’t have had to look at him to see if he was angry. Louis just wouldn’t have answered the door if he was still really pissed off.

Louis spoke first, his throat bobbing thickly before he spoke.

“Hi, Harry,”

“Hi,” Harry answered weakly, “Can we talk?”

Louis just looked at him, his fingers shifting on the doorframe.

“Please?” Harry tacked on, and Louis just lifted his brows before sighing.

“Sure,” he relented, and then squeezed the door hard and pulled it open enough that Harry can slip through, “Just take off – “

“My shoes,” Harry finished, “I know,”

Louis just blinked at him, and Harry swallowed before toeing off his loafers.

“Thought I was the one who was obsessed with keeping the hardwood nice,”

“Yeah, and it’s gone to shit without you,” Louis said, “Clifford’s nails have destroyed the floors, don’t look too close,”

“I’ll try not to,” Harry said, and a small laughed slipped into his voice. But when he looked up, Louis wasn’t smiling. Instead, he just readjusted his hands on his mug and then slipped into the living room.

“Do you want coffee?”

“Sure,” Harry asked. He was wired awake just being here. But if Louis pouring him a mug and preparing it the way they both knew he liked his coffee would give them both time to think, then he wasn’t going to turn it down.

So he went into the living room and sat down uncomfortably on the edge of the couch while Louis went to the kitchen to get him a drink. Harry looked around while he waited. Louis had barely touched anything; the carpet was the same, the walls had the same color. There used to be more pictures everything, of course, but they weren’t there now.

Finally, Louis returned and thrust a mug into Harry’s hands, and then sat at the other end of the couch. He pushed one elbow onto the edge of the couch and threaded his fingers through his hair, pushing his fringe back as he looked evenly at Harry.

“Are you angry at me?” Harry asked eventually.

“Yes,” Louis answered quickly, and then, “Not really,”

Harry nodded, and then lifted his mug, took a drink of his coffee.

“I understand,” he eventually said when he dropped the mug from his mouth. Louis nodded, his fingers further tangling into his hair.

“What about you? Are you mad at me?” Louis asked.

“We both fucked up,”

“That wasn’t my question,”

Harry sighed, shaking his head.

“I don’t know,” he admitted, “I don’t regret anything we did,”

“Still not answering me,” Louis shook his head, “But I get it. I don’t, either,”

They went back to just looking at each other, and Harry tried not to let his mind grow too heavy as he looked at Louis’s dark, tired eyes, his frowning mouth.

“It was fun, huh?” Louis eventually said, and his mouth twitched a bit when he said it, “It was fun to be other people. To got the beach house and a club and have lunch with you and not have to have the same baggage,”

Harry nodded, and he reached up to push a small piece of hair behind his ear.

“I don’t want to do that anymore,”

“Yeah, well,” Louis sighed, “All good shows end, don’t they?”

Harry swallowed thickly and shook his head, “But can we be happy and just be us?”

Louis’s head dipped, like he was nodding, but he stuck his thumbnail in his mouth and twisted, like he did when he was thinking.

“We didn’t get off to a good start to it all, did we?” he finally asked, and Harry couldn’t help it, he laughed. But then the sound died in his throat, and he looked down at his hands.

“I didn’t forget her,” he said, “Or you. I didn’t forget any of it,”

“Oh, I know, darling,” Louis sighed, “I know,”

He reached out and covered Harry’s hand with his own, even though his short fingers barely covered any of his skin.

“I don’t know what else to say,” Harry admitted.

“You can go if you want,” Louis said, and Harry shook his head.

“I’d like to stay,” he said, “Even if I can’t say anything,”

“Okay,” Louis said, his fingers skimming over Harry’s palm, “Okay,”

He sat in quiet for another twenty minutes before Harry got up to leave. Louis pulled on his hand as he got up and softly pressed his dry lips to Harry’s knuckle.

“Call me,” he said, “If you want,”

Harry nodded and let himself out.

It was a start.

*******

One of the best nights Harry could remember was a Saturday, and it had just finished snowing.

The school theater program at his university had put on their final show of the year, an alumni production. This year it had been modern production of Hamlet, meaning everything in the script was the same but everyone dressed in whatever the costume crew could scare up at Hot Topic.

The final bows had taken place only a few minutes ago, and as Harry wove through the crowd backstage, he was bombarded with shrieking and crying and scraps of discarded costumes flying. He ducked and wove through, waving to a few recent alumni and current students alike as he lifted his head, searching through the dark, crowded space.

“Harry!” he suddenly heard a voice yell behind, and then a moment later, a pair of thin arms were enveloping him.

“Pez,” he wheezed, smiling as he turned around to face Perrie, “Hi, you were great,”

“Pfft, thanks,” she smiled, tilting her head. She was still in her Ophelia costume, ice blue makeup and a t-shirt dress and fishnets with bare feet.

“Where’s – “

“Your boy?” she smiled, and then pointed to the ceiling, “He’s up on the roof, taking a breather. But I’m sure he wouldn’t mind seeing you,”

“Alright, thanks,” Harry said. He gave her one last hug and then wove through the rest of the backstage area, looking for the rooftop staircase. He passed people in their costumes, ripped up punk rock shirts and plastic jewelry and wild makeup. They all recognized him from his countless times picking Louis up from practice, and he smiled and waved to them as he left. He’d miss them when he graduated in a few weeks. They almost felt like his family, too.

Finally, he got to the rickety, curving metal stairs that led up to the rooftop and climbed them carefully, not even going up two at a time. When he opened the door at the top, he saw him immediately. He was still in costume, his band shirt and ripped jeans and combat boots.

“Hey,” Harry called, and Louis looked over his shoulder and smiled, blinking his kohl-lined eyes at him.

“Hi,” he returned. There was sweet-smelling smoke curling off the thing in his hand, and as Harry came closer, he saw it wasn’t a cigarette.

“You’re going to give me some of that, right?” he asked, and Louis rolled his eyes and gave it to him, the dark polish on his nails glinting as he did.

“Like that’s a question,” he said as Harry took a hit of the joint. He breathed in, out, handed it back to Louis. He came closer, bumping his hip, and loosely rested his hand on the lower part of Louis’s back, rubbing up and down.

“You good?”

“I’m tired,” Louis admitted, “Hamlet has the most lines in any work of Shakespeare, after all,”

“And all of them were perfect,”

“Could have been better,”

“You’re too hard on yourself,”

“And you’re too easy on me,” Louis sighed, exhaling the last of his hit before he set the joint on the concrete railing. He leaned in, bumping Harry’s cheek with his nose, “Hey,”

“Hey,” Harry laughed, and then turned and met Louis’s smoke-branded lips. He smiled into the kiss, and Louis did the same, pulling away.

“You’re moving soon,”

“Yeah,” Harry nodded, “Liverpool for an internship,”

Louis scoffed and shook his head.

“I fucking hate Liverpool,”

“You don’t care about Liverpool,”

“I do now that it’s taking you away from me,”

Harry sighed and shook his head.

“You’re dramatic,”

“I have a drama degree, I’m aware,” Louis said, and Harry reached out and shoved at his shoulder, making him smile.

Louis reached out, then, and tangled his cool fingers in the Harry’s shirt, pulling him in.

“I have something for you,”

“Oh, yeah? What’s that?”

Louis untangled his fingers and then reached into his pocket and pulled something out, setting it on the concrete railing.

It was a ring. An impossibly simple, plain silver ring with no decoration, but a ring.

Harry blinked at it, and then looked at Louis, who was just gazing at him steadily.

“Louis – “ he started, and then the other boy grabbed his chin, tilting his own head.

“Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments. Love is not love which alters when it alteration finds,” he whispered, “Or bends with the remover to remove…”

“Louis,” Harry said again, but he just shook his head and kept going.

“Oh no, it is an ever-fixed mark. That looks on tempests, and is never shaken,” Louis said, and then came closer, closing a kiss over the corner of Harry’s jaw before shifting up to his ear, “It is the star to every wandering bark, whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken.”

Harry closed his eyes, allowed himself one shaky breath. A breeze rustled through the rooftop, stirring his hand, his clothes, but it didn’t give him any distraction from the way Louis’s fingertips were now delicately trailing over his throat, making him gulp.

“Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks within his bending sickle's compass come,” he kept reciting, “Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks, but bears it out even to the edge of doom,”

He pulled away, then, and picked the ring back up from the railing. He reached forward, pressing it to Harry’s lips, letting the cool metal silence him.

“If this be error and upon me proved,” Louis said, and then took a shallow breath, “I never writ, nor no man ever loved,”

He just stared at Harry for a while, and then swallowed.

“Marry me,” he whispered, dragging the ring along the seam of his lips, “Be my ever-fixed mark, my star when I wander,”

“You’re high,”

“And I memorized Sonnet 116 to propose to you, fuck you,” Louis said, then pulled the ring back, “Come on, Styles. Bear out with me on the edge of doom. Let’s make time a fool,”

Harry blinked at him. The joint was hitting him. Fifteen minutes ago he’d watched his boyfriend of over two years fall to his knees in pretend agony on a stage, choke out the words of a dying tragic hero. His plans for the evening beyond that extended to going to the after party at Perrie’s nearby apartment and then fucking Louis on his couch when they got back to Harry’s flat.

Instead, he was getting proposed to on a rooftop of a poorly funded theater building.

“You’re proposing to me, baby,”

“Yeah,”

“While you’re high and dressed like emo Hamlet,”

Louis scoffed and thrust the ring back out, pressing it once again to Harry’s lips.

“You wanna marry me or not, motherfucker?”

Harry laughed and then opened his lips, gently clamping the edge of the ring between his teeth as Louis watched him.

“Don’t have any other plans for the rest of my life,” he mumbled around the ring, and Louis snorted and shook his head.

“Take that thing out of your mouth so I can put your ring on, then,” Louis said, and Harry obliged, letting the ring come loose. Louis grabbed his left hand, and then pulled on his ring finger to straight it out before slipping it on, but it got stuck at his joint, and Louis couldn’t push it on any further.

“Motherfucker,” he hissed, “Your stupid, big ass paws,”

Harry shook his head and set his hand on Louis’s shoulder.

“Put it on my pinkie finger, it’ll be fine,”

“It’s not fine,” Louis protested, but still slipped the ring off and instead slipped it on Harry’s pinkie. He glared at the finger like it had personally hurt him, “This is such bullshit,”

“I know,” Harry said softly, and then put a hand on Louis’s shoulder, then slipped it up his neck, then up to cradle his cheek, “You wanna marry me,”

“Uh huh,” Louis murmured.

“You’re being serious?”

“Uh huh,”

Harry snorted and then leaned in, kissing Louis on the cheek.

“Love you so much,”

“Love you,”

“Gonna fuck you tonight,”

Louis laughed so hard he nearly choked.

“You’re a terrible fiancé,” he cackled, “Gonna be an even worse husband,”

“Yeah,” Harry agreed easily, “But I’m gonna be your husband forever,”

 

*******

Ed invited himself into Harry’s office to eat lunch on Wednesday, and Harry picked at his cold, leftover Chinese food for about twenty minutes before he finally found the ability to speak.

“I should probably tell you something,” he said.

“Did you fuck the guy you’ve been seeing?”

“Jesus,” Harry sighed, “Look, it’s, um, it’s about Louis,”

Ed’s head snapped up, his eyes wide before he shook his head, his expression settling a bit, “Sorry. It’s been a while since I’ve heard you actually say his name,”

“Yeah, well,” Harry sighed, “I’ve been seeing him,”

“Oh,” Ed said, “Oh, wow. Did you guys meet up something?”

“No, like,” Harry said, “I’ve been seeing him,”

Ed stared at him, blinking, and then he leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms.

“He’s the guy,” he said, “Louis’s the guy,”

“Uh,” Harry said, “Yeah,”

Ed shifted his gaze to the ceiling and then closed his eyes.

“Harry,”

“Ed, look – “

“Harry,” Ed repeated, “Do you remember spring 2012?”

“Jesus Christ – “

“Spring 2012. We had a fundraiser. Some woman came in and took your IQ, and everyone placed bets on what it was going to be. Whoever guessed the closest got to choose the charity all the money went to. Do you remember that?”

“Yes, Ed,”

“Well. Do you remember the results?”

“I – “

“165,” Ed said, “One fucking sixty-five. MENSA called you the week after,”

“Yes, Ed, I remember – “

“And somehow you’re still the biggest dumbass I’ve ever met,” Ed sighed. He set both hands on top of his head and then lowered his chin, gazing evenly at Harry, “So. You two are back together,”

“I don’t know,” Harry admitted, “We had a fight. But I talked to him again and I think we’re alright. But…I don’t know what’s happening after this,”

Ed nodded, but didn’t say anything, and Harry tried to catch his eyes.

“Are you, uh, mad at me for this?”

“Are you fucking kidding?” Ed said, “Jesus, I’m deliriously happy,”

“I thought you said I was a dumbass,”

“Yeah, you’re a dumbass for not tracking him down sooner,” Ed laughed, and shook his head, “Also, let me guess. All those book clubs you were in were bullshit,”

“Well, yeah,”

“And you were seeing him?”

“Um,” Harry stuttered and licked his lips, “Kind of,”

“Kind of is good enough for me,” Ed lifted his hands, spreading them out, “God, this is great. How is he? Good? What’s he doing?”

“He’s good,” Harry nodded, and he felt his eyes burn, but he knew if his eyes spilled over it wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing, “He’s, uh, a professor now. He’s teaching Shakespeare,”

“Of course he is,” Ed smiled, “He was so great running all those charities for us, but…God, that’s great. That’s what he always should have doing,”

“He’s trying to get a doctorate, too,” Harry said, “And he kept the house. The beach house too, even,”

“The beach house?”

“We went there a little while ago,”

“Well, Christ,” Ed shook his head, “I’m going to tell you something. I didn’t think you had any of this in you. I thought you were going to be holding onto sanity by your fingernails for the rest of your life,”

“Wow, thanks,”

“But now,” Ed sighed, and then just shook his head again, like he was chasing away whatever he was going to say, “You’re doing good,”

“I feel good,” Harry said, and really, he did, “I don’t really know if I’m supposed to be this good but I am,”

“Honestly?” Ed said, “If you think you’re too happy, you’re honestly just happy enough for someone in your situation,”

Harry opened his mouth, ready to say something else, but Harry just shook his head and picked up the container holding his own lunch.

“Okay,” Ed said, “Existential talk is over. I need you to tell me everything, and don’t pussy foot around it, because I’m not leaving until you do,”

Harry closed his mouth, and he felt his lips twitch into a real smile.

He opened his mouth again. He told Ed as much as he could.

*******

He and Louis went to lunch every day.  

Sometimes, Harry would come pick me up at the university, other times Louis would come stand outside the office and wait for Harry. One of those days Ed insisted on following Harry out, and he gave Louis a hug that lasted nearly half an hour and nearly insisted on inviting himself along until Harry managed to shoo him back inside.

They didn’t talk about much, but they did talk, and about more than they used to. Louis showed him pieces of the doctorate paper he was working on and asked how the charities he once headed were doing now. Harry told him that all the charities were fine, but the people still working there missed Louis, and then he talked about the broken hot water in his apartment and asked Louis how Perrie was doing, if they were still friends. Once course they were, Louis said, but they didn’t get to see each other very much. She was in Cambridge doing an extended theater study, and she’d met a new girl and had just bought a house there with her.

Harry realized he had needed these answers, the leftover memories and questions of a life he couldn’t easily erase. He couldn’t ask these sorts of things when he and Louis were still treading the line of pretending to be strangers.

The first time Louis invited Harry to do something other than get lunch it was a Friday night, and Louis called him asking if Harry would like to come over to the house. Of course, Harry got a cab and showed up to Louis’s front door twenty minutes later.

“Hi,” Harry smiled as he walked in. Clifford clambered over to him immediately and pushed his snout against Harry’s hand, and he laughed and stroked the dog’s head before going further into the house, closer to where Louis was standing in the front hall. Harry didn’t have a coat to take off this time; the late spring heat was picking up, making everything feel too sticky, too thick.

“Hey,” Louis said, “Have you eaten? I have a few things in the fridge I can heat up,”

“I’m alright right now,” Harry said, “Don’t you have group tonight?”

“Oh, right, I thought I told you,” Louis said, “Group is over now. We might pick up again in the fall, but who really knows,”

“Oh,” Harry said, “I, uh, I’m sorry I never went to one of the meetings,”

“It’s fine,” Louis said, “There’s nothing magical about it. Just more talking,”

He went to the kitchen and put away a couple dishes that were out, and then looked up at Harry and smiled.

“I, um, I had an idea,” he said, and Harry lifted a brow.

“Okay,”

“I, um,” Louis said, and then swallowed, “I kept some old videos and stuff. Of us. Of…”

“Her,” Harry finished. His throat felt tight, but he still managed to push it out. Then he swallowed and said more clearly, “Of Miranda. Right?”

“Yeah,” Louis’s eyes flickered a bit when he heard Harry saw her name, and then he smiled thinly,

“I thought maybe we could watch them of them. I don’t know if that’s too much or what, but, like, I have them sitting in my Cloud and I don’t even look at them very often, but I just thought --”

“I can do it,” Harry said quickly, and Louis’s mouth hung open for a moment before he forced his lips to close.

“You sure?” he asked, “Because I didn’t just invite you over for that, we can do something else, I just thought – “

“No, no, I kind of – “ Harry couldn’t say he wanted to watch them, but, well, he didn’t want to walk away from them either, “I’ll watch them,”

“Alright,” Louis nodded, “Do you need a drink?”

“I should probably try this as sober as possible,”

“Right,” Louis nodded, “Whatever you think,”

Louis went over the couch and settled down, and Harry joined him, allowing himself to take the step directly next to Louis, so that their hips nearly touched. Louis turned on the TV and then picked up his tablet from the coffee table, the menu on the small screen mirroring the one on the TV as Louis flicked through and then selected a folder section just labeled “Videos” and then just let a playlist go. He settled back down next to Harry, and reached over to put his arm around Harry’s shoulders.

Harry felt his body relax at the first video. It wasn’t anything big. It was an extremely pixelated video, off Louis’s old phone, one of the first Kiwi models. But Harry could see they were on a beach, on a very sunny day.

“Harry!” Louis’s voice shouted off camera, and Harry, on the video, turned. He looked younger, skinnier, tanner, and a lot happier. He was wearing a Hawaiian shirt open over his swim trunks and he was smiling. Harry could see the pale tan lines just under his sunglasses.

“Harry, where are we?”

“Arubaaaaaaa,”

“Harry’s had a few today,”

“I did not! I had two!”

“By two he means two full bottles of Rumchata,”

“Fuck off!”

The camera shook, and then they were both in frame, Louis’s nose red and peeling even as he grinned.

“We’re on our honeymoon!”

“And I’m not drunk, he’s lying,” Harry mumbled, and then leaned in and pressed a kiss to Louis’s cheek.

“You were drunk,” Louis said, here, now, and Harry turned to him.

“Yeah, I know I was. I remember the hangover,”

“You remember me blowing you after you felt better?”

“That, too,” Harry admitted, and Louis laughed drily. He rubbed the pad of his finger over the screen of his tablet and selected another video. Harry groaned.

“Not this one,”

“Yes, this one,” Louis smiled.

The video showed a big stage, and a decorated hotel lobby filled with tacky silver and green balloons. There were trays of champagne and poorly dressed millionaires everywhere, and Harry could hear Louis talking off screen.

“Where are we, darling?” his voice asked, and then the camera shook and shifted. Perrie was standing there, in a gold dress, drinking a bright green margarita with several kiwi slices at the bottom. Her eyes shifted to the camera and she jerked, pulling the glass away from her mouth and then holding her hand up to her lips as she swallowed hard.

“Fuck you,” she laughed, “We’re at a launch party!”

“For what?” Louis said, and then laughed when Perrie reached out. The camera jostled; she had probably pushed him.

“The first Kiwi Pad!” she said, and Louis laughed again.

“Is it going to redefine technology?”

“I don’t – oh, shit!” she laughed, and then the camera turned again, and Harry saw himself on the screen, dressed in a navy blue suit and advancing towards the camera with a smile.

“Baby, what are doing?” the Harry onscreen asked, and once again, Louis laughed.

“I’m recording so we can remember this!”

“This isn’t already memorable enough?” Harry asked, and then Perrie spoke again.

“Lou, give me the phone!” she said, and then the camera jostled and then both of them were in view, Louis pushing himself against Harry’s side, Harry anchoring his waist with one arm.

“Are we happy?” Perrie’s laughing voice asked off screen, and Harry grinned onscreen and answered.

“So happy,” he said, and then lowered his head and kissed Louis’s forehead, making Perrie laugh again.

The video ended after Harry asked Perrie to turn the camera off, and Harry looked over Louis, managing to smile.

“I don’t even remember that much of that night,” he admitted, “I’m glad you actually recorded it,”

“Yeah, well,” Louis shrugged, “What did you always say? That I used what you made more than you did?”

“That sounds like something I would say,” Harry said. Louis just nodded and looked down at his tablet, scrolling through the video playlist again.

“I, um, I have an idea for something else,” Louis murmured, and Harry just nodded as the next video played onscreen. It was just Louis on camera this time, and Harry recognized the interior of their old Range Rover. Louis’s face was flushed, and his eyes were bright, and he was talking so fast Harry almost had to lean in to understand.

“Holy shit, hi, baby,” Louis was saying, “Um, we’re on our way to the hospital, Perrie just called us – Harry! What the fuck!”

“It was yellow!” Harry’s voice shouted off camera.

“Yeah, maybe two minutes ago!” he sighed, “Sorry, your daddy’s breaking every traffic law in London,”

“Louis, we had this conversation. You’re Daddy, I’m Papa,”

“Right, right. Because of that one night in uni?” Louis said, “Look, what happened was, Papa doesn’t want you to call him Daddy because one time I – “

“Louis, now is not the time! I thought we were making this for her!”

“Focus on the road!” Louis laughed, and then turned back to the camera, “Listen, baby, I have to go before we both die but Perrie’s in labor and we’re going to get to meet you soon!”

The camera jostled again, and Louis yelled at Harry to slow down, and then the video ended.

Harry stayed leaned slightly forward, his eyes wide, his body stiff. Louis’s hand lingered on his back, his fingers grasping to stroke Harry’s back.

“We did almost die, you know,” Louis said.

“Yeah, I remember that,” Harry managed. He swallowed and then sat back until the back of the couch was touching his back again, “But we got there in time,”

“Perrie wasn’t even fully dilated when we got there,”

“Yeah. Like I said. On time,” Harry said, and then finally looked over at Louis, who caught his eyes easily.

“Are you doing okay?” he asked, and somehow, Harry found himself nodding.

“Just one more,” Louis said softly, “Just for today. Okay?”

Harry nodded again, and Louis turned back to his small screen, scrolling through the options before he found one.

“This one,” he said, “This one is one of my favorites,”

He selected it, and it popped up on screen a moment later. Harry forced himself to breath, but apparently couldn’t mind the brainpower to exhale.

Harry was on screen, and so was Miranda. She was probably about four, and she was sitting on her knees on one of the dinner room table chairs. Harry sat next to her with his head was leaned forward. His hair was still long, and Miranda’s hands were buried deep into his curls, twisting them into sloppy braids and pinning them back with little plastic clips and braids.

“It looks beautiful, honey,” Louis’s voice laughed behind the camera, “Are you making Papa look pretty?”

“Yeah!” Miranda said, and Harry felt his throat go tight. He thought he’d forgotten what her voice sounded like. But he hadn’t. God, he hadn’t.

“How are we holding up, Papa?” Louis asked. Harry lifted his head, offering a weak smile and a thumbs-up, and Louis’s laugh cackled in the background, the camera shaking a bit.

“Don’t pull too hard on his hair, darling,” Louis said, and Miranda smiled and nodded, even as she yanked hard enough on Harry’s hair that he winced both on the video and now.

“Okay, Daddy,” she said, and then clipped another barrette into Harry’s hair. She sat back, looked at her handiwork, and then clapped, “All done!”

“You sure, love?” Harry asked, and she nodded and then grabbed a pink plastic hand mirror from the table and held it up, “Papa, look!”

Harry lifted his head, his ruined, tangled hair falling all around his face, and he reached out for the mirror and took it carefully. He looked at his own reflection and laughed, shaking his head.

“That looks beautiful, Mi Mi,” he said, and again, Harry thought he would stop breathing at the nickname, “Come here,”

Miranda’s arms reached forward, carefully, and then Harry was reaching out and scooping her completely into his arms. She shrieked as Harry squeezed her and buried his face into her shoulder.

“Papa!” she shrieked, and Harry and Louis’s laughs blended together.

“Daddy!” Miranda called as Harry blew a raspberry into her neck, “Daddy, help!”

“Okay, love, I’m coming,” Louis laughed, and then the camera was jostling and the video was ending.

Louis turned to look over at Harry and opened his mouth to say something, but then the next video began to play, and he froze.

“Oh, shit,” he mumbled, “Shit, I forgot this one was on here, let me – “

“No,” Harry said, the strength of his own voice surprising him, “Leave it,”

Louis’s hand gripped onto his arm tighter, and he swallowed, forcing himself to breath.

“I can turn it off,” Louis insisted.

“No, no, um,” Harry swallowed again, “I’m going to try. I am,”

He thought he saw Louis nod out of the corner of his eye, but he couldn’t be too sure, because he was focused firmly on the screen in front of him.

This one was filmed about a year after the last video, and he knew that because the video was of a hospital bed. Miranda was lying there, looking too small, an IV drip next to her bed. She was wearing a bright pink scarf covered in cartoons of owls on her head, but Harry could still see a few ragged blonde curls peeking under from under the fabric.

“There’s my gorgeous girl,” Louis said off camera. His voice was soft, and ragged, but Louis could add a happy lilt to just about anything, “What did you do today, princess?”

“My chemo,” Miranda answered, her little voice croaky and weak.

“That’s right. And you did so good,”

“When do I go home, Daddy?”

“Tomorrow, honey. We’re so excited to have you back. Clifford misses his sweet girl, too,”

“Where am I?” Harry asked now, leaning forward as he watched the video, “Oh, God. Was I in the library researching something? Was I not even fucking there?”

“Harry – “ Louis said, but Harry rushed on.

“Why wouldn’t I – “ he sat back, “Why wasn’t I there?”

“Harry, shh,” Louis said, setting a hand on his arm and making Harry sit back.

“Hey,” he heard his own voice on the video a few moments later, and the camera turned a bit, shaking as it showed Harry coming down the hospital hallway. He was wearing his bleach-speckled university sweatshirt, and his under circles were dark and his hair was falling out of a poorly pulled together bun. He offered a soft smile to the camera, and then it was obscured by the fabric of his shirt as he leaned forward, probably to give Louis a kiss. Then he pulled away and he went into the room.

“Hi, darling,” he smiled, leaning over the bed and giving her a kiss on her vein-thick temple, “Did you have a good sleep?”

“Auntie Perrie was here earlier, Papa,”

“Oh, yeah?” he smiled, and then turned to Louis, “When was she here?”

“A couple hours ago. She’ll call later,” Louis answered.

Harry nodded and pulled up a chair next to the bed, reaching out to hold Miranda’s hand.

“Did Daddy tell you you’re coming home tomorrow?”

“Yeah,” Miranda said, and she smiled, “Can we go outside tomorrow, Papa? Will it be sunny?”

“Yes, darling,” Harry nodded, “It’s going to be gorgeous out. We can go outside all day,”

He smiled onscreen, but the movement was tight, and Harry could see that his own eyes were wet.

The camera cut off there, and then Louis firmed clicked out of whatever video was next, and instead reached out for Harry’s arm again.

“Are you okay?” he asked, but Harry’s eyes were already spilling over, and he shook his head.

“Oh, darling,” Louis murmured, and then leaned in and cupped Harry’s cheek in one hand as he leaned in, “It’s alright,”

Harry crashed into his shoulder, and Louis held onto him tightly, settling one hand on the back of Harry’s head.

“It’s alright, it’s alright,” he kept repeating, and Harry gasped and let his tears soak Louis’s shoulder.

“I’m sorry,” he managed, “I’m so sorry,”

“It’s okay, it’s just tears,” Louis said, and Harry shook his head and forced himself to look up.

“I’m sorry I left you,” he said, “I’m sorry I ever left you alone,”

Louis looked at him steadily, his own eyes looking glassy, and then he grasped Harry’s cheeks, holding his face firmly.

“Listen to me,” Louis murmured, “Do you remember what I told you when I proposed to you?”

Harry didn’t answer, so Louis pushed on.

“You’re my ever-fixed mark, darling,” he murmured, “I would never have let you leave in the first place if I didn’t believe with every cell of my body that you were going to find your way back to me,”

Harry shook his head, his eyes wet and burning.

“You have too much faith in me,” he said, and Louis shrugged.

“You’re here,” Louis said simply, “So apparently I had just enough,”

*******

“Perrie’s in town,” Louis said as soon as Harry walked out of his building to meet him for dinner one evening, “She wants to see you again,”

Harry paused, his feet scuffing the sidewalk as he stopped walking.

“Oh,” he said, and then nodded, “Alright,”

“Alright?” Louis echoed, and Harry nodded.

“I miss her,” he said, “So yeah. I’d like to see her,”

“Well, good,” Louis grinned, “Because we’re kind of going to her show tonight,”

“Her show?” Harry laughed, and Louis nodded.

“She’s doing a performance at Arthur’s tonight and tomorrow,”

“That’s a drag club, isn’t it?” Harry said, and then his eyes widened, “Holy shit, Peter Periwinkle’s back,”

“Yes, he fucking is,” Louis grinned, and then grabbed Harry’s hand, “Come on, if we’re late she’ll kill me,”

*******

Right after they ordered their food and first drinks for the night, a drag king took the small Arthur’s stage.

He was dressed in a pale purple suit and top hat, and he was lip-syncing to Kanye West.

Harry had seen this act at least a hundred times by now; it was the number one act that would be get pulled out at theater kid parties or during a weekend performing gig that he would get dragged along to go see. But he never got tired of it, and he especially never got tired of Louis’s eyes gleaming, and seeing the way he grinned or laughed or laughed or shouted every time the performer onstage moved.

When the set was over, the drag king walked straight off stage and pulled off the top hat, a rumbled blonde bob falling to their shoulders. The tight jacket was unbuttoned next as they came closer, and then Harry was overwhelmed with a tight hug and the familiar smell of lavender perfume.

“Darling,” Perrie murmured in Harry’s ear, and he quickly put his arms up and hugged her tightly.

“Hi, love,” he said, and she laughed and pulled back, her eyes moist.

“I’m going to go change,” she said, “But I’ll be right back, okay?”

“I’ll order you a drink, darling,” Louis said, and Perrie just rolled her eyes and then leaned in and kissed Louis on the cheek.

“You fucking better,” she said, and then she was scurrying off stage as the next performer came out. She emerged only a few minutes later, now dressed in a jean jacket and a grey dress and far lighter makeup, and she sat down at their table and immediately picked up the drink Louis had ordered for her.

“You cut your hair,” she said to Harry, and he lifted his brows.

“So did you,” he said, and he laughed and reached up, pulling at her bob.

“You got me there,” she admitted, and then set her glass on the top and folded her arms up on the top of the table, “How have you been, Harry? Louis has kept all that information from me,”

“So you could ask him yourself,” Louis said.

“Bullshit, he just likes secrets,” Perrie grinned, and then leaned in, “So? Tell me,”

“Um,” Harry started, “I work twelve hours a day and I own a shitty one-bedroom apartment on the opposite side of the city,”

She rolled her eyes.

“Fine, I’ll dig at you,” she said, but Louis poked her elbow hard before she could even ask Harry a more specific question.

“Why don’t you tell him about Leigh Anne, love?” he asked, and then he turned to Harry, “That tends to get her going these days,”

“Oh, shove off,” Perrie huffed, but she still pulled her phone out and preceded to Harry no less than two hundred photos of her with a tall, dark-skinned woman, both of them smiling widely in each picture. The woman was a real estate agent, apparently, and they had met while Perrie was looking for a new flat. Turns out she didn’t even buy anything, because she moved in with Leigh Anne about three months after they had started dated.

Harry listened intently, and Louis ordered them more drinks, and after a while, Perrie had apparently forgotten to ask Harry about his own life. Not that he minded. He didn’t have much to share from the last few years, anyways.

“I’m going to run to the loo for a minute,” Louis said after a while, already slipping out of his chair, “Can you two entertain yourselves?”

“Of course,” Perrie chirped, and lifted her hand to wave goodbye to Louis as he headed to the back of his club.

It was then that Harry saw it. Perrie had a clear little black ‘M’ inked on the inside of her wrist. Harry’s eyes stayed on the tattoo, and as she turned back, she caught him looking and quickly covered it with her other hand.

“I’m sorry,” she said in a rush, and Harry frowned.

“Why would you be sorry?”

“Because,” Perrie shrugged, “She wasn’t mine,”

Harry shook his head, and then reached out and gripped Perrie’s shoulder tightly.

“You took care of her before she even took her first breath,” Harry said, “She’s yours, too,”

She blinked back at him, silent, but Harry kept talking.

“You were the only reason we got to be with her at all,” he said, and she swallowed thickly.

“I know,” she said softly, “It took me a long time to see that as something good,”

Harry just looked at her, his grip firm on her shoulder, and then Perrie reached out and cupped Harry’s cheek.

“Are you mad at me?” Harry eventually asked, “For leaving him?”

“I was,” Perrie admitted, “He’s my best friend, you have to give me that. But you were my friend, too, and we were all hurting. I couldn’t be too hard on you,”

Harry nodded, “I’m trying now. I’m going to try really hard to make him happy,”

“Oh, love,” Perrie smiled, “He’s already so happy you went and found him again, you don’t have to try too hard,”

“But I still will,”

“And I expect nothing less,” Perrie murmured. She pushed her thumb into Harry’s cheek and then pulled back and shook her head, “The short hair is growing on me, you know. I think it frames your face nicely,”

“Well, thanks,” Harry laughed weakly, and then reached up and self consciously tucked some hair behind his ear, “Are you staying with Louis?”

“Oh, no,” she shook her head, “I’m Air B’n’B’ing it this around. Thought I could give you two some privacy,”

“But we’re not living – “ he started, but before he could finish, Louis was bounding back over to their table, groaning when he looked between the two of them.

“You two got deep while I was gone,” he sighed, “I can see it all over your faces,”

“We did no such thing,” Perrie said, and then lifted her glass to her mouth and turned to Harry, offering a soft smile before her lips closed back over to the glass.

Harry managed to return it, and then Louis grabbed his wrist, and Harry felt the small twitch of his mouth turn into something closer to a real smile.

*******

Louis insisted Harry come over for a nightcap, and Harry wasn’t about to protest.

Only as soon as Harry went past the front threshold of the house, Louis shoved the door behind him closed and then pushed him hard against the front door, bunching his shirt between his hands. He tilted his head up, his lips slick and waiting, and Harry breathed out and then let his mouth greet Louis’s.

“Hey,” he murmured, and Louis laughed and twisted the fabric between his hands, “So. Is there a reason that Perrie isn’t staying here that you want to tell me?”

Louis pulled back and blinked up at Harry, his expression not even shifting as he spoke.

“Because I wanted you to fuck me,” he said flatly.

“Christ,” Harry hissed, and grabbed Louis by the shoulders. He shook his head, catching Louis’s wide, steady eyes, “Are you sure?”

Louis pushed himself forward, the firm outline of his cock in his jeans pushing against Harry’s leg.

“Okay, okay, God,” Harry said, “Where? Upstairs?”

“Yes, yes, come on,” Louis gasped out, and grabbed Harry’s hand, “Are you good? I’m clean. But I also bought condoms just in case,”

“Prepared,” Harry snorted, even as he felt his face heat up, “But yes, I’m clean,”

“Good, good,” Louis nodded. They had reached the steps, and Louis’s trainer was the first step. Harry inhaled carefully and shook his head again.

They were doing this. Okay.

Louis tugged him along, and Harry tripped over the stairs, then down the familiar-as-ever hallway, past doors he knew too well until they reached the white door at the end. It looked cleaner, lighter, and he figured Louis must have gotten it painted. But when Louis pushed open the door, the room was the exact same as it had always been, painted in dark blues and greens, with the same white bedspread and dark oak furniture. When Louis pulled him to the bed, Harry could see one of their wedding pictures was on Louis’s bedside table.

“Harry,” Louis murmured, lowering himself to sit down on the edge of the bed, “Harry, please,”

He was tugging hard at the bottom of Harry’s shirt, and he looked so gorgeous, his skin flushed and sweaty and his neck a long, elegant line, his lips bitten bright pink and puckered out as he squirmed.

“Please, want you,” he said, tucking his hands under Harry’s shirt to rub at his stomach.

Harry’s hands reacted before could even tell them what to do. He grasped to hold Louis’s neck in one hand, wrapped an arm around his waist with the other arm.

“Baby,” he whispered, and Louis blinked up at him with wide eyes.

“Please,” Louis repeated again, “Haven’t gotten touched since the last time you touched me,”

Harry shook his head, blinking back in the burning at the back of his eyes.

“You should have,”

“But I didn’t,” he said, “I – did you?”

“No,” Harry said immediately, “No, I haven’t been with anyone, either,”

Louis’s eyes flashed, and he smiled, “Good,”

He tugged on Harry’s shirt again, and this time it was enough for Harry to reach down and pull it off, the cool air hitting his flushed skin. His shoulders went to Louis’s shoulders, bunching up the fabric of his t-shirt, and Louis reached up and stripped it off quickly before reaching up to Harry’s neck, holding him there as he tilted up for another kiss. Louis’s hands skated, then, over Harry’s chest and his stomach and his hips.

“You look so thin,” Louis murmured, and Harry shook his head.

“It’s been a hard few years,” he managed, and Louis looked up and blinked.

“Still so beautiful. Still my gorgeous boy. C’mere,”

He leaned down, pulling at the button of his own jeans, tilting his head to look at Harry.

“Come here,” he repeated, and Harry just blinked as Louis rolled his jeans off his hips, letting them catch on his thighs. He was wearing pale grey briefs, and his cock’s outline was thick and clear through the fabric, a wet patch already dotting the fabric near the head.

Harry shook his head hard to bring himself back to reality and he quickly moved to undo his own belt and then shove his jeans down to his ankles, pulling at them hard. He looked up and saw Louis’s trainer-covered-feet still hanging over the edge of the bed and he laughed, reaching out to untie the shoes and then slip them off Louis’s otherwise bare feet.

“Christ,” Louis muttered once Harry straightened back up, just in his pants now, “I forgot about those. Thanks,”

“No problem,” Harry said, and then looked around, “Um, where are – “

“Same place they’ve always been, love,” Louis murmured, and Harry nodded and went over to Louis’s bedside table. He pulled open the top drawer and shook his head at the small pink vibrator that was at the forefront of the drawer before his hand went to the unopened box of condoms and the fresh bottle of lube.

“Fingered myself earlier, you know,” Louis said, and Harry’s head snapped to him. He was on his belly, his arms stretched out in front of him, his eyes dark and hooded and fixated tightly on Harry, “Before I met you for dinner. Fucked myself with that toy I’m sure you saw, made sure I was ready,”

“Good Christ,” Harry huffed, shaking his head, “You haven’t changed, you know that?”

Louis grinned, his eyes flashing in the darkening room. Harry shook his head and then climbed onto the bed to join Louis, keeping his new treasures tightly at hand.

“Let’s see how ready you got,” he murmured, and then tugged on Louis’s waistband, revealing pale, supple skin. He breathed out long and hard, his brain feeling a bit foggy, and he reached out carefully, dragging his fingers softly along the curve of Louis’s bum.

“That’s a weird way of checking if I prepped,” Louis mumbled, and Harry squeezed one of his cheeks in response.

“I’m looking. Leave me alone,” he muttered, but then his fingers slipped to Louis’s crack, and his fingers parted the skin to reveal his hole, hairless and already looking fucked open. Harry groaned and pulled his hand back.

“You’re killing me here,” he said, and Louis laughed. Harry squeezed his bum hard again and then worked on getting the lube open, pouring some generously right over Louis’s hole once he had it open. He rubbed it in, and then ripped open the condom box and tore one from the strip, tossing the whole package to the ground once he got it out.

“I’ll have to clean that up in the morning,” Louis said, and Harry sighed.

I’ll clean it up,” he said as he pulled his briefs down and then lifted his legs to fully get them off, “Turn over,”

Louis did, his skin pale gold and soft-looking in the light, and Louis took another hard breath, and then reached up and tugged Louis’s briefs completely off. His pink, dripping cock sprung free, settling next to Louis’s hipbone, and Harry reached out just to thumb at the head.

“Wish I could put my mouth on me,” he murmured, “But you’d probably slap if I just tried right about now, huh?”

“Yeah,” Louis said, not even laughing, “That’s right,”

Harry nodded and then got hold of the condom, started rolling it on himself.

“Don’t worry,” he said, “Gonna take care of you. Make it good for you,”

“Yeah, I know you will,” Louis said, and then shifted his hips, “Come on, gorgeous. I’ve missed you,”

“Me too,” Harry nodded, his eyes burning as he took his covered cock in his hand and leaned forward, “God, me too, baby,”

“Don’t cry on me you bastard,” Louis said, his voice strained, “Not now. Your job is to make me cry,”

Harry snorted and then set his free hand on the side of Louis’s head, looked at him carefully. He took his cock, guided it to Louis’s opening, pushed the head in without looking. He had done this before. And he recognized the immediate look on Louis’s face, the scrunching of his eyes and the puckering of his mouth before it fell open entirely.

Harry leaned down, bucked his hips to drive into Louis more entirely. He leaned down, set his hands on Louis’s shoulders. He gripped hard, digging his fingertips in tight, and kept his mouth on Louis’s throat, feeling the vibrations of his voice, all the “uh’s” and “God’s” and “Harry’s.” He breathed in deep, smelling the clean, fresh scent of Louis’s skin, a scent he didn’t realize he remembered until now, and he wanted to cry, he wanted to scream and apologize for every second he was gone, for not trying harder, but he didn’t. Louis didn’t want him to cry.

So he bucked his hips, keeping his hands tightly on Louis’s shoulders. He rose up and let his mouth fall to meet Louis’s, and Louis met his lips eagerly, every gasp swallowed up between their mouths.

“Missed you,” Louis groaned, and then, barely breathing between the words, “Love you,”

Harry blinked, but Louis’s eyes were closed his face was lack as his body, and Harry managed to croak out “I love you, too.” His eyes burned, and they were wet, and he knew he was crying, but when he looked down, Louis’s eyes were open and brimming with tears, too.

“I’m okay,” Louis murmured, “I’m okay, Harry, I promise, keep going,”

Harry nodded, and he rolled his hips again, making Louis groan, but he also lowered his hand kissed Louis’s wet cheeks, trying to rid his face of any tears that remained.

“I love you, I love you, I love you,” he chanted against Louis’s skin as he went, and Louis just gasped and nodded.

“I know, darling,” he said, “Darling, I’ve always known,”

Louis’s small hands reached up and gripped onto Harry’s waist, squeezing hard on his side.

“M’gonna come,” he murmured, and Harry nodded, rolling his hips even faster, and then leaned down to kiss Louis on the mouth. He felt Louis shudder and then spill between their bellies, and his own mouth covered Louis’s lips as he cried out. He bucked his hips forward a few more times and he felt his flushed skin crawl, his belly lurch, and then he was letting go inside Louis.

He let himself fall on top of the other man, breathing heavily, and he reached down to pull himself out of Louis, but the other man shook his head.

“You feel good,” he said, his voice slurring a bit, “Stay here,”

“You don’t want me to clean up?”

“Later,” Louis insisted, “Always can be later,”

Harry wanted to protest, but instead he just felt himself nodding, and he kissed Louis’s damp cheek again, put his hand on Louis’s belly as he breathed in and out.

“You’re staying tonight,” Louis said. It wasn’t a question, and Harry nodded.

“I think I want to stay longer than that,” he said, and Louis’s eyes flew open, his gaze firm on Harry before his eyes fluttered closed again.

“I think I want to you to, too,”

*******

Autumn leaves had started choking the streets, and especially the paths in Hyde Park.

Harry had pulled out what was once his favorite coat from his closet, the one he once again shared with Louis in their old house. He kept it unbuttoned over his jumper and his jeans, things with designer labels he could barely remember wearing but was happy to have on his body again.

Louis stood next to him, their fingers loosely entwined. Louis wasn’t wearing a warm enough jacket, and he was shaking a little bit. Harry kept cutting his eyes to him, and eventually Louis caught his gaze and huffed.

“I’m not cold. I’m fine,”

“Those are both lies,”

“Whatever,” Louis rolled his eyes, and then gripped Harry’s hand tighter. But Harry just sighed and pulled their hands away, and then shrugged out of his own thick coat and held it out to Louis.

“Here,”

“I’m not wearing that,”

“I’ll be fine. Just wear it,”

“Yeah, I know, I know, you never get cold. You’re a freak,” Louis rolled his eyes, and then snatched the coat away from Harry and yanked it on. The sleeves fell past his hands and he furrowed his brow and pushed at them so his hand was out in the open enough to grab for Harry’s hand again.

It was Sunday, and Louis had early class tomorrow because he’d signed for an additional undergraduate theater class that started at seven. Harry had a meeting with some company partners, and he was in the works to sign a new deal with a couple new up-and-coming app creators with several promising projects he knew he needed patents on.

But for now, he and Louis were taking a walk.

“What time is it?” Louis asked, and Harry shrugged.

“Does it matter?”

“I guess not really,” Louis admitted, and then turned to face Harry, “What are we doing tonight?”

Harry smiled, “Anything,”

Louis nodded, and then turned back to path. They were entering one of the open sections of the park, filled with young families and a few vendor stands, “I’m thirsty. I’m getting us water,”

“Alright, baby,” Harry said, letting Louis’s fingers loosen. The wool of his coat feel back over Louis’s hands and he crossed his arms over his chest.

“I need your wallet, I forgot mine,”

“Of course you did,” Harry said, but he smiled as he said it. They’d had his conversation a million times, once upon a time. It felt good to have it again, “My wallet’s already in your pocket,”

“Oh,” Louis said, and then reached down to pat at the pocket of the coat before looking back up at Harry, “Cool. You want anything?”

“Just get one Evian, we’ll split it,”

Louis nodded, and then he was jogging away towards the nearest vendor, taking his place at the back of the short line. Harry watched him go and then turned away, crossing his arms and taking a long, frosty exhale. He was a little cold without his coat, but he’d live. It was sunny today, anyways, and that was enough.

He lifted his head, prepared to just glance around the familiar portions of the park out of boredom, but then his eyes caught on something.

There were three people around one of the metal benches that surrounded the perimeter of the park. One of them was sitting, a man with dark hair falling into his round glasses, dressed in a hoodie bearing the name of a local flower shop. Leaning against one of the benches’ rails was another man, waifish and dressed entirely in black, the piercings in his ear sparkling in the autumn sunlight. And one final man was just standing up straight, his hand resting on the back of the bench, a face Harry hadn’t seen since he had moved out of his apartment over the summer.

They were all looking at him.

Harry blinked, and then shook his head, but they were still there and clearly not going anywhere. He looked behind him and saw Louis was still stalled in the vendor line, and slowly, he took a step forward, and then another, until he was right in front of the bench.

“Hi,” he said, and Niall smiled first.

“Long time no see,” he said, “You still hate me?”

“I’m working on it,” Harry admitted, and Niall laughed.

“That’s the best I could hope for,” Niall shrugged, “For the record, I understand. No hard feelings on my part,”

“Right,” Harry sighed, and then stuffed his hands in his pockets and turned to Zayn, “Hey,”

“Hello,” Zayn returned, and reached up to tuck a loose piece of black hair behind his ear, “How’s your day going?”

“Time well spent,” Harry said, and Zayn smiled and nodded.

“Enough to make up for three pretty shitty years’ worth of me?”

Harry swallowed, and then forced himself to shrug.

“I’m working on that, too,” he said. He turned, and finally looked at Liam, who was just looking at him carefully.

“I’m working on you most of all,” he managed, and Liam grinned.

“I know,” he said, “Trust me, do I know,”

“Right. You can feel their heartbeats inside your own chest,” Niall snorted, “That was a bullshit line, by the way. I can’t believe he hated me the most,”

“You heard that conversation?” Harry asked, and Niall shrugged.

“I hear a lot of shit, I’m immortal and all seeing. But I only remember what sticks out, and Liam’s bullshit tends to do that,”

“Right,” Liam sighed, and then looked back up at Harry, “You’re doing good,”

“I’m trying to,” he said, “It’s hard but I’m trying to,”

“Hard,” Liam echoed, and it wasn’t a question but Harry still felt like he should answer.

“He’s the same, but he’s not. And neither am I, and neither are we. Like, together,” Harry tried, and then shook his head, “Fuck, I don’t know, it’s hard,”

“But you’re trying,” Liam said, “Most people don’t get that far,”

Harry bobbed his head and a bit, and then looked at each of them in turn, a different emotion broiling in his stomach with each glance.

“Will I ever see you all again?”

“Who knows?” Zayn shrugged, “But I kind of think you’d prefer it if we didn’t come hang around anymore,”

“I could get used to you,” Harry offered.

“That’s good, because you’ll have to deal with us even if you don’t see us like this again,” Niall said, his hand waving between all of them.

“Niall,” Zayn sighed, and then he looked back up at Harry, “We wanted to come say goodbye, actually, and thank you,”

“Thank me?” Harry echoed, “For what?”

“For listening,” Liam shrugged, and Harry blinked at him.

“I owed you that much,” he insisted.

“You really didn’t,” Niall said, “But you did it. So, like Zayn said, thank you,”

Harry nodded, and then glanced behind him. Louis was at the front person in the queue at the vendor stand, so he’d be done soon. When Harry turned back to the bench, all of three men were smiling.

“Go on,” Liam said, “He doesn’t have to meet us just yet, and I honestly don’t know if you want to introduce us,”

“Right,” Harry said, and then inclined his head towards them, “Um. Good bye,”

“Good bye, Harry,” Liam murmured softly, and then tilted his head, “Go on now,”

Harry turned, just in time to see Louis crossed the path over to him, carrying a water bottle and frowning a bit.

“What are you doing over there?” he called, and Harry scratched the back of his neck as he came closer.

“I just saw some old friends,” he said, and Louis frowned even more as he handed the bottle to Harry.

“Where?”

“Over – “ Harry turned, ready to gesture awkwardly to the men sitting on the bench behind him before moving on, but when he turned around, the bench was vacant.

He turned back to Louis, who kept looking at him carefully, and he shrugged.

“They must have left,”

“Well,” Louis sighed, and then pushed the water into Harry’s hands, “I’ll go ahead and believe that you actually saw someone so I don’t have to worry about you losing it on me just yet,”

Harry snorted, and then looked down at the bottle in his hand.

“Why am I the one carrying this? You were the one who was thirsty,”

“Because you’re a good boyfriend,” Louis said, and then grabbed for Harry’s hand again, “That’s why,”

Harry felt a familiar firmness in his throat, and he tried to swallow it down. He got that lump in his throat a lot now, for good reasons, for bad reasons, for no reasons at all. He was remembering a lot. It would happen.

“I’m still trying to figure out how to be your boyfriend again,” Harry admitted, and Louis just smiled.

“Just hold my water and walk with me until we get tired,” he said, “That’s a good start,”

Harry nodded and let Louis tug his hand and make him keep walking.

There was a gap of over three years and one less person between them as they went.

But it was sunny, and Louis looked beautiful in Harry’s coat.

It was enough.