One more hour. Harry just needed to make it through one more hour.
The end of the shift was always the hardest, Harry’s feet and back aching from the interminable workday. His throat felt full of dust and the ringing in his ears from the loud machinery seemed only to stop just in time for him to start work again the next day. He had only been at the mill for a few weeks, but it felt like far longer.
It was hot and damp in the mill, the humidity necessary to keep the cotton supple, but still it broke often enough that Harry and the other children had to lean over the machinery to twist the ends back together. Harry hated it; he’d seen what those heavy, spinning wheels could do to flesh and bone, and one wrong move could end in deformity or even death. He wasn’t sure which he feared more.
Now, though, there was a broken thread and Harry had to mend it quickly. The punishments for wasting time at work were harsh, and Harry wasn’t in any hurry to be on the receiving end of one. Still, after ten hours on his feet, his eight-year-old body lacked the strength necessary to hold itself up. He could feel his knees shake as he reached for the flapping cotton, just out of grasp, yet he had no choice but to keep reaching.
When his knees buckled, Harry only hoped the machine would kill him swiftly.
But death didn’t come. Instead he was yanked back from the mule and to the dusty floor below.
“Easy, there!” a voice said, high and pure. Harry thought it must belong to an angel. He looked up, following the sound.
If his rescuer was an angel, he took the form of a boy. He was skinny with greasy hair that could have passed for blond or brown. He looked tired, lines around bright blue eyes that seemed to age him when in reality he couldn’t have been much older than Harry.
“You saved me,” Harry said, gaping up at the boy. “I thought I was done for.”
“Not on my watch,” the boy said, cocky but kind, flashing a grin that returned some semblance of youth to his worn features. He reached for Harry, helping him to his throbbing feet. “I’m Louis.”
Harry smiled at Louis, his hand still held tight in Louis’ calloused one. “Harry,” he said. Louis’ touch was the first friendly contact he’d had in weeks, and it was sending warmth singing through his blood. He’d forgotten that human contact could be something welcome.
The spell was broken, though, by Louis glancing around. Right, they were meant to be working, and the approach of quitting time would not spare either of them a lashing. “Don’t worry, Harry,” Louis said, even as he slipped down the row of mules back to his own duties. “I’ll look after you.”
The loneliness Harry had suffered since the death of his parents, which had only intensified with his strange new life as an apprentice at the mill, was lessened. He didn’t know it when he climbed into bed that night, a tiny berth that he shared with two other boys, but Harry Styles would never feel alone again.
Harry woke up damp and sweating. His heart hammered in his chest, the deep breaths he forced himself to draw doing little to slow it. In his dream he had been a child again, watching as one by one the other children were caught in the machinery and torn to bits. Just as a thread of cotton had tangled around his wrist, pulling him into the blood-soaked mule, he had woken up.
The room was dark, already muggy despite the early hour. Harry dragged his tired body up off his lumpy mattress. It would be futile to try to go back to sleep now, what with the way his heart and mind still thrummed from his nightmare. It would be time for work soon anyway—he could hear sounds of life from the floor below, someone waking early to take a turn at the privies before there was a line. Harry could just make out the sleeping form of Louis on his own bed across the room, seemingly undisturbed by Harry’s rude awakening. Harry smiled warmly at his oldest friend; he could let him sleep a bit longer. The mere reminder that Louis was there with him, a near-constant presence in his life, was enough to finally calm the frantic racing of his heart.
Harry made his way down the winding staircase carefully, minding each step—falling once was plenty, and he couldn’t risk an injury that would keep him from work. The thin walls did little to obscure the sounds of his housemates, all waking up for their shifts at the factory. There were six of them in the two-bedroom house and it was still hard to make ends meet, but they had a roof over their heads and food in their bellies. It was better than Harry’s life as an apprentice for damn sure—gone were the days of being the factory’s property, of eating oatcakes and sleeping in the overcrowded Prentice House. Louis, a year older, had already left the confines of the Prentice House and found lodging with some other boys from the factory, and Harry had joined them as soon as he turned eighteen.
The key for the privies was gone, but moments later the curtain over the entryway swung open and Niall stepped inside with the key in hand. He was good-natured, blue-eyed and ruddy faced with crooked teeth in a mouth that seemed only able to smile. He passed over the key wordlessly before making his way back up the stairs to his bedroom. Harry listened to his uneven footsteps, the strange cadence leftover from a factory accident when he was younger that never healed correctly. Niall didn’t let it slow him down, though; aside from the limping he carried on just like any of the others and worked just as hard.
The courtyard was fairly empty, with only a few other residents venturing out for the privies or to fetch water from the pump. Harry’s house at 5 Jordan Street was three storeys, a room on each level, and sat back-to-back with another house. His faced the courtyard but was luckily far enough away from the privies and the miskin that the smell wasn’t too overpowering. When the privies were too full and flooded, as they often did, their cellar was usually spared the same fate as those across the yard.
By the time Harry finished his business and returned the key to its rightful place by the door, the rest of the household was awake. Niall and Liam were cutting up a stale loaf of bread for breakfast while a bleary-eyed Daniel tended their meagre fire. Joshua took the privy key before it could stop swinging on its nail, which left only one person unaccounted for.
“Louis still in bed?” Harry asked, his voice gravelly from sleep and the constant presence of cotton fibres scratching his throat.
Niall laughed, tossing down his knife on the table that doubled as a workspace and the storage for all their cooking utensils. “O’ course. Louis would never leave his bed if you didn’t make him,” he said, the Irish lilt to his voice mockingly cheerful for so early in the day.
Harry grinned back—he had figured as much. It was the trade-off in their friendship: Louis was better at work, faster at the machines and with more nimble fingers. In return, Harry made sure the lazy sod actually rose from his bed each morning. Lateness wasn’t tolerated, and surely without Harry to wake him another man would have taken Louis’ job by now.
Louis was right where Harry left him, curled into a tight ball on his bedding. He slept in his work clothes, one less thing to worry about in the morning, and his boots sat ready at the foot of his mattress. Harry knelt down beside it, placing a hand on Louis’ shoulder and giving him a gentle shake. “Lou.”
“Not yet,” Louis whined tiredly, curling in on himself even more. “I’ve only just gone to sleep.”
“Not with how long you were snoring, you haven’t,” Harry teased. He shook Louis again. “Come now, up you get. The lads will leave without us and Niall won’t save us any breakfast.”
With much grumbling, Louis allowed Harry to pull him into a sitting position. He looked like a child in the mornings, so much like the boy Harry first met that it made his heart ache. Louis’ hair was messy and tangled, his mouth pulled into a pout and bags under his stormy blue eyes. It sent Harry right back to the days of sharing a bed in the Prentice House, crawling out of their bunk only to have it filled by boys coming off the night shift. Louis had somehow convinced Harry’s former bedmates to trade, and from then on the two of them curled up together every night. It was still too hot and cramped, and smelled of sweat and oil, but they had one another and that made it easier to bear.
The early morning walk to the factory was quiet, the only sounds coming from the pairs of boot-clad feet marching dutifully to work. The sun wasn’t up yet, wouldn’t be for a while, and most of them would not return home before it set again. Harry missed the sun, missed feeling the warmth on his cheeks and seeing his skin go brown during the long summer days. He missed playing in its shadows the way he did as a child, or chasing the light that filtered through leaves. That was before, though—before his mother died, before he was taken in by the government, before he was sold to the mill. Now Harry’s skin was pale and sallow, and the most sunlight he saw filtered not through foliage, but instead the filthy glass of factory windows. He most likely would no longer be able to bear direct sunlight—not with eyes accustomed to candlelight at home and the sputtering gas lamps lining the street.
They could hear the factory before it came into view. A cotton mill was never silent; Harry had learned at an early age that if the machines weren’t running, no money was being made. The lads would make their way inside and take up positions just vacated by the night crew, as regular as the changing of the tide. It had been the same routine since Harry was eight years old, and now, a decade later, he was certain it would continue for the rest of his life. People rarely chose to leave the factories—where else were they to find such steady work? Yet new workers were always needed, the old succumbing to consumption or meeting their end by the very machines with which they made their living.
Louis and Harry didn’t see one another much at work, each too busy with his own duties for socialising. That didn’t bother Harry much. Just knowing Louis was nearby was enough. Harry now worked as a bobbin carrier, hauling heavy skips full of bobbins from the spinning room to the weaving room. The work was tiring, but his arms were growing stronger each day. It was less dangerous as well, for he was now too large and gangly to climb beneath the machines to fetch cotton or lean into them to fix breaks.
Louis, on the other hand, was still a doffer. It wasn’t usual for someone of his age to retain a position often given to children, but he remained small of stature and deft of hand. He was quick, too, darting in and around the machines like it was second nature. Perhaps it was; he had been working as a doffer for almost half his life.
Now and again their duties coincided and Harry was in charge of collecting the skip of bobbins that Louis was filling. On those occasions, he allowed himself a moment to watch Louis work, to admire the speed and ease with which he clambered up the frame and exchanged full bobbins for empty ones. Doffers had to be quick; the longer they took, the longer the machines were stopped. None were quite so fast as Louis, though. It was he whom the other lads pointed out to the new boys: “Watch and see how he does it.”
It troubled Harry something awful, however, watching Louis work. He did so partly out of admiration, and partly out of fear. Even with the spinning stopped, there were still ways to become injured. Louis had to work so swiftly, so close to the exposed innards of the machines, that all it would take was one false move to fall into the gaping maw below, spindles poking up like row after row of teeth.
Harry shuddered. It didn’t bear thinking about. He had trained himself to look for Louis each time he entered the spinning room, just for visual confirmation of his well being, and then he would keep his head down and concentrate on his own work. Louis seemed to be aware of this, for more often than not he was looking right back at Harry, flashing the briefest of smiles before rushing to the next mule in need of doffing.
The worry never truly ceased until the working day was done, and Harry could seek out Louis to inventory his fingers and toes before they left for home. It had been a joke between them since childhood, and Harry took great comfort in it still. Louis worked barefoot, the soles of his feet better for speed and balance than the worn soles of his old boots, and he would wait to put the shoes back on until Harry had a chance to see there were no toes missing.
Today was no exception: Louis was sat against the wall outside the mill, his unlaced boots beside him. He grinned when Harry came into view, holding out his hands and wriggling his toes. “Ten and ten,” he said, beaming.
“Ten and ten,” Harry confirmed with a nod, his heart finally seeming to slow in its hurried beating. He would never admit to Louis how much their little ritual meant to him, but he had a feeling that Louis already knew.
Harry watched as Louis shoved his dirty feet back into his boots, helping Louis off the ground when he was appropriately shod. “Are you off to the manor, then?”
“I won’t be long,” Harry promised, clapping Louis on the shoulder. He didn’t have time to say much else, for then Niall and Liam came trudging outside with the other lads in tow, ready to be home after a long day at work. Harry bade them goodbye, watching them recede into the shadows between the streetlights until he could see them no more. Then it was time to set off on his own path.
All the residents of 5 Jordan Street brought home food whenever and however they could. Whether it was seeing if the baker had any stale bread to pooling their earnings for a treat of mutton. Food was never plentiful, not with six young men under one roof, but they weren’t starving either. Harry considered them to be quite lucky—he knew of houses packed with dozens of people, of families living in crowded cellars that flooded when the privies grew too full. Yes, they were certainly quite lucky in comparison.
Harry’s trek took him away from the factories, away from the crowded blocks of back-to-back houses and flimsy shanties, and over the river into Broughton. He had to hold his nose as he crossed, the stench of the polluted water strong enough to make his eyes sting even from the height of the bridge. It was no wonder; the water was the ultimate resting place of all the waste and filth collected by the night-men.
Across the River Irwell, the houses grew farther apart and the belch of smoke from the factories seemed to dissipate. There were parks and shops, rows of townhouses and manors with manicured gardens. It was like another world, one Harry had glimpsed but would never be part of aside from these weekly visits.
His destination was just past Albert Park on Hope Street. Marshall Manor was beautiful, stone and sprawling, and rows of windows lined the façade. Harry allowed himself a moment, just one, to gaze at it longingly, to give life to the things he dare not dream of before extinguishing them once more. He was here for a purpose, and it was not to imagine a life so dramatically different from his own. With a heavy sigh, he turned away from the grand entrance and followed the familiar path to the servants’ entrance around back.
Harry tapped at the heavy wooden door. It soon swung inward, enveloping Harry in golden lamplight and indescribable aromas. Harry’s empty stomach clenched uncomfortably at the smell of food he couldn’t even begin to imagine.
“Harry!” The man who opened the door clapped Harry on the back, drawing him into the kitchen. Despite the late hour, there were still many servants working there: chopping vegetables, kneading dough, tending to the fire beneath a great copper pot. It looked as if they were preparing to feed an army rather than a single household.
“Good evening, Mr Corden,” Harry said politely, willing his stomach not to protest quite so loudly. He didn't succeed.
“How many times must I tell you? It’s James.” The cook smiled, his round face red from the heat of the kitchen. “Come. Let’s get you sorted before you starve.”
Harry had met James through his son, Nathaniel. Nathaniel had worked alongside Harry and Louis at the mill as a part-timer, earning extra income for his family but still attending school and living at home with them. Nathaniel wasn’t ever owned by the mill in the way that Harry and Louis and the other orphans were.
If he had, there would have been no one to miss him.
It had happened so quickly. One moment everything was fine, then the next came the awful sounds, shrieking from the machinery and the boy caught inside. The minder stopped the machine immediately, but the damage had already been done. Mr Corden had been called to the factory, and that was the first time Harry had seen him: his jovial face was streaked with tears, his shoulders slumped forward. He was white as a sheet as he turned to the small group of boys nearby. “You lads be careful, now.” He had sounded so calm, and then he had gone.
Harry had never forgotten that day. He was only fifteen, and Nathaniel had been but twelve. Afterwards, Mr Corden had come down to the mill at times—to check on the boys, perhaps. To look for hints of his son in the faces of those he worked alongside. He seemed to find some such thing in Harry, perhaps a mannerism or the fact that Nathaniel and Harry both possessed green eyes. Regardless, Mr Corden had handed Harry a slip of paper with an address on it. “You ever need anything, come and find me here.”
Now, once a week since Louis had first moved out of the Prentice House, Harry showed up at the manor where Mr Corden— James— worked as a cook. James always sent Harry away with as much food as he could carry, from stale bread and pastries to the tops of carrots and potato peels. It was nothing that the Lord Marshall would miss, only things that would have been thrown out anyway, but to Harry and his friends the extra food meant more money they could put aside for other necessities. It meant not having to add another body to their already crowded lodgings, and being able to get a bit of meat now and again.
“Here you are,” James said, handing Harry a fresh yeast roll. It was still soft and steaming, and Harry could only stare at it in awe. He had forgotten that bread could be so soft. “Go on, before it gets cold.”
“Thank you,” Harry murmured, taking a careful bite out of the roll. It was so easy to chew, it seemed to melt in his mouth, dissolving into warm, flaky layers. He made himself only take a couple more bites before tucking the rest into his pocket for later.
In the meantime, James had filled a flour sack full with spoiling vegetables and old bread. He handed it off to Harry, a sad smile on his face. “You lads still doing all right? Getting enough to eat?”
“Thanks to you,” Harry replied, tilting his head toward the bag cradled in his arms. “I’d wager we’re the best fed boys at the mill.”
A shadow crossed over James’ eyes at that, and Harry immediately felt guilty for mentioning the very place that took Nathaniel away. “It’s getting late,” James said softly. “You need to get your rest.”
“Yes sir,” Harry agreed. He thanked James again before letting himself back out into the night.
The journey home took Harry just over half an hour, and the others were hungrily awaiting his return. They pounced on him immediately, eager to see what James had sent for them this week. The vegetables went straight into the pot hanging over the fire, the makings of a soup that would last them for days. The bread was carefully wrapped to save for their meals at work. It wasn’t a varied menu, but it was more than some had, and they were grateful.
“Look, pears!” Niall announced gleefully, pulling a few out of the bag. They were soft and going brown, but that didn’t stop him from taking a big bite of the fruit. His eyes fluttered closed, juice escaping down his chin and onto his filthy shirt.
“Hey, now,” Louis said, snatching one of the pears away. “You have to share those, Niall.” He cut the one he held in half, offering the larger piece to Harry. “Seems like old Mr Corden fixed us up nice this week.”
“He always does,” Harry agreed solemnly, remembering the sadness in James’ eyes. It must be so terribly difficult, to see others survive when his own son did not. Harry often wondered if that’s why James helped them—to keep someone else’s son alive in Nathaniel’s stead. It was so awful for James and Nathaniel, and at the same time so incredibly lucky for Harry and the others. It was a sombre thought, and Harry tried his best to push it away and enjoy the present. He took a big bite of the halved pear, too mushy to feel pleasant, but the juice was the sweetest thing he’d tasted in ages. He looked over at Louis, whose own half was already gone save for the juice he was licking from his fingers. Yes, thought Harry, they were definitely blessed.
Later, once their stomachs were less empty and they had climbed the winding stairs to their respective rooms, Harry remembered the bread roll. He pulled it from his pocket, squashed but still soft, and handed it over to Louis. “Here. From Mr Corden.”
Misshapen or not, Louis took the roll excitedly and stuffed it in his mouth in one go. It was like that with them; Harry slowly savoured the things he considered a treat, while Louis consumed them quickly because he was too enthusiastic to show restraint. Harry knew quite well that if Louis had been given the fresh roll, he wouldn’t have brought any home for Harry to share. Not that Louis was selfish—anything but—just that he lived so solidly in the moment that conserving some for later never would have occurred to him until it was long gone.
“This is heavenly,” Louis praised with a sigh, mouth still full of roll. “It’s so soft.”
“I wish you’d had some while it was warm,” Harry lamented. “You’ll have to go with me some time. It would be nice to have company for the walk.”
Louis sat down on his mattress, swallowing the last remnants of bread. “You’d never get me to leave,” he teased. “I’d take one look at all that food and chain meself to the wall.”
Harry laughed as he crawled into his own bed. “You’d eat them out of house and home. The poor Lord Marshall would have to sell off his possessions to buy more food.”
“No,” Louis replied, already sounding half asleep, “he’d just cut his servants’ wages and eat his fill.”
That made Harry sad, thinking of James’ wages going down, even in a hypothetical situation. “Well, I suppose we’d best just keep you here then,” Harry said, settling down and letting his eyes close.
“I suppose you’d better,” came the mumbled reply, and then they were both fast asleep.
One day differed very little from the one before.
Each morning they pulled themselves out of bed and marched to the mill. They worked their jobs, took their meal breaks, and went home after to their meagre dinner and their beds. Once a week Harry would take his soiled clothing to the wash room in the courtyard. More often than not Louis’ things would be mixed in as well, but Harry didn’t mind it. If he didn’t do the washing, he wasn’t sure Louis would ever have a clean shirt to wear. It made him feel warm inside, to be doing his good friend such a favour—he wanted to do anything he could to make Louis’ life easier.
Some evenings, instead of walking home with them, Liam would stay behind to walk one of the girls from the winding room home. Liam had been courting her for a couple months now, and Niall had already started taking wagers on when they’d announce their engagement. It was sweet, seeing the way Liam’s cheeks grew red when he looked at her. Harry wondered if anyone would ever look at him like that. The only girls he knew were the ones he saw from ferrying bobbins between the spinning and weaving rooms, and not one of them caught his eye the way Mary had caught Liam’s.
“Do you think you’ll ever be married?” Harry asked one night. He was sat at the table downstairs, keeping Louis company.
Louis looked up from the shirt he was mending, a frown on his face that seemed deeper due to the flickering light of the fire. “What brought that on?”
Harry shrugged, turning his attention back to the paper in front of him. It was a newspaper page that had been spared from use in the privy, and Harry was making use of the fire and a stubby candle to draw in the margins with a bit of charcoal. “I don’t know. I was thinking about Liam and Mary.”
“You sound like Niall, already planning their wedding,” Louis scoffed. “I don’t know. It isn’t something that I’ve given much thought to. I suppose one day I might find a wife, so long as she’d let us take you in like a little stray.”
“I think it will be me who takes you in,” Harry retorted, watching Louis break his thread yet again. “Give that here. You can’t even mend your shirts, how are you meant to care for a wife?”
Louis stood and passed the shirt over to Harry, taking the opportunity to glance at Harry’s drawings. “Who have you sketched this time?” he asked, pulling the paper toward him and smudging some of the lines in the process. “Blimey, Harry, these are rather good.”
He had drawn a man and a woman standing near a brick wall, the man leaning against it and the woman coyly leaning away. Even with the imprecise lines of the charcoal, the man’s hopefulness and the woman’s shy smile were easy to decipher.
“It’s just a silly pastime,” Harry demurred, carefully stitching the ripped seam in Louis’ shirt.
Louis slid the paper back over. “It’s wonderful. You should be making art somewhere, not trapped inside a factory every day.”
“I would also like to be able to pay the rent,” Harry countered. Sure, he’d dreamt of sharing his art with others, of being able to handle fine pencils and brushes and paints, to have a true canvas instead of a margin, but that was the sort of privilege his station didn’t afford.
Louis hummed, a thoughtful noise low in his throat. “I’ll get us out of there someday. You deserve to spend your days painting in the sunlight.”
Harry felt himself blush at the praise, grateful for the dim lighting that hid the redness of his face. “And you deserve a wife to do your mending.” He tied off the thread and held up the shirt, newly repaired.
“Who needs a wife when I’ve a Harry?” Louis replied, reaching for the shirt.
Harry’s stomach fluttered at the words, but he swallowed against the feeling and slapped away Louis’ charcoal-stained hands. “You won’t have either if we have to clean charcoal stains from your shirts,” he teased, his voice coming out thicker than it should have.
Louis rolled his eyes and wiped his grubby hands on Harry’s shirt instead.
Some things happen slowly over time: the growth of a seed into a tree, the gentle shift of seasons from one to another, the healing of wounds both physical and far deeper.
Harry had known for some time that his and Louis’ friendship was something extraordinary. He attributed it to the length of time they’d spent in one another’s company—a decade, now. They were closer than friends, closer even than brothers. They had no family but the other and never spent more than a day apart. Harry couldn’t imagine a life without Louis, didn’t want to, but time stood still for no man. One day Louis would meet a lady who caught his fancy, someone he wanted to make a life with.
A life that, most likely, would include less of Harry.
He couldn’t fathom it, going from living in each other’s pockets to only seeing Louis at work. He wanted to be the one Louis came home to, the one to look after his dear friend. He wanted to make sure Louis was safe and happy, to hold him close and keep him always. He wanted to give Louis a better life.
He wanted Louis.
The realisation came upon him late one night, long after the rest of the house was fast asleep. He awoke from the strangest dream: he and Louis sharing a bunk, much like the one they shared at the Prentice House all those years. It was a tight fit with their mature bodies, and they had to entwine themselves in order to lie comfortably. It was dark in the room, but Harry was able to make out every feature on Louis’ beautiful face. For he was beautiful, the loveliest creature Harry had ever laid eyes on. He reached up to trace Louis’ thin lips with a calloused finger, before replacing it with his own lips.
It was a frightful vision, one that had Harry sitting up and clutching at his heaving breast. He didn’t want Louis to take a wife— he didn’t want to take a wife. He wanted them to live together always. Harry had no doubt that, had one of them been born a woman, they would have started courting as soon as they were old enough. He had always known he cared for Louis, he just hadn’t realised the depth of it.
“Who needs a wife when I’ve a Harry?”
But no, surely Louis didn’t share in Harry’s perversions. They all knew what happened to men who committed buggery—they found themselves in a prison cell or swinging from the gallows. They read about it in the papers, about the men charged with Unnatural Crimes and sentenced to hang for them.
Harry shook his head; his thoughts were running rampant. It was a bit of a stretch from wanting to spend his life with Louis to wanting to do those things. Surely there were men who kept each other’s company well into old age, old friends who never desired a woman or children.
He felt sick with shame. Harry couldn’t help but steal a glance at his sleeping friend, breathing deeply from his side of their small room. What would Louis think of him, to know the kinds of things going through Harry’s mind? Would he be repulsed? Would he report Harry?
It didn’t bear dwelling on. Harry had lived this long being perfectly satisfied with their friendship, and he would continue to do so for as long as Louis would have him.
The idea, once it took root, seemed to spread like a weed. It grew from something small and niggling to an all-consuming entity, hovering thickly over Harry’s every thought until he felt his vision was clouded with it.
How had he never seen it before?
He had, of course he had. He just hadn’t known this feeling for what it truly was. Never had he realised why the sight of Louis, dashing barefoot and sure through the rows of mules, made his heart beat so. Never had he known why a certain smile from Louis caused the breath to catch in his lungs, or how the sound of his friend’s voice could ease his fears no matter the severity.
It was love.
Love… such an impermanent fixture in Harry’s life. His parents had loved him, but they were gone and no such kindness had been shown to him since. That isn’t true, his mind insisted. There has been someone. And there was. It was the same person who made sure Harry was eating and sleeping, who asked after him when no one else even noticed something was wrong and encouraged Harry’s art when the others thought it a meaningless hobby.
Of course Harry was in love with Louis. Looking at it like that, how could he not be?
With the true nature of his feelings realised, Harry felt like he was seeing the world in a different light. Now, when he was able to glimpse Louis in the spinning room, he took the time to appreciate the way Louis’ muscles flexed as he exchanged full bobbins for empty ones. He allowed himself to recognise the way hearing Louis’ laugh seemed to brighten his own spirits. And, when they walked home, Harry couldn’t help but marvel at the way his skin tingled when Louis’ hand brushed against his arm. It was a thousand different curiosities that created something so magnificent that Harry barely felt he could contain it. But he must, for surely Louis would not understand him. Who could? Was there any understanding something so strange?
“Why are you looking at me like that?” Louis asked one evening on their way home.
Harry startled at the question, his cheeks growing red at having been caught stealing glances at his best friend. He couldn’t help it; the orange flicker of the streetlamps seemed to illuminate Louis from within, making him glow even more than usual. “I’m looking at you the same way I always have.”
Louis chuckled, shaking his head. “That’s what I mean. You always look at me as if I’m somehow extraordinary. I don’t understand it.”
“You are, though,” Harry insisted, resisting the urge to take Louis’ hand in his own.
“You are so strange at times,” Louis replied, smiling as he looped an arm through Harry’s. “You’re going to make a lady so happy one day, with as gilded as that tongue of yours is.”
“Indeed,” Harry agreed, swallowing against the lump rising in his throat. If only his friend knew the truth.
It continued to gnaw at him day in and day out, this ache in the pit of his stomach like no hunger Harry had ever known. Now that he knew what he wanted, what he needed, it was burning him up from the inside. It haunted his mind, leaving him so distracted at work that he spilt a full skip of bobbins and had to chase them all down. He couldn’t afford to make errors like that; had the wrong person seen, he would have had his wages for the day cut.
Nighttime was the hardest, when Harry was still and alone with his thoughts. Without the demanding physical activity of his work to distract him, without the incessant clattering of the mules to drown them out, Harry felt as though he was being smothered. It was almost too much to bear, and he yearned desperately to tell someone else so he no longer carried the burden alone—and yet, the one person he told everything to was the one person he couldn’t share this with.
“Are you still awake?”
Louis’ voice startled Harry; it was well past their bedtime, and Louis was normally fast asleep within a matter of moments. Now, though, he was leant up on one elbow, eyes shining in the darkness of their cramped quarters. There was really only enough space for their two small mattresses with a path between them, and Louis was so close that Harry could reach out and touch him if he wanted to. God, how he wanted to.
“You should be sleeping,” Harry said, sitting up. He moved to where his back was against one wall, knees to his chest like a barrier between Louis and the perverse things he had been thinking.
Louis was propped up on one elbow, regarding Harry curiously. “I’m not the only one. What’s keeping you awake?” His voice was soft and scratchy, like raw cotton.
“I’m just thinking,” Harry murmured. “It’s easier to think when it’s quiet.” There was movement, and then Louis’ body was occupying the space next to him on the bed. “What are you doing?”
“It’s easier to talk in the dark,” Louis replied, settling down next to Harry and leaning against the wall. They were touching from shoulder to hip, and Louis moved one knee to knock against Harry’s. “What’s troubling you? You’ve never kept secrets from me before.”
I’ve never had to, Harry thought pitifully, feeling almost like crying. There was no good end to this conversation: Louis would get the answer out of him one way or another. Either Harry would have to lie, and Louis could always tell when he was lying, or he would have to tell his friend the truth.
“What do you think it’s like?” Harry asked, swallowing against the dryness of his throat. “Falling in love with someone?”
Louis stilled next to him, his body rigid for a beat before he blew out a long breath. “I can’t say for sure,” Louis said with hesitation. “I’ve never been in love before.”
“What do you imagine it to be like, then?”
Louis tilted his head back, exposing the long line of his throat. He swallowed, his Adam’s apple bobbing, and Harry desperately wanted to know if that skin surrounding it tasted half as sweet as the fruit itself.
“I think,” Louis began, “I think it’s finding a bit of yourself in another person. I think it’s wanting to be near them, and to make them happy, and yearning to make them happy so much it’s all you can think about.” He turned to look at Harry, pulling a face. “That sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it?”
Harry shook his head, certain Louis could hear the way his heart hammered so. “No,” he said breathlessly. “It sounds beautiful.”
“What brought this on?” Louis asked, studying Harry’s features. There was only a pale sliver of moonlight to brighten the room, but surely Louis knew Harry’s face as well as Harry knew Louis’. “Have you found love?”
“I think I might have,” Harry whispered, closing his eyes tightly. Admitting it out loud was simultaneously terrifying and thrilling. Overcome with warring emotions, he couldn’t prevent the tears that sprang unbidden to the corners of his eyes.
Harry felt Louis shift, then there was an arm winding around Harry’s shoulders and pulling him close. “You don’t need to tell me,” Louis said, fingers stroking down Harry’s arm, drawing what were meant to be soothing patterns that instead had Harry shivering with how much he desired Louis’ touch. “Whoever you choose to love, Harry, is very, very lucky. I hope you know that.”
It’s you, it’s always been you, Harry’s mind was screaming, but he said nothing. He let his friend hold him, and he wept, and eventually sleep overtook him.
Some things happened slowly, others far too sudden.
It started like any other morning, the lads rising one by one to ready themselves for work. Harry and Louis were back in their respective beds, neither speaking of the night Harry had fallen asleep in Louis’ arms and woken up curled tightly around him, exactly how they had slept as children. It had been so nice, waking up in someone’s embrace, and now he felt cold and lonely on his own mattress.
Still, gone were the days of childhood, and Harry would be better suited to leave those memories in the past where they belonged. Perhaps he could spare his future self a small portion of the pain if he forgot how close he once was to the person he wanted most.
For now, that same person was sprawled out on his own mattress, mouth open and gentle snores sneaking out with every breath. Harry smiled at his friend, envying how well he always seemed to sleep, before kneeling beside Louis and gently shaking him awake.
“It can’t be time to wake up already,” Louis complained, rolling away from Harry’s touch.
“’Fraid so,” Harry chuckled, shaking Louis again. “Come on, the day is waiting.”
Louis sat up, groggily rubbing at his eyes. For the first time, Harry noticed the dark circles under them, pulling his eyes into tired slits. “I didn’t get much rest last night,” Louis confessed, running his fingers through his messy hair.
“What’s troubling you?” Harry asked, pulling on his braces and trying to coax his curls into lying neatly on his head. It was no use; they sprung right back when he removed his hand.
With a deep sigh Louis climbed to his feet, rolling his neck to stretch his muscles. “Just a lot on my mind, that’s all,” he admitted. “Nothing you need concern yourself with.” He dressed hurriedly, mechanically going through the motions he repeated day in and day out. Soon both men were ready to go, and they joined the others waiting downstairs.
It should have been an ordinary day. They did their jobs and ate their meals and watched the shadows lengthen across the factory floor. It went exactly how the day before had gone, and how the one after would follow.
And then the screaming started.
Harry was all the way across the spinning room, but he knew that voice better than he knew his own. He pushed his skip away, not caring if it tipped over and the bobbins spilt across the oily floor. He had to get to Louis. All that mattered was getting to Louis.
By the time he crossed the room a crowd had formed, and Harry tried to shoulder his way through it. “Let me through, I need to get to him,” he insisted, but no one paid him any mind. He continued to surge forward, nearly in view of the machine when a strong hand caught his arm.
“You don’t need to see this, Harry,” Niall urged quietly. He was a frame tenter, in charge of looking after the spinning frames, and was no doubt waiting to assess the damage after… but Harry wasn’t concerned with after. He was concerned with right now, and right now the screaming had stopped and he feared the worst for his friend.
“Let me through,” Harry insisted firmly, and Niall dropped his hold and stepped away. With a shaky breath Harry pushed his way through the front of the crowd, and the sight that awaited him made his stomach churn in disgust.
The first thing he saw was the blood. It was everywhere, staining the wooden frame of the mule and turning the full bobbins a grisly pink. Some of it pooled on the floor, mixing with oil and bits of cotton fluff, and Harry couldn’t avoid stepping in it as he moved closer.
It was then he noticed Louis, looking so small cradled in the arms of one of the overlookers. Louis’ skin was terribly pale, standing out in stark contrast to the crimson stain covering his clothing. One arm was cradled to his chest, wrapped in blood-soaked cloth. He looked… He looked lifeless.
“Does he live?” Harry asked quietly, his voice barely loud enough to be heard over the thumping of his own heart. “Please, tell me,” he begged.
“He needs a doctor,” the overlooker replied calmly. “And I need the rest of you to return to your stations.”
Harry took a deep breath, letting it out on a shaky exhale. If there was a need for a doctor, then there was hope. “Please, let me see him,” Harry begged. “I’m the only family he’s got.”
The overlooker seemed reluctant; even during tragedy, if the machines weren’t running it meant money wasn’t being made, and he would be the one held accountable. “Keep it brief,” the man said gruffly, and Harry fell to his knees beside his injured friend.
“Louis, oh, Louis,” he whispered, tears welling up in his eyes. “You have to hold on for me, please. I can’t do this without you.” He wanted to peek beneath the bloodied cloth, to see for himself the extent of the damage, but that was all they had to staunch the bleeding (and poorly at that).
“All right,” the overlooker said gently. “You must let me take him, lad, or he won’t have a prayer.”
“Come on, Harry,” another voice said. Niall. He placed a hand on Harry’s shoulder. “Let them take care of Louis. The doctor is on his way.”
Harry allowed Niall to help him to his feet, his eyes never leaving the ghostly white body of his friend. “I should go with him,” Harry insisted. “I should be there.”
Niall shook his head, firmly steering Harry away from the macabre scene. “You need to keep working.”
How? How was Harry supposed to carry on working, not knowing when or if he would ever see his friend again? It wasn’t yet after noon—there were so many hours of the day left, and he knew time would seem to creep by as slowly as the pool of blood that spread further and further over the wooden floor, as if the machine itself were bleeding.
“Harry,” Niall said softly. “He’s going to need our help, and that means we have to keep doing our jobs in case he isn’t able to do his.”
Harry met Niall’s wide blue eyes, catching a hint of fear lurking beyond the Irishman’s outward composure. Niall was right: if Louis couldn’t work, there would be one less person earning wages at the house. It would be a monumental blow to their income, and Harry certainly couldn’t afford to lose any earnings on top of that. He nodded firmly, jaw clenched so tightly his teeth hurt, and returned to the skip he’d left lying where it fell, collecting the bobbins strewn about it. He stopped long enough to watch the overlooker carry Louis’ limp frame out of the spinning room, and then he forced himself to continue fulfilling his duties.
When his shift was over, Harry didn’t bother waiting around for anyone else as he sprinted out into the night. He wasn’t even sure if Louis would be at home, but Harry was determined to find out. It had taken the better part of two hours to clean the machine, remove all the ruined cotton, and soak the blood from the floorboards. There had been so much of it, too much, and Harry had grown ill every time he passed by that particular row of mules. It wasn’t any easier once the gruesome sight was gone, for then it looked like nothing had happened at all—that it was just like any other day at the mill. But it wasn’t, because Louis was gone, and Harry didn’t think he’d be able to stand it if that absence were to become a permanent one.
Harry had never made it home so fast in his life, rushing past other men on their way home from work without so much as a glance. He had to know if Louis was alive as soon as possible to ease his troubled thoughts. No one would have come to tell him if the news was bad, and why should they? He wasn’t kin. In their eyes he was nothing more than a colleague and fellow lodger, and that did not merit special treatment if Louis didn’t survive.
But he had to, he must have. Harry refused to think negatively; the mere fact that Louis had been pulled from the machine still alive had to be reason to hope. Nathaniel Corden had expired before anyone could even reach him—so had anyone else Harry had seen perish in his years at the mill. Not Louis, though. He had seen it with his own eyes, Louis’ chest rising and falling with shallow breaths even as the blood drained from his body. Louis was a fighter, always had been, and Harry knew that Louis had been fighting for survival the second that machine took hold of him.
Harry ran through the archway into the courtyard, feet flying over the cobblestones as he rounded the corner towards his house. He was through the door and up the rickety stairs in seconds flat, and only when he burst into their bedroom to see Louis in his bed did Harry allow himself to relax. Louis was covered up to his chin, his face pale except for high spots of colour in his cheeks. His hair was damp and messy, his closed eyelids dark like bruises. While his right hand was still heavily bandaged, a sinister stain soaking its way through the linen, it rested over his chest and rose and fell with each laboured breath Louis took.
He was still breathing. He was alive. In that moment, nothing else mattered.
There was a movement from the other side of the room, and only then did Harry notice the presence of another person. Their neighbour, a Mrs Shaw, rose from the chair she had been sitting in, a worried smile on her kind, wrinkled face. “I saw them bring him in,” she explained, voice soft as to not wake Louis. “I offered to sit with him until you lot came home.”
“Thank you,” Harry croaked out, barely trusting himself to speak. “Did they tell you anything?” For all he knew they had made Louis comfortable, and that was all that could be done. He didn’t even know the full extent of Louis’ injuries, but there had been so much blood…
Mrs Shaw nodded, glancing over at the pale boy in the bed. “The surgeon said it was only his hand. He had to amputate a few fingers, but thinks Mr Tomlinson should pull through.”
Harry nearly sank to the floor in relief, only just managing to catch himself against the wall. Louis was going to live. He wanted to go to his friend, to hold him close and kiss his cheeks, but he could do no such thing in the presence of his neighbour. “Thank you so much for looking after him,” Harry said earnestly, pressing a kiss to the back of Mrs Shaw’s gnarled hand.
“You boys need someone to look after you,” Mrs Shaw tutted, gathering the socks she had been darning. “The surgeon said he’ll send someone round to work out payment and to check in on him, and that his bandages must be replaced when they’re saturated.”
Harry winced; he hadn’t even thought of how they were going to pay for this, but he would find a way. “Let me show you to the door,” Harry offered, though he was reluctant to leave Louis’ side even for a moment.
Mrs Shaw waved him off. “I remember the way. Stay with your friend,” she insisted. She smiled, her brown eyes warm even in the dim candlelit room. “Take care of him, and let me know how he’s doing in a few days.”
“I will,” Harry promised, and with a rustle of her skirts Mrs Shaw was gone. He did sink to the floor then, the emotions of the day coming to a head and bursting forth. He didn’t try to stop the tears from coming, his body doubled over as he sobbed into his hands. How close had he come to losing his dearest friend that day? And for what? For a pitiful existence of table scraps and cramped quarters? No time for anything but work and meals and sleep? There had to be more to life than that. How Harry longed to truly live instead of merely existing.
He crawled on his knees to the side of Louis’ bed. He wanted to inspect Louis’ hand, see the damage for himself, but that could wait for the wrappings to be changed. Instead he took Louis’ left hand in both of his own, cradling it to his damp face and savouring the weak pulse thrumming beneath the skin.
“I want to give you everything,” Harry sobbed, not caring whether Louis could hear him or not. “A better life, better food and clothes. I want to give you all the happiness in the world.” He exhaled shakily, pressing a kiss to Louis’ clammy palm. “I care for you so much, Louis. So much more than you’ll ever know.” It was a bold statement, and for a moment Harry held his breath to see if Louis had heard him and might respond. Louis slept on, undisturbed, his breathing shallow but steady. There were so many things running through Harry’s mind: how they would pay for the surgeon; whether or not Louis would be able to work; if Louis would even be able to care for himself. Each was troubling, but none so troubling as the thought of a life without Louis in it. Harry forced himself to relax, the exhaustion of the day clawing at him from inside and out, and settled down in the space between their beds, within reach should Louis need him in the night. Harry stayed right there, curled on the hard floor next to his injured friend, and even when he fell into an uneasy sleep, never once did Louis’ hand slip from his grasp.
Harry woke up sore and tired from a night of restless sleep. The floor was unforgiving and his already overworked body screamed in protest when he sat up. He went to rub his eyes but a warm weight trapped his hand, preventing the motion.
Louis. Harry still had a tight hold on his good hand, their palms sweaty against one another. He gave a squeeze, grateful for the pulse he felt beneath the skin, and was startled to receive one in return.
“Louis?” Harry asked hesitantly.
The boy on the bed stirred, rolling his head to the side and slitting his eyes open at the sound of Harry’s voice. “Is it time for work?” he asked, his voice rough.
Harry could not help the surprised laugh that he let out in response. “You are not going to work!” he said, covering his mouth to chortle into his hand. “You nearly died yesterday, and you are going to stay home and rest.” It was sobering to remember the events of the day prior, to be reminded of how much he had nearly lost.
Louis tried to lift the bandaged hand but aborted the movement with a cry of pain. “It hurts,” he complained, dropping Harry’s hand to clutch at his own. “It hurts so much, Harry.” Tears pricked at the corners of Louis’ eyes as he looked at Harry in panic.
“You lost a few fingers,” Harry said quietly. “You had to have surgery, Louis. I thought I was going to lose you.”
Louis was quiet as he absorbed the information, staring down at his injured hand with a distrustful expression on his face—like it had somehow betrayed him. “I fell,” he recalled, his voice soft.
“You did,” Harry nodded. “It happened so fast. I was terribly frightened.” He yearned to reach out and touch Louis, but the older boy seemed to need his space as he processed what had happened to him. He was suddenly withdrawn, so unlike the bright, vivacious Louis that Harry was used to seeing. He wanted to ask what had happened, what could possibly have made Louis slip into the machine after many years of careful precision, but now was not the time. “We should change your bandage,” he said instead, excusing himself to retrieve the necessary supplies.
Louis didn’t say a word when Harry returned, but he offered his wrapped hand over to Harry. The linen was dark with stains, and Harry was suddenly terrified to see what lay beneath. As gently as he could he removed the bandages, peeling the layers apart from where dried blood held them fast. Harry couldn’t help but gasp when the final strip fell away.
At first it didn’t look like a hand at all, swollen as it was, mottled with bruises and streaked with rust-coloured lines of blood. The thumb was intact, as was the smallest finger, but the first two fingers and a portion of the third were missing. Where they should be was held closed with thick knots, the skin red and angry around the sutures. Harry gently wiped away the blood with a damp cloth, touching as lightly as he could around the inflamed wounds. Even though it must have been uncomfortable Louis didn’t wince once, just stared blankly ahead as Harry tended his wounds. Finally it was time to reapply the bandage, and Harry swallowed against the guilt he felt at being glad not to have to look at the mangled hand any longer. He picked up a strip of cloth, one of several left for them by the surgeon, but paused before he began. “Did you want to see?” he asked.
Louis was still, and Harry thought for a moment that he might not respond at all. Eventually he allowed his eyes to flick down at his hand, returning to their fixed spot on the wall no sooner than they’d left. There was no emotion on Louis’ face, and the sight of his friend so still and quiet unnerved Harry.
It was a clumsier job than the surgeon had done, but soon the hand was wrapped once more and resting on the mattress next to Louis’ body. By now the rest of the household was beginning to stir, and Harry would need to start getting ready soon. He dreaded the thought of leaving Louis for the day—what if he needed something? Who would fetch it for him? “Perhaps I should stay with you,” he murmured, thinking aloud. Niall could explain his absence, and surely they would understand him missing one day.
That caught Louis’ attention and he rounded on Harry, looking more alive than he had all morning. “No. You aren’t missing work on account of me. What if they fire you?”
“It’s one day,” Harry argued. “You need me more than they do right now.”
Louis shook his head vehemently. “Harry, think about it. We don’t know when I’ll be able to work again, if ever. We can’t afford for you to lose even a day’s wages.” He gave voice to the worry that had been eating at Harry’s insides since the incident had occurred—how on earth were they going to survive without Louis’ share?
“We will be all right,” Harry said, even though he wasn’t entirely sure. Still, he didn’t want to upset Louis now, not when he needed to rest and heal. “I’ll go, I swear. Just please allow me to care for you first.”
Louis relaxed at that, the fire fading from his eyes as he gave Harry a reluctant nod. Harry readied himself for work as quickly as he could before hurrying downstairs. He collected anything he thought Louis might need through the day: water, bread, the last of the over-ripe pears. He took everything up to their room and laid it out within easy reach of Louis’ good hand, then stripped the pillow and blankets from his own bed to allow Louis to prop himself up comfortably.
“Is there anything else you need?” Harry asked, trying to delay leaving as long as possible. He would never be able to forgive himself if Louis took a turn for the worst while Harry was at work.
“I could use a hand,” Louis joked weakly, smiling at the laugh his macabre humour earned from Harry. “I’ll be fine, Harry. Tell the lads I said not to worry.”
“I will,” Harry promised. “Rest well.” And because there was nothing else to say, Harry turned and left Louis alone to sleep.
The others had gone on without him, so Harry had to sprint to catch up with them at the end of the street. It was Liam who noticed him first, turning at the sound of Harry’s approaching footsteps. “Harry? We thought you would stay with Louis today.”
“We can’t afford for two of us to miss work,” Harry replied, catching his breath now that he had slowed to a walk. He left out how much he’d wanted to stay, how if Louis would let him he would have crawled into his friend’s bed and held him close until sleep took them both.
“How is he?” Niall asked, looking at Harry with worried eyes. Of all of them, only Niall had been there besides Harry. Only Niall had seen how close they had come to losing Louis for good.
Harry forced a smile; he didn’t want his friends to go into work with worry on their minds. “He’s resting. The surgeon did a good job and thinks Louis will recover.” The mention of the surgeon reminded Harry again of why he needed to be at work. How many missed meals would it take to pay that bill?
“Is he– I mean, people have lost entire arms,” Daniel said, chewing at his lip. “Is there– is there anything left?” The other boys winced, all afraid to hear how bad the injury was, each of them knowing how bad it could have been.
“I don’t know if he’ll ever regain use of his hand,” Harry admitted. It was something that he had been worried about since the accident. Louis’ dominant hand had suffered the injury, and with missing fingers it was unlikely he would ever return to his position as a doffer. There were other jobs within the factory, some of which could be done with one hand, but Louis’ left hand would be slow and clumsy when time and precision were valued.
Niall stared at Harry, as if he could read the worrisome thoughts through his skull. “We’ll find something he can do,” Niall said, clapping a hand on Harry’s shoulder. “For now, he just needs to focus on getting better.”
Harry smiled at his friend, though it felt forced. Niall was right, of course, but finding a job Louis could do eventually didn’t do anything to help them now. He wanted to scream, to raise his fists to the sky and demand that yesterday be erased and that Louis would be next to him as they entered the factory gates, but there was no changing the past. For the first time since he was eight years old, Harry walked to his station without Louis next to him, and when the starting bell rang he was grateful for the demanding work to distract him from his thoughts.
Harry’s shift couldn’t end soon enough. No matter how hard he worked, his thoughts kept returning to Louis. How was he feeling? Did he need anything? How was he coping? Harry couldn’t imagine waking up to discover a part of him missing. He couldn’t help but think back to the night they first met, when Louis had spared Harry from a similar fate. Why hadn’t Harry been able to return the favour? Why hadn’t he been there when Louis needed him most?
The cycle of worry and guilt was consuming him, not to mention the unnatural thoughts that still lurked at the back of his mind. Though perhaps it wasn’t quite so unrealistic to think he might get to stay with Louis forever. If his friend needed a caretaker, Harry would volunteer a thousand times over. It might not be exactly what he wanted, but it would be enough. He told himself it would have to be enough.
When Harry returned he found Louis propped up in bed, staring at the ceiling. He had more colour to his face, but the dark circles under his eyes spoke of not resting like Harry hoped he had. “You’re awake,” Harry commented, pausing in the doorway to catch his breath.
Louis rolled his head, looking over at Harry with tired eyes. “Too much on my mind to sleep,” he said hoarsely. He let his eyes drop to the bandage on his hand. “I always thought I would do anything to have a lazy day in bed, to not have to go to work and sleep as long as I wished.” He shook his head, chuckling darkly. “I was wrong.”
It hurt to see Louis like this, completely defeated. It wasn’t permanent, Harry could be sure of that; Louis’ light was too bright to be dimmed for long. But, for the time being, he felt entirely helpless. “You’ll be back to work before you know it, but you have to rest first.”
“Sure,” Louis replied, no conviction in his words.
Louis was still too weak to get out of bed, so Harry busied himself emptying the chamber pot and fetching Louis more water and some broth for dinner. Louis ate and drank silently, and he allowed Harry to change his bandages once he’d eaten his fill (Harry had even given Louis some of his portion, knowing his friend needed the strength to heal, but Louis would have protested had he found out).
“It’s looking better,” Harry commented as he redressed the wound. It was still frightening to look at, but the swelling had started to go down and thick scabs were forming around the stitches. There was less blood on the bandage, too—surely a good omen. He finished the wrapping, easing Louis’ hand back down on the mattress. “There, how does that feel?”
“It feels like half my hand is missing,” Louis muttered bitterly. He glanced at Harry, and must have seen the defeat on the younger man’s face. “I’m sorry,” he said, reaching for Harry’s arm with his left hand. “I’m scared, Harry. I don’t mean to take it out on you.” Louis raised his newly bandaged hand. “This was never supposed to happen to me.”
Harry perched on the edge of Louis’ bed, placing a hand over Louis’ good one. “I don’t think these things are ever meant to happen to anyone,” Harry said. “I don’t think you were meant to lose your fingers, and I don’t think Nathaniel Corden was supposed to die so young. But you didn’t die, Lou, so you can’t stop living now. It would be an insult to the memory of those who weren’t so lucky.”
Louis ducked his head, his eyes falling to his lap. “You’re right. I’m sorry. It’s just… I can’t stop think about the other night. One day you are going to find someone and settle down, and I’ll still be right here, crippled and alone.” A frustrated tear rolled down Louis’ cheek. “I was supposed to take care of you, but how am I meant to do that when I can’t even care for myself?”
“Don’t say that,” Harry insisted, grabbing Louis’ right forearm. “You haven’t even healed yet; you have no idea what you’ll be capable of.” How desperately he wanted to pull Louis into his arms, to comfort him and kiss away his tears. He settled instead for stroking the skin of Louis’ arm. “You’ve taken care of me since the day we met. I think it’s only fair that I take a turn.”
Louis smiled weakly. “You say that now, but you’ll tire of it eventually. I’ll only be a burden, and you carry far too much weight as it is.”
“You’re wrong,” Harry insisted. “I will always be there for you. If that means working at the mill every day for the rest of my life and coming home to spoon feed you broth, then that is what I shall do and consider myself lucky for it.” The words were bold, and Harry felt fear crawl up his spine as soon as he said them, but it was too late to retrieve them from the stuffy bedroom air.
“Harry,” Louis murmured, looking at Harry, studying him. “I still don’t think you truly mean that, but I assure you it is I who is the lucky one.” He reached over with his left hand and covered Harry’s with it. “I promise you that I will do the best I can to recover, and then I will find a way to earn my keep. I won’t have you killing yourself to provide for me.”
“You recovering is all I care about,” Harry insisted. “We’ll manage, Lou. We always have and we always will.”
“We always will,” Louis replied thoughtfully.
Louis seemed to be in much higher spirits after that night. He woke up to see Harry off each morning, and greeted him brightly at the end of each work day. He accepted larger portions of food without complaint, and no longer looked away when Harry would change his bandages.
“I think I’ll still have some use in it,” Louis said one night, turning his injured hand curiously. It was healing well, Harry thought, though it still pained him to see empty spaces where there once were long, delicate fingers. “Surely there is some work I can do once it’s healed.” His voice was already thick with sleep, his body still craving rest as it tried to knit back together.
“Surely,” Harry replied. He disposed of the soiled linen and settled down in the space between their beds with some paper and a bit of charcoal. He had taken to drawing more frequently while Louis rested, the artwork giving him an outlet for the thoughts he didn’t dare speak of. Each scratch of the charcoal against the paper was one more rock on the pile.
Paying the surgeon. Covering the rent. Loving another man.
Harry lost himself in sweeping black strokes, in sharp angles and graceful curves, and it wasn’t until Louis spoke up that Harry realised what had taken shape on the bit of paper before him.
“Is that me?” Louis asked, peering down from his bed.
Harry could lie—in the dim candlelight, it wasn’t impossible that Louis was mistaken. It was the truth, though, and Louis would know that as well. The face on the page could only belong to Louis Tomlinson, for who else had such intelligent, gently sloping eyes, each adorned with a long sweep of lashes? What other face held such a lovely, strong jaw, now covered with a gentle dusting of hair while Louis was too weak to shave?
Who else possessed those lips, thin from how they were pressed together in thought? Lips that Harry knew the shape of better than his own, could draw with his eyes closed from how often he had seen them in his dreams?
“Yes,” Harry replied after far too long a silence. “I’m sorry, I thought you were sleeping. If it makes you uncomfortable, I’ll stop.”
Louis studied his likeness. “It’s very good, Harry,” he commented. “You’re getting better.”
“I’ve been practising,” Harry admitted. “I had to find something to do without you to entertain me,” he teased. He picked up the portrait, adding it to the growing stack of drawings held in place by the weight of a candlestick.
Louis yawned, settling back down as he watched Harry blow out the candle and get into bed. “Perhaps I have been less entertainment and more a distraction, if that’s what I’ve been keeping you from. I meant it when I said you should be an artist.”
“I should be asleep,” Harry countered. “I don’t know what I was saying—clearly you’re just as much of a distraction as you always were, even if it’s just your likeness on paper!” He settled down on his mattress, searching for a comfortable position between the lumps.
“I daresay you don’t mind it terribly,” Louis replied, nearly asleep once more.
Harry smiled at that, letting his eyes drift closed. “I hope you’ll always see fit to be my distraction,” he replied, and then slumber took them both.
“Harry? Are you listening?”
Harry looked up at James guiltily. He hadn’t heard a word the cook had said, too worried about getting home to check on Louis. When James had sat Harry down on a crate and told him he had something to see to first, Harry had let his mind wander.
“I’m sorry, James,” Harry said, offering a thin smile. “My thoughts were elsewhere. I’m listening now.”
James smiled and ruffled Harry’s curls. “No harm done. I asked if you were hungry. I’ve enough stew left from dinner to feed an army and no one is going to miss a bowl.”
Harry was hungry, terribly so—he’d been cutting back his own portions to make sure Louis had what he needed to heal. He had smelled the stew when he walked in, the rich scent of meat and vegetables, and even thinking of such a hearty meal had his mouth watering. He was about to answer when his stomach spoke for him, protesting loud enough for James to hear it.
“Say no more,” James laughed, already reaching for a ladle and a bowl.
“Wait,” Harry said, halting James in his tracks as much as it pained him to do so. “Is there a chance I could take it with me instead?” He shrank under James’ calculating stare. “It’s just… someone there needs it more than I do.”
James’ face went soft. “Is someone ill?” he asked, worry in his voice.
“My friend Louis,” Harry admitted. “He was caught in a machine last week and needs all the strength he can get.”
James’ eyes went dark. “How many more boys are going to suffer before they learn?” he muttered. Harry knew that he was thinking of his son, then, ripped from life far too soon. “Will he be all right? Your friend?”
“He will,” Harry said. “He only lost a few fingers.” Harry didn’t have to tell James how much worse it could have been—the other man was well aware of how lucky Louis was.
“Let me see if I can find something you can take it home in,” James said softly. He disappeared around the corner and Harry could hear dishes rattling as James searched among them.
Harry sighed. He hated bringing up the factory or Nathaniel, knowing that it reopened wounds for James that would never completely heal. It was awful to see the normally jovial man look so hurt, and Harry selfishly wanted to spare them both the pain. It's why he made no mention of the drawing folded up in his pocket. He had made it last night, knowing he would be seeing James today, but now Harry didn't think he could give it to him. It would be too painful, surely, to look on his son’s face after so many years. Harry wasn't even sure why he drew Nathaniel in the first place.
“This should work, at least long enough to get you home.” James said, coming back into view carrying a small pail with a lid. He didn't look at Harry, just began ladling stew into the pail. He handed it over once it was full. “Here. You tell your friend that Uncle James wishes him the best.”
“Thank you,” Harry all but whispered, accepting the stew reverently. “I can't thank you enough for this. Truly, I can't. Actually…” He battled with himself briefly before reaching into his pocket for the drawing. “I have something for you. It's yours if you want it,” Harry said, handing over the folded piece of paper.
James looked at Harry curiously before accepting the paper, turning it in his hand before delicately unfolding the drawing. When the subject became clear, James let out a startled gasp, a hand flying to cover his mouth.
“I'm sorry if you hate it,” Harry said nervously, wondering if he had made the right decision after all. “I was going from memory, and there were a few details that I couldn't seem to master, and—”
“It's extraordinary,” James interrupted, looking from the drawing of Nathaniel to Harry with tears in his eyes. “Harry, I haven't seen my son’s face in three years. I never thought I'd see it again, outside of my memories.” He held the portrait tenderly, reverently. Harry knew it wasn't perfect—he hadn't gotten Nathaniel's nose right, and the lines of charcoal had smudged where it was folded, but the look on James’ face made that creased drawing seem finer than any painting in all of England.
Before Harry knew what was happening, James had disappeared again and returned with another pail, this one larger. “How many mouths have you got to feed? Is this enough for them?”
Harry watched, jaw slack, as James filled the pail with ladle after ladle. “James, what are you doing? I don’t want you to get in trouble!”
When James turned back around, there were tears in his blue eyes. “Harry, you’ve given me such a gift, one that no one else could have. You let me see my boy when I thought I’d never look at his face ever again.” He paused, overcome, and swiped at his streaming eyes. “The least I can do is make sure you and your friends have a good, hot meal for one night.” He put a lid on the pail, offering it to Harry with shaking hands.
“I can’t thank you enough,” Harry said humbly, taking the stew and relishing the warmth against his palms. “For this and everything you’ve done.”
“You’ve done plenty,” James assured him, giving Harry’s shoulder a gentle squeeze. “Take care of yourself and your friend. He’s lucky to be alive, and to have you.”
Harry’s cheeks grew as hot as his palms. “We’re both quite lucky,” Harry said. “Thank you, James. I’m so happy that I met you.”
“And I’m happy that my Nathaniel had a friend like you, even for a short time.” James was smiling now, the tears drying on his round cheeks. “You boys deserve so much more. So much.” There was a sadness in his eyes that Harry wouldn’t have recognised a week ago. Now, though, it was so familiar to him that he knew it for what it was.
Harry knew what that was, now. He had gone without plenty in his life, but never had he come so close to losing everything as he had the day Louis fell. Even the death of his parents, dulled by time, was a shadow compared to the thought of Louis dying. Life without Louis, to Harry, was meaningless. James could tell Harry what he deserved, certainly, but as long as he had Louis to return home to, Harry felt he had more than enough.
The journey home was hurried, Harry nearly running to make it back before the stew grew cold. He was bursting with excitement to share his bounty, to give all his friends a truly full belly for the first night in ages. They were waiting for him as always, the water boiling in preparation for whatever odds and ends he would bring to add to the stock. Their curious gazes when he set the pail on their rickety table had him almost giddy.
“You were gone longer than usual,” Liam said, looking from the pail to Harry and crossing his arms aver his chest. “What took so long?”
“Had a good chat with James,” Harry said nonchalantly. He handed over his usual haul of stale bread and spoiling vegetables to Niall. “He sent us something wonderful this evening.”
Niall was already digging through the bag. “More pears? Maybe some apples, this time?” he asked hopefully, searching for the fruit and finding none. He frowned. “What is it?”
With dramatic flair, Harry snatched the lid off the pail and used it to fan the aroma toward his housemates. One by one their eyes grew wide and round, the mere smell of the meat and rich gravy enough to have them salivating.
“Is that a stew?” Joshua asked excitedly, tongue poking out to lick at his lips. “It smells so wonderful I can taste it!”
“Oh, it’s still warm,” Niall moaned, wrapping his hands around the pail. “Harry, please tell me we can have this. Please.”
Harry laughed. “Get ready for a fresh, hot meal, lads,” he said, relishing the joy on each of their faces. “Where’s Louis? Still hasn’t come down?”
Daniel shook his head. “No, he said he was resting when we checked on him after our shift. None of us has seen him in days. We’re starting to think you’ve replaced him with an imposter.”
Harry laughed despite his worry. Louis was the light of any room, the centre of attention, and it was unlike him to hide himself away. “Well, in that case, serve yourselves and I’ll take Louis’ up to him.”
The other boys didn’t need telling twice; they each took a portion of the hearty stew, careful not to take more than his share. They all murmured their thanks before tucking in, bodies gratefully accepting the warm food and meat they so sorely missed.
Harry collected the pail and two chipped bowls, carrying the lot upstairs to the room he and Louis shared.
Surprisingly Louis wasn’t in bed, but instead had pulled their rickety little chair over to the window so he could look out. His bandaged hand rested in his lap, the other propping his chin up on the weathered wood of the sill. He turned at the sound of Harry coming into the room, narrowing his eyes at the pail. “What is that?” he asked.
Harry laughed, setting the pail on the floor and handing Louis both bowls. “A gift from James,” Harry told him, removing the lid and carefully pouring the remaining stew into their bowls. “He sends his regards.”
Louis’ eyes grew wide as Harry portioned out the stew. “He made this for us?” he asked, allowing Harry to take the smaller bowl from him. Louis brought his stew to his nose, inhaling deeply before taking a testing sip of the rich brown broth. “Oh,” he moaned happily. “You will have to tell him that I am in his debt for such a treat,” Louis said, taking a longer swallow. “We are terribly lucky to have met him.”
“That’s what I told him,” Harry replied, settling down on the floor next to Louis’ chair and finally tasting the stew for himself. He closed his eyes, savouring the taste, his stomach already clamouring for more. “We talked much of luck tonight.”
“Is that so?”
Harry fished out a cube of meat with his fingers, popping it into his mouth. It was so tender that it nearly melted in his mouth. “Yes. He said you were lucky to have me.”
Louis lowered his bowl, looking at Harry with an unreadable expression on his face. “Did he now,” Louis murmured softly.
“I told him we were both lucky,” Harry replied. He watched Louis raise his bowl to his mouth with his left hand, using his right to support it. “We’ll change your bandages after we eat.” With the wounds now closed, only one change a day was necessary.
“Would you believe I changed them myself?” Louis asked, resting his bowl on his leg and holding out his hand for Harry’s inspection. “I need to start learning to use my other hand, and I didn’t want you to have to do everything for me.”
Harry’s gaze slid from Louis’ face to the wrapped hand in front of him. The bandage was clumsily applied, but secure. “You’ve done wonderfully,” Harry praised, rewarding Louis with a hesitant smile. “But please don’t ever think that I mind helping you.”
“I can’t depend on you forever, though,” Louis replied simply. He smiled back at Harry before returning his attention to his stew.
You can, I swear that you can, Harry wanted to shout back at him. Instead, he forced down the rest of his supper, no longer able to enjoy it as he had before Louis’ comment.
As the days passed Louis relied on Harry less and less. He still kept himself locked away in their room, however, only going down to use the privies when everyone else was at work. Still, he was getting out of bed more and trying to exercise his weaker left hand, both good signs in Harry’s opinion.
One evening Harry came home to find Louis standing in the middle of their bedroom, shirt half-unbuttoned and a frown twisting his lips. He was struggling with the next button with his left hand, using the remains of his right to hold the fabric in place. The sutures had come out and the flesh had healed, and Louis was keeping it bandaged less and less.
“Are you going somewhere?” Harry asked, sitting down on his mattress to remove his boots.
“Where would I be going at this hour?” Louis asked brusquely. He tried the button again, snarling in frustration when he couldn’t get it to fasten. “I’m trying to learn how to dress myself. I feel like a child all over again.”
Setting his boots aside, Harry went to him. He reached for the open fabric of Louis’ shirt, but his hands were slapped away. “What was that for?”
“I don’t need you to help me!” Louis shouted, face going red. He tugged at his shirt in frustration. “You aren’t going to be around to dress me forever, Harry. I have to learn how to care for myself.”
“That doesn’t mean you can’t accept help now and then,” Harry shot back, not bothering to mask the hurt in his voice. “I’ve told you before, I’m not going anywhere.”
Louis scoffed, crossing his arms over his chest and tucking his mangled hand out of sight. “And I’ve told you that you’ll change your mind someday. You’ll make a life with whoever it was making you ask about love, and you won’t want to be saddled with me any longer.”
“That isn’t true,” Harry insisted, balling his hands into fists at his side. “What can I say that will convince you of that?”
“Nothing, Harry,” Louis replied. “You’re going to get married and have a family and make a life for them, and I’ll be on my own because no one wants a one-handed husband who can’t even button his shirt.” He tugged at the fabric in frustration.
“Perhaps I do!” Harry yelled back. His hands flew to his mouth as soon as the words were out.
Louis narrowed his eyes, arms falling to his sides. “What do you mean by that?” he muttered, looking Harry over.
If ever there was a time to keep his mouth shut, God knows it was this one. But Harry couldn’t do it; he couldn’t bear to let Louis think he would be unwanted and unloved forever. Even if it would end their friendship, Louis had to know the truth: that to at least one person, he was everything.
“I would choose you if I could,” Harry murmured softly, eyes on the dirty wooden floor. He chanced a glance upward, bracing himself for the anger and disgust he expected to find on Louis’ face.
Instead his oldest friend was staring at him, eyes wide and mouth opened. His brows furrowed. “It was me, wasn’t it?” he asked softly. “When you asked what falling in love was like. You were talking about me.”
Harry couldn’t stop the hot rush of shame, the stinging prick of tears that flooded his eyes. “Yes.”
Louis took a step closer, his eyes never straying from Harry’s face. “And now? Now that I’ve a useless hand and no job? Would you still choose me?”
Harry lifted his chin, putting on a façade far braver than he felt. “There is nothing that would keep me from choosing you.”
He expected a shove, or perhaps a slap—anything other than Louis closing the distance between them, wrapping his strong arms around Harry’s shoulders and embracing him like he had a thousand times before. Harry stiffened, shocked, before allowing himself to melt into the only arms he ever wanted to be held by.
“How long have you felt this way?” Louis whispered, holding Harry close. “How long have you carried such a heavy burden?”
“I have only recently considered it,” Harry whispered back, as if the volume of his voice might shatter the fragile moment between them. “But, truthfully, I think I have always loved you.”
He heard Louis inhale shakily before pulling away to look at Harry with wet eyes. “I shall need some time to think about this,” he said gently, though he still maintained a tight grip on Harry’s arms. “Not about how I feel for you because, like you, I think it is something that has been growing within me for quite some time. It’s just—” He shifted his gaze away, chewing nervously at his lip. “It isn’t done, Harry. Men are hanged for it.”
Harry swallowed hard, trying desperately not to cry. “I am yours in whatever capacity you will have me,” he insisted, and his heart fluttered at the resulting smile that bloomed on Louis’ face. Louis knew, now, knew his deepest darkest secret, and yet Louis had not cast him out. Harry had never dared to imagine that Louis would return his feelings, and now—now the possibility was on the horizon as bright as the sun Harry so sorely missed.
Louis did not give him an answer the next day, or even the next week. What he did was continually practise using his hand, lacing his boots and dressing himself. He journeyed downstairs for their evening meal, making up for lost time with the housemates who had missed him terribly.
Most importantly, nothing changed between him and Harry. They were just as they’d always been, two halves of the same whole. Harry missed having Louis at work; he missed the sleepy walk in the morning and returning home together with sore muscles and tired eyes. He missed Louis waiting to put his shoes on until Harry could see that his toes were all intact.
Now, though, Louis still woke to bid him goodbye each morning, and was awaiting his return at the end of the day. One evening he came home to find Louis sitting on the front step, boots off and hands cradled in his lap. Even in the dim light of the gas lamps Harry could see Louis’ smile, the mischief in his eyes as he waited for Harry to draw closer.
“Seven and ten,” Louis said with a grin, wiggling his toes and what remained of his fingers.
Harry stared at him, shocked, before a laugh came bubbling up his throat. “More like seven and a half,” he corrected, happy tears pooling in the corners of his eyes. He tried to discreetly wipe them away, knowing Louis noticed regardless.
“That’s more trouble to say, isn’t it?” Louis chuckled, wiggling the small stub of his ring finger. “More like a third, in any case.”
It was a glimpse of the Louis Harry once knew, the one who always had a clever remark and a smile. Harry had been so afraid that Louis had truly died on the factory floor that day, but now here he was, his personality as vibrant as always.
“What are you doing out here without anything on your feet?” Harry scolded, trying to keep the emotion from affecting his voice. “You’ll catch your death.”
“It is death who will have to catch me!” Louis cried, leaping to his feet and running into their house. Giggling, Harry chased after him, not quite so fast as Louis at navigating the narrow stairs. He caught Louis at the landing, tackling him from behind so that they both landed in heap of laughter on Louis’ rumpled mattress.
“I haven’t seen you so lively in ages!” Harry exclaimed, arms still tight around Louis. “You must have been storing up your energy all this time.”
“I might have overdone it a bit,” Louis admitted, and indeed his face had gone a bit pale. “I am feeling better, though. If I don’t look at my hand, it’s almost as if the accident never happened.”
Harry reached down, wrapping his fingers around Louis’ right hand. “It did happen,” Harry said, stroking over the scar tissue where Louis’ hand had healed. “Now we just have to learn to keep living.”
“I think I’m off to a decent start,” Louis said, squeezing Harry’s hand as best as he could with his remaining fingers. “I think I could survive anything with you by my side.”
“Then I shall never leave it,” Harry promised. He raised Louis’ hand, daring to kiss it.
The action made Louis blush. “So that hasn’t changed, then? The way you feel about me? I thought it might have.”
Harry shook his head, chuckling. “Louis, it hasn’t changed since I was eight years old. I don’t think there’s any danger of it doing so now.”
Slowly, cautiously, Louis raised his left hand to Harry’s face, tenderly cupping his cheek. He started leaning in and Harry held his breath, too afraid of moving and breaking the spell they were under. Louis’ eyes were trained on Harry’s, so wide and blue, and Harry could feel the breath on his lips when Louis whispered, “Stop me.”
“No,” Harry whispered back. He barely got the sound out before Louis slotted their mouths together, his lips dry and warm against Harry’s. Harry tightened his grip on Louis’ injured hand, his other arm coming up to pull their bodies closer together. It was everything he ever wanted and nothing like he could have imagined all at the same time. Having Louis like this, so close, being able to smell and feel and taste him, was intoxicating.
“Harry,” Louis panted when they separated, “I’m frightened by what you do to me. I’m frightened that it doesn’t feel unnatural at all.”
“I’m afraid too,” Harry admitted. “We’ll figure it out together.” Then he pressed their lips together once more, and the candles were sputtering in their own wax before the next time either of them spoke.
They had to be careful, was the thing. Harry trusted his friends to the ends of the earth, but there was too much at stake for them to be caught. With thin walls and so many bodies in one house, all Harry and Louis had were the quiet evening hours when everyone else was asleep.
In those hours, though, they took the time to learn one another’s bodies. It was clumsy at times and nerve-wracking at others, but all was forgotten by how good they could make each other feel. Their mattresses, once against opposite walls, were now pushed together to make one large bed. Most nights found Louis with Harry held tight against his chest, both of them breathing heavily as their bodies recovered from their evening’s explorations.
“Are you all right?” Louis asked, certainly able to feel the way Harry trembled against him. “Did I do something wrong?”
“Not at all,” Harry insisted, shaking his head. “I didn’t know that it was possible to feel this good.”
Louis smirked at that, reaching up to push the sweat dampened curls back from Harry’s face with his right hand. Harry had noticed him using it more often, only using his left when he needed more dexterity than two fingers could afford him. “I’m good at everything I do,” Louis replied, following his words with a sweet kiss to Harry’s swollen mouth.
“You truly are,” Harry agreed, chasing Louis’ mouth as he pulled away. “I wonder if everyone who has ever spoke out against this needs only to try it for himself. I think they would find it the most natural thing in the world, to love someone.”
“Not just anyone, surely,” Louis replied, giving Harry’s bare hip a pinch. “Perhaps I am the only exception, and you are just lucky enough to have loved me.”
Harry giggled, slapping Louis’ hand away. “Then they may continue to find it unnatural, as I don’t plan on sharing you with anyone!” He pressed kiss after happy kiss to Louis’ face until both of them were laughing so hard that tears were rolling down their faces.
The next morning, Louis got up with Harry, pulling on his trousers and shirt. “I’m going to find a job today,” he announced, fastening each button with determination. It took him longer than it used to, but only just, and soon Louis was sitting down to pull on his boots.
“Where are you going to look?” Harry asked, his heart in his throat as he knelt to help Louis with the laces that still gave him trouble. He had grown used to knowing Louis was at home and safe; he dreaded the idea of letting go of that small comfort. Still, Louis was no caged thing, and Harry would not dare to treat him as such.
Once his boots were laced, Louis allowed Harry to pull him to his feet. “Surely there is someone who needs an assistant, or perhaps to make deliveries. It doesn’t need to be anything glamourous, so long as I can start contributing again.”
“You don’t have to—” Harry started to argue, but Louis wouldn’t allow him to finish.
“How much is the surgeon’s bill?” Louis asked quietly. He carried on when Harry didn’t answer. “I know you haven’t wanted to worry me, but you can’t deny that we could use the money.” He kissed Harry on the cheek. “I might even find something I truly enjoy.”
“All right,” Harry allowed. “Will you be home this evening?”
“I will be waiting for you by the time you come back from Mr Corden’s,” Louis promised.
“That is tonight, isn’t it?” Harry mused. “I wonder what he will send us this time.”
Ever since Harry gave James the portrait, the cook had made sure that something extra ended up in their bag. Be it fresh bread or some bacon or once even a handful of sweeties, there was always something special for their dinner. It was far more than Harry’s simple sketch deserved, but six rumbling bellies would not allow him to deny the cook’s kindness.
The nights were getting colder, and Harry walked briskly to keep himself warm on the way to Broughton. He arrived earlier than usual, so it was no surprise that when Harry knocked on the back door there was only a shout in reply. That meant James was still finishing up the household’s supper, one last light meal before they retired to bed, and Harry would have to amuse himself until it was finished.
He settled down on the path that led from the door out through the back garden. It was cold, but his feet were tired from work and his trek and welcomed the rest. Harry found a stick along the path and idly scratched designs into the dirt to pass the time.
“What have you got there?”
The voice started Harry, his makeshift pencil digging deeper than he intended into the dirt. He looked up, startled to see a well-dressed gentleman standing over him.
“I beg your pardon, my lord,” Harry apologised, climbing to his feet and stooping into a clumsy bow. “I was only waiting to speak with Mr Corden. I didn’t mean any harm.”
The gentleman appeared startled by Harry’s reaction. “You aren’t in any trouble. I was just curious what you were decorating my garden pathway with. It’s a portrait, is it not?”
Harry glanced guiltily down at the unfinished drawing. Even through lines scratched in dirt, Louis’ eyes stared clearly up at him. “It is.”
“And you also drew the portrait of Mr Corden’s son, didn’t you?” The lord asked kindly.
“You’ve seen that?” Harry asked, eyes going wide.
“Of course I have, it’s hanging in my kitchens,” the lord replied with a deep laugh. “You must be the stray that James has been feeding.”
Harry’s stomach dropped. Getting James in trouble was the last thing he wanted. “I’m so sorry, my lord. I swear to you I will pay for everything he’s given me. Please don’t take my indiscretion out on him.”
“Please,” the man said, holding up a gloved hand. “James was honest with me from the very beginning. You aren’t in any trouble here and neither is he. What’s your name?”
“I’m Harry Styles, my lord,” Harry said, bowing again. He felt entirely out of his depth as he struggled to remember how one was supposed to address those of a higher class.
“And do you know who I am?”
“You're Lord Edward Marshall,” Harry replied, sheepish in the presence of the man whose kitchens Harry had been visiting. What must Lord Marshall think of him, filthy and hungry and begging at the back door for food?
“Indeed, Mr Styles,” the lord replied, amusement playing on his lips. “Meanwhile, I would like to inquire how much you ask for your drawings.”
Harry blinked. Certainly he hadn’t heard that correctly. “I beg your pardon, Lord Marshall?”
Lord Marshall indicated the drawing in the dirt. “I have long sought an artist to paint portraits of my family. When I saw your likeness of James’ son, I knew I must inquire after the artist.”
“I’m no artist,” Harry insisted. “It’s truly just a pastime.”
“You have a gift, Mr Styles, and I would be honoured if you’d agree to working for me.”
Harry’s heart was racing. How long had he dreamed of his art hanging where it could be admired? This could be his chance to make a better life for himself and Louis as well.
“What would you like me to do, my lord?” Harry asked softly. He couldn’t hide the tremor in his voice.
Lord Marshall smiled, delighted at Harry’s acceptance. “Return here tomorrow, if you would. I want to see what you can do with proper supplies. If I like what I see, then you shall have a job here.”
“Yes, my lord.” Harry could hardly believe what he was hearing. He didn’t have long to process the lord’s words, though, because the kitchen door was opening and James was calling out for him.
“Go and get your scraps, Mr Styles,” Lord Marshall said, nodding toward the open door. “I daresay you won’t be in need of them much longer.”
Harry barely remembered getting home. The cold of the air and the stench of the river never bothered him, nor did the ache in his tired feet. All he could think about was Lord Marshall's invitation, and the promise of a brighter future if Harry succeeded. He had never worked with real paints and brushes, or made a mark on anything finer than paper scraps. He would try, though. He had to at least try.
Louis was waiting outside for him, though this time his boots were on his feet. “It’s about time you made it!” Louis exclaimed, leaping to his feet as Harry drew near. He nearly reached out to pull Harry close, catching himself just in time. Harry shook his head sadly at the aborted gesture.
“I’m sorry, my friend. I have the best of news, though!”
“I have as well!” Louis exclaimed, his face lighting up with excitement.
Harry smiled, truly happy to see Louis happy as well. “Let’s hear yours first, then.”
Louis took a deep breath, drawing himself up to full height. “I found work today,” he announced proudly.
“Louis! That’s wonderful!” Harry exclaimed. “What have you found?”
“Old Mrs Shaw agreed to let me help her with her washing one night a week,” Louis explained. “It isn’t much, but it helps her and I can surely find something for the other days as well.”
“You don’t even do your own washing!” Harry protested. “Truly, though, I’m happy you’re getting out of the house.”
“That’s not all,” Louis said, all but bouncing on his feet. “I have been practicing on my boots while I was waiting for you, and look!”
Harry looked to where Louis was pointing. One boot was still unlaced, but the other had been done up in a loose, clumsy knot. “Look at that,” Harry murmured, feeling so much pride and joy for his friend then, relieved that he was learning how to overcome his physical barriers.
“All on my own,” Louis boasted. “I reckon I’ll be darning socks by the time the week is out!” They laughed together, each knowing full well that Louis would be doing no such thing even with two working hands. “You said you had news. What was it?”
“Oh, erm.” Harry was suddenly afraid to tell Louis about his evening, about the lord’s offer and their appointment the following night. He would never forgive himself if he got Louis’ hopes up only to fail. “James sent us a loaf of bread and a bit of cheese. I thought it would go well with the last of our broth.”
Louis’ smile was soft, the corners of his eyes all but disappearing into happy crinkles. “That sounds lovely, Harry.”
Harry’s stomach was in knots the entire way to Lord Marshall's estate the following evening. He knew he shouldn’t be, that the lord already liked his work and that Harry had nothing to lose if tonight was unsuccessful. Still, there seemed to be so much depending on whether or not he was able to impress Lord Marshall once and for all.
It was strange, going up to the main entrance instead of round the back. Harry knocked hesitantly, feeling grossly out of place. He had made certain to wear a clean shirt and trousers, and even made an attempt to slick back his hair, but he knew he didn’t belong on the front steps of such a grand manor.
The door opened to reveal an older man in a black and white uniform, his clothing neatly pressed and his shoes shined. “How may I help you?” he asked, looking at Harry with barely concealed curiosity.
Harry wilted under his scrutiny. “I’m Harry Styles and I have an appointment with Lord Marshall?”
The butler nodded curtly. “Right. This way, please,” he said, opening the door wider and beckoning Harry inside. He led him through a grand foyer richly decorated with tapestries, over fine carpets and past polished light fixtures. Every glance contained more wealth than Harry had seen in his lifetime.
Down the hall, past a sweeping staircase, the man gestured toward an open door. “You can wait in here,” he said. “I’ll inform my lord of your presence.”
Harry was left alone in the room, bigger than all the floors of his home combined. There was a fireplace crackling merrily in one corner, and near it was an easel and a wide variety of paints and brushes. Harry walked over to it, drawn by items he never dreamt of being able to afford. The canvas propped against it was clean and new, and Harry’s hand was already itching to make the first stroke.
“I see you made it back all right,” Edward’s voice said from the doorway.
Harry dropped his hand guiltily. “Yes, my lord. I came as soon as my shift was finished.” He hadn’t even told Louis of his plans, just asked Niall to tell him that he forgot something at James’ and had to return for it. Upsetting as it was to lie that way, for now it sounded far more likely than the truth.
Lord Marshall nodded. “I truly hoped you would. I meant it when I said you have a gift, Harry, one that should not be wasted in a factory.” He looked toward the canvas. “I know you aren’t used to such a medium, but I was hoping you’d be willing to try your hand at painting a portrait for me this evening. I am not expecting perfection your first time, but if the potential is there I am willing to take the time to cultivate it.” He was smiling, wide and friendly, and Harry found himself much more at ease.
“I will do my very best, my lord,” Harry promised. He reached for the brushes, letting his fingers toy with the stiff bristles. “Who is it you’d like me to paint? You?”
Lord Marshall laughed. “I am not so vain that I wish to have my first commission be of myself. No, I think I’d like to see the young man whose likeness you were scrawling in the dirt.”
Louis. Harry could draw Louis with his eyes closed; certainly he could paint him. It was serendipitous, in a way, that Louis would be helping him tonight, even if he was far away and unaware. “Yes, my lord,” Harry said, a new confidence growing within him. He was going to be able to do this, thanks to Louis, and their lives would forever change for the better.
“Excellent. Take as long as you need. I am expected at supper with my family and will be back to check on you once the children are in bed.” Lord Marshall gave Harry another smile before leaving him alone in the room.
Harry took a deep breath, then another, before looking over the paints. He mentally planned out what colours to use, how best to recreate Louis’ eyes and the mixture of brown and gold that made up his hair. It was his favourite face in the entire world, and the lines seemed to flow from Harry with ease the second he put a brush to canvas.
It might have taken hours or days for all Harry knew, lost as he was in his art. It wasn’t perfect; the blending of colours wasn’t quite right and the paint didn’t always behave the way Harry hoped, but it was still unmistakably a painting of Louis. Harry was just adding shadows in his cheeks, emphasising the hollowness that was a constant feature due to years without sunlight and proper nutrition when Lord Marshall returned.
“I came back once before but I didn’t dare disturb you,” the lord said, cautiously approaching Harry as if he might ruin everything with his presence. “May I see?”
“Please,” Harry said, voice rough from what must have been hours of disuse. He stepped aside, allowing Lord Marshall to inspect his work.
The lord was quiet as he looked over the canvas. Harry had painted Louis’ face staring straight ahead. Even in the messy brushstrokes there was clear pain in his eyes, his unkempt hair falling over a lined forehead and over the tops of his ears. His jaw was set with a determination that was purely Louis, and Harry could see in his mind the way Louis would be standing if the rest of his body was shown: feet spread and shoulders squared, ready to take on the world.
“It’s wonderful, Mr Styles,” Edward said, and only then did Harry realise he had been holding his breath. “This man, is he someone important to you?”
Harry smiled at the portrait. “He is my oldest friend. We grew up working in the mills together.”
“You seem to know his face rather well,” the lord remarked, looking at a collection of freckles that Harry had painted on Louis’ cheek. “The detail is incredible.”
“He rescued me when I was a child,” Harry explained. “I would never forget his face even if I didn’t see it every day.” That was mostly true; he needn’t include that he had memorised the shape of those lips with his own, that he could pick Louis’ face out of a thousand even if he could only use his hands.
Lord Marshall nodded. “We rarely forget those who make the largest impact on us, though to have a physical representation is such a gift.” He indicated the painting. “This is everything I expected from you, and I know with more time and practise you will become greater still. I would like to offer you a position here, Mr Styles. Effective immediately.”
Harry could not keep his jaw from falling open, as improper as it was to gape in such a way. “I beg your pardon, my lord, but you truly want to pay me to paint?”
Edward laughed again, the warm sound filling the cavernous room. “I’m afraid so,” he replied. “You will have other duties, of course, but I think you would be a valuable asset to this household and I would be honoured to have you paint my family portraits, once you’re ready.”
Harry couldn’t believe what he was hearing. He had a new job. He didn’t have to go back to the mill. There would be no more heavy bobbins, no more incessant clacking of the machinery and long days without sunlight. As a servant he would be given quarters here, fed here; he would no longer have to worry about the rent or mending the holes in the thin walls before winter. He and Louis—
It had never occurred to him, before then, that Louis might not be included. It had always been the two of them, nearly as long as Harry could remember, and he had assumed that when he eventually moved up in the world, Louis would move up right along with him. He couldn’t leave his friend now, not when he needed Harry most; not with this new, fragile thing blooming between them.
“Lord Marshall, I’m afraid I must decline,” Harry said sadly. “I would love to paint your portraits, but I cannot accept a position here.” He turned to look at the painting of Louis. “My friend is only just recovering from an accident at the factory, and I cannot leave him to fend for himself and pay the surgeon’s fee alone.”
Harry expected anger, disappointment perhaps. Instead Lord Marshall's face went soft, his expression sad. “This friend of yours, he lost a hand? Is that what Mr Corden told me?”
“Most of it, yes,” Harry supplied. “He’s getting quite good with his other hand but still hasn’t found steady work. What kind of friend would I be to leave him now?” His heart was breaking at turning down the opportunity, but he would rather face a hundred winters with Louis than leave him to one on his own.
Lord Marshall looked at the painting in contemplation. “This young man. What is he called?”
“Louis Tomlinson, my lord.”
“I do not expect you to answer for him, but Mr Corden could use someone to help him in the kitchen,” Lord Marshall said. “Might your friend be interested in such a position?”
Just as quickly as it had plummeted did Harry’s heart return to his throat. “That would be far too generous of you, my lord,” Harry said cautiously, scarcely able to believe it. “I will have to discuss it with Mr Tomlinson, but I do think he would be interested.” He was trying his best not to cry. It would not do to give such a display of his emotions in the presence of a gentleman.
Lord Marshall clapped his hands together, clearly pleased. “I was hoping you would say that,” he said. “Go to your friend tonight and discuss the opportunity. If all is well, I will have your quarters ready for you by tomorrow afternoon. Collins will show you out,” Edward said, gesturing to the butler waiting in the doorway. “And Mr Styles,” the lord called out before Harry could turn down the hallway. “Leave the name of that surgeon with Collins, if you’d be so kind. You won’t need to worry about the bill.”
“Are you all right?” Louis asked when Harry finally made it home. “All Niall said was that you left something at Mr Corden’s.”
Harry shut the bedroom door behind him before gathering Louis into his arms and covering his face with kisses. “I’m afraid I wasn’t entirely honest with Niall,” Harry admitted between bouts of kissing.
Louis was laughing and trying to free himself from Harry’s grasp. “No? Have you truly found yourself a lady, then?” he teased. “I knew it was only a matter of time!”
“You know that I would never desire a lady when I have you,” Harry scoffed, planting a final kiss to Louis’ nose before letting the wriggling man free of his grasp. “No, Louis, I met with the lord of the manor tonight and I have the most incredible news!”
“The– you met with a lord?” Louis asked, eyes wide with shock. “Were you caught stealing from the kitchens? What are we going to do?”
“It’s nothing like that!” Harry told him. “He saw my drawings, Lou. He wants to give me work. He wants to give us work.”
Louis frowned. “And what use would a lord have for someone like me?” Louis asked, holding up his scarred hand.
Harry took hold of each of Louis’ hands, ruined and whole alike. “You would be helping James in the kitchen. We would have quarters, and food, and neither of us would ever have to set foot in the factory again.” The tears he had worked so hard to contain flowed freely now. “He means to pay the surgeon for us.”
“You’re truly serious,” Louis said, pulling his hands free to cup Harry’s face. “When are we expected? What must we do?”
“Lord Marshall will be prepared for us tomorrow afternoon,” Harry wept, Louis’ thumbs catching the tears as they fell. “This is it, Lou. This is our escape.”
Louis was crying too now, leaning his forehead against Harry’s and holding him close. “I was supposed to be the one who gave you a better life,” he said, feigning bitterness even through his tears of joy.
Harry shook his head, cupping Louis’ face in his own hands and kissing his cheeks. “You gave me a life at all,” Harry whispered. “I am merely returning the favour.”
They lingered abed the next morning for the first time either of them could remember. Harry had gone back downstairs the night before and called all the lads together, explaining that he and Louis had found other work and that their room was available to rent. It was hard saying goodbye, but none of the others could fault Harry and Louis for seizing the opportunity presented to them. There were tears, but Harry promised that if one of them still made his way over the river once a week for food that he would do his best to meet him.
Now Louis and Harry packed their scant belongings in one bag and descended the rickety stairs for the last time. It was bright out, well after Harry should have been at work, but he had sent word of his resignation with Niall and would never be expected to darken the factory door again.
“Are you ready?” Harry asked, standing at the doorway of their back-to-back house.
Beside him, Louis took one last look around their home, eyes catching on each piece of furniture as if he was committing it to memory. Eventually his gaze returned to Harry, eyes only the smallest bit red with the threat of tears.
“I’m ready,” he said. He reached down and took Harry’s hand in his, giving one last tight squeeze behind the safety of their closed door. He dropped it just as quickly, but the warmth from the contact spread through Harry’s entire body.
With one last smile at his dear friend, Harry pushed open the door. Together, for the first time in a decade, the pair stepped out into the sunlight and toward the promise of a brighter future.