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(Killed Myself When I Was Young)  The bus ride through the town center felt heavy in Louis’s mind. The dust hadn’t been so bad near the outskirts where the corn swallowed all the earth, but the bus was pulling into the lone station now and the sand crunching under the thick tires was just familiar enough to be comforting. At least it was distinct enough to focus on. Louis had spent the three hour bus ride from the airport with the afternoon sun in his eyes and on the same cycle of thoughts. Coming home is a good thing. Leaving London is a good thing. Family is a good thing. Leaving him is a good thing. I wish I didn’t have to leave. I don’t know if I can do this.

Louis had spent the last eight years in England molding his brain into becoming the best it could be: Louis Tomlinson, MD. After college in the states he had wanted to explore the places his mother had loved so much. London had been such a blessing. London had given Louis all the skills he had ever wantedthe best education, advisors, and hospitalsbut the bright, shiny corners of Louis’s London darkened, slowly but surely.

Years ago, when his mum had been diagnosed, Louis training told him that she wouldn’t make it. He immediately put his residency on hold, packed a backpack full of underwear, and took the first flight back to America. He had always planned to return to Franklin, but never under such devastating circumstances. Louis spent seven months alone with his family. They didn’t see anyone or go anywhere unless it was for Jay. They gave her the best send off they could, surrounded by family and love and laughter, but it never felt like enough. Those months didn’t ruin him, but something inside Louis died with his mum.

Coming back to that small town so many years later hurt, but Louis needed it. It was time to leave London and his life there with it. He was a doctor now. He was going to work here, in the same clinic his mother saved lives in. He had his sisters and his degree; at the end of the day that didn’t feel like much, but it was enough for now.

The bus doors opened and Louis followed the small crowd of people off. The waft of hot, humid air was overwhelming, but waiting at the curb was Lottie, and her hug was the freshness Louis needed.

“Lou,” Lottie said softly, muffled by his hug.

“Lots,” Louis replied with a smile that she couldn’t see.

“It’s good to have you home.”

Louis sighed. He wasn’t sure if he agreed. “I’m so happy to see you,” he said instead. It was the most true thing he could say.

They loosened the hug and looked over each other. Almost five years had past since Louis had left (for the second time). Louis was pushing thirty and Lottie was well into adulthood. They both carried the weight of their loss on their shoulders, but it was easier to bear when they were together.

Lottie gave him a knowing look. “C’mon, Tommy’s waiting by the car.”

The sun began to set as the three of them drove to Louis’s new apartment. Tommy ordered them food, Lottie set up Louis’s air mattress, and Louis carried his luggage up. Together they made Louis’s little space liveable and enjoyed each other’s company before bidding each other goodnight.

The next day Louis forced himself out of bed at normal hours for his new timezone. He made some toast, began sorting and unpacking the few boxes he had sent from England, and tried to keep his mind occupied with his new job. Louis went though his duties in his mind, trying to maintain his confidence: he would start in a few days, he was the general physician, he was prepared. The pressure to fill his mother’s shoes was there, but he knew the people wouldn’t hold him to it. He was the only one worrying about living up to his mother’s legacy. Jay would tell him to get over it. She was always confident in him, he would be fine, Louis told himself.

It wasn’t until Lottie called about dinner that Louis realized the day had passed.

“Want to get Chinese?” Lottie suggested once Louis had made it clear he had given no thought to meals.

Louis looked around at the boxes around him. “Uhh. Sure,” he said, wandering to the fridge. “And how about a trip to Kroger while we’re out?”

Lottie picked him up and together they chatted and aimlessly wandered the grocery aisles as they waited to pick up their food. It was late on a weeknight and the grocery store was rather vacant, giving the illusion of privacy in a public place. It comforted Louis to know that grocery stores all around the world had the same capacity to seemingly freeze time and space.

“Louis,” Lottie said in a tone that was more serious than their conversation warranted, pausing to gather her thoughts. Louis could hear the hesitancy in her voice. “...Louis,” she said again. “Why did you take the job here?”

Louis picked up random spices and tossed them into the already crowded cart. He raised his eyebrows at her, trying to look teasing but he knew it didn’t come off right. “Is wanting to be near you not enough?” he said with a small smirk.

“Yeah, yeah,” she smiled. She put some toilet paper in the cart. They both didn’t quite feel up to eye contact. “But really, Lou. Your program would forgive debt in any rural area. Why here? You know I love having you back,” she added before he could joke again.

Louis paused. He threw in some cookies. “It’s hard to explain,” he began, still speaking slowly, choosing his words carefully. “I don’t know if I’ve ever put it into words before.” Lottie looked away, giving Louis some mental space. He loved how well she knew him. “I guess…” he started again, “I guess it’s because I needed this town to be a better place in my memory.” Louis nodded to himself. That sounded as accurate as feelings can be.

Lottie squeezed his wrist as he pushed the cart. A silent signal to keep going if he needed to.

(Lovin’ Again) So Louis continued. “Well, you know that Mum wanted me to finish med school.” Lottie nodded. “When I got back to London it was hard, you know? Not that it wasn’t hard for you all,” he added, turning the grocery cart around the aisle corners. “I struggled being alone. I almost got a cat.” Lottie smiled at that. “But, uh, I found someone that helped me feel stable… and all that.”

“You didn’t tell me you dated anyone,” Lottie said softly, free of accusation but full of questions.

Louis smiled shamefully. “No, I did not.” Louis put a carton of milk in the cart. “He was my attending physician. His name was Alex. And he was good.”

Lottie was silent for a few minutes. They past a few people, added some food, and walked until Lottie found the right questions. “So what happened?”

“Well, first there was the fact that we could’ve been kicked out of the hospital for dating during the program.” Louis said this all matter-of-factly. It was the truth, and he was far enough removed from it now that he could be honest with himself, and with Lottie. “Besides that though, we were quite good together. We made each other playlists and we were emotional crutches for our jobs. But in the end… in the end I wasn’t ready to be happy with him.

“It felt wrong being happy with Mum gone and you all so far away, and Alex, well. He knew before I did. He told me I needed to find peace or else I would never love or be loved as fully as I could.”

Lottie let out a breath. “Oh, Lou.”

“Yeah,” Louis said. “It hurt to hear. But he was right. Sort of. I wasn’t loving him.” Louis dumped some candy bars into the shopping cart. “We broke up a few months ago. Well. He broke up with me. I thought about it forever before I made my decision to come back here. All I knew was that this was a place I could both come home to and find something new for myself. So. It’s scary being back, but here I am,” Louis finished lamely as they pulled into the checkout lane.

“Here you are,” Lottie echoed. She gave her brother a hug as he paid.

They loaded the cart and Louis pushed it toward the exit right as someone was walking in. And it was someone Lottie knew. (That Kind Of Night)

“Hi Harry,” she said with a bright smile as they walked by each other.

“Lottie!” the man said, friendly as ever in a out of place British accent. “How are you?” he asked as he kept walking towards the store.

“Good! And yourself?”

“Just fine,” Harry said cheerfully from a distance, giving Lottie a wave and turning to his shopping.

Lottie moved toward the car and Louis followed her lead.

“Was that…” Louis wondered, slowly putting together the pieces of old memories of this small town. “Was that Harry Styles?”

“Hmm? Oh, yeah,” she said, loading groceries into the car. Louis couldn’t seem to wrap his head around the idea of other people living there. Lottie put the cart away, started the car, and rolled the windows down. “You comin’? We have Chinese waiting for us.”

Louis got in the car, let the cool summer night air chill his ears as Lottie drove, and let his mind wander to his childhood in those very streets.

 

(Never Gonna Let You Down) Monday arrived with a thud as Louis tripped out of bed. He fumbled with his phone, turned off the alarm, and stood in the middle of his bedroom. He breathed, stretched his neck and shoulders, and let out a resigned sigh. Today’s the day , he thought to himself. As he dressed he let his mind drift over all the things that would happen today. He would enter the building he spent so much of his childhood in. He would work with the same people who worked with his mother, walk by the rooms she lived her last days in. He would have to talk about her a lot.

Louis put on some happy music, ate a quick breakfast, drank some tea, and got his stuff together. He was ready to face today. And if he wasn’t ready, did he really have a choice?

In his mind the clinic was much darker than it was in reality. The walls and floors were colorful, local kids had artwork posted everywhere, there were flowers at the reception desk, and the magazines in the entrance were updated. For a rural town, the clinic was surprisingly well funded. Even the people were bright and shiny. It must have been an effect of the small town mentality, Louis thought. The hospitals in London, though medically more advanced, were definitely a bit more uncomfortable. Here, patients were treated with a smile first and foremost. The whole presentation deeply conflicted with Louis’s feelings towards the place. The confusion made Louis sad, like all the sunshine that engulfed the clinic was mocking him, but the forlorn feeling motivated him. Hopefully he could prevent others from experiencing the losses he had faced.

“Good morning, Dr. Tomlinson!” said Ellen, the kind receptionist with the same haircut all the middle-aged women in town had. “Welcome back,” she said warmly. Her smile was genuine and compassionate. She took him around the center and introduced him to the new faces, gave him the chance to say hello to old ones, and she gave Louis a rundown of the appointments he had scheduled today.

The morning flew by, and it felt really good. He saw a few patients, among them a young girl who scraped her knees skateboarding and an older man whose stomach was giving him problems. Almost everyone who came in for care knew of him or knew his family, but he didn’t recognize anyone from his youth. Of course the nurses and assistants doted on him. The staff he was familiar with asked him about his family and the people who didn’t know him as well gave him sympathetic smiles, as they surely knew his family history despite not being around when Jay died. Overall, the morning felt productive and uplifting. He felt like he was on track to living up to his mother’s legacy for excellent care.

Fizzy called to check on him during his lunch break and when he got back one of the nurse practitioners explained their typical afternoon schedule.

“We usually leave appointment spots open in the afternoons to make room for more walk-in patients,” she said in her slow southern accent, an accent Louis could never get his mouth to form. “As the only licensed physician in the clinic you’ll have to stop by and visit almost everyone who comes in, but the RNs are wonderful and they keep things runnin’ smoothly.”  Louis asked her what her name was (“Pearl, dear.”) and thanked her so much for her help.

The very first walk-in patient was someone he had already seen around.

Louis walked into the little room, eyes on his clipboard, scanning the symptoms. “Hello, I’m Dr. Tomlinson. What brings you in today?”

“Louis?” Louis looked up at the sound of his name.

“Oh!” Louis said, surprised to at last find someone he knew. “Uhh, hello Harry.” Louis put on a shy smile. “It’s good to see you.” Truthfully, Louis wasn’t sure how to feel about running into people he knew. It was to be expected, of course, given the small population of the town, but, especially at work, it was sort of awkward. Louis knew that people often felt as if their doctors had an inherent superiority over them, and even if they didn’t feel inferior to their physician, they had come to him for help. “Well, it’s not good to see you here, per say, but… erm…”

Harry laughed. “It’s okay, I know what you mean,” he said cheerfully. “It’s good to see you too!” Harry Styles had his hair pulled into a bun and a smile on his face, clearly genuinely happy to see a familiar face. “How are you?”

Louis gave a chuckle at that. “I’m fine, but the real question is how are you?” Louis gestured to Harry’s body, sitting on the exam table and clearly a little pale.

“Oh, yeah, well I… um…” A deep cough interrupted his explanation. When his throat was clear he gestured, circling his upper body and face with both of his hands. “I have a cold.”

“Yes, it sounds like you do,” Louis agreed. Louis ran through a physical examination, checking Harry’s eyes, ears, throat, and lungs. Louis didn’t say anything except the necessary questions; a quiet “deep breath” when his stethoscope was running gently over Harry’s chest, if Harry had any throat, sinus, or chest pain, and about headaches, water intake, and general health. When Louis was done, he said, “Yep, you have a cold.”

Harry tried to laugh but couldn’t quite get it out around another cough. Together they went over the remedies Harry had been trying and established some new medicine to take.

“I hope that helps,” Louis said lamely, not sure on how to continue a normal conversation with this man.

“Thanks, I hope it does too. I’ve been like this since school ended a few weeks ago. I thought it would have cleared up by now. The kids bring in the strangest things into my immune system.”

“Oh,” Louis said, surprised by Harry openly talking about his personal life, something Louis had yet to master. “You have kids?”

Harry smiled carefully, quickly saying, “They’re not my kids. Well, they’re mine, but they’re not… They’re my students.” Harry struggled to correct himself. “I teach at Franklin Middle School.”

Louis felt himself relax. It was so simple, straightforward, comfortable that Harry worked at the school they both went to as kids. He felt something click in their conversation, a common ground that stretched from their childhood in this small town to today. “You teach!” Louis exclaimed, entertained by the thought of this cold-ridden guy in front of a room of twelve year olds. “What do you teach?”

“English. And chorus,” Harry added between sniffles. “And in the fall I help coach soccer.”

Louis raised his eyebrows and leaned against the short counter space in the office. “Is there anything you don’t teach?”

“Sometimes it feels like there isn’t. When I started it was just English, but then the music program almost fell through, and then the soccer coach left.” Harry sighed, but it was a fulfilled sound. “Maybe next year I’ll be the school nurse, too.” Harry’s face lost focus, looking fondly at the blank wall. Louis recognized the expression, even though he hadn’t felt it in too long. It had been a while since Louis had thought so positively sentimental about his life. It was clear to Louis that Harry loved his job. Harry focused on Louis again. “But what about you? I know you went to college up north…” Harry paused, leaving room for Louis to continue his life story.

In a town as small as theirs, it was common to know small histories about people’s lives, even with relationships as distant as Harry and Louis’s had been. Growing up, their families had been friends, both of their parents having immigrated from England, but they didn’t see each other much outside of school. Perhaps they would have been better friends if they had been in the same classes, but the few year age gap kept their social circles unconnected. Harry probably knew where both Lottie and Félicité went to college, what Dan was doing these days, and all about Jay’s final few months. Harry and his mum probably brought the Deakins some casserole in the weeks after Jay passed.

Louis, however, hadn’t seen or talked to Harry since he was 18. He had no idea what Harry had done with the past 10 years or what any of his family were up to.

“Yeah,” Louis continued off of Harry’s lingering question. “I went to England for med school after college. Wanted to experience the ‘Motherland’ and all that.” Harry smiled. “I came back here for a bit in 2016, for, uh… for my Mum. But I finished my M.D. and my residency in England. Came back here for the Rural Health Clinics program.” Louis left it at that. He didn’t want to bother Harry with all the emotional details.

There was a respectful quietness in the room for a moment after Louis was done speaking.

“I hope you’re doing okay,” Harry nearly whispered. He looked softly and honestly at Louis, not shying away from a sensitive subject. “With your mum and all.” Louis nodded in response. Most people offered prayers or apologies. His heart was heavy, thinking about his mum’s memory all day, but knowing she’d be thankful for all of this actions. Someone checking on him felt nice. Harry continued, moving his gaze to the floor. “I uh… I lost my step-dad a few years ago. I know it’s not the same, but if you ever need to talk... “ Harry let his voice fade.

“That’s sucks, mate.” Louis didn’t know what else to say. Louis couldn’t imagine Dan or Anne’s grief.

Harry laughed gently. “Yeah. It’s hard sometimes still, especially for my mum. And I’m sure it’s hard for you too. But he’s in our memory.”

Louis nodded again. Harry had a really comforting way of living with his loss. Louis was still fumbling with his.

“Well, I better get going.” Harry lifted himself off the exam table. “Thank you for your excellent medical advice. It was good catching up with you.” Harry smiled earnestly at Louis, shook his hand, and reached for the door.

“No problem. Uh, have a good day, Harry.”

“You too, Dr. Tomlinson.” Harry smirked and walked out, leaving Louis alone in the colorful little exam room.

It had been a while since Louis had talked about how he was affected by the loss of his mother. Not that he even told Harry anything. But the thoughts were that close to the edge of his tongue. Even with his sisters, he hadn’t explored his psyche further than “sad” in years. It reminded him of what Alex had said. Louis hadn’t found peace with Jay’s passing, but talking to Harry had lifted his heart a little for the first time in what felt like forever.

 

The first week of Louis’s work at the clinic flew by in a similar fashion; he helped people with injuries, healed the sick, supported people when they desperately needed it, but most often Louis found himself reacquainting himself with the people of the town. He met former neighbors, teachers he had when he was younger, children of old coaches, workers who knew Dan, and kids that were friends with his youngest siblings. The older people gave their condolences for his mother, the younger asked him how his family was doing. Everyone was overjoyed to see him, thankful that he was helping little Franklin in such a big way. Louis felt fulfilled, even in such a short amount of time, but there was always that little voice inside his head that nagged and worried. This will never live up to Mum’s hard work, or Quit feeling so happy, you’re here for them, not for you . Somedays the struggle to feel useful was stronger than others, but the good days felt affirming, and those days were what Louis needed.

(Soakin’ Wet) On his first weekend off, Louis found himself in the bed of Tommy’s truck with Lottie, Fizzy, Phoebe, and Daisy. Dan and the youngest twins sat in the cab while Tommy drove them all to Franklin Lake for a family afternoon. It was mid-June, it was hot, and it was happy. Tommy blasted country music as they drove down the dirt road to the lakeside.

The lake was packed. Nearly the whole town was there, and that was just how the Tomlinson-Deakin family liked it. They tumbled out of the truck with a cooler full of food, some jumbo picnic blankets, sunscreen, and a boom box and followed the crowd of people down the dirt path, through the trees, and to the beach. Before any of them had put a toe in the water Phoebe and Daisy were off with some friends, Félicité had found the shaved ice cart, and Ernie and Doris were fighting over the best beach chairs.

Louis and Lottie helped Dan lay out their blankets, but it didn’t take long for their family party to attract friends.

“Hello Deakin Family!” a cheerful voice said from the direction of the lake. Louis and Lottie turned around to see Harry Styles, soaking wet from a swim and dressed in light blue swim shorts and sunglasses, walking through the shallow water towards them. Dan raised his hand in greeting, Lottie shouted “Hiya Harry!” back, but Louis was slow to react.

Tattoos. And on an excellent body. Louis had seen some of his arm tattoos and the cross on Harry’s hand at the clinic, but the effect of all of them was mesmerizing. Harry’s skin was tan and glistening, his muscles lean, his stride confident. Louis felt his teeth bite his own lip, shocked as Harry continued to walk over. Harry was getting closer and Louis had yet to move his thoughts or gaze past Harry’s torso. Get a grip, Tommo. Be professional. Ha. Professional. And to think, only two weeks ago his stethoscope had been gliding across those birds.

“How are y’all?” Harry said, his British accent slipping away on the last word. It brought Louis’s attention up to Harry’s lips. Louis felt like a teenager, gawking and speechless as he processed the person Harry Styles had grown into.

“Good! How are you?” Lottie asked.

“I’m great!”

“How’s the water?”

“Refreshing and warm,” he replied, considering each word before he said them as if double checking their veracity before speaking them to others.

Lottie moved right ahead with the pleasantries, asking Harry about how his mum and sister were; both of them were here today.

“Harry, you remember my brother Louis?”

Louis composed himself, but Harry answered first. “Yes. Actually,” Harry said, looking to Louis with a glint in his eyes. “We’ve already seen each other.”

Louis looked back at him, confused by the happiness that was alight in every cell in Harry’s body, and even more perplexed at their apparent orientation towards himself. “Yeah… erm… Harry stopped by the clinic the other week.” Harry looked to Lottie as he animatedly explained his ailments.

“Are you feeling better, Harry?” Louis asked when the explanation was done.

Harry smiled at him, his dimples (dimples!!) popping out. “Much better. I went to an excellent doctor.”

Louis laughed. “It’s true.”

Harry pauses for the slightest moment, the smile still true as he looked at Louis. “Err… Are y’all going swimming?”

“Ha!” said Lottie. “You think I’m getting this face anywhere near water? Especially water filled with splashing children? No, thank you.” She turned back to their spread of blankets and sat down. “Go swim.”

Harry gave a good-hearted laugh. “I guess we should. You coming, Louis?”

Louis looked at his family, already comfortable where they were, then back at Harry. “Uhh, sure?”

“Sweet!” Harry said, and he skipped around and headed back towards the water. Louis fumbled, took off his shirt, gave Lottie a shrug, and followed him down the short beach. Louis tried not to feel awkward; the beach was full of people who probably knew him, but he certainly didn’t know them anymore. Harry was an easy and beautiful way to get back into the swing of Franklin society. Louis might as well have fun with him.

“Alright, Louis. Let me tell you about this lake,” Harry began solemnly, standing at the edge of the water, surveying the swimming area with Louis by his side. “I’m clearly you’re only friend in this town.”

“Harry, I grew up here,” Louis replies.

“Still.”

A sly smile crept to Harry’s face as he turned to face his partner. “Race you to the floating docks!”

Harry sprinted into the water, wading and swimming once it was deep enough. Louis sputtered and swore, following him as fast as he could.

They spent the day together; Harry explaining the waterslide the town installed a few years back, Louis talking about childhood memories in the same water, taking turns showing off on the rope swings… Louis couldn’t help but stare at Harry’s body, and there was more than one moment where Louis thought he saw Harry doing the same to him. Louis wasn’t explicitly trying to flirt, but he certainly wasn’t being shy, either. He wasn’t even sure if Harry was into men, but that question seemed less and less mysterious as the sun passed over them. Harry was so open and loving and sincere, and Louis knew that Harry was enjoying himself immensely.

(Universe & U) Louis wanted to see more of him.

The very next day Louis wrangled Harry’s number from Lottie’s phone and called him. He surprised himself with his boldness, but he hadn’t been so emotionally fulfilled since… since Alex. “You’re my only friend in this town and I’d like to see more of you,” Louis announced when Harry picked up.

“Oh,” Harry responded, clearly caught off guard. “Erm, yeah, I can make that happen.”

“Want to come over for dinner with some of my family tonight?”

“Yes, I’d love to.” Every syllable was sure.

“Okay. Er, great. I’ll see you at 7 then.” Louis hung up with a smile and walked out to his kitchen where Lottie and Tommy sat. “Please stay for dinner.”

The couple exchanged a glance. “Sure, Lou,” Tommy replied with a sigh and a grin.

Everything about dinner was warm; the homemade food, the night air flowing through the open windows, the candle light reflecting off the red living room walls, Louis’s body after a few glasses of wine, his heart after sitting next to Harry for an hour… Conversation flowed from the water quality of the Franklin Lake to Premier League standings and back to town gossip, all without missing a beat. Lottie and Harry got along a little too well for Louis’s liking, inching closer to making fun of him with every word, but it was all worth it for the intent look Harry gave him whenever Louis spoke.

Eventually the conversation landed on Harry’s work at Franklin Middle School. Harry had been explaining the logistics of middle school soccer leagues when it occurred to Louis that he had no idea how Harry became a teacher.

He brought the conversation to a pause when he asked; Lottie and Tommy looking at each other before turning to Harry for the story they both already knew.

“Well,” Harry began slowly, “Going into college I knew I wanted to help people, but that was about it. For a while I was pre-law, if you can believe that. But eventually I needed money, found job at the local Boys and Girls Club, and absolutely fell in love with the kids there. I scrambled to rearrange my classes to major in education and worked at some schools out west. When Mum called about Robin I came back here, and I’ve been working at Franklin Middle ever since.”

The room waited patiently for Louis to speak, but he couldn’t, not until he processed Harry’s story. The story which was so remarkably similar to his own. Louis looked at Harry in wonder, looking for proof that living with such loss could be fulfilling and good.

“And are you happy?” Louis asked quietly.

“Most days, yeah.”

Harry returned Louis’s stare without fear. Louis couldn’t see anything but Harry’s calm green eyes, sure of themselves as they held Louis up. Louis thought of reaching out, touching Harry’s arm, any part of him, just to prove that Harry was there, existing. Louis’s hand twitched toward Harry, but in the same moment he thought of Alex, his brown eyes and his forthright words.

Louis hadn’t found peace; he was still surrounded by his mother’s death, still broken from losing her love. He spent his days trying to fill the space she’d left in the world. Did he have room for reaching out for others, for holding their emotions and their happiness?

Louis inhaled and left his thoughts, turning his gaze away from Harry. “That’s good,” he whispered.

 

Work was slow as the summer passed, but it filled Louis’s head and kept him busy. He returned the smiles the Ellen and the nurses gave him and he saved some lives (or at least cleaned some wounds). Little Franklin was getting smaller every day as Louis got reaquainted with the townspeople. He bumped into people he knew at the grocery store and the gas station. Somehow Harry made the most appearances in Louis’s errands: he ran into Harry getting coffee, at the closest department store, and even once while Louis was on a rare jog. Louis couldn’t look at his face without thinking of Alex’s words, but something about Harry was so magnetic that Louis just couldn’t walk away.

One day in July Harry invited Louis over to his place for dinner. Something about “returning the favor of a well-cooked meal.” Despite his reservations about getting too close to someone, Louis could not wait. He spent hours choosing an outfit and trimming his beard and doing his hair. He felt silly, but something about Harry made him feel so good.

Harry opened his door with the widest smile.

“Louis! Come in!” He had the enthusiasm of a child on Halloween and the outfit of a Gucci model, and it contrasted so beautifully as Louis followed him inside his small house. Harry led them down a bright hallway to his open kitchen, where a bottle of wine sat between two place settings on a table. The stove was sizzling and loud music was playing, so Louis took a seat to watch Harry cook and dance around. Half of Louis’s mind was shouting not to let him in, the other half was begging for more. They exchanged some small talk as Harry started putting food on the table; Louis laughed when Harry used a using a wooden spoon as a microphone between topics.

By the time Harry sat down to eat Louis’s heart was light and his head clear. Harry’s openness gave Louis the chance to lower his walls, just enough for Harry to see some of his troubles.

(Hold Me Close) When the food was gone, so was Louis resistance to anything Harry wanted. Louis’s hand was on his chin and he stared at Harry. Their conversation drifted to nothing and Harry had questions in his eyes.

“Jump,” Harry said softly.

Though he didn’t want to acknowledge it, Louis knew exactly what Harry was asking him to do. His heartbeat sped up and he looked at his knees. “It’s hard.”

Harry nudged Louis’s foot with his own under the table. “I know.” Louis looked up at Harry’s face, so trusting and kind and sincere. “I never really knew my dad, since he lives in England. When my mum met Robin I was still so young, but I knew that he meant the world to her, even then. He was my dad in so many ways. Mum put so much of their relationship on hold for Gemma and I, and I know she’ll never regret that, but… but when he was diagnosed I felt like… like I had used up some of their time together.

“Mum of course never wants me to think like that, but even now, it hurts to think about. About all the time they lost together, about all the time they shared… and even all the time I missed being around him. But over the years, we’ve talked about it, the three of us. And that’s helped. Knowing we loved him as much as we could, and forgiving ourselves for the angry moments, trusting our memories to heal us… We know he wants us to keep going.”

Louis didn’t know what to say. He felt his eyes well up as Harry sniffed, holding back his own tears. Instead of speaking, Louis put his hand out on the table. Harry took it, squeezed it, and held on tight.

When he was ready, Louis took a deep breath.

“Talking about her feels like ripping my chest open.” Louis gave a breathless laugh, trying to fight the sadness that washed over him. He looked at the ceiling to roll the tears back into his eyes. Harry gave his hand another squeeze. So Louis pressed through the sobs he knew were coming. He held onto Harry’s hand for dear life.  “She was my everything. Everything. It wasn’t fair to lose her.” Louis didn’t even know where to begin, but he was already crying. “The youngest were only two. They’ll never even know her. Even Phoebe and Daiz, when I think of how much I remember from being their age… I just… I needed her there for so much, and when I need her now I feel guilty, because I had her for 25 years, and the girls… the girls will have to do so much on their own.

“And I tried,” Louis sobbed. “I tried to be there for them, but it hurt so much, and she… she wanted me to finish school, so I left. Again.” Louis took a shaky breath. “I miss her so much.”

Harry held steadfast to Louis’s hand, relieving as much heartbreak as he could through the simple touch. Louis cried until he couldn’t, until the only thing he felt was the solid warmth of Harry’s hand in his.

Slowly he began again. “When I got back to London I leaned on someone too much. I thought we were good, but he… he saw through me. I wasn’t happy. At all. And every time I smiled I felt bad about it, because my mum was gone and life was shit without her. So I stopped smiling. And he… he knew I couldn’t love him with this hole in my heart. And he stopped loving me for it.”

And that was it. All of the pain inside Louis was gone, only leaving room for breathing.

Slowly the rest of the room came back to them.

“Lou,” Harry said gently. “You don’t need to be okay to love someone else. And you definitely don’t need to be okay to be loved.”

Louis made a noise somewhere between a desperate laugh and a sob, but it wasn’t a sad sound. It was the first glance at a patchwork pulling Louis back together. Louis could barely speak. “Thank you.”

 

From then on, Louis had no reservations about spending time with Harry, flirting more openly every day. He ventured to talk about some of his happier memories of his mum with Lottie, casually mentioning her whenever she came into his mind. He let her memory out into the world, and it felt good. The nurses at work noticed his good mood. Ellen even asked about it one day.

“I’m just trying to create some good in this world, love,” he answered her.

(Faster) Two weeks before school started, Franklin hosted a fair with carnival rides and food trucks and lights everywhere. It was a perfect reflection of Louis’s mood. The Tomlinson-Deakin family went down together, but a leap of faith (and a lot of flirting) meant Louis was going with Harry.

They hugged in greeting, they played at the ring toss, hands drifting towards each other, they went on the teacups, pressing their bodies closer. It was a cloudless night and holding Harry’s hand under the string lights and the August constellations made Louis feel whole for the first time in years. It felt like a dream.

They drifted toward the live music and lost themselves in the moment, standing on hay, drinking the local beer, and dancing like the preschoolers in the back of the crowd.

Harry turned to Louis in the middle of the song.

“I’m so glad you came back.”

Louis slowed his dancing to gaze at Harry, his already present smile growing fonder. “Me too.”

And Harry leaned in.

Louis had spent the entire summer collecting kindling for the fire that Harry set alight that night.

 

(I’m in Love With You) The first day of school Louis sent flowers to Harry’s classroom. The second day of school Louis found flowers at the clinic’s reception desk. The first Friday of the school year Louis woke up to a text that says “dinner with my mum tonight?”

It was an anxious day at work and a stressful hour of preparation, but when Anne opened her front door to the two of them, her smile erased any doubts in Louis’s mind.

“It’s so good to see you again, Louis.” She hugged him before he could get a word out, kissed her son, and welcomed them both into her home.

The food was excellent. Harry bragged about learning from such a great cook. Conversation and wine flowed with an ease that made Louis feel so secure.

“Why don’t you two head out to the patio. I’ll be out in a bit.”

Harry led him through the house he grew up in. They walked slowly, hand in hand, Harry pointing out pictures and memories along the way. They reached the brick-paved patio, alight with a blazing fire pit and some soft music playing from the house. Harry pulled Louis in to dance before he could sit. Slowly they swirled and swayed, holding each other tight.

“Thank you for showing me your soul,” Louis whispered into Harry’s hair. “You’re so… at peace here. I love seeing you so happy.” Louis felt heat rush to his face; being so open still felt stiff to him, but he wanted to be true with Harry.

“Thank you for showing me your heart.” Harry’s face was full of fondness.

Louis pulled his head back to look at Harry’s eyes. So intent, clear, loving. “I love you, Harry.”

Harry smiled, his eyes sparkling and his dimples coming out, like he’d been waiting to say it for weeks: “I love you, too.”

Louis let out a laugh and pressed his forehead to Harry’s, relieved at the words he heard and so unbelievably happy.

 

(Stay) A few weeks later, Louis was making mental plans about getting out of his tiny apartment and thinking of ways of asking Harry if he could move into his little house. Lottie called while Louis was considering ways to trick Harry into asking Louis to move in (not that Harry would put up much of a fight.

“Lou, Tommy and I are making dinner for the family. Come over tonight. Bring Harry. Please.”

It was a command, and Louis heard the excitement in her voice, like she had a secret plan to see through.

Dinner was a rowdy occasion with five Tomlinsons, three Deakins, a Tommy, and a Harry. The dining table was crowded and the noise was abundant, but for every dirty plate there was a full belly and a happy smile.

After the dinner plates were pushed to the side and cartons of ice cream were being passed around, Tommy stood up and clinked his spoon against his bowl.

“Um. Hello,” he said, slow with everyone’s eyes on him. “I… uh, I have a speech ready.” Louis locked eyes with Harry across the table, eyebrows as high as they could go. “You all are my family. I think you know that. My family wasn’t always around, and I always knew you all would let me inof course, once Lottie was okay with it.” Everyone was grinning. “Lottie, I love you so much. You loved me when I needed it most and you never stopped. Even facing such great loss, you looked to me for comfort, and I'm still so shocked I could give you what you needed. One day I’m going to give you the world.” Louis looked between Tommy, Lottie, and Harry, whose hand was on his heart as he looked back at Louis. “I needed a home, and I found one in you,” Tommy said.

Tommy knelt down on his knee next to Lottie and pulled out a box, but Lottie was already screaming.

“Lottie Tomlinson

“Yes!”

“Will you marry me?”

“Yes yes yes! Oh my god! YES!”

Louis would look at the ring later. For now, all he saw was Harry’s eyes, filled with happy tears and a reflection of Louis’s own future. He had never felt more at home.