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Christmas-ing With You

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Track: Carpenters - Selections from ‘Nutcracker’ - Overture Miniature, 0:00 to 1:10

May was an awkward month. There were no major occasions to celebrate. Compared to the hustle and bustle of winter, crowded by holiday celebrations, or the summer, when some stretched their travelling muscles, May had the habit of feeling like a forgotten collection of days to bridge the seasons.

That awkwardness was lost within the pearly lobby of the historical Turtledove Building on Main Street. Whether it was the deep freeze of December or the steamiest day in July, the London headquarters for Loving Heart Television always radiated the joy of Christmas. Of their many television romance departments, their yearly Love For The Holidays offerings were by far their most popular.

Red velvet ribbons wound up the marble columns to create enormous candy canes. Pale gold fairy lights were strewn about the room, from the Christmas trees that stood beside the lifts, to the frame that held the building directory. Silver bells hung from forest green garland that lined the room. The music playing in the lift was Christmas themed. Even the security guard perched by the revolving doors who signed guests into the building had a bushy white beard, round belly, and twinkling blue eyes behind his tiny spectacles.

Louis Tomlinson, mystery writer, accepted his ID from said Santa-like security guard. He scribbled his signature on the guest log. His gaze caught on the last person to sign in and his hand slowed.

Harry Styles.

His head tilted as he read over the romance writer’s loopy signature. They had never met, but he couldn’t work for Loving Heart Television without hearing about Harry Styles. Louis worked exclusively on their Magic & Mystery productions while Harry was a rising romance star. His work on their Everyday Romance films were especially popular amongst viewers.

“Everything alright?”

Louis straightened up and looked at Nicholas. “Oh, yes. Yeah, sorry.” He let out a quiet chuckle and smoothed his fingers through his windblown quiff. He had gotten a haircut not too long ago and his hair was in its weird growing out phase. Not quite as full as he usually liked it but a touch messier than he would have preferred for a meeting with his boss. “Blanked for a moment. Erm, sixth floor, like usual?”

“Fifteenth floor today. Suite 15A.” Louis’ brows arched and his mouth opened slightly. Nicholas’ eyes seemed to twinkle even brighter. The guard leaned closer to whisper, “Must be an important meeting if Celia called you in.”

“Wow, okay, cool.” Louis smoothed the front of his slate blue jumper, then tugged the bottom of his black blazer. He should have given it a more enthusiastic press before leaving that morning. While most shed layers as summer loomed, he still felt chilly. A curse of always being cold, no matter the season. He hoped that being called in to the main offices at the time when they were mapping out their next holiday offerings meant there was a possibility they were adding a Christmas mystery series, but he didn’t want to get too excited before learning more. “Thanks so much for the tip.”

A lift pinged in the distance.

“Better catch that one. The other lift is getting worked on by maintenance.” Nicholas winked. “Don’t want to be late.”

Louis looked at his watch and groaned. “Ah, fuck me. And I even took an earlier train.” He jogged sideways. “Thanks, Nick!”

He didn’t hear Nicholas’ reply as he ran at full speed towards the closing doors. He droned, “Noooo,” on a long vowel while watching the doors close, his hand outstretched. Once the sliver of space between doors disappeared, he smoothly changed his word to, “Shhhhiiiit,” and dropped his arm. He bent over with his hands on his thighs, breathing quick. He searched the lobby. Where were the bloody stairs? A ping behind him interrupted his search.

“Going up?”

Louis spun towards the deep, questioning voice but saw only open lift doors. “Thank you so much,” he blurted out. He hurried into the lift with such urgency that the collar of his jacket flew up and blocked his vision. “Thank you for holding it.” He pushed fabric off his nose and looked at the lift buttons. Fifteen was the only one illuminated. “Oh. We’re going to the same…”

Body heat radiated against the side of his cheek. He looked away from the buttons and found that he was standing next to the only other person in the lift, barely an inch between them. His head dropped back to look up at his lift stranger, inch by inch. After traveling up the stranger’s black ensemble, including a blazer a touch longer than the one he was wearing, his gaze lingered on bitten pink lips stuck in an uneven smirk, a tiny patch of stubble forgotten on his sharp jawline.

He continued upwards and locked eyes with the stranger. “Same floor.”

The doors whooshed closed as the stranger’s uneven smirk morphed into something warmer, his green eyes crinkling at the edges. “Small world.”

They held each other’s stare until the lift started to rise. Louis exhaled a half laugh and stepped backwards. He heard the other man clear his throat and could see him shifting his weight from foot to foot. The song Blue Christmas crooned into the lift.

Louis braved a peek across. Did the stranger really have an an Elvis curl in his chestnut hair? They met eyes for a split second before looking anywhere but each other. The skin under Louis’ collar burned red hot, and a matching heat gathered on his cheeks. He remembered the bashful smile the stranger gave him mere seconds before and he bit his bottom lip, folding his jumper cuffs over the tops of his knuckles. He rarely came into an actual office, and when he did, it was usually to sign paperwork. Dreamy strangers happened only in his writing.

The stranger drawled, “I, uh, could have hit the Door Open button sooner, but…” The sound of a smile entered his raspy voice. “I was curious if you’d leg it here in time.”

Louis peeked and found the stranger was, indeed, smiling. There was even a dimple sighting. He faced straight ahead but kept the man in his peripheral vision. “Oh, yeah?”

“Mmhmm.”

Louis made his career writing banter and dialogue. Multiple replies swirled in his head that could possibly advance his effort of flirting before they reached the fifteenth floor. Something about legging it to the stranger’s approval, or having a word with Nicholas about handsome strangers regulating the lifts, or even a simple joke about Loving Hearts hiring a personal trainer to keep all their laptop-bound writers moving. Those replies would lodge themselves into his brain for all eternity, but instead of something cheeky making its way out of his mouth, he said:

“Huh, ha.”

As the floors ticked upwards, Louis bulged his eyes at the brushed gold door and bit the inside of his cheek. Huh, ha? Huh, ha!? That was the best he could do? Even the stranger seemed confused. He cleared his throat and turned towards the stranger. “I’ve never seen—”

The stranger said, “I don’t believe we’ve—” at the same time.

Their eyes met and they both chuckled, breathy and nervous, before glancing away. Louis opened his mouth to introduce himself, but the lift pinged. He stepped aside with his arm out, misjudged the size of the lift, and promptly slammed into the wall. The stranger clucked a low, honking laugh before he held his fist to his lips.

Louis bounced away from the wall like a boxer recovering from a punch. “After, uh—You.” He ran his hand through his hair, then glanced up at the stranger. To his credit, the stranger did not laugh again, though his pursed lips twitched and his eyes crinkled with unsung amusement. “After you.”

“Are you alright?”

“Yeah, totally. Totally fine.” Louis waved a casual hand. “Totally.”

The stranger smiled and nodded. “Cheers.” He stepped out of the lift.

Louis waited until the stranger was out of sight before he rubbed his palm over his face and leaned against the lift wall. A few seconds later, he heard the quiet, rough sound of a throat clearing in the most gentle way. He looked out of the lift. A shivery zing of excitement shot up his spine.

The stranger had stopped two steps away from the lift as he read something on his iPhone, leaning his weight on his left leg, his back to Louis. The man glanced behind himself, then looked away quickly. He wasn’t quick enough for Louis to miss his smirk, mischievous and playful, like he wanted to get caught with his hand in the cookie jar.

Louis walked up until they were beside each other, both sharing a quick smile as they made their way down the hallway. He usually cringed at how often the actors had to smile in every movie Loving Heart produced. Sometimes, his manuscripts made his soul die a little with how many times the word smile showed up in his directions. No real person smiles that often. Now, with cheeks that ached from smiling so much during a lift ride, he was rethinking that pet peeve.

They veered to the right, then the left, then paused in front of the same frosted glass office doors. Suite 15A. Their hands reached for the door and bumped midway.

“Erm, after you,” the stranger said. He pulled the door open. “Please.”

“Noticing a trend here.”

“Huh, ha.” Louis’ mouth fell open, paralysed in place. The stranger’s shy smile widened as he asked, “You coming in?”

They walked into the suite together. Jostling shoulders as they reached the receptionist’s desk at the same time seemed only natural.

The receptionist peered upwards as her fingers hit Ctrl-M with rapid-fire precision. Tabs of true crime blogs and Instant Pot recipes minimised on her computer screen. “Hi, are you both checking in?”

“Yes, I have a meeting with Celia at two,” Louis said.

“I...also have a meeting with Celia at two.” Confusion slowed the stranger’s already meandering way of speaking. The men glanced at each other. The stranger scratched the back of his head and looked to the receptionist. “Um, were we double booked by mistake?”

Majestic wooden double doors behind the receptionist’s desk opened. Celia Q. Vaughn, the queen of Loving Heart Television, appeared. What did you think her middle initial stood for? It certainly was not for Quinn. Her office was even more decked out for Christmas than the lobby with Sleigh Ride playing at full volume. Her snow white hair was in its usual asymmetrical bob with thick black glasses hanging from a functioning Christmas light themed chain around her neck.

“Louis! Harry! So glad to see you both.”

Louis said, “Styles?” at the same time as Harry asking, “Tomlinson?” and they looked at each other.

“Come on in. We have lots to talk about. Would either of you care for an eggnog? Spiced cider? I have some fresh gingerbread waiting for us inside.”

There was no time to ask how they knew each other’s last name. They walked into Celia’s office and sat in the plush leather armchairs in front of her desk. On the corner of her desk, a perfectly decorated gingerbread house rested on a platter of gingerbread cookies. Celia sat down as she pulled her rolling chair closer. Her receptionist handed Louis a cup of tea, placed a glass of water in front of Harry, and a rested mug of something that smelled like cinnamon tea at Celia’s place.

Celia gestured towards the cookie platter. “Please, help yourselves.” She narrowed her eyes playfully towards the taller writer. “Harry?”

Harry smiled, slow and a bit bashful. His gaze darted to Louis before he leaned forward. His black jumper rode up on his lower back. Louis dragged his gaze from the tawny stretch of skin and focused on the the gingerbread house’s roof. What incredible icing work. Harry took a white napkin and picked up a gingerbread man with blue buttons, then glanced over his shoulder to Louis.

“I, uh, have a soft spot for gingerbread,” he admitted.

“Good to know.”

Both seemed on the brink of laughing, Louis hiding his mouth with his hand and Harry’s eyes glowing.

Harry directed his attention to Celia as he sat back. “Thank you.”

“Of course.” She clapped. “Now, I’m sure you’re both wondering why I called you in for this meeting together. And I’m sure you’re wondering if this meeting is about our next batch of holiday offerings.” Both sat up straighter. “We have an idea for three holiday films that we think you would be absolutely perfect for.” She sang, “Exciiiiting!” and sipped her tea. She slapped her bright red lips. “How does that sound?”

They stared at her. Celia was brightening by joy and her flickering Christmas light necklace continued to twinkle, but she said nothing. A beat passed. The two writers glanced at each other without moving, just a quick dart of their eyes, then looked to Celia.

“That’s really exciting,” Louis said, careful but maintaining his cheerfulness. Loving Heart employees were usually required to be cheerful and happy at all times when in public. “Did you want…” He looked to Harry, who gave him an equally puzzled shrug as he chewed gingerbread. Louis returned to Celia. “Did you want us to write one script each? Or…I’m just not sure why we’re both here.” His gaze darted to Harry. “No offense.”

“No, of course, I get it,” Harry said, jumping in. “I’m a little confused, as well.” He smiled and Louis was back to staring at the gingerbread roof while digging his fingernails into his chair arms. “Excited, of course.”

“Of course,” Louis echoed.

“But...Confused.”

Celia’s voice was as musical as sleigh bells. “We want you to work as partners, of course.”

“Partners?” they said, shocked.

“We think you two will make a perfect pair for your move into our pool of writers that contribute to the Love For The Holidays series!”

“I usually write alone,” they said in unison. They glanced at each other, then crossed their legs to the left. Upon seeing their matching positions, they moved again. Louis wiggled deeper into his seat and Harry leaned closer to Celia’s desk.

Celia pointed the arm of her glasses towards them. “I figured you’d both say that. You writers. Solitary creatures. But there is a method to our madness, I promise you! Seeing as this would be your first time writing for the Love For The Holidays series, we felt it would be best to pair you up, so as to make it easier to transition into that different niche.” Kindness radiated from her brown eyes and she laced her fingers beneath her chin. Her fire-engine red manicure glistened. “Louis, we love the magic, imagination, and creativity you inject into all of your scripts. Your dialogue is so much fun that actors specifically request to work on your films.”

Louis stifled a proud grin, but smiled shyly. “Thank you.”

“And you, Harry.” She looked at the other writer. “The way you work your beautiful view of romance into any scenario we throw at you is one of the main reasons our network is growing at such a rapid rate. You are inspiring our viewers to love and fall in love and love love love, which we clearly are all about at Loving Heart!”

Harry beamed. “Thank you so much.”

“So!” She put her glasses on and double clicked her mouse, peering at the screen. “We’ve already decided on two holiday romance scripts that we want you to create. Those are set to film in August.”

“Wow. Soon.” Harry sat back in his chair and crossed his leg towards Louis. “Doable, though.” He glanced to the left and Louis gave him a small nod, his blue eyes urging him onward. “Especially if there’s two of us.”

“One is more on the magic side and one is more on the romance side, but both are set in wintery locations that you will just adore!” Celia typed something into her keyboard. “We’ll need those scripts by the first of June so we can start edits and get it to the cast. I know it will be a challenge, but your time will be well compensated.”

Louis was a fast writer when he was in the zone. He could bang out thousands of words overnight and could craft an entire film’s plot in the time it took him to take a shower. Even knowing that about himself, the thought of creating two scripts in under a month would normally make him excuse himself, curl up in the corner of a bathroom stall, and breathe into a paper bag.

This time, he merely said, “Makes sense,” and felt...confident. Oddly confident. Harry’s low hum of agreement caused heat to gather beneath his skin. He rubbed the back of his burning neck. “Would be a good learning experience. Working together on new things while we’re sort of in each other’s world.”

Harry knew he was not the fastest of writers, but he was aware of his weaknesses and never missed a deadline, no matter what he had to do to complete his assignment. Now, his success also affected another writer’s fate. More than ever, he felt sure that he could climb this literary mountain. Their gazes locked and suddenly they were back in the lift, blushing and on the brink of laughing aloud.

Harry cleared his throat with his fist to his lips. “Definitely. I don’t mind pushing it the next few months. Sounds fun.”

“Lovely! I knew you two would work together well, I just knew it. For your last project, and please brace yourselves, this is the truly exciting part.” Celia took her glasses off and grasped her hands against her chest. “We have an idea for a new movie that will be...” She spread her fingers in jazz hands and rattled her bangle bracelets. “Featured within the Silver & Gold Showcase. Ah! Oh, you boys! If you only knew how long I’d been holding onto that secret!”

Both writers looked as if they had just gotten off a ski lift and were slapped by a burst of cold mountain air, sitting wide-eyed, wind-blown and stunned. The Silver & Gold Showcase was the tippy top of the food chain at Loving Heart. They were the most heavily promoted, most often repeated, and most popular holiday films. Those films were given a budget, celebrity cast pool, and creative scope that all other films were not privy to.

“One of ours would be in The Showcase?” Harry asked, a bit breathless. He and Louis turned towards each other, both involuntarily bouncing a bit in their seats. “Wow.”

“Yeah, I—I can’t believe it,” Louis exhaled. He and Harry smiled even wider. “Would be amazing. I can’t believe it would be for our first year writing for the series.”

Celia perched her chin on her folded hands and watched the two men babble over each other for a moment, as if they were acting in a movie of their own. She bit into a gingerbread and sighed. “You little holiday dolls, you.”

Both writers quieted and sat facing straight ahead. Harry cleared his throat into his fist and Louis set his shoulders back. Though they shifted to give Celia their full attention, neither could hide their glee bubbling under the surface. Their legs were antsy and they could not control when a smile would burst through their professional demeanour.

“Now, remember,” Celia warned, pointing at them with her headless gingerbread man, “this is all pending your collaboration on the two holiday scripts.” They nodded like obedient students. “And we are still in the process of securing the talent for the potential Showcase film, so not every loose end has been tied up yet. We have some big names interested, a fabulous location, and between Louis’ dialogue and Harry’s romance, it could be something special. If!” She held up one finger. “You think you could handle working together.”

Reality settled in for the writers. Writing scripts within the Loving Heart framework was not rocket science, but it was a tall order to ask two solo writers to collaborate their styles in such a short amount of time. The payoff for such a risk, their film being featured in the Silver & Gold Showcase, would be more than worth most difficulties that could come from collaborating. As the two writers peered at each other, Celia continued.

“We here at Loving Heart have been watching your work closely for years. You’re both so incredibly talented and have done so well in your respective genres. We’re certain this partnership will be one for the ages. So? What do you two think?”

They didn’t hesitate to say, “Yes.”

. . .

After getting some paperwork from Celia—including their contracts, descriptions of each script’s needs and details, and a strict schedule of deadlines—they walked out of the Turtledove Building.

“Here you go.” Harry held out Louis’ mobile. They swapped iPhones. “Thanks.”

“Thank you.” Louis scrolled through Harry’s new contact, the right side of his lips rising upwards. “You even put your birthday.”

“I try to be thorough.”

Louis pocketed his phone. “Good to know.”

He dipped his head back, making small circles with his fingertips at the base of his hairline. His brain was once again talking itself into knots while trying to avoid making a joke about how he was glad he didn’t try to get Harry’s number in the lift, since this whole phone exchange was much easier. Then his brain reminded him that they now had to work together for months in order to achieve a level of professional success that he had not anticipated happening for years. Now was not the time to flirt, and a hookup needed to be the last thing on his mind.

Then he looked at Harry standing slightly slouched forward as he typed on his phone. The wind gently blew his Elvis curl. His lashes cast shadows on his dewy cheeks as he bit his bottom lip with rhythmic pulses.

Louis ran his fingers over the back of his neck. “So, uh, you knew my last name.”

Harry’s thumbs slowed as he finished typing something, and a smile curled his lips. “Uh...Yeah. I guess I’ve, erm,” he slid his phone into his front pocket, “caught a film of yours or something.”

“Huh. Small world.”

“Yeah,” Harry said, his voice shaking with a laugh. He slid black Wayfarers on. “Same for you, I’m guessing?”

“I saw your name on the sign-in sheet.”

Harry’s joy dimmed to slight embarrassment. “Oh. Right. Of course.”

“And I might have heard your name from other writers. Or seen a film of yours.” Louis smiled as Harry’s bashfulness deepened, though he seemed pleased despite his flushed cheeks. “I had to get you back for making me leg it this morning.”

Harry gently nudged Louis’ shoulder. “I was going to hold the doors no matter what.”

“Yeah, yeah. A likely story.”

“I’m...I’m happy that we met, though. And that we’re going to work together.”

“Yes. Right.” Louis nodded, squinting from the sun. Harry stepped to the side and his shadow covered Louis’ face. Louis relaxed. “It’s...going to be an interesting change for me, but I’m game if you are.”

“Totally. Totally game.”

“Do you want to get started tomorrow?”

“Sure. How do you usually write?”

Louis held out, “Uhh,” as he twirled his fingers in the back of his hair. He had to do some editing to avoid saying he usually wrote pantsless, stewing in his own filth, and in the middle of the night. “Alone. In my flat or maybe a cafe. With so much caffeine running through my veins that I’m just shy of being able to levitate.” Harry laughed loudly and caused his sunglasses to tilt half off his face. Louis smiled along with him. “What about you?”

“Erm, sort of the same. Hard to explain. I get a bit…” He weighed his head side to side. “Hermit-y?”

“Do you?” Louis asked, beyond interested. He crossed his arms over his chest. “Tell me more, please. That’s my normal style, but I didn’t want to spook you.”

“I dunno, I try to be good and try to have a schedule for writing, eating, the gym, all that. I’m good about research and notes and sketching things out. I usually am really good about deadlines. It’s just the way I get from A to B...there’s not really a good way to describe it. I just end up, like, forgetting to shower and wear real clothes and…” Harry’s mouth looked as if it was going numb, stretching in a smile but slowing his words with confusion rumpling his face. “Why am I telling you these things after we just signed a contract to work together for months?”

Louis laughed and bent forward, Harry’s raspy chuckles ruffling his hair. They stepped apart, still smiling. Harry dabbed beneath his nose as he calmed, and Louis pulled his jumper cuffs over his hands.

“I think we’re going to have to get used to each other and all our quirks,” Louis said. “Which is fine. We can do it.”

“Yes.” Harry nodded. “For sure. I feel....” He squinted. “Confident? In us?”

“Oh, thank God, so do I. I thought maybe I had gone into a seizure from all the lights blinking in Celia’s office and that was why I wasn’t panicking about doing everything in time.” Harry’s head dropped back as he laughed with his hand on his flat stomach. Louis chuckled, “C’mon, you know it’s true. You shat just a little when you found out we have to learn to collaborate, produce three successful scripts, and make a huge career leap in the span of a couple months.”

Harry dabbed under his eyes, still tittering small laughs. “No, you’re right, minus the shatting. I mostly wanted to stress eat the entire gingerbread house and take a nap under the Christmas tree in the corner of Celia’s office.” He sniffled as he smiled. “I’m laughing so much because you’re actually funny like some of your characters and it caught me off guard. I love it.” Louis’ smile went sideways, his head tilting as his eyes stung. Harry blinked quickly and cleared his throat. “We should probably set a pretty strict schedule. And notify our families that we’re basically going to be writing for a few months straight.”

“Yeah. For sure.”

“Do you like the cafe Sweet Noel’s?”

Recognition lit Louis’ face. “You know, I actually do. It’s one of the few places outside my flat that I actually write pretty well in.”

“I love that it’s twenty-four hours. And that they have lots of outlets and seats.”

“Great desserts, as well.”

Harry rubbed his chin. “Huh.”

“What?”

“Funny that we’ve never seen each other. I write there pretty regularly.”

“I’m a night owl.”

“Ah. I tend to work in the morning.”

“And there you go. Two ships passing in the night. Or morning.”

“Want to try it out there first? I figure the first couple of sessions we’re just going to be mapping out ideas. We won’t need tons of space or privacy.”

“Sure.” Amusement crinkled the skin beside Louis’ eyes. “Do you, like, splatter paint naked when you write or something?”

Harry chuckled, “No,” and half turned away as he fluffed his hair. “No, I meant, like—Like—”

“I know, I know what you mean. Sure. Noel’s sounds good. Noon tomorrow?”

“Noon will be perfect.”

. . .

Later that night, Harry was trying his best to clean his flat, but curiosity over their script assignments won out over dusting his bookshelves. He stretched his legs along his deep purple L-shaped sectional couch, dug his feet under a cream-coloured knit blanket, and grabbed the first pile of papers. As he read, he could see storylines growing like branches from a big oak tree. Unconventional settings, elaborate surprises, extended love scenes, and musical breaks. Then, as he read the parameters they needed to stay inside for each film, those branches would shrink; the leaves would drop off and the tree would turn to stone.

Working for Loving Heart was a writer’s dream. He was paid very well and, more importantly, very consistently. He was able to see his ideas play out in real life, something few writers would ever get to experience. He brought happiness to people who enjoyed his films. And he truly did love writing about love.

All of that sounded good on paper, but the lack of diversity allowed for his characters often made his job feel unbearable. Loving Heart had never featured a same-sex couple in one of their romances. Gay characters were sometimes alluded to, but never officially or outwardly gay. They never had their happy ending or their turn in the sun. He tried his best to push the limit, and sometimes was able to sneak a subplot in that was not exactly as Loving Heart requested, but the editors did what they did best: edit. Throw in the network’s desire to continue pleasing their religiously conservative base and he doubted he would be able to write a love story for someone like him unless he was writing for his personal collection.

Harry hummed and reread a passage.

SETTING NOTES: A snowy town that relies on a Christmas event for their yearly income (parade, market, etc). Sleigh is haunted or enchanted--See attached Budget for CGI limits. New Santa is needed. Male lead must be Santa.

“Male lead must be Santa,” Harry murmured. He picked up his iPhone and opened a text to Louis.

Did you see that we have to make Santa a romantic lead? I hope you have sleigh ideas.

He tossed his phone on the sofa and turned the page to the next script notes. Seconds later, his phone vibrated and rang against his thigh. His brows twitched inwards. He had never heard his phone make that noise before, a combination of new-wave synth and...bird noises? Was that really his ringtone? He looked at the screen, ready to send to voicemail, but paused.

“Oh.” He answered the call. “Hi?”

“I know, I know, the haunted sleigh sounds ridiculous, but I have some ideas already mapped out,” Louis said. “I like ghost stuff, and we can figure out a way to make it Christmas-y. The other one is more up your alley. We’ll be fine. Oh, and hi.”

“Oh. Okay. Is…” Harry pushed up to a seated position. “Is everything alright?”

“Uh, yeah,” Louis laughed slowly, sounding confused. “Why?”

“Well, you called.”

“You texted.”

“Yeah, because I was looking over the script and had a comment.”

“Right, and I read your comment and wanted to reply.”

Both went silent. Harry scanned around his living room with wide eyes as he tapped his toes on the couch. “Okay. Cool.”

“We’ll figure it out tomorrow,” Louis said as if there was no thirty second gap of awkward silence. “I’m not worried.”

“Right.” Harry bit the corner of his mouth, starting to smile. “Alright. G’nite, then.”

“Night, Harry.”

Harry placed his phone on the coffee table, then let his fingers drag over the smooth wood. He settled on his side and pulled his blanket up to his chest. He opened his laptop, clicked on Spotify, and searched for a song.

He wrote about people like Louis, but rarely met people in real life that he felt he immediately understood as well as his fictional creations. Characters who jump off the page and don’t seem real because they are so present and so vibrant you feel like you have known them forever. People who seem fully formed and so secure in themselves, no matter how awkward the current moment was. Unique, not weird. New, but not scary. They enter your life with the suddenness and volume of a television going on, but also ease in to fill the gaps like rainbow sprinkles being trickled into a jar of candy canes. Larger than life yet as down to Earth as the boy next door.

Blue Christmas played through his laptop speakers. He had to get into the Christmas spirit, after all. Harry pulled the knit blanket up to his neck and smiled, cuddling his chin against the material.

Chapter Text

Track: Carpenters - Christmas Waltz

Their first meeting of the minds was going well. Very well. It was going so well that they had outlined both stories, their character descriptions, and written the first two scenes of Script One. They learned that both used a paper notebook along with a laptop, wore glasses when typing for extended periods, and spent too much money on cafe drinks and snacks. Louis liked to step outside the cafe every hour or so. Harry had to take laptop breaks to do exercises due to soreness in his wrists.

Harry sat down and slid his chair closer to the table. “I got you a water.”

Louis looked up from his work, his laptop screen reflected on his crooked glasses. He glanced at the array of beverages Harry laid out. “Thanks. Why?”

“Because you’ve drunk nothing but coffee for eight hours and I’d rather not have my writing partner laid up in the hospital with kidney stones.”

“Fair enough.” Louis sipped his water. “I think I fixed the end of Scene III.”

Harry woke up his laptop, then scanned for a moment. He leaned closer in his seat. Louis continued sipping his water while he watched Harry read. Harry mouthed half words as he absentmindedly stretched his wrists, each bend causing a bit of tattoo to peek out from his cuffed sleeves.

 

BLAZE
I can’t, Emma. I just can’t. I...I don’t have it in me.

BLAZE leans over sleigh, his head dropped.
EMMA walks to BLAZE and extends hand, as if to touch him, but hesitates.

EMMA
Don’t...You don’t know that. Maybe if you spent some time here in town. Maybe the Christmas spirit will come to you, just like it came to your dad all those years ago.

BLAZE
I can’t talk about him. Not now. Maybe not...ever.

EMMA
I understand. I have an early shift at the candy shop tomorrow, so I’d better be going. Come by for something sweet. On the house, okay?

EMMA squeezes BLAZE’S shoulder.
BLAZE nods.

BLAZE
Night, EMMA.

EMMA
Sweet dreams.

EMMA exits barn.
BLAZE turns to look for her, but she is already gone. BLAZE walks to sleigh and pulls off a corner of the the covering. Overcome with emotion, BLAZE drops his head as a tear drips off his cheek. The tear drips onto the sleigh. BLAZE gives the sleigh one more pat, then replaces the covering and moves to lock the barn up for the night. BLAZE steps out of barn and pulls doors. Sleigh starts to light and tremble just as barn doors are pulled shut.

END SCENE

 

Louis could not control his growing smile as he watched the crinkles deepen beside Harry’s eyes, his lips still reading but moving more and more towards the wide open grin he made when he laughed properly. He poked his straw against the ice cubes in his water, then peeked up one second before that throaty, barked laugh shook their table. Harry smiled at him and sat back, placing his hands behind his head.

“That is some straight up Beauty and the Beast shit.”

“Hey, it works with the sleigh problem and if we make the spirits people, instead of talking creatures, it will cut down on the CGI requirements.”

“It does. It works. Is it the dad’s spirit in the sleigh?”

Louis narrowed his eyes and shielded his notebook. “You’ll just have to wait until the next scene, won’t you?” Harry snorted and Louis lowered his hand-shield. “But, yeah. It’s the dad. If you think that’s a good idea, of course.”

Harry rested his cheek on his palm. “That’s sweet. He’ll get to talk to his dad again after not getting to say goodbye in real life.”

“Sweet as the world famous White Christmas Fudge that Emma makes at the shop.” Louis checked his watch. “Wanna work on the opening of four, finish our drinks, then call it a night?”

“Works for me.”

. . .

Beginner’s luck ran out for the writing pair. Their second day in the cafe had gotten them nothing but a notebook of doodles (Harry) and a collection of frozen web browser tabs under the guise of research that caused their laptop to shut down (Louis). They barely made it through the next scene, and most of the material felt like filler. Day three found both struggling to focus on the plot. The second script seemed much more interesting than their haunted sleigh disaster. Day four, Louis had had enough.

“Pack up,” he said as he stood.

Harry peered curiously at him as he wrote in his notebook. “What?”

“Pack up your stuff.” Louis slipped his laptop into his messenger bag. “Let’s go for a walk.”

“We’re working.”

Louis leaned over and snatched Harry’s notebook. He sat back down then turned the book to face him. “You’re sketching your sister’s kitten.”

Harry swiped for his book. “I’m kitten-sitting Mittens right now. She’s relevant.” Louis smirked and leaned closer until Harry took his book back. Harry put his laptop and book in his rucksack. “Where are we walking?”

“Anywhere. A park. Back to your flat or mine.” Louis zipped his bag. “I don’t care.”

“I do have to pick up more cat food for Mittens.”

“There you go. We can multi-task.”

They walked for about an hour. Through a couple of parks, up a few alleys, even around a playground. Time flew by as they chatted, whether they were walking or sitting on a bench or popping into a corner store for cat food. Eventually, they made their way to Harry’s flat.

Harry stood with his shoulder holding the building’s door open. “C’mon. Come meet Mittens.”

Louis had one foot on the first step, but held onto the railing firmly. “You sure? I know the stress of having an unexpected guest. I totally understand if you don’t want me to come up because your place is gross.”

Harry smiled with a wrinkled nose. “My place isn’t gross. It’s not pristine, but I don’t think it’s that bad.”

“Alright, I guess.”

Harry held the door open for Louis to pass. “I’m sure you’ll tell me your honest opinion, either way.” Louis rolled his eyes and prodded Harry’s stomach, Harry snickering as he followed. They walked up one flight of stairs to reach the flat. Harry unlocked the door. “C’mon in.”

Louis walked inside as Harry turned on the lights. He saw Harry bend over to take off his boots and mirrored him, stepping on the backs of his trainers to step out of his shoes. His socks felt slippery on the hardwood floor. Harry placed his keys on a table beside the door.

“Can I take your coat?”

“Oh, uh, sure.” Louis put his bag on the ground and spun as Harry peeled off his coat. “Thanks.”

As Harry hung up his coat in a closet, Louis walked deeper into his large flat. He ran his hand over the top of the L-shaped couch, which took up most of the living room along with its plush matching coffee table. A rainbow of knit blankets were folded over the top or nestled in the crux of the sofa, along with mismatched throw pillows that somehow all worked with the deep purple couch fabric. It dominated the room like a black hole of coziness.

“Your place is really nice. Sweet couch set up.” Louis strode into the kitchen as if he owned the place, Harry watching him amusedly through the gap of the breakfast bar. “Nice big kitchen, too. Do you cook?”

Harry walked into the kitchen. “Not as much as I should. I like to cook, though.”

“I’m shit at cooking anything but eggs.” Louis stood on tiptoe and tilted a tray of small clay pots on a windowsill shelf. “Aw, poor plants.” He held the tray with both hands and faced Harry. He croaked, “Water us, Papa, water us.”

“I have enough trouble getting you to drink water.” Harry took his tray of potted plants from Louis. He replaced it on the windowsill. “I...admit that I need to work on my green thumb.”

“Where’s Mittens?”

“She tends to hide unless her food is out, and even then, she doesn’t eat if I’m around.” Harry took a can of salmon cat food out of a paper bag, frowning slightly. “I don’t think she likes me much.”

Louis chuckled. “She’s a kitten. She probably sees your big feet clomping through the flat and is terrified. She’ll come around.”

Harry popped the can open. “Want anything to drink?”

“I can get us water.” Louis poked through a cabinet, then went to the one beside it. He found glasses and pulled two down. He went into the refrigerator and took out a pitcher of water. “Wanna order dinner? Maybe Mittens wants some company while she eats.”

“Sure. I kind of want tacos.”

“Ugh. You’re reading my mind. Yes to tacos.” Louis tipped the pitcher into each glass, then walked across to the windowsill. Harry smiled with furrowed brows as Louis gave each little pot a blip of water. Louis glanced at him, his cheeks rosy. “Hey, fair is fair.” He placed the empty pitcher on the counter. “Can I use your toilet before we order? I should have peed before our walk.”

“Yeah, of course.” Harry wiped his hands on the front of his thighs. “I’ll show you.” Louis followed behind him as they walked through his living room. They moved down the hallways that led to his bedroom. “It’s in here.”

Louis stepped into Harry’s bedroom. It was a touch messier than the rest of the flat but not dirty. His bed housed a collection of dark fabrics and pillows, continuing the comfortable and cozy theme of the entire flat

“Oh, wow.” Louis ignored Harry standing beside his en suite door and walked to the opposite corner of the room. He paused beside a picture window and pressed a few keys on the piano resting up against the wall, its wood faded but the keys still smooth. He glanced at Harry over his shoulder. “Do you play?”

“Erm…” Harry tugged his duvet down over the bottom of his bed, hiding a bunch of sheets and socks. “A little. The previous owners didn’t want to take it with them, so I said I’d adopt it.”

“Nice.” Louis gently pressed Middle-C. The sound was brighter than a more expensive instrument, but had an old-timey quality that made him think of Westworld. He let his finger slide off the key. “The only thing the old owners of my flat left behind were weird cabbage smells in the closets.”

Both chuckled as Louis walked towards the en suite. Harry left him alone and went back into the kitchen. He scooped Mittens’ food into her small dish, knelt down, and placed it beside her water bowl. He went to the sink and pulled on a pair of pink rubber gloves. He soaped up a sponge then washed a few dishes and utensils. As he was drying his hands on a towel, he heard Louis coo, “Look who wanted to say hello,” and looked towards the hallway. Harry’s face felt split open from his sudden smile. Louis was cradling Mittens in his arms, gently rocking her like an infant while making quiet tutting noises with his tongue.

Louis walked up to Harry and smiled, then directed his attention back to the pure black kitten, save for her white paws, in his arms. “Say hi,” he whispered. “She’s so sweet.”

“Hi,” Harry whispered as he stroked between her tiny ears. “Where were you? I’ve been looking all over for you.” He and Louis’ fingers bumped as they doted on her. “Where was she?”

“I was weeing, saw your shower curtain move, thought it was the end for me, then Mittens slid out of the curtain and rubbed against my ankle. All while I continued weeing. I didn’t even get any on the seat.” They snuffled laughter as quietly as they could. He handed Mittens to Harry, whose eyes appeared to be wet. “I think she was hanging out on the heater by the tub.”

“Aw, were you cold?” He rubbed his mouth over the her downy fur. “I’m sorry, love.” He kissed her head. “I’m so sorry. I’ll pump up the heat.”

“She was probably just shy. Kittens can take a while to warm up.” Louis held his fist out, smiling while Mittens nudged his fingers with her wet pink nose. “I can order delivery on my phone, if you want. I think Mittens wants a cuddle with her uncle.”

“Yeah?” Harry answered in the same whispering, gentle tone, already moving towards the sofa. He didn’t even turn towards Louis to whisper, “I like carnitas.”

Louis watched Harry bend his long legs as he stepped onto the sofa, crumpled in the corner, and curled up with Mittens swaddled in his khaki-coloured jumper. He swallowed a laugh, instead smiling softly. “Noted.”

. . .


Track: Carpenters - Selections from ‘Nutcracker’ - Dance of the Sugarplum Fairies, 1:15 to 2:41

Louis felt something prod his nose. He sniffled and scrunched his face, rubbing his cheek against his pillow. The prod came again, this time aimed at his eyelid. Louis swiped his nose and pulled his blanket cocoon higher. There was a quiet mewling sound before needles attacked his face.

“Ow, fuck,” he hissed, cradling his nose. He opened his eyes and blinked blearily. He let out a breath. “Mittens.” He opened his cocoon and lifted the kitten, then placed her in his neck and covered them with the knit blanket. He settled down and shut his eyes, Mittens vibrating against his skin.

The little needles came again, this time digging into the tender flesh under his jawline. He sighed and pulled her out. “What is it, love?” He placed her on his thighs. Mittens walked down Louis’ blanket covered legs until she reached their feet tangled in the crux of the L, both men stretched on a length of the couch. She hopped onto Harry’s socked feet, sticking out from his own blanket, and stumbled up his long legs. Harry was sleeping on his stomach, snoring into a pillow clutched in his arms. Louis blinked and wiped the corner of his eye. He watched Mittens’ journey along the sofa as he reacquainted himself as to where he was.

Their takeaway containers and plates were scattered on the breakfast bar and coffee table. The television was playing infomercials, but Louis remembered Harry putting on an episode of Doctor Who in that vague way one remembers what was on before they dozed off. The warmth of Harry’s black hole sofa, plus his stomach full of tacos and beer, knocked him out.

He pushed his blanket down as he pulled his legs out. He stood, stretched backwards, and itched his stomach. He walked around the coffee table and scooped up Mittens from her spot perched on the back of Harry’s head. Harry hummed and muttered something into his pillow.

“What do you want?” Louis picked up her water bowl and walked into the kitchen, Mittens kneading her paws into his chest. He filled the bowl with fresh water. “I don’t know where Harry keeps your treats.”

He went back into the living room and placed the kitten on the floor with her bowl. Mittens licked at the water. He sat on his part of the couch, took his laptop off the coffee table, and opened it. He stretched his legs to prop his feet on the table and plopped his laptop on his lap. Their shared document for Script One stared at him. He sighed and looked towards Mittens.

The script was not his favourite, and he could tell Harry felt the same even after working together for such a short time. They would get past it, and they were already way ahead of schedule. He rarely felt totally connected to whatever scenario Loving Heart threw at him. It was still frustrating to be stuck in a rut, and he knew that both of them wanted to write a star of a script to get one step closer to The Showcase.

The ending was already planned and the bones were there (reluctant Santa becomes Santa to save the day, the parade happens, and the happy couple gets together), but the in-between bits were not coming easily. Something was snagging them when it came to giving the leads something to like about each other. There was no bonding agent, no shared issue or conflict, no magic. They were just two characters from a random fictional town obsessed with Christmas. He felt a yearning pang for his usual scripts that involved ghosts and spells and animals that could talk.

Quiet mewling broke him from his thoughts. He looked down at Mittens as she tried to climb onto the sofa. “Hi,” he whispered. He carefully lifted her to sit next to him and left his hand on top of her head, stroking between her ears. He read over the end of Scene Three in the barn. Louis murmured, “Barn. In the barn. On a farm. Farmer. Animals. Animals in the parade? Sleigh spirit with animals? Animal spirits?” He sat up straighter with his hands pulling his hair. “Fuck it. Harry?” Harry did not stir. Louis tossed a pillow at Harry’s head and Harry snorted, but did not move. Louis kicked at his feet. After a few seconds, Harry weakly kicked back at him. “Harry, get up.” Louis threw a pillow at his face. Harry exhaled a puffed, strangled sounding breath as the fabric made contact. “Get up.”

“What?” Harry lifted his upper body and jerked his gaze to Louis, the front of his hair standing straight up. “What? What’s wrong?”

“I think we should go absolutely ridiculous with the supernatural plot.” Louis typed so fast his laptop screen bounced. “Enchanted farm equipment, talking animals, the works.” Harry tried to follow the bounce and his head involuntarily moving in rhythm. “Get up. Let’s write. It can be like an exercise if it doesn’t work out, but we should try.”

Harry squinted as he licked his dry lips. “It’s, like, three in the morning.”

“Exactly. I’m a night owl.” Louis held out his arms. “Welcome to my Hell.”

“I never should have let you in my flat,” Harry grumbled as he rubbed his fist against his eye.

“Too late.” Louis wiggled deeper into the sofa. “And now I know you have tacos and nice blankets and a kitten. I might never leave.”

Harry snorted and held his hand out in front of Mittens. “Hello, love,” he said in a much sweeter, softer voice. She nuzzled his knuckles. “I’ll put the kettle on. Milk only, right?”

And that was how, hours later, they were able to dance around the living room in fresh morning sunlight while taking turns holding Mittens.

The script was done. Even though edits were needed and they would surely have to cut large chunks for time, the addition of friendly ghosts along with the sleigh made it that much easier to tie together both characters’ worlds, which became even more linked when they added the detail that they were from different social groups in high school. The popular vs unpopular student trope was done often, but it played a minor role compared to the supernatural elements. What was once a boring love story with a random haunted sleigh was now a Christmas fairy tale.

“Oh God, I’m so relieved.” Harry fell back on the sofa and sprawled his limbs. He smiled as Louis swayed with Mittens. “I can’t believe we actually got them to seem into each other. And figured out the magic part. I love that the whole town has spirits in all their small businesses. The ghost baker who decorates the gingerbread men overnight is my favourite.”

Louis smiled with Mittens’ face up against his cheek. “I told you I was good at ghost shit.”

“Yeah, you were right.”

“But you’re the one who added the sweetness, though, so it wasn’t all me.” Louis placed Mittens on Harry’s lap. “We did it together.” He flopped on his side of the sofa. “Which is more than I can say for our characters, as adorable at their closing snowy kiss is. Well done on that one. You could melt the heart of the Abominable Snowman.”

Harry chuckled and stretched his legs to the coffee table. “God, our poor characters. They must have the worst blue balls. All they get is a dry kiss in the last minute of the movie, then they flash forward and they’re married with a baby.”

“Seriously.” Louis rubbed his palm on the sofa. Mittens jumped towards the sound. “They miss all the best parts and fast forward to responsibility.”

“Well, the kissing can kind of be the best part, yeah?”

Louis furrowed his brows as he scratched Mitten’s tummy. “I mean, maybe? Ring me when Loving Heart decides to greenlight a blowjob in the last five minutes of the film.” Harry cackled so loudly he nearly fell off the sofa, Louis grinning and resting his folded arms behind his head. “Sorry, was that too vulgar?”

“No, not at all,” Harry said as he still tittered giggles. “God, I’m glad you said it. Sometimes I feel like I’m taking crazy pills. I’m not saying every movie needs to end with a hardcore sex scene, but it would be nice to imagine that our characters had a healthy sex life in addition to running a Christmas tree farm or bakery or whatever family business they inherited.”

“I think Emma and Blaze probably bone pretty regularly.”

“No,” Harry droned, rolling onto his stomach. He pushed his face into a pillow. “I don’t want to know.”

“They have a baby at the end! Your idea!”

“I know, I know, but I don’t know if I want to picture them,” Harry lowered his voice, “boning.”

Louis gently tossed Mittens into a pile of blanket. “Oh my God, are you seriously whispering boning? Not surprising, though. You think the kissing is the best part—”

“I’ve found that if you’re doing it right, it can be the best part,” Harry said over him. He sat up suddenly as Mittens pounced on Louis’ hand. “Shit, I didn’t even think to ask if you needed to get home to someone.”

“Someone who?”

“Like, a spouse or whatever. Someone at home.” Harry spoke quickly for once. He coughed into his fist. “I never even thought to ask. I didn’t mean to dominate your entire day. And night.”

Louis arched his brows, a slow smile halted by biting his bottom lip. “I’m single. I live alone.” He cradled Mittens to his chest. “Though now I’m considering getting a kitten. Mittens has me smitten, ha ha.”

“Please do. Then we can play with her when we work at your place.”

“And you?”

“I might get a kitten. I’ve read you should get two at once so they keep each other active, so maybe I’ll have to get two.”

Louis chuckled as he rolled onto his side. Mittens nuzzled against his stomach. “No, like…” He looked down at the kitten, rubbing her neck. He peered up at Harry from under his lashes. “Are you seeing anyone?”

“No, I’m not seeing anyone.” Harry scratched his elbow and looked away from Louis’ sleepy-eyed gaze. Quieter, he added, “S’been a while.”

“Same. Weird schedule. Weird job. Weird...me.”

“You’re preaching to the choir.”

“Ha.”

They glanced at each other. Their conversation subject matter translated to their faces, while both battled the ever present zing of chemistry they experienced from the moment they met in the lift. They froze while sporting uncertain smiles and awkward, held positions, then exhaled breathy laughter and stirred from the sofa. The tension was temporarily broken. Louis stood and ran his hand over the back of his neck, Harry folding his blanket. They gathered their laptops and notebooks into their respective bags.

“Bye bye, love,” Louis whispered against Mittens’ head. He kissed her, the kitten fast asleep. “See you soon.”

“Um, want to reconvene later to finalise our draft, then send it off?” Harry pulled his jumper collar over his nose. “I need a shower.”

Louis went towards his shoes. “I’ll say. I could tell this bout of writer’s block was having an impact on you based on my sense of smell alone.” He hopped out of the way of a renegade throw pillow, laughing, “I do, too. And sleep.”

“Wanna do dinner after? We can celebrate moving on to Script Two. I’ll try to cook.”

“Sure.” Louis pulled on a trainer. He tried to balance on one foot for his other shoe, his smile as crooked as his posture. “I think a day or so off might do us good, but I actually like the trope for Script Two. I’m excited to get going on it. Ex-boyfriend who left small town to become famous comes back. Falls back in love with their childhood crush.”

Harry took out his coat. “Me too.”

“I think we could make it really unique.”

“Me too.” Harry was unable to control the breathy laugh that came out as he spoke. He cleared his throat and handed him his coat, deepening his voice. “Should be good.”

Louis stood up straight and reached for his coat. Harry smirked and held the coat out, slipping one sleeve on Louis’ arm. As they went through the dance of helping someone put on a coat, Louis chuckled, “Such a gentleman.”

“I try.”

“I like working with you.”

Harry froze with his hands on Louis’ elbows. Louis peeked over his shoulder and found Harry was smiling, his green eyes darting rapidly back and forth as he stared at the ground. Harry slid his gaze up to meet Louis’ stare.

“Yeah,” Harry rasped quietly. “I do, too. A lot. It’s nice.”

One side of Louis’ lips rose higher than the other. He nodded. “It is.”

Chapter Text

Days later, they received an email saying that their edited draft had been accepted and would be sent to the cast. They convened at Noel’s to plan for Script Two, but planning took a backseat to chit chatting. It had been more than a day since they saw each other. There was lots to catch up on.

“That was...a bit easy,” Harry said with extreme care. Louis grinned and dunked his tea bag. “Do you think we did something wrong? We wrote that so fast, then the edit was so fast, then the acceptance was so fast. It feels like we took months but it’s only been a couple weeks.”

“I guess we’ll see when the cast reads it.” Louis plopped his tea bag on a small white plate. “Who knows what will pop up. And you know the rewrites for all three will probably happen at the same time, which will be a nightmare.”

“True. We should enjoy the quiet.” Harry glanced at his rucksack on the floor, the weight of his laptop leaning against his leg. “Do you want to start working?”

“Not particularly.”

Harry chuckled, Louis’ eyes crinkling at him as he sipped his tea. “Instead of working, do you want to watch the Mittens videos that were too big to send in a text?”

“Uh, yeah,” Louis said as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. He swung his chair around to Harry’s side and bumped into him. “Let’s see ‘em. I miss my girl. We can work tomorrow.”

. . .

“Harry, that part makes zero sense. None.”

“Why not?”

“Because not everyone has the same weird sense of humour as we do.”

Harry crossed his arms. “You laughed when I said it.”

“Yeah, because it was you,” Louis said, laughing despite his protest. Harry arched his brows as if his point was proven. “And it was funny in the situation.”

“The characters are literally doing exactly what we were doing: Eating burgers.”

“Yes, I know, and it was hilaaarious”— Louis held out the word and fluttered his lashes—“when I asked if you needed condiments and you said, ‘Compliments? Your hair looks nice today. Huh huh huh!’”

Harry grinned and when Louis started to smile, he pointed across the table. “See! You still think it’s funny!”

“It’s a dad joke. And I was wearing a beanie at the time.”

“The network is built on dad jokes.”

Louis sighed and checked his empty coffee cup. “I’m not going to win this, am I?”

Harry tapped his bottom lip. “I’ll...compromise.”

“Oh really? Do tell.”

“We can shelve that line if you can come up with something better.”

“What, now? On the spot?”

“No rush.” Harry went back to typing. “We can leave it as is, then revisit it another day.” He turned a page in his notebook and peeked across the table, nibbling his bottom lip. “Did you add your car research to the outline for the breakdown scene?”

“Nice change of subject. And yes, the research is in there.”

“Hey, I actually had another car question. Erm.” Harry flipped a few pages in his notebook. “Right. Do you know what happens when a frog’s car breaks down?”

“No,” Louis stated over the end of his sentence. He was already shaking his head, the corners of his mouth rebelling to rise. “Please, no.”

“It gets toad.”

“You’re never allowed in my flat again.”

. . .

Harry dug his thumb into the flesh at the crux of his palm and the underside of his wrist. He frowned at his laptop screen, alternating between massaging the spot and stretching his fingers backwards. He glanced up at the ceiling, then looked to the speakers beside the black television. A smile broke through his seriousness. He craned his neck to look towards Louis’ kitchen.

“Did you seriously put Christmas music on? You?”

“It’s the reason for the season,” Louis said before a cork popped. “Plus, some of the oldies are good, even if the thought of the holidays is already making me nauseous and we still have two scripts to go.”

Quietly, Harry murmured, “I love this song,” and bent his fingers back.

“You want anymore snacks?”

“Nah, I’m good, thanks.” Harry rubbed his stomach through his mustard yellow jumper, eyeing their empty platter of cheese, bread, and fruit. It was a nice dinner change from their usual takeout. He resumed his wrist stretches. “I can’t believe you have such a fancy flat. I am legitimately shocked.”

“It’s not fancy. And I’ve been doing nothing but writing for, like, ten years. Even if I travel, I still end up working. I’m lucky to have enough to live here, honestly.”

“Lucky and fancy. And in need of a holiday.”

Louis’ chuckle echoed around the kitchen, which Harry declared was a Property Brothers Paradise. “I just bought all the stuff from the staging company because I’m shit at picking fabrics and colours. I liked the overall tan and navy theme or whatever it’s called. It was a move of laziness. I’ve never even turned my oven on.”

“Still, I’m impressed. Your place is so lovely.”

“Don’t be. I have a cleaning lady. I’m spoiled.” Louis walked into the living room with a plate in one hand and a bottle in another. “If not for them, I’d probably let my dirty dishes build to a mountain and then throw out the dish mountain once a week.”

“That’s horrible,” Harry laughed.

Louis refilled Harry’s wine glass, then placed the plate of chocolate chip cookies on the coffee table. He left the bottle beside the cookie plate. “So, if the Alex character flies back in time for Christmas, what is he giving up in Hollywood?”

“Yeah, we have to make the loss more important. It’s not popping. Hm.” Harry tapped his fingers on his keys without actually pressing them down. “Not just a film premiere. Maybe an audition for a franchise or something?” He glanced absentmindedly at his glass on the table then followed Louis’ path to the sofa. “Oh, thanks. It’s such a good red.”

“Yeah, I like this one. It’s like drinking juice.” Louis sat down on the opposite end of the sofa and put his feet on the table. His black socks were pulled up over his ankles and made his loose black sweats look almost like genie trousers. He hauled his laptop up from the floor, his green Adidas sweatshirt riding up on the side of his softly rounded hip. “Maybe, but he’s supposed to be so famous. Will an audition really matter?”

Harry groaned while he sipped, then kept his lips inside his glass as he spoke. “I hate when either character has to sacrifice their career. I think that’s such bullshit. I won’t do it.”

“Agreed.” Louis propped his hands behind his head. “What do you want to do instead of this, since we’re clearly stumped?”

“Drink more and eat all of your special oranges.”

Louis grinned and reached for his glass. “Special oranges?”

“Yeah, ‘cause they’re those big Florida ones.”

“My mum’ll be pleased you like them. She always gets me a monthly subscription for Christmas but I never eat them.” He sipped his wine, then wiggled his bum into the cushions. “I miss your couch. Mine sucks.”

“I miss Mittens.”

“Aww. So do I. She’s such a doll.”

They sat in silence for a moment, listening to the music and staring straight ahead. No ideas magically appeared on their laptop screens. Their cursors remained stagnant, blinking in place. Harry deeply sang under his breath, “Silver bells,” and Louis answered, in the quietest of tones, “The corner Santa Claus…”

“Silver bells.”

“Is busy now because…”

They went back and forth, singing the duet of Silver Bells, and finished by singing, “Soon it will be Christmas Day,” in unison. Harry took the lower line while Louis sang the higher harmony.

The song changed. Both sighed and sipped their wine.

. . .

Louis felt his breathing slow at the same time as his eyes lulled. He knew he should change position on the sofa, or place his laptop on the table, but the sound of Harry’s fingers tapping against his laptop keys was strangely relaxing, and the warmth of the rainbow knit blanket on his legs made everything feel heavy. His arms went limp and his chin dipped towards his chest.

“Hey,” Harry said softly. Louis’ eyes popped open at the same time as Harry caught his laptop. Harry placed it on the coffee table. “You wanna call it a night?”

“No, I, uh,” Louis said as he yawned, widening his eyes, “I think I just need to snooze for a minute. Then I’ll be back up to work.”

“Okay. You want my bed?”

“Nah. I’m fine here.” Louis laid on his length of the sofa and pulled the rainbow blanket to his shoulders. He curled his feet into the blanket bottom before he straightened his legs. “Can I borrow a hoodie, though?”

“Sure.”

Louis shut his eyes, listening to Harry’s quiet, socked footsteps through the flat. The footsteps came closer and he felt a warm hand flatten on his shoulder.

“Hope the black Nike one is okay.”

He blinked up at Harry and reached for the offered sweatshirt. “Yeah, that’s perfect, thanks.” The right side of his lips rose in a smirk. “As long as you washed it since last time.”

Harry’s mouth twitched in a tight pout, though his eyes crinkled. “I told you not to take that one because I just wore it to the gym. You’re the one who didn’t listen.”

Louis pressed his face into the hoodie. “Oh, good. This isn’t armpit-scented today.”

“You’re so gross,” Harry laughed and flopped on the sofa.

"They were your pits.”

Harry placed his laptop on his thighs. “Go to sleep.”

Louis shrugged the shirt on. It was slightly too large for him, and the hood covered his eyes when he pulled it up. He tugged the strings tight enough to block most of his face besides his nose and mouth. He rolled onto his side with his back to Harry, pulled the rainbow blanket up, crossed his arms, and closed his eyes. The slightest hint of Harry’s soap, some sort of mix of lemongrass and pine, lingered on the neckline of the sweatshirt. He heard maybe twenty taps of Harry’s keyboard before that sleepy, warm, cozy feeling returned and pulled him into a smiling slumber.

. . .

“On the house.”

Harry looked up, startled, and pulled his headphones out. He chuckled breathily. “Oh, hey.” He accepted a plate of baked goods from Niall, the head barista at Noel’s. “What’s this?”

“On the house,” Niall repeated with a fond smile that crinkled his light eyes. He tapped Harry’s hanging earbud. “Is today a Carpenters day?”

Harry paused Spotify. “Isn’t every day?”

“Hah. Burning the midnight oil?”

“Yeah, sort of. Well”—he looked at his watch—“the noon oil. Louis’ the night owl, not me.”

“You got that right. I about fell over when I saw him in here before the sun had set. I was beginning to think he was a vampire that drank coffee instead of blood.” Harry snorted and pushed his glasses up into his hair as Niall straddled a chair backwards and leaned his chin on the top. “You look stressed. What’s wrong?”

Harry thumbed the corner of his eye. “We’ve been blocked for a couple days, so I’m just trying whatever I can to get things going. Exercises. Unrelated projects. It’s not working.”

“Where’s our favourite night owl?”

“Optometrist's appointment.” He bit into a cinnamon scone, then cradled his hand over his mouth as he spoke. “We said we’d take the day off, but I was bored at home and felt like I should at least try something to fix our slump.”

“You know the best way to get over a slump?”

“What?”

“Bone Louis.”

Harry’s lips pursed to respond, but his brows furrowed and he squinted slightly. He laughed out, “Wh-What?” and cradled crumbs that fell from his mouth. “Where the fuck did that come from?”

“You two are all giggly and smiley and simpatico whenever you’re in here together, doing your weird brain meld and communicating without talking and shit.” Niall thumbed towards the bar. “Me and the other staff have a bit of a pool going, and—”

“Wait, a pool? A pool for what?”

“A pool for when you two get together,” Niall explained, Harry’s eyes widening even further. “I mean, no pressure, mate. We’re just being silly.”

“Yeah, well—Well—” Harry dropped his glasses back to the bridge of his nose. “You’re right. It’s—Yes, that’s silly. We’re writing partners. That’s it.” He shrugged and offered a bored smile. “Sorry to disappoint your pool.”

“You sure about that?” Niall asked gently with his chin resting on his fist. His lips twitched upwards. “Like, suuure sure?”

“Yes. We work together well, and I…” His voice softened, his eyes dropping to his laptop for a moment. “I really enjoy that. I do. It’s nice to have someone like him to work with, because we get on so well. But we—We aren’t like that. We’re friends.”

“Did you ask him?”

Harry arched his brows. “Did I ask him to bone? No, I’m trying to stay professional until Script Three is done, thanks. And why do you two have this fascination with referring to sex as boning?”

“Ah ha!” Niall stood and pointed at him. “My bet in the pool is after Script Three is done! I knew it!”

“No, no, we’re not boning after Script Three!”

A group of teenagers at a nearby table cackled loudly, and Harry buried his head in his hands. Niall’s laugh was even louder than the teenagers’ and his shiny brown hair swayed when he threw his head back. Niall squeezed Harry’s shoulder.

“Sorry, mate. I didn’t mean to stress you out any more than you already are.”

“It’s okay.”

“I just think you’re so good for each other. I’ve seen you both at your most zombie-like. Neither of you were even close to that for Script One.”

“Yeah, well,” Harry said, unsure. He sighed. “We’ll see how zombie-like we get for the next two.”

A crowd of people surged into the cafe and Niall glanced their way. “I’d better get back to the bar.”

“Yeah, of course. Thanks again for the snacks.”

Niall smiled sunnily. “Any time. I’ll bring you a fresh cup when it slows down.”

“Actually, Ni?”

“Hmm?” Niall spun. “What’s up?”

“Can I ask you a weird question?”

“Is it about boning?”

“No.”

“Okay, what is it?”

“Do I…” Harry swallowed and glanced at the nearby teens. He cleared his throat gently, pulling his chair closer to the table. “Smell?”

“Like what?”

“Like, uh, a smell. Do I smell like a smell?”

Niall leaned down and sniffed twice near his hair, then once with his nose almost touching his chest. “I dunno, you smell like Harry to me.”

“Yeah, but is it a bad thing?”

“No, you just smell like, uh…” Niall tapped his chin and squinted at the ceiling. He snapped before pointing at Harry. “A lumberjack! You smell like a lumberjack. That’s it.”

“Lumberjacks probably smell bad.”

“No, not sweaty lumberjack. More outdoorsy. You smell like a pine tree, kinda. Like, fresh, but kinda peppery. Mossy? Is that a smell?”

Harry lifted the front of his shirt and smelled it. “I don’t know,” he said, bewildered. “I think so? I’ve never had any complaints before. Peppery and pine tree? None of the scents you just said make sense together.”

“You don’t smell bad, that’s all I meant. You just smell like a guy.”

“Maybe Louis—” Harry blinked up at Niall with his shirt still blocking half his face. Niall smirked slowly, tapping his foot on the ground. Harry released his shirt. “Nevermind.”

. . .

Louis peered around Noel’s as he waited in line. No sign of Harry. He zoned in on a table beside a window with two open outlets, one of their favourite writing spots. When they were in either of their apartments, they sprawled over sofas. In the cafe? Both preferred to sit totally upright in proper chairs.

“Hey. Sorry, I’m late. I was Facetiming with Mittens. Did you order?”

“No, not…” He trailed off while watching Harry search through his rucksack. Harry’s hair bounced, light glinting off the shiny strands, and his glasses dragged down the vee of his loose white button up. His sleeves were cuffed over his wrists, revealing the beginnings of a handful of simple black tattoos Louis had not yet managed to memorise. Suddenly, a too-cool, too-crisp, too-fake scent swirled up his nostrils. He squinted. “What’s that smell?”

“What smell?”

“That...Cologne smell. Is that you?” Louis sniffed near his neck and Harry swayed back. “Ugh, it is you. Were you in a club just now?”

“A club at ten in the morning? No.”

“You smell weird.”

Harry bit a pencil and continued searching. “You tell me that every day.”

“Yeah, but this is weird weird. Not just you weird.” He crossed his arms over his chest and stepped up a place. “It’s...weird.”

Harry’s lips twitched, causing his pencil to wobble. He took the pencil from his teeth and propped it behind his ear. He took his wallet out and zipped his bag. They stepped to the front of the line. “Maybe I felt like wearing cologne today. Changing it up.”

“You smell better without it.” Louis gaped at Harry’s slow smile and arched brows. He looked from Harry to the two baristas behind the counter. They were resting on their elbows with their faces propped on their fists. “Not, like, better as in good. You still smell. I just meant…” He braved a look at Harry, who had his hand over his mouth. His crinkled eyes gave him away, and Louis’ cheeks only burned warmer. “I…You…”

Harry suggested, “Want to order?” and itched the back of his hair, dropping his face as he smiled. “My treat today, since you got last time.”

“Yeah,” Louis said absently, brows furrowed. “Same. Same as usual.”

“We’ll start with our regular order, please,” Harry said to the baristas. One winked at him, while the other grinned and turned towards the espresso machine. The pair met eyes and Harry’s smile widened without his control, but he quickly looked at his wallet. “Nice weather today, yeah? Starting to get more like summer. I think July is going to be really warm this year.”

Louis snorted. “Are we really talking about the weather? What are we, one-hundred-and-five?”

“Would you rather talk about how you actually like the way I smell?”

They stared at each other, the espresso machine hissing while they were silent. Louis deliberately said, “Yeah, maybe we’ll get some sun this weekend.” Harry couldn’t muffle his snort.

. . .

“Okay, so if they’re outdoors, walking through a Christmas market,” Harry drawled, speaking slower as he circled a park bench, “they should have enough time to have a conversation that can hit all the re-intro bases. Hopefully.” He frowned at his iPad, scrolling with his index finger. “Do you want to take it from Page Sixteen? Maybe if we take it back we can get over the hump.”

“What?”

“Page Sixteen. The start of the market scene. You start.”

“Mmhmm.”

“Cool.” Harry waited, still walking in circles. “Whenever you’re ready.” As he wandered further from the bench, Louis did not say his first line. He paused, lowered his iPad, and peered at Louis over his sunglasses. His frown softened to pure amusement. “Are you...feeding the birds?”

Louis looked up guiltily, then chuckled under his breath. He lowered his gaze to the seat beside him on the bench. A handful of tiny brown and tan finches were perched on the wood. Louis dropped another pinch of bran muffin crumbs and the birds flitted around happily. “I’m sharing the wealth.”

“My writing partner is Doctor-bloody-Doolittle.”

“Oh, c’mon, how sweet are these guys?” He tossed some more crumbs on the grass and two of the tiny birds hopped up to sit on his knee. He had on baggy jean shorts and their tiny claws pinched his skin. Louis squawked, then pointed at the birds as he beamed. “Look at them!”

“Shh, hold still. Don’t spook them.” Harry crept closer with his iPad out, grinning so wide his cheeks ached. Louis smiled and folded his hands in his lap. He crossed his ankles, his feet bare and his shoes kicked off under the bench. The birds chirped and both men laughed, another bird hopping onto Louis’ shoulder. The slightly sunburned skin of his shoulder got the same claw pinches, his dove-grey vest slouching towards his collarbone. “This is the cutest.”

“Could you be more of a dad right now?”

“What?”

“With your iPad photography.”

Harry’s wobbly grin was revealed as he shifted the iPad to landscape. “Be quiet and put crumbs in your hand. I’m videoing.”

Louis cupped his hand and dropped some muffin bits into his palm. A bird flew down and perched on the fleshiest part near his thumb. He giggled at the camera, “Like this?”

“I can’t,” Harry said, zooming in. “First Mittens, now the birds. You’re like—”

“O-Oh. This one just...” Louis’ smile faded. Harry’s cackle rang out from behind the iPad. Louis looked at him in horror. “He just shit on my hand.” Harry fell to his knees clutching his stomach, his eyes scrunched shut and his head thrown back as belly laughter shook his entire body. He collapsed onto his side, hysterical on the grass, and Louis exclaimed, “He just shit on my hand!

“How do you know it’s a ‘he?’”

“Harry.”

“I have—I have hand sanitizer in my bag,” Harry said through his wheezing.

“Hand sanitizer? I need a shower!”

“The tiniest bird just shit on your hand. Relax.” His eyes sparkled. “Must have been all that bran.”

Louis set his jaw. “Real funny, dad.” He stood and strode towards Harry with his arm outstretched, Harry’s eyes widening as he scrambled to roll away. “Real, real funny.”

. . .

“So? Does it work?”

Louis stared at their script, nibbling his bottom lip. He glanced across the cafe table and looked back to his blinking cursor. Curiosity materialised on Harry’s face in the most endearing of ways, especially when he was tired and his hair was stuck up in strange tufts behind his glasses.

“It’s...It’s beautiful, Harry.”

“Yeah?” Harry asked softly.

“Yeah. I don’t…” Louis rubbed his lips, rough stubble catching under his palm. He scratched under his chin as he reread the last line of the scene. “I don’t even know how you thought of that. To connect the dots and bring back all the people at the Homecoming Dance for the Christmas Tree Lighting. Bringing in the school colours. Even having them wear clothes that look like the flashback. Then the end is just…” Louis widened his eyes but kept his gaze on his screen, pushing his glasses to the top of his head. “So weirdly romantic. Mistletoe gags are so overdone in these films but since she lives above a florist, it’s sweet. It’s sweet that she rushed from helping the florist to the party and didn’t realize she had it in her hair, and then he finds it while they’re recreating the Prom King and Queen dance.”

“It’s not too much?” Harry stretched his left hand back. “You saying it like that makes it sound a bit nutty. A bit too many things wrapped in one.”

“We can edit, but I like the scene so much.” Louis finally did look Harry in the eyes and both smiled, Harry dropping his gaze as he pulled his sleeves over his knuckles. “For once, I actually thought they were going to kiss before the end, and I wanted them to.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. For real.”

Harry exhaled an enormous breath before sagging in his chair. He stretched his arms over his head and arched enough to get his shoulder blades over the chair’s top. “Ugh.” Cracks popped as he bent back, and his black t-shirt rode up on his abs. “I’m glad that’s done. And we’re over the hump.”

Louis rattled his empty coffee cup, pointedly ignoring each inch of tanned softness and hint of a tattoo that Harry revealed as he stretched. “Yeah, because you’re a romance wizard.”

“I dunno about that.”

“Seriously. I could probably throw three words at you and you’d be able to make it into the most romantic shit of all time. We are going to bang out the rest of this in no time, I’m sure of it.”

Harry laughed, rubbing his palms against his eyes. “I don’t know why I think of the things I do. It just happens.” He plucked his pencil from behind his ear. “I can’t control it. My brain just...wanders.”

“Did you write poetry when you were a kid? Were you one of those obnoxious types?”

Harry grinned as he wrote, his dimple popping. An Elvis curl fell over his forehead. “No. Songs, actually, not poetry.” Harry tapped his pencil on his notebook. “Though I guess they could be the same.”

“Songs?”

“Mmhmm.”

“Didn’t you study creative writing or lit?”

“No. Music.”

Louis’ confusion and rumpled face grew as he watched Harry calmly write in his notebook. Finally, Louis chuckled,“What?”

“I got into this hoping to eventually work for the music department.”

Louis wrinkled his nose. “The music department?”

“Yeah, like, scoring films.”

“Music?”

Harry glanced at him, amused. “Are you having a seizure? Yes, music.”

Louis squinted at him for another long moment. “So, you do music? Like, you’re a musician?”

“Sometimes.” Harry smiled. “Used to be. Or, rather, used to want to be.”

“Then how’d you get into writing romance films?”

“I got a last minute gig as an intern for John Saint Vaughn, who was a head writer, and he said I had a knack for romance whenever he was stumped. So, he put me up for an assistant writing gig, I kept getting bigger assignments, became one of the lead writers, and here we are.”

“But what about your music?”

Harry underlined something in his notebook with his other hand still on his laptop keyboard. He didn’t look up to ask, “What about it?” as a car passed by the window and illuminated his profile.

“Do you still do it?”

“I mean, I still sing all the time.”

“I know. My favourite new song is your jingle when someone cuts you off driving.”

Harry looked up from his work, his uneven smirk coloured by a hint of guilt. “You said you wouldn’t judge me for my uncontrollable car cursing. I warned you.”

Louis held his palms out. “No judgement. The fact that you’re not a bloody cherub twenty-four hours a day is a bit of a relief.”

“I’m not a cherub,” Harry chuckled, shaking his head. “So silly.”

“Plus, I legitimately have been singing your song to myself all day every day, even when I’m walking.”

Together they whisper-sang, “Piece of shit person in a piece of shit car,” to a swinging tune that resembled Mary Had A Little Lamb.

Louis ran his hands back and fluffed his hair skyhigh. “I love that it doesn’t even matter what kind of car it is, new or old, you declare it a piece of shit.”

“It’s more an expression than a description.” Harry swayed his pencil between his fingers like a drumstick. “An expression of the action of cutting someone off.”

“Ah.” Louis nodded sagely and dunked his teabag. “I see, Mister Artiste.”

They quieted and went back to working. Louis typed on his laptop while Harry sketched a room’s layout. After a few minutes, Harry asked, “Did you put the updated outline in?”

“Yep. Check the doc.”

Harry switched to his laptop and opened their Word Document. He could see Louis typing location research with his purple cursor following the words. Harry scrolled up to the outline and found the scene he was trying to sketch. He glanced at his notebook, then to the laptop. He couldn’t help but notice Louis peering at him. Harry arched his brows.

“What?”

“Have you asked them if you can do music in your scripts?”

“Um...” Harry tapped his eraser against his notebook. “Sort of? Not really. Once I started getting such major writing projects, I stopped asking about openings in music. I love to write, so it works for me either way.”

“Well, how about for this one, we make the characters music related?”

Harry put down his pencil. “What do you mean?”

“Right now the home character is a dance teacher and the famous old friend is an actor. Why can’t we make it that the home character is a music teacher? The famous old friend could be in a band or could be a solo singer or whatever. Or just keep him an actor. Then you could maybe write some music into it. Music you compose. It’s early enough for us to make a change.”

“Are you…” Harry squinted as he smiled. “Are you serious?”

“Yeah, sure, why not? If Celia’s okay with it, I think it’d be lovely.”

“But this is your project, too. It doesn’t have to be about me.”

“Harry, if you don’t want to write a song—”

“No, no, I can totally figure something out.”

“Maybe it can just be a song they sang when they were younger,” Louis suggested. “Like a lullaby or something catchy and Christmas-y.”

“And they both sing it together when they’re reconciling after their years apart,” Harry said faster, getting more excited as Louis smiled wider. “And maybe they sing it again, with a little orchestra of students, at the impromptu talent show performance they do at the teacher’s elementary school when the star returns to town to say they want to commit.”

“And then they kiss. Boom. Done.” Louis brushed his hands together. “Aren’t we smart?” He held Harry’s starry-eyed stare for a beat before he dropped his gaze to his cup. “I’m out. Gonna get something creamy and sugary this time.” Louis stood as he took his wallet out. “You need anything? My treat, Mozart.”

Harry’s cheeks dimpled and his eyes twinkled even brighter. “No, I’m good, thanks.”

“Cool. Be right back.”

Harry watched Louis wind between the tables to get to the register. He waited until Louis was engrossed in the menu before he placed his hands on his keyboard. He stared at his blinking orange cursor. He started to type.

ACT I, SCENE III
SETTING: THE CAFE, NIGHT
MUSIC: (THEY LONG TO BE) CLOSE TO YOU - CARPENTERS

(LOUIS WALKS TO THE BAR)

LIGHTS: DREAM SEQ, SOFT PINKS

HARRY

Every day we work together, I’m so happy that I have the chance to get to know you. To be around you. That I can learn about you and everything that makes you tick in the most stunning way. Every time my phone rings and it's you, even with that horrible ringtone you set, I feel weak when I realise I’ll get to hear your voice. And I don’t know if there is a god or gods or big-G God or whatever, but I feel like my prayers have been answered every time I see your face, even if I didn’t know I was praying. I wish I had the guts of half my characters. I wish I could tell you how I feel without fucking up what a good thing we have going with our writing. I wish that I could tell you how long I’ve been waiting to find someone like you. To find you. And even though sometimes it’s so hard to not just burst into song or blurt out how fast I’m falling for you, I have to hope that maybe, somehow, one dayyyyh

Harry glanced up as Louis approached their table. He smiled calmly with their gazes locked while he highlighted his entire addition. He hit backspace, went to their tracking log, and deleted any evidence that the orange cursor had ever typed those words or imagined that scene.

“I got you a piece of gingerbread loaf,” Louis tossed a paper bag on Harry’s lap then dropped into his chair. He placed his new coffee cup on the table. “It’s still warm. Smells good, and I don’t even like gingerbread.”

Harry’s face tightened as if he was stung ever so slowly by a bee, but the light of his laptop screen masked any strange shadows. “Thanks. Thank you.” He fingered the paper bag’s edge and some of his tension evaporated. “That was thoughtful of you. That you remembered I like it here.”

Louis bit into a white chocolate cake pop. “Did you add anything?” he asked, his words muffled by sweetness.

Harry didn’t move a muscle as people bustled around their table, steamed milk hissed in the distance, and Louis enjoyed his cake pop. He looked at his blinking orange cursor, then back to Louis. He shook his head, his smile lopsided. “Nope. Nothing new.”

Chapter Text

Harry opened a new iMessage and typed.

Cafe or one of our places tomorrow?

He put his phone down on his bed and stared at the screen. He counted, “Three, two, one.” His phone rang. They had only worked together a couple of weeks, but Louis’ preference to call over texting whenever possible was one of his favourite new tidbits about the mystery writer. He picked it up. “Hey.”

“I dunno, I’m kind of getting sick of smelling like the cafe when we leave every day.”

Louis also had the habit of forgoing a greeting and preferred to jump into conversation as if they had been already talking for an hour. Another detail.

“Yeah, I get it.” Harry looked around his flat and bit his bottom lip. His gaze fell on a lonely mop that was gathering a layer of dust propped between his refrigerator and the wall. “Um, so one of our places? Which one?”

“Wanna come to mine? Based on your unique ensemble today, I’m going to guess your flat isn’t guest ready.”

“Excuse me, my velvet trousers are the most comfortable I own.” Harry grinned as he heard Louis snickering through the phone. “My place is fine. I just have to straighten up. And I have the couch.”

“True. Done. See you tomorrow.”

. . .

The next day, Louis stood outside Harry’s door. He lifted his fist, but paused before knocking. He heard music. Was it their ever growing Christmas mix that both had been using while writing in the cafe? He leaned closer and put his ear on the door. A smile stretched across his face.

Harry’s voice was quiet but it carried clearly over the sound of his delicate piano playing. Each chord was soft as he played with the casual ease of someone with complete control over their instrument. Harry had mentioned that he had an idea for a Christmas song that sounded almost like a church hymn, simple and easy to remember. From what he heard through the door, Harry’s song sounded like a hybrid of Silent Night and It Came Upon A Midnight Clear. Gentle, tender, and bright.

The music stopped suddenly and his tune was replaced by the high wail of a kettle. He heard Harry running across the apartment, then stepped back from the door and knocked.

“S’open,” Harry called.

Louis stepped inside and locked the door. “Hey.”

“Hey.” Harry leaned over the breakfast bar, already smiling wide enough for his dimples to show. “Make yourself comfortable. Tea is almost ready.”

“Nice.”

Louis moved to the living room, which was becoming more and more like a quicksand pit every time he came to Harry’s flat. The couch was just so comfortable with so many seating possibilities and so many cozy blankets. He never wanted to leave when they were settled in. What more could he want in the world than writing, blankets, and Harry?

Louis bumped into the arm of the sofa and dropped his bag when the last item snuck onto his mental list. The bag clattered to the floor, and he hurried to bend over to pick up his collection of colourful pens.

“What are you doing?” Harry chuckled.

“Nothing.” Louis hauled his laptop out of its bag while still on his knees, blowing his hair off his forehead. “I’m good.” He sat on his regular side of the couch and placed his laptop on his thighs. “Did you bake cookies?”

“Yeah. Chocolate chip. I forgot I froze dough at Christmas. I think it’ll still taste okay.”

“Smells really good.”

Harry walked between Louis’ shins and the upholstered coffee table to grab his phone from the couch. He bent over and the simple motion set off a symphony of images that slowed Louis’ typing as he watched. Harry’s white tee puffed up to reveal the curve of his lower back. The front of his shirt hitched enough to see his lower stomach, flat and with definition but soft enough for small crinkles to form over his abs. His pale blue jeans hung off his rounded hips, and a hint of black boxer briefs peeked out the top. The delicate black tattoos on his forearms shifted with the tiny motions each muscle made while he composed a text. Louis curled his fingers into fists as he pressed his wrists to the edge of his laptop. Harry dropped his phone, then rounded the coffee table.

“Guess what?” Harry said over his shoulder.

Louis typed three fast keystrokes. “What?”

“You owe me a story.”

“About what?”

“Yesterday I told you how I got into writing, but you didn’t tell me how you did.”

Louis didn’t look away from his screen. “And?”

“I’m curious.”

“It’s really not that interesting.”

“Aw, c’mon, Lou.” Harry carried their mugs in one hand with the cookie plate in his other. He held out Louis’ mug. “Please?”

Louis sighed and took his mug. “I promise, it’s not nearly as good as your background.”

“My background has nothing to do with it.” Harry bent his leg and sat on it, resting his mug on his thigh. “Did you study?”

“I actually studied computer science.”

Harry’s eyes widened over the horizon of his white mug. “Seriously?”

“Yeah.”

“How…” Harry furrowed his brows. “Why?”

“I like science, I like computers.” Louis shrugged. “Seemed natural.”

“But you’re a writer.”

“I’m not naturally creative, like you are.”

“This isn’t about me, so don’t try to change the subject,” Harry said, waggling his finger.

Louis smiled as he sipped his tea. “I did computers for a bit, but I didn’t love it. I got really bored, and when I was bored I started creating scenes in my head. Then I would write them out, just to pass the time at work. I started submitting my mysteries to random publishers, mostly short story contests for extra cash, and it snowballed.”

“How’d you get into screenwriting?”

“One of my stories got picked up by Loving Heart and they set me up with one of their writers, who gave me a crash course. I took a few classes, as well.”

“You are absolutely a creative type. Most people don’t see characters the way you do. The fact that you’re good at science is even more impressive.” Harry pulled both legs up on the couch. “I could see you as a computer guy, but I also can’t see you as a computer guy.” Both laughed quietly. “You know what I mean?”

“When life was shit, I could take out my frustrations about my awful landlord or dick of a boss by making them into wacky little characters in my stories.”

“Your minor roles are always so funny.”

Louis rubbed his flushed cheek. “I dunno about that.”

“Was Gus from the one about the haunted cemetery a real person?”

“Yeah,” Louis admitted and Harry laughed delightedly. “He was my downstairs neighbour a few years back. A real character.”

“I loved him. He was so spooky and had the most ridiculous lines, but then there was the twist that he actually was helping the spirits communicate with the living because of his connection with his deceased wife. He became my favourite.”

“When you describe the plot like that, I wonder how I even come up with ninety-nine percent of the lines I write. I sound like a lunatic.”

Harry laughed again and rolled onto his stomach on his part of the L. He put his mug on the coffee table. “Nah, you aren’t a lunatic. Your characters always have something real to weigh them down.”

“Sometimes too much.”

“Like what?”

“Like…” Louis held out the word and grinned. “Did you ever see the one I wrote called The Town Between Time?”

Harry squinted and thought for a moment. “Umm...About the town that is revealed to be a parallel universe during an eclipse?”

“Yeah. So, you know how at the end the scientist figures out a way to stop time on the town border so he and the colonial school teacher could be together?”

“Mmhmm.” Harry’s eyes sagged with dreamy warmth. He crossed his ankles behind his head. “That was such a nice ending.”

“Want to know what my original ending was?”

“Sure. What was it?”

Louis’ lips twitched, but he clamped down and deepened his voice. “My original idea was that everyone was already dead and in purgatory, and that’s why the two leads could never be together.”

Harry’s face sank like a stone. Any hint of dreamy softness melted like someone swiped the clouds from the sky. “Wh-What? Everyone dead?”

Louis couldn’t hold his laughter any longer and rolled onto his back, clutching his stomach. “Oh my God, your face! It’s like I told you Santa isn’t real.”

“What is wrong with you?” Harry started laughing despite his horror. “Everyone dead!? Why would you ever think Loving Heart would go for it?”

“I knew they wouldn’t, but I had to send it off just to get the hysterical notes in reply. And boy oh boy, they were hysterical.”

“You’re so full of it. That ending never would have worked.”

“Why?” Louis chuckled, dabbing tears from his eyes.

“You would never leave one of your romances unfinished on a sad note.”

“I don’t write romance. I write mystery and ghost stories.”

“You sure about that? ‘Cause all your mysteries end with romance winning.”

“I write mysteries.”

Harry’s smile grew even more mischievous, the crinkles beside his eyes deepening. “You write romantic mysteries.” He slowly swayed his black-socked feet behind his head as Louis scoffed. “You know it’s true.”

“It’s not.”

“The key to unlocking the haunted bookcase in your last movie was for the two neighbours to fall in love.”

“It was not,” Louis insisted over him, fighting a smile, Harry’s laughter bouncing around the room. “They had to work together to solve the puzzle that happened to have pieces in both of their homes.”

Harry held his arms out. “They fell in love!”

“But that was unrelated to the mystery of the bookcase.”

“Their love is what awakened the ancient heart spirit in the bookcase and made it so the house wasn’t haunted anymore. You wrote that yourself!”

“Alright, alright,” Louis groused through his giggles, waving his hand in front of his face. “I know, I know. I get it.”

“I think it’s sweet.”

“What?”

“That you got into writing for mystery as a way to get away from the world, but that you always have your version of romance underneath. It makes sense why your films are so popular with a niche market.”

“A niche market?” Louis asked with arched brows. “You make me sound much fancier than I am, love.”

“Oh, love. I’ve had tea with Linda, your cleaning lady. I know you’re not fancy.”

“Shut up,” Louis laughed, kicking towards Harry’s head. “And I can’t believe you even watched The Haunted Library. I liked writing it, but I didn’t think anyone else would. I’m shocked when people even have a favourite of mine. They’re all so weird.”

“My favourite of yours is the one with the bed and breakfast owner and the real estate lawyer.”

Magic at The Teapot Inn?”

“Yes! That’s the one. It was so endearing. And the leads were actually really charismatic together.”

Louis groaned and pulled a pillow over his face. “Don’t even remind me.”

“I know.”

“No, don’t you mean…” Louis lifted his pillow. “I knowwwuh?” he said with his voice going up at the end. Harry started laughing quietly, the sofa jumping from his stomach’s bumping. “I suppose we can’t win them all.”

The higher-ups must have liked their first script. Other than a couple of corrections and changes that had to be made for logistics, Celia loved their draft and sent it down the line. Before they knew it, they were being asked to attend a table reading with the chosen actors for The Spirited Sleigh. Unfortunately, their Emma had a habit of lifting her voice at the end of every phrase, whether it was a question or not. Their Blake had the personality of cardboard. Fortunately, the reading was near a pub. They got drunk, performed their own reading for their taxi driver, and passed out on Harry’s couch.

“I hope the rumour about Liam is true for Script Three,” Harry said as he propped a pillow under his cheek.

“Me too. I was so happy when he messaged me.”

Oooh, Liam Payne messaged you.”

“Shut. Up.” Louis laughed and kicked towards him again. Harry giggled with half his face hidden by pillow. “He’s a friend because he’s been in a couple of my films. That’s it.”

“I could see you with someone like Liam, though.”

“Like Liam?” Louis laughed, shocked. “Are you joking?”

“What’s wrong with Liam? Handsome, kind, enough of a star to make a living but fly under the radar.”

Louis wrinkled his nose. “Nah. I’ve never felt even an inkling of anything romantic towards him, just friendship. And, hey, you should talk. You’re the one friends with international pop star,” he fluttered his lashes, “Zaaaayn.

Now it was Harry’s turn to blush. “I told you, we studied music together.”

“Yeah, yeah, a likely story.”

Harry smiled and squeezed his pillow. “Life doesn't usually imitate art, in my experience.”

“Same.” Louis sipped his tea and watched Harry reach for a cookie. He looked from his outstretched hand to the plate, which was closer to his side of the table. “You’re going to have to get up to get one.”

“No.” Harry’s voice was tight with effort. He dug his toes between the cushions and reached further. His fingertips brushed an inch away. “Almost.” Louis nudged the plate just out of Harry’s reach. “Dick!”

Louis snickered and sat up. He pushed the plate across the table. “Here you are.”

“Thank you.” Harry bit into a cookie. “I should take a new OkCupid picture just like this.” He shoved the rest into his mouth and sprawled on his back. Louis burst out laughing as Harry did his best bathing suit calendar pose with chocolate smeared on his mouth and his cheeks puffy. “Charming, yeah?”

“Very,” Louis chuckled, breaking into his own cookie. “You do those apps and stuff?”

Harry swallowed a gulp of tea. “Eh. I go through phases. I haven’t done it in a couple of years. It’s so depressing that I can only handle it for so long.”

“Depressing?” Louis’ brows furrowed. “For you?”

“Yeah, why?”

“I’m just shocked. You seem built for that, all charismatic and artsy.”

“I’m not a good dater. It makes me anxious and I never feel like I actually am myself.” He licked the pad of his thumb. “I like being in a relationship, which no one really wants anymore.”

“That’s not true. At all. Who do you think is our main audience?”

“No guys I meet want a serious relationship as badly as I do.” Harry rubbed the back of his hand on his mouth for any lingering chocolate, then braved a nervous glance to Louis. Louis offered him a small smile, his eyes twinkling in a way they usually did when they agreed on which way a plot point should go. “Um…I don’t mean badly. I just meant…”

“It’s okay. I get what you meant.”

“Why are you single, then?”

“Umm....I’m sort of similar to you. I hate dating. Makes me feel like shit. And half the time I feel like I’ll never really work long-term with anyone. Ever.” Louis tapped his lips. “I basically just want someone to watch telly with and make out, like, twice a week or something.”

“How romantic.”

Louis slowly grinned. “I don’t fucking know, Harry. I never seem to be with someone long enough to even reach, like, you know. That phase.”

“The romance phase? Usually people blow all their romance energy in the first few months.”

“It’s not romance, it’s a closeness. A comfort. I never date anyone long enough to be so comfortable that we just sit around looking like shit. Or talk about boring stuff.”

Harry cackled and rubbed his eyes. “You want to sit around and look like shit together? That’s your dream relationship?”

“Shut up,” Louis giggled. He pulled a blanket up his legs. “You don’t get it.”

“No, I...I think I actually do.”

“Oh yeah?”

“Yeah. You crave the mundane, because mundane means trust. It means real. It’s one thing to...” Harry unconsciously hugged the pillow in his arms tighter. “It’s one thing to be in the beginning of a relationship where you’re trying so hard to be impressive and exciting. It’s another to just...be. Just be together. To not have to ask to borrow sweats, you just borrow them. To know what your partner smells like after you’re camping for days and don’t have a shower, and it’s a little gross, but there’s an acceptance. To pick up on annoying habits that are still annoying, but you kind of love them more for it. To kiss them after they’ve worked all day and it tastes like old coffee, but you like it anyway because it's their weird, sticky taste.” He tucked his chin on top of his pillow. “I think people in relationships take it for granted that all the things they grow tired of, all the mundane things, are what some single people crave.”

Louis blinked, tilting his head. “Yes,” he said slowly. “Yes, that’s what I mean.” He rubbed his palms over his blanket. “Sounds like you have some experience in this department.”

Harry snorted with no humour. “Nah. I wish. A few tries, but never the real thing.”

“At least you try. I gave up a while back.” Louis pressed his lips together, staring down at his hands. Writing progress? Nope. Bone-deep relationship therapy session? Yep. His frown deepened and he jerked his hand side to side. “Not, like, gave up. Not fully, I think. And not, uh…”

“It’s okay,” Harry echoed softly. “I get what you mean.”

Louis glanced at him. “And anyone who wouldn’t want a relationship with you is mad. It’s not you.”

“Well,” Harry held out, narrowing his eyes while smiling, “it’s kind of me, too. Though you’re sweet to say that. I know people who think like me. We’re an annoying type.”

“Says who?”

“What?”

“Who said that to you?”

Harry’s smile dimmed. It took him an extra couple of seconds to ask, “What do you mean?”

“Someone clearly said something you did was annoying, or something about you was annoying, and it stuck with you.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Harry said quietly.

“Yes, it does, because you’re not annoying,” Louis laughed. “Not at all. And it’s wrong that someone made you feel that way.”

“I think I mask my annoying-ness well.”

“What, with your stunning sense of style?”

“Hey,” Harry drawled, grinning. “You like my jumpers, you said.”

“I’ve spent hours of pretty much every day with you for two months. Other than your quest to be a good citizen of the Earth, obsession with hydration, and uncanny ability to make any situation vomit-worthy with how genuine you are about everything, I have yet to see any annoying quality that should scare someone away. Whoever that ex was that made you feel inferior, fuck them.”

Harry laughed, “I mean I’m annoying, like, the characters who think like me. The characters in my films.”

Louis propped his hand behind his neck. “I actually think you do a good job when it comes to writing relatable characters who aren’t obsessed with Christmas or a wedding or whatever.”

Harry popped up. “Hey, if people want to get super pumped for Christmas or their wedding, they’re allowed to. I personally think eloping is the way to go, but not everyone is me.”

“Yeah, but the way the movies we make portray those events—as if anyone’s life should truly revolve around one day, like a wedding or a holiday parade—it’s not realistic. If your wedding is the greatest day of your life, that sounds kind of shit to me. It should be the start, not the peak.” Harry nodded, but said nothing. Louis raised his brows. “What?”

“S’Just…” He smiled with closed lips. “You’ve sort of just described why a lot of my relationships fail. All, actually.”

“You’re obsessed with Christmas parades?”

“No,” Harry laughed and threw a pillow at him. “No, I meant that I...I tend to have my head in the clouds a bit. My expectations and, I guess, desires are usually so much different, so much more, than anyone I’ve been involved with. And I get it. I get that my expectations are too high for a potential partner or spouse or whatever.”

Louis squeezed a throw pillow with his knees, and his lips curved downwards. “That doesn’t sound right. Why should you lower your expectations?”

“Because I’m unrealistic. I know I am. I’ve worked on it and tried to grow up, tried to be more responsible with my finances, tried to be better about going over the top when I’m dating someone. Things like that. The overwhelming, extra ridiculous stuff. The peaks. Why do you think they paired us together? Your scripts tend to be a bit too realistic and scary for Loving Heart. Mine tend to be over the top love-fests with no basis in reality.” Both laughed, Louis lobbing the throw pillow back at Harry. “It’s a balance thing.”

“Ah ha,” Louis said as his laughter calmed. He swiped his hair out of his eyes. “So that’s why you write the most beautiful love stories.” Harry blinked, his smile warming the entire room. Louis’ mouth clammed up. “I mean—”

“Excuse me, Louis.” Harry crawled towards him on his hands and knees, Louis pushing himself backwards with his socked feet and scrambling to grip the sofa arm. “You say that as if you’ve seen more than one of my movies and have a noted favourite.”

“I was just being polite to make you feel better for—for—” Louis started to laugh before Harry reached him. Harry crawled up Louis’ legs even as Louis kicked. Their clothing got bunched up in the play-struggle, half of Harry’s stomach exposed and Louis’ trousers stuck on his right knee. “I was just trying to make you feel better for spilling your guts.” Harry launched himself onto Louis for the final push. “Get off! You fucking—” Louis squirmed under Harry as he belly-laughed and spasmed, Harry squeezing his ribs and wiggling his fingers gently. His eyes fell shut for a split second, Harry’s warm, firm weight holding him in place. When was the last time he experienced the sensory overload of someone straddling him and pinning him down? His face pressed against Harry’s neck, his spicy, earthy scent especially strong, and he clenched his eyes tighter. Louis swallowed a gulp of air between rib squeezes and yanked Harry’s hair. “Ugh, you stink even worse than usual today.”

Harry lifted himself up and pressed his palms to Louis’ sides. Louis tugged his hair again and Harry grinned, biting his bottom lip. “Come on,” he droned, giggling, soothingly rubbing instead of squeezing. “Tell me. Please? It’s only fair. I told you my favourite of yours.”

“I don’t have a favourite,” Louis sniffed, though he couldn’t hide his smile.

“Liar.”

Louis said, “Alright, alright! I’ll tell!” on a barrage of gunfire giggles and arched from Harry’s gentle squeezes. Harry grinned, rolling onto his side so that he was only half on top of Louis. His arms remained loosely encircled around Louis’ waist, both sharing the same pillow. “The, uh…The airplane one. Love in the Clouds.”

Harry squinted, but didn’t break their gaze. “That one?”

“You seem disappointed.”

“No, not disappointed. Not at all. I love that one, I just didn’t think anyone really liked it, even Loving Heart. It’s hardly ever repeated.”

“I think because it’s a bit darker than your usual stuff. Your characters worked real jobs. They weren’t loaded. They stressed about money. You even included a near parent death, which was a shock for anything on Loving Heart, let alone one of your marshmallow-fests.” Louis wet his lips, dropping his eyes to the small space between them. “Were you…” He considered his words. “When you wrote it, what type of mindframe were you in?”

“Um…I, uh…I had just broken up with someone. So...not good,” he chuckled, and Louis smiled at him with soft eyes. Louis lifted his hand towards Harry’s hair, Harry’s gaze following the motion, but he stilled and curled his fist, tucking his arm against his own chest, avoiding Harry’s stare. “No ghosts or dead towns, though, so I’m sure it was nothing for your usual dark fare.”

“Yeah, but you made them sad at the beginning.” Harry’s smile faded slightly but he didn’t look away. “They genuinely felt like real people who were lonely, not fake lonely like usual. They worked together, but it was different from the usual dynamic. I loved that you flipped the script and made Max the small business owner and Rosie the pilot. She was especially interesting. I’ve never related to a heroine more in one of Loving Heart’s offerings. I loved them together.”

“I was lucky with the actors. They were amazing together and seemed to really get it. They’re both super nice people in real life.”

“They worked because you actually wrote real people, and when they got together it was that much more beautiful because the viewer wanted them to work.”

Harry blushed and laughed quietly, scratching under his jawline. “I think you’re the only one who feels that way. Well, you and me. My next few scripts were straight up sugar, as per Celia’s gentle direction.”

“It’s fun talking writing with you.”

Harry looked at him and tried to focus on his eyes, but struggled not to study each freckle and bit of stubble at such a close distance. Louis didn’t seem to have that problem, calmness radiating from his wide-open, honest expression. “Yeah.” He dropped his gaze. “It is. I don’t usually talk like this with anyone.”

“Same.”

“I think I’m meant for that sugar life, though.” He smirked, crooked and slow. “Sorry to disappoint my one dark fan.”

“Why do you say that?”

“I’ve tried asking for projects with a bit more bite, but keep getting turned down.”

“I’ve tried to get them to let me write a gay couple and I could probably wallpaper a room with all my rejection emails.”

Harry’s eyes widened. “Are you serious?”

“Yeah, why?”

“I’ve been asking for years, years, to let me write two men or two women. Begging them. They don’t understand how big of a thing it would be for so many people if they stepped into this century.”

“Looks like we’ll just have to write our own private script, hm?”

As the words left Louis’ mouth, his brain held up its brainy hands in defeat as if to say, ‘That’s on you, bro.’ He tried to avoid saying things that could be read as flirting with Harry. He wanted to remain professional. He truly did. He nearly gave himself a coronary on the daily trying not to flirt with Harry, who was like a magnet for every playful thought he had in his head with his silly smiles and puns and support and warmth.

But this time—with Harry’s earthy, spicy scent invading his senses and his glowing skin close enough to touch and his warm breath sweetly puffing from his soft, pink mouth—Louis had fallen into his own trap. Blame it on loneliness, blame it on physical closeness, blame it on hormones, blame it on Cupid. Harry slowly smiled, crinkling the skin beside his eyes and revealing his dimple, and Louis blurted out, “I-I cried at the end. Of your movie.”

Harry’s lips parted and his eyes resembled the way a cartoon doe’s face changed right before tears gathered on their lower eyelid. “Oh.”

Louis swallowed dryly then broke their stare. “It was just really beautiful. They seemed like such a match and...It was just two lonely people brought together who fell in love.”

Softer, Harry repeated, “Oh.”

“I think I was also drunk when I caught it on telly,” Louis said with a grumble in his voice. “And I only cried a little. Like, barely. I was probably too drunk or something.”

The right side of Harry’s smile curved higher than the left. “Okay.”

“Alright, back to work,” Louis said with a gentle push against Harry’s chest. He propped himself up on one elbow. “We’re this close to finishing Two, I can feel it.”

Harry snorted and flopped his feet to the floor. He stood, stretching his arms high. “I hope we’re done by the weekend. I could use a day off.”

Louis held Harry’s nearest hip. “O-Oh, shit, Harry, you can have a day off. You can have as many days off as you want,” he said quickly. Harry looked from his touch to Louis’ face, curiosity brightening his amusement. Louis dropped his hand. “I don’t mean to be too harsh with the schedule.”

“No, no,” Harry soothed, shaking his head. “I like our schedule the way it is. It’s the way I write by myself, so doing it together is perfectly fine.”

“Okay.” Louis narrowed his eyes. “You sure? You can have days off. We will work it out no matter what.”

“It’s just that my mum’s birthday is soon, and I wanted to take her to this tea thing. Spend the day with her. It’d be nice to have the whole day, that’s all I meant.”

“Oh, at the Garden Museum?”

Harry handed him his laptop. “You’ve heard of it?”

“Mmm. My mum forwarded me an email about it ages ago and I, uh,” he scratched the back of his head, guilt colouring his smile, “never got around to researching it.”

“You should take your mum while the weather is still nice! Fancy tea parties are built for mums.”

“I think my dad is actually more into it. He was a big Downton fan.”

Harry squawked as he smiled. “That’s so bloody sweet I don’t even know what to say.” He turned towards his part of the sofa, then added, “No wonder you’re such a romantic.” He laughed and batted a throw pillow away from his bum. “I knew you would do that.” He collapsed onto his folded leg. “I don’t even know if there are spots left.” He picked up his laptop. “I’ll have to see.”

Louis typed for a moment, gaze darting over his screen to peek at Harry. “We… We could take our parents together, if you’d like. Then we’d both be taking a day off, instead of splitting up.” He turned his laptop. “They have space on Saturday afternoon.”

“Yeah?” Harry asked, his voice breathy with excitement. “Is that…” He furrowed his brows, but maintained his smile. “Are you okay with that? Is that weird for us to hang out together with our parents?”

“No, I think it could be fun. My dad will probably eat all the little sandwiches,” both laughed, “but we could always order double.”

Harry pressed his lips together, still smiling, and nodded. “Alright. Let’s do it. Our script will be done by Friday night and then we can relax Saturday.”

“Alright.” Louis tapped his trackpad. “Order placed. Now we just have to finish Script Two.”

“Yes. But, first”—Harry clicked on Spotify—“a Fleetwood break.”

Louis groaned and slouched behind his laptop. “You and your dance breaks.”

“We need to stretch.” Harry placed his laptop on the sofa. “C’mon. You know you love it.”

“No.”

Harry swayed his hips side to side to Rhiannon, swirling his hands towards Louis. “You know it’ll make your back feel better. And I can tell you’re not really writing anything. You have a distinct typing pressure and cadence.”

“Alright, alright,” Louis relented, smiling up at him. He placed his computer on the coffee table and stood. He bounced from foot to foot and shook his arms like a football player before a match. “I’m up.”

“I wonder how many Fleetwood breaks we’ll have before we finish Script Two?”

“How many albums do they have?”

Harry laughed and stepped closer. They bobbed their heads as they did a lazy version of The Twist, their socks sliding soundlessy with each toe dig.

. . .

That Saturday, the weather took a turn for the worst. Even though it was late summer and London weather could be difficult, it was rare for it to be so bitingly cold so early before autumn. The cold snap made their garden tea idea sound less than ideal. However, their parents’ joy about being invited for a day out with their sons, who had not slept for approximately forty-three hours in order to submit Script Two and Harry’s original Christmas lullaby, made the tea party in an uninsulated greenhouse worth it.

“Just think, this environment will help us get into the wintery mindset for Script Three.”

Louis stared at him with a teacup clasped in his mittened hand. “Harry, my teeth are bloody chattering.”

“Shh, shh,” Harry hushed as he laughed, sitting up straighter. “They’re coming back from the gift shop.” He held his arm out and his mum, Grace, nestled to his side. Her hair and eyes were a near match for his, though his height was from his father’s side. They squeezed each other as Louis’ mum, Hope, settled beside her son. “Find anything you like?”

“Maybe. Never too early to start for the holidays, though you two must be Christmas shopping experts by now. All this holiday cheer.” Grace picked up her cup and simply held it, her eyes fluttering shut. “Bless this hot tea.”

“Where’s Dad?”

“Both of the dads are looking at some antique car parked in the front.”

“They’re crazy,” Hope said as she squeezed Louis’ hand. She bumped shoulders with him. “I almost bought you a decorative Monet Water Lilies throw.” They shared a smile, and Harry found himself spellbound. Hope beamed the same way Louis beamed, right down to the crinkled eyes. “You’re lucky Harry had an extra pair of mittens.”

“I’ve learned that he’s cold basically all the time,” Harry said. Grace and Hope chuckled, both holding their tea cups as their gazes darted from son to son. “It’s best to be prepared.”

“I’m so relieved that the famous Harry who my son has been spending all his time with is you. I’m impressed. It was like pulling teeth to get him to wear a jacket when he was little, let alone mittens.” Harry’s smile widened as he ran his hand through his hair. He glanced at Louis, who gave him a discreet eye roll, though his face was softened by amusement. “Don’t you agree, Gracie?”

“Absolutely. Harry is always so private when he writes. Then, all of a sudden, it’s,” Grace swayed her tea cup side to side, “Louis this and Louis that and Louis—”

“Mum,” Harry laughed breathily, squinting as discreetly as he could. A quick look to Louis, who was smirking with his brows arched, told him his effort at discretion failed. “But...Yes. It’s been a different experience working with a partner. Different good.”

Grace flattened her hand on top of Louis’ mitten. “I knit those for Harry years ago. I’ll make you a pair and bring them the next time we all get together.”

Louis’ grin faded in size, but its warmth only increased. “Oh, you…” He looked from her hand to her smiling face, so reminiscent of Harry’s smile. “You’re so kind, you don’t have to.”

She squeezed his hand. “I insist. Blue to match your eyes, maybe? Grey might look nice, as well.”

“Ooh, I like the idea of the blue,” Hope said.

“That’s...That would be lovely, thanks.” Louis’ cheeks burned, and he felt even warmer when he met eyes with Harry. “I don’t usually like carrying all the gear around. You know, coats, gloves, scarves.” He swirled his wrist and the sharp gesture was lessened by a pillowy knit white mitten that was too big for his hand. “I hate feeling puffy. These are so light, though. I really like them.”

“You like big jumpers, though,” Harry pointed out.

Louis crossed his leg towards him. “Yeah, because a jumper is built in. It’s an item of clothing. It’s not an additional.”

“It is when you layer one of mine on top of yours, then swaddle yourself in blankets.”

“Are you really one to talk? Have you seen your flat? You would carry a blanket in a tote bag everywhere you went if it were socially acceptable.”

“I would carry a blanket in a tote bag right at this very moment. Who cares about socially acceptable?” Louis laughed with his head thrown back and Harry grinned. “I think a tote blanket would be quite handy right now, don’t you?”

“Very true. You’ve got me there.”

“It’s like watching one of their films,” Grace whispered to Hope as the boys chattered. They clinked their tea cups. “We ought to send a gift basket to Celia.”

Chapter Text

Days after their successful meeting of the parents, Louis woke to the sound of someone unlocking his flat. He glanced over his shoulder to the bedroom door. The sound of dishes being loaded into his dishwasher carried from the kitchen. He relaxed as he exhaled, then flattened on his stomach. “Linda,” he murmured. He rested with his eyes shut for a moment, then slapped for his phone on the bedside table. He checked the screen. “It’s Tuesday.” He contemplated dozing for a few more minutes, but decided a shower was in order. After he showered, he pulled on soft sweats and a hoodie, then joined her in the living room. “Hey.” He ruffled his wet hair. “Forgot which day it was.”

She turned off the vacuum. “Oh, I hope I didn’t wake you! I figured you and Harry would be up and working. When no one was here, I thought I was alone.”

“Nah, we’re between projects. We’ve been doing rewrites for the first two project remotely, sending emails to each other. I think he was visiting a friend. We’re still waiting for the details of our third assignment.” He padded into the kitchen. “Tea?”

“Sure, thanks.”

As she vacuumed, Louis prepared their mugs and put a plate of shortbread cookies on the living room table. Linda rolled her supplies to the door, then joined him. She shook her head with a good-natured eye roll as she adjusted her sunny yellow headband. Her high bun of greying auburn hair swayed.

“You couldn’t wait but a moment before you dirtied another dish, hmm?”

He laughed with his hand over his cookie-filled mouth. “Sorry?”

“Don’t be, love. Dishes are meant to be dirtied. That’s what make the world go round.”

“Very wise.” He took another cookie and munched for a moment as she made her cookie pick. “It’s funny.”

She sat back in her brown leather armchair, a cookie cradled in her hand. “What’s that, love? The world?”

“It’s funny that you asked about Harry. You’ve only met him a few times.”

“He’s a kind, sweet soul, dear. They are few and far between.”

“His parents are equally sweet. Their whole family must have sugar running in their veins.”

Her eyes widened as she sipped her tea. “Oh, how was that? The meeting of the parents?”

“It was...great.” Louis bit his cookie, then looked down at his lap. “It was fun, actually. They got on so well. I think our parents already had dinner together, without us, and I can’t stop playing Words With Friends with his mum and dad.”

“How lovely. It’s always such a relief when the families get along.”

“Get along for what?”

“I only mean it will make things easier in the future. In-law relationships can be a tricky thing.”

“In-laws?” Louis laughed loudly, and he spasmed so much that tea sloshed onto his wrist. He glanced at the burning liquid and brushed his wrist on his sweatpants. “We’re writing partners, that’s it. And friends. But writing partners, for now.” She opened her mouth as if to speak, but he blurted out, “I don’t mean to say that as if I think something will happen in the future, I just meant that we are currently writing partners and also becoming better friends. Good friends. We get along so well. But just writing partners. As of, uh, now.” He blew a breath through his rounded lips, nodding to himself. “Just friends.”

“Oh, sweet boy,” she said with her teacup poised. She smiled kindly. “Whatever you say.”

. . .

Harry leaned his forehead against a grocery store shelf. His eyes fell shut as he listened to someone’s shopping trolley wheels squeak in the next aisle. He took a breath in and flattened his hand on his stomach, just breathing for a moment. He swallowed the swollen lump in his throat and grasped the first box of plain crackers his hand landed on.

“Harry?”

In his effort to look over his shoulder, his entire body lulled. His back banged against the shelf and Louis reached out.

“Hey,” Louis said softly, concern flattening his features. Harry’s face was sallow, bags dark under his unfocused eyes and a clammy sweat dampening the dip of his throat. The mid-September weather had gotten colder; Harry should not have looked as flushed as he did. His clothing, usually so unique and put together in his own artistic way, seemed to sag on his bones, as if he had pulled on whatever he could find. He held Harry’s shoulders to keep him upright. “Jesus, what’s wrong?”

“Noth-noth—” He turned his head and shielded his nose with his forearm, sneezing loud enough and with enough force to knock a box of crackers off its shelf. He sniffled and peered at Louis, his entire face sagging. “Sorry. Nothing.”

Louis bent for the fallen box. “You’re ill.”

“I’m fine.”

“You’re buying crackers. Why? Are you nauseous? Have you been vomiting? You look like you’ve not been eating. Your colour is off.”

“I’m fine.” Harry gripped his crackers to his chest and lurched towards the register. Louis put the other box back on the shelf. “What are you doing in here?”

“I didn’t have time for breakfast because of this ridiculous last-minute summoning, so I came in to get us those bird seed granola bars you like. Figured you’d be in the same boat.”

“That was thoughtful of you.” Harry handed cash to the attendant and took his crackers. He murmured, “Thank you,” as he took his change. He swallowed again. “We should go.”

“You sound like shit.”

“I feel like shit.”

They left the store and walked around the corner, then paused in front of the Turtledove Building. Harry leaned against a light post with his fist to his lips, his cheeks ruddy and bulging outwards. Louis took his cracker box and opened the top. Harry took out a single cracker.

“Why did you say we could meet with Celia?”

Harry took the smallest of bites. “Because she made it sound important for Script Three.”

“You’re ill.” Louis flattened his palm on Harry’s forehead. Harry’s lashes fluttered and he leaned into his touch. “You have a fever. You shouldn’t be out in the cold like this. Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I didn’t want to be a bother.”

Even though Harry was the ill one, pain splashed over Louis’ face. “Harry, you are never, ever a bother. Ever.”

“I’m fine. It’s the tail end of whatever I’ve got. I’ll be better in a day or so.”

“Doesn’t seem like it.”

“I just want to get this over with.”

“And what if she says we have to deliver Script Three in a week, hmm?”

“We’ll get it done.”

“If you’re healthy? Sure, we can push through and not sleep and get it done. But you’re poorly. You need to go back to bed. You’re allowed to tell her you need more time. You’re allowed to take care of yourself. We’ve already been pushing ourselves so hard.”

“You don’t know that she’s going to do that.”

“She absolutely will. Why else would we be called in today?”

“I’m not messing this up for us just because I have a cold.”

“Harry, I think you have the flu. You need to rest. Forget Script Three.”

“It’s fine,” Harry insisted.

“I have no problem telling Celia we should cancel today.”

“I’m already up and about. Let’s push through this, then I can go back to bed.”

“And if she says we have to work on the script immediately? Can I please try to guide her in another direction?”

“Guide away,” Harry said as another wave of nausea hit him. Louis’s arm wrapped around the small of his back. Harry exhaled a yoga breath and rested his palms on his thighs with his head dropped. Before Louis could speak, Harry insisted, “I’m fine.”

“Harry.”

“You shaved.”

Louis blinked. “What?”

Harry stood upright, and Louis’ hand slipped from his waist. “You shaved.”

“Oh, uh, yeah.” Louis rubbed his chin. “I forgot.”

“Looks nice. Beard’s nice, too, but you look good clean shaven. You’re lucky you can work both.”

Louis’ lips quirked. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you with such stubble.” Louis pinched his cheek and Harry smiled, tilting his face away. “Well, such an attempt at stubble.”

“I’ve been...lazy.”

“My nose can tell.”

“Shut up,” Harry laughed, nudging his cheek against Louis’ fingers. “I showered today.”

“Yeah, yeah, a likely story. Alright. Enough chit chat.” He squeezed Harry’s shoulder. “Let’s go. We can leave your crackers with Nicholas. You have tea and blankets calling your name at home. Hopefully this will be quick.”

They rode the lift with Harry leaning his weight against Louis. When the lift reached the second floor, Louis wrapped his hand over the top of Harry’s hand. Their hands remained together until the fifteenth floor, when Harry thumbed the vee of Louis’ hand. Neither said a word, Louis watching the numbers rise while Harry rested his head on his shoulder with his eyes closed.

They walked down the hall and into Suite 15A. Tara, the receptionist, was already standing at her desk while digging through an enormous cardboard box. She looked up at the sound of footsteps, a nutcracker in either hand.

“Oh, hey,” she said, sounding more stressed than usual. “You can go on in. She’s ready for you.” She dropped the nutcrackers into a box, then glanced at Harry, horrified. “Are you…” She looked at Louis, who gave her a tiny shake of his head. She refocused on Harry, who was blowing his nose into a tissue like an out of tune trumpeter. “I’ll, uh, bring some tea in right away. Let me know if you need anything else.”

“Thank you,” Harry said as he walked. Louis caught his arm and he swayed forward and back. He blinked, slow and hazy. “What? What’s up?”

“You were about to destroy Santa.”

Harry’s gaze went even foggier. “What?”

Louis guided him around a large cardboard box on the floor with a paper mache Santa head inside, and kept his gentle grip on his forearm. “Santa.”

“Ah, sorry.” Tara pulled the box out of their way. “We’re prepping for the holiday party and I’m in decoration Hell right now.”

“Looks like it,” Louis said. He knocked on Celia’s door and she called, “Come in!”

They went inside. Celia smiled wide but held up one finger, her phone balanced between her ear and shoulder. “That sounds perfect. Tell the girls we can celebrate later. I can’t wait. How exciting!”

Harry ignored her phone chatting and focused on finding his seat, remaining upright, and not emptying his stomach on Celia’s potted poinsettia. The sound of a children’s choir singing Carol of the Bells was not exactly the background music he desired when he felt as if his head was going to explode. Harry gripped the arm of his assigned chair and lowered himself. He looked from Louis’ hand, gently clutching his shoulder, up Louis’ arm to reach his face. He found that Louis was still tense with concern.

“Here you are,” Tara said, placing two cups of tea on the small table between their chairs.

“Thanks so much,” Louis said. Tara offered them a sympathetic smile and left the office as Celia wrapped up her call. He glanced at Harry as he sipped, then whispered, “Alright?”

Harry sniffled and put on a weak smile, nodding. “I’m okay.”

“So sorry for the delay,” Celia said as she peered at her phone with her glasses on the very tip of her nose. She tapped the screen. “My girls were selected for a special dance team they had to audition for and we’re all aflutter, making dinner plans to celebrate and such.” She placed her phone in a desk drawer and sat down. “So! We have lots to talk about.” Louis and Harry glanced at each other, then to Celia. “Before we speak about Script Three, I have a quick, but exciting, update for you, Louis.”

Louis arched his eyebrows. “Oh?”

“Do you mind, Harry? I figured it would be easier than calling you in separately.”

Harry shook his head. “Not at all. I understand.”

“We’ve decided to produce a sequel for The Haunted Library.”

“Really?” Louis laughed, then quieted. “That’s...That’s so cool. Wow. I’m truly shocked.”

“That’s amazing,” Harry said softly. They smiled at each other. “Congratulations.”

Celia clicked her mouse and scrolled through a calendar. “We’d like to have it shot and filmed in time for Thanksgiving.”

Louis’ happiness dimmed, and he blinked slower. Harry’s eyes narrowed as he counted numbers in his head, and Louis tilted his head as he stared at Celia. “Thanksgiving? When will it be shot, end of October?”

“Yes. The overall energy of your original piece was so holiday oriented, but not quite Christmas. Having it premiere the weekend of American Thanksgiving will be a perfect fit. We’ve already gotten the talent signed on. Everyone jumped at the chance to come back to your world. You should be so proud!”

“Yes, I’m excited, for sure. I’m just unsure about deadlines. If that script will be due at the start of October, when are we supposed to work on Script Three?”

She clicked her mouse and smiled calmly. “We’ll need that in ten days.” Louis and Harry stared at her as if she slipped into a different language. “Oh, and the original location in Colorado is out, so you’ll have to switch up a few of the plot points, just a few little plot points, but it’s nothing major.” She took off her glasses, still smiling. “Surely that will be no problem for you two, yes? You’ve been working together like a dream.”

Harry sneezed and sounded in pain as he blocked his nose with a tissue. Louis looked at him, then ran his hand through his hair and crossed his leg. He squinted at Celia.

“Ten days?”

“Just think, you’ll be done with your last work together right before our holiday gala! Then you can relax and enjoy the evening. Have you signed up for Secret Santa yet? Make sure you pick your slips when you leave.”

“No, we haven’t signed up. I didn’t even realise there was a party,” Louis said distractedly. “I’m more concerned with the deadline.”

“Concerned?”

“It will be tough to meet.”

Celia blinked, confused. “What?”

Louis looked to Harry, who sat staring at his clasped hands, his skin clammy and grey. He quietly cleared his throat. When Harry looked at him he arched his gaze towards Celia. Harry still said nothing, only shifting in his seat and looking down at his lap. Louis waited one more second, then faced Celia. “We’re already fielding rewrites for Script Two. To add another completely new work with a deadline of only ten days will be near impossible. We’d have to work over twelve hours a day and, even then, it would depend on when inspiration struck. If we could have, say, three weeks for Script Three, even two weeks, I promise it would not interfere with my ability to get the other sequel done on time.”

“We already have an incredibly tight shooting schedule, Louis,” Celia said on a shocked chuckle. “If you don’t think you can deliver Script Three on time, please tell me now. We would have to seek other writers up for the challenge. It’s understandable, seeing as this is your first year writing for the holiday series. Perhaps the sequel is not the best idea, either, if you’re feeling so overwhelmed.”

Louis’ jawline set and he clenched his fist against his outer thigh, his body bobbing ever so slightly as if he was ready to hit the ceiling. Harry’s gaze took in each physical clue of his frustration, his stomach churning. “It’s not about being up to the challenge,” Louis said, deeper than usual. “It’s not about us or our ability to produce. Harry and I have worked together perfectly and we’ve submitted all scripts on time. It’s about reality, time management, and our quality of life. Could we possibly have an extra—”

“I think we’ll be fine,” Harry quietly interrupted.

The office became both stuffy and chilled during a pause. “Harry,” Louis said, careful and low. He willed his voice to remain even, but he could feel flames roaring behind his eyes.

Harry clasped his hands tighter. “We can meet the deadline.” He looked to Louis and swallowed. “We can do it.”

Louis’ jawline flickered and he gave the smallest shake of his head. His lips were pursed in a tight, angry line. Harry dropped his gaze, but Louis’ stare burned holes in the side of his head. The office was silent, painfully so, for half a minute. Nobody moved, save for Louis’ hammering pulse and Harry’s involuntary shivers.

Celia stood from her desk and clapped. “Lovely! I knew we could count on you two. I’ll email you some more details later. And don’t forget to enter our Secret Santa!”

Louis stood without sparing Harry a glance. “I’ll see myself out.”

Harry gaped at Louis’ back, then looked to his boss, illness swirling even more ferociously in his gut. Despite Celia’s desire to get the script she needed, sympathy seemed to crease her face as she frowned. Harry hurried to stand and said, “Uh, thank you. We’ll be in touch.”

Louis pushed Celia’s double-doors open and was met by a loud pop of air. “What the fuck?” He shielded his face and cowered, then peered up through his fingers. Gold and silver star confetti fell from the sky. “What the hell is this?”

“O-Oh, shit,” Tara’s said, wide-eyed. She clutched a busted, extra-large Christmas popper to her chest. “You startled me. I didn’t think you’d be out so quickly. I’m so sorry!”

Harry caught up to him. He peered at the stars that slowly fluttered onto Louis, and his steps went wonky as if he himself was a confetti star swirling in circles. “Um, hey, I...What is...” He focused on Louis. “Can we talk—”

Louis stepped away from Harry’s warm hand on his back. “See you soon, Tara.”

She said, “Uh…” and looked from Louis to Harry. She held up a snowman basket. “Secret Santa?”

They took a slip of paper on their way out with Louis in front and Harry trailing behind. They went down the long hallway and ended up in the lift. Louis hit the ground floor button and stood in the corner with his arms crossed. Harry stood on the opposite side, but stared at him the entire ride. Their ride down could not have been more different from their ride up.

Track: Carpenters - Carol of the Bells

“Are you going to talk to me?”

Louis kept his gaze on the decreasing floor numbers. “No.”

“Why?”

“Because I’m fucking mad at you.” The doors pinged open and Louis stepped out with Harry beside him. They lowered their voices in the echoing lobby. “You’re sick. I don’t want to get into this right now.”

“I was only trying to make things better for the both of us. That includes you.”

“Maybe, but you threw me under the bus in the process.”

“I didn’t.”

They reached the front door. Both stopped hissing at each other to smile and wave at Nicholas. Nicholas lifted his mug of hot chocolate, complete with marshmallows and a candy cane stirrer. “Have a beautiful day, boys!”

“Thank you,” they said in unison as they went into the revolving door. They got stuck in the same section and shoved each other to get out of the way. Nicholas laughed heartily as their sighing fogged the glass their cheeks were pressed to. Finally they made it outside.

“Are you going to talk to me now?” Harry asked.

Louis stopped walking and faced Harry, his arms straight at his sides. “We’re supposed to be partners. I’m supposed to help and support you, which I tried to do. I tried to make your life easier by negotiating, and you completely disregarded my effort so you could please Celia and her deadline. You know, writers miss deadlines sometimes. It’s kind of a thing. But, no. Instead, you left me high and dry. How do you think that makes me feel?”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to,” Harry said over him.

“It’s clear now that you would never do the same for me, so I feel like a fucking fool for caring more about your well-being than you apparently do.”

“That’s not true,” Harry said through gritted teeth. “I said I’d push through so you could keep your sequel, you utter arse. You think I want to work when I feel like shit? No, of course I don’t want to. But I won’t stand in your way for a future project.”

“Don’t you get that she dangled that in front of us as a way to try and distract from the deadline? She knew that you would do whatever she wanted because you’d feel guilty about holding me up, and she knew that I’d go along with whatever you wanted because she can tell that we’ve become friends. She played us and you helped her.”

“I didn’t help her. I also didn’t ask you to start shit with Celia about how well we produce, whatever the fuck that conversation was supposed to be. What if she fired us on the spot?”

“It’s an insult to us for her to make it seem like it’s our fault that she has a fucked deadline,” Louis said, rising in volume. “She has no right.”

“And you have no idea how I feel about you. You’re insulting me by acting like I wouldn’t support you.”

“You didn’t support me. Just now.”

Harry’s face fell. “I said we could meet the deadline because we can meet the deadline. Because I wanted to get it done for you.”

“And if you’re ill in bed for a week, how are we supposed to keep up, hmm?”

“I’ll work through it. I won’t slack, I pr-ah-ah—” Harry sneezed into his forearm and Louis raised his eyebrows. Harry dabbed his rosy nose with a tissue, then shoved it back into his pocket. “I promise.”

Louis laughed despite the anger simmering inside of him. “Don’t you get it? I don’t want you to work through it. I don’t want you to kill yourself just to please someone. I don’t want you to feel like you have to make yourself uncomfortable to keep your boss or your friends or an ex or a random fucking person on the street happy. You’re a people-pleaser and I get that, but at some point you have to stand up for yourself and your happiness and what you care about.”

Harry’s head recoiled on his neck. “Oh, so you’re a whole two years older than me and suddenly you’re the expert on how to handle a boss or be a friend or be in a relationship? I’ve been doing just fine without you for years, thanks.”

“I’m not an expert, I’m your friend. You’re the closest thing to a best friend I’ve ever had and it stings to watch you get railroaded, especially because I know you were trying to do what you thought was best for me. For our work. But there’s a difference between kindness and being a doormat.”

“I’m not a doormat.” Harry’s voice quivered, but his furious gaze never wavered. “Don’t call me that.”

Louis sighed and rubbed his eyes, avoiding the visible, deep pain etched on Harry’s face. “I’m sorry. Forget I said it.”

“I don’t think I can.”

“Could you be more dramatic?”

Harry held his palms out. “I’m done for today. I feel like I’m going to vomit, I think you just broke my fever, and it’s not even nine yet but this has already been in the top five worst days of my life.”

“Huh, I wonder what might have helped?” Louis tapped his lips. “I dunno, maybe not having a deadline shoved down your throat?”

Harry pulled his hood up over his head and walked away without another word. Louis dug his fingernails into his palms and groaned, letting his head drop back as he spun. “Fucking Harry.” He stared at the Turtledove Building, then sighed. “Fucking abandoned crackers.” He saw Harry hop into a taxi at the corner and dropped his gaze, whispering softer, “Fucking Harry.”

. . .

“I’ll be fine.” Harry’s tone was weakened by illness and exhaustion, some words breathier than others. He pulled his rainbow knitted blanket higher. The motion nudged his phone from its spot balanced on his shoulder. He picked it up and hit Speaker. “It was just a bad day.”

“Are you sure you don’t want me to come visit? I could help you get better, love.”

Harry squeezed his eyes shut and rested his forehead on his knees, letting his mother’s quiet voice wash over him. “No, thanks. I’m better off just dealing with it. I need to apologise to him and we have to work.”

“Bloody Celia. Who does she think she is?”

"Celia is usually so nice. She really is the best boss. She must be stressed or under pressure. It's not like her to be so difficult."

“I don't care how nice she is. She has no right to treat you two so poorly.”

He smiled faintly. “You sound like Louis.”

“Well, he’s right! You’re the talent. She should be grateful to have you, not pressuring you to work while you’re ill. I’m glad he said something.”

“He tried. And I wilted, like the doormat people-pleaser I apparently am.”

“Harry,” she said gently. “You’re...You’re not a doormat.”

Harry curled his tightly pressed lips, his nostrils flaring. He rubbed his fist against his eye, tears dampening his lashes. He croaked out, “Louis thinks that I am.”

“No, that’s not what it sounds like to me. It sounds like he was encouraging you to stand up for yourself.”

“I was only trying to keep Celia happy so he could keep his sequel and we could keep our film in the Showcase.”

“I know, you told me. He knows that, too, from what you told me. You had a little fight. You will sort yourselves out.”

Harry clenched his eyes, more tears trickling down his cheeks. “I hate that I feel like I let him down.”

“I think you hate that he hit a nerve. He voiced something that you fear about yourself, and that’s why you’ve been so upset all day. You admire him. I’m sure that makes it sting even worse.”

He shivered and wiped his blanket over his face. “I don’t know what to do.”

“Sleep, my love. Sleep for a few hours and maybe ring him this evening, if you’re feeling up to it. If not tonight, tomorrow. But you’ll feel better if you sleep.”

Harry nodded, even though his mother could not see the motion. “Good idea.”

“And go to bed. Your actual bed. No sleeping on the sofa.”

He chuckled quietly. “Yes, Mum.”

“Sleep well, darling. Love you so, so much.”

“Love you. And thank you. I’ll call you later.”

Harry ended the call and hauled himself to his feet, still wrapped in his rainbow blanket. He made a beeline for his bedroom, fell forward on his unmade bed, and was out like a light even before his blankets stopped settling. Mums usually knew what what they were talking about.

. . .

Louis exhaled a quick breath, squared himself to Harry’s door, and knocked. There was no music or tinkering on the piano, only the dull hum of someone speaking in the distance. He knocked again and heard shuffling coming closer. He could see the shadow of two feet block the light beneath the door. Those feet hesitated for a moment and Louis bit his bottom lip, peering at the viewfinder. The door creaked open. Harry’s eyes were puffy and the skin below his nose was reddened, his hair standing up in wild puffs, a pale blue afghan thrown over his shoulders like a cape. He had on thick grey hiking socks pulled up over black yoga pants, an oversized mustard jumper kissing mid-thigh.

“Hi,” Louis said softly.

“It’s Louis.” Harry held his stare as he listened to whoever was on the phone. “No, I’m actually not happy to see him.” Louis frowned and Harry dropped his gaze. “I’ll talk to you later. Yes, I promise. Yes. Yes. Love you, too, Mum. Bye.” Harry ended the call and placed his phone on the table beside the door. He hitched his blanket higher on his shoulders and hugged it around himself. “What do you want?”

“I’m here to take care of you. I can take dictation. We can write in shifts. We will make this work.”

“Why are you holding balloons?”

Louis looked up at the colourful bundle of balloons as if he genuinely forgot he was holding them. “I, uh, was going to get you flowers. Like a Get Well Soon sort of thing. But then I realised that you’re stuffed up and you can’t smell anything, so I thought…I thought you’d like them. That they’d make you feel better.” He lifted a grocery bag. “I have crackers, every orange I could get my hands on, and a bucket of chicken orzo soup from that poncy hole-in-the-wall you insist we go to sometimes.”

“Why?”

“Because you’re my friend and I was too hard on you and I’m sorry.”

Harry dropped his face. “No. I let you down. You don’t have to apologise, I do.”

“Harry, no, you didn’t let me down,” Louis said as he stepped closer. Harry stepped backwards and held his arm out, his afghan whooshing with the motion, but still would not meet Louis’ gaze. Louis closed the door. “I was disappointed at the time, yeah, but I shouldn’t have pushed Celia the way I did without checking with you first.”

“I said you could guide. And you were standing up for us.” Harry glanced at him and his mouth twitched downwards. “I shouldn’t have taken you out at the knees the way I did. That was total shit and I’m—I’m so sah-sah-sah—” He sneezed, hiding half his face with the afghan, his eyes sagging even more. “I’m so sorry.”

“Fuck, you look so sad. I can’t.” Louis threw an arm around him. Harry pressed his face to the crook of Louis’ neck and wrapped his arms around him. The afghan covered both of them. The grocery bag crinkled, and Louis let go of the bundle of balloons. They thunked against the ceiling. “It’s okay. You’re not well and I acted like a dick.”

“No,” Harry laughed quietly. He shook his head, his nose nuzzling behind Louis’ ear. “You didn’t. At all.”

“Yeah, well…” Louis stepped out of their hug and the blanket fell from his shoulders. He cleared his throat. The heat in Harry’s flat must have been pumped up. That would explain the rush of warmth he felt at that moment. “Right. We should get to work.”

“Right.” Harry gripped his balloons and smiled up at them. The light filtered through each balloon, bathing his face in colours. “I love them. This is the most thoughtful gift ever. Thank you.”

“Do you want soup or citrus?”

“Umm…” Harry followed Louis into the flat, still staring up at his floating balloons. He couldn’t stop watching the colours sway, and he also could not stop smiling. “Neither?”

“Have you eaten?”

“Well…No. Haven’t been hungry.”

“Shall we start with tea with honey, then? See how you handle it?”

“Yes, please.”

“Okay.” Louis placed his grocery bag on the kitchen counter. Harry reached in and Louis bumped their hips, then jutted his chin towards the living room. “No helping. Go lie down.”

Harry chuckled. “Yes, sir.”

“You will get better.”

“Are you going to personally will my recovery into existence?”

“Please go lie down before I lose my goodwill and poison your tea.”

Harry went into the living room and looked around. He grabbed a votive candle holder made of silver metal designed to look like a ring of antlers. He tied his balloons to the heavy object and put it on the centre of the coffee table. He flopped on the couch, pulled his knees up, and wrapped himself in his afghan. He leaned against the arm of the couch and shut his eyes. There was a small crash in the kitchen, followed by Louis muttering something under his breath. “Need help?”

“Don’t be ridiculous.”

Harry took a deep breath, snuggling deeper into the arm of the couch. His sinuses already felt clearer and, even though he could easily fall asleep at the drop of a hat, he didn’t have the full-body heaviness that had haunted him for days. When he heard a plate placed on the coffee table he opened his eyes. His smile widened. “Did you make me a smiley with oranges?”

“No,” Louis scoffed as he placed the mugs of tea on the table. He crossed his arms. Quieter, and with a small smile, he added, “Well...I guess that one does sort of look like a mouth. Maybe.”

Harry chuckled as he chewed on an orange slice. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.” Louis took another blanket off the back of the sofa. “You need more.”

“More what?” Harry held completely still with Louis hovering over him. “O-Oh.” Louis fluffed the blanket, then tucked in the sides with enough ferocity to jostle Harry side to side. Harry swallowed his mouthful of orange and licked his lips, watching as Louis layered yet another knit blanket on him. And then another. He looked down at his arms, now pinned in place by Louis’ hard work, his socked feet barely visible beneath the mound of blankets.

Louis stood with his hands on his hips. “How do you feel?”

Harry tried to lift his arm, but his layers of blankets didn’t budge. He looked up at Louis with rounded, sleepy eyes. “Like a jacket potato.”

“Good.” Louis sat on his side of the couch and grabbed his laptop. “Let’s start with the outline.” He typed in his password. “I was thinking we could make the reporter meet the mayor in a mistaken identity sort of thing. I had an idea for it to be, like, the reporter gets into a car because she thinks it’s an Uber, but it’s the mayor, and he just goes with it because he’s intrigued. Then there can be a cute surprise scene when she finds out who he is at the Christmas tree lighting, and they’ll have an excuse to have some tension at the beginning. What do you think?” Louis typed for a moment, jotting down everything he just said, then heard a sniffle. He looked at Harry and found him to be staring at him with his lips pressed together, his eyes glossy, his face scrunched as if he were in pain. Louis frowned. “What is it? What’s wrong?”

“I’m still so sorry I threw you under the bus. And I’m...I…” Harry sucked a shaky breath in through his nose. “You’re my best friend, as well. I’ve never had a friend like you. And I—Oh God.” He squirmed side to side as fast as he could, jerking his shoulders and lowering himself into his blanket cocoon. “I always get weepy when I don’t feel good and I am not crying in front of you. This has been the worst day.”

Louis giggled as he droned, “Aww,” and scooted to Harry’s side of the sofa. He knelt beside him and peered down into his cocoon. “Come out, little turtle, come out.”

“No,” Harry said, stubborn and sniffling. “And I’m a butterfly, thank you very much.”

Louis let out a proper laugh and could hear Harry laughing from beneath the blankets. “I’ll bet.” He held Harry’s cheeks and pulled him up. “C’mere.”

Harry’s head slowly emerged and words tumbled from his lips. “My eyes are only watering because I’m ill. Like how some people have allergies.”

“Sure,” Louis said as he thumbed beneath his eyes. “Whatever you say.” He grabbed a tissue and dabbed Harry’s face. “Alright?”

Harry nodded. His lashes were extra dark and wet looking as he blinked rapidly then stretched his eyes afterward. “I’m okay.”

“Do you like the Uber idea?”

“Yes,” Harry laughed breathilfy, diverting his gaze. “I like that very much. It’ll work well. I can already see in my head how to work their meeting back in a couple of ways and when she says she’s leaving, he can be the one who has to drive her, though obviously she’s not really going to leave Christmastown.”

“Good.” Louis crawled to his side of the couch and held his laptop as he got comfortable. He placed it on his thighs. “The setting is kind of wacky, but I think it’ll be fun to write a non-snowy Christmas.” He Googled arizona climate december and scrolled for a moment. “So, how’s your mum?”

In place of a reply, Harry snored, just a soft, nasal noise as he inhaled. Louis glanced at him and smiled. Harry was still upright in his blanket cocoon. He had dug his feet under the mound of blankets, and his head was tilted to the right. Louis got up, grabbed a throw pillow, and gently cradled Harry’s head, then placed the pillow underneath. He eased Harry’s head down, his palm tingling from a mere brush with his soft, messy hair. He returned to his spot and stared at his laptop. “Right. Let’s go.”

. . .

When Harry next woke he was hit with the overwhelming uncertainty of not knowing the time. Naps were a lovely thing, but when he fell asleep while it was light out and woke up in the dark he felt disoriented for days. He pushed layers of blankets off, sweat dampening his skin and his mouth dry. He freed his arms and reached for his cold tea, then hungrily gulped it down. He glanced around his quiet flat and rubbed his eyes. Louis must have gone home to recharge. He reached for his laptop but was distracted by his notebook fanned open on the coffee table. He picked it up and scanned the note left for him.

H, I did the bones but got sleepy. Your snores were keeping me awake (rude) so I took your bed. I’ll change the sheets. L

Harry smiled wide and placed his book on the couch. He got up, stretched, and padded quietly to his bedroom, which was dark but had the door a sliver open. He pushed it open enough to peek inside. The first thing he noticed was a trail of items leading to his bed. One shoe, then another shoe, then sweatpants, then one sock. The path of clothing ended with Louis asleep on his stomach with a mountain of blankets on him to rival Harry’s couch jacket potato setup. Harry bit his bottom lip as he smiled, then backed away and closed the door.

He went to the couch and grabbed his laptop. If Louis did the bones, Harry could attempt to fill in some of the gaps (the ‘Styles Meat and Potatoes,’ as Louis referred to it) before he had to sleep again. He stretched his fingers and tilted his head side to side, then opened their shared document and started to read.

. . .

Louis pressed his face into his pillow and hugged it tighter. His mind wandered to pine trees and chimney smoke and fresh snow. His pleasant mind holiday was halted by the tug of having to pee. He opened his eyes and looked at his pillow, then realised he didn’t own burgundy flannel sheets. He craned his neck to look around the sun-filled bedroom. Harry’s room. Louis threw his legs out of bed and ran his hand through his hair. How late had Harry let him sleep? Some caretaker he was being. He opened the en suite door as he itched himself through his boxer briefs.

“O-Oh!” Harry quickly covered himself with his plush khaki robe. Louis’ mouth gaped and the flash of damp skin burned into his brain as he stood frozen in place. He dropped his hand from his groin. Harry laughed breathily and put up his robe hood. He resembled a standing, animated, talking blanket. “Hi.”

“Hi. Uh. You seem better.”

“I showered.”

Louis glanced at the foggy mirror, the smell of pine swirling into his nose. “Yeah. Okay.”

“You need the toilet?”

“Yeah.”

Harry stepped around him. “You can shower, it you want. Lemme just get you a towel.”

“Nah, I’ll go home for a bit. I should change.”

“Cool. I’ll be in the kitchen.”

“Okay.”

Louis watched Harry walk out of the bedroom, his long feet leaving smaller wet footsteps on his hardwood floor. He peed, splashed water on his face, and took a swig of Harry’s mouthwash, then pulled on his sweatpants and joined Harry in the kitchen. He accepted a mug of tea. “Are you going to lounge around in your robe all day?”

“I’ll put clothes on eventually,” Harry said with sparkling eyes. He sipped his tea. “I made it three-quarters of the way through the script, by the way.”

“Oh, nice. That’s amazing. I hope you didn’t push yourself too much.”

‘Nah, I’m fine. I did some rewrites for Script Two, as well.”

Louis tilted his head, his brows arched. “Harry.”

“It’s fine,” Harry chuckled. “I was wired after my nap and wanted to run with it. I ate another orange.”

“Well, alright,” Louis said, but did not sound convinced. “You’d better take it easy today.”

“I, um…”

Louis hummed as he drank. “What?”

Harry opened a small drawer beside his utensil drawer. He lifted a key with a flat blue keychain tag. He held it out and Louis could read his name printed on the keychain’s label. “I figured it’d be easier for this one if you can come and go as you please. I think we’ll be spending a lot of time together.”

“A lot?” Louis took the key. “I feel like we’re basically going to be living together.”

“Yeah. Uh...You can stay here, if you want. Like, you can bring clothes and shower stuff.”

“Same. At mine, I mean. I, um,” Louis scratched behind his ear, “think I have a spare key floating around my place somewhere.” He left out the fact that he had already purchased a Santa keychain for the extra key, which he had cut midway through Script One. “I’ll bring it when I come back.”

“Thanks.”

Louis took another long swig of tea. He lifted the mug. “S’good.”

“I’m glad you like it.”

They met eyes and both chuckled, then stared at the ground as they drank their tea.

. . .

Though Harry still felt rundown for a couple of days, they worked surprisingly fast once they reached a sweet spot of writing shifts and sleep breaks. The tale of the mayor and the reporter seemed to write itself with zippy banter, gentle jokes about local politics, enough sexual tension to fill the Grand Canyon, and a proposal on top of a mountain that Harry loved so much he sketched what he imagined the characters’ Instagram post would look like. They had their first draft complete within a week. Maybe Celia was onto something with her pressure-cooker deadlines. The completion of their first draft was cause for celebration, and celebrate they did.

Louis hauled Harry into his living room and deposited him on his side of the sofa. Harry dropped like a sack of potatoes. “God, you’re slim but heavy as shit.”

Harry rolled onto his stomach and pulled a pillow over his head. “S’all the ravioli.”

Louis laughed, loud and brash, and hiccuped. He covered his mouth with his hand, able to taste the remnants of red wine still on his palate. “I warned you this would happen.”

“Shhhh.”

“I told you that you’ve eaten nothing but broth and oranges for days.”

“Be. Quiesh.”

“And I warned you that jumping into pasta and booze might not be the best move.”

“We were celebratin’.”

“But noooo,” Louis droned, Harry bending a pillow around his ears, “you insisted we should go out for Italian and order the entire menu. And get a bottle of red. And then another bottle. And then, hmm, I believe another one after that? Is that right?”

In the most pitiful of voices, Harry said, “It was cheaper.”

“Do you want water?”

“No.”

“It’ll make you feel better tomorrow.”

Harry waited a few seconds. He muttered, “I said what I said,” with his face in a pillow.

Louis cackled. “I’m getting water.”

“Confffrats.”

He went into the kitchen and took out two glasses. He heard two thunks, probably Harry’s boots, then a high hiccup. When he returned to the living room with their water, Harry appeared to be comatose on his stomach with three throw pillows balanced over his head, his face hidden by fluff. His tiny, hitched snore caused the material in the pillow by his mouth to flutter. Louis smiled and put their glasses on the coffee table.

“How you feeling, Haz?” He plopped down on Harry’s feet. Harry grunted, trying to pull his legs away, and Louis toed off his trainers. “Want that water yet? Huh. Who would have thunk it? I’m actually trying to get you to drink water.”

Harry mumbled something unintelligible and his feet stilled from their struggle. His last word sounded something like, “Warm.”

Louis turned on the television and propped his legs on the coffee table. “Wanna watch something?”

“Mrphhh.”

“Simpsons?”

“Shh.”

“Peaky Blinders?”

Harry did not reply. Louis turned on The Simpsons and relaxed into the sofa. His hand landed on the back of Harry’s calf and he rubbed his leg, almost an involuntary motion to soothe. Harry hummed and shifted his feet again, then started to snore. Louis glanced at Harry and smirked. Ravioli and red wine were a one-two punch that knocked Harry out for the count. He squeezed behind his knee and refocused on the television. “Y’alright?”

Harry’s lips stayed in their warped shape smushed into his pillow even as he murmured, and his drunken slurring made him almost inaudible. “I jus’ wan’ someone to cuddle with and listen to Carpenter’s Christmas. Is that suh-much ta ask?”

Louis stared at the television long enough for a commercial break to end. He didn’t move, and barely breathed, as saliva built in his mouth. Each of Harry’s droned snores made him vibrate. He knew the exact moment when Harry’s breathing entered the rhythmic, deep state he reached while he was properly asleep. The only Carpenters Christmas song he knew was due to it appearing on their ‘Christmas-ing’ playlist they used while trying to pump up the Christmas spirit in their writing sessions. The memory of Karen Carpenter’s warm, mellow, kind voice pushed the room’s sound away, filling the air with audible cotton and warm rose light as if a blanket was pulled over his head.

Track: Carpenters - Merry Christmas Darling

Instead of seeing a montage with his fictional characters, as he usually did while mapping out storylines, he saw Harry. This version of Harry spoke throughout his vision but all Louis could hear was music, everything shot from the perspective as if he was taking a home movie of their life together on an old video camera. Nothing but Harry. Harry wrapping presents, Harry draping fairy lights on tiptoe, Harry laughing against his neck. Harry typing with earbuds in, Harry handing him a mug of cocoa, Harry throwing snow in his face. Harry holding his cheeks, Harry bumping their noses together. Harry kissing him, Harry stroking his hair, Harry gasping as his head tipped back, Harry waking up beside him with a sleepy smile. Harry, Harry, Harry.

The mellow song pulsed onward and pushed him tumbling into misty, tea-coloured fantasies his brain was not prepared for. This didn’t happen to him. This happened to his characters. His head and heart ached, his breath stolen from him, and if he moved he feared he would shatter like glass.

The song ended and he blinked, startled. His head recoiled on his neck and he sucked in a rattled breath. He swiped the back of his hand beneath his eyes to catch two quick drops of moisture before they rolled off his cheekbones. “I—” His voice was barely loud enough for him to even be sure he spoke aloud, as if he couldn’t spare the oxygen. He wasn’t even certain that he was really speaking and not in a dream. Harry’s feet twitched beneath his bum. “I would.”

It took half a minute of motionless silence before Harry softly murmured, “Huh?” against his pillow.

“I would.”

Harry’s slow, wine-soaked, delighted giggle made the sofa tremble. “Nah. Yuh wouldn’t.”

“I would.”

“Mmkay,” Harry sputtered as he snorted.

Louis waited until Harry’s breathing evened before he turned off the television. He watched Harry’s back rise and fall. He felt his long feet moving in his sleep, just the tiniest, little motions, like he was barely twitching his toes. He rubbed his hands over his eyes, then grabbed his phone.

“I’m only doing this because we’ve been working so hard lately,” Louis murmured as he searched YouTube. “Not because I, like,” he swallowed, his voice softening, “have dreamed about this moment since you held the lift for me.”

“Mmm.”

Louis’ gaze darted to Harry’s face. “Are you awake?”

“...No.”

“Is this going to creep you out?”

“No,” Harry laughed quietly. He inhaled slowly, his back swelling, then hummed and smiled with his eyes closed. “S’you.”

“S’you,” Louis repeated, shaking his head and returning to his phone. “Yeah. S’me.”

“‘Tis.”

“‘Tis. We’ve got drunk Shakespeare over here.” When Harry did not laugh, he looked to him. Harry’s snores clucked against his pillow. “Alright. Here we go.”

Louis took his blanket in one hand, his iPhone in the other. He slowly flattened in the crack between Harry’s back and the sofa. He held himself up as he pulled his blanket over them, froze with an inch of space, then exhaled and brought himself flush to Harry as if he was performing some weird physical therapy exercise. Harry made a soft sound and squirmed in the calmest way, and their bodies fit together.

Normally, the rainbow of Harry’s groans—whether they were from pleasure while he ate, frustration while stumped, or discomfort when his wrists were acting up—sounded so arousing that Louis had to focus on anything but Harry’s deep voice to cool down. His groan once Louis’ weight was on him was somehow non-sexual. It veered more towards his groans of relief, with a sprinkled twinge of joy. Louis fumbled as he held his phone out. He tapped Play on YouTube and draped his arm over Harry, holding the screen to face them as the video played.

Harry started to smile, the screen illuminating his face. He hummed deeply and nudged his head backwards against Louis, never opening his eyes. Louis tightened his arms ever so slightly and Harry hummed again, sounding further away. “Suh happiest moment of my life.

Louis laughed, silent and breathy. He rested his nose in Harry’s hair, watching the song’s cursor crawl across the screen. Harry rubbed one of his socked feet against his ankle and Louis swallowed. He grit his back teeth, staring at his phone with even more focus.

“Can you put Nutcracker next?” Harry snoozed for a moment, then nuzzled his nose to his pillow. He was half asleep to breathe, “S’my favourite.”

The song ended and Louis searched on YouTube. He found the track and hit Play. After a few seconds of music, Harry’s breathing hitched and he stretched his entire body. Louis held completely still as Harry stretched, then released and curled even more. Harry’s warm hand reached towards the sound of his phone, but landed on his wrist instead. Harry hummed and murmured something unintelligible into his pillow, but he sounded happy based on the high softness of his tone. Louis smiled against his hair, then nudged his nose behind his ear.

“Merry Christmas, darling,” he whispered.

. . .

The throbbing pull of his bladder woke Harry the next morning. He knew it was medically a bad idea to not get up and use the toilet, but the more he moved, the more his hangover symptoms materialised. Maybe he could hold it and ride out the illusion of sleep for just one more minute. His head pounded and his neck ached from sleeping on too many throw pillows. His teeth even hurt, with his dry tongue uselessly sat in the middle of his desert mouth. He squeezed his eyes and pulled his blanket up, accidentally punching himself in the nose.

“Ow,” he groaned, his mouth barely moving. The illusion was done. He was awake. And he was hungover. He sighed and pushed his blanket off, then rubbed his fists to his eyes. As he blinked, he saw a glass of water with two pills waiting for him. He smiled, even if he felt as if bile was melting his stomach from the inside, and reached out. A pot banged in the kitchen and he held perfectly still with his breath held, his eyes wide and his fingers digging into his blanket.

“Yeah, I saw that,” Louis’ voice said. Toast popped. “So ridiculous.”

Harry’s eyes rolled up, his head tilting backwards. He watched Louis through the gap in the breakfast bar. He was still wearing his clothes from the day before as he balanced his phone between his shoulder and ear. Harry blinked and righted himself, then rolled onto his stomach. He dropped his feet to the floor. The sound must have alerted Louis he was awake, because Louis said, “I gotta go. He’s awake.” Louis raised his voice. “Finally.” Harry grinned and rubbed his palm down his face. “Love you too. Bye.”

Talking to his mum, then. Harry pushed his blanket off his lap, then stared at it. It was the crocheted rainbow one that Louis usually used.

“How are you feeling?”

He looked up and accepted a plate, biting his dry lips. “Um, okay. A bit achey. A bit like shit.”

“You insisted we take the long way home because we could both use a walk, which was more like a jog with your big legs. I didn’t know getting dinner would include a mandatory drunk workout afterwards.”

Harry laughed and placed the plate on his lap. Two perfect, sunny fried eggs rested on toast along with a pile of orange slices. “Oh wow, this looks amazing. Thank you so much. The eggs are...pretty.”

“Enjoy it. It’s the only thing I know how to cook.”

“Ha.” Harry took a small bite of his toast. Louis lowered two mugs of tea and Harry reached out before his even touched the table, then gulped a mouthful. His stomach lurched, and he put his breakfast on the table. “I have to piss like fuck.”

“Go for it.”

“And…” Harry licked his lips, his face scrunched. “Maybe vomit.”

Louis cackled from his side of the sofa. “Sorry you’re feeling so shit.”

Harry stood and itched his fingers through his wild hair. “Sorry you got stuck with me last night.”

“Nah, not stuck. I was pretty gone myself. Passed out.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. We tried watching The Simpsons but I don’t even remember which episode.”

“Ha.” Harry shuffled towards his bedroom, still itching his hair. He paused at the hallway, then turned. “Um, I didn’t say anything terribly embarrassing last night, did I? I feel bad you ended up taking care of me.”

Louis crunched toast in his teeth. “Nope. Nothing embarrassing. Just drunk.” He swallowed, crumbs trickling onto his chin. “And don’t feel bad. It’s no trouble, I promise.”

Harry smiled, but his brows were pinched, uncertainty narrowing his eyes. “Are you sure?”

“Totally.” Louis sipped his tea. “Nothing embarrassing, I promise.”

“Okay. I’m, uh, gonna pee.”

“Have fun.”

Harry snuffled breathily through his nose and held Louis’ stare for a second, then turned away, ruffling the back of his hair. He peeked over his shoulder as he walked and Louis waved, Harry laughing louder and turning into his bedroom.

Chapter Text

“Are you ready?” Louis asked in a hushed, reverent tone.

“I am.”

“Give me your hand. We’re doing this together.” Harry placed his hand on top of Louis’. After a moment of silence, Louis gripped the ends of Harry’s fingers and tilted them up. “Are you the one who stole my black Sharpie?”

They stared at his fingernails, which were coloured black and faded at the tips. “Guilty.”

Louis released his fingers. “S’okay. Let’s do this.” They exhaled in unison as if they were at yoga. Harry rubbed his thumb on Louis’ wrist. “Now?”

“Now.”

Harry’s pressed on Louis’ knuckles, and Louis put enough pressure on his trackpad to send an email. His computer made the telltale whoosh sound, and both stared wide-eyed at the screen.

“We did it,” Harry whispered.

“We did.”

“We did it early.”

“We did,” Louis said, grinning with wild eyes. He stared at the laptop for one more moment before he turned to Harry, gripped his cheeks, and shouted, “Fucking hell, we did it!”

Harry jumped up from the sofa and pointed at various spots around the room as he declared, “Fuck you, deadline! Fuck you, cold! Fuck you, red wine! Fuck you, hangover!” Louis fell onto his side as he cackled, hugging his middle. “By the power of romance and citrus”—Harry picked up oranges from a bowl on his coffee table—“we finished this beast of a script that, for whatever reason, will be in The Showcase.”

“Are you seriously juggling or am I hallucinating?”

Harry wiggled side to side as he tossed three oranges from hand to hand. “Maybe both. You can write a new story about a haunted laptop where a juggling ghost of a writer comes out every time someone submits a manuscript.” He gently lobbed each orange at Louis, which only spurred Louis into higher, wheezed giggles. Harry pointed at the ceiling and listened to his playlist for a moment. “Uh oh.” He started to shimmy his shoulders. “Looks like we have time for one more Fleetwood break.”

“I’m too tired,” Louis whined through his laughter. “You go ahead.”

Harry slowly swirled his hands as he stretched his arms up, his torso swaying with his legs bent inwards. “C’mon, join me! Little Lies is such a perfect dance song.”

Louis smiled as fondness warmed the centre of his chest. He watched Harry dance around the living room, followed his journey to the kitchen, then watched him dance back to the living room with a handful of orange slices. Harry held out a slice.

“You want?”

“No, thanks.” Louis rubbed the centre of his chest as he watched. Exhaustion crept into his bones at a rapid pace, as if his body realised they completed their assignment and it was now time to shut down. His eyes lulled, the music going woofy in his ears. He blinked himself awake. “S’funny.”

Harry hummed with a mouthful of orange. “What is?”

“You dance like Baby Groot tripping on mushrooms, but you’re still so fucking sexy.”

Harry’s brows shot up and his motions slowed, though he did not miss a beat or a chew of his orange. He pressed his wrist to his lips as he swallowed. “Excuse me? Did you just say I’m sexy?”

“Fuck, not—” Louis flicked his hand and jerked his eyes to the table, panic sharpening his motions. “No, no, not like, sexy. Not that way. I’m…” He lifted an empty beer bottle. “Drunk.”

“Off a beer you drank last night?”

“Tired. I’m tired, I mean. Not thinking straight.”

“Are you sure?” Harry shrugged off his green plaid button up, making the most over-the-top expressions of pure heat his face could manage. He lassoed the shirt over his head as he danced closer to Louis. “You’re suuuure?

Louis cackled as Harry pulled his green shirt between his legs, thrusting his hips along to the beat. “Oh my God,” Louis laughed, shielding his eyes. He felt fabric on his skin and peeked through his fingers. “Harry!”

Harry looped his shirt around the back of Louis’ neck and pulled it side to side. “I’m gonna put some Rod Stewart on after this one.” He left his shirt around Louis’ shoulders to push his white tee up his stomach, then loudly, and highly, sang, “Do ya think I’m sexy—”

“Fuck, no, I don’t,” Louis gasped out as he laughed, visible heat blooming on his cheeks. Harry was close enough for him to smell the remnants of orange peel on his fingers, for him to feel the heat radiating from his skin. He lifted his arms in an attempt to playfully shove Harry’s bare hips, but the change in position caused tight, razor-sharp pain to flutter and snap in his lower back. His laughter cut off abruptly, and he froze in an arched, awkward pose with his face scrunched inwards. “Fuck.”

Harry draped his tee on Louis’ head and gyrated his hips in small circles. “What? You want me to strip to Maggie May instead? Unconventional, but I could make it work.”

“No,” Louis exhaled against the warm fabric of his shirt. “I—Ah!” He tried to relax into the sofa, but he curled up instead with clenched fists. The warning twinges in his lower back were now bordering on a wailing siren to notify him that his back was about to go out. He mumbled, “This is fucking embarrassing,” and avoided Harry’s curious stare, still making as little movement as he could.

Harry shrugged his tee on. “What’s wrong? What’s embarrassing?”

“My lower back is spasming. It happens when I sit in a hunched position for too long.”

“Oh shit. Uh. Okay.” Harry’s gaze darted around his living room. “What’s the most comfortable spot for you? Do you want me to rub your back? Will that help? Do you want a taxi home? I can ride with you and help you in your flat. How can I help?”

“No, I’m okay. I’ll be okay.” Louis squeezed the bridge of his nose. His elbows suddenly felt heavy, as did his eyelids. The thought of opening his eyes ever again seemed too exhausting. “I’m so tired. Like, it all just hit me, you know?”

“My skin feels like it wants to peel off my face and I don’t know if my brain will ever recover its full function. I get it.” He ran his fingers through the feathery tips of Louis’ hair on his way to the kitchen. “I’ll make you tea and we can order in, no walking needed. Sound good?”

“Yes. You’re very kind. Just…” Louis took a slow breath in. "Wait." Harry turned towards the sofa. “I’m going to ask you for something and you cannot make fun of me.”

“Do you know me at all? Tell me what you need. Anything. Of course I wouldn’t make fun of you.” Louis tried to sit up, but winced and fell onto his side, clutching his lower back. Harry rushed towards him. “What do you want me to do?”

“I want to put my legs up, but I don’t think I can shift myself. Can you help me put my legs up? On the top of the sofa, I mean.”

“That’s what you were afraid of asking me?”

“I wasn’t afraid. I’m just going to look...silly. Elevating my legs helps my back chill out.”

“Louis,” Harry sighed with his hands on his hips, exasperated but smiling. “C’mere.” He knelt on the end of the sofa. He looped his arm under the small of Louis’ back and Louis held him around the shoulders. He lifted Louis, earning a whiff of boyish, sporty body wash. “Maybe this way would be better.”

“Yeah, like—” Louis grunted and dug into Harry’s back. Warm oranges flooded his nostrils. “With my bum on the point of the L.”

“Mmhmm.” He started to turn Louis’ body, and a sneaky grin stretched his lips. “You know, usually when I take my clothes off and throw someone’s back out, we at least have drinks together first.”

“Har har,” Louis chuckled despite his eye roll.

With Harry’s assistance, Louis moved until he laid flat with his bum flush to the back of the sofa. Harry held his ankles and guided them over the top of the couch, slow and steady. Louis bent his legs and laid the backs of his knees on the sofa until he was resting in a jagged S-shape.

“A-Ah.” Louis’ eyes fluttered shut and his jaw slackened. He whispered, “Fuck me, that’s so much better already.”

Harry’s lips moved without sound. He was frozen in place, his hands growing warmer. The kittenish sigh Louis made bounced around his head, and he couldn’t look away from Louis’ face. Total relief and relaxation softened his features, any sign of pain wiped away. Inside, Harry felt the opposite of relaxation. Heat and confusion coiled in his stomach, paralysing him as he cradled Louis’ ankles.

Louis opened his eyes. “Thank you so much for helping me.” He smiled gently. “Means so much.”

“Yeah, ‘course.” Harry stepped back. Louis’ socks felt cuddly beneath the pads of his fingers as he released his hold. “Want to, uh...” He ruffled his own hair. “Do you want Thai for dinner?”

“Mmm. If you want it, I’d be down.” Louis breathed in deeply. “You know what I like.”

“Okay. Do you want, uh...” Harry rounded the couch and took Louis’ favourite blanket off his regular side. He fluffed it, then let it fall. Louis stared up at him, and Harry had to look away from his moon-eyes and small smirk. He tucked the blanket against his sides. “This, um, good?”

“So good.” Louis rubbed his socked toes together in their elevated position. “Thank you.”

“You’re…” Harry looked from his toes to his face and found Louis was blissed out but still focused on him. A rush of warmth scurried to settle beneath his skin. “You’re welcome. I’ll get tea started.”

He went into the kitchen. While the water heated, he busied himself with placing their delivery order on his phone and getting mugs ready. What he was doing was nothing new. Ever since they started their collaboration, they spent more days together than not. They fell into habits easily. They took care of each other.

It wasn’t just that ease that made his entire body feel hot. It was how much he enjoyed their closeness and synchronicity. How much he came to crave it with even more desire than sex or physical intimacy. The moment he heard Louis was in pain, all he wanted to do was make him feel better. He would have carried Louis to the nearest chiropractor through a blizzard, if needed. Then, once Louis was no longer in pain, Harry felt a surge of happiness as if it was his pain that was relieved.

As he poured hot water into their mugs, his hand trembled. He would happily spend the rest of his days doing exactly what they were doing that evening. Not just happily. Ecstatically, blissfully, joyfully. All of the over the top descriptors he had to edit out of his writing to avoid repetition expressed how happy he would be living a life with Louis by his side.

“Did you remember no scallions, love?”

Harry looked through the kitchen pass-through towards the sound of Louis’ quiet question. From his vantage point, he could only see small feet propped atop the sofa. He smiled and gripped a mug in each hand.

“I remembered.” He walked to the living room and handed Louis his tea. He sat down on his leg, nudging back into his couch corner. “And double dumplings.”

“Yes,” Louis droned, his toes wiggling. “I’m gonna snooze. Can you wake me when the food’s here?”

“Sure,” Harry chuckled and grabbed the remote. “Sweet dreams.”

. . .

Once dinner arrived, Louis rolled upright as Harry unpacked their food. They ate in the living room while watching Peaky Blinders. The exhaustion that hit Louis after finishing their first draft had a delayed reaction for Harry. Once he had some food in his stomach, it was his turn.

Louis was slurping his last noodle when he heard snoring. He looked at Harry and burst out laughing, then quickly quieted. Harry’s head was tilted back with his mouth wide open. His fingers still held their position around chopsticks, which he balanced on his takeaway container. Louis leaned over and eased his food away from his lap, then gently plucked his chopsticks from his fingers. He placed their food on the coffee table and settled into his blanket cocoon. He’d rewatch the episode they were on once Harry was awake, but he couldn’t be arsed to get the remote to turn off the television.

He thought he could make it to the end of the episode, but his face felt heavy within seconds, his body warm. He said, “Harry.” Harry continued snoring. “Harry.” He prodded his upper ribs. “Haz.”

Harry batted his hand away without opening his eyes. “What?”

“Wanna go to bed?”

“‘Kay.” A moment of no movement passed. Then Harry breathed deeply, arching his lower back and blinking extra-wide. He sniffled and rubbed under his nose. “Lessgo.”

“What, me too?”

“Yeah.” Harry rolled the back of his head on the sofa then blinked at Louis. He tucked his hand under his jumper to scratch his stomach. “We ate everything.”

“We did. No mess. Well.” He shrugged. “Mess, but no leftovers.”

“Will deal with it tomorrow,” Harry said as he hauled himself up. He turned off the television. “‘M gonna sleep like the dead.”

Louis turned off the lights. “Did you wash the black Nike?”

“Mmhmm.”

They had slept together on couches many times since they started collaborating, starting with their first week of writing, but hadn’t transitioned to bed yet. Their exhaustion was so bone deep that neither felt the need to stress about jumping that particular hurdle. Sleep was all that mattered.

Harry didn’t even turn the lights on in his bedroom as they got ready for bed. He took off his jeans as Louis shrugged on his black Nike hoodie. Louis was wearing sweats already and didn’t need to borrow bottoms. Harry went into the en suite to wash his face. He finished up and spit mouthwash into the sink, then dabbed his lips with his wrist.

“Wanna do your teeth?”

The mattress creaked as Louis said, “No.”

“Okay.” Harry shut the en suite lights and went to the bedroom. He swapped his jumper for a thin, long sleeved grey tee, balled his socks, then collapsed on the left side of the bed. “I’m not setting an alarm.”

“Bless.”

Harry smiled as he buried his face in his pillow. He stretched his legs to the end of the mattress, digging his feet under the duvet. Before he could pull the blankets up all the way, they were being tugged up his body for him. He didn’t turn towards Louis, but he smiled wider. The blanket fluttered onto his back and the mattress sagged under Louis’ shifting weight.

“Thanks,” Harry whispered.

“You’re welcome.”

And then it was lights out.

. . .

Vibrations against his hip bone woke Louis from deep sleep. He twitched on his stomach, his confused moan muffled by Harry’s chest. When his ringtone wailed into the quiet morning, Louis shoved his hand down to find the source of his frustration. He pulled out his phone, squinted at it, then cursed, “Shit.”

“What?” Harry murmured.

“Celia’s office.” Louis tapped Accept and held the phone to his ear. “Hi. Yes.” He cleared his throat. “Okay. See you then, thanks.” He ended the call and dropped the phone on the mattress. He laid back down on Harry. “We have a meeting with Celia at ten.”

“We do?” Harry’s phone rang on the floor. He sighed and rolled onto his stomach, Louis’ face plunking on the mattress. He picked up the phone. “Hi, yes, it’s Harry. Oh, we do?” He heard Louis snicker quietly behind him and smiled. “Okay, I’ll be there. Thanks so much.” He tapped his screen twice, then dropped his phone on his bedside table. He settled on his back and Louis squirmed on top of him, his face nestled against his collarbone. Harry wrapped an arm around him. “Alarm’s set.”

“Thanks.”

Harry rubbed between his shoulder blades. “How’s your back?”

“Mmm, much better, thanks.”

“Good.”

Both sighed heavily and quieted. They had almost fallen back asleep when both opened their eyes. Louis looked from the spot of drool he was making on Harry’s tee to Harry’s face. Harry blinked at him, then slowly lifted his arm. They held each other’s rumpled stare for around five more seconds, neither moving a muscle, before they wordlessly rolled to the sides of the bed. Harry quietly cleared his throat and ran his fingers through his hair. Louis bounced his bum on the mattress until his feet hit the ground, then adjusted himself in his crooked sweatpants. They kept their backs to each other as they stood and stretched.

Louis took off Harry’s hoodie. “I should probably go home to get ready for the meeting.”

“Yeah, I should shower and stuff.”

“Thank God, s’about time.”

“Oi,” Harry laughed. “You didn’t seem to…” He looked over his shoulder at Louis, who averted his gaze. Harry swallowed dryly, able to see Louis’ flushed cheeks even as he flitted around the room. “I’ll see you in a bit, yeah?”

“Yup.” Louis leaned on his bedroom door frame. “Thanks for the sleepover.”

“Anytime. I mean—You’re welcome.”

Louis smirked. “See you later, Snores.” Harry threw a pillow at him and he laughed, running down the hall.

. . .

Louis beat Harry to Celia’s office. He was up so much earlier than usual that he had enough time to shower five times, if he wanted. His reward for being an early riser was the chance to enjoy every outdated magazine in Celia’s office instead of snagging another couple hours sleep cuddled in Harry’s arms. Fuck being an early riser and fuck awkward mornings where Harry didn’t even have crust in his eyes, he was so lovely.

Harry walked into Suite 15A, saw Louis, and smiled. “Hey.”

“Hi.” Louis’ magazine slipped from his fingers and he hurried to grip it without breaking their gaze. Harry sat beside him and Louis looked down at his magazine. Harry’s earthy, woodsy scent indicated that he did indeed shower that morning. As Louis contemplated how he knew Harry showered based on smell alone, he turned a page. “Alright?”

“Yeah. Good article?”

“What?” He glanced from Harry to the magazine. “Yeah, it’s a good article. Interesting.”

“Cool.”

Harry pinched the corners of the magazine. He turned it in Louis’ hands until it was rightside up. Louis’ eyes widened momentarily. Harry said nothing his smile couldn’t communicate by itself.

Celia’s office door opened. “Hello, boys! C’mon in.” They went inside and sat in their regular spots. There was a platter with an array of scones on her desk. Both dug in without prompting. “Hungry this morning, hm? Eat up. Lots to discuss about Script Three.”

Harry said, “Oh,” and dabbed his mouth with a napkin. “We actually just finished our first draft last night and submitted it. Did you not receive it?”

She folded her fingers and rested her chin on top, tilting her head with a sad smile. Her jingle bell earrings tinkled. “Oh, loves. I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but it’s good news wrapped in bad, I promise.”

Louis swallowed his mouthful of scone. He and and Harry glanced at each other without moving. He cautiously asked, “What do you mean?”

“We have an eensy-weensy, tiny, leetle change to accommodate the third film. Well, a couple of changes, actually, but nothing you can’t handle.” She swirled her shiny red nails in their direction. “Writing stars, you two are!”

They said, “Changes?” and could not mask the weariness weighing them down.

“Do you remember the original location that fell through?”

“Yes,” Harry answered and Louis nodded. “The mountain cabin in Colorado.”

“That’s right! Lucky for us, the owners have changed their mind about us using the resort’s likeness in our movie. Isn’t that wonderful?” They were silent and motionless, their faces drained of colour. The mad dash of writing the third script revisited them like the Ghost of Exhaustion Past. Celia quickly placed another scone on each of their plates. “I know you two worked so hard to be done with the Arizona setting, and we will try to make that happen eventually, but the collaboration between Loving Heart and Cozy Bear Lodge in Colorado is so important to the network. We might even set an original series there, a series that you would be writing if the film is a success. This is good news for you!”

Louis scratched his forehead and pasted on a smile. “Yes, very good news.” He glanced at Harry and found he was smiling, but his eyes looked a bit delirious. Instead of anger at losing a week of his life to a script that might never see the light of day, he felt amusement bubbling up inside of him. It was all so ridiculous he felt like he was on some secret camera show to see how far writers could truly be pushed before descending into madness. He giggled, “That’s great,” then cleared his throat, Harry smiling wider. “The partnership thing.”

Realisation dawned on Harry. “Oh. Oh! Oh, right. We...We’d get to keep writing together.”

“Yeah,” Louis said, and another renegade giggle escaped. Harry’s giggled delightedly. “Right.”

“I haven’t even told you the best part yet!” Celia said.

“There’s more?” Louis asked, and Harry snorted into his fist.

“Well, we couldn’t ask you to write a movie, and possibly an original series, based on a location you’ve never seen before, could we? We’re sending you on a little getaway. Right in time for the Christmas season!”

Harry brightened. “A getaway?”

“Yes! You two will have an all expenses paid trip to Colorado. You’ll get to stay in the exclusive Cozy Bear Lodge and experience everything a VIP guest would.”

“Oh, that’s…” Louis looked to Harry. “That’s actually really nice.”

Celia cradled a scone. “You boys deserve it. I know we overworked you this summer. And I know it’s a lot for us to change so many details about the script. This year, we were unprepared for the popularity and excitement for our holiday offerings, and the surge in interest meant a lot of miscommunications. I truly apologise for that, and I hope you both know how valued you are here.” Her phone dinged and Celia held down a button. “Yes?”

“The caterers are on line one. They have a question about cheese, I think.” Tara’s boredom dripped through the phone. “Shall I take a message?”

“No, that’s alright. I’ll pick it up in a moment, thanks,” Celia said, her smile never wavering. She stood and rounded her desk, both hurrying to stand. “I’ll email you details about the trip and your flights. I know it’s short notice, but we had to grab this slot before they book up for the holidays.”

Louis tried to turn towards her as she guided them to the door. “When are we going?”

“Monday.”

“Monday!?” they both exclaimed, and Harry added, “It’s Thursday.”

“Indeed!” She smiled and guided them out the door. “See you both at the party on Saturday! I’ve got a cheese platter to save.”

Celia’s office door closed with a quiet click, ending their wildfire meeting. They left Suite 15A, said goodbye to Nicholas, and gravitated to the fountain that stood in front of the Turtledove Building. They wandered in circles around the fountain, each making calls to arrange for any schedule changes needed due to their impromptu holiday.

Louis pocketed his iPhone and walked to Harry, who had stopped moving while sending a text. He blew on his cupped hands. “Fuck, it’s getting even colder out.”

“Yes, the weather tends to do that.”

“Ha ha.”

“Are you, um…” Harry put his phone away then dug his hands into his jacket pockets. He rolled up on the balls of his feet, glancing to the side. He coughed gently and dabbed his nose with his knitted mitten, then put his hand back into his pocket. His eyes darted to Louis before looking away. “Going to the company Christmas party?”

“I don’t usually. I never know anyone.”

Harry nodded and dug his hands further inside. “Yeah, right. I honestly forgot it was happening so soon. I lost track of the days while we were working so much.”

“But...If you…”

Harry’s gaze rose from the sidewalk, the tips of his cheeks rosy. “If I what?”

“Are you?” Louis wrapped his navy blue jumper sleeves over his knuckles, then buried his hands in his pockets. His lower jaw shivered, warm breaths visibly puffing from his pink lips. Quietly, he added, “Going, I mean.”

“You really need to start wearing real winter gear, especially for when we’re in Colorado. I can see your nipples.”

Louis tilted his head and crossed his arms. “Was that supposed to be an answer?”

“I’m sorry but it’s true,” Harry laughed, bouncing from foot to foot. “I’m freezing. You must be dying. I don’t have any extra mittens to give you because you keep taking them to your place and leaving them there.”

“I’m fine,” Louis said as he dug his hands in, his elbows flopping with the motion. “Totally f-f-f—” His lips shivered involuntarily, his teeth chattering. Harry snorted a puff of steam and stepped closer, already unwinding his scarf. “Fine! I’m fine.” Louis danced backwards as he swatted Harry’s hands, but his Adidas shoes were no match for the slick, icy pavement. “Woah-oh—” He wobbled and swayed, his trainers sliding into a straddle. “Fucking fu—”

Harry looped both arms around Louis’ waist and hauled him upright. “Easy there.” He propped him into a standing position. “Better get proper boots, as well.”

Louis flicked his hair back. “Um, so are you going or what?”

“I’ll go if you go.”

“I mean, I guess I’ll go. We’re the only people I know who have their company Christmas party at the end of September, but I guess it makes sense since we celebrate Christmas year round. Might as well go, I guess.”

“Plus, we took those Secret Santa slips. We have to participate now.”

“Very true.”

“And we have the excuse of not working on a project. We can get proper hammered on the company’s—Co-oh-old.” Harry gasped and sucked his stomach in, curling over. Louis giggled evilly, sliding his hands further under Harry’s sweater. “Christ, get some gloves already.”

“But you’re so warm and I don’t have to carry you around.”

“What a compliment.”

“Condiment? You need some mustard?”

“Oh my God, you just used one of my dad jokes.”

“No, it wasn’t...No. Not really.” Louis turned away, his smile growing. “It wasn’t a proper joke.”

Harry stuck beside him, as Louis’ hands were still under his shirt. “Sounded like it to me.”

“It was—A-Ah, fuck—” Louis twisted and twirled, tightening his grip on Harry’s jumper as his feet slid into a wide split. Harry wrapped him in a bear hug, then hauled him up. They pressed together. “Bloody hell.”

“I think we’d better go shopping right now to get you some boots. It’s a shoe emergency.”

“I own boots, thank you.”

“And your Secret Santa gift, since you probably forgot all about having to do that!” Harry’s words broke into a high squeal when cold fingertips dug in just above his hip bones. He shimmied side to side as he giggled, “No, no, no, no,” causing both to slip on the icy ground.

Louis eased his attack. “We can go shopping and then you can buy me lunch, since you’re being such a cheeky shit.”

“Okay, fine,” Harry giggled with tears in his eyes. “Whatever you want. Just lay off my hips or I’ll take both of us down.”

Chapter Text

When Harry told Louis he usually didn’t go to the company Christmas party, it was a tiny fib. He had been to a couple in the past. Since he had interned at Loving Heart during university, he knew a few people from each department who were around when he first started. It was always a pleasant evening with food and wine and holiday cheer. There was nothing wrong with the party itself. It simply got tiring year after year to watch all the people he interned with show up with spouses (who were lovely) and then their children (who were also lovely) while listening to them talk about their busy lives together. It wasn’t as though he was jealous of his colleagues or bitter. He was thrilled that so many people seemed to have found their match and were starting beautiful families together. He just wondered why his time had not come yet. His colleagues did, as well, and every one of their good natured comments about his handsomeness or success or how much of a catch he was did not help lessen the sting of another holiday season single.

Making a career out of romance didn’t line up with the lack of romance in his real life. He couldn’t ignore the sad tilt to his colleagues’ eyes when, each year, he put on a smile and said he was still looking and on all the dating sites and who knows what the future will bring? Eventually, he stopped going to the party. He didn’t have the heart to tell his colleagues that he had deleted most dating apps years ago when they proved to be as fruitful as his attempt at having a houseplant. His love life was dead, as were the withered herbs he tried to grow on the windowsill of his flat.

Then he was thrown together with Louis and the flicker of hope he had snuffed out years before came roaring back. The plants in his kitchen started to grow under Louis’ dutiful watering and his dreams of a future were no longer for his characters alone.

As he got ready for the party, he took extra time on his hair and wore a new deep emerald velvet blazer Louis had held up against his chest while they shopped. Louis declared that greens always looked so nice on him. Harry had spent countless nights getting ready for dates or events with the hope that someone would notice or care about what he was wearing or what he looked like. He would then return home alone in said special outfit, feel desperately foolish for wasting the time getting ready and hoping it would make a difference, and have to shove the article of clothing in the back of his closet before he donated it in his next charity bag.

Track: Carpenters - Selections from ‘Nutcracker’ - Valse des Fleurs, 2:44 to end

His mind ran wild all day with possible paths the evening could take, paths the rational part of him knew it never would, and he had gotten lost with writing scenarios for his future characters. The document wasn’t in his shared folder with Louis. The other man would never need to know that each featured a romantic lead with blue eyes, cold hands, a sweetly raspy voice, and a quick tongue that always made his counterpart laugh.

He was so caught up in writing that he arrived at the restaurant for the Loving Heart holiday party a bit later than he planned. The restaurant was large enough to also double as a wedding venue, with its large ballroom and outdoor cocktail area, but it was crowded in the lobby; full of people who worked in every aspect of television, including some of the actors regularly featured on the network.

Upon entering, he spotted an old internship friend and her husband in the main room staring lovingly at each other. Their army of children were dancing around them, all wearing Santa hats. While waiting in line for the coat check, a man came up to the woman in front of him, handed her a warm cocktail that smelled like peppermint hot cocoa, and muttered, “Fiona said Joshy had diarrhea but seems okay now.” He saw one of the actors from a film he’d written standing under mistletoe with his partner, both leaning in for a quick, smiley peck.

Marriage and kids were not for everyone, and not at all a requirement for a happy life, but the overwhelming slap in the face of domesticity and couples and partnership made Harry’s chest tighten. All the voices in the room swelled to a crescendo of chatter, none of which was directed at him. He took one step back and looked for the door, but someone gripped his shoulders and he was pulled forward.

“Oh, thank God. I’m so happy you’re here.” Louis’ relieved whisper quieted any other sound in the space. “I’ve been looking everywhere for you.”

Harry blinked rapidly. “You—You were?”

“Yeah, of course.” Louis laughed and released his shoulders, only to start unbuttoning Harry’s long black peacoat. His face was clean-shaven that night. A pale grey, nearly white, crew-neck sweater set off his eyes and his hair was styled in a side bang, some messier pieces licking the base of his neck. He screamed, or whispered, coziness. “You gonna check this? It’s toasty in the main room. Really crowded, as well.”

“Uh…” Harry held his arms at his side as Louis took his coat off for him. “Yeah?”

Louis folded his jacket over his forearm. “Oh, wow, this looks perfect on you. Absolutely perfect.” He ran his palm from Harry’s shoulder to his elbow, and the green velvet beneath his touch changed to a lighter green colour. He stroked upwards to reverse his path. “Does it feel good on?”

“Y-Yeah,” Harry choked out, his throat catching. He and Louis met gazes and both smiled, though Louis’ brow was furrowed slightly. “Yeah, I love it.”

“Are you getting sick again? Your eyes are doing that glossy thing when you don’t feel good.”

Harry looked to the ceiling as he exhaled a choppy laugh, then blinked a few times. “No, I’m not sick. Promise. I’m good.”

“Good. You’d better be healthy. You said we were getting wasted on the company dime tonight and I plan to hold you to that.”

Harry laughed again and bumped their heads. He peered at the air as it shimmered, confused. “Oh, are you…” Harry touched Louis’ hair. He looked at the pads of his fingers and found glittering gold dust. “Are you wearing...body glitter?”

“Ah, shit, no. I was at my nephew’s earlier and he loves glitter, so we were playing with it all day. Doing art stuff.” Louis scratched his head, then shook it. “I thought I’d gotten it all out in the shower.”

“It looks good.”

“Glitter?”

“Yeah.” Harry stroked just above his ear and whispered under his breath, “Moondust in your hair.”

Louis snorted as he handed Harry’s coat to the attendant. “You sound like that Carpenters song you listen to all the time.” He accepted the coat check ticket and said, “Thank you,” to the attendant, missing the sudden flush of Harry’s cheeks. Louis pocketed the ticket and flattened his palm on the small of Harry’s back. “I think I saw a waiter carrying around a new short rib ravioli hors d’oeuvre. Wanna go find him or get drinks first?”

Harry exhaled an involuntary, breathy laugh as they walked. “Yeah.”

“Yeah, what?” Louis chuckled as he opened the ballroom door.

“Yeah,” Harry sighed as Louis’ hand returned to the small of his back. His face ached from his smile. “Just yeah.”

. . .

Loving Heart wanted to encourage their staff to mingle and chat. There was not a seated, formal dinner hour. Instead, there were passed hors d’oeuvre and various stations in the corners of the ballroom with entrees, salads, pasta and sides. There were tables to sit at or high top tables where you could stand to down a quick bite between dances, whatever option you preferred. An eight piece band with brass played big band versions of popular Christmas carols and holiday tunes.

So far, Harry and Louis consumed enough hors d’oeuvres to memorise the names of the waitstaff and downed so much mulled wine that both of their faces had taken on a soft, pink glow. Louis received his Secret Santa gift, a card with an Amazon receipt for a glass decanter and tumbler set, from a man named Ian who worked in HR. Harry found his recipient, a bubbly woman named Lucille who trained any incoming administrative assistants, and gifted her with a massage gift certificate for a spa near the Turtledove Building. Even though it was the brink of October, everyone truly gave off the warmth and excitement of the holidays. They were en route for more wine when someone called, “Harry!”

Harry slowed his steps and glanced towards his name. A woman with cascading scarlet waves and a shimmery black dress waved at him while standing at a hightop table. “Oh, wow. Lou, c’mere.” He gently held Louis’ forearm. Louis changed course to follow him without question. “It’s Marissa. She’s from some of my films. You’ll definitely recognise her.”

Louis followed their chosen path. “It’s Rosie the pilot!”

“Maybe she’ll give you her autograph, since she’s your favourite.”

“Ha ha.”

They reached her table and Harry warmly said, “Hi, love,” as they hugged. She pecked his cheek, leaving a smear of ruby red lipstick. Harry hugged her again. “You look beautiful.”

“Thank you! You, too. I love this on you.” She fingered the label of his blazer. “It’s been too long. Everytime I get a script I pray it’s one of yours.”

“I agree.” Harry stepped back to stand beside Louis and held his hand out. “Marissa, this is Louis, my writing partner. Louis, this is Marissa, who I wish I could write characters for in all my films because she’s that talented.”

Louis and Marissa laughed as they shook hands. “I’m a fan,” he said with a smile, his cheeks flushed. “I love all your work and I am legitimately blown away that you’re Scottish. You did such a convincing Southern accent.”

“Aw, thank you,” she laughed. “You’re so sweet.”

“I thought you said you only saw one of my films?” Harry teased with narrowed eyes.

“Well...I…” Louis ruffled the back of his hair as he grinned. “Maybe I’ve seen a couple of the ones Marissa was in.”

“Oh, really? What else are you not telling me, hm?”

Marissa looked from Louis to Harry, her lips pursed in an amused smirk. “I thought you like to write alone?”

“Erm,” Harry droned, and he and Louis glanced at each other. “Celia paired us up to do some work for the holidays and we...uh…We kind of…”

“Work well together,” Louis said. Harry’s dimple deepened.

“Well, isn’t that nice.” Marissa batted her lashes at Harry. Harry dropped his gaze to cough-laugh into his fist. “Uh oh. Alabama Slammer coming through.”

“Pardon me, fellas, water on the way for this lovely lady,” a deep, Southern-accented voice said behind them. He slapped Harry’s back as he passed. “Styles! How are you, brother?” They hugged tightly, swaying as they hugged. “It’s been forever!”

“Yeah, it’s been too long. Arthur, this is—”

“You’re Louis Tomlinson,” Arthur said as he put waters in front of Marissa. He held his hand out. “Happy holidays, man.”

“Same to you.” Louis smiled confusedly as they shook hands and he felt as if the bones of his hand would never recover. Arthur loomed over everyone with the broadest shoulders he’d ever seen. “Sorry, have we met?”

“No, but I was this close to getting Baxter in The Shopkeeper’s Secret. I looked into your other stuff to prep for the audition. I recognise you from a Google.”

“Babe, don’t admit to people you Google Image search them,” Marissa said with a good-natured chuckle. Arthur laughed, loud and hearty, and stood beside her, hugging her with one arm. Marissa looked to Louis. “He was so bummed he didn’t get it. He even had us watch the premiere so he could do a live critique of the actor who got Baxter.”

“Babe, don’t tell screenwriters I talk shit about actors,” Arthur said on another hearty laugh, and the whole group erupted. Harry glanced from Marissa to Arthur, then looked to Louis and found he was watching the pair with equal curiosity. “Seriously, though, I love your stuff. I’m a big ghost guy.”

“If you knew how many ghost hunting shows we watched.” Marissa squeezed Arthur’s hand on her shoulder and a diamond ring glinted on her second finger. “I think we’re seriously considering naming the baby Boo.”

Their smiles did not fade, but understanding bloomed on their faces at the same time. “O-Oh,” Harry said happily. “Are you two…”

“Hells yes we are,” Arthur said, pointing two fingers at Marissa’s middle. “Show ‘em, babe.” She rolled her eyes as she smiled at Arthur and turned to the side. The new angle revealed that her sparkly black babydoll gown did an excellent job of hiding her pregnant belly when she was facing forward, but from the side she looked as if she had about a month before little Boo came into the world.

“Oh, wow, congratulations!” Harry exclaimed. He hugged each of them again, and Marissa held Harry for extra long. “That’s amazing,” he said softer into her hair. “Congratulations.”

Marissa pulled back and cradled his jawline. “It’s because of you.” She thumbed her lipstick smear away. “We never would have met if not for your beautiful story. Maybe we should name the baby Harold.”

“Wow,” he whispered, his voice thick. He chuckled and scrunched his nose as she pinched his cheek. “That’s amazing. I...I don’t even know what to say. I’m just so happy for both of you.”

She brought her lips to his ear, then whispered, “And now it’s your turn.” Harry’s mouth gaped, and Marissa laughed quietly as Louis and Arthur talked to each other about EMF Meters. “We’ll have to be better about being in touch. Keep you posted about little Boo Harold.”

“Boo Harold has a nice ring to it.”

“And you can tell me all about whatever script you two are cooking up.”

“Oh my God, you’re killing me,” he said as he laughed, hiding his burning face with his hands. “I need another drink.”

“You two go,” Marissa said, shooing them away. Louis and Arthur stopped ghost talking. “Leave us to our waters. Go have a drink for me. Have two or even three. I miss wine more than I can express.”

. . .

They took her advice and enjoyed a few more glasses of mulled wine. They were not quite at the level of drunkenness of ravioli night, but were close enough that they agreed to get dinner with Celia and her husband and found out Louis was neighbours with Tara’s girlfriend (a surprise within a surprise). Harry insisted, “We should eat,” after doing shots of peppermint schnapps with Nicholas. He walked them to one of the food stations. “I’m seeing stars.”

“Isn’t that your normal setting?”

“Har har har,” Harry laughed, squeezing Louis to his side while nudging his ribs. Louis cackled, but no one noticed. The brass band was wailing Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree in a room so crowded the glass walls and doors were completely fogged. “Look, this looks so good. I’m fucking starved.”

Louis finished the last dregs of his wine then deposited his glass on a tabletop already littered with glasses. His steps went a bit crooked as they neared the food. He watched Harry pick up a tiny white plate, then start to add bits to it. “Are you fucking kidding me? A table of fucking prime cuts of meat and you take the orange slice garnishes?”

“It’s not a garnish,” Harry giggled.

“Why don’t you eat the fucking watermelon carved into a silver bell? Maybe the cheese Santa?”

Someone asked, “How come your scripts never include as many repetitions of ‘fucking?’”

“Our scripts don’t include any fucking,” Louis groaned as he turned towards the new voice behind him. He was met by warm brown eyes and a fresh buzz cut. He blinked and straightened. “Oh shit,” he laughed loudly. He pulled Liam Payne into a tight hug. Liam’s navy blue suit felt cool and smooth under his flushed cheek. “What are you doing here? Where is your hair?”

“I’m contractually obligated to attend.”

Louis leaned back but kept his arms around Liam’s back. “That fucking sucks, mate.”

“I’m kidding, you idiot,” Liam laughed and walked them towards Harry. “It’s a free party and I’m a starving actor, who recently finished a successful Off-Broadway run where I played a soldier.” He deposited Louis near the chocolate fountain, stepped in front of him, and held his hand out. “You must be Harry.”

Harry balanced his plate against his chest to shake Liam’s hand. “I am! And I hope my hands aren’t all orange-y. It’s great to finally meet you. Louis always tells the funniest stories from when you two were on set together.”

“Great to meet you, too. And no worries. Your hands are as perfect as Louis described.”

Harry laughed, “What?” with a scrunched face.

“You wanna hear how he described your—”

“Woah, woah, woah!” Louis stepped between them, holding a stick of chocolate covered marshmallows fresh from the chocolate fountain. “What in the world type of nonsense shit are you talking about?”

“Nothing you shouldn’t have already said yourself,” Liam said sweetly.

Louis handed Liam his stick of marshmallows. “Eat this. We’re getting some air.”

“Some fucking air?”

“Wait, what body part were you going to say next? I’m so curious now,” Harry said as he laughed and was pushed away from Liam. Louis put Harry’s plate on an empty table and held his hips, walking behind him. “I wanna know.”

“Nothing, he’s just being silly.” Louis tried the handle for one of the glass deck doors, then pushed the door open. A gush of cold air walloped them. “Let’s see what’s out here.”

“I don’t know if we’re allowed on the balcony. What if we get in trouble?”

“By who, Celia? What’s she going to do, throw us in Love Jail?”

“Don’t even joke about that near her. She’ll have us writing a romance called Love Jail and add it to our docket.” They snorted, their breath puffing out into the night air. They moved to the edge of the enormous balcony and peered out at the city, standing side by side. “Pretty,” Harry whispered. “All the lights actually do feel kind of Christmas-y.” He peered at Louis, who was silent beside him. “How are you not freezing right now?”

“I’m wasted.”

Harry laughed. “I’m nearly there with you. My toes feel tingly. Nice night, though.”

Louis watched his breath steam into the crisp air. He dug his hands into his trouser pockets and curled his shoulders forward. “Fuck, it is cold out.”

“We can go back inside.”

“No, no, I’m fine. Erm,” Louis rolled up on the balls of his feet, “did your Secret Santa like her gift?”

“She did, I think.” Harry turned and rested his back against the railing. “She said something about how when the mundane hell of office life gets to be too much, she looks forward to going to the spa and napping in a dark room for her lunch hour.”

“I feel her on that.”

Harry checked his watch. “I guess my Secret Santa didn’t come tonight.”

“Maybe you were naughty this year.”

“I wish. I could put my hand on a Bible and swear that I have been the least naughty this year.”

“Ha.” They fell into a comfortable silence. Louis traced the grout of the balcony bricks with his thumb. He nibbled his bottom lip and took a deep breath. He reached into his back pocket and took out a red envelope. As he stared at the city, so vast and alive, he wondered if anyone out there was as nervous as he was about giving another human an envelope at that very moment. “Uh…” He turned towards Harry and held it out. “Merry Christmas.”

Harry looked from the offered envelope to Louis’ face. “What?”

“Merry Christmas. I’m your Secret Santa.”

“You are? Oh my God, that’s so cool.” Harry accepted the envelope and he smiled wider. “Thank you. I can’t believe you didn’t slip up and tell me. You had such an advantage, though.” He tapped a corner of the envelope twice against Louis’ chest. “You actually know me instead of having to ask Tara what everyone likes.”

“Yeah, well, uh”—Louis scratched behind his ear and kept his eyes on Harry’s shoes as he heard the envelope rip—“I hope you like it.”

“I’m sure I’ll love it.” Harry took the card out. Louis glanced up and watched Harry read. Harry mouthed along, the skin beside his eyes crinkling. “Where did you find this card!?”

“I, uh, made it.”

Harry’s brows shot up. “You made it?”

“You think they sell silly knock-knock joke Christmas cards about oranges in the middle of September?”

Harry giggled delightedly and read aloud, “Knock knock, who’s there? Orange. Orange who? Orange you glad it’s Christmas?” He closed the card and held it to his chest. “I love it. Thank you.”

“You didn’t even open the actual gift,” Louis laughed. His breath puffing in the air reminded him of the fact that they were outside, and he shivered. He wrapped his jumper sleeves over his knuckles and crossed his arms. “Sometime this century, please. I’m freezing.”

“The card is so amazing on its own. I don’t know how you can top it.” Harry opened the card and took out a thin white envelope. His forehead wrinkled as he peered inside the smaller envelope, then pulled out what appeared to be two pieces of thin gold cardboard. Upon lifting them high enough to read the tiny print, he realised they were concert tickets. “The Nutcracker?”

“Mmhmm.”

Harry studied the tickets and his brows furrowed even more. “That’s my favourite.”

“Yup.”

“How did you…” Harry exhaled shakily, grinning wide enough for his dimples to show. His eyes glimmered in the moonlight. “How did you know?”

Louis’ shivers became uncontrollable. “You said something about it, I think. And I, like, saw an ad in the paper about the ballet doing it in the winter. It just...made sense to me.”

“That’s so thoughtful. That’s just...I can’t believe you...Was it…” His motions slowed as he placed his card in his inner jacket pocket, and hesitance seemed to weigh his words. “When did I tell you? Was it after when I was ill?” Louis held his stare, but said nothing, steam puffing from his nostrils as he shook. “Was it…” Harry licked his bottom lip, then pressed his lips together. He breathed for a moment. Quieter, he asked, “It was on the couch, wasn’t it? When we fell asleep? And we…”

Louis took a deep breath, then blurted out, “I spooned you, okay? I admit it. Now it’s out there. I spooned you. You said you wanted a cuddle and to listen to Carpenters and you were sick and we were drunk and we’d been so stressed and I did it to make you feel better and you said it was—”

“The happiest moment of my life?”

Louis blinked rapidly. “Excuse me?”

Harry’s stomach twisted with nerves, but the fire in his chest kept his heart beating strong. “I remember when I said that. I didn’t the next morning. But then the next time I was listening to our Christmas-ing playlist, I had a flash or something when I heard Merry Christmas Darling.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Tell you what? Come over here. You’re freezing.” Louis hurried over and shoved his hands up the bottom of his blazer, resting his forehead on Harry’s shoulder. Harry wrapped his arms around him. “So we spooned. What’s the big deal?”

Louis sputtered as he pulled the bottom of Harry’s black button up from his trousers. Harry tensed for a split second when Louis’ chilly fingers made skin on skin contact, but then relaxed. “You never said anything about it.”

“What was I supposed to say?”

“I don’t know. I didn’t know if it weirded you out or made you think I was…” Louis looked up at the sky, his voice trailing off. “I was a creep or something.”

“Of course it wouldn’t weird me out. And you’re not a creep.” Harry brushed his nose along Louis’ temple. He could smell his crisp shampoo and see the barest hint of glitter still clinging to his hair. “You’re...you.”

“Look up.”

Harry lifted his face. “Huh?”

“Look up, love,” Louis said on a quiet laugh, then jutted his chin up. “Look.”

Harry tore his gaze from his blue eyes to look at the sky. His mouth fell open, and he tightened his arms around Louis’ lower back. Fluffy white flakes fluttered to land on his cheeks and lodge in the swirl of Louis’ hair. “It’s snowing.”

“Based on that metallic clunking sound, I’d guess that Loving Heart has someone on the other side of the building with a snow machine. Probably poor Tara. But it’s still a lovely touch.”

“This is amazing. I can’t remember the last time we got proper snow, not just a dusting.” Harry stepped back while gripping Louis’ hand. He twirled him and Louis laughed before he spun away. Harry cupped his hands, watching bits of white fluff melt into his life line. Snowflakes lingered on the cuffs of his blazer and he tilted his head upwards with his eyes shut. “It’s like we’re in one of our films.”

“It is. We should get Max and Rosie out here to perform a snow kiss.”

“They should. If it were me, I’d have…” He trailed off. He lowered his gaze as Louis slipped his hands up his shirt to rest on the small of his back. Louis stood with his nose practically nudging his chin. He could smell the sweet berry wine they had been drinking, warm breaths puffing between them. Louis arched his brows.

“If it were you, what?”

“If it were me and my spouse, I’d have snow kissed them before the first flake hit the ground.”

“I believe that’s called a regular kiss, but you’re the architect of all that stuff, so I’ll take your word for it.”

Harry rolled his eyes and watched the falling snow. “Yeah. Some architect.”

Louis rubbed his palms up and down the small of Harry’s back as he studied him. They started to sway involuntarily. “What do you mean?”

“Nothing.”

“Have you...Have you never had a snow kiss?” Even with a nose ruddy from the cold, Harry’s cheeks burned warmer at the tips as he avoided Louis’ crinkle-eyed stare. “Aw, love, how come? They’re your favourite.”

Snow trickled off Harry’s forehead. “It never worked out. Timing wise. If I was seeing someone, it was never at the same time as snow. If it snowed, I was single. It snows so rarely here. It never worked. Fuck.” He exhaled a choppy laugh. “I’m a fraud.”

Louis laughed loudly and dug his fingernails into his back. “Oh, come now. You are not. Writers write about dragons but have never ridden them. They write about places far away that they may never visit, or places that have never existed at all.”

“Yes, but it snows on Earth. People kiss each other on Earth.”

“We live in London. It hardly ever snows. It’d be like trying to catch lightning in a bottle.”

“Still. I feel silly.”

“You’ll get yours.”

“Right.”

“Hell, I’ll give you one, if you want.”

As the snow swirled, Harry’s head tilted. He narrowed his gaze. “What?”

Some of Louis’ quick-tongued bravado slipped away. He cleared his throat. “I meant...I only meant I would kiss you. In the snow, in this snow. Now.” Harry stared at him as if he was speaking backwards and Louis’ eyes widened, then fell to study at the hint of collarbone revealed by Harry’s black button down. “Like in one of our films. Sterile and boring. Like kissing a brother.”

Harry brushed snow off the top of Louis’ head. “Do I look enough like shit for you tonight?”

“What?”

“You said you’re looking for someone to make out with and sit around looking like shit together.”

“Oh. I...No.” Louis’ voice cracked. He lowered his face as Harry’s fingertips meandered down the back of his neck. “You don’t look like shit. At all.” He dropped to a whisper. “Ever.”

“You’re kind to offer, but I’d prefer to have my snow kiss be from someone who actually wants to kiss me.”

“Well, yeah. It would be.”

Harry stopped his gentle strokes. Their swaying came to a halt. Even the ambient sounds of the balcony, such as cars honking below or the clunk of the snow machine, were swallowed into the flurry-filled air. Harry cradled Louis’ jawline with the heel of his hand and tilted his head, guiding him to look up. Their gazes met and Harry squinted with wet, shimmering eyes, Louis shivering against his chest with his jawline locked. Harry swallowed. The pounding fullness of anticipation throbbed so violently inside his chest it was almost too much to stand.

“What did you say?”

Louis wrote scripts of first kiss scenes more often than he did laundry, but would never look at them the same again. There is nothing sweet about it. There is nothing easy about it, only nerves and flop sweat as he wondered if he had made an enormous mistake thinking Harry could possibly feel even an inkling of the same way. He could not concoct witty banter on a snowy balcony with the man of his dreams if his life depended on it. He’d have to turn in his romance writer’s card.

“Lou?”

Louis stared at the curve of Harry’s upper lip, his breath puffing in uneven bursts as he rasped, “I...I...I—”

“Look, everyone! It’s a Loving Heart Winter Wonderland!”

They looked towards Celia’s voice. The entire party spilled out onto the balcony from pairs of sliding doors, accompanied by the band playing Winter Wonderland. They glanced at each other, lips moving without speaking, then stepped apart. Louis’ hands fell from Harry’s heated skin, Harry’s touch fading from his jawline. People filled in the space around them, chatter and excitement giving the balcony a buzz.

Liam came up to them with two glasses of warm, steaming mulled wine. “You two alright? Cold out here.”

They each took a glass and drank deeply. Louis finished his cup first, then panted hot breaths into the air. “Yeah. We’re okay.”

Harry wiped his mouth with the back of his wrist. “I need more wine.”

“So do I.” Harry glanced at him and they quickly looked away, their motions awkward and jerky. He watched Harry walk until Harry looked over his shoulder and caught Louis staring at him. Louis spun to face forward and squeezed his eyes shut. He muttered to himself, “Our Colorado trip together is going to be a fucking delight.”

Liam patted him on the back. “Cheer up, buddy. You, of all people, know there has to be an interruption scene before the big shebang.”

Louis squinted at him. “What?”

Liam grinned and squeezed his shoulder. “Nevermind. Don’t want to spoil it for you. Let’s just enjoy the snow.”