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It’s the kind of cold that makes the air hard to breathe, makes the lungs ache with every breath but you keep breathing anyway, because breathing’s the only thing you still know how to do with your brain frozen nearly solid and your fingertips so cold they’re blue. Breathe and keep your head down, tucked into your coat if you’ve got a collar big enough, burrow deeper into the cloth coat your mother wrapped you up in before you left the house and focus on the way your toes point inward toward each other, the sound of the horses’ hooves against the frozen road, the frustrated whinny they let out every time the wind blows again, somehow even harder than last time, and makes every living thing in its path wish for shelter and a warm, all encompassing hug from trusted arms.

Or maybe that’s just Harry, his curly head tucked into his own coat and nuzzled under Gemma’s arm, her slim frame doing little to keep Harry’s bones from chattering all together. It’s the kind of cold that goes way beyond teeth chattering; no, it’s full blown bone chattering, his whole body trembling like the surface of the pond on their family farm on a breezy day in summer. Oh, how Harry wishes it was summer now, that he were running down this path in canvas shoes and trousers made of breezy cotton, picked from the very plants in his backyard. Instead he presses closer to Gemma, trying to find any morsel of warmth he can steal for himself.

It’s Saturday today, or else they wouldn’t be outside at all. Even a miserable Nebraska December cannot keep the Styles children in the house on a bright Saturday morning, not when there’s adventures to be had in town. They’re not allowed to go to Hastings on any day except for Saturdays, and even then they’re meant to keep it short, pop in for a visit at the drugstore on West 3rd Street and head home immediately after. Hastings is no place for two young children to spend much time all on their own according to their father, and had Gemma not had a friend in the shop owner’s son, they wouldn’t be allowed to go at all.

The horses seem to know all on their own to slow to a stop along a certain stretch of sidewalk, and when Harry looks up from Gemma’s armpit he finds they’re parked right in front of Troy’s. He springs from the carriage and bolts as quickly as his small legs will take him up and over the curb, pulling hard on the heavy door to the store while Gemma tethers the horses to the lamppost. Harry takes his time wandering down the first aisle of the store, perusing the collection of sweets, until quick footsteps come bounding down the stairs at the back of the store.

Harry pokes his head around the shelving unit and grins, catching sight of the other boy before he’s seen himself. The other boy is a bit taller, a bit more mature, though he’s still a child as well, as much as he likes to deny it. He’ll be 10 in a few weeks, the same age as Gemma. Gemma just turned 10 the other day, and Harry will turn 8 the following February, but to his absolute dismay he’s still a baby in their eyes.

“Ah, Harry, there you are,” the boy grins, skipping over to where Harry is still peeking around the candy aisle. “I thought I heard your little feet come in.”

“Nonsense,” Harry says, looking down at his feet. “You can’t tell size just by hearing, can you? How’d you know my feet weren’t big feet?”

“They are big feet,” the other boy says, “for your age, anyway. You’re growing up, Harry, aren’t you?”

“Yes!” Harry beams. “Soon I’ll be just as big as you and Gems, you’ll see.”

“Come to the back with me, I’ve got something to show you,” the boy says, grinning at Harry with all of his crooked little teeth. “My dad just gave it to me this morning, says it’s an early birthday present.”

Harry follows him behind the checkout counter and through the door, into the small storage room where they keep all the extra stock for the store. He takes his seat on the stairs that lead up to the apartment and the other boy sits down one step below him, so Harry can see over his shoulder.

“Look,” he says, pulling a small silver thing out of his pocket, turning it over in his hand. “Do you know what it is?”

“No,” Harry frowns, leaning closer to get a better look. “What is it?”

“It’s a pocket knife,” the boy says, and presses his thumb into a small groove along the edge of the handle. The blade snaps open and Harry jumps, but smiles immediately.

“Neat!” he cheers, clapping once. “Show me again!”

The other boy snaps the blade back into the handle and positions his thumb over the groove again, pressing down belatedly, when Harry gets huffy, making him jump again.

Harry squeals with delight, reaching over the boy’s shoulder to take the knife from him carefully. The boy snaps it back shut and then hands it over, and gently moves Harry’s thumb with his own fingers to help him find the groove.

There’s a quiet click from the doorway, and when Harry looks up he finds Gemma watching them, her brand new camera in her hands. She eyes the knife in Harry’s hand and shuffles over, frowning down at it. “What’s going on here, boys?” she asks, plopping down on the floor in front of the stairs, her long wool skirt stretched over her knees.

“Louis’s showing me his new pocket knife!” Harry says, pushes the blade closed and then holds it out, being careful to keep it away from anyone’s face, and pops it open again.

“It was my dad’s,” Louis says. “He got a new one, so he let me have his old one. It’s pretty good, but the one he’s got now is better, sharper. What have you got there, Gem?”

“My birthday present,” Gemma grins, holding up her new camera for Louis to see. “My parents gave it to me yesterday, after we had supper. It’s a folding pocket Kodak. It’s not the newest kind, but it’s the kind my parents could afford to get me. They want me to take lots of photographs so I’ll always remember important things, like you guys,” she says, placing the camera in her lap and reaching out to ruffle Harry and Louis’s hair with both of her hands.

Harry feels a swell of warmth inside his chest at being considered an important thing, but he still smacks Gemma’s hand away, just to keep up appearances. Louis just smiles dotingly at both of them, and then jumps off the stairs to run back out to the store. Gemma follows him in a flash, her ten year old legs long and quick, and Harry stumbles along behind them like the stubby little kid he still is.

“Our father gave us a whole dollar to spend today,” Gemma beams, “since I just had such an important birthday.”

“What are you going to buy?” Louis asks, hoisting himself up to sit on the checkout counter, feet hanging a couple inches off the floor.

Gemma turns to where Harry’s pouting behind her, feeling left out. As much as he loves his sister, he hates her birthday. She gets all the attention for a whole week until everyone remembers that Harry’s around, too. Gemma’s a good sister, though, and she drapes her arm over Harry’s shoulders as she looks back up at Louis.

“I think I’ll get whatever Harry wants,” she says, pinching his cheek just lightly enough to not be annoying. “He’s been rather neglected lately.”

Harry’s mood turns instantly, a grin lighting up his face. “You mean it, Gem?” he breathes, pulling at her skirt excitedly. “Whatever I want?”

“Sure,” Gemma says, releasing him to roam the store. Harry heads straight for the candy aisle, picking up where he left off perusing his options. Gemma keeps chatting with Louis at the checkout until Harry comes back with a few carefully selected treats in his hands, dropping them onto the counter beside Louis’s lap.

Louis hops down to punch everything into the register and count it all up, and Gemma hands Harry the dollar so he can pay Louis himself. He was careful not to spend the whole dollar so Gemma can get something, as well, so when Louis hands him back a dime he drops it into Gemma’s hand proudly.

“You’re sweet, Harry,” Gemma hums, and picks up a treat for herself to spend the last dime. Louis packs everything up into a brown paper bag and accompanies them outside when they leave, helping Gemma untie the horses from the post.

“Have a safe ride,” Louis says, helping Gemma up into the carriage and then Harry behind her, tucking his hands into his armpits immediately after.

“Get inside, Louis, you’ll freeze!” Gemma says, already tucking her chin into her coat to prepare for the ride back to the farm.

“Goodbye, Gemma, bye Harry!” Louis calls, waving quickly before darting back inside the store.

“Bye, Louis!” Harry yells, catches Louis’s answering smile through the glass door. Gemma tugs the reins to get the horses going and Harry tucks himself back into Gemma’s side, hugging the bag of sweets close to his chest as they head home.

Saturdays are truly the best day of the week. For one day out of every seven, Harry gets to go into town with his sister and act like a big kid, gets to see Louis and play with him for just a couple of minutes. He’s often jealous that Gemma’s the one Louis’ age, that she gets to see him at school and be his friend. Harry just hopes that when they get older it won’t matter as much that Louis is almost three whole years older than him, and they can be good friends forever. He remembers the photograph Gemma took of them, how she said they were important, and tugs on her skirt a little to get her attention.

“Gem,” he says, taking his face out of his coat just long enough to speak. “What are you going to do with that photograph of Louis and me?”

“Gonna get it developed when Pa can take me,” she says. “And then I’m gonna keep it in a box until we get old, and then we’ll be able to look at it and remember what it was like when we were kids.”

“We’ll all still be together then, right?” Harry asks. “Me, you, and Lou?”

“Of course,” Gemma says. “You’re my brother, and Louis is my best friend. We’re always gonna know each other,” she says.

“Okay,” Harry hums, tucking his smile back into his coat.

Winter is horrible, and for the next few months at least their family will be living off the scarce profit from the summer crops, and some of their animals will die of the cold and things will be hard but Harry’s not thinking about that future; he’s thinking about the one where he still gets to see Louis sometimes, when they’re all grown and he and Gemma take over the farm and Louis takes over the store in Hastings. He hopes they still go every Saturday to see him, to buy sweets from him, and maybe when they get older they’ll be able to stay longer and chat more. Harry can hardly wait.

The horses find their little farmhouse on the corner of North Hansen Avenue and East 94th Street with no problem, and their father rushes out the back door all bundled up to help them detach the carriage and get the horses into the stable. Ma takes the bag of sweets and puts it up high on a shelf for after supper, and then tells them to go wash up for lunch. Gemma beats him to the washroom sink, of course, because she’s older and her legs are longer, but she’s a good sister, the only one Harry’s got, so he supposes he can let her win every now and again. After all, she’s already told him they’re going to be friends for the rest of their lives, and Harry trusts her.

-

Harry’s life has hardly been a whirlwind, but when he looks back on it, it feels strange that so much has changed. In some ways, he still feels like the seven year old boy who used to cry about skinned knees and lived for Saturday trips into town with his sister. He’s twenty now, though, and he doesn’t do very much crying anymore, even when it feels like he should.

The farm work has fallen heavily on his shoulders ever since Pa’s been on bedrest. It started with a simple fever, but now he coughs as long as he’s awake, and he’s a tough old man but he’s withering away quickly. It’s killing Harry to see him like this. Pa has always been a strong, brave man; he moved his wife and newborn daughter out to Nebraska from coastal Massachusetts 23 years ago to start a new life on the frontier, and now he’s now reduced to a weak, wheezing shell of a man. Sometimes he gets better for a few days, and Harry gets his hopes up that he’ll make a miraculous recovery, but it never lasts long. Each time he tries to drag himself out of bed and back out to the farm he gets even sicker, and it’s not a pattern he can keep up terribly long.

Gemma has been in charge of the farm since their father has been ill. She’s remarkably good at it, even though it’s only been one growing season. She’s been micromanaging since she was old enough to tell a potato from a turnip, and while their father always found it quite annoying when she was six, they’re all quite thankful for it now. She rearranged just about the entire farm this spring, and the crops have done incredibly well, better than they’ve ever done before.

Harry would like to take some credit for it, seeing as he’s the one sweating from before sunrise to long after sunset, but he knows it’s all Gemma. She’s absolutely brilliant, always has been, and she has clearly found her niche. It’s like she knows what’s going to happen before it happens, like she can speak to the crops to tell them they need to be bigger and better than ever. If Harry wasn’t such a realist, he’d accuse her of being a witch, or something, but they don’t live anywhere near Salem anymore and he doesn’t believe in that stuff, anyway.

Magic, as he’s always seen it, is for fairy tales and bedtime stories. There’s no such thing as witches, as fairies, as fate. He’s been going to church long enough to know that God is pretty much a sure thing, but even that seems hard to believe these days, like when his father first got sick. Harry spent weeks scowling on Sunday mornings until his mother convinced him that God has a plan, and Harry’s just hoping that plan spares them all a little pain soon.

He’s just finishing cutting the grass, arms sore and fingers stiff around the scythe. He hopes that the harvest is good enough this year that they’ll be able to afford a plow like the family next door. Lord, would Harry love a plow.

He’d especially love to get the hell off of this farm and never look back, but that’s not really an option. He wants to go to college, get a degree and do something, anything that isn’t this, but they don’t have the money, and they probably never will. All part of God’s plan, Harry thinks bitterly, finishing the grass with one last swipe of his scythe before dragging it back to the tool shed.

He finds Gemma and his mother at the kitchen table when he trudges into the house through the back door. It’s hardly cooler in here than outside, but at least he’s sheltered from the brutal August sun. His mother wordlessly passes him a cup of ginger water and Harry gulps it down quickly, dropping into an empty chair and resting his eyes for a moment.

It’s quiet. Any amount of quiet is odd in this house, because between Ma and Gemma there’s always someone singing or talking or laughing about something, but this particular quiet is peculiar and unsettling in a way Harry’s not used to. He cracks his eyes open and peers down his nose, glistening with sweat, at the two women.

Gemma looks a bit ill, her face pale and eyes wide. Anne just looks shocked, stunned into silence, staring straight ahead at Gemma’s unfocused eyes.

“Is everything alright?” Harry asks, voice quiet and tired and raspy. His stomach is sinking slowly, but he won’t let himself jump to conclusions, won’t allow his brain to picture the worst case scenario it’s trying to picture. “Ma? Gemma?”

His mother finally blinks and looks down, pressing her palms together and then pressing her hands to her lips, like she’s processing something. Harry’s eyes shift to Gemma, but she doesn’t seem to notice. Finally she reaches out and slides the paper in front of her along the table to Harry without so much as a glance in his direction.

Harry snatches the paper off of the table with a slightly trembling hand, eyes sweeping over the numbers scribbled all over the page. It doesn’t really make any sense, but Harry’s never been terribly good at math. It was always Gemma’s favorite subject in school, but Harry was always more of a writer and a speaker.

“What is this?” he asks after a moment. None of the numbers look familiar to him, and he has no clue what they’re in reference to. They’re big, the numbers, large and round and way more than Harry’s used to seeing. Finally Gemma huffs a breath, and when Harry looks up, she’s smiling at the spot she’s been staring at the past few minutes.

“Profit,” she croaks, her eyes settling on Harry’s face eventually. “Projected profit, that is, if the harvest keeps up the way it looks like it will,” she says.

Harry blinks, looking back down at the paper in his hand. There’s- these numbers are big, bigger than Harry can comprehend. “What?” he sputters, putting the paper down and raking his hands through his sweat-matted hair. “I mean- how?”

“Peterson’s crop got diseased. Half of it’s dead, half is just unusable. The only other farm in town that’s as big as ours is the Jones’ on the other side of town. They overwatered in preparation for a dry summer, but it’s been just wet enough that their crop is pretty much ruined, too,” Gemma says. Her voice is calm and even, completely clear, even though Harry feels like he’s about to vibrate out of his chair.

“So,” Harry huffs a laugh, combing his hair out of his face again and looking back down at the paper. “So we’re the most successful farm in town this season? And we’ve also got the best crop we’ve ever had?”

Gemma nods, pressing her lips together as she watches it all click in Harry’s brain. Ma finally lets out a gasping sort of laugh, shaking her head in disbelief.

“So we’re- This is-” Harry can’t even finish a thought, staring down at the number circled at the bottom of the page.

“We’re rich,” Gemma says, finally breaking into a grin. “Or we’re going to be, anyway.”

Harry laughs loud and bright, standing up so quickly he nearly knocks his chair over backwards. He drags Gemma up out of her chair and hugs her, twirling around the kitchen as she laughs into his ear. Ma joins them after a moment, and Harry pulls her in close, relief washing over him like a bath he didn’t know he needed.

It takes them all a few minutes to calm down, and finally they break apart, Ma wiping tears from her cheeks and Gemma doing a couple more twirls around the kitchen on her own. Harry loves them both so much his chest hurts, aches more than any other part of his tired body.

“Go wash up, dear,” Ma says finally, shooing him off as she steps around him to get to the stove. There’s a pot of something threatening to boil over, and Harry’s stomach growls at the promise of supper. She turns around and hands him the pot of hot water, sending him off with a knowing, “supper will be ready by the time you’re done.”

Harry brings the pot to the bathroom and finds a bath already drawn, ready and waiting for him. He pours in the hot water from the pot to heat the bath up just a bit more and then sinks into it, scrubbing the dirt and sweat from his body. His mind is still swirling with numbers, with absolute joy.

As soon as he finishes his bath he drains it and pulls on some clean clothes, eager to rejoin Ma and Gemma in the kitchen. Gemma is setting the table for supper while Ma readies a tray to bring to Pa in bed, and Harry pulls Gemma aside once all the places are set.

“This is a lot of money, Gemma,” he says, reaching for the paper that’s been left on the worktop. “What are we gonna- I mean, we’re going to use it to help Pa, right?”

Gemma sighs, glancing over her shoulder to make sure they’re alone. “Of course,” she says, but it doesn’t sound convincing. “If he’ll let us, I mean.”

“Why wouldn’t he let us?” Harry frowns.

“You know how proud he is,” Gemma says, rolling her eyes a little. “He won’t feel right with us spending all of this on him. I told him earlier, before I even told Ma. He’s really proud of me, of us, I mean, but I don’t think he’s going to be happy with us spending it on him.”

“Then what are we supposed to spend it on?” Harry asks. “I mean, I suppose we could just save it, that would probably be the best option. Or we could expand the farm a little, hire some new hands, maybe invest in some more cows or-”

“He wants to send you to college,” Gemma cuts him off, eyes sparkling. “And so do I. We’re- I’m sending you to college,” she says quietly.

Harry blinks, watching her for a long moment like she might say she’s kidding. “Are you serious? Gemma-”

“Don’t say anything,” Gemma says, clapping a hand over his mouth. “You always wanted to go to college, don’t you remember? You always used to talk about growing up and going to school and being anything other than a farmer. That’s real now, Harry, you can do that,” she says, grinning up at him.

“But that’s,” he shakes his head, can’t believe this is really happening. “Won’t you need me here? I mean, Ma always told me college wasn’t something normal people did, that I should stay here and help and-”

“Harry, we have enough money to send you to college and hire three men to take your place. And if things keep up like this, we’ll keep making more money each year, and then you can graduate and do whatever you want and you’ll have money all your own,” she says. “Maybe I’m thinking too far ahead, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable.”

“College,” Harry breathes, pinching at his lip a bit. “Gemma, college? I’m really going to be able to go?” he feels a bit childish tearing up over it, but it’s a dream he never thought he’d see come true, and he’s rightfully overwhelmed.

“Wherever you want,” Gemma laughs, thumbing under Harry’s eyes to brush his tears away. “Law school, medical school- heck, you could become the President, if you wanted. It’s all at your feet now, Harry, look,” she says, squeezing his hand.

Harry laughs and hugs her again, burying his face in her sweet smelling hair. “Law school,” he says, mumbling into her neck. “Law school. Maybe President someday, but law school for now,” he decides.

“You’ve got time to decide,” Gemma assures him, squeezing him tight before pulling away to start plating their supper. “Whatever you do, you’re going to be amazing at it.”

Supper passes in a blur, and by the time it’s over, Harry’s so excited to go to college he can hardly breathe. He’s not letting it become a sure thing in his mind yet, though, because there’s one thing he still thinks the money should be going to that doesn’t involve him at all.

Pa is sitting up in bed when Harry knocks on the door, spooning beans into his mouth gingerly. He nods to the chair beside his bed and Harry sits down wordlessly, waiting for him to swallow his mouthful before he says anything.

“Gemma told me about the money,” he says, voice quiet. “And what you think we should do with it.”

“We don’t have the money yet, Harry. Nothing’s quite set in stone,” Pa says. His voice is so weak, so tired sounding, even though all he does these days is sleep and rest.

“I understand that,” Harry says. “And I’m not going to get my hopes up. But I just- are you sure that that’s what you want to do? Are you sure we wouldn’t be better off using it to pay for a doctor? Gemma says that if things keep up like this we’ll make even more money next year, so maybe I could just go to college then? It just seems like-”

“Harry,” his father interrupts, wheezing a little at the force of his own voice. Harry hands him the cup of water from his bedside table, and he chokes down a few gulps before going on. “Look at me. I’m old, and even if the best doctor in the country came here and fixed me up, I haven’t got much longer, anyway. But you, you’re young, and smart, and I want you to have everything I didn’t. You could become a doctor, maybe, and if I’m still kicking around by the time you’re done, well, you can come back and make a bionic man, and I wouldn’t doubt you a day in the process,” he says.

Harry smiles gently, looking down at his knees. “Law school,” he says, an echo of what he told Gemma earlier. “I want to go to law school. Gemma thinks I could become President,” he chuckles. “But I think I’d like to be a lawyer.”

“And a damn good one you’ll be,” his father says, reaching out for Harry with one weak, beat up hand. Harry scoots his chair closer and lets Pa hold his face, holding eye contact while his father studies him closely. “No matter what, Harry, you’ll be okay, and I’m sure of it. I’d like to think I raised you well enough to do whatever you put your mind to. You and your sister both,” he says.

“You did,” Harry smiles. It’s dim in the room, and Harry’s glad for it. He doesn’t want Pa to see the tears building in his eyes. “If you want me to go to college, dad, I’ll go. Thank you.”

“Thank your sister,” his father says, smiling at him dreamily. “She’s the mastermind here, not me.”

“She gets it from you,” Harry chuckles, standing up and stooping low to leave a gentle kiss on his father’s forehead. “Goodnight, Pa,” he hums.

“Goodnight Harry, my boy,” Pa calls after him, sending him on his way with a hacking cough. Harry winces as he pulls the door shut, startling when he turns the corner and finds Gemma blocking his path.

“So?” Gemma says, arms crossed over her chest. “Did he convince you, or do I have to keep trying?”

Harry chuckles, reaching for Gemma and pulling her into his chest. He feels especially cuddly tonight, positively radiating happiness. Gemma lets him hug her for a long moment before she pulls away, holding him at an arm’s length and grinning. “Law school?”

“Law school,” Harry confirms, grinning back just as wide. Gemma does a little happy dance and Harry laughs, dragging her in for one last hug. “Thank you, Gemma. Really.”

“You’re welcome, now stop hugging me or I’ll take all the money back and buy a new brother with it.”

Harry laughs, shoving Gemma gently and then letting her chase him down the hall to his bedroom. He changes into his night clothes and tucks himself into bed still smiling, dreaming of finally getting away from the farm come fall.

-

They open a market out of the front room of the farmhouse, which Ma runs for the rest of the summer. Harry spends his free time at the library when he’s not working at the farm, searching through book after book for the perfect school to go to. He wants to go back east, he thinks, and explore the place he never got to live. He’s always been fascinated by New England, and it turns out there’s a few good law schools out there, and all he has to do is narrow them down.

He thinks he’d like to go to Boston, maybe, since that’s where his parents used to live before they decided to take on the frontier. He’d love to see the city, and it’s about as far as he can get from the farm, so it seems like a pretty good idea.

There’s a fairly new law school that just opened in downtown Boston, and the tuition is significantly cheaper than the other schools in the area, which means he could afford it and still have money left over to take care of his father. Gemma’s all for it when he discusses it with her, and it’s nearly the end of August now, but they get his application in the mail first thing the following morning.

He tries his best not to think about it while he waits for a response, puts his all into the farm and works harder than ever. They’re moving into the last bits of harvesting for the season until the fall harvest begins, but by then Gemma will have new hands to help out and Harry will hopefully be long gone to Boston. Every potato he unearths, every ear of corn he cuts down feels like it’s weighing upon his shoulders, trying to pin him down to the land, refuse to let him leave.

The response comes on a Thursday morning, waving wildly in Gemma’s hand as she sprints down the cornfield to where Harry is working. Harry can hear her coming all the way from the house, yelling and screaming like that, but he doesn’t turn away from his work until she grabs him and presses the letter into his chest.

“It’s here,” Gemma says, grinning madly, her hair a mess from running. “Christ, open it, or I will.”

Harry takes the letter from her, staring down at his address written neatly on the envelope. He hesitates, and Gemma swats at his shoulder.

“I’m scared,” Harry says, finally meeting her eye. “What if-”

“You’ll never know if you don’t open it,” Gemma says, waving him on. “Go on, Harry, or I swear to-”

“Fine, fine,” Harry mutters, sucking in a slow breath and holding it while he tucks his finger under the lip of the envelop, tearing it open as slowly as his nerves will allow. Gemma is just about vibrating in front of him, chewing on her thumbnail.

Harry feels ill when he pulls the letter out and unfolds it, eyes sweeping too quickly over the words to properly take them in. He has to go back and reread, and a slow smile breaks over his face.

“Yes!” Gemma screams, twirling around a few times with her arms up toward the sun. Harry laughs and covers his face with the hand not holding his acceptance letter, handing it over to Gemma before he sinks to his behind in the grass.

“I got in,” he says, holding his hair out of his eyes and resting his elbows on his bent knees. “I’m going to college.”

“You got in!” Gemma echoes, still twirling but now with the letter in hand, eyes closed and smile wide. “You’re going to college!”

“I’m going to be a lawyer,” Harry says, staring in disbelief at the walls of corn surrounding him. Never again will he have to do this work, to sweat like an animal under the blazing sun all day long only to wake up and do it all again the next day.

“You’re going to be a lawyer!” Gemma shrieks, reaching down to pull him up so he can twirl with her, hands interlocked.

Harry obliges her for a moment and then stops their twirling, tugging Gemma into his chest. “Thank you,” he breathes, grinning against her hair. “Thank you for this, Gemma. I won’t let you down.”

“You never could,” Gemma assures, hugging him back for a long moment before she pulls back and twirls away. “Finish up, but don’t be long! I’ll tell Ma to make you a big supper to celebrate, and a pie, as well! You deserve it!”

With that she’s gone, letter still in her hand, and Harry’s left with no proof that any of it actually happened. He puts it out of his mind for a moment, finishes harvesting the row of corn he’s working on before he can’t stand it any longer, and he runs back to the house to make sure he’s not dreaming. Gemma is nowhere to be found, but his mother is stooped over the stove, stirring something slowly.

She turns around when she hears Harry come in, her face lighting up immediately. Harry smiles shyly at his feet, wiping his brow with the back of his hand.

“Gemma told you?” he asks, looking up at her sheepishly.

“She didn’t tell me anything,” his mother says, pressing her lips together mischievously. “Not out loud, anyway.”

Harry laughs, looking down again. “Well, I got in.”

His mother squeals, clapping once as she rushes forward to hug him. “I’m so proud of you,” she says, petting at his sweaty hair. “Gemma’s telling Pa right now. She couldn’t wait; I tried to stop her, I swear. Why don’t you go get washed up, dear? Supper will be ready in a bit.”

Harry nods and sets off, leaving his mother once again stooped over the stove. He’s sort of glad that Gemma is telling Pa, because that means he won’t have to do it himself. He knows Pa will be proud of him, but he also still feels wrong for using the money on college instead of a doctor.

He has his bath and takes his time, his mind wandering while he scrubs himself clean. He’ll be leaving for Boston soon, within the next few weeks, and suddenly it feels terrifyingly real. He doesn’t know anyone out there, doesn’t even know his way around, and now he’s supposed to just move out there and live all on his own?

He thinks briefly about Louis, his and Gemma’s childhood friend. Louis packed up at 18 years old and left Nebraska, and as far as Harry knows, he’s never looked back. He had dreams of getting the hell away from Hastings, just like Harry, but Louis always wanted to open a store back east, maybe New York, or Philadelphia. He used to talk about it all the time when they were growing up, and Harry never considered that he’d actually do it, but then one day he came round to say goodbye and he was gone. They meant to keep in touch, but things had been busy, and Harry’s mostly forgotten about him until now.

He hopes Louis has made it big, just like he always wanted. He hopes he’s got the most popular drugstore in whichever city he’s found himself in, hopes that it’s a neighborhood hangout for all of the kids to get a Coke or an ice cream after school. He hopes Louis is happy, hopes Louis still thinks about him sometimes, too.

He settles down at the kitchen table once he’s clean and dressed, reading over his letter again a few times and letting it all soak in. The letter says he’s meant to check in at the law school on the 5th of September, and classes will begin the following week. He’s got a dorm on West Street that he’ll share with three other boys, which he supposes is good. At least he’ll have friends, and he won’t have to be all alone all the time.

Gemma comes trotting back to the kitchen just in time for supper, after Ma brings Pa’s tray of food to him in bed. It’s a quiet meal, but Ma and Gemma look so happy, Harry can’t bear to tell them how scared he is.

They spend most of the evening talking, while Ma does her knitting. She’s working on a new sweater for Pa to keep him warm come winter. Gemma does the dishes and then comes to sit with them, plopping down next to Harry in the rocking chair by the dormant wood burning stove.

“Boston,” she says dreamily, glancing over at Harry. “Gosh, you must be so excited. Promise you won’t forget about us amidst the glamor?” she says, reaching for his hand.

“Never,” Harry chokes out, forcing himself to smile. Gemma sees the tears that spring so quickly to his eyes and smiles sympathetically, shaking her head.

“None of that, you baby,” she teases. “I know how scary this must be. But we’ll write you all the time, won’t we, Ma? And you’ll be back for Christmas,” she says.

Harry nods, pulling Gemma’s chair closer to his so he can cuddle into her side. She holds him under her arm, just like when they were kids, and Harry swallows thickly. It’s quiet for a long moment, until finally Harry smiles into Gemma’s shoulder, closing his eyes. “Boston,” he breathes.

-

The train ride to Boston is a day and a half, and Harry only cries a little after Ma and Gemma see him off at the station in Hastings. Gemma took him for one last ride around Hansen and Hastings the other day, and Harry’s got it all burned into his memory as he chugs steadily away from it.

He’s got enough sandwiches packed to last him the journey, courtesy of his mother, and a canteen filled with water. He’s also got a map in his satchel marked with the directions from South Station to the law school on Tremont Street, where he’s supposed to check in when he arrives. He’s terribly anxious, nails chewed down to hardly anything. He’s been distracting himself by drafting letters to Ma and Pa and Gemma in his head, but as it gets darker out the window of the train, he thinks it might just be better to settle in and sleep.

The train arrives in Boston late the following morning and Harry’s eager to stretch his legs, to explore this city he’s found himself in. He eats his last sandwich in the train station and then pulls out his map to find his way to the school, staring down at it as he makes his way outside.

Left on Atlantic Ave, right on Summer Street, across Washington Street and then left on Tremont Street for about a block and a half. He memorizes each turn he needs to take and then stuffs the map back into his satchel, wanting to be able to take in the city as he walks.

The biggest city he’s ever been to is Hastings, and that’s hardly even a city. He feels like a fish out of water, shouldering his way through the bustling streets of Boston, eyes wide for street signs and apologizing heartily to every person he bumps into. They must be able to tell that he isn’t from around here, sparing him hardly a glance as they rush onwards to wherever they’re going.

He feels a bit more at ease once he turns on to Summer Street, the busy crowds dwindling into meandering ones. He’s found himself amidst a sea of shiny shops, and he can’t help but peer into the windows as he passes, still careful to keep out of everyone’s way. There’s a bunch of lovely little shops, clothing stores and smoke shops and markets and everything Harry can imagine. There’s even a drugstore that reminds Harry of Troy’s in Hastings, and he makes a mental note to come back to it as soon as he has time.

He finds the law school eventually, checking his map once more as he rounds the corner onto Tremont Street that he’s found the right place. The sign that’s etched into the building above the doors reads Suffolk Law School, and Harry grins, stuffing the map away once again and pushing through the doors.

There’s a man at a desk behind a window immediately inside the front door. Harry steps up cautiously, giving him a friendly smile, and slips his acceptance letter through the small slot in the window.

“My name is Harry Styles,” he says, watching the man at the desk glance at the letter and slide it back. “I’m here to check in?”

“Straight through these doors and all the way to the back,” the man says uninterestedly.

Harry grins and snatches the letter back, pushing through the second set of doors and into the building. It’s a large open room, marble floor to ceiling, and his footsteps echo loudly as he walks toward the next set of doors at the back. He pushes through those and into a small corridor, faced with yet another set of doors that leads to a function room, where he finds people milling about and chatting.

He walks up to the first table he sees and finds another man, but this one smiles at him like he’s actually happy to see him. “Name?” the man asks, sorting through a box of papers in front of him and handing Harry one with his name on it. “This is your identification. Don’t lose it,” the man says.

There’s a brief orientation with someone else and then Harry gets a quick tour of the school, which includes three floors of classrooms, a bookstore, and the law school library. Harry learns that there’s another library across the street, but this one is specifically for law students, and he needn’t worry about any of the other buildings at the college.

He feels like he’s been caught in a tornado by the end of the day, when finally someone hands him a key and sends him off to find his dorm. He wanders the three blocks to West Street and finds his building without difficulty, following his acceptance letter up to the fourth floor and keying into the room at the end of the hallway.

It’s empty of people, but three of the four beds are already made up. Harry drags his bags to the fourth bed, in the furthest corner from the door, and drops everything onto his mattress while he has a look around. It’s just one big open room, with a tiny kitchen tucked away in the corner. There’s a washroom with running water, which is quite exciting. He’s definitely going to have to write home about that; Gemma will be so jealous.

He sets about making up his bed once he’s acquainted with the room, stretching the new, handmade sheets his mother made over the flimsy mattress and propping his pillow up against the wall. He starts unpacking his clothes once the bed is made, filling up his own three drawers and pushing his luggage under the bed, where it will stay until it’s time to go back home.

It takes him a bit to unpack everything, and by the time he’s done it’s nearly supper and he realizes he has nothing to eat. He grabs his satchel and makes sure he has his key and heads out, hoping he can find a market close by to stock up on things like bread and milk. He takes a right out of his dorm and finds himself on Washington Street, which eventually leads him back to Summer Street. He remembers the drugstore he saw earlier and decides he’ll try that, just for nostalgia’s sake.

Everything about the store reminds Harry of Troy’s, right down to the little jingle of the door when he pushes it open. He smiles as he roams down the sweets aisle, thinking briefly about Louis, and how he and Gemma used to be so excited to see him every weekend. He picks up a few sweets because he can, because Ma isn’t going to tell him off for it now. He finds the bread and milk and a few other things, as well, and brings it all up to the checkout counter at the back of the store. There’s no one there, so he rings the bell and then looks down to fish his purse out of his satchel.

There are quick footsteps in the backroom and then finally a young man ducks out, smiling at Harry. Harry nods his greeting, hardly looking up until the sales clerk’s breath catches a little.

“Harry?”

Harry looks up, caught off guard. He blinks at the clerk for a moment and then gasps, finally placing those blue eyes from the farthest depths of his memory. “Louis?”

“Jesus, what are you doing here?” Louis laughs. “You know, I was just thinking about you earlier. I saw a man walk by, scuttling along exactly like you always used to, and I swore it could have been you. I suppose it might have been, hm?”

“Might have been,” Harry chuckles, blushing at the thought of Louis thinking of him. “I actually just arrived today. Believe it or not, I’m going to law school,” he says.

“Law school!” Louis gasps, grinning wide. “Harry, that’s amazing! That’s what you always wanted, no?”

“Exactly what I wanted,” Harry says. “Gemma’s been running the farm- Lou, you should see her, she’s doing incredible. One season and she’s already made enough to put me through law school the whole way,” he says.

“Unbelievable,” Louis says, finally pulling himself together enough to ring up Harry’s groceries. “I always knew great things would come of the Styles siblings.”

“Well, what about you?” Harry hums, glancing around the store. “This is lovely. I had no idea you were in Boston, though. I thought it was-”

“New York, yeah, and then Philadelphia,” Louis says, shrugging one shoulder. “Never really felt at home there. New York was just, well, New York- too busy and crowded and full of people trying to do exactly what I was doing, and doing it better. Philadelphia was nice, but it wasn’t right either, in the end. I’ve been here for about a year now, doing pretty well,” he says.

“That’s great,” Harry grins, watching him for a long moment. He doesn’t remember everything from his childhood, but he distinctly remembers the way he always looked up to Louis, wanted to be just like him. He was always so impressed by Louis, so in awe of how big and smart and interesting he was. Louis looks so small, now, compared to the way Harry remembers him. He’s petite and gentle where he used to loom over Harry’s head, but his mannerisms are still all the same. Harry’s still impressed by him, even just by the way he bags up all of Harry’s groceries so perfectly and hands them over the counter.

“Well, promise you’ll come visit,” Louis says, accepting the money Harry hands over and handing back the change quickly. “Don’t be a stranger, alright? If you need someone to show you around the city, I’m your man,” he says.

“Well, actually, I was thinking of having supper somewhere tonight, since I don’t have much in my dorm. What time do you close the store?” Harry asks.

“Depends,” Louis says mischievously, resting his elbows on the counter and peering up at him. “Are you paying?”

“Of course,” Harry chuckles, patting his purse before he stuffs it back in his satchel.

“Store is closed!” Louis cheers, pushing his cash drawer closed with a flourish. “I know the perfect place, just down the street. Meet me back here once you’ve put your groceries away,” he says, leading Harry to the front door.

“Perfect,” Harry says, stepping through the door when Louis pushes it open for him. Harry gives him one more smile before setting off down the street, as Louis locks up the store. He walks quickly back to his dorm and hurriedly puts away his groceries, still smiling at the thought of reconnecting with Louis.

He’s been in Boston for hardly a day, and he’s already got a friend and a person who he knows will help him out should he need it. He’s also thrilled that that person is Louis, and that maybe Gemma was right all those years ago when she said that Louis would always be their friend. Maybe it’s not how they thought it would be, but hell, maybe this is even better.

-

Harry loves law school. He adores it, even; it’s everything he thought it would be, and it’s nothing like working on the farm, which is maybe the best part. He’s doing incredibly well in his classes, and he’s learning so much, and he feels endlessly fortunate that this is his life now.

It’s only been about a month, but he knows that this is what he was meant to do. He knows that he absolutely cannot mess up this opportunity, because he needs to be successful and to pay Gemma back eventually, to be able to help her like she’s helping him. He will do everything in his power to make this work, to be the best at it, to be as successful as he can.

That being said, he’s finding it hard lately to keep it up. He found his roommates a bit annoying when he first met them, but he always thought they would get better as time went on, or maybe Harry would just grow accustomed to it. It’s nearly October now, though, and they’re still as obnoxious as ever, and Harry’s patience is wearing thin.

All three of them come from old money, are only in law school because it’s what their fathers and grandfathers and great grandfathers did. They’re snobbish, and loud, and they don’t take anything seriously, especially school, which Harry finds endlessly infuriating. He spends the majority of his time in the library studying, but when his roommates keep him up all night with their excessive noise and partying, there’s not much he can do about it. He’s asked them to keep it down, to please let him sleep, but they only ever tell him to loosen up and have a little fun.

To make matters worse, he hasn’t been able to see Louis very much at all. He’s been far too busy to go by the store and when he does have time, he only has just enough of it to get his groceries and then get back to studying. He’s wearing down, exhausted and stressed and mostly over it by now, and he just wants the semester to end so that maybe he can find a new living situation.

He runs into Louis on a Saturday, when he stops by the store to pick up some groceries. He’s been living on bread and butter for nearly a week now and he’s afraid he may die soon if he doesn’t get some more food in his diet, and seeing Louis is always a welcome bonus.

Louis must be able to see the exhaustion running deep into Harry’s bones, because he frowns as soon as Harry lugs his things up to the checkout.

“You look terrible,” Louis says, ringing up all of Harry’s things.

“Thanks,” Harry mutters, rubbing at his eye. “I’m hoping my room will still be empty when I get back, maybe I can get some real sleep for the first time this week.”

“School’s not going well?” Louis says, bagging up Harry’s groceries.

“My classes are lovely,” Harry says. “I really like that part. My roommates, on the other hand, are horrendous. They never let me sleep, they’re messy and disgusting, and they don’t take anything seriously, and they’re rude to me when I work up the courage to ask for some respect,” he complains. “I just want to move out, but I’ll have to wait until the end of the semester to find another dorm.”

“That’s awful,” Louis frowns. “Come live with me instead.” Harry looks up at him questioningly, and Louis shrugs. “I’m pretty quiet, but I’ll be especially quiet if you’re studying, and I’m not terribly neat, but I can work on it, and it might be fun to have someone around. You don’t even have to pay rent, if you don’t want to. Maybe you can just help me out at the store sometimes?” he offers.

Harry blinks, watching Louis closely for a long moment. “Louis, are- are you serious?”

“Absolutely,” Louis says. “Give me a week to get everything ready for you, and you can move in next weekend.”

“That would be amazing,” Harry grins, reaching across the counter to grip Louis’s arm. “Thank you, Louis, really.”

“It’s quite selfish of me, actually,” Louis shrugs, blushing a little as he turns away. “I’m lonely, and have been looking for some help around here-”

“It’s not selfish,” Harry says, shaking his head. “It’s not selfish, it’s lovely. Thank you.”

Louis gives him a little smile, taking the money Harry offers for the groceries. “Well then, in that case, I’ll see you next Saturday? The apartment is just upstairs here, so it’s not far,” he shrugs, handing back Harry’s change.

“I’ll be counting the moments,” Harry says, grabbing his bag from the counter and backing away slowly. “Thank you again, Louis, really. This means a lot.”

Louis sends him off with a smile and a nod, and Harry just about floats back to his dorm. He can’t believe how easy it was to solve just about all of his problems, and he even gets to live with Louis now. He just has to stick it out for one more week, and then everything will be perfect.

-

Louis’s apartment is small and quite dark, but it’s blessedly quiet and empty of loud, pretentious boys. Harry feels at home immediately, letting Louis lead him through the kitchen and the sitting room and into the bedroom. They’re sharing the bedroom, but there are two mattresses, so Harry supposes it’s not much worse than he had before. Louis helps him bring his things to the unmade bed, grinning when Harry flops down on it.

“Welcome home, and all that,” Louis hums. “Well, I’ve got a few hours until the store closes, are you alright if I leave you to unpack?”

“Go on, I’ll be fine,” Harry says, sitting up and looking around the bedroom. There’s a chest of drawers pushed haphazardly into the corner between the wall and his mattress, which is on the floor. “Is this one mine?” he asks, looking up at Louis.

“All yours,” Louis says proudly. “My friend Niall managed to borrow this from a family he knows who wasn’t using it. It’s ours for as long as we need it,” he says.

“Neat,” Harry says, waving Louis off. “Alright, go run your store. I’ve got it from here.”

“I’m just downstairs if you need anything,” Louis says, backing out of the room. “Nothing is off limits, you know, if you want to look around. What’s mine is yours,” he says.

“Got it,” Harry chuckles. “Seriously, go. Time is money, hm?”

Louis grins and leaves with a flourish, and Harry follows the sound of his footsteps all the way downstairs and into the store. He chuckles quietly and sets about unpacking, folding all of his clothes neatly into the drawers and stretching his bed sheets over the mattress. He leaves his luggage in the corner, unsure of what else to do with it, and then gets up to have a look around.

There’s a small living area just outside of the bedroom, two worn looking chairs facing a dormant fireplace. The entire apartment is dark on account of the fact that every window except the one at the front looks out at another building, which doesn’t leave much room for sunlight. The front window is wide and looks out on Summer Street, and when Harry steps up in front of it he can see people bustling down the street. The people in this city are always bustling, always hurrying along their way, never stopping to chat with a friend or even to glance too long into a store window. Harry supposes they’re all very important and busy, and he longs to be just like them.

There’s a tiny washroom tucked into the corner of the room, next to the door that leads back to the kitchen. The entrance to the apartment is at the back, the door to the stairs in the back left corner of the room. There’s a small table pushed into the other corner with two chairs, the rest of the room lined with workspace. It’s not a bad place at all, despite the horrible lighting, and the slightly musty smell. He already feels better, though, when he grabs his schoolwork and sits down at the kitchen table to study. No one bothers him, no one yells in his ear or makes a mess in his workspace or keeps him from focusing. It’s amazing how much he’s able to get done until Louis comes back upstairs from the store.

“Look at you, perfect student,” Louis hums, ruffling Harry’s hair as he comes through the door. “Sorry, I won’t bother you long. What should we have for supper?”

“Whatever you’re making,” Harry says sweetly, smiling up at Louis. Louis rolls his eyes and turns away, smiling as he starts gathering things to make their supper.

“Chicken and potatoes? Got a bit of mozzarella from a friend in the north end the other day, and I think it’ll be lovely stuffed inside the chicken,” he says.

“Sounds great to me,” Harry hums, watching Louis cook for a few minutes. He hums quietly while he works, and though Harry thinks it should probably be annoying, he can’t help but smile as he tries to focus his attention back on studying.

Louis’s voice cuts off abruptly after a few moments, and Harry glances up to find him wincing. “Sorry, I’m bothering you. I’ll be quiet,” he whispers, turning around to tiptoe over to the oven.

“You’re not bothering me,” Harry chuckles. “I actually quite like your humming. It’s soothing,” he says.

“Oh, well, good,” Louis grins, blushing a little as he glances over his shoulder at Harry. “I was thinking, we could get you a desk or something and put it in the sitting room, so that you can have some privacy while you work? That way you don’t have to listen to me mumbling to myself like an idiot while I’m cooking,” he says.

“I like working in here, though,” Harry says, talking to Louis’s back. Louis doesn't turn to look at him, though, so he keeps going. “Really! It doesn’t bother me, somehow. I think it’d bother me more to just be by myself in the other room,” he says.

Louis looks skeptical, but also pleased, and he doesn’t argue. “Alright then, suit yourself. The offer stands, though, because I know that you’ll get tired of me at some point.”

“Tired of you, please,” Harry scoffs. “Sharing an apartment with you is my six year old self’s absolute dream come true.”

“Really?” Louis asks, turning around to look at him. He’s glowing when Harry looks up.

“Oh, absolutely,” Harry says, blushing a little as he closes his book, just for something to do with his hands. “I adored you when we were kids. I used to make Gemma promise all the time that we would all grow up together, the three of us, and that we’d always be friends for our whole lives,” he says, chuckling quietly. “You were the best person I knew.”

“I was?” Louis asks, leaning back against the worktop and cocking his head at Harry. “And what about now?”

“Well, now you’re even better,” Harry says. “Now you’ve given me a place to stay when I needed it, and helped me get used to this strange life I’ve found myself living. You’re still the best person I know,” he says.

Louis looks like he’s going to cry, grinning at Harry so wide Harry can’t help but grin back. “You know, Harry, I always knew you were special. Even when you were just a little kid, and I was supposed to tease you and hate you because you were younger and I was supposed to be cooler. I always knew you were special,” he says softly.

Harry grins down at the table, fiddling with the corner of his book for a moment. “Well, then, I guess this was meant to be,” he says, looking up at Louis through his eyelashes. “That we’d find each other again, I mean.”

“Meant to be, yeah,” Louis agrees, watching him for just another moment before turning back to resume working on supper. Harry has butterflies in his stomach that have no business being there, but he supposes it’s just his six year old self coming back to remind him that this is everything he ever wanted, and he better be damn thankful that he’s got it.

Louis keeps humming and Harry keeps working until finally Louis brings two plates of food back to the table, and finally Harry closes his book and pushes it to the side. Louis’s made chicken oozing with cheese and he’s mashed the potatoes on the side, and it looks delicious.

“Wow, what a good little housewife you are, hm?” Harry chuckles, grinning up at Louis. “This looks great, Lou.”

“You learn a lot when you grow up quick and move out young,” Louis says, saluting Harry with his fork before digging into his meal. Harry smiles softly at that, letting his mind wander back to when they were kids, back when Gemma used to tell Harry stories about her best friend Louis.

Louis’s mother died when he was young, and he never had any siblings. His dad raised him as best he could, let him help out at the store and taught him the ropes of owning it early on, so that Louis would always be alright if anything happened to him, too. Louis grew up fast, maybe too fast, but it never made him hard or bitter or regretful. He’s still as sweet and gentle now as he was when he was ten, as hard as the world tried to change him. Harry thinks that that’s what makes Louis truly special; he’s got a heart of solid gold, and he wears it on his sleeve.

“How is it?” Louis says, the sound of his voice startling Harry out of his reverie. “The food, how is it?”

“Amazing,” Harry says, taking a mouthful of chicken to prove his point. “Really good. Don’t tell Ma, but I think it’s even better than her cooking at home.”

Louis laughs quietly, smiling down at his plate. “Your secret’s safe with me. I’m glad you’re here, Harry, really,” he says, voice low, sincere. “I think this is going to be good, you know, you staying here.”

“Me too,” Harry says, shoveling some potatoes into his mouth to keep his grin at bay. “When do you want me to start working at the store?” he asks, hoping to steer the conversation away from the things that keep making the butterflies in his stomach push all the blood up to his cheeks.

“Just whenever you’re not busy,” Louis shrugs. “Just a couple hours a week should do, I think.”

“I’ll work after my classes, I think,” Harry decides. “I could probably get some reading done while watching the store, no?”

“Of course,” Louis says. “It’s not a terribly hard job, if I’m honest. Just a matter of typing in prices and being nice to the people who buy things from you.”

“Sounds doable,” Harry nods. They finish their supper quietly, until finally Harry looks up again. “Thank you, Louis, again, just in case I haven’t said it enough,” he says.

“You certainly have said it enough,” Louis chuckles, standing up and taking Harry’s empty plate. Harry doesn’t let him, though, taking the plate back and grabbing Louis’s, as well.

“I’ve got the dishes,” he says, bringing them to the sink before Louis can protest. “You cooked, I’ll clean.”

“Well, I won’t argue with that system,” Louis hums, sitting back down at the table while Harry washes up the dirty plates. He flips through Harry’s school books for a bit and makes comments about the terms he thinks are silly. Harry takes the opportunity to teach him about some things, and he decides it might be his new favorite study method.

They both resign to bed early that night, because Harry hasn’t had a good night’s sleep in months and Louis is afraid to disturb him if he tries to go to bed once Harry’s asleep. It’s a bit cold in the bedroom, but it’s beautifully quiet, and Harry feels alarmingly at ease when he rolls over and catches sight of Louis in his own bed, his mattress pushed up against the adjacent wall. There’s a good sized square of empty floor where the bottom left corner of Harry’s bed touches the bottom right corner of Louis’s bed, and Harry can see Louis clearly across it, even in the dark.

“Goodnight, Lou,” he whispers, eyes wide in the dark when Louis shifts to look over at him.

“Goodnight, Harry,” Louis smiles in return, their eyes lingering on one another for a moment, until finally Louis lets his fall closed.

Harry watches him drift off to sleep, lets his even breathing lull him as well, and he sleeps better than he has since he got to Boston.

-

Things move pretty seamlessly once they get a rhythm down, which doesn’t take long at all. Louis wakes up early to open the store and creeps out quietly enough that he never wakes Harry, which is lovely. It takes Harry hardly any time at all to catch up on all of the sleep he missed in his noisy dorm, and school gets remarkably easier when he’s not dragging himself through it. Louis stays at the store all day while Harry studies and goes to class, and when Harry comes home in the afternoon, he takes over the store for the last few hours of the day and then closes up, heading upstairs to find Louis working on supper. They eat together every night, and when they’re done they sit quietly together at the table while Louis works on his bookkeeping for the store and Harry finishes up his homework.

It feels so natural, the way they work together. They never argue, never fight, and the one time Louis got annoyed with Harry’s habit of leaving socks in odd places, they laughed it off and Harry learned to be more conscious of his belongings.

It’s getting a bit cold now, well into November, but Louis starts a fire each morning when he wakes up and Harry tends it just before he leaves for class, and when he comes home in the afternoon Louis’s kept it strong. It keeps the apartment cozy and bright, despite the cold air that still manages to leak in through the walls.

Soon it will be December, and then Christmas. Harry has already decided he’s going to spend the holidays here, with Louis, because he doesn’t feel right just leaving him out here all alone for a month until class starts again. Louis’s birthday is on Christmas eve, as well, and Harry can’t let him spend all of the most important days of the year by himself.

Harry’s finals are coming up, and he’s a bit stressed about passing them all, but Louis’s been helping him study every moment that he gets. Harry studies all through supper and then Louis quizzes him while they do the washing up together, and Harry gets a blinding grin as praise for every term he gets right.

“Acquittal,” Louis says, reading from Harry’s textbook where it’s propped up next to the sink.

“A jury verdict that a criminal defendant is not guilty, or the finding of a judge that the evidence is insufficient to support a conviction,” Harry recites, eyes closed as he dries the dishes with a tea towel.

“Correct!” Louis cheers, smiling when Harry peeks his eyes open at him. “Admissible.”

“Evidence that may be considered by a jury or judge in civil and criminal cases,” Harry says, pulling open a cabinet to put the dish away and then grabbing the next one Louis hands to him.

“Word for word,” Louis says proudly. “Arraignment?”

“Uh,” Harry frowns, staring hard at the plate in his hand as he wipes it dry. “Um, shit-”

“A proceeding in which a criminal defendant is brought-”

“-into court, told of the charges in an indictment or information, and asked to plead guilty or not guilty,” Harry says quickly, shaking his head. “Mark that one please,” he sighs.

“You know that one, though,” Louis says, though he still reaches over with one wet hand to grab Harry’s pen and mark the word in the book. “You just needed a bit of reminding.”

“I can’t need a bit of reminding, though,” Harry says, setting the plate and towel down and scrubbing at his face. “I need to know this, Louis, all of it, or I’m not going to pass. And I need to pass, I need to, or I’m going to have to drop out and Gemma’s money will have been wasted and, god, we should have just helped Pa all along-”

“Harry,” Louis cuts him off, and when Harry looks up, he’s suddenly much closer than before. The sink is still running, still half full with dirty dishes. “Don’t speak like that, don’t be stupid. You know this, Harry, you’re good at this, and none of it is a waste. Gemma is proud of you, your Ma and Pa are proud of you, I’m proud of you, and every single one of us believes in you. You need to believe in you, too,” he says.

Harry sighs again, but Louis gives him a stern looks that leaves little room for argument. “Alright, yeah,” he mutters, reaching for the plate he was working on and putting it away with the others. “Next word.”

Louis grins, scurries back to the sink and resumes his washing while he finds his place in the list of terms. “Bail.”

“The release, prior to trial, of a person accused of a crime, under specified conditions designed to assure that person's appearance in court when required,” Harry says. Louis gives him a look over his shoulder, and Harry winces. “Also can refer to the amount of bond money posted as a financial condition of pretrial release.”

“Perfect, Hazza,” Louis says, handing over a dripping wet pan. “Absolutely perfect.”

Harry takes the pan, ducking his head to hide his grin and he dries it and puts it away. Maybe he’ll be alright, after all, but he thinks he’d never have been so lucky if he didn’t have Louis. Louis’s voicing his outrage over the ridiculous amount of variations of the word bankruptcy and, well, Harry would be absolutely lost without him.

-

Harry aces every single one of his finals. It’s a week until Christmas and he’s running through the fluffy snow falling on Winter Street, transcripts clutched tightly in his hand. He’s nearly slipping over with every step, but he has to get home, has to let Louis know that he couldn’t have done it without him.

He bursts through the front door and races through the store, finding Louis looking startled at the checkout counter at the back. Harry slaps the transcripts down on the counter and slides them into Louis’s waiting hands, already smiling so hard his cheeks hurt. “I couldn’t have done it without you.”

Louis takes the folded papers and gingerly opens them, eyes scanning over the words. “A, A, A… Jesus, Harry, you’ve got perfect scores.”

“I couldn’t have done it without you,” Harry says again, voice strained and giddy.

“This is amazing! You’re amazing!” Louis laughs, rounding the counter to pull Harry into a hug. Harry squeezes back tight, pressing his face into Louis’s shoulder.

“I couldn’t have done it without you,” he mumbles.

“That’s horseshit, but I’ll accept the praise,” Louis chuckles, pulling away too soon and shuffling back behind the counter. “You were born for this, Harry. You’re going to be the best lawyer in the state of Massachusetts.”

“Thank you for all of your help,” Harry says, collecting his transcripts and holding them tight against his chest. “For letting me live with you, for helping me study, for easing my nerves. Thank you.”

“Always,” Louis says, reaching out to squeeze Harry’s arm. “Always, Hazza.”

“I’ll be down to take over in a moment, I just want to put my stuff away,” Harry says, setting off toward the stairs.

“Be quick, I have a celebration supper planned!” Louis calls after him. Harry frowns, peeking back around the doorway to the stairs.

“How’d you know we were celebrating? What if I’d failed?” he asks.

“I may not be in college, Harry, but I’m not stupid,” Louis says. “There was no way you were going to fail.”

Harry rolls his eyes, smiling again as he darts up the stairs. He’ll have to write Ma and Pa and Gemma after supper and tell them the good news. He’s never been quite this happy in his life.

-

Christmas is lovely cooped up in Louis’s small apartment, so lovely Harry hardly remembers to miss home. It’s not nearly as cold here as it is out in Nebraska; Gemma wrote to say it was forty-five degrees below zero last week, and Harry can hardly stand to think of it. He remembers Christmases as a child, wrapped up in all of his bed covers and still shivering by the stove, trying to look happy about the oranges in his stocking.

He and Louis are sprawled on the floor in the living room, Louis’s comforter over both of their laps and a fire crackling in the fireplace. Harry made tea for both of them a bit ago, and he’s been listening to Louis tell stories about his first few years away from home ever since. They closed the store earlier today for the holidays; tomorrow is Louis’s birthday, and then Christmas after that. Everyone in town is well stocked and ready to get through until the new year, fires burning in every home from here to Plymouth.

He could fall asleep like this, probably, and he might if Louis keeps talking in that soothing voice of his. Harry is so comfortable, sharing warmth with Louis and the fire, leant back against one of the armchairs. He puts his head down against the cushion and watches Louis speak, mesmerized by the way the fire casts shadows over his face, sparkles in his eyelashes like tinsel, dances in his eyes like the ocean, cold and blue and deep, so dangerously deep.

Louis catches him drifting off but doesn’t stop talking, talks him well into his dreams and then gets up to take his half finished tea back to the kitchen so he doesn’t spill it all over the floor.

Harry wakes up a few hours later, Louis’s comforter pulled up to his shoulders and Louis curled up like a cat beside him, snoozing peacefully. Harry’s plenty warm, but he can’t help but slide a little closer, pillow his head against Louis’s shoulder, and drift back to sleep. When they wake up, Louis will be twenty-four, and Harry will still be as in awe of him now as he was when he was ten.

-

Winter melts into spring with no hurry, the chill in the air sticking around until mid April. Harry’s second semester goes even more smoothly than the first and, again with Louis’s help, he passes everything with flying colors.

They’ve discussed what will happen now that school is out until September, and Harry’s decided he wants to go home for the months between now and then. He never expected it, but he sort of misses Nebraska, or at least the small part of it he’s always called home.

He comes home from his last final exam with a bubbling ball of dread in the center of his chest, finding Louis sitting cross legged on his stool behind the checkout counter in a way that can’t be comfortable, but looks effortless nonetheless. He’s like a pixie, Harry thinks, weightless and breezy in a way Harry’s never witnessed in another human.

“You’re done!” Louis calls out, as Harry approaches the counter. “Your first year is through, three more to go! And you’ve- you don’t look happy, why don’t you look happy?” he frowns suddenly, noticing Harry’s downcast eyes. “Oh no, did you do poorly?”

“I did well,” Harry says, sliding his transcript over the counter for Louis to have a look at his perfect marks.

“Then why the long face?” Louis asks, glancing over the scores and then folding the paper, handing it back. “What’s wrong?”

“I’ll just miss you while I’m gone, I suppose,” Harry shrugs, stuffing his transcripts into his bag. “Four months is a long time, what if you forget all about me?”

“I didn’t forget you in the five years after I left Nebraska,” Louis says. “Hell, I don’t think I could ever forget you if you left and never came back. Don’t do that, though, please,” he says quickly.

“I won’t do that,” Harry chuckles, rounding the counter and then hoisting himself up to sit atop it. “Can I suggest something? You can tell me I’m crazy, but please just hear me out,” he says.

“Shoot,” Louis says curiously, leaning his elbow against Harry’s knee and resting his chin on his fist. It sends a little twinge of pain through Harry’s leg, but Harry doesn’t care enough to push him away.

“Well, you know my parents are ill. Pa’s been ill since long before I left, and Gemma’s letters have made it sound as though Ma is beginning to lose her marbles, too. Clearly I have to go home for a bit, you know, to be with them,” he says, kicking his feet against the counter to distract himself from the frown on Louis’s face.

“Of course,” Louis says, nodding up at him, digging his sharp elbow harder into Harry’s knee with the motion. “You need to be with them, I understand.”

“I want you to come with me,” Harry blurts out, biting his tongue. “I just- I’ll miss you too much, we’re too close, I can’t stand the thought of not seeing you for so long. Could you afford to close the store for a bit? I know that’s a lot for me to ask of you, but don’t you miss Nebraska a bit? You could visit your dad, maybe, visit the old store. You could stay at our house, if you want, I’m sure Gemma can make room for you,” he says hopefully.

Louis looks shocked, but not put off. “I suppose I could leave the store with a friend for the summer,” he says after a moment, shrugging one shoulder. “My friend Niall helped me out when I first opened it, but he had to leave once he got a job teaching music in Revere. He’ll have the summer off anyway, so I suppose I could ask if he’d help out,” he says.

“Really?” Harry grins, grabbing excitedly at Louis’s wrist. “You’d really come back with me?”

“Oh, sure,” Louis smiles up at him, eyes crinkling at the corners. “You’re not the only one who’d be sad while you were gone.”

“My train leaves in two days,” Harry says, hopping down off the counter when the door jingles behind him. The customer meanders in and into an aisle, but Harry pays them no mind. “Do you think you could ask him before then?”

“I’ll go pay him a visit this evening if you watch the store for a bit,” Louis says, standing up from his stool and grabbing the jacket he has stashed under the counter. It’s still not quite warm enough to walk around without a jacket, though it has warmed considerably since winter.

Harry takes his place on the stool and, just like that, Louis is gone, disappearing all at once out the door. Harry really wasn’t expecting him to take so kindly to the idea of going back to Nebraska for four months, but he supposes Louis really does miss it after all. Or at least he’s scared enough of missing Harry that he’s willing to go anyway.

-

The train to Nebraska is all but empty, just Harry, Louis, and a few other quiet souls scattered throughout the car. It doesn’t seem to be a popular summer spot; then again, Harry doubts it’s a popular spot in any season.

Niall agreed to watch the store in a heartbeat, delighted that Louis even asked him. He’ll be staying in the apartment for the summer, since he won’t need to be near the school, and he’d been absolutely elated at the prospect of having the whole place to himself when Louis asked him.

“I used to stay here with Lou sometimes, when he needed lotsa help. Now I live all by meself in the YMCA, ya know, rent’s cheap, and so am I!” he’d laughed earlier that morning, Irish accent thick and charming despite nearly a decade between him and his home country. He stopped by to see Louis and Harry out before the store opened, walked them all the way out the door and down the street, laughing and shouting gleefully.

“That’s just Niall,” Louis grinned as soon as they were out of earshot. “Lovely, crazy Niall.”

Now Louis is fast asleep on the train, and Harry’s wishing he fought a little harder for the window seat. He’s not going to be able to sleep through this journey, he’s far too excited, and Louis’s slumped over directly in his view of the land passing by outside.

The train rattles over a bump in the railroad and Louis startles upright, blinking over at Harry. Harry gives him a soft smile and shakes his head, as if to tell him there’s nothing to worry about, he’s safe. Louis just hums quietly and twists in his seat until he can rest his head on Harry’s shoulder, out like a light again.

Harry glances around quickly, prepared to push Louis away as soon as he notices someone giving them a funny look. He’s seen men beaten in the streets for walking too closely to each other, and he doesn’t want to make any kind of trouble. It’s not like that, anyway, between him and Louis. They’re not queer, just good friends; they live in close quarters, and they’re even close besides that, of course they’re comfortable with each other. It’s totally normal.

No one seems to mind them, or even to notice. The man closest to them a few rows back is passed out with his face smushed against the window, and the man behind him has his nose buried in a book. There’s a woman at the very back of the car focused diligently on her knitting, but Harry thinks she looks too sweet to give them a problem even if she had one. Harry faces forward again and relaxes into his seat, making eye contact with a woman a few rows ahead of them.

She’s in one of the seats with a table, so her chair faces the back of the car. She’s not terribly old, but she’s not terribly young, either; she’s probably about his Ma’s age, with her graying hair pulled back in a tight bun. Her husband is shuffling a deck of cards, and when she notices Harry noticing her, she looks away quickly. Harry’s about to shrug Louis off his shoulder and lean him back against the window when the woman looks up again, meeting his eyes with a soft smile. Harry blinks at her and then looks down, staring hard at his knees until he can’t feel the woman’s eyes anymore.

It takes a moment for his heart to stop racing, for his mind to slow to only one thought a second. Louis puffs a warm little breath against his collarbone and Harry relaxes into him, letting his head rest back against the seat. He’d be more comfortable if he could get his arm out from between their bodies and maybe rest it around Louis’s shoulders, but if he moves he might wake Louis up, and he doesn’t want that. He lets his eyes fall closed and eventually stops thinking altogether, the train’s monotonous whirring lulling him off to sleep.

-

Gemma hugs Louis first at the train station, and though she claims she’s equally excited to see both of them, Harry knows that she’s thrilled to see Louis again. She lets Louis in the front seat of her new car on the way home, and Harry crams all of his long limbs into the back seat.

“What do you think?” she asks, glancing at Harry over her shoulder. “Bought her myself. Weekend trips into Hastings will be so much easier now, right?”

“I can’t believe my sister owns a Ford,” Harry says, shaking his head in disbelief. “And that she forced me to sit in the back of it.”

“I told you you could have the front!” Louis says, turning to smile back at him. “I’m much smaller, anyway, you should-”

“Hush, Louis, you’re our guest,” Gemma says. “And you might as well be a saint in our household, for all you’ve done for Harry. I still can’t believe you let this whiny child move in with you,” she scoffs, glancing over at Louis.

“He’s perfectly wonderful,” Louis says, not taking his eyes off of Harry. “And he only whines sometimes.”

“I do not whine,” Harry whines, pouting at Louis. “I’m a good housemate, aren’t I?”

“The best,” Louis assures him, reaching back to squeeze his knee. Gemma rolls her eyes and then they’re off, the car lurching away from the curb.

“Sorry, I’m not a very experienced driver yet,” Gemma says, jerking the car around a corner so quickly Harry could swear they’re only on two wheels. He grips the door quite hard to ground himself and Louis just grips his own thighs, like he doesn’t want to offend Gemma by actually needing to hold onto something.

Luckily, the road back to Hansen is mostly straight, and Gemma only swerves around a couple of potholes. She comes to a screeching halt in the driveway and Harry falls out of the car immediately, resisting the urge to fall to his knees and kiss the ground.

“Harry, grab Louis’s bags,” Gemma says, opening the trunk of the car for him and then grabbing Louis by the elbow to drag him inside.

“I can get my own bags,” Louis says, but Gemma is already halfway inside with him. Harry waves him off and then starts pulling their luggage out of the car, trying to drag it all inside in one trip. They didn’t exactly pack light; they’re here for four months, and neither of them care much for laundry.

Louis has already been seated at the table with a snack by the time Harry gets inside, dropping all of their bags by the door. Harry can’t help but laugh at the scene, seeing how uncomfortable Louis looks between Gemma and his Ma with a plate full of fried potatoes in front of him.

“Oh, hello Harry, my only son,” Harry mocks loudly, closing the door behind himself and moving a few bags out of the way. “How was your first year of college? Oh, it was great, Ma, thanks for asking. Oh, Harry, won’t you sit down for a moment? You always work so hard! Oh, Ma, you’re too kind-”

“Oh, hush!” Harry’s mother laughs, rushing over to pull him into a crushing hug. “I’m so proud of you. I want to hear all about it over supper.”

“I was thinking I could take Louis around the farm before supper,” Gemma says, giving Harry a look. “You should go see Pa.”

Harry nods, his stomach dropping a little. Gemma ushers Louis out the back door, snack still untouched on the table, and Harry shuffles over to his Ma where she’s getting supper started on the stove.

“Is he doing any better?” Harry asks, voice quiet. “Pa, I mean? He’s not worse, right?”

Ma purses her lips, squeezing Harry’s arm gently. “He looks worse than he is, I think. He’ll be so happy to see you,” she says, giving him an encouraging smile.

Harry smiles back, but he’s nervous as he turns to walk to his father’s bedroom. He’s never been very strong emotionally, and he’s very afraid of what he’s about to find behind the door.

He knocks quietly before he enters, finding Pa sitting up against the headboard, looking exhausted. His lips are chapped to hell and he’s got hardly any hair left; he looks for all the world like a breathing corpse, and Harry feels a bit sick.

“Harry, my boy,” Pa grins, his voice as clear as ever. It’s a bit rumbly from the cough he’s had all these months, but Ma was right when she said he looks worse than he is. “Oh, my boy, come here.”

Harry smiles a trembling smile, hopes it’s dim enough in the room that Pa can’t tell. The curtains are pulled, for some reason, and the room is lit only softly from the lamp in the corner. “Hi, Pa,” Harry says, sitting down gingerly on the edge of the bed.

“Lord, you look grown up,” Pa says, reaching out for him. Harry hugs him as tight as he dares, lest he break him in half. “Tell me, how is Boston?”

“Wonderful,” Harry says, pulling back so he can speak. “So wonderful, Pa, I love it. Did Ma and Gemma tell you Louis is here? I’ve been living with him the past couple months, helping him run his drugstore. And I passed all of my classes with perfect scores,” he says.

“I know that, boy, I’ve read all of your letters, sometimes twice,” Pa says, gesturing to the small pile of Harry’s letters on the bedside. “You’re really meant to be out there, hm?”

“I really am, Pa,” Harry says. “I miss you and Ma and Gems so much, you know. I think about you all the time. But I really think that I’m made for Boston,” he admits.

“I don’t doubt it for a moment,” Pa says, smiling as he rest his head back against the wall. He wheezes a little and then coughs, looking annoyed as he pounds at his chest a few times with a frail, twisted hand. “Harry, have Ma bring me a cup of water, if you please. It’s dry in here.”

“I’ll get it for you,” Harry says, jumping up and rushing out of the room. Ma doesn’t look at him as he fumbles about in the kitchen, like she knows he’s trying to collect himself.

“He really does look bad, Ma,” he says finally, voice cracking a little. Ma sighs and glances over at him, eyes a little wet.

“He’s been talking about seeing you for nearly a month,” Ma says. “Sometimes I think that you’re the only thing keeping him going. He’s made his peace with never being able to work on the farm again, though he’s still struggling with the doctors telling him he really shouldn’t be walking around and all that. But with me and Gem, well, he knows we’ll be alright. We’ve got the farm, we’ve got money now, and we’ve got all the lovely boys who work here and a couple nice young girls who help me in the kitchen time to time. But you, Harry, he’s proud of you, you should hear him speak about you to anyone who’ll listen. ‘I’ve got a boy in Boston, you know. He’s going to be a lawyer, you know. He’s going to make a name for himself out there in New England, and then he’s gon’ come back here and do us all proud.’ You’re his everything, Harry.”

Harry nods, sniffling down at the cup of water in his hands. “I should’ve been a doctor,” he says, his voice trembling dangerously. “I should’ve gone to medical school, and I could’ve come back here and helped him and-”

Ma takes the cup of water from his hands and puts it down on the table, tugging him into her arms. They’re quiet for a moment while Harry gathers himself, face pressed into her neck. “Don’t take this the wrong way, Harry, but you’d be a terrible doctor,” Ma says after a long few moments.

Harry laughs, pulling away and wiping at his face. “Gee, I don’t know how I could take that the wrong way, Ma,” he chuckles.

“I only mean you’re meant to be a lawyer,” Ma says, watching him fondly. “I mean, Christ, you can’t even look at a sick man without having a breakdown, how would you deal with all the dying babies out here and whatnot? You just wanna save everyone, and that’s not what doctors do. You made the right choice, Harry, stick by it.”

“You’re right, I suppose,” Harry says, looking down at his feet for a moment before picking up the cup of water again. “I should get back in there before Pa coughs up his lungs.”

Ma smiles and squeezes his shoulder before she turns back to the stove, and Harry takes his time shuffling back to the bedroom. He glances out the window on his way and spots Gemma and Louis in the distance, talking with their heads down as they wander through the crop fields. Harry wonders what kind of boring stories Gemma is making Louis endure, or if they’re really catching up, long lost childhood friends.

He delivers the water to Pa and then heads for the window, pulling the curtains open to let the afternoon light in. The sun is going to set soon on the other side of the house, but the sky is already a nice hazy orange over here, fading into the evening.

“Thank the lord,” Pa sighs, closing his eyes to bask in the soft light. “Ma keeps those damn things pulled all day, like she thinks I’ll sleep if it’s dark enough. I don’t need to sleep, Harry. I miss the sunshine.”

Harry smiles, sitting down on the very corner of the bed, watching out the window. Gemma and Louis have stopped walking, facing each other amidst the beet seedlings freshly planted in the field. “It’s still a bit chilly outside, but once it gets warm I’ll get Ma to let me take you for a walk outside,” Harry says, glancing over his shoulder at Pa. “How does that sound?”

“My boy,” Pa beams. He lolls his head to the side to gaze out the window, looking like the sun itself. “My boy.”

-

Harry spends the rest of the afternoon learning things. For one, he learns that Pa is exactly as bad as he looks, and he’s only getting worse. He’s good at hiding it, but he’s in immense pain all of the time, and the doctors can’t do anything for him. He’s dying, slowly but surely. Ma, on the other hand, is losing her mind. She’s in such a state of denial about Pa’s health that she’s losing her grip on reality, and Gemma says sometimes she forgets for entire days that she’s supposed to be Pa’s caregiver. It’s heartbreaking to watch, and Harry’s only been here one day. He has no idea how Gemma does it.

They’re in the sitting room now, Harry, Louis, and Gemma, while Ma and the housekeeper finish up supper. Gemma hired the housekeeper a few months back because Ma kept forgetting to do things like make meals or clean the floors, and Gemma doesn’t have time to do all of it on top of taking care of the farm.

“I never thought I’d actually miss Nebraska,” Louis is saying, leaning back against his chair and gazing out the window. Harry is sprawled on the soft rug in front of the new sofa Gemma bought, where she’s currently lounging, taking up as much space as possible. “And I didn’t, really, not until I got here.”

“Is it much different than you remember?” Harry asks, looking at Louis mostly upside down.

“Well, I never left Hastings much as a child, if I’m honest, so I’m not really sure. From what I’ve seen, though, I’d have to say almost nothing is different,” he muses.

“Louis, dear, could you do me a favor?” Gemma says after a moment, catching Louis’s attention. “Go check the status of supper? Ma keeps getting distracted and I’m afraid she’ll put me out with the cows if I ask her again when supper will be done.”

“Sure,” Louis chuckles, pushing himself up and out of his chair and wandering off to the kitchen. Gemma sits up immediately and looks down at Harry, prompting him to push up on his elbows to pay her the attention she’s requesting.

“We need to talk about something,” she says gravely, suddenly unable to meet his eyes.

“What, Gem?” Harry asks, concerned, sitting up fully.

“Harry, you can’t go back to school this year,” she whispers.

Harry blinks, frowning at Gemma’s feet for a long moment. “What? Why?”

“Pa isn’t going to make it much longer,” Gemma says, eyes full of tears suddenly. “Definitely not until Christmas, maybe not even that long. Please, Harry, stay here, we need you.”

Harry chokes a little, glancing over his shoulder to make sure Louis isn’t going to come back soon. “Gem, I can’t take a whole year off of school. I’ll be so behind, and- and Louis needs my help, you know, at the store, and- God, Gem, it’s terrible here, you know I hate it, and I love Boston-”

Gemma cuts him off with a scoff, looking disgusted. “How selfish are you,” she says. “Christ, Harry, what has the city done to you?”

“It’s not selfish!” Harry says, resisting the urge to shout, lest the whole house hear. “It was your idea to send me to school! I’m only doing this for you! And for Pa,” he reasons.

“I’m paying for it, Harry, for all of it,” Gemma argues.

“And I’m going so that I’ll be able to pay you back,” Harry says, exasperated, so confused at the turn of events.

“This isn’t what we’re fighting about,” Gemma says, waving him off.

“Gemma, please,” Harry breathes, reaching out to cling to her hand. “We need to go back to Boston to open up the store again. Niall can’t watch it forever, not when he goes back to work at the school in September, and Louis will really suffer if he doesn’t work for the whole year,” he says.

Gemma frowns, shaking her head at him. “I’m not talking about Louis,” she says. ”I’m talking about you, Harry.”

Harry pauses at that, blinking down at the floor. Somehow he assumed Louis would be staying here with him, he automatically lumped himself and Louis together and didn’t consider the fact that Louis would just leave without him at the end of the summer.

“Louis is going back to Boston in August no matter what, but I’m begging you to stay here, Harry,” Gemma says, voice quiet, truly begging.

Harry swallows hard, closing his eyes tight and willing away the tears. “Fine,” he breathes, shoulders slumping. “Alright, fine.”

It feels like he’s signed his life away, like he’s just resigned to stay here forever. He knows how easily a year will become two, and then two will become five, and then before he knows it he’ll be trapped here forever, and his taste of freedom, of his dream, will have only been a tease. He already feels trapped, feels the weight of all the farmland in Nebraska pushing down on his lungs, squeezing every last drop of autonomy right out of him.

But Gemma is so relieved, and Harry doesn’t know how he could leave, even if he did have a choice. Gemma is mostly right, anyway; Pa is going to die soon, and Ma probably isn’t far behind. She’s definitely going to start needing a lot more help soon, and Harry has to be here for that. He can’t put her in the hands of a stranger, can’t let Gemma just hire someone to take care of her when he should be here doing it himself, caring for her the way he’s supposed to. It hurts like hell, but he knows he has no other choice.

“Supper is ready!” Louis calls gleefully from the kitchen a few moments later, while Harry’s world is still falling slowly to pieces around him. Gemma reaches down to help him up off the floor and pulls him into a hug, forcing her face into his neck.

“Thank you,” she whispers, her hands trembling against his back. He suddenly realizes how hard that must have been for her to ask of him, and he hugs her back tightly.

They both compose themselves on the short walk to the kitchen, taking their seats silently. Harry doesn’t look up for the entire meal, keeping his eyes on his food and not allowing himself to look up at Louis, of all people, because he’s not sure he’ll be able to keep himself in check if he does.

Everyone disperses after supper to get ready for bed, Harry heading up to his bedroom and digging through his bags for his pajamas. He changes and goes to the washroom to wash his face, coming back to his bedroom to find Louis soft and comfy in his pajamas, sitting cross legged on Harry’s bed.

“Didn’t the housekeeper make you a bed on the sofa downstairs?” Harry chuckles, pushing him out of the way gently so he can climb into bed. “I thought you’d be thrilled to not have to share with me for a bit.”

“I actually enjoy sharing a room with you, you know,” Louis says, pushing back playfully. He waits for Harry to tuck himself under the covers and then adjusts himself beside Harry’s feet, facing him. “But that’s not why I’m here.”

“Come for a bedtime story?” Harry jokes, grinning when Louis rolls his eyes.

“Nope,” Louis hums, but he doesn’t say anything, staying perfectly quiet until Harry cracks.

“Listen, I have to tell you something,” Harry sighs, finally sitting up.

“I’m listening,” Louis says quietly, flicking his hair out of his face and looking up at Harry with his face turned down, meeting Harry’s eyes through his eyelashes.

“I’m- I don’t know how to tell you this,” Harry says, rubbing at his face. “I can’t-”

“You’re not coming back to Boston with me,” Louis says, and when Harry looks up, his eyes are downcast. “I know.”

“You know?” Harry asks. “How did you know?”

“Gemma told me,” Louis says. “I hope that’s alright. She mentioned it while we were outside, but she said she didn’t know if she could do it to you. I’m glad you decided to stay, though. You’re a good person, Harry.”

“I didn’t have much choice,” Harry mutters, shrugging one shoulder. “I’m so sorry, Louis.”

“Nothing to be sorry about,” Louis says, reaching out to squeeze Harry’s shoulder. “I’ll be fine. I mean, yeah, it was easier to have you around, and more fun, as well, but I’ll survive. It’s only a year, right? How bad can it be?” he hums.

Harry purses his lips, staring down at his own knees.

“It’s only a year, right, Harry?” Louis says, suddenly unsure. “Harry?”

“I don’t know,” Harry breathes, rubbing harshly at his eyes. “I don’t know, Louis. Gemma says it’ll only be a year, but how can she know that? She wants me to stay until after Pa passes, but Ma is getting bad, too, and by the time Pa is gone she’ll be so insane I won’t be able to leave her, either. I can’t leave her like that, Lou, I can’t stand the thought of her losing her mind and me leaving and Gemma being too busy to be able to care for her, either. So then I’ll have to stay until she goes, as well, but who knows when that will be? It could be years, or more, and by that point who knows what will have happened. What if by then Gemma can’t afford to send me to school anymore, or something else happens that keeps me here, or- I don’t know, Louis. I’m so afraid I’m going to get stuck here, I won’t be able to go back to Boston, I won’t be able to do anything- everything is falling apart, Louis,” he whimpers.

“No, it’s not,” Louis says, crawling up the bed to tug Harry into his arms. “It’s absolutely not. Hey, listen to me, you’re fine, and everything is going to be alright. We’ve got time to figure it all out, and no matter what happens, it’s all gonna work out just fine,” he soothes, letting Harry cuddle close and tuck his head under his chin.

Harry feels like he’s on a precipice, dangling over a cliff’s edge, and without Louis’s arms around him or his soft voice in his ear, he might just disappear over it. Louis pulls him back, though, settles him inside and out, keeps holding him until his hands aren’t shaking so much anymore and his eyes are dry and tired. He isn’t crying, and he doesn’t want to, but he thinks he might if Louis leaves.

Eventually Louis tucks them both under the covers and wraps himself around Harry like a security blanket, holding him close until they both fall asleep. Maybe it’s odd, how close they are, how this isn’t the first time they’ve fallen asleep together in such close quarters, but it feels right. Besides, they aren’t hurting anyone, and no one needs to know. This is them, it’s theirs, and for now, everything is fine.

-

They visit Louis’s father the following weekend, when the sun is high and hot in the sky. Summer is moving in fast, oppressive with its heat and exhausting with its work. Gemma’s farm hands are good boys, work tirelessly under the beating sun, and Harry’s sweating just watching them from the front seat of Gemma’s car, all the windows rolled down so the wind will come through as they drive.

He gets the front seat this time, thanks to Louis’s endless generosity. Louis’s got shorter legs anyway, he claims, and he’s not terribly uncomfortable in the backseat. They’re just waiting on Gemma to find her sunbonnet inside and then they’ll be on their way, driving the familiar old route up to Hastings to pay a visit to Troy’s.

“Can’t imagine doing that kinda work,” Louis says, voicing Harry’s own thoughts. “No wonder you had to get out of here.”

“It’s miserable,” Harry agrees. “I’m just not cut out for it, I suppose. Can’t say I’m upset about that,” he shrugs.

“Me either,” Louis chuckles, reaching immediately for the door handle so he’ll have something to hold onto when Gemma finally comes out to the car, bonnet tied neatly on her head.

“Alright, boys, off we go,” she says, putting the car in reverse and rocketing out of the driveway.

They get to Troy’s in record time and, remarkably, no one dies. Harry feels like he hasn’t been here in ages, but as he climbs out of the car and follows Louis through the front door, it feels like absolutely nothing has changed.

“Dad?” Louis calls, peeking around a few shelves in search of the old man. “Troy?”

It’s a few moments before Troy’s footsteps come lumbering down the stairs, and Louis fixes his hair quickly before Troy comes out from the door to the backroom. Troy looks confused, and then shocked, and then grins.

“Louis, my boy,” he gasps, beckoning Louis over to him with one old, twisted up hand. “I didn’t know you were back!”

“Wanted to surprise you,” Louis says shyly, giving his father a quick hug. “How have you been?”

“Suppose you’d know if you ever wrote,” Troy says, pulling away from Louis to give him a good onceover. “But that’s my fault too, you know.”

“Things are busy,” Louis says, shrugging one shoulder. “For both of us, I’m sure. I’m in Boston now, you know, Dad. Harry’s living with me while he’s going to college, ain’t that something?”

“Something,” Troy says, glancing over Louis’s shoulder at Harry. “Well, I’ll be damned, you done grew up, hm?”

“Yes, sir,” Harry says, stepping forward to shake Troy’s hand. He only remembers meeting the man a few times when he was young, but he remembers him being brash, judgemental and crude.

“What are you going to college for?” Troy asks, looking down his nose at Harry.

“Law, sir,” Harry says. He doesn’t mention that he’s taking a year off, doesn’t think it’s relevant. “Louis was kind enough to let me stay with him when we ran into each other.”

“Awful kind,” Troy says, glancing at Louis again. “Tell you what, boys, there must be some stream of ladies in and out of that place,” he jokes, elbowing Louis playfully in the ribs. “Let’s hear about your girls, hm?”

Gemma makes herself busy, ducking away from the conversation to wander the aisles. Louis laughs quietly and Harry flushes a little, glancing over at him.

“No ladies right now, Dad,” Louis says, saving Harry from having to make any further comment. “We’re both pretty busy.”

Troy lets the smile drop from his face, eyes flicking back and forth between them a few times. “So you’re telling me it’s just the two of you in that apartment all day? Christ, what do the neighbors think? Look like a couple of queers, you do,” he says.

“Dad, it’s not like that,” Louis rolls his eyes. He keeps his eyes determinedly off Harry. “C’mon, why do you have to be like that?”

“Be like what? I’m just tellin’ ya how it looks like,” Troy shrugs, turning away to lumber back behind the checkout. “If I was living there, and I found out there were two single guys living together in an apartment all by themselves, well, I’d-”

“Mind if we look around?” Louis cuts him off, annoyed. “Been awhile since I’ve seen the place.”

“Go ahead,” Troy dismisses, waving a hand above his head. He mutters something under his breath that sounds a lot like couple ’a queers, but Louis grabs Harry’s arm and drags him away quickly.

“Jesus, I’m sorry about him,” Louis says, pulling Harry into the back room and hiding his face in his hands. “Miserable old bag of dirt. Now you see why I got the hell out of here.”

“It’s alright, really,” Harry says, forcing a small laugh. “He’s wrong, anyway. At least we know that,” he shrugs.

Louis peeks up at Harry through his fingers, watching him for a long moment. “Yeah,” he says finally, shaking himself out of his thoughts. “I hoped maybe age would have mellowed him. Guess I was wrong.”

Harry nods, tearing his eyes away from Louis and glancing around the room. “This place really hasn’t changed,” he says, sitting down at the bottom of the stairs and smiling up at Louis. “Feels like I’m 7 again.”

“You certainly don’t look it,” Louis laughs, shuffling over to sit on the next step down. “Biggest 7 year old I’ve ever seen.”

Harry snorts, pushing lightly at Louis’s shoulder. “Kind of feels like we’ve gone back in time. Any second Gemma is gonna come in here and take our photo and tell us we’ll be friends forever,” he jokes.

“She was right, anyway,” Louis says, leaning back against the step and looking upside down at Harry. “I can see up your nose.”

“Wonder why,” Harry chuckles, reaching down to poke Louis’s nose with the tip of his finger. “I can see up yours, too.”

“I’m gonna miss you when I have to go back to Boston without you,” Louis says, still tipped over backwards to look at him. “Promise you’ll write until you come back?”

“Promise,” Harry says, poking Louis’s nose again. He almost wants to make a joke about them being a couple of queers, but it’s not very funny, he thinks, and he doesn’t think Louis would think so either.

Louis gazes up at him for a couple more seconds until finally he looks away, pushing himself up and off the stairs. “Well, then, we should probably go and save Gemma. Dad’s probably being unsavory.”

“Don’t you want to go upstairs, or anything?” Harry frowns, but he gets up too. “This used to be your home, don’t you want to look around?”

Louis sighs, peering up the stairs and shaking his home. “This isn’t my home anymore,” he says, eyes falling on Harry.

“Boston is?” Harry frowns, cocking his head.

Louis nods, eyes sweeping down Harry’s body before falling away. “Maybe.”

With that, he walks away, back out into the store to find Gemma. Harry spends another few seconds gazing up the stairs to the apartment before he follows, hoping that someday Boston will maybe be his home, too.

-

Summer passes too quickly, and then it’s August, and the fruit in Gemma’s small orchard is ready to be harvested. Louis can hardly contain his excitement when Gemma suggests he and Harry pick some of the fruit, dragging Harry all the way out to the orchard with baskets for each of them.

They make a competition of it, trying to pick more fruit than each other, shoving each other out of the way and giggling like children as they run for the trees with the most fruit. Harry can’t help but let Louis win, too distracted with all of the laughing he’s doing, all of the fun he’s having. Christ, he’s going to miss Louis so much when he leaves next week to go back to Boston.

Louis’s up on his toes trying to pull an apple from its branch, twisting it like a madman until it comes loose. He turns around to show it off to Harry and then drops it in his basket, grinning as he turns back to pick another one. Harry comes up behind him and steals the apple out of his basket, dropping it into his own. Louis doesn’t notice, so Harry goes for another one, but Louis catches him as he’s pulling away.

“Hey!” Louis shrieks, trying to grab the apple back. “Get your own!”

Harry laughs and runs, weaving between the trees to get Louis off his path. Louis is faster than him, though, and he catches up to him quickly, and the next thing Harry knows Louis’s foot is pressing into the back of his knee and he trips, tumbling to the ground. All of the apples in his basket go scattering into the grass, and Louis is quick to scoop them up while Harry is down.

“No!” Harry shouts, grabbing at Louis’s ankle as he goes to run away. Louis squawks as he loses his balance and trips over, trying to save the fruit in his basket from tumbling out, too.

Harry lets go of him and scrambles to his feet, collecting all of the fallen fruit before Louis can get up. He makes to run away again but Louis tackles him before he can get far, and Harry laughs as he goes back down.

“You’re a menace!” Louis says, holding Harry down as best as he can and trying to snatch the basket out of his hand. “Give me my apples back!”

“They’re mine now!” Harry argues, rolling onto his back and clutching the basket to his chest. “Go away!”

“They are not yours!” Louis laughs, seating himself firmly on Harry’s stomach so that Harry can’t struggle away.

Harry shrieks, trying with all of his might to hold onto the basket. Louis manages to knock it out of his hands after a few more moments of struggling, and then he quickly gathers both of Harry’s wrists in both of his hands and pins him down to the grass.

Harry gives up immediately, going limp under Louis. He’s out of breath, chest heaving, lungs struggling under Louis’s weight. Louis looks triumphant, proud of himself, holding Harry prisoner even as the basket of stolen apples rolls away from them, apples scattering in every direction.

The world slows to a wavering stop when their eyes meet, both of them breathing hard, still kind of giggling. Harry feels like he’s made of melting butter, his head spinning until finally Louis releases him and rolls off of him. He gathers all of the apples and takes off with the basket, darting down the row of apple trees and then disappearing between them, still laughing and calling for Harry to catch up.

Harry takes a few minutes to just stare up at the sky, catching his breath. He’s covered in grass stains and he’s sure he’s got dirt and bugs in his hair, but he doesn’t mind. He feels like he can’t move, Louis’s phantom weight still holding him down, making it hard for him to breathe.

Finally he manages to regain the feeling in all of his limbs and he climbs to his feet, collecting the few apples that Louis missed and taking off after him. Louis is already ages away, but Harry will be damned if he doesn’t catch up, sprinting through the trees after the sound of his voice.

They don’t end up picking very many apples, and they come home for supper looking as though they’d been buried alive, but it’s the most fun either of them have had all summer.

-

They pile all of Louis’s things into the back of Gemma’s car on the last day of August, and Harry lets him have the front seat again on the way to the train station. He’s had knots in his stomach all morning, throat full of dread at the promise of saying goodbye to Louis and not leaving with him.

The drive is quiet. Harry’s too upset to speak, Louis’s trying to pretend he’s just as cheery as ever, and Gemma’s quite visibly choking on her own guilt. Harry’s absolutely devastated that this is all happening, but he really wishes Gemma would stop blaming herself. Harry certainly doesn’t; he knows it’s not her fault that she needs his help, or that he needs to stay home this year. Gemma is acting like she’s ruined his life, and while it may feel like it, Harry knows it’s not true.

Hastings is quiet for a late Monday morning, and they find Louis’s platform a few minutes early. Gemma says her goodbyes first and then goes to have a look at the concessions stand just inside the station to give the boys a moment alone.

“This is it, then,” Harry says, voice quiet, the slightest bit strained. “Write me as soon as you get in.”

“You’re acting like this is forever,” Louis chuckles, but his voice is strained too, hands shaking just a little when he reaches out to hug Harry tight. “I’ll write you the moment I get home. I’ll keep all of your school things inside your dresser, so they’ll be there when you come back, yeah?” he says, pulling away with a wavering smile.

“Yeah,” Harry nods, but it’s unconvincing, corners of his lips pulled down. “Alright.”

The train blows its whistle and Louis glances over his shoulder at it, letting out a long breath. “That’s me, I guess.”

Harry hugs him again, pulls him tight to his chest, holds his breath against the curve of his neck. He breathes in deep through his nose, committing to memory every last bit of Louis he can have, his very best friend, his very favorite person.

It’s overwhelming, suddenly, the urge Harry feels to pull back and kiss him. He’s never felt it before, not with any girl he’s ever danced with at a party, with any person he’s ever hugged. He wants to kiss Louis’s face, cling to him and never let him go, climb into his luggage and escape back to Boston where no one would even notice, no one would even blink if they were to spend the rest of their lives, just the two of them, growing old together in their musty little apartment, running the drugstore and being together until death do them part-

Louis pulls away with a nervous chuckle and gathers his bags, giving Harry one last long look as he backs toward the train. “I’ll write you,” he says, weakly, turning around at the last moment and climbing on board the train that’s going to take him away from Harry, maybe forever.

Harry holds back his whimper and follows him down the platform, stopping at the window Louis sits by and tapping on the glass. Louis gives him the biggest smile he’s capable of and laughs a muffled laugh, pressing his hand against the window as if reaching for Harry.

Harry grins at him and flattens his own hand to cover Louis’s, not finding it within himself to care if anyone sees him and thinks he’s queer, thinks he’s disgusting, thinks anything. The train rumbles to life and then starts inching forward, getting ready to leave the station, and Harry’s heart plummets as Louis’s face falls.

The train picks up speed and Harry follows it, trying to keep his hand pressed to the glass, but he can’t focus on walking and keeping his hand steady at once. He drops his hand and jogs alongside the train, eyes glued to Louis’s, until his car finally leaves the station and a wall keeps Harry from following it any further.

He stands at the edge of the platform, shoulder pressed against the wall, and watches the train as it gathers speed and disappears into the east. He doesn’t move until Gemma finally comes up behind him and touches his shoulder gently, and Harry breaks.

He turns around to bury his face in her shoulder, sobbing once into the collar of her cotton dress. Gemma hugs him tight and tries to soothe him, but Harry is trembling all over and he can’t even really tell why.

“I know, I know,” Gemma says, like she has any clue at all. “I know you wanted to go back. I’m so sorry, Harry.” Harry just grits out another quiet sob and fists his hand in the back of Gemma’s dress, clenching his jaw hard enough to hurt, trying to get ahold of himself. “I promise this isn’t forever, Harry. Just one year, and you’ll be back there with him.”

Harry nods, finally pulling away and wiping at his eyes quickly. There aren’t too many people in the station, and none of them are paying him any attention, which he supposes is good.

“One year,” Gemma says, giving him a sweet smile and taking his hand to lead him out of the station.

Harry stays quiet, lets himself be lead all the way out and to the car. He takes the seat Louis last occupied and glares out the window the whole way home, counting his breaths with the words one year repeating like a broken record in his head. Gemma keeps saying it, and Harry’s trying his hardest to believe it, but he just can’t let himself hope. I promise this isn’t forever.

When they were kids, Gemma was the best sister Harry could have asked for. She was kind, and considerate, selfless and so, so giving, and she never once broke a promise. Harry hopes that streak doesn’t end here, that this promise won’t be the one she won’t be able to keep.

-

Autumn blows in and out of Hansen in what seems like a single weekend, and the bitter cold sets in right at the end of October. The harvest is incredible, even better than last year, and Gemma puts away more than half of her earnings to help make the last few months of Pa’s life as comfortable as they can be.

Harry takes on the role of full time babysitter for both of his parents, caring for Pa when the visiting nurse leaves and taking Ma for walks around the farm just to get her out of the house while the nurse is there. She seems to be getting worse with every passing day; she doesn’t understand why the nurse is there, insists that Pa is getting better, even though the nurse is sure Pa won’t make it long into the new year. Gemma thinks he’ll pass before Christmas but, call Harry hopeful, he thinks he might make it until spring.

Harry takes Ma to a flea market at the church on the first Sunday of November, bundles her up in her warmest coat, hat and mittens like a child and borrows Gemma’s car so that they can bring home everything Ma will inevitably pick up. They spend the whole morning wandering around, bright and freezing weather be damned, and it’s probably the best day Ma’s had in awhile.

She finds a basket of yarn for cheap, promises to make Harry a nice, thick blanket that he can bring back to Boston next fall. She’ll make one for Louis, as well, if she has time, and maybe she’ll do him a sweater as well that Harry can send him for his birthday. They also buy loads of jam and preservatives from Mrs. Peterson, since they’ve had a hard few years, and a couple pounds of beef from Mr. Jones, as well. Harry finds a nice pair of leather mittens that he thinks Louis will like, and Ma talks him into buying a pair of heavy wool socks for him, as well.

Louis’s first letter came weeks ago, in early September, less than a week after he left for Boston. Harry wrote back immediately, and they’ve been having steady correspondence ever since. Louis keeps him updated on all the news in Boston, which includes every funny story from the store, every college student who happens to remember Harry, and every old man who walks all hunched over like Harry did that morning back in March when he fell asleep in his chair in the living room and had a terrible back the next day. Harry lives from letter to letter, keeps them all buried deep in his sock drawer so that he can keep them safe forever. He still doesn’t know when he’ll see Louis again, and he wants to hang on to every piece of him that he can.

Ma spends a bit more time wandering around the market until she’s satisfied she’s picked up everything worth picking up, and then she finally lets Harry load it all up into the car and bring her home. The housekeeper has a small fire crackling in the wood stove and lunch on the table when they walk in, and Harry gets a brief reprieve from Ma while she tells the housekeeper about everything she found at the market.

He goes to check on Pa while Ma is busy, creeping into the room when he finds that Pa is asleep. He adjusts his blankets to keep him warm and checks to make sure he’s got a full cup of water on the bedside should he need it, but he jumps at the sound of Pa’s voice as he turns to go.

“Oh, Harry, it’s you,” Pa croaks, waving him over to the bed with one increasingly frail hand. “I was only pretending to be asleep, I thought you were Ma. I love the woman, you know, but she’s lost her mind,” he sighs.

“I know,” Harry says, sitting down at the edge of the bed. “You should have seen her at the flea market this morning. She acts like a real old lady now,” he chuckles.

“She is a real old lady,” Pa says, patting Harry’s arm. “You take good care of her, boy, hear? I’m afraid I’m not going to be around much longer, and she’s gonna need you kids to be strong after I’m gone,” he says.

“We’ll take good care of her,” Harry promises, leaning over to leave a small kiss on Pa’s forehead. “But you better hope to hell you make it through Christmas. I’m afraid if she doesn’t get to give you the gifts she bought for you this morning, she’ll die with worry,” he jokes.

“I’ll do my best,” Pa chuckles, ruffling Harry’s hair. “Where’s she now?”

“Kitchen,” Harry says, nodding over his shoulder. “Housekeeper just made lunch.”

“Good, good,” Pa says, resting back against his pillows. “Will you open the curtains for me before you go, Harry? I want to look at the sky for a bit,” he says quietly.

Harry smiles and gets up, pulling the curtains open as wide as they’ll go. “I think it may snow soon,” Harry says, squinting up at the sky. “Mighty cold out.”

Pa hums quietly, which means the conversation is over. He stares intently out the window, eyes glued to the sky, and Harry lets himself out of the room silently. He joins Ma at the table for lunch, and Gemma comes in from the farm before long, as well, but Harry doesn’t engage much in their conversation. He keeps staring at the sky through the window above the kitchen sink, wondering what it is Pa sees out there, or what he’s trying to see. The nurse said last week that Pa’s thought process is a little bit skewed, a side effect of having been dying for so long now. Still, Harry wonders, what he’s trying to find, or if he even knows himself.

-

It snows for the first time that evening, just as the sun is creeping down past the horizon. Harry cracks Pa’s bedroom door open to ask if he’s seen, but Pa is fast asleep, snoring into his own shoulder, face still turned to the window.

“It’s me, Pa,” Harry whispers, in case he’s pretending to be asleep again. “It’s Harry. Do you see the snow?”

Pa only answers with another snore, and Harry sighs. He’ll just have to see it in the morning.

-

By the middle of December Harry’s sock drawer is full of things Louis has sent him, little things that Louis finds around the city and things that remind him of Harry. Harry tries to send Louis things, too, but nothing he sends ever feels as thoughtful and lovely as the things Louis sends him. A couple weeks ago Louis sent a letter with a single coin tucked between the pages of his letter, and it took Harry until the back of the second page to realize what it meant.

Had a gentleman try to pay at the store today with this coin. I didn’t even know what it was, had to look it up in the encyclopedia at the library.

His handwriting is so bad, it takes entire hours for Harry to work out the chicken scratch sometimes.

Turns out it’s some kind of Russian coin. No clue how he got it here! I didn’t accept it as payment, but I did hang on to it. I thought you might find it interesting. I don’t know. Weird things like that excite you.

He’s right; it does excite Harry, very much so. He picks the coin out of the drawer where he keeps it and holds it in his palm, running his thumb over the back of it. He thinks about it being made in Russia, used in Russia as currency for probably many years. He thinks about all of the people who have held this coin in their hands, thinks about it traveling all the way to America just to be confiscated in a tiny drugstore in Boston, and then mailed to Nebraska because its final destination was to make Harry happy. He smiles at the thought of it, turns it over in his palm, and places it back down in the drawer.

He wants to send something with his letter this week, but he doesn’t know what to send. Nothing he has feels special enough, like it would make Louis as happy as Harry is just at the thought of Louis thinking of him.

Eventually he finds some dried flowers pressed in a book on his desk, and his excitement peaks. Louis picked these while he was here over the summer, one of the days the two of them spent running around the farm, picking flowers and leaves and hunks of grass to throw at each other and try to get stuck in the other’s hair. Harry remembers picking these few flowers out of his hair before supper and closing them in a book so he could keep them, and he thinks they might be the perfect thing to send back to Boston this week. He won’t send Louis’s birthday and Christmas present until next week, because he doesn’t want Louis to have a chance to open them early, and he wants to send something special now.

He takes the flowers out of the book and lays them on the desk, taking a few pieces of paper out of the drawer and sitting down to begin writing. It always takes him a few minutes to decide on exactly what he wants to say to Louis, but today the words come easy.

Louis,

I came across these flowers pressed in one of my books today, and they made me think of you. I’m not sure if you’ll remember, but you picked these and threw them in my hair one day on the farm, when we were running around. I’m not sure why I pressed them, or why I kept them at all, if I’m honest, but I’m glad I did. I want you to have them now. Hang them up in the apartment somewhere, or keep them on your dresser. You can think of me every time you see them, and it’ll be like a bit of me is there with you in Boston until I can be there in the flesh.

Pa is getting worse. I think he’ll make it through Christmas- he’s a tough old man- but I’m not sure he’ll make it much longer than that. For a while I thought he might make it until spring, but as time goes on I don’t think he’ll ever see another warm day. He’ll never feel another hot summer breeze, or feel the sun on his skin, or feel the grass on his feet and dirt on his hands and sweat on his brow out in the field. It makes me sad to think about, but then I remembered that he’s had years of all of these things, and all the other seasons, too, and he’s lived a great life. I think he knows that, as well, and maybe that’s why he doesn’t seem so scared to go.

I hope I’ll be like him when I’m old. He’s dying, and it should be ugly, but it’s not. He’s so graceful, even in his final months. I’ll miss him when he’s gone, but I’ll remember him fondly, and I think that’s all he could want from me.

I really, really miss Boston. The cold is so brutal here. It’s been snowing for eight days, and it’s so high now we can hardly get out the front door. The trains are stopped until the snow stops and we’re living off jam and preservatives, which is horrible. If Pa doesn’t die of natural causes, he’s going to die of of starvation, along with the rest of us. I miss living above the drugstore, having everything we needed just downstairs whenever we needed it.

Hopefully the snow will stop soon so I can mail this letter and it will get to you safely. Has it snowed at all in Boston? Is it beautiful? Christ, I wish I was there. Christmas in the city was my favorite Christmas I’ve ever had, and not just because I spent it with you.

I’ll be sending out some presents next week, hopefully, so they’ll get to you just in time for Christmas and your birthday. Ma got you some presents, as well, so it’ll be quite a big package. Gemma’s going to put her name on everything, too, but I’ll let you know now that she didn’t have any time to buy you anything. She loves you, but she’s a busy lady.

I have to go and have supper now, and hopefully in the morning I’ll wake up and the snow will have stopped so I can mail this letter to you. I hope you’re having a good day, doing whatever it is you’re doing, and I’ll look forward to hearing from you again soon.

Best wishes,
Harry

He folds the paper up and carefully lays the flowers inside, slipping the letter into an envelope and neatly printing Louis’s name and address on the back. He brings it downstairs with him when he goes to have supper and leaves it near the front door, where it will wait until a clear day when Harry can get to the post office.

They have warm baked bread and raspberry jam with a side of mashed potatoes for supper, which is hardly the most appetizing meal Harry’s ever eaten, but it’s all they have. He goes to sleep that night beneath a blanket of still falling snow on the rooftop and dreams of a dark, musty little apartment in downtown Boston, of a boy and pressed flowers and everything he’s ever needed.

-

If last Christmas was the best Harry’s ever had, this one is definitely the worst. Pa doesn’t make any sort of improvement before the holidays, but he doesn’t get any worse, either, so they decide to count it as a win. They manage to get him in a chair at the kitchen table for Christmas dinner, but he’s back in bed before 3 in the afternoon and it’s a rather somber evening without him.

When they were children, Pa used to make Christmas as exciting as he could for Gemma and Harry. He would always chop down the roundest tree from the field and they’d spend all night decorating it on Christmas Eve, and the following morning the sitting room would be littered with small presents. They never had much money to get extravagant gifts, but Christmas was always when Harry and Gemma would get all of their new clothes and shoes for school, and sometimes, if they were lucky, a few new toys as well.

This year there is hardly anything under the tree. There’s a present for each of them, but not much more than that, since everyone’s been so terribly busy they haven’t had a moment to go shopping. Harry gets a lovely new scarf from Ma, Gemma gets a beautiful pair of homemade mittens, and Pa gets a brand new sweater for when he gets cold at night. The festivities end rather quickly once Pa is back in bed, and Harry excuses himself quietly to his bedroom to open the Christmas letter and package that Louis sent.

Harry,

Merry Christmas! I hope you and your family have a lovely holiday, you all deserve it. Tell your Ma thanks for the sweater! (Sorry I peeked early, I couldn’t help it). And thank you for the mittens, they’re much nicer than anything I have. You’ll be happy to know I’ve been wearing the socks you sent every night this week. It’s been getting terribly cold in the apartment at night, and they’re the only socks I have that keep my feet from freezing to the tiles when I make my supper in the evening.

It is very, very quiet here without you. I almost forgot to decorate, since I didn’t have you here climbing the walls for something to do once your classes ended. I know we only spent one Christmas together here, but it still feels rather strange to have you gone. I wonder what Christmas morning will be like when I wake up and spend it by myself? Of course, I’ve spent the last five Christmases before last by myself, but I really wish I could have kept getting used to having you here with me.

 

I hope your parents are well. Tell your Pa I’ve been thinking about him, and I hope he starts feeling better soon. And give your Ma a kiss for me. She’s such a sweet lady, I hope she is holding up well.

Enjoy your holidays, and I will hope to hear back from you soon. Again, thank you for the gifts, you are too kind, Harry Styles.

Yours Sincerely,
Louis

Harry smiles as he sets the letter down, reaching next for the small brown box Louis sent. He carefully peels the tape off the box and lets it fall to the floor, pulling the top open and peering inside. There’s a bit of tissue paper, which Harry digs out and tosses to the floor, before he finds a few things lying at the bottom of the box.

He pulls out a wallet first, slim and black. It feels and smells like real leather, and Harry curses Louis in his head for spending so much money on him. There’s a tiny emblem engraved into the snap button on the front, and Harry holds it closer to investigate. It’s a small silver fish, a cod maybe, and it glitters in the light when Harry pulls it back. He shakes his head and reaches into the box again, this time pulling out a small, folded piece of material. He unfolds it and spreads it over his lap to find it’s a handkerchief, creased and wrinkled from being folded so long. It’s lovely, soft and cream colored with small black accents around the edges. He reaches into the box once more and comes back with a small brown bag, like one from Louis’s store, filled to the brim with all of Harry’s favorite sweets.

There’s another note at the bottom of the box, and Harry pulls it out as he unwraps a sweet and pops it in his mouth.

Merry Christmas! I hope you like these gifts. First is the sweets, obviously, because I know they’re all your favorites. One good thing about running the drugstore is always having everyone’s favorite sweets! I also sent a handkerchief, because it looks fancy and feels soft, which I know you like a lot. Lastly, the wallet. I know what you’re thinking, and I hope you’re not angry. It actually wasn’t as expensive as it looks. A friend of mine sells them, and I thought you might like one, so he gave me a discount. The little fish is supposed to be a cod, to remind you of Boston. I really hope you like it.

Merry Christmas!

Harry chuckles to himself, putting the note down and picking up the wallet again. He thumbs over the little silver cod and smiles, imagining Louis spotting this and thinking of him.

He’ll write Louis later and tell him off for getting him such an expensive gift, even though Louis told him not to, but he’ll make sure Louis knows exactly how appreciative he is, as well. He grabs his bag of sweets and sets off to go find Gemma so that they can share them, like they’re children, like they’re young again, back when everything was okay and Christmas still felt like magic.

-

The new year rolls in like a dark cloud, and with every day Pa withers away a little more. The first month of the year is the darkest the Styles family has ever endured, but somehow Pa keeps it together until Harry’s birthday.

They have supper all together in Pa’s room, since there’s no way he’s going to be able to get out of bed any time soon. Harry is beginning to lose hope that he’s ever going to recover, and Gemma’s already lost all of her hope, but Ma still smiles and laughs like nothing is wrong, like they’re having a quirky supper on the bedroom floor instead of desperately trying to hold the frayed pieces of their lives together.

“Supper was delicious, Anne,” Pa croaks. Gemma takes his still mostly full plate for him when he tries to push it away and nearly sends it tumbling to the floor. “I’m beat. Does anyone mind if I have a nap?” he asks, his voice so tired and strained it sounds about as painful for him to use it as it is for anyone else to hear it.

“Of course not,” Gemma says, gathering all of the plates and standing up quickly. “Ma, do you want to help with the dishes?”

“Oh, always,” Ma grins, allowing Harry to help her up off the floor before she goes scurrying off to the kitchen after Gemma.

“Happy birthday, Harry,” Pa says, beckoning Harry close with one shaking hand. “Do you know how proud I am of you?”

“Yes, Pa,” Harry breathes, too afraid to speak lest his voice fail him. “Thank you.”

“I love you, Harry, you and Gemma and your Ma, all of you. Always remember that,” he wheezes, keeping his eyes locked with Harry’s even as he begins to drift off to sleep.

“Always, Pa,” Harry says, voice shaking too much. Pa gives him a gentle smile and then closes his eyes, and Harry creeps out of the room with tears already dripping down his face.

Gemma leaves Ma at the sink to do the dishes in favor of bringing Harry to the other room, letting him cry into her shoulder for a long few minutes.

“He’s not going to get better, Gem,” he sobs quietly, looking up at her. “Is he?”

“We need to start being practical,” Gemma says, but there are tears in her eyes, too, and finally, Harry thinks she’s right.

-

Pa passes away a week later. Gemma walks to his room with a plate of breakfast and comes back still holding it, her face wrenched in anguish, tray shaking in her hands. Harry takes it from her and sets it down on the table and then holds her, hugs her close to his chest and cries into her hair while she cries into his chest. Ma catches on, of course she does, but she wears a brave face for the rest of the day and doesn’t say a word about it, even when Harry and Gemma sit her down to discuss what to do now.

It feels horrible to say, but Harry’s almost relieved that it’s finally over. It was horrible, watching Pa go through all of that pain, to get weaker and weaker every day and no one even knew why. He’s in a better place now, Harry hopes, a place where nothing can hurt him, where nothing can touch him ever again.

The ground is frozen solid and buried under at least eight feet of snow, so they’ll have to wait until the spring before they can bury him where he always wanted to be buried.

“When I go,” he used to say, sometimes over supper, sometimes early in the morning when Harry was working with him in the field, sometimes offhandedly and in passing, “I want to be buried under the apple tree in the field, the one I planted first, with your Ma. I love that goddamn apple tree. I want to be buried there.”

It always seemed so far away, something that would never actually happen, but now here they are, huddled behind the kitchen window, looking at the snow buried nearly halfway up its trunk in the snow.

“We’ll have to have him cremated,” Gemma says, voice small and tired and so, so sad. “We can bury his ashes in the spring.”

Harry just nods, still crying quietly.

He lets Gemma handle all of it. Harry helps her dig her car out of the snow and then she sets off to have someone come to the house and collect Pa’s body to be cremated. Harry spends the rest of the day in the sitting room with Ma, listening to her tell stories and laugh like nothing’s wrong, like she doesn’t understand what’s happened. It isn’t until Pa’s body has been carried out of the house and taken to the church that Harry finally kneels in front of her chair, looking up at her with puffy, red eyes.

“Don’t you know what’s happened, Ma?” he says, voice cracking. “Pa isn’t here anymore, Ma. He’s gone, he passed away,” he says.

“Oh, no, that’s not true,” Ma says, cupping Harry’s wet cheek and frowning at him like he’s got it all wrong. “No, Harry, dear, he’s not gone. He’s just sleeping,” she says comfortingly, a warm smile on her face.

Harry sobs, turning his face into her palm and squeezing his eyes shut. “No, Ma, you’re wrong. He passed away this morning, Ma, and he’s gone,” he whimpers. “Please, you need to acknowledge it.”

“He’s not gone, Harry, stop talking nonsense,” Ma says, huffing frustratedly. “He’s perfectly alright. He just needs his rest, he’ll be good as new by spring.”

“We’re having him cremated,” Harry says, trying to meet Ma’s eyes. “In the spring we’re going to bury him under the apple tree.”

“Don’t be silly,” Ma says, but her face has gone pale. Harry knows that somewhere deep inside, she knows what’s happening. “Don’t be silly, Harry.”

“I’m sorry, Ma,” Harry says, putting his head down in her lap so she’ll play with his hair, card her fingers through it the way she used to soothe him when he was young. “I’m so sorry, Ma.”

Ma doesn’t say anything else, but she keeps stroking Harry’s hair until Gemma comes home, red eyed and puffy faced as well.

It’s a long, quiet day after that, everyone keeping mostly to themselves. Ma spends the entire afternoon and evening knitting, Gemma spends the day cleaning since the housekeeper hasn’t been able to get in with all of the snow, and Harry spends hours reading and rereading every letter Louis has sent him since September. It’s downright awful, the energy in the house, but the thought on the back of everyone’s mind is that this is the best thing that could have happened, even though it feels like the worst.

-

They get Pa’s ashes back a few days later, the same day that it starts to snow again. Gemma finds a place on the mantel for Pa’s urn as they slowly get snowed in again, the sky dark and solid over the fields.

Things only get harder as Ma begins to come to terms with Pa’s death. She spends the first few days asking where he is, if Harry’s checked on him lately, if Gemma made sure he got his breakfast. Finding a way to answer her questions without breaking her heart was hard enough, but watching her struggle to understand anything was even harder.

Harry’s composed about ten letters to Louis over the past few days, mostly just venting about everything that’s been happening. He won’t send all of them, probably, and he couldn’t even if he wanted to; the snow is so deep they can’t even get the doors open now, and it’s not even supposed to let up until sometime next week. It makes Harry feel better to write about it, though, makes him feel less trapped and alone.

Louis,

It’s been nearly a week since Pa passed. Ma still goes looking for him sometimes, but I think she’s starting to understand that he’s really gone. Gemma put his ashes up in the sitting room and Ma just stares at them all day, like she’s waiting for him to climb out, or something. It’s horrible, and I can’t stand it any longer. I feel so selfish for even thinking of it, but I just want to leave and come back to Boston. Everything is so much easier when I’m there, when I’m with you.

I really hope I’ll be able to come back in time for school in the fall. If Ma keeps getting worse, I don’t think I’ll be able to just leave her here, and then I’ll have missed another year of school and I’ll be so behind and what if I go back out there and mess it all up and I can’t go to school anymore anyway, or if I never get to go back at all…

I’m getting ahead of myself. I’m just so scared, Louis. So unbelievably scared. I’m sorry that all of my letters are like this these days, and I hope you can forgive me. I’m also sorry that all of my letters are so late, it’s been snowing for days and we haven’t been able to get out of the house, let alone to the post office. I just pray you won’t forget about me.

Thank you for being my escape from all of this. I don’t know what I would do without you, without being able to just write to you whenever I need. I miss you so dearly, I don’t think you could ever understand.

Best,
Harry

He folds the letter and puts it in the pile with the others off to the side of his desk, putting down his pen and scrubbing his hands over his face. He wants a bath, but there’s no hot water, and he doesn’t feel like hauling enough inside to boil it. He hasn’t a clue what time it is, since it always looks the same outside now; dark and dreary and gray.

He’s about to shuffle over to his bed for a nap when Gemma lets herself into the room, plopping down on his bed and burying her face in her hands. Harry wordlessly closes the door behind her and sits down next to her, a lump already growing in his throat because he knows what she’s going to say, and it’s a conversation he very much does not want to have.

“What are we going to do with her, Harry,” she says finally, looking up at him with teary eyes, red cheeks and chapped lips blushing red like holly berries.

Harry swallows hard, looking down at his knees. He thinks of his letter, thinks of just wanting to get away from it all, but he knows he has to deal with this eventually. “I don’t know, Gem.”

“I swear she’s getting worse every day,” Gemma sniffles. “I don't know what to do. I don’t know how to help her. Should we hire someone? Maybe someone to come over during the day, babysit her and hopefully take care of her better than we’re able? I don’t even know what’s wrong with her, and I feel so horrible getting so frustrated with her. I nearly yelled at her just now, when she asked me how Pa liked his breakfast. I just had to leave the room, I couldn’t even pretend to answer her. Sometimes it’s like she gets it, you know, like she finally realizes he’s gone, and then the next minute she’s back to asking where he is,” she says, voice quiet and shaking like she’s going to cry.

Harry wraps an arm around her and pulls her into his side, wishing he knew how to fix this, how to make it all better. “I don’t know, Gem, I really don’t know,” he breathes.

“I’ll go into town when the snow stops,” Gemma says, sagging into Harry’s side heavily, like she’s exhausted. Harry figures they both are. “I’ll talk to some people, see if anyone has any ideas. Maybe she needs to be in a home, or something,” she says.

“A home?” Harry asks, frowning down at Gemma. “You’d let them take her from us? From her home?”

“I don’t know, maybe,” Gemma mutters. “If that’s what’s best for her.”

“No, not a home,” Harry says firmly, shaking his head. “She’ll never go, anyway. And I don’t think I could live with myself if we did that to her.”

“Harry-” Gemma tries, but Harry’s got his mind made up.

“No,” he says. “You can go to Hastings, talk to whoever you want, but we’re not sending her anywhere. She’s staying here, Gemma, if I have to babysit her myself.”

He knows it’s a big claim, knows it’ll absolutely ruin him if he ends up having to follow through, but he means it. He will not let his mother be taken away if there’s a chance he can still help her. He’d miss five more years of school if it meant being able to keep his mother comfortable in her own home as she gets old and frail and confused.

“I agree with you, Harry, trust me. Do you think I want to see her get taken away? We just have to be realistic, and keep our options open. If there was a real possibility that she could be healthier, happier and safer somewhere that wasn’t here, would you really keep her from that?” Gemma says, pulling away to look up at him.

Harry swallows, shaking his head. “No, I suppose not. I just hate the thought that-” his voice breaks and he stops, clenching his jaw.

“I do too,” Gemma says, hugging him tight. “I do too.”

They sit there for a while longer, until Gemma falls asleep on his shoulder and the house is unsettlingly quiet. Harry lays Gemma down on the bed and tucks a blanket around her before heading off to hunt for Ma, finding her knitting quietly in the sitting room, staring off into space.

It makes him sick to think about, but he knows that he has to do whatever it is she needs of him. Maybe he’ll never get back to Boston, and maybe he’ll never finish school or be a lawyer or see Louis again, maybe this is his life now. Whatever happens, he needs to be ready for it, and he needs to figure out a way to make it stop hurting so much.

-

Late in March, Ma catches pneumonia. It keeps her in bed for most of the day, which makes her easier to manage, but since they’ve been snowed in since February, the sound of her coughing and hacking at all hours is inescapable. It’s heartbreaking to listen to, and Harry thinks he might lose his mind soon if the snow doesn’t melt and give him even the briefest opportunity to get outside.

Gemma is doing all she can to care for Ma, but with no access to a doctor, Ma is only getting sicker and sicker. Harry’s terrified that by the time they can get someone to come help, it’ll be too late.

The farm is quite pretty, all snowed under like this. Icicles sparkle from every apple tree in the orchard, and the snow forms soft mounds over all the dormant crops and the stables. The pond is frozen solid out in the distance, the snow piled up around it. It looks like a wonderland, like something out of a dream, but Harry still feels like he’s living a nightmare.

Post is stopped until the snow melts, which might take until the end of April, at this point. Harry has a stack of letters for Louis in his desk that he hasn’t been able to mail, and his heart aches when he thinks of the possibility that Louis’s mail hasn’t been able to reach him, either. He’s been trying not to think of Louis very much, because the thought only makes him sad, but then again, everything makes him sad these days.

Gemma found some potatoes from the harvest the other morning, and they’ve been eating potato soup ever since. It’s good for Ma, or so it seems, since it quells her coughing for a bit after she’s eaten, if she chooses to eat.

It’s Harry’s turn today to try and coax her into getting some food into her system, which is never an easy or painless task. Ma wheezes as Harry sits down on the edge of the bed and spoons her a bit of soup, cupping his hand under her chin so that she won’t spill. It takes the better part of an excruciating hour, but Ma manages to choke down a full cup of soup before she falls asleep.

And so the days go, Harry and Gemma switching off responsibilities every other day so that there is at least some variety to their monotonous hell. March turns into April and finally the snow melts, little by little, until the roads are clear enough for travel.

Gemma calls for a doctor who tells them exactly what they already know; Ma is very, very ill, and she’ll need a miracle before she recovers. She’s been sick for so long now without proper treatment that her lungs are damaged beyond repair, which will make her more susceptible to worse things, like tuberculosis.

Spring brings a mirage of new medical problems. Ma’s typical hay fever is debilitating this year, puts her in the hospital for most of May. There’s really nothing they can do for her there, but at least everyone feels a little safer with her in the hands of professionals. It’s taxing on Gemma’s funds, since they don’t have a source of income on the farm in the winter, but soon enough the planting season will start and they’ll be able to pay off what they can’t pay now.

Ma is in and out of the hospital well into the summer, but it takes until the end of June for her to reach the worst of it. She catches tuberculosis from another patient in the hospital and gets even sicker than before, her lungs so weak and diseased it’s a wonder she can even breathe at all. Harry has to keep reminding Gemma to stop blaming herself, that this isn’t her fault. Ma needed to be in the hospital, she needed the help, and this is just a tragic consequence.

Harry is so wrapped up in it, in the caring and the feeding and the guilt that’s clawing away at his own insides, as well, that it’s all he can focus on for months. Louis’s letters keep coming in the post, slower now that Harry’s not responding, but still at least once a month. Harry hasn’t even opened any of them since March, a small pile of them forgotten on the kitchen counter where Gemma leaves them.

It takes until August for Ma’s lungs to give out. She passes away in the hospital, and even though Harry and Gemma are right there beside her, it doesn’t feel real until they bring her home and bury her under the apple tree beside Pa, where they finally buried his ashes once the ground thawed in April. Harry feels so, so horrible for being relieved, but anything is easier than watching her suffer.

This year’s harvest is good, the best yet, but they don’t talk about sending Harry back to school until there’s hardly a week left until he’s meant to be there. They can absolutely afford to send Harry back to school, many times over, and still have enough left over to pay all of the farm hands Gemma hired.

Gemma catches Harry sitting at the kitchen table exactly a week before he’s supposed to be back in Boston, staring out the window at the apple tree with his chin propped up on his hand. She slides into the chair next to him, but Harry hardly glances at her, lost in his own head.

“School starts soon, Harry,” Gemma says, her voice gentle and hesitant, like she doesn’t want to talk about this either. “I told you it would just be one year and then you could go back to Boston,” she says.

“Yeah,” Harry mutters, nodding slowly.

“So,” Gemma pushes, trying to meet his eye. “Are you ready to go back?”

Harry sighs, scrubbing his hand over his face. He doesn't know what he wants, if he’s honest; he misses Louis something fierce, misses the city, misses school, but he also doesn’t think he can leave right now without feeling guilty about it. He needs to stay here and finish grieving his parents in the only place he ever knew them, and make sure Gemma will be alright, and make sure he’ll be alright himself. He thinks Gemma already knows this, but she’s too afraid she’s wrong.

“I can’t, Gems,” he says finally, glancing over at her. “I can’t go yet. I just- not yet.”

“That’s okay,” Gemma says, wrapping her hand around his arm and pulling him close, letting him blink away the tears in his eyes against her shoulder. “You should write Louis and let him know. He’ll be worried.”

Harry nods, pulling away and rubbing at his face again. “I’m gonna take a nap,” he says, pushing out of his chair and shuffling off toward his room.

He doesn’t end up writing Louis. The week comes and goes and he can’t bear to actually put the words on paper, to relive the past few months again to recant it to someone else. He hasn’t answered Louis’s letters for months, and he’s sure Louis has already assumed he’s not coming back. It breaks his heart to think about, but Harry’s not sure he’ll ever be ready to go back, and Boston will just be a lovely memory in the back of his mind that was never meant to be revisited, anyway.

-

Harry forgets all about Louis until late September, when another letter arrives in the mail. He hasn’t written since August, and Harry still hasn’t read any of his letters from the summer, but for some reason he tears this letter open before he even sorts through the rest of the mail.

Harry,

I heard about your Ma. I’m so sorry, and I hope you’re doing okay. I guess you’re not coming back to Boston this semester, and I suppose you won’t be back next semester, either. Just know that you’ll always be welcome here, even if you’re not going to school. I miss you. I would love to see you, even if just for a visit, but I also understand if you don’t want to. Don’t feel like you have to write back, I’m not expecting anything. I just hope you’re well.

Best,
Louis

The letter is short and concise, but the handwriting is neat and careful, like Louis took ages writing it. Harry feels absolutely horrible for not writing him, for forgetting about him, for being so selfish and distracted.

He brings the letter straight to his desk and grabs a piece of paper to write his response, cursing himself for not doing it sooner.

Louis,

I am incredibly sorry for not writing all these months. The past 9 months have been incredibly hard, what with my father passing away and then my mother last month, I just couldn’t bring myself to go back to school so soon. I need to stay here and recover, and to make sure Gemma will be alright here all by herself. I’ve been incredibly selfish the past few months, and I need to right my wrongs before I allow myself to come to back to Boston, like I so desperately want to. I think I also just need the time off.

I would love to come visit you sometime if I can, but I will definitely be back to school next year. I’d love to live with you again, if you’ll have me. Again, my apologies for not writing, you deserve more than that from me. Thank you for continuing to write anyway. I will see you next September, you have my word.

Best wishes,
Harry

He takes it to the post office immediately, because he doesn’t want to waste a moment in getting it to Louis. Suddenly he’s aching to see him again, and he hopes Louis isn’t feeling the same way, if only to save him the pain.

Louis’s response comes hardly a week later, and it’s even shorter than last time, but this time the handwriting is messier, like Louis was just as eager to send it as Harry was last week.

My door is always open to you, Harry Styles. Take all the time you need, I will wait. Your bed remains empty.

Love,
Louis

The love is different, but it soothes Harry’s heart of the pain he didn’t know was gripping it. It makes things just a little bit easier to handle, knowing that Louis is thinking of him all the way in Boston, just waiting for him to come back.

-

The winter isn’t quite as harsh this year as it was last year, and Harry keeps up his correspondence with Louis. Their letters ebb and flow with the weather but remain otherwise steady, and as time passes, Harry is itching to get back to Boston.

Gemma will be absolutely fine here, and Harry thinks he knew that all along, deep down. Gemma is a natural when it comes to the farm, knows exactly what to do, when to do it, and where to do it. She hasn’t had a single crop fail since she took over the farm, and it’s not because of luck. She doesn’t need Harry here, and Harry doesn’t need to be here; he needs to be in Boston, where he feels like he really belongs.

Christmas comes and goes, and Harry sends Louis a whole crate of preserves from the farm, along with a note to save some for Harry. Louis sends some sweets from the store for both Harry and Gemma and a couple of postcards that Harry sticks up on the wall in the kitchen. 1919 comes peacefully, Harry sharing a bottle of whiskey with Gemma by the fire and telling her all of the things he can’t wait to do once he gets back to Boston.

Louis sends a letter the last week of January with some alarming news, the handwriting messy and quick, his words hasty.

Harry,

This week has been horrible. I don’t know if the news made it all the way to Nebraska, but if it didn’t, I’ll give you the short version.

A holding tank full of molasses burst the other day in the north end, and the city is a mess. They say that more than twenty people are dead, some of them children, and more than 150 people are injured. It’s absolutely horrid, Harry. It’s causing havoc all over the city. The clean up processes are just spreading it around, so they have to clean it up with salt water, which takes ages and makes the whole city smell like low tide and gingerbread, and the ground is always sticky. Some of the people that were killed or injured were regulars of the store, and I just feel awful. Remember that old Italian guy who came in for bread when his stock was running low? He lost his daughter. She was on lunch break from school and got caught in the tidal wave. None of it seems real, like it could actually have happened in real life.

It’s been helping business, somewhat. I’ve been donating a lot to the clean up crews and the rescue teams, but they also come in all the time looking to buy this and that. Of course, foot traffic in the north end is all but halted, and it pretty much includes downtown, here. Commercial Street is shut down, of course, but everything down to Faneuil Hall is a mess. Downtown crossing is mostly safe, but you can smell it for miles.

I so wish you were here for this, Harry. They say it’s the biggest tragedy Boston has ever seen. I feel so helpless, and I know you would make this easier. I can’t wait for fall, when you come back.

Love,
Louis

He’s included a couple of newspaper clippings and photographs of the city covered in molasses, bubbling brown oozing through the streets. It’s hard to imagine people being caught in it, dying in it. Harry can’t imagine how terrible Louis must feel, having to witness it all firsthand.

The love has become sort of a permanent fixture in their letters, which Harry quite enjoys. He does love Louis; he’s his best friend, and he definitely always will be. Harry’s given it a lot of thought, especially in the past two years, and he can’t imagine his life without Louis in it. He’s aching to be there with him right now, helping through this mess and making it easier for him, like Louis said.

He decides he wants to head back to the city a bit earlier than August, so he can settle back into the apartment and the routine before classes start. Really, he just can’t wait much longer to see Louis again, but that feels a bit too pathetic to admit to anyone except himself.

Gemma buys him the train ticket for his birthday, even though he’s not leaving until nearly the end of July. The trains won’t be running in such cold weather, anyway, and Gemma wants to keep Harry for one last Independence Day celebration before he leaves. She’s got a dream of setting off fireworks over the farm, and Harry supposes he wouldn’t mind seeing it, either.

He keeps writing Louis throughout the winter and into the spring, but he never mentions when exactly he’s coming back, and Louis never asks. Louis is probably too afraid to ask for fear that Harry will push it back another year, but Harry wants to be able to surprise him. He thinks it’ll make Louis’s day if Harry just walks into the store one day in July, like he did his first September in the city. Maybe it’s a bit soft of him, but he wants to see the look on Louis’s face when Harry comes back to him.

The months drag along, and then finally it’s mid summer, and Harry’s packing up his bags and loading them into Gemma’s car. Gemma drives him up to Hastings to catch the train and Harry hugs her the longest goodbye of his life, and then he’s off, excitement bubbling in his gut the whole day and a half to Boston.

-

South station is as empty as Harry’s ever seen it when his train finally pulls in around lunchtime. There are a few people milling about here and there, but he supposes no one really has any place to get to at this time on a Saturday afternoon.

He collects his things and begins the trek to Summer Street, the sun burning through his cotton shirt and sending beads of sweat rolling down his spine. He swears he can smell the faintest whiff of molasses in the air, probably embedded in the streets for years to come. His curls are already matted to his forehead by the time he passes Devonshire, and Louis’s little store comes into view, still three blocks away. It takes everything in him not to run; he’s already sweating, mostly from excitement, partly from the heat, and he doesn’t need to be a dripping mess when Louis sees him for the first time in almost two years.

Louis is at the checkout when Harry finally pushes into the store, but he hardly looks up. Harry tucks his suitcase against the wall by the door and takes a minute to collect himself in the sweets aisle, out of Louis’s view. He grabs a random sweet and walks as casually as possible to the checkout, sliding the sweet over the counter and staring intently at Louis’s downcast eyes.

“Find everything you need?” Louis hums, still not really looking up. It’s warm in the store; not as warm as it is outside, but warm enough that Louis’s skin is flushed a little pink and there’s sweat sparkling on his upper lip. Harry missed him so much he could cry.

“I’m looking at it,” Harry says, still staring unblinkingly at Louis’s face. It’s a cheesy line, probably a little too queer to be socially acceptable, but Harry doesn’t spare it a second thought when Louis frowns and finally looks up at him, realization dawning over his face.

“Harry!” Louis shouts, launching himself off of his stool and over the counter, dragging Harry into his arms. “You’re back!”

“I’m back,” Harry confirms, pulling Louis the rest of the way over the counter until his feet are firmly on the floor so he can hug him properly. “Told you I’d come back.”

“Yeah, but not now!” Louis says, pulling away laughing. “Why didn’t you write me? I would have welcomed you back with a party! Or, you know, some sort of celebration. I definitely would have bathed first, at the very least,” he jokes.

“I don’t need a party,” Harry assures him, grinning so hard he’s sure Louis can see every tooth in his head. “I would have appreciated if you’d bathed, though.”

“Oh,” Louis scoffs, hitting playfully at Harry’s arm. “I can’t believe you’re finally back. You’re staying, aren’t you?” he asks, looking suddenly unsure.

Harry nods, his smile softening. “I’m staying. The past two years have been miserable, but if I don’t start moving forward again, I never will,” he says.

“Good,” Louis says, squeezing Harry’s arm and leaving his hand there, like he can’t stop touching him, can’t really believe he’s actually there in front of him. “I feel so awful about everything that happened. How is Gemma?” Louis asks, making his way back around the counter and sitting back down on his stool.

“She’s doing alright,” Harry says, hoisting himself up to sit on the counter and twisting around until he’s facing Louis, legs dangling over the edge. “The farm is doing incredibly well, which isn’t a surprise. She’s truly made for it, the best there is,” he hums.

“That’s great,” Louis says, reaching out to place his hand on Harry’s knee, squeezing lightly. The touch sends an unexpected zip of heat through Harry’s body, radiating from Louis’s hand on him. “I’m really just so happy you’re back. I had no idea how much I would miss you.”

Harry meets Louis’s eyes, finding them sparkling and bright, full of everything Harry missed about him while he was gone. “Me too,” he says, voice barely there, tendrils of white hot heat still coursing through his veins, making him want to both pull away and lay his hand over Louis’s, make sure it never moves.

Louis makes the decision for him and pulls away, picking up the sweet Harry brought to the counter and handing it to him. “Here, on the house. Where are your things?”

“Stashed them by the door,” Harry says, hopping down off the counter and unwrapping the sweet. He doesn’t even know what it is, but he stuff it in his mouth, anything to distract from the aching cold that consumed him as soon as Louis pulled away. “I’ll bring them upstairs.”

“Your sheets are clean, I put them in your dresser,” Louis says. “They’ve been in there awhile, though, might need another wash. Go have a look at them. If they smell funny, I’ll go and clean them after I close the store.”

“I can clean them,” Harry says, dragging his suitcase from the door all the way to the stairs at the back of the store. “Thank you, Louis, for letting me come back,” he says, pausing in the doorway and glancing over his shoulder at Louis.

“Always,” Louis frowns at him. “You’re the only roommate I’d ever want.”

Harry grins, ignores the funny twisting in his gut and lugs his suitcase all the way up the stairs. It turns out his sheets could use a wash, musty after sitting untouched for so long, so he cleans them in the sink and hangs them by the open window in the sitting room to dry while he unpacks everything else.

Louis comes upstairs once the sun starts to set and the store is closed, but Harry had forgotten how quiet he was, jumping nearly out of his skin when he glances over his shoulder and finds Louis watching him from the doorway to the bedroom.

“Are you hungry?” Louis says, finally stepping into the room and plopping down on his own bed. “Mister Mancini, the Italian man I wrote you about, the one who lost his daughter in the molasses flood? His wife came by the store a few weeks ago and left me a recipe book as thanks for helping them out during the clean up. Their business really suffered, and I was able to donate a lot of food to keep them going until the streets were cleared. I’ve been dying to try out some of the recipes, but I wanted to wait until you were back, because I thought you’d enjoy them the most.”

Louis is rambling, playing with his own fingers while he talks. Harry wants to grab his hands to still them, but he thinks they’ve been intimate enough in the hour and a half Harry has been back in Boston to last them a month. “That sounds lovely,” he says, smoothing another folded shirt into his dresser and then turning around to face him fully. “What did you have in mind?”

“Lasagna? I have all the ingredients,” Louis says, looking hopeful. “But I, um, I was hoping you would help me out a bit,” he admits. “It seems quite complicated, I’m not sure I can do it all on my own. I’m not exactly a chef, you know,” he smirks.

“Of course,” Harry laughs, shoving his suitcase closed and under the dresser. “I can finish unpacking later.”

Louis grins and jumps up, leading Harry to the kitchen like a giddy child, too excited to play with a new toy.

They spend the rest of the evening cooking and laughing and feeding each other bits of ingredients, and it takes ages, but eventually they find themselves with a fully cooked, delicious smelling lasagna on the table. They catch up while they eat, telling all the little bits and pieces of stories they couldn’t get down in writing. Harry’s never enjoyed a meal so thoroughly.

Louis helps him make his bed after supper, and then scampers off to make some tea while Harry gets the rest of his clothes put away. He stores his empty suitcase under the dresser and then finds Louis in the sitting room, his chair pulled close to the window so he can look out at the stars.

Harry pulls his chair over next to him and accepts the cup of tea Louis hands him, taking a long sip without taking his eyes off of Louis, face illuminated by the moonlight. He looks ethereal, even more magnificent than Harry remembers him.

“Two whole years, and you still remember exactly how I like my tea,” Harry muses, gaze unwavering when Louis looks over at him.

“I told you,” Louis says, mostly to his mug, closing his eyes as he takes another sip.

“Told me what?” Harry hums, still smiling softly, even though Louis’s face is placidly serious.

“I could never forget a damn thing about you, Harry Styles, not even if I wanted to,” Louis says. His hair falls into his face when he glances over at Harry, the moonlight reflecting off of it and making it glow golden, like maybe Louis himself is the sun.

Harry thinks of how dark and cold his life got once Louis went away, how Harry got a taste of the sweetest sunshine imaginable and then was plunged into the longest winter of his life. He feels like he’s been buried under mounds of snow for months, years, and he’s finally made it to spring, finally getting another taste of how wonderful life can be.

They go to bed quietly after a bit, once their tea is gone and their minds are full of the lovely static of comfortable silence. It means a great deal when someone’s company can make one feel so at ease even without conversation, or at least that’s what Ma used to say. Harry turns over under his clean sheets and gazes out the bedroom door, which they left open to let the cool air from the open window blow in. He can see the city out the window, can see every single star hovering over it, and the moon over them. He thinks of his Ma, all the way back in Nebraska, resting forever next to the love of her life. He glances over at Louis, already sleeping peacefully, on his side with his pouting face in Harry’s direction.

Harry closes his eyes and drifts off slowly, at ease with the notion that maybe Boston isn’t the only thing that makes him feel at home.

-

The rest of the summer passes too quickly. Harry helps out at the store every day, mostly because he has nothing else to do, but Louis loves it. He’s been able to get so much done with Harry around to watch the store, and Harry’s just happy to see Louis so happy.

It takes them no time at all to fall into a routine; Harry gets up early and opens the store because he likes to, and he mans the counter all day until Louis comes downstairs with some lunch for both of them. They eat together at the checkout counter and then Louis takes over the store until close, and Harry’s found he quite likes cooking, so he usually has supper ready by the time Louis comes back upstairs. It’s a perfect system, gives them a good amount of time to chat during and after supper before they both head off to sleep.

Things change a bit once school starts up, but Harry still helps out at the store as much as he can. His classes are over by lunchtime, so usually he comes home and makes lunch for both him and Louis so they can eat before he takes over the store for the afternoon. Louis comes back to close so Harry can make supper, and then they spend the evenings chatting in the kitchen while Harry does his homework.

Harry spends his off days at the library, even though there’s very little work at the beginning of the semester. He’s mostly just playing catch up to remember everything he forgot after two years away, but he’s doing pretty well despite that. On weekends they both sleep in, and whoever wakes up first makes breakfast for the other. Harry likes the weekends best, just being able to relax and spend time with his best friend.

Harry wakes up on the first Saturday of the semester without any covers on, limbs spread wide over his mattress. He forgot how the apartment heats up and cools off with the air outside, how sweaty it can get if they forget to close the windows before going to sleep and then sleep for too long in the morning.

He peels himself off the bed and shuffles out to the sitting room to shut the window, taking a moment to gaze down at the streets below. It’s the last of the warm weather in Boston; once September turns to October, it will start to get chilly outside. Harry’s still quite enjoying the warm weather, but he’s also excited for another pretty Boston winter.

He heads to the kitchen next to get breakfast started, though he thinks he’ll just have cereal today. It’s far too warm to turn on the stove right now, even if Louis may whine about not having any eggs.

Louis shuffles out a couple minutes after Harry settles down at the table with his cereal, still in his soft pajamas, hair a mess. He surveys the kitchen before his eyes settle on Harry, blinking slowly.

“No eggs?” he says, his voice sleepy and scratchy. It fills Harry with a soft kind of warmth that makes him smile, and he shakes his head.

“Too hot for eggs,” he says. “If you turn on the stove, I’ll have to go outside.”

“It is quite warm in here,” Louis says, grabbing the cereal after a moment of deliberation and pouring himself a bowl. “Forgot to close the window before bed.”

Louis sits down across from Harry with his bowl, his knee knocking against Harry’s under the table and staying there, pressing lightly against Harry’s skin. Louis is wearing thin pajama pants, but Harry is only in his underwear and a loose shirt, and the paper like material that separates them does nothing to stop the heat traveling from Louis’s skin to Harry’s, right up his thigh and into the pit of his stomach.

Harry is uncomfortably warm still, but somehow, he can’t pull away. He keeps his leg perfectly still and finishes his breakfast quietly, wondering what it is he likes so much about Louis touching him. He doesn’t move until they’re done eating, and finally Harry feels like he’s suffocating. He grabs Louis’s bowl and gets up to wash their dishes, his skin still burning in the shape of Louis’s knee.

“What are you up to today?” Louis asks, stretching his legs onto Harry’s empty chair to get more comfortable. “I have some cleaning up and bookkeeping things to do for the store, and I’d love if you helped me.”

“Of course,” Harry says, propping the dishes up on the counter to dry. “I’ve missed the store,” he muses.

“You’ve had classes for a week,” Louis chuckles. “And you’ve still been in the store every day.”

“Still miss it,” Harry shrugs. “Maybe I just miss spending so much time with you.”

He can’t really believe the words are his once he’s said them, can’t believe his brain allowed his mouth to say something like that. He freezes up a bit, expecting an awkward little dance around the comment, but Louis only laughs.

“Can’t argue with that,” Louis says. Harry’s mouth feels dry. “I miss you quite a bit too, you know, when you’re off doing all that lawyer stuff. I think those two years apart ruined me, can’t be without you for a moment without missing you.” He’s joking, he’s absolutely joking, the playful grin on his lips and shine in his eye telling Harry that he’s only kidding. It still makes Harry want to melt into the ground, though.

“Well, let’s go then,” Harry says, in a much smoother recovery than he was expecting from himself. “Lots to do, hm?”

“Let’s get dressed first, eager beaver,” Louis says. “As much as I’d love to watch you work all day in your underwear, I think we’d be better off clothed,” he jokes.

It takes Harry a full minute to follow Louis out of the kitchen, scurrying off to get dressed. It’s only a joke, he knows, and Louis doesn’t really mean it, but somehow it has Harry’s skin feeling tight and his head feeling dizzy all the same.

He thinks it may be time to stop sleeping in just his underwear.

-

Fall blows through Boston in what seems like a weekend, and Harry’s workload starts rising as the temperatures keep dropping. He spends more and more time in the library to keep up with it all, and though he feels terrible about it, Louis insists he’ll be fine running the store all on his own again. “I’ve done it before, and I can do it again,” Louis keeps telling him, his signature placid, easy going smile on his face. “Sure, it’s lovely to have you around, but I’d rather run the store all on my own than have you fail your classes.”

The library is so peaceful; it’s warm and quiet even when December settles in like an ice box over the city. Harry spends as much as time in there as possible, even when he’s run out of studying to do, because he’d much rather stay cooped up in here with nothing to do than brave the walk home in the icy winds and spend the evening shivering in the damp, drafty apartment. The apartment is much colder than Harry remembers it being this time of year, like the wind comes straight through the walls and settles deep in his bones.

He’s in the library late one afternoon when it finally starts snowing. The clouds have been hanging low the past couple of days, but the snow has held off until now, fat flakes floating gently to the ground. Harry figures he should head home now, lest the flurry become a blizzard before he can get safely inside.

He packs his things begrudgingly and bundles up before he heads outside, keeping his head down as he walks home. The streets are already a bit slippery, snow beginning to build up between the cobblestones and sticking to the bottom of Harry’s shoes.

Harry lets himself in through the side door, since the store is long closed by now, and heads up the stairs to the apartment. He kicks his shoes off by the door and shuffles to the sitting room in his socks, finding Louis on his knees in front of the fireplace, doing his best to keep the fire going.

“Evening,” Harry greets, as not to spook Louis where he’s bent over, focused on his task. Louis hardly glances at him, keeps gently fanning the small flames and laying a log over the ones already burning.

“Evening,” Louis echoes. “There’s a plate for you on the stove. Wasn’t sure when you’d be home.”

“Busy day,” Harry lies, not bothering to shrug his coat off as he heads back to the kitchen to find a plate of beans, potatoes, and thin sliced ham wrapped in foil resting on the warmer.

He brings it to the table and picks at it for a few moments, listening to Louis fumbling about in the next room. He hears Louis sneeze several times in quick succession and he can’t help but smile at the noise, at Louis’s grumbling shortly after, goddamn dust in my goddamn nose.

Eventually Louis comes into the kitchen, hands dirty with soot. He sniffles a little as he rinses his hands clean at the sink and then sets about making a warm cup of tea, settling the kettle on the stove.

“Are you feeling okay?” Harry says, swallowing down a thick bite of mostly cold potatoes. “You’re not getting sick, are you?”

“No, course not,” Louis says, stretching up on his toes to get a mug from the cupboard. “Fireplace is dusty, is all.”

“Class will be canceled tomorrow if the snow keeps up,” Harry says. “Maybe I could help you clean it up?”

“We’ll freeze to death if we let the fire go out long enough to clean it,” Louis says. “I think we’ll have to get the walls checked in the spring, it’s like the cold just won’t stay out.”

“Back on the farm, before we got the money to fix the house up a little, Gemma and I used to run around every winter nailing wool blankets to the walls to keep the cold out. The shanty just wasn’t strong enough for the wind and the snow in the winter,” Harry says. “The blankets helped to keep the heat inside, and the cold outside. Maybe we should get some blankets from downstairs and block up the walls,” he suggests.

“Could work,” Louis says, pouring the water from the kettle into his mug once it’s hot enough. He drops in a tea bag and settles down at the table across from Harry, hugging the mug close to his chest. “We can try that once you’ve finished your supper.”

Harry nods, looking down at his half eaten plate. It’s not terribly appetizing, cold as it is, but he chokes down a few more bites while Louis sips at his tea. “I’ll grab the blankets, and a box of nails. Do we have a hammer up here?”

“In the cupboard, I’m sure,” Louis says, nodding over his shoulder. “Don’t take all of the blankets, we should leave some to sell. I’m sure people will be going mad for supplies in the next few days.”

Harry leaves his plate in the sink and jogs down the stairs, shivering as soon as he makes it to the stockroom. There’s absolutely no heat down here, and he can see his breath in the air as he collects an armful of packaged wool blankets and a box of nails and hurries back up the stairs.

He finds Louis in the sitting room, tea abandoned on the table as he surveys the room, hammer in hand. Harry tears open one of the blankets and the box of nails and hands it over to Louis, helping him up on a chair so he can cover the first part of the wall next to the window.

It takes them the better part of an hour, but by the time they’re done, the room is mostly covered in blankets and already feels slightly warmer. It looks quite cozy, as well, the thick gray material darkening the walls and cushioning everything.

“We should do the bedroom, as well,” Harry says, picking up the last few blankets from the floor. “Or at least the wall that faces the outside.”

Louis looks exhausted, but he follows Harry into the bedroom and stands up on his own mattress to start hammering the blankets into the wall. Harry watches him carefully while he works, notices the slight sheen of sweat on his face and neck. He doesn't look very well, which is concerning, but he manages to get the whole wall covered before he plops down heavily on the mattress.

“Are you sure you’re feeling alright?” Harry asks, sitting down beside Louis and taking the hammer from his hands.

“Just tired,” Louis says, shuffling around to lay his head on his pillow. “Will you bring me my tea?”

Harry nods quickly, leaving the hammer and nails in the sitting room and grabbing Louis’s mug from the table. The kitchen is still quite cold when he walks in to top up Louis’s tea with the last of the hot water from the kettle, but he supposes they can keep the door closed and only use the kitchen when they need to.

He brings Louis’s tea back to the bedroom, handing it over to him and sitting down on the edge of the mattress again. “You should get changed out of your clothes,” he says softly, watching Louis take a long sip of tea. “Get your warm pajamas on and go to sleep early.”

Louis hums, staring into space for a moment before he puts his tea down and gets up to get changed. “The fire needs tending, as well,” Louis says, pulling his shirt off to replace it with a thick, warm sweater.

“I can tend to it,” Harry says, dropping his eyes to the mattress. He’s no stranger at this point to the dryness of his mouth and throat every time Louis does something like that, just carelessly undressing in front of him or touching him innocently or even just looking at him a certain way. Harry has no idea what it means, but he’s afraid to find out, so he busies himself with hurrying out of the room to tend to the fire.

He loads a few more logs into the fireplace, hopefully enough to get them through the night. He spends a few minutes fanning the flames until he’s satisfied that the fire won’t die any time soon, and then heads back to the bedroom to change into his pajamas as well.

Louis is already fast asleep, buried under his duvet with his face pressed into the pillow. Harry can’t help but smile at the sight of him, changing quickly and putting all of his clothes away neatly. There’s still one more blanket on the floor that they didn’t put up on the wall, so Harry grabs it and pulls it out of the package to spread over Louis’s body, wanting to make sure he’ll be warm and safe throughout the night. He really hopes that Louis won’t wake up ill, mostly because Harry doesn’t think he can stand seeing him like that.

It takes him a bit longer than usual to fall asleep that night, his eyes drifting constantly back to Louis, making sure he’s alright. He finally drifts off to the steady sound of Louis’s breathing, the fire crackling in the next room and the snow whipping in the wind just outside the walls of the apartment.

-

The end of the semester comes with another blizzard, one that leaves them snowed in through Christmas. Harry does extremely well in all of his classes again, so they celebrate both that and Louis’s birthday on the night of Christmas Eve with a lovely chicken supper and whatever vegetables and desserts they could find around the store. The store will be closed now until the new year, but Louis did so well with all of the people preparing for the snow storms that they’ll be alright well into next month.

They have a quiet Christmas, spending the day telling stories by the fire and making each other laugh over cup after cup of tea. The apartment is a fair bit warmer since they hung up all of the blankets, but it’s still a bit damp sometimes, still a bit too chilly to go around without thick socks and a blanket. Nonetheless, it’s a lovely Christmas, and Harry can’t believe his luck at getting to spend it together with his best friend a second time, after so long of wishing he could be right here again.

Louis never really got fully sick after that first night, but he never really got fully better, either. He’s been sluggish and slow for nearly two weeks now, but he keeps promising Harry that he’s fine, hiding his sneezes in the crook of his elbow and smiling like Harry won’t notice.

It takes exactly one day after Christmas for everything to fall apart. Louis wakes up with a hacking cough and a sore throat, one that no amount of tea will soothe. He finally admits out loud that he doesn’t feel very well and lets Harry confine him to his bed, coddling him like a sick child and bringing him everything he could possibly need.

Harry’s doing his best to help Louis get over whatever he’s got, but he’d be lying if he said he knows what he’s doing. He tries to recall everything Ma used to do for him when he got ill in the winter, but Harry doesn’t know how serious this is, doesn’t know if Louis has a cold or the flu or pneumonia or tuberculosis, if he’s going to just get over it and get better, or if he needs to go to the hospital. Louis keeps promising that he doesn’t need to see a doctor, and Harry’s hoping he’s right, but the worry is eating him alive.

“How are you feeling?” Harry asks, creeping into the bedroom with yet another cup of tea. Louis is propped up on his pillow, buried under every spare blanket in the apartment, looking miserable.

“Same as five minutes ago,” Louis croaks, but he accepts the tea gratefully. “Really, Harry, I’ll be fine. Just a Christmas cold,” he shrugs.

“Can never be too careful,” Harry murmurs, sitting down on the mattress beside him and reaching out to feel his forehead. “Are my hands cold? You feel very warm, but I’m not sure if you have a fever. Not really sure how to measure that, anyway. We don’t have a thermometer, do we?”

“I’m alright,” Louis says, smiling now, fond. “I’m sure I don’t have a fever. Just a nasty cough.”

“That could be tuberculosis, though,” Harry worries, chewing at his thumb nail. “What if this is more serious than you think it is? You’ve been run down for weeks,” he says.

“You’re not very good at making me feel better,” Louis muses, sipping carefully at his tea.

“I should have gone to medical school,” Harry says, mostly to himself, feeling Louis’s forehead again. “Who needs lawyers these days? A lawyer is useless if you’re dead,” he mumbles. “Should have been a doctor.”

“I mean no offense Harry, really, but you’d be a shit doctor,” Louis chuckles, batting Harry’s hand away. The laughter triggers a rather intense coughing fit, and Harry snatches the mug out of Louis’s hand before he can dump hot tea all over himself.

“But I would know what was wrong with you, and how to take care of you,” Harry argues, frowning as he smooths Louis’s hair away from his forehead and checks his temperature again. “Goodness, you feel warm. Are there thermometers in the store? I’ll go check.”

Louis rolls his eyes but doesn’t argue, taking his tea back while Harry scurries out of the room and down to the store. Harry wonders if Louis is more worried than he’s letting on, if maybe he’s only acting so nonchalant because he doesn’t want to worry Harry.

He finds a thermometer and some cough syrup and all but runs back up to the apartment, letting himself in quietly. He hears Louis coughing quite violently in the bedroom, followed by a moan of pain. Harry wants to cry, hurrying in with his new finds.

“Here,” he says, tearing the thermometer out of the packaging and handing it over to Louis. “Put this under your tongue for a moment. I’ll pour you some cough syrup.”

Louis has his easy look of patience and serenity plastered back on his face, but Harry can see the way his hands are trembling a little as he takes the glass thermometer and places it gingerly in his mouth. Harry focuses on pouring the medicine and then turns to make sure the thermometer has settled on a temperature before he pulls it out of Louis’s mouth and replaces it quickly with the spoonful of medicine. Louis chokes it down awkwardly but Harry pays him no mind, examining the measurement on the thermometer.

“99.5,” he reads, chewing his lip worriedly. “That’s a bit high. Do you feel too warm? Should I get you a cold cloth? Oh, how do you break a fever,” he mutters, standing up to pace a little while he thinks.

“I don’t think that even counts as a fever,” Louis says, picking up the thermometer to check it himself. “Let’s give the medicine a few minutes to work, yeah?”

“Yeah, okay,” Harry says, scrubbing a hand over his face. “Alright, yeah. Your temperature isn’t terribly high, and you’ve had your medicine, and you’re well hydrated. Do you want any more tea? Maybe just some water? Or I could-”

“Harry, please, stop,” Louis groans, dropping the thermometer onto the bed and reaching for Harry instead. “Honestly, I feel like shit, and I think I could just use a good cuddle. And I think we could both benefit from a nap,” he says, beckoning Harry over to the bed with a wave of his hand.

Harry sighs, climbing under Louis’s covers. “I’ll never sleep, but if a cuddle is all you need, then that’s alright,” he says, letting Louis tuck himself into his arms, pushing his face into Harry’s neck.

Harry holds him tight, listens to his raspy breathing as it evens out. Louis’s body is so hot pressed up against his own. At any other time Harry might freak out a bit right now, might feel weird and clammy with Louis so close to him, might be a bit afraid of how nice it feels. All he can do now, though, is hold him close, making sure that he’s safe, warm, and as comfortable as Harry can make him.

-

Against all of Harry’s effort, Louis gets much worse over the next few days.

He does a lot of sleeping, but when he’s not sleeping, he’s coughing so hard he cries, or throws up into the bucket Harry’s been keeping beside the bed. Harry really has no idea what’s wrong with him, why Louis sounds like an old man every time he breathes, why he can’t keep his eyes open for more than 15 minutes at a time.

Harry is trying to convince both of them at this point that he can take care of him, that he can get them both through this. With each passing hour, though, it becomes more and more apparent that he can’t. Louis can’t even walk to the toilet on his own weak legs, but Harry keeps telling himself that one more nap is going to break the fever and Louis is going to start feeling better soon.

It takes three full days after Christmas for it all to come to a head. Harry’s working on another cup of tea for Louis, even though the last three cups have gone untouched. Louis should eat, but he keeps refusing everything Harry gives him, so Harry’s hoping the little bits of tea he can choke down every now and again will be enough to keep him going.

He carries the mug carefully from the kitchen to the bedroom, finding Louis slumped in the same position he’s been in all day. The sun is nearly setting and Louis has been awake for a total of one hour since last night. Harry frowns and sits down next to him, touching Louis’s face and carding his hair off his forehead in a gentle attempt to wake him.

“Lou,” he hums, tapping Louis’s shoulder. “Sit up and drink some tea, you’ve got to keep your strength up.”

Louis doesn’t respond, continuing his rough, shallow breathing into the pillow. Harry pouts and tries to sit him up, protecting his head so he doesn’t bang it off the wall. “Louis,” he says, tapping his face. “Louis, wake up. Can you hear me?”

Louis’s eyes flutter a bit, but they don’t open. Harry’s heart starts racing with anxiety, his stomach dropping to his toes. “Louis,” he says, voice louder now, panicked. “Louis, please wake up. Please, come on, open your eyes,” he begs. He shakes Louis a little, and then a little more, watching for any sign of a response.

Louis grunts a little and flops over into Harry, nearly knocking him over. Harry holds him up and hugs him, pressing his face into his hair. “Oh, dear God, no,” he breathes, holding back tears as he shakes Louis again. “Wake up, Louis, don’t fucking do this to me,” he bites.

Louis still doesn’t respond, and Harry feels a tear drip down his cheek. “Fuck,” he chokes, gathering Louis up in his arms and laying him out on top of the bed. He’s running on pure adrenaline as he gathers Louis’s coat and shoes, dressing him quickly before dressing himself. He grabs the keys to the apartment and stuffs them in his pocket and then goes back for Louis, picking him up like a child and all but running down the stairs.

He goes out the side door and out to the street, spotting a taxi stopped a ways down on Summer Street. It’s not actively snowing, but there is still a lot of snow piled on the sidewalks, and he forces himself to be slow and careful as he carries Louis over to the car.

“We need to go to the hospital, please,” Harry says, voice shaking as he speaks to the driver through the window. “I don’t know what’s wrong with him.”

The driver helps him get the door open and Harry lays Louis gingerly across the seats, climbing in after him and resting Louis’s head on his lap. He plays with Louis’s hair with one hand and wipes his face with the other, hardly aware of the tears still dripping from his eyes.

The ride to the hospital passes in a blur; Harry only vaguely remembers paying the driver distractedly and then rushing inside the building with Louis in his arms. He remembers calling out for help, remembers Louis being taken from him, remembers someone blocking him from following and suggesting he have a seat, try to calm down. He doesn’t remember actually sitting down, or when he stopped crying, or when it got so dark outside when he finally takes his face out of his hands and looks up.

He doesn’t know where Louis is, or if he’s alright. He feels so stupid for not bringing him here earlier. If Louis dies tonight, it’s going to be all Harry’s fault, and he doesn’t know if he can stand that.

Finally, after another hour of sitting around, Harry gets up and approaches the woman at the desk in front of him. She looks friendly enough, in her pink and white striped uniform, and she smiles as Harry approaches.

“Hi,” Harry says, voice scratchy and tired. “Would you happen to know if I’d be able to see my friend? I brought him in a while ago, and I’m so worried-”

“I know who you’re talking about,” the woman says gently. “I was here when you brought him in. Unfortunately, we only allow family members to visit,” she says.

“But he doesn’t have any family,” Harry says quickly, panic rising in his throat again. “I’m the only person he has. His father lives in Nebraska, and he doesn’t have any other family. Can’t I see him?” he says.

“I’m afraid not,” the woman says. “If you come back tomorrow during normal visiting hours you’ll be able to see him, but there’s nothing I can do for you right now.”

Harry swallows hard, nodding once. “Can you at least tell me if he’s alright? I won’t be able to live with myself if he’s not,” he says quietly.

The woman smiles softly and gets up, pushing through the doors where they took Louis hours ago. Harry sits back down and waits, chewing on his nails until finally the woman comes back.

“He’ll be okay,” the woman says. “He’s not awake yet, but when he wakes up I’ll be sure to tell him you were here, and that you’re worried.”

“Harry, my name is Harry,” Harry chokes out, pinching the inside of his arm to keep from crying again. “Tell him I’m sorry.”

The woman just smiles again and Harry turns to go, biting down hard on his tongue while he hails a cab to take him home. He feels awful, the worst he’s ever felt in his life; Louis is so, so ill, and Harry thought he could fix it when all he ever really did was make it worse.

He doesn't cry until he gets back to the apartment, locked safely inside by himself. He hates being here without Louis, hates letting himself in through the kitchen and laying down on his bed in the empty bedroom. He sobs as he looks at Louis’s empty bed, messy and covered in blankets. He messed up so badly, he hopes Louis can forgive him.

He doesn't know what he'll do if Louis dies. It's all his fault, anyway; he should have brought him to the hospital in the first place, as soon as he thought of it the first time. Now Louis is going to die in there, probably, because Harry was stupid enough to let him get so sick he couldn’t even open his eyes.

Harry won't feel right staying in the apartment without Louis, and he hates the thought of selling the store, but he can't keep it in business by himself and go to school at the same time. He'll have to come up with a way to pay rent, though he's sure Gemma will help him, but that's just that much more money he's going to owe her. There’s so much running through his mind, so much that he probably shouldn’t even be thinking about yet, but even with all of that he just keeps coming back to the same thought: what happens if Louis dies? What happens if Louis doesn’t wake up at all, and Harry actually has to deal with all of these things all by himself?

He cries until his voice gives out, until his throat hurts from gasping for breath. He feels so, so incredibly stupid; he’s about to lose the best thing that ever happened to him over wishful thinking. And that’s the real kicker, isn’t it? Louis really is the best thing that ever happened to him. Sure, Gemma taking over the farm and being able to send him to school was a miracle, but none of it would mean anything without Louis. He never wants to lose him, wants to spend the rest of his life with him, wants to share everything with him for as long as he possibly can.

He startles himself with the thought, his cries cutting off abruptly. That’s probably not a thought he should be having, but it’s true. Harry cannot imagine a life without Louis in it. He can’t imagine coming home to anyone else, waking up with anyone else, sharing meals and evenings and a home with anyone else. He remembers what Louis’s father said a couple years ago when they visited him, about looking like queers, about it being wrong that they live alone together. Back then it hadn’t really meant anything to Harry, but now, after everything in the past few months, Harry’s terrified that Louis’s father might have been onto something.

Harry’s never thought much about love, never really been very excited about the prospect of finding a girl and marrying her and starting a family with her. When he thinks about Louis, though, and he thinks about having a life like that with him, he starts to feel like his friends always talked about back in school, when they had crushes on their classmates. Harry feels like a child, lovesick and confused about it, terrified of it.

He cries himself to sleep eventually, without supper, without even turning the lights out. There are still three full cups of cold tea by Louis’s bed, and the fire is probably going to die in the middle of the night, but Harry hasn’t slept in days since Louis got sick, and he’s probably not going to sleep again until he comes home.

-

It’s snowing lightly when Harry wakes up in the morning, so Harry gets dressed in all his warmest clothes to go sit at the hospital again until they let him see Louis. He doesn’t really want to pay for another taxi, but after some snooping in the stockroom of Louis’s store he finds a bicycle in perfect shape, and decides he’ll use that instead. He hasn’t ridden a bike in years, and he very well may slip and break his neck if the sidewalks aren’t properly shoveled, but he supposes it would serve him right after what he’s done to Louis.

He manages to make it to the hospital without falling off the bike, but he’s soaked through with snow and chilled to his bones. He’s shivering as he approaches the front desk, smiling what he hopes is a friendly smile at the woman sitting there. It’s a different woman from yesterday, but she looks just as sweet.

“Hi,” he says, wrapping his arms around himself for warmth, and also so that maybe the woman will take pity on him just a bit. “I’m here to visit my friend, Louis Tomlinson, I brought him in last night.”

The woman flips through the book in front of her, searching for Louis’s name. “Ah, yes, Mr. Tomlinson. He’s been listed in stable condition as of early this morning. Visiting hours aren’t for a bit, though, so you can have a seat and warm up a bit,” she says, handing him a thin blanket in a plastic package from under the desk. “There’s hot coffee just over there, as well.”

Harry takes the blanket and goes to sit down, draping the thin, papery material over his shoulders and resting his face in his hands. He’s too nervous to drink coffee right now; he’s already jittery, if he has any caffeine, he might just start bouncing off the walls.

Louis is in stable condition, he tells himself, letting that sink in. Louis is going to be alright.

He has to wait a little over an hour before he’s finally let in, following a nurse down the corridor of the ward. They stop in front a bed near the middle of the huge, open room, beds lined up in long, neat rows. Some of the beds are filled, but once the nurse walks away, the closest person nearby is a sleeping old man a few beds over from Louis’s.

Louis still isn’t awake, but he looks peaceful, unlike he did last night. The pain is gone from his face and his breathing is calm and even, though it’s still rough. Harry wants to lay down beside him and hold him again, like he did the other night, but he’s too afraid of disrupting him, making things worse.

He pulls a chair up to the side of Louis’s bed and sits down carefully, watching Louis’s face. “Hi,” he breathes, reaching out to brush his finger along the inside of Louis’s arm. Louis flinches a bit in his sleep, face scrunching for just a moment. “Oops, sorry, my hands are cold,” Harry mutters, but Louis’s face is already peaceful again.

He sits in silence for a long few moments, just listening to Louis breathe. He never thought he’d be so thankful to hear the sound of it.

“I don’t know if you can hear me, but I’m going to talk anyway. I’m so sorry, Louis. Sorry for not being able to take care of you, and for not realizing it sooner. Sorry I didn’t bring you here the moment I thought I should have. I’m sorry I let you get so sick. You do nothing but take care of me, you know, all the time, and the one time you trusted me to return the favor, I let you down,” he says, shaking his head. “But I’m going to be here every day until you get better. I won’t let you be alone for a moment longer than I have to. I’m not allowed to stay outside of visiting hours but I’m not going to leave until they kick me out, okay? I need you to get better,” he says, reaching down to take gentle hold of Louis’s hand.

Louis coughs in his sleep, and the deep, rumbling sound of it startles Harry nearly out of his skin. He holds Louis’s hand a little tighter, frowning at the tremble of Louis’s lip before he coughs again.

“Please get better,” Harry whispers, squeezing his hand.

He spends most of the day like that, holding Louis’s hand and playing with his fingers while he rests. Maybe it’s weird, and maybe he shouldn’t be doing this, especially in a public place, but he can’t bring himself to let go.

Eventually Louis coughs so hard he wakes himself up, eyes fluttering open with a displeased grunt. Harry drops his hand and watches his face, hope flooding every inch of his being.

“Lou?” he says, trying to catch Louis’s attention. “Are you awake?”

Louis hardly glances at him, eyes searching the room. He frowns, but when he opens his mouth to speak, he just coughs another wretched cough. He whines a little and turns his face the other way, eyes falling closed again.

“Wait, wait,” Harry says quickly, tapping Louis’s hip, wanting desperately to get his attention. “Louis, can you hear me?”

Louis just heaves a deep sigh and drifts back to sleep, chest rumbling with every breath.

Harry wants to cry, reaching for Louis’s hand again and pressing his face against it. He feels so guilty he could die, knowing that he let this happen. Louis keeps coughing and whining in his sleep and Harry just wants to take it all away from him, to just make him feel better.

He gets kicked out after the sun sets, but the nurse that tells him it’s time to go is quite sympathetic. She looks the other way while Harry squeezes Louis’s hand goodbye, and then leads him out of the ward.

“He should be alright in a few days,” the nurse says, before Harry finds his voice to ask. “Probably not before the new year, though we are hopeful he’ll be more alert by then. It’s not tuberculosis, which is good news. It seems to just be a very nasty cold, and his body is having a hard time fighting it. You’re close with him?” she asks knowingly, like she already understands.

“He’s my best friend,” Harry says, voice a bit croaky with emotion. “We grew up together in Nebraska, lost touch when he moved out here, and then I came here for school and we ran into each other again. We share an apartment now,” he explains. “I don’t know what I’ll do if I lose him.”

“You won’t lose him,” the nurse assures, her smile soft. “Not any time soon, anyway.”

It’s not much, but it’s enough to keep Harry going through the bike ride home. The snow has stopped, but it’s still as cold as ever outside, and Harry’s frozen nearly solid by the time he gets back to the apartment.

The fire died while he was out, which he expected, but it’s not terribly cold inside when he gets in. He starts the fire again and then goes to grab his notebook and a pen, bringing it back to the sitting room and plopping down on the floor by the fireplace. He just needs someone to talk to, and there’s only one person he can think of, outside of Louis, that could make him feel better right now.

Gemma,

I hope you’re well, and I hope you had a nice Christmas. I wanted to write you, but it snowed so much we couldn’t make it to the post office until after Christmas was over, and by then I was far too preoccupied to do much else. Louis got ill the day after Christmas and he isn’t getting any better. We thought it was just a cold at first, but last night (Monday), he wouldn’t eat or drink anything, and he wasn’t responding to me at all. I brought him to the hospital, but I fear I may have brought him too late. I should have brought him the moment he got ill, and I will never forgive myself for letting him get so bad.

visited him today, and he’s doing slightly better, but not much. The nurse told me he’s going to be just fine, but it’s going to take a long while. It’s so awful to see him so ill, he looks absolutely miserable. I just hope he can forgive me for doing this to him.

I’m worried he won’t be able to pay his hospital bills when he finally gets out. The store did rather well the last few weeks before Christmas but I’m not sure he’s going to have enough to cover everything, especially if he stays in the hospital longer than a week or so. I want so badly to be able to help him out, but God knows I don’t have any money of my own, either. I feel horrible asking you to help out, but I fear that it may come to that. I will be forever in your debt, of course. This is the greatest thing I could ever ask of you.

I’m so scared of losing him, Gemma. He’s the greatest thing in my life. He gave me a place to stay when I had nowhere else to go, he gave me a friend when I had no one else. He cares for me unconditionally, he helps me with my school work, he lets me help out at the store instead of paying him rent. He is absolutely the best thing that has ever happened to me. I am so, so afraid of losing him.

Even now, when he is the thing that I am upset about, he is still the person I want to go to for comfort. He makes me soft, makes me feel so many emotions. I am scared by how many things I feel when I am with him. I am even more scared by how many things I feel when I am without him.

I stopped going to church a long time ago, but I know that you still believe, at least somewhat. Please say a prayer for Louis if you get a chance, and, if you’re feeling generous, one for me. One for both of us together, as well, if you think that might help. I’m so tired and upset and confused I can hardly tell up from down, and I have no idea what will help anymore.

I apologize for dumping all of this on you, Gemma. I love you, and miss you dearly. Someday, once Louis is better and all of the snow and cold weather has gone away, I would love for you to come and visit us here in Boston. I think about you often, and I wish you could see how happy this place makes me. I wish you could see how happy Louis makes me. Thank you for everything; for the chance to come here, for the chance to go to school and become a lawyer. Thank you for giving me these opportunities. I think I am learning to say what I need to say before it is too late. I hope it’s not too late for Louis and I. I still have so many things to say to him.

Please write back soon, I need to hear from you. Hopefully I will have better news the next time you hear from me.

Best,
Harry

He leaves the letter on the kitchen table so he’ll remember to mail it in the morning on his way to the hospital to sit with Louis again. He feels like a shell of himself, making supper just because he knows he hasn’t eaten all day, staring at the wall while he eats and for a long time after. He puts enough wood on the fire to last all night and then lays awake staring at the ceiling until the sun rises again, his eyes burning.

He doesn’t doze off until the sun is already mostly up, and his gaze has shifted from the ceiling to Louis’s empty bed. The blankets are still untouched, just the way they left them the other night. Harry feels sick just thinking about it, closes his eyes to avoid the sight, and finally drifts off into a restless, miserable sleep.

He wakes up with plenty of time to get to the hospital before visiting hours, dropping the letter into the post on his way. The nurse doesn’t make him wait too terribly long before she leads him down the corridor to the ward, giving him all the necessary updates on the way there.

“He woke up early this morning, just in time for New Years! He asked for you. He’s still pretty weak, and we’ve asked him to keep speaking and moving to a minimum so that he can preserve all of his strength. You can talk to him all you’d like, but please don’t ask much of him,” she says, opening the door for Harry and smiling gently at him. “Any questions, concerns?”

“No, thank you,” Harry says, eager to just see Louis now that he knows he’s awake.

He catches Louis’s gaze as soon as he approaches his bed, and tears spring to his eyes immediately. Louis looks so dull, so lifeless, so miserable despite the tiny smile on his lips, the way he blinks slowly and peacefully at Harry.

“Hi,” Harry says, taking in Louis’s appearance. “They told me you shouldn’t speak, so don’t. You don’t have to say anything. I just want to tell you that I’m so, so sorry for letting this happen, I feel so foolish. It’s all my fault that you got so sick. I should have brought you in earlier, and I’m sorry. They say you’re going to be alright, though, and I’m going to be here for whatever you need, I promise. I’ll try to do a better job of looking after you from now on,” he says.

Louis frowns a little as Harry speaks, looks like he wants to argue, but he doesn’t. He waves toward the chair by his bed and Harry sits down quickly, flushing at the way Louis’s eyes follow him lazily.

“I wrote Gemma this morning, and I told her what happened. I was so lonely in the apartment by myself I just had to talk to someone. You better get well and come home quickly, or else I might lose my mind,” he jokes, glancing up at Louis.

Louis smiles, head lolling back against his pillow. He looks exhausted, and maybe like he isn’t totally conscious, so Harry decides he won’t try to discuss anything too serious with him now. He tells him stories, instead, memories from their childhood and things they used to do together when Harry and Gemma visited the store, or when Louis and his father came to the farm for supper sometimes. He talks about Louis and Gemma teaching him how to swim in the pond on the farm, and trying to keep up when Louis and Gemma had running races through the corn fields. He talks about being so excited every Saturday when he got to go to Hastings with Gemma to see Louis at the store, when Louis would take him out back and show him the cool things he’d collected, or tell him secrets and stories about where it all came from.

He talks Louis through several naps throughout the day, when Louis just can’t keep his eyes open any longer but Harry’s too caught up in his own story to stop, keeps going until Louis wakes up again. He stays all day, because he can’t bear to leave, and every time Louis opens his eyes again he looks so pleased to see Harry still sitting there with him.

Harry can’t help but think about his feelings from the other night, can’t help but notice the way his stomach swirls and lightens each and every time Louis’s heavy eyes fall on him. Harry’s been in love with a lot of things in his life; the way the sun looks as it comes up over the horizon, the smell of Ma making breakfast on a Sunday morning, the feeling of being freshly bathed in freshly cleaned clothes, the sounds of the city late at night in the summer when Harry can’t sleep, gazing aimlessly out the window at the darkened sky. He’s been in love with a lot of things, and now he’s sure he’s in love again.

The nurse comes back just after the sun sets to tell Harry he only has a few minutes left before visiting hours end, and Harry’s heart sinks. Louis looks a little distraught when Harry glances back to him, his eyes wide as he grabs for Harry’s hand.

“I know, I’m sorry,” Harry frowns, squeezing Louis’s hand. “But I have to leave. If I break the rules they may not allow me to come back.”

Louis shakes his head, tugging on his hand until Harry leans in. Louis grabs at his shoulder and pulls him closer, until his lips are almost pressed to Harry’s ear.

“Please take care of the store,” Louis whispers, his voice gravely and rough. “Please, please make sure it opens after New Years, please keep it running until I get back,” he begs.

Harry nods, only slightly disappointed to find out what Louis’s priorities are. Of course he knows the store is the most important thing in Louis’s life; he loses money every minute the store is closed, and without it, he wouldn’t be able to live. Harry doesn’t know how he’s supposed to run the store all on his own when all he wants to do is be here with Louis every day, but if Louis is giving Harry a chance to not let him down, dammit, Harry’s going to take it.

“Of course,” Harry says, forcing a small smile. “The new year starts tomorrow, so I suppose I won’t be back then. With any luck, you’ll be out of here very soon, but I’ll come back on Sunday to see you if you’re still here then,” he says, pulling away from Louis and turning away slightly to gather himself.

“Thank you,” Louis breathes, sending himself in a coughing fit that rattles his entire body, face twisted up in anguish. Harry winces and hands him the cup of water from beside his bed, making sure Louis takes a few sips of it before he puts it back down. Louis catches his hand and squeezes with a small smile, and Harry somehow manages to only hold on a second before he pulls away.

“Get better soon, please,” Harry says, backing away from the bed when the nurse reappears to lead him out. Louis gives him one more small smile and then Harry turns away, following the nurse back down the corrido and out of the ward.

The streetlights outside are glowing orange when Harry finds his bike and gets on, the sun gone from the sky. The moon is only a sliver, hardly does anything to aid the artificial light leading Harry back to the apartment.

All over the city, people are getting ready to celebrate the new year with their loved ones. Harry’s wrist watch is just ticking past 9:00 when he finally arrives home, freezing wind at his back pushing him inside rather quickly.

He grabs a bottle of whiskey and a glass from the kitchen and sets up camp next to the window in the sitting room, tending to the fire until it’s crackling loudly through the room. He spends the rest of 1919 sipping from his glass, topping up every now and again, watching the moon rise high in the sky and the people flooding out from their homes into the streets, cheering, yelling, celebrating, loving.

-

Gemma’s reply comes in the post a few days later, and Harry brings it upstairs to read it after he’s closed up the store for the day. Harry’s been working every day for a week to make sure Louis won’t suffer when he comes home, even working through Sunday instead of going to visit, and while he knows Louis will be pleased with the extra profit, Harry’s going crazy not being able to visit him.

He fries a few pieces of bread for supper, the only thing he has the energy to do, and settles down at the kitchen table with the letter.

Harry,

I’m so sorry to hear about Louis. I hope time is treating him kindly, and that he’s recovering quickly. I also hope you’ll stop blaming yourself for it. It’s not your fault that he got sick, and you did your best to take care of him, but sometimes all we can do still isn’t enough. You should know that by now, after everything with Ma and Pa.

It would be my honor to help pay Louis’s hospital bills. After everything he has done for you in the past few years, it’s all I can do to repay him. Give him all of my love and support, and write as soon as you find out how much I can lend. I just hope he’s alright. You will never lose him, Harry. I can promise you that. If I know him half as well as I think I do, you are just as important to him as he is to you, and he’ll cling to life with whatever he has as long as it might make you smile.

I’ll be praying for both of you. I know that the winter is difficult for everyone, and that this does not make it easier on the two of you. You are in my constant thoughts and prayers, you and Louis both, and I love you dearly. Please write back soon, if only to ease my worry just a bit.

Gemma

Harry finishes his supper and then writes out the quickest reply he can manage, eager to get to bed so that he can wake up and visit Louis tomorrow. It’s the weekend again, and though Harry considered keeping his head down and working through again, he knows he won’t be able to stand it.

He tells Gemma that Louis is recovering, and that he’ll hopefully be home very soon. He thanks her over and over for offering to help, for being so unconditionally kind and generous. Harry knows how very lucky he is to have a sister like her. He doesn’t know what he’d do without her.

He sends the letter the next morning on his way to the hospital again, riding as fast as Louis’s bike will allow him. He’s incredibly anxious to see how Louis is doing; if he’s not better, Harry doesn’t know what he’ll do. Louis has to get better, or Harry is going to crumble and break.

He gets to the hospital just in time for visiting hours, and a new nurse leads him to Louis’s bed.

Louis is sitting up, a half eaten tray of food in front of him, looking like a new man compared to how Harry remembers him. Harry could cry with relief when Louis grins at him, his face lighting up like it hasn’t since before he got ill.

“You’re up,” Harry says, grinning hard enough to match Louis. “You look so much better, Lou.”

“I feel better,” Louis says, pushing his breakfast away gently. His voice is still a little rough, his breathing still a bit raspy, but he no longer looks on the brink of death.

“I’m so relieved,” Harry says, sitting down on the edge of Louis’s bed. He can’t take his eyes off of him, can hardly get over how happy he is to see him fully awake and alert. His heart is aching in his chest and Harry wants to cry, wants to hold Louis in his arms and never let him go. “I was so scared,” he says instead, voice small.

“I was too, for a bit,” Louis admits. “But it was only a cold, after all. I should man up a bit, I think,” he jokes, his cheeks flushing just a bit.

“No, you’re perfect,” Harry says. Louis flushes a little more and Harry looks away, shocked at himself for actually saying that out loud. He’s about to open his mouth to try and cover his tracks, but Louis’s quiet laughter catches him off guard.

“I certainly don’t feel perfect,” he says, nodding down at his hospital gown. He’s still smiling, though, always smiling.

“Well, that’s because you’re all cooped up in here. Do you want to take a walk? Maybe just down the corridor?” Harry suggests, standing up and holding his hands out for Louis to take. “C’mon, I’ll even hold you up.”

Louis grins, pushing himself up on the bed. “Don’t be surprised if I start wheezing,” he says, gingerly taking Harry’s hands, allowing himself to be pulled off the bed.

Harry helps him onto his feet and then curls an arm around him, letting Louis lean his weight into his side. He takes a few baby steps away from the bed, but Louis seems more able than he anticipated, so they’re able to pick up the pace just a bit when they finally get out to the corridor.

They walk the whole ward, up and down the long corridors separating the beds. Harry fills up the silence with stories from the store over the past week, mostly because Louis is trying to hide how heavily he’s breathing, and Harry wants him to think he’s doing well. Louis is sweating a bit by the time they get back to his bed, and he breaks into a coughing fit as Harry helps him lie down.

Harry frowns, handing him his cup of water and waiting for the fit to subside. Louis looks a bit embarrassed, taking a short sip of water and looking down.

“The doctors are sure this is just a cold?” Harry says, taking the cup back so Louis won’t have to stretch to put it down. “It seems quite intense.”

“Yeah, I’ve always been pretty bad about getting ill,” Louis admits. “I don’t get ill often, but when I do, it’s horrible.”

Harry frowns again, wanting to curl up beside Louis and hold him until he’s all better. He thinks Louis would let him, too, but that might open a can of worms neither of them mean to open.

Someone a few rows over lets out an almighty cough, effectively startling Harry out of his head. He glances over his shoulder at the other man, surprised to find a young man in the bed instead of the older man that Harry remembers from last time. The man is sleeping, or otherwise unconscious, so Harry doesn’t bother being discreet when he turns back to Louis.

“What happened to the other guy that was there?” he asks. “The old guy?”

“He died a couple days ago,” Louis says, looking down at his own hands, playing with his fingers.

“Good lord,” Harry breathes, glancing over at the bed again. The new guy doesn’t look very great either. Harry just hopes Louis doesn’t have to watch another person die.

“I’m so lucky,” Louis says, his voice hardly above a whisper. He’s looking up at Harry when Harry turns back to him, and suddenly Harry feels like crying.

“You’d be luckier if I wasn’t so horrible,” Harry mutters, looking down.

“This isn’t your fault,” Louis says, voice firm suddenly. He wavers a little, suppresses a cough, but he doesn’t let Harry argue. Instead, he grabs his hand, squeezing hard. “Stop blaming yourself. There’s nothing you could have done. You didn’t know it was going to get this bad.”

“But I still let it get that bad,” Harry says, even though he knows Louis is never going to accept that. “I’m so sorry.”

“Shh,” Louis breathes, shaking his head. “You’re perfect,” he says, an echo of Harry’s words earlier.

Harry smiles, shaking his head at his lap. His heart is throbbing, trying to claw its way out of his chest to get to Louis, give its whole self to him.

Louis shifts to lie down and Harry moves off the bed to give him some room, taking his place in the chair beside the bed. Louis listens to him talk about random things until he drifts off, and Harry is left watching Louis’s eyelashes flutter in his sleep, his lips quirking up every now and again.

Harry is exhausted suddenly, overcome with relief, and the weight of the past week finally catches up with him. He puts his head down on Louis’s bed, using his thigh as a pillow, and counts Louis’s breaths until he drifts off as well.

Someone comes to wake him up when it gets dark out, but now that Harry knows for sure that Louis is going to be alright, it doesn’t hurt quite as bad to leave and head back to the apartment by himself.

-

Louis comes home the following week, to Harry’s absolute delight. He’s still rather weak and not quite himself, but he’s home, and Harry has explicit doctor’s orders on how to take care of him. He’s to take one spoonful of medicine every morning with breakfast, and another if he starts to feel ill later in the day. Harry is supposed to run him hot baths every evening and make sure he always stays warm, and he’s supposed to have at least one cup of tea with lemon and honey every day.

Harry watches him like a hawk for a week, though Louis whines and moans like a child whenever Harry leaves the store unattended to come upstairs and check on him. He made a nest of pillows and blankets in Louis’s bed to keep Louis warm and safe, even devised a rhythm Louis can knock on the floor if he needs Harry at any point in the day. He makes sure Louis has an endless flow of hot tea with lemon and honey and tends to the fire every hour like clockwork, making sure the apartment doesn’t get too cold.

It’s been a quiet day, as Tuesdays usually are, and Harry’s just closing up the store for the evening when he hears the soft tap, tap tap tap, tap tap of Louis’s knuckles through the ceiling. He scrambles to make sure the door is locked and then takes off up the stairs, hurrying into the bedroom where Louis is still cocooned, safe as ever, under all of his blankets.

“You knocked?” Harry says, shuffling over to press the back of his hand against Louis’s forehead. “What’s wrong?”

“Need the bathroom,” Louis says, patiently allowing Harry to take his temperature.

“You knocked for that?” Harry frowns, pulling his hand away. “I thought you were dying.”

“Well, I wasn’t going to, but last time I got out of bed without telling you, you cried,” Louis chuckles, sitting up carefully.

“I didn’t cry, okay,” Harry huffs, helping Louis up and onto his feet. “At least not in front of you.”

Louis coos softly and makes to pet at Harry’s head, but Harry ducks away, cheeks burning.

“Did you finish closing up the store?” Louis asks, after Harry’s helped him all the way to the bathroom. “I knocked at a bad time.”

“Just need to check everything once more,” Harry says, “and then I’ll come run your bath. Alright if I run down now?”

“Please, I’m not going to die taking a piss,” Louis waves him off. “I appreciate your worry, but, really, I’ve got this,” he grins.

“Okay,” Harry says, backing away slowly. “I’ll be two minutes, alright? Yell if you need me.”

Louis gives him another patient smile, but Harry can see him roll his eyes as he turns away, and Harry might be projecting, but he thinks Louis looks a bit fond. He rushes back down the stairs to the store and checks everything over once more, keeping a careful ear out for Louis, and then shuts off the lights on his way back upstairs.

He finds Louis still in the bathroom, waiting quietly for Harry to come back. Harry really does appreciate how compliant Louis is being with his mothering; Harry is so, so anxious about not being able to care for Louis, and if Louis made this a struggle for him, he might just lose his mind. Louis is patient, though, and he lets Harry nurture him to death, even though it’s definitely a bit excessive. It makes Harry’s heart ache with affection, and he has no idea what to do with it.

He runs the bath quite hot, because he doesn’t want Louis to get cold too quickly. Louis starts undressing slowly while Harry checks and rechecks the water temperature of the bath, as has become their nightly routine.

Harry has seen Louis naked so many times in the past few days that it really shouldn’t affect him, and it probably shouldn’t affect him so much anyway, but he can’t bring himself to look directly at him as Louis steps into the bath. He holds Harry’s shoulder for support and eases his body down into the water, and he definitely doesn’t need Harry’s help with this anymore like he did the first few days he was home, but he sits peacefully while Harry reaches for the soap and gently washes his hair for him.

He tells him stories from the day while he rinses Louis’s hair clean, just to make it a little less awkward. Louis doesn’t seem to mind any of it, but Harry feels the need to fill the silence with something, to keep himself distracted to Louis’s small, curvy, pretty little body all spread out in front of him.

“Are you hungry?” Harry asks, once he’s finally made sure Louis is squeaky clean and soft and so, so warm. “I could go make you some supper while you dry off, if you’d like.”

“You’d make a fantastic wife, you know,” Louis chuckles, letting Harry stand him up and wrap him in a towel. “Any man would be lucky to have you.” He’s joking, Harry knows, but for some reason it hits him deep, makes his stomach drop a little.

He stays quiet as he helps Louis step out of the bath and into his pajamas, as he leads him back to his bed, and he tucks him in and makes sure his hair isn’t too damp that he’ll get cold and uncomfortable. Louis watches him carefully all the while, making Harry’s cheeks burn again. “Are you alright?” he asks finally, once he’s all tucked up into bed, safe and soft and occupying every single one of Harry’s senses until it feels like he can’t even breathe.

“Yeah,” Harry mutters, backing away from the mattress a few steps. “I just… Why do I have to be your wife to take care of you like this? To care about you the way I do? Why do I have to be a woman at all?” He regrets the words as soon as he’s said them, hates the way they sound, the way Louis looks up at him like he’s said way, way too much.

“That’s- not what I meant,” Louis stammers, shaking his head. “Jesus, I-”

“I’m sorry,” Harry says, sitting down hard on the edge of the bed in hopes of shutting Louis up before he can make this worse. It works, except Louis still looks confused and vaguely worried. “I’m just- this has been so hard for me, all of it, you know, you getting ill and then not being able to care for you and then almost losing you,” he says, voice tired and small. “I’ve just been losing my mind, is all,” he admits.

“I’m right here,” Louis says, trying to meet his eye. He sits up slowly, reaching for Harry’s arm. Harry lets him have it and immediately regrets it, because the way Louis shifts to wrap himself around his side and nuzzle his head into Harry’s neck feels so, so much better than it should. “I’m here, and I’m okay. I’m great, actually, you’re taking such good care of me and I’ll be back to normal in no time,” he assures. “Look, can’t you see how well you’re doing for me?”

Louis’s breath on his neck feels like the last wave that finally breaks the dam, and Harry doesn’t know what to do with all of the things he’s feeling, so he just lets them out in a sob. Louis clings to him as Harry puts his head down and sobs again, and again; he doesn’t even know why he’s crying, really, but Louis is petting his hair and telling him everything’s alright and Harry really, really doesn’t see how it is. He wants, Jesus, he wants to gather Louis in his arms and hold him for the rest of his life, wants to touch his skin, all of it, wants it to mean something. He wants to taste Louis’s mouth and his neck and he wants it so badly it aches through his whole body, leaves him gasping for air.

Eventually Louis gets him to uncurl, drags him all the way onto the bed and under the covers. They lie there awhile, Louis’s arms around Harry and Harry’s head on Louis’s chest. Harry stops crying gradually, and Louis’s breath goes deep and even, despite the fact Harry can still hear it rattling around in his lungs.

He lets himself enjoy it for a bit, lets himself love the way his body fits against Louis’s, the way Louis’s hands curl against his back, the way Harry’s cheek rests so comfortably in the curve of Louis’s chest. He tells himself he’s done until he believes it, and finally tries to pull away to go to his own bed.

He startles slightly when Louis holds him tighter, looking up to find Louis awake as ever, apparently distraught at the idea of Harry moving. “Don’t,” he breathes, so Harry doesn’t.

He melts back into the bed but he keeps his eyes on Louis’s face, trying to read the expression dancing behind his eyes. He looks confused, a little bit scared, but also maybe a little bit hopeful.

“I can’t tell if this is the illness talking,” Louis says finally, voice hardly a whisper. Harry becomes startlingly aware of how close they are; the tip of Louis’s nose is nearly touching his own, and Harry can feel his warm breath washing over his lips and chin like the sweetest, gentlest summer breeze. “But I could swear- huh, I think I want to kiss you right now,” he says, like he’s as surprised to hear himself say it as Harry is.

Harry lets it process a moment in his head, lets the bliss of the sentiment sweep through him for the longest, most exciting few seconds of his life. “I really hope it’s not the illness talking,” he says finally, “because I want to kiss you, too.”

The smile Louis gives him is so soft, so dreamy, Harry feels himself melting from the inside out. He needs it, now that Louis’s mentioned it, can’t hold himself back another second from leaning in, eyes slipping closed.

Louis turns away, and Harry’s eyes shoot open. He’s ready to flee, ready to apologize until he’s blue in the face and run home to Nebraska and never speak of this again, but Louis touches his face sweetly before he can commit to overreacting.

“I’ll get you sick,” he says, frowning slightly. “I do want to kiss you, but not when I’m ill and you’re my only hope of getting better,” he teases.

“I’m gonna hold you to that,” Harry says, grinning lazily at him. Louis gives him his big, signature sunshine smile and combs a hand through Harry’s hair, coaxing his head back down onto his chest.

They fall asleep like that, pressed together as close as they could possibly be, buried under every blanket and pillow in the apartment. Harry has never felt safer, warmer, or more blissfully content in his entire life. It’s the best he’s slept in weeks.

-

Despite Harry’s constant and overwhelming worry, Louis gets back to work the same day Harry’s classes start. It’s about the middle of January and Louis is still a bit weak from being bedridden for so long, but his cold has seemed to completely clear up and there’s really no ostensible reason Harry can find to keep him all cooped up in the apartment. Harry spends his whole first day of classes sick with anxiety, only to come home to find that Louis looks better than ever, on top of the world with a store full of people.

“You want me to take over?” Harry asks immediately, slipping behind the counter with Louis and dropping his bag. “You can go have a nap, or something, if you want, or-”

“Harry, I’m fine,” Louis laughs, pushing him away playfully. “Look, I’ve got everything under control! And I’ve never felt better,” he says.

“You’re sure?” Harry worries, examining Louis’s face closely for any sign that he’s lying.

“Absolutely,” Louis says. “Wouldn’t mind if you stayed to help out, though,” he says, but Harry gets the feeling it’s less for Louis’s benefit and more for his own.

“Of course,” he says, trying not to look too eager as he grabs an extra stool from the back and props himself up beside Louis. He can’t stop staring at Louis out of the corner of his eye, just to make sure he really is okay, that this isn’t too much for him.

“Stop looking at me like that,” Louis says, without even glancing over at Harry. Harry looks down at his knees and waits until a couple customers have come and gone, and then resumes staring at Louis.

Louis smirks and rolls his eyes a little, leveling Harry with a playful glare. “How were your classes?” he asks, in a valiant effort to redirect Harry’s attention. “Anything interesting?”

“They’re alright, I think,” Harry shrugs. “Contract Law, Legal Writing, things like that. Are you cold? Should I go check the fire upstairs?”

Louis lets out a frustrated huff, but he laughs as he looks over at Harry again. “You’re insufferable. Do me a favor and take a walk around the store, see if anything needs to be restocked or organized, and then maybe go get started on supper, yeah?”

Harry slides off his stool wordlessly, thankful for the task. He knows, deep down, that Louis really is okay, and that he doesn’t need or want Harry’s constant, suffocating attention on him, but Harry just can’t bring himself to accept that everything is back to normal. He’s still freaked out about the whole thing, and his crushing fear of losing Louis keeps him worrying no matter what.

He restocks a few of the grocery aisles and reorganizes the shelves at the front of the stores nearest the windows, sneaking quick looks over at Louis every now and again while he works. Louis looks completely fine, chatting happily with a customer at the counter, and Harry forces himself to relax just a bit.

He checks the letter box and brings all the mail upstairs with him when he finally decides everything is alright, leaving it on the kitchen table in a neat pile while he gets started on supper. He makes potatoes, carrots, and chicken cut into little cubes, puts his whole energy into it to keep him from wandering back down the stairs to keep an eye on Louis.

Louis comes up a little while later, after the store is closed for the day and supper is nearly ready. He settles down at the table quietly, humming under his breath, and sorts through the mail while Harry finishes making their supper.

It’s been days, but they still haven’t talked about what happened between them the other night. Life went on the next morning as if nothing happened, and Harry assumed with a sinking heart that Louis didn’t remember, but things have definitely been different since they slept all cuddled close together like lovers. Louis is softer around him than he used to be, is more gentle and smiley and careful. Louis has always been all of those things, much more so than anyone Harry’s ever met, but since the night he held Harry in his arms and fell asleep with his face pressed into his hair, it’s like all the qualities Harry loves most about him have doubled.

Louis’s humming cuts out suddenly, but Harry doesn’t pay him any mind, spooning their supper out onto plates and bringing them both over the table. He doesn’t notice until he sits down across from him that all of the color has drained out of Louis’s face, eyes wide and stuck on the letter he’s holding.

“What’s wrong?” Harry asks quickly, heart dropping into his stomach at the look on Louis’s face. “Lou?”

Louis puts the letter down on the table and slides it to Harry, scrubbing a hand over his face. “I’m absolutely fucked,” he mutters, keeping one hand over his eyes while Harry picks up the letter and reads through it quickly.

It’s not a letter, after all; it’s Louis’s hospital bill. It’s about as much as Harry was expecting it to be, what with how long Louis spent in the hospital, but it’s still way more than Louis is ever going to be able to afford on his own, especially after the holidays, and the store being closed, and all. Harry’s suddenly quite relieved that he reached out to Gemma when he did, because she will definitely be able to help them out, and Louis won’t have to worry as much.

“I've already spoken to Gemma about this,” Harry says, “when I first brought you to the hospital. She said that she's willing to help us out with this, and I think it would be easier on us to owe Gemma instead of owing the hospital, right?”

Louis blinks up at him, the cogs turning in his head for a long, painful moment. He doesn’t look relieved, or even happy, like Harry expected him to be. Instead he just looks confused, and a little bit panicked. “Us?” he says, voice a little bit high. “What ‘us’?”

Harry shifts uncomfortably, staring down at the bill instead of Louis’s face. “Well, I mean, your debt is my debt, I suppose, right? And Gemma feels she owes it to you, anyhow, after all you've done for me,” he explains.

Louis still doesn’t look happy, and Harry doesn’t understand how he’s not catching on. “My debt is my debt, first of all,” Louis says. His voice is shaking. “I cannot ask Gemma to pay this for me,” he scoffs.

“Well, it's just for now,” Harry says quickly, “and you can pay Gemma back when you're able. It’s really not a big deal, she’s already agreed to it,” he says.

Louis just shakes his head, snatching the bill back and staring at the number at the bottom for a long few moments. “This is so incredibly kind,” he says, so quiet Harry almost can’t hear him. “I don't understand.”

“I think of us as a team,” Harry says, gently, like Louis might just explode if Harry speaks too loudly, or says the wrong thing. “Don’t you?”

Louis scoffs again, shaking his head minutely. “I try not to,” he admits.

Harry frowns, freezing up a little. He wants his soft, careful Louis back immediately, not this one who won’t look directly at his eyes, won’t release the tension hunching his shoulders up. “Why- why not?”

“Because you're young, Harry,” Louis says, finally meeting his eyes. He looks sad, pained, like something’s hurting him. Harry wants to take it all away. “You're in college, you’re doing amazing things, you're going to be a lawyer, and then you're going to find a girl who wants to marry you and who you want to marry, and you're going to grow out of me, you’re going to grow out of this apartment and leave, and I have to be ready for that,” he says. “Letting you go is going to hurt more than anything, but I have to be ready for it.”

Harry blinks, letting all of that process for a moment. While Harry’s been imagining his own future, Louis’s been imagining a completely different one, and the realization hits him like a punch to the chest. “That's not what I’m planning at all,” he says, voice small.”That’s- I haven't even thought of any of that.”

“So, what, you're planning to stay here with me in this little shithole apartment forever?” Louis says, disbelieving. Harry might be imagining it, but he thinks Louis looks a little bit hopeful under all the defensive rigidity of his tone.

“Well… yeah,” Harry shrugs, looking up at Louis through his eyelashes. “I mean, maybe not here, specifically, but, you know, with you,” he says.

It’s Louis’s turn to be taken aback, blinking once, twice, at Harry’s words, hanging in the air between them over the forgotten bill and their untouched plates of food. “What- why?”

Harry shrugs again, looking down at his lap. “I suppose that when you got sick, I really started thinking about the future and what was going to happen. And, you know, if you were to die, what that would mean for me, for the store, for the apartment and for my life. I realized that I never want to be without you. I want to spend the rest of my life with you, I think- maybe not here, and maybe not like this, but I can already assure you that no girl will ever catch my eye long enough to lead me away from you. I don't know what it means, but I never want to be without you,” he says, a little choked up, a little scared that this is all coming to a head, and maybe he’s been a fool all this time.

Louis is quiet for a bit, slumped back in his chair, staring blankly at the table while he processes all of that. Harry does his best to breathe, takes a shaky bite of food even though it’s all gone cold by now. Swallowing it feels like the hardest thing he’s had to do in a while.

“What are you thinking?” Harry says eventually, when he can’t stand the silence anymore. He feels like he’s going to be sick, his stomach all tied up in knots, and Louis still hasn’t even moved.

“I've genuinely never considered the future,” Louis says, finally, his voice slow and calculated, like he’s just saying the words as they come into his head. “Especially a future concerning, you know, us. Jesus, I always expected you'd find bigger and better things and move on. I don't know what to think now,” he admits.

Harry swallows hard, forcing himself to keep looking at Louis even though Louis’s eyes are still glued to the table. “Do you- you don’t feel the same, then? About me?” he says.

Louis huffs, raking a hand through his hair and squeezing his eyes shut. “I don’t know, Harry. I think- I don’t know. I’d have to think about it,” he says.

Harry nods, looking down. His heart feels like it’s trying to escape his chest, but it doesn’t know where to go, so instead it’s just clawing at the walls, begging Harry to take it somewhere it won’t get hurt. Harry just wants to cry, kind of, but he won’t cry right now, not right here.

He pushes his chair away from the table silently and shuffles out of the kitchen, forcing himself to count his steps instead of thinking about how much it hurts to walk away. He stoops by the fireplace to throw a couple of logs in and make sure the apartment stays warm. Even if Louis is about to kick him out and decide he never wants to see him again, Harry just wants him to stay warm.

Louis shuffles past a few minutes later and shuts himself in the bedroom, the door closing quietly behind him. Harry hates how it feels like they’re tiptoeing around each other now, but it doesn’t stop him from tiptoeing back to the kitchen and back down to the store to grab his bag where he left it behind the counter. He sits down at the kitchen table and buries himself in his textbooks, keeping himself fully distracted with getting ahead in his studies until it’s so late the sun is nearly rising again, and his head is throbbing from forcing his thoughts away from Louis for so long.

He jumps when the kitchen door pushes open, looking up to find Louis dropping into the seat across from him, looking as exhausted as Harry feels.

“You should get some sleep,” Harry says, before he can stop himself. Broken and hurting as he is, he still can’t stop looking out for Louis’s best interest. “You’ll get sick again.”

Louis just laughs, putting his face in his hands and leaning on the table for a long moment. Harry closes his book slowly, eyes glued to Louis, ready to give him his full attention whenever he’s ready to speak.

“I've been thinking about it,” Louis says finally, dropping his hands and looking up at Harry, “and I'm startled to realize that I can't picture a future without you in it.”

Harry stays quiet for a long moment, waiting for Louis to say something else, but when Louis finally meets his eyes fully, it’s clear that the ball is in Harry’s court now.

“Are you just saying that to spare my feelings,” he says quietly, “or do you mean that?”

Louis breathes deeply, considering it for a moment. “No,” he decides, “I truly mean it. I don't think I would have ever realized it, had you not said what you said earlier, but I genuinely cannot picture me without you. I'd always just kind of assumed you'd leave one day, but I never imagined it in so much detail. Now that I've tried… I don’t think I can,” he shrugs, like it’s as simple as that. Maybe it is as simple as that.

Harry lets it sink in for a few moments, lets the relief settle in his veins before he even takes another breath. “So what does this mean?”

“I suppose it means I love you,” Louis says. It’s immediate, requires no thought at all, and once it’s out there, he doesn’t look scared of it at all.

Harry’s jaw drops a little, his heart throbbing once in his chest. “Oh, I- I meant about the bills, but, yeah, that works too,” he grins.

Louis flushes a deep red and dissolves into a fit of giggles, hiding his face in his arms and muffling his own laughter. Harry can’t help but laugh along, feeling that urge again to wrap Louis up in his arms and hold him for the rest of his life.

“Well,” Louis says finally, regaining his composure and sitting up straight, “if you feel half as fond of me as I feel of you, and I suspect you do, I suppose I would want to help you with this sort of debt, as well. So, if you're still offering your generosity, I won't force you away. Though I will work my entire life through to repay your sister,” he says, fiddling with his own fingers while he speaks but maintaining eye contact all the while.

Harry beams, pushing out of his seat and rounding the table to pull Louis up as well, dragging him into his arms and holding him tight. Louis hugs him back, nuzzles his face into the curve of his neck and lets Harry squeeze him until the adrenaline is done coursing through his veins, until he can pull back just enough to look down at Louis’s face.

“By the way,” he says, smirking so hard his dimple shows, “I suppose I love you, too.”

Louis laughs brightly and Harry can’t resist him another second, leaning in and kissing him without a single thought. Louis kisses him back just as easily, and it’s everything Harry ever dreamed it would be; Louis’s lips are soft and warm and gentle and his hands curl so perfectly around Harry’s hips, and Harry’s hands are just the right size to cradle Louis’s head and kiss him a little deeper, a little longer, until they’re both breathless and dizzy.

Louis lets loose another round of giggles, so bright Harry doesn’t know how he doesn’t shame the sun back down behind the horizon. Harry pulls him in and crushes him close to his chest, just holding on to him until finally Louis kisses his chest and pulls away.

“We should sleep,” he breathes, slipping his hand into Harry’s and tugging him along to the bedroom. “I was hoping I would get to hold you again,” he says.

Harry lets Louis cuddle him close once they’re in bed, wrapping himself around Louis’s body like a security blanket and settling his head in the curve of Louis’s chest, where it belongs. It takes him a while to fall asleep, his body still buzzing with bliss, but eventually the even rhythm of Louis’s breathing calms him down and sends him off to sleep, the sun already shining soft and warm over both of them.

-

Spring of 1922 treats Boston to the warmest May Harry can remember, but he might be just a little bit biased. He’s just finished the last exam of his college career, and as long as all goes as well as he thinks it did, he’ll graduate early next month.

He can hardly believe he’s actually done it, he’s actually about to graduate college with a law degree. He’s already been recruited by a few different law firms around the city, even some in Rhode Island, and one in Philadelphia. He’ll have his pick of them once his degree is finalized, but he already knows he wants to stay in Boston, mostly because of the boy that’s waiting for him at home.

The air is sweet with the smell of the flowers growing in the window boxes of every shop on Winter Street, and the street vendors are out in the hundreds. Harry nearly stops to buy a sausage just to spread his cheer, but in the end he’s too excited to get home to Louis to stop for even a moment.

Washington Street is as busy as ever, but Harry doesn’t mind weaving through the foot traffic today. He feels like nothing can touch him, he’s on such a high, dancing through a mess of children and teens and women with shopping bags with not a care in the world, crossing the intersection to Summer Street and spotting the drugstore a few doors down. He grins to himself, can’t help it, all but twirls the rest of the way down the street and finally bursts into-

The door is locked. Harry jams his shoulder against it quite hard, expecting it to fling open dramatically, but it only rattles a bit and remains firmly shut. His grin drops into a frown and he peers through the glass, finding the lights off, the sign on the inside of the door switched to Sorry, we’re closed.

Harry huffs and marches around the side of the building, trying the door that leads right up to the apartment. He finds that door unlocked and resumes his cheery disposition, floating up the stairs and into the kitchen with a flourish.

“Guess who’s finished his- oh,” he gasps, taking in the sight before him. Louis looks a mess, a little bit sweaty with his hair all matted and crazy, a filthy apron tied around his waist. He looks shocked, and a little bit guilty, like he wasn’t expecting Harry home so soon.

“Congratulations!” he shouts anyway, pushing his hair out of his face with the oven mitt on his left hand. “You’re home early. I swear I meant for this all to be finished and cleaned up first.”

“What on Earth are you doing?” Harry asks, but he can’t help but laugh. Leave it to Louis to try and surprise him with a celebratory supper, only to create a hundred more chores in the process.

“I made a roast!” Louis says proudly, gesturing toward the oven. “Gemma sent me your Ma’s recipe, your favorite. And I made potatoes, mashed with some lumps, just how you like, and there’s peas and some apple sauce,” he says. “I was trying to make a pie, as well, but… you can see how well that’s going,” he sighs, shrugging at the floury, sticky mess all over the counter.

Harry’s overwhelmed with emotion, with adoration for this boy, messy and frustrating and absolutely beautiful as he is. “I don’t need pie, you’re sweet enough,” he chuckles, shrugging one shoulder and grinning so hard at Louis it almost hurts.

“Well, luckily,” Louis smirks, turning around and grabbing a tin from the counter, “Mrs. Mancini brought some cookies over this morning when she came to buy eggs. So, we can have these instead of my disaster pie,” he says.

“Bless Mrs. Mancini,” Harry says, shuffling over and taking the tin from Louis’s hands. He places it back down on the counter and grabs Louis by the hips, pulling him in to kiss him long and slow.

Louis melts into it, arms draping over Harry’s shoulders, the dirty oven mitt leaving mess all over Harry’s back. Louis lets it go on until the timer for the oven goes off, and Harry jumps so hard he nearly bites a hole through Louis’s lip.

“Roast is done,” Louis says dreamily, pulling away and turning off the timer. He stoops to grab the roast out of the oven but Harry doesn’t let him get far, pressing up against his backside and grabbing at his hips again.

Louis squeals, batting Harry away with the dirty oven mitt. “Save that for after supper!”

“Fine, fine,” Harry giggles, “I’m going to go wash up.”

He takes his bag to the bedroom and stuffs it under his dresser, beyond pleased to never have to look at another textbook again. He changes out of his stiff school clothes and into a soft shirt and some trousers, and spends the next few minutes lounging on the bed, waiting for Louis to call.

They’ve long since stopped sleeping in separate beds; they finally pushed their mattresses together to make one big bed nearly two years ago now, and Harry’s slept every night since then wrapped up in Louis’s arms. He almost can’t even remember a time when he didn't love Louis to the ends of the Earth and back. Maybe there never was such a time.

Louis calls for him only a few moments later and Harry shuffles back to the kitchen, still smiling. He kisses Louis once more before he sits down, can’t get enough of him, will never get enough of him.

He thinks back to when they were children, when Harry used to chase Louis and Gemma around like the tiny child he was, how Louis was never anything but gentle and kind to him, so unlike all the other children Gemma’s age. Harry can’t remember a time when he didn’t know Louis, doesn’t even really remember meeting him. His earliest memories are all of Louis, baby faced and so, so lovely, teaching Harry what love was in the back room of a tiny drugstore in Hastings, Nebraska. Harry stopped believing in God a long time ago, but it sure feels like fate that brought them here.

“I never even asked how your exams were,” Louis says, piling their plates high with food. “Though, I already know you aced them. Best in his class, my boy,” he says, smug.

“Exams were okay,” Harry says, doing his best not to blush under the attention. “I think I’ll pass, at least, which is all that matters.”

Think I’ll pass,” Louis mocks him, rolling his eyes. “Please, Harry, you’ve never gotten less than an A in your entire life. You’re the best student at that school,” he says, waving his fork like he’s declaring it law.

“I’m not, actually,” Harry chuckles. Louis gives him a look, and Harry rolls his eyes. “I’m fifth best.”

Louis scoffs, shaking his head. “Fifth best, but the only one offered, what was it, eight jobs before he’s even graduated? Fifth best,” he grumbles.

“Alright, not that big a deal,” Harry says, but he’s still grinning so hard he feels like he’ll never stop. “Let’s just be happy I’ve got a job, yeah?”

“Have you decided which one you’re going to pick?” Louis asks hopefully, around a mouthful of pork. Louis made it clear when Harry started receiving the job offers, the first of which was in Philadelphia, that he would follow him anywhere in the world that he wanted to go. Harry’s entirely sure he wants to stay in Boston, though, and he knows it’s what Louis wants, too.

“I think I’m going to take the one on Boylston Street,” Harry says, watching Louis’s reaction. “I’ve been doing some research, and they seem to be the best of my options. Great location, as well,” he says.

“Really great,” Louis says, watching him fondly. “That’s amazing, Harry. I’m so proud of you.”

“And, well, I was also thinking,” Harry says, dropping his eyes to his place, “you know, since I’ll be working over on Boylston, and that’s such a busy consumer area, maybe it would make sense to move the store over there? Someday? We could find a place with a storefront and an apartment above, a really nice one, and we could live there and you could run the store? We could even keep this one, as well, and hire some people to run it, and maybe rent out the apartment, as well? I mean, this is years down the line, once I’ve paid Gemma back and we’ve saved up enough and everything. I just think it could be nice, you know?” he says, but Louis is already smiling like Harry is handing him the world.

“You’ve really thought of all of that?” Louis asks, his voice so soft and sweet it makes Harry want to swallow him whole. “You want all of that? With me?”

“Of course I do,” Harry says, like it’s just that simple. It really is that simple.

“That sounds amazing,” Louis says, reaching for Harry’s hand and squeezing hard. “So amazing, Harry, Jesus. What did I do to deserve you?”

They finish their supper slowly, both of them unable to wipe the ridiculous grins off their faces. Harry has no idea how Louis thinks he’s the lucky one.

They do the cleaning up together when they’re both finished, Harry washing and Louis and drying, and then Louis supervising while Harry cleans up the rest of his messes. They spend the evening laughing and flirting and sneaking kisses and touches and if Harry could freeze time and keep a moment forever, he’d choose this one, sneaking cookies from Mrs. Mancini’s tin every now and again and teasing each other endlessly. Harry is so, so in love it makes his chest ache, makes all of his bones ache in absolutely the best way. It’s the warmest, most pleasant he’s ever felt, and he never wants to let it go.

Once the kitchen is clean, Harry grabs Louis by the wrist and drags him to the bedroom, the sound of Louis’s bright, tinkling laughter giving him all the sunshine he could ever ask for. Louis kicks the door closed so forcefully it rattles the frames on the wall, which Harry hung up ages ago when Gemma mailed them an envelope of photographs she took while they were growing up. There’s photos of Louis and Gemma as preschoolers, a picture of Louis holding Harry as a baby, and so many pictures of the three of them, so happy and young and so unaware of what the future had in store for them. The photo at the center of the wall is the first one Gemma ever took, Louis and Harry sitting on the steps in Louis’s dad’s store. Harry is looking up at Louis with such pure, unadulterated admiration on his face and Louis is just grinning back at him, like Harry is the best thing he’s ever seen. When Gemma first took that photo, she told Harry it was because she believed they were always going to be together, and after all these years, she was right.

Sometimes Harry wishes he could go back into that picture, pull that little Harry off to the side and tell him that he really is going to get to keep Louis forever, just like he always wanted. In his mind that little Harry shrugs him off and runs back to the steps, because no matter how long forever might be, he doesn’t ever want to miss a single moment he could be spending with Louis.

Some things, he supposes, never change.