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On Thursday evenings, Harry went to the building three streets over for dinner.

Normally, he went straight home to his one-bedroom unit, where he cooked himself dinner and ate it at his desk while he did extra work and then collapsed in his bed, just a foot away. Sometimes he went to the pub for a beer and to use their phone to call a friend from uni. A couple times a week the old ladies that lived down the hall would bring him some dessert and a friendly smile, permanently worried he was going to die alone and omega-less. He didn’t need their help with cooking, but it never hurt to have a little company to break up the rest of his week.

But Thursdays, he never had to worry about being alone.

He had stayed at work as late as he could manage that day, finishing up grading the tests his students had taken that day since he knew he wouldn’t have much time in the evening to work on them. He rubbed his eyes and sighed before moving up to rub his temple as he walked, trying to ease the headache from his day. It was the end of an Indian summer now, the heat just starting to fade from the air and the wind rushing into replace it, cool on his cheeks as he walked.

It wasn’t his favorite kind of weather, but he tried to enjoy it. Ever since Saturday, it had a very long, hard week, and he knew he would only have a few hours before it would go back to being hard.

He was approaching a flat unit in a neighborhood reserved for people with mating papers or better jobs or both; big windows and little communal gardens and lots of window boxes blooming with carefully tended flowers.

When he finally arrived in front of the right flat unit, he slipped in the front door and then went up the empty set of stairs near the front of the entrance. The metal echoed under his work loafers as he climbed, and he only stopped when he got to the floor he wanted. He turned down the hall, past several identical doors, until he spotted the right worn-looking metal number and a wooden wreath decorated with autumn leaves hanging below it. Harry knocked on the familiar door, stepping back and shoving his hands into his pockets as he waited.

The door clicked a few moments later, and he lifted his head to watch as the door opened. He smiled when it opened fully, and he could finally see his own face looking back at him.

“Hi, Alex,” he said.

“Harry,” his brother returned, opening the door fully. “You’re a little early. The bread’s not even done yet.”

“That’s alright. I got out of school late, so I figured I would come straight here rather than go all the way home,” he said, “Is that okay?”

“Of course it’s okay, come in, Christ,” Alex laughed and reached out a hand, pulling Harry inside. Harry’s vision flared with the ache in his head and he sighed, rubbing at his temple once more.

“I’ll take your jacket,” Alex said. Harry nodded and shrugged off his coat before offering it to Alex, who hung it on the hook near the door. Once he was done he glanced behind him, into the back of the flat towards the kitchen.

 “Louis, darling, Harry’s here.”

“I can hear you two, I know,” another voice called from the kitchen. “Give me a minute.”

There was a loud clink from the other room, followed by the smell of something hot and a bit sweet. Then there were footsteps, and Harry and Alex lifted their heads at the same moment, although Harry forced himself to cast his eyes to the side after he realized how quickly he’d lifted his gaze.

“Hello, Harry,” that same voice said again a moment later, and Harry allowed himself to look back this time.

Harry had known his brother’s fiancé for five years now. Actually, Harry had been one of the first people to meet Louis after Alex started courting him, even if it was an accident. He had taken a train one day to see Alex at university and opened the door of his brother’s flat to see Alex sitting on the common room sofa with an omega boy in his lap and his arms securely around his waist. Alex had glanced at the door, and just smiled as he kissed the omega’s temple.

“Harry, this is Louis,” he had said then, “Darling, this is my brother.”

Louis had glanced up and blinked at Harry, his mouth lazy and his eyes bright, and he had laughed.

“You weren’t lying when you said you had a twin,” he’d said.

Now, Louis was still smiling at Harry, but he had quietly moved into Alex’s side, and the other man had an arm around him. Louis was dressed in a blue jumper that looked new, with a pure white collar poking over the top, probably both things Alex had picked up for him. He looked nice, and even though he wasn’t really that much shorter than Alex or Harry, he looked so small and sweet under Alex’s arm.

“Hi, Louis,” Harry said, now, and Louis smiled at him again.

“The vegetables need two more minutes to cook,” Louis said, “I think. And then we can eat.”

“You think,” Alex repeated fondly, and then kissed the top of Louis’s head. “Does that mean we’ll be eating the memories of vegetables again, darling?”

Louis rolled his eyes and pushed hard on Alex’s side, slipping out from under his arm.

“Leave me be. You could help me if you wanted decent dinner so bad.”

Louis still kissed Alex’s shoulder quickly before slipping out of the room, back to the kitchen to rescue their food. Their kisses were always quick, especially in front of Harry. But every time Louis’s lips came close to him it always made the briefest of smiles flash across Alex’s face. It was a rare sight.

Harry followed his brother to the kitchen, and when they came inside Louis was lifting a pot off the stove, draining hot water and sliced vegetables into a bowl in the sink. The radio was on, a deep, plain voice speaking in the midst of all the static. Harry could make out “Germany” and “Italy” enough times to tell it was war coverage.

Louis reached over to adjust the signal of the radio, the static crackling and changing as he did, and Alex reached out for the radio a moment later.

“Turn that off,” Alex said softly, putting his hand over Louis’s. The omega looked up at him, his eyes narrowing.

“I want to know what’s happening.”

“You can turn it on later,” Alex said gently, “Not while we have dinner.” 

Louis chewed on his bottom lip, and then glanced at Harry, smiling.

“Ask Harry if he wants to listen to it,” Louis said as he picked up the the drained vegetables, “I’ll turn it off if he doesn’t want to hear it.”

Alex gave Harry a glance as Louis said it, and Harry just kept his mouth slightly open as he tried to figure out what to say.

He heard enough war coverage on a day to day basis, in the mornings papers and in break room chatter. He could use a break from the news. But he knew that most establishments liked to turn off their radios and turn over their newspapers when omegas came around, like the mere mention of war would make them faint. Louis was probably hungry for basic information the rest of the world was sick of.

“Louis is allowed to listen to the radio, isn’t he?” Harry said, which made Louis scoff.

“Louis is allowed to do whatever he wants,” Louis said.

“Right. Um. You can leave it on,” Harry said, “I don’t mind.”

Louis smiled at him, his bright white teeth flashing, and then he turned to the bowl of vegetables, bringing it over to the dining table and setting it in the middle of the table along with the strips of half-dried beef, the baked potatoes, and the bread.

“Can you fix me a plate, love?” Alex asked.

“You have two hands,” Louis said with a laugh. He reached out for Alex, clinging to his fingers for a moment and then bringing himself closer, kissing his alpha’s arm before he sat down.

They had this exchange every week, and every time, without fail, it brought them straight into their own world, where Harry was an optional addition.

Which was fine. This was his brother’s house, and Harry was having dinner out of nothing but a generous repeated invitation. Louis didn’t owe him any attention.

“Is school going well for you, Harry?”

Harry snapped back to attention by Louis’s own voice, light and pleasant. Louis was picking up a bowl in the middle of the table filled with blackberry sauce for the bread, and not even looking at Harry, but still smiling as he went about his task and waited for Harry’s answer.

“About as well as it was last week,” Harry said, and Louis laughed.

“Anything exciting happen?”

“Harry teaches math to teenagers,” Alex said, “He has the least exciting job in the world.”

“And you sell motor oil for a living, hush,” Louis sighed, “Harry?”

“Um,” Harry said, “No, nothing exciting.”

“See, I told you,” Alex said, “Pass the bread, darling?”

Louis rolled his eyes but still picked up the basket and handed it to Alex, a hint of a smile tugging at the corner of his mouth when Alex’s fingers brushed their own.

These dinners were the same. They were domestic and monotonous, which was to be expected when each of them had lives that didn’t change. But Harry still went every week, because it was a nice break from his empty apartment in the unmated side of town. And he saw his brother, and he saw Louis, with his pretty, bright eyes and a sweet smile.

But still, every time Louis gave Harry attention only to retract it and turn back to Alex, the person who deserved Louis’s attention, it made Harry’s heart ache a little.

Because, the thing was, he had also been a little in love with his brother’s fiancé for five years.

When Harry had first met Louis, he had thought he was beautiful, of course. There was nothing wrong with finding an omega beautiful. But then he had seen Louis more and more, the boy constantly by Alex’s side. He was funny, with a sharp mouth and a wicked mind, and Harry was drawn in instantly with each word he heard the omega say.

And then he had agreed to move in with Alex, and to mate with him, and then later Alex had come to Harry one night and said “I’m going to ask Louis to marry me” and he had looked happier than Harry had ever seen him. Harry had hugged him for ten minutes straight and told him how happy he was for him.

Because he had been, and still was. Harry wasn’t jealous. He liked watching Louis and Alex together and how blissfully happy they were; a perfect pairing who would one day make a perfect family. Even in his lowest moments when he dreamed about the taste of Louis’s mouth on his, he would never want to live in a world where Louis broke Alex’s heart and left him for Harry. But maybe he did want to come over one day, and have Louis kiss him in a greeting when he came over for dinner, for Alex to pick a tipsy Louis up to take him to bed and to glance over at Harry and say “you can stay, you know” and he wouldn’t just mean for the night but forever. Forever in a warm house filled with a sweet scent and people he loved.

He knew that wasn’t possible. And he also knew there was a good reason he didn’t have a mate of his own, even if he was getting too old not to have one. He had stayed in school longer than Alex had so he could get all the requirements he needed to become a teacher. He had his job and his students, and Alex had a boy he was going to mate and marry by the end of the month. They had done separate things and gotten according results.

But sometimes Louis looked over at Alex a certain way, and it was hard for Harry to remember why he had made the decisions he had.

*******

“Well,” Louis said, “I have four here.”

He set down part of his hand, an even set of spades. Alex nodded, and then glanced at his hand.

“I have three,” he said, and then set down three cards in an uneven series of suits.

They’d been playing Rummy for an hour and a half, and at this point the only thing keeping Harry interested was the beer in front of him and the blatantly bad plays Alex kept dishing out.

“Alex,” Louis said, “You can’t play different suits, baby. That’s the point of the game.”

“Oh,” Alex laughed, “Right, of course.”

He picked up the cards and then shrugged.

“Guess I don’t have anything,” he said. “Harry, it’s your turn.”

Harry cut a glance to his brother’s hand, which he wasn’t bothering to hide, and saw that he had a six-series of hearts. He shook his head, but still looked at his own hand and set down all four cards, diamonds in a row. He leaned back, and then picked up his drink.

“I believe that’s all for me.”

“Alright,” Alex sighed, as he set down his hand “Harry, you win again. Darling, you’re second. And I guess I lose.”

“Mm. Alex let me win,” Louis said, “I would anyways, but it helps his ego when he knows he’s losing on purpose.”

Louis looked at Alex while he said it, but Harry almost liked it when he talked about Alex in the third person, addressing him but not quite. Like he was actually talking to Harry, one on one, a real conversation in which he was the focus of the omega’s attention.

“And I didn’t,” Harry said, making Louis turn and then smirk at him. He picked up his beer, taking a sip. Alex, to his credit, just laughed and then reached over, putting an arm around Louis and bringing him in to kiss his cheek.

“Another game, then?” he asked.

“Oh, not for me,” Louis sighed, “I’m tired, I’m going to take a bath.”

He stood up, swallowing the last bit of his beer, and then let it clink firmly on the table. He wandered around the table, his movements a bit wobbly from the alcohol, and smiled softly as he came over to Alex. He settled both hands on his shoulders and leaned in, kissing him on the neck, under his jaw.

“Goodnight, alpha,” he sighed, his voice laced with a drunken giggle. He lifted his head, his cheeks still pink and his eyes still glimmering, that soft smile on his face as he looked over at Harry. His eyes still flashed and shifted for a moment in recognition, like he had briefly forgotten Harry was there.

“Goodnight, Harry,” he said.

“Goodnight, Louis,” Harry said, almost the same moment Alex said, “Goodnight, my darling.”

The combination of their voices made Louis laugh, and then lowered his head again, pressing his mouth briefly into Alex’s curls.

“Twins,” he mumbled softly, and then Alex lifted his hand, fondly squeezing Louis’s side.

“Do I need to help you with your bath again, love?”

“Once. You had to help me once,” Louis sighed, “I’m okay. I’m not drunk. Just happy.”

“Okay then,” Alex said, then squeezed him again, “Call if you need me.”

“I don’t need help,” Louis said, “But okay.”

He kissed Alex’s head again, and then wandered off into the next room. Alex watched him, still encased entirely in Louis’s world, and Harry picked up his beer and drank as he just looked at Alex looking towards the other room. His brother only looked away when he heard water running in the next room, and then the soft splashing of Louis climbing into the water.

Alex smiled at Harry when he looked back, like he hadn’t completely forgotten about him for a few moments as he had once more been caught up in Louis’s spell.

“Another game, then, for the two of us?” he asked, already picking up the cards and shuffling them again.

Harry swallowed. He wanted to play again, even if he didn’t even like this game. He wanted to play until it was two in the morning and get drunk and stay here.

But he couldn’t. Especially not this week, when he had something he couldn’t leave here without doing.

“Actually,” Harry said, his mouth a bit dry, “Can we go outside? I think I need a fag.”

“Sure,” Alex shrugged, dropping the cards again. He pushed against the table, the chair scraping the floor as he stood up, “Just let me get Louis a glass of water for when he gets out of the tub.”

As Alex went to the kitchen, Harry got up and went outside to the back balcony of the flat, taking out his own pack and his matches. He lit up, drawing in the smoke and waiting for Alex to come back. He was prepared for Alex to be back in fifteen minutes, his hair wet and his mouth grinning, a sign he gave in and joined Louis in the bath, forgetting about Harry for a few moments.

But soon enough the door opened again, and Alex came out to stand next to him, his own lit fag in his hand a moment later. He took a drag, coming over to the edge of the railing so he could lean one arm against it. Then he glanced over at Harry, his eyes narrowing.

“Something’s wrong with you,” Alex said. Harry gave him a glance and scoffed.

“Nothing’s wrong with me.”

“Yes, there is,” he said, “Could tell the minute you got here, something’s off with you.”

“Fine, maybe there is,” Harry agreed, lifting his own cigarette to his mouth. He looked out to the alleyway below, nothing but darkened windows and smoke-scarred brick, “But I’m telling you later.”

“Later,” Alex repeated drily, “Why not now?”

“Because we had a nice evening,” Harry said, “That’s why.”

Alex looked at him, and blinked once, his eyes narrowing.

“Are your hips acting up again?” he asked, “Your back?”

“Aren’t they always,” Harry sighed, and rubbed the sharp bones of his right hip, a phantom pain rolling through at just the mention of how thoroughly fucked it was, “But they’re fine. It’s not that.”

“Your job?”

“That’s fine.”

“You need money?”

“I make more money than you.”

“Yeah, well, don’t remind me,” Alex said tightly, and then stared at Harry for a longer moment, no more guesses coming. After a few minutes, he started to drum his fingers on the balcony railing, the bright red ashes of the end of his cigarette crumbling and falling over the edge as he did.

“You got recruited,” he finally said.

Harry just looked at him, fighting the urge to curse. He should have told him first, instead of letting him guess. There were about two things Harry could tell Alex that would make him this nervous. One was telling him that Harry found a mate. The other, at the moment, was him getting recruited. And the latter was far more likely, anyways. It wasn’t exactly a wild guess.

Still, he didn’t reply. He just lifted the fag to his mouth, breathed in and then exhaled.

“You did, didn’t you,” Alex pushed, moving closer, “Harry.”

“Christ, yes,” he sighed, spitting out the last of the smoke as he exhaled, examining the glowing cherry in the falling darkness, “I got my letter on Saturday. I ship out in three weeks.”

“And you decided to wait to tell me now?”

“You would’ve known something was wrong if I stopped by another night,” Harry said weakly, “I wanted to have one good night before I told you. Isn’t that a good enough reason for you?”

“No.”

Harry scoffed, looked away. He leaned both arms hard against the railing.

“You always do this,” he said, “You stress me out with your worrying. You’re lucky I told you at all and didn’t up and disappear on you, send you a card from Berlin in a month.”

“That’s not funny.”

“Then I guess it was a bad joke,” Harry sighed.

Alex just stared at him for another moment, and then took a step forward, jabbing his cigarette against the railing, the sparks and ash flying from the end.

“What are you going to do?”

“What the hell do you mean, ‘what am I going to do’?” Harry scoffed, “I’m going to file a leave of absence at work and I’m going to go. Not much else I can.”

He lifted his own cigarette back to his mouth, trying to inhale before it burned down completely, but he felt Alex grip his wrist hard before he could. He looked over, his brother so close, his eyes wide and smoke still streaming from his mouth.

“I,” Alex started, then licked his lips, “I’m sorry.”

“Not your fault.”

“I know,” Alex managed, “I’m still sorry it’s happening.”

Harry looked away, but Alex caught his shoulder.

“Hey,” he said, “C’mere.”

“To do what?”

“Let me hug you, you damn son of a bitch,” Alex huffed, “You’re my little brother and you’re going to war. Can I do that?”

“You have four minutes on me, good Christ,” Harry glanced at him, and then shrugged, finally stubbing out his fag on the balcony railing.

“Okay,” he said, “Sure you can.”

“There. Thank you,” Alex laughed weakly. He lifted his arms, wrapping them around Harry and squeezing tightly. Harry just sighed and let it happen, then lifted his hand, patting the back of Alex’s wrist.

“Hey, it’s alright,” he said, “You have three more weeks of me.”

“Still,” he huffed into Harry’s shoulder.

Harry stayed still for another moment, and nudged Alex in the side.

“You done with your hug yet?”

“You have to go?”

“Not really.”

“Then, no, fuck off.”

Harry laughed weakly, and then let his brother hold him, their bodies in a bitter, smoke-laden cloud, neither of them talking.

Finally, Alex spoke up.

“Three weeks.”

“Three weeks,” Harry agreed.

They didn’t say much else. They just stayed there until Harry pulled away and insisted he needed to go home, and Alex just followed him back into the flat, not even going to the front door with him as he shuffled back to his room, mumbling that he would need to have a bath so Louis wouldn’t smell the smoke in his hair.

Harry waited until his fag had burned down, and then tiptoed back through the living room and to the front door, trying to make no noise so he wouldn’t disturb either of them on his way out.  

******

“Okay,” Harry sighed, dragging his last decent piece of chalk across the board, “Since you all seem to be giving me glazed eyes, I’m going to save our cross multiples for another day. I’m going to give you all a few long division equations, nice and simple, and then you all can go home.”

He finished scribbling out the last number in the equation, and then glanced over his shoulder.

“Everyone remembers long division from year three, yes?”

He got several sleepy, confused stares from his students, and just shook his head. He wasn’t surprised, not when it was so early in the school year and it was the last section of the day on a Friday.

“Fine, then I suppose I’ll walk through it again,” he said, “So in the last place here, we have a five, so – “

The metallic sound of the school bell cut through his last word, and he sighed as the room dissolved into shuffling papers, chattering voices, and squeaking shoes as his students finished packing up for the afternoon. He dropped his chalk back onto the ledge of the board and brushed his hands together to banish the chalk dust from his palms as he turned around.

“Okay, I expect you all to have your tables ready for me tomorrow,” Harry called over the scurry of activity as the students packed up their rucksacks, “Can I get at least one, ‘Yes, Mr. Styles’ please?”

“Yes, Mr. Styles,” several voices echoed, and he nodded, a smile creeping onto his lips.

“Okay, I’ll see you all on Monday. Have a good weekend.”

He watched the students file out of the room, a few of them hanging back for additional help with the previous night’s assignment. He smiled and answered their questions, settling their homework on his desk and running his finger over the places they had corrected their own mistakes in blue and red ink.

“See, darling, you just need to make sure you do the parentheses first, and then everything else. Then you’ll be at the top of the class,” he told Sarah, one of his sweetest, quietest students that seemed permanently afraid to ask questions in class but usually sought him out afterwards.

“Make sure you look over your tables tonight, okay? You’re making mistakes with your multiplications but it’s nothing a little revision can’t fix,” he said to Thomas, a boy who Harry knew from hearing some student gossip was probably going to present as an omega. He struggled with class as much as the other students did, but Harry found it a lot harder to encourage him to keep trying.

“Maybe we can set up a time to talk during lunch period, do you think that would help you?” Harry smiled as gently as he could with Maggie, who he knew struggled to focus but seemed so smart and genuinely remorseful for her mistakes.

He finished up with his students, giving them all a wave goodbye and one last smile as they went. Once the last one was filed out of the door, he stretched his arms over his head and looked out his classroom window at the early autumn sunshine, at the students that were rushing out over the school path, holding hands with their friends or their sweethearts, eager to go home for the day.

He would miss this classroom, and his kids, when he left. He was going to file his official leave of absence at the beginning of next week with the headmaster and tell his kids the following Monday that he would be leaving for the front. He hoped at the very least they would get a good substitute, someone who gave a shit about them, unlike too many of the other teachers who were still bitter they had to teach fourteen year olds, bristling with energy and unbloomed pheromones.

Harry let his arms drop and shook his head, and then picked up his bag, packing away his papers and closing up the fraying clasp. He swung it over his shoulder, ready to head out of the room, and then paused when he saw someone standing in the doorway.

“Oh,” he said as he looked at his brother, “Hi.”

Alex grinned, rocking on the balls on his as he stood in the doorway. He was fresh off work, still in the work shirt that had his name stitched over the breast pocket in cursive and the name of the petrol distributor he worked for on the other side of the chest. Usually Alex worked right until 5, a full hour and a half later than Harry did, and when he had free time in the middle of the day the first thing he usually did race home to see Louis. Harry just looked at him, frowning as he tried to figure out what he was doing here.

“Are you…is everything okay?” Harry asked, and Alex laughed.

“Yeah, I’m fine,” he said, “I wanted to ask you to come over tonight for dinner.”

“I just came to dinner yesterday,” Harry said, his eyes narrowing.

“Well, come again.”

Harry just stared at him for a moment, and then glanced away and readjusted his bag on his shoulder.

“Do you feel sorry for me?” Harry sighed, “Is that why you left off work early? Just to come here and invite me over?”

“Of course not,” Alex said, a bit too quickly. Harry lifted his brows and Alex sighed.

“Look. Let me make you dinner. Please,” Alex said, “I got a half day today because I made a good sale this morning. I thought it’d be nice to have a full afternoon with you.”

“You could have a full afternoon with your fiancé,” Harry said, “Besides, I need to go home and grade my papers.”

“You have a full weekend to do that, don’t you?” Alex asked.

“Well, yeah, but – “

“Good. You can grade your papers tomorrow.”

Harry just blinked at him, and then groaned.

“If Louis is mad that I am over at four in the afternoon when you had a half day at work, it is not my fault.”

“Okay, that’s fair,” Alex laughed, then reached out, grasping Harry by the shoulder, “Now come on, let me take you home.”

*******

As soon as he was through the door, Harry could hear music playing through the entire flat. Every single window was thrown open, warm sunlight spilling over every bit of the floors and furniture, the gauzy curtains shifting slightly with the breeze outside. Alex smiled softly as he took off his jacket in the front hall, gazing out to the rest of the flat.

“Darling,” Alex called, “Where are you, sweetheart?”

Harry unzipped his own jacket and hung it up along with his work bag one of the coat hooks as he heard the sound of bare footsteps emerging from the short hallway. He glanced over a moment before the smell of wild flowers and honey fully hit him, and he saw Louis coming down the hall, wearing a loose white house robe and holding a sweating glass of cola, the sunshine around the room reflecting off the omega’s hair.

Of course he looked fucking beautiful, and clearly he was dressed only for Alex to come home to, and this really wasn’t what Harry needed, not when he was already being pulled into a pity dinner.

Louis smiled when he first walked into the hallway, his feet smoothly moving towards Alex, and then he looked over to Harry and his face shifted, his eyes widening a bit. His hand went up to his chest, gathering the loose material of his robe to cover more of his upper half.

“Harry,” he said, nearly breathing it out, “Hello.”

“Hi,” Harry managed, “Um, I’m – “

He wanted to stutter out that he was sorry, that this was a surprise for him too, that he hadn’t meant to barge in on a space he was usually only welcomed into once a week and taken Louis by surprise.

But before he could say anything, Alex cut in.

“I thought we could have Harry over again,” he said with a shrug, “Is that okay, my love?”

Harry expected Louis to say no and to send him out, but instead he saw Louis settle his glass on the closest table and then the omega rushed forward, tossing his arms around Harry’s middle and settling his head against his shoulder.

“Oh, Harry,” he sighed, squeezing him, “I’m sorry.”

Harry blinked, his feet shaking a bit against the floor.

Louis had never hugged him before. He had no reason to, and Harry had never even entertained the idea. But now he could feel the full press of Louis’s barely covered body against him, his scent sweet and so close to Harry’s nose.

“I – “ Harry said, “Did Alex tell you?”

Louis just nodded, his cheek rubbing against Harry’s shoulder.

He really was going to die.

“It’s alright,” Harry finally managed, “It is what it is.”

He cringed at his own words, but when Louis pulled away, his eyes were wide and nearly wet, and his hands clung to Harry’s shoulders.

“You can come over anytime you want before you go, okay?” Louis said, “You don’t have to be by yourself.”

“Oh,” Harry said, “Um, thank you.”

He was now very aware of Alex looking at the two of them, but when Harry glanced over at his brother, he was just smiling softly at Louis.

“It’s okay, darling,” Alex said, “He’s with us now, yes?”

He reached out to pet Louis’s head, and Louis just nodded, and then finally let go of Harry and moved away. He went over to Alex, giving him a precursory greeting kiss and then a quick nuzzle into his neck, and then he was moving back again and looking at Harry.

“I’m sorry I didn’t know you were here at first,” Louis said as he went back to retrieve his drink from the kitchen table, “I thought it was just Alex. You two…you smell alike. I guess I never noticed.”

“Twins,” Harry said, too quickly, and cringed again.

Louis in that pretty white robe was fucking with his brain.

Still, Louis smiled at him and nodded, then pulled at his robe again.

“I’m…I guess I’ll go change,” he managed, then glanced at Alex again, “Do you want a drink, alpha? I can make one before I go.”

“That’s alright,” Alex smiled, and reached out, thumbing at Louis’s chin, “Can you just set a fresh shirt out for me when you’re in the bedroom?”

Louis nodded, and then he was gone, disappearing back down the hallway and into his and Alex’s room just as quickly as he had appeared. Alex laughed lightly after he had gone.

“I’m sorry,” he said, “I think any talk of the war upsets him.”

“Never seemed to upset him before,” Harry managed, thinking about all the times he had watched Louis sit at the table, enchanted by the news coverage on the radio.

“Still, it’s close to home for us,” Alex shrugged, then moved into the kitchen, “That boy is smart as a damn whip and wants to read all he can but he’s still an omega, you know? He’s soft to this stuff when it comes too close. Don’t tell him I told you that, though. He’ll never forgive me.”

He crossed the floor, going into the kitchen and opening the ice box up.

“Do you want a beer?” Alex asked, “Or – looks like Louis made lemonade. Lucky us, it’ the only thing the boy can make.”

“Um,” Harry said, slowly going back into the kitchen to join his brother, “I’ll take a lemonade, sure.”

Alex looked up and smiled at him, and then reached over, clapping him on the shoulder and keeping his hand there as he got the lemonade pitcher out.

“I’m happy you’re here, you know,” Alex said, “You – “

Alex paused, long enough to Harry look over at him.

“You’re welcome over any time, like Louis said. Not just on dinner night. You know?”

“Thanks for the invitation. It’s a little late.”

“Yeah, well,” Alex said, and then set the pitcher down firmly, “You have it now.”

He poured out the lemonade and Harry took it when Alex offered it to him, and Alex still kept his hand on Harry’s shoulder as he drank some of it.

“Are you alright,” Harry asked flatly, barely making it a question, and Alex seemed to jolt and nod.

“I’m great,” he said, then repeated “I’m great.”

Harry just drank his lemonade and didn’t ask another question until Louis swept back into the room, the smell of sugar and daises wafting behind him.

*******

They played Monopoly after dinner, and Harry stayed relatively sober as Alex broke into a bottle of wine that Louis nearly finished. They stayed up late, and he watched Louis get drunker and try to curl up in Alex’s lap, until he stood, his lips stained red and wobbling a little on his feet, and kissed Alex with a soft smile and went off to bed, lingering a little longer than usual to say “good night, Harry.”

“Can we go smoke?” Alex asked as soon as Louis was out of the room, and Harry cut his eyes to his brother, lifting his head.

“I mean, sure we can,” he said.

“Okay, great,” Alex said, and then got up quickly, going to one of the kitchen drawers to retrieve his matches and smokes, “Balcony?”

“I’m not going to fill your living room with smoke,” Harry said, “Your fiancé would kill us both.”

“Right, right,” Alex said, shaking his head, “Of course.”

Harry just stared at him but still stood up, picking up his warm glass, and took it outside to the balcony. The heat was hanging on tightly, oppressive against his skin, making his arms feel sticky and tight as soon as he came outside.

Alex came out a moment later, already smelling like smoke, one hand clamping on a half-burned down fag and the other in his hair.

“It’s your funeral in the morning for lighting up inside,” Harry said, but Alex spoke before he was through the second syllable of the last word.

“I’ve been thinking since last night,” Alex said, and Harry rolled his eyes as he reached into his pocket for his lighter.

“Oh, yeah?” Harry scoffed, “About what? About how many dinners you’re going to invite me to before you stop feeling sorry for me?”

“Christ,” Alex sighed, “I’m trying to do something nice for you, you know.”

“I know,” Harry said, “I’m sorry.”

“Good,” Alex said, lifting his cigarette to his mouth again, “Because I’m going to do something even nicer for you.”

“Oh yeah?” Harry said, lifting his warmed glass to his mouth, washing down the taste of smoke with liquor, “What’s that.”

Alex took a long pull and exhaled slowly, looking out into the alley. When they were in secondary school and had first started stealing cigarettes from their mother’s dresser drawer, Alex used to smoke right in out in the open on the school grounds, not even hiding it from teachers. The girls used to tell Harry that his brother looked like a movie star when he did that, and it always made Harry feel a little inferior, even if they had the same face.

He nearly felt that way now as Harry exhaled hard and then turned to him, his eyes flashing a bit as he did.

“You’re not going to go to war,” Alex said, smoking still pouring from his lips, “I am.”

Harry set his glass down on the railing before he could take another drink, and just stared at Alex.

“That’s fucking hilarious,” he said flatly, “Did you grab wrong kind of cigarettes from the corner store?”

“No, I am,” Alex said, “I’m going to go instead of you.”

“You can’t volunteer for me, you’re bonded,” Harry said, “Besides, if you went, they wouldn’t forfeit me. It would just be more the fucking merrier.”

Harry ducked his head to cup the light of his fag as he drew it back to his mouth, and then he picked his head back up, he saw Alex honest-to-god glaring at him.

“You’re real fucking dense sometimes, you know that?” Alex said, “I’m going to go and I’m going to pretend I’m you. And you’re going to stay here and be me.”

“That makes no sense.”

“Yes, it does,” Alex said, “We’re twins. It’s so fucking easy, Harry, I just give them your name and your ID and I don’t even get questioned.”

“No, no, that part makes sense,” Harry said. He was getting closer to his brother now, waving his hand. The liquor was heavy and warm in his veins, “I’d just like to know what the hell you’re thinking, and why you think this is something that is a logical fucking thing to do.”

“I can survive out there,” Alex said, like it was the most logical thing in the world. He lifted himself up as he said it, but he couldn’t feel rise much taller than Harry and his identical height, “You can’t.”

“For fuck’s sake, what makes you think that?” Harry said, “Because I stayed in uni longer? Because you always did better on the fitness tests than me? That doesn’t mean anything, Alex.”

“Maybe it does!”

“Okay, okay, fine,” Harry sighed, “I’ll entertain you for a minute. You ran in school. You were bigger than me until we were maybe eighteen. I sit at a desk all day and you get to walk around. But none of those things make you fucking bulletproof, and they don’t make either of us free from the law if you get caught.”

Alex stared at him, and then reached out and held Harry’s shoulder.

“Don’t tease me,” he growled, “I’m serious about this.”

Harry just stared at his brother, at the ways his lips were pulled back. He could nearly hear the vibration of his voice hanging in the air, could feel it in his chest.

His brother didn’t growl. Not in front of Louis, not in front of anybody. But he was now, and his eyes were were and glassy, his jaw set.

“You’re serious,” Harry repeated, and he wanted the way his voice wavered a bit. Alex had growled at him. He wanted him to pay attention.

“I am,” Alex said. His voice was still deep, rumbling, but the growl had left his voice, and Harry sighed, letting his shoulders lower. He lifted his cigarette with an unsteady hand, regarding his brother. Afraid and yet determined. And so, so stupid.

Alex closed his eyes and then opened them again, the dark green of his eyes shifting and settling as he did.

“Look,” Alex said, “I wished I could have done something like this for you, before, with Dad – “

“Oh no. Don’t,” Harry cut him off, “Please don’t bring that up.”

“Harry, your hips are bad.”

“My hips are fine.”

“They’re fucked up and you know why,” Alex snapped, then sighed, “I’m sorry.”

Harry just stared at his brother, and looked away.

“Don’t talk to me about Dad.”

“I’m sorry.”

“It’s fine, just don’t do it again,” Harry said, and looked back, “Have you thought about this when you weren’t drunk?”

“I’m not drunk,” Alex insisted, “I haven’t been drunk all day, not since last night. I’ve thought about this.”

“One day isn’t enough to think about giving your life over for nothing.”

“You are not nothing,” Alex snapped, “You are my little brother.”

“Okay, then what about Louis, huh?” Harry said, “You’re getting married soon. In weeks. Are you going to leave him?”

“We’ll get married when I get back,” Alex said, although his voice faltered a bit as he said it.

“But you might not, can’t you understand that?” Harry said, “You have a good life here. You’re mated, you have a job that’s decent, you’re happy.”

“And you’re happy, too, don’t just go to war and throw it away!”

“I’m happy with my own life!” Harry retorted, “But I’m not fucking yours up just so I can maybe go back it to someday. I’m not letting you bloody die for me.”

“I’m not going to die!” Alex snapped, “Do you think I would go if I thought I would die?”

“You don’t know that!” Harry burst out. It was a bit too loud, he realized, and winced as he heard his own voice echo off the hollow walls of the alley next to them. But Alex rose to meet him, and Harry took a step back. He could smell the pheromones starting to clutter the air on the balcony; a natural reaction to two alphas near-yelling at each other.

“Why won’t you just listen to me?”

“Because you’re being – “

There was a soft sound of a clicking lock before Harry could finish, and they both turned at the same moment.

Louis was standing in the doorway, in his dressing gown, his hair ruffled and sticking up. He squinted at the two of them, his eyes dark.

“You two woke me up with your incessant alpha screaming.” 

“I’m sorry, baby,” Alex said immediately, his voice quieting instantly, “We’ll be quiet.”

Louis looked unconvinced, and just glanced between the two of them, lifting a hand to cover his yawning mouth.

“Why are you two still awake?”

Harry glanced between the two of them.

“Why don’t you tell him what we’re talking about, Alex.”

“Harry – “

“You’re not going to tell him? Fine,” Harry snapped, then turned to Louis, “Your fiancé wants us to switch. He wants to take my draft for me.”

Louis blinked at both of them, his expression blank. Then he sighed, tightening the front of his robe, and came forward. He settled against Alex’s side, reaching a hand up to squeeze the other man’s bare forearm.

“My alpha,” he sighed tiredly, “Always so reckless.”

He kissed Alex’s cheek and rubbed his arm.

“What’s this, then? You have too much to drink? Saying silly things to scare your poor brother?”

Alex shook his head, turning to Louis with weary eyes.

“Louis, please, go back to sleep, darling.”

Louis blinked at him, frowning. Harry could nearly feel his mood shift, that too-sweet smell going a bit brittle around the edges, like burned sugar.

“You’re serious,” he said flatly, “Alex? Alex.”

“Please,” Alex said, “You should sleep, baby, you had a lot of wine.”

“Not until you tell me why you want to leave me to go fight in a war where alphas are dropping like flies, my love,” Louis said, his voice cloying sweet. Harry just stared at him, at his easy smile that seemed like it could go hard at any moment.

“He’s not going,” Harry cut in, “He’s being dumb.”

“Mm,” Louis hummed, not turning around to look at Harry, “Is that right, sweetheart? Are you just joking around?”

He reached his arms up, looping them around Alex’s neck and swaying back at forth, pulling Alex closer to him.

“Baby,” Alex murmured, “I – go back to bed, I was going to talk to you about this later.”

“Oh, were you?” Louis said, still swaying, still pulling on Alex’s neck.

“Yes,” Alex said, “Can you go to bed, now, darling? I’ll only be with Harry a few moments longer.”

“Can’t I stay?” Louis asked, “I can’t sleep. And now I want a cigarette.”

“Sweetheart, please.”

“Just for a few – “

Louis,” Alex snapped, and Harry had to take a step back at his voice.

He was growling again, and for the first time Harry could remember, it was at Louis.

That didn’t happen. That never, ever happened.

Louis’s eyes shifted, the wine-filled haze clearing from them as he dropped his arms from Alex’s neck.

“Don’t fucking growl at me,” Louis snapped back. Alex blinked at him, and then shook his head, his eyes wide like he could barely believe what he had just done.

“I’m sorry,” he said, “I’m so sorry, please, just go inside, I’ll talk to you about this in a second, it’s important – “

“What the hell is wrong with you?” Louis said, his voice rising, “You don’t get to snap at me and tell me to go away. What are you even talking about? Your stupid draft-dodging joke?”

Alex blinked at his fiancé, and then lowered his eyes, his shoulders loosening.

“It’s not a joke,” he murmured, and Louis lifted his brows.

“Not a joke,” he repeated, and then leaned in, his voice firming, “Alex, look at me. What do you mean it’s not a joke?”

Harry stood quickly, then, clearing his throat.

“I’ll go,” he said, “I – you two can talk.”

                     

“No, no,” Louis said, waving his hand in Harry’s direction, “You can stay. We’ll go inside, and then Alex can tell me all about how this isn’t a joke.”

Louis grabbed the other man’s hand, reaching out for the balcony door handle with the other hand.

“Just for a few minutes,” Louis murmured, and Harry wasn’t sure if Louis was talking to Harry, Alex, or himself.

They disappeared inside, and Harry leaned back, grabbing the railing of the balcony. He considered slipping back inside and then leaving, abandoning this entire scheme. Surely they had gone into their bedroom to hash this out.

And then the screaming started, right from the other side of the sliding door.

“—fucking reckless, stupid, irresponsible – “ Louis’s voice was high and near-shrieking, in a way Harry had never heard it before, and Alex’s voice trying to rise desperately above it.

“Louis, Louis please – “

“Don’t fucking – “ Louis started, and then there was a shuffling sound, and hard breath, before the omega spoke again, “You cannot leave me, Alex.”

“It will only be a little while.”

“This isn’t one of your business trips!” Louis said, shrieking once more, “You won’t be gone for three days and bring me back a bloody souvenir.”

“It will only be for a while,” Alex repeated, his voice cloying, like he was calming an animal, “Chamberlain is in the midst of peace talks, my love. We’ll be settled and out in two months, I’ll bet.”

“I hate Chamberlain. Why are you bringing up Chamberlain? This is your fault!” Louis shouted.

Heavy breathing, near panting. Shuffling feet. Harry considered climbing down the side of the building.

“You can’t leave me,” Louis said, “I bought my wedding suit.”

“It can wait. You’ll look just as beautiful a few months later.”

“My heat is in another month.”

“We’ll work that out.”

“I’m pregnant.”

“You are not pregnant,” Alex said firmly, and then his voice quieted, nearly so Harry couldn’t hear. He strained to listen, in spite of himself, and then to press a hand high on his chest, under his throat, when he heard it.

Louis was crying. And over it, he could hear Alex’s voice, soft, sweet, and repetitive.

“Omega,” he said softly, “Omega, you’re alright. It’s alright.”

Harry backed away from the door and instead went to sit in the chair that stayed on the balcony, and barely listened to the rest of a conversation he shouldn’t be listening to.

“You’re stupid.”

“I know, my love.”

“We will talk about this.”

“Yes, darling.”

“We will talk only because you want to. You can’t go.”

“I – “ Alex murmured, “We’ll talk about this.”

Before Louis could say anything else, the sliding door was being pulled back, and Alex stuck his head out, his gaze finding Harry’s quickly.

“Why don’t you head out,” he said softly, “I’ll ring you in the morning, maybe.”

“Maybe,” Harry returned. He stood up so quickly he nearly wobbled and went to the door, “Thanks for dinner. And, um, thanks for dinner, yeah.”

“You’re welcome,” Alex said, and let his brother slip past inside, “Louis, Harry is going, say goodnight.”

Harry glanced over at Louis soon enough to see him leveling a truly terrifying glare at his alpha, and he didn’t even look over at Harry before he said, “Good night” crisply. He tugged his dressing gown tightly around himself, then turned, disappearing back down the hall in a flurry of pale blue silk.

“Please don’t ring me tomorrow,” Harry got out, “Just – work this out. I’ll see you later.”

He covered his hand with his face and shook his head as he walked quickly to the door, gathering his coat as quickly as he could. He could hear Alex behind him, but he moved quickly, slipping out the door and into the hallway. To the stairway. Down. Lobby. Out into the hot air.

He shouldn’t have come, he thought as he pulled on his jacket, He shouldn’t have accepted this invitation.

He wished he had never heard this idea, he thought as he turned up his collar against the humid wind.

But it didn’t matter. Because now he was going to forget about it all.

*******

It was a beautiful Tuesday, and Harry had opened the windows in his classroom and rolled his shirtsleeves up because it was so hot. The students were listless, sweating and glancing at the beautiful weather outside, and sprung up particularly fast when the bell rang. Harry just smiled and let them, and took his normal line of students waiting for his attention.

He had filed his leave of absence at the headmaster’s office yesterday. His last day at school would be the day before he left, and he didn’t know if the same job would be there when and if he got back. The students didn’t know; he would tell them later. Much later. At the last possible second, so he didn’t double think things. Foolish things like something proposed after dinner and drinks and cigarettes.

Harry had to prop his hands behind his head and shake his head free of his thoughts at the last student came forward with his workbook.

“Hi, Maple,” he smiled, “What can I do for you today?”

Maple smiled at him, big, uneven front teeth flashing as her lips nervously parted.

“Mr. Styles, I’m really sorry my tests haven’t been good lately,” Maple started, “I just can’t – um, I can’t focus.”

“That’s alright, love,” Harry nodded. He had heard from another teacher than Maple’s father had left her mother, and she was currently moving out of her childhood home to an unmated flat across town. He could understand if her grades were slipping, bright as she was.

“I just think I need things said twice now,” she said with a shake of her head, “Like, I can’t understand them the first time anymore.”

“I understand completely,” Harry said, “Math isn’t easy to understand the first time. The only reason it’s so easy for me is because every time I do a problem it’s my five-thousandth time.”

That made the girl smile a bit, and Harry reached out for a pad on his desk to write out an appointment for the next day.

 “How about you come talk to me during my free period tomorrow? We can eat our lunch outside tomorrow, too, if you like. Might as well enjoy the sunshine while we still have it.”

“That would be wonderful,” Maple nodded, smiling, “Thank you, Mr. Styles.”

“Of course, that’s why I’m here,” Harry smiled. He ripped off the piece of paper and then handed it to her with a smile, “Anything else?”

“No, no, I’m alright,” Maple shook her head quickly, ducking her eyes down.

Damn it, why did all these kids have to break his heart and make it so hard for him to leave.

“Well, I’m here if you ever need me, for algebra or anything else,” Harry said, “Here, I’ll walk you out.”

Harry stood up from his desk, the same as he always did, but in an instant he knew the movement was too fast. He felt a sharp zip of pain go through his hips and his back, making him wince and grab his desk. He gripped onto the bottom of his spine, his hand wrinkling the fabric of his work shirt.

“Mr. Styles?” Maple said immediately, “Are you alright?”

Harry looked up, meeting her frightened eyes, and nodded.

“I’m fine, love,” Harry smiled weakly, “My hips are a bit bad. But that shouldn’t surprise you, I’m ancient.”

He was still smiling, but she wasn’t, and Harry eventually sighed and looked away.

“Don’t worry about an old man like me, alright? Just worry about doing your work and being on time for our meeting tomorrow.”

“Okay, then,” she nodded, “Um, I hope you feel better.”

“Thank you,” Harry said.

He walked her to the door, as he had promised, and watched her leave and head down the hall. Once he closed the door, his hips protested once more, and he gasped weakly and slid down, until he was on his knees, on the cold tile of his classroom, his forehead shoved into the door. His hand immediately went to his hip, and he breathed in hard through his mouth.

His hips only bothered him every now and again. Sudden, sharp movements. Long hikes and runs, although he tried to keep up with exercising as much as he could. His hips were uneven and had healed wrong from too many fractures during his childhood, all blamed on clumsiness because he could never admit the real cause out loud.

He had spent the last decade being fine with his body, and its slight brokenness at the hands of something he could not control when he was a child. He could do most things; run and swim and box and walk around parks and neighborhoods and his own flat.

But, a voice in his head said, he could not collapse to the ground gasping for pain in a war and survive very long.

Harry remained on the floor, his head to the cool wood of the door, long after the pain in his hips had subsided. He could stand up and get his briefcase and walk home without much difficult now; maybe a slight twinge in his joints as he went. But it wasn’t the pain in his hips pinning him to the floor.

Harry was fucking scared. He was scared shitless. He had been from the moment the draft letters went out, and he had stayed scared when one arrived on his doorstep. He knew it was coming, but acceptance didn’t take away the fact he was horribly, desperately afraid.

Because he knew he would die. He knew if his hips didn’t give out first his mind would. He would go crazy, he would snap, he would become violent and ugly, or he would cower and die trampled and curled in a ball. Wake up in the worst way or shut down entirely. But he knew he would die, and die a horrible version of himself.

That wasn’t a bad thing, was it? To be afraid of dying?

Yes, it was, he thought as he slowly rose to his feet. It was a bad thing because it made him want to give the fear away. And real soldiers didn’t give the fear away. They leapt at it. They wanted it. Even if they had more to give up.

Harry’s hands shook as he locked up his briefcase and grabbed his jacket from the back of his chair. He made his way to the door of his classroom and out into the empty hall.

He was a coward, he thought as he walked through the echoing tile hall and down to the main office, and cowards die first in war.

He came into the office, and leaned over the sectary’s desk, offering her a small smile.

“Hi, love,” he said. His scrambled brain couldn’t remember if her name was Margaret or Madge, “Can you dial a number for me?”

“Sure thing, Harry,” she said softly. She knew he was leaving, she was the one who had filed the paperwork, “What number should I get for you?”

Harry swallowed tightly and heard himself say the name of the company Alex worked for, watched the sectary’s long pink nails work the dial.

                                                    

Maybe, he though, a part of cowards died before they even went to war.

*******

Harry stood patiently outside the flat complex, not daring to move closer.

He would not go inside tonight, would not knock on the door. He had called and said he would be here at six, and it was a few minutes after that, and he knew a few minutes more wouldn’t hurt.

So he waited. And eventually, the door opened and his brother emerged, his eyes flickering back and forth down the street before he approached Harry fully.

“Hey,” Alex said softly, “What’s going on?”

“Is Louis home?” Harry asked immediately.

“No, it’s…it’s book club night. He won’t be home until 8.”

“I thought so,” Harry nodded, “Can we talk?”

Alex looked at him, and his eyes shifted, his entire face with it. Flickering like moving pictures in a projector, too fast for Harry to even catch the changes before his face was back to how it had just been.

“You want…you want to do it,” Alex said, and Harry just looked at him.

He nodded. He hated himself for doing it.

“I don’t want you to force you to do it,” Harry said, “I know you might have thought about it – “

“I have thought about it,” Alex cut in, “I’ve been thinking about it every day since you left, Jesus. And I’d still be willing to do it.”

Harry just blinked at him, and shook his head.

“But why?”

“Because I worry about you, you raving idiot,” Alex said, “I’m not saying you’re weak or can’t handle it. You’re strong, you’re smart, you could do anything you wanted, include survive over there.”

“But what you said my hips,” Harry cut in, touching the body part as if to make a point, “And my back. You’re right. They bloody acted up today, that’s why -- ”

“It’s not just that,” Alex said, “It’s – well. You got in one fist fight when you were eighteen. You’re not a violent person.”

“And you are?”

“I – I can try to be,” Alex swallowed, “I can shoot a gun if I wanted. I don’t know if – could you? Do you think you could do it?”

“I wouldn’t like it,” Harry admitted, “But. I guess I’m just…I’m scared. I’m fucking scared. Why aren’t you scared?”

“I – Harry, I have a reason to come home,” Alex said, “And I mean, you do, too. You have an entire life to come home to, but I don’t think you realize that. I know I have a mate and a family and a reason to come home. Fuck, do you even realize all you have?”

“I mean. I like my job.”

“But I want you to stay alive long enough to have a family. I know you want that. A really safe, happy life, Haz,” Alex said, “I mean, you haven’t courted anyone since you were nineteen, and I wouldn’t even call that courting – “

“I have my reasons for not doing that,” Harry sighed, “I – I’m figuring things out.”

“Then you should be given the time to figure that out,” Alex insisted, “Please, Harry, let me do this for you. Tell me yes.”

Harry closed his eyes for a moment, and thought. He had tried so hard not to think about this since Friday, but of course he had. For the first sixteen years of his life, Alex was all he had; two scared boys kicking and screaming in the darkness together. He wondered what it would be like, to let him go, to know every day that his brother was willing to die for him. What Alex’s letters would look like, what Harry would write back to him in turn. He kept imagining his brother would be taller when he came home, even though they had been the same height for nine years now. Maybe with a beard. His voice deeper. Making Harry feel smaller once more.

But he also thought about what it would be like to become Alex. Harry would leave his flat where everything he needed was steps away from each other. He would leave his students, his elderly neighbors, the bartender that took his beer orders every few times at the pub down the street. Maybe it wasn’t much, but it was his life. He wouldn’t be Harry anymore. He would go to a different job, go out with different friends, be engaged to a beautiful boy.

Harry had once known everything about his brother. But now he only knew enough to fill in the basics, and it made him ashamed down to his core, especially when Alex was willing to toss everything away for Harry in turn.

Finally, Harry opening his eyes, blinking against the strong yet fading sunlight.

“Louis doesn’t want you to do it,” he finally said.

“No.”

“And you would still go.”

“Louis is the love of my life,” Alex said, “But he doesn’t decide things for me.”

Harry just stared at his brother, who stared back in equal turn.

This was not a conversation he wanted to have a late summer evening with the sky above them still blue. He didn’t know where or when he wanted to have this conversation instead. Never sounded just fine, if it weren’t for that folded draft paper still on Harry’s desk.

“You gotta promise you’ll come back,” Harry said firmly, “This will be temporary. You’ll get early leave. Fuck, pretend to be me and say you knocked someone up on accident and need to go back home – “

“I’ll figure it out,” Alex laughed weakly, “I promise, it won’t be long. Maybe a couple months. Maybe a year.”

“That’s longer than I think you think it is.”

“It’ll go quick. I’ll do my best for come home early.”

Harry nodded, and then his brother held out a hand. He thought he was going for a handshake, but instead he grabbed Harry by the shoulder and pulled him close, into his side.

“Come on,” Alex said, “Let’s go inside.”

“To do what?” Harry asked weakly, his feet already following Alex’s.

“To talk,” Alex said, “We have a lot to talk about.”

*******

Harry came over to Alex and Louis’s flat nearly every night for the next few weeks, but not for dinner anymore. Instead he came over with bread in a brown bag, still hot from the local bakery, or a fresh pack of beer, and he and Alex sat at the kitchen table and talked until it was nearly midnight and Harry had to force himself to go home.

“Hey,” Alex greeted him softly as he opened the front door one night. It was Friday; Harry could stay over later than usual, and he had brought a bag of day-old biscuits from the bakery with him in preparation.

“Hi,” Harry said as he slipped inside, tucking the bag of pastries to his chest as he pressed himself against the hallway wall so that Alex could move past him and latch the door.

“Is Louis still awake?” Harry asked as Alex finished with the door.

“No,” Alex shook his head, “He went to bed about an hour ago, should be fast asleep now.”

Harry nodded. It was the usual answer he got now. When he had first come to talk to Alex, to confirm this was really going to happen, he had stayed too late and as he was leaving had accidentally run straight into Louis just as he was coming through the door, back from his book club. The omega had blankly blinked up at Harry, still wearing his jacket and cradling his big leather handbag in his arms, and then had looked at Alex, crisply said “Alpha” and then two had hurried off down the hall and into their room. Harry had left before he could hear the screaming start.

He barely saw Louis anymore now. A couple times he had seen him in the living room or wandering through the main hallway when he had first arrived, but the omega usually just nodded at Harry and kissed Alex good night and then he was gone.

“Is he okay?” Harry asked once after Louis had plodded down the hall after one soft “Good night, alpha” and barely a glance at Harry.

“He’s accepted it, I think, but most days he’s still upset,” Alex had answered softly, “I try to talk to him as much as I can, but sometimes he doesn’t want to hear it.”

His brother had been quiet, shuffling papers on the table. There was probably more to that statement, but Harry didn’t want to pry.

“I understand, I do,” Alex had said after a moment, “I’ll be gone a while.”

“Are – are you the two of you going to be okay?” Harry asked, and Alex’s eyes had snapped up hard to meet his.

“Louis is my mate,” Alex said firmly, “Of course we’re going to be okay.”

Now, Harry didn’t ask about Louis anymore, and the other man barely came out during his visits. So now, he let Alex tell him that Louis was asleep, even when he could see the light on under their bedroom door.

“Okay,” Harry said, then pulled the bag away from his chest and held it out, “I brought biscuits.”

“Apple cinnamon?” Alex asked as he took the bag, already unrolling the top so he could sniff the contents.

“A few, probably.”

“You’re the best,” Alex smiled, “Okay, let’s go over today’s files.”

Harry followed him to the kitchen table, and he sat down across from Alex as his brother pushed a short stack of papers towards him, all marked with his company’s name at the top. It was another round of client information, accounts that Alex regularly managed, so Harry could know how to handle them and how particular quirks the clients had that he would need to pay attention to. Most of it was straight forward work; send out the petrol and parts to the companies on the days they needed it, keep track of their supplies, call new clients for cold calls a couple times a week. Alex had always been a bit more outgoing, could fit more easily into selling things to strangers, but Harry had a good memory, and he figured as long as he didn’t lose Alex any clients, it would be fine.

“Oh, I almost forgot,” Alex said once he had finished running through the last page of his most recent sales, “Goldwater is going to need a small increase in their petrol supplies to their main facility and all their sister companies. I forgot to bring that stuff but I can show you that tomorrow.”

“Okay, that’s fine,” Harry nodded, sorting together the papers, “Is that it for tonight?”

Alex paused, tapping his fingers on the back of the last stack of papers.

“I mean,” Alex said, “Not quite.”

“Oh?” Harry lifted a brow and reached for the bakery bag, pulling out another day-old biscuit piece, “Have you gotten promoted? Is everything you’ve taught me irrelevant now?”

“No, no,” Alex shook his head, a light smile briefly on his face before it fell away, “There’s something else I should probably tell you about.”

Harry paused, letting his biscuit drop back to the table. He had an idea of where this would go. There were only a few things Alex needed to tell him about before he went, and one in particular they had barely touched.

 “So,” Alex said, “Louis.”

Harry nodded and just looked at Alex, waiting for him to talk. He just looked out to the street below for a while, his eyes a little unfocused, and slowly, he drew back, his eyes snapping back to focus as he looked at Harry.

“So. First things first. You can’t go in our room. Not even to get something. If you want my clothes Louis can get them for you but – that’s our place. You can stay in the guest room, and my – your – army wages will go to paying for your flat so you won’t lose it. You can go back there if you really need to.”

“Okay,” Harry nodded.

“When he’s in heat, you need to stay in your room and only get him water and food. He has my old clothes and – I bought him this thing awhile ago, this toy, that he used once when I had to go on a trip without him. He can use those, he’ll be okay, just make sure he’s okay with everything else,” Alex said, and then swallowed harshly, “You aren’t to touch him. Ever. When you’re in rut, you need to leave, that’s not an option. I love you but if I find out you touched him or hurt him I swear to God I will have your knot on a platter.’

“I’m not going to fuck your fiancé while you’re at war, Alex, good Christ,” Harry sighed.

He wouldn’t. He would never. No matter what kind of fruitless crush he had on Louis.

“Okay,” Alex nodded, running a hand over his face, “Okay, I’m sorry. I know you won’t, I just needed to say it.”

Harry just picked up his abandoned glass of water, forced himself to drink something while Alex’s eyes got that far-off look again.  

“Make sure he has three meals a day,” Alex continued, “Sometimes he forgets so make sure he has all his food. I usually come home for lunch so you can come spend that time with him so he doesn’t get too bored or lonely. He likes bread and honey, and chicken stew, and potatoes. Just any kind of potatoes. And I usually wake up before him and make sure he has a cup of tea when he wakes up.”

He was rambling now, and Harry just let him, so Alex could get out whatever he wanted to say.

“We go to the market on Saturdays, and the park on Sunday. And dinner out once every couple weeks. He likes to get out of the house. And he likes books. If he wants a new one, just buy it for him, I buy him about two new books a week. Actually, if he wants anything, just buy it. He can listen to whatever he wants on the radio, but if he seems upset by the war stuff, try to draw him away from it. And make sure he goes outside, and he sees his friends, and – “

“I’m sure he can take care of himself,” Harry said carefully. It took Alex out of his half-aware state, and slowly, he looked back at Harry and nodded.

“I know,” Alex said, “Just make sure it’s normal for him. As normal as it can be.”

Harry just blinked, and Alex sighed and drew away, looking down at his own glass, the melted ice inside.

“I – remember when we were kids? And that one man who lived next door got his legs blown off in a factory accident?”

Harry knew where Alex was going with this, and he swallowed.

“Yes, I remember.”

“And how we could hear his wife screaming herself to sleep every night for a year afterwards?”

“Yes.”

Alex closed his eyes and twisted his glass in his hands.

“Make sure that doesn’t happen to him,” Alex said, “Please.”

Harry just looked at him, the way Alex’s shoulders were drawn tight, his hands white and red with how tight he was holding the glass.

Harry was a bad, selfish person with a stupid brother and bad hips and bad luck. None of this should’ve happened, but there was static on the radio inside with war coverage in between, and he and Alex had the same face, and air tasted sweet in his lungs and he was afraid.

Finally, he reached over and held the inside of Alex’s arm, and Alex didn’t open his eyes or look up but Harry still spoke.

“I will,” he said, “I’ll take care of him.”

Alex finally nodded, and then slowly let go of his glass and set it on the table, standing up stiffly.

“I’m going to bed,” he said, “Louis is probably still awake. I – shit, sometimes he has trouble sleeping. Will you -- ?”

“I’ll make sure he sleeps,” Harry said, “He’ll be okay, Alex, I promise.”

Alex nodded, and then reached out, setting a hand on Harry’s shoulder. Then he leaned forward, just pressing his nose into Harry’s hair.

“I love you,” Alex said, “You know that, right? And that I’d do anything for you?”

Harry refused to fucking cry. Not here, not now. Instead he reached out and shoved Alex’s shoulder weakly.

“I know, you fucking punk,” he huffed, “Go to bed, go be with your boy.”

Alex huffed weakly, a trace of a laugh in the noise, and then he stood up fully, moving back to the main hallway so he could go to bed.

“Good night, little brother,” Alex said, and Harry didn’t have the energy to laugh.

“Good night, Alex.” 

Harry watched his brother go, watching into the dark hallway and disappearing into the for-once completely dark master bedroom.

Harry didn’t stick around too long. He just left the biscuit bag on the table, shoved the papers Alex had given him into his work bag, and headed out the flat door.

Alex would leave in ten days. He didn’t need to eat up any more of his time.

Any more of theirs.

*******

On the day Alex finally had to leave, Louis dressed up to say goodbye.

Louis stood beside Harry in a pair of shiny shoes and a cashmere sweater that has probably cost Alex an entire paycheck. Harry was holding him loosely by the shoulders, to keep up appearances more than anything, but Louis was restless, bouncing on his toes and only paying attention to Alex as he stood in front of him.

The day printed on Harry’s papers as his mandatory ship out date had never felt entirely real, but it felt even less so now that it was his brother standing in front of him, in a dark green uniform and a felt pack, his hair freshly cut and shaved, Harry’s ID and papers in his back pocket.

They had somehow managed to get everything done. Harry had gotten his uniform and pack in the mail and immediately taken it to Alex’s flat. They had each gotten haircuts under each other’s names, Alex with a military cut and Harry with Alex’s exact regular style. Harry’s closet slowly filled with Alex’s clothes, and his sales were now stamped into Harry’s memory. Harry’s rent was paid for the next month, and would be covered with army stipends until Alex came home and Harry could safely grovel to get his job back.

And he would come home. Alex said it a million times. All of this, the pretending and the act, would end soon. Harry wouldn’t have to worry about what would happen if his brother died under his name. If suddenly his old life wasn’t possible anymore, if he had to just stay Alex for the rest of his life.

Harry really hoped he wouldn’t have to worry, because Alex had never even told him what to do if that happened. What would happen to Alex’s job, his flat, and the quivering omega standing next to Harry on the platform.

“Will you write to me?” Louis asked, and Alex smiled at him, although the action looked near-painful.

“Yes, of course I will,” Alex said softly, “Every day if I can.”

“And you’ll call the house if you can? And come visit me when they give you leave?”

“Of course,” Alex repeated, “You’ll hear from me so often you’ll forget I’m even gone.”

Louis bit his lip, and Harry could’ve sworn he saw his bottom lip quiver before he did so.

Alex clearly seemed to notice, too, because he opened his arms and stepped forward.

“Love, can you come here?”

Louis immediately moved forward, breaking away from Harry’s weak hold on his shoulders and instead surging towards Alex and ticking himself against the alpha’s chest, Alex’s arms closing in to squeeze him.

Harry was a bit worried people would stop, look, and question them as to why Louis was supposedly just getting emotional over his alpha’s brother leaving. But no one seemed to notice; probably because they assumed Louis was just highly sensitive and would cry over anything related to the war, like omegas were supposed to do.

But he eventually pulled away from Alex, and as Alex took Louis’s face in his hands. Harry saw that Louis’s expression had steeled, his mouth hard even when his eyes were wet.

Alex released Louis from his hold for a few moments, and then turned to Harry.

“You’ll take care of him,” he said, not even bothering to make it a question.

“Yes,” Harry said, “As long as you don’t do anything stupid.”

Alex laughed and shook his head, “Well, I’m pretending I’m you, I’ll try to act like it.”

There was a sharp whistle from across the platform, and then Alex frowned, looking at Louis and reaching out to touch his shoulder.

“Be sweet for Harry, my love,” he murmured.

“Is the train leaving?” Louis asked, his voice quaking again. People were pouring onto the locomotive behind them, and steam was starting to pour out from the engines, so he probably knew the answer already.

“Yes, precious,” Alex said, “I’ll write you a letter on the train and mail it as soon as I can. Okay?”

Louis squirmed again, and then lifted his head.

“Alpha,” he whispered so softly harry could barely hear it. He sort of wished he hadn’t heard it.

Alex glanced around them, and then risked pulling Louis tightly to him and kissing the top of his head.

Harry couldn’t quite hear what Alex whispered to Louis as he pulled away. He could maybe hear “darling” and “omega” and “I love you.”

There was a last call warning whistle across the platform, and finally Alex pulled away.

“Go with Harry, sweetheart,” he said, his voice tinged with enough alpha firmness that Louis didn’t protest, just backed away until Harry could loosely hold him again.

Alex clapped Harry on the shoulder, nodding to him in one silent goodbye, and then he was turning and rushing to get on the train with a ticket that had Harry’s name on it, while Harry held his brother’s quivering fiancé by his waist.

********

The car ride home was deathly quiet.

Harry drove Alex’s car with as much confidence as he could, and didn’t dare look over to where Louis was sniffling into his handkerchief in the passenger seat, or even reach out or to touch his shoulder or his hand. He just drove quietly, and then parked the car in their allotted garage when they finally came up on the right street. Harry opened the door on Louis’s side, and then silently walked with the omega back to the flat building. Louis had put his handkerchief away, and walked with his head down, his arms tucked tightly into his sides. He didn’t reach out for Harry or ask him to hold his arm or wrap an arm around his shoulders. There was no one out to pretend for, so Harry just shoved his hands into the pockets of his – his brother’s – trousers and kept up with Louis.

As soon as they had made it up to Alex and Louis’s unit, Harry stayed in the doorway as Louis took off his jumper and his shoes, his shoulders tense and his face turned away from Harry. Harry just watched him, and only spoke when Louis stood up, the silence between them thick and oppressive.

“So, um,” Harry started, the first words he had said in front of Louis in over a week. But before he could get in anything, Louis whirled around, his eyes narrowed.

“I’m angry with you,” Louis said flatly.

“Um,” Harry blinked, “Okay.”

“My alpha is going to get himself killed because of you,” Louis continued. His lips were curled, his voice hard and bristling.

“You don’t know that,” Harry said uselessly.

“He could. And you let him,” Louis said. He stared at Harry a bit longer and then turned, striding down the front hallway.

“I don’t have to listen to you, you know,” Louis said, “I’ll be nice to you if we have to go out. I’ll play along. But when we’re here, in my home, I don’t have to do anything for you.”

Harry swallowed, his throat desert dry.  He had expected Louis to be upset. Crying, maybe, staying in his room, making a nest of Alex’s shirts, blaming his alpha for leaving him. Something Harry could fix with a little iced water and some personal space.

But maybe he hadn’t bothered to imagine what would happen if Louis was angry with him.

“I don’t expect you to,” he eventually got out, and it made Louis scoff.

“Good,” Louis said, finally taking a step back, “Then you can sleep on the couch.”

“Alex said I could stay in the second bedroom,” Harry said, and immediately knew it was a mistake as he watched Louis’s nostrils flare.

“Well Alex isn’t here, in case you forgot, and I don’t want you in there,” Louis snapped, and then lifted his chin and rested a hand on his belly, “That room is for my child someday. I don’t want your smell in there.”

Harry glanced at the living room couch, and then at Louis, and then at his hand.

“Are you – “ he started, and then Louis glanced over at him, glaring, and dropped his hand.

“No,” he said, “I’m not. And I won’t be for a very long time now.”

Louis turned once more, this time striding over to the master bedroom. He paused and ran his hand on the outside frame, the bright sun blazing around his silhouette as he stood there for a moment.

“I’m going to be in here for a while,” Louis said, “You can’t come in.”

“I won’t,” Harry promised.

“I’ll bring you all your clothes later,” Louis said, his voice softening for a brief moment, “And, um, Alex’s work shirts and everything.”

“Okay,” Harry said, “Thank you.”

Louis didn’t look at him. Instead he gripped the doorway frame so hard his hand looked white.

“I’m not cooking for you,” Louis said. His voice was hard again, “Alex said you’re a good cook. Make me something. I’m hungry.”

“I – “ Harry stuttered, and then pressed his lips together and breathed out. He spoke again and tried to make his voice more even. He could cook. That was easy, and he had agreed to do that anyways, “Okay. Sure.”

Louis nodded, and then turned to go back into the room. He had nearly slipped inside until Harry took a step forward, his foot echoing uncomfortable loud on the hardwood. Louis paused, just enough, and Harry called out to him.  

“Louis,” he said, “I – I know you’re angry with me.”

The omega’s back muscles shifted and tightened under his shirt, the tension bristling through his small body.

“Really,” he said drily, “Aren’t you perceptive.”

Harry shook his head and forced himself to speak again.

“But I hope…I hope this can work out.”

Louis’s body was frozen, and Harry expected him to silently close the door and leave Harry alone to cook him a meal.

But then the omega spoke.

“Sure,” he said weakly, “We can work something out.”

He brought up his hand to the door the hinges squeaking as he moved to close it. And then turned slowly, and when he did, the boy Harry had loved distantly and fruitlessly for five years looked at him with icy eyes, all the warmth drained out of the beautiful, warm blue.

“But you are not my alpha, Harry,” Louis said firmly, “And I’m never going to treat you like you are.”