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~

THE TIC-TAC-TOE BOARD

~

“His name is Harry.”

Louis didn’t react. Flinching would have been an admission, would have conveyed guilt. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Steve laughed, wiping down the already-spotless bar. He tilted his head toward the pool table set up in the back of the room. “The guy whose ass you’ve been staring at for the past five minutes straight.”

“Nothing straight about Louis,” Niall chimed in from two seats over. Louis kicked out hard enough so that the stool wobbled tipping Niall to the floor.

“You deserved that,” Steve called, already pouring Niall another beer; the one he’d been drinking now spilled all down the front of his flannel shirt.

“Worth it,” Niall sighed, without bothering to pick himself up.

Louis flipped him off, but then glanced to see if the guy -- Harry, apparently -- had looked over. He hadn't.

He was still bent over the table, his ass popped prettily in the air, the loose fabric of his light-colored linen trousers draping over his curves, hinting and accentuating in all the right places. It was a nice reprieve from the saggy jeans that were commonplace in Bumble Bee Hollow, Montana.

Desperation for information about the man eventually won out over pride. “Who is he?”

“Photographer,” Steve said, the smug smile clear in his voice without Louis even having to see it. “Got into town a few days ago. Up from California.”

“Visiting?”

Harry had straightened after sinking his ball, shifting around the table and smirking at his opponent, an old bear of a man everyone called Gus, though Louis had doubts that was his actual name.

Shadows in the dimly lit bar turned Harry’s wavy-bordering-on-curly hair soft and deep brown. When he ran his hands through it--which seemed to be a nervous habit if watching him for ten minutes was anything to go by--the strands flopped to the side, overlong. The cut suited his face though. And it was a gorgeous one, that face, with a strong, firm jaw, wide-set eyes, sharp cheekbones. His nose was too big, but it kept him from being painfully pretty, made him interesting instead of boringly beautiful.

Louis hated boring. 

The sandy-colored wide-legged trousers Harry wore were pinched around a narrow waist by a thick leather belt. He paired them with a white t-shirt that had a rainbow across the front, and Louis ignored the little flare in his chest that he refused to name as hope at that choice. Lots of people liked rainbows, it didn't necessarily mean anything.

Chunky, stylish glasses finished off the whole Look, which was clearly a look with a capital "L." Not exactly standard apparel in Montana. California made sense.

“He’s cute,” Niall said in a faux-whisper, almost but not quite loud enough to carry to the back.

Steve tsked even as he slid the pint over to Niall. “Did you not learn your lesson, son?”

Niall cackled as he hopped back on his stool. “Please, we haven’t seen Lou struck dumb in ages. Our little world-weary cynic hit by Cupid's arrow. Let me enjoy it."

It was an endless source of entertainment for both Steve and Niall that Louis was a fairly famous poet known for his romanticism, yet in person he was a little jaded about love. It wasn't that he'd had his heart broken, more that he'd never had it touched in the first place. When he'd been growing up he'd been wide-eyed and ready for the head-over-tea-kettle first-sight fireworks kind of relationship. What had come were some one-night stands of various notability, a few lukewarm attempts at feelings, and one long-term thing that had never felt quite right. With his poetry, Louis still channeled that teenage boy who'd read romance novels under his covers instead of porn like the rest of his friends, but real life looked a little different.  

But it wasn’t exactly love on Louis’ mind. Not with the way he could tell Harry was going commando beneath those pants, the fabric turning the view obscene again--this time in the front. He could all but make out the shape and size of the head of Harry's cock where it laid thick against his thigh. Heat flushed Louis' cheeks and he didn't know if he should look away or appreciate the show. 

“Think he’s staying a few months,” Steve circled back to Louis’ question, now both of them ignoring Niall completely. “Said he wants to get a feel for the place.”

Louis nodded once, keeping a close eye on Gus as he huffed and slammed the pool stick to the table. The man was a gentle marshmallow in most circumstances, but he was big and he’d been drinking. There wasn't really a chance he'd do more than intimidate Harry a little, but even that felt wrong to Louis.

Sliding off his seat to the chorus of Niall’s giggles and Steve’s laughter, Louis started toward the back, casual as he could manage. He slid up to the pair just as Harry was shrugging, a dimple popped in his cheek.

“Must have been beginner’s luck,” Harry murmured.

“You hustled me,” Gus grumbled, thick tree trunk arms coming across his chest. “Don’t like being slick-talked.”

At first, Louis almost laughed, because there didn’t seem to be anything slick-talking about Harry. That accusation conjured up images of snake-oil salesmen with shifty eyes and shellacked hair. Harry was... he clearly was not that.

Quirky. That's what Louis would say Harry was, with his rings, and his rainbow shirt, and Warby Parker-esque glasses.

But then. Then Harry flipped on the charm. He patted Gus' arm, batted his eyelashes, offered reassurances about luck and honestly it was my first time with his smile and curls and surprisingly slow, deep voice that turned the words into honey-butter. And Louis knew. Gus had been slick-talked. Straight up hustled.

It didn't even matter, though, because somehow Harry defused the situation anyway, tucking Gus' twenty in between his trousers and his belt as he sent Gus on his way toward the bar.

Left in the aftermath of the charm offensive, Louis started clapping. He couldn’t help it, that had been quite the performance, and Louis appreciated talent.

Harry slowly turned toward him, and Louis got the feeling he’d known he'd had an audience the whole time.

Green. His eyes were green. Louis hadn't been able to tell from across the bar. But up close, there was no mistaking the color of dew-laden grass after a summer thunderstorm. He shook his head. Those kinds of thoughts were usually reserved for his poetry.

“Hiya,” Harry said, his gaze sliding over Louis, and for the first time in a while Louis wished he’d worn something a little tighter. With no one really to impress, Louis had simply tossed on black sweatpants and a tee before coming down to Steve's for a drink. He rocked forward a little to emphasize the hollows beneath his shoulders, thankful at least that he was wearing one of his scoop-y necklines that showed off his collarbones. Harry's eyes darted down, then back to his face.

“How do you feel about some real competition?” Louis asked, tilting his chin toward the pool table.

Harry’s smile deepened. There was something truly magnetic about him. It was like looking into the face of a lighthouse, really, and Louis was drawn to it, a moth to a flame if he were mixing metaphors, which he tried not to do.

But he also had the uncomfortable feeling that this charm was all surface level, all meant to drag in, distract and deflect.

Perhaps that was a snap judgment, one that shouldn't be taken seriously. There was a wall behind the pretty facade, though, one that Louis could see just as easily as the bright glow of charisma. It poked at Louis' curiosity, made him want to prod and dig and find depths beneath the gorgeous face and careless smile. Like Harry's too-wide nostrils, it made him interesting.

“You want to go up against my beginner’s luck?” There was a flirtatious swing to the words, but Louis didn’t take it personally. He had a feeling Harry turned it on for most people.

“I think your pants are on fire, love.” Louis let his gaze linger on said trousers, not so much as to be leering but enough to signal interest. The thing was, Louis wasn’t wearing a rainbow shirt, and they were in the middle of nowhere Montana, and he very much did not want Harry to think he was some homophobic asshole trying to teach him a lesson. Which wasn't out of the realm of possibility, Louis knew despite hating that knowledge. Bumble Bee Hollow was pretty progressive thanks to him and Steve and a few others who actively strove to make it so, but they lived in a deep red state where being openly gay could be dangerous.

Harry gasped, and patted his hips and thighs, fighting imaginary flames, his eyes wide. “Well at least it’s not my assless chaps, that would be quite painful.”

Louis laughed mostly because he thought Harry had gotten Louis' message. There was a pink flush riding along his cheekbones, and he watched Louis under heavy lashes as he went for the rack.

“I’m Louis. By the way.” He managed not to wince outwardly at his own awkwardness, offering up a little wave to cover the fact that he didn't know what to do with his hands.

“Harry.” The dimple was still there, and Louis braced himself, knowing he was about to be hustled. His suspicions were confirmed when Harry peeked up at him, still bent over the table, rolling the balls into formation. “Shall we make it interesting?”

“‘Fraid I left my wallet at home.” Louis shrugged, playing the game, though he wasn't lying. Steve let him keep a pretty much endless tab open. He was good for it.

Satisfaction lit Harry’s face, so that his eyes crinkled at the corners, a hint of a real smile behind the saccharine fake one. It was addicting, to see beyond the mask. Even the smallest bit. Even though this was a stranger, and Louis shouldn’t even care.

“If you win, you can take me on a date,” Harry said, and with that any worry Louis had about not being read as very gay was smashed to bits.

“Oh, that’s my prize?” Louis teased, but kept his tone light. That’s what he wanted, and they both knew it. He picked up his stick, and busied himself rubbing the blue chalk over the tip so that he wouldn’t have to meet Harry’s eyes. “And if you win?”

“I get to take a picture of you,” Harry said, and it was soft, an exhale.

It surprised Louis enough that he looked over at Harry. The man was watching him, stripped of the bright smile, the dimple, the natural glow he seemed to be able to just flip on when he wanted. Stripped of everything but searching eyes, and the shadows that slid into the dips beneath his cheekbones.

The intensity of his stare was gone as soon as Harry realized Louis’ gaze was on him. But the memory of it was seared into Louis’ brain.

In that moment, Harry had all but devoured him.

“Naked?” Louis asked, mostly to lighten the tension that had coiled between them, too heavy, too heavy, too heavy, for some light banter in the back of a bar.

Harry honked out an unattractive laugh, his fist coming up to stifle it. The coarseness of the sound was endearing, though, and fit with the quirky persona just as much as the coquette Harry had been playing since Louis walked over.

Layers. This one had layers.

“I wouldn’t say no,” Harry finally said. “But mostly I want your face.”

“Gotta work on that pick-up line, love,” Louis teased. “A little less serial killer next time.”

Harry wrinkled up his nose as if about to sneeze, but in the end he just shrugged, and proclaimed that he was up first.

He won, because of course he won.

Louis had barely gotten a turn as Harry sunk each of his balls with an effortlessness that was belied each time he tripped maneuvering around the table.

The loss didn't matter, though. The way Harry had set it up--they would get to see each other again no matter the outcome. Louis couldn't quite explain to himself why he cared so much, but it would be stupid to pretend that he didn't. He was intrigued by this man, caught probably just like so many before him in this gilded web of beauty and charm and one off-beat that made the rest of it all the more appealing.

No, the loss didn't matter. But it was fun to play bad sport. He made a show of cursing and huffing and puffing, and something about the way Harry watched him through it all with the smallest smile, one that didn’t even pop out those dimples but seemed far more genuine than anything Louis had seen yet, made him think Harry realized it was all a game.

And he was enjoying it.

“I gotta get me some of that beginner’s luck,” Louis joked, ready to pull out his phone, exchange numbers. He liked that he was winning even if he lost.

Harry stepped closer, digging in his own loose pocket. But instead of a cell, he pulled out a pink sharpie, biting the cap off so that the smell of ink slipped into Louis’ nostrils. Beneath it was something softer with spice at the edges. Harry.

Reaching out, Harry snagged Louis’ arm, pulling Louis toward him, so that their shoes almost brushed. Harry was a couple of inches taller than Louis so he had to tip his face up to meet those eyes, the ones that were inscrutable behind lenses.

There was something intimate about breathing each other’s air as they were, rupturing a stranger’s personal space, shifting their bodies so they were slotted together instead of bumping knees and feet.

Harry dropped his eyes to his hand, which was circling Louis’ wrist, and his mouth pressed into a thin, thoughtful line as he brought Louis’ forearm up exposing the back of it to view. “Want some advice?” he all but whispered.

He started drawing on Louis without waiting for an answer.

“Yes,” Louis breathed out, vulnerable for no reason. It was sharpie, it would eventually wear off. But, still, it felt like putting his trust in someone who he didn’t think anyone knew that well. And it had been a long time since he’d done anything like that.

“Be so fast your opponent doesn’t even get a chance to get off the bench.” Harry's lip twitched up a bit as he finished whatever he was drawing with a flourish of his pen.

He looked up and met Louis’ eyes, and then blew softly on the fresh ink, his plush raspberry lips pursed in a tiny “o”, his pupils dilated in the darkness.

Heat pooled in Louis’ groin, and then, like quicksilver, slipped into his bloodstream, turning his breathing shallow, his pulse fast. Louis licked his lips, his face inching closer almost without his permission.

But then Harry was gone, three steps away and then four and then five. The charm was back on, the dimple popped, the mask in place. His hip was canted to the side, his hand resting on the jut of it, as he studied Louis. “7 a.m. tomorrow. I live above the bar, so you can come pick me up here. Take me to your place.”

Louis nodded once, and then Harry was gone.

All that was left was a pink tic-tac-toe drawing on Louis’ forearm, the X-es filled out in a diagonal line.

The O-s hadn’t even had a shot.

~~

THE CAMERA

~~

Harry was leaning on the porch outside Steve’s when Louis pulled up the next morning at 6:50 a.m. on the dot.

There was no denying it, not in the harsh light of day, away from flattering bar ambiance.

Harry was stunning. 

Today he had on loose fitting trousers, though they were black this time so Louis wasn’t privy to an early-morning show of the snake habitat. More was the pity. It had been an impressive sight.

In lieu of a rainbow shirt, Harry had opted for a soft white tee, just transparent enough to reveal ink beneath the fabric, but not enough to actually make out what the designs were. Instead offering just a hint, just enough to pique the curiosity. Like the man himself. Offering up glimpses beneath a well-practiced mask.

The glasses had been ditched for sunnies, bright pink ones that ate up half of Harry’s face. A blue bandana tied around his neck finished off the look. Whatever else Harry was, he wasn’t trying to be subtle. He seemed to be unapologetically himself, which actually took some guts in what probably looked like a backward Montana town. Louis admired the confidence.

“You’re Louis Tomlinson,” Harry said as soon as he climbed in the passenger side of the truck. He arranged his long limbs so that his back was against the door, one leg tucked beneath his other thigh. His camera bag swung against his shoulder.

“Um, guilty.” Louis said, confused, as he nodded toward the coffee cup in the cup holder. “I got you cream and sugar.”

Harry paused at that, seemingly thrown. “Oh. Thanks, that’s fine. Perfect. Thank you.” He was stuttering as if surprised by the kindness. It set Louis on edge.

“Just coffee,” Louis shrugged, pulling back onto the road. His ranch was about a fifteen minute drive out of town.

“Right,” Harry said quietly. But then he snapped back to the huffiness that he'd worn since he'd opened the door. He jammed his sunglasses onto the top of his head and pointed at Louis. "You’re avoiding the subject.”

“Which is?”

“You’re Louis Tomlinson.”

Louis swallowed a small laugh. “We’re going in circles.”

“No, I know you’re Louis,” Harry said waving his hand, clearly worked up about something. There was a flush along his neck, a very pretty pink one that Louis wanted to lick and bite. “The cute surprisingly gay guy from Bumblefuck Montana who hit on me in a bar.”

The way he said the last part finally did make Louis cackle. “Sorry, if that wasn’t up to your standards, love.”

Harry shushed him again. “But I didn’t know you were Louis Tomlinson, famous Instagram poet.”

“Oh.” Yeah, that.

“That’s all you have to say?” Harry’s voice had ramped up to almost normal speed. “Oh?”

“Not what you were expecting?” Louis asked, for lack of anything better. He got that a lot. His poetry was soft, romantic, dreamy. People tended to picture someone more like Harry than him. 

Harry’s gaze turned reserved again as he sunk back behind a considering expression. “No, it’s not that. Just surprised you’re here, I guess.”

Maybe Harry didn’t want to admit he’d stereotyped him, or maybe he was telling the truth. It didn’t really matter. Louis' poetry was something he didn't discuss much. He was proud of it, proud of the way he twisted words, grasped emotions, depicted feelings. People wrote essays on single lines that he'd jotted down on a coffee-stained napkin. His work was his life. But he didn't want to offer it up for Harry's consumption, either. It felt private, it felt like his.

“You’re a photographer?” Louis asked, desperate for a topic change. There was an awkwardness in the air now that hadn’t been there before. It scraped at Louis’ throat, and he wanted it gone, dissipated.

“Hmm,” Harry seemed reluctant to drop the subject. But when Louis glanced at him, he must have seen something in his face. “Yeah. Thought there’d be some good scenery here.”

He said it with enough dryness to get Louis to smile. “You might just get lucky.”

This time when Louis looked over, there was that small smile again, the crinkles by the eyes. It wasn't too bright, no flashing teeth, no dimple. Like he was just quietly happy that he’d amused Louis.

And that was something to think about.

“Are you doing a magazine shoot or …” Louis prodded when Harry didn’t continue.

Harry didn’t answer until Louis turned onto the bumpy dirt road leading out to his ranch. He was watching Louis with that same intensity as he had last night when he hadn’t been aware Louis was watching back.

This time the look didn’t drop when Louis met his eyes.

“I want to make a book,” Harry finally said, the words rushing together, his body closing off where before it had been completely open, his fingers fidgeting with his bandana, with his glasses, with his cup’s lid.

Something squeezed around Louis' heart. It took a minute, but Louis braked to a stop so he could properly focus. This didn't seem like the kind of conversation to be having with his attention split between Harry and the road.

Harry’s brows shot up at the move, his eyes sliding between Louis' face and the gear shift, which Louis had thrown into neutral.

“A book? That's amazing,” Louis said, once he’d turned enough to face Harry. “Is there… Is there a problem with that?”

“No I just… I haven’t told anyone I’m doing it yet,” Harry said, his eyes wide, his voice hesitant. "Why did you stop?"

It was said like an accusation, and Louis' tongue was thick in his mouth. Had it been weird? That he'd stopped? "It seems like this is important to you," he said, with a little shrug, and despite the defensiveness he felt in that moment, there was also a warmth blooming beneath his breastbone. Harry had told him about the book when he hadn't told anyone else.

"It is important," Harry said quietly.

Louis nodded. "Thank you for telling me." He paused. “Is there a reason you haven’t told anyone?”

Chewing on his lip, Harry glanced away. “It’s different than what I usually shoot.”

“Which is?”

Amusement, or something related, but darker, flashed across his face. “Models.”

“And you want to do landscape now?” Louis pressed, grateful, but not sure why Harry was telling him. He guessed that sometimes it was easier to tell strangers secrets than it was to tell people who knew you, who had all their expectations for your behavior already set.

There was still a privilege in being told, though, and Louis tucked it away to pull out later, examine and cup in his hands. Use as inspiration. It had been a while since he'd had anything but teenage daydreaming to fall back on.

“It’s stupid right?” Harry lifted one shoulder. “To shoot pretty flowers and sunsets. It’s not going to make me any money.”

The words were hollow and tinged with a sour edge. They weren’t Harry’s, but someone else’s. Every part of Louis wanted to pry, but he was already crossing boundaries and he didn’t want to go too far.

“That’s not what you want to do,” Louis said. He might not be Harry’s level of photographer, but you couldn’t be an Instagram poet these days with out some skills. “That’s not what shooting landscape is--just taking pretty pictures of sunsets.”

Harry’s eyes were wide, his blinking slow. “No?”

“You’re capturing… you’re capturing emotion,” Louis tried to explain and Harry’s soft inhale made it seem like he was saying the right things. “You’re capturing a moment in time. That moment that only exists for that heartbeat, and then it’s gone. It’s gone. Like it never existed. But you, you show people. That we are here, that we exist, that we lived in that moment that's now disappeared.”

He shifted his gaze out the windshield, to his beloved, ever-changing land. No two seconds were the same, the clouds, they shifted; the birds, they migrated; the mountains, they settled; the sun, it drifted. Every second that bled into the next was different. And someone had made Harry feel bad for wanting to be a part of that.

The click of a shutter shattered the quiet that had descended upon them, and Louis’ eyes snapped back to Harry. He had his camera up and pointed at Louis.

“Got it,” Harry said, quietly.

Louis shook his head. “What?”

Harry reached over, his thumb pressing into Louis’ arm just below the crook of his elbow. The skin burned beneath the touch. “This moment. I wanted it captured.”

~

THE BIRDS

~

It had been three weeks since that morning Louis had first brought Harry out to the ranch. He thought maybe they were friends now. Maybe. Though he still didn’t feel like he understood Harry yet.

There were moments he was bubbly, happy, smile and dimple popping out easily. Then he would get quiet, withdrawn and -- not angry, but not not angry either. In those weeks they’d played pool again, and Harry had won every time. They’d drank wine on Louis’ porch as the sun set, had grabbed breakfast at the diner in town, had gone on a spontaneous antique trip to Helena one Saturday.

Once, Louis had taken Harry out riding on his gentlest mare. They stopped at one of Louis’ favorite spots, an ancient sprawling tree with gnarled roots and witchy branches that stretched into the blue bird open Montana sky. In the background, mountain peaks jutted from the earth, vicious and rugged and powerful, a reminder of how young humans were, how fragile and small.

Harry had toyed with his camera, brought it up to his face several times, but in the end never clicked the shutter. Louis didn’t press him on why. But the question itched at him, just under his skin.

Today it was hot, unseasonable for how far north they were. Louis had driven them out to a little lake on the property and they had taken his bright yellow row boat out to the middle, pulling up the oars and drifting, Harry’s feet in the water, Louis’ hand trailing along the ripples they made.

They weren’t talking, but that wasn’t unusual. Sometimes they talked and talked and talked. Stupid stuff, like childhood pets and what they’d do with three wishes and embarrassing prom stories (where Louis had quite literally had to spill punch down his date’s dress to avoid kissing her).

But sometimes they were quiet. It wasn’t awkward or uncomfortable like every other quiet Louis had experienced in his life. For once, there was no need to fill the space between him and someone else with words and chatter and nothingness. He could just be.

The hour drifted by, the seconds unmarked and unnoticed. Harry hummed a melody that Louis couldn’t quite place, and Louis’ ankle brushed against Harry’s thigh and his back was sticky with sweat, the sun in his eyes, and he thought that this moment was perfect.

It was Harry who broke the hush, his voice soft as if he were in church. Perhaps the reverence was deserved considering their surroundings. “Do you ever want to be a bird?”

“Mmm is this a reference to the Notebook,” Louis poked Harry’s leg with his toe. “If you’re a bird, I’m a bird.”

Harry giggled, all windchimes, bright and happy and pure. “You know your rom-coms, I’m impressed.”

“What do you take me for, an amateur romantic?”

Straightening up, Harry shifted so that he could look at Louis. “I forget sometimes. That you're ... you.”

Louis grinned at him from where he was still sprawled against the bottom of the boat, his head resting against the extra life-preservers he kept stowed there. “S’okay.”

Those lips that Louis thought about far too often tugged downward. “It’s not. You’re very romantic.” He paused. Looked away. That uneasiness he sometimes wore settling into his shoulders. When he turned back to Louis, there was a question in the slope of his well-manicured brows. “Why haven’t you kissed me yet?”

So, there was that. Louis shifted so that he was sitting up as well, his forearms braced on his thighs. He hadn’t made a move yet, and he wasn’t sure why. He thought they were friends, but even that felt tenuous, like it could all just shatter.

Maybe it had something to do with the way Harry hadn’t taken a picture at that spot that begged to be captured on film. There was a fragility beneath this boy’s charm, and Louis wanted to be careful with it.

“Why do you want to be a bird?” Louis asked instead of answering the hard question. He never denied he was a little bit of a coward.

Harry’s bottom lip pressed out in a pout so obvious it was almost a caricature of itself. “If you don’t want to kiss me, you can just say so.”

“Don't be deliberately obtuse, Harold. In what world do you think I don’t want to kiss you?” Louis asked, deciding for blunt honesty. They’d never really played coy with each other, not beyond flirting for flirting’s sake that first night.

Pleasure lit Harry’s eyes, the light green of them made even more clear with the natural light, the gold flecks near the iris as intriguing as all the secrets Harry hid. “Then?”

“My question first,” Louis pressed, and Harry sighed, loud and dramatic, but that was part of him, too, Louis was coming to realize. The coquette, the diva, the boy with the painted manicured nails and the glittery eyeshadow. They were as much a a part of him as his odd loose-legged trousers-and-vans combo he wore on the regular. It wasn’t all a mask, as Louis had first thought, but rather a piece of the puzzle.

Despite his protestations, Harry eventually leaned back, his elbows on the seat, his legs, clad in short cut-off jeans, kicked out in front of him. Their ankles tangled together, a point of contact.

“It’s the freedom, isn’t it?” Harry finally said, wistfulness laced into each word, his head tipped up toward the sun, toward the sky, really.

There was a tug in Louis’ belly, in his chest. For this man. And it was too late to do anything about it. “Freedom, love?”

He remembered that first morning he’d stopped the truck on the road up to his ranch, and Harry had been so small, curled up in the corner of the passenger seat, spitting out empty, rancid words about how worthless his photography was going to be. And now this.

“My family’s rich,” Harry said, not looking at Louis. It was dropped with a kind of inevitability, as if he thought Louis would react. But he personally didn’t find it very noteworthy.

“So am I, love,” Louis said gently.

“No,” Harry peered at him beneath his lashes. “Stupid, disgusting rich. Like, my behavior is a reflection on them in society kind of rich.”

Louis wrinkled his nose. “Is that still a thing that happens?”

Harry laughed, but it wasn’t warm. “Very much. I’m a constant disappointment to them.”

“You’re a successful photographer,” Louis countered, trying to imagine a world where anyone could be disappointed in Harry.

His lips twisted, as if swallowing something bitter. “A hobby.”

“That’s them talking. Not you.”

Harry met his eyes across the small space between them. “I can’t even…”

When Harry didn’t continue, Louis pressed softly. “Can’t even?”

“I haven’t taken any pictures yet,” Harry admitted. “Only that one of you.”

“I am quite the stunning subject,” Louis teased, a small victory in the way the corner of Harry’s mouth quirked up. “You’ll find it, love.”

“Find what?”

“Yourself,” Louis said, keeping his voice easy. “There are no expectations out here. Just you.”

There was a beat where Louis thought he’d said the wrong thing, but then Harry grinned, full out, lots of white teeth and dimples and rosy cheeks. “Can I be a bird, then?”

“If you’re a bird, I’m a bird,” Louis said, and reached out, catching Harry’s wrist, tugging him closer. He pulled hard enough so that they both ended up laid out on the bottom of the boat. Louis shifted so that Harry was beneath him, his head cushioned by those life preservers.

Harry stared up at him, his eyes wide and rimmed by dark lashes, his skin sun-warmed and pink, his mouth parted and lucious. Louis pressed a thumb to his bottom lip and Harry darted out his tongue to kitten-lick at the pad of it.

Their hips were flush, their legs intertwined; the silence of the lake wrapped them in privacy, and the world narrowed down to this, only this.

“I knew if I started kissing you, I’d never want to stop,” Louis said, finally answering Harry’s question. He nosed along the Harry’s jawline, the slight stubble of an almost-five-o’clock shadow brushing against his cheek.

“Ah, there’s the sappy romantic,” Harry said, but there was a breathlessness to the accusation that Louis loved. “What if I don’t want you to ever stop?”

“That’s a dangerous taunt, love,” Louis said his mouth a breath away from Harry’s. It was too fast, too soon, what they were saying to each other. But that didn't make it any less real.

Harry canted his hips upward, and they both groaned at the pressure, the contact, the intimacy. His fingers threaded into Louis’ hair, not pulling him closer, but just another place they were connected, touching. “A promise.”

“What?” Louis whispered.

Turning his face just a bit, Harry pressed his lips to Louis’ arm, just above his wrist, his breath hot against Louis’ skin that must taste like salt and lake.

“Not a taunt, a promise,” Harry said, though he couldn’t mean it. Couldn’t yet. They were strangers, had known each other three weeks, lived in different worlds.

And yet. “A promise,” Louis said, his lips against Harry’s, and they both breathed deep, the enormity of the moment dissipating with the sheer pleasure of mouth against mouth, tongue against tongue, twisting hips and desperate fingers.

If you’re a bird, I’m a bird, Louis thought again, the memory of Harry’s lips against his skin burning as deep and as permanent as ink.

~~

THE STAG, THE PAC-MAN, THE PAPER AIRPLANE

~~

There were other moments that sunk deep into Louis so that they were marked on his soul for life no matter what came after. No matter if Harry left, that was.

There were some little ones. Like when he and Harry had both gotten stupid drunk at Steve’s and set up a Pac-Man tournament for the entire bar. It had come down to the two of them. In the last round, Harry had inexplicably stripped to tiny boxer-briefs, won, and then took a victory lap as Steve blasted We Are The Champions over the crackly sound system.

Louis had been laughing so hard he’d had tears in his eyes, but he’d managed to put on a straight face as Harry had jogged up to him, arms raised in the air, shit-eating grin on his face, legs out, tits out, abs out, looking smug as hell.

“You know you could be a gracious winner,” Louis grumbled, arms over his chest.

“Yeah, that’s not for me,” Harry said, gyrating around Louis in some kind of touchdown-like celebration as Niall and a few other customers cheered him on. It was stupid and ridiculous and hot and it showed that Harry could fit into life up here. And that was a dangerous thought.

There was the time that Harry tried out Louis’ typewriter. It shouldn’t have been a big deal but it was. The typewriter was what had gotten Louis started with his poetry, it was what had led to him having the life he did, being able to put words into the world, to have them consumed.

Harry had sat behind it with a caution that Louis appreciated. It meant he felt the weight of the moment, the importance. Louis didn’t tell him that he hadn’t let anyone else touch the machine, but he thought Harry might know anyway.

“Can I?” Harry asked, his fingers gentle against the old keys. Louis, lounging in the doorway, his hands shoved in his pockets, nodded once. The breath had caught in his throat so that he couldn’t speak even if he’d wanted to. It was just that Harry looked so right. There. Invading his space, his favorite place.

The light streamed in the window, bringing out the gold in his chocolate waves. His hair was even longer now, falling around his ears, held back more often than not by a butterfly clip or a ragged bandana. But today it was down, and it hid his beautiful face as he bent over the desk.

Louis’ chest was tight, and he rubbed at his sternum. This stupid, gorgeous, quirky boy.

Finally, Harry seemed satisfied with whatever he’d written, and he pulled the paper gently from the typewriter. Then he carefully folded it into a paper airplane. Louis watched on, amusement and curiosity warring it out.

He caught the message that Harry lobbed gently toward him, smushing the paper against his chest.

It was simple, three words and some smudged ink.

I like you.

Louis swallowed hard against the onslaught of gentle pleasure that flooded his body, and looked up to find Harry watching him closely, the intensity on his face easing when he met Louis’ eyes.

“I like you, too” Louis managed to get out, an understatement if he’d ever uttered one.

But one of the more memorable moments was the stag. It had been two weeks after the lake and Harry still hadn’t taken any photos yet, despite always bringing his camera with them when they went out on Louis’ land.

It was morning, so early that there was dew still in the air, a mist settling along the dips and curves of the earth. Harry had shown up on Louis’ porch before the sky had even lightened to blue from the deep black of night.

There wasn’t a purpose to the drive out to the woods about 15 minutes from Louis’ house, other than a vague idea to see the sunrise. Louis had packed blueberry muffins and Harry had brought the coffee in a giant pink and gold sparkly thermos.

Louis parked just beyond one of the gates that had been built by the previous owner of the estate to control wildstock. Instead of bothering with the rusty hinges, he slung his bags over his shoulder and then climbed so that he was straddling the top rung. When he got there, he held out a hand to Harry, who took it eagerly.

Harry was slightly less graceful in his scramble over the gate, but he eventually made it to the otherside in one piece. Hopping to the ground next to him, Louis laced their fingers together and tugged. Wildflowers had taken over the pasture, bluebells and dandelions tickling at their ankles as they trudged toward the trees.

Today was a chatty day for Harry. But the melody of his voice slipped into the spaces of quiet, like birdsong, enhancing the hush of the morning instead of breaking it. He talked about his favorite writer, his favorite world-famous artist, but also a little lady down at the market in his neighborhood who sold homemade quilts, and the homeless man on the corner of his block who offered his poetry on CDs for $10 a pop.

They didn’t stop until they got to a meadow Louis had discovered a few months back. The rain in recent days had turned it a lush green oasis in the middle of ashy oak trees. A sanctuary despite the fact that they were already in paradise.

The sentence Harry had started died mid-thought, his mouth left open, as he took in the scene. Louis rubbed his thumb over Harry’s knuckles, that now-familiar rush of fondness pressing against his chest. He loved that Harry appreciated his world, he loved that maybe it was enough to keep him in Montana.

He loved…

“Beautiful, Lou,” Harry finally murmured, and he was staring at the pinkening sky above their heads. Louis realized they wouldn’t be able to see the sun climb over the horizon this way, but he thought maybe it would still be worth it.

Spreading the thick woolen blanket out on the still-damp ground, Louis tugged Harry down with him. Louis spread his legs out in front of him, leaning back on his hands, and Harry settled himself against Louis’ side, his back against part of Louis' chest, against his shoulder.

The warm weight of him was welcome.

It was as they sat and experienced the world waking up around them, that the stag appeared. There was a tentative rustle, a snort, and then he stepped out from the protective shadow of the trees, powerful and serene, his muscles quivering beneath his coat as he walked. He eyed them, and Louis’ breath caught in his windpipe, ready to shift so that his body covered Harry’s if needed. But the stag simply lowered his head to sniff at the grass, the sunlight sliding over his body as he did.

Very slowly, Harry raised the camera he’d been fiddling with in his lap, brought it to his eye, focused. Louis could feel how Harry's chest had stilled, the rise and fall of minutes earlier gone.

Then a click, the shutter closing, opening. No matter how quiet, it caught the attention of the stag, whose eyes snapped to them, a little wild, before taking off into the woods.

“Oh shit, sorry,” Harry said, his words stumbling as he sucked in air.

Louis laughed out loud, pushing him away a little so that he could look in his face. “Are you fucking kidding me? Haz you took a photo.” He pulled Harry into a tight hug, burying his face in the side of his neck as he did. “I’m so fucking happy for you.”

When Harry joined in laughing, it was so tinged with relief Louis could cry with it.

“Kiss me, kiss me,” Harry begged his mouth already on Louis’ jaw, on his collarbone. The desperation was one Louis recognized, both of them chasing the high of endorphins that were starting to flood their bodies.

Louis grabbed Harry's chin to get him to focus and then bent to nibble at Harry’s lips, slip his tongue inside the velvety welcoming heat. Little whimpers escaped the back of Harry’s throat, and that was enough to have Louis pressing him back into the blanket, shifting the camera gently aside.

Harry’s fingers dug into the flannel of Louis’ shirt, the pressure point of his nails intense enough that Louis could feel them along his back.

“Fuck me,” Harry whispered into Louis’ mouth, barely pulling back enough to utter the words.

“Shit, I don’t have…” Louis’ mind was almost blank with need, with want, with lust. But he knew they needed things. Even in his mindlessness he knew that.

“S’okay we can just…” Harry was going for his belt, his fingers clumsy. Louis didn’t want to pull back from where their groins had pressed together, but he quickly realized ridding himself of the barriers between them was worth the loss of friction.

He batted Harry’s hands away, earning himself a pout from the gorgeous man sprawled on the ground. Louis paused, sitting back on his heels. The early morning light turned Harry’s porcelain skin rosy, and arousal did the rest of the work so that his neck, his cheekbones were flushed pink. His hair was mused, a few curls resting against his temples. He was watching Louis with hungry, greedy eyes, his lids half-lowered, his pupils blown, his breathing fast as he chewed on his bottom lip.

“Christ,” Louis said, mostly to himself, but he knew Harry had heard him because the dimple slipped out. His little minx. “What do you want, baby?”

“You,” Harry rasped as Louis shimmied out of his jeans and then yanked his shirt off. “Whatever, just you.”

They made quick work of Harry’s soft track pants and tee-shirt, leaving him naked on the ground, confident and pink and lovely, his puffy nipples beaded both from the chill in the air and arousal, his belly quivering with each intake of breath, dark, coarse hair trailing down to nest around the root of his long, thick cock.

His legs had fallen open so that he was on display for Louis. A nymph seducing his lover simply by offering up his own beauty.

To stop himself from coming on the spot, Louis grabbed the base of his own throbbing erection, and closed his eyes for a heartbeat. Enough to gather his control around him. He was no longer a teenager, but Harry was making him feel like one.

“Lou,” Harry finally murmured, uncurling his fingers from where they’d clutched the blanket to reach for him.

It was all Louis needed. He fell to the ground, his chest pressed against Harry’s, his mouth on the delicate skin beneath his jaw, his arms supporting most of his weight.

“Okay, baby,” Louis said, his tongue slipping into the shell of Harry’s ear before dipping down to tug gently at his lobe. Harry’s entire body shuddered as the sensitive nerves were stimulated.

His hips were wild beneath Louis, clearly searching for friction for the cock that was pressed into Louis’ pelvic bone.

Louis reached down between them, rubbing his palm over the head of his own dick to smooth the glide, then took them both in hand.

Harry moaned, his mouth going slack. They were breathing each other’s air more than kissing at this point, but Louis couldn’t help but lick in, touching their tongues together, the intimacy of it too much to pass up.

By the time Louis' strokes sped up enough to be getting them off with intent, Harry had wrapped a leg around the back of Louis’ thigh, using it as leverage to hump into Louis’ hand.

“Okay, okay, okay,” Louis tried to calm him down a little, but seeing as Louis himself was barely coherent, so turned on by the hot silken steel pressing against his cock, arousal sizzling in his bloodstream as Harry threw his head back, lust-frantic beneath him, it seemed pointless to try to draw this out.

He let his hand twist, brushing his nail on the underside of Harry’s cock right against the nerves there, hard enough that a snap of pain had probably mixed with pleasure. It was all Harry needed. He tensed, his face going taut, his thighs trembling and flexing against Louis’ legs, and then he came stripping his belly and Louis’ hand with come.

Louis worked him through the aftershocks until Harry’s body went pliant, orgasm-dopey. He blinked up at Louis, slow and unfocused, a happy, tired smile at the corners of his lips.

Lethargically, Harry lifted his hand until his palm pressed into Louis’ chest, and then he placed his other above his own heart. “I feel your heart. In my heart.”

Gasping, Louis tugged hard at his cock, the heat coiling in his groin, his balls tight, his ass clenching. He came on Harry’s belly, joining the mess already there. There was nothing he could do to avoid crushing Harry as he collapsed on top of him, his pulse fast for more reasons than his orgasm.

Harry didn’t complain just held Louis tighter, his lips touching against the sweat-slicked skin of Louis' arm. “I feel it in my heart,” he whispered again.

~~

THE QUOTE MARKS

~~

The problem was that neither of them talked about Harry leaving. He fit so well in Montana that Louis forgot this wasn’t Harry’s life, too.

“I’m supposed to go home in a month,” Harry said one night out of nowhere. It was fall, months after Harry had arrived, the trees turing golden and red and purple.

The two of them were cooking dinner together, Harry at the stove, Louis at the island chopping veggies. It was taco night. They always went all out at least once a week, with guac and homemade salsa and margaritas.

Louis paused, his eyes on the peppers he was slicing. “Alright.”

“That’s all? Alright?”

Anger turned the words sharp, and when Louis looked up Harry had moved the pan off the stove so that it wouldn’t burn. That meant a conversation was in store. Perhaps a fight.

Setting down his knife, Louis straightened. “Are you leaving?”

“What do you think going home means?” Harry had crossed his arms over his chest, defensive, his shoulders curling into himself.

“Visiting,” Louis shrugged, refusing to get upset yet. In the back of his mind he’d known there was an expiration date on this.

But Harry was shaking his head. “I told everyone I’d be back in September. At the latest.”

“Back in California,” Louis said, and it wasn’t a question. His stomach clenched, a tight, white-knuckled fist.

“My life’s there, Lou,” Harry said, but there was something beneath the words. Louis couldn't catch it, though, beyond the own buzzing in his head.

“Okay,” he said, numb almost. Reeling.

Harry was blinking too fast, and Louis was trying to process the fact that there were tears in his eyes, even as he tried to hold back his own. “Say something other than okay, Lou.”

“I don’t…” No words. For someone whose life was words, he suddenly had none. Montana, Lou, this. It wasn’t Harry’s life. They’d only known each other a few months, there was no way he could ask Harry to move here for him.

There was no reason Louis couldn’t move to California, though. No reason other than his love of his land, of his wide open spaces, of his privacy, of the creativity that seemed to spark in the very air he breathed up here. He would do it for Harry, though.

But even if he could leave Montana, that didn’t mean Harry would want him to.

For the first time since he’d known Harry, the silence between them was tense, terrible, awkward, unfilled by all the words they wanted the other to say.

~~

IT IS WHAT IT IS

~~

The night before Harry was scheduled to leave, Louis couldn’t stop touching him, clinging to him, desperate to memorize Harry’s shape with his fingertips.

They had a goodbye party at Steve’s, but neither of them got more than tipsy. They had plans for later.

Harry was dressed in those sandy wide-legged trousers of the first night, and somehow that made everything worse, almost as if he was a stranger once more, one who had a cute ass, one who Louis had thought might be a fun summer fling.

His hair was longer now, held back by a delicate purple scarf weaved into the curls. A strand or two fell against his cheek as he leaned in to talk to Niall.

“... it is what it is,” Harry said quietly just as Louis walked up behind him, slipping his arm around Harry’s waist.

“What is, love?” Louis asked, grabbing his beer back from Harry. Harry stared at the floor, blushing, probably surprised at Louis’ quick return, so Louis turned to Niall to get looped into the conversation.

He found Niall watching him with something that looked like pity and anger. His friend slapped him on the shoulder, too hard, and then walked away.

“What was that?” Louis asked.

Harry was chewing on his lip when he looked up, but when he met Louis’ eyes he smiled wide. It was that stranger’s smile from the first night. Appropriate.

“Nothing,” Harry waved the question away, but he was looking toward the bar, avoiding Louis’ probing gaze.

Louis let it drop because he didn’t want a fight on their last night. But he kept his hands on Harry most of the rest of their time at Steve’s, grounding himself. He felt like if he let go, they would both become untethered.

When they fell into Louis’ bed hours later, they were both desperate, tearing at clothes, nails digging into skin. There was an ache inside Louis, one that hurt so much every time he breathed he thought it might consume him.

He knew what he needed.

“Fuck me, Haz,” he said. Harry stilled above him. They’d never had Louis bottom before, through mutual preference. Though Louis had never been opposed, he’d always taken his cues from Harry.

But he needed it, he needed to feel Harry in him, needed that reminder with a ferocity he knew he couldn’t deny.

“Yes,” Harry breathed out.

Harry reached over with fumbling hands for the light switch. “Wanna see.”

Louis nodded, incoherently, and then resumed stroking his hands along Harry’s sides, his hips, his thighs, branding each into his memory.

“Turn over?” Harry directed, gentle and sweet like he always was, but with a bit of steel beneath his voice as he nudged Louis. Heat coursed through Louis' bloodstream.

Grabbing a pillow to shove beneath his groin, Louis went easily, no fight in his body. Harry helped position him, so that he was kneeling, his weight on his shins, his thighs pressed to his calves, his ass in the air.

It was so vulnerable, completely open as he was, his hips high enough that Harry would be able to see his hole, his balls, the hint of his cock. Every intimate part of him on display. It felt appropriate though, as his soul was just as exposed, out for Harry to do with what he pleased.

Harry made a small sound behind him, a groan, a plea, a prayer. All three maybe, and Louis smirked into the pillow, not too far gone not to appreciate appreciation of what he knew was one of his finest assets.

The smugness disappeared with the first touch of Harry’s tongue against his rim. Louis had eaten Harry out, but they’d never gotten around to him returning the favor. He cursed himself now, because Harry was divine at it, his mouth sucking on the tight ring of muscle, his teeth scraping against the sensitive skin. His hand cupped Louis’ balls, his thumb pressing against his perineum in a smooth circular massage.

Best of all, though, were the sounds he was making, greedy, hungry, wild sounds as if this was heaven for him, as if Louis was giving him everything he’d ever wanted.

When Louis felt his hips humping down against the pillow, mindless and in search of relief, he reached back to tug on Harry’s hair in warning. “Haz.”

It earned him a filthy moan as Harry’s tongue probed even deeper into Louis’ warmth. He finally pulled back, but not before leaning in to press a dirty open-mouthed kiss to Louis’ hole, and then one chaste one to finish off the rim job.

“Fuck I could do that for hours,” Harry murmured, holding Louis’ cheeks apart, no doubt staring at his red-flushed hole, Harry's work. Louis' face was on fire, and he stopped the words “next time, love” from slipping out, but just barely.

“Please, Haz,” Louis said, because that’s all he could get out that wasn’t stay, i love you, be with me, pick me.

There was the sound of the lube bottle and then a wet, slick finger slipping into his ass. It was tight, still, despite Harry’s tongue. It had been years since Louis had bottomed, but the burn was exactly what he wanted.

“Not too much prep,” Louis slurred out as Harry fucked him with his finger, sliding the pad of it around Louis’ inner walls, in search of his prostate.

“But…” Harry had a big cock. That’s what Harry was going to say without being annoying about it.

“Want to feel you,” Louis mumbled into the pillow, his cheeks so, so hot.

A pause followed, but Harry’s finger didn’t stop moving and Louis canted his hips back with each retreat.

“Okay,” Harry finally agreed, and then there was more lube, wet palm on skin. “Here, here.”

The tip of Harry’s cock pressed against Louis, and Louis breathed out and pushed down, drawing him in. Harry sunk so fucking slowly into him until he bottomed out, his hips flush with Louis’ cheeks.

Harry was breathing through his teeth, Louis could hear in some distant part of his mind. But most of it was concentrated on big, full, pain, love, together. Everything in his mind was slow and sluggish and full, god he was so full.

There was a big hand on his lower back, stroking down to cup his ass, to pet at his thighs. “So pretty, so perfect, so gorgeous,” Harry was murmuring and Louis thought he might have been chanting the endearments for the past few minutes.

“Move,” Louis got out. Harry’s hips stuttered at the command, but he didn’t check if Louis was sure.

The burn faded to mostly pleasure, especially when Harry hit his prostate at the right angle, but all that was a bonus. What Louis cared about was that Harry was in him, as close as he ever let anyone get.

“Harry, wait,” Louis managed to get out, reaching his hand back to slap at Harry’s thigh. Harry froze immediately, probably worried he’d done something to hurt Louis. He rushed to reassure him. “Want to. See your face.”

“Yeah, yes, yeah,” Harry breathed and then pulled out. Louis winced at the loss, so, so sad for a heartbeat until Harry’s hands were back on him, shifting him so that he was laid out, spread wide.

“Hi,” Harry whispered as he leaned over Louis, pressing kisses into Louis’ cheekbones, his eyelids, his jaw.

Louis threaded fingers through Harry’s hair, reveling in the weight of Harry’s body against his. “Hi, baby.”

Harry smiled so that his eyes crinkled with it, and then reached down to hitch Louis thigh up, throwing his leg over Harry’s shoulder. Once again he was so open for Harry, so vulnerable. Harry lined himself up and this time when he sunk inside to bottom out, their eyes were locked.

Louis didn’t even try to stop the tears that gathered in his, that slipped out the corners. Harry didn’t pretend not to see them, his lips catching them as they fell.

The orgasm that built in Louis’ groin was slow and syrupy, and when the tension released it wasn’t fireworks, but rather waves of pleasure that were golden and pink like the sky in the meadow that one time.

I feel your heart. In my heart.

The inner fluttering of Louis’ muscles sent Harry over the edge, his hips bordering on painful as they ground against Louis' ass.

I love you, Louis wanted to say as Harry shifted to collapse on the bed next to him. He pressed the words into Harry’s skin instead, wanting to leave an indelible mark on him, but knowing it would be gone as soon as his lips lifted.

~~

THE COMPASS

~~


It was January when the invitation arrived. The pain of missing Harry no longer felt vicious and throbbing. It was still there, an ache with each inhale. But he could get out of bed, which had been an improvement on the first week.

The email invite, though, ripped open the scab, gnawed at it with jagged teeth, until Louis was bleeding, stock still in his study where Harry had once carefully bent over Louis' beloved typewriter.

Once he could read again, the words in the invitation started making sense. It was for a showing of Harry’s photography.

Pride welled up in his chest, because as much as Louis hurt with missing Harry, he would never not be proud of him. Never. Not when he could still hear every hesitation in Harry's voice when he talked about his plans, about his craft, about his art.

Louis RSVP’d “yes” without even the smallest hint of hesitation.

The event was in California, but it was easy to catch a plane a few days later. Money wasn’t really an object for him. But the small delay from receiving the invite and getting on board had let the nerves fester.

There had been no private message to accompany the email, no “please come” or even a careless “hope to see you there.” Just the details, the same ones everyone else had gotten.

What did that mean? Surely Harry wouldn’t have sent the invite if he didn’t want Louis to come.

Louis gnawed the skin around his nail raw as he stared out the window the entire flight.

When he landed, the city crashed into him, all noise, and pollution and people and business. It was a shock and vaguely terrible, but even this he would put up with. If Harry wanted to give them a real shot.

Is that what the invite was? Or had he just sent it to be polite? Not thinking Louis would come.

Circles. He was going in circles.

The event wasn’t until the next day, so Louis checked into his hotel and then went to numb his anxiety with some alcohol. He’d decided not to tell Harry that he was getting in early. He didn’t want him to think Louis had any expectations.

In reality, though, Louis did. He admitted them to himself as he sat in the dark corner of the Irish pub he'd stumbled upon in his blind search for liquor. The whiskey he'd ordered burned his tongue, and he let it sit there, let it erase the taste of Harry's mouth on his, the memory still so sharp even after all these months.

Why hadn't Louis said anything before Harry had left? Why hadn't he proposed long distance or, Jesus, fucking living in California? 

Fear had been part of it, he knew. But there was also a tiny part of him that just hadn't believed it was real. He knew too much about infatuation to believe it was really love, had written countless poems about it. In them, he'd told his readers not to listen to their minds, but their hearts. He knew the truth, though. In that stage of a relationship it wasn't their hearts talking, but their cocks. Was he really willing to uproot his life for a good lay, a nice a fling?

The bigger part of him had known he was screwed since the minute Harry had taken his picture in the truck, had pressed his thumb to Louis' forearm, had captured that moment not only on film but in Louis' mind forever. He'd known since Harry had tripped through a field of wildflowers, since he'd dragged his feet in Louis' lake, since he'd sat beside Louis' favorite tree and struggled with the enormity of what he wanted to do with his life. Since he ran, in just socks and boxers, around a crowded bar, since he'd sat at Louis' typewriter and put the simplest words to paper, since he'd met Louis' eyes and said "hi" when pushing deep within him. Louis had known. 

He'd just been an idiot not to do anything about it sooner.

By the time the next night rolled around, Louis was almost numb. He’d been running on anxiety and caffeine and a surplus of emotions for the past few days and his body was finally crying uncle.

He dressed carefully, but not too fancy, as the event seemed casual. Tight black jeans, a nice white tee and a suede jacket the color of the stag to top it off.

Louis fiddled with his hair, but left it down, falling across this forehead, like Harry liked best.

After his fifteenth time pacing around his small hotel room, Louis decided to just leave early. How bad could it be to get there on time?

It was terrible, he realized, once he arrived.

The gallery was almost empty. Except, of course, for Harry.

He was in all black, his signature wide-legged trousers topped with a soft black tee, everything cinched in at his narrow waist. His cross necklace caught the light, as did his rose ring. His hair was still wavy, but he’d clearly gotten a trim, and Louis mourned the loss of the corkscrew curls, despite how flattering the new style was.

There was something fragile and delicate about the way he stood in front of one of the photos, and as Louis got closer he realized it was the stag. There was a blur to it that Louis knew had come from the abruptness of the picture but looked artistic when in this setting.

“It’s so beautiful,” Louis said when he was near enough to speak quietly, his nerves finally dissolving at the sight of those broad shoulders, everything clicking in place. They would make this work. There was no other option.

Harry startled, but when he turned to Louis there was that small smile on his face, the one that crinkled his eyes, the one that was real. The one that was Louis’.

“Hi,” Harry breathed without any surprise at seeing him standing there in California.

“Hi,” Louis parroted back, his eyes slipping across Harry’s face, desperate for the sight of him after months of trying not to remember his every feature.

“You wanna see?” Harry asked, like a kid showing off his art project from school.

Louis swallowed hard around the emotion that was thick in his throat. “Please.”

Harry reached out, taking his hand, weaving their fingers together as if it had only been yesterday that they’d seen each other. They walked to each photograph, the quiet between them that beautiful kind, full of reverence for their experiences together.

The photos were gorgeous, of course. Snapshots of Steve, Niall, Gus. Sweeping panoramas of the mountains from Louis’ porch. A coffee-stained mug that had been Harry’s favorite. Boots by the door. The lake, the meadow, the rusty gate they’d climbed over that morning to see the stag. Louis.

They told a story.

When they got to the last one, Louis stilled, and he was very much aware of Harry’s palm, slick with sweat beneath his own.

It was of Louis’ bed, shot in black and white, the sheets rumpled, the comforter half-fallen off, light streaming in the window.

“Home,” Louis murmured, reading the title card by the frame. That’s what Harry had called it.

Home.

"I'm sorry I didn't say anything before I left," Harry started, and Louis could hear the nerves in his voice just as clearly as he could hear his own buzzing behind his eardrums. "I wanted to. But mostly I wanted you to."

"I..." Louis trailed off, still not able to put into words why he hadn't asked Harry to stay.

Harry held up a hand. "I know now it was stupid and selfish to expect you to do it. But I thought it was too clingy, just to say, hey I'm going to stay here. For good. Like it wasn't giving you a choice whether you wanted me there or not."

That gave Louis the courage to turn toward him. "I wanted you there," he breathed. "I want you there, always."

Harry huffed out an exasperated breath. "Why couldn't you have said that months ago?"

And with that simple question, it finally clicked, Louis' hesitation. He squeezed Harry's hand.

"You were the boy who wanted to be a bird," Louis said quietly, and Harry's face reflected his understanding of what Louis was about to say. "I didn't want my expectations for you to be one more cage in a lifetime of cages."

"Shit," Harry breathed, his eyes gone teary. "Just when I thought I couldn't love you more."

Louis' heart stuttered and then thumped too hard, almost panicked with the skipped beat. He blinked fast. "You love me."

It wasn't a question, so Harry just waited.

"Fuck," Louis surged up, pressing their lips together. "I love you, too," his whispered against Harry's mouth. "Missed you so goddamn much you don't even know."

"I think I have an idea," Harry said on an almost-laugh his fingers pressing to the base of Louis' spine. "I um. I don't ever want to go through that again. I was going absolutely mad. I finally had to take a chance with the invite." He paused on a ragged inhale. "I'm so glad you came."

"Me too," Louis whispered, stepping back just a little.

"I want to, um," Harry paused, took a deep breath, steeled himself. "I want to move to Montana."

It took a minute to process the words. They were everything Louis wanted, so it was hard to believe they were real. 

“I’m not always going to be able to be there,” Harry whispered, his voice a little shaky, maybe because Louis still hadn't said anything yet in response. “I’m going to need to travel and go places. Maybe for weeks or months.”

Warmth flooded into every soft spot in Louis' body. He nodded, frantic to agree, despite the way his tongue was heavy in his mouth. This was so much more than he would have ever asked for.

“So I won't always be there," Harry repeated. "But my compass will always point to you, Lou." He shrugged, as if it were inevitable, as if there were no other way. “It will always point home.”

Louis nodded, salt against his lips, tears that neither of them would mention. "We can be enough."

 

~~

28

~~

 

The morning was crisp, clear, a blue-bird sky opening up over their land so that Louis could see to the mountains, to the ashy woods in the distance. He sat at his desk that now overlooked the window, his fingers resting gently against the typewriter's keys. But his eyes were on the dark ink fading against his wrinkling fingers. 

28.

It used to mean so much to him, to them. When they'd been young and fresh and full of desperation to cling to each other in a world that threw obstacles in their way. Harry's career, Louis'. Travel and fame, separation. Times they didn't communicate, times they communicated too loudly, with too many hurt feelings. They always came back to 28--the first night they'd met, their first time making love, Harry's photography showing when they'd found their way back to each other. Their wedding. It was their anchor in smooth seas, in stormy seas, in moments of doubt and anger and pain; in the brightest, glowing hours of the brightest glowing days. It was theirs to hold onto. 

Family and friends made fun of them, some with good-natured eye rolling ("really, everything big in your relationship happened to occur on the 28th of each month?"). Others were less fond. 

But it hadn't mattered. Fate, they whispered to each other while in sweat-damp beds, their fingers tracing the number into each other's skin, pressing it into soft hips, spines, shoulder blades, the crook of an elbow, an ankle, a thigh. 28. 

Then they had Sebastian. He'd been born on the 5th of June, a screaming bundle, red-faced and pissed at the world already. The twins had been born on first of September. They'd gotten Cliff, a shaggy lovable thing, on March 3rd; they'd buried him on May 6th 14 years later. They'd published their first co-authored book on April 17th; and Thea, the oldest twin, had told them they were going to be grandparents on November 10th. The 28 became less important with each added date, with each added number that told the story of their lives together, that told the story of their family. 

Louis turned at the sound of feet against floor, just in time to catch Harry as he settled into his lap, the position, the weight of him, achingly familiar after 28 years of marriage. 

"I'm not supposed to see you before the ceremony," Louis teased, and, okay, maybe the 28 hadn't lost importance. Because they were still the same sappy fuckers as they were back in that meadow, back on that lake quoting rom-coms to each other, back in that gallery when declarations of love had come far too fast, but had been oh so real. Because on this, their 28th wedding anniversary on the 28th of September, they were renewing their vows for the sole purpose of being the sappiest mother fuckers on the planet. Louis wasn't above being petty about that. The haters were just jealous, as Harry liked to say.

Harry peeped at the paper curling gently away from the typewriter. "'My hands, your hands, tied up like two ships...'"

"Hey," Louis swiveled the chair, so Harry couldn't continue reading. "You're spoiling the vows."

The grin Harry flashed was so reminiscent of that one in the bar from 30 years earlier, the one that had hustled Gus, that Louis' breath caught in the back of his throat. 

Then Harry brought Louis' fingers up to his mouth. "You make me strong, too," Harry whispered, and in the quiet of the room it felt like just as much as a promise as it had 28 years ago when they'd first slipped rings on each other's shaking hands. 

Louis swallowed hard as Harry placed his soft lips against the black ink, just one more memory in a lifetime of memories pressed into skin.