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You Came Just Like A Flower In My Darkest Hour

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There was something about spring that made Harry feel lonelier than any other time of year. He had his duties to do with the upkeep of his kingdom to distract him through the harshness of winter, his exhaustive reading list to distract him through autumn, and summer was a season for hosting balls and celebrating with his people. But spring…

Spring was a time for love. The lambs in his garden pushed themselves onto their feet for the first time, their mothers bleating encouragements. His people spent their days making music in the village—the same three songs, without fail—or harvesting the kingdom’s fruit as they soaked in the sunshine.

Harry sighed as he leant back against his favourite tree, the bark digging into his back, familiar in its ridges and weight. He ran his hand over the piglet in his lap, smiling softly as it snorted and burrowed further into his stomach. Even though the Royal Tailor wouldn't care about the abuse of her painstaking creations, Harry felt a little bad about dirtying them. But this creature was only a week old and the weakest of it’s litter; how could Harry resist? Harry had found the little sweetheart stuck in a pile of leaves as he left the castle to come outside and soak in the sunshine (something that did nothing towards lessening his brooding).

This piglet would have a short, happy life. It would eat and sleep and play and love and then, with any luck, die no sooner than when it's time came.

Harry had been ruling his kingdom for almost a thousand years, he had seen this cycle more times than he could count. He sat in his library, ruling and making decisions for his people, all the while he was frozen in time as the world passed him by.

He thunked his head back against the tree, closing his eyes and focusing on the sound of the fountain to his left. The water was green with algae, as rundown as most of his castle grounds had become, but Harry didn't have the heart to order his staff to clean it up. Who was he to interrupt the choices living things made of their own volition, when he wanted so desperately to be like them?

Harry heard footsteps approaching, but he kept his eyes closed.

“Sire?” a voice asked.

Harry sighed and opened his eyes. “Yes, dear?”

His page shuffled nervously, his hands ink-stained and wrinkled, smearing a small black stain over his waistcoat as he smoothed his hand over his stomach. It was the kind of small detail that used to trick Harry into forgetting how fake it all was. His subjects all had their little quirks, but after even a hundred years Harry had grown bored of the repetition in this elaborate illusion. “The Northern Duke would like to renegotiate our trade agreement to include persimmons, because his crops were damaged by a fungus—”

Harry waved his hand dismissively. He'd lost interest in the repetitive trading squabbles he was invited to partake in somewhere between winter and spring. The piglet blinked up at him, distracted from its nap by Harry's movement.

“Give him the persimmons, Jean, I'm sure you've already made arrangements for our compensation.”

Jean still looked nervous. “Well, my liege, about that…”

Harry raised his eyebrows. “Yes?”

“What I requested in return was the loan of the Duke’s World Glass, as you instructed when we negotiated last.”

Harry stood at once, careful to move the piglet off his lap. He met Jean’s nervous expression with a wide-eyed one of his own. “Did he say yes?”

Jean nodded with a tight smile.

Harry covered his mouth with his hands. “I've heard tale of his World Glass, they say it puts all the others to shame.”

Harry himself was in possession of the remaining four, but in all his years of trying he'd never managed to complete his collection (even temporarily). He had presumed he wasn't meant to, that the fifth glass was intended to remain forever just out of reach.

Jean smoothed a hand down his stomach once more. “Yes, well, you'll find out in three days hence when it arrives.”

Harry blanched. “He's sending it by horseback?”

Jean wrung his hands. “He didn't seem very concerned about its safety, sire.”

Harry fixed the cuffs of his embroidered blazer, surprised by how offended he was at a figment of a magical spell’s lack of care for his possessions. “Well, he's always been a fool. Is that all?”

Jean nodded meekly.

Harry knelt to pick up the piglet, gathering its little body into his arms. “In that case, I'll return to my important royal duties,” Harry deadpanned, lifting the piglet into his shoulder and smiling as it nibbled at his golden crown.

Jean, to his credit, seemed unphased. “As you wish, my liege.”

With a swift bow, he disappeared back into the castle.

 

🜾🜾🜾

 

Harry awaited the arrival of the Duke’s World Glass with a level of impatience that surprised everyone around him. His page, his cook, his administerial assistants, his advisors, his maids—everyone in the castle, really—was used to Harry's mood being some form of benevolent apathy, so the change of pace was unwelcome and unsettling. Not that anyone dared voice their concern—or were even able to.

It was the longest three days Harry had experienced in several hundred years.

At first, he had enjoyed collecting the World Glasses, wasted weeks on end spying on the little creatures within and coveting their simple lives. It was an escape, of sorts, from the pressures of ruling a kingdom made from sand.

Alas, even the novelty of other worlds wore off eventually.

But the world within the glass that arrived on horseback three days later was new, something different.

Harry almost couldn't contain himself as they carried in the shoddily-wrapped parcel concealing his newest treasure. He followed as two of his guards worked in seamless tandem to carry the object upstairs and into Harry's personal quarters.

He waited until he was alone to peel back the sheet covering the fifth World Glass.

Within the glass, sharp and clear as if he was watching through a window, he could see a room. It was softly lit, light streaming in from an open window, floral-patterned curtains blowing in the breeze. Harry drunk in every detail of it; the plush furniture gathered around a fireplace, the bookcase along the wall crammed full of titles Harry couldn't read, the strange contraption sitting in the corner—a box on top of a table, housing a flat disc, an arm with a small needle, and a flared horn attached to the side. The room seemed at once familiar and foreign, just on the edge of what Harry could recognise as normal. Abruptly, the door on the far wall opened. Inside walked a young man.

Harry’s gaze flickered over him, enraptured as he walked over to the odd box and set the needle on the disc. It didn't seem to do anything, but a smile washed over the man's face as the disc spun and spun. He leant against the wall, content to bask in whatever invisible effect the machine was producing. Harry took in his clothing—soft brown pants, a crisp white shirt, and an intricately embroidered waistcoat. Harry made a note to himself to ask the tailor to craft something like this for him, he quite admired it. Or, perhaps, it was just the stranger he was admiring. He was just on the edge of manhood, a soft-looking thing with a dusting of stubble and feathered hair that almost brushed against his collar. When the stranger opened his eyes to gaze out of the window, Harry almost sighed.

His eyes were as blue as the sky itself. Harry had always admired blue eyes. At once, he felt a wave of crushing loneliness. He wished so dearly to reach through the glass, to talk to this young man, ask him about his world and the spinning disc and his name and—

Harry stepped away from the mirror. Perhaps this had been a bad idea, to lose himself in the fantasy of other worlds when he had one of his own—entirely his own—to care for and entertain him.

And yet, he couldn't help but glance back at the mirror. The other four had been so different to this one; a brightly coloured desert, an underwater reef, a rainforest with strange creatures hiding amongst the trees, and a peaceful field. The latter had always been Harry's favourite; he enjoyed sitting for hours and watching as the bees flitted from flower to flower, stems waving in the breeze.

None of them had contained a person. A real person! Someone who still moved when Harry wasn't watching them, who breathed and lived and thought for themselves.

Harry Styles had spent a millennia in the company of shadows, and this exquisite stranger was a brilliant spot of light in the darkness.

Harry spent the next week in a sort of trance, barely talking to his people. During the day he would sit in the sun, enjoying the company of the palace’s newborn creatures, trusting his page and advisors to run the kingdom in his stead. Every night, he sat in front of the glass, watching the man.

Ignoring his duties to pry into the life of a stranger was a dangerous rush. Harry had spend hundreds of years making himself busy, trying to forget how pointless it all was, the upkeep of a false kingdom. The man’s life wasn’t false. It was real and addictive, even if all he did every night was sit in the room and read by the fire, or sit at the desk by the window and clack away at a contraption that seemed to produce words out of nothing. One notable evening, Harry had the pleasure of seeing his stranger entertain guests: a tired-looking woman much older than he, similar enough in the face for Harry to assume she was his mother, and four young girls. They were lively little things, especially the smallest two, and Harry’s face hurt from smiling after watching the man push away all the furniture from the centre of the room so he could dance with them. Harry wished the World Glass allowed him to hear what music they were dancing so merrily to, if it was something he would like to dance to also.

Although, at this point, it could have been the most grating noise Harry had ever heard and he would still dance to it, if the stranger asked.

A month spent consumed by thoughts of the world he saw each night, and Harry was almost driven mad with longing.

He was passing the palace library on his way to breakfast when an idea occurred to him. He entered the library, passing the rows upon rows of dust-covered books. Harry had read every volume in here several times, but after a hundred years he’d grown tired of the same words. He’d gathered his favourite twenty or so novels to keep in his quarters, and he hadn’t really had reason to be in here since. He also hadn’t had reason to specify to the cleaning staff that this room be upkept, so it had fallen into an unfortunate state of disrepair.

He found what he was looking for in the darkest corner of the library, where a pedestal stood, tucked away from light and time. Harry took a fortifying breath before he approached. He could already feel the waves of power flowing off the book that sat on the pedestal, as innocent and awesome as the day he had found it. He reached a shaky hand towards the front cover, fighting through the memories, the mistakes that had led him here.

Just before his hand met the red velvet of the cover, Harry curled his fingers into a fist. He shook himself off, taking a step back.

When he fled the library, all that remained of his moment of indecision was a set of footprints in the dust.

Harry carried on in that way for another month. Spring was at its peak, and the piglets and lambs and kids had gotten used to their shaky legs. They wreaked havoc on the palace’s foliage, even though Harry had staff to care and feed them.

It was something Harry could never quite work out, a mystery that had plagued him ever since his first year as ruler: were the animals in the kingdom false? Their simple joyfulness had always led Harry to believe they were the only real thing in his life, but now he was questioning even that. He watched them play from his bedroom window, dressed in a loose robe and still rumpled from sleep. He catalogued their movements with an analytic eye, and found them to be just as robotic as his subjects. Their actions played in a loop with enough diversity that Harry could understand why he had been fooled, but was noticeable when he really looked for it.

The revelation that there really was nothing real about his kingdom had been a long time coming. It had been a thought lingering at the back of his mind for a long time, half-formed and melancholy. Harry sighed, resting his head against the window.

“Sire, would you like breakfast to be brought to you?”

Harry turned to his page with a tired smile. He was standing as straight as always, smoothing a hand down his stomach.

Harry had a horrible urge, then, to twist the knife in deeper, to push this illusion as far as it would go. He could ask Jean to throw himself out of this very window and he would , because that was his purpose.

But as mad as his many years of loneliness had made him, Harry had never been a cruel man.

So he just nodded and turned back to watching the lambs.

Harry spent the rest of that day in front of the Glass, even though his stranger was absent for most of it. He was a busy young thing, coming and going all the time. Harry liked to imagine what his occupation was—a scribe, perhaps, with all the time he spent at his desk. He seemed only a year or so older than Harry himself had been before he cursed himself with this life. Today, when he returned to the room, he looked tired. He collapsed into the armchair by the fire and ran a hand down his face. Harry couldn't help it; he lifted his hand and pressed it against the glass. He had an urge like the one from that morning to press and press until the glass broke, just to do something, to stop feeling so helpless.

He took a step back from the glass, lest he do something he would regret. He lifted his hand to run it through his hair, then he remembered his crown. The steady weight of it was something he'd learned to tune out, but all of a sudden it felt as heavy as the Palace itself. He ripped it off and stared at it in his hand, the delicate gold leaves. Like everything else in this illusion, he had been so enamoured with it at first. The lifestyle, the clothes, the people to care for and the power he held; it was everything he had asked for.

And it had only taken a thousand years for him to realise he no longer wanted any of it.

When he entered the library this time, he didn't hesitate. He strode towards the pedestal with purpose, and pulled the book open.

The cover made a sharp bang as it hit the wood of the pedestal, but Harry was too busy staring at the page to notice.

It was just as it had been a thousand years ago; a mess of Latin and sigils. Harry remembered the day he had stumbled upon this book. He had been a palace servant his whole life, raised by a maid and a cook to carry out orders and obey . He'd been snooping where he oughtn’tve, always a curious boy, and he'd stumbled across the book hidden away in shadows. He couldn't read Latin, but he'd been so intrigued that he'd spent several months translating the first page he saw—the very page in front of him now—stealing time in between his duties to take a candle to the library and study it. Eventually, he unlocked the secrets of the text.

It was a spell. Its purpose was to summon a creature of great power.

Harry had come to regret ever invoking its name, but he'd been younger then.

A thousand years younger.

And here he was, about to make the very same mistake.

He squeezed his eyes shut as he spoke the words on the page. His latin had improved since that very first time he'd read the spell—he'd had time to learn many languages—but it still sounded like a rusty, sharp-edged blade piercing through the silence of the library.

He repeated the words over and over again, growing in frustration and desperation as nothing happened. He was about to pause and double check he'd gotten the right page—even though he was sure he had—when a wave of coldness passed over him.

He opened his eyes cautiously. When he saw the creature perched on the book, he took a step back in alarm. It had been so long that he'd forgotten how it looked—a tiny, cream coloured thing, wrinkled and strange.

“Well?” it demanded, glaring at him with its yellow eyes. “What do you want?”

Harry cleared his throat. He hadn't really had time to rehearse what he'd say, and it had been so long since his words had any consequence.

“I would like to renegotiate,” he said, as evenly as he could manage.

The creature looked unimpressed. “You're telling me that you're unhappy with the terms of our agreement? I gave you everything you asked for!” It waved vaguely, a pissed-off scowl growing on its face. “I gave you an entire kingdom!”

Harry schooled his features. “That was what I asked for, yes, but it's been a thousand years now. I've grown tired of having only myself for company, I would like to visit the world in the glass—”

The creature laughed, then studied him. “I see. It's finally sunk in, has it?”

Harry frowned.

The spirit stood on its thin, knobbly legs and pointed a finger in his face. “You humans are all so fickle, you have no grasp of what's best for you. You summoned me to beg for me to give you wealth and stature and to allow you to care for others, with no regard for the consequences of your wish. I gave you what you wanted—a castle and a crown and empty-headed citizens for you to pretend you cared about, and I gave you mirrors to the world you had me take you from, so you could watch it as it moved on without you. Such was the nature of your punishment.”

Harry’s mind reeled. This whole time, he thought he'd been trapped in a hell of his own making, and yet—it had been the spirit who had done this, warped his desires into something cruel.

The creature seemed to notice the dark cloud that had passed over Harry's face. It simply laughed again, a horrible, knowing sound.

“I suppose you want me to give you back to the world you left, is that it? To unmake the gift I gave you, free of consequence?”

Harry didn't trust himself to speak, he knew he couldn't afford to anger the creature any further. He simply pursed his lips and nodded.

The spirit floated into the air, circling Harry as he studied him with a calculating gaze. “It's that young man you've been obsessed with, isn't it? Oh, don't look so surprised, I have been keeping tabs on you, the peasant I crafted into a hollow king. I've watched as you let your kingdom fall into disrepair, spending far too much time staring into that glass and ignoring your duties. All for a man who you can't even touch, cannot hear or speak to.”

The creature finished its careful circle around Harry's head and settled back onto the book with a gleam in its eye.

Harry made to speak, but suddenly found he couldn't. He rose a hand to his throat, alarmed. He tried to shout, to curse, but all that came out was a choked noise.

The creature lifted a hand, a wry smile on its little face. “Wish granted,” it said, then snapped its fingers.

And everything went white.

Then, Harry was in a room. There was a bookcase against the wall, a pleasantly warm breeze coming in from the window that made the floral patterned curtains billow, and a fireplace with two armchairs in front. Harry looked around in bewilderment. It took him several long seconds to recognise the room he’d been staring at for weeks; it was so different, to be within it.

Harry looked down at himself, and almost jolted at what he saw. He was wearing a cream-coloured outfit consisting of soft pants, a delicate shirt, and an embroidered waistcoat. He recognised the cut of the clothing from his time studying his stranger’s clothes. Harry raised a curious hand to his hair, then remembered he'd already removed his crown.

Harry took a shuddering breath in, trying to ground himself.

He turned, trying to find–there! On the wall behind him, innocent and gleaming, sat a mirror. He walked over to it and peered within, but he found nothing except his own green eyes. He turned away and studied the room again, at once familiar from this angle.

He was here. He was truly here, in the glass, in the room. He was free from his Palace and his people and–

The door opened. The man walked in.

He didn't seem to notice Harry at first, busy reading a letter as he walked towards his desk. Then, he paused. He looked up.

If Harry had thought his eyes were blue before, it was nothing compared to actually seeing them in front of him. In fact, everything about his stranger was more intense in person. The softness of his hair, the way he carried himself, the way he breathed, Harry was captivated by every small detail of him.

“Oh,” the stranger said, licking his lips nervously and glancing at the door. “Hello?”

Harry was distracted for a moment at the sound of his voice, the raspiness of it, the texture, he couldn't have imagined it–

And then he realised the man was waiting for a response, eyebrows raised delicately.

Harry opened his mouth to speak, then it all came crashing down. His voice was still gone, no sound came out at all.

He must have looked very panicked, because the boy took pity on him. “Are you…” he started, then walked the rest of the way over to his desk and opened a small book. “Are you here to interview?”

Harry nodded, latching on to the excuse.

The man frowned a little. “That’s funny, I thought I’d seen all the applicants. And Geraldine didn’t mention sending anyone in.”

Harry looked around the room as if something might jump out and save him from his utter inability to explain himself.

“I'm sorry, that was so rude of me!” the stranger said, shaking himself off and offering Harry his hand. “It's a pleasure to meet you, I'm Louis Tomlinson. I'm sure you knew that, since you’re here.”

Louis, his name is Louis. It was the answer to a burning question he'd had for so long yet offered so freely, like it was nothing special.

Harry looked between the angelic smile on his face and his proffered palm. He lifted his own carefully and grasped his stranger’s hand—not a stranger anymore, now Harry knew his name. It was warm and solid beneath his fingers, and Harry had to stop himself from whining when he pulled it back.

It was becoming incredibly clear that he’d completely forgotten how to behave like a person at some point.

But… That wasn't entirely true. He'd always been friendly to his people, polite and loving where he could. He could be the same here.

Except for one small problem.

Harry smiled his best smile at Louis and stepped around him to his desk. He grasped a piece of parchment and something he recognised as a modified quil. A few seconds of frantic scribbling, then he turned back to Louis with a hopeful expression.

Louis was watching him with his hands folded across his chest and an amused twist to his lips. He looked between Harry and the parchment, then stepped closer to read it.

My name is Harry. Nice to meet you. ” This time when Louis smiled, it seemed to light up the whole room. Harry had a flash of the sight he'd seen in the glass not a few hours ago, how defeated this very same man had looked. He was glad that he could change that, at least for a moment.

“Well, Harry, do you have any previous experience as an assistant?” Louis asked.

Harry shook his head with a frown.

“Typing? Writing letters? Organising a calendar? Answering the telephone?”

Harry was happy to realise he recognised some of those things. So, Louis was in need of a page of his own. Harry was certain that he was more than qualified, after running an entire kingdom for a millennia. So he nodded.

Louis looked doubtful for a moment, scratching at his scruff. “Well, answering the phone isn't really an option for you I would guess, but no one really calls me anyway… I'll take you on for a week and see how it goes, how about that? I try to keep myself organised, but recently I've been… A little caught up.”

Harry tilted his head to the side. Louis smiled sadly.

“Don't trouble yourself with that, Harry. Now,” he clapped his hands. “Let's get you started!”

The afternoon that followed was an absolute mess. Louis was patient and kind as he explained how he organised his appointments—he was the head of his household, Harry came to understand, as well as being a writer like he’d guessed. He had various commitments for monthly short stories in something called a magazine as well as his latest novel to find the time to work on.

“I don't suppose you've read any of my work, Harold?” Louis asked at one point, suddenly shy. Harry might have corrected him about the name, but he was far too preoccupied feeling sad that he had to tell Louis no, he hadn't. He felt irrationally disappointed in himself as he shook his head, like he could have tried harder to read Louis’ own novels in front of him in the one afternoon he'd been here.

But Louis didn't looked upset. He just pursed his lips on a smile and turned back to the papers on the desk. “No need to worry yourself about it, pet, they're hardly Shakespeare,” he chuckled.

Harry nodded like he had any idea who Shakespeare was, insides a warm squirming mess.

Once Louis had deemed Harry had been appropriately caught up, he seemed to realise how late it had gotten.

“Oh!” he laughed, gesturing to the sunset out the window. “My apologies, I didn’t notice how long I’d been droning on, you must be so bored.”

Harry, who had been distracted appreciating the view from the window—the lovely colours of the sky were familiar, but the houses and streets and metallic carriages were not—looked back at Louis. He smiled, wide and genuine, and shook his head.

Even though Harry had been concentrating on memorising all of Louis’ instructions, he had still had more fun this afternoon than he could remember having since the last grand ball he hosted.

Harry’s balls were always fun, no matter who was in attendance.

Louis fixed his fringe with a nervous hand. Harry couldn’t help but track the movement, how organic it seemed. “You’d best be getting home, then, love. Unless…” Louis licked his lips. “You’d like to join us for dinner?”

Harry frowned. Us?

Louis rushed to explain. “I eat with my housekeeper and my cook, they’re lovely, I’m sure you’ll like them. But if you have plans then I understand, please don’t feel obligated. In fact, it was probably improper of me to even ask–”

Louis’ rambling cut off when Harry placed a gentle hand on his arm. He looked down at Harry’s hand as if in shock, and Harry’s fingers twitched against the material of his shirt.

When Louis looked back up at him, Harry simply nodded with a smile.

And that was how he found himself dining with the object of his months-long obsession, mute and banished from the world he’d known for longer than anyone at the table could fathom, yet happy to be included all the same.

Louis’ Cook and Housekeeper were indeed lovely; a married couple well into their sixties. Both women were of good spirits and kind temperament, and Harry—despite still trying to work around his newfound inability to speak—enjoyed conversing with them. He was glad to see the church had apparently changed its stance on marriage since he'd been away. Harry's delight only grew when Louis introduced him rather brashly as his new personal assistant, despite the fact that earlier he’d been insistent Harry was only being taken on on a trial basis. Louis’ cook—Lily—beamed.

“It’s about time you found somebody! I told you you were only scaring people away with that advertisement you wrote, dear,” she tutted, pouring everybody some water.

Louis puffed out his chest. “It was important I only get applicants who–”

She waved him off impatiently. “Yes, yes, Master Louis, we’ve heard it all before. What matters now is this lovely young fellow.” Harry startled; he’d been distracted squinting at a strange device on the wall with small moving arms and a round, numbered face.

Geraldine, Louis’ housekeeper, looked between him and the device. “Somewhere to be, dear? Oh, Louis, you did ask him if he had plans for dinner before you herded him down here, didn’t you?”

Louis poked his tongue out at her childishly, and Harry giggled at the sight. It was so strange, to giggle without making any noise. He surprised himself and everyone at the table with the action—a quick hand to his mouth, shoulders bouncing up and down—and he ducked his head in response.

Louis plowed on ahead. “Well, for your information, I did ask Harold very nicely, and he said yes. So if he has intentions of darting out of here before desert it's your own fault.”

Harry looked up in panic, already shaking his head, when he saw the mirth shining in Geraldine's eyes and relaxed.

“Hush, you, and eat your supper,” Lily tutted at Louis. “You need the strength.”

Dinner passed rather smoothly after that. Harry was mostly distracted by the tastes of the food; his chefs at the palace didn't provide much variety in their dishes, and the unique flavours and seasoning of the meal were intense in comparison.

Once dinner had ended, Harry became aware that he was expected to take his leave.

He gulped as he stood and nodded his thanks to Lily and Geraldine. He certainly hadn't thought this far ahead. If he listened hard enough, he swore he could hear the faint sounds of the spirit laughing at him mockingly.

You got what you wanted , it jeered from the corner of Harry's mind. Now you're penniless and homeless. Congratulations.

Harry looked over at Louis and noticed his concerned frown. “You've got a way to get home, right, love? I didn't inquire as to your address, I'm sure I could drive you–”

But Harry was already shaking his head. He'd imposed enough by staying for dinner, and he hadn't a clue where he'd have Louis take him anyway.

So he offered his hand to shake instead, and walked from Louis’ home with his head held high.

He made sure to keep track of where he was going as he walked away from the sizeable townhouse his new employer resided in. He followed the streets with a sharp eye, taking in every detail of this new world he'd found himself in. It wasn't so different to the world he'd came from, when he took the time to notice all the little details. He was glad to find humanity hadn't changed to an unrecognisable point, even if their candles shone unnaturally bright and their horseless carriages were far noisier.

He found himself in a park after a while of wandering, and he sighed. He doubted he would find anywhere nicer to house him for the night, with no coin in his pocket. So he found a rather nice—if breezy—structure with a roof over it and not- too -uncomfortable benches and settled in for a long, cold night.

If he squeezed his eyes shut enough, he could pretend he was just in his garden, too lazy to move from the grass as he slept under the stars.

Needless to say, it was a far from pleasant experience. He dreamt and dreamt, vague visions of crumbling stone bricks and burning trees and the blank faces of those he’d left behind.

When he awoke the next morning from a fitful night’s sleep, he resolved to prove himself an excellent assistant to Louis, if only so as to insure that he had some kind of income with which to purchase a room in the city. The pain in his back (and the pounding in his head) was an unwelcome companion.

He splashed himself with some water from a fountain and straightened his clothes. He hoped it wasn't too obvious he'd slept in them, but there wasn't much to be done about that.

He waited until the sun was a little higher in the sky before he headed back to Louis’ house. The man hadn’t specified a point in the morning that he should arrive at—he'd given Harry a number, strangely. ‘9 sharp’ . It was one of the many things Harry intended to understand about this new world he'd been… Well, he had asked to be here.

The crick in his neck, the bags under his eyes, the rumbling of his stomach; he'd done this to himself.

It was about time he admit that.

He had to wait for several long moments after he knocked on Louis’ door. He looked around the street for a moment, taking in the buildings, the strange carriages parked out front. When it was pulled open, Harry was met with Geraldine’s stern face.

It melted into a smile when she recognised him.

“Oh! Harry, dear, you're quite early. Please, come inside. Louis’ a late riser, I'm certain he forgot to mention that, so he won’t be up for at least another hour, I'm afraid.”

Harry did his best to look apologetic as he followed her into the house.

“Would you like some tea, my dear?” Geraldine asked.

Harry waited for her to glance back at him before he nodded politely.

She paused at the door to Louis’ study and patted his cheek fondly. “Its excellent to see you here, ready to get started. I'm sure you'll prove to be a wonderful assistant. The master is…” she trailed off, looking troubled. “He's going through a tough time, at the moment, what with his mother being so ill. It's a great relief to all of us that he's found someone to lighten the load.”

Harry’s eyebrows pinched. Louis hadn't mentioned anything of the sort, but he supposed that wasn't really the kind of thing you told someone upon first meeting. Still, it saddened Harry to his core that the woman he remembered seeing through the glass—so full of life, so loving—had fallen ill.

He hadn't had to deal with grief in a very long time. In his kingdom, it was only the animals who had died. He'd mourned his favourite pets, of course, but he'd never… he’d never gotten to see his mother pass, or the rest of his family. He'd known it had to have happened, but. It wasn't quite the same.

Geraldine left him after that, ushering him into the study with a promise of tea once the kettle had boiled. Harry took the time to familiarise himself with Louis’ desk and write himself a list of tasks that needed doing—some of which he remembered Louis mentioning, others were a product of his observations thus far. He organised Louis’ appointment book and the filing system he used for all his legal and financial documents, sipping as he went on the lovely tea Lily had brought in.

“Make sure Master Louis eats some breakfast, won't you?” she’d said, gesturing to some pastries she's set out on the tray. “The poor boy works far too hard.”

Harry had smiled and crossed his heart, and she'd left with a chuckle.

It was a little while later when the man himself entered the study, looking sleep-rumpled as he rubbed at his eyes. He was as sharply dressed as always, but there was something unique about how he looked in the soft morning light that almost took Harry’s breath away.

If he'd thrown away a kingdom for a man, at least he'd chosen one so beautiful.

Louis seemed to realise, then, that someone else was in the room. Harry raised the book he was reading in greeting, then scrambled to cover the title with a guilty look.

Louis laughed softly, a lovely sound that broke up the silence in the room.

“Good morning, Harry,” he said, the words flowing like honey from his lips. He walked over to the tray of tea and pastries sitting on a table next to Harry, pouring himself a cup. Harry watched, oddly enraptured, as Louis added a splash of milk to his tea.

Louis looked up at him from beneath his eyelashes as he took a long sip. “That's my first novel you're holding, so don't judge it too harshly.”

Harry frowned. He looked down at the novel—he was only a few chapters in, but it was already quite lovely—and stroked the front cover. The story was about a little girl caught up in a magical world, making friends with monsters and seeing the most wonderful sights and being braver than Harry could ever hope to be. It was melodic and whimsical and already so charming. He looked up at Louis with a small pout, holding the book to his chest as if to protect it from Louis’ self-deprecation.

The man made an odd expression at that, a delightful curling of the lips like he was trying very hard to swallow a smile.

“Well, if you insist,” Louis said. “Now, what have we got going on today?”

The way he said that, sharp and tart like a challenge he expected Harry to fail, reminded Harry of his time in the gardens at the palace, picking red roses with little care for how their thorns made his fingers bleed.

Harry ignored his irrational offense and stood. He supposed Louis had no proof as of yet that Harry was at all capable, so he could hardly be blamed.

Still. It had been an awfully long time since anyone had dared challenge Harry. It was that thought in particular that drove him to present the detailed itinerary he'd prepared for Louis with an exaggerated bow.

When Louis laughed, any resentment Harry might have felt a moment ago vanished like mist on a warm morning. Harry smiled at Louis as he rose, still waiting for the man to accept his offering.

Louis took the paper with one hand and poked Harry in the stomach with the other, ignoring his wince. “Cheeky,” Louis tutted, sounding much too delighted.

When he looked down at the list, however, his expression fell. “Oh,” he said, suddenly forlorn. “That's today, is it?”

Harry peered over his shoulder at the list, wondering which item in particular had caused such a reaction. Louis seemed to lean back into him ever so slightly, then he stepped away. “Um, the meeting with the realtor I have at 2pm. I'd quite forgotten.”

Harry tried to puzzle through the odd tone of his voice, but Louis had shaken himself off before Harry could come to any conclusions. “I'd best get started on my writing for the magazine, then. If you wouldn't mind finding Geraldine and telling her I sent you, that would be lovely. You'll be spending some time with her this morning, learning a few parts of her job. She's going to be quite busy soon, so you'll have to take on the extra duties that she can't handle alone.”

Harry tilted his head to the side. He was missing something, he knew. Why would Geraldine be busier in the coming weeks?

Louis looked up from his typewriter—as Harry had learned the device was called—and sighed. “I suppose I should tell you that, yes,” he answered. “My mother is…unwell. She’s being placed in permanent care later this week, and my sisters will be coming to live here with me.”

Harry truly had no idea what to do with that. Louis’ rock-hard expression suggested he would resist being comforted, yet he was also clearly in distress and Harry wanted desperately to help somehow. In the end, all he did was nod. And do as he was asked.

But not before he’d set the plate of pastries—still untouched—in front of Louis with a stern look.

 

🜾🜾🜾

 

Harry's first week of being Louis’ assistant came with many ups and downs. He learned quite a bit, like how to read clocks and how to use the typewriter and what chocolate tasted like and what it felt like to ride in a car— a quite exhilarating feeling, as it turned out. He was sure Geraldine was suspicious at how in awe of it he was. He also learned exactly how Louis liked his tea, how he wrote as if consumed by a fever but edited with a cool-eyed precision, the way he spoke, the way he gestured with his hands when he was enthused, the way his eyes grew distant when he thought about his mother.

Harry had been finding slightly more comfortable places to sleep in nooks and crannies around the city, so purchasing a room was not what he used his first week’s payment on. Instead, he spent the money on two new outfits, so Lily could stop asking him if he owned anything else in a way that, whilst was joking at first, had become quite worried.

Currently, he was with Geraldine, making arrangements for the four new residents Louis’ house was soon to have. As truly sad as the situation might have been, Harry was almost giddy with excitement. He remembered the girls from his time watching Louis through the glass, how young and full of life they were. He was sure their presence would cheer Louis up, and it had been a thousand years since he'd got to play with children.

He'd always wanted children, yet he'd been denied them for most of his time alive. He supposed that was yet another way his wish had been turned into a curse.

“He seems to be in good spirits, don’t you think, Harry?” Geraldine asked, almost out of the blue. Harry looked up from his work—budgeting the expenses that the girls would require, which Louis would only able to afford if he managed to secure a decent sum in the upcoming auction of his family home. The meeting with the realtor he’d been dreading had apparently gone well enough that Louis had given Harry a tight hug after he’d returned, but given the broader context of the man’s circumstance, he couldn’t rightly say that Louis was in good spirits.

Geraldine seemed to catch his judgement. Everyone in Louis’ house had a remarkable talent for understanding him with very little need for him to waste time writing out his thoughts on the set of lovely scented cards Louis had gifted him on his third day at work. The times he had had to rely upon them to hold a conversation were frustrating for all involved.

She sighed softly and relaxed into her chair. She wasn’t usually so casual in his presence, but it had been a long day. Dinner would be starting soon, and then it was off to bed, and then tomorrow the girls would arrive. He could understand the slip-up in her composure.

“I think you know what I mean, Harry. He’s been mostly coping. He hasn’t locked himself in that damned study for days upon end, he hasn’t been out a single night this week drinking himself into an early grave, and he’s been eating a solid three meals a day. I think we’ve got you to thank for that.”

Harry shook his head sternly. If there was anyone responsible for Louis’ remarkable bravery in the face of adversity, then it certainly wasn’t him. In fact, it wasn’t anyone but the man himself. Perhaps in the time before Harry had started looking in on him, he’d been less functional. Perhaps not. It wasn’t really any of his business.

Geraldine watched him shrewdly. “Do you have a special someone, Harry? A lass or lad to go home to?”

Harry looked up at her with wide eyes, reeling a little from the unexpected change in conversation. Had he been too obvious?

He shook his head in response to her question. She pursed her lips and hummed, and Harry spent a moment studying her face for any insight into her thoughts.

When he could find none, he turned back to his work, and Geraldine didn’t break the silence again until they were called to dinner.

Dining with Louis and his staff had become a habit in the past week. He was immensely grateful for it; he was sure he wouldn't eat otherwise.

Tonight’s dinner had a rather strange feeling to it. There was a tingle to the air that Harry couldn’t name, and no one said anything of any consequence—especially not Harry. He’d thought he’d grow used to being silenced, but a week hadn’t dulled the sting any. He told himself again and again that he was happy to be here, happier here than he would be in his lovely castle with his lovely bed and his loving people. His… empty castle, empty bed and empty people.

He had hope that one day he would wake up and it wouldn’t bother him, the fact that Louis would never know what his voice sounded like.

That night, after dinner, Louis invited him to stay a while in his study, enjoy a glass of port in front of the fire. Harry settled in contently, sipping on the drink and watching the flames. Louis stood, after only a few moments, and made his way over to the device in the corner. Harry had tried to contain his curiosity about it in his time under Louis’ employment—it wouldn’t do to get distracted from his work, after all—but he sat bolt upright in the chair as Louis ran a hand over the small table it sat on.

“What kind of music do you like, Harry?” Louis asked with a smile, sending a look over his shoulder that nearly sent Harry to his knees. He could never tell if Louis acted this way on purpose, if he was taunting Harry’s obvious (at least, to him) affections, or if he was just oblivious to the effect he had. Harry had to clear his throat before he could answer.

Not that he could answer with his own words, of course. He just shrugged helplessly. He hadn’t a clue how music had changed while he’d been gone, and he doubted he could answer ‘lyre music that you can jig to’ without Louis thinking him a fool.

Louis rolled his eyes good-naturedly. “Well, you’re no help at all,” he muttered, crouching down and scanning the pile of square objects on the bottom shelf of the table. Harry was on the edge of his seat, drink long forgotten in his hand, as Louis selected one and drew it from the pile with care.

“You’ve left me no choice but to guess, Harold,” he said, sending another dazzling smile over his shoulder. “And I’m a terrible loser, so do me a favour and don’t tell me if I’ve guessed wrong. But...something tells me you’ll like this one.”

Louis pulled a disc from the object in his hand, setting it on the device with a revenant look on his face. “My mother bought this gramophone for me, did you know?” he said as he fiddled with the needle, placing it on the outer edge of the disc. “My eighteenth birthday, the year I left home, she gifted it to me. And I’m a writer, so I used to wish she’d said something poetic when she’d done it, like, ‘ you’ve always loved the sound of your words, so now you can listen to the sound of others’’, but,” Louis paused. He turned to face Harry, a far-away shine to his eyes. “She just said, ‘ here you go, love’. And it was much better than anything I’m ever going to write in any of my books.”

The thing is, Harry had read Louis’ books. In the stolen moments of inactivity he could find, sipping on tea at a quiet breakfast table or a few minutes here and there in the afternoon, he’d read. And Louis’ words were nothing short of miracles.

Harry set his glass down on the table gently, and Louis jolted out of his daze a little at the sound. He watched Harry stand blankly, scanning his whole body as he moved towards him. Harry came to a stop in front of Louis, hunching down a little so they were the same height. He met Louis’ gaze and raised his hand up. Louis didn’t flinch (or breathe, or blink) when Harry pressed his fingers to Louis’ lips. It was a gentle touch, barely anything, but Harry’s fingers still tingled nonetheless. He pulled his hand away, then, and brought it up to his ear, then his temple. Louis’ brow was furrowed as he followed the movement, and Harry could almost hear the gears turning as he tried to understand. Finally, Harry brought his hand down to his chest, pressing his fingers—the same fingers that had just graced Louis’ lips—against his heart. He dared Louis with his gaze, dare him to understand him, to hear him. What he was trying to convey wasn’t at all something he could just stand there and scribble out on a card, it wouldn’t– he couldn’t–

Language was more than words.

Louis’ eyes cleared, then, and he blinked rapidly. “Thank you, Harry,” he whispered. Harry closed his eyes, Louis’ words echoing around his head, thick with emotion.

He opened them when he felt Louis shift, frowning as Louis stepped back and straightened his shirt. It was Louis, now, who cleared his throat with no intent to speak. He fiddled instead with the device, and then.

Then, music filled the room.

Harry took a step back in shock, eyes wide on the gramophone. The music was soft and grainy and nothing at all like listening to his court musicians, or the few centuries he’d devoted to learning every instrument he could, and he almost hated it for its falseness. But then he looked at Louis, and the wide smile on his face as he listened to the music, eyes closed, and he changed his mind.

The song was lovely, full of new melodies, a lilting tempo, and soft singing. Harry used to love singing; he’d perform every year in the village’s Winter Solstice Festival, singing yuletide hymns and celebrating. Even if some of them had survived the test of time, he’d never be able to sing them to Louis. He glanced over his shoulder at the far wall, met his own gaze in the mirror that hung there.

“So, was I right?” Louis asked, interrupting the flow of the music and the noise in Harry’s mind. Harry turned back to him with a smile, and Louis smiled back.

He nodded.

 

🜾🜾🜾

 

With the arrival of Louis’ sisters came a flurry of activity. The girls were wonderful, of course; full of life and personality and possessions good god. Harry was exhausted from moving them in, not only because of the physical exertion. No, it was Louis that truly did him in, with his blinding smile and his rolled up sleeves and the sweat he occasionally wiped from his forehead and the way he threw his head back and laughed whenever any of the young ones joked with him.

Harry made it through the day by the skin of his teeth, and when it came to dinner time he was almost grateful of his muteness, if only so he was offered a short reprieve.

The conversation flowed smoothly for the most part, though it was clear there was a shadow in the corner of the room in the shape of the Tomlinson’s mother. The girls had already been instructed that they weren’t allowed to visit her for another week lest her condition worsen after the stress of moving, and they were none too happy about it.

“So, Louis,” Felicite asked as the clanging of cutlery against plates began to die down. Harry had made a concerted effort to learn everyone’s names, and he’d even managed to tell the twins apart after a few unsuccessful (but thoroughly entertaining) attempts. “Are you ever going to tell us where you found your new assistant? He’s delightful.”

Harry blushed and stared down at his plate.

“Oh, uh, well,” Louis stumbled, shifting in his seat. “He was a friend of a friend who needed employment, so I took him in to help with my work–”

“You let him read your writing before its finished ?” Charlotte interrupted incredulously.

Harry looked up, interest piqued. Louis hadn’t, in fact, let him read unfinished work, something Harry had been a little put out about. He was an excellent editor. He assumed. Well, he probably would be. He’d never find out if Louis wouldn’t let him try. (He also filed away Louis’ lie about how he’d found Harry; that was a mystery for another, far less strenuous day).

Louis blinked in shock. “Well, no, but he helps with the other work I do maintaining the house and my finances.”

Charlotte and Felicite slumped back in their seats, no longer interested now Louis had brought up finance.

“Why doesn’t he talk, Louis?” asked Daisy. Harry’s eyebrows raised almost to his hairline. Children were much more direct than he remembered them being.

Louis fish mouthed, looking not at all like he was prepared to answer such a question.

“It’s very rude to talk about someone like they aren’t there, Miss Daisy,” chastised Geraldine.

Daisy’s face crumbled. She turned to Harry with wide, pleading eyes. “I’m sorry, Mister Harry.”

Harry’s lips twitched, then a smile bloomed across his face. He had wanted to remain sincere in the face of her apology, but he was far too charmed to pretend to be anything but.

He glanced across the table at Louis, who was watching him with a nervous expression. When he caught the twinkle in Harry’s eye, he seemed to relax a little.

Harry pulled out a card from his back pocket, then the fountain pen he kept in his vest pocket. He quickly scribbled out a note, then passed it to Daisy with a flourish.

She giggled and accepted it, mouth moving as she read the words to herself.

Dear Miss Daisy, it said, I am unable to talk because of an accident, but I can understand you perfectly. I accept your apology, and I hope we can be great friends. -Harry.

Daisy looked up at him once she’d finished and grinned.

“What did he tell you, Daisy?” Phoebe demanded, making to snatch the card. Daisy pulled it against her chest protectively, face screwed up in anger.

Harry tapped his fingers against the table, looking between a now-guilt-stricken Daisy and Phoebe. Daisy deflated, then handed the note to her sister.

Soon, the two were engaged in a hushed conversation about whether or not Harry could be allowed to be part of their best friend pact. Louis caught Harry’s gaze while chatting with Lily and Charlotte, smiling for a moment before looking away.

Harry sighed into his wine.

 

🜾🜾🜾

 

It only took a week or so for a new normal to establish itself in Louis’ household. Harry arrived for breakfast every morning, helped wrangle the little ones into eating and getting ready, then saw Louis off as he drove them to school.

Harry was glad that all of the girls were getting a decent education, and he quite enjoyed hearing about Felicite's passion for history and Charlotte’s interest in fashion. Lottie would be graduating soon, and she was already so full of ideas about the kind of job she wanted. Harry admired her spirit; all of the girls’, really. Charlotte didn’t need to seek employment per se; Louis’ finances were stable enough, with the house he lived in (an inheritance, Harry had gathered), and Louis made enough with his writing to keep on the servants that had come with it (except Lily and Geraldine were more like aunts than servants).

But...there were times when Harry became aware that a great deal of things weren’t being talked about, and it wasn’t limited to Louis’ mother—though the afternoon after Louis had taken his sisters to visit her was the quietest the house had been since they’d moved in. The longer Harry spent here, this world he’d begged to be sent back to, the more he realised it wasn’t nearly as perfect as it seemed.

There was a scar in this world, a wound as deep as it was fresh. He saw echoes of it every day. The people in this world were real and diverse and unique and wonderful, but they also seemed shallow at times, awful and hateful and small.

Phoebe came home crying, one day, because of the things one of the girls in her class had said to her.

Harry did his best to comfort her, Geraldine and Louis by his side while Lily made her her favourite biscuits. But try as they might, Phoebe couldn’t be convinced to repeat what had been said.

From the look on Louis’ face, it seemed like he knew without being told. He was extra gentle with her that night, brushing her hair for her as she prepared for bed and singing her a sweet lullaby. He even, by request, read aloud a chapter of his second novel to her—the sequel to little Doris’ adventures with magic—and Harry couldn’t peel himself away from the doorway as Louis’ melodic voice read his own words out to his sister, gentle as a kiss to the forehead.

As curious as Harry was, he doubted the truth would set him free.

Even with the weight of things unspoken dragging everyone in the house down, there were still shining moments of happiness and joy; Phoebe’s first time baking her favourite biscuits, Lily’s completion of a beautiful needlework piece that Felicite insisted be hung in her room, or even the day Louis came home, a wide grin on his face and an expensive bottle of wine in his hand.

“I’ve just heard from the realtor,” he’d said, talking as if a great strain had been released from his shoulders, “and he’s managed to secure a sizeable sum for the estate. Everyone gets a raise!”

Harry had enjoyed a glass of the wine, smiled along with Lily and Geraldine, allowed himself to feel the bubbling of merriment through his veins.

Louis managed to snag him alone, after their impromptu celebration in the dining room. He pulled Harry into the study, and wasted no time before coming out with it;

“I’d like for you to move in.”

Harry was taken aback, of course. He’d assumed that perhaps it wasn’t normal for this century’s pages to live with their sires, and he’d made reasonable progress towards securing lodgement of his own. 

But the way Louis’ eyes shone in the soft electric light, the hope that was painted into every inch of his skin, well…

Harry was hardly going to refuse. He tilted his head to the side sort of coyly, waiting for Louis to explain himself better.

Louis puffed his chest out, like he knew how upfront he was being, how ridiculous he sounded, and he’d already signed away his fate so he might as well commit. It was one habit amongst many that Harry admired him for.

“You’re so wonderful with the girls, and I’m sure that travelling from wherever you live is exhausting, given how early you’re always here and how late you stay. With this upcoming raise, I think it’s reasonable that you might want to commit yourself to this job, and I would be remiss if I didn’t suggest a way to make it easier for you.”

Harry listened to Louis, truly listened to him, and he was caught for a moment in what he heard. Because he’d proven himself rather rusty at understanding interpersonal relations, and he was admittedly quite biased, so if he’d managed to read between the lines of Louis argument and come to the conclusion that it wasn’t really about the work at all, and Louis just wanted him to move in for himself , then surely that had been a misunderstanding.

Nevertheless, he accepted Louis’ offer. Of course he did.

Louis had Geraldine set him up with a spare room, and even though it was small and ill-furnished it still smelt the same as the rest of Louis’ house, and it was warm and safe. It felt like it could be a home, one day.

 

🜾🜾🜾

 

Harry was in the kitchen with Lily making tarts when Louis found him. Harry paused mid-giggle—Lily was ruthlessly teasing him for his less than stellar kneading technique—looking up to see Louis frozen in the doorway, a flush to his cheeks.

Harry raised his eyebrows and waved with one of his dough-sticky hands.

Louis adjusted his vest nervously, then smiled.

“Sorry to interrupt the important baking, Lily dear. Do you mind if I steal Harry?”

Lily shook her head fondly, already taking over Harry’s misshapen lump. She bumped Harry away from the bench towards Louis with a grin.

“You needn’t ask, Master Louis; he’s yours, after all,” she said.

Harry turned towards the sink so he might clean his hands (and also avoid the besotted expression he most definitely had after hearing someone call him Louis’ ).

Louis spluttered a little, replying, “I don’t own the lad, Lily, he’s not–”

Harry dried his hands off quickly and ushered Louis out of the room before he could get himself too caught in his own words.

Louis sent him a grateful look, peeking around his shoulder to wave goodbye to Lily before heading down the hallway towards his study.

“I just needed your help with something, actually,” he said, slowing enough for Harry to fall in step next to him. “I’m a little stuck with the latest story for the paper, and it’s due tomorrow afternoon, and I’ve got to pick the girls up from school in a few hours.”

Harry nodded along, insides giddy at the prospect of Louis letting him read something unfinished.

Once they reached Louis’ study, Louis gestured for Harry to sit at his desk. The pages Louis had already typed were in front of him in a neat stack. He wasted no time picking the first one up.

“Um, I’ll just,” Louis said, stepping away. Harry turned to him with pursed lips and a frown. He pointed at the desk where Louis was leaning.

“But Harry!” Louis whined, catching his meaning. “I hate this part, I’d much rather–”

Harry crossed his arms.

Louis sighed, then leaned back against the desk. “Alright, you win,” he sassed, hooking one ankle over the other. “Just be gentle with me, yeah?”

Harry coughed, swallowing down some rather indelicate images Louis’ words had provoked. He nodded briskly, then started reading.

There was definitely a difference between Louis’ edited and unedited works. This story was full of parts where Louis interrupted the narrative to leave little notes for himself, small reminders or questions to be answered later. It was like reading something straight from Louis’ brain; raw, unpolished. Wonderful.

Louis’ short stories for the magazine followed a young lady detective as she solved all manner of mysteries, though they were published under a pseudonym for reasons Harry couldn’t parse. This week’s adventure was set in a nunnery; the Lady Diana had gone undercover to expose a secret ring of Sacred Relic smugglers. It was quite gripping, and before he knew it he’d come to the end of the pages and the story was cut off. He almost whined, flipping the page over in his hand like there would be more hidden on the back.

Louis laughed softly, leaning down. “That’s it, I’m afraid. I just can’t figure out how the Mother Superior escaped capture in the belltower...”

Harry frowned. The answer to that had seemed obvious, to him. He fed the paper back into the typewriter, then continued the story on a new line.

Louis shifted so he was behind him, watching over Harry’s shoulder as he typed. “Harry, that’s genius!” he enthused. He gripped Harry’s shoulder in his excitement, and Harry’s fingers paused over the keys for just a moment before he continued. He was probably overstepping his bounds, writing Louis’ ending for him, and there was undoubtedly a shift in tone. But Louis seemed nothing short of amazed, making small noises and offering suggestions as Harry went. Soon enough, the story had ended, and Harry took his hands off the typewriter.

He looked up at Louis for approval, then froze. He hadn’t noticed how close he’d gotten, their faces barely inches apart. Louis turned his head then as well, meeting Harry’s wide-eyed gaze.

“Oh,” he breathed. Then, he leaned back. He cleared his throat and ran a hand through his coiffed hair.

Harry slumped back in his chair, looked back at the pages. He fetched a pen off the desk, scribbling on the margin, you don’t have to use it.

Louis scoffed. “Of course I do, Harry, it’s brilliant. I don’t know why I didn’t ask you to help sooner.”

Harry grinned up at Louis.

Louis looked panicked for a moment, then clapped him on the shoulder. “You’re a wonderful assistant!” he squeaked out, hastily gathering the pages into a folder.

Harry’s grin faded a little as Louis organised his desk to leave. “I might run a few errands in town before I pick up the girls, but thanks again for your help.”

Then, with a few short footsteps and the snick of the door handle, Louis was gone.

Harry slumped back in the chair. He looked over to the mirror on the far wall. He gazed at it from afar for a few melancholy seconds, then stood to approach it.

He looked into it, tried to look through it. But there wasn’t anything there but his own face, a small streak of flour across his cheek.

 

🜾🜾🜾

 

That night, Harry met Louis’ friends for the first time. He’d heard about them from Louis, of course; a group of three men he’d met at school who he’d bonded with. Harry gathered they used to meet and go out on the town quite often, before… Well. Before Louis’ mother got sick, it seemed.

They came rushing into the home like a pack of wolves; loud, excitable things, greeting Lily, Geraldine, and the girls like they were family themselves.

The girls seemed to love them, Harry noted without a hint of jealousy. Not a hint.

They turned to Louis after hugs had been distributed to everyone else in the foyer. They seemed to all glare at each other for a second, then Louis opened his arms and the boys leaped towards him, burying him in a noisy, squirming hug.

“Alright, alright, that’s enough, lads!” Louis laughed, pushing them away. “You’re gonna suffocate me.”

Then, finally, he turned to Harry, who’d been patiently waiting through the whole messy thing to be introduced.

“Harry, I’m so sorry!” Louis gasped. “This is Niall Horan, Liam Payne and Zayn Malik.” He turned back to the boys with a look of pride on his face. “Lads, this is Harry. He’s my assistant.”

Harry offered his hand to shake, a polite smile on his face. The three men exchanged a look, and then not a moment later he found himself enveloped in a hug. He stumbled back a little, shooting Louis a frantic look, much to the man’s amusement.

“Lovely to meet you,” Liam Payne said, right into his ear.

“We’ve heard great things,” Zayn Malik added, patting his back.

“Don’t know why he’s been keeping you from us!” Niall Horan shouted.  

Harry relaxed a little into the hug, squeezing back whichever parts of the boys were in his grip.

Then, the hug was over, and the frenzy had died down a little. In fact, everyone managed to have a lovely dinner together without any howling or peeing on the carpet.

Harry was most impressed.

He watched Louis interact with his friends as he ate his soup, noting every word and gesture. They seemed very close, and the jokes flowed freely. He even learned a few embarrassing facts about Louis’ time at university, much to the man’s dismay.

“That never happened, Harry,” Louis insisted, after Liam had told a frankly horrifying story about the time Louis had almost burned down the Dean’s office.

“It did! It did!” Daisy yelled from down the table, waving with her spoon. “Mama was so angry at you for a whole week!”

Daisy!”

Daisy crossed her little arms across her chest.

“We mustn’t tell lies, Louis,” Phoebe added in her defense.

Harry nodded and passed her some of his bread in solidarity.

Louis mumbled darkly into his soup.

Once dinner was finished and all the plates had been cleared away, Harry stood to start preparing the little ones for bed.

“Oh, uh, Harry!” Niall said, catching his arm. Harry looked over to him in surprise, looking behind to see Louis, Zayn and Liam conversing at the table still. He’d imagined they’d like the evening to themselves to catch up, but he smiled at Niall politely nonetheless.

“Are you coming with us tonight? To the bar?”

Harry frowned. He looked back at Louis once more, only to see he’d paused his conversation and was watching him with an odd expression.

Harry simply lifted his shoulders in response to Niall’s question.

The man seemed charmingly saddened. “Nah, mate! Come on. It’ll be fun, we promise we’ll make you feel welcome. Isn’t that right?” He directed the last part over his shoulder with a pointed look. Liam and Zayn nodded obligingly, but Louis still seemed unsure.

“You don’t have to come if you don’t want to, Harry,” he said, standing.

The other men stood with him, saying their goodbyes to Geraldine and Lily.

Harry looked down at his feet. He honestly couldn’t tell if Louis was being gentle with him because he was afraid Harry didn’t want to spend time with his friends, or if he just didn’t want him there but couldn’t say as much for fear of sounding rude.

Harry decided to throw caution to the wind. At the very least, he wanted to find out how taphouses and merriment had changed since he was last part of this world; he hadn’t had much opportunity to explore around the city at night.

So he looked back at Niall and nodded firmly.

“Good man!” Niall laughed, clapping him on the shoulder. “You won’t regret it!”

It only took about thirty minutes of being in the smoky, noisy, crowded, sticky pub for Harry to, in fact, start regretting it.

The place was packed full of people, and it was in a seedier part of town than Harry had been expecting Louis and his well-off friends to visit. There was a band on the stage playing the most awful, brassy music, full of nonsense sounds and loud drums. It was grating at his skull, and no amount of sickly sweet drinks seemed to dull the ache (and he’d had five already).

Louis seemed to be enjoying himself, at least; he’d dragged Liam off to the dance floor the second they’d arrived, and Harry was left with Niall and Zayn’s rather unlistenable conversation about their birdwatching hobby as he watched the men dance merrily to the beat. Louis was an awful dancer by Harry’s standards, but one look at the rest of the pub showed that expectations for dancing had clearly changed.

The more Harry thought about it, however, the more the scene started to make sense to him.

He was thinking about this place the wrong way. The dances he’d attended for the last thousand years were stuffy, extravagant things, with a trained orchestra (that only knew three songs) and people in their finest clothes, robotically pretending to enjoy themselves. If he thought back, really thought back, to when he was a young boy himself, this kind of thing was exactly what he’d done. Peasants had a different definition of dancing, of fun, of music; he remembered it being wonderful, then, the flowing beer and the fast beats and the swirling of bodies.

Perhaps Harry just needed to relax a little into who he used to be.

Louis and Liam stumbled back up to the small table, laughing and clinging to each other. “Come on, lads, the party’s over there!” Liam laughed, stealing the drink Zayn was nursing and gulping it down. Zayn pouted at him until he noticed and pressed a quick kiss to his cheek in apology.

Harry smiled at the interaction. It always warmed his heart, how some things had changed.

This pub especially seemed rather… fluid, compared to what Harry had seen around town during the daylight. There were male-bodied people in dresses—rather sparkly dresses, with a face of makeup to match—and female-bodied people in suits, there were couples or groupings of every gender enjoying each other’s company.

Yes. Harry definitely needed to relax. This place was somewhere he should enjoy.

He made an effort to loosen his shoulders, then, and let out the breath he’d been holding. Louis watched him with a keen eye, pressing up against him at the table and leaning up on his tiptoes to talk into his ear.

“Are you having fun?”

Harry snorted without meaning to, then tried his very best to nod sincerely at Louis. Louis squinted in response, hands on his hips like a stern grandmother.

“No! Not good enough. Here, come on,” Louis yelled over the music, gripping Harry’s elbow and pulling him from his seat. Harry’s eyes bugged out of his head as he stumbled after Louis, only barely having enough time to put his drink safely back on the table and wave bemusedly to Niall, Liam and Zayn.

“Dance with me!” Louis exclaimed as he pulled Harry to a stop in the middle of the dance floor. The crushing movement of bodies surrounded them, and Harry fought down the urge for several long seconds to hunch, to make himself smaller.

He was a king, and kings did not slouch.

Louis seemed to deflate a little at Harry’s lack of response. He stepped up to him again, placing his hands on Harry’s shoulders to balance himself as he said, “You don’t have to, Harry. I’m sorry if I made you uncomfortable, being your employer and asking you to dance–”

Harry had had enough of that. He put his hands on Louis’ waist with determination (trying not to think about how well they seemed to fit there, how Louis’ breath hitched at his touch) and started swaying like he saw some other dancing couples doing. The music was a little too fast for it, but he didn’t particularly feel like making a fool of himself attempting one of the more hoppy dances he saw around.

Then, Louis grinned. He cheered sloppily, swaying in time with Harry and looking so lovely even in the middle of this rather ugly mess of a pub.

Perhaps Harry could afford to be a fool, just this once.

So he took a step back from Louis and he followed everyone else's lead, amateurishly shuffling his legs around in a poor facsimile of their seamless movements.

Louis clapped a hand over his mouth, eyes pressed into slits from how hard he was grinning. Harry spun around in a little circle, then opened his arms wide, like he was saying, tada! I'm having fun!

Louis giggled into his hand, then made a concerted effort to school his features into something more supportive. “Well done, Harry, you're an excellent dancer,” he said, taking one of Harry's suspended hands and settling it back on his own waist. “Maybe you could teach me a thing or two?”

Harry would like nothing more.

They danced—clumsily, awkwardly, joyfully—for more than ten songs, each one bleeding into the last. They would take turns trying out increasingly terrible attempts at made-up dance moves, and Liam, Zayn and Niall soon joined in on the fun. Harry didn't think he'd laughed so hard in an entire millennium.

Eventually, he and Louis collapsed onto the table they'd claimed, still wobbling and giggling. They calmed down after a drink of cold water provided by a stern-looking waitress, a comfortable silence taking its place on the spare seat at the table.

“I love jazz,” Louis sighed into his drink, a faraway look on his face. “Father never approved, but mother always said it reminded her of me; cheeky, rebellious, you know.”

Harry listened intently—this was the first mention he'd heard of Louis’ father—but Louis shook himself off.

“I had assumed you liked it too, considering. Do you come here often?”

Did Harry… what?

Harry looked around the room to distract himself from answering right away. He wasn’t at all sure what would lead Louis to the assumption that he’d been here before, and thinking back on the evening provided no insights. He simply shrugged helplessly.

Louis squinted at him.

“You know, when I told Lily and Geraldine that I wanted to advertise for an assistant in this den of inequities,” he gestured broadly to the pub, a wide grin softening his words, “they passed some judgement. Well, a lot of judgement. But I told them I didn't want an assistant who wasn't—who didn't…” Louis trailed off, a far away gaze taking over his face. “Who wasn't like me. A lot has changed for us queers, Harry, but there's still a whiles to go. I'm sure you would know.”

Harry but the inside of his cheek, turning over Louis’ words. His assumption that Harry was someone the church called a sinner was correct—he'd never been able to see himself with a woman—but it seemed Louis had arrived at it rather falsely.

Still, Harry couldn't correct him, not without revealing himself to have been an unwelcome intruder in Louis’ home that very first day.

He was saved from having to respond by Niall, Liam and Zayn’s drink-happy bodies colliding with the table.

“Lou! Harry!” Niall slurred. “My favorites.”

Harry’s eyebrows raised.

Liam nodded in support to Niall’s greeting, patting him on the back with very little coordination. “I know we only met tonight, Harry, and you haven't even said a word to us all evening–” Liam hiccuped, “–but I can already tell you're a stand up lad.”

Louis looked disapproving at Liam’s lack of tact, but his frown morphed into a smile at the sight of Harry’s laugh.

Harry nodded at Liam gratefully; it was almost a relief, actually, for someone to joke with him about his muteness, like it wasn't something awful but rather something inconvenient. Or, perhaps not even that; something that was beginning to feel more and more a part of him everyday.

“Alright, boys, I think it's time to get you home,” Louis said, fondness colouring his voice.

Zayn whined. “What's gotten into you, Lou? You used to be worse than all of us, now you’re cutting us off.”

Harry frowned at Zayn, feeling a surge of protectiveness after seeing the way his words made Louis’ shoulders drop a little.

“I’m a caretaker now, me, gotta be responsible,” Louis shot back stiffly.

Harry patted his hand, still glaring at Zayn.

Zayn sighed and leaned against Liam. He seemed to have realised the offense he'd caused, at least. “I know, Lou. I'm sorry.”

Louis nodded, but his posture didn’t become any less tense.

Harry stood from the table and made a show of pulling his jacket on (a dark green woolen coat with impeccable stitching that he’d picked up in a store instead of having a tailor fit it to him, so it sagged in places he wasn’t used to.) Liam, Zayn, Liam and Louis watched him for a moment, then made to follow his lead after he waved his hands at them questioningly.

They took two taxis back to Louis’ house, and the overall mood was tired but merry. Louis entertained their driver with a conversation about music that Harry couldn’t parse a word of, Liam almost fell asleep against Harry’s shoulder, and Niall and Zayn were in the car behind them.

When they reached the house, Louis gave everyone a stern talking to about not making any noise so as to not wake up his charming little sisters, and then they stumbled inside and off to the rooms Geraldine and Harry had prepared for them this afternoon.

Louis waved his friends off with a smile and a whispered good night, but stopped Harry with a hand on his arm before he could turn away.

“Did you have fun tonight?” Louis asked. Somehow, even in the low light of the house, his eyes were still so blue.

Harry smiled and placed his hand atop Louis’. He wasn’t lying when he nodded, and he wasn’t thinking when he let his thumb drag across the smooth skin of Louis’ hand.

Louis gulped, then smiled. It was a little shaky around the edges, and Harry tilted his head to the side.

Louis didn’t answer him. He just extracted his hand from Harry’s grip, waved farewell, and headed towards his bedroom.

Harry watched him go with a sigh, then entered his room. After a night of dancing and laughing and being in the company of others, his room seemed much emptier than when he’d woken.