The weather is perfect on Niall’s last day, and Louis can’t decide if that’s a good omen or a bad one. The breeze is strong and steady, the temperature warm, the sky almost cloudless. Even the customers are better behaved than usual, following instructions, listening intently, asking thoughtful questions. It’s perfect.
It only makes Louis more nervous. He and Niall have been doing their informational sailing tours for more than two years now, and they have it down to a science. They each know their roles, know their scripts, know which ropes to adjust when and where the other will be as they do it. Louis is nominally the skipper, since the Follow the Sun is his boat, but over the hundreds of times they’ve traced these routes, Niall could recite Louis’ orders by heart (in an appalling accent; Louis does not sound like that) while executing them perfectly.
“Nervous?” Niall asks quietly as they skim between the islands. They dropped their passengers off half an hour ago, but neither of them is quite ready to return to land just yet.
“A little,” Louis admits. “I’ve barely spoken to Harry since he left, and that was years ago. I’d barely started sailing. Now he’s been on the mainland for half a decade – I can’t give tours and train a mainlander who doesn’t know a jib from a spinnaker.”
“He was born here,” Niall points out. “I wasn’t, and I turned out all right.”
“You moved here when you were two,” Louis says, rolling his eyes. “You could barely talk.”
“Just because you couldn’t understand my accent yet doesn’t mean I couldn’t talk. And Harry lived here for fourteen years. He’s only been gone five.”
Louis shrugs. “We’ll see,” he says. “And anyways, I should be the one asking you if you’re nervous. How many days now?”
Niall stares out at the ocean rushing past them. “Three,” he says. “Gives me enough time to get a few things sorted before I’m housebound for the foreseeable future.”
Louis knew that. They’ve talked about the organizational details enough, the messiness of the first open slot for the surgery falling right at the beginning of summer, their busiest time of the year. They’d already been more than half booked, even that far in advance, and there was no way they could just cancel or refund.
But how Niall felt about the operation was something they’d always danced around (at least, as much as Niall could dance with his bad knee).
“How are you feeling?” Louis asks now, his voice soft. He thinks Niall might ignore him, or brush it off, not usually one for serious talks.
He doesn’t though. “I’m scared,” he admits. “I know it’s all routine, and I definitely know I need the surgery, the way things have been lately. I’ve researched all I can about the procedure, the recovery, the… risks.”
He pauses, and Louis reaches out to squeeze his hand. “I’m sure it will be fine,” he says. “You’re young, healthy. You’ll be back on your feet before you know it, better than ever.”
Niall shrugs. “Here’s hoping,” he says. “You’ll come visit me, yeah?”
“Course I will.”
“Tell me all about how you’re gonna replace me with Harry?"
Louis laughs. “Never,” he says. “You’re my best friend, Ni. Nothing could ever replace that.”
Louis arrives at the docks bright and early the next morning. He wants to give the Follow the Sun her weekly inspection before Harry arrives. He goes over the rigging carefully, checking for weak spots or frays, then checks the railing for any looseness. He’s just finishing up checking the hull when he hears footsteps.
Louis quickly wipes his hands on his shorts before emerging from belowdecks. The sun is bright, even so early, and Louis squints at the contrast to the dimness. Standing at the end of the pier he sees a tall silhouette of a man, hand tucked into his pockets.
“Hey,” Louis says, blinking rapidly as his eyes adjust. “How’s it going?”
“Not bad,” comes the reply, and though the voice is what seems like several octaves deeper than Louis remembers, it is unmistakably Harry’s. “Good to be back here.”
“Once an islander,” Louis says almost automatically. He shakes his head, striding quickly over to Harry. “Good to see you again.”
He extends a hand to shake and Harry obliges, his grip firm and warm and his hand almost enveloping Louis’. Louis studies him for a moment, almost doubting that his eyes have fully adjusted. He looks so different, is the thing, and Louis knows it’s been half a decade since they’ve seen each other, but it’s still disconcerting. He looks unquestionably familiar, yet almost everything Louis would have once used to describe him has changed.
He’s grown up in every way, is the thing. His shoulders have filled out, his hair relaxed out of its corkscrew curls, and he’s just tall enough that Louis has to tilt his head back to meet his gaze. A handful of tattoos decorate his left arm – Louis sees a mermaid and a rose, among others. His eyes are the same deep green, but their youthful spark has turned to clarity, and his boyish smile has become steady and confident.
Louis suddenly realizes that he’s been silent too long, Harry’s smile going tight and nervous. “Sorry,” he says stepping back, motioning Harry onto the vessel. “Welcome aboard the Follow the Sun.”
“She’s a beauty,” Harry says, his voice soft and almost reverent. Louis can understand that. He’s felt that way about her since he first laid eyes on her, three years ago.
“She’s nothing fancy, but she gets the job done,” he says, patting the side. “We don’t need bells and whistles, so we get along fine.”
He shows Harry around the boat, going over the sails and ropes, ducking into the cabin, pointing out the safety equipment. He shows him the storage shed, and where the spare keys are kept. Harry is quiet except for a few questions, his eyes darting around.
“Everything making sense so far?” Louis asks as they return to the boat.
Harry nods. “It all seems fairly straightforward.”
“Good,” Louis says, plopping onto one of the side benches. “So we do two tours a day, about three hours each, and we’re booked fairly solid. There might be the occasional empty slot, but summer is usually busy. Wednesdays are off; do what you like with them. We also have a few overnights scheduled – that takes up the afternoon slot and then the next day’s morning slot, and we take them camping on an island. I’ll send you the link to the full schedule.”
“We’ll have an hour for lunch,” Louis continues. “You can bring something in the morning and keep it in the cooler, or grab something from the café down the beach, or even head home if you’d like. As long as you’re back for one, I’m fine with it.” Harry nods, and Louis presses on. “We have two routes, I’ll take you over both today. Usually we take them out under sail – it’s what customers are really looking for, after all – but if there’s no wind or too much wind, we have a motor route as a backup plan. As long as we’re able to go out safely, there are no refunds. I make the call, and my decision is final.”
“How do customers usually take that?” Harry asks.
Louis chuckles. “It varies,” he says. “Some are understanding, or just happy to be out on the water. Some just leave, which I don’t understand but it’s their prerogative. Rich people are weird, and I’m still getting paid. Some do get ornery. It’s not your job to argue with them, though; I’ve had plenty of practice. I’ve also been on these tours about a thousand times, so I know most of the info, even Niall’s part, so that’s not really anything you need to worry about either. Your job is really just to help sail the boat.”
Harry chuckles. “I can do that.”
Louis hopes so.
Harry is… better than Louis expected. He’s clearly spent time on a boat – a few questions reveal that he competed in sailing regattas in secondary school – and he catches on quickly to the Follow the Sun’s motions and quirks; which ropes sometimes stick, and the way she hates a crossbreeze. He follows Louis’ instructions carefully, still quiet but focused. By the time they head home in the evening, Louis is feeling cautiously optimistic.
By lunchtime the next day, he has a splitting headache and is no longer optimistic. Harry is… unpredictable. Half the time, when Louis moves to pull in a sail or adjust their course, Harry is already there. Which might be useful, except it’s still his first day and Louis isn’t sure how much he knows yet, how much he remembers or is even capable of. He keeps jumping in as Louis talks, throwing in extra bits and pieces and completely knocking Louis out of his rhythm. He can’t remember what he’s said, what Harry’s already said, what comes next. It’s dizzying.
He bites his tongue and says nothing, not wanting to quarrel in front of the passengers. He keeps his customer service smile pasted on until they’re waving them off at the docks, then he turns to Harry.
“You clearly feel fairly sure of things already,” he says.
Harry smiles. “Yeah, it’s good to be back on the water. And back here. I’ve learned a lot in my studies, so it’s cool to finally be able to really apply it.”
“Hmm.” Louis tries not to grimace. “Well, you’re still new to me, and I don’t really have a sense of whatever skills or knowledge you might have. I’m the skipper of this ship, and I’d appreciate you following direction rather than just doing your own thing.”
“Oh.” Harry’s face falls slightly, but he nods. “All right. I understand.”
“Good,” Louis says brusquely. “Now, lunch. We have a little over an hour. If you’re leaving, just be sure to be back by one. I’ll be at the café.”
Maybe a tea will calm him down. He’d rather have something stronger, but since he’s not in the habit of endangering his customers, that’s not an option. Acetaminophen and tea will have to do.
Hopefully the afternoon will be better.
The afternoon is not better. Harry does nothing without Louis’ orders, and Louis can’t sail, give the tour, and direct Harry without at least one extra brain. Harry eventually switches to checking with Louis before doing anything, but it’s still exhausting, and Louis feels like he’s constantly trying to say six things and he can’t keep up.
“That wasn’t better,” Harry says, as they wave off the customers.
“No,” Louis agrees. At least Harry can recognize that much. “This morning you were in the way. This afternoon you might as well have not been there.”
Harry jerks back. “You told me to just follow orders,” he says. “I was trying to do what you wanted.”
“Yeah, but you have instincts, don’t you?” Louis says, frustrated. “Do I really have to tell you to adjust the sails when we tack?”
“I did that this morning and you chewed me out!”
“I didn’t-” Louis shakes his head. “Whatever. And stop interrupting me on the tour info; I lose my place.”
“I just – I want to contribute. It’s so interesting.” Harry pauses. “Maybe if you let me learn some of Niall’s part-”
“No,” Louis says, his voice brooking no argument. “You’re just here to sail, so I can focus on the rest of it. Just – whatever. Do whatever it takes to make sure we stay on route and don’t crash or tip over.” He sighs. “It’s the first day. It’s not going to be perfect. Hopefully tomorrow will be better.”
“It’d almost have to be,” Harry mutters, and Louis can’t help but agree.
He directs Harry through derigging and then sends him off, but lingers a minute longer to sweep out the shed. He doesn’t usually bother, the cleanliness of the floor hardly important, but he needs the methodical simplicity of it for a moment, the sense of accomplishing something even if it’s nothing that matters. Only when the floor is spotless does he hang up the broom and walk home.
“How was the first day of school?” Jay asks as he walks in the door.
“Terrible,” he says, kicking off his shoes. “God, what a nightmare. I miss Niall already. Think I can get him to cancel the surgery after all?”
“No,” Jay says. “I doubt it. What was so awful about it?” She pats the couch next to her, and Louis flops down with a sigh.
“It was just… we aren’t on the same page at all. It’s like oil and water, all messy and disjointed and discombobulated.” He shakes his head. “Niall and I always meshed. I don’t even have to think about it.”
“You and Niall have been doing this for years,” Jay says with a laugh. “And you were best friends even before that. Let Harry have a few days to adjust before you give up hope. He’s a good kid.”
“He’s nineteen,” Louis says. “He’s hardly a kid anymore. And if he can’t learn quickly…” He shakes his head again. “We don’t really have a lot of time. And I’d rather not lose all my Yelp stars over a single season. Niall will never forgive me.”
“He would, actually,” Jay says. “But I don’t think he’ll have to. Give it time, Louis. Anne’s been telling me about Harry’s studies – he’s in Environmental Sciences at Bristol, you know, and he really wants to learn more about this area. He’ll put in the work, as long as you let him.”
Louis wants to argue. He really does. But he also doesn’t have a lot of back up plans. There are a few kids in the area he could probably hire, but he’s not sure he trusts them any more than he trusts Harry. The Follow the Sun is his baby, and he and Niall have built Tomlinson Touring from the ground up, pouring blood, sweat, and tears into it – quite literally. He refuses to see that destroyed or even diminished.
“A few days,” he says at last. “But he’d better work his ass off.”
“He will,” Jay says, laughing. “Just you wait and see.”
Louis doesn’t even think to knock before pushing open the door to Niall’s house, a house that has been almost as much a home to him as his own for as long as he can remember. Louis’ mother had taken Niall’s under her wing when she’d moved to the island, and their young sons had quickly become fast friends.
“Where are you, ya lump?” he calls as he shuts the door behind him. Niall’s familiar cackle greets him in reply, and he follows it to the living room. He’s missed that laugh.
He finds Niall sat half-reclining on the sofa, his leg propped up on a stool. Louis plops himself down on the other end, careful not to jostle him, then lets out a gusty sigh.
“Good to be off your feet?” Niall says, grinning. “I’ve been off mine almost all week.”
Louis rolls his eyes. “Among other things,” he says. “It’s been a bit of a time.”
“Aww.” Niall flutters his eyelashes in Louis’ direction. “I didn’t know you felt that way.”
Louis ignores him. It’s their bit, long since become familiar. Besides, even if Niall weren’t straight and aromantic, they were practically siblings.
“Harry not as capable as you hoped?” Niall asks after a moment.
Louis shrugs. “Oh, he’s capable enough, I suppose,” he says. “Even knows a thing or two about the area – picked up from all that fancy university learning.”
“That is what universities are for,” Niall points out.
Louis shoves him, gently. “You know what I mean,” he says. “And you know what I think.”
“I do,” Niall agrees, before adopting Louis’ gruff tone. “No book can teach anything so well as Nature herself.”
“Darn right,” Louis says. “You want to learn the island, you gotta live the islands. I’ve been over every inch of these waters, same as you. What’s a mainlander university education to that?”
Niall shakes his head. “Always so feisty,” he says. “You’d think your best friend hadn’t been born a mainlander.”
Niall’s voice is gently teasing, but there’s a firmness to it too. “You were two,” Louis protests, but he knows that’s not the point. Niall always tells him that it’s foolish to be so judgmental of the people who power his entire business, but Louis always retorts that if they wanted to know about the islands, really know them, it’d take more than half a day to do it. He doesn’t need to like them to take their money.
“Harry was born on this island,” Niall reminds him. “He grew up here, same as me, same as you.”
“And then he left,” Louis points out. “He’s been gone, what – five years, now? Six?”
“Just to Falmouth,” Niall says. “Plenty of sailing there, and the flora and fauna aren’t that different.” He shrugs. “Besides, I thought you said he was capable enough. What does it matter where he learned it?”
“It’s not that he’s not capable,” Louis says, grimacing. “He’s just – ugh. He sets my teeth on edge.”
Niall frowns. “How so?”
“He just-” Louis doesn’t know how to explain, is the thing. He doesn’t know how to explain that the issue isn’t that Harry’s not capable, but that he’s too capable – or at least, he thinks he is. “I’m the skipper, right,” he says at last. “I give the orders. But Harry – he doesn’t wait for orders. He just – goes. Like it’s his boat.”
Niall looks unimpressed. “When he doesn’t wait for orders, does he do the things you were going to order him to do?”
Louis scowls. “Mostly,” he says. “Not always. Like the other day, I was talking about the cliff formations on Paulson’s Point, and he brought the boat in to only a few feet away. That’s not what we’ve ever done! And – I told him what the route is, I told him how we do things, but he just-” He drops his voice exaggeratedly low and slow. “I just wanted them to see it up close, what you were describing.”
Niall raises an eyebrow. “Sounds like it worked,” he says. “You do describe some intricate stuff there.”
Louis sputters. “That’s not the point!” he says. “It’s dangerous to get too close. We could have crashed!”
“Did you?” Niall asks. “Was there any real risk of it? Was the wind unpredictable, or the sea choppy, or the course unsteady?”
“Well – that’s not – I didn’t-” This was not how Louis had expected things to go.
“No,” Louis begrudgingly admits. “But Ni, that’s not the point-”
“So if it worked and it was safe and it gave the customers a better experience,” Niall says patiently, “it seems to me that the only real issue is that you’re not used to not being Head Bitch In Charge.”
Louis glares. “He also undercuts me with the tour information,” he says frostily. “I was telling the customers about the different species of whales and dolphins in the area, and he interrupts me and starts going on about how dolphins and whales aren’t actually separate groups.”
“So… he was right?”
“Louis.” Niall’s voice is slightly exasperated, but firm. “You’re my best friend and I love you to death, but you have got to get your head out of your ass. I’m flattered that you’re so resistant to replacing me, but it sounds like you really lucked out with Harry. He’s a good sailor, he knows stuff that can be useful for the tour – let him be useful.”
Louis opens his mouth to argue, but Niall claps a hand across his face. “No debates,” he says. “You know I’m right – or at least, you will once you let go of your pride. Different doesn’t mean bad, Lou.”
Louis sticks his tongue out to lick Niall’s palm, but Niall doesn’t even flinch. “I’m fairly sure that was worse for you than for me,” he says blandly, and Louis grimaces. Niall keeps his hand there a moment longer, then drops it, leaning back on the sofa with a sigh.
Louis feels a pang of guilt. He’s been complaining nonstop about his problems, while Niall is still recovering and housebound. “Does your knee hurt?” he asks.
Niall makes a face. “Some,” he says. “They gave me some wicked painkillers, but they make me super loopy. Not the best for having a proper conversation.”
Another pang. Niall is in pain because Louis is talking to him. “I should let you rest, then,” he says, rising. “I don’t want to-”
“Don’t be an idiot,” Niall says, motioning him back down. “I’ve barely seen anyone outside my family all week. I’m going stir crazy in here. At least tell me if there’s been anything new from Squigs. My mother never notices.”
Squigs was their nickname for a local graffiti artist. No one knew their real identity, but whoever they were, their pieces were always signed with a squiggly mark at the base, sweeping back and forth and growing wider with each turn. And their art – spray painted on sidewalks, fences, the sides of buildings – was fantastic.
“There was a piece by the school,” Louis says, digging for his phone. “I took a photo, must have forgot to send it to you for your collection.”
“I don’t have a collection,” Niall says, rolling his eyes.
“Your shrine, then.”
“…I have a collection.”
Louis finally succeeds in pulling up the image, and hands his phone to Niall, who grabs it greedily. His fingers hover just over the screen, tracing the paint strokes as he drinks in the image. “I wish I knew who it was,” he says, shaking his head in awe. “They’re so fucking talented.”
“I’ll be sure to get you an autograph if I ever find out,” Louis promises, dodging as Niall chucks the phone at him and letting it bounce off the cushions behind him. “Okay, fine, I won’t, if this is the kind of thanks I get.”
Niall rolls his eyes. “If you meet Squigs and don’t get an autograph, I will run your underwear up the mast.”
Louis doesn’t doubt him for a second.
The sun is setting by the time Louis finally leaves. Dinner will be over, and he doesn’t really feel like leftovers, so he lets his legs carry him to the Morris Family Diner. The bell over the door rings merrily as he steps inside, and Maren looks up from where she was leaning against the counter, chatting with a couple of locals.
“Afternoon, Lou!” she calls. “Your usual?”
“You got it,” he calls back with a smile, making his way to his usual booth in the back. It’s out of the way, the chatter of the front fading into distant incomprehensibility, and the large window has a view out into the forest as well as the town. It’s a perfect spot to sit and think, watching the world pass by like a movie.
And he has some thinking to do. Because what he would never in a million years have admitted to Niall – was that there might just possibly be some truth to what he said. Maybe. A little bit.
Harry is – he’s different. He isn’t what Louis is used to. But that shouldn’t be surprising. Louis and Niall have been working together for years, learning each other’s quirks and rhythms. Even before that, they’d practically lived at each other’s houses. He and Niall get each other, almost uncannily.
It isn’t fair of him to expect Harry to immediately fit perfectly into a mold that he and Niall have spent years shaping. Harry isn’t Niall. He’s his own person, with his own quirks and rhythms and skills and knowledge. He has to respect that, not fight it.
“One cheeseburger medium-rare with extra onions and a fried egg,” Maren says, setting the plate down in front of him and startling him out of his thoughts. “A mug of Yorkshire tea, strong, with just a hint of milk, plus I threw in a few fries. Not in the tea, of course.”
Louis chuckles. “Thanks, Maren,” he says. “You’re a gem.”
“You know it,” she says, laughing. “And you look like a man with something on his mind.”
Louis shrugs. “Been an interesting week,” he says.
“I’ll bet.” She slides into the booth across from him. “A little birdie tells me that Harry Styles is back after who knows how many years and is working on your boat.”
“Your birdies speak surprisingly good English,” Louis says. He doesn’t bother to ask where she heard. In a place this small, everyone knows everything – and working at her family’s diner, Maren would pick up even more gossip than most.
“How’s he doing?”
“Better than I expected,” Louis says, honestly. Because that is the truth, even if it’s a bit humbling to admit. He’d misjudged. “He’s a strong sailor, and he knows a lot about the area. We’re still, ah, finding our footing a bit, getting used to each other. But we’ll get there.”
Maren smiles. “How do the customers like him?”
“They love him,” Louis says. “He’s really good at connecting with people – got this quiet charisma, and this earnestness. When he talks, people listen.”
The more he talks, the more he realizes how unfair he’s been to Harry – and how unkind.
“Sounds like you got lucky,” Maren says. She swipes a fry off his plate, popping it into her mouth.
“The fries were free,” Maren points out. “If you’re not properly grateful I can take them away.”
Louis laughs. “All right, all right,” he says. “Help yourself.”
“I will,” Maren says, grabbing another before pushing herself to her feet. “I should get back to work,” she says. “Always good to see you, Louis.”
“You too,” he says as she walks away, leaving him alone with his thoughts again.
The next morning, Louis puts in a concerted effort to do better. He greets Harry with a smile, and Harry looks so startled that Louis feels steeped in guilt.
“Do you want to want to set up the sails or tidy up belowdecks?” he asks.
Harry’s brows knit, and he opens and closes his mouth before finally answering. “Don’t you usually prefer to do things together?” he says cautiously.
Louis shrugs. “I realized it’s probably more efficient this way,” he says. “Dunno if you have a preference, or if you’d rather trade off.” He can feel Harry studying him, trying to figure him out, and he shifts uncomfortably.
“I’ll do belowdecks,” Harry says at last. “If you’re okay with that.”
“Sure,” Louis says, and with one more questioning look, Harry disappears into the cabin.
Louis busies himself with setting up the sails, losing himself in the familiar comfort of it. He checks that all the ropes are untangled and the knots are secure, everything hooked up just the way it should be. It takes a bit longer on his own than as a two-person job, but when he finishes and heads below to check on Harry, the cabin is spotless – cleaner than he’s seen it in months. He usually just gives the floor a cursory sweep and cleans up any obvious mess, but Harry has not only swept but wiped down the tables and even fluffed the cushions.
“Wow,” Louis says, meaning it. “This looks great, Harry.”
Harry laughs. “Just a little elbow grease,” he says.
“Well, it paid off,” Louis says. He chuckles. “You must think I’m a slob.”
Harry looks alarmed. “Not at all,” he says. “I just had the time – it’s soothing, sometimes, cleaning. That’s probably weird.”
Louis shrugs. “I’m an extrovert who gets along better with boats than people,” he says. “We’re all a little weird.”
Harry frowns, puzzlement written across his face, and Louis decides to cut to the chase. “I visited Niall yesterday.”
Harry looks even more puzzled at the abrupt change of topic, but he smiles. “How’s he doing?”
“Healing nicely,” Louis says. “Still not very mobile, but it’s only been a few days.” He shrugs. “It just got me to thinking – you stepped in when I was in a jam. I haven’t been acting properly grateful for that.”
Harry looks gobsmacked. Louis can’t blame him. He’s been a dick.
“I know I haven’t been everything you expected-”
“I expected you to somehow be an exact copy of someone I’ve been working with for years,” Louis interrupts. “That wasn’t fair to you. You’re not Niall, you’re you. And – you’ve done quite well.”
Harry’s mouth opens and closes a few times, but no words come out. “Thank you,” he says at last.
Louis shrugs, not meeting Harry’s eyes. He’s never been good at apologizing. “It’s the truth,” he says. “About time I recognized it.” He shakes his head and heads for the stairs. “I’m gonna grab a tea from the café before the customers arrive,” he says. “You want anything?”
Harry studies him for a few moments longer before smiling. “I’d love a herbal tea,” he says. “Any kind is fine. I can pay you back if-”
Louis waves him off. “My treat,” he says. “It’s no trouble.”
Harry’s smile grows a fraction brighter. “Thanks.”
Louis coughs and nods, walking away as fast as he can without seeming like he’s fleeing. Which he’s not. Probably. He runs a hand through his hair and sighs. Hopefully things will smooth out from here, but he still somehow suspects that this summer will be unlike any other.
The next week is their first overnight trip. “Pack light,” Louis reminds Harry a couple days out. “I usually just bring a backpack. A change of clothes and some toiletries is probably all you really need. And don’t forget bug spray. Do you have a sleeping bag and mat? We have some extras if you need.”
“I have a sleeping bag,” Harry says. “I’d appreciate the mat, though. What about for the customers?”
“They’re providing their own tents,” Louis says. “I have a two-person tent for us – you’re okay with sharing?” He waits until Harry nods before continuing. “So that’s accommodation sorted, but they’ve opted for us providing the food, which means hot dogs for dinner, s’mores for dessert, and oatmeal for breakfast.”
“Very traditional,” Harry says, chuckling.
“Very easy,” Louis corrects wryly. “I’m not a particularly good cook with a proper setup, much less with just an open fire.” Harry laughs aloud at that, and Louis can’t help but smile. “Oi, pipe down,” he says. “Or I’ll keep the tent for myself.”
Harry obediently stops laughing, but his smile doesn’t fade at all, and Louis finds himself feeling glad.
“Anyways,” he says. “We still have a morning group before – you can leave your stuff in the shed – but no afternoon so we’ll be done when we get back. Good time to catch up on sleep.”
“Do clients tend to keep you up?”
“Not usually,” Louis says, smiling. “I just don’t sleep that well on the hard surface, even with the mat.”
“Then why do it?”
“I’m a filthy capitalist,” Louis deadpans, then chuckles. “No, really though. One of these pays about the same as three days normal work. More if we’re handling food or accommodations. That’s worth a little discomfort.”
“Seems reasonable,” Harry says, laughing. “Do you need anything from me? Help with a grocery run or what have you?”
“I should be fine,” Louis says. “I’ll let you know, though. Thanks.”
“Cool,” Harry says. “So until then – just business as usual?”
“More or less.” Louis shrugs. “It’s not a complicated affair – really, it’s even more laid back, since we’re only covering a little more ground in twice the time. We can go where the wind takes us.”
“I didn’t know you had a poetic streak,” Harry says teasingly. “Maybe you’re not so stodgy as you pretend.”
Arguing with either adjective seems like admitting to the other. Louis can’t decide whether he’s more offended at being poetic or stodgy, so he settles for neither. “Quiet, you,” he says instead. “Or you can sleep on the beach.”
“Terrifying,” Harry says, still smiling. “Maybe if you weren’t so tiny I would feel more threatened.”
“That’s it.” Louis glares up at Harry, trying to seem menacing instead of like he’s barely holding back laughter. “No dessert for you.”
Harry gasps in mock horror. “Not the s’mores!” he says. “Anything but that!”
Louis squints at him. “If you want any marshmallows, you’d best be on your best behaviour.”
Harry nods. “I promise.”
They hold it for about three seconds before they both collapse in giggles, laughing until their stomachs hurt.
The first day of the overnight goes smoothly. Louis had worried that Harry might overpack, but his bag is smaller than Niall’s sometimes is. The afternoon passes quickly as they meander across the water, and it’s dinnertime before Louis even realizes how much time has passed. He drops the customers and Harry at his usual island, a midsized piece of land with beach giving way to rocky cliffs and a small forested area, then sails out to a safe distance to moor the boat. By the time he rows himself to shore in the little inflatable dinghy, the customers have set up their tents and even built a merrily crackling fire.
“Something tells me you’ve done this before,” he says to them, grinning. “You’d be surprised how many people I encounter who don’t even know how to gather firewood.”
The group laughs. “We’re regular campers,” one of them says. “Never camped on an island before though. Feels more… isolated. Or secluded, might be the better word.”
“If you’re trying to get away from civilization, it’s hard to get more remote than being surrounded by water,” Louis agrees. “It’s like another world out here. And wait til you see the stars.”
Dinner is easy, cooked on sticks Louis cuts off a nearby tree and whittles into points. Conversation flows freely, the customers talking about their previous camping trips and some of the scrapes they’ve gotten into and out of – storms, wildlife, injuries, it sounds like they’ve done it all. As the sun disappears and the fire collapses to embers, people start to peel off in ones and twos. Louis stays up a bit longer, dousing the fire and making sure everything is put away and secured.
When he finally crawls into the tent for the night, he finds Harry bent over a thick book. “Some light reading before bed?” he asks, his voice light and teasing.
Harry looks up. “Hmm? Oh, uh, I guess.” He holds up the book so Louis can see the cover, and Louis is startled to realize that it’s a guide to the plants and animals of the area. He owns several himself, but doesn’t recognize this one – perhaps a new edition?
“Trying to learn something I don’t know?” he says. He means to say it teasingly, but it comes out almost sharp, and Harry stills. Guilt settles in Louis’ stomach, replacing the knot of insecurity and competitiveness that had sparked there moments earlier.
“I don’t know about that,” Harry says after a moment. “I just find it really interesting. And I figure this is a good time to learn as much as I can. I’ve learned a lot from you these past few weeks.”
The competitiveness dies a quick death, and Louis finds himself smiling, though pride and guilt are still twisted in his chest. “I’m glad,” he says. “I’ve learned a couple things from you myself, like with the kittiwakes.” He needs to remember that, needs to remember Harry is his partner not his enemy, needs to remember these tours are about learning and teaching, not competing.
Harry smiles. “It’s a common misconception,” he says. “There’s a lot of kinds of gulls, and most do come to land fairly often, especially with the abundance of tourist French fries.” He makes a face. “For good or ill. But kittiwakes are still the exception, for now.”
Louis nods thoughtfully. “Cool,” he says. “So is this really your idea of bedtime reading? Or is it just to put you to sleep?”
Harry clutches the book to his chest, looking almost offended. “Of course it doesn’t put me to sleep,” he says. “I just like learning about these things – about the animals, the plants, their interactions. The waters, the islands, the geology… and the history, too. All of it.”
There’s an earnestness in Harry’s voice, an energy in his eyes that pulls Louis in. It’s magnetic – and familiar. Louis can almost hear his own voice saying the same things, can almost feel Harry’s excitement in his own blood.
“There’s a lot to learn, isn’t there?” he says softly, almost reverently.
Harry nods enthusiastically. “I know I can never hope to know all of it, but I can’t help trying. I’ll take everything I can get.”
“You said you’re studying ecology too, right?”
“Environmental sciences, yeah,” Harry says. “I want to be a part of this all someday.” He gestures expansively, and Louis suspects he doesn’t mean the tent. “I want to teach people about this place, or places like it. I want to learn about it. I want to protect it.”
“Me too,” Louis says. He’s smiling, his cheeks almost sore from it but damn it Harry’s enthusiasm is contagious, particularly because every word he says could easily have come from Louis’ mouth. He wants it all, wants to be surrounded by this place forever, wants everyone to love it as much as he does.
The conversation flows easily from there, interrupted only when Louis notices Harry yawning. He checks his watch and is astonished to realize they’ve been talking for over an hour.
“We should sleep,” he says regretfully. “Gotta be up early tomorrow for breakfast.”
Harry looks like he wants to argue, but yawns again before he can. He smiles in defeat. “I suppose you’re right,” he says. “Don’t go getting a swelled head about it, though.”
Louis smiles too, waiting until Harry has settled into his sleeping bag to turn off the lantern. He lies back, closing his eyes and letting his breathing match up to the sound of the waves against the shore. He’s almost asleep when he hears a soft voice through the darkness.
“Hey Louis?” Harry says, the words a barely audible whisper. “Thanks.”
Louis is too surprised to answer. He lies there silently, eyes wide open, hearing the soft rustle of Harry’s sleeping bag as he shifts position. At last, when he’s almost certain Harry is asleep, he whispers back.
“Thank you, Harry. Thank you.”
Louis is wide awake as soon as his alarm goes off, and shuts it off almost before he’s conscious of the sound. Harry is still asleep a few feet away, his face soft in sleep and with a tiny smile playing across his lips. Louis studies him for a moment, then decides to let him sleep, for a few more minutes at least. After all, he’d been the one to keep them up last night talking.
He emerges from the tent as quietly as he can, and though Harry stirs slightly he doesn’t wake. The air outside is crisp, just on the edge of cold, and a light breeze tousles his hair. Louis stretches, then makes his way to the ashes of their firepit.
In a few minutes he has a tidy blaze, warming his fingers and toes, and he turns his attention to mixing up the oatmeal. He’s just set the pot over the fire when he hears movement behind him.
“You could have woken me,” Harry says, stepping out of the tent and rubbing his eyes.
“I was going to,” Louis says, though he has no idea if he’s lying or not.
Harry stretches, his shirt riding up to expose an inch of skin as he works the kinks out of his spine. Louis sees the black lines of more tattoos crossing the milky white skin of his stomach, and finds himself wondering what else Harry has hiding under his shirt.
Abruptly, he realizes Harry has said something, and is looking at him expectantly. “Sorry, what?” he says. “I’m not quite awake yet.”
Harry smiles. “I was just wondering if you wanted me to grab a bit more firewood,” he says. “Looks like you’re almost out.”
“Sure,” Louis says. “Just a few pieces, though; we’ll be heading out after breakfast.”
Harry nods, and disappears into the trees. Louis watches him go, his mind turning slowly. He might have misjudged this kid, he thinks. He’s never met anyone who read those kinds of books for fun – except himself, of course. Even Niall didn’t really go in for it, though he was perfectly happy to hear Louis ramble on. But Harry – Harry was different.
He’s beginning to realize that Harry is different in a lot of ways. He’s different from what Louis had expected, different from what he remembered, different from mainlanders and islanders and really anyone Louis has ever met.
He’s a mystery, Louis thinks, smiling. A puzzle. An adventure.
Louis has always been fond of adventures.
It’s the first week of July when they encounter their first real storm. The forecast didn’t call for rain until nearly seven, but as the afternoon wears on, grey storm clouds gather thickly above them. Louis keeps a nervous eye on the sky – he’s never been in a storm he couldn’t handle, but there’s a first time for everything, and the worse it gets the less the customers will enjoy it. The wind picks up until he can barely hear, and the waves rise to splash over the side of the boat.
He’s immensely grateful that the passengers have asked to be dropped at Tresco rather than returning to St. Martin’s Island. Sometimes it’s inconvenient, but today he breathes a sigh of relief as he watches them walk down the dock. Getting home will still be a workout, controlling the sails feeling increasingly like playing tug-of-war with the wind, but at least he won’t have any customers’ safety to worry about.
They’re about ten minutes out when the skies open. They’re both soaked almost instantly, and Louis has to keep pushing his dripping hair out of his face. The wind buffets them from what feels like every direction, and Louis is grateful for Harry’s neat efficiency in lowering and securing the sails as he focuses on trying to keep them on course. As they approach the island he directs Harry to the bow to watch for any obstacles, the driving rain making it hard to see more than a few feet at a time. He wants to speed up, wants to be out of this rain as soon as possible, but it’s too dangerous. It won’t speed anything up if they have a collision.
Louis’ hands are stiff and cold on the tiller, his legs aching with tension and repressed shivers. He shifts his weight, trying to get some more blood back into his limbs, but he feels his foot slip beneath him. He catches himself on the tiller, pushing it hard to the right, and the boat swerves. It bucks underneath them, wind and waves finding purchase, and Louis tries desperately to correct their course and stability.
“Louis, look out!”
He hears Harry’s shouted warning and looks up just in time to see the boom swinging towards him, disturbed by the erratic steering of the boat. It catches him hard on the shoulder, sending him stumbling towards the side of the boat. He hits the railing hard, his momentum sending him partway over the side. He scrabbles for something, anything to hold onto, to keep himself from falling, but his fingers are slippery and almost numb with cold.
Just as he feels himself starting to slip over the edge, something grabs him by the legs, dragging him back into the boat. He hits the ground hard, the breath exploding from his lungs. He gasps, coughing, and sits up.
Harry is sprawled beside him, cradling his left hand. “Are you okay?” he asks.
“Way better than I would have been if I’d gone over,” Louis says. “Thanks.” He nods to Harry’s hand. “Are you okay?”
“Landed funny,” Harry says, grimacing. “I’ll manage.”
“Can you use it?” Louis asks, concerned.
“I’d better be able to,” Harry says grimly. “We’ve still got to get to shore.”
“Be careful,” Louis says as Harry moves back towards the front of the boat.
“I will,” Harry calls back. “Just try not to fall overboard again. I’m not sure I’ll be able to catch you a second time.”
Five very wet minutes later, they pull up beside the dock. Harry clambers off quickly, grabbing the mooring ropes. The wind and waves are calmer in the inlet, but the boat still pulls against the ropes as Harry struggles to secure it.
“I’ll do that,” Louis says once he’s stepped ashore. Harry looks like he wants to argue, but he doesn’t, his face several shades paler than usual. “Can you check the drains and pumps?” Louis asks. “And make sure everything is secure aboard?”
Once the boat is as secure as they can make it, they head for the shed. Harry insists on helping to carry the equipment, but Louis insists on taking more than usual – they’re equally matched in stubbornness.
At last, everything is put away, dripping itself dry. Harry starts for the road, but Louis catches him by the elbow, pulling him back towards the beach. Harry turns.
“What are you doing?” he asks.
“You’re soaked,” Louis replies practically. “It’s freezing out, and you’re injured. Come on.”
He starts walking, tugging a trailing Harry along behind him. “Where are we going?” Harry asks.
“The café, of course,” Louis says. “They let me keep a set of spare clothes there – hopefully you’ll fit into Niall’s things; I didn’t think to tell you to replace them. But even if it’s a bit tight, at least it’s dry. We’ll have a cup of tea and I can look at that wrist.”
Harry opens and closes his mouth, and Louis nudges him gently. “I’m not going to let you say no,” he warns. “You need to warm up or you’ll get sick.”
“And you don’t have anyone to take my place?” Harry says, his voice teasing.
“That too,” Louis says. “Besides, storms this fierce usually have gotten over the worst of it within half an hour or so. It’ll still be a mess, but one that an umbrella can mostly protect you from.”
Tom exclaims over the state of them as they stumble into the empty cafe, and Lou clucks over them like a mother hen. Louis waves them off good-naturedly. “Just let us get changed,” he says, laughing. “Then you can smother us.”
“Oh, stop that,” Lou says, but she’s smiling. “You can change in the break room. We sent all the other staff home; figured there wouldn’t be much business once the storm started.”
“Thanks,” Louis says, returning her smile. “You’re an angel. Especially if there’s two mugs of tea and an ice pack when we get back.”
“Ice pack?” Lou says, frowning. “Are you hurt?”
“I’m fine,” Louis assures her. “Harry just mucked up his wrist saving my life.”
He tugs Harry into the back before Lou can demand more information, a mischievous smile playing across his face as he hears her squawking after them.
“You’re terrible,” Harry says, his laughter belying his words.
Louis shrugs, ducking into the office. “Lou’s all right,” he says as he grabs two neat stacks of clothes from a cabinet. “But mothering is only one letter away from smothering, and I get enough of that from my family. Lou gets that. She just doesn’t know how to turn it off.” He shrugs again. “We understand each other.”
“Makes sense,” Harry says. “Lux still needs a lot of mothering.”
“Exactly,” Louis agrees. “And I love them all to death.” He grabs a handful of fresh dish towels from a bin in the hallway and leads Harry down the hall to the break room, which is empty as promised.
Louis changes quickly in the corner, rubbing himself down with a dish towel before pulling on the dry clothes. He rubs the towel through his hair, squeezing out the worst of the damp, then finger combs it into something that hopefully approximates order.
“Are you decent?” he calls.
There’s a brief pause. “Um.” Another pause. “Technically.”
Louis has no idea what that means. “Can I turn around?”
“I don’t have to-”
“No, it’s fine,” Harry says quickly. “Just, um. Bit more of a challenge than anticipated.”
Louis still has no idea what that means. “I’m going to turn around,” he says. “Please don’t be naked.”
Harry laughs, a sharp bark that sounds more energetic than Louis expected either of them to feel. “I’m not naked,” he promises. “The worst you’ll see is boxers.”
Despite the assurance, Louis turns slowly, but sure enough Harry is still almost fully clothed. He’s sitting on his towel on the couch, his boots kicked off beside him and his socks peeled away, but his jeans are still only halfway to his knees.
“Shit, your wrist,” Louis says, suddenly realizing. “Are you okay?”
Harry grimaces. “I’ll manage,” he says. “Just… slow going. I can’t really use it. But it’s fine.”
Louis should go. Then Harry won’t have to worry about changing and his wrist and not flashing him. He starts for the door, muttering, “I’ll get out of your way so you can…”
He trails off. He doesn’t want to leave Harry, struggling and cold and injured, possibly making his wrist worse. He shouldn’t leave. He should help.
A part of him immediately rebels. He does not want to help Harry fucking Styles take his pants off. That would be seven kinds of awkward in ways he does not need. Besides, Harry would probably refuse, as he totally should, and that would be another three kinds of awkward, and just no.
But. But Harry really shouldn’t be using that wrist under any circumstances. Especially if it’s broken.
He’d do it for Niall, he reminds himself. Hell, he has done it for Niall – more or less manhandling him into pyjamas after nights of drunken debauchery. Harry is his friend too.
“Were you leaving or…” Harry says, and Louis realizes how long he’s been standing there.
“No, yeah, I was just, um.” He swallows hard. How the fuck is he supposed to say it?
“I mean you’re welcome to watch,” Harry says. “I just didn’t think we were there yet.”
Louis feels his cheeks turning red. “Shut up,” he says. “I just – do you need a hand?”
Harry looks like a deer caught in the headlights. “I definitely didn’t think we were there yet.”
“Shut up,” Louis says again, more cross than embarrassed this time, though he’s not sure if he’s more cross with Harry for saying it or with himself for walking right into it. “I just meant – you look like you’re having trouble. And I don’t want you to hurt yourself further.”
Harry makes a face. “It’s fine,” he says, returning to tugging on the sodden material. “I can do – ouch!”
Adjusting his weight for a better angle, he’d momentarily leaned on his injured hand. He snatched it back immediately, but Louis could see how pale he’d gone as he cradled his arm to his chest.
“You’re not fine,” Louis says, his voice coming out gentler than he expected. “And I’m not sure you could get those jeans off one-handed if they weren’t soaked. Just – just let me help you.”
Harry is silent for a moment, then sighs, leaning back on the couch. “Knock yourself out,” he says.
It is awkward. It is very awkward. Louis kneels in front of the couch, as there’s really no other comfortable position. He focuses all his attention on the task of peeling the soaked jeans off one uncompromising inch at a time, absolutely refusing to so much as glance up Harry’s body, but intensely aware that his head is only about a foot away from Harry’s crotch. He looks up at Harry’s face at one point and finds him leaning back, eyes closed, teeth digging into his bottom lip as he holds his injured wrist close. Louis doesn’t look up again.
At last he’s able to pull the trousers off over Harry’s ankles, and he breathes a sigh of relief that he hears echoed from Harry.
“Thanks,” Harry says as Louis drapes the jeans over a chair. “You’re right, that would have been way harder on my own.”
“I’m usually right,” Louis says automatically, then winces. “I mean-”
“I know what you mean,” Harry says, laughing.
“Er. Right.” Louis shifts uncomfortably. “Do you, like… is your shirt gonna be hard for you?”
He really doesn’t want to be alone in a back room with an almost-naked Harry, but he’d do it. If Harry needed it, he’d do it.
“I think I’m good,” Harry says to Louis’ immense relief. “If I had buttons, maybe, but a t-shirt should be fine.”
“Right,” Louis says again. “Then… I guess I’ll leave you to it?”
He waits for Harry to nod, then quickly moves for the door, only his pride barely keeping him from breaking into a run.
Once on the other side, Louis shuts the door behind him and leans against it for a moment. His heart is pounding, and he feels a bit like he did the time he swam from St. Martin’s to Tresco – shaky and slightly dizzy. It wasn’t unpleasant, though, and it isn’t now, in a way he can’t quite explain. He shakes his head, not particularly wanting to think about it. A few deep breaths later, he heads back into the main café.
Tom and Lou are waiting impatiently for him, sitting at a table with two steaming mugs of tea in front of them. There’s also a towel wrapped around what appears to be a bag of frozen peas.
“Thanks,” Louis says as he flops into a chair across from them. “You’re a lifesaver, as always.”
“Just being neighborly,” Tom says placidly.
“What happened?” Lou asks, much less placid. She’s always been the energy in their relationship, the spark to Tom’s smooth.
Louis takes a long sip of his tea, mostly to needle her. He shivers with pleasure as the warmth floods his stomach, spreading through him like he’s been wrapped in an electric blanket from the inside. He hadn’t realized how cold he was.
“Got caught in the storm,” he says after he sets the mug down.
“You don’t say.” If Lou had been the one speaking, the words would have been sharp or impatient – not unkindly, just out of exasperation – but from Tom they’re just a light teasing.
Louis smiles. “Yeah, I suppose that was fairly obvious,” he says. “We were perhaps ten minutes from shore, so not too far, but it feels like forever when you’re in it. The wind was crazy, and it was raining so hard you could barely see. I slipped on the deck, and then the boom caught me in the shoulder. I probably would have gone over if Harry hadn’t grabbed me.”
“Goodness!” Lou pales, making her bright blue lipstick stand out even more against her skin. “You could have been killed!”
“But he wasn’t,” Tom reminds her gently. “And he was wearing a life jacket.”
“I was,” Louis confirms. “I’m fine, Lou. I’m a big boy. I can swim.”
“You know as well as anyone that Louis was born to be on a boat,” Tom adds.
Lou shakes her head. “I know,” she says. “I know, I just – I worry about you. I have to; you don’t worry enough. Thank goodness for Harry.”
“You make it sound like he snatched me from the jaws of death,” Louis says, laughing. “He just snatched me from the jaws of a good dunking. And I was already soaked anyway.”
“Oi!” Harry emerges from the back room, smiling. “Ungrateful, aren’t you? Next time I’ll let you swim.”
Niall’s clothes are a bit small on him – the joggers end a few inches up his calves, and the t-shirt stretches tight over his chest – but he wears it well. Louis is more focused on Harry’s wrist, however, which he holds cradled against his stomach.
“Come sit,” Louis says, motioning him over. “Drink some tea and warm up while we get some ice on that wrist.”
“That sounds counterintuitive,” Harry points out, but he complies. Louis presses the makeshift icepack to his wrist, and Harry lets out a hiss of breath that sounds half-pained and half-relieved.
“How is it?” Lou asks, always the mother hen.
Harry shrugs. “About what you’d expect,” he says. “It hurts, but it’s manageable.”
“You should still have it looked at,” Louis says. “It could be broken.”
“I don’t think so,” Harry says, but he doesn’t sound convinced. “Besides, I don’t much like our odds of trying to cross to the mainland in this.”
Louis chuckles. “You’re right about the crossing,” he said. “But who said anything about going to the mainland?”
Harry frowned. “There’s no hospital here.”
“No,” Louis agrees. “Which means that we like to be well-supplied here, in case of storms just like this. People don’t stop getting hurt just because we can’t reach the hospital. Heck, sometimes more people get hurt because of a storm. Doc Corden has an X-ray at his office. We’ll head over as soon as you’re warmed up.”
“That’s really not necessary,” Harry tries to say. “I’ll be fine.”
“That’s the plan,” Louis says, “but you’re still seeing a doctor regardless.”
“I can go by myself,” Harry says. “You don’t have to come.”
“I don’t have to,” Louis agrees. “But I’m going to.”
“Best to just go along with it,” Tom advises Harry. “Louis is very stubborn once he gets an idea in his head. More effort than its worth to talk him out of it.”
Harry glances between the two of them, his expression half-mutinous and half-resigned. “So I’m learning,” he says at last.
Doc Corden is friendly and efficient, bantering lightly with Louis as he sets up the X-ray.
“You’ve got to stop breaking your poor sailors,” he tuts, and Louis laughs.
“It’s not my fault they’re so fragile,” he says. “Besides, it’s inconvenient for me too, replacing them.”
Doc raises his eyebrows. “I can’t tell if that’s a compliment or an insult,” he says.
“Wha – oh.” Louis glances at Harry. “Nah, he’s a good hand.”
The words hang in the air a moment, Harry’s expression shifting from surprise to pride to confusion. Louis looks away.
“Well, when his hand’s not injured, that is,” he says gruffly. “Hopefully it’s just sprained, but best to be sure.”
“Very true,” Doc agrees. “How are you feeling, Harry?”
Harry takes a moment to answer. “Sometimes I think Louis is a stronger force of nature than the storm,” he says at last.
Doc bursts into delighted laughter. “He’s got you pegged, eh Lou?” he says, slapping Louis on the back. Louis keeps his face carefully blank. He’s not quite sure how to take Harry’s comment. Also he’s a little worried that Harry might have hit his head. Or, like, have hypothermia or something, to be spouting off like that. Though to be fair, he’s always a little like that.
“I was actually referring to the wrist, though,” Doc says once he’s stopped laughing.
Harry colours. “Oh, right, of course,” he says. “Um, it hurts, but I’ve had worse.”
“Broken any bones before?”
“A few.” He says it so casually, Louis wants to shake him. “I’m not always the most coordinated. Broke my hand a couple years ago tripping over my cat. She was fine, thankfully.”
Harry really needed to sort out his priorities.
“You did spend a lot of time in my office before you moved,” Doc says, chuckling again. “Saved up all the breaks for the mainland, though? Or it just didn’t agree with you?”
“Shooting up like a weed didn’t agree with me,” Harry says, making a face. “It was like I woke up one day and I was a foot taller and had no idea where my arms and legs ended anymore.”
Even Louis has to laugh at that one, Harry’s nose wrinkled in disgruntlement and he just looks ridiculous and sounds so irritated at his height, which Louis would gladly trade for. Harry glances up at the sound of Louis’ chuckles, and a smile flashes across his face for a moment.
“All right, we’re good to go,” Doc says, and the moment is gone. He motions Harry forward, positioning him in front of the machine with brisk confidence and a gentle touch. Half an hour later, they leave the office with an official diagnosis of a bad sprain, a wrist brace, and a prescription for rest.
Louis insists on walking Harry home, against his strenuous protests. “It’s really not necessary,” Harry protests as Louis stays glued to his side. “It’s just my wrist, I can still walk.”
“We live in the same direction,” Louis says. “It’s not even out of my way. And you don’t have an umbrella.”
He hopes Harry won’t mention that this hasn’t kept him from avoiding walking home together after work the entire month they’ve been working together. In truth, he’s been lingering at the shore a little longer to avoid it, or taking a roundabout route, or running “errands” he really doesn’t need to do.
“You really are outrageously stubborn, you know that?”
“It has been remarked.” Louis tucks the hand not holding the umbrella deeper into his pocket. “But at least now we know it’s not broken.”
“I guess.” Harry’s tone is odd, and he as he falls silent for a moment Louis can’t help a sideways glance. Harry’s brow is furrowed, like he’s trying to figure out how to say something – or whether to say it.
“Why?” he asks at last. The word almost seems like it’s burst out of his chest. “Why are you – why do you – I mean, I didn’t think you really liked me.”
That’s – wow. Not what he was expecting. And honestly, he’s not entirely sure how to answer.
“I didn’t like who I thought you were,” he says at last. “But I was wrong. And I didn’t like that you weren’t Niall, but that wasn’t fair of me. You’re – well. You’ve been more patient with me than I deserve. You’re a good worker. You’re a good person.” He shrugs. “It’s the least I could do.”
It’s hard to explain, really. He can’t explain what it is about Harry that makes him so determined to take care of him. He can’t say when that changed either. It was a gradual shift, from necessary nuisance to respected coworker to – not quite friends, maybe, but close. They could be friends. He’d like that, he thinks.
“You’re an interesting man, Louis Tomlinson,” Harry says at last, shaking his head. They’ve reached his house and they pause by the path for a moment. Finally, Harry shrugs and opens the gate. “I’ll see you Thursday.”
Louis’ eyebrows shoot up. “Absolutely not,” he says. “You are not going out on the water on Thursday, under any circumstances.”
Harry freezes, his entire body tensing. “But I-”
“You are staying at home,” Louis continues, barreling over him, “and you are resting that wrist and you are not getting back on the Follow the Sun until I’m convinced you’re healed enough to not injure yourself further.”
Harry is still for a moment, and then he relaxes, a soft smile spreading across his face as he ducks his head. “I don’t think I’ve ever met someone as aggressively kind as you before,” he says. “It’s sweet.”
And then he’s gone, walking up the path before Louis can even think to ask what he means.
The storm buffets the island all night, but by the next morning it fades to a steady rain. Louis visits the dock in the afternoon, making sure that the Follow the Sun will be ready for customers in the morning.
He half-expects Harry to disregard his instructions and show up Thursday anyways, but it’s by himself that he greets the morning’s customers, fits them with life jackets, and ushers them onto the boat. It feels strange, if he’s being honest – not that he’s never gone out alone before; he’s done that a few times when Niall was sick or away, and Niall’s done the same. But it always feels… empty, in a way, like something’s missing. It’s harder too, obviously, having to keep track of navigation and information and everything else all at once, but it’s more than that.
The morning group is perfectly understanding of the situation, and assures him they’ll be quite content with the shorter and slower route. One passenger in the afternoon group complains, to which Louis gives him his best customer service smile and apologizes “most sincerely that my coworker’s injury has inconvenienced you. I’ve told him to schedule it better next time.” The customer goes red and mutters something about that not being what he meant, but he shuts up and doesn’t complain again.
By the time he waves the customers off at the dock, Louis is worn out but satisfied. He hopes Harry’s wrist heals quickly – he wouldn’t want to do this often – but it’s always gratifying to realize how much he’s capable of when he needs to be. He likes the idea of self-sufficiency, even if he’s desperately extroverted.
He’s just started straightening up the deck when he hears a familiar voice call out, “Ahoy, Captain!” When he turns, Harry is leaning against a post, grinning.
Louis feels an answering grin tugging at the corner of his mouth, though he tries to push it down. “You’re not supposed to be here,” he says, though he’s not really surprised. He’s almost glad, even, though concern overshadows it. “I thought I told you to rest.”
“I did,” Harry says, still grinning. “All day. Just like you said. I’m not going out on the water. I’m just here to help you clean up.”
“I said-” Louis stops, then shakes his head. “I guess that is what I said. I need to be more specific.”
“But you weren’t,” Harry says, climbing aboard the boat. “Besides, I’m really fine. Won’t be doing any cartwheels or anything, but I can wield a broom or carry life jackets.” He cocks his head thoughtfully. “I suppose I could try a one-handed cartwheel.”
“Don’t you dare,” Louis says immediately. “That is a terrible idea. Also no cartwheels on my boat. And no cartwheels at all for you right now.”
Harry laughs. “Rude,” he says. “But I was kidding. About the cartwheels part, not the helping part.”
“You don’t have to-”
“I know,” Harry says. “But I want to. Come on, where do you want me?”
Louis looks him over with a critical eye. He does seem fine, holding the wrist a little gingerly, but moving it easily. He sighs and relents. “You can put away the life jackets,” he says. “But be careful.”
Harry scoops up two life jackets in each hand. “I’ll be fine, Mother,” he teases as he disembarks. “Besides, if I can’t handle putting away life jackets without injuring myself, I might as well stop sailing.”
Louis shakes his head, but he’s smiling. A week ago, Harry would never have teased him. He’d never have dared. Now – Louis is realizing that not only is the Harry he hired not at all like the Harry he imagined, but Harry now is almost as different from the Harry he first met.
With Harry’s help and no sails to derig, they’re done in record time.
“Thanks,” Louis says as they lock up the shed. “You’re sure you’re not-”
“I’m fine.” Harry’s voice is slightly exasperated, but he’s smiling, so Louis knows he’s not really offended.
“Okay, okay.” Louis holds up his hands in mock surrender, though they both know who would win if Louis decided to be stubborn. At least, Louis thinks they both do. “Just checking. You’re my best employee right now, you know.”
“I’m your only employee,” Harry retorts, ducking his head as his cheeks turn faintly pink.
Louis just smiles. “Well, best only employee of the week, what say we hit the pub to celebrate your achievement? First round’s on me.”
“You don’t have to-”
“Or to celebrate your recovery. I’m not particular.”
“That’s really not-”
“Please.” Louis’ voice is soft as he rests a hand on Harry’s arm. “I want to. To thank you. You don’t have to, obviously, but this isn’t – like, I’d like to, is what I’m saying.”
Harry is silent for a long moment, his eyes searching Louis’ face. Louis isn’t quite sure what he’s looking for, or if he finds it, but at last he nods. “Okay,” he says. “But only because you’re buying.”
Louis chuckles. “Free booze does seem to have that effect on people,” he says. “Come on. You’ve earned it.”
It’s early enough that Adam’s Pub is still quiet. The bartender gives Louis a playful frown as he orders two pints.
“Isn’t it a bit early in the day for that?”
Louis chuckles. “We’re off the clock, Bebe,” he points out. “No reason to stay sober, is there?”
Bebe laughs, her hands quick and dextrous as she pours out the two glasses. “No reason at all,” she agrees. “Who’s your friend?”
“You don’t recognize the legendary Harry Styles?” Louis gives Harry a gentle nudge and a grin. “He’s back for the summer, and helping me with the tours.”
“You’re – well, bless me.” Bebe props her hands on her hips, her sculpted eyebrows shooting up so fast Louis half-expects them to fly off her face. “You have grown up, haven’t you? Didn’t recognize you at all. Welcome home.”
Harry smiles. “Thanks,” he says. “It’s good to see you again, Bebe. You’ve grown up a lot too. And I love your hair, you’ll have to tell me what products you use sometime.”
She laughs, tossing the long blonde waves over her shoulder as she pushes the drinks across the bar to them. “Come visit me sometime and I’ll show you.”
Louis drops a handful of change on the counter and picks up both glasses. “Cheers, Bee,” he says. “C’mon Harry, lets find a seat.”
They settle in a tiny corner table that looks out over the whole pub. Louis takes a long sip of his beer, setting it down with a satisfied sigh.
Harry rubs his fingertip along the rim of his glass, craning his head to see around the room. “This is nice,” he says, smiling. “I’m not usually one for going out, but it’s almost cozy here.”
Louis laughs. “It’s a pub, not a country home,” he says. “And – have you even really been out since you got back? Or do you just spend every night cooped up in the house?”
Harry shrugs. “It’s not cooped up if I enjoy it,” he says. “I like the quiet.”
“Still,” Louis says, frowning. “It’s summer! You should be doing things. Seeing people. Going to the club, or going on dates, or something.”
“I’m a terrible dancer,” Harry says, laughing. “A danger to those around me, really. And there aren’t a lot of guys on the market around here. I’m sure you’ve noticed.”
Louis’ hand slips on his glass and he quickly sets it down. “Yeah, I guess you could say that,” he says. “Bit of a small pool.”
His heart is in his mouth in spite of himself. He’s been out for years, so it’s not like it’s a secret, but it’s not something people ever really talk about either. And here Harry is just tossing it out like it’s nothing – like it’s normal. Louis wonders if it really is that simple for him, wonders if it’ll ever be like that for him. He hopes so.
“That is one nice thing about the mainland,” Harry says, propping his chin on his hand. “I know you don’t think much of mainlanders, but there’s just so much of everything, so many different kinds of people and interests that nothing is unusual anymore, really. Whereas here… don’t get me wrong, I love it, but it’s just… different. Smaller. Like, the most dramatic thing that happens in this town is that graffiti artist you love so much making a new piece.”
“Not me, Niall,” Louis corrects absently. “And you’re not wrong about St. Martin’s, I suppose. It is fairly small and stripped back. But that’s what I love about it, you know? I know every single person on this island, I know their family and their friends and their favourite colour, and they know how I take my tea and how my sisters are doing in school. It’s like a huge family.”
“You don’t find it invasive?” Harry asks. “I don’t – I’m not trying to be mean; I’m just curious.”
“I know,” Louis says, considering the question. “I suppose sometimes,” he admits at last. “There’s not a lot of secrets round here. Everyone knows everything about everyone. It was kind of strange when I, uh, came out – it seemed like the entire island knew by the end of the day, which was… but it also meant I didn’t have to keep going through it for days or weeks. And everyone looks out for everyone too.”
“It’s so weird to be back sometimes,” Harry says, shaking his head. “I don’t know everyone that way. Like, I did, but it’s been so long and everything is so different, and yet… looking around, it all feels so familiar.”
“Weren’t you barely a teenager when you left?” Louis asks, laughing. “Why were you spending that much time in a pub?”
“Shut up.” Harry kicks Louis gently under the table. “You know what I mean. It’s not just here, it’s everywhere. All the streets and the stores and the people. Some of these people I’ve barely thought about in years, but now… it’s like it all comes rushing back, and I’m just a kid again, but I’m not and they’re not and it’s just…”
Louis sips his drink. “It’s weird for me too, sometimes,” he says.
Harry looks at him. “How so?”
“Just, like.” Louis shrugs. “I knew you back then, but it was ages ago. And like, I knew you’d be different, but I thought you’d be, well, a different different. More mainlander.”
“I was born here,” Harry reminds him. “I was fourteen when I left, not a child. And it’s not like I left because I wanted to. I missed this place.”
Louis smiles. “It’s a good place.”
They’re quiet for a moment, looking around the pub. It’s dark, it’s a bit dingy, but it’s a good place. It’s home.
“I’m glad you came back,” Louis says suddenly. He’s not sure who’s more surprised, him or Harry. He must be tipsier than he thought. But it’s true. “You’ve been really helpful,” he adds. “I wasn’t – I didn’t really recognize that at first. I thought… I thought a lot of things that weren’t true.”
“I… wow.” Harry seems lost for words. “Thanks.”
Louis shakes his head, a crooked smile twisting his lips. “Don’t thank me,” he says. “I was a dick. Arrogant and narrowminded and just… a dick. I owe you an apology.”
“Wow,” Harry says again, his eyes wider than Louis has ever seen them. “I should get injured more often.”
Louis laughs, shoving him gently. “Shut up,” he says. “I’m not saying it because you got injured, or because it was from protecting me. I’m saying it because it’s true, and it’s past time I admitted it. I’m sorry.”
Louis blinks, studying Harry’s face, trying to discern some hint that he was still annoyed. “Just like that?”
“Just like that,” Harry says, shrugging. “Why, should I have you do penance or something?”
“Most people probably would,” Louis says. “At least, like, make me grovel or something.”
Harry shrugs again. “I’m not most people,” he says. “You apologized. You meant it. You changed. That’s enough for me.”
Loui shakes his head. “I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone like you,” he says.
Harry laughs. “I get that a lot.”
“I’ll bet.” Louis takes another sip then asks the question that’s been bothering him almost since the first week. “Why did you stay?”
Harry looks surprised. “Why – what do you mean?”
“I was terrible,” Louis says. “I was mean and critical and judgmental. I gave you every reason to leave, but you didn’t. You stayed. Why?”
Harry is silent for a long moment. “I guess I’ve just never been a quitter,” he says.
Louis isn’t satisfied. “I practically told you to quit though,” he argues. “I might well have done, if I hadn’t had nobody else.”
“But you didn’t have anyone,” Harry says. “You needed me. Even if you were too proud to admit it. I said I would do it, and I keep my promises. And it was interesting, I was learning a lot – still am.”
“But-” Louis cuts himself off, shaking his head. “I’m sorry. I’m interrogating you, when I should be thanking you for putting up with me.”
Harry smiles softly. “You’re not so bad,” he says. “A bit prickly around the edges, but… there’s a lot more to you than that.” He smiles. “I’m glad I came back too.”
It’s dark when they finally leave the bar, a couple drinks stretching into a few more, which turn into ordering greasy hamburgers and another round. Louis walks Harry home again, joking that Harry needs the support, the alcohol not combining well with Harry’s natural clumsiness. Harry pouts prettily but doesn’t argue.
They haven’t had that much, really, just enough that Louis feels the warmth in his bloodstream. The cool evening air helps to clear his head as he walks home, his fingers tapping in his pockets.
Jay looks up from the sofa in the living room as he pushes open the door. “There you are,” she says. “I was wondering where you’d gotten to. Did you eat?”
“Sorry,” Louis says. “I should have texted. Harry and I grabbed dinner after the tours today.”
“Oh!” Jay looks pleased. “You two are getting along well, then?”
Louis suddenly discovers that the laces of his shoes are incredibly fascinating. “We manage,” he says. “We’ve reached an understanding.”
He can feel Jay’s eyes on him, can feel her smile, can feel her knowing look. “That’s good,” she says. “He seems like a hardworking young man.”
“He is,” Louis agrees. “He had some rather big shoes to fill, but he’s a good guy.”
“I’m glad,” Jay says. She doesn’t say I told you so. She doesn’t have to.
Lottie pokes her head out of her room as Louis climbs the stairs. “Oh good, you’re alive,” she says. “I wondered. Have a hot date or something?”
“No,” Louis says, chuckling. “I was just grabbing dinner with Harry.”
“Harry’s not hot?” Lottie asks.
“Harry’s not a date.”
“Harry is hot?”
Louis opens his mouth to argue, then shuts it with a sigh. “You’re a menace, you know that?” he says. “And I am not sober enough for your tricks.”
Lottie’s eyebrows shoot up. “Dinner and drinks?” she says. “My, sounds like quite the night.”
“Shut up.” Louis rubs his forehead. “It was a thank you for all his hard work. And for putting up with my bullshit.”
“Relax,” Lottie says, laughing as she steps forward to pull Louis into a one-armed hug. “I’m just teasing you, big brother. Though if you don’t want him, I’ll take him gladly.”
“Absolutely not,” Louis says, pointing a warning finger at him. “One, he’s too old for you. Two, you’re too young to date. And three, he’s not interested.”
Lottie flips her hair over her shoulder, turning back to her room. “You are no fun at all.”
That is profoundly untrue and they both know it, but Louis lets her go. He retreats to his own room, flopping on the bed and staring at the ceiling and wondering why he feels so sober and so tipsy at the same time.
Things feel smoother after that – more comfortable. They fall into a new routine, one where Louis walks Harry home after work most days. Tuesday nights they hang out in the evenings, going out for a drink or dinner or just walking. Louis reintroduces Harry to the island, traipsing over every cobbled street and woodland path. He points out the ice cream shop where he liked to study because the owner would treat him to a scoop if he got good grades, or the store where he and his friends once shook every single fizzy drink on sale.
In return, Harry tells him about some of his university adventures – climbing out third story windows, road trips, and disastrous group projects. Louis laughs until he can’t breathe, charmed by Harry’s combination of sarcasm and straight-faced delivery. He learns about Harry’s nightmare of a first date, in which the guy spilled an entire cup of Fanta on Harry’s lap in the first five minutes of the film, or the time he accidentally broke the nose of a guy he was trying to pull in a club while dancing.
“Lucky in love you are not,” Louis says, laughing. “Hope you’re good at cards.”
“Not even a little,” Harry says. “It’s fine, though. I figure if it’s meant to be, it’ll happen. In the meantime, I’m having fun. I’m happy by myself. A relationship is more… if something came along, sure, but I’m not really looking. Just letting the universe do its thing.”
“Sounds very zen,” Louis says. “Speaking of which – our overnight next Sunday is apparently vegan, so that’ll be interesting. Especially since they’ll be feeding us this time.”
Harry’s eyebrows rise. “Vegan, really?” he says. “That’s unusual.”
Louis grimaces. “Yeah, I know,” he says. “I try to avoid vegetables whenever possible, but. I’ll still eat it.”
Harry laughs. “I can’t say I agree, there,” he says. “I wouldn’t have taken you for a picky eater, though.”
Louis snorts. “In a family with five kids, you eat what you’re given and you’re grateful for it,” he says. “And if you’re too slow, someone else eats your portion too. I’m not picky in what I’m willing to eat, just what I like to eat.”
“Does your mother let you get away with those dreadful eating habits? As a nurse I’d think she’d be concerned about scurvy.”
Louis gives Harry a light smack, not really offended. “You’re not my mother,” he says. “I only need one of you nagging me at a time.”
“Well she’s not here, so-”
“You’re a pest.”
“Ooh, someone’s sensitive.”
It’s funny. A month ago, Louis would have been beyond irritated at this conversation. Scratch that, a month ago they wouldn’t have been having this conversation. Harry would never have dared tease Louis, and Louis would never have let the conversation stray this far. Now, they joke with the same casual ease that he has with Niall.
But it’s different, too. He still feels like Harry is unfamiliar territory – not a stranger, not anymore, but he’s still discovering new things every day, like that Harry has a fascination with golf or that he can juggle. Or they’ll be passing by an island he’s seen a thousand times, beautiful but routine, and Harry will suddenly pull out a new tidbit about the plants or the animals or the rock formations. It’s almost exciting, really.
Louis shakes his head, pulling himself back to the present. “Anyways,” he says. “Another thing. I’ve been meaning to mention this for a bit, but, well. I didn’t. And like this might be weird for you, and you’re allowed to say no, but I just thought I’d offer anyways in case you were interested-”
“Louis?” Harry interrupts, smiling. “You’re rambling. What is it?”
“Right. Sorry.” Louis can feel his ears turning slightly pink. He’s not usually so nervous about things, but this – well, he doesn’t want too push too far. “So every year there’s this festival over on the mainland. It’s a bit corny, costumes and parades and street vendors and such, but they kick it off with a spectacular fireworks display.” He has to suppress an eyeroll; it’s hypocritical since he loves fireworks, but he still thinks the rest of the event is a kind of ridiculous pageantry.
“It’s a bit of a trek,” Louis continues, “but ever since I got the Follow the Sun in secondary school, Niall and I have always gone out for the show and watched from the sea. We’d moor at some tiny island, make a little camping trip of it – like the overnights, but just us, just for fun. Niall’s laid up this year obviously, so I was wondering – well, if you’d like to go?”
Harry looks astonished, momentarily rendered speechless. “I don’t want to take that away from you and Niall,” he says at last. “If that’s your tradition-”
“It’s fine,” Louis says, waving a dismissive hand. “Niall’s still mostly housebound – he can get around a bit now, but it’s a pain in the arse. And obviously he can’t sail yet.”
“He could come along?” Harry suggests. “I could help with the sailing, and he could – I just – if this is your thing-”
“Traditions change,” Louis says, shrugging. “Niall’s the only person I’ve ever really shared the Follow the Sun with. Now I share her with you too. It makes sense to share this too.”
“I don’t want to replace-”
“You’re not,” Louis says. “Niall is Niall, and no one could ever be quite like him.” He chuckles. “Don’t get me wrong, I adore him, but he’s one of a kind, and that’s probably for the best. And you – you’re your own you. No one could ever be quite like you either. You’re not replacing him. You’re all new.”
Harry is silent for a long moment, and Louis starts to feel nervous. A minute goes by, and then another. As they turn onto Harry’s street, Louis can’t help himself.
“You don’t have to,” he blurts. “I don’t want to, like, pressure you, but I thought – if you were interested – but if you’re not it’s totally fine-”
“Louis.” Harry’s voice is soft, but Louis immediately falls silent. “It’s not that. It’s not that at all. I’m just… surprised, I guess.”
“Oh.” That makes perfect sense. Louis had kind of sprung the whole thing on him rather abruptly. “Right, yeah, so, sleep on it I guess, and let me know-”
“I’ll do that.” They’ve reached Harry’s gate now, and he opens the gate with a slight creak. Louis turns to walk away, but Harry calls him back. “Lou?”
“Thanks. For the invitation. And everything else.”
Louis smiles. “You’re welcome,” he says. “And thank you.”
He’s not entirely sure what he’s being thanked for, can’t exactly put into words everything he’s thanking Harry for, but Harry smiles, and Louis smiles, and the details don’t really matter.
As he’s getting ready for bed that night, his phone buzzes. He picks it up, expecting an email from a customer or a text from Niall, but it’s from Harry.
The message is short, just two words, but a wide grin spreads across Louis’ face.
I’m in :)
Louis is surprised to realize how much he’s looking forward to the trip together. It’s always been a fun part of his summer, but without Niall he’d thought he was mostly doing it for the nostalgia and the tradition. Yet as the days pass, he realizes he’s genuinely excited to spend the day with Harry – not working for once, but just hanging out.
Even the vegans can’t put a damper on his mood, though their food leaves something to be desired. It’s probably excellent for vegan food, but Louis tries not to eat things he can’t pronounce, and quinoa wraps with cashew aioli do not fall into that category. He eats it without complaint, but he’s grateful he decided to pack a big bag of crisps. He needs something greasy to balance out all the vegetables.
The customers turn in early, but Louis isn’t quite tired yet. He walks a little way along the beach, listening to the sound of the waves rushing onto the shore. A log is washed up on the sand, worn smooth by surf and wind and rain, and Louis sits, staring out at the blackness.
After a few minutes, he hears footsteps behind him, and turns to see Harry walking towards him. “Beautiful night,” Louis says.
Harry nods, smiling. “I love it out here,” he says. “There’s something so calming about it all.”
“It’s so big and empty,” Louis agrees, gesturing to the empty expanse of ocean. “It reminds me how small we really are. How much is out there, how much we have yet to even discover.”
“It feels like everything else has just vanished,” Harry says. “Nothing else matters, because nothing else is even there. Just us.”
“Poetic,” Louis says. “Or possibly solipsistic.”
Harry laughs and motions to the log. “May I?”
“Oh, sure,” Louis says, shifting over. “Plenty of room.”
Harry sits down beside him, staring not out at the water but up at the sky. “There’s so much we haven’t discovered up there, too,” he says.
Louis glances sideways at him. “Please don’t tell me you believe in aliens.”
Harry laughs. “Given the size of the universe, it seems unreasonable to assume that we’re the only life in it,” he says. “I don’t believe aliens have taken over the government or anything, but I’d be very much surprised if there wasn’t something else out there.”
Louis chuckles. “I suppose that’s fair enough,” he says. “I used to want to be an astronaut, you know.”
“Did you?” Harry looks intrigued. “What happened?”
Louis shrugs. “Fell in love with a different kind of ship,” he says. “A different kind of flying.” He gives a crooked grin. “Plus I found out it was a lot of work for a piss-poor chance of ever reaching space, so.”
Harry laughs. He laughs a lot, Louis thinks, but it’s always so genuine and joyful.
“I found other dreams,” Louis says. “But I learned a lot about space during that time. I could tell people about all the moon missions and Mars exploration, and I often did.” He shrugs. “Don’t have most of that anymore, but I still know a bunch of constellations, so that’s something.”
“I always wanted to learn the constellations,” Harry says. “I only ever knew the Big Dipper and Orion, though.”
Louis studies the sky for a moment, then points to a spot far to their left. “Do you see up there where those four stars are almost a square?”
Harry squints. “Any four stars are almost a square,” he says.
Louis laughs. “Fair,” he says. “Over there, beside four other stars that are almost a straight line.”
Harry’s pointing hand is well off, and Louis reaches over to adjust it. “There,” he says, their arms pressed together, tracing the square. “That square is the body of Hercules, and that line – well, depending who you ask, the line is his arm or his weapon. He’s kneeling over a defeated dragon he just fought.”
Louis guides Harry’s hand, carefully tracing the lines of the constellation’s limbs. Harry frowns at the sky for a few seconds, then suddenly his face brightens. “I see it!” he exclaims. “Oh, wow! Show me another!”
Louis laughs and complies, pointing out Draco, the Little Dipper, and Cassiopeia. Harry follows his hands with rapt attention, asking questions and listening eagerly.
“It’s funny,” Louis says after a bit. “I mean, it’s just a collection of dots – even more so without the light pollution. But people thousands of years ago looked up at these same stars and drew pictures – lines, squares, triangles – and turned them into people and animals.” He chuckles. “They’ve got a better imagination than I do.”
“Or they just saw the world a different way,” Harry says. “It’s interesting, sometimes, to try on another perspective – another person, another time. It can teach you a lot about them and about yourself.”
Louis glances up at Harry, then back at the sky. “So I’m learning,” he whispers under his breath.
Louis wakes up slowly. His brain is fuzzy with contentment, he’s cozy and comfortable, his arms wrapped tight around something soft and warm. He breathes in and his nose is filled with the smell of apples and jasmine and vanilla and something else, something musky and human and familiar.
He inhales again and feels long hair tickling his nose. Still half-asleep, he smiles, lifting a hand to brush it aside. He’s about to replace his arm, draping over the still form in front of him, when his brain finally kicks into gear.
What the fuck. What the fuck is happening. What the fuck is he doing.
Last night, he and Harry had fallen asleep on opposite sides of the tent. It was small, but more than spacious enough for two; it could even fit three in a pinch.
Now, though, the half a metre or more of space had been reduced to nothing, Harry’s back pressed tight to Louis’ chest, Louis’ arm wrapping around to bring him closer. His forehead is pressed to Harry’s neck, the “familiar” scent filling his lungs that of Harry’s shampoo and his sweat.
He pulls away, rolling towards the other side of the tent, the desire not to wake Harry mixed with the need to put distance between them now. His legs tangle in the sleeping bag, and he pushes it off, nails scratching at his skin. He needs space, needs air, needs out.
He unzips the tent flap with trembling hands, stumbling through into the cold morning air, the sun just above the horizon and painting everything with a soft light. He lets the flap fall shut behind him and walks a few more shaky steps before collapsing on the ground.
What the fuck.
That had been unexpected.
His pounding heart slowly settles, his head clearing as chill air fills his lungs and empties again. It’s cold, his thin T-shirt and shorts providing little insulation against the ocean wind, but he’s glad of the focus it gives him. That’s probably what had happened, anyway, why it had happened. The night was cold, Harry was warm, it was only logical. And Harry’s always been a tactile person – Louis remembers how in school he would hand out hugs like candy.
Louis sways slightly, blinking hard against the last tendrils of sleepiness winding through his brain. Harry was sweet in school, sweet and soft and smiley. He still is, really. He would have wanted to keep Louis warm. And maybe Harry was cold too. It was only logical, right? Only logical for them to huddle together for warmth, bodies pressed tight together, arms wrapped around each other to pull themselves even closer – to minimize surface area, obviously.
Louis shivers, but it’s not with cold. The sensation is warm and pleasant and rolls through his body, collecting itself just below his stomach.
Oh. Oh. Oh no.
It’s not like Louis has never had morning wood before. He’s a young man, and before that he was a teenager. He’s had plenty of frantic, early morning wanks.
But now is… not convenient. It is not convenient to be hard, and it is definitely not convenient to deal with the problem in the, ah, usual way. He’s on a tiny island in the English Channel, for fuck’s sake; there’s not really much in the way of privacy.
So if he can’t do that, it really only leaves one option.
Louis strips off his shirt, dropping it on a rock, then wades into the frigid sea.
It’s July, but it’s also England and just after sunrise and the water is cold. Louis gasps, every muscle in his body clenching. He knows some people enjoy the sensation – or at least, willingly subject themselves to it; early morning swims and cold showers. Louis has never been that person, though he’s gone swimming in winter more than once on dares. Health, he could care less about, but pride comes before comfort.
Louis has never claimed to have his priorities in order.
He pushes himself forward, moving step by shivering step deeper into the surf. The ground is uneven under his feet, loose rock interspersed with sand. He hopes he won’t turn an ankle – or worse, get bitten by a water snake.
When the water is almost to his waist, he grits his teeth and dives in. He almost gasps with the cold of it, stopping just short of drawing water into his lungs. He surfaces a moment later, pushing dripping hair out of his eyes, and paddles a bit further out. He adjusts to the temperature faster than he expects, and it’s almost pleasant, watching the sea floor pass below him, the world around him silent but for his own splashing.
Fuck. Louis turns his head to see Harry standing on the shore, hand shielding his eyes as he squints out over the water.
“Is that you?” Harry asks. “What are you doing?”
“I should think the answers to both of those questions would be obvious,” Louis says.
A pause. “Why are you swimming?”
“It’s summer,” Louis says. “We’re at the beach. Why aren’t you swimming? Join me, the water’s lovely.”
Harry’s lips purse, and for a terrifying second Louis thinks he actually might – but then he shakes his head, laughing. “Someone’s got to keep an eye on things around here,” he says. “It’s like co-pilots eating different meals. If you drown, I can still get the boat home.”
Louis thinks he wouldn’t mind if he got to eat a different meal from Harry – the memory of last night’s quinoa still makes his mouth feel grainy thinking about it, and he expects breakfast will be similar. But the other part, he has some objections to.
“If you let me drown, you can’t have the boat,” he says. “Also I think my family might kill you.”
“Then you should probably come back,” Harry says. “I can swim, but I never learned lifeguarding.” He glances behind him. “Also I think the others are waking up.”
They have been a bit loud, Louis realizes. Not that it’s unreasonably early or anything, but he does usually try to be a bit more considerate. Though with this group’s health-consciousness, he’s a little surprised he was the first one up – would have thought they’d be the kind to wake up at five. Maybe even actually go for an early morning swim, out of choice rather than necessity.
The customers do not elect for an early morning swim. Instead, they opt for pre-breakfast yoga. Louis declines their offer for him to join, but Harry seems elated.
Louis does not understand him.
He dresses quickly, then perches on a rock outside, watching as the group bends and stretches, their faces turned towards the sun. After a few minutes he realizes he’s watching a little too closely, and he stands, busying himself with taking down the tent.
He tries not to think about it. Which of course guarantees that he can’t stop. It lingers in his mind, just below the surface, always ready to float back up.
“It was just weird,” Louis tells Niall a few days later, dropping in after a day spent trying to balance acting normal and acting like he’s not trying to act normal. “I guess it was colder than I realized.”
“It really wasn’t,” Niall says, sprawled on the bed. “It’s July.”
“It gets cold in July sometimes,” Louis says. “We’re in England not the south of France.”
“We went camping in March once,” Niall says flatly. “It snowed the next week. And yet there was no cuddling.”
“We were prepared for the cold.”
“We really weren’t.”
“Why are you being like this?”
“Why are you being like this?”
Louis frowns. “What the hell are you talking about?”
Niall rolls his eyes. “Like you don’t know.”
Louis’ frown deepens. “I really don’t.”
Niall sighs. “Of course you don’t,” he says. “God, how do you even function?”
“You like him.”
Louis blinks. “I guess,” he says slowly. “We are friends at this point, more or less.”
“That’s not what I mean.” Niall rolls his eyes again. “You fancy the pants off him. Or more accurately, you want to get his fancy pants off him.”
“I – what? No!” Louis is gobsmacked, almost speechless. “What the hell? That’s absurd!”
“Yes!” Louis runs a hand through his hair. “Jesus, Niall, two gay guys can be friends without wanting to bang.”
“True,” Niall says. “But in that case they usually don’t accidentally cuddle.”
“We weren’t cuddling.”
“What would you call it then?” Niall arches an eyebrow. “Spooning? Embracing?”
“I would call it sleeping,” Louis says. “We were asleep. We weren’t doing anything, it just happened.”
“Exactly.” Niall turns back to the TV, which is playing one of the sixteen cooking shows he’s been binging while housebound.
Louis swats him on the head. “Exactly what?”
“It wasn’t conscious,” Niall says. “It just happened.” He grins. “You were literally attracted to each other.”
“I will literally walk right out of this house,” Louis tells him. “I will take your crutches and leave. And your mom isn’t going to be home for an hour.”
They both know Niall would be perfectly content to stay right there watching TV, but he must recognize that Louis isn’t in the mood for jokes about this because he doesn’t press the issue any further.
“Rude,” he says instead. “Just for that, you’re paying for the pizza.”
“Pizza?” Louis complains. “I wanted Chinese.”
“We don’t have a Chinese restaurant on this island,” Niall says. “And that joke isn’t any funnier the thirtieth time you tell it.”
“You just don’t have a sense of humour.”
“You just aren’t funny.”
“Now who’s being rude?”
Niall laughs. “Okay, fine, we can split the pizza.”
Louis smiles. “Exactly my plan.”
When Louis leaves Niall’s a few hours later he’s comfortably full of pizza and popcorn. They’d talked for ages, making up for not seeing each other every day, discussions about something Niall saw on BuzzFeed mixed with speculations about the identity of Squigs interspersed with debates about weird things that could be good on pizza (Louis isn’t sold on marshmallows but he’s definitely down for maple syrup). It’s light and easy, the way things almost always are between them.
But as he walks home, he has nothing to occupy him but his own thoughts.
And he does not like them.
It’s not that he and Niall never have deep conversations. Niall was one of the first people he came out to, and he was who Louis turned to when Mark moved out. Likewise, Louis had been there for Niall when he’d been bullied, protecting him and encouraging to stick with the gifted programme, or assuring him that being aromantic didn't mean he was broken. They’d gone through plenty together, and Louis couldn’t be more grateful.
But mostly, Niall is a safe place, somewhere for light-hearted conversations and laughter and tomfoolery. Niall is the one Louis turns to when he needs a pick-me-up. He’ll sit with Louis at the bottom sometimes, but usually Louis just wants to get out of his own head.
He wishes he could get out of his own head now.
Because the thing is, for all his protestations, he’s not sure Niall doesn’t have a point. There’s just something about Harry… something Louis finds fascinating, captivating in a way he’s never really experienced before. It’s not like anything he’s ever known. But Louis finds himself compelled to know more, to stretch out their time together and find out what makes him laugh and just… explore his mystery.
He feels like he’s on autopilot as he lets himself into the house, calls a greeting to Jay, takes off his shoes, tromps up the stairs. He pauses on the landing, Lottie’s door half open.
He doesn’t know what to say. A moment later the door swings the rest of the way open, Lottie’s face appearing in the gap.
“What’s up?” she asks.
“I-” He stops again, and Lottie tilts her head to one side.
“You wanna come in?”
“Yeah,” he says. “Thanks.”
She says nothing, just holds the door open for him. Crossing the threshold somehow feels enormous, but he does it, and the world doesn’t explode. Lottie closes the door behind him, then flops onto her bed, patting the spot beside her. Louis takes it gratefully, leaning against her as she arranges a fuzzy blanket over them.
He doesn’t say anything at first, and Lottie doesn’t push him. After a few minutes, she starts talking about a makeup tutorial she saw online, and some ideas she wants to try out, and Louis has almost no idea what she’s talking about but he’s grateful.
“It’s amazing what you can do with a good eyeshadow palette,” she tells him. “Do you want me to keep going? Because I can, but I suspect it’s not what you’re here for.”
“It’s not,” Louis says. “It’s just – confusing. Hard to talk about.”
A brief silence. Louis can tell she’s trying not to push, trying to make space, and he appreciates it, but he just has no idea what to say.
“Maybe if you like… ask questions,” he says. “Cause I don’t even know where to start.”
“Okay,” Lottie says. “I can do that.” She thinks for a moment. “Start at the beginning, I guess,” she says. “What brought you here? What happened?”
“I was at Niall’s,” Louis says. “And he… had some interesting theories.”
Louis picks at his thumbnail, not making eye contact. “About Harry. And me.”
She smiles. “Ah.” There’s something in her expression, a sudden understanding but no surprise, and Louis doesn’t know how to feel about that. He doesn’t know how to feel about a lot of things.
“It’s not what you think,” he says. “I mean – I don’t think-”
He stops. He doesn’t know what he thinks.
“I think nothing,” Lottie says. “I think you’re doing enough overthinking for both of us.”
“You think you know what Niall said.”
“There aren’t that many possibilities,” she says, laughing.
“You think he’s right.”
“I think that’s not my call,” she corrects. “I think that’s between you and Harry. But I’m also not that surprised that Niall came to that conclusion.”
Louis sighs. He wishes he had a conclusion, rather than this swirling, nervous uncertainty.
“What do you think?” Lottie asks after a moment.
“I don’t know,” Louis says honestly. “It’s – weird. I don’t know.” He huffs a quiet laugh. “I always thought you just – knew. Like, I knew when I had a crush on Michael in school. And I knew the second I laid eyes on Adam that I wanted to-”
“Do either of us want me to hear the end of that sentence?”
Louis pauses, flushing. “Probably not. Sorry.”
“It’s fine.” Lottie says. She glances at him. “So this is different, is it?”
“I mean – yeah,” Louis says. “I just don’t know what that means. It doesn’t feel like anything I have a name for.”
“What does it feel like?”
Louis searches for the words. “It feels like… wonder, I guess,” he says at last. “Wonder at and wondering.”
He stares at the ceiling for a long moment, afraid to look at Lottie, but at last he can’t help himself. Her eyes are soft, her smile kind, and his heart feels stuck in his throat.
They don’t say anything else. They don’t need to. Louis gives Lottie a hug and heads back to his room, mind swirling and changing with every beat of his heart. It takes him more than an hour to fall asleep.
It feels like no time at all before the mainland trip is upon him. Well, it really is, technically; less than a week, but that week seems to fly by and Louis is not ready for this. He still doesn’t know… anything, really. But there’s no backing out now, and he doesn’t think he wants to, even if his stomach flips and his heart throbs every time he thinks about it.
When Louis arrives at the docks on the morning of the trip, still blinking sleep from his eyes, Harry is already there. He greets Louis much more cheerily than the hour warrants, then offers him a steaming cup of tea.
“Thanks,” Louis says, taking a grateful sip. “God, that’s good stuff. You know how to treat a guy.”
Harry laughs. “Lou did the hard work,” he says. “I just ordered.”
Louis takes another sip, already feeling more awake. It’s prepared just the way he likes it, and he wonders if Harry remembered or if he just told Lou it was for him.
“Ready to hit the sea?” he asks, unlocking the shed.
Harry smiles. “More than,” he says. “I don’t think I’ve ever done anything like this. It’s exciting, isn’t it? Like an adventure.”
Louis has made this trip – God, it must be almost half a dozen times now, more counting other occasional trips to the mainland. It’s not routine, by any means, but it’s not new. Yet Harry’s enthusiasm is contagious, and Louis finds himself smiling.
“It’s a long journey,” he warns as they step inside.
“I don’t mind,” Harry says brightly. “That’s what makes it exciting. And I’ll have good company.”
Louis isn’t sure how to respond to that, so he doesn’t, focusing on gathering supplies.
“You know we can make more than one trip,” Harry says as Louis stacks his life jacket and sleeping bag atop the tent.
“Multiple trips are lame,” Louis says, holding the pile together with his chin. “I like living dangerously.”
Harry chuckles, hefting his own bags. “You’ll still have to come back for the cooler,” he points out.
“Nah, I’ll make my first mate do that,” Louis says. “He seems to like making multiple trips.”
He doesn’t understand how Harry can laugh so much this early in the morning, but he’s glad of it. The sound makes the morning feel more alive.
It does take a second trip to get all the gear onto the boat and stowed. A quick check that everything is in order, and then they hoist sail and are off. Louis closes his eyes for a moment as the wind catches them, relishing the feel of it against his skin and the smell of salt air it carries. There’s nothing quite like the freedom of riding the wind and waves. It feels like home.
He feels more than hears Harry move to stand next to him. Opening his eyes, he sees the same soft smile on Harry’s face that he knows was on his.
“Last chance to back out,” he says. “Next stop, mainland England.”
Harry opens his eyes slowly, his smile growing just a little bit brighter. “Why is it so hard to believe I might be looking forward to this?”
“To a day and a half trapped on a boat with me?” Louis says. “I’m not sure even I’d be looking forward to that.”
“You’re too hard on yourself,” Harry says, nudging him gently. “There are certainly worse people to spend that much time with.” One of the sails begins to flap in the wind and he turns, heading down to trim it. “Besides,” he calls over his shoulder. “I can always ditch you on the mainland if it comes to that.”
Louis knows he won’t.
It’s a long trip, hours blending together with nothing to show that they’re even moving but the occasional tiny rock island poking out of the sea. They take a few breaks on the way, stopping for lunch in a spot with no one and nothing but water in sight in any direction.
“It’s like we’re the only ones on the planet,” Harry says, looking over the side of the boat as he nibbles his sandwich. “Like it’s all ours.”
“And it goes on forever,” Louis agrees. “Sometimes I just want to sail west, out into the open ocean, just to see what happens.”
Harry turns to look at him. “Why haven’t you?”
Louis laughs. “I’d miss my family,” he says. “Besides, I’m not sure this is the right boat for the job. I love her, but she’s better closer to shore.”
“Mmm.” Harry hums thoughtfully as he chews. “Still. Maybe someday.”
It seems like an absurd dream to Louis, the kind of thing people think about but no one actually does, but somehow it sounds almost reasonable when Harry says it.
They arrive at the mainland in the early afternoon, pulling into the harbour for a bit of exploring before the show.
“What do you want to do first?” Louis asks as they furl the sails.
Harry pauses for a moment, then shrugs. “I haven’t been here since we moved,” he says. “I barely remember it. Anywhere you want to go is fine with me.”
Louis gives him a scandalized look. “Right,” he says. “It is a legal requirement that no one leaves here without seeing Penlee House, so we’ll start with that. And I always drag Niall to the Lighthouse Gallery. They both have a lot of local stuff – art, history, community work, the like, so it feels really genuine to me.”
“Sounds right up my alley,” Harry says, grinning. “Lead the way.”
Louis has been to both sites plenty, but he still always finds something new – a new piece of art, or a new understanding of an old one, or an exhibit in the museum he skimmed over before. And with Harry – everything is new to Harry, and he reacts to it with so much glee and wonder that Louis can’t help but laugh. Harry isn’t offended though, just looks at Louis with eyes alight and keeps exploring, pointing out his favourites and asking questions that Louis has no idea how to answer. That doesn’t seem to bother Harry either – it’s not about the answers, Louis realizes; it’s about the wondering.
The sun is just barely starting to dip towards the horizon when they head back toward the docks, walking over quiet streets that Louis knows will be filled with chaos and capitalism come morning. For now, though, it’s peaceful, homey. He and Harry walk close together, pointing out an interesting shop or a cat perched in a window. They buy a light dinner from a takeaway kebab shop, eating as they walk, then return to the docks and steer back out and away from the city. There are boats clustered around the harbour and all along the shore, but after a few minutes they leave them behind and it’s just them again.
“The view’s not as good from out here,” Louis says, almost apologetically. “But I like the solitude of it. Feels like our own private show.”
“I don’t mind,” Harry says. “I trust you.” He smiles, and Louis feels it in his bones.
“Let me know if you see any good camping spots,” he says.
They pass a few rocky islands before dropping anchor by a medium sized piece of land with a few trees and a small sandy beach. It doesn’t take them long to pitch the tent, Louis stealing anxious glances at the sky behind them as they work.
“It’s not like we can’t stop if the show starts,” Harry says after Louis’ third check.
Louis smiles. “I know,” he says. “But sometimes the waiting is the best part. That anticipation, knowing it’s coming but not quite when.” He straightens, the last peg firmly secured. “Besides, the view is best from the boat.”
Harry stands as well, twisting to stretch the bends from his spine. “Then let’s get back to it,” he says. “I think we’re all set here.”
“One more thing,” Louis says, pulling out a glow stick. He cracks it, watching the green liquid swirl into light, then ties it above the flap. “To make sure we can find it once it gets dark.”
Back on the boat, Louis stretches a blanket across the deck, draping another over himself to ward off the slight chill. A moment later, Harry flops down beside him, wiggling his way under the blanket.
“There’s more blankets, you know,” Louis says.
Harry smiles. “I like sharing,” he says.
“Oh.” Louis doesn’t know what to say to that. He’s certainly not complaining. Just… slightly breathless. “Well, if you’re cold. We can, like. Add more.”
“Nah,” Harry says. “Plenty of body heat between us.”
Louis almost chokes on his own tongue, breaking into a coughing fit that makes Harry sit up in concern.
“I’m all right,” he says between coughs. “Just – ahem. Bit parched.” He stands, pushing off the blanket, and walks over to the cooler tucked under the seats. “I could use a drink, is all,” he says, rummaging for a moment before turning around, prize in hand. “Champagne?”
Harry bursts into delighted laughter. “Does that work on a boat?” he asks. “Cause I’m willing to try, but I feel like it could get messy.”
Louis shrugs. “My boat, my rules,” he says. “Try not to spill, but honestly, she’s seen worse.” He grabs a pair of glasses from another bin, wrapped and padded, and hands them to Harry. “If you unwrap those, I’ll crack this baby open.”
“Sounds like you have the more fun job,” Harry teases, getting to work.
Louis smiles. “My boat, my rules,” he repeats.
By the time he pops open the bottle with practiced ease, Harry has freed the glasses from their packaging. He holds them out and Louis carefully fills them. He pulls a spare bucket over and sets the bottle in it, then settles back into the blankets before accepting the proffered flute from Harry.
“To a wonderful summer,” Harry says, holding his glass up. “To adventures and exploring.”
“To learning new things,” Louis adds, lifting his own. “And to old friends.”
Their glasses clink softly, and they drink, Louis tilting his head back and closing his eyes as he savours the beverage. It’s not the best quality – he doesn’t have that kind of money, and everything costs more when it has to be shipped out to the islands – but it’s good, just sweet enough to take the edge off the dryness. He swallows, then takes another leisurely sip.
“You sure know how to enjoy your alcohol,” Harry says, chuckling.
Louis opens his eyes. Harry’s has nearly finished his glass, swirling the last mouthful in the bottom. “You work fast,” Louis says.
“Simplest way to not spill is to drink it,” Harry says, grinning, and honestly, Louis can’t argue with that. As he watches, Harry tips the last of the champagne into his mouth. Louis’ eyes are glued to the way Harry’s Adam’s apple bobs as he swallows, the way his tongue darts out to lick the last drops from his lips. He is not nearly drunk enough for this, but also, getting more drunk seems like a dangerous game.
But then Harry holds out his glass for a refill, and it would be impolite to let him drink alone.
They’ve nearly finished the bottle, and Louis is feeling comfortably fuzzy around the edges, when a streak of light shoots up into the sky. It vanishes into nothing for a moment, then explodes into multicoloured sparks. Harry gasps delightedly, grabbing Louis’ hand.
“It’s beautiful,” he whispers. His eyes are wide, his smile wondrous, and Louis can’t look away. Harry’s hand is warm and solid on his, slightly rough with calluses but still soft. He has to remind himself to breathe as he forces his eyes back to the sky.
Another streak, this one sizzling and sparking. It splits into a shower of green sparks that arc across the blackness. The next one is a starburst of blue that splits and splits again. Then a red one that shimmers in and out of view like a mirage. Harry oohs and ahhs at each one, and Louis can’t help smiling.
Harry’s genuine and unabashed joy and excitement is so different from Niall’s whooping and laughter, but it feels right. It reminds him of childhood, of Bonfire Nights and magic tricks and baking soda volcanos, that same sense of wonder and awe at the entire world. It reminds him of watching his siblings experience those same discoveries, that same amazement, everything feeling so brand new.
“Look,” Harry says, pointing at a golden explosion overhead. “We followed the sun.”
Louis laughs. It’s terrible, but he laughs. “You’re an idiot,” he says, not meaning it.
Harry smiles. “And yet you keep me around,” he says. “I must be good for something.”
Louis flips his hand around under Harry’s, wrapping his fingers around Harry’s massive palm. “One or two things,” he says.
It’s a beautiful show. It always is, but Louis could swear that this one is better than any he’s seen in previous years. Or maybe he’s just appreciating it in a new way.
Harry doesn’t let go of his hand the entire time, squeezing it tightly whenever there’s a particularly brilliant explosion. Louis catches himself running his thumb across Harry’s knuckles more than once, but Harry doesn’t comment, and after the third time, Louis just lets it happen.
When the sky finally goes dark, they lie still for a long minute. It’s quiet, still, feeling almost outside of time. At last, Louis sits up, stretching to loosen the stiffness from his spine. Harry sits up too, dropping Louis’ hand as he stands. Louis feels it like a physical loss, though he tells himself it’s just the loss of warmth.
They gather up the blankets, Harry folding them neatly as Louis does a last check of the boat to make sure everything is secure. Then they descend the ladder to the dinghy and begin to paddle.
“Thank you for inviting me,” Harry says after a few moments.
Louis takes another stroke, and another. “You’re welcome,” he says. “It was nice to have you along.”
“I haven’t done anything like this in ages,” Harry says, his smile open and nostalgic. “Not since I was little. Course that was always a much more chaotic affair.”
“I’m usually a much more chaotic affair,” Louis says, chuckling. “I haven’t had a camping trip this calm in I don’t know how long.”
Harry laughs. “The night is still young,” he says. “There’s time to change it.”
Louis scoffs. “You’re the least chaotic person I’ve ever met,” he says. “How are you going to change it?”
Harry’s grin widens and there’s a light in his eyes that Louis doesn’t think he’s seen before. He eyes him warily, leaning slightly away. “What are you planning?” he asks.
“If I’m not chaotic then you have nothing to worry about,” Harry says innocently.
Louis gives him an unimpressed look. “And yet I’m worried.”
“Success!” Harry punches the air. “And I didn’t even have to do anything.”
Louis laughs, poking Harry in the side. “You’re a goof.”
Harry pokes back. “You’re a goof.”
Louis pokes him. Harry pokes back. Louis pokes twice.
Harry pounces, pushing Louis against the back of the dinghy and tickling him. Louis squirms, laughing breathlessly as Harry’s fingers seek out the tenderest spots on his ribs. “Stop,” he pants, only half meaning it. “Oh God, Harry, okay, I don’t – ack!”
The last sound is pulled from his throat as a particularly awkward twist sends him leaning just a little too far back. He feels his balance falter, his weight just past the point of no return as he slips over the inflated side of the dinghy. For a moment he sees his own shock reflected in Harry’s face, feels Harry’s hand grab for him but catch only a shoe that comes off in his hand.
Louis gasps as he hits the water – more from surprise than the cold. He kicks up to the surface, shaking the hair out of his face as he treads water. Harry is staring at him from the side of the dinghy, shock and horror still visible on his face in the faint moonlight.
Louis can’t help it. He laughs. He slips under the water for a moment, treading water made much harder when he can’t stop giggling, but a mouthful of water and a few spluttering coughs later he’s laughing again.
“I’m fine,” he calls to Harry. “Just get the boat to shore.”
“Are you sure?” Harry asks. “I didn’t mean to – we can, like-”
“That boat is not stable enough for me to climb into,” Louis says. “I’m a good swimmer. It’s honestly fine. Niall’s dumped me in the water often enough.” He starts stroking towards the shore, his clothes thick and cumbersome, but shorts are easier than jeans and he makes steady progress.
Harry hovers for a moment, but at another nod from Louis he finally starts paddling towards the shore. Louis puts his head down and keeps swimming, and when he looks up again Harry has dragged the boat up the shore and is holding the blankets at the edge of the water. Louis appreciates that – the water isn’t freezing, but it’s far from warm.
But as his feet finally touch the bottom, he pauses rather than continuing for shore. Maybe it’s the champagne in his bloodstream or the fireworks still glowing in his eyes, but he doesn’t want to get out and dry off and go to bed. They’re on vacation, they’re adults who can do what they want and that includes being kids again.
So instead of wading to shore, he waves to Harry.
“Come join me,” he calls. “The water’s lovely.”
Harry frowns. “It’s dark out.”
“So we see by moonlight.” Louis leans back, floating for a moment as he looks up at the sky, big and open and covered in tiny specks of light. “You can see thousands of stars up here. So clear.”
The gentle splash of footsteps in the surf reaches his ears and he smiles. Standing once more, he can dimly see the pile of blankets abandoned on the shore, Harry’s shoes perched beside them as he wades out into the sea.
Louis moves towards him, meeting him in the middle, the water coming to just below their waists. They pause for a moment in the darkness, staring at each other.
“Hi,” Harry says at last.
“Sorry about dumping you in the water.”
Louis laughs. “I told you, it’s fine,” he says. “Stop worrying, seriously. It’s beautiful out here.”
“It is,” Harry agrees, looking up at the sky. “Big city life can’t compete with this.”
They’re quiet for a moment, admiring the stars. Louis glances over at Harry, his face almost rapturous as he soaks it in, and his heart feels too big for his chest.
He looks away, dipping his hand into the water and, with a sudden spark of mischievousness, he splashes it up at Harry.
Harry jumps, yelping in surprise. “Hey!” he says.
“Payback,” Louis says, laughing. He splashes him again. “You got me wet.”
Harry laughs too. “Fair enough,” he says. “But you’re so wet it won’t matter if I do this.” He smacks the water, sending up a spray that makes Louis duck.
“Hey!” He’s laughing, though, and Harry is laughing, and the sound of laughter and water splashing fills the night as they descend into frantic battle.
Harry scoops up a big handful of water and steps close, dropping it on Louis’ head. Louis wipes his eyes clear with one hand, reaching out to shove Harry away with the other.
But as he pushes him off, he feels his fingers curl to hook into Harry’s shirt, tugging him back closer. He feels his face turn upwards and his breath catch and then his mouth is on Harry’s and it’s the most beautiful and terrifying thing he’s ever done.
Harry tastes like champagne and salt water and summer. His lips are soft and warm against Louis’, every touch sending electricity tingling through him from head to toe. Harry’s hands are solid against his back, still but firm, and Louis could stay here forever.
And then Harry moves. His hands slide up Louis’ back, pulling him closer and closer. One cups the back of Louis’ neck as his lips press harder yet still somehow soft and Louis thinks he might faint from pleasure. His knees buckle and he catches himself against Harry. Harry reaches down and lifts him up, his hands sliding under Louis’ bum as Louis wraps his legs around Harry’s waist, never separating their mouths for a moment.
“Please,” Louis murmurs into Harry’s mouth. “Want you. Fuck, please.”
“Fuck,” Harry echoes, groaning. “Been wanting you so long.”
Louis pushes against Harry’s chest, as though it might have any effect, and Harry seems to understand as he moves towards the shore in slow, careful steps.
It feels like forever before Harry’s steps grow noisy in the shallow water and he steps onto the sand. It’s too long – Louis wants more, always more, wants everything and every part of Harry – but it’s not nearly long enough when Louis wants to keep kissing him forever.
Louis reaches for the hem of Harry’s shirt, pushing it up his chest and he wants to kiss that chest, memorize every inch. Harry sets Louis back on the ground, raising his arms to let Louis pull the shirt over his head. Louis tosses it carelessly aside, raising his own arms as he feels Harry’s fingers brushing up his sides.
They fall onto the blankets, Louis kicking off his one waterlogged shoe as Harry's hands trace fire onto his bare skin. Louis reaches for Harry’s zipper, his brain momentarily whiting out at the defined line of Harry’s cock straining against the material.
“Get it off,” Harry begs, his chest heaving as he arches against the sand. “Get it off or I swear-”
His voice breaks and Louis has to press a hand to the sizeable bulge in his own shorts, biting back a gasp at the shiver of pleasure.
“Oh fuck,” he says suddenly, heart dropping to his knees. “I don’t have any stuff.”
Harry squirms slightly under Louis. “I might.”
Louis stares at him. His heart is pounding so hard it feels like his vision is shaking with each beat. “Please don’t toy with my emotions,” he says. “Do you or don’t you? Because it’s not like I don’t have several other tempting ideas but my favourite is definitely the one where you fuck me senseless.”
Harry moans, and it is the filthiest sound Louis has heard in his life. “I – fuck – I do,” he gasps. “Wallet, right pocket. It might have been presumptuous, but… I hoped-”
“I don’t care,” Louis says, kissing him again. “You can be as presumptuous as you like if it means I get you inside me.”
Harry moans again, and Louis thinks he might come on the spot just from the sound, that should be illegal, God. He pulls Harry’s wallet from his pocket, flipping through scraps of paper with trembling fingers until he finds a foil-wrapped condom and a thin packet of lube.
“Bless you,” Louis says, almost reverently, as he rips open the packet with his teeth. “You are the best thing that’s ever happened to me.”
Harry laughs, the sound low and throaty and mesmerizing. “I’m about to be.”
Louis wakes up slowly. His back is bare and chilly in the wind, but his front is pressed against something soft and warm. He presses himself closer, not opening his eyes yet, taking stock. His skin feels coated in sand, his hair too, and he’s a bit sore, though in all the right ways.
His eyes pop open, and he suddenly remembers.
The boat. The fireworks. The swimming. The kiss. Harry.
And then the sex. Louis hadn’t realized a man could do that with his fingers, and God that mouth – it was sinfully angelic.
His cock perks up slightly at the memory, reminding Louis that he is completely naked on an island beach. He considers getting up, retrieving some of his discarded clothes, but… effort. And they’d be covered in sand. And if he moves he’ll have to let go of Harry.
So instead, he presses himself closer, presses a soft kiss to Harry’s bare shoulder, everything he didn’t realize he wanted to do the last time he woke up like this. God, he could be an idiot sometimes, Niall was right about that, but after a night like that Louis couldn’t regret much.
He feels Harry stir in front of him, long limbs shifting slowly, and he hums softly. “Good morning, sunshine.”
He feels Harry go still, and then he squirms around to face him. “So that was real,” Harry murmurs.
Louis laughs. “Do you dream about me often?”
Harry’s cheeks turn faintly pink. “Once or twice,” he says.
Louis’ heart thuds warmly in his chest. “Want me to help prove this isn’t a dream?” he asks, leaning closer.
He’s a centimetre from Harry’s mouth when Harry whispers, “Louis, stop.”
Louis does not want to stop, but Harry wants him to, and anything Harry wants he wants, so he stops. “What is it?” he asks.
“I just – it’s not that I don’t want to kiss you, because – fuck I want to kiss you, all the time, it’s not even funny, your mouth is just so-” He stops himself seemingly with great effort, and chuckles. “But first – I have to know. What is this? Or like, what would it be? Because, like, I can’t-”
He stops, but Louis can fill in the blanks. Harry had said he wasn’t looking for a relationship. And he’s only here for the summer; in a few short weeks, he’ll be off at university, and Louis won’t see him again for months.
Louis wants everything. He really does. Maybe that’s stupid, maybe that’s naïve or impetuous, but he wants everything Harry is willing to give him. And if that doesn’t mean dating – if that means a summer fling, or just hooking up, or anything at all…
“It can be whatever you want it to be,” Louis says, shrugging with a nonchalance he doesn’t feel at all. “It doesn’t have to be serious. I’d quite like to do this again – I like kissing you, and that was without doubt the best sex I have had by a factor of magnitude. But it can mean whatever you want it to.”
Harry’s face is smooth and impenetrable, almost no emotion visible. There’s a flicker of something in his eyes and in the quick twist of his mouth, but then it’s gone and Louis has no idea what it was or what it meant.
“Can I think about it?” Harry says at last. “Just – last night was something of a sudden change. And I think I’m still a bit fuzzy from the champagne.”
Guilt settles thick and heavy in Louis’ stomach. Of course. They’d been tipsy, it had just kind of happened. And he’d been kind of a twat at first, and he was kind of sort of Harry’s boss, and Harry might have still been feeling guilty about the impromptu swim and – it really probably shouldn’t have happened. But fuck, he can’t regret that it did.
He just hopes that Harry doesn’t regret it. He hopes that Harry doesn’t feel uncomfortable. He hopes that he didn’t ruin what they had for want of what he hoped they could have. Because as much as he wants to be with Harry, he wants him in his life first. He wants his stories and his jokes and his kindness, wants his curiosity and his passion even if it’s not for him. He’d rather have friendship than nothing at all.
“Of course,” is all he says.
They’re quiet as they dress, as they eat, as they pack up the camp. Louis tries once or twice to strike up conversation – about a bird he spots landing in the trees, about a book his sister is reading – but Harry falls silent again after a few sentences. He’s withdrawn, not quite meeting Louis’ eyes, and it stings but Louis doesn’t dare say anything. He doesn’t feel like it’s place, and he doesn’t want to make it worse.
It’s better once they’re back on the boat, all wind and water and who could feel anything but alive out here? The light is back in Harry’s eyes, the spring in his step, but they still don’t talk much beyond what’s necessary. Louis almost starts chattering more than once, just to fill the silence, but he bites his tongue.
They make good time, arriving back at St. Martin’s around mid-afternoon. They derig in almost silence, everything they put away feeling like another piece of Louis’ heart being pulled out. At last all that’s left is gathering up their things, and… leaving.
Louis can’t do it. He can’t watch Harry walk away. He just can’t. “I’m parched,” he says instead. “I’m gonna grab a tea before I head out. I’ll see you tomorrow?”
It’s a question, one he’s not sure he knows the answer to, but he doesn’t wait for Harry’s response, heading down the dock towards the shore.
And then Harry speaks. He calls after him, “Louis.”
And Louis freezes. His blood runs cold and his heart pounds as he slowly turns. This is it, Harry is going to tell him – he doesn’t know what. That he can’t do this, that he only wants to be friends, that he wants to be friends with benefits? Any of those will break Louis’ heart, but he’ll say yes. He just hopes Harry will let him stay in his life, let him keep a piece of his sunlight, however small.
“I can’t-” Harry stops, and Louis’ heart feels like it’s sinking through the ocean floor, burning up in the molten mantle below. “I’m not good at this,” he says at last. “I’m not good at – at being direct, but – God, Louis. You don’t even know.”
He shakes his head, and Louis doesn’t know, and he doesn’t know if he wants to know, and he’s terrified and he can only wait for Harry to continue.
“I know you talked about this not having to mean anything,” Harry continues after a moment. “And like – if I’m being honest, last night was one of the best nights of my life.”
Louis smiles, though his heart is breaking. “Mine too,” he whispers.
“I want you,” Harry says, his voice matter-of-fact, as though he’s just stating simple facts, things anyone should know rather than things that send Louis’ world spinning off its axis. The sky is blue, water is wet, Harry wants Louis. “But I don’t know if this is a good idea,” he continues. “Because Louis… I don’t think I can do not-serious. You mean too much to me for it to not mean anything.”
Louis can’t breathe, but now it’s hope rather than hurt that fills his lungs. “It doesn’t…” He pauses, trying to find the words. “It doesn’t have to not mean anything,” he says at last.
It’s not eloquent. It’s awkward and jumbled and not the kind of sentence that Harry deserves as a declaration of love, but Harry seems to understand – or at least, understand enough to hope. He takes a step towards Louis, still tentative, but no longer looking like he thinks he’s saying goodbye. “And instead?” he asks, his voice feather-soft.
Louis takes a step forward as well, reaching for Harry’s hand and holding it tightly, like it’s the only thing keeping him grounded, and it may well be. “I want you too,” he whispers. “I want you more than I’ve ever wanted anything in my life. I want you any way I can have you, any way you’ll have me. I want everything. But I’ll take whatever you’ll give. If that’s friendship, if that’s a summer thing, if that’s just hooking up… if that’s just last night. I’ll take it. I’ll take it and be grateful. I’ll take anything.”
Harry takes another step forward and they’re barely inches apart now, Louis looking up at Harry and the last time they stood this close together Louis kissed him. He tries not to think too hard about it now; he knows he doesn’t have the strength to stop himself if he lets the thought simmer too long.
“What do you want?” Harry whispers. “What are you hoping?”
“I want to date you,” Louis says, the words almost bursting out of him. “I want to take you out for dinner and drinks and movies. I want to wake up next to you. I want to hear about everything you’ve learned at university, everything you’ve done in the past five years, hell, everything you’ve done before that too. I want to hear about everything you do and learn. I want everything, Harry.”
Harry’s smile is wider than Louis can ever remember seeing it. “Me too,” he says. “I’d like that very much.”
Louis reaches up, stopping his hand just shy of Harry’s face. “Can I kiss you?” he asks, trying not to sound desperate. “Please, Harry, can I-”
Harry swallows hard. “I’d like that very much too,” he says.
Louis doesn’t need another invitation. He pulls Harry in, kisses him hard and deep and with an edge of desperation born out of the fear that he might never get to do this again. It had been painful before sometimes, the unidentifiable craving, but now, knowing what he’s missing – but he’s not missing it, he’s not going to miss a single moment of memorizing how Harry’s lips move under his, how Harry’s tongue tastes, how Harry’s hands feel tracing up his spine.
He doesn’t want to miss any of this, but if he has to, he hopes he never forgets.
They kiss a lot that day. Neither of them wants to stop, wants to miss a moment when they’ve already missed so many. They don’t go home, instead lying on the deck for hours, talking and touching and kissing until the sun starts to set. As the sky turns red and gold, they sit on the end of the dock, leaning against each other, hands twined.
“When did you know?” Harry asks at one point.
Louis has to think for a long time before answering. “I don’t think I really did,” he says at last. “I mean, I had all the pieces, just… I was scared of putting them together. Even though everyone else had.”
Harry laughs. “Like who?”
“Niall,” Louis says. “I told him about – oh God, I don’t even know if you were awake, but – that overnight last week, I woke up fully wrapped around you. And also, well. Hard.”
Harry lets out a cackle that scares a few nearby birds into flight. “I must have slept through that bit,” he says. “How did that not clue you in?”
Louis shrugs. “It didn’t feel like anything I’d ever felt before,” he says. “That’s what I told Lottie. It didn’t feel like wanting to kiss you or hold you or sleep with you. It just felt like… wanting to know you. Wanting to be around you.”
“Hmm.” Harry is smiling, leaning in close. “You don’t want to kiss me?”
Louis laughs, dropping a quick peck on Harry’s lips. “Kissing you is a bonus,” he says. “A very, very nice bonus. But it’s not your mouth or your body I’m interested in. It’s you.”
Harry smiles, squeezing Louis’ hand. “You’re sweet.”
Louis shrugs. “I’m honest,” he says. “Sometimes that’s a good thing.” He chuckles. “What about you? When did you know?”
Harry looks away, back out over the ocean where the sky is slowly turning the same colour his cheeks have suddenly become. “Oh, I don’t know.”
Louis nudges him. “Come on, you had to know I would turn the question back on you,” he says. “What is it? I won’t laugh, promise.”
Harry shrugs, still not meeting Louis’ eyes. “It’s not, like… linear, exactly,” he says. “Didn’t make a lot of sense. Kind of went back and forth a bit.”
Louis grimaces. “I kind of went back and forth a bit on you.”
“Yeah,” Harry says. “That was… confusing. Especially since… well, a big part of why I was interested in this job is that I had a massive crush on you before we moved.”
Louis’ jaw drops. “You did not.”
“Hand to God.” Harry’s cheeks are still crimson, but he’s smiling now. “I mean, maybe it was just because you were out so I felt like I had a chance, but… there was always something magnetic about you. You were funny and loud and spontaneous and just… exciting, I guess.” He shrugs. “Then we moved, and I figured I’d never see you again. I met other people, loved other people. But when Mum told me she was moving back…” He smiles wryly. “I’d be lying if I said you weren’t one of the first things that popped into my head.”
“That’s… wow.” Louis is gobsmacked. “Really?”
“Really,” Harry confirms. “I couldn’t decide if this job was an amazing opportunity or a terrible idea. I mean, it had been years, we’d both changed, and I’d barely even known you then. I had a crush on someone I’d barely spoken to, someone who was more imagination than reality.” He chuckles. “But honestly knowing something is a terrible idea has never stopped me before.”
Louis laughs. “Relatable.”
“And then you were – what you were, and I didn’t know how to feel about that, how to reconcile it, but even when you were being a dick you were still electric, which was also confusing. And then you changed.” He glances up at Louis, his eyes soft. “I think I realized I was a goner the day of that awful storm. You were so gentle, so concerned, and I knew – I knew it wasn’t personal, it wasn’t me, but that almost made it more special. It was just who you are. You’re a helper. You’re a protector.”
“You give me too much credit.”
“One of us has to. You don’t give yourself enough credit.”
Louis doesn’t know what to say to that. So he doesn’t. Instead he leans in, Harry meeting him in the middle, and loses himself in the feeling of warmth and hope and new beginnings.
For their first proper date, Louis takes Harry to Adam’s. He offers to spring for something fancier, but Harry shakes his head.
“It feels right,” he says. “That’s where I felt like we first really connected. Like, personally, not just about work or learning or stuff. That’s where I first learned about you.”
Louis feels that, like an echo in his bones, and even if he didn’t, he’s helpless to argue when it comes to Harry.
They go out their usual day, Tuesday, but rather than nursing a few beers they order food and a pair of cocktails.
“Cocktails?” Bebe asks when they order, her eyebrows rising. “Are you celebrating something?”
Louis glances at Harry, unable to stop a soft smile from spreading across his face. “In a fashion,” he says. “I suppose you could say that.”
Bebe looks between the two of them and plants her hands on her hips. “Well, I’ll be,” she says. “This is a surprise. A good one, though.”
Louis chuckles. “I’m pleasantly surprised myself,” he says.
“About three days.” Louis glances at Harry again. “But I think it’s been a long time coming.”
Bebe smiles. “You two look very happy together,” she says. “And I’m happy for you. Also wildly jealous. But mostly happy.” She leans across the bar, pressing a kiss to Louis’ cheek.
“Now I’m wildly jealous,” Harry complains, but he’s smiling.
Bebe laughs, kissing his cheek as well. “Enough of me to go around,” she teases. “Seriously though, you picked a good one. Treat him right; you won’t regret it.” She glances behind her. “I should get back to work, but this one’s on me.”
She bustles off to the other side of the bar, her smile never dimming as she greets the new customers like old friends. Which they probably are. Louis smiles fondly after her, until Harry’s quiet cough turns him back.
“Nice as Bebe is,” he says, “I wasn’t really angling for a kiss from her when I said I was jealous.”
Louis laughs. “She’s sweet, though, isn’t she?” he says. “Always so peppy.”
“Hmm.” Harry’s bottom lip juts out, and Louis can’t keep up the charade. He presses a soft kiss of his own to Harry’s cheek, lips lingering just a moment a he inhales the faint smell of Harry’s shampoo and sweat.
“How’s that?” he asks, pulling back.
Harry feigns pondering the question. “Better,” he says. “But it could be even more better.”
“More better?” Louis says. “And you aren’t even drunk yet.”
“Oh, shut up and kiss me.”
Louis has a few more teasing quips on the tip of his tongue, but on second thought that sounds like a much better idea.