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Louis lets the heat of the small mug of coffee in his hands warm him for a moment before he takes a sip and stares out the glass pane of his kitchen door. There are now two maple trees turning a brilliant red along the tree line. There was only one last week.

He sighs as he sets the cup, still half full, on the old, worn kitchen table. It’s mid-September and Louis sits in his kitchen, alone for the first time in his entire life. This house has never been so empty since it was built over a hundred years ago. His great-great grandparents already had a small family when they moved into the freshly raised walls. Afterwards, everyone else just kind of stayed. Generations lived together peacefully for decades. That is until Louis’ siblings all moved, not only out of the house, but out of town, leaving just Louis, Lindsey, their children and his parents. Then Louis and his family, then Louis.

A bitter taste forms in his mouth as he remembers the last encounter he had with Lindsey.

“You’re leaving? Now?” he practically yelled at her as she packed up her small Mazda. God he hated that car, it was the least practical vehicle that she could have possibly chosen. It would barely make it down the long winding driveway to the pavement in winter, often needing him to drive her to her job at the medical clinic on snowy mornings when he should have been tending to the cows.

“Obviously I am, Louis.” She gave him a condescending stare as she threw her last bag into the front seat. He watched her, mouth gaping open and closed.

“This is just the worst time for this, Linds…” He ran his fingers through his too long hair, about to plead his case. He literally didn’t have time to deal with his wife leaving him.

Lindsey laughed. It almost sounded sinister. “It’s never a good time. You are actually thinking about the farm right now, not your wife of almost thirty years walking out of your life. If you didn’t need help with the cows birthing would you have even noticed I left?”

The sad part was that he probably wouldn't have. Not right away. Louis had a bad habit of sleeping in his office in the barn most nights, and Lindsey had so many evening hobbies that had it not been for calving season, Louis could have gone actual days without even laying eyes on her.

Lindsey shook her head and walked back up the rickety steps to the front door and took Louis’ hands in hers. “I love you Louis, but I can’t do this anymore. We are roommates, colleagues even. I don’t know when it happened, but you’re married to this farm, and I’m not. I got a job in Saint John. I’ll be closer to Malcolm while he’s in University at least, then who knows, but please let’s not pretend that this is sad, or unexpected. We can’t live like this.”

Louis frowned, wanting so badly to argue with her, but not able to find the words. She kissed him on the cheek. It was just a peck, but it hit him how long it’s been since he felt her touch, and he realised with a punch to the gut that he wasn’t really going to miss it.

He nodded and let her hands go. She smiled sadly and walked back to the car, never looking back as she made her way down the driveway.

That was almost six months ago. Louis hasn’t heard from her since. And she was right, he doesn’t really miss her that much. They had been living different lives for a long time now. Malcolm, their youngest, moving out to go to school had put that fact on display.

But now it’s September and he’s completely alone, all of their boys out of town. Louis is pretty confident in his abilities to manage his family’s farm, but he’s not cocky. He can’t do this alone. And to quote the show that his oldest boy Gray loves so much, winter is coming.

 

Not many people know that in the Tomlinson household, stubborn is not just a character trait, it’s a feeling. And Louis can feel his stubbornness rising in his chest, causing his arms to cross, and his jaw to set as he listens as patiently as he can to his second, and equally stubborn son on the phone that evening.

“Just hire someone, Dad,” he grumbles, mouth full of God knows what. The boy can eat, Louis can say that much about him.

“Can you please not talk with your mouth full?” Louis asks, almost automatically when he’s talking to Jesse. “What are you eating?”

“Macaroni and hamburger,” Jesse replies, not even bothering to hide that he’s still taking mouthfuls.  

“Your mother in town?” Louis always makes a point to ask about her to the boys. He doesn’t ever want them to think that they can’t talk about her.

“Yup, for a few days,” Jesse replies. He’s in Nova Scotia now getting his PhD in agriculture studies. It’s the closest Louis has to a son that is even somewhat interested in what their family has done since they settled in this town. He couldn’t be more proud of him, proud of all his boys, but he’s pretty sure Jesse isn’t going to years and years of university so that he can come home and take over the family business. “So are you going to hire someone or not?” he adds.

“You know that I’m going to have to do something. But I just don’t know who, or for what? The list is so long that I might need to hire an entire crew.”

“That’s not true and you know it. We’ll all be home for Thanksgiving, that’s the firewood and getting the rest of the hay into the barn. What does that leave?” Louis knows that Jesse is going through the mundane but long list in his head as quickly as Louis is.

“The feed needs to be processed, the roof on the main barn needs repaired, the lower north field needs tilled, I can think of at least seven places where the fence needs fixed or fortified and of course the auction is at the end of next month.” Louis ticks things off in his head and out loud.

“And that’s only the stuff that you are willing to let someone else help with.” Jesse snorts quietly on his end. Louis rolls his eyes, but doesn’t argue.

“I doubt I’m going to find someone that is intimately familiar with the pH balance of soil, or mating cycles of a Holstein on Kijiji,” Louis replies, matching Jesse’s sassy tone. As if Jesse would trust just anyone with his favourite bovine girls either.

“Fair,” Jesse agrees. “But there’s no way there isn’t at least a dozen physically fit men or women in town who would love to spend a few months making some extra cash. I bet I could find someone if I tried hard enough, or at the very least Gray could. He’s in town more than all of us.” The message is loud and clear. Let us help . The boys have been pleading with Louis for months. Letting go is not one of his strong suits.

“Fine, you and Gray put up an ad, or make some calls or whatever it is you people do now and let me know. I’ve got chores to do.” He stretches out his back, listening to the pops and cracks that it induces.

“Don’t forget to eat,” Jesse nags at him, again not for the first time.

“Love you bud.” He ends the call and sighs.

He misses his boys so much that it hurts some days, but they’re all happy, he thinks, and he can’t ask for much more than that. He puts his phone in the back pocket of his worn out Levi’s and grabs his flannel coat on his way out the door once again.

 

lamb

 

Louis wakes up the next morning on the couch in his office. He knew when Malcolm dragged that old thing in here that it would be a mistake. After a late night of writing out account books and paperwork and plans for the spring, it’s so easy to walk to the comfort of its soft cushions and cover himself with the old thick quilt that his grandmother had made that he uses to hide the threadbare upholstery. He slips his shoes back onto his feet with a heavy groan. He doesn’t need to look at a clock to know that it’s just before five am. His internal clock has been set for decades now. He does a quick head check and turns on the milking machine before he wanders down the long hall of the dairy barn, scratching a snout, and whispering hellos to his girls. He figures if he drinks his coffee in the shower he can get both of those tasks done by the time he needs to get started on the milking.

He half walks, half stumbles across the path towards the kitchen door at the back of the house, being careful not to step on the mouse that runs in front of him, when a different movement catches his eyes. He stops in this tracks and squints towards the front steps. A dark mound of moving something is perched on the top stairs of the front porch. His first thought is bear, but it could be dog, or even a big raccoon. It’s not uncommon to see any of those things out here, especially this time of day when the sun hasn’t even crested over the horizon. But as the creature moves even slightly, Louis knows clearly that it’s a person. He feels his throat tighten for just a second. He’s caught unawares, standing in the middle of his yard without so much as a pebble to fight off any intruder. But this person doesn’t look like they’re trying to get in. They look like one of his boys when they got themselves locked out of the house on the rare occasion that Louis would actually lock his doors (usually just to teach them a lesson about coming home on time). He changes his path and heads cautiously around the house and see what this person is doing. He wonders with a fleeting thought how long it would take before anyone would notice he was missing if this person was an axe murderer, and forces it away just as quickly.

Louis stops a few feet away from the figure. The person, a man, stands and comes towards him, almost as if Louis was expected. Daylight is starting to filter in and Louis can see his face clearly. He looks familiar. One of the local kids, well, not a kid anymore, a few years older than Gray, Louis is pretty sure. Who is he? Who does he belong to? A name is eluding him at the moment. Henry? Hubert? Harold? Harry!

“Harry Styles?” Louis asks the expectant face.

Harry smiles and sticks his hand out. “Sorry I’m late, I knew you started early, but I didn’t realise how early.” Harry takes Louis’ tentative hand and shakes it jovially while Louis tries to catch up.

“Late?” he asks. He doesn’t remember anyone that needed to be here this early in the morning. He doesn’t remember anyone that’s supposed to be here at all.

“For work?” Harry asks, hoisting a backpack on his shoulder. “Gray told me that you are usually in the barn by five-thirty, but you’ve obviously already gotten started.”

“Gray.” Louis pulls his phone out of his pocket. It’s barely holding on at two percent, two percent, but there is at least one text notification that he hadn’t seen before he passed out the night before.

Gray:  found someone to work for you

          Harry Styles

          Said he could start right away

When he puts his phone down Harry is still staring at him, but with a look more of apprehension than enthusiasm. “Is there something wrong? Gray told me…”

“No! Not at all!” Louis waves his hands trying to stop the shift of Harry’s face from apprehension to dejection. It’s too early in the morning for dejection. “I asked my boys to help me find help. I just didn’t…” He holds up his now dead phone and waves it at Harry, “realise how fast they can operate when they want something.” He chuckles a little, hoping to ease the tension. Harry smiles a bit, but it doesn’t reach his eyes.

“Sorry, I didn’t realise that you didn’t know I was coming.” He starts to fidget with the strap of his backpack. Louis doesn’t know what to do. This is why he doesn’t talk to people.

“I think it would be great if maybe we had a chance to sit down and talk about everything.” He’d need a week to do that, he thinks. “Catch up, as it were.” Louis starts to look around. He doesn’t have time for this. “But right now I have to get back to the milking.”

“Maybe this was a bad idea,” Harry replies, the dejection back. It needs to go away. Louis can’t be responsible for making someone sad before the sun is even up.  

“No!” He practically yells, shocking Harry out of his moping. “Just...let me get to the cows, and when I’m done, we can sit down and have a talk about what I need and what you can do for me.”

“Um...ok,” is Harry’s reply. He still looks a bit shocked from Louis’ little outburst, but at least he isn’t leaving, and also doesn’t look sad. Progress.

“Ok, so cows and... shit.” Louis’ not going to have time for the shower, and now he doesn’t have time for the coffee. God, he needs a coffee. He looks at Harry’s expectant face. Louis feels that they have been frozen in this spot for days now. He can almost feel the minutes ticking away inside his bones. Harry’s here to help, right? That’s why he drove to Louis’ house at five am. He feels shitty for what he’s about to ask, but everyone has to start somewhere… Right? “Harry, how would you feel about your first task being getting us some coffee?”

Harry’s eyebrows rise slightly, but he nods. “Of course, coffee it is. Kitchen?” Harry says, without so much as a hesitation. Louis’ shoulders relax a small notch in relief.

“Yeah, door’s unlocked, just start opening cupboards until you find what you need if you like. I need to get to the girls or they will start to get ornery. Meet me in the big barn?” Louis is already making his way back to the increasing sounds of impatient cow before he waits for Harry’s answer. Harry simply drops his bag on the porch and disappears into the house without another word.

Louis is fully immersed in the familiar and systematic process of cleaning the cows, hooking them to the milking machine, and testing milk for any signs of issues. It’s something that he’s done every day of his life since he was probably around thirteen years old, but he never tires of it, and he never lets it become a chore. His dairy farm isn’t as big as some others around the province, but this is still milk that people have to drink. It’s important to keep on his toes with every process, not to mention important to keep his girls safe and healthy. He has more of an affection for these big lumbering animals than he has for most of the human race.

“Mr. Tomlinson?” Louis hears, echoing through the large space. He almost forgot that Harry was around. He turns to see Harry walking towards him carefully balancing a coffee mug in each hand. “You didn’t tell me how you liked it, so I guessed.”

“If it’s got caffeine in it, I’ll drink it.” Louis smiles at him. Harry smiles back and it’s probably the most genuine smile he has given Louis since he arrived. Harry passes him one of the mugs and he takes a large gulp, not even caring about the burn that it’s leaving on his tongue. It’s sweeter than he usually goes for, but he’s not complaining. “Ah, that’s the stuff.” He sighs and takes another slower drink.

Harry brings his mug up to his lips and takes a small sip, but doesn’t put a dent in it. Louis can feel the tension radiating from him. He looks like one wrong word would cause him to shatter the cup resting in his white knuckled hand. Louis looks down the row of the barn. He’s got thirty two cows left to milk and then there’s clean up and pasteurizing the milk and….he doesn’t have time to even have someone help him. When did this become his life. He’s tempted to ask Harry to come back later, but he's afraid that it might cause a full breakdown.

He sighs and puts his coffee cup down on the nearest surface, which happens to be a thin ledge along the wall. He says a silent goodbye because he knows that he will never see that coffee hot again. “How about some on the job training? Hm?”

Harry nods his head furiously and sets his cup down beside Louis’.

“Great, first things first, I need you wash your hands.”

Harry gives him a strange look. Louis knows what he’s thinking. He can literally smell the manure, why does it matter if Harry’s hands are clean? But it does matter, because they are touching things that people will be consuming, so Louis just points towards the large sink with antibacterial soap and goes back to his routine. Louis will give him one thing, he doesn’t argue.

It’s barely noon when Louis has time to sit down again. It feels like he’s been on his feet for days, and he still has half a day of work left. He sits down for a moment at the kitchen table and watches Harry rummage through his backpack. He pulls out a lunch can that looks like it could fit a few days worth of meals and starts pulling what looks like a few days worth of meals out of it. Louis snorts as he watches Harry organize the various items around him before he digs into a sandwich that is almost the size of his head.

“I wish I could eat like that again,” he muses.

Harry pauses his chewing to look at him curiously. He has barely spoken a full sentence since this morning. It’s a bit disconcerting.

“Eat like what?” Harry says, after he politely swallows.

“Like a lot.” Louis laughs. “It’s been a long time since I’ve had an appetite to eat all that food. It looks good.”

Harry looks around at all his food as if it were treasure. “You can share if you like,” he offers, not really sounding as though he’s willing to hand any of it over at all.

“No, not at all. I wouldn’t deny a hungry man his own lunch.” Louis laughs and gets up to find something for himself. Some cold ham and cheese will do him for the afternoon. He throws a slice of buttered bread in the mix and it’s a meal fit for king.

He sits back down and they eat in silence for a few moments. Louis doesn’t mean to watch him, but it’s been a while since he had lunch with someone after a long morning of work. It’s nice.

“Tell me about yourself, Harry,” Louis requests, wanting to keep the moment going for a little while.

“What do you want to know?”

“Well, I know you grew up around here. What have you been up to the last few years?” Louis admittedly doesn’t keep up on the local gossip, aside from his oldest sister Lottie calling to tell him who’s sleeping with who, who’s divorcing who, and who’s having kids and grandkids. Louis doesn’t remember Harry’s name coming up in any of those chats.

“Pretty boring actually.” Harry pauses, eyebrows wrinkled together. “I graduated high school, kind of just been trying to do something with my life since.” Louis waits for him to continue, but he doesn’t.

“Fascinating,” Louis teases him, taking a sip of his water to hide his smirk.

Harry freezes for a moment before he realises that Louis is taking the piss. He kind of chuckles, “Sorry,” he says, for what seems the millionth time today.

“Don’t be sorry. It’s nice having someone to tease every once in a while. I’m glad you’re here.” Louis tips his glass jovially towards him.

“Really?” Harry replies in a voice so small and unsure that it almost hurts Louis to hear it.

“Of course.” Louis nods and stands to put his mess away. He’s got a long list to keep him going well into dark. “I’ll be even happier when I know what I can leave you with, so maybe we can talk about your skills.”

“Oh, right. Ok.” Harry’s sad face is back again. What is this guy’s deal?

“Harry,” Louis says, sitting down again, closer this time. He waits until Harry meets his eyes. It takes a while. “You’re here. I want you. I don’t care if you tell me that the only job experience you have is selling apples by the side of the road, I can find something for you to do.”

Harry pauses for a moment. Louis thinks that maybe he’s going to run, or protest, or laugh even, but he doesn’t expect the fat tears that start to roll down Harry’s cheeks. He leans back on instinct. He’s not afraid of crying per se, but he has absolutely no skills in comforting sad people.

“I’m sorry, sorry sorry.” Harry wipes his face furiously with both hands. “This is not what you signed up for.”

“I'm not sure what's going on,” Louis tells him. It's likely the most unhelpful thing that Louis has ever said in his life.

“Oh just me...being a mess.” Harry chuckles bleakly, then sniffs and takes a deep breath. The tears have stopped but there's an underlying sadness that Louis can't quite look away from. “I've been….struggling,” Harry says. Louis can tell that he's trying to put the walls back up. “To find work, to find a place where I feel I belong. I just came from Alberta. I could do the work, but the work wasn't there, not like a few years ago. I limped back home. Mom has been great, but I'm literally sleeping on her couch because she downsized about five years back. I'm almost thirty years old. I'm sure she didn't expect she’d need to take in her adult child at this stage in life. I feel like such a failure at life.”

Harry stops, the steam seemingly run out. Louis just watches as he struggles with himself. When Harry finally looks at him again, eyes wary but hopeful, Louis smiles at him.

“Well, you've come to the right place. I've been trying to run an entire dairy farm all alone for the last six months and when someone is actually brave enough to try to help, I end up making them cry. My wife of thirty years left me, and all I could think was that I was too busy to get a divorce. I lean on my children so heavily that they could probably run this farm better than me without even being here. If you're a failure at life, I'm the king of failures at life.”

Harry laughs at this. A genuine crinkly eyed smile that seems to brighten everything about him.

“So do you think you can help me?” Louis asks.

Harry nods, smile not leaving his face. “I think we can work something out, yeah.”

 

The rest of the day goes a bit more smoothly, now that Harry and Louis both have everything more or less laid out in the open. Turns out that Harry isn’t the quiet nervous boy that Louis had made him out to be. He chats his way through the rest of Louis’ chores and a few breaks in between. Turns out Harry has a lot of skills. He’s worked in a few different trades, the latest being framing up houses in Alberta. But as much as he knows, and as easily as he picks up on the different machines, it’s comforting to see Harry care about his animals seemingly as much as Louis does after only being here one day. Of course Louis could chalk it up to just wanting to make a good impression, but whatever it is, Louis is breathing easy by the time all of the cattle are inside for the night, and everything is secure and safe. It almost takes him by surprise that it’s not even dark yet.

“I can’t believe that you do this all by yourself every single day.” Harry wipes a sheen of sweat from his forehead but he’s smiling, his eyes sated with the satisfaction that only a day of hard labour can give.

“Well, not every single day,” Louis replies. Being suddenly praised makes him want to hide his face. “The boys come whenever they can. But they started school a few weeks ago, save for Gray, of course. He isn't in school at all, so he isn’t able to come around for days at a time or anything. But he lives close, keeps me company when he can if nothing else.”

“It’s still incredible. This is a massive undertaking.” Harry looks around at the empty fields, fading in the dying sun. “You barely sat down all day. You must have the muscle of an athlete.”

Louis barks out a laugh at that. “I’m no athlete,” he says, still laughing. “I’m an old, worn out man who can’t give anything up, and apparently doesn’t know how to properly ask for help.”

“You look damned good for a worn out old man.” Harry tips his head towards him, then stops, eyes going wide. Louis suspects he thinks he stepped outside his bounds.

“The gray hair tells a different story lad, but thanks for the compliment nonetheless.” He smirks in Harry’s direction before making his way towards the office. When Harry doesn’t follow, Louis just waves for him to catch up. He’s getting this guy on the payroll before he realises how much he’s worth and finds someone who can pay him more.

 

lamb

 

Louis wakes with a start. He’s on the old couch again. He vaguely remembers nearly crawling onto it really late the night before. He truly doesn’t mean to spend every night sleeping in his old dusty office, but more than once the thought has crossed his mind that there isn’t anything at the house for him anyway. Except coffee.

He pulls on his boots with a wince. He may or may not have overdone it yesterday. Not that he was trying to impress the younger, more physically fit Harry. But he did get a lot done. He stumbles out of the barn and almost blindly makes his way towards the back door of the kitchen.

“How early do you get started?” A low timbre reverberates behind Louis. He just about jumps out of skin before he recognises the voice.

“Haven’t started yet. Need coffee and shower,” he mumbles, continuing his pilgrimage towards the wake up juice.

Harry catches up to him, matching his steps easily. “Are you wearing the same clothes you had on the night before?” he asks. Louis looks down knowing full well the answer. He stretches and takes a deep breath through his nose, trying to let the autumn chill wake him up.

“Yup.”

“Oh,” Harry replies. It causes Louis to laugh for some reason. Harry sounds like a mix between disbelief and disappointment.

Louis opens the kitchen door, allowing Harry to enter first. He kicks his boots in the general direction of the boot rack before he turns to fully address Harry for the first time. “I promise you that this isn’t going to be a regular part of your job, but would you mind terribly making coffee while I get a shower and a change of clothes?”

“Yeah, of course.” Harry immediately turns towards the kettle on the stove. Eager to please as ever.

“I have a feeling that you’re not a coffee lover,” Louis says before he heads up the stairs, “But if there’s anything you like, you’re welcome to it.”

Harry turns towards him and smiles as though taken off guard. “Thanks,” he says, sounding as though Louis just offered him a million dollars. Louis just shrugs and heads out of the room again. Chatting is not on the schedule first thing in the morning.

 

Louis takes a shower so fast that the water barely has time to warm up, but at least he scrubs a layer off. He rushes through drying himself and grabs the last pair of clean jeans and a T-shirt off the pile. He looks longingly at his bed for a second before rushing down the stairs. He needs to do laundry soon as well. He’s going to have to force himself out of the office tonight. A good night sleep and a warm meal should calm this feeling of chaos that has been swirling around him lately.

When he makes his way back down the stairs, Harry is waiting in the kitchen with a hot cup of coffee and a toasted sandwich.

“You can eat it on the move,” is all he says to Louis when he hands him both items. Louis could hug him.

“You're learning fast.” Louis smiles at him before he takes a long sip of his coffee. It always tastes better when someone else makes it.

Harry chuckles and puts his dirt crusted boots back on his feet. “I have to if I want to keep up with you. I could barely get out of bed this morning.”

Louis can feel his face turn red. He isn’t sure how he’s standing upright either. He guesses that’s his fault. “It will be a quieter day today,” he says while shooing Harry towards the barn.

“Are you sure you’re capable of that?” Harry giggles. Louis swats at him unconsciously but Harry dodges him, running the rest of the way. Louis can’t keep the smile off his face. If Harry can breathe life into this place again, it’s almost more worth it than the extra set of hands.

 

“So what’s next on the list?” Harry asks. He has himself draped over one of the white wrapped hay bales next to the door of the barn. Louis suspects that he’s playing off being actually tired. He can’t help but shake his head as he goes over his mental to do list.

“I was thinking that I could send you around the fence lines to take an inventory of what we need to repair before winter.” Louis starts to walk towards the garage that holds the ATV.

“Oh,” he hears Harry say behind him, not following the way Louis has already grown accustomed to him doing. “By myself?”

“Well, yeah.” Louis stops and turns to see Harry still standing by the bale of hay, a slight frown on his face. “You’ve built houses, I trust you with a bit of fencing.” He shrugs his shoulder. “But if you don’t do it right, you’re going to be the one in waist-deep snow fixing it,” Hh teases.

Harry half smiles but still has a deep line between his eyebrows. “But you’re not coming with me?”

Louis isn’t entirely sure of the situation. Is Harry afraid of being alone? Is it the cows? Nature? He isn’t sure. “Is that a problem?”

“No!” Harry jumps forward, waving his hands and shaking his head at the same time. “It’s just...teamwork... is nice.”

“Oh, ah…” Louis is used to doing everything on his own. Teamwork is barely in his vocabulary. He supposes that the last day and a half has been pretty nice. Someone to talk to, someone to keep things moving smoothly. He guesses that he’s not so old and stubborn that he can’t try new things. “Yeah, I suppose it is. We’ll do it together and it’ll get done faster. Go get your lunch, I’ll get the bikes. We’ll eat in the field!”

Louis can practically see Harry attempt to not skip down to the house before he turns to start up the bikes. He thinks the boys would be proud of him for trying new things. At the rate he and Harry are going, they won’t have to help at all when they come home in a few weeks.

 

A few hours later they are sitting in the grass at the peak of one of the fields closest to the house. The sun is high in the sky, providing a beautifully warm September day. Harry systematically makes his way through the contents of his lunch can while Louis picks at the cold pasta salad that Harry had salvaged from the fridge for him. He smiles when he sees Harry tipping his head back to face the sky, eyes closed and a content smile on his face.

“This place is absolutely beautiful.” Harry takes in everything they can see from the hill, staring mostly into the distance towards the house.

The house sits quiet and strong against a background of red, orange and golden yellow leaves. There isn’t so much as a rustle of old lace curtain in the windows. A pang of sadness suddenly snaps into Louis’ heart, and goes just as quickly.

“It is,” he agrees. “I was just thinking that I should do this more often. I don’t generally have this view of the house. It’s nice.”

“I love your house. I’ve always wanted to explore it.” Harry confesses, smiling shying in Louis’ direction.

Louis laughs and shakes his head. “It’s just a house. Lots of stuff, lots of junk.”

“Lots of memories,” Harry adds.

“Lots and lots of memories.”

“There’s just something about an old house. You can tell that there are stories hidden in the walls. It just kind of takes on it’s own character, don’t you think?”

“I don’t know. I’ve never really thought about it.” Louis squints at the house, trying to see if it has a personality that he hasn’t noticed before.

“You’re too close to the history,” Harry explains. “I’m picturing an old nineteenth century couple getting water from a nearby well, and putting clothes on the line out back. A horse-drawn carriage near the barn. I picture smoke coming from the chimney while a father sits by the fire with a child on his lap.” Harry looks completely mesmerized in his visual.

Louis sweeps his eyes over the landscape once again. Harry’s fairytale wasn’t far off. There’s still the remnants of an old carriage in the back of one of the old barns. Louis has a picture of his father sitting on his grandfather’s lap by the fire on a bookshelf in one of the bedrooms. There were people everywhere.

“Did you know that it wasn’t that long ago that there were twelve people living in that house?” He asks, trying to make it sound like casual conversation.

“That’s a lot of people,” Harry muses as he chews on his sandwich. “And now it’s just you?” The question of where did everyone else go lies beneath the surface.

“Now it’s just me,” Louis sighs. “My grandparents and my parents have both passed away in the last ten years, my sisters Charlotte and Felicite both went their own ways, not interested in small town life in the least. My twin sisters both married farmers, actually, so they’re working their husbands’ farms. And Doris and Ernie are about Gray’s age. Doris loves the farm life, but it’s hard for them to be here without Mom and Dad, so they travel a lot.” He glances at Harry, who is enraptured in Louis’ sob story. “And my boys are all off doing their own things as well. Ten years ago I would need to be in the field just to get a moment of alone time. Now it’s everywhere.”

Harry nods, kind of to himself. They sit in silence for a bit before Harry looks at him again. “So what’s next on the list?”

It pulls a laugh out of Louis, the moment being broken right in half. “Depends, how’s your skills at driving in a straight line?”

Harry raises an eyebrow but shrugs. “Passable.”

“Well let’s process some corn fields then.” Louis springs back up onto his feet and hops on his bike. He hears Harry scramble behind him.

“Let’s do that,” he says, sounding as excited as a kid at Christmas.

 

“Well Mr. Tomlinson, you have yet to convince me that you’re not secretly an Olympic athlete.” Harry stands with his hand on the door of his old Chevy three-quarter tonne. The truck is definitely older than Harry, but Louis noticed the night before that it sounded smoother than most of the old vehicles that limp around town.

“For one, please call me Louis, and second, I’m about to go and soak my aching feet in some epsom salts.”

“I will call you Louis, but I’ve got my eye on you. I’ll figure out your secret identity.” Harry opens the door, fake scowling in Louis’ direction.

Louis laughs. He can’t help it. “Good luck then,” he replies, giving him a little wave before he faces the front door of the house, dark windows on either side of it. Alone again. He has never cared about his alone time ever before that he can remember. He’s not sure why it’s so much in the forefront of his mind now.

 

lamb

 

Louis pulls open the glass door of the grocery store and smiles at its owner and manager.

“Right on time,” Niall Horan smirks while leaning on the row of shopping carts near the front of the store. Louis is quite sure that he spends more time people watching than working some days, but he knows that Niall also spends more time in this store than home, so taking a few moments to chat probably doesn’t hurt him either.

“Anxiously waiting my arrival?” Louis teases, pulling a cart from underneath Niall’s elbows.

“You think you’re sly, but I have you figured out.” Niall squints at him and begins to follow Louis in the slow descent down the aisles while Louis half-heartedly places items in his cart.

“Nothing to figure out bud, this is when there are the least amount of people. Everyone’s either in church or still in bed. Otherwise it would take me an hour to get out of here.” Louis side-eyes Niall, whose eyebrows are raised almost to his hairline.

“That’s a might antisocial of you,” Niall scolds him, but Louis just shrugs and rolls his eyes

“I’m a busy man and I get enough idle gossip from my sisters.”

“Yeah, but what about the idle gossip that people—don’t forget laundry detergent—want to get from you?” Niall asks, grabbing an apple from the produce cart and taking a big bite. “You can be quite the source of curiosity up in that old house all alone.”

The way that Niall says “all alone” makes Louis suspicious. It kind of sounds illicit and sleazy when all it really is is quiet. “Well, you can happily tell the town that I haven’t taken up with any of the cows, and the only thing that warms my bed is the cat. When he can be bothered to go inside at all.”Louis pauses at the chip aisle, weighing his options.

“Word is that you hired a man,” Niall says, looking at Louis expectantly.

“Oh, Harry. Yeah, the boys twisted my arm. Not that I didn’t need some help.” Louis nods almost to himself.

“So?” Niall says, eyes dancing.

“So?” Louis makes his way towards the cash registers, and Niall goes behind the till to ring him in.

“So, what’s he like? How is it going?”

“He’s good. Good worker, fast learner.” Louis shrugs and pulls out his wallet. He feels the pull of the door and wants to get out of here as fast as he can.

Niall, however, stops ringing him in, shoulders slumped dramatically. “Eloquent as ever Tomlinson, good talk.”

“Thanks!” Louis fake smiles, dodging Niall’s implications. He doesn’t wait for his receipt before he grabs his bags and hightails it to his truck.

 

lamb

 

The daylight hours are getting shorter by the day, but thanks to Harry, so are Louis’ workdays. He takes his glasses off and stretches, taking a break from flipping through his old logs for the year before. He can’t believe that he’s actually on schedule, despite everything kind of going to shit for him. He’s going to have to give Harry a nice Christmas bonus, if he will even need him by then. Will he need him? He pauses and looks out the window as if that is going to give him any answers. Of course he will. Surely there will be something for him to do.

He puts his glasses back on and tries to concentrate on his messy scrawl when there’s a light rap on the door. Louis looks up to see Harry standing partly in the doorway, a bashful smile on his face.

“Is something wrong?” It had been at least an hour since Harry had gone home for the day. He could have driven home and back again five times at least in that time.

“I hope I’m not intruding,” Harry mumbles.

“Not at all, do you need anything?”

“Um no, I just...ah, well I just noticed that you come here every night after I leave, and most mornings you come out of here instead of your house. I…” Harry pauses, stuttering over his words, “I thought I would see if you wanted to have dinner with me...in the house.”

Louis stares at him for a minute, trying to process what Harry is trying to say.

“I brought food,” Harry says, pulling a few shopping bags from behind his back.

Louis smiles. He wants to protest, wants to tell Harry that he’s fine, no need to worry, but he’s here, and he’s clearly got a lot on his mind as it is. So he stands up and puts his hands up in protest. “Guilty,” he says, smirking. “Lead the way, chef Styles.” This causes Harry to laugh, easing the lines between his eyebrows.

 

Louis watches Harry flit around the kitchen. There’s a nervous energy about him that Louis hasn’t really seen after their first day of work. It’s a curious facet to Harry’s character that Louis wishes he could ask about.

“So what’s all the hubbub about?” he asks instead.

“Oh!” Harry replies, sounding somehow both caught off guard and also prepared to make a small speech. Louis crosses his arms and tries to keep the amused smile off his face. In the name of Harry’s dignity at least. “Well, not that it’s any of my business…”

“Of course.” Louis suppresses a snort.

“But I notice that there aren’t a lot of people that come around here, you know, throughout the day.” Harry is thoroughly embarrassed at this point. Louis is having so much fun watching him squirm.

“I have also noticed this.” Louis has to cough to keep from full out barking laughing.

“And I just thought, you know, since we know one another well enough…I could...hang out with you.” Harry stops his movements and stares at Louis, eyes intent, face pensive.

He looks so sincere that Louis loses all desire to poke fun at his rambling. “Yeah, of course. You can definitely hang out with me. Thank you, Harry.” He smiles, and uncrosses his arms, leaning forward on the old wooden table again.

“Yeah?” Harry looks like he almost doesn’t believe Louis, but nods and smiles anyway. “Ok, good. Because I was thinking that after dinner we could have a game night, or play cards or something like that. It’s so much better than watching tv because you can actually talk and have a conversation without being interrupted by a storyline.”

He spends the rest of his dinner preparation idly rambling, not really letting Louis get a word in at all. Louis finds that he doesn’t much mind.

“So how are you liking being back in town?” Louis asks Harry over a small bowl of ice cream. It almost feels cool enough to have a fire on, but ice cream is always good, no matter what time of year. “Quite a culture shock from the city for five years.”

“I didn’t think it would be since I grew up here, but it really was.” Harry frowns. “Most of my friends are gone, or married with kids. Busy with their own lives.”

“Yeah, growing up is hard,” Louis agrees but it causes Harry to snort.

He shakes his head and moves to clear the table. “You’re making fun of me.”

“I’m not, I promise you.” Louis grabs his wrist and urges Harry to sit down again. “Lindsey and I got married young. I remember so well all of our friends being so excited when she got pregnant with Gray. They all made so many plans to be here all the time, and babysit and just be one big family. It’s a different story when we can’t go out to the diner at eight at night because of a fussy baby, or travel out of town on a whim. It’s even worse when they all have kids of their own. There are people that I considered good friends that I never saw again when they had kids.”

“Yeah that seems to be how it goes,” Harry mumbles, but doesn’t say much more on the subject.

“So all of your friends are gone and making babies, and you’re stuck here with me day in and day out,” Louis says to lighten the mood.

Harry smiles at him. “I don’t mind so much.”

“Well, don’t like it too much. You’ll end up a recluse like me, having your kids find people that will show up at five am and scaring the living bejesus out of you.”

“I didn’t scare you!” Harry laughs out loud.

“The word axe murderer came to mind.” Louis shrugs, giggling at Harry’s look of shock.“Anyway, take advice from a wise old man. Don’t sit around and wait for people to come to you, you need to get out there and make those connections.”

“Oh, you mean like show up at their house and offer to cook them dinner so they don’t spend another night holed up in their office?” Harry raises a brow to Louis.

“Yes, exactly like that, only try it again with someone more interesting.” Louis stretches and stands up to rummage through the old stack of board games that he has piled on his bookshelf. “Scrabble, chess, or crazy eights?” He asks over his shoulder.

“I find you interesting and crazy eights please.” Harry says and clears the table.

Louis pulls a deck out from behind an old monopoly game and sits down again. He glances quickly out the window. It's almost completely dark outside. Louis wonders how long Harry is going to want to stay. A more insecure part of his brain wonders if Harry pities him.  

 

They're three games in and wonder of Harry's intentions are all but gone. Harry asks Louis questions and listens to the answers and accompanying stories like they are fabled tales of adventure and mystery. He clings to every word, and Louis is worried that it's going to start going to his head.

“So what do you spend so much time doing in that office at night?” Harry asks.

“Oh, pretty run of the mill stuff.” Louis leans back and stretches his legs in front of him. He doesn't want to admit it but sitting on his hard kitchen chairs for too long makes his sciatica act up. “Invoices, receipts, accounting.” He ticks things off on his fingers. “I'm constantly getting safety updates and regulation updates. Food safety, animal safety, employee safety.” Harry grins at that. “I host an auction twice a year and it's coming up at the end of next month. I haven't even started working on it, but everyone else seems to be getting prepared because I'm getting emails daily at this point.” He’s going to give himself anxiety if he thinks about it for too long. Time is running out. “And of course, I keep books on crop production and mating cycles and each cow has her own health and nutrition file.”

“Really? Every single one?” Harry leans in like Louis just slipped up and told him the secret to life.

Louis nods. “Every single one.” He knows how complicated it might sound to an outsider, but he has known all of his girls since they were born. Some he helped deliver. They're like his family. “They all have names, too.”

“Can you remember them all?”

“Of course, but like with your own children, it's easy to mix them up sometimes.” He laughs to himself. “Malcolm has actually complained that I get the cows names right more often than his. The woes of being the baby in the family, I guess.”

“I was the baby in the family.” Harry replies.

“You have a sister, yes?”

“Yeah, Gemma. She's married with two kids now. I'm weird uncle Harry.”

Louis laughs out loud. “I hope they don't call you that.”

“Only when Gemma prompts them to.” Harry attempts a pout but his dimples give away the smile that tries to shine through.

“I personally have only found you to be minimally weird so far.” Louis shrugs and lays his last card, ending the game.

Harry pulls the cards in and shuffles. Louis finds himself relieved that he wants to play again. He isn't ready for the night to end yet. That is until Harry pauses, giving the deck a hard stare.

“Speaking of weird…” he says, and takes a deep breath.

“Are you about to tell me that you actually are an axe murderer?” Louis asks. He makes jokes when he's uncomfortable.

Harry chuckles anyway. “You would call a tendency to kill people a weird characteristic?”

“You’re right, maybe quirky would be more appropriate.”

This causes Harry to tilt his head back and bark a laugh. A sound that Louis has never heard any human make. “Can you be serious for a second? I'm trying to pour my heart out here!”

“Sorry sorry! Proceed,” Louis says, feeling a bit nervous and not really knowing why.

“What I was going to say was, speaking of weird, I wanted to tell you something.” Harry looks up at Louis, just a glance, but Louis can see the nerves. It's a look that he has seen many times in the boys when they are about to confess a wrongdoing. Louis braces himself and schools his features. “I'm gay.”

Louis pauses for a moment. Then processes the words with the body language of the man sitting across from him. “Oh.” He resists the urge to say that's it? “Thank you for sharing that with me.” It's a line that he heard someone say on TV. “Does...does anyone else know?” Is this Harry's coming out? Is he putting that on Louis?

“Yes, people know. It's just...you've been really open and honest with me. I like working here and I just felt that I needed to be open and honest with you.”

“Of course Harry, you can tell me anything.” Louis’ voice halts at the intimacy of the words. They're not that close. “And you can tell me nothing at all. That's your choice.”

“I would be lying if I told you that being gay hasn't affected my work life before. I was really hoping that it wouldn't here.” Harry looks small suddenly and Louis wishes that he could comfort him. Assure him somehow. “I really like it here. It's the first time I've ever felt that I belonged anywhere.”

The last thing Harry says kicks Louis straight in the gut. He knows that feeling like a second skin. He nods, taking the cards from Harry hand and shuffles them absently. “If you feel that you belong here then you belong here,” he says before he deals out another hand. “And I'm glad that you do.”

Harry just smiles and nods as well, picking up his cards with a sparkle in his eyes that Louis can't help but admire.

 

lamb

 

The days are getting shorter more and more quickly. It can’t be more than five-thirty pm but the sun is low in the sky, making Louis instinctively tired from a long day of work.

He walks side by side with Harry over the crest of the field towards the house. Even a week ago this would be where Harry would be heading home for the night, but after that first time Harry had come over, they have made a habit of spending not only supper together, but most of the evening as well. Louis finishes his paperwork at the kitchen table now instead of the office while Harry chatters away over the stove. On nights when Harry doesn’t cook he pours over Louis’ father’s old log books like he’s discovered treasure. Every time his dad mentions Louis’ name for one reason or another Harry squeals in delight. Louis can’t decide if it’s embarrassing or amusing. But it warms his heart to see someone besides himself actually interested in the history of this old place.

The thought of dinner suddenly reminds him. “You are welcome to take Monday off,” he says to Harry, who has been mostly quiet on their descent down the hill.

Harry looks at him, confused. “Why would I need Monday off?” he asks, almost grumbles.

“Thanksgiving. It’s not a paid holiday, but you’re welcome to it, if you have plans.” When Jesse found out how much time Harry had been spending on the farm he made Louis promise to be a little less of a task master.

“Oh.” Harry frowns. “If it’s all the same, I’d like to come in.”

“Yeah, no. It’s fine by me. I just wanted to give you the option.” Louis keeps walking. He almost feels as though he had somehow insulted him by giving him the day off. He shakes his head and hides the smile that has somehow formed on his face.

“You don’t get a day off,” Harry says, after a few steps.

“It’s different I think.” Louis shrugs. “This isn’t exactly a job for me, it’s my life.”

“You’ve never taken a day off from life?” Harry asks. The question sounds silly, but his face is sincere.

“I haven’t really found a reason to want to I guess.”

“I could see that.” Harry nods. “I’ve only had a couple of weekends off so far and I am already finding myself wanting to take a drive out to see how everything is going.”

Louis laughs. “You’ve got the bug. Wait until mid-January, you’ll be a little slower to drag yourself out of a warm bed into a cold barn.”

“I guess we’ll see.” Harry smirks. They reach the house and walk into the kitchen.

“Speaking of cold, I might have to put a fire on tonight.” Louis takes his flannel coat off and hangs it on the hook beside Harry’s hoodie.

“That sounds nice actually.” Harry opens the fridge and rummages around. He made a big pot of stew the night before, so it will be a quick warm up on the stove before their heads will be bowed over the array of notebooks on the kitchen table.

“Monopoly or puzzle tonight?” Louis asks, hopeful but unsure, even though Harry has stayed after dinner every night this week.

“Monopoly!” Harry’s eyes light up over the fridge door.

 

“So do you have plans for Thanksgiving?” Louis asks early into their game.

Harry looks confused for a minute, fully concentrated on what he calls his strategy before he shrugs noncommittally. “Not really,” he says, sounding bored of the entire idea. “Thanksgiving was never a big celebration in our house. Mom’s going to the casino with a couple of her single lady friends, and Gemma is staying in the Mirimichi and having dinner with her husband’s family. I’ll probably find a good marathon somewhere and veg on the couch on Sunday.”

“Well that doesn’t sound too bad.” Louis tries to appear positive. Sounds absolutely boring to him, but he isn’t going to say that. “You’re welcome to come have dinner with us though. Full turkey dinner, all the fixings.”

“Oh, I couldn’t impose on family time,” Harry says, sounding entirely convincible.

“No imposition at all! Just me and the boys, and Abi of course.” Maybe that is a lot of people to some families, but compared to who could be at dinner, how many people who have been in this house for Thanksgiving, it’s barely anyone at all. “Come for dinner,” Louis says, hopefully sounding authoritative.

Harry smiles, rolling the dice. “I will.”

 

lamb

 

“Out in town on a Saturday, how brazen of you,” is how Louis is greeted on a chilly October morning.

“Hello to you too, Niall,” Louis replies, pulling the shopping cart a little more forcefully than necessary. Niall almost jogs into the first aisle just to keep up with him. “Don’t you have other customers to tend to today?”

“You’re my best customer Lou, you know that. Why are you here early?” Niall practically blocks his way when Louis doesn’t answer immediately.

“I’m not your best customer. I wouldn’t buy enough in this store to keep you fed, nevermind keep you in business.” Louis rolls his eyes and contemplates buying rolls instead of trying to see if someone would actually make them. “And I can’t buy an entire Thanksgiving dinner a couple of hours before people start to show up. I’m not that hopeless.”

“Oh, so you are doing Thanksgiving this year.” Niall nods as if he’s taking secret notes.

“Yes, will the council of old lady gossips be pleased? Should I do a menu for them to review first?” Louis rolls his eyes and soldiers on. There are people everywhere, and he can feel them honing in on him like foxes in a hen house.

“Don’t be sassy, it doesn’t suit you.” Niall tosses a bag of donuts into Louis’ cart. Louis considers keeping them, but that would be letting Niall win, so he puts them back again. “Abi was in the other day, told me that you invited Harry Styles to dinner.” Niall looks like the cat with the canary. Louis doesn’t roll his eyes. He can’t give Niall the satisfaction.

“Sorry I didn’t put in an official request for guest invitations,” Louis replies, trying to decide between canned cranberry jelly and fresh cranberry sauce. Malcolm might just disown him if he doesn’t have cranberry jelly, but he bets Harry would be impressed that he knows how to make his own sauce. He decides on both.

“So he’s working out then? Better than expected I imagine, inviting him for dinner and all.” Niall hums, raising his eyebrows at Louis. It would be comical if it wasn’t his life under a microscope.

“His Mum and sister are both out of town and he was going to spend it on the couch watching TV. Would you rather he do that?” Louis asks, rounding onto the checkout, blessedly.

“I’m not saying anything, it’s just nice to see some life up there, that’s all.” Niall smiles.

Louis can’t argue with that. So he doesn’t, just nods, and puts his items on the belt, smiling sweetly at Amelia behind the checkout. She smiles back and keeps her mouth closed. Louis’ favourite cashier by far.

 

lamb

 

Louis would never admit it, but waking up the morning of Thanksgiving Sunday is almost like Christmas for him. It’s been over two months since Louis has had all three of his boys in the house at the same time. He loves and misses them all individually, but there is something about them being together that a phone call or FaceTime can’t replace.

“When is everyone getting here?” Harry asks as he idly stirs the pot of gravy on the stove. Louis assumes that by everyone Harry means everyone else, since Harry himself showed up on Louis’ doorstep at five as though he was coming in for a shift.

Louis stares out the kitchen door, watching the dead leaves blow across the driveway in the brisk wind. “Umm, I told them two, so hopefully they all show up by three,” he replies. Harry laughs, thinking that Louis is joking. He isn’t. None of them can tell time properly, he’s quite sure.

“And you’re sure that it’s ok that I’m here?” Harry asks, probably for the fiftieth time now.

Louis rolls his eyes and looks back at Harry from the door. “Yes Harry, it’s completely fine. It’s a very casual dinner, everyone will be happy that you’re here too. They can tend to get a little bored of each other.” Harry is poking at the pot of gravy now, avoiding Louis’ eyes, but smiling anyway.

 

Louis has always found that his boys were at their quietest when they were being fed. Not much has changed. Louis knows that he’s beaming as he looks around to three (four with Harry included) heads bent over over piled plates, the only words being exchanged are asking someone to pass a roll, or more gravy. Louis would probably tease them about it if he wasn’t so happy at the sight.

Abi tries to maintain a modicum of civility though, and to her husband’s dismay keeps the conversation going.

“So how are you liking your new job, Harry?” She turns her attention to Harry, who for a second looks like a deer caught in the headlight.

He swallows his mouthful and smiles, looking at Louis, “It’s great, perfect actually.”

Louis smiles back, nodding, “I couldn’t have asked for a better person to come to me. I have you to thank for that Gray, and you too Jesse.”

“Thanks!” Jesse says with a mouth full of food. Louis’ about to scold him for it but Gray gets to him first by poking him hard in the forearm.

“Thanks yourself, it was Abi who had the idea to call Harry.” Gray stares adoringly at Abi who blushes under the attention. “She played ringette with Gemma in school and they still keep in touch. Gemma told Abi that Harry had moved home recently and was looking for work, and well, here we are!”

Gray looks so proud of himself and Abi that everyone completely misses the looks of uncertainty and embarrassment on Harry’s face. Louis reaches over and puts his hand on Harry’s arm, not really knowing what to say to turn the conversation around.

“Well, lucky us is what I think of it.” He smiles at Harry and tries to say what he can’t out loud, for fear of embarrassing him even more.

Harry’s eyes soften as he pats his hand back, a silent thank you lingering in the lines of his eyes. Louis turns to the rest of the table, satisfied that the conversation has blown over, to see four pairs of eyes staring back at him, not eating, not talking, just looking. He smiles and picks up his fork.

“So,” Malcolm clears this throat and shoots a look to Jesse, who shoots a look to Gray, who raises an eyebrow to Abi. Louis hates it when they do that. Why couldn’t he have the kids that never got along instead of the ones who had silent conversations at the dinner table? “Harry, didn’t your mum move a few years back? Where are you living now?”

“Oh! Yeah she did, five years ago now. She’s living on Main Street. Dina Hill’s house?” Harry says, polite right down to his toenails, but not offering anymore conversation than necessary. Louis almost feels guilty that he’s putting Harry through this dinner. He didn’t realise how uncomfortable this would make him.

“That tiny little place?” Jesse actually stops eating for a second to say, “How do two people even fit in there?”

“Oh.” The embarrassment is back. Louis wishes that these buffoons would keep their mouths shut for five minutes. “It’s a bit of a tight fit, I’m hoping to save up enough to get a place. Not that there’s much to choose from, as you might know.”

“Why don’t you move in here?” Malcolm asks.

Harry opens his mouth, looking at Louis, then at each of the boys and Abi. “I couldn’t.” He shakes his head so quickly that Louis worries that he’ll give himself a concussion.

“Honestly Dad, did you know about this?” Gray gives him a disapproving look, and this is most definitely not how Louis expected this dinner to go.

“Know about what exactly?” He raises an eyebrow, hoping to cling desperately to a shred of authority over these kids.

“He could stay in Gram and Gramp’s old room!” Malcolm pipes up, “Or Gray’s.”

“Unless you’ve come to your senses and planned on kicking him out.” Jesse says to Abi, who just laughs and pats Gray’s knee.

“Boys!” Louis yells, trying to contain the rising sense of excitement from the three of them.

“Don’t you want Harry to move in here?” Jesse asks, blinking slowly in a highly practiced look of innocence. Damn him.

“Of course,” Louis starts, and then looks at Harry who looks a bit shell shocked. Louis knows the feeling. He lowers his voice and talks only to Harry, “Of course I don’t mind if you move in here. There’s more than enough room. I would be happy to have you. But it’s your decision, and I would never try to sway you one way or another.” He glares at his kids who apparently have no issues trying to sway anyone’s decisions about anything. They all look at Harry, who apparently needs to decide in this very moment if he wants to move into his boss’ house and live where he works.

Harry looks wildly between him and the rest of the prying eyes at the dinner table. “I mean, I guess it would be nice to have my own room,” he says, voice sounding timid and unsure. Louis hurts for him a little. He knows what it’s like to be ganged up on by these people.

“Yes!” Malcolm jumps from the table and starts tugging on Harry’s arm. “Let’s go pick a room!”

Harry looks at him wildly and Louis decides that this is enough. “Sit down Mal, there’s time after dinner.” At least Malcolm has the good sense to look chagrined.

“So what do you and Dad do for fun around here?” Jesse asks, reaching for another roll, clearly not reading the room at all. Louis sighs and continues to eat, accepting that this is how the day is going to go.

 

Louis stands at the kitchen sink, absentmindedly scrubbing out a pot while he watches the boys throw wood into a pile near the old woodshed. He can tell from where he’s standing that Gray and Jesse are ganging up on Malcolm over something, all in good nature of course. Harry is the only one actually making a dent in the tall pile, but he’s laughing, and joining in also. He’s a lot more relaxed when he’s keeping busy, Louis notices. Or maybe just feels more at home when he’s working here.

“They mean well.” Abi comes up behind him and grabs a drying towel.

“Are you trying to convince me of that, or yourself?” Louis asks, nodding his head towards the scene in front of them. Gray is whipping birch bark at Jesse and Malcolm’s legs while they are both trying to simultaneously hide behind Harry’s lean form.

She shakes her head, sighing. “How about remembering that we have to love them no matter what.”

“I’m glad to have you all here, don’t get me wrong.” Louis looks at her and smiles. She really is such a gift to the family, always cheerful, always positive. Sometimes he wonders if Jesse and Malcolm love her as much as Gray does. Hopefully not. “But I can’t imagine what’s gotten into them today. I thought they were going to eat Harry for dinner.”

Abi suddenly finds the bowl in her hand very interesting when she shrugs. “I think they are just so happy that you have help.”

“If that’s what’s causing their happiness these days then they really need to get out of the house more.”

“You and Harry seem to get along really well,” Abi pushes on, “I think that maybe they were happy to see you find a...friend.”

Louis looks back at Harry. The woodpile is almost halved now, thanks mostly to Harry, Louis is sure. He’s leaning one shoulder on the side of the shed, arms crossed over his chest from the biting wind. He’s laughing fully and heartily at something one of the other clowns are saying.

Friends. He hasn’t really thought about it before.

“I guess we are friends now.” Louis says to Abi.

She nods, breaking into a grin. “And now roommates!”

Louis swallows, remembering suddenly that Harry had agreed to move into the house with him. He’s even picked out a room. “Yeah!” he replies, wondering how long the friendship will last after this.

 

lamb

 

Harry throws a duffle bag onto the bed and turns to Louis. “I could have done this on my own time.” He half-smiles and looks around at the mess that is now his room. “But thank you for the help.”

He chose probably the smallest vacant room in the house. Louis had protested, but Harry made the argument that the size of the room didn’t matter as much as the view from the window, and Louis couldn’t deny that the view from this particular window is probably the best in the house. Louis looks out of it now as Harry rifles through a small grocery bag full of toiletries at the end of the bed.

He can see almost as far as the property line from this little view. It’s close to the front of the house and all in one gaze he can see the original barn, faded but solid and stoic in a field of soft green grass, their biggest oak that tree nearly touches the eves of it now, not to mention the long winding gravel driveway that widens at the front step. Louis can see Harry’s parked truck there, where it’s been parked nearly every day now, and will be, he supposes, every night.

“I can’t believe that this is your life,” Harry says behind him. Louis can’t help but smile at the semi-reflection in the window.

“You’re life too,” Louis reminds him.

“I just work here, and live here I guess…” Harry pauses as if this just occurred to him. “Well, it’s been your life longer and I’m still jealous.” He fake pouts and Louis can’t help but laugh.

“Well that was one of the things that I think we should talk about before you settle in.” Louis sits in the sturdy wooden chair by the door. Harry pushes his duffle bag aside and sits on the bed, leaning forward with his elbows resting on the knees of his faded old jeans. “I know as well as anyone that when you live where you work, you need to set some boundaries.” Louis says, trying not to sound martyred.  

“Boundaries,” Harry repeats. Louis can see his throat bob. “What kind of boundaries?”

“I know it sounds ridiculous but it’s important to separate work and home. When we’re working, I’m your boss, but when we’re not…” Louis doesn’t want to say out loud that he’s Harry’s landlord. He doesn’t imagine that will make him feel any more comfortable than living with his employer.

“You’re not,” Harry finishes for him, a slight glint in his eye.

“That’s right. You need to give yourself time to relax, be yourself. I don’t want you to feel on edge all the time, like you’re being judged.” Louis feels like words are coming out of his mouth but nothing is registering with Harry, who is oddly just watching him dig himself a hole. “Do you understand what I’m saying?” he asks. He’s tempted to wave a hand in front of Harry’s face.

“Yeah, sorry, yeah. Work is work, home is home.” He shakes his head and rolls his eyes.

“I mean it Harry, if this is your home then when we’re off hours, I’m nothing more than a roommate. A friend. Let your hair down and all that.” Louis insists.

“What if I do the opposite and get super lazy now that I’m so close to my bed all the time?” Harry decides to challenge him instead.

Louis shakes his head and goes to leave. “Good talk, I’m going to hang out with the cows.”

“I’m kidding!” Harry stands up and grabs his arm. Louis turns to give his own eye roll, but before he realises what’s happening he’s being scooped up into a hug. It takes him off guard for a moment but Harry is tucked into his shoulder as though he isn’t half a foot taller and twice as wide, so he pats his back, and gives into it. “Thank you, for everything. I’m sorry I’m so weird sometimes,” Harry says into Louis’ collar.

“It’s alright,” Louis replies softly, “I don’t think you realise how much you’ve done for me. I should be the one thanking you.”

Harry pulls back, full smile on display. “You’re a good person, Louis Tomlinson. I hope you know that,” he says before he’s gone again, thundering down the stairs before Louis can open his mouth for rebuttal.

 

Louis flips the metal latch of his storage barn and puts his shoulder into sliding the rusty door open. He stands at the threshold for a few moments and lets his eyes adjust to the dark and dusty interior.

Behind him, Harry murmurs under his breath. “Oh my God.”

“I know, it’s a mess.” Louis sighs. It’s going to take the entire three weeks until the auction to even clean this place. He should have started about a month ago.

“It’s amazing!” Harry shuffles past Louis and enters the barn, eyes everywhere. “Look at all this stuff! Is it all this old?” he asks, gently running his hand along an old plow shoved into a corner. He doesn’t stay at one thing long though and Louis can only describe it as scampering through the cluttered space. “Oh my God!” he yells louder from the back. Louis can’t even see him anymore. He laughs, listening to Harry essentially talk to himself, or the antiquated pieces of farm equipment that he’s somehow finding in the dark.

“Can you even see back there? Do you need a flashlight?” Louis calls back.

“Got my phone!” Harry calls back, not making any move to come back towards the open door and get instructions on what he’s supposed to be doing.

“We’re not here to explore!” Louis reminds him gently. He’s met with a whiny oooohhhhhh that makes him smile. Maybe this isn’t going to be such a hard job after all.

“What are we doing in here then?” Harry suddenly pops up from the shadows, face already smeared with dust and cobwebs.

“I’m hosting a biannual farm auction and I have almost nothing to actually contribute. I was hoping to find a few things to sell, and also maybe empty this place out a little. Two birds with one stone sort of thing.” Louis looks around again, eyes now accustomed to the darkness inside the building.

There probably isn’t anything in this building that wouldn’t go for a fair price in the auction. It’s not just farmers who like to come to these things; the town, and even out-of-towners come from all over to see if they can find the next decorative piece for their front lawn, or a project to work on in their workshops over the winter. Every once in a while Louis will just get a random text from Felicite with a picture of an old rusted bridle, or a wagon wheel with a ridiculous price tag on it. He just texts her back the same thing every time. “You know where all the stuff is, come and get it.” She has never taken him up on the offer.

He looks over at Harry, who is pouting at him. “What?” Louis puts his hands on his hips. He remembers back fondly to when Harry just did what Louis told him. It happens less and less.

Harry looks around, stroking an old saddle blanket that’s draped over a sawhorse. “You’re getting rid of it?”

“Not all of it, just the stuff that I don’t think I’ll need anymore.” Louis picks up the blanket that Harry had been staring at, inciting a cloud of dust with it. “For example, I don’t own a horse.”

“But it’s so beautiful!” Harry argues, snatching the blanket out of Louis’ hand and holding it close to him. Louis wonders if Harry realises how dirty he’s actually getting. “It could be draped over that rocking chair in the kitchen!”

“Or I could auction if off and get a brand new rocking chair for the kitchen.” Louis tries to reason with him, but it only seems to make Harry more incensed.

“You can’t get rid of the rocking chair in the kitchen!” Harry throws his arms in the air. “Do you have no appreciation for the past?”

Louis pinches the bridge of his nose. Nothing is getting cleaned and Harry doesn’t want to get rid of anything, ever. “Ok, how about this. I will clean out the shed by myself and you can finish the fences.”

Harry crosses his arms and opens his mouth, only to close it again. He looks at the contents of the barn and back at Louis again. “Counter proposal,” he replies. Louis rolls his eyes, but doesn’t stop him. “We both go and fix the fences and I can convince you not to get rid of all of your treasures.” Harry raises his eyebrows, as though this will make the offer more tempting.

“This barn is getting cleaned out today so you can help, and actually be helpful, or you can go somewhere where you don’t have to watch.” Louis raises his eyebrows as well, but as more of a challenge for Harry to argue with him.

“Can I have a say on what you get to keep and what you get rid of?” Harry is grasping at straws now and Louis’ patience is slipping considerably.

“Why do you even care? It’s just old stuff that I don’t use anymore.” Louis puts his hands on his hips.

“It’s beautiful, and it’s your family history. This all tells a story. I’ve never had that. My mother barely had a picture in our house before I was born. It feels like a waste to just throw it away.” Harry looks longingly at the belongings again and Louis does too, maybe a little differently this time.

“It’s not all going,” Louis says again, a little softer. “But the barn needs cleaned out one way or another.” He puts his arm around Harry’s shoulder and squeezes him a bit. “We’ll work on it together and I promise all the best stuff will be here long after I’m gone.”

Harry’s cheeks flush as he leans into Louis’ side. “Thanks for listening.”

Louis laughs, realising that Harry has essentially won. “No sweat, you’re carrying all the heavy stuff.”

“Deal.” Harry laughs and immediately burrows himself in the depths of the shadows again.

 

“Harry, I can’t even imagine what you would want to do with all this junk.”

Louis sits, utterly exasperated in a pile of rust and dust. Harry has almost single handedly hauled everything out of the old barn and has lovingly placed things in what he deems fit to keep and fit to sell. The keep pile is the lot of it.

“Surely something.” Harry runs a gentle finger over the pebbled metal of an old wagon as though it were a priceless heirloom and not a piece of scrap.

“Yes, that something would be to sell it to the highest bidder,” Louis reasons.

“No fair, you promised.” Harry stops up short. Louis has a hard time taking him seriously with the smudge of dirt on the tip of his nose.

“I promised the best things can stay. I’m having a hard time seeing any good in anything here.” He’s being honest. It’s all junk. He hasn’t even laid eyes on a lot of this stuff. It’s not good, or sentimental. It’s just old and worn out. All of it.

Harry sighs and looks around at his treasures once again. His shoulders slump a little. “I guess,” he concedes. “It’s just all so lovely. It makes me nostalgic.”

“I can appreciate that Harry, but I'd like to use the barn for the auction, not to mention make use of it after as well. It can’t all stay.”

“What do you need the barn for?” Harry asks.

It’s almost not fair. Louis knows how distracted Harry can be by farm business.

“I was thinking maybe I could get some chickens in. This would be a good space for them. Or sheep.” Louis should feel guilty. He’s bribing Harry like a child.

“Sheep?” Harry repeats, eyes gleaming. “Little lambs?”

“We’ve had them before, and I still get calls for wool. It could be a bit of a side job now that I’ve got such good help.” Louis smiles.

“Chickens and sheep?” Harry says again.

“If we can get some space,” Louis urges. Harry looks at the stuff on the field once again, then looks into the now empty barn.

“So what do we do with all this stuff now that you’re selling it?” Harry asks, urgent and serious. Louis almost falls off the stump he’s been perched on, trying not to laugh. Louis’ got him pegged.

 

lambs

 

The day of the auction is a Saturday and technically a day that Harry is supposed to have off, but Louis can barely keep track of him, he’s buzzing around so quickly. One would think that Harry’s the one who’s been organizing this thing for years and Louis is the rookie, judging by the way Harry has the place whipped into shape and Louis’ wandering around clueless as to what to do next.

Louis has never seen an auction set up and run as tidy as Harry has everything organized. Louis doesn’t think he had that much gumption even when he was Harry’s age. Sellers have been bewildered and impressed. Louis suspects the buyers will be the same.

Harry zooms past Louis once again with a wild smile on his face and an armful of cattle bridles when he suddenly puts on the brakes and turns to Louis. Louis feels a stab of guilt for sipping his coffee.

“Do auctions not need…” Harry says,“Auctioneers?” The word comes to him as though it’s foreign. Louis suspects that he spent last evening researching. There’s no way he’s just naturally as good at all of this mess as he is.

“Yup, that’s me.” Louis replies.

Harry’s eyebrows shoot up comically. “You? You do the ‘do I have five dollars, going once going twice, sold!’?”

“That’s me.” Louis laughs, as Harry gapes at him slightly. When Harry doesn't reply he adds. “Is that so hard to believe?”

“No!” Harry protests, laughing boisterously, “No, I’m just really happy!” He hugs the bundle of bridles and giggles, flying off again leaving Louis shaking his head and taking another sip of his blissfully hot coffee.

 

The auction is about to start so Louis is taking a bit of a guilty pleasure in wandering around and taking in the sights. If Louis had to guess, he would say that at least a hundred people stand in his barnyard between vendors, sellers, and potential customers. It’s grown to the point that he’s been able to set up a couple of food vendors, and he can smell the salty goodness of fried food waft through every once in a while. It’s been a long time since he was able to just enjoy being at this biannual tradition, probably since he was a teenager, which he admits begrudgingly was a very long time ago.

Louis doesn’t know what he will be able to do to properly thank Harry for the work he’s done today. He knows that he’s doing it out of pure pleasure...for some reason, but he needs to do something. A raise, a gift? He doesn’t know. He feels like his debt to Harry is starting to get higher than a chequebook will be able to pay off.

As if his day couldn’t get any better, two identical sets of eyes, so like his mother’s that it takes him back a bit, settle on him at the same time. They’re dressed the same, with identical shoulder length hair pulled up into identical ponytails. They smile at the same time when they see that Louis sees them. Louis would bet money that they didn’t even let one another know that they would both be here. Never mind how they’d dress. It’s just who they are.

“Daisy, Phoebe!” He wraps one arm around each sister. “I’m glad you made it.”

“Of course we made it.” Daisy looks affronted. “You get so many people selling in here now that I get half my Christmas shopping done in one afternoon!”

Louis places a hand dramatically on his heart. “Not to see your favourite brother who misses you so much?”

Phoebe raises a slim eyebrow at him and crosses her arms. “We have eight kids between the two of us, and all still home. You could come visit us every once in a while.”

“We only live a couple of hours away,” Daisy tacks on.

Louis crosses his arms as well. “You know how busy I am.”

“Actually, we don’t,” Daisy giggles. “You’ve been browsing around here like you haven’t got a thing to do, on your busiest day of the year.”

Louis clamps his mouth shut, feeling fully and rightfully called out.

“Yeah,” Phoebe says, a sly smile spreading across her face, “Where is this famous Harry Styles we’ve heard so much about?” She looks around, scrutinizing the crowd. Suddenly Harry rushes out of the barn door and makes a bee line for Louis.

“Found him.” Daisy giggles and Louis elbows her in the side.

“Lou, you’re on,” Harry practically pants and Louis would almost feel bad if Harry didn’t look absolutely exuberant.

“Harry, this is Phoebe and Daisy.” Louis introduces his sisters perfunctorily and reluctantly for some reason.

“Your sisters!” Harry puts his hand out jovially to be shaken. They take turns amusing him and smile indulgently.

“Some of them,” Daisy practically simpers. Louis rolls his eyes.

“I can’t stop and talk, but tell me you’re staying for supper?” Harry is already moving and Louis doesn’t realise until he’s also moving that Harry has grabbed his hand. He gives the girls a half wave as he gets twin eyebrow raises back.

 

“Well Harry Styles is a doll,” Daisy says when Louis picks up late Sunday morning. He had just gotten back from the grocery store and heard a similar speech from Niall, who had been at the auction the day before as well.

“You’re married,” Louis replies, taking a sip of warmed up coffee. Niall saying it was tedious, Daisy saying it makes him a bit more agitated. Daisy was born a flirt and neither marriage or motherhood has even so much as ebbed that character trait.

Daisy giggles. “I know I’m married.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Visions of Daisy lining up various suitors and whisking Harry away to work in another town, her town, flashes through his head. She’s not stealing his farmhand.

“Nothing,” she sighs. “But he did do a great job yesterday. I haven’t seen the auction run so smoothly. I hope you thanked him properly.”

“Of course I thanked him, even tried to pay him, but he wouldn’t accept. I might have to give him a raise.” He doesn’t like the idea. Between the extra work that Harry is getting done and the income from him boarding a room, Louis had plans for the boost in his account. Plans for the farm. But he can’t very well let Harry work for free. That’s just not right.

“What did he say when you tried to pay him?”

“He said that I should consider it as experience training. I told him that people usually get paid for training. He just laughed and skipped away. Literally skipped.” He smiles involuntarily as he hears Daisy laugh on the other end.

“Just put it on his paycheque, or give him a nice fat Christmas bonus.”

“Christmas bonus is a start.” Louis’ brain practically shorts out with the big C word. It is technically November now. Christmas will be right around the corner.

“Although if you add to his bonus every time he does something like that, it might break your bank.”

“That’s what I’m worried about.” Louis grimaces. He wishes that Harry would be even a little bit lazy.

“Don’t worry brother, I’m sure you’ll find a way to make it up to him.” She giggles again, strange girl, and hangs up before Louis can even say goodbye. He shakes his head and puts his phone in his back pocket.

He doesn’t need to go seek out Harry, but he knows exactly where he is, and finds himself pulling on his coat to go find him anyway.

 

Louis takes a small bit of pride and an equal bit of embarrassment in being exactly right about Harry’s whereabouts. He makes quiet steps into the barn and takes up a seat on an intact bail of straw. Harry’s crouching down against the sturdy pen, newly decorated with hay and water.

“So what do you think?” Louis asks, quite unnecessarily. Harry’s smiling so hard that the edges of his mouth are sure to reach right around to the back of his head.

“They’re perfect!” Harry coos over the soft nose that nudges his fingers, no doubt looking for a treat that Harry has already spoiled them with. “Perfect little lambs.”

“More work,” Louis offers, mainly to watch Harry protest. His face changes into half a dozen forms of indignation.

“How dare you call these precious little angels work?” Harry covers the closest one’s ears with his hands.

Louis laughs and shakes his head. They both stand up, shaking off hay and straw while the two babies stare with big eyes. Harry stares right back with a similar expression.

“Are you sure they’ll be ok out here on their own?” Harry asks. It’s a question Louis has heard many times before. Pretty much every time his father brought a new animal home, one of Louis’ sisters would implore him to let it come into the house, just for the night, just for a few days.

“They’ll be fine. They have each other.” Louis takes Harry’s arm, steering him out before he has too much time to think about it. The light is fading fast and Louis still has chores to do.

 

lamb

 

Louis is almost taken back the first time he walks into Niall’s little grocery store and finds a big sign advertising the impending sales of wreaths and trees. Sure, he knows that Christmas is coming, but Christmas starts coming the day after Halloween is over, and that seems like it was only a few weeks ago.

Louis has been so wrapped up… what has he been wrapped up in? His girls, the two new babies that are both adorable and incredibly demanding, Harry.

He and Harry have settled into a routine that could almost be described as delicious, if Louis ever felt inclined to describe anything in that way. He has heard Harry say it before. The book he was reading was delicious. The soft throw on the back of the chair in the family room, delicious. Louis supposes it means that it makes you feel good, it makes you want more. And Louis’ life right now, well, he could take the calm and peace that’s his life right now for ever and ever.

“Welcome to the Gong Show, Tommo!” Niall’s voice blasts into his senses as soon as the glass door of the store is opened. The storefront that always seems like a mishmash of just about everything one could imagine is in utter chaos.

Louis looks around in mild horror, not really knowing where to move. Get in and get out is his normal mantra. Get out alive is more on his mind at the moment.

“Stay close to the walls, that’s your best bet.” Niall digs a cart out from under a stack of empty boxes and directs Louis in the easiest route out of ground zero. Of course once Louis is safely in the deli section, Niall falls into step.

“What in the hell is going on in here?” Louis glances to the side, feeling a wave of anxiety just looking at the wreckage that he will inevitably have to reckon with the center of to get out of this place.

“Christmas, man! Christmas!” Niall exclaims, as if he himself invented the holiday.

“Already?” It’s not that Louis is opposed to Christmas, not even in the slightest actually. He loves Christmas. It’s just...so soon?

“First December is in six days, and once that calendar turns, there’s no denying that Christmas is indeed here.” Niall almost giggles. If Louis liked Christmas, Niall lives for it. He won’t be crass and assume it’s the jump in Niall's revenue.

“Six days,” Louis says, almost in a daze. November is gone. He’s been living in a bubble.

“Maybe if you and Harry come up for air every once in a while you’d have realised.” Niall chuckles, reaching for a frozen dinner to throw in Louis’ cart. Louis can’t describe the feeling he has having to explain to Niall why he doesn’t eat frozen dinners anymore. He decides to just let it sit there.

“What do you mean come up for air, I’m here every week.” Louis roundshis first corner. Only three more to go.

“Harry’s sister’s best friend’s niece was in here three days ago and said that Gemma was telling her best friend that since Harry moved up to the farm his mother never sees him, and can barely get him on the phone.” Niall recites the story as if he’s rehearsed it for Louis’ visit.  

Louis rolls his eyes.“That’s ridiculous, Harry talks to Anne all the time. She was in for dinner not a week ago.” But the seed of doubt is there. Harry’s truck rarely moves lately. He doesn’t have much patience for grocery shopping, and every spare second that they aren’t working he’s mauling all over the lambs. Their dinners are together, their breakfasts are together. Has Louis been monopolising all of Harry’s time?

Nah, he shakes off the thought as soon as it comes. Harry could come and go as he pleases. Louis never expects Harry to be there just to keep him company. Surely Harry knows that. Although maybe a little encouragement from Louis for Harry to get out on his own every once in a while wouldn’t hurt either.

“I’m just telling you what they’re whispering about around the store. You know I’m not one for gossip.” Niall sticks his nose in the air. If Louis had a drink in his mouth it would be spewed all over himself. Niall not a gossip. Right. And Louis has never milked a cow before.

“I don’t have him chained up in the cellar.” Louis grumbles, instead of the long rant that’s brewing in his head. Niall just shrugs his shoulders with a knowing smirk on his face. What a dick.

Louis takes a deep breath and plunges into the depths of what he can now clearly see is a huge order of Christmas related items. He throws a bag of chicken bones and After Eight mints into his cart. ‘Tis the season, he guesses, might as well succumb to it.

“See ya next week!” Niall calls after him, looking like the eye of the holiday storm that’s blasting around him. Louis just sighs and shakes his head.

 

Louis is dragging his feet by the time he walks through the kitchen door. Harry is there waiting to grab grocery bags from him as soon as enters.

“You look like you’ve been to war,” Harry comments, partly amused, with a tiny hint of actual concern in his eyes.

“I have, and it was called a grocery store on the cusp of Christmas.” Louis groans as the last of the bags land on the kitchen table.

“Christmas?” Harry’s face flashes of brief confusion. Louis feel slightly comforted that he’s not the only one that’s been thrown off guard.

“Yeah, it’s almost December!” Louis flings up a hand as if the very thought of it is completely ridiculous.

Harry just shrugs. “Wow, guess we’ve been busy.”

“We’ve been cooped up in this house is what,” Louis says, passing Harry items from his bags in a silent assembly line.

“I don’t feel cooped.” The knit in Harry’s eyebrows is one Louis has seen before and can only be described as defiance.

“Are you sure? Because you don’t have to spend every moment here you know. You can go out, spend time with your friends. I don’t want to take up your entire life.” Louis pauses because if he’s being really honest with himself, that’s not exactly true. He kind of does. “I’m not that needy.”

“Do you not want me here as much?” Harry counters with a tone that sounds more offended than relieved.

“That is not even close to what I’m saying. I don’t want you to feel trapped here.”

“Well I don’t, so there.” Harry’s tone is childish in a way that makes Louis want to pinch his cheeks. He doesn’t. That would be weird.

“Ok, good talk.” Louis chokes down a laugh and continues his ministrations, leaving out what they are having for supper. “We’ll just spend the rest of our lives staring at one another.” It was a joke, but he wouldn’t be mad about it, he really wouldn’t.

“Guess so.” Harry’s nose is in the air, still very much indignant. Louis just shakes his head, much like he did with Niall.

But unlike with Niall, Harry’s small grump face makes him smile.

 

“How is it only seven pm?” Harry asks as he peeks out of the curtain of the picture window in the living room. “It feels like at least eleven.”

Louis also feels the drag of it being dark for hours already. Some days feel longer than others, and this has been one of them. “We’re almost to the longest day of the year. It’ll turn around after the solstice.”

“I have a cousin who celebrates solstice instead of Christmas. I joined her once. It was quite beautiful, actually.”

“Christine?” Louis smiles. Christine is known as the town witch. She isn’t actually a witch, of course, just really eccentric. Marches to the beat of her own bongos. Which she actually owns.

“Yes! You know Christine?”

“Kind of, we’ve met. She’s been here for auctions before, although since her and her husband split up I haven’t seen as much of her.” Louis realises that he hasn’t actually seen her in years and wonders if it’s because he never goes out anymore, or if it’s her.

“Yeah.” Harry frowns. “She’s lost a bit of her spark.”

“That happens sometimes.”

“Did it happen for you?” Harry asks. It takes Louis back a bit. He wasn’t even thinking of himself when he said that. He wasn’t thinking of anything really. Just a little throwaway comment more than anything.

“Oh, well...I’m not sure,” is the best he can come up with without doing any major soul searching on the gradual deterioration of his marriage. “I don’t really know if you see it in yourself as much, do you?”

Harry contemplates this, actually trying to consider his reply instead of just mumbling an agreement, or ignoring him like a lot of people do when faced with a potentially awkward conversation. “I think people feel it. In the event that it happens. Of course there are people who end marriages and don’t lose anything at all. Not all divorce is a sad occasion.”

“That’s true,” Louis agrees.

“You don’t want to talk about this, sorry,” Harry says, shaking his head and reaching for his abandoned book on the arm of the chair.

“No, that’s not the problem.” Louis sighs, trying to find the right words in his mind. “It’s just that when Lindsey left...I didn’t feel anything.”

“You were numb? Shock?” Harry urges with such pure concern and curiosity one would think the event affected him personally.

“No, not in shock, just...God I feel like a horrible person for even saying this...I didn’t feel any way about it. It just happened. She was here, then she wasn’t. Life just kind of soldiered on and it was...it just was.” Louis looks at Harry to gauge how much of a prick he actually is for not caring in the least that a thirty year marriage ended. His thirty year marriage.

Harry is thinking though, face impassive. Finally he nods and tilts his head, studying Louis for a bit. “Maybe the part where she left wasn’t where your marriage ended,” he finally says.

This gives Louis pause. He has desperately tried to avoid living in the past, wondering where everything went wrong, wondering what he could have done. Wondering why he was so uncaring. But in the end, Harry is spot on.

He nods. “You’re probably right. I think we both lost our spark a long time ago.”

Harry doesn’t say anything after that, just nods along in agreement and picks up his book, leaving Louis to roam through his thoughts and memories in peace.

 

lamb

 

Not everyone is going to make it home for Christmas. They rarely all have the last few years. And that’s all fine for his siblings. It’s hard to organize children and in-laws and travel from the other side of the country. Louis understands all of that. The stinging phone call declining Christmas dinner was Jesse, who decided he’s staying in Nova Scotia with Lindsey.

Of course Louis gets it. He can’t expect Lindsey not to see her kids over Christmas, but it hurt him. It was like a punch in the chest. Jesse’ll be back in town on the twenty-seventh and spend half of his Christmas break, but it will be the first time since he was born that Louis won’t be waking up Christmas morning with him under the roof.

Harry keeps giving Louis sympathetic smiles throughout the day, so his distress must not be as hidden as he was hoping it would be.

“I suppose you’ll be off soon as well,” Louis says at the end of the day. It’s Harry’s last work day before the holidays, and while his plans to go up north to be with his sister and her family was mentioned, Harry hasn’t been talkative about his holiday plans. Now that Louis thinks about it, it’s quite unlike him.

And now Harry’s looking strangely at him. Louis’ taken back to when Harry first came to the farm, unsure and quiet. “ I guess I could spend a few days at Mom’s...if you want to have some family time.”

“What?” Louis just stops himself from rolling his eyes.“That’s not what I meant.”

“I don’t want to interfere.”

“Harry, if it were up to me, you would be sitting at Christmas dinner here in your own home,” Louis says. He doesn’t mean it to sound sulky, but he can’t take it back now.

“You don’t mean that.” Harry laughs, but he’s smiling at the bail of hay he’s distributing to the last of the cows for the night.

“So when are you going to your sister’s?”

“Monday.” Christmas eve. Harry sounds as enthusiastic about the impending family time as Louis feels. He wonders what’s wrong with the both of them.

Louis sighs, tossing the pitch fork into the corner, and pulling off his gloves. “Well let’s have one more quiet dinner before the brood start to filter in.”

“Sounds good to me.” Harry throws his arm around Louis’ shoulder and gives him a friendly squeeze before he walks out of the barn. Louis watches him saunter in the unexpectedly mild air and dim light of the house. It feels like the calm before the storm.

 

In total there are fifteen filling the little farmhouse on Christmas day. Children play with their new toys in the living room while adults laugh and complain about the stress of the holidays and kid each other around the dining room table. The crowd is rounded out by a few teenagers curled into overstuffed armchairs staring moodily at their phones. Or at least Louis assumes they’re moody. It’s hard to tell at that age.

Louis finds himself smiling and nodding along more than participating. He doesn’t want to say out loud that he can’t relate to the rush that most people feel this time of year. He doesn’t want to keep bringing up that Harry has helped him so much even just getting this meal put on. He feels like it’s bragging.

“Uncle Louis, can we go see the baby sheep?” Felicite’s oldest asks him while already pulling an old wool toque out of the extra hat box near the door.

“Emily, dinner will be ready soon,” Felicite replies from the kitchen with an edge of frustration.

“It’s alright Fiz, I have a few things to do before we eat anyway. I’ll take them out.” Louis grabs his coat as well, almost feeling like he’s escaping. Not that the kids need supervision; Louis has been roaming those barns since he was old enough to walk.

Felicite pops her head out, a line of concern creasing her forehead, “Are you sure? I could help…” The look on her face makes it very clear that helping with barn chores is the absolutely last thing she wants to do. Louis just smiles and shakes his head.

“It’s fine, I’ll just be a few minutes. It’ll get the kids out of your hair until dinner starts.”

Louis pulls on his boots and enters the living room. “Come on kids, time to get outside for a few.” He looks at the sulking teenagers who dare him with their eyes to address them. “All of you.” He raises an eyebrow at them and stares them down until they get up, dragging their arms and legs as if they were made of lead, but they don’t argue, not verbally anyway.

He takes a deep breath as he steps outside and watches the five children disperse around him. He really does have chores to do, but they can wait for a few minutes. He follows the curious creatures into the barn to sit and watch the babies for a bit.

There’s something calming about lambs, so soft, so sweet. Everyone sits quietly watching them go from tiny fingers to tiny fingers reaching out for them as they whisper to them in sweet, cooing tones.

Felix, Lottie’s youngest, sits quietly beside him. “Uncle Lou,” can we name the lambs?”

“Oh, sorry guys, Harry’s already named them,” Louis says.

“Aw, you always let us name the babies,” Grace, one of the teenagers whines. It’s true, Louis hasn’t named an animal since Gray was a toddler, but Harry was so excited Louis didn’t have the heart to tell him his little tradition.

“Harry’s never had a turn,” he shrugs, hoping that would settle things. It gets a two out of five for positive reaction. The boys, Felix and Jacob, nod. The girls, Grace, Emily and Margaret, brood.

Margaret pouts, her little lip threatening to stick out. “Harry doesn’t get a turn.”

“Yes, he does too!” Felix replies, disrupting the quiet environment. “He’s family now, isn’t he Lou? He lives here.”

“He’s just renting a room,” Grace, in all of her teenage wisdom, replies in a scathing tone. Louis doesn’t think the attitude is towards Harry as much as her love of arguing with her siblings.

“But dad said…” Emily starts before she shuts her mouth up tight.

“What did Dad say?” Louis asks her. Her face has turned a strange colour of red, and all of the kids are looking at her in confusion.

“He said that you really like Harry,” she barely whispers.

“Well of course I do. You’ve met Harry, he’s great fun. And he does such a good job for me that we were able to get these babies and have lots of time to love on them them and let them grow big and strong.” Louis smiles at the lambs who are looking for more of the attention that they were just getting a few minutes prior.

“So the lambs were a reward for Harry? For doing a good job?” Margaret asks, her pout isn’t put away yet and Louis can almost read her mind.

“The lambs are for everyone to love. But Harry was a big help to get them.” He pinches her bottom lip so that she sucks it back into her teeth.

“So Harry won’t take them when he leaves?” Jacob asks, looking younger and more vulnerable than he would think Jacob would feel about a few farm animals that he will only see a few times a year.

“The lambs aren’t going anywhere,” Louis says, standing up. He left the house to escape and walked right straight into a trap of twenty questions. “And neither is Harry for that matter.” He starts to leave the barn with five pairs of eyes staring back at him. “Harry has a few treats for the babies in the box that Grace is sitting on. Don’t give them too much, and then meet me back in the house for some dinner.”

“Uncle Lou?” Emily asks before he can get out again.

“Yes my love?” Louis tries not to sound as impatient as he had just silently judged Felicite for doing.

“What are their names?”

“Davey and Dora.” Louis can’t help but smile at the memory of Harry telling him about the twins from the Road to Avonlea show. The kids all smile as well, and they go back to giving their attention to the babies.

 

“Everything alright, Dad?” Gray asks across the dining table. The din of the crowd has significantly died down with the giving of food. “You’re quiet today.”

“I’m quiet every day.” Louis smiles at him and puts a forkful of potatoes into his mouth.

“Nothing on your mind, everything going alright around here?” Gray persists, despite Louis’ expert deterring.

“Everything’s going great around here. Never better actually.”

“Is it hard,” Gray lowers his voice and leans close to Louis, “This being the first Christmas without Mom?”

Louis’ mouth clamps shut as he watches the sympathetic and concerned eyes of his oldest son trying to comfort him of the absence of his mother. Louis feels the sharp knife of guilt in his gut.

“I’m sorry Gray, this must be hard for you and Malcolm.” He caresses the short blonde curl dangling over Gray’s eyebrow.

“It’s alright, we’ll see Mom and Jesse in a couple of days.” Gray reassures him, but a look shadows his face that Louis doesn’t quite understand. Where his face was young and innocent, reminding Louis of when he was just ten and worried every time Louis would come in with a hitch in his back from a hard day of labour, Louis now sees concern that makes him look wiser than his years. “This isn’t the place to talk about this.” Gray shakes his head and leans back again. Abi rubs his back and gives him a knowing look. Louis can’t even imagine what the problem is.

“Out with it lad,” Louis says, not really having any time for these secretive exchanges, but also not tactless enough to want to stop everyone’s good meal and good day and create an outburst.

Gray leans in again, speaking even quieter than before. “You’re just not…processing that Mom’s gone.”

Louis is taken aback by Gray’s words.

“I’m quite processed Gray,” he says, not meaning to sound so condescending, but how would Gray know, when he’s never around? This is the first time Louis has seen Gray in almost a month.

Gray gives him a look that is almost accusatory. “You don’t seem very upset about it. “

“Do you want me to be upset?” Louis gives him what he is sure is a mirrored look.

“I think he’s just worried about you Louis,” Abi interjects, sounding soothing like a therapist.

“I’m fine, I really am. I doubt your mother is crying in her turkey dinner right now, either. Please don’t worry.” Louis smiles at them again, smiles at the entire table. Honestly, what would he have to be sad about today, surrounded by so many people that he loves?

“Mom talks to me about her feelings, you talk to me about the farm and Harry.” Gray finishes the conversation because he insists on having the last word. Louis lets him have it because, well, Gray isn’t wrong, is he?

 

It’s about nine pm when everyone leaves Louis alone. Malcolm is staying for a few days, but he took the chance to sneak out to find his high school friends when everyone else started heading for home. Louis doesn’t know how many rum and eggnogs he’s had so far, but he’s quite enjoying the glow of the fire and the lights of the tree, not to mention the quiet.

The thought no more than enters his mind when he hears the kitchen door open. He’s surprised. He honestly wasn’t expecting to see Malcolm until well into the next afternoon. He raises his eyes to greet him.

“Oh!” Harry’s unexpected form startles his heart. “You’re home...here...home…” Louis stumbles, sitting up straighter.

Harry lumbers into the small room and practically falls into the chair next to Louis. He lets his head rest against the high back and smiles at Louis with tired eyes and a lazy grin. “Peaceful, quiet, uncrowded home.” Harry practically moans. He puts his hands idly towards the fire, not moving enough for the rest of his body to leave the chair.

“Merry Christmas,” Louis says. It occurs to him that such a simple phrase that he’s said dozens of times this year and has been said to him at least as many as well, can feel so important in certain situations.

“Merry Christmas Lou.” Harry sighs before they fall into a comfortable silence.

The house is dark, and with the help of his sisters and the boys, it’s picture perfect. Louis could easily make his way to bed and get ready for tomorrow, but he’s not ready to let go of the sparkle of the day. He looks at the slowly dying fire ,and then looks over to Harry. At a glimpse it looks like he’s dozing off, but on closer inspection he is just staring intently at the fire, eyes half closed, but definitely awake.

“Do you want a drink?” Louis asks, as he gets up and grabs a log from the pile. “I’m having...one more.” He realises after he stands that he probably doesn’t need anything at all, but what the heck, it’s Christmas.

“Pass, thank you.” Harry smirks at him, likely at his slight drunkenness, but Louis doesn’t care.

“Even just an eggnog? A leftover sandwich? Chocolate?” Louis feels the sudden need to ply him with good things.

“You fix the fire, I’ll make us something warm to drink, sound good?” Harry unfolds himself from the chair and walks towards the kitchen before Louis can agree or disagree, so he throws another log on and plunks back down in the chair.

Harry comes back shortly with a cup of coffee for Louis and who knows what in his own cup. Harry snickers as Louis frowns until he takes a sip and tastes the sweet tickle of Bailey’s on his tongue.

“Mmmm, yum.” Louis takes a bigger drink.

“Mhm.” Harry smirks at him over his cup.

“This is nice,” Louis sighs. “You’re nice.” It’s so easy to relax with Harry. Even if they don’t even talk to each other.

“Thanks.” Harry doesn’t look at him, but Louis can see amusement in his eyes, maybe even some embarrassment.

“Seriously though, Harry, I don’t even know where I’d be right now if it weren’t for you. You’ve made everything...easier, better.”

“I’m just doing my job,” Harry shrugs. “You make it easy to be good at it.”

“It’s not just the job.” Louis shakes his head, making himself a bit dizzy, “It’s not just that. It’s everything. You love it here. You love my house, and my life and my girls. You love the lambs and you try so hard even on the parts that are shit to do. I look forward to waking up every day because I don’t have to face my problems alone anymore.”

“Lou…” Harry looks exasperated, and Louis wishes people would take compliments more elegantly.

“Do you know how long it’s been since I’ve had someone who cared as much, felt as much about this place? Do you know how long it’s been since I haven’t felt alone?”

“Louis,” Harry says again, and this time it sounds like a warning. “You have your family, your kids, your siblings...Lindsey.”

Harry saying his ex-wife’s name makes Louis feel strange. Bad strange.

“Lindsey never cared. She says she loved me. We had a life, not together...beside each other. I’m nothing without this farm. It’s me, it’s who I am. How can you say that you love someone and not love every part of them?”

“You are so much more than this farm, Louis.” Harry says, voice quiet and contemplative. “But yes, I know what you’re trying to say. It must be hard feeling like no one is there for you.”

“You’re here for me.” Louis feels vulnerable, but not afraid. “You’ve become my best friend. You care about me in a way that my own wife never did.”

Harry doesn’t reply, just watches him, eyes intent on Louis’ own, barely blinking.

“So I definitely think I’ve had too much to drink.” Louis laughs and stands up, and Harry stands with him. “But I hope you realise that I’m not just a sentimental old lush. I’m so happy you’re here.”

Harry nods, but stays silent. Louis contemplates hugging him, but steps back instead. Suddenly the living room seems really small. “I’m going to bed. Can you make sure the kitchen door stays unlocked? Malcolm will be home sometime.” He shuffles past Harry, who hasn’t moved since he stood. “Good night Harry.”

“G’nite Lou,” Harry mumbles before Louis finds his way upstairs in the dark.

 

It’s mostly muscle memory that gets Louis down the stairs and in front of the coffee pot on Boxing Day morning. He’s not hungover per se, but the massive amount of food, mixed with the alcohol mixed with the late night is making both his head and his feet feel like they’re made of lead. He actively wills himself to not think about the warmth of his bed when he’s pulling on his wool socks and his gloves that could use a wash. He almost doesn’t understand for a second what is keeping him from getting to his boots near the door.

“Rough morning Lou?” Harry is standing there one hand on the doorknob, looking entirely too chipper.

“What are you doing?” he asks, truly hoping it didn’t sound rude. He doesn’t have the energy to be polite.

Harry smiles wider though so no harm done. “Animals to feed, equipment to clean, warm bed to get back to.” He passes Louis his boots.

“Hm,” Louis replies. He really didn’t expect to see Harry this morning. “I can do this, you didn’t have to get up.” He doesn’t mean it. He is so glad Harry is here. He doesn’t want to be alone. The realisation makes something pull in his stomach.

“Too late, I’m up!” Harry says, sounding triumphant. “Get your ass in gear and we’ll get out of here.”

Maybe he does want to be alone after all. “I’m ready.” He sighs and follows Harry into the dark.  

 

They work in relative silence, which is fine by Louis. His brain is lagging about five seconds behind what it should be. But he does notice the smile that hasn’t left Harry’s face once since they entered the dim light of the barn. He can’t imagine the happiness is coming from his morning chores, so Louis assumes that it’s the afterglow of a good holiday with his family.

“I like your sweater,” he says, just now noticing what looks like a brand new knit garment under Harry’s open work coat. It’s gray and blue with what looks like big white snowflakes inlaid. It looks soft and cozy, and for a second Louis envisions crawling into it and having a nap.

“Thanks.” Harry smiles wider as he looks down at it. “My sister got it for me. Said it would make me look like a real farmer.”

This makes Louis laugh. “What does a real farmer look like?” He looks down at his old plaid pj pants and coat that has God knows what smeared on it. His toque is dark blue, hand crocheted by Doris.

“Warm and cozy and cute, obviously.” Harry points to his face and gives Louis a sweeter than sugar smile. Louis just shakes his head and throws the few strands of hay on the end of his pitchfork at him. “But I suppose you look a little like a farmer as well.”

“Thanks.” Louis rolls his eyes, but can’t hide the smile on his face. “But the sweater is nice, I hope it doesn’t get too grimy out here.”

“Yeah?” Harry pauses, looking down at himself again. He fingers the hem of the soft wool and looks back at Louis with an expression that Louis can’t quite read. His nose is scrunched up and he looks like he’s about to sneeze, but almost laughs instead.

“Yeah,” Louis replies and turns to the next stall, letting the moment pass.

 

lamb

 

Louis sits at the kitchen table and devours a plate of leftover ham and scallop. He feels like all he does is eat since Harry came to live with him. He guesses having someone to sit down and have a meal with makes it easier to find his way to the supper table every night.

Just then, that someone walks in through the kitchen door, bringing a gust of arctic air with him. Louis’ face involuntarily grimaces and Harry slams the door quickly, looking apologetic.

“You’re going to spoil those two babies, mark my words.” Louis smirks as Harry goes straight to the tiny furnace in the corner and puts his red fingers as close to the hot surface as he dares.

Harry smiles in satisfaction. “I’m fine with that.”

He sits down and takes a piece of ham off of Louis’ plate without so much as a “thank you,” a look of guilty pleasure on his face. Louis gives a level stare at him that just makes Harry shrug.

“So what are you doing tomorrow night?” Harry asks, shamelessly taking over Louis’ plate and stuffing his face with potatoes.

“Ha, I don’t know. Laundry? Sleeping?” Louis chuckles. Harry knows damned well what Louis spends his evening doing. “Why?”

“New Year’s dance at the Legion!” Harry seems all too cheerful at the idea of going out in this cold, after dark, where other people are that will likely want to talk to him.

“Oh yeah? Thinking of going?” he says, instead of the ugh no popping in his head.

“I was…” Harry says with a pause. The smile is back. “I don’t suppose that’s something you would frequent?”

Louis laughs. “Not in the last twenty years.”

Harry contemplatively chews on his last bite of Louis’ dinner. “I don’t know if I want to go by myself,” he says, finally.

“You have lots of people you could go with,” Louis reasons. “I’m sure plenty of your friends from school are still home for the holidays.”

“Everyone’s coupled up. I feel like the odd man out.” Harry looks genuinely disappointed, and Louis can’t tell if it’s real or if he’s putting on a show to get his way. Louis decides to give him the benefit of the doubt.

“So you would feel better if you had someone to accompany you to the soiree?” Louis can’t help but keep the lilt of sarcasm out of his voice.

“I would feel better if you accompanied me to the soiree.” Harry’s eyes glisten with victory and Louis knows that he’s been had.

He doesn’t reply, just puts his hands up in surrender while Harry does a quick clean up of the kitchen. The smugness radiates off of him and Louis can’t help it. It makes him smile. One evening out couldn’t be too bad if he gets to spend it with Harry.

 

Louis is about three-quarters of the way down the first aisle at the grocery store when he hears Niall barking his name behind him. He keeps going. Niall could use the exercise catching up to him.

“Louis, what are ya doing?” Niall is slightly winded. Embarrassing.

“Grocery shopping,” Louis replies, making a grand sweep of the area.

Niall rolls his eyes, putting a hand on his hip. “It’s Saturday, you’re never here on a Saturday, and this is the second time in two months!”

“Maybe I felt like a change.” Louis turns his nose up, walking indignantly into the next isle. There are people everywhere.

“If you don’t tell me, I’m going to find out from someone else,” Niall says, not even bothering to monitor Louis’ cart. “Spill.”

“Tomorrow’s New Year’s,” Louis starts, and hopes to end. That’s a good enough explanation isn’t it?

“We’re open on New Year’s day. You know that.” Niall fires back. “Not to mention New Year’s Eve is one of my busier days, and you just showed up for it.”

Louis sighs, and tilts his head back. There’s only one way he’s getting out of here. “I’m going to the dance tonight.”

He glares at Niall, who freezes for all of two seconds before he bursts out with a laugh that reverberates through the isles. People start to look at them. “You’re going out to the dance tonight? At the Legion?”

“That’s what I said.” Louis feels indignant now, it’s not an act anymore. “What’s wrong with going to the dance? I know that there will be lots of people our age out.”

Niall is still giggling. “Age has nothing to do with it, you old recluse. People are going to think they’re seeing a ghost.”

“Maybe I don’t want to be a recluse,” Louis retorts, but the words hit something in his gut that’s a little too close to home. Maybe he doesn’t, truly, want to be alone all the time.

“Hey.” Niall’s eyes are softer, and he puts a kind hand on Louis’ shoulder as they wander down the aisle. “That’s a good thing, yeah? Maybe you’ll meet someone? It’s been almost a year since…”

“No.” Louis cuts him off, a bit less short with him as he was before. “Not that, just...I thought it’d be fun.” Then he adds, just because he feels he needs to say it out loud, “Harry’s going.”

Something lights in Niall’s eyes, understanding perhaps? “It sounds like a great time. Maybe I’ll go too. Wouldn’t hurt me to get out of work for a few hours, would it?”

Louis smiles and nods at him. “Maybe I’ll see you there then.”

 

lamb

 

It’s not that Louis doesn’t like to dress nice. His sisters all buy him something new, and what he assumes trendy, for just about every birthday, but he doesn’t often have the opportunity to try them out. He feels fairly vain standing in the full length mirror that used to belong to his mother, studying the line of his trousers. They’re a little close fitting, but Fiz said that they are supposed to be. He shrugs and pulls a black pair of suspenders over his dark blue button up shirt with little tiny trees patterned on it.

He pops down the stairs with an extra spring in his step as he buttons his cuffs and mentally searches for his wallet. It’s just out of habit. He has a place for his wallet. It’s always in the cupboard next to the fridge. He sighs at the realisation that he’s actually a sad, boring old man.

When he gets to the kitchen, Harry is already there waiting. He’s engrossed in his phone which makes his face serious to the point that if Louis didn’t know better, would think that he’s trying to send death glares through it.

“Ready?” Louis asks, hoping that they aren’t going to be too early. He doesn’t want there to be only a dozen people, all elderly, listening to the band from their tables in the corner. That would be embarrassing. When he and Lindsey were younger they would show up about an hour before the place closed and then maybe make it home the next morning. That was until Gray showed up. Then they were there in the first hour and gone before the bar even opened. Louis hasn’t even been to a dance since the kids were tiny. It just got too hard, then later, too tedious.

He shakes himself from his reminiscing when he realises that Harry isn’t answering him. He’s just standing there, phone still in hand, staring at Louis.

“You’re wearing suspenders,” Harry states, as if Louis maybe didn’t notice.

“Hey now, don’t make fun. Daisy told me they’re in fashion.” Louis looks down and gives them a little snap. “It’s not like I’m wearing them to hold my pants up.” He laughs at his own joke as he grabs his ass with both hands. The boys hate when he jokes about his best asset. But Harry just continues to stare, face concentrated. Louis just shrugs at him like he did at himself in the mirror and grabs his coat. Harry apparently doesn’t know a good joke when he sees it.

He’s pretty impressed with the turnout when they arrive. The parking lot that wraps around the little building is mostly full. When he looks at Harry, who insisted on driving, Harry is looking back at him. The silence feels loaded for a moment, although Louis isn’t sure why. Harry hadn’t said a whole lot on the drive there, which is strange for him.

“I can drive later if you wanted to have a drink,” Louis says to him, and it causes something inside Harry to make him shift, and break eye contact. He smiles towards the building but Louis gets a sense that the cause is for himself, and not for Louis to pry into.

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Harry replies, quirking a corner of his mouth up into a smile. Before Louis can retort, Harry’s door is opened and the moment is over.

 

Louis is having an actual real life great time. The music is great, everyone is laughing and having a fun time. He has bumped into at least two people that he hasn’t seen since high school. The entire feel of the place is jovial. A thrum of electricity runs under the laid back smiles of people who know they’re among friends.

Louis isn’t one to mingle, even if he is having a better time than he thought he would, so he finds a nice quiet corner that allows him to people watch and let people come to him if they wish. This mostly reaffirms his dislike for small talk, but he still smiles and nods and talks about the weather with a few acquaintances.

“Well I’ll be damned,” Niall Horan says, sliding into the chair next to Louis and handing him a beer. “I didn’t think I’d actually see you here.”

Louis takes the beer and has a sip just to be polite. “Same with you.”  

“Eh, I come every year. I come to all of the dances.” Niall grins jovially.

“Of course you do.” Louis rolls his eyes but can’t help but smile. “I was under the impression that you never left your beloved store.”

“I don’t keep a cot in my office, I’m not completely crazy.” Niall laughs and Louis laughs along as though he didn’t up until a few months ago sleep in his own office every single night. “Good turnout...good crowd.” Niall looks around the room nodding. Louis nods along. Small talk. Niall never small talks him. It’s like Niall’s one redeeming quality. He wonders why he’s doing it now.

“Lots of people, good music,” Louis adds.

“Harry’s having a good time,” Niall says. Louis’ eyes automatically zero in on Harry standing at the edge of the dance floor. He’s laughing so hard at something that the woman standing next to him is saying that he’s doubled over. Louis can see the tears glistening in his eyes from where he sits. He smiles at Niall’s observation.

“Seems to be.” He looks towards Niall who isn’t looking at Harry. He isn’t looking at anyone besides Louis with a studious eye. Louis makes a bit of a face at him, and when Niall doesn’t snap out of it Louis is driven to ask. “What?”

Niall doesn’t reply right away, just shakes his head a little and takes a couple of breaths. He finally opens his mouth when Louis is about to ask him if he’s alright. “Lou,” he says like Louis is a small child needing a reminder of his behaviour. “ Have you ever considered…”

Niall’s sentence is cut off by a shadow hovering over them both. They look up to see Harry standing there, smiling.

“Lou,” Harry says. It sounds so much different coming out of Harry’s mouth than Niall’s. So much better.

“Yeah?” he replies. His voice apparently doesn’t catch up with his brain, and the word comes out breathy and weak. He repeats himself after clearing his throat. “Yes?”

“Would you dance with me?” Harry rushes out, faster than Harry has ever said anything Louis has ever heard.

Louis is about to protest, and laugh off the suggestion. Louis doesn’t dance. Then he really looks at Harry.

He sees him worrying his lip between his teeth. He see his fingers twist together behind his back, his feet turned in. Then he hears the song. Something slow and syrupy. Louis looks past Harry to see couples standing close, swaying together on the dance floor. That’s when he realises what Harry is actually asking him. Almost involuntarily he glances at Niall,. Who is doing a great impression of someone who isn’t paying any attention to the exchange whatsoever. But Louis doesn’t need permission, he doesn’t need approval.

He reaches out his hand and Harry takes it. They walk that way towards the dance floor where Harry chooses a spot for them to join the rest of the crowd. They face each other for just a second, and Louis realises that Harry is about as out of his element as Louis.

He releases the hand that Harry’s clasping to for dear life and puts it on his own shoulder as he puts his hand on Harry’s waist, bringing their opposite hands together. He can hear Harry breathing deep. He can feel himself forcing his eyes from looking around him. He focuses on Harry’s eyes and starts to lead him. Nothing fancy, a simple, quiet two step with fierce eye contact.

Louis tries not to focus on the words spilling out of the musician’s mouth as he and Harry make slow circles around one another, but one thing is for sure: it’s definitely a love song. About being kids when they fell in love. Louis is no kid. He doesn’t need reminders of that at all. He also doesn’t need to think about the fact that maybe falling in love isn’t an option for him anymore. Maybe this is it for him. His kids, his home, that’s the hand he’s dealt.

Harry is looking at him as though he’s trying to drill whatever’s in Louis mind out into the open. Louis smiles and squeezes his side. The silky material under his palm mixed with the warmth of Harry’s skin underneath makes him want to run his fingers over the fabric. He does, almost unconsciously. The sudden movement catches Harry off guard and he stumbles over Louis’ foot, bringing them chest to chest for a moment and causing Harry’s face to burn bright crimson as he whispers apologies into Louis’ ear while trying to right himself. Louis just shakes his head and smiles when they are back on solid ground.

“Not so bad is it?” Louis asks after a moment of tense silence. Harry shakes his head violently, but smiles and loosens his grip on Louis’ shoulder.

“You didn’t have to do this.”

“I didn’t say I did, did I? It’s my honour,” Louis says. The words sound foreign on his tongue, as if he was talking to a stranger, not Harry.

A corner of Harry’s lips twitch up, picking up on Louis’ own nerves. “Honour?”

“Privilege?” Louis tries instead. Harry contemplates a bit and shakes his head, rejecting that word as well. “How about pleasure?”

“I can get on board with pleasure,” Harry says, his dimples giving away his fierce attempt not to smile. Louis doesn’t have such restraint and practically laughs and giggles his way through the rest of the song.

The song is unfamiliar to him, and it’s impossible to know how long it lasted, but it felt like a lifetime and less than a second all at the same time. As soon as the last notes play, Harry releases him and steps away. The spell is broken, but at the same time, Louis feels like something has just begun.

 

January first is a bitterly cold one. Louis didn’t bother to check the actual numbers as he lumbered out the kitchen door under no less than four layers of clothes, but one step out the door catches his breath and he can already feel the icy air start to seep under his collar.

He rushes towards the heated barn as quickly as his unlidded coffee cup would take him without even pausing to take a sip. He’s alone today. He finally convinced Harry to take a weekday to sleep in a bit. He’s almost disappointed by the silence, by now so used to the quiet but constant chatter that Harry seems to their mornings.

He leans against the wall, sipping his coffee as the machines slowly come to life. His fingers start to thaw somewhat and he gets to work with a tune on his lips that he can’t quite place.

 

It’s well past daylight and Louis is doing nothing but puttering. He shouldn’t, by any rights, have the energy that he seems to have. He’s running on only a few hours of sleep and there’s a niggling ache in his lower back from the hard tile of the Legion floors, but Louis sweeps stray hay off the concrete with a bounce in his step like he hasn’t done in years.

New Year, new me, Louis thinks, and laughs to himself as another twinge pings his back and he tosses the broom back into its place. New indeed. He reaches back to rub the offending area when his mobile rings from his back pocket.

“Hey,” he says to Jesse, a bit surprised. It’s barely past nine am and while Jesse has inherited Louis’ early riser trait, it is holiday season after all.

“What’s going on?” Jesse asks. Louis can gauge as soon as the words are out of his mouth that he’s got something on his mind.  

“Not too much, working away. How’s your holiday? Excited to get back to school?”

“Eh,” Jesse says and then chuckles. “My brain feels as though it’s mush right now.”

“You’re doing a good job Jesse, you know I’m proud of you.” Louis reminds him because sometimes he feels like it’s the only thing he can do for Jesse.

“I know that,” Jesse says. Louis can feel him rolling his eyes from a province away.

“Then what’s on your mind, son?” Louis sits on an upturned bucket, ready to listen.

“I’ve gotten about half a dozen calls this morning, not to mention a few instagram pictures of you and Harry dancing last night.” Jesse sounds as though he’s delivering news of his best friend dying.

Louis is confused for a half a second before he starts getting annoyed. “And?” he asks, not able to keep the fierce snap out of his tone.

Jesse’s voice raises a pitch. “And?” You’re insinuating that this is an everyday normal thing for you?”

“Well of course it isn’t, but that doesn’t make it newsworthy.” Louis tries to suppress his agitation.

“You’re just not acting like yourself and I just thought I’d see if there was something going on.”

“You think there’s something wrong with me? With Harry?” A new wave of indignation flows over him when he thinks of people taking pictures of Harry dancing just because he doesn’t choose to share that time with the opposite sex. He’s outraged.

“Dad, there’s nothing wrong with you, and this isn’t about Harry. I’m just trying to understand. You’ve never gone to a dance in my life. Not when you were with Mom, and now you’re not only going but dancing...with your farm hand? You have to see how strange this all is for me, for everyone.”

“All I see is that Harry, a dear, sweet, wonderful man wanted to be able to dance with the gender that he prefers and everyone, including my own child, is making a circus of it.” Louis takes a deep breath through his nose, and has to press his lips shut before he says anything to his son that he might later regret. “And you can tell whoever calls you or sends you horrible pictures to mind their own damn business. Ok?”

Jesse doesn’t talk for a second and Louis feels like it’s a stand down. He stays silent as well.

“Yeah whatever.” Jesse sighs and hangs up before Louis can even respond.

It leaves a lump of unease in his belly. He didn’t mean to hurt Jesse, but he’s also not standing for people judging him or Harry when neither of them have done anything wrong. This is a hill, he has decided quite suddenly, a hill that he’s willing to die on, or at the very least, piss his children off on. He sighs and shoves his phone back into his pocket and heads back into the house.

 

That evening, Louis sits in ancient wooden rocking chair in the corner of the sitting room. He’s drinking a scotch. He doesn’t know why. He doesn’t like scotch, but it feels right. He’s taking a sip of the amber liquid and trying to appreciate the undertones or whatever the hell people say when they drink expensive alcohol when Harry appears in the doorway.

He looks the picture of coziness, wearing his new sweater from his sister and a pair of soft gray flannel pants. He leans on the frame with his arms crossed over his chest, head tilted, studying Louis silently. “Are you alright?”. His voice is soft with concern, but his face is guarded, eyes clouded with thoughts not said.

Louis wants to ask him the same question, but he can’t; he’s gotten off the phone with Gray, and their conversation is filling every available space in his mind.

“I’m going to be a grandfather,” he says out loud for the first time. The words close his throat and threaten to release the unshed tears in his eyes. His baby is having a baby.

“Oh my God.” Harry straightens up from the door and walks into the room. Before Louis realises what he’s doing, Harry pulls Louis to his feet and draws him into Harry’s body. “Oh my God, congratulations,” he says into Louis’ hair. Louis hugs him back.

He’s excited, of course he is. He’s so happy for Gray and Abi. They haven’t said anything about it, but Louis suspects that they’ve been trying for a while. He’s over the moon. But sitting in the sitting room alone, celebrating the impending birth of a grandchild makes everything a little more…melancholy.

Harry is the first to pull away from the embrace, but Louis holds tight almost unconsciously. A hug isn’t going to make being alone on such a monumental occasion any less painful, but it doesn’t hurt either. Harry seems to sense this and settles into the embrace easily.

“I thought maybe you were upset about last night,” Harry says, voice low and quiet. Louis had to pull out of the fog of his self pity for a bit to even remember what last night was.

“What’s there to be upset about? I had a great time.” Louis pulls away now in order to see Harry’s face.

“People are talking. And I heard that you and Jesse had words.” Harry frowns. Louis isn’t even going to ask how he heard about that. He knows where he lives. He knows how fast things travel.

Louis rolls his eyes and eases back into the deep rocker. “Let them talk. You shouldn’t have to feel like you’re a spectacle just because you wanted to dance in your own hometown.” A flare of annoyance rises up in his belly all over again.

Harry sits on the chair closest to him, leaning forward. “What about you?” Harry asks. The earlier cloud in his eyes returns. “People are talking about you too.”

“Pfft, let them talk. It was just a dance.” Louis smiles and waves him off. “It will all be old news when the next interesting thing happens around here.”

“Was it?” Harry asks, not looking as if Louis’ lack of concern is making him feel better in the least. “Just a dance?”

“Yeah, of course,” Louis replies. He doesn’t fully understand the question. They just danced once. Louis knows that it was a big deal for Harry to be able to do that, but it shouldn’t be town news. It was just a dance! “That’s what I’m trying to say. People need to stop acting like two friends dancing together is national news.”

Harry leans back. He smiles at Louis but it doesn’t reach his eyes. Louis feels bad. He wishes that he could say or do something that could make Harry feel better about the entire episode. He reaches out and squeezes Harry’s knee but Harry just shoots up and walks back to the door where he started.

“Thank you for being a friend,” he says to Louis, and walks out of the room.

 

lamb

 

Louis raps on the front door of Gray and Abi’s little two bedroom house that sits nearly in the center of the village. Louis thought, told Gray even, that Gray would hate living right in the middle of so many people and business, but they have flourished here and Louis is happy that he was wrong. Abi has really made the house a warm and welcoming home and as little as Louis admits that he visits, he always feels happy here.

When the door opens it’s to a surprised look that he’s told mirrors his own more than the other two boys. He smiles wide, feeling the prick of emotion that he’s been trying to control since Gray had given him the news. He almost belatedly remembers why he’s there to begin with.

“Dad, what are you doing here?” Gray asks, opening the door wider to let his father through. Louis holds out his offering, allowing Gray to take it before pulling his boots off on the cheerful looking mat at the front door.

“I made you a congratulations pie,” Louis says, feeling both proud and a bit nervous. It’s nothing special to look at, but his mother taught him how to make pie out of all of the berries that grow wild around the fields. This one is blueberry from last summer’s haul. He paid Felicite’s kids more to pick them than what it would take to buy them organic and imported at the grocery store, but that’s not the point. “I hope that Abi isn’t feeling too poorly.” He just realises what a mistake food might be, and wants to kick himself.

Gray must see the internal argument he’s having with himself and shakes his head. “She’s fine, hungry actually. We didn’t…” Gray looks like he’s struggling now. “I was going to tell you but, she’s farther along than I might have insinuated on the phone the other day. She just swore me to secrecy until she knew she was out of the woods.”

“Oh,” Louis replies, trying hard not to feel hurt that Gray didn’t confide in him. He wonders if Lindsey knew before he was able to force the thought out of his mind.

“We didn’t tell anyone, just the two of us,” Gray says, seeming to read Louis mind. He hates when his insecurities bubble to the surface. He plasters on a smile again.

He nods, almost having to convince himself. “It doesn’t matter, as long as everyone’s ok, right?”

“We are. Do you want a coffee, or is Harry in the truck?” Gray asks turning to the stove. “Abi will be sad she missed you, she’s at her mother’s.”

“No, Harry’s not in the truck,” Louis says. What a weird assumption, he thinks.

“Oh.” Gray sounds surprised. He pauses, looking at Louis with a studious eye, then turns to the cupboard and pulls out two mugs. “Well, stay for a coffee then, he won’t miss you for a while yet.”

“Harry isn’t even home,” Louis replies, almost surprising himself that he doesn’t actually know where Harry is. He’d taken off after morning chores when Louis was busy with the pie. It just occurs to him now that he didn’t come back. “I’m sure he won’t miss me at all.”

“Even better,” Gray says. Louis wants to argue that statement as well but he doesn’t even know what the argument is.

 

Harry’s truck is in the driveway when Louis gets home. It’s bitterly cold outside for the seventh or eighth day in a row, and Louis is grateful to see the white smoke billowing out of the chimney. But it isn’t the house that he’s drawn to when he gets out of his truck, it’s the old barn with warm light flooding through the bottom of the door. He shakes his head with a smile and braces himself for the windy walk behind the house.

He opens the door as little as possible to keep the cold out and the warmth in. His eyes go immediately to the pen that hold the quickly growing babies.

“Harry, it’s so hot in here they’re going to get heat stroke,” Louis chides Harry, who has lugged no less than four heaters into the building.

Harry is obviously not paying attention, because when Louis speaks he can see the muscles on Harry’s back jump. He’s sitting on an old bench in front of the pen in his T-shirt because it’s probably over twenty-five degrees.

“I will not be laying in my warm comfy bed worrying about shivering lambs, thank you very much,” Harry replies. If Louis didn’t know better he would think that Harry was miffed with Louis’ nagging. He considers saying something about the power bill causing him some pain next month, but Harry’s face is set and his mind looks far away. Louis lets it go and sits beside him.

“What’s up?” Louis asks. They stare at the sleeping balls of fluff like one might stare into a campfire.

“Nothing,” Harry replies quickly, not looking at Louis or anything. Louis doesn’t know if Harry is even looking at the babies.

“Something.”

Harry sighs. Louis knows he’s annoying him. He recognises annoyed Harry and this is it. “If I tell you I don’t want to talk about it will you leave me alone?”

“Yeah, alright.” Louis’ feelings don’t get hurt easily. He can handle people not wanting to talk to him. He raised three teenagers, after all. But the way Harry says it gives him a sinking feeling. Like a dread that one gets after having a bad dream that they can’t quite remember. He doesn’t know what’s wrong with Harry, but he would bet money that he’s in some way involved. “But if I did something wrong I would hope that you would tell me,” he adds because he hates himself and can’t keep his damned mouth shut.

Harry does look at him now. For a second Louis thinks he’s going to say something when suddenly his face softens and he shakes his head. “It’s nothing Lou, just having a weird day. I’ll be in for supper in a bit alright?”

Louis puts his hand on Harry’s shoulder and uses it to stand up from the bench. He doesn’t want to leave Harry, especially if something’s bothering him, but he knows what it’s like to need some time alone. “I’m here if you need me,” he says instead, patting the spot where his hand was.

Harry just smiles and nods, before Louis walks back out into the cold towards the dark house.

 

Harry does come back into the house about a half an hour later. He smiles at Louis as he walks through the kitchen into the small half bathroom off the living room.

Louis feels like he’s been holding his breath since New Year’s day. Maybe that has rubbed off on Harry. He’s been trying hard to keep his mood in check with the whole dance shit and now whatever his emotions are with Abi being pregnant. One would think that he’s dealing with a dose of hormones. Maybe Harry’s picking up on that. He feels a sudden bout of guilt for bringing everyone around him down.

When Harry comes back into the kitchen, his face looks scrubbed pink and his hands red and raw, likely from being out in the elements. He goes straight to the sink, turning on the water for the dirty dishes and opening the fridge to grab something for supper.

“Harry, look.” Louis intends to apologise for being so weird the last few days.

“Louis it’s fine, really.” Harry stops him almost as soon as Louis starts to talk. He didn’t fancy himself someone who nags, but with the way Harry was prepared to cut him off at the pass, maybe he has to reassess that idea.

“You didn’t even let me finish!” Louis protests with a squeak in his voice. This causes Harry to snort and Louis feels almost relieved to hear it.

Harry looks at him, really looks at him for the first time that day, maybe longer than that. “I know what you were going to say. Best friends, remember?”

“Yeah, best friends,” Louis replies, feeling as soft as his voice sounds. Harry is his best friend and he hates the idea of seeing him upset by anything. “But…”

“I will tell you if there’s a problem, I promise. Alright?” Harry’s doing the thing where he’s trying not to smile again. Louis doesn’t have such restraint.

“Alright,” he replies, putting his hands up in surrender. “Want me to…”

“No, I’ll cook tonight. You’ve already made a mess of the kitchen once today.” Harry hits him playfully with a dish towel and Louis automatically gets up to start drying while Harry starts dinner.

 

lamb

 

An entire week goes by and the far off set of Harry’s eyes doesn’t leave him. Louis is trying hard to ignore it, to let Harry have his space, but he hates seeing that look on Harry’s face.

They sit down for supper with a sigh from both of them. The early sunsets and lack of fresh air is getting to Louis. He feels tired most of the day. He watches Harry pick at his potatoes before words, almost unwillingly, start spilling from his mouth.

“I know I said that I’d leave it alone, but I can’t. There’s something bothering you and I wish you would talk about it.” He rushes the words out before Harry can stop him.

“Lou…”

“No, come on. There can’t be anything going on that’s so bad that we can’t talk through it. Maybe I can help!” Louis is skeptical about this statement. He isn’t exactly worldly or wise.

Harry just stares at him, a hard twist formed on his lips. Louis wants to laugh. Harry thinks he’s more stubborn than Louis. That’s cute.

They each take a few more bites in silence before Harry sighs heavily and puts his fork down. “Ever since you told me that Gray is going to be a dad I’ve been...struggling,” Harry says more into his lap than to Louis.

“Why?” Louis can’t help that he sounds incredulous. A baby, his baby. Well...grandbaby.

“Because Gray, who is younger than me, is starting a family. He has a wife and he’ll have a child and they’ll be a family and I just feel like I’m in a stalemate. I’m just existing, floating along. Alone.” Harry seems to sink lower into his chair with every word. Louis hurts for him.

“Harry, you aren’t stale, and you are definitely not just existing. I thought the farm, being here, was what you were looking for.” Louis thought that was enough.

Harry is wallowing. “I’m not making a difference here.”

“We’re not a hospital, or church or… how much of a difference do you want to make?”

“I want to feel wanted.” Harry looks at him pointedly.

“I think you just want to feel.”

Harry’s eyebrow shoots up in either interest or indignation, Louis can’t tell. “Excuse me?”

“It’s cold, it’s dark and we have been cooped up in this house just staring at each other for the last few weeks.” Louis shrugs. “I’m used to that kind of schedule this time of year and I’ve even been dealing with some melancholy. I can’t imagine how you haven’t gone completely stir crazy yet.”

“So what do you suggest I do about it? My melancholy? ” Harry’s voice drips sass and sarcasm. Louis lets it slide because Louis has been there. He knows how Harry’s feeling. At least he thinks he does. It doesn’t stop him from making at face at Harry, who makes a face right back, a glimpse of his carefree self shining through.

“Go out, meet up with some friends. You see how little we have to do here right now.” Louis smiles, trying to sound encouraging. “Don’t be dragged down by an old man in a rickety old house.”

Harry picks up his fork again. He isn’t looking at Louis, but he nods and tilts his head to the side, studying what’s on his plate. “Maybe I will,” he says. It’s almost defiant.

“Ok,” Louis replies, feeling as though having the last word in this conversation might be crucial.

Harry narrows his eyes and gives him a crooked smile. “Ok.”

 

Louis doesn’t even remember the last time he’s been fully warm. It is so damned cold outside every single day that by the time he starts to warm up from the morning chores he has to go back out for the evening ones. It’s an all encompassing cold that is not only seeping into his skin, but starting to freeze his mind as well.

The house is a lot of quiet. He and Harry both are sunk in their own heads at the moment, most of their conversation revolving around the weather, how are the animals faring, whether the firewood is going to hold up, and the like.

Louis begrudgingly admits that the grocery store isn’t the pit of evil that he’s made it up to be in his head all these years. He only admits that to himself, and only actually looks forward to seeing Niall’s cheerful face and the bright lights of the store on days when he hasn’t seen the sun in what feels like weeks.

He smiles back at Niall who is, as usual, manning the front of the store.

“Staying warm, Tommo?” Niall laughs as he talks as if he’s funny.

“I am not, thanks for asking.” Louis pulls out a cart and waits for Niall to join him in the deli section.

“It’s been a rough one, eh?”

“It’s barely even begun, that’s the problem!” Louis feels overly frustrated over weather. But God, it’s been suffocating.

“I hear that. My skin is pleading with me to stop taking hot baths.” Niall grimaces and scratches his forearms absently.

“Bag balm fixes everything,” Louis says automatically. He’s been saying it to his sisters for years., and it’s a running joke in his family. He gifts it for just about every birthday. “I’ve got an abundance of it at the house if you want some.”

“Really?” Niall sounds more surprised by the offer than Louis thinks is strictly necessary. It’s just a cream, it’s not like Louis is offering him a Rolex or something.

“Yeah, come on over whenever. Come for dinner if you like. It’s just me and Harry, usually.” Louis frowns. Harry has been taking Louis’ advice lately, and has spent some time away from the farm. It’s good, good for Harry. He needs the time out and talking to people, but Louis misses his constant companion.

He shakes his head, knowing how ridiculous he’s being. Harry is with him every single day of the week. Even on the days that he doesn’t have work, Harry pitches in at the farm and in the house. Louis is just being selfish with Harry’s time. Maybe it’s time for him to expand his own friend group as well.

“I’d love to have you over sometime Niall,” he says, truly meaning it this time.

Niall’s face brightens, “I’ll be there. How about Thursday? It’s my early day.”

“Sounds perfect.”

 

lamb

 

February is proving to be just as bitterly cold as January with the only reprieve being when it warms up enough to dump a couple of feet of snow on the ground. But the days are slowly getting longer, and it’s still at least somewhat daylight by the time he and Harry finish their evening chores.

Louis is trudging along at a pace that he’s had for decades. He knows his limits and he knows his routine, but Harry seems to have a fire in his pants, dropping more things than he’s cleaning up in an effort to rush through his jobs. Louis watches him with curious amusement as he dumps discarded twine in a heap in the corner, twine that Harry usually winds carefully and puts away to prevent it from landing in the belly of some bird or animal that it shouldn’t.

“Where’s the fire, H?” Louis calls from the other side of the barn.

Harry’s head shoots up towards him as if he’s been shot. “Huh?”

“What’s the rush?” Louis asks again, being more concise in his enunciation. “The crib board isn’t going anywhere.” It is their latest after dinner amusement.

“Oh.” Harry’s face forms into a weird shape, mouth scrunched up while his eyes are still wide like he’s surprised. “I’m actually not going to be here for supper.” Harry says the words like he’s surprised to hear this development as well. “I have a date!”

The overly cheerful exclamation in Harry’s voice makes Louis feel like it’s wrong, as if Harry were doing something he isn’t supposed to be. Is he hiding something, is he lying to Louis? Why did he keep this a secret?

“Oh!” Louis says, just as overly cheerful as Harry. He still doesn’t know why they are doing this dance but he doesn’t know if he’s allowed to question him. Harry has been distant the last couple of weeks and Louis doesn’t want to make it worse. “Great!” he adds, trying to at least sound genuine. He wants Harry to be happy. That part isn’t fake at all.

“Yeah, and I’m running late and still need to shower and…” Harry’s pleading with Louis with his eyes. Louis wants to comfort him, he wants to fix whatever uncertainty is lying there.

“Go! Get out of here, you know I can handle this on my own.” Louis shoos him away laughing, fake laughing. “Wouldn’t want you to smell of cows for your...thing.”

This is all the prompting it takes for Harry to drop the pitchfork in his hand and bolt for the door, waving behind him. “Thanks Lou, see you tonight!” he calls as he opens the man door in the corner of the building. He’s gone before Louis can reply.

The barn feels very quiet and very empty, and Louis realises that by the time he’s done, so will the house. He doesn't cook dinner, it was Harry’s night to cook. Not that he feels especially hungry. He thinks of the small pile of paperwork in his office that’s he’s been ignoring for the last week or so and decides to head there instead. He might as well take advantage of the peace and quiet, he tells himself, before he starts to push the broom across the concrete floor.

 

“Jesus fucking Christ!”

Harry’s voice penetrates Louis’ sleep and jolts him into consciousness. He sounds winded, like he’s been running. Wondering why Harry is in his room comes as a second thought.

That is until he opens his eyes and sees that he is, in fact, not in his room, but spread out on the couch in his office. He spots Harry in the doorway leaning against the frame with one hand tangled in his own hair.

“Hey,” Louis says with the rasp of a dry, sleep filled voice.

“Hey,” Harry replies with a tone so dripping with sarcasm that he’s sure his own dearly departed mother hears it. “Great to see that you’re not dead or something.”

“What would make you think I was dead? Jesus.” A little early for morbid talk, he thinks. “What time is it anyway?” He doesn’t need to ask, he has never used an alarm clock in his life. He wakes up at five am every morning, has since he was fifteen.

“Almost five,” Harry replies unnecessarily. “And I came home last night and assumed you were already in bed until I woke up this morning and noticed that your door was opened and you weren’t there.” Something flashes through Harry’s eyes. “I panicked and started searching everywhere. I thought maybe something happened to you after I left and…” He stops, closing his mouth shut tight. Louis waits a beat to see if he’ll finish his sentence, but he doesn’t.

“I fell asleep on the couch. I’m not an invalid you know, Jesus.” He jerks slightly when his muscles resist his attempt to extricate himself from the lumpy cushions. “If I fall I’m pretty sure I’m still able to get back up again without a lift or a nurse.” The popping and cracking noises coming from his back are damping down his convictions somewhat, but he still gives Harry a glare as he stands up straight, only stretching minimally. “Now you can come and have some breakfast with me, or you can start without me.”

Harry gives him a hard stare for a second. He’s blocking the doorway so Louis can’t leave until Harry moves. Harry’s shoulders slump, but not in relief, if the rest of his body is any way to tell. “I’ll meet you in the barn.” He looks as tired and weary as Louis feels, and it makes Louis frustrated. Why can’t Louis have this? Why does Harry have to take away from his self pity by making Louis feel sorry for him? They both can’t be cranky and miserable at the same time. That’s not how it’s supposed to work.

“Suit yourself,” Louis mutters under his breath and braces himself for the cold bite of air that hits his face when he opens the door to the outside.

 

“No Harry tonight?” Niall asks as they sit down at the kitchen table for supper. Niall’s invitation to eat had quickly become a routine, and Louis isn’t mad about it. Niall brings everything needed to cook a meal and either Louis or Harry prepare it. It’s a nice way to break up the week, and it’s nice to talk to Niall outside of the store.

“Nope,” Louis says. He’s not sure if he should elaborate. It’s not like Harry has to eat with them every Thursday. It’s not even that he has to be anywhere near the house when he’s not at work. It’s just that he usually is. Or was until a few weeks ago.

Now though, now Louis feels as though he’s trying to grasp a kite string in a hurricane. Every attempt to get closer to Harry, or more specifically, get closer to what’s causing Harry to distance himself, just seems to pull the string out of his hands.

“His loss,” Niall says with an edge in his voice that catches Louis off guard. Niall looks at him with a hard stare. Louis isn’t sure what to do with it, so he just presses his lips together and nods.

They sit down and start eating, their laid back, chatty rapport seeping out of the room. Louis finds himself scrambling in his brain for things to talk about, specifically things that will move Niall’s thinking away from anything going on in Louis house, or his head. He’s just about to ask Niall about ground beef specials when he hears the kitchen door slam shut. A warm wave of relief washes over his body. Harry didn’t miss dinner. He was just late.

He turns slightly to greet him from where he’s sitting, but Harry is practically runs through the room and up the narrow staircase of the kitchen. Who greets Louis instead is an unfamiliar face.

He stands up, not completely forgetting his manors. “Hey,” he says to the man who smiles back, but looks more nervous than happy to be there.

“Liam, how’s it going?” Niall says, coming up behind him.

Liam, Louis thinks. This is the date person. Harry has mentioned his name a few times. A few too many times is what the little voice in the back of his head says. He feels something harden inside him as he looks at this guy who’s leaning on his counter and laughing with his friend. What’s so great about this guy? He likes a laugh? Louis likes a laugh. He’s friendly? Louis is friendly.

He sizes him up as Niall carries on an easy conversation with the man. clearly Niall knows him well enough. He can hears Niall asking about his family and his job. He lives in the neighboring town apparently. Louis tries to see what it is that Harry might see in him. Not that it matters.

Suddenly Harry is down the stairs again and giving Louis a tight smile. It’s the only smile Louis has gotten from him since New Year’s. He hates it.

“Lou, me’n Liam are going to Moncton for the night. You can handle the morning chores on your own can’t you?” Harry says, and is on his way out the door without waiting for an answer.

Louis can, obviously, but he isn’t done with Harry, he realises. He isn’t ready to let go of this. Harry being part of the farm work is all Louis has left of him, and Harry is taking that as well. “I’d rather not,” he says, his voice sounding smaller than he would have hoped.

He can see Harry freeze and tense, but at least he’s still in the kitchen. “Why? It takes you an hour. I’m pretty sure you’re faster when I’m not around.”

It’s true. Louis does tend to breeze through when he doesn’t have Harry to chat with. But that’s not the point.

“Your lambs have been pretty lonely. I was thinking of making them a pen in the main barn.” This isn’t quite a lie; this painfully cold weather hasn’t let up yet, and Louis is starting to worry about the babies, even with the extra steps Harry has taken.

“And that absolutely has to happen at five bloody am tomorrow, does it?” Harry’s voice is getting harder and louder. From the corner of his eye, Louis can see Liam slink back towards the kitchen door, but he doesn’t care at this point. Louis is here now, he has to finish what he’s started.

“I would have liked for it to happen today, but you fucked off as soon as my back was turned...again… and so I feel as though I’m running out of options.” Louis’ chest clenches but he keeps his face in check. He hopes.

Harry takes a step closer to Louis. The crash of tension hits him, and makes him want to take a step back. He doesn’t, but it’s taking everything in his power to keep his footing. Harry is so close to Louis’ face that he can feel Harry’s breath on his nose. “They aren’t my lambs. Nothing in this place is mine.”

Louis wants to reply to that. He wants to argue with him. He wants to give Harry everything he owns because Harry loves this place as much as Louis does, and they both know it. Or at least knew it. But Harry’s gone. As suddenly as he walked in the door he walks out, Liam trailing behind him, giving Louis a guilty look as he closes the door.

Louis just stands, staring at the closed door until Niall puts a hand on his shoulder and guides him back to his supper, a hot coffee magically appearing next to it.  

“I’m going to take off,” Niall says. He’s already putting his coat on before Louis even registers what he says.

“No Niall…”

“No, you’re having a rough go and I don’t think trying to be a good host is going to help it. I’ll call you tomorrow eh?” Niall walks towards him and gives him another pat on the shoulder. “And if you truly need help tomorrow, I’ll come over.”

He looks at Niall, who gives him a lopsided smile, and shakes his head. “I’ll be fine.”

“Then I’ll see you Sunday, yeah?”

“Yeah,” Louis says with a sigh, and then he’s all alone again.

 

Louis sits in the dark living room watching the stillness of the night through the outdoor dusk to dawn light. There isn’t even a breeze, and in the slight fog of fatigue and confusion Louis starts to wonder if he’s just staring at a picture. A scene that never changes, just gets a bit older every year, dulls it’s paint and fades it’s details.

He sighs and looks at his phone to check the time. One thing he is sure of is it’s well past time to be awake. When he lights up the screen he sees a text that he had somehow missed over the last hour or so. A text from Harry.

I’m going to need some time off

I’m sorry

Sorry, Louis thinks. He’s sorry for what? For leaving Louis in a pinch, for being a complete dick to him, for hurting his feelings, making Louis think that they were friends and then just dropping him? He wants to ask Harry this, he wants to list all of the things that maybe Harry should be sorry about.

He doesn’t. He just turns off his phone and stands up. He looks towards the stairs leading to his bedroom. He doesn’t want to be here. He doesn’t want to sleep in this empty house. He looks out the window again. Only a tiny corner of the barn is visible but it’s like a beacon on a foggy night. He doesn’t think twice before he grabs his boots and heads for his sanctuary.

 

lamb

 

Harry doesn’t come back, not for a change of clothes, not to grab his favourite hoodie from the coat hook, not even to see little Davey and Doris. It’s been three days and Louis hasn’t seen or heard so much as a whisper.

He doesn’t go to see Niall on Sunday. He doesn’t need anything at the store, and he really doesn’t know if he can face the look that Niall had given Louis that night in his kitchen. He doesn’t quite know what the look was. Pity? Concern? Louis is coming to the realisation that maybe he can’t read people very well at all. He thought he knew Harry, what Harry was thinking, feeling. That clearly didn’t work out. He just wishes that people would say what they were thinking, just sometimes.

“I’m too old to be scared,” he says to Vivian, one of his oldest girls. She just looks at him with her big eyes. He knows what she’s thinking, feed me and leave me alone. Too bad it wasn’t as easy with people.

Night comes all too quickly once again, although the days are lengthening out. It will be March soon. It soon will be almost a year since Lindsey left, too. Birthing season, planting season, thawing season. In a couple of weeks Louis will be so busy that he won’t be able to think. A pang of pain and regret kick him in the shins. Harry was going to make this season the best one he’s had in years. Now Louis doesn’t even know if Harry’s going to be here. And if he does come back, will that be worse? Will they ever be able to be a team again?

If Harry bloody well ever tells Louis what the problem is, maybe they can, he thinks to himself. Anger and indignance are always a more favourable emotion than sadness and uncertainty.

He groans loud and long. No one is around to hear the frustration and anguish that he feels that he needs to release. A couple of the cows perk their ears towards him, but none are especially concerned. He lets himself slump his shoulders if just for a few steps, then focuses on his chores.

 

He barely looks up a few nights later when a gust of cold wind brings a visitor to his office. His kids may be out of the house, and have been for a while now, but he can still recognise the shuffle of Grays’ feet along the concrete floor as he tosses his coat in the usual place. He sits down on the hard plastic chair that creaks like it’s about to give out at any moment.

Louis gives him a brief glance and a half smile before he continues to pore over his paperwork. Field rotation. He needs to figure out where he’s haying this year. It’s not a particularly difficult task, but it’s time consuming and necessary.

“How’s everything?” he asks Gray.

“Aside from freezing my ass off? Fine,” Gray grumbles, but it’s all in good nature. One doesn’t have a conversation without complaining about the persistent cold.

“What are you doing out here then? There’s a fire on in the kitchen.” Louis looks up at Gray who, despite his dark stubble and grimy toque that sits low on his forehead, looks like a disgruntled kitten burrowing down into his own sweater.

Gray wrinkles his nose, not at all helping the image that Louis has conjured about his oldest. “No one in the house,” he says.

Louis would roll his eyes and tell him to stop being weird, but, well, he’s out here for a reason, isn’t he? He looks down once again at his papers but doesn’t really see anything that’s written there.

“Yeah,” he agrees.

“Where’s Harry?” It’s not a light or breezy small talk question. Gray wants to know what’s going on.

“How should I know?” Louis spits the bitter words out before he’s able to control his venom. He looks at Gray, but his expression hasn’t changed at all. He’s not even surprised by Louis’ random outburst. “Do you know where he’s at?” Or what he’s thinking, or where he’s going or if he’s coming back, Louis doesn’t say out loud.

“No,” Gray says in a steady and patient voice. It makes Louis wonder.

“What do you know?” he asks, trying to sound more steady than he feels. The look in Gray’s eyes tells him that he’s about to hear things he doesn’t want to, and he’s tempted to take the question back.

Dad,” he starts, almost like he’s about to apologise. Louis steels himself. “I want you to know that I love you no matter what.”

“Christ Gray, it’s not that serious.” Louis half laughs, but it sounds more like a desperate plea to his own ears.

“Please Dad, let me say this.” Gray doesn’t laugh with him, and Louis has to swallow a lump in his throat but he nods and keeps his mouth shut. “Dad, I love you and I want to support you in any way I can, but I can’t see you do this to yourself again.”

“Do what?” Louis’ voice breaks at the end. He has always hated when it did that, but especially now when he wishes he had more shields to put up against the thick tension filling the room.

“This.” Gray gives a broad sweep towards Louis that doesn’t really answer anything at all. “Shutting yourself away in this cell that you’ve created. Cutting people off that love you. Shutting your eyes to things that could be really great.” Gray frowns.

It’s breaking Louis’ heart to see Gray like this. “I’m not—”

Gray interrupts his protests with a firm hand on Louis’ shoulder. “You literally are, Dad. When was the last time you slept in your own bed?”

Louis can’t deny the blankets and pillow that he had drug out of the linen closet in the house. He hasn’t ever done that before. He has never intended to spend the night in his office, but here he is.

“I just haven’t been feeling…” What? Good, right, happy? All of the above?

“I know, and I don’t want it to get as bad as it did.”

“As bad as it did?” Louis stops. He knows that he’s been feeling pretty bad for himself with the whole Harry thing lately, but as bad as it did?

“Before Mom left? After Mom left? Most of my adult life? After...After Nan and Papa died?” Gray adds on, and a sharp pain stabs through Louis’ chest.

“I didn’t know,” he says, more to himself than anything.

“I know,” Gray immediately responds, “But you’d been like that for so long that we didn’t know how to change it. We kind of just thought that this was you now.” Gray pauses and scoots the chair closer to Louis’. It makes a horrible screeching sound on the cement floor, causing Louis to flinch. “But then you weren’t like that anymore.”

All at once Louis understands, and then immediately feels more confused.

Harry.

Louis had been in a fog of grief that somehow turned into a fog of self-involvement. A routine that turned into a regime. He had buried himself with his parents. Harry brought the light back. Then he left and took it right back with him.

“Dad,” Gray says, and Louis wonders how many times he’s said it. Louis tries to focus on him but millions of moments race through his mind. “I don’t…” he pauses, grasping for the right words. “I don’t want you to make this about Harry,” Gray says, and the words sound stilted and practiced coming from his mouth.

“You don’t want to make what about Harry?” Louis asks, even though the only thing he wants to say is that everything’s about Harry.

“I don’t want your happiness to depend on someone else. I want you to just be ok.”

“None of this is making sense.” Louis wants to stomp his feet. He has finally just realised that his happiness left with Harry and now he’s being told that he has to let that go as well.

“Harry helped you come back to me, to all of us.” Gray smiles at this, small and timid, but a smile nonetheless. “But he can’t hold that in the palm of his hand. I need you to be ok, with or without him.”

Louis knows that Gray is trying to tell him something but all Louis can focus on is without him. But he says, “I know that,” and realises he means it.

“But I also don’t want you to be without him.” Gray pauses again, searches for the words just as Louis has seen him do since he was old enough to talk. It takes a lot to not try to finish Gray’s sentences for him, to let him find the words on his own. “You love him Dad.”

“Yeah of course,” Louis says before even thinking. He does though. Harry has been the light that brought him to the surface again.

Gray takes Louis by the hands and locks him in a stare, “And he loves you,” he says, precise and earnest.

Harry loves him. Louis loves Harry and Harry loves him.

Louis swallows another lump in his throat, but for a different reason this time. “That’s not…” Louis wants to argue with him, but how?

“It is, it’s why he left. It’s why you are so beaten up. I know that you don’t see it, or didn’t.” Gray inspects Louis’ face for a second before moving on. “But we did, from almost the first week. It’s none of our business of course, but...I can’t see you die away again. I need you. Now more than ever.”

“You saw it...who saw it?” Louis manages to croak out even though his brain feels like it’s seized solid.

“Me and Abi, Jesse and Malcolm, even Mom on the few occasions she’s talked to you. Apparently the entire village on New Year’s Eve.” Gray chuckles at this and Louis wants to growl him out for it. This isn’t a joke.

“I can’t, I’m too…”

“You’re never too old, or too set in your ways or too boring or whatever you think about yourself to love.”

Louis runs a hand through his shaggy hair. It tangles a bit and he realises that he hasn’t even bothered to brush it in the last couple of days. “Jesus Gray, this is a lot.”

“I know, for me too. But I needed you to know.” He stands and leans into Louis’ chest. Louis automatically folds him into a hug that Gray tightens. “I have to go, but I hope you think about what we talked about.”

“You expect me to think about anything else?” Louis replies, realising that there's a long forgotten sting in his eyes.

“I was hoping you’d say that.” Gray picks up his coat. “Bye Dad. I love you.”

“Love you too.” Louis gives him a half wave and waits until the door is closed before he puts both of his hands over his face. “Fuck,” he says to no one.

 

Louis walks back to the house. He abandons all consideration of continuing his work as soon as Gray’s car is out of the driveway. The idea of staying in the office for the night seems appealing but tainted after Gray has called him out. He doesn’t take the blankets with him, not yet, but he doesn’t plan on being back tonight.

The kitchen’s still warm from the fire Louis had lit before supper. But Louis feels as if he’s looking at the house for the first time. The first time in a long time. It feels cold. Louis looks around at each item in his line of sight. He feels a strange disconnect to all of it.

He desperately looks for something comforting, something that will anchor him into the now. He can feel the panic rising in the back of his throat as he sweeps the room. It lands on a built-in wall shelf near the wood stove, and a small framed picture frame that probably needs dusted. His mother and father stand in the kitchen right where he’s currently standing.

They were dressed up, his mom in a pale pink pantsuit and his father in a dark maroon dress shirt. Dad is sitting in the rocking chair that he could always be found when in he wasn’t working, and mom is standing close with her purse in her hands. They were going out, most likely to a concert for one of the grandkids. It was just about the only time Dad dressed up at all.

Mom is looking at someone off camera. Louis can tell by her face that she’s impatient about something, probably trying to get Dad out the door. But Dad’s looking straight at the camera and whoever took the picture with a smile on his face that tells Louis that someone told him to smile. Those weird, fake smiles Dad always made would always look ridiculous if it weren’t for the real smile in his eyes.

It’s the last picture that Louis has of Mom and Dad together; Dad died of a heart attack shortly afterwards, and Mom left them all less than a year later. Louis realises that they took his home away when they went. The truth of it punches him in the chest, so much so that he has to put his hand on his heart to dull the pain. He can’t look at it anymore, and turns to the very next thing on the shelf, which might not be any better.

It’s a group picture from Christmas. Lottie had taken it, but everyone else is in the photo. Louis had seen it before, but hadn’t really looked at it aside from smiling at the excitement of all the kid’s faces. This time he really looks at everything. He doesn’t want to compare the background from the picture of his parents because it feels dull in comparison, like the warmth of the house had seeped out over the years. But he looks at himself, long and hard. He looks at the lines in his face, the upturn in his lip. He looks at his eyes. He expects to find them as empty as he feels right now, as Gray had told him that he’s been for all these years, but he doesn’t find that. He looks at the face next to him. Harry is resting his chin on Louis’ shoulder. Louis doesn’t even remember him doing that, but Harry’s arms are also wrapped around Louis’ shoulders, his arms falling, relaxed, over his chest. He stares at the places where his and Harry’s bodies touch and the body language that they’re giving off. God, no wonder people could see the feelings that Louis didn’t even know that he had. It was written all over them. Louis is actually leaning back into Harry’s body. One of his hands is resting on his own shoulder, fingers brushing Harry’s bare arm. They are practically melded together. Louis didn’t even notice. That is something that he should have noticed.

He swallows and realises that his mouth has gone dry. He touches the place where Harry had touched him in the picture. He can’t tell if the feeling that he’s having is want, or fear. Both, probably. Maybe an intense sadness that he doesn’t even recognise the feelings in his own heart.

A normal person would be crying, he’s vaguely aware of that. He feels that want. He even tries it a little, nothing happens. Just the hollow empty that’s drilled a hole in his gut. His wife of thirty years left him almost a year ago and his youngest son left the house and he’s going to be a grandfather and he fell in love with Harry Styles. Where are all of those emotions hiding? Where have they been imprisoned? And how is he going to get them back?  

 

lamb

 

Louis pulls up in the church parking lot. It’s the middle of the afternoon on a Wednesday and there is no one there. Louis didn’t expect there to be.

He looks over to the little fenced in area across the street. There is about four feet of snow, and his parents’ grave stones aren’t even visible. He knew this, knew realistically that he wouldn’t even be able to get close to the graves this time of year. But something told him that he needed to come anyway. He gets out of the truck and walks across the road, as close to the small gate as he can get, and stares towards the place where his parents rest.

“I’m a damned fool,” he says to them, to himself.

He wonders what they would think of the way he’s dealt with everything since they’ve been gone. The farm, great. Everything has run smoothly. Flourished, even.

But at what cost? the voice of his mother speaks clear and bright in his mind. His marriage, he thinks, but dismisses it quickly. Lindsey isn’t why he’s here. He’s already worked that out. Louis isn’t sure at this point what even made her stay for as long as she did. The kids, he supposes.

The kids. He’ll never make up to them the years that he was lost inside himself. Guilt rises in his stomach in the form of bile and he pushes it down. He can’t change the past now. No sense killing himself over it. All he can do is look towards the future and try to make things ok for them all going forward.

“Harry.” The word slips from his lips before he can even stop it. God, he can’t think of Harry as his future. He can’t think of Harry as anything right now. “I don’t want to be Harry’s friend,” he says to the silent graveyard. He gets no response back.

Harry wants an actual future, Louis knows this. He wants children. Louis assumes that he’d also like someone who isn’t broken and confused and a complete mess, but that’s mostly just projecting. Louis knows one thing for sure. He isn’t the ideal person for Harry to want. He doesn’t even know if he could... be with a man. Louis’ mind starts to drift until he realises where he is and he snaps back, feeling the large building loom behind him in judgement.

He wants to be enough for Harry, he wants it more than anything, but the reality is that he’s a fifty year old soon-to-be grandfather who has been living in a state of limbo for the better part of the last decade. Not to mention that he’s already hurt Harry once and still has no idea how he’s done it.

God, he wishes his Mom were here. He wishes that the sporadic voice of reason in the back of his mind was standing in front of him, holding his hands, telling him that he can do anything. Telling him that he’s good enough.

He takes a deep breath, willing the unshed tears to spill onto his cheeks, wishing for a sob to rise in his throat. They don’t come, and he’s left feeling empty and cold.

With one final look towards the flat snow covered field, he turns towards his waiting truck and drives back home.

 

It’s been a full week since Louis has heard from Harry. For the first few days he was busy wallowing in self-pity over the mysterious rift that had seemingly suddenly developed between them. Louis obviously know that wasn’t the case now, but that’s besides the point. He spent the latter part of the week buried in his own head over the development of not only his feelings for Harry, but a complete reassessment of his entire life for the better part of the last ten years.

That took some energy. It still does. He wakes up thinking about something that may have happened five years ago that he is now realising was skewed by his grief-warped mind: happy occasions he had missed, hurtful things he had said, tears that he hadn’t shed and really should have.

But now it’s been a full week and while the information is still flooding in with a stressful volume and speed, Louis’ mind is starting to at least be able to focus. Two things are very clear. He needs to talk to Harry, and he needs to get his farm back on track.

He’s sitting in the rocking chair in the corner of the kitchen holding his phone, staring at Harry’s contact. He hadn’t tried to call him, and the last text Harry had sent is frustratingly highlighted under his number.

I’m sorry

“No, I’m sorry,” Louis says to Harry’s profile pic. Is he ever sorry. Sorry for himself mostly, but for the shitty way Harry had gotten caught up in Louis’ mess. But talking to Harry’s picture isn’t going to fix anything; had that been the case, everything would have been fine days ago.

Louis sighs and presses the call button.

It rings a few times. Louis isn’t sure why he would assume that Harry would answer it. Why would he?

Why wouldn’t he? A little voice asks, the voice that has been sneaking in lately, telling Louis that the idea that Harry might have feelings for him is completely ridiculous, and that Louis is overestimating his importance in Harry’s life.

Voicemail. He hasn’t prepared a speech. He could just hang up and try to decide what to say, but that would mean he would be calling twice. Is that harassment? Would Harry block his number? The tone goes, he has to make a decision.

“Harry, yes, hi.” His tongue feels like it’s tied in knots. “It’s Louis. Um, yeah, can you call me back? It’s….yeah, it’s important. Not...like an emergency, just...important. Thanks, please call me back...bye.” He hangs up, feeling as though he’s run a marathon. He leans back and swallows down the lump in his throat, takes a second to breathe, and then goes back to his job. The one thing in his life that he doesn’t have to second guess.

 

Louis keeps himself as busy as he physically can so that he can keep his mind off the silent phone. He is playing a continuous loop of He’ll call and He won’t call in his head, when his common sense tells him that the only thing that will tell him that for sure is time.

He trudges from the barn into the house when he’s done his evening chores. Everything aches from his feet to his fingertips, he’s hungry, and he hasn’t had a cup of coffee since early that morning. He’s certain it’s just the fatigue talking, but he’s starting to get fairly annoyed with one Harry Styles. Louis knows that he is likely the last person on earth that Harry wants to talk to, but he did say that it was important. The least Harry could do is acknowledge Louis’ request. They are grown adults here. Surely he could put his opinions of Louis aside for a few moments to—

“Oh,” he says when he steps into the kitchen. Harry is standing at the counter, head bent, paying attention to something in front of him. He turns when Louis speaks.

“Hey,” he says, turning back towards what he’s doing on the counter. When he turns around again he has two cups of coffee in his hands, and passes one to Louis. Louis could kiss him, he thinks, then almost chokes on nothing because he hadn’t thought about kissing Harry, and now he is, and it’s a lot to process when Harry is standing right in front of him.

Gray’s voice trickles into Louis’ head. And he loves you. He wishes it were a stronger voice, a more convincing one, because Harry doesn’t look at all like he loves Louis. He looks quite the opposite, actually.

“You said it was important,” Louis hears Harry say, and he wonders if he said something before that.

“I did.” Louis sits down, hoping that Harry will follow suit.

Harry eyes the chair next to Louis for a half a second before he rounds the table and sits opposite him. Fair, Louis thinks.

“Are you going to tell me what it is?”

Any other time Louis would probably respond with something cheeky and playful, but he is serious. Harry just wants to get this over with and probably get back to whoever he’s been staying with. Don’t think about Liam, don’t think about Liam. Too late.

He takes a deep breath and tries to look Harry in the eye. It’s not easy. It’s not that he’s swooning or anything, but Harry’s eyes, everything about him, makes Louis want to never look away. Harry brought Louis back, just a little bit. He wants to cling to that.

“I discovered some things...while you were gone,” Louis says.

“Did you?” Harry sounds almost offended by this idea. He’s most definitely not going to make any of this easy.

“More that Gray mentally slapped me across the face and dumped a bucket of cold water over my head.” Louis chuckles, but unfortunately he’s the only one in the room doing that.

“What did you find out?” Harry’s voice sounds strangled, as if he’s used his allotted amount of words on that once sentence alone and now his throat is choked closed.

Louis takes another breath. Where to start? “I have discovered that I haven’t fully recovered from my parents dying, even though it was a long time ago.”

Harry had clearly not expected to hear that. Which is fine, neither did Louis a few days ago.

“Which led me,” he continues, “To realise that a lot of things that I’ve been feeling over the last long while weren’t really…” Real? Right? True? Louis doesn’t know. “I wasn’t feeling things that I should have been feeling.” He tries, feeling like he’s twisting around himself trying to explain Why can’t he just say it?

“So you weren’t feeling things?” Harry urges him. His face is still impassive, but less strained than when they started.

“Until...you came here.” Louis reconnects their eyes and takes a shaky breath. “You made me feel things.”

Harry opens his mouth and then closes it again. Louis watches him curl his hand around the edge of the table. “I…” He tries but closes his mouth again and takes a deep breath. “Okay,” he says, leaving the ball in Louis’ court once again.

“But because I was... am dealing with this grief and...trauma, I guess...I didn’t realise that the feelings I had were something more.”

“More than what?” Harry practically whispers.

Louis wants to run away. He realises in this moment that he hasn’t even fully addressed what he thinks about his feelings for Harry, and here he is about to lay it all out on the table.

“I’ve been with one person in my life. Loved one person, romantically that is.” The word sends charge right into Louis’ fingertips. “And because of the...grief...I didn’t see when that love went away. It did!” Louis wants Harry to be very clear on that. He could lie to himself and say he doesn’t know why, but he knows. Everyone in town knows apparently. “Lindsey and I don’t love each other anymore. I do know that. I...called her the other day and we talked for a long time. There isn’t any hate, but no love.”

“Okay,” Harry says again, and Louis wants to glare at him. This is a very one sided conversation to be sure.

“But I also wasn’t able to see, to realise, that I was falling in love with someone else.” There. He said it out loud. Harry heard it and this is his life now. He can’t take it back. The knowledge is both thrilling and terrifying.

“Louis.” Harry’s sigh sounds a little too close to pity. Now he decides to contribute to this conversation, Louis thinks bitterly.

“No, I’m not done.” Louis puts his hand up to stop whatever heartbreaking thing that Harry might say. Harry shuts his mouth closed and slumps down in his chair. “I am being honest with you. I care about you. I love you. I’ve never even considered that a relationship with a man was something that I wanted, but it has nothing to do with men or women. It’s you, and I love everything about you.

Harry looks like he’s about to talk again so Louis charges on. “That being said, I’m not okay. And you can’t fix that. And just because I say that I want you, and don’t get me wrong, I want you.” He leans in towards Harry, placing his arms on the table, not close enough to touch but feeling that he needs to be closer when saying things straight from his heart. “I have no right to expect for you to just drop everything and involve yourself in my mess. I don’t want you to.”

“So what do you want from me?” Harry finally asks after what seems like days. Louis could give him a laundry list.

“How about things I’m hoping to happen?” Louis asks, sounding infinitely more confident than he feels. “I’m hoping that you will come back to work. I understand if you don’t. I’m hoping that we can become...friends at least? And most of all I’m hoping that you forgive me.”

“Forgive you?”

“I hurt you, and while I’m still not fully sure how, or when it went wrong, I’m hoping that this talk at least brings to light some of what has been going on on my end, and that eventually you can forgive what happened between us.” Harry rolls the idea around in his mind, while Louis stays quiet and waits for him, despite wanting to urge him to respond.

“I’m coming back to work. I never planned on quitting. I just needed some time.” Harry speaks slowly and looks more at his own hands than at Louis. Louis breathes a sigh of relief at that. “I can’t move back in here…not yet,” he tacks on. It hurts more than Louis expected it to, but he nods in acceptance. “I’ll be here, no matter what. When you need me.” Harry looks at him in earnest. “Whether that’s as an employee or as a friend.”

“That’s...thank you Harry.”

“And there is nothing to forgive. I am as much to blame for all of this as you, and maybe someday you’ll be ready to hear my side of the story.”

Louis wants to plead to hear it now. He wants to insist that he’s ready, but in truth he knows that he’s not. He’s not ready to hear how Harry had fallen in, and then out, of love with him. Not yet. “That’s fair, thank you.” Then he speaks again, against his better judgement. “I’m not going to pretend that I don’t love you,” he says, finding that he doesn’t regret it at all.

“That’s fair,” Harry says, and takes his first sip of the coffee that he had made.

 

lamb

 

Louis ventures away from the house for the first time in almost two weeks. Gray had informed him that he and Abi are coming for dinner whether he likes it or not (not that he would ever not like their company) and that they have a surprise for him. Louis can’t even imagine what that might be, but he guesses he best at least get something to feed them before they show up.

He walks into the store and almost breathes a sigh of relief to see Niall coming towards him. Niall stretches his arms out and envelops Louis into a hug. They stand there for a moment, paying no attention to the people milling around them.

“Y’alright Tommo?” Niall asks, looking him over with a deep concern in his eyes. Louis’ gut reaction is to brush him off and get through the store. But that was old Louis, he guesses. He finds that he has no desire to do that.

“I’m okay, thanks,” He smiles gratefully at Niall and they fall into step together. “Having dinner with Gray, need something that he’ll like.”

“He loved that spaghetti that you made a few months ago,” Niall offers, digging through the fresh garlic bread and pulling out one that he apparently finds acceptable.

“How do you know that?” Louis smiles at him, shaking his head but putting a pound of ground beef in his cart all the same.

“You mentioned that it was popular, I listened.,” Niall shrugs, but Louis can see the pleased sparkle in his eyes and the tinge of pink on the tips of his ears.

He stops the cart and turns to him. “You’ve been a really good friend to me,” he says. Niall stops as well and looks a touch confused, not to mention surprised.

“Thanks,” Niall says, but it comes out more of a question.

“I haven’t been the greatest.” Louis can feel his words wanting to jumble in his mouth. It’s been happening a lot lately. “And I just wanted to say thanks for sticking around, you know, through it all.”

“Louis,” Niall says in earnest. “You’ve been my best friend since high school. I knew that you would come back to us all...eventually. I’m just glad that you’re getting better.”

Shit, Louis doesn’t know if he can do this. He looks towards the cooler with all of the cheese products and takes a few deep breaths.

“Hey, you started it,” Niall says behind him, patting his back. It causes Louis to laugh and he turns back to Niall to see unshed tears in his eyes. “And you’ll get through this other thing as well,” Niall adds. Louis doesn’t need to ask what he’s talking about. If anyone knows Louis’ business, it’s Niall.

“I will,” he responds, because one way or another he’s got to be ok. With or without Harry. “Can I ask you something?”

“‘Course.”

“What do you think about...this other thing?”

“Harry?”

Louis nods, not quite able to meet Niall’s eyes.

“I want you to be ok. But if you’re happy, then Harry’s a good person. A great person actually.”

“I don’t know if it will work out.” Louis shakes his head, but he feels secure enough to move again. Niall follows, as always.

“It will work out,” Niall says, confident. Louis knows though what Niall means. Louis will be ok no matter what.

 

Louis pulls up in front of the house just as Harry walks out the door. Normally Louis would give him a shout to help with the groceries, but that’s not his job, and they’re not Harry’s groceries anymore, so he lets Harry keep going to wherever he was heading, and opens the passenger side of the truck to grab them himself.

“I can help you with that,” Harry says, directly behind him as soon as Louis has one arm loaded with bags. He sounds annoyed. Annoyed that Louis didn’t ask him or annoyed that he has to help the feeble old man bring his bags to the kitchen.

“I can get it,” Louis replies, trying to grab the rest of the bags with the tips of his left hand.

Harry makes a noise behind him but doesn’t back away. “Louis, give me some bags.” It’s not a request. Louis silently hands over what he has in his right hand and levels out the rest between his two arms.

They walk silently into the kitchen where Harry sets the bags on the counter and starts to unload the contents. Louis follows suit, trying hard not to watch Harry from the corner of his eye. They haven’t talked much since Harry came back. Louis has made a point to keep everything strictly work related.

When they’re done, Harry puts his hands on the counter and waits for Louis to look at him. “Can I say something?” Both the question itself and the way Harry had said it sound strange.

“Of course.”

“I’m still your friend, Louis,” Harry says, face serious and a voice to match. “You can still ask me for things. You can talk to me.”

Louis tries to be as honest as his heart will let him. There are a million things that he would like to tell Harry, but none seem to a appropriate to mention in passing. “I’m not sure I know what to say.”

“That sucks,” Harry says, frowning.

“I’m trying to respect your space,” Louis continues. “I appreciate so much that you came back. I need you here more than you know. But I don’t want to be needy.” Louis doesn’t realise until he’s done that he has practically curled into himself as he speaks. His hand is fisted into his gut like it’s trying to hold everything in place.

“You know that nothing has actually changed between us,” Harry says. He sounds as pained as Louis feels. Louis can’t imagine that’s the case though.

“Everything has changed,” Louis replies immediately.

Harry sighs and gathers the bags to put them away. Louis thinks that every time he opens his mouth he pushes Harry further away. Maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe someday he won’t feel like this when he’s in the same room with him. But Harry walks to him, close enough to touch, close enough to smell.

“I haven’t changed,” Harry says pointedly, like his words are a spear that stabs straight into Louis’ heart. And then he’s gone, back to his chores. And times speeds back up to normal once again.

 

It turns out that the surprise that Gray had for Louis comes in the form of one Jesse Tomlinson. Jesse gets out of the back seat of the car with a look of caution and something else. Hope maybe?

Louis walks towards him and pulls him into a hug before Jesse could protest. Louis hasn’t actually seen Jesse in...God, it’s been almost a half a year now. He was supposed to come home after Christmas but he just didn’t. Jesse hugs him back, if not quite as enthusiastically as Louis.

“What are you doing here?!” Louis asks, laughing, but then pulls away and studies Jesse’s face. He’s supposed to be in school in Nova Scotia. “Is everything alright?”

“Yes, everything’s fine.” Jesse rolls his eyes and a short burst of frustration flashes across his face, but he smiles at Louis anyway. “I just wanted to visit.”

Louis is still holding him, frowning when Jesse wiggles out of his arms. “It’s freezing out here, can we go in please?”

“Yeah, of course, supper’s ready.” Louis waves them all in and tries to puts the negative thoughts out of his mind.

 

They all sit down to eat. Louis can’t help but watch as Abi maneuvers herself into the table. She’s barely showing, but Louis has observed over the years that adjusting to that extra real estate takes some getting used to. There isn’t a lot of talk between the four of them. Gray and Abi talk amongst themselves and Louis joins in when he can, but Jesse is paying attention mostly to the plate in front of him.

Louis can’t believe that he has come to the point where being in the same room with one of his children might be weird.

“Ok, why are you here?” He looks at Jesse, who knows damned well who Louis is talking to and shoots his head up like he’s been shot.

“To visit. I’m allowed to visit aren’t I?” Jesse raises an eyebrow in contention. He looks very much like his mother when he does that, and pings a deep annoyance in Louis.

“Of course you are, you are always welcome here. But you never take up that offer.” Jesse deflates considerable at this. “So it makes sense for me to be curious as to why you might want to now. Exams are right around the corner, are they not?”

“It’s not school.” Jesse sighs, putting down his fork. “It’s you. Gray and Malcolm have been keeping me informed of how things are going. With you, that is.”

Ice runs through Louis’ belly. Why, he doesn’t know. Maybe at the idea that people feel the need to be talking about his situation. That he even has a situation. “And?”

“And the last time we talked, it didn’t go well. I was hoping that maybe we could talk.”

It’s Louis’ turn to slump in his chair. He remembers the last time they talked. New Year’s Day. Basically the time that everything seemed to go to shit.

“I’m listening, always, if you need me,” Louis replies, but Jesse shakes his head, the line between his eyebrows deep.

“I don’t want you to listen. I want you to talk. To me,” he says.

Louis is struck with a sudden and excruciating want for Harry. Harry would make this whole conversation better.

“I’ll tell you everything you want to know. I’m just not sure where to start.” Louis forces down the panic rising in his gut.

“So...what about Harry then?” Jesse apparently wants to go straight for the jugular.

“Harry is...complicated,” Louis starts, and the sharp mask instantly transforms Jesse’s face once again. “I care about him. But I can’t start a relationship right now. With anyone,” he says with a pointed stare. He’s about eighty percent sure that this is about Lindsey, but he’s not about to accuse.

“But you would, if not for…” Jesse pauses.

“If not for a lot of things. My apparent mental state, Harry’s lack of interest in me, the fact that I am still processing the idea that I’m attracted to a man.” Saying it out loud in front of the three of them catches him for a second, and he feels frozen.

“It’s ok.” It’s Gray that says this, smiling at Louis. “We’re all ok with it. We saw how you looked at him.” A lopsided grin rises. “And how he looked at you.” Louis looks towards Jesse again who doesn’t add anything, just shrugs with one shoulder and smiles as well.

“I don’t know if it’s ok or not. I have a lot to work through,” Louis says to Jesse, hoping that he will understand.

“I know that, the last time we talked...I wasn’t trying to accuse you. I know that’s how you heard it.” Louis bristles, just for a moment, at the memory. “I was trying to understand how you felt. I was trying to get you to open up. I didn’t do a very good job, obviously.”

“Oh Jess.” Louis wants to comfort him. “I’m sorry. I wasn’t thinking. I haven’t been thinking clearly for a long time I don’t think.”

Jesse nods. “Mom told me that you called her,” he says, looking almost nervous to bring up Lindsey. “She didn’t tell me everything you talked about, but she told me that everything is going to be alright.”

“I’m glad.” Louis smiles. He feels a warmth spread from the inside out. Everything is going to be alright. “I love you,” he says, feeling it deeply and fully. “I’m so glad you’re here.”

 

Louis fairly collapses in his chair that night. Jesse had decided against staying in his old room in favour of spending the evening catching up with Gray. Louis almost feels guilty to admit that he was glad for it. He doesn’t know if him and Jesse will ever be as easy as it is with the other boys, but both of them actually trying won’t hurt.

He looks out the window at the barn. He has about a month until his calving season starts. He can’t even imagine it. The weather has shown no sign of letting spring sneak in. It’s as cold now, at the beginning of March, as it was at the beginning of February.

He thinks once again about Harry and how happy he will be to have him there. He smiles, imagining how Harry will react to the messy business of birth. But if he knows anything about Harry, he thinks that he will be just fine, even ove it, maybe. There is so much that Louis wants to show him. So much that I want Harry to show me too, a rueful voice says in the back of his mind, causing him to flush and push the thought away.

Harry is good for this farm and if that’s all Louis can offer him, then that’s what it will be. A dull ache that Louis realises hasn’t gone away in weeks peeks it’s head out. Louis can’t presume to know what Harry really wants, but he doubts that a barn and a few animals...and himself...is enough.

 

lamb

 

 

The days seem to drag for Louis in ways that he has never experienced before. Things that were fine, even things that he craved now seem lacking. His bother Earnest told him the other day that he was emotionally numb in a not very kind way. Well, he doesn’t feel numb now, he feels lonely and alone and he hates it. He hates that he hates it. Solitude used to be his friend, his companion. Now it’s just mocking him.

Right now for instance, he’s not alone, and yet, there isn’t a person to talk to anywhere near him. Harry has disappeared again, as he has been prone to do since he came back to work. Louis grumbles about promises to be friends when Harry won’t even be in the same room as Louis if he doesn’t absolutely have to.

He knows where he is It’s not a big secret, to Louis anyway. He sees the light in the lamb’s barn. They are still not moved into the warmer main building. Harry goes there to be alone, to get away from Louis.

A wave of stubbornness and frustration steers him away from the warmth of the kitchen and a promise of a fresh cup of coffee towards the light. This is his farm, he can go anywhere he damn well pleases.

He opens the barn door and adjusts his eyes to the dimmer light. Harry’s in the pen, a not so little sheep on either side of him, just… sitting. Harry watches Louis walk towards him, but doesn’t make a move to get up, or even greet him. When Louis sits on one of the benches on the other side of the pen they stare, like a showdown.

“Is there something you need me to do?” Harry asks.

“No, just thought I’d come and check on the little ones.” And you, he thinks.

Harry nods, looking at them both for a bit. “What do you plan to do with them?” he asks. It takes Louis off guard for a second.

“What do you mean?”

“Well you must have had a plan when you bought them. This is a working farm after all, not a petting zoo.” Harry’s words are hard and defensive. Louis has no idea where the aggression is coming from.

“Honestly?” he asks, causing Harry’s sharp gaze to pierce him. “When I bought them the only thing on my mind was to see you smile.”

Harry deflates further into the folds of the animals on either side of him. “Louis—”

“You asked, I bought them for you, to make you feel happy. To make you feel like you’re a part of this place.”

The fight, wherever it came from leaves Harry. “So what about now?”

“Nothing has changed.” Louis repeats the line that Harry had said not very long ago at all. “They’re yours. You can do with them whatever you like. I can certainly help, and give you some suggestions, but Davy and Dora belong to Harry Styles. And as long as you want, all three of you have a place here.”

Harry wipes his hands over his face with harsh movements. “I’m sorry that I’m being so weird,” is all he says.

“You can be weird as long as you want, but that won’t stop me caring about you,” Louis replies. God, he wants to touch Harry, hug him, comfort him, caress his face. But he just watches from where he sits, resolves himself to do that for as long as Harry lets him.

“I wish sometimes that we could just...start over again,” Harry says.

“I wish a lot of things,” Louis replies, not really intending to speak out loud, but there it is, out in the open. “But we’re both here, and from the month I’ve had, I don’t think I could ask for much more than that.”

“Yeah, me too.” Harry gets up now, finally. “Break time’s over I imagine.” He wipes off his jeans, leaving his companions bleating after him.

Louis feels both validated, and dismissed. But he’s becoming used to that as well.

 

“So we just keep the maternity pens clean and dry, make sure all of our equipment we might need is stocked and available, and then we wait!” Louis shrugs his shoulders. He and Harry have spent the better part of the last few days getting ready for calving season. In the next few weeks nearly twenty cows are going to be having babies. It’s an intimidating prospect no matter how long Louis has been doing this.

“Babies,” is the only productive thing that Harry can apparently find to say. He’s been saying it for over a week now.

“Yes, lots and lots of babies,” Louis concedes in a decidedly less enthusiastic and more draining tone. “And a lot of mothers who would rather be anywhere than were we want them to be when they birth. Lucky for us, the weather has been such that they aren’t able to get too far even if they wanted to. Small miracles for five feet of snow and arctic temps.”

Harry makes a noise beside him and Louis turns to see him silently laughing. “This seems a bit out of your comfort zone.”

“Birthing cows?” Louis looks at him, incredulous.

“No, waiting.” A grin spreads wide over Harry’s face, causing Louis to smile as well.

“There are plenty of things in this career that I can’t control H, and this is one of them.” Louis lifts his chin. He wishes that he could spend the next days or weeks saving up on sleep, but sadly it doesn’t work that way.

Harry narrows his eyes. “And it kills you.”

“You don’t have to be so happy about it.”

Harry giggles. It’s a fascinating sound coming from such a deep timbre.

“You laugh now, but when we’re practically moved into this pen in the next few days, I’ll be the one poking fun at you.”

“Oh yeah?” Harry’s teasing grin turns into a lazy smirk.

“Yes, and I promise you that I’m not going to be easy on you.” Louis doesn’t really know what he’s saying. Are they even talking about cows anymore?

“I’m counting on it,” Harry says, and...winks at him.

This is inappropriate. Everything in Louis’ body is telling him this. And yet, isn’t it how they were before? Has Harry not winked at him on several occasions? Louis is sure that he has because he’s so incredibly bad at it. But this time…

Harry’s actually halfway down the long hallway of the barn before Louis realises that he’s still standing, frozen in place. Harry turns and gives him a soft smile before turning to walk away again, leaving Louis trailing behind.

 

lamb


Waiting for babies still ramps Louis up. Harry was right when he teased Louis about the loss of control. This is one of the things that he can’t just power through. They’ll come when they’re good and ready, and that’s that. hen he and Harry finish their evening chores, Louis takes a deep breath and groans loudly.

“Long day?” Harry asks. Louis wants to snap at him that he should know since he’s been here for it, but he doesn’t. He knows that it’s just the frustration talking. The frustration of the waiting and the frustration of every day having something new that he’s quite sure he’s completely fucked up. This morning it was one of his nieces that Louis greeted on the phone when he called Daisy. She had no idea who he was. He had to explain to her that he was her uncle. It broke his heart when she yelled for her Mom to tell her that some uncle was on the phone but not uncle Ian, Daisy’s brother-in-law.

“Long day, long week, long life,” Louis laments instead, stretching his back. Harry just makes a small noise in the back of his throat and lumbers towards the door with Louis. There was a time not long ago that Harry would have at the very least given a word of comfort or support. But at least he’s here. Being here is better than nothing.

They walk out the door together and freeze at what awaits them. It’s just past six and while the light is dim in the sky, it’s still bright enough to see without the dusk to dawn light in the yard. Or it would be if they weren’t in the middle of a whiteout storm. In the short couple of hours that they had been cooped up in the barn, the sky had apparently opened up and dumped no less than two or three inches of snow on the ground.

A look of panic flashes across Harry’s face. He hasn’t stayed at the farm past evening chores since he came back to work.

“You could—” Louis starts to suggest.

“No, it’s fine. I’m sure it’s not as bad as it looks.” Harry’s voice goes high and fast as he begins trudging through the snow towards his truck.

Louis wants to argue with him. He wants to pull him by the arm and drag him into the house for a warm cup of tea by the cookstove, but Harry is furiously dumping fresh fallen snow off his truck with the sleeve of his coat like his ass is on fire, and it is making Louis feel like the biggest douchebag on the planet earth. Harry can’t even stand to be near him longer than his paycheque obliges him.

Louis decides to go into the house and leave him to it. He touches Harry’s arm as he’s leaning far over the hood to tend to his wipers. It makes Harry jump just slightly, but he stops what he’s doing to look at Louis.

“Drive safe,” Louis says, and tries to load the tone of his voice with so many things that he can’t say at all.

Harry frowns at him. “I will.”

Louis nods and walks towards the kitchen door, not bothering to look back when he hears Harry’s truck roar to life before he’s in the house.

 

He has his boots on the drying rack and a frozen pizza in the oven when he hears a knock on the door. It startles him for two reasons. One, it’s still a complete blizzard outside and he can’t imagine who would be out and about in this, and two, he didn’t see any headlights coming towards the house. He quickly comes to the door so that the person in question doesn’t have to stand outside long.

Harry stands on the other side, looking like he’s morphing into part snowman. Louis steps aside to let him in but he just stands there, slightly shivering even under a few layers of clothes.

“I got stuck halfway down the driveway,” he says by way of explanation. Louis looks past him at how fast the snow is falling, not to mention the wind. It makes sense, he should have known that there would be a drift near the bottom of the hill. “I didn’t even see the drift until I was up to the headlights in it.”

“Maybe that was a sign to stay off the roads.” Louis once again tries to invite Harry in with a wave inside. Harry holds his place, despite letting cold and wet into the kitchen.

“I was wondering if I could borrow a shovel, maybe some salt or ashes?” Harry asks. He looks so uncomfortable that it’s making Louis’ insides contract.

“Harry, I’m not going to ask you again, come in the house. It’s too dangerous to be out in this. I can’t have you getting hurt or killed on my conscience.”

Harry looks like he’s about to protest again.

“Please Harry,” he tries, a little more gently this time.

Harry sighs deeply and steps through the door, brushing as much snow outside as he can. Louis sighs as well, but with relief. At least they’re safe and warm. One less thing for Louis to worry about.

“Want a cup of tea? Or hot chocolate?” Louis asks, as Harry automatically goes to the inviting wood heat of the cookstove to warm his hands.

“I don’t want to bother you,” Harry says over his shoulder. His voice sounds tight and unsure. It’s killing Louis with every syllable out of his mouth.

“Harry,” he replies, frustrated. “You’re here for a while, maybe the night. I’m going to get you food, and I’m going to get you something warm to drink.”

Harry looks at him now, eyebrows raised. Louis has never spoken to him like this before, has never had to, but Louis is done with polite niceties, he’s done tiptoeing around this elephant in the room.

“Tea please,” Harry says meekly, and goes back to his brooding over the fire.

Louis rolls his eyes and turns on the kettle. “I’m making a frozen pizza, probably not what you had in mind for supper, but it’s hot and there’s enough for both of us.” Louis sits down, suddenly tired from the weight of this tension on his shoulders.

“Yeah that sounds fine,” Harry mumbles, and tacks on a belated “Thanks.”

“You’re welcome,” Louis says, a little too forcefully.

Harry joins him at the table. They brood there in silence while the kettle boils. The sudden piercing whistle from the stove makes them both jump.

“I’ll get it.” Harry stands and makes it to the stove before Louis can protest. He takes out two mugs and Louis watches him methodically prepare both of their drinks at the same time, something he’s done dozens of times but still makes Louis’ heart trip up.

He comes back to the table with warm mugs and doesn’t bother to sit before he tends to the pizza in the oven. Louis doesn’t even bother to protest, just lets Harry get out whatever energy that is clearly spilling over. He comes back and silently sets a plate in front of Louis.

They both pick at their meal, silent and tense. Louis can feel a knot forming in his shoulder from it. He wants to hide, escape. But he also wants to be near Harry and for everything to be normal between them again. He sighs without even really thinking.

“I can stay in the barn,” Harry says, breaking the silence.

“What?” Louis asks, feeling almost like Harry had slapped him.

“I can stay on the couch in your office, if that would make things better,” Harry repeats, as if this makes anything make more sense.

“Better?” Louis’ frustration is quickly turning into anger and it’s dangerously close to the edge.

“Better than this?” Harry gestures wildly between them, clearly on the verge of some sort of meltdown as well. “Better than feeling like I’m drowning in your disapproval, or...whatever it is that you’re sighing about.”

“Have you lost your ever loving mind?” Louis asks, his voice calm with the realization that this showdown is going to happen, fucking finally.

“Some days I feel like I might,” Harry replies, very clearly implying that this is in all ways Louis’ fault.

“Whose fault is that?” Louis asks, not even afraid of what Harry will say, wanting him to say it’s Louis’ fault. Wanting Harry to acknowledge that he means anything to him.

But Harry clams up again, literally sitting with his lips a tight line across his face. “Never mind,” he mumbles, and takes a small bite of his food.

“No, not never mind. We’re doing this, and tonight is as good of a time as any.”

“Lou—”

“No, everything. We can walk out of this house tomorrow friends, or never speak to one another again. Those are the options here because I can’t live like this anymore.” Louis picks up their plates, not even paying attention to whether or not Harry is done. Harry doesn’t protest, but still stares at the table, silent and unmoving.

When Louis comes back, he sits down in the chair closest to Harry. He ignores that Harry practically flinches at the proximity. “I’m tired Harry, and I’m sad. There isn’t a moment of the day that I feel like I’m ok right now, and a good seventy five percent of that misery is because of what happened with us.”

“Nothing happened with us,” Harry says, looking so sweet and yet so weary.

“Exactly,” Louis almost whispers. He can see Harry’s chest pause for a second in his breathing.

“It’s a lot,” Harry swallows, and Louis can’t help but watch his Adam’s apple bob down and back up again almost as if in slow motion.

“We have all night,” Louis replies, not fully realising how that sounds until it comes out of his mouth. “To talk,” he adds, for his own sanity. “How about I start?”

But Harry nods, almost pale in the harsh light of the kitchen.

“Ok.” Louis takes a deep breath and looks at his hands, which are clasped so tightly together that his knuckles have gone white. “My life, in the last few months, has turned completely upside down,” Louis starts, daring only a small glance at Harry, who is still sitting stalk still in his place. “Some of that is good...really good, and some less so.”

Harry nods but keeps his eyes down. Louis wants so much to reach out and touch his face, command attention.

“You were the good parts, Harry. Only the good parts.” Louis breathes. His words have the opposite effect on Harry, who closes his eyes tight, a pained look marking his face. Louis presses on, determined to make Harry understand. “I’ve hurt a lot of people over the last few years. Without even realising it I shut out the people who I love the most, people who love me. And somehow, when I realised this and pleaded forgiveness, they all gave it to me, easily, much more easily than I deserved, maybe ever will deserve.” Louis pauses to let a sharp stab of pain pass at the still progressing realisation of what he’s done with his life. “I will work every day of my life to make it up to them, the time that we had lost, the missed memories. I don’t know how I’ll do it, but I’ll be here, present, open.”

“I’m glad Lou,” Harry rasps, looking exhausted already. Louis wants to comfort him, but he can’t.

“I’m glad too,” he agrees, truly content with the way his family has rallied around him, despite they way he’s shut them out over the last few years.

“But,” Harry says. It’s not a question; he knows that there’s an exception.

“But,” Louis repeats, “There is a big part of my life that is left still bleeding.”

Harry sighs and leans back. Anyone else might think that he’s feigning disinterest, but Louis suspects that he’s trying to physically distance himself from Louis.

“I’m not trying to make you feel bad Harry,” he says, not really knowing how true that is. “I just can’t keep on living with this weight of...guilt on my shoulders.”

“You have nothing—”

“I have a lot of things,” he interrupts. “And I have a lot of work to do, and that’s all burdens that I have to bear. I don’t want you to feel in any way responsible for any of it. You...you helped me see, Harry.”

Harry shakes his head. Louis can’t tell if it’s because he doesn’t agree, or that he doesn’t want to listen, but Louis has to say these things out loud. He needs Harry to realise.

“You cared about me, you loved me. And that love brought me back into the light.”

Harry’s voice is small. “I didn’t do anything.”

“You made me feel like a human being again.”

“And you feel bad for that?” Harry asks, leaning closer to the table, just slightly, but enough for Louis to notice.

“I feel bad because I didn’t see what it was doing to you, helping me. Just like everyone else in my life, you ended up burying yourself just to keep me above ground. I don’t deserve people like you Harry, but you showed me that I could love again, truly and fully. I will forever be grateful for that.”

“Louis, you can’t beat yourself up because you didn’t—” Harry freezes.

“Just say it Harry, please. Let’s just say everything and deal with it.”

“Because you didn’t love me back.” Harry crosses his arms over his chest and a piece of Louis breaks.

“But I did,” Louis replies. Did, does, will for the rest of his life, probably.

“I don’t think you understand how I felt about you.”

“I don’t, but I know how I feel about you, and I’d really like for you to make me understand.”

Harry laughs at this although it’s strained, but Louis waits, watching him until Harry huffs and lowers his guard again, just a bit. “I knew that you had feelings for me. From Christmas when you said that I cared about you in ways that your wife never did, I knew.” Harry shakes his head, living in a memory. “But I also knew that you didn’t see it. I didn’t want to...scare you. So I waited, and I cared for you as much as I thought it was safe. I thought, hoped that you would eventually see what I did.”

Louis wants to scream that he sees it, that he sees all of it. But he doesn’t, he just nods, and lets Harry tell his story.

“On New Year’s Eve, we danced.” Harry breathes as though saying it out loud will make it all go away. It doesn’t, the memory appears, bright and vivid in Louis’ mind. “You touched me so gently, and said all the right things. People stared and you didn’t care. God, it was everything I ever wanted. I felt like I was on the moon. I almost kissed you right then and there.” Harry almost laughs, but there’s a dread in his voice and Louis waits for the shoe to drop. “And then the very next day you told me that you were going to be a grandfather.” Louis thinks that this is the thing that pushed Harry away and hearing Harry say it hurts a lot. “And you told me that we are just friends.” Harry’s hangs his head and Louis can’t see his eyes but he can almost feel the pain radiating from his body. “I realised that I was back to where I started. Being madly in love with you and you not even realising that you felt the same.” Harry throws up his hands, and speaks more loudly, as if the spell of the memory is broken. “Not to mention realising that I’m not going anywhere with my own life on top of it. It hit me in that moment that my foreseeable future was living in another man’s house, working his farm, loving him and not getting anything for myself in return. It hurt me, then it made me angry. I felt like I had nothing, and everything that I wanted, you held in the palm of your hand, just out of my reach.” Harry looks as angry now as he said that he felt, and Louis feels frozen in place.

“I didn’t realise,” Louis says, trying to process everything Harry had just said. “You weren’t upset about Gray having a baby?”

“Of course not!” Harry snaps. “I’m so happy for Gray and Abi. And you!”

“But you said—”

“I said whatever I could think to say that wouldn’t be telling you that we’re in love and you don’t know it and it’s killing me.”

“So you don’t want kids?” Louis blurts out and it’s not the time and it’s not what Harry is trying to tell him, but he needs to know, right now.

Harry just shrugs and gives a dismissive wave of his hand. “I want a family. I want someone who loves me and wants to spend the rest of their life with me. I want to be in a place where I feel that I belong.”

“Have you found that?”

“What? No?” Harry’s still agitated. Louis is sure that he’s not making any sense. He’s sure that Harry doesn’t think he’s listening.

“What about Liam?”

Harry really does give him a confused look now. “Liam? You mean? You think?” Harry almost laughs...almost.

“Last I had talked to you about anything besides work and what a mess of a human being I am, you were spending all of your free time with Liam. Someone your age who isn’t a complete mess who could give you all of those things, and kids, and a lot less baggage.”

“Liam is great, but Liam is just a friend and always will be. We went on one date that a friend from school set us up on. That was as far as it went.”

“Why didn’t you tell me that?” Louis feels a bit annoyed that he’s been mentally beating the shit out of this guy for weeks.

“Why should I?” Harry smirks unkindly.

Louis gives him a question right back. “Why are you so angry with me?”

This trips Harry up more than the last two questions combined. The expressions on his face pass from annoyance to guilt to sadness. “You pushed me away, practically right out the door. So not only did I not have my love for you returned, I had it stomped on and torn into a million pieces. You didn’t want me anymore.”

“That is bullshit,” Louis automatically replies.

“You told me to go!”

“I’ve been telling you that since the day you landed here!” Louis raises his voice to match Harry’s. “You’ve just finally listened for fucking once.”

“Why do you keep pushing me away?”

“Because I don’t deserve you!”

The room goes eerily silent as they stare at one another. Realisation dawning in both of their eyes. Louis gets a sharp pain of self awareness in his gut that tells him that he means it. This is what all of this has been about hasn’t it? Louis doesn’t feel like he deserves love from anyone. His kids, his friends, his siblings, and most of all the most beautiful, kind, loving man he’s ever met.

“Jesus Lou,” Harry says, throat wet.

“I don’t deserve the love you have for me, and I can’t give even half of it back. You deserve a family and children and happiness, and all I have is...this.” He gestures to himself as if he’s holding up a soiled rag.

“Louis, you have so much more to offer than you give yourself credit for. Than you even know. You just have to let people love you back.” Harry is so close that Louis could touch him now.

“I don’t want…people.” Louis looks at Harry’s hand on the table. He focuses on the small cross tattoo between his finger and thumb. He barely noticed it before, but right now it's giving him a feeling deep in his gut that most definitely doesn't represent the tension in the room. Curled into a loose fist, Harry is still holding tension in his body. But it’s so close, the skin dark and calloused, a small cross that he has tattooed between his finger and thumb. He looks up to see Harry staring at him intently. “I want you.”

“I don’t know if you understand what that means,” Harry says, and it sounds pleading. But Louis does know, and he wants so badly to show Harry how much he understands.

“I understand it, and I...I want it,” Louis tries to sound brave but his heart is hammering in his chest as Harry reaches his hand up and cups Louis’ cheek. He both wants to flinch away because it’s all so much, and lean in because Harry’s touch is everything to him.

Harry hesitates for a second, indecision flashing in his eyes before he leans in and touches Louis’ lips with his own. It feels like the entire world has breathed a sigh of relief around Louis as he leans into it, not wanting it to end. The relief turns really quickly to something else when Louis feels Harry’s tongue gently graze along his bottom lip, and sparks of electricity run down Louis’ entire body. He gasps, causing Harry to quickly pull away, looking guilty.

“No, I…” Louis can barely catch his breath. “More,” he says. It causes Harry to smile, genuinely smile for the first time all night and he leans in again.

 

Louis barely remembers how they ended up in the family room except for a lot of soft touches and whispers. All of the lights in the house are off except the glow of the fireplace on the far wall of the room. The snow is still falling with force and the winds intermittently rattle the storm windows upstairs.

Louis is lays on Harry, back to chest, and plays with the silver band that Harry wears on his middle finger. It feels normal, like this is how it should have always been with them, but at the same time so good.

Another sharp wind blows through and it causes a shudder in them both. “I hope the power doesn’t go out,” Louis says, breaking the pleasant silence.

“Why’s that?” Harry murmurs, sounding half asleep although Louis couldn’t even imagine being able to sleep with Harry this close to him.

“Because if it does I’m either snowshoeing out back to turn on the generator or milking dozens of cows by hand in the morning.” Louis turns towards Harry’s face to give him a sassy smirk.

Harry voice is slow and deep. “I’d like to watch you do both of those things.” He moves his free hand further up Louis’ chest and it effectively shuts off all thoughts of milking cows or wind or anything besides Harry.

“What do you mean watch?” Louis tries to sound unaffected but the rumble of laughter that comes from behind him tells him that Harry isn’t convinced. “You would have to help.”

“Always,” Harry says, without hesitation. It makes Louis’ heart sing.

He rolls towards Harry so that they’re face to face and kisses him again. There’s no hesitation now. Harry meets his lips happily and they kiss, slow and languid like there’s no rush, all the time in the world. That is until Louis deepens the kiss, almost accidentally but shifting himself up on Harry’s body. Harry’s hand automatically comes down to Louis’ hip, stilling him.

Louis might be slow on the whole love thing, but he knows when someone’s turned on. The realisation that he’s affecting Harry makes his heart leap again, both with nerves and excitement. He experimentally slips his leg between Harry’s and lifts himself more on top of Harry’s body, guessing correctly that Harry’s getting hard from his attention. He can’t help but smile into Harry’s mouth, but Harry pulls away.

“This is a lot in one night,” he says, searching Louis’ eyes. Louis shifts off of him a little, feeling bad for making him feel uncomfortable.

“Sorry,” he says, resting against his side once more, contemplating whether he should get up and let Harry have his space.

“I don’t mean for me,” Harry almost giggles. “I meant for you. This has been a big change for you.”

“Oh, you mean with the whole…” Louis doesn’t even know how to address it. He doesn’t think he’s gay.

“Yeah, the whole...thing you can’t say out loud,” Harry is full on mocking him now and it makes Louis scowl.

“I can say it, or I could if I knew what to call it,” Louis returns, sitting up, but not loosening his grip on Harry’s hand.

“You haven’t thought about it at all?” Harry asks. He’s still laying flat on his back, the longer hair on the top of his head is falling into his eyes a bit, but his body looks relaxed and molded perfectly for Louis to fit beside.

“Of course I’ve thought about it. I’ve done nothing but think about it.” Louis pauses and sighs. He really would rather be showing Harry how he feels than telling him, but he guesses Harry’s concerns are fair. “I’ve never really...lusted over anyone before,” he says feeling his whole body heat up with embarrassment.

“Lusted,” Harry repeats, in what Louis assumes is a mockery of Louis’ own voice and tone.

“Do you want me to say this or do you want to deal with this all by yourself?” Louis cocks his head towards Harry’s crotch and Harry takes a turn feeling embarrassed.

“Sorry,” Harry mumbles, not so subtly shifting his hips.

“I have never looked at someone and thought ‘wow, they look hot’ or “I’d like to be with them.’ I’ve only ever been with one person, and we had known each other for years before we dated, then we dated for almost a year before we had sex. I never looked at her like that until...I did. And I guess that was the same with you.”

Harry watches him for a minute, not confused so much as contemplative. “So you only become sexually attracted to someone after you develop feelings for them?” he asks.

Louis just shrugs, “I don’t know. I always just thought that I was a bit oblivious. I am with most everything.”

“Oh Louis, you aren’t. You see things in people that most don’t. You don’t give yourself enough credit.”

Louis doesn’t really believe him, doesn’t know if he wants to, but he reaches a hand up and strokes Harry’s cheek. “All I know, and all that matters to me is that you are the most beautiful person I have ever seen. And I want you in any way I can have you.”

“You’re not scared?” Harry asks, voice gruff.

“Terrified, but not of sex.”

Harry takes a few deep breaths before he answers by sitting up and taking Louis’ mouth again. “Ok, but let's go upstairs so we have more room to...do this right, alright?”

 

Once Harry has made up his mind that they were going to jump off the deep end and actually be intimate, he has a one track mind. Louis can hardly keep up with him as he pulls Louis by the hand up the stairs and towards Louis’ room.

Harry pulls him into one long, lingering kiss just inside the doorway. A chance to back out, Louis thinks. He's not taking it.

He gently guides Harry towards the bed and when the back of Harry's knees hit the frame Louis starts to tug at his shirt. Harry pulls off of his lips with a gasp and a half laugh.

“Eager?” he asks Louis, eyes dancing.

Louis still pulls at Harry's clothes, but more playfully now. “Very.”

Harry shakes his head and pulls his own worn out shirt over his head. Louis forgets to breathe as he watches the muscles in Harry's abdomen shift and contract with the movements. He stares at the various tattoos spread over his torso like he's seeing them for the first time.

“I probably stink you know,” Harry smirks at Louis as he pulls at the belt buckle. “I haven't showered since last night.”

“I don’t care.” Louis can barely find enough moisture in his mouth to talk as he watches Harry's jeans drop to the floor. “I like how you smell.”

“You're gross,” Harry says, but there's a hint of darkness in his tone that was only a few moments ago playful. “You're also very dressed.”

Shit, he almost forgot about this part. He's looking at Harry who is looking right back at him in nothing but a tight pair of boxer briefs and a hungry gaze. Harry is so beautiful and fit and toned and Louis...is fifty.

Harry must sense his hesitation because he kisses Louis again. Louis melts into it, hands roaming hungrily over Harry's bare skin.

“What are you nervous about?” Harry murmurs into Louis’ ear as he kisses up his jawline.

“I don't look like you,” Louis replies.

Harry pulls back and gives him a serious look. “I don’t want you to look like me, I want you to look like you.”

“You know what I mean.” Louis rolls his eyes, not ready to face Harry’s scrutiny.

“Can I?” Harry tugs on the hem of Louis’ plaid button up. Louis nods but looks at the floor feeling embarrassed. “Lou,” Harry says, not moving. Louis looks at him this time. “Can I?”

“Yeah, ‘course.”

He expects Harry to just pull off his clothes right there like he did to his own, but Harry guides him to the bed and asks him to lay down. Louis does and enjoys the view of Harry coming over him, his erection straining his boxers. He straddles Louis’ hips before he takes Louis’ buttons in his hands and slowly undoes them one by one. He doesn't open the shirt until they're all undone, peeling the hems apart like he's opening a Christmas gift. Louis decides to focus on Harry's face because he has no idea that to do otherwise.

He's glad for it, otherwise he would have missed the darkening of Harry's eyes when Louis’ chest is bare.

“Jesus,” Harry says almost to himself. “You've been hiding this under flannel shirts for all these months?”

Louis chuckles softly. “I guess?” He looks down at himself. Nothing special that he can see. Pale skin that hasn't seen the sun in months, skin that doesn't pull as tightly over his lean frame as it used to.

“You're beautiful, not that I didn't know.” Harry leans down and kisses his mouth. Louis is grateful for it because he doesn't have to reply, does not have to believe the compliment.

Harry doesn't stay at his mouth long. He starts at Louis’ neck and makes his way down to Louis’ chest. He grazes his teeth over Louis’ nipple, causing a jolt of pleasure.

“There you are,” Harry teases him, but he sounds just as affected as Louis feels.

“I'm right here,” Louis replies, running a hand through Harry's unruly hair.

“Good.” Harry stops his ministrations of Louis’ torso and focuses on his pants, unbuttoning them and slowly pitching them down over Louis’ hips, shifting down and kissing lower as he goes.

Louis doesn't know if this is foreplay or punishment. He looks down and sees Harry with his bottom lip between his teeth. One more tug and Louis’ persistent erection will be free.

“Please,” Louis breathes. Harry looks up, almost startled before he nods and gives Louis’ trousers one last tug, taking the underwear with it.

“Christ,” Harry groans, running a palm up Louis’ thighs.

“This isn't going to take long if you keep stopping to stare at me like that,” Louis warns him. Harry looks like he wants to eat him and in the state he's in, Louis wouldn't object.

“How, I mean, what do you want to do?” Harry asks, looking pained.

“How about we keep it simple this time?” A flash of nerves suddenly takes over him. “Come back here.”

Harry brings his face back up to Louis and they kiss again. Harry lays his body over Louis’ and the skin to skin contact short circuits Louis’ brain for a second before he realises that Harry is using his hip to give Louis’ erection friction and it feels perfect.

“Do you like that?” Harry asks, slowly moving their bodies together in what could be a rhythm.

“Yeah, so much,” Louis replies, eyes shut tight, just feeling.

“I want to touch you.”

Louis can only nod because God, this is so much.

Or he thought it was before Harry's big hand was wrapping around him, wet from his own spit.

“Fuck Harry, should I?” He's cut off by a groan being pulled from deep inside him.

“No, let me. Just...hang on,” Louis looks at Harry and he's pulling his own underwear down letting his own painfully hard dick free. “Hang on to me.”

Louis obliges, wrapping his arms around Harry's neck as Harry holds himself up with one hand and shifts them both so that their cocks are lined up. Harry wraps his hand around both of them and begins to move.

“Ohmyfuckinggod,” spills out of Louis’ mouth, but he hangs on and tries not to move so that Harry can keep the rhythm. “I'm not going last.” He grits his teeth.

“I don't want you to,” Harry pants, looking like he's more on the edge than Louis.

So he doesn't try. He focuses on Harry's body over his and the feeling of them being together and how fucking good he feels.

And he's gone, body tense and mind free of everything besides pure bliss and Harry.

Harry keeps going at a furious pace for only a few more strokes before he's off as well, panting into Louis’ ear before collapsing nearly on top of him.

Everything is silent except for their breathing before Harry moves away from him, leaving a cold spot on his body. Louis frowns and hears Harry chuckle.

“That was...everything,” Harry says.

“Why are you leaving me then?” Louis complains but doesn't open his eyes.

Harry laughs. “I really want to fall asleep in your arms, but you're kind of gross.”

“You cheeky bastard.” Louis giggles as well.

Harry comes back in less than two minutes with a warm cloth and Louis lets him clean up the mess. He doesn't even know if he is capable of moving.

It's not long before Harry's tucked back into Louis’ side, his back to Louis’ chest. He pulls Louis’ arm over his side and Louis realises that he can sleep with Harry this close to him after all.

 

He wakes up all at once and looks at the ancient alarm clock next to the bed. Five in the morning. The power had thankfully stayed on throughout the storm. He looks to his right and sees Harry's sleeping form still tucked in close to his side. He rests his temple on the top of Harry's head for just a second before he pulls the blanket off of himself and reaches his feet to the floor.

“What’re you doing?” Harry's deep voice croaks at Louis’ back.

“Time to get up,” Louis whispers, even though they're the only people around for miles.

Harry just groans and pulls Louis back into the bed, wrapping his arms around Louis’ chest and burying his face in Louis’ neck.

“Unhand me, sir,” Louis says, but burrows deep into the warmth of the bed. Another five minutes won't hurt.

“You're so warm, and you smell so good,” Harry says in reply. Louis snorts because doubtful. “And you're so beautiful when you're soft and sleepy in the mornings.”

“Oh yeah?” Louis isn't immune to compliments. He is human after all.

“Mhm,” Harry nods. “And the gray hair around your ears is so fucking sexy.”

“Ok, now you're just taking the piss.” Louis makes to get out of bed again and Harry whimpers as he stands up. “God, that ass.”

“Are you going to need a minute or are you going to help me with the cows?” Louis teases him, but Harry actually contemplates for a second.

“You getting back in bed isn't an option?” He slips a hand not so subtly under the covers.

Louis shakes his head. “We have morning chores and on top of that we're buried under a mountain of snow...again.” Louis tosses on a pair of clean underwear and before Harry can full on pout Louis kneels on the bed and kisses him. Harry immediately tries to deepen it before Louis pulls away and says in what he tries to be a sensual voice, “And your truck is still stuck.”

Harry does groan at this and throws the blankets off, presenting a good eyeful of what could have been Louis’ morning. A tiny pang of regret hits him but he shrugs it off. No time. He needs to get the day started.

 

lamb

 

By some strange twist, Harry ends up out of the house towards the barn before Louis. Coffee might be related to this, but Louis will never tell. He plows through deep but light snow that’s over halfway up his calf to get to the little man door. It’s a beautiful but crisp morning that, if the just dawning sky is anything to go by, is going to be a sunny day. He hums something indistinct along the path, content with whatever the day decides to give him.

But when he walks in he sees Harry, frozen in place halfway up the hallway, staring. A bolt of panic instantly seizes him. Did something happen? Is Harry ok? But then Harry turns to look at him and his face is lit up with joy and surprise.

“A baby, Lou,” Harry stage whispers, even though it can barely be heard from the general noise of the animals that surround him. Louis looks down the row of small dividers that he uses to feed them their grain. Almost all of the girls are lined up, knowing that they’ll be getting their favourite meal of the day soon, and about three-quarters of the way down is a tiny calf, curled up so perfectly in last night’s hay that Louis isn’t even sure how Harry had seen it. Louis walks quickly towards the calf and sees that it’s breathing fine, clean as a whistle, and sleeping peacefully.

“First one,” he says, looking down at the black and white bundle of perfection. It gives him a great overwhelming feeling of the world spinning in the right direction. Everything is going to be ok. Harry comes and puts an arm around Harry’s shoulder and sets his chin down so that their faces are flush against one another.

“She didn’t need us at all.” Harry’s almost pouting and it causes Louis to laugh, but something else bubbles up from deep inside him as well.

“They will, don’t worry,” he says, and to his surprise, he’s tearing up, throat clogging with emotion.

“Are you alright Lou?” Harry asks, turning Louis so he can see him face to face.

Louis laughs and puts his arms around Harry’s neck, burying his nose in the warmth of his skin. “Yes, everything...is wonderful.” More tears come and Louis wipes them away from his cheeks with a smile on his face. “I’m just so happy,” He manages to choke.

Harry looks at him, confused, but also smiling. “If you cry, I’m going to cry. I’m a crier,” Harry warns him, a glisten already forming in his bright green eyes.

“That’s alright.” Louis sniffs and it feels so good. “I don’t mind.”

Just then the mother in question comes to make sure that Louis and Harry aren’t doing anything to disturb her baby. It’s Mona, a very healthy girl who’s had no trouble calving in the past. Louis is glad she was the first, and that she was the one who decided to wait until Louis wasn’t looking. He wraps his arms around her neck and hugs her as well. “Good job girl, I’m proud of you.” He lets his head rest on her neck until she moves away from him to nuzzle her little baby.

“We’re going to move them into the pen in the back for a bit, just to keep an eye on them and get the little one here out of the way,” Louis tells Harry, who’s still looking at him with a little concern. “It’s alright love, I’m ok,” he says, and feels it. For the first time in a long time he feels ok.

 

The quiet bliss of watching their first calf of the season doesn’t last long. It’s barely a couple of hours before Louis starts to notice one of his younger cows, Flip Flop (his nephew’s name choice) starting to bag up. He goes immediately to find Harry, who’s still plowing the driveway with the tractor, to show him the early signs. The more he knows, the easier this will be over the next few days and weeks.

“See how her udder is so much bigger?” he says to Harry, who’s practically panting trying to keep up with Louis’ fast pace and faster talk. “We’ve got a few hours, maybe.”

“Is there anything I can do?” Harry asks, looking a little pale.

Louis just shakes his head. “I’m going to move her into a pen, and stay in the barn. Keep your ringer on, if I need you I’ll text.

“Alright Lou, I’ll finish the driveway and then get us some breakfast. I have a feeling I’m not getting you out of this barn anytime soon.”

“Your feeling might be right,” Louis half laughs, but feels relieved at having Harry here, so they can support each other. Louis kisses him before Harry is gone again, jogging out the door.

It all becomes a blur after that. Harry is in and out, food comes in and out, sometimes untouched. They are barely four days in and have six brand new calves to tell about it. Louis is amazed by how quickly and naturally Harry has been able to pitch in. He feels as though he has an extra set of arms; he only has to think of something he needs and there it is. Well, most of the time anyway. He definitely didn’t need to be forced to sit down and eat a chicken caesar salad when he was hip deep in feces. And he most certainly didn’t need Harry to feed it to him because he was just a mess of body fluids at that point, but he got it one way or another.

Unfortunately not everything is as smooth as anyone wishes for. Day six brought an early morning breech with Harry crying into a screaming cows neck as Louis tried to soothe both of them, silently panicking himself as he was up to his elbows trying to guide the little baby into the world. She is small but she lived,  though Louis isn’t so sure for how long. Harry sat with both of them for a long time that day.

Louis left the barn for the first time that week aside from showering. When returns, Niall is there, sitting against the wall of one of the stalls, holding a bottle up to the tiny little waif while Harry dozed beside him.

“What are you doing here?” Louis asks, amazed and confused.

“It’s my day off,” Niall says as though that’s the explanation for all of this. He looks at Niall’s clothes, old dirty jeans and a T-shirt so faded that you can almost see through it.

“I thought your days off were Thursday,” Louis replies suspiciously, but picks up another bottle and finds another mouth to feed.

“It is Thursday, bud,” Niall laughs, which causes Harry to jolt awake.

“I called him,” he mumbles, pulling himself to his feet. “I called a lot of people”

“Harry, it’s fine.”

“No it isn’t, you’re exhausted, and I’m not much better. You still have at least ten calves coming and we’re getting behind. Gray will be here in an hour, and Lottie and Felicite will be here tomorrow for a few days.”

Louis’ first instinct is to panic. He hates needing help. He hates the idea that he can’t do things for himself. It makes him feel like he’s failed somehow.

“Stop.” Harry comes up to him, draping himself over Louis. “They want to help, they want to be a part of this. Let them, please.”

Louis sighs and looks over to Niall, who is beaming at them both with a tiny calf curled up on his lap. He looks like he wouldn’t want to be anywhere else in the world. “Yeah, I guess.”

“That’s the spirit.” Harry laughs and stretches his limbs. Supper chores are about to start. Louis feels like breakfast chores just got finished. Ok, help might not hurt too bad.

 

By the time twenty four calves are born to the Tomlinson farm, four out of six of Louis siblings, half a dozen nieces and nephews, all three of his sons, and various friends (even Liam) have come through the barn and the house and every other inch of the farm. It hasn’t been so crowded since Louis was a kid, and although it’s a lot different than how he does things now, it feels...right.

“I can’t believe I got a call for calving, finally!” Felicite chastises Louis, who feels shocked.

“Finally?” he asks.

“Don’t you remember how Mom and Dad would call in everyone they could for calving? I mean, they would have a lot more dropping than you keep now, but people would stop answering their phones by mid-February. It was a thing.”

“Yeah, I guess so. I just thought…” The tears threaten to spill over again. Louis hasn’t cried so much in his life as he had the last few weeks.

“I’m not that far away Lou, none of us are. And we love this. We all grew up in this house, this is our life and we want it to continue to be.” She hugs him, just like she did when she showed up days ago, causing him to cry then as well. “I can’t believe it took Harry to get your own family here, honestly Lou.”

“I’m sorry.” He laughs into her shoulder.

“Well thank God he’s here, right?” She smirks at him and he blushes. “I’m so happy for you.”

“Thanks, me too.” Harry is helping the youngest of Felicite’s kids into the car, and Louis catches his eye. He smiles softly at Louis, almost like he knows what Felicite is saying to him. “Listen, don’t make yourself a stranger alright?”

“Count on it,” she says, and hugs him again. She’s the last to go, leaving Harry and Louis alone for the first time in what feels like a very long time.

 

“So that’s calving season,” Harry says, leaning against the door frame. The temps have steadily been reaching above zero and it’s almost nice to stand outside for a few moments.

“That’s it, think you want to do that every year?” Louis curls into his side, resting his head on Harry’s chest.

“For the rest of my life,” Harry murmurs into the top of his head, and pulls him into a hug.

 

lamb

 

Harry legs jiggles up and down as he stares out the opened window of the passenger side of Louis’ truck. It’s a gorgeous July morning and they are headed to the city to see Abi and Gray and their brand new little daughter. Louis had gotten the call at about three that morning, and Harry had just about broken his neck trying to get the morning chores done so they could clean up and get out of there. His nerves have not yet settled.

“You know, my son is the one who had a baby. I’m not sure what you’re so worked up for,” Louis teases, but it gets him nothing but a glare. A very adorable glare.

“Your son did nothing,” Harry replies resolutely. “I imagine he spent the entirety of Abi’s labour in the corner trying not to pass out.”

Louis laughs. “I’m going to tell him you said that.”

“Go for it,” Harry says, but Louis can see a corner of his mouth lifting just slightly.

When they get to the maternity ward they are met with a woman who Louis is sure is kind, but still terrifies him by her environment alone. “Can I help you?”

“We are looking for Abi Tomlinson?”

“And you are family?” she asks, staring him down as though she’s going to suck any lies straight from his brain.

“Father-in-law.” Louis almost inflects it like a question, but catches himself and pretends that he’s a grown up.

“And you, sir?” Her eyes go straight to Harry, who is looking around with enough nervous energy to light the entire building. He jumps a little and stares between the nurse and Louis for a second.

“He’s my spouse,” Louis says to her, daring her to retort.

She looks at Harry, who is standing fish mouthed behind Louis, and back to Louis. “Good job,” she says and smirks at him, leaving Louis the speechless one while Harry laughs loudly as she gives them directions to the room.

And Louis could be embarrassed, or even offended, but as he watches Harry, striding down the hall, his hair glossy from a shower, and his broad shoulders barely contained in a thin white button down shirt that hangs over impossibly tight jeans, he thinks, yeah. I'm one lucky son of a bitch.

They peak discreetly into the room before making a full entrance. Gray sits in a chair close to Abi’s bed. They are giggling about something, Abi staring intermittently at a little bundle tucked into her arm. Louis gives a gentle knock on the door.

“Dad,” Gray gets up and hugs Louis tight. He looks tired and unkempt, but the glow of sheer happiness shines through all of it.

“Congratulations!” Harry beams at both Abi and the baby, setting a lovely flower arrangement that he picked up at the gift shop onto the windowsill.

“Thank you Harry, thanks for coming.”

Louis snorts. “He’s been awake since you called.”

Harry’s fingers are literally twitching, but he won’t ask to hold her. Louis knows that he’s trying to be polite and stay out of the way. He said as much to Louis the night before when Abi went into labour. Louis told him he was being ridiculous, but lets him do what he thinks is best.

They all chuckle at Harry’s eagerness, but Abi holds the baby out to Louis first to inspect. He takes her gently in his arms and stares at her face, pink and perfect. She looks like her mother and says as much, giving another round of laughter in the room when Gray says “Thank God for that.”

“Hello little one,” he says to her quietly, not wanting to wake her. “I’m your grandfather. You are the most perfect little thing I’ve seen since your dad was born.” He coos and rocks as one does when holding a baby before he figures that Harry has suffered enough and passes her over to his waiting arms.

He lights up as he fits her comfortably into the crook of his arm and stares at her peaceful face. Louis almost aches with a guilt that Harry is giving this up for him. But there’s no sense in arguing about it anymore. Harry won’t listen to a word that Louis has to say on the matter.

“Do you have a name yet?” Louis asks the couple, who is following every movement that Harry makes with their little girl in his arms.

“Yeah,” Gray says, smiling at Abi. “Johanna.”

He pulls Gray into another hug, trying to stop the tears threatening to spill all over his son’s shoulder once again. “Thank you.”

“Thank you,” Gray says. “You’re a good Dad. Thank you for being here.”

“Family.” Harry’s voice breaks through. They all look at him, but he’s still talking to the baby, to Johanna. “We are your family.”