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“Maybe you should sign up for Grindr,” Gemma offers, unprompted, on a Tuesday night as she eats leftover lasagna on Harry’s kitchen island. 

Harry, with all the dignity he possesses, splutters. “I.. You… What?” 

His sister shrugs. “Grindr. Or whatever other dating apps of your choice. Tinder? You could swipe for a while, might get you out of your…” she gestures vaguely towards him with her fork, “funk.” 

“I’m not in a funk,” Harry replies even though they both know that he is. “And I’m too old to be on Grindr.” 

“You got divorced three years ago and you haven’t been on a single date since,” she declares before taking a sip of red wine. “Not a single date,” she repeats, widening her eyes for emphasis. “I know your marriage ended badly, that cunt can fuck right off, but come on. You gotta get back out there at some point.” 

“Or I can die alone with my cat,” Harry scoffs, pointing towards the living room where he knows Olivia is sleeping on the couch. “Besides, I went on a date with Pete eight months ago,” he says triumphantly. It was a disaster, but Harry isn’t going to let his sister win this conversation with incorrect information. 

“Pete?” Gemma says with disdain. She actually grimaces, then rolls her eyes at him from behind her tortoiseshell glasses. “Co-worker Pete? Didn’t you go out to lunch thinking it was a date, but it turned out to be a business meeting?” 

“It still counts!” Harry whines. Fuck, that was embarrassing. And one of the many many reasons why Harry is happy living the rest of his life as a hermit. “I thought it was a date.” 

“You can do better than Pete! If you only put yourself out there, hence Grindr.” 

“Will you stop with the Grindr and Tinder stuff, bloody hell. I’m a middle-aged man, I’m not gonna start swiping, it’s ridiculous.” 

It’s embarrassing is the thing and Harry did try. Six months after the divorce, he naively thought he was ready to get back on the dating scene only to find himself in the middle of a panic attack when some younger guy messaged him “sup?” and Harry, tragically, realised nothing was up. 

He’s an environmental lawyer in his early forties who lives in an empty four-bedroom house with his two years old rescue cat. He spends his evening stress baking and watching reruns of Gogglebox in joggers. And that’s when he takes a night off and doesn’t read case files until he falls asleep nose buried in his paperwork on the couch. 

He couldn’t score a date on a stupid love app if you paid him to try. 

“You’re forty-two years old, Harry. You’re hardly middle-aged.” 

“Google defines middle-aged as between forty-five and sixty-five so close enough,” Harry replies stubbornly. The only reason why he doesn’t cross his arms is the fact that he’s still eating. And he’s a grown man. Obviously. 

“God, I can’t believe you know that by heart. You’re such a nerd. This is exactly why you need a date, you know that? I mean… why is it such a difficult concept for you to grasp that there might be people on there looking for the same things as you?” 

“Because apps are mostly used for hookups?” Harry tries his best not to shudder at the thought. No one has seen him naked apart from his ex-husband in… way too long to bare thinking about. 

“You could use a hookup.” 

“Not the point.” 

“Then what is the point? You’re lonely – no don’t try to deny it!” she insists when Harry opens his mouth to defend himself. “You are. And I hate that. You don’t deserve that. So why don’t you just find a hot man to have a fling with? I’m not asking you to fall in love again straight away just… just a fling. You deserve to be flung!” 

Harry narrows his eyes. “Don’t quote Friends at me to try and pacify me, it’s not working.” 

“There are plenty of young men on there who’d love to fling you.” 

“Gemma, look at me. I’m not attracting any young men any time soon. And I don’t even want to attract a young man, god. I’m not some cradle robber.” 

“No,” Gemma agrees. “If anything, you’ve always been in the cradle,” she adds and Harry has the decency to blush. “Still, I don’t understand why you say you couldn’t attract anyone on there. I mean, you take care of yourself. You’re not twenty anymore, but you’re handsome and in good enough shape? That jogging routine is doing you good. Okay, your hairline is obviously a slowly receding tragedy, but you’re still packing so I wouldn’t worry too much, really. There’s always going to be an audience for that on the apps,” she finishes with a wink. 

Harry squeaks. “I’m not putting my dick on a dating app, what the fuck Gems,” he says, automatically grabbing his junk through his sweatpants, a look of exaggerated horror on his face. 

“Oh, don’t be such a prude, you were basically a nudist while we were growing up. You’re gonna try and tell me you’ve never taken a dick pic before?” 

“Not the point,” Harry repeats, obviously not denying what is an absolutely correct assumption. 

Gemma softens a little, reaching across the island to wrap a hand around his wrist. “I know it’s hard.” 

“Do you?” he replies, a bit biting. He’s not jealous. It’s just… She’s been with the same guy since her early twenties and they’re blissfully happy in a way Harry and his husband never quite achieved. It hurts to admit, but he’s been out of the relationship long enough now to be able to acknowledge that they settled for each other when maybe they shouldn’t have. And no matter how well-intentioned his sister is, she truly can’t understand that. 

She sighs, letting his arm go. “Okay,” she admits defensively, “maybe I don’t understand. But yes, I do know. You’re my brother. Hell, you’re one of my best friends, as sad as that might be. You think I can’t tell you’re still having a hard time?” 

Harry smiles, looking down at his tupperware. “I’m not having that hard of a time. I just… I don’t know, I’m just not ready. I know you want to help but…” Harry winces. 

“I fear if no one pushes, you’ll never be ready though.” 

“Would that be such a bad thing?” Harry demands. “Being alone isn’t the end of the world you know. I’m quite happy, it’s fine.” 

“Quite?” Gemma repeats. 

“Yes, happy enough anyway.” 

She snorts. “Well if you’re happy enough, I’ll just drop it then,” she says sarcastically. “If you don’t make yourself a profile, I’ll just have to steal your phone and make it myself. And you know I would, I have no shame at all.” 

“Yes, my least favourite thing about you,” Harry says, teasing. “I know you mean well, but I just… I just can’t. Those apps freak me out. You have like… zero point five seconds to make an impression… face-wise, and then the inane small talk?”

Harry says it all quickly, frantically, partly out of breath by the end and Gemma just… She laughs. She genuinely just laughs at him, hiding her face in her hand like maybe if she looks down and obstructs her mouth, he won’t notice he’s being mocked. 

“Maybe you’ve forgotten, but eighty per cent of dating a new person is small talk.” 

Harry rolls his eyes. “What’s the other twenty per cent then? ” he asks, mostly rhetorically. 

“Coordinating calendars to find the time to meet up to execute said small talks. We’re all busy adults here. Or at least that’s what my single friends tell me.” 

“Do you have to rub your blissful marriage in everyone’s face like that?” 

“Absolutely.”

“You’re kind of a bitch,” Harry says before eating the last bite of his leftovers. 

“You’re realising this now?” Gemma mocks, raising both her eyebrows at him, and they share a look before starting to chuckle. “What about face to face?” she finally offers. 

“What?” 

“If you don’t like apps, why don’t you ask someone out face to face?” She shrugs like it’s easy to just walk up to a stranger and talk to them. 

“No thanks.” 

“Oh, come on. Just… say you’ll consider it? Next time you see an attractive gentleman, consider asking him out.” 

“Fine.” 

“Are you lying so I’ll leave you alone?” Gemma says, rightfully suspicious. 

Harry pauses, considering. “Probably,” he admits, getting up from his seat and grabbing his tupperware and Gemma’s empty plate.

“Oh come on, you must have seen an attractive man in the past week and thought to yourself ‘yeah I’d date him!’”. 

Harry is thankfully facing the sink when she says it so there’s no witness when he feels himself blush. Gemma can never know about coffee shop guy. 

“The next time it happens,” she continues, oblivious as Harry washes their dishes and tries to stop thinking about the beautiful man who sits every day in the corner of their local Starbucks, steely blue eyes fixed on his laptop, fingers dancing on the keyboard without pause, salt and pepper fringe falling over his face attractively, “instead of just thinking about it, you can say hi. You’ve actually got great people skills, it’s something that used to make me really jealous. People just… love you instantly. So use that annoying charm to your advantage for once. I know you don’t like to but –” 

Her voice slowly fades away as Harry thinks back to this morning where he had a lovely view of the mysterious stranger’s table while he queued for his daily dose of caffeine. He was wearing a grey jumper that looked soft to the touch, glasses perched on the tip of his adorable nose as he wrinkled it at whatever he was reading on the screen of his mac. Harry loves the days when he’s wearing his glasses. 

“Harry?” 

He’s still washing the same plate when Gemma’s voice takes him out of his thoughts.

“What?” he asks, turning around to face his sister with a distracted look on his face, sponge still in hand and slowly dripping soapy water down his joggers. 

“Were you listening to me?” 

“No.” Harry shakes his head. “I mean, yes. Of course. Dating. Apps. Asking people out. Etc.” 

Gemma’s eyes narrow in suspicion and she takes a step forward. “What were you thinking about?” she asks, reaching out and pinching one of his still ruby red cheeks. 

“Nobody,” Harry replies automatically, taking a step back and stumbling into the sink. “I mean, nothing,” he quickly corrects himself, mentally scolding himself for slipping up. 

Gemma smirks triumphantly. “Would ‘nobody’ be someone you find attractive?”

“No,” Harry chuckles awkwardly. It’s not even a lie. Attractive is not strong enough of a word to describe the ethereal beauty of Starbucks Silver Fox, as Harry has taken to calling him three months ago when he first noticed the other man. 

“Liar!” Gemma teases. “Who is he?” 

“Nobody!” Harry insists in a high-pitched voice, turning around to finish washing their dishes. “Can you pass me our wine glasses please,” he adds, pretending like nothing is going on. 

“Not until you tell me who this man who makes you blush rather spectacularly is!” 

“Ugh. Fine, I’ll do it myself,” Harry says, dropping the sponge and turning around to grab the glasses himself. “Thank for you help sis,” he adds sarcastically on the way back to the sink. 

“Are you gonna see him again at least? Or is a totally lost cause. One of those once in a lifetime meeting that you totally screwed up by not asking for his number?” 

“Will you stop? He’s no one. Just a guy. Who is most likely way out of my league.” 

“Why do you say things like that? Honestly, I could murder your ex for putting rubbish like that in your head. You’re in the league Harry,” Gemma says, grabbing a dishtowel and starting to dry their plates. 

“You shouldn’t use sports imagery if you don’t understand sports,” Harry mumbles, putting the first wine glass aside. “The whole point is that we’re both in leagues. Different ones. Miles apart in terms of skills and stuff.” 

“I just –” 

“No,” Harry interrupts, a little sternly. He puts away the second glass before emptying the sink. “I can promise you I’ll think about asking someone out, but nothing beyond that. No apps. And certainly no asking out men that are completely unattainable for someone like me.” 

Gemma widens her eyes, raising both hands in surrender as she pouts. “Alright, alright. No need to get so agitated Haz.” 

“I’m not agitated!” Harry argues with a frown, disproving his own statement. He pauses, letting out a small sigh. “I’m doing my best, okay.” 

“I know you are,” Gemma says softly, taking a step forward and wrapping an arm around his waist, hugging him tightly. 

“Good,” Harry replies with a nod before kissing her forehead. “Now can you leave?” he adds, wrinkling his nose and making Gemma laugh loudly in his shoulder. 

“Rude!” she says, untangling herself from him and pushing him slightly. 

“I have some work to do.” 

“Of course you do,” she sighs. “It really is rude to throw me out considering I was invited.” 

Harry scoffs. “You were absolutely not,” he says, outraged. “You showed up here unannounced to raid my fridge because Michael and Rosie decided to have some father-daughter bonding time tonight and you can’t stand being by yourself at the house. You’re lucky I wasn’t busy or anything.” 

Gemma shakes her head. “You’re never busy. Why do you think I want to sign you up for Grindr so badly? Besides, I have a standing invitation.” 

“You need to let this go,” Harry tells her, slowly pushing her out of the kitchen. 

“Twelve years ago!” Gemma says, leaning her entire weight against him to fight him off. “You bought this house five minutes away from mine and you said –” 

“I know what I said!” 

“Don’t interrupt me,” Gemma says, interrupting him. She stops leaning on him and starts walking towards the hall, monologuing on the way. “You said I was always welcome. I believe the words used were: ‘the door is always open!’. And look at you now, taking it back because I’m challenging you.” 

“Yep,” Harry agrees, grabbing her coat from the coat peg in the entrance and handing it to her. 

“Promise you’ll think about asking out whoever it was that made you blush earlier,” Gemma insists one last time, one foot already out of the door. 

“It’s nobody,” Harry insists again, heart skipping a beat. 

“It’s not.” 

“I don’t even know his name,” he says, betraying himself again. 

“Then ask.” 

&&&

Then ask. 

It’s a lot easier said than done really. 

The next morning, Harry fiddles his way through the queue at Starbucks, looking back at the small table where the beautiful stranger sits every few seconds like some kind of creep. The fifth time he catches himself doing it, Harry turns back towards the queue, sighs, then passes a hand through his hair. He’s due for a cut soon, brown and grey curls hard to keep in check now that they brush against his jawline. He’s tempted to put it up with the hair bobble on his wrist, but he knows it won’t make him feel better and he’ll want to fiddle with it again in a few seconds. 

Instead of messing up his hair even more, he gets his phone out of his coat and sighs when he clicks it open and notices the time. 

The queue normally moves much faster, doesn’t it? Surely he doesn’t stand there this long every morning? Harry bites his lower lip before risking a glance towards the stranger again. He’s wearing another cosy jumper today, emerald green with the sleeves pushed up his toned arms, the peak of caramel skin in winter a little too overwhelming for Harry this early in the morning. He swallows hard, observing the way the man’s dainty wrists and fingers fly across his keyboard. Harry smiles, briefly wondering what on Earth he’s working on so diligently every day. 

Maybe Gemma’s right. I could ask his name , Harry thinks vaguely, heart squeezing painfully in his chest at the thought. I could do it, he mentally reaffirms, slightly terrified at the prospect. 

He absently reaches up to fiddle with his tie, so focused on the possibility of maybe entertaining the thought of speaking to someone he doesn’t know that he doesn’t realise it’s his turn to order. 

“Do you mind?” the lady behind him says harshly, gesturing towards the patient employee looking at him expectantly. 

Harry blushes, especially when the commotion attracts the attention of most patrons in the shop. His eyes meet Starbucks Silver Fox’s and the other man smirks at him for half a second, barely long enough for Harry to blink, before he looks back at his screen. 

“Fuck,” Harry whispers to himself. “Sorry,” he mumbles to the woman now sporting an offended look on her face before turning around and taking a step towards the till. “Sorry,” he says again, this time to the employee. “Half asleep still,” he jokes weakly. 

“No worries,” the smiling teen says kindly. “Same as usual?” she asks, already grabbing a takeaway cup from the pile next to the till. 

“Please,” Harry says, placing his phone on the card reader to pay. 

By the time they’ve called his name and he’s grabbed his drink, Harry has talked himself into approaching the stranger he’s been silently observing for so long. It’s been months of what some might call pining and today is the day he does something about it. He’s going to make Gemma, and himself, proud.  

He walks away from the counter and towards the table with purpose, inhaling deeply as he lies to himself and tells himself this is nothing to be nervous about. Just as Harry is about to make it to the man’s table, the stranger reaches for his mug, taking a sip of the hot beverage and Harry silently watches the way his throat moves when he swallows with fascination. His gaze gets stuck on the attractive stubble on the man’s face – on the sharpness of his cheekbones – as he glances slowly back up his face. 

Harry’s heart skips a beat, stutters a little at the sight, and he wrinkles his nose before turning suddenly away from the table and quickly making his way to the door instead, exiting the building with his head down. 

He literally cannot do this. No matter how easy Gemma says it is. 

He walks to the underground under the rain with his cheeks flaming, doing his best to think about literally anything else

Alas, all day at work, Harry remains distracted by his own cowardice, haunted by the morning’s events and the way he just slipped away like this, without even properly trying. By the time he’s made it back home, he’s so agitated and mad at himself – Gemma’s know-it-all voice teasing him in the back of his mind – that he can’t seem to focus on the paperwork he’s brought home at all. Olivia provides a good distraction though and Harry spends the whole evening with her small body resting on his chest, purring away as he flips through different Netflix shows he can’t be bothered to focus on. 

 After changing romcoms for the fourth time, he sighs and puts the remote down on the coffee table, then presses a small kiss on his cat’s head. 

“I’m gonna have to try again, aren’t I?” he whispers to her in a defeated voice. 

Fuck, he hates his sister for challenging him to do it and planting the seed of obsession into his mind. 

&&&

“So. This coffee shop is empty and me sitting here at your table is really weird,” is what Harry chooses to open with the next morning when a strange burst of courage erupts in him after he’s picked up his coffee from the counter. 

The beautiful stranger merely looks at him for a second before raising a single eyebrow. 

The coffee shop is obviously as busy as ever, a long queue of commuters waiting for their daily dose of caffeine before venturing out into the bustling city of London. There’s plenty of empty tables though. Harry can see four just over Starbucks Silver Fox’s shoulders. 

“Yes, it is,” the man agrees, not sounding nearly as irritated as Harry feared.  

He’s looking unfairly striking for so early in the morning, wearing a white turtleneck that makes him look particularly sophisticated. Harry, who is actually wearing a three-piece suit, feels ridiculously underdressed for this. There’s a lot of clutter on the table; a little pile of notebooks with plenty of colourful post-its sticking out of them, a gigantic mug of what looks like tea, the man’s laptop open in front of him, a now empty plate that carried what Harry assumes was breakfast… There’s so much going on he doesn’t really know where to look as he awkwardly slides his takeaway cup on there. 

“Right,” Harry agrees with an awkward chuckle, sounding more like he’s getting strangled than like he’s laughing. “Right, of course. Sorry? I just… you’re quite stunning, you know that?” he blurts out and once he’s started, it all comes tumbling out of him without finesse. “I mean, I see you almost every morning just… typing away and stuff and hum… you… you’re… you’re just… WOW and, hum, every single time I’m thinking ‘Fuck this man is hot’. I mean beautiful! I’m not trying to objectify you or anything like that. You’re just really beautiful in some sort of ethereal way that I don’t really understand? And hum… anyway, what I meant to say is that this is all my sister’s fault really. She thinks I’m gonna die alone now that I’m divorced? Which… hum, I guess is statistically likely? But I’m gonna be honest, I try not to think about that too much, you know? Bit depressing. But yeah, she wanted me to sign up for a dating app, or at least try and ask someone I like out, you know? But I’m not very smooth and small talk via texts really stresses me out.” 

Harry pauses for a deep breath. He meets the stranger’s gaze, vaguely noticing he’s not wearing his glasses today, pale blue eyes almost grey under the winter sunlight. It’s like he’s seeing deep into Harry’s soul and he still hasn’t said a thing when Harry has been talking… So. Much. 

“I realise this isn’t going much better,” Harry whispers, cheeks reddening as his brain finally catches up with his mouth and he realises the absolute nonsense that’s been coming out of him. “Right,” he says, looking down at the table, nodding mostly to himself. “This was fun,” he declares with a gulp. “I should go.” 

Without glancing back, Harry gets up from his chair, turns around and exits the shop. 

He fiddles with the pockets of his coat on his way to the station, grabbing his phone and pressing record to send his sister a voice memo as he goes down the stairs to reach the underground, voice hissing “I hate you, I hate you, I hate you, I have you, I hate you, I hate you, I hate you, I hate you, I hate you, I hate you, I hate you, I hate you, I hate you, I hate you, I hate you” into the microphone. 

By the time he gets to the office, she’s simply sent back rude, it’s too early for such vitriol quickly followed by a wtf have i done now? that he doesn’t deign to respond to. 

And, to make things worse, he’s left his coffee on the beautiful – and most likely furious and thoroughly traumatised – man’s table. 

Why did he ever think being somewhat brave would pay off?

&&&

“So why do you hate me then?” Gemma asks later that evening when she finally gets ahold of him. 

“You know exactly what you’ve done,” Harry scoffs, glaring at his kitchen counter where he’s left his phone after putting her on speakers. He’s hands deep in dough, making his third loaf of bread of the night in a vain attempt to wipe the disastrous morning events from his mind forever. 

If he keeps busy enough, he might have two seconds of rest from reliving his rant word by word. 

“Sorry to disappoint darling, but I genuinely have no idea.” 

“Just ask then!” Harry exclaims, giving the dough a rough punch. 

“Ooooh,” Gemma says softly. There is a long pause on the line that stretches uncomfortably between them before she speaks again. “So you asked that guy out then? How did it go?” she asks awkwardly. 

“Bloody fantastic Gemma.” 

“Right,” she whispers. He can easily imagine the way she’s wincing. “Well, you know, you’ve taken the plunge and that’s the hardest thing to do. I’m proud of you. Maybe this one isn’t the one, but you’re desensitised now and the next time, you’ll feel much more confident.” 

“Next time?!!” Harry exclaims. “I have to find a new coffee shop now because I can never show my face there again after everything I said to him and you think I’m ever going to do this again?” 

 “Do we really have to go to such lengths with the dramatics?” 

“I’m not joking.” 

She sighs loudly and Harry sticks his tongue out at the phone in a rare display of immaturity. 

“That’s what I feared,” Gemma says, mostly to herself. “Please don’t go out of your way to swap Starbucks, that’s ridiculous.” 

“I told him that I see him every day and think wow that guy is hot,” Harry says, emotionless. 

What on Earth possessed him to say such a thing out loud? 

Gemma, the traitor, starts laughing. 

“It’s not funny,” he argues, but she’s laughing so damn hard that she can’t even reply and Harry looks up to the ceiling and lets out a long sigh of despair. 

“It’s not funny,” he finally repeats through gritted teeth after a while when she still hasn’t stopped laughing. He’s still looking up, left cheeks itchy. He’s pretty sure he’s got some flour stuck on there but he can’t find it in himself to even care. 

“I’m crying,” Gemma finally says between bursts of laughter and she’s hiccuping with how hard she’s making fun of him. “What the fuck happened to all your social skills?” 

“Oh, fuck off.” 

“Sorry, sorry,” she finally says after a minute, starting to calm down. “What did he say to that? I mean, it’s a very inelegant compliment, but a compliment nonetheless.” 

“He didn’t say anything, I just left,” Harry replies. 

“You left? Without waiting for a reply?” 

“Yes,” he hisses. “I… word vomited at him and then realised what I was doing, so I left.” 

Gemma clicks her tongue disapprovingly. “So you ran away? You didn’t even ask him out?” 

“Trust me, there was no need to wait after all I said,” Harry says darkly, heart squeezing painfully in his chest as the many many things he blurted out flash through his mind like a badly designed montage from a 90s anti-sexual harassment training video. 

“That bad, uh?” Gemma teases. 

“Worse.” 

“Just apologise,” his sister tells him softly. “Go back tomorrow morning, say you’re sorry and clear the air. You’ll feel much better.” 

“Did you miss the part where I can never show my face there again? Ever?” 

“It’s right next to your underground station, are you really going to avoid it forever? That seems really stupid.” 

&&&

The most annoying thing about his big sister, in Harry’s unbiased opinion, is how often she’s actually right about stuff. 

The next morning, Harry wakes up at the crack of dawn after a night of fretful sleep. His dreams are a little fuzzy, but he’s pretty sure he was being chased by a giant Starbucks mug screaming at him it was going to sue him for inappropriate conduct and harassment at some point. He gets ready for work in a daze and about three hours too early. He looks at the five loaves of bread on his counter, grimaces and decides to skip breakfast, stomach too uneasy to even think about food, let alone consume it. 

But by the time he has left the house with his heart in his throat and he walks past his usual, he’s so early that the coffee shop is eerily empty. Harry stops in his tracks, peering through the windows carefully with a frown on his face before risking the door. 

Starbucks Silver Fox isn’t here yet, Harry realises, overwhelmed with relief, as he walks to the till. There might be hope for him left. 

&&&

And for a few days in a row, all is well. Harry gets up awfully early and arrives in time for Starbucks’ opening, the shop blissfully empty of almost any patrons, especially dangerously pretty ones. He gets his coffee and runs out, arriving at the office hours before anyone else and getting some work done in the eerie quietness. Some days, he just puts on some music and meditates a little, depending on how he feels. But no matter whether he works or relaxes, Harry always takes a second to thank the universe he hasn’t had to face the man again after what happened. 

Which, of course, is why he is so taken aback a week after the incident when a voice he, unfortunately, knows now startles him out of his thoughts as he waits for his turn in line. 

“Are you perchance avoiding me, Harold?” 

Harry jumps a little, turning around to find Starbucks Silver Fox right behind him, a teasing smirk on his face and a coffee cup in his hand. On it, the name HARRY is written in all caps. 

“Bloody hell!” Harry exclaims, putting a hand on his chest. “Don’t scare me like that.” 

“Well?” the man insists and his face is a little too much for six in the morning. Harry isn’t sure he can survive this. 

“No,” Harry lies. “Why… Why would I be avoiding you? I don’t… I don’t even know you, that’d be weird.” 

“So the fact that you’ve been coming to the coffee shop hours earlier than usual has nothing to do with what happened last week?” 

“No,” Harry replies weakly, an exaggerated frown on his face. “And how… how do you know I’ve been coming earlier? You haven’t even been here.” 

“It pays to know the baristas,” the man says, handing Harry the cup. “S’how I got your order too,” he adds, triumphantly. “Come sit with me for a bit.” 

Oh God, Oh God, Oh God, Harry thinks as he follows along to a table tucked in the corner of the coffee shop. Completely out of sight from the door, this must be how the object of his affection managed to stay hidden long enough to scare the crap out of Harry. 

“Sit,” the man instructs and Harry is surprised to find there’s no laptop or notebooks on the table today, just another takeaway cup standing in front of the man’s seat. “I’m Louis, by the way,” he finally introduces himself after Harry sits down awkwardly. 

“Hi. Harry,” he says, gesturing vaguely towards himself. 

“Yeah, I know,” Louis replies with blinding smile. “You forgot your coffee last time. It was helpful.” 

“Right,” Harry nods. His damned forgotten coffee. If he hadn’t left that thing behind, maybe the baristas wouldn’t have known who Louis was asking about and Harry wouldn’t be sitting here under such close scrutiny. 

“So…” Louis says, face expressionless now, “that was quite the performance last week.” 

Harry’s face crumples and he shakes his head with his eyes closed. “I know, I know, I know. I’m so sorry,” he says, sincere and thoroughly embarrassed. “I don’t know what I was thinking,” he adds, finally looking back at Louis, “but suddenly I was at your table and I was saying a lot of things and I just…” He shakes his head again. “Honestly, I don’t know why I thought this would go better than the apps. Last time I tried online dating, I had a mini panic because some guy texted me ‘sup’ and I didn’t know how to interact with that so why I thought face to face would be a better option is a mystery to us all,” Harry jokes, self-deprecating. 

“Wow,” Louis says, an amused, yet not unkind, smirk blossoming on his face. “You’re really bad at this.” 

He says it so straightforwardly, but with a hint of fondness in his eyes, that Harry can’t help the sincere laugh that comes out of him. 

“You have no idea.” 

“Well,” Louis laughs, “I have a little idea.” 

“Right.” Harry wrinkles his nose. “You do.” He pauses, looking down at the table, fiddling with his cup. “I just haven’t done this in a really long time. It’s… I don’t know, it’s a lot harder than I remembered.” 

“Yeah?” 

“Yeah.” Harry looks back up, straight into Louis’ blue eyes. There’s no judgement there, no anger, and it’s a lot to deal with. “Maybe I’ve just gotten old and can’t get by on my looks anymore,” he jokes, dimpling instead of opening up. 

He receives a thorough once-over in response. “Nah,” Louis says confidently,
I don’t think that’s the problem.” 

“I don’t know whether to be flattered or offended here,” Harry replies, cheeks red from the intensity of Louis’ gaze. 

“Good.”  

Harry gulps. “Okay, well. I’m uh… I’m glad we cleared that up and there’s no like… hard feelings, or anything. But I should go,” he says, starting to get up from his chair. “Thanks for the coffee.” 

“What are you doing?” 

Harry freezes. “Going to work?” 

“This early?” 

Harry shrugs. “Yeah? It’s a new… routine? Sort of.” 

“Sit your ass down,” Louis laughs. “You’re not going to work two hours early. And especially not before I get your phone number.” 

“My phone number?” Harry repeats dumbly, still standing up. 

Surely he’s misheard, there’s no way his spewing of inappropriateness landed him this guy’s phone number. 

“I assume that’s where you were going with that rant last time?” 

Harry feels himself blush furiously. Will he ever not be red-faced in front of this man? “It was the long way around, but yes,” he admits. 

To his surprise, Louis laughs without mockery. After years of being told his jokes are weird, or straight up not funny, he preens a little. 

“Good,” Louis finally replies before raising his eyebrows silently at Harry and looking down at the chair he just abandoned. “Let’s have coffee, yeah?” 

Harry smiles. “Okay,” he agrees, sitting down again. 

They look at each other in silence for a few long seconds and it’s almost like there’s a challenge in Louis’ eyes, the way he’s staring at Harry with his mouth twitching like he’s trying to suppress a smile. 

“Can I ask you something?” Harry finally says, breaking the tension. 

“If you feel confident enough in your ability to phrase it properly,” Louis teases before taking a sip of his cup.  

“Right, I’m not sure about that,” Harry chuckles. “I just… I’ve seen you in here every day for… a long time now, and I’ve always wondered what it is you’re always writing?” 

“Oh,” Louis says, seeming surprised. “Nothing much, just some plays most days.” 

“Plays?” Somehow that never even crossed his mind as a possibility, though he supposes being a writer suits Louis’ aesthetic quite well. 

“It’s what I do,” Louis explains. “I’m a playwright. Working on a big commission right now.” 

“Wow,” Harry whispers. 

“It’s not that impressive or glamourous, I promise.” 

“No, no. Don’t downplay it, that’s… that’s incredible. I wouldn’t be able to create characters and stories out of thin air like that. It’s a skill that so many of us lose as we grow up, isn’t it? I always think people who manage to hold on tightly to that imaginative part of themselves when they leave childhood are really special.” 

“That’s…” Louis smiles, soft and looking a little embarrassed. “That’s a really sweet way of putting it. Thank you.” 

“I mean it.” 

Louis bites his lower lip, looking down at the table and fiddling with his glasses for a second. “What about you?” he finally asks. “What do you do? Please don’t tell me it’s something to do with finance, I can’t pretend to care about that shit when we go on a proper date.” 

Harry’s stomach tightens with excitement at the way Louis talks about a date so matter-of-factly. 

He can’t quite believe this is happening and that it’s actually going relatively well. 

“I’m a banker actually,” he deadpans. 

“Oh shit, Harry I’m sorry I –” 

Harry snorts as he watches Louis trying to apologise. “I’m fucking with you.” 

“Oh thank God,” Louis sighs. “The last guy I dated was in finance and he was nice and all, but every time he talked about his job, it put me to sleep. Unbearable topic, I swear to God.” 

“My ex-husband was a banker,” Harry admits. “And a wanker. So, I feel you.” 

“I’m sorry,” Louis says, wrinkles his nose. “Good rhyme though,” he adds.

Harry smiles. “Thanks! To answer your question, I’m an environmental lawyer. Not much more exciting than numbers, but hopefully not as unbearable.” 

“That’s actually interesting!”

“No need to sound so surprised,” Harry jokes. “What’s your play about? Am I allowed to ask?” 

Louis’ face brightens somehow, even though he already looked so luminous. “Of course you’re allowed. If I ever finish it in time for rehearsals, it’s going to be a dark comedy about a gay couple adopting a baby.” 

“A dark comedy?” Harry asks. 

Louis shrugs. “My genre of predilection.” 

Somehow, Harry can’t help but think that it suits him. And that it’s quite sexy. 

“Nice.” 

“Well, not quite yet,” Louis admits with a grimace. “But it’s on its way. Now I have about ten questions about what you do because I know nothing about it and I’m a writer and we want to know everything about everyone to use it in our work, is that alright?” 

Harry squeaks out a laugh, so amused he can’t even feel embarrassed by how high his voice is. He still slaps a hand over his mouth as to not disturb the people who have started to fill the coffee shop.

“Yeah,” Harry says softly once he’s calmed down. “It’s alright.” 

They spend the next two hours exchanging stories about their work and their families, slowly getting to know each other. He’s literally known Louis less than a day, but Harry can’t help but feel completely infatuated. He has so much fun he doesn’t see the time pass and he gasps once he realises he’s almost late for work. 

“Shit!” he whispers when he sees the time. “I need to go, I’m running so late! I’m so sorry!”

He barely says goodbye to Louis, running out of the coffee shop with all his limbs flailing, and it’s only once he gets to the station that he realises he completely forgot to give Louis his phone number. 

He barely has the time to think about it before he makes the completely irrational and relatively stupid decision to run back. 

Louis looks startled when Harry stumbles into Starbucks, panting a little. He’s holding his waist with one hand, completely out of breath, by the time he’s reached Louis’ table. 

“What the hell are you doing back here?” Louis asks, eyes crinkling with how much he’s smiling. 

“Forgot… to… give… you… phone… number….” Harry pants, putting his phone down on the table in front of Louis, opened on his own contact page. 

Louis beams at him before reaching for his own phone to copy the number. “Thanks,” he says once he’s done. “Precious cargo,” he adds with a wink, taping his phone screen twice. “Now off you go, you’re running late.” 

“Yeah,” Harry agrees, taking a second longer to look at Louis before leaving. 

&&&

Once he gets to work, there’s a text on his phone from an unknown number that just reads ‘sup’ and Harry laughs so hard he almost falls off his chair.