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STUPID DEEP

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STUPID DEEP Playlist

We're walking along a path towards the fountain. It's a cooler morning, actually it's too chilly for this time of year. But it's refreshing against my cheeks and arms, a welcoming sensation against my flushed skin. I savor in the chill radiating up from the base of my spine to the nape of my neck, appreciate the lingering scent of crushed leaves and freshly cut grass permeating my nose. I can't seem to get enough. I take a deep breath, fill my lungs with fresh oxygen, close my eyes-

But Ruby tugs at the leash unexpectedly, pulls me forward and out of step. I nearly trip over a large crack in the cement, just catch my balance on a nearby tree. I was lost in the moment I suppose.

“Ruby, what's wrong?” I scratch behind her ears, “Smell something yummy?” Her tongue is hanging loosely from her mouth, bobbing up and down as she pants. “Maybe it's the hot dogs,” I tug her in the other direction. “Come! Let's get moving.”

We continue up the winding path, hug the side of the road to allow cyclists and runners to pass safely on our left, keep a steady pace up the slight hill. I look towards the pavilion, note the crowd milling about the space, find most wearing brightly colored spandex and bibs, huddled into tight groups.

“Was there a race today?” I say more to myself because who else is there to ask really? I mean, if Ruby responded, I'd be thrown for a loop.

She barks once.

“What is it?” We're approaching the group and it's a much larger crowd then I anticipated, “Let's go Ruby. We can visit the fountain tomorrow," I reassure and go to make my way to the exit but Ruby tugs back, barks once, then twice, then a third time. “Hey! Hey it's okay.” Her tail is pointed, her ears are perked, her demeanor anxious and what looks to be excitement. “Yeah?” I kneel down beside her, pet her head, search the crowd before us. “They all look the same, Ruby." I find one man in particular, "Well...” I take in his neon yellow vest and matching compression socks, nearly sputter at the length of his rather short shorts. “That man is exceptionally bright,” I snort. “I wonder if it's on purpose.”

Ruby barks again and takes a tentative step.

“Alright enough now. Let's go home,” I stand, pull at the leash. “This way.” I move to the right but she's stock-still, her tail is up, her mouth is ajar, she's panting. “Ruby. There's nothing-”

She takes off towards the runners suddenly, drags me along with her at an alarming rate, and practically sends me sailing onto my hands and knees from the rush, “Hey!!” I try my best to keep up, curse myself for my indolence, and curse Ruby for her speed! She's just unrelenting. “Oh God!!” I cry out.

We dart past the runners and the race organizers, zig zag in between smaller groups and the lines of race attendees waiting to collect their SWAG, narrowly miss the flashing of a camera shutter. I'm shouting after my dog, attracting unnecessary attention towards us, flailing my free arm about like some bigot.

“Stop!!!” I cry out to her, “Ruby you're going to pull my arm-” She stops before an unsuspecting person then, plops her butt down onto the ground, and waits. But I am unable to prevent it, my momentum is too strong, my legs propelling me forward and into a random body.

I hurdle into them with such force I fear I'll knock them over, “Oof!!!” My forehead bounces off their chest, my legs give out underneath me, my arms instinctively wrap around their neck to avoid collapsing or so I'd like to believe.

My body is moving of its own volition, functioning on instinct as if I've found something I've longed for, as if the bond was instant, unbreakable. I can't let go.

“Um,” They mumble. “Sir?” I release the leash, tighten my hold, grip onto their body, allow my impulses to kick into gear. Home. My brain registers. This is home.

“S-sir?”

It feels promising too, it feels warm, it feels too real, too solid, too... familiar. I'm molding into them, becoming one with them, giving myself over to them because it's what I need. Hold me. Why aren't you holding me? Hold me!

Ruby barks besides me though, startles me back to reality, a very embarrassing reality where I am clutching onto a complete stranger in public.

“Oh crap!!” I release them and tug at the hem of my shirt, “Wow I'm an idiot.” I avoid their eyes, look to the ground and retrieve the discarded leash. Ruby's seated at this random person's feet watching expectantly, awaiting a scratch behind the ears I'm sure. “What's happening?” I grip my hair, glance sideways at this kid with pink cheeks and wild eyes.

And there's something oddly appealing about him, a feature my subconscious is attracted to. I can't decide if it's the youthfulness of his appearance or the way he carries himself. But it's there and I can't ignore it.

“I didn't mean-” I hesitate, “Oops.” I shrug having nothing else to say really. I'm at a loss for words.

“Hi,” The kid whispers as if he's just as mystified from the confrontation. His fingers are resting on the zipper of his jacket, fiddling with the lanyard, occupying their restlessness.

“Hello!” I offer a crooked grin, dust off the confusion I felt just a moment ago, “I'm sorry about that.” I gesture towards my dog. “She had this compulsion and sort of took off. I guess she had her own plan.” Ruby jumps up, places her fat paws on the boy's coat, wags her tail.

“Oh! Um-” He stumbles backwards into a woman, grips at his chest with urgency. His eyes widen in horror.

“Ruby!!” I tug her gently, “Don't hurt the nice, the nice...” I find the Velcro sneakers first, then the tube socks, then his baggy athletic shorts. Did he run too? But the windbreaker is too warm for this time of year, no? He could easily pass out from the heat regardless of today's cooler temperature.

Finally, I find his eyes and thoughtfully inspect their shape, their size, their wonderment, their secrets. They're lovely.

“The nice boy,” I finish as I attempt to peel back the layers of protection. Ruby tugs at my arm, groans aloud towards the stranger, redirects my attention. “Well, I-” I extend my hand to introduce myself because why not? What else should I do in this situation?

“I have to go,” The kid turns away instead, quietly apologizes to the lady he bumped and disappears into the crowd in a hurry.

I crane my neck to find his retreating back but he's gone, “What was that about?” Ruby whines as if saddened. “What? You didn't even know him!” I pull her away and she groans. “Seriously!? Ruby, let's go home!! You've embarrassed me enough for one day.”

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August 10.

Today I found someone.

Well, technically they found me.

Well, actually their dog found me.

But I was found nonetheless.

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“We're going to try and eat in here tonight,” I call out to Ruby from the kitchen. “Got that?" I fill her bowl with take out rice and steamed chicken. “You spoiled brat," I make my way to the vestibule. “You eat better than me.” I place my hand on my hip, extend the bowl out to tempt her. She licks her chops, sticks her butt in the air.

“You're cute Ruby but not that cute,” I remind. “You embarrassed me today.” I frown, take a cautious step back. “Really, really embarrassed me.” I sigh, take another step back, watch her follow, “Like, I wasn't expecting my first time since you know to be like that.” I continue moving towards the kitchen. “Not at all. I thought I'd be more prepared, you know? Not as flustered or taken by surprise.” Ruby follows slowly, places one paw in front of the other, sniffs out the food. “And bam! There he was, this kid or boy? He was definitely young. Maybe too young. Absolutely too young.” I conclude. “Yeah definitely not right for-" Ruby stops at the entrance to the hallway. “Oh wait.” I inspect our surroundings. “Ruby I said the kitchen not the hallway.” She groans, lays down on the hardwood in protest. “Ugh, alright, alright fine. You win,” I place her bowl next to her and watch her dig in. “Too young.” I repeat. “Yeah, definitely.”

Home.

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I'm seated at the bar with a bottle in my hand, “Do you think it could mean anything?” I ask the bartender who just so happens to be my best friend. “I mean, I wasn't even expecting to feel anything. He just sort of appeared.”

“You said he felt like home?” My friend fills two glasses from the beer tap, prepares a concoction of alcoholic beverages for the other patrons. "How so?" He places a fresh beer before me.

“He felt familiar," The words tumble out.

“Like actual family? Or-”

“No,” I shake my head, grip the new, chilled bottle between my fingers. “No, he felt like-” Sweat forms on my brow at the terrifying thought. More.

“Hold that thought,” He points behind him with his thumb. “I have to serve those guys at the other end of the bar.”

I deflate, “Sure.” I nod and watch him head towards the back. I take a sip of my drink, search the crowd for no one in particular as my mind wanders, observe every face to see if I'm able to feel that sensation again. What happened in the park? Why is my brain confused? Why did Ruby react like that? Why did I react like that? Why can't I find the answers?

What's happening?

“Sorry,” My friend reappears huffing and puffing.

“Busy?” I point out, “You're looking a little disheveled.” I inspect the dirty shirtfront and wrinkles. “Guess your iron broke?”

“I think half of the tri-state area decided to come tonight, I swear,” He swipes at his brow, leans onto the counter for support. "Alright so where were we?"

I take another sip, "The kid in the park."

"Right! The kid with Velcro sneakers. Interesting choice of shoe if you ask me."

"I was more concerned with the windbreaker. It's too hot to be prancing around in that thing in the dead of Summer."

"Maybe he gets cold easily?" My friend suggests.

"I mean maybe? But come on, dude. It's August. Even with the breeze it's still hot!"

He shrugs, "Everyone's different."

"It was odd," I gnaw at my finger nail. "And I can't seem to shake off the encounter either. It's been bothering me because these emotions came out of no where, ya know? Feelings I haven't felt in so long and they were overwhelming."

"Oh. Well maybe it was your brain trying to tell you something? Did you ever think of that? Maybe it wants to move on?"

I take a long swig, "I don't know."

"Well why don't you try and start."

"Start!?" I freak, slam the bottle down, "Start what!?"

My friend peers over his shoulder, then back at me, "There's someone I want you to meet." He says, his tone rueful.

"Oh God…" My shoulders slump.

“It's time, don't you think?"

“I just...” I shake my head, "Is it?"

“I think so and with what you just told me regarding your encounter with that kid, maybe you know deep down you're ready too."

I sputter, "It's-" My throat closes up at the thought of moving on, at the mere fact that I could even consider someone new. "How?" My voice is just above a whisper. "How could I even feel this way? Even for a split second?"

"You're young, dude. That's why. You have your whole life ahead of you and if you don't take that first step, I fear you'll be trapped in limbo forever."

I gasp at the truth, "It's not limbo." I defend. "It's called-"

"For yourself, give it a chance," He's pleading with his eyes, encouraging me with his words.

"B-but-" I shake my head, "Fuck." He's right. I mean of course he's right, he's always right.

He motions towards the back of the bar, "It's not that difficult. Just say hello, make small talk."

I drop my head in my hands, inwardly groan, “Can I at least finish my beer and maybe blame the alcohol if I sound like an idiot?"

“You'll try!?" My friend's excitement is nauseating.

"I guess I will," I resign.

"Good! Now follow me," He smacks my forearm. "You won't regret this, I promise.

"Right," I roll my eyes.

We head to the other end of the bar towards the pool tables, past the crowd and further away from the exit. Crap. There goes my escape.

My friend claps me on the back, “He's over there.” He points to a guy in a black T-shirt and dark wash denim. His hair is a lighter brown, smile mediocre, stature smaller than I'm accustomed to, “Just say hi, introduce yourself, be you.”

I bite my lip in apprehension, “It's time.” I smooth down my shirt. “It is time.” I repeat to maybe knock some sense into my brain. Myself. Be myself. Sure. “What's his name?”

“Ask him. Get to know him,” My friend urges me forward. “Now go!!” I'm shoved in the direction of the pool tables.

“Jesus,” I rub my hand on my jeans, adjust my collar, rumple my hair. “How do I look?” I look over my shoulder towards the bartender, note his slight nod of reassurance.

“Fantastic. You're ready,” He gives me two thumbs up.

“Yeah," When is one really ready though?

I approach slowly, check out this dude, inspect as much of him as I am able to in the short time I have before he notices me. Interesting stance.

I silently judge the way he's leaning over the table with the pool stick in his hand, find his legs too wide, and butt sticking out too far. Is he stroking the stick?  I outwardly groan because who does that!? Are all men this sexual? This open? This crude? I know I've been out of the game for a bit but I can't imagine it changed that much.

He flicks his tongue next, swipes his bottom lip, twerks his ass and that's it! No.

“Nope,” I turn on my heel. “Absolutely not.” I stride past my friend, ignore his flailing arms and pleas to turn towards him, to acknowledge him. “I can't. No,” I shake my head in dismay, discard my beer in the closest trash bin and head for the exit feeling disheartened and a little lost.

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“Now Ruby, try not to run away from me again, got it?” I snap on a new harness, “Look at that! And it's even red. Well technically the color is ruby,” I say, inspect her closely. “You look pretty.” I pet her back, scratch behind her ear. “Ready?” She whimpers, shifts her weight in anticipation. “Great!” I start our walk around the park.

“Man, it's hot,” I groan after a half hour or so. It's back to the heat today, back to the humidity and stickiness, back to the dead of summer. “We'll go to the fountain. There shouldn't be a race and all of those extra people.”

I find the steps leading down to the fountain, the emptied pavilion to my right, and lingering debris from the event. It's no surprise the park is quieter today or practically empty at this hour, it is Monday.

“Perks of being a teacher,” I pat Ruby's head. “Right girl? You like having me home all summer?” She grunts. “Oh shush. I do not disturb your naps or keep you awake at night,” I make it a point to sob into my pillow when necessary. “Anyway, look” -I point- “the fountain.” I follow the staircase down. "We have the entire park to ourselves for a good game of fetch!"

We reach our usual spot in a patch of grass just beside the fountain underneath an oak tree. I lay out a blanket, pour water into a bowl for Ruby, and remove her harness.

“Gotta stay hydrated today, alright?” I kiss her head, “So let's go!” I cheer, entice her with the tennis ball. “Here it goes!!” I throw the ball towards the lawn, watch her dart after it, retrieve it, and return to me, “Yay!!” I throw my hands in the air as she approaches. “Good girl!!” I take the ball from her mouth. “Ready?” She barks, jumps onto her hind legs, twirls in a circle. “Go!!”

I throw it with more force, put my back into it, and watch the tennis ball sail through the air. I keep a close eye on her, watch her manuever around the rocks. She finds the ball and runs back.

“Awesome!!” I scratch her head, cup her adorable face. “So cute!” I take the ball, “Again?” She barks and stands at the ready by my side. "This will be even further than before!” I tell her. “Ready?” I wind my arm back. “And...go!!”

I pitch my arm forward, watch the ball fly through the air towards a small patch of trees.

“Ah crap,” She disappears from view. “Double crap!!” I tap my leg nervously, wait patiently for her to return, swipe my brow that's covered in a sheen of sweat, “Where are you?”

There's a distant shout suddenly, a blood curdling scream that seeps straight into my bones, makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand at attention.

“Ruby!!” I run after my dog without hesitation, find the thicket of trees, and enter without a care. I have to find her. I have to!! “Ruby!?” I circle the patch of trees, hear the sound of a whimper, a human whimper followed by a whispered curse. I turn to the left, spot Ruby about fifty feet ahead and the tennis ball resting in the dirt, “Oh my God!!” She is standing over a body, wagging her tail, nuzzling this person's neck.

“Oh no. Oh, oh no!” They stammer, throw their hands in the air to stave off her attacks of affection.

“Ruby, stop!” I rush to her side, tug her gently off the man, no the kid, or boy? “What's wrong with you? Not everyone-” I lose my train of thought then, lose all coherency the moment our eyes meet.

There it is again. That feeling.

Familiar. Home.

“Um…” The boy shakes his head, rests on his elbows, attempts to free himself, “Sir your dog."

“Oh!! I'm so sorry,” I apologize, pull Ruby from his legs. “I guess she likes you.” I conclude having no other explanation.

“Maybe-” His eyes widen, he grips his throat, sighs when he realizes his sweatshirt is in place.

“Aren't you too warm in that?” I point to him, tilt my head to the side in thought. Maybe he burns easily.

He drops his arm, scurries up into a sitting position, “No.” His shoulders hunch, his hands clamp together and begin to rub fervently as if to warm them.

“Did Ruby scare you?” I take a step back from him, “She can be a little aggressive but she only wants to play or say hello!” I say. “Just like yesterday!” I watch him closely, witness him shrink further into himself. It's an odd sight. “Yeah. Yeah um…” I shift my weight, grip onto Ruby's collar, “So are you hurt? Did she nip at you? Do you need me to call an ambulance?”

“No!” He shouts and I take a step back from the outburst, from the underlying fear in his tone. Obviously he's more spooked then he's willing to admit.

“Alright,” I clear my throat, place more distance between us. “Well, have a nice day and sorry again!” I plaster on a smile and turn towards the fountain. But my dog groans! And whines! And whimpers!! And cries!! “What's wrong!?” I inspect her paws, check for cuts or any sign of injury. “Ruby?”

She isn't paying attention to me though.

She is transfixed on this boy lying in the grass, so trapped as if she knows him, as if her doggy intuition is telling her something I am not aware of. But I feel it too. I feel it. The boy is touching his chest again, breathing heavier than before, practically hyperventilating. Oh no.

“Hey," I drop to my knees before him, extend an unsteady hand towards his sweated face. “Is everything okay? Are you light-headed? Do you need water? I have-” I reach behind me for my backpack but it's gone. “Damnit. I have water but it's back in the clearing up ahead. You know right next to the fountain.” He looks up at me with two round eyes, two giant irises that are beckoning to me. Woah. My breath hitches in my throat, “And I-” His complexion is draining of color.

“I…" He swallows, "I have to go.” He chokes out, grips at his chest and neck, fights back whatever it is he is withholding. 

“Wait! But your face is pale,” I say. “You need to lie down and rest. Maybe drink something.” Ruby licks at the boy's face, nuzzles her snoot between his hands and towards his chin.

“Oh!" He recoils.

“Ruby, the nice boy doesn't want-”

"I, I don't...um…"He glances my way but immediately diverts his gaze. His cheeks blush despite the fairness masking his features, "It's okay?"

I stand up, “She's never this rude. Right, girl? You usually have better manners?” I gently pull her away.

“She’s...” He lies back down in the shade, closes his eyes, mumbles unintelligible words.

“What's wrong?” I reach for his shoulders, shake him. “Please answer me!”

I inspect my surroundings in search of a passersby, hope someone is able to come to this kid's aid but there's no one. It's a Monday morning. People are usually at work, stupid. I look back down at him and his hands are clenching the neck of the sweatshirt, his eyes are fluttering, his breathing is erratic.

“Oh God. What do I do!?” I freak, “What do I…” I look to Ruby. “Stay right here.” I point to the ground and run back to our spot. “Water. He needs water!” I throw our belongings into my bag, empty the bowl and head back to the kid and Ruby who is lying across his chest. Oh. She never does that with me, only with-

No.

I push it aside, refocus on the matter at hand.

“Hey!! Are you awake?” I smack his cheek, note his mumbled words, “Hey you need to drink this.” I instruct. “Here open up.” I lift his head, place the bottle to his lips and tip it forward. “Come on now drink.” I see his Adam's apple bounce. “Good!” I hold the bottle steady, allow him to drink, and finish it's contents. “Hopefully that'll help you,” I back away. “Maybe he needs another one though?” I shake my head in confusion because I am not a doctor. “Ugh! I don't know!!” So I pull a second bottle out of my bag anyway, “Here’s more.” I put it to his lips and he's sucking it up, swallowing every last drop. “He should be just fine Ruby.” I place the empty bottle down and wait. “That's right. He'll wake up” -I check my watch- “any minute now.” I puff my cheeks, grip my finger. “Right Ruby?” I peer down at his sweated face and pale complexion, “Hmm…” I continue to search his features thoughtfully. “What is it Ruby? What do you see? Why are you so stuck on him?" He's a stranger.

His leg jolts.

“Ah-ha!” I point, "He's awake!"

“Oh,” He stirs, murmurs underneath his breath. “Ugh my head.” I manage to make out. “What happened?” His eyes flutter open, his hand grips his throat, he finds my eyes, “Ah!" He bolts up right, claws at his neck, disregards the fact that Ruby is lying in his lap. “What-” He turns towards me, rushes to his feet leaving me completely dazed and Ruby saddened from being disturbed, “Oh no.” He grips his hair, touches his chest, sighs his relief? “Did…” He swallows hard. “Did you, did you see anything!?” He stammers. “Did you? Please” -he swipes at his mouth- “tell me!!” He's bugging out!

“Calm down!” I place my hands in front of me in mock surrender, slowly rise to my feet, “It's okay. I-”

“Did you see anything!?” The kid cries.

“I saw you passed out from the heat. That's all I saw."

“That, that-” He turns away, “Oh.” He recovers, drops his hands, rubs at his palms. “I…” He falls silent.

“I gave you water,” I recount. “Just a moment ago. I think you overheated.” I watch him closely, “You're wearing a sweatshirt in August. A black one at that.” I gesture towards the garment. “Maybe you should remove-”

“No,” He shakes his head, grips at his chest. “N-no. I'm fine. I'm…” He touches his forehead. "Fine."

“Are you sure you don't want me to call an ambulance?”

He shakes his head again, “No."

“If you say so,” I look to Ruby and she's sitting at his feet. “Looks like you've made a friend.” I say to divert the conversation away from his current predicament. “She likes you.”

“Sure,” I watch him closely, inspect his side profile, admire his level of attractiveness, maybe think of how old he could be. But wait, is he into dudes? “Hey, Ruby.” His voice is deep, unrushed. “I'm sorry I spoiled your fun.”

“We can throw a few more,” I suggest. “You know, just in case you wanted to join in?” I smile encouragingly, “And she'd definitely like it.”

“She would?” His expression is dubious, unsure.

“Oh yeah, she's reeled you in! You're hers now,” I snort. “She has you under hypnosis! She's ordering you to play fetch with her right now or else."

“I see," He glances towards me. "I don't want to invade.”

"I'm asking you to join us, so you're not invading in on anything. You still look a little pale anyway,” I comment.

“I do?” He touches his cheek.

“Yeah you need to drink more water,” I reach for Ruby, am met with a stubborn pooch. “He's coming with us, you dope. Don't worry.”

“I am?” He grips his palms.

“Yes. I'm not leaving you out here alone. I feel sort of responsible for what happened.”

We start to walk.

“You shouldn't. It was my own fault," I retrieve the forgotten tennis ball.

“My dog startled you, pounced on your chest without your consent, proceeded to lick your face clean,” I grip her collar. “I shouldn't have thrown the ball so hard.”

He swallows, “I shouldn't have been in here all alone?” He says with uncertainty. “Well what I meant was-”

“Why were you in there?” He turns away, remains silent, “Sorry. I didnt mean to pry,” I frown.

“It's okay,” He whispers. “I'm weird.” He concludes.

“Yeah right. And I'm normal? Sure,” I roll my eyes. “Dude, I talk to a dog all day. And you're the weird one? Not today.”

“I am,” He insists. “Trust me.” He turns his attention towards me, basks me with an intense stare. It makes my skin prickle and heart jar in my chest.

“We can be weird together then,” I shrug, break his eye contact before I lose my footing. “So…” I place Ruby's harness back on. “You need a drink.”

“Non-alcoholic,” The kid rushes out.

“Huh?” I eye him quizzically. “It's not even noon. I wasn't even considering a cocktail or a beer. Especially if you're dehydrated.”

“I had to make sure.”

“I meant water,” I correct.

He grips his fingers, “Thank you.”

“For what? Doing the right thing?”

“Yes.”

“Don't mention it. I'd do it again if I had to."

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I purchase us both a bottle of water and a pretzel for myself, “Want some?” We're seated on a boulder situated at the edge of the great lawn. I offer him a bite.

“Um…” He glances at me, “Sure.” He takes a napkin and carefully breaks off a piece, expertly avoids touching my hand and the food itself.

“But drink your water first,” I say. “The last thing I need is for you to pass out on me again."

“Okay.” He reaches inside of his hoodie, pulls a straw free. Huh? He rips the wrapping, avoids touching the plastic and sticks it into the bottle top. What??????

But I ignore it. I have to.

“Did you eat today?” I ask as if I'm speaking to a sibling or even a child, but I continue anyway, “Did you drink enough fluids before coming out into this heat?”

He picks at the pretzel but never actually puts it to his lips, “No.”

“That's not very smart,” I scold. “Even Ruby knows to drink.” I motion with my chin towards her. “See? She has her own bowl and everything.”

“I was in a rush to leave this morning and forgot," He mutters.

“You need to work on your routine then because proper nutrition is key to a healthy lifestyle."

He finishes the bottle of water, rests his arms on his legs, “Sure. Healthy.”

“It's the truth! Drinking a sixteen ounce glass of cold water in the morning kickstart your metabolism, hydrates you.”

“Maybe," His tone is hushed.

“And the sweatshirt! Do you even look at the weather before leaving the house?” I keep going, “It was far too hot-”

“Are you finished?” He interrupts.

“What if it rained!?”

“I wore a hoodie,” He says, his tone cross.

“It doesn't matter! It's not waterproof. It's cotton. Water soaks right into cotton. It's like a sponge. You could have caught a cold!”

“I guess," He sounds disinterested. Well tough shit.

“Are you listening?” I ask.

“I am,” I turn to him and he's rubbing his palms.

“Are you sure?”

“I feel like I'm speaking with my mother,” He quips.

“I...your mother!?” I groan, “Great. And here I'm thinking I'm being helpful.”

“Not really actually.”

“I'll stop then,” I sulk. I guess I've lost my touch. Did I have a touch though?

“Don't,” He says.

“Now that's a first,” I tap my lip, contemplate my next rant. But what should I say!?

“For what?” He glances at me.

“Someone wanting me to continue speaking. It's a first,” I frown at the truth. "I'm a rambler. My brain to mouth filter is non-existent. My ability to shut up-”

“Well, you ramble about your rambling,” He points out.

“B-but, I-” I clamp my mouth closed, “Yeah. Look at that.” He's reaching towards Ruby then. “So you're a man of few words.” I conclude.

“Or you're a man of too many words,” He counters.

“I just say what's on my mind. Always have. Always will,” I jab my finger into his bicep.

“Owe!” He throws his arm out as if to retaliate but stops before making contact.

“So deal with it.”

“Technically I don't have to and could just walk away. We're strangers,” He touches his chest.

“Let's change that,” I extend my hand out to him. “I'm Louis.” He looks at it, then my face then back to my hand. “You're supposed to shake it.”

“I'm a germaphobe."

“Seriously?” I pout and turn away, gnaw at my thumbnail, “Being obsessed with cleanliness is a sign of OCD.”

“I said I'm weird.”

“Yeah. Whatever,” I frown, touch my own chest as my heart stutters beneath my fingers. “Alright well…” Was I rejected? Maybe I should have spoken to that guy at the bar. “See you around.”

“You're going?” He asks in a panic, “Why?”

“I have nothing else to say and you're…” I dump the water from Ruby's bowl, hop down from the rock, shoulder my bag. “See ya,” I tug Ruby with me, disregard her groans, and hastily leave him behind.

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August 11.

He walked away.

I don't blame him.

I'd walk away from me too.

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I recount my morning with the kid, spill my guts out over a few beers, “Whatever. What happened with that guy?” I ask Niall, the bartender, my best friend since childhood, the guy who stood by my side when I was literally (and mentally) falling apart, the dude who knows anything and everything about me.

He was always a positive influence, someone I could depend on and trust, a constant in my life that I never took advantage of. He encourages me. He offers advice. He always knows when I need him, when I'm down, when I'm not myself.

He just knows.

His perception is something I've relied on, his ability to draw out the truth to expose my aches and pains. He listens to me (for the most part), he empathizes, he disects the problems, he finds a solution.

He just knows, okay?

“Brendan?” He asks. And I haven't figured out how just yet.

“That was his name? Good. Now I have a one up on him,” I clap my hands, fist pump the air. “Yes!!”

“He knew your name, in fact he knew what you looked like too. He watched you walk away."

My mouth pops open, “What!!!” I pause the Twitch video we were watching- that I was watching actually. “You, you- why you-” I punch his bicep, repeatedly. "Prick!!!" And he's my punching bag too.

“Hey! That's my dominant arm!” He swats me away.

“I don't care!! You've probably ruined my chance-”

“You lost the chance when you felt you couldn't say hello. Come on dude. It's time,” I turn away.

“I thought...” I look to Ruby in the entryway, find her sleeping in her bed. “I dunno...” I grip my ring finger, bounce my leg.

“What happened? Why did you leave?” He probes.

“I just…” I close my eyes, find him staring back at me. I gasp. “I'm not ready,” I shake my head, swipe my eye. “I'm not.”

“It's been almost two years,” Niall says. “You cried, you sulked around for too long, you have to find happiness again.”

“It's not that easy," I close my eyes again to avoid the surge of emotions. “It's not. You have no idea what it feels like.”

“Then enlighten me. Let me help you," He begs. “I want to help you!”

“I can't explain it really,” Now I'm speechless because where do I begin? How could I possibly make anyone understand how I feel? How do I put it into words? Are there words? Is there a solid picture in my mind? What is there?

It's blank.

I shrug.

“I know you pretend sometimes.”

“Better than breaking down in public."

.

.

.

“We'll go to the opposite end of the park today,” I tell Ruby as we make our way over. It's a little earlier in the morning too, a little less humid, a little less likely that we'll run into that stranger. “Maybe we can sit by the pond.” We take a small path and walk up the winding road.

“Wow it's sunny," I tug my cap further down my forehead. “You okay, girl?” She's inspecting the runners, the cyclists, the women pushing their strollers down the trail, there are a few other dogs too. But she doesn't seem fazed by them. She's searching and sniffing and wagging her tail, and- “Ruby,” I warn, my tone clipped. “Not today, alright? We purposely stayed away from here to avoid- to try something new.” I correct. "So let's enjoy it while we can."

When we reach the spot, I take my backpack off, lay out the blanket, and take a seat in the shade, “Come, Ruby. Take a load off.” I pat the space next to me. “We walked long enough.” I'm staring at the water, watching it ripple and bend, find small coy fish swimming just beneath the surface, “How pretty-” The leash is pulled to the left. “Woah!!” I collapse to the ground with my arm extended above my head. “Ruby!!” I tug back, “Hey!!” I turn my head towards her, find her tail at attention, and ears perked. “What did I say!?” I sit up and pull her towards me. “Here I've got treats for you!” I coax, “See?” I one handedly pull out the small bag. “Ooohhh.” I shake it. “See?” I don't exist!! “Not fair!! I take care of you, I feed you! And this child comes around and ruins everything!” I glance around anyway, look for a gray windbreaker or black sweatshirt. It's STUPID. So stupid. He didn't want to offer his name or talk or try or was that him trying?

“He may not like me,” I whisper the possible reality of the situation. Ruby whines, whimpers, shifts her weight from paw to paw, searches the treeline and path. “He's not here.” I pull her again, offer her a treat, “It's fine right? We have each other!” I nod, pet her head. “We'll…” I frown. “We'll make it, got it? We'll find a way out.”

.

.

.

.

“So let's do it!” I have Ruby's food bowl in hand, “Ooooo!” I reveal the contents, witness her eyes light up. “Come and get it.” I take a step backwards, keep the food within her field of vision, tempt her to get out of the entryway, “That's right! You'll make it today I just know it.” We move past the wall, inch further to the kitchen. “Yes!” But she stops, drops her butt, “Oh.” I frown. “I thought you had it this time.” I place the bowl of chicken and rice on the floor, watch her chow down and slirp up its contents. “Geez! That good?” I pet her head, take a seat next to her in the hallway.

“You gotta snap out of it," I say. "Like, you should be sleeping on the couch or the bed not in the hallway, not by the door.” I drop my head in my free hand. “Not by the door.” I repeat. “N-not…” I choke, my throat closes up. “It's a waste of time you know? Brooding won't, it won't bring- it won't help,” I whisper. “Trust me I know.” I suck in a quivering breath. “I know first hand what the pain feels like,” She rests her head in my lap once she's finished. “I know.” I swipe my eyes, pat her head. “I know…” I recover slightly. “It'll be fine,” I nod. “It will.” I pull my phone out of my pocket. “And it starts with me. I have to prove it to you, prove to the world that everything will be fine.” I dial my friend. “Right?” I have to snap out of it too.

“Hello?” Niall answers on the second ring.

“Hey so I was thinking, well I have decided I do want to meet that guy," I cringe, immediately regret my decision.

“Well, I don't know now. He was bummed you didn't give him a chance.”

“Dude, he fucking twerked his ass. Who does that!?”

“Dancers?”

“He wasn't dancing! He was playing pool or something or...Grrr look I want to give it a shot.”

“Why the change of heart?” I look to Ruby.

“I've had a revelation.”

“And what happened in this revelation?” He asks suspiciously.

“I have to try and stop feeling sorry for myself," I admit.

“I mean, yeah.”

“So that's why I want to try this out. Maybe this guy's more than his twerking bottom,” I sigh. “He better be.”

“I'll call him then.”

“Thanks,” I nod. “Thank you a lot actually.”

.

.

.

.

I adjust my shirt, inspect my hair, “Good?” I turn towards Ruby. “Yeah? Is the shirt too much?” I find my reflection, dust off a few specks of lint, tug at the collar of my blazer, “Too warm for a jacket?” I roll up the sleeves to just below my elbow. “Better?” Ruby groans from next to me. “Yeah?” I fluff my hair, “Alright... alright.. alright!! I'm gonna go. Ruby I'm gonna go and have a good time and talk and get to know this guy” -I stick my bare feet into a pair of loafers- “and maybe get back into it.” I grab my keys, letter, and cellphone. “See you later.” I wave and leave before I have second thoughts.

.

.

.

.

I'm trying too hard. I am.

This outfit, the hair, the cologne, the damn shaved cheeks. It's too first-date-esque. I look like I haven't been on a date since I was seventeen? Sixteen? How old was I? I mean how do I hide the fact that I have zero clue how to approach him? That I talk too much about anything? That maybe holding hands is important to me? That a simple hug gives me chills? That I crave warmth and affection?

“Hi,” I fix my coat, take a seat at the bar.

“Yo!” Niall greets, “Lookin’ sharp!”

“I look like a douche."

"You said it, man. Not me," He hides his upturned lips, but I see it. He's enjoying this too much. Laughing at my expense.

I'll get him back.

“I'm dying of heat," I say instead.

“Here, drink this,” He slides over a filled shot glass.

“Are you trying to get me drunk?” I put it to my lips.

“Nope," I down it in one gulp. “Trying to get you laid.”

I sputter on the liquor, swipe at my mouth as it trickles past my lips and down my chin, “What!?” I swipe away the wetness.

“Lewis, you need to let loose!”

“By getting me drunk and stupid!?” I slide the glass back to him, “Give me a real drink please? I need to mask the taste.”

“What would you like?”

Sex on the beach,” I snap.

“Ah! A little foreshadowing?” Niall waggles his eyebrows.

“Shuddup!!” I drop my head in my hands. “Ugh!!!”

“It's fine! Will you stop?” He prepares a drink.

“I'm nervous alright? I'm so out of touch with dating. I have no clue how to pick up anyone or how to even speak to them.”

“Okay look,” He leans heavily against the bar, slides over a glass. “Pretend this isn't a date.” I give him a droll stare. “Hear me out,” He says. “Focus your attention on getting to know this person's quirks, his hobbies, his career. That's the fun stuff.”

“I suppose. But it's just opening up in general you know?” I shrug. “What if he hates my personality?” I sip at the drink.

“Then you'll find someone else.”

“What if I like his though? Like what if the way he stroked the pool stick-” Made me realize how much I crave intimacy?

“Hey!” I grimace when I hear them approach, “How ya doin’?” I glance over my shoulder and Brendan is there. He isn't terrible looking. A little pink in the cheeks. A little on the youthful side.

“Oh.” We make eye contact. “Hey,” His tone changed. Why? Why did it do that thing where it starts off normal then becomes high pitched and whiney? “It's nice to finally meet you.” I inspect his face, take in his hair and crisp tailored shirt.

“Y-yeah...yeah you too,” I offer a small wave and clutch at the drink for support. No touchy yet. He might have sweated hands.

Or are my hands sweaty?

“Mind if I sit?” I look over at Niall but he's gone. Crap?!!

“Of course,” I scoot over an inch or two or ten.

“Cool," He plops down, runs a hand carefully through his hair. “So-”

“You know my name," I say. My brain is formulating, operating on emergency mode, working overtime to come up with a tactic.

“Well, yeah. I do."

“That was my opening line,” I force a smile. Bingo.

“Ah sorry. I didn't mean to ruin your thought-out plan.”

“It took me a long time to come up with it too.” I lie, “As a matter of fact, I had a list of questions lined up and everything.”

“You did?” His eyebrows shoot up to his hairline, his surprise evident, “You actually planned-”

“Oh absolutely. Ask Niall,” I point to my (dyed) blonde haired friend who's approaching again. “Right?” I nod in his direction.

“Huh?” He scratches his head, “Right what?”

“I made a list of questions," I reach in my pocket, feel around for the letter.

“Oh," My friend's eyes widen. “You did?”

“...see?” I pull it free, “I even placed it in an envelope for safe keeping.”

“It looks like you've been carrying that for a while," Brendan takes in the state of the wrinkled envelope.

“I was nervous," I smirk.

“Geez, well-”

“So since we know each other's names, I'll skip question one and two!”

“But that's only one-” I cut him off though.

“Well, we broke the ice already! Question one...ask what your name is. Question two...attempt ice breaker. Although it's really not a question but it could be. I mean you could ask how the weather is or what you had for dinner but then you can make a statement about my coat or I could make a comment about your wavy locks.”

“Sure?” Brendan sits open mouthed and wide eyed.

“Well I'll leave you two alone!!” My friend backs away, “I have to...yeah I'll be over there.” He points behind him. “Bye!!” I watch Niall stumble into the back.

“Um…” I turn to Brendan, place all of my attention on him, purposely make him squirm. “So a list, eh?”

“A list," I nod with a devious smirk.

“Do you make a list for everything?”

“Oh sure,” I continue the charade. “For instance, when I got ready tonight, I wrote out what I needed to do, you know wash my hair, shave, spritz just the right amount of cologne-”

“You smell fabulous.”

“-and then...” I do a double take, “What?” I'm astounded. I'm trying to scare you off!!!

Really?

Is that my plan?

Yup.

Operation: Louis is a shit and totally undateable.

“You smell really good,” He repeats, leans a little closer, invades my personal space.

“Uh…” I'm staring into his eyes, gauging his reaction, searching for anything! “Th-thanks?"

“Yeah," Brendan taps his fingers on the bar top. “So what was question three?”

I take a sip of my drink, by myself a few short seconds, “Um...well-” Liquid courage.

“Here ya go,” Niall brings Brendan a beer or probably checking in, in his not so subtle way.

“Thank you!” He winks at me and walks away again. Dick.

“How do you know Niall?” I ask.

“That's question three?”

“I skipped to like twelve or something," I lie. “So go on.”

“From here I suppose," He shrugs.

“I've never seen you.”

“I play in the pool tournaments on Wednesdays.”

“Do you?” I mock my interest, “Really?”

“Yeah! I don't usually win but I'm pretty good.”

“Yeah especially with the way you hold the stick,” I mumble under my breath.

“What?”

“I'm sure you're fine!” I sip more of my drink. Should have taken another shot.

“Yeah I could be," He takes a swig from his beer. “So what are your hobbies?”

“Ah wait you're moving out of order. That was like question five.”

“But you skipped already. Who cares?”

“Me! I care,” I snap. “Now we have to continue on from question twelve or whatever it was.” I chew on my pointer finger, pretend to think of my next question, “So, what's your favorite hobby?”

Brendan rolls his eyes, “I just asked that!”

“Ah! But I asked favorite hobby not just any old hobby.”

“Oh. I didn't know there was a difference,” Brendan seems lost in thought. “Alright...well-”

“And don't say playing pool.”

“Wait why?”

“We already spoke about that.”

“Yeah so? It's what I-” I shake my head no. “This is too complicated…”

“Why? It's a simple question. What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?”

“Well…” He chugs his beer, slams it on the counter, “Playing pool.”

“Hmph!” I smack my thigh in irritation, “You didn't even think that through!”

“What about you then!?”

I point to myself, jab my finger into my chest, “Me!? I thought of these questions! I planned this entire night from start to finish, down to the minute!”

“I meant what your hobbies are,” He's totally irritated. Yes!!

“Oh well you didn't specify,” I take a sip of my drink. “I watch speed runs of video games.”

“Wait what?” He asks, “You watch-”

People playing video games, yeah” I say. “It's actually really cool because they have to beat a certain percentage of the game, follow the guidelines given to them, and usually beat it within a certain amount of time. There's sometimes a crowd or an event going on to raise money for cancer research or some charity. Most times the gamers don't even get paid." I look to Brendan and his lips are tugging into a smile. "I-...what's so funny? Did I make a joke because I don't recall telling a joke.”

“You watch people play videogames. That sounds boring.”

“Well it's not. Have you even tried? There's an app called Twitch-”

“Yeah, yeah…” He rests his chin on his hand.

And that's where you watch them. You can also look them up on YouTube.”

“Wait you're serious?” He asks and my stomach clenches.

“Uh...yah,” I pull my phone free, open the app. “See?” He doesn't seem interested though. “It's all...uh...”

“So you watch videogames in your spare time," He comments.

“You play pool but suck at it,” I retaliate.

“I didn't say I sucked at it," He defends.

“You never won a tournament,” I correct.

“So it doesn't mean I suck. I'm going up against-”

“Excuses,” I deadpan.

Brendan's pink cheeks turn crimson, “Ugh! What's your deal!?”

“What's yours?”

“Nothing! You're making this into like an interrogation. If I knew it was this difficult to get to know you I would have said forget it!!” He stands up and drops a twenty dollar bill on the counter, “Should have taken the hint when you walked away.”

My chest tightens, “Yeah, big hint there.” I glower. “Tell me, do you enjoy twerking your ass when you play pool? Or is that your tactic to win a match? To distract the competition?”

“God how did your husband tolerate that mouth of yours?” My eyes widen in horror, my legs go numb, “No wonder he left!!” I choke on my tongue and watch him leave, grip the counter for support, remain speechless for who knows how long. And it stings. My eyes burn, my blood is like ice coursing through my veins, my brain jumbled from the words Brendan just uttered aloud for the bar to hear. He left...

I'm whacked on the arm, “Dude,” Another whack comes. “What's wrong?” Followed by a third.

“Wh-what...what-” I stammer, shake my head.

“Where did he go? Did you scare him off?” I fail to respond, I fail to breathe honestly. “You mentioned the speed runs didn't you?” Niall groans. “Damn it! Start with the piano first!! Then mention...” His voice trails off or did I stop listening? Why did the room suddenly dim? What happened to everyone? “Your knuckles are white.”

“I don't…” I fight back my tears, blink every so often, keep my eyes trained on the door Brendan stormed out of. “He...how…”

“You're drooling.”

“Why, why is he, he left? He left,” I swipe my mouth.

“Yes, Brendan left and now you're sitting here all stone faced and speechless which is a shocker.”

“He left?”

“Yes you scared off-”

“He left!!” A tear escapes accidentally, “He left.” I release the counter, drop my head in my hands. “He left me.”

“Um...are we talking about the same person?”

“You…” I turn to Niall then, “You told him!!!” I shout. “You told a random person my business! How could you!?” I rush to my feet.

“He didn't mind that you were married-”

“It's not a disease, Neil!! He could have found out later on when I felt like telling him!” I snarl, “I'm leaving... I'm...bye.” I stomp out of the bar.

.

.

.

.

“It wasn't that bad,” I say to Ruby as we make our way through one of the paths. “I mean it could have been worse. I was worse at one time.” I trudge through the grass, pinch my leg a few times, “Like...so much-” Ruby picks up her pace without warning, pulls me along with her. “R-Ruby!!!! Not...now!! Not...not-”

I hit a pot hole, fly forward into the air, and release the leash as I collapse to the ground. It's a hard fall, a knee bruising, hand scraping fall, the kind of fall you witness in slow motion. It's mortifying because I can't contain my animal! I smack into the cement, slide a few inches, feel my skin split from the impact.

“Ugh!!” I lift my head slowly, grimace at the pain in my limbs and head, “Oh... darn.” I manage to crawl into a sitting position. “That hurt.” I mumble. “Ruby... you're…” I lift my head and I'm alone. All alone!! “Ruby!?” I jump to my feet despite the aching and the bleeding, “No, no, no!” I circle around. “Where are you!?” I limp up the sidewalk, “Fuck!” I touch my forehead, pull my hand away to find traces of blood on my fingertips. “Shit, that's gonna leave a mark." I look up towards the end of the path and Ruby's there. "Oh my God!" But she's not alone. She's with that stranger, man, kid, boy, or whatever, and he's holding onto her leash like he freaking owns it! "What!?"

I inspect his clothing as he approaches, take in the ugly white Velcro sneakers and tube socks, black exercise shorts, and heavy black t-shirt. He's wearing a camera around his neck too which makes me wonder exactly what he's capturing.

"You!!” I point my finger towards him. Where did he get those sneakers from? Isn't Velcro like...an early 90’s thing?

“Me,” He replies as he approaches with the leash twirled around his hand.

“Ruby!!” I shout at my dog, “See what you did!”

“Looks like you took a good fall.”

“Gee, I had no idea,” I snap. “Give me the leash.” I avoid his gaze, reach for her.

He swats my hand away, “You need to treat your wounds.”

“I need to get my dog back and go home,” I rip the leash from his grasp anyway, “Come on Ruby.”

“But you're bleeding," He says.

“Whatever,” I ignore him and take my stubborn dog with me. “Let's go, I need Advil.” I groan and limp away.

“Don't leave!” I hear his heavy footfalls, “Please?” But I continue on. “Why are you going?” He follows. “Is this because I didn't shake your hand?”

“No!!” I swipe the blood from my temple, smear it across my face and cheek, “Ugh!!”

“Then what? I told you I'm weird. Did you think I was lying?”

“No,” I suck in a breath. “No it wasn't that.” I slow my pace, gaze at him. Woah.

He inspects every inch of my face, eventually looks me square in the eye, “You rubbed blood all over your forehead.” He says, his tone hushed.

“Great," I puff my cheeks, turn away. "Looks like I need to wash my face. See ya."

“I wasn't lying," He calls out. “It's something- I'm just not used to- I’m weird,” He concludes.

I look to him over my shoulder, “Yeah you've said that. A lot. I get it. You're weird.”

“And you talk too much.”

“I do. My friends and students hate me for it sometimes.”

“Students?”

“I'm a teacher," I reveal.

“What do you teach?” He has a lovely mouth. Huh!?

“Music. I am also the head of the drama club and conduct the senior chorus.”

“That's impressive,” He continues to stare.

“I think so,” I find a bench, motion towards it, “Can I sit for a sec?”

“Absolutely. You took quite a fall.”

I plop down and inspect my cut up knees, “Ah crap.” I frown. “Thanks Ruby,” She takes a seat by my feet. “Bleh!!! You are so lucky you're cute.”

“She is. Labs make great family pets. Especially those with young children.”

“Yeah well I don't have any of those," I inform.

“Me either," He shifts his weight.

“I'd hope not. You're a child yourself,” I pull a bottle of water out of my backpack, pore it over the worse knee. “Aahh that stings.” I bite back a groan, grimace at the pain.

“Do I look that young?” He sits next to me, leaves a good foot between us.

“Yah, you do.”

“How old do you think I am?” The camera hangs loosely from his neck, distracts me momentarily. I wonder what he's taking pictures of? I wonder if he enjoys-

“What's your name?” I ask instead.

“My name?” He straightens his posture.

“Yeah, you failed to mention it the other day after I introduced myself.”

“Sorry,” He rubs his palms together. “I was nervous.”

“About what? I don't bite.”

“I know that. I passed out and then you came to my rescue-”

Touched your head,” I wiggle my fingers towards him. “Oohh I'm covered in little germies!”

“You're not funny," He remarks.

“But I am. You just lack a sense of humor," I watch his hands rub.

“You're poking fun at my possible OCD.”

“Well, you hurt my feelings so I think we're even.”

“How?” His hands stop.

“What's you're name?” I ask again.

“What's it matter?”

“Because my dog is obsessed with you and manages to find you every time we take a stroll in this huge park. So I think it's only proper she knows your name. Do it for her sake.”

“I can't explain her actions though.”

“Me either. It's annoying,” I frown. “I can't figure it out.”

“Am I that bad?” His tone is saddened.

“No, not at all actually,” I admit. “Not one bit.” He falls silent, resumes rubbing his palms. “I think I need to wash my face.”

“Probably should clean your cuts too.”

“I don't have anything to clean them with.”

“We can always buy something.”

Where?”

“The drug store," He stands with ease, takes the leash.

“She's my dog you know.”

“She seems to prefer me over you. Remember?”

“Okay, ouch though. Seriously. I'm already injured. Did you have to twist the knife?” I sigh, “Alright fine. I need to take care of this.”

“Okay."

We head up the path towards 5th Avenue.

“So-”

“Louis,” My heart jolts in my chest from those two syllables. Huh? I turn my gaze to him, take in his side profile and lips, trail the length of his throat stopping at the shirt's collar and camera strap.

“This isn't fair," I grumble as I limp through the streets of Manhattan.

“What isn't?” Ruby is walking between us. It may seem like nothing, but it's painful, the way we're walking side-by-side with our dog. But she's mine...she was… I shake my head.

“You're throwing my name around on purpose.”

“Why, Louis what ever do you mean?” He snorts.

“You're rude," I slouch against a street pole. “My knees hurt.”

“Yeah blood is soaking into your socks,” He points.

“Fantastic. How's my head?”

"Look at me," He asks and I oblige without question. He takes in my forehead and temples, cheeks, everything not my eyes basically, “It stopped oozing for now.” He turns away.

“Is it deep?”

“No, just a scratch. It shouldn't scar.”

“Because God forbid I scar,” I snap. “Are we almost there?” I check my palms and they're gross looking. “I hope this doesn't hurt when I play.”

“Play what?” He asks.

“With myself," I jest.

"That's a rather crude remark, Louis."

"I was joking, you prude," I roll my eyes. Great, dude can't take a joke. "I hope it doesn't hurt when I play piano.” I divulge.

His pace slows, “You play the piano?”

“I'm a music teacher. Of course I do.”

“Well, not every music teacher has to play an instrument. They could be a singer too.”

“No, actually the piano is mandatory for teaching. At least the basics,” I correct.

“Oh,” He points ahead of us. “We're here.”

“Thank God,” I groan.

“Take a seat. I'll go buy everything.”

“Wait what?” He motions towards the bench. “I don't-”

“Ruby isn't allowed inside and someone has to stay with her.”

“I know that! But I can't expect you to pay for this shit!” I loop the leash around my wrist, “I'll pay you back.”

“It's fine,” He reassures and walks to the store with his long, muscular legs and rubbing palms.

“Grrr…” Ruby begins to whimper the moment he disappears. “Seriously!?” I cry. “Ruby, you don't know him!” I tug her towards me, wrap my arms around her neck, “Love me pleeeease!” I take a steadying breath. “I know I'm not Daddy and I can never replace him but am I good enough for you? Have I proven how much you mean to me?” She pants. “So what's the deal with this guy, huh? Why are you so enamored by him? What does he possess that you're attracted to?” I release my hold and sit back, “Maybe he bathes in dog food and brushes his teeth with treats.” I say to make myself feel better. “Yeah must be it.” I take my backpack off and pour Ruby some water. “Or maybe he has steak in his pocket and you smell it.”

The doors to the store open and it's there. Those feelings. Those emotions. Those damn butterflies! And I am unable to stop myself from watching him either. I inspect the way he walks, note how his socks sit half way up his calf (and how endearing that is), take in his thin waist, and slender fingers. The entire package.

Damn it.

And his face is angular, his cheek bones defined, his eyes...well his eyes are absolutely breathtaking and so green, his lip. Must I go on?

Okay!!!

He's tall, devastatingly handsome, has this adorable little dimple when he smiles (when he smiles), his hair is curled and protruding from the cap on his head. And it's difficult to turn away.

The end.

“Hey," He sits down next to me, removes the camera from around his neck, and opens the bag to reveal its contents. “I bought rubbing alcohol. It'll burn but we have to clean the area.” He takes his baseball cap off next, runs his fingers through his sweated curls. Damn...damn...damn!

“Eesh,” I grimace. “Do we have to?” I pretend I'm in no way fazed by his looks. “Like can we just slap on a band-aid and call it a day?” Like not at all.

I swear.

“No. That's not good enough," He pulls out a small bottle and cotton balls.

“Jesus Christ you went to town.”

“Do you always take the Lord's name in vain?” I watch his fingers work. He opens the bottle, tips some alcohol onto the cotton. “Well?”

“Huh? Well what? Did I miss something?” I look up into his eyes. Woah.

“I asked why you take the Lord's name in vain.”

“Does it offend you that I do?”

“No, you just say it a lot,” He reaches over, takes my wrist, carefully avoids the scrapes lining my skin.

“I thought you were a germaphobe?” I ask, my tone skeptical.

“In emergencies, I put my fears aside," Ookkaayyyy. He dabs my palm with the alcohol soaked cotton.

“God damnit!!!” I flinch my arm back, “That stings!!”

“See?” He tightens his grip, dabs gently, continues on as if I'm not struggling to get away from him, “God.” His tone is soft, light-hearted, mocking.

“Wh-what's it matter?” I bite my bottom lip, grip at the leash with my free hand, “Why do you care? Are you religious?”

“Not in the least.”

“So, who cares if I- Fuck!!!” I pull out of his grasp to escape the pain, “It hurts!!” I cradle my wrist.

“I have to make sure this doesn't get infected.”

“I'll survive! It's just a scrape!” I turn away to hide my red face and teary eyes. “I've had worse.”

“Me too,” He mumbles. “Much worse.” He sighs. “Let me at least put a bandage on?”

“Like how I said before!?” I roll my eyes, “No one listens to me!”

“If you weren't such a baby I would finish.”

“I am not a baby. Do you see my knees!?” I point to them and they're bloody and crusted with dirt.

“You should learn to tame your dog.”

“You should learn to not bathe in dog food!!”

He snorts, reveals his dimple, “That's a good one,” He pulls out a box. “That's why you think Ruby is following me?”

“It's the only theory I could come up with.”

“Maybe she has a sixth sense,” He takes my hand unwillingly.

“Here we go again…” His hold is powerful alright!?

“Maybe she can sense the good in people.”

I scowl, “Good? Yeah right. What good do you do?”

“I'm a kind person.”

“Are you? Says who?” I allow him to hold my wrist this time, savor in the pressure of his fingertips on my forearm.

“Well, you stuck around long enough. Maybe you can feel it too.”

“You're…” I watch his eyelashes flutter. Woah. “You are an enigma.”

“Possibly,” His head dips lower, he works faster, applies more alcohol to a fresh cotton ball.

“Why?” He takes my other hand.

“Keeps people guessing,” His tone is hushed. “Makes them come back for more.”

“You want that? You know, for people to come back and be confused when they speak to you?”

His hand stops, he looks up, catches me off guard. It's a disarming gaze, penetrating, “You're confused?”

I hold his stare, “I don't know your name. I know nothing about you aside from your lack of nutrition and possible OCD,” I pause. “And you don't look at the weather. Except today. You've seemed to finally dress appropriately or somewhat.”

“See? You'll be forced to see me again in order to find out,” He looks down, touches his chest for good measure.

“Or continue asking with no luck," I mutter.

“Maybe I'm afraid people will leave.”

“I think leaving someone guessing is a way to scare them off.”

“Scare them off...ha. They'd do it anyway,” He quickly cleans the cut, dabs away the dirt and blood, places a bandage over the torn skin.

“Who?” I ask with urgency, “Have people walked away in the past?” He drops my hand.

“They wouldn't be able handle it,” He places his camera around his neck and puts his cap back on.

“Handle what-”

“Are your knees okay?” He pulls out a small bottle of hand sanitizer from his pocket and applies a liberal amount to his fingers and palms.

“Don't change the subject!” I grunt, “I'm trying to figure you out.”

“Well, you won't so it doesn't matter because you'll probably be like every body else,” He turns away.

“No,” I say matter of fact. “I will stay and find out. And when I do-”

“Then what? You'll shout it from the rooftop?” He snaps.

“No. I'll be your friend,” I correct. “Ruby and I. We'll be your friend so you won't feel alone.”

“Alone? Who says I feel that way?”

“Well, I don't. I'm assuming you do with the way you're talking to me. Or barely talking to me I should say.”

“I'm not alone nor do I feel alone.”

“So what's your problem then? Like- I'm not trying to be mean! I just want to know," I shrug. “I'm curious.”

He pauses, bites his lip, then proceeds to pull a bottle of water from the bag, “Curiosity killed the cat,” He dampens another cotton ball and hands it over. I look to him quizzically. “For your knees.”

“Oh," I nod and dab at the now dried blood. “I guess it's a good thing I'm a dog person.”

“Please hurry? I'm itching to wash my hands and you're making this even more of a challenge then it should be.”

Jesus Christ. Fine.” I mock and clean my knee off as best as I am able to. “Just so you know rubbing alcohol actually delays the healing process of a cut or scrape.”

His eyes widen, “What? Why did you let me-”

“No biggie. Didn't want to make you feel bad. Or worse.”

“At least you're honest.”

“Yeah, I meant every word,” I look to him. “Every word.”

“Oh," He turns away.

“Yeah so, get used to it, you know me talking a lot and being honest and sometimes annoying. Although I'm more helpful than annoying you see.”

“I highly doubt that,” His lips tug into a small smile.

“Just you wait and see!” I reach for another cotton ball, “I need more.”

“Okay sure,” He dampens a few and delicately hands them over. “You play the piano.”

“Yes I do," I say with gusto. “I'm very good too.” Well, was better at some point.

“Do you teach privately?”

“Nope. I don't have the time. Between chorus and drama my days are basically booked," I shrug.

“What about her?” He gestures towards my dog. “Is she okay alone all day?”

“I usually have my friend walk Ruby around two or three in the afternoon but she hates him,” I chuckle. “She nips at his hands, growls when he puts her harness on, purposely poops in his shoe if she’s close enough.” I break out into a fit of giggles. “It's so funny. One day he texted me saying she peed inside of his shoe right after they went out!”

“Oh. Is this friend of yours close to you?”

“Mmhmm. Have been friends since we were kids. She always hated him though. I don't know why. It's not like he treats me bad or yells at me or...I don't know," My smile fades. He tells people my secrets but... “She's protective I suppose.”

“Does she like anyone else besides me?”

“Yes!” But I bite my lip. No way am I saying his name.

“Who?” The boy asks. I glance at him and his hands are rubbing furiously.

“No one you need to concern yourself with,” I finish with the last of the cotton balls.

“I see," He says, his tone nonplussed.

I inspect my legs, “Good enough. Give me a bandage.”

“Sure," He rips the wrapping, peels back the adhesive. “Here you go.” He's holding it between his thumb and forefinger.

“I'm not diseased,” I snatch it out of his grasp in annoyance. Dude thinks I'm walking around covered in puss filled worts or something.

“I'm a-”

“Germaphobe and you only put your fears aside in an emergency. Got it," I slap on the bandage. “I need another one.” I demand.

“Already have it."

Once I'm finished I stand up and inspect my awful work, “I look like a freak.”

“They resemble knee pads.”

“So I could pass as a hockey player?”

“Not exactly. You're too small for that," His lips tug into a smirk.

“Ah let the height jokes commence,” I roll my eyes. “Please save em for later.” I grip my bag and loop my arms through the strap. “I've heard them all. And yes I was always the top of the pyramid in school.”

“What pyramid?”

“The cool kids pyramid. Duh,” I grip the leash. “Ready?”

“Um…” He stands, “Where are we going?”

“I haven't decided yet actually. I mean I want to like shower and get this sweat off of me,” I find his expression and his eyes are wide and hands rubbing with such intensity I fear he'll tear them up. "What?"

“Are you, what are you implying?”

“That I have to shower?” I shrug.

“B-but...but I said we-” Is he shifting his weight? Is he nervous!?

“Dude, you think…” I cackle, “You think I want to shower with you!? Seriously!? How loose do you think I am?” I can't even be angered towards him.

“I don't think you're loose I just, I don't know."

“No, I don't wanna shower with you. I want to shower alone and cry myself to sleep because you seriously killed my ego. But!!” I put my finger up before he is able to respond. “I am a-okay. Do you know why?” We begin walking uptown.

“No.”

“I believe in myself. That's why. You may have bruised my ego and stole my dogs attention, but I believe everything will work itself out. Everything I've worked so hard on will pay off. I will find my way,” I continue. “It may suck right now, like life may seem unfair but I can't let that damper my mood or else I'll just be sad all the time.”

“Oh,” I turn to him and he's staring straight ahead, his fingers are rubbing, his shoulders are slouched.

“Don't believe me?”

“I do,” He nods, glances my way quickly.

“So that's all I get? An oh?”

“You're the motivational speaker not me," He says.

“Well I was hoping to get some sort of reaction out of you. It didn't work? In fact, the only reaction I got from you was in response to possibly showering together. Maybe I should make sexual innuendos more often.”

“It's not necessary-”

“Oh but it is. Don't you see? I found out what makes you tick. I have to use this to my advantage.”

“It does not,” He defends.

“Yes it does,” I chug some water. “I'll test my theory don't worry.”

“When?” His palms are bright red.

“When the right time comes and will you stop doing that!” I slap his arm, “You're going to give yourself blisters.”

“No I won't,” He drops one hand, grips his chest with the other.

“Yeah well your skin is raw so stop.”

“No. I'll rub my palms when I feel like.”

“And give yourself blisters sure" -I drink some more water- “or get chapped skin.”

“I won't get blisters because I moisturize!!” He shouts.

“Ah!! He does express emotion!!” I witness his cheeks redden.

“You're terrible, Louis.”

“Possibly. Or I'm looking to get a rise out of you.”

“That's mean, Lou-ee.”

“It's not, insert name here, I want to get to know you.”

“By pissing me off?”

“Yeah. Exactly,” I throw the bottle away.

“That should be recycled.”

“And my farts should smell like flowers but you know what? They don't.”

“Uh... seriously you should recycle.”

“Too late," We head further up the street.

“Where are we going?” We are on 5th Avenue passing the ritzy side of town, well, one of the ritzy sides of town.

“Well, as I've said I need to shower-”

“We're going back to your place!?” Are we?

No.

Too soon.

I'm not ready.

“Nope.”

“Then...then-”

“Well, my home is up this way. A little further but this is the direction.”

“How much further? You live in one of these?” He points over his shoulder towards the luxury apartment buildings.

“Ha! You're funny,” I sneer. “I'm a teacher, not a plastic surgeon.” He visibly relaxes. “I live- wait!” I stop walking.

“What?”

“I'm not telling you where I live. So I guess we have to part ways.”

“Wh-what...wait...but-” He seems distraught. Seems. But who knows!

“Bye!!” I wave and continue on my way.

“Oh, but when will I see you again?”

I slow my pace, “Dunno.” I shrug.

“At the park?” His voice carries.

“Sure,” I offer him a thumbs up.

“What time? When? Where?” I stop, turn towards him, find his hand on his chest. I search his face, his eyes.

“What's your name?” He flinches at the question, “Just answer me.”

“I want to see you again.”

“What's your name," I say rather than ask.

“Please give me a time and place,” He practically begs. “I'll be there.”

“When you offer me your name, sure. I'll be there too," I turn away from him and force my legs to move. Come on... come on!!

“I can't."

I expel my breath, “Bye,” I wave. “Too bad, Ruby.” I whisper. “Too bad he couldn't see the good in me," I puff my cheeks, touch my ring finger. “I was trying too hard again I think. Or I got my hopes up...yeah that-” A hand grips my shoulder making me pause. “Huh?” I turn around.

“Harry,” He swallows. “I'm Harry.” Oh.

“I live in Morning Side Heights above the famous Tom's Diner. Have you ever watched Seinfeld? Yeah well, that's where I live," The words tumble from my mouth.

“Oh,” His arm drops to his side.

“You should go wash your hands now. They're probably covered in my germs.”

“I, I-” He swipes his palms on his shorts, “Maybe.” His eyes are diverted to the ground.

“Oh, no maybe. They are. Better take care of that.”

“I will," He clears his throat. “Are we seeing-”

“Tomorrow. Right here. 10am.”

“Really?” His tone sounds hopeful.

“Yeah," I nod. “Really, really.”

.

.

.

.

“What's with the camera?” I gesture towards it with my chin. “I see you carrying it around all the time. Is photography your thing? Do you prefer nature shots or candid ones of people?”

“Um…” He reaches for the camera, “Well-”

“I guess that's your past time?” We're walking through Bryant Park.

“Well I…” He seems unsure.

“Still keeping those secrets I see,” I mumble. “What did I say?”

“What didn't you say?”

I roll my eyes, “Me. Friend,” I point to myself. “Ruby. Also friend. Now spill.”

“But I-” He grips his curls. His eyes are hidden behind a pair of aviators so it's even more difficult to read him. Not like I ever could to begin with.

“I'll leave,” I snap. “Harry.”

He drops his arm, “I'd like to make it a full time gig one day,” He admits.

“That's better,” I nod. “Would you take wedding photos? Or climb the highest, most dangerous mountain top to get the best picture so someone can hang it up on their living room wall?”

“I'm not really into climbing actually," He admits.

“Who is when their life is on the line?” I extend my hand towards his camera. “Lemme see.”

“Absolutely not,” He shakes his head, pulls away from me.

“Why?”

“They’re just landscapes and of you know…” He shrugs.

“Did you take selfies in the bathroom? Like did you do the duck face and everything? Were you trying to be cute is that it?”

“No?” He shakes his head. “No," He sounds more adamant, confident.

“Nudies then?”

He sputters, “What!? Y-you, you would-”

“I'm sure they'd be beautiful,” I state without much thought because let's be honest... they would.

“How could you say that!? Or assume that I would...that I could possibly...how is that...What!!” He grips his sweatshirt collar, shifts his weight, eyes me wearily. “Wait, what did you say?” He pales slightly.

“Such a lovely day, right Ruby?” I smirk.

“Louis, what did you say? Well, if I heard correctly, why would you say it?”

I glance at him, “Nothing important.” I smile from ear to ear. “Oh!! I've always wanted to try that!” I point towards a stall. “Waffles!!” I bounce up and down. “Let's get it!!”

“What? Wait but I thought-” I grip his hoodie and drag him after me, “Hey.” He yanks my hand away. “Don't ever do that-”

“Chill, I washed my hands,” I swipe my nose to purposely gross him out. “Lets eat.” I wink and watch him grimace in disgust.

“Ew.”

“Whatever,” I look at the menu. “Oh!! I'll take the Belgium waffle with...with let's see…”

We're sitting on the steps of the New York Public Library after I order.

“Get in my belly!!” I take a bite, “Wooaahh!”

“I don't see the waffle underneath all of those toppings,” Harry is absolutely judging me. He's petting Ruby's head finally, gently running his fingers through her soft, golden fur. She's entranced by the touch, sleeping in a small patch of sun.

“It's there. Trust me,” He falls silent as I eat. “Tell me about your photography.” I say to get this dude talking. Be myself. That's what I have to do. Be myself then maybe I'll find myself.

Be myself.

Find myself.

Easy.

“There isn't much to say. I take photos. End of story.”

“Alright, how did you start? What was your inspiration?”

“Inspiration?”

“Yeah did you like see a particular photo that made you feel a certain way? Or was it something else? Or maybe you thought you'd want to recreate the same beauty?”

“Feel a certain way?” He repeats.

“Yah, like I dunno. Did it make you wish you were in the photo or something?”

“I don't…” He shakes his head in bewilderment.

“Okay, so when I was little" -I take a bite of my waffle, speak around the food to get a rise out of him- “my mother used to have these paintings in our house. The artist was known as the painter of light and would create these sceneries of cottages in the woods or a scene from the early 1920’s with horse and buggies and cobblestoned streets. He also painted famous places around the world such as Norway or the Amalfi coast. They were magnificent.” I swallow. “And I remember, when I would-”

“Why were they named the painter of light?” He interjects.

“Oh! Well the way he would paint light emanating through a window pane or a ray of sunshine seeping through the clouds, it would look like it was actually lit up, as if it had life, warmth. It was cool. Anyway, yeah so I would always imagine myself living in those paintings, fantasize about what it would be like.”

“You wanted to live in a painting?”

“No! It made me feel hopeful. Just like how a daydream should right? So yeah those paintings are my inspiration to you know have hope.”

“Or live in a cottage in the woods?”

“Oh boy…” I plant my head in my hand, “Sure.” I resign.

“That doesn't make sense.”

“Why? It inspired my imagination,” I take another bite of the chocolate sauce and spekuloos laden waffle.

“You can't live a life based off of your imagination.”

“False," I snap.

“Um, that's very much the truth because I imagined and daydreamed and hoped and...” He turns away. “Nothing became of it.”

“Well, if you're a painter or a photographer or some sort of artist, isn't that driven by imagination? The photos you take on a daily basis, those are not from up here?” I poke his curly head.

“Owe!!” He swipes my hand away, knocks my waffle to the ground in the process.

“Great!!!” I pull Ruby away from the mess, “Thanks. You just destroyed my lunch!”

“That was your lunch? A dessert waffle?” I pick up the now dirt laden waffle and throw it away in the closest garbage pale.

“Well yeah because I don't cook,” I frown as I mindlessly clean the mess. “I never learned how because my-” I clamp my mouth shut, bite my lip. He cooked. All the time.

“Because what?”

“My mother cooks for me,” I lie.

“Oh. Every night?”

“I go there, yeah after work,” I say, wipe my mouth off. “I go there after work, eat a quick dinner with my mom and siblings and head on home to feed this beauty.” I pat Ruby's head, “It's easier during the summer because I'm off.”

“That's nice of her.”

“Does your mother cook for you?”

“She does. But I also…” He sighs, “I live at home.”

My mouth pops open, “Really?” Fuck!!! How young is he?

Who cares!

“Yes," He says. “She doesn't mind. Neither does my dad but he's usually never home.”

“I see,” I sit back down and he's rubbing at his palms. Are the heels of his feet rubbing too? “Does your old man work a lot?”

“Yes. He's the...he…” He hesitates, falls eerily silent.

“Yeah?”

“He's the vice president of one of the largest financial firms in Manhattan,” He whispers.

“Seriously!?” I squeak. “So you're like... fucking rolling in the dough?”

“I suppose. But it isn't mine. And it's not for me. You know, his career path or the life.”

“I mean I wouldn't mind living in the lap of luxury rather than a small one bedroom apartment with a view of a brick wall. I do have great closet space though.”

“I'm sure it's lovely.”

“It's really not,” I shrug. “But it's home.”

“It's your cottage in the woods,” He drops his hands.

“It…” I close my eyes, picture our very first night in our new home, in a place where we would stay and maybe grow old together, in a place that we would fill with love and happiness. We were supposed to create so many memories. “It is.” I nod. “And I wouldn't trade it for the world.” Life is too short.

"I'm sure it's special.”

“But your home must be beautiful no?”

“It's not my cottage.”

“Gotcha. But you'll find yours one day. Maybe it'll be a studio apartment in Brooklyn or a townhouse on Long Island right on the beach.”

“Maybe,” His voice is saddened. “Or maybe I never really thought about it long enough to know.”

“That's alright too! Hey…” I scoot closer to him... accidentally of course. “It's okay you know? Not having a plan can be a good thing. You know living on the edge!”

“I'm not one for edges. They hurt too much when you bang into them.”

“Yeah well, not feeling pain will make you believe you're invincible and that isn't good either.”

“I don't feel invincible,” He takes a deep breath. “I feel like I'm a ticking time bomb just waiting to explode.”

“Why?”

He shakes his head, “Not today. Maybe in the future...maybe when I can figure it out for myself, find the words.”

“I…” I shrink back, “I'll be here to listen if you need.”

“I hope so,” He removes his glasses, glances towards me. Woah. Okay. Okay.

“Yup. I'll be here with open ears.”

“I…” He turns away, “Thanks.”

“Welcome.” I nod and begin to pet Ruby's head. You're not a stranger anymore. Now you're something else entirely.

.

.

.

.

August, whatever.

A cottage…

Where's my cottage?

I never expected to have a future.

Chapter Text

STUPID DEEP Playlist

 

“Let's see how far you can go tonight!” I have Ruby's dish in hand, “Ready girl?” I move backwards towards the kitchen.

“This ain't gonna work,” Niall says from the living room. He’s playing Resident Evil II (or at least trying to) and he's totally making an ass out of himself. “Ah come on!!!” He shouts at the television, flails his arm out, grips his blonde fringe.

“Use the knife, it deals more damage,” I remind, turn my attention back to my dog. “Ruby ignore your annoying Uncle. He's just a loser who can't keep his fucking mouth shut .” I snap. “You're such a good girl for pooping in his shoe.” She wags her tail, yelps with excitement. 

“I already said I was sorry. What do you want from me?” He calls out.

“To not tell people my damn business,” I inch further towards the kitchen. “You're not even watching Ruby's progress! This is huge, okay?”

“She's hungry, Lou. She'll follow you across the street for her dinner.”

“Shut it!! At least pretend!” She stops at the wall, “Ah man.” I pout. “Alright here you go. Good job tonight.” I put the bowl down, pet her head. “Maybe next time we'll go a touch farther.” I join Niall in the living room as he's being clawed to death by a zombie. “Dude, you suck at this game.”

He points to the screen, “I used the knife and that's the result of your shit advice."

“Pish posh. You're just a jackass,” I grab the controller from his hand.

“Stop with the insults. I'm starting to believe you actually mean them.”

“Uh, that's because I do,” I restart the game.

“I didn't tell Brendan any details. Only said that you were married before.”

“It doesn't matter,” I dodge a female zombie, shoot at another one in the distance. “You still said it.”

“He was gonna find out sooner or later if you kept seeing him.”

“Yeah but I wanted it on my terms, you know? I wanted to have that-” I slash at the unsuspecting enemy. “Bam!! That's how it's done.” I hand the controller back, “I wanted the control. Now with that knowledge out in the universe who knows who he'll tell.” 

“But you know what happened. There's still details he doesn't know. I didn't tell him anything past the marriage thing. I swear it," Niall pleads.

“I get it!! God damnit,” I frown. Don't take the Lord's name in vain. “Psh...what the fuck does he know?”

“Who?”

“Harry," I exhale deeply, think of the green eyed boy with the odd ticks.

“Who's that?” Niall faces me, places the controller on the coffee table.

“The kid I ran into at the park a few weeks ago. He finally told me his name.”

“Oh the one who-”

“Believes he's weird, yeah that one,” I say.

“So why do you still talk to him? Was it because he felt familiar?”

“Dunno. Could be,” I shrug, contemplate these warring emotions. “Dunno what it is that compels me to him. Ruby too. It's like he was always part of us, like he was always meant to be here. I don't know what it could mean. I don't get why I feel this need to not give up on him.”

“Not give up on what exactly?” 

“Understanding him. Being his friend. Listening to him,” I find Ruby in her bed snoring. Home . “There's something not right with him.”

“How could you say that if you don't know him?” My friend questions, his tone benevolent.

“I can feel it. I can sense he's missing something.”

“Maybe he has a learning disability? Or maybe autistic?”

“Could be. But I don't know. There's something buried deep that I have to find ," I scrunch my eyes closed at the admission. What's it mean? What does this mean!?

“Then continue hanging out with him. What's the harm?”

“The harm? Well I'm mildly attracted to him. Mildly . Not like head over heels for the guy but he's really nice looking, has a beautiful voice, possesses an underlying charm that he rarely exudes. But damn…” I shake my head in disbelief, “It gets me every time.”

“Woah there. You're turning all red and shit,” Niall thrusts his hand into his pocket, pulls a Snickers bar free. “Here eat this. You're a lovestruck fool when you're hungry.”

“Ugh!! Shut it!” I snap, “It's true alright?”

“I give you credit,” He puts the candy bar on the table. “For trying. For putting your feelers out there.”

“I sort of ran into him . There were no feelers out there feeling around for anything. It was purely accidental.”

“Hmm...I don't know. Maybe you were supposed to run into him. Like maybe this was-"

I interject, “Don't talk out of your ass. I don't believe in that fate shit,” I dismiss him. “We ran into each other because my dog likes good things . End of story. And besides he's far too young for me, so young that he lives at home with his mother, so young he still let's her cook dinner for him , so young that-”

“He lives at home?”

“Yuh. He does," I grip a pillow to my chest. “He carries this camera around too. All the time. Just carries it. Never takes a photo. Never talks about what he's capturing. He's mysterious.”

“And you're still attracted to him?”

“Maybe it's his innocence that I like," I begin chewing at my nail.

“His youthfulness you mean?”

“Maybe,” I shake my head. “Dunno. This is all strange to me.”

“Because of Stan?” I shudder at the sound of his name. Still . My heart still pulses in my chest. My stomach still bursts to life with butterflies. What for? He isn't here anymore.

“Yes, because of Stanley," I cover my face. “Because we started to date so young, because he was all I could ask for, because I wanted to have a life with him. But I guess the universe had other plans. And that's it, Niall. That's it. He was supposed to be it.”

“So maybe this Harry dude is a second chance. Maybe he's meant to rewrite your story.”

“My story has a sad ending.”

“He could be the sequal with the happy ending. Right?”

“Who knows. Maybe I'm getting ahead of myself? Maybe I shouldn't have scared off Brendan. Maybe I shouldn't have switched majors. Maybe I shouldn't have agreed to get married.”

“Now you're just jumping around.”

“I can't control my emotions when I'm like this,” I touch my chest, think of the way Harry grips his with such ferocity it makes me believe he feels a constant ache that's difficult to ignore. Ticking time bomb. Maybe I'm the bomb waiting to explode . “I'm all over. My brain runs in circles. Every decision I've ever made comes back to haunt me. All of those sleepless nights after it happened sucks the air from my lungs. I can't help it,” I sniffle. “Soon I'll start to cry...and blubber...and sob...and wheep...and-”

“So let's change that," Niall stands.

“Huh?” I frown, “How?”

“I'm calling Liam.”

“W-wait...why?” I swipe my eyes. “Why are you-”

“Let's get you drunk.”

“Drunk!?"

.

.

.

.

“What happened to you?” I'm resting on my back in the shade with my eyes closed, “You look a little pale.”

“Too much" -I hiccup- "tequila." My stomach is churning, my head is swimming, my limbs are heavy. Breakfast was a bad idea.

“Oh,” I hear Harry shuffling about above me. “You didn't have to come.” He whispers. 

“I did though so there's that,” I swallow past the nausea. “And I'm starting work soon so my free time will be hard to come by.”

“Oh,” I hear his palms rubbing. “I see.”

“Yeah,” I crack an eye open, thank the heavens that I decided to wear sunglasses, and watch him closely. His head is down, his curls are hanging in loose tendrils over his eyes, his shoulders are slumped. “I'm sorry.” 

“You're apologizing for having a career?”

“I'm apologizing because I'm slowly dying over here from a hang over and I'm wasting the afternoon away.”

“I don't mind," He glances towards me, holds his gaze steady. He's searching my face. “Just being here is good enough.” My heart flutters in my chest then. Huh!? His hands fiddle indecisively with the camera around his neck. 

“Comfortable silence,” I mumble.

“Yes,” He nods, wraps his fingers around the lens. “Yes sometimes I prefer…” He looks through the view finder, points it towards Ruby who's lying at my feet snoring. Really? He quickly snaps the photo. “Silence.” He finishes his thought.

“Usually…” I sit up, squint past the dizziness, “I hate it.”

“Is that why you speak so much?” He touches his chest. 

“Possibly," I offer him a small smile. “Or I get nervous and ramble on and on about the stupidest things to avoid the awkwardness that's usually associated with silence.” I shrug. “Who knows. But I can usually find something to talk about so it's never been a problem.”

“I know,” He chuckles softly, brushes the curls off of his forehead. 

“So you take pictures of my dog?” 

He wrings his hands, “Maybe.” His face is blank.

“And what else?” I urge. “What else tickles your fancy?”

“She looks cute like that,” He motions towards her sleeping form. “And I wanted to capture the moment.” He defends himself.

“I don't mind that you took her picture because I think she's damn cute too. I mean who could resist that face!?” I scratch behind her ears, disrupt her slumber. She groans. “Ah so adorable!!” I kiss the top of her head.

“That's why she prefers me,” Harry concludes. “Makes sense.”

“Why?” I continue to pet her.

“You bother her when she sleeps.”

“She literally sleeps all the time and for your information I only bother her when she looks like a little angel,” I gaze at her and she yawns. “Yup. See?” I reach towards his camera. “Lemme see it.” 

He shakes his head, “No.” 

“Why not? I watched you take it. What's the big deal?”

“Stop asking, please?” He grips his fingers.

I lay back down on the blanket, “Fine I'll stop being a pain in the ass. But one day you'll let me see it.”

“Don't hold your breath.”

“Who would have thought you'd be this rude! Are you sure there's good in you?” He doesn't respond, “Ah nothing to say to that?”

“No.” 

“So either you're admitting you're not a good person or you will eventually show me your magnificent photos!”

“Neither.” 

“What!?” I groan, “Blah to you. I'll find a way, just you wait and see.”

“And I'll laugh when you fail miserably.”

“Woah! Woah! Getting a little feisty I see,” I smirk. “Your cheeks are reddening. Are you angry?” 

No .” 

“Are you sure? Because right now it looks like you want to beat the shit out of me and honestly I wouldn't blame you.”

“I'd never do such a thing,” He slouches his shoulders. “It's not in my nature.”

“That's right because you're so good?”

“Exactly. I don't need to stoop to your level of pettiness to get my point across.”

“Ha! You're a funny one,” I close my eyes, cross my feet at the ankle. “If only I didn't feel like utter trash I'd be more exciting.”

“You're never exciting. You're usually annoying.”

“And you're usually weird but you don't see me pointing out your supposed flaws.”

“I admit to being weird. You on the other-”

“And I know I'm annoying. Did I not say I talk too much? I mean, that right there is like a red flag.”

“Mmm.” 

A wave of nausea hits suddenly, “Ugh...I am never listening to my friends ever again. Ever !! Do you hear me? There were too many shots and maybe a beer or two thrown into the mix too. It was a hot mess.”

“Did you have fun at least?”

“Not really.”

“So why did you go?”

“My friend is very convincing,” I hesitate a moment, contemplate whether I should open up to him or let it go for now. Why not though? Maybe he'll open up to me too. I'll leave out the details and see where it takes me , “He wanted to make me feel better.” I say eventually.

“Why would you go out if you were ill?”

“I wasn't sick . Well now I'm sick. I feel like complete shit but no I was…” I pause. “I was sad.” I'll say that much. That's good.

“Sad?” I turn to him when I note his distress, “Why were you sad?”

“I was a little emotional last night and needed a pick me up. So my friends proceeded to get me drunk.”

“What happened to not allowing life damper your mood?” Shit he was listening.

“Everyone has their Achilles's heel.”

“Oh. Why were you sad?”

“I get like that occasionally. You don't feel sad randomly? Like…” I puff my cheeks, “When you're reminded of something or some one maybe, it stirs all of these emotions in you? Maybe makes you cry?” 

“Yeah I know that feeling,” He admits. “Too well.”

“You do? What makes you sad?”

“I…” He grips his chest, turns away, “It's…” He shakes his head.

“Not yet?” I sit up, raise a tentative hand towards his shoulder. He's silent, “Harry?” 

He expels a breath, “What makes you sad?” He asks. “Are you able to tell me?” 

I drop my hand, frown, “Well that's not fair now is it?” 

“I'll tell you. Eventually. I will but I'm...afraid.”

“Of what?” 

He furrows his brow, “I guess I do fear being alone.”

“Who doesn't? Ruby here keeps me sane, my job keeps the anguish away, my friends help occasionally, they could be dicks too but for the most part they're amazing.”

“So does that make me a dick then?” 

I smile, “Yeah. You're a dick, sure.”

“So since I'm a dick, can you tell me why you were sad?” 

“Woah you backed me into a corner there," I nudge him with my elbow. "I thought of someone and their memory makes me sad. The thought of them tugs at my heartstrings. Their very name challenges my will power.” I close my eyes and see his face as clear as day, see the smile that made me go weak at the knees, feel his embrace. Ah damn . “I shouldn't allow this to happen. I should be stronger but I'm not. A person shouldn't have this much control over my emotions.”

“You're allowing them to,” Harry's voice is closer than I expected. 

“I'm not,” I deny. “They just have this effect on me and always have. Since day one. It's always been like this. I can't help it. My heart still pines for them.”

“So you're heartbroken.”

“Yes. I am. And I know eventually it'll go away. I know one day my brain will find the way out, that my path is laid out before me already and all I have to do is lift the blinders to see it.”

“The heart wants what it wants," His tone is stricken.

“Isn't that unfortunate,” I crack an eye open and he's so close. Woah .

“No,” He shakes his head. So... close .

“No?”

“Such an intense feeling should be embraced not feared.”

“I don't fear anything. I crave it which is the issue. I wasn't ready to be, to be…” Keep it together, “To face this world's challenges on my own. I was ready for commitment. I had it! But it went away” -I snap my fingers- “just like that. One day it was over.”

“So you felt love.”

“Yeah, I did.”

“Do you still feel it?”

“That's the real unfortunate part,” I watch his facial expressions, attempt to seep into his curly head and figure out what the hell he's thinking and feeling.

“Oh,” He whispers. “I see.”

“Yeah. Can't deny it.” 

“So did you eat your feelings last night too?”

“What?” I turn to him.

“You smell like McDonald's."

“I what!?” I sniff my shirt, under my arms, check my breath using the blow into your palm and sniff really quick technique. And there it is. “Nugs, man.” 

“What's a nug?”

“Chicken nuggets. I had a few chicken nuggets with french fries. Maybe even a bacon cheese burger and a McFlurry. Oh yeah and one of those apple pies.” I nod, “Yeah I ate like a damn King last night.”

“Wow,” His mouth falls open.

“No wonder I still stink of fast food. I'm sweating it out of my pores!”

“Eh...yum?” I lean towards him then. “What are you doing?”

“At least one of us smells good!” I comment after a quick sniff.

“What do you mean? Do I smell like B-O? I swear I showered this morning, put deodorant on, and fresh underwear.”

“I'm glad you know the basics of personal hygiene! Add that to the short list of things I know about you!”

“Do I smell bad?” He asks again with more urgency.

“No. You smell like coconut. It's nice.” 

“I-” He grips his chest. “Oh.”

“Is it your mother's shampoo or something?” 

“No,” He doesn't elaborate.

“Well? What smells like the islands then? Or should I say paradise? Because coconut always reminds me of the sun and sand and...the ocean. The beach in general.” What a honeymoon.

“It’s not shampoo,” His eyes are downcast. 

“Then shower gel?”

“Can we drop it please?”

“Your suntan lotion?”

“Louis.”

“Or maybe the fabric softener!”

“No!” He barks.

“Well it isn't your natural pheromones! What is it?”

“Coconut oil,” He mutters.

“Mmm...for what? Have a new tattoo!?” I reach for his t-shirt but he scurries away.

“No,” He shakes his head. “I, I like the way it f-feels on my skin. Yeah I like the way it makes my skin feel.” He concludes with uncertainty.

“Coconut oil?” I tap my chin in thought, “Really? Should I try it?”

“Definitely feels nice," I look to Harry and he's sweating profusely. 

“Are you alright there?”

“Never felt better. Just hot.”

“Did you drink today?”

“Yes and I had an egg.”

One egg , Harry. One. Egg, ” I shake my head in dismay. “Seriously?”

“I can't stomach much in the morning, so yes seriously that's all I had," He quips. "What did you have then? A full English breakfast?”

“Close! Bacon, egg, and cheese on a soft roll! A Long Island staple. It's a classic if you ask me.”

“Oh. You ate that even being as sick as you are?”

“It sops up the alcohol,” I touch my tummy. “But I sort of regret it now that I think about it.” I frown. “Yeah...that wasn't smart of me.”

“I agree.”

“I didn't ask for your opinion though.”

"I'll give it when I please.”

"Sheesh!! Are you secretly judging me right now? Like are you asking yourself why a twenty-seven year old got disgustingly drunk on a week night to drown out his sorrows? Or why he ate so much McDonald's he still stinks of the stuff? Or -”

“I wasn't thinking any of that actually," He interjects.

“So then-” 

“I was more concerned with your feelings not how you wanted to eradicate your sadness.” 

I sit up again, face him, “I never know how to that's the problem. I sort of let it take over and then I'm a jumbled mess. Kind of like the bomb metaphor you used. But I'm not like that all the time only when certain topics are brought up. Usually I'm good, my smiles are genuine, my laughter true, and I believe in seeing the glass half full.” I pause. “I don't want you to think I'm like that all the time because I'm not.”

“And if you were, it's okay.”

“I guess.”

“How do you feel now?” He rubs at his palms.

“Well, my stomach is twisting, my head is on fire, my cheeks tingle with nausea-”

“I meant emotionally. Are you okay?”

“Is that concern I hear? I feel like you're losing your impenetrable exterior! Is this even possible?”

“I'm a dick so of course I'm concerned.”

“Ah...I see. You're a good dick-” I chuckle, Harry gasps. “Scratch that. You're a good friend. At least so far .”

“So far?”

“You never know you can become the best dick in the future.”

“Me?"

“And who knows! Maybe you'll start to talk a little more and tell me what brand of coconut oil you use so I can sniff it when I'm lying in bed at night.” 

His eyes widen, “Why would-”

“It's a soothing smell and I never noticed it until now,” Our knees are practically touching. I never wanted to touch Niall before. So why do I want to touch you? “Why did you start using it?” I instinctively lean towards him, watch him instinctively move away, “Oh.” I stick my tongue out. “Sorry.”

“N-no. No it's fine,” He grips his camera strap.

“So!” I squash down whatever decided to slink it's way through. “Want to get a waffle?”

.

.

.

.

August 25.

Louis in a nutshell:

Teacher.

Twenty-seven.

In love (I wonder with who?).

Plays the piano.

Drinks probably too much.

Eats a lot of junk (I'll teach him how to cook).

Talks.

And talks.

And talks so much.

But I like it.

Too much.

.

.

.

.

“Sorry I'm late!” I find him at the corner with his hands stuffed into his shorts and a pair of sunglasses resting on his nose. And of course Ruby reacts and practically rips my arm out of it's socket, “Hi!” I'm dragged over.

“Hey,” He waves, pets Ruby's head. “I guess you're feeling better today?”

“Oh my God- "

" God ."

"-so much better. I feel like a new man! I took some Advil and passed the fuck out for the rest of the day. I only woke up to feed and walk Ruby. And she wasn't pleased with the length of her walk.”

“Why?” He giggles.

“This beauty is accustomed to like three hour strolls through Central Park that's why! She's legit got me wrapped around her finger.”

“At least she's cute.”

“Yes! I mean even if she weren't I'd probably still cater to her every wish. She's all I have! I have to make her happy.” 

“Oh."

“But sorry I'm late. I had to go to my classroom and set up and decorate and yadda yadda,” I shrug. “I do the basics. But I have a good color scheme this year rather than a hodgepodge of random quotes and laminated musical notes stapled to the wall. Now I have blue and green adorning my bulletin boards and even twinkle lights hanging around my dry erase board!”

“Oh," He mumbles.

“And I have meetings all next week before the kids come,” We make our way to the park. “A new year starts again!”

“Do you like it?” He asks.

“I love teaching and meeting the new kids. It's sad to watch them go but they're moving on with life, starting college, becoming something you know?”

“Yes,” His tone is hushed.

“And it's even better when they major in Music! Means I had some sort of influence. Well at least I'd like to hope I did. They could have had a passion for music before they took my class. Oh who knows. I'll toot my own horn for now.” 

“So did you always want to become a teacher?”

“No! Funny you ask. I actually started out as a performance major for Piano. It was so hard . I know I'm a decent pianist but damn some of the other students were incredible! I mean like  professional-grade. I definitely bit off more than I could chew. So I switched when my” -I bite my lip. Husband...well boyfriend at the time - “when I became a Junior.” After he asked me to marry him.

“Oh I see. I'm sure you're excellent despite your lack of confidence.”

“Meh."

"Where did you attend college?”

“MSM!”

“What's that?” He questions.

“Oh! Sorry, Manhattan School of Music. It's uptown right by my apartment. It's a great school and so much better than Julliard.”

“You didn't get accepted you mean," He jests.

“Ha!!! You're funny!!” I slap my thigh, “Of course I was accepted but they didn't give me enough of a scholarship. Now I'm not drowning in student loans and have a decent career. I'm doing alright.”

“That's great. And you're still playing.”

“Not as much but I am. Which I'm grateful for. My-” I turn away. Oh too many slip ups today . “I bought an upright piano and continue to play at home. That's why I was concerned about the fall and scraping my hands.”

“Did it hurt?” He sounds strained. 

“You were there don't you-”

“To play," He corrects. “Did it hurt to play.”

“Nope. I was all good,” I wiggle my fingers in his face. “Yup! Look at these beauties!” 

“Do you bite your fingernails?” He points out.

“What if I do ?”

“It's a disgusting habit.”

“You're a disgusting habit and you don't see me ignoring you.”

“You really think that?” I turn my head towards him, note his slouched shoulders. You're too melancholy today .

“Harry, no. I don't. You're no where near disgusting. Not even close. Not a smidgen. Not the smallest speck of dust-”

“I got it," His lips tug into a crooked smile. “That's good to know.”

“Yeah, Jesus ."

" Jesus. "

"How could you even believe for a second that you're disgusting or that I could think that? You're probably the best looking guy, besides me of course” -Harry rolls his eyes- “that I've ever seen. You're not disgusting.” I can spot a dimple! “At all.”

“Well my personality-”

“You're humbled, timid at times. It is what it is.”

“I haven't experienced much.” 

“And that's fine! You have your entire life ahead of you to experience and do and make a name for yourself. You have to get out there and do something! Make that change. Be the difference! Prove to the world you've got what it takes!” We turn towards the pond.

“Yes,” He grips his chest. “I have…” He simply nods.

“So are you in school?” I ask eventually. We're sitting in the grass watching an amateur soccer game. 

“What makes you think I'm in school?”

“You're not at work. And it's a Wednesday morning.”

“What if I'm also a teacher?”

“What if you're lying through your damn teeth!” I whack his arm.

“Owe!!” He rubs at his bicep.

“Tell me,” I lie down, remove my cap, and soak up some sun. “Spill your heart out.”

“Uh…” I hear him shuffling about, feel him lying next to me. Good my young Padawan , “I am.” He whispers.

“Am what? That tells me nothing.”

“In school. College . I'm in my sophomore year of college.” Fuck. Okay so the kid is probably twenty.

Oh well I guess I'll be a brotherly figure.

“That's wonderful. What's your field of study? Are you traveling abroad? Do you have a lot of friends? What about your classes? Do you enjoy them? How are they going?”

“Um...well…” He pauses, “They're... I'm doing okay.”

“You skipped the other thirty-five questions I asked.”

“It was like rapid fire.”

“I have a lot to learn. So freaking spill the beans!”

“I don't like beans.”

“Then spill anything. Tell me or I'll tickle you to death.”

“Um... photography.”

“Cool. I sort of figured that. How are classes?”

“Difficult.”

“Explain.”

“I need to put together a portfolio of my work.”

“That's hard? Dude, I had to learn all three movements to Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata in a month! Taking photos I'm sure isn't as challenging.”

“Yeah well, it was for me. Is for me I should say.”

“Why? Just find something you enjoy.”

“I have.” 

“So take loads of pictures of it from every angle, in different lighting, in different locations. Tell a story through the photos. Express emotion. Express yourself.”

“I am,” I can hear his palms rubbing.

“So what's the issue?”

“I'm not subtle enough.”

“I'm confused.” 

“The story isn't complete yet.”

“Finish it then,” I urge. “It needs an ending.”

“It's a work in progress.”

“How far along are you? Do you need inspiration? Direction? A hint? Anything?”

“I have plenty...I…” He's shuffling about again, “I can't...it's…” I squint my eyes open, turn my attention towards him. He's sitting up with his legs crossed, his hand is gripping the collar of his shirt, his shoulders are slumped. You don't look stable .

“What is it?” I sit up too and face him, “Are you alright? Look, college is a difficult time, probably more so than High School because everyone is walking around with an air of confidence pretending they know what they want from life. They have these delusions of grandeur, believe their shit don't stink , pretend !! But don't you think for one second they're not struggling in one way or another,” He's still quiet. Huh??? Guess I'll keep going . “And you're having difficulty with your portfolio. So what? Do you think everyone else isn't? It just isn't true. They all have to make a good impression too so I'm certain they're just as worried as you are.” He shrugs. “Oh good you're listening to me. I was convinced you weren't.”

“I like listening to you,” He confesses. 

“Oh,” I clamp my mouth shut. “Well that's good. Will you take my advice at least?”

“I understand what you're saying but that's not my problem.”

“So what is it?” I poke the camera dangling from around his neck, “Why are you so intimidated by your portfolio? Just put your best foot forward, put all of your energy into it, don't over think it.”

“I have my subject in mind but don't know how to capture it.”

“Um…” I scratch my head, “Wait but you just point the camera and shoot . No? What am I missing!?”

“I prefer candid shots.”

“Oh! So they have no idea you're taking- ah-ha!! The element of surprise!!” 

“Yes,” He nods. "True emotion. Nothing artificial. Nothing staged."

“I'm sure anyone would be flattered enough to be the subject of your portfolio.”

“Not really.” 

“Why?” 

“I think they'd be embarrassed if anything.”

“No way. Why? It's for your eyes only and your professor's of course. So what's the big deal?”

“Not if you win.”

“Win what?”

“It's a contest.”

I tap my lip, “I thought it was a portfolio of photos."

“Yes it is. It's a requirement to earn my degree but it's also entered into a contest. The student who wins is given the opportunity to study abroad in Italy for free.”

“And you want that?” 

“Yes,” He nods. “A lot actually.”

“You can't just ask dear old daddy to send you overseas for a few weeks? Or maybe sign up for the program yourself?”

“He doesn't want me to go.”

“Uh why? You're an adult. You should be allowed to do whatever it is you please and having the opportunity to travel abroad and experiencing the world and immersing yourself in culture and eating some ridiculously good food is part of that!!” I take a deep breath. “Who would say no!?”

“Long story,” He whispers.

“We have all day,” I remind.

“I don't want to talk about it.”

“But I do. I want to know why you're dad doesn't want you traveling. It's beneficial to your young mind.”

“No,” He deadpans. 

“Well, that's wonderful,” I roll my eyes. “What about your mom?”

“That's why I have to win the contest. I win. I can go overseas for free.”

“Blah to you ,” I sulk. “At least tell me who your subject is?”

“Absolutely not,” He finally lifts his head.

“What the hell!” I sulk, “Why not!!”

“If I win, I'll show you. How does that sound?”

“Alright,” I relent. “ Fine you stingey pain in the ass. How many people are entered into this contest ?”

“About two thousand,” 

My eyes widen, I sputter on my saliva, “What!!” I drop my head in my hands. “Ugh!!!” Ruby groans from her place in the grass. “Girl! Do you believe this!? Your favorite human is driving me insane!!”

“I'm not her favorite.”

“And he isn't telling me anything!!” I continue, “It's starting to hurt my feelings .”

“I'm sorry,” His tone is apologetic, remorseful. 

Whatever. I'm getting a waffle,” I jump up, throw my cap back on, and tug up the blanket.

“Right now you want a waffle?”

“Yes I'm hungry. I had a busy morning and need to fill my tummy up with something delicious.”

“Why not real food?” He stands, adjusts his glasses.

“McDonald's?” I suggest as I neatly fold the blanket and shove it into my backpack. “I wasn't really in the mood for a burger. I have a bit of a sweet tooth you see.”

“I meant something home made.”

"Take out?" I nod, "Ah that's not a bad idea."

"Not something you purchase at a restaurant. I meant what you have at home to prepare and cook."

“My fridge is filled with take out rice and boiled chicken for Ruby,” We begin to walk back to the path. “I don't cook. Remember? Because I actually tell you shit.”

“I do,” He nods. 

“That's fantastic. How does that help me right now!?” I grunt. “I'm hungry!!”

“Chill out,” He takes Ruby's leash and makes a right

“Wrong way!! Waffle truck is that way .” I point behind me.

“But my parent's place is on 5th Avenue.”

“I don't care where-” My eyebrows shoot up in surprise. “Wait you live in one of those buildings!?” I follow after him, “Will they allow Ruby inside? She's a big dog. They might not-”

“They don't rent,” He clarifies. 

“So!? There still could be rules! I'm sure there is a rule board or a list of regulations all residents have to abide by! That's how this works!!”

“Louis, it's fine. Trust me.”

“Well, I don't,” I frown.

“You don't?” He stops walking.

“I don't know you,” I say even though I will it to be untrue. “I don't think it's a good idea.” You're too young. I'm too confused. We both don't need this right now.

He turns away, “You're right. This was stupid.” 

“It wasn't stupid. You were caught up in the moment and wanted to I guess teach me how to cook! It's not a-”

“It was stupid ,” He hands the leash back. “I'm going home. See ya.” He shoves his hands into his pockets and walks away without another glance.

“Oh,” I look down at Ruby who's intent on watching Harry. “I was only being honest.” 

.

.

.

.

August...I don't give a shit!!

Stupid.

What's the matter with me?

He's almost thirty. What could he possibly want from me?

What's he getting out of this?

What am I getting out of it?

Why can't I stop myself?

.

.

.

.

“Invited you to his parent's place!?” Niall asks, “Holy shit.”

“Well he lives there too but it was...I don't think he realized?” I shrug, take a sip from my beer, “I think he wanted to show me how to cook you know? I guess my obessesion with dessert waffles and fast food repulse him.”

“Or he wants to maybe…” He gestures towards his crotch. “He's a college kid, probably has urges and an insatiable need to get his dick rubbed.”

“Don't we all though? I mean you're like a damn child who just discovered his pee-pee.”

“What's that supposed to mean!?” 

“Dude!! Really? Must I explain!?” I sigh. “You've flirted with every chick in this place, gave out free shots to those ladies over there.” I point to the other end of the bar where a group of relatively attractive women are sitting. “Get real! You're looking to get laid.”

“I'm not disrespectful!" Niall stamps his foot, jabs his finger in my face, "If I find a woman attractive, I speak with her, get to know her , see if the feeling is mutual . I'm not an animal!"

"Alright, alright. Don't get your frilly, pink panties in a bind. I was joking..."

“Why don't you flirt with one then?”

I flinch, “With who?” 

“A chick at the other end of the bar.”

“Um... reality check. I'm into men . Do you really need the reminder?" I chug my beer.

“No shit but you can easily work on your flirting game, try and pick one up. See if you got it.”

"Like you do? Ha!"

"Leave me out of this. This is about you."

"Of course always is," I exhale a deep breath. "How did you do it when we were kids?"

"It's the blue eyes," He waggles his eyebrows. "And the smooth talk, the hair, the charm, the-"

I throw my hand up, "Shut it."

"Just do it? Come on! They're nice women!"

“What if she wants to get physical? What if she wants to have sex and do hands on activities!? She'd run for the hills when she realizes I have no experience with female parts!! I don't even know how to roll on a condom."

"Huh?" 

I throw my hand up again, " Don't ask ."

"Um...sure." 

"I'll stick to the dick if you don't mind.”

“It's just a suggestion.”

“A really shitty one. I mean they'll know I'm gay instantly because of my dainty wrists and pretty face," I smirk. "If anything, they'd probably be jealous."

“Or they will think you're absolutely adorable and want you to join their clique.”

“Hey I'm a girl's best friend!”

“And how did I get stuck with you again?”

“Childhood. Sorry man, I didn't know what I wanted until it was too late,” I finish off my beer, slam it down. “Alright. I'm out.”

“Already!? It's only 10pm!”

“I have to start getting back into a routine. School starts next week and I refuse to be sleepy for the first few days. The kids are rowdy and loud and coming down from their end of summer highs. I have to remain as coherent as possible.”

“I get it...I get it.” 

“Bye!” 

.

.

.

.

The alarm clicks off.

“Aahhhhh!!!” I groan into the pillow. “Why?” I grip my fringe, curse my stupid idea to wake up early to prepare myself for work, beg to the sleeping God's to give me one extra week of vacation! But it's no use...summer is over and life has returned.

“Ruby!!” I cry out to her, “Ruby come and carry me to the kitchen!” She groans from the entryway, remains planted in place. “You hate me that's it. You can't stand the sight of me! You won't miss me at all.” I sulk. The alarm continues to beep. “Grrrr!!!” I press the off button and crawl out of bed. “Stupid...I'm damn-”

“You're right this was stupid .

“Hmm…” I run my fingers through my hair, wipe my mouth, and tug at my boxers. “Ruby, was I wrong yesterday?” I find her by the door. “Should I have gone to his parent's place ? Maybe it was purely innocent. Maybe he wanted to just show me how to cook. What if he was going to open up? Did I miss the opportunity!?” I plop down next to her. “Really? Did I fuck up?” I pet behind her ears. “I like the kid. He's quiet but he listens. He doesn't speak much but he has the answers. He's very intelligent but doesn't flaunt it.” I puff my cheeks, grip my ring finger. “He's just too afraid, too unsure! I want to help him you know? I want to see him flourish into someone magnificent. I want him to win that contest!!” I decide. “That's it!! He will win that trip!! And I'll be sure to help him as best as I can!! Today when I meet him I'll tell him just that.”

.

.

.

.

But he isn't here!!

I'm at the corner of 5th and 72nd right by the park entrance. It's nearly noon and Harry hasn't showed. I took Ruby for a short walk up to Columbus Circle, crossed through the park and made my way back here. But…

“He's not coming?” I frown, “That sucks.” I sigh. “Alright well, we can play some fetch okay?” I turn to Ruby and she's seated by my feet watching the passersby. “He isn't coming today I don't think. I suppose he had other plans or maybe I did scare him off. But I hope that's not true! I was only being honest.” I tug at the leash. “Come let's play some fetch.”

.

.

.

.

“Not here again!?” I came to the usual place at the same time, waited for a good twenty minutes, took Ruby for her walk, wasted my time! “Ugh!!!” I groan and continue with my day.

.

.

.

.

And again! Nothing…

.

.

.

.

I think I'm going to give up.

.

.

.

.

“He didn't show," I shove a fry into my mouth. “And I waited, Niall. I waited for him and waited and-”

“Waited?” 

“Yeah!! And it's like I don't exist anymore because I didn't want to go back to his parent's house!! What's that!? I don't want to go to his parent's house! What if they get the wrong impression? What if they think we're dating !? What will I do? I'm so much older than him! I'm like practically a grandpa!!”

“How old is he?”

“He's a sophomore in college. Well going to be I'm assuming this semester. That's like...twenty? That's seven years !! Seven!!! So many...too many years.”

“What's the issue? I know you're attracted to him-” 

“Not like- no! Not in that way. Not in the I want to bed him like! Or I want to kiss him or I want to hold his hand or...or looking to replace-” I frown, shove a handful of fries into my mouth before I finish that thought. 

“Replace Stan?” The thought makes my stomach churn, “You're not replacing anyone. Why do you feel that way?” He dips his burger into a mound of ketchup on his plate.

I shrug, “It'll always feel like that to me.” I push the food away. “I'll always feel like I'm cheating or I'd question my motives or I'd find some way to sabotage any potential future if it were to come along.” I cover my face in shame. “Or find some excuse that I'm not ready. That my heart isn't ready to offer love yet. That my very soul can't find it's way out. I belonged to him. I was his. I need him,” I bite my lip, turn away. “I slipped up a few times with Harry too. I was reminiscing about college, talking about the good ole days when I was a performance major-”

“Stan shouldn't have asked you to switch," My friend deadpans.

I grimace, “What?”

“That was selfish of him. You loved to play!” Niall points to the piano situated in the corner, “And buying that wasn't enough!”

“He wanted me to have a stable job that's all. He felt as a performer there were more risks involved because the salary could fluctuate and I could go for weeks without pay if I didn't-”

“You had the capability of making it professionally!!” I shudder at his tone, his adamantcy, “He robbed that from you and you know it.” 

“Don't start blaming Stan for this! It was my choice eventually and I switched. I couldn't handle the practicing and the pressure and the competition and- and they were all so good! And my fingers are not as long as theirs were. I had difficulty hitting some chords.”

He shakes his head, “No you didn't. You always found a way, you reminded yourself of the passion you had for the music and that's what helped you! You worked so hard!!" My friend shouts.

I look to him in astonishment, “Woah, are you alright there?”

“I'm just annoyed because you were meant to perform at Lincoln Center. You should have been on that stage playing Brahms or Chopin or some famous composer's work! You had dreams too and I feel like…” Niall diverts his gaze, picks at the bun on his burger, “Stan took that from you because he wanted you to have a steady income while he studied to become a lawyer. He didn't think of the dreams you had as a child or all those times you chose to practice over hanging out. You were focused and…” I grip my ring finger, suck in a quivering breath, “And you lost some of that when you took the relationship more seriously.”

“I did. I can't even deny it,” I reveal. “I guess my priorities changed.” I slump back into the couch. 

“Yeah. Now you watch speed runs and teach snot nosed brats at a private school.” 

“I found my steady paycheck though.” 

“And now you need to find yourself."

“Ugh…” I focus on the television, “I do, Niall. I do I guess that's why I want to help Harry. I feel like if I help him succeed it'll give me a sense of accomplishment. And I know it sounds stupid but if I am able to get him overseas into that program, I know it was me who did it.” I stare blankly ahead. “It will prove I'm not lost anymore.”

.

.

.

.

“Well Ruby I don't think he's going to show again,” I look down at her and her tail is wagging, her tongue is out, her eyes are searching the commuters crowding the sidewalk. “Maybe he's overly sensitive? Or easily offended? But I swear I was thinking of his needs just as much as my own. It wouldn't have been a good thing at least I don't think so. Or maybe it would have been? I could have learned how to cook! And maybe not rely on Chinese take out or McDonald's or dessert waffles or...junk in general. Ugh!! I'm such a-” Ruby pulls the leash, sends me forward. “Ah!!” She tugs, and barks, and whimpers, and groans!! “What! What's wrong!?” I look down the street and- 

“He's there!!” I practically jump, “Ruby!! He came.” I watch him approach, inspect his usual Velcro sneakers, athletic shorts and heavy cotton t-shirt sitting just at the base of his neckline. His cap is backwards, his glasses are in place, his stride is purposeful and long, and he's smiling. “Woah.” And the camera is in his hand this time at the ready, “Well, Ruby I wonder what happened?” She jumps up. “I'm totally asking don't you worry!” She whines. “Totally going to rip him a new one for leaving us hanging and hurting our feelings!”

“Hey,” He offers a crooked grin, reveals that adorable little dimple I'd like to crawl into and call home.

“What the fuck ,” I grunt and point directly into his startled face. “I came and waited and waited and poor Ruby!! She was expecting to see you and was waiting for you and it was rude okay!? So rude and uncalled for and ugh!! You were upset that I didn't want to come to your parent's place which it wasn't a stupid idea in the least. You were only being friendly and I was just too afraid I suppose. But I missed you- we missed you!” I point between my dog and I, “I start work next week and how could you ruin those last few days!?” I take a deep breath. “And-”

“I'm sorry for not showing,” He says, his tone apologetic.

“Uh…” My mouth clamps shut.

“I start class next week and had to finalize some paperwork with the Bursar's office. My dad was only available those few mornings and I needed to take advantage," He says. “I didn't have your number to call and let you know that I was unavailable.”

“Should have sent a carrier pigeon,” I grumble.

“Why didn't I think of that?” He pets Ruby's head, scratches behind her ears. 

“Alright so you were preparing for college. You're forgiven.”

“Oh thank goodness. Can't have Louis angry with me or else.”

“The wrathe you'd face would be deadly. I wouldn't hold back either." I watch him pet my dog in greeting, note the curls looping around the cap, admire his soft whispers as he speaks to her. He's a gentle soul and even more gentle with his hands, “But I'll give you a pass.”

“Really? I'm in the clear?” 

“Yeah, yeah. For now. So don't fuck up again!” 

“Or what? I could easily throw you over my shoulder if you became physical."

“And drop me by accident!? You're such a klutz!!” I say, “You and those long, gangly legs.” They're muscular too but he doesn't need the compliment .

“I didn't think I was clumsy.”

“Oh but you totally are!” I turn away and begin our walk, “I see it sometimes. I catch you trip. I see your lack of coordination-” I hear the shutter then. “What's that?” I turn around and he's a good fifteen feet away. “What are you doing?” 

“Capturing the moment,” He loops the camera around his neck and catches up with us.

“What moment is that?”

“Just a moment is all,” He avoids my eyes. “A moment that meant something. A turning point.”

“A what?” 

“Something life changing.”

“You're confusing.”

“Sometimes.”

“You're trapped in your own head I think.”

“I'm trapped in moments too.”

“What moments are those? Like what do you want to keep close? Or relive over and over? Is that why you like photography? You are able to live in a single moment forever?”

“Could be," He shrugs. “I've always liked it.”

“Well, it's good to persue your dream! Turn it into reality!” I encourage.

“Yes.” 

“Mmm...still a man of very few words although you actually explained your absence before in detail. I'm surprised I know when you start classes.” 

“You deserved an explanation.”

“And I deserve to know what you took a picture of. You know because I've been so patient with you and understanding and kind and just plain awesome!”

“You really enjoy tooting your horn.”

“Hey! Hey! Having confidence never hurt anybody. I'm looking to spread the positivity!”

“Or just tooting your own horn,” He snorts.

“Oh blah to you .” 

We're on the great lawn, taking a break from our walk.

“You were afraid,” He says out of the blue.

“Was I? When? I don't recall being afraid or having stated I was afraid of anything. When did I say that? Now I'm confused.” 

“About coming to my parent's- my place,” He's sitting cross legged, Ruby is lying across his thighs. It's an odd sight. She only did that with Stanley .

“But I…” I tap my lip, “I did?” I said I was afraid?

Am I?

Am I afraid to be alone with him?

“Yes, Louis. You did. Are you?” I fall silent unable to reply, “Is that a yes? It's okay if you are. I understand. We really don't know each other.” 

I shake my head, “I want to see you win that trip abroad.” I say instead because I don't know how I feel. Be alone with him? Aren't we alone now?

“Oh.”

“I want you to win, Harry,” I push those thoughts aside. “And I want to make sure you get that chance to make a name for yourself. I want you to take pictures in Florence, immerse yourself in the beauty of the Spanish Steps and the other Roman architecture, take a gondola ride through Venice and eat some incredible Neapolitan pizza. I want you to succeed and be happy .” I continue with vehemence, “I want you to follow your dream.”

“Why?” He asks incredulously. 

“Because some of us gave up our chance, we destroyed our opportunity because life got in the way. You don't have to though. You're still young and I think it's important for anyone to seek their happiness.”

“Oh," His palms are rubbing. “I see.”

“I think it's silly your father doesn't want you going. And I may not know the whole story but he's just being selfish. Whatever is bothering him shouldn't stop you.”

“There's more to it than you'll ever know,” I glance at him. “A lot.” He grips his chest. “It's not his fault.”

“Of course it is. You're a heathly-”

“Sure,” He snorts. “ Heathly .”

“You're a healthy twenty something-”

“Nineteen.” Oh boy.

Oh boy.

Oh.

Boy.

Literally.

I mask my concern.

“- Nineteen year old and I think you should take advantage of what your college has to offer.”

“You don't understand his reasons though.”

“So you agree with him then.” 

“I didn't say-”

“You want this!” I face him, “You told me you wanted this badly! Why do you care what your dad thinks!? This is for you and he's holding you back!”

“He isn't,” His palms are rubbing...and rubbing and rubbing !! “He isn't holding me back.” Why is he defending his dad all of a sudden!?

“He is . Even if it's not apparent to you, it is to those on the outside looking in. I know when I can see a parent stifling their child for their own selfish reasons!”

“No,” He shakes his head.

“Yes, Harry!!” My shout startles Ruby but not him. He's frozen. “Yes damnit! I see it!! I know it!! I see the same look in your eyes when I see one of my students being held back. And your old man is doing the same thing!!”

“You don't understand," He's eerily calm.

“Then tell me,” I persist.

“No,” He chokes, shakes his head. “I'm sorry but I can't.”

“Now that's stupid .” 

“It isn't though."

“It is stupid!! Do you know why? Because you keeping whatever this is bottled up will hold you back . You'll never go to Italy. You'll be stuck here rubbing your palms and carrying around a camera taking pictures of the shrubs.” 

“With you," He whispers.

“No. You won't be with me because I've just decided something,” I pound my chest. “I will start to play more seriously again. I'll find a small concert hall and perform. I'll live my dream . I will!! Just you wait and see.”

“And I can't wait to watch you. I'll be your biggest fan.”

“God-"

" God. "

"-damnit Harry!” I throw my hands in the air in aggravation.

“Wh-what?” He knits his eyebrows.

“You have to win!!” 

“F-fine...fine... I'll-” He stammers.

“Take a picture of this then,” I demand. “This is life changing, a moment that should be captured and remembered for years to come.”

“It is?” He turns to me and his eyes are blood shot, his lips downturned, “Why?”

“You're doing this for yourself. That's why.”

“If you…” He takes the camera, “If you insist.”

“I do,” I nod, shuffle towards him, sit directly next to him, ignore his side-eye. “Shuddup and take the damn picture.”

“Oh... with...me? I wanted to-”

“Just you? I am fully capable of operating a camera!”

“I meant...just you,” 

I turn to him, “I didn't do anything.”

“You're doing everything.”

“But I'm not?” I shake my head.

“Please?” He asks and how can I deny him? How? 

I puff my cheeks, “If you want, sure.” I scoot over to my spot. “It won't be candid then.” I run my fingers through my hair, swipe the fringe from my forehead. “It'll be forced. It will go against everything you believe in and want in a photo.”

“No it won't.”

“Why?” I ask.

“I took it already.” 

“When!?” I stare at him in disbelief, “I didn't hear the shutter. I didn't...you...you're damn sneaky!!”

“I guess.”

.

.

.

.

We're standing in line waiting for lunch. Gorilla Cheese NYC. Certainly one of my favorite food trucks!

“You're not a stranger anymore," He says randomly.

“I'm not!? Really!? I feel so honored. I've made the exclusive list.”

“Shut up.”

“No! That's impossible for me to do. Shut up. Ha! It's not even part of my vocabulary. I was born to talk and ramble and voice my opinion most people couldn't care less about but I love it. I've scared off the haters and attracted the lovers, made some excellent friends, threw away the nasties.”

“Do you have a lot of friends?”

“I do. Considering I was ma-” I shake my head, “You know so busy with work and stuff. I managed to maintain all of my friendships.” Fuck. Idiot. Jackass!!

“Oh.”

“Don't worry they won't impede on our time together.”

“I don't want to keep you from your friends.”

“But Harry, you're a dick too remember? So why not...why don't you come to the bar with us?” The words tumble out accidentally. Right!? 

Yeah sure.

“Me?” He shakes his curly head, “They'll hate me for sure.”

“Why? You're a nice guy. You can't drink but hey there are pool tables in the back, usually a decent band playing, lots of-” I pause, “-chicks to talk to.” Because is he into men? 

Who knows!!!

“Chicks?” He rubs his palms, “I don't-”

“Yeah plenty of them. All ages,” I grip my ring finger. “You'll meet my best friend Niall too. He's the bartender.”

“What is this place?”

“A small bar up town.”

“Where?”

“Near my apartment. I'm there all the time.”

"Your best friend works at a bar near your apartment?" He continues to probe.

"Yeah! We went to MSM together. He couldn't leave my side after high school so we went to the same college. Although he'll never admit that he needs me," I point to myself. "I'm awesome." I smirk.

"I bet," He rolls his eyes. "What did he study?"

"Theory and Composition."

"Oh." 

"Yeah. Boring . I know! Like I teach theory and can admit it's not the most entertaining of subjects. Some days I have to whack my ruler against the wall to wake up the class!"

"That sounds horrific," He shifts his weight, grimaces.

"Yeah well, I can't whack em on the head. This is best way to wake them up," I shrug. "Oh well. They all appreciate me so it's alright."

"You both ended up remaining near your University."

"Yeah. It's a cute little area and Niall had the bartending job through college so it was easy to stay."

"What about you? What kept you here?" My heart beat quickens, my face flushes. My husband. Our apartment. His schooling.

"My job is close-" Lie. "-and it's easier to commute." Actually it's the shittiest. 

"Oh. You drive?"

"N-no. I don't! Who needs a car when you have the New York City subway just below your feet?" There isn't a subway stop for at least two miles.  

"Oh," He touches his chest, toys with the camera strap, occupies his restless fingers.

"Yup!!" I take a step forward in line.

"He bartends though? What happened to his degree?" Harry questions further. Honestly, I'm happy that he's talking. I just wish it wasn't so one sided.

"He writes all the time still! Just hasn't made it to the major league yet, ya know what I'm saying?"

"I suppose so. Is it that difficult?"

"Yeah. The music industry is saturated with writers and instrumentalists, and any form of talent really. He's having a bit of a hard time finding the right fit." 

"I see," He continues to rub his palms.

"He'll find something eventually I mean it's taking a little longer than expected but at least he's working."

"It's a good thing you switched majors then."

I hide my reddening face, "Uh...yeah I mean I'd probably be working at Chip-n-Dales as a back up dancer." Or living at home. Oh God.

"What's that?"

"W-well…" My cheeks redden further, "A female strip club." I bite my tongue.

"You'd…" His hands stop their motion, "Strip for women?"

"Or whoever went in!" I force a giggle, mask my growing discomfort, "You know...give a...a lap dance?" Lou, shut up!!

"Any paying customer?"

"Y-yeah," I stutter. "Anyone who's willing to slip a dollar bill into the strap of my underwear."

"A dollar isn't enough," He looks to me, sizes me up I'm sure. Yeah whatever to you. Wait until you see what's underneath.

"Anything would be enough if you're desperate for the cash."

"So you're saying you'd strip for money?"

"Um…" I shake my head, "Wait, we were talking about meeting at the bar not about my pretend back up plan!" 

"We were?" He asks.

"Yes you, dope. We were and you completely side tracked me. Was that a tactic of yours?" I move up again in line.

"Possibly," His lips tug into a smile. "Did it work?"

" Possibly ," I mock. "But seriously do you wanna come? My friends don't bite. You'll meet Liam too. He's a great guy! Super friendly, a little dense at times but he was part of our trio growing up!"

“No,” He shakes his head. “No I'm sorry. I can't.”

“Why?” I feel my shoulders slump in defeat.

“Because I'm too young and I don't want to kill the mood for anyone or get in between your trio .”

“You're not killing anything or getting in between us. Liam only comes once in a while because he moved to Jersey. And we usually don't get plastered. We just chill at the bar and-”

“Flirt with the chicks?” He assumes.

“Uh...well not exactly. I don't usually flirt with the chicks at all. But you can! You're charming in your own unique way, you're nice looking. You can reel someone in.”

“But I'd rather not.”

“Why? Just ditch the hat and you'll be surrounded . Oh!! It's our turn to order,” I walk up to the food truck. “I'll take the Mac Attack and...hey” -I turn around and Harry's white faced- "um…” I face the man again, “Make that two.” I tell them and pay. “What's wrong?” I approach him and hand over his lunch. 

“I don't want to flirt,” He frowns, unwraps the sandwich, and freezes. “This is huge and greasy. Are they clean? Did the worker wash their hands?”

“It's fabulous and yes this place is famous and don't serve crap,” I reassure. “Come let's eat.” We find a bench in the shade, “So what happened?” I take a bite. Woah

“Nothing," He also takes a bite and his eyes widen. “Wow.” He moans around the food. “This is...you can't eat this often.”

“Certainly not. It's awful for you but it's okay once in a while,” I break off a piece of bacon and feed it to Ruby. “Harry what happened before. Tell me.”

“I don't want to flirt with the chicks,” He mumbles.

“Then don't. It was only a suggestion.”

“I'd rather flirt with someone else.” 

“Oh!!” I wipe my mouth with the back of my hand, “You have a special person in mind already?” And no I'm not jealous...I'm not!!

“Yup,” He swallows. “Louis, I do have them in mind. Too much actually.”

“So what's the problem?”

“I'm awkward. I have no game so I'm holding back.”

“Why?” I press.

“I have nothing to offer them. At least not...not yet...”

“Ah...” Me either. Trust me.

“Or maybe I never will,” He sighs. “What about you? What do you do?” 

“Uh…” I take a too large a bite to avoid that answer, “Mmm, so good!” I say around the bread and cheese.

“Ew," Harry wipes his mouth with a napkin. “Grease is dripping down your face.”

“I'm saving it for later.”

“It's grossing me out.”

“Then look away .”

“I can't that's the problem.”

“Then deal with it,” I shrug. 

“You're so grotesque.”

“Not really. I just don't care if I'm covered in mac-n-cheese and bacon grease. I'm enjoying myself and you ain't gonna rain on my parade!”

“You're showering me with your spit.”

“Better watch out or I'll swap spit with you,” I jest. “Then you'll be covered in my grossness and germs and diseases.”

He flinches, "Um…"

“Sorry! Too much? I can get a bit carried away. I sometimes say things and don't really mean them. Or I do it to purposely gross someone out or scare them off. I'm good at that.”

“Is that your plan with me?” His voice is just above a whisper.

“No! I like you. You're a dick remember? You've passed my test a while ago don't worry.”

“I did? There was a test?” He takes the last bite of his sandwich, carefully cleans his fingers, applies anti-bacterial lotion to his hands. Nerd.

But cute.

A cute nerd.

“Oh yes,” I finish mine next. “With flying colors. ” Honestly kid I just like you.

“Oh, I didn't know I did. Well that's good then.”

“It is,” I nod. “Ah…” I rub my tummy. “That was so good.”

“So are you still afraid?”

“What?”

“About whatever it was before.”

“Afraid? I'm still-” I'm afraid I suppose. “Oh.” I look down at Ruby, come to a realization. “Look, there's something you have to know about me but I'm not going to tell you now because I honestly don't have the words. For once, I know. But it's hard for me. People just knew about it, like all of my friends and family. I never had to explain.” I hesitate, “It's the sad subject .” I grip my ring finger.

“I don't want you to be sad though so don't mention it.”

“It's okay. I want you to know because then it'll be easier if it's accidentally brought up. I won't cry or make it awkward or be all stupid and-”

“You can.”

“Be stupid? Well what a relief-”

“Cry. I meant cry. I won't think less of you.”

“But I won't though for your sake. I sort of lose it and get all weird and touchy feely and I know how much you hate when I come near you.”

“It's not…” He squirms.

“So no I'll hold back and cry later.”

“I don't want you to.”

“But I am becuase I don't want you to run from me.”

“Trust me, Louis. You'll run from me.”

.

.

.

.

September 01.

I'd flirt with you.

Or at least try to.

.

.

.

.

“I invited him out,” I say to Niall.

“Alright where is he?”

“He said no," I frown. “He said he'd kill the mood because he isn't old enough.”

“Well true. He wouldn't be able to drink and don't think for one minute-”

“I'd never ask you to serve someone underage. I just wanted him to loosen up a little bit I suppose. And being here surrounded by people may help him.”

“Are you sure it's what he needs?”

“I don't know what he needs! That's why I suggested it,” I grip the bottle in my hand. “I can't help but think he prefers one on one or quiet places in general. Like maybe he is more comfortable with those types of settings. This could be too overwhelming for him.”

“It's not a rowdy place though.”

“I know but it's still a bar and the patrons could be you know?”

“I guess,” He cleans off a few glasses. “Well maybe invite him out to dinner.” 

I nearly spit out the beer I just sipped, “What!? That's like a date !! I can't do that! No way!!” I freak. “He’s a kid! He's in college! He doesn't- he can't- he's too- how could you even suggest that!?”

“If he's such a child then why are you still hanging out with him?”

“I want to help him win that contest. I want to see him succeed! He deserves it. His father is holding him back, not allowing him to study abroad and learn and be himself! And I have to be there for him, guide him!”

“He isn't one of your students though.”

“Well I could still be a role model to him.”

“If that's what you want-”

“It is!!” Right!? Yeah!! Duh!

“What happened to being mildly attracted to him?” Niall asks skeptically. 

“He's still nice looking. That usually doesn't change over night,” I finish off my beer. “And he's given me the idea to maybe start playing more seriously again.” 

“What!?” Niall can't hide his astonishment. His blue eyes are wide, mouth is propped open, hand gripping his blonde fringe.

“Um... yeah. I want to find a small venue and maybe play. Not for money or anything just for myself you know? Prove I still got it.”

“I can't…” He shakes his head, “Wow! I never thought you'd ever go back to it. Well you know. Like this.”

“Me too,” I bite at my nail. “Harry just...I guess I'm living vicariously through him and yeah. All of this talk about achieving goals and being true to yourself and ugh Niall, did I make a big mistake?” 

“With what?” 

I gaze at my shoes, “Everything. Did I make the wrong choices? Should I have said no to the proposal? Would I be alone right now if I did? Or would I have found someone new? Or maybe we'd still be together? M-maybe...just maybe...I wouldn't have felt heartache as deep as this?”

.

.

.

.

“You start tomorrow?” He asks me.

“I do,” I nod, stare up towards the sky. “I'm looking forward to it actually. I miss having a routine and being busy and ugh okay so look-” I sit up and face Harry. “I watch these videos-”

“Porn?” He asks innocently enough. 

“Um no,” I scratch my head. “Actually it's a lot cleaner than that. A lot . Plus I haven't watched porn since I was a teen.”

“It's too artificial.” 

“What?” I squeak.

“It lacks substance or any sort of intimacy.”

“News flash, it's not supposed to have any of that!” I bury my head in my hands. “Ugh Harry!!!”

“Did I say something?” 

“You're like a martian.”

“Why? I'm just stating a fact.”

“It's meant to turn you on!! Not make you feel all warm and fuzzy or-" I huff, "Look, I'm not getting into this. I'm sure you've heard about the birds and the bees. I'm sure you've had your own encounters and enjoyed yourself. I'm sure you experienced things but can we not talk about this?” I haven't had sex in almost two years, haven't had any sort of sexual encounter...don't talk about porn!!  

He's turned away, “Sure,” He nods, rubs his palms.

“Okay good,” I open the Twitch app on my phone. “This is what I wanted to show you. It's people streaming themselves while playing video games.” I point the screen towards him. “The furthest thing from porn.”

“I wasn't expecting this,” He takes the phone from my hand, expertly avoids my fingers. “You watch this stuff?”

“Usually. Especially on my lunch breaks. It's so entertaining. Some of the commentators are great. I watched an eight hour video one time!”

“In one sitting?” Harry looks to me 

“Uh…” I shrug, “Maybe.” My cheeks flush.

“Yes then?” He smirks .

“Yeah, okay!? I did. I stayed up all night and watched. It was so cool. I couldn't stop.”

“Was this recent?” He's searching the app.

“Beginning of summer actually.”

“I see,” He pokes around. “Your history shows you watched it a week ago.” Harry turns the phone towards me.

“Ugh!! Shut up!” I rip it from his grasp, “So whatever to you. It fascinates me, keeps me occupied.”

“I thought you were always busy with work?”

“I am. But it's my way to whine down. I watch before bed too. I can't be surrounded with work all the time especially if I have tests to grade.”

“You're a music teacher.”

“Thank you for clarifying.” 

“You have tests?”

“Of course. I teach General Music and Theory , remember?”

“The kids must hate you.”

“Actually, they respect me and enjoy my class ,” I snap. “Some are snot nosed but you get a few good students and they make it worth while. I'm surprisingly a favorite .”

“How is that a surprise?” He reaches for my phone again and I willingly allow him to take it. 

“I thought you were going to come up with some smart ass comment to that so I was protecting my ego.”

“I believe it,” He says. “Wanna watch?” He shows me the screen.

“That's a long one,” I point out the video length. “Three and a half hours.”

“I know,” He nods, turns away slightly.

“Are you serious!?” I ask in bewilderment.

“Um... should I not be?” 

“No!” I shake my head, “No it's great. I never met someone who actually liked this stuff or didn't poke fun.” 

“I think it's cool. I’m a decent gamer myself.”

“Really!?” I shriek. “Me too!! I'm totally a gaming nerd.”

“Oh.”  

“So-”

“I want to enjoy our afternoon since you're starting work soon,” He whispers. “So we might as well end it on a high note.”

“I...um,” I swallow. “Absolutely. Let's start it up.” I smile, disregard the flurrying in my stomach. Home.

 

Chapter Text

STUPID DEEP, Playlist

“How are your students?”

“Good! For now. I mean, it's hard to really judge anyone yet. They're all still disruptive and sort of stuck in that summer mindset. Eventually they'll come down from their highs then I'll be able to distinguish personalities,” I tug the sleeves of my sweater over my hands as a chilled breeze brushes across my skin. “How about you?” I ask with chattering teeth, “How are classes?”

Harry shrugs, “Okay. Trying to adjust to the schedule.”

“Ugh that was the worst I think, learning your classes, mapping out the best route to class, how to avoid that professor who wanted to stop and chat.”

“Yes,” He nods, fiddles with the camera in his hand. 

“Are any of your friends in your classes at least?”

“No,” He shakes his head. 

“That sucks. How many photography students are there?”

“Approximately five hundred.”

“Wow! That's a huge-”

“Between the sophomore, junior, and senior classes.”

“Got it,” I tap my lip. “Wait but if there are only five hundred students in photography why are there two thousand entries in the contest?”

“There are no requirements. Anyone can submit a portfolio.”

“That's stupid!!” I explode, “It should be strictly for those who are majoring in photography!”

“I guess they didn't want to discriminate.”

“That's unfair ," I'm fuming!! 

"If anything it's unfair to the students who are not photographers."

"Why? Because they weren't properly educated ? Anyone can have a hobby or do it part time or learn . It should be designated strictly for students like you." 

"Whatever."

I gesture towards his hand, “Speaking of. How are the photos coming?”

“Okay," He continues playing with the camera, avoids my gaze.

“Just okay ? When is it due?” 

“December.”

“Alright, that's gonna creep up on you! You better get your act together.”

“Thanks professor . I think I got it."

“Oh shut your trap. I'm just saying . You'll get distracted with your course work, maybe waste precious time hanging out with friends , go out too much and drink yourself stupid.”

“Not everyone's college experience was like yours.”

“I did not do that-”

“Sure," He says, his tone incredulous.

“Alright fine," I resign. “I was a bit of a party animal. I didn't gain the freshman fifteen though. I'm lucky to have a fast metabolism. Although the real partying didn't start until I was a Junior because by then I switched majors and was having a much easier time.”

“Why?” He asks thoughtfully.

“Education was less stressful. I didn't have anxiety, I didn't have to worry about learning new pieces every week and competing with classmates. I felt more like myself because I was able to socialize again.”

“It's that important to you? You know, socialize and be surrounded by people?”

“Yeah,” I say. Well now more so. “I enjoy the company of others” -his eyes widen- “in a platonic way!!” I smack his arm, “I just like interacting.”

“And abusing me,” He rubs his bicep. 

“See? I'm an open book,” I watch him closely. “I'm serious though, you really need to get a handle on your project especially since half of the students in campus are probably gunning for the prize! I'm here to help you succeed and win this thing so chop chop!”

“That's not how it works though.”

“What d'ya mean? You found your subject, so just photograph,” I point to Ruby, assume it's her because he took her photo before. “Go on, she's asleep.”

“Um…” His lips are tugged into a smile, “She isn't-”

“I know she looks the same most of the time but right now she is dreaming, her leg is bouncing, her face is scrunched. She's obviously enjoying herself in her doggy dream land.”

“I'm sure."

“Uh! Her leg just jumped!!” I nudge him with my elbow, “You're missing all of this beautiful content!! Come on!! Get on with it! Capture the intrigue, the emotion on her face, the surprise, the excitement !!” I'm pointing towards her, gripping my hair.

“Done.” 

I drop my arm, “Huh? That's it? There's no like, fancy photoshoot?”

“Just the press of a button," He informs.

"That's boring."

He shrugs, “Not really. It's a blessing. Less work.”

“Well that's what you get for having such an easy going subject.”

“Mmm, unsuspecting too," He says, his tone laced with humor.

“I guess you've worked on your subtleness then?”

“Dogs are easy to sneak up on especially when so vulnerable.”

“I agree. She's a deep sleeper too. She can sleep through a thunderstorm! Except when I open the container of take out rice. That she hears from a mile away,” I pet her gently. “Yeah, she's always hungry.”

“Just like you.”

“Exactly! We have a lot in common," I shiver from the cold. “Damn!! Where'd that come from?” I huddle into my sweater.

“Fall is here," He shifts in his seat.

“Not yet, technically speaking. But it's my favorite season!”

He finally finds my eyes, never wavers, "Really?”  

“Yup. Especially the food .”

“Ugh you and your stomach. You're worse than Ruby.”

“I am. I'm not a pumpkin fan though. PSL. Ew ,” I grimace at the thought.

“What's that?” He toys with the lanyard on his hoodie, holds his gaze steady, still.

“Pumpkin Spice latte. Gross. Don't drink it. Don't ask me to drink it. Disgusting ,” I practically spit the word.

“I guess you don't like PSL,” He reconfirms.

“Nope. I don't even like pumpkin pie. It's just too I don't know...spicey?” I shrug, “Whatever. I get most of my Fall favorites from this food festival I go to every year. It's called Smorgasbord. Ever hear of it?”

“No,” He shakes his head, sends his curls dancing.

“Of course you haven't,” I roll my eyes. “Anyway it's either in Prospect Park or by the Brooklyn Bridge depending on the day. There are a bunch of food vendors that go and sell their best product. The options are endless and it's freaking awesome.”

“What was your favorite?”

“Oh tough question,” I tap my lip. “I had bacon on a stick. That was so good. I also had a gourmet ice cream sandwich. Again fucking incredible. Then I had a bunch of candy apples, burgers, personal pizzas without pineapple -”

“You're a bottomless pit," He chuckles. 

His eyes are extraordinary in this lighting. They're incredibly bright and intriguing, a shade of green I haven't had the pleasure to witness before or admire. They're emeralds, two round emeralds just beckoning to me, calling to the inner turmoil I keep hidden, breaking me down with just a simple glance. How?

How is he doing this to me? How is he mending me?

Why don't I feel my sadness when I'm with you?

“That was not in one day , dope. I would go every weekend until it closed for the season. It was sort of like a tradition.” It's gone when you're near .

"Who would accompany you?" He asks.

I clear my throat, pause a moment, "Anyone I could drag with me," I lie.

"I see."

"Yeah, usually Niall, occasionally Liam when he's in town, sometimes Oli, or Calvin! Although he's hard to get in touch with. He's a model so his schedule is never consistent."

"That's cool," He nods, turns away. 

"It sucks it ends soon," I sulk, pout my bottom lip.

“When is that?”

“Last weekend of September. And I haven't gone once this year-” An idea pops into my head, a glorious plan actually, a way to maybe help my friend experience something fun and outside the box! “We should go!" I point between us.

"Are you asking because you couldn't find someone else to take?" His tone is melancholy, saddened. 

"Huh?" I flinch, "No way. I haven't gone once this year and I want to take you so you are able to experience something different."

He rounds his back, sinks further into himself, "Oh."

"Yeah. You're a dick remember? I want to spend time with you because that's what dicks do. Hangout. Do things together," I say.

"I see."

"And don't say no again. If you do I'll probably develop a complex," I force a nervous laugh. “So what's it gonna be? Are you gonna at least think about it? There will be no flirting, no beer, no drunkenness. Just food, a beautiful day, and me of course.” 

“You're one of the highlights?” A smile is playing at his lips again. 

Duh of course I am."

“How can I turn that down then?” 

“I'm hard to resist. I mean you can't deny this face,” I waggle my eyebrows. 

“Yes, it's certainly difficult ," His sarcasm is blatant.

"Shuddup," I smooth down my hair. “Alright so, this Saturday we'll meet and go to Smorgasbord. Don't eat okay? Like, eat breakfast and stuff but keep it light because I can guarantee you'll stuff your face!”

“These food vendors, are they-”

“Clean? Yes. They wash their hands, wear gloves, make everything fresh. They're superb.”

He nods, “Okay.” 

"Okay!" I can't hide my excitement while he so easily conceals his. Or is there even excitement to begin with?

.

.

.

.

“Who are you texting?” Niall asks.

“Harry,” I murmur as I finish the message. “Sorry!” I pick up the controller and continue with Tomb Raider. “Alright, so you have to climb up this vine and sort of angle the camera to the right ” -I bite my lip, ignore the buzzing of my phone against my thigh- "here! Like that.” I hand him the controller.

“Dude, you totally saw that in a video," My friend slumps into the couch.

“Uh, obviously! Do you think I have the time to actually figure that out? Please!”

“Yeah well…” I check my phone, giggle at the message. “What's so funny?” He snaps.

“Nothing!” I suppress a laugh, tap a quick reply back.

“You sound like a little school girl. What the fuck are you guys talking about?” Niall's losing his patience and I'm totally laughing at his expense.

“How bad you are at video games,” I burst into laughter, slap at my knee, let loose.

“How does he know!?” His face reddens.

“I sent him a video of you struggling with that zombie. And he even agreed to use the knife.”

“You... you're-” He drops the controller, “Unfair!!” He crosses his arms over his chest.

“No it's not! You told Brendan about Stanley!!” I continue to laugh, “Now we're even.”

“Ugh! You're the worst!”

“I could be but we're only being honest. And it's okay! Not everyone has the knack.”

“What's that? Being a giant nerd!?”

“Sure! I'd rather be a nerd than a loser .”

“Ugh...I need to find a new best friend because it seems like I've been replaced." 

My chest tightens, my giddiness dissipates instantly, “What? No way. You're my main man, my best friend, my punching bag. You know I'm only kidding, right? Like I'm just messing with you.” Don't leave me, Niall. I need you more than you'll ever know.

“Yeah, yeah, I know. I'm happy to see you finally smiling again you know? You're laughing too, genuinely. Like, you're not pretending anymore."

“I've always remained positive-”

“No,” He shakes his head. “I've witnessed you go through the stages of loss, saw what it did to you and it wasn't pretty.” My breath hitches, my eyes mist. “I grew up with you. I know who you are! And the person I was with for the past year or so wasn't you, he was someone else entirely. But now I think he's returned and I've missed him.”

“I...well…” I gnaw at my bottom lip, “You do know me and I'm grateful for that.”

“You mentioned Stan by name and didn't react . That's huge.”

"Yeah. I did. I managed to do that," A spark of hope flurries in my chest.

“I wish I was the reason for it but that's alright.”

“But you are!!” I insist, “You did help me! I'm able to say his name now proves just that! You did it, you helped. It was you.”

“And Harry! But it's okay ! You're finding a way to help him out and I think that in turn is helping you heal too.”

“Ugh...maybe? I don't know,” The doubt seeps its way back in. “I have no idea anymore.” I look towards the television. “Maybe I'm just finally realizing there's hope. And maybe…telling Harry about him will help too.” I turn towards my friend. “Do you agree? Do you think that's a good idea?” 

“Yes. I think you should,” He answers without hesitation.

“Me too. I've already slipped a few times but he's missed it I think or he's just not asking. But he's a dick now. These are things you mention. You talk about-”

“A dick?” Niall asks.

“Oh! Don't ask,” I wave him off. 

“Uh...you guys have like inside jokes now?”

“Just the one. Dick means friend. Anyway, so yeah I'll tell him. It's only fair.”

“Fair for who exactly?”

“Well I want to be honest. I want to talk and get to know him as well. So maybe he'll tell me more too. Or maybe it's a bad idea? Should I not mention it? I mean what's the big deal? It's my past, not his.”

“You should want to tell him and not expect anything in return. He may never open up to you. He might have other friends he does that with.” 

I feel a wave of jealousy then. I didn't think of that. “Oh.” I frown, “Well he'll know my biggest secret so that's saying something.”

“Doesn't matter though. It won't necessarily mean he'll tell you his,” He puts the controller on the table. “Listen here, I think you should absolutely tell this dude about your past because it's important for you . You will be able to openly talk about it, maybe be able to justify some of your actions, talk about your sadness.”

“My actions? What actions?”

“Uh well scaring off Brendan for one.”

“Look, that was a practice run!”

“Holding onto that letter,” He points to my pocket.

“What? My letter?” I touch my thigh, feel the paper crinkle underneath my fingers.

The letter , Lou. You told Brendan you wrote a list of questions on it, pulled it free at the bar. I thought you stopped carrying it.”

“I…” I clear my throat, “I have to keep it close okay? For now. I have to. It makes me feel better.”

“Why?” Niall probes.

I don't know !! I just need it with me. It helps me breathe, it helps up here” -I tap my temple- "like he's still with me.”

“Louis-” He tries to interject but I keep going.

I can't listen to his reasoning, I can't hear from my best friend that I may be going crazy, or that it's the worst idea ever because I can't let it go!

“And I know it's stupid! I am fully aware how dumb it may sound to you and to anyone I tell but for my head and healing heart, I have to carry it with me everywhere I go. Even when I'm here, even when I'm wearing his sweatshirt, even when I sleep on his side of the bed, I have to keep it close.”

“So that means-"

“I have a long way to go," The admission hurts, the truth stings, the reality is choking me.

“You do but you've come so far. Don't forget that too, alright?" Niall reassures.

“I won't. I won't let you down.”

“And you. Don't let yourself down." 

I drop my head in my hands, “Yeah, glass half full. The glass is always full.” I remind myself. Think of the cottage in the woods. Remember the serenity, the peacefulness, the warmth. 

My cottage in the woods.

Harry's eyes.

Whaaaaat!?

I begin to sweat all over, “S-so how should I say it then? Just blurt it out?”

“Well-”

“Or I could accidentally mention Stan! You know say when I was married or when we used to do this or when we met in high school . Right? Sneak it in?”

“Um…” Niall looks lost in thought.

“No good? I'm trying to think of the best scenario, maybe drop in a name quickly, look for a reaction. Although…” I turn away, “I can never read him. I never know what he's thinking or feeling or anything. So I'll probably miss it completely. But it shouldn't hurt his feelings. It's not like we're a couple. We're just friends.”

“So then don't worry about it. Tell him the next time you guys go out.”

“Good. This weekend it is.”

“What are you guys doing?”

“Smorgasbord.” 

“You're going to embarrass yourself with that appetite of yours,” He resumes the video game.

“He knows I'm a pig already it's alright,” I grip my ring finger. “Yeah it's fine.” I nod, look to Ruby. “I can't bring her though. Are you able to walk her for me?”

“Yeah, yeah... she's already peed on me twice! What's a possible third time?” 

I giggle, “You're her fire hydrant.” 

“Or she hates my guts for no fucking reason!!” He shouts towards the dog.

“She doesn't care! She's dreaming of pets, a large park, and probably Harry. You're the least of her worries.”

“Ugh!! You owe me a new pair of sneakers.”

“Sure. What size are you? A five?” I cackle.

“Fuck you!”

“Okay five it is.”

.

.

.

.

I tried to convince myself to turn around on the way over, in fact my doubts almost won when I rounded the corner onto 72nd Street. My legs buckled, my body went stiff, my throat closed up, I practically became immobile when I attempted to take another step towards my destination. Every emotion I could have felt in that moment consumed the very air in my lungs like a poisonous gas. The yearning burned from the inside out, the sadness combusted in my abdomen, the desperation tore my insides to shreds. I felt his memory burning me alive, felt the crippling sensation of loneliness all over again.

I can't do this . I nearly persuaded myself.

It's not right . My mind circled around the words.

I'm not ready. My anguish reminded me.

I can't be mended again . My heart pleaded.

"No," I shook my head though, fought back in earnest. "I've come this far. I have to do this. Niall was right. I'm ready, I'm not replacing anyone, I'm finding myself and seeking the happiness I deserve. Even Harry was right. I can't let Stanley control my emotions because they're mine. This is my life." I touched my leg, felt the envelope crinkle in my pocket, "Alright, Stanley? Do you understand why I have to do this? Are you aware of the heart break I suffered through?" I swiped at my eyes, "Do you understand that if I don't do this, I'll probably be alone for the rest of my life pretending I'm okay? Because I'm not!! I'm not okay!!" I choked, bit my knuckles to reign it in for my sake, "This will help. Meeting Harry will help. He has the power to save me, got it? He has the ability to draw out the pain and replace it with something tranquil, something substantial, something I am able to hold close. He can. I know it because" -I sucked in a quivering breath- "he's special just like you were."

.

.

.

.

My hands are shoved into my pockets, my eyes are relatively dry, my brain in control and ready to give this my all. Whatever this may be but I'm ready, Freddie!

I puff my cheeks, shift my weight, look down the street for any sign of the tall, dorky, curly haired kid I'll be spending the afternoon with.

"Fashionably late I suppose," I chuckle to myself. "Maybe he forgot how to fasten his Velcro-" I glance again towards the end the block and he's there suddenly and it's strange? Very strange because this became something more.

So much more.

I take in his loose fitted jeans and scuffed up, pink high top Converse. His flannel shirt is loose, exposing a heavy white cotton t-shirt that's hugging his neckline. His hands are shoved into his pockets, his curls are untamed and free, his lips are tugged into a crooked grin, he isn't wearing glasses, it's all him. All him

Oh God.

Oh my God

Different? What's different ? What made it different? Why are there butterflies in my stomach?

Why did he wear that?

“Hey,” He gives me a small, tentative wave and I can't help but ogle and admire and simply enjoy the ensemble. And his face.

Aahhhh okay.

“H-hi,” I clear my throat. “Hi!” I grip my fingers behind my back, shift my weight. “ Great shirt you got there. Perfect for this time of year. I guess you finally got the memo and wore appropriate attire.” I giggle like a moron to mask my anxiety.

“About that,” He grips the hem. “I just bought it.”

“Oh!!” He what!? “Getting all fancy now?” I turn away and begin to walk to the subway to hide my reddening cheeks, “I guess you save your best stuff for the weekend?”

He falls into step with me, “Maybe.” 

“Better make sure I pull the button down out of storage! I'll have to keep up with your style,” I plaster a smile on my face, glance towards him.

“You look nice, too,” My eyes widen, my heart stutters in my chest. “Well, I didn't mean to say too because you didn't actually say I looked nice, you complimented my shirt but I wanted to say you look nice but it sort of came out weird and now I made an ass out of myself.” He rushes out. That's out of character for him. Did he just ramble!? Did he seriously say that? Did he lose his composure like how I'm slowly losing mine!? "Well actually what I meant was that, like, you're wearing a cool outfit too. You know? Your shorts were jeans once before right? You cut them?" My mouth props open next, "And...and your track suit jacket is cool too, yeah a nice shade of, of black?" He's red in the face, completely frazzled, “Please say something? Right now?” I find his eyes and they're like a deer in headlights. “Anything? Or did I manage to leave you speechless?” 

I shake my head, “Uhm...um well...Thanks!” I recover, “I didn't think this was, you know, fashionable.” I stop at the entrance to the subway. “I sort of go with the flow and pray whatever I pull out of the closet is clean.” I lie because I totally took forever to get ready.

“Really? Do you sniff the collar to make sure it doesn't smell?”

“Yup! You never-”

“You should sniff the armpit next time,” He warns, his tone grave.

“Huh? Why?” The color drains from my face, “Does this...wait I was only-” I do a quick smell test. “It doesn't- I was only- my shit is clean, always!” I stumble on my words, completely lose my self-possession as if it didn't exist to begin with. Ready Freddie my ass.

“I'm kidding around,” He chuckles and I swear that went straight to my knees. 

“I washed this. It was fresh from the dryer. I used fabric softener, I always-”

“Louis, it was a joke.”

“Ugh!!” I swipe my palms on my jeans, find my center, “You had the serious face and everything. You held that together too well.” 

“I'm developing a sense of humor.”

“Eesh, well you got me there," I take a step down. “Anyway…”

“The subway?” He squeaks, eyes me then the stairs.

“Yeah it's a quick ride you'll see. So let's go,” I wave him over and he reluctantly follows.

“Uh okay?” 

“Alrighty here we go,” I slide the MetroCard through the machine and gesture for him to walk. 

“N-no that's fine-” He shakes his head, attempts to decline.

“You're a student ,” I remind the both of us. “Don't worry.”

“But I can buy one."

“Nope. Now walk through," I say. "My treat."

“I'm...I...okay,” He pushes through the turnstile.

“Let's get going!” I push through next, “Okay so we can catch the downtown C train to Penn Station and then transfer to the 2 or 3 to Prospect Park.” I map out the destination in my head.

“Sure,” His tone is clipped, anxious.

“It's really easy actually. The subway system isn't as confusing as most people think. Once you know landmarks and certain stops you get the hang of it."

“I never…” He hesitates, “I never took the subway.” The train pulls into the station, practically drowns out his voice, practically takes my breath away .

“Seriously!?” I do a double take, “Did you just move here? How do you get to school? How did you get around as a kid? Well a younger kid? It's so convenient.” We take a seat and we're a few inches apart. 

“No,” He chokes on the word.

“No what? You're doing that thing again where you only answer one of the fifty two questions I've spewed," My fingers are linked in my lap, my legs are itching to bounce . I glance towards him and he's facing forward, rubbing his palms together, he's trembling slightly.

“I take a car service,” He whispers.

“Oh!! Because your dad's rich?”

“Um...uh sure.” 

“And what about when you were younger?”

“S-same,” He seems visibly distraught.

“Are you alright?” I ask when I witness his face blanch, “Do you get motion sickness? Is that it? Or do you not like the idea of being underground? Confined spaces? Maybe being in such close proximity to other people?” The questions are rolling off my tongue “It's not too bad right now-”

“There are s-so many... germs ," His breaths are shallow, his forehead is pearling with sweat.

“Yeah there are I'm not gonna lie. I wouldn't touch anything," His disposition has done a complete one-eighty. "Harry-"

“But...my legs! They're touching the seat...my shoes... they're...oh no and my shirt!” He drops his head in his hands only to shriek in horror. 

"Harry!" I reach for him.

“I...I touched the metal turnstile-” He grips his curls.

Harry it's fine!” I graze his shoulder but he twists away. “You're okay.” My voice is soft, comforting.

“I don't...no I'm not ,” He's breathing heavily now, practically panting. “No...no this was a bad idea, a really bad idea!” He grips his chest, scrunches his eyes closed. “So...bad...so-”

“Harry, we can get off at the next stop. Would that make you feel better? We don't have to do this-”

“Please!” He begs, turns towards me with reddened cheeks and downturned lips, “Please this is too much. I need...I-” The doors open.

“Come on,” I grip his bicep against his wishes and drag him out of his seat.

He wiggles his arm as if to free himself, “Don't...you can't touch-” 

“Oh shush! This is an emergency right? Put your OCD aside for a sec,” I pull him through the open doors, drag him up the steps, and out onto 42nd Street. 

“Oh...oh fresh air.” He gasps, scratches at his neck.

“Fresh- er . Sure,” I watch him slump into a crouch and grip his throat. “Are you going to be sick?” I bend over him and wait for a response. “Hey.” I lean in closer and he's whispering something, mumbling? Chanting? What's happening!? I've never felt this helpless before. “Um...Harry? What's wrong?” 

“This was a mistake," He manages.

“What was?” My stomach clenches, “What's wrong? You're acting like you touched a bunch of random bodies and licked your dirtied hand. We went on a train-”

“Dad was right ," He confesses.

I shudder, “About what? What was he-”

“He always is.” 

“Alright can you like tell me what's-”

“I have to go home," He stands up, pushes me away and onto my ass.

“Hey!!” I whine from the sidewalk. 

“S-sorry. I'm sorry,” He avoids my gaze, stares directly at the ground as if in shame. “I'll...see ya.” He rushes up the street.

“Okay but what just happened?” I watch him quicken his pace, find his cellphone pressed to his ear. “He’s leaving!?” I stand up and dust off my makeshift shorts. “He's…” I shake my head in disbelief. “He's actually fucking leaving!!” I grip my styled hair and tug at the strands. “No,” I conclude. “Not again. Never again!!” 

I grunt and run after him. “Hey!!” I shout at his back because never again . “You with the stupid curly hair and ugly plaid shirt!!” I'm huffing and puffing, wheezing and choking on oxygen. “You!!!” I reach him, extend my arm out and grip his shoulder. “What the fuck!!” I yank him backwards in anger.

“I have…I need to go home ,” He repeats and pulls out of my grasp. “I have to wash my hands. I have to...I need to change out of these clothes. I'm...I shouldn't…” He grips his curls, bites at his lips. He's incoherent. He's legitimately losing it.

Suddenly my anger dissipates, suddenly my reasons for lashing out at him seem insignificant to the pain he's suffering from. He has a problem just like me.

“Uh...um...wait Harry?” I attempt to console him, “You're fine. We're outside. You're breathing fresh air. It's not…you'll be okay, I promise. You weren't in the subway for a long time. It was a quick trip, a super quick ride! See? Everything is perfect. We're standing on the sidewalk and there's no germs here. Nothing's gonna hurt you."

He releases his hair, rubs furiously at his palms, shakes his head, “I can't be…here.”

That stung.

That hurt.

That seeped its way in. 

“I can take you home. Is that okay?” I say with reluctance and he agrees instantly with a slight nod, "Then you can wash your hands and change. Sound good?" My stomach isn't hungry for food anymore. Now it's sickened, now it's churning around the anguish I felt earlier, now it's reminding me of the longing. 

Now it's telling my heart that I'm stupid.

"Okay."

.

.

.

.

“This one?” I point to a building along 5th Avenue. He shakes his head no. “Alright.” We continue up the block. “This one?” Another shake. “Okay let's keep going.” He's withdrawn, he's tight lipped, he's completely lost his ability to converse. “Hmm are you sure it's on this block?” I glance towards him and it's the same. His mouth is downturned, his eyes are hooded, his shoulders are slumped. It's like the light I've awoken within him has burned out.

He barely had his chance to shine.

I point to a tall, ornate building, “Last one. Is this-”

“H-home,” He whispers and approaches the entrance without another word.

“Uh…” The doorman greets him, opens the door wide for Harry to pass through, is seemingly unfazed by the bizarre behavior. I watch him disappear inside and that's it. The night's over. What the fuck is happening right now? “Goodnight I suppose.” I turn around and head to the subway in defeat. “Guess I'll get drunk tonight.” I sulk and drag my feet along the side walk.

.

.

.

.

I slap my hand on the bar top, “Give me a drink,” I announce.

My friend approaches, looks to me in disbelief, “Wait why are you here? Right now? Like right now ?” Niall asks. “You were supposed to be in Brooklyn, right now .”

“Yeah and I was supposed to be happily married right now but shit happens,” I huff. “Now, friend, best friend, get me fucking plastered.” I demand.

He crosses his arms over his chest, “I need to understand what happened first."

“Not now. Beer now. In my face. Give me a beer!! Or five!! I have to double fist, I have to feel the alcohol coursing through my veins and not feel emotions for a while .”

“I think we should talk about it though," He concludes.

He's always insistent at the worst moments, “Niall!! Help a friend out, man! I've been through the ringer, I was left high and dry, my afternoon turn to shit when I witnessed the weirdness first hand. I was-” I gasp when my brain recounts the memory of our conversation. I'm weird. You'll be just like everyone else. They probably wouldn't be able handle it. “Oh.” I plop down in my usual seat, “Ugh!!!” I run my hands down my face. “I'm the worst . It's official."

He shushes me, “You're starting to scare the patrons.”

“Niall!!! I'm just like everybody else ," I seethe.

He grips my shoulders then, shakes me, startles me back into reality, "Calm yourself!"

“But I can't! That's what he told me. He said those exact words. And I walked away," I sulk, free myself from his grip.

“What did-”

“He said he was weird -”

“He sounds a little unstable," He mumbles under his breath.

“-and people leave before they get to know him," I gesture to myself, "I left. I did exactly what he expected. And I want to prove him wrong."

“But what happened ?” Niall asks, "What led up to this?"

“He has OCD," I confess.

“OCD? That's all?”

“It's not that's all ! It's serious and he has it. He's a germaphobe, is petrified of physical contact, freaks if we accidentally brush shoulders. He literally bugged out on the subway because his clothing was touching the seat. His clothing!! He was inconsolable, so far gone, so scared. The kid I was beginning to understand reverted back to the frightened boy I ran into that one day in the park. And I got mad!! I yelled at him for my own selfish reasons.”

“Yelled?” 

“He was leaving me, Niall,” I grip my ring finger. “He was leaving like how, like how Stan left me." 

“Ah now I get it.”

“It was wrong of me,” I swallow past the lump in my throat. “I hope he will forgive me.”

“If he values your friendship, he will.”

“I hope he values it too.” 

.

.

.

.

“Ruby?” I'm lying next to her with my head resting in my arms, “Ruby, you saw the good in him right away. I did too, eventually. Who couldn't honestly? He is a compassionate person and he may only express himself with a few words but that's who he is. That's how he gets his point across. And I shouldn't have gotten so angry or touched him the way I did. It was so wrong of me to lash out.” I chastise my behavior. “But he was walking away! He didn't give an explanation, he just bugged out and was so distraught and lost and-” I extend my hand out towards her, shake my head. “Was there anything I could have done for him? Maybe I should have followed him inside? Did he want that? He didn't say anything or indicate for me to follow. He sort of slipped inside and didn't bother to see if I was there." I pause, rehash that thought. "Wait. Was that my test? Did I fail? Will he never speak to me again ?" My eyes water, "Should I have followed!?" I hyperventilate. "Shit I fucked up didn't I? Ruby I don't-"

She jumps up suddenly, startles me from my muddled thoughts.

“What?” She begins to bark, shifts her weight from paw to paw. “Ruby what's-” There's a knock at the door and she practically cries with excitement. “Woah! Calm down there. It's probably just...um...well I don't know who it could be but chill! It's fine.” I stand up and tug at my shirt. "Maybe it's the delivery boy thinking I ordered something?” I grip the handle, hold Ruby back before she pounces anyone, and pull the door open to reveal... not the delivery boy! “Harry!?” My eyes widen. “How did you know- you know where I live!?” I touch my chest in disbelief and wow my heart is pounding. He's here?

Holy crap he's here!!

“Above the famous Tom's Diner,” He whispers, rubs at his palms. “I watch Seinfeld too.” 

“Oh," I'm scraping the bottom of the barrel for words. What the fuck my brain is turning to a puddle of mush. "You came. You're-” Ruby runs past, pounces on Harry, licks at his face. He didn't even flinch? “She missed you, I guess.” 

“Yeah,” He pets her head, smiles crookedly, reveals his little dimple. Well...great.

I knot my fingers, “So...so what-”

“I wanted to apologize to you," He rushes out.

I pull Ruby off of him, “How nice of you.”

“You know for last night," His eyes find mine and it's instant relief. Yeah...

“Me too,” I decide. “Me...too.” I admire his green irises, the color, the freckles scattered about. Beautiful. “Why don't you come in then?” I offer and open the door wider. “Don't want to disturb the neighbors.” 

“Oh,” He clears his throat, shifts his weight, “I was just going to say-”

“Harry, come inside,” I insist. 

“Um…”

“I swear I'm clean. This isn't the New York City subway system. I dust. I wash the bathroom. I take my shoes off before walking around. This place is clean .”

“That's not…” He shakes his head, “It's my first time- never mind.” He takes a tentative step inside just past the threshold. He pushes himself up against the wall, accidentally hits the table situated in the corner and knocks over a small vase. "Oh! Sorry." He blushes and clumsily repositions it.

"It's okay," I suppress a laugh and close the door. And it's instant. The coconut smell permeates the space and my nose, infiltrates my senses. Woah. Woah. Woah. It's so sweet, aromatic, a calming scent I've come to associate with home and comfort.

And warmth.

And-

Shit. I need an ice bath.

I wring my hands, “Why don't we sit in the living room?” 

“This is fine...this-” Ruby jumps up on him again, places her massive paws on his chest, pushes him back into the table. There's something oddly familiar about all this. She whimpers and groans, yelps her excitement. “Hi girl,” This entire moment is tugging at my heartstrings for all the wrong reasons. Everything is wrong!! This isn't supposed to make me feel...at all. But it does.

The relief.

The freedom.

“Want a drink?” I head to the kitchen to give myself some space. Ruby has only reacted like this towards Stanley. Only Stanley!! 

“I... I'm not staying long-” He calls out.

“A beer?” I ignore him as I pop open a bottle. 

“No alcohol.”

“Sure,” I walk back to the entryway and they're still by the door. “Come.” I wave him to the living room.

“I'm not staying long,” He repeats and manages to escape my dog's embrace.

“You said that. I get it but at least make yourself comfortable,” I sit down at the end of the couch, cross my legs and place my elbows on my knees. Too strange. It's like my home is complete . I watch him approach slowly. How though? “So what were you saying?” I take a sip from my beer. Home?

You?

“That…” He pauses in front of the sofa.

“Sit down,” I point.

“Are you always this controlling?”

“No. But I want to speak to you and I can't with you standing over me. It's making me nervous now sit your ass down,” I snap.

"Because I'm so tall? And you're small?"

"Don't with the damn height jokes!! Sit!!"

Fine ,” He counters.

“So-” Ruby runs in then, jumps onto Harry's awaiting lap, curls up and rests her head on his legs. “Well that's fantastic . She seriously hates me.” I pout as I watch Ruby pretend Harry is Stan. What the hell? She's obsessed with him. 

“I'm just the shiny new toy,” He pets the length of her back.

I glower, “And what? I'm the chewed up, spit laden tennis ball!?” 

“No,” He shakes his head, glances towards me. “You're more than that.”

“Well she certainly hates me. She's made that clear especially after-” I bite my lip. “After...um…” I turn away.

“After what?” Harry asks.

“No,” I shake my head. “Tell me what you were going to say. I feel like if I start to talk I'll never stop and then you'll weasle your way out of whatever it was you were about to tell me and I will not lose my train of thought again.”

“That's your fault.”

“That I talk too much? I mean maybe. But you know I can't stand awkward- wait!!” I throw my hands in the air. “Talk, you!” I sip my beer.

"You have a lovely apartment."

I sputter, "Thank you, it's adorable now what were you-"

"It is. Cluttered but a lovely space."

"Cluttered!? Where is it cluttered ? It's called homey . It's meant to make you feel all warm and fuzzy on the inside."

"Yes and stuffed to the brim with country inspired decor."

"Look, did you come here to poke fun at my plaid window treatments? Because if so, there's the door!" I point.

"No," He exhales. "I told you why I came."

"And that's it? You said you were sorry and nothing more?" I huff, "That's lame and sort of a let down."

He shakes his head, "There's more."

"Is there!?" I jest, "Woah! Who would have thought-"

“I'm sorry for bugging out. I was hoping you would never witness that side of me but I guess it was inevitable.”

What side is that?” I ask with little patience.

“My paranoid side, my fears all jumbled into one, my inability to maintain my composure. I was already on edge and then with the subway, I lost control.”

Oh .

I clear my throat, “Why were you on edge? Was it something I said? Did I do something to make you feel that way?"

“No, Louis. It had nothing to do with what you said. I like what you say, most of the time. This was something else. I was…” He peers down at Ruby, “I was nervous.” 

My stomach flurries to life, “Um, well why?”

“For a multitude of reasons.” 

“Can I get one of those reasons then?” 

“You," He says, his tone sheepish.

“Me!?” I point to myself, “Why? It's not like- we've been hanging out for a little bit now. Why were you nervous?”

He shrugs, “I haven't figured it out yet.” He falls silent, inspects my living room, continues to pet our- my dog . “Oh.” He says suddenly as if something's caught his attention.

“Oh what? What's wrong?” I follow his line of sight. Duh. “It's a piano. Ever see one before?” I taunt.

“I have one at home, too.”

“I mean of course you do,” I scoff. “Harry, look. I need to know-" What you're trying to figure out!

“I'm able to imagine it,” He interjects, gently pushes Ruby off and stands. He slowly approaches the piano.

“What? What are you imagining? Why are you speaking in riddles? I thought we were apologizing to each other and discussing why I make you nervous which by the way is killing my ego. Or inflating my ego...I don't know but can you-"

“You,” He reiterates. 

"Me what!?" 

“I imagine you playing and producing beautiful music.”

“Uh…” My heart is racing in my chest, “I did...but I-”

“Sitting right here,” He touches the keys, soundlessly runs his fingers across the ivory. “Playing for yourself. Playing for Ruby. Playing for...someone.” His voice is soothing, thoughtful, probing in a none invasive way. He's good.

“I…” I scrunch my eyes closed, “I did.”

"Elaborate, please."

“I used to play for someone. Although, they were more than a someone , Harry,” I grip the bottle in my hands. “They were someone very special. Someone I-”

“The one you love."

“Y-yeah. Yeah the one...I...love,” My body runs cold suddenly. 

“Did he like it?” 

“He loved it. He would ask me to play after dinner to help him wind down or just because. He said it was his favorite past time-” My eyes fly open then, I whip my head towards him. Harry's facing away from me, his fingers are still touching the keys, his free hand is gripping his chest, “H-how did...How did you know?” My cheeks tickle. I'm a jumbled mess. “Who told you? I never mentioned-"

“His name was next to yours on the mailbox downstairs.”

My skin breaks out in gooseflesh, “I…” I never changed it. It still says Louis and Stanley Tomlinson . Too real. It'll be too real. “I've meant to, you know, fix that.”

“But you haven't,” 

I shake my head, “N-no.” I swipe my face and it's damp. Fuck. “No I haven't because then it'll be real.”

“What will?” He turns around, keeps his gaze diverted to Ruby. “What will be real?”

“That he's gone,” I put the beer on the table and rest my chin on my knees. 

“Where did he go?” I close my eyes again. I was going to tell you. And it's like you read my mind, read the message engraved on my aching heart.

You are special.

“He…” I sniffle, pause before I continue. It's okay. Harry was meant to know. “He p-passed away-” I choke on my tongue anyway, feel the words trapped in my throat.

“From what? What happened, Louis?” I feel the dip in the sofa, can smell the coconut wafting towards me. 

“He was struck by...by-” I hide behind my legs, allow the anguish to take over, feel the burning in my abdomen, “H-he...we were-” I stammer. “-were coming back from... a concert and…” I shake my head, will my mind to continue. “We were a little drunk-” I couldn't walk at all I remember. “And a car was speeding down the street and…” The accident is ingrained in my skull, the shouting, the cries, the tears, the screeching tires. The seconds leading up to the tragedy . And how powerless I was to stop it, how stupid, and drunk I was. “He pu-pushed me out of the way...he-” I sob into my knees unable to finish that thought, breakdown all over again, replay the event in my head like a broken record. I stepped into the road disregarding the traffic signs and Stanley's words. I was just going.

“When?” He asks gently but I shake my head, cry into the crook of my elbow unable to speak just yet, "Take your time." I swipe angrily at my cheeks and eyes. "Let it out."

“Almost...two years ago,” I manage. “And it's still fresh in my mind. It's like... I can remember another important detail about the night everytime I think about it. I was the one who was stupid drunk, I was the one who was causing a ruckus, I was the one who walked into the middle of the fucking street unaware of my surroundings.” I hiccup. “I was the one who told him to stop pestering me and bothering me and yelling at me to shut up! And he pushed me out of the way. It was him!! He didn't even hesitate either. But he should have!! Damnit he should have let fate take its course. He was foolish." I don't believe in that fate bullshit.

That's why.

They got it wrong!!

"At the time it wasn't. He wanted to save you."

"For what? What am I doing now? I'm a widower, I've missed out on my dreams, I lost my drive to do more, to be more. Now I lie around and play videogames, drink too much alcohol, and feast on greasy food."

"Berating yourself will not change the past. And having these negative thoughts will outshine your positive attitude."

"Well it's all I got-"

"You're educating our youth, you possess an encouraging prospect on life, you're inadvertently helping others with your words."

"Ha! Who ever cares to listen," I murmur.

"Stop it. It's the truth."

"Well, I brood when no one's watching, I cry all the time, I'm emotionally unstable, I can't-" I touch my thigh, feel the stupid envelope. 

“He loved you."

"Huh?" I lift my head finally, glance at him and he's lost in thought. His eyes are glassy, his hands are rubbing together, his lip is trapped between his teeth. 

"Stanley, he loved you. That would explain his foolish actions."

“He did love me,” I sober. “He loved me the way a... husband should." I continue to watch him to gauge his reaction, "I was married to him.” 

He's stoic, his facial expressions unwavering, “I understand the concept of a husband.” 

“Um, yeah that's a good thing.”

“You said someone left you.”

I puff my cheeks, "Right. About that…" I grip my knees firmly to my chest. "That was a lie."

"Why?"

"It's easier, that's why. Like when someone asks where my husband is I say he left me because he did ."

"Leaving isn't as final," He whispers.

“Yeah exactly. There's always a chance he'll Return To Me even though it's not possible. I guess it's a way to protect myself from hurting more," I admit.

"Maybe he'll come back to you, not him physically, but maybe a piece of him, a very special part of him that was always meant to be with you."

"Huh? Like a ghost?"

"Never mind," He shakes his head.

"I wanna know. What d'ya mean?"

"It's stupid."

"It's not though. I like what you say to me too, okay? Your opinions, thoughts, everything matters to me."

"I…" He knits his eyebrows, continues staring at the floor, "Oh."

"So tell me?" I urge, "If I can be with his eyeball I'd take it." 

He snorts, "Sure."

"But seriously, you're saying his soul will always be with me?" Oddly enough that's comforting to me.

"And his memories. You'll always have the memories you've shared and created together."

"A moment captured in time? Like a picture?"

"It doesn't have to be a physical item, but a moment you can hold forever in your heart."

"I'll have those for sure."

"So, you're correct when you say he left you."

"I am?" He isn't making a move to look my way and it's irritating. I need that connection with him, need to feel his gaze.

Why though?

Is it because I'm vulnerable right now? Because maybe I want his comfort? Because maybe he's more than a friend to me?

Oh God.

I swallow back my tears.

"His soul didn't die."

"R-right-"

"Because he's alive within you."

My heart jolts at the thought, "Y-yeah." I nod, "He'll always be with me."

"So when you're saddened, think of him as being part of you and not gone."

"I...I uh-" I'm speechless to say the least. Who is this guy!?

"At a loss for words?"

"I uh...yeah," I confess. "You have the knack and only you. It's the strangest thing." I swipe at my nose with the back of my hand.

“You need to wash that now.” 

“Probably and my face too but I can't right now. I don't care what I look like or how germy I am.”

“You look fine, just sad." 

His eyes are still trained on the floor, "You haven't looked at me once since I told you, how would you know?”

“Just because you didn't see me do it, doesn't mean it never happened.”

“So you're a sneak.”

“And weird, yes.”

“You're not weird ,” I spit the word. “You're labeling yourself when in reality you're probably the most normal person I've ever met. We all have our problems. I have a problem dealing with my loss and you have a problem with germs. Who cares? That's who we are. We can't change it."

“You don't know me ."

“Then let me in ,” I release my legs, turn to him. “I told you about myself, opened up about Stanley.”

“Why?” 

“Because that's what friends do. They talk. They open up. They depend on the other, they talk about stupid shit, important shit, dumb shit, meaningless shit, sad shit. Anything!!"

“You didn't have to answer my questions though."

“Harry, I wanted to tell you! It was always my intention and now that it's out there I feel better."

"I can't do that." He murmurs towards the floor .

"Then why are you still here? What's the point of apologizing if you never intended for us to get closer?” 

“I like you," He states matter of fact.

“Okay!? And!? That's it? You like listening to me? You like what I have to say? You think I'm good entertainment? Is that it? Do you like hearing my stupid stories, and asking about my career, and taking pictures of my dog!?”

“Yes,” His voice is just audible. “What's wrong with that?”

“Nothing!! I just…” I drop my head in my hands, “I don't know.” You're special . "Nothing.” To me . “There's nothing wrong with it.” So special I'm willing to risk it all.

“Okay.” He nods.

“Okay,” I pick the beer back up and chug its contents. 

“Okay."

Okay ,” I snap.

“Wanna watch this?” He shows me his phone and it's a video on Twitch.

“I…” I nod once, “Yes. I do only because I haven't seen this before and not because you're asking me to."

"Okay."

.

.

.

.

“I’m sorry.” 

“What for?”

“I yelled at you. I touched your shoulder. I know you don't like that. I sort of lost it too.”

“Oh.” 

“Yeah. I didn't like watching you walk away. It was like you were leaving me.”

“I was leaving but not you. I wasn't leaving you.”

“I know but anyone leaving . It sort of, I think of, you know- Stanley.”

“That was different.”

“Doesn't matter. He still left. He left me all alone.”

“You're not alone.”

“For a while I was.”

“You had friends-”

“In my mind I was alone. I was lost. I was so confused.”

“But you're not alone.”

“No I'm not lost either. I know that now.”

“Okay.”

“Yeah...yeah I...thank you.”

.

.

.

.

September 25.

The loss of a loved one.

A final goodbye.

It was...death.

.

.

.

.

“I told him."

“You did!? How'd that go?” Liam asks as Niall approaches with our drinks.

“Good,” I say. “He didn't seem fazed at all.”

“Well, he shouldn't. It's not like your bedding the guy.” 

“That was my thought exactly but I don't know. It felt- he felt different that night.” 

“How so? What changed?” Niall asks.

“His presence like…” I look between my friends, “Don't make fun of me.” I warn. “It completed everything. Like he filled the void.”

“Void? What void? You felt a void?” Liam probes.

“Yes, a void. I didn't think it would ever be possible that someone could replace Stan,” I puff my cheeks. “And even now saying it I feel bad. How could I think that? How could I think for two seconds that replacing Stan would be a thing?”

“In the beginning I would think it's too soon. But not now, Tommo. What you're doing is normal ,” Niall concludes.

“Do you like this guy?” Liam asks, takes a sip of his drink.

“He's cool,” I admit. 

“He's weird,” Niall interjects.

“Nah. He isn't. I figured that out. He just labels himself because he's insecure about his OCD.”

“So it was confirmed? He has it?”

Liam turns to me, “What's he OCD about?” 

“It doesn't-” I start.

“He's a germaphobe,” Niall answers.

“Geez!” I whack him on the arm. “Don't you have a job to do!?”

His blue eyes widen, “What did I say!?” 

“Just don't say anything alright? He's a good guy and he doesn't need his business spread around town.”

“How did it feel you know, talking about Stan?” Liam disregards my rant.

“I was in control for the most part. I cried, of course, I choked up on a few words but Harry really kept me level headed. I don't know how but he did. It was like his presence grounded me, his gentleness and soft voice too. He asked questions but didn't pry. He just knew what to say, gave advice. It was strange.” I look between my friends. “I can't explain it.” His soul resides in me.

“How was it brought up?” Niall asks.

“The piano…” I tell them quickly. 

“You need to change your mailbox,” Liam suggests.

“I do and I will. In time. But Harry took note of it. He saw Stanley's name! He even assumed that's who I was in love with.”

“You're still in love with Stan!?” 

“I think I'm in love with our memories, with the thought of him, with the moments we had together. You know...his touch and…kisses and hugs and-”

“Keep it in your pants,” Niall grimaces.

“Shuddup!” I defend.

"No!"

"Yeah! Or else I'll duct tape your mouth shut!!"

"You wouldn't-"

Liam throws his hands up to shush us, “I think you miss being in a relationship. Why not try it with this guy? He said he likes you. Maybe he meant something more .” 

I tap my lip in thought, “Maybe. But he's young.”

“Kid's nineteen!!” Niall continues to spew the information I told him in confidence .

“There we go! Keep your mouth-”

“Hey! Maybe someone young is good for you!” Liam sounds too eager, hopeful. “You might-”

“He's eight years younger than me!! What could he possibly want with an old man like myself!? I mean I know I'm good looking and have my life in order for the most part but get real! He's a child. He needs to hangout with friends his age, he needs to experience life, he has to win this contest. Not date me. I would be a bad choice,” I despise the flurrying in my gut, the chance that maybe-

No!!

“Why would you be a bad choice? You might be exactly what he's looking for.” 

I shake my head, “How? I'm looking for a future not a one night stand.”

“He could satisfy your urges ,” Niall waggles his eyebrows.

“You mean your urges !?” I grunt, “I'm perfectly okay-”

“Using your hand, sure!”

“Or someone else 's hands!”

“Ugh! Shut up you turd!”

"I'm not a turd, fuck-face!"

"Oh real mature ! Think of a better come back next time-"

“Alright chill both of you!" Liam places his hand in the air, silences us once more. “You guys never grew up... geez .” He rolls his eyes, turns to me again. “What I think you should do is just let things ride out. You do you, let this Harry kid do what he wants. Go from there. Follow your impulses. If you think he's special enough then you know. Hold his hand or something and see how he reacts.”

“Hold his hand? I can't even graze his arm without him freaking out. He's a germaphobe remember?”

“He may like your germs.”

“That's ridiculous! Like my germs!? Kid is afraid of his own shadow!! He'd probably run away. And I can't let that happen.”

“Then no hand holding. Maybe do something he won't catch onto.”

“Look, I don't want to confuse him or lead him on! He's just a nice person who sort of fit into my life like a puzzle piece. That's all. I don't want to touch him in a platonic way unless he wants me to. I don't want him to run away from me. I don't want him to become angry with me for invading his personal space. I don't want to lose him. So no. I won't hold his hand. I won't follow my impulses. I won't replace Stan.” 

“Then you'll never fully heal,” Niall sighs. “You'll always be stuck in limbo.”

“Probably...but the heart can't love fully again after losing it's soulmate. It's not possible. There was too much loss, too much anger, too much... emptiness.”

.

.

.

.

“I have to come up with a good costume for school,” We're walking down Madison Avenue, our destination, no where . “I was thinking a Ghost Buster but I can't be the only one. I'll need three other teachers to go along with it.” I take a bite of my ice cream sandwich. 

“Who would you choose?” Harry asks.

“Mmm...Egon. Absolutely. He was the genius of the group and after all” -I point to myself- “I'm a genius.”

“Sure, Jan," Harry chuckles.

“What do you know !? I am a genius!! I was in the top five of my class! And if I would have tried just a little harder I would have been Valedictorian.”

He raises an eyebrow, “Seriously?” 

“Yes! I was smart and talented and popular and-”

“The shortest guy in class," He takes a bite of his own dessert, hides his mouth behind the spoon he pulled from his coat pocket

“What!?” I stop dead in my tracks, point my finger at him, “For your information , buddy ole pal, I wasn't the shortest. Niall is the shortest. I have him beat by ONE inch!!” I hold my finger up. “ One !!! The kid got screwed in the height department. What can I say?” We continue on our way.

“Looks like you got the shaft too.”

“Looks like your brain didn't fully develop, you big uncoordinated dummy.”

“Are you always this cranky at the end of the week?” Harry finishes his ice cream, throws the cup away. He then pulls a small bottle of hand sanitizer from his pocket and applies a liberal amount over his palms and fingers. Same thing every time

Yes . Especially during the school year. The kids exhaust me. But it's fine. I have you to be my personal punching bag now,” I finish my dessert too, throw out the napkin. “So back to my costume. Who should I-”

"I thoroughly enjoy discussing your crankiness though," He tinkers with the camera around his neck, grips the lense.

I blow him a raspberry, "Screw you. Take a picture of my ass and kiss the screen." I stomp up the street.

"Are you insinuating that I should kiss your ass?"

"Very good my young Padawan, you're learning."

He falls into step with me, "Isn't that your job? To educate ?" 

"And your point is?" I grunt.

"My point is, you're teaching me how to have a sense of humor."

"I…" I turn to him and the camera is in his hands, "That's good. I'm molding you, helping you so when you go to Italy you can make friends and go out and explore and have an unforgettable experience."

"Maybe," He shrugs. "So turn around." He twirls his finger.

"Huh? Why?" We stop walking.

"I'm doing my homework."

I scratch my head, "Harry, what are you-"

"I'm taking a picture of your ass. Now let me complete my assignment. I have to get an A."

"Uh…" I gulp, "Yeah of course . I mean... absolutely!" I do an about face, lift my shirt up. "Good?"

"Uh-huh," He mumbles from behind me and the shutter clicks once... twice...three times. "Done."

"Okay great so you now have three pictures of my ass," I pull my shirt down, shake off the nerves bubbling under my skin. Woah

"Yes, I do." 

I glance at him again, find his face immediately and he's staring intently at the screen with knitted eyebrows and chewed up lips, "Did…" I clear my throat to maybe capture his attention, "I hope you got a good angle."

"Think so," He sounds distracted, preoccupied with my butt I suppose. 

"Are you going to stare at it for the rest of the night?" 

"Maybe," He whispers.

"Seriously?" I approach him but he shakes his head, drops the camera.

"Okay so costume," He rubs his palms. “Dress up as an Angel.” 

Wait what just happened? Is he serious?

Was I serious!?

Are we flirting!?!

“Angel?" I recover, "No way. I'm not frolicking around school in a white dress and wings.”

“I'm sure the kids would get a kick out of it.”

“No!! That's a dumb idea! I want something iconic, something fun, something everyone will recognize.”

“How about a rockstar?”

“That's-” I tap my lip, “Not a bad idea actually.” 

“You can borrow one of my band t-shirts.”

“Yeah! I can get a wig and maybe a pair of boots too!” I pull my phone free, “Let's see...where could I buy…” I Google Halloween stores, thrift shops, anything in the area. “Ah-ha!! I found one.” I check the time and we still have a few hours. “Good!! Let's go!”

.

.

.

.

Harry looks up at the sign, “Is this it?” We're outside the small store in China Town.

“Yup. Let's do it,” We walk in and head to the back in search of the perfect costume. “Oh these are...” I pull a pair of black patent leather boots off the shelf. “Loud.” I inspect the heel and height. “They'll probably hit mid calf.”

“Or close to the knee,” Harry mumbles, hands me a pair of pants. “Goes well with these.” 

“They're...pleather,” I gasp. “I don't know-”

“Well, are you going for a classic 70's hippie or an 80's hair band?”

“What's more flashy because I have to make a statement."

“Hair band,” He nods. “Those are it.” He points to the bottoms.

“Oh boy,” I puff my cheeks. “Sure I guess.”

“Typically you wouldn't wear a shirt either. But that's probably not appropriate for school," He turns away, rubs at his palms. 

“Yeah, I have to be fully clothed,” I watch him closely and there's something brewing under that mess of curls. I just know it . “Right so let me try this on. Why don't you look for a wig?” 

“Okay,” He walks off into the store, disappears behind a rack of clothes.

“Sheesh,” I touch my chest, steady out my breathing. I'm losing it. “Alright so these?” I inspect the pants again, “My ass is gonna look huge .” They remind me of leggings, shiny leggings.

“Here,” Harry reappears and I nearly topple over.

“Ah!! Jesus!!” I gasp. 

" Jesus ."

“You're soft on your feet,” 

"I've been working on my subtleness."

I snatch the blonde wig from his grasp, “Yuh...I guess you have.” 

“The dressing room is over there," He points behind him with his thumb.

“Oh okay,” I follow after him, sort of glance at his denim clad legs, and possibly his butt. Bad, Lou. Very bad . I pinch my arm but continue to ogle anyway. He does have a picture of my ass so it's only fair . “Give me a sec I suppose.” I pull the curtain closed and wring my hands to bring feeling back into my fingers. Chill, Lou. It's fine. I remove my clothes. It's just a costume for Halloween . I reach for the bottoms first. "Hm…" There isn't a button or zipper, just a spandex band. "Interesting."

"What is it?" Harry asks, his tone even tempered.

"Nothing," I pull them up, and tug, and yank, and ugh!!!   “These are really fitted.” I announce when I finally get them past my thighs and into place. I touch the seam of my boxers through the material. That won't work

“How bad?” 

“Um…” I find my reflection in the mirror and yeah this is leaving nothing to the imagination. At least there are pockets. “Did they have a bigger size by any chance?” Because A. I'm not walking around with underwear lines and B. My curves look insane . Insanely hot .

“Hold please," Holy shit. I check out my ass.

“Hm…it looks good,” I admit. "But is this too revealing for school?" I continue to stare. "Maybe I could-"

“That was it," He shoves his hand through the curtain, startles me again . "Here."

“What’s that?” I take it, “A vest?” 

“It was next to the pants and a good way to...cover up.”

“Got it,” I throw it on along with the boots and wig, and I must say it looks decent. “I think I've achieved over the top 80's hairband." I appreciate my reflection, glance at my butt one final time and nod, “This is it!!” I give myself two thumbs up.

“Let me see,” Harry says from behind the curtain.

“Um...uh sure. Yeah,” I adjust the wig, tug at the bottoms, scrounge up the courage to show him. I plan on prancing around school like this. Why am I more concerned about Harry's opinion? 

What if he likes it?

What if I want him to like it?

What if he doesn't like it?

Why am I so concerned about his opinion!?

“Okay” -I pull back the curtain- "here it is.” He's frozen though, his mouth is in a straight line, his expression inscrutable. That's not what I was expecting . “That bad?” I look back at the mirror shamefully. "Or should I go with it?"

“No," I avoid his reflection.

“No what?” I inspect the boots, the vest, the wig. I thought I looked...kinda hot actually . “I mean I could always try-”

“No!!” I whip my head around towards him then, “I meant...uh well…” He composes himself, touches his brow, “It's...very fitting .”

“Literally. The pants are very snug. I hope I can bend down."

He shoves his hands into his pockets, “That would be an issue, you know not being able to…bend." 

Okay that went straight to my groin.

“Right," I puff my cheeks, "If you insist this works...” My voice trails off as I continue to take him in.

“I do. It's the...it's perfect,” He assures. "Yes, very good indeed."

“Okay. Then I'll buy it,” I mask my upturned lips. 

“Sure?" He squirms in place, "I mean...yes. Buy it."

“Alright, lemme change."

“I'll bring my shirt the next time we hangout, well not hangout but you know on our next walk? Yeah the next time,” Is he nervous? 

“Thanks,” I'm blatantly staring, note the pearling of sweat dotting his forehead, find his hands flexing in his pockets. “Are you okay?” I ask with amusement.

“Great!” He grins, “I'm, I'm fine. Why don't you change? Like right now?” He turns away and walks to the front of the store.

“Um…” I chuckle to myself, "I still got it." 

And I got you, Harry.

.

.

.

.

“Thanks for helping me,” I say when we're outside. “I hope the kids appreciate it.”

“They will," He glances towards me. 

“You think? Last year I was a smirf. I painted my skin blue, bought a floppy white hat, wore white pants and shoes. That's going to be hard to top.”

“How did you wash off the paint?”

“Let's just say I had blue fingernails for ever . It was so annoying so I vowed to never use it again," I chuckle. “What did you dress up as last year?”

“Nothing.” He shakes his head, faces forward.

We're heading home, walking at a leisurely pace, extending our time together. Or is that just wishful thinking?  

“Really? Why?”

“I had no where to go.”

“Oh, what about this year? Do you have plans?” 

“No,” He shakes his head. “Do you?”

“The bar. They always have something,” I say. “And it's so close to the apartment. It's difficult to say no!" 

“Were you a smirf for that too?”

“No way. I was the pink Power Ranger. I wore Spandex and all!”

“Oh." 

"Yeah, Niall was the red one, Liam green, Calvin was the black dude, and no one wanted to be the other chick so I dressed up a stuffed bear in a yellow dress."

He chuckles, "Taking one for the team?"

"Yeah. It was interesting," I grin. "Everyone got a kick out of it though so it was worth it."

"It must have been fun."

"It was, You should come,” I suggest. "We all have a really great time."

“I won't though," He reminds.

“You don't know that for sure,” I grip the bag to my chest. 

“I will not have fun at a bar. I can't drink. I can't flirt . I can't even…” He sighs, “I can't mingle or be anything more than my introverted self."

I shake my head, “I’ll be with you the entire night. Come on." I practically beg, "We can meet at my place then go. It's literally one block over-"

“I'm awkward," He interjects and I almost smack him upside the head!

“We're all a little awkward at first!” I stop walking.

No ,” He snaps, faces me with flushed cheeks .

“Yes!!” I defend, “Yes damnit-”

“I'm not you . I can't just find things to say. I can't handle being touched. I can't stand the crowds."

“Stop saying I can't and do something about it then!! If you're as awkward as you claim, why don't you put yourself out there and get out of your head . You are your own worst enemy, Harry."

“What if I am?” His anguish is evident in his voice and disposition.

“Then let me change that,” I inch towards him. “Let me help you-”

“No.”

I recoil, “Why not?”

“Because I like being...I like-”

“Being alone .”

“Safe. I like being safe," He corrects.

“Safe!? From what!” I explode.

“Being subjected to- exposed to things,” He cringes.

I scowl, “That sounds miserable .” 

“For some it's beneficial to their health," He defends.

“I think you're afraid to let people in,” I say. “I think you're so accustomed to being by yourself that you blame everyone else for your issues when in reality you're the one avoiding them. You avoid people. You avoid crowds. You avoid the world .” I growl.

“That's not-”

“That's why you like photography!! You want to capture moments you believe you can't experience yourself!!”

He bites his lip, “You have no idea-”

“But what you don't realize Harry-”

“I don't want it!!” He shouts in my face practically. I take a step back, “I'm fine on my own!! I'm a ticking time bomb remember? I'm a weirdo with an awful haircut. I'm gangly and uncoordinated. I wear hoodies in the summer and Velcro sneakers as if it's some trend . I'm weird.

My anger dissipates slightly, “You can have it all okay? You can have it, you just have to work for it. You have to try!” 

“I don't want the attention,” He grips his curls, touches his chest. "I don't."

“So you'll seclude yourself for the rest of your life? You'll sit in your room and stare at pictures all day? How could you possibly live life like that?”

“It's what I'm accustomed to.”

“That's...sad. I'm sad for you. I feel for you because I know what that loneliness feels like."

“No you don't. You had it all -”

“Then I lost it!!” I counter.

“Oh boo-hoo, poor baby .” He rolls his eyes and walks away down the sidewalk. You're leaving!?

“No poor you !!” I shout after him. “Ugh!!!” I grip the bag to my chest and head in the opposite direction. No! I'm leaving him !! “Fucking asshole... prick... loser .” I frown. “Shithead.” I turn back around. “And don't come by to apologize!!” I huff and walk to the subway.

“Germaphobe...weirdo... asshole ,” I swipe at my eyes. “Self centered... fucker,” I choke. “Stupid...waste of space.” I head through the station. “G-getting, getting my hopes up.” I shudder. “Shit.” My eyes leak more tears. “No.” I shake my head. “No, no. He wasn't it.” I conclude. “I'll never find...I won't...I…" I'll be trapped forever too.

.

.

.

.

“Dude. What the fuck is that!?” I walk into the crowded bar in costume, approach Liam whose dressed as a priest. “And what's that black stuff on your eyes!?”

“Father, I'm the lead singer of an 80’s rock band," I adjust the heavy wig, hike up my pants. “Duh!!” I inspect my boots, swipe off some dirt. “Good, eh? I bought it at a thrift shop.”

“Showing some skin too I suppose?” He notes my bare chest and arms.

“I wore a long white undershirt to work but now I'm bearing it all!” I flex my bicep and kiss it, "You've just won front row seats to the Gun Show ."

“I was certain you'd show up as the Power Ranger again.”

“I never wear a costume twice. Never have. Never will,” I approach the counter. “Uh... what are you supposed to be?” I ask Niall.

“Captain Jack Sparrow!” He says. 

Lame !!” I flick his hat, “Where'd you get that? The kids section at Target?”

“No you shit,” I purse my lips, smile cheekily. “And you're wearing the wrong size pants.” He points out. “They're a little snug around the buttocks area.” He gestures with his hands around his backside.

“What if I wanna show off my ass?” I waggle my eyebrows. “You know, beg for attention?” Since...when!?

“You!? Since when!!” Uh...yeah. I'm asking myself that too.

“If I recall you hated your voluptuous curves in high school.” Liam adds.

“Until Stanley took notice,” I admit. “Then I embraced what I was gifted because damn!!! It's that good.” I point to my bum. “I can balance a wine glass on that baby.”

“I think you used it to your advantage.”

“People couldn't resist my ass. You're just jealous,” I bat my eye lashes. “Alright, Neil. Get me drunk!!” I smack the counter. “Come on!!” I plead.

“Beer or cock tail?” My best friend asks.

“Both would be nice. Very nice actually…”

“So you admit you miss getting some.” 

“I thought you said you were fine?” Liam asks with concern.

“Lima bean, I am. It'll get me drunker faster. Father, get your damn head out of the gutter!! Not everything is about sex."

“Here,” Niall slides over a beer.

“That's better,” I put the bottle to my lips and take a quick sip. “Yum!!” I take another, and another!!

“Woah! I guess you're getting toasted tonight?”

“It’s Halloween !! Of course I am!” I bite my lip, look between my friends, “And I've sort of been an emotional wreck these last few days. I just really need to let loose I think.” 

“Why?” Niall asks with a furrowed brow, “Are you doing okay?” 

“I'm…” I sigh, “I- you know... there's…” I puff my cheeks. I haven't spoken to Harry and I feel off balance for some reason . “It's just work .” I lie because how do I describe my unwarranted sadness? He walked away from me again and he actually didn't come to apologize. “The kids are rowdy as fuck and I have parents screaming in one ear and administration screaming in the other.” I continue. “It's just a lot happening since I've applied for tenure. I need to make a good impression and prove I deserve it.” I already have tenure by the way. 

“If anyone does deserve it, it's you,” Liam encourages.

“Yeah I guess so. Whatever, I've only put my best foot forward and helped the kids. If they believe I'm not worthy of a permanent position then they can go to hell! I'm not jumping through hoops anymore. This is who I am. If they want me, then they can have me.” But that's not...

“I agree. You basically built that entire music department from the ground up," Niall reminds. Why am I lying?

“Yeah, exactly. But then they hired some child and now he's been trying to like take the lead. It's frustrating.” I'm upset for another reason, guys. Come on don't you know me!?

“So you push him right back. Be that leader!”

“It's not in my nature to push anyone. I want to get along with them, not make enemies.” Weasle it out of me!!

“This is your job, okay? You need to be pushy once in a while.”

“I...ugh...Niall, just let me drink?” I chug my beer. “That's better.” I grin. I haven't...

“Hey, where's Harry?” Liam asks. I miss...

“Dunno,” I haven't spoken to him and now I don't know what to do.

.

.

.

.

“Calvin came!!!” I shout, “He's here!!!” I bounce towards my friend, wrap my arms around his neck. “The party has arrived!!”

“How many has he had so far?” He asks the others.

But I answer first with garbled speech, “Too many!! Too...too…” I shake my head, swallow back the discomfort in my stomach. “ A lot !!” I conclude. And nothing will make it go away either.

“Well fantastic!” 

“Weeeeee!!!” I twirl around with my beer, bump into a patron or two, ignore the stares and judgements. “Who wants to play some pool?” I ask.

“No one!”

“You're terrible.”

“Play with the balls by yourself!”

“Use the stick as a stripper pole!”

“Oh boo!! You all suck!!” I pout to the group.

“Actually, Lou you're the one who sucks,” I flip Liam off.

“I do suck ,” I spit. “I suck , long, hard-” A song comes over the speakers then, disrupts my train of thought. “Yeah!” I begin to dance wildly across the bar. “ The Wanton Song !!” I sing the lyrics, play air guitar, become boisterous and disruptive.

Silent woman in the night, you came

Took my seed from my shaking frame

Same old fire, another flame

And the wheel rolls on

“Hey buddy calm down there!” One of the patrons shout over the song.

“No way, buddy !! This is mah jam!!!” I jump up onto a barstool then step on the bar top. “Woo-hoo!!” I throw my hands in the air.

Silent woman through the flames, you come

From the deep behind the sun

Seems my nightmares, have just begun

Left me barely holding on

“No!! Louis stop!” I hear Niall shouting from the front.

"Wooo!" I twirl around and nearly topple over.

“Stop! Stop!!” 

I hear the yelling but I continue on anyway, disregard the other guests, block out my friends. This is about me right now and no one can tell me I can't dance on top of the bar!! Look at me!! Watch my ass!! 

“With blazing eyes you see my trembling-" My hand is tugged suddenly, the momentum throwing me off balance. “Hey!!” I pull back but this person is strong , “Wh-what-” I lose my footing and topple off the bar, knock over a few beer bottles and glasses, scuff up the counter with my clunky boots. “Ahhhhh!!!” I throw my hands out, brace for the impact, but I land into a set of arms instead, “Oof!!!” My head smacks into their chest, my arms dangle across their shoulders, my legs are weak and uncoordinated from the alcohol. 

And the smell of coconut.

It's there.

It's right here!!

What!?

“Harry!!!” I gasp, lift my head and find his eyes, “Wh-what? What, who-”

“You've had enough," He pushes me off of him, grips my forearm. 

“No! I haven't had nearly enough. N-no amount of beer will help! Or liquor or...or any concoction Neil makes me!” I frown. “Nothing.” I shake my head. “N-nothing will make it go away.” I pout.

“Alcohol isn't the answer,” He waves to my friend behind the bar.

“You got him?” Niall looks to me then Harry.

“I do."

“Take good care of him. He can be a bit of a cry baby when he's wasted.”

“You know Niall!? How!!” I'm forced from the bar, pushed through the door and into the chilled Fall air, “No!” I cry. “I don't wanna leave!” I turn around but his grip !! “Let me go-”

“Home? Sure.” His hand is firm as he pulls me up the block.

“I don't wanna -”

“You have to," His tone is gentle but there's an edge to it, an edge of annoyance I believe.

“I'm an adult! I can do what I want!!” I twist my arm.

“Not when you're this drunk because you're acting like a damn child.”

“Why did you sh-show up? You said no!!! You were adamant about not coming and spending Halloween with me! You said-”

“I had a change of heart.” 

I continue to fight him, “You said no!! You mocked my sadness. You said-”

“Louis…” I wiggle out of his grasp and make my way up the street, quicken my pace to escape his grubby hands, “Wait!”

“No!! Go away! You're ruining everything,” I cry and swipe at my eyes. “Great I smudged my makeup!!” I sob. “Jackass!!” 

“Wait!!” He shouts, “Louis! Stop!" 

“Go away!!” I step off the curb and into the street.

“No!!” 

“Just leave me alone-” He encloses his arms around my waist then, tugs me backwards into his chest and out of the road as a car speeds past. “Huh?” I settle into his embrace, rest my head in the crook of his neck. “Woah...woah.” I swallow. “You feel…” 

“Wow,” He gasps. 

“So-so good,” Home. I close my eyes, push back into him, groan aloud as an all consuming desire inundates my senses. “Don't-” He releases me instantly though. “What?” I'm standing on wobbly legs suddenly, my mind is whirling, my body is on fire .

“Almost there,” He grips my bicep and pulls me along.

“B-but...But-” I look down and I'm… “Excited. I'm…” Oh no. “Harry I-” I wanna kiss you.

"Home sweet home,” We enter the apartment building from the side entrance. “Walk up now, go on.” He instructs, points to the landing above, keeps just enough distance between us. 

“B-but I uh…” I look up the steep steps, nearly topple over from the dizziness and tunnel vision. “It's a lot of- I can't.” I shake my head, sniffle back my tears. My hands are gripped into tight fists, resting deliberately in front of my unwarranted boner.

“You have to,” His tone is neutral. “You can't sleep down here.”

“My p-pants are too tight,” I admit. “It'll... they will-” Rub and rub...and oh God!!! I whimper at the thought.

“Let's go.”

“No!! I can't!!” I shout. “I don't wanna- I don't- I can't- I'll fall backwards!” And cum in my pants!!

“I'm right here. I'll catch you," His reassurance is anything but reassuring.

“You won't touch me. You'll let me fall!” I grip the wall and banister anyway.

“No I won't.”

“Y-you…” I lift my leg, stifle a groan as my excitement presses against my thigh. “G-god damn.” 

God. " He mocks. 

"Shuddup!! I hate it when you do that!" 

"Then stop saying it," He's close behind but not close enough. "Good just a few more," He's keeping his distance, he hates my germs, he fears my touch.

“There are like a hundred steps left!!” I whine, “There's so many between me and my bed.” 

“Lift your foot.”

I am !!” I take another step, nearly explode in my pants. “Ugh, this is your fault.”

“I'm not the drunken one," He informs me.

“No!! Not, not that,” I take another step, bite my lip. “You...you did this.” I eye the bulge, mentally slap myself because why? Why am I excited? What happened?

You held me.

And I enjoyed it.

I want your touch .

I know that much now.

“And you say I'm the one who blames others for my issues.” 

“You do!!” My eyes are watering, “You do.” But I keep my hands steady on the wall, climb to the next step, allow the tears to spill over. “You do .”

“Almost there," He's still a few paces behind.

“No,” I shake my head. “No I'm not!” I sob.

“You are, there's just three more.”

I shake my head, “No it's rubbing too much and I'm afraid I'll embarrass myself.” 

“You'll be able to take off your boots soon.”

“You don't get it!!” I shout, “You... this is awful.” I reach the landing and stumble into the wall. “Fuck... fuck.” I sigh.

“One more flight.”

Don't remind me, ” I grunt and walk up the second set of stairs with just as many curses and tears. 

“Just down the hallway here.” 

I know where I live!!” I waddle down the corridor, ignore the tears trickling down my cheeks, and the desire roiling in my stomach. “I know!!” 

“Okay,” I stop before my door.

Okay . Just okay !?” I grip the handle, jiggle it, “No it's not okay !!” I continue to push the door and turn the handle. “None of this is okay!” I sniffle. “I’m anything but okay. I'm excited.”

“It's locked," Harry comments instead. “Where's the key?”

“You don't even care," I choke. “You just want-”

He hushes me, “You're making a lot of noise.”

“I don't care! This is all your fault I'm like this. I was doing fine !! I was and you came swooping in and killed the mood ."

“Sure,” He deadpans. “Where do you usually keep your keys?”

“My pocket .” 

“Okay,” He pulls me back against his chest, pats down the front of my pants.

“Wh-what...are you-” I close my eyes, lean into him, savor in the feel of his hand touching my leg and his arm wrapped securely around my torso. “H-how...” He slinks his hands in- “Oh...oh.” -and pulls the envelope free- “that's mine!!” I recover and rip it from his hands. “How dare you...how could-” He dives right back in and reaches my keys. “Ugh!!”

“Bingo,” He removes them and pushes me out of the way.

“Hey!!” I slam into the wall, “Wh-what the fuck!” I touch my forehead as the dizziness returns. 

“Get in,” He pulls me into the apartment, ignores my already clouded judgement, and allows me to collapse to the ground in a giant heep.

“You are not nice !!” I shout. He shuts the door and allows Ruby to greet him, “You're not good . You're awful. You- you thoughtless, uncouth, introverted prick !!”

“Hey girl," He continues to ignore me. “Do you need to go out?” She pants, wags her tail. “Did Daddy ignore you and get drunk?” I drop the envelope.

“Fuck you!!” I pull the wig off and attempt to stand but I fall clumsily back onto my butt, “N-no, no.” My erection is on fire underneath these stupid pants. I can't think straight! Or is that the alcohol?

I don't know!!

"Let's get you to bed,” He encircles my bicep and pulls me to my feet without care.

“H-hey!! Are you always this rough ?”

“No,” He pulls me further into the apartment. “Now let's get you out of these clothes.”

“I can- I am more than capable of undressing, ” We reach the bedroom and the vertigo is worsening. “Woah…” My head is spinning. “I can't…I can't do this anymore.” I fall to the mattress in defeat.

“Louis!” He shakes my shoulders.

“Go away!!” I flail my arms about.

“It's time to change, remember?” He opens my closet, completely ignores my request. 

“What- what are you doing?” I squint in his direction, find his tall blob doing something with my clothing.

“Finding pajamas.”

“For you!?” My erection pulses beneath my pants at the thought. 

“No,” He snaps. “ For you. ” 

“I-” I turn away from him, rest my head on my arms.

“Here,” He forces me over onto my back. “Your face is black by the way.” 

“It's eyeliner,” I swipe at my eyes again. 

“You made it worse,” I'm staring up at him through my lashes, find his warn out jeans and faded hoodie. 

“I don't care," Right now I care about my crotch and the bulge just underneath.

“I'll get something for that. Change into those,” He points to a pile of clothes.

“I...I don't-” But I don't move. Instead I stare up at the ceiling, concentrate on my boner, and try to figure out why ! “You.” I shake my head. “God damnit... you ?” My eyes blur. “R-really?” I sob. “How? I thought…” We were friends.

“Let's try this," He suggests, leans over me, “Are those more tears?”

“My eyes are sweating,” I turn over again, tuck my booted feet underneath me. 

“Louis, you have to clean your face and change. You're getting your comforter all dirty.” His voice is all wrong! There's no warmth or care. It's cold and unfeeling and distant and... disappointed.

“I don't give a shit!!” I cry, “You do! That's it. You care about dirt and germs . You care about yourself and your camera. You don't give two shits about my feelings or my-”

“Turn over," He pushes me onto my back.

“Leave!!” I growl. “Get out! I don't w-want you here!!” 

“No,” He proceeds to clean my cheeks with a damp towel.

“Leave me alone! Just let me cry and b-be miserable? It's all I need right now. It's how I handle everything!!” 

He throws the towel aside, “You need to change first."

“I don't care about my clothes!” 

“I do, He stands, runs his fingers through his hair. “I'm gonna walk Ruby. By the time I get back you better be changed.”

“Or what, huh? What are you gonna do!?”

“Nothing. I'll do nothing because there is nothing I am able to do because you're an adult, Louis. You're an adult who is more than capable of undressing ,” He leaves the room in a huff.

“God!!” I close my eyes, turn over onto my side and cry into the bedding, “Asshole!! You made me excited. You excite me. You... you…Fuck!!! You did that.” I sob. “N-now...now...I want...I want…to risk...” 

“Wake up!!” 

“Wh-what...what!?” I'm startled awake and Harry is in my face. Kiss me . His eyes are wide, his features grave. 

“You have to change.” 

“No, I don't!” He turns me over against my wishes.

“Just shush and stay still?” He pulls my boots free, “Take off your pants.”

“Huh?” I look down at myself and I'm still hard, “I don't-”

“You're worse than a child,” He grips the waistband on my pants while avoiding my skin.

“W-wait!” He pulls them down just far enough, just above my crotch.

“Wow!” He backs away, diverts his eyes to the ground as if in shame, “You could have warned me you went commando ."

“I…” I blush, “I didn't w-want underwear lines.” 

He clears his throat, " Okay ." 

“Harry, look-”

“Please change?” 

“I...Harry…” I find his mouth and I'm unable to stop myself, “Kiss me.” 

He scrunches his eyes closed, shakes his head, “No."

“You killed my buzz, you made me horny,” I hold his stare. “You owe me.”

“Louis, I am not kissing you as repayment," He throws a sweatshirt over my lap and tugs my bottoms down. 

“Why? Do I repulse you?” I fight back my tears.

“Shush,” He shoves my feet through the legs of cotton pajama bottoms, pulls them up, carefully avoids touching my skin.

“You are. You're ashamed of me. You think I'm disgusting. You hate my germs, my touch, my...my-”

“Put those on.”

“Touch,” My eyes well some more.

“Louis!!”

“What!” I bark, “What? D-do you...why are you here? If you don't want me-”

“Just get dressed,” He rushes from the room.

“I can't ,” I shake my head. “I'm too…” I blindly reach for the waist of the pajamas, pull them up as far as I'm able. “Fuck.” I whisper and lift my butt off the bed and slide them the rest of the way. I turn over, squint against the fogginess, and reach for the sweater Harry brought over. “Oh no…” It was Stanley's. “I can't...not that…I can't wear it.” I pull off my vest and throw it to the ground. “N-not...no.” I inch my way to the top of the bed and tug at the bedding. “No...I can't. That won't help.” I slink underneath the covers. “He won't...this isn't...it's not about him right now.”

Harry barges in, "Drink this."

“No,” I turn my face into the pillow.

“Louis, drink this then you can pass out.”

“Go away,” I whisper. “You killed my buzz. You killed my night. You embarrassed me. You turned me down. You” -I sniffle- “confuse me. I don't know what you want. I don't understand you.” I shake my head, “Just go?” 

“Drink this then I'll leave.” He shoves a glass in my face.

“Harry-”

“Louis! Drink it, okay?” I take the glass and chug its contents. 

“There.”

“Bye.” 

And he leaves me.

Again.

 

 

Chapter Text

STUPID DEEP, Playlist

 

I'm startled awake by a faint knock, "Huh?" I croak, "What...who…" I plant my face into my pillow case, wince at the dull ache radiating in my skull. "Ugh…" I whine but my voice is muffled, "Who's there?" I lick my dry lips, flex my toes, rub my bare feet together to bring some feeling back into them. 

Another knock comes.

What's going on?

I slowly tilt my head up and out from beneath the covers, squint past the light seeping into the room, "H-hello?" I slap a hand over my eyes, gently roll onto my back. "Is... who's there?" Or am I dreaming? 

The knock comes again.

"What the hell?" I stretch my legs and arms, intertwine myself into the bedding. "Ruby?" The jingling of her collar is unmistakable, "Stop hitting into things with your tail. Daddy needs to sleep." Her nails click against the hardwood floor as if to attract my attention. "You went out last night before I went to sleep remember? We took a nice walk-" My eyes spring open when I remember that I never took her out!! “Ruby!!! Oh my God .” I roll to the side of the bed, bunch up the sheets and comforter as I do, "I'm coming!" I place a bare foot on the floor, twist my body to balance myself but I slide to the ground in a giant heep. “Oof!!” I grit my teeth as a stinging sensation pulses in my head. “That- that...hurt.” I touch my temple, reach for the bedside table and find a glass filled with water. “Huh?” I stare down at my pajamas next, “Okay I know I didn't...how did I…” I puff my cheeks. "Did Niall help me? Did he walk me home? When though? Did he sneak away and bring me back here? And undressed me!?" He would never do that. Let's be honest. 

I take the glass and it's cold . The water is cold and not from the temperature. It's cold because it was recently filled .

My eyes widen, "Is Niall here?" I chug back its contents. "Couldn't be." I swipe my mouth and untangle my legs from the sheets. "Impossible. He would never do this. It would only encourage me to do it more and that's not what I need right now."

Ruby barks from the doorway, alerts me to her presence.

"Oh girl," I crawl my way across the floor towards her. "I'm so sorry.” I internally slap myself for being so careless. “You must be so hungry and fuck I hope you didn't shit in my shoe.” I frown. “I'm so sorry.” I say again. “I'm a terrible Daddy. I left you alone and then I got drunk and was stupid and...and now I can't-” She runs away then. “Where are you going?” I reach for the doorframe and pull myself up. “Ruby! I was in the middle of a heartfelt speech!” 

The smell of bacon hits my nostrils and it's both glorious and sickening at the same time.

Another knock .

“Ugh...did I...Ruby your poop smells like bacon,” I slowly make my way to the kitchen on unsteady feet, slap my toes against the hardwood. I scratch at my eye. “Ruby- huh?" I drop my hand and gawk at the person standing before my stove. “Um, I believe you have the wrong apartment.” I take in their cotton clad legs and gray hoodie.

“Well, the key fit the lock in your door so I let myself in,” Harry glances back at me, tucks a stray curl behind his ear, whacks the side of the pan with a spatula.

That explains the noise.

“What...what are…” I shake my head, “Ruby needs-”

“Already took her out,” He turns back around, continues flipping whatever it is he's flipping .

“Oh,” I squeak. “Oh okay, cool. Thanks. You saved a pair of my sneakers.”

“Why don't you wash your face and hands? Breakfast is almost ready,” I spot the bacon resting on a paper towel next to the stove.

“Yeah okay, sure breakfast,” I nod and head to the bathroom. “Wait!!” I stumble back in and Harry is still there! You're not an illusion. “Wait but, how are you here? What happened? I was…” I touch my chest, flinch when I find I'm wearing Stanley's sweatshirt. Huh!?  “I was at the bar.”

“Louis, go wash your hands,” Harry's tone is direct but kind.

“Uh…” I turn back around and do as I'm told, “What the fuck?” I murmur as I use the toilet. “How did he get in? Did I let him in !?” I wash my hands with soap and water, brush my teeth, and scrub the remnants of my makeup off that was some how smeared across my eyes and forehead. “I don't get it. We had an argument, he stormed off, we didn't speak for a few days, we…" I rub a fresh hand towel across my face. "I was angry last night and drank too much because of it." I find my reflection and it's awful. I look half dead especially with the bags underneath my eyes "Oh man." I turn away and shuffle back to the kitchen in defeat, "Nothing makes sense…"

Ruby is by her bowl eating.

Am I in the Twilight Zone?

“Wait when did she start doing that?” I scratch my head in confusion, “She never eats in here.” I point.

“Her food bowl was in the entryway. Maybe if you put it in the kitchen, she would.”

“She never leaves the entryway that's why.” 

“It's evident she does because she's been hovering by my feet since I came in.”

“She what!?” I can't mask my hurt.

“Louis, sit down.” 

“B-but I-” I plop into a chair as if on cue, “My...where did you-” Harry turns around revealing a perfectly sculped face and irises so bright I have to squint from their intensity. And underlying scrutiny because no doubt he's judging me right now . “You...um-" His curls are tamed and curled and shiny, and he actually styled his hair? Why? “I didn't have food.” I manage. 

“No, Louis you didn't. So I took Ruby out for a walk and went shopping,” He opens up the refrigerator to reveal stocked shelves and small Tupperware containers with red lids filled with... stuff . “You're set for the week so you don't have to bother your mother.” My mouth pops open as I take in the contents of my fridge. “I've made you lunch too. So you're not...I don't know.” He shrugs. “Buying fast food?"

“You...” I clear my throat, swallow back my tears, “You made me...you cooked-”

“Dinner so you don't have to go to your mother's and lunch for work.”

“You said that but-” I drop my head in my hands. “That was a lie, Harry.”

“What was?” He closes the door.

“I said I went to my mother's because Stan used to do all the cooking and shopping.” I glance up at him and his features remain stoic, his feelings impenetrable. “I didn't want to reveal too much about myself when we first met.” Or talk and cry and sob and just look broken. "I'm sorry."

“It's a good thing I can cook then, right?" He turns back to the stove, “I made chicken soup.” He stacks whatever he was making onto a plate.

“Huh? Why?”

“It freezes well.”

“How much did you buy? Can I pay you back? When did you even get here? How did you get here? I'm so confused. I was at the bar last night and I was drinking and I hugged Calvin and took shots with Liam. I think Luke was there too but I can't recall. Was he the police officer? Or was that Oli? No, no he was a doctor. Why... what's happening?”

“6am," Harry puts a plate and a bottle of maple syrup down before me.

“Um…” I eye the pancakes and bacon, “You made this?”

“From scratch," He walks back to the stove and begins ladling soup into containers with blue lids “Well not the bacon. But you get the idea- Oh! You need a fork.” He opens the correct drawer and hands me the utensil.

I take it, “Thanks.” I cut into the pancake but I'm not hungry. I'm confused. I'm unsure. I'm conflicted. “How did...Harry why are you here?” 

“I met you at the bar last night.”

I practically choke on my tongue, “When did you show up? I don't remember. I don't remember anything past the third tequila shot. Actually, I don't even know if I had tequila .” I groan.

“I guess you blacked out before I arrived.” 

“Yeah maybe,” I take a small bite but my stomach twists in protest. “I can't eat.” I shake my head, clutch my mid section. “I'm sorry.” I apologize.

“You can heat it up later.”

“Th-thanks.” 

“Not a problem.”

“But Harry…” I watch him wrap aluminum foil over my breakfast and place it in the fridge. “Harry, why are you here?”

He faces me, “Why don't you lie down?” 

“Please answer the question," I beg.

“Louis, you're very pale. You should rest.”

“I need answers," I insist.

He turns to the stove, “What you need is to rest.” 

“Harry, no! I know what I need!! And it's- I need to understand what happened last night and why I'm not still dressed in my costume, how you got in here without, without having- you had my key!” I drop my head in my hands. “My head hurts from all of this thinking.”

“I'll get you Advil. Go lie down.”

“Okay,” I resign and head to the living room without question. “What time is it?” My feet slap against the wood with each step I take. I'm just too groggy to care.

“Almost 1pm,” His voice is directly in my ear and I nearly topple over.

“Ah!” I flinch, touch my chest, “Holy shit you're so light on your feet.” 

He hands me a glass and the bottle of pain pills, “I'll get you a blanket.”

“Okay," My brain is too jumbled up so I plop down on the couch and turn the television on completely disregarding the fact that Harry knows where I keep the blankets, and Advil, and utensils, and- “Weird, this is so weird." I mumble thoughtlessly.

“There we go,” He drapes a flannel blanket across my legs, avoids touching me of course. “So-” Ruby is at his feet. 

“Really?” I glare at her, "Trader."

Harry winces, “She's been following me all morning.”

“She hasn't moved from the entryway since Stanley left. She was... waiting for him to come home I suppose. How did you do it? What did you do? How come you know my home? How do you fit so well with us?” I ramble, “Harry, what happened last night? Why am I not in my costume? Did I get up the steps okay? You had my key-"

“Nothing worth while," He's standing by with his hands shoved in his pockets.

“Did I embarrass myself? Did I…” I cringe at the possibilities. “Oh God-"

" God ."

"-I could have done something really, really bad.”

“You walked into the middle of the road,” I tear up instantly as the memory of that night returns. “That was probably the worst thing.”

“I did?” I swipe my eyes, "I really did that?" And risked your life?  

“Yes."

“I...why? What happened? Were we arguing?"

“Louis, not now okay?”

“Did I...did I cry about Stanley? Is that why I'm in his sweater?” Harry turns away, “Did I bring him up? Did I call for him?”

“No," He grumbles.

“B-but-”

“Rest now,” He walks away. 

“I can't rest. I can't!” I lay down on a throw pillow, close my eyes. “Stan?” I mumble as I turn over. “Oh Stan I…” I reach into my pocket seeking out my solace, to hold onto- the letter isn't there!! My stomach lurches, my body goes numb, my eyes flood with tears! “M-my-my letter!!” I stutter. “Where is it!!” 

“What?” Harry is in the doorway then, his eyes wide. “What are-”

“My letter . Where is it!?” I swipe my cheeks, “Harry!! I n-need it. I need it!! Please tell me!” 

“When did you see it last?” He asks.

“When I placed it in my pocket yesterday morning.”

“Your pocket?”

“Yes!!! My pocket, " I throw the blanket off my legs and hobble to the bedroom, “Where are those pants? Where are they!?” I'm a mess, I'm tear stained, I'm completely out of my mind! I throw open the closet door, riffle through my neatly hung shirts and pants. "Oh no...oh no!!!" I'm hysterical, I'm sobbing, I'm going to fall apart. I collapse to the floor, search my line of sneakers and dress shoes, throw them out of order.

“Louis!!” He's behind me.

“You don't get it. You don't !! That was my last tie to Stanley. That was it!! That was my lifeline. That brought me closure. That was about Stanley !!” I sob into my hands, “And I lost it!! I lost it. I was careless and stupid and selfish and...and a fucking moron. Why did I drink? Why did I let myself go like that?” Because of you. 

“Is this it?” He hands me the tattered envelope.

"Holy shit!!" I stand up, rip it out of his hands, clutch it to my chest, “It's here...it's- why did you have it!?” I seethe. “Why are you-” 

“You dropped it in the entryway when we got the door open last night,” His demeanor is eerily calm.

“Why? I never take it out!!” I grip my fringe, plunge the envelope into my pocket, “It stays put until I change. It never leaves my pocket !!” I point at him accusingly. “Why was it taken out!?”

“Because I had to drag your ass home last night,” He snaps. “I had to unlock the door because you were so drunk you couldn't function .”

I grimace, “But why-”

“Your key was buried in your pocket and the envelope happened to be in the way,” He rubs his palms, bites at his lip.

“I…” I drop my hand, feel my anger dissipate. “Oh. Wait so you stuck your hand in my pocket?”

“In emergencies I put my fears aside."

“Right. I could have done it though,” I glance at him and his cheeks are pink surely from my unwarranted outburst. 

“No, Louis. You were trying to open the locked door, you couldn't stand up straight, you fell into the wall, blamed me for pushing you, blamed me for a lot of things," He shakes his head, "I had no choice."

“It was the boots,” I reassure. “I couldn't really walk in them. I was having issues all day.”

“You danced on the bar top just fine," He reveals condescendingly.

“I what!?” I cry, “I did what!? Holy shit Niall won't let me live that one down. I'll be the ass of everyone's joke! Ugh and all of my friends saw it!!”

“It's a good thing you didn't fall and break a bone,” He pushes past me.

“Wait!” I follow close behind, “Harry what else did you see? When did you get to the bar? Why did you take me home?”

“Niall asked me to when you used the bar top as your own personal dance floor," He's back in the kitchen ladling soup into containers.

“Why drag me out of there though? I don't understand.”

“Because you had drank enough. You were rambunctious, loud, disruptive, and according to Niall, rambling on and on about- ” He stops.

“Stan?” 

He snorts but there's no humor, “No."

“It had to have been Stan. Or maybe school? I did bitch about it before I drank-”

“So which side of you lies, Louis? Sober you or Drunk you?”

I tremble, touch my chest in disbelief, “Wh-what? When did I-”

“Sober Louis,” He nods, pops the lid on the container.

“No! I don't lie ! Well maybe about my mother cooking for me but-”

“Well, you're lying to yourself then.”

“About what? What am I lying about!?”

“I have to go,” He throws the rag down. “Sorry you're on dish duty.” He rushes past me, avoids looking me in the eye. “Bye, Ruby.” He pets behind her ear, kisses the top of her head. Stanley used to do that.

“Please don't go,” He shoves his feet into his Velcro sneakers. “What did I talk about?”

“It doesn't matter anymore," He concludes, tugs a beanie over his curls, “I left detailed heating instructions on the fridge for you. Hope you enjoy everything." He swiftly leaves without a trace.

.

.

.

.

November 01

He lies.

Or maybe his drunkenness lies.

Or maybe I wish he remembered.

Maybe I wish he remembered wanting to kiss me.

.

.

.

.

“Niall.” 

“What's up?” We're at his place playing another round of Call of Duty. And it's boring. There's no challenge. He isn't good.

“Did I ruin the bar?” I ask, my voice just above a whisper.

“Oh so you found out about that, eh?” He snorts, continues smashing at his controller.

“Harry told me. Did I make a fool out of myself?"

“You were obsessed with your ass which might I add, looked damn fine,” He pauses. “No homo.”

“Really though am I banned from the bar? Did I destroy anything? Did I get you in trouble?"

“Pissed off a few of the customers, but nah it's alright,” He smacks at his controller again. “Ah! Unfair!! I totally blocked that!”

“You’re hitting the wrong button.” 

“No!! It's X so I'm hitting X!!”

“Block is square ,” I indicate as such with my own controller, but I'm too distracted to concentrate on the game, “Look, you need to tell me what happened. I need your honesty. I need you to talk to me and not hold back. I need to know what happened!!” I gasp for breath. “Like when did Harry show up? Was he speaking to you or anyone else? What did he drink? How was he in general? Did he look at me? Did he see me dancing?”

“You mean shaking your ass?” 

My eyes widen, “What!?” I drop the controller, grip my fringe, “I did what!! ” 

“Lou, you shook your ass while screaming out the lyrics to The Wanton Song. It was an interesting sight to say the least.”

“How...how could I- oh my God !! Why didn't you stop me!? Why was I allowed to stand up on the counter? How could you do this to me!?” I blame him but there's no argument there, it was my fault.

“You didn't listen!! You sort of did your own thing and ignored me completely."

“I'm officially the worst. That's it. I am the shittiest person-"

“Harry pulled you down," Niall pauses the game, faces me.

“H-he…” I shake my head, go to bite at my nail but I place my hand down instead. “He did?” 

“While everyone else was cheering you on, Harry and myself were mortified. Me more so of you kicking a customer in the face, Harry in fear of you falling over.”

“Ugh he would be afraid I got dirty from the floor."

“No he was afraid you'd get hurt. He didn't even mention germs or dirt.”

“He doesn't care about me,” I admit. “He probably didn't want to be associated with me after that. He was probably embarrassed for himself…” It's a good thing you didn't fall and break a bone.

Oh.

My friend whacks my arm, “He's not as self absorbed as you think.”

“I never said he was-”

“You assume he only cares about his own needs.”

“He does!! He hates germs and if I fell to the floor he wouldn't come near me for the rest of the night. Or week...or year even!!! Because bar floors are usually disgusting.”

“We mop it-”

“Doesn't matter!! It's not the point!! Harry was probably ashamed and pulled me down so I wouldn't embarrass him regardless if I hurt myself.”

“Sure, Tommo. Think what you want.”

“I'm not thinking anything" -I tap my temple- "I know these things, alright? 

Niall shakes his head, “You're so stubborn.”

“Am not!!”

“Are to!!”

“Hey guys!” Liam walks into the middle of our fight.

“Am not!!!”

“Are to!”

“Am not-”

“Um…” He sits on the floor besides the coffee table. “What happened-”

“Are to!”

“Am not!!” I lean towards Niall to slap him across the cheek but Liam holds me back.

“Are to!!”

“Guys!!!” Liam shouts, smacks the table. Both Niall and myself clamp our mouths shut, “Holy shit! What the hell is going on?” He releases me 

“Neil is a lying sack of shit!”

“And Lewis is a delusional cock bag!”

“Real mature, guys. Really,” Liam rolls his eyes, looks to the ceiling and sighs. "How did I get stuck with you two?"

“You don't know the half of it!” I growl.

“Um, actually I do because newsflash I wasn't drunk and you were and you danced on that bar, shook your too perky of an ass-” Niall shouts.

“It's a nice ass,” Liam agrees.

“-blabbed on and on about Harry and how you wish he was there!”

My cheeks flare, “No I didn't. I talked about Stanley. You just want to get under my skin!” I defend my actions that I have no recollection of doing. Great!!!

“Um…” Liam taps his chin.

“Right? I wasn't talking about-”

“But it's true," Liam confesses.

“It's... what!?” I drop my head in my hands. “No!!! Did he hear!? What did I say!?” I'm mortified. I'm dying. I'm coming to a realization that's scaring the shit out of me.

“Um…”

Niall clears his throat, “Well, when you got a tad tipsy, I mean like four beers in you started to call Harry names. Such as introverted, a loser, a confused little boy," He starts. “Then after those tequila shots, things started to get really interesting-" I roll my eyes, "-you opened up about his appearance, commented on his ugly flannel shirt, lame Velcro sneakers, and his beautiful green eyes.” 

My hands go numb, “He does have nice eyes-”

“His chestnut colored curls .”

“Uh…" I can't deny that.

“His dimple that you'd like to crawl into and make your home .”

"Ugh…"

“When you capped at approximately eleven beers and four tequila shots, which mind you I don't know how you were standing, you decided to mention-"

“There's more!?” 

“-how you wanted to give the, and I quote, big oaf a chance regardless of his age."

My brain freezes then, my body goes weak, “I- I what? I said that? It's not possible though,” I shake my head. “It's not. How could I think of Harry as something more than a friend? He doesn't feel that way. He pushed me away, he didn't want to even come near me! He's probably into-" I choke, pause a moment, "Women. He wants to flirt with the...the chicks." I don't want to flirt with the chicks.

I like you .

“Uh, definitely not!” Niall disagrees vehemently, “He's into you.”

“No,” I shake my head unable to come to terms with any of this. “It's not possible.” I'm in denial. I am in denial because if he feels the same-

“You were piss drunk how would you know?” Liam asks.

“I know him , okay? I know Harry and he doesn't like me more than a friend.” If he feels remotely close to how I feel about him...

“He stared at your ass for a solid five minutes.” 

“So did you,” I jab my finger at Liam. “And you!!” I point to Niall. “It turns straight men gay apparently so you can't use my ass -”

“He couldn't keep his eyes off of you in general,” Niall remains adamant. “The moment he walked in actually he immediately found you. It was like…" My friend trails off, looks to Liam.

My heart jars in my chest, "What? What was he like? What did he do?"

"It was like he was drawn to you or something," Niall squirms in his seat.

"Huh?" My stomach twists, "That doesn't make sense."

"He found you, man. In a crowded room he found you first, didn't say hello, didn't speak to anyone. He found" -he pokes my bicep- "you."

"Owe!" 

"And it wasn't the wig calling attention to you because you could hardly see your small-" I glare at him "-small er stature in the crowd."

“Why didn't he say anything? I would have spoken to him or tried to befriend him," Liam answers remorsefully. "We were all there cheering Lou on. He knew we were together."

“Dunno. He was so quiet. He didn't move, didn't touch anything, just sort of hung back. Now I know what you mean about the OCD thing," Niall says to me.

I swallow, ignore the heat flooding my cheeks, “It's bad.” I whisper, touch my chest. If he...does he?

“He only reacted when he found you in the crowd,” Niall continues.

“Oh,” I look to my linked hands.

“He lit up when you hopped onto the counter, nearly took out Luke at the bar to get a better view," My friend chuckles.

“Lit up ? How!? Did he burst into flames!?” I snap.

“No!! His eyes were wide, his mouth was on the floor, he was into it ."

I shake my head, “I don't believe it. Even the food he cooked for me, it means absolutely nothing-”

“He did what!?” Liam interrupts, pushes me over. “When did that happen!?”

“Uh…yesterday?” I grip my fingers.

“Explain! Right now! We need details. This is huge."

“Did you kiss?” Niall makes a smooching noise, turns away and wraps his arms around his back to mimic a couple making out.

"You're such an ass!!" I pull at his fake blonde hair, make him shout and swat my hand away.

"I'm not!! I'm simply asking if you guys kissed."

"If you wanted to know …"

I tell them the story, give the finest details down to my using the toilet and scratching my balls for an hour. I'm kidding obviously . They were momentarily speechless, probably formulating their opinions, maybe coming to their own conclusions. But it doesn't change the fact that…

He found me .

“You should speak to him,” Liam suggests. “There's a lot you're not saying to each other and I think you're both-”

“I have said everything I needed to say-”

“Sober Louis does lie ,” Niall says with remorse.

“Sober Louis knows what he needs!!!” I adamantly disagree, “And it's not a kid . I'm in love with Stan. I'll always love Stan. I'll die alone because no one will replace Stan.”

“God stop lying to yourself!!” My friend shouts, “Stop denying the way you feel!”

“Age ain't nothing but a number!” Liam adds.

“It is when you're not even twenty!!” I cover my head. “Ugh!!!” 

“Louis, just for a second, really dig deep and think about this?” Niall suggests, “He may be exactly what you're looking for. He may be the answer ."

“No!!” I cry, “No! No! No! He's a child. He doesn't know what he wants, he's confused. He doesn't want an old man like myself. I'm a widower. I'm mourning. I'm-”

“Denying yourself happiness,” Liam mumbles.

“I'm not. I'm saving myself from the ultimate heart ache I'll suffer through when Harry moves on because he will! He will move on and leave me and I can't risk it! I can't be in that sort of pain again! It took a part of me. It choked me. I couldn't live,” I turn to Niall. “You said so yourself, you said I wasn't myself for a long time.”

“But you've found yourself in this guy. Some how, I don't know how but you did.” 

“You're talking about Stan too and not balling your eyes out! I never thought that was possible!” Liam says. “I will stand my ground. You need to be happy too. And if this guy is it…”

“I don't know,” I shake my head. “I just don't-"

Kiss me.

I gasp.

.

.

.

.

I'm seated at the piano with some old sheet music.

“Kiss me,” I begin my warm up. “Kiss me?” I choke as my fingers sail across the keys. “Kiss me!?” I change key signatures. “Holy fuck…” I move across three octaves, stop at the very last key then work my way back, alter my rhythms and work in some arpeggios. “I said it.” I continue to play. “I did Ruby.” 

They know what to do, my fingers, they know exactly what keys to hit and what chords to play. It's the hours of practicing and grueling performances I endured that are engrained in my bones. It's my passion.

This is it.

“Why though?” I press the keys harder as I continue on, find my frustrations surfacing, feel my heart beating restlessly in my chest. I want it to stop! I want to concentrate on other things, I want to-

I drop my hands in my lap, grip my fingers.

“Ruby?” I turn towards the door, “Why don't you sit next to me?” I pat the bench. “Please?” She doesn't budge from her place on the ground. “Ruby!! What the hell!” I cry. “Why are you doing this? Why can't you come in the living room with me? Why does Harry have to be here? What does he have that I don't?” She sighs into her bed, closes her eyes. “I don't exist I suppose!?” I turn back around, swipe at my eyes and nose. “I guess not.” I stare at the sheet music, begin the gentle melody to the piece I've played hundreds of times before. It's my escape, it's my… 

“This is my cabin in the woods,” I mumble as I continue the tune by memory. I manage to hit every grace note and turn, improvise the titles main theme, repeat the piece over and over until my fingers ache and back stiffens. 

I'm exhausted. 

I'm bleary-eyed. 

I'm too tired but I continue on anyway. 

I play through the tears and sadness. I play even though my heart is angered. I play to console myself and to uplift my deflating spirit. I play as I sort through my conflicted heart because-

Harry was wrong .

People don't leave him, they don't fear him or run away because they couldn't handle it. He turns them away. He escapes the relationship before it becomes something more. He strings people along then turns his back on them because he's afraid .

I stop playing, “I hope that's it because I'm fucked then. I wouldn't be able to walk away on my own.” I stand from the bench and stretch out my back. “Ruby, you feel it too. I know it.” I approach her slowly. “You feel his pull. You're also attracted to him. But why?” I sit next to her. “Why are you attracted to him? What is it that you see?” She groans, places her head on my legs. 

I close my eyes, imagine his lovely face and eyes. 

“I see someone who's insecure about themselves, someone who probably wasn't exposed to much when they were a child, a boy who's lost. And now he's wandered into my world, he's now stringing me along and using any excuse to leave me, to walk away, to avoid a relationship I can't give up on.” I swallow, “B-but...but he can't!!” I grip the sleeves of my shirt. “Ruby he can't. He can't leave me. He can't ignore me anymore.” I inhale a deep, quivering breath. “He has to see what I am on the inside. He has to learn who I am, what I'm able to offer, what I've been depriving myself of.” I place my hand on her back. “I have to find him. That's it. I'll find him Ruby and tell him. I'll open up to him and show him what I want and what I…” I kiss her head, “I'm gonna find him.”

.

.

.

.

Find him?

I tilt my head back and stare at the enormous apartment building before me. It's huge . There are probably over a thousand units in this thing! How will I find him now!?

Find him. Sure. 

Stupid ass.

I clear my throat, slap a shit eating grin on my face and approach the doorman to get this show on the road, “Hi! I'm not sure if you remember me-”

“No,” The man shakes his head.

“Right! I mean of course you wouldn't. Anyway, my friend Harry lives here and I really need to speak with him.”

“This is a private residence, sir," The man is stuffed into a hunter green, gold buttoned, knee length peacoat. The material is straining against his midsection, pulling slightly at the seams, creating a small gap between each button as if they're about to give and pop free. He looks uncomfortable if I'm honest. 

Although, he may always be this uptight .

“I know that but I need to speak to him and he sort of did this to me except I don't have a concierge or a lovely door man such as yourself or bodyguard or...ugh look…” I grip my ring finger, “He isn't returning my calls or texts. He's blatantly ignoring me and I can't stand it anymore you know? I miss him. A lot actually, a whole lot. And I need-"

He clears his throat, “Sir, are you finished?”

“I'm not actually. I have a lot more I need to get off my chest,” I put my finger up, "So since you're standing there-"

“Louis?” I stop mid sentence, nearly topple over from the sound of his voice, “What are you doing here?” I slowly turn my head to the right and he's there , he's actually there and my God my heart is beating out of control. 

He's wearing his usual loose fitted jeans and Velcro sneakers, an oversized denim jacket, a Green Bay Packers beanie (seriously?), and of course his camera. 

It's picture perfect.

You're perfect.

“Hi,” I say dreamily.

“Harry! How are you?” The door man cuts in, startles me from my fantasy, ruins my moment!!

I drop my arm, take a step back from them.

“I'm good, James. Thank you,” He approaches then, scuffs his heels on the sidewalk, turns to me with a scowl. “What do you want?” He asks, his tone unfeeling and cold. Ouch.

I look between James and Harry, contemplate my words. I guess I'll have an audience. I shrug, “You're not returning my calls."

"I've been busy," His voice is monotone.

“Oh! Doing your portfolio?” Is he done with me?

“Midterms,” He deadpans.

I compose myself, remain optimistic, "Right! Exams . Fun times."

“Why are you here?” He practically spits the words.

“Ruby misses you!” I start off with, “And she's moping around the apartment and is just so sad all the time and it's…” I find his face and it's stone. Wrong approach. “She isn't eating in the kitchen either and I took your advice to leave her food bowl in there too and nothing!” I chuckle nervously.

Harry sighs, turns towards the door. 

“Wait! I wasn't finished!!” I call out to him.

“Is this boy following you?” The doorman asks patronizingly. 

“I'm not a boy!! I'm a high school music teacher!!” I snap.

“He was just leaving ,” Harry dismisses me, barely offers me a glance or even a side eye. I don't exist to him.

"I have to speak to you,” I say, my tone pleading and foreign to my own ears. 

“Wonderful,” He reaches for the door handle. "Goodnight-"

“I talked about you, okay?” I say aloud but he doesn't turn around!! “Harry, I...”  I scrounge up the courage to say the words, dig deep just as Niall suggested, place my best foot forward

I take a deep breath.

“Sober Louis lies,” I announce to his retreating back. “He lied because he was afraid. He was conflicted. He thought he knew what he wanted but now he isn't so sure it's what he needs.” Harry stops. “I probably said insulting things-” He glances back, lifts an eyebrow. “-and nice things too!” He approaches then. “And acted out because I'm confused.” He's making his way over slowly. “I'm scared too, you know? I haven't felt this way towards someone in a long time and I'm having trouble handling it. But I can't help what I like and I like you, too.” He's standing before me now, basking me with such intensity and warmth. “Say something?” I choke. “Anything? Because that's awkward. Now I know how you felt when you told me I looked nice and I didn't respond. Well what I really wanted to say that day was how incredible you looked too but I was trapped. I was stuck. I was-” In denial.

“Come in,” He says and turns around. 

I flinch, “Wait what?” 

“You heard me.” 

So I do.

.

.

.

.

“This is it,” We step out of the elevator onto the 52nd floor.

“Woah!” We head down the corridor side by side, “Harry this is incredible! You actually live here!?” I touch the floral accented wallpaper, admire the elegance and sophistication of the damn hallway down to the sconces and railing of white trim.

“It gets old,” He stops in front of a door. “Very old.” 

“No way! Now living in a two story walk up, that gets old."

“I'd rather live there then here,” He unlocks the door, swings it wide. “Home sweet home.” 

“Woah!!” It's massive. It's modern, it's stark white, it's so high up !! “Holy shit.” I walk towards the window, ignore the surrounding decor, look fixedly at the view in wonderment. “Oh wow you can see the entire park from here." 

“You look like Ruby,” Harry snorts.

“Huh?” I turn to him, find his green irises and lose myself in him.

“Your tongue is hanging out.”

“Oh,” I clamp my mouth shut. “Sorry. I'm just really taken aback by all this. It's magnificent.” The view or your eyes?

“I suppose.” 

“I know you're sick of the view but damn... I'd sit here every night and-”

“Play,” He points to something behind me.

“Play?” I turn around and a black baby grand piano is sitting in the corner, “For hours and hours!”

“And I'd… listen for, you know, hours and hours.” 

My cheeks redden but it's welcome, “Really?” 

“Yeah, I would.” He turns away, rubs at his palms.

“Even if I was only practicing?”

“Anytime,” His voice is just above a whisper. “Anyway, so tour.” He clears his throat. “Living room.” He announces then takes us down a short hallway. “Closet. Bathroom.” He points to the closed doors. “Kitchen.” He turns left. “Your favorite room.” He chuckles.

I smirk, “You know me well."

It's one of those professional kitchens too, like a massive professional kitchen. It has too many cabinets, too many gadgets I haven't a clue what they're called or what you'd use them for, and it's white , stark white. Hmph, his mom has some taste .

“I do," He leans into a massive island, bites at his lip.

“The pancakes were delicious,” I compliment. “And the chicken! And the asparagus and glazed carrots and green beans! And also the soup!” I rub my tummy. "I'm still stuffed!"

He eyes me with trepidation, “Louis, did you eat everything I made for you?” 

“That is a possibility," I put my hands on my hips. “In fact, that's very possible because I did.” 

“Over a week's worth of food, including lunch in...three days?” His tone is incredulous.

“Yeah and you're actually surprised?" I scoff, "Pu-lease, Harry that food didn't stand a chance."

His face falls, “You're a bottomless pit."

“Hey what can I say? I like to eat,” I shrug. “Whatever.”

“You do."

“Teach me then,” I suggest.

“You're the teacher though."

“Okay and? What's the big deal? You can't spread the wealth and help a guy out?"

"I may not be very good at it, you know, teaching," He touches his camera, avoids my gaze. "Just a fair warning."

"You'll be incredible," I encourage. "So good because you're very skilled." He shrugs. "Look, I'm desperate alright? The delivery boy knows my name, my dog's name, my damn order for goodness sake!" I whine, "Teach me!! I wanna make that chicken roll up thing you made.” 

His lips tug into a smile, “Chicken roll up?” He snorts.

“Yeah! The chicken thing you made stuffed with mozzarella cheese and...ham? Is that ham? And spinach and...woah! I had three in one sitting!” I touch my belly, hum in satisfaction.

“Chicken rollatini?”

“Sure, that thing. Whatever it's called."

“Okay.” 

"Really?" I grip my fingers, close the distance between us.

"I…" He touches his chest, presses against the island, "Yes. I've made a mental note a while back to teach you."

"Did you now?" I take a moment to admire him from up close, I mean really appreciate the face I've probably stared at on too many occasions and never took the time to soak in. Oh and am I soaking it in .

"Yes," He glances between my eyes, lips, and his own fingers. 

"Mmm and why didn't you?" I ask gently, take another step towards him, "What stopped you?"

"You were afraid," He drops his hands. "Let's continue on, shall we?" He brushes past me, leaves me completely stunned and paralyzed. Afraid!? I wasn't -

I was petrified.

"But it's my turn to impress you with something."

He looks to me from over his shoulder, “You want to impress me?”

“Um...yeah! I want you to see how talented I am. And to be able to cook, well shit I'd be incredible! At least I'd like to think I'd be incredible."

“I have no doubt.” 

“So come on let's do this!" 

“That's my talent though," He walks to the doorway.

I put my finger up, “But-”

“You're going to play for me,” Harry says and disappears down the hall.

“Wait!!” I run after him, “Jesus!!”

Jesus .” He mocks. 

“Ugh you!! Don't run away from me. I'll totally get lost in this place!” I grip his jacket but he pulls away instantly. Boo!

“You won't. I promise.”

He leads us to the other side of the house towards a wide hallway.

“So where are we now?” I take in my surroundings and it's all the same stark white, blankness. This place reminds me of a hospital . A very sterile hospital .

“Um... outdoor pool is that way,” He points down one way. “Dad's office to the right. Gym to the left.”

My eyes widen, “A pool? A gym!? Shit.”

“You've been saying that a lot.”

“Harry, this is surreal to me,” I walk towards the sliding glass doors, peer out to the now covered pool. “You must lay out here all summer.”

“It gets old.” 

“I would be so tan if I had this!”

“Maybe,” I turn towards him and his shoulders are slumped, his hand is clutching his chest.

“Just saying. I mean I do take advantage of the park and explore with Ruby. It's good to venture out and see what the city has to offer. That's how I stumbled upon Smorgasbord and some other street fairs.” 

“See? And I'm holed up in this place,” He turns away and heads back the way we came. You don't have to be.

“What's next?” We take a small flight of stairs to the second level, “Two floors!?” 

“Actually three but that's my parent's suite. I'm not that important and am stuck sharing a floor with the library and billiard room.”

“Ugh... seriously!?" I sigh.

"What?" He stops before a door. 

"A billiard room?" I huff, "What's next? The conservatory?" 

"There isn't a conservatory-"

"Are you sure? Because this place reminds me of the mansion from Clue."

He raises an eyebrow, "Clue?" 

"Yuh, the board game. Ever play it as a kid?" 

His hand is gripping the doorknob, "No."

"Oh! We'll play one night with Liam and Niall. You'll see. It's a boatload of fun," I tap my lip. 

"I…" He turns away, "That's if they'll want me." He whispers.

"They will," I reassure. "They'll like you."

"Sure." He turns the knob, swings the door open, "Make yourself at home." He tugs off his beanie.

“Oh, cool," I follow him over the threshold into a sparsely decorated room.

There's a bed in the corner, a large, oak desk sitting before a floor to ceiling window, and a matching dresser against the far wall. On the opposite side of the space is a sectional with a flat screen television affixed to the wall. 

It's so plain.

It's his bedroom.

His bedroom?

Holy shit. I'm in his bedroom.

“So simple. Why Harry! Who would have thought!” I mock my surprise. 

“Shush,” He takes off his camera and places it next to a laptop on his desk, kicks off his shoes and removes his coat. 

“Is that a Hawaiian shirt? With...is that Donald Duck!?” I inspect closely.

He flushes, “It happens to be, yeah.”

“Interesting."

“What do you call that outfit then?” He gestures towards my track pants.

“I prefer comfortable clothing and sneakers. I mean, how do people relax in jeans? Can you tell me that? Or willingly wear boots and dress shoes? If I'm not going to work, I am in my finest track pants and largest sweatshirt I am able to find.”

“What about a date? What would you wear?” His fingers grip the collar of his shirt to hold it firmly in place.

“That's simple-” I pause though. Wait, a date? “Um…” I tap my lip. “Well, a nice pair of jeans, a blazer, clean-ish sneakers?” I inspect his features, attempt to break through his barrier. “Is this a trick question? Are you testing me again?”

“It's just a hypothetical question. No test. No trick."

“Is it? Or are you fishing for ideas? Or maybe making sure I won't show up to a hypothetical date in an oversized hoodie and baggy pants?"

“Or tight pleather pants and leather vest.”

“And clunky knee high boots?”

“And a blonde wig.” 

“Well, you're in luck. That won't happen for a long time because damn those things chafed . I was red for days.”

“Where?” Harry asks.

“Where!? Sheesh!! Where wasn't I red!!” I snort, “My crotch. It was a bad idea going commando.”

“Maybe.” 

“Well enough crotch talk. Where are the photos you take? Why are they not adorning the walls of the house?”

“I guess my parents don't think I'm any good.”

“Blasphemy! You're incredible!” I walk to the window and look out over the landscape, “Woah.” 

"How do you know if you've never seen my work?”

“It's a feeling I have,” I say mindlessly as I take in the expanse of the park.

“A feeling?” He approaches. 

“Mmm,” I glance at him. “I have a feeling that you're so much more than your shy exterior and…” I hesitate. Do it . “Beauty.” I take a deep breath. “You have depth, Harry. You have so much to offer.”

“Um...uh…” He touches his chest, “I see.” He heads to the couch. Too much? Should I not have said that?

I follow suit.

“Oh nice television,” I sit next to him, leave a decent amount of space between us because who the hell knows what's going on!

“Better for gaming,” He informs.

“Ah yes!! We should play Call of Duty one day. I'll probably kick your ass but it'll still be fun!”

“Your confidence is astounding,” He turns on the television.

“What did I say about having confidence?” 

“You won't beat me,” He sits back, crosses his legs, drapes his arms across the back of the couch. I've never seen this side of you before .

It's nice.

“Don't be so sure,” I face him. “I'm pretty-”

“You are,” He turns crimson, drops his arms and begins furiously rubbing his palms and heels of his feet. “Sorry that was lame.” 

I smirk, actually enjoy the butterflies in my tummy for once, “Don't be. It's okay.” I reassure, scoot a little closer to him. “Harry, it's fine.” But he's shutting down! He's withdrawing from the moment. “Don't do this okay? Talk to me instead. Let it out.” 

“It's not easy," He whispers, continues to rub his palms. “I'm…”

“Don't say weird!” I groan, “I know you're quiet and a man of few words but that doesn't make you-”

“Nervous,” He confesses. 

“Oh...Why?” I move a touch closer. “Why are you nervous?” I inspect his every move, note the way he bites at his lip. “Is it the same nerves you felt the day we tried to go to Smorgasbord?” He nods. “What is it then? You've had a while to sort it out, no?”

“Maybe.”

“So let it out," I encourage. “Tell me.” He turns away, takes a deep breath. “Well?”

“Want to watch this video I found on Twitch? I think you'll like it,” He says instead. “It's Zelda: Breath of the Wild .”

“Harry…” I back away. 

“Yeah? You do? Okay great. I'll- I'll turn it on.” He jumps up, pulls a controller out of the entertainment center. I slouch into the couch in defeat.

“Okay,” I remove my sneakers, run my fingers through my hair. “Zelda you said?”

“Yeah, Zelda," He rejoins me but he's too far away. Damn it!!

“Sounds good," I nod and accept the fact that he's still nervous . I sit back, cross my legs and grip a pillow to my chest. “How long is this?”

“Eight hours.” 

I sputter, “Eight!?” 

“What's wrong?” His hands are rubbing again.

“I have work tomorrow, Harry. I can't stay the whole time.”

“Yeah that's what I figured. I would like to watch as much as we are able to anyway.”

“Absolutely. And we can finish it the next time we, you know…see each other." 

"I'd like that."

"Me too actually."

“Thanks."

“No need for a thank you. I want to be here,” I turn towards him, “And I think your home is lovely. It's a little too formal for my liking and I wouldn't have chosen stark white as my color scheme. I prefer warm tones and coziness. But you remember my place. It's a damn country store brought to life.”

“Your cottage in the woods,” He murmurs.

“Exactly!” The game starts. “Oh here we go!” I point.

“Yeah.” 

I clutch the pillow and try my best to ignore how much Harry is fidgeting in his seat. Should I point it out? Will I embarrass him? Will he appreciate my advice? Or will he get offended?

He'd shut down. That's what.

I block it out.

“Have you played this game?” I ask instead.

“No,” He sounds strained.

“How about any Zelda game?” I turn my attention towards him. “I prefer-” He's sweating now. “-A Link to the Past. I mean yeah it was for the Nintendo and the graphics were awful, but damn what a great story!” 

“Should I...play it?” He's rubbing...and rubbing!!

“Absolutely. You'll need an emulator-”

“Excuse me,” He runs to the other end of the room towards a closed door which now I know to be the bathroom.

“Harry?” I approach. “Harry?” I tap on the door. “What’s wrong? Are you okay?”

“Y-yes. I'm good. I drank too much. I took your advice about staying hydrated.”

“Oh,” I shrug. “Well that's good. I'll go watch the game.” I sit back down and...wait. 

And wait.

And wait?

I check my phone and twenty minutes have past.

“Alright dude just admit you're taking a shit,” I call out but there's no response. “Harry?” 

He opens the door and shuffles back over with slumped shoulders, “Sorry." He whispers.

“It's fine. Are you okay?” He sits down on the cushion right next to mine. “What were you…” I smell the coconut! “ Oh .” I clasp my hands together. “Oh it's...I like that a lot.” I admit. 

“I know you do,” He bites his lip.

“Ah! I sometimes forget you actually listen to me when I talk!”

“I do,” I sit back, graze our shoulders.

“Now I have to be extra careful when I ramble because you know I can spew a lot of shit and who knew! You're taking it all in.”

“All of it.” 

“Thank you for that actually,” I admire his long fingers and soft hands. My breath hitches. Fuck. “Most of my friends sort of tune me out after a while. I mean I know I can get annoying, and my voice isn't exactly easy on the ears, but I can't help it. If I want to talk, I let it out. If I feel there's going to be silence, I dig deep and scrounge up the next question or topic.” I gaze at his wrists and forearms next. “It's easy to get someone talking. If you offer some information, nothing too personal but you know something basic, then they'll reciprocate for the most part.”

“Except me.”

“Yeah you were a challenge but it kept me coming back.”

“Told you.”

“Yeah, yeah your tactic worked. I guess I was intrigued from day one too because I would have given up if you were anyone else. There was something about you that just called to me. Ruby too. And having you at my place the other morning was...” I shake my head, “Ugh never mind. I'm saying too much and then you'll probably run away. So nope not now.”

“You'll run from me, remember?” No. You'll run I just know it.

“No I won't, Harry. Your supposed weirdness doesn't effect me. You have ticks, you have your habits, your routines. It's what is normal for you and I can't judge you for that. Like I carry my letter everywhere, I grip my ring finger when I'm nervous or confused. My friends think it's silly-”

“I don't and I'm a friend too.” 

“Maybe," I admit. “Maybe you are or maybe you're something else entirely. But Harry that's not my point. You rub your hands because-”

“Bad circulation,” He mumbles.

“Wait what?” I find his eyes and he's staring at the television. 

“I…” He swallows, “Had bad circulation. My fingers would turn blue.”

“Oh really? Why do you do it still?”

“Habit.”

“Got it. And that's fine! So whatever! You rub your palms, hold your chest for who knows why-”

“I...want to?” 

“There ya go. Because you fucking want to and no one should question you or ask why.”

“Okay.”

“Yeah so-”

“You look for your wedding band.”

“I-” I clamp my mouth shut, “Yeah. I do. I used to twirl it around my finger and now I can't stop. It's sort of annoying actually, like I know it's not there but I check for it anyway.”

“Oh.” 

“I never took it off.”

“Because you were so in love?” 

“I was afraid of losing it actually. But yes I was in...love.” Why is that so difficult to say now?   “I was in love and married. I met Stanley in high school if you wanted to know.”

“Sure,” His hands are rubbing, his gaze still transfixed on the game.

“You do?”

“It's not really relevant to our conversation.”

“You're right it's not. We were discussing our ticks.”

“Yes.”

“And Stanley isn't a tick.”

“No. Unless talking about Stanley is one of your ticks.”

“He isn't.”

“So, irrelevant.”

“Okay,” I shrug.

“Okay,” He sits back and sighs but I continue to watch him. “Why are you staring at me?”

“I was" - admiring the view - "counting the Donald Ducks on your insane shirt. I've found...um five so far.” I poke his shoulder. “One!”

“Owe!” I jab his bicep.

“Two!”

“Louis!!” I pinch his side.

“Three!!”

“Stop that!” He grips my wrist and pulls me towards him so we're essentially...um really really close, like so close it's the perfect moment to kiss. “Uh…” His pupils are dilating.

“Yeah?” I glance at his mouth, “What?”

“Your fingernails hurt,” I lean into him. “And uh…” Is he admiring his view? He swallows.

“I stopped biting them,” I whisper.

“Oh,” His eyes are wide, his mouth parted just enough.

“Yeah,” I lick my lips, inch into his personal space. Kiss me.

“Why?” I close the distance between us- “Actually!!” Harry scrambles to his feet and I graciously collapse to the couch. 

“Oof!!” I face plant into the cushion, “Okay?” My voice is muffled. Or not!!

“Look at the time ,” I hear. “I have to hit the sack.” I slowly sit up. “Yeah it's so late.” He lies.

MAYDAY!!!

ABORT MISSION!!

“Oh," I run a hand down my face, avoid looking in his direction because the rejection hurts a lot actually, more so then it should. “Okay, yeah good call.” I find my sneakers and tug them on. “It's so late,” I say to avoid a confrontation. “I'll just see myself out. Have a good night.” I shrug it off, or try to.

“No let me walk you to the door,” Harry attempts but I shake my head.

“Unnecessary!” I glance up at him and his cheeks are crimson, his eyes are downcast. Too soon? Did I fuck up? “I know the way. See ya.” I slip through the door and out into the hallway having no idea which way to go. Great!!! Just fucking great!!! “Okay stairs…” 

I quicken my footfalls, turn down another hallway. What the hell is the matter with me!? I tried to kiss him!? And why though? Because we were so close ? Because I thought maybe admitting my feelings would change his mind? Because maybe it’ll help him overcome his OCD? Ugh!!! No!!! I continue down the hall, squash it all down, and attempt to get my bearings. 

“This was so much easier with Harry-” I collide right into someone then. “Fuck!!” I squeak and reach over to steady them. “I am so sorry!!” I say to the woman.

“Louis!?” Harry appears, “Mom?” His tone is full of remorse. 

“Mom!?” I shriek. Seriously!?

“I thought you weren't coming home until later?” Fuck...fuck!! And I cursed!! The woman fluffs her brown hair, turns towards me, and smiles. Woah. That's where he gets it from. She's lovely. 

“Ma'am," I nod. “I'm so sorry! I wasn't paying attention!”

“It’s fine, honey. No worries.” She touches my bicep. “So whose this ?” She turns to her son, smirks a toothy grin. Ugh.

“Oh,” Harry grips his palms, approaches slowly. “He's...he uh-” 

“Louis,” I extend my hand which she takes gracefully. “Very nice to meet you.” 

“You too, sweetie. I'm Anne. Welcome to our home.” 

“Thanks!” I shift my weight, eye Harry who's turning cherry red. “It's beautiful.” I nod. “I love the views. It's different seeing the park from so high up. But wow! It's magnificent.”

“Thank you,” She inspects my oversized sweatshirt and loose fitted track pants. “It's a bit much.”

“Y-yeah...I-” Don't fit in

“Are you two hungry?” She asks rather than dwell on my appearance.

“Well actually I was about to-”

“He was just about to-” 

“Great! Dinner is in fifteen!” She walks past us seemingly unfazed by our responses. “Harry, go set the table.” She instructs. “And Louis, make yourself at home.” Her tone is cordial. 

“I suppose. ” Harry stomps away as I watch his mother make her way upstairs. 

“She's very friendly!” I follow after him.

Yeah right ,” He growls.

“What's wrong?” We're in the kitchen then and Harry's flailing about, opening and closing cabinets, grunting and groaning. “Was it something I said? I thought I handled that pretty well actually considering the circumstances,” He's silent, he's setting the table , he's sort of ignoring me if I'm honest. Oh...alright. “Um...I can leave-” I point my thumb over my shoulder. 

“No!” He cries. I back into the cabinet from his outburst, “No.” He sobers. “It's...it's fine. I just…”

“Really,” I check my phone. “You were right. It's late and I have to walk Ruby still.”

“Oh,” He situates the plates on the island, neatly folds three napkins. “I see.”

“Yeah,” I reach for my ring finger but immediately stop myself. “Alright so I'll just go. You know so you can have a normal dinner with your family.”

" Normal . Sure," He mocks.

"Y-yeah," More normal than mine that's for sure.

“Tomorrow,” He says then.

“Huh?” I turn to him. “What?”

“I want to see you tomorrow,” He clarifies and I think my heart jolted in my chest. “Is that a possibility?” Yes!!!!

“I have chorus practice until 5,” I think aloud.

“That's right you said you're-”

“Come by around 6,” I finish my thought.

“Really?” He sounds astonished. 

“Yup,” I grin. 

He rounds the counter, “So tomorrow?”

“6pm.” 

“Okay,” He rubs him palms.

“So tomorrow then,” I chuckle.

“Tomorrow.” 

“Yeah.” 

“Bye,” He waves.

“Bye,” My feet are firmly planted in place.  

“See you tomorrow.”

“Yes, at 6pm."

“Why are you still standing there?” 

“Because I want to give you a hug,” I state matter of fact. 

“A...a hug?” He chokes, grips his chest. 

“Yes. A hug . It's a verb and a noun, expresses one's affection towards someone, relieves stress, feels so damn good I can't help but ask you for one.” I sigh. “So...yeah? Hug me?”

“I see,” He bites his lip.

“And I know it sounds so stupid and childish but I really want to, you know feel your arms around me. You know, feel your strength and to um...uh-” I blush. “My damn mouth doesn't shut up!” I shift my weight.

“My strength?”

“You have lovely arms.”

“Oh.”

“Yup,” I offer a crooked grin. “Really nice arms.” I confirm. “And yes I'd like to, you know, hug.” I glance towards him, find his uncertainty. Maybe I'm moving too quickly? “I know it's a big step for you. I get it. And I will also understand if you decline but I figured I'd just throw it out there. Give it a shot.”

“It's…” He hesitates, “I um…” He rubs at his palms. 

“It's fine.” I resign. “See you tomorrow-” I begin to turn away.

“Y-yes?” He stutters.

“Huh?” I peer over my shoulder and he's fighting this inner battle. Against who Harry? What's holding you back?

“You don't mind? Like you don't mind that I touch you?” I take a tentative step towards him. “Because if you do then I won't and I know trying to kiss you was probably not the best of ideas but I couldn't help it. We were so close and it seemed like the right thing to do-”

“Louis?” Harry's standing before me and it's evident he's trembling.

“Yeah?” I stare into his eyes.

“Just do it before I whimp out?” He says and my heart leaps in my chest both from his adamantcy and agreement to hug me .

“Yeah, sure," I spread my arms and he shrinks back slightly. “I can't wait anymore.” I confess. 

“Don't wait because I want it too even though I'm- just do it?” He pleads. 

I take that final step towards him and wrap my arms around his torso. I feel him shaking, can sense the hesitency in his actions as he reciprocates, am able to feel the tenseness in his muscles.  

He's afraid.

He isn't used to this.

Could his OCD cripple him this much? Is there something else?

Will he eventually tell me?

He completes the hug then, envelopes me in his embrace, dips his chin into the crook of my neck and takes a deep inhale as if to breathe me in. I can't help but collapse into his frame and take advantage of this moment, take advantage of his willingness to touch me. I rest my ear against his shoulder, feel the thumping of his heart, find that sense of familiarity seep its way in. And home. It's like I'm home! But how? I sniff at his collar, catch the coconut, and the hint of another scent that is so intoxicating I can't help but tighten my grip. 

I don't want to let go.

Don't let go of me!!

“Louis?” I'm so content. He tenses further. Please. “Louis-”

“It's so simple, it's such a simple touch yet, the most intimate.” I take another deep inhale, savor in one final beat of his heart, and drop my arms to relieve his anxiety.

“Yes," Harry shoves his hands into his pockets.

“Hugs are my favorite," I confess. “My absolute favorite.” I tuck my hands into the sleeves of my hoodie, shake off the emotions resting uncomfortably in my stomach.

“And sweater paws are my favorite.” 

“Really?” 

“Yeah. Especially yours.” 

“They are cute!” I lift my hands.

“Yes,” His eyes brighten, his nervousness ebbs away. “The cutest.”

“Thanks,” I don't want to cause you pain but I also want to see you flourish . “Okay, H. Do you mind I call you that? Okay so H . I'll see you tomorrow at 6pm. I'll have take out ordered and don't fight me on it. I want to have a relaxing evening and we can finish Breath of the Wild.” I say.

“Sure. Take out.”

“Text me what you want, kay?” I turn around and head towards the front door.

“I will.” 

.

.

.

.

“Ruby!!” I find my reflection, “How do I look?” I fix my hair, tug my t-shirt to relieve some of the wrinkles. “I should have stayed in my slacks but I'd be going against everything I believe in! I have to act normal, dress like me, be me , find myself…” I touch my stubbled cheek, brush away the fringe from my eyes. “Yeah, It's good.” I face her. “Wanna eat? Or will you wait for Harry?” She barks. “Well, you're going to wait because-” There's a knock and Ruby darts to the door. 

“Alright!!” I take a deep breath, “It's okay alright? He's come here before. It's just like last time?” I grip the handle. “Here it goes.” I swing the door open- 

“Hi Louis!” I deflate instantly when I see the delivery boy, "Hi Ruby!"

“Hey Ben,” I take the bag from his outstretched hand. 

“We threw in an extra order of chicken for Ruby!” The kid says, “And rice!”

“Oh,” I say. “Thanks.” 

“See you tomorrow!” He waves.

“Y-yeah...yeah.” I frown and close the door. “Ugh!! That's it Ruby, Harry has to teach me how to cook. This whole ordering nonsense is killing my ego and depleting my funds.” I place the food in the living room. “Or wait should we eat in the kitchen?” I tap my lip. “No we're watching Breath of the Wild, we have to eat in here.” 

I run to the kitchen for plates, utensils, and napkins. 

Ruby is by the door, “Don't worry he's coming.” I check my phone. “It's only 6. He'll-” Another knock!! “Oh!!” I touch my tummy as the nerves come to life. “Shit.” Ruby barks as if to alert me of our guest. “Yes, yes I'm getting it, hold on.” I pet her head, grip her collar and open the door. 

Holy fuck.

“Hi,” He waves. And I'm just staring... I'm drinking him in... I'm so enamored by his very presence and I can't help it really. Who are you? How did you intertwine yourself into my existence? “Louis?” I check his cuffed jeans and yet another faded sweatshirt. His curls are wild and wind blown, his cheeks are flushed, his eyes are bright. 

“Sorry,” I shake my head. “Hey, Harry.” I allow Ruby to greet him. You look so content. And I can't help but think I had a hand in that.

“Hey girl. Miss me?”

“Yes!” I slap my hand over my mouth, “Ha! I'll uh...want a drink?” I walk away before I make a complete ass out of myself.

“Sure,” He says. 

“I have beer-”

“No alcohol,” He rounds the corner. 

“Oh who cares you're not of age? Live a little.” 

He shakes his head, “It's not a matter of living , Louis. I can't have it.”

“Why-”

“I'll have a can of seltzer,” He interrupts. Huh?  

“What seltzer?" I check the relatively empty fridge, “Not here, kid.”

“I hid it,” He chuckles.

“What!? Where?” 

“In a place you'll never look.” He twirls his finger. “Turn around.”

“Why!?” I stamp my foot.

“I don't want you drinking my secret stash. Now turn.” 

“Ugh!!!” I do as I'm told, fold my arms across my chest, “There, happy?” He always planned on returning. He wanted to come back here!

“Yes,” He moves about. “It's nice and high .” He jeers.

“Hardy har...fucking har! Is that supposed to be an inadvertent height joke?” I snap, “Because thanks, man. Appreciate it.” 

“The box is in an inconvenient place that's all.” 

Whatever ," I pull two beers out of the fridge. 

“Oh, is Louis upset?"

“No!!” I worry at my lip, turn back towards him. “ Louis is just dandy .” I huff and walk to the living room with my beverage. “Just fucking dandy!!”

“Alright sure," Harry follows behind. 

“Okay so you didn't text me what you wanted so I ordered half of the menu.”

“I can see,” He opens a container of lo-mein. 

“Yup. Hope you like carbs," I waggle my eyebrows.

“I do,” He puts some on his plate with one of my forks. “What's in that?” 

I open my own container, “Scallion pancakes. So fucking good." I show him.

“Oh interesting,” He sticks a fork in and takes one out.

“Yeah. Dip it in soy sauce, it really makes it tasty!” I shove one in my mouth, “Okay let me get the game started! Kick off your shoes, make yourself at home.” I pause. “Oh wait you already have.” I turn on the television and power up my fire stick. "Let's do this!” I plop down next to Harry on the floor, purposely touch his knee with my own. Did he flinch? Was last night a dream? I rest my elbows on the coffee table. “So how was class?” I shove more food into my mouth.

“Fine.”

“Midterms?” I watch him take delicate bites. 

“Alright.”

“Professors?” 

He picks up an egg roll with the wrapping securely in place, “The same,” He shrugs.

“How is the portfolio coming?” I take a forkful of fried rice. 

“It's coming,” He takes a bite of the egg roll.

“What does that mean? I need details. This is a huge deal for you and I've been stressed out about it because I feel like I haven't been trying hard enough!”

“It's my project. Why are you stressed?” He continues to eat seemingly unfazed by my outburst.

“Because, H. You need this trip. You need to go to Italy.”

“Why?” He puts the egg roll down, swipes at his mouth with a napkin.

“You just do okay? You have to live it up and experience things. You need to be exposed to other cultures, to other ways of life! It's beneficial trust me.”

“Why is this such a big deal for you?”

“I never had it that's why,” I drop my fork. “I was married by the time I was twenty two, I was living here, I was working full time. I didn't have time to do things for me. It was always us you know?” I say with slight resentment.

Harry's eyes widen, “You don't like us ?”

“I love it. Are you kidding me? I miss it. I miss everything us involved. It was just a shock I suppose. I graduated college and didn't really do much of anything. We had expenses and that sort of took away any chances of us going on adventures.” Like Law school. 

Ugh.

“So now-”

“I want you to do what I didn't. I don't want you to say you regret anything. I want you to live, Harry. And this trip will be it. This will set the stage for your future.”

“If you say so,” He finishes his plate, sips at the seltzer through a straw he brought.

“I do say so but you also have to want it and I get the impression you're trying to do this for other reasons.”

“Freedom,” He mumbles. “I need freedom.”

“You have it-”

He shakes his head, “No, Louis. I don't.”

“Why?”

He sighs, grips his chest, “Louis not now? Please? I never imagined being this close to another person, let alone allow them to touch me. I'm still trying to wrap my head around this and my rational self is saying no because in the end, shit happens but my illogical side is begging me to let go, to let you in. To not be afraid anymore.”

“So why don't you?”

“Easier said than done,” He slumps his shoulders. “I've been this way since I was a kid.”

“You are a kid,” I remind.

“No, Louis. I'm not. Anymore at least,” He turns his attention towards the television. “Just...not now.”

“When though? When will it be now? Why are you nervous?” I begin with the questions, “What do you mean by close? You never had friends? You were never in a relationship? You-”

“Louis,” His anguish is palpable.

“What's wrong?” I turn towards him, find him fighting against the tears he so desperately wants to shed. 

“I said…” He composes himself, “I said I would never open up, I said it. And I know you remember. But that's all changed. Everything has changed.” He glances towards me. “Everything.” He whispers again as if in disbelief.

I continue to stare, “It has?”

“Yes,” His hands are clasped in his lap, his palms are rubbing.

“How? Why?”

“You,” He confirms. “You sort of ruined everything.”

“Ruined? How? What did I do? Why am I-"

“In a good way. I'm happy you dropped into my life. You gave it meaning. You gave me a chance. You don't think I'm weird.”

“I...well.. no Harry I don't,” I pet Ruby's head, place my plate on the floor for her because I'm losing my appetite. “I think…do you wanna know what I think?”

“Not really,” He deadpans.

“Well tough shit I'm gonna say it anyway!” I grunt. “I think you're-”

“Louis?” He interrupts.

“What? I was about to spew my guts and you totally interrupted me and that so killed the mood.” 

“May I have another hug?” I'm about to respond with a snide remark but now I'm empty, the words melt away. 

“Two hugs in two days ? Where has the real Harry gone!?”

“Please? I promise I'll try not to flinch or be all weird this time. I was just surprised how warming it felt, how comforting. I guess I forgot…”

“How could you forget what it feels like?” I scoot closer to him, place my arm on the couch behind his back, “It's the best especially in the morning right after you've woken up, or after coming home from work. I can still remember it,” I recount. “I remember walking through that door with such a scowl on my face because the kids were extra annoying that day and Stanley was in here waiting for me. And it's like he knew what I needed, he just had that feeling I was troubled. He approached me, wrapped his arms around me, and just held me for who knows how long. It could have been seconds, minutes, hours. Who knows but it felt so good. And I never forgot the way it made me feel.”

“Oh.”

“Yup. It was that special.”

“I see,” Harry's hands stop. 

“It was good,” I admit.

“Do you miss Stanley's hugs?”

“I miss a lot about him. He was my other half and it's difficult sometimes to think he's gone. And I'll always miss him. Always . Nothing will replace him.”

“Oh,” His hands start up again. 

“I meant him being my first love,” I clarify. “He'll always have that title. He'll always be my husband.”

“You'll never reconsider marriage again?”

“I never thought of that actually,” I drop my arm, face the television, mindlessly watch the screen. “I had myself convinced I'd never move on. I was certain of it actually. I was ready to live a life alone and in constant mourning and heartache. I accepted it because I thought you couldn't be in love twice.” I rub at my arms that have since broken out in gooseflesh. “Now I know it was fear. It was the thought of being left alone again, the fear of him leaving on his own or being taken from me. It hurt too much.” I touch my ring finger. “And who wants to risk feeling so shitty all the time? I just managed to find my way out, found my peace, learned how to live again.”

“What changed?” 

My chest tightens, “Well…” I nearly faulter at the realization, “Well, you.” 

“You're just saying that,” He says incredulously. 

“Nope. I'm not and trust me I don't know how it's possible but…” I face him again, extend my hand towards his linked fingers. “Harry, you're different.” I touch him gently but he immediately pulls away so I retract my hand.

“Sorry,” His forehead pearls with sweat. “I said I-”

“It’s fine. I hope your illogical side wins though,” I take the container of lo-mein and stick my fork in it, twirl some of the noodles. “I want you to let me in.”

“It's a work in progress.”

“As long as you don't give up on me,” I shove the noodles into my mouth. 

“I won't." 

We watch the video then, probably make it three hours in, and it was quiet. We simply stared at the television, didn't speak, didn't dare (well I didn't dare) to touch again. It was the comfortable silence I feared.

But I don't fear it anymore, not with him at least.

“Louis?” 

Me!? Wow he managed to shut me up.

“What's up?”

“It's time for me to leave.” 

I check my phone, “Oh!!” I gasp. “Shit I didn't even realize it was this late! I couldn't look away I suppose.” 

“Me too,” He slowly stands. “Let me help you clean up?” 

“Nah,” I wave him off. “It's all going in the fridge.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yeah! The dishes were always my job to do anyway,” He walks to the door with his hands clamped together. 

“Right,” He stops and pets Ruby who has since become his shadow . “So-”

“Tomorrow night,” I begin. 

“What?” He rubs his palms.

“Let's go out,” I say. “You and me. Me and you. Us together.” I smirk. 

“This...wait this wasn't-”

“We won't take the subway. We'll take a taxi or an Uber or-”

“My dad's driver.”

“Or that! Sure! Anything but I want to go out . Maybe we can see a movie or maybe visit the wax museum.”

“Isn't that a tourist thing to do?”

“Well, then you come up with something.”

“Sure. I will.”

“Seriously!? Alright awesome," I shove my hands into my pockets. “I'm terrible with date ideas. Well!” I chuckle. “Not saying it's a date but-”

“Wait it's not?” Harry asks.

“It could be. That's if you want it to be I mean” -I glance at him through my eyelashes- “it's whatever you want it to be.”

“Okay.”

“So...uh tomorrow we can meet here?”

“Yes.”

“Like 7?”

“Yes.”

“It's a date?”

“Yes.”

“You make things so difficult ,” I chuckle.

“I do?” He knits his eyebrows.

“No! You're very easy going when you want to be.”

“I guess.”

“Alright well, I can't wait.” 

“Me too,” He shifts his weight, clicks his tongue. “So do I have to ask for a hug every time I want one?"

“No!” I snort, “But I don't want you to feel uncomfortable so I think for now you should. And eventually it'll be second nature, you'll see.” I reassure.

“Really?” I step before him.

“Uh-huh.” 

“Oh,” He diverts his gaze. 

“So open up!” I tap his fingers and he immediately releases them.

“Okay,” He stiffens. "I've...I got this." He mumbles. 

"You do, H. You've got this," I'm standing before him. "And when you realize just how comforting this is, you won't fear it anymore." I wring my hands.

"I hope," He stares back at me in anticipation. "I want to make you feel the way Stanley made you feel." 

My breath hitches, "You…" I scrunch my eyes closed. Replacement . "I want you to." I whisper. "I want you to make me feel whole again. I want to feel all of you."

"I'll try," His voice is just audible.

I take a small step towards him, blink my eyes open, "H-hug me?" 

"Yes."

I walk into him then, wrap my arms around his neck, and practically collapse into his body as if my limbs lost their strength. You're home, Harry. That's it.

He tenses up, trembles from head to toe, but he eventually reciprocates and envelopes me in his arms. And it feels familiar, it feels warm, it feels as wonderful as it felt when Stanley and I shared our hugs. But this isn't Stanley.

It's so much more.

Chapter Text

 STUPID DEEP, Playlist

 

November 5

I want to touch.

I want to desperately and not just anyone.

I want to touch you.

.

.

.

.

“Lookin’ snazzy!!” I check out my reflection, “Damn I still got it.” I flatten a stray piece of hair, dust off any random particles on my blazer, smile a large toothy grin. “Yup. I'm good. Right Ruby?” I shout from the bathroom. "D'ya think he'll like it? Or should I ditch the coat?" I spritz on some cologne. “I mean...nah, I'll keep it." 

I head to the bedroom. 

“So, Ruby. The question is sneakers or dress shoes?” I slip a sneaker onto my left foot and a black loafer on my right. “Hmm…” I stand before the full length mirror, pick one foot up, inspect, then do the same with the opposite foot. “Dunno what looks better with skinny jeans." I do it again, pick up one foot, then the other. "I know! I'll call Niall!!” I pull my phone free from my pocket.

“Yo Tommo,” He answers on the second ring.

“Hi. Dress shoes or sneakers?” I ask.

“Wait seriously?” 

“Yes, seriously . This is a crisis , Neil. I need to know if I should prance around in pretty dress shoes, or strut my stuff in a pair of shiny white sneaks. It's a huge deal. Like so big because I am going on a date with Harry.”

“I know that. You've texted us all day.”

“The group chat is very important, okay !? And I need to make sure I'm not trying too hard!”

“Why not?”

“Because!! What if I scare him off like Brendan?”

“You won't. You're not lying about-” There's a knock at the door. 

“Fuck he's here!!” I squeal.

“Have fun! And get your kiss-” 

“Thanks, bye!!” I hang up and run to the door to find Ruby wagging her tail in anticipation, “Yay!” I kiss her head and open the door. “Hi-” My mouth pops open, my eyes widen, my entire body reacts to this being before me because holy fuck he's magnificent. He's gorgeous. He's literally a male model and how !? 

Instead of his usual baggy jeans and ratty hoodies, he's now sporting rather snug denim, a sports coat, a black tailored shirt with little white hearts scattered about that's naturally buttoned to the neck, and black leather boots with a silver zipper and buckle. His hair is curled and styled too, his face is dimpled and adorable, his eyes are bright and dazzling. Holy fuck . It's perfect

He's so fucking beautiful I can't stand it!!

“Hi," He pets Ruby's head. “I guess you're enjoying the view?"

"Hm?" I continue to shamelessly gawk.

"Your mouth is wide open and everything."

“Uh-huh,” I say dreamily, “Do you always impress on the first date?” 

He shifts his weight, “Um, well-”

“Because wow, H. I can't…” I shake my head. “You look great.”

His cheeks flush, “Thanks. My mom helped me pick it out.” 

“Really? Couldn't handle it on your own?” 

“I suppose you couldn't either,” He snorts.

“Huh!? I look fucking adorable mmm'kay? Like this look” -I point to myself- “is one of a kind and all me.”

“Including the mismatched shoes?” He points to my feet, "That's a bold fashion choice."

“That was a mere test. I was making sure you noticed. You know, just to make sure you checked me out from head to toe. And alas! You have,” I lie.

“You totally forgot to change one it's fine.”

I blow him a raspberry, “Alright , fine. I did. I wasn't sure what looked nicer,” I hunch my shoulders.

“The sneakers,” He says. “It's you.”

“Okay,” I offer him a lopsided grin. “Lemme go slip it on.” I reluctantly turn away and quickly finish up in my bedroom, grab my keys and phone that I discarded on the bed, and put on the other sneaker. “Okay all done-” I spot the letter on the nightstand and hesitate before picking it up. “I…” I shake my head, mentally slap myself for even thinking twice. “Stupid, Lou. Take it. You're not ready yet.” I resign and shove it into my pocket and head to the living room. 

“That's better,” Harry says from the sofa. 

I approach slowly, find him petting Ruby's chin, "It is. I hope.” 

"Your hair," He stands. 

I roll my eyes, "Yeah, yeah. I have this pesky strand that always sticks up. No matter how much gel I use-"

"I like it pushed back," He finishes his thought. His green irises are penetrating, exceptional, their intent clear. The guessing game ends here. He's interested .

"Do you?" I clasp my hands, gaze back at him.

"Mmm, although Fringe Louis is adorable too."

"Fr-fringe?" My fingers grip into knots.

"Especially when you run your thumb across your forehead to brush away any loose tendrils from your eyes."

I gulp, "I...I uh do that?"

"Yes all the time too. The fringe is quite endearing."

My forehead pearls with sweat, "You, well-" Holy fuck.

"Why Louis, do you always impress on the first date?" 

"I, I didn't think so?" My brain is scrambled. "It's a style I usually do when I-"

"Go out?"

I pinch my leg, "Perform? I guess? Dunno."

"So this is not your first date ensemble then?" He jests.

"I've only had one other first date in my life so maybe? Why? Do I look different compared to the other nights we've gotten together? I mean, besides the whole adorable fringe thing you've brought to my attention."

He nods, "Yes." He searches my face, bites at his lip.

"How so?" I press, "Is it the clothes? I said I was going to take the button down out of storage."

"The sadness is gone," He continues to search my face.

I gasp because I wasn't expecting that answer, "S-sadness? You saw-"

"Your eyes were saddened, even on good days."

"I had bad days?" More than good that's for sure.

"The blue was always masked by a slight dullness even when you smiled," He observes. "At first I thought you were ill because I couldn't understand why it was there. You have friends, a wonderful job, an appreciation for living life to the fullest." I can't think or speak or move or function. "But then, you opened up about your past, about your husband, about the accident. And I knew that was the source of your underlying pain." He rubs his palms. "Made sense."

"You saw it," I say without question. "You saw right through me?"

"I capture candid photos, Louis. I read people's emotions, understand the lines on their face, the downturned lips." 

My stomach twists, "I…" I shake my head, "I don't know what to say." 

"It's gone," He takes a small step towards me. "You smiled just now and your eyes crinkled. You looked genuinely happy. Relaxed even."

I sniffle back a tear, "I told you it was you. I wasn't kidding."

"I suppose I couldn't believe it that's why I doubted your confession."

I look up at him, take in his being, "You're an enigma."

"Still?" He knits his brow.

"Yes, but in a good way. You're mysterious, full of secrets, and hidden talents. You're like a gift that I have to keep unwrapping to find the surprise underneath" -I swipe at my eye- "only to find more wrapping paper."

"But what if you tire of opening me up?" His eyes are wide.

"You have depth, H. That's not something I'll ever tire of. You're the gift that keeps giving."

"Okay," He swallows, rubs his palms, hesitates. "Are you sure?"

"Yeah," I extend a hand towards his but he shrinks back. 

"Sorry," He whispers.

"Don't be," I continue to stare. "Don't ever apologize for being who you are."

"Okay."

"Promise me?"

"I promise to try my best."

"Good," I tug at my jacket. "As long as you never give up."

"I will try not to-"

"There's do or do not. There is no try ," I say even though it's sort of lame.

"Okay, Yoda. Thanks for that," He scoffs.

"Yeah well he was a smart nine hundred year old Jedi Master so he must know a thing or two."

"I suppose," He shrugs, shifts his weight.

"Just don't give up, okay? That's the point I'm trying to make."

"I know- Oh. One moment," He pulls his phone free, presses it to his ear, murmurs his greeting. "Be right out." He says and quickly hangs up. “Ready? The driver is waiting."

“I am,” I turn to Ruby then for her evening pep talk. “Be a good girl. You had a nice walk and all the rice and chicken any dog would be jealous of.” She yawns. “Right. See you later.” I kiss her head. “Let's do it!”

We make our way outside and idling by the curb is a sleek, white (surprise) Bentley. 

“Well no wonder you hate the subway. If I could get trucked around in this thing I'd totally hate it too,” He opens the door for me. “Well, with the exception of the whole germ thing.”

“It gets-”

“Old. Got it,” I slide into the backseat. “Hello!” I greet the driver.

“Sir,” The man's tone is deep, flat, uninterested. Eeehhh.

“Thanks for driving us!” Harry gets in next and I think the man said a low, grumbled you're welcome but I'm not too sure.

“MoMa, please.” He unbuttons his jacket, places his hands on his knees, sits stiffly against the seat.

“The MoMa!?” I clap my hands with elation, “I haven't been there in years!! I can't wait to see all the artwork and exhibits and the modernness .” 

“Me too,” I look to him and his camera is in his hands.

“Oh where did you get that?” I point.

“Had it in the car."

“Ruby isn't with us though,” I remind. “And she's your subject. If you wanted to work on your portfolio then we could have gone for a walk with her instead."

A smile plays at his lips, “What if I just wanted to take a picture or two?” 

“I guess I forget sometimes that photography is your thing and that my dog isn't the only thing you like to take pictures of," I shrug. “But you can't use it in the museum.”

“Not on the artwork itself. But you are certainly able to take a photo of other things ,” He mocks.

“Fine. Get kicked out for all I care. I'll have a grand ole time staring at beautiful artwork by myself ," I purse my lips and turn away.

"I won't get kicked out," He mumbles.

"Alright, H. We'll see about that," I sneer and turn my attention to the view.

I admire the streets and store fronts then, take in the city from inside a vehicle, watch the neighborhood change as we make our trip downtown. And there's no denying it, this is different. I'm able to understand how this gets old and why Harry feels the way he does. This confirms why he craves freedom. He's confined to this backseat no matter how far he travels, trapped behind these windows breathing stale air , viewing the world through a pane of glass rather than his own two eyes . It's not the same. This is suffocating.

I shiver at the thought of having such an intense case of OCD, being as petrified of germs as he is. It's literally choking him, destroying his opportunities to move ahead. Maybe his father isn't to blame. Maybe he's the one holding himself back.

Could that be it?

I swallow past the lump in my throat, sort through my thoughts to save us both from the awkward silence and think of the only news I haven't shared yet, “I found a hall to perform in." I say. "I spoke with the Arts Management director and they told me they have a concert series for amateur pianists looking to showcase their talent.” 

“Oh?” I look over at him, find his fingers are wrapped securely around the camera lense.

“Yeah. I'm gonna do it,” I say. “I've already signed up for Christmas Eve.” 

He frowns, “Christmas Eve? Why then?” 

“Apparently it's the thing to do you know, attend a concert on Christmas Eve. It sells out every time.”

“Oh,” He diverts his gaze. “I see.”

“I guess I don't wanna spend the holidays alone so it's a good excuse to do it,” I admit the pathetic truth.

“Alone?” He asks incredulously. “What about your mother?”

“Funny you mention her,” I smile but there isn't much to smile about. “She moved out of state with my stepdad and siblings years ago.”

“Then why don't you go visit?”

“Airfare is insane and it's hard with Ruby and all.”

“I can watch her.” 

I shake my head, “It's fine. I don't want to burden you with my shit and I've already signed up and there was a non refundable deposit and I can't do that to you and Niall is running out of sneakers-”

“I get it,” He says. “It's okay.”

“It's just…” I puff my cheeks before I continue, “When I got married it wasn't exactly accepted if you catch my drift.” I eye the driver. Another audience . “My stepdad was a bit of a douche about the whole thing and basically didn't attend the wedding. He gave my mother shit about it too but she came with my siblings so it was fine. I didnt want him there anyway. So I don't like visiting him . Period.” 

“I'm sorry.”

“Why are you sorry? It's nothing new. This had been going on since I was twenty two! I've gotten over it.”

“You shouldn't allow your stepfather to prevent you from visiting your family.”

“Yeah, yeah,” I dismiss him.

“What happened after everything?” His tone is hushed.

“The funeral?” He nods, keeps his eyes diverted to the ground. “Only my mom came. She didn't want anyone to see me in such bad shape. At first I was pissed because I wanted their support, my siblings you know, but after really thinking it through, it was for the best.”

“Why?” He's speaking just above a whisper as if this pains him too, as if my experience is resurrecting his own troubled memories.

“I was a damn train wreck that's why. I was falling apart, I was crying, I was inconsolable. It was a shitty few weeks.” I say. “Who am I kidding? It was a shitty year!”

He touches his chest, “I can't imagine the pain.” 

“You can't. It hurt that bad. But I'm better now,” I tap my letter. “Loads.” I smile at him and he gives me a weak one in return. “Right?” 

“Right,” He agrees.

“Okay! So there's this one piece of art in particular I have to find," I tell him to change subjects.

“Which is that?”

“The Three Musicians by Pablo Picasso.”

“Oh because it's music related?”

Obviously . That's what got me into it in the first place! There's a pianist depicted in that painting and I remember as a little kid seeing that and having the urge to play. I started lessons soon after and that's when the obsession began! So I have to find it.”

“Of course.”

“Thanks,” I stare out the window again. “This is really different-” The shutter of a camera disrupts my thought. “Huh?” I turn back around and Harry's looking out his own window. “Alright, good try there.” I poke his bicep. 

“Owe!” He rubs at the soreness, “You hurt.” He glances my way.

“You're not exactly slick when it comes to snagging a selfie. You should do that in your spare time.”

“I hate selfies.”

“Ah but you should take advantage of it since your hair looks impeccable.” 

His cheeks flush, “You're full of compliments tonight.”

“As are you."

.

.

.

.

The driver clears his throat. 

“Uh... yeah?” Harry asks.

“We're here, sir.” He announces.

“Oh! I didn't even realize. That went fast," Harry opens his door. “Thank you. I'll call you later.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Have a great night!!” I say and exit the car, “Wow what a smooth ride that was.” I round the vehicle and find Harry adjusting his coat. “It looks great.” I touch the lapel but he recoils, turns away.

“Sorry,” He places his camera around his neck.

“It's fine,” I drop my arm, shake it off.

“Okay.” 

“Let's go!” I walk up the steps to the museum with Harry following close behind. “So we need a plan because there's a lot to see! We can make our way to the classic pieces first, then maybe check out the free standing exhibits, and then we can go to-”

“I'm sorry,” Harry projects, disrupts my usual rant.

“For what?” I'm gripping the door handle ready to pull.

“I want you to- um…” 

“What?” I glance towards him and his shoulders are rounded, slouched in an awkward angle.

“Touch,” He says simply.

I expel a deep breath,“My fingers are ready.” I confess.

“I know and I want to be mentally ready too but I can't yet. I don't know why.” 

“Baby steps,” I reassure. “It'll feel like second nature, you'll see.”

“When?” He approaches. 

“When it feels right.” 

“But how will I know?”

“You can't over think it,” I start. “You have to live in the moment and fuck the outcome. You have to open your eyes and see the world in the flesh and not through a window. You need to be in the present and not stuck in your head filled with your fears. That will hold you back.” I pause, bite my lip. “You also have to trust others too. I think that's the most important.”

“Probably.” 

“Everyone you encounter and befriend, those who are close to you. Whoever!” I offer a smile, “Just...trust is key.”

“I know,” He's standing beside me.

“And I hope in time you will trust me,” I add that very important detail.

“Yes.”

“Understand that I'm not here to hurt you,” I reiterate.

“I...I know," His palms are rubbing. 

“Don't get trapped underneath all those curls! There's an entire world at your fingertips, people waiting to see you for who you are and what you have to offer.”

“I hope.”

“No hoping!! It's already here!” I point to myself, “Here and very much waiting for you.”

“I see.”

“Yup. And I can't deny it anymore either."

“Oh,” He smirks.

“Yeah so...uh…” I tap my lip, “Ready to explore?” 

“I am.” 

“Let's do it then,” I pull on the door handle but it won't budge! “Huh?” I try again. “I know I'm not drunk!!” I frown. 

Harry approaches, “Is it closed?”

“Already!? It's only 7:30!” 

Harry tries another door, “Mmm…Louis, it's closed. Look.” He points to the sign. “7pm.”

“Oh no!! That's so lame!” I stamp my foot. “What are we going to do now?” 

“Well, we are in New York City.”

“Okay? What's your point?” I grunt, “I wanted to find that painting. That was like it for the night.”

“We could go to the Museum of Sex.” 

My eyes widen, “Wait what?!” I swipe the sweat off my palms. “The- the Museum of-”

“Of Sex. Yeah,” He nods.

“Uh I mean if you're into that sort of thing,” I tug at the collar of my jacket. “Sh-sure. Sure we could do that-”

“Are you blushing?” 

“No! Why would I be? It's just sex. It's not like I haven't done any of that before,” I state. “And besides, it could be educational for- for you know...you?” 

“Me?” We walk down the steps.

“Yeah you! You're young, your mind is fresh, your perception on life has yet to be-”

“You make it sound like I'm a child.” 

“You're not!! It's just compared to me-”

“Does our age difference make you uncomfortable?” He asks, his tone neutral. 

“I never said that.”

“You always refer to me as a kid.”

“You're in college. Any person in school is a kid to me. I'm a teacher remember?” We head up the block towards 6th Avenue. “I can't help but put two and two together.”

“Well, I'm not a kid or a child or some adolescent,” He clarifies. “I may not hold a full time job, live on my own, or be a world-class traveler but I'm cultured in other ways.”

“Well, shit H. Who knew? You finally spoke up and defended yourself! Thanks for that.”

“It makes me feel bad," He admits shamefully.

I grimace, "If I was upsetting you, why didn't you say it? I can't read minds you know? I talk out of turn, I blurt my feelings, I may say things you don't like-” 

“Like calling me a thoughtless, uncoath, introverted prick?”

“What!?” I flinch, “I didn't say-” 

“Oh yes you did,” Harry glances at me. “When you were drunk and Drunk Louis doesn't lie.”

“Well I didn't mean it! You're none of those things... introverted yeah absolutely but thoughtless? I mean I may have thought you were at one time but not anymore!” I shake my head. “You're very thoughtful and kind. You just have a funny way of showing it. You're reserved and mad calm for a New Yorker,” I puff my cheeks. “Like... stupid calm. I didn't think your kind existed! I mean I'm like a damn-”

“Calm like a bomb?”

“Exactly!! I explode if the sidewalk is too crowded or when the subway car is packed to the gills. And if someone isn't walking the right speed!? Ugh my God-"

God .” 

"-I lose my fucking mind!” 

“Just have to take it easy.”

“Says the dude who takes a car service everywhere,” I roll my eyes. “You have no idea the frustrations commuting could cause. It's literally making me go gray! It's making me old and cranky. It's making-” I turn to him and his head is down, his palms are rubbing. He seems saddened. “Did I do it again? Did I say something I shouldn't have?” I tap my lip, rehash my rant in my head. “I didn't think so, I mean-”

“You're normal that's why.” 

“Oh no,” I say. “Absolutely not! Don't start with that weird shit okay? Don't you dare! I told you none of that bothers me. How many times do I have to repeat myself? How many times do I have to remind you?”

“Over and over until I'm able to accept them.”

“Not accept, believe !! You have to believe in yourself okay? You've got this. I know it. And you've already said it yourself, you've come so far. And I know it'll only get better from here.”

“I hope,” His fingers circle around the camera.  

“It will. Glass half full. Always,” I say. “Now take a picture of this beautiful sight!” I point down 6th Avenue towards Central Park. “It's definitely a lot prettier at night with the lights and all.”

“I know something that's even more beautiful night and day.”

“Ah! Really? What is it? Where? Is it here in New York or some place else?”

“It's…” He turns to me, inspects me thoughtfully, “Well…”

“What? Rome? The very city you'll be living in for a few months? Or my dog? I mean the girl is beautiful .”

“No,” He shakes his head. “No, Louis. It's something else, something unique, something appealing to look at and probably touch.”

“Oh...huh,” I tap my lip in thought. “Unique? Appealing to look at and touch? This is totally a trick question.” I turn away. “Unique? This is throwing me for a loop! Is it the Brooklyn bridge? That's beautiful day and night. Or what about-” I turn back around - click- and Harry is looking through the view finder, pointing the lense in my direction. “What are you doing?” 

“Nothing," He drops the camera and begins to walk up the block.

“Harry what did you take a picture of? What thing were you referring to? What-” His long legs are unfair !! “Hey?!” 

“Come on. The Museum of Sex awaits us.”

“Ugh!!”

.

.

.

.

“Okay but that bounce house was full of deflatable boobies,” I say. “And germs and many, many other bodies.” I shake my head. “You would have hated it.”

“Yeah.” 

“So bad. Even I feel a little gross,” I wince. “It's a good thing I washed my hands.”

“After I suggested it.”

“But of course . Mr. Hygiene himself!!” I nudge him, “That was a good time though. Some of those pictures were interesting especially the one with the guy's face planted in the women's crotch.” We're heading back up town, walking along the relatively busy sidewalk. “Stag parties.” I snort. “Who knew.” 

“I enjoyed it.” 

“It was interesting. Personally I wouldn't want to watch porn in a theater surrounded by other people but hey! That's just me,” I shrug. “And those deflatable boobs…”

“Did you like them?” He asks cheekily.

“It reminded me of a nice, round ass,” I admit and Harry bursts into laughter then. “What?” I glower. “It does. Whatever to you !” I snap. “I am not particularly fond of breasts if you haven't noticed . I prefer the company of... males. ” I confirm because newsflash !!

“Yup and nice round asses,” He continues to chuckle.

“You know, I can totally kick your flat ass up 7th Avenue.”

“My ass is not flat ," He defends. I tug his coat up, ignore his grunts and groans. “Hey!!” 

“Yup," I take in his rear and thighs, sort of admire as much as I am able. Damn it. What I'd give

“Get off!!” He pushes me away, twists himself free.

“Yup you're…” I fix my hair and jacket, “Flat.” I turn away, grip my fingers, keep my distance before I do something I shouldn't.

“I'm not! I'm working out now. I'm doing squats, I'm working on my leg muscles-” I groan aloud, feel my arousal awaken in my core. “-strenghtening my thighs-” 

I put my hand up, “Shuddup.” I silence him.

“Why?” 

I bite my lip, drape my hands over my bulging crotch. Oh man!!!   “Because Harry," My cheeks are warm too. “Because I…” I stop at the curb, purposely turn away to hide my excitement. “Never mind. Do you wanna drink? I mean I know you don't drink but can I get drunk? Maybe dance or...or pretend to dance because I have two left feet-”

“Not on Halloween,” His voice is closer than I thought. I practically fall over.

“What?” I glance towards him. “What d'ya mean?”

“You have great moves,” He clears his throat. “And I couldn't look away.” Niall was right. “You…” He fidgets with his fingers, bites at his own lip. “Those pants were great.” My mouth drops open for a second time this evening . “And there were larger sizes.” As he continues to speak my jeans become progressively tighter and tighter . “But you have a nice ass.” I nearly lose feeling in my knees!! “I wanted to, you know...” He finds my eyes and his pupils are dilated. Woah.

“You like my ass?”

“Especially in those pants.”

“The pants you picked out? The pants that came in a larger size? The pants you wanted me to wear?”

“Um…” He shrugs, “That may have been my intention.”

“You're a sneak!!” I smack his arm.

“Owe!!”

“You deserve that!! So you chose a rockstar because you wanted to see me in tight pleather pants!?”

"I gave you two options," He defends.

"Yeah well knowing you, I would have been in something fitted regardless!"

“Is that wrong ? Should I not feel that way?” He frowns, rubs at his palms, “I'm sorry if I offended you."

“Not at all. It's actually sort of hot,” I admit. 

"Oh."

“Niall and Liam admitted to liking my ass too. No big deal. I mean my ass is sweet. Not gonna lie. It's my favorite part of my body besides my adorable face.”

“And lips,” I stop dead in my tracks.

“My lips?” He looks to me.

“They're very red. And such a stark contrast to your blue eyes.” He rubs his palms, diverts his gaze. “It's a beautiful combination.” My stomach twists, my crotch...oh forget it, I'm as hard as a rock. I'm certain he can see it.

“You think?”

“Mmm," He hums.

“Well...Harry there's-”

“And I want to touch them.” 

I take a step towards him, “Then why don't you?”

“I'm afraid to,” He whispers.

“Why? Why are you afraid? Harry-”

“Not here.” 

“What do you mean? I'm confused, not here what? Are you not into PDA? Because I totally am. I'm not afraid to show the world how I feel. I used to kiss Stanley all the time in public. I may have gone a little too far at times, straddled his hips, sucked his face. But fuck em! I loved him. He loved me. We kissed. Whatever.”

“It's…” Harry takes a deep breath, “Louis, not here?” He begs, touches his chest, shifts his weight.

“We just went to the Museum of Sex, watched old school pornography and looked at risque photographs, and you can't even discuss the topic of kissing?”

“Louis!!” He snaps, “Please!” 

“Please what, Harry? You just admitted you like my butt, said you want to kiss my lips-”

“Touch. I said touch.”

“Same thing!”

“No," He corrects. “I meant touch. I meant…” He's struggling to complete his thoughts and it's sort of pissing me off because I'm fucking horny now and really would love to kiss him and grind into him and ugh, fine relieve myself!! “May I?” 

“May you what ?”

He's crimson, “Forget it.” He walks up the block without another word.

“Oh no!” I run after him, “Get back here!” I reach for him, grip his bicep, feel his body tense underneath my hold.

“Louis!!” He twists free instantly.

“Talk to me!” I implore, “Harry it's just a kiss. It's nothing serious or anything major. Just say it-” 

“I want to touch your lips with my fingers. I want to feel them.” 

“Wait you-”

“They're so pretty.” 

“So you don't want to kiss-”

“That's not sanitary.” 

“Oh Lord…” I puff my cheeks, “Harry, look…”

“Please? May I?” 

“Put your fingers on my lips? Now that's not sanitary!!” 

“If I'm correct, a human's mouth is dirtier than a dog's. So kissing is far worse.”

“That’s not the point! You could have touched something disgusting in that museum and now you want to touch my face!? I could catch a disease or something! Maybe develop big, red, puss ridden sores all over my lips and chin, look like a damn gremlin!!”

“I didn't touch anything,” He says, points towards me. “You did. Your hands were on everything if I recall properly. Especially the boobs.” 

“I suppose?” I roll my eyes, “I mean...I guess you can?” I run a hand down my face. “What's going on right now?”

His eyes are downcast, "I... I'm weird."

“Ugh!!!” I reach for my phone then, tap the Uber app.

“What are you doing?” Harry asks, his brow furrowed.

“Getting a ride.”

“Wait, why?” His tone is all wrong, “Louis, you're leaving?”

“I don't...ah!! Harry, look” -I lift my coat to reveal the bulge- “you did that. You did!! All of this sex talk and kissing and you liking my ass and everything just made me a tad horny and no I'm not gonna lie when I say I need to whack off like right now.” 

“Just like Halloween,” Harry says, his tone matter of fact.

“What? You keep referring to Halloween and not telling me details and that's just-” unfair!!

“You got excited.”

“What!” My stomach clenches, “No way! I was-”

“You don't remember a thing," He shakes his head in dismay.

“I-” I huff, “I only recall wanting to kiss you.”

“You moaned.” 

“When? Why!?” I'm mortified!?!?!!! “When did I do that!!” I cup my cheeks, hide my embarrassment.

“When…” Harry looks both ways, approaches me with purpose, “When I slid my hand in your pocket.” He whispers, "You released a throaty, sensual... moan ." He accentuates.

My eyes widen in horror, “I...I did?” I'm staring into his soul, losing myself in his beauty, tumbling head first into his being. 

“Yes, you did.”

“I don't…” I puff my cheeks, “Oh.”

“You said I made you excited and you asked me to kiss you.”

I stand my ground, “Well that hasn't changed. I still want to.”

“I know.”

“And you're not ready yet,” I say and that saddens me more than it should.

“I…” He backs away, releases me from his trance.

“Yeah,” I click away on my phone, find an Uber less than five minutes away. And my dog's mouth is cleaner than mine.

I mean, ouch.

“I want to be,” He chokes. “I want to be so badly.”

I squash down my anger, “Harry-”

“Are you never going to call me again? Is this it? Are you finished?” He worries at his bottom lip, displays his uncertainty through his hands.

I shake my head, “I'd be a shitty person if that were the case.” 

“Oh. Then why are you-”

“It's not about being physical all the time, H. It's about appreciating what you have to offer on the inside as well. You have to enjoy the comfortable silence and the interaction in general," I say to make light of the situation. “I'm just…” I want to feel alive again and you make that possible. And a simple kiss I think will mend me.

“What?” His eyes are bloodshot.

“Nothing. It's nothing.”

.

.

.

.

November 7.

Touch his lips!?

I hate myself.

.

.

.

.

“How was he in the museum?” Niall asks.

“He seemed okay,” I cradle a beer bottle between my hands. “He was completely enamored by the photographs and the video clips. I mean I took it as him having an interest in art and really it was art. Not what we're accustomed to but it was…” I shrug, “Interesting to watch him."

"Why? Was he drooling over everything?" He snorts.

I shake my head in disagreement, "No. No he wasn't drooling but he was lost in his head most of the time and very quiet, very intent on what was happening in those photos and videos."

He leans on the counter, "What do you think that means?"

"Dunno," I take a sip from my beer. "Anything or nothing at all."

"Maybe he's into that stuff?"

"What stuff?"

"Porn?"

"Who isn't though?"

"It's just an observation."

"It wasn't like that though. It was like he was taking notes," I flinch at the thought. Taking notes? Getting ideas? What's he plotting?

"Um…as in-"

"It was an unexpected reaction," I say instead. 

"Alright…" He shrugs, "Explain this whole touching your lips thing."

“That was-” I clear my throat, “He didn't mean kiss let's just put it that way. He meant touch as in with his hands .” I suck in a deep breath, “I don't know what to think.”

“The kid sounds horny,” Niall deadpans. “Really horny and lonely. Wait until you open the floodgates. You'll be on your back probably every night.” He cackles. "Hands and knees for two days."

“Um!!!” I deny the insinuation, feel my cheeks redden. “You mean he'll be on his back!” Right? 

Those quiet ones...he may be a freak in the sack.

I shiver at the possibility.

“Whatever but you wait and see! You'll be crawling in here on your hands and knees with swollen lips and sore ass!!” He points, continues his signature, unmistakable cackle.

“W-what!? Why! Because we'll be-”

Fucking like rabbits.” 

“Oh my God ,” I shriek. “Do I have the stamina for that? I mean Stan and I used to be active but...but…” I look at my friend wide eyed. “Will he want some every night? Do I have enough semen for that!? Do I have the ability to get it up fast enough!?” I drop my head on the counter. “Niall!!!”

He recovers, “Woah woah! Don't get ahead of yourself. You sound like some fifty year old dude! You're only twenty seven!”

I lift my head, “And he's nineteen!! He's a prime age for...for...oh I'm screwed . He's gonna leave me. He's gonna want sex all the time and become angered with me because my dick'll be limp from nerves and then-”

“Chill out!” He reaches over the counter, slaps me upside the head.

“Owe!”

“Listen to me!” He leans over the bar top, “You're getting ahead of yourself. You've barely kissed. You don't even hold hands-” I groan. “-so don't worry about it. The kid makes you excited with just a look, do you honestly think you'll have difficulty getting it up?”

“Um…” I chug my beer, release a rather grotesque belch, “Maybe.”

“Don't alright? Just have a good time with him. Let him touch your lips, which by the way is fucking weird-” Now it's my turn to slap him!! “Ugh!!!” Niall rubs his cheek.

“Shut it!!” I defend, “Leave Harry alone.”

“Fine, fine! Take things slow and enjoy the ride!”

“Yeah I wanna trust me…” I run a hand down my face in frustration, “I'd love to... enjoy a ride.”

“Alright keep that snake in its cage,” He grimaces, takes a step away.

“I can't help it. He turns me on. And it's not even all that difficult either. He could be standing near me and it's like my dick knows what it wants and stands at attention in search of his-"

“Uh...nice.”

“Sorry,” I shrug. “But...what do I do? How do I help him trust me?”

“Well, take things at his speed, let him experiment in his own way, let him touch your face .”

“I guess...but it's just a kiss!!”

“Maybe not to him,” Niall says. “Maybe it's something really special to him.”

.

.

.

.

I hand Harry his coffee, “What's your usual Sunday routine?" He's gripping onto Ruby's leash outside the shop that I willingly take, “Like, do you watch football? Or maybe catch up on sleep? Maybe play some video games?” I carefully sip at my unsweetened tea. 

He pulls a straw from his pocket, carefully removes the wrapping, and pops it into the lid of his cup, “I…” He pulls at the straw, “I volunteer at the hospital.”

“Really!?” I turn towards him, “That's awesome! Where exactly? What do you do? Why did you start?” 

“Children's ward,” His tone is hushed.

“Okay and what about the other-” My eyes widen, “Wait really?” My heart flutters in my chest. “You...sit with sick children?” He nods once, “That's beautiful.” Okay my feelings towards you just doubled, actually tripled! Make that times infinity! “Like really, really beautiful. I didn't think you had a tender side.” I nudge him.

“I'm a good person,” He drinks more of his coffee. 

“Wow, so you volunteer. How did you find it? Like what made you decide to do that?” 

“Uh…” He blinks a few times, hesitates, “Well…” He sighs. “I like children?" 

“Well I should have you sub one day for my classes! Since you like children so much I'm sure they'd get a kick out of you. Although they're really not children they're teens but still,” I giggle. “Or they might walk all over you or infect you with their germs...Uh…expose you to...” I tap my lip in thought. “Yeah that may be a bad idea actually. I don't think you'd survive no offense.”

“I wouldn't,” He glances towards me. 

“Yeah,” I agree. “So what exactly do you do with the children? Do you read to them? Play games? Make silly faces? Are you there all day? Or for just a couple of hours? I mean are you going today? Is that why we meet in the mornings on Sunday? You secretly escape to the hospital to play superhero?”

“I sing to them actually.” 

I stop in the middle of the sidewalk, “You...sing?” 

He looks back towards me, “Yes.” 

“Oh," My mouth forms an “O” shape.

“You sound surprised.”

“No! I'm not! I didn't expect that from you is all because you're timid and quiet in general.”

His fingers are looping around the lanyard on his sweatshirt, occupying their restlessness, “I also play along on guitar."

“You play an instrument too!?” I ask in astonishment. “Why didn't you tell me!? Why not divulge such an important detail about yourself!? That's like huge !!” I gesture with my hands. “You know? I play piano and majored in music, you play guitar and sing...and wow! You're super talented, well-rounded, annoying .” I jest. “Kidding.” His face flushes. “That's something. So you sing to sick children?”

“I do,” He nods again and continues up the street.

“When did you learn?” I follow after him. “I mean guitar. When did you decide-”

“I taught myself out of boredom,” He sounds off, his tone distant, sheepish. 

“Got it,” I puff my cheeks. “Alright well are you any good?”

“The kids seem to think so.”

“No I meant like, are you really, really good? Like you'd play in front of others? Maybe not children? But maybe in a coffee shop or a small-”

“No,” He says. “No it's not meant for...” He pauses. “No, Louis. It's for the children. It makes them happy.”

“And I'm sure you feel a sense of pride too,” I assure. “You volunteer your time to them and brighten their days! You probably put so many smiles on their little faces!”

“Most yes,” We reach the park and begin our walk.

“That's just really incredible,” A thought comes to mind. “Is one of them your subject for the portfolio? Is Ruby a front?”

“Absolutely not! I'd need their parents consent and they may not appreciate it.” 

“It would be the perfect-”

“I refuse to use one of them as my subject , Louis. It's wrong and selfish and- just no . It doesn't seem like the right thing to do, exploiting their illness for my own personal gain. That's disgusting .” He spits the word.

“Okay, okay calm down there. I was only-”

“Stop asking who it is please?” He picks up his pace and Ruby tugs me along.

“What!?” I question. That stung . “Hey!” I match his pace. “Hey chill out. I'm allowed to be curious! I'm here to help you right?”

“I guess?” He finishes his coffee, tosses the cup away. 

“I want you to win, H. I want to see you traveling abroad and-”

“I fear my work won't be good enough,” He rushes out and I practically lose my footing. 

“Huh? Why?”

“And when you constantly bring it up, or ask who I'm photographing , it's another reminder how awful I am at all this, how uncertain I am of my future, how badly I want to travel and be free, how badly I want to be, simply be…” He rubs his gloved palms, bites his lip. “Be...be-” He continues to struggle.

“Be what?” I ask gently. “What is it?”

“The person you perceive me to be. The kid you look at every time we're together. Be able to live up to your expectations.”

My breath hitches, “But Harry you do!! You exceed them! You're-”

“I know you're only trying to help but I need to do it alone, okay? It's my accomplishment , my only accomplishment.”

“I...uh…” My heart sinks in my chest, my hands begin to sweat, “Y-yeah.” I squash down my defeat. “Of course!” I plaster a smile on my face. "I don't wanna interfere or anything. I'll just stand back and you know! Not get involved...” I chew at my lip.

“Thanks.” 

“Yup,” I fight back my tears.

“Please don't take it personally," He begs.

“I'm not,” I lie.

“Yes, you are,” He counters.

No , I'm not. It's a relief actually," I straighten my posture, suppress my sadness. “Now I can focus on my students, my piece for the concert, chorus, you know. My own accomplishments.” I inform him, my tone rather harsh although honestly I'm barely holding on here.

“See? You are upset,” He sounds exasperated.

“Whatever,” I make a sharp right.

“Louis!” He trails after me. “Please stop?”

“We said we'd go for a walk, so that's what I'm doing... walking ,” I pout my lip. “I need to work off my breakfast.”

“Stop for a second.”

“Why? So you can push me further away? Just do it then!! Rip that fucking band-aid off!!” My voice betrays me, cracks unexpectedly.

“Quit it! That's not true!” He catches up in two long strides.

“Is it? Because you revealed something about yourself that I would have appreciated from day one, a small fact that I find so endearing my heart is swelling with affection towards you. And now you want me to completely ignore your portfolio and your pictures and your future career when all I wanted to see was you succeed and live your best life.”

He shakes his head, “That's just it, what if I don't win? I'll let you down."

“It's not about letting me down. It's about letting yourself down and not believing in yourself ," I point at him. "It's about you! Not me. I'm only blubbering because I wanted to help you and now you don't want me involved in anything.”

“It's for personal reasons.”

“What reasons are those? What are you keeping from me?” 

“T-too much... there's...too much buried," He tugs at his sweatshirt in frustration, grips the cotton into a tight fist.

“Of course there is so much to hide ,” I roll my eyes. “There goes my entire trust speech.”

“I'm working on it!” He raises his voice.

“Why do I still feel like an outsider then? Why are you not letting me in?! Or at least pretending to!?” I cry.

“Of course I want you- you don't-” He grips his curls, “I'm not pretending at all. I swear. This is it. This is who I am!” He touches his chest.

“I feel so helpless around you. I can't penetrate your walls or even come close to discovering who the real you is,” I look to Ruby. “You will leave...I just know it.” I murmur. “I was right.” 

“What are you talking about?”

Nothing ,” I snap and walk along the path. "It doesn't matter."

“I don't believe in myself,” I stop in my tracks. “I used to but that's long gone. I've always struggled with interaction and being in public in general.” I remain silent for once. “I can't live outside my head or ignore these fears I've had most of my life. It's not something I am able to easily forget just like you with your fear of people leaving.” He steps in front of me, blocks my path. “We both have a lot of grief to overcome and sort through. And by us interacting and being ourselves, we can heal each other, right?” 

I take a deep breath, “I want you to know, H that even if you don't win, even if your work is complete shit , just know that you could never let me down. You tried, you submitted your work, you went out of your way to complete the portfolio and that to me is the win.” I glance at him. “And I won too.” I confess.

He licks his lips, “What did you win?”

“You...or at least a part of you."

.

.

.

.

“Here it goes, Ruby.” I begin the piece once again, allow my fingers to do all the work, move my body with the rhythm, close my eyes and let go

It's a beautiful piece, a classic actually, a soothing melody any amateur would appreciate at first listen. I enjoy it. Ruby seems to as well considering she's in the entryway waiting for Harry (or Stan I don't even know at this point). But it's all coming back to me: the drive, the need , the will to play and continue playing until I have the piece memorized in its entirety and perfected. And it was always a goal of mine.

Perfection.

I need to be flawless.

I cannot miss one single, solitary note , and if I do? I'll start over. I'll start the entire piece again. I'll play until my fingers cramp. I'll play until my back screams at me. I'll play until the neighbors knock on the wall alerting me of the time.

It's fine because...

I can't let you down either.

.

.

.

.

November 11

My mind can't stop.

You're all I think about.

I want our day to come.

.

.

.

.

“Did you enjoy dinner?” He asks me. 

I unlock the door to the apartment, “Yeah! Can't go wrong with Italian.” I rub my belly. “All that cheese and sauce and...fried goodness! Good choice.”

“Thanks,” He flushes. “That's my parent's favorite place to dine.”

“Is it now? Are you trying to impress me?” I smirk.

“Yes. Did it work?” He asks expectantly.

"Doesn't take much,” I admit.

"Oh."

"Yeah. You could take me to McDonald's and I'd probably fall even harder for you."

"Harder?" He questions.

"Oh Harry my dear, yes. So much harder. You really know the way to a man's heart."

"You mean through your stomach?"

"Basically," I kick off my sneakers.

“Next time we'll cook something then. I want to witness this fall you talk about.”

“Together!? As in, me and you? You and I?"

“Yeah maybe for my mom,” He says. “She was disappointed you didn't stay for dinner the other night.”

“Ah, yeah sorry about that. I really had to walk Ruby and prepare for the next day. Can I make it up to her? Do you think that'll work?”

“Maybe,” He turns away.

“It's the foot in the door, it's a way for her to like me!” 

“Wait, why-”

“You don't understand, my mother-in-law hated me. She always did too. I tried so hard to prove that I was a good husband and cared for her son and loved her son. But she didn't want to hear any of it. She hated my big mouth and personality I suppose.” I confess. “So I need to be on your mom's good side.”

“I’m sure she likes you, Louis.”

“I hope so,” I walk to the living room. “I'd hate to fuck up a second time.” I mumble to myself.

Ruby runs over then, jumps onto the couch, “Hey girl!” Harry greets her, pets behind her ears. 

“Well look at that!! Making herself right at home .” I gesture towards my dog.

“She is home.”

“Yeah I know but she lived in the hallway for almost two years, this is a bit of a shock to me,” I kiss her head. “Scoot over.” I nudge her gently until she hops down.

“Oh why did you bother her?”

“She took up half the sofa, H. Unless you want to sit on top of me , there would be no room.” 

“I see."

“Yeah so...We still have five hours left on Breath of the Wild,” I remove my coat and scarf, throw them over the arm chair. “So let's finish this thing!” I plop down on the couch, watch Harry take off his coat and shoes too. He wore another pair of fitted jeans but these are a darker wash, a deep blue. He's wearing a denim button down and a brown belt to top it off. 

“Sure,” He takes a seat next to me and clamps his knees together.

“Great!” I turn on the television and fire stick, “How late will your driver come to get you?” 

“Doesn't matter," He follows me with his green irises.

“But it does. I don't want you getting stuck taking an Uber or taxi.”

“Someone is always available.”

“Hey! I don't know how rich your folks are," I settle into the couch. “As long as you're okay.”

“I am.” 

“Cool," I turn my attention to the game. “Ah it's so good!!” I grip a pillow to my chest. “I have to get this now.”

“You need the Nintendo Switch though.”

“Don't care. I want it.” 

“Oh.”

“Yup," I glance at Harry and his lips are chewed. “You okay?”

“I am.”

“But you're not though,” I press. “You're nervous. You're sweating, your knuckles are white, your cheeks are red.” I point out. “What’s bothering you?”

“I didn't mean to make you excited again,” He confesses, turns a deep crimson.

“Ha! You noticed," I tug at my jeans. “But it's fine. I'll deal with the boner later.”

“That's not it!” He snaps and I can't help but jolt in my seat from his outburst. Woah. “That's not- I can't even...” He grips his curls in aggravation.

“Talk to me,” I scoot closer to him. “Let me in.” 

“Louis, I've never been in a relationship before,” Bomb.

“Okay and?” I play it off like it's not a big fucking deal. Holy shit because that is! “Is that what's troubling you? You not being in a relationship? You're nineteen. You shouldn't be tied down to anyone! You should play the field- well wait a second.” I pause. “Don't do that anymore or think about that actually. I don't want you to see other people.” I touch my ring finger. “I mean that's if you want this to be something exclusive. I don't usually do flings or one night stands or share. I'm actually a little possessive at times.”

“Louis…”

“What? I am! I don't want you to see anyone else. Is that okay to ask?

“I won't do that nor do I want to.” 

“Okay good,” I touch my chest. “Thank God-"

" God ."

"I was getting a little nervous actually. I dunno what goes on in the dating world anymore. I wasn't sure if monogamous relationships were a thing? Ugh I don't know. I'm showing my age."

“I don't want to see anyone else,” He clarifies.

“Good,” I look over at him then turn away feeling at a loss. Now is the perfect time for some lip action. But I can't. It's not even a possibility. I sigh heavily and flop into the couch cushions. Guess I'll whack off later.

“What is it?”

“Uh," I puff my cheeks, "Well, actually this would be a great time to make out."

His body stiffens, “Oh."

“Yeah. Like the perfect time actually.”

“Mmm,” He mumbles and proceeds to rub his palms. 

"Yah…" I roll my eyes, push further into the cushions.

What did Niall say? Allow him to do things at his speed? Let him touch my lips? What then though? What do I do to reciprocate? Touch his lips? What if he doesn't let me? Then I'll be stiffer and probably more uncomfortable.

But maybe it'll be the start to something, maybe if I let him touch me he'll eventually give me the opportunity to touch back. 

And maybe he'll trust me, trust my intentions, trust that I'm not here to fuck around.

I have to try, right?

“Harry?” 

His palms cease rubbing, “Yeah?” 

“Do...do you wanna-”

“What?” He rushes out, his tone borderline frantic.

“I was going to say if you wanna...uh...touch my lips you can?” He closes his eyes, turns away. “I mean, I want to kiss you but you're so nervous. I dunno...I wish you weren't. I'm sure you're a fine kisser and you have lovely lips too and it's not something you should over think. It's just a kiss regardless of the germs we'd be sharing. And I don't have the bubonic plague or like herpes or anything like that. Stanley was my one and only. The only person I've ever been with and he was clean. I'm clean. I'm a damn loser-"

“Close your eyes?” He interrupts my rant.

“Huh?” I shake my head.

“Close your eyes. Like shut your lids so you can't see me.” 

“Oh...” I nod and do as I'm told. “Um...” I feel him shuffling around and the dip in the couch. “Harry?” The smell of coconuts penetrates my nose. He's close . “So-” 

“Don't move.” 

“I won't," I reassure.

“Don't talk.”

“Hmph...now look at who's demanding?”

“Louis!” He scolds. “Please?”

“Fine!” I settle into the couch, rest my eyes, and wait.

“Alright...I- um…” He hesitates, “Touch, just touch. It's simple.” He whispers. “It's fine .” He continues but I keep my thoughts to myself, allow him to work at his own speed . “H-here I go. This is it. I'm going to do it. Right…uh...right-” There's pressure on my bottom lip then, the pad of a finger running the length of my mouth, the touch I crave to have on my skin. “So lovely.” His sweet breathe hits my cheeks. “They're the perfect shape.” My fingers grip the hem of my shirt, my arousal comes to life once more, my body screams at me to touch back .

Don't do it

“They dip right here," He applies more pressure. “So smooth.” Ugh!!! Louis!! “Pink and luscious.”

“I-” I'm shaking from head to toe.

“Delectable too.” I whimper. “I'm imagining what they would feel like,” My eyes fly open and he's mere inches away. His eyes are shut, his free hand clutching the back of the sofa as if to ground him. 

“You don't have to imagine,” I inch towards him. 

“B-but...I do. I'm too…” No!!

“You don't have to imagine anything. I'm here and I want you.” He sighs and his breath is just so sweet to my senses. 

“You don't…you…You make me excited too, Louis," He whispers as he continues to touch my mouth. I scrunch my eyes closed because if I look at him I'll pounce him!! “I hide it too.”

“Why?”

“Right here...right…” I inch closer to him, allow my leg to graze his. 

“Yes,” I open my eyes again. “Right here. Don't hide anything anymore.”

“Louis?” I run my tongue along my lip and across his fingertips. “O-oh.” He sighs, knits his eyebrows together. “N-now...now I know what…” My heart is jarring in my chest, screaming at my limbs to move , to kiss, to help move this along. “Louis?” His tone is pleading, his body language is calling to me, begging me to reciprocate. My ability to keep my distance is slipping away, my strength dwindling to nothing, every impulse my mind is able to formulate is pushing forward. I can't take it!! I purposely run my tongue along my bottom lip again, touch his fingers, savor in his gasp. 

“So pretty. So soft. So delicate. What I would give to just let…” I inch towards him. “Let go?” My coherency is lost to the wind, all of my control has disappeared because I need you !! “Letting go sounds so nice.” It does. “Too easy.” It is . “Sounds like a dream.” I'll make it a reality . “I'd want your mouth on-”

I push his hand away then, close the distance between us, and smash our mouths together with such vigor I groan the moment we collide. I'm starving for his taste and touch, I'm beyond excited and turned on and ready, so ready to be close to him, to touch him and be with him! To feel every single inch of your beautiful body-

But he pushes me away, releases me with a loud smack! He sends me flying back into the couch, startles me back to reality, drives the knife into my ego and any ounce of trust he probably had.

“Louis!!” He stands up, touches his lips, grips his hair. “H-how, how could you!?” He cries, sputters, swipes at his mouth as if it was the most repulsive thing he's ever done. Wow that hurts.

I close my eyes, lay flat on my back, “I'm sorry.” I lick my mouth and it's all you. I stifle a moan.

“I said, it's- there are germs!! So many!! And you- you touched me!” I cover my face, roll over to avoid his eyes. You already touched my mouth and tongue . “How do you expect me to trust you now?” He chokes.

“I couldn't help it,” I feel the tears surface. “You were-”

“Couldn't help it!?” His tone is angered, saddened, hurt. I'm so sorry.

“Yeah, I'm human ,” I swipe my eyes. "We have moments of weakness!"

“Well you need to practice control .”

“No!” I sit up, expose my tears and ache. “No, Harry!” I point. “I have desires, okay!? I have only so much strength to stay away from you! Do you have any idea how difficult it is to keep my distance? To not touch your hand or run my fingers across your back or, or kiss your cheek? Do you know how hard that is when I know your attraction is mutual!?” The tears spill over and onto my shirt. “Do you have any clue what it feels like?”

“I don't,” He releases his curls, rubs at his palms. “I've never hugged a non-family member. I've never been intimate with anyone .” My eyes widen. “I've never been kissed.” I stand up and approach him. “No!” He shakes his head. “Just stop?” He throws his hands out.

“Don't do this,” I beg. “Don't!!” I demand. “Don't fear it. Don't fear me. Let me in .” 

“You're invading my safe place, you've changed everything! You hugged me, you did that. And...and it's…” He sulks, drops his arms. “I'm so scared.”

“I know," I whisper. “I know it's terrifying. It's scary as fuck having these feelings and even more so acting on them. It makes me feel sorry. Like I'm cheating on my husband. But, Harry don't deprive yourself. You're holding back when the world is waiting for you. I'm waiting for you!”

“You don't get it. You don't understand why I'm this way.”

“Then tell me!! Say it! Give me the run down. Make this easier for me to handle because right now I'm working with nothing except your feelings for me, your photography and music, your desire to touch my lips.” I take a step towards him. “And it's not enough.”

“Why?” His eyes are wild, fearful, his tone saddened. 

“I want to know you! I want to know everything! And that includes being close. That's what a relationship is!”

“I…” He shakes his head, “I won't be good.” I take another step in his direction. 

“You're fine," I leave the tears on my cheeks, extend a hand towards his. “You're perfect.”

“You just like my face.”

“Do you know me at all? Do you!? Am I that shallow!?”

“No!! I'm just…” He turns away, nearly trips over his two feet, “I can't handle this. It hurts.” He touches his chest. “It's pounding, it's frightening me.”

“What is?” I'm standing before him. 

“My heart,” He scrunches his eyes shut. “My heart is content for once. It's happy. It's never felt...I've never felt this way.”

“Give into it then,” I beg. “It's okay. I don't care that you've never been kissed. I don't. I'll show you. I'll show you everything. I'll prove being close isn't frightening, it's exhilarating. It's such a good feeling. It makes life exciting!”

“I hate excitement.”

“Shuddup,” I touch his hand.

“Louis!” He winces, springs his eyes open. 

“Stop," I try again, graze his trembling hand, hold my palm steady. “Harry-” 

“D-don't do this,” He stutters. “Please? I don't know how I'll be.” 

“Take my hand,” I say. “Hold it.” 

“You're- you touched your face and your tears.”

“And you touched my lips. I kissed you. My germs are already all over you.”

“You…” He chokes, “You did. You weren't supposed to.”

“I'm the worst,” I encircle my fingers around his trembling hand.

“You are," He's fighting back tears. “You're the absolute worst.” He whispers. “But…” He swallows. “But Louis you're the fucking best too.”

More tears expel from my eyes, “Can I hug you now?” I ask.

“Huh?”

“You need a hug right now and I'm asking you, Harry, may I hug you?”

“Oh…” He bites his lip.

“You'll feel better.”

“Feel better…” He looks to me skeptically, “I will?”

“Yeah. It relieves so much stress and you need that I think.”

“Yes, I'd like that then," He inhales a quivering breath. “Make me feel better?” 

“Of course,” I step towards him, wrap my arms around his neck. “This okay?” He watches me, trembles from the contact. “Yeah?”

“It is... I think."

“Just like when we met'” I say as I rest my head on his collar, allow my tears to soak into his shirt. “Just like this…” He envelopes me in a hug almost immediately, rests his head on my shoulder. I nearly collapse into him.

“Since then,” He whispers. “Since then I knew it.”

“Some how I did too,” I close my eyes, breath in his scent. “I knew too.” I lift my head, gently graze his curls at the nape of his neck. 

He shudders, “How?” 

“You felt familiar,” He lifts his head, finds my eyes. “You felt like home. It was the strangest thing, even Ruby feels it too. We both are completely enamored by you and honestly it's a welcome feeling.”

“Oh,” He glances at my lips. 

“Yeah. Yeah it's-”

“I know what you mean,” He finds my eyes again. “My heart was pounding in my chest, it was beating uncontrollably, it was telling me something.” 

“Really?”

“Yes,” He nods once. "But I was scared to act on my impulses because I have no game.”

“You wanted to flirt with me?” I continue touching his soft hair.

“Yes, Louis. Yes. But I could barely touch you, let alone flirt.”

“Hmm…” I loop a curl around my finger, “So touching my lips was your game?”

“I wanted to memorize them so when I dream about kissing you, I would give them justice.”

“But you don't,” I remove my hands from his hair, move to his neck.

“Oh," His mouth pops open.

“You don't have to be asleep to kiss me. I'm right here.”

He flushes, “I'm going to be terrible."

“No. You won't,” I drop my hands and he frowns. “Come.” I wave him over to the couch.

“Why?” He follows.

“Sit,” I point to the cushion. 

“Oh no,” He takes a seat.

“Now, close your eyes.”

“No I want to-”

“I allowed you to touch my lips now it's my turn.”

“But that was different.”

“Really it wasn't. So close your eyes,” I demand.

“Oh...” He places his hands on his knees and does as he's told.

“Now relax alright?” I turn off the television.

“Why is it so quiet?”

“Shh!” I pinch his bicep.

“Ah!!” 

“Stay still,” I sit next to him, touch his linked hands. He tenses. “It's fine.” I slowly approach him. “It's alright.” I lean into him. 

“What are you doing?” I ignore him, lick my mouth. “Louis?” I purse my lips, tilt my head. “Louis what's-” I touch his mouth, accidentally moan my pleasure, pull gently at his lips. 

But I back away quickly.

“That's what I'm doing,” I peck his lips. “And that.” I do it again. “Again.” I kiss his cheek too. “For good measure.” I tap his knee. “Open up.”

“No.” 

“Why?”

“I’m afraid I'll wake up in my bedroom.” 

“But you won't. You're in my apartment.”

“Are you sure?” 

“Yes,” I take advantage then, kiss his lips, linger a little longer than last time. “See? Not so bad.”

“I didn't do anything," He blinks his eyes open. 

“But you did. And you were wonderful.”

“Stop lying.” 

“I'm not okay?” I sit back, “I had a first kiss too. It was a while ago but I did. I was sixteen and we were in Stanley's room. I was awkward and inexperienced. It happened. It was a done deal. And now your first kiss cherry has been popped.” 

“Oh,” He turns to me. “Thank you.”

“You're welcome!” I turn the TV on again. “My pleasure.”

“Was it?” 

I smirk, "Yeah. Now don't pull away. I'm taking your hand.”

“Huh?” I grip his fingers, but he struggles anyway, “Oh.” 

“Intertwine your fingers with mine.” 

“Why?”

“Because it's nice. You know, holding hands.” 

He grips me firmly, “What if my hand- what if I have to rub-”

“You won't. No more ticks. You have me to rely on.”

“It wasn't a tick though. I had bad circulation.”

Had is the operative word. Now it's a nervous tick of yours,” I say. “When you feel the need to do it, just take my hand, okay? Let me placate your worry. That's what I'm here for.” 

“Oh,” He sits back. “What if we're not together though? What do I do?”

“Think of me. Text me. Call me. Reach out to me,” I turn to him, keep my grip firm. “Let me take care of you.”

“What about you?”

“I'll call you. I'll reach out to you. I'll think of you. Too much probably,” I snort. “But that's fine. We can rely on each other.”

“We can?”

“Yup," I nod. 

“Okay,” Harry sits back into the couch with our hands linked. “Okay.” He repeats. “I…” I give him a reassuring squeeze. 

“Okay.” I smirk. 

“Thank you, Louis.”

.

.

.

.

“Louis?” 

“Everything okay?” I tighten my hold.

“For once, yeah everything is perfect.”

“Good."

“But,” I look to him, find his eyes trained on our linked hands.

“But…?” I fight back a smile.

“Louis, is it possible, to possibly maybe, you know that th-thing we did…” He stumbles over his words.

“Yeah?” 

“I want to...I want-”

“To kiss?”

He sighs, “Yes,” He finds my eyes. “I would like that.”

“Sure,” I nod. 

“Really?”

“Of course! I've been itching to get my lips and hands on you again!” 

“You already have your hands on me though.”

“No, H,” I turn towards him. “For instance.” I lean into him. “When we kiss, I want to really touch you.”

His green irises widen, “How?”

“I want my fingers to roam all over your arms and back, maybe even your cheeks and neck, your shoulders, possibly your chest-” He squirms, tugs away from my hold.

“No,” He shakes his head. “Not that.”

“Sure, H. Anything you want until you're comfortable.” 

“Thanks.” 

“So, as I was saying,” I loop a finger around a lock of his hair. “I want you to feel special and touching you with tenderness and care, well that's how I plan on doing it.”

“I see.”

“Yeah,” I smile, continue twirling my finger around his curl, inch closer towards his face. He's trembling from head to toe, his hands are fighting against my own to break free and rub , his breathing is labored. “Don't be nervous. It's only me.”

“That's the problem. It's you,” He admits, diverts his gaze.

“Close your eyes,” I say instead of harp on his words. “Part your mouth-” He drops it open, reveals his tongue, teeth, and tonsils. “I said part not open wide!” I giggle.

His cheeks redden, “See? I'm going to be awful,” 

“No stop. Just part your lips, okay?” He follows my instructions and closes his eyes. “Perfect.” I brush a few strands of hair away from his forehead, lean into him, purse my lips, tilt my head-

“Louis?” His voice startles me.

“Y-yuh?” I clear my throat, sit back down on the cushions.

“I promise I won't bite you,” I snort. “What's so funny?”

“Nothing. You won't bite me and if you do I'll probably think it's hot. So don't worry.”

“Oh...it won't hurt?”

“I mean if you like clamp down on my lip or something, yeah but like a gentle nip?” I shrug, “Go for it. Now stop talking!” I poke his thigh, watch him jolt his leg. “Here it goes.” I lean into him, grip his collar with one hand-

“I like that,” He interrupts again.

“Harry…” I sigh.

“What?” He opens his eyes, watches me closely. 

“You don't talk.”

“I thought I was a man of few words?”

“You are, H but right now I want to kiss you and you're preventing me from doing so.”

“Sorry.” 

“Don't be sorry just close your eyes, part your lips, relax, don't think!” I rub my thumb across his jaw, witness his pupils dilate. Yessssss . “Okay?” He nods, stares intently. “Good. Now close em.” I tap his nose.

“R-right,” He does as he's told, drops his shoulders, sighs into the small space separating us. Here it goes.

I inch towards him, bask in his breath hitting my cheeks, will his fears to disappear, pray I don't fuck this up! I pucker my lips, close the distance separating us and touch his puffy lips. 

He tastes sweet, almost too sweet, almost too good, almost too perfect . You're satisfying my sweet tooth . I pull gently at his mouth, grip his shoulders, hold him close. I can't help but moan...and moan...and groan and just deepen the kiss! I massage his lips, suck at his mouth, attempt to open him up to me!

He's incredible, he's beautiful, he's not-

I back away.

“Harry?” I release my hold.

“What?” He cracks an eye open.

“You're not kissing me back.” 

“I...I... I'm not?” 

“Nope.”  

“Oh,” He diverts his gaze. “I told you I'm no good.”

“No! It's fine. Just uh…” I separate his palms, “When I touch you, just like suck my mouth back?”

“Huh?” 

“Oh man…” I puff my cheeks. “I never had to explain it before...just like...it's like sucking a straw right? You pull on it to get the liquid through. It's sort of the same thing! And you like massage my lips too. We move in sync, together you know? And you can work your hands into it, maybe even your tongue-”

“My tongue !?”

“Yeah a French kiss! That's the best.”

“Uh...this is complicated,” He frowns.

“It's not," I lean into him again. “Shush and kiss me.”

“I can't-”

“Lies. Now be quiet,” 

I rush towards him without warning, crash into his hot mouth, and kiss, and invade, and penetrate the walls I've managed to sort of break through. I want him to open up to me, to give me the chance to prove everything to him. He catches on this time, moves with me, mirrors my movements but I don't care! He's doing so good and I can't stop! 

I deepen the kiss again, wrap my arms around his neck, and pull him towards me. I ignore his trembling and uncertainty, will him to relax and remain in this moment of pure bliss. This is what it's meant to be! 

Me and him.

You and I.

Us .

I push him against the couch, drive my tongue into his mouth, and suck feverishly at anything I am able to latch onto. He pushes back against me almost in protest but he relaxes again, wraps his arms around my torso, and kisses me in return.

.

.

.

.

“W-wow,” 

“Good?” 

“Better than... anything.” 

“Well I'd hope so since it was your first time,” I chuckle.

“Uh-huh.”

“Thanks for trusting me,” I touch his forehead, smooth down his eyebrows. “That means everything.”

“Oh,” He grins crookedly, reveals his cute little dimple.

“So can I touch you any time I want now? I mean! Within reason of course, like let's say I want to touch your hand in public while we're walking, or if I feel like hugging you-”

“Feel like it?”

“Yes!! Just because!”

“Sure.”

“And maybe even share a kiss every so often. But just like a peck on the lips or something sweet to make other people jealous ,” I giggle. “Show the world I'm yours!”

“Mine?” He tightens his hold.

“Yes. I want to be. And trust me I never thought I'd say that. I never thought I could overcome my sadness but you gave me hope you know?” 

“I...I did?” He whispers.

“Oh yes, Harry. You did. You're that important.”

“Oh.”

“Yeah and I can't let you go. Like ever,” I flush. “I want...can we maybe-”

“I'm yours,” He says, grips me tighter than before. Woah!!  

“You are,” I say. “You are mine.”

“I like that.”

“So let's make this happen for real. Like make it official you know?”

“Are you- wait so are we-” He gestures between us.

“Exclusive?”

“Yeah?” He squeaks.

“Yeah," I nod. “Yeah you're... stuck with me.”

“I'd like that.” 

“Yeah, me too.”

.

.

.

.

“He's never been kissed,” I admit.

“What!?” Liam shrieks, “Seriously!?”

“Yeah.” 

“That's why it was such a big deal,” Niall concludes.

“Exactly," I tap away on the controller, mindlessly play Assassin's Creed. “And God he freaked out when I did it. He pushed me off of him, he yelled, he made me feel so sorry.” I hiccup. “I overstepped his trust.”

“But you were okay afterwards?” 

“We were. We were fine,” I puff my cheeks. “It's official.” My stomach twists.

“Wait what's official!?” Liam asks. “Are you guys...are you” -he points at me- "officially an item!?” 

My face heats up, “Uh…” I nod.

“Oh wow.”

“Oh wow!!!!” Liam jumps to his feet. “That's great!!”

“Y-yeah...yeah,” I continue to play to tune out Niall's lack of enthusiasm and Liam's over enthusiastic reaction. 

“I knew you were ready," My best friend finally says. “I'm happy for you.” I choke on my tongue, bite down on my lip to conceal my sob. “How do you feel?” But I don't answer. “Louis? What's going on upstairs?” I'm being attacked, fighting off an enemy, flailing my sword around. “Louis.” My friend touches my shoulder. “What's up?” But it's okay!! I'm winning!! I'll beat this boss and- “Louis!” 

And I snap!! I throw the controller to the ground, choke on another sob, bury my head in my hands as a wave of relief consumes me. 

I cry, I break down in front of my friends, lose my train of thought, forget life for a second or two and let it all out. I'm crying my anguish, I'm releasing my grief, I'm washing away the guilt I know I've felt since his death . I'm breathing for the first time in what feels like a lifetime, my heart is beating too, my mind is cleared of the fogginess.

I'm crying because I'm finally free.

 

Chapter Text

STUPID DEEP, Playlist

 

I walk into the bar with my hand shoved in my pocket and hood covering most, if not all, of my face.

“Yo!” I hear Niall.

“Hey!” I shout, lift my head to get a better view, spot my friend in usual place behind the bar. Harry (yeah he finally came along) follows close behind with his fingers entangled with my own, “It got so cold .” I shiver into my coat. “Like we totally skipped fall and jumped right into the dead of winter.” I huff. 

“We're supposed to get snow too," Niall says, glances between Harry and I.

“What!?” I collapse into my usual seat, release our linked hands. “Ugh! When!?” I tug off my puffy coat and scarf, gesture to my boyfriend to sit next to me.

“Either tonight or early tomorrow.”

“Oh you know…” I tap my lip, “This could mean a potential snow day !” I whack the counter. “Yes!!” I turn to Harry who's pulling at his coat sleeve. “Wanna stay the night?” He stops his movements, eyes me in disbelief. “We can watch Twitch or actually you know beat Resident Evil-” Niall flips me off “-eat some crappy food, get drunk. Well I'd get drunk but still!”

“Uh...um well-” He manages to pull the coat free, bites at his lip, “There- I don't...see there's this thing-” 

“Or maybe binge watch the Golden Girls? A movie? Play Scrabble!? What about-"

“What would you like to drink?” My friend interjects, disrupts my stupid rant, probably saves Harry from an imminent meltdown. 

Oops . I mentally slap myself.

I clamp my mouth shut.

“Um…” Harry gulps, hesitates before answering, neatly folds his arms in his lap, “A...Coke? Yes a Coke with a straw and the can if possible too. Unopened. Or an unopened bottle. Whatever you are able to do. But unopened. P-please.” He stutters. “Please. Thank you.” He sits back, hunches his shoulders, masks his reddening cheeks. Oh. Man.

But Niall brushes it off, rests his hands on his hips, “Absolutely. And for you, swine?” He turns to me. 

I scowl, stick my tongue out, “A fucking beer , hooligan.” I snap because damn it, did I go too far?

“Right-o!” Niall gives me a knowing look, turns on his heel, and heads to the back. I bite back a groan.

Fuck.

Fuckity.

Fuck.

Fuck.

Fuck.

“I was only kidding about the whole staying over thing,” I say the moment he's out of ear shot, “I mean I'd like it if you could eventually but I know you're not ready for that. And that's fine!” I reassure. “I just didn't mean to put you on the spot.” I face him and his eyes are trained on the floor. He shrugs. “It was an idea that came to me suddenly and I wanted to share.”

“It's- it's fine,” I slink a hand between his palms but he pulls away. “Sorry." His tone is hushed.

“Don't be,” I grip onto him anyway, scoot a tad closer so our knees are touching, lean into him. “It's fine. You're doing great.” I squeeze my fingers.

“You’re friend probably thinks I'm weird.”

“No,” Never Niall because he isn't a douche. A dick sometimes absolutely but never a douche. “He doesn't. He thinks you're reserved but he doesn't know you yet. Just relax yourself, take a deep breath and-”

“The air is musty in here,” He grimaces. 

“It's a bar. It's expected to smell like stale beer and booze not roses and disinfectant. Hate to burst your bubble there, slick.” I snort.

He sighs, “I know.”

“Here ya go!” Niall reappears, places a cold beer, a glass of ice, and an unopened can of Coke on the counter, “That okay?” My friend asks him.

“Yes,” Harry releases me. “Thank you.”

“Anytime," He leans on the bar, faces me as I bring the beer to my lips. “So when is your concert? I want to take off.”

I freeze, “Wait, you're going to come?” I ask in bewilderment.

“Yeah Liam and I. We planned on-”

“Seriously!?” I shriek, “You guys are coming!? Both of you!? Holy shit!!” I shout, grip my fringe, gesture to my friend.

“Um...yuh we are. Why don't you shout it a little louder? I don't think the neighbors three doors down heard you.”

“No! No I'm just excited. I always thought you hated it. Like despised it because the music could be a little boring.”

“Dude, I haven't seen you perform since college. I wanted to come and support your lame ass.”

“Oh,” I touch my chest. “Oh that's...thank you, Niall. Really. That means a lot actually.”

“Yeah, yeah dont get all soft on me,” He jests. “So when is it?”

I sit back down, “Christmas Eve." I take a sip of my drink.

“Your birthday? We're some gift!” 

Harry's searching his pocket when he finally looks up, “Birthday?” 

“Yeah my damn birthday . Ugh God- "

God ."

“-Niall!! Thanks for the reminder. Me and my old bones can't handle another year. I'm stiff, my fingers ache, my back hurts all the time!” I dramatically expel a breath, “The arthritis-”

Niall rolls his eyes, "Save it. You act like you're an old man.” 

“I am!!!” When compared to the kid sitting next to me! I'm damn ancient. I'm practically a corpse. I'm already buried in my tomb!!

“No, you're not. It's all in that head of yours, under all the gel and fucking cologne,” He waves a hand in front of his face, wrinkles his nose. “By the way. Lay off the cologne will ya!? It's clouding your judgement and stinking up the joint!” 

My eyes widen in horror, “What!?” I sniff my shirt collar, then the inside of my wrists, then...then my pits!! “It's not that bad !!” I retort.

“I smelled you all the way from the door!" Niall motions towards the front.

“No way!! You're lying!!” I counter, feel my cheeks redden.

“Am not!”

“Are to!!”

“Am not!” I jab my finger into Niall's bicep.

“Are to!!” He reaches over the bar but I move out of his reach, nearly topple backwards but Harry catches me.

“Am not!”

“It's fine,” Harry pipes in.

“Are to-” I do a double take, glance over at him in shock because I wasn't expecting him to comment but I suppose it's expected right? He'll take notice of these things. “See?” I point to him with my thumb, look to my friend. “The boyfriend likes it. So it's just fine.”

“Still stinks.” 

“Don't you have a job to do!?” I growl.

“Yuh! It'll be a relief to escape the cloud of stink water you bathed in!”

“Good bye you troll!!” 

“Ta-ta!!” Niall wiggles his fingers and saunters off to the back.

“Asshole," I pick up my beer, rest my elbows on the counter. "Pain in the ass, embarrasses me in front of my-"

“Your birthday,” Harry places the straw he pulled from his pocket onto the counter.

“Yeah what about it?” I watch him, “I'll be twenty eight.” I'll be old. Older. So much older than you. Will you still want me?

Will you decide I'm not right for you?

Will you walk away?

“It's the same day as Christmas Eve,” He comments instead which surprises me.

“Yah aren't I lucky? I get fucked over on the gifts every damn year.” 

“At least you have all the decorations," He tears the paper, places the straw into his glass, carefully slides off the wrapping to avoid touching the plastic. Never gets old.

“What d'ya mean?” I take a sip of my beer. “Everything was Christmas-y not birthday themed.” He then takes out a small packet. “What’s that?” I point. I'm completely intrigued by his actions.

“The can is dirty,” He opens it and thoroughly wipes off the lid and sides. 

“Oh. Got it,” I nod and proceed to chug my beer. 

“What I meant was, when you were younger you could have pretended” -He finally pours some soda into his glass- “the Christmas lights were for you. The entire town lit up to celebrate your special day.” 

“Uh…” I tap my lip, “I mean maybe. But I only recall getting the shaft on presents.”

“That's all you remember?” He sips at his drink, “Not the time spent with your family?”

“Yeah!! What kid didn't want a mound of gifts to tear open and shrill with delight over what ever they got? That's the point of Christmas when you're like five! Not the religious aspect of it or family time . That was meaningless.” I place the bottle down. “It was about opening gifts and playing with your newest games and toys. And I guess I'm peeved about only having that spotlight once a year.”

“You're still bitter about it?” I reach for his free hand and he willingly takes mine in return.

“Not really,” I slide to the edge of my seat, invade his personal space because damn! I wanna kiss. “It's how I felt at the time is all. Now I buy myself shit. Right?” He glances at my mouth, then my eyes. 

“Yes," He nods. 

“Like pleather pants and ugly knee high boots.”

“And take out.”

“Yeah! So much take out,” I chuckle. 

“I'll change that,” He grazes our knees together.

“Oh? When?” I purse my lips, flutter my lashes, “You're going to impress me with your teaching skills?” 

“Well…” I hold his gaze steady. Work with me here.

“Yeah?” I inch towards him, “What else do you have hidden up your sleeve?”

“Uh…” He licks his mouth. 

“Hmm?” I grip his fingers.

“A lot," His eyes widen, he parts his lips, leans in . Holy fuck.

“I bet,” So I do the same. “So much just waiting to be exposed?” I tilt my head, completely forget where we are, and disregard the crowd. It's us now. “You know, so much I haven't seen yet.” I glance at his glistening mouth.

“So…” He clears his throat, “Much, Louis.” I close my eyes, close the distance between us.

“I can't...wait to-”

“Get a room!!!” My eyes spring open, Harry pulls away, the moment is dead

I groan aloud, “Seriously!?” I snap, find Niall on the opposite side of the bar staring us down. “You creep. Get back to work!!” I run a hand down my face in frustration.

“I have successfully served my guests and now-” I chug my beer, slam the bottle on the counter.

“I’m empty. Get me another ," I demand. 

“Suuuuure!!” He stalks off in a flurry of fake blonde hair.

“So-” I turn to Harry and he's white faced. “What's wrong?” I touch his hand and he flinches . What happened!? “I thought we could you know continue where we left off?”

“In public...” He shakes his head, grips his chest, “It's not- I don't know.” 

“Don’t know what? Who cares! Remember the whole PDA thing I'm totally into?” I remind, “Yeah I wanna do that! With you.” 

“Oh.” 

“Yeah! Like all the time.” 

Harry frowns and turns away, “Oh.” 

“Um...so why can't we continue? I was ready, you were ready and might I add" -I nudge him-  “ into it.” 

He shakes his head, “I was-”

“You leaned into me," I inch towards him again. “Like that. Then!” I grip his linked fingers, feel his resistance. “You did this.” I graze his knees. “And if I'm not mistaken, H you wanted to kiss me.” 

“Maybe,” He glances at me, smirks, then looks back towards the ground.

“So come on," I plead. “Kiss me, kiss me, kiss me!”

“That's a good album,” He remarks.

“Huh?” I back away.

“The Cure. It's a great album. Although Seventeen Seconds is my favorite of theirs. Or Pornography.”

“Wait what-” I scratch my head.

“Here ya have it!” Niall places a fresh beer before me. 

“Ah…” I reluctantly turn towards my friend, “Thanks.” I sulk and take a sip feeling at a loss.

.

.

.

.

November 20.

Kiss me.

Kiss me.

Kiss me.

.

.

.

.

It ended up snowing but nothing snow day worthy. It became more of a headache if anything, a slushy disgusting mess that will linger for days on end. Ruby loved it though, she jumped around, rubbed her back all over the fresh powder coating the street and sidewalks. She appreciates it more than I do that's for sure.

“Come, girl,” I wave her back over. “Time for breakfast!” I say in a sing-song voice. She runs to my side panting, her tongue hanging loosely from her mouth. “Good girl!!” I grip her cheeks and kiss the tip of her nose. “So cute.” 

I clip her leash on and lead the way back home, step around the mounds of slush, and avoid getting my boots too wet, “Harry’s coming tonight.” I tell her as if she is able to understand me. “He's going to teach me how to cook and impress me with his awesome knife skills.” I open the door to the building, note the mailboxes against the wall. “He's going...” My voice trails off the moment my eyes find our names written in Stanley's careful handwriting. 

Damnit .

I touch the plaque with my fingertips, recollect the time we wrote it, remember how giggly and stupid we were because this was ours, our future, our lives. And it seems so long ago now, almost like it was part of another existence I already lived through, an existence where I was happily married.

And now that dream is gone.

Now I'm living a new life.

“I don't know.” I shake my head, walk to the stairs. “There's so much change.” I touch my leg where the envelope sits in my pocket. “But I'm on the right path with Harry. Dating him.” I trudge up the steps with Ruby a few paces ahead of me. “After tonight I'll fix the names.” We're on the second flight now. “Then, I'll probably pack away his clothes.” The tears are instant at the thought. Wow. “After all that” -I swipe my nose, reach for my keys- "I'll leave the letter home in a drawer, always within reach though, always close to me when I'm most vulnerable just in case. But it'll be home. I won't carry it anymore.” 

I unlock my door, pick up the towel I placed on the ground to dry off her paws. 

“Right?” My vision is blurry, “Does that sound good?” I kneel before her, reach for her leg and begin wiping the snow and lingering dirt away. “Okay, Ruby? Is that good?” She groans, shifts her weight impatiently. “I think so because it's baby steps. Just like your food bowl. And I know-” I hug her to my chest. “I know we'll be okay.” 

.

.

.

.

“So what's on the menu?”  I ask.

“Chicken roll up," Harry chuckles.

“Hardy har-har. Screw you. What else? Are you making the exact same thing you made me? Or is that the only thing you know how to make? Because that would be hilarious.” I pull at my too snug jeans, relieve the stiff denim that has since bunched. It was a decision I made on the fly earlier because I guess I'm trying to impress you still.

“Actually I'm cooking scallops with seafood risotto and lightly pan seared asparagus wrapped in bacon.” 

“Oh. Where do I come into play? You said I'm cooking yadda yadda and sort of forgot about me,” I say. “Am I just here for emotional support? Because I'm good with that too."

“You're stirring the risotto,” He confirms, empties the contents of the shopping bag.

“Okay!” I place my hands on my hips, “Oh wait a sec!” I approach Harry, lean heavily against the counter.

“What?” He looks to me. I pucker up, make a kissing noise, “Oh.” His face reddens, a small smile plays at his lips.

“Come here,” I motion with my hands.

“Sure.” 

I slide closer, “Can I touch your cheeks too?” 

“Why?” His question is genuine.

“I want to cup your face when I press our lips together.”

“Why?” He asks again. Uh...want me to spell it out for you?

“It's something you do...” I pause, “Like sometimes when you kiss someone you want to hold them close to show your passion, really show you're into it. Yeah show your interest.” 

“I see.”

“You never watched-”

“Porn?” He lifts a single eyebrow.

“Uh, no they're usually sloppy and sucking each other's faces off. But I meant to say romantic movies."

“No,” He frowns, rubs his palms. “I'm into science fiction and video games.”

“Huh!? Not one!? Ugh, Harry! You're killing me!” I throw my hands in the air. 

“I just avoided them.”

“Did they make you uncomfortable?” He shakes his head, starts to lay out the ingredients on the counter, “Then what? You thought they were cheesy? Corny? Annoying?”

Harry walks to the stove, pulls out a skillet and a sauce pan, "Unrealistic," He murmurs.

“What!? How!” 

“Those stories are usually sappy and stupid ," He spits the word.

“Ugh!! It's meant to be! It's meant to make you sick and pine and wish you fell in love in a movie! That's the point!”

“No it makes you feel sorry that you can't express the depth of love actors portray.”

“I don't believe that,” I shake my head. “You just haven't had the chance to experience it,” I approach him. “But you'll see. I'll change your mind.” I pinch his side.

“Hey!!” He swats me away but I'm holding my ground.

“Now kiss me,” I pucker my lips, stand on my tip toes to reach his mouth.

“Um…” He touches his chest, "Sure.” And I do as I said.

I cup his cheeks, lay the gentlest of kisses on his lips, appreciate his sigh as I do so. It's a whisper, it's featherlight, it's meant to be sweet, it's to prove him wrong.

Romance does exist. The kind you see in movies.

I'll show him.

.

.

.

.

Music is playing in the background on Harry's Bluetooth speaker. He wanted me to listen to The Cure so here we are, listening to The Cure , specifically Disintegration , their eighth studio album. It's not bad actually. I mean I wouldn't go out of my way to listen to them but it's good.

It's different.

It's totally Harry.

I totally have to shut up.

“Okay you have to ladle a small amount of stock into the risotto then stir. Once the rice absorbs all of the liquid, you add more.” He shows me once, “Got it?” His tone is direct.

“Yeah, yeah! Piece o’ cake!” I start ladling, and stirring, and inspecting, and splashing, and sort of make a mess. “Oops.”

“Louis, the goal is to keep the liquid inside the pot and off the cook top," He taunts.

“Sorry! I'm trying here,” Harry's sauteing the asparagus, humming along to the music, paying me no mind and that sort of pisses me off. “So cooking is fun .” I nudge him with my denim clad butt to capture his attention. “A whole lotta fun.”

“Are you being sarcastic?” He minces a shallot, adds salt and pepper to the pan along with oil. 

“No I'm legit having a good time,” I admit. “I was never allowed to cook with Stan.” 

“Because you're messy?” 

I peel my eyes away from Harry and note the splashes of stock on the stove, the floor just next to my socked feet, and the stains dotting my shirt, “Possibly.” I chuckle. “Or because he was afraid of getting distracted.”

“From what?”

“Me! Duh!!” I point to myself, “I'm being cute.” 

“Well you're always cute," He sounds distracted though.

“Oh the relief . Here I'm thinking you didn't even notice my adorable face.” I ladle in some more stock and stir away. "It's not easy, lemme tell you, being this..." 

But he's focused on searing the shallots and sprinkling lemon into the pan, seasoning the blanched vegetables, and essentially not interacting with me at all. Hmph . He's in deep concentration, his brows are furrowed, fingers working the cooking utensil and knife. It's sort of hot to see him in his element

But I want his eyes on me, fuck dinner. Look at me!!

“So after dinner I wanna play you one of the movements I'm performing," I say to cut through the silence and his humming.

He glances my way then back to the pan, “I'd like that a lot.”

“Okay good. I want you to be honest with me though, if you think I fucked up somewhere you gotta tell me. This is my first performance since I've switched majors so I'm probably a little rusty."

“Oh?” Harry gently wraps a piece of bacon around a few asparagus spears while simultaneously keeping his attention on the pan.

“Yeah and I'm really nervous you know? Like, if this sounds like shit I'm totally quitting for good! Well, except school of course. I'll still play for the chorus.”

“I'll critique you don't worry.”

“Alright good!” 

“Why did you switch?” He asks mindlessly.

“What's that?” I look over at him, admire his curls and soft features. He's back in his usual ratty sweatshirt and cuffed jeans. I don't mind actually.

“You were a performance major and now you're a teacher," His fingers are expertly working, almost mechanically. They just know what to do.

“Monetary reasons,” I confess. “Stanley feared I wouldn't find work and leech off of him."

He turns towards me, "What?" 

“No! I was joking, sort of," I stop stirring. "You see, he wanted me to have a good paying job because he was going to law school and pianists tend to have difficulty finding work or any musician really. So he told me , asked me rather, if I could switch since we'd need at least one income and I couldn't screw that up for him.”

His features remain impassive as usual, “That's probably the most selfless thing you could do. Sacrifice your passion for, you know, love.” 

Or someone else's dream. 

I recoil at the thought, “I suppose. It didn't feel that way when I did it though. I was a little confused at first because like why would he ask me to change my career path? Why would he feel it necessary? Why couldn't he put his trust in me and my skill to find something?” I turn away. "I didn't get it. But he loved me. So his intent wasn't malicious. He just wanted us to have a good life, a prosperous future, and comfort. So I thought of it more, weighed my options, spoke to my mother and Niall, got their input.”

“What did they say?” He removes the shallots from the heat, squeezes more lemon over the top.

“Too never give up,” I continue stirring the rice then. “To never let any obstacle deter me from achieving my goals, to see the future as an open door, to...never settle.” I wince.

“They didn't want you to marry Stanley," He deadpans. 

My cheeks flush, “No. They didn't. They thought I was ruining my future and all the work I put into it. And I suppose they're right. I should have said forget it, continued down my path, be on that stage where I was meant to be.” I shake my head. “But then he slipped the ring on my finger and that was it for me.” 

I caved.

I destroyed my dream for love.

“He gave you an ultimatum," Harry says thoughtfully.

“Huh?” I glance at him and he's situating the bacon wrapped asparagus on a baking sheet. “No way. He asked me to marry him. He didn't hold anything against me if I said no-”

“He did though. He really didn't give you much of a choice.”

“I don't see it like that.”

He places the tray in the oven, “He wanted you to change your major so he could attend law school, follow his dream, while you put your passion on hold. And if you said no, you wouldn't have ended up together, right?” He eyes me, wipes his hands on a dishtowel. 

My mouth props open, “I...uh…” My voice fails me. “Well I still don't...see it like that?” I say with uncertainty. 

“Then that's fine,” He concludes. “You understood Stan's intentions and that's all that matters.”

“Yeah! Yeah I did.” Right? 

Did I really?

Oh shit.

Did he just want my-

No. That's not possible.

“You have to add some cheese to that,” He points to the pot with a knife, pulls me from my warring thoughts. 

“Woah!!!” I refocus on our meal because that's the past. It wasn't like that with Stan and I. We loved each other. We were always meant to be together, “Watch your weapon .” But still...was my mother right? Was Niall right?

“Only add in a couple of tablespoons,” He warns, hands me the container of grated parmesan and I do as instructed.

“This looks delicious!!” I lick my lips.

“It should be,” He inspects my work. “Good job, Sous chef.”

“Thanks!” I spoon out a nice healthy portion, “Wanna have a taste?” I waggle my eyebrows.

“Yes,” He leans over but I pull it away the moment he sticks his tongue out. “Hey.” He frowns.

I put my finger up, “On one condition.” 

His face pales, “What's that?” 

“One bite for one kiss !” 

“Oh,” He touches his chest. “That's easy-”

With tongue ,” I finish.

“Sure.”

“Really!?” I hop up and down, “Yay! I'm cupping your cheeks.” I forewarn, place the spoon back in the pot.

“I…” He hesitates, “Yes.”

“Did you like it before?” He nods, “Good.” I touch his face, stand on my tip toes and pucker my lips. “Put your hands on my waist.”

“Oh, right,” He grazes my torso, wraps his arms around my back instead. “Like...that?”

“Uh-huh,” I fall into the touch, close my eyes at the sensation. “So perfect.” I admit.

“Is it?” I breathe in his scent, find a hint of coconut and a little bit of lemon.

“Yeah, H. It is. To me...this is-” 

I tilt my face up to meet his, gently tap his mouth and I'm instantly seeing stars. His lips are soft, unsure, tentative as they massage mine. But he's trying, he's breathing heavily, he's making this moment his own. And I can't take that away from him.

I lean into his touches, feel his fingers grip my t-shirt as if to contain his actions. But I want him to lose control . That's the point! I deepen the kiss, hold his face firm, and kiss and invade and pull at his lips and tongue and-

He shoves me into the counter then, startles me slightly because damn that was all him. Good get lost in it, don't think, don't worry!! He trails his fingers across my lower back, holds me steady, takes the lead and kisses me with the passion that I've missed, that I've craved, that I wished I never lost. But it's all right here. In this one moment.

A life altering moment. A life altering event. 

You let me in.

The oven beeps and even Harry hesitates to break away.

.

.

.

.

“That was… so good!!! ” I swipe a piece of bread across my plate to sop up any remaining goodness, shove it in my mouth and hum with satisfaction. "Woah."

“It was,” Harry sips from his seltzer.

“I think your mother will like it.”

“Me too.”

“So good I got my practice! When are we cooking for her?” I drop my napkin, face him. I touch his hand resting on his knee and he didn't even flinch !

“Soon. Anytime,” He shrugs. “She's home.” 

“Good,” I peck his cheek.

“Oh,” He chuckles. 

“What is it?” I trail my fingers up his forearm towards his bicep. 

“Just this,” He looks to me. “Everything about it.” His eyes are soft, his lips upturned, his cheeks flushed. 

“It's nice right? Like, it's becoming second nature?”

“It is actually,” He clears his throat. “Thank you.” 

“For what?”

His fingers are grazing mine, his palms running tentatively over my hands, “Believing in me.”

“I do, H. I always did but you need to believe in yourself too,” I say. “Like that's the missing piece.”

“Yes,” He nods, diverts his gaze. “I'm trying.”

“And that's what matters! You're not giving up! You can totally thank Yoda-"

“Play for me," He says. 

"Right now?"

"Please. Show me your skill."

"Afraid that I'm lying about it?" I joke.

"No, but I've waited and now it's time. Play for me."

“You're right. It is,” I stand up from the floor, stretch my arms above my head. 

He chuckles, "Cute tummy."

"What?" I touch my stomach, "You think it's cute?"

"Mmm, you're cute everywhere."

"Thanks. You didn't say anything about it when we were cooking though." I pout.

"I didn't want to burn anything. And you are a distraction especially in those jeans," He snorts. "It was difficult to hold my composure."

I smile cheekily, "Oh. You noticed?" 

"Yes," His green irises bore into me, soften as they take me in, "They're lovely and I wish you'd wear them again."

"For you? Anything."

"Thank you," He grins. "So what will you be playing for me exactly?"

“Clair de Lune from Suite Bergamasque. You've probably heard it before in fact most people have heard it before so it needs to be perfect,” I sit down before the piano, wring my hands, crack my knuckles. “I used this for my audition to get into MSM.”

“Really?” He stands besides me, rubs at his palms.

“Yeah,” I pat the bench. “It was.” I hand him the sheet music. “Here.” 

He takes a seat, “Don't you need it?” 

I tap my temple, “Memorized it years ago.” I face the keys. “I never forgot it either. I mean…” I start with a C scale. “I forgot some notes.” I continue to move across the keys, change key signatures, alter my rhythms without much thought. “But I picked it right back up again-"

“Wow,” Harry whispers.

“What?” I stop, glance at him.

“How do you do that?” He's astounded.

“Uh…” I face forward again, “Dunno. I just do. This is my warm-up.”

“That in itself sounds complicated.”

“Not really,” I say. “I've done this thousands of times. It's like second nature .” I continue on. “Anyway…” I close my eyes. “I want to play through it twice in it's entirety. Read the top line, my right hand, then the bottom line, my left hand and let me know if I missed anything. Okay? I mean you can read sheet music right? You don't just go by rote?”

“Yes.” 

“Perfect,” I stop again. “Thanks. Stanley was not musically inclined and couldn't help me. So I appreciate your input.”

“Anything for you,” He nudges me and I think my heart burst in my chest.

“I…” The words are stuck in my throat, “You…” I shake my head. “Really?”

“Yup,” He lays a gentle kiss on my cheek, tickles my skin with his eyelashes, lingers for a moment before releasing.

I gulp, “Oh.” 

“Oh? That's all?” He giggles, "You gave a typical Harry response."

“Yeah," I glance at him. "You've managed to leave me speechless once again.”

“There's a lot up my sleeve,” He says.

“Apparently,” I grin. “But uh…” I refocus. “Yeah so I'm gonna start so look at the music.” 

“Okay.” 

“Here it goes...ready?"

"I am."

I hit the first chord then, start the gentle melody I managed to seek solace from. It's a beautiful piece, probably one of the most memorable, the most iconic. It's difficult not to enjoy. That's why I chose it. I heard it, fell in love with it, and worked on it from when I was a teenager. I never tired of the melody either and probably played it more times then I care to remember. It just doesn't matter to me.

I love it .

I close my eyes, will my fingers to move across the keys, shut out the world, pretend I'm on that stage in front of hundreds- no, thousands of people as if I've always belonged there, as if it's where I'm meant to be. 

My body moves with the melody, my fingers extend to the keys and create the soft chords of the tune, my bare foot presses the peddle-

“Wait," Harry's voice cuts through the fantasy, reminds me that I am not on that stage, reminds me I probably made a shit mistake. 

I stop playing, suck in a deep breath, “What?” I swipe at my brow.

“You missed the F sharp.”

“Huh? Where?” I take the score from him, “What F sharp? I never-”

“That F sharp,” Harry points to the staff. “It's in the sixteenth note runs.” 

I'm staring at the page, reading each note individually because I never missed this, “No. Sorry H, you're wrong. It's not sharp, it's natural. F natural. Right here. The piece is written in D flat major ." My tone is clipped. I'm irritated that he could tell me I was wrong. In your dreams!!

“Yes, however the key signature changed three bars before. It's in the key of G,” He indicates. “Then changes back.”

“No,” I practically growl. “That's impossible .”

"It is because that's what the composer intended," He says, his tone even tempered.

“Ugh!! That's not what I meant!” I snap, “I memorized this piece I shouldn't miss anything . I never missed anything!”

“It's okay. Just maybe use the sheet-”

“No it's not!!” I lose my clarity, my control, my fucking mind even! “I lost focus!! I lost focus and now here I am single handedly fucking up the one thing that matters most!” I flare my nostrils, feel my cheeks redden from anger. "Ugh!! Where's my head!?"

“Louis-”

“You don't understand!" I point towards the music, gaze into his expressionless eyes, "This is what got me into college, this is what basically started it all! This was the reason for my love of music! And now-”

He rips the page from my grasp then, throws it to the floor, "Time out." 

“What are you doing!?” My lip is trembling, my eyes are threatening to release stupid tears, "I need that-"

“Look at me,” He takes my forearms, startles me into alertness, tugs me towards him. 

“I...wha-” 

He kisses me square on the mouth, sucks away the anger that managed to seep its way into my subconscious, alleviates me from my destructive thoughts and unwarranted anger. It's my cure. It's the relief I've sought after for months. It's my solace. And I can't begin to figure it out, fathom how he did it with just the touch of his lips because it's instantaneous.

It completes me.

You make me feel whole.

He releases my lips all too soon, grips my biceps with a ridiculously strong grasp I didn't know he possessed. And I'm stunned honestly.

“Better?” He whispers into the small space separating us.

“Um…” I blink my eyes open, find his face within inches from mine and a snippet of concern crosses his features.

“I deliberated hugging you, but you needed a kiss I think,” He lifts an unsteady hand, sucks in a breath as if he's about to touch a shard of glass. “You're all red.”

“I...I was-” He rests his palm against my stubbled cheek and my breath hitches, my stomach twists, my body breaks out with gooseflesh. W-woah . And he isn't fairing well either!! His eyes are blown, his mouth is ajar, his fingers are trembling as they rest heavily against my skin. He probably can't believe what he did!! And I'm still fucking speechless.

“How do you feel?” His voice is warm, like silk, so smooth. 

“W-well...well I'm” -I swallow- "good.” My voice is raspy. “I'm good.”

“You sure?” 

“Depends actually,” I manage. “If I say I'm not okay, will I get another kiss?”

“Any answer will result in me kissing you, Louis."

My insides melt, “Oh if that's the case…” 

“Well?” He urges.

“I'm alright. You sort of took it away, mollified my worry, just... just...I don't know how. I was so angered.”

“Why?” His thumb rubs along my cheek bone. 

“I fucked up. I hate fucking up especially when it comes to my playing. I've worked so hard, experienced too many sleepless nights, dealt with my aching back, and-” He leans in again, captures my lips, hums his satisfaction. 

I'm not accustomed to his forward behavior nor did I ever think he'd kiss me.

But I like it.

He pulls away, “What was that?” He speaks against my lips. 

I place my hands on his thighs, turn my body towards him, refrain from opening my eyes, “I...I practice until I'm basically falling asleep on the keys, play until I'm bleary-eyed-” 

He does it again !! 

He devours me whole, surpasses the gentleness, moves into dangerous territory where my libido takes over and guides my actions. My nails dig into his denim clad legs, my mouth sucks feverishly at his, my moans are unrestrained. I can't help it as he delves deeper into my senses. He's cupping both of my cheeks now, silencing my anger, kissing away the pain, placating my self deprecation. And he's wiping it away as if it never surfaced, as if it never existed.

Without much thought, I trail my palms up his thighs, inch towards his lower abdomen, open myself to him. He whines against my lips, explores my mouth with his tongue, kisses me and...sucks...and pulls...and my God I'm going to be so swollen when we're done.

He nips at my bottom lip, traps the oversensitized flesh between his teeth as if in response to my hands that have since slinked their way underneath his sweater. I guess he likes it. So I continue my ascent, trail my nails across his heated skin, feel his reaction in the form of a kiss or tug to my lips. My stomach flips over at the sensation, my fingers become numb, my body is calling to him...to move...to...to- 

I push his hands out of the way, straddle his hips without even asking for permission, and sort of thrust myself flush against his torso. His heart is pounding. His breathing is heavy. His hands are roaming every inch of my back. So I explore his. I slip my fingers underneath his sweater again, he mirrors my actions. It's surreal.

Is this happening?  

Is this the shy kid from the park?

He moans aloud suddenly and I swear the neighbors heard!! It's thrumming against my chest, pulsing it's way south through my abdomen, lands directly in my core. Those many, many months I've gone without any physical contact is revealing itself because I accidentally pulse my hips forward! And again…

And ugh!!!

Again?! 

He's unraveling it all, his exuberance is bringing me life, he's accepting my trust, he's seeping his way in and pushing out the anguish. It's all too much for me, a little overwhelming if I'm honest but maybe it's what I need. 

I run my hands towards his shoulders, move across his collar bone, inch my way to his chest- 

He grips my biceps suddenly, pushes our lips apart, and places a good foot between our mouths. 

I'm stunned. I'm shaking. I'm just a tad turned on. No big deal though . I smack into the keys, the sound jolting me awake.

“Um...uh well…I wasn't quite finished,” I say, my speech muddled from my swollen lips and tongue.

“Oh,” He pants.

“Yeah, see I was just getting into it. I mean not that I wasn't into it the entire time I was just really getting into it. Like to the point of no return getting into it.”

“Return from what?” 

“Uh...well…” I bite my lip, “You know…”

“I do?” I slide off his legs.

“I hope so,” I murmur, adjust my confining jeans. 

"I do."

.

.

.

.

“Holy shit,” I crawl into the bar on my hands and knees.

“What?” Liam is sitting at the counter with a beer pressed to his lips, “What happened? Why are you crawling?” I make my way over slowly, grip the stool to lift myself up off the floor. “What happened to your mouth?” 

“Well…” I remove my coat and flop down, “My-”

"And your neck!?"

“Dude. Did you get punched in the face?” Niall approaches then.

“Ugh…” I drop my head in my hands, “ No .”

“He was about to tell us,” Liam informs. “So go on then. We're waiting.”

“Well…” I puff my cheeks, “Remember the whole Harry's never been kissed-”

“I told you. The kid has urges," Niall interrupts.

I know he does, ” I lift my head.

“So why does your face look like that?” Liam points out.

“We made out for a solid two hours last night. My lips are on fire, the pads of my fingers are numb from running them across his skin, my tongue is like sandpaper,” I groan. “Guys, my face hurts!!” 

“Oh,” Liam sits back in his seat. “Well, that's fun-”

“It's incredible ,” My friend places a beer down for me. “I just…” I pick up the bottle and take a swig. “It wasn't ending you know? Like usually you kiss for like at most fifteen minutes then do other things but we never did! So we sucked each other's faces off until I was practically falling asleep in his arms.”

“That's actually adorable,” Liam admits.

“Not really. I went to bed blue balled and woke up with a serious case of morning wood. I haven't had morning wood since I was seventeen.”

“Well, you had Stan to take care of that,” Niall reminds.

“Now I'm going to bed with a loaded gun and it's no fun .”

“Just whack off then!” Liam suggests.

“I was too tired and it's not the same anymore. Now that I have someone, I want him to do it.”

“So then ask. What's the big deal?” Niall asks.

“He's never done anything. I'll have to show him," I groan. Ugh!!!

“This could work to your advantage," Liam says. “You can show him how you like it.” I chug my beer having nothing else to say. “Mold him!” 

“I pray he watched enough porn and whacks off on the regular.”

“What teenager hasn't?”

“Oh my God ,” I grimace. “You said the T word!!!” 

“What’s that?” Liam looks between us.

“Nine- teen, ” Niall accentuates. “Teenager. Technically Harry is a teenager still.”

“This is bad, this is awful, this is not good.” I shake my head.

“Oh, well maybe you should watch porn with him,” Liam sips at his own drink.

“Huh?” I glare at my friend, “ Why ? I'm not good enough to turn him on? Or maybe I'm not good enough in general!? What if I don't turn him on? What if he doesn't want to touch me!?”

“You were in a relationship, Lou. Do what you did before. It's not that difficult,” Niall says.

“But he's so nervous all the time I have to like ask permission before I do things or ensure I'm not crossing an invisible line.”

“You gotta make him confident then. Go slowly. Go at his speed.”

“Neil, if I go his speed, we'll be making out for years ,” I point to my crotch. “He doesn't put his hands near me .” 

“Then you do it!” Liam reiterates. “You're gonna have to take the lead on this one.”

“Yeah but he pushes me away when I touch his chest.”

“Well, his dick isn't in the same place as his chest. Reach for the goods,” Niall waggles his eyebrows.

“It's a good thing you paid attention in Anatomy and Physiology because wow , that's huge."

“Do it,” He points.

“Or what ?” I snap.

“You'll look like you've been in a couple of bar fights and lost miserably."

"It's not that bad ."

"It is," Niall points to my throat, "Looks like he forgot where your mouth was too. I guess he didn't pay attention in class either."

I swat his hand away, "Fuck off. He did that on purpose."

" Sure he did, Tommo. Sure," His tone is mocking.

"He did!!" I defend, "He wanted to kiss-"

"Dude, just admit he missed!"

"He didn't!!"

"He totally did."

"Did not!!"

"Did to!!"

"Here we go…" Liam drops his head in his hands.

"Did not!"

"Did to-"

Our friend slams his hands down, "Shut up!!!" Niall and I snap out of our rant. "You boys need to stop with your petty shit! It's getting old." He swipes at his mouth. 

"He started it!" I point to the annoying blonde behind the counter. 

Niall's face falls, "I did not!" He touches his chest. "I would never!"

"Yes you did!! You said-"

"Who cares ," Liam says, turns to me, "Just touch his dick Louis and stop it already." He points to Niall, "And quit egging him on! You're only making it worse."

"Whose side are you on?" Niall asks, as if his feelings were hurt.

"Mine," Liam finishes his beer. "My poor ears can't take your arguing. I need a break."

I pretend to cry, "Oh boo-hoo. Poor little baby."

"You're the worst. You seriously need to get your dick touched."

My eyes widen in horror, "As if!!"

"Yeah well, it's effecting your already short temper."

"It's not I just…" I groan, drop my head in my hands, "I want to be close to him."

Niall places a fresh beer in front of me, "I know. So pave the way my friend. Pave the way."

.

.

.

.

He tugs the guitar case higher onto his shoulder, walks a few paces ahead of me and into the hospital, "Ready?" He asks.

I catch up to him, "I am! I've been warming up my voice all morning, avoided dairy and chocolate last night, kept the chatter to a minimum." 

He waves to a guard behind the security desk, "Hello," He greets. 

"Hi, Harry. I heard the kids are already waiting for you upstairs," They say.

"Oh?" My boyfriend stops at the elevator bank, presses the call button with his knuckle, "I've got some new ones today." 

"That's wonderful. Something you've written on your own?" The man asks as the doors open.

"Yes and no," Harry smiles sheepishly, glances towards me then steps into the car. Huh!? I stare at him in disbelief.

"Have fun!" 

"Thank you."

I quickly follow him inside, "You write your own music!?" I question the moment we're alone. "You seriously-"

"Yes," His free hand is touching his chest, tapping away as if he's mentally practicing his tune or maybe he's just nervous .

I frown, "Oh." I slump into the wall, divert my gaze to my tattered sneakers. "Got it." I squash down my hurt, mask my disappointment. "Have you always done that?" I smash my toe into the floor to distract myself.

"It's more of a recent hobby."

"Oh."

The elevator pings, "We're here." He rushes from the confining space and heads down the hall.

"Right," I exit the car and trudge along after him, scuff my heels into the linoleum. He sings, plays guitar, writes his own music . What the fuck?! Why doesn't he tell me these things? Maybe I'm not asking the right questions . Maybe I have to be more engaging. Maybe he's afraid to open up?

Why is he so closed off? And even now?

"He's here!" A child's voice echoes down the hallway, stirs me from my thoughts. I hear Harry's soft chuckle, "Get in a circle!!" A kid sticks their head out from the doorway, a brown haired boy appears. "Hi!!" He waves and disappears from view.

I slow my pace.

"Louis," Harry turns towards me, "It's over here." He points.

"I know," I glance at him and he's stone faced, expressing his unease through his hands that are gripping at the guitar case. I can't figure it out . Why are you so nervous? Is it the song you wrote?

"They're waiting," He shifts his weight.

"I'll be there in a minute," I force a smile on my face. Do I make you this way? "Don't let me hold you back. Go in."

He hesitates, "Sure." He mumbles, takes a step in the opposite direction, but stops. "Everything okay?" He asks me from over his shoulder.

I take him in, search his eyes, "Yup. Go set up. Don't worry about me." No, I'm not alright. But that's for later .

"If you insist," He turns away and follows after the boy.

There's an eruption of laughter and giggles then, shouts of joy, and garbled greetings. They must really like him. And this is a treat for them I'm sure, an escape from their current situation because who knows how ill they really are or how long they've been here...or will be here.

I gasp, grip my ring finger. Fuck.

I press my back to the wall for stability, take in the children's ward before me, find handmade artwork adorning a colorful bulletin board against the opposite wall. It's winter themed, filled with cotton ball snow men, and snowflakes cut from white printer paper. They're covered in glitter and shimmer ever so slightly against the florescent light, capture your attention as you pass by. And it does. It reminds me of real snow. Snow they probably haven't touched in a while .

It makes me pause, gives me chills, fills me with such dread because this is absolutely devastating. I can't be here. I need to go home and cry I think .

The shouting dissipates then, the hallway devoid of sound with the exception of humming medical equipment and my heavy breathing. I take a step towards the elevator rather then the room, feel this sudden desire to leave. 

"I have...I have to go-"

Harry's smooth voice fills the space seconds after though, masks the discomfort I felt just now.

I expel a breath I didn't know I was holding, "Woah." The relief is instant too. Just like the kiss . I touch my chest. "Holy shit."

"You've heard this before," He begins to play. 

"Huh?"

"But, I have a few new ones for you too." He continues.

"What are they called?" A child asks. 

I scrounge up my courage and slide down the wall towards the room, take small calculated foot steps in the process. The tune takes shape now, the strumming of the guitar consumes the void and calms my aching heart. 

"I'll share eventually," A couple of the kids whine. "What?" 

"Tell us now!" One child demands.

"Patience," He's still playing, looping the song over and over, "I want you to be surprised." They whine again. "That's not very cute you know."

"What isn't?" A girl asks.

"Whining," He strums some more. "Makes you sound grouchy." He jests.

"No!!! It doesn't!"

"It does! You sound grouchy and mean and not cute ." He chuckles.

"I am cute!"

"You are, so no more whining okay?" I hear a sigh. "So today I want you to join me on the chorus. How does that sound?" He receives a few "yeahs" and "uh-huhs" a couple of "okay's" too. "Great." 

I round the corner and find him sitting on a small plastic chair, his legs bent upwards, his knees practically smashing into the guitar. It's almost comical but he's sitting eye to eye with them, sharing his passion, expressing himself through his music. It's beautiful. You're beautiful .

Harry starts the song again but this time adds vocals.

Here comes the sun...do-do-do

Here comes the sun

And I say, it's alright.  

His voice is powerful, a little raspy, warm. Confident too. He knows he sounds good. And I agree. He does!

"That's the line," He says to them, "When I nod my head, you join in, okay?" The children giggle, shift uncomfortably on the carpeted floor, shout a "yeah!!" in unison. "Let's practice." The kids sway with the melody. 

Little darling, it's been a long cold lonely winter

Little darling, it feels like years since it's been here

He nods and it's instant. The children follow his lead, sing the song along with him. They're out of tune, they're shouting the lines, they're having fun !! 

Here comes the sun, do-do-dooo

Here comes the sun, and I say

It's all right!

"Very good!" His expression is of genuine happiness, his body language relaxed, his aura welcoming. You've accomplished something, H. You have. "Let's keep going-" His eyes find mine and did his smile widen!? "S-so next verse."

I plop down on the ground next to a girl wearing a Batman cape and yellow knee-length socks. I mimic her and cross my legs too, immerse myself in the music and joy surrounding me.

Little darling, the smiles returning to the faces

Little darling, it seems like years since it's been here

He continues to sing, plays along, completely loses himself in the tune. It's the prettiest sound I've ever heard. 

He nods his head, so we all join in!

Here comes the sun, do-do-dooo!

Here comes the sun, and I say

It's all right!

I sway along with them, sing at the appropriate moments, chuckle, and forget life for a while. And he did that? He does this!?

The song ends and the children applaud, clap their hands together in a jerky motion.

A red headed boy in the front raises his hand, "What's next?"  He asks expectantly.

"The Magic Window," Harry says. He flexes his fingers and stretches his legs. 

"Oh," The boy's mouth forms an "o" shape as if in wonder. "It sounds magical." 

I chuckle into my hand at the inane comment. 

"Oh!" We collectively gasp, "Kids, I'd like for you to meet someone very dear to me." My heart jolts in my chest. Oh fuck. "Louis." Harry motions in my direction and every child turns their attention towards the shiny new toy . "He'll be joining us for...um, well you'll be seeing him more often." You will!?

"H-hi," I smirk crookedly, give a small half wave. 

"Wow," The little girl in the Batman cape is staring at my face in shock.

"What?" I ask, touch my cheek self-consciously.

And only then do I notice the small tube wrapped around her ears and resting on her cheeks. It's to help her breath. I think as I find two prongs in her nostrils and the tank strapped to her back like a backpack. Oh . The cape makes sense now

I see it all, finally take in their sickly pallors, gaunt features, and sunken cheeks, find some wearing surgical masks to protect them from germs and others wearing heavy flannel pajama bottoms to maintain their body temperature. I fight back my tears because this is difficult to take in. How does Harry do it? How do they do it!?

"You can be Robin," She takes my hand then, pulls me back into reality.

She's freezing cold.

"I can?" 

She gives me a light squeeze, "Yeah. You're small enough." Harry giggles.

"Huh!?" I look to him quickly then back to the girl, "I am not. I'm a tall man, very tall. I'm at least 5'9."

"Nope," She shakes her head. "You're perfect!!"

"Why not ask Harry?" I point to him with my thumb.

"Harry's too big and he already agreed to be Wonder Woman."

My lips tug into a smile, "Did he now?" 

"Uh-huh," She pulls me closer, whispers into my ear, although it really isn't a whisper. "He insisted on it actually. He said he'd look better in a skirt than spandex."

"I agree," I nod. "He'd look excellent in a dress."

"So, you're my Robin then. Next time you have to wear a green leotard and a red tunic."

"Yeah!" I find Harry's face again and he's watching our interaction, "I'll come fully dressed with a yellow cape and everything!"

"Really!?" She shrills, "And the eye mask!?"

"Of course!! And black liner too. I'll be completely incognito."

"Cool!!" The girl points to the boy who spoke earlier, the red head, "Hear that, Eddie? I have my Robin! And he's cute too!" 

I blush, "Well I wouldn't-"

"Yes, he is cute," Harry says and my face undoubtedly turned a shade darker. "And very talented."

"Really?" Another girl asks. She's wearing a Yankees baseball cap and a matching jersey with the number "2" on the back. The mask on her face is white and blue pinstriped.

"Yes," He's inspecting my face thoughtfully. "He plays the piano, teaches, talks about anything and everything, is optimistic, charming, a wonderful-"

"Friend?" A boy in the front asks. And Harry simply stares as if searching for the right word.

"Companion," He ends up saying. 

"Ooooh," Batgirl says, "He's a superhero too."

"I think," I squeeze my hand, "You're the real hero. In fact" -I look to all the children, find some in the back who are quieter than the few surrounding me- "you're all superheroes. Each and every one of you."

"We need capes!"

"A baseball player doesn't wear a cape, stupid!"

"Hey, now that isn't nice, Diana" Harry says to the girl with the cap. "Say you're sorry to Ed." 

She folds her arms in front of her, "Sorry, Ed." She mumbles.

"And what's your name?" I ask Batgirl .

"Olivia," She smiles up at me.

"Well, Olivia or should I say Batgirl , I'll be sure to have my superhero gear for next time."

"Okay! Leotard and all!?"

"Absolutely," Harry says and I nearly choke on my tongue. "He's got a spare someplace I'm sure."

"Possibly," I tap my chin because I actually may have something at home.

"Yay!!" She squeals.

"Okay! Everyone, our next song-" Harry attempts but the brown haired boy interjects.

"Will Louis-"

"His name is Robin , Jackson!!! Gosh!" Olivia corrects.

"No it's not!! It's Louis . Didn't you hear Harry before?" The boy has a patch over one eye and a pirate pajama top. He even has Captain Hooks' hook fitted over his hand.

"He's my side kick now! So it doesn't matter-"

"It's not his name-"

"Everyone listen up!" I call out as if I'm in class. The kids cease their bickering and turn my way, "Harry still has songs to play and if I'm not mistaken his time is limited so why don't we focus on him and listen? Maybe he'll play us his new song. And I really want to hear it because his voice is pretty. Do you agree?" They nod. "Exactly! So let's give him our undivided attention!" I glance at him and he's crimson, his eyes are wide, his features are expressing his fond. Finally . "Okay so H take the stage. It's all you." 

He shakes his head, "Sure." He clears his throat, repositions the guitar on his lap, pauses as if to compose himself. "S-so The Magic Window is my next song and trust me it's quite magical" -He strums the simple melody- "and special too because it's only for those who have an imagination and we all possess one of those, right?" The kids answer with their usual "yeahs" and "uh-huhs". "So remember, never lose sight of it, never lose that spark because then the secret window will disappear."

"Never lose hope," I whisper.

"Where does it take you?" A blonde haired girl in the back asks.

"Any place you've ever dreamed of, any adventure you've ever wished to experience, any far off land you felt was out of reach," He explains. "The Magic Window takes you there."

"How do you get there?" Diana asks. 

"Broomstick?" Another child asks.

"Can you fly!?" Olivia extends her arms above her head enthusiastically.

"Teleport?" Ed says next.

"Or maybe time travel?" Jackson asks.

"It's any of those," Harry concludes. "It's anything you want it to be." He glances towards me. "It's every wish, it's every hope, it's everything you could ever want." My breath hitches. "So remember, never forget your imagination."

"I won't!" 

"Never!"

"Life would be boring without it."

"It makes me smile!"

"Good," My boyfriend grins, "Me too."

He loops the tune once more and adds vocals this time around.

Someday you'll be looking through a magic window

And you'll see yourself sail off with Captain Kidd

What adventures you'll enjoy,

And you'll be the only girl and boy,

To discover where that treasure chest was hid

And if I remember that's what I once did

I remember looking through a magic window

And I saw myself teach Robinhood how to aim

And what mischief I got in meeting Huckleberry Fin

And I saw it through that magic window frame

You can bet your bottom dream you'd do the same

With your nose against the glass and your elbows on the sill

You'll be a big partner of Buffalo Bill

Or help solve a case with Sherlock Holmes

Or you'll get to go with Gulliver each time he roams

Grown ups don't know where to find that magic window

But as any window little boys and girls look through

There's so much to see so don't ever say to me

That you got a lot of growing up to do

Cause I wish I were growing down to you

.

.

.

.

"What was that last song you sang?" I ask as we make our way uptown.

"Hm?" His guitar case is smacking against his back as he walks.

"The last song. You didn't tell us the name and I wanna know it just as much as Ed does if not more ," I accentuate.

He's rubbing his palms fervently, "Th-that-"

"You wrote that one?" I pry.

"Um…" He bites his lip.

"Yeah?" I continue to probe.

He pauses, "I did."

"It was great."

"I suppose," His tone is neutral.

"Have you written any more? Like, is this something else you're keeping from me?" The words tumble from my mouth.

"Louis-"

"Because that's a punch to the gut you know?"

"I-"

"And I didn't wanna mention it earlier because that would damper the mood but H, it hurt my feelings okay? I won't hide my sadness or pretend I'm okay when I'm not. I was upset and was thinking about leaving-"

His eyes widen, " Leaving ? Leaving me?"

"I wanted to go home and sort through my emotions. Not leave you," I correct.

"Are you second guessing your feelings towards me?" He whispers.

"No, I was saddened about the children and...just confused as to why you aren't opening up to me on your own, why you withhold certain information," I admit. "I thought maybe I wasn't asking the right questions or not engaging you enough, that I was talking too much and taking that opportunity away from you."

"Oh," He continues to rub.

"Yeah. And even now I don't know what to ask you! Because writing music is sort of random I guess and usually not something you'd ask someone."

"I see."

"Yuh...and um why not tell me you know?"

"I didn't want to frighten you."

"How? How is song writing frightening? Why would I think-"

He dips his head lower, slumps his shoulders, "I wrote it about you, for you ."

My breath hitches, "That's…oh." 

"I was petrified of your reaction because who writes a song about someone?"

"A lot of people do actually," I murmur.

"I am hardly able to engage in a conversation yet I spill my heart out through song lyrics, confess how I'm half a person when you're not around, that you've essentially taken my pain away with your presence."

"But that's just it. That's how you do it. That's how you express yourself. Why is that wrong?"

"Because I just want to say it!" I'm startled from his outburst and uncharacteristic behavior, "I want to be open and tell you how I feel all the time and kiss you and hug you and touch your cheek and be a proper (nice) boyfriend."

"The only obstacle in your way is you, H. You're the one holding yourself back because you insist on not believing in yourself or trusting others!"

"I'm trying so hard-" 

I grip his bicep, stop him in his tracks. He tenses but obliges anyway, "Then touch me. Right now." I demand, take in his side profile.

"B-but we're-"

"I don't care . Hug me. Kiss me. Show all of these strangers how much you feel inside! Test your strength. Lose your control! Don't worry about germs ."

"But what if-" 

I release my grip, "What? What's the problem? What could I possibly do? Or what could happen? You're already exposed to my germs. Are you embarrassed to be seen with me in public? Is that it?"

He shakes his head, "No! If anything you should be embarrassed of me and my weirdness, my ratty sweatshirts and Velcro sneakers."

"But I'm not and I don't give two flying fucks about these people or what they think. I care about your feelings and your mental health. I care about you !" I point at him, jab him in the stomach.

He recoils, glances my way, "I'm just…so scared?" 

"Don't be. I sound like a broken record but you need it drilled into your head."

"I know."

"Until you believe it right?"

"Yes," He sighs.

I approach him, come within inches of his body but refrain from touching him, "So put your arms around me because I need it. I need you. I need your warmth."

"I'm…" He drops his hands.

"Please?"

"You're not afraid though?" He asks.

"Of what?"

"The song?"

"The untitled song?"

"Yes."

"No, H. No in fact I feel incredibly honored. I feel closer to you. I feel as if we've overcome so much together and that means the world to me. That song was beautiful, the lyrics heartfelt, the meaning behind it something I'll hold onto forever. It's timeless."

"You- you really think so?" His uncertainty is palpable.

"Of course. And I know one day you'll open up about your scars. But, I can't rush it from you. I know in time you'll tell me about it."

"I...plan on it. When the time is right."

"I'm ready when you are."

"Thank you."

"You're welcome," I bump our hands together, eventually wrap my fingers around his.

"If I Could Fly," His grip is firm.

"If I could fly I'd be in Bora Bora right now with a drink in my hand but I'm not a real superhero so I'm here freezing my ass off instead," I sulk.

"You're a hero to Olivia," We continue walking.

"No I'm not. You're the real hero and them too. They're fighters, champions, my idols!"

He touches his chest, "Louis, you can be theirs too."

"I suppose," I shrug. "Maybe I wanna be me and pray it's enough."

"It is."

"So then I'll let you guys take the title because I can't live up to their expectations."

"Why?" 

I look to him, "Because, I break down, I can be vulnerable sometimes and that's not something a hero is."

"Remember, we all have an Achilles heel."

"I know that but I don't want the kids to see it. They need someone strong, they need to idolize a person who can maintain a tough exterior, someone who doesn't expose their weaknesses as easily," I say. "They need you."

"No."

"No? You're perfect!"

"I am not a good hero, idol, whatever. I am the last person they should look up to or strive to be."

"Because you're so weird ," I roll my eyes.

"The weirdest, introverted, germaphobe."

"Ugh!! Harry!"

"What?"

"Just…" I puff my cheeks, "Nothing. It's nothing."

"If I Could Fly-"

"Are we going to get into the hero discussion again? Because I'd rather not."

"That's the name of the song, Louis."

"Oh! Oh really? Not For Your Eyes Only ?" I ask.

"No."

"Got it. Well, H. I want you to play it for me again," I demand.

"As long as you play for me too," He squeezes his fingers.

"I will. In fact I need to get my ass in gear. So come, let's go home. I need to practice that F sharp ."

He giggles, "You like saying that."

I find his face and he's smiling, "Getting my ass in gear? Yah because I need to haul ass! And so do you!" I jab his bicep.

He flinches, swats my hand away, "Wait, what?" His eyes find mine.

"Your portfolio. And don't tell me not to ask about it because I am. I'm your companion right? Companions care about this sort of thing including your success. So I'm hoping-"

"I'll take pictures. I know exactly what my plan is."

"Well gee!! Only took you how many months?"

"A few but I had to find it."

"And you did?"

"Yes. I found you."

.

.

.

.

We're kissing and searching and nipping and sucking and moaning and gasping and-

My hands sink into his luscious curls, my fingertips grip at the soft hairs on his head, my little fantasies of me groping him between the legs play out in my mind. The need to take it to the point of no return is gnawing at my will power and control. But it's difficult now. It's even more of a tease because we're in this. This is happening. We are making out and making progress and just...Ugh!!! Show him. I have to show him!

I release one hand, tickle down his bicep and forearm, avoid his chest and stomach all together because I'm still not completely sure what triggers him. It's a slow process but I eventually make my way to the inseem of his jeans. He sucks harshly on my bottom lip, quivers at the unexpected movement, grips at my t-shirt for stability (?!). 

He feels it. Absolutely. He's fully aware of my intentions.

So I inch further up his thigh, take my sweet time, kiss with my mouth and swipe with my tongue, sigh contentedly as this opportunity presents itself. I have to do it. I'm nearly there and he's a mess. His excitement is palpable, his once calm demeanor and actions are now frenzied and sloppy. Is he falling apart?

I am able to hear his breaths rushing from his nostrils, can feel the tugging at my lips, sense the desire radiating off of him as I approach the center of his legs. It's my invitation to touch him so I do it. I go against my better judgement and cup him gently without asking. And he doesn't miss a beat. He cowers into my mouth, thrusts his hips forward, wraps his arms around my torso with such strength he nearly forces the oxygen from my lungs! 

His grip is fierce too, starving even, and it's a hunger that cannot be sated unless properly stroked . And it's evident his workout regime is paying off because he can break me in two if he felt like it. Note to self. Never piss him off.

I move to his throat, suck at his skin, listen to the sweet sounds he makes as I explore uncharted territory. But he doesn't seem to mind and he isn't pushing me away! So I press my palm into him, allow his voice to fill my ears and consume my senses, stroke him through the denim, kiss delicately at his neck. 

It's perfect.

He cries out into the darkened room, pulses his hips, pulls on the cotton of my shirt. He's gonna...he is going to climax! I move my hand along his length, suck at his skin, nip at the unblemished flesh. I have to do this! 

And I'll probably ruin his jeans and boxers, probably embarrass him in front of his driver but I don't care!! He has to open the door for me, he has to give in, he has to feel-

“Oh!!” He throws his head back into the couch, whines his pleasure, and slumps into the sofa.

.

.

.

.

“L-Louis?” 

“Hmm?” He's resting his head against my shoulder, his hands are knotted in his lap.

“Thank you.”

“For what?” I run my fingers through his curls, stare at the television as the game plays out, pet Ruby who happens to be on my other side sleeping.

“For- for you know cleaning my soiled boxers.” 

I snort, “Of course, H. It was my pleasure.” I kiss the top of his head. “Couldn’t let you walk out of here with dirty boxers when I have a washer and dryer. Plus it was sort of my fault anyway.” 

“Was I okay?”

“Mmhmm,” I sit back into the sofa feeling a sense of tranquility. Home . “You were perfect. Your lips are glorious, your hands are lovely and delicate, your whimpers are adorable. Who would have thought you'd be such an animal?” 

He gasps, “Animal?” He lifts his head.

“Oh yeah,” I nod, look him in the eye. “Harry, you're a beast. But the good kind. The kind you want to be in bed.”

“I do snore. I suppose that could be considered beastly.” 

“Ha!!” I touch his cheek, kiss him on the tip of his nose, “No, slick. A beast in bed means you're loud, a little rough, wild.”

“Wild?” He turns away. 

“It's a good thing trust me. You want to be wild at least sometimes. It's a turn on.”

“Did it…” His palms rub furiously together, “Do I... you know turn you on still?”

“Yup,” I admit. “Don't worry.”

“Okay.”

“I didn't go too far right?” I ask.

“No,” He shakes his head, releases his fingers, and rests his head on my shoulder again. “It was fine.”

“Okay good. Now I know for next time.”

“I can't wait for next time.”

“Me either.”

.

.

.

.

November 10.

What do I say?

How do I say it?

How do I spill my heart out to him?

Chapter Text

STUPID DEEP, The Playlist

I tug at the small rectangular piece of paper, slide it free from the plastic slot on the face of the mailbox. It releases with ease, remains in tact.

"That was easy," I look down at the discolored paper, run my finger across the letters, and I nearly lose it right here because he wrote it. This was his handwriting. 

Oh God. 

Tears pool in my eyes, "You wrote this against the wall in the hallway. You used my favorite blue pen. We couldn't stop laughing and smiling and-"

No! 

No, not here. Don't do it!! Wait just a few minutes

I reach into my pocket, pull the new name tag free, the tag with just my name on it, the tag I scribbled on in the exact same spot in the hallway.

"Right," I sniffle back my tears that are threatening to spill over again, concentrate on the task to the best of my ability. "Almost." My fingers get in the way though, crinkle the card and bend the corners. It looks messy, it looks rushed, it looks like I never wanted to do this in the first place because I shouldn't have had to.

"Ugh whatever," I rub at my nose, take a step back to admire my awful work. "It looks lonely." I conclude. "Maybe I should have written a little bigger. Or maybe I'm subconsciously saving space for a future someone. Maybe I'm- no !"  

I turn away and dart upstairs before I rip it off completely.

Stupid. I think. How could I even think for a second that Harry's name could fit next to mine? How could I leave so much space in the first place? I groan. It's my stupid imagination. It looks incomplete now.

I push open the door and Ruby's sitting in her bed.

"Hi girl," I reach in my pocket, pull out the small paper. "See? Just like we've talked about." I place it on the entryway table for now. "Step one complete." I kick off my sneakers and make my way to the kitchen. "Want a-"

But I don't get very far.

In fact I stumble into the wall, lose my footing as my knees buckle, nearly collapse to the ground because it hurts . My chest aches, my heart is breaking, my soul is tearing itself into shreds. 

I smash the heel of my palms into my eye sockets, release the sob I managed to contain, and cry until my insides hurt.

.

.

.

.

"Hey," Niall answers on the second ring.

I swipe my eyes, "C-can you come over?" My voice is weak and thick with sorrow. "Are you home? Are you back from your parents' place?"

"Yeah, I'm home. I'll come right over."

"Like, right away? Right now? Right-" I choke on my words.

"Yeah, give me a few minutes. I'll be right there, okay?" My best friend insists, provides me the assurance I know my heart needs.

I sob, "I can't-" 

"Everything will be fine . Hold on a second and I'll be there as soon as possible."

"Please?" I continue to beg.

"Absolutely. I'm hanging up now though because I need both hands."

I snivle, "H-huh?" 

"I'm on the toilet."

"Gross."

.

.

.

.

"He called it an ultimatum," I grip a pillow to my chest.

"What was?" Niall asks.

I scrunch my eyes closed, avoid my friend's reaction as I state the truth, "Stanley asked me to switch majors after he proposed to me. If I said no, he wouldn't have married me."

"Harry said that?"

"Maybe?" I say with uncertainty.

"It's a simple yes or no-"

"Yes," I blurt, blink my eyes open to find Niall deep in thought.

"He's right," He shrugs as if that's the only conclusion.

"Harry's right!?" I grip my fringe resting on my forehead. "You mean-"

"Yup. He nailed it on the head actually."

"Oh God. I really- Niall I fucked up didn't I? Niall!! I- what did I do!?"

He throws his hands out, his eyes widen, "Nothing! You didn't fuck up! How could you say that?" 

"I-"

He tugs my arm and I release the death grip on my hair, "Let's just say you said no, you wouldn't have gotten married! You wouldn't have all of your memories, your highs and lows, your life experiences, your job!!" 

"B-but I'd be playing and he... Stanley would be alive," I sob. "He would be on this Earth living and breathing-"

"It's fate, Lou."

"I don't believe in that nonsense! I never have, never will because it's never been on my side. I've always had to face shit alone. Fate can suck my dick ," I spit.

Niall expels a deep breath, "That's lovely."

"It's the truth!" 

"You don't know what could have happened if you said no."

My eyes leak more tears, "Stanley would be alive."

"Maybe it was his time to go. Maybe it was inevitable. Maybe he was never meant to be in your life always."

"That hurts. That hurts badly because it should have been me. I should have been pinned underneath that car not him ! It was my fault, Niall. It was all me. I was drunk, I was stupid, I was the reason."

"He did that of his own free will. You didn't pull him along or push him into on coming traffic. He acted on instinct, without hesitation, put you first above himself! So what does that tell you?"

"That I'm a selfish bastard for getting drunk and not controlling myself."

"No! Stan did what he did because he loved you. It wasn't your fault!" My friend repeats but it doesn't matter. It doesn't change the truth.

If anything it makes me feel worse about myself.

"I should have declined. I should have turned him away. I should have allowed him to leave ," I weep into the pillow, soak through the fabric.

"But you didn't! You did what you felt was right at the time and that's something you can't beat yourself up over. It's the past, okay? You have to focus on your future."

"It's difficult to when I feel so much guilt," I touch my chest. "So much guilt and it doesn't get any easier."

"Listen to me," Niall grips my shoulders, looks me straight in the eye. "I know you feel sorry still and I know it'll take time for you to accept it but you can't live like this anymore."

"I can't live any other way," I admit. "I'm incapable of putting this behind me. Every time I make the slightest change it'll remind me of my faults, it'll bring back the memories of that night and every single fucking detail of his face. It's too much to bear," I drop my head in my hands.

"What happened?" Niall asks, places his hand on my back, "What change are you referring to?"

"The mailbox," I whisper.

"Huh? What about it?"

"The name, Niall. I changed the plaque. It only says...Louis."

"That's a big step."

"It's not though. It was the smallest hurdle. Imagine how I'll be when I donate his clothes?"

Niall sighs, "You'll need Harry here for that one."

"And have him witness me break down?" I shake my head, "Absolutely not."

"He's the best one to have here when you do."

I point to him, "You are. You're the one who's been through it all. You know me!" I attempt to convince him and myself because I can't be this dependent on Harry. I can't!

"But he's the only one who is able to calm you down. And I think he should be here, right now. He has to witness it. He has to understand your pain. If this is you on a good day, then it's best to ease him into it. Have him understand-"

"What if I scare him off? What if he leaves me!?" I cry, "I can't lose him and he'll walk away, he'll leave like Stanley left me, I'll be alone! I can't be alone!!" My face is soaked with tears. "And then it'll be it for me, I'll be miserable all over again, I'll be sleeping on your floor, I'll be crying every waking second of every day, I'll be at Stanley's grave bawling my eyes out wishing I were dead too because I can't take the emptiness in my chest!"

He grips my shoulders, forces me to lift my head and meet his eyes, "Call him." He says. "Call Harry. Don't wait. You don't have to do this alone."

"I'm...I-" I hiccup, "He'll be scared. He'll walk away-"

"He won't. Trust him. Trust that he'll be the shoulder you can cry on and the person you are able to talk to, the boyfriend who can kiss your pain away," His voice is soft, therapeutic even. 

"C-can you hug me?" I snivle, "Will you think that's weird?"

"Nope, I've hugged you plenty. But I'm telling you, it's not the comfort you need."

"Please? Humor me? Convince me you're right?"

"Sure," He nods.

And we do hug.

It's two best friends hugging. It's a friend holding another friend who needs saving. It's a man holding his childhood friend who just can't cope with loss. It's a friend holding a friend.

It's not enough.

.

.

.

.

"Hey, Ruby," He closes the door. "Where's Daddy?" I suck my bottom lip between my teeth, apply enough pressure to stave off the ache in my chest. "Louis?" He calls from the entryway. "Where are you?"

I swipe my nose, "Here." I croak from the bedroom.

His rushed foot falls echo down the hallway, "Louis. What's wrong?" He approaches, removes his coat, reveals his faded hoodie, and throws it across the mattress. "Were you crying?" He works on his sneakers next, peels back the Velcro, and carefully places them in the corner.

"Am still," I tug the sleeves of my sweater over my hands, tuck my legs to my chest.

"Why?" He sits at the foot of the bed, reaches over and touches my forearm. 

"I- I did something today," My head is pounding suddenly.

"What was that?" He retracts his hand.

I wince from the discomfort, "It was a life changing moment," I glance at him and his expression is impassive.

"I see," But his palms are rubbing feverishly now.

"And, it hurt a lot."

"Why?" His tone remains neutral.

I reach into my sweatshirt pocket, pull the piece of paper free but keep it concealed, "It stirred these emotions within me, released the sorrow I usually keep buried. I had to call Niall it got so bad."

He hunches his shoulders, continues to rub his palms, "Of course ." He comments, his tone piqued.

I ignore his annoyance and continue, to justify my actions, "I called him because he's seen it all. He can usually talk me out of it, offer his support, give advice," I grip the paper. "He couldn't this time though."

"Why?"

"I've changed," I crumple it out of anger. " Everything. Has. Changed. "

"How so?"

"I needed you," I confess, feel the dampness on my cheeks.

His palms cease their movements, "I see."

"I didn't wanna seem childish or whiney or scare you away by saying it either. I was afraid, uncertain."

He starts up again, "Do you think I am unable to handle it?"

"I can be bad. I breakdown. I lose myself for a bit. And you only saw the tip of the iceberg the other night. That was nothing compared to what I've done or what I'm capable of doing."

"Oh."

"That's why I called Niall because he doesn't freak out," I swipe at my eyes, "I know for sure he'll be okay and therefore I'll be okay too. But H, I wasn't." I gaze at him and he's staring at the floor, his curls masking most of his features.

"I see," He mumbles.

"It felt wrong and he knew it too."

"What?" 

"You should have been here."

His hands stop again, "I am."

"And I'm grateful for it too."

"I want to be."

"Yeah-"

"Because I know exactly what it is you need," His eyes find mine then, his beautiful green irises that are now shrouded in worry.

I swallow back a sob, "Y-you do?"

"Yes," He nods once.

"What's that?" He scoots closer to me, extends his arms out. "But I'm covered in tears." I forewarn, place my hands in front of me.

He remains adamant, "I don't care. I'd kiss them away if I had to," He pulls me to him then without another word.

And at first it's awkward, at first he isn't quite sure how to manage the angle, at first I think he's going to immediately pull away, but he rests his arms firmly around my torso and holds me close instead.

I slink my arms under his, rest my face in the crook of his neck and collar bone, knot my fingers around his back. And it's heaven. It's exactly what I've spoken to him about, it's the hug to end all hugs.

It's the relief I needed.

I cry into his hoodie without care, feel my body shudder from these sobs I'm unable to contain, release every last bit of sadness still residing within me. It's practically instant too. The closure. The freedom. The ability to breathe without my heart aching. I feel okay.

I'm going to be okay.  

His grip is firm too, his movements full of purpose, his intent clear. And he isn't shaking or expressing his concern either. It's like he was meant to do this, to comfort me, to hold me. He just rubs the length of my back, supports my weight easily in his hold, nearly pulls me into his lap. It's perfect.

"How are you now?" He asks after a moment or two.

"Shitty," I confess. "But better than I was."

"How long have you been like this?" He whispers.

"Since the morning," I give him a light squeeze.

"It's almost 7pm, Louis," He touches the back of my head, runs his fingers through my cropped hair.

I close my eyes, "Yup." I turn my face into his hoodie, sniff at the collar. No coconut?

"It's Thanksgiving and you were alone like this all day," His tone is clipped, his anger evident. I probably bothered him . But his touches tell me otherwise.

"Are you mad that I called you?" I sob.

"No!" He releases me then, holds me at an arms length, reveals his downturned lips and bloodshot eyes.

I tear up all over again, "Then-"

"You were alone, Louis," He's upset I just know it!

"Pathetic isn't it?"

He shakes his head, "You didn't call me sooner and you needed comfort." 

"I...I did-"

"So why not reach out to me this morning? Why did you wait?"

My vision blurs, "I- I didn't want…" I rub at my face. "I was r-really bad."

His fingers dig into my skin, "I don't care how bad you were. I would have come as soon as I was able to."

"What if it scared you though? What if I scared you?" My bottom lip trembles 

"You wouldn't. It doesn't - none of this instills fear within me. I've been-" He clamps his mouth shut, hesitates, "I understand your pain more than you know. And I was stupid too at one time and didn't ask for help when I needed it most." 

"You felt pain?" There's a crack in his facade. I saw it. It was instant, but I laid witness to it.

"A lot. All the time," He turns away. "That's for another time but Louis, don't hold out on me, okay? If you need something, anything at all I'm here for you. You're my companion, my dick-" I snort, "-my cottage in the woods, my boyfriend." Butterflies flutter to life in my abdomen. "And when you're crumbling I want to hold you up, I want to be there for you, hold you."

I knit my eyebrows, "I'm...you-"

"Please don't forget that too because you could have felt relief hours ago."

"I know. I'm sorry-"

"Don't apologize, just call me next time," He glances at my eyes then lips then my eyes again. "Now hug me." He demands and smashes me to his chest.

.

.

.

.

"What did you do exactly?" We're lying on my bed facing the ceiling.

"I decided to change the mailbox plaque. The piece of paper that sort of started it all," I release the crumbled and now tattered paper. It lands between us. "And now it's corrected. Now it only displays my name. Now I'm breaking apart and I can't stop it," My cheeks tickle with tears. "It's so stupid right? Like I can't even-" 

"It's not stupid," His voice is soft. "Or pathetic."

"Yes it is," I shiver.

"What you did was difficult."

"Not really. It's like changing over the water bill or the cellphone account. I had to do that and it wasn't nearly as crippling."

"Louis, you said it yourself that's what started it all and it had a lasting impression on you."

"It…" I turn towards him, tuck my hands beneath a pillow, "It had." 

He glances back, "So stop acting like it was nothing."

"Yes, boss."

"I'm serious. You're so hard on yourself whenever it comes to your husband. And I wish you weren't. You believe everything was your fault when in reality it's not the case."

"It's because I'm still alive and he isn't." 

He touches his chest, "It was an accident, Louis."

"An awful accident that could have been easily avoided if I wasn't so fucking-" 

He places his finger to my lips, "Do not complete that thought."

I search his eyes, "It's true-"

"Louis, stop. You're doing it again."

"And I'll continue to-"

"You constantly remind me how I have to believe in myself and put my trust in others. So here I am doing the same thing, telling you to stop berating yourself."

"Ugh…" I plant my face into the pillow, "I hate when I get like this."

"Me too. You're boring."

I snort, "Gee! Thanks."

"You are. You're boring when you're in a self deprecating mood."

"Sorry. And I'm taking you away from your family," I talk into the bedding.

"It's fine. We ate hours ago."

I lift my head, peer over at him, "What did you do?" I ask to change the subject.

"Watched the parade from my living room window, played the new Spiderman game which by the way, it's excellent, edited my photos for my portfolio-" My heart stammers in my chest. You have to win . "-ate dinner with my parents."

"No family came over?"

"No," He sighs. "Just us. It's sort of a tradition." He turns back over, folds his arms behind his head. The hem of his sweatshirt lifts, exposes the waistband of his faded jeans.

"What tradition is that?" I ask.

"We don't spend the holidays with anyone. It's only us."

"On purpose?" I probe.

He releases his hands, grips his palms, "It was…" 

"Hey, no need for that right? You've got me," I extend my hand towards him.

"I know," He closes his eyes. "But I need it for now."

"Oh," I shrink back into my hoodie. 

"Then I'll hold you," He finishes his thought.

I smile. I actually smile , "I'd like that I think."

"You think?"

"Harry, tell me about your tradition," I remind.

"Right," He stares at the ceiling, rubs his palms. "It was a custom we started when I was little since my father worked all the time."

"That's it?"

"Yes, for the most part," He drops his arms.

"That's cute," I continue to watch him. "I thought you were going to say it was because you hated your family. I mean I get it. Family can be overwhelming. But they're great once in a while."

Harry turns over, reaches over towards me, "No hatred."

"Got it," His fingers encircle my arm. "Yeah?" I search his eyes and there's something buried there. It's what I saw earlier. Is it still worry? Or anger?

"Are you better?" He asks gently. What is it?

I nod, "Yeah, the hug always does it for me."

"Why not hug Niall then?" His lip tugs into a crooked grin.

"We tried and he's not you, H. You possess a different comfort."

His eyes soften, "Oh."

"And now I know you should have been here when I decided to do it," I shuffle closer to him, watch his body tense. "When I clean out the closet, can you help me?" He nods. "I think that'll bring me balance."

"Anything you need," His hand is resting on the bed between us now.

"Perfect. I'll let you know when I decide to do it."

"Sure," He bites at his lip. "Louis?"

"Yeah?" I reach for him.

"Why did you change the mailbox? Why are you emptying out Stanley's clothes?"

I grip his fingers, pull them towards me and press his palm to my chest, "Because of you."

.

.

.

.

"Louis?"

I'm stirred awake, "Mmm?" I mumble into the pillow.

"Louis, I have to leave."

"Wh-why?"

"You need to rest now."

"No I don't. I need…" Desire swells in my abdomen then, a gnawing hunger I can't ignore anymore, "I need you."

"You fell asleep."

"I'm awake now," I reach out for him. "Harry?"

"Yes?"

"I need you," I repeat earnestly.

He inhales sharply, "You said that."

"I don't want you to go," I plead.

"I have-"

" No !" My eyes spring open and his face is right there and so close. He's so close and within reach. "Harry." I moan.

"What?" He whispers.

I thrust my hips, "Kiss me."

"Now? But Louis you need-"

"Yes, right now. Take it away, take it all away, please?" I cup his cheeks, feel his teeth clench.

His eyes flutter closed anyway, "But you're grieving."

"Not anymore. I feel different. I feel normal. I feel as if there's finally a way out," I pull his face close. "And I don't wanna be in pain anymore."

"I- I know, the feeling," He's leaning over me, resting on his elbow. 

"If you know what I'm going through, why deny me?" 

He blinks his eyes open, "We're in your- this probably isn't the best idea." The room is dark but the flush in his cheeks is unmistakable.

"What's a bad idea?" I release his face, lie on my back. 

He looks away, touches his chest, "We're in your bed." 

"I know," I lick my lips in anticipation.

"And I don't…" He sits up, crosses his legs, "Maybe I should-"

I reach for his arm and he flinches, "Come back here." I practically beg. "And kiss me."

He rubs his palms, "It's-"

"An excellent idea. Get over here," I pull him towards me and surprisingly he doesn't resist, lies next to me and rests his head on my pillow. I brush a stray curl off his forehead. "I didn't smell coconut earlier. What happened?" I ask.

He blinks lazily, "I was in a rush to come over and didn't have time to put any on."

"Oh," I run my thumb across his cheek, move from his temple to his chin then back up again. 

"Sorry. I know how much you enjoy it."

"I do. But I enjoy you more," I grin. "I enjoy everything about you actually."

"Mmm."

"You said I'm your cottage in the woods," I whisper.

"You are," He reaches out to me too, touches my lips the way he did those few weeks ago. 

"I like that because it means you're giving me your trust, letting me in, not fearing my... cooties ," I giggle.

He joins in, "I happen to like your cooties."

"That's a good thing," I drop my hand. "Because then you won't be grossed out when I rub at my snotty nose or not wash my hands after I use-"

He shakes his head, "No, that's disgusting. Still. Will always be."

"Alright, alright. Calm down. I was kidding , okay? Don't get your panties in a bind."

"I enjoy everything else though," His fingers press into my lips. 

"What is that?" I ask dreamily.

"Your touch, your breath, your taste, your skin."

My heart begins to pound in my chest, "My skin?"

"It's delectable, soft, warm. I like to touch it."

"You can, any time," I remind. "It's yours, right?"

He snorts, "I suppose it is."

"You forgot my ass."

"Yes your ass is nice and round. "

"Ah, that it is!" 

His smile fades, "Everything about you is perfect though."

"I'm no where near perfect, H. I have many flaws and today proved just that. That's my biggest fault but-"

"No," He drops his hand. "It's not a fault. The way you reacted just means you're sentimental in nature and that very piece of paper held important memories."

"It's paper, Harry not something substantial."

"Then tell me, what is substantial to you?" 

I shrug, "Not something as meaningless as that."

"So, like a memory then?"

"Yeah," I say. "A memory. Those are valuable."

"And that paper held a memory, has value, no?"

My cheeks redden as the thought of my envelope comes to mind, "It's so sad ." I instinctively touch my leg. 

"I don't think so. It's important to you, holds a connection to your husband, was what started it all. Right?"

"I suppose. But now it's faded and wrinkled," I grimace.

"It won't change what's up here," He taps my head.

"Yeah I guess," I puff my cheeks. "I sort of associate a birthday card or a gift to be something you'd want to hold onto not a name tag for your mailbox. Does that make sense?"

He inches closer, "It does. But the memory made it special."

"It did," I say. "It did have both of our names and it was in his hand writing. He hastily wrote it in the hallway against the wall when we first moved in. It wasn't planned. It wasn't forced. It just happened," My eyes widen as I come to a realization, "That's why you like candid photos!"

"Uh-huh," He grins. "Exactly."

"Makes sense."

"Yes."

"You're sentimental too."

"I am. Very much so."

"I can tell, now. It's all coming full circle," I sigh. "See? You're not weird."

"Well, that's still up for debate."

I inch towards him then, leave mere inches between us, "Right now, H, you've never been more normal. This is you and damn I'm so lucky."

He blushes, "Me too. You were patient, you didn't leave."

"There was something about you…" I glance at his mouth, "You possess an underlying charm that drew me in and I admit it was instant. From that very first encounter. I couldn't back away even if I tried. And even now" -I swallow- "I can't resist you."

"Don't then," He's sounds certain.

"I'm not. Never again,"

"Okay," His voice is just audible.

"Okay, so I'm gonna kiss you now."

He gulps, "About time." 

I touch his smooth cheek, "Shush you." I inch towards him, pucker my lips. 

"Mmm," He mumbles and closes the distance between us.

And it was sweet.

In the beginning.

In the beginning we touched softly, held one another, used our finger tips to guide us. It's how a kiss should be, how it should start: maintaining a semblance of control, enjoying every motion of our lips and bodies, humming our satisfaction. And he was perfect. His mouth was hot, his taste delicious against my tongue, his movements slight but purposeful. I enjoy the simplicity, the tenderness, the care. It's what leaves you begging for more.

But I thrusted my hips forward in a moment of weakness. I held him close, I released the desire pooling underneath my skin. And that's when it lost the innocence, that's when we both moved past the adorable kisses and gentle fondling, that's how we ended up panting and clawing at each other's bodies as if our lives depended on it.

That's how I managed to remove his sweatshirt.

He's wearing a fitted black t-shirt though, a shirt that sits at the base of his neck, a shirt that clings to his slim torso. It's tugged up past his tummy from his hoodie, exposes the label of his boxers peaking through the waistband of his jeans. 

Close enough.

He captures my lips, slinks his fingers underneath my own sweatshirt, urges me to remove it too. But I'm bare. I think as he runs his hands up my abdomen, towards my chest. 

I squirm from the unexpected touch, sigh into his mouth, thrust my hips into him again. I can't help it, I'm lost, I'm far gone, I'm at the point of no return!! 

So I use as much strength as I am able to tug his larger frame on top of me.

He practically flops down onto my chest and stomach then, loses his momentum entirely from the motion, and knocks our teeth together.

But he picks up where we left off, sucks at my lips and tongue, scrapes at my skin, doesn't miss a beat because he's lying between my legs and grinding down into me with such precision I may explode in my pants! He's strong too, much stronger than I anticipated, far more adventurous than I thought especially with the way he's moving against me. I am unable to contain anything !!

He releases my mouth with a smack, works off my hoodie in a frenzy, exposes my naked torso and heaving chest. I'm gasping, licking at my mouth, seeing triple as my brain struggles to keep up. I swipe at my sweated forehead, choke on the air in my lungs, chew on my already sore lips. Woah

I gaze up at him, brace myself on the bed, await his next move as I attempt to recover.

His eyes are wide, starving practically as he takes me in. He's inspecting every inch, dip, curve, literally drinking me in, reveling in...I guess my chest. And it's both hot and exhilarating because he's enjoying this. He's enjoying me and he's not hiding anything.

He cups my stubbled cheeks then, smashes our lips together, and pulls feverishly at my mouth. I groan aloud, fight his forward momentum in his hips to give us a bit of friction, pray I am able to keep up with him.

I slide my hands down towards the waistband of his jeans, trail my finger in an enticing manner. He reacts with his hands, clutches at my face, pulses his hips too. 

I'm a complete mess!

I grip his denim, blindly reach for his zipper to get things moving because I don't know how much more my lips can handle. I shake him away, grip fiercely at his button and fly. 

"Wh-what-" He pants.

I pause, "Do you trust me?" I find his eyes in the darkness and his pupils are two black pits.

"I'm…" He lifts his hips, nods. "Yes. I do."

I release the button, "Okay." I find his mouth again and kiss him back as my fingers work the zipper open. He's panting, he's forcing his breath into my lungs, his excitement is coursing through his veins! 

I pull him towards me so we're flush against each other, loop my arm around his neck to hold him close. My hand inches down the inside of his jeans, travels south until I reach the junction of his thighs.

"Oh!" He whimpers against my lips. But I silence him with my mouth, grope him between the legs, and my libido is gone . I'm going to explode right here! And he's the one being pleasured!

Ugh I need to let loose.

I stroke him, savor in his whines and groans, pulse my hips forward, kiss him silly! That's right!! Let it go! He's shivering from head to toe as I work him, jolting his leg as I move from base to tip and back again, sucking in a breath as my hips move. 

He won't last! I just know it! 

I continue with these simple moves, maybe show him how it's done even though I'm sure he knows how to properly whack off. 

"Ah!!" His voice draws me back to the moment, "L-Louis!" He stutters. My arm is exhausted, my hips tiring from the forward momentum, my lips are burning!!! I find his face and his eyes are closed, his mouth is ajar and expelling the prettiest whimpers I've ever heard. He sounds so dainty- " Oh !" He shouts, throws his head back, and climaxes on my hand.

.

.

.

.

"I watched you sleep," His head is resting on my chest, his arm crossing over my torso, his leg draping across my knees. 

"Yeah?" I'm lazily stroking his hair, struggling to keep my eyes open. 

"I couldn't stop either," He mumbles. "You look so beautiful when you sleep."

"I'm probably a lot quieter too."

"You were crying actually," He turns his face into my chest, breaths me in. Woah

I swipe at my eye, "Probably."

"You were," He kisses my skin and my body shivers from head to toe.

I tug at his hair, "I told you it's bad."

"I never doubted it or you. I'm stating a fact."

"Thanks for the reminder," I frown.

He lifts his head, "I will remind you so then maybe next time you won't wait so long to call me." He glowers then lays his head back down.

My breath hitches, "I didn't mean to-"

"You called Niall instead of me," He reminds.

I puff my cheeks, "I explained why I did."

"It doesn't matter."

"In this case it does. I called him because he's helped me in the past. He's been there at my lowest, at my worst, he supported me when no one else was around. It was instinctual."

"Things have changed," His tone is neutral once again, but his hand is gripping at the sheets. "You have someone to rely on all the time." He takes a fistful of the bedding into his grasp.

"Harry-"

" Louis ," He snaps, lifts himself up and away from me in one swift motion.

My mouth props open, my grogginess gone to the wind, "Wait what's going on right now?" 

"I'm expressing myself," He's rubbing at his palms.

"Expressing how? Why? What's the matter?"

"You called your best friend instead of me," He growls.

"I did and I can't change that. So what do you want from me?" 

"To call me first ," He's losing his frosty exterior, revealing the jealousy underneath. Oh . "To think of me first. To let me speak to you and hug you first ." His words are cutting, direct, a warning

I recoil from his tone, "I...I um-"

"Promise me?" He's pleading now. Huh? "Promise me you'll remember me? Not wait hours later until you're so hurt you are hardly able to hold it together?" His shoulders hunch. "Because it took everything in me to not tear apart with you." I'm stunned into silence at his confession. "Seeing you so weak and sad. It really seeped its way in."

I rub at my cheeks, "I'm sorry." I approach him, touch his shoulder. "I didn't mean-"

He turns on me and his face is beat red, his eyes bloodshot. He's fighting back his tears and losing. I think, "Let me help you." 

I nod once and pull him in for a hug.

.

.

.

.

“Hold steady."

I thrust my arms out as I loose balance, “I’m trying .” I whine. “This isn't easy.” My feet are inching forward one after the other, scraping across the ice with an ineligent, jerky motion. I haven't done this at all , like not once, not ever , and here I am making a complete ass out of myself because Harry just insisted we ice skate .

“And you call me the klutz…” He murmurs, skates literal circles around me as if to taunt me.

“You are, on dry land. And everywhere else that's not ice ."

He motions towards my legs, "You're doing it wrong-"

“Ahh!!” My right foot slips out from under me, sends me backwards onto my ass. I'm spread eagle on the ice with a dull ache radiating in my lower back. “Ugh!!” I stare up at the domed ceiling, ignore the children giggling at my expense I'm sure. “Little shits.” 

“Hey,” Harry pokes his head into my field of vision, waves. He's sporting a cheeky grin. 

“Shuddup,” I snap. 

“Need help?” He circles around towards my right hand.

“Watch out!!! You'll run your fat foot over my fingers and I need my fingers!” I sit up, “Damnit.” I turn over onto my hands and knees.

“You've got it,” He wraps his arms around my waist.

“Do I!?” He lifts me up, hugs me close to his chest, “Because right now I can't even-” I twist away from him to escape his embrace but collapse to the ground instead. “Seriously!?” I cry, kick my legs out. “What the fuck -"

“Shush!!” He scolds, “Don't curse.” He extends his gloved hand.

“Hmph!!” I ignore his help and grip the guard rail instead, “No thanks .” I lift myself, carefully tuck my legs beneath my butt.

“You've got this,” He encourages. "Be right back."

My feet slide into place and soon I'm back on unsteady feet. "Let's see how long I last this time," I murmur and slowly make my way around the curve.

Harry's sailing across the ice, zig zagging between packs of teenagers and children, showing off essentially.  

“Figures.” 

He catches a little girl who lost her footing too, twirls her about, and situates her back on her feet. She squeals with elation, claps her hands, reaches for him again for another ride. I almost feel warm and fuzzy on the inside. Almost.

"Show off," I snap and refocus on my uncoordinated moves. “I've got this. I know it.” I puff my cheeks, release from the wall and continue on my way... barely. "This is the last time he convinces me to do this. The last.

“Hey!” Harry flies by with a wave.

“Prick," I shuffle down the ice. “I think I've got the hang of it finally." I glide my left foot forward, then my right...then left…

Right.

Left.

Right.

Left!!

“Yay!” I cheer myself on, “Go me!!” 

A couple skates by then, followed by another group of teenagers, followed by children, followed by an elderly couple, followed by every damn person on this ice rink because I haven't gone around once!

“I suck at this,” I look around for Harry but he's no where in sight. “Figures. I probably embarrassed him.” More skaters pass by and more and more!! “Why!!” I cry. “And where's my-” I move my right leg forward too far, compromise my already shitty balance, lose my momentum completely! “Jesus!” I flail my arms out and fall backwards towards the ice, towards another bruise, towards another-

" Jesus ," He catches me just in time, encircles my waist, and hugs me back into his chest. I rest my head in the crook of his neck and shoulder, close my eyes. “Just like Halloween.” Harry whispers into my ear.

I transfer my weight over to him, "Yeah?"

“Yes," He gives me a squeeze. "I never forgot it either."

“Why?” He places me back on my feet, turns me around, holds me steady in his grasp .

His lips tug into a smile, “I made you excited.”

"Gotta rub salt in the wound, eh?" 

“It's fine. I became excited too," He takes my hand.

I grin, "Really now? I made you hard?"

"Louis, you were in skintight pants, practically shirtless, and wearing make-up. Of course I did," He guides us away from the wall.

"Oh," I keep my feet steady. "You liked my make-up?" I question.

"Before you smudged it across your face, yes. You looked good," He mumbles, turns away to hide his expression. "A little rough around the edges too, gothic, hot." 

"Oh! Really !?" I squeeze his hand, "What else did you think?"

"That's all," He glances towards me then straight ahead.

"Are you sure?" I joke, "Does Harry have a little secret he's afraid to share?"

"Shush or I'll push you towards the center of the rink and leave you to fend for yourself."

I blow him a raspberry, "You wouldn't dare!" 

"Wouldn't I?" He warns.

My eyes widen, "N-no?" I shrink back. "I mean I don't know? I didn't think-"

He chuckles, "No, I wouldn't." He tugs me towards him, kisses my cheek. 

I sigh in relief, “Thanks because my sexy, round ass hurts. I don't wanna fall anymore. Can we maybe call it quits so I can go home and ice it?”

“One more time around then we can leave," He takes my hand. “I'll be right here.”

“Harry I don't-” I slip once more, sail forward and smack into him. My ear presses into his chest, my body reacts to the steady rhythm of his heart beating into my soul. Home . My subconscious screams. It's home. You're home. Don't leave. Don't let go! I quiver from head to toe, loop my arms around his neck. Harry is home.

He lifts me away.

I'm off kilter, I'm confused, I'm lost.

"I uh…" I shake my head, touch my temple, squint past the fogginess. That was weird. 

"Are you okay?"

"Yeah! Um…" I bite my lip, "Yeah I'm fine." I lie. "I'm sorry. I know you don't like me touching your chest and that was totally accidental and I hope you'll forgive me-"

He squeezes his hands, “It's fine, Louis.” 

“I know you don't like it when I touch your stomach- chest- some place in this” -I gesture towards his torso- "area and I really don't want you to fear me or my touch or anything for that matter,” I ramble. “I want you to be comfortable and happy and smiley and adorable and-” He tugs me to him and kisses my lips gently, pulls once, twice, silences my brain, and releases. “Oh.” I squeak.

“It's fine,” He whispers. “There's extra layers.” He takes my hand.

“Got it...extra layers,” I repeat. “It's a nice coat by the way.” I take in the black knee length peacoat. “The jeans too. I suppose you have designated a fancy date clothes section in your walk-in closet?”

“I don't have a walk in closet," His fingers tighten their hold as we glide over the ice. 

“But you do have-”

“Velcro sneakers and ratty sweatshirts are appropriate for home activities.”

“They're not good for any activity if you ask me,” I confirm.

“And I do have a few articles of clothing I like to wear on date nights such as this.”

“Any particular reason?” I glance up at him and he's eyeing the crowd. 

“To impress you."

“Oh! To impress the boyfriend I see-”

“The same reason you do too.” 

“Um...yeah,” I nod. “Yeah, H I wanna look nice for you. It's nice to do once in a while you know? This especially.” I motion towards the ice. “This entire night actually. It's cheesy but it's still fun.”

“Even bruising your butt?”

“Well, no. That sucks and embarrasses me but you enjoy it so I'll take one for the team. I'll look like the fool while you skate around like a damn pro.”

“I'm not a pro.”

“Uh...yeah you are! I saw you twirl that little girl around, saw the way your legs moved gracefully. You have some serious skills.”

“My dad taught me when I was little. He wanted me to play ice hockey eventually. Or maybe just get exercise I don't know,” He looks towards the ice. “But it was fun, freeing.”

“Oh. Did you stop?” I look to him again.

“I had to-” He bites his lip, shakes his head. 

“Had to? Why? What happened? Did you fall and hurt yourself- Oh!!" My right foot slips out from under me and I land square on my ass. “Ahh!” I cry, flail my arms about. “Now can we leave ?” I pout.

He chuckles, “Yes.” He extends his hand.

.

.

.

.

“Stanley and I never did that,” I put the key in the lock. “I suppose it wasn't important to me? Who knows. I guess I was too busy practicing.”

“Oh,” I turn the lock, open the door and Ruby is there!

“We’re back!!” I pet her head, greet her as best I can until she practically tackles Harry.

“Hey Ruby!” He says.  

“I need that ice, stat ,” I shed my coat and scarf, place them on a hook, kick off my boots. “I hope I don't bruise-” He's on top of me in an instant, seeks out my lips, and grips my waist. And it's all so quick, so unexpected, so fucking hot I can't even contain my excitement!

Woah...woah!!!  

I recover from the shock and follow his lead, savor in his little moans of pleasure, and fall into him as my legs give out. This is...this is incredible!! 

I tug on his coat next, unbutton the buttons, rip off his scarf, expose his shirt. I thrust my hips into him, wrap my arms around his neck, open myself for him to take. 

He pushes me against the entryway table, swipes at my mouth, moves his fingers gingerly across the waist band of my jeans as if on a mission, as if he's...had this planned out. He runs his fingers along the belt, finds the buckle, and tugs at it to release the clasp. Oh God...oh God!? Is this happening!?   

He pulls the belt free, continues to kiss me silly, uses his mouth to distract me from what his hands are doing...his long...slender fingers that are undoing my button and pulling down my zipper!? I whine into his mouth, tighten my hold around his neck, practically jump his bones right here!!

He shoves my jeans down, reveals my excitement, takes hold of my erection-

I break away from his lips then, pant against his mouth, lose all feeling in my legs because the rush is so powerful, the arousal something I haven't felt in almost two years, the need!! Oh my the need is choking me half to death. And I'll totally climax in no time! He's stroking me. He's touching me. He's waiting to- 

He sinks to his knees!!

“Wh-what...what-” I grip the table behind me, throw my head back the second his warm mouth circles around my length. I cry out my pleasure, dig my nails into the wood of the table, support my weight on wobbly legs. He's going at it, moving with precision, sucking...and sucking...and ugh!! It's beautiful. It's incredible. It's fucking with my brain! 

I can't think, I can hardly breathe, I can barely see straight because he did this on his own, he felt confident enough to move ahead, he doesn't fear my touches or lips or germs...or anything!! He wants this.

His mouth is hot, his tongue magical to my senses, his hands skilled as he grips me between the legs. I can't believe it, I can't contain anything !! My knees buckle, my back arches off the table, my arousal is reaching its peak...I'm going to-

“H-Harry.” I choke. “I can't-” He pinches my inner thigh, moans against me, pulls harder as if to silence me. I'm going to release in your mouth!! I want to warn him. I can't hold it anymore!!  

He places both hands on my butt, pinches each cheek individually, drives me further into his mouth!! 

“Oh... man ,” My words are garbled, my brain is failing to think past releasing. It's all I need...it's what I- He pulls my body towards him, chokes himself on my excitement, and I let go. 

.

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.

.

"Okay so I have these leggings," I pull a hanger off the rod, step back into my bedroom. Harry's sitting on the bed with an impish grin plastered on his face, lying back resting on his elbows. He looks too pleased with himself, too smug. I'll get you back, don't worry . "I wore them when I dressed as Peter Pan." I discard them onto the bed.

"Oh."

"I need a red top, right?" I ask him and he shrugs, "Can you look it up? I wanna get this right. Olivia is expecting Robin so I wanna give her Robin." I walk into my closet, flick through the hangers and assortment of costumes I have hung in the back. "I ordered a cape and mask already so that's- oh!" I find a red waffle thermal. "This could work!" I pull that off too.

Harry giggles.

"What?" I poke my head out from between the clothes.

His face is red, his lips still tugged into a smile , "Robin wears Daisy Duke style shorts, Louis." 

My face falls, "Huh? I thought it was tights?" I hurry over to him.

"Look for yourself," He hands me his phone and sure enough!

"Crap," I frown. "This is going to be tough." I puff my cheeks.

"You'll make it work."

"Yeah I can cut the leggings and cuff the bottom," I inspect the photo closely. "I'll have to cut the red shirt too, make it sleeveless" -I point to the picture- "and find a green t-shirt which I'm certain I have!" I throw the phone onto the bed and head back into the closet to continue my search. "This is going to be great! Do you have your Wonder Woman costume?" 

"Had it for months actually," His voice carries.

"Seriously!?" I'm flicking the hangers mindlessly.

"Yes, seriously ."

"Why didn't you wear it sooner ?" 

"I felt foolish."

"Huh!? Why? Dressing up is so much fun!"

"I don't expect you to understand."

I frown, whisper more to myself, "Well if you explained better than maybe I could ." I find Stanley's Kiss Me I'm Irish shirt. 

"What?" Harry calls out.

"Nothing," I tug it off the hanger, stumble back over to him. "Here," I hold it out.

"You're Irish?" He asks. He's sitting up now, watching me closely.

"Well, on Saint Patty's Day, everyone is! It was Stan's."

"I see," He grips his palms but immediately releases them.

"Yeah it's a fun day. The entire city becomes a sea of green!"

"I never celebrated," He admits.

"Why not? I mean you live on the parade route! How could you not-"

"I'm not Irish," He shrugs. 

"You don't have to be, slick. It's meant to be fun! You drink and eat corned beef and cabbage and drink some more and maybe too much," I snort. "I've had my fair share of hangovers." I wince. "One year I had to perform hungover for my professor and holy shit was it awful. I nearly vomited all over the piano!"

"I don't drink," He says shamefully.

"I know, I know. But it doesn't mean you can't go out and have a good time."

"Whatever," His shoulders slump.

I frown, "Uh...yeah so my costume!" I pick up the leggings. "I can cut these absolutely. I won't wear them again so it doesn't matter."

"You don't plan on being Peter Pan in the future?" He asks, his voice hushed. 

"Nope, I never wear a costume twice," I recall the event, remember the night as clear as day. "It was in college actually when I wore it. We had a party in the dorm and Stanley was Tinkerbell!"

Harry's eyes widen, "Seriously?"

"Yeah!! Everyone was certain I'd show up as the chick! But nope, Stanley surprised them all. He wore the blonde wig, flimsy dress, and pom-poms on his shoes," I giggle. "It was hysterical! Niall was Captain Hook and Liam was Wendy!!" I keel over in uncontrollable laughter. "It was hilarious . Liam shaved his legs and under his arms too!! He went all out! We all did." I recover, find Harry and he's more saddened than he was just before. "It was a fun night." 

"I bet," He responds, his tone like ice.

I feel defeated, "You never did that?" I ask.

He shakes his head, "No."

"Well let's change that," I say with bravado to encourage him, to maybe lift his spirits. "Let's do it for the children. Let's make their day." I approach him, sit next to him on the bed. "Okay?" I touch his linked hands, slip my fingers in. 

He sighs, "Sure." He sounds anything but sure .

"Harry, what's wrong?" I probe.

"Nothing."

"You're lying," I scoot closer, kiss his exposed cheek. "What's really bothering you?"

"I don't live," He whispers.

"What do you mean? You're living now, you're in college, you're young, you're going to win that contest and travel! Harry you have it all."

He shakes his head, "No, I don't."

"Then what is it? What's stopping you?"

He expels a deep breath, " Stopped me."

"What? Stopped? Who? Is it your father?"

"He was…" He pulls away from me. 

"It's the reason why you never traveled right? The reason why you can't drink?"

"Louis-"

"Tell me?" I plead, "What is it? What troubled you? What held you back? What still haunts you?" 

He squirms, "It's…" He starts to tremble, so I drape my arm across his shoulders.

"It's okay. It's just us. I'm here for you."

His forehead is glistening, "It's difficult for me to explain."

"It never is but think how much better you'll feel when you do. Think of the weight that'll be lifted off your shoulders, the relief"

"I don't-" He shakes his head. "Maybe?" 

"Trust me."

"I do." 

"So what's wrong?"

"It's...it's what-" He pauses, bites at his lip. He's lost in thought.

"Harry, you're doing exactly what I did, exactly what you told me not to do, allowing your pain to fester. You're hurting, burying it deep within yourself, you're struggling!" I pull him closer, "Harry please? I've waited, I've been so patient, I've been standing by the sidelines praying you'd finally give me that chance to play. And here we are, and it's the perfect opportunity. I'm all ears, even Ruby" -I point to her sleeping form on the bed- "We want to see you happy, especially me. I want you happy ."

He scrunches his eyes closed, takes two deep breaths, "You're right," He agrees eventually. "I have to let this go. I have to tell you."

"Do it for yourself, okay? I'm just here to listen or give a hug if necessary."

"I know."

"So then-"

He turns to me, looks me straight in the eye, "Promise me you won't be afraid? Promise me that you won't look at me differently?"

"Never," I confirm without hesitation. "My feelings for you are here" -I touch my chest- "so don't worry. I won't walk away."

"I…" He grips his palms, "Okay." He reluctantly agrees. "Okay, Louis. For you." 

"And you."

"Right," He tugs at his collar, "Right…" He gnaws at his lip.

I'm witnessing the struggle, witnessing him make probably one of the biggest decisions and I feel for him. I do. I know how difficult that first step can be, "Harry-"

"I wasn't always like this you know," He rushes out suddenly.

"Huh?" He caught me off guard, "Like what?"

"Weird. Closed off. Awkward."

"Oh."

"Yes, it developed overtime. My attitude changed. My outlook on life was destroyed basically."

"That bad?" He isn't looking my way but I'm giving him my undivided attention anyway.

"It was. And it sounds dramatic but it's the truth of it," He says. "I did normal things a child should do, played outside, ate junky food, even spent time with my dad before his promotion. Actually he taught me how to ice skate when I was seven years old, brought me to the very ice rink we went to tonight. And I loved it. He loved it too. It was something we did together. It was something I was good at." He finally reaches for my hand, "And, I was okay for a long time. We thought I would be okay. So I continued my lessons, attended school, made friends, lived a good life for the most part.

"But it all changed when I collapsed on the playground at recess. I was running around with my classmates, having fun, laughing when my chest started" -he places my hand over his heart- "to burn. It was excruciating, all consuming, I couldn't think or breathe. I was afraid because it never hurt that bad. My parents rushed me to the hospital after that incident, spoke to the cardiologist who treated me since birth, basically confirmed our worst fear, well my biggest fear. My congenital heart disease was worsening.

"So I took things easy, ate healthy, was concious of my actions, completely transformed myself," He cusses under his breath, "But it didn't help. That moment on the playground proved I was wrong, that I cannot heal on my own. That day on the playground was only the start." I swipe at my eye, clamp my mouth shut. "That's when my hands and toes started to turn blue from poor circulation, I suffered from shortness of breath, my abdomen and legs would swell" -He gasps- "I couldn't play or be a regular kid in fear of infection because one small germ would send me back to the hospital and that couldn't happen. In fact I refused to let it happen.

"So I eventually started homeschooling, confined myself to my bedroom, picked up videogames and a guitar, found photography to be a means to see the outside world from a safe distance. I believed in myself that I would do it. I was certain I could pretend when I felt a little off, refused to show my discomfort or cry or display any sort of emotion because I knew it would be easier faking it than being hooked up to a machine." His palms begin to sweat. "But it didn't matter . Nothing could prevent the inevitable." He stops, drops my hand, allows it to fall to his lap. "Nothing would change the fact that I…" He takes a deep breath, "I felt ill again one night but this time it was worse than the playground.

"My body couldn't take in oxygen, my lungs were starving for air, my veins clotted with deoxygenated blood. I was certain I was going to die," His voice is just above a whisper. "And I wasn't ready yet. I was afraid. I was alone . And what other choice did I have? I was brought to the hospital and remained there until I…" His fingers work open the buttons on his shirt. "I was in the children's ward for two years, sang to the younger kids who needed cheering up, eventually got moved to another unit at the hospital when I turned sixteen." He removes the button down, is left now with only a flimsy undershirt. 

"Moved?" I manage but I'm speechless otherwise.

"Yes, I was there for so long as my condition was volatile, my wellness uncertain. I was a ticking time bomb essentially. No one knew including the doctors. It was only a matter of time before I would succumb to my illness if action wasn't taken. If... something wasn't replaced," He grips the hem of his shirt, yanks it over his head revealing a vertical scar, a red scar extending from below his throat past his chest to just above his stomach. 

My eyes widen at the realization, "What…"

"In the end I needed a transplant," He confesses, his expression unreadable. "That was the only solution to my illness. Medication alone wouldn't repair my deformed heart, the fear of suffering from a stroke was too great, the uncertainty even more frightening. So I waited some more, waited for the day that a match would come along, waited until my hope was dried up and lost for good." He clenches the shirt in his grasp. "My father got promoted at work, used that excuse to avoid coming day in and day out, my mother ended up becoming a volunteer at the hospital to be close by. We celebrated every holiday by my bed just the three of us, made it a tradition which we still do to this day. Even my stupid birthday. We'd invite all the children, I'd sing to them or at least try to at that point since my breath support was poor, they'd make the best of it but I didn't care. I shut down already.

"Ultimately, I thought I was going to die in that hospital, begged my parents to let me go home and be in my own bed because I couldn't lose my life there. It was torturous, cold and lifeless even with the celebrations. I felt empty."

I gasp, the tears in my eyes well, my body calls out for him, to hold him, to comfort him. "Oh." The coconut oil was for scarring not to smell pretty.

"But the unimaginable happened, Louis. My match came, the call was made, the-" He drops his head in his hands, inhales a few quivering breaths to compose himself. 

I touch him then, rub the length of his back for comfort.

He lifts his head to continue, "There are series of immunosuppressants I have to take every day, stomach churning medications that make me so sick I can barely eat in the morning. And I can't avoid it. If I don't take them, my body will reject it, fight against the foreign object in my chest." He says. "But after the long recovery, the pain stopped, the bad circulation stopped, the swelling stopped , every painful breath, stopped. I was free from my prison. I was allowed to come home.

"And I was so happy, Louis. I was so happy because I could play my videogames and concentrate on homework, take photos of trees and the sky and of the horse buggies clammering up and down 5th Avenue, find the courage to capture candid photos I enjoy so much, maybe even make friends again. I could leave the house without my parents, I could be independent, I could... finally start to eat junky food again.

"But see I'm my own worst enemy. I stopped myself. I was petrified of what could happen, of what will happen if I exposed myself to the world. I couldn't let go of this crazy notion that germs will kill me, destroy the one thing that saved my life," He releases his shirt, "I became even more secluded, lived my life with these irrational fears, lost my clarity. I was obsessed." He bites his lip. "I was so much worse.

"But the Italy trip changed everything. When I found out about it that's when I knew I needed to do something. And the only way to convince my father I can go was to actually leave the house .

"So I went to the park everyday, took photos of people, nature, the horses, the statues, buildings, anything really. I had to suck it up and I did. I was with people for the most part, I was breathing fresh air, I was still OCD about germs so I avoided touching things and I was fine. I felt human again," He turns to me. "Then you ran into me."

"And I ruined everything right?" I sulk.

"You woke me up actually."

"You were sleep walking?"

"No, Louis. You opened my eyes, showed me what I was missing, breathing life into my lungs, showing me what life has to offer. You opened me up like a book."

My breath hitches, "I wanted to expose the real you."

"And you have. I haven't seen this side of myself since I was little, I haven't gone ice skating since I was nine, I never was involved with anyone on a romantic level. I feel ," He cups my cheeks, lays a tender kiss on my lips. "I'm exposing my body to cooties."

"Delectable cooties," I correct.

"The most delicious," He kisses me again. "But, there's always this doubt in my mind, a dubious side that thinks the worst still. And it's those thoughts that I can't seem to rid myself of. It's difficult to escape. I've built these walls so high even I can't find a way out."

"So let me help you? Like how you wanna help me? Can we help each other?"

"You have on so many levels."

"Let's keep the momentum going then."

He knits his eyebrows, "How?"

"Win the trip to Italy," I grip his hands then. "Travel overseas, experience the world with your own eyes, take the train not a car service, move out of your comfort zone."

"Wh-what?" He stutters.

"Don't fear people, germs, whatever it is that scares you that's what it's about."

"I suppose?"

"It's true! Like for instance, I'm making small changes, progressive changes, manageable changes. Taking it one step at a time even though it hurts like hell but I'm doing it. And I have support" -I nudge him- "and that's all I need."

"Well then I can check one item off my incredibly long list," He pulls me towards him.

"What's that?" I whisper.

"I have you," He confesses. "And I liked you from day one but I was a kid in your eyes, you were married, you have a job, are living your life. So I had to remind myself you're probably spending time with me because you felt sorry for the lone weirdo."

"What!?" I scowl, "That's not-" 

He puts his hand up, "At the time it's how I felt okay? Don't get offended. But when your feelings became apparent-"

"When did that happen?" I snap.

"Halloween."

"Ugh!!! Everything reverts back to Halloween!!" I tug my hands free, cross my arms over my chest.

"Well that's how I knew you liked me," He touches my lips. "You wanted to kiss me, you had a bulge-"

My face heats up, "That's so embarrassing !!!"

"-and it was very evident," He giggles. "So I took care of you, ignored your insults, and cooked for you. I was so happy."

"Because I wanted to kiss you?"

"Yes," He grins.

"Drunk Louis just loves to spill all of his secrets," I sulk.

"I don't mind." 

"So that's it then," I conclude. "H, that's the secret. That's what you kept hidden. That's what held you back."

"Yes, I couldn't travel and even now, Louis, my father is afraid and won't send me overseas himself and I don't blame him since I instilled that fear within him. But I told him if I win, I'm going regardless."

"How did he feel about that?"

"He doesn't have a choice. I lost my teenage years."

"But you're in college you can still make friends!"

"Louis, I'm enrolled in online courses. I don't go to a campus."

"Seriously? Wait but-"

"You assumed so I never corrected you. You'd probably think I was weirder than I already am."

"But I never thought that! Ever," I clarify. "You were always normal to me just insecure. H, it doesn't matter-"

"But you're Mr. Sociable. You have friends and went to parties, had parties, get drunk and act silly. You live! And I never had that so I get envious sometimes."

"So let's change that! You're healthy now, right? You can ice skate again, you can't drink but who cares? We'll have fun sober, do things, escape the city!" I assure, "You'll live, H. Don't worry you've only just begun."

He frowns, "I don't know." 

I loop my arms around his neck, "It starts now." I kiss his cheek. "Right now, with these kids. Let's make their day!"

"I suppose," He turns away.

"You've got it!" I move to stand but he stops me, pulls me to his chest.

"You're not afraid though?" He asks, caresses my cheek, "You don't want to leave?"

"Why would I? Because of a surgery? I got my tonsils out when I was fifteen. Do you fear me?"

He rests his forehead on my shoulder, "Louis, this is different."

"How so?"

"I'm alive because someone else is dead."

I comb my fingers through his curls, "You're alive because you were given a chance, H. That person's heart you have beating inside of you is giving them a chance too. They may not be here any longer but you are keeping them alive with everything you do."

"I didn't know the donor though-"

"Doesn't matter! Their spirit is inside of you. Live life for them and for you."

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"You have a lovely chest by the way," I trickle my fingers down his arm.

He grins sheepishly, "Thanks."

"You've been holding out on me."

"You're not repulsed?" He asks.

"Never, H. We all have scars, some are just visible," I say.

He grips his hands, "I have some hidden ones too."

"Me too. I'm filled with them," I admit.

"You mask them very well."

"Possibly, but I always try and remain optimistic. It's important to me. You know that though. You know my mentality."

"Except when you're sad."

I nod, "Stanley sad, yes. That's something else completely. But I'm working on it just like you. We'll learn how to live with our scars, learn to look at them as something positive, see a change that made us who we are today. I know one day I'll be reminded of Stanley and be filled with immense joy rather than grief. And you too. Your scar will shape you too."

He hunches his shoulders, "I see it everyday and it hasn't gotten easier."

"It will," I remain adamant.

"I always feared people wouldn't be able to handle the truth, like if they knew they'd see me as broken. They would walk away as if I was a liability to them."

"If anyone were to think that then they're broken because that's absolutely insane!"

"I suppose."

" It is , got that?" 

"Okay," He deadpans.

"Ugh...well you believed in yourself at one time."

"I pretended I was stronger, yes."

"You held it all in. Your tears, your discomfort, your illness basically. That takes a lot of strength."

"I've become emotionless."

I touch his cheek, "You express yourself through your hands actually."

His eyes widen, "Huh?" 

"Oh yeah. Your hands tell a story. That's how I gauge your emotions. For the most part."

"I wasn't aware."

"Well I am and that's what I found. It's not bad though as long as I'm able to read you, who cares right?"

"True."

"So quit rubbing your palms!! You don't turn blue anymore and you have me to support you," I slink my way in.

"You haven't touched your ring finger, Louis," He leans towards me.

"I know, H. I don't because I have you."

He grins, "You do."

"I have no reason to anymore."

"Oh."

"You're more than enough."

"I try."

.

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December 01

I don't care what people say when we're together

You know I wanna be the one who holds you when you sleep

I just want it to be you and I forever


Chapter Text

STUPID DEEP, Playlist

 

December 2.

I will take your pain

And put it on my heart

I won't hesitate

Just tell me where to start

I thank the oceans for giving me you

You saved me once and now I'll save you too

I won't hesitate for you

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I swing the door open, "Hey!" I smile a toothy grin, tug my companion into an embrace, run my fingers through his curls. "How'd you sleep?" I ask.

"Good," Harry offers me a chaste kiss. "You?" He doesn't make an attempt to move. 

I find his eyes, "Excellent-" 

Ruby pounces him then, practically tackles him to the ground, but he catches himself. "Hi, girl!" He releases his hold around my waist, begins scratching at her head, "Did you let Daddy sleep last night?" He coos.

"Ha!!!" I smack my leg, "Yeah right . Daddy had to walk the Princess around the neighborhood, through Riverside Park along the highway and as far downtown as I'd let her. She totally has me whipped , remember ?"

He grins, "Yes, I recall your inability to control her as clear as day."

"Whatever," I wave him off. "Let's see your" -I point to his trench coat- "costume. I'm seeing some bare leg. I like this idea already." I rub my hands together in anticipation. "Open up!"

"No, not until we get to the hospital. Which by the way, the driver is double parked. We should go," He gives Ruby a kiss and stands to his full height, leaves me completely breathless and enamored by just his mere presence.

"I...I-" I continue to take him in, inspect his curly hair and green irises, note his pretty pink lips and soft features. His dimple is on display, his contentment evident in his mannerisms. He's changed, "Yes." I manage.

"So let's mosey," He chuckles, touches my cheek tenderly.

"Y-yeah," I pat my thigh in search of the envelope, feel the edges crinkle beneath my fingertips. I sigh in relief, turn to my dog. "Be a good girl, okay? We'll be back later and remember I'm cooking for Harry." I throw on my coat to conceal the cape and Robin costume.

My boyfriend rubs at his stomach, "It's a good thing I brought some antacid." He grimaces.

"Quiet, you!!" I jab my finger into his bicep, "And if it tastes bad that means you suck at teaching."

His lips curve into a crooked grin. Or has it never left his face since he's arrived? "You begged me to show you."

I roll my eyes, "Yah well, I was tired of ordering take out and was desperate at the time. So I didn't have a choice."

"We all have a choice, Louis," He opens the door. 

"I suppose," But not always, H. Sometimes our choices are robbed from us. "Anyway I need to put on black eyeshadow."

"You can do it in the car."

"Right."

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"Take it off!" I tug at his trench coat collar, "Show me your long, slender, sexy legs!" 

Harry pushes me off of him and stumbles from the elevator, "Stop." He pulls a sash from his pocket, turns away, and begins to tie it around his head.

"What are you doing? I wanna walk in there in full costume and show those kiddies what we did for them," I stamp my foot. "Show me-" He faces me again "-oh!" I smirk. "I like that."

He touches the gold headband self-consciously, "Is it centered?" He asks. 

I inspect the red star affixed to the band, "It needs to be moved to the left just a tad."

"Fix it?" 

"Sure!" I suck my bottom lip between my teeth, center the star on his forehead, fluff a few curls. "Perfect!" I kiss his lips.

"Thank you," He pulls at the guitar strap. 

"Let's do it!" 

" He's here !!!" Jackson yells from down the hall. He peeks his head around the corner, "Guys!!! Guys come on!!" He disappears. "Harry's wearing a big coat !! I wonder what's underneath-" 

I chuckle, "Oh they're going to love it."

He sighs, "I hope so."

"You don't think they'll appreciate it?"

He stops walking, turns to me, "That's not it."

"Then what's wrong?" I ask.

"I hope the skirt is long enough," His cheeks flush. 

"Oh, right."

"And I have to sit in that chair," His face reddens further.

"Maybe stand?" I cover my lips to hide my smile, "Or you know, sit in a taller chair?"

"This was stupid. I knew I should have been Super Man. He at least wore tights."

We continue down the hallway, "Nah, this is more your style." I waggle my eyebrows.

"I suppose."

"You'll make Olivia so happy. Think of her and the rest of the kids. They look up to you. They want you to be who you are inside here" -I touch his chest and he flinches- "and nothing else. And trust me, children are perceptive especially as young as they are. They'd see right through you."

We stop before the room, "They have. But I never had to hide in front of them. I always allowed myself to be me because they know what it's like." He takes my hand. "They know exactly what I went through."

"So don't worry, H. Go in there with your head held high regardless of your nerves," I encourage. "Be you, okay?"

"Yes, for them."

We round the corner together and the children are in a circle on the rug.

"Hi guys!" I walk in first, practically drag Harry behind me, "What's up?"

"Louis, what's on your face?" Ed points.

"Louis?" I tap my lip, "Who's that? I don't know a Louis."

"Robin!!" Olivia stands, runs to my side, "You did it?!" She exclaims in disbelief.

" Of course I did!!" I remove my coat, reveal my costume. "Ta-da!!" I hold my arms wide. The kids gasp.

"Oh!!! It's perfect!! And the cape and the shirt and the colors and everything!" 

Harry walks in past me, "You should see what he's wearing." I gesture towards him. 

"But you're Robin!" She twirls around, reveals her Batman cape, "We're the coolest duo!" 

"We are! We're the perfect team."

"Come everyone," Harry announces over the chatter. He's unbuttoning his coat carefully, slowly, painstakingly slow. He's nervous. 

"Wonder Woman!" Jackson points.

"Wow!" Diana adds. 

The costume is perfect. He's wearing a royal blue skirt embellished with gold stars, a red corset top and matching cape, gold gauntlets, and red knee high boots. Woah.

"You like it? It's not too much?" He sits down on a regular sized chair, drapes the guitar strap across his shoulder. He looks impeccable and his chest is free, his scar-

"No! It's awesome ," Jackson finishes. It is awesome . "I wanna be Peter Pan next time. I'm sick of being the bad guy. I wanna be the good guy." I swipe my mouth in fear of drool sliding down my chin.

"Not all Pirates are bad," Harry strums at the guitar. "Captain Jack Sparrow wasn't, in the end at least, right? He came through, helped Will Turner and Elizabeth." His shoulders are so broad. His arms muscular and- and sinewy. And OH MY GOD I want to touch. 

"I guess," The boy flicks at the plastic hook on his hand. 

"What are you playing?" Ed is watching Harry, oblivious to the conversation.

"One of my favorites," He says. 

"What's it called?" The boy probes.

Harry grins, "After I'm finished."

Ed throws his hands in the air, rolls his eyes, "I don't know why I ask."

"Then let Harry play, then ask. Duh!" Diana snaps.

"I like to know!" 

"So do we all !"

"Okay guys!" I say to break it up, "Let's listen now." 

Olivia takes my hand, squeezes, "Yeah let's listen. He'll tell us the song, Ed." 

The red headed boy sighs, sits quietly in his place on the carpeted floor, "Okay." He grumbles and folds his arms across his chest in defeat.

Harry glances at me then to the children, "This song is about making someone happy-"

"Just one?" Jackson interjects.

"It's a good place to start right?" Harry offers, glances at me again.

My stomach twists. 

"Oh," Jackson sits backs. "Yeah I guess."

"Start off with one person, someone very special to you, someone you want to see smiling every second of every day," He says. "Then make it two people. Then three. Then maybe even four."

"That sounds like a lot of work, Harry," Diana says. "I dunno if I could make four people happy!"

"Well, why not? Maybe tell a joke or share a story. Maybe tell them about the magic window."

"That makes me happy," Jackson says, his voice faraway as if he's dreaming of a fantasy. I hide my frown. 

"See?" Harry is strumming away, watching every face, making eye contact with all the children and occasionally me. 

"Still seems like alotta work," Diana repeats.

"If it were easy everyone would do it. That's why you need to move out of your…" Harry stops, loops the melody, and begins to sing instead.

It's so important to

Make someone happy,

Make just one someone happy;

Make just one heart the heart you sing to.

One smile that cheers you,

One face that lights when it nears you,

One person you're everything to.

Fame if you win it,

Comes and goes in a minute.

Where's the real stuff in life to cling to?

Love is the answer,

Someone to love is the answer.

Once you've found them, build your world around them.

Make someone happy,

Make just one someone happy,

And you will be happy, too.

.

.

.

.

"You make the perfect Robin!" Olivia says. She bounces on her toes, smiles a large toothy grin, "I couldn't even tell it was you!" 

"Right!?" I agree, "It's the face mask." I touch the plastic resting against my cheeks. 

"Yuh! And the cape and the shirt, your spiked hair! And everything!! You make the best side kick."

"What about Harry?" I glance towards him and he's sitting on a bench with Ed. "He looks pretty awesome too," I finish my thought.

"Uh-huh. Yeah he did good," She says, continues to toy with my cape. "Maybe next time we can all do something as a team ."

"Sure! How about you let Harry know and we can plan something for the future." 

"Really!?" Her eyes light up. 

"Yeah! Absolutely!"

"Let's do it!!" She runs to the other girl, "Diana!!! Guess what-" 

"Hey, guys. Let's all come back over here," Harry announces. I sit down in my usual place to set an example, cross my legs and soon the others follow. 

"What's next ?" Ed asks. 

"Play the song with the window!" Jackson says from next to Diana, who's dressed in a Giants football jersey and helmet. Jackson is still wearing his eye patch. I don't think that's part of the costume. I flinch. 

"Well, actually I have something new," Harry says and my heart nearly beats from my chest. "It's called Happily."

"You finally told us the name," Ed whines. "Geez!!"

"Yeah, geez ," I mock to join in on the fun and to bust Harry's balls.

He shakes his head, begins strumming at his guitar, "I've always told you the song name, Ed, just not when you've asked."

"Why?" The boy asks mechanically. 

"It's meant to be a surprise."

"For who?" He continues.

"For you."

"But I don't wanna be surprised. I wanna know. I like to know things," He pauses, scratches at his flaming red hair. "And ketchup. I like to know things and ketchup."

"Because it's red ?" Diana asks cheekily. 

"No!" Ed whines, "It tastes good on fries , Di- Ann-Ah. "

"It's gross !!" The girl starts.

"No it's not-"

"Yuh!" Then the rest of the children join in.

"I like it on burgers."

"I prefer mustard."

"It's disgusting-"

"I like mine plain-"

"I don't eat meat!!!"

"You're disgusting!"

"You smell like poop!"

"At least I don't-"

"Shush!!!" I shout at the kids, interject their banter.

"But, Louis -" Diana says.

"Nope!" I motion towards my lips, pretend I'm zipping my mouth closed.

"That's not-"

"Ah!" I cut her off.

"But-"

"No," I do it again.

"Hmph!!" She pouts, crosses her arms over her chest.

"Anyway, where were we?" I smile up at a flustered Harry, give him an exaggerated wink. 

"Uh…" He hesitates.

"Happily!" Ed shouts, "And ketchup."

"Let's not argue over a condiment okay? At least not right now," Harry says as he loops the tune over and over. "I want to sing for you and make all of your sadness go away." He's looking at Diana now. "No more tears." His tone is kind, comforting, a far cry from the usual empty responses I've received in the past. "Diana." He singles her out.

"There are no tears!" She chokes, "There's no crying in baseball or any sport!!"

"Crying is allowed any place, sweetheart, any time."

"S'not," She sniffles, swipes at her nose. 

I take in Harry's minute reaction, "But it is, especially here."

"What ever ," She turns away, sucks in a quivering breath.

"You're allowed to be upset and release whatever is troubling you but I also want to see you happy and care free."

"Why?" Ed asks.

Harry glances at him, "It's important."

"For who?"

"For everyone."

"It is?" Jackson asks.

"Absolutely," He assures. "What's the use wallowing day in and day out? Where's the fun in that?" 

"That sounds dreadful ," Olivia says, takes my hand again.

"It is! So come on, Diana, show me your smile."

"Diana, come on. Do it for Harry," Jackson begs.

She turns around, plasters on a fake smile, teeth and all.

"I guess that's acceptable," Harry doesn't argue and continues, "So Happily-"

"Who's it about?" Ed asks, his patience wearing thin.

Harry's cheeks flush, "You know, no one in particular."

I point to myself, "My dog?" A few kids giggle.

"No, but close," He looks down at his hands possibly to hide his nerves or pink cheeks.

"Sing it! Come on!!" Ed bounces in his seat.

"So impatient," Harry says playfully.

"You're stalling and now-"

You don't understand

You don't understand

What you do to me when you hold his hand

We were meant to be but a twist of fate

Made it so you had to walk away

Cause we're on fire

We're on fire

We're on fire now

I don't care what people say when we're together

You know I want to be the one to hold you when you sleep

I just want it to be you and I forever

I know you want to leave so come on

Baby be with me so happily

He stops, takes a deep breath, flexes his fingers.

"That's it?"

"Where's the rest of it?"

"I thought there would be more?"

"I liked it."

My palms are sweating suddenly. Is that all?

Harry begins playing a different tune then, a much slower, melancholy song. His voice projects-

Goodnight my angel, time to close your eyes

And save these questions for another day

I think I know what you've been asking me

I think you know what I've been trying to say

I promised I would never leave you

Then you should always know

Wherever you may go, no matter where you are

I never will be far away

Goodnight my angel, now it's time to sleep

And still so many things I want to say

Remember all the songs you sang for me

When we went sailing on an emerald bay

And like a boat out on the ocean

I'm rocking you to sleep

The water's dark and deep, inside this ancient heart

You'll always be a part of me

Goodnight my angel, now it's time to dream

And dream how wonderful your life will be

Someday your child may cry, and if you sing this lullaby

Then in your heart there will always be a part of me

Someday we'll all be gone

But lullabies go on and on

They never die

That's how you and I will be

.

.

.

.

I'm scrubbing at my eyes to remove my make up, "Ah!!! The soap stings!!" Harry's socked feet shuffle across the floor, "Ouch... Ouch!!!" I dunk my face under the water, rub at my eyes.

"Did you like it?" His voice is small, unsure.

"Huh?" My voice is garbled from the water, "Like what? The costume? You looked sexy." I stand back up, take a hand towel and dry off my face. "And you showed off your scar, H. That's huge." I remind.

He sits down on the toilet seat, nods once, "They get it that's why."

"Get what?" I put my hands on my waist.

"Being sick, Louis. They understand. They're on my level. They were where I once was. We have that connection."

"I see," I tap my lip. "I mean that's a good thing right? You can encourage them."

"I do. I try to at least. They're immune to it now, like they've come to terms with everything for the most part but…" He clears his throat, turns his penetrating gaze towards me. 

I nearly jump his bones then and there, practically throw myself on him as a sudden desire to touch seizes my thoughts. And it's a simple look really, nothing out of the ordinary, but it never fails to take my breath away. And make me really freaking horny.

"I can't witness them suffer or become remotely upset because then I'll feel like I've failed."

"You didn't though," I approach him slowly. 

His eyes never waver, drive deeper into my soul, "I want to offer them an escape you know? Sing songs like the Magic Window that offer them an opportunity to use their imagination when I lacked one as a young teen. Sing Here Comes the Sun to remind them a brighter future is within reach."

"Or write a song begging someone to be with you so happily? Or feeling broken when you're not with a special person?"

He looks to the tiles, "I want to write what's in my heart and share it with them. Is that wrong? Should I not do that? Maybe I shouldn't have-"

I touch his shoulder, slide my hand towards his collar, pretend I'm touching bare skin, "They want to hear you sing, H. They don't care what its about."

"It's about you," He whispers. 

My eyes water, "I-"

"I've written more. Too many."

My fingers tighten their hold, my breath hitches, "Oh." I worry at my lip.

"And I want to show you- well my favorite one that is," He grips his palms. "And I hope, more than hope you like it and not think I'm weird or creepy or-" 

"Never," I gently touch his neck, run my thumb along his smooth skin. "I can't wait to hear."

"Are you sure?" There's a tiny fissure in his facade, a small crack just ready to burst. Show me your emotions, H. Come on.  

"Yeah, Harry. I really am. I want you to express yourself."

"I am."

"Emotionally."

He shudders, "That's how I do. Through my words."

"I know," I lean into him, kiss his cheek. "That's why I can't wait."

"I see."

"Yup," I kiss him again and stand up. "So Ed likes music," I turn to the mirror, frown when I find more eye shadow smudged across my face. 

"Yes," Harry mumbles. "His parents bought him a guitar. He's been playing a lot."

"That's great," I start the process all over again, rub soap onto my hands and pray for the best.

"He said he wants to become a famous writer, sell out Madison Square Garden, date hot chicks ."

I chuckle, "Good for him."

"He has his dreams, his future to look forward to. I'm relieved he found a way to see past everything."

"That's what you're there to do, H and you succeeded so you technically didn't fail."

"I suppose," He seems distracted. 

"So why the- OUCH!!!" I dunk my head again under the faucet, rinse away the soap, "Ugh this stuff is annoying!"

"Use baby oil," Harry says.

"I don't have a baby remember ?"

"Any oil then. It removes make up easier."

"Why didn't you tell me that before I burned my eyes out!?" I rub the towel over my face.

"You didn't ask," He smirks. "But hey your face is clean now." 

I frown, "My face happens to always be clean!"

"Now more so," He kisses my cheek. "Mmm...smells like coconut." He kisses the side of my mouth. "And spearmint gum." He kisses my lips. "And Louis ." He hums. "I like this taste the best I think."

"I'm like candy, aren't I? Nice and sweet."

"And sour." 

I pull away, "When!?" I find his eyes and their soft.

"I'm kidding, you're never sour, only sweet and delicious and addicting. I can't get enough."

"That's more like it," I kiss him back. "Ready for dinner?"

"Yes, I'm waiting for you to cook for me."

"Okay!!" I skip out of the bathroom towards the kitchen, "Take a seat and watch the master at work!!"

.

.

.

.

"Sorry, Louis," Harry pushes the plate away. "No good."

"Ugh…" I slump my shoulders in defeat, "I know. I burned the cheese, undercooked the chicken, scorched the vegetables, over seasoned the salad." I shake my head. "I can't even boil water because even that set off the smoke alarm!!"

"It's alright. It was your first try."

"Why didn't you say anything!?" 

"You didn't allow me to," He grips my shoulders, pulls me towards him. "When I tried to guide you, you slapped my hand away and told me to sit my ass down. So I complied."

"Blah!! You should have told me to sit down because I was completely out of my element," I fall into him, circle my arms around torso. 

"Well if you simply read the directions…"

"Psh!! I go by rote," I rest my head against his chest, feel the beating of his heart, feel every ounce of control I thought I possessed dissipate with each passing second. It's a song to my senses, a beautiful melodious tune my heart finds contentment in. I want to remain here for as long as I am able to. "Does this bother you?" I ask.

"No," He rests his hand at the nape of my neck. 

"Okay good because I'm really comfortable and so happy you let me in and told me everything and write songs about me and spend time with me and listen to me and just...you make me feel so special ." He's silent. "Harry."

"What?" He asks.

I lift my head, "Did you hear me?"

He knits his eyebrows, "Hm?"

I roll my eyes, "Never mind."

"I'm kidding," He giggles, nudges me, "I like your voice. It's difficult to tune you out even though some days I wish I could."

"Why!?" I smack his chest and he only laughs harder.

"Louis, I'm joking with you!"

"You and this new found sense of humor !!" I pout, "I miss serious Harry. Brooding Harry. Harry with the quiet disposition. Harry, the man of few words!"

"No you don't. You like me," He tugs me closer. "You know, like me."

"Duh, slick. I do like you. I like you-" 

He cups my cheek, "I'm so relieved you do even after everything." 

I find a freckle in his iris then, a splash of hunter green mixed in with emerald, even a hint of hazel too. It's a Kaleidoscope of colors actually, a perfect combination. It's beautiful.

"What is it?" He's searching my face.

I instinctively move closer to him, "Your eyes have three different colors did you know that?" I brush any lingering hair from my forehead. "And it's really pretty too. But what's the most intriguing, are the little freckles scattered every where. I wanna count them."

"Oh, please don't."

"Why?" I look between his eyes.

"I had something else in mind and should have my eyes closed when I do it as per your instructions."

My body temperature spikes suddenly, "Oh." My palms begin to sweat too.

"Mmm."

"I can count them later."

"Sure if you're up to the challenge."

"What did you wanna do?" 

"Isn't it obvious?" He pulls us closer together, places his free hand at my hip. 

"It isn't, Harry." 

We're inches apart, "I like the way you say my name."

"You do?" I slink my fingers beneath his hoodie, watch his expression but he's okay. 

"I do."

"I'll say it more then."

"Sure."

"Harry."

"Yeah?" 

"I'm saying it. You know you said I-"

He connects our mouths then, holds his grip firm on my neck and hip, silences my rant and my brain. His lips are soft and plump, gentle yet assertive, compassionate but driven. He's moving with a purpose. He's taking the lead. He's the driving force. And it's more than enough to wet my already starved appetite.

He pulls us flush against one another and my moaning is loud and unrestrained. I thrust my hips, trail my fingers up his spine, scrape at his skin to entice him. He immediately responds too, bites at my bottom lip, sucks oxygen through his nose as if to breathe me in. 

He feels so good.

He pushes me backwards into the cushions, places his knee between my legs, and takes complete control.

.

.

.

.

"I didn't sing the second verse."

My fingers are buried in his curls, "Huh?" My eyes are closed, my lips burning, my body sated and content. 

He plants his face between my arm and torso, nestles his nose in my armpit practically, "Happily has a second verse and I left it out." His voice is muffled against the sleeve of my shirt.

"Did you forget the lyrics?" My subconscious is slipping from me.

"It was slightly inappropriate."

My eyes pop open, "How so?" 

"It's about-" 

"And who's hand am I holding?" A thought crosses my mind, "Do you think I'm with someone else? Because remember I don't do one night stands or flings or cheat or-"

"Stan."

I flinch, "Um, Harry, Stan is-"

"You held his hand, you were with Stan, you had a relationship with Stan."

I flatten against the cushions, "I'm confused." 

He finally lifts his head, exposes his glassy eyes, "I'm jealous."

"Of what? What's there to be jealous of? Stan is no longer here, okay? Literally-" I turn away as a wave of anguish settles over me, "And he's never coming back. So why-"

He pushes away, scrambles to the edge of the sofa, grips at his palms, "You're crying. I made you cry."

"I'm not…" I touch my cheek and it's wet. Oh . "Well, of course I'm crying. I-"

"And it was my fault. I made you sad but I didn't mean to. I was explaining why I wrote those lyrics that's all. I swear."

I scoot over to him, swipe gently at my face, "It's fine." I rest my head on his shoulder. "I'm crying more because you feel insecure."

His palms are rubbing, "I wish I didn't think about it but on occasion I feel as if what we have will never compare to the relationship you had with your husband."

That's a punch to the gut, a slap to the face, a kick to the crotch. That hurts and I suppose expected , "We can't compare to what Stan and I had." His shoulders slump, his hands rub furiously together, his distress palpable through his movements, "Do you know why?" I grip his linked fingers, whisper in his ear. "I can't compare two different people, two different experiences, two relationships. I can't compare you and Stan and I never want to or will." He expels a deep breath. "He was a bit of a control freak, he would make the plans, he would clean, he would do everything essentially and I needed that. I was too focused on my social life and music, when it actually mattered, to really care about the cleanliness of my clothes or dorm room or anything outside my bubble. But H now I don't." I lift my head. "I'm different now."

"How so?" He whispers.

"I want some of that control."

"Do I smother you?" He asks, his voice strained.

"Not at all. You're the perfect balance," I kiss his cheek. 

He's fighting against my hand, "Oh."

But my grip is firm, "So don't feel that way okay? Although I can't convince you not to but I'm able to assure that I like everything about you even down to your Velcro sneakers."

Harry chuckles lightly, but it's half-hearted, "I see."

"Yeah so don't worry." 

He wiggles free, shoves his hand into his pocket, pulls out a folded piece of paper, "Read it?" He passes it to me.

"What's that?" I unfold it and his handwriting is scribbled across the page. It's in the format of a poem, the words sort of jumbled together as if he wrote this in one sitting. The smudging of ink is evident. 

JALBOYH . The top line reads. 

I knit my eyebrows, "Harry what's-"

"After I leave."

I shake my head, "No I wanna read it now because what if I have questions?"

"You won't. It's self explanatory," He stands from the couch.

"It's not though," I watch him as he loops a scarf around his neck. "Where are you going? Are you leaving me?" My heart shatters. "Harry!" I rush to his side, drop the paper to the floor, encircle my arms around his waist. 

He cups my cheeks, "I'm sleepy." He says.

"I don't care," I shake my head, look him square in the eye. "I wanna sleep next to you. I don't wanna wake up alone." The confession is painful to my heart and ears.

"I can't stay over. At least not yet, okay?" He kisses my lips.

I close my eyes, "Why?" 

"Mother's rule," He admits.

"Oh…" I pull away, drop my hands to my sides.

"But she's coming around," He shoulders his coat on. "Maybe if you cook for her she'll reconsider."

"I can also operate a telephone too, maybe order something and pretend I cooked it."

"We'll try one more time. You know, a test run." 

Ruby and I walk Harry to the door. She waits by his feet. "I'll be sure to follow the recipe exactly." My mood turned sour . Look at that. I'm a sour patch kid.

Harry pets Ruby's head, "Bye, girl. See you tomorrow."

"Yes, tomorrow," I reconfirm.

"I'll see you after work," He takes my hands in his, kisses my fingertips. "Goodnight, Louis."

"Goodnight, Harry- Oh wait." 

His hand is on the doorknob, "What is it?"

"What was that last song you sang? The lullaby?"

"Billy Joel," He smirks and quietly closes the door behind him.

.

.

.

.

December 10.

Four a.m. and I know that you're-

Four a.m. and I know that you were with him

I wonder if he knows that I touched- touch your skin

And if he feels my traces in your hair

Sorry, love, but I don't really care.

.

.

.

.

I'm seated at the piano with my fingers at the ready and the notes to Suite Bergamosque swirling around my brain. I've memorized it in its entirety this time, played it with the sheet music to be sure of that and now I must play it through for Harry because I only have a week and a half left.

"Ready?" 

Harry scoots closer to me on the bench, his leg touching my own, "Yes." He whispers in my ear.

"Good, then we can go to the bar," I grin.

"Sure," He places the sheet music in his lap. 

"Here I go," I take a deep breath and allow the rhythm to take over. 

The first movement, Prelude, is a vibrant piece, colorful, moving. The chords were written with relative complexity, the dissonance jarring yet somehow bright and beautiful. My fingers sail along the keys, my body moves along with them. I can't help but close my eyes and pretend and wish and hope that I may find myself on that stage.

My cottage in the woods.

My magic window.

My imagination .

Oh how it runs wild in moments like these especially when I should be concentrating on the notes in my head and melodies I've memorized.

The second movement, Menuet, is up-tempo as well, composed of unlikely chords and note pairings one would find to be discordant. But this is what the composer intended . He wanted to create a full sound. 

And even as I play through Clare De Lune, my mind continues to wander. It's as if I'm trapped in the clouds, having an outer body experience, simply using my imagination. I can't even feel Harry next to me. I'm in my head, my fantasy. A world filled with music and melodies and a stage.

I'm onto the last movement, Passepied, a more sinister sounding piece filled with those dissonant chords I've come to enjoy. But as I continue on, the sound turns brighter, especially when in the high register, serves as the perfect ending to a classic piece. 

I peer down then, watch my fingers move, feel my entire body come alive as I approach the end because I did it. 

And it was perfect.

I hit the final note, sit back, and swipe at my brow. The room is quiet save for my heavy breathing and Ruby snoring on the couch. I am able to feel Harry next to me again, can sense his presence, and the pressure of his leg resting against my own. 

"Am I able to kiss you now?" His voice cuts through the silence.

I glance at him and he's sweated, his cheeks flushed, lips chewed, "Yeah, sure I-" He rushes towards me without warning, hooks his arms around my neck, and connects our mouths before I am able to finish my thought. 

I close my eyes eventually, fall into rhythm with him, completely lose myself in him and his taste. I slip my fingers beneath his hoodie, glide my palms up his spine, bunch the cotton as I do. I separate our mouths for an instant, pull the sweatshirt up-

But Harry grips my hands as if to prevent me from continuing, "Are you sure?" 

I open my eyes, find him staring back, "I've never been more certain about anything in my entire life." 

He swallows, hesitates before answering, "I fear I'll gross you out especially in a moment like this."

"It's beautiful. You're beautiful," My fingers are splayed across his back, resting on his tense muscles, and heated skin. "What you are on the inside is what matters most to me. There's an intricate personality underneath your sweatshirts and fears, a magnificent soul that's shining bright. You're more than a scar ." 

"I don't-" I pull the garment off his back and over his head, reveal his naked torso and chest. He instinctively covers the marking, wraps his arms around his body, turns away.

"I don't care," I grip his biceps, kiss his lips. "Act the way you did with the kids."

"That's different," He argues, fights off my touches.

"How!" I practically shout.

"We've discussed this already," He diverts his gaze, gnaws at his lip.

"You have a connection with them. You feel comfortable with them," I drop my hands. "I wish for you to feel a connection with me, feel comfort with me . And you don't ." My tone is clipped, hurt.

"That's a lie," He whispers.

"I don't know, H. I'm beginning to think you only feel okay with me even when you have your barriers in place," I frown, swallow back a sob. 

He shakes his head, "No, Louis. It's not-"

I stand up, run a hand down my face, "Let's go. I need a drink." I puff my cheeks, head to the bedroom for my sneakers. 

"Why do you need to drink?" He asks, his voice flat.

"Dunno, just do."

"Is it because I-"

I tug on some socks, then shove my feet into my shoes, "Grab your coat." I say instead because I'm fuming, I'm hurting, I feel betrayed. Why? Because he doesn't want me to touch him? Look at him? Enjoy him!?  

Because he insists he'll gross me out!?

"Please, Louis don't be mad," He says, his voice monotone.

" I'm fine ," I snap. "I just wanna drink and unwind," I throw the closet door open, and change my shirt.

He rubs at his palms, "I think we should talk though."

I avoid his gaze, "Not in the mood."

"I am."

"That's wonderful. Maybe you'll finally converse with my friends, you know, actually get to know them," I grab my coat and scarf, pat my leg in search of my envelope.

He follows after me into the entryway, "Louis, look at me!"

"Why? So you can turn me down to my face?" I pocket my keys and wallet.

He gasps, "I'd never- why would I- I can't-"

"Save it?" I pet Ruby and rush to the door.

"Wait!" 

But I don't, I storm out of my apartment towards the stairs, reimagine my fantasy and the stage I was performing on, pray that maybe one day it will be a reality.

.

.

.

.

"Give me another, Neil! Please! Pour... pour... POUR!!" I dance in my seat, nudge at Liam's bicep. "Lima, take another with me!"

He motions towards his beer, "Dude I'm still working on this one though."

"Don't care! You've been nursing that baby for an hour ," I carry on. "Chug that shit and take a shot." 

"Louis, I don't think that's a good idea," Harry whispers in my ear. 

I scowl, "Why? It's just a small, teeny-tiny amount of alcohol." I indicate with my pointer and thumb. "It's so little-"

"Just like you," Niall murmurs.

"What!?" I shriek.

"Nothing. I think you should listen to him." 

"Why!?" I face the bar again, turn my back to my stubborn boyfriend, "I wanna let loose ." I whack the counter. "Come on, Li. Drink with me!!" I pout, clutch at his bicep.

He pulls free immediately, peers around my shoulder towards Harry, "So, what do you plan on doing with your degree?"

"Humph!!" I sit back in my seat, " Fine . You two just... talk . I'll sit here with my-" My frown deepens when I find my beer bottle empty. "Never mind." 

"I honestly have no idea," My boyfriend admits.

Niall snorts, "Who does have an idea though or a plan B? Look at me." He gestures to himself. "Here I am living the dream-"

"Of a drunkard!!" I cackle, slap at my thigh. 

"Blow it out your ass, shrimp," Niall quips, turns back to Harry. 

"It's not easy," Liam says. "That's why I moved."

"What do you do?" He asks, his voice hushed.

"I'm also a teacher."

"Oh."

"He teaches physical education ," My words slur. "He makes kids run around on a track and forces them to play soccer and badminton and volleyball-" 

Liam pushes me out of the way, "I coach Varsity Soccer." He adds.

"He's one of the best players too. In my book at least," Niall compliments. I roll my eyes.

Liam blushes, "Nah I'm no good."

"He sucks!!" I point, throw my head back in uncontrollable laughter.

"Louis," Harry's tone is grave. "That's not nice-"

"Eh, it's alright. My grandmother can play the piano better than him it's fine," Liam takes a sip from his beer.

I recover instantly, "Nuh-uh!!" I poke my chest, lift up off the stool. "I'm the best . You hear me!? I'm the best!!" 

Niall pushes me back into my seat, "Yes, Lewis you're the best." He repeats mockingly.

"See!?" I point to my friend, "I'm the best ."

"When you're dreaming!" Liam snorts.

"I'm gonna smack you," I threaten. "Or pinch you."

Liam puts his hands up as if in fear, "Now I'm really scared!" 

"You should be!" I lunge towards him ready to clobber him to a pulp but Harry holds me back.

"Stop," He whispers in my ear.

"No!" I wiggle out of his grasp, "Get offa me." I adjust my shirt, reach for my ring finger. I sit back in my seat, ignore the swirling sensation in my head and the slight ache in my chest. I'm mad

"Why did you have to move?" My petulant boyfriend asks, sits back in his seat to resume their conversation. Hmph!

Liam finishes off his beer, "No jobs in the city or on the Island. So I made the move after waiting around for a bit."

"Did you get your masters in the interim?" They continue to talk as if I'm not there, ignore me the way they used to, leave me out of the conversation as if Stan were here instead. Harry replaced you, Stanley. Now he's ignoring me too

I'm staring at my sneakered feet, take in the black and white checkered pattern, begin counting the squares to distract myself. It's the same ain't it? My brain starts. Only waisting space as they talk about whatever. The bitterness hits my tongue. And even when I try to join in I get ignored! I've counted thirty seven so far. Some things never change!

A sweated palm, touches my forearm then, disrupts my counting, "Hey." I pull away instantly, find I am repulsed by the mere brush of his fingers. "What's wrong?" His voice is hushed, devoid of all emotion. I keep my mouth closed, bite at my tongue. If I didn't know him, I'd think he didn't give a flying fuck . "Are you mad?" I turn away, suck my bottom lip between my teeth, and bite. Hard. But the sting provides nothing but more pain, no relief. "What's wrong?" His voice is grating to me. "Louis-"

"Goodnight," I blurt and slide off the stool having enough of this evening and my so called friends.

"Huh? Already?" I hear Niall but I'm already halfway to the door with my coat and scarf in hand, "Louis!?"

"Hey man-" Liam's voice is cut off when the door slams shut behind me.

"Ugh!" I loop my scarf around my neck, thrust my arms through the sleeves of the coat, "I'll just drink by myself." I murmur as I stomp away. "Me and Ruby and Twitch." I'm almost at the curb. "And maybe I'll order Chinese!!"

A body steps before me, blocks my path, "Louis." Was that mock concern?  

"Don't talk to me," I seethe.

"What's the matter? What are you doing? Where are you going-"

"No where with you !!" I push his large frame out of the way, check for the right of way and step into the road. I couldn't even care less about his feelings because I don't even know how he feels !!!

"You don't mean that, Louis."

"Stop saying my fucking name!!" I slur, "D-don't come near me." I grip my jacket closed, trudge along the pavement.

His footfalls smack against the sidewalk, "Why?" His distress is seeping through. I bet you're rubbing your palms. I bet your eyes are wide. I bet your cheeks are pink.

I bet I don't give a shit!

I flip my hood up and keep my eyes trained in front of me.

"You're repulsed that's why," He calls out to me. "You think I'm a liability and-"

"I think you're delusional," I grumble.

"-weird," He spits the word, chokes on that one syllable. "Just say it." I quicken my pace having nothing else to say. "Say it, damn it!" He cries and I may have heard the crack in his facade. 

"No," I whisper into my coat. "I'm not giving you the satisfaction." I find Tom's Diner, turn the corner and quickly enter the building without another glance behind me.

.

.

.

.

I'm not crying into my pillow, in fact I haven't shed a single tear since I slammed the door closed and ripped off my coat. I call it a win because I bypassed the sobs, choking, and soaked sheets. 

But it's been replaced with something worse, something unthinkable, something graver. Something I fear I can't recover from on my own and I'm afraid. And it's twisting at my gut, scratching my throat, making my head throb and ache and pound-

I shout into the bedding then, release the dispair bubbling to the surface in the form of a loud, high-pitched shriek. I punch at the pillow as I continue, await the relief I thought would come after the fifth scream. But there's nothing. 

There's hollowness, emptiness, blankness.

Nothing!!!  

I'm spiraling down faster than I thought possible, losing focus, forgetting why I found myself in this position in the first place because what caused this?

Why am I lying here?

Why am I shouting?

Why am I alone?

I'm alone now.

.

.

.

.

December 15.

It slipped.

I slipped.

I cracked.

.

.

.

.

"What happened?" Niall asks as he places another ornament on my tree.

I'm hanging white lights in the window, affixing them with suction cups and clear packing tape, "Harry, he-" I stop, take a deep breath, refocus on my decorations.

"What, Lou?" My friend says from the floor.

"Surgery," I rush out. "He had surgery."

"What kind? When? Is he okay?" He probes, his concern evident.

"A few years ago, he's okay now- well physically okay but mentally he's trapped," I step off the small ladder, glance at Niall.

He's staring back, his blue eyes wide, "How so? Can you tell me?"

I shake my head once, swipe at my eyes, "It's not my secret to share." I whisper. "All I know is that he won't let me get close to him."

"In what way? I thought you were doing fine. He comforted you, understands your past," He places the box down, approaches me. "He's the answer I thought?" 

"I thought so too," I grip my ring finger. "I thought I could handle it but I can't. It's too difficult."

Niall reaches for my shoulders, forces our eyes to meet, "Handle what? His OCD? Is it overbearing? He's skittish but he's improved, no?"

I divert my gaze to the piano, "He'll never change. I thought he could. I was foolish enough to think it would be me to save him too, to be his cottage in the woods, to be his dick, companion, his muse, his-"

"What?" Niall asks.

"-home," I finish, allow that first tear drop to fall. "I wanna be his home. A safe place for his heart and mind, his protector, his entire world." I ramble. "I wanted to be that with him, for him and now it's clear to me that maybe he isn't as serious as I am."

He drops his hands, plops onto the sofa, faces the television, "You're doing it again." He confirms, his tone grim.

"I am," I admit. "I feel really bad."

"As bad as last time?" 

"Worse," I press the heel of my palms into my eyes to suppress my tears. "B-because he's alive. And I can speak to him and kiss him and love-" My knees buckle, my chest tightens with fear. 

"Love?"

"Oh no," I grip my fringe as the room begins to tilt. "Neil?" My voice is just audible, quivering.

He rushes to my side, touches my bicep, "What is it? You're pale. Are you going to be sick?"

My cheeks are soaked, "I'm in trouble."

"What are you saying?" He pushes me to the couch, forces me to sit. I scrunch my eyes shut, "Louis, talk to me. Do you need to go to the hospital? Are you dizzy?"

"It could happen twice?" I ask instead.

"What can!" My friend sounds angered, frightened.

"That's not fair. It shouldn't," I shake my head in disbelief. "It shouldn't happen a second time! Not after such heartache."

"Do you love him?"

I hunch my shoulders, feel the weight of the world choking the life from my soul, "Do I? Does that explain the shouting?"

"Shouting? What-"

"My throat still hurts."

"That's it. I'm calling for an ambulance," I hear his retreating footsteps.

"They can't mend a broken heart. No one can."

"Then call him !! What the fuck, Lewis! Just call him . You're acting as if he's dead. And he isn't!! This isn't the same as Stan!" He yells.

"He won't let me touch him," I choke. 

"Wait but-"

"I can't touch his chest because-" My phone vibrates against the coffee table, rattles on the wood, indicates... phone call . "Oh God." I cry.

"Who is it?" Niall looks down at the screen, "Thank fuck." He answers.

"Hey!" I lunge towards him but he pushes me down.

"Hello?" He pauses, "It's Niall...no not at all." He nods. "Yes, come over…perfect." He hangs up, pockets my phone.

"What are you doing? That's mine," I snivle.

"Don't care. Don't move. I'm leaving," He finds his sneakers and slips them on, pets Ruby who's by the door again.

"Who was that?" I ask urgently, "Niall!" 

"I'll leave it at the bar," He turns away without a goodbye.

.

.

.

.

I have a Twitch video playing on the television and I'm about two hours in, I think. Or maybe it's three hours, possibly four. I don't know . I lost track after fifteen minutes, but it's on as background noise anyway. I abandoned my Christmas decorations hours ago, lost all desire to celebrate a holiday I used to find special and joyous. And it's pathetic really. The tree is partially complete, the windows have lights hanging haphazardly against the glass, the small snowman decals are in a pile on the piano. It's a sad sight. 

And what's even sadder is Ruby.

She's back in the entryway again, waiting in her bed for her visitor, sleeping fitfully probably in anticipation of a special someone dropping by. She feels it just as much as I do. And honestly, I don't have the strength to tell her it'll be okay because I don't want to lie to her or myself. 

I turn back towards the television, stare blankly ahead wondering if the happiness I felt for those few short months existed in the first place. Was it my imagination? Did I manage to fabricate such a lie?

Will I be this empty forever?

Ruby starts to bark then, howls by the door, alerts me to a visitor or maybe the delivery boy or anyone. Maybe they're lost

The door opens-

Strange . Didn't Niall lock it?

Ruby whines her excitement, shifts her weight, pants towards our guest. There's a soft voice mixed in as well, a low drawl that's no longer grating to my senses but relaxing, calming... reassuring.

I grip a pillow to my chest, avoid the shadow approaching me, concentrate on the video game instead. 

"You've seen this already," He states the obvious.

"I don't remember much. I was too distracted at the time to really care. So I'm watching it again," I murmur, even though he doesn't deserve an explanation.

"Why?" His curiosity is genuine.

"I felt lonely," I admit, my tone harsher than I intended. "My best friend left me and confiscated my phone. So I decided to watch television to pass the time."

"Lonely?"

"Very much so," I sink lower into the couch.

"Oh," I'm able to hear his palms rubbing. "I see."

"Yeah. It won't go away either and it hurts."

"Where?"

I smash the pillow into my face as my sorrow creeps its way in, "All over." I whisper.

There's a dip in the cushion, "It doesn't have to."

"I know it doesn't but it's happening anyway and it shouldn't, not for a second time. It shouldn't happen a first time because happiness is supposed to last forever. It's meant to be with you and protect you and comfort you and provide warmth. It's meant to brighten your day and give your life meaning ."

"Louis?"

My body shivers from head to toe, the tears spill in buckets from my eyes, "And my life doesn't have meaning anymore. It's filled with fantasies, hopes, missed opportunities... sadness."

"Louis…" He says, his tone sympathetic.

"It's my fault, you know? I could have done more to change it and in the end I didn't," I continue. "I was afraid, my priorities were, well I didn't have any! I only cared about the next party, the next drunken night, the next time Stan and I could be... together."

"No one is at fault."

"Then why am I like this? If it's not my fault-"

"You lived," He inches closer. "You lived a beautiful life and still are. You're full of memories and positive experiences, life altering moments." I shake my head in disagreement. "You've done more than most will ever have the opportunity to do."

I scoff, "Yeah, right. You call this living? Look at me!!" I point to myself. 

"I haven't stopped." 

I glance at him and it stings. He looks beautiful . Well of course he does! When he has never looked gorgeous? "What do you see?" I ask, my voice gruff.

He holds his gaze steady, "My world." 

I refrain from bursting into tears, "Y-you, you don't mean that. It's impossible." 

"I do," His eyes are bright, full of sincerity. I turn away, hold the pillow in my arms wishing it were him because it's what I need. You. I need you . "And my world is saddened now and I wish to make him happy again."

I clear my throat, "Are you able to?" I ask with uncertainty.

"I have in the past."

"Yes."

He inches closer, "And I'll do it again and as often as needed."

"I'm a burden."

"If anything I'm the burden."

"No, I can't keep my emotions in check like ever ."

"And I can't seem to get over the fact that I'm no longer suffering, that maybe life is waiting for me, that maybe I just have to let it in, let you in," He reaches for my hand, intertwines our fingers. I grip him back without hesitation. 

"I want that."

He pulls the pillow away, "I know."

"I need that still," I find his eyes again, nearly collapse into him. 

"Yes," He pulls me forward, wraps his arms around my torso, nestles his nose into my neck. 

I'm stunned into silence, my aching chest relieved of the stinging, my thoughts saved from it's downward spiral into nothingness. I'm immersed in his being and soul, sailing through the sorrow towards his protection, escaping the prison I've managed to conjure. He's unrelenting too, his hug strong, reassuring, my savior. How is this possible?

I'm breathing him in, tightening my own hold on him as if he'll disappear at any moment. His fingers comb through my hair at the nape of my neck, his own breath hits my skin in steady puffs, his voice soothing as he sings softly into my ear. The lullaby

More tears come because it's just so beautiful.

" I promised I would never leave you. Then you should always know. Wherever you may go, no matter where you are. I never will be far away ."

"Don't go, ever?" I sob into his sweatshirt.

"I won't."

I sniffle, "Like ever? You can't because then I don't know what I'll do."

"I will never leave you."

"I'll be such a mess-"

"The same goes for you," He squeezes once then releases me, holds me at an arms length. He's searching my face. "Don't leave me like that, when you're angered and drunk- especially when you're drunk. Don't walk away."

I hiccup, rub at my face, "I was upset."

"I understand that but you refused to talk it through."

"I feel like I get no where with you that's why. I was saving myself."

"How?"

"By avoiding another argument that will lead to no where. It's like we take two steps forward and one step back and then you say you're comfortable with the children because you can relate to them," I say. "But maybe that's not what you need. Maybe you need to find someone who can support you and reassure you that everything will be okay and show you how beautiful you are. Scar and all."

"I-"

"That's why I walked away. I felt like I couldn't get through to you. I'm tired of feeling inadequate."

He releases his hold, drops his hands into his lap, "You feel that way?" He asks.

"Uh-huh."

He frowns, "Is that why you're looking for your wedding band again?"

"I-" I bite at my lip, "Yeah. I was. I did. I do. I lose myself at times and it felt necessary."

"I lose myself too," He admits.

"When?"

"Outside the bar. I lost it. Well one, I lost one…" He grips his hands, fights the urge to rub his palms. "The impulse was so strong, almost like a tidal wave crashing over me. I haven't felt such helplessness in so long."

"Lost what?"

His shoulders slump, "A tear," He whispers. "I felt it the moment you turned your back. I was utterly devastated, so hurt, confused and it slipped out."

I knit my eyebrows, feel a sudden urge to hold him close and kiss his pink mouth, "You cried?"

"I…" He swallows, pauses before continuing, "I think so."

"How do you think so? Either you did you or didn't."

"It was a solitary tear."

"But a tear is a tear last I heard."

"It was and it felt cold against my skin."

I hastily dry my cheeks, scoot closer to him so our legs touch, "You cried for me?"

"Are you mocking me? Because you soaked through my hoodie."

"I'm also a cry baby and go off the deep end when shit hits the fan. So yeah, H I am so deal with it."

He rolls his eyes, "I have no choice but to I suppose."

"Nope," I sit back into the sofa, stare at the television. 

.

.

.

.

"Louis?" He says after a few moments.

"Yeah?"

"Hold my hand?"

I smile past any residual tears, "Please." 

"Thanks," He reaches over and takes hold of me, places our linked hands in his lap.

"We watched some of this remember?" I gesture with my chin. 

"I do. I don't remember why we didn't finish it though."

"You wanted to touch my lips," I deadpan.

He groans, "About that…" He fidgets in his seat.

"It was adorable."

"It was weird , okay? It was a stupid thing to ask."

"Nah, you were nervous."

"Louis, I wanted to touch your lips because I was afraid of more than the germs," He confesses. "If we kissed I wouldn't want to stop which could have led to other, more intimate activities, and I wasn't ready for that."

I bite at my lip, squash down the moan trapped in my throat. What does he mean by that? "Were you afraid I'd want to jump into bed with you and have sex?"

His cheeks flush, "Uh, w-well, I don't-"

I note his distress, "Yup. That would be it."

"No! I didn't- no . That's not what I was nervous about-"

"Said the dude who sucked me off unexpectedly in the entryway," I snort.

" No ," He barks.

I release his grip, collapse onto the sofa in a fit of giggles, "Who cares! I loved it." There's that L word again.  

"I'd hope so," He says.

"Trust me" -I sit up, recover slightly- "I didn't stand a chance. Even if you touched me I'd probably cum all over your hand."

"Oh," He gazes at me. "Was I any good? Be honest now."

"Yeah you were. It was perfect," I touch his cheek, offer him a crooked grin. "And I wouldn't mind another one actually." 

"I know...I-" He worries at his lip, "Louis?"

My heart skips a beat, "Hmm?" He cups my cheeks in response, stares longingly into my eyes. "What?" I search his in return, find his eagerness and hunger, his desire. I begin to tremble. Woah .

"Are you nervous?"

I close my eyes, "Yeah." I admit shamefully.

"Why?" His breath hits my cheek.

I shrug, "Dunno."

"Do you want me to-"

"Kiss me? Yes. Actually I do, H. I want you to kiss me. I've missed it. It's all I could think about you know. Your lips. Your touches. Your body. Everything. And it's torturous."

"Why?"

I meet his gaze again, "I don't want you to shy away from me."

"I won't. Never again. I want-" He kisses my lips long and hard, sucks the breath from my lungs "-everything." He pants and drops his hands. 

"Everything?" I squeak as he tugs at his sweatshirt. My mouth pops open.

"Yes. I'm ready now," He says and removes the garment exposing his abdomen. He throws it to the floor without care. 

"Oh," I take in his chest and torso and muscles and glorious skin. Wow. Am I drooling?

"Here," He grabs my hand, inhales a deep quivering breath, gently places my palm over his heart and scar. He chokes, tightens his hold on me as if pained by the contact.

I attempt to pull away but he's strong! "Harry," I say gently. "It's okay you don't have to do this."

He shakes his head, bounces his curls the from the jerky motion, "No." He's trembling. "I want you to forget it's there." 

"But, Harry-"

"No!! You can't- you have to- I don't want it-"

I graze my finger along his cheek, smooth down his furrowed brow, "I didn't even notice. I don't care. If anything I'm more intrigued with your two extra nipples."

He releases a half snort, a half strained choking sound, "Shut up."

"It's true! And your abs are sexy as fuck and toned and there's so much of you . I don't know how I'll manage," I waggle my eyebrows.

His eyes widen, "What?" 

"It's a compliment. Trust me," I bite at my lip, just admire his body and slender figure. "I want you on me. In fact-" I pull my hand away and yank at my own sweater to pull it free.

"I don't-" I throw it to the ground next to his hoodie, "Oh, shit." His mouth is agape.

I grip his bare shoulders, trail my palms across his skin, avoid his chest for now and touch the plains of his torso and lower abdomen. I'm admiring every inch of him, soaking in his beauty and heat, overwhelmed with the very feel of him. I trap my bottom lip between my teeth, run my fingertips over his dips and curves, move further south towards his jeans. 

He sucks in a breath.

And I expel every ounce of oxygen from my lungs, slink the tips of my fingers beneath his waistband. I follow the elastic around towards his back, mirror my actions with both hands, await his reaction. Yes or no?

He's breathing heavy, his skin is covered in a sheen of sweat. 

Yes .

I continue with my featherlight touches, tickle at the fine hairs littering his skin, appreciate every inch. I move up his spine with my nails, continue my ascent until I'm at the base of his neck.

"Wh-why did you stop?" He says, his voice thick.

"Touch me back. Don't be afraid-" 

He tackles me to the cushions instead, pins my body between his chest and the couch, lies flush against me. We're touching . I internally freak. We are skin on skin.  

"I-" He connects our mouths before I'm able to speak, pulls maniacally at my mouth, invades and prods with his tongue. I'm a cowering mess, I'm tumbling head first into this perfect human being and it's probably the most exhilarating moment of my life. My life?

Yeah. 

It is.

He presses me into the cushions, removes any and all space between our bodies, thrust his hips directly into the junction of my thighs. He's doing this on purpose. He wants me to feel him poking through. He wants me to feel him

He hooks an arm behind my neck, cradles my head in the crook of his elbow, continues to suck at my lips and tongue, pulls at my mouth. I blindly reach for his belt loop and pull him towards me, groan as every pulse of his hips smack into the backs of my thighs. And I do. I feel you.

He whines into my mouth then, uses his free hand to scrape at my torso, moves further down towards my ass. He cups my right cheek without hesitation, pinches and kneads through the cotton of my bottoms, lifts me off the cushion and drives his hips down. Once. Twice.

Holy fuck a third time!

I whimper at the thoughts in my head, imagine the strength he must possess in his legs, the stamina because he could probably go for a long time , like really long, so long I'd probably-

He lifts away suddenly, reveals bloodshot eyes, and chapped lips, expands his chest as he sucks in gulps of air. I release his belt loops feeling at a loss, stare up at him in anticipation. Do I instruct? Do I need to help him-

He tugs at the waistband of my sweats and boxers as if to remove them in one swift motion. He turns our bodies sideways in unison, pulls them past my ass. 

My eyes widen. Oh?

He lays us back down on the cushions with my sweats resting just above my crotch, gnaws at his lip as if in deep concentration. He's undressing me with his eyes, exposing me, breaking through with just a glance. And I'm motionless in fear of breaking his rhythm, breathing shallow breaths, intimidated if I'm honest.

He jabs his pointer in my face then, "Open up."

My brain eventually comprehends his request but I'm still confused, "W-why?" I ask, my voice breathy.

His eyes are boring into me, "No questions." I open my mouth to speak but he pokes his finger in instead. I sputter, grip his forearm to push him away. But he only probes deeper. "Suck." He demands. 

I nearly cum right there at the sound, at the thought of sucking on his finger and something else , at the possibility of him revealing more of this wild side on a more frequent basis. I need it . I think as I wrap my lips around his finger. I purposely work my tongue into it, moan occasionally as if I'm wrapped around his member, hold his eye contact to prove I could also dominate even when bottoming. I've got you.

His eyes flutter closed, his hips begin to dip and sway, his body tenses. He's murmuring something unintelligible, crooking his finger- "Okay, that's enough," He yanks his hand away. 

I shake my head to clear it, "Sh-sure?" I'm gripping at the cushion awaiting his next move, "What are you doing with that?" 

"I trust you, Louis," He says, slinks his hand around towards my lower back. I clench my rear. Oh!  

"Y-yeah?" I croak.

"I do," He presses his thumb into my ass cheek. 

I squeak, "That's good!" My eyes are wide, body now humming with lust. Oh crap .

"But I need for you to trust me in return," He lies flush against my chest, tightens his hold around my neck, cradles my head. 

My eyes soften as I continue to take him in, "Whole heartedly." I answer honestly.

He kisses my lips, bites at my mouth, releases. "Perfect." He purrs and dives back in, simultaneously invades my mouth with his tongue and my ass with the very finger I had wrapped around my tongue.

I squirm at the unexpected intrusion, groan my pleasure, move my hips back and forth, and moan, and fall apart in his arms and holy fuck it's just a finger!! I'm on fire, my skin slick with sweat, my lips burning from his relentless pulling and swiping of his tongue.  

I don't know what to do or think. I can't formulate a thought. My brain is trapped. So I give in, relent to the sensations, forget the longing and waiting, and pursue my climax.

I cower as he pumps his one finger in and out, thrust my hips in search of friction, pull at his belt loops for leverage. And it's all too much! The bouts of pleasure are intense, the emotions unexpected, the submission even more of a mystery because I thought I'd top!

And here I am opening myself up to this man, allowing him free reign over my body, not fighting him off. I like it too much. I like you too much.

He releases my mouth, moves down to my neck, works his finger deeper and with more purpose. I scrunch my eyes closed, moan aloud without care, wake up the neighbors and probably disturb Ruby, grip his jeans into a tight fist. 

"Oh God !" I yell as the euphoria bubbles in my core. Harry mumbles something against my skin, probably mocks my use of the word. "Sh-shuddup!!" I whine.

He's running his tongue along my neck, pumping his finger, moving his hips, holding me close, pleasuring me, sending me over the precipice, cradling my body against his, grinding and groaning and-

I cry out then, find my climax, and slump into the couch.

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.

.

.

"Thanks for helping me," I close the last box, slide it towards the door. 

"Anytime," Harry's seated by the now fully decorated tree smoothing out the skirt around Ruby.

"It looks good! Nice and bright and cheery!" I saunter over, sit down next to him on the floor. I reach for my dog, pet behind her ears. "How did you get the suction cups to work like that? I always have to tape the corners."

"Water," He mumbles, continues to smooth out the already smooth tree skirt.

"Oh, like you wet the inside?" He nods, "Got it. I never knew that. I always thought-"

"There's something I have to tell you," He blurts.

The hairs on my arms stand at attention, the air becomes thick suddenly, "Um, yeah okay sure." I puff my cheeks. "Are you leaving me?" I lay it out there.

Harry's head snaps up, "Never." He deadpans.

"Just making sure. Although after your antics earlier I should have known it wasn't a break up. Unless that was meant to act as break up sex which I-"

"I leave for Italy in a month," He drops the bomb. Well, not the bomb but a bomb nonetheless. 

"I…" I rub at my chest, "You won." I whisper, my mouth tugs into a shit eating grin. He did it.

"It's not-"

"You fucking won!!!" I tackle him into a hug, wrap my arms securely around his neck, kiss his cheeks, lips, the tip of his nose. "Harry! You did it!" My eyes well with tears. "I knew you would! Now show me the pictures because I didn't forget our agreement!" My heart is pounding, my pride for him welling within me. 

He hugs me back, rests his hands on my lower back, "It's not what you think." 

I release my hold, search his face, "You didn't?" I crinkle my nose. "Then what does-"

"My father," He starts, brushes my cheeks with the back of his hand. "He surprised me with the news as an early Christmas present before I registered for next semester."

I kiss his lips, "I'm happy for you anyway."

"I know," He frowns though.

"Why are you sad? What happened? Are their conditions? Is he making you come home early? Or are you staying for the full semester?"

"I don't want to be away from you."

That's the bomb.

 

Chapter Text

STUPID DEEP, Playlist

 

December 22

Will he forget about me?

What if my heart can't take the separation?

Have I become too dependent on him?

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.

"He doesn't want to be away from me," I sip my beer. "I basically had to beg him to go because he has these insecurities about us."

"What does he fear exactly?" Niall asks skeptically, "Does he think you're cheating on him?"

I shake my head, "Nope. He's…" I pause, take another swig, "He's jealous, Neil. He said he's jealous of Stanley and I, of our relationship." I admit with a frown. 

"Um, he is aware that, you know," He motions with his hand. "You know ."

"Yeah," I divert my gaze, hold back my tears because I do know. Stanley is gone. "I guess it was inevitable."

"Why?" He asks.

"That's what people do. Get jealous without even realizing. And he's never been involved with anyone so I mean, it makes sense?"

"I guess so," Niall slumps back into the couch, continues on with Days Gone, another cliche zombie apocalypse video game. "What's he doing then?"

"Going. He leaves in a month," My cheeks flush, find my tears are threatening to spill over at the thought of Harry leaving me. It's temporary though.

"For the full semester?"

I flinch, "Yup." I whisper. "He'll be gone for four months."

"That's a long time."

I nod, mindlessly rip at the wrapping on my bottle, "It's a good thing I have the Spring play and my concert to focus on because I'd go crazy otherwise, you know?"

"Should I make room on my bedroom floor just in case?" My friend asks as he jams at the controller.

"What?" I ask incredulously, "Pu- lease I don't need to sleep on your floor. I only did that because I was having nightmares and waking Ruby up. She was a cranky girl for a few weeks." I lie because I was the cranky girl for months.

"Maybe that's why she hates me…" Niall shrugs, "Whatever. I'll clean up anyway."

"It's not necessary," I repeat to convince myself. "I've got this. He'll return and everything will fall back into place. I just need to remind myself of that, tell my stupid brain that Harry's gonna Return To Me ." I finish off my beer.

He glances over, "I'll make room anyway."

I grunt, "What ever , Niall." I wave him off. "You have no faith in me."

"You're right I don't because the other night brought back bad memories."

I grimace, "I wasn't-"

"You were having a nervous breakdown!" He looks me square in the eye, the intensity in his expression forcing me backwards. "You can't do that again! I feel like I cant get through to you when you've lost control." I turn away slightly. "And your mood is so easily swayed by the smallest things. It's scary." I gnaw at my lip. "Now that Harry is traveling abroad, I hope you can keep it together and not for my sake, Louis. For yours." I sink deeper into the cushions, press a little harder on my lip. "I'm making room for you on my floor. Just in case." I nod wordlessly.

.

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.

"I want you to know that I'll be fine," I tell Ruby. "We will be fine. I'll be sure to get a few of Harry's sweatshirts so we can sniff em when he's not here. Or maybe I'll take his coconut oil and rub it on myself before bed." I pet behind her ear. 

I'm on the floor in my suit waiting for Niall and Liam to arrive. After our conversation yesterday, I really buckled down and determined what my triggers are, what makes me tick, what causes my emotions to spiral out of control: loss of a constant. That's it. 

That's why I need my envelope.

"It has to be it, Ruby," There's a knock at the door. "Because why else do I fall apart when something I love leaves me?" I open it up. I collapse without my foundation.

"Yo!" Niall waves.

"Hey, Ruby!!" Liam pushes past completely ignoring me, kneels before my dog.

"Oh, damn. I look good," Niall checks his reflection, smooths out his now brown locks.

"Got sick of the blond?" I straighten out my tie, swipe at my pants. 

"Yeah, it gave me split ends."

"That's a load of shit. The chicks hated it!" Liam chuckles. 

"No way! My hairdresser-"

" My hairdresser ," I jest. 

"Shut it!" Niall huffs, turns towards us. "Is Harry meeting us here?"

I shake my head, "He's meeting us at the concert hall." I find my own reflection, straighten my lapels. "With his mother." I add after a moment.

"Wow!" Liam stands up. "His mom? What about his dad?"

I shrug, "Dunno. Maybes he's working."

"The living room looks great- what's that?" Niall approaches the tree towards the wrapped gifts. 

"Some stuff for my siblings," I mumble. "I'm shipping it soon."

"What about the large one?" I hear Liam. 

"Harry's."

"What did you get him?" He asks.

"Nothing you would appreciate," I say. "Come on let's go. We have to get downtown." I give Ruby a quick kiss.

"Seriously what did you get him?" Niall presses.

"It's a big box," Liam adds.

"Yup," They follow me out of the apartment and down the stairs. 

"So what's in it?" 

"Stop asking please?" I trudge down the steps.

"Where's your music?" Niall asks as he follows close behind. 

I tap my temple, "Here."

"Are you sure you don't want-"

"It's inappropriate to use sheet music during a performance."

"Huh? Why?" Liam asks. "What if you forget-"

"You don't forget. You remember or else you're frowned upon," I puff my cheeks, pat my leg in search of my envelope and the other paper. They're there. Don't worry

"That's stupid."

"I'm used to it," We reach the street. "Are we cabbing it?"

"I ordered an Uber," Niall's phone is in his hand. "Should be here in a sec."

"Okay, cool."

"Are you nervous?" Liam asks. 

"A little," I admit. "It's been a long time since I've performed."

"When was your last show?"

"When I was a sophomore," I recall. "It was the same night Stanley asked me to marry him. It was the night that changed everything." 

"Why?" Niall pipes in. 

"I was engaged. I was... changing my future."

Liam drapes his arm across my shoulders, "It wasn't the wrong choice or a bad choice." Choices are robbed from us though. 

"Yeah," I agree even though my heart is screaming at me. "Whatever." I feel Niall's eyes staring me down, can sense his scrutiny. Not now .

"Rides here," He says instead.

"Alright let's go," I rush to the vehicle tight lipped and a litte bitter.

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.

.

I'm backstage sitting in one of the dressing rooms. Harry's song is before me folded up, untouched, unread for the most part. It's just there waiting for me to scrounge up the courage to open it and actually read past the title. JALBOYH . What's that mean? Is it an acronym? I puff my cheeks, wring my hands, flex my fingers. Don't be a damn wuss. All of my questions will be answered right? My worries over his feelings may come to light-

The shutter of a camera makes me pause, distracts my train of thought. 

My head snaps up towards the source, "Harry!!" I smile from ear to ear unable to hide my fond. "You're here."

He approaches, takes a seat next to me, touches my cheek, "I'm here." 

"I've missed seeing you with your camera," I take in his black sports coat and tailored shirt. 

"I've missed you actually," He kisses my lips. "Happy birthday." He mumbles.

My cheeks redden, "Thanks."

"You're welcome," He pecks my lips again. "I wanted to take a few pictures while you played, is that allowed?"

"Uh…" I shrug, "I think so as long as you don't jump on stage buck naked. I'm sure no one will mind."

"Will you mind, Louis?" He reaches for my hand, entangles our fingers.

"Nope. I don't mind at all. I wouldn't mind you having my adorable face all over your camera roll."

"Well, it's already there..." He smiles sheepishly.

"Huh? What do you-"

"Louis?" I hear my name.

My heart jumps, "Oh God-"

" God ," Harry snorts.

"There we go," I crane my neck, find the concert director standing by the door. 

"You're on next," She announces.

"Got it," I turn to Harry. "Show time." 

"Okay," He leans towards me. "I'll be stage right, watching, waiting, taking pictures."

"I'll be thinking of you," I admit. 

"I'll be watching you," He kisses my lips, again .

"Mmm," I sigh against his mouth. "Undressing me already?" I whisper.

He chuckles, "You're already in your boxers."

I smack his arm playfully, "Pig." 

"No," He defends. "Smitten."

My palms begin to sweat, "W-well, keep that thought in mind alright?" I stand, take the folded paper and pocket it. 

"I will."

"We can make it a reality later," I wink, squeeze his fingers. 

"I look forward to it."

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.

"Holy shit, dude," Niall's voice carries over the crowd as he rushes towards me. "You were incredible!" 

"It was like high school all over again!" Liam gives me a quick hug, "You haven't lost your touch."

"I'd hope not!" I grin, "I've been working on that for weeks."

"And it shows," My best friend congratulates, embraces me. "You were perfect. I always believed in your talent."

I flush, "Thank you. It felt good you know? Like that's what I missed. The stage, the crowd, the thrill." 

"Thrill?" Liam questions. 

"You know what I mean. Internally it felt exciting." I find Harry's curly head amongst the crowd. "Hey! Over here!" I wave him over and his mother, who is following behind. "Ah fuck, okay." I instinctively tug at my coat, fluff my hair, plaster on a grin.

"What is it?" Niall asks.

"Harry's Mom," I motion with my chin. "Make me look good alright?"

"You did that on your own though," Liam says. "No need to pretend."

"Yeah but Stan's Mom didn't give a shit-"

"Hi," My boyfriend approaches with his mother in toe, waves at my friends. He stands next to me, instinctively reaches for my hand, holds me close. "Louis, you remember my mom?" 

"Of course!" I continue to grin even though my cheeks sting, "Hello!" 

"Hi sweetie. Wonderful performance," Her smile is beautiful, genuine. Is she actually proud?

"Th-thanks," I clear my throat. "I appreciate you being here too. You didn't have to take time away from your family. I know it's Christmas Eve and all and it's usually-"

"It was a beautiful evening actually," She says. "We ate at Patsy's then took a ride over."

"Oh!" I chuckle like a damned fool, "We went there!" I grip Harry's hand tighter.

"It's my parents favorite restaurant," Harry clarifies. 

"Yeah! Yeah it was…" I find Niall and Liam. "These are my childhood friends!" They introduce one another, shake hands, exchange names. Keep it together!! "Well I-"

"Happy birthday," Harry's mother says suddenly.

I sputter, nearly choke on my tongue, "Ah yeah well-" I'm old. Do you approve? "-about that."

She turns to her son, "Harry, did you bring Louis' gift?" 

He turns pink, "Yes, mother." 

"It's in the car?" 

"Yes, everything was taken care of earlier," He mumbles, his tone sharp.

"I'm making sure, darling," He turns crimson. "Do you boys need anything?" She asks obviously enjoying her son's embarrassment.

"Mom!!" He yanks his hand free, turns away to hide his face. " Stop ."

"We should probably go!" Niall grips Liam's elbow, "Goodnight guys!"

"You're leaving now !?" I nearly freak, as they backpedal towards the exit.

"Mom wants me home for Christmas morning."

"I have a long ride back to Jersey!" Liam adds.

"Right…" I shove my hands into my pockets.

"It was a pleasure meeting you, ma'am," Niall says.

"Same here," Liam says with a wave. "Have a great night!"

I refrain from rolling my eyes, "Merry Christmas." I tell them.

"Happy birthday!" Niall winks and they both leave us.

I shift my weight, contemplate my next move, "So I-" I start.

"Goodnight, Harry. I'll see you tomorrow for brunch?" His Mom asks. 

Huh!?

"Yes, I should be home before noon," My boyfriend confirms.

"Okay, perfect," She turns to me. "Enjoy your birthday and Merry Christmas."

"Th-thanks," I stutter again . "Do you have a ride home? We can always take an Uber or-"

"Yes, we made the call earlier," She checks her watch. "He's probably here."

"Right," I nod. "I forget you guys have more than one driver!" I chuckle nervously because holy fuck he's staying!?

"Goodnight, Mom," He kisses her on the cheek.

"Goodnight, sweetie." She offers us one last smile and heads to the exit.

I turn to Harry, "You're staying over?" I ask.

He grips his palms, "I told you she'd come around." He flushes.

"Really?" 

"Yes, really."

My heart pounds in my chest, "I get to wake up next to you?"

"You do."

"Oh, okay. Cool. Sleep over. I like this," I bounce on my toes.

"Sure, Louis. Sleep over."

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.

"Where do you keep those Seltzer's?" I'm kneeling on the counter, reaching up towards the top cabinet blindly feeling around for a box or can or something that resembles a beverage. "Did you finish them all?" 

Harry rounds the corner with a can in his hand, "No." The pink straw is visible too.

"Huh? Where was it!" I slam the cabinet closed, hop down.

"I hid them," He snorts. "I didn't want you drinking my secret stash."

"Did you hide them throughout the apartment!?" I stamp my foot. 

"That's a possibility," He turns away. "Come, Ruby's waiting."

"Blah!" I trudge after him, "Kid made himself at home." I grumble.

"I wonder who this is for!" Harry's holding a package shaped like a bone before Ruby's nose. She's wagging her tail, yelping with excitement. 

" I wonder ," I mock and sit beside him. "I can smell the rawhide from here." I grimace.

"Shush, don't ruin the surprise," He scolds.

I roll my eyes, "She's a dog, H. She confuses my sneakers with a fire hydrant." 

He glares at me, "Don't make me ruin your surprise."

"Please do! I hate surprises anyway."

He nudges me, "Shush." He begins tearing through the wrapping paper, reveals an extra large bone. "Wow!!!" He coos. "Look at this! Santa said you were a good girl this year and told me personally that you deserved this." He gives the bone to her. "Since you handle Daddy's shit like a champ!"

"What!?" I huff, "What shit!?"

"All of it," He's smiling a toothy grin. She scurries off to her bed. 

"Ugh...That thing is going to get so slobbery," I pout.

"You're her Daddy. Deal with it," He reaches behind him.

I roll my eyes, "Blah to you."

"Shush," He hands me an envelope. "For you."

I snatch it from his grasp, pull the card free, "Happy birthday." It reads. "How sweet . You got me a birthday card with a heart-" oh "-and a small stick figure couple holding hands." 

"You're terrible," He reaches for another package. "Will you open it?" 

"Hold your horses," I inspect the card some more, hesitate because I'm nervous. What will it say on the inside? I open it slowly and a gray envelope falls free. "Oh, oops."

"Don't lose that," He hurriedly picks it up, hands it back over.

"What is…" The inside is filled with smudged black ink, letters, words smooshed together forming sentences No Doubt, thoughts written hastily. Feelings . Emotions . "Woah." I find the same stick figure couple from the front of the card. The male is pushing the female on a tire swing, both smiling squiggly grins. The girl has black curly hair that I now know was drawn on by Harry. 

"About that…" 

I look up and his palms are pressed together in his lap, "Do I have to read it now?"

"No," He blushes. "I went a little overboard."

"I'll read it before bed then."

"I'd prefer if you did actually," He clears his throat. "Open the gray envelope. That's your birthday present." He instructs.

"Right!" I place the card on the coffee table, unseal the lip on my gift, pull it free, and stare at the paper. "What's…" It looks to be an airline ticket with no destination. "Where am I going?" I ask.

"Your mother," He starts.

I knit my eyebrows, read over the words carefully, "What about her?" 

"You said airfare is insane so I helped a little," My mouth pops open. "I don't know where she lives so I purchased you a credit towards a flight so you can visit your family. You don't have to worry about Ruby too. I spoke to my Mom and she's more than happy to care for her. That's if you decide to go when I'm in Italy because then I'd absolutely be here for her and walk her and feed her." He rushes out. "And if you hate it, it's fine I'll buy you something else-"

"It's perfect," I interject before he pops a blood vessel.

"-I sort of. Oh. You like it?" His cheeks redden.

"I do. It was thoughtful," I grip his fingers. "Thanks, H."

He sighs, "I thought it was too forward but I recall our conversation and figured you'd appreciate it." 

"I do! It was a good idea. Now I have-"

"Merry Christmas!" He thrusts a heavy box into my grasp. 

"Oh!!" I lose my balance as he transfers the weight over, "What's this ?" 

"Your Christmas gift," Harry ticks off his fingers. "The airline ticket is your birthday present and this " - he points to the oversized package- "is your Christmas present."

"You got me two things?" 

" I got the shaft every year on my birthday ," He mocks, chuckles into his hand. 

"I did!! It was traumatizing when I was little and now you're poking fun at a child who only wanted to celebrate his birthday without having Merry Christmas uttered in the same sentence."

"Possibly," He says cheekily, points to the box. "Open it before I have second thoughts."

I turn away from him, grip the present to my chest, "It's mine."

"So quit stalling. I'm serious, I'll take it back," He warns.

"Fine, fine," I tear at the paper self consciously, find my cheeks reddening as I slowly begin to reveal the gift. It looks to be a book of some sort. The edges are pointed, the cover firm and textured, the name embossed in the bottom right hand corner in gold cursive revealing who this belongs to. Harry S. It says. "Wait but…" I lick at my mouth, reveal the book in it's entirety. "What is it?" It's black. It's large. It's heavy. 

I look to Harry and he's crimson, his palms are rubbing, his eyes downcast, "Just look at it." He mumbles.

"Alright," I open the thick cover, reveal a table of contents, page numbers. The Stranger. The first page says. The Sneak. The Possibility. "What is this?"

"Louis, turn the page," He says, his voice strained.

"But what is…" I gently thumb at the glossy paper, flip it over to reveal a black and white photo set into the page. It's familiar. It's like I've seen this person someplace before. Duh. My eyes widen after a moment because isn't it obvious? "It's me." I gulp. "The Stranger?" I read underneath the photo. "Oh…" I'm in the park wearing a baseball cap, I'm looking away towards the sky, my eyes are crinkly, cheeks smooth, my mouth smiling a toothy grin. There's a ray of sunlight in the background giving the photo life and movement, the gleam reflecting off the buildings in the distance like a stroke of paint across the photograph. "When was…" I turn the page, find printed text centered on the left page.

I don't ever tell you how I really feel

'Cause I can't find the words to say what I mean .

I look to the next photo, find another black and white photo but this time I'm on the steps of the New York Public Library with my mouth wide, eyes crinkled and fringe resting softly against my forehead. I'm laughing. "The Sneak." 

I turn the page. More text.

And nothing's ever easy

That's what they say.

"Oh…" The Dick . I can't help but snort. "Harry, what's-" I look over at him and he's bright red. "I was your subject." I conclude.

He nods, "Yes."

I'm eating an ice cream sandwich, taking a too large a bite, "I mean really?" I grin, point at the ridiculous angle. "It's dripping down my chin!" 

"I know."

"Where's the butt picture you took that night?" I turn the page again, find more text.

I know I'm not your only.

Huh?

"Someplace private."

"Private how? Are you whacking off to my-"

" Louis , continue please?" He begs.

"Okay, okay! Chill out," This picture is called The Possibility . "Hmm…" I'm sleeping in this one. My arms are above my head, mouth ajar, eyebrows scrunched together. I appear to be troubled. "Oh…"

"I like this photo the best I think."

"Why?" I touch the print and the slight V between my brows.

"That's who you are, Louis. In one photo."

I glance at him, "I look sad. Am I sad?"

"You're human, you're expressive, you're not afraid to show your fears."

"Oh," I turn the page.

But I'll still be a fool

'Cause I'm a fool for you.

The photo is full of twinkle lights, the busy streets of Manhattan, and me. Stupid me with my hand resting on my chin as if in thought. I know something that's even more beautiful night and day

"The Kisser," I flip the page.

I heard a little love is better than none .

I'm in the kitchen with my hands on my hips in an oversized hoodie, my sweats hanging loosely around my hips, "Well geez H, you could have warned me I looked like a schlep." The Keeper.  

"I capture the moment."

"At my expense," I grunt and turn the page.

"It's not my intention to make you feel sorry," He says softly. 

"I know, it's fine." Is it though!?

I know, I'm not your only.

But at least I'm one.

"What are these lyrics? Or poem? What is it?"

"I knew you didn't read it," He chuckles.

"Huh?" This picture is entitled The Healer. I'm sleeping again but this time my face is relaxed, my expression soft, my lips pulling into a slight grin. I look content. And I'm resting against Harry so it's obvious I'd feel that way. "Read what?"

"The song I wrote for you."

"Oh! Yeah the song . J-A-L-B-O-Y-H, an odd song title. But hey! You're an artist!"

"It's an acronym," He deadpans.

"Ha!! I knew it!" I take one last look at myself and turn the page. 

I heard a little love is better than none.

"I'm playing," I point to myself, find the text: The Runner . "When did you take this?"

"You were in your own world so I snapped the picture with my phone," He says. "I didn't have to go into stealth mode."

I giggle, "Nope. I had no idea." I inspect my face, my passion engrained in my features, my closed eyes. I was in the moment

"There's one more," He reaches over, turns the last page and it's of me and Ruby. We're in the park facing away, I'm gripping her leash walking towards the path we've taken on many occasions. I know what it is instantly.

"The life altering moment," I whisper. Just a little bit of your heart.

"Yes, it was."

I remain silent, only realize now I'm shaking from head to toe. How? When? Why?

Is it the lyrics? Is it the photos?

Is it a combination of the two?

I close the album eventually, "What happened that made it such?"

"You changed me," I burst into tears then, bite at my bottom lip to reign it in but it's no use. I'm a mess. I'm too far gone. "Please don't cry?" He takes hold of my bicep, pulls me towards him, "I know it was a bit much and the song probably didn't help but you were my inspiration." He hugs me close, kisses my hair. "The photos are a progression of our relationship, the emotions I felt when I captured them."

"Who ran?" I choke, grip at his hoodie for leverage, for stability, for anything to keep my body from falling apart. 

"You did. You ran, Louis. But it's okay. Relationships have their ups and downs. I gave you a reason to run-"

"I won't, H. Ever again. That's a guarantee. I will never run from you no matter how much it hurts me or how bad I feel," I swipe angrily at my cheeks. "You hear me? Never." I find his eyes and they're bloodshot, threatening to release a tear or two.

"Okay," He whispers. 

I kiss his lips, grip at his sweater once more, "And there's something I want to tell you but it'll have to wait because I'm afraid of your reaction. I fear it'll change the dynamic we've created."

He nods, kisses my lips this time, lingers a moment or two, "Sure." 

"Okay."

"Okay," He repeats.

I release my grip, swipe at my face, take a few deep breaths to compose myself, "So before this gets any more emotional, I got you a present too." I stand from the couch, find the gift resting against the wall behind the tree. "Ta-da!" 

"What?" He approaches, his fingers knotted, "It's a brown box."

I roll my eyes, "Yeah well, it needed to be shipped." I tug him over.

"Hey!" He collapses into me, lands head first into my chest. 

"Hmmm, you feel good, right there ," I say, my tone sultry. 

He pushes away though, "In a bit. I want to open this." He motions towards the box.

"Ugh, fine ," I scoot out of the way. "Be careful now."

"It's fragile?" He takes hold of it, sits on the ground. 

"Yeah, it is," I join him.

"Oh," He pulls the cardboard away, tears at the brown wrapping, "What is…" His eyes widen, his lips tug into a smile. "It's Venice. It's...the painting- the sunlight, the sunset! It's so beautiful."

"Remember the painter of light?" I fluff his curls, admire his sculpted jawline and excitement as he reveals more of the painting.

He nods, "The cottage in the woods." He whispers.

"Uh-huh. This is an actual cafe in Venice. The artist and his wife are in the gondola, their daughter too" -I point- "See?"

"Wow…" He pulls away the remaining paper, exposes the wooden frame. "Oh, Louis it's perfect. It's-"

"Use your imagination," I say.

He turns towards me, "What?"

"Picture us there, in that canal riding a gondola or maybe sitting at the cafe."

"Yes. I'm taking pictures of the sunset and passersby while you're bitching about the pastry being too stale."

I cackle, "Shuddup! I would not !!" 

"Sure," He continues to take in the painting. "Is this an original?"

"It is."

"Louis!" He bursts.

"What?" I run my fingers through his curls, focus solely on him and his beauty. Fuck the painting, he's the real work of art.

"This was probably really expensive-"

I shake my head, "Hang it in your bedroom. Think of me when you're looking at it, remember me bitching , supposedly. You know." I waggle my eyebrows.

His eyes are transfixed on the painting, "It really looks like the windows are lit up. The clouds have movement. The ripples in the canal…" He touches the canvas. "It's breathtaking." 

"You'll be there in person soon," I remind.

"I know," He glances my way then back to the painting. "But you won't be with me." He admits, his tone melancholy. "The experience won't be the same."

"Nah, don't say that. You'll forget all about me the second you land and when you hear that incredibly sexy Italian accent-"

"No," He snaps. 

"-because who can resist-"

"No!!" He cries, nearly drops the painting.

I recoil from his outburst, grip at my hoodie, "I was-"

"I will never forget about you, stop thinking about you, or stop imagining us sitting at that cafe together enjoying one another's company even if it's comfortable silence. I won't be able to fall asleep at night unless I hear your voice. And when I manage to succumb to sleep, I'll undoubtedly dream of your sweet face and beautiful blue eyes, fantasize of your slender fingers grazing my skin, pretend you're sleeping next to me holding me close and kissing my hair," His eyes are reddening and well, shit mine are expelling more tears than I thought possible. "And it'll be painful those first few nights we're apart."

"Yeah," I sniffle. He gently rests the painting against the couch. "I need a few of your sweatshirts."

"We can swap," He scoots closer, runs his fingers the length of my arm. 

"Y-yeah, anything. I'll need it, Ruby too. She misses you when you're gone."

He takes my hand, looks into my eyes, "You have no idea how much I miss you."

"Oh but I do. I do know because when you walk out that door it's like Stanley leaving me all over again. And for some reason…" His stare is penetrating, unwavering, "It's worse? I don't know how or why. But it is. It's like my heart leaves with you. Over and over again."  

He tightens his hold, "I won't go. I can't-"

"Absolutely not. You're not giving up this opportunity to travel for me. I'm just being dramatic and I have to learn to accept the fact that you'll be gone temporarily ."

"Yes."

"So, no H. You're going and don't say that again okay? You worked too hard to not go."

He leans towards me, places my hand over his heart. The chills are instant, "But Louis I didn't win."

"You proved to your old man you're confident enough to go. That wasn't an easy feat and you did it," I correct. "The contest was just a push in the right direction."

"It was."

"We'll FaceTime every night before you go to sleep. I can play for you and you can sing to me."

"Please?" He begs.

"Of course. I have to practice a new piece anyway." 

We're practically nose to nose, "Why?" He says, his voice just above a whisper.

"I signed up for a concert in February."

He frowns, "I won't be here."

"That's fine. I'll have Niall or Liam stream it for you. You'll probably mess up your sleep schedule because of the time difference-"

"I don't care. I'll stay up all night into the morning. I'll do whatever it takes to see you live." He kisses my lips. "I want to watch you."

"Sure."

"Will you sign up for another one after that?"

"Yeah," I nod. "I will."

"I'll be front row," He glides his hands up my arms towards my biceps.

"Taking pictures?"

His breath hits my cheeks, the coconut scent permeates my senses, "No."

"Then admiring the-"

"I'd be undressing you with my eyes," My breath hitches. "Slowly too as if my very own hands were removing the shirt off your back." His fingers graze my shoulders. "My imagination wouldn't give you any justice either."

I clear my throat, cup his cheeks, "W-why?" I stutter.

"It's impossible to replicate such perfection, such beauty, such luscious curves."

"Shuddup. You've never seen me completely naked."

"I want to change that."

I groan aloud, lick at my lips, "Don't say shit like that." I lean into him.

"Why?" He asks, his voice breathy.

"Makes me hot," I feel a twisting sensation in my gut, a swelling of desire in my groin. 

"Oh."

I swallow, "Yup."

"That's why I said it," He confesses.

"To leave me hanging on by a mere thread?" My boxers feel snug suddenly.

He sighs, "Maybe." 

"It worked. Happy?"

"Possibly," He pauses, licks at his mouth. "Actually yes, Louis. As a matter of fact, I am happy. Very happy."

I cup his cheeks, "You have that effect on me, you know."

"I do?"

"Always have. Always" -I kiss him, suck at his bottom lip- "will. And it'll never go away and that's sorta not fair because I can never control myself in front of you. Especially when you're like this."

He presses our foreheads together, "Like what?" 

"All touchy feely and sultry and sexy," I admit. "Like that ."

"Oh," His fingers flex. "I see."

"Yuh and I can't help but want more you know? Like, right now all I want to do is kiss you and hold you close."

"So why don't you?" He tickles the hairs at the nape of my neck, a movement he's come to enjoy.

"I don't want this moment to end that's why. Like if we were to kiss right now, that would be it. Then we'd fall asleep, wake up on Christmas morning and say goodbye," I drop my hands. "I don't want to say bye." I confess.

Harry's eyes soften, "It's see you later, Louis. Never goodbye. I'll never say goodbye to you."

My eyes well, "Are you sure?"

He nods, "Yes. I am."

"Okay," I cup his cheeks again. "I trust you."

He searches my face, "I... trust you, too. Wholeheartedly."

"Okay…that's, that's what I like to hear," I nod. "No goodbyes."

"Yes," He leans in.

"Never ever."

"Right."

"Then we can cuddle and sleep after we kiss."

"Mmm…" He's inches closer, "Sure."

"And maybe kiss a little more because it's fun."

"Louis."

"What?" 

"Shush."

"O-okay."

I close the remaining distance between us then and connect our mouths.

And he tastes better than I could have ever imagined, the combination of my toothpaste and lemon-lime seltzer, the coconut he recently applied. It's bombarding my thoughts and senses like a drug, crippling my motor skills, delving deeper into my subconscious. He's consuming me from the inside-out, planting a part of himself into my very being that will only continue to grow as we progress and not just physically. He's a vital part of me now, my heart beat practically, and I need him to breathe, to function, to simply be .

I need you now and always.

He grips my waist firmly then, pulls at my lips, pinches my skin through my sweats, moans against my mouth. He pushes me backwards towards the couch, slinks a finger or two underneath the elastic band of my boxers, bites at my lip. I can feel his jaw working underneath my palms, the motion unrelenting, his movements unrelenting . He's excited, he wants more, he wants to see me naked .

I bump into the couch, graze the painting with my shoulder. Oh shit! "H." I gasp. But he captures my mouth again refusing to stop, nudges me backwards instead, pushes his hands further down towards my ass. I whimper, nearly lose my strength but the painting scrapes on the floor then, forces me back to reality. I push at his chest to release our connection.

"What?" His hands are resting firmly on my ass, his lips grazing my own.

"The painting. I can't- it'll get knocked over," I pant.

His breath is hitting my cheeks, "Oh." 

"I don't want to ruin it," I manage. "Can we maybe get off the floor and move to my- well, my bedroom?" I say with uncertainty. 

"Yes," He whispers.

"Okay, cool. Yeah that's a good idea because that's where I keep-"

"Let's go," He pulls his hands free, stands up. 

"Um-" He grips my forearm, tugs me to my feet, "Yikes!!" I collapse into him from the momentum. "Someone's excited."

"I am," He leads us towards the entryway and past Ruby, "Hey girl." She ignores him as she chews at her bone. "Good it worked." 

Huh!?

His grip is firm on my arm, his fingers practically digging into my skin as if his excitement is too much for him to handle. Yeah. Now you know how it feels!

"Louis?" His voice is low, almost non-existent.

"Uh-huh?" My erection is rubbing against my leg and this guy wants to chat!? Dude!!

He stops before my room and I nearly sail forward into him, "I'm afraid." He's facing away.

"Why? Of what? Are you afraid of the dark? Or ghosts? Of my-" Dick?

"What if I can't get enough of you?" His words echo down the hall.

I rest heavily against the wall, "Isn't that the point?" 

"Is it?" He sounds faraway. 

"Yeah, H. You should want to lose yourself in someone, be part of them on an emotional level."

He turns on me, pins me against the wall and his chest, sends me further into my horny fog. I glance at him and he's a mess, his face is beat red, his eyes filled with unshed tears, "What if I already have?" He brushes any remaining fringe off my forehead, caresses my stubbled cheek. "What if you're all I think about? What if I…" He dips his head, looks to me through his lashes. 

"What?" I touch his waist, pull him towards me. He's staring me down still, speaking through his actions, "What if you-"

He kisses me instead, presses me into the wall, continues where he left off in the living room. 

I release a moan, completely disregard our exchange, and follow his lead.

.

.

.

.

I'm watching him sleep, running my fingers through his curls, admiring his soft lips. His breaths are even, the rise and fall of his chest in sync with my own, his occasional sigh my undoing. He's comfortable. He's no longer afraid.

He enjoys my cooties.

His youthfulness is apparent when he's this vulnerable, our age difference more of a concern because what if his feelings change? What if he doesn't want this for the rest of his life? What if I've fallen too quickly? Too confidently? What if he's using this time to gain experience? To use what he's learned from me on others? 

I groan at the memory of his persistence, his power, his hands and all of the pleasure he inflicted upon me. I bite at my lip as I recall our antics from earlier, clench my rear at the thought of him sinking deeper and stretching me wider than before, lick at my burning lips that were wrapped around his excitement. My scalp stings too when he tugged at my hair the moment he climaxed. He thrusted his hips in such a way I practically choked on him and sputtered all over the bed sheets. 

He wouldn't let up either. He left me a cowering mess on the bed clawing at his back and whining as if his touches were my life line. And what if it was? What if his touches gave me a thrill? What if he makes my heart truly beat?

I take in his features and the smooth plains of his face, fear the possibilities of what could happen when he's in Italy. Will his hands touch another as he did me? Will he give himself to another person and allow them to take his virginity? Will I be robbed of that special moment?

Will I be left heartbroken again

I shudder at the possibility, release a tear or two, grip at his curls, "You can't leave me." I sob quietly. "You hear me? You're- you're mine and I'm not sharing you with anyone." I lean towards him. "Don't break my heart."

Don't leave me jealous.

.

.

.

.

"You have to take all of those?" I point to the bag in his hand.

He nods, "Unfortunately." He empties the contents on my bedspread. "Watch Ruby? I don't want her accidentally ingesting a pill."

I grip her collar, "Are they expensive?" 

"Who cares? I don't want her getting sick," He uncaps each bottle one at a time, deposits a single pill, recaps it then throws it back into his bag. 

"Oh," I watch him sort the dozen or so tabs. He sets them in a row by size first, then color, then in a random order as if it never mattered to begin with. "What are you doing?" I ask eventually.

"Deciding which pill I should take first."

"Does it matter?" 

He wrings his hand, "Yes."

I roll my eyes, "Care to explain please?"

"One gives me severe stomach cramps and the other gets lodged in my throat."

My eyes widen, "What?"

"I need water," He announces.

I reach for him, "Harry, wait this shit-"

"It doesn't matter, I have to deal with it," He says.

"I get that but it gets stuck-"

"Usually."

"What do you do?"

"Chug water until it releases," He organizes them again as if to by himself time.

"That's scary. What if you choke?" I ask.

"My heart medication kills me and not the transplant itself. Interesting," He says, his tone mocking.

"It's not funny!" I counter, my tone angered at his nonchalance.

"I need water," He jumps off the bed, his bare ass on display for my hungry eyes only . "Watch her." He doesn't make a move to put on his sweats and leaves the room. 

" Fine ," I grunt and watch his butt sway as he moves. Ugh, it's cute. It's fine. I want to pinch each cheek. I want to lick all over. "Ugh…" I slump into the headboard. "What I would give…"

He rounds the corner with a glass, graces me with a full frontal view of his glorious body. Woah... woah. Down boy, down!!! He doesn't seem fazed by my gawking either.

He takes a seat at the foot of the bed, gathers the pills.

"Have you decided what order you'll take them in?" I ask.

He shakes his head, "No."

"So why color code them? Or group them? What's the point?"

He touches his chest, "I don't know." 

"Oh," I shrug. "Alright well, take em because your rides' gonna be here in an hour."

"Yes," He puts three pills to his lips, swallows them back with a sip of water. 

"The small ones hurt more?" He grunts in response, places a few more on his tongue, takes a mouth full of water. "Interesting. And the large one chokes you." I tap my lip.

"Not really anymore," He's nearly finished now.

"Huh? Why?"

He snorts, "Well, I've learned to relax my throat."

"To what? Breathe?" I roll my eyes. 

"No, to give you head," He places the horse pill in his mouth, begins chugging the remaining water as I watch him in disbelief. Alright!? He slams the glass on the nightstand next to the greasy lube bottle. His fault by the way

"Uh…" I swipe at my brow. "Right." 

"That worked," He shuffles over towards me, drapes the quilt over his legs.

"Looks like it did. You're breathing just fine."

He rests his head in my lap, nuzzles his nose into my stomach, "I give good head." He whispers. 

My body shivers, "You do, H. Very, very good head. And you do realize you're prancing around my home in the nude?" 

"I've failed to take notice," He curls his legs up, extends his arm out to Ruby who's curled up next to me.

"Yeah, you were swaying your ass and everything. Not gonna lie, it was a beautiful sight."

"Oh," He circles his free arm around his torso.

"Maybe we should make that a rule: remove your shoes and clothing. Unless your Niall. Or Liam," I pause. "Or anyone...not you and me." I finish. "Maybe we shouldn't make a rule." He remains silent. "H?" I bury my fingers into his curls. "Hello?" But he's fast asleep. "Sorry. I'll let you sleep a little longer." I relax into the headboard and doze off.

.

.

.

.

I'm nudged awake, "Louis?" Harry sounds pained.

"What is it?" I ask groggily.

He smashes his face into my stomach, "It's starting to hurt." He says, his voice muffled.

I open my eyes, "Your tummy?" 

"Uh-huh."

"How bad?" I rub at his back to ease his tension.

"Enough."

"It doesn't get any easier? You know, it's not something you've managed to build a tolerance for?"

"Did you build a tolerance for your heartache?"

I frown, "No but that's emotional pain not physical."

"Maybe but it doesn't make it easier-" He gasps then, maintains a firm grip on his stomach. 

I continue my rubbing, "It'll pass. Breathe through it." I assure. "Just gotta remove yourself from it, H. You need to think of the cottage in the woods, imagine the magic window, picture us in Venice." He remains silent, releases a steady breath. "Think of Ruby and her cute face and soft fur."

"Y-you too," He manages. 

My heart swells in my chest, "Yeah, H. Me too. Think of me all the time."

"I- I do."

"But now more so especially naked because you know my ass is perky."

"Especially in-" He chokes, "In…"

"It's fine," I hold him close. 

.

.

.

.

December 30.

I wish I were the rain runnin' down your

Neck, and drippin' from your fingers

Then I could be the drops rollin' off your

Back, I'd love to let it linger

Oh

I'm jealous of the rain

.

.

.

.

"Are you sure?" Harry asks.

I'm standing before my closet with my hands on my hips. I nod, "Yes, H I am. In my heart I know. New year, new me." I reassure, smile a sad smile, pretend my insides are not twisting into knots. "It's funny, I used to have the left side and him the right side." I take a step towards the racks, feel the resistance with each footfall. "But I guess I took over you know? I sort of wore everything, mixed it all up."

"On purpose?" He asks, his tone flat.

I glance at him, "Yes and no."

He's on the floor resting against the mattress, his legs extended before him and crossed at the ankle, "How so?" His hair is looping around his ears, grazing the nape of his neck, the curls now taking shape as they grow. He looks impeccable even in loose fitted jeans and an old gray hoodie- my old gray MSM hoodie.

I turn back around shamefully, "Some days it wasn't accidental. It was a necessity." 

"Because you felt alone?" 

I touch one of Stanley's t-shirts, "More than alone. It was like a knife cutting into my emotions, gutting me from the inside-out." I tug it off the hanger. "It was painful."

"Oh."

"Yeah and medicine couldn't help either."

"Not even alcohol?"

I inspect the shirt closer, find a small white stain which now I recall to be toothpaste, "It's doesn't penetrate deep enough."

"I see."

"It's bad," I drop it to the floor. "It was really bad." I take another shirt, rip it off the hanger as my anger surges. "So bad because I couldn't do anything." I throw it on the ground to start a donate pile. "It was so hard to forget, to move on, to let go!" I grab a bunch of hangers not caring if my clothes are mixed in, throw them into a heap. 

"Louis-"

I shove my collection of scarves off the top shelf next, kick at my sneakers and dress shoes, "I couldn't let go ! I couldn't let him go no matter how hard I tried-" I release a sob, tear at any remaining clothes I am able before collapsing to my hands and knees. But Harry catches me before I make contact with the floor, wraps his arms around my torso, holds me against his chest. He kisses my hair, nuzzles my neck, breathes me in. 

"N-nothing was ever enough," I cry into my hands.

"Let it out," He says against my ear. 

"No amount of tears helped me, or grieving, or praying. I was always alone." 

"Not anymore," He holds me closer. 

"So why does it still hurt? Why does a fucking t-shirt hurt me?"

"It's the sentimental value, Louis. It's who it belonged to that gives it worth."

"I don't want to feel that way anymore," More tears leak from my eyes. "I don't want to miss Stanley anymore."

He sighs, "You'll always miss him. He was part of your very soul."

"But I don't want it to hurt as much. I don't want a shirt to fill me with anger."

"Do you want to stop then? Is this too much for you?" 

"I don't know what I want to do anymore," My legs give out at the realization. 

He sits me down on the bed, grips both my hands, "I think you do know, Louis but you're just afraid to part ways with the very items you've sought comfort in. And it's a normal reaction, okay? The way you're feeling is expected."

"Are you…" I sniffle, find his bloodshot eyes. "Did you expect me to be this way?"

"Yes," He caresses my cheek. His eyes are soft, his features warm.

"Are you disappointed?" 

He shakes his head, "I'm concerned."

I blink the wetness away, "Why? For what?"

"You're trying to overcome too much in a short period of time and Louis I think you need to slow down."

I frown, pull my hands away from his, "I'm not. This was the plan. Ruby and I discussed it."

He inches closer, "And?"

"And it was supposed to work," I grip my ring finger, allow the tears to fall. "It was supposed to be freeing!"

"Oh."

"That's why I have to refill it," I insist. "I wanna put your sweatshirts in here so I can replace my sadness-"

"I'm not a replacement," He deadpans.

"I'm not saying you are !!" I grip my fringe, stare blankly at the floor, "I need to put your stuff in there, fill the empty spaces, make me- it whole . Make it whole."

"Louis, I-"

"Please?" I sob. "Give me a piece of you?"

"I already have," He whispers.

I look towards him, "What's that?"

"My heart."

.

.

.

.

"You weren't ready?" Liam asks.

I puff my cheeks, take a long swig at my beer, "I thought I was. But the second I started removing his belongings, it sorta made me realize I wasn't?" 

"So you're not finished yet?" Niall asks, his tone saddened.

"No, it's done," My chest tightens. All of it.

Liam nearly spits up his beer, "Seriously!? How? When? All alone?"

"Harry helped."

"So, the closet is cleared," Niall confirms.

"Uh-huh."

"The mailbox is changed."

"Yeah."

"The letter-" is still in my pocket next to Harry's song.

"Hey," A hand grazes my shoulder, a set of lips touch my temple. "Hi guys." Harry sits next to me, bumps our knees. "Sorry I'm late." He says to me.

"It's fine," I kiss him back, grip his hand. "How was dinner?"

"Good."

Niall places an unopened can of soda and glass before him, "How's it going?"

"Fine," He makes eye contact with my friend, manages a small smile.

"Hi! I heard you're going to Italy!" Liam leans over me, disregards my personal space. "You must be really excited."

"I am," Harry begins the process of cleaning off the can. 

"When do you leave-"

"Liam! You spilled beer on your coat!" Niall interjects.

"Huh? How? Where? I don't see-" 

Niall turns to me, "Lou, what did you want to tell me about the hospital."

"Oh," I grin. "So, Harry I was thinking Niall could sing to the children."

"What!?" Niall screeches.

"When?" Harry's hands stop.

"That's cool!" Liam pipes in as he searches his jacket sleeve for a stain that's probably not really there.

I cackle, take another sip of my drink, "When Harry is in Italy, Niall can sing to the kids." I repeat.

"I don't…" Niall shakes his head, "Me?" He points to himself self-consciously.

"Him?" Harry knits his eyebrows.

"I think it's a great idea actually," I turn to Liam. "Right?"

He nods, "I think so too. Niall's been itching to play again."

"Which Niall are you referring to because I never said that!"

"The blond one," Liam slides his empty bottle towards our friend. "He was the one complaining about his job."

"They'll love it," I say, look to my stunned boyfriend. "Right, H?" His mouth is ajar, eyes wide. "Yup. Harry agrees too." I finish off my beer. "So, who's ready for a shot?"

.

.

.

.

"Bring me another!!" I hold my pointer finger in the air, "Niall!!" I shout for my friend who's across the bar serving other guests.

"Louis," Harry grips my waist.

I lean into him, "Your fingers are touching me inappropriately ."

"Louis, you're very loud," He whispers in my ear.

"So is everybody else!" I look to the other boisterous customers, "See? And where are your flashy glasses?" 

"I'd rather not put anything on my face."

"Come on Harry," I groan. "You're ruining the fun. Liam has a pair too-" I turn to my friend but he's passed out on the bar top. "Ha!! Couldn't handle his liquor ." I poke his bicep. "Lima! Hey!!" I poke him incessantly, jab my finger into his arm. "Yoooo bean!"

"Louis, leave him be," Harry pulls me away from my friend.

"He needs me!" I insist.

"Liam needs a bed," He pushes me back into my chair. "Drink some water." He places a glass in my hand.

"No! I wanna have another drink," I sit up. "NEIL-"

"Shush!" Harry pushes me back again, "You're becoming belligerent." He huffs.

"What!? I am not belligerent! I'm not even dancing on the bar! Which...hey! That's not a bad idea!"

"What!?" I reach for the counter, heave myself forward, release the water and spill its contents all over the bar, "Louis! That's enough. We're leaving."

"You are such a buzz kill!" I smack into my friend.

"Wh-what, what happened?" He grumbles. "Lewis?"

"Lima Bean!!!" I reach for his arm, pull him towards me. "Buddy, ole pal of mine!" 

His eyes are hooded, his cheeks red, "Is it new years day yet?" 

"We still have a little over an hour," Harry responds, pushes me back into my chair. "Do you need anything?"

"Naaaah," My friend waves him off. "Just need…" He lies his head down on the bar and proceeds to snore.

"Noooo!" I shake his shoulders, "I need you to take another shot-"

"We're leaving though," Harry reminds.

I blow him a raspberry, "No way, Jose! I'm staying right here and ringing in the new year with my bestest friends!" I look to Liam who's passed out, then find Niall on the other side of the bar working. "Uh, well I guess-"

"I'll call an Uber for Liam," Harry says.

"He's staying with Neil. He doesn't need a ride home," I grunt.

"We're just going to leave him here?"

"He's left me plenty of times!" I say, "And he didn't care about me finding a ride home."

"Oh."

Niall approaches finally, "Well, Tommo, I guess you out drank Liam."

"Yuh," I pout. "Dude can't even handle a couple of shots."

"Neither can you."

"They both can't…" Harry murmurs.

"I totally can!!" I defend, look between them, "I am a brick wall!"

"No you're not. You crumble like sheetrock," He cackles.

"I do not!"

"Do to!"

"Do not!" I whack his arm.

"Do to!" He lunges over the counter, smacks my cheek. 

"Do not!!" 

"Do to-"

"Guys!" Harry holds me back, "The children at the hospital behave better than you."

"Well some of us are jealous," I snap.

"Some of us are delusional but that's none of my business," Niall retorts. 

"Some of us-"

"That's enough," Harry pulls me to my feet.

But I fight back, "I'm not going home!"

"Then where would you like to go, Louis?" My boyfriend asks, his patience wearing thin.

"In the back to sleep on the pool tables," Niall says, reaches for the upturned water glass. He swipes down the counter. "That's where he slept last year."

I nod proudly, "Drank all these assholes under the table!" I point to random strangers in the crowd. "All of em!"

"Sure, Jan," Niall replies.

"Are you able to handle him?" Harry gestures towards Liam.

"Yeah, he'll be alright eventually. I'll feed him a few mozzarella sticks and he'll sober up" -my friend pokes Liam's bicep- "enough."

"Okay," Harry puts his coat on. "Where's your jacket, Louis?" 

"Dunno," I shrug.

"Louis-"

"Niall, I wanna have another drink!"

He shakes his head, "Don't think so, Tommo. I think Harry's ready to leave."

"B-but it's New Years Eve!!" I whine, "I shouldn't be able to stand!! I'm too sober." I cry.

"You are causing a scene, Louis. Stop it and put your coat on," My irritating boyfriend demands. 

"No! You ruin all the fun!" I plant my ass back in the chair, cross my arms over my chest, "Fun Ruiner!!" 

"Louis…" He glowers, "I will carry you over my shoulder if necessary."

" You wouldn't dare ," I challenge.

"Wouldn't I?" He picks my coat up off the floor, drapes it over his forearm.

"No?" I grip the counter, "Right? You'd never-" 

He approaches, encircles his arms around my torso, "Let's go, shrimp."

"Hey!!" He lifts me up, "Niall!!" I cry out as I'm hurled over my boyfriend's shoulder.

"Ta-ta!" My friend waves at us. "Have a lovely evening!"

I flip him off, "Prick!" I kick my legs out, watch as the other patrons stare me down, drinks in hand. "All of you!!"

The door slams shut behind us cutting off the noise from inside.

Harry drops me to my feet, "Here put this on. You'll catch a cold."

"Fun Ruiner," I grab my coat and tug it on.

"Louis, you had enough," He takes my hand. 

"I didn't though. I could have had at least another two shots. At least ."

"You'd be on the floor unconscious and then we'd have an even bigger issue."

"That's why I have you to guide me home!" I skip down the sidewalk. "Duh."

"I'm not your caretaker."

"I'd be yours if you could drink."

"No, you'd leave me at the bar."

We round the corner, "I would not!" I frown, "I'd totally be your babysitter."

"Whatever you say," He opens the door for me. "Come on, up the stairs we go."

"You're not gonna carry me?" I purse my lips.

"You can walk it this time."

"Ha!! This time," I begin the climb. "You act like you've carried me before ." I pause mid-step. "Wait, have you?"

"Before tonight, no," He confirms.

"I'll keep that in mind for the future ." 

"It's probably for the best."

"Why?"

"Can't condone your drinking habit."

" Whatever ," I grumble. "It's like having fun is illegal or something."

"What?" He asks from behind me.

"Nothing!" We reach my door, "What time is it?" 

He pulls the key out, unlocks my door, "Eleven."

"Oh!! Can I get a New Year's kiss!?" I tumble into the apartment, find Ruby all bleary-eyed and adorable, "Girl!! Daddy's gonna get a smooch at the stroke of midnight!!"

Harry rolls his eyes, "That's if Daddy can stay awake."

"I totally can you fun ruiner," I kiss Ruby on the head.

"That's lame," He pulls back the Velcro on his sneakers, places them underneath the entryway table. "Louis, don't forget your sneakers."

"Duh!! It's my house and my rule !" I kick them off and remove my coat, "Hmm...I wanna have something to eat." I trudge to the kitchen in search of a snack. 

"What did you have for dinner?"

"Take-out!" 

"You couldn't at least try to cook something?"

"No- oh!! Scallion pancakes," I pull the container from the fridge and skip to the bedroom only to find it empty. "Harry!!" 

"What?" His voice echoes.

"Come to the bedroom ," I plop down with my food and munch away. 

"I'm petting Ruby."

"Why don't you pet me ?" I turn the television on, "Stroke me at midnight." 

He appears in the doorway with Ruby in toe, "You shouldn't eat on the bed. You'll get crumbs everywhere."

"I'll be sure to put them on your side then," I jest. 

He removes his sweatshirt, exposes a flimsy white T-shirt and a small snippet of his tum-tum, "Then I'll sleep on the couch." He sits next to me, leans against the headboard. 

"You wouldn't dare," I grunt. 

"Well, keep the crumbs to a minimum," Ruby jumps on next, lies next to Harry.

"Ugh!! Whatever to you . To both of you rather," I flip through the channels in search of any NYE special. "It's almost time."

"You're going to taste like a scallion when we kiss."

"So have one," I offer him a pancake. "Mmm so greasy and yummy!!" He takes a small bite. "Good." I finish it off. "I like sharing germs."

"I bet," He reaches for the remote, raises the volume.

"What's the deal ? Can't stand my voice already?"

"No, your chewing too loud. It's killing the vibe."

"You are such a meanie-weenie!" I smack him.

He glances at me, his lips curve into a small smile, "I thought I ruined all the fun?"

"You do that too! You're mean and a buzz kill."

"If you continue with the insults, I'll leave," He warns, his tone mocking.

"Nuh-uh! You can't," I abandon my food, lean into him, touch his soft curls. "You have to kiss me at midnight." I purse my lips, make sucking noises with my mouth.

He grimaces, "That's not very attractive."

"I'm attractive all the time , H." I attempt to climb into his lap but he stops me.

"Not right now," He pushes me away, crosses his legs at the ankle, tucks an arm behind his head. 

"And you're a cock blocker," I huff.

"Louis, will you stop and watch the television?" He motions with his chin.

"I wanna watch you ," I admit. "I wanna straddle your hips and hump you."

"Lovely," He says, his voice monotone.

"I wanna hump you until my hips hurt."

"Great."

"I wanna hump-"

"I know ," He quips.

"Oh." I sit back down, tug at my jeans that have since become a little too snug, ignore the sting of rejection. "Got it." I bite at my lip, glance at Harry's unexpressive face then crotch then back to his face. 

"What?" His eyes never waver from the show.

"If I didn't know you, I'd think you didn't like me. Actually I'd think you hated me."

"It's a good thing you understand who I am underneath my frosty exterior."

"Or read between the lines," I turn away, ignore the gnawing sensations in my lower abdomen, despise the fact that my drunkenness is ebbing away. And let's be real, I'm horny as fuck and my boyfriend just called me unattractive, snapped at me, turned me down! Great New Year's Eve! I groan to myself. 

I grip a pillow to my chest, hide my erection, and settle into the bed because what else is there to do? Nothing .

.

.

.

.

I'm nudged in the arm, "Hey, sleepy head." 

I stir awake, "Huh?" I mumble.

"It's almost midnight," His voice is directly in my ear.

"Cool," I grumble and turn over. But I'm poked in the stomach. "What!?"

"You said you wanted a kiss at midnight."

"So kiss my ass. Same thing," I snuggle the pillow closer.

"Maybe," He unwillingly pushes me onto my back, gently smacks my cheek. "Louis."

I blink my eyes open, find his green irises and curly head through my drunken haze, "Oh good, I've gone to heaven."

"Get up for a few minutes," He insists. "We can smooch and then fall asleep."

"Uh, maybe," The room starts to spin as I sit up. "How long was I out?" I rub my eyes, brush off some crumbs from the scallion pancakes. 

"Half hour or so," He scoots closer to me, drapes his arm across my shoulders. 

"Oh," I run a hand down my face, find my buzz very much buzzing .

"It's time, look," He points to the screen.

"Yup," I glance at him through my fringe, find his mouth and glorious neckline. I wanna kiss you. I think.

Ten.

It'll be easy.

Nine...Eight.

Really easy .

Seven.

Just kiss him.

Six...Five.

Even a little tipsy.

Four...Three.

Right? Just move my lips and tongue.

Two.

Yeah, I've got this.  

One.

Do it! 

"Happy New Year, Louis," He pecks my cheek, pulls away instantly. What if I want him now? What if I just kissed him and took control? I'm staring him down. "What?" He asks. Yeah!!

"I uh...well-" I tuck a stray curl behind his ear, "I want a real kiss is all." I smirk a lopsided grin, waggle my eyebrows.

He shakes his head, "No, Lou-" 

I capture his lips before he finishes his thought, press him against the headboard, trail my fingers up the inseam of his jeans towards his crotch. I use the alcohol as my guide, allow my body to speak for itself, shut his denial down and prove he needs this too.

He groans against my mouth, pushes back to eliminate any space between our chests, stirs my already surging libido. He's kissing back with urgency, his lips massaging and sucking, his fingers exploring and scraping at my exposed skin. I reach his crotch then and press my palm into the bulge just underneath his jeans, bite at his bottom lip. I need you . My brain screams. I need you more than this

I break away from his delicious mouth, press his shoulders back into the headboard, take in his features. His lips are bright red and slick with saliva, his eyes practically two black pits, his cheeks flushed. And it's like my barriers shattered within seconds, any ounce of willpower I thought I possessed vanished because I need him. I need you.

I need you!!

I straddle his hips, cup his cheeks, and conjoin our mouths with more vigor than before. I'm completely gone, the lingering alcohol surging me forward, the images of being closer to him bringing forth my confidence. There's nothing that can stop me from finding my release, finding him , finding myself. So I continue on.

I drive my hips down, am met with his own excitement, find my body burning from within the further I go. His movements are urgent as well, the strength in his hands as he moves across my back, the movements in his hips direct. 

He quickly removes my shirt, grips at the waistband of my jeans, claws at the denim as if to shred them with his barehands. I push myself into him, beg him with a series of high pitched moans to undress me, implore him to touch. I move to his neck, scrape at his delicate skin with my stubbled cheeks, savor in the whines he fills the room with. It echoes throughout the space, fills me to the brim with a gnawing hunger a simple hand job could never satisfy. I need more. So much more.  

I blindly reach for his own shirt, tug at the material, hear a slight tear. 

"Louis," He calls my name. I trail my fingers up his torso, bunch the shirt as I do. "Remove it." He begs. " Remove it ." I lift away from him then, find the desperation in his eyes. 

I pull the ripped cotton free and throw it to the floor, kiss his lips, trail down his chin and throat, glide my tongue along his collar. I remain here for a moment, lick at his flawless skin, suck gently as to not leave any marks. The coconut is powerful, penetrating my nostrils, reminding me of his scar. The scar

I move further down, come in contact with his chest, kiss at the raised skin. He cups my neck, thrusts his hips, whines into the air as I continue. I don't care it's beautiful . You're beautiful

"I want you," I slip up in a moment of weakness. "Harry? I need you." I beg as I continue to gently kiss his scar, my voice muffled against his chest. He remains silent though, runs his fingers through my hair, down my back and towards my ass. He doesn't make a move to touch me bare which is a let down.

My erection is throbbing underneath my jeans, rubbing against my leg and zipper, screaming at me to be released and pleasured. I lift away from his chest, wrap my arms around his neck.

"Harry?" I sit on his thighs, rock my hips, search his face. His eyes are closed . "I want to have sex with you." I rush out before the moment passes.

His hands grip my ass in response.

"I've waited, I was patient, I gave you time."

"I'm ready," He says, his voice gravely. 

My body surges forward, "So please I-"

" You're not ready," He opens his eyes, stares me down.

I flinch, sit up in his lap, "What are you talking about? I'm not the virgin, H. You are."

"You're still too tight," He deadpans and I think my face turned ten shades darker.

"Uh…" I puff my cheeks, "That's a possibility. But how would you know?"

"Porn," He admits unabashedly. 

"Well, they're loose, H. Very loose. Like throwing a hotdog down a hallway loose. That's all they do. So yeah I mean it'll be snug," I shudder.

"You drank too," He touches my neck, looks me in the eyes. "I don't want you drunk. Even now, I don't-" He diverts his gaze. "I want you sober, all the way sober even if we're just kissing. It feels off after you've consumed alcohol." 

"I'm not drunk anymore," I lie. "I haven't felt the fogginess since I woke up." Lie. Maybe I'm not that drunk after all.

"Doesn't matter," He looks to me again and I nearly gasp because his eyes are bloodshot and so close to tears. "I don't want to take advantage or have you forget."

I place my palm over his beating heart, feel a wave of comfort flood my veins, "Okay." I agree. "Anything for you, anything to make you feel special and comfortable."

"If anything I'd want you to feel comfortable," He counters.

"Yeah well…" I shrug because the discomfort is inevitable, "I'll be alright."

"Will you? Are you sure?" He searches my eyes for the answer.

"I know what to expect. I've had sex before, remember?"

"I know," He frowns. "Makes me jealous."

"Well, I can't go back in time, H. So I can't apologize for that," I roll off his lap.

"I'm fully aware."

"Don't get all snippy," I release the button and unzip my jeans to release my erection. 

"I'm not snippy," He pouts. 

"Yes you are and sorry to burst your bubble but you get cranky too."

"Occasionally."

"You're a funny one."

"Are those people really loose?" He asks unexpectedly.

"Huh? Porn stars?" He nods, "Oh shit yeah. They probably don't even have to prep or anything. They just sort of dive right in."

He touches his bare chest, "I don't want to hurt you." He confesses, his voice just above a whisper.

My eyes soften, "I mean look, it sucks. I'm not gonna lie but once you get past the first few minutes, it's incredible."

He grips his palms, "Should you, you know, maybe you should go first then?" 

"What d'ya mean?" I find my shirt, tug it over my head.

His cheeks redden, "Should you top?" 

"Oh!" I chuckle, "Well, I usually did, H."

He begins to rub feverishly, "Then I assumed wrong."

"Is this another inadvertent height joke?" I grip his hands.

"No," He pauses, bites at his lip. "You're just so dainty and cute and thought that's what you preferred."

"And you're manly and ruggedly handsome." I smirk. "The perfect top."

He chuckles but it's forced, "It's the Velcro, I know."

"Must be," I inch closer to him. "I usually topped but we shared that. Gets boring doing the same thing over and over."

"Oh."

"And it's your first time, you should enjoy it," I insist.

"You didn't like your first time?" He asks, his curiosity evident.

"Not really but we were both virgins. You've got me to show you!" I point to myself, "No worries."

"Are you sure?" 

"Oh yeah," I squeeze my fingers. "Don't worry."

"It's hard not to knowing it's going to be painful for you," He turns away.

"Better me than you."

"I don't want you to hate it or regret doing anything with me because I'm so inexperienced."

"You said the same thing about kissing!" I loop my finger around a curl, "And look how well that's turned out!"

He shrugs, "I suppose."

"No supposing, H. You're wonderful," I touch his cheeks, kiss him square on the mouth. "And don't you forget that."

"I'll try," Ruby barks from her place on the bed.

"What girl? Didn't like me touching your favorite human?"

"I'm not her favorite," He denies.

"Yeah you are, slick. So get used to it," She jumps off the bed, walks to the door. "Ah, yes. She needs to go out."

"Who's going to take her?" Harry asks.

"How hard are you?" 

He flinches, "What kind of question is that?" 

I turn to him, "A simple one really." He reaches for his discarded shirt. "So tell me, how hard are you? So hard you need to jerk off now ? Or hard enough where you can wait another twenty minutes."

He touches his crotch, sends my already raging libido through the roof, "Pretty hard." 

"Okay. I'll take her out."

"What if I want you to suck me off though?" He asks, his tone innocent.

"Then sit on your hands," I stand, yank my jeans into place. 

"Sure," He approaches, kisses my lips. "And I'll, you know, make good use out of these." He wrings his fingers in front of my face. 

"I'll be sure to make it quick . "

 

Chapter Text

STUPID DEEP, Playlist

 

January 02.

I don't know if I'm excited or worried.

I don't know how he'll react.

I don't know what I'd do if I hurt him.

.

.

.

.

I'm seated at the edge of the bed. My brain is a mess, my thoughts jumbled, my eyes filled with unshed tears. I haven't moved since I showered. In fact I'm still wrapped in my towel because I haven't the strength to get dressed. My limbs are heavy, my fingers numb from the grip I have on my letter and the nightstand drawer. And it's right here, this very moment, it's the end of a chapter, the cure for my struggles and uncertainties. This will allow me to officially move on and put the past behind me.

But I suppose that could explain why I'm unable to get dressed. It's sucking me dry, testing my control over my emotions and ability to function, burning a hole in my heart. It's Stupid Deep. So fucking deep it's splitting me in two. But it's being filled right? The gash is slowly healing itself? I'll feel-

I release a sob unexpectedly, attempt to breathe through the surging anguish in my gut, "Oh, God." I scrunch my eyes closed, grip the letter tighter. "It's f-fine, Lou." I take a quivering breath. "You're more than this." I convince myself. "If you can't do this, then how do you expect to give Harry your all? He'll know- he'll know!! And I can't do that. I can't lose him because I think- I think-" 

I pull the drawer open.

"Fuck," I blink my eyes open, allow a couple of tears to escape. "It'll be right here. Right next to me when I sleep." My body trembles. "If I ever need you, Stanley, if I ever need a reminder of you, of us, of our love, of our life we created, I know I'll find you here tucked away. And I'll never forget you, okay? You'll always have a special place in my heart, you'll always live in my thoughts and memories, I'll keep you close no matter what."

I bite at my lip, pull the drawer wider.

"No matter what," I repeat. The letter is hovering over the contents of my nightstand now. "You'll never be buried." My fingers release it, allow it to drop inside. "I-" I almost lunge after it, reach for it, take it into my grasp, hold it close and kiss the rumpled edges. But I slam the drawer closed instead, shut out that part of my life for a moment and break down into my hands.

.

.

.

.

"Niall! This way," I wave to my friend who's at the elevator bank. 

He finds me peering from around the corner, "Got it. Coming." He picks up his pace, clutches at the strap on his guitar case. "I tuned her last night." He says as he approaches.

"Good, I'm sure the kids will appreciate not losing their hearing," I waggle my eyebrows, drape my arm across his shoulders.

"Shut it, alright? I'm nervous."

I stop us before the door, am able to hear Harry singing to the children.

Blackbird singing in the dead of night

Take these broken wings and learn to fly

All your life

You were only waiting for this moment to arise

Blackbird singing in the dead of night

Take these sunken eyes and learn to see

All your life

You were only waiting for this moment to be free

Blackbird fly, blackbird fly

Into the light of a dark black night

Blackbird fly, blackbird fly

Into the light of a dark black night

Blackbird singing in the dead of night

Take these broken wings and learn to fly

All your life

You were only waiting for this moment to arise

I shake my head, turn to my friend, "Don't be, Neil. You're a professional, it's in your blood and just because some overrated record company hasn't noticed your talent then it's their loss." I poke his chest. "Know that in your heart you've got what it takes. You were well educated, well rounded, and a damn good song writer."

"Yeah well without any sort of contract I'm a nobody," He frowns, reveals his distress. "And if I can't sell at least one song I think I'll have to find something else to do."

"Like what?"

"Open up my own bar."

I tap my lip, "That's not a bad idea. Where would you go? Some place in the village? Or Queens?"

Niall pauses, looks to the ground, "I'd probably leave New York, Lou."

My heart sinks, my eyes widen, my breath hitches, "You can't though." I rush out. "You can't leave New York. This is our city, our place to hang out, ours!!" 

"I'm not getting anywhere here! I'm at the same bar I worked for when we were in college, I'm not progressing in life, I'm too stagnant. I need a change."

"Shit, Neil. You just ruined my year," I sulk, drop my arm from his shoulders. 

"I know and I don't want to leave you because after all we're best friends but I think it's what's best for me long term and I have to keep that in mind. I'm sorry," I look to him, find his puppy dog eyes and downturned lips.

"I get it, " I reluctantly agree.

"And you have Harry now. You're back on your feet. You're almost the same Louis I grew up with. The same pain in the ass I want to smack around on occasion," He nudges my arm. 

"Yeah well, don't forget I have an inch on you."

"Ha! You wish, Lewis you wish-" There's clapping coming from the room. "Oh shit. Is it time?"

I peer around the corner, find Harry in his usual place talking with Ed, showing him the chords to the song, "I think so."

"A-alright," Niall quickly fixes his hair, takes a deep breath. "I'm ready."

I smirk, "Okay!" I grip his forearm and lead him inside. "Kids!! Look who I've got here!" I point over to my friend.

"Who's that?" Olivia asks, "Why does he have a guitar?"

"I thought Harry sang to us?" Ed says next.

"Or maybe he's a special guest?" Jackson adds.

"Wow he's cute," Diana says, her cheeks pink.

"Uh…" Niall turns five shades darker, diverts his gaze to the floor.

"He is. Very handsome indeed," I nod. "Kiddies, meet Niall. Niall, meet kiddies."

"We're not kiddies ," Diana snaps.

"My apologies," I turn to Niall. "Diana is a young woman. The rest are babies." I cackle.

"Louis…" Harry groans. 

"What? What did I do?" I shrug, wink at Olivia.

"He's Robin , Harry," She corrects. "He's undercover because we're on a secret mission."

"Uh-huh, it's so secret even I don't know what it is!" 

"I suppose," Harry looks to the children. "This is Niall everyone. Say hello."

"Hi! I like your fluffy hair!" Diana says first. She's in a Knicks basketball jersey and shorts that reach just above her knees. She's also wearing thick knee-high socks and fuzzy pink slippers. Her head is covered with an orange beanie too. She likes her sports. 

"Thank you," Niall says. 

"Are you singing to us?" Ed asks.

"I am."

"Will you tell us the name of the songs you play?"

My friend shifts his weight, "Sure-"

" Before you sing them?" Ed probes.

"I mean-"

"And maybe share the chord progressions too?"

Niall expels a breath, reveals his unease, "If that's what you want-"

"Let him sing!" Jackson says, or should I say Captain Jack? 

"Yes, so here Niall," Harry stands up, reveals the little red plastic chair.

"I have to sit there ?" Niall points in disgust, "I don't-"

"You have to sit in the chair ," Diana points. "It won't be the same if you didn't. "

"If that's what I have to do-"

"What song are you singing?" Ed continues.

"You don't want to be surprised?" I ask as I take a seat next to Olivia. 

"Never," The boy confirms. "I need to know."

I chuckle, "He's a demanding little one, Neil. Hope you can handle it."

My friend plops down in the chair, faulters slightly as he loses his balance, "That's low." He mumbles.

Diana laughs, "Don't hurt yourself!"

"Never," He unzips his guitar case. "So I-"

"What's it called?" Ed asks.

"Why don't you let him speak first?" Harry says. He takes a seat next to me, leans back on his hands, crosses his legs at the ankle.

"I figured I'd ask right now before he goes off on some rant about random things." 

Harry snorts, "Oh, I see." He looks to my friend. "Avoid tangents, Niall."

His blue eyes widen, "Are you sure I'm the right fit?" He shoulders his guitar.

"I think so!!" Diana says excitedly.

"Let's hear him play now," Olivia says.

"Yeah! Play!" Jackson waves his plastic sword in the air.

"Watch that, Jackson," Harry warns.

The boy slumps his shoulders, "Sorry."

Niall strums at the guitar, bites at his lip. His face remains calm as he plays the simple melody. "Okay so-"

"Song name please?" Ed interjects.

Harry sighs, "Ed I think-"

"What's the song you sang before?" The boy turns around towards my boyfriend.

"Blackbird."

"By who ?"

"The Beatles."

"Oh! He actually told me," He giggles, faces Niall again. "What's your song? Did you write it? Why did you? What was your inspiration?"

Niall looks to the children, "It's a song I wrote a while ago actually."

"How long?" Jackson asks. 

"Dunno, maybe a year? A little more now that I think about it," He seems faraway. 

"Why?" 

"Someone I knew was hurting and it sort of inspired me to write about stepping out of your comfort zone, realizing you'll never know what life's like until you tried . I sort of put myself in their position to understand what was going through their head," He begins to strum at the guitar. "And it's helped." He glances towards me and I think my heart stopped beating. Uh oh

"Who?" Olivia asks.

"Well, me. It helped me because I was able to help the person I knew."

"You did," I blurt. I clamp my mouth shut, slap my hand over my face.

"Huh? Who?" Diana looks between Niall and myself, "You helped Louis-"

"Robin!!!" Olivia squeals.

"-get out of his comfort zone?" My cheeks flare.

"Sort of?" Niall says, "He seems okay now, right?" The children turn towards me, gaze at me as if I have a target painted across my forehead. 

"He looks a little pale," Jackson comments. "Are you okay?"

"Uh…" I touch my cheek.

"Yeah. Robin you need to go to sleep," Olivia says.

"Maybe?"

"Were you crying?" Ed asks and my stomach lurches.

"Huh?" Harry touches my forearm instinctively, "I did?" I play dumb.

"Your eyes are a little red," Diana observes. 

"He has allergies," Harry lies. 

I look to the floor, "So bad too. I had an attack this morning." I fake a sniffle. "I sneezed all over!" I plaster a smile on my face, turn to my friend. He's stone faced. Fuck. "So bad." I continue playing along. 

"So anyway, why don't we allow Niall to sing?" Harry suggests. Thank fuck . They turn back around and I can finally breathe. "Are you singing to us forever?" Jackson asks.

Niall smirks, "Nah, just until Harry here comes back from his trip."

"Oh…" Diana sighs. "You're cute."

"Thanks! It's the brown locks, I know." 

I watch my friend interact with the children, find an immediate connection between them and realize they'll both be fine.

Right?

Me too . I think. Me too .

"Finally Free," Niall says. "By yours truly. Live. In the flesh. Here we go!" The kids giggle with delight, clap their hands as the rhythm of the song takes shape and picks up in tempo. 

Harry takes hold of my hand, places it in his lap, shows his support in the form of a comforting gesture because what exactly did Niall write? And how did they see the residual tears?

Standing here on my own

Yeah, the first step's the hardest

When you're walking into the unknown

It's been dark, and it's been cold

Had my head in the clouds

Never knowing what lies down below

Then you spoke your truth with no secrets

Told me, "use your heart while it's beating"

When you're right here beside me

There's nothing else I need

Your eyes keep me reminded

That nothing's out of reach

When you're with me

It feels like I'm finally free

Feels like I'm finally free

.

.

.

.

"What did you cry about?" Harry asks the following day.

I've just returned from work and am still in a fog, "Huh?" I kick off my dress shoes, tug at the stiff leather belt hugging my waist. "When?" I trudge to the bedroom.

"Yesterday."

"All my troubles seemed so far away," I sing. "Now it looks as though-"

"Louis," Harry follows after me. "I'm serious."

"So am I," I sit at the foot of my bed, unzip my slacks. "Ruby?" I look for my dog. "Where is she?"

He points over his shoulder, "Eating in the kitchen."

"Ah that's right of course, Harry is here," I refrain from rolling my eyes and yank off my bottoms instead.

"Stop," He's standing before me in his socked feet and cuffed jeans.

"Stop what ?" I continue to undress, my movements jerky and rough.

"You're being curt with me and I don't appreciate it."

"I'm trying to get changed, H. What do you want from me? To do a dance and sing? Plaster on a fake smile and act like I'm okay ? Is that what you want? Huh!? Then fine . Here it is!!" I jump to my feet and get in his face, force a large toothy grin, show Harry to please him. "Happy?" I snap.

His arms are folded across his chest, "No." He says, his tone unenthused.

I throw my hands in the air, "Then I give up ."

"You're biting your nails again," He comments as if it really matters at the moment.

"Well, shit I had no idea!" My anger surges.

"Louis-"

"It's like I wasn't aware of it or something ! It's my hand!!" I hold it up to his face, "See!? It's attached to my arm-"

He shoves my hand aside with such force I nearly lose my footing and proceeds to wrap me in an impossibly tight embrace, the movement leaving me completely stunned and helpless.

He cradles my head against his collar then, cups the nape of my neck, holds me close to his beating heart and warm chest. 

He begins humming the lullaby too, gently rocks us with the melody, lifts me up and away. So far away because I need it.

Goodnight my angel, time to close your eyes 

And save these questions for another day 

I think I know what you've been asking me 

I think you know what I've been trying to say...

And I collapse into him, allow the weight to disappear, forget that my day was more stressful for no apparent reason other than the fact that I didn't have my letter. And I can't deny it. I'm not okay.

I promised I would never leave you

Then you should always know

Wherever you may go, no matter where you are

I never will be far away.

A tear escapes my eye, soaks into the soft material of his Hawaiian shirt adorned with little red cars and palm trees.

He squeezes me, hums a couple more lines, "Better?" He whispers into my ear eventually, kisses my hair. I nod against his shoulder, bury my face into his collar. I make no attempt to move. "Bad day?" I sob a nonsensical answer. "I see." His voice is gentle. "Does this help?"

"Uh-huh," I croak.

"I won't let go."

"Please," I cry.

"Anything for you."

.

.

.

.

"Better?" He's running his fingers through my fringe, sitting so our legs touch. 

I nod, lean into him.

"What happened?" He asks, "You've barely touched your dinner." 

I gently gnaw at my thumb, "It's-" I bite back a sob because how do I tell him about the letter? He expected to be apart of the process, wanted to support me, hold me and I did this alone? The hardest transition? How? "Just uh…" I swipe at my nose. "You're leaving soon." I lie, sort of. Fuck.

Harry sits back into the sofa, eyes me quizzically, "Yes."

"And-" I turn away to hide my reddening face, "And I'm sad, H okay? And I'm sorry I lashed out at you. It was wrong of me."

"Oh."

"I suppose it's effecting me more than I'm willing to admit but I can't do this to you, so I'll redirect my anger and maybe pick up kickboxing."

"Or bite your nails?" He takes my hand, massages my palms. 

"I know. You hate it," I sigh. 

"It's unsanitary," He confirms.

"It is. But I'm not the one who's OCD."

"It was worth a try," He squeezes my fingers. 

"Yup," I frown, turn to the Twitch video. "Ah man, Star Fox 64. This was a classic. Did you ever play it?"

He shrugs, "No. I was never into Nintendo 64."

"Right," I sit back and watch mindlessly, remain silent for who knows how long.

"Does Ruby need to be walked?" He says after some time.

"Uh-huh," I mumble.

"Want me to take her?" He asks.

"Nah, I'll go," But I don't move and continue to stare blankly ahead. 

"She needs to go, Louis. She's by the door," He urges.

"Okay, yeah," I stand from the floor, casually grip my ring finger. 

Harry rushes to my side, "I want to come."

"I can go alone it's not a big deal-"

"I want to come," He says. "I'll get your coat, put her harness on."

"Um…" I shake my head, "Okay sure." I find the leash in the entryway table. "Come, Ruby." I kneel beside her, kiss her head. "Ready for a walk?" She shifts her weight, licks at my face. "Eeewwww." I mock my disgust. "Ruby slobber is the worst and the smelliest!" I buckle her harness on, adjust her leash. "But damn she's the cutest pup!" I coo, scratch behind her ears.

"Here," His footfalls echo down the hall. "I have a pair of shoes too."

"Thanks," I stand up and face him. "She's ready." I motion towards Ruby.

"Good," He nods.

I tug my coat on, slip on my sneakers, "Okay girlie, let's go for a walk." I pocket my keys, nearly faulter when I find the letter missing. Fuck- JALBOYH . It's there .

"What is it?" I hear my boyfriend from behind me.

"I thought I forgot something is all," I offer him a weak smile but it's no use, I can't pretend right now.

He remains impassive, grips at his palms instead, "Sure."

"So let's go?" 

"Yes."

.

.

.

.

I empty my pockets onto my friend's coffee table, "See?"

Niall eyes the mess, "Alright, keys, wallet, phone…" I continue on, throw a lighter, a pack of cigarettes- "Louis, you're smoking?" He asks in disbelief. "What the-"

"Don't start," I remove the folded piece of paper next, nearly collapse the moment it slips from my grasp.

" You shouldn't start!" He scolds, shakes his head, "Dude, what the fuck is wrong?" 

"Look!!" I point, "What's missing?"

"Doesn't matter, man. You're smoking?"

I plop down on the couch, "I only bought it, haven't opened it yet." I admit. "It's for emergencies, you know just in case I need to release some anxiety."

"Anxiety?" Niall repeats, "What are you anxious about?"

I chew at my index finger, shrug nonchalantly, "You know, stuff."

" What ?" He snaps.

"The letter," I whisper. "It's not here."

Niall looks over my belongings once more, "Yeah that ratty envelope isn't here. What happened to it?"

"It's- it's home in my nightstand," I confess. "And it's been hard because I decided to do it alone-"

"Why?" Niall interjects, "Why did you do it alone? What did I tell you?"

"It felt like the right thing to do-"

"Not alone !!" He shouts.

I flinch, "Damn it, you've been yelling at me a lot. I'm starting to develop a complex."

He grips his hair, reveals his anger, "Because you have people that want to support you and these moments are triggering for you! That's why!"

I turn away, bite at my already chewed up lip, "I know."

"So what gives? Why are you torturing yourself when you know you don't have to?"

"I have to make sure I can handle it. I need to be sure I won't fall apart when everyone in my life leaves me even if it's temporary. It's a test."

"And how are you managing?" He asks. He's pissed. Or sad for me?

"Not well. It's damn near impossible to even fake it," I murmur.

"Did you tell Harry?"

I shake my head, "I couldn't. He'd be so upset."

"You'll have to tell him eventually," He states the obvious.

"I know but when I do I can tell him I survived, assure him that I'll be okay when he's away."

"He won't take that well," Niall's tone is all wrong. He's upset with me.

"Of course not! He'll probably ignore me for a while, make me feel sorry," I puff my cheeks. "Make me feel worse…"

"And you'd deserve it."

That stung, "Probably."

He ticks off his fingers, "Because you're biting your nails, smoking, which I can't even believe you've considered picking up-"

"I look for my ring too," I blurt. 

He sighs, runs a hand down his face, "Fuck, Lou."

"I know," My lip trembles. "I know and it's like I'm back at square one."

"But it's not possible…"

"I wish it weren't either, Neil but I'm walking away from his grave all over again, watching his family grieve and acting as if I never existed, as if I was never part of their son's life," I swipe at my eye. "B-but I was, you know? I was his husband. I was family ."

"Louis-"

"And leaving that letter was supposed to help me but it's…" I drop my head in my hands, suck in a deep breath. I feel my friend's gentle touch on my shoulder, "It's like he died all over again. It's like I'm reliving the same sadness, emotions, confusion and it's more intense because I felt it before. I know how debilitating it can be, how crippling."

"But you have-"

"Harry. I have Harry and Niall-"

"You need to go to him okay? You can't do this anymore."

I lift my head, swipe at my nose, feel my stomach twist, "What d'ya mean? You don't wanna talk to me anymore?" 

His eyes soften, "Of course I want you to! But Lewis you need Harry, okay? You need him. And for some reason you're shutting him out."

I shake my head, "Only to prove to myself-"

"That you need him ."

"What if-" I lose my train of thought as another idea crosses my mind. "Niall there's something I have to say, okay? And it's like, another test," I wring my fingers. "It's another test on an emotional level."

He sighs, "How? What? I'm so confused."

"It's a test on Harry's emotions," I continue. "It's to confirm how he feels about me."

"Wait, Lou? What are you saying?"

"I'm in love with him."

.

.

.

.

I'm huddled into my coat recounting my conversation with Niall, reliving the shock, the happiness, the scepticism because holy fuck that's why this hurts so much. I'm in love, Stanley. I'm in love and it's not with you anymore . I stop at the corner, lose feeling in my knees, sob into the back of my frigid hand. My heart lost you twice . And something about that small truth hurts more than watching the life fade from his eyes. 

.

.

.

.

"Hey," Harry greets from the hallway. He's in sweatpants, a black beanie, and a pair of old pink Chuck's. His peacoat doesn't match the ensemble but it's evident he was in a rush to come over.

"Hi," I wave, open the door wider for him.

"I came as soon as I could-"

I interrupt him though to explain my compulsive behavior, "I know you're packing, H. It probably isn't easy getting four months worth of shit organized. But I guess I'm being selfish and wanted to see you." He steps inside, is immediately bombarded by Ruby. "And maybe I should have came by you-"

He pets Ruby's back, scratches behind her ears, "I want to be here." He confirms.

My heart stutters, "Well, I still could have came to you and helped you pack, you know? Kept up the momentum."

"I needed a break," He kisses Ruby on the head. 

"Oh."

"And I'd rather you not walk alone at night," He takes my hand, pulls me towards him.

I follow his lead, "I could always call an Uber." I say breathlessly.

"Why waste the money when I could be driven for free ?" He cups my smooth cheeks.

I shrug, "Dunno. I guess I'd do whatever it takes to get to you."

His thumbs rub across my skin, "Whatever?" He whispers.

"Yeah. Is that crazy?" I knit my eyebrows, "Like does that scare you?" I slink my hands beneath his sweatshirt, grip his firm waist.

He shakes his head, "It's beautiful."

I sigh my relief, "Thank God-"

" God ."

"-because... ugh!!!" I pinch his torso, make him squirm.

His hold on my face is unrelenting though, "You've been so good."

"I suppose…" I look between his green irises, "I want to play you something."

"Is that the real reason why you called me?"

I puff my cheeks, "Partly. But I just really want to spend my time with you."

His lips tug into a smile, "Then sure, Louis. Play for me."

"It's for my concert next month," I add.

He kisses my lips. "What will you be playing?" 

"Chopin."

"He composed many pieces. Which one is this exactly?"

I lead him to the living room, "Nocturne-"

"Do you enjoy Nocturnes?"

I sit at the piano, pat the bench, "They're pretty."

"That's a good reason," He removes his coat, takes a seat. "So, Chopin."

"Yeah. Niall said he wanted to hear me perform Chopin again so I sorta got my inspiration from him." 

He picks up the score, "Nocturne 19 in E minor. What is O-P?"

"Opus."

"Opus 72, number 1," He snorts. "That's a mouthful."

"Usually," I begin my warm up. "But that's how composers catalogued their work." I reach the last key, then work my way back.

"I see."

I change key signatures, "I've never played this before."

"Do you have it memorized yet?"

"Nope but I'm getting there," I drop my hands in my lap, glance at him. "I want you to close your eyes and really feel the emotion of this piece."

"I enjoy watching you play though," He grips his palms.

"I know but just this one time close your eyes," I insist. "You'll thank me later."

"Am I able to thank you now and pretend I closed my eyes?"

I nudge him with my elbow, "Harry."

"Oh," He rubs at his arms then. "Just got a chill."

"Why? Are you okay? Is there a draft?" I turn to the window, "I know the heat is-"

He pulls me to him, places his lips to my ear, "I like the way you say my name," He whispers, his tone sultry.

And now it's my turn to flinch, " Oh ." 

"Yes," He hisses. "And I can't seem to…" He bites my lobe, breathes heavily against my skin. 

"Oh fuck," My chest expands, my stomach twists.

"...keep my hands to myself," He grips at my waist.

I press my back into him, reach behind me to sink my fingers into his curls, "Yeah?"

"Yes, Louis. I'm itching to touch and explore and" -he pushes past my waistband, presses his index and middle fingers between my ass cheeks. I gasp- "probe."

"W-well...well I-"

"Mmm," He hums. "But if you want to play then I could always wait." He slides his hand free.

But I gather his curls into a tight fist, " No ." I growl and lean into his larger frame. "It can wait." I insist. 

"I thought-"

I turn around, grip his shoulders, fall head first into his being, " Harry , kiss me. Now." I demand.

His pupils dilate, "I want to do more than kiss you." He reveals.

"So do it ," I tug him towards me, purse my lips. "Show me what you want."

"I…" He touches my waist.

I close the distance before he responds, seek out his mouth, suck harshly on the soft flesh the moment his taste hits my tongue. And it's not just the coconut, it's his pheromones, it's the combination, it's him and it's everywhere. He's in my arms, he's on my taste buds, he's in my head, he's trapped in my heart. Harry has officially take over. 

Literally.

He pushes me against the keys, swipes my mouth clean with his tongue, grazes his fingers all over my back. His determination is seeping from his pores, his hunger apparent in his touches as his nails scrape at my skin, his excitement very much evident as he rubs himself against my leg. And it's waiting, he's waiting, I'm waiting. We're all fucking waiting .

"Harry," I mumble. He whines, releases my lips, kisses at my jaw and neck. "Bedroom. Now. Please." 

"Mmm…" He sucks gently at my throat.

"Like right now ," My erection strains against my sweats. 

He releases with a pop, exposes his flushed cheeks, "Yes." 

"Come," I stumble off the bench, take his sweated hand. 

He follows behind me, his socked feet slapping on the hardwood, "Is this really happening?" 

A smile plays at my lips, "Yeah, H. It is." My body hums in anticipation. 

"Okay," He sounds unsure.

I stop at the foot of my bed and face him, find his palms rubbing, "Don't be nervous." 

"Who says I'm nervous?" He quips.

"Fine," I extend my arms above my head. "Undress me." 

He releases his hands, "Sure." He takes hold of my t-shirt, slides his palms up my torso, bunches the cotton.

I squirm from the unexpected tickling sensation, "Oh!"

He releases my shirt, throws it aside, "Mmm…" He inspects my naked torso from my tummy, to my chest, to my neck then back down again. 

"What?" I touch my arms self consciously.

"You're pretty," He admits.

"And it's all yours," I grip the hem of his sweatshirt. "Your turn."

"Okay," I lift the hoodie as far up as I am able, allow him to remove it the rest of the way and expose his impeccable chest.

I move closer to him on instinct, touch his toned stomach, "So now-" He pushes me down onto the mattress, startles me from the momentum. "Oof!!" I'm lying on my back facing the ceiling. "A warning would have been great ." I pant.

"Shhh," Harry grips the waistband of my sweats and pulls them down.

"Woah!" And I'm bare. Completely bare . Bare and lying on my bed with my boyfriend mere inches away from me.

He's standing by my feet gnawing at his lip, his eyes wide from taking me in, "That was my thought exactly." 

I swallow, "Yeah." I rest on my elbows, watch him closely. "H, your fond is showing."

He runs his tongue along his bottom lip, "I want to show you a lot more then my fond, Louis." He finds my eyes. "A lot more."

I wring my hands, "Like what?" I ask dreamily.

He reaches for his sweats, "Everything." He pulls them off leaving him in just his black boxer briefs. 

I sputter on my saliva, "R-right." My excitement twitches. "S-so what could that be?"

He slinks his thumb underneath the waistband of his pants, runs them along his sides towards his back all the while maintaining our eye contact, "My strength." I squeak. "My stamina." I stop breathing. "My resilience." My elbows tremble. "My attraction."

"You are very attractive-"

"For you, Louis," He removes his boxers, allows them to slide down his legs to reveal every part of him. And I mean everything .

"You're well endowed," I manage.

"Again, for you, Louis," He takes his time, places a knee onto the mattress, his eyes never wavering. "This is because of you." He leans heavily on his hand, balances on one leg. "Because of you I'm no longer afraid." The other knee follows. "Because of you, I'm ready to let you in." I release a breath. "And I want to spend this moment with you before I leave." He crawls up the bed, places one hand in front of the other in a seductive manner, stalks his...prey. Oh God. I'm the prey

"I'd- I'd like that," I stammer. "A lot? Yah I'd-" He sits astride my right leg, presses his palm into the center of my abdomen to push me flat on my back. "R-right, right yeah I should probably lie down-"

"Louis?" His voice is just above a whisper.

I glance at him through my lashes, "Uh-huh?" 

He begins to suck on his index finger, "No more talking." He places it back into his mouth.

I clamp my mouth shut as I watch his jaw work that one , solitary finger, "B-but wait, you'll need-" He shakes his head. "Uh…" He releases his finger with a pop, shushes me gently with that same finger pressed to his lips. 

He lifts my left leg so my knee is bent and foot is flat on the mattress, proceeds to place his hand at the junction of my thighs. Kiss me? I think but he doesn't, he moves swiftly instead, penetrates me with his index finger, presses me further into the bed. 

I groan instantly at the instrusion, suck in a deep breath as he pushes further in, pushes his palm into my abdomen, pushes me further into the euphoria. My toes curl as he pulls out, flex when he sinks in, go numb when I keep them still. How!? My mind screams. It's one finger!!!  

I scrunch my eyes closed to hide my obvious enjoyment because how pathetic could I possibly be? And focus on the pleasure. 

Push-pull.

Push-pull.

He repeats the action for what feels like hours, days, months, years. He just continues the repetitive motion, occasionally crooks his finger, sinks in as far as he is able. 

He twists his hand out. 

He drives it back in.

Repeats.

He thrusts his hips.

He massages himself against my leg.

Push-pull.

Push-pull.

Twists out. Drives in.

Twists out. Drives in-

His palm disappears then, the sound of my nightstand drawer scraping against its hinges interrupts my shallow breathing and occasional whimper. My body breaks out into a cold sweat, my hands grip the comforter, my mind reels with countless possibilities. Holy shit it's happening .

The drawer is hastily slammed shut, the bottle top opens, his finger is yanked free.

Oh God

I release a pathetic whine at the sound of the slick substance releasing from the bottle, find my anticipation practically eating me alive. He presses down on my abdomen again, the shock of the residual lube on his palm unexpected, and shuffles against my extended leg. 

I suck in one final breath, await the instrusion and the push-pull sensation, hold the bedding into a tight fist.

He dives in then without hesitation, expels his own breath as if he too was unsure or fearful, nervous possibly? I'm not certain but I can't contain anything anymore. I'm a sweaty mess, I'm crying out my pleasure the further he delves. And it's nothing I've never felt before or experienced, but for some unknown reason, this feels far more intimate. Our connection to this moment, our need to share it together, the patience, the waiting?

He's gentle as he moves and widens his fingers, twists his hand to cover more surface area. His hips are moving along my leg, his excitement gliding along the inside of my thigh, the very feel of him sending me over the edge and into dangerous territory. The point of no return.  He continues on, pushes and pulls, sinks further in, dips his hips along with the motion, scrapes his nails against my stomach as he does so. And I swear I got harder. How? 

I cry out to the ceiling when a glorious sensation erupts in my core, a body numbing explosion that threatens my already weakened state. I writhe in pleasure on the bed, completely let myself go and jerk my hips, arch my back, take in what he's offering me.

I can't control anything or my whining.

"O-oh," He groans, presses me further into the mattress. My eyes immediately spring open to take him in and it's the most beautiful sight I've ever seen.

His head is thrown back, his mouth ajar, his hips thrusting in sync with his hand. His forehead is pearled with sweat, his body moving in one fluid motion, his features on full display. He's completely gone, expressing his passion, stripping his barriers. Showing me everything .

I impulsively reach for his erection to offer him something in return but he recovers from his moment, stares me down with dilated pupils and flushed cheeks.

He slaps my hand away, "No," He grunts. "Not like that." 

"B-but I really-" He thrusts his fingers deeper in response, "Ah fuck, fuck! That's not nice!" I cower, feel my leg quiver.

But he only works me more, widens me, spreads me, loosens me, prepares and prepares . I'm seeing stars and whining and revealing my need. Can't he see I need more!?

I touch his hand resting on my chest, "H-Harry, now!" I manage. "I need you now!"

He shakes his head, "No." He insists. "No you're too snug. I can't-"

I tighten my hold on his fingers, "It'll be okay ."

He stills his hands, "I will not hurt you." He remains adamant.

"You're h-hurting me now!" I confess because my ass is on fire and so is my desire.

"What!?" He retracts his hand too quickly, causes a stinging sensation between my legs.

"Aaahhh holy shit," I sputter, wince at the sudden motion.

"Oh no," He frowns, goes to rub his palms until he realizes where his fingers were. He frantically wrings them instead.

I flop onto the mattress, drop my left leg that has since started to cramp, "You need to do that slowly next time, okay?" I say gently. "It gets a little tender especially when you use a few fingers. Well especially when you use a few fingers."

His shoulders slump, his hands continue to flex, "I'm sorry." He whispers.

"It's fine. You didn't know," I reassure. "But now you do and you'll know for next time."

"I will never forget," He reaches behind him. "Ever." He repeats more for himself. 

I rest on my elbows again, "Yup exactly-"

"Louis, I will never cause you pain while we're intimate or any other time for that matter."

I swallow, "Harry-"

" Ever. Do you understand?" He reveals the lube bottle and a small foil packet.

I lick at my lips, "I'd appreciate that."

"I'll never disappoint you either," He diverts his gaze to his hand. 

"You won't."

"I will cherish you and make sure you're happy and content."

"That's great," I say. "But Har-"

"I'll call you every day while I'm away too. I'll send you a picture of myself."

I smirk, "I'll make my own photo album."

"I'll show you the sights through my camera lense and wish you were with me."

"Sure."

"And then-"

"Can we possibly finish this conversation later?" I ask.

"Oh," His lips form an "O".

"Yeah," I brush a curl from his forehead. "We're sorta in the middle of something."

"Sorry," He expels a deep breath, expands his muscular chest, draws attention to his scar that up until now I haven't taken notice to.

"But I need to lay on my stomach," I inform. "It's a better angle."

He knits his eyebrows, "Why?" He finds my eyes. "Will it always be that way? You know you facing away?"

"Nope," I smirk. "It'll be better for me since I haven't had sex in a while. You know, since I'm not as loose as I once was." 

"Okay."

I go to move but he's still seated on my leg, "I need that back, H." 

He blushes, "Right, sorry." He releases me. 

I sit up carefully, "Stop apologizing." 

"I can't help it," He says, his tone hushed. 

"I know but try not to. Okay? It's your first time," I flip over onto my stomach, slip a pillow underneath my abdomen, grip a second one to my chest, "The only thing you have to remember is to go slow." I peer at him over my shoulder. 

"The whole time?"

"Oh God -"

" God ."

"-no! Just the first few minutes so I get accustomed to your uh- well Harry your size," I wiggle my ass. 

"Don't do that," He shuffles closer, sits between my legs.

"Do what?" 

"Your ass is magnificent, Louis. It's the prettiest, the plumpest, the damn roundest ass I've ever seen-"

"Well duh ."

He retrieves the foil packet, "And when you shake it like that, it makes me hot- hotter, so hot."

I turn back around to hide my shock, "Good." A condom? 

He tears it open, "Anything else I need to be made aware of?"

"Enjoy yourself and don't worry about me. I'll let you know if I don't like something." I'm not dirty. I didn't sleep around. Why not do this bare back?

"Okay," The discarded foil lands in my field of vision. Makes me feel bad I suppose.

"Don't forget the lube," I say hastily. 

"Even with the condom?" He asks incredulously.

"You need something. Let's put it that way."

"Sure," He moves about above me, dips the mattress one way, then the other, repositions his legs. He eventually shuffles closer, spreads my legs a little further.  He snaps open the bottle, "Okay so, Louis?"

"Uh-huh?" My nerves spring to life.

"Slow?" 

I nod, "Slow." I press my face into the pillow, grip the sheets. Fuck I'm nervous.

"Right," He throws the bottle aside. "This is messy." He mumbles.

I relax my limbs or at least try to, "I forgot a hand towel."

"I can get-"

"Harry?" I warn, "Later." 

"Sorry," He grips my hip, sends a shiver up my spine. 

"Woah," I gasp as if a jolt of electricity coursed through my veins. 

"What?" He asks, his tone fearful.

"You just feel good, H. That's all," I close my eyes.

"I try," He moves closer, brushes my inner thighs with his own. "Louis?"

"Don't think," I tell him. "Just. Go. Slowly. Just go slowly." 

"Right," His hand grips me tighter. "Just go, slow. Don't think, just go-" He presses his excitement to my entrance and my heart begins to pound and pound and beat and cry and- "Slow?" He pushes through. "S-slow." He pants. "D-don't think-" And I'm seeing stars.

My muscles tense, the lower half of my body jerks as he sinks himself in, my eyes water from the stinging, the pressure, the stretching! I whimper unexpectedly into the pillow, force my mind to escape the moment the discomfort overtakes everything. It'll pass, Lou . I remind myself. It will feel incredible. Remember that. But when ? When will the pain turn into something so powerful and thrilling? Am I too tight? Was he right? I bite at the pillow, replace my thoughts with images of Harry's beautiful face and smile, flood my senses with his being, remember the way he feels when I hold him close. Everything . He's everything.

So don't be afraid.

His forward momentum is patient, slow, his hips in control as he sinks further. His moans are soft at first, soothing to my ears, a lovely sound of pure bliss that easily distracts me. But they quickly turn urgent, pleading almost as if he just felt the first wave of pleasure, the very first shock of euphoria. And it's breathtaking to witness.

I tense up the moment he hits a sensitive spot, grazes me in such a way that gives me gooseflesh, sends my mind reeling with a multitude of emotions. And it's not just lust or attraction or anything superficial. This is deeper, far more dangerous, an emotion that will undoubtedly break me if he were to walk out that door and never turn back. It's love, Lou. You love him remember? 

He pushes in an inch more and I literally cry out then, practically lose it all over the bedding and sheets because this is it. This is the pleasure. And it's resting uncomfortably in my lower region, waiting to be expelled, pleading with me to release.

Release…

Release!!

I whine his name, expose my need with just two syllables. He has to understand right? I need him now more than ever . My legs begin trembling, my emotions are running haywire, my brain can't really think clearly or even function for that matter. Love. It's love. It's pleasure. I need you. I feel good. I have to cum-

Touch me!!

"Harry!" I scream into the pillow unable to contain it. "Fuck-"  He stills.

The room is blanketed with silence.

Our breaths are just audible.

He places his other hand on my thigh, digs his nails into my skin, and waits or savors or is just unsure. I don't know . But my heart is pounding against my chest and rattling my ribcage, sending little bursts of excitement throughout my bloodstream. My erection is pressed into the bedding too, rubbing ever so slightly, sending an additional jolt from my head to my toes. I'm a mess .

"Fuck," Harry pants. "I'm-" He pulls away an inch or two, sucks in a sharp breath, and snaps his hips forward, and repeats, once, twice, a third time! I whine into the bedding, feel the ecstacy humming beneath my skin as he drives in. And it's incredible. This entire experience is incredible

His fingers grip at my waist as he moves, pulses his hips as he does so, sinks in deeper and deeper, completely encompasses me in his warmth and passion. 

I bite at my lip, groan aloud as he continues to hit this one spot . And it's a shock to my system, a wake up call to my heart and mind because I haven't felt such pleasure before, such an intense emotion or connection. Oh Fuck .

He picks up his pace suddenly, cries out into the space between us, reaches for my shoulders. Huh!? He expels puffs of air over my heated skin, penetrates my walls, and moves, and oh fuck does he move!

The bedframe begins to rattle and groan, the sheets bunch beneath my legs and torso as our bodies collide, the room is filled with our joint cries and pleas. And it's a God send. We're finally able to share this moment together, take our relationship to the next level, be true to ourselves and each other, give our all. 

And not hold anything back.

He lies flush against me then, kisses at my neck and sweated fringe resting at the nape of my neck. His lips are frenzied, sucking harshly at my skin, hightening the experience to a whole new level.

Louis, Louis, Louis he whispers directly in my ear, between each intake of air and kiss. Louis, Louis, Louis. He continues as if he's pleading to me. Fuck, Louis . He whines. Louis, Louis, Louis. His voice resonates in my skull.

"Louis!!" He urges, pushes further and further, removes any space that could remain between us. And I'm gone, I'm losing my strength, I'm ready to release it all and then some.

"H-Harry-" My face smacks into the pillow, "H!!" I pant.

He stops, "Wh-what?" His breath hits my cheek. "Are you okay?" He sounds winded. 

I turn my head towards him, meet his gaze and red face, "We're smashing the lads . " I inform. "And I'd like to you know, go?" 

"Oh," He gulps, holds his gaze steady.

"So we need to lift my hips."

"Right. Your hips," He nods, continues to stare. "Lift them, absolutely."

I stifle a laugh, "I can't with you on top of me."

"Uh…" He flinches, turns beat red. "Sorry." He lifts himself up, twists his hips-

"Ah!! Don't-" I scrunch my eyes shut, allow the swell of discomfort to pass, "Careful, okay?"

"Sorry," He apologizes. "I didn't mean to. Did I ruin it?"

I shake my head, "Just lift me up?" I ask instead.

"Sure," He does as he's told, wraps his arms around my waist. "You're so pretty." He compliments.

I situate myself on all fours, "Thanks, H."

"Oh…" His fingers touch my lower back.

"What?"

"I like this position," He says, his voice gravely. 

"Yeah, doggy-" He flexes his legs, silences me with a snap of his hips, reignites my excitement, "S-style?" My elbows buckle as the momentum sends me forward. "Woah!" He holds me steady, proceeds to pound into me with such force I'm shocked I haven't smashed my face into the pillow. I moan aloud, allow myself to let loose, concentrate on his momentum. Yes . I think as he grunts from exertion. Yes, H. Go...go!! I bite at my lip, reach for my erection and proceed to jerk myself. 

"I w-want- let me-" 

I continue on anyway, think of his beautiful face and curls, recall the day we accidentally met in Central Park, remember our first kiss and how hesitant he was. And how much I love you, H. I love you.  

Louis.

I love you.

Louis .

I love you.

" Louis!!!

I release instantly onto my hand and sheets, cry out his name,  nearly confess my feelings for him but I keep that close, remember he's probably too young to feel the same way about me. For now. Right?

"I'm- I'm-" Harry holds me close, uses his arm muscles along side his legs to move, penetrates as far as he is able to go. "Ah! I can't- I won't be able-" I'm bracing the sheets, fighting off his forward momentum, savoring in the feel of him pumping in and out of my incredibly sore bottom. "Don't- I won't- I can't !!" He cries. "Louis!!" He shouts my name and climaxes with an exaggerated sigh.

.

.

.

.

"I have to wash my hands," Harry says.

I'm lying behind him with my arm draped across his body, "Way to kill the afterglow, slick."

"I'm covered in lube, Louis. I had my fingers in your butt, I'm sweaty. I have to do something and washing my hands is the quickest solution."

"We can shower then," I suggest.

"Anything to get rid of the stickiness."

"But wait a little bit, I wanna hold you more," I lie flush against him. 

"Where did you release? Am laying in it? Is that the stiffness I feel underneath me?" He sounds panicked.

"Hmm now that's a good question," I close my eyes in search of sleep.

"What!?" He fights my hold, "Louis!"

"You've screamed my name a lot this evening, H."

"Oh no. I'm lying in your semen. That's it. I'm lying on your stiff-"

"Where did you learn those moves by the way?" I ask to divert his attention from my cum that he is absolutely laying in. Heheheh .

"What?" He snaps. 

"The whole leg positioning. Where did you learn that?"

"Porn, Louis. I watched porn. I watched so much porn so when we did anything intimate I wouldn't be sloppy and uncoordinated."

My eyes fly open, "That's how you gave such a good blow job!!" I smack his arm.

"Hey!!" He glares at me over his shoulder.

"You sneak!!"

"No, I was preparing. There's a difference," He grips his palms. "And they both wore condoms so the bottom didn't release all over the bedding and the top didn't release directly into his partner's anus ."

I snort, "Well sorry, H. I never used a condom so we did things naturally and let...nature take it's course."

" Whatever, Louis," He scrubs his arms. "I need to go now ." He pulls away but I pounce back onto him. "Louis, please !! I can't take it!! My skin is crawling."

" Fine , go. Just destroy our time together, our first post-coital bliss, a very special moment where we are able to kiss and cuddle and be all cute-"

He frees himself, "Be right back."

"Ugh!" I watch him stumble from the room, naked rear and all.

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January 06.

It's all I want now.

You're all I want.

I can't control this desire.

.

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.

"Right here!" I'm standing at the corner of 72nd and 5th. "I used to wait for you right here ." I point.

"Did you?" He glances at me.

I reach for his hand, "Uh-huh. You were so cute."

We begin our walk through the park with Ruby, "I'm not cute anymore?" He gasps, mocks his distress. "I thought I was still adorable, you know, because of my dimple and curls and-"

I yank his hand, "You're hot ." I waggle my eyebrows. 

"Oh," He blushes. "Who would have thought you would see past the Velcro and old sweatshirts."

"And palm rubbing, OCD, lack of emotion, your-"

He nudges me, "Save it, shrimp." He giggles.

My mouth pops open, "Watch that tongue, boy or I'll slap your ass." I warn. "Bare!!" 

"Not if I slap yours first!!" He grips my waist, tugs me to his chest.

"Hey!!" I attempt to push him away but I'm too late. He lifts my coat and smacks me square on my bottom. I yelp at the sensation pooling in my abdomen, the spark of my arousal from the contact. Oh I want you

He releases me, "I win." He announces and continues up the path.

"Uh…" I swipe at my brow, wring my hands, "Wow." I scrape the heels of my sneakers against the sidewalk.

"What?" He asks from over his shoulder. 

I shake my head, smirk a lopsided grin, "You have great hands!" I catch up. "Very wonderful, slender, skilled hands." 

He snorts, "Sure."

"You do- oh look!!" I bounce up and down, point to the yellow and black cart in the distance, "Harry!!!" I cry. "I wanna waffle!!" 

"But Louis we're eating after-"

"Don't care. I haven't had one in forever," I tap my lip. "Actually the last one I remember eating was with you on the steps of the New York Public Library." 

"I remember that."

"Yeah and you knocked it out of my hand," I nudge him. "I was pissed."

"Apparently not angry enough."

"Yeah," I roll my eyes. "Why I stuck around still haunts me to this day." I puff my cheeks, approach the cart. "Want anything?" 

"No, I'm good."

I shrug, "Suit yourself." 

"So where's the waffle?" Harry asks a little while later.

We're seated on a bench near the pavilion, "Underneath these delicious toppings!" I run my fork through the whipped cream and chocolate sauce. "Aahh it's so good!" I break off a piece of the waffle, shove it in my mouth.

"Good to know you still eat like a child," Harry pets at Ruby's head. 

"Mmmm…" I shove more waffle in my mouth, "Do you have a plan for Italy?" I ask around the food.

Harry glares at me, "Please refrain from speaking with your mouth full. It's an awful habit."

I swallow the too large a piece of waffle, "I said " -I clear my throat dramatically- "Do you have a plan for Italy. " I repeat. 

"Oh! That's what I thought you said," He says, sits back, grips his palms. "Yes."

I hold a forkful to my lips, "And? Care to share?" I shove it in.

"Sure."

I swallow, "I'm waiting." I swipe my mouth.

"It's not complete yet," His palms begin to rub. 

"Why? What are you waiting for? Did your school not send you a syllabus? How are you spending your weekends? Or are classes seven days a week? Are you sort of winging it?"

He shakes his head, "No." He mumbles.

I turn to him, grip his hands, "You're reverting back to your old ways, H. What's troubling you?" 

His eyes are distant, his expression cold, "So are you."

I shudder, "We've discussed my awful, unsanitary habit, H. I'm trying to stop, alright?" 

"Why did you start again?" 

I slink my fingers between his palms, take a deep breath, "I did something that's why." 

His body stiffens, "What?" 

I rest my head against his shoulder, "Here." I detangle his fingers, place them over my pocket. 

He instinctively grips my thigh, "Here." He repeats.

"I was having a moment the other day before we went to the hospital," I begin. "And I realized-" I love you "-that if I want to overcome my grief, I have to take this final step." 

"Were you okay ?" He asks, his tone acerbic.

I hesitate, bite at my lip, "For a second I didn't think so, H. There were all of these emotions and feelings and confusion and everything all mixed into one. I didn't know what to think." 

"Confusion?" 

"Yeah, I didn't know what to do so I went to Niall-"

He pulls his hand free, turns away from me, " Oh ."

"It's not what you think, okay?" I assure. "I needed-"

"Niall. You needed your friend-"

"Best friend," I correct.

"I don't care!!" His palms connect and he's rubbing furiously, angrily, sadly. Oh. "Why didn't you tell me? Why didn't you call me?"

"I did!" I defend, "I did, H. Eventually-"

His shoulders slump, "Eventually, Louis. Not immediately, not before you decided to leave your letter at home."

I swipe at my eye, "I'm sorry. I am-"

"Are you? Are you really sorry?" He snaps. "Was my support not good enough for you?"

I grip my ring finger but immediately release it, "It was everything to me-"

His shoulders begin to quake, "Then why do this?" 

"It was spur of the moment. I didn't think I was going to do it until the envelope was in my hand. I didn't plan it! And that's what I needed! I can't plan these things because then I'd be a fucking mess and probably not follow through with it!!" 

"I don't care."

My mouth pops open, "So you want me to fail, then?"

"Yes, Louis. That's my intention. I want you to feel miserable all the time ," He taunts. 

I throw my hands in the air, "Well that's what it sounds like!!" 

He whirls on me, looks me in the eye, "When have I not come when you called?"

I search his face, find the blankness in his expression, "I-"

"Never!" He shouts, "I never left you to fend for yourself or cry by yourself or breakdown alone. I came because I-" He clamps his mouth shut, turns away, and remains silent. His palms connect like two magnets, but they don't rub, their stillness conveying a whole other side to Harry I've never laid witness to. "So it's done then." He says after a moment, his tone relaxed and unfeeling.

"What's done? What were you going to say?"

"This was the final piece."

"Harry-" I beg.

"You no longer carry your letter or need the support."

"I have your song instead," I reach for him but he shakes me off. "It's there because I need it to be."

"Okay."

"And I can't be without you, H," I confess. "I need your little reminder that you're with me always. You know, always in my heart."

"The song is in your pocket not engraved on your heart," He says, his voice monotone.

I swipe at my eyes, "You are. You are my heart! Don't you understand that!?"

"So is Niall," He hunches over. "He's there too."

I shiver from head to toe, " He is, H. Niall is there too but for other reasons , platonic reasons!! He's not my boy-toy! He's my best friend and I have every right to reach out to him when I need him! And by you getting mad at me for having him is uncalled for and childish ." I growl. "I did what I did because I wanted to prove to you that I could be alone, that I will manage without you, that I won't fall apart the second you leave. This was for you ." I turn away from him too, face the line of trees ahead. "All for you. But now you're angry with me, doing the exact thing I suspected."

"What's that?"

"Ignoring me."

"I'm not."

"Yes you are. You're quieter than usual, icy, unfeeling. You're numb to my confession."

He shuffles in his seat, "That doesn't come close to how I feel."

I swipe my nose, "Your hands aren't rubbing so I can't read you."

"I can't express my sadness in other ways?" His voice sounds thick. 

"It's not what I'm accustomed to," I gnaw at my thumb. "That's how I understand you."

"What do tears signify then? What emotion?" 

My eyes widen, "What?" I turn around, grip his shoulders. "What d'ya mean tears? Harry-"

His shoulders hunch further, "I'm going to miss you so much," He says instead, the trembling in his voice my undoing. 

My chest tightens, "Look at me?" I urge. 

"So much it makes me sick ."

"Harry, just turn around!" I beg. "I have to hug you now."

He reaches a hand out, grips my thigh, "And a kiss. I need both." I scoot closer, touch his cheek and turn his head towards me, find his tears pooling on his bottom lid. It's the most emotion I've seen in a single expression. It's the most gut wrenching display of fear, anguish, sadness, and ache all rolled into one. It's gripping at my heart, cinching my throat shut, sucking the very air from my lungs.

I can't handle it.

"Anything you need. Anything to make this go away." I envelope him in an embrace, cradle his head against my shoulder and neck, rub at his back to ease the tension. 

He relaxes into the touch, sobs softly into my coat.

"That's right let it go." I encourage.

"It's been, been so long," He hugs me back.

"Since what?" I kiss his curls.

"Cry. I don't cry. But…" He pulls away, reveals his wet cheeks and puffy eyes.

"But what?" I remain strong for his sake, bite back my own tears.

"Because of you, I do. You showed me it's okay."

I kiss the tip of his nose, "It is okay. It's okay to show your pain."

"Thank you," His eyes well again. "Thank you for not giving up on me."

"Thanks for being a strong support system."

"Always," He kisses my lips. "Always, always." 

I kiss him back, "My cottage in the woods."

"My companion."

"My dick.

"My first kiss."

"My last kiss." 

"Last first kiss."

My heart jolts, "Yeah." 

.

.

.

.

"I want to take a picture," Harry announces.

"Oh you 're finally asking for permission?" I scoff, "Geez who would have thought."

"Yes I am only because I want to document this life changing moment," He drapes his arm across my shoulders. "And maybe I want a new background for my phone." He chuckles.

"Oh! Well, how can I deny that?" I kiss his cheek. 

"And this is the exact place you ran into me."

"It is?" I take in my surroundings, "Oh shit it is!" I chuckle, kneel down towards Ruby. "Girl, remember that day? You found your favorite human!"

"Louis…"

"She did!!" I hug her close, "We both did." I whisper.

"Come, let's take it."

I stand up, "Okay!" 

He extends his arm out with the camera securely in his hand, "Okay on the count of three-"

"One!"

"Two."

"Three!" We say together and I smile, genuinely smile, feel my heart beating happily.

Snap .

I face him, "Do another." 

He checks the picture, "It looks fine-"

"A kissing selfie," I purse my lips.

His cheeks redden, "Sure." He tugs me closer, repositions the camera. "Ready?"

"Always," I connect our mouths, close my eyes, and kiss, and kiss him some more, and maybe for a little longer, a little stronger, kiss him even when he's finished, kiss him when he tries to pull away. I can't let go.

"Louis," He manages but I dive back in, wrap my arms around his torso. Don't let me go . I think. Kiss me. Allow me to show the world you're mine- " Louis ," Harry says against my mouth. 

"What?" I snap, grip at him tighter.

"Your place, now." He demands.

"My- my place?" I shake my head, "Now? Right! Now! Uh-"

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.

We almost didn't make it back to my apartment. Harry sat on his hands in the car ride over, chewed at his lips, whispered his groans. He kept his desires to a minimum while I was practically jerking myself off. I'm...horny. Whatever .

"Hurry up!!" He cries from behind me as the keys jingle frantically between my fingers.

"I'm trying!" I jam the right one into the lock.

He kisses at the nape of my neck, holds me close, "I'm excited ."

"Yeah well, with you licking at my skin it's getting kinda hard to focus!" I jiggle the door handle and push it open, "Bingo!" I stumble in, release Ruby's leash. "There, now we-"

He pushes me further into the entryway, sheds my coat and throws it to the ground, immediately reaches for my belt buckle.

"W-woah, woah-" He silences me with his lips and guides me backwards instead.

By the time we make it to the bedroom we're both stripped down to our boxers, including our socks and inhibitions. It was a quick few seconds, the most painful few seconds, the longest few seconds!! 

I push him onto the mattress, crawl up his legs, reach for his boxers, claw at his skin as my desire ignites in my core. I have to touch and explore and kiss and taste and prove my love for him and just say what I feel through my actions because it may be my only opportunity.

I sit astride his hips, lie directly on his stomach, and sink my fingers into his lucious curls. I watch him closely, take in his expressions, his needs. His cold exterior was stripped away the moment he cried, his emotions bared to the world to lay witness to, and even now seeing him in his most vulnerable state, I am still unable to believe it.

He let me in.

I hesitate a moment longer as I determine my course of action, decide whether I should strip him free from his underwear with my teeth or work painfully slow with my hands. It's a toss up but it's my turn to surprise him-

He flips us over as if I'm weightless, lands directly between my legs, rests heavily on his elbows. I'm trapped .

"You play dirty."

He smirks cheekily, "I'm too OCD for that, Louis." He dips lower, kisses behind my ear. 

I gasp, "Not with me. You like my germs, H." I rest my hands above my head, pulse my hips. "And what's hidden underneath my boxers."

He continues his string of kisses, makes his way towards my lips, "I like the entire package, Louis ." He enunciates. 

"So unwrap me," I say, my tone sultry. "Open me up…" I gulp. "Wide."

He shivers against me, expels a deep breath, "I fully intend to." 

.

.

.

.

I'm tracing the plains of his torso, outling the V on his lower abdomen like a roadmap, stopping just above the junction of his thighs. He's coming down from his high, sleeping soundly against my shoulder, holding me so close and with such vigor I haven't the strength to push him away.

"I love you, H," I say softly. "I love everything about you, including your OCD." I chuckle, "Even your weirdness although I think you've overcome that." I turn into him, sink my nose into his hair. "Your shoes." I take a deep breath, "Your smell." He sighs in his sleep, releases a high pitched groan, "Your noises." I smirk. "And just everything there is." 

He stirs.

"And I can't help myself," I move up his abdomen towards his scar. "I'm in love with you." I press my palm into his chest, savor in the beating of his heart. 

His eyes flutter open, "Huh?" He mumbles. 

I retract my hand, "Nothing, H. Go back to sleep." 

"O-oh...okay…"

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.

.

I'm seated at the piano, with Harry next to me, playing Chopin, practicing the rather gloomy piece I stumbled upon. It somehow fit the mood I was in at the time, awakened the sorrow I've felt over the past two years while in mourning, it's minor key the perfect representation of the depression I fought through days on end. But as I continue on, as the piece takes shape, the chords and melody produce a series of dulcet tones, a brightness in said gloom, a way of escaping the sorrow. My way out . I think because it's the reality of it.

I pulled through, I refused to give in or give up, I saw the positive and the happiness life offers, I was able to overcome the heartache and feeling of loneliness. I had help from others of course but I did it. And now I'm sitting at the piano with my boyfriend, sharing my gift and talent with him, sharing my heart, sharing my life.

"Wow," He whispers once I finish.

"Pretty?" I drop my hands into my lap, glance at him.

"Yes, very," He kisses my neck. "And tasty too."

I giggle, "Am I? Am I sour or sweet?" I croon.

"A sour patch kid, remember?" He kisses at my jaw line towards my mouth, "Sour then oh so-" He captures my lips, pulls me under his spell, maintains a firm hold on my waist. "Sw-sweet." He whispers against my lips and dives right back in. "I can't get enough of you." 

I kiss him back with equal fervor, suck at his bottom lip, "Am I that addictive?"

"Yes. I dream of you, dream of your touch, your voice, your taste," He says, his tone impassioned. "I dream of being close to you and holding you." 

"Oh," I scoot closer, wrap my arms around his neck. "Do you now?" 

He brushes his lips along my temple, across my forehead, "Mmm." He combs his fingers through my hair making my body shiver and come alive with just a single touch.

Chapter Text

STUPID DEEP, Playlist

January 10

One more week.

How many nights is that?

How many wake ups?

How many kisses?

How many can we squeeze in before it's too late?

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.

"Okay you were right," I blurt.

"I usually am," Niall says. "What is it this time though? I'd like to add another point to my score."

I roll my eyes, shift my weight, hesitate a moment because this is slightly embarrassing, "Um, so remember when we talked-"

"Why don't you sit?" Liam points to the stool. 

I glare at him, "I'm good thank you." 

"You can't. You're too sore," Niall points out, forces back a smile.

"I- well not exactly," I tap my lip. 

"Ha! Sure," Niall leans against the counter to face Liam, points a thumb over his shoulder. "Lewis has a sore ass." 

"Why? Did he take a huge shit?" Liam asks.

"No!!" I frown. "No I didn't take-"

"Lima, Lewis and Harry are rabbits," He tries another approach.

"Huh?" He still seems puzzled, "What are you-" His eyes light up then and he explodes into laughter, grips at his chest, "Oh!" He throws his head back, jabs a finger in my direction. "Now I get it!"

"Do ya!?" I snap at the two of them, "Do you get it now ?"

"As a matter of fact yes. Harry can't get enough can he?" Niall asks while on the verge of his own outburst. 

My face reddens, "He-"

"Has you on all fours?" Liam squeaks, then cackles into his hand. 

The tips of my ears feel hot, "Well not exactly-"

"Every night?" Niall adds.

"You see it's-"

"Oh yeah, look at that face!!" Liam points towards me, "He can't lie for shit!"

"I thought sober Louis did lie though?" Niall questions.

"Yeah he's had a few beers so that statement holds true."

"Ugh guys!!" I stamp my foot, "Don't make fun of me!"

"We're not! We're just stating the obvious. You bottom for Harry every night." Niall says.

I lower my head, "Sometimes twice," I murmur.

"What!?" Liam grips my bicep, shakes me until we make eye contact.

"He's leaving. We sorta have to get it outta our systems you know?" I take a swig from my nearly forgotten beer. 

"I get it. Just hope you're still intact when it's all said and done," Niall concludes.

I'll be broken anyway so what's it matter? "Yeah, yeah I mean it's hard to think he will be gone soon." I pick at my nail bed.

"But he'll be back, right? It's a short trip and it's enriching and educational! He'll learn so much," Liam assures. "Just think how confident he'll be when he returns, how mature."

"Mature?" I ask.

"Well yeah, you wanted him to go for himself and experience life and whatnot. This is his chance. He won't be a teen anymore. Well, at least not act like one."

"He never acts his age if I'm honest."

Niall passes me another beer, "Speaking of, when is his birthday?" 

I puff my cheeks, "Dunno." 

"You don't know ?" Liam asks, "How do you not know?"

"It never came up," I whisper.

"But it hasn't past yet, right?" 

My eyes widen, "What if it did and he didn't tell me!?" I freak. "Oh shit . Guys what if it past?" 

Niall leans against the counter, "Would he do that?"

"He- he probably wouldn't want to celebrate with me anyway," I admit shamefully.

"Huh? You're his boyfriend-"

"He only celebrates holidays and birthdays with his parents."

"That's strange," Liam comments.

I shake my head, "It's what they used to do when he was in the hospital. It's sort of a tradition for them."

"Oh…" He falls silent.

"Would he seriously not tell you about his birthday?" Niall asks.

"Wouldn't surprise me," My bottom lip trembles suddenly. "He'd probably think nothing of it." I chug my beer.

"He wouldn't-"

I slam the bottle down, " Yeah he totally would." 

Liam drapes his arm across my shoulders, "Then ask him. Are you seeing him tonight?" I shake my head. "Then tomorrow night. Ask him."

"What's he doing?" Niall asks then.

"Packing."

"Is he almost finished?"

I shrug, "Maybe?"

"I can't imagine packing for a trip that long. I'd literally clear out my entire wardrobe," Liam says.

"You have like three shirts and two pairs of jeans. What else would you take? Extra bottles of hair gel?" Niall jests.

He grunts, "I have more than three shirts!"

"Two pairs of underwear…" Niall continues.

"What!? I totally bought more boxers-"

"Come on, dude! You fucking had holes in the butt area!" They continue to banter.

"How would you know!?"

"You showed us!"

"Why the hell would I-"

I run a hand down my face, "Guys!!" I cry out.

"What!?" They say in unison.

"Who cares about boxers?" 

"I do!! Niall thinks I'm some slime ball when I totally went shopping and purchased multiple pairs of shorts and jeans and dress shirts and-"

"Yadda yadda…" Niall waves him off.

"You're a real dick you know that!?" Liam bursts.

"I am not! I'm stating a fact-"

"No! You're being rude!"

"Am not!!"

"Are to!"

"Am not!"

"Are to!"

"Are they fucking serious?" I mumble.

"Am not!"

"Are to!"

I slam my hand down, startle the two of them, and a few other patrons, "Shuddup!!" I shout, "Niall you are a dick sometimes. Liam you wore the same shirt often. But who cares? We're past that now. We're adults. We shouldn't be putting each other down. Not now." I look between them. "Now apologize or else!"

"Or else what!?"

"Nice empty threat."

"I'll leave," I say.

"Oh! Now I'm really scared!" Liam grumbles.

"And get Ruby!"

"Anything but that!!"

"She shits in my shoe, please don't?" Niall asks worriedly.

"Well then stop," I finish off my beer, plop down on the stool- "Owe!!!" I howl, scrunch my eyes shut.

"That's gonna leave a mark," Liam sounds pained.

I grimace, "Probably." 

.

.

.

.

"Trial run number three!" I put my fingers up, "Maybe I won't burn anything this time."

"The goal is to make it edible," Harry says as he unpacks the grocery bag. 

"And not burn anything?" 

"And make sure the meat is up to temperature," He hands me a metal rod affixed with a square monitor.

"What's this thing?"

"A meat thermometer," Harry says. "Poultry must be cooked to one hundred sixty five degrees to be consumed safely. You stick the tip into the thickest part of the chicken and that determines whether it's finished. But then there's carryover cooking so you also need to consider that because then the chicken could get dry and you don't want-"

"This is too complicated…"

"-to make it rubbery. It's a fine line really and it comes with-"

"H, come up for air will ya?" I chuckle.

He glances at me, "Sorry." 

"Nah, it's alright," I pull out a saucepan, preheat the oven to three fifty. "Um, so what's next?"

"Directions, Louis," He hands me a piece of paper. "Read it."

"Ugh don't you know me by now!?" I pout.

"I do, Louis. So let's change that awful habit of yours, shall we?" He takes a seat at the table, "Now go on. Be a big boy and cook."

"Ugh!!! You're no help ," I turn on the stove and hope for the best.

.

.

.

.

"It smells funky," I frown as I pull the baking sheet from the oven. "Did you accidentally get rancid meat?" 

"Don't blame your awful cooking skills on me, Louis," Harry giggles. "It smelt fine when I bought it. You probably over cooked everything again." He remains in place at the table with his hands folded.

"Can you like, look at these?" I stare down at the small cheese laden blobs lined on the tray. "Something's wrong." 

"You have to make that determination."

"This is so unfair!!" I take the spatula, poke at the chicken that's probably now inedible, "It's crunchy. But not a good crunch. Like too well done crunch."

"Are we ordering out?" He chuckles.

I frown, "It's a lost cause I think." I turn around, find his curly head and green irises. His lips are impossibly pink too, so kissable. "Oops."

"Hi," He waves, smirks a lopsided grin.

"Damn it! And here I thought I had it!" 

"It's alright, Louis. Next time?"

I slump my shoulders, "After Italy?" My mood turns sour.

"Yes, it may have to wait," He stands up, approaches slowly. "Keep up your practice, okay? Don't give up." He cups my cheeks. 

I continue to take him in, lean into his touch, "Yeah, I know. I won't."

"Good," He kisses my lips. "I'll get your sneakers."

"Huh? Why?" I turn away from him, begin cleaning up.

"I've always wanted to eat at Tom's Diner." 

"It's just burgers and stuff. Oh! Harry, when is your" -I turn back around but I'm alone- "birthday...Right. Okay at dinner l'll ask for sure." I mumble and begin the task of... cleaning. "Ugh!!!!"

I store away any perishables and throw out the chicken, scrape burnt cheese off the baking sheet, wash the pans and utensils and any other dish I managed to dirty. It's such a messy activity, cooking. Why do people enjoy this so much? I mean unless there's someone to clean up after you, it's horrible.

"Blah!!" I groan, "Harry, next time you're on dish-"

A loud sob breaks through the apartment then, a bloodcurdling cry that shoots through me like a bullet. I turn the water off, listen for the sound again thinking it could be a neighbor but there are different noises echoing through the apartment now: scuffling feet on the hardwood, Ruby's paws clicking behind them, a series of choking sounds, a curse thrown in here and there.

I run from the kitchen, "Harry?" I find him in the entryway fumbling with his pink converse. He's crying softly, mumbling something underneath his breath, "Oh no! Harry!!" I run to his side but he shoves me away nearly sending me into the wall, cries a little harder as he ties his laces.

My stomach clenches at the sight and for his lack of compassion, tears well in my eyes as he ignores Ruby who is begging for his attention.

"What's wrong!?" He stands up, grips his coat to his chest and runs to the door, "Hey!!" I reach for him again but he wiggles away, remains closed off. "I'm so confused what happened? Why are you crying? Why are you leaving!?" He swings the door open. "Wait!!" My heart jolts in my chest, my brain scrambles into mush because why is he going!? "You can't-" I follow him into the hallway without shoes and socks. "Harry!!" 

He cries harder into his hand, stumbles to the stairwell.

"P-please!! Talk to me!" I beg him, extend a hand out to him but he pushes me with such force I land square on my ass, "What?" I choke on my breath. "Harry?" My eyes expel a waterfall of tears, my body stings and not from the fall. No this is deeper than any superficial injury. This is a knife to the gut.  

Ruby rushes past, bites at the hem of Harry's coat. He fights her off too, takes the stairs two at a time and disappears from view. 

"Oh my God," My body is heavy, my limbs weak, my breath shallow from both my exertion and unrelenting sobs. 

I grip Ruby's collar and turn her around, find my footing somehow. "Girl, go back," I urge her and point to the door. "Go on. I'll get him-" I choke. "I will." More tears come, my eyesight blurs. "I pr-promise." I swipe at my nose, watch her pad slowly to the apartment with her tail down. "He has to come back. If anything for you."

I hear the echo of the door slam shut, feel the wall shutter from the impact, "No, no." I pick up my pace. This can't be happening." I say with each passing step. "This can't be real." My stomach clenches and twists and turns and flips every which way. "This must be a nightmare!!"

I make it to the front door, throw it open and step outside into the frigid evening.

I ignore the jolt of cold cement biting into my bare feet and carry on, "Harry!?" I shout as I round the corner. But I see no sign of him. "Fuck, fuck!!" My body quakes from the air and from my uncontrolled emotions. "Harry, please?" But he isn't here!! He isn't anywhere.

He's gone.

"But where?" I stop at the corner, scrub at my eyes. "Why?" I reach for my phone but it's back at the apartment. "Fuck!!" I turn in circles, disregard the passersby, check the heads of every person in search of curls and hunched shoulders. "He's not here !!" I shout, catch the attention of a couple of strangers. But who cares? Harry left me!! "He left me," I whisper. "He left me!" I grip my hair, sob into my t-shirt. "He left me." I repeat. "He left me all alone." My knees give out and I collapse to my hands and knees in defeat.

.

.

.

.

"He's gone," I manage to find Niall's startled face through my tears. "He left me."

"Louis-"

"He ran out of the apartment and I couldn't find him!!" I wrap my arms around my torso, "And he didn't give me an explanation or anything. He just left crying, pushed off Ruby, didn't even explain-"

Niall grips my bicep, drags me over to my usual spot at the bar, "Lou, sit down." 

I suck my bottom lip between my teeth to prevent it from trembling, "H-he, he left me, Neil. He didn't say why he just left and now I'm all confused and hurt and angry and so out of sorts I can't even remember if I locked my front door."

"Well, you're not wearing any shoes so it's a possibility."

I scrunch my eyes closed, dip my head lower, "I'm so confused and sad and alone and broken and, and-" 

"I know, Lou. I know you are, but you're causing a scene and I think you need to go home-"

I shake my head, "No! No I can't. I can't go back there. He's everywhere. He's all over my sheets, my couch, my clothing."

"I was going to say to get your belongings. You can sleep at my place," He begins rubbing my back.

"O-okay, okay I can do that," I swipe my nose. "I can get m-my stuff and...and-" I lose it then, cry into the crook of my arm, suck in gulps of air. My heart is broken, my state of being beyond the point of saving, my ability to control myself shot to shit. It's all gone

"It's okay. Cry it out," He whispers.

"I- I just didn't know what I did," I lean into him. "And he just left so easily, ignored my pleas, pushed us away!" My tears soak into Niall's shirt. "He disappeared. He-"

He left me!!

.

.

.

.

I messaged him.

And not just once. But two times, ten times, thirty five times, one hundred times. It was nonsense really. Well most of it. I pleaded with him occasionally, begged him to call me, told him I'm crying for him, even went as far as saying my ass was lonely although that's not entirely false. But it's not the point. I need him emotionally, I need his voice, his face, his words, his touch, his aura...not just his body. 

"Please," I cry into the pillow, as I clutch tightly onto my phone. "Harry, I need you. I need to see you. I need your hug. I can't do any of this by myself anymore!!" I scream. "And you left me!! You fucking left after saying you wouldn't!!" I shout, expel the air from my lungs. "You said you wouldn't-"

"Woah! Woah!" Niall comes running in then, touches my shoulder, "Louis, you're sweating through your shirt."

"I c-can't do this again!" I sob, "Not again, please! Tell me he'll be here soon, tell me he'll walk through that door and h-hold me and comfort me and bring me happiness and suck away all this pain?" 

Niall lifts me up from my makeshift bed, drapes his arm across my shoulders, and tugs me into his chest, "I don't know, Lou. I hope he does for your sake."

"It's like- it's like Stanley all over again. Except there was no funeral. There was just an empty whole in the ground, a place for my heart to be buried and cry and mourn, a place where I can curse myself for being so ignorant."

He continues to hold me, "You're not-"

"I'm fucking dumb for believing anything different," I cry. "I'm the stupidest person."

"Louis-"

"I'm fucking dumb for falling in love again."

.

.

.

.

"Y-yeah, a dozen," I say into the phone.

"Sure, a dozen red roses-"

"Make it two dozen," I blurt. "Yeah, two dozen long stemmed red roses."

"That will increase the price, sir."

I shake my head, "I don't care."

"Sure, so two dozen red roses for a Harry-"

"Yeah," My eyes well but I turn away, face the windows. 

"May I have the address?"

"202 72nd Ave, Apt A-52, New York-"

"10019?"

"Uh-huh."

"Okay that will be delivered tomorrow-"

"Today!" I practically shout into the phone, "Please today?" I bite at my knuckles to suppress a sob.

"That will be an additional-"

"The price doesn't matter," I inform the woman. "He's…" I gulp. "He's priceless."

"I understand."

"What time will it get to him?" I dab at my eye with my sleeve.

"In the early evening."

"Okay," I rest heavily into the back of my office chair. "Thank you-"

"Do you want to write a little note?"

I pause, gnaw at my thumb, "I do." I reach inside my pocket, pull the folded piece of paper free. "Uh…" I smooth out the wrinkled page, nearly burst into tears at the sight of his handwriting because it's so beautiful. And I remember when I once thought it was rushed and sloppy, but now, on closer inspection, I find it to be careful and written in perfect script, each letter evenly spaced and written with purpose. Oh my God .

"Sir?" The lady on the phone asks, her tone gentle.

I stumble out of my reverie, "Sorry." I swipe my eye.

"The message?"

"Right, so the message-" I read the song, quickly find the chorus and remember JALBOYH was an acronym, remember what the song was about. Well, now it's for you, H. "I want it to say…" I recite the lines to the woman. "And I'll still be a fool, I'm a fool for you-" I pause, take a deep steadying breath as my eyes well, "Just a little bit of your heart. Just a little bit of your heart is all I want," I swipe at my nose. "J-just a little bit is all I'm asking for."

"That's sad," She remarks.

My vision is blurry, "It is."

The woman is quiet for a moment, "Do you want to put who it's from?"

"He'll-" I bite my lip, "It's not necessary. He'll know."

"Sure," She says, her tone sympathetic. "I'll need a credit card."

"Of course, right,"  I yank my wallet free, continue rubbing at my face to rid my cheeks of tears. The kids will see it. I think. They'll ask questions for sure. "Okay, uh the number is-"

"Actually sir, never mind," The woman speaks over me.

"Huh?" 

"They're free, no need to pay. I'll be sure these are delivered as soon as possible."

My mouth pops open, "W-wait I can't-"

"Nope, it's on me," She rushes out.

"But why? It's not-"

"It's fine. Have a great day, sir and feel better."

"Um…" 

"Bye."

The line goes dead.

.

.

.

.

January 17.

No, Louis.

I'll always be a fool for you.

.

.

.

.

The door to the apartment opens and Niall stumbles in all bleary-eyed and disheveled from his shift, "Dude you're still awake?" He asks in bewilderment. 

I glance towards him, "Unfortunately." I settle into the sofa, turn back to my game, Duke Nukem, press mindlessly at the X button, jam on the directionals. 

"Why?" He sits next to me, finds the opened, practically full take out containers on the coffee table, "Oh sweet I'm starving." He rubs his palms together, the gesture and sound grating to my ears. "So what happened, Lou?" And shockingly comforting .

I shift in my seat, "Um, I texted Harry." I admit shamefully.

Niall picks up the lo-mein, sticks a fork in, "And?"

I clutch the controller tighter, "He didn't respond." I clear my throat, "Again."

"Are you sure the flowers were delivered?" He asks around his food.

"What's it matter? He wouldn't tell me either way," I sniffle. 

"Did you call the florist for confirmation?" Niall twirls his fork around the noodles. 

I nod, "They were sent within an hour of me calling."

"Oh, wow. That must have cost a fortune," He shoves more food into his awaiting mouth. 

I shoot at the enemy, dodge a barrage of gunfire, "It was free."

Niall begins to cough, well choke actually, "What!?" He takes hold of my beer, chugs the beverage back. 

"I didn't pay for it," I say, my voice just audible.

He swipes at his mouth, "How? I mean, usually that shits expensive-"

"The woman on the phone felt sorry for me," I pause the game. "It was the message I think."

"What message?" He asks. 

"The card that goes with the flowers, Neil. I used Harry's song. Just a little bit of your heart. I used his lyrics."

"Oh," Niall takes another mouthful. "That was very nice of her."

"It was out of pitty. There was nothing nice about it."

"I think so," He sits back.

"Well, she probably felt bad because I got my heart broken and couldn't contain my crying over the phone. It was pathetic ," I berate my actions.

Niall places the container down, picks up the kung-poa chicken next, "Why because you show your emotions or are not afraid to express yourself?" 

I shake my head, "No."

"Then what?" Niall munches away at his makeshift dinner.

"I'm reliving it all over again," My stomach twists around the small amount of food I ate earlier. "I'm feeling pain, loss, longing, depression. I cry at the drop of a hat. I can't focus. I can't even look at myself in the mirror without wanting to scream at my reflection asking what I did wrong or how I could manage to fuck this up."

He finishes off my beer, places everything back on the table, "What am I missing?"

I whip my head towards him, "Nothing." I snap.

"He really left without a reason?"

"I wasn't drunk when I told you, Neil. I told you everything and it wasn't much because there wasn't anything else to share! Harry left me for no reason . End of story."

"I don't know. Seems weird," Niall looks lost in thought.

"Whatever," I turn back to the game. "Gotta start from square one again and I'm not looking forward to it." I restart the game.

"He hasn't answered you at all?"

I shake my head, "He's ignoring me."

"Then go to his house," He suggests. 

I roll my eyes, "That's desperate. And pathetic ."

"No, it means you're serious. It means you care. It means you want him back ."

"It means I lost my fucking mind and can't take a hint!" I growl, "I can't go there, I'll just make a fool out of myself."

"You could tell him how you feel. Maybe-"

"The roses should say enough, Niall. And if he got them then his lack of response is pretty clear," I sink lower into the couch, continue playing mindlessly. "He obviously never intended on staying with me."

"Then do this for yourself. Screw Harry."

"I already have," I bite at my lip. "Many times. And it was great. It was the best. And I miss him."

"Uh, well what I meant was go to his place for you not him."

My cheeks redden, "Oh. Yeah. For me. Sure. "

"Yup. So go tomorrow," Niall puts his feet up on the table. 

"Tomorrow!?" I freak, "No way! I can't, I have-" I tap my lip. "There's this thing I have to do-"

"Work. You have work tomorrow And that's it," Niall corrects.

"I have chorus after school. I can't."

He groans, "It's Friday. You don't have chorus!"

"H-how- Oh…" I turn away. "I don't. You're right. I'm just-"

"Go tomorrow."

"But what if-"

"Nope," Niall stands up, stretches his arms above his head.

"I don't know-"

"Goodnight!"

"Ugh…"

.

.

.

.

I take a deep breath and round the corner, find James huddled in his too-snug hunter green peacoat and matching bowler cap. His hands are shoved into the pockets, shifting his weight as if to warm himself from the cold.

I approach slowly, wrap my arms around myself, ignore the freezing wind hitting my exposed cheeks. My footsteps are small, light against the snow covered sidewalk, leaving an impression as I drag my heels.

"It'll be fine," I whisper. "He'll let me up and then we can talk it out." I lift my head and the doorman is staring me down. "Right? He has to. He will...I have to- H-hi." I greet when he's within earshot. 

"Hello!" He smiles a toothy grin and turns away. He won't even open the door for me. Nice . I reach for the handle but he steps in front of me blocking my way, "And where are you headed, sir?" The smile seems stiff, fake on closer inspection.

My eyes widen, "To see Harry? He's my boyfriend- well maybe he isn't anymore? I don't know. But I'm here to win him back, to make everything right again." The man is unresponsive. "Right, so you know who I am" -I tug my beanie off, reveal too long, disheveled hair- "See? I'm the guy from before. Remember? I admitted to liking Harry in this very spot."

He shrugs, "That's lovely."

"It is. So let me up."

"No can do, sir. This is a private residence," James states matter of fact.

My cheeks flush and not from the cold, "I understand that, sir but I remember Harry giving you explicit instructions that I'm allowed-"

His smile fades, "They've since been rescinded."

"What?" My eyes well some more, way more, so much more than before. But then again have they stopped? "Why? What did he say? Did he give a reason? I don't understand how he could do this to me. We were together. We were dating. I-" love him . "-can't live without him!!" I cry.

His blue eyes are patronizing, "He didn't give a reason and he doesn't need to. This is his private residence and therefore is able to deny visitors-"

"Visitors!?" I twist my beanie between my fingers, "So any visitor not just me?" I point to myself, feel a modicum of relief. "Oh thank God-"

"He requested he not be bothered as he is preparing for a trip- Oh!!" He clamps his mouth shut, "That's none of your concern."

I give him a droll stare, "He's studying abroad for four months. I know all about it already." I say. "He leaves…" I swallow past the sob lodged in my throat, "Soon. He leaves soon."

"Why yes!" James exclaims. "He does! Wait- how did you know?"

I roll my eyes, "He's my boyfriend ."

"But you said you weren't sure about that anymore." 

"That's because he walked out on me with no explanation," I say.

"How tragic."

"Tell me about it," I puff my cheeks. "I thought everything was okay and then this happened and I don't know what to do."

"Have you tried calling him?"

I nod, "Uh-huh and texting. I even sent him flowers." 

He grips his fingers, "Oh!! What kind?"

I hesitate, "Roses."

"How lovely !! What color?" The man asks as if he is actually intrigued.

I look to my feet, "R-red." 

"Red roses signify love!" 

A droplet escapes my eye, "It does."

"That's why you want to speak with him!"

My heart swells, "Yes. It's why I want to speak to him."

"But I can't go against his wishes," He sounds slightly sympathetic now, slightly .

My head whips up, "I love him, James. I love Harry and I am begging you to please let me in to speak to him. I have to." I beg. "He means so much to me and I'll lose him if I don't."

"It's the rules. I cannot let you in," I break down then, cry uncontrollably into my beanie, allow the soft cotton to sop up the tears and muffle my pained sobs. "Sir, I'm sorry but I can't risk my job."

I turn away instantly, understand where James is coming from because he probably has a family, bills to pay, responsibilities . And who am I? A nobody. 

A nobody who's half alive.

.

.

.

.

"I couldn't do it, Ruby," We're taking our usual Saturday morning walk. "James wouldn't let me in and now we'll never know what happened. Harry left us with no reason, just cried his eyes out because- because, well I don't know why. And that's what is so confusing you know? He was crying. Crying . He never cried. He kept a straight face, kept his emotions in check, used his hands to express himself, song lyrics." I find a bench and take a seat. "Even his own didn't help. The very song he wrote for me didn't bring him back." I pet behind her ear, take in her sweet face. "And the worst part is he hurt you, Ruby. You lost two of your favorite humans but you're still managing, still wagging your tail occasionally. If anything he should come back and give you a hug and a good scratch behind the ears to make up for it. Or you should poop in his shoe, show him you're pissed." She looks to me. "But what is there to do now? Forget? Move on?" I sigh. "Forgetting will be difficult but we can learn something from all of this. We know I need someone who is closer in age or older, experienced in things , someone who can cook, likes Twitch, has an appreciation for music, a sense of humor, a sweet tooth, a good laugh, a sexy voice, soft hands, a beautiful face." I touch my leg, feel the paper crinkle. "That's a long list and the more picky I become the harder this will be for me."

I puff my cheeks. 

"But maybe I don't need to be with someone at all. Like what if I'm okay on my own? What if we only need each other?" I continue petting her, watch a few runners on the path. "What if that's all I needed? Me time?" I tug my beanie down, cover my ears as a breeze blows across my face. "Or what if love wasn't meant to be in my life long term? Just something temporary? Or what if I wasn't meant to be loved at all?" The tears are instant. "That sucks then. The one thing I crave the most." I flop back into the bench. "Wow I hope that's not the case because I can't be alone anymore, Ruby." I swipe at my eyes, reach for my phone.

"I realize that now," I type out another text with song lyrics this time, a song I'm able to relate to at the moment. "I don't wanna be alone." I hit send and stare off into the distance.

.

.

.

.

January 19 .

"I'm feeling pretty lonely

He's the only thing that holds me right now

Now I'm not really one for drinking songs but

I guess if I'm not wrapped here in your arms then

I can't talk about love

And who wants to talk about love?

Well, I don't wanna think about you right now

Don't wanna think about you right now

'Cause if I did, it would be damn bad"

.

.

.

.

I didn't want to come back to the apartment just yet but I promised myself I wouldn't camp out at Niall's for too long either. It's not his responsibility to comfort me when I'm down or grieving. He's here for support but I feel as if I've taken advantage of that help and now he's feeding into my horrible habits. So no, this time I only stayed for a few days and now I'm back home ready to start my life over, again, with a few bad days in between. It's expected . At least I'm being honest .

"Laundry first," I announce as I gather my dirtied clothes. "Then I'll make the bed with fresh sheets, after that I'll shave and maybe even iron my outfit for tomorrow." Ruby shockingly enough follows me to the hall closet. "Oh, look at that." I glance at her as I load the washer. "Who would have thought you'd leave the entryway." I add some detergent, press the button. "I guess you've finally realized-"

There's a knock at the door.

"Hm," I look down at her, place my hands on my hips. "Who's that?" Her ears perk up, her tail begins to wag. "Who's at the door?" She rushes over, claws at the wood. "Alright, calm yourself. It's probably Niall." But she's crying, pawing at the door, shifting her weight anxiously. "What…" My heart jumps, "Liam maybe?" I grip my ring finger, and slowly make my way over. "Or no, the delivery boy." But, Lou you didn't order anything. You were going to try and cook . "Right, yeah I never-" Ruby howls at the door again. Oh my God

But I don't rush over this time because it could be anyone. It could be my friends, my neighbor who I haven't seen in years, my imagination. It could be anything

The knock comes again and so does Ruby's whining.

My cheeks are dripping with tears, soaking into the cotton of my turtleneck, "Fuck," I mumble as I pass the entryway. "Fuck, Ruby it's him isn't it?" He leaves tomorrow . "It's him?" I shake my head because of course there's doubt in my mind. "Why do this?" My socked feet slide across the floor. "Is it to make him feel better?"

"Louis?"

The sound of his voice penetrates my barriers, seeps under my skin, mends the wounds in my aching heart, heals my sorrow. It's instantaneous. It's the cure. It's everything to me.

"Harry?" I whisper in disbelief, take those last few steps, "Oh my God," I swing the door open and he's there right outside my door gripping his palms.

His eyes are rimmed red, his curls matted, and lips downturned. He looks disheveled, his clothes wrinkled and uncharacteristic to his usual appearance. His mouth is chewed, his cheeks flushed, his entire disposition is that of utter despair. His emotions are on full display and there's no denying the mutual longing in his expression. 

"You're- you're here," I drop my hand to my side. "You returned to me." I sob. "You didn't leave without a goodbye-"

He closes the distance between us then, cups my wet cheeks, and kisses me, and kisses, and holds me closer to his chest as if in fear of me slipping away. He's unrelenting too, exploring my body with his hands, pushing me further inside, holding me tighter then ever before.

I kiss back with equal fervor, wrap my arms around his neck, hold him closer because he can't leave me again . I'm so lost in his being, completely absorbed into his soul, practically one with him and it's the most terrifying feeling I've had because this proves my dependency, proves my walls crumble when he's gone, proves I need him more than ever before.

We're moving steadily backwards towards the bedroom, our limbs uncoordinated and moving out of sync, our kisses sloppy and rushed. We stumble occasionally but we always manage to jump back in where we left off.

He wraps his arms securely around my waist, "Louis." He says against my mouth. "I couldn't-"

"Why?" I tighten my grip, hold our eye contact, but keep him within inches of my lips just in case, "Why did you walk away?"

His tears are gathering, threatening to spill over, "You'll never want to see me again." 

He leans in for a kiss but I grip his curls preventing him from doing so, "Why wouldn't I? I can't stand not being with you! How could you say that?"

"Just kiss me one last time? Please? Let me feel your lips. Let me taste paradise one final time?" He pleads, searches my face.

"But why is it final ?" I sink my fingers into his hair, "I don't understand? I don't want you to go anywhere. I want you with me forever. I want to spend my life with you, Harry!" 

He sobs softly, "N-not, not after this, Louis. After tonight you'll never want to see me again."

"Why!!" I shout and drop my hands. I reluctantly step away from him, grip my fringe, "Stop talking in riddles and tell me why you left the other night and proceeded to ignore me, pretended I didn't exist, didn't reach out when I texted you non-stop and called. I went to your apartment, was turned away because you didn't want visitors ." I spit.

He pales, "I-"

"It hurt, H! I was a mess. You walked away. You left me after telling me you never would! After you yelled at me for doing it to you!" I point, "And now you're back, telling me how I'll never want to see you again after tonight and why, damnit! Why!" 

He reaches out to me but I step away. He frowns, "You don't have just a little bit of my heart, Louis. You have my entire being ."

I fold my arms across my chest, "Oh goodie . You got the flowers I guess." 

"I have them next to my bed. They're magnificent."

I roll my eyes, " Superb ."

"I read the card often, smell every peddle," He turns away. "I've never received flowers before, let alone long stemmed red roses."

My cheeks flush, "Yeah well I needed to prove a point."

"What point, Louis?"

"I was hoping they'd speak for themselves," I shift my weight. "But I guess that didn't work."

"They spoke volumes, Louis."

"Yeah well…" I guess not. "You've successfully diverted my attention, H."

"I have," He's rubbing his palms.

"I need to know now. What happened?"

He's silent for a moment, maybe formulating his words, maybe reconsidering?

"I found something," He says softly, places his hand in his pocket. 

"Found what ?" I probe.

"Not on purpose. I don't want you to think I was snooping. But I had to look in the nightstand to make sure I had condoms left."

My eyes widen, "The nightstand?"

"But I came across something else instead," He hesitates. "I found the envelope, Louis," 

My stomach twists, oh no . I touch my thigh but it's not in my pocket, "Y-you did?" My bravado is gone, my anger, my sadness. Now I'm a ball of nerves.

He nods, "I wasn't going to do it. I had every intention of putting it back, completely disregarding it but then I saw who the sender was and it was impossible to look away. I can't recall seeing the name last time either. I suppose I was too anxious or too fearful of your reaction if I looked closer. But it was from the American Society of Transplantation."

I expel my breaths in quick puffs, the motion making me slightly lethargic, "Um-"

"Louis, you never read the letter," His tone is grim.

I shake my head in disbelief, "Nope."

"You just knew it was for Stanley?" I nod, "You knew because why would they send such a letter to you." I'm numb. "Why not read it?"

"I, I couldn't," I admit.

"Why?"

"I dunno. I was afraid."

"Afraid of what exactly?" 

I eventually look up at him, find his red face and bloodshot eyes, "Everything."

"Afraid someone else had a piece of Stanley?" He's holding the now opened envelope, extending it towards me. But I don't want it. I can't read what it says .

" You read it," I point out.

"Louis, why didn't you open it?" He asks again with urgency.

"Just like how I never read anything else," I whisper.

"Well, I had to."

"Why?" My mind is reeling.

"The address is the hospital I was bedridden in, the date on the envelope around the time I was sent home, the donation society-" He stops, pauses a moment to compose himself, "Louis," His eyes well. "Louis, it's me." 

I lose all feeling in my legs, "What's you?" I drop my head in my hands.

"It's me!!" He shouts, "I wrote it!"

"No," I'm trembling all over. 

"Yes, I wrote the letter the day before I was discharged. Louis-"

" Dont say it," I growl.

The room begins to spin, the world tilts left to right, my body sways as if I'm a ship on a turbulent sea. My stomach feels sickened, my head is pounding, my heart is jarring in my chest because him? It's him?

"Louis I didn't know," He's crying now, outwardly sobbing. "I swear to you."

"I have to walk Ruby," I say mechanically or out of fear I'm not sure but I can't be here right now.

"What?" He sounds exasperated. 

"She needs to be walked. I haven't taken her out since this morning," My voice sounds foreign to my ears, distant. 

"But Louis I can't-" He breaks down, drops the stupid, now opened envelope, "I didn't know who my donor was I swear." He says around his tears. But I can't go to him. It feels wrong. This feels wrong!!

Who did I fall in love with?

"And if I could I'd go back in time and deny it, deny the transplant, and wait longer. I would." He smashes his palms into his eyes. "I'd lie in pain, do whatever it took knowing I'd eventually find you, be with you, have a future with you. I'd do everything again." My body is quaking. I can't think or feel. "For you, Louis."

I reorient my senses, swipe any remaining tears away. Strange.  "I have to walk Ruby."

"That's all you have to say?" 

"It all makes sense now," I skirt around him and the letter, reach for Ruby's leash.

"What does?" He follows me with his eyes, remains distant.

"Why she found you. She sensed- " Stanley . I shake my head, clip on her leash. I was sensing Stanley too? I felt him?

Really? 

"Maybe."

I find him in my periphery and he's gripping his palms, rubbing feverishly, "No maybe . She did." I sound harsher than I intended.

"I didn't know," He sobs.

I tug my beanie on, grap my coat, slip my feet into a pair of ratty sneakers, "I hope it stopped snowing." We walk to the door.

"Louis, please ," He begs. "Don't go?"

But I'm too numb right now, my emotions faraway, "Now I know why you concealed everything." I turn the handle, glance in his direction.

"Concealed what?" He isn't even hiding it anymore. His voice is thick with sorrow. My have the tables have turned. "Concealed what!?"

"Your pain. It's easier to keep it inside, allow it to dissolve into nothing."

"It never went anywhere! It stayed right here" -he pounds his chest- "and I let it choke the living shit out of me!"

I turn away, "Oh."

"It was too much for you then, huh? You couldn't handle it. You are like everybody else just as I suspected from day one," He shouts at my retreating back.

"Maybe," I walk away still numb, still confused, still grasping at straws. "Maybe I felt someone else entirely."

.

.

.

.

January 20

I promised I would never leave you

And you should always know

Where ever you may go, no matter where you are

I will never be faraway

Goodnight, my angel

.

.

.

.

I had no place else to go.

So I ended up here at the cemetery to visit Stanley, to bring roses , to leave him a message on a napkin I used while eating my chocolate glazed donut. I wrote what I am unable to say or believe, used writing as a means to help me accept this twisted and totally fucked up fate, the fate I never believed in. And how could I begin to wrap my head around it at all? Life threw a curve ball directly into my face without warning and now I'm here dealing with the repercussions and the black eye.

It kept me awake most of the night too, the back and forth, the confusion, the heartache, the longing . Who am I longing for exactly? Who did I fall in love with? It hurt to think after a while, hurt to breathe, hurt to function in general. And all I wanted was to sleep a dreamless sleep. 

But the worst part is, I haven't shed a single tear. Not one. It's like my eye ducts dried up from the days of constant use. Or it's possible this hasn't sunk in yet, that maybe the worst is yet to come, that... everything will come down on me all at once.

Oh fuck. I shiver at the possibility. That's definitely going to leave a mark.

I'm seated on a wool blanket facing his headstone, touching the smooth, rounded edges, tracing his name with my fingertips, spelling out each letter including his married name, the surname he insisted on taking. I was blamed for that fiasco too, by the way .

"Hey, Stan," I say eventually. "How's everything working out? Did you find heaven alright? Was there a line at the pearly white gates? Maybe you were ushered to the front because you saved the life of the person you- you loved? Is that it?" I ask. "Well I hope so because it was a shit decision, you know? It should have been me."

I drop my hand, stare at the grave.

"Yeah the worst one yet and you've had your fair share of shitty ideas, like going to law school . I mean come on, man. Why didn't you just become a teacher like me? It was your idea. Or did you want to teach law eventually? Was that it? You would have been excellent you know. You had the best personality for it," I chuckle. "More so then me. Most days I wanna tell the kids to shut the fuck up but then I'd be fired and that wouldn't look too good on a resume." I continue. "Yeah, you had patience. Especially when dealing with me. But I've gotten better you know? I've learned sorta, maybe?" I shake my head. "No I did. I learned. I learned lotsa things actually."

I cross my legs, lean towards the grave.

"I learned about people. I learned their quirks, their insecurities, learned how to read them because we all express ourselves differently," I tug at my coat. "And it's interesting because it was hard at first, and I'm one for a challenge, after all I dated you, but when I succeeded it felt rewarding. It felt like I completed an intricate puzzle, made me feel closer to him- them, you know people after finally cracking their code."

I pinch myself.

"So uh, yeah it was interesting," I repeat. "Interesting indeed…" I fall silent for a moment. "Stanley" -I clear my throat- "I have something to tell you, something sort of important I mean it won't matter to you at least I don't think so. I dunno anymore. I'm still in shock and not fully recovered from it actually- oh! I started playing again. Did you know? Did you see me? Did you hear it from all the way up there? Because I did. I played Suite Bergamosque and it was fantastic. I didn't miss a single note! Ask Harry-" My eyes burn as if they want to expel tears. But they won't . "Um, right. Right Stanley, so wait what was I saying? Where was I going with this?" 

More silence.

"I have to tell you something. That's right," I nod, twist my fingers into knots, "It won't be easy to say or admit or even believe but it's reality, okay? What I'm about to say is the truth and I wish it weren't." I take the envelope out of my pocket, the now unsealed envelope. "Stan, the man I'm- the man I believe to be the- fuck I don't know!" I drop my head in my hands, release the letter on accident. "The words are on the napkin, alright? The words I can't say, the words that are lodged in my throat, the words that are sitting like rocks in the pit of my stomach. They're just too difficult to say aloud. Right now at least. Maybe forever." I shrug. "Dunno. Stanley I-" I place the flowers down, tuck the napkin between the stems of the white roses . "I'm not strong enough I guess. Well- I'm not strong enough in general. I always need someone you know? Someone to hold me, protect me, comfort me. I'm not very good on my own."

I turn away.

"And it hasn't gotten any better, Stan. I feel like there's something missing, something vital, something almost as important as a heartbeat-" I touch my chest, "A warming, strong heartbeat. And mine isn't enough." 

I find the letter in my periphery and pick it up, take in the state of the envelope, "You know, it's funny when I got this in the mail I was so distraught I nearly threw it away because I thought it was junk. But I remember signing the forms for the transplant, I remember being responsible for all of these important decisions and financial details while simultaneously mourning and fighting off your mother. So it struck me the second it slipped from my fingers."

I pull out the flimsy paper.

"But I never read it. I never intended to read it. I never wanted to! And I can't figure out why. Maybe I didn't want someone walking around with a piece of you, maybe I thought you may need it in heaven, maybe I was too afraid to share." My eyes are dry. So weird. "In the end it was a comfort for me just knowing you helped someone, saved them even, like you're living on through them-" Harry . "Uh, um yeah so I wanna read it now." You gave him life. "Why? Dunno. But it feels right. This feels right. Doing this in front of you." 

I clear my throat, glide my fingers across the page, feel the impression of his handwriting as I do so. Harry. My heart begins to pound, my palms are sweating, my thoughts are becoming more jumbled. What's this mean?  

I unfold the paper, reveal a page filled with words written in black ink, perfectly spaced sentences. No, thoughts. These are his thoughts. And I've always had it close to me, "This feels right." I start to read.

Dear Donor Family-

I scrunch my eyes closed as if the very words cause them pain, "Oh man," I look away for a moment to compose myself, take a few breaths. "I've got this, I know I do." I puff my cheeks. "It's time, Lou okay? Do it for yourself. You deserve it." I say aloud. "Just read it. You know the truth now." I look down at the words again. "Do it."

Dear Donor Family,

First, I wanted to extend my condolences to you and your loved ones, your family and friends, to anyone who was impacted by such a tragedy. I will pray with you, cope with you, remain strong for you, hold onto the connection I've made with you. I will think of you always.

Second, I want you to understand that I will be sure to live life to the fullest, that I will use this priceless, most precious gift as if it were always mine. I will not waste a single minute or feel sorry for myself. I will carry their legacy, I will make an impact one day, I will prove I am worthy enough to receive such an integral part of who they were. I will make them proud. And you too. 

I will always make you proud.

Third, and this may sound absurd but thank you. Thank you for a second chance, thank you for bringing me relief, thank you for being selfless and so kind during a time in your life where happiness seemed so far away or out of reach. It's made my quality of life beautiful again, it gave me balance, it was my beacon, it brought me home.

And because of this, because of the heart I was given, I am able to live again, breathe on my own, feel the sun, experience what I missed through the years. It's what I've missed. It was the missing piece. It completed my story.

So that's why I'm saying thank you. I'm appreciative of what you did, what you chose to do, what you felt was right in your heart. 

And it's something I will be grateful for forever .

Thank you again.

Best,

HS

"But you are worthy," I say. "If anything you're the worthiest. No one deserved it more than you." I point to the page, look up at Stanley's grave. "He deserved it okay? If anyone were to get your heart, it was him. Do you know why?" I fold the letter up, place it in my pocket next to JALBOYH. "Because he's special. He's a rarity. He's one of a kind. He's such a beautiful person, Stanley. And not physical beauty, but inside. Inside he was compassionate, patient, so loving." I shake my head. "And I fucked up. I really fucked up by not hugging him back when he needed it. When he was afraid, when he was crying profusely, I didn't go to him."

I find the roses and the dirtied napkin.

"I was petrified. I found out the man I…" I sigh, "Stanley, I bought him red roses."

.

.

.

.

January 25.

I love you.

Completely.

I couldn't be madder about you.

I love you.

I do.

.

.

.

.

"I'm here," I announce as I walk into Niall's apartment. I find both him and Liam by the television surrounded by emptied bottles of booze and a few pizza boxes. "Hey. Sorry I'm late."

"Tommo!" Niall greets from the floor, throws his hand up in greeting.

"Hi! Where have you been?" Liam asks, "We were starving and couldn't wait to eat."

"It's okay. I'm not hungry," I shed my coat, take a seat on the couch. 

"You? Now that's a first."

"Yeah well, I went to the cemetery and sorta lost my appetite."

Niall's eyes widen, his smile fades, "Why? Just going to visit? Were you okay?"

"I was as good as I could be," My fingers are knotted in my lap. "It was the first time I didn't bawl my eyes out so I'd call it an improvement."

"That's not funny and you know it," He barks, his expression stern. "Where have you been, Lou? You left the other night and I haven't heard from you since and now you're going to the cemetery. What's happened?"

I remain impassive, "I was busy." 

"With work? The concert?" Liam probes.

I turn away from them in shame, "Just stuff."

"What stuff? What are you keeping from us?" Niall is unrelenting.

"Nothing, okay? Nothing," I reach for a pizza box.

"I thought you weren't hungry," He scrutinizes.

"Well I've changed my mind," I find a pepperoni slice. "And no white slice? What the fuck, dude." I take a piece anyway to distract myself.

"You never texted me back so I bought what we wanted," Liam defends. 

I refrain from rolling my eyes, "I know." I take a bite, feel a sickening sensation in my stomach. Ugh. "Just a warning would have been good or something."

"What kind of warning? You weren't responding to me."

"I'll just deal it's fine," I continue eating, force the food down my throat. 

"Um…" I hear Liam but I ignore it.

Niall clears his throat, "Are you finished?"

"No," I continue eating.

"Not with the food, Lou. I meant your shit attitude," He says.

"What?" I put the pizza down, swipe my mouth with the back of my hand. "What shit-"

"What is wrong ?" He asks, his tone direct. 

"I said nothing ! Why does there always have to be something wrong wtih me? Do I always have to be falling apart or loud and obnoxious!? Why can't I be content for once, huh? Quiet !?"

"You're no where near content, Lewis. No where fucking close ."

"He might be-" Liam tries.

"Yes I am!!"

"No you're not!"

"Am to!"

"Are not!!"

"Am to!"

"Are not!"

"Ugh…" I hear my friend grumble.

"Am to!"

"Are not!"

"No... please... shut up...don't...stop…"

"Am to!"

"Are not!!"

"Am to!"

"Are not!"

"GUYS!!!" Liam screams over us. We're startled back to reality. "You're children!"

"You guys fought too!!" I gesture between them, "So it's him!" I point to Niall. "All him !!"

"You guys are both instigators! Just shut up!" He stands.

"Where are you going!?"

"I need another drink ," He stomps away to the kitchen.

I divert my gaze, avoid Niall all together because God knows what's going through his head, "I don't want you sad, Lou and I know when there's something troubling my best friend. You're upset. Something happened. I can see it all over your face."

I shrug, "Maybe."

"Definitely."

"It's not-"

Liam stumbles back in with a glass filled with clear liquid, "Okay! What did I miss?" He plops down next to me, takes a tentative sip of his drink. He grimaces as if the alcohol is too pungent. "Woah! This'll even knock you out, Lou."

"Give it to me," I reach for it but he scoots away.

"Nuh-uh man. This is mine."

I pout, "But Lima I had a bad day!"

"Oh! So you did do something besides the cemetery," Niall jumps in.

"Ugh!!" I grip my fringe, "Yes, okay? Yes. I did something." I bite my lip.

"And what was that?"

I touch my thigh, "I read the letter." I whisper.

"You read the-"

"The letter !?" Liam remembered shockingly enough.

"Wait, holy shit, dude the fucking letter from the donor foundation!?" Niall grips his hair. 

"What convinced you to finally-"

I squirm in my seat, shake my head, "So did...Harry." 

"You guys read it together?" Liam asks.

"No."

"Then when did he-"

"It's why he left crying. It explains why he ignored me. And now I don't know why I'm confused," My eyes are burning, fighting the invisible wall to release tears. 

Niall stands up, paces the floor, "Lewis, I'm confused. He left because he read it? When did he have the opportunity to?"

"He found it on his own when I was in the kitchen. He was looking for condoms-"

"Condoms?" Liam taps his chin.

"He's OCD. He can't help it."

"Oh, right. I thought he'd overcome that."

"No, it's not something you just move on from. It's debilitated him since he was a kid," I defend. "And he can't help himself, even with me. Does it bother me? Of course it does. But it doesn't matter anymore. He's gone, he's in Italy, he's probably going to move on and holy fuck-" My lip trembles, my stomach twists. "Guys, he's gone ." 

"I'm confused. Louis you're skipping around. What happened? Are you able to explain?" Niall says, his tone placating. The meltdown is imminent regardless. I'm just not sure when that will happen.

I take a deep breath, look between my two friends, "It's-" I bite my tongue. "He is the one- ugh!!!" I tug at my hair, begin to sweat through my shirt. "I can't even say it."

"But why? Is it that bad?" Liam scoots closer, offers me his drink this time 

I take it graciously, chug back as much as I am able to handle, "It is."

"Rewind. Harry found the letter because he was looking for condoms. Got it. Then he read the letter. Check. Then he left crying, ignored you for a week-"

"Check and check!" Liam finishes.

"And now you're saying he's gone, in Italy and you're confused," Niall is still pacing.

"Uh-huh."

"Makes no sense. What's the letter say?"

"It's not about what it says," I lower my head, tuck my chin to my chest. "It's about who wrote it."

"Why's that? It's the person who has Stanley's heart. You signed the paperwork. We were there with you when you made the decision," Liam says and I nearly choke. "Do you know who wrote it? Are they related to Harry? Is that why he became upset?"

My face is hot as are my nerves. I almost want to vomit.

"Give me the letter," Niall extends his hand out. "Is it signed?"

"It is," I whisper. 

"Who signed-"

"It's their initials," I blurt. "He signed his initials."

"Okay, he signed- wait... he!? How do you know it's a man?" He demands.

"Did the foundation give you his name?" Liam adds.

I shake my head, "No. I wasn't given his name. The letter is anonymous. It's just his initials."

"So what the..." Niall's face pales. "Fuck, Lou." He stops in place, takes a seat on the floor.

"Yeah," My fingers are purple, my knuckles white. 

"Shit are you serious?"

Liam looks between us, "Wait what? What did I miss?"

"Fuck no wonder he was so upset."

"I know," I agree solemnly. I'm still not crying .

"I don't get it!" Liam interjects, "Who-"

"When did he come by?" Niall continues on.

"Sunday. The day before he left," My voice is devoid of emotion. I'm cold.  

"What did he do?" 

I lick my lips, practically taste him, "He kissed me, held me, he told me-"

"Told you what!?" Liam explodes. "What are you guys talking about!?"

"Harry has Stanley's heart!!" Niall shouts and I shudder from head to toe, nearly vomit where I sit, "Harry found the letter and realized it was him. That's why he was crying, that's why he ignored you, that's why he…"

I'm staring at the television, watching the Twitch video but not comprehending what's happening or what game is even playing. I'm in a fog, I'm sweating, I'm sickened. I can't think

"That's why he came back?" Niall finishes eventually, "He told you."

I blink.

"Now I get it. But why did you go to the cemetery?"

Another blink.

"Have you visited recently?" Liam asks.

I blink a third time.

"It's a great place to think, to let this all sink in."

Fourth time .

"How did you react? What did you guys say?" Niall asks. "Louis, talk to me. What happened?"

"Is he in shock? Why is he so quiet?"

"I don't know."

"He's very red. Maybe he needs a cold drink."

"Louis! Please answer me."

My eyes are on fire.

"Hey!!" My friend approaches me, grips my shoulders, shakes me slightly, "Fuck, Louis! Look at me! Please."

"What's happening? Should I call an ambulance?"

"He's faraway, he's-" He places a finger underneath my nose, "-he's breathing. Shallow. But he's just in shock."

My eyes glaze over, my focus blurs.

"He must be really distraught."

"Of course he is. How would you feel?"

"Pretty bad but I'd think it was a sign. I would take it as a gift."

"Huh? Why?"

"He was given a second chance."

"How?" Niall guides me towards the cushions, lays me down, drapes a blanket over the lower half of my body. 

"With Stan. He got his second chance. To finish what they started."

"It's a heart Liam."

"Doesn't matter. There's a connection. Don't you see? The very heart that beat in Stan's chest is now in Harry's. It's the same rhythm, the same muscle, it's the center of any relationship."

"What are you a romance novelist or something?"

"I'm just saying. They both started over. With each other."

"Alright, sure." Niall tucks a blanket around my body. "Find his keys, we'll need to get Ruby."

"She might shit in your shoe."

"Whatever. He can't be alone right now."

"That's fine. I'll get her. No biggy."

"Thanks."

.

.

.

.

I'm wide awake, I still haven't cried, I still haven't moved, I probably didn't blink either. The conversation from earlier is ringing between my ears, echoing in my thoughts like a broken record, replaying and replaying and-

It just won't go away! The emptiness has consumed me, swallowed me whole and now I'm unfeeling and cold. I'm so cold . I'm trapped in this pandemonium of feelings I can't express or sort through. And they're all shouting at once, screaming into my skull as a reminder of what I once felt and expressed. It's giving me a headache.

Niall read the letter too, not that it mattered, but he read it and didn't have much to say. It was standard, heartfelt, written in one sitting probably knowing Harry and that's it. There's nothing else to say.

Or think.

Or feel.

Or believe.

Then why can't I sleep? What's bothering me?

"I gave him white roses," I say randomly. 

Niall grunts into his pillow, "Hmm…"

"Stan. I brought him white roses," I repeat. "Why?" I extend my arm out towards Ruby. "What's that mean?" 

"Dunno, man," My friend murmurs. 

"Shouldn't he have red?" My eyes search the darkness for answers, "Why didn't I get him red?" 

.

.

.

.

January 27

The stars are all falling down my way, 

And all of the planets are lined in the sky

The lights are shining down upon you and I

My world is stricken by love

 

Chapter Text

STUPID DEEP, Playlist

 

February 01   

I need a minute to breathe you in

Just a second to taste your skin

I just gotta, I just gotta

Feel you here right next to me

Can we please just go back in time

Those lazy Sundays, you and I

'Cause every hour and every day

Is more painful when you're away

.

.

.

.

"Here it goes, Ruby," I'm seated at the piano with  Opus 72 resting open before me. "Gotta get these last few practice sessions in before next week." I flex my fingers, take a deep breath. "And I haven't even memorized half of-"

Ruby begins barking at the door.

"Ugh! Come on!" I turn towards her and she's pacing back and forth in the entryway, "Girl, it's no one okay? It's probably the, the uh-"

A heavy knock disrupts my rant, "Lewis!!"

My skin prickles with gooseflesh, "Neil?" I stumble from the piano bench and make my way over, "Now, Ruby, don't shit in Uncle Niall's shoes okay? I already owe him three pairs."

"Open up you turd," He slaps the wood.

"Well, with that attitude…" I cross my arms over my chest, "No!"

"I have something to give you. It's from Teddy."

I tap my lip, "Teddy? Do I know a-"

"Ed from the hospital!" Niall grunts, "He wrote a song, well he had help , but he wrote most of it."

My palms begin to sweat, "Um…" I reach for the handle and open the door.

Niall's there with his guitar case still strapped to his back, "I couldn't wait to bring it." He rushes past me.

"Why?" I follow him into the living room, "What's the big deal? It's a song."

"A very important song. And there's an itinerary on the back," He places his case on the ground, plops down on the sofa. "Come here." He waves me over.

"Itinerary for what exactly?" I sit next to him, place my hands in my lap, "I don't remember-"

He thrusts a rumpled up piece of paper into my grasp, "Read it." He instructs.

I take it, "18?" 

"Yup," Niall confirms. "18. It was Ed's idea."

"What is the kid a music prodigy or something?" 

I got a heart. I got a soul . Believe me I will use them both.

My eyes burn, "He wrote this? He's like ten."

Niall pauses, "Harry, uh... Harry helped." 

"Did he now?" My tone is flat. We made a start, be it a false one I know. Baby I don't want to feel alone. "Makes sense because there's no way Ed fell in love at the age of eighteen because he's not that old-"

"He's not the one who fell in love, Tommo," Niall inches closer. "He was writing it for someone else."

The tips of my fingers go numb, "I don't-"

I have loved you since we were 18

Long before we both thought the same thing

To be loved, to be in love

All I can do is say that these arms were made for holding you

I wanna love like you made me feel

When we were 18

"We're not eighteen," I confirm a fact that obviously doesn't need to he confirmed in the first place!

Niall rolls his eyes, "Ed thought you were."

My stomach twists, "But this can't be-"

"Ed wrote the song with Harry before he left for Italy."

My brain is scrambled, fighting against the barriers holding back my emotions, "I don't really understand." 

He rolls his eyes, jabs the page with his finger, "Lewis! Read the fucking lyrics. Harry is talking about being in love. " He grunts.

My cheeks feel hot, "Um... with who?"

"Holy shit!!" He stands abruptly, grips at his brown floppy hair, "What the fuck man? Are you drunk? High? Are you on drugs!?"

My eyes widen at the assumption, "Not that I-"

"It's like something snapped in that brain of yours because you're unresponsive, you're cold, you don't comprehend things! A fucking wet mop has more of a personality than you!"

"I just-" A part of me died I think.

"Snap out of it!"

So kiss me where I lay down

My hands press to your cheeks

A long way from the playground

"He- he liked touching my cheeks," I instinctively touch my face. "It was lovely."

He's slapping his sneakered feet across my floor from the piano to the front door and back. He's huffing and puffing, flexing his fingers, "Flip the page over. Read the itinerary." He growls.

"Itinerary for what?" 

"Ugh!! Harry's trip !!"

I blink once, twice, brush off my friend's anger "What's it matter, Niall? I'm not in Italy. I'm in New York. What will I do with it?"

"I don't know ! Maybe call the hotel he's staying in!?"

I frown, "He's staying at a campus I thought?"

He stops, stares me down, "Louis, there's a reason he used that paper for the song, right? He wants you to find him!" 

"I…" I shake my head, flip the page over. "Oh wow." There's dates, hotels, a list of locations and tourist attractions. "He has this planned to the day." More importantly, his hand writing is just as beautiful as I remembered.

"Because he wants you to find him !" Niall practically shouts, "And you're sitting there like a lost puppy, feeling sorry for yourself."

Rome, Campus - January 25

    Saint Peter's Basilica 10:00 - 13:00

    Vatican City 14:00 - 15:00 (depending on crowds)

Rome, Campus - January 26

    Spanish Steps 16:00 - 16:30

    Piazza Navona 16:30 - ?

    Shopping ??

Rome, Campus - February 01

   Sistine Chapel (need appointment/tour guide)

  Colosseum ?? (Open to public all day)

Rome, Campus - February 02

  Roman forum 11:30 - 12:30

   Shopping

  Trevi fountain (throw in penny. Make a wish) (end of day)

I gulp, "I don't feel sorry. I barely feel anything." 

Florence, Hotel La Scaletta - February 07 

    Basilica of Santa Croce 11:30 - 13:45

   Ponte Vecchio 17:00 - 19:00 (buy mom tennis bracelet)

Florence, Hotel La Scaletta - February 08

   Boboli Gardens 10:15 - 13:30

   Galleria dell'Accademia 15:00 - Close

Niall rushes over, "Why?" He pleads. "What happened? What did this to you?" 

I continue with the itinerary. Venice? 

My stomach twists, "Why is there a question mark next to Venice?" He sits down next to me. "Niall, why isn't he going to Venice?" 

"Dunno," He shrugs, his tone apologetic. "I don't know his plan."

"He has to go there-" Imagine us sitting at the cafe "-He has to!! He has to ride on a gondola and visit the Murano glass factory and...and-" Imagine. 

He touches my shoulder, startles me from my thoughts, "Louis. Talk to me."

I stare at the page though.

Venice? Ca'Sagredo Hotel - February 20 

     Saint Marks Basilica and Square (open to public)  

   Shopping

   Find cafe**

   Grand Canal - Gondola ride at sunset

 Venice? Ca'Sagredo Hotel - February 21

   Rialto Bridge (open to public)

   Doge's Palace 14:30 - 16:00

Venice? Ca'Sagredo Hotel - February 23

   Walk city

"You've never remained silent. Even after everything with Stan. You spoke your feelings. You spoke to me!" He gestures towards himself, "And now you've completely shut down."

I shake my head, "Is he going to Venice?" 

He slumps against the couch, "Louis, what happened? Are you this absent minded at work?"

"He made a list. He has every intention going because then he wouldn't have cared to list places to go," I trace his words. "Find cafe. Our cafe. The cafe from the picture."

"Do you need to see a shrink?" Niall sounds exasperated, "What will snap you out of it?"

"He has the gondola ride. Maybe he will do it. Maybe?"

.

.

.

.

February 07

I just wanna, kiss your face

I just wanna, feel your gaze

I just wanna, I just wanna

I just wanna be where you are

I just wanna feel your touch

I'm not asking for too much

I just wanna, I just wanna

I just wanna wake up where you are

.

.

.

.

We walked the perimeter of the park twice, watched passersby go about their days, even stopped off at McDonald's for French fries and a crappy burger. It was a special treat, even for Ruby. 

"Yum! They're good and salty right?" She places her snoot in my lap, begs with her puppy dog eyes for another fry, "No, girl. You'll spoil your dinner and you have to eat your chicken and rice- that I made!" I point to my chest. "So no more." She groans as I place the container into the garbage. "There were crumbs, alright? I promise." I stand up, brush off any lingering salt from my lap. "It's for the better."

I tug her up 5th Avenue, slowly approach Harry's apartment building, "Ruby, quit dragging your feet okay? We need to go unseen." I swipe at my mouth, stare at the building from across the street. I'm easily concealed from the doorman's sight as I stare at the windows, pretend I am able to see Harry's home. "They faced the park. That much I remember," I tug my beanie further down. "Hmm, I tried counting to fifty two but I…" I puff my cheeks. "It's no use. I'll never find it." I look across the street again and James is there, turned away thankfully, but he's there in his green peacoat and bowler cap.

"Maybe I should say hello," I suggest. "Maybe I can ask about the itinerary. What if he knows about Venice? Do you think Harry's Mom knows about it? Does anyone know about it?" Ruby groans. "I know. Harry knows. But I can't call him. I can't text him. I can't figure out why-" I shut down

I take in the building one final time.

"I'm in shock, girl," I continue up the sidewalk. "I'm in shock and when it all comes tumbling down, I'll collapse with it." I frown, touch at my thigh. I have loved you since we were 18 . "And who knows if I'll be able to stand again because I don't think my knees could hold me up." Long before we both thought the same thing

"Come, girl. Let's go home."

.

.

.

.

Ruby's asleep on the bed, in Harry's place or Stanley's I don't know anymore, but she's asleep and I'm sitting with the nightstand draw wide open taking in its contents. It's a mess really, a jumbled mess of cellphone chargers, old receipts, a few lube bottles, and a single condom. I've been walking around with my letter and both songs in my pocket since Niall came over. 

So what am I looking for?

I suppose I was hoping I'd start to feel again, shed a tear, or feel some heartache or anger but I'm empty. I'm beyond the ache or something, "That's a good thing then right? Maybe I won't mourn Harry because maybe I wasn't really in love with him? Maybe it was Stanley I felt and I mourned his loss already." I continue to mindlessly push through the mess in my drawer. "Right? Could that be it?"

I find a large white envelope on the bottom.

"What's that?" I pull it out and open it, find the stick figure couple with squiggly grins and interlocked hands. The heart . The black curly hair. "What did he want then? Was it for experience?" I open the card and the grey envelope falls free, "Oh! Crap." I pick it up off the floor. "What was he trying to..."

The words catch my attention then, the carefully written words Harry wrote. The letters are smooshed together, every line a run on sentence, every thought-

I love you completely

"What!?" I divert my gaze instantly, bite at my lip, "What the fuck is this?" My hands are shaking. "Why the fuck-" My eyes find the words once more as if drawn to them.

I guess I'm kinda mad about you

I love you, I love you I do

My palms begin to sweat, "When?" I whisper.

Love overcomes all of my senses

Lowers all of my defenses, 

And all of your faults vanish to a blind daze

Your bitterness erased by my sense of taste

And harsh words are deafened by love

"B-by...by- what?"

I love you completely

I couldn't be madder about you

I love you, I love you I do

I love you completely

There's nothin' I see bad about you

I love you, I love you I do

My chest tightens, "Who, who is he saying this to? Why is he saying it!?"

Love welcomes me to every new day

The stars are all falling down my way, 

And all of the planets are lined in the sky

The lights are shining down upon you and I

My world is stricken by love

My forehead pearls with sweat, "Is this addressed to-"

Kiss me over and over forever and ever my love

Kiss me all over and over forever and ever my love

"Louis? To Louis? " It reads. "But it can't-"

The love I have for you

Makes me blind I can't see

The love I have for you

Cuts my throat I can't speak

I swallow around the lump in my throat, "H-he wrote-"

The love I have for you makes me numb

I can't feel

The love I have for you makes me numb

I can't feel

My heart drums against my chest, my eyes burn, my body quakes.

But boy, oh boy, oh boy

I love you

Completely

"Y-you...you-"

I love you, I love you, 

I do

"Love me? You-" My eyes well, my cheeks flush, my stale heart awakens with a series of beats so powerful I fear it'll break through my ribcage and puncture my lungs. And it's unexpected, crippling even. These emotions. These feelings. The rush . I can't even begin to describe it.

I do.

I do.

I love you.

I love you, Louis .

The last line reads and that's when it hits me head-on, the curve ball without the curve, the words I longed to share and to hear. The very words my heart needed to be completely free.

"R-Ruby?" I mumble and collapse into a heap with the card pressed to my chest.

.

.

.

.

He loves me. Harry loves me. 

The card has been sitting next to my head for weeks and I didn't have the balls to fucking open it and find his confession. I wasn't strong enough or I was forgetful or maybe it's in my nature to-

He loves me!!!  

I scream into the pillow once more, slam my fist down onto the mattress as a means to ease my aching heart.

He's loved me for how long? When did it start? Why didn't he tell me sooner? Why didn't I say it sooner!? Why were we both so afraid of it? Were we afraid of the other's reaction? I have something to tell you but I don't think you're ready to hear it -

My voice is hoarse, gravelly, exhausted really but I scream even louder. 

I was petrified. I felt too old. I felt too vulnerable. I fell too quickly. But he did too! Harry did too!! He's never loved before either. How could I let him down?

I grip my hair, tug at the strands until my scalp burns, curse myself for being so insecure and fearful and too damned proud!

"I hate you," I snivel into the pillow. "How could you let him go? Why didn't you go to him!!" 

Harry's face haunts me to this day. The wide eyes, the tear stained cheeks, the bitten lips, disheveled hair! He needed me, he needed my hug and I walked away

I roll over onto my back and cry towards the ceiling, cry out my anger and sorrow, cry until my throat is so sore it feels like sandpaper. I'm unable to catch my breath either, I can't form a coherent thought, my brain is messy and so wrapped around these thoughts of Harry. 

It hurts.

It's buried within me.

It's stupid deep.

.

.

.

.

"He loves me," I slam the card down on the counter, startle Niall. "He fucking loves me, Neil! And my eyes haven't stopped leaking tears since I read it." I swipe dramatically at my face.

He approaches with a knowing look, "Uh, like I told you, dork." 

"I didn't know what to think," I plop down in my usual place. "Alright? I didn't know how he felt or what he was thinking or-"

"You couldn't look past the heart," He deadpans.

I shake my head, "No. No it's wasn't that." I turn away, grip my fingers to avoid biting them.

He leans on the counter, pushes a beer towards me, "What was it then because you were a mute. Which actually was kind of nice. Wait why do I want the real you back again?"

"Fuck off," I grunt.

"Okay! That's why!"

"I was afraid he would fall out of love," I confess. "He's young. He's not even twenty. He has time before he has to worry about…" I sniffle. "Forever."

"But he doesn't, Lou. You fell in love young too, remember? You were close in age when you got engaged, right?" I shrug as if my experience doesn't relate to Harry's situation, because it doesn't . "So who's to say he can't feel the same? Do the same !?" He touches my shoulder. "Come on this is the same thing!" He assures.

I remain uncertain though, "He lost most of his youth. Why would he waste it on being in a relationship?"

"He may not want to date around! Everyone is different. People experience life the way they want not how people expect them to and you're expecting him to be some thirsty teen looking to sleep around and travel the world."

"I'm not expecting him to be or do anything!" I defend, "I don't want to ruin the most important years of his life! I don't want him to regret anything ."

He rolls his eyes, "You're back to this shit argument."

"What shit argument!? It's the truth! If he ends up dating me, in fifteen years he'll probably want to leave!" The thought hurts too much. Everything hurts too much. Everything is magnified. "And that'll be the end of it."

He grips both of my shoulders, forces our eyes to meet. His are round, his features grim, "You didn't feel that way about Stanley. You wanted to stay with him, loved him, wanted children" -I flinch- "You wanted a future and you were young . In fact you are still! So stop acting like this is the end of the road for you."

I sit back in my seat, allow a few residual tears to escape, "It is, Niall. I loved twice that's why. I opened my heart to two very special people, gave my all, cried for them, changed my life for them. I did-"

"You never told Harry. You withheld that information from him. Why?" Niall asks, his tone accusatory. "Why not let him know how you feel? He was ready to open up to you. And he did. What held you back?" I'm staring at him opened mouthed. "Don't look at me like that. You know what you did wrong."

"Wow, so now all of this is my fault," I reach for the card, but he pulls it away. "Give it back." I snap.

He shakes his head, "Nope."

My anger surges, "Why the fuck are you on his side!? What have I ever done to you!?"

"You owe me three-" He holds up his fingers- "pairs of shoes. So that may have something to do with it or I'm sick and tired of seeing you like this. Maybe I thought you would take the lead. Maybe I thought you'd fly your ass to Italy to find Harry and admit your love for him." He shrugs.

I point to myself, "Me fly to Italy !? Are you nuts!!" I ask in disbelief. "Fly. To. Italy. Sure, Jan. I'll fly to Italy. Do you wanna pay for it!?" 

"Use your birthday present," Niall suggests. 

"I can't use my-" The voucher . "Uh...that was for a domestic flight. Duh. Not something overseas…" I pick up the beer finally, take a long swig. "Yeah not overseas-"

"Bullshit, Tommo. It's a voucher . It's meant for any destination that airline flies to," He says. "So get booking."

I finish off my beer, "You're nuts. You realize right? You're fucking mental! I can't fly there . I don't know where to go or speak the language. I'll be going in circles, making a complete ass out of myself and he probably doesn't feel the same anymore."

"That's preposterous. You took him back the second he came to you! Do you think he'd turn you away?"

I sit up, raise a finger in protest, "I-" I clamp my mouth shut though, mull it over in my head. "I don't know…he'd probably-" Love me and hold me and make sure I was okay. "-hug me?" I touch my lips, fantasize how he'd feel pressed against them. "He'd hug me first probably, whisper the lullaby in my ear to sooth my aching heart. Then he'd touch my cheek, run his thumb along the underside of my jaw to calm my nerves. Then he'd cup the nape of my neck, kiss my lips ever so slightly, graze my mouth like a whisper." 

I close my eyes, find myself at the sill of the magic window peering out towards my dream, my escape. My cottage in the woods . And it's him. It's only Harry. Only Harry in his Velcro sneakers, baggy jeans and ratty sweatshirt. He's waiting for me with open arms and a head of unruly curls. 

"Th-then he'd ask me if I was okay, make sure I was no longer hurting, hug me longer if I shook my head no," My bottom lip trembles. "He wouldn't let go, Niall. He wouldn't let me go until I was able to stand on my own two feet." My voice cracks, along with my heart. "He'd suck the pain away." I eventually look to my friend when he doesn't answer, find his eyes glazed over, and cheeks flushed. "It's stupid." I admit. "Really stupid-"

"He sucked all the pain away, Louis," He says, his tone faraway. "He brought you down to earth. He cured your anguish."

Tears pool on my lower lid, "He did." 

Niall's blue irises find my own, their intensity seeping under my skin, "You need him more than you're willing to admit."

"I…" I flex my fingers, "I d-do." I turn away, cry into my hand. "I love him so much. I miss him. I need his touch. I need to feel him. I need him!" My chest tightens, my heart cries out to him. "Holy fuck Niall, it hurts so bad. I ache for him."

He touches my shoulder, "Look, I get off in an hour. We can book a flight to Italy."

"I need him!!" I sob, "I need him like a heart needs a beat, like how lungs need oxygen, like a-"

"You'll see him, soon. You will. You'll go to him, find him, tell him how you feel."

I swipe at my face, meet his gaze once more, "And- and feel his arms and touch his face and kiss his lips?"

"All of it."

"O-okay. Okay, Niall. I wanna go. I wanna find him."

.

.

.

.

"Oh my God this is expensive ," My credit card is in my hand but I'm holding it out of reach. "I don't think-"

"Give me that!!" Niall rips the card from my grasp anyway, "Okay, do you want even more space?" 

"Hey, guys!!" Liam comes barreling in.

"Shit, does anyone knock anymore!?" I growl from the couch.

"Sorry, I didn't think-" 

I wave off my friend, "It's fine. Did you bring food?" I rub at my belly.

Liam drops a bag of take out on the coffee table, "Is Lewis back from the dead?"

"Yup," Niall is distracted though, typing away on his laptop. "He's back and hungry. So feed the beast before he goes for my hand."

"Hey!" I stamp my foot, "Just an F-Y-I, I ate McDonald's yesterday!"

"Oh," Liam pets Ruby's head. "I got her chicken and rice."

"No need!! I cooked some for her so she's all set."

"Then why is her dish full?" My friend asks.

"Uh..." I blush, "I may have overcooked it?"

"Maybe that's why she went for my shoe when I came in! You're fucking starving the poor thing!" Niall says.

"I am not starving my pet!! I love her!" I poke his stomach.

"Watch it or I'll book you a first class seat," He warns.

"What!?" I lunge for my credit card, "You wouldn't dare!!" 

"Chill out! You're in coach," He pushes me down.

"Ugh…" I flop backwards into the cushions.

"So when do you leave?" Liam opens a pint of chicken. 

I reach for a container too, "Fuck yeah. Lo mein." I grap a plastic fork and dig in.

"He leaves on the eighteenth," Niall types away, clicks around the website. "So I'll need your help with Ruby."

"Absolutely! I'll just stay here. I mean, if that's okay?" Liam shoves a bite of chicken into his awaiting mouth. 

"As long as you don't mind sleeping in cum laden bed sheets," Niall jeers.

"Why you little troll!" I tackle Niall over, pinch at his torso. "Take it back!!' 

"No!!" He struggles against my body weight, "Never!!"

"Yes!!" I poke my fingers into his belly, tickle at his abdomen, "I won't stop until-"

"I'll just wash the sheets. No big deal," Liam says and continues eating.

I back away from Niall, "You're no fun you know that?" I resume eating.

"It's a good thing you bite your nails," Niall grimaces. "Oof, that hurt."

"Good!! Fucking cum-laden bedsheets. You dick, I totally wash my bedding, with bleach."

"Once every other year, Tommo," He hands me back my card. "You're all set." I pocket it, blow him a raspberry, and shove more food in my mouth.

"Where are you flying into?" Liam changes out Ruby's food, gives her fresh steamed chicken and rice. 

"Rome. Then he has to take a train, then a ferry to Venice," Niall says. 

"That's going to be exhausting."

"That's why I'm leaving the eighteenth. By the time I get to Venice it'll be mid-day the ninteenth," I huff. "I'm going to be so tired."

"It'll be worth it," My friend assures.

"I hope so," I frown. "I hope he isn't angry or hurt."

"He's not. No way."

"How do you know? How do you know he won't turn me away?"

"He loves you, Lewis. That doesn't go away overnight. It stays with you," Niall closes his laptop. 

"And rips you to shreds," I add.

"And makes you feel whole," Liam continues.

"Everything will be fine, okay?" Niall assures.

I place the pint down, "But what if it's not? What if I go there and he turns me away? What if he hates me?" 

"You know he doesn't. That card says it all."

"Card?" Liam asks.

"Harry admitted his love for Louis in his birthday card."

"Wait but you didn't read it sooner?"

I shake my head, "I didn't. You know me. It took me two years to read the donor letter."

"Oh, so Harry just said he loved you?"

"It's a song. He used a song."

"What's it called?"

"Hmph, you sound like Ed," Niall murmurs.

"Stricken, by No Doubt. I had to goggle it."

"Oh and it says-"

"Here, read it," I hand it over. "See for yourself."

I watch Liam's expression closely, his eyes, his lips as they tug into a grin, "Oh shit." He shakes his head. "I always knew something was there."

Niall takes the lo-mein from my grasp, "How?" He sticks his own fork in.

Liam shrugs, "He couldn't stop touching you." He hands me the card back. "He couldn't look away . He was enthralled by you, Lou. Smitten." I reach for another container, open it up to find chicken and broccoli in an attempt to distract my thoughts and keep my tears at bay. "It was probably love at first sight."

I cackle at the thought, "You're insane. That shit don't exist. That's in fairytales, fictional novels, movies, video games even! Don't give me that crap." 

"It all started on Halloween-"

"Fucking Halloween !!!" I nearly throw the container across the room but Niall catches my arm.

"Woah, dude. Chill."

"No!" My face is red hot, my cheeks flushed with annoyance.

"Then what's your problem?" Liam asks nonplussed by my outburst. 

"Everything happened on Halloween!! The one fucking night I can't remember a damn thing is the night that started it all. And now you're saying he loved me since Halloween which is a load of horseshit!" 

"You'll never know until you ask him," Liam shrugs.

"Ugh!!!" I throw my hands in the air.

"When did he write that first song?" Niall is eating casually too, seemingly ignoring my anger.

"I don't know . I'm not his diary . He could have written that shit about someone else! Or made shit up for all I know! Or maybe even-"

"Just ask him. I'm sure he'll spill the truth on his own," Liam takes a sip from a can of seltzer with a pink straw. 

My mouth pops open, "Where'd you get that from?" I point.

"Kitchen," He slurps.

"But where in the kitchen?" I press.

"Tommo, who cares-" Niall starts.

"Those are Harry's!! You can't drink them!"

Liam places the can down, "I'll buy him more don't worry."

"That's not the point!! He hid those throughout the apartment because he feared I'd drink them all and here you are casually drinking from his can of seltzer with his straw and- and you can't!!" My cheeks are wet suddenly. "Y-you can't do that!" I'm crying? Probably .

"I'm sorry, man. I didn't know. It was in the spice cabinet tucked away in the back."

"How did you find it though!? I've never seen it- I haven't- I cooked- I, I-" I drop my head in my hands. Niall drapes an arm across my shoulders instantly, "He's so far away." I sob. "He's too far from me. I need to hold him. He needs to know what I feel."

"You will. Everything will be fine. The moment you find him-"

"What if I don't!? What if we miss each other? What if he doesn't go to Venice at all?" I lean into his touch, "I would have wasted my time and lost the greatest thing that's ever happened to me."

"You'll find him," My friend whispers.

"How do you know?" I ask with uncertainty.

"The heart always finds its way home."

.

.

.

.

February 17

I'll be alright, just one more night

I'll be just fine, holdin' my pillow

Pretending it's you though

I'll be alright, just one more night

I'll be just fine, holdin' my pillow

Pretending it's you though

.

.

.

.

"Where's my passport?" I mumble to myself as I make my way through the gate. I check my pocket, my hoodie, "Ugh, I know I had it!" My nerves are shot, my limbs are heavy, and the eight hour flight certainly didn't help. The seats were cramped, there was a screaming child, I forgot my headphones so I couldn't watch any Twitch videos or listen to music to drown out the noise. I was trapped in the moment, grappling with my unrelenting tears and heart ache, juggling the two with no relief in sight. 

It was terrible.

It was hell.

It was lonely.

I stop at a bench and slam my backpack down in aggravation. "Stupid, I'm stupid!!" I scold myself.

I rip the zipper open, rummage through the very important items I couldn't leave behind, push past the birthday card, the songs, my envelope, my phone, and wallet. I'm worried. I'm alone. I've come to a foreign country in search of a single man amongst millions. And it's the craziest fucking thing I've ever done and probably will do. All in the name of love I suppose .

"Ah!" The gold lettering catches my eye first, "There we have it." I pull it free and shoulder my bag. "Now customs... customs?" 

I look towards the signs and they're shockingly enough, in Italian

I rub at my wet eyes, "Oh fuck." 

Ritiro bagagli the sign says with a little arrow pointing Up

"Sure! I'll just uh...you know-" Dogana !? "What the fuck is that?!" I circle back to the gate, wave over an airline attendant praying they speak English, "Excuse me! Ma'am!" She looks up from her computer, her expression kind. "Ma'am I need to go to get my bags. But I don't understand the signs. Where do I go?" I rush out. "I also have to get a stamp put in my passport and be allowed into the country. You see I'm trying to find the love of my life and he's here for schooling and I gotta tell him how I feel even if he doesn't feel the same way and I gotta find him because I can't stop crying when I think of him or stop missing him." I take a deep breath. "So where can I get my bags?"

She offers me a blank stare.

I deflate, "Uh…sorry." I gnaw at my thumb.

"If you need to find your suitcase," She begins, her accent heavy, "Ride the escalator down one floor. You need to go through customs before but that is the way to go."

I nod, "That's fine. I'll be-"

"Then you can find your love," She smiles.

My cheeks redden, "Oh you caught that. Cool. Thank you. Well, have a great day." I turn away. "Oh?!" I face her again as an idea comes to mind, "Ma'am?"

"Si, signore?" 

"Uh, well the Italians are romantic right?" I start. "What do you think I should tell him? How should I tell him rather? That you know that I love him?"

She points to her chest with a red painted nail, "Make sure it comes from here."

"But…" I tap my chin, "Isn't there like something else I should say? Or do? Maybe get on my knees and beg him? Give him flowers? Offer him the world and the stars and the universe or something I can't afford?"

She shakes her head, "No. Tell him what you feel. Love is free."

"That's not really romantic. If I said what was in my heart he'd probably run for the hills." Because my dependency is scary. Even to me.

"Ti amo con tutto il mio cuore," She says.

"Huh?" 

"Ti prego perdonami, amore mio, mi manca il tuo abbraccio e il tuo baccio. Ma mi manchi di più."

My eyes widen, "Can I write that down?"

She chuckles and reaches for a pen.

.

.

.

.

February 18

My pillow wasn't enough.

The Trevi fountain wasn't enough either.

Nothing is enough.

Only you are enough.

.

.

.

.

I flop onto the bed, drop my backpack to the ground, and cuddle the closest pillow to my chest. I'm exhausted, my legs are jelly, my eyes are moist with tears, my body is protesting the traveling and the lack of comfort it longs for. It's been a difficult day and not just from the lack of sleep. I'm petrified, I'm filled with uncertainty, my thoughts are circling back to the same question I'm still asking myself.

Why?

Why am I here? Why did I travel all this way? Why couldn't I wait for Harry to return? Why didn't I just text him? Why did I spend almost all of my savings on this trip? Why didn't I just hold him when he begged for it!?

I weep softly into the pillow, reach a hand out towards the other side of the mattress expecting to find Ruby. But it's cold. The bed is cold and so is this room. I'm cold too. My limbs are like ice, my fingers are numb as if frost bitten, my toes lack feeling. 

I'm cold and I need you .

.

.

.

.

February 20

I don't care what people say when we're together

You know I wanna be the one to hold you when you sleep

I just want it to be you and I forever

I know you wanna leave

So c'mon baby be with me

So happily

.

.

.

.

I awake with a start, blink my eyes open to find sun shining through the curtains. I'm completely disoriented. Where am I? I sit up, rub at my face, take in the foreign space surrounding me. My brain can't comprehend much. What's happening? Where am I? Why am I in my jeans? Where's Ruby?

What's with the weird ass outlets!?

My phone is buzzing in my backpack, rattling against the floor, and it all comes rushing back in an instant! "Oh shit!!" I hop off the full-sized mattress and grip my bag. "I didn't text Niall!!" I recall and dump its contents across the duvet. "Shit, shit, shit!!" I retrieve my ringing cell phone and pick up immediately, "Hey-"

"What the fuck , man!!" He screeches on the other end.

I recoil from his harshness, "Look I-"

"No, look . No nothing!! You didn't call me when you landed, when you boarded the train, when you took the ferry! You didn't tell me anything! I couldn't sleep , you shit!!" He curses, and carries on, and insults my intelligence more than once.

I swallow, "I know. I'm so sorry-"

"Sorry doesn't cut it, Lou! You told me you'd keep me updated, you said you'd text or call or reach out to me some how. You had me and Liam worried sick ."

I plop back down on the bed, "Neil, I'm very sorry okay? I was distracted and I know it's not an excuse but I'm so confused and afraid and so out of sorts-" I tear up again. "And I'm alone."

"I know that! That's why I told you to text me !"

"I…" I swipe my eye, "I know. I was so distracted, I didn't even look at my phone."

"Yeah well obviously because you missed my thirty five missed calls!!"

I drop my head in my hand, "Niall, please just bare with me, okay? I get it, you're angry but you didn't travel half way across the world for a single person. A person I may never find. A person that may or may not show up in the exact same city or check into the same hotel. There's a lot I'm sorting through and texting you was the furthest from my mind."

He remains silent.

"So please, take my apology and understand where I'm coming from," I finish.

"Just promise me you'll keep it together until you're home? If need be that is," He asks, his tone strained.

"I will," I bite my lip to suppress its trembling. "I'll do what I can."

"Okay, good," He pauses. "Louis, be yourself okay? When you find him, when you see him , be you. Be the person Harry fell for."

My tears come, "Sure a sobbing mess. You bet."

"Shut up, you know what I mean."

"I know. I'll chew his ear off and probably bore him to death."

"Or just be your annoying self," He snorts.

"Sure," I grin through the tears.

"Now go shower. You have a long day ahead of you."

"Ugh...thanks for the reminder- Oh! How's Ruby? Did she attack Liam yet?"

"Nope, but she shit in his shoe."

"Good to know she doesn't hate me! Bye Neil!!" And I hang up. "Fuck. I have to find him…"

.

.

.

.

"Ciao!" I wave at the concierge in greeting. That means, hello!! Not dog food. Chow.

"Ciao, signore. Come posso aiutare?"

"Uh, yeah I don't speak the language…" I gnaw at my lip.

"My apologies, signore. How may I help?" The man responds.

I sigh in relief, "Thank God you guys speak English because I'd be totally screwed." 

"Excuse me?" The man asks, his confusion evident.

"Sorry! So I need to know if my friend checked in. You see I'm actually meeting him here soon and I just wanted to know if maybe he arrived? Are you able to give me that information because I really have to know if he came or not. And if you can't then that really stinks but I'm hoping you can, you know because he's my friend and all." Lie. Lie. Lie.

The concierge taps his lip, "Mi scusa." He bows and walks into the back disregarding my rant.

"Did I speak too fast?" I question. "Ugh, me and my New York accent, I'm telling ya." 

A tall woman wearing a crisp bergundy suit and white tailored blouse approaches then. Her hair is pulled back into an impossibly tight bun and lips stained a deep red. She's moving with purpose. Woah.

"Hi, sir. Sorry for the confusion," She starts. "My colleague informed me you wish to know the status of your friend's check-in," She clicks away at the computer on the opposite side of the counter.

"Yeah, that would be really helpful," I search the small lobby. Where are you, H? 

"His name, sir?" She stirs me back to reality.

"Harry," I blurt. "His name is Harry and he's tall, lean, and handsome, has a beautiful head of unruly curls and lips so pink you just wanna kiss him. He probably has a camera strapped around his neck too. He's very difficult to miss. He also wears these Velcro-"

She clears her throat.

"Uh…" I redden, turn away self-consciously, "Sorry. I get a little carried away sometimes and ramble."

"Yes," She replies.

"It's how I avoid an uncomfortable silence. Except Harry. I never had a moment like that. Actually he was the only person I could sit in silence with . He's the only who understood that side of me. He was very special," I pinch my thigh. "I've done it again haven't I?" I glance at her and her expression is indifferent, detached. Damn it . "Yuh, sorry. You probably don't care-"

"Sir, Mr. Styles checked in two hours ago," She mumbles, peers around my shoulders, then behind her as if to make sure we're alone. She motions for me to move closer. "He left shortly after. And he did have a camera around his neck."

My eyes widen, "Oh!" My heart begins to race. "That's great. Wow so he's out there" -I motion towards the door- "somewhere?"

She grins, "Yes."

"Thank you, so much!!" I backpedal towards the door. "You've just made my day, or week, or year even!!" 

"Enjoy Venice!" She announces as I push through the door.

.

.

.

.

I find the cafe at the edge of the city. It sits just south of the Rialto Bridge and a small boat moor to the left. It's a simple place, something nondescript, but attractive enough to capture the attention of tourists. It's chilly near the open water but the outside seating is nearly filled to capacity.

"Fuck," I grumble as I make my way over. "I have to sit out here." I purchased a newspaper on the way over figuring I could hide behind it's pages to inspect the crowd without looking like a grade A creep. "Just need to face the street…"

I approach slowly and am immediately intercepted by the hostess, "Buon giorno, signore! Da quanti?" She reaches for the menus.

"Uh...um wait I-" I shake my head, "I don't understand."

"How many?" She repeats in a heavy accent.

"Oh! Duh!" I roll my eyes, "I at least got the hi and goodbye down pat!" I cackle.

She plasters on a smile, "Okay!" She responds but it's evident she doesn't understand me either. I'm the worst

I hold up my finger, shamefully, "One, please."

"Seguimi," She takes a single menu and leads me away from the street and towards the indoor tables.

"Wait!!" I announce to her retreating back because I can't sit there! I need to be on the street by the passersby and inspect !!

She looks over her shoulder, "Che cosa?" 

"Outside?" I point to the remaining table.

"Okay!" 

I suppose that's her standard I don't know what the fuck you're saying response.

"No," I motion towards the table and chairs. "Here."

"Oh!!" She touches her temple, "Ho bisogno imparare inglese. Non posso parlare con le touriste e questo tizio pensa che io sia un idiota ." She grumbles. 

I puff my cheeks, "This is good?" I put my bag down as she places the menu on the table. 

"Enjoy!" She turns on her heel and stomps away, still grumbling under her breath.

"I guess she's pissed," I shrug and open my backpack up. "Newspaper, check, cellphone, check." I place both items down. "Perfect. Now all I need to do is-"

"Ciao signore!" A waiter interrupts. "Hai guardato oltre il menu o avete bisogno di qualche minuto in più?" 

I collapse into the seat, reach hastily for the menu card, "I uh- w-wait let me just…" I'm flustered, a little out of sorts, a little rushed . "I'll-"

The man smiles, "Do you know what you want?" 

I puff my cheeks in relief, "Not yet! But I'll take a coffee please. Or if you have English breakfast tea?"

He shakes his head in confusion, "Coffee, espresso, cappuccino?"

"Oh, sure! Sounds right up my alley!" I respond.

He scratches his head, "You want all three?"

"Three?" I hold up my fingers. The man nods once. "Oh, I'm an idiot. The coffee is fine."

"Sure," He scribbles it down and scurries away.

"Geez…" I run a hand down my face and check my phone, find a message from Niall reminding me to text him the second Harry shows up and to keep him posted regardless . I refrain from groaning. He's your best friend asshole. You need him. "Alright, so-"

"Here, sir," The waiter reappears with my coffee. 

"Woah!" I flinch, "The service here sure is fast. " He places the cup and saucer before me along with milk and sugar.

He tucks the tray underneath his arm, "Need another minute?" 

"Yeah...I uh...yup!" I force a grin.

"Take your time," He ducks away once more. 

"Crap!" I huff, "Can't even breathe…" 

I drop a text back, okay , and situate myself so I'm facing the sidewalk and in clear view of anyone who rounds the corner. I'm at the edge of the cafe and within feet of the canal. It's even more beautiful in person. I bet the sunset is magnificent , just like the picture.

I find the menu and scan the desserts and gelato, "Stale pastry, H? I bet it's delicious!" The waiter comes by a few minutes later and I order a small chocolate gelato, a canoli or two or three , a flourless chocolate cake called torta caprese, and a log of torrone. 

"Just for one?" The waiter asks before he walks away.

I rub at my chilled arms, "Yeah. For now." I find his eyes, offer another weak smile. 

"Sure."

Hopefully not .

I sit back in my seat, prop the newspaper up, and wait.

.

.

.

.

I check the itinerary that's been sitting securely in my pocket, tear up as I read Harry's handwriting. I have loved you since we were 18 , "He was going to the basilica and shopping! How long does that take?" 

The waiter comes over, "Would you like another coffee?" He asks.

"Please," I say. "And maybe another canoli? Chocolate?" The man nods and retreats. "Ugh…" I slump back into the chair. "What if I missed him?" I begin. "What if I was too busy stuffing my face when he walked by? Would he even take the time to look around? Would he even care?" My throat constricts. "What if he gave up already?" I drop the newspaper and push it aside. "What have I done?" I whisper and pocket the song. "I really fucked this…" A man rounds the corner then. "What?" My eyes widen.

He's sporting a black Fedora, a pair of wayfarers, and a black long sleeved t-shirt with a red flannel shirt tied securely around his narrow waist. He's also wearing slim fitted jeans, a beat up pair of light brown boots and a camera... around his neck.

A camera .

My heart jolts.

A camera .

My body quakes.

A camera!!!

I almost swallow my tongue when I see brown curls looping his ears and resting delicately at his neck. I practically knock the chair over when he purses his pink lips. I nearly flip the table when he touches his slender fingers to his chest.

I'm speechless. I'm so enamored. I can't contain my emotions because the tears are instant, my need to touch him so profound I am unable to control my feet as they carry me towards him.

I'm drawn to you. My heart needs you. I need you!!

"It's him... it's-" 

He stops before the cafe a good distance from me, pulls a piece of paper free from his pocket, and stares at the store front and chairs, peers back down at the photo and repeats. And repeats.

"Harry?" 

But he turns around!!

"What!?" I shriek, "N-no!" I run back to the table for my phone and text him, text him anything to capture his attention!! The pastry wasn't stale. But I prefer wafels and dinges anyway. I hit send. "Please... please!!" 

He's facing away when he reaches into his pocket, his forward momentum haulted I suppose when he sees my name or reads the message. He whips his head around instantly, searches the crowd, finds the cafe once more. He grips his chest, bites at his lower lip, takes a single step forward.

His sob is audible from here.

"Harry?" I whisper and approach him once more. 

He removes his glasses, rubs at his eyes and cheeks, "L-Louis?" 

I stumble over my own two feet as his voice carries through the crowd, as his red eyes find my own, "It's me!!" I flail my arms about. 

He picks up his pace, "Louis!!" I avoid the other cafe patrons, meander through them to get to him. He's so precious, he's my world, he's the person I want to share my heart with, my life with. Everything. You're my everything . "You're here, you're here!" He cries and I pick up my own pace, nearly trip over a crack in the sidewalk. I need you. I need you!! I find my balance and continue on, come within feet of him, extend out my hands-

But we stop before one another the moment we would collide, leave a good foot between us as if unsure of what to do. I drop my arms and watch, and admire, and take in the beauty and perfection, breathe him into my subconscious. I can't look away.

He chokes on a sob, allows his tears to fall freely, "You, you came all the way to Italy?" He sucks his bottom lip between his teeth, grips his palms. The photo has since fallen to the ground, the small pocket sized version of the Venice painting I gifted to him.

Shockingly enough, I'm holding strong, keeping my tears in check for him. Be strong . I nod, "Yeah, H. I came all the way to Italy."

"B-but why? Why, Louis?" He rubs his cheeks again, "Why did you come? All this way?"

"Remember that thing I wanted to tell you?" I raise a tentative hand towards his face.

He shakes his head, "What thing? I don't recall a thing ."

I touch him gently, witness his body relax as if my touch eases his tension, "Well, it's been bothering me for so long." 

"What?" He asks, his tone just audible.

I search his green irises, "I read your card, Harry." I run my thumb gently over his cheek, feel him tremble as I do.

He knits his eyebrows, "Oh."

"And I feel the same, H. I've felt the same for quite some time actually, denied my feelings towards the end because I was confused with Stanley. But now I know. I'm certain of these feelings." I scrunch my eyes closed, recall what the airline attendant told me to say. "Ti amo con tutto il mio cuore." I recite the words albeit not as elegant but hey! I tried.

"Wh-what?" 

I open my eyes, find his confusion, "Ti amo con tutto il mio cuore." 

His palms rub furiously, his expression reveals his unease, "I heard you, Louis but-"

"I love you with all of my heart," My eyes never waver from his. "I love you , all of you, inside and out, everything that you are, everything that you wish to be and will become. That's who I fell for. And yeah, you have Stanley's heart but Harry, that's what makes you more of a gift, more special." He fights back his tears, sucks in a quivering breath between his chapped lips. "And if there was anyone who deserved it, it was you. I'm so grateful that Stanley's final resting place is in you." He breaks down before me, chokes on his breath, releases a waterfall of tears that soak his cheeks and the cotton of his shirt. "Oh, no please dont-"

He wraps his arms around my neck then, plants his face into the crook of my neck, buries his nose beneath the collar of my sweater, and cries. Just cries. And holds me close to his chest, weeps softly into my skin, exposes his feelings. Instinctively, I wrap my arms around his waist, splay my fingers across his back, and hold him closer. 

I whisper Ed's lyrics in his ear too, comfort him the way he comforted me in the past. All I can do is say that these arms were made for holding you. He mumbles something in return, brushes my skin with his sweet breath, tugs me closer against him. I'm missing half of me when we're apart. Now you know me, for your eyes only .

We remain like this for seconds, minutes, hours, days possibly, who knows but time stopped, the world froze, the stars aligned.

We found one another. Fate does exist .

"You're here," He sobs. "You're here. You're here." He repeats.

"I am," I reassure. "H, I'm here and you're choking me but I don't care."

"Wh-what?" He releases his hold only slightly, peers down at me with bloodshot eyes, "I'm sorry."

I slink a hand between our chests, touch his jawline gently, "Never apologize," I remind, offer him a crooked grin. "Never apologize for holding me close and expressing yourself. I love it too much. I love you too much." 

More tears well in his eyes, "You, you love me." He says as if in disbelief. "You read my card."

"I did. The lyrics were very fitting," I cup his cheek. 

He hiccups, "It's true. Every word. That's why I, I wrote them. I had to show you the only way I am capable."

"Are you able to say it though? Like I know how you feel but can you say it back? Make it more official-"

"I love you. I've loved you the moment I set my eyes on you, the moment you collapsed into me in the park, the moment you laid your head on my chest. That moment I knew I was yours, that my very soul was claimed," He releases his hold, places his hands on my hips, and rests his forehead against my own, the motion knocking his hat off kilter. "You Returned To Me ."

I allow my own tears to fall finally, "I did. I found my way back to my cottage, my home. I found everything in you and when you were gone, when my brain finally decided to escape past the fog, I knew a vital part of me was missing. I had to come and find you."

He sighs, "Thank you."

I look up at him, twirl my finger around a loose curl, "For what, darling?" The pet name rolls off my tongue. "Why are you thanking me?"

He kisses my lips softly, "Finding me, forgiving me, for showing me how to trust." He connects our lips once more, this time with vigor. "For that too."

I smirk, "Kissing?"

"Uh-huh," He mumbles and goes in for another, pulls at my bottom lip. "I can't stop."

"So don't," I practically beg. "We will never see these people ever again. So kiss me in public damn it!" I grip his shirt. "Let's play some tonsil hockey." I waggle my eyebrows.

He kisses me swiftly, then pulls away, "Later." He steps out of the embrace, leaves me bereft.

"What the fuck , Harry," I snap. 

"Shush, little one," He grips my hand, intertwines our fingers.

" Little one !?" I growl, "I'm gonna-"

"I want a canoli," He leads us back towards the cafe and my table littered with empty, chocolate smeared plates and coffee cups. "I suppose you had a wonderful afternoon." He takes a seat.

"Yeah well, I had to wait! And wait . And what the hell took you so long!?" I join him, purposely bump his knee. 

He places his glasses down, removes his hat, "I was nervous." 

My eyes widen, "Why?" I reach for my phone, drop Niall a quick text, found him. I'll call later , then pocket it.

He expels a breath, "What if you didn't come? What if Ed never passed along the song? What if I-" He turns away, hesitates a moment. "What if I didn't show up?" 

"I would have went home and waited for you to return. It would have been torturous but I'd think of you, of us, remember the way you made me feel, and how wonderful my life is with you," I hesitate. "I'd also have trouble handling the fact that you may find someone else here and forget about me."

He whips his head around, " No ." He practically growls. 

I put my hands up in surrender, "Just saying. It was a fear of mine since I didn't know where we stood as a couple."

"I love you," He states adamantly.

I shiver from the confession, "I like the way that rolls off your tongue." 

"Good," He watches me closely. "I don't do one night stands, Louis."

I gesture to myself, "Are you mocking me?"

"No, I'm stating a fact. I'm telling you that even if you doubted our relationship while I was here, I wouldn't have looked for a replacement . I'd grin and bear it."

"Oh," I gnaw at my lip. "And probably whack off to my face every night."

"What?"

"Buon giorno, signore. Would you like anything?" The waiter asks as if right on cue.

I raise my hand, "Actually! I'd like the check!" Because I have something important to take care of.

And it's rubbing against my leg.

"Wait, I wanted-" Harry starts.

But I interject, "Nope! We have that gondola ride remember? And since you took forever to get here you'll just have to be hungry ." I grin towards the server. "I'll be paying with a credit card."

.

.

.

.

"Louis, why are we at my hotel?" Harry asks.

I push open the door, "Surely you mean, my hotel , H." I find the concierge from earlier, wave in her direction, and turn towards the stairs. 

"You're staying here too?" He asks as he follows close behind.

"Well, that was the idea right? To like, stay in the same hotel as you?" 

"I suppose. We should have shared a room," He says more to himself.

I shrug, "Maybe but what if things didn't work out?"

"Something tells me it would have…"

I reach my door, pull the key free, "Home sweet home!" I push my way through.

"You're messing with my schedule you know," I hear the humor in his tone.

I tug at my jeans that have since become too snug, "And you're messing with my libido." I drop my backpack on the floor next to my suitcase.

"Who's watching Ruby?" He removes his hat and sunglasses.

"Liam," I tug off my sweater, reveal a flimsy white undershirt.

"How's she doing?" His camera comes off next.

"Misses you," I admit, plop down at the edge of the bed. I grip my hands and rest them between my knees, hunch my shoulders. Suddenly I'm too emotional for my own good. "We both missed you." 

Harry approaches, scrapes the heel of his boot against the hardwood, "Louis, I want you to know that I wasn't told who my donor was." 

I bite my lip, "I never suspected you did. We met randomly. It's...it was-"

"It's fucked up," He barks.

"Why?" I whisper.

"Because!!" He shouts and begins to pace, "I have his heart, Louis. Me!! Out of how many people? I have it!"

I am able to feel his distress jarring in my bones, "I know, H but I've come to terms with it so you should too."

"I'm trying. But I feel like it doesn't- it shouldn't- I just- Ugh!" He flops down next to me, leaves no space between our legs and torsos. He should have sat in my lap at this rate.

I glance at him, "What is it?"

He drops his head in his hands, "I want you to love me."

"I do. Was my confession not enough?" I ask wearily, "Should I have shouted it for the world to hear? Or written lyrics like you do?"

"I don't want you to be, to be-" He faces me, encircles his arms around my waist, "To be repulsed."

I quickly look at his mouth, then his eyes, "I'm not repulsed. I'm not afraid. Am I a little freaked out? Maybe. But that's only because Stanley's heart found me again, you know? Like it was always meant to be with me in some form." I touch his cheek. "And it makes me feel good. You both found your way back to me."

"It's weird ," He deadpans.

"Like you, sure," I offer him a smile. "Don't worry okay? This isn't going to ruin us or put a strain on our relationship. If anything it'll only make us closer because we sort of share a bond."

He tightens his hold, "Are you sure?" His green irises bore into me, seep into my soul and tug at my heartstrings. I love you.

I nod, "Yeah, H. Trust me. That's the least of our worries."

He knits his eyebrows, "The least?" 

"You've never been in a relationship! It's going to be one hell of a ride! That's a guarantee."

His pupils dilate, and my jeans become increasingly tighter, "A ride you say?" 

"Yup," I lick at my dry lips. "A nice, turbulent ride." 

He gulps, "I see."

"Uh-huh," I nod, shift uncomfortably in my seat as my hunger swells in my lower abdomen. Fuck . "Y-yeah so Harry-" He pulls me closer, puckers his lips. "I, I have-"

"Have what?" His breath hits my cheeks, his fingers dig into my skin. I suppress a moan.

"-everything in my backpack," I say breathlessly. 

"Oh."

I reluctantly pull away and reach for the strap of my bag, "Yeah gotta get the, the a-" My mind is reeling, my excitement surging forward and shouting in my ear begging to be pleasured and stroked or sucked or anything!! I swipe at my brow, rip open the zipper. "It's gotta be here. Yeah definitely has to be." I rummage through it's contents, find the bottle of lube and single condom from my nightstand at the bottom. "Fuck yeah." I mumble and pull the items free.

He wraps his arms around my waist, rests his chin in the crook of my neck and shoulder, "You had this planned?" He kisses at my skin, bares his teeth and gently bites down. 

I shiver in his grasp, nearly drop the bottle, "I did, H." I scrunch my eyes closed, ride the wave of euphoria pooling in my gut. 

"Why are you trembling?" He asks, his tone sensual, his movements calculated and deliberate. He resumes his kisses, presses into my back. 

"You are the devil , okay?" I push back into him, take one of his hands and place it on my swelling crotch. "Feel that?" I groan. 

He nods his head once and squeezes his fingers, cups me gently between the legs, "I want to feel it too. All of it. And all of you." 

An image comes to mind then, a vivid image of Harry on his back with his legs spread and arms extended above his head. His hair is sweated and plastered to his forehead, his bottom lip trapped between his teeth as he counters my momentum, his body responding as I continue my unrelenting motion. He's crying out my name as I move quicker, curling his toes as I drive my hips forward, wringing his fingers as if to relieve the onslaught of pleasure. Fuck it's glorious . It's beautiful. It's going straight to my groin!!

But no. He's not ready. At all. I can't think like this. Not now.

I shake my head to clear it of my fantasy, "I know, H. But not yet alright? That's something we'll have to do when you come back home." I state the truth. 

He presses his palm down, rubs my erection through the denim, "I should have went first," He practically begs. His breath is hot against my skin, his need palpable.

I shake my head, "No, no it's-" My breath hitches as he continues to move. "Fuck your hands are magic." 

"Maybe," He resumes his soft kisses and gentle nipping. 

He slinks his fingers beneath my t-shirt, tickles his way up my torso, nudges my arms to release the sleeves. I silently follow his lead, tug off the top and rest my hands in his hair. He's working slowly, delicately, kissing his way from one shoulder to the next, tickling the hairs at the nape of my neck.

"I love it" -He kisses me- "right here." 

I pull at his curls, "Why?" 

He kisses me again, works his hands back towards the waistband of my jeans, "I just do." His fingers toy with my belt and button. "Always have."

" Please ," I beg.

He pokes his fingers through, "Mmm, maybe it's your soft hair. Your unblemished skin." He delves deeper, kisses at my neck.

I'm sweated, I'm panting, "I n-need- need a haircut-"

"Don't care," He mumbles, continues his descent towards the junction of my thighs. "So soft. You're so" -he finds the base of my arousal, touches me gently. My hips jolt forward at the pleasure- " soft ." 

My fingers are yanking at his curls, "I'm n-not soft, H. Not there...not-" I whimper as he begins to stroke me underneath my jeans, kisses at my neck and shoulders. 

"No, you're not," He says.

I release his hair and free my belt and pull down my zipper, allow him unobstructed access to my body. I'm a cowering mess as he continues his touches and kisses. My hips are dancing, I'm pressing my back into him, my excitement is blooming with such an intense need I'm having difficulty suppressing my moans. 

"Kiss me," I groan towards the ceiling. "Kiss my lips." I turn my face towards him, am met with his sweet breath and plump mouth. I close the distance between us instantly, kiss him with vigor, suck harshly at his lips. I'm starving for him, for his taste and touch, for his attention, for his body. I need your heart

He releases his hands allowing me to turn and face him. I push him backwards onto the mattress and sit astride his hips, connect our mouths once more, and take control. 

 

Chapter Text

STUPID DEEP, Playlist

 

I'm lying flush against Harry pressing him into the mattress. I want him to feel me, I want him to see how much he effects me and how I effect him in return. He's groaning against my mouth, sucking harshly at my lips, running his fingers from the tops of my thighs to my knees and back. He's responding to my touches, confirming his excitement and need, his desire, his longing . And that only encourages me to move.

I swipe his mouth clean with my tongue, taste every inch I am able to reach, and savor and enjoy and become so lost in his being, I'm beginning to lose my coherency.

I press my erection into his stomach as my lips work his, as my fingers trickle up and down his cotton clad torso and chest, "Off," I bark. "I want this off ." I sit up, grip the hem of his shirt that's tucked into his jeans. "Fuck, H." I peer down at him.

"What?" His lips are glistening, his cheeks are flushed a warm pink, his irises are completely dilated.

Fuck, I wish I could take you right here, right now, right at this very moment. What I'd give to feel all of you, hold you close, kiss at your impeccable skin, allow you to let loose. My libido surges. He'd be so snug, so fucking tight.

"Louis?" How will I last? Will I ruin that moment? "Hey." What if he laughs? Or leaves me? "Earth to Louis." He touches my stubbled cheek. Will he think I'm too old then?

I flinch, squash down those fears , "You look incredible." I blurt and tug his shirt to free it.

He lifts his back, " You look incredible." I throw it to the ground. He removes my shirt next. " Especially topless."

I work his belt and zipper open, "Uh-huh. I look even better naked."

"You do, Louis. You look fucking incredible," He thrusts his hips, tilts me forward towards his face. He cups my cheeks, holds me close. "Fucking impeccable."

I shiver, "Yeah?" I search his hungry eyes for the truth.

"Yes," He admits. "Yes and I can't look away or keep my hands off of you." 

I shake my head, "So don't. I'm all yours." 

He kisses my lips, "Okay." Harry releases my face and sits up, reaches for the waistband of my jeans and pulls them past my ass. He discards them and scoots to the edge of the bed.

I'm watching him remove his plaid shirt and jeans with his scar out in the open, admire the way he moves about confidently. His chest and torso are tone too, even more fit than the last time we were intimate. He's long and lean, sexy and so beautiful, delicate and soft. He's all mine.  

I can't help but drink him in, "Looka you." I comment.

He stops, glances at me, "Do you enjoy what you see?" 

"Yes, H. You look so good," I croon.

"Hopefully I'll make you feel good too," He crawls up the duvet.

And my stomach flurries to life, "I have no doubt you will."

He reaches for my hand, kisses my palm, "Good." He yanks me towards his chest, holds me steady.

"Woah!" I wrap my arms around his neck, search his face, "What are you planning underneath all of those curls?" 

"I want you to sit in my lap," He kisses the tip of my nose.

I waggle my eyebrows, "Sure." I lift my leg-

But he pushes it down, "No."

My eyebrows spring up, "Huh? Then-"

He sits on his legs, "Here." He gestures towards his thighs. "And face away." He points towards the opposite wall.

"Oh," I squeak. "I mean, sure. Yeah sure. Wherever you want me."

"I hope this works…" He mumbles.

"What?" I situate myself between his legs, curl mine underneath me and situate them between his thighs, "Hope what works?" 

He presses himself against my lower back, piques my already burning desire. I groan in response, "You'll see." 

"W-will I?" I stutter.

He reaches a hand around my torso, holds me close, "I hope so." He kisses my neck and jawline. "Just hold still."

I rest my head against his shoulder, "Wait, H. What are you-" He nips at my skin, silences me with his touch instead.

He works swiftly, reaches for the bottle and squeezes it's contents free, slinks a hand between the small space separating us. 

"Don't worry."

He pushes his way through then- " Oh !" -and begins working me open, pleasures me as he does so, scissors and crooks his fingers, pulses his hips! 

Holy shit . He's everywhere. 

He's igniting my desire. He's working from the inside-out. He's not stopping ! He delves deeper, uses his arm to anchor me to his torso, thrusts his hips in sync with the pulsing of his hand. The pressure is blinding me, awakening every nerve ending in my body, breaking me down bit by bit.

I'm nearly spent and we've only just begun.

Louis. Louis. Louis. He whispers and inserts another finger. Louis. Louis. Louis. I cry out towards the ceiling, grip his leg for support. Louis. Louis. Louis. He doesn't stop. He keeps up this movement, drives me almost to the point of no return, pleasures me, hightens my arousal just enough but not enough!

"You're, you're driving me fucking crazy!" I stammer. I glance down at myself and I'm beyond hard, and red and straining to release.

"Shhh," He shushes me and continues on, repeats the motion, delves deeper. My arms tingle, my stomach twists and turns, the humming just beneath my skin becomes a slight burn as my excitement swells.

"I- I can't even-" I gasp at the momentum and his precision, at his confidence. He knows, he fucking knows!! I'm engulfed in these sensations, intoxicated, spellbound by his actions and soft touches. His voice

Louis, Louis, Louis. He mumbles. 

I nearly cum right there, "F-fuck, fuck how-"

He gently pulls his fingers free, releases me from his enchantment, "Open this?" He hands me a foil packet. 

I take a deep breath, swipe at my brow, and take it with trembling hands, "Sh-sure." I tear it open as he squeezes more lube on his palm. "Here." I hand it back.

"No, that's for you."

My skin prickles, "H, I told you I can't top-"

"It's to prevent you from soiling the bedsheets, Louis," He kisses my shoulder blade.

"I mean-" My eyes widen, "What?" I turn towards him and he's grinning from ear to ear. "You want to- wait but your OCD- You're-" 

He kisses my lips, "Shhh," He says once more. "I love you." 

"I- I-" I turn back around, "So no more condoms?" 

He chuckles, "No, Louis. Now please roll it on."

I look down at the package and blush, "Actually, I've never used one before and don't know how." 

"Oh," He takes the packet without question, expertly rolls the condom on without a hiccup, purposely glides his palm over my erection.

I whimper, "Watch it!" I warn. "I'll ruin the moment and blow my load right here."

He drops his hand, "Don't be so vulgor." He scolds. 

"You're stroking me inappropriately!! Well, very appropriately but that's-"

He pushes me forward, "Louis, darling ?" He mocks my choice of pet name.

"Yes, pump kin?" I snap.

"You're ruining the moment right now," His humor is evident.

"I am not!" I pout, "You are with your-" He grips me between my legs, "Ah!!" I pant.

"Mmm…" He nudges me, "Lift."

"Your are so demanding!" I grumble and follow his instruction.

"Am not, now be quiet," He lowers me down, "Slowly."

"What I-" 

The pleasure is instant, the euphoria blinding, the pressure glorious and such a welcoming sensation I almost lose my balance. I've missed it. I've missed him. I've missed us. I've missed everything we became. I bite at my lip, sink myself down, use his guidance and strength. But he's got it. He's in control. He had this all planned out!

What if I didn't have the lube? Does he have it? What if he was depending on me to-

I'm sitting in his lap then, I'm seeing stars, I'm going to cum any second because the pleasure is that concentrated. It's flooding my veins, filling me with lust and longing and love and-

Oh my love for you is endless.

He places his hands at the junction of my thighs, avoids my erection and my manhood in general, and grips the tops of my legs. 

And he begins to move.

And move.

And squeezes at my legs.

And moves !

And pulls me back as he moves forward.

And thrusts!!

The sensation is all consuming, swallowing me whole, encompassing me in immense pleasure. I'm feeling it up and down my legs, in my arms, my chest, my groin- oh forget my groin, I'm on fire! He's playing dirty, he's leaving me completely helpless, thrusting into me with calculated movements. 

But it doesn't stop there!

He's massaging my legs with his fingers, kneading at my skin, and completely avoiding my erection! I sink my hands into his curls, grip a chunk into a tight fist to alleviate a bit of his forward motion. I can't think, I'm gasping for air with each pulse of his hips, I'm producing these sounds from my throat I never knew I could make! 

He sighs deeply in my ear, Louis . His breath is scorching. Fuck, Louis . He's gone. He has to be! So beautiful. You're so beautiful .

He doesn't let up. He doesn't show signs of fatigue. His muscles are powerful. His forward momentum is stronger than anything I've felt before. 

"Oh God!!" I cry out as my excitement erupts between my legs.

"God ," His voice echoes in my ear.

"Shuddup!!" I whine, "L-let me, let me-" I want to jerk myself stupid, I have to release! I have to scream out his name. I free my fingers from his curls and grip my erection. But it's so slippery! "N-no! No! No!" I jerk my hand, feel nothing but the gliding sensation. "Harry!!" I whine.

But he's still going, massaging my legs, driving his hips forward. He's whispering my name over and over, reminding me how in love he is with me, how much he cares for me. His breaths are hot against my cheek, his body sweated from his exertion, his voice so damn sultry and sexy-

"I can't go!!" I cry because I can't stand it anymore, "It's too-" He cups me between my legs, sends my excitement into overdrive! "Oh fuck ."

I scrunch my eyes shut as he touches and fondles and massages and moves as if he's done this hundreds of times before! I place my hands back in his hair, allow him to inflict as much pleasure as he is able onto me, give him all of me .

Take it! Take it please!

He's still moving, working every inch he is able, Louis, Louis, Louis. His voice is soft in my ear. Louis. Holy shit. Louis .

It's coming in quickly, it's rushing underneath my skin, it's gathering and straining to be freed! I'm a whimpering mess, crying out my ecstacy, literally crying? I'm crying? Are those actual tears? Or sweat? I'm sweating, yeah absolutely-

I suck in a quivering breath, "Harry?" I choke and reach my climax without warning, ride my high and release the emotions in the form of a high pitched wail. It's a pathetic sound if I'm honest and combined with my tears, well let's just say it's even more pitiful.

I practically flop against him then, maybe even pass out, I'm not sure but my energy has depleted and I'm spent. I'm satiated. I'm content. But I'm still crying

Harry holds me close to his chest, kisses my hair, "Louis?" He sounds exhausted, but his tone is gentle. 

"Mmm…" I smash my face into my palms to hide my watery eyes, "Yeah?"

"Are you okay?" 

He has me wrapped in his arms, "I thought so. But I guess my emotions got the best of me." 

"Oh," He kisses me again. "Why?"

I shrug, "Dunno. I suppose you get like that sometimes when you're intimate. It releases all of these endorphins in your brain so maybe it was sensory overload and I couldn't handle it." I snort. "Maybe it's because I came in a condom." 

"Are you making excuses?" He releases his hold slightly.

I gnaw at my lip, "That's a possibility." I lift my head.

"Why?" 

A droplet of sweat runs from my temple to my cheek then rolls its way down my chin, "I haven't figured that out yet. Maybe I will later."

"Are you going to tell me?" 

"Yeah," I decide. "I will, H. I'll tell you when I find the words." 

"Thank you," He gives me a light squeeze. "We have to shower."

"Shower? For what?" I whine.

"Our gondola ride, Louis. Our sunset gondola ride is in thirty minutes."

I look up to him then and it's like my world is staring back at me, speaking to me through his eyes and soft touches, seeping his way deeper than I thought possible. I tear up all over again because it is too much for me to handle. 

I've been in love before, so why does this feel different? More substantial?

"Oh, Louis," He kisses my cheek, holds me closer. "No more tears."

"I've uh...I've been holding back I think," I swipe my eyes. "Keeping it together for you, you know?" 

"I don't believe you," He lifts me up and releases. "You never fear your emotions. Why doubt yourself now?" 

I roll away, lie on my side, "A lots changed." I rest my head on my hand. 

"Like what?" He follows suit, lies next to me, and trails his fingers over my bicep and forearm. His eyes are wide, concerned even as if he's expecting bad news.

"I love you."

"I love you, too," He states matter of fact. 

"But it's different this time, H. A lot different and I…" I look down at my crotch, find the condom hanging loosely. "Ew!! I forgot about that ." I grimace. 

He reaches over towards the nightstand for tissues, "Here." He hands them to me. 

"I'm never doing that again by the way," I rip them from his grasp and yank the rubber free. "Ugh, ew! It's slippery and filled with my cum."

He rolls his eyes, "I didn't realize we were children, Louis."

"H, I've never used a condom I told you!" I fling the wad of tissues away. "This is gross."

"It's not when you need protection," He sits up, runs a hand through his hair.

"Hope those fingers weren't shoved up my ass," I point out.

He holds his ground, "No sudden movements, Louis. I climaxed up your ass. "

"Hmph!" I huff, "Yeah well I don't...wait! When did you go?"

Harry reddens, "Doesn't matter." He reaches for his clothing.

"Tell me," I demand. 

"No," He turns away.

I snort, "Why not? You love me. So spill it!"

"Louis…" He warns. 

"Harry, it's really simple. Tell me when you came," I bite at my lip to prevent from bursting into laughter. "At what point did you let it go...let it go! Can't hold it back anymore. Let it go! Let it gooo!"

"Stop making fun of me!" Harry pouts his lip, covers his chest with his discarded shirt.

"I'm not! I'm asking you a simple question," I scoot closer to the edge of the bed. "When did you blow your load?"

"I hate that. It's grotesque. Please refrain from using that terminology when I ejaculate-"

I wave him off, "Came in my ass, H. Stop with the formalities."

He shifts his weight, "Either way, it doesn't-"

And just like that it dawns on me, "Shit, H!! You didn't last!" 

He turns crimson, "N-not that…" He rubs his palms. "No." He admits shamefully. "Louis, I didn't. You were making all of these cute noises and sounds and twisting your hips and grinding down onto me and it felt too good. I went right before you did." 

"Oh," I smirk. "Grinding my hips, eh?" I reach for him.

He takes my hand, "You have a lovely ass." He sits back down. "Ever since Halloween…"

"Ugh!!!" I tug on his arm, "I swear everyone talks about Halloween!!"

"That night changed a lot of things, Louis that's why," He kisses my fingers.

I puff my cheeks, "I hate my drunk self. I'm too honest, too open, too fucking daring . I need to lay off the hard stuff."

"Yes and no, Louis. Yes, because drinking is terrible for your liver and no well, if it weren't for you begging to kiss me, we probably wouldn't be here."

"Begging, sure. I begged?" I roll my eyes, "I never beg."

"You did. However . We need to shower," He stands again, pulls me up with him.

"Why? You wanna wash away the evidence?" I hug him to my chest, "You're covered in my sweat and bodily fluids!"

He holds me at an arms length, "Incorrect. You're leaking my bodily fluid right now." He gestures towards my ass. "So I suggest you shower."

I instinctively touch my bum, feel stickiness on my fingertips, "Oh shit!" I run to the bathroom.

"Told you!!" His voice carries.

"Oh, you're in for a ride, H," I growl and turn the faucet on.

.

.

.

.

"This one?" I point to the small, narrow boat or gondola as the Italians call it. It's small , very small . "Are you sure this can support our weight?"

"Yes," Harry motions for me to step in first. "Now, in you go."

I glance to him, then the gondolier, "Seriously!?" I stall a moment longer.

Harry sighs, "We're holding up the line."

"Woah, chill out, man . The water ain't going anyplace," I look down at the small two seater boat. 

"But the sunset is…"

"Fuck." I grumble. "I have to get in that thing."

"If you don't-"

"Shuddup!!" I stamp my foot, "I'm going! Just gotta concentrate. I don't wanna fall into the canal."

"I'll go without you," Harry warns.

"Good, bye!!" I mock. I look down at the rippling water, sway slightly with the waves, swallow back a bout of nausea, "Oh my God -"

" God ."

"You're gonna get it," I step into the gondola then, feel it tilt inward from my weight, and lose my balance. "Ah!" I flail my arms out to catch myself, nearly topple over.

But Harry grips my forearm, "Careful now." He steps in after me and sits. "Come."

I hesitate, "If I drown…" 

"Louis, you're being ridiculous. Now sit," He points to the seat.

"Ugh!!" I bite my lip, place my hand on his shoulder, and slowly lower myself. It's gonna hurt. It's gonna hurt!!  

"Siete tutti pronti ad andare?" The gondolier looks between us. He's sporting a navy woollen reefer jacket, black trousers, a black brimmed hat, and a megawatt smile. He's totally poking fun at me. 

"Um…" I grit my teeth and make contact with the chair, "Eesh..." The sting radiates up my spine. "I never got used to that." 

Harry drapes his arm across my shoulders, "Si, signore. Grazie," He says to the man and turns to me. "Ready?" The gondola starts to move instantly.

"Crap!" I grip the lip of the boat, brace myself for the swaying.

"Why, Louis. Are you afraid?" He chuckles in my ear, kisses my cheek and turns away to take in the beauty that is Venice. 

"No," I sulk and try my best to not hurl all over myself and the boat.

.

.

.

.

Harry smacks my arm excitedly, "Wow!! Look, Louis!" He leans away, points his camera towards the Basilica and sunset just beyond. It's pink, orange, purple,