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Sometimes We Break so Beautiful

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Louis

 

“Who can tell me what a fire hydrant is?” Fire Officer Louis Tomlinson said with a ridiculous little-kid voice as he pointed a sharpie at the whiteboard in the fire station Conference/ Classroom. It was field-trip day for the children of a nearby preschool, and Chicago Fire Station 18 was their destination for the hour. It was usually Miller or Zayn- Louis’ co-workers- who entertained visiting school kids, but Rivers, their Captain, was there today, and Louis had to pull out all the stops since he was in the running for Lieutenant.

Rivers sat in his see-through office, sparing glances down at the crew now and then but was generally busy with reports on his desk. Bebe and Jade, the only two females in Louis’ crew, stood on the sidelines smirking and swooning at Louis, and Miller tossed him a sturdy thumb on his way out to collect pre-paid lunch for the entire station from a community barbecue sale.

The most ludicrous excuse for a drawing of a fire hydrant left the kids all shouting different things it could be. “That’s a whale!” A kid in stripes with red glasses shouted from his seat on the terrazzo floor.

Jade burst out in laughter, covering her mouth.

"No! It's an umbrella!" A porky little girl in braces rudely corrected her classmate. Louis giggled, taking another look at what he thought was one of his best works.

A husky throat-clearing on the side of them told them Rivers had joined the fray. “Tomlinson. Wrap it up. You’ve gone over the half-hour teaching period,” he grumbled, shooting the kids his stiff version of an apologetic smile.

The teacher, a young woman who looked like she could be cast as Miss Honey in a Matilda Broadway musical began to line up the children for the bus, and they all said goodbye to Louis one by one. Louis high-fived a couple of them before Jade caught his eyes again.

“Interview’s already passed, Tomlinson, a back-swept-pony-tailed Jade strolled over, one digital-watch-displayed wrist showing out her neatly ironed uniform side pocket, the other hand holding up her coffee cup. “No use trying to impress Rivers now. Let me remind you who got that kid out of the sewer system.” She drank her coffee pointedly with a fierce flare that turned Louis’ insides into feathers.

“You’re the one forgetting about area 49. And that was on my very first day here,” Louis stated proudly as the children hopped on the bus in queues.

Jade folded her arms. “Here we go. Yes, Tomlinson, you were a hero. You detected hydrogen flames before anyone else caught wind. We owe you our lives great master,” she mocked.

“Yes, and the twenty-six other civilians who would have walked right into them if I hadn’t stopped them just in the nick of time,” Louis drove in, with his index and thumb touching for emphasis.

“And that was three years ago. We’ll see which gets remembered when the results are out,” Jade said, a tiny spark of intimidation finally crossing her large brown irises.

“Really? You guys should get a room,” Bebe said, a dismissive palm in the air as she glided between them to go about her day.

As the flushed woman watched Bebe walk away, Louis smiled smugly at Jade. He tossed his short fringe with pride, and she hit him a screwed up face, leaving him with a generous view of her uniform-clad behind as she walked off to help Miss Honey guide the last of the pre-schoolers into the bus. Louis sauntered behind her and waved the bus as it pulled away from the station.

 

*

Harry

 

What will it be today? Harry crept through the Eighties section, squinted eyes following his index as it browsed the middle shelf of the lane in the video store. Revenge of the Nerds…, Lassie…, Ghost! He had seen the movie nine hundred and ninety-nine times but it still came out on top on a night like this. The anniversary of his first date with Nick.

On Valentines’ day just five days before Harry’s fifteenth birthday, he had met the sweetest boy who walked up to him and gave him a rose on when all the other kids saw him as a freak. Well, not all the kids. Harry remembered sitting on the bus after school that day with his only friend, Sariah and telling her all about it with a smile so wide his face hurt by the time he got home. She had helped Harry get ready for the date three days later, lending him her silver glitter flats and jeans cut out at the knees to go with a pink Barbie top she got him for Valentines’, and even went with him so people wouldn’t stare at the male couple all by themselves in Mario’s. Some people would think it weird that she tagged along but it wasn’t weird to Harry, or Nick. And the fact that Nick got on so well with Harry’s best friend made him like the boy even more.

Harry and Nick had soon become so intense that they were sexually active long before Harry turned sixteen, always getting into fights like a married couple, which Harry’s father Des who was a single parent, assumed would be the case when they finished school, and he got involved early on in LGBT activism to help make sure his son and countless other queer teens gets the chance to live in a world where can be free to marry as they want when they reach adulthood. Harry too thought it was inevitable he and Nick would get married straight out of high school since Nick had stayed at their house in the ending up after a fall out with his parents over him being with Harry. Nick fit right in like a glove. Right up until prom night when he told Harry on the dance floor that he was leaving him for Sariah- who then stormed off with Nick in her car right after, leaving Harry in the dust. Sariah had not come to talk to Harry or apologize until six months later but by then it was too late. Harry had moved on to college on the other side of Seattle and had told his father to let her know that ever coming back at the house to see him would be a lost cause.

So yeah that was the last time Harry had spoken to those two. He’d seen them around at weddings and funerals and maybe glimpsed them and members of their families but never to talk. He’d just be too angry to ever walk up to any of them.

He was surprised the two stayed together so long, six years, but they had been close friends since that first date- Harry’s date- so kudos to them. Harry didn’t need them tonight. He had Ghost. Just like Nick had left him and become a ghost in his life. Aw, what the heck, I can’t watch this. It’s all wrong for tonight. I don’t wanna end up sobbing. Or maybe I do.

The movie case in hand, Harry was deliberating whether or not to take it when- “Harry?”

Harry flashed around. “Nick. I- uh...?” Harry hadn’t spoken to this man in so long he didn’t think about what he would ever say if he happened to bump into him. Well he couldn't start now.

He forced himself to unfreeze and observed him; little beady eyes with over-moussed hair and Chiclets front teeth, Nick looked more mature than the last time he saw him leaving the scene of the crime with Harry’s best friend.

“This is so surreal; you look the same," Nick said, face pale and just as shocked as he clutched his movies against his argyle sweater. Sariah knitted argyle patterned things. It was something her grandma taught her. Harry remembered finally gaining the strength two years after high school to throw all the beanies, sweaters, and socks she had given him as gifts over the years, away. “Not that I expected you to look any different or anything, just…How are you, Harry?” The first part came out nervous and fast, the question part came out soft and sympathetic, as in giving sym-pathy to a path-etic person. Which Harry was suddenly seeing himself as, deeply pathetic with Ghost in his hand.

It’s not like he ever watched romantic movies with Nick before. He was an action type of guy, much like Harry’s dad. They had that in common. That had just made it even harder when Nick dumped Harry, the fact that he hurt his father too in the process. The man bought him a Volkswagen for god’s sake. To drive Harry to college and use for work. How could you do that to my dad, Nick? You forced him to re-sell it for way cheaper and buy a used one because we couldn’t afford to maintain it.

"I'm great," Harry sounded way too enthusiastic to be real.

“Great, great. You look great. I was just returning a few movies. Um, I think maybe it's a sign I ran into you. I can give you the news. Um, Sariah and I are getting married and it would be nice if you'd come."

“You’re engaged?” Harry said, surprising himself with the egg-crack that his voice carried with it.

Why was Nick telling Harry this? Did he want Harry to give him a reason why he shouldn’t? Why was he talking to Harry as if no time had passed and no love was lost between them? Did he still love Harry? Why the hell not? Harry was a good boyfriend who got him donuts and nice clothes when he got his part-time summer job at REI Flagship. Why would Nick do this to him on their anniversary… two days before his twenty-fourth birthday?

“Yeah, we- We think it’s time. We set the date for June 23rd.”

“Congratulations,” Harry said, bravely swallowing down his resentment. “But I won’t be in the country then. I’m going to France,” -France on his television- “On a vacation. My boyfriend is taking me.” –Boyfriend, my dildo.

From the way Nick’s eyes moved around his features and his head nodded ever so tuned in, Harry knew Nick could tell he was full of shit. But who cares? He’s getting married. To the girl who promised Harry she’d be the maid of honor at his wedding with Nick one day. So yeah, screw telling Nick the truth. Let him think I’m having French sex, in Paris.

Nick's eyes moved to the movie's casing in Harry's sweaty palms.

Harry cleared his throat. “He likes romantic comedies. It’s date-cuddle night,” he let out, trying to keep his voice even, but slightly failing. “Excuse me,” he said to cut the conversation off, but that came out a sure whisper, echoes of pain unfortunately not void.

Can a heart be broken all over again after six years of trying to mend, by the same people who broke it in the first place, and even without seeing them at all during that time? Harry wondered if he would have felt this hurt and shattered if he had merely heard the news from some second-hand source. He doubted it very much, but seeing Nick trying to hide his elated smile so as not to seem insensitive to Harry’s shock while he gave him the news, Harry was surprised he had the strength to move again.

Walking past Nick, he quickly shoved Ghost back on the shelf, pulling out another Patrick Swayze favorite. Dirty Dancing. Not a rom-com, more of a rom-dram, but the awkward girl gets the guy in it as opposed to the perfect Barbie-type, so perfect. Just fucking perfect, a voice cracked in his head as tears squeezed through his burning eyes to add to his lumpy throat. Great, even the voice in his head was crying as he shuffled past Nick to get to the counter.

 

*

Louis

 

“Ghost, Clueless…”

“Ghost. Definitely Ghost.”

Louis and his co-worker/roommate Zayn Malik were looking for a movie to watch as they dragged their tired feet in front of the television after a long day of work. It was a work-night, so going out and drinking was out of the question, and they weren’t quite sleepy yet.

“Nah, I like Clueless better. No scary shit,” Zayn said, pushing in the nineties comedy as he slumped down with a fresh bowl of popcorn for them to share. Louis popped one in his mouth and thought it needed more salt. He glided to the kitchen for the shaker and ended up grabbing a couple of grape sodas and a bag of salted chips as well.

The two had been roommates for years now, Zayn initially only letting Louis crash at the loft-style apartment his parents found for him. Zayn's parents were rich and from Dubai but Zayn came to the US pursuing his own life and his own career instead of working at his father's silk company. He had decided on being a firefighter and even though his parents did not approve they sent him rent money. That is until he came out to them the year before. Because of their religious beliefs, they cut ties with their gay son and ceased to pay the rent, so now Zayn and Louis share that responsibility opting to stay in the apartment instead of getting a cheaper place because it grew on them.

Zayn took the room downstairs and Louis occupied the loft space upstairs. It worked since Zayn liked his privacy, and Louis felt like a little kid hiding out in a treehouse in the low-ceiling, attic-like open plan room upstairs. They both shared a bathroom upstairs and a small furnished kitchen that Louis liked to experiment in. It was warmer than the one at the station, which was covered in stainless steel but Louis probably loved the latter more since the crew occasionally cooked and shared meals in it...like a real family.

Louis handed Zayn the cold drink and sat with him. "What's scarier than a teenage girl wanting to get with her older stepbrother?"

“That’s not the whole point of the film.” Zayn took his soda can and popped it open. “It’s a cultural movement.”

“And I think you’re on something.” Louis burst the bag of chips open.

Zayn whistled between his teeth with exasperation.

“It’s a travesty you’re not dating anyone yet; the mushy romantic you are,” Louis crisped.

“You know I don’t do steady.” Zayn paused after a hard swallow of his soda. “Besides, I like rugged guys who don’t do mushy romantic. And you shouldn’t talk because Jade is as tough as they get. She ain’t gonna sit here and watch this crap with you.”

“You may be right, but now that I’m gonna be Lieutenant I don’t think I stand a chance of her doing anything with me.” Louis and Jade were both competitive and committed to their job. Having those things in common was what attracted him to her in the first place. Louis had dated a few people over the years but he had never been in a serious relationship. Jade just seemed the appropriate choice since she was like the female version of him.

“Just ask her out, Lou. You’d be surprised.”

“Why? Did she say something?”

“Not to me. Bebe said Jade told Miller who her secret crush is at the station.”

Watching as Zayn shook the salt in the bowl, Louis' interest puckered. “Did Miller say who it is?”

“You know he won’t give her away. They’ve been around the longest. They have each other's back. Besides, she's bi. It could be anybody."

“But Bebe is the only other female at the station,” Louis said sarcastically, sticking his hand, wrist-deep in the buttery popcorn bowl. He and Jade were both bisexual, yet another thing they have in common. “And it can’t be her because I ship you two.”

Zayn screwed up his face immediately and shouted through a popcorn-filled mouth. “Dude, need I remind you I am totally gay?”

Louis laughed. He sometimes worried about Zayn. The man brought in a guy every night, sometimes two, but none of their faces were ever seen again after. Zayn hadn’t kept any boyfriends long-term and Louis knew it wasn’t because of bad luck. The only person who had lingered in his apartment more than a night was Louis, and he knew there was some underlying reason why Zayn never opened up to a relationship with anyone. But Louis did not judge. After all, he was no expert on love and had his own reasons why he refrained from having intense discussions with anyone.

“Bebe’s my homey, bro. She’s like my little sister!”

Louis froze, his fingers halfway to his mouth. His eyes shot open wide and he scrambled up, quickly closing the chips bag.

Zayn sat up straight, eyes following the flash. “What did I say?”

“I just forgot something! I gotta go!” Louis grabbed his parka and slammed the door behind him.

 

*

 

Speeding on his motorcycle, Louis cursed himself in his mind. How could he forget? The whole day passed and he was about to enjoy a freakin movie as though it were a normal day. How much worse of a big brother could he be? Oh, yeah, he told himself as he swung into the One-Stop shop carpark, I already am.

“Hand shovel, bottled water, matches, …” he said to himself as he hurried down through the scanty Aisles of the building with a basket in hand. "Candles, wine, plastic wine glasses, cupcakes…"

Up to just last week he had remembered. So what happened between then and now? But Louis already knew the answer. He had been so preoccupied with waiting to hear who would be fire Lieutenant after weeks of trying to prove himself the better candidate than Jade. Zayn wasn’t lying; she was a pretty tough nut, sexy as hell on the field. And Louis would be lying if he said he wasn’t a little intimidated by her. The way she used her quick thinking skills to get that kid out of the manhole a month ago could attest to her being an excellent candidate for Lieutenant. Twenty-six unsuspecting adult civilians versus a trapped seven-year-old kid on top of all the other times they both protected and served? If he were Rivers, he’d have a hard time deciding who gets the position.

Boy, he should’ve known the minute Miller asked him if he was okay that morning before that downtown call. Miller remembered. He knew everything with his photographic, lightning speed memory. And of course he didn’t say, because why would Louis forget his own sister’s birthday?

He shoved the items on the checkout counter and pulled out his wallet, sticking his stubby fingers in for cash.

“$17.25” the cashier, a skinny girl around the same age as Tay would have been today, informed in an upbeat tone. Tay had even been into Emo like this girl as well, with her purple streaks and black-and-white themed makeup. She and Louis both, in their teens, Louis in his punky eyebrow piercings phase.

Growing up in a New York orphanage after their druggie parents dropped them off at five and six years old, no one had adopted them, and Tay eventually got into a bad crowd. Louis had his crowd too but he always kept a mindset of making a better life for him and Tay one day. It had been one of the same field trips to the fire station like today that inspired him to become a New York City firefighter where he did end up working for a few years until Tay ran away with her junkie boyfriend to Chicago three years ago and Louis followed her. He fell into place at the fire station there but an overdose took Tay's life a year later, leaving Louis devastated. In the end, he stayed in Chicago and pushed himself into his work, saving people and inspiring other kids now. But it had always eaten away at him that he had failed to inspire his sister to get off the streets before it was too late.

Paying, dashing back out, securing the items, and hopping back on the motorbike, he took to the road again and turned into a street. Pulling up to a large wrought iron gate, he parked the bike and slid between, entering the dark cemetery. He marched surefooted to the grave he had only been to twice, once on her birthday last year and the other time when he had just missed her so much he had to come see her in the middle of the night on a night like this. He and Zayn had finished a shift at the Station since 7 pm, and by the time they picked up dinner and took baths it was already nine and they weren’t that sleepy so they popped some corn. So it was late. But never too late to go see his sister.

He pulled out his pocket flashlight, hand shovel from the bag, and started weeding out the wild grass. Then he took out the water and washed his hands before unwrapping the little cupcake and setting it on top of her grave. He lit the candle with the lighter and dug in again for the wine and plastic wares.

“I know I’m late but, I still made it alright?” he said, popping open the bottle. He poured the wine and took a sip. “Happy Birthday, sis.”

After eating a huge bite of the cupcake and drinking half the wine- they always shared half and half- he ran his hands through the dirt, picking it up letting it fall from his hand like he was at the beach. As he did, a light wind blew up, and he had to cover his eyes from it. The dust settled and he emerged from the crook of his elbow to see the dirt had sprinkled all over the cake and in his glass. As he realized how dumb he was to pick up the dirt in the first place, he started apologetically patting the dirt and sobbing.

“Please forgive me for failing you, sis. Through everything, it's been you and me. It’s so hard sometimes, doing it all alone now. Sure I have my job and Zayn’s been amazing sharing his apartment with me... But what do I do without my little sister?” Louis cried all the tears he had in him and sat for a few minutes more looking at her tombstone.

 

--

 

Opening the door of the apartment, Louis thought Zayn would be in bed by now but the man was awake, still sitting on the floor back against the couch. He turned drowsily to Louis taking off his Brunswick-blue Chateau parka, unalarmed by his entrance. He did not ask where Louis had been. Probably figured it wasn’t his business. And Louis was just as well with the silence. This was the main reason he steered clear having deep talks with Zayn. The subject of his sister’s death, something Louis needed to stay locked tightly inside.

They co-habited like that.

Louis tossed his shoes and slugged over to join him, glancing at the TV screen.

“She’s All That. Good choice.”

Louis dropped down next to Zayn, and he handed him the popcorn from on the other side of him. Surprisingly still warm. Louis leaned into Zayn’s shoulder and they finished the last twenty minutes of the movie.

 

--

(June) Four months after Harry saw Nick.

 

Harry sat trying to make sense of the sea bed picture about the model sculpture in the free-stand wall. His hands were almost hard with clay as he dug into the bucket once more to apply to the pre-made pieces of painted ceramic coral. Ever since he was little he’d always find these strange projects to do with art and craft. He’d mess up his parents’ china teacups with mud to try and shape one out and bake them in the sun. He’d take his mother’s eyeliner and use it to draw on his grandfather’s old health encyclopedias. In junior high school, it was painting and Paper Mache. Senior high school and beyond were Pottery and Sculpting. Now it was Ceramic Coral Wall Sculpting where he tries to create an original vertical model of the seabed he snorkels just to take underwater pictures of.

Harry was generally happy, occasional hikes up the mountains, biking, snorkeling, camping and fishing with his dad. He reckoned he had come into his own after Nick left. Living life to the fullest with these activities. From the outside, it may seem that losing Nick had done Harry well. After that DVD store meeting with Nick Harry had added another hobby to his plate; Dancing, just like in the movie Dirty Dancing. Not the dirty ones but the mambo. He was enjoying it apart from his latest sculpting masterpiece. Like the dancing, he had started the coral project a few months ago and the thing was supposed to be eight feet tall, but at the moment it was only as tall as his calves in the middle of his father’s garage.

Yawning now, he got up and his calves gave a sore stretch. He had got in an hour of cycling that morning. Something else he had been doing more regular since meeting Nick four months ago. All these activities had to tie in with his job doing clerical down at the Town Hall where he also gets to display some of his completed creations. So Harry was doing fine. On the outside. But there were times when he was alone, like now, and he’d hear the ringing quiet and feel the cold rasps on his arms from loneliness.

Leaving the unfinished work for another day, he quickly cleaned up and took a bath, fed the cat and sat by the television with his bowl of masala pasta with peppered shrimp. He didn’t cook much but when he did he liked to go fancy.

He watched a couple of episodes of Top Chef while he waited for his father to come home from work, and fell asleep as it grew dark.

He did not know how long he had dozed off before he was being woken up by the sound of keys jangling at the front door.

“Daddy?” Harry said with a faded voice as his father closed the door. The man tossed his boots and coat and made it to the couch, sumo-ing himself down on the plush seat.

“Hey sweetheart, I met up with Nick’s aunt on the road. She was on her way from…”

“Is she okay?” Harry asked right away, minding the apprehension in Des’ eyes.

“She was on her way home from a wedding. I don’t know if you’ve heard; Nick and Sariah got married today.”

Harry felt like his guts were dropping out. Married? Nick? Sariah?

Why did Nick marry her? Didn't he hold Harry countless times running through the forest on the edge of town screaming how much he loved him? And Harry cackling when he caught up with him, screaming ‘I love you too!’ so Nick wouldn’t get tickle the life out of him? Why didn’t he want him?

But as Harry’s eyes welled up over the fact that Nick had married, his thoughts veered to someone else who didn’t stick around. His mother. She left when Harry was three with no explanation and Harry had never heard from her since. He was so little but he remembered her singing to him when he was sick and making Jell-O after school as a reward for him not crying to go home during class. He didn’t remember much but he remembered her makeup and her smile and her clothes. She took all of it and walked out of his and his dad’s lives and Harry was left wondering why he wasn’t good enough for her to stay.

He looked into his father’s eyes full of concern and ‘good parenting' and saw his own eyes in there. The green with dark brown lines in a row around his iris. He also inherited Des’ expanded hairline. But knowing these things only served to stir up even more confusion in him. He knew his father was always there picketing and championing for him. But where was his mother? Why hadn’t she been there? Like Nick, why didn’t she want Harry either? Why did everyone keep walking away from him?  Harry didn't think he would ever understand why Nick didn't want him, but a mother is supposed to love you and stay with you through good times and bad.

Harry could not fight what he was thinking. His father never spoke about his mother, and Harry knew it would risk him getting angry, but still, he stared steadfastly into his father's eyes. "I wanna know where my mother is."

Des’ face drained of blood. “Harry, she left years ago.”

Harry started crying. “I know but I need to see her. I need to know why she left us.”

“It’s been twenty years, Bub,” Des grumbled, tired.

“I don’t remember her that well but I remember you telling her on the phone not to come back and see me. Maybe if you hadn’t done that…” Harry’s face was stiff and grotesque with uncontrollable crying. He just needed an address. Des could skip the lecture.

“She left us, Harry,” Des kept his ground. “She had other plans for her life that did not include us.”

“Maybe I wanna hear her say that for myself.” Harry tried not to let his father’s unnerved tone get to him. They rarely fought. Harry knew his father did everything he could to make sure he was a happy kid; letting him have cookies for dinner in the months after his mother left, taking him on camping trips with his work buddy’s family, allowing him to draw all over the garage walls. Harry had the best dad. But right now he needed answers Des was never able to give him before.

“Okay,” Des said, inhaling his defeat. “I’ll tell you exactly where she is.” Harry started crying happy tears and threw his arms out to embrace his father but the man jumped off the couch before he could.

Des then marched over to the china hutch and opened a drawer Harry had not opened since he was little and used to look for colored pencils to draw. Neither man did much cleaning around the house except for where they sat, slept, and cooked. They were both more outdoorsy types, always fishing and hiking.

Des pulled out a little phone book and turned the pages with a zest Harry could only guess was anger. He stopped on a page and walked back over to Harry, handing him the book.

“Thanks, Daddy,” Harry said before even looking at the page, but Des was already stamping up the stairs and slamming his bedroom door.

Harry looked at the page in the lamplight. Chicago? His mother had been living all the way over in Chicago, two thousand miles away from them? Harry dived off the couch and dragged a chair to sit at the computer, quickly calculating. It would take him about four and-a-half hours to get there by flight. Anger grew in him that his mother would move so far away. And it irked him that he was even thinking about taking time out of his own life to take the first step to reach out by making such a trip, but he had to. He needed the answers to at least this one question.

So Harry booked a flight to Chicago.

 

*

 

Chapter soundtrack:-

Karmina- All the King’s Horses- (For Louis)

Brendan Ryan- Linger (cover)- (For Harry)

 

Chapter Text

 

 

April the next year.

 

 

The coffee machine was empty; the officers’ cups full. All except one. Twenty-six-year-old fire officer Lieutenant Louis Tomlinson had walked in for his night shift, an immediate frown spreading as he pressed the coffee machine button, hoping for at least one drop to spill in his cup. 

"Oh, for the love of-" he complained, looking to his friend and teammate, a burly African-American Officer Miller, who was wolfing down a donut with his coffee.

Miller made a face, staring at Louis as the last piece disappeared inside his mouth.

With half-lidded eyes, Louis left the empty cup on the counter and slumped down between his roommate, fire EMT Zayn Malik, and fellow officer Bebe Rexha. His waist crunched as he squeezed in, and he remembered he had a pack of skittles in his pants pocket.

"Just imagine,” Louis said, “I'm the one who has to stand in the burning sun for hours showing kids who don't even care to be there how to attach a pipe to a hydrant, and I don't get any coffee?" And he should know; the purpose of the skittles was to bribe the kids into listening to his lectures.

Why was he complaining? He loved his job. It was the only thing keeping his mind occupied on something other than his sister’s death a few years ago.

"Hey, at least you didn't have to climb the rope ten times today just for a demonstration!" Bebe piped up, legs crossed, sipping her coffee.

"Well, I have nine hours to go before my shift is over!” an exhausted Louis massaged his forehead. “One of you has to put on a fresh brew because I still don't know how to operate that thing." 

"Sorry Louis, but that was the last batch," Officer Jade Thirwall said as she came in dressed in full uniform. She placed her water bottle on the meal table, batting her hand for a seat next between Louis and Bebe. "It was my turn to go grocery shopping but I got called in by Rivers."

Louis folded his arms. Rivers, their Captain, always disapproved of them doing casual things during work hours, even if it was for the station.

"In other news,” Zayn said, as Louis shimmied to make room for the ombre-blonde fire officer, “I had the best back-arching sex of my life last night."

“Who’s the lucky bastard?” Jade asked in reply to Zayn, sharing a gossipy smile with Bebe. Louis caught Jade’s gleaming eye and removed his arm from the chair-back behind Rexha. He rolled his eyes. He and Jade had a brief fling a year ago but they made a truce to be friends after his becoming Lieutenant got in the way. It wasn't that Jade was jealous or resentful. It was that Louis put his job before everything else in his life, making it hard to form a deep relationship. So yeah, Louis and Jade were better as friends. Plus, since then he had learned he wasn’t her secret crush.

Then, as Zayn was about to reveal his mystery guy, the bottle on the table started vibrating.

Jade turned around, ducking. The table was shaking, along with everything else in the downtown fire station. Louis grabbed the two women and shoved them under the table, looking around the room for the other officers.

"You guys okay!?" Louis shouted to the room.

“We’re fine! What was that?” everyone chorused just as the lights went out.

Jade held her chest, her heart beating fast. "That was big! The whole city must be in a mess! Traffic jams..."

The backup generator came on and Rivers came into vision holding on to the doorway for support.

The alarm sounded and everyone leaped into action.

"We got power out throughout the city,” the Station radio broke out, “Apartment building 28 in need of assistance in evacuating, copy."

"Tomlinson! Aid car! Get on it!" Rivers shouted from his crouched position.

“Yes, Sir!”

 

*

 

The sirens blared down the street to where the tallest apartment building in the city stood blacked out by the tremor.

"What do we got!?" Louis marched up to the building.

"Tenants inside! Pitch dark! Elevators down!" officer Mendes, the police officer on the scene shouted over the sounds of sirens, red lights flashing on his face. "We go in, kick down some doors and get everyone out!"

"Got it!" Louis pulled on his helmet and darted to the entrance of the ten-story building. He glimpsed a team trying to get a woman out from trapped between the sidewall and a car, and hoped they succeed.

He and Zayn jogged through the lobby with the others close behind, and met up with a firefighter from another division who started shouting when he saw Louis and his team. "Hey! We're covered the first five floors!” he showed the alert team areas on a map of the building. “You can take the higher levels!"

Louis nodded quickly and counted in his head. Five of us... Eyes darting around the map, he summed up the strategy in his head and signaled to the others. "I'll take the tenth floor! Malik- ninth, Miller- eight, Thirwall- seventh, and Rexha, you take the sixth floor! Let's go, let's go, let's go!"

--

 

Lieutenant Tomlinson ran from door to door banging them down. All the residents came scurrying out with their possessions and he had to shout at them to hurry up. They weren't supposed to take anything but there wasn't time to explain all this to citizens who were constantly told it by TV and radio and social media. Louis always got so mad when people didn't listen for their own good. It had always bothered him with his sister, and It was one of the reasons he became a firefighter.

Sure that the occupants of every other apartment on the floor were on their way down the stairs, he banged on the last door.

It flew open, and he couldn't help but be allured by the smell of something cooking.

The outline of a slim-figured person with wet hair stood in the doorway befuddled.

"Oh, thank God you're here!" they said, opening the door wider for Louis to step in. 

"Can you tell me your name?" he asked them.

"Harry. Styles. Harry Styles!"

"You have to evacuate the building. Is anyone else in the apartment with you!?" Officer Tomlinson shouted, swaying his flashlight around the room.

"Um, Sophie ran away!" they said, an irritation in the tone. "Help me find her?"

"Ma’am, you have to leave now. I’ll get Sophie out safely."

"Ma’am? No- Sophie- she's a ma’am! I'm a guy! And your job is to help me find her!"

Tomlinson dragged his hand-held flashlight over the figure again and threw his head back. The man’s dark brown hair, just long enough to be tucked behind his ear, was luscious and exotic looking. Louis was standing a foot away but he smelled the mango...peach... Shampoo? "Sorry- It's dark in here...How old is Sophie? What is she to you?"

"She’s my baby. She's one."

Tomlinson recoiled. "She's one? And she ran away?"

"Yeah, she's really fast. I feed her the best sardines.”

Sardines? To a baby? He must have a concussion.

Checking for possible head trauma, Tomlinson pointed his tiny flashlight in Harry’s eyes. "Do you know what day it is!?"

"Monday!" he coughed in between his words." This is the worst day of my life! There I was cooking my tenderloin and my cat Sophie got scared when the lights went out."

Louis was flabbergasted. "Your cat?" Oh. Sophie is not a human. I should have known. "Okay, let's go!"

"I can barely see a thing and I'm not leaving without Sophie."

Sighing, Tomlinson flashed his light haphazardly over the living space. No sign of Sophie under the shaker style coffee table or the matching side table or under the wooden legs of the formal looking seating. He directed the light elsewhere and his face screwed up; there was a giant grotesque slab of under-the-sea on the right, getting the last few seconds of sunset from the window.

"What in the world...?" Louis glared at the thing surrounded by a mountain of paint cans.

Harry explained. "I just finished my sculpture and I was taking pictures and went to check on my tenderloin when the stove started shaking.”

Louis took another look over to the large freestanding blob in the middle of the room. He snorted. It was the most hideous thing he had ever seen. Like, what kind of artsy-fartsy...?

"Well? What's that look for?" Harry mocked Louis' raised eyebrow.

Louis raised two eyebrows now. "Well, first of all, it's an earthquake hazard!" -Harry threw him a quizzical look- "Second, all the paint you use is a fire hazard!"

Harry laughed. His hips swayed as he shook his head amused. "Well, Mister…?” he squinted at him.

“Lieutenant Louis Tomlinson,” Louis gave with an attitude.

Louis,” Harry stressed sassily,Artist oil paints are NOT flammable!! That's the whole point of them." He marched over to the stack of paint. "See? It says here -AHHHH!!!!"

The room started swaying slowly, building up by the second. Louis jumped over to Harry, grabbing him before the entire stack of paint cans tumbled over on him.

The cat suddenly reappeared out of nowhere and dived into the bedroom through a crease in the door.

"What’s happening? -My apartment! Sophie! SOPHIE COME BACK!" Harry quivered in ringing tones as Louis quickly led him to the dining table. They ducked under as kitchen pots fell off their suspensions.

Louis blanketed the man in a dog-crouch position, his back digging into the underside of the carved table edge. He shoved Harry down onto his belly, darting his eyes everywhere to make sure they were out of the pots' and pans' way as the building rumbled.

"See? This entire apartment is a hazard!"

"It’s not my fault! My mother got me this apartment to use for my work."

Louis shook his head. A mother who lets him use an already dangerous apartment to 'create 'even more dangers to add to the mix?

Just then another tremor acted up and the sculpture started rocking slowly then faster, threatening to fall over. A rumble sounded as things shook up and a fancy teapot came crashing down from the table above them, sending shards flying in every direction.

"OW!" Harry muttered, grabbing Louis' right elbow and digging his head into the left side of his ribs.

"Are you okay!?" Louis yelled as the earthquake shook the concrete loose from the ceiling. If Harry was answering Louis did not hear because the wall to the bedroom and bathroom was caving in, and the adjacent wall supporting the front door was giving way as well, putting them on a clock to get out before they got trapped.

The shaking ceased and Harry looked down at his arm. Louis flashed his light; Harry had been cut by a pitched shard. But Harry’s interest had flickered somewhere else though. "Oh…oh no…"

Louis followed his gaze to the living room floor where the once majestic creation had stood, now left in a pile of colorful rubble.

"I had just finished it! I can't believe this is happening- Sophie, come out!" Harry clambered out from under the table.

Looking at the still available exit to the hallway, Louis grabbed his arm. "That's it. We're getting out of here."

“No!” Harry ripped away. "My dad gave me that cat after he rescued it and I'm not leaving without her."

"Listen to me! It's not safe! I'm here to help you!"

"Well, you don't listen very well!"

"Excuse me!?"

"The first thing you asked me was my name. How many women do you know named Harry?" he asked pointedly.

Louis pondered. Okay. Point taken, though he'd never say it out loud. Right now the main focus is to get Harry or whatever his name is out of the building safely, cat or no cat. And judging from the way the beam overhead was wobbling threatening to block the doorway completely, it was most likely going to be the latter.

"Come on! Let's get out of here! I promise if she's still here we'll find her once you're out!"

Louis grabbed his shoulder, his helmet light casting rays on him. Huge eyes of forest green clouded with water as they bore into him, shoulder not budging. 

"Please! You don't understand! She's my best friend! I can't just leave her!"

Darting his eyes in deliberation, Louis finally squeezed them shut. I'm gonna regret this.

He shoved Harry back under the table. “Here, hold this,” he gave him his flashlight and adjusted the one on his helmet. Letting out a stressed breath and quickly crawling through the ransacked room.

"Here, kitty, kitty!" He neared the capsized wall sculpture and let out a cry.

"What is it!?" Harry called from his assigned position.

"It's your masterpiece. l tripped over an Alcyonacean," Louis spat in reply, trampling over the hard tiny replica of the coral to get to the bedroom. He had never come across anything so safety threatening, and for a firefighter that was saying something. Bloody artistic types are just what this city needs.

Dragging himself off the rubble, he saw Harry crawling over in the corner of his eye.

"I told you to stay there!"

"Are you hurt bad?" Harry ignored, getting closer.

"No! Now, who doesn't listen?" Louis jabbed back.

"I can help you find her- Sophie!" The young man flung his hair back to the side, and Louis' eyes opened wider. Harry's hair was dry now; a thick mess of long golden-brown curls, with streaks of dust.

The man suddenly spun around and they were a quarter inch from each other's faces. 

"It is so dark!" Harry excused, diverting to Louis' hand. "I'm sorry about this. But it's hardly my fault. How was I to know there'd be an earthquake?"

Louis responded with an eye roll as he quickly set himself back in firefighter mode, trying to use all his senses to see beyond the darkness and find the damn cat already before the whole place caved in.

Barking at him to get back to his post under the table, Louis clambered to the bedroom- the caved in bedroom as the bed could be clearly seen in out of position as though it had decided to get up on its front legs and lean forward on the opposite wall, blocking the door and making it impossible for a human to fit in the crooks to get inside. Somehow Louis had a feeling the cat was in there.

"I can get in there!" Harry shouted from under the table.

"If I can't fit neither will you!"

"I'm tall, but I'm skinnier than you!"

"In what lifetime!?” Louis mumbled to himself, sticking the head of his flashlight in a small space, about the size of a large pie dish. For the love of- now I'm hungry.

Harry let out a loud cackle as if he heard him. "That is very unfortunate because there's a hot pan of tenderloins on the other side of the rubble. Had we met earlier I surely would have invited you over!"

Louis' eyes almost ejected with that statement. "Wait- did I say that out loud?"

Harry laughed. "Yes, I think your stomach is doing all the talking for you. Can hear it echoing from over here. Wouldn't mind sharing with one whose job it is to protect and serve."

My god, is he flirting with me?

He had to hold that thought, because the building started swaying again. Rougher this time.

A fresh shower of dust fell from the ceiling onto the floor space between the two men, separating one’s view of the other as the building creaked, steadily rocking again, and all Louis could hear was screaming on the other side.

Okay, that's it- The cat or the human, the human always wins, he calculated, darting away from the bedroom. 

Then suddenly the screaming stopped.

"Harry? Harry!? Can you hear me!?" he scrambled back over to him despite the dumps of loose concrete showering the room. Gasping at the sight of the man lying there on his back, he punched his thumb on his radio.

"Dispatch! This is aid 18! Do you copy!?" he scanned the now non-existent exit. With the doorway caved in front of them and the bedroom behind them, they were now in a small space with no access to light or air, only lung-threatening dust.

“This is aid 18! Do you copy!?" Louis repeated through his oxygen mask for the third time, giving Harry a quick physical for possible injuries and deducting that he had merely fainted out of fear.

"Ok, I'm not getting dispatch. Harry, come on! Wake up!" 

"Dispatch, do you copy!"  he repeated one last time as the shaking stopped, leaving in its wake a sickening sound of the iron skeleton of a building unbalancing.

A dread built up in him. That sound cannot be good. 

Knowing they would die if no one came to help, he lifted Harry's upper body and slipped under him, resting the man's head onto his lap, and smoothing his hair. God, this is soft. Even with the harsh concrete powder through it, Louis thought, breathing heavily. If I die today, he thought, pointing the flashlight on the young features of his face, this isn't a bad sight to go out with. 

He unhinged his oxygen mask and put the nozzle on Harry's mouth to stabilize his breathing and protect his lungs in the dust.

"This is station 12!” someone’s voice said over the receiver. “What's your position?"

"Tomlinson, Station 18! I have no exit! I repeat! have no exit! Victim, one male!" Louis blurted in relief, palm on Harry's hairline.

"Louis!" he then heard a different voice on the radio.

"Rexha?”

"I'm here! I just got out of the building."

"I’m trapped with a civilian. Situation looks bad!”

"Louis, hold tight- we're coming to get you!" Zayn tuned in from somewhere inside, sounding out of breath.

Louis gurgled out a boisterous laugh. "Ha! Ha ah! - Wait? Yeah sure, I'll just hang around here till you guys come and dig through meters of concrete walls, and coral wall sculpture, to get to us!" His tone was meant to be sarcastic but of course, no one else was laughing.

"Louis, when this is all over we'll be sitting around the table eating- no slash that- stuffing our asses with food from all the grateful civilians- just imagine- and we’ll be telling this story to each other and counting our blessings! You hear me, Lieutenant Tomlinson!?"  Bebe tried to instill confidence.

“That is if Miller doesn’t get to it first,” Louis joked.

Miller, who was on his way up as well heard it on his radio. “Ha. Ha. Copy that, Lieutenant.”

Louis panted. "Guys..."

"What is it, Louis?"  Bebe said, mirroring his dread.

"There's limited oxygen. The tank I have is for the victim. He's passed out from shock but I'm masking him now."

"You'll have to share it until we get you out!"  Zayn replied, sounding like he was taking five stairs at a time to get up to Louis’ floor.

"I can't do that!” Louis said throatily between coughs. “His life first."

"Listen to me!"  Bebe commanded. "You are going to get out of this! Let me hear you say it!"

"I'm going to get the hell out of here," Louis with sluggish sarcasm.

‘I’m going up there!’ he then heard Bebe arguing with Captain Rivers, who had to be outside with her.

‘No, Bebe, stay where you are! It’s rough in here!’ Jade’s voice replied over the speaker.

Rivers then barked at Bebe to stay on the walkie-talkie. Louis heard faint arguing over the radio about whether anyone should re-enter the building, then a pause before Bebe was back.

“I don’t have clearance to re-enter,”  Bebe rejoined. “Zayn, Jade, and Miller are in there.”

“Tomlinson, stay on the line,” Rivers barked into the radio. "Malik and Thirwall are on their way-"

The radio tuned out to static. 

"Bebe?” Louis shouted, a fresh wave of desperation flooding in. “Rivers? Rexha!?"

Louis had just given up and dropped the device, when Harry's head began to shift in his arms.

"Oh! Omygod! Omygod! What's happening!?" he flew up shoving away the mask and slapping Louis in the nose and mouth.

"Hey, Hey!" Louis grabbed his hands in the dark. "It's okay. It's me, Louis. Do you remember where you are?"

Harry let out a low cry and threw his arms around Louis, burying his face in his uniform. "I'm so scared! Please help me!"

"It's okay," Louis hugged back, rubbing his back soothingly. "Help is on the way."

"I shouldn't have made you stay here. You should have gone out and left me to look for Sophie alone."

"Don't be ridiculous. This is my job!"

Harry gave a half-hearted nod. "She’s dead, isn't she?" He wiped his dirty hands over his teary face.

"I don't know, but we are not. That's a good thing, okay?" Louis picked up the oxygen nozzle. "Here. Breathe."

The hysterical man took a few deep breaths and calmed down, though Louis was still struggling to take one breath. And just as Louis had predicted, he heard himself start to wheeze; a sure sign the oxygen in the room was close to running out.

It was dark but he could still focus on Harry’s collarbone, which was smeared with dust and sweat. 

Then as he wheezed again, Harry dug at the nozzle and shoved it on Louis’ nose. "You can’t breathe! You need it more than I do!"

"No! If one of us survives, it has to be you! I took this job as a fireman knowing that my life may or may not end in me laying it down for the safety of citizens! Don't worry about me!"

"And my job as a human is to make sure we take care of each other. We're both going through this, not just me, and not just you!"

Harry’s eyes were steady and unrelenting. Louis had no time or energy to argue with the philosopher. He grabbed the oxygen and took a breath, and then another. And that, paired with the sudden sound of metal clanging and moving boulders- as Louis suspected his friends were working to get them out- gave him hope. He gripped onto Harry, smiling before administering him a few breaths from the tank again.

Harry started shivering mildly and Louis pulled him close. “Body warmth,” he replied when Harry gave him a puzzled look. They heard a crunch between them as they closed up space and it clicked that the pack of skittles was still in his pocket. Harry started digging at him until he got it out.

“Tropical ones! I love those.”

"So do I," Louis grinned, watching the man pull the seal open. In any other situation, he might have thought it rude to help oneself to his stuff without asking but this was no ordinary circumstance. He watched as Harry dumped some in his mouth.

“So, tell me about yourself Harry,” Louis initiated to calm the civilian, or himself. “You from around here?” He took the pack and flashed the light inside, looking for a pineapple one.

“I’m from Seattle. I live with my Dad. He’s a seaport driver. Loves to fish - You like the yellow ones too?” Harry added as Louis popped it in his mouth.

"I hate fishing." Louis remembered once when this guy took him out of the orphanage to try him out to see if they would get along for adoption he took him fishing and it was disastrous, ending in him soaked and sulking and sent back to the orphanage to join his sister immediately. Louis was glad he didn't get adopted because the guy only wanted him and not Tay. 

"You haven't gone with me yet," Harry countered with a sure smile. "It's so much fun."

Louis nodded and dug for another pineapple one, popping it in Harry’s mouth. Both chewing, their eyes locked and suddenly Harry was degrees warmer under Louis’ embrace.

“My mother was supposed to meet me here for dinner,” Harry cut the moment, his face contorted into worry. “Do you think she's okay?"

Oh God, Louis remembered the woman trapped outside. Her name was ...What was it? - Margaret!

"What's her name?"

"Anne," Harry chewed nervously.

Phew- Horrible for Margaret, but Phew.

"Hey, she's fine, there are countless batches of firefighters, paramedics, and police officers out there. Trust me, okay?"

Harry tried to calm down. "What about your family?" he said, shoulders dropping in ease.

"It's just me,” Louis replied pensively, masking Harry again.

“So, you’re an only child like me,” Harry breathed in, half-lidded eyes gazing somewhere between Louis’ nose. “What do you for recreational? I like to go on long hikes back home. I find it peaceful and rejuvenating.”

What does he have to rejuvenate?  Louis asked himself. “I’m a firefighter. It’s the gym for me.”

Harry gave a ‘yuck’ face. “Disgusting sweat-stifling air conditioning.”

Louis took a dull look around and decided Harry was the best focal point. “So what do you watch besides sweat the conventional way?”

"Not much. As I said, I'm more of an outdoorsy kind of guy. But I've recently taken up dance lessons."

“Let me guess- Ballet.”

“Wrong. According to my very cute but straight instructor, I’m very good at the Mambo.”

“How much do lessons like that cost?”

“Too much to learn how to rub up on other people’s body parts,” Harry said, face unsure of how funny that was. Louis found it funny.

Louis let loose a smile. “That is unfortunate. But if you had known me before you would have gotten free lessons... from a not-so-straight hottie.”

Wait- did I just retrospectively invite him to rub up on my body parts?

Harry’s face morphed from one thing to next so fast Louis couldn’t help but sum them all up as disbelief.

“I thought you said you only go to the gym?” Harry croaked out in a highly amused tone. The dust was clogging in there.

“Ever heard of Dirty Dancing?” Louis said in an impressive tone, brows jumping around.

Harry’s head bopped back, grin appearing. “From the movie?” 

Louis nodded matter-of-factly. "I did my share of clubbing as a teenager."

“Wait- that’s a real thing; The hideout dirty grinding stuff?”

Louis recoiled. “Yes I think it is, but no! What kind of guy do you take me for? I can’t do that in public,”  he made Harry laugh, “I meant I can do the other moves. The Salsa and Mambo and Tango shit. But if we get out of here alive, don’t tell a soul.”

The mask covered half of Harry’s face but the upward crescent moon shaped eyes told Louis he had succeeded in lightening the gloominess of the room.

“One wouldn’t look at you and think you’re into romantic movies,” Harry cackled hoarsely and muffled.

"Oh please. I know all the dance moves by heart," the firefighter boasted. "I danced at my prom. But surprisingly no one in my class knew the movie and they just thought I took lessons."

“You do not know the moves,” Harry stated with a firm smirk.

"I do too," Louis stressed with ease and confidently proceeded to talk Harry through the end dance of the movie. When he was done, with his proudly semi-concealed grin, his oxygen buddy was speechless.

“Oh wow, well this is a hugely pleasant coincidence because that movie happens to be the reason I started Mambo lessons,” he finally said, impressed.

Something exciting rose in Louis and he admonished himself to stay cool. “So, if we make it out of here... we can put it to the test.” He didn’t know where the hell that unprofessional outburst came from.

Harry half giggled and let it fade out before replying. “I’d like that.”

“I’m calling shotgun on Baby,” Louis added pompously, and Harry’s upper face expanded in a cheated grin.

“Hey! I'm always Baby,” the man whined.

After minutes of chatting with Harry over the skittles, he looked at his watch, and his stomach went into a bigger frenzy. "We've been in here for about 38 minutes."

"That's not bad. There's this show on TV where people get trapped for years in their own rubbish."

"Extreme Hoarders?" Louis laughed. This Harry guy is so funny. Optimistic.

"I think so," Harry laughed, looking at Louis with a renewed comfort as feint muffling voices and knocking iron were heard behind the layers of building slabs.

Louis felt his cheeks go hot. "They're hammering away and somehow if it were just me here, I’d close my eyes and sleep." He didn't add that he didn't have to be in any particular trouble to wish for this sleep. When he slept he dreamed of sleeping.

"What? You wouldn't fight to get out?"

"Like I said, the more you work yourself up the less oxygen you have."

"Okay, Lieutenant," Harry teased. “But you'd have to at least be scared? If I were all alone in this, I’d be a bawling mess."

"You, a mess? Nah, you’d be chatting with the walls!"

Harry's mouth shut. "Ha. Ha. I don’t usually get scared that easy,” he retracted.

“Is that so?” Louis deadpanned.

 “I’m not scared now.” The man grabbed Louis' hand and merged their palms.

"What are you doing?" Louis croaked, feeling little shocks go through his arm.

"Channeling your energy."

"Channeling my- okay you're getting too much oxygen. My turn!" He fake-grabbed the mask. Harry's eyes made little banana shapes as he giggled, and Louis wondered what his smile looked like under there.

Then Harry's laughter died down enough to say softly, boring into his eyes; "Your aura is a cool purple." Then he stopped and cocked his head. "Do you smell smoke?"

Masking the panic waving through his mind, Louis nodded and grabbed his shoulders protectively.

"Okay-" he said, looking for the source. He found it coming from the kitchen in thick white clouds gliding close to the ceiling. The damn tenderloins. "Listen to me very carefully. You see that smoke up there? It's gonna descend and reach us in about two minutes. I need you to get on the floor and crawl towards the door okay? The lower the better."

Harry nodded obediently and dropped on his belly. "Ow!" he emphasized, ripping his shirt on a sharp edge. But the smoke as only half their problem; the building was rocking like a hammock once more. Louis doubted it was another tremor, it felt more like the building was unstable.

But the rocking was causing something miraculous to happen; the broken wall around the front door had caved and created a manhole big enough to crawl through and get to the hallway.

Louis shoved Harry through it first and crawled in after him, accepting his hand to pull him out. Once they were both through, Harry latched on to Louis in the pitch-black hallway, and he hugged him back tightly with his mouth brushing his hair as he breathed heavily.

"Tomlinson, copy!" he tried his radio once more.

“Bebe, we’re in the hallway! We have a stove fire in the apartment, but we're coming down."

"Ok- Malik how close are you!" – Bebe called out to Zayn’s radio.

"I’m three floors up but there's a ton of debris blocking the staircase!"  Louis heard Zayn reply.

Louis squeezed his eyes shut trying to remember the map. “Zayn, listen! There’s an old emergency staircase on the east side. Find a side door on that floor. Be careful! It may not have been used for years and it could be rusty!”

‘Roger that!’ Zayn clapped and the radio went to silence.

The earth started shaking again, that slow wicked cradling and more structure started to break. But Louis and his civilian were on the home stretch running to the east of the hallway near the emergency stairs on Harry's floor.

Lucky the door was only slightly jammed and Louis knew how to kick it open for them to pile through.

He grabbed Harry's hand, trusting the ancient staircase to hold just long enough for them to escape.

They were about to descend to meet Zayn when Louis swore he heard the cat meow frightened. And sure enough, Harry did too as he had stopped running forward, and was now turning around. “Sophie!?”

"Harry!” Louis shouted as Harry moved towards the meowing. “Wait!" 

Louis dashed after Harry but it was too late. He had to halt as a large part of the ceiling came crashing down and he heard a sickening splitting crunch.

Harry yelled in a painful sonnet, and Louis' stomach lurched. Apart from his coughing, he wished the dust would disappear for him to see how bad it was with Harry. He shielded his nose with his forearm to get to him.

When the dust cleared, what he had been fearing all this time had come to pass; a loose beam almost the width of the apartment had crashed right on top of Harry.

The man laid with his torso on the ground but in line with his left hip. His left knee was bent with his left ankle trapped under the weight of his right leg, and on top of that was the beam.

"Save yourself!" Harry broke out in pain.

"Stop it, I'm not leaving you here," Louis shouted back, already brainstorming a way to get Harry loose.

He took a closer look at the position of his legs trapped on top of the other under the beam and was afraid of the idea that was creeping up in his head. Now the beam covered his right leg just below the calf and Louis was certain it was broken along with his left ankle but the way his left ankle laid stuck under his right leg weight, Louis was about ninety percent sure he could get it out by a series of gentle pulling and tugging. This strategy was sure to be painful but worth it in getting him out. Louis figured with his ankle out the space left might be enough to pull Harry out completely. 

He darted around for something strong enough to prop the beam. His hands found a sizeable slab of wall and he wrenched it up with all his might, plunging it into the space next to Harry's legs. Hopefully it would keep the beam from further crushing the man when Louis pulls him out.

He then refocused to Harry's legs. "Ok, Harry, this is gonna hurt but I need to cooperate with me okay? I'm gonna try to pull your left foot out, okay? Hopefully, it'll slip right out of the shoe."

Louis shoved his hand in there, knuckles grazing as he tried to loosen the shoe lacings.

"Ah- wait - wait - wait. Give me a minute."

"Okay- okay," Louis eased off for the man to mentally prepare himself.

After Harry caught his breath, Louis gently pulled his foot out. The whole thing went smoothly but Harry’s right leg was still stuck under the massive beam. It was unrelenting and Louis was unable to move the leg out even a millimeter.

Soon distant shouting was heard in the halls and lights flashing around the corners were getting closer.

"They're here!"  Louis was happy to hear Zayn’s voice shout.

Thirwall and Miller appeared behind him and they quickly got to work on the fire while Zayn checked Louis for major damage on the spot.

“Forget me. See to him!” Louis growled at his best friend.

Harry was face down, surely tasting blood; leg trapped, torso apex upward, hands gripping onto demolished gravel. His eyes were excruciatingly squinting as the flesh and concrete meshed together.

Zayn obeyed and ducked down to Harry’s side, checking his heartbeat.

"Ahhh!!" Harry screamed, fingers showing skeletal veins as he clenched his knuckles in attempts to numb the pain.

"Harry! Harry, we're gonna get you out! Just breathe! Breathe for me!" Louis said.

"I wasn't being honest before,” Harry growled out, as Zayn checked out his now free ankle. “I am afraid of something,”

"What would that be?" Louis made a hurry to smooth his hair.

"Being alone forever. My boyfriend, Nick, dumped me after high school. His parents treated him like crap because he hung out with me, and my Dad let him stay with us. He even bought him a car to do pizza delivery, but as soon as high school was over he moved back in with his parents and hooked up with my best friend, Sariah. She is so pretty, platinum blonde and feminine. We did everything together."

"So, your ex-boyfriend liked her all along?" Louis kept the conversation going to the sounds of blasting fire extinguishers nearby. He figured it was helping keep Harry distracted from the pain.

"He said he was figuring himself out with me. We dated for three years, sex and everything. I just don’t get it. He married her a year ago. I heard they were trying for kids. Not to mention my stupid high school reunion is coming up in a few months. That’s partially why I came here, so I’d have something fancy to tell everyone so they won’t think I’ve just been a loser all this time.”

“How old are you?” Louis inquired, as Zayn carefully applied fresh bandages making Harry wince in pain.

“Twenty-four.”

“And you haven’t dated anyone since high-school?” Louis said, coming out unintentionally sardonic.

“I never met anyone. I thought he was it, you know. When I think about it, I ask myself what’s wrong with me, you know?"

"There's nothing wrong with you. He was just a jackass, that’s all."

"I came here hoping I can be someone else. Not feel so invisible."

"You're not invisible. I see you; Intelligent, courageous, fun..." The more he talked the more he realized his words and how much they were true. Louis had never met anyone like Harry before, optimistic, "artsy."

"You hated my sculpture," Harry laughed through his pain.

Louis giggled. “But it made you happy didn’t it? That's really all that matters. Of course, I would have liked to see just how many people are into that sort of art,” he chuckled.

"A lot, FYI," Harry defended, then went serious as he whimpered in agony.

Louis grew quiet for a moment, brushing Harry’s hair, then said sadly, “It’s not just me."

Zayn's eyes ventured up to Louis as he finished the bandages.

At least it wasn’t before," Louis went on, looking away in thought. “I grew up with my sister, Tay. She died three years ago at twenty-two. Drug overdose."

Zayn kept a peculiar eye on Louis that went unnoticed.

Harry wept. "I'm so sorry."

Louis sighed. "I tried to get her clean but she kept going back with her druggie boyfriend until it was too late. So I get feeling like the universe is against you, toying with your life.”

Harry sniffled uncontrollably. "Thank you, Louis. You're a gem, you. I guess we all have things we pretend don't scare us."

Louis looked to his team. “Will you two hurry up, we need to get him out of here!”

Miller and Jade scrambled back to them and inspected the weight of the beam.

“Let’s see if we can lift it!” Louis shouted darting up.

Harry rejoiced. "I’m gonna get out- I’m gonna get outta here," he cried, as Louis and the others made a forceful heave.

"Yes, you are!" – Louis growled out as he pulled with no success.

They were testing out lifting it when two additional paramedics arrived on the scene; one male and one female.

The male medic flashed a look at Louis. "How long has he been stuck?" he inquired as he scoped the situation.

"About twenty minutes," Louis rapped.

The man tusked at the sight of the unmoving beam. "This man’s legs are broken. He could be bleeding internally."

He started bawling at his co-worker to hand him items, some of them Louis recognized and some he didn't. But he wasted no time standing by; Louis started rattling at his crew members about strategies to get the beam off of Harry.

The female medic started talking loudly to the male medic, and he nodded before interrupting Louis. “Cassie’s right. That beam looks like forty tons, and it's as wide as a three-lane road. No way it's going anywhere." He then gave a sullen look to Zayn and Louis before getting busy snipping Harry's trouser leg away. He and the female medic started preparing items and Louis’ heart dropped. He was no paramedic but he knew the exact procedure they were prepping for.

"Excuse me, what the fuck are you doing?" Louis looked at the man; Lionel or something, his partner Cassie called him. Louis didn't care in the dusty smoky dark.

"Louis?" Zayn recoiled. But ‘Lionel’ wasn’t in the least offended at Louis’ outburst. Standing up quickly, he put his hands on his hips and got straight to the point. 

"We're going to have to amputate."

 

*

 

Chapter soundtrack:-

WILDES-  Bare

Elina- Here With Me

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

"Harry?" The male medic started cleaning the part of his leg visibly closest to the beam. "Is that your name?"

Harry nodded impatiently.

"My name is Liam and I will be performing the amputation, okay?"

"Nooooooo!" Harry wailed, saliva pouring out the sides of his rigidly opened mouth.

"Don't worry, Harry, I'm a grade-A EMT. I'm perfectly qualified to do this. Now, here's what I want you to do; I want you to take a deep breath for me. Can you do that?"

"We can lift it off him!" Louis screamed at the EMT. "Just move aside and give us time!"

Liam disagreed. "He's losing pressure in his leg fast. If we don't move now it's going to affect his heart and he'll die here."

"How long do we have!?" Zayn cut in, tossing his fire safety gloves and slapping on a pair of surgical ones.

Louis didn’t wait for the reply to that. He swallowed up the air-time and continued to bark at Jade and Miller to try harder in hefting off the beam.

"Listen to me!" Liam shouted, still focused on Louis. "We have exactly six minutes before he has to lose his entire leg. If we move now we can perform a transtibial."

Harry winced. "What is a transfibial!?"

Liam was on the dot. "A transtibial. It means we can cut below the knee and save most of your leg."

On hearing that, Harry started wailing louder to which Liam replied, "Trust me, that's a good thing!" He said it to Harry but looked at Louis the whole time, like he was trying to convince him to give the consent.

"Are you sure there's no other way to get him out!?" Louis said above Harry's cries.

"He's the best at what he does!" Liam’s partner, Cassie countered in the process of testing out the anesthetic needle for the operation. "You should thank your lucky stars we got here when we did." 

Liam added, "The building could come down any second. Would you rather wait for that!?"

Louis shuffled and shifted agitatedly. Jade and Miller backed away from the beam, eyes anxiously planted on their Lieutenant.

Liam sighed sympathetically, eyes pleading and urgent. "Let us do our job."

“Louis,” Jade spoke up. “We have to do this or none of us are going to make it out before this building comes down on us.” She said it in an urgently soft tone but her eyes were saying that if Louis didn’t give the command in the next five seconds, she would.

Louis grabbed his head, shutting his eyes. In his line of work field limb amputations were done as a last resort to free a patient only after all other options have been exhausted, or if the patient's condition requires immediate removal, or in cases where hazards create too much risk for lengthy operations. The man is a hiker for God's sake, Louis didn't want him to have to give that up. But here in the dark unsteady building with open electrical wires, dust everywhere blocking sight, and potential for more aftershocks that can do even more damage to Harry and everyone else inside, Louis knew he had to let it happen. 

Helpless to come up with another solution in six minutes, he nodded for Liam and his partner to start the operation with the help of Zayn who was a specially trained firefighter EMT. Louis' own training required that he know how to perform basic medical emergency procedures, and he did complete a course in field amputation during his extensive training to become a firefighter but this was the first time experiencing and being part of one and he didn't know if he could handle it. Especially if it was being performed on the man who kept him sane during this whole ordeal.

Harry screamed louder at all the discussion around him, and Louis was heart wrenched after spending all that time trapped with him, getting to know him. 

"Please! Don't cut- my leg!” He spewed in sad sickening wails as his body limped into the cold concrete dust. Miller hit Louis a glare and he knew what it meant. His ignorant behaviour had caused the civilian to think there was another way to get out without amputating. He had given Harry false hope and now he was refusing to let them cut him out.

Miller was right. They needed to get Harry out right away without Louis’ hard-nosed bad judgement. Hitting Miller a decisive look he ducked down to Harry’s side.

Examining the odds against it, grabbing his leg firm but gentle, the busted fabric coming apart between his hands, a breathless Louis sighed and prepared to take part in his first on-field amputation.

There was no way to fully mentally prepare for something so uncanny and brutal. But it was necessary. They had to get him out. Louis desperately needed him unstuck. His job was to save lives no matter what.

He dropped in his belly to face the man and cupped his ears. “We need to get you safe, okay? Close your eyes. Can you do that for me?"- Harry squeezed them shut - "Take a few deep breaths."

"I can't do this." Harry sounded so terrified. He flung his eyes open, unable to concentrate as Liam started asking about his medical history.

"Are you a diabetic or have a history of it in your family?" Liam immediately started rattling as he dabbed alcohol on the area below his knee. Harry winced and shut his eyes again, terrified.

Liam spoke fast. "Are you on any medications? – Oh!" - Zayn had accidentally dropped the alcohol bottle and Liam got distracted from his questioning.

"I'm so sorry," Zayn stuttered.  

"It's okay. Just be careful," Liam said understandingly.

Holding back his every inkling to yell at them, Louis gulped. "Listen to me, okay. You're gonna get out and you're gonna be at home in your bed relaxing, and you'll forget all about this awful day! Okay?" Louis found himself placing a passionate kiss on the top of his head.

Injecting Harry with the anesthesia, Liam rapped on. "Do you have any medical problems? Blood disorder?"

Harry shook his head rigidly with the pain.

Soon, Harry’s leg was numb and the surgical saw started up. From Louis’ position he could see everything. All Harry had to do was make a half-twist upwards to see the operation, but he made no moves to do so. And with Louis’ own hands firm on the sides of Harry's head, Louis was going to make sure he didn't.

"I can't, I can't!" Harry cried, tears falling like hail.

Louis reached out a dusty, bruised hand, and clamped it onto Harry's trembling one. "Hey," he said softer. "We're in this together. This isn't just happening to you,” he fed the man’s own words back to him. Harry's head fell to hover a few inches over the pebbles of concrete, and Louis died inside. There was no way out of it. He was about to go through the worst ordeal of his life and lose part of his leg. "So I'm not going anywhere, I promise." 

Louis knew Harry would not feel pain but it was the scariest thing he'd ever have to go through. Letting a crazy thought loose to distract Harry from the operation, Louis clamped his fingers around the man's head and pressed their trembling lips together.

Harry breathed out snot from his nose in surprise at the gesture, but Louis responded by applying more pressure to the kiss. The risky move was not feeling awkward at all, but he figured he should pull away before it did. He made a move to do so, but to his surprise he felt a tiny lick on the inside of his bottom lip, and he dared moan at a time like this, though nobody heard it because of the saw.

"Ready!?" Liam said out loud. "One, two, three!"

Harry made a piercing growl in reaction to the sound of the working saw, spluttering spit into Louis’ mouth as the tool came down. And in a matter of horrifying seconds, he was free from the boulder. 

The three medics quickly stopped the blood, treated and bandaged him and allowed Miller- the strongest and fastest to rush Harry down the stairs in his arms while everyone else quickly followed behind.

The old staircase held, and soon they were all out, greeted by red lights and officers shouting as they rushed to their aid outside apartment building 28.

 

*

 

Coughing and pacing outside the building, with police cars and fire truck lights partying all over the scene, Louis wasn't even in charge of his thoughts; they just sped through like a car race with a roller coaster in the background. They cut off his fucking leg. Damn it!

He had only caught a glimpse of Miller and Harry being sped off to the hospital with another ambulance crew that had been waiting outside.

He was holding his head, trying to focus on who else needed saving now when something brushed his leg.

Meow!”- Louis spun around, raising his leg, head down. A mackerel Tabby cat was meowing worriedly at his feet. Sophie. She was rubbing her sides on his pant leg, tail up.

He picked her up, checking for injuries. “At least you got out alright,” he said, finding none. “Harry will be grateful for that.”

"I'm sorry you had to see that," a voice said behind him, and his iris reached the corner of his vision scope to see that damn medic again standing on his right with blood-stained gloves in his hand. The ones he had just used to mutilate Harry. The man drew a bit closer to look at the cat, with Bebe marching up behind him.

Louis coughed again. 

“Louis, why aren’t you on your way to the hospital with the others? You should at least get checked out for smoke inhalation,” Bebe urged, thumb pointing at the ambulance behind her.

“Yeah, we were lucky your guys stopped the smoke early on," Liam said. "No fire victims, but you were practically in the heat of it.” He gestured to Louis, all 'worried-about-you' pally pal.

Louis sighed, ignoring him. He wished he’d dispose of the damn gloves already instead of waving them in his face.

Liam seemed to catch on with his silence and put the gloves behind his back. "I assure you that your boyfriend is in good hands at the hospital now."

Louis puffed a dry laugh at the blatant assumption.

"He's not my-" he started to say but caught himself. I don't have to explain myself to him. "So what, someone has to be close to me to care about what happens to them?" he spat. "He's a civilian!"- one that Louis will never see as merely that ever again. "One that I promised would get out of there safe. And that would have been the case if you hadn't been so adamant to maim him."

Liam gave him a squinty-eyed ‘I-don't-buy-that-he's-not-your-boyfriend’ look.

Bebe eyed the two and reached out, taking the cat. "I'll get this little guy checked out." She put her lips to Louis’ ear. "Play nice."

"Sorry to burst your bubble but I got him out of there alive," Liam fired. "That building is unstable. We all could have died in there if I hadn't taken action. In any situation like this; whole dead, and maimed alive…? I'd choose maimed alive."

Louis whirled at him, nodding daringly, fists ready to fight.

Eyebrow up, Liam put his two hands out in surrender and backed away just as Louis changed his mode to let out a series of hacking coughs.

"Yeah, you should really get that checked out," the medic said, driving the very point in before turning back towards his unit.

"Hey," Zayn appeared out of nowhere. Louis cleared his throat rough. Zayn didn't seem to notice the freshly finished argument. He just jumped right in to say: "You know that guy I told you I hooked up with last night?"

Louis searched around to remember. "Yeah?"

Zayn blew hard, hands on his hips. "That's him."

Louis followed his head-toss to where Liam was now cupping Bebe's chin and flashing little exam lights in her eyes while she sat crossed legged holding the cat in the back of the ambulance.

And suddenly he erupted in throat wrenching coughs again.

 

*

 

"I do not need to be here," Louis barked as Officer Thirwall held him in place in the hospital waiting room.

"Look, we all inhaled a lot of smoke, so we all need to be here. You especially looked like you were about to collapse out there,” she reasoned. “You’re not doing the city any favors by skipping this."

Zayn paced the room and Miller stood, arms folded by the window as they all waited for the doctor to see their lungs. 

Louis re-focussed on Zayn. "I can't believe you hooked up with that guy."

Jade scanned Zayn. “What guy?”

Zayn stopped and blushed. "It was a one-night stand that lasted longer than I expected."

"He stayed the whole night?" Louis' co-worker and roommate of five years was terrified of letting someone he slept with stay long enough to brush their teeth.

"And he wanted to make me breakfast,” Zayn muttered in woe, face in his hands. “I told him I don't eat breakfast. He got the message at that point and left. I was so embarrassed the whole time during that amputation."

Louis frowned. The amputation. The one that wasn't supposed to happen on his watch.

“And who are we talking about?” Jade tried again.

“Amputation Guy; the paramedic who cut the civilian out,” a restless Miller elaborated, looking out the window at the damaged city. The look in his eyes mimicked what Louis was feeling; They needed to be out there saving lives, not here waiting.

Jade’s forehead went up as she gave a long “Oh.”

“I’m gonna go see if I can get a nurse in here," Zayn said, minding time.

"Good," Louis said, jumping down to the floor as Zayn walked out. "We don't have time for this. Thousands of people are out there trapped or worse. Besides, the hospital staff has to be up to their necks with all the earthquake injuries.”

Just then, a cheery Bebe walked in with Sophie wrapped in a pull-string knapsack. "Guess who has my number?"

If Miller wasn’t looking out at the devastated Chicago when she said it, he would have asked, “The cat?” Louis knew how he couldn’t pass up to opportunity to joke.

Louis himself was bewildered as to how Bebe could be thinking of scoring at a time like this.

When no one answered she wiggled her eyebrows teasingly. “The hot medic.”

Jade shared shocked looks with Louis but Miller said it, finally looking away from the window. "You mean, Amputation Guy?"

Louis set his hands on his hips at the bombshell. And, seriously? Amputation Guy? “You guys couldn’t find a better name?”

"That’s what they're calling him!?" Bebe exclaimed.

Louis took Sophie, feeling like he was about to be sick. What happened to Harry wasn’t a joke to garner nicknames, even if it was the medic being dubbed and not him. Plus, if he ever saw Amputation Guy again it would be too soon.

Louis looked at Zayn through the glass window talking to the nurse and then looked at a toothy Bebe. No, Louis was sure he was going to be sick.

 

*

 

After the doctors cleared him, Louis grabbed the cat-in-the-knapsack and headed straight down the hall, one thing on his mind. He had to tell Harry she got out unharmed.

Countless people were roaming the halls either injured or waiting to hear from the doctors about their loved ones. From the worried looks on his co-worker's faces, he hoped all of their families were okay.

He turned the corner to where the doctor told him the man's room was and saw him through the blinds asleep flat on the bed. His face was clean now and it temporarily astounded Louis. Spending so much time in the rubble back at the apartment it had seemed strange that either of them had lived in a world where soap and water existed.

A woman sat at his bedside a worried crook on the side of her lips. She had to be Harry's mother, Anne if he remembered the name well. She lifted her head when she noticed they were not alone. Louis made slow movements past the blinds to the open doorway.

The nurse came in to refill his drip bag, and Louis missed the opportunity to introduce himself as Anne's focus had shifted to bulleting the nurse with questions. As she did, Louis eased further into the room and rested the knapsack in the corner. The talking was rather loud in Louis' opinion- and he called it because Harry was now shifting awake.

As his eyes opened, they fell on Anne first, then swayed to Louis as his breathing stabled. The skin above his nose twisted as his stare fixed on Louis. His eyes were a brilliant forest green. Oh, Wow, he's so pretty. It was the first time Louis had got a good look at him since it was too dark back in the building. And even then Louis thought he was cute.

"Omygod, you're not my husband, are you?" he inquired hoarsely as a worried disposition set in his eyes. "Oh no, I've seen this movie. This doesn't have a happy ending where I get my memory back, does it? Oh my God."

Pale went Louis' face at that whole outburst, and his eyes bucked open wider with alarm. Anne looked from her son to Louis to the nurse in bewilderment.

Louis spoke first. "You- you don't remember me? I'm Louis. I got- you out- I mean; I was there when they got you out." A prickling dug at his heart as he spoke, and he wet his lips as an over-watery film covered his eyes.

"You really can't take a joke, can you, Louis?" Harry replied, finally cracking a rusty smile. Louis exhaled heavily, face lightening. He's been up for like, what- two minutes and he's already making jokes? Who is this adorable creature?

"Mum?" Harry said after a few pauses, a large deep crease appearing on his forehead. Louis' stomach lurched like it knew what was coming.

"I can't- feel my legs," Harry croaked out, sure enough.

Not liking how hoarse the man sounded, Louis quickly got the bottle of water on the stand.

All the blood from Anne's face evacuated as she searched for something to say, and Louis' mouth quivered as he opened the bottle.

The nurse adjusted the bed for him to sit up straight, and Louis wished she didn’t do that just yet.

Harry tried to shift in the bed and gave a questioning grunt at the fact that he couldn’t move his legs.

“Did I break my foo-?" he started. Then realization dawned. He took one excruciating look down at his cast limbs then up at Louis. The look on his face hurt Louis everywhere as he witnessed the man’s full memory flood back.

Tightly clenching his eyebrows, Harry gripped the covers on his torso and pulled them off to reveal the sad condition that was lying beneath.

He started to tremble, and Louis started to wither inside.

The sound that escaped the unsound man just then took Louis right back to that moment. He put the water down. Where? He didn't know. All he knew as he felt his stomach churn sickly was that he was in almost as much pain as Harry.

Then just like that, Harry stopped crying and set a hardened look on his face. "What happened?" he asked the nurse, dead-toned. Louis could not tell if he was cold-shouldering him or if his brain had blocked out the fact that Louis had been there when the trauma happened. He remembered Louis’ name though.

The nurse started explaining his condition, telling him how his left ankle was broken and how he had lost his right foot along with forty percent of his right tibia to save his life in the earthquake. As Louis stood there listening trying not to cry along with Harry's sobs, he was relieved the nurse was the one telling him; God alone knew he did not have the strength.

"Right now is the best time to get some extra rest before the real pain sets in. We'd like to monitor you for the next three weeks; out there is not safe for you to be in this condition, give the authorities time to clear your home's safety. We'll prescribe you some painkillers for when you get released and go from there." The nurse told Harry. The poor guy's eyes were vacant and drowsy as she spoke like he had been wandering for days in a strange wasteland. Louis suspected it had all seeped in now.

The tiny sound of meowing caught the room's attention and Louis quickly grabbed the knapsack.

"Aw, look who I snuck in to see you," he said, scooping the cat up. He hoped against hope the thing would immediately cheer the man up. "She missed you."

Harry threw an uninterested eye on Sophie as he sniffled away, latching onto his mother's shoulder.

Moving closer, Louis held the animal up in front of him but Harry shut his eyes.

"Take her away!" he wailed out. "I don't- want- her! Please get her away from me!"

 

*

 

The next few days were hectic trying to go over protocols with citizens and other officers while conducting rescues in the aftermath of the quake. Louis' crew took all shifts. There were not about to sleep while people were still trapped in their homes and at work needing help.

But by day five the team was withdrawn from rescue due to exhaustion; Zayn had passed out during an operation to get a man out from between two smashed walls the day before. Louis had darted some salts over his nostrils but it was clear he was out.

Yeah, Louis had a choice to take the day off with the others on his team, let another station take over the precinct, but he soldiered on. He had to. It was either that or mope around thinking about Harry’s face when he had brought him Sophie at the hospital. Louis still hadn’t the courage to call the man's mother to find out how he was coping and if he wanted his animal back yet.

After working his lone-shift, he went home and took a shower. There was an unsightly crack straight down the length of the wall that Zayn's room from the living room, but it was still home.

Drying his hair, he grabbed Sophie and met up with the crew at their local pub. That place was riddled with cracks but luckily it had a good foundation and was still standing.

"Guys. You should have seen him. He wanted nothing to do with his own cat," Louis divulged a few minutes later by the pool table.

Miller and officer Mendes were playing a round while Zayn waited for a turn. Zayn and Jade exchanged looks, worried about their best friend and Lieutenant.

"Yeah, but isn't there a friend or family member who can take her?" Jade enquired, drinking her beer.

"No, he told me to take her."

"Animal shelter?" she tried again.

"I can't just leave her in a shelter!"

"But you hate cats."

Louis sighed. He forgot Jade knew him like a book. "I do but I just… Look, I'm keeping her, okay? Just until Harry gets better. He lost his leg because of this thing. If I give her away it will be for nothing. He cares about her."

"Harry?" Jade asked, surprised he remembered the name.

"I couldn't forget that name if I tried. I would have given up in there if it wasn't for him. I feel so bad for him."

"I understand that, but bonding with his cat isn't the way to go."

Louis showed clear signs of contemplating and Jade’s eyes widened in protest- "No," she shook her head firmly. "Get rid of the cat before Rivers finds out."

Shit. Great. He hadn't thought about Rivers. Keeping civilian pets was not recommended in crises.

Not wanting to get in trouble with the captain, he moved to the pub rooftop balcony and dialed Anne's number.

"Hi. How is he?" he asked after she picked up.

"He's not so good.” Anne sounded bleak. “Getting a lot of pain."

"Maybe I can come to see him?"

Anne went quiet for a few seconds, then said, "He's not in the mood for visitors these days."

"I understand. I’m actually calling about the cat? Is there any way you can come pick it up?"

"Oh dear," the woman uttered. "I'm afraid to even mention it to him just yet."

"It's fine. I'll keep her until he's ready." Stupid. Stupid. stupid. What made him say that? 

He hung up the phone and cuddled the cat, looking out at the view of Lake Michigan. "Well, Sophie, looks like you are stuck with me for a while."

 

 

Chicago was on day eight of the aftermath and Louis was on duty at the community center not far from the apartment complex 28 distributing donation drop-offs from the station. He had just finished off-loading the last case of bottled water when he noticed a small pep rally of guys wearing t-shirts with the acronym ICC on them. The leader of this rally, a bleach blond with dark roots and large spectacles (real build-a- website type), spotted Louis and broke up the meeting to come over.

"Hey, I'm Niall." - Louis noticed up close the ICC stood for I Care Community.

The man noticed him looking at his chest and pulled his t-shirt, making two perky fake boobs. "Oh, this is so people can make out the earthquake volunteers coming into their neighborhoods. We do food distribution, clean-ups - that sort of thing."

Clean-ups? Louis pondered, the wildest idea popping into his head.

"That's good," he said as the guy took a couple of cases and started carrying them inside the shelter. "Oh - I was wondering, has any work been done on the tenth floor of apartment complex 28?"

Niall stopped walking. "No. We're still waiting on authorities to tell us if it's safe. Why? You live there?"

Louis picked up a box of canned food and walked in with him. It was hard to ignore the despair on the stranded faces lying in sleeping bags and mattresses inside the Community Center. "A friend of mine. He lost his leg in the quake."

"Oh gosh, that’s terrible!" Niall said sincerely.

"Yeah, he's an artist and he was working a huge sculpture that means a lot to him." Anxiety clouded into Louis' core. "I was kind of hoping you could help me find all the pieces? It's important."

Niall nodded. "It'll take a few days but I can get some of the volunteers to pitch in. This community is closer now after what happened. Shame it has to take something so tragic."

"It's during these times you get to see there are really good people out there." Louis dropped his eyes, immediately thinking of Harry and how he made sure Louis didn't give up when he wanted to.

"Sure right. Pleasure meeting you, Officer Tomlinson." They bounced knuckles and said their goodbyes and Louis went back to the station.

Harry had been on Louis’ mind all week. He felt even more horrible after the phone chat with Anne and made Bebe and Zayn back up his story that Sophie was a gift from his aunt. He had to say that otherwise he would have been in big trouble if Rivers found out he kept the animal after a rescue-gone-bad. It was only for a while until Harry asks for her back, and Louis figured he'd have two things to give the man from his life before the earthquake. He couldn't get him his leg back but he could take care of his cat and try to fix his sculpture.

 

*

Day 15

 

‘From what I gather, your Mum is from Chicago?’

"Yeah, I came here searching for her after she abandoned me and my Dad when I was little," Harry murmured, nestled in Louis' arms. "Found out she's a financial executive in the Chicago Depart of Justice. She has high-society friends who can help push my art. Chicago is the place to be, isn't it?'

‘But Seattle is quiet and peaceful,’ Louis pulled out an orange skittle.

‘It is different in that everyone says hi,’ Harry laughed. His eyes then glimmered on Louis. “But I’m liking Chicago...”

 

Then; a fluffy-haired paramedic came out of the shadows, looming over them, wielding a giant ax, and he laughed sinisterly as he hacked the object down on Harry. Louis only had enough time to shout ‘HARRY!' before the man was left with one leg…

~~

 

A week after his visit to the community Center, Louis stood in his basement with a picture and a pile of rubble. Niall and his clean-up volunteers had come through for him, gathering up as many pieces as they could. It wasn't perfect since some parts have been crushed to dust but it was a start. Louis was going to do this for Harry.

Sure he had felt it was the most hideous thing he had ever seen and he probably still felt that way but like he told Niall, it meant something to Harry. It made him excited and zealous, and…happy. Maybe if he saw he didn’t lose as much as he thought he did in that building it would scrape the surface of enough to give him hope.

He applying glue to a piece when Zayn skipped halfway down the stairs.

“Are you okay?” the man said, eyes all serious.

Louis nodded. He had been having nightmares about his conversations with Harry in the apartment almost every night since the earthquake and Zayn had expressed on more than one occasion how loud Louis was being on the other side of the wall at night, and how worried he was about it.

“You got two options,” Zayn continued, “Spend your Friday night in this cold, damp basement, or come to the pub with us.”

"I got an early shift tomorrow." Louis tried to get out of it. He just wanted to finish the sculpture.

“Come on. Bebe wants us to meet her new boyfriend.”

Oh, shit- Nobody told Zayn who Bebe’s new boyfriend was. Everyone had been regularly split up throughout the city on distribution duty or rescue operations and no one had the chance.

“Okay, just give me a minute,” Louis changed his mind. He noted to tell Zayn on the way there. He couldn't let the man go in blind.

 

--

Zayn pov

 

Fifteen minutes later, Zayn held the wheel as Louis jumped in shut-gun and he drove through the streets in silence. Until five minutes in when Louis started bombarding him questions about the paramedic, he had a one-night-stand with.

“Why would you sleep with another medic?” the man rumbled, his oversized-hoody-sleeved arm hanging out the window as his head flashed from Zayn to the passing fallen walls and cracked pavements of the recovering city. “Isn’t there some code against that?”

Shooting a befuddled glance at the man, Zayn saw the discomfort in his profile and judged it must have taken a lot for him to ask that. Wondering why on earth Louis wasted his breath, Zayn scratched his head for a second. “I didn’t tell you anything when you did it in the Station locker room with Jade for a whole month last year. Plus, what’s your point? You know I don’t spend more than a few hours- give or take- with anyone. That guy was my first, and last, overnighter.”

Louis shut up with that, and Zayn was able to drive in peace for a few minutes until the man came back with; "I just think you should try dating people we don't have to run into or see from time to time in our line of work."

Zayn had had it with this conversation. He was already pissed the guy had left his boxer shorts in his room, and he wanted badly to throw the thing away, but couldn’t bring himself to pick it up from the corner where it flew when he had peeled it off of the man in a rush that time. Why was Louis- who never talks about anything weighing on his mind- being so dramatic and rubbing it in?

“You know what I think? I think we need to talk about back in that apartment complex. You know, that kiss that happened with you and the civilian?”

Louis laughed, clearly caught not expecting that jab. “There is nothing to talk about.”

Zayn was not about to ease up on his friend. “Since when do you go around kissing people you barely know? And keeping their cat?” he added, cocking his head to the backseat.

Louis was flustered. "I did get to know him, okay. Besides, it wasn't like that. He was scared and it just… happened.”

“Really? It just happened?” The ends of Zayn’s left brow tiptoed like a pair of legs. Then he went into a melancholy frame of mind. “And you told him about your sister? You never talk about Tay.”

Louis’ jaw clenched and he blinked to face the window.

“Look, Louis, I’m worried about you. You’re barely sleeping, and when you do you’re getting nightmares. I think you should go to the PTSD meetings.”

Momentarily eyeing Zayn before gazing back out the window, Louis shook his head like ‘unbelievable.’

Zayn sighed in exasperation as he stopped at a red light.

"I don't have PTSD! And by the way," Louis said turning to him but not making eye contact, "My whole point was that Bebe's new boyfriend is your ‘overnighter’. He’s the one we’re meeting at the pub.”

Zayn screwed up his face in confusion and mashed gas as the light flashed green again. He glanced at Louis’ smug face, that read like he had gotten some childish satisfaction in telling him that startling piece of information. And Zayn grew speechless now, driving the rest of the way pretending the news didn’t bother him.

 

*

Day 16

 

Harry rasped, his throat filled with dust. “They say in the afterlife you have to let go of all the hurt, pain and anger.”

Louis couldn’t help but think about Tay, the sharp pieces of wall digging into his buttocks as he sat sharing oxygen with the man. He hadn’t thought about what he wanted to say to her if he ever saw her again. “I didn’t think I’d be dying so soon.”

“Don’t talk like that,” Harry reassured, shoving the mask back on Louis. “You still have time. You’re not going to die today.”

 

Then; the building started rumbling and Harry started screaming as the ground swallowed him up, leaving a devastated Louis screaming and gnawing at the wicked floor.

~~

 

Louis jumped up in the bed, groaning. He was beginning to get fed-up with these bad dreams.

He flew out of bed and marched to the kitchen where he poked a hole in a few slices of bread and poured whisked eggs in them as they sautéed in the frying pan. He made some manually boiled coffee and had just taken his first sip when Zayn’s door opened. He had not predicted how hard it would be to have the car-talk with Zayn. The man had fired back every cannonball he could find to avoid the issue of Bebe and her boyfriend, leaving Louis with a refreshed memory of why they never ventured into deep talks with each other.

He cocked his head in the man’s door just as he was pouring the coffee and almost burned himself when. Lo and behold, out came Amputation guy/Bebe’s boyfriend.

As far as Louis knew, apart from the awkward drive to the pub, last night had not gone as badly as expected; Zayn and Liam pretended they didn’t know each other at all apart from the day of the earthquake, and Miller and Jade kept quite in front of Bebe as well, only exchanging knowing looks with Louis on the subject. It was safe to say the only hiccups for the night were Jade being cranky, and Louis taking the role of the designated driver since Zayn had taken a shot for every time Liam’s arms slid around Bebe’s curves.

But now the morning after the medic was here in his apartment crawling out from spending the night -yes, the whole night- with Zayn?

"Oh God, not you?" Great, I have nightmares about Harry, wake up, and the first thing I see is the guy who cut his leg off. 

Liam laughed, shirt in his hands. “Believe me, you are the last person I thought lived here with Zayn.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Louis said, wishing to be anywhere but witnessing the man’s bare-chested walk of shame.

“I’d think an uptight person like yourself lived alone,” Liam said, helping himself to a slice of Louis’ toast. “Thanks, at least someone eats breakfast around here.”

"I don’t remember offering," Louis said, eyeing his stolen toast longingly as it disappeared inside the man’s mouth. “And I'm not uptight.” He took a sip of his coffee, trying not to look at the medic’s hairy bare abs in his apartment.

"If you say so- Ugh, how can you drink that stuff?" Liam put on his shirt. Louis agreed. Frowning, he rested his cup down.

“Seriously, I have this natural tea recipe you should try at night, Liam said, sliding on his shirt. “It helps you sleep and get up fully refreshed in the morning.” The man sounded so sure of himself, like Cindy Crawford's Meaningful Beauty commercial playing low on the television now.

He watched disapprovingly as Liam grabbed his keys and another slice of his bread and dashed out.

 

Ten minutes later, a newly showered Zayn trudged out in a V-neck and tracks, and Louis was all over him with a lecture about loyalty.

"Seriously?” Louis descended on him. “What part of ‘Bebe is dating that guy’ don’t you get?"

Zayn turned pink. "You saw him?"

"A little too much of him, if you ask me." Louis sipped the disaster-in-a-cup.

Zayn took the last slice of egg toast and gestured it in the air for thanks. "Meet up for basketball later?"

"Uh, no. I'm going to see if I can finish putting the sculpture parts together."

Zayn pouted. "I don’t get why you’re obsessed with that. I mean, the poor guy doesn't even know you’re doing this. You sure he's even gonna care about that now?"

Louis flared up. "You weren't in that apartment running out of air with all the walls closing in. Harry is the only thing that kept me going. Whether he cares or not, it's worth the work."

“Relax. I’m not the enemy here, Lou.” Zayn eye-browed Louis before walking to the door.

He turned the knob and rotated his torso back to face Louis. “Hey-uh- Lou? You don’t mind not telling Bebe about this, right?”

Eyes growing wide, Louis scoffed, about to lecture Zayn again, but he was already out the door. It closed and Louis threw his hands up in protest.

 

*

 Day 19

 

Three days later, and Louis was back at the Community Center helping Niall and the crew pack boxes of food donations in the stockroom. He had finally taken a shift off but decided not to waste it. He was picking up a large box to carry when he caught Niall’s gasp.

Louis cocked his neck to see Liam marching over in a camel-colored tunic with a handcrafted medicine-style bag over one shoulder, looking like he was on a Paris runway.

“Liam!” Niall exclaimed. “I thought you’d be down at the American Indian Center.”

Louis was beginning to think Liam was stalking him.

Liam gave them a courteous nod and hefted a box. “Some of my people are sheltering here. My father has a lot on his plate. Some main reservation buildings were damaged including the Center. The native community is panicking. And it doesn’t help that my great grandmother got injured.”

“I heard Chieftess Elu fell down the stairs during one of the tremors,” Niall said, voice laced with concern. “My prayers are with you and your people.”

“People? Chieftess?” Louis insinuated himself in the conversation out of curiosity.

Liam explained. “My great grandmother is chief of our tribe and founding member of the Chicago American Indian Center. She’s responsible for keeping a fading tradition alive in our community.”

“Yes,” Niall agreed, wiping his spectacles on his shirt. “And the city supports that. After all, Chicago would not be the flourishing city it is today if it weren’t for the Natives.”

“Natives, huh?” Louis said, taking in Liam’s features again. Louis was originally from New York and had gotten transferred to Chicago because it was where his sister came chasing after her boyfriend. Although the three years he spent here felt like a lifetime, there was still a lot he had to learn.

Liam noticed him staring and cleared his throat. “My mother was one-fourth Potawatomi. My dad was English.”

“Oh,” Louis cooed. “Well, I’m sorry to hear about your great-grandma. I hope she pulls through.”

 Niall broke in. “She's strong for a hundred and twelve.”

“A hundred and what!?”  Louis wanted to faint.

Liam smirked. “Twelve. Yeah, you should really try that tea I told you about. Put your faith in something for your longevity.”

Faithful one, aren’t you?” Louis let out in his deadliest deadpan. “Long-gevity and all,” he rolled his eyes as they reached to where the boxes were to be stacked.

Liam dry-laughed, and Niall looked from one man to the other in utter bafflement.

 

*

Day 26

 

 

Twenty-six days after the devastating earthquakes that rocked the city of Chicago, Louis sat on his basement floor trying to put together the coral pieces. The thing was standing as high as his neck with much more work needed to be the eight-foot monument Louis remembered before it crashed. He had not called Anne since the last conversation as he had hoped to finish the sculpture first. He knew Harry had been released five days ago but he figured he'd buy him time to settle in and adjust at his mother's place while he finished the sculpture.

Louis pulled the trigger on the glue gun and stuck two pieces together he thought looked like they belonged. He looked up at the sculpture. Nothing there looked like the pieces he just glued would fit it. He sighed. Niall and his crew of volunteers had gathered most of the parts but some of them came in a garbage bag; grains too small to ever find out where they were before the earthquake. Louis deduced he'd have to fit in new clay and color it or something. Oh, who was he kidding? He was no artist. Plus, the guy must be dying to see Sophie by now.

After giving it some thought, he decided to give Harry's mother a call.

"How is he?" he said when Anne had answered.

"Not so good. We decided it was best he goes back to Seattle. It's where he grew up. It'll be good for him."

Louis was taken aback. He looked at the huge pile of rubble in his basement. How is he going to show it to Harry when it’s done?

"Okay. I'll just come say goodbye before he leaves then."

"Oh, I'm sorry. He's already left. His, uh- dad came and took him straight out of the hospital."

Louis raised his brows. Anne sounded completely left out of that loop. "So what part of Seattle do they live?"

"Timber Avenue."

Noting that, Louis said his Thank yous and hung up. He couldn't help swallowing a growing lump in his throat now. Harry had gone back home to Seattle.

 

*

  Day 118

 

‘My dad’s a seaport driver.” Harry smiled, head resting on Louis’ shoulder as they finished off the Skittles. ‘He found Sophie stranded there licking fish scales some vendor left there. He brought her home and she’s been my best friend ever since.’

Louis bubbled with giggles, sucking on his last candy. ‘A cat, aye? I’m more of a dog person. There are a few Labradors at the station. I now see why they don’t use cats; because they keep running away and will get anyone in trouble.’

Harry giggled into Louis’ shoulder.

 

Then; black smoke descended over them and Louis began to cough uncontrollably as Harry disappeared beneath it…

~~~

 

Louis woke up in a cold sweat, the sun gleaming on him through the open blinds. It has now been three months since Louis found out Harry had left Chicago. Though he had been going to PTSD meetings on Zayn’s insistence for weeks now, the nightmares had not ceased. And the guilt still lanced as if it had been him who got his leg hacked off. He couldn't get it out of his head; the deflated right side of the hospital sheets where his leg was supposed to be, the screams, the fact that he was now being forced to get out of bed by a hungry cat that did not belong to him clawing at his hair.

"Getaway," he whined, sitting up, the previous night flooding in. How he had to drink away the sight of Liam dancing with Bebe while dodging Zayn's jealous stares. For the past few months, Louis had been walking on eggshells with his friends, watching Bebe grow closer to the guy still unaware he had slept with Zayn… twice- as far as Louis knew. Zayn had stopped talking about Liam altogether while Bebe couldn't stop talking about him, and although Louis had been barely sleeping at home with his double shifts and could not say for sure, thankfully he had not seen the guy in his apartment again since that one time.

"Okay, I'm up," he groaned at Sergeant Sophie with her war medal around her neck; a minuscule handcrafted disk-pendant with a big paw inside surrounded by little red-and-white feathers. Liam, who had his sister make the thing for the cat to commemorate her bravery in the face of despair on that tragic day, said it was a native American thing. He had given it to Sophie at the fire station the week before and Louis wasn't sure if he was trying to impress Bebe or Zayn but rest assured all three were left swooning by the time he was gone. And by all three, that meant Sophie included.

He slugged to the kitchen and opened the cupboard. "What do you feel like today, Sophie Floyd? Sardines in tomato sauce or Tuna in brine?" Of course, Liam was not the only one to give Sophie a title. Louis had given her the last name, Floyd so she wouldn’t think Liam was the only one who appreciated her. The name sounded mundane but it was the first one that came to mind at the time.

The cat stared at him blankly, licking its lips.

"K, then, Tuna it is." He rummaged through looking for the instant coffee.

"Just my luck. All out."

 

--

 

Ten minutes later after hurriedly getting ready and gently sliding Sophie back inside with his foot from following him out the front door to work, Louis blindly pushed open the cafe door and propped his arms on the counter in front of the cashier. A teenaged girl with pigtails glared at him from the side. He glared back from half-lidded eyes and ultimately won the contest as she looked away pissed figuring best not to argue with a groggy man in uniform.

"Excuse me, can you use more beans?" he pleaded with the worker at the machine. The nightmares were particularly bad last night with the vodka shots he took, and Louis needed real coffee.

As he waited for his order, the door swung open again. Oh no. Marching up to him in a brown Burberry jacket and striped shirt with four buttons undone, was Liam the medic/Bebe's boyfriend/Zayn's…something/ Sophie's war partner.

His head already started spinning; Zayn-sleeping-with-Liam-who-was-dating-Bebe-who-does-not-know-about-him-and-Zayn; Louis would need his motorcycle to keep up with that drama. As if he didn't have his own nightmare drama to manage.

"Tell me something," he asked as Liam came up to the counter, "How is it that you and I can go to the same pub and drink, and you wake up like a clothing catalog as opposed to me," - he made ‘voila' finger-points at himself to emphasize his pathetic state.

"Maybe it's because you’re being too hard on yourself." Liam laughed and his teeth sparkled charmingly. “Bebe told me you’ve been attending PTSD meetings.”

"I'll have to have to talk to her about spreading my business." Louis dragged his hands down his tired face and propped an elbow on the counter.

The guy ignored him and continued, "I also know you almost crashed the truck a few weeks ago because you fell asleep in broad daylight."

Bebe? - Wait, Zayn was the only one in the fire truck with Louis and he made him swear not to tell a soul. Great; Zayn’s the one talking to him. Louis thought that triangle was over by now but apparently not.

"Haven’t been drinking the tea leaves I gave you?” the man yapped on as Louis took the tall coffee from the cashier. “Still beating yourself up about the field amputation? What about the sculpture? Finish it yet?"

"Look, I have a job. I have little-to-no time for hobbies," Louis snapped, looking around for a seat. The last thing he wanted was to hear about the abandoned artwork in his basement.

Liam quickly placed his order then turned to Louis in a 'hear-me-out-for-your-own-good' demeanor. "This isn't just about the earthquake. It's about Harry."

Wow, is Mr ‘bed hopper’ is gonna give me advice now? And he remembered his amputee's name too? Louis was inwardly shocked and impressed at that but he did not show it. Instead, he snorted and shook his head, taking in the coffee's aroma.

"Maybe you should go see him," Liam said bravely, paying for his and Louis' cups. The do-gooder, him.

"Are you serious?" Louis said, grabbing a high chair at the window. "You want me to go all the way to Seattle to see the guy whose leg I couldn't save? Wow, what is that gonna do? -Get him his leg back or just remind him of the pain he's trying to forget but never can because he'll know every time he looks down or tries to get around? You medics do have your heads up your asses."

Liam twitched an eyebrow but remained generally stoic as he took the opposite seat. "Might give you some peace of mind."

"Peace of mind? I'm a firefighter. I see death and destruction more times than I care to share. It's none of your business how I deal with that." Louis didn’t know why he felt the need to defend himself around Liam so. Something about the guy just oozed too much wisdom for his liking.

"And more people have died in my stretcher than the grains in my cereal bowl," Liam hit back with a seriousness that made Louis think twice about how different he thought they were.

Feeling slightly ashamed, Louis dropped his gaze to the man’s collar and focused on the black shoelace-chain that held his Native American pendant; An onyx surrounded by silver-set feathers. The thing looked splendid against his glowing mocha skin, and it came to mind; that new hand-woven bracelet Zayn had been wearing lately. No, he did not think it was over between these two. Not by a long shot.

"Look, all I'm saying is I heard it's good to get closure. Maybe if you see how he is thriving with his disability you can finally sleep better at night." He said it with a look like he knew the nightmares were still happening.

What? Does Zayn tell this guy about every waking and sleeping moment of my life?

"And how do you sleep at night?" Louis swerved it around. "Do you have a schedule, or do you mark off on a calendar, or pick a folded paper from a bowl to choose whose bed you land on?"

Liam dry-laughed. "Look, I'd appreciate it if you didn't say anything to Bebe. I don't want to mess things up with her."

"And what about Zayn?"

Liam's eyes darted all over the table. "Zayn was a wild night of drinking."

"A night?" Louis said in long-vowel. Even in his barely-awake mode Louis could tell Liam’s words weren’t all the truth. "What are you thinking seeing two people who work together? Is that a thing for you? Do you get off on the suspense? These are my friends. Look, pal, you better keep your trauma kit close because you'll be kissing dirt before I let you hurt either of them."

Liam sighed at the threat and looked out the glass wall, eyes rolling around the street view. "I told you, it won't happen again. I'm with Bebe. Look, I'll see you later. She invited me for dinner with the crew tonight. Think about what I said. Go see him."

Dinner with the crew? With both Zayn and Bebe there? Is this guy figuratively and literally playing with fire? Louis let out a condescending laugh as Liam slid off the chair and walked out of the Cafe.

"Go see him, huh?" Louis murmured. He lifted an eyebrow, taking another sip of coffee.

 

*

 

Dressed in his best shirt, Louis begged Sophie to let go of his newly polished left shoe so he could put it on and leave for the Station. Louis had been thinking about it all day. Between his cafe talk with Liam that morning and his shower a few minutes ago, Louis had big news to share with his co-workers at dinner.

Zayn was already at the station, and Louis figured he'd get there on his motorcycle but Sophie just would not loosen her grip on his shoe. The thing already had a huge claw scratch across the front of it and Louis was losing patience. Looking at the clock, he yanked it clean away from her, muttering under his breath. She snarled at him and strutted away annoyedly. Louis knew why she was mad but figured he'd deal with one thing at a time. First, he needed to get to that dinner.

 

--

 

Rolling in the Station parking lot, he hung up his helmet and marched inside.

In the kitchen, Jade was stirring up a pot of veggie noodles while Miller cooked Chile. They were both dressed in their semi-formal wear under their aprons finishing up the meal preparations while the rest of the crew helped set the table and chill the drinks for the crew's monthly dinner tradition. Louis always looked forward to these things; competing with Jade to impress the captain enough to see who made Lieutenant- not this time, since Louis won that last one-, and enjoying a scrumptious meal with the only group of people who made him smile after his sister's death, his crew members/ friends.

But something about this gathering was strange. Apart from Zayn looking uncomfortable around Liam, everyone else kept looking away from Louis whenever he casually caught their eyes.

Brushing the whole thing off when it was time to sit for the main meal, Louis wondered if he should give them all the news now. He did not have time to decide because Zayn was talking now.

“I have an announcement to make,” Zayn said demanding attention. Miller snarfed down his food and tossed an eye in his direction along with the others.

“You all know how much I love being a firefighter and being first on the scene,” Zayn continued. “But after the earthquake, I feel I can do more in regards to the medical aspects of the job. When we were about to do the amputation,” he looked to Louis who was already stiff on the last word, “I froze. If Liam and his partner, Cassie- or any of you- weren’t there I don’t know how I would have managed the procedure alone. It’s my job to alert and on top of things”- Liam blinked rapidly at that last bit- “That is why I’ve decided to try out for Special EMT Chicago Med.”

The room erupted in chatters of support and encouragement, and Louis dropped his spoon. Isn’t that Liam’s job?

Just as he thought it, Bebe jumped in with, “Great, Liam can help you study for that!” -Louis and Zayn exchanged looks like a reflex.

“The exams aren’t going to be for another couple months so I have a little time to study and prepare. But I am confident I’ll qualify.”

“The earthquake affected us all,” Liam quipped, his eyes- and everyone else’s, for some reason- on Louis. He then diverted them to Zayn. “I’ll be happy to help you, Zayn.”

After the meal, Louis looked over to Zayn who was now sipping wine by the window, looking out at the dark. Louis wondered why he didn’t see it before. Zayn had clearly been affected by the recent earthquake as well. And Louis had been so entrapped in his after-effects that it slipped him. He had always been worried about Zayn, ever since he came back from his trip to Dubai a few years ago and his parents cut him off. Zayn had told Louis when they were getting to know each other that he came to America to become a doctor and quickly changed his mind to EMT after luckily administering CPR to a man who collapsed in an elevator. Zayn told him that if he hadn’t been there the man might have died before reaching the hospital and that the adrenaline experience made him realize he wanted to be First Responder on a scene rather than the last man in the OR. Louis should have known Zayn would be eaten up inside that he faltered during the live-saving procedure of cutting Harry loose from the beam. The same procedure that had Louis the most unstable he had been since his sister’s death.

He made his way over to his friend, wanting to apologize for his ignorance. He also made a note to ask him how he planned on avoiding Liam when there lay the possibility of soon working alongside side the man.

Quickly swallowing some wine to talk, he noticed Zayn’s gaze suspiciously veer behind him. Turning to see what he was suddenly so stiff about, Louis caught everyone freezing like musical chairs as they tethered near him and Zayn.

This was starting to feel like a setup; wary eyes flicking off when he caught them…, everyone closing in on him… “What’s the deal?” he looked at Miller, who was still munching on a piece of fudge cake. 

Everyone looked to Jade- probably because they think she had some bulletproof effect on him, probably since their friendship survived both a breakup and competition for the same job title- and she spoke first: "About the earthquake…We know how much you love your job -and I know you don’t want to hear this - but we think you should take some time off to sort out your problems."

Louis squinted his eyes at her. “Problems?”

Zayn went next. "Louis, you brought home a pile of rubble in the basement. You worked on that thing every night and you're not getting enough sleep."

Louis held up a hand. "Wait, a second, I'm not even working on that anymore-"

Jade jumped back in just then. "You called me 'Harry' when we were washing down the car a few weeks ago."

Eyes shocked out of the sockets at Jade's words, Bebe leaned in Miller’s ear; "Is ‘washing down the car’ code for something?"

Miller snorted, whispering back, “No, Beebs. ‘Washing down the car’ actually means Washing. Down. The car.

Louis was about to respond to Jade when chief Rivers pointedly cleared his throat.

"As a fighter and this unit's Lieutenant, you need to be well-rested and focused,” the tall, brawny man lectured. “Lives depend on it. I think everyone is right about you needing some time off."

"Yeah, about that," Louis remembered his news and nodded dramatically, pout growing as he decided to lay it on them. "I agree. I decided that I will be taking my three-week vacation."

Rivers cut in again. "Three weeks? I'm giving you six. From what I hear about these hiccups you've been having, you will need it. I need you fresh and ready to work at the end of it."

Louis opened his mouth, ready to protest. He had never used any of his vacation days since coming to work for Chicago fire station/ his sister's death, and it was already a personal struggle to take three weeks, but asking him to stay away from his job for a month-and-a-half was too much. Zayn gripped his shoulder and gave him the eye that said 'Are-you-fucking-crazy-take-the-damn-vacation' and Louis felt cornered.

"Thank you, sir," he replied instead, swallowing down his disappointment. "And- uh-" he looked to the others, "I decided to use the time and go see how Harry is doing." He gave a small look to Liam, who returned a warm-smiling nod, glass in hand. "I'm thinking it's a step I need to take to try to get past this…" - he looked to Jade- "problem."

During the past few months after the quake, the entire community had worked hard at bringing the city back to a livable condition. There was still much rebuilding to be done but businesses were up and running, and school buildings deemed safe for entry, though partially used as night time shelters for those whose homes were destroyed. Generally, the city was on its way to recovery, and Louis was not. Liam was right; seeing Harry again may be the only way to get over what happened in that building.

Bebe burst into laughter and flung herself at Louis. Jade started clapping, and soon everyone was cheering and applauding him, saying things like 'We got your back, Lou', and 'Hang in there Lou', and for a split second it felt like goodbye. Louis hated goodbyes and wasn’t about to make this brief vacation feel like one.

"Relax, this is only temporary. I'm gonna go get my shit together and get right back to work, maybe even give you a run for your money, chief." He slapped the chief's biceps.

Zayn put in; "Don't take too long. Won't get anyone else to cover my shifts on exam dates."

In the middle of the ruckus, Louis pushed his brows together. "I'm curious- who will be assuming Lieutenant while I'm away?" As if he even had to ask.

Jade started grinning like the sly-fox she was, and Louis shook his head ruefully. "Fair play, Jade. Fair play." He moved in to hug her. "But don't get too comfortable!" 

Everyone laughed and shared more wine, and Louis fussed about leaving Sophie in Chicago.

"I just don't know if Harry would want to see her yet. I don't want to spring her on him, you know?" he told Bebe, hoping she would say yes to babysitting the cat. "She's angry with me for wanting to leave her- look at what she did to my shoe!"

Of course, sweet Bebe obliged, making a note to hide her pair of Louis Vuittons.

"We're proud of you, Louis," Zayn said, making a toast, and Louis swore he saw Liam smile proudly at the man from his spot next to Bebe.

 

 

 Chapter soundtrack- 

Andrew Belle-In My Veins

Lewis Capaldi- Hold me while you wait

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Louis walked up to the house and smoothed his shirt. He blew hard toward the pink and white impatiens hedge to his right in front of the window that was curtained so as not to see inside, feeling like he had known the place for years already. He had spent hours on the plane and nearly a whole day paying a taxi just to drive by the small Queen Anne-style property multiple times because he kept getting cold feet when it was time to get out because he didn't know what to say once he got there. And now that he was finally up to the door of Harry's address in the last hour of daylight, he still had not gathered the words.

He hoped the luxurious -and over-priced- bouquet he got would help to ease any qualms about why he came to the other side of the country to see the man. Yet somehow he felt dumb the minute he bought it- It walked the line between dangerously romantic and psychopathic. And Louis wouldn't blame Harry if he immediately called the police. He didn't exactly think of himself as a dashing debonair; Miniature- so much he was surprised he was even taken seriously for a fireman, short coffee-colored hair that stuck out in all the wrong places, freckles that overtook his features like a constellation. Why did he think the flowers were a good idea? Harry already had blooming petals lining his sunflower-colored house with its multi-light window sashes and spiky-cute left-tower. And even if he stood a chance at the man accepting them, Louis didn't have a comeback to save himself. The closest thing he came to romance was watching Rom-coms with Zayn on their Sunday off-nights.

-And he had to stop himself there. Why was he tethering on the subject of romance? He just needed to see how Harry was fairing after they triumphed out of a horrible experience together. That’s all. The bouquet was just... Man, he didn’t know what the bouquet was.

Well, no backing out now, so...

Flowers in a shaky grip, he took a deep breath and knocked on the door. It squeaked open.

"Hi," Louis said to the wide-eyed face peering through the opening. Boy, he should have cleared his throat first because he sounded like an ogre.

Slam!

Whoa. Louis knew Harry was still processing and needed space but he could have at least allowed Louis to leave the flowers. Must have scared the shit out of the poor guy. He started patting himself for a lozenge somewhere, finding none, but luckily he did have something that might help.

He pressed the bell again. "I have skittles if you want! Tropical assortment," he elaborated.

No reply.

"I’ll let u eat all the grape ones!"

Still no response.

"Ok, fine you can have the pineapple flavors too."

The door opened again.

Now getting a proper look at him, Louis observed Harry standing in the daylight, arms propped on his crutches. A prosthetic leg was absent on his right limb, and he pulled his cream cardigan that draped over the thighs of his black thread-bare jeans closer to him to hide his unevenness. His hair lusciously cascaded over the sides of his face that bore the taint overture of a welcome.

At the sight of the flowers, he pressed his thin smooth lips together, the shadow of a smile clouded by his puffy eyes as he rubbed his hands on his lap to take them.

"Oops, I'm sorry, I thought you were- um- a salesman," Harry said, like he had pulled the excuse from thin air. But Louis only caught what he was saying at ‘salesman.’ He was trying not to look past his knees.

“I know this is unexpected, but I was- in town. I don’t mean to disturb you.”

It’s fine. I was, um- I was just- ah…" the man struggled for something to have been doing other than sitting sulking, which Louis knew from what Harry’s mother relayed to him on the phone was all he did now.

Louis inhaled sharply and raised his eyebrows awkwardly, tilting the bouquet casually while opening his mouth to say something chatty and normal like-like what? Harry was clearly trying to make up something on the spot not wanting to tell Louis what he was really doing- crying too, from the looks of his red, glacial eyes.

"Reading a book," the man suddenly picked from somewhere on the north-east of his vision.

A book...great. Great save. We’ll go with that.

"I'm sorry for coming unannounced, and I know it’s a bit late on but I wanted to see how you were doing."

Harry gawked straight at him with the ghost of a twitch in his brows as the only response.

"I know this looks random but I call- "

"You call my mom sometimes. I know. I didn't think you'd come out here. I've been a bit busy."

Busy hiding from the world...Louis thought as he remembered the bouquet and held it out.

As Harry moved, his hipbone clicked and his posture slouched to the left. His left arm strong on the crutch, the other reached tentatively for the flowers.

Louis started panicking and feeling bad about the effort Harry had to make to hold the bouquet along with his crutches, but then Harry took them to his nose and…

A smile. Louis got a smile. A small, weak, twitchy one but a smile nonetheless.

Harry moved aside, still a bit timid, and gestured for Louis to come in. Louis stepped over the threshold onto the smooth champagne-oak hardwood floor and followed him to the living room; Large olive-green Lawson sofa standing between tall plants elevated the corners of the space against the backdrop of a sea-green accent wall with a canvas of seashell art. The other walls were white and splattered with pictures of him and his dad. A scalloped-edge red flower-motif hooked rug lay under the coffee table adding to the welcoming ambiance.

"Um, I'm sorry for shutting the door in your face," Harry said, a little more of a real smile stretched out.

Louis brushed it off casually smiling back as he popped a pineapple skittle and chewed. Harry seemed to be focused on his teeth and his nose did a thing; a snorty, pulled-in-the-sides thing; and for the first time Louis saw a change in his eyes as well.

"Is there something in my teeth?" he asked. He hadn't eaten lunch yet, hadn't opened the skittles, only had a couple of beers for a bit of courage.

Harry smiled, bright this time. "Yellow? I thought you said you were saving them for me?"

Grinning like an idiot who doesn't make many friends, Louis pulled out the pack and emptied it in his palms. He held it out for Harry to take and the man smiled. Louis lost his composure for a minute, gawking at his dimples.

“You remembered,” Harry said as he ate one, a comfortable tone in his voice now.

Louis was too much in a trance on seeing the man’s dimples again- in daylight now- that he missed the opportunity to answer on time.

He was startled out of it when the front door suddenly opened behind them. Both men looked toward it. Ambling in, was the man from the photos in a fishing hat, with a classic red and white medium-sized cooler in his right hand and other fishing apparatus in the other. He looked strikingly like an older, burly Harry. Louis placed him in his early fifties but his movements were swift like a twenty-year-old.

"Oh!” the man said, closing the door behind him. “I didn't know we were having company over."

"Um, Daddy, this is Louis. He was just leav-"

"So, you a friend of my son's?" Mr Styles asked, cutting Harry off.

A bit thrown off that Harry was about to kick him out, Louis offered his hand to his father for a shake. "Lieutenant, Division 18 of the Chicago fire department."

"Oh! You're one of the firefighters who saved Harry." The man jumbled his fishing pole in the other hand to shake Louis’. The grip was sturdy and welcoming, and Louis got the idea of just how studly the man was.

"Dad, he just came to say hi. He's busy-"

"Well this is a lucky coincidence,” Des held up his little cooler. “Just made a catch! Your favorite; a whopping Rainbow trout.” He then looked to Louis. “I'd be delighted if you'd stay for dinner!"

The man dumped his fishing gear in a corner of the living room and crossed the vintage style rug to get into the kitchen, Harry wearing an expression of agitation. Harry dropped the flowers on the couch and wrapped his arms around himself, pulling the cardigan closer.

Louis noticed the tension but he smiled at him nonetheless. "I don't wanna intrude-" he started to say but Des heard him from the closed-plan kitchen.

"Nonsense! You saved my son's life. You're always welcomed here."

Louis' chest clenched at the word 'saved'. He didn't save anyone at all. He should have gotten Harry out of that building the moment he entered the apartment, before the second tremor. If he had then maybe then he'd deserve to partake of Des' catch, and Harry wouldn't be avoiding his gaze right now like he wanted to run away and scream.

"Really, it's-" Louis started to decline, passing the four-chair dining table to step into the dainty kitchen. The small room with its red-checked mittens hanging on the oven door and embroidered curtains on the over-the-sink window reminded him of nursery rhyme picture books from kindergarten. Its soft walls in a lighter, pastel version of the living room were met at the ceiling with eggshell embellishments of a Victorian nature, adding a certain classy contrast to the ginger-bread-man-shaped plague, funny kitchen-sayings wall art, and bowl of plastic fruit that made the room feel more laid back and inviting.

"Take your coat off!” Des insisted as he worked on his fish in the kitchen sink, his back turned to them. “It's hot in these parts. Come wash up and help me peel some potatoes! I want to hear all about how you got my boy out from that Earthquake."

"Daddy," Harry protested as he rushed in behind Louis. Louis took off his coat to reveal his sweater rolled up three-quarters at the sleeves. He caught Harry fixating on his hairy forearms.

"I can't let you do that," Harry fussed, scrambling to the drawer and pulling out a vegetable peeler. His crutches making a noise like an old pair of clogs from the sixties as he moved around.

"It's fine. I want to help," Louis quipped, running his palms over the peninsular counter enthusiastically. The countertops were humble quartz on wooden cupboards, and the sink was old and leaky but everything was overall warm and clean. White glazed wheel-thrown stoneware holding salt and spices, and a simple round cutting board rested in the corner.

Louis saw Harry try to bend down to get into a lower cupboard, and he rushed over to help him get the potatoes out. Harry stood straight with his crutches and told him when to stop filling the bowl with potatoes, and when Louis came up Harry yanked the bowl and stretched it to the sink. He then hobbled over to it and leaned on it, releasing his right hand from his crutch to wash out the mud.

Deciding against getting in there to help as he would be sandwiched between Harry and his father and humbug things, even more, Louis waited awkwardly at the counter.  While washing the potatoes, Harry shot him a look of why-do-you-want-to-stay? Which evolved into you-don't-know-what-your-getting-into. The looks were more comical than a warning, and Louis smiled it all away.

“You should wash your hands,” Harry said with an eyebrow, pointing his chin to the fancy list of Kitchen rules on the wall.

Louis choked out, “Of course,” rushing in to squeeze in between the two after all. Lucky thing Des moved aside with a polite and strangely sympathetic smile.

Harry then stretched the bowl to the counter and Louis started peeling, their backs to Des. Harry shot him a glance before ducking down to the cupboard to get another bowl to put the newly peeled ones. He made to set it in front of Louis, and their arms brushed. Louis saw red appear in his face as he jumpily withdrew his hand.

"How is Sophie?" Harry asked, tone as though he were asking about a work associate's niece he had met once or twice, casually like she was a partial stranger. Louis looked to the side to steal a glance before replying. Seeing him, Harry stared pointedly at his chest. Louis looked down. There was marble-colored hair or two on his pocket. Sophie had no boundaries where the laundry basket was concerned.

"She's good. She gets more groceries than I do," he replied remembering how she showed off with her Tuna when he ran out of coffee.

Harry showed those teeth again. "I'm sorry. I’ll pay you back for-"

"Sophie?" Des boomed out from behind them. "I thought you said she was lost in that earthquake?"

Harry turned around like a deer in headlights. "Um." He looked at Louis to bail him out.

He tried to do just that- "She did- get lost. Apparently, she climbed her way out. Even got a badge for her bravery. She's a survivor just like her owner," - and judging from the scrunched up bemused smile he was getting from Harry now, it worked somewhat.

Des bought it as he was now turning back around to the sink. Harry bulged him some I-can't-believe-you-did-that eyes as they resumed work on the potatoes.

"So, Louis, you married?" Des fired up in search of conversation, his tone laced with tempered curiosity as though wary of the answer.

Harry's eyes widened a flicker. Louis had told him about himself in the apartment but Louis figured Harry must have thought that anything could happen in a matter of months.

"To my motorcycle, yes," he replied assertively. He made eye-contact with Harry who quickly looked down at the counter, pretending to be busy when they both knew Louis was the only one peeling the potatoes. "I've never signed the contract, no.”

"Aw, that's okay. Everything in its timing, they say. My son is twenty-four and hasn't landed a good one yet. A small town like this everybody is considered family already. Would be weird."

"It's not like my prosthetics are husband bait, Dad."

Louis almost choked on his saliva. Harry sounded so cold about the word prosthetics. Harry wasn't wearing any with his crutches and Louis didn't even get a chance to ask how he was doing with that.

 "So how are you doing with the prosthetics?” Louis took a timid chance, not looking up from the potatoes. Harry didn’t answer but he felt his eyes on him and had to look up now. Bad idea because the look on Harry's face clearly stated something along the lines of ‘Mindyourownbusinesshowdareyouaskmethatgetthefuckoutofhere’.

Because he didn't hear Harry answer, Des tried to break up the tension. "So, Lieutenant, you’re into bikes? What about a car?”

“My roommate already has a car that we use so I figured I’d splurge my raise on something I always wanted.”

“A car seems more practical; don’t you think? Rent has to be expensive and bikes need extra maintaining.”

“True, true. But since I got promoted to Lieutenant last year, rent’s hardly been an issue. Zayn and I, we have this symbiotic flow. Before he was the one making more money and he was nice enough to let me stay for free when I first moved to Chicago from New York. Now I get to return the favor. Plus, I do all the mechanical work on his car myself.”

Des brows shot up then. “Well, look at that. I happen to have an old Suzuki in the garage that needs a check. How about you- “

Daddy,” Harry- who had been quietly listening- interjected. “I’m sure Louis doesn’t have time- “

“I’ll be glad to take a look at it, Mr Styles,” Louis stuffed in, earning himself another sharp glare from the young man.

 

 *

 

Dinner was ready.  Three plates; each portioned with poached fish, potatoes, and corn on the cob. Louis dug in, famished.

"This is lovely," Des said, gesturing to the large bouquet now in a jug in the middle of the dining table that previously held old bills, newspapers and other household paraphernalia. Louis had helped clear it all away while Harry insisted on hopping back and forth with the jug of water to place the flowers himself.

Louis smiled awkwardly. The thing was taking up lots of space and blocking half his view of Harry’s face. Which- why was that a bad thing, seeing the man was constantly hitting him dagger eyes?

"So, Louis!" Des said rather enthusiastic as he nibbled his corn. "Harry's doctors told me part of it but I want to know exactly what happened before, while he was in the apartment."

"You mean while I still had my leg?" Harry asked rudely, sitting down and placing his shorter limb on an empty chair.

Des ignored him. "You were there. Tell me how you got him out."

Louis bit his lips, not looking in Harry's direction for anything. "Truth is, I didn't. Um- I was first on the scene but these paramedics got him out."

"So, he was trapped when you got there?"

Louis swallowed nothing. "No. The first tremor started I was at the station. We were all immediately dispatched throughout the city. My team got called to Harry's apartment building. Other teams were storming through getting everybody out and I happened to knock on Harry's door. He was rambling about his cat and I didn't know if Sophie was another person so I took a look around and that's when the second tremor happened and we both got trapped inside the apartment."

"Was he hurt then?"

"No," Harry answered this time, slapping a spoonful of potatoes on his plate, but didn’t elaborate, focusing on his food.

"There were a couple more tremors but we just got some minor bruises and had to share the oxygen in there for about an hour before the door unjammed," Louis said it slow and explanatory as if it hadn't been the most eye-opening and soul-touching time of his life. As if he hadn't completely bonded with Harry during this time.

Des abandoned his food whilst Louis spoke. Nodding attentively, he cut in. "So the door was now open and you’re free to go. So how did his leg get trapped?"

"Daddy..." Harry said. Louis didn’t have to see his face to know the discomfort.

"Let me hear what happened, Harry," Des said to his son but looking at Louis.

Louis prayed to find the right words, the least painful words to describe what happened next.

"Then the fourth, uh- the fourth tremor occurred.” He let a moment pass before adding, "And the beam fell." His voice echoed the word beam in a painful crack.

"The paramedic was experienced -thank God- and he got him out with minimum blood loss," he said faster and lighter trying to infuse the positive outcome that at least Harry came out alive.

Harry flew to his feet and picked up one of the crutches. "I think I'll get ready for bed now." He grabbed his plate and hobbled to the kitchen, slamming it in the sink. Resurfacing, he grabbed the other crutch and took to the stairs. Louis looked on helpless as Harry took one lifetime at a time to get up the stairs with his crutches. Every heartbeat-skipping stair he took, Louis was scared he would lose footing and go flying backward. If he went and stood behind him each step, Louis would risk a good cuss out and maybe a crutch in his face so all he could do was watch with bated breath from the dining table. God, how he wanted to march over, grab the stupid man up and carry him bridal-style to his door, cut the suspense.

After forever, Harry reached the upstairs landing and disappeared. Louis looked at Des as they heard a faint door shut and noticed he too had halted eating to wait for Harry's journey to end.

“Anne told me he wasn’t doing as well as expected,” Louis inquired, taking another spoonful of dinner.

Des sighed. "I only told her the half of it because I don't want her to worry. It was hard the first month; he cried a lot while the stump fused back together with the tightness. Phantom pains were the worst, prescription drugs with side effects like vomiting. Then when we took off the hard cast the pains never left. As you can see he has to put his stump on a chair to eat at the table, bathing is different, getting into the car is different. He just grew this depressive cynical attitude."

Louis took in all the man said with deep concern. However bad he was feeling the past few months with his guilt and his nightmares was nothing compared to what Harry had been going through. Not by a long shot.

"Louis... How long are you in town for?" the man then asked wisely, like he wanted to ask something else after he got the answer.

"I don't know," Louis said with a sad little laugh, "I just picked myself up and came."

"Good!" the man replied ecstatically. "How ‘bout we go fishing tomorrow? It's my day off. Plus, I'd like it if you'd join us for dinner on evenings while you’re here. You can't be enjoying that hotel food?"

 Louis graciously accepted the offer, his heart fluttering at the opportunity to come back and see Harry again.                                                          

 

  *

 

Liam pov

 

“It was very nice to meet you, Liam. Our prayers are with you and your great-grandmother,” Bebe’s mother said as she walked Liam and Bebe to the door. She had invited Bebe to bring her new boyfriend over for a big Albanian family dinner aimed at giving thanks for their lives and the miracle that their house was still standing after the earthquake. Bebe’s parents, brother, uncles, aunts, and a few cousins were there.

“It was a pleasure to join you all for such a lovely meal,” Liam gushed, rubbing his bouncing belly. Two of Bebe’s uncles owned a popular restaurant downtown Chicago and they had brought over all the food for the dinner.

Bebe kissed her mother before she closed the door.

“Thanks for this,” Bebe said, linking her arm in Liam’s as they stepped off the threshold. “I know it’s a lot asking you to meet my family when your great grandmother is in the hospital.”

Liam smiled cordially as they walked to his car. “I love your family. They are a lively, jolly bunch.”

Bebe shook her head at the words. Liam hit her a quizzical look. “Are you agreeing or disagreeing with me?” During dinner, Bebe’s uncles were discussing changes to the restaurant menu, when one of them pompously commented that the Tave Kosi he made was exceptional. His brother replied with a nod –Liam supposed agreed- but then the Tave Kosi maker started yelling at him in and out of Albanian – ‘Oh you think you can do better, vëlla!?’  The thing caused the entire dinner table to erupt in the clamor, and Liam was left confused about how it started until Bebe explained to him while the noise died down that a nod sometimes means no and a head shake yes for Albanians.

Bebe burst into laughter at Liam’s joke now. “You’re too much, Liam!”

Bebe swung their clasped hands between them as they walked and Liam forced on a friendly smile.

“I’m sorry about what happened in there,” Bebe said. “My family can be a nuisance.”

“Nonsense. They are exuberant, and they care about tradition, much like mine.”

Liam had been living with his grandfather and great-grandmother in a small home in Chicago ever since his parents died. Growing up in a Native American close-knit neighborhood, he was well trained in tradition. His great-grandmother was a medicine woman and appointed chieftess of the general Native community because of her wisdom and strong tribal roots. Although she knew English she mainly spoke her native language, so Liam was well versed in it as well as trained in the ways of natural medicine and healing, often accompanying her at calls. He had a passion for helping the sick first hand, and so pursued paramedics after high school. Now that his great-grandmother's health was failing and his grandfather was in the works to be the next chief, Liam's responsibilities as a natural medicine doctor of his people were of growing importance as not just anybody had the religious tribal role and title to do what he learned from his great-grandmother. In other words, besides his great grandmother, people religiously looked to him for guidance in the medicinal healing of the body.

The thing was, Liam didn't know how this was going to affect his duty to Chicago as a whole, after all, he took an oath in Paramedic school to help all not just his people. And he knew well that these two forms of medical knowledge and application were very different and sometimes clashed.

“Don’t worry. I’m sure your GG will be up and about in no time,” Bebe enlightened. “One of the guys and I will check in on her tomorrow if we end up taking anyone there.”

One of the guys… Liam wondered if Zayn might be that guy. He had ended up in bed with Zayn on a few occasions, Zayn practically tossing him out of his apartment. Yet the man still glowered every time he showed up hand in hand with Bebe. How he wanted to run over to him and kiss away the disappointment. But Zayn had already made himself clear…

 

~~

 

‘I’m breaking up with her,” Liam said, sure of his heart now after spending hours in Zayn’s arms. “It’s not fair to go behind her back.”

Zayn wormed away in the bed. “No. Don’t. I see you with her. You two look happy. I’m not good at that ‘hot dogs in the park’ and ‘movie hugging’. Stay with Bebe.”

“But I want you.” Liam ran a warm tongue down his bicep.

“I’m fine single. Look, we have to stop seeing each other before this backfires.”

“Is that really what you want?” Liam looked him in the eye.

“Yes,” Zayn said too hastily, not sounding convincing. “We should both focus on our work.”

Liam frowned, his thumb rubbing a line down Zayn’s lips.

“I don’t do relationships, Liam. Bebe is a sweet girl. This has to be the last time.” Zayn crawled out, his bare backside hopping into his pants. “Now, get out before Louis gets home from shift.”

 

~~

 

Liam remembered thinking it was not worth it loving someone who did not want to try to make a relationship work. He remembered deciding to move on with someone who did enjoy relationshipy things. Someone like Bebe.

He tightened his grip on Bebe’s hand as they neared the car.

He was now keeping things strictly friendly with Zayn. They were both medics and they were bound to bump into each other from time to time. Liam had already offered to help him study for his Special EMT exam to help the man move up in his profession. The thing was that if Zayn passed, his work status would then be equal to Liam's and they'd then be co-workers. 

Liam's relationship with Bebe was going okey-dokey, but the fact that everything about Zayn was more congenial to him kept creeping up in his mind, and he found himself secretly gunning for him to pass the exam.

 

*

 

Louis pov

 

The next morning Louis took a cab back to Harry’s house from the hotel, all ready to fish in a pair of jeans and a new shirt. When he got on the plane to Seattle he was under the impression that seeing Harry would only be a casual in-door occasion but apparently not, so okay, let’s go fishing in a new shirt. Besides he was getting to see him a second time since he got here.

Des answered the door this time. His rosy cheeks boomed with a bright smile when his eyes hit Louis. Inside, Des started shoving fishing tackle at him and talking river talk.

Louis fought back a sweat trying to make sense of the man's rapid speech. Louis had not grasped the last point he was bulleting at him before he was quickly evolving to another topic, but the main points were taken; fish- cooler- boat- bait.

Louis then heard Harry clunking down the stairs, and his heart lurched in nerves again.

Finally, on the landing, Harry glazed his eyes over his new outfit. "You- Fishing?"

So, okay, you do remember me telling you I hated fishing. But you still can't talk about that day... “Yeah, I thought I'd try my hand. Your Dad made it sound like so much fun," he fixed his hook and line.

Harry looked at him doing it and smirked. "You're doing rubbish. Let me show you." He held out his hands to fix the line.

Des looked at them. "You remember when you were little? I'd take you out all day and you'd skip around the bank calling all the fish."

Louis saw Harry tense at the word skip, and he swore his heart own heart was going to give out. He wanted to hold him and cry and say how sorry he was for letting that happen to him. He secretly vowed to himself that he would help Harry skip again. One way or another.

"You should come with us," Louis said. Des looked up from his cooler of ice. 

"Yeah, sweetheart. It'll be like old times. You can call them fishies out for us."

Louis smirked at his talking-to-a-kid-like tone.

Harry grew a deep frown and backed away from Louis. "It'll never be like old times again, Daddy."

Des dropped his head. "You gotta try come out the house, Bub," he said softly.

Harry glanced up at Louis and turned to his father, forlorn. "I'm kind of tired. You guys careful out there." He then looked at Louis again. "The stream is powerful this time of year."

 

*

 

Harry pov

 

Harry lay back on the couch with his book, waiting for them to return.

He turned the page. What in the world is he doing here fishing with my dad?

He threw the book down and sat up, rubbing his eyes. He raked his hair behind his ear. He hated anything and everything about that day in the Chicago apartment, right down to the stupid tenderloin. With one exception; fire officer Lieutenant Louis Tomlinson. The guy had started an asshole. A real prick shooting his snide remarks and not wanting to save his cat, but in hindsight, he turned out to be cool and was the only thing about that day that Harry wasn't angry at.

The only thing about that day that was good was now in Seattle, far from the tragedy of that day, fishing with his dad. Yet Harry was uneasy with his presence. After all, he was part of that tragedy. If he wasn't so breathtakingly hot Harry might have thrown him out of there. And if he hadn't kept looking at Harry like he wanted to saw his own leg off and give it to him he definitely would have. Yet that same look is what had him so uncomfortable. Harry hated people feeling sorry for him. He was already so angry about what happened. Angry that he’d never get to go hiking and cycling and snorkeling or any of the extra-curricular activities he loved ever again. So Louis better not be here just to show him more pity.

After reading approximately twelve pages of his novel, the front door busted open, and in flooded Des guffawing like a tickled Santa, followed by a proud faced Louis.

"Oh, Harry, guess what? We got ourselves a natural here!"

Harry jumped off the couch, confused.

"Take a look at this!" Louis said opening the cooler. Harry peered in. A fresh, shiny Pink Salmon almost as wide as the cooler lay on ice. Harry looked up to meet bright blue eyes awaiting some kind of praise.

"You can help him clean ‘em up, Harry."

"No offense, Mr Styles, but I think I know how to clean a fish."

"Is that right?" Des smirked. "This ain't no frozen old city fish. This needs a special kind of care."

Harry squinted his eyes at the old man and deadpanned, "Daddy, it's just Salmon.”

Louis shrugged bravely. "Can't be that complicated."

He got out the meat board and a sharp knife, throwing Harry a smile before getting to work.

Flinging back his hair and folding his arms, Harry supervised the scene.

Louis made one chop by the belly. "Ugh, you're doing it wrong." Harry walked over to him and took the knife. "See? You cut the head first, then guts it."

Des smiled at the two and put some water to boil.

"Call me Des."

Both Louis and Harry looked up from the fish.

The middle-aged man smiled warmly at Louis. "No need for all that formality. After all, you saved my son's life."

 

 *

 

In the midday heat, Liam was having a quick lunch with his colleagues when his phone rang. He jumped up, threw the food, and hurried to the hospital. His great-grandmother's condition had worsened.

Jogging down the halls of her ward, he spotted his grandfather. Medium height and boxy build, Annawon had a tough demeanor that forced on a softness unnatural to his features. His sharp cheekbones and quadruple-creased forehead told of the years he spent serving his people on a political scale. His long hair tied back in a ponytail reminiscent of Steven Siegal movies, Liam could see he tried to feign control despite the condition of his mother on the other side of the door as he spoke to an attractive, stately-looking woman who had to be in her forties.

“Your presence is greatly appreciated. The future of our cultural legacy is being threatened after our homes and monuments were damaged in the quake…” Liam’s grandfather was saying to the woman, who had to be some sort of government representative or insurance broker. Liam knew it was his grandfather’s job to represent the native American community in Chicago, especially now in the aftermath of the 7.9 earthquake.

Liam drew closer. Almost hidden on the other side of Annawon, Wematin, an elder and close friend of the family Liam fondly called his great uncle, was grunting and nodding along to his words animatedly. A few years younger than Annawon, Wematin had softer, more at-ease facial features and demeanor, except for his eyes, which bore right into one's soul on every look. He was not making eye contact with anyone now, head low in reverence as he listened to the conversation. Liam came up and stood behind, but out of respect did not interrupt the conversation.

“I know exactly what you’re feeling, Annawon. My son had to be cut out from a beam in the earthquake. He’s now an amputee in Seattle with his dad, so I understand the plight of your chieftess,” the graceful woman said, and Liam drew his brows together. His face turned white as it hit him. She’s Harry’s mother.

He smiled curtly at the woman as she walked away, then turned to his grandfather. “Harry’s mother is the Chicago representative?” he said out loud, understanding that Harry’s mother was their chance at helping their people rebuild their historical landmarks.

His grandfather eyed him.

“The guy I rescued from the building," Liam explained. "That’s his mother.”

“You failed to tell me about that, son. I give ear now.” Liam had tried a few times to tell his grandfather about that day but he was busy taking on duties of the Native community in the place of the ill chieftess to have time. And not to mention Liam being busy at work rescuing citizens of Chicago on the daily since the earthquake three months ago. He explained now, though not so zealous anymore.

“Did you see to his spirit first?” the hard-faced man asked when he had heard it.

Liam sighed. “There was no time, Grandfather.”

The man remained silent for three full minutes. Liam knew well to not break the silence caused by his elder.

“You may have sullied our people’s chances of getting assistance, by cutting off the leg,” the man said finally. “I am disappointed in you.”

“But Grandfather, he would be dead if I had stopped to consult his spirit.”

His grandfather stubbornly closed his eyes and turned his head, signaling that the conversation was over.

Fighting back the dreaded lump in his throat, Liam took a detour to his great-grandmother’s room and sat by her bedside. He soothed her wrinkled, bony hands and fiddled with the healing stone placed in her palm. “I wish you would wake up and tell me if I did the right thing or not, GG.”

 

 *

 

The next day when Louis showed up at the house, Des was bedridden. He was shivering and coughing from too much exposure on the waterfront fishing with Louis. Harry gave him the whole story as they hobbled all the stairs (Harry’s speed) and paused at his bedroom door.

"If anything happens to my Dad…"

"Don't think about it," Louis said, taking his hand. "He is a strong man. There was a slight drizzle out on the river. He just needs some rest and fluids."

Harry nodded woefully.

"Louis?" They faintly heard Des from his room.

Harry looked at Louis with confused and worried ‘what-does-he-want-with-you?’ expression.

"Des?" Louis crept in. Harry stayed by the door.

"Come here."

Louis sat down on the bed edge near the man’s waist, and looked down at him from a twisted angle.

"I won't be able to work for a few days and Harry can't do much work around the house." he started, throat hoarse. "If it's alright with you I feel it's best you get out of that hotel and stay here. Cut you some costs. I could sure use some help around here."

Harry sprung off the wall. "Daddy, you can't be serious -"

Des cut him off.

Louis gave Harry a look and he shut up but not before saying "This is insane."

"Maybe you can dig up Harry's bike and use it to get around until the car is up and running."

Louis nodded.

"I didn't agree to lend him my bike?" Harry protested.

Des let out a hacking cough on the attempt to answer. "For god's sake Harry. If you wanna ride it, that's great news. Louis can take mine. I hardly use it anymore as it is. Louis can teach you how to balance with your leg."

Flashing over Louis' hot cheeks after Des' last sentence, Harry’s eyes widened like an anime.

 

*

 

Louis made broth for dinner that night, following a recipe he found in an old book in the cupboard. Harry said it tasted fine although Louis fretted over the one ingredient it was missing; carrots.

Afraid of the answer he would get if he offered to do it, Louis watched as Harry made a point to put Des’ share in a lunch bag and sling the strap diagonally over his shoulder and take it up to him with his crutches.

Shaking his head as he wondered why Harry won’t make things easier for himself and wear a prosthetic leg, Louis waited at the table for him to finish feeding his father and came back down to eat with him.

They ate in silence, after which Louis watched TV on the couch while Harry read silently with his legs up on the love chair, in-between regular checks on Des.

Louis never thought he'd say this but if it wasn't for the long-ass commercials, he doubted he'd get through a whole episode of the Alf reruns on TV, as his eyes kept trailing behind Harry each time he turtled up the stairs.

"I can sleep on the couch," he said, hugging a gingham-patterned throw pillow as Harry made his way down once more. His hair was up in a messy bun this time and he had changed into an oversized baby pink eighties-sitcom-mom looking sweater. Might as well watch him instead of the TV. No losses there.

Harry shrugged, slumping back down on the plush cushions. "I'll get you some blankets and some tracks or something." He picked up his book, and Louis blinked. He half expected him to say how he didn't give a shit where he slept but Harry was strangely silent about the topic.

Louis gave a 'Thank you' in place of digging, and went back to the show. A half-minute in, his gaze wandered to Harry once more, and they caught eyes for a brief second before Harry buried his head in his book again.

In the corner of his eye, he saw him shift trying to get comfortable. "Ow!" he heard him exclaim, and looked across to see him squeezing his left hip bone.

Louis sat upright and tossed the throw pillow concerned.

"It's fine," Harry said quickly. "It's just a spasm. The doctor says it's because I'm bracing on my left side more for support now." Then he was wincing again.

Louis jumped over on the loveseat, near the sore hip. "Here, let me see." He waited for a nod then pressed his fingers on the soft flesh. Harry flinched almost immediately with the pressure.

"Ah." Louis pursed his lips. "That’s what I thought. A runaway vein. Feel that?" He squeezed again.

"Ahaaaa," Harry whined, making a sexy-as-hell noise to Louis’ touch. And Louis' crotch grew a mind of its own. He tried not to look at the few strands of hair that fell on the side of the man's face near his eye making him look elegant and glowing like a ballerina.

"It just needs- a little massaging- to get back in place," Louis said, the words stuffed in his throat.

The cow-pattern lampshade projected spotted shadows over Harry's features but left his green eyes exposed to the reflection of the brighter light. Louis couldn't bring himself to look away from them, and he swore Harry was checking him out in the same way.

But the whole thing didn't last long because, as if now noticing the awkwardness of how entranced they both were, Harry shoved his sweater back down. "I'm good now, thanks."

Louis nodded overly attentive and glided back to the couch. 

As soon as the current commercial was over and the show resumed, Harry grabbed his crutches again. "I'll go get the blankets. You can take them at the top of the stairs; I'm beat."

Louis sat there watching Harry as he fought his way up, ready to jump and catch him if he showed signs of instability. And the second Harry reached up and disappeared, he buried his face in the throw pillow and breathed.

 

*

  

Louis pov

 

Though still a little weak, Des was up and about the next day doing chores around the house. The reason being that- Harry had a meltdown.

It all started when Louis got up from under the gypsy rose-patterned quilt covers Harry had handed him by the stairs the night before and smelled burning breakfast. He had gone into the kitchen to see Harry balancing between the stove and the counter in crutches and -a prosthetic leg.

“Great, you can either stand there and laugh at me [Louis wasn't even laughing] or help me salvage these eggs before it’s totally burnt.”

Louis had leaped into action at the stove while Harry wobbled in the apparatus all the way upstairs holding on to every surface he got his hands on for support.

Louis had to make over the whole meal, and when he went upstairs to inform Harry it was ready, he walked in on a commotion.

Harry’s door was ajar and Des was standing behind it, out of Louis’ vision, trying to calm a wailing Harry.

“Why are you making a fuss, Bub? Louis can help you with stuff like that.”

On hearing Louis’ name, Harry let out a roar. Louis jumped as the prosthetic leg went smashing into the adjacent wall.

“Now, look here!”  Des had screamed.

“I’m trying to help you, Daddy! It’s my duty to help you, not anyone else!”

“Well, then what’s the damn problem?”

“It hurts like hell when I walk in it. I still have to put all my weight on my left leg because it sinks too far in and when I take it off the socks are soaked in sweat and it flings everywhere like a hose. So disgusting. Not to mention the muck that gathers in my flabby part." Harry was crying so loud it rang in Louis’ ear.

Des then went into a lecture about how the prosthetist said to make sure it was always clean and dry since sweaty environments can cause rashes and infections, especially in the residual fold. -“If you just go to the damn physical therapy you’d be able to do all of it!”  the man had grumbled.

Des walked out on him and bumped into Louis in the hallway, and after an exchange of knowing looks he had said, "He's not going to therapy, he won't eat like he used to. Phantom pains killing him. I just don't know what to do for him. You know. Sometimes I feel like I don’t know my son anymore. But I must say, since you got here I feel I've got back a bit of the son I knew. You won't mind staying at the house a tad longer? Try to talk to him?  I don’t know if it's because you saved his life but he seems to take to you.”

Louis was surprised Des would say that, judging from Harry's reaction to the mere mention of his name. To him, all he had gotten from Harry since he arrived were sharp looks and standoffishness. Louis did not plan on spending the whole six-week vacation leave but what Des was asking wasn't something that had not crossed his mind. It bothered him deeper than he had bargained the way Harry was refusing therapy and choosing to retreat from the world. In the end, Louis figured he'd stay as long as it took for Harry to get used to his new routine.

“If it won’t cause any inconvenience?” he had asked carefully.

“Nonsense!”  Des had replied in his usual vigor. “You get free meals and a place to stay while you’re in Seattle. It’s the least I could do in return for bringing my boy safely out of that nightmare!”

Nightmare. Louis had almost forgotten about his nightmares. What if they occur while sleeping in the Styles house? How will he explain his waking up in the middle of the night screaming?

Louis had lost the thought as Des now coughed. The man then mumbled about going to swallow down some Buckley’s, and resumed the business of the day like he had not been sick at all.

 

*

 

Louis pov

 

Later that day Louis decided to check out Des' car like he had asked him. Cat-walking into the garage, he scoped the scene, looking for a wrench. A shelf full of old used paint tins, rope- whatever for. In the corner was an old jerry-built mountain bicycle with a bell on it. Louis smiled to himself at that. Leaning on the wall was a closed up wheelchair- brand new from the looks of it- hidden behind a pile of old paint cans like those back in Harry's Chicago apartment. He caught the wrench sitting solemnly next to an oil can on the top shelf (why on earth so high up?) He reached it and set to work on the car.

He had been in there for about an hour before he heard the sound of crutches tapping nearer.

"Why are you still here?” Harry spat out, propping himself with effort in the wide doorway. “Don’t you have a house?"

As the man hopped out closer to him, Louis observed him. The troublesome artificial leg was gone, leaving the bottom half of his right leggings-leg long and swinging in the breeze between his crutches.

He turned away and concentrated on the engine. "Your Dad asked me to help, and I know a great deal about mechanics, so.” He felt brave enough to answer back after his talk with Des.

Harry’s face gave a comical reply like he was mocking him.

Louis snorted, guessing he was bored inside the house. "Why'd you pack away the wheelchair?" he made conversation.

Harry folded his arms defensively. "Because I can't get up the stairs with it."

“And why won't you just try to wear the prosthet- “

“I swear if you say that word out loud I’ll...” Harry trailed off with a warning fist.

“Well, you just have to get the hang of it. It’s not gonna help you if you don’t try.”

“Look, I’m fine with my crutches.”

“Really? You made your dad get up from bed sick, and he’s still weak, with all your fussing. You can’t do many chores in crutches, and the prosthetic is killing you. ‘Should really consider the physical therapy with a prosthetist,” Louis finished with a small crack of a smirk.

Harry sized him with his eyes, his lips perched in a rigid upward set. Scoffing, he shot back into the house, as fast as his crutches could take him.

Louis sighed at the incorrigible man’s struggling behind and went back to the car, taking a mental note to google more about prosthetics.

 

*

 

Louis found lots of things on the internet for amputees. From special deodorant spray to custom bike pedals. Some of the items were kind of pricey but he figured he’d order the most important things first and hope Harry accepted them as a gift.

"This is called a dry wick sock," he said, handing Harry the package a couple of days later when it arrived by Fed-Ex. "I got this to help with the sores and blisters. I hear a lot about these babies at work when we check in on patients rescued from fires etc. -Sometimes just diabetics who got an injury gone bad- It helps keep you dry longer."

Both Harry’s eyebrows went up. “Oh, how nice of you,'' he said when his dad gave him a ‘be polite’ look from behind Louis. Harry took the package and ripped it open, rolling the sock outward to try it on.

“Here, let me,” Louis carefully slid it on, trying not to inwardly scream at the softness of Harry’s lower thighs. Harry seemed a little taken aback but he let Louis do it nonetheless.

“Is it too tight?”

“No, it’s fine, actually.” Harry was pleasant, playing nice.

Louis slid in a quarter-inch more. “How ‘bout now?”

Harry giggled. “Just put it on already!” he looked up at his dad and laughed harder at Louis who was glad Harry was finding this funny even at his expensive.

Seeing an opening, Louis stopped for a second and risked their newly built rapport to ask; "I was hoping you'd try to go to therapy with me tomorrow…" It came out like a hopeful question. Or a bribe, judging from the timing, but Louis had managed to fix the car two days ago and he reckoned it was good timing to get Harry to and from the clinic.

He glanced at the man. The way Harry’s eyes held steady on him in thought proved hopeful. “Depends on how good this sock works,” he finally replied, batting his hands away to help himself.

Louis observed as Harry slid the prosthetic socks over the dry wick one, put the sleeved limb into the prosthetic socket, and rolled up prosthetic sleeve over that to seal it. Louis grabbed the vacuum pump and helped him suction the air out.

Harry ran his hands on the leg, checking it out. “It feels really comfortable and fortifying. Strong.”

"Well, isn't that the best news I’ve heard since they passed the gay marriage laws in the state a few years back,” Des prompted.

Louis observed Harry as he threw an embarrassed glance at his father then blush and refocus on his leg. At the sight, Louis had to let out a bubbling grin.

                                                          

  *

 

Harry pov

 

“Every amputee who walks in here talks about having to think outside the box to be able to get around and do things,” Joey the physical therapist/ prosthetist said, moving his hands in and out in gesture to the gymnasium full of amputees. “I’m here to help make that become tons easier.”

He then proceeded to show them the stretches he would start them with for the day. Moving around, he checked to make sure they were all doing it properly without trying to put too much strain on themselves.

On the sneaker-squeaky floors other amputees around them in pairings with their whole-bodied partners for physical therapy in getting them optimal for walking normally in the attached limbs, Harry had already gone through all his insurance K-level tests a month earlier and was supposed to start therapy long before Louis visited but here he was now after being dragged in by the man to his first official therapy session.

“It hurts!” Harry declared blankly as he stretched his leg out holding on to Louis’ arms for support. The 'tons easier'  had already registered to Harry as a trigger for the tons-heavy beam that took his right tibia forever and made him want to leave the stupid gym immediately.

“One more stretch, come on,” Louis with his gung ho attitude, was within an inch of getting on his nerves but Harry was here for his dad. Des was getting older, and it was up to Harry to take charge and be the breadwinner. His dad had always supported him with his art but Harry was too depressed to even hold a brush these days let alone get his art sold. His old job position at the Seattle Town Hall was refilled when he left to find his mom, and the big piece he had been working on to help financially was destroyed along with his leg in the earthquake back in Chicago. Maybe if he learned to walk in the prosthetic leg he could find a normal job down at the post office or something.

So Harry was here. But it did not mean he was enthusiastic, he had gotten up that morning with zero intentions of fulfilling his promise to Louis and go in the sweaty gym to therapy. The only reason he was here now was that that morning when Harry had gotten into the shower he noticed a new and expensive-looking suction bar on the wall that worked excellently in getting him up and out the shower safely. He knew it was Louis' doing, and it gave him a renewed zeal to at least try…for today.

Louis pulled again. “AHHHH!”

“I’m so sorry- Harry wait, where are you going?”

“This is fucking stupid! I’m done,” Harry spat canter-limping away to grab his crutches.

 

*

 

Louis dropped the car keys on the coffee table, hitting Harry a side-eyed glare. They had not said a word to each other the whole ride home and although Louis was livid, he didn’t want to get into it. What was the point if Harry just didn’t want to get better?

Louis grumbled about going to wash his face and turned up the stairs.

Harry folded his arms. "So, you're just gonna use my facilities and not talk to me? Come on, I know you're just dying to say something- "

Louis whirled around. “Harry, you have a K-Level of four! You can be walking normally in about three weeks if you just give it a try.”

“I don't see how that's your concern,” Harry replied, cool as a cat. “If I’m fine with my crutches, then it shouldn’t bother you. You have two legs.”

Louis placed his hand on his hip and sighed sharply. How can he make him see that his quality of life can improve if he just co-operated? Then, as he absorbed Harry’s words, he remembered something the prosthesis said in his speech when they had arrived, “Every amputee who walks in here talks about having to think outside the box to be able to get around and do things…”

He was about to repeat them to Harry as a retort when an idea struck him in the head. "I have two legs…”

“Excuse me?”

Louis held up a halting finger and hurried through the kitchen door.

 

--

  

It was dinnertime when Des arrived home from work. He immediately started blurting out questions about how the therapy went, as he hung his coat in the cupboard by the door. Then his eyes hit the living room and he recoiled, wondering if he was in the right house. Louis and Harry were both sitting at the TV; Harry on the couch and Louis…in a wheelchair?

“Therapy was a flop,” Louis replied, all sangfroid now.

“He’s been like this all day,” Harry jested. “says he’s gonna stay in it until I go back to that awful place. We made a bet to see who caves first.” He had on a happy smirk that said ‘this is gonna be fun.’

Des gave Louis a disdainful look and said; “Good luck with that.”

After dinner, Louis wheeled himself out the back door for a cigarette (It was the only path modified for wheelchairs as it had no steps). He lit it up and took in the evening neighborhood scenery as the streetlights flooded through.

“You, know smoking will probably for-real end you up in one soon.” -Louis tossed his neck back and saw Harry by the door.

“So, I guess I’m doing myself a favor by getting acquainted,” he sassed back as the man hobbled out behind him.

Harry sighed. "You're gonna wear out the seat material," Harry finger-snipped at his neck playfully, and accidentally ended up fiddling with the stubs of hair behind Louis' head. Louis swallowed, feeling the sensation everywhere. Quickly gathering himself, he turned the chair around to face Harry and the house.

“It’s actually pretty comfortable. I think I’ll stay in this for a while.” His brows went up and he cocked his head back laughing at the challenged expression he caused on Harry’s face.

And brakes; Louis forgot the brakes on the thing. The wheelchair rolled backward down the slightly sloped driveway, and before he knew what was going on, it capsized and he crashed into the concrete.

Hopping forward with a gasp in his throat, Harry lost the crutches and bent down like a gorilla before kneeling on all fours to his aid.

Louis was already hoisting himself to sit upright. He twisted his waist to look at the back of his arm.

Harry’s face was smeared in horror. “You got bruised!”

“Ah,” Louis chuckled in light of the situation, “See how serious I am about the therapy?”

“Okay, I’ll go back,” Harry mumbled in a mix of worry and defeat. “Just don’t break anything. On you or me.”

 

*

 

Harry pov

 

Bright and early the next morning Louis escorted Harry to the Medicare Center.

“Okay, this one is called a suction liner,” Joey the prosthetist explained, showing them a peculiarly shaped prosthetic liner. By Louis’ insistence, Harry was to get fitted for one as efficient as possible in getting him to walk without pain or crutches.

Louis stifled a laugh. “A suction liner, aye?”

Harry shot him a ‘what'sup-with-you?' eyebrow, then refocused on the guy. He was young, somewhere early-to-mid-twenties, and his honey-colored skin was smooth and lacking in blemish. A mass of thick 3c curls left loose all over his head, he wore a warm smile and Harry thought he was friendly enough to work with.

The way he held the liner attested to his dedication as he showed them the function and the- Oh My God! It crept up on him what Louis was laughing at, and he broke into a giggle on the spot. Soon they were both giggling, nudging and pointing at the penis-shaped liner.

The prosthetist looked on unaware of the by-play, and Louis finally cleared his throat. “We are so sorry. Go on.”

“No, it’s okay," the prosthetist shook his head, a confused but cool smile appearing. "It’s always nice when you can find joy in situations like this.” The man’s gaze lingered a half-second too long on Louis for Harry’s liking, and he fake-coughed to get him to cut the crap and focus.

Joey cast aside the liner unsurely to show them another, and Louis flashed Harry a secret smile concerning the joke. Harry felt his entire face rush with blood under his skin as he grinned back. Louis’ smile was that contagious.

“Um, we want one that’s comfortable and doesn’t create sweaty environments,” Louis discussed, taking charge, and Harry stared at him quietly.

The guy showed them one, his arm moving into Louis’ personal space over the desk. “Your leg tends to sweat much less with a liner like this, that is relatively conforming rather than one that is loose.”

Harry rolled his eyes. The way these two were interacting he could have sworn Louis was the amputee here. And it didn’t help that Louis seemed to be completely unaware of the prosthetist’s crush. Louis’ here for me, damn it. Don’t you see he’s here to take care of ME?

“I don’t want it too tight though,” Harry put in to make his presence re-established. “I want to be comfortable in every position- I mean, situation." He bit his tongue silently as Louis visibly fought like hell not to laugh. Harry didn't see what was so funny. He was fuming now, consciously taking back every nice thing he thought about Joey.

It was Joey's turn to blush embarrassed. "Don't worry. The material of these things was specially made for comfort. We'll try out some and see what suits you."

Finally seeming to get the point- Harry threw him a glare for good measure- he pulled out a measuring tape and got to work searching for a liner to fit Harry’s needs.

 

*

 

For some goddamn strange reason Zayn finally decided to take Liam up on his offer to help him study for Special EMT test. He missed Louis but he was secretly glad his best friend wasn't around to lecture him about seeing the paramedic again. But even if Louis were to show up out of the blue and search for blame, Zayn would have to get flying colors for staying away from Liam as long as he did. The only times he spoke to the guy since Louis left was a couple of weeks ago at the pub one day when he told the whole fire crew about his great grandmother's worsening condition.

He grabbed up his books and stationery and bagged them with his laptop. Making a double take for his car keys, he was off to the man’s home.

Minutes later, he put the car in park and marched sheepishly up the lawn. The small house, partially cracked by the earthquake, with a large gap in the front wall, and patched up with a sheet of old tarpaulin, was warm and humble looking. Zayn twiddled his sweaty nervous fingers, wondering if to call his cell again or just knock. He heard kids screaming playfully inside and the loud sound of a TV on muddled with people chattering.

Now or never, he told himself, more excited than he cared to admit to seeing Liam again. Sure he glimpsed him a couple times on calls in the street, and whenever he picked up Bebe at work but it was never more than just “hey.” A part of him was feeling exactly like a gleeful kid to have a full hour with the man, just them.

He knocked.

Little feet raced to the door followed by a female voice yelling, and then the door opened. A woman with sandy blonde hair and rosy cheeks peered out at him. Zayn knew just by her eyes she had to be Liam’s sister. Two little kids with hair as dark as Zayn’s flowing all over their face clung to her legs as their eyes measured him.

“Come in!” Liam’s sister insisted as she walked back inside leaving him to close the door behind him

He smiled politely as he sauntered inside, the little kids glaring at him as they followed their mother. The chattering grew louder and Zayn found himself looking into the living room where Liam's grandfather was discussing a topic on the news with another elder falling in and out of the English language. Zayn froze as Liam appeared from a door on the other side, in his Nike tracksuit. He was rattling off to his grandfather in the same native language, the other elder engaging to answer him fondly as his grandfather glowered seriously at the TV.

Then Liam’s sister shouted “Aye!” as she sat down on the ottoman, and his eyes hit Zayn. Zayn grinned stupidly, his heart going soft at Liam’s homey uncombed hair and his relaxed casual playful demeanor around his family.

“Hey!” Liam greeted, making his way across to him. The two old men eyed Zayn, and he waved a ‘hello,” at them but was only met with a grunt from Liam’s grandfather, and a silent stare from the other man.

Then out of nowhere, one of the boys raced up to Zayn and hit him smack on the belly, a look of venom on his face. 

“Keme!” Liam’s sister yelled when she saw it. She started yelling some more in another language and the child ran to her. 

“I’m so sorry,” Liam laughed. He’s a piece of work him. Lives up to his name.”

“It’s fine,” Zayn held his stomach. “What does his name mean? Hammer?

Liam’s sister laughed. Liam answered. “Secret Thunder. Only it's not a secret," he added affectionately as the boy's mother started to comb his hair. "This one is Akikta,” he pulled the slightly older child close for a hug. “His name means Excels in everything.”

Zayn smiled at Liam’s love for his nephews. “And what does your name mean?”

“Strong-willed warrior.” Zayn saw the smile descend from Liam’s face as they both turned to Annawon who said it. “Protector.” the man continued with a voice from deep inside his chest. He looked at Liam pointedly as he said it and then went back to his program.

Liam’s focus returned to Zayn, speaking a bit lower now. “It’s Irish. My father’s side.” 

Zayn smiled, thinking how perfectly given that name was. "Mine is Arabic. Nothing strong and courageous. It just means beauty and grace."

Liam’s entire previous demeanor returned and he grinned wide. “I agree. You are.”

Liam gave a head toss for Zayn to quietly follow him up the stairs and he pursed his lips sheepishly feeling like a frog in a petri dish as he did with the old men’s eyes on him.

 

Liam sat with him, skimming through his texts and helping him recall new medical terms.

“I haven’t gone through this stuff since med school,” he said plastering on a crammed look as he flipped through the pages. “Even then I had to remember that and my GG’s medical teachings.”

Zayn studied him. “I remember in med school they said those natural remedies can help but shouldn’t replace a licensed doctor’s medical advice.”

"Yeah, I heard the same thing," Liam said adopting a sad tone. "But I've seen the medicine of my forefathers save a lot of lives when used instead of mainstream medicine. Sometimes I wonder if I made the right decision choosing to go to med school instead of just practicing my family's. But then I remember my parents and..." Liam let the end fade off.

“What happened to your parents?” Zayn asked softly.

Liam seemed to snap out of his thoughts. “They died when I was little. Car accident.”

Zayn’s brows went up in solace.

Liam took it and sighed. “I know. It sounds mundane. People die in crashes all the time.”

Zayn straightened up. "I can't imagine what that must have been like for you to lose both your parents like that." Zayn thought about his parents and how he had not seen them in four years.

Liam joined Zayn on the bed laying down flat on his back. His head next to Zayn’s waist, he looked up at the ceiling like he was in therapy.

“My grandfather is angry with me. He thinks I doomed Harry’s soul by not asking the spirits if it was safe to separate him from his leg.”

“That’s ridiculous.”

“Not so much.” Liam defended. It seemed to Zayn like he was berating himself. “It is our way. It involves a simple prayer, but you were there. You saw we didn’t have much time before the building came down on us, right?”

Zayn offered a nod but let him continue.

“Harry’s mom showed up at the hospital, and it turns out she’s the best bet to restore our cultural buildings so he thinks I may have jeopardized that.”

Scratching the CAD-Cut print on his hoodie-chest, Zayn looked down into the man’s hazel eyes. “I’m sure he’s gonna come around. I’m sure Harry doesn’t blame you even though he must be going through hell right now.”

Liam angled his head to look at Zayn. “I hope things are going well with Louis there.”

Zayn laughed. “I’m so busy with this Medic test I haven’t had a chance to call him. But something tells me he’s doing fine.” Zayn wiggled his brows with that in a suggestive way and Liam laughed.

 

An hour after jumping into actual studying, Zayn’s neck was cramped. He massaged it.

His hand fell to the book, still holding the pen. Two of Liam's fingers automatically found them and twiddled at them urgently. Zayn looked across to him, his eyes were glassy and told the story of all the things he wanted to do other than stare at each other or study. Zayn closed his eyes, feeling like those fingers were on his heart massaging it back to life but not in a medical way. Liam took his entire hand and squeezed as a reaction to his eyes being closed, the gesture saying "Come on, Zayn, let's do what comes naturally to us. Let's just give in and regret later."

But as much as Zayn wanted to kiss him and climb on top of him, as much as he wanted Liam to tear his clothes off and plunder him into ecstasy, he wasn’t about to betray Bebe again.

“It’s pretty late. I have a double shift tomorrow.” He scrambled to pick up his books and highlighters.

Thanks, Liam,” he muttered without looking at him, before heading to the door.

"Zayn," Liam said, and Zayn stopped hearing the heat in his voice. "Just for one night, I wanna pretend there isn't this wall between us."

Zayn span around to meet Liam’s huge palms pressing on his cheeks, eyes looming and ready for a hot passionate kiss.

“We can’t keep doing this. I don’t want to do this, Liam,” Zayn said determined but eyes closed, body growing weak under Liam’s touch.

Then Liam kissed him on the lips, painting them with hot saliva and searching inside with his eager tongue. He ground himself onto Zayn and marched him backward back to the bed, never releasing his mouth. Zayn moaned in want, completely pliant under Liam's will now. He let himself fall backward on the bouncy bed that was only designed for one person.

Opening his eyes at the loss of Liam’s touch he watched as the man’s abs rose with his hoodie as he peeled it off and threw it in a corner just like the other times he did back at his apartment. Liam took a minute to bend and lick a heavy stripe up under Zayn’s hoodie as he attempted to get it off.

Then as Liam sucked on his neck, Zayn heard one of the kids crying in the other room, paired with shushes as their mother tried to settle them to bed. He fought to stifle his noise at what Liam was doing to him.

“Stop, we’ll piss off your sister.”

The whole house went quiet now and it hit him then how late it was. He sat up to leave.

“No, don’t go now,” Liam whispered into his collarbone like he didn’t give a shit if they were too loud. “We’ll just have to be extra quiet.” The electricity the man’s tongue was sending up Zayn’s skin told the opposite, and he fought back a moan.

Then Liam flipped him over on his belly and grabbed the lube from under his pillow.

Completely horny now and unable to resist, Zayn pulled down his pants and underwear and let Liam throw them off. A pair of warm gelled hands parted his cheeks to lick him between then start sucking him. Then he felt a couple fingers ease in and he puckered in co-operation, his face buried in Liam’s musty, oily-smelling pillow to cover his moans.

It wasn't long before Liam was inside him, big and pushing forcefully. He brought his face to Zayn's ear and lifted his chin with his right hand to kiss him in the mouth. He kissed him slowly, grinding into him in sexy slow motion. Zayn didn't think he could end up in more ecstasy until Liam came with bullets inside him, filling him up like a coconut.

As they came down and settled on the bed Zayn thought he’d take his leave, but Liam’s body was big-spooning him before he could even shift away. He felt a sharp pain in his chest that told him he wanted to stay in Liam’s arms…the whole night. He could barely feel his now soft penis on his butt if it wasn’t for the tiny wet post-cum rubbing him.

He settled into the grasp, sighing himself to sleep. He didn’t know how long he dozed off but it was still dark when he woke up still mangled with Liam. He knew he shouldn’t be breaking his own rules about spending the night, and he knew he had told Liam it was over before, but his books, stationery, his shirt, pants, briefs -all scattered across Liam's bedroom floor- were saying something different right now.

Mustering up all he had to fight the feeling, he wormed his way out of the bed, searching through the dark for his clothes and shoes. Quickly throwing them on, he sneaked his shoulder-sling bag on and turned the squeaky doorknob.

“You even gonna say goodbye?”

Zayn's heart lurched. He turned Liam wasn't even looking at him, was still in the same fetal position as when Zayn was lying there. Swallowing back the guilt, he slackened his jaw to reply but the words stuck. And it didn't matter because Liam suddenly turned into the mattress and covered himself up under the sheets dismissively.

Zayn’s feet marched back to the bed and he climbed on. “Look, Liam. It’s best if we don’t make it into more than it is.”

"More than it is?" Liam shoved the covers off his upper body. "I'm not this person who goes around hurting people just to get laid. And I was fine with that one time when you said you didn't do relationships. But then I kept running into you and it grew. Into something, neither of us could control. I can't help it if I want you in my life. However little I get you."

Zayn refused to give in to the whiny child. “We’re better as friends. We can be in each other’s lives, just… We should make a pact for this to never happen again.”

“A pact?” Liam said, scandalized. “You know what Zayn, you wanna leave, just go. I won’t bother you again, just go.”

There wasn't much Zayn could say after that. Liam was flipping over to the right to sleep now. Zayn dragged himself off the bed like a remorseful pathetic dog and crawled out of the house in shame.

 

*

 

After just two weeks of therapy, Harry was walking fairly normal in his new prosthetics, going regularly with Louis to the clinic, and treading up the stairs with almost the same vigor as he used to. At least according to an astonished Des whose tears could not be contained to see Harry- who's mood as well as his physical agility improved- cackling over a joke with Louis.

Harry and Joey had also gotten along quite well after the previous encounter, with Harry accepting Louis’ hands-on help during pair-up stretches at times when Joey was looking, to silently mark some kind of territory there. Harry did not intend on being so inclined to do such things but something in him had snapped when he had witnessed Louis going back-first into his driveway and crashing. The accident had taken him back to that day they were enclosed together in the apartment fighting for their lives. Harry knew he and Louis could never amount to anything, but the fact that he and the man shared something so life-changing as what happened in Chicago turned on all kinds of possessive and protective buttons on Harry that he had only previously saved for his dad and Nick.

And somehow he had a fluttery feeling that Louis felt the same. Why else would he be in Seattle for so long doing absolutely nothing other than assisting Harry and Des in their everyday lives. And to drive the hammer in, he was so eager to help Harry make even more progress, accompanying him on short evening walks, and scheduling them to go see Snoqualmie Falls...Louis even took the time to work on his mountain bike.

One day when it was finished Louis and Des had walked Harry blindfolded into the garage.

"Look. I fixed your bike!” Louis said when he dragged the cloth off. “I attached a power grip pedal so you won’t fall off.”

Harry scanned his eyes over it from the spot where he stood.

Des beamed, "Why don't you take it out in a test ride?"

Harry turned to him with a skeptical eyebrow. "You want me to fall and break my other leg?"

"Don't be ridiculous. Louis' gonna be with you."

"We can't both fit on one bike. For sure we'd end up in the hospital."

"Louis can take my bike."

Louis raised two excited eyebrows. "What do you say? I have yet to see what your neighborhood is like on evenings."

Harry shot him a teasing glare and blinked at his bicycle. He walked over to it and checked the gears and bolts.

A sinister smile setting in as he was indeed satisfied, he climbed on hurriedly with Louis heaving him steady.

"Race ya!" he said before shooting off down the driveway and onto the pavement.

"Harry, wait, you’re going to fast!" Des shouted after him before turning to Louis. "Well? What are you waiting for? Go after him!"

Louis jumped into action, grabbing Des' bike and speeding after Harry, praying he doesn’t crash. Which he almost did and Louis caught him just in time from tilting over. The man kept his grip firm on Harry’s arm as they tried riding again. And as they rode together side by side through the streets, Harry secretly doubted he would ever crash again.

 

*

 

A week had passed before Harry was able to ride his mountain bike without Louis constantly holding him steady from beside him. But that did not stop Louis from still watching him every minute, especially today when they were on their way to the local park for the first time; a few blocks away from the house, it would be the furthest they had ever gone pedaling.

The few other places they had gone over the past few days were with the car- Harry had insisted on taking Louis to Marination Station, his favorite place for old-fashioned donuts in West Seattle, so they took the water taxi out there and hung out on the beach while they ate the donuts. Des was especially glad to munch on his favorite coffee-flavored one they had brought him back.

On another occasion, Harry took Louis to REI Flagship, his favorite outdoor gear store where he used to work as well, to check out the sale since Louis had been talking about going on a hike to see the famous Snoqualmie falls while he's in Seattle. Louis had a ball sending Harry crazy when he insisted they buy the full works-  tent, sleeping bags, and blow-up boat- to go camping on the river bank. Louis knew there were camping tents and all that in Des’ garage but he just wanted to see the look on Harry’s face when he mentioned camping.

After weeks in Seattle, it was just now beginning to feel like a real holiday for Louis as Harry was now taking him sight-seeing as ‘thanks' for helping him get active again without crutches. After Harry argued he wasn't ready to spend a night out in the cold with no toilet, Louis ended up just purchasing appropriate sneakers, backpacks and a pair of matching yellow caps for him and Harry to go on the simple one-mile trail to see the falls, and Harry got him film for his camera which he was delighted for to take pictures to show his friends and colleagues back in Chicago.

Pedaling into the park now on a cool Tuesday evening, they bought blue and pink cotton candy and strolled with their bikes, taking in the sights.

“And this monument?” Louis gestured to a steel sculpture in the middle of the park.

“It’s called Changing Form.”

“That’s a disappointment.”

Harry gave him a 'What now?' look.

Louis eyed the thing again. “Why isn’t it changing? Kinda doesn’t live up to the name, does it.”

“You don’t have one artistic bone in your body, do you?”

“No, but it looks good for photos. Isn’t that like, the only use for it?” Louis joked as he checked the film in the vintage camera around his neck. “I bet your face would complement that circle thing inside it quite nicely.”

Harry covered his face in second-hand shame.

Louis lifted the camera. Harry sat sheepishly, shifting serially to adjust for a good picture. Louis lowered the camera and laughed. “Are you actually ready now?”

The sides of Harry’s nose and lips brushed pastel pink. Louis smiled brighter and Harry grinned. “Okay. Now.”

--

 

As they strolled through the park over to the city look-out, Louis got a call on his cell and shifted away to chat while Harry walked on finishing his cotton candy.

"Who was it?" he asked mouth full when Louis caught up to him.

“It’s my roommate, Zayn. We’ve worked together for five years and now he’s studying to apply for Special EMT Chicago Med.” Louis looked out to the city as he spoke. "This new job requires more time and focus. It’s a big deal for him. I’m proud.”

“You look more sad than proud. You’re not gonna see him as much?”

“I’m happy for him, just it’ll be different. We’ve been through a bulk of stuff together.”

“Like what?”

“Like I said before, he’s been one of the first to welcome me to Chicago and teach me the routine at the station. I had just stepped up from rookie in New York, but when you move to a new place it can feel like you have to start all over again, you know,”- Harry nodded in agreement- “Zayn’s dad owns this silk company in Dubai but he got cut off after he came out to the guy.

Harry gave a ‘that’s awful’ screw-face.

“And that happened around the same time I lost my sister, so we sort of supported each other through the years, you know.”

“So, it’s like he’s changing careers and moving on and you feel left behind- I get it.”

Louis set his eyes on Harry once more and let it linger. “It’s not that bleak...I was considering... transferring to Seattle.”

Harry shot him back a look of shock. Thinking maybe? Louis wondered.

"I mean, I'm still pretty green about it. I don't know if anything is promising here to look forward to,"- he fixed an eye for a reaction from Harry- "It's like a fresh start but I'm welcoming the challenge."

Harry broke off his stare to look out into the view beyond the park, but his eyes grew wider as Louis spoke.

"Of course, I'd have to rent a place and get my stuff out here." Louis adjusted the lens and squinted one eye to take a picture of the city. "My motorbike…"

Harry did not reply or turn to face him. He just moved his eyes around subtly.

“Relax Harry, I’m just thinking about it. Haven’t shipped my life away just yet.”

“I didn’t say anything," Harry finally cracked an embarrassed smile.

Exactly, Louis pointedly thought to himself but didn't say out loud.

“Anyway, it's too early for me to talk about work, and big decisions,” Louis said quickly, minding Harry’s discomfort. “I still have a few days left on my vacation and I’m enjoying the present for now.” He looked ahead into the city skyline and snapped a picture of the Space Needle.

In the city with all the tall buildings around, he hadn't had the chance to see the sun this low as it went down. The lower it sank, the prettier it was, and the less strain it puts on the eyes. Louis was glad he came to Seattle to see such a beautiful thing. His gaze veered to Harry's windy-haired profile as the man looked straight at it from atop his bike… Two beautiful things.

 

*

 

Chapter Soundtrack-

MISSIO- I See You

Jome- Cinnamon

Leo Stannard x Frances - Gravity

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

*

 

Louis had seen it. He knew he had seen a gleam in Harry’s eyes the other day in REI Flagship when he mentioned going on a camping trip. Harry wanted to go. And even though the man swore on the spot, insisting up and down that Louis not purchase anything of the such, from that moment Louis had it embedded in his soul that he was taking Harry camping before he leaves Seattle. So after they got back from the park, he waited for Harry to head upstairs before letting Des in on the plan.

"You should have seen his face," he eagerly told the skeptical man. "He was excited. He wanted to go but was just too modest to say anything. I'm thinking we can all go to Snoqualmie together and set up camp for one night, be back by tomorrow afternoon."

He and Harry already had plans to go to Snoqualmie the next day but that was just to see the waterfalls and come right back home. Adding a camping trip would mean getting up much earlier since it would take a long drive after viewing the falls to get to the camping site before dark.

Des folded his arms, all intent and fatherly. “The three of us won’t fit in the car with a tent and all that. If he agrees to go with you alone then by all means. But note; he hasn’t been out there without me before.”

Louis nodded quickly, already brainstorming how to ask Harry in such a way as to gain a sure yes. He hoped Des was wrong about Harry being reluctant to go without his father. After all, he's a grownup and Louis is a fireman. Plus, Louis had been a Boy Scout once...at nine. But then again New York City didn't have many unurbanized scenic places the troops could go without crossing to the outskirts of the city itself, besides parks and zoos, so he had yet to experience a real camp trek.

It was during dinner that Louis decided to take a leap of faith.

“How do you feel about going camping in the woods after we see the falls tomorrow?” he said, while Harry was on a high about seeing Snoqualmie falls again.

He dragged the smile off his face and hit Louis an eye squint. “Camping? You wanna go camping?”

Louis raised his forehead. "Yeah. I liked it out on the riverbank last time with Des. I was hoping we could take a couple of fishing poles and say, spend the night out there, making a fireside roasted fish," he said matter-of-factly like it was the easiest, most logical thing in the world.

Jaw shut, Harry turned his head toward his father. “Is this your idea? I told you I wasn’t up for fishing and you just insist that I get back up that damn mountain, don't you?" Harry said it above the normal vocal range.

Louis swallowed his noodles quickly, ready to save Des, but the older man dropped his spoon with a loud clang.

"That was weeks ago! You can walk now, can't you? You can bike now, can't you? And you've already agreed to take Louis all the way out to Snoqualmie, so why the heck not show him around the mountains while you're there!?" Des was definitely louder than average range, and the vein in his neck told Louis he was way past trying to convince Harry. He was downright fed up. Louis was not lost on Des' reasons for taking Harry’s latest attack meant for Louis. He had a feeling the man didn’t want his son mad at Louis, because Louis was the reason Harry was walking again.

“See, I told you he’d act this way." Des got up and took his full plate to the kitchen, dumping it in the trash and marching upstairs. 

Harry watched on the verge of tears as he disappeared, then drooped his head. “He hates me. I cooked his favorite noodles and he threw it away.” He looked at his plate like it wasn’t worth eating anymore.

Louis slowly offered a hand on his wrist. Harry looked up, surprised by the gesture. “He's been mad at me ever since I left for Chicago. I know he wants me to be the same but I’m not. Humans can’t grow back limbs.” He sniffled once, twice, soon descending into tiny sobs, and Louis’ insides twisted in empathy.

“If you’re not up for it, we can stay and hang out here tomorrow.”

Harry gave his head a decisive shake, wiping his nose. “No. I’ll go if it means he won’t be mad anymore. Just- I don’t know how we're all going to fit in the car with all the things we’ll need.”

Heart jumping, Louis took a deep breath. “Des said before that he wasn’t going.”

Harry popped his eyes wide open. “Then what the heck was he on about? I thought he wanted to go camping with me like old times!”

When the dinner had started, Louis had begun to feel like a behind-the-scenes puppet master watching his work from the background. Now he just did not know what to say. He grinned like an idiot and went back to eating hoping Harry didn’t change his mind again.

 

*

 

Louis yawned, mixing his tea like a convalescent at the table in his boxers and vest. The sun was still dreaming in the dark and he was too sleepy even to be groggy about the fact that Harry had woken him up by knocking a spoon repeatedly on his teacup. As Louis rubbed his eyes open now, Harry scoffed at him from his alert perch in the kitchen doorway. Well-dressed and looking refreshed as a morning rose drenched in dew, Harry checked his watch against Louis’ slow movements to put the cup to his mouth.

Des scampered in, the smell of his sweet-soaped skin bathing the kitchen air.

Harry greeted his father with a by-played, ‘And he’s the one who wanted to go camping’ smirk in Louis' direction. Louis knew that was what the look meant even without Des’ reply, which was a bubbly sarcastic “Ha! He asked for it!”

These two... obviously had a conversation about Louis after he went to bed last night. Louis should have known Harry would pull it out of Des that it was his idea to go camping miles away from home. They were two of a kind, them.

But ten-to-fifteen minutes later, Louis was fully clothed and ready to prove he could do this hiking thing. Des assisted him in loading up the tent, a small camp table, food and two camp chairs, while Harry dragged out the lighter things like sleeping bags and pillows. A now alerted and excited Louis found spaces in the back seat for all of it plus his and Harry's rucksacks for camping, and backpacks filled with immediate things just for the day at Snoqualmie Falls.

“Love you, Dad,” Harry hugged Des and tramped to the car.

Louis beeped the horn in goodbye as they pulled out of the driveway.

“I keep feeling we forgot something,” Harry said, pivoting halfway into the backseat.

Louis looked at the backseat through the mirror. “Check the supplies back to make sure.”

Harry grabbed the duffel bag and dug around. “Toilet paper, Hand sanitizer, Toothbrush and toothpaste, Quick-dry towel, prescription medications, First-aid kit, sunscreen, Insect repellent, lip balm- My Sun hat. I forgot my hat!”

Louis snorted. “Sun hat?  Do you mean like those broad-brimmed beach things? Haha!”

"It's not funny," Harry said, applying some lip balm in the mirror. "The hike can get scorching out there!"

“Relax, we have the caps, remember?” Louis reminded him of the matching caps he got them from the store.

Harry leaned back on the seat with that and went quiet for the rest of the ride. Louis drove in silence with frequent glances at Harry, finding it difficult to read his features for signs of excitement.

 

*

 

The hospital was echoing and Liam was able to hear a patient coughing down the hall as he followed his grandfather and great uncle Wematin into Chieftess Elu’s room. They were accompanied by their religious shaman who upon entering her room immediately began preparing the herbal essentials to perform a prayer for the ailing woman. Liam opened the window for the negative energies to flow out and helped the elder with the cast iron pot and matches.

As the elder fanned the smoke with a feather and spread it over her sleeping body while saying the prayer, Annawon turned to Liam as if now noticing he was there.

“Have you chosen which one you will marry?” the man studied his grandson as the sweet-smelling smoke of sweet grass, cedar, and sage wafted through the widow-lit room.

“Marry?” Liam near shouted in the room, interrupting the shaman’s chanting.

“Yes,” Annawon said below his breath for the religious leader to continue in peace. “I see you with the boy in the night and with the girl in the day. Which one is your choice for ceremony? I assume you are choosing?”

Liam’s tongue froze. “I have not,” he said when it moved again. “It’s way too early to think about that.”

Well, Liam could not have said a worse thing. Annawon looked ready to whack him in the head with his cane. “Too early!?” he said in a deep wolfish growl. “Do you not see the woman in the sickbed!?” he scolded roughly.

Wematin hunched over in damage control stance, his eyes filled with fear of Annawon’s rage upon Liam. “Have you done the deed with both of them?” he said to Liam.

Liam squeezed his eyes shut. Bebe had a date planned for later, and from the sounds of her voice on the phone when she said he should crash at her place after, he knew she would expect deeds to be done. And as for Zayn, after he suggested they make a ‘pact’ to ignore ever making love Liam wanted nothing to do with the guy. I mean, who says that?

Liam shook his head at Wematin. The man then put on a surprised face.

“Then they are not yet brother and sister. Unless they agree to share beforehand.”

Liam was aghast with this remark. He respected the old ways of his people but it was hard to grasp that two people who slept with the same person could be considered siblings by the elders. Especially when it came to Bebe and Zayn.

“Great uncle, you forget that we are in modern times.”

Annawon listened on, looking at Liam like he was still deciding whether to clobber him.

“Alas! It is a cycle coming to full circle!” Wematin continued with zealous insistence. "We watch Queer Eye. The Two-Spirits of all walks of life are strutting proudly now. They no longer have to hide. Modern times are coming back to the ancient traditions!"

Queer Eye? What does Queer Eye have to do with this? Liam massaged his nose bridge. No point arguing with these elders of his family. All he knew for sure was that neither Bebe nor Zayn would be down to 'agree'.

Annawon’s rage grew even stronger on hearing Wematin’s words. “Liam is not a Two-Spirit! He is not made to sit around and cook in a little pot with the women-folk of the village. He is a warrior. He was trained to lead our people with the fierceness of a chief!” He brought his cane down hard on the delicate terrazzo of the hospital floor in a loud knock. Liam jumped back and Wematin cowered. But it was the Shaman's response that made Annawon stop in his tracks.

"How dare you insult the sacred twins?” the shaman admonished. “Two-spirits are divine blessings and worthy of much respect, Annawon. Who do you think named you and your sisters as well as Wematin, Chieftess Elu, and myself? My great-uncle 'The Wise Rainbow'. He alone had the divine right through his nádleeh birth to do it. Don't let me hear you speak of the blessed birth with such ignorance again," he slurred in warning.

"But the point is that my grandson was not born a Two-," Annawon started to fire back loudly.

"What is going on here?" A nurse showed up just in time, a stern set in her jaw. She gasped at the smoke-filled room. "You are lucky you were allowed the smoke in the hospital for prayers," she scowled at Annawon, who glowered at her. "But arguing over the patient is reprehensible! I'll have to ask you all to leave and let miss Elu rest now!"

The nurse approached the bed but the religious leader had already resumed his meditative chant to the frail bedridden woman. The nurse stood firmly, eyes commanding the others to do something, and Wematin was the one to go near and call him out of it.

Once they were all out of the room. Annawon rounded on Liam again. “This is the profession you align yourself with?" He cocked his chin scornfully at the glowering nurse as she turned her back on them to fix Elu’s bedsheets. “This is the medical training I paid for? One that disregards our traditions!? One that cares not for our age-old knowledge? First, they teach you to ignore your family's culture, then we are lucky to be allowed to light the sacred smoke? What next?”

Liam looked to the floor, thinking how hypocritical his Grandfather was, seeing that his arguing during a smudging ceremony was harboring negative energies around the sick woman.

With the religious shaman already out the building, Wematin tossed Liam a look of camaraderie, choosing to keep a safe distance and hold his tongue this time.

“I will be chief, but for how long?” Annawon added in a slightly steadier tone. “It is you, my son, that is the future of our community. You already made a grave mistake once. But you possess all the qualities of a future chief. Use them and stop slipping up.”

 

*

Harry pov

 

“This is so good,” Harry said, out of breath. He threw his upper body over the railing and blew hard, Louis chipping behind him.

Oh! I think I’ll be sore for days now, thanks for that,” Louis panted, doubling over, hands on knees. They had almost finished a one-mile round-trip hike to see the bottom of Snoqualmie Falls. The walk to the popular tourist attraction had been a regular thing for Harry before the amputation and he was finding it was exhilarating as opposed to Louis, who was obviously feeling the effects. The plan was to see the falls then hop back in the car to go to an old camping spot of Des and Harry’s in the woods.

"I used to come out here all the time," Harry said, gripping the strap of the backpack over his shoulders, smugly watching Louis' face contort as he gasped for air. "This was your idea. Come on, we're almost there."

The wind sang through the sky-high trees, throwing leaves into the landscape below. Pedestrians and picnickers scattered along the trail, laughing and enjoying the scenery. Harry would be lying if he said he was not glad to be back outdoors.

Louis let out an exhausted growl. “Remind me not to come up with any new ideas that involve pulling a muscle in my bum.”

Harry’s eyebrow did a ballet in amusement.

"So I guess we should have stayed and watched from the observation deck then?" he asked, looking Louis up and down before turning to where the thundering falls were coming into view.

A man with a huge bundle of garbage on his back for life possessions came grunting towards them, and Louis jumped. The man peered at them through one eye but passed them, on his hike.

Louis gave a phew face when the smelly man passed, and Harry snorted. “Ha, ha, you should have seen your face. Ha! It’s okay,” Harry said reassuringly. “As you can see, there are a few homeless people on this trail.

Louis was about to reply but Harry grabbed his arm. "I think my leg is starting to feel the effects of the hike. The liner feels tight." ‘You will either need another sock or fewer socks according to how your leg swells or goes down during the course of the day' Joey had told them when he made the modifications to Harry’s prosthetics so he could have less pain while walking for long periods like they are now.

Louis panted, helping Harry over to a bench where they finally rested.

“There’s a community-run shelter service that provides stuff like hot meals, clothing, and bath facilities. I helped one summer in college. My dad had a friend who was involved with the shelter and lived not far from here. I stayed with him and his wife. It was closer to the college. He died a few years ago.”

"I'm sorry to hear that. It feels good to help in the community. As a firefighter, I get to be involved with stuff like that as well. After the earthquake, we needed to band together to help those who were left without homes more than ever. A lot has been done but there is still so much to do."

“I know. My mum must be so busy trying to get help to the communities there with funding from the company she works with.”

“So, you two have a good relationship now, considering?”

“Yeah. It was awkward the first time I went out to see her. I stayed at a hotel while we dragged it out. But she expressed regret for leaving me and my dad behind so I forgave her and moved in her place a few weeks later where she saw some of my work. I came back home for Christmas and stayed until she called again in February for my birthday begging me to come back. So I took my work back to Chicago and that’s when she noticed it. Her house was so perfect and I didn’t want to mess it up with my sculpting so she got me an apartment to work.”

As Harry spoke a distant clatter was heard, and Louis jumped again. The homeless man had just dumped his bundle on the side of the trail and was settling himself on a patch of grass.

As Louis stared at him getting comfortable to take a nap, Harry poked a finger at his earlobe, making him jump yet again.

Louis covered his ear as he ducked from Harry, who failed to stifle his blown up laugh.

“Ha. Ha. I’m a firefighter. Very little scares me.”

 “I’ll take you to see the Fremont troll next time,” Harry coughed in his laughter, rolling up his trouser leg to relax. “Watch you run away screaming.”

Louis giggled. “Ah, you mean that thing from Ten Things I Hate About You? I’d love to see that. Now there’s art I can look forward to.”

Harry hit him seeing he couldn’t get a win, but was secretly fluffy over the fact the tough firefighter knew romantic comedy trivia.

"I have a confession." Louis turned to Harry as a lady and her poodle passed by. "I got hooked on Buzz Feed quizzes. And it's all your fault."

“My fault?” Harry near yelled, beginning to pick at his fast tightening prosthetic socks.

Louis grabbed Harry’s backpack and unzipped it for him. The thing wasn’t that heavy, holding all Harry’s things for his leg quite snugly. Louis was glad it was a good buy. “Yeah, after you read my palm in the earthquake I went online to search up Auras and found these quizzes that let you know yours.”

Harry stared silently for a moment then thrust his head backward to cackle loudly.

Louis gurgled. “What? I had to see if you were right about my purple one. You were completely wrong, by the way.” He laughed as he proceeded to peel off Harry’s socks to let his limb breathe.

Harry threw his upper body to the side in chortled glee. "That is not how it works! If you play the same one twice and choose the same points you'll never get the same answer."

Harry chuckled at Louis’ blushing face as the man fluidly dumped the soaked socks in a plastic bag and wiped Harry’s limb with the towel.

But as soon as Harry felt Louis’ gentle dab he yanked away his limb and grabbed the towel, now catching on to what the man was doing.

“I can do it myself,” he clipped with an apologetic agitated look, pulling out a fresh liner and sock from the backpack.

Louis took the towel and dabbed it over the makeshift leg on the bench between them with a timid remorseful look, and Harry just let him, seeing the determination in his careful steps to assist him.

“Why are you helping me?” he still could not help but snap.

“Because,” Louis’ eyes flared, and the red skin above his brows wrinkled with rage as his speech came to a screeching halt. “Because I consider you a friend. We're friends.”

Harry frowned, yet with a subdued demeanor.

“Don’t worry, Harry. I only have four more days before I’m out of your hair and back in Chicago.”

A missile launched into Harry’s gut when he heard that. Four days? That’s so soon. Harry had not realized until now just how much time had passed since Louis came to Seattle. The man had practically spent his entire vacation here. He still hadn’t processed what Louis said the day before about moving to Seattle. He said he was only thinking about it but something in the tone of his voice and the way he kept on the subject gave Harry the strangest impression that maybe Louis had already made up his mind. And Harry was so caught off guard he didn’t know how to reply. Did he change his mind because he thinks I don’t want him to stay? Do I want him to stay?

"As I told you yesterday, I miss my bike." Louis opened his backpack and took out two plastic-wrapped salami sandwiches for him and Harry. As Harry opened his - ranch flavor mayo and slight honey mustard over large onion rings and lettuce garnish- it dawned on him that Louis was here long enough to know exactly how he liked his sandwich dressings.

He took a delectable bite. But why did Louis come in the first place? And why did he stay so long? Does he feel sorry for me after what happened in Chicago? We bonded. We shared things. Of course, he feels sorry for me. That beam could have fallen on either of us.

“So, since we’re talking about Chicago…” Harry opened, thinking about the earthquake. “You didn’t tell me about your sister when we were alone in the apartment.”

Harry wished he hadn’t said that because Louis’ jaw sharpened and his temple constricted as his entire exterior grew tough and defensive being put on the spot like that.

"Not something you blurt out to strangers, though, is it?" he answered still, looking down as he chewed on the succulent salami.

“Right, except when the other person is about to get sliced in half and blurts out their whole life to you first,” Harry said, hoping Louis found it light and funny and ease his jaw finally.

“I grew up in an orphanage, so it was rough. Not exactly happy times childhood stories to exchange. Except maybe Christmas time and the basketball court.”

Harry began to feel better. Louis was talking. Opening up. Clearly not mad at Harry anymore for bringing it up.

“Thing is, he’s still out there selling, and she…” Something inside strangled Louis’ speech, jumped out and ran straight into Harry’s heart, stabbing it.

"Got her in rehab a couple of times but she just wouldn't let go of this toxic guy. I just wish I could go back and do more. Do better to help her. She was always my soft spot. Maybe if I was tougher on her…"

“I’m sure you did everything in your power. Just like you did for me. If you weren’t there I’d probably be dead,” Harry said gratefully as he chewed. He hoped his statement did not come off as offensive. The last thing he wanted for Louis to feel he was making this about him.

He saw Louis break a half-smile as he ate on and it halfway settled his insecurity.

Scrunching up the paper after a while and getting up to cover the few yards left on the hike, they approached the falls. Louis’ mouth fell open, giving Harry the most profound feeling of accomplishment in being with the man as he saw it for the first time. A kid-like Louis snapped dozens of pictures and threw an arm around Harry as they soaked in the view of the wondrous falls.

 

*

 

 

Trying to beat the darkness threatening the afternoon, they drove for a few miles down the countryside and around the mountainous bends to the lake where they planned to set up camp. Louis gasped at the white blanket of ice covering the vast mountains in the distance. It was as though nature was painted in a vivid picture taking his breath away.

Harry took pictures of the bucolic scenery while Louis' hands were busy driving, and soon they reached the park where they would set up camp for the night.

They parked near the park headquarters and started offloading what they could carry to the campsite on foot.

As they made their way through some trees, Harry showed Louis the abundant shrubs of frosty-indigo Huckleberries covering the nearby slopes.

“We can pick some of those for you to take back home.”

Marching forward along the narrow trail, Harry knew where he was going and expected Louis to follow him through the thin opening of a forested area. 

“You ever feel like going on the ultimate wilderness hike?” Harry made conversation, the back of his deep-smoke-colored fleece jacket the only thing facing Louis. “Like that Reese Witherspoon movie?”

Louis shrugged, the neck of his insignia blue zip hoodie brushing his chin as he trod behind Harry with the tent materials. “Reese Witherspoon? I’ve only seen Legally Blonde and Cruel Intentions, and maybe one with Paul Rudd, and I’m pretty sure none of them have hiking in them.”

“No, I mean the recent one. Where her mother dies and she takes this extremist, self-reflecting hike out in the wild to get over it?”

Louis went dolefully quiet at the same time Harry looked back at him.

“Oh, God. I’m so sorry,” Harry scraped his hair back, immediately reminded of Louis' stiffness by the falls. “I’m such an idiot. So insensitive. What the hell is wrong with me?”

Louis laughed, cutting him off. “It’s okay. Sounds interesting.” Harry knew he was being polite because his tone sounded far from interested.

"She goes on this grueling but soul-cleansing journey in the wilderness all by herself," Harry rejoined more hesitantly. "I don't know; I feel kinda like that sometimes when I'm out here. I mean, I’ve been on lots of hikes with my dad. I know the Snoqualmie trails like the back of my hand. I used to come out here all the time growing up. We’d camp out with the Winstons and their daughter, Ruby. She’s in college now. We brought Nick once when I was sixteen. He hated it but we had good memories." Harry drifted off in a sad tranquillity.

“So, what you’re saying is you know where we are?” Louis looked around the lonely area. “Well, camper, tell me where we can set up the tent?”

Harry led the way to some evergreen trees that forked into a deeper, darker wood. He mumbled about using the wood for a bathroom and to collect firewood but told Louis not to delve too much. “You don’t wanna get lost. The Grizzlies are unpredictable.”

"Grizzlies!?" Louis stopped. Rotating on the spot in watchful precaution, he almost dropped the tent.

"It's fine," Harry said, appeasing Louis. "Most of them are scared of humans."

They came to a nice grassy spot near the edge of a cluster of trees, and Louis finally dropped the tent.

Harry laid the framework like a boss and Louis helped cover it up with the tent. Making two more trips to the car, Louis brought all the bedding and bags, and they unpacked the kitchen- which consisted of a frying pan, spoons, two-in-one bottle and can opener, knife, bowls, cups, cutting board, cooler, bottled water, canned food, seasonings and some snacks that Harry added to the collection.

As Louis finished up, Harry disappeared into the woods and came back a few minutes later with an armful of thick branch twigs, two large leaves, and a knife in hand. He took four of the branches and stooped down carefully and dug two holes in the ground, propping the right of the sink on them. Louis grabbed hold of it while Harry fitted the other two twigs, cutting them to size and attaching the sink properly to them so they get to wash dishes and their hands using bucket touted water from the lake.

“Where did you learn all this?”

"I told you this isn't new to me. You can learn a lot about living out in the wild from me."

Louis blushed. He hated mosquitoes and had a grave fear of bears but he liked the sound of that. He took out the biodegradable soap and put it on the sink. He pulled out the pots and pans, pot scrubber, garbage bags, and kitchen towels, setting them in place as he listened to Harry's boot steps grow agitated and adventurous sounding.

Harry then made a make-shift cooking rack with the straightest of the branches and started piling the rest of the wood underneath it.

Louis folded his arms, marveling at the creativity, but was lost on why Harry was making it. After all, they did not bring any fishing apparatus on the trip.

"Harry, we have canned beef and vegetables, everything is already cooked in cans.

Harry did not look up as he checked the stability of the wooden structure. “I know.” He got up just then and stormed away, leaving Louis wondering if he said the wrong thing.

“We have to make a catch for dinner!” Harry’s voice sounded like he was by the stream a good few meters away. “I’ll show you how to cook the fireside fish.”

“I didn’t know you packed fishing poles!” Louis called over his shoulder, starting to second guess himself. He thought he was sure he did not see those go in the car. Scratching his head, he got busy organizing in the makeshift kitchen.

Harry did not get a reply but as Louis tore the side of a garbage bag to tie it to the table leg for trash he heard his terrain boots splashing around in the stream. He flipped around and saw Harry moving carefully, inspecting the water.

“What is it?” Louis called out in worry, making his way over to the stream edge. Harry shushed him with an index to his mouth and huddled wide-legged over the water, eyes concentrating. Louis looked around unsure, wondering if Harry took his meds.

His head was in halfway axis back to Harry when something came flying at him. He jumped up like on a trampoline and clutched his chest, head flying around madly to see what it was that had missed him by inches. It looked like a bird or something but Louis looked down and saw a flapping fish the size of his forearm on the pebbled floor at his feet.

Gasping, he shot eyes at Harry, who was not paying him attention. With his rolled-up sleeves, Harry made another grab and caught another salmon almost immediately, throwing it in Louis' direction again. It hit him in the torso this time and he heard Harry gurgle. Louis spun around, jaw-dropped.

Harry trudged back to him, a bright smile crossing his face. “Well, don’t just stand there. Let’s get dinner ready.”

Mouth still opened in shock, Louis ran for the cooler. The ice was almost invisible in the cold-water-filled container. With difficulty he got one slippery flapping fish in the melting ice.

“Forget the ice,” Harry said in a deep survival tone. “We have to deal with these babies right away.” He began to scale it off with his Swiss army knife. He then quickly gathered some twigs and made a stack for fire on some dry pebbled area. He lit it up and ordered Louis to get the foil paper, and the jar of seasoning he brought. Louis did wonder why Harry brought that to go with canned food.

Louis sat looking on as Harry wrapped the fish, hung them on the rack and showed Louis how to fan it with the leaves. Louis nodded engaged like a child engrossed with learning from his mentor.

 

 

*

 

The fish was coming along nicely. The smell aromatically pleasing the air of the riverside.

“Ow!” Louis heard Harry yell from a few meters away. He rushed in the direction, seeing Harry perched on a tree stump clutching his shorter limb.

“What happened!?” he shouted on his way there.

“Cramps,” Harry growled.

Louis morphed from a brisk walk to a jog, helping Harry out of the leg his intention.

Harry held up a hand as Louis reached a meter away. "Don't come any further."

Louis almost fell forward stopping abruptly.

“What are you gonna do, Louis?” Harry scowled. “Worry the pain away? I’m massaging my calf but it hurts further down in a place I can’t touch!”

Louis lowered his gaze, a hot lump creeping up at the back of his tongue. Damn it, he cursed the tears threatening to push forth from his concerned eyes. He tried not to look at Harry anymore as the man whimpered on the tree stump.

Growing bitter, he turned around and stormed back to the fire. Wrestling with the tears emerging, he fanned the fish. Why did Harry always have to be so mean? I try. I took him to the clinic every day and went with him on walks. What else do I have to do to prove he can let his guard down and let me help?

Somewhere within the background of these thoughts, he heard a faint ‘Louis' but he unconsciously dismissed it as he fanned vigorously, thinking what a jerk Harry was being.

“Louis!” He heard it for sure this time, and he dropped the leaves to whirl around. Harry was waving at him, a pained twist still on his face from his seat on the tree stump.

“Can you help me get my ointment!? It’s in the tent,” he called. And Louis jumped into action. Help. He needed help. He asked for help. Whoopi.

He dove into the tent and rummaged through Harry’s prosthetics bag. Finally, he said as his knuckles hit the ointment tube, he’s accepting my help.

He ran like Forrest Gump to Harry’s side, twisting off the cover in readiness to apply it. Harry hit him a dangerous warning glare and grabbed the tube, applying it himself.

Well, at least he still made me help.

 

*

Harry pov

 

Harry shoved his palm inside his jeans' waist to get some ointment on his thigh. He was in a downright mood to hit someone because he had never had his thigh hurt so bad before. It had always been his hip or his calf or his stump. 

He looked over to make sure Louis wasn't looking and laughing at where his hand was.

Where did he get off smothering Harry every minute? God, let me have my pain in peace- whatever that means. And who does he think he is being as shameless a fan of romantic comedy like Harry was? It was cute and distracting in the dusty earthquake but now it was just gloating. Harry stared him down from his seat on the log stump watching as the man busied himself in the ‘kitchen' washing the cooler and fanning the fish Harry had hung to roast over the firewood.

And Harry sighed. Why did he have to be so rude and ungrateful to the man who had been nothing but kind to him taking him to therapy and helping him walk without crutches? A man who had the same musical taste as Harry and watched the same TV programs as him. A brave firefighter who had been through the same horrifying experience with him. Not to mention he grew up without the love of both parents just like Harry had grown up without his mother. Plus, it must have been extremely hard for him to open up about his sister, yet he did. With Harry.

He caught Louis stealing a glance at him and he looked away pretending that his leg was still throbbing- or something- just so Louis would not dare come back over. But not before he had seen the look in his eyes. That look that drove Harry to madness every time he saw it. The insanely worried and disquieted look that Harry thought could only ever be attributed to a combination of Des’ when he was sick as a child and Nick when he had thrown Harry in the lake once and he took too long to resurface. Nick had hated camping having no other choice but to go because he was staying with hikers.

Come to think of it, Harry had never had anyone besides his father be this enthusiastic about facing the evergreen outdoors with him. Even the Winstons were not too fond of the trails and always turned back when it got to narrow and wildered. Watching Louis fan the fish and pondering these thoughts, something lifted in Harry once more to try to not be so hard on the guy. 

And damn it. Harry was looking again in the man's direction, but his back was once again turned as he now sat by the fire breathing. He was just sitting there like a sulking child who had been sent to detention. Harry might as well be a sitting duck for the attention-torpedoes that were disobeying Louis' campfire-facing body by standing in a militant row sharply pointing in Harry's direction ready to fire at either man's say-so. He found it hard to stop thinking about earlier at the Falls when Louis took care of his leg so naturally and effortlessly as though he were a kid putting together Minecraft blocks.

And damn it- now Harry was lifting himself off the stump and hobbling over to the man.

 

*

 

Liam sat at the bar of the pub, listening to the incessant bottle clanging and alcohol glass filling, his head still reeling from his grandfather and great uncle’s lack of understanding and poor insight on his life. How could these men who taught Liam everything be so wrong about... everything?

“Some knowledge keeper,” Annawon had spurted to his grandson with noted sarcasm on their way out of the hospital building after they prayed for Elu. Liam had wanted to cry. Keeper of Knowledge... it was the title his great-grandmother chieftess Elu dubbed him after she had taught him all her medicines. And Liam had always been damn proud of it. It was one of the catalysts of him going to medical school- the fact that his grandmother thought he was good enough to upkeep ancient and dearly kept knowledge of the indigenous tribes taught to her by her parents. Why did his grandfather have to be so strident as to use it to shame him now?

Liam was wallowing in his dejection when-

"Liam!"

Liam spun around to see Niall holding the back of the bar stool. The man jumped into the stool next to him a wide and nervous grin on his face, rubbing his hands together as he prepared to take a drink order.

"Niall, you look dashing." Liam took a drink of his glass and turned to the man. Dressed in a pair of clean-pressed khaki trousers, the collar of his half-sleeve white shirt buttoned down, the man was all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, the sweat-sheen on his face the only thing making him look slightly rugged against his spectacles.

“I’m on a date tonight," Niall said as Liam held out his hand to the barman to get the man a drink. "I haven’t gone out with anyone since Shawn, so saying I’m nervous is a bit of an understatement.”

Niall quickly put in his whiskey drink order and Liam sighed. “Date. Wow. You and Shawn really are moving on.” Liam had known Shawn and Niall for a few years now and they had always been a tight couple. It was almost unreal to see how apart they had grown from each other now.

"Yeah," Niall rapped, smiling ridiculously. "I wanted too much and he made it clear his job comes first. So here I am on the market again." Poor guy, Niall sounded so unsure of himself. Not that Liam thought he'd be of any help. His dating life was a mare's nest in comparison. But then again Niall did start a conversation about his not-yet-arrived date talking about his ex, so there's that.

“Well, at least you’re taking the necessary steps to move on and be happy,” Liam said huskily, trying to appease the man’s nerves. “Me, on the other hand- I’m in a comfortable relationship with a great girl yet I just can’t stop thinking about this guy she works with. We’ve been back and forth for weeks and I just feel like my chemistry with him is over the roof even though he says I'm imagining it. I tried to tell him but he just keeps walking out on me. Sometimes I think I really am out of my mind."

The barman placed Niall's whiskey on the counter. Niall's eyes grew large and he squinted them in realization as he drank it down.

"I hope you get the chance to tell him when he gets back from Seattle," he said, gazing at the residual ice in his glass and gesturing it to the waiter for a refill. "Who knows, he probably misses you too."

Liam dropped his hand on the counter, glass still in it, the clunk muffled by the Karaoke music. Louis? He thinks Louis is the guy I’m in love with? Liam journeyed back to what would possibly make Niall think that. The community center. Liam and Louis had been goading each other the whole time about tea and the importance of being faithful to one partner. Niall must have thought they were flirting. Don't get Liam wrong, Louis was roguishly good looking but he didn't seem like the relationship type. Even with Zayn playing hard to get Louis had an electric zapper on his ten-foot high concrete wall exterior that made Zayn's defenses seem like a four-foot picket fence in comparison. In other words, Liam would rather toggle with Zayn's tomcat than mess around Louis' mountain lion.

He let his mouth open to tell the man he was gravely mistaken but a hand on his back stopped him. He turned to see Bebe bending down to kiss him. She was flanked by none other than Zayn. She wrapped her arms around Liam and kissed him, intending for it to be a long one but something caught Liam's eye and he abruptly cut the contact.

Zayn, in dark trousers, slim black printed shirt, a pair of Oxford shoes with his semi-messy hair and witchingly awesome cologne, was giggling flirtatiously with Niall, whose hands were creeping around the sleek perimeters of Zayn’s waist. Soon the blond was pulling Zayn into the stool on the other side of him.

Liam raised an accusing eyebrow as he leaned forward to silently question Zayn. The dark-haired man saw it and put on a brief guilty-turned-unapologetic-turned-careless frown, and Liam’s insides grew dark and black. Suddenly he was sick and not in the mood anymore to hang out with Bebe or anyone.

And he was about to tell this to the girl when Niall- seeing the little coincidental group they formed- suggested quite enthusiastically that they should all hang out together like a double date.

Both Zayn and Liam slapped on protestant looks and made moves to decline, but in jumped Bebe with “That’s a great idea! Zayn, I like him already. Any guy who likes to hang with your friends is a keeper! Right, Liam?”

Liam’s eyes moved pointedly to Zayn, who was on the dot with a returning stare. Liam knew they were both thinking the same thing- What if the guy is doing more than ‘hanging out’ with them?

Liam had no choice but to smile and nod at his blonde girlfriend as she sat on the other side of him. He saw Zayn's face give way to relief as he thought Liam would have to look to his right now and stop staring at him but Liam slid off the seat in a heartbeat and offered it to Bebe, sitting on the other side of her so now he had an excuse to be looking to his left at Zayn.

Zayn's cheeks sucked in with his clenched jawline as his eyes threw a secret beady look at Liam, but Liam did not give two fucks. If he was going to ‘hang out' with them he might as well see where this thing with Niall was going.

 

*

 

Louis tried to focus on the damn fish. Harry had got a cramp in his leg from the stream catching the thing, the least Louis could do is cook it properly. He was obviously no help to Harry's immediate pain. Up until then, their outing had seemed propitious, and Louis thought he was gaining a bit more trust from the inexorable man. But he did not tell him to go submerging his limbs in the cold water and cause his pains to act up again. They had canned sausages for Pete's sake. Show off.

As he fanned the hanging fish, something touched his back and he almost dropped the leaves out of sheer surprise. Harry had crept up behind him, eyes wild with mystery and excitement. He looked pain-relieved now and that was enough to relieve Louis’ concern, but he was not keen on pushing his luck this time. Harry would have to stay at a safe distance from Louis from here on out.

He ignored the man and went back to his cooking but Harry crept around to stand in his focal range.

“Do you wanna see something spectacular?” Harry grinned, not seeming to notice Louis’ fresh reserve.

“But the fish...” Apprehension was in charge of Louis.

Harry batted a hand. “Don’t worry. We’ll be back before it burns. Grab your camera.”

Louis gave a slow nod of his head and followed Harry through some brush on the other side of the tent for a good few meters away until they reached a huckleberry patch. Louis started picking some and thanking Harry for the lovely discovery to go with the fish dinner.

Harry nodded impatiently and planted his hands on Louis’ shoulders from behind. “The berries are nice but that’s not what I wanted to show you.” He pointed over Louis’ shoulder, steering his eyes out toward a mountain in the far distance peeking through the trees. The sun was about to set and it cast a golden glaze over the scene.

“That’s Mount Rainier's peak. I’ve never been on that one. I was planning to go on a lower trail of it before the earthquake though. I’m more acquainted with Granite Mountain Trail. Hiking through the forest, taking pictures of the avalanche tracks and huckleberry meadows.”

Louis gasped as his eyes scanned the top of the mountain forged by fire and shaped by ice. He was holding the camera to his chest but was stupefied in the action. “It’s so beautiful! Why is it so beautiful?”

Harry stepped beside him, looking out at the view. “Do you see the subtle rock-color differences? Over the centuries erosion in the North of the mountain did more damage exposing older, more varied and colorful rocks than in the south cascades. It took thousands of years to get so noble and exquisite. The hot-molten rock breaking apart through the surface to make it. I wish I was there to see that happen. We only get to see it now after it cooled and took the shape we know now.”

Louis nodded, breath-taken by the view. “Tay would have loved to see this.”

Harry’s stare glazed over his scruffy jawline. “I bet she sees it. Even has a better view than us from up there.” He looked up high above the mountain. Louis smiled and took a picture.

“When you go on the actual hike up the mountain you get some really sweeping, panoramic views,” Harry cooed, rubbing the Odomos mosquito repellent. “I don’t know if I’ll ever be optimal to go now.”

Louis forehead creased. “Why not? I think as you make progress you’ll soon be on the trail again. I’d love to go with you someday- Try that Reese Witherspoon thing.”

Harry burst into a blush as Louis popped a berry in his mouth. "We should just pick a few and get back to camp. Bears love this stuff," he teased, laughing at the frightened look he garnered from the man.

 

*

 

As the night went on, Liam kept his eyes on Zayn. Bebe and Niall cackled at the lousy Karaoke singers on stage in the pub, goading each other to try it. They got along swimmingly for two people who had just met, and frankly if they were not drinking heavily while chatting up a storm they might have noticed that neither Liam or Zayn were interacting with each other- except to throw glares maybe. Niall took a shot in one gulp and marched to the stage. Bebe yelled out in a loud laugh causing Liam to jump. He thought he saw Zayn’s shoulders move in mild laughter as he drank his glass. And as Bebe headed closer to see the stage, he had tried talking to Zayn, but the man shimmied himself away uncomfortably until he reached the staircase to the rooftop.

Already on his fifth drink, Liam got out of his seat and stormed after him.

A beloved spot above the bar, with a stunning view of Lake Michigan, the rooftop was swarming with people who rather feel the breeze of The Windy City and light their smokes.

Liam wanted answers.  He spotted Zayn looking out at the view, standing straight with his hands on the railing, his short neatly trimmed hair blowing in the evening breeze. He walked up to him, feeling like an idiot stalker. Zayn saw him approaching and Liam could hear the bothered sigh sail through the windy rooftop overlooking the suburban lake.

Zayn eyed him pointedly before leaning on the railing and looking out into the view. Liam stood with his arms folded like a bodyguard, a look of vexation in his eyes. He waited for Zayn to speak but the man sighed and said nothing. Didn’t even look him in the eye.

“So Niall Horan, huh? It’s barely been two weeks since you left my bedroom,” Liam said flatly.

Zayn gave a shrug of his shoulders. “A lot can happen in two weeks.”

Liam was stabbed in the gut with that, but he did not let it show. Instead, he continued in a careless tone, "Does he know you plan on fucking him and disposing of him like a used condom?"

Zayn hit him with the seriously cutest version of a stern look Liam had ever been exposed to but he wasn’t ready to waver. “I know Niall. He is not that type of person. He just got out of a serious relationship and he was just telling me before you arrived how he hoped his date- aka you- was his chance at a fresh start. Save him the heartbreak and let him go now.”

He drew in closer for the next part, letting his voice wain on a whisper near his lips. “Don’t wait for him to completely fall for you.”

Zayn sized Liam up and down from his lips to his eyes, and Liam felt the glare scathing his insides like a laser. “You don’t know me, Liam. Stop acting like you do.”

The stony man shook his head at Liam and made to leave but Liam grabbed his wrist in time.

Zayn eyed his grip pointedly but Liam didn’t let go. “You’re right. I don’t know you. And I don’t know what it is but I feel different around you. And I know it sounds cliché but I can’t help but stay rooted to the ground when I look at you. Whatever the reason is that you’re scared to be with me, you can tell me.”

“There is nothing to tell. I’ve been honest with you from the beginning. I don’t do relationships. That’s just me.” Zayn’s thick dark brows summited over his sparkling brown eyes, he waited a half-minute for the words to sink in. For Liam to finally get it. But all he got was confusion and the sense that Zayn was hiding something on lockdown deep inside.

“And if that’s the way you see what happened between us then yeah, like a used condom we have nothing to talk about. You’re Bebe’s man, and that’s it.”

Liam knew he didn’t mean it but the words still hurt. Liam looked at Zayn. His eyes were cold and unfeeling, and Liam finally felt alone in this. He wanted to cry for all the nights he spent dreaming about him. Wanting him. When it was clear the man felt nothing for Liam.

“Zayn?” It was Niall. He was timidly standing a foot away. Liam was not sure how much of the conversation he heard but he looked oblivious enough. Not that Liam was even looking at the man, he was steadily focused on Zayn, hitting him a droopy warning look.

“Are you ready to go?” Zayn said to Niall in smoldering tone, as if he had just mentally obliterated the previous conversation.

Zayn’s hand reached Niall’s mid-section and they both disappeared. Feeling like his lungs were just punctured by a spear, Liam flew around and grabbed onto the railing, letting it all out.

 

*

 

The campfire burned steady and the stream was calm as the boys ate their platefuls of fireside fish in silence. Louis ate his food with a few huckleberries, finding them to be his new favorite fruit. Harry then opened the bag of marshmallows to go with hot chocolate, and Louis stuck them in twigs to roast.

As they enjoyed the dessert Harry was the first to break the silence. “It wasn’t just because of the mess the sculpture would make that I didn’t want to stay at my mom’s to work on it.”

Harry’s voice was serious and drawing and Louis listened as the fire crackled sending soft light dancing on their faces.

“It was just that- her place was so perfect and everything had its place there and I didn’t want to upset it. You know? I didn’t feel like I belonged. See, my dad has all these pictures of us going fishing, and my graduation and... My mom’s place was shiny and spotless and there was this glass space saver with pristine shelves that had an expensive vase and ceramic swans and that kind of fancy stuff. And there wasn’t a single picture of me.” Harry’s voice broke a little.

“Not even a baby picture- which I assume she should have since she skipped out when I was like three feet tall- And I felt so out of place no matter how she said she was happy to see me and that she was sorry," he paused to blow a breath. "It felt as though if I hadn't not come to see her she would have gone along her merry life not knowing or caring what I turned out to be. And the point is, I couldn’t tell her that because she wanted to help me get my piece sold. Does that make me a horrible person?”

Louis immediately spoke. “No. I understand how you feel. Although if it were me, I probably wouldn’t last that long. I think for me it'd be too late for apologies.”

Harry let out a nose-laugh. “My mum wanted me to stay with her in Chicago after the earthquake. She thought maybe since I had one leg she’d finally get me in her house. I just couldn’t deal with it. I felt like a fish in a bowl. So I called my dad and he came to get me straight out of the hospital. I didn’t even tell her until I was back home with my dad. She sounded so sad but I didn’t really care at the time; my leg and all. It’s weird, I missed her my whole childhood and then when I finally got her back it was just awkward. I’m still glad my dad gave me her address though. At least she expressed regret.”

“You’re lucky your dad even knew where she was. If I had to look for my parents, I wouldn’t even know where to begin.” Louis dipped his marshmallow in his cup of hot chocolate and took a sip.

“Do you want to find them?”

Swallowing the drink, Louis shook his head assertively. “No.”

Harry gave a small understanding nod.

Louis then pulled his boots off and set his foot on the thin log in front of the fire. “You know; I was thinking about what you said about Mount Rainier. The rocks went through unimaginable heat thousands of years ago to get that look. You said you wished you were there to see the earth break. Well... you sort of were.

Harry gave a look of calculation. “You mean in the earthquake in Chicago?”

Louis gave a half-accepting nod. "Yeah that was kind of the same- and I'm not belittling what happened in Chicago- but I'm actually referring to thousands of years ago in comparison to us when we were, say...kids.”

Harry knitted his brows but listened intently as Louis explained.

“Look, we’ve both been burned. We’ve both been broken as children, in our own experiences. But would you like to go back there? Or be here when it’s years later and the pain has become a carved-out edifice of how we got to be this way as adults. I think, just like the Seattle mountains, the erosion of our scars overtime gave way to something beautiful. Maybe we're supposed to be these beautiful broken things. Burnt into existence but shaped by everything else that happened in the years after that. So maybe you don’t want to be there to see how the mountain was forged. Maybe instead of trying to get back to the people we were, we figure out what we are going to be.”

Sighing, he grabbed a skewer and stuck another marshmallow on it, finally looking at Harry. “What?”

Harry was staring at him, or through him, at something deep inside that caught his attention and was telling him an engrossing epic story he had never heard before.

A broad but shy smile glazed Harry’s face as he eventually looked away to unzip his fleece. “I’ve never heard an analogy like that before.” He tugged at the zip.

Louis smiled warmly and offered him a well-done marshmallow. Harry merely looked at it as his fingers were working at the jacket neck.

“Oh no,” he laughed, yanking again with effort. Louis briskly put side the fire food.

“Here, let me.” Louis reached over and grabbed the bungee cord zipper pull, tugging and examining the underside for the kink. Harry’s eyes flicked on him for a brief second and under the man’s chin guard he glimpsed his Adams apple bop in the campfire, but that wasn’t what he was caught with; he knew Harry was not breathing, because he was practically touching his chest as he struggled to free him from his reverse coil zipper. Louis wasn’t breathing either because somehow even over the soft fleece he could feel Harry’s warmth, and he couldn’t help but inwardly panic that he would start coughing from lack of air and mess up the false in-control act he was portraying.

Then as they looked into each other’s eyes, the zip finally unhitched and started moving down slowly and Louis wondered if his hand was being controlled from some remote location. He wished it didn’t move yet because somewhere in all of it Harry had leaned forward, curious but scared eyes locked on Louis’ mouth, and Louis wanted to kiss the fear away and welcome the curiosity. Satiate it. But the man realizing his jacket was free now cleared his throat and raked his hair back embarrassedly, breaking the moment into oblivion.

Louis pulled his hand away and swallowed. “All better.” He hopped back on his side of the log and stuck a fresh marshmallow in the fire as Harry rid himself of the jacket, breathing deeply.

 

--

 

Louis sat outside for a bit while Harry changed in the tent.

“It’s okay now.” Harry’s voice sounded like he was falling into the arms of Morpheus.

Louis got in, zipped up from the bears and lay on his side of the tent. It was a cozy affair; a thick blanket for the chilly lake air, ...pillow, ...Harry. Whoa, where did that come from? Louis was way too sleepy to be thinking.

He shuffled on his side to face Harry, yawning droopy-eyed.

They were three feet apart. Give or take. Take. Still, Louis wanted to reel it all in to see deeper into those sparkling forest-colored orbs staring back at him as the two men nestled on their sleeping bags inside the closed tent.

He blinked slowly as he stared solemnly into Harry's unblinking embers, starting to feel extra warm under his blanket. Though Harry's eyes were still from blinking, somehow they were a lot wider than they were a few seconds ago. Louis blinked again and felt a burn under his lids, realizing he had stopped blinking too somewhere along with the Ferris wheel of Harry's irises.

He smiled at him, the friendliest smile he could muster to try to dissipate the weirdly unintentional staring contest they found themselves engaging in, and swiftly turned the other way, shuffling to comfort and sleep.

“Overnight Delivery or How Do You Know?” -Louis’ eyes popped open. He shuffled around to face Harry once again with a confused expression.

“The ‘Reese Witherspoon and Paul Rudd’ movie you saw,” Harry asked again. “Was it Overnight Delivery or How Do You Know?”

Louis rolled his eyes about in recollection.

'Now I told you so you ought to know... take some time for our feelings to grow...’  he sang sleepily and watched as Harry’s eyes popped open now.

A grin spread across Harry’s face and Louis blinked slowly at it. “Goodnight Harry.” He shifted back around and closed his eyes, reluctantly now as all he wanted to do was sing the whole damn song to Harry.

"You are such a show-off."

“Louis snorted in reply but let himself sail to sleep.

 

*

 

Niall tumbled in backward into Zayn’s room, Zayn’s lips plastered on him and his hands tightly squeezing his arse.

Zayn moonwalked him to the bed, his lips working on his neck and his hands working on the buttons of his shirt.

His Niall gave a noise as his calves hit the hard edge of the bed and he put some distance between him and Zayn. Smiling as Zayn scraped off his shirt, Niall took a look around. Zayn's room was not too shabby; clean polished hardwood, built-in closet, man products on the nightstand. A few clothes were thrown in a corner, but ventilated. Niall's eyes moved around. He was almost about to be comfortable enough to resume the night here but something caught his eye. There was a dreamcatcher on the wall behind Zayn's bed. Now, anyone can have dreamcatchers but this one was special. The patterned weave and specially ordered row of beads in the working told Niall it came from Liam's sister, Ruth.

Niall knew he was reading too much into it, but that paired with what he walked in on at the pub plus the handmade wristband that was scraping his jugular as Zayn was now holding him in another kiss, he would say there was pretty good chance something more was at play.

“It’s you, isn’t it? You’re the guy Liam told me about.”

Zayn gave a woolly expression.

"You two have something going on," Niall elaborated. "You and Liam have been acting weird tonight- not talking. You didn't even stay for my karaoke. You two snuck away the minute me and Bebe turned our backs."

Zayn was ready to burst. “What? No,” he shook his head, pasting his hands on the sides of Niall’s head to hold him steady for a kiss.

Niall laughed dryly and pulled away, taking Zayn's hands off of him. "And to think I thought it was Louis he was in love with." The murdered look that flashed across Zayn's face when he said it was confirmation.

Zayn stuttered. “Louis? Why- would- you think...?” - he quickly caught himself and said quicker, “Look, let's just relax and unwind.”

“Oh, I’m relaxed. All evening I’ve been a nervous wreck thinking how am I gonna impress someone who risks their life to save common citizens when all I do is merely feed them hot meals, and for the first time I’m actually calm. This is great. It’s good we laid it all out now rather than later when it would just be a mess.”

Zayn let out a defeated sigh, clasping the back of his head.

Niall paused to look at him pensively yet decisively. “Have a good night Zayn.”

 

--

As Niall walked out, Zayn took to the edge of his bed. Hot rage pushing through his eyes. The memories always came back whenever he felt like he failed at something. But he didn’t fight it. He let the scars bleed once more.

 

~~

 

“You will never know what it is to love- really love. Never get married. Never have a family. How can you do this to Abidah? She has waited for you to come home from medical school all this time to get married. How can you procreate? Son, you will never know what it is to look your child in the eyes and know that it came from divine matrimony. You cannot engage in such a thing. Think about this family’s reputation! Allah will frown on you. And I cannot protect you from his wrath.”

“I can’t change what I am papa. I tried to court Abidah but I like her as a friend.”

“Then depart from me. If Allah sees fit that I may only have a daughter, then so be it.”

~~

 

Zayn remembered letting the tears roll down silently as his father rented one of his good thobes in half, straight down the middle in the representation of his severance with the father/son bond. Zayn remembered telling his father, as his mother and sister wailing in the background, that he would stay in the US and out of his way to buffer the shame he would have otherwise face when his comrades ask him why his son will not marry. It had hurt and he was grateful to have the opportunity to live in a whole other continent away from his father’s disappointed eyes.

The word had been given. This was his life now. Doomed to never settle and be like his father. The father he looked up to all his life. He had made a promise to himself to never cover the scars. To never pretend that what he was living a happy fulfilling life. No matter how many men he slept with and how good he felt about his freedom he knew this was not what Allah wanted. What his father wanted.

As he inhaled the residue of Niall’s cologne that still wafted around his room, he accepted that this was all part of his cursed existence. And he was fine with it. But his job? Zayn didn’t accept that his job was part of it. That he had to control and not warp it up in his hatred of himself. If he couldn’t get his sexuality right he would damn sure get the job of saving lives right.

The first time he told his father he didn’t want to be a doctor anymore- that he wanted to be a paramedic- his father had been slightly disappointed but supportive nonetheless. And thinking he had an opening to come out to a supportive family he pushed his luck and told the man- in his taqiyah and all- that he preferred the romantic company of men rather than women. Zayn remembered the malignant knot that wrung his chest when his father took a step back from him when he said it. The berating eyes that scanned him up and down like he was an insect. So Zayn needed to hold fast to his dream of saving people's lives. The only part of him that his father had been proud of before he turned his back on him.

He could not help but see how he hurt Niall now. He felt bad, especially after what Liam said about his breakup. That ass, Liam. Where did he get off telling Zayn he had no right to take home who he wanted? Who was Liam to ogle at him like he owed him something and demand him to spill all his secrets? If it wasn't for the unpretentiously cute way he acted around his family and the trusting conversation they had in his bed, he would have thought the man a crazy stalker. But just because he spilled his guts about his charred past doesn't mean Zayn has to do it too.

Zayn sighed. It was hard finding any real fault with Liam. He thought about the things he said about his parent’s death. Zayn did not say it then, but he grew up in a home with three sisters and devoted parents who lead them in their faith. A faith that had caused them to now leave Zayn behind. He did not say he had felt every emotion Liam was feeling about abandonment and missing his parents. He stayed silent like he always did when graced with the opportunity. He just sat there in silence, and a while after let Liam take his body with all its silently bleeding scars and allowed himself to bleed some more. Just like he always did with any hot male who was down to fuck.  Liam was only the latest razor that just won’t go away.

 

*

 

“I love it out here in these mountain slopes. The air, the birds, everything is so fresh and makes you ready to take on anything.” Harry washed his face in a clear stream of water.

"You're right. It's peaceful out here," Louis said, a bagful of huckleberries in hand. "I'm glad you brought me out here."

Harry looked at him and smiled, and Louis grinned, the silent knowledge that it was in fact Louis' idea to bring Harry out here not the other way around, swimming around them.

 

Then- “ROARRRRRR!!!” A huge black grizzly rose up from behind Harry and clawed at him. Louis threw the basket into berries into the air, grabbing Harry, and made a run for it while the bear darted for the berries.’

 

~~

 

Louis cascaded out of bed in a cold sweat.

"Hey!" Harry was awake, sitting with a flashlight and a novel. Louis could only guess it was in the middle of the night. Harry was now looking at him with alarming concern.

"Bear! There was a bear!" was all Louis could get out, looking down at his shaky hands. Great. It had happened again. Louis had gotten a few bad dreams at the Styles house but he was the only one sleeping downstairs, so neither Des nor Harry heard him. Plus, as his time with the men grew he was having fewer bad dreams. But something about being in the wild with bears, deer, and other animals Louis wasn't accustomed to, had triggered another nightmare.

Harry slide until he came to Louis' side. Hey, it's okay." His eyes were warm and dark in the dim light, and Louis could smell the toothpaste and biodegradable soap on him as he neared.

Harry reached out and gently pressed his palms on the sides of Louis’ sweaty face, a reassuring look on his face. “They don’t attack humans unless they feel threatened.”

Louis shut his eyes. “I know. I just- maybe we shouldn’t have set up so close to the water. They’re bound to want to fish too.”

Harry laughed. “That’s funny, you should say because while you were sleeping one came and did exactly that. I heard him about an hour ago.”

Louis tried to jump up but Harry grabbed his shoulders and set him back down.

“We have to leave! It’s not safe!” Louis growled into the tent.

Harry clasped his hand over Louis’ mouth. “Do you want him to come back?”

Louis' eyes flashed wider and he groaned under the restraint.

"It was a baby, from the sounds of it. But if you scream or shout he might come back with his mother. Their moms are fiercely protective of them." Louis saw a sparkle die in his eyes as he said it.

Harry then removed his hands and sat back. Louis knew what he meant more than anyone else would- even wild mama bears love their cubs more than his mother loved him. Louis was about to say something comforting, but Harry cut him off. “Tell me about your dream.”

“Well there was this bear and he was about to snatch you. I threw the huckleberries and-”

Harry’s laugh interrupted him. “I knew it was those damn huckleberries. I think you ate too much of them.”

"You're laughing. This is serious. We could genuinely be in danger out here." Louis shuffled away from him. Harry of all people was supposed to know what Louis was on about. They survived together before. He should let Louis protect him again and leave. Now. Louis drooped his shoulders. But why would he? He lost his leg the last time Louis tried to protect him. It was all that Louis was trying to make up for taking time off his job and helping Harry in Seattle. He wanted Harry to live his best self with the card he had been dealt with. Hence the reason they were out in the Snoqualmie park in the first place. But maybe Louis had poor judgment and should have contented himself with just the viewing of the falls. They'd be safe at home right now.

“I have bad dreams too.”

Louis whirled around.

Harry nodded to affirm his statement. “Since the earthquake I’ve been having these dreams that all end in me losing my leg.” Harry bent his knees and wrapped his arms around them.

“I don’t know if it’s the medication or if I have PTSD, but yeah sometimes I wake up covered in sweat.”

Louis' heart catapulted in his chest. Now would be a very good time to tell the man he too had the same problem, but he did not want to worry him. Louis needed to be strong and protective now. It was his job.

“Does it happen often?”

"At the beginning but the past few weeks, not so much." Harry kept his gaze. Louis felt heat rush his cheeks.

“If you want, I can go with you to a therapist to deal with that.”

“No fucking way. I already have a lot to deal with.” Harry’s demeanor changed into insolence.

Louis closed his eyes. He had to tell Harry that going to a meeting or seeing a psychologist helps, and the only way to get the message across was to tell Harry about his nightmares. “I get the same sort of dreams...about you. About the beam, and I just,” Louis propped his elbows on his knees and dragged his hairs through his hair. “I’m so sorry I didn’t get to you in time. One minute you were by my side and the next you were...”

Harry’s face moved in a confused twist. “Is that why you came here and pushed me into therapy? Because you blame yourself for what happened? It wasn’t your fault. It was an accident.”

“Look, the point is,” Louis countered ignoring him, “I went to these PTSD meetings and they helped a bit. Even though I still feel guilty.”

Sorry for me, you mean.” Harry’s eyes were on the fire, distant.

“Never. Harry, you’re doing so good now. With the gait training and the more comfortable prosthetics. I don’t know if I could have half the courage if it was me.” Louis had no idea how he fell into this trap but he was being as honest as he felt. He really did see Harry as a hero for making the steps to take back his life. Louis knew if it was him he might have crumbled.

“Then why do I feel so useless?”

“You’re not.”

“Then if I’m not then you aren’t either. We both have to forgive ourselves. Let go of the past like you said. And look towards the future.”

Louis lowered his gaze in reflection. Harry was right. They both had to get through this somehow. “I guess it goes back to my sister’s death. The earthquake just brought it all back up- and the fact that someone else was now depending on me to save them...”

“Tay had a drug problem. There wasn’t anything you could do for someone who didn’t want help.” Louis knew Harry was trying to help but this should be going the other way around.

“Harry, maybe a few meetings will help you cope mentally.”

Harry gave him an eyebrow like ‘Seriously? You think I’m the one who needs mental help here?’

Louis threw his hands up in defeat but Harry spoke again quickly. “I’ll tell you what- why don’t you get back under the covers and I’ll sing you a song to fall back asleep? ...Forget all about the bear.” He clasped his hands.

Louis’ eyes rampaged around the tent. He had never heard Harry sing before.

“If I say yes can we leave first daylight?”

“Yep.” Harry shuffled back to his bedding.

Louis covered up and breathed in and out, closing his eyes in readiness for the song. He doubted it would make him sleep but he wanted to hear it.

Harry started singing and Louis' eyes opened. He was singing the song Louis had started earlier- and it sounded so good.

As Harry sang in a whispery tone, Louis stole a look; he was on his back with his hands over the book on his chest.

‘...You’re so close now I can’t let you go, and I can’t let go,’

Harry shifted and his eyes caught Louis’ at the lyrics ‘With you I’m not shy...’ and Louis saw the flicker of something he had no words for.

“Yeah, I think you definitely scared the bears away now.” Louis scrambled to face the other way.

Harry laughed a genuine laugh then a fake sarcastic one, throwing a pillow at Louis.

Louis smiled, closing his eyes. He was not freaked out about the bear anymore. But now he couldn’t get Harry’s soulful singing out of his head.

Yeah, Louis definitely couldn’t sleep now.

 

*

 

The sun was up for an hour already when Harry and Louis woke up.

Harry emerged from the tent first. “Don’t freak out!” he warned Louis as he took a few steps toward the kitchen area.

“What are you talking about?” Louis said in his sleepy voice, rubbing his eyes as he climbed out behind the taller man.

He took one look outside and gasped. All the huckleberries they had picked were scattered on the ground along with empty plates in the garbage bag. Some of them even squashed.

“I didn’t want to tell you the bear was helping himself to the kitchen before you woke up,” Harry said on eggshells. “You were already panicking and I didn’t want to add to it.”

Louis froze, jaw dropped. “How can you be so calm about this? This is a sign that I was right and we should have left last night!”

Harry let out a funny-sounding laugh. “A sign?”

Louis looked at him twice. “Yeah. That bear must have been really hungry go through the berries like this. We are lucky he didn’t rip the tent in half and feast on us. What are the odds that I’m dreaming about a bear at the exact same time one is rampaging our berries? Tell me you don’t believe in signs.”

Harry pulled a shrug. “Serendipity maybe. Do you believe in Serendipity?”

Louis’ eyes circled his line of vision. “You mean things happening by happy chance? In the movies, I guess?”

“In the real world too. There are specific signs from the universe that tell us when things are coming together perfectly. Not just the movies.”

“Yeah but believe me, that is not what is happening here. There is nothing good about a bear attacking our camp.” Louis proceeded to open a new garbage bag and dump the scattered plates in.

Harry laughed and helped gather the berries that were still whole.

The men then packed everything up including the tent and tucked them neatly in the vehicle. Hopping in, they bid farewell to the evergreen parks.

 

*

“In Overnight Delivery there were these series of events that were seemingly bad but turned out to be for good. So you may be wrong. The bear was probably doing us a favor by scaring us away before his mom got there.” Harry kept his face to the window, taking in the last of the scenery.

Eyes on the road, Louis considered that. If he remembered the rom com correctly, to stick it to his supposedly cheating girlfriend Paul Rudd takes a half-naked picture with this stripper he just met and mails it, then she helps him chase down the delivery truck to stop the picture from reaching his girlfriend when he realized she was not cheating, and every possible disaster happens to stop him from thwarting the delivery. In the end it all led to him realizing his girlfriend really was cheating and that he had unexpectedly fallen for the random roadtrip girl who was more compatible and fell for him too along the way.

“Okay, one for the Home team,” Louis concurred, and Harry laughed out. They spent the next three road destination signs Talking about the movie and laughing at the funny parts they remembered and comparing takeaways from it.

“Never judge someone based on their job,” Louis shot, eyes front but cheek stretching to Harry.

“Good one. Um...Never step out of a car without looking first,” Harry laughed and Louis hit the steering wheel in eruption.

"Touche, touche mon cher monsieur."

Harry eyed him. "I have no idea what you just said but I'll take it."

Louis shrugged. "Nothin really. Just saying you're a smartass, that's all."

Harry punched him in the thigh and for a brief moment they locked eyes. Harry then dropped his gaze to his lap, his fingers clasped together in his own thoughts.

“You okay?” Louis asked. The silence seemed so strange, so out of place here after all that laughter and fun.

“Yeah,” Harry smiled. “I just thinking, trying to remember the signs I may have missed with Nick and Sariah. Something that maybe happened to warn me and I ignored it.”

Pursing his lips rigidly, Louis nodded in a swoop. “That was a long time ago, Harry. Whatever signs there were don’t matter anymore.” He said it as tactful as possible. He really did. But the crawling in his skin at the mere mention of the name must have crept in his voice somewhere because Harry’s head had flashed to face him and he was now staring at him without a word. Still Louis held out hope that it could be the man was simply mulling over and heeding his words.

They drove in silence for another mile and once in the vicinity of town buildings, they stopped to get a couple of breakfast scones then continued through until they reached a stretch of country road where each property was twenty about acres apart. Harry's face lit up when they neared a junction.

"Can we turn in for a minute? My Dad's work buddy I told you about? The one who died? His house is on that street. Maybe we can say a quick hello to his wife."

Louis swung his head in agreement. “No problem.”

Harry grinned as Louis turned into the street. “Thanks. I haven’t seen her in ages.”

After a few minutes of driving through yards of fruit trees on either side of the road, Harry alerted Louis to slow down, and they pulled up to a small, cottage-style house with a pair of child's play swings on the lawn, the house breathed country relaxation. Louis could not help but think if he settled down one day it would be in a house like this one. Not that he didn't like Des' house but this one was in the cool breezy hills with enough distance between neighbors to not hear their dogs yapping in the middle of the night. Not to mention the ripe-plum trees in the vast backyard that would make frequent trips to the market a thing of the past.

They climbed out and shut the doors, but the occupant of the house was already opening the door and coming out to greet them. A woman in her fifties in a prairie dress and sandals grinned cheerily as she hobbled up to them.

“I cannot believe my eyes!” She threw her arms around Harry, blocking his face with her shoulder. “Harry, you are a sight! Long hair and tan to die for! Oh! Ruby would be so surprised to see how you’ve grown!”

“She’s around?” Harry inquired as they stepped toward the house.

“No. Campus reopened last week, remember?”

“This is my friend, Louis. He’s a firefighter.”

“Oh! Your dad told me all about him. I’m so sorry to hear about your leg. I sent you those sweets in the mail, did you get?”

Harry grinned. “Yes. I ate them all in the first week. Thank you.”

She patted his face. Louis smiled at the cuteness of the scene. Meredith waved them in and walked off to the living room seats.

A large oval chenille-braided rug added a fun yet neutral feel to the light-finished laminate flooring and latte walls. Loaded up with furniture, lamps and a dainty sofa, the room was cozy enough for the cold countryside nights.

Harry nodded quickly. Louis reckoned he had almost forgotten they were already into September.

The woman sat up under Harry like a fangirl, eyes scanning his prosthetic leg. He had on blue jeans but they were a bit short and showed the narrowed part of the leg above the shoe.

"You must be so depressed. But you are better now, right? With the therapy and all?" she sent Louis a quick smile of acknowledgment that let him know she and Des had been talking quite a lot about his and Harry's clinic visits.

“It’s been hard but I’m trying to be strong for Dad.”

Louis watched as Harry forced himself to stay smiling politely. If Harry was so uncomfortable with his leg around the people who knew loved him then much worse for when someone as new as Louis tried to help him take it off etc. But Harry had been at ease with him in physical therapy, allowing Louis to touch him without objection. But for some reason when it was just the two of them and Joey wasn’t around Harry would close up again and turn into a shrew.

“You have to be strong for yourself too. You have your whole life ahead.”

And Louis felt a lump creep up behind his tongue. He wondered if Harry knew how hard he tried to make this true for him. To make his life almost as easy as it would have been before the tremors. He wondered if he even succeeded in giving Harry hope. As he sat there, Louis felt there was so much more he wanted to do to make up for not getting to him sooner and pushing him out of the beam’s way.

“You came all the way out here to see me. I’m so happy you did,” Meredith clipped, pressing her dainty knuckles into the seat cushions to get up.

"Well, yeah, I brought Louis out here to see the falls yesterday and we ended up camping in the park. I told him we had to come to see you."

“I trust you will be spending the night, then? Since Ruby went to campus and Ben died it’s been so lonely here.”

Louis looked at Harry for clues of acceptance. He was starting to think he could use a proper shower and some lunch maybe.

“No no. My dad is expecting us early," Harry shot down Louis' thoughts. He looked rather eager to see his father again. Louis thought it cute and sad at the same time. Des was practically Harry's only house companion for years until Louis came along. "I'll come visit you Mere, I promise."

Meredith gave a long swerving disappointed nod. “I will hold you to that. Call me and I’ll make sure Ruby gets to see you as well.”

“That would be nice.” Harry’s dimples appeared with the small toothless smile. Louis had rarely seen them lately. Even in the car they were still missing. He did see them at times, but they were so few and far between. He wondered if Harry knew how happy inside he made people when they showed.

"Oh, that's my boy." Meredith pinched his cheeks. "While you're here you can help yourselves to the plum trees out back," Meredith shimmied to the back door. "I'll get you a couple of baskets."

As she disappeared, Louis and Harry exchanged looks. Would the small car even have space for it?

Louis raised an excited brow pulling Harry up off the seat. “Might as well. We can make a huckleberry plum salad.”

Harry laughed. “We can pick up some bananas on the way too. Give it a contrasting color.”

They trod through the lawn until they were met with sunny trees holding the biggest, most beautiful plums Louis had ever laid eyes on. Harry scurried to them and started picking. Meredith handed them the basket and dashed back to the house in a hurry. Louis handed it to Harry, taking over the picking.

Louis picked and Harry beamed at the nearly full basket. “You can take some of these back to your friends in Chicago. There is no way we can use them all before they spoil!”

Louis broke one open, throwing juice out. He fed Harry a piece at his mouth, getting back a tiny bit of saliva on his thumb from the contact.

“It’s so good. I almost forgot how good,” Harry said, rolling back his eyes, mouth gushing with juicy taste.

Louis ate, and swallowed, getting a thrill at the sight and sounds of Harry’s delight. And he was not going to deny it to himself anymore- he wished something else on his body besides his fingers were allowed to go near the insides of Harry’s mouth and wash in his salivary burst.

The trip had turned out unexpectedly good. Not only had being able to talk so freely about Tay with the man been a surprise for Louis, but just talking and getting to know him better over campfire and in the car and seeing how sweet he was now with Meredith, had caused Louis to cradle a stronger desire to be closer to him.

Sure he had always found Harry attractive and he liked the way the wind threw his hair and the way his irises were either a cool jade or a dark forest according to what time of day it was, or the smell of his body spray when he comes down for breakfast every morning all fresh and ready each day when Louis would still be stale and groggy from the night before...but seeing him catch a fish with his bare hands and set up a whole campsite with little help from anyone... Whoa- Just as sure as he was standing on the spot, Louis was certain that his feelings ran deeper now.

They took their basket of plums and strolled back to the house. Meredith greeted them with wrapped chicken tortillas for the road and Louis thanked her extensively.

"We're parking somewhere to eat these," Louis stated in gratitude to which Harry snickered.

They bade Meredith goodbye and when Louis held out Harry’s jacket for him to slip his arms into, Harry gave no hesitation this time and Louis swore the ‘thank you’ that came with it was different. Softer, sweeter.

He hoped he did not mistake it.

 

*

Jessie Rueben- This Is Why I Need You

Mazzy Star- Fade Into You

Walter Egan- Magnet and Steel

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

Bright and early the next morning, Des came storming down the stairs in his work uniform shouting at Louis to grab the mail as he was late for work. Louis, who was asleep until then, dragged himself out of the blow-up mattress and wiggled his boxer-shorted bum out to the mailbox.

Growling as the morning light hit his not-so-open yet eyes thinking he'd get to sleep in today after that camping trip, he covered his ears from what sounded like the whole neighborhood barking like mad at the motorcycle mailman zipping through the streets. He did not get any nightmares last night and figured it was since he was safe from the bears again.

He grabbed the mail and had just slammed the box closed when he heard a crash coming from inside the house.

Storming in, he found Harry on the kitchen floor, cutlery everywhere. Des was standing by the table getting yelled at for having wares that high up.

“I haven’t changed anything since your mother left!” Des tried to appease his son, taking a quick sip of coffee but making no attempt to go near the fuming Harry again.

Louis dropped the envelopes on the counter and kneeled to help him up. "What happened?" He offered his arm. His boxers weren't that loose but they clung a hundred times tighter with kneeling, and he felt awkward since Harry was fully dressed and ready to take on the day.

"Nothing, I was tiptoeing to see inside the top of the cupboard and lost my balance," Harry batted his hands away. "I can get myself up." His eyes kept dashing from his boxers to his face in but they were full of resilience and Louis had to back off and watch as he took an excruciatingly long time to get the cane he used sometimes now, and prop himself up off the floor.

Louis let him be, hitting him a low-key frown. He had really hoped Harry's spirits would lift now that he was somewhat bicrural again. What was he even doing tiptoeing on his only big toe? Trying to break it with his weight?

“Your aura is a really dark, murky color,” Louis teased with a stern face, backing away, winning himself a view of Harry's front teeth. “Is that a smile I see?"- Harry shook his head in reply, but only grinned wider-"Yes, it is!”

Des cleared his throat almost like he felt he was interrupting something, and moved to the sink to wash his cup.

Snapping his jaw shut, Louis picked up the mail. Bill, bill, more bills, a letter from Seattle High... a letter from Seattle High?

Louis held it to Harry. “Looks like someone got a late report card.”

“Gimme that,” Harry took it and tore it open. His face twisted in disinterest. “It’s a reminder for the reunion tomorrow night.”

“Oh, I think I remember you telling me about that.” Louis went back to the earthquake when Harry had told him about his fears of never living down getting dumped at prom. But as far as Louis was concerned Harry didn’t need to prove anything to anyone. He was moving on from Nick and living his best self. Louis was trying to make sure of that.

Louis branched off into his thoughts. What if they go to the reunion? Louis' social life had changed drastically since arriving in Seattle, with Harry, Des, and the nosey neighbors being his only social circle. He had only spoken to Zayn yesterday for a few minutes before the man was off to his work and studies again, so long story short, a reunion screamed night out to Louis right now. Something he felt he and Harry both needed. The man had warmed up to him over the last few weeks and particularly on their camping trip and Louis was sure they were brief moments where Harry was checking him out. Louis’ attraction wasn’t absent; he wanted to ask the man out but felt it would seem out of place as he was still recovering. Sure they went places together but they were all in the name of getting Harry active again. Louis didn’t want to come off as a creep, and maybe this reunion would be the perfect chance to build on their attraction to each other without the setting seeming too forced.

“This reunion... is Nick gonna be there?” he asked fighting to sound cool and casual but knowing it came out angular and motive-driven.

Harry's eyes cursored over the letter in Louis’ hand, then came up slowly to meet Louis' eyes. “Your memory is way too perfect. Don’t get any ideas. I’m not gonna go sit there and listen to my old classmates talk about their dream jobs coming true, and how they go hiking and paddling…I’m good.”

Louis snorted. “I knew we should’ve gotten the blow-up boat. You can do all those things too, you know.”

“He’s right. You’re not a paraplegic, Bub. Be grateful,” Des agreed, picking up the cutlery and heading back into the living room. “Go put some pants on, Lieutenant. I’ll be in the car.”

Harry rolled his eyes and met Louis’ gaze again but he broke it to toss the letter on the table. “Tell me if you change your mind.” He took a sip of coffee and left the room to drive Des to work.

 

*

 

The moon was already out over the early night sky when Zayn's and Bebe's shift was over. Bebe stayed back to do some last-minute cleaning up while Zayn jangled his keys as he walked to his car.

His eyes immediately veered to the parked car on the other side of the car park. The large brown eyes plastered on him. After that talk on the rooftop the night before last, the owner of those eyes had been avoiding Zayn like wildfire, waiting for Bebe in the car rather than come in the station like he did before. A tiny face staring from his car was all Zayn got now, and it frustrated him how it came to this. Zayn would have loved to say Liam was a dick for sticking his nose in his business with Niall but he was right. And Zayn needed to apologize. He didn't even know if Liam was aware he had succeeded in cockblocking him that night, but from the way he was avoiding him, Zayn could safely say the man didn't give a shit anymore.

Liam sent his car glass up pointedly as Zayn stared from afar. It wrung Zayn's insides like a wet tie-dye shirt. Deciding against letting it happen another day, he ambled over to Liam's car with a quick look at the Station entrance to make sure Bebe wasn't ready yet.

He tapped on the glass. Liam looked straight ahead, his jaw clenching. He left a few inches down in the window for air as the engine was off and Zayn knew he would hear whatever it is he had to say regardless if he kept it up or not.

“So, you just gonna pretend I don’t exist now?” he stood by Liam’s window with a tilted head to peer at him.

“Yep. That’s the plan.” Liam didn’t look back at him.

"Look, I want to apologize for the other night."

The window slowly came down.

“I didn’t mean for you to completely ignore me. I never wanted that.”

“You never wanted anything,” Liam dead-toned, still avoiding eye-contact.

Zayn shoved his hands in his pockets biting down on his jaw. “You don’t have to act like I don’t exist.” He looked to the entrance to make sure Bebe didn’t walk in on the conversation. “Look, is there somewhere we can talk?”

Liam nodded. “Get in.”

“What about Bebe?”

Liam sighed roughly. “Just get in.”

He drove in silence and stopped at an old building near the edge of town that overlooked a lonely cattle field.

Zayn watched as the man texted up a storm muttering it was to inform Bebe that he won’t be able to pick her up tonight. Liam clutched the steering wheel then finally looked at Zayn, the moonlight pale on his golden beige skin. But it was for a short minute as he was now turning back to the dashboard.

"I'm going through a lot right now with my GG in the hospital, and my grandfather mad at me, and work. I just don't have time to be sucked into whatever this is with you or Bebe and any of it."

“I’m not asking you get sucked in. I just hate that you feel you have to walk on eggshells around me.”

Liam insolently raised eight fingers off the steering wheel. “Well, if you can’t let me ignore you no matter how hard I try, then you can’t be mad at me for breaking up with her.”

“Breaking up with her?” Zayn’s forehead curled. “Is that what you just did?”

“You think I’m that much of a jerk?” Liam laughed, hitting Zayn with a disbelieving eyebrow. “I was going to break up with her tonight. But then you showed up. So I’ll do it tomorrow, in person. And there is nothing you can say to change my mind.”

Liam shook his head then, looking out the window at the grass. “I tried to forget you. And no matter what I do, it always adds up to you, and your face, and your body. I can’t be someone who is with one person and in love with someone else. It hurts beyond hell.”

Zayn turned and leaned back on the door, his arms cradling his bent leg on the seat. "You're in love with me?" the question came out disbelieving. But Zayn was just putting up a defense.

"I asked Bebe for her number to make you jealous. I had no intention of things getting to the level of meeting her parents and all that. You are the one I wanted to get familiar with. But you left me with no choice. You just keep fighting me. And all I wanna do is love you and be with you." Liam's voice was low and pleading, and somewhere in the depths of it Zayn finally got the point.

"Wow. You really do care about me." The realization of it all hit him at that moment, and Zayn's heart started beating faster, like a windmill in his chest.

“I’m tired of fighting it. It’s you. I want you.” Liam suddenly launched himself and crashed his head into Zayn’s chest. Then a maddening passion took over him and he started kissing Zayn hard in the mouth. Zayn didn’t stop him, tears coming to his own eyes now. Liam felt them on his face and reluctantly pulled away to see.

“You okay, Love?” Liam cupped his chin.

Zayn's tears rolled down harder. "He said I would never have this. I'd never have a connection with anyone because I'm wired wrong. So I never tried. I never hoped to find love with men. I just accepted that I'm scarred and cursed. That I would never get married and have a family. Not the way it's intended."

Liam’s face was heartbroken. “Who told you that?”

“My father,” Zayn erupted in boisterous sobs.

Liam took the man in his arms so they clung awkwardly in the same seat with Liam’s feet spread over on the drivers’ side. “Oh no, Zayn. That’s not true. You’re not cursed. And you can have love. It’s not something you can control,” Liam swiped the back of his fingers on Zayn’s cheeks.

"I was supposed to marry this girl in Dubai. I grew up with her and my father arranged for us to be married after I finished med school. But out here in the US, I came to face with my sexuality. It's different here than in Dubai. So when I went back after med school I told my father I wanted to stay in America to be a paramedic. He let me stay but I didn't tell him until a few years later when I went to visit my family again. That was four years ago, and the last time I ever saw my family."

“So you told him you gay and he said you were a curse? Oh, Zayn...” Liam was almost in tears.

“He disowned me. Forbade me to speak to my mother and sisters ever again.” Zayn’s sobs were all over the place. Liam hugged him tighter. “I miss them so much,” Zayn’s shoulders bubbled as he dug his forehead into Liam’s chest, mouth grotesque with inner pain.

Liam cradled him. “See, we’re not so different after all. I miss my parents so much too. But you know what the good thing is? Yours are still alive, and that means there’s hope. We’ll find a way to communicate with them, okay? I’ll help you. I know someone who can help.”

Liam had said those words, with that excruciatingly sympathetic look like he felt every ounce of Zayn’s pain, smoothing his tears away with the back of his hand...And suddenly Zayn wanted it. He wanted the haplessly thrown clothes in the corner of his room, and the overnighting. He wanted breakfast in the morning and not-so-quiet sex in Liam’s room. He wanted to be as close to Liam as possible. The electricity and the hotdogs…he wanted it all, damn it. But he wasn't ready to say it yet. Instead, he replied with a long, fervent, romantic kiss.

 

*

 

After late-night dinner-seconds, Harry and his father curled up on the couch for their favorite gameshow, with Louis sound asleep on the mattress in the corner, lightly snoring and covered head to toe from the mosquitoes. He didn't usually sleep out late-night episodes of Master Chef but the man had a long day mowing the lawn for Des and helping Harry rearrange all the kitchen utensils.

Harry had written it all off as pity. But it was hard lately with the way Louis was looking at him that morning when he suggested they go to the reunion. But even before that, Harry was not sure if it had anything directly to do with him but Louis was sporting some serious morning wood in his barely-there boxers and he didn't notice. If Harry hadn't been so worked up about falling on his ass he would not have been able to contain a boisterous laugh, but as the conversation went on, he could not help but grow hot as he tried not to look directly at the God-given thing. After Louis had left he had taken the longest cold shower in eternity and still the sight didn't leave his head.

“You feel a bit of normalcy again since you started walking on that leg?" Des asked sincerely as Harry’s eyes lingered on Louis.

"Daddy,” Harry whined resting his head back to watch the TV. He knew the tone Des was on and was not in the mood for another “Be grateful” lecture. He didn't want to go to his high school reunion at all, let alone anywhere he'd have to dress up. He was already self-conscious around Louis, reluctantly switching to the newer parts of his wardrobe since he started staying at the house, even wearing newer terrain clothing in Snoqualmie. God, don’t even mention Snoqualmie where Harry got to look inside a part of Louis he had been safeguarding all this time. The part that held his regrets about his sister, his fears, his resentment towards his birth parents. But then he got to see more of the caring, funny, intelligent parts of Fire Lieutenant Tomlinson and found himself feeling even more protective of the man.

But no, Harry had no right to think any of these warm fuzzy thoughts and feel these protective nurturing things. Louis said it himself- he felt guilty for not grabbing Harry out of the way in time. Guilt and pity were the only reasons the man was here and Harry shouldn’t think of it as anything more.

"Sure, I do. Why?" he answered his father, already regretting it.

Des pursed his lips. "Then I think you should go with Louis to that reunion."

"Not you too. It’s bad enough he’s here so long but now I have to listen to everything he tells me to do?” Harry folded his arms sulkily. “I thought you were the dad around here." He really tried to get his father on his side for once.

"You heard the man, he's on vacation leave and he finds Seattle irresistible," Des defended like he was the one in question. "And I don't see why you're complaining; you're doing much better since you started the gait training and therapy."

“Yeah. But-” Harry was already struggling to control his growing feelings for the man and now he has to be thrown into a date-like situation with him? No way. Harry got why he felt some kind of pity for him but he could have sent a get well card in the mail or something and spare Harry the ‘window shopping’ experience of having to look at him in his underwear and shirtless walks around the house for weeks.

“Look, we needed a miracle these past few months. You ever think maybe Louis being here is a blessing? He got you to go outside again and do some of the things you used to do before the earthquake. Now, I don’t think he’s gonna be here for much longer. He has to go back to Chicago soon. Why not take this opportunity and have a company to go see your old friends again?”

Harry looked at the snoring lump in the corner and sighed. Louis was the reason Harry stepped out of the house again. And he did enjoy camping even with the leg pains. He thought of when they were at Meredith's and when she mentioned how depressed he must be- Harry did get depressed after coming back home to Seattle with fewer body parts that when he had left. But when she said it all he could think of was that he would not be in Snoqualmie at all if Louis hadn't gone with him. he was beginning to feel like Louis was the only person who could get him to all these risky things that challenge his new body.

He really wasn’t privy to catch up with any of his friends and flaunting his condition at them. The only best friend he had in high school was Sariah and look how that turned out. They might all paste on a sympathetic face and then laugh and jeer at what he had become. But Harry figured if he did ever go out for the night it would most likely be with Louis. He was the only hot male Harry had ever gone places with after his breakup with Nick. But it wasn’t like Louis would ever ask him out with his disability. And he was leaving soon. So yeah, maybe he should take all the time he could get to spend with him before he goes back over to the other side of the country and forget all about Harry, and just go to the stupid reunion.

Weary, he gave a slight nod.

It turned on a bulb on Des’ face and the man kissed his head. “That’s my boy.”

 

*

 Liam pov

 

Liam was cruising around town in the ambulance with his Cassie on his afternoon shift the next day when he got the tragic news. Screaming into the phone for his sister to repeat what she just said, he cried for his grandmother.

He rushed home, where the elder women were already preparing rituals before the body is delivered from the hospital. Heart digging away at his chest, he sank to his knees. GG…

His grandfather was sitting in mourning position with his feathers around his bare neck and smoke coming up from the incense in front of him. As the community’s elder men around him started chanting the hymn of mourning, Wematin sharpened a blade for cutting off the acersecomic’s hair.

Liam’s hair, which was so thick and unruly with his mixed heritage, had kept his hair short since childhood because his great grandmother found it unmanageable longer than six inches.

Liam stifled his lumpy throat and ran straight to his room to let it out. He was supposed to meet Bebe in a few hours to break up with her but he couldn't think about that now. After the talk with Zayn, he was determined to fix his mistake in leading Bebe on. He was appalled by Zayn's recollection of his father's damning words. Liam had grown up in a community that embraces gender fluidity and sexual diversity and incorporates it in their spiritual lives.  He was so mad at his grandfather and great uncle at the smudging before but he couldn't help but have a better appreciation for them now. Especially now that his great grandmother was gone.

But all he wanted at the moment was Zayn, so that’s who he called.

 

--

 

Zayn pov

 

In the middle of all the howling and wailing at the Payne residence, Zayn shot up the stairs and marched down the corridor with distressed painted walls and dim bulb, to knock on Liam’s bedroom door at slightly after seven that night. Liam had called him a few hours earlier but he only got out after his work shift at six.

Eyes sunken and glazed with fresh upon dried tears, Liam stood there, a mix of surprised and slightly distracted. Poor thing was lost and distraught as he moved aside robotically to let Zayn in. He crawled back into bed, covering up, and Zayn crawled in after him, getting under the Indian-patterned quilt with him.

Liam took Zayn in his arms and kissed his forehead. “She taught me so many things, taught my sister so many things. Now all I have are the things she made us.” Liam held up the corner of the red and black quilt.

“Your great-grandmother made this?” Zayn asked in awe, knowing how strongly Liam felt about his culture and tribe.

Liam nodded sullenly, caressing the soft material.

“I'm so sorry, Liam.”

“Her legacy was so important to this community,” Liam said, voice desolate. “For centuries my people had to learn these things to survive. Apart from my parent’s death, she’s the reason I wanted to be a paramedic.”

“Why aren’t you out there with them,” Zayn said over the howling and wailing going on outside.

"I told you, my grandfather is disappointed in me. It’s best to stay out of his way. I’d rather hide in here with you.”

"And what would he say about that?” Zayn asked. “What would your family say if you told them about us?" Zayn was terrified his bad luck would rub off on Liam.

"Well, it's not going to be a problem within our community. Our ancient tradition accepts more than two gender identities and sexualities. It's not a problem to introduce you. It's just the timing. My grandfather is to be inaugurated as chief in the upcoming Pow Wow now that my great grandmother is gone. He has to go through a rite of passage that says he cannot take on new information before it's done. It's tradition. Also, I'm afraid his anger toward me is going to harbor negative energy and block the spirits from blessing him as chief."

Zayn let out an urgent laugh. "Why don’t you try telling him the good news?”

Liam pouted at Zayn’s grin. “Good news?”

“Didn’t you hear? I spoke to Louis yesterday. Harry’s walking normally without crutches.”

 

*

 

Checking how he looked in the mirror with his shirt and jeans, Louis wondered if he looked semi-formal enough to meet and greet Harry's old classmates. Des let him use his room to get ready for the reunion while he channel-surfed for his company tonight. After briefly hopping down the stairs to check the pot roast and huckleberry pie he and Harry were making for Des’ dinner, he checked the clock on the side-stair wall and called out to Harry.

Not getting an answer, he skipped back up, a few stairs at a time, until he reached the top and was off to Harry’s room. The door was partially open bit he knew it best to knock.

“Oh, come in,” a sounding slightly off-guard Harry said.

“I’m sorry,” Louis didn’t finish his sentence. “You look,” he stopped to find the right words, "amazing."

Harry grinned in his beige shirt with stark blue and orange flowers on it, mustard brown trousers and leather shoes to match. He looked like a beautiful doll.

“Can I ask you something?” Harry then said, his expression falling, almost like he was changing his mind as he said it.

“Go right ahead. Ask me anything,” Louis said encouragingly, sensing the seriousness in his tone.

"I haven't told anyone about what happened. I haven't met up with anyone. After I got back home I mostly stayed inside." Harry sat down on the edge of the bed, leaving a space, and Louis took queue to sit next to him. "Do you mind if we don't  draw attention to my foot- or lack thereof?"

Louis searched his face. Harry did not exactly come right out and say it but if Louis was correct the whole intonation of the question was asking him to go along with pretending his feet were both there. Harry walked with only a slight limp with the new and improved leg Joey found for him. And he was comfortable most of the time even with the feeling that his leg was still there- he touched Harry’s prosthetic leg many times and Harry sometimes swore to him he felt the sensation of his hand there. ‘I feel like a ghost down there! - and occasional pain but to go a whole night without mention or assistance? What if something goes wrong? What if Harry gets pain and falls over? What if… But no. It was not Louis’ place to parent Harry. He just wants to feel normal again. He should have this one night. He deserves this one night among his friends like nothing happened and he was fine.

“Of course. If that’s what you prefer, I can go along with that. You have my word.”

Harry laughed as he got up, grabbing Louis’ hand. “Great. Let’s go!”

Side by side as they stomped down the stairs, Harry's arm brushed Louis’s, and he felt the warmth seer through.

Des stood by the stairs holding up the camera. “Don’t you two look dapper.”

After a few pictures, the two men exited the house. Louis helped Harry into the car, putting on the car light and adjusting his seat further away from the dashboard to accommodate his leg.

And off down the road, they went to the not-so-far location of the high school gym.

 

 --

 

Disco lights and cocktails were seen swimming inside the high school auditorium as Harry stood at the entrance with Louis.

“I don’t think I want to stay,” he said, sounding nauseated, depression probably kicking in.

“Okay, then let’s go before someone sees us,” Louis said without protest. The whole setting was a bit much even for him, let alone Harry who hadn’t been exposed to so much ‘nightlife’ things since before the earthquake, so Louis was glad to take him back home and maybe play a game of cards with Des.

"Harry!” Someone spotted them. "Harry, is that you?" It was a skinny brunette with gloves and a canary yellow dress grabbing Harry into a fake cheek-kiss. A few steps behind her hovered a short, barrel-chested man with glasses and a dazzling bowtie who looked sweltered and fidgety in the jabbering room.

“Betty,” Harry said, tone-dead, pulling away. “I haven’t seen you since graduation.”

"Harry, wow! You're glowing and gorgeous," Betty stated. Harry gave Louis a look of badly covered annoyance.

“You haven’t changed a bit,” Harry replied, and Louis alone knew the sarcasm.

“This is my beau, Sylvester- And who is this hunk of a man?” She said, brow fluttering like bird wings at Louis.

Harry froze. “Um, this is – uh…”

“I’m the boyfriend. Louis,” Louis held out his hand. “Fire officer Lieutenant. Harry couldn’t stop talking about his reunion. Of course, I wanted to meet all his friends.” He smiled brightly, ignoring Harry’s deep-set stare.

“Oh. Harry, you did good!” Betty said gesturing them further inside the school auditorium.

They approached another group of people and Harry suddenly stopped in front of Louis, body tense. Louis looked to see what caused it and got a load of a petite blond reaching about Harry’s shoulder-height, with bright red lipstick like it was the 50s, holding hands with a mousy-looking guy with big teeth.

That’s Nick?” Louis asked in Harry’s ear. He got a sniff nod in return as they walked on.

“He’s the only man I’ve ever been with. I wouldn’t know how to begin to move on if anything were to happen.” The blonde with her Marilyn Monroe-type accent was saying in a hallmarkish tone to a young woman with big red hair that reminded Louis of Julia Roberts’ in Pretty Woman.

“Ugh, same Sariah, so pretentious,” Betty muttered to Harry with a carefree hand to shield the gossip. “Never’ forgiven her for betraying you like that. That’s Darla she’s talking to. Her husband died on that flight that went down last year, remember?”

Louis observed Harry’s nod. On the way there, while fixing the radio station- Louis found they both liked contemporary - Louis had gotten a whole rundown of the people who might be present and their backgrounds. He remembered Harry telling him he had attended the man’s funeral even though he and Darla often butted heads in school.

“Oh, you have a limp!” Betty pointed out suddenly. Like Harry didn’t know that. Louis wanted to swear.

“I fell, it’s nothing,” Harry said quickly, brushing it off. Louis caught Harry and Sariah exchanging uneasy looks; Harry’s stare was more like a snarling glare and hers was sympathetic or begging- for forgiveness, Louis calculated, and to break up the tension he whispered to him if he wanted a drink.

A tight grip on Louis' hand told him the man was not ready to be left alone with these people, and Louis squeezed it back reassuringly, leaning in to prove he was not going anywhere. Louis held his breath and wished Sariah and Nick would stop staring at Harry. He was like a ticking time bomb set to explode any minute if anyone were to notice and mention his leg. But no one did so far, and as the minutes went along they made it to the picture booth, and Louis was able to leave Harry chatting with more ex-classmates while he got two cups of punch.

Things were going smoothly as they sat down for the catered meal. Harry whispered to Louis to help him get his chair in closer to the table and they chatted to Betty and her date as they dined.

The trouble came when Betty urged them to relocate with her to some lounge chairs where Sariah, Nick, Darla, and a bunch of others sat chatting about the old days. Louis thought nothing about Harry hanging out with his old friends and enjoying the reunion until Harry plumped down on the super low furniture.  He tried to sit normally so no one would notice his leg, but his knees were up in the air almost eye level and the look on his face was pure discomfort as the now contracted padding was causing pressure to build up around his thighs and calves. It seems the only good thing was that his trousers were slightly bell-bottomed, successfully hiding the thin steel ankle-bone of the leg above his shoe which would have surely drawn unwanted attention had he gone for a straight-leg or skinny.

Thinking quick, Louis brought over one of the dining chairs and offered his hand to help Harry up. He knew there was no way the man could try to remove himself from the lounge chair without looking like a playful dog wriggling to scratch its back on a flat surface. 

Fixing Louis with a ‘what-the-hell-are-you-doing?’ look, Harry silently refused. So Louis plumped himself on the higher, more amputee friendly chair, patting his lap for Harry to sit on it.

Harry blushed and obliged for some reason, probably Louis’ charm- Oh please - and Louis pulled him up and unto his lap, wrapping his arms around his waist and smiling up at him like he had cake, which -yes it was on the menu, but hey.

The gesture caught the attention of Sariah, who kept hiding behind sips of her glass while stealing looks at the two. Something about the way she looked at Harry, with peculiar warm sympathy, like she was aching to put him under a blanket and feed him hot chocolate with marshmallows, gave Louis the impression she knew about his leg.

It didn’t help that an aloof Harry kept looking at Sariah’s knees, comparing them to the position of his (it looked agonizingly that way to Louis), and drawing the prosthetic one back to match his good one. And Louis honestly thought getting him to sit on his lap would fix everything?

Harry saw Louis’ concerned look and whispered to him, "The good knee looks lower than the lined one when I sit, and my prosthetic leg kicks out when I bring them to the same height.”

“We’ll have to tell Joey about that," Louis gave an assuring smile, placing a hand on his knee. He knew there wasn’t anything the prosthesis could do about that. He was more worried about his leg swelling too quickly as a by-product of him wanting to blend  in with the crowd. Louis knew once Harry’s leg swells his risk of phantom pains and infection increases and the harder it will be for him to walk on his own without crutches. Soon he would have to take off the prosthetics and let it breathe. He wanted Harry to have his normal night around normal people who saw him as a normal guy without a disability, and by god, Louis was going to do everything in his power to make sure he had that before his leg started swelling.

Louis refocused to the group once more as his and Harry’s platonic PDA had the others cooing at them and starting up a conversation about better-halves.

“He was my first and only,” Sariah was saying to Sylvester about Nick, who Louis thought looked like he belonged cruising a gay club. Louis thought he glimpsed Darla roll her eyes in the flashing bulbs, but he heard Harry's teeth grind even with the loud club-beats filling the gym.

Betty cut in, nudging Harry shoulder-to-shoulder. "But we all remember who Nick's sweetheart was in high school, don't we?" Her eyes jumping gleefully, her dimples coming out to join the conversation. "Harry, you remember when you and Nick used to get detention all the time? Mr. Kramer almost went crack always having to fetch you two from under the bleachers."

Nick covered his mouth and Sariah closed hers, both out of embarrassment. Harry’s knee twitched and he looked down bashfully, but Louis could not tell if he was upset or okay with that trip down memory lane.

Darla broke in with mawkish hip-tap to Harry. “I remember you would wear those baby-doll dresses over your t-shirt and leggings. You and Sariah were about the same size then.”

"Is that so?" Louis said with a smirk at Harry. He leaned into his ear and whispered teasingly. "You never told me you were a crossdresser." Harry shoved his shoulder into his ear, giggling with the tickle of Louis' breath, and suddenly something inside Louis pushed his hand involuntarily around Harry's waist and the spot felt inexplicably scorched.

Darla continued, "We used to go shoplift-ugh- sorry, ing- shop-ping,” she cleared her throat with a wary look at Louis.

"Firefighter lieutenant, not police officer," Louis reassured, causing everyone to laugh. Except for Nick, who was now glaring at him with a turned up nose.

"So, Harry, what do you do now?" Betty inquired sipping her Pina colada, aloof of his plight.

Harry answered reluctantly. "I'm an artist. I make sculptures."

Nick finally quipped. “When did you pick that up?” But it was eaten up because Louis had also started talking.

"Yeah," Louis had replied zealously to Betty. "We redid the Ghost scene together on our first date. Got mud in the wrong places but it was the most erotic thing to ever happen to me I'll tell you that." He took a sip of his cup and glanced at Harry, whose eyes were as large as the disco bulb above them.

Betty clutched her heart. “Oh, how romantic! Dave, you need to try to be more like Louis,” she turned to Harry. “We have a similar story; he took me on a dinner-picnic on the beach once, but we vowed never again.”

"Is that all you do, Harry?" Darla included trying to keep the conversation PG-thirteen.

"He's also the best yoga instructor," Louis quickly put in again, clamping his small hands over Harry’s bigger ones. Harry showed him a second-long eyebrows furrow but kept his amused smile on. “It’s actually how we met. I saw him bending and stretching, through the glass window and joined the class to get closer to him.” Louis purposefully made the bending and stretching sound way too pornographic to be talking about just yoga.

Harry was grinning as wide as the room now, but Nick gave a little cough/laugh just then, and Louis glared.

Sariah cocked her head up. “Oh,” she said confused. “I didn’t know you were into yoga, Harry?” Her tone was careful like she was testing the waters to see if it was safe to talk to Harry with a normal conversation flow.

“People change,” Harry eyed her pointedly with a biting tone, proving it was indeed not safe at all.

--

Harry pov

 

As the night progressed and music continued, Louis left to refill Harry's cup and Harry found himself a few meters away from Nick, who was also by himself on the wall. His eyes were set on Harry like he had been watching him for a while. An Adele was playing mid-song and Nick took a cued sip from his cup, never wavering the growing intensity of his stare. Harry tried to swallow but it was impossible. And he doubted it was from a lack of punch. He was surprised that until now he hadn't felt this unstable since he and Louis entered the building. Seeing Nick again was hard but having himself crumble under his gaze was something else. Nick knew him. He knew the real Harry. The one that laid bare under his skin. And as Adele sang the lyrics of one of the songs that helped Harry cope after that cold, misty prom night, Harry could not help but be angry at himself for allowing Nick to shake him even after he lost his leg-something that as tragic as it was should have bumped Nick right out of his mind for good. But alas, he was unraveling for the man to witness again.

Harry wanted to look away but his and Nick's eye-contact lingered at the lyrics ‘We could have had it all...It all, it all, it all...’ and he swore his lungs would give out any second for lack of oxygen. It was as if the stare held him in place. 

Then it was cut short by a pair of arms wrapping around him from behind. Transporting him in a whole new world altogether. Startled, he turned and saw that it was Louis back with his refilled cup. He had slid his arms around Harry’s waist and tilted his head to ask him if he was okay. The smile he wore was magnetic and ambrosial. A hot-cheeked Harry let loose a grin and nodded. “Yeah.”

He turned momentarily to see that Nick was no longer there.

An upbeat song from Harry’s high school era started playing, and Louis began to sway his hips frenetically.

“Oh, gosh, no!” Harry giggled, catching the daring look in Louis’ eyes as the merry man sensually backed away from him in a salsa serpentine.

Bruno Mars’ Grenade. Harry hadn’t rocked out to that in years

“Seriously, I can’t.” He was tempted and his leg wasn’t aggravated yet, but he didn’t want to push it.

Louis grabbed him around the waist and egged him on to the dancefloor. The look in the man’s eye was caring. Harry didn’t have to say it but he knew Louis wouldn’t let him stumble.

The music getting the best of him, Harry started dancing, moving his hips here and there, laughing as Louis did all sorts of funny moves. He stayed on one spot swinging slowly so he didn’t tip over, and even though Louis himself seemed slightly tipsy, his protective hand wasn’t far from Harry’s waist as they danced the salsa at a semi-pace in the disco lights.

A few buttons were undone and he looked much looser now, cup held in his teeth as he wiggled his arms in the air in a funny spaghetti dance. Harry was not going to fight it anymore. Louis' aura was contagious and Harry found himself grinning wider as he danced at a comfortable high-speed to match the man’s shimmies.

Harry was laughing and cackling and wiggling and before he knew it Louis was spinning Darla who had materialized on the dancefloor along with Betty and Sariah- God knows when.

Harry gave way to a newfound enthusiasm and moved closer to Louis who's back was now facing him. Okay, bad idea. Louis- obviously not seeing Harry approach- pulled a dance move and backed straight into him, bumping his arse into Harry’s pelvis, right up in there.

Harry retreated a bit but kept his movements up to par with Louis', and when he glanced the man matching Darla in a choreographic zig-zag motion, he had had enough. Stretching his hand out to meet Louis' it did not catch, but merely brushed as the man kept going without a clue. Sighing roughly Harry decided to just be brazen and grab him away by the shoulders. Louis then spun around to face him finally.

Sweat bursting down his face, his empty cup now being kicked around by haphazard feet on the dancefloor, Louis was having a ball in his own little world. He seemed to be giving way to some kind of dirty sensual grinding like in the movie they talked about in the earthquake, and Harry felt every ounce of the vibrant energy wash him like a cold bath on a broiling hot day. Louis' shirt was soaked and flaying like a boat sail, his hair equally drenched with his fringe coiled up against his forehead like glued paper.

His body heat encompassed Harry's immediate air and he was suddenly injected with a spark of vitality- Jutting out his hand to grab Louis’, Harry spun him like a top and stuck his left knee out to take away his gait, causing him to dangle horizontally in Harry’s arms like lumber on a crane lift.

Louis’ face was a cross between I’m-gonna-die! and epiphany as he hung suspended at Harry’s will. His pasted fringe no longer attached to his forehead Harry had a candid angle of his true hairline. His eyes silently shot Harry an ‘Are you sure you can pull me back up?’ while flickering to Harry’s lips and back in a Nano-second as though being caught watching TV instead of doing homework. Harry let out a giggle and pulled him back to his feet and spun him around again in one fluid motion wondering where in the four corners of the earth he got the strength and balance.

Then, as the fast songs faded and a slow one came on, Harry assumed they would sit it out but Louis grabbed him again and moved in, a stupid smile on his face. Harry was secretly glad. He liked this song. He allowed Louis to hold him around the waist, and he followed the man's body movement, slow and swaying, as he draped his hands over his shoulders.

“What was that back there?” Harry asked, letting his head rest on Louis’ shoulder as they swayed. He hoped it didn’t look too comical since he was nearly a foot taller than Louis.

“I don’t know. You tell me.” Louis giggled breathlessly.

“Not that,” Harry said. “I meant the thing you said about us dating.”

He felt Louis’ chest jump as the man laughed. “Your friends ask too many questions.” He held Harry a bit tighter, in some kind of small fear –by Harry’s calculations- that Harry might be mad at him for lying like that. But Harry knew what Louis was doing. He was offering himself as Harry’s hot boyfriend to show off in front of the ‘couple of the century’, Nick and Sariah. But Harry wasn’t in the least bit mad. If anything, he found it sweet and quite funny the way he made everyone either choke on their kebabs or feel significantly inadequate to their significant others.

“You’re something else, you know that?” Harry squeezed his eyes closed to shut out the glacial film burning through. Something in his voice must have alarmed Louis because he was releasing him enough now to look into his eyes.

“If I crossed the line, I’m sorry,” Louis said, eyes already big and remorseful.

Harry shook his head, swallowing back tears. “You didn’t. And you’re right. They do ask way too many questions.”

Big relieved smile growing, Louis scooped him again, and he and Harry danced like that for a few minutes until Harry’s bladder kicked in.

"You sure you're okay?" Louis asked.

"Yeah," Harry said before walking off, endeared at how attentive he was.

 

--

 

Trying to steady the thumping pace of his heart after all that dancing, Louis replayed the heart-stopping dip over and over in his mind, amazed at how Harry was able to do it. No one had ever done that to him before and he could not help but feel like he had been missing out on life with this mambo thing. In the earthquake he and Harry had talked about the dance moves and in his mind he always pictured himself being the dipper. Never had he imagined he’d be the dippee.

He reveled in the picture of how relaxed and happy Harry was tonight. And wild. As he held his chest and giggled away at the thought of the dip and how Harry had so far gotten away with pretending he had two legs, a rush of strange energy crept up around him and he suddenly had a brave determination to make sure Harry's good mood lasts all night.

As Louis patiently but excitedly waited for Harry in the school corridor, Nick appeared at his side from somewhere behind him. Louis looked on as the man shoved a hand in his pocket leisurely and drank from his cup with the other.

"Yoga class? Really?"

"Excuse me?"

"I think you're full of shit,” Nick said, downing the last of the ice. “I know why Harry went to Chicago. And teaching yoga wasn't it. I know about the earthquake. I know he lost his leg. When you said you were a firefighter I put it together."

Louis looked at him like he was a next-level stalker, and he added, "I talked to his dad."

"Really? And it didn't occur to you to go visit him, or even send a care package?"

"Harry and I aren't exactly on speaking terms." Nick chewed nonchalantly on the ice.

Louis spun to face him, chest out. "And why is that, Nick? Could it be because you broke his heart and lost all rights to have an opinion about anything in his life?" Louis was finding it difficult to see what Harry had seen in the guy.

"I care about Harry. Do him a favor and walk away. Give him the chance to find a real relationship."

Sputtering out a dry laugh, Louis leaned in good to glower every word on him. "And you should do him an even bigger favor and continue being irrelevant in his life."

 

--

 

Harry flushed and made his way out of the cubicle. He looked up at the sinks and sighed. Sariah was staring at him through the glass, her back turned to him as she froze mid-action of re-applying her cherry matte lipstick.

Hobbling up to the other faucet, Harry cleared his throat and washed his hands. Blinking, Sariah dropped the lipstick in the purse and closed it.

"Hewitt looks like a nice guy," she said sugary, grinning at Harry with all her teeth. "I can see that he treats you well…," When she got no response –or objection- she continued, "It's so surreal to be back here. Who would have known we'd get this far? We were a couple of teens breaking class to hang at the mall. You remember, Harry?" she said, trying to make conversation about the old days like nothing had happened.

Harry turned off the faucet and pulled out a napkin, drying his hands. He threw it in the bin and turned to her.

"First of all, his name is Louis,” he corrected, his face expressionless except for the tiny creases between the eyes that tall-tales his agitation. “Second, we used to be friends, you and I. Very good friends, until you stole my boyfriend- who is gay, by the way. He told me so during the many times he fucked me silly from behind. And after you both betrayed me, I never got the strength to look you in the eye and tell you what a selfish bitch you are, until now. So, Sariah, I’m telling you now you’re a selfish, disgusting slut who couldn’t even get a straight man to cast a glimpse at you, so you had to take your gay best friend’s man. And just the fact that you're married to –what- 'the only guy you've ever been with?’ -doesn't change that."

He braced his hand on the sink edge for a bit of balance before walking out, leaving the girl unable to speak.

Emerging back under the spinning lights, Harry spotted Louis in the far distance grinning at him with bright teeth. He met him halfway and Louis took his hand. He looked cooler now than on the heated dancefloor. His hair was raked back and his lanky shirt buttoned up again.

"Do you want to get out of here?" Louis asked with a mischievous look in his eye.

Harry nodded. "Yes, please."

 

*

 

“Most of the major roads in Chicago were made by the native Americans...” Liam sat at his desk in the middle of the night reciting his speech for the funeral that was to take place the next morning while Zayn lay with his hands under his head and his feet crossed casually. Annawon had knocked on the door earlier to grumble at him to write one, seeing he was not lifting a finger to help in the kitchen with coffee and sandwiches for the wake -Annawon’s words in his native language. It was getting late now but Zayn was determined to spend the night, vowing to dash back home early to get ready for the funeral.

“The name Chicago is Potawatomie. Chicago is what it is today because people like my great grandmother never gave up on its social development…” Liam muttered as he added with the pencil. Glancing across to Zayn, he put the paper down, sighing.

"I have this huge responsibility now," he told Zayn as they fiddled with each other's fingers in the bed. "She was a medicine woman and she passed it all down to me. My grandfather wanted me to follow in his political endeavors I've always loved medicine. It took a long time for him to come around to me being in Med school. And now he's more accepting, but I can't keep getting in these positions where my professional medical training is crossed with my spiritual one. I know my people need me but so does Chicago as a whole. I feel like now that my GG is gone he's going to expect me to make a choice."

“Judging from how you saved Harry, I would say you made the right choice.” Zayn leaned in to kiss Liam’s fears away but a gasp coming from the door stopped him.

Liam looked up. “Bebe!” Bebe was standing in the doorway holding the door with both hands, a horrified look slashed across her face. “Bebe wait!”

With a disgusted scowl, Bebe darted away with her bobby-pinned hair and her baseball ab-revealing crop top.

“I’ll go after her.” Zayn’s feet were already off the bed and quickening into his sneakers.

He dodged through the mourners and caught up to the girl on the lawn, grabbing her arm just before she hit the sidewalk. She yanked it away and shouted, “You were with him this whole time!?”

Zayn looked around at the alarmed people before addressing Bebe with a muttering tone. “It’s not what it looks like. He’s just- we’re just friends.”

A high-pitched cynical laugh flew out of Bebe’s throat. “Oh-my-god- If you believe that then you are even more delusional than I was to believe you were ever my friend!”

She ran off into the night leaving Zayn surrounded by onlookers/ grievers.

But that wasn’t the worst part. As he turned around his eyes landed on Liam five feet away in his hoodie and sneakers, looking at him through puppy-hurt eyes.

“Just friends?” he asked with disgusted sarcasm as Zayn closed up the space between them, the words almost unheard among the chanting and wailing.

“Liam, you said you’d break up with her!” Zayn tried to save himself.

"Take a look around, Zayn. My great-grandma just died." Liam fired, spinning on his heel and marching back inside the house.  Zayn followed him to his room and was just in time to dive in before the door slammed.

“I’m sorry, okay. But Bebe’s been my friend for years! You? I didn’t even know you until a few months ago! So forgive me if I don’t choose your feelings over hers!”

Zayn wasn't even sorry. Since he met Liam it had been one thing after the next. Earthquake, his career move, and studies... And on top of that, he had to deal with Liam's constant pursuit and the irritating fact that he could not take no for an answer. But he made up his mind. He wanted Liam and he needed to try to fit him into his crazy whirlwind life.

A look of pure rejection across his face, Liam sat on the edge of his bed, hands in his hair. “Am I making a mistake here, Zayn?” he asked, genuinely lost.

Zayn rushed and kneeled in front of him. “No!” he caught a clean glaze of tears rising in the man’s eyes as they kept on him, and he took his fingers to his soft brown hair.

“I want the hotdogs in the park,” he whispered scared as hell of his own words but needing it to be said. “And I want your arm around me when we go to watch some dumb chick flick at the cinema. I want relationshipy,” Zayn was in tears again. All the years he had been on auto-pilot, unfeeling mode, fucking his way through life just to spite his parents and prove that he was indeed fine with being doomed to never experience real love and have a family added up to this moment in front of this impossible man who wouldn’t take no for an answer. “I just don’t want to hurt Bebe in the process.”

He then got up and sat by Liam with massaging fingers to the back of his neck, and he kissed Liam’s temple.

Liam closed his eyes to the touch and rested his head on Zayn’s shoulder. “Neither do I.”

 

*

 

Louis pov

 

"That was wild," Harry laughed, holding on to Louis' hand as they hurried out of the auditorium.

“I think we got out at the right time,” Louis agreed.

Harry laughed as they walked on.

“I can’t believe they thought I still had my leg. I felt almost normal.”

And yep, Louis didn’t bother telling him that some of them already knew.

He stopped and turned to Harry in a daze. “You are normal. You danced in there and freaking dipped me like any person with two legs would.”

They walked two slow steps in a pause, both looking down at their shoes.

Ghost?  Really?” Harry asked with a smirk, changing the subject. “besides Dirty Dancing, that’s my favorite movie.”

“Mine too,” Louis said with a dazed head-lean, in awe of that coincidence.

Harry widened his eyes in impressed shock. “What was your favorite part?”

“I think you already know,” Louis murmured, a daffy grin spreading across his face.

Harry blushed. “Who’s a tough mighty firefighter now?” he teased, playfully punching Louis in the bicep.

"I have my soft side," Louis laughed and replied in a smoldering tone. "But you,” he picked up an impressive one, “You take the trophy. Dresses? You know, you could have worn one tonight if you’d wanted.” He moved in closer, close enough to smell the perfume pumping from the columns of Harry’s neck.

“It was a long time ago. Just a phase,” Harry said, folding his arms and looking away like he wanted to talk about anything else.

“I’m not telling you what to do, just- I think if you wore one again you’d look gorgeous.”

Harry stared at him, searching for something to come back with, but not getting anything. A slightly intoxicated Louis licked his lips and leaned in, half expecting to get slapped but finding the sight of Harry’s thin supple lips scrumptiously worth it.

"This is bad,” Harry let out a small laugh, understanding Louis’ flirtation. “You're drunk. I’m partially  drunk.”

"Yep,” Louis agreed, still moving in. "We should stop,"- he said the words but came in anyway, narrowly missing Harry’s lips as he turned to the right, leaving his cheek open for the heavy kiss. Louis made to grab his shoulders to stop him from deflecting the next attempt, but Harry gentle steered him an arm’s length away and kept him there to stop him coming in further.

“Come on, Harry,” Louis growled, flaring up his arms in frustration. “I know I’m not imagining this. You’ve been sending me these mixed signals for weeks. I swear I have whiplash from them.”

"You're drunk. I'm calling Daddy to come get me," Harry said in a rush, voice breaking. Louis laughed. They both knew full well his father could not come out there on a bicycle for him.

"You touch me sometimes. And I feel things when you do. You look at me and it's like we're in a Disney movie with the fluffy romantic music. Back in there we were dancing and all I wanted was to keep holding you and swaying with you. I know you feel it too." Louis started the sentences hot and sweaty then swerved into a swooning, lovesick puppy that needed cuddles before finishing with a desperate-sounding plea. "Because you touch me sometimes..."

Harry turned his back on him then. Louis reckoned it was to shut out the fact that he wanted to touch Louis more than anything.

“And Joey...You were jealous of him…” Louis began to taunt further, looking for things to prove to Harry. But it was enough. Harry was now swinging back around to face him.

"Don't you get what just happened?" Harry scolded him. "We pretended to be in a relationship so I wouldn't seem so pathetic to my ex-classmates. You don't see anything wrong there?" Harry was almost hysterical. He lowered his head and shook it sullenly, and Louis could feel the hypocritical guilt diffuse from his aura since he was the one who wanted to lie about his leg in the first place. And he could see Harry hated using that statement as an excuse to deny their chemistry after previously reassuring Louis it was okay that he added on the lie of them being a couple, but the man had little else to grasp on to for denial.

"I do see something wrong," Louis roared in an even tone. "And I wanna fix it." Like you fixed me...

"I'm not a car, Louis.” Harry raged at him. “I can't be fixed. I'm cripple. I-" Harry broke down, his arms flew around gesturing and landed on his forehead.

"I love you!" Louis then rang out, interrupting even the breeze that blew through Harry's hair. "I wasn't pretending in there with you. I love you. I fell in love with you the moment you said 'My name is Harry Styles'. We spent an hour in that apartment and I fell in love with who you were. I was ready to give up in that building and you didn’t let me. In that hopeless situation you made me see the world like you did; full of adventure and laughter. And then you lost your leg and I died again. I felt like such a failure. Like I keep hurting everyone I try to get close to. When your mom told me you left Chicago I tried going back to my life, but I just couldn't get you out of my head. I had to see how you were doing. If you were okay- and I knew it wasn’t okay but I had to be here because you were there for me. You made sure I didn't give up that day."

Harry started crying harder, grabbing his hair back and scowling at Louis.

He grabbed the sides of Harry’s head and bore into his soul. “I came here, and that light- that beautiful light was dim, and I can’t let that happen. I can’t let you give up.”

"My leg hurts.” Harry ripped away and sped to the carpark on their left, the music and laughter inside growing faded. “I need to get out of here.”

Harry reached the car first. Louis got there just in time to open the door for him, and Harry was about to disappear inside but Louis grabbed his arm with a desperation that begged forgiveness as he let the tough grip ease. With a look of pure venom, Harry turned to face him but looked away from his eyes, and Louis just could not restrain himself. He saw right through the act and knew Harry was fighting his feelings with all he had. So he grabbed the sides of Harry's head and planted a firm kiss on him. A kiss for all the times he wanted to kiss him before- When he first opened the door and slammed it in his face..., When they were peeling the potatoes..., Right after he had crashed into the driveway, he grazed his elbow and looked up to see the largest most horrified green eyes he had ever seen..., In the tent the other night...

Not thinking at all about the repercussions, he raked Harry’s hair upward from the nape of his head with possessive hands and let his lips travel to the right side of his neck before returning to his mouth.

The second lip-contact was pointed and Louis let it linger without varying from a suctioned hold, taking in the meaningfulness of it. That was when he caught on that Harry wasn’t kissing him back, he was more like waiting for him to finish his drunken slurp session so he could get in the car and get on with his night. Like he was just letting it happen so Louis could get a taste and get over his obsession. He opened his eyes to see Harry’s were open and staring aimlessly off somewhere to Louis’ cheek. His eyes were wet and cold, and Louis felt lacerated by them.

Feeling awkward and like he just blew six weeks of being the perfect gentleman to smithereens, Louis released him, and the man descended into the car. Louis ran around the front and got in, helping Harry buckle his seatbelt before buckling his own and starting the engine. Nothing but the radio killing the tension between them now.

--

 

Louis drove hoping he wasn't as drunk as he thought he was, wheels sucking up the earth as he sped home, trying to let the music drown out his embarrassment and pretend he didn’t just make Harry take ten steps back from where they were and drive a wall up between them again. How could he just let that slip out? I love you? Really, Louis? When did he ever say shit like that? And seriously, you couldn’t contain yourself? You had to grind yourself onto him like a leech? Who does that? ...People in love, the other mini him on his other shoulder replied.

He started tapping his left-hand fingers on his lap to try act normal, but feeling even more like a dumb fool.

Then, they had just gotten off the highway with approximately ten more minutes till home when the most phenomenal thing happened and he stopped tapping- Unchained Melodies started playing on the radio. Of course, it was Leann Rimes’ version, not the exact one from Ghost, but it drove the point in all the same. Harry’s seat was further back than Louis’ and he couldn’t look back at him while driving but he still felt the green embers on him watching to see if he understood the significantly mind-blowing rarity that was suddenly busting high notes in his ears. He sighed. It was as though the universe was dropping a serendipitous message on his lap he couldn’t reply to as he was afraid to even breathe lest it backfired in his face.

As the song ended, he placed his lap-tapper on the wheel to help navigate the turn into their street. As they neared the house, a hand on his wrist urged Louis not to turn up into the driveway yet, and he put the gear in park, still parallel on the road.

Harry looked at him through tear-soaked eyes and took off his seat belt. Louis glanced back at the house. Des' bedroom window was facing the road and his lights were now out.

He was about to ask Harry why they were not getting inside, when the man was suddenly climbing over and saddling himself on his lap, hands bracing on his shoulders. Louis welcomed him with a peck on his top lip, causing the man to press his lips in further, sending Louis’ head back into the seat.

He then watched stupefied as Harry unbuttoned his mustard trousers and untucked his flowered shirt.

Learning quickly what was supposedly about to happen, Louis adjusted the backrest to a more comfortable laid-back position.

Louis' hands then crept around the man’s waist, giving him a small grind upward to brush their crotches. Harry responded by digging his nails into his shoulders. Taking it as a sign of pleasure, Louis then fumbled with the waistband of Harry’s briefs, giving him time to back out. Harry was the one to shove the clothing away causing the back of Louis’ fingers to now be in contact with his penis. Harry then took Louis’ hands and enclosed them around it, silently urging Louis to fondle it, while kissing him slow.

Louis, who could barely breathe at his luck, stole a look down; it was so smooth, with shrubs of soft hair at the base, and Louis was already in shambles. His own penis felt so hot and in bad need of friction. Harry slid his palms up under Louis’ shirt, feeling the heat of his abdominals. Louis then made a long tunnel with both his fists and started jerking the man’s penis slow, thumb rubbing on the moist tip.

Their eyes bathed in each other, learning each other, wanting each other, and then they were kissing, wild. Harry groaned sweetly, strong groin rutting into Louis' hand hard, bucking upwards into the burn as Louis a gripped the side of his head with his other hand to ravish his mouth.

The kissing was full force. A neighborhood dog barked in the distance as Louis' tongue dug into his mouth, wiping every salivary surface.

The last time Louis had sex was with Jade over a year ago. He wanted to try being with a firefighter just like him, see if it would make dating easier. She was fun and her sex was good but they broke up because he was too much of a stone wall -her words- and she wanted something stable. Louis agreed he was far from that. Now this man letting him jerk his perfectly sculptured penis, lick his perky man-boobs with tiny red nipples, was causing every stable stone wall to come crashing down inside him.

Harry started letting out overwhelmed breaths and Louis took a hand to his lower waist to stable him, the other pumping fast and steady.

They rhythmed through without words until Harry shoved a hand down Louis’ jeans and started massaging his hard penis over his boxers. 

Then in the mix of it all Louis’ hip started vibrating.

Harry stopped to giggle and rake his hair back behind an ear, the action making Louis go nuts with lust. Harry gave a face like ‘Aren’t you gonna get that?’ with Louis’ fingers still firm on the length of his penis.

“Don’t stop,” Louis said in need as his phone kept vibrating on his stiffened leg. He wanted badly for the man to remove his boxers and touch him back.

Sensing the urgency, Harry grew serious and moved in to kiss him again, hands grabbing his hard mound over the boxers. He squeezed and prodded but made no moves to release Louis from his underwear. Louis moaned in protest but figured Harry wasn't ready to go that far yet. After all, it had been a long time since Harry had been with anyone from what he said when trapped under the beam and what Louis picked up from Des. So Louis tried to tame his own need and satisfy Harry's with the thorough dry handjob.

The two went on for a good few minutes. The vibration of the phone was somehow adding to their orgasm as it blended in with the touching and kissing, and the two men found synchronicity they were comfortable with to ride it out.

“I'm gonna come,” Harry then whispered for the first time since they started.

Louis nodded an "okay" and jerked him through with a gentle grip. Harry’s forehead drove into Louis’ like a magnet and stayed there, his mouth open wide with heavy breaths of pleasure beating on Louis’ face. He could smell the reunion dinner and alcohol in his breath and was high off of what he was doing to the man.

Harry came in his palm and the soft liquid oozed between his fingers. Louis spread it over the surface of Harry’s penis and jerked it slow until Harry came down from his ecstatic state.

“We should get the –um- napkins.” Harry then turned away to the dashboard compartment.

“Fuck,” Louis grabbed his elbow with his dry hand and pulled him back in place, a look of pure ecstasy on his face as Harry’s movements had caused him to climax and come in his boxers with Harry's hand still brushing over it. He buried his face in Harry’s chest overwhelmed by the sexual bliss, the underside of his bottom lip dragging outwardly onto Harry’s unbuttoned chest, Louis let the drunken high of his orgasm simmer down before allowing Harry to hop back in his seat.

Shuffling back to the passenger side, Harry wiped and buttoned himself up, passing the napkins to Louis.

He then cleared his throat awkwardly. “We should get inside now.” Those words came out like a guilty and embarrassed whisper. And Louis grew inwardly angry. The last thing he wanted was for Harry to feel embarrassment about what just happened.

Drying his hands, Louis pushed ‘drive’ and wheeled up the slope to the garage, gathering the words to express how far from embarrassed Harry should be but his jeans vibrated again just as he was about to say it. He pulled out his phone this time to see Zayn’s face on it.

“Take it. I’m gonna go ahead,” Harry said softly, his still dilated eyes drawing Louis in again. Hoping they could take the rest of their night upstairs, an unsatisfied Louis leaned over to kiss him again, but he gave a half-laugh and opened the door in dismissal. A blushy awkward smile at Louis, he clambered out and slouched up to the front door.

Louis pressed the little green icon. "Hey, Zayn- Oh, I'm so sorry! Tell Bebe to give Liam my condolences…I'm sorry I didn't answer sooner. It's just- a lot's been going on." He glanced at Harry entering the house.

Zayn whispered through the phone, a restless eye on Liam asleep under the quilt next to him. “Yeah, a lot’s been going on here too.”

 

*

 

The funeral of Chieftess Elu's was about to begin at the residence the next morning unaffected by the heat of the day. Liam and Zayn had helped the other villagers place the chairs and platform the night before and last-minute preparations in the morning.

Many came out, and a few dignitaries and friends gave heart-warming speeches about Chieftess Elu’s life while her body lay ready for the rituals.

After the ceremony Liam whispered to Zayn and shifted through the crowd, determined to apologize to Bebe, but the girl dressed all in cleavage-revealing black, darted away with a supportive Jade as soon as she realized he was behind her.

Liam sighed and made a U-turn, deciding to try the other person who was mad at him. “Grandfather,” he started on approaching the man.

"Not now, Liam," Annawon barked under his breath. "Miss Styles is on her way over to us." And sure enough, Liam glimpsed Anne on her way over in her sheer-veiled hat and black presidential attire.

She bowed and offered her condolences, giving Liam a handshake on the introduction.

“Miss Styles, there is something you should know,” Annawon said carefully, glancing at Liam. “My grandson informs me he carried out an amputation on your son in the earthquake.”

“You were the medic on the scene?” Anne’s eyes grew bright with surprise.

Liam shimmied his head unsurely. He did not want to boast in front of his still angry grandfather. In the end, he gave little "Yeah."

"Oh! Oh you dear! You saved my son's life!" Anne's expression was nothing short of admiration and gratefulness. "Such a bright young man you are! Just like your grandfather – Mr. Annawon, you must be so proud! What a truly small world it is! Who would have guessed we would be connected in such a way!"

Liam hoped his grandfather was taking in every word Anne’s mouth. The man’s face remained expressionless while his eyes moved from Liam to Anne, making it hard for Liam to tell.

“If it wasn’t for you my son would be dead. Thank you. - And Mr Annawon, expect a huge check to repair your landmark’s damages.”

Annawon bowed his head to the gushing woman as she cupped Liam’s cheek and walked away.

Feeling tons better, Liam grinned expectantly at his grandfather for approval.

Annawon shook his head once. “You do not get a pass for this. We do not live by outsiders’ rules.” The man’s eyes grew dim in disappointment. “To be of service to our elders and youth with our very particular medicine is paramount. If we lose our traditions, our songs, our medicines, and our languages, and make no effort to restore what was lost, we doom ourselves.”

A freshly downtrodden Liam lowered his head in shame as the man marched away in meditation.

Wematin, who was present to hear the conversation, patted Liam’s back as he followed his grandfather. “Take courage. Wipe the bitter. We have Pow Wow to prepare for.”

 

*

 

Breakfast the next morning was a peculiar affair. Harry avoiding Louis' eyes like onions, which wasn't exactly aberrant from his usual behavior, and Des acting weirdly quieter than usual. Choosing a seat close to Harry, Louis took to playing footsie while Harry tried to eat his eggs without grinning like a fool for Des to see.

After Des left for work, Louis turned to Harry who then told him (in a really platonic way) he wanted to spend the day reading in his room, so Louis, figuring his depression swooped in unexpectedly, decided to give him space to figure out if he wanted to continue the things they did to each other after his Pot Valor confession the previous night. Though Louis didn't communicate this with more than a disappointed-but-accepting and respectful nod. He did not want to force the man and he hoped in his bones that Harry wasn't cold-shouldering him out of regret for what happened.

Louis spent the morning doing the laundry and cleaning out the garage where he found all kinds of old stuff like unfinished sculpted clay Tikis, and some kind of rusty old funky pendant light. It was like hopping in a time machine and getting a first-hand view into Harry’s and Des’ lives over the years. But he really started to feel caught in Harry’s candid past when he uncovered his old childhood wall drawings after he took out some old fishing and boating paraphernalia from blocking that particular wall.

Louis smiled as he scanned the red and blue and black jagged lines that formed a smiley face with stick feet and wings. He had no idea something as simple as an old drawing of a fairy could make him feel so much.

His gaze moved on to what looked like the little fairy's parents and Louis swallowed a knot in his throat. Harry must have drawn this the time his mother was still around when life was simpler and he wasn’t so hurt, so broken. The jagged lines of the crayons caused by the gritty wall texture and the amateur drawer’s little fingers represented happiness and hope and playful innocence. Three-year-old Harry was perfect and not yet harmed by adulthood. Louis wanted to take adult Harry’s jagged heart and show him that like the imperfect drawing on the wall, he still had a wondrous tale to tell. That he was still beautiful and perfect despite his cracks.

Making a note to advise Des never to paint over the drawings, Louis stopped to go wash up and prepare lunch.

Harry was indeed rare for the rest of the morning, but when he showed up in the kitchen for lunch, Louis' eyes almost rocketed to the moon. Harry took a casual seat to have his sandwich, wearing a pretty satin pastel pink dress over a pair of white leggings that clutched around his delicate ankles, his arms covered up only to his elbows in a complementing denim shirt. His mango-peach-smelling curls were slightly different today, like he had combed them out wet and let them dry that way with the top trained to the side. They almost looked a shade lighter in the light from the kitchen window.

In those few seconds that Louis scoped him out he wondered why the heck Harry didn't keep wearing dresses beyond high school. The man seemed so comfortable and natural in them like part of the scenery.

He smiled like the sun and told Harry he looked lovely, trying not to jump out from his spot by the dining chair and kiss the man again.

Harry stared into his eyes with intensity, and Louis realized he was wearing mascara, or is it eyeliner. Louis never could tell the difference. He smiled at it, wondering what it all meant. It couldn’t be that Harry was depressed after all. His overall demeanor was cool and unbothered.

“Thank you,” Harry replied as if he had already thought himself the queen bee of East Seattle. Louis laughed at his cute confidence, and the two ate on trying to pretend they were not caught multiple times looking at each other.

Then, down to his last sip of lemonade, Harry left Louis alone to finish eating.

Still trying to get over the bright burst who had just finished his sandwich and left the room, Louis was washing up after lunch when he heard something start up the living room and he almost dropped the soapy saucer.

‘Sorry about the disruption folks...’ It was a man talking at a pitch too steady yet too loud to be someone in reality- like on a radio. Louis' eyebrows wiggled. It had to be Harry stirring up some sort of mischief. Louis knew the man couldn't spend the entire day locked in his room and looking like that, of all days.

Curious, Louis dried off the clean plates and stepped into the doorway to the living room. Something seemed familiar about the voice, the speech the man was giving. He couldn't see the screen fully on the computer but it was dawning on him that Harry had run a YouTube video through his father's stereo Bluetooth. Harry was at the foot of the stairs stretching his calves as the man on the speaker yapped in his churchy-sounding speech. Harry stopped when he realized Louis was watching.

Louis stepped into the room and was drenched in a wonderland of some kind as he realized what Harry was playing. A clip from Dirty Dancing. The one that included the end song, Time of My Life where Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze finally share the dance they’d been practicing with the guests.

Harry was standing there glued to the spot looking at Louis with a barely concealed smile peeking out from the corners of his mouth. And it hit Louis- with the denim jacket off now, Harry’s dress- skirting in luscious waves of chiffon and satin lining- was a replica of Baby’s, complete with the low scoop back.

He kicked on a smile as he also realized the new hair was something like Jennifer Grey’s in the movie as well. He laughed out loud as Harry's eyes alone prompted him nearer. Louis covered his face for a shy second, alerting Harry that he was dressed all wrong- he had on a white t-shirt rather than the sexy bicep bearing shirt Patrick killed in the movie.

Harry egged him closer, moving slow and enticingly to the music.

“My dance space.” Louis circled his fingers teasingly as he drew closer, a lazy eye on Harry.

Harry blinked, either at the movement or the statement. Louis thought it was both. He made a small spin swaying his hips on the spot his arms draped around himself. A smirk hanging in the corner of his little fleshy lips, he danced on.

The whole thing was seductive and naughty, and out of a pure need to touch him, Louis swooped in and took hold of him, careful not to step on his legs. The backward neck-and-shoulder dip-sway was successful –even though that part of the song was a few verses gone- with the roof of Harry's gums in full view. Louis loved seeing this Harry so happy and light, enjoying a nice dance without getting edgy. He danced with the man close to his body, doing a few of the moves from the movie but ultimately falling weak in the knees with the fruity whiffs of Harry's hair as it swung in the air to the music all around them.

Then Harry stepped on his toe with his good foot. Louis did not mind the sudden jest of pain. He was distracted by Harry's sharp apologetic and ingenuous face and the sudden realization that their pelvises were meshing so close that he could feel the electric jolts marching out of their hardening fronts.

In a fit of momentum- and hormones- Louis rushed in and kissed him.

Harry wrapped his arms around his neck, kissing him back. The kisses morphed every few seconds from frantic to deep passionate want. Feeling like this was it, Louis kicked off his shoes, scooped Harry up in his arms -hands just below his butt- and made a spin. Just like the erotic scene in another Patrick Swayze movie, Ghost.

Louis looked up at the man’s face with needy eyes, and he replied with a permissive nod, briefly touching foreheads to reinforce the gesture. Not waiting for him to change his mind, Louis dashed him up the stairs and into his room.

There was a large tube of lubricant and a box of condoms on the well made-up bed, laying in the afternoon light.

Glad that Harry wanted this- prepared for it- Louis sat the man on the bed and kissed him until his back was inclining. Harry’s fingers now nervously fiddling with his jeggings and making Louis’ heart rate skyrocket, he pulled away from Louis and laid his head back on the pillow, arms bracing Louis' chest from coming in further.

Getting the point, Louis stood up to quickly rid himself of all clothing. He inspected the box before pulling out a condom pack. Strawberry, he thought in a delighted mood. Louis pulled on the plastic cock sleeve and grinned devilishly at Harry as he felt himself up.

Giggling quietly at his enthusiasm, Harry dragged off his dress and peeled down his leggings. Bashfully, He shoved off his prosthetic, socks- everything, and wiped his limb down with his shirt. Wanting to dump away Harry’s embarrassment, Louis dove in and grabbed the shirt, throwing it away.

He kissed Harry again. Slow and patient, not wanting to rush this moment, this feeling.

Louis' hand came to grip on the underside of his thigh, just below his butt and he gently leaned forward, forcing Harry to lay back on the bed. His right arm propping straight on the bed beside Harry's face as he hovered over him, his left hand moved to palm his butt cheek. He was not shy about this. He grabbed it and squeezed like it was fleshy dough, causing Harry to squirm below him.

Drinking in his mouth, his hungry fingers found his hole. Harry made an alerting noise and pulled out of the kiss.

“Can we slow down a bit?”

Louis nodded quickly and backed off a few centimeters, licking his lips as Harry adjusted himself to a comfortable position underneath him. His penis was so hard and throbbing, the tip brushing Harry's front which was now smooth, newly shaven. Louis had been completely turned on by his bush in the car but this was exciting, spicy, and Louis didn't mind at all.

"I want to love every single part of you." Louis peppered kisses on his chest near his heart and got up on his knees. He ran his fingers down his thigh, and as they went past his knee, Harry inhaled sharply and twitched. Louis stared pointedly into his eyes and continued ever so slowly down his calf gripping it and bringing it up. His right hand came to help the left hold it up and he bent his head down at an angle to kiss the man's shin once, twice, little pecks going down until he neared the stump.

Every. Single. Part.” He looked at Harry again; the man lay there still, his eyes wide, daring him to continue. Heart thumping like crazy, Louis kept his gaze on Harry as he brought his stump up to face him now. He pressed his lips on the flab with passion, breaking the contact only to press another in a different spot with the same intensity. He continued this until the entire surface of Harry's stump had been lovingly kissed.

Gently laying his limb back down he stole a look at him again and saw his eyes closed and his head turned to the side, facing away from him.

He’s closing up, Louis thought, kissing the tip of Harry's penis now. Harry ground into the touch, finally looking at him again. Smiling naughtily, Louis crawled up face-to-face and kissed his lips.

Louis yelped out as Harry pushed him off and climbed on to his torso, grasping the lubricant toyingly. Harry’s breathing was hitched, a nervous pucker on his moist lips, making Louis’ inside scream to reach the surface to be touched prodded or brushed by some part of him. Any part of him. Louis sat up and his fingers found themselves in the younger man’s long hair, and he leaned forward to inhale it along with his neck.

A gasp escaped Harry as Louis witnessed him try to stay calm under the kisses he was administering to the side of his neck. They played until their foreheads were one with each other, their bodies imminent to slip into each other and create a whole new being altogether.

Then, Harry was shuddering in his arms. Louis slid his arms around his waist and on his back to steady him. Harry looked down disdainfully. Shaking his head as the tube of lubricant fell from his hands, he looked lacking in courage. Bringing his fingers to hold up Harry’s chin, Louis frowned.

"Let me in, Harry. Please?" Louis begged.

"Just take what you want."

"What I want?" Louis was confused. Didn’t Harry want this too?

"The pity sex. Take it and get it over with."

Louis knew by now to ignore Harry's jabs at the reasons he stuck around. He wanted the sex part. But he had more than occasionally assumed that Harry would end up having sex out of pity for him, not the other way around. He never saw Harry’s disability as something that made the guy less capable of offering pity to someone as emotionally bruised as Louis.

He took his cheeks steadily in both hands now, eyes dilated and hypnotized. The younger man closed his own eyes now, tears creeping out, running down his jaw like raindrops on a window. And it was indeed mascara. That much was clear now as the dark brown color was being carried by the tear trickles.

Louis reached out and thumbed it away. "I want you,” he said crisp and clear, “You. Not just your body. I’m not here to take advantage of you. If you're not interested in me I won’t force you into a relationship-"

"A relationship?" Harry asked in a gasp, the question somehow making the simple words not so simple.

"Yes," Louis said, tone acute, the message clear.

"I have one leg, Louis-"

"Shut up," Louis whined in a dead serious rasp, the words hoarse and rough ringing through the room, making Harry cower. Louis felt his weight on him shift as he made to dismount him. He grabbed him around the waist once again. He was fed up and so in love and so helpless in making Harry's pain go away. Please let the pain go away...

"I know," he stressed as Harry fell into convulsion of sobs. “I know you have one leg. And I would move heaven and earth for you to get the other back. I’d do anything to take away what you've been feeling for the past four-and-a-half months." Louis buried a kiss in his shoulder. "I want you to be happy again. I want to be the one to do that. Haven't I done so to a degree?" Louis dared to ask it. He hoped he had.

His tresses falling limp over his face- his were much thinner and less fluffy than Baby's- Harry lifted his head to press his lips into Louis' chest, quivering. The tiny puckers left Louis limp without the willpower to stop him. Then, dreamily, Harry's eyes came to fixate on him. The pads of his fingers scraped along Louis' jawline as he raised his head back up to face him. His eyes told a truth Louis thought he was ready for a while ago at the bottom of the stairs but shockingly he wasn't so sure now. A truth that said there was one more thing Louis could do to make Harry happy…

Dashing away his foolish doubts, Louis grabbed the lube Harry had dropped on the bed and started prodding a wet finger over his hole while he lay there pliant under his touch. He massaged it until he felt an opening and continued to loosen the muscles until Harry was wide open, all the while feeding his tongue to the man’s gums and nose. It tickled and Harry laughed, so loose and ready.

Rolling to lay on his back, Louis coated himself and waited for Harry to sink himself on his hard length.

Feeling the man ease onto him smoothly, his arse spread out on Louis’ thighs, Louis let him get comfortable with the burn before pumping slowly upward. Louis touched every part of Harry he could not see with clothes on as he straddled him, enjoying the sight of his leaking penis rubbing against his pelvis. The first time he touched him it was dark in car and with the sun blazing through the window he had a what a view.

From his flat position Louis made love to the man slow then hard then slow again every few minutes according to the noises Harry was making, which were either pleasure and eagerness as he sat straight up, or pain and exhaust as he draped himself over Louis, or a mix of all as he galloped his bottom on Louis like thunder on lightning.

Sitting up in a burst of heightened ecstasy, Louis licked from the side of Harry’s face to his hairline as the man rode him with his hair cascading everywhere and intoxicating Louis’ senses. Louis grabbed hold of his legs spreading them further up and apart, and fucked harder into him, not wanting to waste the upsurge. Harry moaned into his ear, definitely ecstasy, digging his fingers into his shoulders.

As the afternoon session progressed they changed positions so that Louis was on top with powerful hairy legs pressing into Harry’s thighs as he lay face down on the bed, legs straight. They applied more lube for that and it was worth it as they both enjoyed the feel Louis’ heated penis rubbing the inside of Harry’s trembling legs as he entered and re-entered him. Unlike Harry, Louis was trying not to make the bed squeak too loud in case they didn’t here Des’ arrival. His hands covered the sides of Harry’s head as he thrust deep and slow.

Then after a few minutes, Harry pushed him off, biting his lip teasingly. Harry then flipped over on his belly and rose up to his knees, fluttering back onto his hard penis until it broached his entrance, humming in ecstasy along with Louis' satiated groans.

“You are so sexy,” Louis managed to mumble in his pleasure at the sight of his penis appearing and disappearing inside Harry as the man’s hole slurped back on it hungrily.

Soon Louis was coming in long hot strands over his back and arse cheeks, doubling over to catch his breath.

Chest easing now as he lay on top of Harry, he breathed. They breathed. Together.

--

 

Louis lay on his back, his head sharing a pillow on the right side of the bed with Harry, except Harry was fast asleep using Louis' chest as his pillow. Louis' arm snaked the man's shoulder, pressing light circles with his thumb on the flesh of his bicep as he softly snored with the afternoon sun bursting through the window and adding to their body heat while shining on the fern by the bedside of beige tones, brightening up the room.

This was it. Louis had finally gotten the chance to get as close to the man as he had wished. He never fathomed touching his skin would send little electric men crossing the threshold to his own body and searing him with a million feverish enthralling tinges. It was as if his skin was breathing Harry in and replacing his toxic system with fresh air, just like when Harry had shoved the oxygen mask off his face to share it with Louis back in the earthquake. He caressed even deeper as thoughts of that day came flashing in his head. Harry's dusty face with only his green eyes recognizable in Louis' headlight. The rocking wobbling building, the smoke that scared them both into thinking they might be roasted to ashes on top of the already life-threatening situation. The homestretch when they thought they were both going to make it out alive and in one piece. The beam crashing down on Harry and throwing both his and Louis' lives in a whirlwind of dystopia.

So many things happened that day. He got to know a civilian. A stranger. Someone Louis would have otherwise rescued and let run off into their own life and probably never see again. Never get to glimpse into his beautiful soul no matter how broken and dark it was now. Someone he might have never let in on his pain and burning past. Someone Louis would not be feeling so close to, giving affection to and receiving it back from in a way that he had never felt before with anyone. For the first time, Louis wanted to taste adventure. Hike the trails of rejuvenation, snorkel, fish with his bare hands, ride bicycles with; dirty dance with, just be in the moment with. And yes Harry, as tainted as he was, had breathed new vigor into Louis' worn soul. Louis wanted to bask in the man's aura forever.

Harry shifted in his sleep and rolled further into Louis’ chest, somewhere against his armpit, then unconsciously wiggled away to the other side of the bed, leaving Louis without his touch.

Although his back was now turned to Louis, Harry indulged in an ardent scratch of his right hip over the brown blanket that covered them both, letting Louis know he was now awake.

Louis dragged himself over into Harry’s personal space, kissing him a silly ‘Good morning’ and putting his hand under the sheets between his legs soft and playful.

“Why'd you cut it?” he asked, fondling his smoothed pelvis area where the hair was.

Harry slithered under the touch, an amused grin crossing his face. “I haven’t had sex in forever,” he said in a sleepy rasp. “I forgot how to be prepared.”

“I liked it.” Louis caressed the area with all his finger pads, slow and gentle. Harry gave a slight frown and Louis added, “But I appreciate the effort.”

Harry grinned and squinted his eyes shut. Louis grinned. “I love it when you do that.”

“What?”

“That shy, blushy thing. It’s cute.”

Harry giggled sporadically. “What’s that?” He passed his thumb on Louis' left eyebrow.

“That bald spot in your eyebrows. The whole time I'm telling myself you got that in the earthquake. Did you?"

“Oh that. Nah that’s from an old piercing. From my wild teenage ‘hate the world’ phase. I was in this street gang back in New York and Tay and I were into hardcore punk and Emo. Had my first kiss to Mr Brightside."

Louis seemed to stop there and Harry gestured his chin for more.

Louis caressed his chin. “I’ve mostly dated girls. I think you’re probably the third guy I’ve ever been with?” Louis checked in his head.

“Really?” Harry’s brows creased. “How did I measure up?”

“Amazing,” Louis murmured matter-of-factly. It wasn’t even a question to be asked.

“I’m sorry, Louis, about last night. I guess I didn’t want to lead you on while you were kind of drunk in case you regretted it after and…” he trailed off to release a giggle. “It’s stupid, but when that song from the movie started playing it just felt like…”

Louis smiled, taking his hand. “Serendipity?”

“Yeah,” Harry moved his head up north-east to look at him.

Contented, Louis just merged the corners of their foreheads, fiddling with Harry’s open palm.

 “What are you doing?” Harry asked as Louis' hand smoothed over it.

“Channelling your energy, what does it look like?”

Harry snorted out a tiny laugh. Then raking his hair back behind the pillow, he could not hold back the tears. “I can't do this Louis. I can't be what you think I am. I can't just pick up where we left off in the freakin pile of rubble. I lost everything that day.”

Harry's face was a strange mixture of hopelessness, and carelessness about that hopelessness. He began to crawl off the bed, and Louis grabbed his elbow with two fingers.

“Wait. You didn't lose me. I’m here. I was a different person before that earthquake. I never cared for whimsical love affairs. And I shut people out like you're doing right now. Please don't shut me out.”

“But I feel like I'm not worth it,” Harry said, fresh tears burning through his eyes. “I’m not whole.

Louis’ face cracked into a pained expression, his skin growing crimson as he clasped Harry’s face tightly. “Harry, you made me want to live again that day. I'm not giving up on you.” He kissed his forehead feeling heat burn his lips. “I want to make it better. I can’t guarantee the pain will go away but let me try.”

"Harry!?" They both heard Des calling from downstairs as the man shut the door.

Louis glanced at the alarm clock by the bed. "He’s back early.”

Harry slapped Louis’ mouth shut. "Shhhh! Don't talk. I swear! Just stay quiet and he’ll think we’re out for a walk," he whisper-warned with googly eyes.

Louis pried his hand off, giggling and making Harry more paranoid.

"He's gonna see my shoes." Louis couldn't help but giggle at Harry's reaction to that. "He's gonna see my shoes and he's gonna know I'm in here with you because why would we go for a walk with no shoes?"

“Oh god no,” Harry let loose a muffled giggle into his chest, and Louis kissed his head.

"Gosh, and to think I was so hesitant to come up to the door," Louis whispered, running his fingers to feel the softness of Harry's brown curls, feeling like he won the lottery. "I kind of stalked your house for a whole day before I got the courage to come say hi."

“What? What do you mean ‘a whole day’?” Harry sounded completely put on guard.

“Um, I was scared to approach you after what happened. I’m glad I built up the courage because I got to stay and help you get back on your feet.”

Harry’s eyes stuck on him blankly for a few seconds, then they started moving frantically all over the room. “Get back on my feet?”

Louis tensed, realizing what he said. Harry could literally never get back on both his feet. He didn't mean it literally but he saw why it would seem tactless to say especially considering the depression that comes with a tragedy like this.

Harry boiled up into confusion. "Get out."

"Harr-"

“GET OUT! GET OUT OF MY HOUSE!!" Harry kicked him with all his might and Louis backed straight off the bed without the sheets because Harry was them holding over himself nipple high. As though Louis wasn't just sucking the nipples off of him while Harry rode his penis... Covering himself up as though every part of him wasn’t just welcoming Louis' touch.

Exhaling sharply, Louis twitched his head so slightly for himself alone, his brows drawn in thought. “What happened to you? You have a great life, a family, people who care about you..."

"I lost my leg!" Harry cried out bitterly. “I’m not your sister, so stop feeling sorry for me!”

As much as that jab hurt him to the sinew, Louis chose to ignore it, hitting back with, "I’m not here because I feel sorry for you. Newsflash- Nobody feels sorry for you. It’s getting old, so quit it!” – Harry’s mouth turned up in a punctured frown, but Louis didn’t let up- “You know; I think you’re blind too. You must be if you can’t see that you’re still hung up on a guy who left you years ago. So blind that you can’t let anyone else love you!”

“GET- OUT!” Harry enunciated in a newly emblazoned rage. He pivoted his upper body off the bed to grab up Louis’ clothes and throw them at him. “GO BACK TO CHICAGO!”

Louis' jeans -belt buckle and all- hit him in the face by the door and he stumbled through it. Gawking at Harry with welled up eyes he stood there in an equal rage with nothing to throw back at him. It took him a few seconds to notice Des five feet away in front his bedroom door staring shell-shocked at his naked frame.

Pulling on a frustrated grimace, Louis stomped to the bathroom to get dressed.

 

--

 

“Bub?” Des came and leaned on the wall by his son’s opened door, arms folded concernedly, not looking inside.

“Leave me alone,” answered the tiny barely-there voice laced with woe.

“You wanna tell me what happened?” He glimpsed Louis’ newly clothed figure dash angrily to his room but his main concern was the sobs coming from Harry’s room.

“No.”

“I'm stomped on what I should do here. You want him to go, just say the word but if you know deep down you’re making the wrong decision here...?”

“I just wanna be alone,” Harry cried, huddled naked under the covers.

Des nodded, helplessness creeping in his spirit.

“Okay, Baby.” He closed Harry’s door softly.

 

--

 

Des slouched into the room. “Why don't you stick around at the motel until he cools down?” 

“You heard him," Louis flung his arm to the door. "He wants me gone.”

“Harry's in a lot of pain,” Des said carefully, eyeing the half-filled duffel bag. “But a whole lot less than before you showed up. I don't know what caused him to explode on you like that but I'm not so sure you should leave town just yet.”

Louis continued to roll up and shove everything in his path into the bag. “Look, you've been nothing but generous in allowing me to stay for as long as I did. But that’s just the thing; I wasn't supposed to stay this long. I have a job I have to get back to.”

Des' gaze fell to the floor. Louis observed the man's hopelessness in the situation as he walked out of the room.

“And one more thing," Louis stopped him in time to say, "You should stop selling Harry to everyone as this helpless child. He's a lot stronger than you think." And was he wrong? Des had no right to go feeding Nick details on Harry’s condition knowing damn well Harry wanted nothing to do with the man.

And come to think of it, since Louis got here Des had been doing no less than pushing Harry forward as someone who needed help from someone other than Des. Almost like he was offering Louis his son to take care of. Almost like he…wanted Louis to fall in love with Harry. Setting Louis up for whatever train wreck had just happened in the other room. But no. Louis was not going to take another minute of it. All Harry had needed was gait training and exercise. Not Louis. He didn't need Louis. And Louis…Louis…was trying hard not to need Harry right now.

Des let go of a long sigh, nodding dejectedly before finally leaving the room with a tap on edge of the doorway.

Louis went back to packing, fighting with every fiber in his body to go back into Harry's room and squeeze his pain away.

 

*

Chapter soundtrack-

 

Sasha Sloan- Runaway

Lauv - The Story Never Ends

The Dunwells- Hurts

Marie Digby- Iris

SYML- In My Body

Adele -Rolling in The Deep

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

*

 

Why am I so stupid?  Louis said to himself as he curled up on the couch with Sophie and a cup of coffee after a long shift back at work.

He had been back in Chicago almost a week now but still struggled to get what happened in Seattle out of his head, wondering how he could let the entire six weeks pass playing dollhouse with Harry without thinking about his life in Chicago. The entire plane ride back he had been squeezing his eyes shut thinking of how much easier it would have been if he had just given him the flowers and left that first day. But if he was to be honest with himself he did not want that, because then he would not have gotten to see Snoqualmie falls and go camping and learn to cook a fish. Since he had been back Louis had thrown himself into work taking every call and long shift available, and he still could not get any of it out of his system. The dancing, the sex... None of it gave him rest. They had taken the place of his nightmares and left him with a yearning to be there again- with Harry.

He blew on the cup with Sophie snuggled under his arm, secretly glad he had not taken her to Seattle with him. He was so relieved to see her and he didn’t know what he would have done if he had come back with all his misery and no Sophie to cuddle it all away. Besides the fading hickey above his right nipple, she was all he had from Harry. And that was if he didn’t want to count the basket of blueberry muffins Anne brought to the station that day to say thanks for saving her son’s life after she heard Louis was back in Town. The woman had handed him a particularly large one while Miller took the basket to the kitchen, and she proceeded to ask him questions about how Harry was doing. Louis felt a bit guilty that he had spent more time with Harry during his recovery than she did. And as he had looked into her strayed and left-out eyes he wished he had encouraged Harry to call her while he was there.

Wallowing in his thoughts he heard the front door. In came Zayn in his sooty work clothes. He had a career day lecture at the Community College Campus that morning followed by a couple of code three calls he had joined Louis and Miller for but had remained back at the station to write his lecture report.

They hadn’t had time to talk about the lecture while on the job. They were too focused on getting a worker’s hand out from a shredder and later putting out an old lady’s stove fire.

“Why didn’t you change into tracks at the station?”

“Because I scribbled down the report and ran out of there to go see Liam. He had a DOA today and I needed to make sure he was okay, you know, with his GG and all.”

“Great,” Louis deadpanned. “Walk up to him looking like you’d narrowly escaped being barbequed. I’m sure that didn’t worry him more.”

Zayn sighed heavily in response and got rid of his shirt.

“How was the lecture, by the way?” Louis lifted his hand to let Sophie jump off the couch to her own devices.

“Awesome. I felt like an important professor or some shit. Everyone was looking at me like my word was gospel.”

Louis wasn’t even listening. His thoughts stayed with Harry. How he was feeling today with his pains, if he took any walks, if he was still mad at him...

“So, how’d Harry feel about you leaving?” Zayn knew exactly who Louis was thinking about. he had been trying to get Louis to talk about him for days so Louis knew where he was going with this line of questioning.

“He’s fine. He’s just happy to be active again,” Louis briefed. He hadn’t told Zayn he got closer to Harry. Close enough to touch and taste him and hurt like hell when he threw him out.

“So when you say active…you mean like…?”

Knowing exactly what Zayn was insinuating, Louis sighed, head stiffly bopping all around the room in reluctant confirmation. He decided to finally let Zayn in on what happened but he still didn’t want to think about the raucous sweet sex he had with Harry that last day in Seattle.

Zayn let out a championed laugh. “Good for you, Louis. Man, Liam was right. He said that would happen. Great, now I owe him twenty bucks.”

“What? You and Liam have been making bets on me?”

“Yeah, it’s weird how he seems to get you more than I do. I mean, when I think about it, it’s understandable. You both grew up without parents.”

“You get to talk to Bebe at the Station?” Louis branched off, not wanting to talk about anything related to Harry.

He had got the lowdown about the Zayn/Liam/Bebe triangle from Jade when he arrived to work the first day back. He remembered finding Liam’s house that same evening after work and going off on him.

 

~~

 

“I told you not to hurt my friends!’ he collared Liam, ignoring the little kids' voices and grownup chatting inside Liam's house.

Liam raised his hands to explain. “I was going to break up with her the first time and Zayn told me not to. Then I started caring about Bebe, getting to know her. I even met her parents.’

‘Wait, you met her parents?’ Bebe had never been with a guy long enough to get him to meet her parents as far as Louis knew. At no fault of hers they just never worked out. It dawned on Louis that it was serious for Bebe. The women Louis worked with were sweet people who put a lot into their work and relationships. When he was dating Jade, she was always the one to kick-start conversations about the future and kids even though Louis personally wasn't ready to think that far ahead. Louis marveled at how much Bebe and Jade had in common. Louis really wanted the best for those two.

“But that was before Zayn realized we were inevitable,” Liam carried on, shirt still fisted in Louis’ hands. “I was going to break it off but then my GG died and Bebe walked in us before I had the chance. I swear Louis I never meant for that to happen. Zayn challenges me. It’s like I came face to face with my equal. It’s so frustrating.”

‘I know how that feels.’ Louis drifted into thought then, abandoning his attack.

 

~~

 

“No, I told you I practically ran out of there when Liam called.” Zayn rattled on about Bebe and how he may have lost her friendship for good. The whole thing only served to cement Louis’ feeling of regret over the way he left things with Harry.

Then out of the blue, Louis started weeping. He just could not handle the thronging pain in his chest where Harry’s laughter once was.

Zayn went silent, looking on in bewilderment. “Are you okay? What the hell happened in Seattle, man!?”

Louis spun around on the spot to face Zayn. “I messed up too. I spent all that time with Harry in that house that I forgot I didn't live there. I had someone to laugh with and who I got so vulnerable with to open up to about Tay.”

“Yeah, Miller said you casually mentioned her the other day at the station. This is big.”

Louis nodded, scraping his palm. “I know. You guys always tell me I never talk about her, but for some reason, it all just flowed out with Harry. But then- I mean, we cycled, and talked about sitcoms… All the walks through the park and the best sex of my entire life just - out the window because he couldn’t trust me. He’s hurting so much and I just want to take it and throw it in a furnace and watch it burn. But he wouldn’t let me. Our connection, it didn’t mean as much to him as I thought it did.”

Zayn half-laughed and shook his head dolefully. “Maybe you should call him. From what you’re saying you two had, I’m sure he felt the same way as you did. There must have been a misunderstanding.”

“I told him he was gonna get back on his feet, Zayn,” Louis blurted. “You should have seen his face. It was like he was mocked and hurt. I can’t believe I was so stupid to say that.”

“I’m sure he knows by now you didn’t mean it.”

“It’s too late now. It’s over. He’s forgotten about me by now, I’m sure.”

 

*

 

It had been almost a week since Louis left when Harry finally dared to spend a whole day out of bed, so he bathed and crawled down for breakfast. Des had already left for work and Harry had to make his own meal. He cracked two eggs in the frying pan and didn’t bother to toast the accompanying slice of bread. He was just so done. Everything his eyes caught had been saturated by Louis and his laughter. Even the damn kitchen utensils. As he sat he felt his thighs burn, still sore from the friction with Louis’ body during sex. It was a wonder he was even able to sleep in his own bed after getting fucked into it to point of temporary blindness. He doubted he could if he hadn’t changed the sheets that were splattered with their come and the scent of Louis’ masculinity.

Harry got through breakfast and spent the rest of the day watching TV and reading with no intention of going outdoors.

That night, he got out of the shower by grabbing on to the new handlebar, and yet again the thing immediately reminded him of Louis. And apart from the fact that Louis bought it, it took Harry right back to all the times he held on to his sturdy arm for stability while walking and cycling. Every nook and cranny in the house echoed the ghost of the man’s contagious, boyish laugh.

He wrapped himself in his towel, securing it with a clothespin, and hopped on his crutches to his room to get dried off. The room that had been host to Louis’ laughter, his smell, the touch of his lips.

As he dried his skin darkness lidded Harry's mind as it flashed back to; the man’s lack of respect for his situation, his arrogant shouting, and insensitive remarks… Harry took a deep breath and brushed it all under the rug of his mind and got ready for dinner.

Once downstairs, he blew hard at the stereo speakers he had played that last day with Louis. How stupid could he be to think the firefighter who saved him could think any more of him than a conquest?

He shuffled to the kitchen quietly, observing his father cleaning another fish and seasoning it without his usual humming.

Dinner was equally quiet except for juice-pouring and spoon-clanging.

“Your mom called,” Des cut into the silence halfway through.

“What did she say?”

“Nothing. Just, how you were doing and all that. Said she saw Louis but he didn’t say much. Just that you were getting around without the crutches.”

Harry closed his eyes. He saw the weariness in the man's face, having had to carry on a conversation with the woman however short it was. "Daddy, I’m so sorry for everything. I thought I was doing the right thing going to see her.”

Harry had given up thinking that he was making things better by introducing his mother in their lives again. Look where it got him.

"What one might think is the right thing ain't always right for anyone," Des agreed coldly.

Harry dropped his head and tossed his rice around the plate, knowing perfectly well Des was not just talking about Anne. But Harry did not want to hear another one of his self-righteous speeches. He had it with those.

“You know what, Daddy, you think you know what’s best for me all the time but you haven’t lost a limb. You still get to go out there and enjoy a walk without people staring at you. Until you can make that stop no you don’t have all the answers.” Harry choked back his sudden urge to cry out- Louis. Louis made it stop for one night in his high school reunion. But Louis far from had all the answers either.

"You’re right!” Des dropped his spoon in a rage. “I don’t know. All I know is my son left town to find answers and came back with one leg and a broken spirit. And there ain't a damn thing I can do about it."

And Harry let it out. He blubbered and cried over his food.

Listening to Harry’s noises, Des adopted a firm but softer tone. “I know it was tough without your mother. She left us so early on and it took me years to stop wondering what could be more important than raising our son together. I tried so hard to keep you as happy as a single parent can. Now how do I not think that I failed somehow when you still felt like you were abandoned by her and you go and come back with a freshly broken heart? How do I not feel like she broke you all over again?”

Harry wiped some of his tears but didn’t stop crying.

“Harry, you’re were never like the other boys running around in the jungle gym. You had a girl for a best friend- the times you’d come home with her lunch kit saying you exchanged lunches,” Des laughed. “You always liked to read. And when you started middle school you’d do your makeup and let your hair grow out. I only had one child and as far as I knew you were a boy. So when you told me at fifteen you wanted to date a guy, I didn't know how to react. Your mom left when you were three and I raised you all by myself since then. I thought I did a fine job despite you missing your mom from time to time, and I didn’t want to damage our relationship and make all that progress amount to nothing so I let you be you. And you continued to grow into a fine person." Des then shook his head. “That was before you left to find your mom.”

“I’m sorry, Daddy. I was selfish to go there without thinking about how it affected you. I guess I always felt like you were keeping me from her. And maybe you were, to protect me. I felt like I wasn’t good enough for my own mother? I’m sorry I disappointed you.”

“I’m not disappointed, Harry. I’m conflicted. Part of me wishes I didn't give you that damn address in the first place and this other part of me can’t help but think if I didn’t you wouldn’t have...”

“Wouldn’t have what?” Harry wondered what could be a positive in him going to Chicago and getting his leg chopped off.

Des took a deep breath before he spoke. “I always wanted you to find a way to be happy and stop hurting. I mean, this Nick thing you’ve been on since graduation, every time you saw him or heard about him you’d fall into this dark hole. You think you ain’t good enough?” Des shook his head and laughed. “Harry, someone found you good enough to take six weeks out of their lives and cross the country to see you, and not leave until the very last minute when you were okay enough to not need them anymore and knock them down about the millionth time. Now I’m not trying to push or anything but I’m just saying you ought to think about what those six weeks did for you. A lot of amputees need a whole lot more than six weeks to adjust their new lifestyle, but it had to have been a lot of time to sacrifice for a firefighter who could have gone to Hawaii instead. I can’t watch you fall back into that hole after all that progress you made. I just don’t think my heart can take it.”

Des stopped talking then and let the sounds of his spoon and chewing take up the silence. Harry observed him.

Something about his father looked weary tonight, and Harry decided in that minute he had to try to pull himself out of his despair for his father's sake as well as his own. Stretching his arm across the table, he offered a week smile and they held hands. "I'm gonna be okay, Daddy. I promise."

 

*

 

After breakfast the next day, Harry went for a simple walk around the block for exercise and found it hard not to see flashes of him and Louis on their bicycles racing each other. He thought constantly about his dad’s words at the dinner table last night, and Louis’ face kept coming up in his head- his face when they were in bed talking about his old piercing; them joking around while having a sandwich at lunch. Harry didn’t realize he was in a trance until he gurgled out a laugh at the thought of a teenage Louis with purple spiky hair and eyebrow piercings. It felt like he had known the man for a long time and found it strange that he had a whole life before Harry.

In the evening he rode his bike to the park where he and Louis had visited the day before they went camping, and he found himself chortling at the memory of Louis’ teeth when he made fun of him for trying out a million different poses for the picture.

Getting off the bike, he walked with it to the spot where Louis first saw the Seattle sunset.

Propped over the banister he waited a few minutes, and without fail, the most majestic, soft neon pink clouds appeared. From behind them peeped out a delicate orange blare that was safe to look directly at.

Harry grinned at it, and that then turned into a slight giggle, and that then turned into a full laugh.

What, Harry wondered, was I so busy thinking about that I didn’t see it before?

How could he be so preoccupied with anger and resentment at his missing leg that he didn't see what Louis was showing him? His mind went back to what Louis said about Harry not wanting to be back there when the fire had burned his scars into existence because there was only pain then.

When the fire outs and leaves behind the strange shapes of scars, that's when the healing begins. That’s when you can take the scars left behind and help shape them into what you want them to become. Harry saw it now- the truth that he had to stop dwelling on the past and appreciate the beauty of the now.

 

*

 

Des had taken a day off, and he and Harry decided that instead of lulling around the house all day they’d finally do some proper cleaning and get rid of some old stuff.

“Looks like Louis already started in here.” Des trudged through the rows of boxes and garbage bags full of old stuff.

“What’s that?” Harry pointed to a yellow sticky note on the wall behind a box of some old toys.

Pushing his neck out to see closer, Des read squinty-eyed: “‘Do. Not. Under any. Circumstances. Paint. Over. the. Precious memories. on this wall.’ -Well, someone was getting pretty sentimental.”

Harry pulled off the note and traced his eyes to the drawing. He barely remembered when he did them and it irked him why Louis would care about some old stick drawing. The used-to-be-white wall definitely needed a paint job.

He shrugged. “Okay, well seems like Louis had this covered so I’ll go start on your room. I love going through your old clothes, see what people wore in the eighties.” Harry excitedly rubbed his palms together before taking off.

“I’ll go get lunch started.” Des checked his watch.

 

Throwing the door open and strutting in with a scoop and duster, Harry got to work cleaning and pulling out all his father’s old newspapers and magazines from under the bed. He swept the duster one last time, covering his nose from the flare of dust and a stack of pictures tumbled out.

Picking them up he immediately placed them as the ones he and Louis took over the course of his staying there, with the ones from their trip to Snoqualmie on top. Smiling at the visible one of a flapping salmon in Louis’ hand, he skimmed through them.

He was surprised at the warm feelings the snapshots were giving him. Each scene retelling the fun they had. A sense of pining began to build as he flipped through them, and he was just about to block it out like he had been doing since Louis left, when he reached one of Louis driving. His eyes were on the road and he had on the clothes from the day they left the campsite. Harry remembered taking it while they looked at the mountains one last time as they drove away from the campsite. He remembered the warm upturn off his lip profile; the branched out crinkles in the corner of his moon-shaped eyes; the look on his face. Harry’s lips stretched remembering what Louis had said just before he took the picture.

 

~~

 

“What happened there?” Louis asked, following Harry’s camera flash to a side of a mountain with a huge apple-bite out of it.

“Erosion,” Harry informed, snapping away at the scenery. “The park rangers banned hikers from that trail because it could endanger them and cause further damage to the mountain.”

He then turned the camera to Louis. Something about his expression stopped Harry dead in his tracks from snapping a picture. The man was looking at him in a deep concentration of thought.

Harry wanted to ask if he was alright but he felt frozen in his seat with the look glazing over him.

Louis let his gaze stay on Harry a few seconds longer before refocussing on the road. “Look at the size of that thing. That mountain is strong. It’ll take hundreds, maybe thousands of years to crumble. Besides, it’s been through hell to get here, remember? A little erosion won’t take away from its overall strength or its beauty.”

Harry poured on a look of reproach and snapped Louis.

~~

 

Harry had thought Louis was being facetious about the mountain’s problems, but as he looked at the pictures of himself seasoning fish and setting up the fire, he saw what Louis was really talking about- him. Louis was talking about him, throwing one of his analogies, saying in a different set of words that his amputation wasn’t going to be the end of him. That he had been through painful situations and come out stronger for them just like he would this latest erosion.

Picture after picture of him doing normal things he thought he’d never do again, the back of Harry’s eyes burned and he let the hot tears fall realizing that Louis didn’t just say it- he was there, he helped make it true for Harry. He helped him to stand tall again and do all the things he did before the tremors in Chicago. He even took pictures of it.

He reached the picture Louis took of Mount Rainer in the huckleberry patch, and his mind then traced back to his high school reunion- Louis had told him he fell in love with him in the earthquake before the beam fell. Harry had no choice but to see the mountain now the way Louis saw it- A monument forged from a fire of pain, that left that pain behind to stand tall and sturdy. Louis fell for him in the building before either of them even knew he was going to lose his leg. He listened to Harry talk about his life while they waited for the rescue team, and when he got trapped under the beam with a stretch of hope still that it would be lifted off to free him, he and Louis bonded over their painful pasts. Louis wasn’t taking pity on him. He loved him. Every bit as much as Harry loved him back.

And as he looked through the rest of the pictures everything came flooding back; the earthquake where they shared the pack of skittles they thought would be their last meal, Louis arriving at his front door hiding behind a bunch of flowers, his proud face after making his first catch, that time the wheelchair went crashing into his driveway, the dancing... Harry had never met anyone that funny or headstrong or attentive.

Harry remembered it all and suddenly it was too much to ignore. He quickly grabbed the pictures up and dashed out.

“Daddy!” he called out over the stairs before dashing to his room.

Des was at his door in minutes.

“I need you to help me take my luggage down from the top shelf,” Harry said, dragging drawers open and pulling out hangers of clothing from the closet.

Des slapped on a look of concern. “Should I be worried?”

“I need to go to Chicago.”

Looking between Harry and the closet, Des hesitated, not sure where this was going.

“I need to see Louis,” Harry said crisp and clear, determined and sure as he scratched his head in conflict over what to pack.

His expression easing, Des smiled and said, "I reckoned you’d come to your senses soon enough.”

He lifted a finger for Harry to “Wait right there,” disappearing to his room and coming back a couple of minutes later.

He held out a folded paper to Harry, and as it rested in his palm he saw it was a plane ticket to Chicago.

Harry looked up at his father.

"I told myself if you were gonna keep up this I-don’t-give-a-shit act I'd have to take a plane out and get him back myself,” explained Des. “Glad you changed your mind, cause’ you know I hate traveling."

Rubbing his thumb over the surface of the ticket, Harry could not contain his tears. He flung out his arms and let Des catch him in a hug.

"I love you, Daddy," he cried, completely endeared by the thoughtful man.

 

*

 

Louis uncapped the cup and yawned into his coffee. He had just walked into the station with a coffee from the café when – “Station 18! We got a code 1, No 5 Bueller Street!”

Bebe was already in the truck before the message was cut and Louis had to dump the cup in the trash to follow her.

“That’s Miss Cowell’s house. Must’ve spilled over the stove again. Bebe and I will take this one,” he told Miller on his way in.

He jumped in the drivers’ side and they sped out.

His head kept swinging to Bebe’s profile as he drove. “So, how are you holding up?”

“What will it take for people to stop asking me that?”

“Look, I know this must be rough. I just want to say how sorry I am for my part in it, Bebes.”

She looked at him with eyebrows. “It’s not you that strung me along for months and had me thinking I finally met someone with class and integrity.”

Louis’ mouth parted to speak again but Bebe went on. “And you’re certainly not the one who called himself my friend while cheating behind my back with my wretched two-timing boyfriend. And to think I introduced him to my family.”

Steering the truck on, Louis decided to take the high road and give the woman more time before putting a word in for Zayn. Let him take his punishment for a while. After all, Louis did try to warn him against alienating Bebe. I mean, was it so hard to tell the girl the truth?

The sirens sounded until they slowed down at a house they had been to a little too regular, only this time it was immersed in flames. The little old lady who lived there sat screaming frail on the sidewalk.

An ambulance, a police car, and a fire truck from another division showed up at the same time, all occupants scampering out into action. Louis saw that it was Liam and female Cassie again, and Mendes, the beat cop. Even a few of the other firemen’s faces were familiar from the earthquake. And suddenly Harry’s face was there, smoky and teary and bloody. And Louis didn’t realize he was frozen on the spot with a panic attack.

“Louis!” Bebe barked him into the scene again. “I’ll pull! You get the pipe!”

Quickly helping Bebe pull and stretch the line, Louis dashed to the nearest fire hydrant a few yards away and unscrewed it.

A fireman from the other truck took on the role of pipeman and got a hit on the fire with the blasting hose.

Louis charged to his side and remained on the spot aghast with everyone else at the once-simple neighborhood house. The flowing water couldn’t drown out the sounds of the lady sitting in the ambulance in despair.

“Simon!” she cried. “Oh my Simon!” she grabbed on to Liam and Cassie. Bebe looked at her sympathetically then briefly glanced at the paramedics and scowled.

Wondering why Liam chose to stay in Bebe’s presence of wrath rather than take the woman to the hospital, Louis jogged over to the ambulance. “Miss Cowell?”- Louis knew her, they had countless calls to her house before and he had just put out her stove fire the day prior- “Are you okay? How bout we let them take you to the hospital?”

The woman seemed too distraught to reply. Then she grabbed Louis’ arm. “My husband’s ashes are in there! The last thing I said to him was ‘You, old leech!’ and I never got to apologize. Now I let his ashes burn along with everything he worked so hard for. He’s never going to forgive me now!”

Louis exchanged sympathetic looks with Liam. Duty mode stepping in, Louis then shouted at Bebe. “I’m going in!”

Cassie exclaimed. “Hold on, Daredevil.” She said it with a familiar air, and Louis figured that just like ‘Amputation guy’ the paramedics too made a nickname for him after the earthquake.

Overhearing Louis, Mendes did a retake. “Are you crazy?”

Liam was the one who stood up for Louis. “He’s a firefighter, Ryan. He knows what he’s doing.”

Mendes rounded on Liam. “I’ve been on a lot of calls like these where these guys don’t always come out uninjured!” He pointed accusingly at Louis. “But they ain’t this stupid either. That house is a lost cause and there are zero civilians inside!"

Louis rolled his eyes and marched forward, ignoring the man. Mendes skipped in front of him and pushed his hand on Louis’ chest to stop him. “If you go any further I’ll have to arrest you! There is nobody in there to save!”

Louis took another look at the water hitting the fire steadily. Dropping his shoulders and falling back he accepted that this was something he could not control.

He turned and walked back to the old shaky lady. Kneeling he explained to her. "I'm sorry there isn't anything we can do until the fire is out. When it's all over we can take a look inside and see if we can find the urn. It's supposed to be still in one piece, right?”

The woman touched his shoulder. “I put his ashes in a wooden cigar box like he wanted. It won’t survive this. You tried but I’m glad you didn’t risk your life. What you can do for me is love the people in your life now. Apologize and forgive before it’s too late and never take them for granted again.” She stared off bleary-eyed into the house.

Louis nodded and rubbed the woman’s back trying to ignore that everything she just said brought Harry back up in his mind again.

Soon the fire was contained and put out and Bebe high-fived the other firemen. She and Louis started pulling the hose in and Louis took a minute to look back at the charred house. It was his first major fire since the events of the tremors and he was not expecting to be this panicked. As he looked at the empty shell of a house now his hands shook and he had to keep telling himself that Harry was miles away safe in another State.

 

*

 

Harry took his time climbing out of the cab to stand in front of the Chicago fire station. The cab driver took his two trolley bags out of the trunk and bade him a good day before driving off. He swept his loose hair back as he took a deep breath and took in his surroundings.

A relatively small Italianate industrial styled building with cobblestone wall exterior and little turrets around the top, the station looked noble in the backdrop of the city. A truck sat outside awaiting the next job and Harry could hear the sounds of workers inside.

Heart beating fast, he gripped a bag handle in each hand and set toward the interiors.

“Harry!" He was met with a dirty-blonde firewoman and another fireman at the desk.

"Oh hi. I’m sorry, you know me?"

"Uh, yeah. I’m Jade.” She stood with her hand in her pocket, her watch studiously sitting on her wrist. We all worked that day.”

"Oh," Harry's demeanor dropped. “I’m sorry. It was so dark I can’t remember your faces. I tried to block out that day mostly.”

"Understandable,” The male fireman quipped.

Harry looked at him slightly flummoxed.

“Miller,” he explained himself, holding out his hand.

Harry’s whole face leaped in sudden memory. "Oh! I remember you! You carried me down the stairs. I would never forget you- partially because I never had a guy carry me like that,” he grinned. Miller smiled bashfully and Jade smirked.

"Louis should be back in about ten minutes if you're willing to wait," she told Harry.

“Wow, I’m that easy to read, huh?” Harry grinned nervously.

“Let’s just say we’re glad you’re here,” Miller said matter-of-factly taking the luggage up the stairs to the lounge area. Jade walked with Harry who held on to the chrome finished railing.

Once up, Jade gestured to the leather chairs, and Harry drew further in the room for a seat.

Jade then checked her watch and yawned. “I’m gonna take a shower and head home. I’ve been here for 12 hours. Nice to meet you, Harry.”

When she disappeared around the wall Harry turned to Miller. “Why do I get the feeling everyone was expecting me?”

Miller raised his hand ready to give the lowdown but someone interrupted.

“Well, if it isn’t the bravest guy in the world,” the person chimed. Harry looked up to see a dark-haired man in casual clothing walking up the stairs.

“I’m Zayn Malik.”

“Hi,” Harry grinned. “Louis told me a lot about you... except which one you were in the building. Jade was just telling me you were all there.

“I was the first medic to arrive.” Zayn sat next to him.

“I barely remember your faces, just your voices. Thank you for what you did that day. You helped save my life.”

“Yeah, and I guess I should thank you for being the reason Louis barely called me from Seattle,” Zayn joked.

“As I recall you’re the one who has a big test coming up he didn’t want to distract you from,” Harry mused playfully.

Laughing, Zayn reached out and shook his hand. “I see he has been talking about me at least. How are you? What brings you back out here?”

“I was hoping to see Louis?”

“Well, I’ll take your bags to our place, then.”

“To your place?”

“Yeah, why not? I’m headed there now.”

“I think I wanna wait for Louis. I don’t want to intrude without him knowing.”

“I doubt he’ll mind.”

“With my disability you mean?” Harry was quick on the sarcasm.

“No,” Zayn quickly replied. “I actually meant…” He looked Harry up and down. He didn’t know how else to communicate that he knew about their love affair without actually saying it.

“It’s okay, I know what you mean,” Harry seemed to get it and relaxed his tension. “You're his best friend, of course, he told you about us. Can I ask you; on a scale of 1 to 10, how mad is he?”

“Trust me, if he was mad I wouldn’t be suggesting you come to stay at ours."

“Sad. Definitely leaning more to the sad side of the scales,” Miller answered to Harry from somewhere near the kitchen.

Zayn jumped around. He had no idea Miller was even there. The man sat at the meal table stirring his coffee and sugar a look of deep knowledge and meditation on his face.

Harry grimaced at the cup, wondering now if he should have just stayed in Seattle and let the man move on.

“Look, at least let me take your bags. Fact that you brought them here kinda tells me you didn’t book a hotel.”

Harry laughed. “True, but I can go to my mother’s. I don’t want to a burden you and Louis.”

“It’s okay. I have to stop at home anyhow to get some clothes to go to Liam's.”

Zayn then left for the locker room to grab some stuff.

 

*

 

Miller was washing his cup while Harry watched when they heard the bubbly laughter of Bebe bantering to someone while strutting up the stairs to the work lounge.

Miller rounded on her as soon as she surfaced. “Where’s Louis?”

“He’s right downstairs. He’s just reeling up the hose.”

Miller pointed an eye at the seats.

She eyed him curiously and refocused on the seats. "Oh hey!" she grinned excitedly at Harry. "You came to see Louis- I'll go get him.” she already started for the stairs.

“No, no. Let him finish what he has to do. I’ll wait,” Harry gestured for her to cease. “Is he alright, though? I mean…” Harry eyed the soot on Bebe’s cheeks.

It took Bebe a second to get it. “Oh, yeah! He’s fine. We just finished a stretch. It’s just this old lady keeps having kitchen accidents.”

“Third time she’s spilled oil on the stove!” Miller said aghast. He turned to a puzzled Harry. “She’s kind of wobbly.”

Bebe let out a breath. “Well, the house is gone now, so she’ll have to be taken to a home for better care since she has no family.”

Harry drew his brows in sympathy. “That’s so sad.”

In the middle of their talking, another sooty face appeared on the landing, and everyone looked at a sweaty Louis heaving with fast breaths and wiping his forehead. He looked at his co-workers as if to say “What?” before he realized someone else was there.

"Hi," Harry managed as he stood up, eyes precariously on Louis’ uniform buttons and tag.

 

"Hey." Louis was in total shock. There he was, being grateful Harry was on the other side of the country out of the Chicago fire's way, not knowing the man was not only in his precinct but in his place of work having coffee and pastries with his staff.

His other emotions creeping in, like excitement, nerves, dread, blazing familiarity, Louis tried to unfreeze and act normal but then once motion set in he felt the urge to run over and kiss Harry until they both forgot whose mouth belonged to who.

Harry's eyes moved around his uniform, scanning it with a mix of impression and adjustment. Louis had spent so much time in jeans and plaid that he couldn't blame Harry if his seeing him in official gear-less uniform for the first time took some getting used to.

"Can you give me a minute? I have to write a quick report, and change," Louis said, keeping his face expressionless and his voice steady, every word having to be placed delicately for fear Harry went running back out the door mistaking his sweaty out-of-breath anxiety for him not wanting to see him. Louis would not put it past him. Harry was a haughty unpredictable one.

Harry smiled politely and nodded in reply, and Louis took it with a blink, dashing for the office.

 

Harry spun around to grab his coat all excited and nervous.

Miller eyed him. “You know he needs more than one minute, right?” he said pointedly, biting on an apple turnover now, resting the plateful on the table. Harry let loose a calmed laugh and sat back down.

As Louis took for the showers, they heard chattering and soon Zayn came out with a small duffel bag. Remembering somewhere during their last conversation Louis saying he dated his co-worker Jade for a while, Harry’s mind kept going in a bad place at the thought of Louis being in the shower area with Jade.

Zayn stopped as he saw Bebe leaning on the counter with a ceramic cup in her grip. Her face changed to a sickened frown when she noticed him staring at her.

In a bid to secure himself from the imminent yelling, Miller gave a warning face to Harry and hurried to the kitchen area, taking another turnover with him.

Zayn started being extremely focused on the design of his bunch of keys- looking for something to say, Harry thought as he took a bite. He was happy to have something to distract him from the wall blocking the shower area.

“I didn’t want you to get hurt, Bebe,” Zayn began, expression neither hot nor cold. “Every lie was for you not to get hurt. I tried to ignore my feelings but they were there drawing me to him, like…”

“A magnet,” Harry finished for him pensively.

“Yea-” Zayn whirled around to face him for a sec in reply then turn turned back to Bebe. “I know it’s gonna take a lot for you to forgive me but I swear I’ll do whatever it takes.”

“Can you stop seeing Liam?” Bebe blurted out.

“Except that,” Zayn held up prayer hands.

Bebe stared for a minute then started laugh-crying. "You love him, don't you? You finally fell in love with someone," she shook her head in realization. "If you didn't feel so betrayed I'd ship you two."

Zayn made to hug her but she backed away and poured on an apologetic look.

He flared his hands in the air. “I know. Baby steps.” He then turned to Harry solemnly. “I’ll deal with the luggage. You talk to Louis.”

Harry observed as Zayn dragged his trolley cases out and Bebe went slowly down the stairs not to bump into him, and he turned to see a fresh cup of coffee in his face as Miller stood over him.

“I was just about to tell you I could use one of those,” he laughed as he took it and sipped.

“Here’s the thing,” Miller sat down to finally continue their talk. “After the earthquake Louis was pretty shaken-up. PTSD meetings didn’t help at all. The chief had to give him time off to recuperate. But something about him changed after he got back from seeing you. I don’t know how you did it but that man is talking about his sister for the first time since she died with a smile on his face, and let me tell you that is a milestone for him. The thing is he’s been able to talk about everything except you, and that worries me because I can tell being there with you meant a lot to him. I hope you being here can smooth out that grey area you two have.”

“I hope so too,” Harry smiled politely, looking down worrisome into his cup.

 

*

 

Louis came out in biker jeans, a white Hollister T-shirt, and a black leather jacket. He smelled like a summer morning by the springs, and Harry’s body shivered as the man clasped a hand in his wet hair.

“You ready?” Louis asked, grabbing his waist pouch and attaching it.

Harry got up, thanking Miller for the coffee and followed Louis downstairs to the parking lot. Louis led him straight to a Harley Davidson motorcycle sitting proudly in the corner next to a neatly trimmed Ficus hedge that out-skirted the area. It was almost dark and Harry was apprehensive about what Louis was proposing by picking up his helmet.

“Are you sure this is the best way to get to your apartment?” Harry asked, naturally assuming that that was their next destination. It now occurred to him that Louis probably didn't know Zayn was planning to impose Harry's luggage -and by extension Harry- on him.

“I’m pretty sure if you hold on to me it’ll be okay,” Louis quipped, taking the extra helmet and walking over to Harry. He didn't seem to flinch at the thought of Harry insinuating himself to go back to his place, more like he took the a silent understanding as a natural fact of life.

When Harry saw that he was serious about the motorcycle ride he grinned in shock and excitement, but he noticed Louis trying not to react with the horizon of a smile that was waiting to burst through his cheeks- probably for fear it would make everything okay when it wasn't. And could he blame him? He doesn’t know what Harry flew across the country to say.

“Just don’t tell Des.” He placed a helmet on Harry’s head and buckled it.

Harry gave a half laugh amid his fear, and got on behind Louis, grasping on to his waist tightly.

“You ready?”

“Oh My God- I can’t believe I’m doing this,” was Harry’s response as the bike engine started rumbling loudly.

They zoomed out onto the street, Louis charging forward and Harry holding tight as he glimpsed the shadowy buildings speeding pass.

Soon they slowed into a street with plain white apartment complexes, and Louis parked by one of them with a fire escape with a palm tree in front of it.

Harry hopped off and removed his helmet. The street was nothing like Harry’s back in Seattle; kids riding bicycles and teens playing basketball by the hoop, a couple of laid back thuggish-looking young adults hanging out and smoking on apartment steps.

“Hey, Lou-tenant!”  the group of ballers fondly called as Louis placed the helmets on the bike.

“Yo, Julian…, Jordan, …Cal…” Louis called back amused, before leading a sheepish Harry up the front steps to his and Zayn’s apartment.

Louis opened the door and let Harry go in first.

Exposed brick, rustic lofty-style apartment with an off-white second-hand sofa and a rectangular coffee table surface of distressed wood. A plain wall with a huge crack straight down the middle of an amateur graffiti drawing of the Buddha told Harry his artwork was not the only one destroyed by the earthquake. The gritty exposed beams brought Harry churningly back to that day, and he swallowed at them but hoped Louis did not notice his paleness. It was not the same apartment but it was like being back in a dreadful dream of the recent past and it all came rushing back like thrush.

"How is it?” Louis asked suddenly as Harry took small limping steps to look around the place. “You look like you're getting the hang of it."

Harry glanced back at Louis, seeing he was referring to his leg, then looked up at the steep break-neck stairs to the loft bedroom, remembering Louis told him once that Zayn took the more private one downstairs because he had more ‘people’ over. "I still don't trust it going down the stairs. This thing has a mind of its own." He kicked his robotic heel.

Louis nodded, eyes moving to his left away from Harry. "So, what brings you to Chicago? Is your mom okay?"

"Yeah, she’s fine. She doesn’t know I’m here yet. I wanted to see you first,” Harry started moving closer to Louis now. “You left some of the photos you took at ours. Zayn has them in his car along with my luggage.” Which he insisted on bringing here… Harry was afraid to add, lest Louis choked a disappointed frown that he might be staying the night. He did not think about a hotel or his mother's place. He just came to town with seeing Louis as the only thought running through his brain.

"You came all the way out here to give me back a few pictures?”

"Daddy misses you,” Harry grinned like a fool, heart beating rapidly. “He caught a whopper the other day and I could tell he wished you were there to help him cook it."

A brief smile crept on Louis’ face. “Could have said that on the phone,” he chose to say, with a flat tone.

Harry’s smile was immediately wiped off. “I guess the truth is- I um,” he grew dumb with what to say after the mess that was their last conversation back in Seattle. “I wanted to tell you in person that- “

“Are you here to compare yourself to my dead sister again?” Louis asked in a casual tone, taking off his jacket and hanging it unceremoniously on the hook.

Harry’s mouth flew open. “Now, that’s not fair. You used Nick against me.”

Looking to his right in fake thought, Louis shrugged. “It’s not the same thing.”

Harry grabbed up the hair at the top of his head in irritation of the man’s insolence.

“I was just telling you what an arse you were being.” Louis folded his arms.

Harry’s eyes grew watery with rage but he said as steadily as he could, “You came to my house and insinuated yourself-and- and- and- pushed me into therapy. You were pushing me too hard- and- and,” he ended up stuttering but Louis cut across.

"And so you wanted to put me in my place. But you're right, Harry. You are not my sister. Just like I'm not Nick." He said 'Nick' with a tang of venom. "I wasn't out to hurt you like he did."

A hot retort on his tongue, Harry took a hand to his hip and waved his other hand around to start. But just then, a small shadow leaped onto the couch beside them and Harry was alerted with the distraction. There, a clean, healthy and thriving Sophie sat perched on the chair arm.

Harry stopped mid-gesturing, his shocked focus on the cat. His heart then suddenly burst open and he abandoned the conversation to reach for her.

Sophie. Hey there, girl," he said, pulling her close to him. "How have you been, girl?” He caressed her neck. "I missed you.”

Sophie purred into his embrace with soft recollection, causing him to let out a loose a series of sniffles, and soon he was crying and snuggling the cat.

“Oh, I'm so sorry I abandoned you," Harry kept saying wistfully, snot bubbling out his nose. “I missed you so much. I love you. I love you.

 

Louis beamed at the teary reunion until he caught Harry’s large eyes fixated on him and realized the second ‘I love you’ was for him. Even so, he stood petrified that Harry would turn to dust if he decided to reach out and touch him.

“You were right about me not accepting that Nick is my past,” Harry said.

Louis shook his head vigorously. “No, what I said was out of line.”

“No, you were right. I was still angry and lonely. But you know what? When we were in that apartment in the rubble I didn't feel so alone anymore. I wanted to ask you out. I told myself I would ask you out when we got out. But then I woke up with one leg. And why would you go out with me now like this? Why would anyone? And then I was alone again. Until you came to my house. And yet I kept you at a distance because I didn’t see how we could possibly be together with my disability. I couldn’t dance with you like we talked about.” Harry shrugged sullenly, body shaking as he nervously swayed the cat.

Louis’ eyes were running now. "But we did, didn’t we?” he muttered with a quivering smile, taking a step closer. “I have never been so captivated by a single person. I had this stupid idea that I can fix the mistake I made by not getting you out of there from the beginning in six weeks. I should have just told you I was sorry when I arrived.”

“That probably would have gone south,” Harry shared a laugh with Louis, then grew sullen resuming his speech. “When you first came to my home, even though a few months had already passed and my legs were healed, seeing you- it was just this reminder-this blast of what I almost had.”

Louis dashed forward and grabbed the sides of Harry’s face up in his hands, cupping the sides of his head. “We can have it now. I want us to be together.” He pecked his eyes and nose and finally his mouth, laying that one thick.

Harry pulled out of it midway. “Louis, I’m so sorry about everything,” he said into his chest and raked back his lank curls. “-about what I said about your sister. How can you even talk to me again?”

“It’s okay, Harry. I know you didn’t mean it. You were scared of us and you didn’t know how to process what we were becoming in such a short space of time. It overwhelmed me too, even though I’d wanted it to happen sooner. I know it seemed like you were this project but it wasn’t like that. I was going to simply come to see how you were doing and leave. I didn't plan on staying but I couldn't walk away. My heart didn't let me. I was tied to you and every little thing you said, every little thing you did with your hair or your clothes just- I fell right in love with you. Harry, I love you. I want to take care of you. And not just because I couldn’t help my sister but because you helped me open back up after she died. I was so afraid of caring too much about anyone.”

“I know,” Harry grinned, looking up at him. “And I’m not scared anymore. I don’t want you to be scared anymore either. In Snoqualmie, I didn’t want to go camping. But you made me go and it felt so good to be out there again. I didn’t have a shred of courage or zeal to do any of the things I used to. Now you have me taking a flight all by myself to come see you. I don’t think I ever would have been able to make the kind of progress I did if it wasn’t for you. And I was so stupid to make you leave the way I did.”

Harry turned the other direction and fell into weeping, and Sophie jumped out of his arms and strutted away.

Louis then turned Harry back around and took him in his embrace once more. He pressed a long hot kiss on his forehead. “Harry, you are so brave and strong. You would have found the courage somewhere inside yourself even without me. I’m just glad I was there to help. The earthquake was the most terrifying experience for us both, to be confronted with our own mortality like that, but it brought me you. And even though we lost part of you by the time we escaped, I still want all the parts of you you’re willing to share.”

 

Completely taken by Louis' words, Harry rushed in closer to his chest. His lips grazed over his collarbones, his flyaway hair lightly brushing Louis’ nose. Louis grabbed them up and licked Harry’s mouth.

Feeling the sensual arousal, Harry deepened the kiss and it soon flicked from passionate to needy to pure lust-driven.

Harry turned around to take cover from the overwhelming contact. “Shouldn’t we keep talking? You know, since we have a waterfall of it now?” Harry smirked, feeling Louis’ arms encircle his waist.

Rutting his pelvis into Harry’s behind, Louis gave a breathy laugh, talks of the earthquake far from his plans. “I wanna bend you over,” he breathed fervidly into his ear, sliding his hands under his shirt.

Harry grew a wide turned-on grin. His eyes fluttering weakly under Louis' smooth sliding hands, he groaned. “I spent hours on a plane. I need to shower first.”

“Me too,” came Louis’ immediate reply as he grabbed Harry’s arse and nibbled the spot below his ear.

“You showered at the station.” Harry snorted a giggle.

“I just want to be near you, Harry. I can’t spend another moment without your touch.”

“You are so hard to deny right now," Harry said in a whisper indulging in another wet kiss before pulling away. "But I need to clean myself up. I don’t want any distractions in the shower.”

Louis gave a needy whine and reluctantly let go with a final butt cheek squeeze. “Okay, okay. The shower is over there. I’ll get you some of my clothes.”

 

*

 

Harry dried himself off as he sat on Louis’ bed, giggling at the tiny pair of boxers Louis put out for him. Sometime during his shower, he had heard muttering and thumping, and he guessed it was Zayn with his luggage. The trolley bags were in the corner of the bedroom which was only blocked from the living room downstairs by a wall with no door fixtures that one had to simply walk around to get in and out. No wonder Louis didn’t mind sleeping on the blow-up mattress in their living room back in Seattle, Harry shook his head reminiscing. Louis sure as hell was not accustomed to privacy.

Putting the boxers on and laying back on the bed gleefully, he heard shuffling in the kitchen. The muttering had ended and he figured Zayn had left for Liam’s already.

“Are you hungry, Harry?” Louis called up the open-riser staircase.

Harry groaned. He wanted Louis inside him, filling him up -if that counted for food. Louis had put a chair in the shower from the kitchen and placed all Harry’s prosthetic things on another chair for him to easily access as there were no crutches or wheelchair in his apartment, and Harry was turned on by the sweet gesture so bad he wanted Louis’ mouth all over him.

“No, I just want you to get in here!” Harry shouted back. He had put the leg on to get from the bathroom into the bedroom and dry his skin but as he sat on the bed now he peeled it all off again. Louis had seen his stump before and had touched it and kissed it, but before Harry had been apprehensive to share himself- the remains of his ailment- with Louis. But now he felt he had finally reached that comfortable place with the man, to have confidence and not be shy or awkward or have to hide himself from him.

So as he sat, he began to peel off the sock, the leg, the liner, everything, and let them fall on the side of the bed one by one. And he then let himself fall back on the bed, finally feeling like he was more than the sum of his broken parts.

Louis was up in the bedroom before he could say please. He was bareback, and Harry squirmed in the bed at the sight of the mound projecting from under his jeans. His eyes taking a second to make sure Harry was not in any trouble, Louis drew close to him as he lay sprawled out in his boxers. He gave a tiny laugh, eyebrows up.

“Those look so good on you,” he said, the back of his fingers caressing Harry’s hardened front seductively.

Harry rose to his knees, a dirty look swiped on his face as his eyes glanced to teeth of Louis’ brass zipper. Louis breathed faster, giving an interested nod, and Harry’s fingers took charge unchaining him from his denim entrapment.

It was the first time Harry got to suck him, and he found Louis’ to be satisfyingly thick. Harry chugged and slurped as far as was comfortable, creating more lubrication. He then moved in to deep-throat him, his eyes welling up with the gag. He jerked his mouth in and out, feeling himself growing in orgasm.

Soon Louis was grabbing his hair back and roughhousing his head back to run his tongue slowly and tastily down the side of his neck. Harry then got a gentle push and fell back on the bed.

Harry didn't know it was happening until the boxers were already past his thighs on their way down his legs. He pulled his knees back to let Louis take them away and lay there with his breath faster than before he was naked.

Louis did not hesitate to handle-grasp the back of Harry’s thighs upwards so he could mouth between his legs. His toes crinkled and his inner thighs shook with the sweetness of Louis' carefully navigated mouthing. His tongue and lips pressed hungrily onto Harry’s perineum, licking above it and below it but not touching his privates.

Forcing his head to look at Louis, Harry saw a mischievous love-maker looking back at him as the man deepened the tongue-prods to his flat sensitive area.

Throwing his head backward, Harry moved his butt outward to get it in contact with Louis' mouth, and it came with a cat-lick to his tight anal lips.

 

Louis was inwardly reeling at the thought of what he was doing to Harry. One tiny lick, then another, and another, until Harry was mad with the tease. As he went deeper inside now with his tongue he tasted what he had no doubt to be Zayn's Nivea body wash, something Louis too opted to use as an anal cleanser whenever he ran out. He smiled to himself that Harry too bypassed the actual bottle of organic liquid soap right there in the shower caddy and did the same thing he did, not wanting to use the same anal product as Zayn, and getting a nice smell out of it too. It was like they were each other’s mirror.

Louis licked delightedly, adding his index finger to the mix of salivary lubrication. Feeling it was safe to add another, his tongue serving as a third finger, he opened him up gloriously. He then jumped off the bed and spun around the room for condoms but knowing full well if by some miracle he had any they would be expired by now. Feeling like a total idiot who hadn't had sex in a whole year, he groaned, scratching his head.

“It’s okay,” Harry giggled sweetly from his pliancy on the bed, sparkling eyes peering at his body in impatient wait. He was so cute and sweet, and Louis was dying to know what he felt like bareback but he shook his head still.

“Are you sure? Because I can duck in Zayn’s room real quick. He has lots of…supplies.”

Harry gave a short head shake and opened his eyes a tad wider to stress the urgency of his need. Louis hesitated. Harry had only been with one guy years ago and Louis had a few partners throughout his adult life. He was sure he was clean but really should he go digging through his closet for the proof now or…?

“I trust you,” Harry said, closing his legs rather bashfully now, eyes timidly focused below Louis’ waist.

Louis tiptoed to the bed, careful to make sure Harry had enough time to change his mind. Harry's hand stretched towards him, and he was crawling onto the bed and laying on top of him like a blanket. He propped his elbow up with one arm and moved some of Harry's loose curls aside with the other, shaking his head pensively.

“I love you so much.”

If Harry wasn’t so mesmerized by Louis’ body rutting into him he might have been able to count the red-hot freckles on the man’s face.

They shared a long-lasting kiss after which Louis buried his face in Harry’s collarbone and kissed him all over the chest. He then shifted so he was kissing his belly and licking the pre-cum on his abdomen. Then he started sucking the head of Harry’s penis slowly and sensually, using only his mouth for stability.  

He pressed his lips on his sternum, feeling every vibration of his groans.

And all of a sudden Harry’s chest gave a rapid rise and fall. He put on an ‘I can’t take it anymore’ look and flipped himself over on the bed, driving his face into the mattress and his arse up into Louis’ view.

Louis continued to taste him until his lips and tongue were causing the man’s muscles to relax. Louis pulled back to look at the sight; Harry was red and fluttery, and so ready for Louis.

Louis raised himself to kneel on the bed, dropping a dollop of saliva to land on his penis. He then rubbed his tip around Harry’s hole, taking in the sweetness of the contact and measuring the readiness. Harry started pushing back into the feel with needy little moans and Louis penetrated slowly inside.

Harry stifled his moans with the burning since it was his idea to go bareback, but Louis paid attention to his hands as they gripped the sheets tighter and tighter at every advance. Easing it up a few seconds to allow Harry to get used to his bare length, Louis caressed his back and shoulders and whispered asking him if he was okay and if he wanted to go further.

"Yes!" Harry croaked out one answer for both questions.

Laughing at Harry's bravery now, Louis spit in his hand and coated half of his penis that was still outside and pushed in further, ever so carefully until Harry's belly flopped down on the mattress in relaxation.

All the tension subsiding as Louis was easily thrusting slowly now over Harry, he kissed the back of his neck and his ear and the side of his lips as his face turned sideways on the mattress.

Louis gave rise to his heat and pushed harder, hoping it was not too painful. Harry twerked back, permitting Louis to take it to the level he wanted.

Taking the offer, Louis lifted himself, moving faster and faster, until he was pounding into him bleary-eyed.

Louis felt his groin explode and before he knew it he was shooting out, vibrating inside Harry like a gun. Feeling overwhelmingly weak now, Louis pulled out and let himself fall.

 

*

 

Louis’ right leg lapping over the sweaty small of Harry’s back, strong arms nesting his head as it faced the opposite way, the fingers of his other hand smoothing little strands of his hair, they laid out of breath from the chase.

“Why did you kiss me?” Harry asked all of a sudden, fingers playing inside Louis’ palm.

“Outside your old high school?” Louis asked the back of his head. He remembered how awkward it was when Harry didn’t kiss him back.

“No,” Harry shuffled around to face him, eyes circling his face. “When I was trapped. You just kissed me, and I remember thinking how normal it felt, but I know it wasn’t fireman protocol,” Harry giggled.

“Ha. Ha,” Louis deadpanned before garnering a serious tone. “It was a spur of the moment thing. You were scared and I got scared and it was the only thing I could do to stop myself from stopping Liam.”

Harry’s lowered his eyes in contemplation. “That kiss was the only thing that kept me from losing my mind when the saw started up.”

“I never wanted you to get hurt. I thought losing your cat would be the worst thing to happen to you and so I tried to save her. How was I supposed to know that you’d get hurt this bad? If I could have just gotten you out the minute you opened the door you’d have both your legs.”

Harry grabbed and squeezed his arm. “Then how would I know if I was good enough for you even without my leg?”

Louis thought about that. “I would have asked you out still.”

Harry smiled an ‘I know that’ kind of smile. “Please, Louis, I’m trying to say something positive about my leg here.”

Louis laughed. “How about we look at it this way then- You lost one leg but now you have three. Because I’m not ever gonna let you walk alone through life again.”

Harry looked at him, his eyes big and bursting with a fresh glaze of tears.

Louis shifted in a panic. “Did I say something wrong again?”

Harry blinked. “No. It’s just- I’ve been hurt one time too many, I feel like every little thing one might say, whether it’s a joke or unintentional, is a trigger for me to act like total jackass. I didn't even see the way you cared about me before. I refused to see it because of Nick and what he did to me."

Louis cradled him and pressed his cheek ever so gently on his forehead. “I know what you’re like when your stubborn and angry and I’m not going to be scared off by that. All I ask is that you don’t push me away again and that you have patience with me as well- because I know I can be a control freak sometimes.”

Harry let out a loud cackle. “You nearly pulled my arm off in therapy that first day and I wanted to beat you with my prosthetic.”

Louis put on a hurt look. “I wanted you to walk again.”

“I know. I’m not mad.”

“Just promise me you won’t push me away this time.”

“I promise.” Harry shuffled closer, if that was even possible.

They laid huddled in silence for a while, then- “How are we gonna do this?” Louis sounded so worried as he played with the fingers on Harry’s hand.

Harry didn’t know how to respond to that. He couldn’t possibly ask Louis to leave his job and his friends to move out to Seattle, and he wasn’t sure whether he could leave his dad.

Harry rose and climbed onto Louis with the sheets still wrapped around his behind. Louis took possession of his arse cheeks over the sheets, squeezing them fondly. Harry leaned down slowly and seductively, Louis’ chin in his hand, and he placed a passionate kiss on his waiting lips.

“Let’s not think about that yet. We’re together now. I’m not going anywhere for the night and you are off duty so let’s just enjoy the now.”

“I wish I could take the day off tomorrow but duty calls. Besides, I’m already taking the day after that to go this Powwow.”

“I think it’s infuriating and sexy the way you take charge and save the day.” Harry then leaned in his ear, a wicked tease crossing his mouth. “Mr. Fire Lieutenant, I have a fire. Can you put it out for me?”

A little scared of Harry’s insatiable stamina, Louis grabbed him tighter and rolled him over on the bed, gobbling at his neck, playfully, Harry bubbling in laughter.

 

*

 

Louis was waking up from his sleep when the sounds of labored sniffling caught his ear. He shot his eyes open. “What’s wrong,” he near shouted.

Harry started crying harder when he realized Louis was awake. “It’s my leg. It feels like my ankle is in a blender. But my ankle’s not even there anymore.” He pointed to somewhere beyond the end of his shorter limb.

Louis wrapped an arm around his shoulders, the other coming to caress the stump.

“What are you doing?” Harry protested, squirming it away.

“Hey, hey, you promised not to push me away again. Do you remember?”

Harry nodded, shutting his eyes in pain.

“And, do you trust me?” Louis continued in a hushed tone.

“Yes, but it hurts.”

Louis breathed shushes to calm him, moving his palm like a ghost down Harry’s thigh and past his knee. He stopped at his stump, clamping his fingers over it gently.

“It just needs to remember it’s not there anymore.” He kissed Harry’s head.

Harry squeaked and winced and sniffled but calmed down eventually in Louis’ embrace as he rubbed the stump flab with his thumb.

Louis whispered little things in his ear to remind him of the time they spent together in Seattle- which caused the biggest smile ever- and blew on his forehead to keep him soothed, and Harry soon fell back asleep softly sniffling.

 

*

 

The men got up early the next morning as Louis had to go to work. He put on a record and was sliding around taking down blue ceramic bowls for breakfast while he singing loudly.

Harry laughed and shook his head but then his attention was caught by Sophie as she hit him a meow by his feet.

Sophie ran toward the basement and meowed at Harry again. She then dived down the stairs of the open door. “What is it, girl? - Hey, are you sure we can go down there? Sophie?”

The cat meowed louder, urging Harry to follow.

He crept down the stairs after her and stopped as she sat near the sidewall. 

He folded his arms and rubbed them- the basement didn't look inviting at all; harsh walls of peeled paint, cold, moist and gloomy. It was also full of junk like his father's garage. Harry shook his head at how Louis left all this to come to Seattle and clean his and Des’ mess. Car parts, exposed cable in the ceiling fixture, an industrial bucket like the one Harry used for sculpting. Sophie seemed to like this environment though, sitting comfortably on a large plastic strewn on the ground haplessly.

Harry reinforced his folded arms at her. “Come on let’s go back up.”

The cat meowed and stayed put. Her head cocked to the wall and Harry followed it. His eyes and lips opened wide as he took a closer look. He had not seen it before. That side of the wall was shadowed by the staircase. But he did not miss it now. The giant sculpture he had thought was lost in the earthquake stood finished four-fifths of the way up.

In the earthquake it had broken into so many pieces some big, some as small as his hand and some of shattering to dust. He was shocked that Louis felt it was worth repairing it. He sure had the patience to try to fix broken things including his father's car, his bike, him. Harry sighed, shaking his head at the half-done work. He was amazed but not just at the gesture.

He twisted his head sideways. Something about it looked...better. The cracks in between the pieces gave it grungy independent flair. Harry never liked art that was too polished. As he took a closer look he realized that that was exactly what this piece had been missing; a sense of danger and adventure, just like the story behind it. Told by the cracks it bore.

He laughed, again remembering their conversations in the huckleberry patch and by the campfire. Just like Louis said, the cracks from its past had left it broken and beautiful in its own unique way. Like Kintsugi or do-it-yourself broken up tile mosaics.

Suddenly hit with a new-found epiphany he staggered backward and hit his feet on something hard. Looking around at his ankle, he saw a blue edge of what looked like another piece under a sheet of plastic and he carefully bent down to move it out of the way.

As he tugged at the edge of the plastic, Harry gasped. Under the sheet, in neat rows, lay just about enough coral pieces to finish the structure.

Grinning wider, Harry aborted the basement and charged back up the stairs one at a time, euphoria in his step.

He stopped near the kitchen counter where Louis was just hanging up a call.

“Hey, Love,” Louis said, his back turned as he whistled and dished out the food. “That was Rivers, my boss. He wants the week’s report on his desk by noon- Wait did you just come from down there?” Louis looked like he had just been caught.

And he was.

Face stuck on Louis’ innocently hesitant one, Harry walked over to him aimfully and grabbed his collar. Looking at Louis with no particular expression, he yanked him into a kiss deep, purposeful kiss, his tongue going every which way as he drank in the man’s taste.

After a few long minutes, they pulled apart and Louis had to catch his breath.

Panting he asked, “What was that for?”

“There’s an eight-foot ‘Frankenstein’ in your basement that looks a lot like my broken coral wall sculpture.” Harry didn’t miss a beat to answer.

Louis’ face changed like he would be needing a blood transfusion soon. “I hope you’re not mad.”

Harry’s dimples finally showed up. “Just the opposite.”

He led Louis to the kitchen barstools and they held hands. Louis’ grip was sturdy and comforting and it made Harry all the surer in his decision.

“I know we said we would wait to talk about this but- I’ve decided to stay in Chicago.”

“You don’t want to go back to Seattle? Because I’ve been thinking, and I don’t mind going with you.”

“I would be delighted for you to come live with me back home...” Harry said, pausy.

“But?”

“But I think I want to stay for a while, see what it’s like in your world.”

Louis blinked. “Really?” he then burst into a grin and reached for a hug. “I can’t believe this. I mean, I know how strained things are with your mom.”

“Yeah, but you gave me an idea. I think I’ll be taking a fresh angle with my sculpting and seeing how I can make a splash in the art world with it.”

“You know I know nothing about art, right? I'm surprised you're not appalled by the sculpture." Louis' cheeks painted bashfully red.

Harry cupped them. “I think it’s beautiful, and it inspires me.”

Louis lunged a kiss into his neck. “I’m so proud of you. You're going to do so amazingly.” He pecked his nose. Pivoting to the counter he dug up a piece of pancake and held it to Harry’s mouth, the finger pads of his other hand placed softly under his chin.

“Well, I guess we'll have to make a few adjustments to the apartment then," he looked around for possible amputee hazards. “I know you like your fruit salads so how about I take you to the market on my lunch break?”

Harry grinned, mouth full. “That sounds good.”

 

*

 

Harry had just taken a shower and crept downstairs to mosey around the apartment when someone knocked on the door. Louis had already left for work a while ago and Harry wasn’t sure if he should answer or not. He didn’t want whoever it was to be caught off guard at the new handicapped guy living with Louis before Louis had a chance to tell people about them. He didn’t even know if everyone in Louis’ life knew about him save for his co-workers and the kids on the block.

The person knocked faster and more urgent than before. Jumping and deciding not to overthink it, Harry strode to the door. He cleared his throat and flipped his loose hair creating a calm unbothered mood before opening.

“Hello, Harry.”

“Mom!” Harry was stupefied. Anne smiled brightly, looking at him expectantly and sticking her arms out awkwardly for a hug.

He leaned into it haplessly. “What are you doing here?”

He opened the door wider for her to come in and folded his arms tentatively as his mother moved in briskly. She agitatedly pulled off her gloves as she passed an inspective eye around the apartment. Seeing if it was good enough for her son, no doubt, Harry thought rudely.

“Your father told me you were in Chicago for a short visit.”

Harry ‘ummed’ and moved slouchy along the floor. I’ve talked to Louis about it and I decided to stay in Chicago indefinitely.

Elation swept Anne’s face. “I’m so delighted to hear that. I’ll set up the guest room at once.”

Harry’s demeanor sank. “No, Mum- I’m staying with Louis. It’s big enough here and he says he’ll clean out the basement for me to work.

Anne scowled. “The basement? Don’t you want somewhere with light?”

“I’m happy here. Louis’ a really nice guy and I’m staying with him.” He said it cautiously. He didn’t want to hurt her by saying 'for' him.

Anne’s eyebrows leaped. “Oh! Oh. Oh. I had no idea. You didn’t tell me- your father didn’t tell me. He doesn’t- tell me anything.” She looked at him as though just getting to know him for the first time. She turned to face the other way, scratching the back of her head in surprise and contemplation.

Harry held his breath. She didn’t know I was gay? Okay, breathe Harry. He waited for the ball to drop, for her to do the next thing to let him know if she accepted him or not. But he did not expect the reaction he got.

Anne started wailing, her hand over her eyes and her fleshy-toned lipstick stretched out awkwardly over her mouth.

Harry was unsure whether to run or comfort her. He had no idea what just happened. He bawled up the front of his shirt- Louis’ shirt- in his fist and hoped not to cry himself.

The woman then tried to contain herself, digging in her purse to pull out a small fold of tissue. Wiping her eyes, her mascara soaking through, she looked up at her son. "I missed out on your life, didn't I?"

Harry swallowed, unable to say anything.

“I thought I was doing the right thing by leaving.”

Harry’s eyes burned at those words. He was sure of the chastisement that came next. He was ready to tell her to get out.

“You turned out so well without me,” she said, causing Harry to freeze. “Your father did a great job. And it was always my fear that my absence would cause you to turn out bad but that's far from the case. Look at you, you’re so pretty and motivated and you had a good childhood, right? I know I know it probably wasn't always sunshine- and for those parts that were bad, that’s my fault. I should have been there to see you blossom into this strong brilliant person standing in front of me. I should have been there to drive away the bullies and the naysayers. Make sure you got every chance to be even more amazing than you already are if that’s even possible. Teach you makeup and clothes, and I’d maybe cut those split ends,” she took a few strands of Harry’s hair in her hands, and he descended into tears, “No. No. Don’t you cry. You know why? Because I’m going to be here. However long it takes to make up for it all. I want you to start talking to me and telling me all about your adventures. I wanna know everything I missed out. I wanna be part of your life, Harry. My beautiful child.” She threw her arms around him. he had to bend a bit into the embrace but he did and he timidly, shakily hugged her back proper this time.

He gave him one last squeeze and let go to tuck and play with his hair some more, her eyes red and drenched in tenderness and regret.

“You don’t have to stay with me if you don’t want to,” she tilted her head. “Just be your beautiful, blushing self and invite me over sometimes. Okay? I’d love to get to know Louis better too although I’m sure you’re in good hands.”

Harry sobbed and nodded at the same time, still unable to say a word. He was overwhelmed to the point where he didn’t know if he was real and if this was happening for real. His mother not only accepted him but loved the way he turned out. She loved him for what he was now. The person she didn’t stick around to help him become.

Harry remembered when Nick showed up at his house with all his clothes stuffed in his school knapsack, tears in his eyes after he told his parents he was dating Harry and they kicked him out. Harry remembered how supportive his father was about letting the boy stay and be with Harry despite his initial reservations. He remembered wondering if his mother – wherever she was at the time- would accept Nick the same way if she was there, or if they’d fight. Harry saw how unlucky Nick was and heard Zayn's outcast story from Louis. He guessed having one parent was his balance. The universe's way of telling him he had a world of support in one parent where a lot of other LGBT people had none. Harry never could have imagined that both his parents would turn out to be so supportive and gracious about his sexuality. That out of all the reasons his mother chose to leave, his being gay was not one of them.

Wiping his eyes, Harry walked his mother to the door.

“Oh, and I almost forgot- there is this Native American Powwow tomorrow in the football stadium downtown. Louis knows what I'm talking about. Let him bring you along.”

“I know. I think he may have mentioned it.”

“Oh- and I wanted it to be a surprise but I hired a guy to help you set up a website for your art. I guess I’ll have to give him this address.”

“Thanks, Mum.” Harry kissed her goodbye and shut the door. He threw himself on the couch and let out a huge breath of surprise at what just took place. He then heard a key in the door and he jumped back up. It was Louis coming to pick him up for their lunch date.

 

*

 

Liam was buying bananas for his nephews in the marketplace when he spotted Miller and Jade. The two, dressed in uniform, were chatting with a chirpy, brown-haired man with a bright rupturing smile.

He started over to them, and as soon as he heard Miller call the man’s name, he stopped. Liam drained of blood. It was Harry's name. The man who Louis said had a hard time coping with being amputated by Liam, proving all his grandfather's scolding.

Not believing he will get the same treatment from the man as his mother, Liam backed away trying to find a spot to camouflage himself, wishing he had come at a different time.

Then Miller- ever the observant- called his name and pointed Harry straight to him.

“You’re Liam,” Harry said with an eyebrow up. It referred to the scene he witnessed with Zayn and Bebe but Liam took the brow to be insolence about the amputation.

Miller and Jade then left to do chores and Liam found himself alone with Harry in the room.

“Listen, about the earthquake,” he started to apologize, his Grandfather's words sneaking up in his head, "I know it must be hard for you but I swear I did everything by the book- “

Liam stopped, confused. Harry was grinning with an even higher brow. “It’s okay. Zayn filled me in on what happened with your granddad. “We’re cool.”

Liam eased into a relieved stance. “Wow, you’re just like your mom. So gracious.”

Harry smiled. “You met her? I just saw her today. She said something about a Powwow?”

Liam grinned broadly. “Yeah, my grandad is gonna be chief. I’d love for you to attend. You can bring Louis!”

Harry gave a surprised laugh. “Right. Of course, you'd know about me and Louis," he said to himself more than to Liam.

Liam giggled anyhow. Feeling comfortable to sit, he asked: "How is it?"

Harry hummed in question then redirected his eyes t where Liam’s hand was gesturing- on his knee. “Oh!” he shrugged, shifting to face Liam. “It’s not as bad as in the beginning.”

Liam nodded doctor-like. “Do you mind if I…” he gestured his index to Harry’s mechanical leg.

Harry flashed a quizzical frown then laughed. “Sure, I guess.” He helped Liam detach his leg to take a look at his handy-work.

"Hmm, it looks good! Healed beautifully," Liam marveled as he gently ran his fingers over the stump, in awe of his on-field cutting skills. He then grew deep in seriousness. “Are you having trouble with phantom pains?”

“A bit, yeah.”

“I might have something for that.” Liam started digging around in his medicine sling bag. He pulled out a hand-sized nut-milk bag half-full with dried herbs.

"Seep this into boiling water and sip. No sugar. Don’t ask me what it is. Tell me how it feels after.”

Harry accepted the bag with a grateful smile, hoping it was not drugs or anything.

“So, you mix medicines? I’m not exactly a Wiccan but I do a bit of palm reading here and there."

“Oh. My community shaman reads our futures and stuff but. I’ve never had my palm read before.”

“Do you want me to take a look at it for you?” Harry made a move to rest the bag on the table.

 

--

 

Louis walked in with two bottles of water and stopped dead in his tracks. He stared, trying to make sense of the sight before him; Harry and Liam giggling as they sat awkwardly intertwined, Harry's fingers racing Liam's left palm, Liam’s right hand on Harry’s stump. Harry wore an entertained grin Louis immediately decided not to like.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” he rushed over. “Get your hands off him!”

Liam dropped the stump. Harry’s mouth fell open. “Louis! It’s not- He was just- I was just- “

“-reading my palm,” Liam finished quickly.

Louis hit him a glare and darted down to Harry’s side as Liam flew up.

"He was just looking at it," Harry said as Louis rested the bottles and grabbed up the liner not looking Harry in the eye. He quickly placed everything back on while Harry and Liam watched.

“I should go,” Liam said grabbing his bananas. “Don’t forget the Powwow tomorrow. You’ll tell me about the tea.”

As he made to leave, Harry hit Louis on his biceps and gave him a look.

Louis blinked and sighed. “Wait,” he said, stopping Liam. As the man turned back to face them, Louis clasped his hands together. “I’m sorry. It’s just…Seeing you over him…over his leg like that brought back flashes of that day in my head. I didn’t mean to snap at you like that.”

Harry rubbed Louis' back, and Liam nodded graciously.

“I totally understand. It won’t happen again. I’m just glad you’re both okay now.” Liam turned to leave but flew back around with a remembering finger in the air. “Oh, I almost forgot,” he searched through his bag. “My great grandmother’s tea I told you about,” he handed Louis another bag of herbs. “Might help with those…flashes.” He fake-bombed his head.

As he left for real this time, Louis turned to Harry, who let out the giggle he was holding back all this time.

“You were so jealous. You should have seen your cute jealous face,” he gushed in a baby-voice, pressing a hand on his chin. Louis rolled his eyes and leaned in. “I’m a fireman. I’m protective, not jealous- never jeal- “

“Oh shut up.” Harry kissed him quick, making it last.

 

*

 

It was the morning of the Powwow. Zayn and Liam were dressed and combing their hair in Liam’s room. Monitoring Liam’s crestfallen expression, Zayn wished there was a way to help fix Liam’s dilemma with his Grandfather. 

“Are you ready?” Zayn nervously fiddled with Liam’s shirt.

“As ready as I’ll ever be. Just hope the spirits don’t jump out at me for ignoring them in the earthquake,” Liam mumbled nervously.

Zayn grinned, hands-on Liam's cheeks demanding eye-contact. "It's going to be fine. Your Grandfather is going to be too busy becoming chief to think about that today.” He pecked his nose. Liam grabbed his waist possessively and swayed with his chin over Zayn’s shoulder.

Massaging the back of the man’s neck, Zayn’s eyes fell on the bracelet Liam had given him a few months earlier…

~~

 

“What are you doing here? Louis’ down in the basement,” Zayn hissed, glancing between the basement and the front door as he opened it for Liam. “He'll hear us.”

Liam, grinning naughtily, lunged forward and pressed his lips onto Zayn’s, garnering tiny moans from the man. Fighting the urge to drag him to his room, Zayn pushed him off and found that his hands unable to leave the hairy patch in the opened buttons of his shirt.

Liam slowly leaned in again. “I'm not staying,” he whispered against Zayn’s lips, sending him into a sensual frenzy, “I just needed to see you. To give you something.” Liam held out his open palms with a hand-crafted bracelet inside. “My sister made it. It’s a medicine wheel. It guides your decisions. It’s our tradition- you have to consult the spirits to bring healing.”

Zayn looked into his eyes as he tied it for him and couldn’t stop himself from kissing him in thanks.

~~

 

Zayn’s mind easing back into Liam’s room, something clicked. “I have an idea. I was there for the amputation. I'll show him the bracelet you gave me. And I'll tell him I said a prayer to the spirits before it happened.”

Liam shook his head. “But I gave you the bracelet sometime after that.”

Zayn walked up to him and placed his hands on his shoulders. “He doesn’t have to know that. He just has to think someone consulted the spirits. I’m that someone.”

Liam lovingly cupped the sides of his face. “That's sweet, and I find it cute that you want to help, but lying isn’t the way.” He kissed the top of his head. “Look where it got us with Bebe. Don’t worry. I’ll find a way to get through to him.”

Zayn dropped his shoulders and sighed into Liam’s embrace.

 

*

 

The Powwow was about to begin in the bursting sun of the open recreational grounds.

Dancers stomped across the Savannah in their brightly colored feathered regalia preparation for the traditional powwow. Vendors with their mobile stalls not far away, keeping well out of the way of the festivities. Pole tents every few yards around the perimeter of the field holding dancers and other attendees.

Liam was a few meters away under a tent helping his grandfather’s entourage as they set up the offerings for the inauguration section of the ceremony. The aged man sat flatly near them on a pillow over a quilt, in his feathered regalia as a young girl painted his face for the ceremony.

Louis fixed his stare on Harry. Moistening his natural lips as the official started reading the timeline of events to start the ceremony, a twisted up headband made of some multi-colored cloth and feather earrings Liam’s sister gave him when they met a short while ago, sitting proudly over his tumbling not-so-neat curls, Louis concurred that Harry never looked more beautiful than he did right now.

The Master of ceremonies took to the microphone. “As you all grievously know we were hit by a devastating natural disaster a few months ago that threatened our way of life, as well as our very lives. Out of the ashes, we rise again as a people of backbone. A people who can say we came out from the rubble with our laws and our Traditions and our dignity intact. With blessings, we gather here today to honor our leaders past and present and welcome a new leader of the future. It is with extreme pride I can present to the Traditional Powwow that honors and retains our native values. Let the ceremonies begin.”

He then introduced the Grand Entry dance and the entire field full of dancers, singers, ceremony officials, and partakers started shuffling to various places and positions. A lady in a long native-patterned robe-like attire began directing the younger groups of dancers to their positions, and Liam nudged Louis to remind him not to take any pictures or videos whatsoever of the sacred dancing. Then the thumbling of the drums sounded through the Savannah and the sacred grass dance began.

The dancers moved rigorously to the beat of the drums, their many colors flashing like a carnival.  Each dancer leaving spaces between each other, elder citizens chipping in a moving row carrying upright flags in the grand entry, children hopping hand on hips, women in jingling regalia holding feathered fans as they hopped choreographically, all dancing in a large circle almost taking up the entire area of the Savannah. The master of ceremonies sweetly introducing each section of dancers as they appeared, speakers near the drums; a speaker per drum for the MOC to do his job. Louis marveled at the splashing colors as they passed but one dancer, in particular, caught his eye. It was Mrs Cowell dressed in black native regalia a she was a widow. She was strutting by herself keeping the circle. He then caught eyes with Harry and it hit him just how lucky he was to have met someone like him. Someone who wanted to be part of his life. He kept his gaze on Harry, finding him more beautiful than the most colorful and splendid regal wear in the dancing circle.

“Hey, Louis!” Niall came up behind him. “I meant to ask you after the celebrations, but why did one of my clients give me your address?”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about but this is Harry.” He proudly presented his boyfriend. “Harry, this is Niall. My obnoxious but somehow surprisingly endearing friend.”

“Hello,” Harry smiled bright.

“Harry?” They all turned to see Anne coming closer.

“Mum. Hey,” Harry rushed to hug her.

“I see you’ve met Niall Horan. He’s the guy I was telling you about yesterday.”

Niall near back flipped. “Harry’s your son?”

“Yes, you finally met him,” Anne giggled with Niall.

“Well, this is a small world,” he told Harry. “Do you know how important your art is to these two people right here? This one made me scrape up every bit of dust I could find from your sculpture,”- Harry laughed- “And this one won’t stop talking about your work. She asked me to build you a website to showcase all your work. I was so curious for months!?" Niall reached out ignoring Harry’s hand and hugged him instead.

Niall then reached his hand sideways and yanked a guy out from the crowd. “Louis, I don’t think you’ve met my boyfriend, Shawn.”

“Hello everyone,” the man said. Louis didn’t even notice Niall was with someone.

Louis pursed his lips, eyes growing tense. “Officer Mendes. I wish I could say it was nice to see you again.”

Harry dropped his jaw. “Louis? How rude- How very nice to meet you, Shawn.” He hit Louis on the bicep.

Mendes shoved his hands in his pockets and gave a half-laugh. “Not the appropriate way to greet the man who stopped you from getting yourself killed, is it?” he countered.

Anne seemed to noticed the tension, quickly dismissed herself, giving Shawn a ‘Nice to meet you.’

Niall then told Harry he would talk to him about the website later and dragged Mendes away from them.

“What was he talking about?” Harry rounded on Louis as soon as they walked away.

“It’s nothing. We firefighters always clash with the beat cops around here.”

Harry’s face eased and they continued to look at the dancers, hands entangled in each other.

-

 

Liam hung around his grandfather’s tent, looking out at the dancing.

Wematin said, in his native tongue, that they didn’t need anything else at the moment and that Liam was free to meet up with his peers, but still, Liam hung around on the spot, afraid to go back to his friends in the grass so quickly lest his grandfather sees and admonish him.

He stared off to Zayn, who was sharing a laugh with Miller. His eyes then moved to Niall who was chattering to. Liam wondered how he missed that one. Not far from them sat Louis with his eyes steady on what looked to Liam -from his angle- was Harry's silhouette on the grass.

Looking at the way Louis was gawking at the man, an idea clicked in Liam’s brain. He dashed away from Annawon’s tent and flashed right past Zayn and Louis. Bending down behind Harry, he took him by the hand. He muttered in the man's ear to rise and go with him. A confused look to Louis, Harry let Liam help him up off the grass and off they went. 

Liam meddled swiftly through the crowd, leading Harry to where his grandfather was still sat discussing with the elders about the ceremony. Louis and Zayn were not far behind, coming up behind them as they stood in front of Annawon.

The old man turned to Liam, aghast at his interruption, but Liam wasn’t about to cower with his tail between his legs this time. Time was against him, and if he were to make up for being lackadaisical towards his traditions in the earthquake, then stopping the man from going into a sacred ceremony with anger towards his only grandson was it.

“Grandfather,” Liam opened strong and tall. “This is Harry. He’s an artist and a sculptor and a really good fortune teller,”-he and Harry exchanged smiles- “And as you can see, he’s happy and alive, because of me,”- Louis cleared his throat- “Louis too, but that’s not the point. The point is, you spent your hard-earned money and sent me to med school to learn to save lives. That’s what I did,” he laid a friendly hand on Harry’s shoulder as he spoke. “I will try to do better for my people in the future but I will not feel guilty for saving a life.”

Annawon rose to his feet, boring down at Liam with a stone-faced, hard-to-read-expression that made Liam look down as he waited for a reply. "Forgive me, grandfather." Liam elbowed Louis and the others to bow their heads slightly in respect.

Liam’s grandfather then murmured to Wematin – who was of course witness to the scene- in their native language, gawking at Harry in his dress top and handcrafted earrings, wide-eyed like he had never been so intrigued by anything in his life. He then gave a fervent bow of the head to Harry and mumbled to Liam in their native tongue once more.

“What is he saying?” A delicate shade of pink rushed up Harry’s face.

Liam raised his eyebrows in astonishment. “He just acknowledged you as ‘Two-Spirit.’ It’s a very sacred and important title in our culture. He says the fact that I saved a two-spirit person will cause the ancestors to bestow special blessings on me.”

“Oh? Wow. Thank you,” Harry bowed his head to Annawon. “But Liam truly is a good guy. He gave me a tea that is helping a lot with my phantom pains.”

On hearing that, Wematin’s eyebrows leaped and he grumbled something incoherent at Annawon, who then spoke in English.

“I am sorry, Liam. The fact that you remembered the pertinence of going into Powwow with no grudge or hindrance means that you have shown yourself to be worthy of the title of ‘Knowledge keeper,’ –I can now be able to enter the ceremony with blessings.”

Annawon proceeded to mutter to Liam some more before, trotting off to begin his chiefdom ceremonials.

 

-

 

Soon a Blanket Dance began and the boys were allowed to step on the field to give their donations to the official who was carrying the basket. Louis had just dumped his dollars in when Niall broke away from the group and danced toward a drum. Louis swung his head around for Liam but the man was already giggling at Niall who was now leading a song! Harry grabbed Louis' left hand Zayn's right and marched onto the grass where he started dancing to the drums.

Zayn tried to back away but Liam came up behind him whispering “No one is out of place in the circle.”

After Annawon had become chief the formal part of the ceremony was done and the crowds dissipated. Harry and Louis sat sprawled out on the grass holding each other intimately while Niall dragged a cooler of non-alcoholic drinks and set it in the middle of everyone. He and Mendes then moved away from the light to do some heavy making out in the dark part of the field.

Liam left Zayn to go over to them and cut the smooch fest short to ask “You two are back together?”

Niall went all red in the face and Shawn kissed his cheek to signify that was a yes.

“Great, I’m happy for you. Now I need your help.” Liam then grabbed Mendes and waltzed over to Zayn just as he was taking out a soda from the cooler.

“This Officer Shawn Mendes,” Liam said, introducing the two. Zayn almost choked on the soda he just swallowed.

Liam was perplexed. “You two know each other?”

Zayn nodded slightly embarrassed and ashamed.

“We hooked up after the earthquake,” Mendes filled in quite flippantly.

Liam was livid and it showed. But he sucked it all in to ask Zayn: “Okay. Excuse me, is there anyone in this city that you haven’t slept with?”

“That’s unfair, Liam.” Zayn said, voice below average.

Mendes cleared his throat. Zayn dipped in the cooler and handed him a water.

Liam dropped his shoulders. “Alright. You’re right. Let’s get down to business at hand. Officer Mendes is a family friend and he can help you get in touch with your sisters.”

Mendes drank his water. “Tell me more. Are they being held against their will?”

Zayn shook his head and told Mendes the story.

“Interesting. I’m sorry about your dad. But Dubai is a hard place to crack when it comes to laws and tradition. I’m afraid your father is well within his rights to withhold the family from you.”

Liam intervened. “He just needs to talk to them, make sure their okay and let them know he’s okay. Can we do that?”

Mendes thought for a second. "Yeah, but I can't do it alone. I know a guy who can hack into the phone lines and get you in."

He tossed his gaze somewhere beyond Liam and gestured the person over.

Zayn's stomach almost somersaulted when Niall came to stand next to Mendes who then put his arm around his shoulders. This is my boyfriend,” Mendes started.

“Niall,” Zayn sighed looking down with an exasperated hand on his hip. He was beginning to see his error in trying to sleep with the entire male population of Chicago.

“Niall!” Liam said with more surprise at the same time. “Well, this just gets better and better.” He threw his hands up in the air and let them fall.

Niall looked at the two of them with an awkward mouth and turned to Mendes who started taking again.

“Great then, we all know each other. So, my boyfriend Niall here is a computer genius. He does classified work for the station on request. He's one of the best. You wanna get through to your family on lockdown in Dubai, he's your guy."

“Look, Niall, I just want to say I'm sorry about,"

“What happened to your family?” Niall cut him off, clearly not wanting to accept an impromptu apology right in front of Mendes.

Zayn then explained the situation and Niall listened, both careful to avoid each other’s eyes.

“Stop by my office with all the info you have on them and I’ll start on it,” he then replied, walking away from them without another word. Mendes gave a hopeful smile and followed him.

Closing his eyes, Zayn couldn’t quite look at Liam now either.

“Look, Li,”

“It’s okay.” Liam took a hand to the back of his head and kissed his forehead. “You’re getting to see your family again and that’s all that matters.”

Loud clapping coming from the others stopped the conversation and they turned to see what was causing it. Bebe was dancing in the middle of everyone, but it looked more like an Albanian folk dance. Jade then jumped in beside her and they went around in a dancing circle. Miller then samba-ed his way in and Bebe showed him the dance. He copied it and they kept moving and soon others were joining in making the circle bigger.

“Do you wanna try?” Louis said in Harry’s ear as he looked on.

“Oh, no. I can’t. That looks hard.”

“Come on. You dipped me before. You can handle a little light hopping,” Louis teased, getting up and holding out his hand. Harry laughed shyly and got up and they too joined the other dancers. They up roared in cheers as Harry did the dance with almost as much vigor as Bebe.

As the dance finished and the noise died down Jade hugged Bebe and let her hands drag down the girl’s arms to hold her hands.

Bebe was still sharing a laugh with Harry when she noticed Miller scratch his head pointedly while whispering something to Louis which Harry heard and then looked at her. It was then that she realized Jade's hands were still entangled in hers.

Everyone had gone quiet, eyes on a nervous-looking Jade. Bebe asked her if she was okay, and Jade respond with a quick look at Miller and Louis and a "No. I'm not."

Bebe tilted her head in worry. She had been so distracted with anger at Liam and Zayn that she probably missed something was up with her friend.

Jade started swinging Bebe’s hands awkwardly and stopped to take a deep breath and talk. “You know when I was in sixth grade there was this new girl, Denise, who no one would talk to. She was a nerdy type-big teeth- but I’d try to make friends with her and chat at lunch because it’s how I was raised.”

Miller cleared his throat and Jade swung her attention to his ‘moving on’ hand gesture before refocusing on Bebe who threw him a confused frown.

“Anyway,” Jade said faster. “She would bring yogurt to school every day and she'd offer it to me. And after a while I wondered ‘Why is she giving me her daily portion of yogurt?” she gave a laugh and continued. “One day I asked her and she said it was because in her old school her teacher used to give a yogurt to the student who put in the most effort in class every day. She said she saw that I was losing my old friends by talking to her and she felt I deserved a yogurt for every time I sat with her, which was every day.”

Harry hummed quietly next to Louis and took a sip of can soda he had just opened for him. Niall rested his head on Mendes' shoulder, Liam looked flabbergasted as to why everyone had gone so quiet and Zayn’s eyes were squinted wondering what the hell the point of Jade’s story was.

“Bebe, the thing is, you keep putting yourself with these guys who don’t put in the same effort into you. You deserve someone who gives you their daily yogurt.”

“We still talking about food here?” Miller commented in Louis' ear. Harry heard it and spurted his soda.

“Someone like who, Jade?” Bebe said with a sarcastic sigh as Louis pulled out a napkin and wiped Harry and himself down. Bebe was tired of this. She had thought that Jade had a real problem she could help her with and get her mind of getting two-timed, but now she was seeing that she was only staging some kind of pep-talk to cheer her up. She was not in the mood to go guy-hunting for the perfect guy so soon.

“ME! “Jade voiced louder than Bebe. “Someone like me.”

Shocked out of her Louis Vuitton sneaker boot, Bebe’s mouth moved around but words could not form.

“Jade…”

“Don't say anything,” Jade worded out, tears appearing in her eyes. “I’ve wanted to say that forever.”

Jade then walked away to let the scene disperse and she walked straight into Louis. “So, you finally told her. Don’t worry. She just needs some time to process that whole- what was that? Sappy is the first thing that came across my mind.”

“Louis?” Harry hit him with the back of his hand. “I think that was sweet, Jade. She definitely knows how you feel now and I’m sure it’s gonna work out.”

Louis smiled proudly. "What he said.”

Jade was about to hit Louis in the bicep too when someone tapped her in the back.

Swinging around, she was met with a shoulder yank and a pair of soft lips in her face. It took a second to gather that she was being kissed- By Bebe, who had to tiptoe to do it.

They stopped when air ran out and grinned at each other. Everyone around them had erupted in laughter, coos and applause and Miller did victory fists, shouting 'Thank heaven, my work is done!"

“You didn’t get to tell me what my palm said,” Liam rubbed shoulders with Harry.

The man let the sparkle in his hands fade. “It said your life is gonna take you to unexpected places.”

“Should I be worried?”

“You’re a paramedic,” Harry shrugged. “I’m sure you already find yourself in awkward places on the job but it could be a new journey on the horizon.”

Liam looked pensively at Zayn who was cackling at something Miller was saying.

The night continued with Mendes whipping out his guitar and strumming upbeat tunes, Niall leading the song and Harry dancing along with Bebe and Jade.

Louis, by doing a karate kick in the air and screaming powerfully, had everyone astonished because they’d never seen him so relaxed and loose.

“He’s free and happy now,” Liam told them, exchanging a smile with Harry.

Louis then whispered to Mendes to play a certain song from Dirty Dancing and asked Harry if he may have the dance. Harry curtsied and gave him his hand and they proceeded to show the others their moves. Amid thunderous applause, Louis spun and dipped Harry and they flowed together like a curtain and breeze.

They lit starlight sparkles and danced around the sacred fire like wild children in their little tribe. The fire seemed a symbol for the fire that forged this lively group of friends. Liam, who lost both his parents in an accident, Louis who was abandoned by his and lost his only sister, Zayn who was cut off by his, Harry who has had trial after trial... Each forged from burning earth breaking through heartache and pain to surpass the surface of what they were and shape themselves into something cooler and less painful. Something that over time can be admired for its beauty rather than hated for its devastating inception. Who knows what shapes they could form standing together like a group of mountains.

Sometimes we get hurt and it takes a long time to get over it. Sometimes we can’t separate old scars from the new. Sometimes our scars are what draw people to us. People who see those scars differently than we do and show us that they are far from as hideous we think they are. And even with the scars left from the fire of our broken past, sometimes we break so beautiful.

 

*

_______
Soundtrack-

Gravity- Leo Stannard x Frances

WILDFIRE- SYML

Body- SYML

Nirvana- Sam Smith

Ordinary World- Marie Digby version

Fade into You- Mazzy Star

Time After Time- Pink version

Iris- Boyce Avenue version

Can't Help Falling in Love with You - Alyssa Baker

Ready for Love- India Arie

The Other Side- Ruelle

Hurts- The Dunwells

This Is Why I Need You- Jesse Rueben

Cinnamon - Jome

*

 

EPILOGUE-

 

Six months after the Powwow, Harry hosted his first art show. The gallery was full of his paintings and sculptures, being admired by formally attired guests among whom included Harry's and Louis' friends- Liam, Zayn, Jade, Bebe, Niall, Shawn, Miller, Harry's mother Anne, and his father Des who had been flown out for the show and was staying with them in their apartment. They all enjoyed the art with waiters carrying around champagne and tiny pastries. Louis was fidgety the whole time, loosening the tie around his neck every time his eyes flashed to an abstract painting. Niall patted him on the shoulder, and Liam gave him a speech about supporting Harry’s career.

Louis snapped at the man telling him he did support it he just never found himself in such close proximity to so many of his paintings before. Anne had rented him a place again to become his art studio and Louis had only been in there a couple times to pick him up, and Harry himself never brought home more than one painting at a time to work on so being around all at once now was rather overwhelming for Louis.

“Are you even into this kind of stuff?” Jade asked, awkwardly tilting her head to a starkly real sculpture of the separated body parts of a man that looks like Harry, arranged in such a way to form the shape of a mountain. Harry even added the penis in the mix. “It’s so artfully creepy.”

“I know, right?” Louis wiped the sweat beading down his face when he noticed one of the man’s legs were missing. “It’s weird, I think this is my favorite.”

"I think what you have is Stendhal syndrome,” Liam realized. “It’s not a registered mental disorder but We get calls about it all the time. It happens when you view art that you deeply relate to and that triggers past experiences. It’s not a surprise Harry’s paintings are getting to you. All of them are about the earthquake.” He pointedly pointed to the plaque with the name of the collection- Harry’s Earthquake Epiphany.

Louis then mumbled he was going for fresh air and went out on the street in front of the building. He took some much needed deep breaths and sighed. He hoped Harry didn’t notice him gone because the last thing he wanted is to skip out on the biggest night of his life. Harry had been working on these sculptures for months even though they had minor arguments over his obsessive working all hours of the night in the studio and louis feeling like their relationship was in limbo as a result, he was proud of him and needed to pull his Stendhal syndrome or whatever it is together for Harry’s sake tonight.

 

*

 

It was almost midnight but down in the basement, Louis was busy doing the laundry. Des had gone to bed having been given Zayn's room to stay since he got a place with Liam a month ago, and Harry had called saying he’d be late for dinner but that was hours ago. Louis couldn’t stop thinking about the slight edge in his voice when he said it. He also couldn’t forget the look on Harry’s face when he walked in the apartment and saw Louis watching TV on the couch with Sophie after the show last night.

Louis going to tell him that he wasn’t really watching the TV per se, more like the TV was watching him stare blankly at it. Louis didn’t mean to leave the art show when he did, he just...couldn’t breathe. But Harry just passed by him and got ready for bed, staying quiet for the whole night.

Reaching under the pile of dirty clothes, he pulled out a paint-stained sweater and huffed. He opened a bottle of acetone and poured it on, corking it back and slamming it back in the detergent basket.

The sound of footsteps coming down the basement stairs let him know Harry was home and ready talk.

“I can’t believe you skipped out on me last night,” Harry said, fulfilling Louis’ predictions. “Do you have any idea how much this showing meant to me?”

“Of course I do. I was there. I just needed some air.”

“Air? Seriously? I can’t believe you right now. Just say you hate my work and get it over with.”

“I don’t hate your work, apparently I love it so much I get panic attacks when I’m around it and can’t breathe.” Louis angrily turned the dirty clothes on the wrong side to wash them.

Harry dry-laughed. “Oh my god. I can’t believe you’re making a joke about this. Just admit it. You go crazy every time I bring home so much as a brush!”  Harry leaned back on the hot dryer, arms folded accusingly.

“Yes!” Louis had had enough. “You drive me insane with your paint cans and your clay.” He flung his arm around in gestures of exhaustion. “Do you realize how much acetone it takes to remove the oil stains during laundry?” he stepped within an inch of Harry, shoving a bottle in his face for him to see. “All these things are fire hazards. I’m a fireman-”

Harry grabbed him by the shirt and pulled him into a kiss, leaning on the dryer edge, letting his right leg wrap around his boyfriend’s waist.

"My dad is upstairs," Harry whispered to him.

Louis’ hand ended up bracing his arm on the dryer for support as he moaned in suggestion. “You’re right. This is a perfect spot, so hot.” He kissed Harry while peeling off his shirt then his own shirt then Harry’s pants then his pants in a rush then turned him around and slid a wet palm between his legs.

“Yeah, god, oh.” He spread his arse cheeks apart and shoved himself against the machine. Louis stooped down to lick the space, rimming him deep.

Louis then jumped up and spun Harry around, hoisting him up on the dryer. Harry widened his legs for him to enter him and leaned back, propping his elbow on the machine. Louis breathed into his face as he thrust, his sweat dripping down on his stump. They moved together like this, rocking the dryer and causing it to knock vigorously against the wall for a while, Harry’s toes curling in ecstasy.

“I’m proud of you, Harry,” Louis mumbled while they slid back on their clothes. “I don’t know what happened to me last night but I wasn’t skipping out on you.”

Harry let out a bubbling laugh. “So what you’re saying is Liam could be right about the Stencil syndrome?”

“I think it’s Stendhal syndrome. And yeah, I looked it up and it looks like I really do have it.”

That caused Harry laugh even louder. “You always wanna check out everything, don’t you?”

Louis couldn’t help but laugh too. Harry’s laugh was way too contagious.

Louis watched as he pulled the clothes out of the dryer and examined his sweater.

“Okay, I’ll let last night slide since you saved my favorite sweater.”

Louis tilted his head bashfully.

Harry lowered the sweater. “Seriously, you’re my hero, Louis. In every area of my life. I guess that’s why I was so mad you left early. Because you’re the reason I’m able to make my dreams come true now.”

Louis came and slid his fingers in with Harry’s.

Tears came in Harry’s eyes as he continued. “You made sure I fought for my life and didn’t stay in my pain. You gave me inspiration to get my career back on track and you’ve had my back all this time.” He briefly raised the sweater in point.

“You saved me too, you know,” Louis pulled him into a hug. “That sweater is mine, by the way.”

Harry let loose another giggle and they embraced for a long while after that, whispering softly to each other before going back up the stairs.

 

*

 

Louis opened the door, tired from a twelve hour shift at work and was instantly caught with the smell of lasagna. It had been now four months after the art show and Harry's work at the art studio was extremely successful but he always found time to cook. They still lived in the loft but neither of them minded. They both agreed that they should keep their lives as simple as possible despite Harry's rapid growth in the art world. 

As soon as Louis dropped the key on the coffee table, the stereo came on. 

‘Oh, my love, my darling. I’ve hungered for your touch...'

Unchained Melodies -by the Righteous Brothers this time- was playing, and Louis could smell the scented candles coming from the bedroom. Sophie came and brushed his leg pointedly as usual, except tonight she had a ridiculous red bow around her neck over her collar, and Louis scratched his head even as he laughed at her. Harry had figure out where he got the Loyd from months ago- it was the cat's name on Ghost. So Harry had been even more convinced he and Louis belong together. They had gone out on numerous dates and even went back to Seattle for a weekend to visit Des, visiting some of the old places they'd been but their relationship was pretty domestic as they fell into routine with work most of the time.

He made his way to the bedroom calling Harry’s name.

“In here,” he heard the man call back as he reached the doorway.

He walked in and stopped abruptly. The lights were on and there were skittles scattered all over the bed- tropical ones, from the looks of it. Harry was sitting in the middle of it with a sheepish grin, and different hair. Louis darted his eyes around the room to see if he could figure out the riddle. Harry was so unpredictable sometimes it drove him crazy.

“I wanted this to be big. But I don’t know. I felt stupid when I realized I had to kneel.”

Louis shot his eyes wide open. “What are you saying?”

“I obviously didn’t do enough if it isn’t obvious yet. I wanted to bring out a pottery wheel but it would just mess up your apartment.” Harry laughed, and Louis’ eyes grew even wider.

Louis’ vision did a bullet list in his head; candle, bow, lasagna in the oven, Harry in a new sweater that didn’t belong to Louis. “You’re pro- proposing, aren’t you?” he barely got out as it sank in. He let Sophie run free but he himself stood glued to the spot.

"I’m saying... You put all my pieces back together,” Harry said, voice unable to stay steady. “I’m saying I want this to be permanent. I’ve never felt this way about anyone. The more time I spend with you the more I realize that this is what I want the rest of my life to be. You are my present and my future. You went all the way to Seattle to see if I was okay, and when you saw that I wasn’t you stayed and made sure I did get better."

He wiped his tears and stepped closer to Louis, his eyes painting him with admiration. "The other day we were trying to compare the exact moments we fell for each other, and we came up with a lot of moments but I know when I fell for you. It was here in Chicago. In the dark, dusty apartment of building no. 28. I fell in love with you in the midst of skittles and blood, and burnt tenderloins and I’ve never felt as comfortable in my body before or after than I am now. And it’s because of you. I was broken a long time ago and you fixed me. I never wanted to share myself and my life with anyone as much as I want with you.”

Louis felt like he left his voice box a few miles back on his way here. He had been slowly on his way to telling Harry that he was his Sam and that he wanted to be his Molly for the rest of his life, but looking around at the room, Harry beat him to it. He really beat him to it.

Louis listened to Harry speak about being broken, and his heart almost broke remembering the day his dad shut the car door after dropping him and Tay off at the orphanage. Louis knew pain. He knew heartache and he too had been heartbroken a very long time ago. And like Harry he felt it light years behind him. He had found someone who made it all fade whenever he was around.

"Ditto," was the only word Louis could find to reply with as he marched forward and planted a long kiss on his mouth. And it was perfectly adequate.

 

*

Epilogue soundtrack-

 

Send Me a Lover- Celine Dion

So Beautiful- Savage Garden

Roar- Katy Perry