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The Gold-Soaked Afternoon Comes Slow

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It’s a Friday, the fourteenth of September, and sheets of rain are colliding hard with the double-glazed windows of Northlake Primary School, the early afternoon sky swallowed by an onslaught of ominous dark grey clouds. There’s been rumbling bursts of thunder and lightning every few minutes or so, which of course prompts a lot of excitement and curiosity from the kids of his class, 1A, who muffle their high-pitched squeals into their arms and into the air and jump halfway out of their seats to get a glimpse of what they clearly think is Thor, the God of Thunder himself making all this racket by sending blasts of lightning down to Earth.

“Jamie,” Harry warns, “be careful where you’re pointing your paintbrush, please. Thank you.”

He’s crouched down two tables over, on the other side of the classroom from where Jamie—one of his more talkative, slightly clumsier and boisterous six-year-old pupils—is dangerously close to completely taking Faye’s eye out, freckled and sensible and currently throwing dark looks Jamie’s way as his blue-ended brush nears her sunny clustered hair, held back in a high ponytail. If she gets one drop of paint in that hair, she’s going to lose it.

No one wants that.

Meanwhile, Harry’s helping a tearful Max stay within the lines of his stencilled words as he shakily fills in the letter B with thick blue paint, sniffling.

Harry’s heart clenches with sympathy, wanting nothing more than to send him home because he’s so distressed. But he’s not ill, so Harry can’t do that. He’s already been labelled a soft touch among the faculty, more than a few members of staff unconvinced that Max’s behaviour is entirely genuine, that he’s just playing up because he doesn’t want to be here. But they don’t have Max every day in their classes.

Max, to Harry, seems to be incredibly sensitive, shy, and cautious of his surroundings, and has struggled to integrate with the other pupils in the class, even when the others try to get him to join in with their games in the playground. He’s one of the youngest in the class and still absolutely detests when his mother leaves him at the door every morning, sobs like he’s being punished with a lifetime of no Kinder Eggs (he quietly informed Harry they’re his favourite thing in the world and he’s allowed to have one every Thursday after school). (Harry has to admit they are nice. He had them all the time as a kid himself.)

He normally calms down after a few hours (yeah, Harry’s hoping that duration of time will lessen as this year progresses) and has a one-to-one helper—teaching assistant Leah—and she would be supervising him usually, as Max’s reading comprehension is progressing at a significantly slower pace than some of the other children, but Leah's running late this morning—a family emergency with her own daughter, and besides, Harry wants to ease them into this term. So, some arts and crafts for the upcoming new terms’ school fair, in aid of raising money for their anti-bullying Sprinkle Kindness Like Glitter campaign, it is.

Harry had scrambled to get up in time this morning after his alarm failed to wake him, another morning spent in an empty bed, Louis not there to rouse him with his soft snores or light, random kicks in his sleep. Though, Harry’s body clock soon did that for him, bladder screaming at him and then he jumped into the shower, rushing down a granola bar and bottle of water.

It meant he felt rushed, stressed-out and not nearly as calm and relaxed as he wanted to be to greet his class, now a year up from Reception into Year One.

They’d gotten through literacy until eleven easily enough, but after they were denied spending their break time outside due to the storm passing over, Harry thought he’d ease the kids in and do some arts and crafts until lunchtime.

So far, so good.

They’ll do some numeracy for an hour after lunch, just to be sure Harry isn’t totally being a bad teacher right now and getting away with not really doing any actual teaching because he has a mighty headache. (Especially because the bright artificial lights had to be turned on since it's gotten so bloody dark now.)

But now Imogen won't stop shoving Charlie, Jacqueline somehow managed to get her white socks drenched in the muddy water from the plastic cup on her table, Rana is currently two seconds away from painting the end of her dark plait yellow, and Harry's head is pounding with a tension headache.

At least another break time is coming up in ten minutes.

Thank god.

“Alright, quieten down everyone,” Harry says in his most soothing but firm teacher voice. “Let’s have a nice, calm afternoon, shall we?” He pauses, wincing. “Jamie. I thought I said be careful with where you’re flicking your paintbrush. On the paper. Come on. You’ll take Faye’s eye out and I’ll have to tell your mum, won't I?"

Jamie murmurs an “Oopsie,” and covers his mouth. “Sorry, Mr Styles.”

“That’s alright, just don't cause an injury." Harry points his own brush at him, making the boy snigger slightly as he gets his head back down to work. Harry smiles.

And thankfully, it’s his clean hand that Jamie’s used to touch his face with and not the one smeared with blue paint.

Harry doesn’t fancy traipsing one of his pupils down to the nurse with a tongue soaked in paint, thanks.

He looks around the classroom, at their little hands all currently smudged with an array of different colours of the stuff since it’s a Friday, the first week back at school and the new terms’ school fare needs some vibrant banners to hang up around the corridors and classrooms to show off for the parents, and since the weather outside is so distracting for the kids right now, Harry thought it was better their attention was aimed elsewhere.

If there’s one thing children love more than anything, it’s permission to get messy. (Within reason. He’s already dreading the parents’ reactions if they’ve managed to get their uniforms splattered.)

So now he has a class of twenty-two six-year-olds in aprons and armed with tubes of paint.

Luckily, they’re a well-behaved bunch or else Harry would be in deep trouble.

“Sir, Jamie’s got paint in my hair,” Ella all but wails. Her shock of red hair is indeed streaked with green. Oh, great. He was so worried about Faye, he wasn’t watching Ella, who’s walked right into Jamie head first. God knows how that happened, to be honest. Harry sighs.

“Oh, Jamie, what did I tell you?” Harry says, brows furrowed as he walks over to their table to inspect the mess in Ella’s hair, the others lost in their own world, dutifully colouring in the templates of text Harry gave them—an assortment of positivity messages he hopes will eventually settle within their young, impressionable learning minds. He cringes, realising he’s just spreading the paint with the damp cloth he’s using. God, he should start bringing wet wipes to school for this lot. “It’s fine, there’s hardly any in it at all, Ella. Okay?”

He puts on a fake smile and tries not to grimace. But Harry’s wiped as much as he can out. He’ll just have to warn her mum later. Hopefully that goes down with a laugh.

Ella nods, pouting a bit, but gets back to her letters without another complaint.

There’s a knock at the door at the same time a burst of thunder rumbles in the distance. Harry scrunches his nose up. Just a coincidence. Not at all foreboding of anything else that could go wrong today, he hopes.

Naturally every head in the room looks to the door.

It’s the deputy headteacher who walks in, Ms Coulson, her dark tight curls tied back with an oval shaped hairclip, dressed in a long-chequered skirt and olive blouse, a pleasant smile on her face. “Good afternoon, Mr Styles. Good afternoon, 1A.”

“Good afternoon, Ms Coulson.” Harry lifts his brows at the class.

The children parrot the same phrase, having suddenly gotten much quieter now that a higher member of authority has entered the classroom. Harry smirks to himself, amused, especially at how still and shy Jamie has turned, gently washing his paintbrush in the dirty jar of water beside him.

“What can I help you with, Vanessa?” Harry asks quietly, turns away from the nosy little ears, his back to the class.

“Just wanted to let you know that we’ve finally hired a replacement for class 2A. He’s starting Monday.”

“Oh, that’s great,” Harry says, eyebrows shooting up. They’d been having trouble over the summer hiring a temporary supply teacher to stand in for one of their staff on maternity leave. (Harry hopes Angela will be bringing in her new baby at some point.)

“Clara will carry on supervising 2A as she’s done this week, but I was wondering if you would make sure he’s settling in alright?”

“Take him under my wing?” Harry briefly tracks the class, shuffling some papers away from his rapidly cooling coffee.

“Yeah,” Vanessa smirks. “Exactly. He’s a bit nervous.”

Harry chuckles quietly. “Well, if they’re anything like my lot, he’s right to be.”

“He has the experience, but it’s his first full-time teaching position that will last longer than a few weeks at a time. He’s been working mostly part-time as a teaching assistant previously. He seems excellent with the children, though. Speaks to them on their level but still has the authority. Not like David,” she whispers, rolling her eyes.

Harry really dislikes David. He’s the most patronising, bad tempered teacher he’s ever come across. The kids hate him. He honestly pities 2C. They constantly tell Harry how much they wish he was their teacher when he’s supervising them on playground duty.

Harry grins. “Thank God for that. Well,” he says, sitting back in his chair as his laptop beeps a notification for a new email. “I’m looking forward to meeting him.”

“I think you’ll get on well. You seem very similar in teaching styles, and he’s about twenty-seven, so you’ll have a friend your own age. Not like me.” There’s a flash of mischief behind Vanessa’s thick framed glasses.

Vanessa’s his boss, but she was still the first friend he made here. When Harry felt like he was drowning under a pile of paperwork and lesson plans that kept steering off the ball one way or another, she took him under her wing, made him feel like he wasn’t just another scrambling newbie, fresh from passing his teacher’s training course with flying colours and having no idea how to go about his first few weeks of school as a grown adult entirely responsible for the education, safety and ideas exposed to such fledgling, susceptible little minds. Twenty pairs of eyes all staring at Harry, waiting for his cue and hanging off his every fumbling word.

“You’re six years older than I am, what are you on about?” Harry scolds, smiling.

“I’m just saying,” Vanessa whispers, seemingly realising there is actually a whole two dozen children doing arts and crafts in front of them, conversing a bit noisily, but not too disruptive, seeing as they know well enough not to misbehave when there’s a deputy head in the room.

“Alright, well. I’ll be sure to keep an eye on him.”

“Great. Thanks, Harry.”

It’ll be nice. To have a new friend around here, show him around the place, hang out after school, maybe. Yeah. It’ll be good. He needs some new faces in his life in general. If only to stop him pining after the current ones.

Namely, his boyfriend. Who’s currently travelling around Europe right now, recording and networking and writing songs with lots of other different songwriters, waiting around for the right label to snap him up as he produces the perfect demos that might help him get there.

And Harry is so unbelievably proud of him. Loves him even more for having the courage and motivation to go after his dream, when he realised teaching wasn’t what he wanted to do full-time, that producing music and sending it out into the world was his calling, but he also hasn’t seen him in nearly a month and Harry’s insides are starting to ache a bit. It’s the longest he’s been away from Louis since they first got together nearly five years ago (well, they weren’t official until about five months later, but it counts, okay?). It’s entirely too clingy and pathetic, really. He's fed up of his own brooding, never mind his friends' protests.

And it’s all he needs to not be focusing on right now, while he’s meant to be watching a class full of children, responsible for their utmost safety and quality of education. 

"Mr Styles!" Jacqueline yells in disgust. "Charlie's licking his paintbrush!"

Oh shit.

"Duty calls," Harry tells Vanessa, with a wry smile, as he scrambles out of his seat to grab the bloody brush out of his pupil's hand. "We don't eat the paint, do we, Charlie? We want to live."

Charlie shakes his head, grins sheepishly. "Yeah."

Jesus.

"I'd like to live," Harry mutters. 

*

It’s just gone half five and it’s still raining, absolutely chucked it down just when Harry decided he’d make a quick detour at Tesco after he left school to stock up his empty, neglected fridge on the way home, half-distracted by Niall’s continuous texts in his pocket, asking how the first week back has gone for Harry (hectic but generally without a hitch), how much he’s missing Louis (constantly), and if he fancied coming over for drinks tomorrow night, informing Harry that he has a huge surprise for him (hmm, worrying).

He frowns as he thinks about it, turning off the engine before taking off his seatbelt.

Swinging his bag over his shoulder, he slams the driver’s door shut, squinting in the drizzling rain while wracking his brain for what possible humiliating scenarios Niall could have thought up for any number of reasons.

It’s not his birthday yet. Niall’s that is. So, who knows what on earth the man is talking about?

Harry can guarantee it’ll be memorable when it comes to Niall, anyway. As long as it doesn’t involve Harry breaking a limb or something that debilitates him from turning up for work in good condition on Monday morning for the twenty plus six-year old children that he’s in charge of giving a primary education, then fine. Harry is up for whatever’s about to be thrown at him.

And anything that takes his mind off Louis is a welcome reprieve from his interchanging moods of wistful longing and sulkiness. Honestly, he’s a teacher, and yet he can still act like one of his six-year-old pupils according to his friends.

Harry is hard pressed to disagree.

And yes, he’s fully aware of his messy disaster emotional status, though maybe that’s just what happens when you’re in love with your best friend. You miss them twice as much precisely because they’re your best friend too.

Anyway, enough of that.

Harry wrinkles his nose—it’s cold now and his brown suede jacket has almost soaked through to his burgundy jumper and the white collared, buttoned shirt he’s wearing underneath it, stomach grumbling and demanding Harry stuff his face as soon as he gets into the flat. He passes a few of the neighbours as he follows the wet pavement, green-ish and slightly auburn fallen leaves lying on the ground, gathering clusters in the corners and sides of the roads as the wind picks up.

There’s one woman with two children he sees regularly, holding her Hijab tighter under her chin as a particularly harsh gust of wind hits her face, still managing to hold her hand up to greet him, face scrunched in a laugh at the force of the wind attempting to knock them over, gripping onto the pushchair tightly which is holding her lively toddler, currently massacring a melted chocolate bar and completely oblivious to his mother’s struggle.

Harry returns the wave, chuckling too. He looks to her daughter, about five with multiple dark plaits, wearing her school uniform and raincoat. He recognises her from the year below that Harry teaches. She was sitting up particularly straight in her first school assembly on Tuesday. Model student right there, Harry thinks. Right now, she’s holding her Pepper Pig umbrella up haphazardly, giggling as she fights to keep it upright. She too waves enthusiastically at Harry, so used to seeing him around the same time every day and now at school, too.

“Lovely day, eh?” Harry calls sarcastically, grinning.

“Oh, beautiful, Mr Styles,” she calls back on a laugh—which cuts off abruptly when she sees her daughter has just jumped into a massive puddle. “Anita!—no—your uniform!” she groans crossly, stopping to inspect her muddily splashed tights.

Harry gives her a grimaced look of sympathy and then a departing wave over his shoulder. Anita seems utterly delighted, though. Harry keeps his amusement to himself.

At last, he gets to the door of his flat, tapping the code to get in and slowly walks up the wet, muddy-footprinted stairs on unsteady feet, praying he doesn’t make a wrong footing and slip with heavy bags full of groceries in his arms and clutched to his chest, some of which contain some hefty metal tins of beans and sweetcorn and a glass container of instant coffee. (Those could do some serious damage if he ends up falling down a flight of stairs and they bounce back off his head.)

His growing curls are damp and frizzy, and he can’t wait to hop in the shower, change into some comfy jogging bottoms and a soft jumper and wolf down some pot noodles and pastries.

And luckily, since it’s only the first week back, he’s not got a lot of paperwork to do, already having mapped out two weeks’ worth of lesson plans during the last days of the summer holiday, leaving him free to catch up on some Netflix shows this rainy, chilly Friday night.

That is until he spots a very familiar pair of chunky black Adidas trainers before he makes the last few steps to his floor, huddled right outside his door in a puffy dark coat, the brown fur of the hood standing out like a halo around his stubble-clad, flushed and gorgeous face. A face he adores waking up to.

Harry’s chest instantly warms with fierce affection, belly swooping in relieved, delighted surprise.

“Lou?” he grins, hoisting the paper bags full of groceries up against his chest.

Louis instantly opens his eyes from presumably resting them for a moment and smiles, wide and all crinkly by his eyes.

“Hiya, baby,” he greets softly, voice caressing Harry’s innards like silk, laced with years of endless affection and familiarity and love.

“Honey, what are you doing here?”

“That’s no way to greet your long-time lover,” Louis protests, indignant, lifting off the wall.

“Shut up,” Harry laughs, hearty and thrilled. “No,” he drawls, “I mean, how did you get up here without buzzing up? You lost your key. And the spare.” He rolls his eyes. Harry’s been meaning to go and get some more done. Though Louis hasn’t bothered to get another done either. He relies on Harry to let him in at the moment.

Before he left for Antwerp and Amsterdam, it resulted in many nights of rows, with Louis waking Harry up with a call in the early hours after some event or photo op, sliding out of bed to find an adorably drunk and clingy Louis beaming blearily at him with his arms spread wide, Harry steering Louis inside, his boyfriend being so bloody noisy in the process that Harry would be scared he’d wake up the whole floor with his drunken rambling and loud murmuring of sweet nothings in Harry’s ear.

“One of our lovely neighbours let me up. Took pity on me since it’s pissing it down.”

Louis’ cheeks are rosy and he’s looking at Harry strangely. Like, really looking. The softest, almost giddy smile on his face as he gazes lovingly at Harry. Not that this look is unusual in itself. Louis’ always looking at Harry like he’s the only thing he can see, the only person in the room, the only one that matters. He loves Harry, after all. It just feels different somehow.

“What are you up to?” Harry eyes him suspiciously.

Louis laughs. “What do you mean? Why do I have to be up to something?”

“You’re plotting.”

“I’m not!” Louis grins wider, eyes so, so soft. Practically gleaming with love. Harry suddenly feels hot, the layers he’s got on stifling, lost in the soft, unguarded sight of Louis like this, this happy and wet from the rain. His cold, pink nose.

It’s all playing havoc with Harry’s stomach, fluttering wildly, after weeks apart. He stamps out the urge to gather Louis up in his arms since they are currently occupied by groceries and quirks a brow, inspecting his boyfriend’s face closely. It really is buoyant.

“Are you drunk? You seem giddy.”

“No, ‘course not,” Louis chuckles, beaming. “Not yet, anyway.”

“You just smoked, didn’t you?” Harry can’t actually smell any weed, nothing but the cold, slightly dank smell of the rain from outside. And a hint of Louis’ strong aftershave. God, Harry could quite literally plant his face in Louis’ neck all night and be utterly content.

“No, I didn’t,” Louis insists, slightly affronted and squinty-eyed. “I’m just happy to see my baby. Missed your cute little face, didn’t I?”

“Right,” Harry snorts, ridiculously delighted despite his eye roll.

Louis tuts, a small crease between his brows. Harry beams back, feeling his cheeks warm. “Hey, I did.” He frowns, face scrunched up in disgruntlement. “Did you not miss me?”

He’s so fucking cute.

“Of course,” Harry replies softly, probably appears embarrassingly gooey, the sheer amount of love he has for this man plain as day. “I really, really did and I’m really glad you’re home. It’s a lovely surprise,” he says, kinda desperate to just pounce on him, smudge his mouth with his until they’re a wrecked mess, panting on the kitchen floor.

“Really?” Louis asks, teasing. “Don’t sound too sure.”

Yeah, right. Harry’s been pining for him. But he’s not about to tell him this. He’s far too needy at times. His friends won’t stop giving him shit for it.

“No, not really. It was bliss without you. I’m actually really annoyed you’re back, if I’m honest.” Harry shakes his head with a wide-set grin as Louis gasps, pressing his hand dramatically to his chest, which is a bit difficult to do since his coat is so puffy but somehow Louis manages it. Harry is constantly endeared and exasperated by this man in equal measure. “Thought I had more time to myself,” he sighs, foot pointing inwards, like he’s a besotted school kid with plaited ponytails on each side of his head, gazing dreamily at the boy—man—of his dreams.

“And what was so important you needed to be by yourself?” Louis squints.

“Many, many things, Lou.”

“Well,” Louis says, feigning haughtiness, “I thought you’d miss me. More fool me, eh?”

Starting to stand up, wet shoes squeaking on the floor, Louis removes his hands from the deep pockets of his coat. Harry watches him, eyes unwavering from Louis’ face as he distractedly fiddles with his fringe, a smile dancing on his lips as Harry’s boot connects with Louis’ trainer.

“I did miss you!” Harry laughs. “Too much, probably.”

“Aww,” Louis coos, “I missed you too, darling.”

“Good,” Harry shakes his head, laughing. “No, but seriously. As much as I have missed you hogging the bathroom, what you doing back already? Thought you’d be in Belgium for another week in the studio?” He pauses, brows furrowing. “Everything’s… okay, right?”

“Yeah, fine,” Louis starts too casually, brushing light fingers softly over Harry's cheek, eyes warm, attentive. Harry swallows thickly. “I was in the studio, but I left Antwerp two weeks ago.”

Harry frowns. "How come?"

He’d thought Louis was FaceTiming him from Antwerp only a few days ago. And Harry really doesn’t want to be one of those boyfriends who gets pissy if they don’t know where their partner is at or if he forgets to call when he says he will. (Which, okay. He is exactly that sometimes.)

It’s just that Harry worries easily. He may appear unaffected on the outside, perhaps even a little aloof to some, but truthfully, he needs constant reassurances and regular updates from his boyfriend who’s away more and more now.

Just to check in now and then, so Harry knows everything is okay. (“We’re in a long-term relationship. I just wanna know he got there safe? Isn’t that a fair ask?” Harry whined to Niall, halfway through his third pint in a pub showing the golf in July. Louis seemed to have forgotten to text Harry he’d landed safely and Harry’s nerves weren’t amused. “Yeah, perfectly reasonable,” Niall replied in a deadpan, extremely bored voice. “I just want to watch the Open, H, if I’m honest.” “Fuck you, too, then,” Harry retorted grumpily.)

But usually, Harry doesn’t need to ask Louis because he knows Harry likes a text when he lands somewhere, to tell him he got to wherever safely, a ‘goodnight’ text if it’s not too much of a time difference. Louis usually tells him all the thorough details of his amusing escapades and heart's desires, his daily schedule without any prompting from Harry.

They did go through a miscommunication patch like a lot of couples do. Went through a tough time when they found it difficult to share their feelings about the harder, crueller things that life inevitably threw at them, preferred to compartmentalise and ignore it or distract themselves with each other without talking about any of the important things.

But they learned how to open up more. Harry thinks they’re damn good at it now. And when they want to, they can talk to each other—honestly, unashamedly, and without judgement. It’s always been that way, though. From the moment they met, they just clicked. The fact that they’re both extremely stubborn does go against them sometimes, but they always make it through the hard times.

And they always love each other through those times, too. Because Louis is Harry’s best friend, and Harry is Louis’.

“There were… creative differences,” Louis shrugs, avoiding Harry’s gaze. “No biggie. All in all, it was enlightening. Ticked off some boxes.”

“What does that mean?” Harry hoists his brown paper bags further up, frowning. “Is that good or bad? Has something happened?”

Louis waves him away, shrugging again.

“It was fine.”

A flash of irritation runs through Harry. “Louis—”

“Harry, it was fine,” Louis dismisses, and his tone is telling him that it’s anything but. So now Harry is definitely convinced that nothing is fine.

“Well, it doesn’t sound fine.”

Louis rolls his eyes.

“Hun, don’t do that,” Harry pouts, brows deeply furrowed.

Louis exhales loudly. “Got knocked back again, some things fell through. But—yeah,” he shrugs. “Doesn’t matter.”

“Yes, it bloody does.”

Sighing, Louis throws his head back before moving to cup one side of Harry’s face, cold thumb pressing gently into Harry’s cheek. Harry’d hold his hand in place if his hands weren’t currently occupied with several bags of veg and an assortment of jarred pasta sauces.

He nuzzles into it instead.

Louis watches him nose along his palm. “I’m just going through a patch of disillusionment with the industry right now. But I’ll get through it. Okay? I really am alright, babe. I don’t give up that easily.”

“Do you promise?” Harry says, pondering whether he should push it further now or let it go until later and Louis’ softer, tired, more susceptible to not biting back when Harry prods for more information. “You’d tell me, wouldn’t you? If there was stuff you needed to talk about?”

Instead of answering, which is frustrating as well as sending a shot of panic through his chest, Louis kisses him chastely and wordlessly takes one of his brown bags off him, a crooked smile meeting Harry’s concerned stare.

“Are we going in or what? I’m starving.”

“Louis,” Harry mumbles quietly, mouth tilted sadly. He knows Louis was so excited about booking a string of writing sessions with a selection of songwriters in Antwerp. It was another step further in getting Louis officially signed to a record label, he was sure of it. Right now, things are up in the air as it is. He just wants Louis to get the best deal, the best in general and everything that entails.

“Stop worrying for me so much.” Louis grins as he bops Harry’s nose, fishing for a smile.

Harry doesn’t give him one. “Sorry, but it kind of comes with the territory of being in a serious relationship with someone you love, you know.” His tone is irritable.

“Baby, come on,” Louis rasps softly, tilting his head in a clucking manner. “I don’t want a row. I haven’t seen you in nearly a month.”

Harry knows full well exactly how long it’s been, missing him like crazy, feeling like half of him is missing at times. The flat has been unsettlingly quiet these past few weeks without him. He had work to keep him busy during the weeks, but going home in the evenings to a cold and empty bed while it poured with rain outside—it made him miss Louis terribly.

“I know,” he sighs forlornly, noting the dark circles under Louis’ eyes. He thumbs the delicate skin there. Maybe if he brushes it enough, the dark colour will rub away.

“So can we just—be us for now? You can bite my head off later.”

Harry’s hand pauses. His mouth quirks.

“Come on, then, Harold,” Louis says, voice light and playful and everything that Harry has desperately been missing. “Are you gonna let me in or are you breaking up with me for being away so long?”

Harry knows it’s a joke, of course it’s a joke. But it still churns his stomach and ties it in thick knots. He doesn’t even know why. They’ve never broken up. They might have had a few days here and there without contact, when Louis’ away, but they use that time to think and then apologise for whatever needs apologising for. They talk about it. They work through things. Breaking up has never been an option for either of them, especially not for Harry.

It’s not even close to an option now, so he doesn’t know why he feels upset all of a sudden.

Evidently, Harry's face must be showing the discomfort he feels because Louis’ smile has waned and he’s leaning forward and pressing his lips to Harry’s worried pout, slow and lingering. His bones immediately relax as Harry melts into the kiss, sighing softly into Louis’ parted mouth, the tension in his body dissipating further when Louis’ hand squeezes at Harry’s hips atop his coat. He pecks another kiss to Harry’s lips. Another two. Three. Four.

“Help me with the key, then,” Harry smiles.

Louis dives into Harry’s coat pocket and fishes out his keys, making a show of patting him down with just one hand, the other arm tasked with holding the shopping bag. He looks up through his eyelashes with a smirk plastered across his face.

“Stop touching me up and get us inside, please."

A looming cluster of feelings coming over him at once as he steps past the threshold: nervousness, relief, impatience, excitement, desire. Love.

He's been focusing on Louis' absence more than he should have, but now that he’s taking in the fact that Louis is really here, it's like he never left. Harry has got him back, after weeks of no face-to-face contact, keeping in touch via Facetime and WhatsApp messages and late-night phone calls when they’re not too tired to talk. Falling asleep still on the line, drifting off to the familiar, comforting sounds of Louis’ breathing pattern after a stressful day at work, content to be listening to him ramble on and on about stupid shit for hours.

Louis snickers, unlocking the door. “In we go, then,” he says, gesturing for Harry to go first. “Home sweet home.”

"Thanks, babe." Harry dumps his shoulder bag and the contents of the shopping on the worktop, then shucks off his suede jacket and hangs it on the back of a chair, watching fondly as Louis plonks his own stuff down by the sofa and takes off his own wet coat, the longer hair at his nape damp and curling at the ends.

“Your hair’s grown a bit,” Harry comments, standing there in his socks.

“So it has,” Louis replies. “Like it?”

“More to grab on to, so… yeah.”

Louis snickers.

Smiling, Harry takes Louis’ coat from him and grabs another chair to hang it over, pushing them both towards the radiator by the wall adjacent to the kitchen. He wanders over to the cupboards and switches on the heating.

“Cheers, baby,” Louis says, fiddling with his hair in the mirror on the living room wall. Harry watches, amused, glad to have him home.

Louis turns around to face him, swallowed up by a baggy navy hoodie and black tracksuit bottoms. “Oi. Aren’t you gonna give me a cuddle?”

Harry rolls his eyes, but of course walks straight into his arms, desperate as his chest connects hard with Louis’ and he wraps his arms around Louis’ back. He buries his face in his neck, taking in the smell of outside, of rain, sweat, stale cologne and a specific scent that’s entirely Louis.

Louis chuckles into Harry’s hair, his arms snug around Harry’s narrow waist. “So you did miss me, then?”

“’Course. Always miss you,” he mumbles into Louis’ skin, nose brushing warm skin.

A sweep of Louis’ fingers threads through his damp curls. Harry suppresses a shiver, just basking in having Louis’ presence so close again. “Always miss you too, baby.”

*

The radio is playing on a soft volume, the kitchen bathed in bright light and the sheer intense blue of Louis’ eyes.

Yeah, because Harry can’t stop sneaking looks at him, his heart clenching in his chest each time he does, an extra tight pang making itself known whenever Louis notices and connects his gaze with Harry’s with a crinkled smile.

He’s been feeling down lately. Just out of it a bit. Harry has a tendency to let himself get stuck in his own head, buried with the anxieties and insecurities he tries his hardest to stamp out daily. He thinks too much. About everything and anything. Has to force himself to do things to keep his mind busy, distracted. He’ll go to the gym regularly, for a run, drown the noise out with music. Gets out his frustrations by boxing a punching bag.

And then Louis arrives again and he just… quiets it all. Makes all the noise dissipate and covers him in all-encompassing bliss. Louis makes his chest flutter, but he also calms his nerves, relaxes his bones until he’s completely zen, just by being next to him, or in his arms, or holding his hand.

Harry’s currently stirring a pan of chicken and mushroom sauce. He sprinkles some basil and black pepper in, watching fondly as Louis attempts to cut up small pieces of broccoli, his concentrated brows pinched, the tip of his tongue peeking out between his lightly pinkened lips, framed by a substantial amount of stubble.

“What?” Louis says, not looking up, voice a soft musical rasp and setting Harry’s nerve-endings alight.

“What?” Harry echoes, suppressing his widely amused smile, feeling giddy with it. He can’t help it—it’s the effect Louis has on him.

“You’re staring at me.”

“Just making sure you’re not going to chop off a finger. Happen to like those fingers.”

Louis gives him a dark look. “Thought you were going to tell me I’m pretty.”

Harry smiles crookedly, close-lipped. “You’re gorgeous,” he murmurs.

"Oh, you charmer, you," Louis chuckles, beaming in that way that makes his eyes crinkle, bumps their hips together and—swoops in for a kiss.

Harry returns it eagerly, pressing one hand to the side of Louis’ face as his lips suck and drag, titling his head for a better angle, mouths slowly melding, breathing him in before they part with a slick sound. Another peck. Two more.

Harry’s limbs are jelly. He’s lost his stomach somewhere on the floor.

With another smile, Louis releases Harry’s waist where he was gently gripping it. Harry catches his hands and pulls him back in, connecting their lips again while laughing. He deepens the kiss until it’s verging on filthy, tossing his head back when Louis finds that spot just under his jaw, following to his neck and latches on.

Hissing, Harry pushes against Louis’ chest, leaning him over so that Louis’ back is arched over the worktop. He can hear the pan’s contents bubbling frantically as he parts Louis’ lips, slipping his tongue inside and kissing him deeply.

“We have time for this later,” Louis reminds him as he pulls off, short-circuiting Harry’s brain in the process, chasing his open mouth. Louis relents with a lingering press of their wet lips. “Thought we were eating dinner first, hm?”

“Yeah,” Harry sighs, his blushing cheeks pinched by Louis’ fingers teasingly. “I am really hungry.”

Louis hums. “Seems it,” he says, loaded with suggestion.

Harry huffs, chuckling as he angles his body back to the pan, squeezing into it a slither more olive oil and then focuses on Louis’ socked feet sliding about instead, or he really will end up with Louis between his legs on the counter.

“Can you check the chicken breasts in the oven, please,?”

“Are they bigger than yours?” Louis retorts.

“Stop being cheeky.” Harry pauses to point, smiling as he continues to chop the vegetables.

Louis snickers as he traipses over to the oven gloves, puts them on one hand and opens the oven door with the other. A cloud of steam and heat assaults them both.

“Oh, watch the steam!”

“Yeah, a bit late for that, babe. Ow,” Louis squints. “That hurt.”

“Yeah,” Harry winces. “It’s pretty powerful when that steam gets in your eyes. Which you would know if you used it more.”

“Yeah, yeah. Drag me some more for my lack of time spent in the kitchen, why don’t you?”

“I will."

“The cheek of this one,” Louis raises his brows, smirking as he points a thumb at Harry standing behind him.

“Who are you talking to?” Harry laughs as he tries to kick Louis’ shin, missing him as Louis jumps out of the way, a delighted grin plastered on his face.

“My adoring public, that’s who.”

“Oh, you’re some bigshot now, are you? One hit without even a label and he’s got too big for his boots.”

“Well, you’re the bigfoot in this relationship.”

Harry drops his spoon, the metal clanking loudly against the salad bowl. He dramatically lifts his eyebrows, slathering on the theatrics.

“Do you want dinner, dear?” he says in sickly sweet, sarcastic voice. He breaks character immediately, practically grinning into the sizzling pan of olive oil, red onions and tomatoes.

“You’d never throw me dinner away,” Louis says confidently, dishing up the chicken onto the plates Harry’s set out on the opposite counter, a bottle of wine and two glasses situated next to them. “Even if I really piss you off, you’d leave it in the fridge and just refuse to talk to me the entire evening. You’d feel too guilty. Even if I was the one who started it.”

Harry raises his brows indignantly. “Do you wanna test that theory?”

Louis lunges at him, fighting for his wrists as Harry screams bloody murder, chest warm and ridiculously giddy. He can’t imagine a time of not feeling this way.

Once they’ve finished eating and Louis has finished showering compliments Harry’s way (“That was gorgeous, baby. I’m so well fed,” and Harry’s honking laughter at the phrase. "Knobhead."), they end up sated and curled around each other on the sofa, two glasses of red down and then it’s not long before they’re kissing. There’s a month of zero kissing to make up for and Harry’s sure as hell going to try and cram a month’s worth of kissing into a night.

He’s been dying to get his hands on Louis since the minute Louis left their bed all those weeks ago, craving his mouth on his golden skin one more time before he had to leave for the airport.

Louis says he’s insatiable. (Harry would have to agree when he has a partner who’s as hot and ruggedly handsome as Louis.)

(And there’s only so far your imagination can take you on the phone—as much as that’s enjoyable, too.)

For as much as Harry wants to speed things up, it starts out slow and soft, Louis’ feet in Harry’s lap and sprawled out on the opposite end, propped up by cushions because he obviously believes he’s a prince (and he’s right), Harry kneading them gently between his hands, content.

But this time it’s Louis that gets restless quickly and ends up straddling Harry, kissing him lazily and dirtily, Harry’s hands clasped tightly at his hips, Louis cupping Harry’s face as he changes the angle.

Harry squeezes the smooth softness underneath Louis’ jumper as their open mouths meet through quiet breaths.

The kissing steadily grows deeper. Urgent and intense and fighting for breath, as it usually goes after a couple of weeks without seeing each other, sending Harry spiralling into an oblivion. Kisses littered with gasps and moans and hard rolls of hips, the increased pressure of groins pressing against each other.

“Lou?” Harry gets out, eyes practically rolling into the back of his head as Louis settles his weight differently, grinding slowly into him, feeling how hard they both are making him feel crazy with need. He rests his cheek against Louis’ hot temple. “Do you want to—”

“Sex?”

Harry snorts.

“Yeah, baby.”

Louis lifts off of him and stands, tugging Harry’s hands and pulling him off the sofa with him. “Bed?”

“Bed,” Harry agrees without so much as a beat.

*

“Please." Harry's voice hoarse as his knees fall open, limbs restless and scrabbling against the new silk sheets he bought about a week ago. They’re ridiculously slippery, though, his feet sliding all over them. Maybe this was one impulse buy he should have resisted, but the silver just looked so pretty, grown-up. Sexy, even.

“Will you have some patience?” Louis mock growls as he rummages through the bedside drawers for lube and condoms.

“Lou, come on," Harry drawls lazily, feeling so horny it's almost ridiculous, "or I’ll do it myself.” He makes no such movement, his hands thrown above his head as he stares dizzily at the ceiling, his thighs shaking with anticipation.

Finally, Louis joins him on the bed, his legs on either side of Harry’s hips as he sits on his lap. Harry groans, canting his hips up, arching his spine.

“Touch me,” he begs, screwing his eyes shut and blindly reaching for Louis’ shoulders. He doesn’t find them. “Please. Need you now.”

He reaches between his legs, intent on fingering himself if Louis won’t get started.

Instantly, Louis’ wet hand grabs it, tittering at Harry’s furrowed, impatient brows.

“I’m getting there,” he says, amused, but sounding like he’s barely holding it together himself. “Be good for me, yeah? I know you can.” His voice is deliciously raspy, making Harry twitch and sending shivers down to his toes. And he can. Be good for Louis. Turned out Harry has an incredibly high submissive streak. They’ve tried tying Harry up to the bedposts as Louis rides him to climax, Harry unable to touch, Harry wrist bound above his head, face down as he just takes Louis pounding into him, rimming him until he comes, blindfolded and on his back as Louis fucks him slow and deep on the floor.

Harry’s getting harder just thinking about those times, curling his hand in the bed sheets, trying to breathe evenly, to make himself relax, mouth dry with desperate readiness and expectation. “’kay? Stay still. Don’t touch, darling.”

Tonight, though, Harry’s a bit too desperate to do as he’s told.

“But—fuck,” he gasps, pressing his palm over his eyes. “I need to. It's been too long.”

He needs Louis tucked back inside him, hates feeling empty. “Harry. Stay,” Louis warns him, voice a little firmer, hot breath caressing the shell of his ear.

Harry squeezes his eyes shut.

“Fuck, it’s gonna be over so quickly,” he admits in a small voice, so very aware that it’s been a month since they last had sex. He’s feeling entirely delirious and dizzy beneath Louis’ undivided attention, veins humming under his razor-sharp focus, the gentle but firm authority of his hands as they touch him, caress him until his body is stretched taut with pent-up energy and want.

God, he wants Louis so badly, wants him to pound him into the mattress so that he can barely catch his breath.

He’s fully hard and heavy against his belly, has to bite his lip to stop himself from just touching himself, desperate.

But he loves nothing more than being good for Louis.

“That’s okay, baby,” Louis says breathlessly. “We’ll just go again,” he grins. “I’m game if you are.”

Harry laughs, turning his face into the pillow. When he glances back up, Louis’ fumbling with the condom, tongue poking out and hands slick with lube, so Harry reluctantly, impatiently sits up and takes pity on him, sliding the condom on Louis himself. He gives the base of Louis’ thick cock a squeeze, biting down on a smug grin as he gazes up at Louis coquettishly.

“Fuck me hard, yeah? I don't wanna wait.”  

Louis stares, eyes glazing over.

“Actually…” he breathes, clearing his throat. He’s flushed down to his neck and upper chest, his hair already sweaty around his forehead. He’s beautiful. “I’m not lasting long either.”

Harry giggles heartily in his chest, laughter dying in his throat when Louis takes hold of his thighs, stilling as he stands on his knees between Harry’s open ones. He lets a prolonged moan slip past his agape mouth, brows creased. 

“Oh, fuck. I almost came,” he says in a strained voice.

Harry smirks, satisfied.

“Not until you’re in me you’re not." He pauses, taking in Louis' position between his legs. "You can ride me after, if you want?" Harry grins, stretching forward to squeeze at Louis' hips.

Louis snickers. "Oh, I can, can I?" he says, dropping a quick kiss to Harry’s mouth, leaning away before Harry can deepen it.

"Yeah," Harry answers quietly.

And then everything goes wantonly hazy.

The minutes passing by could be hours for all Harry knows, caught up in the familiar shape and press of Louis’ fingers as he expertly opens him up. And god, he never ever wants a pair of hands that don’t belong to Louis on his body ever.

It’s Louis. It’s always going to be Louis.

When Louis’ fingers disappear, Harry moans, starting to pant when Louis presses himself all the way inside.

Harry sloppily returns Louis’ searing kisses, holding onto his back as they burn all over his skin, the friction of his slippery thighs rubbing against Louis’ hips with every assured glide of their bodies, slick and sweaty, Harry pliant whenever Louis moves him into the positions and angles he wants, but still caters to what they both like.

No one knows Harry’s body like Louis does.

“You’re so good for me,” Louis murmurs, brushing a sloppy kiss to his mouth. “Aren’t you, baby?”

His hands grip Harry’s hips tighter, thumbs pressing into his flesh hard enough to leave bruises and Harry wants them. Wants Louis’ marks all over his body, pressed into his flesh like memories.

“My good, good boy.”

“Louis,” Harry whines, fingers raking down Louis’ back which then dig into the meat of his bum, sliding up again and tangling in Louis' hair.

“I love you so fucking much, Haz," Louis slurs between breaths which are sharp bursts against Harry's cheek.

Louis fucks into him and Harry grips Louis’ hair tighter.

“I love you,” Harry whispers, concentrates on the overwhelming feeling he's missed, of Louis moving smoothly inside him, surrounding him, engulfing him with his hands pressing and stroking and sliding over planes, knows exactly where to touch Harry, knows exactly which spots make him gasp, moan or prompt a sudden scream.

The first time they did this, they’d been out clubbing, and Harry had stubbornly attached himself to Louis’ side, warding off anyone who tried to come on to Louis, meeting their lust-driven stares with hard glares and a clutch of Louis’ hips. He knew he was being possessive, being annoying as fuck, but when he felt the steady weight of Louis’ hand constantly on his waist, he was positive he wasn’t the only one marking their territory. If Harry followed Louis around, Louis followed him too just as much.

And Louis had looked at Harry that night like he was the only person that existed amongst the crowded throng of bodies swaying and grabbing and dancing, glowing in neon blue light.

They’d left together, holding each other close, and Harry’s heart was thumping painfully in his chest, his lungs tight.

“Sometimes I think I want to kiss you,” Louis said as they waited for a cab. “I know we’re friends, but sometimes I wanna kiss you so badly that it scares me, Harry.”

Harry stayed quiet, dumbstruck.

Louis must have thought he’d taken a misstep because he was silent the whole ride home, refusing to look at him and sitting further apart from Harry than he normally would, which was usually practically Harry’s lap.

As soon as the door shut at Harry’s flat, Harry blurted out: “Lou, I always want to kiss you.”

And that was it.

“Oh thank fuck for that,” Louis said, and it was like the gates had opened and then they were kissing, frantic and desperate and gasping for air, hands fighting for purchase.

Harry was so overjoyed something had finally happened between them. He just wanted Louis’ hands on him. He couldn’t stop rambling through it, incoherent words of longing nonsense, mixed with soft sounds falling from his open mouth, Louis’ breathless laughter echoing among the blood rushing in his ears.

After that, they sort of fell into it, as if being with each other like this was as natural and easy as breathing.

Harry would get home from his teaching course at uni, Louis having already graduated and started a teaching assistant’s placement at a nearby school. Louis would come over every Friday and they’d have dinner, or go out, then they’d shower and stuff (sometimes together) and it would just happen. Smooth kisses turning into deeper drags of mouths, ending up in bed.

Not long after that, Louis quit his job as a full-time assistant and became a supply teacher for Year Seven’s, differentiating between teaching P.E. and Music lessons. He was writing music on the side himself, had taken up learning the guitar and began playing gigs around towns.

He was away more, and all their nights together became much scarcer. Still, Harry soaked up all the time they had together, content to be Louis’ best friend, but absolutely treasuring the moments they were so much more.

Louis’ next thrust brushes against his prostate and Harry yells out, pleasure shivering through his limbs and rendering him a pliable mess, back arched as Louis shifts his body around in different folded positions.

Their strangled sounds pepper the space around them, Harry’s hair matted to his forehead, Louis’ wet lips mouthing hungrily at Harry’s jawline.

“So good. Know exactly what gets to you, don’t I? Just me.”

“Just you,” Harry whispers, bites on his lip. Hard. “Only ever you.” He catches Louis’ lips with his own, merging their mouths together wetly.

It doesn’t take much longer before Harry gets restless, starting to push back eagerly against every glide of Louis’ body, grinding upwards to meet him halfway, working together an easy rhythm that’s become second nature to them by now. But it’s never boring. Sex is always a different experience with Louis, who’s drawing Harry’s left leg up and curling it around his waist, throwing Harry’s right one over his shoulder, keeping it there as he moves, leaning slightly on their sides.

And the new angle—it’s intense, punching a shrill shout from Harry’s throat, his hands digging hard into the flesh of Louis’ bum. Harry pushes him down harder and Louis gets the hint immediately, hips briefly losing their solid rhythm before he picks up the pace.

“Gonna—” Harry tosses his head back. He arches off the mattress with a drawn broken groan, burying his face in Louis’ damp neck and scrambles to hold onto Louis’ back. He comes, shuddering through an enormous wave of endorphins, flooding his body from his fingertips to his toes.

Louis’ hips stutter as he chases his orgasm, squeezing Harry’s thighs that are now wrapped around Louis’ waist, crossed at the ankles as Louis keeps up his hard thrusts, Harry urging him on as he mouths at Louis’ neck, overwhelmed and pressing sloppy kisses to his stubbled chin as his thighs shake with the aftershocks.

“Harry, I’m—will you—” Louis comes with a whimpered shout, collapsing on top of Harry’s messy stomach.

Harry lies there, bathing in the afterglow of the extra strong shot of serotonin that sex with Louis always gives him, arms slowly cocooning his boyfriend in, against him, around him, still joined—it’s complete bliss, but—what had Louis been about to say?

“Shall I pull out?” Louis murmurs tiredly, eyes drooping in the dim glow of Harry’s lamp. He drops a kiss under Harry’s jaw.

“Nah,” Harry shakes his head. “I’ll keep you inside me forever.”

“So until our dicks go soft?” 

“Not happening.”

“Biology is happening though, babe," Louis chuckles.

“Fine,” Harry huffs, smiling as he throws his arms above his head, wincing slightly as Louis pulls out and ties the condom, shooting it straight into the bin as he chucks it across their bedroom. “Just showing off now. You're good at everything."

Louis smooths the pinch between his brows with a long, soft kiss, smiling against Harry’s mouth. “You’re so fucking cute,” he whines, like it physically pains him.

“I know,” Harry smiles giddily, eyes still closed. "My mummy was a bunny."

Louis bursts out a shuddery laugh and Harry grins, feels him nip at his nose. When Harry starts giggling and squirming away, Louis just kisses him more and Harry returns it lazily, before he feels a tightness in his lungs.

These kind of moments and times together are getting shorter and sparser as of late and it's been something Harry's been thinking about for a while. Obviously they’ve been committed to each other basically since they decided on their second date, absolutely infatuated and forever ruined for anybody else. And Harry has his day job, he loves teaching, but when Louis’ away, he feels like he’s missing a limb, like half of him has gone on holiday without him or something.

And okay, he’s self-aware enough to know how ridiculously clingy and probably a bit unhealthy that sounds. He’s just really, really in love and loves every aspect of their relationship, and he's ready for a more official confirmation of their commitment.

He wants to get married.

And yes, they’re technically already engaged, have proposed many, many times, in fact, but they haven’t made it properly official yet.

As in, they’ve not had an engagement party to announce it to their family and friends, they've not set a date, and they still don’t have a ring for Louis either, which Harry has been very displeased about. Harry had his ring first, since Louis proposed first when they were on holiday in Amsterdam. It was spontaneous, Louis claims, and they were high, but he still happened to have the perfect ring picked. (Louis is a terrible liar.)

Harry wants to marry Louis and he wants to book a date.

He’d seriously considered having a proposal ready for when Louis got back from Belgium, but he’s not sure what reaction he’ll get, especially as Louis’ so focused on his music career right now. He’s been travelling a lot and he’s so close to signing a deal that he wants—even if Louis’ playing it down, apprehensive and sceptical as to guard himself from any further disappointment.

Will Louis want to wait a bit longer?

Harry’s palm circles Louis’ back, stroking it softly. “Can we talk?”

Pausing against Harry’s mouth, Louis pulls back a little to look at him, and to Louis’ credit, he doesn’t seem freaked out or concerned Harry’s about to break things off. (Which, as if.)

He’s content to listen, only a slight crease sitting between his brows.

He sweeps a loose strand of Harry’s hair away from his forehead. “What’s on your mind, darling?” he asks softly, voice slightly hoarse, chin resting on Harry’s clammy bare shoulder. Harry’s belly swoops with nervousness.

He feels a tiny bit like puking, to be honest. He breathes out, picking up Louis’ closest hand and playing idly with his fingers, not holding back from the urge to kiss his fingertips one by one, slowly, gently, letting his lips cushion the pads of Louis’ fingers.

He cautiously eyes Louis, who’s looking up at him with an expression that thinks he might be able to go again.

“I love you, Lou. Love you more than I ever thought it was possible to love a person.”

Louis smiles, rolling over onto Harry’s chest and taking Harry’s face in his hands, kissing his face all over. He coos again, sweet whimpering noises around full out grins and barely open eyes. “You’re so sweet. God, I—there’s nowhere I’d rather be. I missed you so much, darling. Couldn’t wait to get my hands all over you—”

He presses his hand down on Harry’s cock over the sheets and—

Harry shoots upright, effectively shaking Louis off him. “What are we doing?” he says, like an idiot, a thoroughly fucked-out idiot.

Louis stares for a beat, then bursts out laughing. His chest slowly rising and falling underneath Harry’s flattened palm. “What are you talking about?”

“We’re in this for the long haul, right? You’ve not changed your mind? Do you want a fuck buddy or a husband? I need to know. Because you’re my person. For life. And if you’re not looking to marry me one day, then—”

“Whoa, whoa, whoa.” Louis stares at Harry with bulging, bewildered eyes, as though Harry’s lost the plot. And. Okay. Maybe he has. A bit. "What?"

“I just—I want more.”

Louis blinks, bemused. “When have I ever implied that I don’t?” he laughs, eyes wide. “Last I checked, we’ve been in a committed, monogamous, long-term relationship for the past four years. I’ve proposed to you more than once, H!”

“Yeah, when we’ve been away,” Harry points out, “in romantic cities on holiday, and only when we’ve been high or drunk or after sex—”

“Are you saying I’ve never meant it, then?” Louis frowns, mouth open.

“No, I—"

“I’m sorry,” Louis scoffs, “but I have not been high every time. That is not true.” There’s genuine offence laced in his voice and Harry thinks he might actually have pissed him off now. “And fuck buddy? Are you for real, Harry? I think I would have mentioned somewhere along the way if we were just fucking!” he says quickly, brows deeply furrowed, though he’s still half-laughing, half-very much bewildered, and maybe a bit hurt. “Honestly. What’s gotten into you? Did I fuck the sense out of you or something?”

Harry frowns, shrugging. “I guess you did," he mutters.

He feels stupid.

There's a short silence, but Harry doesn’t have to look at Louis to know he’s smirking now, burrowing back down into the sheets and lying on his side, head propped up by his elbow.

“You want to set a real date, don’t you? That's what all this dramatic shit is about.”

Harry sighs, waits a beat. “I want to be married to you, Lou. So, Yes. I do want to set a date.” He turns over, Louis moving closer. “I want to be your husband.”

“You basically are, babe.”

“But not officially. I want it on paper. Legally. Harry Styles-Tomlinson. Or Tomlinson-Styles." Harry smiles. "We can discuss it."

“Yeah?” Louis smiles, almost shy.

“Yes,” Harry insists, breaking into a smile, brushing away the hair falling into his eye. “I’ve wanted to marry you since the first time I saw you at that post-grad party Niall threw in that posh flat his brother had moved into. The one with all the plants," he laughs.

"That was a weird place. It was like he had a greenhouse in his living room," Louis grins.

"All I wanted to do was take care of you," Harry admits, "cook for you because I wanted to, call us a “we” because I was ridiculous and instantly smitten and taken in by your crinkled smiles and blue eyes and suspenders and your never-ending need to always be touching my hair.”

Louis snorts. “Obviously.”

“Obviously,” Harry echoes, grinning.

“You wanna set a date, then? Have a proper engagement party?" He shifts closer, talking to Harry's chin, voice silky soft. "With balloons and booze and the excuse to wander around starting sentences with “my fiancé and I”?" Louis smirks.

“Definitely.”

Louis looks at him, eyes so soft, humming. “How does the end of March sound? Say, the twenty-eighth? If we can get it, though.”

“That’s only six months from now,” Harry beams.

“And?” Louis drawls, looking at him like he wants him to get somewhere faster, eyebrows lifting.

Oh.

A softer smile forms on Harry's face, the warmth and adoration from it pooling behind his ribs, filling his lungs. “That’s the day we first met,” he whispers, a little amazed.

“It is," Louis smiles, radiating happiness. "We're really doing this, then?”

“We're doing this,” Harry nods adamantly, throat clogging up, eyes watering. He kisses him close-mouthed, then breathlessly buries his face in his neck. “I love you so much.”

“Love you so much, darling," Louis replies immediately, “always,” he says, pressing a kiss to Harry's forehead. 

*

It’s just over two weeks later and they’re finally having their engagement party.

Harry’s beyond happy with his lot, beaming like he’s perpetually high and floating through the room in his satin fuchsia shirt, open a few buttons too many probably (but if Louis enjoys looking then Harry has no regrets), paired with light trousers and wandering around in his socks, guzzling glass after glass of bubbling Prosecco. He feels giggly and tells awful jokes to anyone who’ll listen, feeling more encouraged when everyone laughs at him. (“With you, not at you, love,” Louis assures him, while laughing himself, that breathy, shuddery laugh that Harry adores and can never keep a straight face through. It just makes Harry laugh harder.)

It’s a great turnout, too, among their friends and family and some colleagues from work they particularly get on with, which Harry and Louis really appreciate and are grateful for, considering it’s such short notice. Everyone just about fitting into their tight-squeeze flat.

The night starts with a clink of glasses, seamless laughter and several suffocating hugs from his mum (and throughout) and Harry was immersed in stupid jokes and banter from their friends, already planning the wedding with his cousins and half-constantly transfixed with the glow of the lights by the mantelpiece, reflecting in Harry’s tall champagne flute.

The bubbles dissolve on his tongue as he takes another swig, a permanent grin on his face as he watches everyone from his mum to Gemma and his cousins, to Louis’ family and Louis’ friends from home take a look at the engagement ring Harry picked out for him—a thick silver band with a square jade plaque in the centre, the inside engraved with their initials side by side. It cost him a fortune to get it personalised, but he can always start saving again when the money starts coming through with his teaching position.

And Louis loves his ring. That’s the main thing.

Louis and his friends have started getting a bit rowdy now, very, very drunk and Louis looks so happy that Harry just ends up following his lead, always so persuasive in getting Harry to do the wilder things he once wouldn’t dream of doing by himself, just wanting to please him, like a silly, smitten teenager wanting to impress and go along with whatever their crush does.

Now Louis’ spontaneous outlook on life has rubbed off on Harry, allowed him to learn to loosen up. His self-esteem has grown so much with Louis, and the things they end up doing together, spurring each other on don’t seem so stupid or ridiculous or daring when they’re doing it all together, as partners.

Harry smiles around another sip of his champagne.

“You’re positively glowing. When’s the baby due?” comes a voice that has Harry already laughing.

“The spring.” Harry grins as he swats at Niall, decked out in a tightly-fitted sky blue, short-sleeved collar shirt, who ducks from his aimed thwack.

Harry strokes his tummy and sticks it out regardless, hand on his back as he takes another gulp of champagne.

Niall gasps dramatically. “Irresponsible mother. You should be ashamed of yourself,” Niall tuts, swiping a swig from Harry’s glass.

“Get your own, there’s plenty in the kitchen!” he laughs.

“Aren’t you hosting? I’ll have another, thanks.”

“It’s my engagement party!”

“Yeah,” Niall says, smirking.

Harry smiles, shaking his head.

His eyes inevitably meet Louis’ across the room, glinting with suggestion. Louis makes a stupid face, grins as he holds Harry’s gaze for a charged moment before he strides over to the kitchen worktop to where the drinks are set out, Liam and Zayn in tow.

Harry wanders over to them.

“Alright, sunshine,” Liam greets again, crinkled eyes alight. He pulls Harry to him by squeezing his cheeks and Harry laughs.

“Alright, Li, put him down,” Louis announces, “you’ve got your own,” he teases, gesturing to Zayn, who smiles around a bottle, impeccably dressed in all black and a satin shirt.

The five of them went to university together and all planned to be teachers in different subjects initially. Louis didn’t stick at it long, though, too restless and full of his own ideas, wanting to prove something to himself, despite loving teaching music to kids. Zayn is currently at a neighbouring primary school to Harry, and Liam ended up teaching too, but now he’s a chef, working his way up to a high-profile kitchen in Central London.

“Yeah, we’re not doing a swap,” Zayn drawls. “No swinging, thanks.”

“As if I’d swap you,” Liam pouts, touching Zayn’s face lovingly. Zayn tries to play it cool, but he loves it.

Harry gasps in horror. “Excuse me. What makes you think I’d ever let either of you touch Louis?”

Louis has his hands on his hips, one eyebrow raised. “Jealous shit, aren’t you?”

“Louis, don’t talk about yourself that way,” Harry shoots back.

Louis’ mouth falls open.

They all burst out laughing.

Liam and Zayn have been together almost as long as Harry and Louis have, and Niall, much to his dismay, ends up in the middle of their respective, petty drama, despite the fact that they’re all pretty sure Niall is dating his own guy at the moment, but he’s being rather cagey about the mystery guy currently. (They’ll get it out of him eventually.)

“Nice outfit, Liam. I’m very impressed,” Harry practically yells, the champagne sloshing about in his stomach, eyeing Liam’s white blouse tucked into pink and grey chequered trousers. “I might steal these trousers for myself. Right now.”

He looks at Louis, who gives him another amused look. Harry just grabs his hand and Louis kisses the back of it, smiling. “Steady on, darling.”

Harry laughs.

“I think I stole these from you actually,” Liam yells back.

“I can believe that,” Harry slurs, “but I am far too drunk right now to recall.”

“Why’s everyone talking so loudly,” Zayn almost shouts. Louis decides to scream abruptly. Harry guffaws.

“Zayn!” Harry does yell now. “How’s school?”

The music has definitely been turned up.

“I’m coming to Northlake for a bit, actually. Covering someone's maternity leave.”

“Oh! For Angela,” Harry smiles. “That’s amazing. I thought I’d have to show the ropes to a newbie, but now we can eat lunch together!”

“Yeah, sure, H,” Zayn smirks, close-lipped and barely there, but pulling Harry in for a quick though warm hug. He’s so lean and delicate but sharp and rugged around the edges, his black hair shaved off at the sides, the artfully done quiff deflating at this forehead streaked with blonde, his defined jaw spattered with dark stubble. “Congrats, yeah? I’m happy for the both of you.”

Stubble and tattoos and an intense, smoky-eyed gaze. That’s Zayn. And an ever-present hand lingering on Liam’s elbow.

“Thanks Zayn,” Louis says, tone soft, eyes soft, he’s all soft. Zayn nods him off to the side and Louis follows, pecking Harry’s hand as he lets it go.

“And Liam,” Harry says, “the top chef now, eh? Lou and I will have to come and try your food.”

“Not technically my restaurant,” Liam smiles, “but yeah, if you two don’t come and try it, I’ll be very upset,” he says more seriously, before breaking out in a beaming smile that’s so infectious, Harry instantly beams back.

“We will, we will. Promise.” Harry grins. “And thanks for coming. We’re so glad you could make it.”

“Wouldn’t miss it,” Liam assures him, squeezing his shoulder. “It’s been a long time coming.”

“Yeah,” Harry agrees softly, watching as Louis tosses his head back and laughs at something his mum has said. The night has got off great and Harry couldn’t be happier if he tried.

He feels a familiar palm rest on his the small of back. “Having fun, darling?” comes his favourite voice, slightly slurred and husky and clearly very tipsy.

Harry turns and ends up in Louis’ hold. He beams at him at, winding his arms around Louis’ shoulders. “The best time, fiancé.“

“That not getting old yet?” Louis teases, eyes sparkling.

“Never," Harry insists, pauses. "I love you, you know,” he says again, because he can.

“I know, love. I love you, too.” Louis pecks his lips and then leaves him to join the crowd on the balcony, blowing him a kiss as he backs away. “I won’t be long!” he calls, laughing.

It isn’t until much later, when Harry’s consumed numerous glasses of champagne and stupidly been persuaded to have a few tequila shots by Zayn, that he hears it.

The sound that will give him nightmares for months to come.

A horrendous crash seems to echo through the cramped space of their flat—the source of the smashed glass and bang from the heavy outdoor table landing sideways onto the marble patio of their small, white tiled balcony, the railing decorated with fairy lights.

Several things happen at once, blurring together and blindsiding Harry as his heart thumps so violently, fighting to burst through layers of flesh and ligaments and bone.

First there’s yelling, which turns into screaming, multiple voices and people rushing out through the glass patio doors, which seems to have smashed completely after the awful crash they just heard. Then like some sick joke, it starts absolutely pissing it down, a roar of thunder and a flash of lightning making people jump. It had already been raining heavily earlier. It must have been so slippery on the tiles...

And then Harry hears his mum shout, Louis’ mum’s frantic cries over Anne, her voice shrill and urgent and saturated with wild panic. “Get Harry,” he hears her say. “Oh, my god, Harry!”

A hand closes around Harry’s forearm.

Harry can’t breathe. His feet are already moving towards her, but he can’t get any words out, mouth paralysed.

Niall comes into view, gesturing with his hand, an ashen look on his face.

And then Harry sees them. Sees Zayn and Liam leaning over someone. No, not someone.

Louis.

They’re all leaning over Louis.

His Louis, who’s slumped in a heap on the wet white patio slates as the rain continues to pour down like a shower head has been left on in the sky, several puddles of other dark drinks on the floor, and probably more champagne with all the smashed flute glass shards scattered everywhere.

And blood.

There’s so much blood. The front of Louis' hair matted with it, what's on the tiles just mixing with the rain and Harry can’t fucking breathe, his entire body is trembling uncontrollably. His gut feels like he's been repeatedly punched, punched in the sternum, his chest.

Bile rises in Harry’s throat and he dry heaves, hunching over himself as he collapses onto the tiles next to Louis, in utter shock as his hands begin shaking aggressively. Unaware of everything around him, Harry attempts to pick Louis’ slack, unconscious body off the floor and out of the rain, cursing himself, because he can’t fucking stop shaking and he’s trying to be careful. Careful and gentle with his Louis and he just can’t.

He knows he starts to become hysterical, just starts screaming, and he doesn’t really remember how he gets up or when they get in the ambulance, just drowns in the blinding, overwhelming terror that's making it difficult to drag air into his lungs as they make the journey to the hospital, Harry slumped frozen beside the stretcher, gripping onto Louis' hand for dear life.

*

The beeping of the machines is too loud in Harry’s ears. He jolts awake, squinting wearily, exhausted from having barely had an hour’s sleep, and scoots his chair forward with his feet until he’s right next to the bed. He unfolds his arms and pillows his head carefully on Louis’ front, where his lap is covered by the white sheets, comforted by the steady rise and fall of his chest. He's been obsessively watching it, needing the reassurance with his own eyes.

He hates the NG tube in Louis’ nose, and the tubes connected to his arms and hooked up to his wrists. The plasters and bandages wrapped around the right side of his head; a chunk of his hair shaved off at the front when they had to operate. He looks entirely vulnerable and too small in this clinical hospital bed and it’s not right, not when Louis’ presence is so huge, so big, so loud and proud.

For who knows what time now, Harry’s eyes well and sting with tears, spilling past the beds of his eyes as he closes them, burrowing his head deeper in Louis’ lap, longing for the custom gentle rub of his fingers against his scalp, his go to motion whenever Harry’s like this, whenever he has him close.

He wishes Louis would wake up and do that now. He misses him so much. He’s been right here with him since he arrived at the hospital three days ago, but never have they not had any kind of communication whatsoever for this long. Harry can’t even text him.

Instead, Harry takes Louis’ hand, tracing the thick silver engagement ring Harry gave him, still sitting comfortably on Louis’ ring finger, the small square jade plaque catching the bright artificial lights of the hospital room.

“I know you like lie-in’s,” Harry murmurs quietly, “but this is taking the piss a bit, Lou.”

Several more minutes pass, Harry drifting off again with Louis’ hand in his and Harry’s head in Louis’ lap when there’s movement under Harry’s cheek.

The sheets start to rustle and Louis’ knee bends slightly.

Harry shoots upright out of his seat. 

Louis makes a gargled noise of discomfort, hand coming up to his nose where the NG tube is taped to his face.

“Louis?” Harry’s voice sounds rough with disuse, thick with emotion as he tries not to crowd him, relief pooling in his chest, fear still creeping around the edges of his vision, convinced they’re not out of the water yet.

It takes several moments for Louis to properly blink awake, his wrists twitching at his sides, hooked up to the IV and whatever else.

Wincing, Louis’ face screws up, eyes still closed. He’s in pain. Harry starts crying.

“Where the fuck am I?” Louis barely whispers hoarsely, bringing on a coughing fit as he tries to twist in his position. “My—ow—fuck, my head.”

Harry chuckles through aborted tears with relief, that he’s awake, that he’s already swearing, rushing to the other side of the bed to retrieve the jug of water and fills a glass with a straw. He holds it up to Louis’ mouth, who takes a sip unquestioningly.

“Thanks,” Louis whispers, manners still at the forefront of his mind after waking up from a head injury, apparently.

“How are you feeling?” Harry asks him slowly, setting the glass down.

Louis doesn’t say anything, still hasn’t looked at Harry yet, instead lets his hooded, groggy gaze flicker around the room, taking his surroundings and the machines around in. He seems a bit stunned, his responses delayed. Tired.

“Louis? You had a fall. An accident, love. You hit your head. Can you hear me, baby?”

Harry tries to stay in his eye line, waving in his face softly. It catches Louis’ attention, almost startling him.

And Louis… stares, his blue eyes clouded in confusion as his gaze ponders Harry’s presence.

He’s probably incredibly disorientated right now. He looks so young like this, minus all the stubble around his jaw on his face.

He frowns, deeply, attempts to say something, but abandons what he was going to say, making a tiny noise of protest as he presses a light finger to his bandages.

“Hey, you’re fine. You’re okay,” Harry tells him, voice uneven with a wave of emotion. “God, you have no idea how much you scared me, baby. I was so fucking frightened.” He swallows down a sob. “Don’t you ever fuck about drunk on that balcony again, do you hear?”

Louis opens his eyes again, his gaze falling back to Harry dazedly. “What?”

He instantly softens.

“Honey, hey, it's me," Harry soothes, softly brushing the hair from Louis' forehead, his watery smile waning the longer Louis stares at him with eyes that hold none of the familiar, overwhelming affection he's used to. Even the during the worst arguments they've had, Louis has never looked at Harry as blankly as this. Though, Louis has never woken up from a medically induced coma before.

"I'm sorry,” Louis finally says slowly, wincing as he tries to shift in the bed. “Do you think I'm someone else?"

Harry's stomach plummets, his pulse quickening. Something's wrong.

"I think you're Louis Tomlinson. My fiancé," he smiles confusedly. Harry reaches for Louis’ hand but Louis snatches it back, brows furrowed.

"I don't have a fiancé," he insists, disbelief written all over his bruised face. "I think you have the wrong room, mate."

Dr Wells finally comes in, Harry had forgotten to call someone in, too wrapped up in the fact he can speak to Louis now. He needs to call his mum, his own mum, their friends.

“Louis. You’re awake.” She shoots a questioning look at Harry, her pleased expression faltering. “Do you know where you are? How are you feeling?”

“Like shit.”

Harry doesn’t even have the energy to snort. Something is so incredibly wrong.

“That’s to be expected,” Dr Wells smiles. “We can give you something for that.”

“I’m in the hospital, then?” Louis looks around at everything distrustfully, cowering back into his propped-up pillows like a spooked animal. He spares Harry a quick glance. “What happened to me?”

“Hasn’t Harry filled you in?”

“Harry?” Louis says hesitantly. “Harry Styles? What—what are you doing here?” He sounds confused, apprehensive even.

Panic immediately settles in Harry’s chest.

“I’ve been waiting for you to stop being a drama queen and wake up. What do you think I’m doing here?” Harry huffs on a choked laugh, brows furrowing.

Louis matches him, frowning deeply, eyeing Harry with strange, unfamiliar eyes.

“I don’t know, I guess—I guess I’m just surprised. We haven’t really talked properly before.”

“You hit your head, Louis,” Dr Wells interjects, glancing at Harry, gaze loaded. "Try and relax, you'll feel particularly groggy and confused at first. Harry, let's take this slowly."

Harry closes his eyes and exhales.

“Louis, honestly. If this is a joke, I’m not finding this funny in the slightest, okay? I have been worried sick for the past three days. I thought I’d lost you. So, stop with the sick jokes, alright? It’s too soon. Wait a week, at least, when I’ve got you home before you start with the ‘who are you?’ wind-ups.”

“I…don’t know what you’re talking about,” Louis protests, shaking his head and starting to get a bit visibly upset. “Honestly, Harry. I don’t understand what’s happening.” He pauses, taking a deep breath as his eyes flit around outside in the corridor. “Where's—is my mum here?” he asks, voice small.

Harry stares at him, feeling like he’s going to be sick. “She’s gone home for a few hours to get freshened up. I stayed,” he says, voice wavering, gruff. “She’ll be back soon. I’ll call her in a minute.”

Louis nods, doesn’t look at him, eyes hooked on the open blinds.

“You had a fall at home three days ago,” Dr Wells continues and Louis looks at her. “You slipped on the balcony patio of your flat that you share with Harry.” Louis’ eyes again flick back to Harry, this time accusingly. “You suffered a nasty hard blow to the front of your head. So, to avoid any swelling or a bleed on the brain, we decided to put you in an induced coma. Are you following so far, Louis?” she asks gently.

“Uh…” Louis’ face falls, uneasy. “Yeah. I think so.” His mouth wobbles. It shatters Harry’s heart.

“What’s the last thing you remember, Louis?” Dr Wells asks, patiently.

Louis stays quiet a moment. “Um. Walking home to my dorm room after a party? I think, um— It was my mate’s… uh, yeah, my mate Niall’s—it was his birthday. Yeah, it was his birthday party.” He nods to himself, like he’s congratulating himself on what he thinks is correct information.

Harry slowly covers his mouth, eyes wide in confusion. “What?” he says, voice hollow.

No.

No.

This can’t be happening. “This is temporary, right?” Harry asks Dr Wells. “This is just due to waking up from a coma or whatever? He’s just disorientated. He’ll become clearer as he wakes up properly?”

“Louis, are you sure?” Dr Wells asks, ignoring Harry for the time being. Harry counts to ten.

“Yeah,” Louis drawls slowly, frowning.

“That’s what you remember?” she asks calmly, face giving nothing away.

“You don’t—you don’t know who I am?” Harry tries to keep his voice from wavering, but he can’t. He can’t.

“Harry Styles.”

Harry smiles. “Yeah, I’m your…” he trails off, breathless, deflating as Louis still doesn’t seem to recognise him.

“You're Niall's best friend,” Louis cuts in. “You're taking a sociology course, right? I saw you at the party. Although, I’m wondering why you’re here, and he isn’t,” he shudders, trying to laugh.

Harry stares. His cheeks are wet. His body too tight for him, like when his blood pressure is being taken and his arm feels like it’s about to burst. It’s strangling him. Panic. He feels panicked.

“No— Louis, it’s me. Your Harry,” he gestures to himself, placing his hand on his chest. “I’m your fiancé,” he says more insistently. “You’re scaring me. Don’t do this to me, please, you dickhead,” he says, verging on the edge of whimpering and then bursting into tears, while still attempting to smile through his panic. “Please stop this.”

“Stop what?" Louis implores, startled.

Please.”

Harry’s heart beats hard through his shirt, slamming against his ribs and Louis’ face softens a little, but it’s still not right. It’s wrong. Somehow, it’s just wrong. “I promise you, I don’t know what you’re talking about.” His face contorts in concentration, curiousness, concern.  

“Your ring,” Harry says, desperate, taking hold of Louis' hand. “See? I gave this to you. You’re wearing it on your ring finger. We’re getting married,” he says helplessly.

Louis follows Harry’s gaze and frowns. “We can't be? I didn’t—” His hand is limp in Harry’s.

Stunned, Harry rips it away, like he’s been burned.

“Okay, Harry, why don’t we go outside for a minute?” Dr Wells gives him a pointed look. "Louis, I'll make sure your family is contacted."

“I love you,” Harry says, eyes pleading, desperation colouring his voice. 

Louis stares, shocked. Then laughs. “I don’t… Harry, I barely know you, mate. Listen, if we did something last night—shit… I’m sorry.” He sounds sad. Pitying. Like he feels bad for Harry, feels guilty about him, like they were a one-night stand…

Like they’re nothing. Like they don’t exist.

Harry turns around and rushes out of the room, into the corridor, where the lights are still too bright and his chest is so tight that it hurts.

“Okay,” Dr Wells starts calmly, her long brown hair reaching the collar of her white coat as she shuts the door and they're standing between walls that are pallid, empty, “Louis seems to have some memory issues. But this might be temporary. We can’t jump to conclusions—"

“He doesn’t know me! He woke up and didn’t even recognise me!”

“Harry, try and stay calm—"

“He doesn’t know I’m me. He thinks he’s still at uni! He thinks he’s still twenty-three years old. He’s missing five years of his life.”

“It could still be temporary—” Dr Wells launches into a speech that Harry doesn’t hear, her voice, everything sounding very far away and hazy.

Harry slowly, heavily leans back against the nearest wall, shirt catching on paper pinned to a leaflet board. He feels like the place is closing in on him, trapping him until he can’t breathe. He thinks he feels a hand on his shoulder, a torch making him blink his eyes closed. He sobs, slides down until he’s sitting with his knees up on the cold floor, one that smells like anti-bacterial gel and bleach, hoping with everything that he’s just going to wake up from an unthinkable nightmare.