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A Moment out of Time

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Harry was bored. So, so unbelievably bored. The lady he was talking to was absolutely lovely – utterly charming, wonderful and beautiful and…and boring. He wasn’t usually rude – he’d die of embarrassment if anyone thought that because his mum had brought him up better than that – and he didn’t usually zone out when someone was talking but… but Lady Paige had been going on about all the latest gossips and scandals of their social circle for the past twenty minutes and she didn’t show any signs of stopping.

It might not have been as bad if Harry hadn’t already known all of this already, having been regaled – in detail - by various people throughout the evening, and that might not have been so bad if he hadn’t already heard it all before this party had even started from his friend, Taylor, while he’d been getting dressed.

He wondered how angry his mother would be if he just walked away. Maybe he could pretend to faint. Taylor did that all the time when she got cornered by gentlemen she had no wish to talk to and it worked just fine for her.

Ed walked past him, grinning, and Harry shot him a pleading look. For a second, Harry actually thought Ed would leave him but, being the awesome friend that he was, he finally – finally, finally – swooped in to Harry’s rescue.

“If you’ll excuse me, m’lady,” he said with a polite bow, settling his hands on Harry’s arm and starting to steer him away. “I’m going to have to steal Harry from you. The duchess wishes to see him.” And then, thank everything, Harry was bowing and backing away. Maybe a little bit too eagerly to be strictly polite.

“The duchess, huh?” Harry said, falling into step beside Ed as Paige disappeared into the crowd behind him. “Which duchess would that be?”

“Your mother won’t care,” Ed said, laughing. “God, Harry, you should have seen your face. I don’t know why she didn’t notice you looked like you were about to actually die of boredom. Why didn’t you just make up some excuse and walk away?”

“She kept talking,” Harry said earnestly. “I didn’t want to interrupt and she just didn’t give me any opening to go!”

Ed laughed, smile widening as Taylor appeared at his side, attaching herself to his arm. “Oh no, you saved him,” she said, pouting.

Harry mock-glared. “Why shouldn’t he have? He’s my friend. That’s what friends are supposed to do. Which I suppose you don’t understand because you walked past me several times without giving me any help at all.”

“Ah, my dear Harry, that’s because I wanted to see how far you’d let her go before she broke you. You’re always so polite.”

Harry snorted a rather undignified laugh and reached to take a glass of champagne from a passing server. “My mum brought me up to be a good boy.”

“The greatest, most polite duke there ever was,” Taylor said solemnly. “So lovely and wonderful and genuine to everyone that every single girl in the duchy thinks she’s going to be the one to marry you.”

“Except you,” Harry pointed out.

“Well, yes, darling, anyone with eyes knows that we have absolutely no chemistry,” Taylor said, reaching around Ed to pat Harry’s arm consolingly.

“And the people without any sense somehow still think you’re already engaged,” Ed said with a smirk. “Might be something to do with the fact that you spend all your time hanging around here.”

“I can think of another reason for that,” piped Harry loudly, elbowing Ed very unsubtly. “Hint-hint-nudge-nudge.” Ed’s ears started to go red. To Harry’s eternal glee, so did Taylor’s. Before either of them could come up with some sort of excuse or use him as an excuse, Harry pulled away from Ed’s side. “Anyway, I think I am going to go and see how Mum’s doing. Or Gemma. Actually, yes, I’m going to go and see if I can find Gemma. I want to know if she’s hit anyone yet today.”

With a grin and a very exaggerated bow, Harry wandered away.

He didn’t actually go to find Gemma. Instead, he slipped out onto the balcony, shutting the door firmly behind him with a sigh.

Being a duke was hard. Okay, no, maybe not hard – not exactly, not as hard as say…people who weren’t born as well off and…and yes, Harry was an egalitarian at heart and he wanted to be a good duke who provided for the people and – that was all rather beside the point. The point was that he was a duke and, more than that, he was single. Unattached. Available.

And that was hard. Everyone and their mother wanted to throw daughters and nieces and, on occasion, sons and nephews, into his path, hoping that he would fall madly in love – or finally see sense and pick the best candidate to marry. The problem was… well, Harry wanted to fall madly, hopelessly, completely in love. He just... hadn’t. Instead, he’d had to stand there politely at party after party, sit there at dinner after dinner, and smile.

The door to the balcony behind him rattled and Harry tensed. He wasn’t ready for company. He really, really didn’t want company. He looked around for somewhere to hide, something to crouch behind… anything.

Paige’s voice drifted through the door. “I think I saw him come out this way.”

Harry climbed over the balcony railing and behind the strategically placed potted plant standing precariously in the corner, sucking in a breath and praying she wouldn’t think to linger.

“He’s not here,” he heard Paige say. “I really thought he was…” She trailed off, and Harry hoped – prayed, wished - she’d just go back inside to search for him there. But of course, he wasn’t that lucky. “Harry? Why are you behind that plant?”

Harry jumped. Stumbled. Then he and the unfortunate plant went falling backwards. The last thing he heard before the world went black was Paige screaming.

Or – really, he couldn’t be entirely sure – he might have been the one doing the screaming.

***

He woke up to someone cursing. The someone was cursing a lot. He was using a bunch of words Harry didn’t even know, and he was quite sure that if he had known them, his mum would have washed his mouth out with soap if he’d used half of them. This person, however, was using all of them. At the same time. Repeatedly.

Harry groaned and opened his eyes.

“Oh, thank fuck, you’re still alive,” said the voice. Once Harry’s eyes managed to focus again, he found that it belonged to a young man – perhaps somewhere around his own age – with odd-looking blond hair and a very relieved expression. “I thought I’d killed you for a minute there.” His accent was definitely Irish, and clipped in a way that wasn’t entirely familiar to Harry. Harry didn’t recognise him at all.

“I’m not dead,” he promised. Very slowly, he started to wriggle his fingers and toes, checking that everything was still in working order. Belatedly, he realised he was still hugging the potted plant. He sat up somewhat sheepishly and put it to the side, rubbing at the back of his head. “I hope I didn’t give Lady Paige too much of a scare.”

The other man looked blankly at him. Harry blinked before going on, “You know, with falling backwards off the balcony and everything? I hope she didn’t make too much of a fuss because, really, I’m fine. I’m not even hurt.”

“Ah,” said the man. “About that…” Harry gave him a quizzical look and, looking more sheepish than Harry had ever seen anyone look (and it was quite the feat because Harry caught sight of mirrors quite often when he was being told off by his mum), he continued, “there might be a bit of a complication.”

“A… complication?” Harry asked uncertainly. And then it hit him. He gasped. “I’m not dead, am I? This isn’t – you’re not here to – to lead me off to the realm of the dead or something? Or a ghost? Are you a ghost? Am I a ghost?”

The man blinked at him and them promptly burst out laughing. It took several minutes for him to calm down enough to say, “No, no, mate, that’s not it. You’re still alive. Very much alive – thank god – but…uh. You’re not… in your own time.”

Harry blinked at him. “Um. Pardon?”

“I mean – er, how am I suppose to explain?” The man seemed to be talking more to himself than to Harry, so Harry – ever patient, as Taylor would say – waited for him to get his thoughts in order. Finally, he said, “I’m Niall, and I’m a scientist.”

“Hello, Niall,” Harry said when Niall paused, seeming to want a response from Harry.

“Hello,” Niall said, pausing once more, looking at Harry expectantly. Harry frowned at him, confused, really not sure what Niall was waiting for. “… I’m Niall,” he repeated more slowly. “And you are…?”

“Oh! Harry,” Harry said. How could this person – Niall – be at his party and not know who he was? That was very strange.

Actually, now that Harry was thinking about it… that was definitely not the only thing strange about Niall.

Also, he was not, in fact, in his garden.

“Oh shit,” he said. “Oh – oh my god, what is – where – what - what?” he said eloquently, and Niall winced.

“Yes. Er. So, as I was saying,” Niall said, clamping a hand over Harry’s mouth before he could start shouting. Harry hadn’t known he was being so obvious about the impending shouting, but he quieted (politely, thank you) under Niall’s touch. “I’m a scientist. And I might have opened a portal in space and time, and you might have fallen through it by mistake.”

Harry blinked.

“Yes. So. Er. You’re in London. And the year is 2014.”

Harry blinked again.

Niall gave him a hopeful grin and, very slowly, removed his hand from over Harry’s mouth. “Surprise!” he said uncertainly.

“2014…” Harry repeated, disbelieving, finally looking away from Niall to the…flower patch he was lying in. In the front lawn of a... house? And nearby was a street with… things. Lots of things. Things he didn’t recognise and things that were very, very noisy. He looked back at Niall, who was dressed very, very strangely. Everything was very, very strange.

Because the year was, apparently, 2014.

“2014…?” he double-checked and, when Niall nodded, giving him another hopeful little grin, Harry nodded back. “Oh,” he said before he promptly passed out again.

***

The next time Harry came to, he was definitely in a bed, and there were now two people whispering furiously from somewhere close by.

“…couldn’t just leave him out there. S’my fault, Liam.”

“You brought – you – how are you going to explain this to Louis.”

“Maybe… er. Maybe Louis won’t notice.”

“Maybe Louis won’t notice, are you fucking shitting me?”

“I mean, he’s been really busy lately. Maybe he… maybe he won’t even come home! Until we can… you know.”

“One week. If Tommo doesn’t come home at all, I’m going to have to go into his office and drag him home. And having a random bloke sleeping on the couch isn’t going to improve his mood.”

“We could say he’s my cousin?”

“Because he sounds so Irish.”

“We could say he’s your cousin.”

“Don’t drag me into – “

Harry coughed not-very-discreetly. Niall and the man he was talking to – Harry was going to assume he was called Liam – turned to look at him, guilty expressions plastered on their faces.

“Hello,” Harry said when it became obvious that neither Niall nor Liam was going to say anything. “Sorry about earlier. I didn’t mean to… you know. Fall unconscious.”

Liam gaped at him.

Niall started laughing, actually slapping a hand on his thigh. “Fall unconscious. He didn’t mean to fall unconscious. Fuck. That’s brilliant.” He gave Harry a sunny smile. “That’s brilliant, mate. Are you hungry?” he continued like this was a normal everyday thing. You know, random dukes from the past all into his garden clutching potted plants all the time.

Liam was still gaping. Apparently, for Liam, dukes falling into time portals and subsequently into his life was not a normal everyday occurrence.

“Um,” Harry said, looking from Liam to back to Niall. His stomach rumbled. He hadn’t managed to actually eat that much between being cornered by various different people during that party. “Yes please. I’m ravenous. I could eat a horse.”

“We…don’t eat horses anymore,” Liam said carefully, looking like he wasn’t entirely sure Harry wasn’t going to just fall back unconscious at the revelation.

Harry choked on air and then started laughing. “Oh – oh, lord, no. No, I meant – I just meant I’m very hungry. Not – “ He was laughing too hard to continue. In the kitchen, he could hear Niall trying to stifle his giggles. Harry tried to control himself, mindful of the fact that Liam seemed to be getting steadily redder by the moment. “I’m sorry, I – that might have been – “

“That was really – Fuck, I can’t believe I said that. I’m just going to…go. Now. Over there. Back to my apartment. Next door.” He retreated, and Harry was impressed by how fast he moved. Later, he would have to ask Liam if he had any tips for doing that; he could definitely use some coaching so that he could retreat as fast next time he was cornered by the ladies at home. Hopefully, though, he could do it a little bit more smoothly.

Liam almost tripped over the doormat, still blushing hotly. “Niall, you’re on your own, mate. Try not to let Tommo kill him.”

And then Liam was gone.

Feeling slightly awkward and more than a little useless, Harry stood up and followed Niall into the kitchen, leaning against the counter. He watched Niall watching the machine-box-thing that was making noises and spinning around. Niall looked bored but Harry was absolutely fascinated.

“It’s a microwave,” Niall said helpfully when he noticed Harry looking. “It heats up food. Kind of like putting it on the stove or in the oven or something but faster.”

Harry’s eyes went wide. “Just… just by spinning around?”

“Well, it’s a bit more complicated than that,” Niall said. “But essentially? Yes.”

“Wonderful,” Harry said, jumping a little as the box-thingy – the “microwave” – pinged.

Niall brought out the bowl from inside it and put it down on the table, opening drawers and getting out a fork and handing it to Harry, gesturing to the kitchen table. “Go on. Eat something, and I’ll… try to explain what’s going on to you.”

Harry sat and obediently started to eat, watching Niall curiously.

“I’m a scientist,” Niall started to explain. “I’ve been experimenting with time manipulation, trying to figure out exactly how to open a portal backwards into the past or forwards into the future. I succeeded in opening one into your time and…. Are you even listening?”

Harry nodded. He was trying to pay attention – he really was – but these strange spaghetti-like things that had come out from the microwave were exceptionally good in a strange sort of way. He swallowed his mouthful and looked up at Niall, a little sheepish.

Niall said, but there was a smile playing on his lips. “You’re taking this rather well,” he said after a minute.

Harry shrugged. “You actually saved me from a fair bit of trouble,” he admitted, and then added, “and also rather a lot of boredom. Also, you can’t be trying to kill me because you’ve had that chance whilst I’ve been unconscious and I’m still alive, so I assume that I’m safe. Also, these noodle things are good.”

Niall let out a laugh and reached out to punch Harry’s shoulder lightly. “I like you,” he said brightly. “You’re hilarious. Anyway, I suppose the only other thing you really need to know is that… well, I can’t send you back for another week.”

Harry blinked at him before he tilted his head to the side questioningly, mouth full.

“The machine I used to open the portal,” Niall explained. “It needs to recharge before I can do it again. On the plus side, though, if all goes well, in your own time, you should only have been gone a few hours at most. If all goes well.”

Harry thought about going back to exactly the same time and getting caught hiding from Paige and shuddered. And then he thought about going back there and listening to all those people simpering and… looked around Niall’s kitchen. He’d been saying to Ed only a few days ago that he was bored of the routine that had become his life and that what he thought he needed was a little adventure. What was this excursion into the future if not an adventure?

Niall was still looking at him apprehensively, obviously expecting an answer, so Harry swallowed his mouthful, gave Niall the brightest smile he could and said, “They won’t miss me if I’m gone for just a few hours.”

Niall’s face relaxed with relief and he clapped his hands happily. “Right, well, once you’ve eaten, I’ll show you around the flat and explain how some of this stuff works then,” he said. Almost as an afterthought, he added, “I have a flatmate, by the way. He’s… uh. Less than enthusiastic about my experiments so… when he comes home, we’ll just say you’re a friend from home here to stay with me for a week or something. Hopefully, he’ll be too out of it to figure out something’s fishy about that story. And er… in case that doesn’t work out… How good’s your cooking?”

***

Niall’s flatmate, Louis, stepped into the flat in a flurry of activity, kicking off his shoes carelessly, dropping his bag to the floor and already talking to Niall without looking around for him.

“You won’t believe what happened today,” he was saying, voice higher than Harry had expected, and with a strange lilting musical quality to it. He was waving his hands around animatedly, and his tone suggested that Niall was going to believe it whether he liked it or not. Everything about him suggested that he had not yet noticed that a.) Niall wasn’t in the living room and b.) Harry was. Harry tried to figure out how he could interrupt him. Not that he really wanted to. Louis was absolutely fascinating, and Harry was absolutely transfixed.

“Max fucking quit, that smarmy bastard,” he was still saying. “It’s not like I wanted the fucker in the ad anyway, you know that, but to quit in the middle of a campaign shoot? Got his lawyer friend in and spewed some legal shit about me being impossible to work with at us as well. Zayn’s fucking beside himself, he’s – oh hello.” He’d finally noticed Harry sitting there on the sofa.

Harry gave him a little wave. “Hi,” he chirped.

“Um,” said Louis, staring at him.

“I’m Harry,” Harry said, smiling at him, warm and friendly and genuine. His expression shifted a bit as he continued, dutifully offering the lie he and Niall had been working on all afternoon, “I’m a friend of Niall’s from home.”

Louis’ expression turned incredulous. “From home?” he asked, and when Harry nodded, he added, “Ireland?”

Harry nodded again, a little less confidently. “Right. Yes. From home,” he said. “Niall’s in his room.”

Niall poked his head into the living room. “Harry’s here for some work and needs a place to crash for a week,” he said. “You don’t mind if he stays here, do you?”

Louis narrowed his eyes suspiciously at Niall, who was trying to look innocent, and then looked back at Harry again. His eyes narrowed a little bit more. “Work?” Harry nodded. “For a week?” Harry nodded again. “Where’s your suitcase?”

Harry’s eyes widened and his mouth worked uselessly for a few moments. “Um.”

Louis snorted. “You’re a really shit liar,” he told Harry before he turned his attention back to Niall. Harry turned to look at Niall as well even though he really wasn’t sure he wanted to look away from Louis.

Niall was looking back at Louis sheepishly. “It was worth a shot?” he offered with a small shrug.

“You didn’t really think I was going to believe it, did you?” Louis asked, advancing on Niall slowly. Harry’s eyes were drawn back to Louis as soon as Louis passed his field of vision again. He just couldn’t seem to help it. He watched as Louis reached out and cuffed Niall around the head, pulling him down and rubbing vigorously at his hair. “Bloody brat. I told you you’d get into trouble some day and you wouldn’t listen, and now we’ve got some kid from... from wherever the fuck and whenever the fuck in our living room. What the fuck are we supposed to do with him? What’s – what if he’s missing from history? What if you’ve broken history? What if like… Like Back to the Future, everything’s going to change?”

“Ow – ow, Louis – let go, mate, let me explain,” Niall yelped, trying to get out of Louis’ grip. “I can send him back! I know how it works. I can send him right back except the machine’s got to charge and – and look! He’s fine! He’s not hurt and not panicking and he’s fine.”

Louis didn’t let go. If anything, he squeezed Niall harder. “You say he’s fine, but what if he goes back to whenever he’s from and he’s gone absolutely mad? What if he’s just pretending he’s okay? He’s probably freaking out. He probably thinks he’s fucking insane. I wouldn’t blame him if he did!”

Niall shot Harry a pleading look.

“I’m fine,” Harry spoke up. “Niall said it was only for a week and that he’s going to be able to send me back to the same night. Nothing’s going to happen.”

Louis stared at Harry, letting go of Niall slowly. “You’re fine,” he said, repeating Harry’s words, looking and sounding sincerely disbelieving. Harry nodded, trying to look sincere. “You’re really not panicking. You’re just… absolutely all right with this?”

“I did the fainting and stuff already,” Harry offered. Maybe some sign of distress on his part would reassure Louis that everything was okay? “And then I woke up, and Niall made some noodles in the wave-machine, and he told me he’d be able to open the portal again in a week’s time, and then I’ll be able to go home. It’ll just have been a few hours there, so no one’s going to miss me.”

Louis was still staring. Harry offered him the brightest smile he could. The disbelieving look on Louis’ face changed to one of exasperation (with just a side of disbelief still in his eyes).

“You’re mad,” he said matter-of-factly. “You’re absolutely bonkers, but all right.” He let out a sigh. “If you say you’re fine then…. Who am I to argue?” He looked back at Niall, resigned. Harry was absolutely positive he saw fondness in Louis’ eyes as well. “What’s for dinner?”

Niall brightened immediately. “You wouldn’t believe what Harry’s cooked for us,” he said, almost bouncing out of his room and tugging Louis towards the kitchen. Harry stood up and followed them, and he was absurdly pleased by the low whistle that Louis let out at the sight of the dinner Harry had managed to put together once he’d worked out how everything worked.

“That’s impressive,” Louis said, turning to give Harry a smile, brighter and more genuine than Harry had seen previously. Louis’ eyes crinkled a little in the corner and it might have been Harry’s imagination, but Louis looked a little less tired.

Harry was inexplicably pleased. “It was nothing,” he said self-consciously, though he couldn’t help but smile back at Louis.

“It’s not nothing,” Louis said firmly, sitting down at one of the chairs at the table. “It’s a really bloody nice change from scrambled eggs. You can definitely stay.”

Harry caught Niall’s eyes as Louis dug into the casserole Harry had made for them, beaming when Niall winked at him. Niall had said the way to Louis’ heart was through his stomach, especially because Niall wasn’t a very good cook and Louis was a disaster in the kitchen. It seemed like he hadn’t been lying.

Harry found himself wondering if it was really the way to this beautiful man’s heart, and whether, if Harry was a very, very accomplished cook, Louis would give it to him.

One week, Harry reminded himself firmly. He only had one week. He shouldn’t do anything stupid. And maybe, came another thought, right on that one’s heels, he should make the most of it.

***

Harry made breakfast the next morning, trying very hard to remember exactly what Niall had said the day before when he’d been showing him how everything in the kitchen worked. It was nothing like the kitchens back at home, which was always bustling, full of cooks and kitchen maids, but eventually, he found everything he needed.

Louis stumbled in just as he was finishing the pancakes. Harry transferred them to the plate and immediately put it in front of Louis, who looked up at him like Harry had just handed him the most amazing thing in the world. His eyes, Harry noticed, were clear. And very, very blue.

“You,” Louis said reverently, “are an angel.”

Harry actually blushed. Even sleep-tousled and looking, if possible, even more tired than last night, Louis looked amazing. It took Louis breaking eye contact for Harry to actually remember to move back to the stove and start another batch of pancakes.

“Did you get any sleep at all last night?” Harry asked as he poured the batter into the pan. “You still look exhausted.”

“I got a few hours,” Louis said through a mouthful of pancakes. Harry could hear the clatter of Louis’ knife and fork behind him. He checked the pancake, made sure it wasn’t going to burn, and then turned around to pour Louis a glass of orange juice.

“That’s not really enough, is it?” Harry said, concerned. Louis mumbled a quiet, “thank you,” as Harry set the glass down beside him. “You should go back to bed and get a few more hours before you go out.”

Louis swallowed and shook his head, taking a sip of the juice. “Can’t. I’ve got to get back into the office. Gotta call every bloody modeling agency in the city to see if we can get someone to come in tomorrow.” He huffed out a breath and shook his head again. “That short notice… and with as little money as we have, it’s not going to be easy.”

“A few more hours can’t hurt,” Harry tried, because he could see the tired set of Louis’ mouth, the shadows under his eyes and… and he wasn’t entirely sure how he knew those were signs that Louis was very definitely tired, but Harry just knew.

And he didn’t know why he cared so much but he just did.

“I can’t,” Louis said again, giving Harry a lopsided grin. “Zayn – that’s one of the guys I work with – one of our mates – called me a few minutes ago. He’s already on his way in.”

Harry bit his lip, about to argue, but Louis gave him another smile, softer this time. Grateful. “I’d love a cuppa though, if you don’t mind,” he said, and prodded at the last pancake in his plate with his fork. “And maybe some more pancakes if you’re still making them.”

Harry was still making them, and he definitely didn’t mind.

Louis worked his way through several more pancakes before he finally, almost reluctantly, got up from the table and went to get dressed. He called out a goodbye while Harry was cooking breakfast for Niall, and he was gone before Harry could poke his head out to see him off.

“He works very hard, doesn’t he?” Harry asked Niall as he put another batch of pancakes on the table and dropped into a chair, resting his chin on his hands.

Niall devoured another pancake before answering, “Yeah. He pushes himself way too hard. He’d saved up a fair bit last year and things were looking up, but his mum got pregnant again – she’s having twins – and Lou insisted he’d put his oldest sister through university because she needed to save her money for the twins. Lottie tried to say no, of course, but Louis wasn’t hearing any of it.”

“He’s got sisters?” Harry asked curiously.

“He’s got four,” Niall said with a small grin. “All younger than him. And the newest set of twins is incoming. We’ve all got our fingers crossed that he’s going to get the little brother he’s always wanted this time around. His family history’s a bit complicated.”

Harry made a face. “I only have one sister,” he said. “I can’t imagine having any more.”

“I’ve only got one brother,” Niall admitted. “And he’s older. Can’t say I know how Louis thinks. Maybe s’why he works with Zayn. Zayn’s got a few younger sisters too, and he sends money home to help his mum out with them.”

Harry thought that this was, perhaps, not the best time to admit that he didn’t really know all that much about making money. He knew a bit about finance, but that was the financial outlooks for his family’s duchy, and mostly about managing resources and collecting duties and… and definitely not the same thing as Niall was talking about here. Harry hadn’t been very good at understanding even those things despite his teachers’ best efforts; Gemma had always grasped them faster. Still, he didn’t think Niall would appreciate listening to his troubles with numbers with more than eight zeroes.

He bit his lip. “I wish I could do something to help,” he said honestly, looking towards the door like he could will Louis to take a break, come home and get some sleep.

Niall grinned at him, clearing his plate. “Maybe if you wish really, really hard, he’ll find someone to replace Max quickly so he can finish this bloody campaign and actually sleep. Anyway, I have some work to do,” he said, getting up from the table. “I’ll show you how the TV works and you can chill out in front of it until I’m done, yeah? Then I’ll show you around the city or something. Might as well take a look around while you’re here.”

Harry nodded and followed Niall back through to the living room, watching him pick up a little square box and pressing some buttons on it. As the bigger box sitting in the room came to life – lights turning on, pictures beginning to move and sounds coming from it – Harry laughed and dropped back onto the sofa, listening intently as Niall explained how it worked.

He forgot about everything else for a little while and just flicked through the channels, occasionally stopping on something to listen until he got bored and started trying to see what else he could find.

He finally settled on a program that had a man, apparently called Jamie, teaching him, and presumably other people who might be watching on their boxes elsewhere, how to cook “15 Minute Meals”.

***

“How d’you fancy doing a bit of a food run?” Niall asked him the next day. It was four in the afternoon and Harry had been trying to do the crossword from the morning’s newspaper, more fascinated by the clues themselves than actually filling in the squares.

Harry looked up. “Sorry?”

“A delivery,” Niall explained. “Cook some dinner and take it over to Louis’ office. He just told me he’s not sure he’ll be home tonight either, which means they’ve probably not bothered to eat more than a sandwich or something all day. And that’s usually a sign for me to take some food in for them before they fall over with exhaustion. Thought maybe it’d be nice to take something home-cooked instead?”

Harry nodded immediately. “Of course,” he said eagerly. “I’d love to see what their workplace is like as well.”

Niall laughed at that. “Wow, yeah, but don’t go imagining it’s something incredible and grand or anything, yeah? Their office is usually a mess, and it’s going to be even worse with how much work they’ve had.”

Harry nodded again, already bustling into the kitchen and starting to pull out bits and pieces for dinner. Something simple that would be able to be heated up easily and still taste good. He made some mental calculations and plans, and grabbed a few more things from the fridge.

An hour later, they left the flat. Niall drove, and Harry was simultaneously excited and a little terrified at the car ride, clutching the bags of food tightly as he watched the city whoosh past them, listened to Niall humming along to songs on the radio.

By the time they reached Louis’ office, Harry was possibly having a minor panic attack, though Niall hadn’t seemed to notice. Being in the flat was one thing – he could ask questions and get things wrong, and Niall hadn’t minded because Niall knew where and when he’d come from, but here he was about to walk into an office with other people.

What if he made a complete and utter fool of himself in front of Louis’ colleagues? What if he looked like a complete buffoon and Louis… Louis started to think badly of him? To be honest, that was what he was worried about because people he could deal with.

As Niall came to a stop in front of a reception desk, leaning over to talk to the incredibly pretty young lady behind it, Harry took a deep breath and straightened up, pushing away the worries. He was a duke. He was used to making an impression on people. Even if these people were stranger than he was used to, they were probably essentially the same, right? Harry could do this.

As the lady behind the desk waved them through, Harry saw her giving him an appraising look, and he offered her a brightest smile he could, watched as she smiled back at him and waved.

Oh yes, he could definitely do this.

Niall pushed open the door to what Harry assumed was Louis’ office, and Harry was met with utter chaos. For a second, he stood there, absolutely stunned, eyes scanning the room nervously until they finally landed on Louis, there in the centre of it all, leaning over something on a table and pointing. He looked exhausted and determined and he was, without a doubt, the most beautiful human being Harry had ever seen.

Then he looked up and spotted Harry and Niall by the door, and his entire face lit up. Harry felt his breath catch.

He watched as Louis nudged the man beside him. Harry followed the movement and his jaw dropped. If Louis was the most beautiful human being Harry had ever seen, the other man was (objectively, anyway) not human. He was stunning, and as he and Louis walked over to them, the crowd parted to let them through. At least, that’s what it looked like to Harry anyway.

“We brought food,” Niall said as soon as they were close enough to hear. Harry lifted up the bags in his hands to show them, and Louis’ smile, if possible, grew.

“Lifesavers,” Louis said, looking right at Harry. Then he gestured to Zayn. “Zayn, this is Harry. Harry, Zayn.”

“Hi,” Harry said, feeling almost shy, but he reminded himself that he was a duke, and beautiful boys were definitely not enough to get him tongue-tied. Really. Honestly. He felt the tips of his ears heating up a little before he smiled through it, handing over a bag to Louis. “This is for you.”

“Yours is in there too,” Niall added. “The other bag’s some stuff for everyone else to share. Take a break and eat something, yeah?”

“Yeah,” Louis said. “All right.” He turned to shout at the room at large. “Niall and Harry here have brought food.” That got an enthusiastic cheer. Louis took the bag from Harry’s hand and put it on the table in the center of the room. “Help yourselves. We’ll be back.”

Zayn touched Harry’s arm lightly, nodding in the direction of another door at the other end of the room that Harry hadn’t noticed before. As he walked closer, he noticed the two names on it: “Louis Tomlinson” and “Zayn Malik”. Both signs were liberally decorated with doodles and on each one was a drawing that looked a lot like them.

Niall spotted Harry’s stare and smiled, tipping his head towards Zayn. “He did those. He’s really good.”

“I’m not that great,” Zayn said immediately, ducking his head. The shy smile made him even more attractive, and Christ, Harry had never met anyone quite so perfectly carved before. There was a pleased curl to his smile though and he seemed to be standing just a little taller when he looked up again.

“Of course you are,” Niall said easily, pulling out four boxes of food. Louis had come in after them and was rummaging through a tray in the corner, apparently looking for cutlery. “Don’t listen to him, Harry, he is. He’s in charge of art direction – does all the inspiration boards and designs himself.”

Harry wasn’t entirely sure he knew what that meant but it sounded brilliant. “That’s amazing,” he said.

“It’s been a bloody nightmare though,” Zayn admitted as they all settled into what Harry was going to assume was their usual places. He stood there, feeling a bit awkward until Zayn shifted over the beanbag – when Niall had explained that that was what it was called Harry had laughed because… sitting on a bag of beans? Really? But Niall had insisted he was serious and it really was called that – that Zayn was sitting on and patted the space beside him. Harry dropped into it with a grateful smile. “We’ve been trying to adjust things to make up for Max walking out but it’s just not working out.”

“Why not?” Harry asked, genuinely curious as he opened the box in his hand, watching as Louis, Zayn and Niall did the same.

Instead of answering, Louis let out a low whistle. “This looks bloody amazing,” he said, licking his lips. Harry found himself mimicking the action before he could stop himself.

“It does,” Zayn said. “Smells amazing too. New takeaway place, Niall?”

Niall shook his head. “Nope,” he said, popping the “p” happily. “This is all Harry’s own work.”

Zayn copied the sound Louis had made earlier, sounding even more impressed. “Damn,” he said. “Where d’you come from and how long can you stay?”

Harry flushed, delighted, laughing as Zayn nudged him lightly and dug in eagerly. He looked up to find Niall and Louis both looking at him weirdly but when he caught Louis’ eyes, Louis glanced away and down at the food, leaving Harry wondering if he’d imagined anything strange at all.

He didn’t have much time to dwell on the thought though because Zayn finally answered his question from earlier, talking between mouthfuls of food. “So, Max only too a few shots before he buggered off,” Zayn said. “None of them were what we needed but… since he’s buggered off now and we haven’t been able to find anyone to come in instead, we’re trying to work with what we have. Combination of fucking about with the lighting and trying to Photoshop what we need into the picture. S’not working very well.”

Harry had no idea what that meant. “What was it that you needed?” he asked, curious. “And why can’t you or Louis do it? You’re both more than gorgeous enough.”

Louis choked. Zayn stared. Niall started laughing.

“What did I say?” Harry asked, confused.

Niall, finally controlling his giggling, answered, “Nothing, Harry. I always ask them that but they both insist they’d rather be behind the camera. I always tell them “guys, these models don’t even look half as good as you” but they just brush me off and insist on overpaying talentless arseholes like Max.”

Harry really didn’t understand. “But… you both look so much better than any of the people I’ve seen in the adverts on TV,” he said earnestly. “I bet you’d be able to sell loads of stuff.”

“I don’t really like the camera,” Zayn said. “And Louis says he’d feel awkward seeing his face everywhere.”

Harry knew his confused look was really not very attractive, but he screwed up his face anyway. He didn’t understand.

Zayn’s amusement and his embarrassment seemed to fade a bit as his expression turned into one of consideration. “Though… what did you say you did again?”

“Er,” Harry said, shifting under that surprisingly expectant gaze. “I just… work for my family. You know. Managing… stuff.”

“And you’re here for a week?”

“Zayn, I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Louis cut in, and Harry turned his attention to him, still very confused. Louis was looking at Zayn, a knowing looking his eyes. He was also trying to look stern.

“Why not?” Zayn asked. “Look, if he doesn’t mind – we’re desperate, Louis. We’ve been at this for days and we’ve got to finish the artwork by tomorrow. At this rate, Cowell and Co. will fire us for sure. There’s no harm in asking, right?”

Louis looked at Harry, letting out a soft, resigned sigh. “I s’ppose.”

Harry looked between them, still bewildered, and then he transferred his gaze to Niall. But Niall wasn’t looking at him; he was watching Zayn and Louis as well.

“He’s also bloody fit,” Zayn said with a grin. An expression Harry couldn’t name definitely crossed Louis’ face this time, and Harry had just a second to wonder whether Louis disagreed with Zayn’s statement or not (and why that sent a shot of hurt through him) before Louis was nodding.

“He’s definitely that,” Louis said, turning to give Harry a lopsided grin. “What d’you say, Haz? Fancy modeling for an ad?”

Harry looked from Louis to Zayn to Niall for a moment, before he looked back at Louis, shrugging, offering a small smile in return. “Will that help you? I mean,” he added quickly, “is that what you need so you’ll be able to get some rest?”

Zayn let out a sound that was suspiciously close to a laugh that he covered up in a cough. When Harry gave him a questioning look, he just grinned at him, nodding. Harry glanced at Niall, who shrugged at him, also smiling, and then back at Louis again.

Louis’ eyes were soft as they watched him, bright even with the air of exhaustion that surrounded him. Harry wondered what he’d look like when he was well-rested and well-taken care of.

Another moment passed and Louis finally nodded. “Yeah, that’d help a lot.”

Harry nodded back. “Then yes,” he said firmly. “I’ll help.”

***

Harry discovered that posing for photographs was not all that different from sitting for a portrait, though he had to admit that the sheer amount of equipment needed to click a few buttons is somewhat mind-blowing.

Zayn took charge, calling in a lovely, fascinating lady to put make up on Harry, much to Harry’s confusion. He couldn’t see how or why he needed make up at all – according to those people who’d taught him etiquette, only women powdered their faces and spent so long on their hair, and only fast women wore rouge – but Zayn insisted that it was how things were done, and Harry submitted to the process. He was fascinated by the lady and spent a while just staring at her strangely coloured hair and exotic make up, but his attention turned to Zayn when Zayn finally came back with some new sketches to show Harry. It wasn’t that difficult after that; a little like his etiquette lessons, if he was honest. All he had to do was copy the poses and move as he was told. Even if the equipment was different, the process was basically the same.

Zayn stayed by his side the entire time, talking him through the process, helping him and directing him, and Harry was incredibly grateful for it. Niall and Louis stood to the side, talking among themselves, shooting glances at Harry and Zayn, before turning away to look at the screens (that Louis said were “computers” – screens, as opposed to young ladies doing calculations – and not “TVs” as Harry had previously thought). Harry couldn’t read their expressions.

It wasn’t until later that Zayn brought up the subject of Niall. Slowly and hesitantly, words coming out in short bursts and dying away before Zayn tried again like he wasn’t entirely sure he should be asking Harry anything at all.

“You and Niall…” he said, biting his lip and trying to look nonchalant. He wasn’t a great actor. When Harry didn’t answer, he continued, “You’re… friends?”

Harry nodded. “Yeah. We’ve known each other a while.” That was the story anyway. “But we haven’t seen each other in ages.”

“Just friends?” Zayn asked, again sounding very curious (though perhaps like he was trying to hide that curiosity) indeed.

For a moment, Harry was a little confused. What did Zayn mean by “just friends”? How was friendship a “just”? And then it hit him. He’d experienced this sort of behaviour before, and he wanted to hit himself for not having noticed it earlier.

“Oh yes,” he said, nodding eagerly until Louis huffed out a breath from behind the camera and shouted, “Still, Harry,” and Harry stilled obediently. “I don’t think he’d be interested anyway,” Harry added, trying to sound knowing and confident, and not like he was trying to hint at anything. Except that he was. And he also wasn’t a very good actor.

“Why not?” Zayn asked carefully. “Is he… straight?”

Harry had no idea what that meant but it didn’t sound good so he shook his head. “I just think he’s interested in someone else,” he said, lips quirking up as he looked away from Zayn and towards Niall, who was watching them, that strange expression still in his eyes.

This time, though, Harry thought he recognised it – or, at the very least, a part of it anyway: jealousy. And more than a little possessiveness, Harry thought.

Good.

He beamed at him and waved, and Niall looked away, flushing in embarrassment. He looked back at Zayn to see him looking over at Niall with a wistful expression on his face.

Very, very good.

“Those drawings you did of Niall are very lovely,” Harry said suddenly, interrupting Zayn’s staring.

Zayn looked startled as he turned back to Harry. “What?”

“The drawings. Of Niall. The ones that are in your sketchbook. They’re lovely.”

Zayn blushed crimson. It was a rather good look on him. Harry grinned knowingly, and Zayn shook his head, ducking his head and looking away. “Shut up,” he said. “And stand still.” And then he made a strategic retreat, backing away and letting the camera guy start snapping at him, flashes going off left and right and momentarily blinding Harry again.

In the pictures Louis showed him on the screen later, he was grinning, small and mischievous and, according to Louis, absolutely perfect for what they needed.

***
Despite Harry’s protests, Louis threw him and Niall out once they were certain that the team had all the shots they needed of Harry.

“I’ll get Zayn to drop me off,” he insisted. “Or stay here again tonight if it’s too late. There’s no point in you guys waiting. You’ll get bored.”

Harry tried to insist that he wouldn’t. Eventually, Louis just shook his head firmly. “No. Go home. No one’s getting any work done if they’re talking about that “fit new model and his mad skills in the kitchen, and kind heart and polite nature, and insanely sexy accent and incredible bum”.” He was apparently mimicking the others in the office though, for some reason, Niall was laughing so hard he had to hang on to Harry to stop himself falling over.

Louis tried to glare at him, and Harry noticed that the tips of Louis’ ears were very, very red.

Interesting.

He didn’t have time to think too much on it though because someone was calling for Louis and Niall was tugging his arm, leading him away.

“See you tomorrow, Louis!” Niall called as Louis disappeared back into the office.

Niall wasn’t talking as much on the trip back as he had on the way there. At first, Harry thought he was tired but, after a few minutes of silence, Harry noticed the slightly tense body language, the small, tight curl to his lips. Something was wrong.

“What’s wrong?” Harry asked quietly, hesitantly. “Did I… did I cross a line or something?”

“What?” Niall asked, the word coming out sharp and harsh. Harry tried not to flinch. Apparently, he had and while he could guess what line it was that he’d crossed, he wasn’t entirely sure if it was something he should bring up.

“You’re angry with me,” Harry said.

“I’m not,” Niall tried to say. “What you did for them, that was very nice of you. Decent. Good lad.”

“It’s about Zayn, isn’t it?” Harry said, keeping his tone as light and matter-of-fact as possible.

Niall froze, which was a little bit frightening considering, for just a moment there, Harry swore he felt the car swerve a bit. His voice was higher, breathier when he said, “What?”

“Zayn,” Harry said firmly, no longer a question. “It’s about Zayn. You’re angry at me or upset or something because I was talking to Zayn.”

“It’s not,” Niall tried to say, but Harry was actually watching him so he saw the small clench of Niall’s jaw.

“He asked about you,” Harry said, and Niall glanced over at him in shock, staring. Harry let out a squeak as the car definitely swerved. Niall swore and looked back at the road.

After another moment of silence, Niall asked hesitantly, “He… asked about me?”

Harry nodded. “Yes,” he said certainly. “He wanted to know if we were together - together together – and he didn’t sound very happy about the idea. Then he asked if you were straight. I might have hinted that you liked him rather a lot – “

What?!”

“ – and he definitely likes you,” Harry went on as if he hadn’t heard Niall’s interruption at all. “He’s got all these amazing sketches of you in his sketchbook. He’s a very good artist. And he’s definitely got some rather strong feelings about his subject of choice.”

“Sketches?” Niall asked, voice quieter now. Harry didn’t miss the hope he could hear in his voice.

“Sketches,” Harry confirmed. “They’re brilliant. He definitely likes you.” He beamed at Niall. “You should ask him to dinner or to go driving with you or whatever it is that people these days do to show their affections. I am sure he’d be more than happy to.”

Niall’s smile was absolutely beautiful. It bloomed brightly for a moment before Niall tried to stop it, biting down on his lower lip, looking almost shy for the first time since Harry had met him. He let out a breath and gave up trying to stop his grin from splitting his face.

“Yeah,” he said, voice breathless with wonder. “Yeah, I think I will.”

***

“No, really, tell me the truth. Are you a wizard?” Louis asked.

Harry let out a soft laugh and shook his head. “Nope. A duke. Why?”

“A duke?” Louis blinked at him and, when Harry nodded, just shook his head, turning his attention back to the office door he’d been staring at earlier. “Just… those two. I’ve been trying to get them to see sense for ages. And now…” He gestured. “One day! And you’ve done it.”

They were not-so-subtly watching Niall and Zayn through the door of the office, which had been left slightly ajar. Niall had dragged Zayn in there the moment he’d final proofed the artwork for the ad and sent it off to be printed, unusually twitchy and nervous.

Now, however, there weren’t a lot of nerves left. They were standing very close together, Zayn leaning back against his desk with Niall practically between his legs. Zayn was smiling, a look of awe on his face, and Niall looked like Christmas had come early. They were talking too quietly for anyone else to hear, but it was obvious from their body language that the conversation was going very well.

Very, very well.

Zayn’s hands settled lightly on Niall’s hips, pulling him in closer, and Harry looked away as their lips met.

He was grinning widely – and his grin only grew when he caught Louis’ eyes. They were suspiciously over-bright, and Harry’s lips quirked up, grin turning teasing. “Oh my god, you’re not going to cry, are you?”

“No,” Louis said, but Harry thought his voice sounded a bit choked up. “Just… aww, my babies, all grown up,” he said, trying to put a mocking lilt to his voice, but he wasn’t really fooling Harry. He could tell Louis was stupidly happy for his best friends.

Niall and Zayn emerged from the office a little while later, looking flushed and absolutely glowing with happiness.

“We’re going out tonight,” Niall declared loudly, not caring who heard. “So the two of you are on your own. Please don’t blow anything up.”

Louis made a little cross sign over his heart. “Cross my heart. We won’t blow up your experiments while you’re off with lover boy here.”

Zayn blushed but Niall just flipped him off, tugging Zayn away towards the door. As they passed, Harry saw that Niall had hooked his little finger into Zayn’s, and he really wasn’t tugging much at all. Zayn was more than willing to follow.

“That’s sickeningly cute,” Louis said from beside him, faking retching sounds. Harry bit back another manic grin and made a noise of agreement.

He looked back at Louis. “So, what shall we do?”

“That’s a good question,” Louis said thoughtfully, biting his lip as he thought. Harry found himself fighting the urge to lean forwards and tease that plump lower lip away from Louis’ teeth with his own. He blinked rapidly to clear that thought before Louis could notice he’d gone cross-eyed or something.

Those were not the sorts of thoughts he should be having when they were about to spend the night alone.

Another moment passed before Louis lit up. “I know just the thing.” He curled his fingers around Harry’s wrist and tugged him towards the door, shouting his goodbyes over his shoulder at the few people that were still left in the office.

They took Louis’ car.

“Where are we going?” Harry asked. He didn’t think he’d know even if Louis told him but, whilst the silence was a comfortable one, Harry really loved listening to Louis talking.

“You’ll like it, I promise,” Louis replied, a soft grin playing on his lips.

“I’m not sure I should trust you,” Harry said, voice pitched low and teasing. “Niall warned me about you.”

“Warned you about me?” Louis asked, glancing at Harry out of the corner of his eyes before looking back at the road again. Harry felt safer in the car than he had with Niall (at least, during that conversation about Zayn, though that might have been Harry’s fault) but he wasn’t exactly the expert on driving. Horse drawn carriages didn’t really require the same skills.

“Yes,” Harry said, trying to sound like he was being serious. “He said… er. He said….”

Louis raised an eyebrow. “Well?”

Harry laughed, shaking his head. “No, I don’t know. He didn’t warn me about you at all,” he admitted. “Though he probably should have. At least I’d have been prepared.”

Louis blinked and, for just a moment, actually turned and looked at him curiously. “Prepared?” he asked, thankfully turning his attention to the road before Harry could panic. Not that Harry had felt any panic. Unlike when Niall had done exactly the same thing, Harry had felt completely safe.

“Prepared,” Harry confirmed, shrugging a little, trying for nonchalant (though, from everything that had happened so far, he probably should have figured it wouldn’t do much good). “You’re… well. You’re sort of a lot.”

“A lot?”

“Is there an echo in here?” Harry teased, ducking his head, using that time to try to think of some way to explain it without giving too much away. You’re sort of perfect or you’re sort of everything I’ve been looking for in a person both seemed a little bit too… much. Far too much, even for Harry.

“C’mon,” Louis said, a small whine in his voice. “Tell me. Tell me. Tell me.”

Harry laughed. “Okay, okay. It’s not a bad thing,” he said. “I’ve just… I’ve never met anyone like you before.”

“That’s because I’m unique,” Louis said proudly.

Harry smiled – he couldn’t help it. His lips quirked up and he felt himself dimpling. “You are,” he said honestly. “You really, really are.”

He was saved from saying anymore by their arrival at wherever it was Louis had brought him. As Louis parked and they both got out of the car, Harry recognised it as –

“A fairground!” he shouted brightly.

“Yep,” Louis answered. He looked quite proud of himself for Harry’s reaction, and Harry let Louis lead him to the gates. “But I’m quite sure it’ll be unlike any fairground you’ve ever been to. There’s been a lot of developments in the last… however many years.”

“I don’t doubt it,” Harry said honestly. Just being in Niall’s house and then Louis’ office had shown him that much. He hadn’t really thought about anything beyond the confines of those rooms, hadn’t really been sure he’d be able to get his head around it.

“But you’ll like it,” Louis insisted. There was a small bounce in his step as he paid for their entrance fee and took Harry’s arm, fingers naturally settling on the crook of Harry’s elbow. “C’mon, what do you want to do first?”

There were far too many choices, and Harry just didn’t know what to pick. Louis finally settled on buying them both cotton candy and going for a walk around the fairground, pointing out his favourite games and rides to Harry, letting Harry stand there gaping at some of the others.

He coaxed Harry onto the ferris wheel, not laughing when Harry reached out and grabbed his hand as their car moved higher and higher. He shifted over, squeezing Harry’s hand when Harry jumped as the car shifted under the weight, just a little, and pointed into the distance. There were a lot of lights out there.

“That’s where the flat is,” he said, tucking in close against Harry’s side when Harry made space for him to get closer. To be completely honest, Harry wasn’t even paying attention. He wasn’t even looking. He was more focused on Louis, pressed against his side, fitting there like he was made for it.

Harry felt something like a fist squeeze over his heart. He made a noise of acknowledgement and, after a moment, tore his gaze away from Louis to look out at the lights once more.

He wasn’t going to think too hard. He was just… he’d decided to enjoy this week, experience it to the fullest before he had to go back to responsibilities and… and the rest of it. He wasn’t going to let thinking ruin this for him.

Because thinking was hard. Feeling… apparently, feeling was easy.

“We’re almost back down on the ground,” Louis reassured him, squeezing his hand again. He’d apparently taken Harry’s silence to be his fear of heights or his nervousness at this new contraption or something (rather than a case of overthinking), and Harry was actually rather grateful for that. At least he wouldn’t have to explain himself. “We’ll stay off the rollercoaster then, I think. Not sure you’d be able to handle that.” His fond little grin softened the blow.

Even when they’d got out of the ferris wheel car, Louis didn’t let go of Harry’s hand. Harry did everything he could not to draw attention to it. He didn’t want Louis to let go – not yet.

Louis picked the spinning teacups next, turning their cup faster and faster and faster until Harry was sitting back, almost flat against the back rest, laughing and laughing and laughing, hair flying everywhere with Louis pressed tightly against his side, arms still working to spin them around and around.

Dizzy and stumbling, Louis pulled them into the hall of mirrors, and Harry gasped and gaped at their reflections, giggling stupidly as Louis started pulling faces, twisting his face into even more hilarious versions of themselves than the mirrors on their own could have.

At one point, a lady with a young child walked past just as Louis was contorting his face, and the little girl gave a little squeal of fright that was followed by a peal of laughter. Louis winked at her and gave her a little wave as her mother looked back with a displeased expression. Louis pulled another face at her, which set the little girl off giggling again, and the look her mother shot him set Louis off so hard that he had to muffle his giggles in Harry’s shoulder while Harry pressed his own into Louis’ hair.

They got a burger and some chips to share (marvelous inventions that they were; Harry was going to remember them for when he went back home), settling on the grass for a while to eat. Louis told him all about how he loved the fair because it was one of those places he always took his sisters. He told Harry about the first time he’d been able to afford the entrance fee for all of them – even his mum – and about how Lottie absolutely loved the spinning teacups and the rollercoasters, but Fizzy always liked the games more. He said the twins were still a bit too young to really get the full experience, but how it was looking like Phoebe would join Lottie’s camp and Daisy was leaning towards Fizzy’s, and how his mum could barely keep up with their demands but would always stand there waving and cheering them all on.

“You miss them a lot, don’t you?” Harry asked quietly. Louis’ tone had been animated and fond, yes, but also more than a little wistful.

“Yeah,” Louis answered after a moment. “I do. But… well, things change, don’t they? Lottie’s going to university up in Edinburgh next year, and Fizzy’s started talking about where she wants to go and what she wants to study. She’s starting work in a few weeks – apparently, some magazine’s paying her to do fashion reviews and things even though she’s still in school. Mum’s remarried – she’s got another set of twins now – and Dan absolutely adores her and the girls. To be honest, it’s a bit strange going back home sometimes. Because I’ve never really – like, Dan’s brilliant and everything, and I still love the girls to bits, but I didn’t grow up in that family, you know? It’d break mum’s heart to hear it, but sometimes, I don’t feel like it’s really home.”

“So this is home?” Harry asked, curious.

Louis gave him a sheepish smile. “I don’t know,” he said honestly. He met Harry’s eyes and added softly, “I think… I think I’m still looking.”

And I think I’ve just found mine, Harry thought. In a completely different time. If reincarnation was a real concept, Harry hoped his soul would eventually find its way to Louis.

Louis grin turned a little rueful and he nudged Harry’s leg with his own, collecting up the rubbish from the grass next to them. “C’mon,” Louis said, hopping up to his feet and offering his free hand to Harry to take. “Let’s go see about winning us some prizes.”

Within minutes, Harry’s arms were full of a giant white teddy bear that Louis had won him. After that, Louis was too busy laughing at Harry’s efforts to return the favour. He made Harry try every single game, and Harry failed horrendously at them. He did manage to win a small lion at the archery game, however, and he presented this to Louis with a flourish.

“For you, my prince,” Harry said, and he grinned, bright and happy as Louis took it with an over-dramatic bow. Harry was even happier to notice that Louis’ ears had gone pink.

“Thank you,” he said. “I am honoured.” He immediately tucked the little lion into the inside pocket of his jacket, freeing up his hand to settle on the small of Harry’s back (since Harry was carrying the teddy in both arms) and lead him towards the car.

They talked about anything and everything all the way home.

“Did you enjoy it?” Louis asked, betraying the barest hint of nervousness as he let them into the flat.

“Yes,” Harry said, squeezing the teddy tight and beaming at Louis. “That was absolutely incredible. Best night of my life.”

Louis gave him a bashful smile. “Liar. You’re a duke. You must have had better.”

“I haven’t,” Harry said honestly, meeting Louis’ eyes, willing him to believe him.

After a moment, Louis’ lips tugged up into a smile, eyes lighting up, crinkling at the corner. “Well, I’m glad I got to be a part of it then.”

“A big part of it,” Harry promised. In fact, Louis had pretty much made his night for him. “Thank you. It was… incredible. I had so much fun.”

“Me too,” Louis said. He paused, looking torn, before he took a step closer, wrapped his arms around the teddy Harry was holding and used that grip to tug Harry down, closer to him. Before Harry could process it, Louis had darted in for a soft, sweet kiss and pulled back. “Good night, Harry.”

Harry could still feel his lips tingling when the door to Louis’ room clicked shut quietly.

“Good night, Lou.”

He was well and truly fucked.

***

The next morning, after breakfast, Louis curled up against his side, silently watching him do the crossword, a mug of tea in his hands. Almost an hour passed before Louis spoke, saying very quietly, “You have to go back, don’t you? On Monday.”

Harry hesitated. “Yes. I… I think so.”

“Of course you do,” Louis said brusquely. “You’re a duke. You’ve got to go back and… and do duke-like things.”

Get married. Take over the running of the duchy one day. Have children so they could take over the running of the duchy one day.

With Louis curled up against his side like he was, the thought of that really didn’t sound all that appealing.

“It’s like in all the movies, right?” Louis said, voice sounding bleak even to Harry’s ears. “You fuck with time and it fucks you right back. You have to go back because you can’t change history without fucking up something here in the future.”’

“I’m not that important,” Harry said hesitantly.

“Don’t,” Louis said, voice sharp. “Just don’t. You are. You’re – I looked you up on the internet – no, you can’t see it, that’d be… weird and wrong and it’s probably breaking some fundamental law of nature – but. You have to go back.”

“What will happen if I don’t?”

“I don’t know,” Louis admitted. “But you have to. I’ve always told Niall that he can’t just – that you can’t fuck with the past like that. You just – he shouldn’t have. He can’t.”

“But if he hadn’t, we wouldn’t have met,” Harry reasoned. “And I’ve… meeting you is… it’s been incredible. I wouldn’t give that up for the world.”

“You’re going to forget me,” Louis said firmly. Contrary to his words though, he was burrowing into Harry’s side. “You’re going to go back and you’re going to forget this. Me. Everything. Get on with your life. Be amazing.”

“I’m not going to forget you,” Harry said reasonably. “How could I?”

“We’ve only known each other what, three days? It won’t be that hard. You’re a duke. You meet loads of people. In a few days – a few months, maybe, we’ll just be a memory. Something a bit like a dream.” Louis swallowed and shrugged. “Who knows, maybe when you go back, you’ll open your eyes and… and think you’ve had a dream. Fell over and got a concussion and are confused or something. That’s – yeah. That’d be for the best.”

Harry shook his head vehemently. “No. No, absolutely not. I won’t forget. I couldn’t.”

But Louis was just as adamant, just as stubborn. “You will,” he insisted. “I’m just one person in… in millions – “

“And you’re unique,” Harry insisted, but Louis reached up and clapped a hand over his mouth.

“Don’t,” he said again. “Just don’t. Don’t give me hope, Haz. Don’t tempt me to ask you to stay or something equally stupid. I’m above begging. I’m too old to believe in fairytales and happily ever after, yeah? This is temporary. For both of us. When you go back, we’ll both pick up our lives where we left off and life will go on.”

Louis said it almost as though he believed it but from the way he tucked his face into Harry’s neck, Harry didn’t think he did.

He wasn’t sure if it was a good or a bad thing that Harry didn’t believe that it’d be that easy either.

***

Niall reappeared on Saturday evening with Zayn in tow. He had barely shut the door behind him before he was throwing a shopping bag at Harry and practically skipping across the living room to his bedroom.

“Get changed,” he told Harry and Louis. “It’s Saturday night and we’re going out. Give Harry the full modern day experience and everything.” And he bounced into his room. Zayn grinned at them as he followed Niall through the door, shutting it behind him.

“He’s a bit too happy,” Louis said but, apparently, he didn’t want to break that bubble of happiness because he got up from the sofa, still grumbling, and disappeared into his own room, presumably to change.

Harry opened the bag in his hand. The jeans were…very tight. Very, very tight. And the shirt was… well, Harry wasn’t entirely sure it was decent. To say that it was rather sheer was… a bit of an understatement. He didn’t have much of a choice, however, since Niall hadn’t put anything else in the bag he’d thrown to Harry so he put them on.

He waited for the others to reemerge, feeling more nervous than he’d expected to be. He looked over at the mirror again, biting his lip as he surveyed his reflection critically, tilting his head this way and that. He wasn’t used to how people dressed here. He didn’t know if this was considered attractive or not and… and if was honest with himself, he’d admit that he wanted to look good. More than that, he wanted Louis to think he looked good.

He was interrupted – or perhaps saved - from his thoughts by a knock on the door. Seeing as neither Louis nor Niall appeared, Harry went to answer it, opening the door to find Liam standing outside.

“Hi,” Harry said. He hadn’t seen Liam at all since that very, very hasty retreat the day of Harry’s arrival.

“Hi,” Liam said. There was a small pause before he ventured, “You’re already awake this time.”

Harry laughed. “Yeah, I am. Come in. They’re all getting changed.” He was assuming Liam and Zayn already knew each other, but he had no idea how well – and he had no idea if Liam had heard about Zayn and Niall yet. He didn’t really think it was his place to tell him though.

“You look… good,” Liam said, staring at Harry, mouth hanging a little open. “Couldn’t tell you’d come from a few hundred years ago at all.”

“Thanks,” Harry said dryly, laughing. “I’d hate to stand out.”

“I – yeah, no – no. You look – yeah.”

“Very eloquent, Payno,” Louis said, stepping into the living room, and Harry was pretty sure he was the one that made that small, embarrassing noise.

Louis looked gorgeous. He was wearing jeans that were an absolutely perfect fit, showing off his thighs and legs and, Harry didn’t doubt, his bum, and a dark red scoop neck t-shirt that left his collarbones on show, the dark lines of his tattoos peeking out the top – and Harry wanted to… he wanted to do indecent things to those collarbones. So many indecent things.

He closed his mouth with an audible snap as Liam let out a low whistle. “Someone’s looking to pull tonight.”

Louis smirked, shrugging suggestively.

“Pull?” Harry asked, tearing his eyes away to look back at Liam again. There was a small, strangled noise from Louis, and Harry shifted his attention back to him as Liam answered him.

“He only wears that t-shirt when he’s planning on finding someone to go home with tonight.”

Harry frowned but, once again, he was saved from finding something to say by Niall’s bedroom door opening.

“Is everyone dressed?” Niall shouted, voice reaching them before Niall bounced out of the room, fingers curled around Zayn’s wrist. “Everyone is dressed. Brilliant. Let’s go!”

They went.

Clubbing was nothing like anything Harry had ever experienced in his life. He hadn’t expected it to be, of course, not with everything else he’d experienced so far but it was so far beyond what he’d imagined that he didn’t quite know what to do with himself. The music was loud – louder than anything Harry had ever heard. The beat of the bass seemed to resound inside him, changing the thud-thud-thudding of his heart to match it.

Liam led the way inside, navigating the crowd effortlessly. Harry had slightly more trouble, bumping into people the entire way. Each time someone turned to look at him, he tried to apologise but couldn’t make himself heard. Not that the people he ran into cared; he began to realise, after the second time it happened, that it happened all the time, and most people only looked around to make sure nothing had spilled on them or broken. Zayn walked behind him, steering him as best as he could, urging him forwards when Harry stopped, until they reached a table towards the back of the club.

A beautiful woman was already there. She stood up, smiling brightly as they approached, giving each of them – even Harry – a hug in return.

“This is my girlfriend, Sophia,” Liam shouted into Harry’s ear. At least, Harry hoped that was what he was saying. It would be rather embarrassing to get Liam’s girlfriend’s name wrong.

“Hi, Harry,” she said, also shouting in his ear.

“I’m going to go and get us some drinks,” Liam shouted to the table in general, pointing towards a bar and miming drinking gestures. Everyone nodded and Zayn nudged Harry towards the seats, sliding in next to him.

Louis said something, gesturing in Liam’s direction, and then disappeared, presumably to help Liam with drinks. Niall hadn’t sat down. He was standing next to Zayn, hand on his shoulder, bopping his head to the music.

Harry wasn’t entirely sure he was going to enjoy this experience at all.

Somewhere around two hours later, and Harry was sure he wasn’t enjoying this experience one bit.

He was sitting at the table, for all extents and purposes, completely alone, nursing his fourth – or was it fifth? - drink. Liam and Sophia were still at the table, but they were wrapped around each other, trading slow, lazy kisses and mumbled words. He could see Zayn and Niall at the edge of the crowd, doing what was apparently understood to be dancing these days, attention completely on each other.

Louis… Louis was in the middle of the crowd somewhere. Harry caught a flash of him here and there from time to time as the mass of sweating, grinding bodies shifted with the music, head tilted back, moving with the beat, always surrounded by people paying attention to him. Completely in his element.

He was beautiful. Amazing. Untouchable.

And Harry was… old. Out of place and out of time. He swirled his drink around in the glass, trying not to watch, wondering how many of these he needed to drink before he was drunk enough to stop thinking.

Someone slid into the booth beside him.

“Can I buy you another one?” an unfamiliar voice asked him. Harry looked up to see a man he didn’t recognise sitting in the seat beside him, offering him a small smile. When he saw Harry looking, he gestured to the drink in Harry’s hand. “Looks almost empty.”

“Er, no thanks,” Harry said, a bit uncertainly.

“You look like you need it,” the man said, reaching over to pat Harry’s leg lightly. “Not your kind of scene?” He didn’t move his hand. Harry shifted uncomfortably but the man’s hand stayed where it was, squeezing Harry’s thigh in a touch that was too familiar for someone whose name he didn’t even know.

He was trying to figure out how to say something about it when a voice said, very clearly and very coldly, “You’re in my seat.”

“What?” The man was clearly confused, looking from Harry to Louis and back again.

Louis rested a hand lightly on his shoulder, drawing his attention away from Harry and back to him. “You’re. In. My. Seat.” Not having much choice in the matter, the man stood, and Louis dropped into the vacated seat.

Well, less into the seat and more into Harry’s lap. His hand settled just over Harry’s heart, sliding down to rest on his hip. The touch was deceptively light but unmistakably possessive.

The stranger floundered for a moment before he walked away.

“He was hitting on you,” Louis said to Harry, glaring at the man’s retreating back. “The bastard.”

“He didn’t – he didn’t do anything,” Harry said, trying to focus on Louis’ words rather than the hand that Louis hadn’t moved from Harry’s hip. With how thin the material of his shirt was and how tight his jeans were – in this modern world, clothing really was quite odd – Harry could feel the heat from Louis’ palms all the way through to his skin, felt it like a brand, a spot of warmth that was so incredible, so brilliant, Harry couldn’t help but feel it.

“He wanted to. And you looked like you had no idea what to do about it.”

Harry offered him a half smile. “I didn’t,” he admitted. “So thank you.”

Louis nodded in acknowledgement but didn’t move.

The position was a little bit awkward for Harry – he hadn’t known where to put his hands – but when Louis made absolutely no move to shift away, Harry found his fingers fitting themselves all too naturally against Louis’ side, keeping Louis right where he was.

Hesitantly, Harry asked, “Have you managed to – what was the word? – pull? Have you managed to yet?”

Louis shook his head in a short, sharp gesture.

Harry hesitated again, biting his lip, before he said very, very quietly, “You can go and… you know. Keep looking. If you want.”

Louis didn’t move.

“I – you don’t have to babysit me,” Harry insisted. “I don’t want to be the reason that you don’t get to pull tonight.”

Louis laughed, closing his eyes tightly for a moment before he looked around at Harry. “For fuck’s sake,” he huffed. “You already fucking well are.”

“What?” Harry said, bewildered. “No, but I mean it! If you want, you can – “

Louis’ fingers tangled into his hair and, before Harry had had time to process that, Louis’ lips crashed down against his, kissing him, hard and determined and hungry. Harry moaned, arching up into it, pressing into it, kissing back without hesitation.

“Fuck,” Louis said as the kiss broke, pressing back in when Harry tried to pull back to breath, catching Harry’s lower lip between his teeth and tugging, before murmuring another, “fuck”. He let out a breath and kissed Harry again. “I shouldn’t – I – this is a horrible idea but – “

“It’s brilliant,” Harry said quickly, remembering that he still had his arm around Louis and using that grip to pull Louis close again, pushing helplessly up for another kiss. “It’s a brilliant, wonderful, amazing, perfect idea. C’mon, Lou, please. Please.”

And it was like those were the words needed to break Louis’ resistance because Louis fell into the next kiss, lips parting, tongue sliding along the seam of Harry’s lips, licking inside as his fingers pulled at Harry’s hair, tipping his head back so Louis could kiss him deeper, harder, could claim him and own him and possess him completely. And Harry obliged, eyes closing as he let out another soft moan, opening up to Louis’ touches, going pliant in his arms.

“Home,” Louis said when he finally managed to tear his mouth away from Harry’s. Harry chased Louis’ lips, not wanting to stop, not wanting to take a break, just wanting them back against his own. Louis turned his head away, panting against Harry’s cheek. “Home, Harry. We’ve – let’s go home. Now.”

***

Harry didn’t even know how they made it home, but the time that it took to actually get there was marked by the number of times Louis turned away from his kisses. Each time, Louis murmured, “Don’t start, Harry, I won’t be able to stop again,” and variations on that same theme. He didn’t get go of Harry once from the moment they left the table at the club to the moment he pressed Harry back against the door of his bedroom and finally kissed Harry again.

Harry felt like he could breathe again.

He clung to Louis as he kissed him back, making soft noises against his lips, muffled and swallowed up. He couldn’t figure out where to put his hands, couldn’t figure out what he wanted to touch more, kept moving them from Louis’ back to his hips to his bum, his thighs – hips again, bum – and fuck, Louis’ arse was incredible in his hands.

Louis moaned against his mouth before he broke the kiss, and the slight shift in Louis’ weight was all the warning Harry had before Louis wrapped his legs around Harry’s waist, hitching himself up so he could get a better angle to lick into Harry’s mouth.

“Bed,” Louis breathed, kissing Harry softly. “Let’s – bed, Haz. Want to spread you out.” But he apparently didn’t want to let go. Harry pushed away from the door, keeping a firm grip on Louis, and walked the few steps to Louis’ bed, easing him down onto it gently – and going down with him when Louis didn’t let go.

“Naked,” Harry insisted, but he countered his own suggestion by dipping his head to Louis’ collarbone, mouthing and sucking and licking at the skin, the sounds leaving his lips a match to the ones Louis was making. He eventually forced himself to pull back to tug helplessly at Louis’ t-shirt. “Off. Off, off, off.” Because there wasn’t enough skin – he couldn’t get to the rest of that tattoo, couldn’t see the rest of the words and he wanted to. Wanted to see everything, touch everything, taste everything.

He fumbled with the buttons on Louis’ jeans until Louis batted his hands away impatiently with a mumbled, “let me,” and made short work of his own jeans – and Harry barely had time to realise that Louis wasn’t wearing any underwear before Louis had Harry’s jeans undone and was tugging them down over his hips. He pulled Harry’s shirt off without any ceremony whatsoever – and then there was skin. So much skin. Skin on skin everywhere and fuck, Harry couldn’t get enough, couldn’t stop running his hands over every inch of Louis, couldn’t stop himself from dropping down to follow the path of his fingers with his lips and tongue – didn’t even try when Louis was making the most incredible sounds Harry had ever heard.

“Harry, Harry, Harry, Haz – Harry, please – fuckfuck - Harry.” He looked up to find Louis staring at him, eyes wide and dark, mouth slack, breathing ragged. “’f you keep that up,” Louis said. “This is going to be disappointingly fast.”

So Harry surged up and sealed their lips together again as Louis arched up to meet him, and then, in a breath, he was flat on his back with Louis straddling him, grinning, bright and happy and brilliant.

“My turn,” Louis breathed. He took his time, and it felt so good, that it was almost torture. Every time Harry reached down or moved or arched, trying to get Louis to go faster, trying to get him to move, begging wordless for him to touch him where he wanted it the most, Louis caught his hand or pressed his hips down into the bed or pulled away completely. By the time Louis was satisfied that he’d returned the favour, Harry was barely more than a shaking, whimpering, pliant mess.

“Fuck,” Louis breathed, and Harry opened his eyes to find Louis staring down at him, expression soft and beautiful and… and as desperate as Harry felt. “Fuck, Haz, you’re so beautiful.”

“C’mere,” Harry said, reaching up to pull Louis into another kiss, slower, deeper, trying to say everything he didn’t think he could actually say. That he didn’t dare say.

“Beautiful,” Louis murmured again as the kiss ended, lingering, lips trailing over to the corner of Harry’s mouth, down over his jaw, his throat, to come to rest lightly on Harry’s pulse. “Beautiful.”

Harry swallowed hard, tipping his head back, baring his throat, giving Louis easier access. “Please.”

“Please what, love?” Louis asked.

Harry didn’t have the words for what he wanted, didn’t even know how to begin to ask. So instead of trying to find those words, instead of fumbling for them in the dark, he did what felt natural. He spread his legs slowly, reached for Louis’ hand and guided it to his hole.

“Please,” he said again, voice trembling.

Louis pulled back to look at him. “Are you sure? We don’t have to.”

“I want to,” Harry insisted. “I really – please, Lou. Please.”

Louis searched his expression for a moment, but Harry didn’t look away. He didn’t have anything to hide. He wasn’t lying. He wanted this – wanted it so much he was shaking with it.

“Please,” he repeated, putting everything he could into that word. “Please.”

And finally, Louis nodded. He kissed Harry, short and sweet, before moving away – moving back to kiss him again when Harry whined at the loss – and then reached for the drawer of his bedside table, fumbling out a tube and a small packet. He didn’t give Harry any time to really figure out what he was doing before he was kissing Harry again, kept kissing him as Louis’ hands moved, kissed him until Harry broke the kiss with a sharp gasp when he felt Louis’ finger press back against his hole, a little cold and very slick.

“Stay relaxed,” Louis instructed gently. “And tell me if it’s too much.”

It wasn’t. It really wasn’t, and it wasn’t long before it wasn’t enough, wasn’t long before Harry was panting “please, please, please – more, more, Lou, please” and trying to twist into it, searching for something, pushing for something, desperate for something - that Louis gave him with a small crook of his finger that had pleasure burning through him, hard and fast and so brilliant Harry was almost sure he’d let out a scream. “There, ohgod, right there,” he moaned, completely wanton, and Louis did it again and again and again until there was nothing but pleasure and Louis and more.

“You,” Harry moaned. “You – Lou – please, want you. You, please – please. Please.” Louis hushed hip with soft touches and insistent lips, kissing him through the emptiness that was Louis withdrawing his fingers and the ohgodstretch of Louis pushing in – kept kissing and kissing and kissing, and filling Harry’s senses so completely that he didn’t have time to think about too much because it wasn’t too much – not at all. It was perfect. Brilliantly, blindingly perfect.

They moved together without any need for directions, without needing words, even though Louis gave them to him anyway, murmuring to him between kisses even though Harry could barely make them out, was too far gone to understand them – kept a steady stream of praise and comfort and love until Harry felt like he was floating in it, wrapped up in it, drifting higher and higher as pleasure twisted and curled and exploded inside him.

As pleasure and love and Louis became his entire world when Louis’ hand wrapped around his cock, stroking to the rhythm of his thrusts, shifting his weight, shifting the angle so he was hitting that spot over and over and over – until Harry’s entire world exploded into brilliant, wonderful white, moaning Louis’ name over and over as he came. He heard his name like an answer on Louis’ lips as Louis followed him over the edge.

***

Harry woke up feeling happier than he had in a long time. Possibly happier than he’d ever felt. It didn’t take him long to remember the reason why. Louis was still asleep, head pillowed on Harry’s chest, arm thrown out across him like he was worried Harry would sneak away in the night.

A little reluctantly, Harry untangled himself from Louis’ arms, leaning down to kiss his temple and settle him back in the bed as he snuck out to the loo. He was awake now though, and going back to curl up against Louis in bed would probably just end up in him waking Louis up and he didn’t want to do that, not when Louis was sleeping so peacefully.

Harry decided to head for the kitchen, remembering Niall’s words from the first day he’d arrived – the way to Louis’ heart was through his stomach – and god, it seemed like a long time ago. But it had only been six days.

Tomorrow, Niall would open the portal again. Tomorrow, Harry would go back to his own time.

The thought made him want to go back to bed immediately, to wrap himself around Louis and not let go. To kiss him slowly, to press his mouth to every part of Louis’ body and commit it to memory. Maybe even to beg him to ask Harry to stay.

But he didn’t. Sounds in the kitchen interrupted his line of thought, and he looked away from the bedroom door, slightly ajar and so, so tempting, to head in that direction instead.

The kettle was whistling and Niall was awake.

“Where’s Zayn?” Harry asked as he walked over to pull down two mugs from the cupboard. Niall was in his boxers, love bites darkening patches of his skin. He was polite enough, however, to avert his eyes and not comment on Harry’s nakedness. For his part, Harry wasn’t a stranger to be naked in the presence of other people so he just continued on as if nothing strange was happening (even though it was definitely a little strange).

“Still sleeping. Where’s Louis?” Niall countered.

Harry flushed. “Still sleeping as well,” he answered quietly.

They were silent for a few minutes, watching the tea brew, before Niall spoke up again. “Guess it’s a bit late to tell you to be careful, huh?” Harry looked up at him, surprised. “It’s not like either of you are subtle. I mean, what I really want to be saying,” Niall went on, “is that Lou’s like a brother to me and he’s had so much bad luck, but he’s a good guy who deserves the best, and I’ll kill you if you break his heart.”

Niall trailed off into silence. Harry swallowed. “I… I don’t want to,” he said softly. “I really, really don’t want to.” Embarrassingly, Harry felt his eyes burning, heard his voice catch. “But to be honest, I think I’m breaking my own heart as well.”

“Oh Harry,” Niall breathed as Harry felt helpless tears blur his vision, felt them sliding down his cheeks. Niall stepped forward and pulled him into a hug. They both continued to pretend they were more fully clothed than they actually were, and that this was, in fact, not as inappropriate as it really was. The thought, however, only occurred to Harry somewhere in the back of his mind; there were much more pressing concerns in the forefront.

“And he won’t – he won’t let me stay,” Harry said, voice shaking. “He won’t even let me suggest it. He keeps saying I have to go back and he won’t tell me why. I can’t stay and I can’t ask him to go with me, but I’m in love. He’s what I’ve been looking for all my life. And it’s about two hundred years too late.”

Niall didn’t say anything – what was there that he could say? – just held Harry until he stopped crying. He pulled away, sniffling, rubbing at his eyes with the back of his hands.

“The tea’s gone cold,” he said with a sigh, trying not to sniffle. “Better put on another pot. I’ll make breakfast as well if you want to wait a bit and take some in for Zayn?”

It was easier to be doing something practical, after all. So much easier than feeling so completely and utterly powerless in the face of something so much greater than himself anyway.

Harry and Louis spent the rest of the day in Louis’ room, in Louis’ bed, clinging to each other, biting back words they couldn’t and wouldn’t say.

Louis pressed him into the bed, trailing kisses all over his skin, slow and reverent and, later, Harry returned the favour. He spread Louis out on the sheets, mapped him out with his lips, tried to commit this to memory because this was it, this was all he’d have for the rest of his life. He opened Louis up with his tongue and careful fingers, taking his time, reveling in Louis, shaking and trembling under him, whining low in his throat, sounds getting louder and louder as he forgot himself, as he let go.

He pressed in as Louis clung to him, moving together, Louis arching up to keep Harry in him every time Harry pulled back – too slow, too much – until he flipped them over, rode Harry with fingers digging into his shoulder, leaving nail marks in his skin. Louis never closed his eyes, never looked away.

They collapsed onto the bed, sticky and sated and still holding onto each other, Harry curling himself up to tuck into Louis’s side, and Louis just held him tighter, whispering, “I love you – fuck, I love you so much – please don’t ever forget that, don’t ever forget me, I can’t say goodbye, I don’t know how,” into his hair.

Eventually, despite his best efforts to stay awake, to stay with Louis, to make the most of the last few hours together, Harry drifted off to sleep.

When Harry woke up the next morning, Louis was already gone.

It was probably easier for both of them that way.

He showered despite wanting nothing more than to keep the scent of Louis on his skin for as long as possible, and dressed in his own clothes even though he wanted to steal Louis’ – anything at all to keep the memory alive just for a while longer. Finally, he walked back outside and picked up the teddy bear Louis had won for him at the fair, not caring what it would look like to anyone on the other side of Niall’s time portal. He wasn’t leaving that behind. That was one thing he was determined to keep, if only so he could remember that this wasn’t all just a pipe dream.

Finally, with one more look around the flat – one more lingering look towards the door of Louis’ room – he knocked on Niall’s door.

Niall looked up from his work, lips curling, clearly trying to smile. Harry thought his own attempt must look more like a grimace because there was just too much sympathy in Niall’s eyes.

“He wanted to say goodbye,” Niall started, but Harry shook his head firmly.

“It’s better that he didn’t,” he said, clutching the teddy in his arms a little tighter. “Let’s just… let’s do this. Please.”

“Right,” Niall said, tapping on his computer and pressing buttons, moving around the room to shift this bit of equipment and then that, coming back to click at his computer again. Finally, he turned back to Harry, his hand resting on a switch.

“Are you sure you don’t want to talk to him first?” he asked quietly. “Ask him to go with – “

“No,” Harry said firmly. “I can’t. I won’t. Just… Just do it, Niall.”

Niall offered him a small, shaky smile and flipped the switch. The equipment in the room hummed to life, and a small, glossy sheen appeared at the window. Niall gestured for him to come towards it. “Just… jump.”

Harry stared. “Out there?” he asked, a bit uncertainly. “Yep. Out the window. You’ll land under the balcony back in your time. Behind the rose bushes.”

Harry narrowed his eyes a little suspiciously. “You’ve done it before.”

Niall shook his head. “I just stuck my head through to have a look. Just be careful when you land, all right? And… and take care of yourself, Harry. It was nice to meet you.”

“You too,” Harry said, letting out a breath and looking around the room one last time. “Thank you. For everything.” He stepped forwards, stepping up onto the ledge. He hesitated, just for a moment, and turned back to face Niall. “Can you… can you tell Louis that… “ He took a breath and hugged the teddy bear tightly. “Tell him that I love him too.”

And then he stepped backwards into the air and Niall’s face, Niall’s room – the future – was gone.

He stepped out, as promised, behind the rose bush. Above him, he could hear the sounds of the orchestra and the chattering of the guests in the ballroom above. When he looked up at the balcony, there was a small space where the potted plant he’d tried to hide behind had once been. Judging by the stars in the sky and the glow of the moon, only a few hours had passed, and inside that ballroom, no one would ever know that Harry felt like he’d lived another lifetime.

He pressed his face into the teddy bear’s fur, took a few steadying breaths, and headed back inside.

Time to go and live the life Louis had wanted him to live. Time to try to do the impossible and move on.

Moving on, as it turned out, consisted of hiding behind the dessert table. Harry had snuck upstairs to put the teddy away in his room, make sure that he looked presentable, before coming back to the ballroom again.

He then made a beeline for the buffet tables.

He was contemplating the plate of chocolate éclairs, wondering if having another one would help ease his heartache at all when Taylor appeared at his side. She grabbed his arm in a death grip as though he’d run away if she gave him half the chance – and, well, in all honesty, it was definitely a grip that had come from experience of Harry doing just that.

“There you are,” she huffed. “I’ve been looking everywhere for you. They’re getting ready to play the Duke’s waltz so we have to get ready to dance.”

Harry pulled her to a stop. “No, wait,” he said, shaking his head and trying to escape her grip. Taylor’s fingers just dug in harder, not budging. “No, seriously,” he said earnestly. “I’m not going to run or anything. I just – I’m not dancing with you.”

Taylor blinked at him. “What?”

“You’re going to dance it with Ed,” he said with a grin, patting her hand lightly. “Because I know you want to. Because I know he wants to. Because I want you to.”

“But,” Taylor said, shaking her head. “You and Gemma have to open it with your partners of choice, and you always say that if you pick someone else, they’re going to get ideas, what with it being the most romantic dance of the evening, and with you guys being in the spotlight and – “

“The most romantic dance of the evening,” Harry agreed. “The most meaningful. Which is why you should dance with Ed. You dance with me every year.”

Taylor rolled her eyes. “Because you’re our best friend, Harry,” she huffed, tugging him along towards Gemma again, but Harry wasn’t giving in, not this time.

“And it’s about time I found a way to manage this for myself, yeah? Because,” he said, interrupting her before she could interrupt him. “You dance with me every year. And every year, everyone expects us to get married. And then whenever you and Ed are near each other, people whisper that you’re cheating me on.”

“Ed and I don’t mind,” Taylor said matter-of-factly and, fuck, he loved his best friends so much. The amount of shit they were willing to take for him…. They deserved it. Harry had never thought about it before – not really – but he knew now. He knew the importance of spending every moment you could with the one you loved, sharing every experience, keeping those perfect memories close for the rest of your life, however long or short that might be.

He wanted to give them that.

“I mind,” he said finally. “Please, Taylor. Dance with Ed.”

Taylor frowned at him, expression turning worried. “Harry,” she said slowly. “What happened?”

Harry shook his head quickly. “I’ll tell you later,” he promised, because if he thought about it now, if he let his mind stray – even for just a moment – to Louis, he knew he’d start crying. He didn’t want the entire ballroom to see him cry.

“Promise,” Taylor insisted.

“I promise,” Harry said, squeezing her hand as he removed it from his arm. “Go and find Ed.”

“Who are you going to dance with?” she demanded, but he could already see her eyes scanning the crowd for Ed’s distinctive hair.

Harry shrugged, slipping away from her towards where he could see his mum and Gemma standing. Robin and Gemma’s young man – Harry couldn’t tell who it was from where he was – were already there.

“I’ll find someone,” he said, giving her the best smile he could manage. It probably wasn’t very convincing but he didn’t give her any time to change her mind.

He could see Gemma’s questioning look as he approached without Taylor at his side. Without anyone at his side. Harry gave her a small smile as he took his place beside her, looking out at the crowd. He could already see faces turning towards him, and he scanned them, hoping against hope that inspiration would strike – that, as they turned to look at him, he’d meet someone’s eyes and he’d feel that spark, that something would tell him he’d found what he was looking for. He hoped he’d lock eyes with someone and feel what he’d felt the moment he’d caught sight of Louis for the first time.

Nothing. Everyone was looking at them now. The music had stopped, the lights had dimmed, and Paul was announcing the Duke’s waltz.

He was announcing Anne and his mother was announcing her chosen partner, Robin. Paul announced Gemma, and Gemma announced her chosen partner for the evening, a visiting gentlemen from another country whose name was Ashton.

Harry scanned the room, stomach twisting. He couldn’t – he just – he couldn’t think of anyone. He couldn’t even imagine dancing this song with anyone here. He couldn’t find his voice to call any name that wasn’t –

His eyes locked with a pair of too-familiar blue eyes.

“Louis,” spilled from his lips before he could stop himself. The entire room was silent, and Harry’s footsteps echoed far too loudly in his ears as he started across the floor, the crowd parting in front of him.

And yes – yes, there he was. It really was Louis, standing there in the middle of the ballroom, his breathing coming out in quick pants, all nervous energy, barely holding himself still as Harry went towards him.

Louis. Standing there in the middle of his ballroom.

“Harry.” His mother’s voice broke through the rushing in his ears, and Harry came to a stop right in front of Louis, managing to curb the urge to just pull him into his arms and never, ever let go.

Harry’s eyes never left Louis’. Louis didn’t even try to look away.

“Harry,” his mother repeated. “Do it properly, my darling.”

Harry took an unsteady breath and dropped into a low bow, offering his hand to Louis. If Louis’ hand shook as he placed it into Harry’s, Harry was the only one who knew.

Harry took another breath before announcing, voice almost steady, “Louis Tomlinson.” He tore his eyes away from Louis to look at his mother, at Gemma, out at the crowd as he lead Louis slowly to his place on the dance floor.

He could hear the whispering starting as he turned his attention back to Louis, pulling him in close. “You wouldn’t know how to waltz by any chance, would you?” he asked, voice low, lips lifting up into a smile.

Still couldn’t believe it. He didn’t – he couldn’t – but Louis wasn’t resisting, fitting himself against Harry like he was made to be there.

He was made to be there.

Louis shook his head, lips quirking up into a small grin. “I haven’t got a bloody clue, love.”

“That’s fine,” Harry said lightly as the music started, drowning out the sounds of people’s voices. Not that Harry had really heard them at all, completely focused on Louis as he was. “I’m not a very good dancer either.”

Louis giggled, pressing it against Harry’s shoulder as Harry stepped forwards and Louis, as if he did know how to waltz, stepped back.

All in all, they were pretty terrible, but Harry didn’t care and, distantly, he spotted Taylor tugging Ed onto the floor, joining them before Harry could make too much of a fool of them. Harry was pretty sure people were working on not crashing into them as he lead Louis around the floor but, fuck, he didn’t care. He didn’t care about anything except –

“What are you doing here?”

Louis hesitated, swallowing hard and searching Harry’s eyes before saying softly, “I was actually… er. I was hoping I could stay. Here. With you.”

Harry’s hand tightened on Louis’ convulsively, squeezing a little too hard. “You – you want to stay here? You – Louis – your work, your family, your life - I can’t ask you - ”

“You’re not,” Louis said, squeezing back just as hard. Harry couldn’t help but notice that Louis’ eyes were bright and his voice was fierce. “You’re not asking, I am. I’m asking you if I can stay. I’m asking you if you’ll have me.”

“Yes,” Harry said immediately. “If you’re sure, if you want to – yes, fuck, Lou, a thousand times, yes.”

Louis’ face brightened like the sun. “Good. Because I’m pretty sure Niall’s closed the time portal by now and I have no idea when he’ll open it again, if ever, and if you’d said no….”

“You knew I wouldn’t,” Harry protested, and Louis yelped as Harry stepped on his foot by mistake. “Sorry – fuck, sorry.” But Louis was laughing, and then Harry was laughing – and fuck everything else, fuck the world and the dance and the music, Harry didn’t care about any of it. Louis was here. Louis was staying.

Louis was staying.

He was still laughing, breathless and so happy he was practically floating as they slipped away from the center of the dance floor, away from the center of attention. He didn’t let go of Louis.

“What changed your mind?” he asked finally, glancing sideways to where Louis was walking beside him.

“I… Niall, actually,” he said, looking a little sheepish. “He came into the office and shouted at me a lot. And then he helped me find some clothes in the costumes racks. Then I jumped out of Niall’s window and through the portal and… You know, your security’s pretty good. It was a pain in the arse trying to get in here.” He pushed his fringe back nervously, and that was when Harry noticed it. There was a small cut on Louis’ forehead and the skin around it was red-bordering-purple. It looked like it was about to bruise – like Louis had been hit with something very heavy.

Harry stopped, pulling Louis to a stop beside him as well. With a shaking hand, he brushed Louis’ fringe back again, leaning in to look at the injury a little closer. “Did they - who? I’ll kill them.”

“What?” Louis said, surprised, and then he shook his head quickly. “Oh! No. No, that’s – no. That was Niall.”

Harry blinked at him stupidly. “Niall,” he repeated.

“Yeah,” Louis said, laughing as he said, “He threw a history book at me. A really big history book. I didn’t duck fast enough.”

“A history book… why?”

“Right – er. As I was saying,” Louis said, tugging at Harry’s hand to get him moving again, leading him out onto the balcony. “Niall came into the office and yelled at me. And threw this book at me. When I’d finally stopped seeing stars, he’d opened it up and…” From inside his jacket, Louis pulled out a piece of paper – a page that had obviously been torn from a book.

It had been torn out of a history book.

Duke Harry Styles, the bold writing at the top of the page declared. Harry scanned through the rest of the page quickly, taking in very little until he came across two words – almost a footnote – and he had to start reading that entire sentence again. Styles never married in the traditional sense but, according to a careful rereading of many primary sources, it can be understood that his relationship with his lifelong companion, Louis Tomlinson, was more intimate than many secondary sources would have us believe.

Louis was smiling at him when Harry looked up from the page, small and hopeful.

“Lifelong companion,” Harry said softly, smiling absolutely helplessly, happy laughter bubbling in his chest. He felt lighter than air.

“Lifelong companion,” Louis repeated, tangling his fingers in Harry’s hair and tugging his head down even as Louis arched up, lips a hairsbreadth away from Harry’s. “Who am I to argue with history?”

So Harry kissed him and kissed him and kissed him until neither of them could breathe, until they could barely stand. He kissed him until the music inside stopped playing and carriages started drawing away. Harry kept kissing him until there was no doubt left in his mind, and absolutely nothing but certainty and lovelovelove left between them.

He stopped only to take Louis’ hand, leading him through familiar corridors that suddenly felt brighter, warmer – felt like home – and to his room, where he closed the door and kissed Louis all over again.

Who were they to argue with history?