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No Friends and An Empty Heart

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The man next to Louis at the bar isn’t his type. He’s around Louis’ age—maybe 27, 28—but, unlike Louis, who grew up on baked beans frozen pizzas and tinned puddings before his mum married Mark, he obviously comes from money. 

He’s the public school type for sure, but the kind that was probably made fun of by the properly posh kids—you know, the ones with titles or celebrity parents—and that thought makes Louis thaw to him just a little bit. 

Besides, Louis’ not looking to marry him. He’s just looking for someone to fuck.

The man has enormous gnashers. Like, Louis isn’t positive he can close his mouth around his massive teeth and, every time he laughs—a guffaw that comes loud and comes often—he leads with them, like the air has wronged him and he’s seeking his revenge.

“And then… Isn’t that completely ridiculous?” Gnashers is saying when Louis tunes back in. He’s been telling the same story for six minutes now, without pause. Louis knows this because he’s not-so-discreetly timing him on his phone.

Louis doesn’t particularly mind that Gnashers can’t be bothered to stop and ask him any questions. Honestly, Louis prefers it this way. He doesn’t want to have to pretend to care about what Gnashers does for a living or watch him run headlong into the minefield that is any question about Louis’ family or the mess that is his life.

He stopped listening to Gnashers’ story about three minutes ago when “Bittersweet Symphony” came on in the bar. The Verve tune had been one of Louis’ mum’s favorites, painstakingly recorded off of the radio and onto a cassette when Louis was six. Louis remembers a pregnant Jay swaying him around the kitchen while Mark made cheese toasties on the hob nearby, Louis asking his mum if she thought his new sister would like this song as much as they did.

That used to be one of Louis’ warmest memories. Now it just makes his stomach hurt.

The song fades into something else, and Louis notices that Gnashers has stopped talking and is looking at him expectantly, like he’s asked a question and is waiting for an answer. Louis looks inside of himself to find the energy to care. Instead, all he finds is a bone-deep exhaustion. 

So Louis asks his own question. “Are we going to fuck or what?” 

“What?” Gnashers says with another one of his laughs, seemingly expecting Louis to join in.

Louis doesn’t. Laugh, that is. Instead, he repeats the question, slower this time: “Are we going to fuck? Because, if not, I’d quite like to go home and drink some tea.”

Gnashers stutters through another laugh, obviously caught off guard. “Um… I’m not sure what…” 

Louis sighs, hops off the stool, puts some money on the bar, and leaves, “Bitter Sweet Symphony” still stuck in his head. It’s extremely rude, but he honestly can’t be arsed to care. He has to be up early tomorrow morning to open the cafe and, if he’s not going to get a shag out of this, then he doesn’t want to be here anymore. He just… doesn’t have the energy.

On the way home, Louis runs into Joe, his favorite cafe patron. The big, cheery older man is outside one of the neighborhood pubs and lights up when he sees Louis coming down the sidewalk.

“Lou!” Joe booms from across the street. “Come over here. Meet my new friend.”

“Not tonight, Joe!” Louis yells back and Joe’s smile dims a little, but he nods in understanding and turns back to his conversation. 

Joe has been coming to The Cavy Cafe since before Zayn died. Once word had gotten out about what happened, most of the regulars stopped coming in. Louis doesn’t blame them. Who wants to make small talk with the business partner and best friend of the guy who’d just died by suicide? Their pastries really aren’t that good.

Joe had been the exception. He’d stopped in on the very first day Louis had felt able to open, a week after Zayn’s funeral and a day after Louis had moved back into their flat after having bunked at Lottie’s since it happened. Joe had taken one look at Louis and known that he didn’t want to talk about it. Joe had ordered his regular coffee, and launched into a story about something funny that had happened the previous night at the pub while Louis worked on his order. 

Louis’ hands had been shaking, and he’d spilled the hot coffee all over them. The wet skin had turned pink and puffy, and Louis had just stared at it, unable to move. Joe had come around the counter and pried the mug from Louis’ clutch. He’d led him over to the sink, and run cool water over the burn. 

“Why don’t you go sit down, love,” Joe had said once he’d patted Louis’ hand gently dry with a tea towel. Louis had wandered numbly over to one of the cafe tables while Joe poured them each a cup of coffee, preparing them with plenty of milk and sugar so they were sweet and smooth. Then, he’d sat with Louis for the rest of the afternoon. No one else had come in and when Louis had walked Joe to the door that day at 5pm, the older man had turned to him before leaving and said: “I know I don’t have to tell you this, love, but it’ll get easier. Not better. But easier.”

Talking with Joe usually makes Louis feel better, but Louis doesn’t particularly want to feel better right now, so he continues on to his flat, located conveniently above the cafe. He brews his nightly cuppa and talks to Zayn's guinea pig, Niall, about the plot of today’s episode of EastEnders as he drinks it. 

After he puts Niall back in his cage, he climbs into bed, closes his eyes, and tries to fall asleep. But “Bitter Sweet Symphony” pounds in his ears like a headache.

 

No change, I can't change, I can't change, I can't change,

But I'm here in my mold, I am here in my mold.

And I'm a million different people from one day to the next

I can't change my mold, no, no, no, no, no, no, no

 

After a while of lying there with his eyes closed and his head full and heavy, Louis grabs his mobile from the side table. 

He pulls up some porn, and wanks to it until he is raw and hollow. 

Only then does sleep finally pull him under.

 

*

 

It’s called “impulse control disorder,” but most people who have yelled about it into Louis’ face (including, on one memorable occasion, someone’s dad when he’d slipped away from a mate’s wedding to shag the best man) have categorized it as him “being a fucking wanker,” which Louis has always found ironic slang to use in the situation. 

Louis’ not saying him being an inconsiderate asshole hasn’t ever been a factor, but it’s apparently not the only one. He hadn’t come to this conclusion on his own or anything. Most days, he still thinks he is a bad person who deserves whatever punishment comes his way. But that’s not every day anymore so, when his therapist insists that Louis suffers from depression and that his illness is treatable, he’s inclined to believe her. She says things like, “I have confidence that you won’t always feel like this, Louis.”

In this week’s session, Louis doesn’t tell Dr. Shaw about Gnashers and the wanking, even though he knows he probably should. It’s not like he hasn’t talked to her about using sex and masturbation as a coping mechanism before. It’s just… he thought he was doing so much better.

Instead, Louis tells Dr. Shaw about the invitation he’s just received to a family dinner. Delivered in the form of an awkward phone call from his stepdad, Mark, Louis is seriously considering not going. That probably makes him a shit person, but it’s been six months since Louis stormed out of Mark’s girlfriend’s art show in a haze of vodka and thinly-veiled distress and he hasn’t seen his family since. He’s not eager to dive back into his starring role as Family Screw-Up. He’s definitely not eager to do so in Muswell fucking Hill, which is too far from the Tube to make a quick-and-dirty exit. 

“It might not be the invitation you want, but it’s the invitation you’ve been given,” Dr. Shaw says to Louis after he’s ranted about it for the first few minutes of their session. Dr. Shaw has brown skin and brown eyes and she doesn’t look anything like his mother.

“Whose side are you on then?” Louis asks, only slightly bitter. After months of working with Louis as a patient, Dr. Shaw probably knows this means she’s landed a point.

“You’ve been looking for a chance to reconnect with Lottie,” Dr. Shaw continues, ignoring Louis’ expert attempt at derailment. “This sounds like it could be it.” 

Louis plays with the string of his favorite sweatshirt. It’s ratty and worn and used to be Zayn’s. He wears it too often, and it no longer smells like Light Blue Pour Homme. Louis used to think the fragrance was poncy, making fun of Zayn whenever he spritzed it on before a night out. Now, he’s not sure what he thinks of it. He just knows he ordered a stupidly expensive bottle of the shit off the internet one night at 3am and now it’s sitting on his dresser unopened.

“You’re ready for this, Louis,” Dr. Shaw tells him, and she says it with a degree of certainty that makes Louis hate her a little bit, which in turn reminds Louis of how much he hates himself. It’s not Dr. Shaw’s fault she’s so goddamn enlightened, and it’s not her fault that Louis is so screwed up. 

“How do you know?” he asks, pushing the words past the lump in his throat.

“Because you wouldn’t have brought it up to me if you didn’t want me to convince you,” she tells him. “Because I know how hard you have been working at staying healthy.”

Louis often wonders what it would be like to move through life with the kind of confidence Dr. Shaw seems to have in fucking spades. It’s never been like that for Louis. He’s always known self-confidence as an endangered species, even if others mistook his unwillingness to keep his mouth shut as something certain and brave. But Louis has never been brave. Not really. Not when it’s mattered the most. 

The scarcity has made him cruel in the past. Stingy and unkind in his desperation. In the feeling that, if he gives even a little bit of his confidence away, he won’t have anything left for himself. 

Still, Louis had left the appointment with a spring in his step, buoyed by Dr. Shaw’s certainty if not his own. Eager to show Lottie and Mark how well he’s doing, thank you very much. How much he’s changed in the time they’ve spent apart.

Of course that was when the dinner was an easily-manipulated prospect still a week away—a scene to imagine rather than an evening filled with moments to actually exist during. As Louis trudges up to the restaurant, his nicest coat too heavy for the spring evening, the confidence he borrowed from Dr. Shaw has gone the way of his carton of cigarettes: heartlessly abandoning him in his hour of need. 

Instead of smoking, he’s been anxiously flicking his lighter on and off for the final 15-minute walk of his journey, trying not to think about how much he’d rather be curled up on his couch with Niall, watching Bake Off like a normal, repressed, emotionally-stunted Londoner.

Upon entering the restaurant, Louis is immediately certain that it was Mark’s girlfriend Cecile who picked out the location for tonight’s dinner. It’s the type of establishment filled with starchy employees who look like they’ve been pressed into a specific shape and will be fired if they dare slouch or shrug into a different one. Peeking into the main dining room, Louis sees a group of probably classically-trained musicians stooping well below their skill level, playing elevator music at a volume ill-suited for drowning out family squabbles. In Louis’ experience, upper middle class people rarely argue over a certain decibel. They lob passive aggressive comments quietly at one another from across the table until the loser goes to cry silently in the loo. 

Lottie and her terrible boyfriend Chase are leaving the coat check just as Louis approaches. He hasn’t seen his sister for months and he wants to get a good look at her before he has to pretend he isn’t desperately glad to see her. She’s not quite as thin as she was six months ago, and she’s dyed her hair; it’s pink again. She’s wearing a black jumpsuit and looks effortlessly cool. 

They’re all details Louis wouldn’t have had the distance to notice before, when they’d have been going to the pub on Fridays. Lottie would have been stopping by the cafe Louis owns at least once a week, ostensibly to do her uni work but really to gossip. She’d start out by sitting quietly at one of the little tables by the window, but, before long, she’d be draped across the counter, giving her unsolicited opinion about Louis’ latest Grindr match and eating the scones without paying.

Louis and Lottie are eight years apart and have been best friends since Lottie was born, which adults always thought was adorable in a condescending sort of way. Oh, just you wait. You’ll grow apart. Girls and boys don’t have as much in common as they get older, they would say, like sexist fortune tellers. Louis wishes he could say they stayed close just to prove the bastards wrong, but it was honestly so much less intentional than that. Being best friends with Lottie had always come as naturally as breathing. That’s probably why it felt like suffocating when they'd become estranged.

Louis wonders what Lottie will notice about him. He hopes that he looks changed because what the fuck were the last six months for if not changing? But he also hopes that he looks exactly the same to his sister. Because it breaks his fucking heart to think they’ve gone so long without seeing one another. 

Louis never thought that he would spend enough time away from Lottie that they wouldn’t know every single minor change in each other’s lives as soon as it happened. That they would have any real life updates to catch one another up on. She could have gotten engaged and he wouldn’t have known. Dear lord, let her not be engaged—at least not to that tosspot Chase.

The tosspot notices Louis first.

“Lewis,” he says, extending a hand, like Louis is one of his banking chums. Tall and blond, he’s just as blandly handsome as ever. 

“Chaz,” Louis says, deliberately mispronouncing his name in return. 

“Louis,” Lottie gasps. Her blue eyes are wide and she’s clutching her phone tightly in her right hand, like a lifeline. She obviously didn’t expect to see him here, and Louis tries not to feel like he’s causing a problem just by existing. Besides, it’s not like he can just hoof it now… Right?

“Did Dad not tell you I’d be here?” Louis asks, shrugging off his jacket and giving it to the coat check person like he isn’t currently bricking it. 

Louis always calls Mark “Dad” when he’s talking to Lottie. They shared the same mother, but Mark is Lottie’s biological dad while Louis got stuck with a man who cut-and-ran when Louis was three. Louis only kind of remembers him, like a character from a show you watched when you were little, and doesn’t particularly try to. Mostly because he doesn’t think his biological dad deserves the effort.

Jay met Mark when Louis was five, and they fell in love quickly. Jay always described it like a fairy tale. Louis has never trusted anyone like he trusted his mum, which is why he grew up believing wholeheartedly in that kind of bollocks: romantic love that made everything simple, so sure were you in your feelings and them in theirs. 

“No. He did…” Lottie trails off, and Louis knows her well enough to translate the silence that follows: Mark told Lottie that he invited Louis; Lottie just didn’t expect Louis to actually show up. 

Louis wants to be offended, but that might be hypocritical as he didn’t entirely expect himself to show up, either. Honestly, Niall’s little face nearly convinced him to ditch only 60 minutes prior. 

Before Louis can fill the awkward silence in the restaurant entryway, Lottie turns abruptly and heads into the restaurant herself. Chase flashes a hollow smile, then follows at her heels. 

Mark and Cecile are already seated when they arrive at their table: a finely-set affair situated not too far from the string quartet, currently in the middle of a rousing rendition of something Louis is almost positive he’s only ever heard at family weddings.

“Poppets!” Cecile says, getting up to give Lottie, Chase, and Louis whispery kisses on the cheek. 

Mark hugs Lottie and gives Louis a handshake, like Louis is a business associate and not someone he taught how to ride a bike without stabilisers. 

“Alright, Louis?” Mark asks, gaze not quite meeting Louis’.

“Alright,” Louis replies with a nod. 

Mark gives a nod of his own (Louis wonders if this is going to be their main form of communication moving forward) then shoves an envelope into Louis’ hand. “For your birthday,” he says, as if Louis’ birthday was last week and not months ago. 

“Thanks,” Louis says, stuffing the envelope into his pocket and trying not to think about how often he had checked his phone on that day, hoping Mark or Lottie would call, even if he didn’t expect it. When the day was almost through, he had started trying to convince himself that maybe they would save the call and ring the next day, on Christmas. Two birds, one stone. But they didn’t call then, either. Louis had spent the holidays with Niall, setting up the new tunnel he’d gotten him for Christmas and watching him play in it.

The string quartet starts on “Candle in the Wind,” and that’s when Louis notices there is a stranger seated at the table. He’s around Louis’ age, but tall and lanky with brown curls and bright eyes. 

No one had told Louis there would be collateral damage.

“Oh, I love this song,” the stranger says, perking up. Horrifyingly, Louis thinks he might actually mean it. From what Louis does manage to absorb, the hot stranger is Mark and Cecile’s priest. Why did they bring their priest to family dinner? Is there a normal, Catholic thing? Louis nods once to Hot Priest, then sets about ignoring him altogether. 

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The waitress comes for drink orders. Cecile gets a bottle of red and a bottle of white for the table, but Louis isn’t sure if wine will be enough to get through this evening, so he also orders a whisky for himself.

“Are you sure that’s a good idea, Louis?” Mark asks, with a frown. 

“I’ll have one, too,” Hot Priest says before Louis can figure out how best to answer Mark. After the waitress moves onto Lottie, Hot Priest catches Louis’ eye and gives him a small, conspiratorial smile. Something loosens in Louis’ chest, but he pointedly doesn’t smile back. Best not give the man the wrong idea. Louis’ not here to find God. He’s just here to talk to his sister. 

“Oh, just water for us,” Chase says, smirking at Lottie. “We’re doing a dry March.” 

“Why would you do that?” Hot Priest blurts out, and Louis can’t help the snort of amusement that erupts. He tries to cover it by taking a gulp of water and by becoming suddenly and deeply fascinated with the dinner menu.

“Just a fun challenge,” Lottie tells Harry, but her smile is strained.

Alcohol isn’t the healthiest of coping mechanisms, but it’s never been Louis’ main vice. The same can’t be said for Lottie’s boyfriend. Louis would say overdrinking is Chase’s second biggest issue after his main problem, which is being a twat. Still, Chase had gotten so sloshed at New Year’s last year that he’d tried to get Louis to blow him on the balcony of his and Lottie’s flat.

“This is our second dinner of the evening,” Lottie informs the table tonight, twirling her glass of water in her hand. “So sorry if we’re not as devilishly witty as usual.”

“I had a business meeting about the New York project that I couldn’t reschedule,” Chase explains, though no one had inquired. He’s obviously eager for someone to ask a follow-up question. Louis is desperate for updates on Lottie’s life that social media can’t give him, but refuses to give Chase the satisfaction.

“Charlotte, darling,” Cecile starts, apparently not giving a flying fuck about Chase’s job either. “How was your sea cruise?”

“You went on a sea cruise?” Louis asks. He really needs to work on his social media stalking. The waitress has already returned with the wine and, when she fills Louis’ glass, Louis is forced to lean towards Hot Priest. He smells lovely.

“Chase took Charlotte for their anniversary,” Cecile answers for Lottie. “Isn’t that romantic?”

Louis frowns. “Lottie, you get terrible sea sickness.”

“I took some dramamine,” Lottie says. “It was fine.”

“Poor thing was throwing up the whole time,” Chase says.

“Yeah,” Louis mumbles into his wine glass. “Because she gets terrible sea sickness.”

“Louis,” Lottie snaps. “Lay off.”

“One time I got seasick during a school production of Moby Dick,” Hot Priest volunteers, looking morose. “I puked all over the paper mache whale, and we had to use a giant stuffed animal for the final performance. It was terrible.” Who is this strange, beautiful man?

Then, the strange, beautiful man turns to Louis and asks him the first proper question anyone has asked Louis in far too long.

“So, what do you do?” Hot Priest asks. His gaze stays fixed on Louis, as if he actually wants to hear the answer.

“I run a cafe.”

“Really?” he asks, excitedly, as if Louis had told him he works saving orphan puppies from burning buildings. “I used to work in a bakery… Like, not for real or anything, just during secondary.”

“Sounds real enough,” Louis says, and Hot Priest’s smile broadens, like Louis has given him the ultimate compliment.

“How is that cute little cafe of yours going, Louis?” Cecile asks, and Louis manages to tear his eyes from Hot Priest and back to the rest of the table. Cecile has only been to the cafe once—for its grand opening, attended by exactly six people. She’d asked Zayn which country he was from, called the scones dry, and insinuated that the jeans Louis was wearing made his ass look big. They did. That’s exactly why Louis had worn them.

“Good,” Louis tells the table.

“Really?” Lottie asks, eyes narrowed.

Instead of saying something passive aggressive, like “You would know if you bothered to stop by in the last six months,” Louis settles on a different truth: “Mm-hmm.”

Turns out Louis really has a knack for running a cafe when he doesn’t have a perpetual hangover. He’s grown to like the early mornings especially. Stumbles down from his apartment on the second level while the city is still slumbering and listens to 90s alternative rock while he makes the day’s pastries, sandwiches, and salads. Just Louis and Niall. He doesn’t need anyone else. Maybe they can have neighboring burial plots. Are guinea pigs allowed to be buried in human cemeteries? Louis makes a mental note to Google it later.

Mark clears his throat, and sits up a little taller. “I’m sure you’ve all been wondering why I’ve gathered you here today…”

Louis sits up, heart beating faster. “You’re not dying, are you?” 

Mark looks startled. “No, no. Of course not. Nothing like that.”

“God, Louis,” Lottie huffs. “Do you have to be so dramatic all of the time?”

Lous sits back in his seat, his body slacking with relief. “I’m not being dramatic. One of our parents did die.”

Lottie sticks out her chin. “Yes, thank you very much for reminding me. I had totally forgotten.”

“WE’RE GETTING MARRIED,” Mark yells over Louis and Lottie’s squabbling, and a good chunk of the restaurant goes quiet. Even that bloody string quartet startles to a halt.  

At the table, there is a long, long pause. 

Lottie is staring at her father, as if waiting for the other shoe to drop. 

Chase’s eyes flit back and forth between Lottie and Mark. 

Cecile is beaming, either totally ignorant to or simply straight-up ignoring the tension at the table. 

Louis searches for something to say to fill the quiet, but he’s never been good at saying the right thing at the right time. All he’s ever known how to say is the truth, and that is not going to serve him right now. 

Because the truth is Louis is gutted. Mark is meant to be married to his mum. Not Cecile. Not anyone else. Just when Louis thinks he’s done being surprised by the fact that his mother is gone forever, the cold hard truth will knock him flat, a two-ton reminder that there is something terribly, irreversibly wrong with reality.

“Congratulations,” Hot Priest finally says when it becomes apparent that no one else is going to say anything. “I mean... of course I already knew because I’m the one marrying you, but there’s no such thing as too much celebration. And what greater thing to celebrate than love? Love is… Well, it’s the best, isn’t it? All you need is love.”

“When did this happen?” Lottie cuts Hot Priest off, and thank god because Louis thinks he might have continued quoting Beatles lyrics.

“Just last week,” Mark says. “I wanted to tell you, sweetheart, but Cecile insisted on making a special occasion of it.”

Lottie turns to Louis. “Don’t you have anything to say?” 

Louis blinks at the sudden onset of many pairs of eyes on him. “Um, congratulations?” He raises his glass, but Cecile and the Hot Priest are the only ones to follow suit. 

Lottie glares at him.

“Don’t worry, dear,” Cecile finally pipes up. “We’ll have the wedding before you leave for New York City.”

“You’re going on another vacation?” Louis asks, turning back towards Lottie, glass still in the air in an aborted toast. “Isn’t that a bit excessive?”

Lottie suddenly becomes very interested in adjusting her place setting. Chase clears his throat to get Louis’ attention. “We’re not visiting New York City,” he says. “We’re moving there.”

The waitress arrives at the table. “Congratulations on the happy news!” She holds up a bottle. “Champagne, anyone?”

*

 

Louis storms into the toilet to find Lottie at the sink.

“What the fuck?” Louis asks, moving to stand behind her.

Lottie turns on the tap, not even bothering to meet Louis’ eyes in the mirror. “What?” she asks, innocently.

“Don’t ‘what’ me,” Louis says. “When were you going to tell me you’re thinking about moving to fucking America? Lots, you always said you wanted to find a job here in London after graduation.” 

“I won’t need a job if I marry Chase.” Lottie says.

“For the love of all that is holy...” Louis claps out the rest of the sentence: “Do. Not. Marry. Chase.”

Lottie ignores Louis. Instead, she continues washing her hands, even though they are definitely clean by now. The scent of lavender fills the room. It was one of their mother’s favorite smells, and Louis wonders, wildly, if he is going to cry in the toilet of this terrible restaurant. If Lottie is going to leave him too. If this time apart wasn’t just a hiccup in their sibling relationship, but the new normal. Louis isn’t sure if he can take that.

Finally, Lottie twists the tap closed and turns toward Louis. She’s wearing heels and they’re almost the same height, which makes Louis nostalgic for the time when she figuratively looked up to him too. Back then, Lottie would do anything Louis asked because she thought he was the coolest person on the entire planet. She had been thoroughly relieved of that misconception in the years since, and he isn’t under any illusions that it is anyone’s fault but his own.

“You don’t get to comment on my life, Louis.” Lottie glares at him. “You lost the right to give me advice when you ditched me for six fucking months.” She turns away from him.

Louis rolls his eyes. “God, Lottie. I didn’t ‘ditch you.’”

“Oh, and how would you characterize it, then?” Lottie asks, throwing her hand towel in the designated basket and whipping back around to face him. 

Louis spent whole afternoons writing texts to Lottie, reading them aloud to Niall before erasing them. She was the one who told him she needed a break from him. She was the one who didn’t follow Louis when he ran out of Cecile’s art opening. Even when he’d had no one else, he’d had Lottie. How would Louis characterize it? As the loneliest six fucking months of his life.

“You told me not to contact you. I was giving you space,” Louis replies quietly, honestly.

Lottie throws up her arms. “I didn’t actually think you would listen, Louis. You’ve never listened before.”

“Yeah, well maybe I’m evolving.”

“Well don’t,” Lottie retorts.

Louis doesn’t know what to say to that. Does Lottie honestly not want him to figure his shit out? Does she want him to stay a fucked-up mess for the rest of their lives, just so no one bothers looking too closely at Lottie and her issues? Louis doesn’t think he can do that, not even for his little sister.

Louis pinches the bridge of his nose, feeling a headache coming on. “Can we just... agree to a truce for the rest of dinner? It’s bad enough out there without having to worry about pissing you off too.”

Lottie frowns. “So sorry my feelings are an inconvenience to you.”

Louis sighs. “Dammit, Lots. That’s not what I meant.”

“Fine,” Lottie huffs. 

Louis lets go of a breath he didn’t know he had been holding, then works quickly to change the subject before they regress back into angry squabbling. “So, who brought the hot priest?” 

One of the stalls opens and Hot Priest tumbles out, all limbs and no coordination, knocking a pouch of decorative potpourri off of the back of the door as he does. “Oops,” he says, reaching down to pick up the pouch, avoiding making eye contact with Louis. 

When Hot Priest stands back up, he is blushing. Yeah, Louis definitely doesn’t regret anything that has led to this moment.

“Hi,” Louis says with a slow smile. “We’ll, uh, see you back out there?” Louis doesn’t wait for an answer, instead willing Lottie to follow him out of the loo, which she blessedly does, giggling into her other hand. It’s the first time he’s seen her laugh—properly laugh—in a long, long time.

 

*

 

Mark, Cecile, and Chase are talking about the London Stock Exchange when they get back to the table, and it makes Louis seriously consider spending the rest of dinner in the toilet. Is potpourri edible? There’s definitely no wine in the loo, though, which is honestly the deciding factor.

They all make small talk like a proper, emotionally-repressed family until Hot Priest returns.

“So, Harry,” Cecile begins, and Hot Priest’s— Harry’s —eyes widen in panic. “Tell us about yourself.”

Harry’s hand comes up to comb through his hair. “Er... not much to tell, really.”

“Oh, tosh!” Cecile says. Louis hadn’t known people actually say that in real life. Cecile was always like that: playing a character of herself rather than just, you know, being herself.  

“Are you a real priest?” Louis asks Harry, trying to help the conversation along. He’s benevolent like that—not at all asking the question so he has an excuse to turn towards Harry and admire the sharp line of his jaw.

“Louis, that’s quite rude,” Cecile says, giving Harry a knowing smile, as if this is the sort of situation the two of them find themselves in together all the time.

“No, ‘s fine,” Harry says, giving Louis a small smile. “I mean… yeah?”

Louis smirks back. “No offense, mate, but you don’t seem very confident.”

“Well, um, hasn’t been that long, actually,” Harry says, fiddling with his pearl necklace, but Louis doesn’t think it is out of nerves. No, Louis doesn’t think Harry is the type to get nervous about people. More like, he just likes to touch pretty things.

“Oh, really?” Cecile asks.

“Well, you know I’ve only just started at St. Alban’s, Cecile,” Harry says. 

“So this is your first wedding?” Cecile continues, starting to look a bit concerned. Louis would be enjoying this a lot more if he weren’t worried for Harry’s safety. Knowing Cecile’s micromanaging tendencies, she’s probably going to start blowing up Harry’s phones with “suggestions” on which words to emphasize in the wedding passages and maybe if they could move some of what God said around a little bit? 

“Yes, but I’ve been to so many weddings,” Harry drawls. “They’re just... my favorite? I got to be a flower boy once when I was little and it is still one of the highlights of my life.” Harry gives a pleased smile, as if any of the things he just listed are actual qualifications.

“Flowers are lovely, aren’t they?” Cecile says. “I find the lotus to be the most sensual of flowers, don’t you?” What even is this conversation?

“I hadn’t really thought about it,” Harry says with a furrowed brow, as if he is thinking about it now, which Louis hopes will be the end of the discussion.

“Oh, aren’t you sweet,” Cecile coos, as if it’s normal to rank flowers from least to most sensual and Harry is innocence personified for never having done so. “The lotus is seen as a symbol of fertility in Hindu culture, did you know?” Harry shakes his head politely. “I did an exhibit featuring my series on the lotus just last year. It’s touring Asia now. Isn’t it, Mark?” 

“What?” Mark says, pausing mid-bite, seemingly surprised to be included in the conversation. “Oh, yes.”

Louis had seen the series when he ruined Cecile’s exhibit opening last year, purposefully dropping an entire tray of champagne glasses in the middle of the gallery after Cecile not-so-subtly insinuated that Zayn wouldn’t have died by suicide if Louis had been a better friend.

“Of course she didn’t actually say those words,” Louis recounted to Dr. Shaw, much later when he had been seeing her for a month or so. “She never actually says anything outright, but you know what she means and she knows what she means and you can’t say anything about it because she hasn’t really said anything, has she?”

Louis hates to admit that Cecile’s exhibition is actually good. Centering around misconceptions about infertility in British culture, it features intimate, honest stories of women’s struggles to become pregnant in the context of the limits of western medicine. 

The fact that Cecile is actually a talented artist is one of the most annoying things about her. Louis takes Cecile’s undeserving talent as more evidence that there is no such thing as karmic balance, that there is no higher power doling out punishments and rewards based on good and bad behavior. Though perhaps Louis should be grateful for that fact.

“Currently, I’m doing a series of nude portraits,” Cecile continues. “You know, I’m always looking for models…”

Harry chokes on his sip of water. Once he’s recovered, he tells Cecile: “I could put a notice in the church bulletin?” 

“Would the church be OK with that?” Louis asks, finding himself genuinely curious.

Harry laughs, turning his warm gaze to Louis. “Honestly, I think they might be getting used to my… ‘unorthodox style,’ as my church warden calls it.”

“And what do you call it?” Louis asks.

Harry locks eyes with Louis. “I call it holy.”

Louis forces himself to break the gaze.

 

*

 

If Louis has to sit at this table for another second without a smoke break, he’s afraid he’ll suffocate. So, when he can no longer handle the way Mark and Lottie and Cecile are talking around everything that matters including the fact that they haven’t seen Louis in six months and then invited him to this dinner out of the fucking blue, he interrupts Cecile, mumbles something, and takes off toward the rear exit.

Louis is determined to find someone in the vicinity of this godforsaken restaurant to bum a fag off of, but his gait falters when he sees Chase at the bar, between Louis and the rear exit. 

Before he stopped seeing his family, Louis had started avoiding Chase whenever possible. He’d never particularly gotten on with Lottie’ boyfriend, but he didn’t actively hate him either. Until New Year’s. Louis tries not to think about it. But, sometimes, when he is trying to get to sleep at night or when he’s been too long at the cafe without a customer, the memory sneaks into his consciousness uninvited.

New Year's. Louis had been puffing on his cigarette, actively trying to keep his pleasant drunkenness from slipping into sorrowful drunkenness as it so often does for him, when Chase had joined him on the balcony.

“You alright, mate?” Louis had asked when Chase stumbled out, the buzz and heat of the party momentarily hitting Louis before Chase clumsily slid the door shut behind him. Chase had leaned up against the railing across from Louis, and Louis remembers thinking Chase looked straight out of an advertisement for some pretentious craft beer. Something that probably tasted like shit, but had good branding, the right connections, and technically got the job done. Louis amused himself by thinking up names for the fake beer Chase would be the perfect poster boy for: Tosspot had been his favorite. 

Then, Chase had opened his mouth. “Your sister is a frigid bitch, you know that?” 

“What?” Louis had said dumbly, too shocked to properly react. Lottie and Chase had been dating for six months at this point and, while Louis hadn’t particularly clicked with him, he had never said anything outwardly derogatory about Lottie—at least not to Louis’s knowledge.

Then, Chase had pushed himself off of the balcony’s balustrade and suddenly he was on Louis. His body too close. His mouth too hot against Louis’ neck. Louis’ reflexes were made sluggish by the alcohol he’d had, his legs shaky beneath him under Chase’s sudden weight, and it took a full five seconds before Louis comprehended what was even going on.

He pushed Chase away. Hard. The beer sloshing from Chase’s bottle onto Louis. The cigarette on the ground where Louis must have dropped it.

“Come on,” Chase had slurred, slinking back towards Louis. “I know you want it. You always want it.”

Louis had given him another shove. “Stay the fuck away from me and stay the fuck away from my sister.” 

Louis intended on telling Lottie everything when they were all sober again. They’d met up for brunch the next morning. But Lottie brought Chase and, when Lottie left the table to use the loo, Chase had used the opportunity to try to manipulate him into not telling Lottie what happened. The fact that Chase even remembered what had happened made Louis wonder how drunk Lottie’s boyfriend had actually been. 

“I’m sorry, mate,” Chase’d said with a chuckle, as if it was some kind of silly misunderstanding. “You know how things can get at a party...”

“You’re not going to talk me out of telling Lottie what happened,” Louis had said firmly. “We tell each other everything.”

Chase’s expression had shifted from contrite to smug. “You honestly think she’ll believe you?” 

“Of course she will...” Louis said, though the longer the sentence lingered in the air between them, the less confidence he’d felt. 

In the end, it turned out Chase knew Lottie pretty well.

“Lou, Chase already told me everything,” Lottie had said, her voice breaking, when Louis had tried to talk to her about it at Cecile’s art opening. 

“Everything...?” Louis asked, fear rising in him, even though he knew he hadn’t done nothing wrong. Not this time.

Lottie had nodded, her eyes big and wet and all of her focus on Louis, on her big brother, even if Chase was beside her, hand resting supportively on his girlfriend’s back. In any other situation, Louis would have been rushing to comfort her. But, this time, he couldn’t. Because, this time, he was the one causing her pain. 

“Chase says it wasn’t him who came onto you. It was more like the other way around,” Lottie said, tears streaming down her face. “You need help, Lou. I used to think I could be the one who could give it to you. I wanted to be. But I can’t do it anymore. I need a break.”

A break. As if Louis were a shit job Lottie couldn’t hype herself into going to every morning.

The thing is: Louis didn’t blame his sister. If he could have taken a break from himself, he would have taken the option, too. Since their mum and Zayn had died, he’d been a shit human: Missing Lottie’s birthday party last summer to hook up with some random guy he’d never seen again. Getting sloshed at Mark’s birthday and letting it slip to the entire classy garden party that Lottie thought she might be pregnant. Calling her in the middle of the night for a ride when he’d gotten himself stranded all the way in Brighton without his wallet. Chase was the only one of the two with a car and it had been him who’d driven Lottie to the coast to come pick Louis up. The two had only been dating a few weeks at that point and Louis remembered thinking his sister might have finally found someone who deserved her. 

Louis had gone to see Dr. Shaw the next day—picked her name at random from the internet, walked into her office, and sat in reception until she had an opening that day. He never wanted his little sister to look at him like that again.

“Lewis!” Chase exclaims, when he notices Louis. Chase had excused himself to go to the loo, but is instead leaning against the bar, about to take a shot of something that Louis assumes isn’t water. “Mate!”

“Not your mate,” Louis says, trying to walk past him. Chase won’t let him, grabbing Louis’ wrist to keep him there. 

“Take a shot with me!” Chase says, ignoring Louis’ discomfort.

“So less ‘dry March’ than ‘dry March with a chance of showers’?” Louis asks, anger welling up inside of him on his sister’s behalf. “Does Lottie know you’re drinking?”

“I’m just trying to have a little fun,” Chase says. “I thought you of all people would understand that.” 

Louis pulls his arm from Chase’s grip. “I don’t.” 

Chase’s face shudders, his eyes narrowing. “You know... Lottie is doing much better without you. They all are.”

“Thanks for the update,” Louis says, leaving quickly before he does something cathartic, like punch Chase in the face.

He pushes through the back door and into the alley behind. Now that Louis is out of Chase’s sight, he doesn’t try to suppress his anger, slamming his fist against the brick wall. Pain immediately shoots through his hand and up his arm.

“Fuck,” he exclaims. He shakes his fist loose, which only serves to make the pain worse. “Fuckity fuck fuck fuck.”

“Hey,” a soothing voice says. It’s Harry. He pushes off from the brick wall he’d been leaning against and walks to Louis’ side, reaching out for him. “Let me see.” 

Louis gives him his hand, because he is in pain and because Harry asked him to, and Harry studies it carefully. Louis tears his gaze from Harry’s concerned face to glance at his own, battered hand, flinching at the mottled knuckles. He quickly decides to look at Harry’s hands instead. 

Harry’s fingers are long and slender and look strong. They’re gentle, too. Louis imagines them playing a piano or picking a flower.

“Does this hurt?” Harry asks, running the pads of his fingers back and forth along the part of Louis’ hand that connected with the wall. Of course it fucking hurts, but Louis doesn’t want Harry to stop, and he’s not quite sure which answer will convince Harry to keep touching him. 

“‘S alright,” Louis tries, and Harry smiles, like confirmation of Louis’ relative wellbeing has made his entire day.

Louis wonders why Harry is doing this. He probably just sees Louis as another wayward sheep to be herded. Harry is just doing his priestly duty. But, if Louis squints just right, he can pretend this lovely man is touching him because he wants to, because he can’t not .

Suddenly, it doesn’t feel nice anymore. It just feels like one more lie, so he pulls his hand from Harry’s grasp and tries to break the intimate mood: “So, what’s the diagnosis, Doctor? Will I live?” 

Harry laughs. “You should probably put some ice on it when you’re home.” 

Louis nods, like it’s something he wouldn’t have thought of himself. “You have an extra cigarette?” he asks, remembering why it was he came out here in the first place.

“Sure,” Harry says, pulling a carton from his pocket. Louis takes two out, giving one to Harry and keeping one for himself.

“Oh, no thanks,” Harry says to the cigarette. “I, um. I don’t actually smoke.”

Louis huffs out a laugh, sure he is joking.

“No, really,” Harry clarifies. “I used to. Now I just carry them around? In case someone needs one.”

“You the patron saint of smokers?” Louis asks, holding his lighter to his cigarette and using the sparkwheel to produce the flame.

“Something like that,” Harry says.

Louis leans back against the brick wall and takes a long first drag. “Well, cheers, mate. You might just be my new favorite person.”

Harry raises an eyebrow. “Competitive category, then?”

“Oh, very,” Louis says. “Before you came along, it was that waitress who offered us complimentary champagne.”

“Heyyy,” Harry says. “You met her after you met me.” His mouth is set in a frown, as if he is honestly offended.

Louis is embarrassed how eager he is to make Harry smile again. “Don’t worry,” he tells him. “The cigarette really put you over the top.” It does the trick, and Louis notices a dimple.

They stand next to one another, shoulders almost touching, in the alley. Louis smokes. Harry doesn’t ask him why he punched a wall. Ironically, it’s the first time Louis has felt like he can breathe all night. 

 

*

 

Lottie is waiting by the door when Louis goes to leave. She’s staring at her phone, two coats slung across her arms, obviously waiting for Chase to return from somewhere. Hopefully, not the bar. At the moment, Louis can’t really be bothered to care where he is. He’s just elated that he isn’t here , giving Louis another chance to talk to his sister. Properly talk, just the two of them. This is his chance to make things... if not right, then better.

“Lots!” he calls, as he bounds up, as if he doesn’t get her attention right away, she might spontaneously disappear in the 15 seconds it takes for him to cross the room.

Lottie looks up at Louis, her face remaining passive. 

“Hey,” Louis is already talking by the time he is in front of her, “so what’d you think-”

Lottie interrupts him: “Look, Louis. We really don’t have to do this.”

“Do what?”

“Act like everything is OK,” Lottie continues. Her expression is tight, like if she lets out a breath, it might betray her. “ You hate it. I hate it. There’s no reason for us to put ourselves through the whole charade.”

Louis lets out a sigh of relief. He doesn’t want to waste time on bullshit, either. He just wants his sister back and he’s willing to do the work to make it happen. “I’m so glad you said that,” he starts, ready to launch into the plan he’d practiced with Dr. Shaw: Invite Lottie to coffee. You don’t have to figure it all out right away. You just have to start. 

“Oh. Right,” Lottie says, her face falling, which confuses Louis. “We’re on the same page, then.”

“Would you like to-” Louis starts again.

“I’ll see you around, Louis,” Lottie says, turning and pushing through the door without even putting her coat on.

Louis’ stomach falls. 

Chase rushes past Louis. “Babe, wait up!”

Louis has no idea what the fuck just happened.

 

*

 

By the time Louis gets back to his flat that night, he is well past exhausted. He flops down onto his bed and seriously considers falling asleep in his nice clothes. Instead, he picks up his phone and scrolls through Instagram. 

Chase has a photo from tonight’s dinner on his story. It’s of the steak dinner he had and is tagged “#ProteinUp.” Louis rolls his eyes, and scrolls back through his recently posted photos. It’s mostly Chase and his gaggle of public school friends drinking at pubs in their suits or on vacation in various locales. They all have captions like, “Work hard, play hard” and “Bros before hoes.” 

Louis has to scroll through 15 photos before he finds one of his sister. She’s all dressed up in a bodycon dress, hair and makeup done, in what must be their flat’s kitchen, holding a pan of lasagna. Chase has captioned it: “Get yourself a girlfriend who can do both.” Gross.

Louis exits the app, pulling up Lottie’s contact info instead. He opens the texting function. The last text is from Lottie, asking him to pick up some napkins on the way to the art opening. It’s from 355 day ago. He starts to tap a new message into the thread: hey . Groundbreaking. Louis deletes the three letters and closes the app. 

He gets out of bed and goes to fetch Niall from his upstairs cage. Louis knows he shouldn’t do this—Zayn used to yell at him all of the time for letting Niall onto his bed—but he’s fucking lonely, OK? He puts a towel down and places the guinea pig on top of it. Niall immediately starts moving around, like the curious wee thing he is.

“Sorry I left you alone for so long, mate,” Louis tells him, lying down next to Niall and watching him explore. “Truth be told, I much rather would have stayed home with you.” An image of Harry’s face when he took Louis’ hand into his own rises to the surface, uninvited. “Though I suppose it wasn’t all bad.” 

Niall doesn’t answer, so Louis goes into his phone contacts and finds Zayn’s number. He taps once and listens to it ring. The call eventually goes to voicemail, and Louis doesn’t know what he’ll do on the day when it doesn’t. When someone has figured out that Zayn will never check his voicemail ever again.

Zayn’s voice comes, tinny, through his phone’s speaker: “Hey, this is Zayn. Leave a message.”

“Hi. Me again… Had dinner with the family tonight. I know. I know. It’s been awhile, hasn’t it? No one punched anyone else, though I came close with Chase once or twice. There was a guy there… I honestly don’t know what to make of him, Z. He has the best eyes. I… didn’t mean to say that… Did I mention he’s a priest. You would have thought this was so fucking funny...” 

Without Louis’ rambling, the room goes quiet, and Louis becomes very conscious of his aloneness.

Louis never knows how to sign off on his voicemails to his dead best friend. “See you later” isn’t true anymore. “I love you” still is, but Louis never would have said that to Zayn in a voicemail when he was still alive, and Louis likes that these messages still feel almost normal, if it’s not a bad day and he tries hard enough. 

Louis wishes more than anything he could go back to the time when leaving a message like this one would have been so stupidly mundane. But, even at the height of his powers of denial, Louis is never quite able to pull off that delusion.

“I just... I’m so fucking lonely, Z,” Louis says aloud to the empty room, something rising in his chest. He pushes it back down so he can finish the voicemail “And I miss you so fucking much.”

Louis lets the sentiment settle in the air before he hits the “Disconnect” button. He puts Niall back in his cage and gets ready for bed. Once there, he plugs in his phone next to the bed, flicks off the lamp beside his bed, lays his head on his pillow, and closes his eyes. He hopes for sleep.

 

*

 

It's been a long while since Louis has wanted to stay in a dream. These days, he's more used to nightmares: Horrible surrealities in which he’s not only lost his mum and Zayn, but everyone else too: Lottie. Mark. Niall the guinea pig.

The nightmare featuring the loss of Niall was unexpectedly particularly devastating, and ended with Louis waking in the middle of the night, face wet, heart racing, the overwhelming horror that he had failed his dead best friend by letting the guinea pig they co-parented eat rat poison rising in his chest. It might have been easier to self-soothe had Louis not failed his dead best friend in a far more dire way in reality.

This morning, Louis wakes up from a dream of Harry. It's a bit sad given he just met the bloke, but Louis has never been picky about the source of a good night's sleep—no matter how objectively pitiful it is that he was dreaming about a priest he can never have. 

The worst part is: it wasn't even a sex dream. Harry had packed them a picnic for Hampstead Heath. Once there, Harry had made friends with all of the rabbits and butterflies who live there, and convinced them to put on a special show for Harry and Louis.

During the climax of the show—a particularly impressive moment in which pairs of butterflies had picked up the rabbits by their ears and performed a complicated aerial dance—Dream Harry had leaned over and whispered into Louis' ear: “There's no bunny for me but you.”

Yeah. Louis is royally fucked... and not in a good way.

This truth becomes even more apparent when Louis leaves his house to grab a morning coffee, only to find himself at the entrance to the church where Harry is priest. And so what if it happens to be the exact right time to pop in for Harry's 10:30 mass? It's not like he's never been to church before. He wasn't born a heathen.

Louis sneaks in right after the opening hymn, and slips into one of the back pews like some kind of frumpy James Bond. He honestly had dressed for his local cafe. He's in his sweatshirt and tracksuit bottoms. His mum would have been horrified. When he and Lottie were kids, Jay would sometimes take them to this church. She'd make Louis wear a sweater in the winter and a button down in the summer. Louis has more than one memory of Jay trying to run a comb through his hair as they hurried up the church steps.

Harry, on the other hand, looks perfect: a vision in green robes, curls a little wild but shiny and clean. His eyes are shining as he welcomes everyone to the service. Louis notices that his brow furrows when he's concentrating, as he is when pouring the water into the wine. When one of the church patrons goes up to do a reading, he mouths along absentmindedly. Louis thinks it might just be the cutest thing he's seen all week, and he recently had a dream about bunnies.

When Harry isn’t being adorable on the sanctuary, he’s being pretty fucking sexy. Maybe Louis’ gonna go to hell for these thoughts, but he can’t help but find the way Harry takes command of his audience—sorry, parishioners—extremely hot. Is a priest supposed to have this much stage presence?

“Let us go early to the vineyards to see if the vines have budded,” says Harry, his voice deep and powerful, “if their blossoms have opened, and if the pomegranates are in bloom—there I will give you my love.” Has the Bible always been this sexy? 

Louis manages to stay incognito until the home stretch, when he lets out an “and also with you” when everyone else stays quiet. Oh well. Harry's eyes immediately find him and he gets adorably flustered, stumbling his way through the church announcements which, yes, include a mention that Cecile is looking for models to sit for her next art project; Harry directs interested parties to send an email for more information.

Louis waits until everyone else in the church has shaken hands and exchanged pleasantries with Harry before making his way to the man.

“You came to my church!” Harry exclaims before Louis has reached the proper conversational distance, attracting attention from the elderly couple who are making their way slowly through the front doors. Louis expects them to frown at Harry’s un-priestly outburst, but instead they smile fondly at him. Is anyone resistant to this man’s charms?

“Doesn't the papacy encourage you to think of it as 'our church,'” Louis teases… OK, flirts

“Oh, yes! Sorry. I just got so excited that you're here,” Harry says quickly, like he’s a six-year-old hopped up on candy. “You know,” Harry starts, leaning forward conspiratorially. “I had a dream about you last night.”

Louis blushes, which he'd honestly thought he’d lost the ability to do. “The good kind?”

“Yes,” says Harry. “I dreamt we entered a pie-eating contest and won.”

“That's kinda like the dream I had last night,” Louis says.

“Yeah?” Harry asks, dimple popping.

“Yeah. Dreamt I went to Hampstead Heath and had a picnic with bunnies and… and Lottie. Lottie was also there,” Louis rambles, chickening out on telling Harry the truth at the last second. “Definitely just me, the bunnies, and Lottie.” God, Harry has turned Louis into a stuttering mess. He hasn’t been this bad at talking to someone he likes since primary.

Harry doesn't seem to notice Louis’ terrible lying. Instead, he pouts and says: “Lucky. I love bunnies.”

“Of course you do.” Louis grins at him, already endeared. Harry grins back. Might he be the tiniest bit endeared too? No, that’s ridiculous. He’s a fucking priest—er, a priest.

“We have some bunnies living in the rectory garden,” Harry continues. “I could... show you?”

“OK,” Louis says, probably sealing his fate. 

And that's how Louis ends up spending his Sunday afternoon giggling with Harry in a garden. They don't see any bunnies, which Harry apologizes for profusely, but Louis learns that Harry has a big sister named Gemma who he doesn't get to see as much as he would like, a mum named Anne who he talks to on the phone everyday, and that he's deathly afraid of foxes, whom he’s convinced are out to get him. Like, as a species .

Perhaps most unexpected is what Louis tells Harry about himself. He's not usually one to open up so quickly—or, you know, ever —but he finds himself telling Harry things he hasn't even told Lottie. Like the first celebrity he wanked to (David Beckham, obviously). Like about the person he ghosted last year after dating for three months (he’s pretty ashamed about that one). Like how, when his mum was at her sickest, he'd prayed to any god that would listen that she would die soon.

“Everyone always thinks it will work the other way,” Louis tells Harry, sitting next to him on a rectory garden bench, weeds tickling his ankles where his socks have inched down. “Or at least I did.” 

Harry nods along encouragingly, so Louis continues: “I thought that, if one of my loved ones were sick, I’d want them to hold on for as long as possible. For forever. Because the alternative would be so much worse. But that’s not how I felt with my mum. At the end, I just… I wanted it to be over. To be done. Not for myself, but for her. And maybe a little bit for myself. Because I couldn't stand to see her in that much pain. I guess that’s what pain is like when it’s felt by someone you’ve grown into or from, isn’t it? Intertwined. It’s hard to tell where their pain stops and yours begins.”

Louis is afraid to look at Harry, too unsure of what he could see in his eyes.

“I think that makes sense, Louis,” Harry says, and Louis’ head snaps to look at him, to drink in the sight of Harry’s furrowed brow and wet eyes, of Harry’s empathy. “I think… I might feel the same way if that ever happened to me. If it were my mum.” Louis honestly didn’t realize how much he needed to hear that until he did.

Louis is working on not letting others’ opinions of him affect his opinion of himself, but he feels better in that moment. He feels OK, and a lot of it is because of Harry. Lous is unsure how Harry has made him feel so safe so fast, but every time Louis tells Harry one of the thoughts or things he's most ashamed of, Harry's eyes crinkle kindly or tear up in sympathy. Louis thinks, after less than 24 hours, he might be addicted to letting Harry in, and that's got to be the worst news in the world because he can't have him. Not in all of the ways he wants. 

“Do you ever regret it?” Louis asks, later, when Harry is talking about his decision to become a priest.

“Not yet.” Harry stays quiet, taking a long time to get the words out. “People are so desperate for community, for a place to belong. For someone to listen to them. For someone to listen to . I see it all over this city. In line at Costa and at the park and out and about on the Tube. Once you start looking for it, it's all you can see. I get to give that to people. I get to give that to myself.” Harry pauses. “Does that make any sense?”

Louis thinks about it for a while, about all of the times he has felt that way, like he doesn’t have a place to be seen. Fuck, he’s felt that way more times than he can count just in the last week. He’s been to therapy long enough now that he knows that lack of a sense of a home drives his insecurities around Mark and Lottie and Cecile: he’s not sure if he belongs with them. He’s not sure if he belongs anywhere.

Louis turns his head to look at Harry, who is already looking back at him, his green eyes wide and searching yet patient. Instead of answering Harry’s question, he deflects, raising one eyebrow in judgment and saying: “You get your coffee at Costa?” 

“Heyyyy.” Harry whines, not missing a beat and making Louis wonder if he is half as affected as Louis is by their interaction. “There's only so much you can afford on a priest's salary.”

“Stick with me, Young Harold,” Louis tells him, turning back to the clouds. “I'll take you to a nice cafe for a proper flat white.”

“Yeah?” Harry asks, and he moves his arm so it's pressing into Louis'.

“Yeah,” Louis promises. 

“How are you doing after last night?” Harry asks, and it catches Louis off guard. They were having fun. Why do they have to talk about Louis’ family? 

“What do you mean?” asks Louis, leaning away from Harry’s warmth, hackles up.

Harry shrugs, but his eyes stay focused. “Things sounded pretty heated between you and your sister.”

“That was a private conversation,” Louis tells him.

“In a public loo,” Harry counters.

“It’s not really any of your business, mate,” Louis says and he’s aware the light-hearted tone of their previous banter is gone.

Harry isn’t easily scared away, though. “I’m just… here to talk, if you want.”

“Oh god. That’s not what this is, is it?” Harry looks confused, so Louis continues. “You’re not trying to be my priest, are you?”

“No... “ Harry says slowly… too slowly for it to be an absolute denial. “I just… I’m here if you want to talk.”

“You already said that,” Louis informs him, and Harry looks a bit flustered. “Just... don’t try to be my priest, OK? That’s not what I need.”

“What do you need?” Harry asks, and the intensity of his gaze catches Louis unaware. He feels his face flushing and he wants to look away from Harry’s bright, searching eyes, but he can’t. Before he can answer, however, the door to the rectory opens and a man—fit, with big brown eyes—comes into the garden. Harry looks away and Louis is relieved and disappointed at the same time.

“Haz, didn’t you say something about wanting to go over the plans for the church fair before tonight’s mass?” the man asks pointedly.

Harry gives the man a furtive look, and they communicate in significant glances for a good 10 seconds. “Yeah, we should probably get started.” Harry turns to Louis. “Sorry, Louis. This is Liam.”

“Um, hi, Liam,” Louis says, giving a little wave. “You live here too?”

“I’m the church warden,” Liam says, as if that answers all of Louis’ questions.

“Liam keeps me in line, right, Li?” Harry says with a smile.

Liam’s shoulders relax, and he doesn’t look half as uptight as he did a moment ago. “Well I do try.”

They are all quiet for a beat.

“Well, I really should be going,” Louis finally says, standing up from the bench and brushing off his tracksuit bottoms.

“I’m really sorry about the lack of bunnies,” Harry says, but Louis thinks he might be apologizing about something else.

“‘S alright,” says Louis, even if he’s not sure what apology he’s accepting. “Right. I guess I’ll see you around.”

 

*

 

Louis spends the next week not thinking about Harry Styles. He ices an order of cupcakes a mossy green, and doesn’t think about Harry Styles. He sees a rabbit while he’s walking in the park, and doesn’t think about Harry Styles. He listens to the Jesus Christ Superstar soundtrack, and doesn’t think about Harry Styles. Honestly, he’s basically an Olympic athlete in the field of Not Thinking About Harry Styles.

The thing is: It’s particularly hard not to think about someone when you’re left to your own devices, and Louis spends most of the week on his own. Sure, he talks to his customers, but that rarely turns into real conversation. Just pleasantries and perfectly calm debates about footie. Louis wishes he could say that this kind of week is outside of the ordinary, but it’s not. In the last year, Louis has spent more days like this than not: staying busy at the cafe during the day, then spending the evenings curled up with Niall on the couch, watching some variety of reality TV, and falling asleep without having had any meaningful human contact.

This is one of the reasons why Dr. Shaw encouraged him to start Chatty Wednesdays. “If you can’t do it to help yourself, then do it to help someone else,” she’d told him when he’d brought up the idea as a quasi-joke. “You’re far from the only lonely person in London.”

The rules are simple: anyone who comes to the cafe on Wednesday afternoon from 1-3 is encouraged to sit at a random table and start or join a conversation that is already happening. You can sit and talk as long as you like and anyone is welcome, as long as you are kind and respectful (and buy something—Louis’ not doing this completely out of the goodness of his heart). Usually, people come by themselves, but there are some regulars who have gotten to know each other and Louis: Dom, who works at the pub across the street, and who has been here since Louis’ very first Chatty Wednesday. Arnie, who doesn’t seem to know how to talk to his young daughter, Chadia, so he brings her to the cafe to talk to other people. And Joe, of course, who is always good at making first-timers feel welcome.

Joe finds Louis when he is bringing out a pot of chamomile for Arnie and Chadia. “Lou, look what I got last night at the pub.” Joe holds up a ukulele. “This bloke just said I could have it.”

“Do you play the ukulele, Joe?” Louis asks, placing the pot in front of Arnie and giving Chadia a wink.

Joe follows Louis around as he collects some of the empty plates. “I do now. Would you consider starting up an open mic night?”

“I’ll make you a deal,” Louis tells Joe before he heads back inside. “You learn how to play a song on the ukulele—a good song, mind you, I don’t want any of this Lumineers shit—and I will have an open mic night.”

“You’ve got yourself a deal, darling,” Joe says, holding out his hand for Louis to shake.

Sometimes, Chatty Wednesday is the only time in the week Louis is touched. There was a time when Louis never wanted for physical affection. When he was younger, he had no shortage of people to cuddle up with: his mother, Lottie, his friends. Louis has always been a tactile person. His mum said that, when he was a toddler, he would cry whenever she went to put him down. He wanted to be in her arms, always, so she had to start doing the chores with Louis clinging to her back, like a baby monkey. “Got right strong during that phase,” Jay would always say when she was telling the story. “Having to lug Loubear around everywhere.” But she always winked at Louis when she said it, so Louis knows she didn’t actually mind.

Louis had held her hand when they were out around town doing errands far later than he should probably admit, age 11 or 12. But he was never embarrassed about it: about loving his mum. When he was a kid, he had trouble understanding why some other kids might be.

“Mum, Lenny says that he told his mum to stop giving him hugs when she drops him off for school,” Louis remembers telling his mom one night when she was tucking him into bed. He must have been 9 or 10 at the time.

“Oh?” she’d said, searching for an extra blanket.

“Lenny says it’s embarrassing. Should I stop giving you hugs?”

Jay had stopped what she was doing and sat down next to Louis on his bed. “Are you embarrassed, love?”

Louis had thought about it for a long moment. “No.”

“Then I say you keep on hugging me,” Jay had said, tugging the extra blanket up around Louis and giving him a squeeze. “Because my Lou gives the best hugs in the whole entire world.”

After he hit puberty, Louis’ love of physical affection had extended to sex. He was awkward about it for a while, but his desire to try new and more things usually outweighed his embarrassment over being inexperienced. He enjoyed sex and he was good at it, so he spent his young adulthood having a fair bit of it, especially once he moved out of his mum’s house and into a flat with Zayn.

At some point, however, and Louis doesn’t exactly know when or how it happened, sex stopped being something healthy. His body still found pleasure in the act, but he didn’t feel good about himself during or after. The lonelier he got, the more he sought it out. After his mum died but before Zayn did, he’d had a long-term boyfriend. He’d cheat on him all of the time. He couldn’t stop himself. He did it even when he wasn’t feeling particularly horny. He did it because he couldn’t stop, because he didn’t know what would happen if he did. What he would be left with. What he would be good for. He did it because he hated himself.

Now, Louis knows that he was suffering from depression and an impulse control disorder. He talks to Dr. Shaw about it. But, while Louis has mostly stopped hurting himself in that way, the loneliness he was responding to is still there. The pain over his mother’s death, over Zayn’s death, is still there. He ’s still here: healing, but too goddamn slow, and trying not to fuck anyone else up in the meantime.

So that’s why Louis spends the week not thinking about Harry Styles. Because Harry seems like a good person. Because Louis doesn’t want to fall into any of his old patterns. So he’ll see Harry occasionally when Cecile and Mark’s wedding calls for it, but no more snuggling in the rectory garden. He’s not looking for another friend whose life he can ruin just by being in it.

Instead of thinking about Harry, he does what has usually been doing lately to avoid his problems: he focuses on the cafe. It's a guinea pig cafe. Which doesn't mean it is a cafe for guinea pigs (though Louis would probably be cool if someone wanted to bring their guinea pig in—he's not positive because no one has ever tried). It doesn't mean it is a cafe that serves guinea pigs (gross). What it means is that, one day, after Louis and Zayn had first come up with the frankly misguided idea to start a cafe and actually did it, Zayn had come through the door with the guinea pig Louis would later come to know and love as Niall in his arms.

“Z, the fuck is that?”

“I know, I know,” Zayn said, heading to the refrigerator, finding a stalk of celery, and feeding it to the furry critter. “But Lou, someone was just going to abandon Niall in a box on the street. I couldn't just leave him.”

“Couldn't you?” Zayn had looked up from the nibbling Niall (the guinea pig’s name, apparently) to give Louis his best puppy dog look—which, honestly, with those eyes, didn’t take much. “ Fine . But he can't stay here. This is a place of business.”

Zayn had looked at Louis with his big puppy eyes again and that's how their establishment had become a guinea pig cafe: a cafe with a guinea pig named Niall, and a selection of carefully-curated art featuring guinea pigs on the walls, mostly sketched by Zayn, who was a fucking good artist. Added bonus? Cecile hated it. 

In general, the guinea pig theme was a good metric of character. Most people were indifferent to the theme—they didn't care if there were beady little guinea pig eyes glaring out at them from the walls and Niall's cage, as long as they got the right dressing on their afternoon salad. But the people who truly delighted in the theme? Those were the Zayns of the world, who had managed to find an original artwork of David Bowie as a guinea pig to grace their walls… Louis has found that those people are the special ones, the ones worth getting to know.

“Is that David Bowie as a guinea pig?!” Harry exclaims, when he first walks into the cafe on Friday, which marks the fifth day of Louis not thinking about Harry Styles.

“What the fuck are you doing here?” Louis says without thinking. He had specifically not been thinking about Harry Styles only for the bastard to have the nerve to walk into his cafe? The older couple at the corner table look up in shock. Harry just laughs.

“Um, hello?” Harry says, dimples popping. “Is this a bad time?”

Louis races to think of a reason to send Harry away, but he comes up with nothing. The corner couple are the only two customers in at the moment and he’s already finished all of his midday chores. 

“Not at all,” Louis hears himself saying, like an idiot who can’t lie. “You want something?”

Louis makes Harry an iced americano and immediately gets pulled into an argument about the merits of iced coffee beverages—Harry thinks there are some. Before he knows it, he’s been sitting across from Harry arguing about the best British bands for an hour. They’re the only two in the cafe, and it’s nearing closing time.

“You never answered my Bowie question,” Harry says after making a particularly passionate plea for the Spice Girls. 

Louis stands up and moves over to the wall art in question. “You haven't seen Bowie until you've seen him as a guinea pig, young Harold.” Harry nods solemnly, apparently agreeing with Louis.

Louis gives Harry a mini-tour before finishing at Niall’s cage. “And this is Niall. He’s an actual guinea pig.” Harry jumps from his seat and comes over.

“Hello, darling,” Harry coos, putting his finger up to the netting. He turns to Louis. “Can we take him out?”

“I don't see why not,” Louis tells him.

And that's how Niall ends up getting the biggest dinner he's had in possibly his entire life… at least until the next day, when Harry comes in again.

“Don’t you have other parishioners to check up on?” Louis asks when the bell rings and Harry walks in. He hopes he doesn’t sound annoyed. He doesn’t want Harry to stop coming; he just doesn’t want to start getting his hopes up. Doesn’t want to start expecting something and then to find himself disappointed when Harry falls short of it. 

Louis knows his attention can be a lot. When he meets someone he likes, he wants to spend all of his time with them. It isn’t always a sex thing. It wasn’t with Zayn who, while objectively drop-dead gorgeous, Louis never really wanted to sleep with. Still, when they first met, Louis wasn’t interested in spending time with many other people—not until he got to know Zayn first. Everything else felt less important for a while, like it faded into the background. It’s like that with Harry, too: like Harry is in color and everything else is shades of grey.

“You’re not a parishioner, Lou.” Louis brings his hand to a chest in mock pain, as if Harry has wounded him. Harry doesn’t seem to notice, heading towards Niall’s cage. “You’re a friend.”

Louis’ hand drops. It takes him a long second to recover from the power of Harry’s simple earnestness, and he hopes the man doesn’t notice. 

“You should know I don’t believe in God,” Louis blurts out, surprising himself more than he seems to surprise Harry. 

“OK...” Harry says, turning slowly, Niall now cradled in his arms. His eyes are still twinkling, like he knows something Louis doesn’t.

Louis gets the rest of it out: “So if you’re on some kind of super secret holy mission, you can just stop. It’s not going to happen.” 

Harry laughs. 

“What?” Louis demands, hands on his hips.

“I’m sorry, Louis. It’s just… ‘super secret holy mission’? You make it sound like I’m a papal James Bond or something.”

Louis throws his hands in the air. “Well I don’t know, do I? The Da Vinci Code and all that. There are... conspiracies.”

Harry looks up from where he’s feeding Niall a celery stalk he must have brought with him. “Yes, that’s what the Pope is after: the Holy Grail and Louis Tomlinson’s immortal soul. We have meetings about it and everything.”

Louis looks around wildly. “Are you supposed to be joking about stuff like this?”

Harry smirks at him. “Aw, Lou. You afraid I’m gonna get struck down by lightning?”

A portrait of Jesus as a guinea pig chooses that moment to fall from the wall. Louis startles in his chair, looking in horror back at Harry, which only makes Harry start laughing uncontrollably, a honking thing that should probably be embarrassing.

Louis wants for Harry to stop laughing. “You’re not like any priest I’ve ever met,” he tells him.

Harry works to catch his breath, clutching his ribs from the effort. “You met a lot of priests, then?” 

“A few,” Louis says, crossing his arms in front of him.

“Well you’re not like anybody I’ve ever met either,” Harry says, like it’s the same thing. Like Harry’s remark isn’t so much more of a compliment. Like it doesn’t make Louis’ heart race and heat rise to his cheeks.

“I don’t want to convert you or anything,” Harry says seriously. “I just like hanging out.” Harry gets suddenly shy, avoiding Louis’ gaze in favor of walking over to Niall’s cage to put the little critter back inside. “Is that… OK?”

Louis stares at Harry’s broad back, using the other man’s distraction to admire the way his muscles move underneath his shirt as he goes to close Niall’s cage. 

“Yep,” Louis says, popping the “p,” making it sound more playful than he actually feels. 

 

*

 

Louis heads into his weekly therapy session on Wednesday determined not to bring Harry up. It’s not like he doesn’t know he needs to talk about it… just not yet. He has loads of other problems he and Dr. Shaw can analyze together. There was that time he pissed himself in class during primary school and refused to go back for a week. They haven’t talked about that yet. Or the fact that Niall has been looking a little gloomy lately, like he might be sad about something. Louis wonders if Dr. Shaw has any animal therapy experience.

Compared to that stuff, Harry Styles is nothing. Just some bloke Louis has known for a few weeks. Nope, nothing to see here. Louis has that particular situation totally under control.

“So, how have the past few weeks been?” Dr. Shaw asks. Don’t mention Harry’s curls.

“Oh, you know. Same old.” Or the way his eyes crinkle when he giggles.

Dr. Shaw raises an eyebrow. Oh no, she’s already onto him. “Nothing out of the ordinary or particularly stressful?”

“No,” Louis says, keeping his voice even. “Why do you ask?” That was good. He’s killing this. So nonchalant. Absolutely no mention of how, when Louis had taken Niall back from Harry yesterday, his hand had brushed against Harry’s stomach, and it was firm beneath the silk of his blouse.

“The dinner with your family,” Dr. Shaw prompts. “That was last Friday, correct?”

Fuck. Louis is not killing this. “Right. I mean... yes.”

“And how did it go?” Dr. Shaw asks.

“It went… fine. It was fine.”

“Fine?”

“Yep.”

“Was there a reason Mark wanted to get together?” Dr. Shaw asks. 

“Oh, right.” Louis’ still got this. The situation can totally be salvaged. “It turns out he and Cecile are getting married.”

Dr. Shaw puts down her pen and looks at Louis a little worriedly. “How did that make you feel?”

“Honestly, I didn’t have much time to process it,” Louis says, honestly, tapping his foot nervously. “Because then Lottie mentioned she’s moving to New York City with her boyfriend.”

Dr. Shaw closes her notebook altogether. “That sounds like a lot of new information to process at one dinner,” she says. “How have you been feeling in the days since?”

“Not too bad. I’ve been pretty busy.” It’s true. Louis has been hanging out with Harry, texting with Harry, thinking about Harry… “You know, with the cafe and Niall and all of that.”

Dr. Shaw does not look convinced. “Have you been avoiding thinking about it?” she asks.

“I think… yes?” Louis says, and it’s not dishonest, but it’s not really the whole truth either, is it? Louis has been using Harry as an excuse to avoid thinking about the fact that Mark is marrying someone other than his mum and that Lottie might be leaving him for America and to forget about the reality that his family didn’t speak to him for a year and that fucking hurt. But Harry is more than an excuse.

When Louis starts listing all of the shit things that have happened to him over the past few years. Losing his mum. Losing Zayn. Losing Lottie from his life for a whole year. Louis is so fucking tired of losing people. Is it so wrong that, for the first time in far too long, he wants to hold onto someone? Just for a little while? In any way he can?

Louis spends the rest of the session working through some of his feelings about Mark and Lottie and doesn’t mention Harry once. It’s definitely a lie of omission and Louis knows the person he is hurting most is himself. Dr. Shaw isn’t his loved one, she’s his therapist. She’s there to help him in a professional capacity and any relevant thoughts or feelings or experiences he chooses to withhold from her keep her from being able to do that. 

But Louis knows that mentioning Harry to Dr. Shaw is the first step to having to let him go, and he’s not ready to start down that path just yet. Not when he only just started down the path of getting to know him. Louis has been hurting for so long. He’s so desperate to feel something else.

 

*

 

Before Louis knows it, it’s been a month since he’s met Harry and, honestly, he thought—OK, he’d hoped , for convenience’s sake—he would have been sick of him by now. 

Harry tries to stop by the cafe when he can. Usually, it’s in the late afternoon, when the flow of customers has dwindled. He’ll help Louis do his tidying up while listening to Louis rant about a particularly difficult customer or why he thinks Oasis is the greatest band of all time. 

Today, Harry is working on his latest restaurant review for the church bulletin. He writes them weekly and always spends a ridiculous amount of time working on them—sometimes, and Louis promises Harry not to tell anyone in the parish this nugget of information, almost as long as he works on the week’s homily. Secretly, Louis thinks Harry’s homilies are some of the most beautiful things he’s ever read or seen delivered: honest and open, poetic yet clear. The reviews are just a bit of good fun.

“Lou, can you proofread my new review for me?” Harry asks, from his corner table in the cafe, by the window: his favorite spot to work. (“It has the best people-watching.”)

Lou gives a nod as he walks over, and Harry’s face lights up like he’s just promised him the moon, the stars, and a couple of rogue asteroids. He takes the journal from Harry’s outstretched hand (yes, he uses a journal, as if he’s Ernest bloody Hemingway or something), reads the title, and snorts.

 

If You Choose Costa, It Won’t Cost Ya! A Cafe Review by Father Styles

 

“No, Haz,” Louis says.

“Yes, Haz,” Harry responds.

Louis keeps reading.

 

In all the lands in all the world, there has never been a coffee shop quite like Costa. Jesus may have never had the chance to taste the bittersweet creaminess of a flat white’s foam—coffee was first cultivated in the 15th century, with the flat white not gracing us with its presence until the 20th century—but, if he had, I’m sure he would have appreciated Costa’s combination of quality and affordability. A Costa flat white will set you back a mere two pound, forty, without sacrificing any of the strength of its espresso or creamy mouthfeel of that steamed milk. Forget about turning water into wine; let’s turn some water into a Costa flat white.

 

“What do you think?”

“I think you’re ridiculous and this borders on blasphemy.”

Harry smiles up at him. “But it made you laugh, right? That’s what I’m trying to do, really: brighten people’s days.”

“Yeah, Haz, it made me laugh,” Louis says, and Harry gives a nod of approval, takes the paper back from Louis, and tucks it into his knapsack. 

Harry gets up and wanders around the cafe, noticing some of the details. He pauses by the refrigerator.

“This your talent on display?” Harry asks. Louis glances up and sees that he is admiring the crayon drawing hanging on his fridge. It’s of two stick figures holding hands, one a little bit taller than the other and wearing a baseball cap.

Louis clears his throat. “No, um, that’s Lottie’s actually.”

Lottie had drawn it when she was little, and Jay had found it not long after she’d gotten sick. When she was in hospital, she’d asked Lou to grab it from its spot on her own refrigerator and bring it to her room. This was when she wasn’t doing so well and no one had the energy any longer to pretend otherwise. 

She’d made Louis hold it up so she could look at it for a long while. Louis’ arm had gotten tired after a few minutes, but his mum was smiling softly, even though she must have been in a fair amount of pain, and there wasn’t anything that would have made him drop his arm, not even for a moment, until she asked. Louis had pointed out that Little Lottie had drawn the stick figure bodies past where the legs met, making both figures look like they have tiny knobs, which made them both laugh. Then Jay’s smile had faded, and she noted how much better Lottie had gotten at drawing: “A real artist, she is.” And Louis could tell she was thinking about how much she would miss, how she wouldn’t get to see this version of Lottie grow into the next one.

“You’ll take care of each other?” Jay had finally said, and it made Louis catch his breath. He drew his arm back, sensing that Jay didn’t want to look at the drawing anymore. Probably never had, to be honest. Just wanted to remember a simpler time, when they were all younger and safer and so much farther from death.

“‘Course,” Louis had said, his voice cracking, his fingers fold sweaty creases into the 15-year-old drawing that could never be undone.

Even then, at that point, Louis could still not quite believe the inevitable could happen. Then it had, and the universe had turned on its head. Twice. You’d think that would make it right side up, but most days Louis still felt like he was living in an alternate dimension: one where his mum and Zayn weren’t out doing errands, but just… gone.

When Louis slips back out of the memory, Harry is looking at him patiently and Louis is struck with an intense urge to crack himself open and let Harry see everything inside. God, it’s terrifying, but it’s also so powerful. Like nothing Louis has ever felt before… at least not since he was a kid. It feels deep. It feels instinctual. It feels alive. Louis wonders if Harry’s faith comes from the same kind of place.

“When my mum died, everyone expected me to find God or something,” Louis begins, slowly, giving Harry a chance to opt out of this conversation if he wants to. He doesn’t take it, so Louis continues. “It’s not like that wouldn’t have been convenient: believing that I’ll see my mum again. But, when I look inside of myself for answers, for what I believe, I know it’s not that. I just don’t feel it, you know?”

Harry nods, kindly. He is still across the room, as if moving any closer to Louis will break the spell of Louis’ openness, but the way he’s gazing at Louis, the way he’s listening so intently, makes it feel like he is right next to Lou. Makes it feel like he is holding his hand in his. Like he did that night they first met.

“You know what did help?” Louis continues. “There’s this thing that Carl Sagan said… that we’re all made from the stuff of stars. It’s cliche, I know. The sort of thing that you see on an inspirational poster. But when you put it into context, it’s pretty beautiful. We’re part of the universe. We’re not outside of it. My mum and Zayn might be done, but the stuff they were made of isn’t. It’s still here, in the same universe as you and me.”

Harry smiles, his eyes shiny. “I like that.”

 

*



Louis has never been to church so frequently in his life—not just to service, but to the physical building, where Harry works throughout the day. 

The cafe closes early on Mondays and Tuesdays, so Louis will close up shop and then head over to St. Alban’s. He’ll bug Harry while he’s trying to work on his homily or his schedule. Turns out priests do other things besides mass: like visit sick people in the hospital, administer pre-wedding marriage counseling (Louis begs Harry to tell him about Mark and Cecile’s sessions, but he won’t), or counsel parishioners who need extra support. 

Basically, Harry actually has a fair amount of important stuff to do, so if Louis is really starting to feel guilty about disrupting Harry’s focus, he will spend his time doing pranks that don’t immediately distract Harry: rearranging the items on the credence table (oh god, he’s learning church lingo now) or folding all of the church bulletins into paper aeroplanes and waiting for Harry to notice. Once, he hid in the confessional, then waited until Harry walked by and jumped out at him and yelled “Boo!” Harry had clutched his heart and tripped over the corner of a pew, so Louis vowed never to scare him like that again. Probably.

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Sometimes, when Louis is really bored and Harry is quite annoyed, he’ll go find Liam. Liam always has A Very Important Task to complete, even if it is just polishing the silverware or something else that Louis had previously thought only people on TV did, and does not make the same kinds of rewarding faces as Harry when Louis tries to distract him from his mission, so Louis doesn’t try. Instead, he’ll actually help. 

Today, Louis is assisting Liam in painting all of the signs for the upcoming church fair, thank you very much. After a few hours of work, Harry comes to find them, giggling when he sees the blots of blue paint Louis has managed to get all over his face.

“You’re meant to paint the signs, not yourself , Lou,” Harry says, gazing fondly from the doorway to the rectory kitchen.

Louis dips his brush in the green paint and walks towards Harry. “I’ll show you signage,” he says, which is a mistake in that it gives away his plan. Harry’s eyes widen and he takes off running. Lou follows, wet paintbrush very much still in his hand.

“Louis, don’t get any paint in the rectory!” Liam yells after them, but it is too late: Louis has a mission.

Harry may have long legs, but Louis is quicker. He tackles Harry while he is trying to make it to the garden gate. They fall down into a heap, Harry on his stomach and Louis on top of him, tickling Harry until he turns over beneath him.

“Do your worst,” Harry says, giggling. He stops wriggling at this point and submits to Louis, who is now straddling Harry. Louis has the paintbrush in his mouth and is using both his hands to pin Harry’s wrists to the ground on either side of his face. 

Harry is warm and solid beneath him, and Louis wants to press his whole body down until he can feel all of Harry. He wants to bury his head in his neck and bite where Harry’s neck meets his shoulder. 

Harry’s breath catches, and Louis realizes he has started absentmindedly stroking the underside of Harry’s left wrist, where the sleeve of his jumper had ridden up. Louis knows he should stop, but he can’t. 

Harry isn’t giggling anymore but he is breathing heavily, maybe from his running or maybe from something else. Louis’ eyes lock onto Harry’s, whose own eyes are darker than they were a few minutes ago. 

Something has to give, so Louis moves his face, brush still in mouth, ever so slowly towards Harry’s, who doesn’t look away for even a second. He can feel Harry’s breath on his face, warm and quick. 

Then, Louis makes the tiniest green dot on Harry’s nose. Rather than laugh, like Louis thought he might, Harry sighs. He pulls his wrists gently but firmly from Louis’ hold and gets his elbows underneath him, propping himself up. Louis sits back on Harry’s thighs.

“Lou,” Harry begins, and Louis’ stomach drops. It feels like Harry was breaking up with him, which is ridiculous because they aren’t even seeing each other. “You know…” Harry looks past Louis as he tries to find the words. Louis wants him, admiring the flush of Harry’s cheeks as he did.

Eventually, Harry finds Louis’ eyes again. “You know we can’t be more than this, right?” Harry says, softly, gently. “We can’t be more than friends.”

Louis blinks to push back the burn in his eyes. He has to look away from Harry’s kind gaze. He swallows. “‘Course,” he tells Harry, but he can’t bear to look at him in this moment.

“It’s not that…” Harry starts and then stops, seemingly unsure of where he was going with that sentence. Louis makes himself meet Harry’s eyes again. They’re a combination of kind and pitying that Louis never wants to see from Harry again.

“Haz, it’s fine. I get it.”

Harry reaches for Louis, putting one of his hands on Louis’ stomach in what is probably supposed to be a comfort. And it would have been, of course it would have been. Harry’s touch always makes Louis feel better. Except when it doesn’t. Except when it just reminds Louis of the vastness of what he wants when it comes to Harry and the limits of what he can actually have.

Louis wants so badly to lean into Harry’s touch. Instead, he climbs off of him and they go about their day as if they hadn’t stopped the world in its tracks or something equally blasphemous with their moment. Harry makes them and Liam dinner and the three of them watch Mamma Mia! Harry knows all of the words to every song, and Louis tries not to find it incredibly fucking adorable.

And Louis is relieved that they can still be something, but he is also so fucking disappointed. It is a disappointment so heavy it weighs him down until he climbs into bed that night alone. He sleeps the whole night but when he wakes in the morning, it feels like he hardly slept at all.

 

*

 

The next evening, Louis ignores Harry’s attempts to hang out. Instead, he goes for a walk and finds himself at Mark and Cecile’s house. It used to be Mark and his mum’s house, of course, but not anymore. Still, the tulips Jay planted in the garden are still there, as are the height marks on the kitchen door threshold from when Louis and Lottie were smaller and smaller and smaller. 

There’s still a divot in the front walkway that Jay always said she planned on fixing but never got around to. It tripped Louis once when he was small and he’d skinned his knee. Jay had scooped him up in her arms and held him as he cried. She’d brought him into the living room, turned the radio on to the pop station, and swayed him softly no matter how fast the tempo of the song. Sometimes, when Louis is extra drunk or extra sad or both, he’ll put on the radio and sway around the room a bit.

Louis side-steps the divot and rings the doorbell. He tries not to think too long about the fact that he is ringing the doorbell at all. There was a time when he would have had the key. Well, technically, he still has the key. But there is a time when he would have used it, barged in without knocking, yelling as soon as he got in the door. Louis wants to crawl into that vague memory and live there forever, safe and warm in a place where his mum is just on the other side of this door and he’s young and naive enough to not even properly appreciate how much of a miracle that is.

Then, the door opens.

“Lou!” Mark exclaims from the other side of the threshold, obviously surprised to see his stepson who hasn’t bothered to wander by for more than a year. The smile on his face looks frail, as if a strong wind might knock it off. “What are you doing here?”

Louis shrugs. “Oh, you know. Just in the neighborhood. Thought I’d stop by to say hello.”

At that, Mark smile loosens into something real. “Would you like to stay for dinner? We’ve ordered fish and chips.”

Louis shrugs, kicking the doorway lightly with his toe. “Only if you think you’ll have enough.”

Mark claps a hand on Louis’ shoulder. “I think we’ll manage just fine.”

Mark moves out of the doorway and Louis follows him back into the house, shutting the door behind himself. He takes his trainers off on the mat—a rigid rule since Cecile moved in. His mum never could get Lou and Lottie to remember. She was always yelling at them about tracking dirt and mud around the house. Now that Cecile lives here, Louis always remembers.

“So, you were in the neighborhood?” Mark asks.

“Who was it, Mark?” Cecile yells from the kitchen before Louis can answer.

“It’s just Louis!” Mark yells back, and the way Mark says “just Louis” makes something unfurl inside of Louis. Just Louis . Like he’s not a guest. Like he’s family.

Cecile rushes into the hallway, wine glass in her hand. “Louis, dear! If I’d known you were coming, I would have done a home-cooked meal.”

Lottie comes out behind her. “Oh,” she says, awkwardly. 

Louis gives a little wave. “Hi, Lots.”

“Louis,” she says coldly in acknowledgement before turning back around into the kitchen.

Things are only marginally less awkward by the time they all sit down for dinner, greasy newspaper unfurled in front of them. Louis pours a generous amount of vinegar over his chips and digs in. Meanwhile, Cecile is using a fork and knife in the daintiest fish-and-chips consumption Louis has ever witnessed. 

“Are you still OK to pick up the invitations?” Cecile asks Lottie, whose mouth is filled with haddock. “And did you find that ribbon thing for the flowers?”

“Yes, Cecile,” Lottie says, using one of Cecile’s cloth napkins to wipe her mouth. “I’ve added it to the list.” 

“Will you have time to do that this week, sweetheart?” Mark asks. “I know you’re stressed about your thesis presentation.”

Louis is suddenly desperate to help his sister, and it makes him do something incredibly stupid. “If you need any help with the wedding, Cecile, I have some time in my schedule,” Louis offers.

Cecile spoons some coleslaw onto her plate. “Oh, don’t be silly. I have everything completely under control.”

Louis glances at Lottie who gives him an exasperated look back. Maybe it makes him petty, but Louis is overwhelmed with gratitude that, even after everything, he and Lottie are a team in this: in disliking Cecile.

“Well, if you change your mind…” Louis continues, knowing that Cecile would rather cut off her own ear than give Louis any measure of responsibility. Louis should be offended, but he’s mostly relieved he won’t have to be a part of Cecile’s reign of micromanagement.

“Lottie was just saying she was looking for someone to help with refreshments for her thesis presentation, weren’t you, Lots?” Mark volunteers. “Maybe you could help with that, Lou?”

When Louis glances at Lottie, she is aggressively looking in another direction. He clears his throat. 

“Yeah, sure,” Louis agrees. “The cafe has started doing some catering gigs so that sounds right up our alley. It’s for a thesis presentation…?” Louis tries not to dig too hard for information on Lottie’s life. That’s a normal follow-up question to ask, right?

“It’s not the presentation itself,” says Lottie. “It’s more of an after-presentation party for the department. It’s really not that big of a deal.”

“That’s not what you were saying before, sweetheart,” Mark says.

“I was just going to grab some stuff from Sainsbury’s,” Lottie says.

“Oh, Lottie, no!” Cecile says, hand over her mouth, as if Lottie has just announced she’s planning on giving up uni for a life of crime.

“It’s really not any trouble,” Louis says.

“Fine,” Lottie agrees. “I’ll text you the details.”

Louis and Lottie agree to clean up dinner while Mark and Cecile go to drink some wine in the garden. Louis is watching Lottie out of the corner of his eye as they both move around the kitchen, clearing the table and wiping down surfaces. It almost feels normal. Something they’ve done together a million times, but now that all feels like a past life. He wants desperately to say something, to start to chip at the wall that seemed to appear, fully-formed, between them, but he also doesn’t want to break the fragile peace. After they’ve been working silently next to each other for five minutes, Louis starts with something innocuous.

“Thanks for letting me help with the party,” Louis says as he washes a dish and passes it to Lottie to dry.

“Shouldn’t I be the one thanking you?”

“What I mean is… thanks for letting me back in your life.”

Lottie tenses. “You were never not in my life, Louis.” That’s not what it felt like to Louis, but he decides not to protest.

“So, is Chase helping you practice your thesis?” Louis bets he isn’t. Too wrapped up in his own life to support Lottie in one of the biggest days of her student life.

Lottie groans. “Don’t do that, Louis.”

“Don’t do what? I was just asking about your presentation.”

“No, you were asking about Chase, and I don’t want to talk about it.”

But that just makes Louis angry. Because that’s all they’ve done this past year: not talk about it. That’s all they’ve done since Jay died and, if he’s being honest with himself, before that too. Since Jay got sick and they started not saying the things they were feeling and fearing in case voicing them would somehow make them more likely, more true. And now that Louis is letting himself feel those things— really feel them instead of running away from them, instead of covering them up with something else—he is so angry. 

“I’m just worried about you, Lottie.”

“When are you going to get that my life isn’t yours to control.” Louis physically reels back at that. Is that really how Lottie feels? “That I am the one who gets to choose who I spend my time with, who I love.”

“Well, you’re choosing wrong,” Louis says before realizing what he really means. You chose him . You chose him and not me. How could you do that? By the way Lottie is looking at him, with a sudden sympathy in her eyes, Louis thinks she might see past Louis’ comment to the truth too.

But he still can’t say it. It’s too raw. Too true. It might hurt his sister more than he’s already hurt her and he can’t do it again. And doesn’t that make him just as guilty as everyone else in this family at quashing everything down, at not saying what he’s really feeling?

Louis can’t do this. Not tonight. He doesn’t want to be here anymore.

“Tell Mark and Cecile I had to go,” Louis says, shutting off the tap and practically running from the kitchen and then the house.

 

*

 

As Louis walks away, he can feel the emotions rising up in him. Guilt, that he couldn’t express to Lottie what he was really feeling. Disgust at himself for not being brave enough to do so. Anger that he is even in this fucked up situation to begin with.

The impulse is there to do something unhealthy. Find the nearest bar, get pissed, and go home with whoever will have him. Give them his body so that at least someone gets some pleasure out of Louis being alive.

He pulls his mobile from his pocket and goes to search for the closest pub, but before he can, he notices he has a missed text from Harry. It’s a response to Louis’ earlier text saying he can’t hang out tonight.

:( that’s OK, lou. get some sleep. you work too hard. i will miss your company, but maybe i’ll see you tomorrow?

Maybe sex isn’t the only thing Louis is good for. Harry likes him, right? And he doesn’t expect sex from him. In fact, it is very much off of the table… much to Louis’ disappointment. But Harry still wants to see him. Still wants to make him laugh and do nice things for him. Wants to be in his life. That’s got to mean something .

Before he knows it, Louis is knocking at Harry’s door. Eventually, Harry answers, bleary-eyed and in his pajamas. Just the sight of him, soft and wrinkled, eases something in Louis’ chest.

Then, he puts the pieces together and realizes that he just woke Harry up. “Shit, Haz. I’m sorry. I didn’t realize you would already be asleep. I’ll just go.” 

Louis goes to walk away, but Harry stops him with a hand to the arm.

“Hey, I’m up. I’m up,” Harry insists. “Just let me get a cup of tea and I’ll be totally awake.”

Louis follows Harry inside, still feeling guilty, but he supposes he has already woken Harry up. The damage is done. Louis watches Harry as he makes them both a cuppa. He’s wearing plaid pajama pants and a too small, too worn shirt that must be from secondary and he looks so fucking cozy. Louis wants to pull him onto the couch and curl up in his arms.

“What are you thinking about?” Harry asks as he brings their cups over to the kitchen table and takes the seat across from Louis.

Louis smiles. “Is that shirt from school?”

Harry puffs out his chest and pulls it taut, highlighting the letters: Holmes Chapel Hurricanes. “Yeah, I was on the football team for a bit. I was rubbish, but it was fun.”

“You had a good childhood, huh?”

“Yeah, I suppose.” Harry pauses to take a sip of his tea. “Two parents that loved me. A sister who didn’t tease me too much. I didn’t get bullied in school, even though I was a bit… different.”

“What do you mean different?”

“Oh, you know. The only boy in town who wore flower crowns to school every day for a year.”

“I bet you looked pretty,” Louis says before he can stop himself. Because he apparently has no filter tonight.

Harry sucks in a breath. “I did.”

Louis is desperate to change the subject, so he says the first thing that pops into his head: “Before that dinner we met at? I hadn’t seen my family for a year.”

Harry’s jaw drops. “What?”

Louis cocks his head to the side. “I thought you might have known. You overheard me and Lottie fighting in the loo.”

“I tried not to,” Harry says. “Lou, I’m so sorry. What happened?”

Louis shrugs. “It was my fault. I was an absolute cunt and they needed a break. I don’t blame them.”

“Did you hurt them?” Harry asks.

“In a way.”

“Did they hurt you?”

Louis shrugs.

 “Lou, you can tell me.”

“I mean… it’s not their fault. I was an asshole and I didn’t reach out either.”

“Yeah, but they had each other and you were all alone.”

Louis shrugs. “I guess.”

“No, Louis. You were. And that sounds… it sounds terrible. I don’t ever want you to be lonely like that again.”

Louis stares at Harry. God, he’s beautiful, but more than that, he’s good . “Why couldn’t I have met you a year ago?” he asks the quiet kitchen, and Harry too.

“Why couldn’t I have met you five years ago?” Harry mumbles, mostly to himself, and it stops Louis short. 

“What was five years ago?” Louis asks.

Harry looks away, standing up and busying himself with clearing their mugs. “Oh, you know, just would have been nice to be silly uni students together.”

“I didn’t go to uni,” Louis tells Harry’s back as he stands at the kitchen sink.

Harry pauses, turning back around. “Oh, I didn’t realize.”

“No bother,” Louis tells him. “So who’s your favorite parishioner.”

Harry laughs and begins washing the mugs. “You mean besides you?”

Louis frowns. “Thought I wasn’t a parishioner.”

“No, you’re not. I’m just trying to get out of answering the question.” Harry pauses to think. “You know Delia?”

Louis thinks back to the times Harry has introduced him to his parishioners. “Is she the one who always wears hats with feathers in them?”

Harry turns towards Louis completely, leaning back against the counter. “Yeah. She’s so smart. And she’s been all over the world. She has the best stories.” His gaze goes bright and distant, like he’s remembering specific conversations that he and Delia have had together. 

“She sounds great,” Louis says. “I’d love to meet her properly.”

Harry’s eyes dim and he looks back at Louis, back to the present moment. “She’s been in hospital lately. Has a nasty case of pneumonia that just won’t let go. I’ve been visiting her so we can read Pride & Prejudice together. But I’m sure she’d love another visitor. I’ll see if she’s up for it.”

“It’s a plan.”

“It’s why I carry cigarettes,” Harry continues, 

“Hmmm?”

“There’s always people at the hospital, looking for a cigarette. I know it’s ironic: giving people at the hospital a thing that is bad for them. I’m not usually one to actively support an unhealthy habit.”

“Oi!” Louis protests, but his heart isn’t really in it. He just senses that Harry could do with some chiding right about now.

“It is,” Harry insists before moving back to his original topic. “It’s rare that you can give people at the hospital what they really want. To be healthy. For their loved ones to be healthy. To know that it’s all going to be OK. But, if they ask, I can give them a cigarette. Sometimes, the only kind of comfort you can give is the small kind.”

Louis doesn’t tell Harry that he is sick of small comforts. That he’s sick of enduring. For the first time in a long time, he can admit to himself that he deserves more. He wants comforts so big they encompass him altogether, keeping him safe and whole.

 

*

 

Louis floats back to his flat on a cloud, his head filled with thoughts of Harry. Lovely Harry. He doesn’t notice who is sitting on his stoop until he nearly knocks into him. 

“Lewis!” It’s Chase and, from the looks of things, he is seriously smashed.

“What do you want, Chase?” Louis asks as he fishes out his keys, determined not to let the tosspot ruin his transcendent mood.

Chase stands up. “I’ve come to ask for your blessing.”

Louis almost drops his keys. “Are you serious?”

“Yes,” Chase says and Louis has to admit, even through the sheen of alcohol, the fucker looks pretty damn serious.

“Then no. Easy question.”

Chase, somehow , looks shocked. “Are you serious?”

“Of course,” Louis practically shouts, throwing his hands up into the air. His keys jingle in the night. “Your relationship is not healthy.”

Chase’s sneer is back. “Oh really? And you being the expert on what a healthy romantic relationship looks like?”

Louis’ phone buzzes with a text. He’s glad for the excuse to look away from Chase. The message is from Harry: let me know when you get home safe? :)

Louis can’t help the smile that spreads over his face as he reads the words. He looks back up to meet Chase’s eyes. “I think I’m beginning to.”

Chase narrows his eyes, then, faster than a drunken oaf has any right to be, snatches the phone from Louis. Louis desperately tries to grab it back from him, but Chase has at least five inches on him. He’s considering tackling Chase to the ground—he can’t be that sturdy when he’s this drunk—but it’s too late. Chase has read the text.

“Are you fucking serious? The priest? That’s fucked up, even for you, mate.”

“Not your mate.”

“What’s your plan then? Spend every Sunday ogling him from the pews? Hope if you go to enough church fairs he might eventually let you give him a blow job, be his dirty little secret. You’d like that wouldn’t you.” Something must be showing on Louis’ face because Chase’s demeanour suddenly changes: lighting up like it’s Christmas morning. “Oh no. It can’t be.” Chase claps his hands together and laughs, mirthless and merciless. “You actually think you have a chance? That he might fancy you back?”

“Shut up, Chase,” Louis says, not half as strong as he would like to sound.

“Oh, this is classic. You spend the time since I’ve known you fucking your way across North London and now you’ve finally met your match: a man who won’t sleep with you. Welcome to the real world, Lewis. You can’t always get what you want.”

Louis has had it with this man.

“Oh, that’s rich coming from you: the asshole who has never been forced to take accountability for anything in his life. You know why I will never give you my blessing? Because you are a small man. You are petty and you are selfish and there’s never been a day in the three years you’ve been with my sister when you have treated her half as well as she deserves.” 

“But because our society is fucked and because you are a rich, handsome twat, whatever meager demonstration of love and affection you manage to cobble together on your best days is somehow considered enough.”

“I’ll respect whatever decision Lottie makes because this is her fucking life and she is a grown ass woman, and because my mother raised me to be a fucking feminist. But it will be a cold day in hell when you get my blessing. Mate.”

Louis shoves past him and into his flat. 

 

*

 

Louis had met Zayn at a posh Zone 1 restaurant job. They’d immediately bonded over how shitty Dave, their manager, was. Zayn had been so much classier than Louis about it.

“How can a person be such a massive dick all of the time?” Louis had asked Zayn one day after Dave had made the new guy cry. He hadn’t even done anything wrong, just been the closest person to Dave when his mood had swung suddenly.

Rather than treat it as the rhetorical question Louis had intended, Zayn had thoughtfully tried to answer. “I think Dave might be one of those people who learned the wrong thing when he was a kid and hasn’t figured out a way to unlearn it, you know? Like, he thinks the easiest way to get rid of your pain is to pass it onto someone else, which is pretty fucking tragic because that strategy only makes things worse.”

Louis had stopped folding napkins to look at Zayn. Really look at him. “Zayn. I think you might be the best person I know.”

“Nah,” Zayn had said with a shrug, as he finished folding his latest napkin into an elaborate swan.

It was only a few weeks later when Zayn had been the closest person to Dave during his latest mood swing, and Dave had fired him. When Louis showed up to his next shift and asked where Zayn was, Dave had mentioned he’d been fired without even properly looking Louis in the eye to deliver the news. As if Louis wasn’t worth the effort. As if Zayn losing his job wasn’t worth pausing and communicating.

Louis had taken off his apron. “Then I quit.” He made his way toward the rear exit, attracting the attention of some of the other waiters, who gawked at Louis’ sudden action. 

“That’s brave of you,” Dave said and Louis turned back toward him. For the first time since their conversation had begun, Dave was actually looking Louis in the eye. Louis remembers Dave’s eye twitching, just the smallest amount. He was putting on a smug front, but had obviously been thrown by this challenge of the limits of his power. Once Louis left this job, Dave wouldn’t have any control over him and exercising this relatively minor amount of power was obviously the only thing that brought Dave joy anymore.

But Louis was lucky. He had options. Sure, he was saving up to move out on his own, but it wasn’t like he would be destitute if he left the restaurant. Mark and his mum wouldn’t throw him out so. Unlike some of his co-workers, unlike Zayn , he could afford to lose this job. 

“Be braver if I stayed,” Louis had told him, and then he’d walked out. And it had felt fucking amazing.

That night, Zayn had texted him. i heard what you did, mate. I’ll never forget it.

you should have seen dave’s face. it was fucking priceless.

tell me about it at the pub?

It was the first time Louis and Zayn had hung out together outside of work, and if Louis worried that it might be weird since they didn’t have the usual restaurant bullshit to talk about, he needn’t have had to be. 

It was Zayn who got the lead about The Cavy Cafe—though that’s not what it was called at the time. It was a cafe space in Turnpike Lane that was going for bugger all. Zayn didn’t have the money, but Mark and mum did. Louis hadn’t asked his mum for it, but when he’d mentioned that he was going to the bank for a loan, she had rang him the next day with a different plan.

“I know you’re proud, Lou, but I also know what it’s like not to have a chance to make something of yourself. To be anchored down by debt before you’ve even begun. I don’t want that for you, and I am so fucking glad that I am in a position to help you in this way. So don’t be an idiot and take the money. Mark and I want you and Zayn to have it. I honestly can’t think of a better way to spend it.”

Louis had cried, blubbered over the phone to his mum and, when he’d told Zayn, he’d cried too. They’d opened up The Cavy Cafe three months later.

Louis knows it’s not particularly sustainable, but he works at the cafe six days a week, every day but Sunday. When Zayn was alive, they would split the work hours, but they often ended up hanging out at the cafe to keep the other one company even if it was technically their off day. The cafe hadn’t been doing well enough for them to hire an employee, but it never seemed to matter. It was hard work, but they were in it together.

After Zayn had died, Louis really hadn’t had the money to hire an employee. The cafe was doing worse than ever on account of it being closed for a week and people hearing about Zayn’s death. It was probably for the best, anyway. Louis isn’t sure what he would have done if he hadn’t had the routine of baking the bread and making espresso and wiping down the tables and sweeping the floor to keep him distracted.

Now, the cafe was doing well enough that Louis probably could hire an employee to help out. He should, even. There’s weeks when Louis is so tired by Saturday that he starts makes stupid mistakes. Hell, there’s weeks when Louis is so tired by Tuesday that he starts making stupid mistakes. He just… can’t do it? This was his and Zayn’s thing. And he can’t imagine having someone else in this space, sharing stories about the most ridiculous orders or making up life stories for the people who come in.

“Why guinea pigs?” Harry asks, today, as Louis is busy wiping down the counter. He’s been distracted all day by his fight with Chase last night. By what Chase had said about his relationship with Harry: You actually think you have a chance? That he might fancy you back? Like Louis would be a complete idiot for ever hoping, which was probably true. But he wasn’t hoping… right? 

“Hmmm?” Louis asks, having missed what Harry said.

“Why guinea pigs as a cafe theme?” Louis continues wiping, if only so he can avoid Harry's earnest eye contact. This time, for another reason altogether. Even though he has been open about so much else, he hasn’t yet mentioned the dead best friend to Harry yet. 

Louis tries for nonchalance. “Oh, it was my friend Zayn's idea.”

“Smart man,” Harry says, petting Niall. “Can I meet him?”

Louis looks away, busying himself with wiping down the counter. “Not today,” he tells Harry, a bit harsher than he intended to. Why doesn’t he just tell him? This is the perfect opportunity. Is it because of what Chase said?

Harry must pick up on something because the next Louis knows, Harry is standing next to him at the counter, cradling Niall in his arms. “Do you want to talk about it?”

“Talk about what?” Louis asks, feigning ignorance, focusing on a particular stubborn stain.

Harry’s brow furrows and Louis tries not to think about how similar his expression looks to Niall’s. “Whatever it is that just made your face go all gloomy,” says Harry.

“Not particularly, no,” and he’s so angry at himself for taking this path, but he can’t stop himself. When just a few days ago, he was gladly opening himself to the glorious terror of being known, now he can’t even bring himself to mention the barest of facts about Zayn. He feels the locks turning inside of him, closing back up.

“It might make you feel better.”

Louis throws the rag down onto the table and looks at Harry. “Harry, I said no. How about you stop sticking his nose in places it doesn’t belong?” 

Harry looks hurt, and Louis wants to take it back, wants to keep that look from Harry’s face always. But isn’t this what he does eventually anyway? It’s better to get it over with. Better for Harry to understand now.

But Harry doesn’t back down easy. “I just want to be someone you can talk to.” 

“Go find someone to confess to you, then. Because it’s not going to be me.” Even though that hasn’t always been true. Even though he doesn’t want it to be true now.

“Did I do something wrong, Lou?”

Yes , Louis wants to scream. You came into my life. You existed. You make me want to be vulnerable, but I don’t know how to stop. And I have to stop.

But the truth is none of this is Harry’s fault. Of course it isn’t. It’s the universe’s fault. For taking his mom away. For taking Zayn away. And then for bringing the most wonderful person into his life but telling him he can’t have him. Not in all of the ways he wants him.

When Louis picks the rag back up and moves to wipe down the tables without answering, Harry takes his silence for what it is: An end. To this conversation, at the very least.

Harry places Niall gingerly back into his cage, closes the door, and looks back at Louis. Louis just glares back at him. He hates himself for it. Everything in him is telling him to yell, to scream, to cry, but he’s afraid if he does, he won’t ever stop. And Harry might think he wants to know Louis, but he doesn’t know how much work Louis really is. He wouldn’t want to stick around if he knew what it entailed, and Louis’ not going to trick him into it.

Harry makes his way to the cafe door, but doesn’t go through it, as if he’s waiting for Louis to say something. Anything. When Louis doesn’t, Harry works up the courage himself. “I'd never want you share anything you didn't want to share,” Harry says. 

Then, he leaves. And Louis is alone again.

 

*

 

Louis doesn’t sleep well that night. He dreams about Zayn and it’s not a good one. When Louis wakes up, he’s not rested at all. His stomach is in knots and his eyes are cakey, like he was crying in his sleep. 

When Jay had died, Zayn had been the person to get Louis through it. Lottie was there too, of course, and he can’t imagine having gone through that without her, but it was different. Lottie was grieving too. She was devastated. She didn’t have much left to give Louis, and Louis didn’t have much left to give her. That’s one of the things they don’t tell you about losing a family member: you have to go through the worst thing that has ever happened to you while also watching the people you love most in the world go through the worst thing that has ever happened to them. 

That’s where Zayn came in. He was devastated about Jay, sure, but not in a way that tilted the whole universe on its axis. Not in a way that was unfathomable, limitless. Just in a way that was so deeply, deeply sad . He could feel the edges of his sadness, which meant he could try to keep it contained. Which meant he had space to take on some of Louis’ sadness too.

“I don’t know what I would do without you, Z,” Louis whispered to his best friend one night, not long after his mother had died. Zayn had slept in bed with Louis every night since it had happened so that, when Louis woke up in the middle of the night or in the quiet of the morning and remembered all that he had lost all over again, he had a reminder of what he still had.

“You’d be OK, Lou,” Zayn told him, and he’d sounded so sure, though Louis couldn’t see his face in the darkness. Didn’t even try to, lying on his back and keeping his gaze fixed on the ceiling, tears escaping down the sides of his face and into his pillow. 

“How do you know?” Louis asked.

“Because you’re the bravest person I know,” Zayn had told him, finding Louis’ hand and clasping it lightly in his own. 

“Even that time I saw the rat in the cafe and made you carry me to the door?”

Zayn snorted. “Yeah, even then.”

And then Zayn had tested his theory.

“Why do I always think the worst thing is going to happen?” Louis asks Dr. Shaw one day, angry with himself and the traps his broken brain falls into again and again.

Dr. Shaw looks at him. “Because the worst thing did happen. And then it happened again.”

When Louis turns on his phone, he finds some missed texts from Harry.

 

I’m sorry about yesterday, lou. 

will you come to today’s mass? 

please. 

we can go for a coffee after and talk. 

or not, if you’d rather. 

i just want to see you.

 

It’s like a fucked up poem, from a priest to the man who wants to sleep with him. London, 2018.

Louis makes it to Harry’s service that Sunday, but he more or less has to drag himself there. He’s already had three cups of tea and an acetaminophen by the time he’s swinging open the doors of the church, but it’s done nothing to quash his splitting headache.

Louis goes to take a seat with Liam near the middle of the church, nodding to a few of the other parishioners he has somewhat started to form a relationship over the last six weeks: Mrs. Jones, who always brings her two sets of twin grandchildren, Daisy and Phoebe, and the little ones Ernest and Doris. Louis has a soft spot for them, and always remembers to make silly faces at them during “Peace Be With You” to make them giggle. Even Mrs. Jones. 

On the other side of the church is a middle-aged man named Duncan Little; last week during after-service tea, a tradition Harry has started in his time at St. Albans’, Louis sat down next to Duncan. At first, the man had only given one-word answers to Louis’ questions… until Louis had been lucky enough (because the conversation was brutal ) to stumble onto a question about Mr. Little’s garden, and then the man wouldn’t shut up about his tulips. It had been really sweet actually.

In front of Louis and Liam’s pew is a young mother named Jessy, and her baby Baz. Jessy is a fan of the same footie team as Louis, and they are always rushing to get their footie chat in before the opening psalm.

“Alright, Lou?” Jessy asks, turning around as soon as Louis slides into the pew.

Louis gives a nod, even though it’s pretty far from the truth. “Alright, Jessy?”

“What did you think of the Rovers’ game against The Millers?” Baz smiles endearingly at Louis from Jessy’s arms, as if he’s in on the conversation too.

Louis takes one of Baz’s little hands in his own and does a little dance with it. His voice goes sing-songy and he says the next part to Baz, even though it is really for Jessy: “Robbed, we were. Weren’t we, Baz?”

Jessy laughs. “We’ll get AFC Wimbledon next week.”

“‘Course.” Louis says. 

Louis could have kept gabbing with Jessy, but a hush falls over the nave. Harry enters from the back of the church and proceeds to the front. He’s wearing a rose vestment, something he hasn’t stopped talking about all week. You know, when Louis wasn’t being a dick. 

Apparently, priests are only permitted to wear rose twice a year and this Sunday, the Laetare Sunday, is one such day. Louis now knows far more about vestments than he ever needs to.

The service goes off without a hitch—Haz is a natural—and then he gets to the homily. Louis sits up in his seat. He loves this part, at least when Harry is doing it. He loves most things when  Harry is doing them. When he’s part of a crowd, like the one gathered in the church, he lets himself gaze at Harry freely. Like he wants to all of the time, but stops himself from doing. 

“As you all know, I, um, joined the Church, mainly, for the clothes,” Harry begins from his place at the front of the church, earning some chuckles from the audience. 

“What you may not know is,” Harry continues, “before I became religious, I had terrible anxiety. When I was in primary school, I would get these, um, these terrible stomach aches? They would keep me curled up in bed for the whole day, unable to move. My mom would bring me tea and try to get me to talk about it, but I found it so difficult. Anxiety felt like such a part of me, and how can you cut away part of yourself?”

When Harry continues, he’s using his “reciting” voice: “‘Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?’” 

“What a beautiful thing Jesus says here,” Harry continues. “Please... don’t worry. Please, let go. Please, have faith that I am here. I am with you.” Harry pauses then, and finds Louis’ eyes in the church. It’s like he’s talking just to him, and Louis couldn’t look away, even if he wanted to. “Everything will be OK.” 

Louis takes a sharp intake of breath as Harry continues: “Faith isn’t for the believed, it is for the believer. What a wonderful gift we can give to ourselves: this gift of faith.” 

Harry continues, but Louis can’t hear over the blood pounding in his ears. Louis knows he makes it through the rest of the mass. He stands and sits and kneels when he is meant to, but he’s not really there . Before the last note in the final psalm fades, he is out the door. 

“Lou!” a voice calls after him, before he can make it to the end of the street. It’s Harry, and Louis keeps moving. “Louis, slow down,” Harry calls, and this time he’s closer.

Louis shouldn’t slow down. He should just keep going, keep going until Harry Styles is behind him, until he’s just someone he spent a handful of weeks with once. A bit of a lark, really. A phase Louis went through when he was trying to get over his mom and best friend’s deaths. Not someone who actually got under his skin, into his bones. Because that’d be ridiculous. Harry isn’t part of him, something he would have to cut away. He barely even knows the man, really.

Louis has never been the best at making decisions when he is like this, so when Harry calls after him again, the fire gets the best of him. He turns around, which makes Harry, who has almost caught up, stop short, rocking back on his heels.

“You OK?” Harry asks, clutching his stomach a bit from the sprint. Louis doesn’t answer. Can’t answer. He just stares at Harry and his stupid rose robes. Harry looks confused, but keeps trying. 

“What did you think of the service?” Harry asks instead.

“What did I think of it?” Louis asks back. Harry nods. OK, then. He really has no clue. “I thought it was shit,” Louis tells him.

Harry’s mouth falls open. Then, the rest of his face falls, and Louis refuses to feel any guilt. “Oh, it’s just…” Harry stumbles over his words. “I wrote that homily… I mean it’s for everyone, but, I wrote it with you in mind. A bit.”

“Fuck you,” Louis tells him.

Harry’s brow furrows, as if he can’t comprehend a universe in which Louis would say that to him. “What?” Harry asks, dumbly.

Fuck you, Harry,” Louis says again, clearer this time. If Harry doesn’t understand how Louis can be like this, then maybe he never knew him at all in the first place.

“What’s wrong?” Harry asks. He reaches his hand towards Louis’ arm, but Louis steps back so he is out of reach.

“You promised me that this,” Louis waves his hand between the two of them wildly, as if a simple motion could encompass all that they are becoming to one another, “wasn’t about God or church or anything to do with this shit, and then you go and do something like that.” 

“What are you talking about?” Harry asks. He may have physically caught up to Louis, but he is still so far behind, and Louis doesn’t have the empathy right now to patiently wait for him to catch up.

Louis throws his hands up in the air. “You’re so fucking naive, that’s what I am talking about. That’s not how the world works: all daisies and sunshine. Things don’t just work out because you believe in some old white man in the sky.”

Now Harry is the one to take a tiny step back. “That’s not fair…” 

Louis closes the distance between them, puts his hands on Harry’s chest, and pushes as he goes to make his points because, even now, he can’t help but want to touch him. “I thought you understood me.” Shove. “I thought you cared about me.” Shove. “But this whole time you were just trying to get me to see the same things you see. To believe the same things that you do.” Shove.

Harry’s eyes are watering, and it’s only then that Louis realizes his are wet too. 

“That’s not true,” Harry says quietly, but decisively. “I just want you to believe in something .”

“What the fuck does that mean?” Louis barks back.

Harry’s eyes go kind and sympathetic and Louis wants to shove him again if only to get the pity off of his face, but he doesn’t. Because he doesn’t really want to hurt him. Hurting Harry means hurting himself, but he can’t ever help it, can he? Because he’s always been so good at hurting himself. Because he wants to hear what Harry has to say even more. He has to hear it: his defense for making Louis care about his stupid rose robes when they’re the thing that keeps Louis from being able to have him, really have him. 

“I think you’re afraid to believe in anything,” Harry says patiently, “because you believed in something, and it let you down.”

Louis feels like he has been punched in the gut. “It's more than just ‘let me down.’ It broke my fucking heart.”

“I know, Lou,” Harry says, and his voice hitches.

“Your God did that.” Louis needs to make him understand how angry he is. With the world. With Harry. Most of all, with himself. Dr. Shaw may have an abundance of confidence, but Louis has always had an abundance of anger, more than enough to share, and what kind of nature is that? Some people, like Harry, are made up of kindness and patience and light, but Louis is dark and angry and curdled. Meant to be alone. Made to be alone. 

“I know,” Harry repeats and he looks like he wants to try to reach out for Louis again, but he doesn’t. Behind him, Louis sees that curious parishioners have started to make their way closer. But he doesn’t care. He only has eyes for Harry. 

“Then how can you fucking stand there and tell me that everything is going to be OK?” Louis asks, tears now streaming down his face. “When nothing is ever going to be OK again.” 

“I don’t know,” Harry says, and he looks so damn beautiful—cheeks flushed from the run and the chill, curls everywhere, his fair skin offset by the rose of the stupid vestment—and that all makes Louis angry too.

“You don’t know ?” Louis spits. “What a shit priest you are.”

Louis glares at Harry, who refuses to break eye contact for even one second. 

“I’m not trying to be a good priest,” Harry tells him. “I’m trying to be a good friend.”

“What was the homily for then?”

For the first time in the conversation, Harry looks away. When he looks back, his face is tenser. “My faith is a part of me, Louis. I can’t just turn it off.”

Louis can be resolute too. “Yeah, well what about our friendship? Is that something you can just turn off.” 

Harry’s eyes tear up again, and he looks desperate. “Louis, please don’t do this.”

“You and your God can stay the fuck away from me, Father Styles,” Louis says. 

Then, he turns and walks away, slow enough that Harry could follow if he wants.

Harry doesn’t follow. And Louis doesn’t blame him.

 

*

 

If someone asked Louis what he had done the rest of that Sunday, he honestly wouldn’t have been able to answer. He thinks some Bake-Off was involved, but he can’t be sure. He’s pretty sure he fed Niall. Sometime, long after it had gotten dark and he hadn’t eaten since breakfast, his stomach made the kind of noise that should be reserved for the Jurassic Park movies, and he had pulled himself off of the couch and stuffed a whole package of Hobnobs into his mouth. 

When Monday comes around, Louis just… doesn’t do it? He cancels Monday, not even logging on to social media to let cafe patrons know they won’t be open today. He knows it’s bad for business at a time when they can’t afford any more bad business, but he also can’t bring himself to care. He assumes if anyone comes, they will see the “Closed” sign and go away. He supposes he’ll find out later, when his regulars come in and mention the change in schedule. Right now, he can’t be arsed to care.

It’s close to 3pm and Louis has watched so many episodes of Gogglebox he’s convinced he’s on the show when Lottie calls. 

Lottie , his sister. Lottie , who hasn’t called or texted Louis in more than a year.

Louis fumbles with the phone, almost dropping it, in his effort to hit “Accept.” He raises the phone to his ear, and reclines back into the Louis-shaped indent he’s made for himself on the couch. He goes to speak, only to realize that he hasn’t properly spoken out loud in more than 24 hours. As he is clearing his throat, Lottie beats him to it.

“Louis? Are you there?” She sounds slightly impatient, but not angry. Louis can work with that.

“Hey, Lottie.” His voice sounds scratchy. “Yeah. Sorry. What’s up?” 

“I wanted to check in about Thursday,” Lottie says.

Right. Thursday. Lottie’s thesis luncheon.

Guilt rises up in Louis and threatens to pull him further back down into the well of self-hatred that’s always there, waiting. He had been planning on coming up with a solid plan for today, finalizing the shopping list. But that was before he canceled Monday. 

Louis resists letting the guilt take over. Not this time, motherfucker.  

“Uh, yeah. Anything you want to know?” Louis really hopes she doesn’t ask any details, even though that would be a totally natural thing to do in this situation. The confidence he’d managed to grasp onto just moments before starts to slip through his fingers.

“Just wanted to make sure you had different things for all of the allergies in the group,” Lottie responds. “I emailed you the list earlier today and you didn’t respond, so I thought I’d give you a ring.”

Louis deflates a little, snuggling into Zayn’s sweatshirt, which he is wearing again. “Sorry, Lots. I had a pretty busy day. Didn’t have a chance to check my email, but I can give it a look tomorrow. I’m sure it will be fine. I’m used to accommodating pretty much everything. Once had to come up with a vegan, sugar-free, gluten-free dessert buffet. I still regret taking the job.”

Louis knows he’s rambling, but he’s not exactly at his best right now, is he? There’s a long pause, and Louis sinks into it. He stares up at the cracks in the white plaster ceiling above him, and imagines shrinking himself down small enough that he could live in one of them. The guilt and self-criticism start to pull at him again. Of course Harry doesn’t want to be his friend anymore. Of course Lottie doesn’t want to be his sister. He can’t even follow through on a simple commitment. He wouldn’t want to have any kind of relationship with him, either. They should both run, leave Louis alone where he can’t hurt anyone. He’ll still have Niall. They can grow old together. How long do guinea pigs live?

“Are you…” Lottie fades off, stirring Louis from his spiral.

“What?” Louis asks, curious again, head back in the present, in the conversation. His sister is not one to pretty much ever be at a loss for words.

When Lottie speaks again, she’s still timid, as if she thinks she’ll scare Lou away. “Are you OK, Louis?”

Louis’ throat tightens unexpectedly, and his vision blurs. Something unfurls, just the tiniest bit, inside of him. He didn’t know how much he needed someone to ask that question, to just fucking notice, until someone did. He’s been so alone in his pain for the last 24 hours, and Louis in pain can be so cruel, most of all to himself.

“Yeah,” Louis chokes out, clearing his throat before continuing. “I, um, I’ve just had a shit weekend, really.”

Lottie snorts. “It’s Monday.”

Lous shrugs, even if Lottie can’t see it. “Well, the shit spilled over.”

“Gross.” Louis can imagine Lottie wrinkling her nose as she says it.

Louis gathers up all of his courage. “It’ll be nice to see a friendly face on Thursday. You are, right? A friendly face...”

Louis tries not to regret everything, to believe that, if he takes a risk, if he leads with his vulnerability, then everything will go wrong. 

Lottie sighs. She sounds tired. “Yeah,” she says quietly. Louis nods, eyes wet again, but he doesn’t try to fight it this time. He lets the tears spill over.

“That’s good,” he says, like a sentimental idiot. “That’s good.”

“I’ll see you Thursday, Lou.” 

“See you Thursday, Lottie.”

 

*

 

Never promise yourself who you’ll be tomorrow. That’s what Dr. Shaw always tells Louis. It’s meant to be comforting, liberating even: the idea that you don’t have to be or act a certain way just because you always have. Just because someone has told you a story about who you are. Just because you have told yourself a story about who you are.

Louis tries not to promise himself who he will be tomorrow, but, on the worst days, he can’t stop remembering who he’s been. Yesterday, and the day before that, and the day before that. 

Thankfully, Louis presently doesn’t have too much time to think about screaming at Harry in front of his church, in front of his place of work and all of his parishioners. Nope, not today. Today, he is catering his sister’s department luncheon. He never thought things would be shit enough with Harry that his current trainwreck of a relationship with Lottie would somehow feel like the less uncomfortable option, but here Louis is.

Finally, ” Lottie says in greeting when she comes to let Louis in the backdoor of the building. It’s one of the buildings on the university’s South-East London campus. Louis had spent far too long driving around busy New Cross in a borrowed car looking for the place, trying not to hit any idiot pedestrians while at the same time avoiding stopping so abruptly that the tower of finger foods stacked in the back would topple. He was seriously losing his patience when Lottie finally texted him with better directions.

“Yes, thank you ever so much for answering my many phone calls,” Louis says, glaring at his sister, trays piled high in his arms.

“Ugh,” Lottie responds. “Could you not right now?”

Lottie looks seriously stressed, so Louis decides to let it go. He’s too tired, anyway. He used all of his fight on Harry and then on preparing for Lottie’s luncheon. He’d pretty much neglected his main job in the latter process, making the bare minimum for the cafe, as he devoted all of his time and energy to making an elaborate spread for Lottie’s event. If this was his first chance to start making things up to his sister, then he was going to fucking nail it.

Louis had even tried doing a particularly complicated piping technique Zayn used to do. Zayn had always made it look easy, but Louis ruined six cupcakes before he’d figured it out. This had made him remember just how much of an artistic genius Zayn was, and how the world and Louis were now robbed of Zayn’s art, which caused Louis to get really fucking sad and eat all of the six cupcakes he’d messed up in one go. 

“OK,” he tells Lottie.

Lottie sighs, her body becoming ever-so-slightly less tense. “Thank you.”

They enter the building and make their way to the lift. “Well, how’d it go?” Louis asks over the trays, chin resting on the top one’s plastic lid.

Lottie jabs the “up” button with her finger a few times. “My thesis presentation? Oh, I fucking nailed that,” she says, with a wave of her hand. “It’s the luncheon I’m worried about.” 

“Why?” Louis asks, as they wait for the lift. “You see these people all the time, right?” Lottie levels him with a stare and Louis laughs. “Oh, right. Belinda .”

Belinda is Lottie’s advisor, and the Director of the Visual Cultures department. She’s an artist in her own right, and also studies feminine performance in art history. She once got in a Twitter fight with Boris Johnson and won. Even Louis thinks she’s cool and he doesn’t give a flying fuck about art history. 

“She’s brilliant and scary and I want her to respect me so much,” Lottie says. The lift arrives and they both climb in. “But it’s more than that,” Louis says, tapping the toe of her boot absentmindedly. “These people have been there for me. They’ve seen me through some shit times, and I want to thank them for that. That’s why I offered to organize the luncheon in the first place.”

Lottie’s wearing a high-waisted skirt and oversized sweater made of the same knit material. Her pink locks are in a high pony and her long eyelashes are perfectly curled. Louis knows looks can be deceiving, but it certainly looks like his little sister has her shit together.

“Am I allowed to say how proud I am of you?” Louis asks. 

“No,” Lottie says, but the corners of her mouth are inching upwards.

Louis looks aways but doesn’t try to keep the small smile off his own face. “OK, I won’t then.”

The lift doors open, and they step off onto one of the floors designated for the Visual Cultures department. The building is a public art gallery, all glass and shine. Upstairs, there are smaller galleries. Lottie has managed to secure one of them for the department luncheon. 

No one is there yet, but Lottie has already set up some long tables in the corner that doesn’t have any installations. Louis places the trays down and starts unstacking them and spreading them on the table. He’s brought too much food, honestly, but he’s never had trouble getting rid of excess food. 

Louis assumes that most of Lottie’s classmates are bourgie hipsters, so he’s gone crunchy classy with the menu: beetroot taco boats with truffle goats cheese and black sesame, falafel brochette, mini poppadoms with creamy chicken tikka, roast beef with baby spinach and horseradish cream sammies, oak-smoked salmon with ginger butter on oat biscuits, kale mini-cupcakes with vanilla orange icing, and—Louis’ personal specialty—a selection of scones, homemade james, and clotted cream. Eat your heart out, Paul Hollywood.

Lottie comes over once he’s finished laying everything out. “Hey, these actually look pretty good.”  

Well that’s the understatement of the century, but Louis will let it slide because Lottie hasn’t actually tasted anything yet. “I am a professional, you know,” he tells her.

“So you keep saying,” she says, already distracted by the next thing on her to-do list.

By the time the other students and professors arrive, Louis has a pretty good setup, if he does say so himself. He’s laid out the food, and clearly labeled it for everyone who has dietary restrictions. He’ll admit, the menu is a bit eclectic, but they’re artists—they’ll appreciate it, right?

Of course they do. Louis doesn’t have a chance to go to the loo let alone bother his sister for the first 45 minutes of the planned two-hour luncheon. He’s so busy answering questions, keeping the table well-stocked, and, yes, fielding compliments. Louis has already given his card to seven people, inviting them to visit the cafe whenever they’re in North London. He’s pretty sure one of them just wanted his number for personal reasons, but what are you gonna do? 

By the time Louis is able to step away for a moment, Lottie is with a group of people Louis doesn’t recognize and he tries not to think about how, if he and Lottie hadn’t been estranged for this past year, he might actually know some of their names. Maybe they would have hung out at the pub a few times, or come along to one of his and Lottie’s movie theatre nights. Maybe Lottie would have dropped by the cafe and studied with them in the corner, Louis acting as their performatively begrudging audience for any presentations they needed to practice.

Louis may not be very proud of himself in this moment, but he is so proud of his sister. She’s doing a degree in Fine Art & History of Art with a focus on depictions of performative femininity in Victorian England.

Fucks knows how she is going to use the degree, but Louis has never been worried about Lottie. She’s always been the more focused and competent of the two. She’s always known how to get things done, and Louis has long admired that about her—when it was 8-year-old Lottie organizing a parade for the neighborhood and when it is 20-year-old Lottie following her academic passions. 

Lottie has always been creative, something their mum encouraged in her. Jay was pretty fucking poor when it was just her and Louis. Louis can remember the feeling sometime: that stress that comes with knowing that, if one thing goes wrong, then you might not be able to fix it. Louis didn’t understand the feeling when he was a kid, and he’s sure his mum did her best to keep it from him, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t sometimes feel it. Didn’t know that, when he found Jay crying in the kitchen in the middle of the night, something was making his mom sad.

That all changed when Jay and Mark got together. Mark came from a middle class background, and it allowed Jay the space and support to be able to find a good job. They moved into a nicer apartment and Louis no longer had to wear shoes that were a little too small for him. They had nicer food and his mum got more sleep and it didn’t feel like, if they fell down, they might not be able to get up. 

But Louis knows better than anyone how that feeling can stay with you, even when you have no “rational” reason to feel it, but Jay never let it infect Lottie in the same way she couldn’t keep it from seeping into Louis’ bones when they were still growing. It’s why Lottie went to college and follows her dreams and why, as soon as he finished secondary school, he had started working. 

Louis isn’t too proud to say that the cafe saved him. First, when his mum died and then when Zayn died. So much was changing, in the most terrible of ways, but the cafe was the one thing that stayed the same, the one place he knew he could go and find problems that still had solutions. Dirty windows can be washed, bags of flour can be turned into bread, and someone’s need for a sandwich or a quiet place to sit and think can be met. People, however, don’t rise from the dead—whatever Harry’s Bible might say.

Dammit, Louis had been doing so well. He had gone most of the day without properly thinking of Harry.

Get yourself together, Tomlinson. You have food to serve.

 

*

 

Before Louis knows it, he’s packing up shop. When he stacks the last tray away and looks up, Lottie is there, watching him.

“It was too much, Louis,” she says. “I couldn’t keep watching you hurt yourself and be powerless to stop it. You need to let people in.”

“I’ve always let you in,” Louis says quickly.

Lottie smiles. “Yeah, but no one else. After Zayn and mum died, I was the only one left you actually talked to. I was exhausted. I can’t be the only one you’re vulnerable with. It’s not fair to me and it’s not fair to you. You deserve so much more.”

“I’m trying, Lottie,” he says, honestly, even though he’s put most of his eggs in one priest basket and he’s gone and fucked things up with that basket anyway.

Lottie moves closer to Louis and wraps her arms around him. It’s only a start, but it still feels like coming home. “I know you are, Lou. Keep trying.”

Lottie pulls back and Louis wipes a tear from his cheek.

Lottie gives him a playful shove. “Now go home and sleep. You look like a zombie.”

Lottie helps Louis pack everything into the car before she goes out to celebratory drinks with her classmates. “See you on Sunday for the wedding!” she calls as she piles into an Uber with a bunch of her friends. She looks happy. The way their mum would have wanted her to be. 

 

*

 

Louis decides that he needs a celebratory drink and, for the first time in a long time, that instinct doesn’t feel driven by pain. He heads into the bar next door and hops into a stool. The weird aeroplane motif distracts him long enough that he doesn’t realize that he has chosen a spot next to Belinda, Lottie’s advisor and hero. 

Louis' eyes are wide when she turns, which is probably the only reason Belinda recognizes him. “You’re the one who put kale on a cupcake.”

Louis laughs. Of course she’s fucking funny. “Guilty, I’m afraid. Was just trying to get into the mindset of the average Goldsmiths student.”

“So you don’t usually put salad on your cupcakes at home?”

“Nope. Purely a professional habit.”

When the bartender comes over, Belinda orders Louis what he wants. When he tries to politely refuse, she tells him: “I come from money. Please let me redistribute more of it.”

“So tell me. Is catering a full-time job?”

“Not usually. I actually, um, run a cafe? It has a guinea pig theme.”

“And what does that mean exactly?”

“Well, we have guinea pig art on the wall.”

“Guinea pig art…?”

“Art featuring guinea pigs. You know, the Mona Lisa… but a guinea pig. The Girl With a Pearl Earring… but a guinea pig. That sort of thing.”

“Naturally,” Belinda says with a smile. “Well, that sounds delightful. I’d very much like to visit sometime.”

“Really?”

“Yes,” says Belinda with certainty.

“Right,” Louis says and, not for the first time, he can see why Lottie is a little scared of Belinda. “So, what’d you make of the thesis presentations, then?”

“I think they were shit, Louis.”

“What?”

“I hate thesis presentations. I don’t think it’s the best way to measure progress or creativity or what you know, just a hoop to jump through, but the university doesn’t agree with me, so I have to sit through them every year. I have to watch students tear their hair out, so stressed they forget to sleep or eat and nothing I do can convince them that this is not the be all or end all of their entire existence. Frankly, it’s torture. But this is the life I have chosen. I suppose I must work inside the system… for now.”

“You sound like you’re getting ready to blow it up or something.”

“Maybe I am.”

“You are so fucking cool.”

Belinda laughs, delighted. “So, tell me about yourself, Louis.”

“I currently want to fuck a priest.” Fuck. Louis hadn’t meant to say that.

Belinda laughs again, obviously surprised, but quickly asks a follow-up question: “Good priest or bad priest?”

“The best,” Louis tells her, unflinchingly.

Belinda nods. “Are you in love with him?”

Louis sits up straight in his bar chair. “What? No! Why would you ask that?”

Belinda takes a long, slow sip of her scotch. “It sounds quite a bit like you are.”

Louis takes a gulp of his beer, looking away from Belinda’s piercing gaze. “I’ve only known him for six weeks. I can’t be in love with him,” Louis says, half to Belinda and half to himself.

Belinda waits until Louis’ attention is back on the conversation again. “Why not?”

“I just… I don’t want to have to depend on other people for my happiness.” Louis knows it’s not really an answer to the question Belinda asked, but it feels like an answer to another question—one he hasn’t quite figured out how to form yet.

“Let me tell you something very important, Louis. Are you listening?” Louis nods, ready to be imparted some ancient wisdom. Belinda tells him: “People are all we’ve got.”

Lous laughs and takes another sip of beer, but Belinda shakes her head. She takes the glass from Louis’ hand, puts it down, and grabs him by both shoulders. She waits until he is looking her back in the eye. “No, Louis. I’m serious. Love isn’t a renewable resource because time is not a renewable resource. We only have so much of it—you know that better than most people your age. Don’t waste it. When you find people who matter, hold onto them as tight as you can, if they’ll let you. And when someone reaches out for you? Don’t be afraid to reach back.”

Belinda is fierce and earnest and clear and so, so sure. She’s like Dr. Shaw in that way, like Louis’ mom was: so certain, but not in a performative way. There’s nothing but solid, weighty truth behind Belinda’s words. The kind of truth that can never be used in exploitative ways. Belinda isn’t trying to convince Louis to do something; she’s simply giving him hard-won knowledge in the hopes that he will be able to make his own better choices with it. She doesn’t presume to know what those choices might look like. Only Louis can know.

“I think I might be a little bit in love with you,” Louis tells Belinda.

Belinda smiles, and looks away. Louis gets the impression she gets this sort of thing all the time. “No, you’re too in love with your priest.”

Louis puts a hand to his forehead and closes his eyes. “I’m in love with my fucking priest,” he tries out loud. No lightning bolts descend from the sky. No swarms of locusts overtake the bar. He opens his eyes, drops his hand, and tries it again: “I’m in love with Harry.” 

“Good man,” Belinda tells him, raising her glass in a toast, before downing the final bit.

“Now what?” Louis asks her.

“Well, I’m going to go home and go to bed. I don’t know what you’re going to do.”

 

*

 

It turns out what Louis is going to do next is get slightly drunk, and then head over to Harry’s house. Louis, who, per the alcohol, currently has a looser relationship with time than usual, probably knocks on the rectory door longer than is polite. But he doesn’t care. He has to talk to Harry.

Eventually, it opens and Harry—beautiful Harry—is standing on the other side of the threshold. He’s in pajamas, a t-shirt, and plaid pants. His eyes look a little red, and Louis wants so badly to reach out and touch him. He doesn’t, which he counts as a personal victory. Take that, universe. Louis Tomlinson has control.

“Harry!” he exclaims.

“Louis?” Harry asks, rubbing his eyes and squinting out towards Louis and the streetlamp behind him. “What are you doing here?”

“Oh no. I didn’t wake you up again, did I?”

“Are you OK?” Harry asks. His face is still frown-shaped and Louis can’t figure out why. Louis always wants to smile when he’s around Harry. Doesn’t Harry feel the same way about him? Even if he doesn’t want to have sex with him?

“Oh, right. You think I’m mad at you!” Louis says, delighted that he figured it out.

Harry’s face stays frown-shaped, but this time with a wrinkle in between his cute eyebrows. “Aren’t you?” Harry asks.

“Harry, that was hours ago. Days , even.”

Harry cocks his head, seemingly finally noticing that Louis might not be 100% sober. He sighs, loosening. There he is . “Do you want to come in, Louis?” Louis’ Harry asks.

“I do, but I need to do something first.” Louis gets down on one knee, which makes sense for some reason. Harry’s eyes widen. “There are only a few people I like, and fewer still who I think are good people. The more I see of the world, the more am I dissatisfied with it.”

Harry’s jaw drops. “Louis, is that Pride & Prejudice ?”

“Shush,” Louis says, waving his hand at Harry. He hits his knee by accident. “I am trying to apologize.” Louis takes a deep breath and gears back up. “Could you, Harold Styles, ever find it in your heart to accept my proposal of forgiveness?”

“Yes, Lou,” Harry says, grabbing Louis’ hands and trying to pull him to his feet. Louis won’t let him. 

“Really?” Louis looks up through his eyelashes innocently. “Once yes, or...” 

Harry, because he is perfect, immediately gets what Louis is going for. He rolls his eyes. “A thousand times yes.” Harry tries to get Louis off the ground again, and, this time, Louis lets him.

Harry turns to go back inside, but Louis keeps hold of his hand and waits for Harry to turn back around because he needs him to understand this. “Harry, I really am sorry. You’re such a lovely person. I’m sorry I was such a dick.”

Harry nods.

Louis spreads his arms and yells to the overcast sky. “He forgives me!”

“Shhh!” Harry giggles. “We’re going to wake Liam up!”

“Does anyone in this house stay up past sundown?”

 

*

 

Harry brews them both a cup of tea and they head into the back garden so Liam can get his precious rest. Louis left the flat midday, when it was much warmer out, so Harry grabs a throw from his couch and wraps it around Louis once he’s settled on the garden bench. Once it’s snug, he sits down next to Louis. Louis wonders if this is the least sexy he’s ever been to Harry, and then he wonders if Harry finds him sexy at all.

“Harry, why won’t you have sex with me?” Louis asks. This causes Harry to miss the rim of his mug and spill tea all down his chin, which gives Louis time to ask a follow-up question. “Is it because you don’t want to?” 

“No,” Harry sighs, keeping his gaze uncharacteristically forward. “If only it were that easy.”

“So you do want to have sex with me!” Louis exclaims, as if he’s just figured out the correct combination in a game of Cluedo.

“Louis, don’t ,” Harry scolds, but his voice is deep and growly so it doesn’t work the way Louis thinks Harry might want it to.

“Then why?” Louis pesters. 

“Do you really want to know?”

Louis nods.

Harry takes a deep breath and lets it all out at once. “It’s because, if I sleep with you, I’ll fall in love with you and I won’t be struck down by a bolt of lightning, but it would seriously fuck up my life.”

“That makes sense,” Louis says. After all, Louis fucks up most people’s lives. 

This conversation no longer feels like a game, which makes Louis wonder if it ever did to Harry, who, now that Louis thinks about it, never seemed to have the same giddiness at getting to the bottom of this mystery as Louis. 

Louis decides to start a conversation that might be more fun for Harry.

“Have you ever thought about replacing all of the Stations of the Cross with Guinea Pig Stations of the Cross?”

This question makes Harry laugh so loud, he has to put his tea down because it’s spilling everywhere. “Louis, no. Where did that come from?” Harry asks, once he’s recovered.

“Just something I thought about once during church,” says Louis with a shrug. “If you change your mind, I could probably get you a deal.” Louis lowers his voice and gives Harry what he hopes is a furtive look. “I know people.”

Harry laughs again. He looks happy, and that’s all that Louis wants. “You know,” says Harry, “you’re a great person to just, like, sit back and admire.”

“I know,” says Louis.

Harry and Louis spend so long giggling in the back garden that Louis eventually sobers up. 

“I think I’m too selfish to be a priest,” Louis says. They’re lying on the ground now, the blanket underneath them and the sky above them, and the chill is starting to seep from the ground into Louis’ bones, but he still doesn’t want to move.

Harry sits up, propping himself up on his elbow and looking over at Louis. “I don’t think that’s true, Lou.” Louis feels warm inside at the casual use of the nickname, and the chill is a bit further away now.

“No, it is,” Louis continues. “I could listen to the problems of the people I love all day, and be happy to do it. But strangers or people I don’t like very much, I get impatient. I get restless. Sometimes, I even get angry.”

“That’s not selfish,” Harry argues. “That’s human.”

“Same thing maybe?”

“Maybe,” Harry ponders. He falls back onto the blanket again. “Well, whatever it is, I have it too. There are days I feel like I have to listen to one more person confess one more thing and ask for advice, then I will scream.”

“What do you do?”

“I take a break, if I can. Do something that fills me back up. Call my mum or Gemma. Hang out with you. Then, I remind myself why I love this job.” 

“Why do you love this job?”

“Because it never lets you forget how precious people are.” Harry beams over at Louis as if he is bestowing a great gift. “All we have is people. Isn’t that great, Lou?” 

There it is again. It may not be the exact same wording, but the underlying sentiment is the same. Louis considers telling Harry about his conversation with Belinda, about how fateful this entire night feels, like there is some kind of force of grace at work here. But he thinks it would be cruel to let Harry believe that Louis believes in something he does not, and he doesn’t want to risk breaking the spell by looking too closely at the magic holding it all together.

“That doesn’t sound very Catholic,” Louis says instead.

Louis feels Harry’s shoulders move up in a shrug. “What can I say? I’m a radical.”

Louis nudges his smaller shoulder into Harry’s. “You’re a sap is what you are.”

Harry brings his head down so it’s resting against Louis’ shoulder, and Louis doesn’t breath for a moment for fear of dislodging it. “Same thing maybe?” Harry says, and Louis feels the rumble of his voice as much as he hears it.

Louis drops his head down so it’s resting on top of Harry’s. His hair is soft against the curve of Louis’ cheek, and it Louis’ nostrils fill with the scent of Harry: something fresh and floral, with hints of chamomile and jasmine and vanilla. Louis doesn’t know if he can see the preciousness in all people, but, in this moment, he can’t think of anything in the entire universe more precious than Harry Styles. 

“Yeah, same thing.”

 

*

 

“About the other day…” Harry begins.

“Should I apologize again?”

“No, um, I wanted to say sorry, too. What you said… about me trying to convert you or whatever. That’s not something I actively care about, but I do want to take away some of your pain and I think, in an effort to do that, I may have, um, tried to take the easy way out?”

“The easy way out here being convincing a lifelong atheist to believe in God?” Louis asks, with a fond smile.

“Well, when you put it that way, it sounds ridiculous.”

“I’ll consider becoming an agnostic,” Louis jokes, though he honestly wouldn’t count Harry Styles out.

Harry doesn’t laugh. He doesn’t think it’s funny. “Lou, I don’t need that,” he says quickly. “You know that, right? You don’t need to believe in God to be my friend. I like you just the way you are. I don’t want you to change.”

Louis’s throat suddenly feels thick with something, and he tries to swallow it down. He nods.

 

*

 

“You remember that friend you asked about?”

Harry nods. “Zayn. The one you started the cafe with. The one who brought you Niall.”

“He was my best friend in the whole world. And then he died. I didn’t see him. I didn’t see him and he was so good at hiding. And I was so distracted with my own shit. And then it was too late. He disappeared.”

“I’m sorry, Lou,” Harry says quietly. “I don’t understand.”

“Death by suicide. That’s what you’re supposed to call it, you know.”

“I’m so sorry, Louis.”

Louis looks over. “Harry… are you crying?”

“No… Yes.”

“Why are you the one crying?”

“I’m just so sad for you.” Harry says, tears leaking from his eyes. “And so sad for Zayn.”

“I just… wish I had realized how much pain he was in,” Louis tells Harry.

Harry sighs, long and heavy. “Some people are really good at hiding their pain. It’s the worst thing to be good at, I think.”

“I think I used to be one of those people,” Louis says. “I don’t want to be anymore.”

“Then you won’t be, Lou,” Harry tells Louis. He reaches out for Louis’ hand. Louis reaches back.

 

*

 

They put on Pride & Prejudice with Keira Knightley and Louis is asleep before Jane makes it to Pemberley.

 

*

 

When Louis wakes up on the couch the next morning, he is alone. He wanders towards the noises coming from the kitchen, hoping there will be breakfast for it in him, but finds Liam instead of Harry. But he is making some crepes, so Louis hasn’t lost all hope.

“Oh, hi, Liam. You been up long?”

“Yeah,” Liam says, keeping his back to Louis as he monitors his crepe.

“I had a bit too much to drink last night,” Louis explains. “So Haz let me sleep over.” 

“Yeah,” Liam says again. OK . Louis guesses he is going to have to be the one to carry this conversation then.

“How are the church fair preparations coming?”

“Pretty good,” Liam says. Progress. That was a two-word answer. 

Liam delivers the crepe from the pan to the waiting plate, which is piled high with golden cakes. Then, he turns off the heat and turns to Louis. “What are you doing?” he asks, his gaze unwavering.

“Um, you’re going to have to be more specific.”

“What are you doing with Harry?” Liam specifies. 

“We’re friends. You know that.”

“No, I’m friends with Harry. Whatever the hell you two are, it’s not friends.”

“Are you supposed to say hell?” Louis asks.

Louis hits his spatula lightly against his thigh. “Dammit, Louis. This isn’t a joke.”

Louis’ gaze drops, ashamed. “I know that.”

“I’m not trying to be unkind,” Liam says, voice going softer. “I’m just trying to protect my friend. Sometimes, Harry leads with his heart.”

Louis glances back up. “That doesn’t sound like such a bad thing.”

Liam sighs. “Not usually. Usually, it’s the best thing about him. I just don’t want to see him get used to something he can’t keep.”

Louis nods once. “I understand.”

Liam levels him with a stare. “Do you?”

“Yeah, I get it. I won’t expect more from Harry than what he can give.”

Liam gives a small smile, but it doesn’t quite reach his eyes. “In that case, do you want some crepes?”

“You’re the best, Lima,” Louis exclaims. He bounds over and wraps his arms around Liam before the other man can escape. Louis wonders what it would be like to stay like this, friends with Harry and Liam. If he squints just right, he thinks he could do it. Then, Harry comes into the kitchen having just finished up in the garden. He’s sweaty and beautiful and has the biggest smile on his face, like nothing could be better than seeing Liam and Louis together, and Louis’ heart drops. 

Dammit. He can’t do this, can he? He’s going to have to let Harry Styles go.

 

*

 

Louis is surprised Gnashers texted him back. Louis was so fucking rude to him the last time they were together. He wouldn’t have blamed the man if he’d simply replied with a “Fuck you.”

But Gnashers didn’t do that. He accepted Louis’ invitation to stop by The Cavy Cafe during his lunch break and quickly recognized this for what it is: a mid-day bootie call.

As soon as Gnashers had arrived, Louis had locked the door behind him, flipped the “Open” sign to “Closed,” pulled the shades. Now, he’s letting Gnashers take him over the counter. Or at least that’s the plan. Not that he and Gnashers had thoroughly discussed it, but he thinks they are on the same page about this. 

Louis jeans are at his ankles, his elbows on the counter, and Gnashers is pressed along against Louis’ back, hot and heavy. Louis doesn’t particularly like the feeling of Gnashers weight on him, of his smell or his breath in Louis’ ear, but he doesn’t mind the way he is grinding up against him. It’s making Louis’ hard and he hasn’t gotten off with someone else in fucking ages.

Gnashers has just gotten his hand into Louis’ pants when Louis’ mobile rings. It’s “Candle in the Wind,” which Louis has set as Harry’s ringtone not long after they’d met.

“Elton John fan?” Gnashers asks as he takes Louis’ dick into his hand and begins stroking.

“Something like that,” Louis says, absentmindedly, trying to concentrate on the situation at hand, at the feel of someone else getting him off. “Get on with it, would you?”

The call goes to voicemail just as Gnashers’ other hand moves from Louis’ hip to his ass. “Do you have stuff?” he asks.

Before Louis can answer, the song starts again. 

Gnashers unzips his own trousers and drops them to the floor. Why is Harry calling twice?  

He pulls down his own pants as well. It must be important

And then Louis’. Wait… what if it’s an emergency?

“Sorry,” Louis says, shrugging away from Gnashers. He grabs his mobile, yanks up his pants and jeans, and ducks under Gnashers’ arm. “Actually, I need to take this.”

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Gnashers says, putting his elbows on the counter and leaning his head down in frustration. 

“Sorry,” Louis says again. He really does feel bad about this one. That doesn’t keep him from immediately tapping the “Accept” button. “Harry?”

“Louis?” Harry’s voice is small and distant.

Louis pushes the mobile to his ear, as if it might bring Harry closer. “What’s wrong?” 

“It’s fine if you’re busy or something,” Harry says. “I know you have the cafe, but I…” Harry’s voice is replaced with a sob. “I really need someone right now. And my mom is so far away. And Liam’s not answering his phone.”

Louis grabs his Oyster card and wallet from behind the counter. “Where are you, Harry?”

“Finchley Memorial Hospital.”

“I’m on my way right now. Send me a text with your exact location, OK?”

As Louis makes his way around the cafe, switching off the lights, he motions for Gnashers to collect his stuff.

Gnasher does just that before slowly making his way to the door. He turns to Louis. “You’re a fucking wanker,” Gnashers tells him. He unlocks the door and goes.

“What was that?” Harry asks over the phone.

“Nothing, nothing,” Louis says, making sure that Niall’s cage is locked and heading for the door himself. “Just a customer. I’m on my way.”

“OK,” Harry says, but it comes out more like a sob, which only makes Louis go faster.

When Louis runs up to the hospital building 10 minutes later, Harry is sitting on the curb by himself, staring at the cement. He’s clutching his mobile in one hand and a plastic bag in the other. He looks like a child who has lost his parents.

“Harry!” Louis calls before he’s made it to him, just because he can’t stand to see Harry looking so sad and despondent and has to try something .

Harry looks up, sees Louis, and comes to his feet. Now that Louis is closer and Harry is looking at him, he can see that Harry has been crying, is still crying. His beautiful face is blotchy and his eyes are red. Harry goes to wipe his cheeks and nose with the sleeve of his jumper, but there’s no way to wipe away that kind of evidence.

“Hey, Lou,” Harry is saying as Louis reaches him. But Louis doesn’t stop to say hello. Instead, he pulls Harry into his arms. Harry drops the plastic bag and falls into Louis, body slack and heavy in Louis’ embrace. (But Louis won’t drop him. He can do this. He can be here for Harry.) 

Harry tucks his face into Louis neck and lets out a sob.

“Shhh,” Louis whispers, rubbing his back. “Let it out, love. You’re OK.”

“I just… I came to see Delia.” Harry takes another gasping breath. “And they told me she died three days ago. And I had no idea. I was going to read Pride & Prejudice . We were only on Chapter 12. And she was so excited to find out what happened next. And now… Oh god. Now she never will.” The realization sets off another round of sobs.

Louis pulls Harry back into his arms. “I’m sorry, Haz. I’m so sorry. Come on, let’s get you home.”

“Thanks for coming, Louis. I sat down and just couldn’t get back up and my mum said to call someone and couldn’t get a hold of Liam and you were the next person I could think of. Oh no, you had to close the cafe, didn’t you? I shouldn’t have called.”

“It was no trouble.” 



*

 

Louis gets Harry back to the rectory and sits him down on the sofa. He puts the kettle on and then goes to sit by Harry’s side.

“Do you want to talk about it?”

“I just… I’ve never lost someone that close to me.” Suddenly, Harry looks up at Louis, horrified. “Fuck, I’m so sorry. That is such an insensitive thing to say. She was just someone I knew. She wasn’t my mom or my best friend. Louis, I can’t imagine. You must be thinking I’m such an asshole.”

Louis puts a hand on Harry’s shoulder. That’s a thing friends do, right? They don’t just offer to be the big spoon in a totally inappropriate situation? 

“Shhh,” Louis says, trying to calm Harry down. “Don’t worry about that. She was someone you cared about. Of course you’re upset. Don’t worry about me.”

“But I can’t imagine it, Lou. I can’t imagine going through something like what you have and coming out the other side. You’re so strong, Louis.” He grabs onto Louis hand. “I already knew that, but…”

Louis puts his other hand on top of their clasped hands. “Hey, you’re strong too. You care so much. That’s what being strong means.”

Harry stares at him for a long time. Louis lets him. Right now, he’d let him do anything. “How did you get so smart?”

Louis laughs. “Um, I tried all of the dumb stuff first?”

“Will you stay for a little while, Lou?”

“Yeah, I’ll stay for as long as you need.”

 

*

 

The week of Mark and Cecile’s wedding goes by in a flash. Louis had gotten a few catering jobs off of the cards he gave out at Lottie’s thesis presentation party, and he has been working double time to make sure he can take Sunday off and not be completely behind schedule. By the time Saturday night rolls around, he just wants to crawl in bed and sleep for 12 hours. But he knows that’s not a possibility.

The fullness of his week had kept him from seeing Harry as much as he would have liked to. He’d texted and sent videos constantly, worried that Harry would feel abandoned in his moment of need, but Harry kept assuring Louis that he was doing fine and Liam was spoiling him rotten. Still, Louis was counting down the hours before he got to see him again, which was totally a normal friend thing to do, right?

Louis has just closed the door behind him after trudging up the stairs from the cafe to his flat, when the doorbell rings behind him. It’s Harry. 

Louis would have expected him to look tired, or maybe that’s just what exhausted people expect everyone to look like, but Harry’s aren’t red. His under-eyes aren’t puffy. His skin has a healthy glow, and his hair is washed and styled. In other words, he looks fucking beautiful.

“Hey,” Louis says, trying not to think about the state he’s in. He’s pretty sure he still has flour on his forehead from a baking incident earlier today.

“Hey,” Harry says back, blushing. Why does this feel like a first date?

Louis ushers him inside and apologizes for the mess. “It’s been a week, honestly.”

“Yeah, I got your texts. I hope it wasn’t too bad.”

Louis shrugs. “You know me, I like staying busy. How about you? You ready for tomorrow? I have to warn you, if you fuck this up, Cecile will probably murder you.”

Harry laughs, and it lets out some of the tension in his body. Louis hadn’t noticed it before, but now that he looks, really looks, he can see it in Harry’s shoulder and the space between his brows.

“Yeah, I’m good to go,” Harry says.

Louis frowns. “You sure? You seem wound pretty tight.”

“That’s not what I’m wound tight about,” Harry tells him. Then, he steps forward and takes Louis’ face in both of his hands. Harry’s thumbs come to stroke across Louis’ cheeks, and it makes Louis feel so, so precious. The way Harry is gazing at him, eyes locked on his. 

Louis forgets to breathe for a moment, afraid that, if he does, Harry will stop touching him. But he can’t not know, his heart can’t take it, so he asks: “Harry? What are you doing?” Louis’ voice shakes as it asks the question, so overcome with the potential of the answer.

Harry answers him with a kiss. It’s unsure at first, as if Harry hasn’t done this in a long time, and is remembering the steps. But when he does, he dances. Harry’s hands are on Louis’ face and then they are wrapped around him, pulling him closer, and Louis doesn’t want to be away from Harry any longer. 

“Louis,” Harry moans, and Louis swallows it with his mouth and his tongue, desperate to keep all of Harry, at least in this moment, to himself. If this is all Louis will ever have of Harry, then he’s going to make it count.

Harry’s hands wander down to Louis’ ass and pull their hips together, Louis lets out a sound that he didn’t mean to. Harry moves his leg between Louis’ thighs, bringing them even closer. But it’s not close enough. When Harry goes to pull Louis’ shirt off, Louis stops him.

“Not here, love,” he says, grabbing Harry’s hand, unwilling to stop touching him, and leading him towards the back of the flat.

As soon as they push through the bedroom door, Harry is on him again, thumbing at the bottom of Louis’ t-shirt and reaching for the warm, waiting skin underneath. Louis breaks their kiss for the shortest of moments, making Harry whine, to pull his own shirt off.

Louis leads them both to the bed, and lays down in it, bare-chested and locking eyes with Harry. “Hey, we have all night,” Louis tells Harry, who’s staring down at Louis like he’s all he’s ever wanted. “Don’t we?”

Harry climbs onto the bed and hovers over Louis on all fours. “Yeah, we have all night,” he says with a smile. He dips down to give Louis another kiss on the lips, soft and sweet, before moving lower and lower with his kisses. By the time he’s reached Louis’ stomach, Louis is desperate for Harry’s mouth to be on him. When Harry’s lifts his head, hand on Louis’ jean zipper, to ask “Can I?” Louis is doing everything he can not to thrust up. But he just nods, as if having Harry in this way isn’t everything.

Harry takes Louis’ pants and trousers off carefully, then folds them and places them on the floor next to the bed, as if Louis cares about that at a time like this… or, you know, ever . “Harry,” he whines.

“Sorry, Lou,” he says, before peeling his own clothes off at what is honestly a very impressive speed. He stands, naked, next to the bed, and gazes down at Louis with what Louis has to identity as adoration.

“Hey,” he says quietly to Lou, with a smile.

A smile blooms on Louis’ own face. “Hey,” he says back. “C’mere. I miss you.”

Harry crawls back onto the bed and over Louis. “I’ve been dreaming about this, Lou,” Harry says before taking Louis in his mouth and, later, when thinking back on this, Louis knows this is his favorite part of this or any blow job ever. When Harry has worked Louis to the edge, it’s the thought of Harry’s dark eyes on Louis, telling him that he’s thought about this, that brings Louis over. He finishes in Harry’s mouth with a sob and Harry’s name.

Before Louis can recover, Harry has taken his own cock in hand. He is already hard and purple-red just from having gotten Louis’ off, and it only takes a few strokes before he is coming all over Louis’ chest.

Harry collapses onto Louis’ chest afterwards, making even more of a mess. But he’s warm and he presses a kiss to the closest patch of Louis’ skin he can find. He’s Harry, and that makes all the difference.

“I hope that was OK, Louis,” he says, after he regains his breath. “I should have asked.”

“It was good,” Louis says, like an idiot. “I wasn’t much help there.”

“Hey, no,” says Harry, pressing another few kisses to Louis’ chest before turning his head to meet Louis’ gaze. “You were perfect.”

Louis pulls at Harry until Harry props himself up, shimmies up the bed, and brings his mouth back to Louis’. 

“Give me 10 minutes and I’ll show you perfect,” Louis says before pulling Harry back in. Now that he’s tasted him, he just wants more. 

Louis and Harry stay in bed, tangled together, until the birds are chirping and the rubbish collectors are out. And when Louis is finally falling asleep, the morning light streaming in through his window and his head on Harry’s chest, he thinks about how, for the first time in a long time, living doesn’t feel like fighting.

 

*

 

Mark and Cecile’s back garden is filled with people Louis doesn’t know. He assumes they’re all Cecile’s friends from the way she is holding court over a large group of them and Mark is nowhere to be seen.

Louis makes his way over to Lottie, who has parked herself near the bar that has been set up by the old sycamore that Louis had carved the name of his first boyfriend into. “Have you seen dad?” Louis asks, but Lottie shakes her head. “Check in the attic?”

By the time Louis has climbed all of the way to the top of the house, he can barely hear the sounds of the party going on outside. The air is old up here, like it’s holding onto more memories, and Louis can feel beads of sweat forming on his temple as he reaches the top of the attic ladder.

But it was worth the climb. He finds Mark here, sitting next to an open box filled with photos from his and Lottie’s childhood. When Louis makes his way over to Mark and sits down next to him, he is able to see what image is caught on the photo he’s holding in his hand: it’s the four of them. Jay, Mark, Louis, and Lottie, on what must have been Lottie’s third or fourth birthday. They’re all wearing party hats and they’re standing next to the sycamore in the back. Lottie is in Jay’s arms and Mark has her arm wrapped around Louis, who’s leaning back into his dad’s side.

“You thinking about mum?” Louis asks, breaking the comfortable silence.

“I’m always thinking about her,” says Mark, gaze locked on the photo.

“Just give me the signal and I can sneak you out of here,” Louis tells Mark, which finally makes him turn his gaze from the photo to Louis’ face. 

When Mark meets Louis’ eyes, he laughs. “You’ve always been so funny, you know that, Lou? You used to make your mum laugh so hard.”

“She was an easy target.”

“You made all of us laugh,” Mark says.

Mark turns back to the box and starts shuffling through more of the pictures. He finds one of just the two of them. “When did you start calling me your stepdad, Lou?” Mark asks. “You only started doing that after your mum died. When did I stop being your dad??

By the time Mark has finished what, for him, is a pretty fucking long speech, Louis has tears in his eyes. “I don’t know,” Louis admits, emotion climbing in his throat. “I just… after mum died, I wasn’t sure where I fit anymore. In the world. In myself. And then you got together with Cecile and it felt like there wasn’t a place for me here , in this family, anymore.”

“Louis,” Mark says sternly. “There will always be a place in this family for you. It’s not even a question. Because, maybe I don’t have the right to decide myself, but I still consider myself your dad. To me, you will always be my son.”

“You sure you still want me?” Louis asks, voice breaking as he does, because he’s so afraid of the answer. “I’ve fucked so much up. I’m not the kid in these photos any more.”

“Lou, you’ve changed, but not as much as you think you have,” Mark says. 

“I hope that’s not true,” Louis says. “Because I’ve been trying to change. Trying to be better.”

“The things that make you Louis—the things I’ve always loved about you—those are the same,” says Mark. “You’ve spent so much time worrying about changing, that you never stopped to think that maybe you don’t need to change. Not that much. You’ve always been a person who is so good at loving everyone else, Louis. You just needed to get a little better at loving yourself."

"Have you always been this smart?”

“I learned everything I know from your mum.”

“And you’re really going to marry Cecile?” Louis asks. “This is your last chance to take me up on that offer.”

“Louis,” Mark says, and he looks Louis is in the eye. “She makes me happy. Not in the same way your mum did, but happy. I got to hold onto that.”

“Yeah, I think I know what you mean.”

 

*

 

Louis is sitting next to Lottie during the ceremony, admiring how pretty Harry looks next to the flower garden, when Lottie leans over to him and asks: “So what’s up with you and the hot priest?”

The fond smile drops from Louis’ face and he freezes. “What do you mean?”

Lottie sighs. “I’m not an idiot, Louis. I know there’s something going on there.”

“He’s my friend,” Louis says, purposefully avoiding looking in Lottie’s general direction so she won’t glean any more clues from his face. She’s always been too fucking good at reading his expressions.

“Yeah, and Chase is my friend,” she says and, while he is too afraid to look, he assumes she’s rolling her eyes.

“Ugh, can we not talk about Chase right now,” Louis says. He’s pretty sure he’s made his opinion on Chase pretty fucking clear. “Where is he, by the way?” Fine, maybe Louis does want to talk about Chase.

“He had an emergency work trip this weekend.”

Louis turns to Lottie. “During dad’s wedding? That’s bad, even for him.” 

“Shhh,” she says. “You’re missing the wedding.”

 

*

 

“You were so good,” Louis tells Harry after the ceremony. They’re pressed up against the side of the house in the spot Louis knows for a fact is perfectly hidden from the back garden’s view. This might not be the first time he’s made out with someone here. It’s definitely the best time, though.

You were so good,” Harry says, in between kisses.

Louis laughs. “I didn’t do anything.”

“You’re always good, Louis,” Harry insists, diving down to suck at Louis’ neck. Louis tries to swat him away, but his heart’s not really in it. Sure, it’s tacky to come away from a wedding with a love bite, but he’s learning quickly that he’s not good at saying no to Harry, especially when his mouth is on him.

When there’s a commotion from the back garden, Harry peels himself off of Louis and takes a step back. “What was that?” 

“Let’s go find out,” Louis says, grabbing Harry’s hand and pulling him towards the hubbub. Just as they are about to turn the corner into the back garden, Louis reluctantly drops Harry’s hand.

Upon returning to the party, it’s immediately clear something has disrupted the proceedings and that something is Chase. He’s crouched down next to Lottie in the center of the crowd of people and he’s got a—fuck no. It’s a ring. He has a ring in his hand. Who proposes at someone else’s wedding? A jackass, that’s who.

Louis and Harry seem to have just made it just in time to see the big moment.

“Babe, will you marry me?” Chase asks as Louis hovers at the edge of the crowd, trying and failing to properly see what’s happening.

Then, he hears it: “No.”

“What?” Chase asks.

“What?” Louis squeaks.

“Chase, I’m sorry,” Louis hears Lottie’s voice say. “I can’t. I want to stay in London.”

“We can make it work.”

“I want to stay in London without you. I’m sorry,” she says again, and this time it sounds like she might be crying.

The crowd parts and Lottie breaks through, running towards the house. Louis immediately follows. He finds her in the kitchen, desperately drinking a glass of water like her life depends on it. Louis walks over slowly and takes it from her hands.

“I just couldn’t do it, Louis,” Lottie says, tears streaming down her face. “I don’t want to spend the rest of my life with him.”

Louis pulls her into a hug. “Then you don’t have to,” he tells her.

 

*

 

Louis spends an hour comforting Lottie before he feels able to leave and go look for Harry. But he can’t find him anywhere. That’s when someone he is relatively confident he has never met in his life comes up to him and says: “Louis, you looking for the priest? He said he had to leave and to tell you goodbye.”

Louis runs.

He finds Harry waiting at the nearest bus stop, like the public transit nerd that he is.

When Harry sees him approaching, his eyes go wide, but, by the time Louis has reached the kiosk, he has schooled his expression into one of apparent nonchalance.

“Hey, sorry for leaving without saying goodbye,” Harry says. “I thought you might be busy with Lottie.”

Louis frowns. “You still could have said goodbye.”

“I told Martin to tell you.”

Louis’ brow furrows. “Who the fuck is Martin? I don’t even know Martin. Besides, that’s not the point.”

“I know,” Harry says and it’s as if, once he’s admitted that this might not be an ideal situation, the dam has broken. His eyes go glassy and his bottom lip quivers. “I couldn’t say goodbye, Lou.” His voice cracks. “Please, don’t make me say goodbye.”

And because Louis is not good at saying no to Harry, he nods his head.

“OK, Harry,” he says, resigned. He sits down next to him on the bench. “I won’t.”

“We can still be friends,” Harry tries.

Louis laughs, but there's no mirth in it. “You know that’s not true.”

Harry nods, and a tear escapes and rolls down his cheek. 

Louis laughs mirthlessly again and he can't help but think of Gnashers and his stupid, fucking laugh that Louis never understood. Louis turns to Harry. “Sometimes, the only kind of comfort you can give is the small kind, right, Haz?”

Harry flinches at the reminder of his own words. “I don’t regret anything,” he tells Louis.

When Louis doesn’t respond, Harry gives a little nod, stands up, and says: “You know, I think I’m going to walk home. It’s a nice night for it.”

Harry is almost out of the kiosk when Louis thinks of what to say. “Hey, Harry?” Harry turns back towards him. He’s bathed in the light from the lamp overheard and it reminds Louis of what he looked like in that restaurant alley the night they first met. “I love you.”

Harry’s eyes shine, but his smile is true. “I love you, too.”

Harry walks away, and, this time, Louis is the one who lets him go.

 

*

 

The month after Louis stops seeing Harry isn’t great, but Louis is OK. 

Lottie moves into Zayn’s old room and they spend their evenings watching Eastenders and playing with Niall. Lottie tells Louis about how she fell out of love with Chase and Louis confides in Lottie about how he is still in love with Harry, and that makes it a little easier. Not better, but easier.

Sometimes, they talk about what happened before their estrangement, so they can try to avoid it ever happening again. Louis expresses to Lottie just how angry he is with her. How abandoned he felt.

“You’re telling me now that I was never alone,” says Louis, “and I appreciate the sentiment, I really do, Lots, but that’s also not how I felt. In that year, I felt completely and utterly alone and, yeah, maybe if I had come to see you, I would have found out that wasn’t the case, but that’s not how it felt. And you saying that’s how it was doesn’t change my experience.”

Lottie stays quiet, but her cheeks are wet and she nods once to let Louis know that she is listening.

“It fucking hurt that you didn’t believe me,” Louis says, quiet.

“I did,” Lotties mumbles, her eyes dropping.

“What?”

Lottie lifts her gaze. “I did believe you… eventually. Or, at least, I didn’t believe Chase was definitely telling the whole truth. Deep down, I probably always knew.”

Another wave of anger wells up inside of Louis. “Then why didn’t you say anything? Why did you let me believe you were mad at me?”

Now, it’s Lottie’s turn to get angry. “Because I was mad at you, Lou. I was so fucking mad at you for how you were treating yourself.”

Louis cocks his head to one side. “So your solution was to leave me alone?”

Lottie squeezes the throw pillow she’s holding to her chest. “I didn’t know what else to do, Louis. You were tearing yourself apart and maybe it was selfish but I couldn’t watch anymore. Besides, it was the only thing I hadn’t tried yet.”

Louis huffs. “That’s a shit strategy.”

“Well I know that now, don’t I?”

“You want to know the worst part?” Louis asks, and he’s willing not to tell Lottie if it’s too much. But she nods, so he continues, his vision of Lottie going blurry with tears. “That whole year, I felt like I was failing mum. She told me to look after you, and I didn’t.” Louis stops to take a shaky breath, but he doesn’t look away. “I couldn’t.”

“Oh, Lou,” Lottie says. She puts one of her hands on top of Louis’. “You’ve got it all wrong. You know mum told me to look after you too, right? She didn’t want you to look after me. She wanted us to look after each other.”

Something unfurls inside of Louis’ chest. He wipes the tears away just in time to see Lottie coming at him with the throw pillow.

“What have you learned, dummy?” Lottie asks, as she continues hitting him.

“That my sister has shit strategies,” he yells as he rolls off of the couch and away from Lottie’s attack to find his own pillow weapon. They play and laugh like they're kids again and he thinks of how his mum would have fondly berated them for it. Thinking of her, at least in that moment, doesn't hurt in the ways that it used to.

 

*

 

That night, Louis calls Zayn’s number.

“Hey, Z,” Louis says. He’s curled up in his bed, and he’s let Niall out on his towel for company. “I’m just calling to hear your voice. And to say ‘I love you.’” Louis voice wavers, so he stops for a few long seconds. “Yeah, I love you so much.” 

Louis hits the “End Call” button. Then, he deletes Zayn’s contact information from his phone.

 

*

 

The next day is particularly long and, when Joe comes into the cafe in the afternoon and sees Louis dragging, he insists on taking the rubbish out for him.

“Take a break, darlin’,” Joe says, like he has so many other days over the past year. Those days too, he would make Louis stop whatever he was doing and sit down. He’d take up the broom or the rag or the mixing bowl and he’d start on the job himself. 

Today, as Joe is taking out the rubbish, Louis sits on the floor against the refrigerator, exhausted and thinking about how he is going to ask Lottie if she can make dinner for them tonight. Then, he thinks about how, for a whole year, Joe was the only one who actually looked after him. Without Joe, Louis would have been totally alone. And, yeah, a lot of that was Louis’ own fault, but, when it comes down to thinking about how fucking grateful he is, it doesn’t matter how or why Joe being there for him happened. It just matters that it did.

“Hey, Joe?” Louis calls towards the back door. A few seconds later, Joe reappears, the rubbish disposed of and his ukelele back in his hands. 

“Thank you,” he tells Joe. Louis hopes Joe knows he doesn’t just mean for the garbage. 

Joe strums his ukelele. “You can thank me by hiring someone to help you out with this stuff when I’m not here.”

“You know... I think I will,” Louis says.

Joe stops strumming on his ukelele. “Really?”

“Yeah.”

“When are we going to have that open mic night?”

“We’ll see, Joe.”

description here

 

*

 

It’s not like Louis has stopped thinking about Harry. Unlike before, when he was trying to quash whatever burgeoning feelings were growing inside of him, he doesn’t try to avoid the part of his heart that belongs to Harry. So he thinks about Harry whenever he hears an Abba song. He thinks about Harry when he feeds Niall in the afternoons. He thinks about Harry when he sees someone reading a copy of Pride & Prejudice on the Tube. And he thinks about Harry a lot of the moments in between. 

When Louis thinks about Harry, he hopes that he is happy. He hopes that he has someone to share his favorite vestments with and to laugh at all of his terrible jokes. He hopes that he has someone to keep an eye out for foxes for him and that they know enough to lie to Harry about the total number of foxes currently living in London. He hopes that, when he thinks of Louis, he’s still glad to have known him. Because Louis is so fucking glad to have known Harry.

 

*

 

Harry Styles returns to The Cavy Cafe and Louis’ life on a Wednesday. This week’s session of Chatty Wednesday is particularly well-attended and, when Harry shows up, Louis doesn’t notice him at first because he’s helping Chadia with her shoelaces. Honestly, who doesn’t get a four-year-old tennis shoes with velcro?

It’s Joe who notices Harry first. “Lou, looks like you have a special customer.”

“Coming!” Louis says, as he finishes the knot on Chadia’s shoe and stands up, his breath immediately catching. “Harry.”

He looks good. Well, he looks terrible, actually—his hair has grown out to an awkward length and his clothes are wrinkled, like he hadn’t folded them and put them away but rather grabbed them from a pile on the floor—but Harry will always look good to Louis. He’s staring at Louis like he can’t quite believe he’s in front of him.

What is he doing here?  

“Do you want to come inside?” Louis asks, and Harry just nods and follows, like a wayward child. 

Once the door is closed behind them, the murmurs of chats firmly on the other side, Louis turns back to Harry, steeling himself for whatever may come.

Maybe he has a catering question or he was in the neighborhood and really needed an americano? Maybe he’s just a fan of Chatty Wednesday events? Maybe he found something important of Louis' and has come to return it. Like, for example, Louis' heart.

“How have you been?” Harry asks. His voice is scratchy, as if he hasn’t used it much lately.

“Good. You?” Louis finds himself responding, like they are two work colleagues forced to make small talk until the rest of the meeting shows up.

"Yeah, fine." This is brutal.

Louis notices that Harry has brought something with him. It’s set on the ground next to his feet.

Louis gestures at it. “What’s that, then?”

“It’s a guinea pig named Shawn,” Harry says. “It seemed like a good idea at the time.”

Harry bought a guinea pig? Harry bought a guinea pig and brought it to Louis' cafe?

Louis can’t do this anymore. It’s torture, and he's promised himself he would do everything in his power to avoid that sort of thing. Because there's so much Louis can't control, but this? Standing in front of the man he's in love with and pretending that he doesn't want to throw himself into his arms? That is something he can control.

“Harry…” Louis starts, his voice breaking. “Nothing’s changed.”

“I left the church.”

Louis gapes at him. “What?”

“I sent in my resignation last week. I moved out of the rectory.”

Louis balks at that. “Harry, your garden!” He’d watched Harry spend whole afternoons tending that garden.

“I can plant more flowers.”

“You love that garden.”

“I love you.

Something hopeful blooms in Louis' chest, but he's not willing to accept it yet. 

“I can’t let you give up everything for me, Harry,” Louis says, teary-eyed.

"Louis," Harry whispers, as if the very name itself is precious to him. His hands come up to cup Louis’ face, his thumbs stroking his cheekbones softly. “I’m not giving up everything. I’m getting everything.”

Louis lets out a sob, tears streaming down his face. Harry brushes them away. 

“You promise?” Louis asks.

“I promise.”

Harry seals it with a kiss.

When Harry moves away, Louis laughs. It’s wet and throaty, and he can feel the snot building up in his nose. This has got to be the most disgusting romantic moment he’s ever had. And the best.

“But what are you going to do instead?”

Harry shrugs. “Plant an even bigger flower garden. Learn how to play the guitar. Love you.” 

Harry pauses and looks away from Louis for a moment, but his hands stay on Louis. “I think…" Harry starts. "I think I’d like to look into going back to school to become a therapist. It’s something I’ve been thinking about for a long time, actually.”

“Really?” Louis asks. He doesn’t want Harry to regret anything.

“Yeah,” Harry says, looking back at Louis shyly, and Louis wonders how many people he's told about this ambition. “Ever since I was a teenager, actually.”

Louis puts his hands on Harry’s hips, drawing him closer. “I think you would be so good at that, Harry.”

Harry smiles. "Yeah?"

"Yeah," Louis tells him.

Harry face steels into one of determination. “I just... I just want to help people and I realized there’s so many different ways to do that. But, Louis, there’s only one of you. And I don’t want to live without you.”

"Hey," Louis says softly, his hands burrowing under the hem of Harry's shirt until they find skin to touch, to stroke, to cherish. "I don’t want to live without you either.”

And now Harry's crying, but the dimple's there too.

“So what do you think?" he asks Louis. "Would you want to try being happy with me?”

“Yeah,” Louis says, confidently, into the precious space between them. “I’d like to try being happy.”