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Marking Up The Atmosphere

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PART ONE

 

"Hold on, darling
This body is yours,
This body is yours and mine.
Well hold on, my darling.
This mess was yours,
Now your mess is mine.”
- Vance Joy, Mess Is Mine.

 

-

 

The whine of the engine of the approaching bus throws Harry off, making it very difficult to balance Elliot’s duffle bag and his shoulder bag, while simultaneously trying not to trip over the platform and his own two feet. Not the best way to start Saturdays, but. At least it’s not raining.

Luckily, Elliot’s already got Harry’s Oyster card slotted between her short fingers and she’s reaching over to tap it against the sensor before Harry even makes it up the first step. Unfortunately though, she’s also skipping into the long vehicle, aka the public bus, which makes it very hard to keep an eye on her as Harry scampers on behind her, flashing the impassive faced driver his best smile as he moves inside.

By the time Harry makes it into the bus, safe and sound and in one piece, Elliot’s found two seats and she’s taken the spot right next to the window. As he goes to sit down, careful of the McDonalds paper bag lying on the floor, he smiles at her beaming face, setting the duffle bag across his lap. She’s loved travelling, always. Whether it was on a train or on foot—she’s found a deep sense of satisfaction in finding homes in places out of her house. Harry can tell just by the way she barely looks at him.

“Thank you poppet,” he sighs, taking his bus card from her, sliding it into his wallet. “Next time, though, wait up for me, yeah? I’m very slow, it seems.” He makes a big show of cracking his knuckles, rubbing a soothing hand down his back to calm down the intangible back pain.

Elliot looks away from the window, turning to him with a tilt of the head. “But then we wouldn’t have gotten the seats.”

“Yes, well,” Harry starts, zipping open his bag, “good job, then. Kudos to you, sweetheart.” He leans to kiss her nose, but it lands on her cheek as the bus runs down a bump. Elliot giggles anyway.

“Now,” Harry starts, taking the wrapped present out of his bag, “here’s the present—wait, wait— yes, here’s the other one. What’re we gonna say when we hand it to them?”

Elliot sighs, loud and tired, like she’s so, so used to this. “Happy birthday. Thank you for inviting me. I hope your day is filled with lots of love.” She recites the words in a monotone voice which Harry tries very hard not to smile at.

“And we’re going to say it like that, then, right?” He waits for a second before Elliot straightens up. Her face contorting into her brightest, most tangerine orange smile—the kind that gets her whatever she wants.

“Happy birthday! Thank you for inviting me! Love you!”

“All right, all right, I’m sorry. You can say whatever you’d like, darling. Just make sure you don’t get too much cake on the dress, yeah? Also—you’re sure you wanna go. Like, completely. You definitely want to go to this party right now?”

“Pa,” she smiles, resting her hand over his like she’s done so, so many times—his best source of comfort for when he’s tired, frustrated, and trying not to cry. “Yes, I do.” And then, “I’ve got this. We’ve got this. It’s just a birthday party, Pa.”

“Right, you’re right, we’ve got this.” Harry tries not to point out how he hasn’t been to a nine year olds birthday party since he was, well, nine. But he’s good with children. And he’s (fairly) good with (not nosey, not rude, not questioning) parents. So he’s got this. Elliot? Elliot could do this in her sleep. She’s all curls and dimples, a frightening similarity between her and her dad, with the softest skin and an even softer heart.

“You’re fabulous, you’re beautiful, you’re brilliant. You’ve got this,” Harry reminds her. But maybe it’s also a reminder for himself.

“You too, pa,” Elliot says back almost on instinct, patting his thigh as if he’s the child. “You too.”

-

Harry met Elliot before he finished school and was told she was an accident.

She came into the house in the arms of his sister, Gemma, who looked at Elliot like she held all the answers and all the pain, and everything in between, all stored up between the swish of her fanning lashes. Harry touched Elliot’s skin before Elliot’s blood father did, and he will hold onto her as long as her father stays away from them.

His room had only one Nintendo DS and that was traded for milk bottles and heavy textbooks. His clothes ranged from Primark to Jack Wills to the occasional Ralph Lauren on his birthday, but that all changed for printed footsteps across the carpet as Elliot took her first step. He felt more love for his niece, for his daughter, than he ever has for any other person and that’s the way it’s been since she moved in with him, a flat in London above a bakery as she took her first step into Kindergarten and Harry took his first step into College and they took their first glance into their new life.

Harry has Elliot and he knows better than anyone else that she is the farthest thing from an accident. The closest thing to the sun.

-

The Tomlinson’s met Elliot wearing satin silk and purple tutu’s, gold slippers on their feet to bounce in sync with the beat, movements fluid as Harry watches them dance from the tiny window of the door. The Tomlinson’s, as in the twin daughters, Daisy and Phoebe. Nine years old and silver past their hair, they smile at Elliot before they smile at their Miss Agen, and they hand out their invitations like it’s a game. Like Elliot’s part of their heart, part of their team, and she’s getting invited despite being younger because she’s got lovely mocha locks, and a lovely pink leotard and her single father, who comes to pick her up every day with four chocolat’s for each of them, is very pretty and also very lovely.

So it’s no surprise that their birthday party is anything less than lovely. It has streamers the colour of the petals of Petunia’s and a birthday sign written in the blood of a Lily. It’s bright and it’s pretty and Elliot squeals as she makes her way towards the two girls standing side by side in snow dresses. They hug, they laugh, and Harry hears her scream, “Harry Birthday,” which is cute, Harry Birthday, because they all start giggling as Harry makes his way towards them, the tent on their backyard a shade. He kisses Daisy and Phoebe on their noses and whispers, “Harry Birthday,” with his eyes wide and happy and then he watches his daughter run off towards the tables set in pink linen and white embroiders.

Without Elliot by his side, he doesn’t think he’s got this all too much anymore. It’s as if she’s his confidence, and she is, but she’s also got friends of her own. Either way, he walks, as mutely and invisibly as possible, towards one of the chairs around the entrance of the tent. It’s an obvious set up for the parents, mostly because the chairs are plain plastic and not a pastel shade, and also because Harry can almost recognize some of the people from around the area. Almost recognize though, does not mean in a friendly relationship with. So Harry stays put and pulls out his planner.

He hates his planner so, so much. Mostly because it’s saved his life more than once. Also because it makes him look like a very busy, very active person, when in reality, he just has a lot of homework. Right. Passing blue reminders and yellow pointers, he stops on today. He had to cancel Elliot’s dentist appointment for this party (mostly because she really, really wanted to go and Harry will not stand to not have his daughter get everything in life) so he has to reschedule that. Also, he’s got a night shift for work on Tuesday, which is very bad because he has to get Elliot to school the next morning and he had a night shift last week, too, so she’s bound to complain. It also says a parent-teacher conference is coming up soon. Soon, as in this Friday, which is so fucking brilliant, really, Harry’s favourites are the parent-teacher conferences. Favourite.

Besides that there’s a little note saying rent is coming up soon and that means noodles week which basically means instant noodles for dinner for about four days, which is isn’t so bad. Especially since Elliot loves the curry flavour. Harry bites his lip. Essay due on Thursday. Even better.

There’s a very subtle hum drifting around and Harry can almost mistake the plastic chair at the party for his plastic chair at home, with the cluttered desk stained with coffee drops and ink dots, only suddenly there’s very, very loud yelling. Just as Harry looks up, his pen tracing marks around the note for rent, he sees the twins run past him, a name by their throat that Harry can’t, for the life of him, recognize.

“Pa.” And now there’s soft pink cotton and sparkly, satin lace draped over his lap as Elliot hops up to sit on him. How very lovely. Harry noses through her hair, the scent of apples and creme weaved through her strands as he kisses the raw skin of her head. “What’re you up to, poppet?”

“Nothing.” She looks over at the front of the tent where the squealing has not stopped. “Daisy and Phoebe’s older brother just came and they’re really, really excited to see him.”

“Oh?” Harry cranes his neck to look but he can’t see beyond several layers of dress fabric. “That’s brilliant! It’s great he could make it.”

Elliot nods, her chin tilting down. “Yeah, it is. Did you know there’s an ice cream cake? Daisy and Phoebe told me, it’s cookies and cream.” Harry tries not to smile at how easily she gets distracted, using one hand to push his planner back into the bottom of his leather bag.

“I love ice cream cake,” Harry says, nodding when Elliot turns to look at him.

She shrugs. “I know. I love ice cream cake, too. I’ll get you a slice when they cut it later.”

“Oh, you don’t have to, darling,” Harry grins, pressing a swift kiss onto her cheek. “You could have an extra slice for me, if you’d like. But don’t take more than you can handle, all right? And not too much on the dress, please. I want you to wear it next weekend when Gran Anne comes over.”

“Gran’s coming next weekend?” Elliot says, her voice dry and surprised, her eyes wide and cosmic, stars littering the green and the blue like little flecks of dust and gold. Harry beams back because she’s just so beautiful.

“Yup. And I think she’s bringing strawberry—"

“Strudel?”

Harry grins. “Strawberry strudel.”

Elliot grins as well, jumping off his lap. “I like strawberry strudel more than ice cream cake, I think.”

“That’s okay,” Harry smiles, pulling her into his arms to feel her breath against his skin. “You can like them both, too, if you want.” Elliot tilts her head and slowly nods.

“All right. I think I like them both.”

“I think I like them both, too, Ellie.”

He presses another kiss to her head, right past her honey skin and darling curls, and tells her that if she wants to, she can go meet up with her friends. She ends up kissing his cheek before skipping off to the entrance where a mass amount of people have gathered for whatever reason. Harry is tempted to get up in order to make sure Elliot doesn’t get lost, but he’s also aware that this is a birthday party, before anything, and he shouldn’t really be here in the first place. He remains sitting, pulling out his phone to text Niall, who is both the receptionist at Elliot’s dentist’s office, and his childhood best friend.

need to reschedule for ellie again mate, a birthday party came up. sometime next week possible? xx

And that’s that. He sits quiet for the next half hour with nothing but his leather bag and moleskin journal burning watery holes into his head because you need to finish, you’ve got things to do, that essay isn’t even halfway done. But none of that matters, none of that ever matters, when Harry turns and just catches the quick brush of Ellie’s curls, or hears that distinctive giggle falling off the roof of her mouth. All he can see then is ten fingers shorter than his nose, minuscule hands wrapped around his thumb, and the top half of the short haired head a rose pink. That’s all he sees, all he can remember, and all he cares to do. He’ll forget coursework and he’ll forget bills and paychecks and loans and headaches and how he needs to pick up more instant coffee. He’ll forget it all because compared to the running slippers of a six year old with the ocean in her eyes, it means nothing.

Jay, Daisy and Phoebe’s mum, stops by after a while and tells him to help himself to the buffet but it’s not like he’s hungry—no, he never seems to be hungry. A little restless, always a little worried, and that often confuses his mind for hunger when his breakfast of cornflakes hasn’t even digested yet. Either way, he gets up to head over to the drinks table and frowns at the fruit punch and orange juice. No wine. He was hoping for a glass of dry white, but alas, this is two nine year old’s party and Harry has to get his child home safely. Right. He hesitantly pours the red liquid of the punch into a plastic cup. If he squints, it looks kind of like the inside of a nice bottle of rose, but. He takes a sip and nope. At least it’s not carbonated.

“Enjoying yourself?” someone from somewhere behind Harry says and he isn’t sure if whoever it is is talking to him exactly, so he sort of stills and waits patiently for more noise. Of many things, Harry Styles is most definitely not the best at first impressions and awkward conversations that weren’t meant to happen in the first place. He is also a little bit—shy wouldn’t be the word— clumsy; delicate. Especially when it comes to speaking. Right.

Someone comes to stand beside him then and Harry turns his head and yup. He, whoever he is, was (is) definitely talking to Harry. Probably. Is that an Armani suit?

“Hm?” Harry hums softly, tilting his head to see that whoever it is—is very wow. Wow. Wow. Harry hasn’t seen a face that staggering...well, ever. This person, this person standing right behind him, has clear blue eyes and a sharp jaw. His hair is curling by his ears, down the back of neck and he’s a charming smile made up of tiny teeth. He’s a handsome brush of scruff and he’s looking right at Harry. This is definitely more interesting than his planner.

“I asked if were enjoying yourself,” Whoever It Is says. He grins at Harry as if he’s amused, as if he’s in on a secret that keeps Harry in the dark and he would very much like to gain some control over this situation. He tries to smile back, but his dimples are most probably doing a bad job of appearing right now. Damn it.

He blinks a couple times, waits until the shiny glow that surrounds Whoever It Is dissipates into something Harry probably saw in the corner of his eye, and then he realizes he hasn’t answered him yet. Which. Not very nice, Harry. “Yes, yeah, I’m—I’m having a blast, yeah. Thank you.” Where is he, where is he, where is he— right. Birthday party. And who is this— handsome face and lean body, eyes that seem to intercept all the attention away from anything but him, his lips dry and smiling? What is he doing here in his dark grey, pressed suit and messy, out of focus hair? Is life fair? Has Harry started to breathe normally again? He isn’t exactly used to encountering incredibly sexy men. This is a first, most probably.

“How— how about you, um, random fellow I’ve never seen before? Are you enjoying yourself?” When Whoever It Is blinks in surprise, he looks a little older than expected all of a sudden and then there’s this familiarity, something by the corner of his eye or maybe by the curve of his jaw, that doesn’t feel new. It’s as if Harry’s felt him, not seen him, somewhere between a dream and a figment, and now he’s coming back to focus. Harry isn’t sure if it’s the punch, because his glass is very much empty already, or if it’s because he wasn’t really expecting conversation, but he suddenly feels like Whoever It Is has a name that Harry won’t be too surprised to hear. Very weird.

“Is that your way of asking for my name?” He’s still grinning though, bringing his own cup to his lips as if he’s challenging Harry altogether.

Harry shrugs. “Possibly. You haven’t answered either of my questions, though, so.” Another shrug and he’s leaning over to refill his cup. At least he isn’t getting drunk. That’s considered a win.

He turns back to the party for just a second and he can make out a blur of children, different colours, familiar faces, running and playing and circling chairs and his heart thumps for the few seconds he can’t see Ellie, but then—she’s right there. She’s starshine and she’s beautiful and she’s right there. Harry’s breathing goes back to rhythm just as Whoever It Is is speaking again.

“I’m Louis,” he extends a hand and it’s a very nice hand. Very capable looking. “And yes, I’m enjoying this party a lot.” Louis, Louis, Louis. Where has Harry heard that name before?

Hmm. Louis…nah. Doesn’t seem to ring any important bells. “Right. Well. It was nice meeting you, Louis. Um. Enjoy the party?” He’s pretty sure the faster he gets the conversation done and finished for, the less embarrassment will pile up on top of him for him to shudder over at night. He looks down at his cup and yup, there’s enough punch to last him for at least another ten minutes and by then Handsome Stranger Louis will probably be gone. Good plan. Only —

“Oh, are you in a rush to leave, random fellow that I don’t know?” There’s this mischievous glint in his eye, something so young and mirthful, it makes Harry flush brightly, right to the crown of his nose like a tinker on their first day, and right.

“Sorry, um. I’m Harry. I’m Elliot’s father.” He nods at his daughter who seems to be laying flat on the ground. For whatever reason. Harry needs to keep an eye on that.

“Oh?” Louis says, tone coloured in surprise. “Elliot from ballet class?” Harry grins at the title, proud.

“The one and only, yeah.”

“Well, I’m Daisy and Phoebe’s older brother. No children of my own, but I do love my sisters quite a bit. No matter how rubbish they are at ballet.” Okay. So this is Louis Tomlinson. Louis Tomlinson, Louis Tomlinson, Louis Tomlinson—Harry’s head clears like the first storm of summer, pushed to the top and out of sight and suddenly, like frightening sunlight all in once—Louis fucking Tomlinson.

Somewhat famous, somewhat a multimillionaire, somewhat wearing a suit. Somewhat Louis Tomlinson. What? Harry isn’t sure what. He isn’t sure why and he sure as fuck isn’t sure when, but Louis Tomlinson is somebody and Louis Tomlinson does something. Business, even. Trading within Southeast Asia. Possibly things to do with oil from the Middle East, or to do with football from his team back home (or maybe it’s to do with both or neither at all), but Louis Tomlinson walks with a reason and he talks with intention. Harry doesn’t follow politics, business or rates, in fact, he’s only as familiar with those things as he needs to be (i.e financial aid offices and a bank account to support Elliot), but he knows Louis Tomlinson. He knows he’s twenty something and breathes in the echoes of falling coins, the rumples of tearing pages. He’s twenty something and he hosts parties in different cities, bites out teeth and tongue and blood only to have it washed in gold and he is everything, Harry thinks, and he’s twenty something and staring straight at him.

Instead of all that, though, he says, “Hey, Daisy and Phoebe are brilliant at ballet,” as if that’s all he caught. And maybe it is, maybe Harry lets go of things that don’t matter at the moment and defends young girls against anything, but Louis Tomlinson will not stop staring at him and it’s scratching under his cells, itching besides his bones.

Louis Tomlinson laughs, slow and fast and a hurricane all at once, and he brings a hand up to run down his hair, strands catching against each other in protest of Louis’ fingers. “Are they?”

“Yes, I watch them every Friday when I go to pick up Ellie. They’ve gotten very, very good.”

Louis shrugs. “I don’t doubt it,” he mutters, glancing around quickly, “I’m just never here to witness it much, but. I’m glad they like it. They’ve got more than enough tutu’s to last them a lifetime.”

“Right,” Harry says warily, frowning as he notices Ellie stand off quietly at the side, smile still wonderfully intact. Right then, his phone buzzes and he’s sure, a hundred percent, that it’s Niall.

what ! again ? i’ll see what i can do bro, tell ellie to live it down a little, she’s getting reckless !! aha ! but yeah dont fuck over with the next appointment, it might take me months to book you another ! cya later man im comin over the with babs ! with takeover chicken !:)

Harry has to bite the inside of his cheek from smiling too hard. His life feels too fast and sometimes it feels a little too smoggy, but Niall’s his headboard, his counter current. He stops Harry from floating a little too far and he loves Ellie almost as much as Harry does.

ha! thank you nialler!! love u man! see you soon xx

When Harry turns back to excuse himself from Louis Tomlinson (why does he keep using his last name?) he finds that he’s already gone.

Right then, if he were to look ahead a few months, past a wind of pictures he’d ignore if he could, he’d think that that was a great way to put Louis Tomlinson: already gone.

-

Sunday morning. No party, no phone calls, no smoke from the bus.

Taking a slow sip of instant coffee, mostly to warm the back of throat, Harry has to squeeze through the narrow hallway, sliding past the walls with practiced ease because Elliot’s mini keyboard takes up half of the path. It’s a crack away from six am and Harry’s skin feels like a frore breeze, something kept solid and dry, around his neck and down his chest, as his Ramons shirt does nothing to insulate his body.

He’s got toast burning warm in the kitchen, and his toaster is absolute shit, so it’s going to take a minute or two for it to actually start working. Ellie is a lax, dreamy matter, still curled up in Harry’s bed because she got cold in the middle of the night. Now, Harry needs the coffee to invigorate his mind and filter his thoughts because he’s got to make some phone calls or finish an incomplete sentence he cut off once the clock by his head read ‘much past midnight’ in red light.

He trudges to the living room, a square shaped area with just enough space to breathe and a couch to cry and not-have-sex on, as Perrie had said once quite bitterly when Harry told her no, I didn’t go home with him, Elliot was in her room.

(“Call him over to my couch then, you sex deprived weirdo.”

“Thanks, but no thanks. I don’t feel sexually deprived nor am I horny at the moment. Plus— I can’t even remember his name. So. You go have sex with your girlfriend.”

“I will, and it’s going to be fucking brilliant.”)

Right. Harry shakes his head, rubbing down fallen bits of his dreams from his lashes, little bits that cling on like a baby’s hand, latching onto anyone and anything offering attention. Only, Harry doesn’t pay any attention to lost pieces of dreams. Dreams are as useless to him as hope for sun during a snowstorm

He looks out the window, the sun is strung high like a token of day, a token of summer turning its page because it’s just passing May. Harry knows that things are starting to matter less, promises of a long break lingering in everyone’s mind as they hand in late homework and answer questions carelessly in the middle of a packed classroom. But today is Sunday, and on Sunday, nothing matters. Nothing except loose ends. Pieces of work, letters upon letters that need answering, emails from various accounts (even one from Moshi Monsters telling him Bermuda, Elliot’s pet monster, is devoid of sleep...or something) that yell at him to try harder! Answer me! I’m more important than your rest of mind! It’s a long day, he can always tell before it starts (like many days), but at least he can crawl into bed again, settle into Elliot’s hair if she’s still asleep, after at least opening his laptop and logging in.

Even so, it’s a cooler morning. A blanket of clouds covers the shine, but it’s almost see through, like a translucent coating. The road looks like dirty, dry wood and Harry watches as the first car of the day passes, travelling much too fast, Harry’s sure, a mist of red and metal. Harry knows this street like he knows his mum, like he knows his life: clear and straight to the point; loving with open arms but filled with little pockets of dark memories that come in the form of a struggling family by the corner flat or a single women who won’t let anyone touch her anymore. It’s beautiful right now, though, when it’s like any other place in the world. A quiet, sturdy morning for everyone and anyone to wake up to and admire if they can, if they want to, constant without a brisk moment of judgement. The mornings are Harry’s favourite and maybe that’s why he wakes up right before six am without a sound of complaint—because he wants to. Because he can. Because the mornings are his, in his tiny flat with holes around the moldy walls and holes around his heart where his dreams used to live instead of on his eyelashes, where they get ignored whenever they come up.

There was a fried chicken shop by the neck of the street, quaint and painted a flat blue, with a menu drawn on the wall in dark blocks. The owner of the store, Raza from Bangladesh, knew Harry and Elliot’s orders by heart because you could take Elliot out for poulet and creme brulee from a fancy restaurant with names all around France, but nothing would make her happier than her chicken chips from down the road. She walks there once every other week (if not once every week, but Harry had to consider health, always) with her red jumper bouncing as she hops on every other stone, her father’s hand securely wrapped in hers.

There’s something safe, guarded, about this neighborhood, even with its crappy excuse for crime watch and loud yelling from the other end. Mostly because there was the old man by the screaming house who smokes by the front porch every morning from 6:15 to 6:55, waiting till the cold but his fingers so hard, he could feel it till the next morning. And then there was the exhibitionist alcoholic living a couple houses to the right who greeted Harry with a nod every time Harry passed, his chapped lips stretching around the smile, accommodating. There was the sureness Harry couldn’t find anywhere else and that’s why he wakes up with the sun with full consent and he lives here with the largest smile despite not having enough room to fit the mini keyboard his child wants to learn how to play so badly. It’s why he’s been here for three years, taking both the tube and the train to get to his college, pick up Elliot from school, and get back home. Something about his life right now screamed “this is for sure, this is for good!” and that was all he needed.

Tracing patterns on the dry glass of the window, Harry dismisses the way the pieces of his dreams crawl right back up his left calf and settles by his eyes, the closest it will ever get to his heart. Instead, he calls Kendra from downstairs, the owner of the bakery they live on top of, and asks her if she’s free to look after Elliot on Tuesday night.

-

Tuesday, night shift. Somewhere near West London. Lots of glitter. Harry is late.

“You are late, Harry Styles,” Liam says the second Harry rushes in, bringing in drops of the rain like a lingering amount of cologne, his face flushed from how cold it is. “Very, very late.”

“You say it like it’s something new, Liam,” Harry grins, hitching his shirt up to his armpits, trying to take off his thick coat at the same time. He’s a rush of long, tired curls and and a paint splattered arm that could pass off as a piece from Wassily Kandinsky, when it’s really just a reminder of his six year old back home, paper and colour staining the floor like harsh truths. “It’s like you don’t even know me and my habits, gosh Liam.”

“Being late isn’t a good habit, Harry,” Liam frowns, tugging Harry’s old cotton shirt over his head because Harry both has a child and is a child. Petulant and wide, bright from his toes to the crown of his curls. “Have you ever considered hiring a nanny? Or maybe even leaving a little earlier from your flat. Better yet—coming to work dressed properly.” Liam says all this while pulling Harry’s stapled, crisp white shirt over his shoulders, buttoning from the bottom as Harry does the top half.

“I do have a nanny,” Harry argues with the smallest pout. “Kendra from downstairs is my nanny. My trusted nanny. And try as I might, I happen to live on the opposite side of town, Liam, and the tube driver doesn’t really like it when I yell at him to hurry up. And it was raining so I would’ve gotten my work clothes wet either way. So hush up.”

Liam looks back up, pats Harry’s thighs to get him to change into his black trousers. “I don’t know why I’m friends with such a stubborn toddler, it’s so infuriating, I had to tell Ben you were in the process of delivering another baby,” Liam wails, shaking his head sadly. Dick.

“Shut up, Liam,” Harry frowns, swatting his chest. “You’ve got no hair and you smell like blue cheese.”

Please,” Liam smiles, “I smell beautiful because I got a proper shower before coming here.” Liam goes to stand behind Harry and helps tug the trouser up over his bum, slapping it right before he turns around.

“Gosh Liam, thanks for rubbing it in,” Harry groans. “How will I live without a shower? Without being a more punctual person? Without my honour, Liam, I’ve been hit by rain! I can never face my child, much less this high end job, ever again.” Sarcasm is a tool as handy as a butcher’s knife. Only, Harry uses it more with Liam than anyone else and Liam’s one of his best friends.

Liam frowns then, his bushy eyebrows framing his big, round eyes like fur. “You really should’ve majored in the arts, Harry,” he says, reaching over to twist Harry’s nipples over his thin, velvet-smooth button up—which, ouch, Harry has sensitive nipples, Liam should respect that. Harry makes a small, wounded sound, shielding his body away, curling his shoulders in on himself. “Such a drama queen, I swear. Hurry up and get your hair fixed.”

Harry gasps softly, turning to look at Harry with soft eyes. “But I just got my hair styled today,” he says, mustering sadness into his words as Liam raises an eyebrow, unimpressed. “You don’t like it?” Harry bats his eyelashes, sliding up to rest against Liam’s side as he wraps a buckle around his waist.

“Oh, I’m sorry, Harry,” Liam rolls his eyes, turning towards the exit of the bathroom. “I personally adore that messy, ‘I am a hipster hobo’ look you have going for you, but I don’t think the partygoers from downstairs will. They drink liquid gold along with their liquor—your hair might be a bit inadequate to their standards of gelled back perfection.” Harry scrunches his nose at the sound of that, turning to the large, fancy mirror, carding his loose strands away from his face.

“Gel. Ew. No thank you.”

“Hey, I use hair gel—"

“But, why, Liam?” Harry asks, falsely exasperated in an overly dramatic way. “You haven’t got any hair to put gel on!” He leans in close to whisper into Liam’s face like a secret is being exposed right between their shared breath. “Do you just rub all over your scalp?” It’s funny because Liam actually does have hair. Or at least, he does now, and Harry will never let #shavedheadliam2k13 die.

“Why are you such a little shit, Harry?” Liam asks, holding onto Harry’s waist because he’s leaning more or less completely on Liam and Harry’s lean and slim, but he’s fairly tall and very clingy. Liam can’t let them both fall.

“Because you let me be, Li,” Harry grins doe eyed and dopey, a pretty mess of red lips and bright, starlight eyes. “Now hurry up, we’re going to be late.”

Harry takes the moment to skip out of the bathroom, wrapping his silk scarf daintily around his long locks because no matter what he says, Liam is right about his unruly hair. Liam catches up with him quickly, could easily surpass him too, but he settles as a friendly reminder by Harry’s side. “We’re not allowed to accessorize, Haz,” Liam says as if he’s seeing the scarf for the first time.

“Yeah,” Harry nods, grinning, “but it’s not like Ben minds.”

“He’d let you get away with murder, I swear,” Liam says, shaking his head. They work, very simply, as waiters for Ben’s catering company. Ben Winston is both their boss and Harry’s almost boyfriend from their numerous times spent making out before work. Harry would be late for a completely different reason, like the one time they fucked against the wall in Ben’s office. Now, though, now their relationship is purely business. If it’s a little friendlier than others, then well, Harry isn’t complaining. Ben thinks Harry looks very lovely in his scarf and it’s a win-win for both of them, because Harry loves looking lovely and Ben, more or less, loves Harry.

“If only you had —," Harry starts, his voice mocking.

“If you make another comment about my hair, I’m going to bite you, Harry.” Liam pinches his hips like a warning as they walk down the stairs, towards the kitchen and the hall. Harry’s job is very much everything you’d expect it to be: annoying and dull. It isn’t annoying because he has to put on his best dress and a black blazer which he would normally have no business with. It isn’t annoying because he has to carry a tray in one hand, balancing food and drinks alike. It’s annoying because of the people. It’s annoying because of the rude, egoistic people with diamonds wrapping their sleeves.

What isn’t annoying (or dull) though, is the fact that it gets it him by.

He has to be fluid, his movements slow just like how he talks. He has to smile his charming, most beautiful smile when he asks what drinks they’d all like. He has to be pretty and he has to be quiet. It isn’t hard when you ignore everything except what you’re going home to, and Harry could do this all his life if it kept his daughter with him.

Tonight is one of the more classy nights. Ben caters only for the high end—the dazzling and bright, the flashy and rich. He only lets his plates brush fabric from somewhere far away and he only lets his waiters smile their practiced smiles for the wealthy, rude and political. It’s not so much a personal thing as it is business, Harry knows, but he would be much better off waiting tables at Raza’s chicken shop. Except that isn’t really an option.

Either way, it’s one of those meaningless nights—a party hosted by someone Harry will probably never recognize for something to do with their flourishing business. An ostentatious, purposeful party aimed solely to make everyone around wonder, ‘why aren’t I there and what do I have to do in order to be there?’ and those already invited think, ‘why is this so ridiculous and what do I have to do in order to host something like this myself?’

Along with Liam, there are six other regulars who work alongside Harry. They’re all beautiful and thin. Their arms form perfect squares when they hold their trays beside their heads and they all love to talk about what the people they serve talk about—almost always, there’s at least one story that has nothing to do with neither business nor politics.

(Tonight, Harry wouldn’t be staying late cleaning up and listening to Elise spill everything her quirky ears pick up, but he doesn’t know that yet.)

“It’s fancy—like really, super fancy. We’re serving Set A today,” Perrie mutters lowly once Harry and Liam walk into the kitchen through the backdoor, Harry laying more or less all his body mass down on Liam’s back so that he’s been dragged around the floor, like a legless kitten. Sort of. He hopes it looks at least a little endearing.

Someone whistles. Set A is the best, most expensive by far and the last time Harry served the full fledged eight course meal, his hands were shaking because he was so worried. (It was also Harry’s fourth day and he’d never even heard of Foie Gras before.)

“Who’s the host?” Liam asks, looking around the plastic box by the corner for his blazer.

“Dunno,” Perrie says. “Maybe a really hot, really sexy—"

“Fifty-year old dude with close to no hair?” Emmanuel, another beautiful waiter, says helpfully, but not really.

“Really?” Harry pouts. “Again?”

“No, I don’t know. But like, yeah, probably,” Emmanuel shrugs, flipping over the HomeCare magazine on the counter with no food.

“I was going to say a really hot, really sexy single women. With great boobs and an even greater taste in other women. Geez guys,” Perrie pouts.

“Perrie, you have a girlfriend,” Harry reminds, patting her head. She bites the air in response.

“Hello, hello.” Suddenly the backdoors are gaping open and Ben is entering, hands waving around like a massive fucking weirdo. Which is exactly what he’s not.

“Hi Ben,” Emmanuel says without looking up. Charlie and James come in a second later and Barbara’s on the floor, probably texting Niall. They’re a great family, really.

“Listen up! Today is very important, but I’m sure you all knew that. Be fabulous, be gorgeous and don’t hit on any governing figures—“

“No promises,” some calls. How charming.

“—at all! Thank you!”

And Harry thinks that’s it. It’s a bigger night, an affluent crowd, but it’s all the same for him, really. He’ll be the same no matter how much the customers change. The menu will stay the same and his greeting will remain boisterous. Nothing about this night, at least for him, should be out of the ordinary.

-

Five years back. The Styles household for three originally—currently housing four.

“The baby is... really, really loud.” That is the first thing he says about the small human thing sleeping on a tiny, cheap cot beside his bed. Harry’s never had a charming way with words. Only when it’s written on paper, does he feel he’s most comfortable. Out loud? He’s a pale teenager with no body hair. Also, his voice breaks a lot.

“Yeah,” Gemma smiles, something tired and worn out quivering at the ends of her lips where dimples would usually form. Harry tries not to comment on it, especially when he understands much better than anyone would ever expect him to. He just grins. “She’s a handful,” Gemma adds, sighing as she runs a hand through her limp hair. She’s thinner nowadays, drifting through wind, catching on the gashes like a leaf or like a dream. She barely makes any noises, barely does anything but cry silently at night when the rocking, shakiness of her bed makes more sound than her.

“But she’s really beautiful,” Harry reminds. “Like, really fucking beautiful.”

Gemma grins again. “You swore—that’s not good. Don’t do that. But yes, she is.” She looks just like you, is what she wanted to say, but Harry doesn’t know that.

Elliot and Gemma came in while a storm played in Harry’s head. It was on repeat, a constant throb that had him leaning over the sill of his window, head lolling against August wind as he closed his eyes tightly. It was then he saw the huddled figure walking up their front porch, a disjointed curve against the dark that held a bag on one hand and something very human-like in the other. Instantly, Harry started to cry.

When Harry’s mum, Anne, opened the door, the crying just grew louder.

Harry can’t remember the rest completely, even to present day, because his eyesight was a blurry mess of salty tears and salty words, something bitter settling in their house like a curse. But he remembers this: Elliot had on a thin, loose Teletubbies shirt on and Gemma kept saying, ‘I’m sorry,’ and his mum kept shaking her head, whispering ‘It’s okay, darling,’ and Harry had kissed a boy for the first time that day. Earlier, during school.

“She looks like me, I think,” Harry says, back to their sofa on a hungry Saturday. He’d just put Elliot to sleep because she apparently only sleeps around him now. He said what Gemma wanted to, and that’s the way it’s been since.

(He’s doing what Gemma wanted to. He’s raising someone Gemma was a part of.)

Gemma’s grin turns cheeky, for only a second, a soft flash back to the girl she used to be with wit drawn over her hands like a temporary tattoo. “Is that your way of saying you’re really fucking beautiful?”

“Maybe,” Harry says, leaning over to rest his head on her lap, “maybe it’s my way of saying the Styles family is really fucking beautiful.”

Gemma laughs and right then, his mum walks in. “Harry,” she says, shocked. “Language!”

Gemma only laughs harder.

-

Back to Tuesday. Night shift. Harry’s legs hurt. Glitter is still very much present.

“Hi there, I’m Harry, and I’ll be your waiter for this evening. Can I interest you to a bottle of wine?” It’s practiced, the greeting, and it’s boring as fuck, but it’s also expected. He looks around the table, catching the eye of anyone still looking at him and yup, mostly middle aged men with clean shaven faces and double chins. Nice, nice.

When he works, he does everything on autopilot. He’s usually a clumsy baby deer, like a mermaid experiencing legs for the first time, but when he’s got his shirt and best smile on, a tray in hand and a blazer around his body, he’s confident and he’s lovely. He takes down the drink order with a nod and with a smile and he moves back to the kitchen without any hesitancy. He’s done this so many times that it’s starting to feel like the beginning of a previous dream.

He’s assigned to table one and two—which seem to be the harder tables as it seems the host will be sitting in one, according to the seating plan. But. He’s beautiful and he’s lovely and he’s got this. Elliot’s told him, his mum has told him, the college support fund has told him, he himself has told him.

Table one is quiet, but not literally. It’s quiet in the sense it doesn’t cause too much hassle and it doesn’t push Harry beyond his tolerance capability. Though, the night has honestly just started (quarter past nine...basically when the moon sets) and people do grow more drunk, so it’s hard to tell. He hasn’t even gone to table two yet.

Inside the kitchen is exactly how’d you imagine it: organized in the most unorganized way. There’s meat getting tender with condiments and lemon and there’s also someone crying into their phone in the corner and there’s something looking vaguely like caviar spilled on the floor and there’s also about seven gourmet chef’s who don’t look up once. Lovely, very familiar. In every location, no matter the crowd, the constant smell of absolute worry is present. How homely.

“Harry, did you serve table two yet?” Ben asks, coming up with his phone in hand, the other holding the planner for the night.

Harry shakes his head even though Ben isn’t looking at him. It counts on the inside. “Not yet, sorting out the drinks order for table one.”

“Fuck,” Ben swears, slipping the slim phone down his pocket. “Okay, um, Colette?” he calls out loud and clear. A pretty woman in white comes quickly and Harry watches as Ben hands her the drinks list. “Get this sorted for me, will you darling? Harry here just needs to finish something outside for a second.” Colette runs off with a nod and Harry frown runs in with question.

“Why did—"

“Listen. Okay. Table two has our valuable and very important host sitting on it —," Harry wants to say it, he does: ‘he’s sitting on the table? Ha!’ but he’s pretty sure Ben won’t appreciate it as much as Ellie and Niall would have. So instead he listens. “—and it is very, very important that you smile extra hard and be extra charming to, well, everyone. Right now. He’s probably dying out there right now and you’re not saving him. Leave. Go. Get his drinks! He’s parched Harry, why aren’t you—," It takes Harry about a millennium to figure it out, but eventually he nods quickly and rushes out with Ben’s voice nagging on behind him. Rude.

Table two is situated beautifully at the front of the hall, right by the stage with a mini orchestra performing (not really. A muted violinist and a piano accompanist, but. Fancier than the radio). He walks right up, flashing them all his smile before introducing himself. He looks around and—yup, all the same. Except—one person here is just a little bit richer than everyone else. It’s like a game, really. Trying to get a glimpse of their watch brand, the tag on their suits, seeing who came to outdo who. Beautiful.

There’s an empty chair right by the corner which Harry doesn’t pay much mind to (mistake number one) and the orders are all the same. Expensive, branded wine. An occasional beer. Maybe even champagne, if they’re feeling sparkly. Harry could’ve guessed it, really.

He saunters off and the second he reaches the kitchen, looking for Colette for his drinks, Ben stops him. “How’d it go?”

Harry rolls his eyes. Honestly, if you were to speculate this from a distance, you’d think Harry was talking to just any random bloke. Maybe even mocking him. But this is his boss and Harry knows the taste that remains in the bottom of his tongue. “As per expected. I charmed them all and now they want to be my sugar daddies. But, what else is new?”

Ben doesn’t even blink. “And the host?”

Harry looks him straight in the eye. “I don’t know who the host is nor will I be able to recognize him from name.” He pats Ben’s shoulder. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I must go distribute overly priced alcohol!”

Ben just sighs.

Table one is still quiet, but table two starts sending him looks, both interested and arrogant alike, and Harry’s sort of grown immune to them. Unless he’s had a little to drink himself and manages to fit in a quick wink to the nice (interested) rich bastards. But it’s actually very early still and Harry hasn’t had time for a drink.

There’s a short break between the drinks and the starter where Harry thinks he can convince Barbara to sneak in some extra red from her small table, but alas, Ben finds him first right as he moves to leave the kitchen.

“Harry! Good, I was looking for you. Listen, I need you to get the readymade cauliflower breadsticks from the storage room.”

But Harry isn’t listening. “Wait—when’d you have time to stuff breadsticks in a storage room?”

“Not the point,” Ben frowns, “but I’ve been here since morning. They asked for full-service, y’know. Decoration and prep and everything. I’m a very busy man.”

“I don’t doubt it,” Harry offers, shaking his head. “Right. Breadsticks. Yum. Where are they?”

“Storage room, like I said, Harry. Take the right behind the kitchen. It’s after the toilets. Here are the keys—you might need to make more than one trip here and back with the boxes, so leave the door unlocked till you’re done. Thanks so much, my love, good work!” And all that is left of Ben is strong cologne and even stronger after shave.

He twirls around, curls flying to his face like a gentle reminder (‘I’m curly, I’m long and I’m here, always’) and then he’s walking out the kitchen, hands coming up to fix the headband. The back of the kitchen is just as beautiful as the front: lush carpet for people to throw up over and gold lining the neck of the walls. There are numerous paintings of God knows what hung up down the hall like an afterthought, something sudden to make it feel less lonely.

He thinks of calling Kendra, asking if Elliot’s tucked into bed or if she’s letting her stay up to watch television. He’s passing the sign that reads ‘toilets’ with an arrow pointing towards the hallway to the right and air conditioning is blowing hard and thick over the corridor and right then, just as he passes the gap in the hall for the toilets, it happens.

He’s looking down at his shoes, frowning over the thin crown of the tip, when a body slams against his. The pressure of the blow leaves Harry both surprised and falling to the ground because a) he’s still figuring out the concept of legs b) there is someone falling on top of him.

And it’s—it’s really weird. He instantly feels the ground groan in protest of his weight and the back of his head feels sore, but it hasn’t really started to hurt yet. It’s like—he knows it’s going to start feeling like a hurricane of dry clouds and sharp metal, but all he feels is the steady, immense mass of someone resting themselves against Harry’s front, which. Not as comfortable as it implies.

“Fuck.” It sounds like it should be from him. He is being used as a human mattress and wow, why is the back of his mind going so hazy, like this is starting to hurt, but it’s not. It’s not him but it is sounds like someone he knows—or should know.

Suddenly, he’s somewhere completely new. He opens his eyes and suddenly he knows where he is.

(A fast wind of pink tulle and stretched banners, cake all over the cheek and the ocean burning blue and silver. He’s been here before.)

And oh. Oh.

“Oops?” Louis (Louis Tomlinson) says lowly, his eyes trained on Harry’s face in shock. And really, Harry’s glad that out of all the people in the world, it’s someone as attractive as Louis Tomlinson who is currently on top of him, which could imply a lot of things, but he’s sort of also aware of how this makes things a little more uncomfortable for him. Because he can’t stop watching Louis (Louis Tomlinson) watch him.

His eyes are horribly blue, some shades that don’t fit the matter of this world and must belong from galaxies away (Louis Tomlinson is an alien, Harry’s sure) but they are suddenly widened in recognition.

“Hi,” Harry tries, and he sort of really wants to tell Louis Tomlinson to get off of him, but right now, he isn’t, ‘Harry, Elliot’s dad,’ but, ‘Harry, can I get you something to drink?’. And this isn’t, ‘Louis, here to attend my two sister’s party,’ but, ‘Louis, here in a suit from Hugo Boss.’ He’s got on his iron-clean shirt and he can remember his button down smile, so he can’t say anything.

“Haven’t I—last Saturday—Harris?” Close. Harry tries fidgeting under Louis’ weight, trying to get his attention to the fact that Harry sort of wants him to get off.

“Harry,” he rasps out, face contorting to a scrunch as his head begins to throb vigorously. “Yeah. Hi, Mr. Tomlinson—Louis.”

Louis frowns and Harry makes a small sound when his knee digs into Harry’s sides painfully. “Oh—oh shit, I’m so sorry.” And then he’s suddenly up to his feet and Harry’s head falls back to the floor, which. Not the best idea. “Fucking fuck,” he whines pathetically. He’s sure he’s lost some brain cells during the fall, but at least his limbs are all intact.

Louis hooks his hands under Harry’s arms and hoists him up, one hand falling to Harry’s hip to steady his two trembling feet. Instantly, Harry’s hand goes up to comfort his head and the world turns upside down. He can see stars blink owlishly at him from the ground and there is a pellucid moon caught between the gaps of the ceiling.

“I’m so, so sorry,” Louis says, but it makes its way into Harry brain like a tidal wave, fast and slow and confusing. “Fuck, are you all right?”

Harry shakes his head and blinks his eyes open. It’s not…bad, per se. A little harsh to the vision, like lazer against the dark, but. He’ll survive. “Yeah, yeah, I’ll be—I’m fine, thank you.”

“Are you sure?” Louis asks warily, looking down uncertainly at how Harry widens his eyes then squeezes them close, his hand pressing into his head. “Do you need to go to the hospital?”

As nice as a warm, soft bed sounds, Harry still has work and he’s pretty sure getting knocked into a carpeted floor by someone not that big in the first place doesn’t give him a free pass to go to the hospital, despite Louis’ concern coloured face. Which is nice.

“No,” Harry grins softly, pushing his curls out of his eyes when they fall petulantly. “No, I think I’ll be all right, thank you.”

“I really am sorry, I wasn’t watching where I was going,” Louis offers, smiling a smile Harry guesses could get they stubbornest of people to fall to their knees. Insufferable. “If you don’t mind me asking—what’re you doing, um, here? Like, I didn’t see you before, so —"

“No, yeah,” Harry interrupts quickly. “I’m, um, working? For Winston Caters? I’m a waiter for, uh, Winston Caters, so.” Not the best with words is one of the many ways you could describe Harry Styles. At least he’s got a knock knock jokes memorized by the skin of his wrist. That should make up for awkward conversation, surely.

“Oh—oh. That’s…that’s actually quite the coincidence, us meeting here again,—you remember me from Dais and Pheeb’s party last weekend, don’t you?”

Harry wants to laugh. He wants to laugh because yeah, it’s a coincidence and yeah, he remembers him. Harry’s sure that Louis didn’t even mean it to come out a little arrogant, but Harry did only talk to him for about five minutes, and it was over a bowl of red non-alcoholic drinks and about things to do with the children of their lives. But, Harry remembers because it was Louis Tomlinson. And even if Harry doesn’t know much about the world of business, Harry knows it’s hard to forget a face as beautiful as Louis Tomlinson’s.

“Yes, yeah, I do,” Harry says, head ducking down. “Louis Tomlinson—brother of the ballet twins, yes?”

Louis beams at that. “The one and only.”

“Right.” Breadsticks, his mind yells, suddenly remembering. They need breadsticks very, very quickly. “Um. I sort of have to go, but, um, it was nice seeing you. Do you—are you here for the party?” No, Harry, he just popped in to use the bathroom. He tries not to wince.

“Yeah, I’m, um, sort of hosting it?” Um. He’s sort of hosting it. That’s nice, it’s a great venue, too—he’s hosting it.

Harry shouldn’t even be surprised. In fact, after the rare chance of running into him at a birthday party, Harry should’ve been expecting something like this. A loud party in the middle of the week, located at the heart of everyone’s eyes, hosted by the lovely and rich, Louis Tomlinson, who happened to conveniently be in town because he was always out somewhere. At least he’s got something to tell Ben now.

“Hm,” Harry hums. “Are you? That’s nice. Yeah. Enjoy your party then, mate, I’ll see you around.” And with that, he manages to slide past Louis Tomlinson, trying his best not to touch his throbbing head as he makes his way to the back of the kitchen, trying to ignore the eyes he can feel so strongly.

-

Cauliflower breadstick tucked into a pretty basket, Harry walks quickly to table two to serve them the last of their starters. After this, he gets a break that lasts for a couple minutes before he has to bring in the soup. Brilliant. It’s like looking forward to the weekend, except Harry gets tiny sips of red wine that he has to pass around with at least four other people.

And also—Louis Tomlinson is back in his chair (the one left empty from before…connecting the dots is a very satisfying feeling, Harry finds) and he’s sort of staring at Harry and he’s sort of drinking, like, a lot. Which is fine. Harry himself used to be a heavy consumer of alcohol till Elliot told him it stained his shirts in a way she hated. Now he prefers a dose now and then—between and during work. But yes. Louis Tomlinson is lightning covered in cloth, something so sharp, he could be confused for a figment of Harry’s wandering mind. The only thing is—he’s real and very much alive. Harry would know, considering the previous situations. So. Harry’s sets the basket down, on four different tangent lines of the circular table, spread out evenly. He asks if anyone would like something more to drink, listens to Louis order some more of the eau de vie he’s been swallowing down as if it were icing tracing the quirk of his lip.

(Hm. Best not to think about Louis Tomlinson’s lips, Harry counters. That could be dangerous.)

Once he’s refilled Louis’ glass, pointedly ignored his quick glance to his face, he heads for the kitchen, where he finds Liam perched on the counter and Perrie, sat on one of the plastic chairs. Starters are the easiest because no one really finishes their wine, so Harry only needs to go outside once or twice for refills, and the breadsticks will run out in about seven and a half minutes. Harry plops down on Perrie’s lap and takes the glass from her hands.

“Rude. You didn’t even ask,” Perrie frowns, leaning back as Harry tilts the cup higher.

“True,” Harry quirks, giving her back the near empty glass. “But you love me anyway. Sorry.”

“I work hard for my wine,” Perrie pouts, “unlike some people.”

Harry frowns, instantly happy from the little intake. “If you’re going to throw shade Perrie, you might as well add that I took your Forever 21 jumper without asking.” He isn’t sure how someone as tiny as Perrie manages to breathe properly under his full weight, but Perrie never fails to surprise him. Also, she’s sort of used it.

“Rude as well. We’re dealing with an out of control ragamuffin, Liam!”

Liam just sighs, reaching over for one of the spare breadsticks. “I hope you both know it takes a lot of patience being friends with you people.”

“Us people,” Perrie snorts, turning to face Harry, one hand coming to support his back. “He says it like it’s a bad thing, being us. Psh.”

“Yeah,” Harry nods. “Why don’t you just leave, Liam? You don’t have any hair, anyway.”

Liam just stares at him. “That doesn’t even make sense, Harry.”

“You don’t even make sense!” Perrie defends, wrapping her arms around Harry’s middle, burying her face in the soft drift of his shirt.

“Guys, stop ganging up against Liam,” Barbara says, walking into the kitchen with an empty basket. “He’s only a mere puppy. And he stands through all of your relationship issues. Be nice.”

Harry scoffs. “I don’t have relationship issues.” He rolls his eyes and pretends to check his fingernails for any splits. Hm. He’s been experimenting with nail polish colors recently, and yellow’s been his favourite so far. Mostly because Elliot loves it when she gets to put it on for him and yellow reminds her of bananas. Which are as necessary as breathing in the Styles household.

“You don’t have a relationship. Period,” Barbara says, grinning cheekily. She reaches for the wine bottle sitting beside Liam and pours some for Perrie and Harry before herself.

“Please,” Harry scoffs. “I spent most of high school blowing your boyfriend in the back of the changing rooms, babes.”

Barbara laughs. If anything, it should be Niall worried someone would come snatch his Babs from him than the other way around. Not that Niall’s not a catch—he is. He’s got a really nice dick, Harry can confirm it. “Don’t I know it. It’s quite disheartening, really, I’ve been trying to beat you at giving head, but it seems your lips are magic, darling Harry. He can’t stop moaning your name during sex, it’s heartbreaking! Not to mention discouraging, considering I’m aesthetically much more pleasing.”

Harry laughs right back her. It’s true. Kind of. She’s an ex model. “Rude.” He rubs the back of his head and winces. It’s not like, painful painful, but it is sore and it does sting. He tries not to make a big fuss about it, letting one finger lock down on his curls to play with.

“Louis Tomlinson.” Why is that name everywhere, all the time? Charlie walks through the door with shaky legs as he looks around the mini gathering with sparkly eyes. “Louis Tomlinson’s the fucking host, guys.”

Perrie whistles from behind Harry and Liam eyebrow raise. “Hm. That’s a first.”

“You don’t say,” Charlie snorts, stalking over to make a grab for the wine bottle.

“Don’t drink from the bottle!” Harry shouts, reaching over to quickly poke his stomach. “Unhygienic! Gross!”

“Pft. You’re one to talk, Styles,” Barbara grins, handing Charlie a glass from beside her because no matter how much they tease him, they listen to him all the same.

“One time,” Harry huffs, “it happened one time.”

“Two times.”

Three times!” Liam quirks, swinging his legs like a little kid, grinning with his dumb shaved (not so shaved) head.

“Right. Are we going to talk about Harry’s drinking habits or how Louis Tomlinson is our host?” Charlie interrupts. He clearly must have a crush or something. Interesting.

“What’s there to talk about Louis Tomlinson?” Harry wonders uninterestingly, tracing patterns on his glass, head ducked. There’s a gasp and he’s sure it’s from Charlie.

“How about how he’s one of the youngest, most successful businessmen of our time! How he runs one of the biggest trade companies in the world! How fucking hot he is in a suit!” Charlie must also have done his research. Very interesting. Harry bets he wouldn’t mind getting hit in the head because of him. He probably wouldn’t mind having Louis Tomlinson on top of him either. Not that Harry did. Sort of.

Perrie frowns. “Young?”

“Yeah,” Barbara nods. “I’ve heard of him—everyone has though, right?—and he’s about, what? Twenty-seven? Twenty-eight years old?

“Probably has the title of the country’s most eligible bachelor snagged under his belt, right?” Perrie snickers, pinching Harry’s hips, distracted.

“And he’s very fucking hot,” Charlie adds. “Also heard he’s the biggest gentlemen. How sweet.”

“I dunno,” Harry shrugs. “He was nice, yeah. Didn’t act like he was, and I quote: ‘The youngest, most successful businessmen of our time!’

“You’ve met him?” Charlie wonders in awe, lovely brown eyes widening, his skin flushing. He’s very, very pretty, their Charlie. With parents from parts of Thailand, he’s got hair that seeps the colour black and a smile that makes him look like your best friend. He’s also very, very single and ‘ready to mingle.’

“Well, yeah,” Liam dismisses. “Harry’s been serving their table.”

“Well, yes, but I did meet him last Saturday. Ellie was invited by the Tomlinson twins right, and Louis was there. We talked for like, five seconds, so —"

“First name basis! Did you get his number?” Charlie is probably asking for himself, but either way, no. Harry didn’t, so.

“Why are you people loitering here in the kitchen!” Ben says, walking in from the backdoor with his arms wrapped around a crate. “There are guests out there who need more ridiculous food! Go! Go! Go!”

Harry laughs, getting off of Perrie’s lap. He goes to find his tray, fits six more baskets of bread sticks before heading out with the rest of the crew following.

-

“Harry,” Louis whispers just as he passes him, his voice low and careful and fuck. Harry should’ve been prepared but dessert was already served and now they had another round of drinks before the party was over. But.

“Yes, how can I help you, Mr. Tomlinson?” He cocks his hip to the side, batting his eyelashes even though Louis probably doesn’t notice. He’s sort of staring at Harry’s hands. It’s whatever.

“Listen, I’m worried about your head.” Hm.

Harry blinks slowly. “You’re worried…about my head?”

Louis nods as if it’s the most serious thing ever, his eyebrows furrowed. “Yes,” he says sincerely.

Okay then. “Um. Why?”

“Well, you hit it earlier, didn’t you? When I ran into you?”

Oh. Oh. “No, no, no,” Harry laughs, “I mean yes, but, I’m actually, um, perfectly fine? You didn’t—you didn’t run into me, I wasn’t watching where I was going, it was totally my fault. Don’t worry about it, nothing a gin and tonic can’t fix.” He says this with a wink. He doesn’t actually mean it. He’s going straight home after this and the next time he’ll touch gin is probably in about a years time, during his birthday.

Louis doesn’t really pick up on the joke. “Really? I could—I could treat you to a glass. Like, to apologize?” Really? Give the person you accidentally bumped into some alcohol as a way of showing remorse?

“Um—"

“Please don’t say no,” Louis says and well. How’s Harry supposed to say no now?

“I can’t,” Harry murmurs, shifting from one foot to the other. “I actually can’t. Um. Elliot’s got school tomorrow, so I’ve got to drop her off, so—"

“I’ll get you home!” Louis offers. It’s not even a little weird—how Harry’s just stopped in the middle of the room, caramel creme floating through the air, which (the fact that it does nothing to disturb anybody), in itself, is weird enough. “It’s literally the least I could do.”

“Um.” Think fast, Harry, think fast. “Um,” he says again, ever so eloquent.

Louis laughs, a short sound that suspends in the air for a second. “Yes. That’s a yes.”

“Um.” This, in retrospect, seems to be the moment that changes everything, the impetus of the hurricane that blew Harry five feet above his competence, six feet under his own skin: Louis’ eyes are a wave against rocks that can be found solely on the moon and Harry has forgotten the entire English language. One word, one nod, Louis’ smile does it all, and that’s it.

-

Two Cuba Libre’s later, Harry’s traded his brain for a malicious cloud that tells him he can take more and more and more and he’s given his head for the curve of Louis’ hand. It’s all very fast and very confusing, but he can vaguely remember Louis cutting the party short, thanking everyone for coming, then storming to the kitchen and getting Harry out of cleaning duty in order to escort him to the nearest bar.

Now he’s sat on the stool, fingers draped around the glass of the short, half empty tumbler, and he’s laughing so fucking hard.

“Right, so I was like, why would I need raspberry lube?” He’s not sure which story he’s so rashly sharing so openly, but he figures they’re both too drunk to realize. Which isn’t good. He should be home, but he’s not and he can’t find the nerve in his brain that always forces him to care.

“Raspberry lube? Was it red?” Louis questions, eyes gold and blue, layered hazily with the sky.

“Not the point,” Harry dismisses, laughing straight after. “But like, then she told me I should finger myself with it—which, not very fun to discuss with your best friends girlfriend, but, I was like thanks but—but I already have lube. Like, normal lube. I even have lotion! Aha!”

“Same, mate,” Louis says, shaking his head, chuckling. He brings his lips down to the rim of his glass, tugging down the gin because though Harry ended up ordering something else, Louis stayed true to his word and took them out for what Harry had suggested earlier.

“Yeah. So, I didn’t use it. I just like, ignored it. I ignored the lube.”

“But that’s such a waste!” Louis pouts, frowning, probably on behalf of all the lube in the world.

“Yes, yes, it was, so then I ate it,” Harry says, giggling into the thick, heavy air, eyes focused on how Louis stares at his collarbones, then slowly stares up to the bends of his dimples. It’s all very distracting. And rude. Louis Tomlinson happens to be ridiculously handsome, so much that he doesn’t really acknowledge it. Which. Even better.

“Wait—," Louis starts, blinking, something in his eyes clearing, “you ate raspberry lube?”

“Licked it. Um. It wasn’t like—I didn’t eat it from the packet like pop rocks. Or something. I licked them off my fingers…aha!” He throws his head back, laughing till the back of his throat goes dry, but he doesn’t hear much enthusiasm from Louis. In fact, when he turns back to face him, he doesn’t look very amused.

“Ha,” Harry starts, shifting along with the change of atmosphere. “Yeah. So. That’s the story of how I licked raspberry lube. Um. I’m—I’m very drunk right now, so I’m sorry if anything I say offends you, I’m not—"

But then everything changes.

Not really. It’s a bit dramatic to put it that way, but Louis— he does it and it sort of does begin everything.

One second Harry’s talking, unsure if he’s somehow insulted or upset the very rich, very powerful, very gorgeous man who has had about two girlfriends and one boyfriend in the past five years, according to the conversation they had before they got pissed, and the next, there’s a hand coming up to his jaw, stilling his face and foreign lips kissing his mouth.

Hm. What an unpredictable predicament Harry’s caught himself in. On one hand, he’s faintly, kind of, sort of aware of how he’s got to seriously considering getting back home and getting some rest and showering. He’s remembering little figments of responsibilities, things he’s had to take care of for as long as he cares to remember, as long as he’s had a child, but. But on the other hand, Louis is kissing him. Louis Tomlinson, the person he’s literally met just four days ago and talked to about a handful of times, and Louis Tomlinson, who apparently drives a Mercedes Benz and plays football in his spare time for the Rovers, and Louis Tomlinson—whom he very much wants to kiss the fuck out of right now.

It’s a hard decision, really is, but then it’s nothing at all when Louis pulls him in with the surreptitious hand he sneaks to the small of his back, till Harry’s half on his stool, half on Louis’ lap, and half being groped. It’s so incredibly good, Harry can’t find it in him to care about anything else.

Louis works quickly and he works stealthily; he licks across the seams of Harry’s lips, questioning, almost hesitant, before he pushes his way in. He cups Harry’s jaw with condensation stained fingertips and right before Harry closes his eyes to just give in, he watches Louis’ eyelashes flutter prettily against his skin and fuck.

Fuck, fuck, fuck.

The last time he kissed a boy like this, it ended with him on his knees, come stretched across his lips. But that was a long, long time ago, right after he stopped messing around with Ben for the sake of his job. Soon after, he stopped messing around with anyone at all for the sake of his future, for the sake of his daughter. But now—now there’s this practical stranger with smart lips and an even smarter hand, and he’s kissing Harry like it’s all he’s ever learnt to do. He’s kissing Harry in a way that Harry never wants him to stop and that’s dangerous. It’s dangerous but Harry doesn’t even care.

And then suddenly, Louis is standing up, pushing Harry back to sit completely on his chair, and he slots himself hastily between Harry’s legs, forcing his back to the bar counter, forcing his lips back into a kiss. It’s not as much uncomfortable as it is hot, and Harry only lets out a whimper (a whimper—small, and sounds like a kitten), nimble fingers grasping onto the shirt under Louis’ suit. His suit.

Fuck, that shouldn’t be as hot as it is. What is he doing?

“Louis,” he gasps when he feels fingers digging into the inside of his thighs, his mind foggier than ever before. There’s warmth around his cheek and between the skin of his hand, and it’s all fucking brilliant.

Louis' tongue has remains of alcohol licking at the edges and his mouth is sweet and hollow, a pull that just takes and takes and takes while Harry stands to give and give and give. Louis’ skin is nothing less than liquid gold, warm and tender and lovely to feel every time Harry runs his palms down Louis’ cheek, up his untucked shirt.

“Fuck, Harry,” Louis groans, his voice several tones raspier, several bridges sexier. Harry needs to breathe. “Fuck, you don’t know how much I’ve wanted to do that.” He mumbles against Harry’s mouth, the dark of the bar covering them like a shield, like a promise of security, and Harry can only nod.

“Yes,” he whispers, leaning in, pulling Louis back with a hand to his neck. “Yes.” He wants to say me too, and he wants to ask, are we crazy? But instead, he starts to laugh again, spilling the noise into Louis’ mouth without any care.

Louis groans again, shuffles around, before he finds Harry’s hand in his and pulls away, bringing Harry with him. “Was that okay?” he asks when they stand close enough to share voices, share thoughts.

“The kissing?” Harry asks uninterestedly, lids hooded and trained to how Louis’ lips move.

“Yeah.”

“Yes. That was—I don’t really know you and I’m kind of really drunk, but that was definitely okay.”

“Good.” And then he’s being pulled somewhere that isn’t outside.

-

He isn’t sure what’s really happening, only feels the back of his throat coated with vodka and laughter and the furtive fingers of someone holding him steady and he isn’t sure—maybe he just needs to slow down a little because the pockets of his heart are on fire and Louis—yes, that’s…that’s right, it’s Louis—is kissing him really fucking hard. They grab onto each other like the wind catching on the creases of petals, new and full of intention, and Harry feels the hands on him everywhere; around his waist and dipped down to his hips, against his lower back and somewhere between the crook of his heart and the silk of his lungs.

He thinks this might be wrong, maybe, but Louis feels like a clothed star, rays of warmth stretching out like the hands of a prayer, and Louis is just this big, sure thing. With his rained suit and stern face and his wide chest and his rough hands. He’s just a pull, a space between want and need, and he feels so right touching Harry in ways he hasn’t allowed anyone else to in the longest time.

He feels himself getting pushed against something that feels painfully like a sink counter and right before the little gasp that falls out of him inadvertently, Louis gets his hands under Harry’s thighs and lifts him onto the counter as if he’s weightless and floating, a bite in the dark, gentle enough to touch. And then his mouth is a red hot mark that Harry can feel everywhere.

“Fuck,” he says lowly, breath coming out in sharp staccatos, ringing off the walls like a bell above a town. Louis’ hands are a caramel treat, feel like moulded gold, when they slip under his ruffled shirt and hesitantly touch the skin of his naval, warm and inviting and beautiful, and Harry can’t get enough, he’s barely had anything.

He hooks an arm around Louis’ neck and tugs him in, between his parted legs. Louis’ breath is hot and sticky above Harry’s upper lip and it’s only a short moment when Harry notices they’re sharing the same air before he’s leaning in to kiss Louis hotly on the mouth.

“Harry,” Louis mutters into his parted lips, “fuck, Harry.”

“Yeah.” Harry nods even though he doesn't get it at all, “Yes, yeah.” And then he pulls away, just to have Louis lean in closer, chasing his lips and catching onto his cheek. Harry surprises himself and the air of the room with a small giggle.

Louis presses his lips at the cut of his jaw, the sharp angle that cuts off into the length of his neck, and breathes in deeply before laughing into his little pocket by Harry’s neck, emitting the same sound back. “What are we doing?” Harry asks, words woven between every laugh, coming out almost hysterical.

Louis just shakes his head and bites down on his neck, tiny blades of teeth denting the soft skin to make obscene marks that could glow in the dark.

“What are we doing?” Harry asks again, but slower this time. One of his hands come up to cup Louis’ jaw while the other rests on his left shoulder bone. He’s so confused, is the thing. He isn’t sure what he’s doing, nor does he understand why, just that he likes it. Just that he doesn’t want Louis to stop kissing him or stop pressing bruises to his hip without a care. Just that he wants to hop of the desk and sink to his knees; take Louis into his mouth and make him come, slow, and with Harry’s name staining the inside of his mouth.

He wants it all and it feels like nothing and everything.

What am I doing? It’s echoing around his head and all he knows is that Louis’ lips are hot and quick down his neck; glazed over his collarbones that peek out cheekily. What am I doing, what am I doing, “What am I doing?”

He isn’t aware that his hold on Louis’ jaw has loosened and he doesn’t notice how he angles his face away when Louis comes back up to look at him, a firm figure settled both heavily and wonderfully between his legs. He only figures it out when Louis brings a hand up to tilt his chin, breathing still rigid and shaky.

“Harry,” he says, calm and collected while Harry’s feeling wild beneath his heart. “Harry, it’s okay. If you want this, then it’s okay.”

Harry knows that. He does. He shakes his head anyway. “I—I know, it’s just.” It’s just what? He isn’t even sure. He was perfectly fine with Louis’ tongue half way down his throat just a second ago, but now—now he doesn’t know. “I don’t know what I’m doing.”

It’s only the sound of their lungs expanding and taking, blowing out the same time, and Louis doesn’t let his hand move from Harry’s thighs, where they rest gently.

Harry’s mind is still fogged up like a stormy sky, every layering into a blur, every thought dipped into sticky, gooey question, as if raw and unsure. He isn’t on point, he isn’t sure, and that isn’t good. Not when he only gets drunk with the promise of making it home to Elliot.

Elliot.

“Holy fuck,” he mutters quickly, forgetting Louis Tomlinson is wedged between his parted thighs, trying to jump off the counter, but really just crashing recklessly into Louis’ chest. If he were sober enough, he’d hit himself.

“Woah,” Louis mutters, gripping his hips to slow him down. “Harry, fuck, what’re you doing?”

“I can’t—," Harry pants, fiddling with his zipper which is pointedly undone. “I can’t—fuck, I don’t know you, I don’t know what I’m doing, I have to get home, fuck.” He’s still not completely steady, eyesight catching light that blurs his head, but he’s pretty sure it’s sort of important he gets home, and that he has no clue who Louis Tomlinson is and that he should leave.

“I’m sorry,” he says when Louis moves away and he hops off the counter, feet feeling wobbly on the ground. “I’m sorry, but I really need to get home, I’m—fuck, where’s my belt?” It’s by the locked door, which—when did that happen?

“Wait,” Louis says, grasping onto his wrist. “Wait, just fucking wait for a second, Harry. Breathe.”

“I am breathing.” Why is he slowing Harry down, he needs to get home, dammit. He tries to pull towards his belt, but when Louis doesn’t let go, he tries to drag Louis with him, which isn’t really the most productive thing.

“No you’re not, you’re sort of going crazy on me right now—Harry.” It’s a tone short of a shout, something stern and harsh. Harry whirls around, finally noticing how his curls are free of the scarf he wore before.

“What, Louis Tomlinson?” he asks, baring a quiet snarl. “What now?”

“Are you— are you angry with me?” Louis sputters, shocked, his hold on Harry’s wrist not loosening in the slightest. He pulls Harry closer, or he takes a step forward, Harry isn’t sure, but he’s suddenly very much breathing past Harry’s face, looking straight in his eye, a bitter fizz of fabric and skin.

Harry frowns in response, petulant and almost mocking.

“Why?” Louis demands. “How can you be angry with me—what did I do?”

“You—you,” knocked into me, bought me a drink, kissed my mouth like it was the first moon after a desert storm, you smiled at me, “you aren’t letting my hand go. You aren’t letting me go when I need to go back home.”

(I haven’t done this in the longest time, and suddenly I’m doing it with you.)

“I promised you a ride, Harry,” Louis says slowly, breath even. “How’re you planning on getting home? After running out on me?”

Harry pointedly ignores the faint accusation. “I was—the tube—"

“Is closed right now. It’s three in the morning.”

“—a taxi.”

“You’re more likely to get mugged,” Louis says, but it isn’t some sort of lesson, he isn’t trying to hurt him. Louis sounds like he’s trying to convince him, of all things. “I’ve got my car parked a block away, I can drive you home.”

“I don’t know you, Louis,” Harry says as if it’s what made him stop. “You can’t—I can’t just do this—"

“Do what? Accept a ride home?” Louis smiles. “Harry, no one knows anyone at first. If you’re worried about my character, think of it this way—If I were to kill you, it’d be a lot harder for me to hide your body if everyone’s eyes are locked on what I do, always. You can check my criminal record, if you’d like? I can pull it up on my phone.” Harry narrows his eyes, unsure of if he’s being mocked.

“You’re drunk,” Harry points out cooly. “You could kill us both.”

“Trust me, I’m sober enough to stop you from leaving here alone and enough to drive,” Louis says, a grin slowly colouring his face as he lets go of Harry’s wrist and moves towards the door. “Should we get going?”

For the second time that night, Harry ends up giving into Louis Tomlinson’s wishes and he isn’t sure if this counts as a weakness, or as a coincidence.

-

“You can just drop me off at Plaistow station,” Harry says, frowning, leaning back onto the leather of his chair as his fingers grip onto the handrest. To say he’s fidgety would be an understatement. “I live nearby, I can walk.”

“Oh, I’m sure you can.” It’s been…an awkward drive, to say the least. Harry’s kept his vision ahead, the night stringing in different currents of blue and black, a sheer shine above of the beaming moon. London’s as bright as ever, a star kept in the world to fit the hearts of millions. Harry’s caught Louis look at him more than once. He doesn’t comment on it and his head has already start to hurt. From the alcohol or the hit from earlier, he isn’t sure—he doesn’t think it matters, Louis Tomlinson is the cause for both anyway.

Louis Tomlinson does, in fact, own a Mercedes Benz, but he brought his Bentley tonight, a sleek glow in all its glory, and Harry was hesitant to approach it, much less sit inside. But when he saw Louis smirk at him from the corner of his eye, he slid in as if he’s been doing this all his life. Which was once true. Not anymore, though.

“What’s the name of your street?” Louis asks.

“I told you to drop me off at the station.” Harry frowns. He sort of really doesn’t need Louis Tomlinson knowing where he lives. Mostly because it would probably remain a haze to Louis in the morning while Harry would be wondering if he’d ever see him again. It would some sort of disturbed hope—dangerous.

“Yes, and I’ve come this far to make sure you get home safely just to drop you off at a closed station in the middle of the night.” He pulls over at a blinking Tesco carpark and turns to face Harry.

“It’s morning.”

Harry.”

“I don’t care, you can drive around all you want, sit here till the sun comes up, I’m not telling you.” He’s not usually this stubborn, he swears, it must be the alcohol. Or how weirdly angry he still is at Louis Tomlinson for kissing him. Or smiling at him. Or whatever.

Louis groans, and what a liquid, pleasant sound it is. Harry just frowns and looks outside. There’s only one other car in the lot and it’s an empty Toyota. Harry’s sure if anyone were to come out and see Louis’ Bentley sat in the open space like an gaping invitation, they’d frown and tell themselves they were hallucinating. There aren’t very many luxury car’s in Harry’s life or on Harry’s street.

“Why not?” Louis finally asks, leaning his head back to rest against the headrest. When Harry sneaks in a look, he can see Louis, in all his glory, eyes fluttered shut and his lips pressed together.

“I don’t know you. I don’t feel comfortable giving people I don’t know my house address.”

Louis laughs, short and sharp. “You’ve said that like, six times tonight, mate. And I’m going to tell you this again—just like you don’t know me, I don’t know you. That’s sort of how life works…you meet people you don’t know and then get to know them.”

“We kissed before I even got to know of your favourite drink. Or what you like do on Sunday nights. Or what you do for a living. I don’t even know your age.” He does know, he could easily find the answers to all questions from various sources, he just wants to know all this from Louis himself—just like with everyone he meets.

“Is that—is that why you’ve gone all grumpy kitten on me? Because I kissed you?” Louis looks like he’s trying not to look amused. Harry is very much unamused.

“Shut up. No.”

“Because kissing is a great way of getting to know someone, y’know,” Louis says slowly, turning to look at Harry. “You find out if or not their mouth tastes of alcohol and lime. If neither, than what it does taste like. You find out if they like to grab your hair or your ass. If you’re good enough, you even get a faint understanding of the size of their dick. You, for example, tasted very much like cola and you were very fond of my hair. I didn’t get much of a look, but your dick—"

“Louis,” Harry says, unsure of if he’s angry or really, really entertained. “Stop. Seriously, stop.”

Louis laughs again and Harry learns Louis laughs a lot. He also learns he likes (like, really, really likes) Louis’ laugh. “I mean, it’s a great conversation starter for the next time you meet, too. Like, hey, hi, how are ya, really liked kissing you in the toilet last night, how’s your head?” This time, Harry laughs too. It’s small, a mistakable giggle, but it filters lightly through the air like a helium balloon out of thread.

When Harry’s giggle dies, loses it’s air, Louis’ words settle on him slowly. “Were you—you were going to see them again?” Them meaning him. Kissing in the toilet meaning forty minutes ago.

Louis frowns, confused. “I mean, yeah, I sort of really liked kissing you, Harry..."

“Styles.”

“See,” Louis grins. “Learning more about each other every second.”

Harry shakes his head, cheeks flushing softly against the bright lights of the Tesco sign. He listens carefully when Louis continues. “I mean—if given the chance, I’d sort of really like to kiss you again?”

Dangerous. This is so, very dangerous. Every cell of his right palm is telling him, every bone around his heart is reminding him, he needs to stop and think and stop. This is dangerous and he’s stopped doing things like (sleeping with strong hands he met at a club, kissing beautiful skin he saw glowing in the flashing lights) because of one reason—because of how dangerous it was.

Harry looks away and mumbles his address, thinking it’d be safer than talking to Louis Tomlinson about kissing, and next time, and chance.

He knows he’s got Louis worried—just not for the same thing. Louis’ worried he’s said something wrong, Louis’ worried he’ll forget what the back of Harry’s throat (the front of his neck) tasted like. Louis’ worried he’s sort of fucked up, but that’s one thing Harry doesn't know.

They drive down the calm night with a reckless kind of mind, and Harry wonders how did he manage to get himself into such a predicament—something so awkward that he couldn’t leave, even if he wanted to. Because he was in a moving vehicle. Also because he didn’t want to. Which was also the problem. Strange, really.

When they turn the corner, into Harry’s street, Harry closes his eyes shut. It’s bordering four am, meaning the screaming would begin soon because one half of the couple came home around this time, but Harry finds the street eerily quiet. Almost as if it were waiting for Harry to come with his heart stuck inside the leather and his hand caught under his thighs, Louis Tomlinson (of all people) pulling up in front of the bakery and Harry’s apartment.

Harry swallows, unbuckling his seatbelt. “Right, um, thank you for that. Um. Bye.” Clear, solid communication. He’s not saying ‘see you late,’ or ‘see you soon,’ because it’s not going to happen. The only thing he’ll be seeing soon is the front gate of Ellie’s school. Right.

He doesn’t look at Louis when he opens the car door, but a hand catches him again. “Listen,” Louis starts, “I, uh—”

Harry waits when he knows he shouldn’t.

“My favourite drink is cherry cola because my sisters love the smell and I like watch old disney movies on Sunday nights, even though I don’t always have the time to.” Harry frowns, but doesn’t interrupt him. “I’m the CEO of a trading company, which I’ve been working with before I got out of uni. And I’m twenty six.”

Harry breathes, looking at him owlishly. “Now you know more about me than I know about you and once you’re ready, I’d love to know everything about you, too. I’m half drunk and my house is about an hour away and I’m pretty sure I need to catch a flight for a meeting in Dubai soon, but I want you to know that given the chance, I would love to kiss you against a toilet wall again. Goodbye.” Louis doesn’t move to touch him, lets his hands go and waits. He waits on Harry to leave.

And Harry does.

-

Friday, after class and after The Parent Teacher Conference.

“At least you made it out alive,” Niall says distractedly. Harry can’t really blame him, he does have work. “And what—it’s another two months till you see her again?”

“Parent teacher meetings are generally every few months, yes,” Harry moans. It’s not good news.

“That’s good,” Niall reassures. “That gives you, like, lots of time to moan and get over it, just to face her again! Ha!”

“She thinks I’m trying to lead Elliot down the road of evil, Ni, she’s crazy.”

“She’s an art teacher, Harry,” Niall snorts, a heavy noise from the other end. It’s a warm and sticky day, so tender it’s almost palpable, and Harry’s just gotten out of class, a sandwich from the deli downtown in his right hand. “I’m pretty sure you’ll survive.”

“I can’t even handle men in suits, Ni, much less scary teachers,” Harry mumbles lowly, ducking into the convenience store parked by the curve of the street, heading inside and directing himself straight towards the drinks section.

“Hm.” Niall’s smirking—Harry can feel it. “Men in suits are quite a different story now, innit?”

“Shut up.”

“You brought it up!” Niall laughs. Harry ignores it with a roll of his eyes, reaching over to grab the chocolate milk Elliot loves to drink after her ballet class, along with an angel cake that he’ll have to break in half in order to maintain a healthy diet.

“I’m glad this amuses you, Niall,” Harry bites, walking to the counter. He tucks the phone between the pocket of his hair and left shoulder as he reaches down to grab his wallet. “It’s good I’m not wasting your time.”

“What do you want me to say, Haz?” Niall asks. “Like, I get you’re sort of pining after him, but—"

“I am not pining after Louis Tomlinson—"

“Like I was saying,” Niall interrupts. “Just cause you’re pining after him, doesn’t mean you get to be grumpy over mean teachers and then later be mean to your loving best friend. That’s just not how life works. You’re just going to have to find his number or lose mine, mate, I can’t stand your constant bitching.”

“Please,” Harry mutters, smiling softly at the cashier, “Liam’s my best friend. You’re my booty call.”

“I wonder how the Bab’s is going to react to that title.” Harry picks up the bag and walks out the store, leaving his presence in the form of a tiny bell ringing in his absence.

“She’s aware we have to share you,” Harry says with disinterest. “She told me you like tying your partner up. Kinky. I like it. We’ll figure something out with your work ties.”

“Oh my actual God. Haz. That’s like—you’re pretty and all, but I’m just going to have to stop at the bondage. That’s just not my thing—at least not with you.” Harry laughs.

“So we’ll just stick to the vanilla sex, then?”

“You’ll stick to any sex, weirdo. You denied Louis Tomlinson of the booty.”

“The booty deserves some respect, you prick. I made my decision with everything considered. Stop mocking me.”

“Don’t you mean as much consideration as you could think up through your alcohol stained mind?”

“I said stop with the mocking—"

“Alcohol that he bought you too, am I right?”

Harry frowns. “I’m gonna hang up. I’m feeling really attacked right now, just by talking to you.”

“Sure, mate,” Niall says. “Call me the next time you need to rant. Or need the dick. You know I’ll always make time for you.”

“How charming. Look at how charmed I am, you’re such a charming charmer, this is wonderful.”

“I love you,” Niall coos, stressing daintily on the love.

Harry laughs again. “Hate you too, babe. Bye.”

Niall is an explosion of made up constellations that shine throughout the broken galaxy. He is the epitome of boisterous movement and the orange sky, the feeling of sugary warmth and a body made up of celestial pieces. He is everything from outer space to honeycomb, from a solar flare to a snowstorm and Harry knows having someone like that in his life was more crucial than having all the money in the world, having everything in the world, because Niall is a figure that has stayed through everything. Through Harry’s first kiss and through Harry’s first responsibility. He is everything Harry knows he doesn’t ever want to lose, sits up there with his mum and Elliot in the list of people he could never forget.

He thinks all this while cursing at the lemon haired star, shaking his head with a grin as he walks down the summer coated sidewalk.

Ellie’s ballet classes are a fair distance away from their apartment, close enough to his college, and it’s his beam of sunshine after every finished day, when she skips outside the dance room with her hair in plaits and her skin dripping with happiness—Harry would do anything for it. And so he walks.

It’s a cosy school of arts, something bracketed by corroding buildings and corroding minds, fueled by the thin fingers of teachers and the thin smiles of students, and Harry can see it in the distance.

He smiles at security, nodding at the man with the lazy hat, and he takes two steps at a time up to the second floor where all the ballet classes are held. There’s a tiny window that displays the barre and the glass mirror and the gentle bends of passionate children, a guide in the form of an instructor passing each one with soft reminders, soft encouragement. Harry only allows himself ten seconds before he turns around and looks for a chair to wait with.

He’s got a shitload of work to finish, mostly from the English language and literature class he’s just stepped out of, with backup research to do for his upcoming extended essay which is due in less time than he anticipates, probably. But. He’ll get it done. He always gets it done.

He’s just tapping his legs, looking over at the clock every now and then, receiving a text from Niall that go along the lines of ‘still can’t belieb u met the tommo ! shoulda taken a pic of his car mate! or his dick !! which you didnt see !!!’ which goes mostly ignored with a snort. Until he’s trying not to think of eyes from another time and lips from another night, pressing into him in the dead of the blinking toilet lights. He hasn’t heard from him since ‘I want to kiss you again, I do’, because he knows that Louis knows what a quiet goodbye means.

Or maybe not.

“Harry?”

Definitely not.

He turns his head and tries to calm his eyes. “What the fuck.”

Louis laughs and Louis laughs. Standing there in (would you believe it) a dark blue, lean suit and loafers, his hair pushed back in a messy arrangement of dark strands. He’s even more handsome in daylight, little flashes of the overhead lightbulbs blinking over his skin, as if trying to take him in, who is that, why is he here, how long can he stay?

“Hi,” Louis says easily, slipping into the chair beside Harry, close enough for their clothed thighs to brush gently against each other. “How’re you?”

He’s strangely formal, a quick flash of bright teeth and sharp words, as if he’s got places to be, which he probably does.

“Um,” Harry stammers and why is it whenever he’s around this man, he can’t collect his mind to form sentences eloquent enough to be considered human? “Good. I’m doing good. What—how are you?”

“Fine, thank you,” Louis nods staring at the door. “Are they nearly finished?”

“What’re you doing here?” Maybe he isn’t listening to Louis as much as he’s watching the way Louis’ eyebrow quirks up and his lips curl down, as if trying to pull away from a smile, a tug of war taking place in the back of his mind of should I? or should I not?

“Picking up my sisters from their ballet class,” Louis says. “What does it look like?”

“You said that you…you weren’t here. Or something. You’ve never been here before.”

“And the fact that you can tell that,” Louis starts, “means that you have. Been here before, I mean.”

Harry frowns, shifting his weight to angle against the direction of Louis Tomlinson. (He’s been over this—no need for surname, he knows. He just needs to adjust. It’s not like he knows Louis on any personal level. Unless snogging counts as personal. Which it totally doesn’t.) “Well, yes, of course. But you haven’t. Your helper Gwen has. Where’s Gwen?”

Louis smirks, softly. “I’m wounded, Harry Styles,” he says, bringing a hand up to cup the area around his heart, right below the expensive material of his suit. Suit. Right. “It seems you care about her more than you care about me.”

Harry lets his lips settle on a grim line. “Well. I have known her for about four months. I’d like to think we’re friends.”

“And we’re not?”

“I don’t know,” Harry starts, agitated, “would you consider us friends?”

“I’d like to.”

Harry huffs. Right then, the door opens and a flock of children in leotards spill out like a tube of glitter, filled to the brim in specks.

“Pa!” Elliot is the brightest, though, but maybe Harry’s just biased. She’s a storm and a sun, all in one, and she’s running up to him with her hair falling around her face like falling rain drops, her cheeks red and her forehead sweaty.

“Hello there, sweetheart, how are you?” He takes her bag from her, handing her the small carton of chocolate milk and pulls out a towel from his messenger bag.

“I’m good, thank you,” she says, moving to sit on the chair on Harry’s other side.

“How was class?”

“Really, really fun,” she says, grinning. “How was the conference? What did my teachers say?”

Harry leans down to peck her nose. “They said you’re a star. That you’re absolutely brilliant. I’ve got a few remarks from your math teacher, but we’ll look over that once we get home, all right?”

“Mhm,” she nods, poking in her straw. “Thank you.”

“Not a problem, El, let’s get going, yeah? We’ve got a bus to catch.” Harry stands up, offering his hand to his daughter without looking back.

“Can I tap your card?” she asks, looking up with all the hope in the world.

“Of course you can.” Harry pulls his wallet out of his back pocket and he’s just about to get the Oyster card out when —

When a lot of things happen. Daisy comes running up to them with the shiniest grin, her sister in tow and Louis Tomlinson shows up last, cheek bridging over every lash around his eye.

“Ellie!” Daisy squeals.

“Louis said he’s going to take us out for ice cream!” Phoebe finishes and what.

“What?” Harry looks up from their small head to frown at Louis. Who shrugs slowly.

“The girls’ve been nagging at me to take them out some place, and they wanted Elliot to join, so.” He doesn’t finish, glancing over at the small heads and the small hands. “You can come along, if you’d like, to supervise. I can drop you off at your house, too, afterwards.”

No. Nope. Nop-ity-nope. No. “Please, pa?” Ellie asks, tugging at his arm. “Please?”

“Yeah,” Daisy groans. “Can Ellie come with us, Ellie’s dad?” What a mouthful, Harry thinks while blinking unsurely, Ellie’s dad. What a beautiful title.

“Um.” He doesn’t know. He doesn’t know at all. Louis takes a step closer to him, hand reaching out to touch the skin of his arm.

“Say yes, Harry,” Louis coaxes, smiling slow and gluey and beautiful. “It’s just ice cream.”

-

“Okay, so you can sit with Mr. Tomlinson over at that table, and I’ll sit with Daisy and Phoebe,” Ellie directs smartly, pointing at one of the very few empty tables. Harry frowns.

“Why can’t I sit with you guys?”

Ellie sighs, looking up at her pa. “Cause Mr. Tomlinson will get lonely.” Right. Mr. Tomlinson will get lonely.

Harry pouts. “But he’s got his vanilla cone to accompany him.”

“Dad,” Ellie whines. “Please just go away? Mr. Tomlinson is really, really nice. And he’s very handsome. You guys can hold hands and stuff if you want. Talk about babies. I dunno. Please go away.” That’s just great. His own daughter’s trying to set him up. Harry just huffs.

“All right. Fine. But, take some napkins in case you ice cream all over your face and come straight to me if you need the toilet or anything, all right? I’m right over there with Mr. Tomlinson, who is very much just a friend.

“Sure. Fine. Bye.” And then she’s off with her chocolate cone, sprinkled with sprinkles and Harry’s pouting over his strawberry. He should’ve gotten sprinkles.

He makes his way to where Louis is sitting, looking absolutely ridiculous in the pastel shades of the parlor that do nothing to match the edge of his suit and the cut of his hair and the brush of his scruff and Harry needs to stop, stop, stop. Right.

“Hiya,” Harry says, sitting down like a plop. He’s a plop. An ice cream eating plop, but a plop nonetheless.

“Hello,” Louis says, smiling around his cone.

It’s silent for one, two, three, “So,” Louis starts. “I haven’t talked to you all week.”

“You say that like it’s an unnatural thing, us not talking for a week,” Harry points out because it’s not. They haven’t even known each other for a week, dammit.

“It’s not— I’m not saying anything,” Louis defends. “I’m just pointing out.”

“I’ve got a question,” Harry says suddenly, not waiting for a response. “So a guy comes in to pick up his younger sisters wearing a suit, and keep in mind this guy has never done this before, and he’s then taking his sisters, and their friend and friend’s dad, out for ice cream.” Harry stops and Louis nods.

“Right,” Louis says, motioning for him to continue.

“Why do you think the guy would, suddenly and out of the blue, come in to pick his sisters up? Something he’s so obviously been too busy to do all his life, but suddenly not too busy to do anymore. What are his intentions?”

“Well,” Louis starts, “he could just be there to pick up his sisters. And you also have to consider that he might love his sisters, so when they ask if they can go out for ice cream with their friend and friend’s dad, the guy might just be willing to do that. Because he loves them.”

“And for some reason he isn’t too busy on that particular day to do so?”

“That was one of the reasons,” Louis says with a simmering glint in his eyes, something bright and shiny, like a penny caught in sunlight. “He could be there to pick up his sisters and maybe see this particular dad of the friend.” Harry stills around his ice cream, his teeth stuck at where it’s nibbling at the wafer cone.

“But that could just be another reason.”

“What’s the real reason?” Harry asks, looking finally at nothing but him.

Louis shrugs. “I think he sort of really likes this dad—let’s call him…Edward, shall we?—right, I think he sort of really likes this Edward person because Edward is very pretty and very good at kissing and maybe the guy can’t get Edward out of his head so he’s resorted to finding him because he sure as hell isn’t going to call the poor guy.” Louis stops to smile, nudging Harry’s foot with his own. “And maybe—maybe—he was looking for an excuse to meet up with Edward to ask him if he’d like to have dinner sometime. Maybe. And maybe he wore a suit because he came straight from a meeting from across town and he thinks Edward thinks he looks sexy in it. Maybe. You should really ask this person.”

“Louis—," Harry starts, hesitant.

“Harry.”

Harry sighs. “Edward is my middle name. Did you know?”

Louis blinks, for once looking slightly taken aback, shocked into silence. “No—no, I didn’t, I— are you serious?”

“Look,” Harry says, ignoring his question. “This is— if that’s why you came here today, then I really need you to know that the last thing I’m looking for right now is a relationship. Of any kind. And—and I think you’re a fucking incredible kisser too, I really do, but—but this guy should know Edward is really, really flattered but he isn’t—he can’t accept any invitations to dinner. And he’s also very thankful for the ice cream. And the ride home. For, um, both times. He’s a bit of a prick, but he is thankful. For this guy.”

“I don’t think Edward’s a prick,” Louis says, shrugging. Huh. What an easy way to go.

“Well, the guy probably does. I dunno. Thank you, though.”

“You already thanked me,” Louis says, licking across the white to let it stain his tongue.

“No, I didn’t. Edward did. But I didn’t.” Harry contemplates whether he should add ‘you do look very sexy in a suit! You do!’ but he decides that might come off a little unnecessary. Considering he’s just turned down a date for dinner. Or something. He isn’t quite sure if Louis really ever asked him, but.

“That’s okay,” Louis smiles with the edges turning to sugar. “But can I ask why?”

“Why what?”

“Why you aren’t looking for a relationship right now?” Oh.

“Um,” Harry starts, reluctant.

“You don’t have to tell me,” Louis adds quickly, leaning forward so his pushed back hair falls, in a manner much too unfair, over his eyes to cover his forehead, “if you don’t want to. If it’s too personal.”

“No,” Harry starts, “it’s not —it’s not like that, I just— I just really have a lot of things I need to focus on right now and a relationship really isn’t one of them.” That sounds fair. Surely, Louis will be able to think up why Harry might not really care about a relationship, or what he does find important.

“All right,” Louis nods. “I can respect that. Does that mean no more half drunk snogging in public restrooms?”

Harry snorts, raising an eyebrow, “We’ve only done that once.”

“And once was enough.” Louis stops, tugging on his collar. “Was that too cheesy?”

“Yeah…” Harry grins. “But you’re good. I like cheese.”

“Of course you do.”

Harry frowns, tilting his head. “What’s that supposed to mean.”

Louis reaches over to bop his nose and Harry is very much surprised. “Nothing. You’re just, very… quirky. It’s cute. You’re like a non famous version of Zooey Deschanel.”

Harry filters the thought around his mouth, tasting what it could mean. “I like the comparison. She is very quirky.”

“And very pretty,” Louis says with a halfhearted shrug, turning his cone around to lick at any dropping cream from the bottom. Harry grins wickedly.

“So, you’re basically saying I’m very pretty.” He watches as Louis looks back up at him.

“Maybe,” he says, slowly, “but you’ve got to learn that not everything is about you, Harry.”

Harry gasps. “Rude. That’s so, so rude. You were okay with the cheesy, flattering comments, but not with that— not anymore.”

“Wounded.”

“As you should be,” Harry huffs. “Hurt and sad and pining. You should be pining.”

“I have been pining,” Louis says and it doesn’t sound like a lie. “I’ve been pining this entire week, mate. Only to find out you really aren’t interested. I’m hurt.”

Harry stops, taking a step back, while sitting down. “I’m sorry…for leading you on. I didn’t—,"

“You didn’t lead me on, Christ, Harry,” Louis laughs. “I’m a grown man, I think I’ll be able to handle it.”

“Right,” Harry flushes. “Sorry.”

“Harry,” Louis says, completely serious. “Stop apologizing. Like, just stop doing that. Right now.”

Harry goes to say something, but bites his tongue in the last minute. He’d say sorry, anyway.

“Okay.” But then, “Wait. I’ve got a question—,"

“Another one?”

“Yes, listen. Okay, so, how’d you know I wasn’t married? Or like, seeing someone?”

At that, Louis grins brilliantly, something sparkly and beautiful. “I didn’t. I’m just very, very charming.” Harry’s sure he’s never seen someone so wonderfully put together look so much like a fucking twat, sat in an ice cream parlor with his watch looking out of place and his skin looking like rough patched chains of clockworks.

Harry scoffs. “Please,” he says, rolling his eyes.

“It’s true.” Louis laughs in such a way that Harry thinks people from a planet away could hear it and mistake it for the sun. “I actually had no idea, whatsoever. I’m just a really, really lucky bastard.”

“True,” Harry hums, pressing his tongue flat against the side of the cone, cleaning the bridges of the swirl to a nice curve. “I could’ve been engaged. Or I could have a secret, underground agent-boyfriend who’d kick your ass if he found out what you did last Tuesday.”

Hey,” Louis stresses. “Don’t doubt my skills. I’m trained at the martial arts.”

“No fucking way.”

“Yeah, not really,” Louis grins, like a child with all the secrets to the world. “But I took a few classes last summer. When I was feeling particularly useless.”

“You took martial arts classes because you were bored?”

“Yes, basically,” Louis says. “I’m not proud, per se, but I can defend myself from underground agent boyfriends. I think. It’s not like I’ve upset one recently, anyway.”

Harry narrows his eyes. “How would you know if I haven’t got one? Like, he is a secret agent. I’d have to keep his identity a, well, secret.”

“You see, dear Harold,” Louis says with clear confidence shining past his lids, “I know you don’t have one because last Tuesday night, you happened to kiss me back.”

Which is really, in the long run, what changes it all. Really. It’s not the questioning or the drinking or even the harsh kissing—It’s the fact that Harry would always come back, he’d forget it all, and he’d press back just as hard against Louis if he could. It’s all because he can.

-

“Gran Anne,” Elliot squeals, rushing past Harry’s hips to reach for Harry’s mum, her silver arms curling around Anne’s middle like a petulant pet, a soft reminder needing attention in order to be listened to.

“Ellie Belly!” Anne squeals right back and Harry loves his girls, he does, his mum and daughter (along with Perrie and Babs. But they’ve got their own respective boyfriends and girlfriend to deal with at the moment) but they’re so cheesy, it’s frightening.

“As cute as this little reunion is,” Harry starts, opening the door wider and stepping inside, “I really need you both to come inside. You’ll get dust in the house.”

“Pa,” Elliot sighs, “there is no dust.”

“Yeah, Ellie’s right,” Anne supports, pulling inside nonetheless. “There is no dust. You’re just a neat freak.”

“Hey,” Harry pouts. “That’s mean. That is so mean.”

“I’m sorry, Hazattack, but you know it’s true.” Anne reaches over to pat his cheek, a lost current of rose perfume and pushed back hair, the biggest smile gracing her face in dotted lines. Her other hand still holds on to Elliot’s as she walks over to the living room to sit on the sofa.

It’s a cool May Saturday, the day after the ice cream incident. Louis had dropped them off, like promised, and Harry had made his way up the stairs and past the bakery without looking back, painfully aware of how neither of them had each other’s numbers, but also nervously thinking how that shouldn’t mean anything. They sort of had no reason to stay in contact. It should be whatever. It has also only been a day, so Harry’s willing to wait it out.

There’d been a quick shower of falling drops in the morning, doing all to lighten up the street and the air, scrubbing out the dry and the drying off the walls and the corners, flushing them down the drain with discarded flower petals and earth.

“Would you like some tea? I can run the kettle,” Harry offers, trudging to the kitchen. Elliot instantly follows, jumping off the couch and running to grab Harry’s shirt, something Harry’s been used to since forever, learning easily that it was Ellie’s way of saying ‘don’t leave me now, don’t leave me ever, I want you to be here, I need you’. Harry just grins down at her, patting her hair softly because he also knows that she loves picking out the biscuits.

“Is that even a question, my love?” Anne answers, which. Unnecessary, Harry’s on it.

“It’s just some of the manners you’ve taught me, mum,” Harry snorts from the kettle. It’s a tiny apartment, and there isn’t ever any need for yelling because yelling would be a mouth with a speakerphone in front. “I’ve been putting them to good use, you should be proud.”

“I am proud, sweetheart,” Anne says, turning on the telly, “I’m always proud of my two babies.”

“Gran Anne,” Ellie says finally, “I am not a baby.”

“Right, right,” Ellie’s gran says quickly, “not a baby, I forgot. Don’t need another lecture, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”

“It’s all right, gran,” Ellie murmurs, reaching her arms for the cookie jar set up on the left hand side cabinet, her voice distracted, “I forgive you.”

“Thank you, darling.”

“Hey, Ellie,” Harry whispers, pulling out the tea leaves he saves only for special occasions. “Did you tell Gran about your upcoming ballet recital? She’ll be so excited.”

Elliot gasps, turning to face her father with surprise and horror. “No, I haven’t. Oh no.”

“It’s all right, baby,” Harry says quickly, “just tell her now, all right? Also, I’d like the oatmeal raisin cookie, please.”

“Not a baby, pa,” Ellie says already distracted, “but all right. I’ll tell her right now. And I’ve already taken out the oatmeal raisin. I know it’s your favourite.”

Harry smiles, bending over to peck her head. “Know me better than anyone else in the world, don’t you?”

“Of course, pa,” Ellie stresses, looking up to frown at him. “I know you the bestest.”

Harry can’t correct her, of course he can’t. “I know you the wellest.”

“I know you the completest.”

“I know you the prettiest.”

“Hey,” Ellie frowns. “That doesn’t work. You can’t say you know me the prettiest.”

“And why not?” Harry asks, grinning, cocking a hip out.

“Because it doesn’t work.”

“Why doesn’t it work, Ellie?”

“Because you can know someone very well, and you can know someone is pretty, and you can know someone pretty well, but you can’t know someone well pretty. Or well prettiest.”

“Right,” Harry nods, sort of confused, but filled to the brim with too much love to argue. “Logic. I get it.”

“Thank you. I win, by the way,” Ellie says, navigating her way out of the kitchen, cookie plate in hand.

“At what?” Harry calls, voice leaping over the hiss of the water and the tug of the fast air, from the open and gaping window.

“At knowing you.”

-

“Ellie says she’s got a recital coming up,” Anne says, her voice knowing and her eyes excited, watching Harry as he sets down the tray of tea and sugar. “Give me dates! I want to bring Robin.”

Elliot sits on the couch across from them, a close enough distance to nearly poke at their legs, and she’s got an A3 paper settled on her lap, fingers wrapping around the cylinder pens that Anne’s brought with her. “It’s in a couple weeks. Friday, I think,” Ellie says without looking up, her legs swaying back and forth.

“A couple weeks?” Anne asks, leaning over for her cup, wrapping her ring coated fingers around the delicate handle. “What am I going to be doing in a couple weeks?”

“Coming to my ballet recital?” Elliot suggests. Anne lets out a surprised laugh.

“Of course, sweetheart. I mean apart from that.”

“Your trip to Vienna isn’t for another month. Are you going to visit Paris to meet up with aunt Lola?” Harry asks, scooping sugar into his mug.

“Hm,” Anne says, rolling the sound around her mouth while Harry watches her. “I don’t think so, no. I’ll just visit you guys again. Haven’t got anything better to do.”

“That’s fine, gran,” Ellie says, waving her hand. “We love you. You’re always welcome.”

“Knew I could count on you, Ellie Belly,” Anne says, laughing. “Your father’s getting sick of me. He can’t wait till I leave.”

“Hey,” Harry frowns, scooting over to drape an arm across Anne’s shoulders. “That’s not true. I love you, too.”

“That rhymed,” Ellie adds without missing a beat.

“Talented, I am,” Harry says, patting his chest.

Suddenly, Ellie jumps up, her eyes wide. “Oh no!”

“What’s wrong, babe?” Harry frowns, sitting straight.

“I need to go to my room. May I be excused?”

“Wait, what? What’s wrong?” Harry asks, reaching for her as she moves easily, leaning to give her father a hug.

“I promised Daisy and Phoebe I’d make something for them, ‘coz I told them about my handmade stamp collection.”

“Oh,” Harry says, leaning back, rubbing his forehead. “Oh. Yeah, that’s all right. You go ahead, babes, I’ll be here with your gran.”

“All right. Thank you,” and then she’s off, pressing a kiss to the cheek of both her father and gran.

The second Harry hears the creek of her door turn, he settles his teacup down and reaches to rest his head on his mum’s shoulder, closing his eyes to inhale the cherry coated scent around her.

It’s quiet for a while and Harry knows it’s because his mum knows it’s what he needs. A quietness to comfort his bones and a shoulder that won’t go away, won’t ask him why. She sits still, settling her cup to run her fingers through Harry’s curls, craning her neck to press kisses to his forehead.

Harry’s life moves faster than the speed of light, faster than thunder and faster than he had ever expected it to. At the same time, it’s a slow drag of never ending days and even longer nights. He’s a figment, almost, of his own imagination because he isn’t sure how he’s actually getting through his days. He isn’t sure if anything is really real until the knobs of his spine start to ache at the stretch, and he’s suddenly aware that every nook and hole around his lungs are empty and that his brain has staples punctured into it in the form of heavy loads. They appear in the form of things he didn’t know he’d have to take care of till there was no other option to.

His mum knows that the best, and he loves her so much.

“You’re so tired, baby,” she whispers, her voice a gentle drag, like the pull and push of a lullaby, something comforting before the steady thrum of sleep. “How’ve you been?”

Harry shrugs. It’s funny, really, the transition between the full of life, banter filled, body to this sort of silence, this sort of absence that he can’t use anywhere else. He doesn’t like to think of it as him lying or putting up a facade in front of his daughter, because he knows it’s not—it isn’t lies. Everything to do with Elliot is plain, rigid truths. He just knows that there are better ways to speak the truth than to make her believe that he is always so tired.

“The usual, mum,” Harry says. “Ellie’s fine. Had a check up two weeks ago and everything’s good. I’m fine. Had a lesson yesterday. Also met up with Elliot’s teachers for a conference—still as awful as ever, the art teacher, but she’s accepted that I’ll forever be gay and single.”

“The school funds—"

“I’ve got it covered for the rest of the year, but I’m going to need another job to get her through for year two. She’s going to need new uniforms and new books and stationary—"

“Harry, you know that Robin and I have something saved up for you. You know—you can ask us, if you need anything.”

“Mum—"

“Harry, this can’t be a pride thing. If you need it, you have to ask me.” She says all this in the quiet of the room, a reminder not a scolding, and Harry just nods back, letting his limbs give into the warm feeling of simple sadness. It’s not something scary, not something particularly upsetting, it’s just that Harry hates to talk about what if and what then and money. God, he hates it so much he can feel warm water scratching as the back of his eyes.

“I need to be able to take care of us, mum,” Harry says and it’s so vulnerable, it is so scarily fragile that it could easily get lost in vast grey and blue and black. It’s a secret Harry keeps to himself, and it’s something everyone knows and can’t speak of.

“I know, baby,” Anne whispers back, her breath warm and caramel smooth. “I know.”

“I just—I’ll finish college and I’ll get a good job and I’ll do it. Right? I’ll— I’ll take care of everything then, right?” He’s back to eight years old and he’s running past a sea of green and pink, grass stubbing between his toes like the scratching of nails against his hair in comfort. He’s eight and he’s trudging through mud, calling his mum because the sky peaks over the collage of clouds and paint a milky scream of tract glows and infinite bliss. He’s eight and he’s a kid and he’s wondering, ‘you’ll live for forever, i’ll live for forever and we’ll save the world from falling stars, won’t we mum? we’ll reach through any and all sky, right?’

“Of course,” Anne reassures. “You’ll do it all. You’ll do it all brilliantly, I know it.”

(“Of course,” his mum laughs, bending down to push the falling daisies off his fringe. “We’ll save everything from dust and sun. Superhero’s, we are. Absolutely indestructible.”)

“I’ll take care of her, I won’t let you down.” He isn’t telling her, he’s telling the worry cranking up louder in the back of his head. He’s telling her in his dreams, but he isn’t telling her now. She still listens.

“You could never. You are such an incredibly important person, Harry, you do nothing but astonish me, you know that.”

His eyes seep wet and scared, and he knows he’s wetting the skin of the blouse his mum’s wearing, but he can’t help it. He needs to hear these words always, he needs them so, so much, but he barely hears more than the breathing of his daughter at four in the morning, barely remembers the whispers of his mum.

“And college?” Anne asks then, her voice shuddery and low, nudging at him to sit up so that they can talk without mumbling the words through patched fabric. “How’re your classes?”

“I’m—I’m trying my best mum, you know that,” he has to stop himself because this is often the topic where the back of his throat burns and he feels it get clogged up and he makes the loudest, most frightened sounds.

“Of course I do, baby,” she says instantly, pulling him into a hug so his head rests beside her neck and he lets her keep his limbs tucked in, knowing that this is one place he can fall apart without a care. “You’re doing so well, I know that. You’re trying, so, so hard.”

He hears the words and that’s it. “Mum,” he chokes out, his voice hoarse and scared and small. Because he’s a child, dammit. He’s a fucking child and he’s allowed to be scared and he’s allowed to cry. “Mum, I’m trying my best, I am, I promise you. I’m trying, I really am,” he says just so she knows. Just so she won’t doubt him if he fails to make it to class in time and if he fails to hand in his best work and if he cries when crying isn’t needed. He doesn’t need to cry, not right now.

“I know, sweetheart, I know you are. I know you so well, baby, you’re trying so hard and I’m so proud of you,” Anne says, her own voice falling wobbly and strangled, her arms tightening around his slow body. “You’re doing so well with Elliot—she’s so, so lovely, Harry, and you’re doing so well with college, you really are, and you're trying so hard. I know that. I know that all the time.”

“I feel so useless, mum,” Harry says, soft and weak. “When I—when I watch Ellie and she’s wearing a shirt with a stain, or a shirt too small—God, I feel like the biggest fucking failure because I can’t even—I’m so useless, I can’t even take care of my child. I’m so bad at this, I’m so bad at everything, mum, I’m so sorry.”

“No,” Anne says. She wants to be strong, Harry knows, and she’s getting mad at herself for not being strong enough, her voice falling short in confidence. “No you are not, Harry, you are the farthest thing from a failure.” She pulls him in closer, as if something’s bad is going to happen and she just needs to protect her son, a mere child facing big worlds and words all on his own. “You are everything. You are the strongest person in the world, you need to remember that, baby, aright? I’m asking you, sweetheart, you’ll remember that, won’t you? You’re more than everything and you’re absolutely brilliant. You’ve come so far and I’m so, so proud of you. The bravest, strongest boy, you are, Harry. An absolute superhero.”

No. Oh no. That does him in and that scratches at him with claws under his skin; he tries to keep the sound inside, tries to mask it off with a cough, but it’s loud and it’s a vibrant cry that could light up an infinite amount of skies. “Mum, I’m sorry,” he cries, he’s so fucking scared, and for once he can show it. Every night where he tells himself he’s all right, they’re all right, and all he can remember is the gentle brush of his sister’s hair and the calming words of his mother, he keeps it in like a kept promise. He pulls and he shoves it all in the back of a corner, like you would throw old mattresses in the back of a storage room, to keep but never use. To keep but never to remember.

“Don’t be sorry, baby. Never be sorry, for anything, ‘coz you’ve done nothing wrong. You’re so strong, you’re so brave, Harry, you’re doing everything right.” She’s a soft cry away from hysterical, words frantic and heavy, and it’s ridiculous, it really is. They’re a mess of snot and hair, crumpled up like despondent wrapping, breathing through the air of summer.

It takes them time, takes them years that have shortened into a handful of minutes, but eventually, Harry’s breathing falls into an even pattern. There’s something solid about taking deep breathes and closing his eyes shut, but there’s something even sturdier when his mum holds him through it. She says ‘you’re spectacular and I’m so proud,’ and it almost feels like this is the first time it’s happened, which feels like an accomplishment. They both know Anne visiting is an excuse for Harry to let the waterworks free; it’s why he isn’t scared to do it then than anywhere else.

“Calm down, sweetheart,” his mum mutters lowly, whispering into the back of his head, “you need to breathe, baby, don’t work yourself up, you’ll have trouble breathing.” She’s referring to his mild asthma which isn’t really much of a concern to anybody but his mother.

“I’m sorry,” Harry says again, voice worn out like a used rug. “I’m sorry for being such a fucking mess, I didn’t mean to—I didn’t mean to ruin your trip, I’m sorry.” He’s looking down, soft and sad, and it’s so weird. This isn’t the same boy who is willing to drive his daughter to the sun, the same boy who has taken care of not himself, but his baby with nothing but his hands and his heart. This isn’t the same boy who goes to parent conferences and goes to work and tells Louis Tomlinson he’s got no time for a relationship. This isn’t him, but it’s completely him in every other way—in every other world where he hasn’t got long hair to cover up his red eyes.

“You’re not,” Anne says, “you’re not a mess, my love. You’re just allowed to cry. You’re allowed to do that and you’re allowed to ask for help. You need to be brave enough to ask for help when you need it. Just like you’re brave enough to cry. You’re so beautiful and you’ve done absolutely nothing wrong.” She says all the right things, she says all the truths, and it goes through Harry like a thread. He’ll remember this now, but it’ll fade, go loose and weary, in the morning. In a week.

“Okay,” Harry says. “Okay. I understand, mum, I understand you. I’m sorry.”

“Nothing to be sorry for, my love,” Anne says, not even sounding tired of saying it over and over and over again, as if it’s a mantra worth chanting, as if it’s a point worth getting across. “Don’t need to be sorry at all.”

“Okay,” Harry says, slowly, his breath finally catching up to him so he can breathe properly, his face red and tear stained, “all right.”

-

It’s halfway through the dimming morning, sun creeping in to settle midday, that the street starts to wake. There’s a sudden shift of atmosphere, and Harry can feel it so clearly through the thin walls, as if his heartbeat is aligned to the movement of the pavement outside. He lets it go, face washed and his eyes drying, resting on his mum’s lap while watching Snow White on the telly.

It’s then that Elliot steps out of her room and walks up to the end of the couch, frowning.

“What’s up, buttercup?” Harry asks, making grabby hands to indicate he wants to cuddle with her. “Why the long face?”

“I have a short face, thank you,” Elliot says, still frowning, moving closer to stand with Harry. “But, um, I think Mr. Tomlinson is, um—"

“Wait,” Harry starts, getting up. His head is warm and throbbing, the aftermath of the loss of tears, but he’s sure he could hear Elliot say ‘Mr. Tomlinson’ through his cotton filled ears. “Who?”

“Mr. Tomlinson,” Elliot huffs, moving towards the window, peering out of the curtain. “I think he’s standing outside our house. Or at least, I think it’s him. It looks like his car.” She turns back to face her dad and gran, and she looks sort of confused, sort of sleepy and very, very cute but that’s—that’s sort of beside the point.

“Who’s Mr. Tomlinson?” Anne asks the same time Harry says, “What does the car look like?”

“Mr. Tomlinson is pa’s boyfriend and the car looks just like the one he drove us in to get ice cream.” Holy shit.

“Boyfriend?” Anne questions, turning to face him and now, they’re all awake. Snow White is singing something foggy that feels like the tune to a movie and it’s a beautiful day and Harry is so confused.

Harry ignores his mum and scrambles up his feet, running up to the window. He’s not sure if he really wants to see, because he isn’t sure what he’s expecting and he isn’t sure what he wants. But Elliot gives him a little nudge, opens the curtains enough for him to peak and—yup. Harry doesn’t know any other Bentley driver and he doesn’t know anyone else who’d wear a suit on a Saturday afternoon. Because right through the slightly tinted glass is, without a doubt, Louis Tomlinson.

Who is sort of staring back at him.

“What the fuck?” he whispers to himself, eyes turning into saturn moons, into semi briefs.

“Pa!” Elliot shrieks. “Gran Anne, pa swore.

“Harry!” Anne cries.

“Louis Tomlinson is standing outside our house and he’s staring at me. What do I do?” Harry asks, voice dropping lower than his heart, which has settled in the pit of his stomach.

“Invite him in!” Elliot says brightly. “Maybe he’s here to take me to go see Daisy and Phoebe.” Fair point. Harry mentally punches himself for being so dumb. (For getting so hopeful.)

“Did you make plans beforehand, Ellie?” Harry asks, turning away from the curtain, letting it flutter beside him. Elliot frowns.

“Well, no,” Elliot admits. “Daisy and Elliot have gone home to Doncaster to visit their grandparents. Hm. Maybe he isn’t here for me.” Well.

“Who is he?” Anne asks, exasperated. “What’s going on, Harold?”

“That’s not Pa’s name,” Elliot says, her tone short and smart.

“Ellie, I’m so sorry baby, but I kind of need to talk to Gran for just a second. Would you mind stepping inside your room for a second? Maybe to finish your artwork for the twins?” Harry asks, moving for the couch, taking Elliot’s hands in his.

She frowns. To her, she takes care of her dad. She is his friend and she is his safety and she is his everything because to her, her pa spends every second looking after her, in one way or another. So she needs to be a rock, she needs to be everything. If her pa doesn’t have someone to kiss him goodnight, she’ll do it like she already does. If her pa doesn’t have someone to help with the laundry, she’ll fold the ironed clothes because she won’t have her pa be alone. But now, now there’s gran and gran is someone she trusts. There aren’t many, of course not, she’s like a wall of every place she unknowingly comes from, every past she’ll one day learn, a mirror of the guards her mum had to build. And there’s only so much that can go past—Niall, for instance, and Liam as well. She’ll trust them, and Perrie sometimes, with her pa and she’ll trust her gran. She likes to see her pa with Mr. Tomlinson because her pa smiles at him like he smiles at no one else and she isn’t sure—Mr. Tomlinson is unknown territory, a confidential file she’ll have to peak at, but she trusts him for now and she trusts her pa always, so she nods and walks away without a sound.

She won’t even consider trying to listen. If her dad wants her to know, she’ll know, and it’s fucking scary a child as beautiful and young as her is as mature and concerned as she is. It’s fucking scary, but it’s true and she’s left with only warm dust in her wake.

“Harry,” Anne starts slowly. “Harry, what’s going on?” She sounds almost suspicious, as if Harry’s gone and set himself on fire or something, which, if he were to be fair, would be the equivalent to sleeping with Louis Tomlinson. Which he hasn’t done.

(Yet.)

“Um,” he starts, turning to glance one more time at the window. Why is he just sitting in his car like some creep? Like, what’s up with that? “Nothing.”

“Why’d El say you got a boyfriend? Have you gotten a boyfriend? Haz, that’s amaz—"

“Mum.” He settles a look that reads, ‘you know me better than that.’ “I haven’t— I don’t have a boyfriend— why is Louis Tomlinson outside our house?”

Anne pouts, sort of, then gets up to hesitantly step over to the window. “That’s a very familiar name.”

“He’s famous,” Harry says without really thinking his words through, “like for business. I dunno. He’s driving a Bentley, so.”

“Okay, fine, but why is he here?” Anne asks, turning to face Harry with her arms crossed. “If he isn’t your boyfriend. Which wouldn’t be a bad thing, y’know? You’re past the age to hide boyfriends from me, Harold.”

“This isn’t funny, mum,” Harry whines, stomping over to the couch.

“I’m not saying it is!”

“You’re laughing at me,” Harry accuses, frowning t, crossing his own arms. “I can feel it.”

“Okay, fine,” Anne submits, dragging her body over. “I’m sorry. Please, will you tell me who the fuck he is? And why he’s here? And how he’s famous? Because that sounds very interesting, Haz.”

Harry sighs. He could just say ‘Louis Tomlinson is the brother of Daisy and Phoebe Tomlinson and they are all very pretty and rich,’ but that wouldn’t really do much to answer the question ‘why is he sat like some weirdo on a street that people like him never visit in front of a broken down bakery?’. Harry could also, maybe, admit that he’s sort of gotten drunk with him once, but. But that wouldn’t really answer the question, either.

He decides on: “He’s the brother of the twins Ellie’s become friends with. I’ve also sort of met him before. He makes a lot of money. I don’t know what he’s doing here.”

Anne frowns. “You’ve met him before?”

Harry bites his lips, a sigh sewn between the seams. “Well. Um. Yes. At work. He hosted one of the parties and I. I sort of went out with some drinks with him.”

Anne gasps, but it’s so animated, Harry could almost laugh. “You slept with him!”

“No!” Harry retorts instantly, flinging the pillow pressed onto his back at her. “I didn’t—I didn’t sleep with him, what the fuck, mum?”

“You don’t have to lie to me!” Anne says, dodging the pillow and reaching for his hands to pull him in. “This is great, really, Harry. I’m so, so happy for you. He seems gorgeous.”

“Mum,” Harry starts, calm. “Mum, I promise you, I did nothing but snog him in a bar toilet. That’s it. That’s all I let happen.”

He hears his mum breathe between his neck where she’s settled her head and he can hear how much she almost wishes he did sleep with him. She probably hopes Harry’s in love with the stranger. “Oh.”

“Mum, I told you, and I told him, too, that I’m not looking for anything right now. He knows that. I just don’t get why he’s here. I don’t what he wants right now.”

Anne goes quiet and Harry’s wondering if Louis is still out there when, “Why not?”

“What?”

“Why don’t you want some sort of a relationship? Like, I’m not forcing you to do anything, you know that, but if you like somebody and want to spend some time with them, may it be this famous Louis Tomlinson or not, why won’t you even consider it?”

“Mum,” Harry says, surprised, but not really. When he stopped with the whole looking for the soulmate, when he passed the short days where he imagined he’d find someone beautiful who’d love him and his daughter equally, when he surpassed the days where he got fucked into hotel room beds and kissed handsome strangers against liquor and smoke, he realized that he couldn’t go back. Because once he got out, he saw nothing but his daughter and a future for her. He saw jobs and he saw college and everything else felt inadequate, it felt like blur.

(Now, though, if he were to look back, he’d realize that the only thing sharp, only memory painfully memorable, is the touch of Louis’ lips. And if that doesn’t scare him, then he isn’t sure what will.)

“Mum, you know better than anyone else why I’ve stopped dating.”He doesn’t really like what that implies. It’s as if he’s lonely, as if he’s experienced one too many cheaters, when it isn’t like that at all. It was a thorough, smart decision made completely by him when he stopped Ben from kissing down his neck and grabbing handfuls of his bum on a Friday work night, telling him they couldn’t do this anymore. He’d made every choice with his mind and with the thought of the future and he isn’t—he can’t—change that now.

“Because of Elliot, yes?” his mum says, “but that’s Elliot. What about you? Why’ve you stopped dating?”

“It’s the same reason, mum,” Harry says, looking away. “Elliot is a big enough reason.”

“Elliot has nothing to do with if or not you’re having sex with somebody,” Anne stresses, words coming out slowly. “She isn’t an excuse to you meeting new people, Harry, because you’re allowed to do that. How can you stop yourself, as if you matter so little to you?”

“I can do it because Elliot means more to me, mum,” he says quietly, fiercely. A reminder to himself and his head, “she’s everything. I’m allowed to do anything, but I choose not to. I choose Elliot, and you know I consciously made that decision, with me knowing what came along with it. I chose Elliot, mum. And I still choose her.”

“This isn’t a fight between your personal life and your ‘Elliot life’ because they are the same thing. You’re allowed to have more than one person walking through this flat, holding your hand, kissing you, dammit. Harry, you are allowed to be selfish, sometimes,” Anne speaks in a whisper, a hurried one that seems to chase its last words. She holds his hands so tight, he’ll be able to feel the lingering press of her rings the next morning.

“Not with Elliot, mum,” Harry whispers back. “I can’t take chances with Elliot.”

“Then take chances with someone else.” She brings a hand up to cup the side of his face and all she is, her face, her smile, her aura, is golden and full. She’s dark hair and the biggest smile and she smells like warmth. She’s here and she’s solid and she’s speaking truths. “You are allowed to want someone, you’re allowed to crave touch. You are allowed to that, Harry, and if—if you’ve found someone, someone you want to learn, someone you might want to keep, you can’t use Elliot as an excuse for your fear. And you can’t stop yourself from wanting someone, something. You’re allowed to be a little selfish, Harry, you’re allowed to fucking kiss him as many times as you want, because I know—I know—you’ll always come back to our Elliot. She’s a part of you and she doesn’t want her father to lose opportunities, to lose people, because he was too scared of forgetting someone that means the most to him.” Harry looks at her and at nothing but her and he’s scared. He’s bloody terrified. He can feel the shakiness of his every breath, and he’s so, so scared, he’s not used to truths.

Anne swipes her thumb across Harry’s cool cheek, pressing into where the dents of his dimples live. She smiles at him kindly, languidly, like decadent toffee. “You can’t do that to yourself, you can’t do that to her. You’re allowed to think of yourself because guess what, Harry? No one else will. You know I do, Robin and your friends, too, but I don’t count anymore, do I? And neither does anyone else. The ones that matter, the ones that will account to anything more in your life, is only you. And you can’t just think of the little girl sat in her room just a few steps away, because she’s in reach now and she’ll be in reach for forever. You have to think of you, too.”

(You have to think of you, too.)

(You have to think of you, too.)

“I don’t—I don’t know what I’m supposed to do, mum,” Harry mutters, shaking, his voice like a hanging thread. “I’m—I’m so worried about her and I’m worried I won’t be there for her and I’m—I’m worried that once I start thinking of me, I’ll forget why I ever stopped.”

“And you know what, Haz?” Anne says, smiling. “That’s gonna be okay. Because you’ll know the answer straight away, just by looking at her smile, at her face, or at the way the laughs. She’ll never leave, Harry, she’s in your heart, she’s in your orbit. And as long as she is, you’ll never forget her, no matter how many new suns make their way in. She’s your person, a part of your life, and you are her’s, and that won’t change for anything.”

He blinks, once, twice, and his lids are dry. They’re a little lost, they’ve heard so much, but they understand. They understand and he loves his mum so much. “I—thank you. Thank you so much, mum.”

Anne laughs, wetly, “Not a problem, my love.”

He hesitates, drawing back, but he says it anyway, “What—what do I do?”

“What do you mean?”

“I’m not—I can’t just start from somewhere because I do think about myself. I do. I just don’t think—“ he stops, breathes, then whispers, “I haven’t gone out with anyone for way over a year, mum, I don’t know what I’m supposed to do.

Anne shakes her head, still smiling, as if Harry’s said the silliest thing in the world. “The man downstairs—would you like to kiss him again?” she asks, patting his thigh.

Hm. “Yes,” he says, unsure, “I think so, yeah.”

“Then what you’re going to do is walk out this house and right up to him,” Anne starts, suddenly confident and loud. “And you’re going to grab his face and kiss the fuck out of him, just like what us Styles are famous for, and if he kisses you back, then you tell him you like his dumb face and then you get married and I have more grandchildren.”

“Mum.”

“What?” she shrugs. “It’s a good plan and you know it. Really gets the message across with no space for miscommunication.” Harry pointedly ignores her, lifting himself off of the old and groaning sofa to walk up to the window and—yup. He’s still there. He’s still inside his car.

”I’m going out there,” Harry says, more to himself than anyone. “I’m going to go talk to him.”

“That works, too,” Anne calls from the kitchen and Harry can hear her turn the telly volume back up and he’s feeling giddy. There’s this excitement he hasn’t felt in the longest time, for anybody probably ever, and he just wants to go outside. He just wants to kiss Louis’ stupid face because he’s here, for whatever reason, and he hasn’t left and it’s been longer than half an hour. And Harry’s sort of half infatuated with his face. And the suit he’s wearing...and he’s so jumpy.

“I’m going, mum, I’m going to go talk to him.” He moves for the door, so completely ready, when—

“Put on proper pants!”

Right. He’ll go down the second he’s out of his sleeping shorts. Right. “Thank you,” he mumbles to his mum, running to his room. He slips on the first jeans he finds—the ones scattered from the night before, and he takes a second to look around his room. It would be fair to call it both Harry and Elliot’s room, because she sleeps here most nights, but it’s mostly a queen sized bed pushed against one wall, the wardrobe against the other, and a table barely squeezing in for Harry to study. It’s warm, the bed facing the window, and it’s a hollow space that Harry’s calls home. It’s what he comes back to and it’s really fucking messy right now.

No time, he tells himself. Louis Tomlinson is sort of right outside, he tells himself. Right. He walks out his room, past Elliot’s room where he can faintly hear her humming through the half closed doors, and then past his mum and towards the front door.

“Please don’t spy on me,” he says before he leaves, his hands and head empty.

Anne gasps, turning away from the telly. “What kind of a mother do you take me for? Of course I’m going to spy on you.”

Harry stops, turns to look at her in the eye and she just smiles. “Okay, all right. I’ll be with Ellie. You go kiss hot men! By the way, you never told me what he’s famous for, but I checked and he’s wearing a suit so whatever it is he does—good choice, babe.” There’s a wink by her eyes before Harry turns, laughing almost, and it’s ridiculous, how weirdly happy this is. This is so weird.

When he passes the backdoor to the bakery, Kendra’s there with several cartons.

“There’s a guy outside our building, Haz. He’s been here for at least an hour and I’m not quite sure what to do about it,” she mutters, pushing the sliding glasses up her nose. Her honeycomb hair is pulled up in a bun and she’s wearing a sleeping gown.

“Don’t worry about it, Ken,” Harry smiles. “I’ll go sort it out.” I’ll go talk to him, I’ll go tell him I sort of want to kiss him, I’ll go sort it out.

It’s only when he’s leaving the building does he feel the hot spike of nervousness bite at him. It’s a bitter little reminder, something discouraging, losing the wall of determination Harry had built up to do whatever. He makes it out the door, anyway.

And there it is.

The car is just as pretty as before, with Louis sitting inside, staring at Harry as if he wasn’t expecting him. Harry walks closer, steps hesitant, unsure, and only when he makes it to the sidewalk does he stop. The rest is up to Louis.

He waits and Louis stares and he doesn’t even move and what the fuck are they doing?

He waits until he frowns and then he’s walking over, tapping his knuckles against the car window, watching as Louis’ eyes follow his hand, and then his face.

“Uh,” Louis says the second he rolls the window down and God. He’s wearing a suit and there’s a briefcase sat on the passenger seat. He’s got one hand gripping the steering wheel, the other in clenched by his thighs. He’s not shaved and he’s wearing Police aviators and he’s so fucking hot, since when was this fair?

“What the fuck are you doing?” Harry asks, which. Not what he was expecting when he felt a delightful squirm before, but something that fits. It’s as if it’s expected of him to be angry right now, so he’s going with it. Despite the fact that he wants to open the door and climb onto Louis’ lap, push him back onto his leather seat and run his fingers openly and without doubt through his long, growing strands. Well.

“Um,” Louis stammers, even looking nervous. He keeps looking down at his lap, as if he knows he shouldn’t be here, but he doesn’t move. After a while, he doesn’t do anything.

“Louis,” Harry starts, “I’m trying really hard to figure out what’s going on right now, the least you could do is help me out.”

“I’m sorry,” Louis says, groaning, setting his elbow down on the curve of the door, resting his head in one hand. Harry watches him from outside, frowning from the curb. “I don’t know—I don’t know. I don’t know what I’m doing here and I don’t know what’s wrong with me, I really don’t, but I’m here. I am here.”

“Why?” Harry whispers, wanting nothing more than for Louis to look at him.

“Because I wanted to see you?” Louis sputters, almost laughing at himself. “Because I wanted to, I dunno, change your mind about going on a date with me? God, I’m fucking twenty-six and I— I can’t even, I can’t even get over people. I can’t even get over people I like. I’m pathetic and I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing and I’ve been sitting here for over an hour.”

Now Harry frowns and he—he feels this strong urge to hug the man. He looks ridiculous, on this street, in his car, by Harry, but he is here and Harry realizes that he wants him here. “Unlock the door,” he says without looking at Louis, moving over to the passenger seat. Shock passes Louis in a fluid movement, and he opens the door with a frown, watching as Harry gets in and sits down beside him.

“What are you—," Louis starts, soft, but Harry’s sort of got an adrenaline rush, a fast, hurried thought that could do so much and he told his mum, ‘I won’t kiss him’ and he told himself that too, but then he remembers.

‘You have to think of you, too.’ Harry’s thinking and what he wants right now is to kiss Louis Tomlinson’s dumb, stupid face, so he’s going to kiss Louis Tomlinson’s dumb, stupid face.

He reaches over, cutting Louis off from whatever it was he was saying, and presses his lips flat against Louis’, slow, careful and anchored, but not soft. It isn’t soft. He lets one hand gently press against Louis’ jaw, still so unsure, and it takes Louis a second or two, but then Harry’s kissing Louis, like really, totally, kissing him and it’s so much better than when they were fogged up and laughing. This is so much better.

Louis’ kiss is a leap, it’s a jump of light caught by the shadows of a hand. It’s fast and it’s furtive and it hides between the pages, but it touches Harry so much. It’s something everywhere, when Louis places one hand on Harry’s face, the other reaching to circle his waist to pull him closer.

Harry moves by instruction, he follows Louis as he goes against his own song. He moves even further, and if there was a bridge between an ocean, a bridge between them, Harry would’ve passed the halfway line quite some time ago. He gets both hands on Louis’ hair, tugging to get him to groan, and holy fuck, kissing Louis is the best thing. Like, ever.

Harry opens his mouth and he lets Louis swallow him whole, swallow down every gasp and every breath and every laugh and every smile and everything. He lets Louis pull and pull and pull till he’s getting off his seat, over the console, and flat onto Louis’ lap, sat with his legs on either side of Louis’ waist, his heart beating somewhere next to Louis.

“Shit,” Harry gasps, pulling away when Louis’ tongue presses caramel toffees against the cleft of his mouth, letting a storm in, coating every velvet corner with his presence, spoiling him silly for anyone else.

Harry rests one hand on Louis’ shoulder, and wraps the other around the back of Louis’ neck and he opens his eyes to breathe through his vision. Louis is sat panting, eyes hooded, lips red, and—and it’s insane. It’s fucking crazy, how much Harry wants Louis right then and how fucking beautiful Louis looks and how Louis is there and he’s solid and he’s human and Harry’s just kissed him. “Fuck.”

They pant, breaths coming out in patterns out of time, against each other’s lips, eyes trained on how the other moves, making sounds with the blood flowing down their hands and up their legs. Harry’s sort of confused because they’re just staring at each other as if they’ve got nothing better to do, as if this is all they came out to do. But then he’s smiling because Louis leans forward, one hand slowly creeping its way down to cup Harry’s bum, as if he’s waiting for Harry to stop him, and then they’re kissing again and that’s good. That is very, very good.

Harry tugs once, twice, at Louis’ hair that’s pushed back like a 1900’s greaser, something different and nice and hot, and he revels in the low, raspy sound Louis makes, lets it drive to his gut and settle by his knee. After that, it’s unrestrained and lovely, because Louis isn’t hesitant anymore, no, he grabs onto Harry’s bum, one hand holding his hip and Harry just ruts forward, chasing the warm feeling of Louis’ dick around the thin waistband of his jeans.

“Fuck, Harry,” Louis groans when Harry bites down on his lip, grinds down slow and sticky against his hardening cock. “Fuck.”

Okay. Harry pulls back, one hand pushing Louis down on his seat by the shoulder, and he smiles. “You are such a fucking idiot,” he says, but Louis is still sort of trying to reach for his lips, pulling him in by the hip.

“What?” Louis asks, voice dim and uninterested. Well.

“I said,” Harry starts, pulling Louis’ face close to his own, near enough to touch but far enough to listen, “you are such a fucking idiot.”

“Oh,” Louis starts, licking his lips and it’s not like he’s listening, not really, just sort of touching Harry’s fabric covered skin and starting at Harry’s wet, soft mouth, and— and it’s not like Harry really minds. “Yeah, yeah, you’re—you’re probably right. Yeah.”

Harry beams, pushing down the giddy feeling that threatens to crawl up his throat, but he doesn’t let reach for his mouth, just lets him hold him around the waist. “Can I—can we please kiss again?” Louis asks, like a child, tasting his dreams for the first time and feeling the infinite happiness it brings.

Harry shakes his head, leaning in to brush his lips past Louis’ scruff layered cheek, then up to his ear, mumbling against the lobe. “Nope.”

Louis groans again, and throws his head back against the headrest. “Why?”

“You tell me why you’re here, and then I’ll kiss you again,” Harry offers, wrapping both arms around Louis’ neck and settling comfortably down on his lap, politely ignoring his stiff, warm prick.

Louis’ eyes sparkle, they gleam like glow in the dark stars, melted plastic and shining heartbeats, and he pushes up, catching Harry off guard as he bites down on Harry’s chin.

“What —," Harry starts, eyes widening when Louis kisses down his neck, something about the momentum of his lips feeling familiar, as if he’s done this before and oh—he has.

“I’ll tell you why I’m here if you tell my why you just kissed me, despite letting me know just yesterday, that you aren’t looking for—," Harry leans in, rolling his eyes at how animatedly Louis talks, and kisses him square on the mouth, pulling back fast enough to catch Louis’ grunt.

“You first,” Harry whispers, craning his neck to latch onto Louis’ jaw.

He feels Louis’ breathing go off rhythm and he grins, pleased and frankly, quite bloody happy with the outcome of this encounter.

“I —," Louis starts, swallowing and Harry feels him clear his throat, feels the way his throat breaks its steady pattern. “I wanted to see you,” Louis says.

Harry breathes his way up and catches Louis’ eyes, watches how they turn solid, serious. “I couldn’t stop thinking about you and I was literally yelling at myself in front of the mirror last night and I wanted—I want you to give me a chance.”

Harry hides his grin in Louis’ neck, but he’s sure Louis feels it anyway. “Why were you sitting in your car like a knob?”

Louis scoffs, but then reconsiders. Instead, he brings a hand up to thread through Harry’s long, soft locks. “I’m fucking terrified of you.”

At that, Harry blinks, taken aback. It’s… strange, hearing someone admit something like that as if it were a mere truth, like a loose string; insignificant and unimportant. It’s even bigger to hear you scare somebody, terrify them, even. Strangely enough, Harry finds himself hiding a blush when he asks, “And why is that?”

“You ask a lot of questions, you know that?” Louis mutters, shifting in his seat so that Harry can sit back on his thighs.

“Kind of have to when there’s a strange dude sitting in his car for hours outside your house,” Harry shrugs. “You can’t be surprised.”

“You’re right,” Louis says, eyes trained on Harry’s moving mouth. “That’s not what surprised me.”

Harry grins, proud of whatever kissing-craze he’s put Louis in. “Stop staring at me and answer the question.”

Louis pouts, an absolute menace because no man his age should look as adorable as him, but there he is. Crinkled eyes and such a fucking beautiful face and Harry’s going mad.

“Kind of thought you’d hate me,” Louis admits softly, smiling like it was stupid when it was not. It sounds understandable. “‘Cause, you sort of told me to fuck off—kind of, like you said you weren’t interested—and I felt like the biggest dick coming here. I had this sort of grand gesture figured out—which I forgot the second I drove up to your building. I was just—I just thought, if he tells me to go fuck myself, I’d leave him alone, but it was worth one last try. You—you sort of felt worth it.”

“Sort of?” Harry mumbles, closing his eyes as Louis massages a hand through his scalp.

“Totally. Totally worth it,” Louis corrects, quick on his tongue and it’s so nice. It is so blatantly, openly nice to hear that—to hear someone so worked up over him, thinking about him, wanting him to want him, and Harry’s kind of trying not to beam because that’s stupid, but he’s so, so in love with this strange feeling of being wanted.

“Idiot,” Harry whispers, fond, before he scoops in, one hand caressing the back of Louis’ neck, the other keeping his balance, and kisses Louis again, nothing on his mind but the faint lingering feeling of Louis’ tongue.

He feels Louis smile into the kiss and it’s ridiculous, it really is, but Harry’s smiling too.

He’s smiling too and he’s gasping as Louis pushes him back against the steering wheel, the street lighting up to the sound of the honk, and then they’re giggling like children and it’s wonderful and crazy. It’s a mess.

This time, Louis pulls back, and he mumbles over Harry’s skin as he thoroughly kisses down his throat, “Now you tell me why we’re kissing.”

Harry’s laugh falls out on its own accord. “Because we want to?”

Harry.”

“Fine,” he says, grazing his teeth past Louis’ scruff because he’s in love with it. “I kissed you because you’re an idiot and you looked like the biggest creep, staring out of your car, and I really, really like to kiss you.”

“That’s not very nice,” Louis huffs.

“Maybe,” Harry shrugs, “but it’s true. You’re—you’re completely ridiculous, and you say things like ‘you terrify me’, which is good, I guess, I love being terrifying, and the truth is, I don’t know you but I feel like I kind of want to. So I kissed you, Louis Tomlinson, because you’re wearing a suit and you haven’t left my mind, and in the long run, I really, really don’t regret it—kissing you. I really don’t.” There’s a silence that falls over them then, and it’s just Harry and Louis, Louis and Harry, and the disgustingly expensive car.

“Okay,” Louis whispers, hoarse and soft. “Okay, then.”

Harry nods, unsure. “Yeah.”

There’s another beat of still quietness, before, “Can I—should I ask you out again?”

Harry hits him on the shoulder, frowning. “You haven’t done it once yet.”

“Yes, I did,” Louis starts, “I asked you yesterday.”

Yesterday. It seems like a lifetime away, but it’s true. It was yesterday and it was between frozen cream and flavoured cones. “Fine. Do it again,” Harry demands.

“Will you—will you say yes this time?”

Harry shrugs. “I dunno. You haven’t asked me yet.”

Louis frowns, but goes ahead anyway, “Will you go out to dinner with me? Tomorrow night?”

Harry frowns. “That was a piss poor attempt, mate,” he says, crossing his arms.

Louis tilts his head, which is just plain unfair, and says, “Please?”

There’s a yes, of course on the tip of his tongue, and he’s just about ready to get it out, but— but there’s also this sudden pull. This sudden nerve in his head that makes him think of something, somebody, and he realizes, right then and there, that this isn’t about him. This isn’t about him. “Can you come over tomorrow night?” he asks, blinking himself awake. Think, Harry, think, think, think, don’t forget.

“Um,” Louis starts, frowning.

“Because that’s it. I’ll say yes if you say yes. Tomorrow, dinner at my apartment, with Elliot.”

If you were to ask Harry, breathe ahead a couple months, why he can still recall Louis’ taste in the crooks of his teeth, he wouldn’t say it was because Louis kissed him until it was all he could feel. He would say that Louis was a force and Louis left an impact that couldn’t be changed. And he wouldn’t refer back to the way Louis held his hips or bit his neck, no, he’d tell you Louis was unforgettable, and unfairly so, because Louis agreed, that first time. Because sat in the Bentley in front of his house, Harry watched Louis lean in to kiss him again, whisper “Of course” into his mouth and this is what does him in, Harry realizes, how much this was up to Louis, all flat open and up for him to choose, and how Harry won’t, can’t, stop the impetus from increasing, the force from building, the unknown impact from hitting.

-

“Dad’s gone crazy,” Elliot says into the phone and it’s supposed to be a whisper, except it’s not and the house smells of liquid warmth and honey glazed roast.

“I have not gone crazy, Ellie, I’m just a little nervous,” Harry protests from the kitchen, leaning over his mashed potato and chocolate sauce. The kitchen is a bit of a mess, flour staining the counter and pans lining up patently by the sink and Harry still has to shower, but at least the roast is in the oven. “Put gran on speaker, babe,” he calls out.

Elliot’s sat in the dining room, a small cut out corner made up of a circular table big enough to fit their hands and their meals, and she’s got on her favourite white dress. “Fine,” she says tepidly. It’s not the best news, hearing your dad’s bringing a man home. Even if the man is Louis Tomlinson, brother of her two best friends. To say she’s a little upset would be an understatement, especially since she wanted chicken chips that Sunday.

“I promise you, Ellie, I will get you your Raza’s chicken by tomorrow. I promise,” he says for what must be the tenth time, if so just to remind her that he hasn’t forgotten, that she’ll never be forgotten. “But for tonight, maybe you could enjoy my chicken?”

“Pa, it’s fine. I don’t mind what chicken we eat as long as it’s chicken. I just don’t understand why Mr. Tomlinson is joining us,” she mutters, putting the phone on speaker.

“Hello?” Anne calls over the other end. She took the train back to Holmes Chapel that morning and she hasn’t stopped asking Harry about Louis yes. “Has Louis arrived yet? Is he there? Hello, Louis darling, how are you?"

“Gran,” Ellie interrupts, “he’s not here. It’s just me and pa. And a dead chicken.”

“Ooh, chicken, that’s nice,” Anne says.

“Too nice!” Ellie adds. “I don’t like it!”

“Ellie,” Harry groans, “he’s nice, I promise."

“It isn’t true!”

Harry huffs. “Weren’t you the one calling him my boyfriend yesterday?”

Elliot gasps, eyes mortified. “He’s your boyfriend?” It comes out as a cry, something shocked and bright and absolutely hilarious. It’s not like she’s got the best grasp on what the term ‘boyfriend’ can or does mean, but it’s got to be something along the lines of hand holding and dad stealing, because Elliot looks mortified.

“No!” Harry cries back, completely taken aback at how offended his daughter sounds. “No—no, he’s not my boyfriend, gosh, he’s just—coming over for dinner. That’s it.”

“God, I really wish I was there right now,” Anne pipes from the phone.

“Mum,” he says, “not helping.”

“You haven’t had anyone else over for dinner before,” Elliot accuses, getting off her chair, moving over to stand by Harry’s hip.

Harry frowns down at her. “What? We’ve had Niall and Liam and Babs over for dinner many times.”

“But that’s Uncle Ni or Uncle Liam or Aunt Babs,” Ellie says, with her face completely serious, “this is Mr. Tomlinson. We’ve never had Mr. Tomlinson.” In many ways, she sounds just like him: unsure, doubtful, and so very guarded up. And though Harry would like to think he’s still the same, which he very much is after four years of thick skin and an even thicker past, he must admit that somewhere along the way, he’s let Louis become immune to it—to his unrestrained doubt and fear.

“El,” he starts softly, “darling, I need you to trust me right now, all right? We’ve never had Mr. Tomlinson over before, you’re right, but I’m doing this to see if ever can again. And we’re together on this, all right? You and me, we’re going to see if Mr. Tomlinson is someone we want as our friend. As our friend, as in both of us. So if you still don’t feel good about him coming over after tonight, then fine. I’ll respect that. But I want him here tonight, sweetheart, and I—really want you to help me out tonight, all right? In case I get too caught up on how handsome he is, y’know.”

Ellie frowns, as if she doesn’t completely agree, but nods anyway. “Fine,” she sighs. “He is Phoebe and Daisy’s brother.”

“Oi,” Anne calls from the other end, “look after the chicken!”

“Yeah, and you should get dressed, too, pa,” Ellie adds, flattening her small palm across his shirt sticking to his naval. “You stink.”

“Thanks, darling,” Harry smiles, ruffling her hair. He hears his mum snort from the other end and whatever. “Bye, mum,” he calls.

“Babe, I’m going to head for the showers and I need you to pick out my outfit. Is that alright?” He’s still not completely comfortable letting Ellie wander the house alone with the gas running and knife drawer lockless. It’s the kind of thing he developed after four years.

“Sure, pa,” she smiles, turning the speaker button off to say goodbye to her gran.

Harry’s showers are one of the very few things in his life that are timed. He’s allows himself exactly two and a half minutes, three if he wants to wash his hair a little more carefully, so by the time he steps out, steam curling around his ears in slow whispers, his hair wet and flat and soft, towel wrapped securely around his waist, Ellie’s still standing by his wardrobe.

“Pa, I hate to say this, but your clothes are all ugly,” she says with no disregard to Harry’s feelings. Or the feelings of Harry’s clothes. She’s got her back to Harry, facing the colourful row, and it’s so weird, how accurately she can feel and identify her pa’s presence. Almost as if they’re connected by more than their blood and skin and name.

“That’s not very nice, Ellie,” Harry huffs, walking over to the mini mirror right beside the wardrobe so his daughter is standing with her hands on her hips beside him.

“I know, and I’m sorry, but it’s true!” she mutters, moving a couple shirts aside. “We should go shopping, pa. Like right now.”

“No time, sweetheart,” he says, combing through his hair. “Louis is coming in about an hour and the chicken’s got to roast for at least another forty five minutes.”

“Hm,” she hums, thumbing through his jeans. “I think you should wear this, then,” she says, pulling out his skinnies which is a good start. “And this.” It’s his old painting shirt, the one he used to wear back before he realized he was no good and let the colours smudge itself all over the fabric. Harry raises an eyebrow.

“Are you sure, Ellie?”

Elliot just grins, her eyes dancing with mirth, “Trust me, pa. It’s your best shirt.” Hm.

Harry eyes at warily, then glances down at Ellie’s smile and—and it’s not like he could ever say no. “Well, if it’s my best shirt, then I guess I’m just going to have to wear it, right?”

“Mhm,” Ellie hums, bouncing over to the dresser table. She pulls out a spare cloth Harry uses as a headband and shoves it to him, movements so swift, that she’s almost like white, burning light. “And this. This makes you look lovely.”

“Why, thank you,” Harry gushes, taking the cloth and curtsying daintily. “That is very nice of you to say, thank you for helping me.”

Ellie bows down, giggling, her hair falling in curls and falling in pieces all around her forehead. “You’re very welcome,” she says, the sentence coming out like soft, jelly candies out of her mouth.

“Do you wanna start the telly while I get ready?” Harry mutters gently, letting Ellie poke at the love handles of his hips.

“Yeah, all right,” Ellie nods, sliding past the door and into the living room. Harry can hear her footsteps till the noise is replaced by soft murmurs of the television, the house drifting with the scent of gold and roasted potatoes.

It’s only once Harry’s got the chicken out of the oven and the table set up with the help of Elliot, does the doorbell ring. It’s a sudden sound, something Harry forgot to expect, and once it comes, like little waves of electricity, Harry turns to look at Elliot with wide eyes.

“Do you wanna get it?” Harry asks, rushing to the back of the kitchen to wash his hands.

“No,” Elliot whispers, her eyes like full moons, “I can’t! Pa, you get it.”

“But,” Harry mutters, looking around in panic.

Pa,” Elliot stresses, tugging on his shirt. “Pa, come on.”

“Right,” Harry nods, kissing Ellie’s head because that’s instinct. When he’s confused and kind of ready to shit his pants, he’s going to reach for Elliot. “Right, all right. Um. I’ll go—"

“Open the door,” Elliot finishes for him.

The doorbell rings again. “Right, right, sorry.” He moves quickly across the house and to the front door.

“Pa,” Ellie hisses right before he opens the door. “Smile. Remember to smile.”

“All right, smile— like this?” he tries his best, mouth spread as wide as possible and Elliot starts laughing.

“Yeah,” she says. “Just like that, pa, just like that. You look stunning.”

“Hush,” Harry pouts, “do you want to wait in—"

“Dad,” Elliot says and she only says ‘dad’ when she’s serious. “Answer the door.”

And he does. And. And fuck.

“Hi,” Louis says because of course Louis would come right at seven sharp and of course he’s wearing a nice button up, his hair flat and wild and lovely. Of course. Bad things happen to good people—Louis Tomlinson is happening to Harry Styles. Very unfair.

“Hiiiii,” Harry mutters, dragging the word because it gave him time to think, leaning against the door. “How are you?”

Louis looks painfully, very unfairly, confused, his eyes crinkling as he smiles. “I’m—good. Good. Thank you, and yourself?”

“Fine, fine,” Harry dismisses, stepping aside to let Louis in. “Thanks for coming,” he adds over his shoulder, catching sight of Louis talking off his shoes and subtly looking around. Harry bites his lip.

It’s just—like, he loves his home. Loves it so, so much. But sometimes, he’s not sure if everyone loves it just as much as he does, which. Which shouldn’t matter very much at all, it’s just that this is Louis Tomlinson. And no matter how much Harry teases him and kisses him and tells him he’s an idiot, Louis Tomlinson has silver coating his name, gold tracing his past. And he’s stepped through floor tiles equivalent to the price of Harry’s bed and it’s all very much. It’s a little hard to hope it’s enough when you know it isn’t.

“No,” Louis says quickly, “thank you for having me.” It’s weird, how formal they are, but Harry’s not expecting anything more. They did meet exactly one week prior to this day.

“Hello there,” Ellie says, toeing into the room with her head ducked, so completely different to the girl who told Harry his entire closet was ugly. It’s as if she’s fitting into a plastic container that enhances her small hands and her big eyes, makes you forget about everything but the way her dimples shine. It is, in many ways, like Harry’s dark blazer and bleached button down, the way they take on a new character, almost.

“Hullo,” Louis says, grinning. “How are you, Elliot?”

“I’m good, thank you,” Ellie says slowly. It’s not like they haven’t met before, because they have. Just yesterday. Expect yesterday they were at an ice cream parlor and Elliot was complaining about how lonely Louis would get with his single scoop. “How are you? How’s Daisy and Phoebe?”

Louis laughs. He crouches down and pulls his phone out of his back pocket. “I’m doing well, El, thank you. I’ve actually got a message for you from Dais and Pheeb. They taped something on my phone before they left for their gran, so—"

Elliot grins and Harry hides his own smile as he turns to get the orange juice and wine out. He’s prepared for tonight. He really is. Sort of. “Can I please watch it?” Elliot asks, ever so polite when Harry knows all she wants to do is watch and keep and love the video; she loves the twins that much.

“Of course! It’s for you, isn’t it?” And then Louis is pressing in his password and showing Ellie the screen. “It’s pretty long, I think. Took up a lot of space. You can take it to watch, if you’d like.”

“Please?” Elliot asks, reaching for it.

“Of course,” Louis says, handing it over.

“Pa,” Ellie asks and Harry turns around, face pleasantly blank, as if he wasn’t listening to them at all. “Can I go watch the video in the living room, please?”

“All right, sweetheart. Louis and I are gonna be in the kitchen, okay?” Harry leans over to tug on Louis’ arm as he leads them to the kitchen and he watches from his peripheral vision as Elliot slips into the living room and settles onto the single couch, her face matching the sun.

“How was traffic?” Harry asks without looking back, heading straight for the glass cabinet. It’s a safe question, he thinks, isn’t really doing anything but keep uncomfortable silences at bay.

Except. Except suddenly, he can feel the familiar weight of the warmth of a body pressing up against him, something barely there and something completely dizzying. There’s a light hand coming up to rest on his right hip and he stops breathing, body stretching to take the glasses from the top cabinet out.

“It wasn’t too bad,” Louis whispers, words coming out like red hot rocks, burning when they brush against the skin of Harry’s ear. “I mean, I made it here on time, didn’t I?”

And the worst part—the worst part is that Harry wants to memorize the warm feeling, the velvet coating his stomach and the cloud risking its way to his head, and keep it with him forever because it feels that good. It’s nice, the press of something—someone—against his back like a reminder, a tie to the ground that keeps him from drifting, and it’s distracting and it’s wonderful and it’s the worst part.

“You did,” Harry rasps out, cursing at the way he speaks in a low whisper. “Um,” he clears his throat, “do you— would you like some red? Or—or the rose I’ve got stored up, um, I could get that out—"

“No, it’s fine,” Louis says as if he didn’t even hear him, reaching in to kiss the back of Harry’s lobe, which. All right then, they’re doing that now. Fine, Harry’s completely fine with that. “I’m okay with what you’ve got out.”

“Lovely.” Harry flinches, shifting around Louis’ hold as his hands press against his back; completely, utterly diverting Harry from any sort of proper, logical thinking that will prevent him from turning around and kissing Louis full on the mouth, in the middle of his kitchen and all.

Which is exactly why he does exactly that. “Shit,” Harry mutters, settling the cup down to turn around, one hand shooting straight for Louis’ neck, movement rigid and bumpy like a spark of ignited stardust. It’s just one short look, the distance between Louis’ eyes and Harry lips, till Harry’s leaning in and Louis meets him already there, waiting.

Maybe, maybe, Harry should consider keeping it short and sweet and safe, but it’s so hard to think of short and sweet and safe when all they’ve been doing is strings attached, burning hot and completely crazy. It’s so hard when Louis licks against the seams of his lips and presses his hip against Harry’s, something tight and lightning and lovely. And it’s so hard to consider thinking, consider their current location, when Louis laughs against his mouth as if he was expecting it; driving Harry to the certain point of madness where looking back doesn’t change a thing.

Harry’s just got his hands trailing up the back of Louis’ neck, fingers catching on the long strands deserted in the area, when Louis pulls back, breath lingering against Harry’s lip till he takes a step back and forces Harry’s hands to fall to his shoulders. “We—Elliot, I—"

“Just—shut up,” Harry mumbles, kind of dazed and confused, kind of hoping for more kissing despite the uninterested facade he managed to keep up for the most of three days. He leans in, manages another peck, and then two, before he breathes through his mouth and lets his hands fall. “You’re an absolute—absolute menace, and I—I’m going to pour us wine. Um. Go outside.” Out of all things, Harry thought self control would be one of his strong points, considering he spent more than a year with nothing big his hands and a vibrator originally bought as a joke, but when it comes to Louis Tomlinson, especially kissing Louis Tomlinson, Harry seems to fail pathetically. It’s quite the downer.

Louis laughs, as if he’s heard it all before, as if he’s lived through it all, but walks towards the door without a noise of complaint. Harry can hear him say Elliot’s name and it’s a comforting feeling, it really is, to have more than just his tender movements and his daughter’s boisterous heart fill up the gaps around their home; as if the more he can fit, despite the lack of space already, the more he finds room to breathe.

Harry steps out once to hand Louis his glass, catches an eyeful of him with his daughter, smiling over Elliot’s art book, before he makes the quick excuse of finishing up the fruit salad for dessert in order to leave the room. Strange as it is, he finds that the longer he stayed around the image of Louis with Elliot, the more he had the urge to cry. Strange, but expected in all the ways imaginable.

There used to be a hole between Harry’s shirt and his skin, always, where he would let people touch. It was the access path to his head, the shallow thoughts about the weather, about the sky. Until it was all about red marks on bruised skin, a slim chance of ever meeting each other again that drove the adrenaline, the need beneath Harry’s bones to take, take, take whatever he could. Take until he was nothing more than a lolling head, eyes trapped shut as he felt not through his hands, but through the sockets of his mind, the feelings of happiness created in all but the outside; warmth pooling in his pit, a tugging swarming his heart.

He used to consume; he used to devour. All he was centered in what he did for his daughter, then what he did at night, when the darkness made it it easy to forget; simpler to accept.

And now Harry’s wrapped in plastic, a delicate fizz that surrounds him like a barrier, and it’s the most wonderful, yet lonely thing. He lets people feel only what he will allow and everything is a matter of truth and false. He’ll put up a picture for work, and he’ll tug on a smile in front of his child, but it’s this acid feeling, this completely bitter and unfamiliar throb, when he sees Louis, someone he knows just facile truths about, someone he’s only felt the skin of, stand around the whir that is his child and that is his home. It’s completely and wholly frightening, and all he knows and all he cares for is that he doesn’t know what it is he knows and what it is he wants.

“Need any help?” Harry turns his neck to see Louis step into the kitchen, a red coloured pencil tucked into his right ear.

“Nah,” Harry shrugs, noncommittally turning back to his chopping board. “I’m fine. Dinner’ll be ready soon, so you could get Elliot to pack up her drawing kit.”

Louis makes a sad noise, almost regretful. “But she probably doesn’t want to pack up her drawing stuff.”

“I tolerate a lot of things, Tomlinson,” Harry starts, grinning, “but an untidy house is not one of them. Just tell her her pa told her to and she’ll pout for only ten seconds.”

He sneaks a look back to see Louis looking through the fridge magnets, his eyes furrowed. “Are you sure?”

“I’m sure she won’t hate you for forever.”

Louis sighs, hanging his head like an absolute kid. As if his thoughts are too big for his hands, too big for this world, and he’s got to let some of them go. “All right. I’ll go break her heart.”

-

It’s afterwards that gets Harry the most nervous, when the curves around his webbed fingers start to gather falling dewdrops, tainting his skin like burnt paper. It’s then he starts to worry about what now and what tomorrow? It’s all nerve wrenching and kind of upsetting.

Half past nine, and Louis mirrors Harry: red blanketing the back of their throats as they convince themselves they’ve had much too less for a hangover, or for work or school or anything.

Ellie’s been a star (but really, when is she not a star?), and Harry has to stop himself from blatantly admitting how much he adores and cares and loves his daughter. Has to stop himself from baring his heart and screaming about how much she matters and about how her toes are made from specks of the sun.

It’s when Harry forces himself to get Ellie to bed that he starts to get queasy around his stomach. It’s not from the wine or food, he hopes, probably to do with the way Louis’ stare lingers across the round table, or the way Louis plays footsies with him under the table. He isn’t sure, but it’s very fucking scary and Harry’s so out of his element, he isn’t sure if he’ll ever really get used to it.

“But, pa—," Elliot starts in protest when Harry tells her it’s time to get ready for bed.

“No buts, sweetheart, you’ve got school tomorrow,” Harry says, smiling. They’re sat on the couch, thumbing through Elliot’s pictures that she insisted she needed to bring out again, and flipping through old, useless albums, the ones that consist no real memory of Harry or Ellie’s past, just what they want strangers to believe it had. The telly’s on as background noise, a tape to their rhythm of their laughter, and it’s very, very warm. Elliot sits in the middle but Harry can’t stop looking at Louis and Ellie’s halfway onto Louis’ lap but Harry can’t stop feeling Louis stare, the tips of his fingers reaching to graze Harry’s curls when he stretches his arm across the back of the couch.

“But you get to stay up late with Louis,” Ellie reasons, which. No, that’s not true, she doesn’t know that (for sure). It’s a reminder for Harry more than anyone.

“Maybe, but you also have to get rest. C’mon bugger, lets get your night dress on,” Harry says, heaving off the couch. He sets a hand out for Ellie, and it only takes one small smile till Elliot’s on her feet and walking towards her room, leaving Louis behind in smiles with the empty living room.

Harry thinks this would be a brilliant time for Louis to escape. And he says escape because this date could’ve gone two ways: completely well or completely horribly. Harry isn’t sure which he fears more, but it doesn’t matter because when he comes back, Elliot tucked tightly into her bed, eyes falling asleep as her father kisses her head, Louis is still on the couch, eyes trained on the television.

“Hi,” Harry says softly as he slides into the couch.

Louis turns to face him, grinning, “Is Elliot all right?”

“If by ‘all right’ you mean ‘in bed and not in tears’ then, yes. She’s all right.” Harry shoots him the quickest curl of lip before looking back at the television, the screen a blank glow of yellow and shine.

“Good,” Louis says and. And that’s sort of it. He doesn’t move to leave, and Harry’s not sure what he’s supposed to do considering he didn’t think there would be an empty space after the actual eating. This was mostly because he was sure Louis would have some incredibly important meeting to get ready for and leave early with the excuse quick on his tongue, but it’s not like that. Right now, Louis is here and he feels constant.

“Um,” Harry starts, biting his lip, twirling with the fabric of his shirt, “do you—do you have to, um, leave soon? For work or something?” He doesn’t want it to sound like he wants Louis out of his house because it’s not like that. It actually really isn’t. He just wants to know if Louis is waiting on him.

Louis looks like he’s trying to hide a smirk, tucking it behind a pulled smile. “I do have work, yes, but I don’t think I have to leave soon, actually.”

“Oh,” Harry says, shy, “okay. That’s fine.”

“All right.”

One, two, three, and there it is:

Harry turns to look at Louis and Louis turns to look at Harry and there’s this indefinite space between them that creates the strangest of currents, sharp electric tugging on Harry’s heartstrings, and then it’s not Louis eyes he’s looking at anymore, no, he’s past the vast blue of several planets, shrugging down to look at Louis’ lips, and. It’s dry, chapped almost, but Harry knows the aftertaste of wine caresses the seams and he just wants to taste because he’s a horny idiot who can’t control himself around attractive older men (or maybe it’s just Louis…maybe) and it’s going to get him stuck on the worst predicaments, but for now, it just gives him courage to reach forward to brush his fingers across Louis’ top lip.

Louis looks back, no sense of alarm colouring his face, and it’s so warm in the room, thick and drowning, till Louis leans forward, one hand coming to touch Harry’s thigh. It sounds like it happens slow, like toffee rests against their movements, but it’s faster than strangled thunder, it’s faster than Harry can keep up because suddenly Louis is leaning in and pulling his left knee up and—and suddenly, he’s being hiked up to the end of the sofa, his body pulled onto the plush cushions as Louis slots himself between Harry’s legs and, and, and, all right.

It’s right before, when Louis has left rough reminders around Harry’s hip and he’s got Harry under everything; under his stare and under his hands and under his body, that they look at each other, as if mutually agreeing: we are going to kiss now and it’s going to be fucking wonderful and hot and lovely. Are you ready?

And God, is Harry ready.

Because he’s the one who gets one arm around Louis’ neck, tugging him down to kiss him as hard and as roughly as he wants. And it’s absolutely perfect.

It’s absolutely perfect when Louis rests one hand by Harry’s side, the other thumbing around the bottom seam of his shirt, and kisses Harry just as harsh, pushing and pushing and pushing till Harry’s a mess of disentangled limbs and weightless sounds, head bumping against the end of the sofa as one leg slides down the length of the couch as the other hooks itself around Louis’ waist, feeling Louis’ liquid movements.

They’re going too fast—Harry can tell. It’s like a train with no breaks, recklessly chasing its next location, and it’s probably too much too soon, ridiculous because of where they are, but it’s like that just makes it more fun. It’s like that’s what drives them farther and farther and farther away from any point of filtered sanity.

“Louis,” Harry gasps, eyes falling open when Louis pulls away and lets his hips grind down once, slow and languid and crazy. That’s all it takes for Louis to do it again, emitting a strangled choke from the back of Harry’s throat as the drives his cock past the denim of Harry’s jeans, around the curve of his inner thighs. “Fucking—," Harry starts and that’s when the thought comes, not even a little shy from complete clarity: I want you to fuck me.

And. And wow. That’s—that’s sort of ludicrous and insane and stupid and right. That is so completely right and true and fuck, fuck, fuck, Harry wants Louis to fuck him and Harry wants Louis to tear him apart, wave by wave, and Harry wants Louis, and really, really truly, it isn’t that much of a surprise.

“Harry, I—,“ Louis starts, low and grainy, coming out in short staccatos. “Fuck, you’re so hot. You’re so fucking hot, Harry, fuck.” And he’s a grown man, but when he reaches down to press his lips against the veins of Harry’s neck, licking wet stripes up and down the column, he’s everything. He’s the pace of an airplane and he’s the wings of a dream; he’s so wonderful and he’s right there, and he wants Harry. He wants Harry just as much as Harry wants him and it turns him on so much. Just the mere thought of something constant and something lovely and something caring– it’s everything to Harry.

“Yeah,” Harry pants, painfully aware of how his cock is starting to feel heavy between his legs, raising a hand to run it down Louis’ back. “I’m—it’s the same for me, I, fuck.”

“Yeah,” Louis whispers, mouthing around Harry’s chin, finally coming up to face him, “I, God, I want you. Fuck, Harry, God I want you so much. In every way, I want you, I want you, I want you.” Harry isn’t sure if it’s mindless babbling, because they’re both more than a little drunk off of the satin wine, or if it’s Louis speaking lies like they’re the synonyms to tokens of truths, if this is him raw and honest, or manipulative and horny. Harry really, really isn’t sure, but it’s not like he has time to process because Louis slips one hand down to touch under Harry’s shirt right then.

“We’re—we’re going too fast, we,” Harry starts, something telling him to be mindful and smart, but a feeling catching at his throat, making him want nothing but more kissing on the couch. God, when was the last time he actually did this? Has he ever done this?

“Shit, fuck,” Louis stutters, but his hands just ride up, the shirt slowly revealing hot, melting skin. “Fuck, you’re right, but—but you look absolutely insane in this shirt.”

“Thanks,” Harry pants, a little too tipsy to care as he reaches up to press his lips onto the panel of Louis’ neck, biting bruises down in shallow streams, not made to mark because Louis isn’t something his.

(Yet.)

“No, I,” Louis starts, so completely different to the man in the suit and the smooth words, liquid thoughts and slippery hands, glowing so bright that Harry could only come closer and closer and closer. Now, it seems, he’s human and he’s hungry. He’s human and he hasn’t got golden words to say. “You look—you look incredible, like, the shirt’s a little funny cause it’s—it looks kind of painted on, but, but it looks amazing—,"

“Louis,” Harry starts, stilling his face between the lines of his palm, catching Louis’ drunk and hazy eyes with his own, “there are times you say shit, and times you don’t. Right now—don’t. Stop fucking talking and,” and what? Fuck me please while my daughter sleeps in the room across the hallway? “Kiss me. Shut up and kiss me.”

“Can do,” Louis grins, letting both hands grip onto Harry’s bare hip, fingers pressing down in a way where it hurts beautifully. “I can do that.”

And he does. He kisses Harry till Harry’s just a soundbox; the cognition of a hurried notion, a space between the sun and sky. He kisses Harry till Harry speaks out noises, not words, little cries that yell above mountains, “I’m so fucking happy! I’m so fucking free!”, and soft whimpers when he’s close to the finish line, “I’m here and I’m now and I want you to hold me”.

He kisses Harry when Harry’s laughing through his stained and tender lips, shoving him out of his house when the light of the night turns into stardust. And he kisses Harry silently, without any contact, when he looks up from his car and faces the closed and shaded window, and promises to himself: “I, God, I want you. Fuck, Harry, God I want you so much. In every way, I want you, I want you, I want you.” Because it wasn’t—it isn’t drunken words dipped in a selfish heart, no, it’s a feeling, an intuition. And it was starting to feel permanent.

-

what’re you up to? xx

Harry receives this text five minutes before his lecture ends and he’s never felt his heart leap as harshly or as boldly as it does when he reads it over for the first time.

in a room full of books and people!! what about you? :) xx

It takes him longer than necessary because of the dumb ‘xx’s and the dumb :)’s, but he lets it out and he feels kind of warm, kind of floating, the words being taught to him pass by slow and sticky and unimportant.

It’s Wednesday morning, shy of half past eleven, and Harry’s got on his oldest, most torn apart sweater. The atmosphere feels a lot like delayed rain, something forgotten but falling anyway, humid and dry and unexpected. He knows the plan for today, like he knows the plan for every day: lecture, lunch, a possible interview for a job at the local diner for part time shifts. Then he’s got to pick Elliot up from school, take her out shopping for new ballet shoes, and reach home in time to make dinner for not only them, but for Niall as well. It’s a stationary day, nothing beyond the expected. Well, not until this:

are you in a library?? i’m not doing much ! sort of just texting you ! :D

Well. If Harry were to base Louis off of his texts, he definitely wouldn’t pin him down as some successful CEO of someplace.

at a lecture, actually. about five more mins till its over.

He means to slide the phone back into his pocket, or maybe into his bag, but it’s like—it’s like he’s purposely trying to ignore Louis, which he doesn’t really want to do. So, he waits, and it’s not for long.

five mins?? good, good, i’ll pick you up.

Hm. Harry frowns and he can vaguely hear his Professor talking about some reading material, he’s sure, but it’s out of focus and he isn’t reaching for anything to clear it up.

what??? don’t you live forever away??

The answer probably comes just as fast as the ones before, but right then, Harry watches as everyone around him packs up and begins to stand up, and so he slips his phone into his pocket and shoves his books and files and several half broken pens into his bag.

It’s only later, outside, while he’s navigating past a dotted sea of humans and tote bags that he opens his phone up again, only to be shocked by the first one.

look up.

What the fuck is that supposed to mean?

Harry looks up either way and—and there he is. And there he is.

“Louis,” he gasps under his breath for no one but himself, mostly out of surprise, but then, out of this clear, open fondness that he can’t, for the life of him, control or understand. And it’s all because right there, a matter of a few meters away, is Louis and he's grinning like the biggest idiot in the world and he looks like refined sunshine, like something kept solid and warm, and he’s there and what the fuck, and Harry’s falling in love and he doesn’t even fucking know it.

He takes a step, unsure, but Louis doesn’t falter, not even for a second. He raises his hand to wave, phone clasped in the other, and he’s…he’s absolutely gorgeous. He really, really is.

“Fucking hell,” Harry manages under his breath before he’s hiking his bag farther up his shoulder, then taking the floor two leaps at a time to get to Louis faster than Louis got to him, as if it was possible.

It’s when he walking up to him, one hand going for his face because that feels natural, the other balled up in a tight fist, that he notices Louis’ tucked shirt and loose hair, all natural and comfortable and lovely and fuck. Harry can’t stop now.

He leans forward, watching as Louis’ eyes widen because he probably wasn’t expecting it, and lets his lip catch against Louis’. It’s soft and minty, Louis’ mouth, and it feels incredibly good against his, but he doesn’t let it hang, doesn't let any touch linger as he pulls back just as quick, feeling enough to light a sky.

“Uh,” Louis starts, blinking, “hi. What was that for?”

Harry punches him on the shoulder, right against the bone, soft enough so it wouldn’t hurt. “Fucking idiot. What’re you doing here?”

Louis pouts, a grin somehow edging its way into it, “I’m here to see you.”

Harry has to bite his lip from smiling too hard, stomach opening up to swallow his heart. He ducks in to press his lips against Louis’ jaw, feeling the rough skin below his mouth. “That’s so stupid.”

“It’s not,” Louis says, cheeky and boisterous, unaware of anyone around them, “it’s romantic. I’m wooing you.”

Harry laughs, but it tapers off because he’s pulling Louis into a hug, head reaching to tuck into Louis’ neck. “Idiot. Where’d you come from?”

He can hear Louis breathe beside his ear and it’s the most lovely thing, it really is, because Louis’ breath is warm and soft. Perfect against Harry’s skin. “I wasn’t far. Driving by Westfield when I sent you the text, so. Here I am.”

Here you are, Harry thinks, smiling slowly to himself. Here you fucking are, Louis Tomlinson.

“You shouldn’t have come,” Harry whispers, the fond smile cracking through the words, “I could’ve taken the tube or something. This was stupid of you.”

“I wanted to see you,” Louis says simply, letting Harry hug him just that much tighter. “It wasn’t stupid, sweetheart, it was worth it.” At that, Harry tugs back to face Louis, pulling a face caught between the largest beam and a scrunched up sun, his lips twisting as he tries not to make sense out of all the random shit Louis speaks.

“Shut up,” Harry says because it’s easier. It’s easier than, “thank you,” or, “I wanted you here, too.” when they’re all true and Harry doesn’t want Louis to shut up. At all, ever. “Sappy asshole. We could’ve met up or something,” he nudges his nose against Louis’ cheek, beautifully unconcerned by anyone staring at them because they don’t matter. Not right now. “You seriously didn’t have to come here.” He mutters the last part under his breath, a little note beside the name calling and the taunting.

“I seriously wanted to,” Louis says just as calm, a gentle lilt to his voice that makes Harry believe him; believe it all.

Harry chooses not to say anything, stuck on the fact that he has no more words to describe anything, and just shakes his head, grin pleasantly present on his face.

“What now?” he asks because they’re standing by the front lawn of the campus, bodies pressed so close that it’s hard to tell when one part begins and the other ends, a collapsed puzzle of skin and fabric and tugged on lips. Completely beautiful.

“I dunno,” Louis says lightly, shrugging. “What do you want to do?”

Harry laughs.

“How about lunch? I want to eat lunch.”

“How intimate,” Louis says carelessly and—and yeah. It is intimate, dammit. Sharing time like sharing money, spending minutes with a person over a plate of food is intimate and warm soft, and Harry wants to do it with Louis.

“Yes, it is,” Harry says, running a hand down Louis’ shirt, just to feel. Louis doesn’t react, doesn’t make a move of protest, letting Harry poke and touch, memorize the bends as if they’re roads he’s going to take for a long time.

“Well, alright then,” Louis says, pulling back to hold out a hand and it’s ridiculous. They haven’t spoken about what they’re doing and Harry’s nearly finished with the year and they’ve kissed more than they’ve spoken, but Harry connects them anyway. “Shall we?” Louis asks and Harry only laughs again, the sounds feeling familiar around the curves of his inner mouth.

“We shall.”

-

“Pa?” Elliot calls from her bedroom, her voice loud and shining, “can you come here a minute?”

Harry frowns, standing up from his desk, walking towards her room. “What’s up, buttercup?” He can see she’s sitting on her bed, frowning over a sketchpad with a pencil wedged between her fingers. She’s wearing her pajamas because that’s the first thing she changes into after school and she looks completely comfortable, if not a little disgruntled.

“I’m not sure what my leotard for the performance is going to be,” she says, pointing at her drawing which has a group of little figures, all a little different, black and white seeping through the page. “So I don’t know how to colour everyone in.”

“Well, we’re buying you a new one for the show, aren’t we?” Harry asks, sitting right opposite her, tucking his legs up to his chest. “I think it’s going to be white.”

Elliot frowns. “But then I can’t colour it in.”

Harry shrugs, leaning over to tap the crown of her nose. “Of course you can,” he says, “colour it in white. Or, you could put glue on the dresses and sprinkle some of that glitter you’ve got tucked in your art box over it.”

Elliot tilts her head. Her room is like a canvas, like an assortment of thoughts and emotions and feelings, all from a girl with a mind bigger than her hands, and Harry’s seen it all. He knows the curve of the coffee mug Elliot drew when she accidentally knocked it off the kitchen counter and cried over it. He knows the different shades of neon and green, springing off the grass from their trip to Cheshire a year back. He knows that the walls mean more to his daughter than the sky, than the universe, because Elliot’s sky and universe is drawn through the concrete. If she’s got a million drawings of ballerina’s with uneven hands and too long legs, then she’ll draw a million more and Harry’ll pin them up in tall spots she can’t reach yet.

“But then it won’t be colourful,” she says, smiling slowly, as if testing him.

“Then,” he starts, beckoning her over, “colour it in however you want to.”

She moves happily, crawling over to sit beside her pa, “But then it’ll be wrong. Didn’t you say I was getting a white leopard?”

“White leotard, yes darling, but you can colour in these pretty peoples however you want to. Maybe from a show in the future? Maybe from the Disney on Ice show we watched last year? It doesn’t have to be from your recital next week, if you don’t want it to be.”

“But I want it to be,” Elliot says, completely serious. Harry laughs.

“Are you trying to tell me something, Ellie Belly?” he asks, poking her stomach. She giggles, reaching over to loop her arms around his neck.

“I don’t want a white leotard,” she says softly, smiling her toothy, dimply smile that could win her the moon in clear flesh.

“I don’t think we’ve got a choice, babe. There’s a costume you’ve got to put on and all,” Harry says, but even so, he continues, “but…I guess we could—get you more than one. Maybe.”

Elliot beams, jumping off her sitting position. “Really?”

“Course,” Harry says, kissing her cheek.

“Thank you, but it’s okay, I just need one,” Elliot says, pulling away to get off her bed. She reaches for her art box and pulls out a bottle of thick glue and glitter, turning back to grin at Harry, “I think I like your idea of the glitter better.”

And Harry tries, he really does, to grin back just as hard, but he can’t. He can’t because he knows and he can’t because it hurts. He’s used to it, he really is, to Elliot’s tendency to always question everything, test it continuously, watching to see if it’ll stay or leave, love or change its mind. And even with her pa, she’s unsure, she’s testing. She’s wondering, will I get my way or will I be told what to do, and she doesn’t even know it. She’s trudging on if or not she’s safe and she’s not even old enough to get homework. And it’s terrifying, how sharp and scared and fragile she is, how much she’ll know before she understands her own anatomy, how much has happened to her before she even got her first sentence out, and Harry can’t grin like it doesn’t matter.

-

Friday. Quarter to seven, quarter to a heart attack.

“Late,” Liam calls, standing by the door with his phone as Harry rushes past him, shirt already buttoned up with his hair all over his face.

“I know,” Harry bites, distracted.

He can feel Liam frown before he even frowns, the soft unknowingness flooding through the air. “Are you okay?” Liam asks, and Harry can see he tucks his phone into the pocket of his jeans.

“Yes, yeah,” Harry says without thinking it over, pulling his hair into a bun, blazer under his arm.

“Um,” Liam starts, walking over to him, careful. There are times Harry feels antsy, and times he begins to hold unnecessary grudges, bottom lip jutted out as he snaps back at everyone and everything without any real fire. It’s just heartbreaking more than it is frightening. “Are you sure?”

Harry looks up at him, frowning. “Yes.”

“Why were you late today?” Liam sighs, pulling Harry’s blazer out of his arms, letting him focus on perfecting his full bun.

“Kendra was out tonight, so I had to call Niall in last minute,” he says, slipping his rubber band around his loose curls. “Had to wait till he came, so.”

“Hmm,” Liam says, turning Harry around to tuck strands behind his ear, handing him his jacket to wear. “I’ve been telling you about getting an actual babysitter—,"

“Li,” Harry interrupts, “not now, please? I know you’re right and I know I should listen to you more often but I’m kinda very late and ready to bite your head off, so please just help me with my laces and be the best pal that I know and love?”

Liam rolls his eyes, but gets down on one knee, anyway. Out of everyone Harry knows and considers his friends, he knows he’s often seen as the baby of the bunch. The baby (with a baby) who everyone loves and would eventually do anything for. It also helps that Elliot and him look very much alike.

“Thank you,” Harry says, brighter than before, buttoning up his jacket. “You’re the bestest.”

“I know,” Liam mutters, “I also just got a text from Sophia saying she’s gonna run away with her boyfriend and that she loves me a lot and wishes me the best.”

Harry loses his breathing, loses his words. “Um—,"

“It’s not like—I’m not sad or anything, I’m just—,” Liam starts, stuttering, as if he wasn’t expecting himself to blurt it out like he did.

Liam,” Harry mutters, without anything else to back him up, mouth open and fingers frozen by the plastic buttons.

“Right, yeah, sorry, it’s a little random, but,” Liam groans, rubbing his face, “yeah. I’m like happy for her, but a little confused, I guess? It’s happening sort of really fast, so—,"

“Sophia’s eloping?” Harry asks, voice disbelieving, mostly because he hasn’t heard from Sophia for about three weeks now, and this is happening.

“Um, yes? But not really. I think her mum’s cool with it, she’s just leaving her job and house and stuff.”

“This is really—really, really big. Are you alright?” Harry asks, shaking his head, “what the fuck?”

Liam laughs. “I’m fine, she’s fine, her fiancé is fine. I’m a little surprised, is all. Kinda wish I had someone to run away and get married with, too, but,” Liam shrugs. “It is what it is, I suppose.” And yet, Harry still feels incredibly bad. Liam and Sophia were a thing for about two minutes (two days?) until they were not and though it was months back, Harry still remembers her being one of the most beautiful and lovely people to ever step in and out of Liam’s short life. It’s sad she had to go. She gave great advice on perfecting a fajita recipe and also taught Elliot how to paint her nails all by herself.

“I could marry you, if you’d like,” Harry offers, nudging Liam with one shoulder, patting his back with his free hand. “I’d make a lovely spouse.”

“Thanks,” Liam says, grinning, “but no thanks. You’d drive me insane. I’d much rather you help me find a spouse.”

“Sure,” Harry chirps, “I’ll fit that in right beside work, which we’re at, but not at, right now.”

“Shit, fuck, we’re going to be late,” Liam fumbles over his legs, trying to get up and Harry laughs as he gets tugged down to whichever fancy ballroom their serving food in today.

-

Sunday, morning.

“Can I take Elliot out for lunch?” Is the first thing Harry hears when he picks up the phone that read ‘Lou’ on the other end. It’s a bit frightening.

“What—what?” Harry sputters, mouth curling in question around his mug. He’s perched by his closed laptop, newspaper from downstairs sat on the table while Elliot’s asleep on his bed. He’s

“I just,” Louis starts, sounding hesitant, but continuing anyway, “I just thought it’d be nice to spend some time with her—,"

“Louis,” Harry cuts in, voice a lot sharper than intended, questioning everything coming out of Louis’ mouth because he got it before. He understood the kissing and the touching and the unchangeable pull that tugged at his toes, but he doesn’t understand this.

“Harry,” Louis says, calm, “it’s all right if you don’t want me to, I’ll get it, she’s—you’re her father, I get that—,"

“I don’t want—I don’t think that’s a good idea, Louis,” Harry mutters instantly, this panicked feeling crawling up his tongue to the curve of his teeth, reaching over the crevice of his lips to fall all over his heart. He doesn’t remember who he’s talking to, just knows that whoever it is, wants to take Elliot and that’s not allowed, ever.

“Haz,” Louis sighs, “I can bring the twins, too. I thought you’d like a day off.”

“I don’t—I won’t. I’m perfectly fine.” He gets up to walk to the kitchen, biting on his thumb as he looks out the window. He closes his eyes. “I can bring her over to your place, if they all want to spend a couple hours together, but—but lunch, I can’t. Not—not with Elliot.”

“Harry,” Louis whispers, his scratchy voice melted with icing sugar, “I want to know you—I want to know her. I just need to know when I can.”

Harry swallows the lump around his throat, swallows down the ‘why?’ because that’s the only thing remaining. Out of everything he’s done with Louis, the only thing he’s stopped him from asking is why even bother?

“Not—," Harry starts, but loses himself. Not what? Not yet, for now? Not yet, not now, not ever? “Not today. I just…not yet. She doesn’t know yet, she doesn’t know what I’m doing—I don’t know what I’m doing, so not yet.”

It’s only the noise of static between them, between the narrow connection, before, “Okay. Are you both free, then?”

-

They visit the Tomlinson house and Louis sneaks Harry into the corner while everyone’s busy covering their throats in milk and the dusty remains of oatmeal raisin cookies. Harry lets him kiss him quick and short, a peck that causes an eruption of giggles, and he watches as his daughter laughs along with Louis’ sisters. It’s such a new feeling, such a new sight, something he’s had so little feeling of in the palm of his hands, but the most important thing is that he feels it now, and that it feels good. When he catches Louis ask Elliot, “May I help you colour?” he thinks concrete, and when he watches her think, reevaluate, questioning should I? before nodding yes, he thinks movement. And it’s all a little too fast, all a little to perfect, but it’s happening. It’s happening and Harry wouldn’t know how to make it stop even if he wanted to.

-

“Five more days, pal,” Niall says that night, sitting on the kitchen counter, Elliot on his lap. “Five more days till you’re free!”

Harry grins, shaking his head as he stirs ravioli on the pot, “You sound more excited than me.”

“I sound more excited than you should be, prat,” Niall scoffs, poking around with Elliot’s hair.

“I’m excited!” Harry laughs, “I really, really am. Like, trading coursework for actual work—how fun.”

“It will be, now that you’ve got a boyfriend.”

“What?” Elliot gasps, looking up. It’s more to do with the actual word, boyfriend, than the context. The fact that it’s been brought up rather than what it could mean. “Pa, you've got a boyfriend?”

“No,” Harry says instantly and it’s not a lie. It’s not. Louis hasn’t said anything about being boyfriends and neither has Harry. They’re buddies, pals. That kiss sometimes. It’s not something to worry about. “I haven’t got a boyfriend. Uncle Ni’s crazy and weird.”

“I’m not,” Niall whispers to Elliot, “your dad has a crush on Louis.”

“I know,” Elliot whispers back, just as indiscreet. “I can tell.” Her understanding on what ‘crush’ means is questionable, but Harry’s sure she’s referring to the way he couldn’t stop staring at Louis after he took the girls out for a footie match; all sweaty and warm and sunshine.

“That’s my girl,” Niall grins, leaning in to peck her head, “always thinking like her Uncle Ni. I’m so proud.”

Harry doesn’t say anything because he isn’t sure if he can. A part of him wants to deny it, shout out “No, I don’t have crushes, I’ve left the thought of fast paced boyfriends,” but another part wants to agree, wants to scream, “I’m crazy and it’s true! It’s all weirdly true!” because it feels so much more honest. Instead, he says nothing at all.

-

"I knew you wouldn't catch me.
You are a fever I am learning to live with."
-Richard Siken.