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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.

Chapter Text

PART TWO

“There was a star riding through clouds one night,
and I said to the star,
‘Consume me’.”

- Virginia Woolf, The Waves.

-

Friday - last day, as written in red confetti on his calendar .

The last day isn’t as exciting as it sounds, just a lot more relieving. It’s the thought of a break that ruffles people's minds, scratches at their happiness, more than anything else, and Harry’s not immune to the feeling. He’s clad in a useless sweater with even more useless jeans, and he’s got spring grades to worry over, but it’s all—it’s all “who gives a shit, who gives a shit, who gives a shit” for just a second that replaces the usual “I give a shit, I give a shit, I give a shit” and it’s fucking brilliant.

Harry leaves without a care. He’s gotten a flood on his phone from his mum, texts and calls filled with endearing tributes all dedicated to him and a ‘congrats on MAKING IT!!!!’ from Robin, because Robin both despises and loves the film, and has made Harry watch it countless times to scare him from sleeping with too many women, only to find out he’s not that interested in women in the first place. Either way, Harry barks out a laugh before calling him. He hears his mum cry and he cries himself and Niall drops him off early and Liam has not stopped sending him last day of college puns and Barbara wants to go shopping, ASAP.

He’s yet to hear from Louis, but for the first time in the past week(s), he neither remembers nor cares. And it’s not—it’s not a scoff towards him, a “well, fuck you”, a rather simple indifference, a slipped thought folded in between all the things he doesn’t worry about for the moment.

His last lecture is nothing but messed up time and disconcerted people who don’t care and he leaves the building with two messages:

One from Louis, “we’re going out tonight, you and me. is that all right?”

And one from his mum, “guess what I’m doing tonight??? taking care of my ellie belly, that’s what! have fun out, babe ;)”

-

The heat hits him before the strong scent does and it’s overwhelmingly tight in the room, dark and shadowed, slight reflections of people and muted lights drifting past every now and then to show that yeah, it’s fucking packed. Good thing Louis’ grip is tight around his hand. Good thing.

“We’re going out tonight, you and me. Is that alright?” isn’t the best way to prepare someone for a nightclub somewhere in between the central city of London, but Harry goes with it anyway, calling Louis the second he gets home with Elliot, after a celebratory lunch down at Raza’s shop. The first thing Louis asks is, “Is it a yes or a no?”

And of course, it’s a yes. So Harry tells him that, but right then, Louis hangs up with, “Brilliant. I’ll pick you up at your place. Congratulations, by the way!” And like, yeah, that’s great and all, but it’s when Louis comes to pick him up, grinning with a dark casual jacket thrown over a milky white shirt, his hair slicked back from his face as if he’s ready to tug it all out, that he thinks, why am I so stupid? Because he’s in his best Sandro knitted shirt and his tightest jeans, but he’s got no clue where he’s going and since when was that acceptable?

(Also—he should’ve worn his All Saints mesh jumper gifted by Perrie two Christmases ago. He should’ve.)

“Where?” Is the first thing Harry asks as he slips into the passenger seat, pointedly turning to fasten his seatbelt because it’s either that or staring helplessly at Louis’ jaw and unfairly endearing cuffed sleeves that let him see a faint shower of tattoos. Little pieces he still can’t identify because he hasn’t asked.

(Also—he isn’t sure if they’re in the kind of relationship that asks about things as sentimental — or completely unsentimental — as tattoos.)

Louis laughs, completely out of the blue, “What?”

“Where are we going?” Harry grits out, nails biting down on his clothed thigh in self anger. “Louis, I’m serious,” he adds, just in case Louis doesn’t get it.

Louis doesn’t move, neither the car nor himself, and he turns to look at Harry, all soft edges and simple smile and it’s so completely unnecessary, but Harry weakens his exterior anger anyway. “It’s supposed to be a surprise,” Louis says but it sounds as if Harry could get an answer out of him easily, as if Louis isn’t going to put up much of a fight, as if it’s all up to Harry.

“I want to know.”

“Fine,” Louis sighs, smile still intact, “we’re headed to a nightclub to celebrate the fact that you," he points at Harry’s nose, “have made it through the year. Congrats, babe.”

And now they’re there and it feels like being swallowed, being tucked into a place completely unscathed only to fear you’ll leave in a different state. It’s massive, feels like forever washed in dark blues, reds and greens.

“Are you alright?” Louis shouts into his ear because the music bleeds louder than the movement of the people, the thump of the beat stronger than the thrash of a hundred different feet marking the floor.

“Fine,” Harry says, not as loud, keeping his eyes ahead as Louis leads them somewhere, anywhere.

“It’s, um, a little loud and a little dark,” Louis says, “sorry.”

Harry shakes his head, smiling. “I wasn’t expecting it any different.”

“Right,” Louis mutters, “yeah. Well. You’ll have fun either way, I’m sure.”

“‘Course.” And then he’s being pulled, past unknown bodies of people he’ll only see, never meet, towards an empty patch by the bar. He hops onto on of the stools, but notices how Louis is still standing. It’s familiar, this position, and Harry realizes it’s because they’ve been in one very similar to this.

“Lou?” he mutters softly, watching as Louis frowns down at his phone. “Don’t tell me you’ve got to leave,” he says, completely serious.

Louis laughs, but doesn’t look up. “No—not today.”

“Then why’re you on your phone? This is like, the worst way to start a night out celebrating the end of the college year.”

“I’m sorry—," he starts, but cuts himself off, beaming brilliantly, head shooting up.

Harry scoffs, ready with the perfect retaliation when two hands cover his face. “What the fuck,” he says, shocked.

“Guess who?” someone says into his ear, voice low and what the heck.

“Fucking,” he starts, frustrated, “Niall?” It comes out as a semi shout, sounding almost angry because try as he might, Niall can never get the thick Irish lilt off his mouth, because it’s tagged to him like a name, like an identity. Harry could find him between millions, set in an ocean of people. Or, in a crowded nightclub.

“How’d you know,” Niall says, pulling his hands away. Harry turns to look at him, frown ready. It quickly turns to shock because Liam’s standing right by Niall, clad in a denim jacket and baggy jeans.

Harry frowns, as if he isn’t even surprised at all. “What’s going on?”

“Well hello to you too, mate,” Niall says, sunshine grin not even the slightest deterred, hand reaching to ruffle Harry’s hair, “congrats on a well deserved break, you could do with the sleep, I’m so happy you didn't wait so long to introduce us to your boy.”

Your boy. Harry doesn’t know why that sounds so strangely sweet, so sugary and wonderful, stuck on his mouth and stuck on his thoughts. He’s late to react.

“Ni—what?

“Hey, Haz,” and that’s Liam, reaching over to sling an arm around his neck, pulling him into a hug before leaning to shake Louis’ hand, which—Louis. “Nice to meet you, I’m Liam.”

“Hi,” Harry hears Louis say from behind him and when he turns, Louis doesn’t look the slightest bit surprised. In fact, he’s beaming like shiny pebbles, marking up the coastline of an ocean, breathing in the ocean because he is the ocean and Harry can’t think straight he’s so confused and happy and full of wondrous questions that relate to absolutely nothing like, “Where’s the beer?”

“Um,” he says instead, “hi.”

Niall laughs. “Lou said you weren’t expecting us! You didn’t even suspect anything, like, what else would we be doing apart from celebrating your last day?”

“Right,” Harry says slowly, smiling, “thanks. Um.”

“Drinks!” Louis says brightly, as if sensing Harry’s unsure status. “I’m incredibly thirsty and you’re all probably incredibly thirsty, so let me get us some drinks. Beer?”

And then he’s gone. Moving ahead persistently, heading towards the bartender without a single glance back. Instantly, Harry feels someone smack the back of his head.

“Ow,” he yelps, turning around. Liam’s standing with his arms crossed, face all screwed up. “Why would you do that?”

“Because,” Liam says, plopping down on one of the stools, reaching over to flick through Harry’s curls, “you forgot to mention you were dating Louis Tomlinson.”

“Ha!” Niall says from where he stands, “Ellie and I managed to guess! Liam, you’re so fucking lame.”

“Seriously?” Liam asks, raising a brow, “you told Niall, but you didn’t tell me?”

“I didn’t tell anyone anything!” Harry blurts, pouting at Niall, “There’s nothing to tell.”

“Right,” Liam starts. “And all of a sudden, Louis Tomlinson casually takes you out to pubs to celebrate your break? Like, that’s totally a normal thing?”

“Um,” Harry stutters, “yes,” he says, apprehensive and unsure.

“No,” Liam snaps back. He sounds like he wants to be angry, but it feels so much softer, as if he’s scolding Harry for not letting him know, “It is not something casual because as far as I know, you don’t know this dude.”

Harry smiles at the word. “Dude.”

“And you told Charlie you haven’t got his number.”

Harry sighs, eyes falling. “I’m sorry. I should’ve told you. I’m pregnant and Louis is the father.”

Harry.

He grins, poking Liam’s nose, “It’s nothing, Li. He’s just—just someone I’m seeing right now. Nothing official, nothing worth all this yelling you’ve been doing, just something…new. It’s new and he’s not my boyfriend and no, Niall, we haven’t had sex.”

“That is a lie,” Niall says, distracted by the people moving in slow circles all over the dark room. “And you know it,” he adds.

“It’s not,” Harry says halfheartedly, waving him off with a hand, “it’s all pleasantly comfortable.”

“That’s…” Liam starts, looking at Harry warily, questioning, “nice. That sounds nice.”

“It is,” Harry says, shrugging, because it’s the truth. What he’s been doing, what he is doing…it’s all because it feels nice. It’s good. And that’s enough of a reason.

“All right,” Liam smiles, “Charlie’s gonna be heartbroken. He had a proper crush on Louis, y’know? Sort of had some kind of dibs on him.”

Harry rolls his eyes noncommittally, eyes falling to where Louis stands, talking to the bartender, smiling through his eyes. God, Harry’s so taken aback by how much he wants to keep staring, for as long as he can. It’s so new. “Please, I called dibs the day I met him at the birthday party.”

“You did not,” Liam reminds, “in fact, you said something along the lines of him being nice, nothing worth talking about.”

“Harry said what about me?” And Louis chooses that exact moment to come back with hands full of Tiger beer bottles, face comically frowning in a way that Harry just—just wants to kiss him and gosh, why is he always wanting to kiss Louis Tomlinson? Why is that happening?

“He said you’ve got a very nice dick,” Niall mutters softly and… and. Harry snaps his neck, nearly giving himself a whiplash as he faces him, eyes wide and focused and warning.

“What?” Louis asks, setting the beers down, then sitting himself down, still so wonderfully confused.

“He said you’re nice,” Liam supplies, which isn’t that much better. Not really.

“Well,” Louis starts, looking at Harry with a glint past his eyes, “I think he’s pretty lovely, too.”

“Um,” Harry interrupts, suddenly craving some control over the situation, suddenly feeling like it’s the first time they met, when he was stuck on how Louis’ sleeves were rolled up with cufflinks and how his hair was styled in effort. “We should—we should drink. Let me—," and he moves to reach for the drink just as Louis jumps off his seat and there’s a moment right before where Harry thinks, shit, till he’s shoving Louis back and leaning over to stop himself at the same time. Not smart, he realizes, only after he’s falling headfirst, sky facing the back of his head, ground the only thing he can see.

He makes this tiny sound, something along the lines of a squeak, and he thinks that’s it, there goes my life, there goes my head, when someone's arm comes around the fleshy part of his waist and he’s being heaved back up to his feet. He can tell the arm and the hold before he even turns to look.

Liam.

“Thanks, pal,” he mutters, hiding his blush with a palm against his cheek. When he looks up, Louis looks like he’s trying not to cry and Niall’s face is cracking to make way for a grin.

“What just happened?” Niall asks the same time Harry says, “Don’t laugh.”

“Right,” Louis says, forcing his smile down even though Harry can see his nose flare, as if it’s taking everything not to giggle right then and there. “I’ll be right back. Um. Try to keep your head attached to your body, yeah Haz?”

“Funny,” Harry deadpans, glaring at the back of Louis’ head as he walks away.

“Well,” Liam says, rubbing his hands together, “this has been interesting. Louis seems nice, Haz, I’m happy for you—"

“Not dating, by the way,” Harry adds.

“—But for now, I’d like to be happy for myself, too.” And with that, he reaches for his bottle, takes the longest sip known to mankind, and walks towards the black hole of dancing, moving, shaking and crumbling bodies with a short wave of hand.

“He won’t make it out alive,” Niall burps, “is probably gonna end up spending the night with the DJ like he did that time in Funky Buddha on his birthday.”

“Let the boy live,” Harry shrugs, “he’s got to be a little heartbroken over Sophia leaving so abruptly. Like, they were friends, right?”

“Yeah,” Niall says, taking Liam’s seat, “but it’s not like the perfect person, in the most perfect situation is just going to walk right up to us and say—"

“Hiya, you must be Harry and Niall.”

And it’s really the funniest thing, it really, really is, because standing right in front of them in flesh and glory and all that jazz, is this incredibly (incredibly) perfect looking person and Niall’s mouth shuts instantly because this is just so funny.

(Except Harry isn’t really laughing.)

He’s angular and boney; sharp everywhere where Harry’s soft, but warm in the way he looks at his surroundings. He’s got a head full of dark hair and about a day’s worth of scruff peppered past his chin and he’s absolutely stunning.

“Hi?” Harry squeaks because yeah, that’s his name, but who is this?

“Zayn!” Louis calls from behind, “fuck, I didn’t see you leave.” He turns to face Harry and Niall and his grin broadens. “I see you’ve met them already.”

“Yeah,” Zayn says and wow, what an incredibly lovely taste his name carries, so accurate to his face. “I’m guessing this is Niall,” he nods at Niall before turning to look Harry square in the face, eyes heavy, “and this Harry—or Curly, the one with the green eyes and prettiest smile?”

Harry blushes, of course he does. Niall just coughs and Louis pointedly scratches the back of his neck.

“Right, um, this is Zayn. He, uh, he’s my business partner and one of my oldest friends,” Louis says without meeting Harry’s eye, “thought it’d be nice to introduce you—um, all to each other while I—we had the chance.”

“It’s nice to meet you,” Harry mutters, holding a hand up, “and yeah, ‘m Harry, or, er, Curly.” At that, he turns to Louis with an eyebrow raised as if to ask “what else have you said about me, you surprising son of a git?”

“Pleasure,” Zayn says, shaking his hand and Zayn is so pretty. Harry has to blink once just to make sure because Zayn’s got this easy smile and an even calmer atmosphere; as if standing by him is like standing next open space, something so free and relaxed that it’s almost not there. Except—everyone would probably be able to tell when Zayn is there. He’s sort of hard to ignore.

“I don’t see Liam—like, he was here earlier, but—," Louis starts, looking around.

“Yeah,” Niall finally says, taking Zayn’s hand into his own with a grin, “he went out to dance for a bit. ’s probably around there somewhere.”

“I could—I can call him,” Harry suggests, patting his thigh while he touches around the bridge of his bottle, “get him to step out for a second.”

“Nah,” Zayn says, shaking his head, “let the lad have his fun. I can meet him some other time.”

“Or not,” Niall quirks, “Liam’s quite a busy guy. I say meet him now and forever hold your peace.”

“Okay,” Zayn says slowly, and he’s got this lovely little sparkle in his eye that just seems so unfair, “maybe you could point him out then? I’d go say hi?”

“Sure,” Harry blurts, standing up. It’s hard to see, but he’s sure Liam hasn’t made it too deep into the crowd. A bright light flashes through the mass of thumping bodies and yup, there he is. “He’s right over there, in the jacket. You won’t miss him, he’s got the face of a puppy.”

“Yeah, all right,” Zayn nods, patting Harry’s back, “thanks.” He nods quickly at Louis before stepping away and Niall’s the first to make a comment.

“Wow,” he says and Harry wants to sigh.

“Yeah.”

“What?” Louis mutters, frowning. He sits on the stool and takes Harry’s wrist into his own, resting a palm against the steady flow of Harry’s veins.

“You never mentioned a Zayn,” Harry says lowly, nudging his seat closer to Louis to whisper softly into his presence. “And you never said he was so hot.”

“Yeah,” Niall nods, “like, what the fuck? I love his aesthetics, man, he’s so lovely looking.” And it’s a little odd from Niall’s mouth, but it’s also completely true.

Louis frowns. “I never mentioned Zayn?” Harry shakes his head no and runs his nose down Louis’ jaw before taking another long drag of his beer. The gold liquid starts a slow crawl into him, making its way cautiously, furtively, as if getting ready to drown Harry in whole.

“Hm,” Louis frowns, “well, he’s the best. Friends since high school, all throughout college, and even after, when we got jobs at the same company. We started off as accountants and God, we had the shittiest time.” Louis laughs, despite his words, and he looks absolutely in his element, talking about his best friend and talking about his past, and Harry realizes that there’s so much he doesn’t know. So much he doesn’t know about Louis. So much he’d like to find out.

“Yeah?” Harry grins in response, “and you’re still going strong?”

“Totally,” Louis snorts, “we’re like, the bestest of pals. Business partners and such.”

“Bestest of pals?” Niall asks from the corner and Harry’s starting to feel kind of, sort of, really bad because Niall’s sat right beside them and yet they’re angled in a way that you’d never think Niall was part of their group, a mere tagalong.

“Yup,” Louis says reaching for his beer, “the bestest.”

“That’s sweet,” Harry says, soft and dim, turning to face Louis.

“You’re sweet,” Louis grins back, reaching for Harry nose with his lips.

“And I’m gonna leave,” Niall sighs, swirling around, “see you gross things around. I’ll give Babs a call.” It’s nice, how even when he’s in a room full of beautiful strangers who would want nothing but the touch of tonight, he thinks about the girl he thinks it too good for him. It’s so sweet.

“All right, Nialler,” Harry calls back even though he’s sure his voice is getting drained by the music, “bye.”

“Well,” Louis says, nudging his foot against Harry’s, “seems we’ve been stranded.”

“Where’s Li—," he turns to look back to where he’d sent Zayn earlier and oh. Well. Liam and Zayn are most definitely still there, except they’re sort of dancing and. And Harry looks away. “Never mind,” he says, cheeks tinting.

“What—what the fuck,” Louis says craning his neck to look.

“Don’t,” Harry blurts, tugging Louis’ face back to him with a hand to his jaw, “they’ll see. Let them fucking dance.”

“But I—what?” For someone his age, twenty six and counting, he sure doesn’t pick things up too quick. “Oh my God.” And then he’s cackling, eyes crinkling like wings before flight and he’s so ridiculous, Harry thinks, trying his best not to stare by distracting his bottle to his mouth. He—Louis, is so completely ridiculously wonderful.

“That’s actually so super brilliant, I’m not going to stop giving Zayn shit about this for the longest time,” he says and Harry rolls his eyes.

“You will do no such thing,” Harry huffs, tapping the cleft of his shoe, “what if it were us out there, hm?”

“What if it were us out there?” Louis asks, wiggling his eyebrows. The absolute kid.

“Not drunk enough for that,” Harry dismisses, turning to face the bar, setting his bottle on the counter.

“Well,” Louis starts, “then lets have more to drink. Malt?”

There’s a balance between yes and no and Harry’s sure the alcohol will do nothing but tip the scale; run through his head and stain it until the morning dusk, but he’s also aware that right now, for just that one second before he nods his head, it doesn’t matter. Nothing matters but them right then, speaking with their eyes shut, drinking with their lungs tight, falling into something neither can explicitly describe.

-

“Zayn is so beautiful, Lou,” Harry mumbles, latching onto the faint flush of Louis’ cheek as he feels himself get dragged towards the loud thump of the music. The closer they get, the warmer it feels. The closer they get, the more bodies Harry presses himself against by accident, muttering apologies to heads that notice left and right.

He hears Louis grumble from somewhere beside his lobe, a sound of displeasure and vexation, “Why are we talking about how beautiful Zayn is when I’ve been the one driving you home after college?”

Harry snorts, “Why are we talking about college?” He turns to face Louis and gosh, it’s impossible to make sense of anything because it’s all figurative lights and morphed up faces, creases of moving fabric and flying hair, but Harry can see Louis’ eyes. He can see them when he can’t see the clear shine of anything else.

“Why are we talking at all?” Louis grins, wicked and young and crazy, voice going seeping through the thick layers of Harry’s head.

“Lame,” Harry says, but it’s not like anyone’s listening—not when Louis steps closer, stopping them right with the change of song as he runs a hand down Harry’s side. “You’re such a fucking loser, Louis Tomlinson.”

Louis doesn’t say anything, of course he doesn’t, instead he leans in to nip at Harry’s bottom lip, tiny sharp teeth grazing the tender skin like an acidic warning, like an acidic dare, ‘c’mon darling, come a little closer, come reach a little farther.’ He looks back up to catch Harry’s eyes, blues from another planet cornering him in on himself, making him bite down a whimper as he reaches for Louis’ neck.

“Dance,” Louis instructs gently, pressing Harry even closer with a hand to his back, the other thumbing around the corner of his hip. Harry doesn’t make a sound, he just closes his eyes and moves; hips swaying in any rhythm he can think up, head tilting back to swallow the night whole. He doesn’t think, doesn’t dare to, just moves with regard to Louis’ hand and Louis’ voice.

There’s a distinctive breath fanning the right of his cheek, flushed and warm as it comes out harsh and uneven, and it’s so distracting because Harry knows it’s Louis. It’s Louis and he’s so completely solid, a standing body without faltering movements, no hesitant looks, and it’s so overwhelmingly hot, right then when Louis kisses the bottom of his earlobe and Harry’s hands latch onto the nape of his neck. It’s like they’re moving together, as if when Harry juts his hip to the right and Louis presses his thumb to the exposed skin, they’re dancing to the tune of their own song. And that in itself is like an accomplishment, a statement, watch us, we’re here as one, we’re here with each other.

The turn of Harry’s palm has got no grace and the curve of his waist has got no rhythm, but he’s a languid body anyway, and he can tell because Louis’ grip just gets tighter and tighter and it’s only a minute later he can feel the faint brush of Louis’ soft and growing cock, straining against his thigh. It’s so warm and and friendly and there, that he has to hide his smile by leaning over to kiss the corner of Louis’ mouth, trying to melt even closer, even dearer to Louis’ touch.

“You’re so—how are you so,” Louis grumbles, deep and low and innocent, as if trying to figure out a puzzle in his head, watching Harry with his eyes narrowed and hungry for answers. “How are you so fucking hot, Harry?”

He giggles—but it’s not like that’s unexpected. Louis sounds so stupidly drunk. “About time you noticed, Tomlinson,” he mutters back. It’s a little dangerous to speak because his head has got no filter on, strings of words falling out of his mouth with no account to its weight, with no worry to what it could mean, so maybe Harry should just shut up and dance like everyone around him, but Louis is a fucking light strike, a simple complication that nuzzles the side of Harry’s head, and he’s got such a strong hold around Harry’s waist and around Harry’s lungs that Harry can’t shut up. Not when Louis isn’t doing the same.

“I’ve noticed,” Louis mutters and the only reason Harry can hear him is because they’re not two different people anymore; they’re moulded into something similar to one. They’re tying up patches to connect their foreheads and it’s so easy to hear when they share the same ears. “Fuck, I’ve noticed Harry.”

“Good,” he mumbles, trying to roll his hips in lazy, indolent swishes. It’s hard when there’s barely any room, but the slightest movement, the slightest shift of breath, is so, so hot on their skins. So, so hot on their mouths.

“You’re—you’re absolutely incredible,” Louis says, shaking his head and he looks about a hundred years younger, warm and creamy, the turn of his chin like the bends of a bed. “You completely blow my mind, I swear.”

Harry grins right back. He’s so nice when he’s drunk, he really is. “Thank you,” he says softly, coy, resting his head on the hill of Louis’ shoulder. “That’s really sweet. I’m glad you find me so powerful.” No control, he thinks, I’ve got no control of this situation, nobody does, and it’s all fine.

“You are,” Louis says and why would he say that? Why would he say that now when he should be muttering about how sexy Harry’s legs look in his jeans and how much he’d like to fuck Harry hard and thorough and dirty, noise splattering on the tiles as he comes to the sight of Harry’s bare bum. Instead, he’s speaking indistinctly about how powerful Harry is and how incredible he is, and why would he say that? “You are everything, Harry, I can’t even swallow the thought.”

“Just—," Harry starts, gasping when Louis grabs onto his bum with the harshest, most beautiful of hands, all his steps confident, as if he’s done this so many times. “Just—touch me. Touch me, Louis, please,” he stutters, his hips suddenly forgetting the song, forgetting the people, drawn to the shape of Louis’ clothed navel. He’s speaking in response to Louis, speaking about release and skin and fire because Louis talks about Harry being a force and Harry can’t believe shit like that.

“Shit, Harry,” Louis growls, and yes, that is a growl. It’s grainy and rude, like the remains of a storm, and it reaches down deeper to Harry’s belly, swarming a placid kind of heat that just gets hotter by the second. When he feels Louis grip on tighter, fingers mounding through the fleshy part of his arse, he tugs Louis in for a kiss, unable to think up words to distract both himself and Louis.

It’s not smart, kissing Louis right then, but it’s not stupid either. They kiss like they’re tasting gold and realizing it’s more succulent than before and they kiss until Harry’s body runs out of air, and he has to pull back, noticing how hard he’s gotten.

And then he notices how hard Louis is, and that’s—that’s more wonderful than anything, really. “Wanna suck you off,” he mumbles, swallowing air by Louis’ ear, “please? Please can I suck you off?”

“Haz—Harry,” Louis groans when Harry runs a shy hand past the strain of his jean, feeling for himself.

“I’ll be good,” Harry promises, “won’t let us get messy.”

“Shit, no, I—I don’t—," Louis seems to be considering something, which is so completely stupid because what’s there to consider now? How can he possibly make the best, most conscious choice?

“Shush,” Harry giggles, kissing along Louis’ chin, “just tell me this, do you want me to? Do you want to fuck my mouth?” Vulgar and so, completely drunk, Harry feels as if he knows the answer already.

“Harry,” Louis says and it sounds like he’s about to cry. “Harry, I—,"

“Just answer me,” he cuts in, swinging an arm to loop around Louis’ neck, the dark of the club acting like a catalyst to his confidence. “Do you want to or not?”

“I—fuck, of course I do, Harry,” Louis sighs, low and honest, eyes trained to how Harry’s teeth bite his bottom lip. “It’s all—it’s all I can think about. You…you and your indecent mouth.”

“Yeah?” Harry questions, giddy, getting up to his tip toes to drag Louis in even closer, hands by his neck.

“Yeah,” Louis admits, hands sprawled wide and open against the spread of Harry’s back. And that’s it then. That’s finale.

“Okay. Then take me to the nearest toilet and fuck my mouth, Louis,” he says, completely indifferent, as if he does it all time, and.

And yes. There was a time he did this like it was as easy as breathing and it was. He sunk to his knees like sinking treasure for men double his age, double his load of responsibility, and he let the biggest of hands part the gap of his arse, bite down onto his flesh to gnaw out parts they’d like to keep, parts they can only imagine of seeing again. And it was fucking brilliant while it lasted and Harry loved, he loves, sucking cock, it’s his favourite thing to do and now he’s going to do it for someone he wants to do it for more than just this once. Over and over, he’d like Louis to keep the parts he’d never let anyone else do more than taste.

“Fucking shit, Harry,” Louis growls, already moving away from their spot, “you’re going to kill me. You’ll take my fucking life.”

“Maybe,” Harry shrugs, following the pull of Louis’ hand around his wrist, staying close enough to pocket his presence, “but not now. Now, I’ll take your cock.”

Louis doesn’t respond, which is probably smart, but he pulls even harder. It’s impossible to see, and Harry keeps stepping on people’s shoes, but they’re suddenly at a much more secluded place, they air cooler, the space emptier. And then, it’s not as dark anymore.

Harry can see the toilet sign before they head inside and it’s a quiet, yellow room that they enter and by the looks of it, it’s empty as well. Which is even better. Louis lets Harry go, stepping forward to look around before heading to lock the door and then it’s silent for one, two, three, four, five, six—

Seven, eight, nine, ten—

Louis turns to look at Harry and Harry turns to look at Louis and they’re looking, looking, looking, till Harry’s feeling the familiar swoosh of air as he slides down to his knees, something so familiar that he it could be mistaken for a sixth sense, like instinct. And when he looks up to stare at Louis, watching the way his eyes turn big and dark and tranced, he can’t help but feel like yeah, he’s powerful. Right then, even with Louis’ big suits back in his apartment and big job that he’s obviously all about, Harry’s the one with the pink, cherry lips and the large, vivid eyes and the pretty, pretty and willing face. He’s the one who gets Louis so fucking stuck that he has to physically move with his knees knocking against the floor, right up to Louis’ feet, before he sits on the back of legs, thighs flat and hands splayed across them.

“C’mon, Lou,” he finally says, his voice sparse and light and scratchy. “Get your cock out. Wanna get my mouth on it.”

Who would’ve thought, Harry Styles murmuring those words, when he’s told himself he wouldn’t do it in a club toilet again. Who’s really surprised Louis Tomlinson’s the one to change the scale?

“You can,” Louis starts, his voice weak as he swallows. “You can go ahead, babe.”

All right. Even better.

Harry tugs down his jeans and slides a palm beside the fabric of his boxers and gosh, it’s absolutely wonderful, the “ah” Louis lets out. Harry takes his time, teases him till he’s as hard as he can get him, and then leans up to bite against the waistband of his boxers, one hand going up to balance itself on Louis’ thigh and he’s going to spoil him. Harry’s going to make sure that in the future, when Louis gets his cock sucked by any other person, he’ll think back to green eyes and long hair and that’s what’ll drive him to the edge, not the lips of someone else.

“Yes,” Louis mutters, one hand going down to grab onto Harry’s curls instinctively. “C’mon Haz,” he urges and that’s all it takes for Harry to tugs his teeth down, peeling Louis open till he’s just skin and rough edges, warm and hard and suddenly, right there.

“Fuck,” Harry whispers to himself, hand snapping up to wrap around the base of Louis’ cock, watching the shiny tip because it’s there. It’s right there and Harry wants to do nothing more than wrap his lips around the head, graze his tongue against the bottom and fuck, he’s going to do just that.

It’s sloppy because Harry’s probably not as focused as he could be right then, drawing out saliva all over his mouth, and he takes too much at first, mouth accommodating to the stretch, but Louis still makes the loudest sound and really, that’s all that matters.

“Holy fucking shit, Harry,” Louis gasps, hand grabbing onto Harry’s hair tight and secure. Harry just makes a blurry sound from the back of his throat, bobbing his head off the tip to lick around the head, tease Louis just a bit more.

He’s definitely not doing his best and he’s trying to, but his head’s starting to hurt a little and the tiles are stained and hard, but Louis’ dick is in his mouth and he’s supposed to be spoiling him, so wraps his mouth over the head and takes as much as he can. It feels like dead weight, like something tiring and heavy, except Louis’ cock is thick and throbbing and warm and the weight feels good, anchoring even, salty and vaguely familiar.

When Louis tugs at his hair, the feeling tight, he lets out a soft sigh, hollowing his cheeks and closing his eyes. It’s so, so nice when Louis touches his hair, feels so calming, but then Louis is tugging again and he’s saying something, too.

“C’mon babe,” Louis urges, “open your eyes. I want to see you.” So Harry looks up and Louis looks like it’s taking him everything to stay still, everything not to come, so Harry pulls away, nuzzling his face against the hairs along Louis’ navel.

“You can,” he says gently, “fuck my mouth, if you wanted to. I want you to.”

And that’s it because Louis nods, makes a soft choking sound, then Harry’s mouth his stretching again and this time it feels harsher.

Harry knows this well enough to breathe through his nose, but he still makes the terribly soft sound when Louis’ tip slides against the back of his throat and it’s wonderful.

“Are you—is that all right, baby?” Louis asks, massaging his hand through Harry’s waves. He just nods, tongue darting out to lick on the underside of Louis’ cock.

And it’s only a while later, after Harry’s jaw feels numb and painful, that Louis comes down his throat in the strongest cry and Harry’s got a hand down his pants. It’s then that Louis pulls Harry up, kisses him with everything he’s got against the wall and takes his hand to lead him out the door, past the moving lights and the moving people, and into his car, head thick, but clear enough to drive them to his apartment.

Harry doesn’t know where he is, doesn’t even care, and he can’t make out more than the floor and the walls, but he’s being pushed and shoved and turned inside out and Louis is touching him everywhere. They’re crawling around the house like you would move your hands down the velvet ivory keyboard of a piano; swift like silk wrapped in steel and rain, so fast and so lovely, it’s revered by the people that pass its sight. Except right now, they’re crawling with their feet on the ground, their toes scratching out the wood and metal and the right and the wrong. They move towards a door, towards anything, everything up to Louis because he’s the one pushing and shoving and tugging inside out, and he’s the one who tosses Harry onto the bed when they reach it.

Louis’ the one who stares down at him, makes his skin ache with the loose and pliant desire to be kissed and Louis is the one that turns him over and bites down his back, telling the knobs of his spine to shut up and the soft clouds of his thighs to never stop feeling and he makes Harry come once more, nothing but a finger next to the light flicks of a tongue up the hollow of his bum and he’s the one that is everything.

Harry’s the one that asks. He keens and he mewls and he’s the prettiest thing alive, he really is, and he makes Louis falter. Behind his sure finger and his sure tongue, he makes Louis want to seep in deeper, forget the cock and the skin and dried up tears from six years ago, Louis wants in his bones and deeper than that. Louis wants to leave his presence over every fissure up Harry’s inner organs and bends; his lungs, his stomach and places not as pretty, like the vocal folds and his lack of sleep. Harry’s the one who makes Louis want to suck out every pocket of air tucked between his teeth to push in his gold, his silver, his new and his mouth.

Harry’s the one who holds onto Louis’ arm after. He’s soft like the pillow his head rests on and he’s like melted, palpable light, and he looks at Louis with the biggest, most unfair eyes when he says, “Please stay,” as if Louis wasn’t planning to. As if this wasn’t his house at all, but a broken space for Harry to rest for the night.

And most of all, Harry’s the one gripping onto Louis’ waist, leg wrapped around Louis hip, head persistently pressing into Louis’ neck. Harry’s the one that giggles slowly, says, “Lou, are we crazy?”

And Louis is the one that replies with, “Of course we are, darling,” because he’s full of absolute, first class shit and he’s too tired to explain why they’re not crazy, just horny, infatuated little fuckers.

So, of course, it’s Harry right before they doze off to the sound of sleep, “Louis, I think you’re changing something. Like, in my life, I think you’re doing something to mess it all up.” And his voice sounds petulant, young, as if there’s a pout hidden under every syllable.

“You don’t like messes, do you Harry?” Louis says back, kissing his forehead over and over again just because he can.

“No,” Harry shakes his head, pressing his nose against the dull thump, thump, thump of the palpable pulse along Louis’ neck, “but I like you.”

And so, it’s Harry that goes to sleep last, thinking over what he’d just said as if it were the bridge between the truths and the lies and he isn’t sure what it means, but it feels like honesty to him.

-

So, of course at morning there’s a white throb by the cleft of his head and when he opens his eyes, so sure that he’s dead or dying or both, he meets the warm breath of sunlight and the transparent spread of the curtains, chafed against one another in bunches, doing nothing to stop the sun from drilling holes into Harry’s head.

“Oh, fuck,” he says, turning his neck and then, all of a sudden, there’s soft skin brushing past his mouth and wow, would you look at that, there’s a whole body pressed against him.

He doesn’t panic, because strangely enough, he remembers. He remembers in pieces, yes, but he remembers the club and he remembers leaving without Niall or Zayn and he remembers the tiles and the taste of Louis’ cock and he remembers finding sleep in Louis’ neck and remembers saying “but I like you.” The last part—he remembers that the most.

“Lou?” he says, frowning at the disturbingly bright room. He’s on a bed that’s made up of silk like linen and white sheets around. The bedroom is large and spacey and there’s a couch by the corner. Hm. Is this where Louis sleeps every night, into every morning?

Louis doesn’t say anything, probably still asleep, but Harry can’t fall back now. Not when he’s got—he’s got something to do, surely. Maybe some coursework—but classes are finished. Maybe he’s got to clean the dishes from last night, yeah—but he didn’t even have dinner last night, much less at his own house. Ah, of course, he should wake Elliot up, she’ll want to help with breakfast, so… Elliot isn’t even there.

That’s sets him off and he’s going to kill himself one of these days, but he manages to get off the bed and not crack his head open. It hurts to move, hurts to think, but it’s not like he’s got much of a choice as he scrambles around for his phone. It’s probably in his jeans—and his jeans are on the floor.

He scrambles to find them, standing in the middle of the room in only his boxers as he types out his mum’s number.

“Hullo, Haz,” she greets on the third ring, sounds of clattering steel playing on the background.

“Mum,” he mutters, voice low in case he wakes Louis up. He reaches for his shirt wrinkled by the floor and walks out the room slowly, closing the door behind him, and is faced by someplace he’s never been in before. Oh well. He should find the kitchen eventually. “How’s Ellie? How’re you?”

“Good morning to you too, babe,” she says and Harry walks into a bathroom, one hand massaging the top of his head.

“Yeah, sorry, morning, mum,” he says, heading the opposite direction.

“I’m fine, Ellie’s fine, everything is fine,” she grumbles. “In fact, Ellie’s here right now—oh, yeah, yeah, darling, Haz—Ellie wants to talk to you—,"

“Hello? Pa?” And God, if that doesn’t make him smile, then nothing else ever will.

“Yeah darling? It’s me,” he says, grinning. He’s also in what looks like the living room. It’s nice, leather over the corners. “What’s up, buttercup?”

“The sky,” she says instantly, “or the ceiling. I miss you.”

Harry’s heart is a gooey desert and Ellie is the storm. Everything she says, he’ll melt under. “I miss you too, El,” he mutters, unable to hold in the beam threatening to spill over his mouth.

He takes a right and there it is—a stainless kitchen. “When’re you coming back, pa?” Ellie asks from the other end.

“Why, babe?” he asks, teasing almost. There’s an endless row of cabinets, but after a few, he finds the one with what he’s looking for—Panadol.

Because, pa,” she says, “I made something for you last night and I wanna show it to you.”

“Oh El. What’d you make?” he asks, pouring out water into a cup to swallow it down with his tablet.

“I can’t tell you,” she says exasperated, “that’ll ruin the surprise. Pa.”

“Right, I’m sorry,” he mumbles, nosing through the fridge. Louis is very, very unhealthy. There’s so much cheese and beer in there.

“So, when are you coming home?” she asks again and he can just imagine her, sitting with her cereal in front of her, legs too short to graze the floor.

“Um,” he starts, “when do you want me to come home?”

“When you want to come home.” It’s so simple between them, as if they understand each other better than anyone else does or can and he loves his daughter with all his heart, every day for everything.

“Then I’ll be a few short hours, El,” he says, balancing his phone between his ear and shoulder to pick out two eggs. “I think I’ll have breakfast with Louis.”

“You’re with Louis?” she asks, surprised. Shit.

“Um, yes,” he says, “are you—is that alright?”

“Of course,” she says instantly, her grin falling through Harry’s end. “Tell him I said hi! Bye, pa.” And then she’s gone, slipped through the static of the phone and Harry misses her already.

The rest of the house feels quiet and calm, like there’s sleep varnishing the inside of the couch, the pattern of the roof, and it’s just Harry, tinkering around the kitchen, opening the cupboards and fishing open the drawers, familiarizing himself with the carvings of the apartment as if it mattered. He doesn’t think about it, not really, as he churns the egg batter around a bowl. Omelets are nice. Harry hopes Louis likes omelets.

He’s humming to himself, something soft and comfortable, and it’s only when he hears a cough behind does he turn around and. And oh. There’s Louis.

“Um,” Harry starts, sneaking a look back at his omelets. “Morning. There’s a Panadol packet over there if you’d like some. Um.”

Louis looks like a worn rug, scruffy and grey and lovely. He’s got his hair flat and he’s wearing a t-shirt over a pair of joggers and he looks like the split copy of warmth.

“Yeah, thanks,” Louis nods, walking over the counter, “morning to you, too.” There’s this shift between them, a change of time, a turn of atmosphere, that makes it harder to just call what they’re doing loose fun; friends who kiss a lot for the sake of it. Something about last night makes it impossible to shake off the strange threads of feelings and words and touching and meaning. It makes it hard for Harry to walk up to Louis and tell him he’s an idiot that should enjoy the breakfast. So, Harry stays put.

“Are you making breakfast?” Louis asks, turning to face him as Harry turns back to his eggs.

“Uh, yeah,” he says, tucking stray strands behind his ear, “eggs on toast, I think. I—is that all right?”

“Of course.”

Right. There’s a faint scent of cotton, detergent and egg cooking drafting through the vents, past the four walls that block it in. It’s weirdly quiet for a while and Harry thinks Louis must be incredibly discreet to have left so easily because his attendance feels empty. Feels empty right before it overwhelms Harry’s sense; travels everywhere. Slowly but surely, Harry can feel a chin look over his shoulder.

“Thank you,” Louis says, arms coming around the slim curve of Harry’s waist, bracketing him in, stringing him out. It’s unfair, Harry thinks, how easily Louis manages to do everything. How easily he’s wormed his way into pulling Harry in, casted a storm over his head, over his planner, over his mind. It’s so unfair how Louis seems to know Harry in currents he’s never swam through before.

“No, I—it’s not a problem,” he says, the sound of his words failing him by the way they stutter, unsure and worried.

“Okay,” Louis says, not making a move to leave, breath easing its way down Harry’s neck, down to his collarbones. “Thank you anyway. You didn’t have to.”

“I know,” Harry says, biting back a shrug because it might—it might make shove Louis off, initiate that he might want Louis to give him space when it feels like thats the last thing he wants right now. The last thing he wants ever, and God isn’t that a thought? “It’s fine. I like cooking.”

“I promise, next time I’ll make you the best eggs Benedict in the world,” Louis says and next time, “they’re like, the only things I can make perfectly. That, and fried noodles.”

Harry should say something like, I don’t doubt it, only to pull a smile out of Louis’ lips, soften the air of the room, but he can’t get the words out. He can’t get those words out. “Okay,” he says instead.

Louis hums out a song, a little tune that feels warm in the back of Harry’s head, and they—they just stay like that. As if time’s just an old friend, a forgotten, fierce memory that isn’t important anymore.

“Are you alright?” Louis asks a moment later, whispering as if he knows something important.

“Yeah,” Harry says instantly, out of reflex, swallowing down the, I think for, “are you?”

“Harry,” Louis starts, nudging him around the waist to turn around, “Harry, I’m seriously asking you, are you all right? After—after last night?”

“I told you I am,” Harry says, turning to look at Louis for the shortest second. There’s no wall behind his voice, no clap, no lightning. It’s a soft, tired sound that carries itself in darling currents. “Why wouldn’t I be?”

“Because—because,” Louis says, frustrated. “Because I don’t know. We hadn’t done that before.”

“Done what before?” He grins at the sigh from Louis’ mouth and revels in the way Louis just holds onto him tighter.

“Spent the night together. The—the nightclub and stuff,” Louis mutters, ever so profound. Harry turns the heat off and slides the finished omelets onto a plate before turning around and pressing a palm to Louis’ cheek.

“And stuff?” he asks, tilting his head as if he’s got no clue. He’s got no clue about what Louis means and what Louis’ on about when it was all he could think about before.

Harry,” Louis sighs, pinching his hip.

“Oh,” Harry says, dragging the sound out, “you mean at the nightclub? When I blew you in the toilets?”

Louis glares, like a lion. Like a fluffy, tired lion. “Yes,” he says, leaning back to take Harry’s hand into his own, bring it up to his chin. There’s a scatter of short, sharp hairs there, indicating he’s yet to shave, and when he runs Harry’s hand down the skin, he giggles in protest and Louis beams right back.

“What’s there not to be all right about?” Harry asks, breathing raggedly. “I wanted to. You wanted you.”

“And afterwards—"

“If I remember clearly, and I really don’t, I think you got me off before we fell asleep, yes?” Harry waits for the nod before letting a gentle smile settle.

“That’s it, then, Louis,” he says. “I’m completely alright with that. In fact, I’m pretty happy with it, so thank you. Thank you for taking me out last night and thank you for making it worthwhile. Now you answer,” he stops to poke at Louis’ chest, “are you all right?”

“Better. I think I’m a little better than alright.”

“That’s good,” Harry nods, smiling, “it means we can eat this omelet and head back to your bed to cuddle s’more.”

“Okay,” Louis nods. He’s beginning to shine, dust by his eyes that glow brighter than lightbulbs, and he looks at Harry with all the promise of all the planets. “Yes, okay, yeah.”

“Yeah,” Harry grins, pulling the plate of omelet closer. “Now you can go make some toast while I run the kettle.”

Louis pouts, pulling Harry in closer with a hand to the deep curve of his back. “No, I can’t. I’ll burn it.”

“No, you won’t,” Harry groans, rolling his eyes, “you can’t burn toast. I won’t believe that.”

“Twenty seven doesn’t mean culinarily advanced,” Louis points out, brushing his bare leg against Harry, dropping a hand to draw around his thigh. “We could just skip breakfast. Head back to bed till noon. Sleep till our eyes start to cry.”

Harry narrows his eyes. “I’m sorry, but at twenty six, you should understand that breakfast is the most important meal of the day and there’s no way I’m letting us skip it. Go make the toast or else.”

Louis snorts, leaning in so close that Harry’s vision goes out of focus, eyes catching moving lights of blue and beauty and grey. “Or else what?”

“Or else I’ll tell Elliot that you don’t like breakfast,” Harry snarks, quirking his lip, “it’s her favourite meal. She’ll never let you take another step into our house.”

“You wouldn’t,” Louis gasps, eyes so loud and so glittery, they feel like stones. Like lightning, yearning stones, mistaken for gems of some sort.

“I would,” Harry says, as serious as possible, wiggling his way out of Louis’ hold, “I so would. Don’t test me, Tomlinson.”

“Fine,” Louis sighs, holding his hands up, “I’ll go make the toast, but if I burn it I’m just letting you know it would be your fault. I shouldn’t be allowed near household object such as toasters. Ever.”

“I can’t believe you,” Harry says as Louis moves towards the other end of the hollow kitchen, large enough to fit their bodies and an abundance of vacant space. “What do you normally have? Cereal?”

“Yes,” Louis says, defensive. “What’s wrong with cereal?”

“Nothing. It just means you’ll appreciate my eggs more.”

“I’ll have you know I can make the meanest Croque Madame in the world,” Louis says and Harry can practically feel light radiating off of him from where he stands, he’s that golden, that bright.

“Croque Madame? Isn’t that a Parisian dish?”

“Made by me, a true Frenchman, yes,” Louis mutters and when Harry looks, he can see him poking at the toaster buttons hesitantly.

“Impressive,” Harry rolls his eyes, bringing his plate over to Louis to push him away from the machine.

“Isn’t it?”

“Go look after the tea, I’ll handle the toast,” Harry commands, nudging Louis away with his hip.

“Yes, good. Tea, I can do. Toast? Not so much.”

“Who would’ve guessed?” He giggles to himself, down his throat, when Louis slaps his bum and it’s hilarious, what they’re doing. Take a step back and watch them from closed gaps and it’ll seem like the most ridiculous thing because who are they? How do they know each other and why? If Harry were to do so, he’d only ask himself if this was what he was kept from when he told boys to stop asking him to lunch, when he told people that he wasn’t interested or if it’s just this exception. If Louis is something different or if Harry’s gotten weak.

“I’m—,“ Harry starts, warmly unsure about his next move, glancing down at his ready toast, “it’s ready.”

“Are we going to set up the table or are you okay with messing up my kitchen?” Louis asks, turning his body to face Harry, but keeping his face turned to the large mug in front of him.

“Kitchen’s fine,” Harry says, “where do you keep your butter?”

“Third shelf on the fridge, I think.”

He’s right.

“Bring the tea over then, I’m still sleepy,” Harry demands softly, unsure about how loud he can be when the light of the room is faded, feels like it’s got to be quiet and relaxed.

“You poor thing,” Louis says, grinning wickedly, walking over anyway. “I hope you like your tea sweet and milky because that’s how I’ve made it.”

Harry wrinkles his nose in mock disgust. “I’ll manage.”

Louis laughs, halfway across the kitchen and moving closer and then he’s—God, and then he’s right there. He’s a stretch of lips and he’s coloured sky, and he’s right there before Harry can even make room.

Harry watches as he sets the mug down right beside the plate of toast and scrambled eggs, and he’s reaching for something else—he’s reaching for the soft turn of Harry’s hip, invading his room, his absolute atmosphere, his everything and giving just the smallest of grins back. What strikes him the most isn’t how he fails to react at first, how he scrambles over his own thoughts, the vision of Louis’ face blinking less than a meter away, but what he does after. What makes him think this never happened at all is when he takes a step forward, pushing off the kitchen counter and, as if audacity had taken over his head, reaches for Louis mouth.

It’s not loud and it’s not fresh and it’s not thunder. It’s even better.

Tranquil and slow, it feels like sticky, gooey, infuriatingly soft light. It’s as sweet and gentle and calm as Harry could’ve ever imagined and surpassing all of what Harry thought this would be, what they might be, it’s a comforting press of lips, bathed in equanimity.

Harry just tugs Louis in for more because this is better than anything he’s had before, and he doesn’t want it to end before he’s properly memorized the feeling, before he can have something to compare anything else to.

“Haz—," Louis gasps the second a gap emerges and they have to breathe because their lungs are tight and strained. “Harry,” he says again when Harry petulantly refuses to let go of the warm skin around the nape of Louis’ neck, holding onto him with both hands, all of his body.

“No,” Harry mumbles, letting his eyes flutter shut for just—for just a second, pressing his lips to the corner of Louis’ soft mouth. “Will you just—can we please just slow down? Can I kiss you and can you kiss me back and can we please, please ignore breakfast, because I’m not hungry at all right now.”

Much to Harry’s surprise, because he really didn’t have anything to expect, Louis grins, one hand gripping onto the sharp edge of the counter right behind Harry, the other staying still in its position around Harry’s hip. “Thought you said breakfast was the most important meal of the day,” Louis says and from this close, Harry can taste the mint of his breath on the back of his tongue. “What would Ellie say?”

“What would she say to me blowing you at a club toilet last night?” Harry questions, voice low and uninterested because he wants to kiss, and he wants that right now.

Louis’ smile grows, as if he’s got something better to say, as if he’s basking in the memory, but he doesn’t mutter a word. Instead, he speaks much louder through his actions and does exactly what Harry wants him to.

They’re kissing till there’s laughter forming up their throats because of how numb their teeth feel and they’re kissing till they can remember particles of last night better than they can remember why they got out of bed in the first place. They’re kissing till they’re back to the dark of the apartment, stumbling past the walls, drifting anywhere they can reach, and it ends up being Louis’ room, anyway.

“We should’ve listened to you,” Harry says, giggling, “when you said we should forget food and go back to sleep—we should’ve done that straight away.”

“I know,” Louis mumbles, breath falling short because they’re running. They’re running with their mouths against the other and they’re running with their heads as they overtax their lungs and so they're breathing like they’ve got purpose. They do. “We should always listen to me. I’m the smartest.”

“Shut up,” Harry groans, walking backwards till his legs hit the front of the bed and he’s falling with Louis wrapped around him.

“Fuck,” Louis laughs, heaving himself up to his forearms, shifting till he’s snug between Harry’s boxer clad thighs.

“I’m sleepy,” Harry says, getting one hand up to Louis’ neck to pull him back down, anchor him to the bed, to their current, “but I’m also horny as fuck.”

“Cool,” Louis says, kissing down Harry’s cheek, to his throat, acting like the absolute shit he is. “What do you want me to do about it?”

“Louis fucking Tomlinson.”

He sounds stern, as if he knows what he wants, but the second Louis bites down his neck, initiates a mark, he’s hauled down to that confused, unsure state he knows so well because all he wants now, is Louis and whatever he’s doing.

“Can I?” Louis asks, as if he hasn’t been doing it already, except that’s not what he’s asking. If you were to run the question through a chamber of gas, particles rearranged, or through the slow void of outer space, or even through the strainer in Harry’s head, you’d hear ‘can I leave myself here? Am I allowed to do that now?’

Harry doesn’t know, he really doesn’t, but it feels good and he feels secure, and so he nods. “Yes,” he whispers, barely audible. But Louis hears. Louis hears because he doesn’t hesitate when he ducks his head down, mouth fast and smooth, and runs his teeth, bare and raw, through Harry’s neck, down to his clavicle.

It’s like— God, it hurts. It hurts in the best way because Louis stops right before the crooked bends of Harry’s collarbone, on the corner of his throat and he tears the skin apart only to reposition it back in a pattern he chooses, leaving his trace in every cell, breathing into every nook as if to memorize it and Harry could come, fuck, he could come from just the way Louis sucks out bruises and from the way Louis’ grip on his sides loosen to a short reminder, barely there.

“Louis,” Harry whimpers out, soft and little and quiet, “Lou—Lou c’mon, I need—fuck, I need you to—,” he needs Louis to what? He doesn’t know. All he can feel is the way Louis shakes him to his core and the way his cock feels so fucking hard already, letting out a small twitch when he feels the firm line of Louis’ dick by his thigh.

“Yeah, babe?” Louis asks, tone slow and teasing, “what do you want?”

“I don’t know,” Harry whispers. “You. I—I don’t know.”

“Me?” Louis questions, pulling back up to face Harry, taking his chin into a hand. “Do you want me, Harry?”

He doesn’t know. He doesn’t know anything, dammit, he just wants to stop the walls from coming in so tight, from the gnawing, agitated feeling skinning his veins. But it seems some part of him does know because he’s muttering out, “Yes.”

There’s a short beat of silence till, “How? How do you want me, baby?”

“Please, Louis.” God, he’s lost himself in some sort of an emptiness, where he’s there alone and he feels desperate; desperate for some sort of a push, desperate for a balance, desperate for Louis’ hand because in the midst of all that he can’t understand, right then with the cotton bed and melted ambience, he can make out Louis’ shape. He can understand Louis. “I don’t—I don’t know, I’m—I just,” and he can’t even finish, he can’t, because he doesn’t understand what he wants.

“Darling,” Louis soothes, a palm drifting past Harry’s head, a smother of lips past his chin. “Calm down, babe, I’ve got you. You’ve got to slow down for me, love. Can you do that? Can you breathe for me?”

“Yes,” Harry gasps, the echo of a cry lost somewhere in his voice as he takes a deep breath. “Yes, I—I’m sorry, I can. I’m sorry.”

“Nothing to be sorry for, sweetheart,” Louis says and he sounds like everything, right then. Sounds so sure, so in control, so driven that Harry thinks he’ll to absolutely mad. “Deep breaths, my love. Slow—I need you to take deep, slow breaths and I need you to focus on me, aright?”

Harry is a listener. He goes by command and he likes to please people to no end, so it’s no surprise when he nods frantically, as if he can’t catch up to the time wave Louis is traveling in. “All right—I can. I can do that, alright.”

“Shh,” Louis starts, running a hand down Harry’s hair continuously, “I’ve got you, baby. I’m going to make you feel so good, all right? I’m going to thank you properly for last night.”

“Louis,” Harry whines, this deep, needy hole nagging at his navel, crawling up to his heart. “Louis, please,” he looks at the man right in front of him, blue and grey and sure, and he’s whispering the last part, “please.”

“All right, Harry,” Louis nods, starting at Harry as if he’s solved the world, prioritized the problems and given every solution to everything ever questioned. “I just—I need you to tell me, Haz, I need to know—what do you want right now, baby? My hands or—,"

“Your mouth,” Harry mutters, eyes shut, voice hoarse. “I want—please, I want your mouth.”

“Where, sweetheart?” Louis asks as if he genuinely doesn’t know and with Harry—with Harry he doesn’t. With Harry, he’s not taking any risks, he’s not pushing him away. With Harry, there can’t be any mistakes, any hesitancy, any fear. With Harry, he’s got to get it right.

“Everywhere,” is the last thing Harry manages to get out before he’s being tugged between the slow, languid pull of sleep and the throaty, flustering thrash of his cock and he knows he’s walking on a thin edge, he knows that, because he’s still himself. He just doesn’t know where he wants to fall until Louis says something against his skin.

“Can I get your shirt off, love?” Louis asks, carding a hand down Harry’s cheek.

“Yes,” Harry nods, “please.”

“You don’t—darling, this is for you. You don’t have to ask for anything, I’ll—I’m here for you. This is all about you,” Louis says and Harry thinks, no, this is all about us. But it’s nice to hear, anyway. Feels like a praise, and those are little pockets of happiness in itself.

“Okay,” Harry says, smiling, eyes drooping because he is so sleepy. “Thank you.”

“My pleasure, Haz,” Louis says, almost laughing as he tugs Harry’s shirt off.

“You too,” Harry mutters, feeling soft and delicate and happy. Feeling so completely, blissfully useless in the best kind of way. It’s as if he’s got no weight to carry, no thought to give shits about. It’s just him, with the sheets cooling his skin and his cock standing stiff and his head flushed in pink. It’s just him and Louis and he loves it.

“Of course,” Louis nods, wasting no time to pull his shirt over his head, leaning back down to dart a tongue past Harry’s top right nipple.

“Oh,” Harry gasps right then and—and holy fucking shit if that isn’t the hottest, most prettiest sound Louis has ever heard. “Oh fuck,” Harry continues, voice matching a whine as Louis does it again, taking his time over the lobe.

“Do you—do you like it when I play with you pretty little nipples, darling?” Louis asks, a drawl in his throat that feels so heavy and gritty that Harry thinks it’s from a dream.

“Yes—fuck, Louis,” he manages, “they’re so—they’re so sensitive,” he finishes, biting down on his lip because fuck, he’s going to come just like this, Louis mouth enveloping his nipple with the warmest, kindest heat.

It doesn’t get easier as Louis moves to the next one, lapping over the tip before raking his teeth over the tip, relishing in the highest, raspiest little cries coming out of Harry’s mouth like candy, like falling gold.

“Louis—Lou,” Harry babbles, one hand buried so deep in Louis’ hair that his fingers are caught between the war of the strands. “Louis, I’m gonna—if you keep going, I’ll—,"

“That’s okay, babe,” Louis says, nipping at the gaps across Harry’s chest, smiling over the smooth, caramel skin. “This all about you. You can come as many times as you’d like.”

“No,” Harry starts, shaking his head as he tries to push Louis down and away from his overly sensitive nipples, “no I don’t—I don’t want to come yet, I—I want you closer.” And there it is, the complete honest truth. Harry wants him so much closer.

“Really, babe?” Louis asks, grinning, “how much closer do you want me?”

God, Harry wants to say I want you everywhere, dammit, don’t you get it? I want you to fuck this horrible ache out of me because it’s not going away with just your presence and he wants Louis’ cock in him and he wants Louis’ mouth around the part that needs it the most, but he can’t—he can’t fucking say it.

“As far,” Harry murmurs, “as far as you can get.” That’s probably—it’s not the smartest thing to say right then, when he’s all open and vulnerable, as much as he’d like to dismiss the thought, but it comes out anyway and Louis looks at him. He really, truly takes in Harry’s face and his curls and the way his eyes fall shut with doubt, and the silence suspends in the air for what seems like forever, till Louis is making his way back up to Harry’s mouth, breathing erratic as if he’s been chasing the moon.

“Harry,” he says, grunting, “I just—I’m going to try something and if you don’t like it, you can, and listen to me now, you can tell me stop and I will, alright? You just have to tell me to and I will, but I want to try and I—I think you’ll like so—,"

“Mhm,” Harry says as if he trusts every word coming out of Louis’ mouth, leaning in to catch his bottom lip, “all right, I—please.” Harry’s sure Louis says something but it gets muffled between their shared breaths before it’s nothing at all.

It’s faster when Louis navigates down, sinking his teeth at the curves of his doughy handles right by his hips. When Louis bites and marks, it feels as if he’s trying to cut the world raw, and if the world was a person, a place, a thing, it would be the outer skin of Harry’s heart. Louis feels like—he feels like the last, best thought before bed and he feels like time moving relentlessly. If Harry could pause, on a moment anywhere that day, that time, it would be right after Louis gets his boxers off, when his hands grip onto Harry’s inner thighs. It would be right then because Louis’ hands are tokens of something—tokens of a promise. They hold Harry so carefully, unlike the loud rush of his mouth, and it’s right when he parts them, smoothing his hands down the velvet skin, that Harry thinks that this is what he wanted. Right from when he was asked, this is what he’s wanted.

“Gorgeous,” Louis mutters, nipping at his thigh even though it already burns beautifully from the traces of his scruff. “You’re so gorgeous, Harry, you’re—," and he doesn’t even finish the sentence and Harry wants to know. He wants to know what he is to Louis, what he looks like to Louis, but more than that, he wants Louis to not stop. Not right then.

“Please,” he says instead and it’s a word stapled to his head, it really is. It feels like the best kind of security.

Louis doesn’t say anything, he just moves. There’s a hand at the tip of Harry’s cock and it feels so good, Harry’s already so close, but it doesn’t stay for long. It moves up the length in a tight fist and it takes everything in Harry not to buck up into the touch, chase after the warmth of the hand in order to work for the end. When the hand lets go, he feels Louis hoist his thighs and he doesn’t get it at first, wondering softly what Louis’ up to, until Louis hooks each leg over his shoulder, resting back on his thighs as his breath hits the curve of Harry’s balls, down to the pink tip of his hole and what is he doing, what the fuck?

He’s about to ask, even though he feels as if he knows, but—but right then Louis’ tongue runs a fat, wet stripe from one end to the other, gracefully running over the bends of his rim and—and Harry lets out a scream he didn’t even know he was holding in.

“Louis,” he whimpers, voice shaking as his hands scramble to hold onto something, anything, deciding to grip onto the fabric around his head. “Louis, fuck,” he says and he’s going to cry. He’s going to cry with how worked up he feels, how hot it is everywhere and how much he wants Louis to fuck him. God, he’s going to crazy, the frantic need already pooling around his stomach.

Louis makes the lowest, most brittle sound against the slow parting of Harry’s cheeks and fuck, Harry can feel the sensitive, soft skin around the area burn by catching onto the sharp trickle of Louis’ stubble and it’s so, so good that he can feel a red hotness ignite behind his eyes, emitting tears to fall down slower than Louis’ tongue and fuck—Louis’ tongue.

It passes over his hole one more time before he pulls away and Harry lets out a cry, desperately thrusting his arse back to chase after the feeling. “Lou—Lou don’t stop, please, I—,"

“Harry,” Louis gasps, “Harry, I just, I need to make sure you’re all right, I—,"

“Yes,” Harry stresses, head falling back as he arches his back as best as possible, “I’m all right Louis, please.

Instead of saying anything, Harry feels his cheeks begin parted before Louis mouth envelopes his hole except this time, the tip of his tongue nudges against the gaping rim and Harry’s body falls lax, pliant and willing to Louis’ every move.

“Oh my God,” he mumbles, “oh fuck.” It’s incoherent and he feels like he’s watching himself drift out of his own body, but he’s not watching anything at all because his fucking eyes are closed but he can feel. He can feel everything and it’s like a million shades clearer, a thousand steps sharper and everywhere, in everything, around everything, he feels Louis and it’s so scary and it’s so good and Harry’s going to come.

“Louis, I can’t—," he stutters, canting his hips closer as Louis’ tongue dives in, deep and warm and wet. “Louis, I’m going to—I can’t hold on, Louis, please,” he isn’t even sure what he’s doing anymore, only that Louis tongue inside him is the best thing in the world and he’s never, ever letting this feeling go.

He clenches, God, he clenches as hard as can, trying to pull Louis in closer, feel the slick swipe of his mouth over every bend of his body and when Louis grumbles against the hole, nose nudging against the skin around his cheeks, Harry giggles.

“Louis, oh fuck,” he cries, caught in the predicament. He can cry out, reach over to get a hand in Louis’ hair or he can fall back even deeper, let the vibrations against his bum soothe out the knot in his stomach.

“Harry,” Louis mumbles, pulling out to breathe, gasping the sound out. “Harry, God, if you could see yourself right now, Harry, you’re—you’re stunning, I—,"

“Stop fucking talking and get your tongue back in me,” Harry blurts, hands curled into fists on the bed, “please,” he adds softly, like an afterthought, an apology.

“So politely demanding,” Louis says before he’s leaning back and it’s incessant, his mouth, the wetness, prodding into Harry’s hollow warmth with no effort, as if it’s the easiest thing to do, while Harry’s falling apart, string by string, strand by strand.

He’s close though and he can tell when Louis gets a particular thrust in, so it’s predictable when he lets out the small, “Louis, I’m—," and comes all over the expanse of his stomach, the softest, loveliest of whimpers coming out in patterned strings, incomprehensible and fleeting.

But—but Louis’ mouth is still lapping over the corners, the tip of his tongue making the move to dive in again and Harry… he’s going to pass out, he can’t.

“Louis,” he cries, but it feels too soft, too quiet, “Louis, I can’t, I’m—," he says even louder right before Louis nibbles softly at the fleshy part of his bum and Harry lets out a strangled, choked cry that sounds painful in the thick air of the room.

It’s—it’s too much but Harry’s asking for it all the same because his cock, his stupid fucking cock, twitches again, perking up at the glorious feeling of all the attention his pert little bum is getting, and Harry doesn’t know—God, he doesn’t know what he wants, but he’s sleepy and he’s still got this anxious feeling pulling at him, so he lets Louis continue.

“Harry,” he says, stopping, leaning down to touch Harry’s cheek, folding his legs in half and yoga—this is all possible thanks to yoga lessons. “Baby, are you all right? Do you want me to stop?”

“Lou,” he mumbles, mewling into the touch. He feels like different shades of warmth and softness, all sleepy and dopey, but ready to get eaten out again. God, he wants to be like this always. “Lou, I dunno. I love your tongue.”

Louis laughs, turning his head to kiss Harry’s right thigh. “All right baby, I’m going to keep going. Is that alright?”

“Yes, I—I think so, I don’t know.”

“If you want me to stop, I will. Just let me know, alright?”

“Mhm.”

“Let me know again, babe,” Louis says, hoisting Harry’s legs back up to a position where his breath fans Harry’s hole so wonderfully, “you want me continue?”

“Yes,” Harry breathes, almost crying, his voice so cracked and soft that it doesn’t sound like him at all, “yes, please, Louis. I—I want—want your tongue, Lou, I—,"

But Louis interrupts him before he can get to the end of his jumbled up words and Louis does it with his mouth. He’s faster now, more sure, as if Harry’s absolute consent was what pushed him to his full potential and now all Harry feels are Louis’ hands and the movements of his mouth and the sticky wetness around and inside his hole. That’s all he cares about right then as he mutters out a string of, “Oh fuck, oh fuck, oh fuck,” trying to push his arse back into Louis’ face.

He’s floaty when he reaches the end, crying out as loud as he can but barely making a sound when his oversensitive cock blurts short stripes of white and Louis’ tongue drives in faster, faster, faster, faster, faster—till it pulls out completely, leaving the bum with a sweet kiss as Harry’s entire body turns to churned milk, delicate and used and so, so tired. He thinks this, right then as his legs shake before they go limp, hanging over Louis’ shoulders like flaccid strings, is the best feeling in the world.

He’s faintly aware of Louis moving away from him, stepping out of his little box of sight, but he’s too drowsy, too languorous between the tissues of his skin, to make a comment. It’s only what feels like a minute later that he feels a cool, moist cloth brushing down his arms, past his stomach in slow, soft circles does he sigh, a sound so quiet that it gets lost behind Louis’ movements.

“Baby?” Louis mutters, leaning down to press a kiss to Harry’s forehead, “are you all right? Tired, sweetheart?”

“Mhm,” Harry hums, an arm reaching out to tug Louis in. “I’m all right. Thank you.”

“Sleepy, babe?”

“Very,” Harry whispers, voice hoarse and low and caramel. “I want you to snuggle with me.”

Louis laughs. “What about breakfast? I can bring us something to eat—,"

“No,” Harry says, tugging at Louis’ fingers softly, “no, I’m not—I just want to sleep. I’m sleepy.”

“No, you don’t say, Haz,” Louis grins, moving nonetheless. They’re like floating clouds, changing, turning, till they’re nothing but collapsed bodies; a stretch of skin. They move until they’re stationary, cradling pieces of themselves to fit around the other, writing down, I’ll be here, you stay there as they breathe far into each other’s heads.

It’s a jumbled up mess that feels wonderful, and Harry’s got his arms wrapped securely around Louis’ waist, making sure to anchor him, steady him, keep him, while he musters up enough in initiative to tuck his face into Louis’ neck.

It’s a warm place, Harry thinks, feels like a dead, steady rhythm, and it’s easy to love. It’s such an incredibly easy place to love because it feels like the remounts of a kept promise, feels like little knobs of home and house. It’s the best place, Harry thinks, knocking his nose against Louis’ throat, raw skin on tender veins, it’s an honest place.

“I’m so sleepy,” Harry says again, losing his voice, losing his word filter as Louis runs a hand down his curls in the most comforting manner. “I’m so, so, sleepy, Lou.”

“Sleep then, sweetheart,” Louis encourages, the turn of his body fitting between Harry’s as Harry swings a leg over his hip, cradling him closer, closer, closer, till he’s got no thought to leave.

“Yeah,” Harry starts, sighing. He’s about to ask something, and it’s important, but it’s all rained and foggy, hard to keep up. “But—but. But I need to know.”

“What do you need to know, Haz?” Louis asks, stifling a yawn as he presses kisses along the panel of Harry’s smooth forehead.

“I need to know,” he starts again, “I need to know who we are. What we are. You told me we’re crazy, but I don’t believe you, I think.” Yeah, that sounds about right. It’s something that’s been bugging him, but in the faintest way. It’s not a thought he contemplates over, isn’t something he’s necessarily worried about, but now that he’s got the chance and Louis feels like constant weight against him, he goes for what he’s after like never before, speaking too slow for it to be unclear.

“Haz,” Louis mutters, but he sounds as if he’s smiling. “Maybe we should talk about this once we wake up? When you aren’t a pliant little kitten clutching onto my shirt as if you want it?” It’s true, Harry realizes, looking down at his palm and how it’s wrapped around the front of Louis’ shirt in the tightest, strangest way.

“No,” Harry says, shaking his head. Louis giggles at the way Harry’s curl tickle the bump of his chin and Harry just hums along with the vibrations running up and down Louis’ throat, jumping along like broken butterfly wings. “No, I want—I think we should talk about this now. When we’re honest.”

“I—," Louis starts, faltering. “Alright. If you—if that’s what you wanna do Harry, then lets talk.” Louis doesn’t sound condescending or upset or even scornful as the back of Harry’s head feared he would be. He sounds like light, sounds as if he’s a wave willing to move any current Harry directs, and in many ways, Harry realizes, it’s just like that. For that brief second between Louis’ two front teeth and Harry’s thin fingers grazing fabric, Harry thinks that everything so far has been him. He got to decide and even right now—he gets to decide. It’s the most powerful, most scary thing.

“Do you want to be my boyfriend?” Harry asks, cutting out ambiguity or fear, speaking lucidly as if he’s not afraid of every single word; as if this isn’t some sort of an important thing happening in any relationship. “Just straight up—do you want to give us a title or—or.” Or what? Harry’s isn’t sure.

“I don’t know, Haz,” Louis says, shrugging. “Do you want me to be your boyfriend? This isn’t—this is yours, Harry.”

Harry waits. He wants to understand what Louis is saying, even though his head isn’t in its most coherent form. He just needs—he needs to get that Louis is willing to do whatever he wants. “Yes, then,” he says softly, too quiet for it to be anything but a wish. “Yes, please. Yes, I’d really like to call you my boyfriend.”

He isn’t sure what Louis is feeling, isn’t sure if he’s smiling or not, but it’s stays quiet for longer than Harry would like it to be and—and maybe he’s fallen asleep. Maybe Harry should just fall asleep.

“Haz,” Louis mumbles against his head, pressing the pads of his thumb into Harry’s back. “Harry, are you asleep?”

“Yes,” Harry sighs, closing his eyes. He thinks he’s too tired to acknowledge the fact that Louis hasn’t said anything about the boyfriend thing yet. Whatever. Maybe he couldn’t hear clearly.

“No, you’re not,” Louis says, tilting Harry’s head with a soft palm. Harry makes a noise of protest, something quiet and calm, but he grumbles out of his little pocket in Louis’ neck. He’s suddenly shot down with the clear sight of Louis Louis Louis, right in front of him and bright, vivid in the way his eyes shine despite the fact that he looks as if he’s about to fall asleep. They’re close enough to share breath, close enough for Harry to blink slowly in adjustment, close enough for it to feel so warm, so familiar, it’s as if they’ve spent a lifetime falling asleep and waking up just like this.

Harry waits for a noise, for Louis to say something, but nothing comes and God, he’s so tired. “Hi,” he says, eyes drooping and he’s enveloped in this comfortable, loose feeling of another world, and it’s so nice, with his skin bare and raw and this familiar body pressing against his, legs still tangled.

“Hi, Harry,” Louis says, smiling, and Harry can barely make him out in the small squint of his eyes. “Don’t fall asleep on me just yet, darling,” Louis adds, raising a hand to run through the roots of Harry’s hair and—no, don’t do that, Harry thinks, purring in response.

“I’m not,” he says, climbing closer so that he can find the skin of Louis’ shirt to grab onto, hands turning into a natural fist, as if it’s his way of keeping Louis there.

“Then open your eyes,” Louis laughs, breath hitting Harry’s top lip.

“No thanks, I’d rather close my eyes. I’m still not sleeping.”

“Fine. Just listen then. Are you listening, Haz?” Harry can feel Louis run his lips down Harry’s nose, then past his eyebrows and it feels so tender and delicate and undisguisedly heavy that Harry can’t even acknowledge it happening.

“I’m listening,” Harry whispers, voice scratchy.

“Okay,” Louis starts, “then you should know that I think you’re kind of really lovely and I kind of want to call you my boyfriend, too, and I’d love to eat you out again. If you were interested.”

Harry blushes, blindly raising a hand to shove at Louis’ shoulder. “Shut up.”

He can hear Louis’ laugh, but it’s not from his mouth—he feels it in the tides running down his chest, feels it when it hits the front of his forehead. “I’m sorry,” Louis says, as if he’s got something to be sorry for.

“She’s the most important thing in my life, Lou,” Harry whispers into the white room, mumbling against skin, pressing his words deeper and deeper and deeper, so Louis will understand, so Louis won’t forget. He doesn’t know why he’s saying it, doesn’t know why he’s saying it now, but it’s not like he can take it back. It’s not like he wants to. “That can’t—that’ll never change. Ellie’s the most important thing to me. She comes before everything, and I—I can’t let that change.”

“Good,” Louis says, his hand on the back of Harry’s head feeling like dead, honest weight. “That’s exactly what she should be, Haz. That’s exactly what I’d thought she’d be.”

It becomes quiet again. The ambience feeling like the sublime example of melting cotton, softened words. It’s a hollow place, yellow and white all over the edges of the walls, and as Harry’s hand knocks against Louis’ collarbone, and Louis’ fingers trail up the exposed skin of Harry’s hip, Harry thinks this is felicity; that this is some kind of a home he’s never visited before, but would like to stay at for a while.

Just before he lets go of the loose strings holding him up, keeping him from the corners of sleep, he says, ever so coy and demure, “Does this mean you’re my boyfriend now?”

“I’d hope so,” Louis mutters, blinking sluggishly at Harry and even with the intense layers of pastels and morning cream, Harry can see the blue. He can always see the blue. “I want to be. I want you to be.”

“Okay,” Harry whispers one last time, leaning in to kiss the delicate throb of Louis’ throat, “that’s settled then.”

-

Monday, ballet school.

“She’s six, yes?” the salesperson asks, holding a measurement tape across Ellie’s chest. Ellie looks up at Harry with round eyes, glittering and gold because she’s getting her second leotard.

“Yup,” Ellie answers for him. He watches her jump around in her seat, too much exhilaration bottled up between the gaps of her fingers, “I’m six. This is my second leotard ever.”

“Brilliant,” the saleslady says, grinning. They’ve got lovely blond hair splashed to the side and they’re wearing the black and white uniform that went along with the uniform of the ballet school. “I think this’ll fit you fine. Would you like to go try it on?”

“Mhm,” Ellie hums, bouncing off the stool to head over to the changing rooms.

“El, if you need any help—"

“It’s okay, pa,” she says hurriedly from the other end, “I’ve got this.”

“Right. All right.” Harry turns to the person standing next to him. “Hi.”

“Hello,” they say, turning towards the shelf. “She’s very, very excited about getting a new leotard.”

“Yeah,” Harry says, dragging the word out. “She’s very, um, passionate about… ballet garments.”

The salesperson laughs and Harry can read the name on the name tag - Bea.

“Is she your daughter?” Bea asks, picking up a cardboard box from the ground, heaving it onto the cashier counter.

“Yup,” Harry quirks, grinning. “She’s my daughter, yeah.”

“Pa?” Ellie calls from the other end. “I think it fits. We should get it.”

“Do you wanna come out and let me see?”

“Mkay,” Ellie mutters and then she’s opening the changing room door. Just as she steps out, Harry squeals, rushing over to watch her take a step forward in glee, grin stretched over her face as if she knows that it fits her better than anyone else.

And it does. It’s lovely and pale on her and she’s absolutely beautiful. “Oh, darling,” Harry coos, tucking a stray strand of hair behind her ear, brushing the pads of his fingers against her cool cheek.

“D’you like it?” Ellie asks, twirling.

“I love it,” he says, “you’re going to look absolutely brilliant during your recital, El. I’m so excited for you.”

“Thank you,” Ellie says, opening her arms as if asking for a hug. Harry complies wordlessly.

“All right,” Bea says from the counter. “Do you want me to take a look and then pack it up for you guys?

“That sounds good,” Harry says, “what do you think, El?”

“All right,” she nods, tittering over in short skips. “Is Uncle Ni coming over tonight?

“Yeah, I—,” he stops midway. “Oh, shoot. Um. I’m gonna make a very quick call outside while Bea looks over your leotard, okay?”

“Sure, Pa,” she mutters without looking back and Harry has Louis’ number pressed into the keypad already.

It rings once, twice, and then he can hear him. “Hullo, Haz.”

“Lou, hi—,” he starts.

“Listen, so I actually thought I should bring Zayn along with me tonight ‘coz he’s been asking me for Liam’s number, but the thing is—I don’t have Liam’s number! So I figured they could meet tonight ‘coz I thought Liam—,” he sounds like he’s going to continue, but Harry doesn’t have time for this right now.

“Yes. Perfect. Brilliant. Bring Zayn along, that’s fine, just—could you pick some cream for the carbonara? I would do it myself, but I’m with Ellie buying her leotard for the recital next week—"

“Yeah, no problem babe, I’ve got you covered.”

“Full cream, please.”

“Let me get cheese and bacon while I’m at it, yeah?” Louis sounds amused. Harry rolls his eyes.

“I’ve got bacon and cheese stored up, thank you.” Louis laughs.

“Any particular brand then, darling?” he coos and Harry tucks his head, cheeks tinting pink and coral, so very enamored by the gentle pet name.

“No,” he says coyly, “any is fine. Thank you.”

“Don’t worry about it, Haz. I’ll see you soon.”

“Yeah, I—wait! Could you get a carton of orange juice, too?”

“The Tropicana ones?” Louis asks.

“No,” Harry murmurs, “MinuteMaid’s better, I think. Get MinuteMaid.”

“All right. Anything else?”

“And yourself, please. I need you at least half an hour early with the cream.”

That’s definitely not a problem. I’ll come right now, if you’d like.”

Please,” Harry grins, thumbing around his shirt. “You’ve got work. I’ll see you soon, Lou, thank you.”

And he thinks it’s so simple, how easily he can call him, and he thinks it’s becoming so simple. It’s so simply easy that he can feel himself get lost in it.

-

Zayn and Liam become ZaynandLiam faster than anyone would’ve expected.

It’s just—Harry watches them from his position in the back of the kitchen, sliding fingers off each other’s hairs to run palms down each other’s face and they’re closer than the sun to its orbit, closer than the slick mouth of a chasm to its bottom pit. They’re like two ends of the same rope: Zayn is the calm, Liam is the movement. Zayn bites his lip and blushes in his spot on Liam’s lap and Liam grins in cheek and blushes as well, shifting to breathe into their shared space; shared atmosphere. They’re so completely woven together that it doesn’t make sense. Though—Harry can’t really say anything, considering how fast he jumped onto the whole idea of Louis.

“Are they dating?” Harry mutters when Louis steps into the kitchen, mindlessly drying the dishes. He can’t see Louis frowning at him because he’s sort of still looking at Zayn and Liam. Or ZaynandLiam. Or whatever.

“Those two?” Louis asks, thrusting his thumb in their general direction. “Yeah, I pretty sure they’re doing something. Sleeping with each other, probably. Don’t really think they want to call it anything more than that at the moment.”

“I asked Liam what happened the night we went to the nightclub,” Harry says softly, turning his head to speak to Louis as if they’re sharing secrets through their eyes. “And he just rolled his eyes and asked me the same thing.” Harry’s eyes are wide, astonished as he speaks. “Should I be worried?”

“And why, my lovely Harry, should you be worried?” Louis asks, grinning to himself.

“Because Liam’s my babe and I worry about him. Also—his ex girlfriend got married very recently. I’m pretty worried about Zayn, too.”

Louis frowns, poking at Harry’s hair. “Hey,” he grumbles, eyes narrowing. “I thought I was your babe.

Louis,” Harry groans, shoving him away.

“What?” Louis asks, eyes still narrowed as he chases after Harry’s languid, lanky figure, a hand coming up to rest at his love handles. “I’m hurt.

“Did you ask Zayn anything?” Harry asks instead, moving along with the shape of Louis’ chest, the front of his placid white shirt.

“Yes,” Louis sighs. “I did. But, I really think we should focus on the fact that I didn’t forget to bring you your juice and cream. I didn’t even get a kiss for it, which is frankly, very rude. Considering that I am a failed grocery shopper, who—"

“Pa?”

Harry’s eyes go wide as he pushes Louis away with a hand, sliding past the sink to look at his daughter, who is very grimly standing by the door, hands on hips, white cream staining the corner of her mouth. “Hi there, El. Are you finished with dinner?”

“Where you kissing Louis, dad?”

What?” Harry blurts, sounding almost appalled. “Elliot! I would never—"

“Hey,” Louis whines from behind him.

“Pa, I’m pretty sure I just saw you kiss Louis and I honestly want you to honestly tell me, honestly, if you were kissing Louis.” She sounds very snappish for a six year old girl, clad in her pajamas with spaghetti sauce smeared on her face.

“I was just talking—we were just talking, babe. I wasn’t kissing anyone.”

“What a shame,” Louis sighs, walking past Harry to grin down at Elliot. “But anyway, did you like dinner, El? I helped your dad make the spaghetti.”

“I thought Pear helped Pa make the spaghetti,” Ellie mumbles, stretching her arms as if she wants Louis to carry her. That also—that’s also a thing, apparently. Louis carrying Ellie everywhere, laughing as she plays with the little, scratchy hairs around his chin. He’s stopped shaving for her, too. Which is a win for everybody but Harry because he’s got red hot scruff marks littering the sensitive skin of his thighs.

Louis shakes his head. “No darling. Pear only ate the spaghetti and dropped juice all over the floor. Pear is very bad at cooking.”

“I am not!” she calls from the living room, sitting with Niall between her legs as she dyes the roots of his hair a yellow shine. “Don’t listen to Louis, Ellie, darling. He’s a mental weirdo. And he was kissing your dad! I could see them!”

“I knew it!” Ellie yells, turning in Louis’ arm to face him with harsh, squinting eyes. “Why were you kissing my dad?”

“Right,” Harry quirks, suddenly very uneasy with where the conversation is headed. “Please don’t listen to any of these people, El. No one kissed anyone, we’re all just having a nice, quiet dinner, and you need to clean up.”

“That’s not true, Pa,” she mumbles, tugging at Louis’ shirt, pointing at the direction of the sink. “I’m pretty sure Liam was kissing Zayn just now. Not that it’s a problem,” she leans in close and whispers, “Zayn is very handsome. I’d like to kiss him, too.”

“Okay,” Harry starts, turning to Louis, “you two—please clean up. I’ll be right back.”

He stomps out to the living room and glares at the blur of people sitting around the small area. “Why are you all corrupting my child?” he hisses, glaring at Liam.

“We are doing no such thing—," Perrie starts, grinning.

“Pez, when the fuck did you see Louis kiss me?”

She grins, childlike and beautiful, “I didn’t.”

Harry open and closes his mouth. “Uh,” Niall starts, looking around warily, “I’m pretty sure someone’s about to get hurt. Maybe Babs and I should leave—"

“It’s not my fault you aren’t telling your child about your secret millionaire boyfriend. The only reason she’s surprised to catch you two getting all snuggly is because she isn’t aware that you’re dating.”

“I—we were not getting snuggly.”

“All right. This is useless. Thanks for dinner, Haz, it was great to meet you Zayn,” Barbara starts, getting up.

“Likewise, Babs!” Zayn calls, though he hasn’t paid much attention to anything. To be fair, neither has Liam.

“We should get going,” Niall finishes for his girlfriend, standing up with his hair sticky and soft.

“Us too!” Liam says suddenly, getting up. Harry pointedly shoots him a look that says, this is not over! I will find out about you and the greek God you’ve been coddling!

“I can stay, if you’d like—," Perrie starts, grinning up at Harry cheekily.

“Out,” he says grim, but it’s an act—it’s all an act when he cracks a smile, helping her to her feet.

“Yeah, I knew it,” she says, “you just want to spend time with your child and hubby. I get it, I get it, got no time for friends.”

“Perrie, please shut up,” Harry mumbles, walking to the door. Right then, Elliot comes running out the kitchen, up to her father’s feet, grinning at everyone because this is her family.

“Bye!” she quirks, standing by the door with her hands tucked behind her, a stance that mirrors her father.

“Bye, sweetheart,” Barbara smiles, pressing a kiss to her cheek as Niall pecks the other.

“I’ll see you in your recital, yeah, El?” Niall adds.

“All right. Thank you,” but before she can finish, Liam’s bending down to hold her head between his large palms, grinning at her as if she’s part of the sun.

“I’ll be there too, Elliot. Wouldn’t miss it for the world.” He leaves with a kiss to her forehead.

“Well, El,” Perrie starts right before she goes, “I guess this is goodbye, then.”

“I’ll miss you for the next two days, Pear,” Ellie nods in empathy. “Can I get a hug before you go?”

“You can get whatever you want, my love,” Perrie says, hugging both El and her father.

It’s Zayn left, caught behind because he had to go back to get his coat, and he stands there with his hands shuffling, looking all warm and soft and misplaced in the oddest way. It’s almost as if—as if he isn’t misplaced. It’s as if he’s just been fit. “I’m—thank you for having me. Um.”

He looks like he’s about to say more, but Elliot leaning over, wrapping her arms around his middle. “Thank you for coming. It was really nice to meet you.”

Zayn blinks once, twice, then smiles down at her. “Yeah, I—It was so nice to meet you, Elliot. You’re—thank you.”

Elliot shakes her head. “Do you prefer Elliot or El? Or Ellie?”

“I dunno, love,” Zayn says, frowning. “What about you?”

“I asked you first, Zee.”

Zayn looks taken aback. “I, um, I like Ellie, I think.”

“Great! So do I. You should call me that next time, I think.”

“Right. Okay. I’ll—thank you.”

When he goes to hug Harry, he mutters into his ear, “She’s absolutely lovely, mate.”

Harry smiles, “I know.”

“Like father, like daughter, right?”

“Flattery will get you nowhere, Malik,” Harry bites with no teeth, grinning at him with red cheeks. He’s always so proud of his daughter, he really is, and it’s not because—it wouldn’t be because she’s brilliant at school or because she can do the best pirouettes in her class, but because her heart thumps louder than the measured strokes of lightning and she understands people as if it’s part of her intuition. She’s incredible.

“You remembered,” Zayn says.

“I did,” Harry nods. “Now go home. It’s getting late. Drive safe, yeah?”

“Yeah, all right. Thank you for having me.”

Once the door closes, it’s just Harry and Elliot. Once he hears more clatter in the kitchen, he remembers that there’s Louis here, too.

“Lou,” Harry whines as Elliot giggles, leading the way to the kitchen. “What’re you doing?”

“Nothing,” Louis gasps, fingers wrapped around the stack of the plates. “Nothing, I’m, um, cleaning.”

“Put those away, Lou, it’s getting late. You should look for your jacket because I’m pretty sure Pez hid it somewhere.”

“If it’s really getting late,” Elliot starts, heaving herself onto one of the chairs beside the table, “why doesn’t Louis stay the night.”

There’s a wash of silence, an immobile second where everything goes white and honest. Louis turns to look at Harry with round eyes and Harry stares back, unsure.

“Um,” he starts, reaching over to mat down Ellie’s wild hair. “Lou’s got work tomorrow, babe. He just—he needs to get back home.”

“But Pa, this is our home, right?” she asks, pouring herself a glass of water and she speaks as if it’s so easy. Harry nods.

“Then for tonight, it could be Louis’ home, too.” And the thing is—the thing is, it’s true. Strip down all the precautions and dithering actions, and this is what you’ll find: the words of a six year old spoken in the dead of night, ringing by the falling water droplets and sinking plates.

“If—if Louis’d like to stay,” he stops, turning to face Louis, “he’s welcome to.”

-

When Harry wakes up, he’s alone.

Taking timid steps, he finds both Louis and his daughter sprawled on her bed. She’s resting her head on Louis’ chest and they’re breathing in time, together, with each other and Harry’s lungs start to run away from his body; it’s suddenly a very warm, very fragile morning and Harry can’t understand why the skies of his world are falling, but they’re falling in place and later, once he’s got breakfast set, Ellie comes in with a skip to her step and Louis looks shy, a hand scratching down the back of his neck.

“I woke up in the middle of the night and couldn’t go back to sleep,” Ellie starts, “so I went to get water, but it turned out so did Louis, so we started talking and he told me a story, and then another, and then a few more, so we fell asleep on my bed, where he was sleeping before.”

The strangest part though, is that Harry doesn’t mind at all. In fact, the thought makes his heart stutter.

-

“Pa, is Louis your boyfriend?” Elliot asks this without looking up, her small head ducked down to fit the space of her notebook. They’re on a bus headed towards Elliot’s ballet school and the road is rickety and harsh. Harry isn’t sure how Ellie’s managing to draw through the bumps.

“Um,” he starts, taken aback by the questions. “Yeah. He—he is, I think. And I’m his. Boyfriend.”

He doesn’t know what to expect because he wasn’t expecting this. But Elliot doesn’t look up. She continues running pencil lines down her drawing pad.

“How do you feel about that, El?” Harry asks once he realizes he isn’t going to get a reaction.

“How do I feel about what, Pa?” she asks, looking up at him, ruffled and soft. She’s wearing her leotard under a skirt and her hair is tied up in a long ponytail.

“How do you feel about me and Louis, um, being boyfriends?” he manages to meet her eye as he speaks, carding his fingers through hers as if it needs the soothing, the calm gesture.

“I dunno,” she says, frowning. “Does it mean I can get a boyfriend?

“Um,” Harry starts, “I don’t know, babe. Do you want a boyfriend?”

“Maybe,” she says, shrugging, turning back to her drawing. “Or a girlfriend. I don’t know.”

“Okay.”

“But I like Louis,” she adds, “and I think he likes you. I also like how much you smile around him. Your happy smile, not the one you do when you go to parent-teacher conferences. The one where you’re actually happy. So I feel happy about you and Louis being boyfriends.”

Harry can’t help his smile as it reaches his ends of his dimples. “Like that,” Ellie adds, looking up, poking his cheek. “He makes you smile like that.”

“You make me smile like that, poppet,” he says, taking her hand into his, kissing the fingers. “Thank you,” he whispers, “for liking Louis. I really like him, too.”

“Good,” she says, grinning, swinging her legs back and forth. “He lets me draw while eating dinner. I like him a lot.”

Harry grins, mustering up a frown just to go with it. “You know we’re not allowed to draw during dinner, babe.”

“Yeah, but he doesn’t.” The giggle that passes her mouth is all cheek and glory.

“I’ll have to tell him, then,” Harry mutters, sighing.

“Please don’t. He thinks I’m starting to like him best, and he sneaks in ice cream before bed.”

Harry gasps. “That’s definitely not allowed. I’m not letting him put you to bed anymore.”

“No!” Ellie grins.

“You said he thinks you like him best,” Harry starts, pulling Ellie to his side, “do you, darling?”

“I like you best, pa,” she says instantly. “No, I love you best, pa.”

“I know, poppet,” he mumbles, smothering a kiss down on her forehead, “I love you best, too.”

“But Louis is a close second,” Ellie adds, “after gran and grandad. And Niall.”

“So he’s like, fifth most loved?”

“No,” she frowns, “that’s too far, I think. I like him just as much as I like Niall.”

“Uncle Ni isn’t going to like the sound of that, El,” Harry warns. It’s a weird thought, how fast people accommodate to Louis. How fast they make corners in their lives to fit him in. Or maybe that’s just the way with Harry, maybe that’s just what Harry’s decided to do.

“But Louis’ll like it, right? At least someone will be happy. Uncle Ni knows he’s my favourite though, it’s okay.”

And everything revolves around her. She is a star and everything else is a burning comment. She gets to decide and Harry will always agree, will always alter. So when she says she wants Louis in her life, Harry knows that this is his daughter because he does, too.

-

“Hey, Haz?” Louis calls from the shelf across, “do we need tomato sauce?” Harry frowns, stopping the cart by the bread and cereal.

“I don’t think so—,” he starts, looking through his planned list.

“We do!” he hears Ellie say from the other side, hopefully standing by Louis, “we need lots and lots of tomato sauce!”

“El—," Harry whines, walking over to where they are.

“Why don’t we get tomato sauce?” Louis asks.

“Because we don’t need tomato sauce,” Harry states, voice final. He pushes the cart forward, towards the noodles.

“Pa,” Ellie groans from behind him, trudging along.

“We could get Walkers…” Louis says, grinning.

“No!” Harry says the same time Elliot cries, “Yes!”

“Tell me again why both of you came shopping with me?” Harry mutters, rubbing his forehead.

“No work,” Louis quirks, slinging an arm over Harry’s shoulder.

“No school,” Ellie adds.

“Right.” Try as he must, he can’t fight off the grin tugging at his mouth. It’s not like he minds them coming. Like, at all. “But no chips or sweets or ice cream. We’re here for the essentials.”

“That’s not fun,” Ellie comments, as if she’s balancing out a bias.

“Veggies are very fun, El,” Harry offers, pointing at the baby carrots he’s picked up.

“I beg to differ,” Louis interrupts.

“What does that mean?” Ellie asks, stretching her arms for Louis, asking to be held.

“It means that I disagree with your pa, darling,” Louis says, “veggies aren’t fun at all.”

“Neither is yoga, but dad seems to do that too.”

“Yeah, your pa is kind of weird.” Louis pointedly ignores the way Harry glares at him and Elliot pointedly pretends she can’t see her dad glaring at Louis and Harry, pointedly, continues to glare.

“But we love him all the same, yeah?” Ellie adds, a little more quiet. Harry blinks at her words.

“Uh,” Louis stutters, turning to face her father. They haven’t talked about anything more than liking each other; enjoying the others presence, loving the form of light they bring to each other lives, each others days. It’s not as if they can talk about every single thing they feel, it’s not like Harry can even afford to spend more than the first few seconds of morning wondering what he’s doing and where he’s going to see Louis in a month or two. “Of course, El,” Louis finishes anyway. The way he says, the faint turn of tone, lets Harry know it doesn’t have to mean anything more than the smile of a six year old girl with silver coated membranes.

“Listen, if you guys are going to keep bothering me while I do my shopping, I’m going to seriously reconsider making mac and cheese for dinner tonight, so—,"

“I know!” Louis blurts, nodding his face towards Elliot. “Why don’t we go for some fried chicken while your pa finishes his shopping?”

Elliot’s eyes turn round in resonance. “Yes.”

“Uh,” Harry starts, looking at both of them, “I’m not sure—,"

“Please, pa,” Ellie whines, pouting.

“Yeah, c’mon, Haz,” Louis pules without really pushing him. It’s still up to him, Harry realizes, he won’t do a single thing without his full consent.

I can trust him, Harry realizes.

“All right,” he sighs, turning to the shelf of instant noodles. “But you guys have to come back for me, okay? I can’t carry this all home.”

“Maybe we should buy less veggies then,” Ellie suggests, cheeky.

“Maybe you should give me a hug ‘coz I’m letting you go buy chicken chips,” Harry retaliates.

“Maybe you should both give me a peck on the cheek cause I’m the personal chauffeur,” Louis quirks, smiling from behind Elliot’s hair.

“Maybe you should both get going. Raza closes early on Mondays.”

“This is amazing, Lou. We usually never get chicken chips on Mondays,” Ellie mutters to Louis, knuckles going white with how hard she’s holding onto Louis’ collar for support.

“Yeah, well,” Louis starts, sneaking in a nod towards Harry, “that was before I came along, right?”

That was before you decided to stay, Harry adds to himself, adds to the back of his head, filed up and kept in a drawer to remember every time he has to ponder over what to dream. That was before I realized I didn’t want you to go.

-

The day before Elliot’s recital, Anne calls with fury beneath her voice.

“Darling, I need you to listen to me. I don’t think I’ll make it in time for El’s performance tomorrow.” Harry’s not listening to words, he’s hearing sounds. A cardinal red seeps into the sockets behind his eyes and he can’t breathe through his cells; his skin is dry like moulded, bitter bark and his vision goes blue blank before it comes back to a haze, “Mum.”

“Harry, darling, I can’t get my hands on any tickets for today, maybe two for tomorrow, but it’s very, very unlikely I’ll make it in time...” her voice filters off into a voyage, and he can’t comprehend her words, can only catch stifles of her meanings; the intention behind her call: I can’t make it, my love, I’m so sorry, I really wanted to be there but I just can’t––

“Harry? Baby, are you listening?”

He represses the small sound of displeasure behind his flat palm, pressing the skin to his lips, subduing the gleam inflamed on the corners of his cheek. “Yeah. Yeah, mum, I’m listening.” He sounds short and small and frivolous. As if he’s dampened on responsibilities, the things he had to do, and now he’s been displaced, shrunk down to something petty and insignificant.

“Are you okay, Haz?”

“What am I gonna tell El, mum? She was––she’s going to be heartbroken, what do I say to her?” It’s panic that rises up his throat now, the utmost fear that this will affect Elliot in a greater manner than it hurts him.

“Harry,” she says from the wires of the other end, calm and undisturbed. It’s exactly what he needs and she knows. “Harry, you’ll tell her gran’s trying her best, but there’s a chance she might not make it tomorrow, and you’re going to tell her the truth, all right? I’m trying my best baby, but I need you to know that I might not make it. Not for her performance.”

“But she’ll be so sad,” Harry whispers, his voice slow and pathetic, sounding akin to the hiss of a cooker, a whine of some sort.

“Yeah, she could be darling,” Anne starts, “but you know what? You’ll be there, and all her favourite uncles and aunts will be there and she’ll be doing what she loves to do. She’ll have the person who matters most to her, Haz, and that’s you. So you don’t worry about her, because I know my Ellie and she’s the strongest person alive. I just need to make sure you’re all right, darling. I’ll be there later for sure, maybe even by evening, but I’ll make it eventually.”

And maybe Anne is just as hurt. Maybe she’ll have wet patches on her comforter when she thinks of missing her granddaughter’s first performance. She might even blame herself. Harry realizes he hasn’t even considered the possibility, he’s so wrapped up over him and his daughter and their abundance of life. “Mum, what about you? Are you and Robin all right?”

She laughs, short and dismissive. “We’re fine, sweetheart. Disappointed, yeah, but we’ll get over it. Should’ve booked a ticket on the internet or whatnot. On Robin’s phone, even.”

Harry laughs back, except he sounds a lot more wet and sorry. “I’m sorry, mum.”

“Got nothing to be sorry for, my love,” she says, “just make sure you record El’s performance on a high definition camera. I wanna watch first thing when I get there.”

“Of course.” He’s still got these stray drops of tears clogging up the patches by his eyes, but he manages to see through them, manages to mute out their volume when he hears the click of the front door opening, and laughter filling up the empty house before the people even enter. “I’ll—I’ll have it ready for when you come mum,” he looks up from where he’s sat on the dinner table, watching as Louis drops the spare keys on the glass bowl by the counter, and treads behind Elliot as she bounces into the house. “I’ll miss you mum. I miss you mum.”

He can hear her smile, almost. “Me too, darling. Miss you both so much. I’ll see you soon, all right?”

“All right. I love you.”

“Love you too, Haz,” she says before she hangs up, the phone pressed to Harry’s ear even after the presence from the other end is gone.

This, however, makes Harry unaware of when his daughter enters the kitchen and stares at him with blinking, owlish eyes. “Pa, why have you been crying?” she asks, loud enough for Harry to trip out of his trance and loud enough for Louis to stumble over the coffee table, cursing as he hops to the kitchen.

“El—Elliot you’re home, babe!” Harry starts, blinking back his eyes to clear out the red as he stands up and reaches for her. “How are Phoebe and Daisy?”

“Pa,” she starts, her hands gripping onto his sweater sleeves, “why are you crying? What’s wrong?”

Right then, Louis comes to the kitchen door and stares at both Harry and Elliot mutely. Harry chooses to ignore him, opting to wrap his arms around his daughter.

“I haven’t—," he’s about to lie, he knows, and so does Elliot, so it’s really no point. It really is no point when they’re synced; drawn to complete one another because that’s all they have: each other. “Nothing’s wrong, El.”

“But you’ve been crying,” she says, frowning, and now she sounds as if she’s going to begin crying, her eyes glowing, her nose blushing red, her voice wobbly and wet. “You’ve been crying, pa, you need to tell me what’s wrong.

“Ellie,” Louis starts when Harry blinks at his daughter, overwhelmed with the amount he has to say. Louis sounds calm as he walks towards both of them hesitantly. “Ellie, do you want to head to your room for a second? So I can talk to your dad about something?”

“No, Lou,” Elliot says, loud. “Pa’s been crying, Louis, I need to be here.” She makes a point by holding onto Harry’s sleeves until her knuckles go white, staring up at her father with determined, wet eyes.

“El,” Harry starts, bending down, prying her hands off his sweater because it looks like it hurts as her hands start to shake. “Elliot, darling, can I quickly talk to Louis for a second? I promise I’ll tell you everything.”

She looks between her pa and stranger who isn’t a stranger at all, and purses her lips, as if contemplating the thought of leaving them. “Pa, I don’t know. I’m supposed to be here when you’re sad.”

“I’m not sad, darling, not anymore. I promise I’ll tell you everything, okay? I’ll tell you why my eyes are red and I’ll tell you why I’ve been crying.”

“Okay,” she says slowly, sliding her hands over her eyes. “Is Lou gonna stay or should I say goodbye?”

Harry answers before Louis can, “Yes, darling. I think you should.” He can’t see Louis’ response.

“Bye Lou,” Elliot says softly, “thank you for taking me to see Pheebs and Dais. I’ll miss you.”

“You don’t have to miss me, El,” he says, leaning down to pick her up. “I’ll see you tomorrow at your big performance, yeah?” Harry swallows at the recital being mentioned.

“You’re gonna be there, Lou?” she asks.

“Of course, darling. Wouldn’t miss it for the world.”

“Brilliant. Thank you. Do you think you could drop me off at my room?”

“I sure can. Hold on tight, Ellie!” And then he’s skipping them both to her room, leaving Harry behind with the minute flecks of dust and words.

When he comes back, he’s significantly quieter, walking over to the dining table where Harry sits with his fingers folded over the other. Harry, decidedly, waits until he’s sat down, looking up to him only once.

“Haz,” Louis begins, tone hushed and tender, “are you all right?”

“Yes,” Harry breathes, managing the lie between his metal teeth before he turns to face the man with the golden suit and golden armor, tearing apart skies to make it rain on Harry’s desert, and he can’t whisper out fabricated stories, he can’t do anything but look into tract bodies of blue and mumble, “no.”

And it’s the way he says it, hollow and weightless, as if he’s the same. His voice crumples, his face crumples, like empty, used tissues and he’s crying. “Lou, I’m not. I’m not, Louis, I’m not alright.”

“Fuck, Harry,” he mutters, initial shock waving over him, pulling him down till he manages to get an arm around Harry’s shoulder, pulling him in until he’s tucked into Louis’ neck, gripping onto the back of his cotton shirt.

“What’s wrong, darling?” Louis asks softly, rocking forward, grabbing on to any matter of Harry’s body, trying to stop him from slipping through loose cracks.

Harry doesn’t say anything, he doesn’t make a sound, but he has large gallops of salty streaks running down his face and that’s enough. The dampness that starts to build on Louis’ collar is enough.

“Baby,” he whispers, pressing his lips to the shaking boy’s head, running a hand down his curls, “Harry, hey, Haz, would you like some water? Can I get you some water?”

Instead of speaking, he shakes his head no. He doesn’t want anything but his mum, and for his daughter to be happy, and for Louis to do nothing but hold on. Hold onto him.

“Harry,” Louis keeps saying, over and over, a repetitive kind of truth. He doesn’t ask anymore questions, knows Harry hasn’t got the capacity to answer them, only tightens his arms like he’s remembering a promise, and keeping it for the sake of honesty. He’s got such a tight hold around Harry’s body and around Harry’s heart, that even if he were to uncoil his hands, he’d leave an imprint large enough to stain it for days.

The kitchen is a quiet place; their apartment on top of the bakery is a silent outlet of answers. It’s got a broken mirror, but only one of it, and it’s got a tired fridge that’s never full, and it’s got two people so closely bounded, that you couldn’t tell where one finger started and another body ended. The kitchen is a beautiful, disastrous place.

“Fuck,” Louis rasps, circling his fingers around Harry’s head, kissing any patch of raw skin, grasping onto the remains of a silent, shaking boy. A boy—still a kid, even. So young and so worn down.

“Louis,” Harry says but he sounds quiet. There’s a shakiness in his voice that he can’t erase, but there’s also a star dissipating in his eyes, a flame put out of its glory. “Louis, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, Louis, I didn’t mean to—,"

Louis kisses him right then. He kisses him so soft that it does nothing but shut him up. His kiss is so carefully driven, so full of lenity, that Harry doesn’t—can’t—do anything but press his eyes together, letting his wet lashes stick to another.

He’s still draped in the cool darkness, eyes shut and mouth wet, when Louis pulls away, one hand caressing the flat skin of Harry’s cheek, the other pushing insistently at his lower back, at the accentuated curve of his spine.

There’s nothing but whispers of the air. Harry feels nothing but the slow breathing of the man sitting next to him and the steady effort of his heart: slowing down till he can breathe through his head.

“Harry,” Louis finally mutters, mute and gentle, “I need to know what happened. Will you tell me?”

There’s nothing more he’d like to do. He shakes his head yes.

He thinks Louis will say something more, initiate what exactly he wants, but Louis doesn’t say anything, and Harry hasn’t got his eyes opened, but he can feel Louis’ stare directly on him.

It’s then he realizes, this is all up to me. This is mine.

“Elliot’s recital tomorrow—," he starts, carding through each word carefully, “my mum… she was supposed to come, but. But she can’t. She can’t come for El’s recital tomorrow.” When he says it out loud, it feels almost childish, except he knows it’s not and he know’s Louis know’s it’s not.

“I’m sorry,” Louis says, kissing across Harry’s brows, and—and it’s the nicest thing. It’s the nicest feeling, even in the midst of a rainstorm. “Tomorrow’s a big day for both El and you, I know that. I’m so sorry, darling.”

“It’s just… it’s not fair, Lou,” Harry mumbles, feeling a warmth creeping back into his eyes, “El was so excited and—and now her grandparents won’t make it and she’ll be devastated, Lou, it’s just not fair. Elliot doesn’t deserve that. She never deserves that.”

“I know,” Louis whispers, holding on even tighter, “I know, Harry. She doesn’t. You don’t. I know that.”

“I can’t be angry at my mum, Louis,” Harry continues, leaning forward, catching himself against the sharp jut of Louis’ shoulder bone. “It isn’t even her fault. She’d want to be here and—and she can’t. It’s so—so fucked up. She should’ve been here.”

“Why can’t she make it, Haz?” Louis finally asks, rubbing a hand up and down Harry’s back.

“Can’t get train tickets,” Harry mutters, almost laughing at the simplicity of it. Almost laughing at how the littlest things mean so much to him.

“That’s shit,” Louis blurts, and then, “but—would you mind if I asked where they’re at right now?”

Harry halfway through a breathing exercise he learnt back when he had frequent asthma attacks, but the question goes past him easily. “They’re back home. Holmes Chapel, Cheshire.”

Louis chooses to stay quiet, letting Harry rest his eyes. They’re both off now, set into their own worlds where the only exit is the skin of each other. They’re thinking through filtered heads, Harry about his Elliot, Louis about his Harry. A common trend between their thoughts though is that they think of the people they adore.

“I can drive up to Cheshire,” Louis whispers like an afterthought, “it’s only four hours. I could leave right now.” Harry’s in the midst of a lengthy thought, caught in the depth of their silence to completely comprehend what Louis is saying. He breathes in, lets the distinctive scent of Louis’ shirt wash down his lungs, and then he listens. He listens to the remains of Louis’ words and—

And fuck.

He startles, head snapping up to look up at Louis, eyes red and wide and searching. “Louis,” he rasps, shaking his head, so close to crawling up to his thighs, finding a seat between the part of his trousers.

“I could, Harry,” Louis continues, pushing Harry back to his seat and slides to the floor, weaving his way past Harry’s thighs, to Harry’s face. He holds it in both hands, as if it’s porcelain and breaking, and he looks at Harry with intent; with purpose. “If I leave right now, I can make it back at ten, eleven the latest. I could get her here to you.”

“Louis,” Harry says again, voice cracking, “shut up. Shut up, Louis, you aren’t going anywhere.”

“Harry—," Louis starts, holding harder when Harry tries to pry his hands away.

No. You stay right here, all right?”

“Harry,” Louis mumbles, coming in close so that they don’t need to see, they just need to understand, “I can do this for you. I want to do this for you, darling. You want her here, and so does Ellliot, so let me go get her for you. Let me do this for you.”

“You can’t,” Harry says softly. He’s pretty sure he’s crying, but it’s a wet, gentle kind of crying. It’s like the tears before the parting of a family after Christmas, or like the tears after a bittersweet ending, a bittersweet loss. It’s confused almost, blinking eyes that Harry fosters regardlessly. “You can’t leave.”

“Why not, Harry?” Louis finally asks, voice just as quiet, looking up with vast blues, vast questions. “Why not?”

“Because it’s—it’s crazy,” Harry whispers, “it’s absolutely insane. You’re—you can’t want to drive four fucking hours, you…you can’t want to do that. Why would you want to do that? Why would you do it for me?”

Louis smiles, but it’s tired. It’s heard this before. “Because you want her here and Elliot wants he here, and you matter to me. What you want matters to me and I want to do whatever I can for you because you’re worth it.”

“Stop it,” Harry says back, but he stays stationary, clinging onto the rays that draw him to the man in the grey and golden suit in the first place. “Stop saying all the right things. It’s bullshit, you aren’t going anywhere.”

“But I would,” Louis adds right after, “I would if you’d let me.”

But that’s not what Harry needs from him. He doesn’t care for Louis’ cars or Louis’ ability or the tiny dent by the tip of Louis’ smile where he hides all his charm. He cares about his presence, his consistency, him. Harry cares about Louis being right there, right there for him, and staying. Harry cares about Louis staying, and everything else can sort itself out.

“But you aren’t,” Harry finishes, “you stay here. With Ellie and me. You stay with us.”

“All right,” Louis says, cupping a hand under Harry’s chin to press a final kiss to his forehead, “I’m staying.”

And he does. Harry nods, kisses him on the mouth once, and then again, before he directs them both back to bed. It’s nearly noon, aging towards lunch, but here’s what happens later:

Harry speaks to Elliot and Elliot breaks down on herself. There are tears, there’s a lot of questioning, and there’s also a Louis, standing right by the doorway as a constant, watching them with an itch by his palm to lift both the crying matters up, up, up, because they don’t deserve it. He knows the Styles well enough to say it—they are the last ones who deserve this.

But here’s what happens after that:

Louis makes lunch and he does it well. It’s two packets of chicken and lemon instant noodles, and though Ellie isn’t doing anything more than sulking, they get past lunch. Afterwards, they sit around the living room, windows flat open, a clammy sort of summer gush filtering through their home. Louis goes downstairs to pick up treats for half price at Kendra’s bakery and Elliot’s on Harry’s lap when he comes back, asleep.

They barely touch dinner, leftovers from the night before, and they fall asleep in the same room. Harry on the right, Louis on the left and Elliot scarfed between.

And that’s how they wake up the next morning. That’s how Louis stays.

-

Elliot performs and her father doesn’t miss a second of it.

There is a sky full of people watching her, all in the form of friends she’s seen most of her life; Niall comes with flowers, but so does Zayn, which surprises Harry most. Perrie wears her best dress, the one she knows Elliot loves most, and she’s got a coral bag full of stuff she isn’t letting anyone see. (Harry’s guess is that it’s another leotard. Or a tutu.)

Liam comes last with Barbara in tow, because they managed to cover an extra shift while Harry stayed home and Perrie did whatever she likes to do with spare time with her girlfriend.

They watch and Harry cries, the recording camera in his hand shaking like fragile leaves clinging to a branch. They watch and someone’s fingers wrap around his and he knows before he turns to him. He knows because this is the same person who stayed the past two days, leaving only once to get something suitable to change into. He knows because this is the same person who drove them to the theatre, kissing Harry’s knuckles every chance he got.

He turns and he sees blue before anything else, but he also sees a smile and he sees an anchor. He sees, I’m here for you, babe. She’s doing so brilliantly.

He turns and he sees Louis, and just one and a half months back, he’d mistake this all for some kind of trick of light. Because one and half month back, he wouldn’t see crystal hands holding his hip and he wouldn’t see grey and golden wrapped around skin and he wouldn’t see Louis. Because one and a half months back, he felt like an atom, like a singular unit surrounded by those of different matter, cradling his child with both palms to make sure she’d never fall, and now he’s got somebody standing beside him without hesitation. Now he’s got a partner, a person he can hug and kiss and love when he’s alone and he’s hearing horrible news, such as “I can’t make it, my love, I’m so sorry, I really wanted to be there but I just can’t––“.

He’s got somebody he wants, got somebody who wants both him and his daughter back, and he doesn’t care if the recorder’s shaking. Louis’ got his phone as backup, anyway.

-

“—and she looked so incredible, up there mum,” Harry says into the phone, trudging around his room aimlessly. “Like, she was glowing—I can’t even begin to describe it.”

“Aw, darling,” Anne says, laughing, “did she have a good time? Is she alright?”

“Yeah, mum,” Harry grins, walking out of his room, heading for the kitchen. The flat is airy and cool, the night settling in calmly, and when he gets to the kitchen, he can see Louis by the fridge, two beers balanced on one hand, bread on the other. “She loved it. She missed you, but she was so excited to perform, I—," he stops to catch his breath, watching as Louis looks at him, “Gemma would’ve been so proud,” he finishes, looking towards the photo frame perched on top of the coffee table.

“I know, baby,” she says, voice gone soft and tender. “She would’ve been so proud. Of both, Ellie and you.”

“I know, mum.” There’s a smile caught on his words that Louis smiles to confusedly as he walks past Harry, towards the toaster.

“Is El here? Can I speak to her?”

“Shit, no mum, she’s staying the night with her two friends, I’m sorry.” Biting his thumb, he turns to look at Louis who stares back at him openly.

“Don’t worry about it, babe,” she says, laughing, “I’m glad she’s with her friends. I’ll see her tomorrow, won’t I?”

“Yeah.” Harry toes the ground, softly adding, “Hopefully.”

“Surely, Haz. I’ll be here tomorrow, for sure.”

“All right, mum,” Harry mumbles, blinking rapidly, “I love you.”

“Love you too, Harry. Love you lots.” Once she hangs up, he sighs, running a flat palm down his face. He looks around the quiet kitchen, hopping onto the countertop beside the sink.

“Everything alright?” Louis asks, spreading butter over the bread, ham burning soft and edible in the microwave.

Harry hums in recognition, closing his eyes as he watches the night from behind his lids, flashes of pastel blues and indistinct purple ironed onto his head. He feels the air change from its static current to a moving wind, Louis’ hand coming to rest at his thigh, feeling like anchored feathers, slow and comfortable and lovely. Harry can’t help his smile when he feels Louis settling by him, resting between his thighs.

“How’s your mum?” Louis asks then, fingers pressing with intent now, carving out his thumbprint onto the rough, stretched jeans.

“She’s good, thank you,” Harry mumbles, leaning forward towards the warmth emitting from Louis’ body. “She says she’ll be here by tomorrow afternoon.”

“Good.” Louis reaches to press a kiss to his cheek, smiling into the skin, “I made dinner. Ham sandwich in all of its glory.”

“Beautiful,” Harry giggles sleepily, “you’re sure my daughter’ll be proper fed?”

“Yup. Asleep by ten, too, I promise.”

“How can you be so sure, darling?” Harry swings an arm around his neck, “you’re here with me, aren’t you?”

“That I am, yeah,” Louis says, grinning at Harry all dopey and lovely, “but my mum loves children. So does Lottie. We’ll be fine.”

“Does that mean you’re staying the night?” Harry whispers, almost inaudible, blinking his eyes open, swallowing in the sudden abundance of Louis’ presence, his sharp jaw and even sharper mouth, leaning in close like he can’t get enough.

Louis shrugs, smiling at Harry with close to no worry, simple and easy. “If you want me to.”

“I want you to.” Harry sounds embarrassingly shy when he speaks. “Do you want Ellie’s bed or the couch?”

“Neither,” Louis says, grin intact, “I want you.”

“Gross.” Harry makes a small sound when Louis leans in to peck his nose.

“You love it. You love my endearing charm.” I love, Harry thinks, I love, I love, I love…I love you here.

“You’re wrong, bud. The only thing endearing about you is your hair. Everything else is boringly average and I am unimpressed.”

“Ouch, babe,” Louis mutters, “that’s harsh.”

“Yeah,” Harry nods, “I guess I like your face… but that’s about it, I’m afraid.”

“You like my face… I’m pretty sure I can live with that.” There’s something disturbingly lovely about the way Louis remains there. Smiling and glowing, he’s like an example of constancy; sharing his ever evident spirit, and being loud about it. Harry’s so in love with what he’s found in Louis, so in love with the way he wants to share a bed like it’s equivalent to sharing time.

“Let’s go to bed,” Harry suggests softly, brushing Louis’ hair away from his face, kissing across his’ cheekbone.

“But what about dinner?” The pout planted on Louis’ mouth is tempting more than anything; Harry finds himself biting his lip back from a kiss.

“You can treat me to dinner another time,” he says, hopping off the counter, taking Louis’ hand as he leads them to his bedroom quietly, the hush colours of the night framing their skin beautifully. “I just want to lay down with you.”

“Okay.”

Harry hears it from behind him and he’s not bothered enough to turn. He remembers to switch the lights off around the apartment, walking into his room with Louis’ hands brushing under his shirt, up the stretch of his back, then down to the curve of his hips. He only faces him once their folded between the covers and each other, staring at nothing but blue and green, making up galaxies of their own, growing from the faint blush across their foreheads as they silently converse with their hands.

“Are you sleepy?” Louis asks, holding Harry’s hand up to his mouth in the face of innocence.

“Not at all.”

“Are you tired?”

Harry only blinks, letting lips press onto his knuckles as he breathes gently into his pillow, staring at Louis’ movement with quiet awe.

There’s something settling heavily in Harry’s stomach, a thought left out in the dark too long for it to go away with a sweep of false happiness. He’s here, he’s present, he’s got a man who kisses him deeper than anticipated, but he’s still quivering in the small corner of question.

“Why haven’t you asked me about Elliot yet?” There are several different routes and several different outcomes of this situation, all depending on what Louis says next, but either way, it’s heavy. When Harry catches the blue eyes, he can see that Louis is stranded in a pool of doubt; unsure of what movement to make. “I mean—you haven’t… about her mum, or about our past, and—I just. You’ve never asked.”

Louis doesn’t say anything for a long time. Long enough for Harry to step into the pool himself, wondering if this topic crossed some unspoken border between them. He himself hates to talk about it, hates to even think about it, but he’s in bed with someone who hasn’t made a sound about it yet, with someone smart enough to know Harry wouldn’t admit anything easily.

“Harry, that’s something you decide,” Louis finally whispers, sincere, as if he’s speaking to an open wound. “It’s not as if I haven’t ever wondered, because here’s the truth Haz—I have. But I don’t get to decide if I should know. You do. I haven’t asked because you haven’t spoken about it. Yet.”

Harry nods, taking long breaths. He’s determined to sleep, act as if the thought never came, but it’s like his body, his mind, wants Louis to know. It’s as if Harry himself knows Louis should, or can, know.

“She’s not my daughter,” he says and if it weren’t for brilliant blue staring at him right then, he’d think Louis would’ve been asleep.

The silence jumps around the room once, twice, and Louis is wearing the loveliest frown, but he doesn’t make a noise, not until, “I don’t understand, Harry.”

He manages a short laugh, something spicy and bitter, uncomfortable. “Technically, no matter the effort I put into her, no matter the time I decide to spend, she’s not my daughter. In all actuality, Elliot’s…” he has to breathe when he says this, it stings that much, “she’s my niece.”

The slow hum of their controlled lungs tune the room, piece together a slow, beautiful drag that fills up the gaping hole of silence. Harry decides that he’s going to choke on his words, on the painful scratch behind his eyes where it’s about to get significantly wetter than before.

He wants Louis to say something, but Louis is just staring. He’s wide eyed and quiet, a solid body with no sound, no motion.

“Lou, please don’t be quiet,” he finally whispers, unsure on what he’s feeling, knowing it’s hot and scary and he wants to grab onto the shirt Louis is wearing. Grab on to keep Louis from slipping away. “Please don’t make me regret this.”

“Fuck, Harry,” Louis mumbles, shuffling across the white sheets until his chest can be felt under the fabric, cool against Harry’s own skin. “I don’t—I’m sorry darling, I just don’t get it.”

“Elliot was… she was my sister’s daughter, and I do my best because I love her and Gem loved her too and she knew—she knew I’d do everything she couldn’t, as much as I can for her daughter, she knew before she left—,"

“Haz,” Louis interrupts, a hand coming up to still Harry’s moving face, fingers slow and careful. “Harry, you don’t have to tell me this if you don’t want to, alright darling? You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to.”

“But I do, Louis. I want to tell you. I want you to know.” He doesn’t know how to portray the honesty behind his voice; how much he genuinely wants Louis to know him in pieces that pull him in deeper because he wants Louis to stay. He wants Louis to know and stay and that’s all.

“But you’re going so fast,” Louis replies, voice cracking, “I don’t think I can keep up.”

“It’s just the truth Lou. Elliot was my sister’s kid and my sister—my sister.” He usually halts at this point. Today is no different to any other experience. He can’t spew out black and grey words when he’s talking about his sister, not when he can only remember in vivid colours. Red and blue and yellow, he can remember the hospital lights like he can remember her last words and the touch of her daughter’s velvet hands.

“Harry.” He sounds like he wants to pull Harry back, as if he’s floating to a place Louis can’t identify and he just can’t watch him go without looking back. “Harry.”

“She’s not here anymore, Lou,” Harry breathes wetly, “and that’s it. Elliot was my sister’s and my sister isn’t here.

“Okay, Haz. I can hear you, I understand you,” he says but it’s not enough. Harry doesn’t know if Louis truly knows what he’s saying. He doesn’t know if he understands what he’s saying himself.

“But aren’t you angry?”

Louis should be angry. Louis should be surprised and confused and scared and not as controlled as he sounds. Louis doesn’t sound like he get’s it. “She isn’t even mine and—,"

“Harry.”

No—"

“I’m not angry baby, I just need to—"

“I don’t want you to leave.”

Out of the sharp darkness surrounding their heads, slow light seeping through the thin and flimsy blinds, this is the honesty in its rawest, truest, most cruelest form. This is all Harry needs to say, all he needs Louis to understand, before the complications that dances as Elliot’s past. “You don’t have to understand—I don’t think I’ll be able to make you, but I don’t want you to leave. I’m telling you things, Louis, I’m trying to, and I just need you to not—,” he stops himself from mumbling on, voice soft but eyes large and frail, “I just want you to stay.”

“I never said I was leaving, Harry,” Louis says carefully, watching Harry’s every movement; the caramel crested curve of mouth, the blow under his nose, the stutter of his shirt, the ruffle of his lashes. “I never want to, Harry, I never want to leave you. I will never want to leave you or Elliot, or wherever she came from. I want it all.”

“That’s terribly selfish,” Harry mutters, looking at Louis from under his lids, pressing his head into his pillow, almost dragging Louis with him with the tight grip he has on his shirt, fists by the fabric of the collar, something oddly familiar.

“I know.” Louis closes his eyes for a brief second, before opening them with burning colour, vivid and still, “but it’s true.”

“Okay. Good.”

“You didn’t need to say anything,” Louis adds, “everything is up to you, Harry. How fast we go, how much you want to share… it’s all yours. Just know that I’m here to stay, all right? For as long as you’ll let me stay, I will.”

The tugging in the back of Harry’s head says, I know. This, I already know, and it’s both frightening and reassuring all at once. Louis sounds benevolent, sure, safe. It’s as if he’s perfected this words with the back of a mirror, spelt out each word and rhyme in order to make Harry believe it when he says it. And God, does Harry want to believe him. With his life and with his affection and with Elliot, Harry wants to believe him.

“Okay,” Harry finally manages to speak out, “I trust you. I’m sorry.”

“Nothing to be sorry for, sweetheart. You’ve done absolutely nothing wrong. Not now, not ever—at least not with me. You’ve done nothing but drive me absolutely crazy.”

“I feel as if you’ve got more to say—"

“Absolutely crazy for you. It’s sad, I’m a little pathetic, but it’s the truest thing. I don’t know anyone lovelier than you. I don’t want to know anyone but you, anyone else.”

“That’s crazy,” Harry admits softly, tugging on Louis’ collar, pulling him close. He wants Louis here so much, he can’t fathom it.

“I know.” Harry hooks a leg over Louis’ hip, covers turning like liquid to accommodate to their erratic, uneven movements. He’s got Louis right him, face to face, bodies bent like paper dolls to resize around each other, joints fitting in, locking to position.

“I’m so sorry about your sister, Harry.” The look of concern in Louis’ eyes is so tender and heavy weighted, Harry feels naked by it.

“I know you are,” Harry whispers.

“If you want to…” Louis stops, unable to form out words. He looks flustered, almost. “I don’t know Harry, if you want me to just listen to you talk about her, I will, and if you want to cry… you can. You don’t have to hold anything back about it, Harry. I can’t believe how strong you are, how strong you’re being.”

Harry grins, slowly, “Are you asking me to cry, Lou?”

“Only if you need to.”

“Thank you,” Harry starts, “but I’m alright. Tired of crying, really. I’m just… I’m so used to being unfamiliar with her not being here, I—I’m alright.”

Louis doesn’t reply, he just stares at Harry until Harry himself starts to drift away, eyes dropping to their own accord, fingers cold and bony where they hold onto Louis. He thinks maybe the next time they come to, they’ll be in the same position, hopefully even closer, the small room dancing in yellow, Harry’s mum on her way.

He thinks he’s done it, given Louis everything he has to give, and taken every single promise in return, and that’s it. He thinks he’s stable enough, now and for tomorrow, and even after that, but Louis hums out lowly just before he can shut it all off:

“You’re my darling, you know that?” he says with no restraint, no claws to hold him back, no fabric to cover him whole. It’s the dead of night, their sheets are a snow dazzled white, when everything is layered in blue, Louis continues, “You’re my darling and I adore you.”

-

Early July, Thursday.

“Everything happens for a reason, babe.”

“Louis.” The clouds are getting heavier and Harry’s head is a beating drum, consistently throbbing through the inner rods and bends. “Shut the fuck up.”

He laughs. “I’m sorry, but I did tell you we were better off with me dropping her—"

“I know. You were right.” Curls tucked behind his ear, he squirms closer to the shaded area under HMV. “I should’ve taken up your offer, I should’ve planned better, I should’ve done shit, but what should I do now?”

“Look, Anne just got there with El, right?”

“Mhm.” There’s a lot more people than Harry had anticipated, but it is true—he isn’t the only one experiencing a break. The rain has driven majority of the people into particular shops, but the parking lot’s packed and the walkway is wet and slippery, grey.

“So just wait till they get out. Walk around a bit.”

“Are you serious, Lou? El just got into Cookie’s Island—she isn’t leaving in half an hour, babe, she’s staying till mum reaches the far end of madness. And I need to get to work. In less than an hour, Lou.”

“Honestly Haz, if you knew it was so far—,"

“Gallion’s is close, you bastard, I didn’t know it was going to fucking rain.”

There’s a short pause and Harry knows—he can feel it—Louis is laughing at him. Mocking him. “Do you have an umbrella?” Louis says. He sounds warm and honey coated. “Did you remember that at least?”

“Um,” Harry bites his lip, pulling his hair into a bun with the phone between his cheek and right shoulder.

“Harry,” Louis sounds as if he’s scolding him; stern but soft. Harry grins at the tone.

“I’m sorry, yeah, that was dumb of me. But the bus is late and it’s going to take me forever to get to Queensway…” He trails off, pouting despite himself at how whiny and sad he sounds.

“Yeah, that’s far babe, have fun.”

“Lou,” Harry mumbles into the phone. He knows they both know what he wants—he’s just got too much pride to say anything explicitly. Especially after the long talk he gave Louis earlier about attending his work on time and letting the Styles use the comfort of public transportation to travel.

He can feel Louis smirk. Bastard. “Yes, darling?”

Fine. He leans against the wall, watches the rain fall faster and faster, as if competing to reach the ground first, and sighs. “Lou, will you please come pick me up?”

“Well, I don’t know Haz. You didn’t let me ask your mum about your baby years and then you kicked me out of the house. Now you’ve called me in vain with absolutely no regard to any of my feelings, asking for a lift, so I think it’s really a no brainer…” he pauses, but it’s mostly for as much dramatic effect he can flair, considering the situation, “of course. I’m already driving, darling, hold on.”

Harry can’t help his giggle, resting his head against the bumpy wall. “Thank you.” You’re so good to me, you’re so lovely, “I owe you two baby pics and one half-hearted handjob. Congrats.”

“Can’t wait.”

“Will you pick up lunch on the way—,"

Louis groans.

“—or should we grab something fifty seconds before I’m officially late?”

“Second option. Traffic’s catching up with me.”

“Damn. I’m sorry babe, I’ll leave you at it. Drive safe.”

“I told you, I’m absolutely crazy about you,” Louis says, laugh caught behind his mouth, “I can’t believe myself.”

Harry grins, short and tender, “Can’t quite believe you, either.”

-

July curls itself up, arms reaching around to keep every day close, catch every leaf falling astray. The evenings are cool, and so are the days, ever so often hinted in the faint caramel tint of warmth. Every time it rains, the familiar press of the morning tube feels comfortable, bodies upon bodies dressed up in suits and ties, dresses and plaid, a monitored mass of scripted people heading towards an office desk, the corner tea shop—heading towards a home. But every time the sun strives and screeches, pulling out to shade over the city, closed up buses and smelly stations are seen on a different height, a different angle.

During Harry’s first few days around London, he was parched for a place to slot into. To be able to stabilize and create a corner for him and his daughter. Any place opulent and luxurious was out of question—but that wasn’t a surprise, considering he stepped into the city with fixed budgets and clammy hands; holding onto every bit of home as he unpacked Elliot’s trolly bag, watching her sleep on the sofa, huddled into as many layers as Harry could find.

He got a call from Niall two months in, with a job securely in place and a meeting booked at Elliot’s soon-to-be school. Niall had said, word to word, “Better make space, Haz, I’m coming with you. Wherever you go, I go, it seems.” Apparently interning for a year, and then four with payment, at the local street dentist was a better idea than another year in school. No matter what, Harry can’t deny how much he had cried the day he’d gotten the call, promising Ellie over and over again, “I’m not sad baby, I’m so happy. We’re going to be all right, El, we’re going to be all right.”

So, July has a routine, or it had, at least, for Harry. The beginning of the month was the beginning of a more hectic work schedule, plus the summer work he had been assigned, and everything, more or less, capsuled itself in. A meet up at Babs’ place (cause she’s got the best selection of wine—not to mention a pool table. A ratty, old, corroding pool table, but a pool table nonetheless), movie with Elliot and Liam because they’re both excessive Disney fans, maybe even a shopping trip with Perrie while Elliot sat herself down with Kendra at the bakery, icing cupcakes with sea salt and caramel. July had a routine and it worked—it worked to its full potential.

Now July seems like a blur of ocean, wind and coal. Blue, blue, blue—blue all over the place like a fucking curse. Grey in the cement, a mouth by the wall to swallow the nights in. July isn’t a time, it feels like a person. Like the reflection of a person. And he, this person—blue and grey and terrifying—he’s too good to Harry. He works as if he can’t think. He has cuffed pants and Montblanc cufflinks wrapped wrists. He swears in French sometimes, just by the crevice of Harry’s ear, biting down hard enough to bruise for anyone else, and he does it to feel the curly haired, doe-eyed sweetheart shudder. He has a loud laugh and he calls Harry his darling. He drinks vintage cocktails at the Ritz with men his age, his height, and his level of power and he drinks orange juice with Elliot on Sunday afternoons, sat by the front steps as Kendra bakes and Harry writes.

He is beautiful. Absolutely, completely, unabashedly beautiful and Harry can’t do anything, can’t want to do anything but swim in deeper. Kiss back harder. Pull him closer to swear back into his ear, to bite back on the lobe, to mark him back because sometimes his boy has to go have expensive drinks with other beautiful people and Harry gets nervous. He gets nervous and he gets scared, but his boy comes home to him, his boy picks him up on Liam’s birthday and swings him around all over the place as if he’s nothing but a strangled voice. Nothing but a shredded heart, a convulsing body, a paper doll.

July had a routine, but Louis is a chance. Louis is everything he wants right now, right then as they fucked by the grim walls outside the club building, clothes still on as they rasped out into the night, calling it their own.

July had a routine but Harry’s been breaking all the rules as he falls into something akin to love, love, love, love, love, love, love…

-

Monday, August.

“Babe, you’ve got a call…” he can’t recognize the name flashing across the screen and it’s too early in the morning for him to think properly. Curls by the side, he trudges towards the bathroom.

“Who’z zhit?” Louis asks, toothbrush and razor both dangerously close to each other. It’s impossible to understand him, but Harry manages.

“Dunno.” The frown by the Harry’s eyes narrow down to the way Louis is trying to shave and brush simultaneously. “Don’t—don’t do that.” He moves closer to take the razor out of Louis’ hand, gently prying the plastic and metal from his hands. “You’ll cut yourself for sure.”

Louis grins, pulling them both into the toilet with a hand to Harry’s back. “Sorry, ‘ve got about twenty minutes till…”

“Till breakfast. You’re not going anywhere till you eat something.”

“I can’t—,” Louis whines, pushing till Harry can lean against the wall, running the razor down his cheek, through the shaving cream smeared across his face.

“Nope.”

Louis sighs. He waits until Harry finishes with his face, grinning like a star as he checks behind Louis’ ear. “All done.”

“Who’d you say was on the phone again?”

“Um. Stevie? Steven? I couldn’t recognize the name.” He watches as Louis washes his mouth, then picks up his phone, frowning at the caller ID.

“I’m sorry. Should I have answered it?”

“Nah, don’t worry about it darling.” He leans over to peck Harry’s head, scratching at a patch of honey skin by his hip, eyes falling back to the screen of his phone. “But I really do need to get a start. ‘ve got a team to meet this afternoon, and I’m pretty sure the person calling me was going to ask about the meeting, so—,” he stops, smiling, holding a hand out for Harry to take.

“No, yeah, I get it. Let me just—cheese on toast. It’ll take ten seconds.” He places his hand on top of Louis’ anyway, the cool brush of Louis skin threading against his.

“All right. I’ll put some clothes on.”

“Yeah—yeah, you do that.” Harry swallows. It’s not like… like he necessarily minds a half naked Louis wandering around his house, but it’s not like he’s going to stop Louis from changing. He can’t just keep Louis all day so they can fuck on his bed and eat on the couch. That’s… absurd. Absolutely unnecessary of him to think.

“Is El up yet?” His voices far away as he steps towards Harry’s room, a place he’s got a few spare work shirts from Marks and Spencer stored woven between Harry’s flannels and sweaters.

“Nope. Letting her sleep in today. She wanted to come into work with you, but…”

There’s a pause where Louis should be talking, filling Harry’s incomplete sentence, but Harry doesn’t get a response. Frowning, with toast taken out and placed on plates, he walks back to his room, stopping once to check in on Elliot, who hasn’t moved from her small position in her bed.

“Lou? You all right?” He finds Louis stood by the closet door, towel wrapped around his waist, typing away on his phone.

“Lou, c’mon,” Harry starts, bending over to pick up the underwear littering the floor, throwing them over to a pile to take to the nearest laundromat.

“Mhm,” Louis hums, brisk and uninterested. Harry can’t help but wonder what it is that’s got him so wrapped up. It’s—it’s not like he doesn’t know about Louis’ life outside of the four corners of his apartment, he gets that. He does. It’s just that after feeding off of all of Louis’ attention, it’s a little troubling to see something consume him in the same level.

“Louis, you’re going to be late. What’s wrong?”

“Huh?” Louis looks up, eyes very large and very clear. “What? No, nothing. I’m fine.”

Harry stares at him then. Studies him. Breathes him in through skin, through sky. He doesn’t need to say anything, not right then with the room bare of colour and the ceiling bare of rain—he doesn’t need to say a thing to Louis in order to speak to him.

“I’m sorry. It’s just something for work, I promise it’s nothing to worry over,” Louis says, opening his arms, smiling that charming smile Harry failed to stay away from. “Come,” he demands softly, grinning, “I wanna hug you. I want to hug my boyfriend.” Shit. He always knows exactly what to say, doesn’t he? Knows exactly what Harry wants and knows that it’s him. It’s him Harry wants.

Trudging softly across the soft carpeted floor, Harry walks into the gap of Louis’ arm, pout very much intact, merging behind a fond smile only to come back up when Louis’ phone goes off again. “Nope,” he says when one of Louis’ arms fall to pick up his phone, “you said you wanted a hug. You’re getting a hug.”

He squeezes as hard as he can, as hard as wants to, giggling at how Louis cries out a small, “Oof!” before hugging him back.

They stay like that for longer than expected, longer than Louis should have allowed himself, but it’s fine. Louis’ll probably be late, but it’s fine, it’s fine, it’s fine.

-

“Anne?” Harry’s ear perks up at the sound of his boyfriend (his boyfriend, his boyfriend, his boyfriend…he doesn’t think he’ll ever get used to the sound of that ringing down his throat. Not until the title changes, at least.) calling for his mother. It’s… a weird situation.

“What’s up, babe?” Washcloth folded between his hands, Harry walks out of the kitchen, frowning softly at Louis who stands by the door, grinning like it’s all he knows to do.

“Lou!” Elliot squeals from down the hallway, running across the sheltered flat, jumping onto Louis’ outstretched grasp.

“Hello there, Elliot,” Louis greets, dimples carved by the steep of his eyes, honest crinkles marching up and down his face. “What did you accomplish today?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean,” he pecks her nose, “what’ve you been up to? Another art piece ready for me to see?”

“Um…no. Not yet. But I did practice my maths.” She frowns down to her hands, lost in whatever it is she’s thinking. “I’m not very good at it though. Pa thinks I should practice a little bit more, but…”

Louis tilts his head, smiling at her as if she’s the only one in the room. Harry can’t do anything but watch from the kitchen door, leaning against the frame as if his heart’s going against the drum. “Do you find it boring, El?”

“Kind of, yeah,” she murmurs.

“Me too, darling. I’m terrible at it.”

She hums. “But Pa’s really good. He can do it all in his head and stuff.”

Louis turns to look at him then, an eyebrow raised. “I’m not—I’m alright,” Harry blurts, looking down at his feet.

“Is your gran Anne home, El?” Louis asks then, settling her down on the couch before sitting beside her. Before Elliot can respond, there’s someone walking down the hallway.

“I’m here, I’m here,” she mumbles, “tea?” she asks Harry, who rolls his eyes and pretends not to care as he watches his mum ruffle Louis’ hair on her way to sit on the sofa.

“A cup for me too, please!” Louis calls out.

“And me!” That’s Elliot, but Harry can easily pretend he misheard her as he reaches for the Milo tin kept beside the cereal.

It’s only once he’s bringing the tea tray out does he hear bits of Louis and Anne’s conversation, cut up pieces that sound far away. All he can decipher is his mum’s laughter and Louis’ vocal grin; a kind of tug that speaks for itself. “And it isn’t exactly used, right? So I was just asking her how much it was on sale for, and it was obviously higher than original price, considering it’s vintage, but I managed to talk to her into giving us a nice 15% discount. ‘Cause you’re a usual and all…” there’s more to the sentence, but already, Harry doesn’t like where the conversation is headed, or what it’s about.

“What’s vintage?” he asks, walking around for a seat. When Louis looks up to face him, he smiles softly, patting his lap. Fuck. Harry wants to. He really, really wants to, but. But his mum and Elliot are sitting right there, so. He can’t be sitting on Louis.

He brushes past him, dropping a kiss to his cheek before settling in next to Elliot, picking up a pillow to make space for himself.

“Hm?” his mum hums.

“It’s just—what’re you guys talking about?” He goes for casual—or at least as casual as it gets when your boyfriend and mum are discussing things you have absolutely no clue on.

“Music. Vinyls.” His mum waves her ring coated hand.

“What about vinyls?”

“I just—the last time I was here, Anne and I started talking about, um, some artists we both have interest in. And, um, you know how Anne’s got a vinyl collection right? Like, she collects vintage ones and whatnot, so… I was just telling her about…” he stops, scratching the back of his head as he looks from Harry to his mum.

“He was just telling me about how he found Echo and The Bunnymen’s Crocodiles vinyl—“

“The red one?” Harry cuts in, frowning.

“Yup.”

“I’m almost 100% sure Ocean Rain isn’t on that album,” Harry adds, reaching for his mug.

“Pa, I’m getting bored. Can I go get my crayons?” Elliot swings her leg to and fro, Milo mug finished, settled on the coffee table.

“Have you finished your maths though, babe?”

“Yeah, I think so.” She stops, fiddling with her fingers. “No… no I haven’t. I don’t like it very much.”

“That’s all right, El. Of course you can get your crafts—you deserve a break. We’ll finish tomorrow.”

She hurries into her room and when Harry turns to look at Louis, he’s poking through his phone, but it’s not like he needs to be. “No, yeah, Ocean Rain isn’t on the album.”

“But isn’t that your favourite?” Harry asks his mum.

“It is, but Stars are Stars is on the album and that’s a close second.”

“So what you’re saying is—“

“I found the album, yeah, and it’s… um. It’s sort of—“

“Louis,” Harry starts frowning.

“Well, it’s on high demand, innit? So I bought it for Anne! Early birthday present and all.”

Harry narrows his eyes. “You bought it? For my mum whose birthday is in over two months?” There’s an understanding between them, Harry and Louis—they’re both actively aware of Louis’ wealth and how he could easily support Harry, in some senses, but they’re also aware of the fact that Harry won’t allow it. He’s says he’ll do it on his own, he’s told his mum, and it isn’t going to change because of Louis.

Louis looks caught, lip between his teeth and Anne looks as if she can tell. “Uh…I’ll go hang around with Ellie. See what she’s up to and all. Have fun, boys.” Have fun with what, Harry thinks as he stares at Louis.

“So,” Louis starts, grinning beautifully, adolescence lingering by his teeth. “Interstellar’s got some brilliant reviews recently. We should definitely watch this weekend, or maybe even tomorrow—“

“Louis,” Harry breathes, sharp. “Louis, I told you not to.”

He watches Louis’ smile drop, his gaze following. “What do you mean?” It’s—it’s not fair. How can Louis look so dejected when it’s him who’s been breaking the rules? He’s not supposed to spend money on them and he knows that.

“Look,” he starts, “I get it. Mum and you—you both have some weird friendship going on and you both happen to bond over old musicians—it’s amazing, it really is, and I actually couldn’t be happier that you’re getting along. But I just… the money spending thing.” He gets up to sit beside him, taking a hand into his lap. “Not on us, Louis,” he whispers, rubbing circles around the fingers, “we’re not in that kind of a relationship.”

“Haz,” Louis starts, looking up finally. “Why not? It’s not even a big deal for me—“

“But it’s a big deal for me. Financially… I’m not the most confident, I know that, but it doesn’t mean I’m going to let you buy things for me, for us, for my daughter or for mum, just because you can. Just because it’s easy for you and because you care about us. That’s not why I—“ he stops, voice catching on his throat. He was about to say it, he was about to say it, he was about to say it. “That’s not why I want you around.”

“It just feels so unnecessary, Harry,” Louis says. “It doesn’t even have to mean more than me wanting to get things for you.”

Harry smiles, and it’s has a gentle undercurrent falling behind it. “Yeah, but it does mean I’ll have to pay you back.”

“Harry.”

“The vinyl—that was brilliant of you, really. It was. But I just wish you would’ve asked before, so I could’ve taken her to the shop myself, so it wouldn’t—“

“It’s always going to be you doing everything, isn’t it Harry?” Louis suddenly asks, turning to face Harry completely. “It’s always going to be you giving and giving but never expecting, never accepting anything back.”

“Lou, it’s not a big deal.”

“But it is for me.” There it is. There’s Louis with a response to everything, putting Harry one step back only to pull him four leaps forward. Harry had said the exact same thing seconds before, didn’t he? “Why can’t I treat you to things? The gift made your mum happy and your mum happy makes you happy. And that makes me happy. Doesn’t everyone win?”

Harry shakes his head, reaching over to kiss Louis’ jaw. “Please, just. On this topic, please just go with it. Please just listen to me and—and pretend you understand why and promise you’ll stop. That’ll make me happy.” He keeps his head ducked under Louis’ chin, nibbling softly down his chin, his throat, his collarbones, till he’s crawling to sit right onto Louis’ lap, a warm mess of limbs and curls and affection.

Louis sighs one last time, takes Harry’s chin into one hand to hold him close, and smiles. It’s as if Harry’s face, his clouded eyes, his flying curls, his youthful mirth—all of it has Louis smiling. “All right. For you, all right.”

-

(It happens that weekend, August settling in sweetly, and the irony of it, “Interstellar’s got some brilliant reviews recently. We should definitely watch this weekend,” keeps Harry up at night, even months after, because he keeps wondering what would happen if he figured it out earlier. Orange and gold running down the sky in streaks, the days longer than the nights, the sun catapulting itself over the sky, it happens that weekend.)

-

“Lou?” The light of the room is low and dim, melting into the walls almost, and Harry can barely see through the moulded purple darkness behind his eyes. “Lou,” he tries again, voice scratchy and thin. It barely resonates across the room, but the atmosphere is chill and silent, almost waiting for someone to speak. When Harry closes his eyes again, heading falling back on the couch cushion, he can hear mumbles down the hallway.

He wonders how long he’s been asleep, or more importantly, how long Louis has been awake. When he props himself up onto his elbows, the window barely any help, he sees it’s gone dark. Fuck.

It’s not like anyone could really blame him. He’d come to Louis’ place straight after work, letting Anne coax him into going (“I’ll take care of El, Harry. You go to Louis’, it won’t be any trouble at all.”) but he’d barely manage to make it to Louis’ room, plopping down onto the couch and dozing off straight after. He’s still got his navel wrapped in the shirt he had to wear earlier.

Fuck, he shouldn’t have slept. Now the balance of today is gone and the entire night, he’ll be whining at Louis to take him out to Iceland in order to buy vanilla yogurt. Or whining at Louis to wake up, I wanna blow you, wake up!

It’s not like it hasn’t happened before.

But then the mumbles are coming closer and—and for some reason, Harry falls back to the pillow, eyes closing shut. He’s about to make a big show of waking up, pushing the blanket down to free his restrained arms when, “Yeah… yeah, I’ll have to think about it, Stan. No, I know—I know what you’re saying, yeah, I understand,” and that, for another unknown reason, catches Harry’s attention.

Louis’ voice is coming closer, so close that he’s probably standing right by the couch, his presence almost memorized in the back of Harry’s head, a lean body, a firm jaw, a rigid arm…”There’s just—there’s so much I need to consider before I… before I give my answer. Yeah, I told mum. No… no, the girls… they’re all right. I’m pretty sure, yeah.”

He’s saying something else, but Harry barely understands because a hand is coming down to caress his cheek, brush down his skin to the curl of his collar. “There’s… there are bigger trade offs now, Stan, other things keeping me attached,” Louis whispers and right then, in whatever context, Harry knows Louis is talking about him. Without even saying a word, just by the slow hum of his voice and the gentle pads of his fingers where they meet Harry’s chin, he knows something is changing. “There’s just more I need to think about. Yes, I get it—I get it. I’m completely aware, I know.”

(Harry doesn’t know, not yet, but it’s Thursday and it’s two days before he figures it all out.)

When Louis puts the phone away, Harry waits another ten minutes before he gets up, heart hammering, beating, galloping, unclear. He should ask, he should, but he also trusts Louis. He trusts him so much more than he should and as Louis grins at him from across the kitchen, watching Harry from where he leans against the door, he can’t even remember what he’d heard before. He can’t remember anything but Louis’ mouth and Louis’ pull.

-

Saturday, August.

“Hello, Daisy,” Harry greets brightly as the door of the house opens. “You’re looking lovely,” he adds, nodding at her Barbie dress that match Elliot’s. It is, without a doubt, a themed sleepover.

“Thank you, Harry,” she says, all politeness and cheek, taking a bow. Before Harry can react, Elliot’s stepping forward and returning the gesture, laughing at the same time.

Once inside, he finds Phoebe on the couch, dressed beautifully in blue and silver. Not Barbie, but. But she looks happy, short pigtails bouncing like singular globes. “Hiya, Harry.”

“How are you, Pheebs? Lovin the hairstyle, I might just try it myself.” He winks at her, smudging his thumb against his jeans as he sits down.

“Really?”

“Definitely, yeah.”

“I can help you,” she says, “I could do it for you. Braid your hair, even. It’ll look beautiful.

“I’m sure, darling,” Harry laughs. Daisy and Elliot are bringing in large amounts of sugar and flour from the kitchen, sorting them out on the dining table. He tries not to question it, “but I’ve got to get to work in less than half an hour, so. Another time. Is your mum home?”

“Yeah,” she nods, “she’s in the kitchen with Albert. She’ll be out soon.” Albert is, without a doubt, their butler-slash-male-nanny. He’s also a miracle worker.

“Right. So, I’ll get going—“ he stands up, hiking the strap of his shoulder bag up his arm.

“Wait!”

“What’s up, Pheebs?” She motions for him to sit back down and he shouldn’t. He really, really shouldn’t because he’s going to be late and he should honestly consider giving Liam a call, but. But it’s Phoebe and she’s lovely and… and he sits down.

“I just,” she starts, fiddling with her fingers, “I just, I dunno, I wanted to know if you’d still call Louis, after… afterwards.”

Harry frowns. Out of context, what Phoebe is saying makes absolutely no sense. “What do you mean, darling?”

“I mean…” she stops to sigh, looking back to see her sister and Elliot. Dropping her voice to a soft whisper, she says, “After Louis leaves, I just want to know if you’ll still call him and talk to him. Because he just likes you a lot and… and he’d be so sad if you didn’t. I’ll still call him.”

After Louis leaves.

After Louis leaves.

 

After Louis leaves, will you still call him?

It’s like, in the heartless seconds before the words settle, everything goes disturbingly harsh and bitter. Harry can’t swallow the thought, he’s still so confused by what Phoebe is saying.

“After Louis leaves where? I don’t know—I don’t know what you’re—I don’t understand, Phoebe. I don’t get it.”

Phoebe frowns, surprised. “Didn’t Lou tell you, Haz? He’s leaving next month.”

And now, Harry can’t breathe. The words are hitting him so fast that he can’t feel them, grabbing onto the armrest for dear life because if he lets go, he’s going to fall to the ground. “Something for work. He’s always going off for business, but he’s going away for longer this time. He says he’ll visit, though. Every chance he gets, he’ll come see us.”

He’s always going off, but for longer this time.

Every chance he gets, he’ll come see us.

After Louis leaves, will you still call?

Harry isn’t sure.

“I—uh, yeah, I think…yeah, your brother said something about—about that earlier, yeah,” Harry stutters, abruptly standing up though his universe feels disoriented. This could easily be a mistake, some sort of glitch in their system because they’ve been fine—him and Louis, they’re fine. “I forgot, Pheeb. But I… I need to get going, I’ve got—“

“But you’ll call him, won’t you Harry? I think he loves you like he loves us, and we won’t stop. He’ll always come back to us, y’know? Lou’s my favourite, Haz. He takes care of us all the time.” Harry takes a shaky breath of air, everything dry and ghostly, but it does nothing to palliate the fear in harry’s heart, this drum of confusion and panic that makes him wonder what if, what if, what if.

“I know, sweetheart,” Harry whispers, willing his voice to keep from shaking. He’s going to get out of this house and he’s going to go to work and he’s going to ask Louis about this because it isn’t true. He can’t leave behind Harry when he promised to stay. He can’t leave behind the family he takes care of all the time. “I know he does. He takes care of me too, yeah?”

“So you’ll call him?”

“I’ll call him right now. Don’t worry, all right? I’ll call him, Phoebe. Have a great night, I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Thank you, Harry,” Phoebe says quietly, as if she isn’t sure she should be saying anything at all.

He shakes his head, kissing her forehead before stepping towards his daughter. “I’ll get going, El,” he says even though his voice is getting caught behind his head, like he can’t figure out where he is or what he should be saying. Like he’s here, but floating far away at the same time. He doesn’t get it. “Take care, all right? Call me if you need anything and don’t forget your toothbrush is inside the bag beside your sleeping bag.”

“All right, pa,” she says, nodding, “I’ll see you soon. Bye.”

“Love you darling.”

“I love you too, Pa.”

On his way out, he kisses Jay’s cheek as she walks out of the kitchen, green gems decorating her ears, and he tells himself to stop it. He, out of everyone, should know better than to jump into dangerous mindsets and assume the end before he even understands it. He, out of everyone, should know what leaving looks like, and leaving doesn’t look like Louis.

-

Still, with time, there comes a chance to think of what could be, what could be if Phoebe knows a lot more than Harry, and it ruins everything. Walking through lush carpets with hundreds of dollars worth of wine sat on his tray, he thinks what if, what if, what if, what if…what if it was too good to be true? What if I was stupid enough to think it wouldn’t happen? What if, what if, what if, what if…

It takes apart composure and it drives the mind mad and agitates the lump on your bloodstream; makes it flow faster, faster, faster, faster—

Faster, faster, faster, it’s getting vicious and it’s fast, fast, fast—

Harry can’t stop breathing to slow it down, now can he?

-

“You won’t believe how many people were at the station today.” Harry hears this from the bathroom and fuck. Louis is here already. “I stopped at Bond Street to pick up some McDonalds and it was like one of those smaller tents with the cheap beer at Leeds.”

Harry shuffles to his room to put on a shirt, hair all wet from the shower. But before any of that, he tries to get the stinging red out of his eyes. He can’t do stupid things like… like telling Louis to get out because he’s going to be leaving anyway. That’s crazy and that’s not happening. It’s not.

“Haz?” Louis calls, the house filling with the sound of his shoes and the keys jiggling around the countertop.

“Yeah, Lou,” Harry says back, just loud enough to be heard, “‘m coming.” He tugs on a large shirt, the kind that slips past the delicate juts of his collarbone, brushing the lower half of his thighs. The kind he keeps for times he knows he going to need something to hold onto at night.

When he steps into the living room, Louis is sat on the couch, blazer thrown over the armrest, phone out in his hand. He looks as if he’s been here all his life, first few buttons of his shirt undone, his sleeves rolled up. He looks like he shouldn’t be leaving. Harry turns to look at the dining table and sure enough, there’s a paper bag filled with McDonalds.

“I know how you feel about fast food, I know, but I was craving fries like hell tonight. I got you a chicken burger though,” Louis says, standing up. He walks over to Harry, grinning, as if oblivious to Harry’s head going, what if, what if, what if.

He’s not. He’s not leaving.

But what if. What if, what if, what if?

He isn’t. He promised to stay.

But what if, what if, what if?

Louis leans over for a peck, brushing his mouth against Harry with the simplest of touches and Harry thinks he’s going to start crying. Legs like lead, lips dry and searching, he think’s he’s going to faint as Louis Tomlinson kisses him.

When Louis pulls away, he’s frowning. With one hand resting of Harry’s hip, the other holding his cheek, he asks, “Are you alright, darling?”

Harry blinks once, twice, tells himself not yet, don’t say anything yet, but. But as he looks into blue (what was it he called it again? drowning? blue, the colour of drowning?) and a series of untruths, he can’t hold back what he’s been killing himself from blurting the entire day: “When were you going to tell me?”

Because he knows Phoebe is right. Because he remembers the phone call on Thursday when Louis said he had so much more to lose. Because he’s been an ignorant idiot, but he’s not going to keep it going for now.

The curve around Louis’ mouth falls and that’s all the truth Harry’s ever going to need. But he waits for words, anyway. It isn’t like anything’s going to stop the inevitable from coming. It isn’t like he can change Louis from making false promises, you are going to leave you bastard. You told me you wouldn’t but you are. I know you are. I know it now.

“What’re you talking about, Haz? When was I going to tell you what?” Louis’ eyebrows furrow and he looks like the crackling image of daylight left out too long in the dark.

“When were you going to tell me you were leaving?” When Harry says this, he looks at at once and one place only: Louis goddamn eyes and it’s only to see what the truth feels like to Louis. He looks at Louis because he wants to see if this is where he says more sentiments, more fabricated truths, or if this is where he holds Harry close and tells him he changes his mind. All he gets is a blank look, a shadow of doubt, a sharp change that turns to fear.

If he could mark this moment, he would, because Harry knows right then.

“Harry,” Louis starts, unnervingly careful, carefully calculated, scared. He looks, for the first time ever, completely and utterly scared, even more so when Harry takes a step back as Louis comes closer.

In the still and lovely apartment, something terrible, terrible is happening. They both know this. After several months of absolute beauty, something akin to bitter, acid rain is falling over them and they aren’t ready. They’re not ready for their victorious days to end. Not yet.

“Harry, look, I don’t know what you mean—“

“You do,” Harry whispers, eyes feeling itchy and moist, a telltale of tears. He feels like the broken, flaccid piece of a memory, the thought that hangs from a dream. Something easily gullible and forgettable.

“Okay,” Louis starts, voice low and shuddery, “okay. Are you talking about—about Singapore? Is that—“

“I don’t know, Louis,” Harry says, louder this time, blinking rapidly as he presses himself against the warm wood of the dining table chair. “I don’t know anything because you didn’t tell me anything. You’re leaving, and that’s it, isn’t it? You’re leaving.”

“You don’t understand, Harry,” Louis starts, his words cracking. Now that Harry notices, he can see Louis’ got tears in his eyes too. Something terrible, terrible, terrible. “Let me explain, okay? Just listen to me—“

“No.” Harry puts a hand up, fingers long and thin and shaking. “I don’t want to know.”

“Wait,” Louis says, crumpling, “wait… don’t tell me to leave Harry. You can’t do that so easily, Harry. Not after everything.”

“Then what can I do, Louis? What do I have the right over anymore? Because you’re here and you’ve got the right over my heart and you’re telling me to wait, but I know I shouldn’t. You lied to me Louis, I shouldn’t have to wait.”

God, this is happening so fast. This is happening too fast, like a hurricane of rage, pulling both of them in to fling them at opposite sides of the world. Where does Singapore come into all of this? Why does the name, the mere name, sound like a promise of distance?

“But you can’t end this without knowing everything,” Louis says softly. He looks so—so fucking young. Like a fragmented piece of glass; all shiny and beautiful but broken. More than anything though, he looks afraid. He looks afraid because he thinks he’s going to lose his Harry, and he is. He is. “Please, Harry.”

Every breath in feels insufficient as if his lungs are getting bigger and bigger, fit for something beyond Harry, and his body can’t cope. Every breath out feels angry and vicious and horrible. When Harry fails to say anything, too caught up in the fact that he’s not going to let himself breathe Louis in anymore, the words come out and the truth comes out:

“It’s—it’s only for two years. Three, max. And I don’t want to go, Harry. I promise you I don’t want to, but,” he searches Harry’s eyes, darting from his chin to his nose, as if he’s looking for what to say and Harry’s face has got the words, “I don’t have a choice. I need to take up this opportunity Harry, for my company, for the people who work with me and that’s all it is: work. That’s it. And I can’t give this up because I’m fucking twenty six, Harry. I need to look after my mum and my sisters and… and you. You and Elliot. I need to do this for all of us, you need to understand that, Harry.”

And see, the thing is, Harry has no right to be angry about this. He has absolutely no right at all to call Louis selfish and to say he’s a fucking dick because he’s not. If anything, Harry should be happy for him. Harry should be supporting him, Harry can’t have anger flourishing his mind, he can’t. Not when Louis was kind and patient with him. But… but two years, forget three, how is Harry supposed to wait?

“Why didn’t you tell me?” Harry asks. “Why did I have to find out from someone else?”

“I’m sorry,” Louis mumbles, looking down. The smell of fast food and open wind swallows the apartment, gives it a suffocating glow, and Harry wishes this wasn’t happening. Out of everything, he wishes he didn’t know because instead of all these harsh, necessary words, they could be laughing. Fucking hell, the could be kissing and talking and falling in love but Harry knows and he won’t pretend like it doesn’t matter that he does. If sacrificing an evening of happiness means saving his heart for later, then well, he’s already decided it was worth it.

“You didn’t answer my question,” Harry says, jaw setting. “Fine. Are you leaving?”

This time, Louis doesn’t even manage to glance up at him, shrinking back into himself like a breathless flower; petals curling in, sunshine sparse and colour fading. He’s leaving his body, Louis, and he’s doing it fast. Harry should—would—care about this, if it wasn’t for what Louis’ silence meant.

Because it means Harry was right and because it means Louis is a fucking liar and most of all, it means Louis is leaving.

He’s leaving and he can’t even fucking say it.

Harry finds it in him, finds the burnt out flame large enough to get rid of every thought that thinks, you should be happy for him to get angry. He finds it in him to assimilate his useless tears and all it meant, and turn it into incandescent shards of hatred. Hard, bitter, hurtful hatred.

And it’s because Harry knows what a person leaving looks like. He’s seen it more than in one form; once as a retreating back of a father and once on the hospital bed, lifeless bodies passing him, one being his sister’s. He knows what it’s like and he knows how it feels, but before that, he knows it’s honest and he knows it inevitable. But here, right now, Harry didn’t even know. God, a fucking nine-year-old had to tell him just to make sure he’d call her brother and her brother hadn’t even mentioned it.

Was he just going to leave? Harry wonders. Was he never going to tell him? Escape so abruptly that an explanation would seem like a futile dream? Was he going to be crueler if Harry hadn’t said anything?

Because Harry knows what leaving looks like and the people before have always talked about, always left clues so that when it happened, Harry wouldn’t have to face solid surprise. But in a matter of a day, a Saturday night which could’ve passed like every other, his entire reality, his choices, his wasted time, all of it is turned to flakey, smokey, out of date ashes that Harry can’t piece back together for the life of him. And this is because of Louis.

This is because of Louis and he’s not—he is not going to be fucking happy for him or proud of him or with him. Harry will not be with him. When he see’s the silence drift too long, Louis’ hand coming out to touch him like a poisonous lure, he shakes.

“Don’t,” he says, something in his voice fogged up in layers of squared ice. “Get out.”

“Harry,” Louis gasps, alarmed. “No. Harry, no.”

“Why not, Louis? Weren’t you going to leave anyway?”

Shit. He’s tasted the words and it’s sweet. He won’t stop now because he can’t and God, Louis’ face looks like the shallow end of ache. God, he still wants to kiss him so bad. “Because I know you were going to, so do it. Walk out on us, Louis.”

He waits for a reply, but Louis just stares with his mouth trembling, hair still done up because he just came back from a meeting, his presence holding the faint smell of cologne and rain. Harry waits for a reply, but once he’s faced with none, he realizes that it doesn’t even matter anymore. He can say what he wants, but Louis will leave, and that’s it. So might as well let Louis leave just as hurt as Harry will be.

“Walk out on us, Louis,” he repeats, venom and fear coating his voice, a corrupted commotion that comes out in bits of rough, detached statements, questions. He’s far past the point of strength and composure, treading on water so thick and heavy, it pulls him down in a way he feels powerful. “Turn your back on me, on my daughter. Break my fucking heart, Louis Tomlinson, I dare you.”

There’s the faraway sound of a passing car, smoke filling through the open windows indicating the old man living by the screaming house is out for a walk, ears tired of people tearing open their bones, their tongues, washing it in a raucous kind of shriek. The night is settling gently, though it’s still a nice pink outside, houses washed in blues and silver, but in here, inside Harry’s apartment where something horrible is happening, it’s even quieter. So quiet, it’s unbearably loud.

The strangest thing is, if you were to take a picture, a still image of their bodies from the window right outside, you’d think they were some beautiful, angry married couple: Harry’s looking at Louis, but Louis is blinking out tears. There’s food on the table, the telly faintly on, the shouting gone silent. You’d think they were going to sigh, call each other babe softly, tug each other to bed. You’d think of anything but what’s happening because what’s happening is scary.

“Harry, you don’t mean that,” Louis finally says, so small and unsure Harry feels something akin to pity for him, he can’t believe how cruel he’s being. “You don’t mean that, Harry, we—it’s not supposed to end like this.”

“Why not, Louis?” Harry whispers. “How was I supposed to act when you did tell me? If you were going to.”

Louis looks up, hands folded on top of another, face shadowed and wet and sorry. Finally, he says it, so slowly and softly that Harry could pretend he didn’t hear, “I wanted to bring you and Elliot with me.”

Harry stops breathing, only to hear the words repeating in his head, louder and clearer.

What the fuck?

“Louis,” Harry starts, cautious and shaking, he’s so angry. He’s never been so angry. “Louis, what the fuck are you saying?”

“I didn’t just—it wasn’t some last second decision to go, Harry. I thought about it and I—I did some reading on it Harry, on Singapore, on the country,” he stops, taking a step forward and Harry’s so shocked he can’t remember that he’s supposed to maintain the distance. “On it’s literacy rates, the schools, the environment. I thought about us, Harry, about you and Elliot because I wasn’t going to leave you behind.” He mumbles them in a way hard to decipher because there’s hot tears coming out and he looks like a mess. They both do. “I could never leave you both behind. You’re my—you belong with me. I belong with you, Harry, I wanted you to come.”

“No,” Harry whispers, eyes wide and scared. Never—he’d never thought of this. He’d never thought of leaving with someone. “Shut up Louis, no.

“Harry, baby, please. Please don’t—“

“Shut the fuck up, Louis,” Harry mumbles, hands coming up to cover his face, “you can’t do this, you can’t say this. You can’t expect me to go.”

“I can’t live without you and Elliot, Harry. I can’t—I won’t and I can’t. You’re both part of—I don’t know Harry, you’re part of me, all right? I wanted you to come.”

“No,” Harry repeats, shaking his head and Louis is a lot closer than before, isn’t he? Coming in like four closing walls, small but fucking powerful. “Get out, Louis, don’t say all this fucking bullshit.”

He feels hands cupping his chin, threading through his curls and he sobs so loud he feels his body convulse with it. He can’t have this, it isn’t fair. He doesn’t deserve this. “I was going to tell you, Harry, I promise. I just—I needed to make sure it was for sure and I needed…I needed to make sure you knew it was all up to you, make sure we were ready, and we weren’t. Right now, we aren’t.”

“I’ll never be ready,” Harry blurts, pushing Louis’ hands away. “Don’t you get it Louis? My entire life is here. Here or in Cheshire and nowhere else. I need the people around me, I need Niall and Liam and I need my job and I need my mum. I need Elliot to be safe and secure and for her to have some place that won’t move. I can’t leave, I can’t go, and I won’t. I will never be ready for that. So these were your choices, Louis,” he starts, shoving Louis’ arms away from his waist, shoving away any doubt of letting Louis go before he does the same to Harry.

“You either stay like you’d promised or you fucking leave. And you’ve already made up your mind, haven’t you?” He almost laughs, but his throat is too clogged up, his eyes to wet to pretend to be making a mockery out of them, snorting at the fucking fling that Louis was, a pass of time, a beautiful glow that picked up the mornings. That’s all Louis will be and it’s such a painful thought. “So get out. Walk away from me, from my home, from my family. Walk away from every fucked up memory we have of each other because they don’t matter anymore, do they?”

He sounds so… sure. And from afar, from the vision of the tiny spectator standing on the wall in the form of time, it seems Harry’s immune to the disgusting, disturbing, insane hurt and ache that this horrible thing happening brings. A fall out, a flame so close to being bright going out. He seems like the brutal asshole with the sharpest words, forcing out whimpers and please don’t do this from Louis, from the person who did it all. But, God, is it the farthest thing from the truth. God, is Harry tired of being left behind, of being forgotten.

When Louis stands still, Harry decides to touch him. It’s a conscious decision, to feel his boy for the last time, but if he’s got to push Louis away in every possible way, then he will. Pressing a hand against Louis’ chest, he mumbles, “Go, Louis. Get out,” but. But Louis just stares at him. Mouth agape, eyes so red they lose their blue, starting at Harry like he’s the only thing he can bear to watch. Harry hates it. “Leave me, Louis, do it.”

He pushes harder then, and—and it feels so good. God, it feels good to hurt something, to burn something, to push push push. He does it again, harder, matching his words with every thump, “Get out, Louis.”

Finally, once he’s reached the end of the room, his body worn out and tired, he gives one last shove, susceptible of how Louis just stands there like a pliant, lifeless soul, moving according to Harry, getting shoved in directions he’s never felt before. Never in Louis’ life did he think it would hurt to lose someone like this so much. Never in Louis’ life has he wanted to piece someone other than himself or his mother back together, enraged because it’s him who caused the shattering.

“Fucking leave me, Louis, leave,” he shouts and—and it takes up every fired up flame in him to do so, but now—now he’s hearing his words. God, it’s washing down on him fast, he’s hearing everything he’s said so far:

I don’t want to know.

Turn your back on me.

Get out, Louis.

Leave me, Louis, do it.

Leave me.

Fucking leave me.

That’s probably the most constant thing Harry’s ever known, isn’t it? That’s what he’s been saying, telling Louis to do, and he can’t believe it.

What the fuck.

His minds hurting, it’s going crazy, like a drum out of rhythm, too caught up in the song to stop, too caught up, too caught up, too caught…

“No,” he finally says and if Louis doesn’t leave because of Singapore, he’ll surely leave anyway because Harry’s an unstable bastard with no sense of control. Harry’s crazy, mad, so tired of cleaning up his broken messes that he’s willing to send the pieces away, and Louis is sure to see that now, see Harry for what he is and that’s scared.

Out of everything, Harry’s scared and he doesn’t know what he’s doing anymore, doesn’t know what they’ve been talking about, but he’s been telling Louis to leave and that isn’t right. It should be the opposite and he should be wanting Louis to stay because that’s all he wants. Grabbing the fabric around Louis chest, curling his hands into fists against the material (familiar, familiar, familiar… that’s familiar, isn’t it?), Harry pulls Louis closer, pulls him so he won’t go.

“Don’t leave me, Louis. Please, please, please. Please don’t go.”

Fuck it. Fuck it all, he doesn’t care. He’s got too much; too much feeling, too much hope, too much discourage, too much contradiction. He’s going to war with nothing but a gun filled with roses and he’s fighting against himself, sprawled against a floor made of shaky glass. That’s what it feels like, that’s how frustrated and lost and confused he is. But he still manages to grab onto Louis.

“You can’t leave us, Louis, you promised,” he whispers, crying. If the person just before, the one with the vicious words, was anything, it would be dishonest. He said he wanted Louis gone and he pretended he was so big, so large, so sure. He pretended he didn’t need Louis, that he didn’t need the person he’s been loving for so long, that it wouldn’t matter if one day they laughed into each others mouth and the next they walked past each other like strangers.

Harry knows the face of leaving. And because he knows that, he knows that he hates it. That if he could, he would make every person that went, stay. Run after his father as he got into his car, luggage at hand, without a hug from his son or wife and tell him to stay. Grab onto Gemma’s hand as she took her last breath and begged her dying soul to keep going for another, you’ve got a baby Gem, she’s so beautiful and she looks just like me. He couldn’t keep them. He couldn’t keep the first boy he kissed as the first boy he married and he couldn’t keep his first job during school because he kept leaving early to watch Elliot. He couldn’t keep anything, but fuck it if he will try and keep Louis.

He wraps an arm around Louis’ neck, the other holding onto his shirt and he can’t see him, can’t see his face, but he’s crying like a train wreck and he’s found his way to Louis’ neck, found his way home.

“Please don’t leave me, I’m so tired. I’m so tired of being alone, please, please, please don’t go. You can’t—not after you’ve been doing this with me. We’ve been doing this together, Lou. You can’t leave. Don’t leave us.”

Don’t leave us, I love you, she loves you, we love you. He thinks, three months ahead, if he’d said that, Louis might still be here. But right now… right now Louis takes one, two, three seconds to understand Harry’s intense change of emotions, before he hugs Harry back so tight, they both stumble back a few steps, latching onto each other like lost puzzle pieces, finally finding a matching fit, and God, that’s the worst time to think of that, it’s the worst comparison because they aren’t fitting, this isn’t fitting—this is make do. This is I’m alone and the bed’s as cold as the wind tracing my teeth and this is so come back home you massive fucking dick, I love you so much, I love you, you horrible, lying darling.

“Harry,” Louis gasps and it’s okay that Harry’s snotted up Louis’ collar because Louis is crying too. Crying loudly and unabashedly into Harry’s hair as if it’s a vacant room made for secrets, holding onto him like he can’t believe he’s real. “Harry, my darling, I don’t want to. I never want to.”

“Promise me you won’t, Louis. Please. You don’t—you don’t have to mean it, promises don’t mean anything, but for now tell me you’ll stay with me. Stay with us.”

This is dangerous, out of everything, this is the most toxic thing he’s said so far. Because this is what makes him the naive boy with his heart fucking crying on its sleeve, so blindly clasping onto anything that’ll offer him a little shelter, grabbing the dirtiest, hardest of hands if it means they’ll stay for the night.

Harry did it before and it’s obvious. He sunk to his knees, he bruised his hips, it’s all the same. He gave up on the idea of soulmates, trading the thought for the idea of security, and he’ll take that in the form of his shitty apartment block as long as it means something. He does it all the time, takes everything in its lowest form in the hopes it’ll change for him but it never does and he doesn’t ever learn. Or—he learns, but he takes the wrong message. Each time, instead of I shouldn’t have done this, I no longer will, he thinks, God, if I’d done this differently, it would’ve been better. Next time, I’ll get it right. Next time, I’ll find you, I swear it.

He’s beautiful like that. He’s strange like that. He’s a bloody fucking idiot like that. But Louis takes him as he is.

“I—I don’t want to leave you Harry, you mean so much to me,” Louis says instead. He doesn’t—can’t—promise Harry anything more.

Harry knows what this means. He shudders in a breath and lifts his head, blindly reaching for Louis’ mouth, and when he finds it, a hushed gap that just begs to be touched, he doesn’t care about what Louis had just said. Instead, he does what Louis had done to fuck up his head—he kisses him square on the mouth.

They kiss like they hate each other and they kiss like they never want to stop, because they know they will. They rip each others minds apart, hands moving so fast you could mistake it for a trick of the light, playing angrily in the dead calmness of the night. They cry so much through so little tears because everything’s been said and nothing is left to be held. It’s a daring night, a disastrous night, a memorable night in the most awful way because this is the night Harry found out his boy would leave him.

Still, they walk back to Harry’s room, clothes falling off, as if their bodies are metal and the fabric is discarded, crude oil. Harry mumbles on and on about each other and please and don’t you leave me, Lou, not right now. He’s making a mistake and he can’t blame anyone but himself, but he needs Louis. It’s pathetic and he’s always told himself to never get into this position, never let yourself be this dependent, this vulnerable, but look what Louis has gone and done. Harry still can’t blame him.

They fall into the bed of feathers, two weightless bodies holding each other together, and Harry says so lowly, so sensually into Louis’ ear, “Fuck me, Louis. Fuck me, please,” and he says it so that if Louis thinks back to this night, these faltering touches, this helpless passing of time, he’ll think back to Harry’s mouth and Harry’s lethal body and Harry’s beautiful face and he’ll realize that he needed Harry just as much as Harry needed him.

And they fuck that night, they fuck like they shouldn’t for the first time. But even if you don’t believe it, it’s slow. It’s calm, it’s serene and Harry cries over and over and over again. Louis fucks him once, and then they go again, this time with Harry sat on Louis’ lap, biting onto his neck, grasping onto his shoulder, sliding up and down his cock.

But what Harry will remember from the night is how Louis opened him up. They’d done it before, but this time, Louis’ stare had another unearthly weight to them. The stare, blue and drowning, intense and so addictive, delicate fingers stretching Harry until he felt the need eat him up—that’s what he’ll remember.

-

The room feels too still for it to be normal, the air too thick for it to be morning. But as Harry wakes up, eyes sticky, body soft, hair a dire mess, he realizes it can’t be anything but morning. The sun soaks the air, the carpeted floor, warms up the room in a comfortable way, ample enough for the floor to resonate the heat across the room, up Harry’s neck like a flush.

He can feel an ache down his jaw, up his bum, by his eyes and around his heart but he can’t understand the last pain. Why would his heart ache, it’s not like—

And then he remembers last night and it hits him like a flying plane, moving at ultimate and minimum force, flying too fast or too slow or just at the equilibrium, Harry isn’t sure, but it makes him want to scream—scream like the screaming house next door. His matter feels incombustible, angry, frustrated, confused, scared. But—but it’s okay. He’ll kiss Louis good morning, and they’ll fuck again. He—he’s got this planned and it’s just morning, his eyes are tired and red and icky, but they’ll talk and Harry’ll make sure of that. God damnit, he won’t let this end. Not that easily.

He’s so fucking tired of himself, watching things go, watching the end. Observing, observing, observing, unvarying and static, like a soulless thought, a detached memory, a frangible figure. He’s so angry at everything he’s let go and everything he didn’t fight for harder and everything he’ll never get back. He won’t let it happen again—can’t. Because if he does, if he’s fallen in love just for it to fall back on him like a counterattack, he doesn’t know what it’ll do to him.

Kissing Louis every day and then having to pretend it never happened, having to tell his daughter, “he was nothing, doll, someone we don’t need to remember. Oh—oh no, don’t hang his picture up, he doesn’t mean anything to us sweetheart, remember? He’s gone, gone, gone…”

He can’t do that. He can’t and he won’t and he’ll fight for once in his fucking life.

Singapore—it could be good for them, Harry and Elliot. Somewhere new, yeah. Maybe. Louis will convince him, for sure. With that thought in mind, the faint awareness that Louis will get his way no matter what, but the result being the thought of something constant, of commitment and family and lovelovelove, he turns to wake his Louis up.

But—oh God, here’s the irony of it all. Harry’s tired of things leaving and Louis is tired of leaving, but only once Harry figures out he’ll have to try, does he meet with the blatant, acrid, acidulous truth, the fact that turns him white, makes him lose his fucking mind:

He turns to hold his Louis only to find his Louis already gone.

 

-

 

“Tell me how all this, and love too, will ruin us.
These, our bodies, possessed by light.
Tell me we'll never get used to it.”
Richard Siken, Crush

Chapter Text

PART THREE

 

“Do not seek the because - in love there is no because, no reason, no explanation, no solutions.”
― Anaïs Nin, Henry And June

 

Half a year later

The city lights can charm anyone only so many times.

As he walks past the wooden walkway, his mind mixing up the beginning of the stars and the end of office bulbs, he thinks he can bear this only so many more times till it loses its glow; its pull; its intense beauty that feels like leaving everything behind was worth it. Once he turns his head to the water below, he realizes it never was, it never will be.

It’s not like it matters anymore.

There’s a collision between the way he walks now and the way he walked into work just earlier that day. Over here, morning feels a lot like teh tarik against his throat, the rush to get to the 21st floor. In the mornings, Mel, his secretary, has his planner for the day ready because she’s a star, and he barely acknowledges anything other than the metal box in front of him and the frequent call ringing through his office room for the rest of the day. Now, though, now is a lot slower; calmer. He has nowhere to go, nobody to go home to, no story to tell anyone, no urgency for anything because he’s gone to work and finished as much as he could and his day is done. Now, he walks up and down the channel, admiring the city before him, admitting for just a second that it’s beautiful to breathe in, but remembering a certain place which felt a lot warmer. A certain place, between the strands of hair, between the bumps of bed sheets, between the raggedy sound waves of laughter, between the boy he once loved, still loves, he found a place warmer. He found an urgency to go back, to go home.

Singapore is a touch of hand. It’s the reflection of dedicated people ready to earn more than the rest of the world. It has the sturdy touch of a flat space, empty, cold, plastic. Singapore is the city of plastic, the city of manmade dreams, the city of success.

It’s not his home.

Louis has had his share of tragedies, has had his share of places he never wants to think back to, but it would be impossible to find Harry amongst them.

Harry, in everything he was and everything he came from, was beyond a tragedy, beyond a mistake Louis once made, beyond a thought he can’t forget because it hurts to think about too long. Harry—fucking Harry—did something, didn’t he? He moved his mouth in a certain delicate way, breathed into Louis’ ear in a certain palpable current, kissed so fast Louis couldn’t document the feeling, but he did something. He made Louis care, made him understand, made him grow. He’s the one place Louis would go back to every time, if only he could. Harry was beyond Louis.

But what they were—god, what they were was never, in any way, ugly. They weren’t and Louis can’t harbour the thought they ever would be. He’s lost the right to speak of it though, so when he meets up with people at Marina for dinner, or runs into a colleague at Cold Storage, and they ask, “Anyone in your life? A spouse?” he can’t mention Harry’s name, he can’t mention what Harry meant. All he can do is shake his head, oh, you’re young, Louis! Just twenty six, bordering twenty seven. You’ll find someone special, I‘ve got no doubt about it. And it’s as if he’s searching. As if he’ll find remains of Harry somewhere between Sentosa, somewhere between the crowded streets, somewhere in the hawker center. He won’t, he never will, and he knows that better than anyone else.

It’s easier now to push Harry and his beautiful, beautiful daughter away to a locked up corner in his head. It’ll probably get even easier, the longer he stays away, the less he clings to the hope he’ll get a call from them one day. It’s easier now, he’s busier now. He sends home bigger amounts, knows there isn’t a thing his sisters will want but won’t get, knows as the days pass like blurring pages of a photo album, he’ll start the forgery process of letting go, forgetting if he’s lucky.

(He’s never lucky, and he won’t ever forget. He doesn’t want to.)

But for now it’s a dull ache, the passing days of summer he can’t remember. Beautiful, beautiful days where he learned how to love a family faster than he learned to love himself. It’s a treacherous reminder, a surreptitious thought he nurtures at night when the lights are out, and his reasoning half empty.

The city can charm anyone only so many times—Louis has already had enough.

-

“Happy fucking birthday, man,” Liam says through the screen, eyes crinkling like timeless diamonds, glowing like bright, bright moons. “Can’t believe you’re not here.”

“Nah babe,” Zayn mutters from somewhere behind the computer, “they aren’t giving him a break for Christmas.”

“It’s not they’re not. I’m they. I‘ve just got too much on my plate to visit. Wish I was there, though. Miss you lot so much.” It’s tires him really, how much he misses home; his sisters and his mum and his Zayn. His Zayn’s Liam. He misses them everyday, every fluent, passing second. He misses them like hell.

“Don’t get all sentimental on us, Lou,” Liam says, grinning, the corner of his eyes like thin, breakable printer paper—crinkling in lemon mirth. “It’s your birthday! You’ve got no time to miss us.”

“Remind me how old I’m turning again?”

Liam sighs and he can hear Zayn groaning in the background. “Louis, you always do this and you sound like a motherfucking broken record, you aren’t considered old.”

He pouts, but it’s not like anyone’s there to notice. A fleeting thought catches between the sounds of the street below, something fast and hard to decipher, but along the lines of, what would Harry say if he were here right now? Would he laugh back at me? But it’s nothing important. Nothing that doesn’t occur every now and then.

“Yet,” he says in return, thumbing across the sofa cushions. He’s sat at his flat located smack dab at central—heart of Orchard and all, beside the complex with the elevator for cars. It’s snazzy and it’s large and it’s absolutely stunning—or at least, the view is. High glass windows rise up like useless mirrors, button up suits stitched before his skin, the age to match his face. He could be considered a young, eligible bachelor for so many reasons. He should be out and in one of the clubs down at Clarke Quay, or even at Hard Rock with his closest colleagues. Anywhere but at home with a bottle of gin in front of a blinking Skype logo. This is how he spends his birthday and he blames it all on Harry Styles.

He can’t think, can’t even imagine holding anybody but his Harry. He can’t be out around people he doesn’t care about, pretending he’s got it all and living some high life that’ll get him everywhere when all he can think of at nights are, what if I stayed and what if he came? Where is his daughter? Is she still dancing as if it’s her and her dad, against the world and against the current?

He knows he can’t, knows he has no right to, but he blames it all on Harry Styles just because he’s too afraid to do anything about his dull ache. He knows there won’t be anyone he’ll want as much as he wanted the one he left.

“Lou?” The laptop startles him out of his reverie and he catches himself staring at the wall across the living room. “Lou, you all right?” When he turns back, he can see that Zayn’s joined the call, a plate across their laps filled with what looks like lemongrass chicken curry and brown rice.

“Yeah,” he blurts, laughing to fill the silence. He waits for a second; watches the beautiful couple across the world watch him, before he finally asks, “How is he? And—and Elliot? How are they?”

This isn’t the first time he’s asked, not even close, but Zayn and Liam still act as if it is.

“Harry…” Liam starts, looking away while Zayn glances back at him. Louis gets it, he does. He knows Liam will always, always have a red ripe side of him that hates Louis for all he did to his best friend, to his darling, darling Harry. Louis knows that. He knows that whenever he mentions Harry, Liam has to bite his lip to keep from saying something Zayn has asked him not to. He knows and god, does he have a massive part in him just like it.

“Lou, he’s fine and so is Elliot,” Zayn starts, smiling softly. “In fact, we saw them just hours ago and he—he wished you a Happy birthday and a Happy Christmas, and he’s happy for all your success, all right?”

Louis scoffs, turning away.

“Look,” Zayn whispers, leaning closer, his face just minute capsule of pixelated colours. “It’s your birthday and it’s nearly Christmas and how you want to spend it is up to you. We’re all fine here at London and we all miss you terribly. So if you want to know how Harry and Elliot are, how we are, you can come here and see for yourself, okay? Come visit us, Lou. We miss you so much.” Zayn blinks wetly at him, holding onto Liam’s hand.

“I will, Zee. Soon. I promise.”

“Okay.” Zayn nods. “And what about today? What’re your plans for tonight?”

Louis manages to suppress a smile. “Parties, my friend. You only get to be twenty seven once, innit?”

Only the bottle on the coffee table nods back.

-

Harry’s planner says that he’s got about five minutes till the Parent Teacher Meetings start and the weather is against his favour, falling in great masses of cubed ice, crunching rhythmically against the pavement, below his boots.

He’s slipped twice and his bum is wet as fuck, but he’s got another five minutes and the school is coming to view, just after the turn, so he’ll make it. He always makes it.

It’s the beginning of the school year, January is melting its pages and he’s learnt to let the past go. He’s learnt to let the ones who leave him, go.

He makes it with exactly thirty seconds to spare and another blotch where ice dissolves on his pants.

-

Central Business District, Singapore.

“Mr. Tomlinson, I’ve got—“ Mel starts, walking into his office after him, file folder in hand, tea on the table.

“Mel, I know what you’re about to tell me is very important, but I need to ask you to do something for me right now,” Louis says, scooping up the takeaway cup while he boots up his laptop.

“Of course, it’ll be done, I just need to—“

“The meeting with Helen…I need to postpone it. Please. I know she’s going to be angry—“

“Yes, but boss, I’ve got her right—“

“She might even swear at you because I have done this before, and I’m really sorry Mel, it’s completely last minute…”

“Mr. Tomlinson?” Mel cuts off, waiting till Louis looks up. “Helen? Yeah, she’s already canceled.”

Louis stops, mouth agape. “Son’s PSLE results came out last November,” Mel continues, grinning knowingly. “She’s got an interview at a school next week and won’t be able to make it to your meeting.”

The laugh cornering Louis’ mouth is disbelieving. “You’re joking.”

“I‘m not, sir,” she says, smiling. “Would you like me to book your plane ticket?”

-

The initial excitement that comes to arriving home, coming back, will never wear off and that’s something city lights will never provide—not the city lights of a place you don’t call your home. So when Louis steps out of London Heathrow, luggage dragging like dead weight behind him, he realizes that the two weeks he’ll be here will overrun his time in the city of plastic by miles - by years, lightyears, seconds, microseconds. The roads are much larger here, the cars smaller, the fragrant almost frangible.

No one comes to pick him up, to jump into his arms, to do any other bullshit he was almost expecting, while knowing better than to believe. So he carries his bags and his racing heart to a cab filled with a sparse sentiment, which way you going, mate? Yeah, get in, get in. It’ll start raining soon, better get in.

He mumbles his address in hopes it’ll come out clearer for the driver, and he watches the dark sky simmer along. As they get to the city, he notices the roads heavy with traffic, leaves crowding the pathways, a faint sense of familiarity roaming the streets like a lost wanderer. He closes his eyes, presses the pad of a finger against the cool windows.

He knows this place. He knows this place.

Of course, some people had to know he was coming, just so no one would die of shock. So it’s no surprise when the door to his mum’s house opens before he can ring the doorbell, and his mum’s swallowing him up. She’s layered in sweet, sweet perfume and a faint reminder of a place he comes from. She cries, calls Louis her baby because he is her baby—her baby grown up and thriving. And God, does she love her baby. Her first born, her source of hope, her everything. Louis doesn’t know how he stayed away so long.

The twins come home first, both of them jumping onto him the second they open the house door. Lottie and Felicite come later, and they’re shaking their heads with their hands cupped like half moons, laughing and crying like it’s all the same. This is home, is what it is. This is where he should be and God, does he want to go find Harry because that’s his home too: Elliot on the couch, head on Harry’s lap, feet curled around Louis’ chest. That’s his home and that’s where he should be.

That’s where he can’t be.

-

“Crazy motherfucker,” Zayn says, punching Louis on the shoulder before pulling him in for a hug. “Didn’t even give me a call or anything, barging into my ten o'clock team meeting like a fucking knob. Idiot. Fuck.”

He kisses Louis all over the face; across his cheek and around his chin and up his lids, before wrapping both arms around his neck as if he’ll never let go, ever. “Fuck I’ve missed you like hell, this is the best birthday present ever. Fuck.

“Zee,” Louis mumbles, running a hand up his back, “Zayn, babe, you’ve got to let me go, I—“

“Fuck off, Louis. Shut up. I missed you.” They’re at Zayn’s office, the one with the tall windows and even taller bookshelves, mirroring Louis’ old space.

“Missed you more.”

“I said, shut up!”

“I love you.” Louis laughs into his ear, a wavering undercurrent that brittles the sound and makes it bumpy and cold. “God, I love you. I miss you. Wished you were there, everyday. I don’t know how I made it away from home for six months, but God am I never doing that again. Missed you so much Zayn, it’s crazy.”

“Shut up,” Zayn says more softly now. He’s leaning against Louis like he trusts him; trusts his bestest friend with his weight and with his love. “Love you, Lou. I’m not letting you go back, though. Fuck everything, you’re staying under my stairwell. Fuck everything if I’m letting you go again.”

Louis pulls back, flopping onto the couch. It’s plush white and dying leather. It’s still lovely and stiff just like Louis remembers it. “You’re going to keep my under your stairwell? What? Like—“

“Harry Potter.” Zayn folds himself down next to Louis, a ridiculous form in the plaster-grey suit he’s got on. “Fuck yeah like Harry Potter. I’ll be the uncle and Li’ll be the aunt and you can kiss Hogwarts goodbye, Harry, cause you’re not going anywhere.”

It’s all in good nature, Louis knows. He knows that Zayn’s missed him just as much as he missed Zayn. He knows that perfectly well. But in everywhere he goes and everything he does and in every noise he hears, there’s Harry caught under the seams.

He’s woven between the airstream and lost somewhere in mid space that Louis can’t get out of. He’s everywhere and Louis wants to see him one more time. Just one more time, and he can go back to Singapore for another year. If he could kiss Harry one more time and have him kiss back as if it hurt him not to, Louis could stay away forever if that’s what Harry wanted.

He’d change everything if he could meet Harry again one last time.

“Lou?” He turns to find Zayn staring at him warily; his fingers curling around Louis’ wrist gently. “Lou, you all right?”

“Hm?” he hums, contentedly looking out the window with a melancholy smile drifting past his lips. “I’m fine Zayn.”

“You’re not.” He can feel the frown without even turning around. “You’re not and you miss him. You miss Harry.”

At that, Louis laughs and it feels anything but genuine. It feels suitable, but so hard to force out all the same.

“What makes you say that, Zee? Does my face give it away?”

“Stop it,” Zayn mumbles, glaring. “Stop whatever bullshit you’ve got on now and be honest with me. You hear his name—Harry Potter, honestlyand you stop halfway through a sentence to study your hands, pinch your lips. It’s as if he’s not a person to you anymore but some fucking space you can’t find no matter how much you try. Stop it. You didn’t come here to see me and your family after fuck many months just so you can be a dick about the one thing you didn’t say goodbye to.”

Louis shakes his head with a rueful smile. He’s so used to this through plated screens that it feels almost memorized live. “Thought you’d be a bit nicer to me - your bestest mate - after six months. A little more sympathy, maybe?”

“Fuck that, Lou. You’re not a kid anymore and you know that. I know that. We all know that. You do such a brilliant job of taking care of your family and your job and your future that you can barely see two feet in front of you. You can barely live two seconds in the present. God, if you want sympathy, you can go to a fucking shrink back in Singapore. But if you want someone to tell you to go see Harry, to go talk to him if you really do miss him, then stay right where you are because I don’t think I’ll be able to stop. You want a friend? I’m here for you for forever and you know that. But if you want someone to assure you that you did the right thing leaving him half a year ago, then you need to come back after my next meeting because I will not cancel that for this. Or you could go to someone who honestly doesn’t want you near Harry again, such as Niall, or Ben, his boss. He’s kind of in love with Harry and very much a dick, so you both would make great friends.”

“What the fuck?” Louis blinks hurriedly at him from across the couch. “Who’s Ben?”

“Christ Lou, is that the only thing you got out of my brilliant speech?”

The phone rings and Zayn goes towards it, Louis following in tow.

“Zayn—Zayn,” he stutters, something loud and unfamiliar and angry coming up, up, up his throat like a curse laced in sweetness. It’s disturbing and vile and horrible and he’s willing to do anything to get rid of it. It’s something akin to fear but not the fear that forces you to turn and look for your mum—no. It’s the kind of fear that makes you cling onto what’s yours and bare your teeth to anyone coming closer. It’s the kind of fear that has Louis shaking in his custom fit Anderson and Sheppard suit with his fingers burning quarter moons into his palm like the courageous mantra of a prayer.

Who the fuck, who the fuck, who the fuck…

Instead of getting an answer, he’s faced with Zayn’s upturned palm, watching as he speaks into the phone softly. He’s—he’s got no time for this, Jesus. He’s so fucking stupid and old and, and, and…he’s here for two weeks and he’s not going to think of things that make him sad and nostalgic and unhappy because that’s not what he’s here to do. He’s going to go to a bar and going to get very drunk. He’s going to fuck someone so pretty that he won’t even think of Harry’s curls or his hands or his beautiful fucking mouth. He’s going to take back the birthday night he lost. He’s not going to wait for Zayn’s stupid fucking call to end and fuck.

He’s so terribly, brightly angry. He feels like a fuse cut from its home, sparkling out bitter cries and holding onto the circuits in a dangerous burn.

Fuck,” he curses, shifting from one foot to the other.

What if you go see for yourself…

Fuck, no.

He’s not supposed to find Harry. He’s not supposed to reel him in like a toxic hook that’s so perfectly aware of its end goal that it’s willing to split open anything in its way. God, he promised himself. He promised Harry when he left that morning. He promised Liam that he’d stay as far away from Harry as possible and that he’d never dare to go close. I’m serious Louis, next time, I won’t let you go so easily. You won’t have Singapore as back up if you touch him again, I promise you Louis I’ll fuck you up, I swear… and that was Niall. Golden, yellow, summertime-vanilla-cone Niall. Fuck.

He steps out of the familiar office building. Zayn’s calling after him in a way that suggests he’s scared. Zayn’s scared for him (Louis, don’t do it, think first, think about it, Louis don’t leave him like this, you’ll never forgive yourself, you won’t be able to take it back, don’t do this Louis, go back).

It’s like the evening all those months ago when Louis walked into Zayn’s office with his shirt buttons done up incorrectly and his pale, weightless eyes drifting afloat. He was lost in a combustible tract of red, fire, smoke, flame, SOS and this will kill us all.

Zayn found him in the midst of his vulnerable state as he mumbled “I’ve lost him, he knows, I’ve lost him for sure.” Zayn caught him then but Louis doesn’t think he can manage to stop him now.

There’s something alive and beating running down his silver tongue. It’s this something that makes him pull out his Mercedes and drive without a single look back to the small flat above a baker. It’s the same one he told himself to stay away from because the boy wasn’t interested, and the same one he kept coming back to over and over again. He drove to that house throughout a summer of golden leaves and an even brighter sun.

Now, he’s going back.

The roads are familiar in the strangest way. It’s as if he remembers them from a state of half sleep. The images are coated in fog; too blurry for it to be sharp and precise, but faintly, vaguely recognizable. Everything is a darker shade of grey, like the aftermath of a winter wind. Despite that, Louis can still call this his second home during a summer of homes.

God, there’s Raza’s chicken shop. It’s still there, still blue around the edges, still the place he took Elliot for the first time as her friend and not just a strange man out to take her father. God, he loves this place.

Maybe—if he stopped by…takeout for El, a beer for him and Harry, if they were to talk—maybe not. Maybe he shouldn’t be here at all. Maybe it’s too late to turn back now. It doesn’t even matter. He’s already made the turn to Harry’s street.

Fuck, fuck, fuck. Suddenly the car slows down till Louis is barely driving, holding onto the wheel with white, carbon hands. Fuck. What if that guy Zayn mentioned—what’s his name?—Ben. Ben, Ben, Ben, Ben…Dickhead. What if Dickhead came to answer the door? What if he’s taken Louis’ place in Harry’s heart and on Elliot’s drawing wall? Were those places reserved for him in the first place?

Fuck, he shouldn’t be here. He promised Liam and Niall and the short blonde named Perrie and every other anger fused friend that called Louis up in the weeks after he left Harry on a Sunday morning. All of them carried their threats to take his life because Harry had finally shaken and he’d finally blurted out the truth through cracked teeth and a vacant mouth. He promised himself he wasn’t going to do this. Not to Harry. He can’t, he can’t, he can’t…he cares so much about his boy.

God, he wants everything for him. He does. He promises, he does.

“What do I do?” he whispers to himself and it takes the wetness running down his cheek for him to understand he’s in his car, finally outside Harry’s door, crying.

He could laugh at this. He could go back in time, past a fluent wave of upturned lips and livid screens and frivolous laughter, and find himself right in this position; outside Harry’s house, fiddling with his fingers, waiting because he can’t do anything himself.

Waiting, waiting, waiting.

Waiting for something to tell him to either go knock on the door for once and for all, or to leave at last.

Waiting, waiting, waiting.

He’s going to wait, wait, wait like the fucking coward he is, and God, isn’t he a coward? A selfish, melancholy infused asshat with nothing. He has no right to anything here on this street, and yet he’s waiting anyway.

Waiting, waiting, waiting.

Hoping, almost, for someone to come out and yell, “C’mon in, you’re home so late.” Or even, “I’m calling the police in five, four, three…” Something—anything—for his head to stop crying so loud and for him to sleep a little worse at night because he deserves it.

It’s all a motion of sound, thump…thump…thump…something beating alive in his throat, up to his head, driving him silent, scared, unsure, like the faltering page of a torn Bible, going up in ashes, ‘It was a pleasure to burn. It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed.’ He can hear himself in the cold evening—so cold, it’s like the sun, bitter and sharp and hot.

It was a pleasure to burn, a pleasure to burn, a pleasure.

Burn, burn, burn.

The knock on his window makes him shiver. He remembers this from months ago, watching Harry come towards his car slowly, carefully. He remembers it like it was something worth remembering; the window pulled down for him to see the floral blush down Harry’s cheeks as he glared at him, “What the fuck are you doing here?”

He remembers his voice so perfectly. This time, as he turns to look, he is met with the aging face of Kendra.

He rolls down the windows. “Hi Ken,” he mutters, watching her blink.

“Louis,” she whispers, smiling. “Lou, you’re back.” At that, Louis looks away. He isn’t back. He’s only here.

“Oh my God, Louis! I should—get out of that damn car, you idiot! What are you doing sat inside like some creep. God. Elliot and Harry. Oh my God, they’re going to—“

“Kendra,” he cuts off, grabbing her arm from across the window panel. “Kendra, are they home?”

She just shakes her head. “Have you come to see them, then?”

“And you.”

“Right.”

Louis tilts his head and maybe it’s just him, just some sort of quick movement of light, a thick turn of cloth fluctuating between the panels of glass. It could’ve been nothing at all but he thinks he sees it, he thinks he does. It’s a wavering curtain, a heavy hand, and maybe even green, green eyes.

-

“El, your milo’s gonna get cold,” Harry mumbles from the kitchen. “Cold, cold milo is not nice, nice milo,” he sings to her, looking out to see her small head peaking out of the curtains, looking below the window. “What’re you watching, babe?”

“Um…”

“El?” He frowns. There’s something distinctly wrong about the way she sounds uncharacteristically unsure and confused. “Elliot?”

“Pa, I think there’s someone outside.”

Initially, that sets a heavy and acrid conflagration. It sits painfully, honestly, and very carefully. It makes him turn the gas off, wipe his hands on his pants even though they're as dry as ice. It makes him stop at the door and look as his daughter smiles back at him. And it’s something about her smile—something familiar and hopeful. It’s something he doesn’t understand.

“Can I look babe?” he asks, walking over to stand just in front of her, the curtains fluttering back so he can barely make out the evening glow outside.

“I think it might be…” she slows down, looking down at her fingers.

“Elliot—“

“I think it’s Louis, Pa.” There’s something almost hopeful in the way she says it; as if she doesn’t really know, but the mere possibility is enough.

Harry stops breathing, and it happens in the most literal way. His lungs cut short and he thinks he’s hearing double, seeing fours, but he’s completely fine. He’s completely fine because it’s happened before.

“Are you sure, El?” He whispers the words, crouching down to brush her hair back, tugging at the curly, curly locks softly.

“I don’t know. I think it’s his car, but. But I can’t remember it very well, so I don’t really know. Can we go check?” She’s making her way towards the door, a bounce in her step that Harry hasn’t seen in a while.

“Elliot, we don’t really know if it’s him and…” he trails off, forcing himself to stay away from the window so he doesn’t check for himself. “I just think if I could go look while you wait at Ken’s then we’ll know for sure, yeah? Just so you can guard the house while I step out.”

Elliot looks at the window one more time and it’s brief, a short glance, but Harry notices it anyway. He notices the way her face drops even in the smallest way, a short slip of mouth that couldn’t be seen if Harry didn’t have her memorized from strand to toe.

“Yeah, all right, pa,” she says, nodding. “I don’t think it’s him anyway.”

-

“Do you want to step inside? You still haven’t come out of the bloody car, Louis. I’m getting offended; lets have some tea, yeah? My bakery’s been doing better than ever, you know. Harry’s stepping in to help and he can bake so much better than I’d originally thought.” Kendra’s leaning by his car now, her old hair curled atop her head.

“No, I—I don’t have trouble believing that.” He shakes his head, angry at how foolishly he smiles at the thought. “Haz is pretty flexible and very talented, so…what’s baking to a list of things he can do with his eyes closed?”

“So you’ll come in?”

“Not today, Ken. I was just…you know…stopping by to see the street. I should get going—“

“Kendra?” Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck.

Fuck, because he knows that voice. God, does he know that voice and God, does he want to see that face. It’s coming back to him, everything he’s worked months on to forget. It’s everything he thought he could burn off because he thought he didn’t need it. It’s all coming back and it’s looking down at him. It’s laughing at Louis, telling him, “You’re such a fool. You’re the biggest idiot alive, you know that? How did you ever think you’d just forget the boy you loved and the daughter you grew to learn? When did that become an option?”

Kendra turns around and as she does, Louis can see him on the porch. He’s standing by the side entrance of the bakery, sleep shirt and Sunday shorts wrapping his body like a gift. His face is cautious, calculated, knowing. The second he see’s Louis in the car, his mouth drops and he’s taking one, two, three steps back. Louis knows that voice even when it’s speaking silently, “What are you doing here? Get back, get back, go back.”

“Harry,” Louis barely mumbles to anyone but himself, unbuckling before he opens the door. His stare is focused on the delicate movements of Harry’s lips: the way they quiver, the way his lashes shake, the way his face turns small, small, small as if he’s going to cry.

The last time Louis saw that face (a red mouth, a curved nose, flushed cheeks and two gems) it was between white sheets on a dark, inky night. The last time he kissed that mouth was between their ‘fuck me,’ and, ‘don’t leave me,’ and he just knows it’s been so long. So, so long.

“Harry,” Kendra repeats, walking over to him. “I—Louis! Louis is here, and I was just going to invite him in for some tea.” She turns to look at him again, “You should join us. Definitely. I’ll head inside to run the kettle but you two should come in for the berry pastry while it’s still warm, yeah?”

She nods between them one more time before walking back into the bakery, as if she hadn’t just witnessed a reconciliation take place. A silent, brutal reconciliation where no one speaks and yet they’re screaming across the streets, louder than any broken family ever before.

Louis steps out, the car merely forgotten as a pale steel and an iron machine. He doesn’t care. There’s a wind blowing against their skin, something cool and unforgivable that runs like blue ice: crunch, crunch, crunch…it makes that slow, sticky sound.

Crunch, crunch, crunch. That’s what fills the air because neither of them are talking. They’re both just looking with moon encrusted eyes and lungs that are filled with to the brim with thunderous, poisonous and beautiful air.

Louis can’t hear himself when he moves forward, calling out into the vacuum of a night, “Harry.” He hasn’t said it out loud, in front of the actual boy in so, so long. Fuck, he’s missed him. He’s missed his Harry so much.

He’s met with silence, but he can’t expect anything else, can he? It’s him, him, him and it’s the result of what he’s done so it’s him, him, him and a quiet evening. No one feels alive, not even the moonlight. The only things that matter are their eyes and their mouths, looking to and fro but always at each other.

Finally, he breaks. He’s so desperate to hear his boy’s voice, one more time.

“Harry, say something.”

Almost immediately, as if he was waiting for a cue, Harry says, “Leave.” It’s loud enough for only Louis to hear, loud enough to push the sinking feeling in Louis’ stomach even further. “Don’t you dare take another step closer Louis Tomlinson. Get the fuck out of here.”

No. No, no, no, no. No, no, no, no, no, no. This was exactly what he was too scared to hear, no, no, no; exactly what he deserves, no, no, no; exactly what he won’t listen to because he is. He is the biggest fucking dick and he’s missed his boy and he’s selfish and cruel and disgusting, but he loves him.

“Harry, I—I just wanted to—“

“I don’t care,” Harry hisses, grasping onto the door handles and—and he’s crying. Oh God, he’s crying. Look at that Lou, he’s crying because of you. Happy now? Are you happy now that you’ve hurt him? That’s exactly what you wanted, didn’t you? Hurt him, hurt him, hurt him, make him cry. “Leave or I’m calling the police. Don’t knock on my door and don’t you dare ask for any of my time. If you even try to come near Elliot, I swear to God—,“ his voice falters, as if its tired of playing all its strong traits; tired of being angry. He swallows and Louis can see it clearly from where he stands—a slow bump of throat, a throat he’s bitten and marked all over.

“You’ve made the mistake of coming back here, Louis,” Harry continues, eyes sharp and shiny. Acidic and honest and brutal. He could kill Louis with those eyes. He could kiss Louis with those eyes. He could own the world with those eyes. “Don’t let it happen again.”

And he’s gone. He turns his back to Louis and doesn’t look back and Louis gets it. He can’t come in for tea and he can’t ask how Elliot’s been doing and he doesn’t even have the right to question who Ben might be, because it doesn’t matter to him. No matter how much he cares, how much he wants what he let go of, it’s not for him anymore. There’s nothing left for him here anymore.

So he leaves.

-

There’s nothing left for him here at all, it feels. His family loves him and asks him how he’s doing, how Singapore’s been, but it’s all so absent.

It’s funny though because before he met Harry, it should’ve been the same, right? He lives on his own and he works on his own and it’s all…him. This is nothing new, and it shouldn’t feel like something new, but it does. It’s as if the time before he met Harry and Elliot was time less kept, less memorable, and it’s just so funny. Has he always been on his own? Even when surrounded by people he’s known all his life, is he still just an individual particle, drifting in the midst of molecules and bonds and other things that stick together?

Harry makes him think of that. He’s never considered himself as someone smart, or someone miraculous, at least not the degree people look at him in. He’s done interviews and he’s been on television and he loves his job—loves everything he managed to accomplish before anyone else, but he doesn’t consider himself a smart man. He’s not. He’s just someone following the current.

Maybe—maybe he’s one step ahead, and maybe that’s why he's known, but he’s nothing special. Something special would be something worth remembering. Something special is Harry, because God, Louis will forget to pick up coffee in the mornings and he’ll forget his own birthday, but he won’t forget Harry.

“Lou?” He’s sat on the sofa, the makeshift bed he’s been sleeping on, when Phoebe calls out to him.

“What’s up, buttercup?” he pats the room beside him, making space between the papers and laptop, watching as his sister crawls between the fabric of the blankets.

“Please don’t call me that,” Phoebe mutters, ignoring the sofa as she sits daintily on his thigh.

“Oof,” Louis mutters, head falling into her long hair. “You’re killing me.”

“Stop it, Lou,” Phoebe says, giggling, “I’m not that big. I play footie now, so I’m really, really fit.”

Louis laughs unabashedly into her hair, “Good to hear, Pheeb.”

Listen. I need your help with something, Lou.” He nods but she waits for him to say something.

“Go on then, peanut.”

“So it’s Elliot’s birthday soon, yeah? And Daisy and I wanted to throw her a party because Harry told us last week that she might not be having a party. So I told Harry we’d figure something out but Harry told us not to worry and that obviously didn’t sit well with Daisy because Daisy loves Elliot and so do I and so do you, so will you please help us pay for a bouncy castle?” Once she’s finished, she sits back with her hands clasped and her face patient.

“Um,” Louis starts, a little shocked because in all honesty, he didn’t think Harry and his sisters would remain so close. “Of course. I mean—yeah, of course I will.” He goes quiet for a while. “I didn’t know it was Elliot’s birthday soon.”

He can remember the day though, clear as syrup. They were sat on the front steps of Kendra’s bakery, biting into lemon tarts and drinking from juice boxes. Louis had a calendar in hand, marked down skillfully with the dates of all the people that mean something to them. He remembers Elliot’s voice, soft and subtle and kind, “I came in Jan, Lou. Pa says I’m a lucky star, that I almost missed my landing. I’m still here though.”

It’s hard to pretend that it means so little that he forgot.

He forgot, he forgot, he forgot. How can he expect anything back for his own birthday?

Phoebe shrugs. “Next week, actually. The twenty first of Jan. I’ve got it circled on my calendar and everything.”

“Yeah? That’s awfully organized. Good on you.”

“Thanks, Lou,” she says, grinning, before, “can I ask you something else?”

“Go ahead,” Louis mutters, carding his fingers through her hair.

“Did you meet up with Harry yet?” Louis stops playing with strands almost instantly, hands frozen where they’re caught between his sister’s head and her words. God, how did she know?

“Um, no babe. Not exactly. Why?”

“He misses you, that’s why,” she says gruffly, her back stiff. “I ask him every time I see him, y’know. Ask him: do you miss Lou, Harry? And d’you know what he says every time? He says, “Yeah Pheebs. Elliot misses him too, of course.” He’s never said he doesn’t.”

She traces a finger down Louis’ throat, feeling his pulse and scruff. The movement makes him so, so sad without her even knowing it because Harry used to touch him just like that, just in that the thin expanse of his skin.

“So I just think it’s fair if you meet with everyone who’s missed you these past few days because there’s a lot of us. When you left Lou, you didn’t just leave me and mum and the others. You left behind Haz and El, too, and they’ve missed you just as much as we have.”

He knows what this means, what Harry says when his sisters ask him questions too hard to answer honestly. And d’you know what he says every time? He says, “Yeah Pheebs. Elliot misses him too, of course.” He’s never said he doesn’t.

There isn’t a part of Louis that doesn’t believe that Harry does this, but knows better than to try and understand what it means. Most likely a forced smile accompanying the sentences, his fingers fiddling by the hem of his tee shirt as he tells Phoebe that yeah, I’ve had a chat with Lou, he’s doing well isn’t he? He’s sticking to almond milk, isn’t he?

He’s got a response for that too. Something that means exactly what it says: I know, darling. I’ve missed them too. Instead of that though, he pouts. “Are you upset with me?”

“No.” She sighs, pulling the sound out of her mouth slowly. “I’m not mad Lou, I’m just telling you. Don’t forget about them, yeah?”

“Never, Pheebs.”

“Good.” She nods, hopping off the sofa with a defiant smile. “I’ll see you in the morning!”

“Hey,” he whines, watching her run away. “Come back.”

“Can’t, Lou, I’m sorry. I‘ve got homework.”

“I love you,” he says, looking around for his laptop.

“Love you too, Lou.” He hears her pause and looks up to see her still by the door. “We all do.”

-

In his head, there are two ways meeting Harry could’ve turned out.

There was one, the obvious, the truth, the probability: Harry would tell him to leave. Simple as that. And it’s happened. But then, there was two. Louis held onto option two.

See, he’s a romantic. And he’s good with his words and he knows he’s got a charming smile. He’s got a neurotic heart. He’s passionate and sweet. He’s a goddamn bastard. But he held onto option two; and that was this faint, unusual, unpalatable hope that they’d…find each other almost.

In his dried up tear soaked head, he thought of Harry looking at him and crying and yelling, “You’re home so late, babe, missed you like fuck,” and he’d run to him and pick him up and—see. He’s an impressionable, idiotic, twenty seven year old romantic who should know so much better and he does.

He knew that the chances were none. There was no choice. Option two didn’t exist, and he knew that, but it’s what got him to Harry’s front door. This image, this aspiration that Harry would jump into his arm as if he waiting for Louis; waiting for him all this time.

But he wasn’t, and Louis, in some ways, is glad he’s not.

Because he doesn’t deserve it. Simple as that, Louis doesn’t deserve anything more than what he got—in fact, there should’ve been a slap thrown in there too. Harry should've burnt him with pointy splinters and a cruel tongue. Harry shouldn’t have let Louis leave so easily but he did because Harry used to stare at him once. He used to care about Louis in unmeasurable lengths but Louis fucked it all up, so he’s in no position to hope.

Still, he does.

He thinks of all the different ways he could run into Harry again, without even trying to. At the nearby Iceland maybe. Or at the ballet school like he’s done already. Maybe at Westfield during a Sunday afternoon because he knows Niall likes to take Harry and Elliot both for lunch at the burrito shop in the food court. Or maybe—maybe he should listen to Harry.

It’d be the right thing to do. He’s got nothing else to say, nothing to sweep Harry off his feet. He realizes that night while he’s flat on his back against a rickety sofa that even if he did have all the right words to say like he normally does, it wouldn’t matter. He’s hurt something more sincere to Harry than his heart—he’s hurt Elliot, hasn’t he? And Elliot is Harry’s everything so there’s nothing he can do. He can’t push and crawl his way into Harry’s heart with a sugar melting mouth and he can’t pretend he’ll stay in order to strengthen Harry’s bones. He can’t do anything but wait.

Wait and see. Two weeks, he’s got. In two weeks, if he finds a beloved enough reason to stay, he will.

And he thinks one last time, a fleeting thought with the wind, what could hold him back more than the boy he loves and the daughter he’d do anything to see again?

-

Late January.

Zayn sees a lot of things in black and white.

Simple things, honest things, true things. It’s got an answer and he doesn’t need to ponder over it for longer than necessary. He’s got two hands and half a working head; ten fingers, but only five used to write his name. These things, to him, don’t take time. They happen because they do and he’ll accept them with a furtive nod.

But then there are things in horrible colours; shouting colours; honest colours.

There’s emotion—pathos. It ruins his driven image. And then there’s logic—logos. It ruins the truth. Lastly, there’s ethics. God, his beliefs, his morals—ethos. Questions like, should the death penalty exist and what good is the planned economy. They’re a little harder to decipher, to understand, to pin point.

But midst of all reality, of everything that he knows to be true, there aren’t many times he really needs to care about how he thinks. Not really. Most of the time, he knows what benefits him and what doesn’t and who he should spend time with and why. Decisions regarding work? They’re the easiest. Nobody needs sense as much as they need experience. It’s all black, black, black till a corner turns and it’s all white, white, white. Easy to see, easy to feel, easy to want to hold.

Liam, between his straight to the point pattern, is a little off. He’s a little corner bump and he’s a lot harder to title, file, save. Liam’s kind, with round, round eyes and big, big hands and he’s so, so nice. He’s generally just a caring person who laughs with his body, with flailing arms as he leans to your side. He smiles till you can barely see his eyes between the folds of his crinkles.

Liam’s a glowing thing, a burning thing, a beautiful thing that Zayn wants to know but is afraid of. Liam’s also a new thing, and he’s hasn’t got much experience with boys, per se. Zayn is allowed to get worried sometimes. He never needed to though because Liam hasn’t given him a reason to.

So he’s taken a chance with this bright boy he met through an even brighter boy—what’s his name? Oh yes…yes, how can you forget? Harry.

Harry, Harry, Harry.

Harry fits perfectly into Zayn’s filling process, his paradigm, his sense of balance. Harry’s just like him and completely different and so, so lovely. He’s curly and soft and simple; a silent little thing that doesn’t want more than the world for his daughter and sometimes, Zayn thinks Harry’s the best thing that’s happened to Louis.

His best mate, his partner in crime and partner in smoking behind broken bars, Louis. He thinks Harry’s the best thing that’s ever happened to him because Harry’s forced Louis to do the one thing he’s never been able to do for anybody else before: slow down, breathe, come home.

Come home where? Zayn doesn’t know anymore, but God does he care.

It’s just—at every corner, no matter where he stands, he knows that they hate his best friend. They—Liam, Niall, even Barbara who doesn’t like hating—they want to see Louis swim through acid; wants to see what idiot dared to break their careful friend even more. And he can’t do that. He can’t hope to see his best friend since a coffee spill one college afternoon slip through and into a place with a troubled system—a place so far, that coming home won’t mean anything anymore. Zayn’s selfish that way, really. Selfish on behalf of his boy, Lou, and selfish when he mentions Ben.

Fuck. That wasn’t smart.

He hasn’t seen Louis since the day he showed up at work and they hugged like little brothers with dead mothers and even more distraught fathers. It was the hugging and a blurry flush of I love you before Zayn mentioned a name out of the picture and tugged on something loose and innocent in Louis. Ben, his boss. He’s kind of in love with Harry and very much a dick, so you both would make great friends. How could he say that? Fuck, fuck, fuck. What if Lou’s gone and messed up again.

So he hasn’t seen Lou and he misses Liam because Liam had work earlier. But now it’s Saturday and he’s got Liam’s hand down his pants and he’s thinking of what Louis has done and to what degree he’s fucked up even more.

“Liam,” he gasps like a broken leaf, fluttering and falling and trying to stop. “Liam, listen.”

“What?” He sounds whiny from where he sits, legs around Zayn’s waist on the couch like two paper halves of a book —slowly deteriorating.

“Please, I just—,“ don’t say his name, don’t say his name, Liam’s going to fucking lose it… “Look, it’s about Louis.”

At that, Liam’s hand stops dead where it sits on Zayn’s bare hip, thumb pressing down intently, right where a coloured heart sits warmly. “What?”

Zayn closes his eyes, swallowing round the turgid ring caught in his throat. “A couple days back, when Lou came, he came over and we were talking and—“

“Zayn,” Liam cuts off, getting of his lap so slowly that Zayn can’t even understand if he’s angry and upset or both, damn it. “Zayn, you didn’t tell him to visit Harry.”

“Li—“

“You promised!”

“Babe, just listen to me—“

“Zayn, I swear to God if he goes anywhere near Harry, I’ll kill him. This time, I’ll kill him.” There’s nothing warm or proud or sweet in Liam’s voice. Nothing breakable, nothing unsure.

Zayn, you fucking idiot.

“I told him about Ben,” he admits softly, staring at his palms.

“You what?

“I told him that Ben’s got a soft spot for Harry, and I think—,“ Before he can even finish the sentence, Liam’s walking out the door, muttering incoherently under his breath.

The only thing Zayn manages to decipher is, “Fuck, no wonder Harry’s not coming out. Fuck, he probably thinks I’m going to force him to see the bastard. Fuck.”

“Liam—Li, wait.” He stumbles off the couch, watching as Liam tugs on his jacket and heads for the door. “Liam, don’t just go. Please, just listen to why—“

“You did it because you wanted your friend to be happy, I get it,” Liam says with something akin to vexation drifting between the space of his mouth and the area of Zayn’s ear and it scares him to death. “But you’ve got to understand I’m going to do the same for Harry. He wants to be happy and that's going to be found anywhere away from Louis. You want him to come back? Fine, Zayn. Do it, do whatever you want. But I’m not going to let Louis blurt out forgery promises when he’s done it before, all right? You’re being a friend, and so am I because that means more to me than being your boyfriend. You’re my boyfriend, Zayn but Harry’s my brother.”

“Liam, it’s not like that,” Zayn mutters, panicked. That’s all wrong, that’s not what he wanted at all and fuck. “This isn’t some sort of a competition, Li. This is Harry and Louis and more than that, it’s Elliot and—“

“Do you think I don’t know that?” Liam hisses. “That I don't know who’s going to be most affected by this? That I’m not thinking about the girl who’s seen a boy kiss her father for however long he was here and then just disappear like her mother once did?”

That silences whatever it was Zayn was going to say because the entire Harry and Louis situation, everything about them—it’s all tied up with the little, brilliant girl who understands a little more than she should. How can Zayn say anything back?

He can’t and so he watches as Liam leaves his house, body bare save for his boxers and it’s freezing, but maybe that’s because of the lack of human insulation.

-

27th January.

The thing about staying away from Elliot—like he’s promised to do, like he’s going to do—is that it’s so hard when he finally sees her. So hard that it isn’t fair, but it completely is.

Her hair’s grown, just like her fathers, and she’s glowing.

He’s stood statically behind the tinted windows of his former study, craning his neck every now and then to watch the house full of children buzz up. They’re like fizzy, minute electrons; like energy firing up, stored up just to diffuse into air.

There’s a theme—black and white because Elliot happens to love the combination—but the only one out of place is Elliot herself. She’d come in with an invitation to her own birthday party without even knowing, eyes so shocked as she almost cried. She’d turned back then, Louis remembers from just twenty minutes, and looked up to her father (her golden father, her glowing father, her beautiful, beautiful father) and said, “Pa, why didn’t you tell me?”

She’s seven now - a perfect mess of hair and skin. Perfect, perfect, perfect and Louis just wants to make her smile one last time. Just wants to see if he still can; if any of her teeth have fallen off and if she still wants to see him.

Instead, he’s made Phoebe and Daisy promise not to mention him. The sounds keep getting louder outside, children laughing and crying and coming alive and—and Louis wants it. Louis wants to go back outside. He wants to see Elliot up close and not through spectacles of glass. One more time, one last time.

(He’s got no right, he’s got no right, he’s got no right…)

He stands beside the bookshelf, acutely aware of how his eyes slide past the titles, barely awake and barely interested when the door opens.

He’s about to tell the person, probably a parent that decided to stay back, that this is a private study when he looks up and oh no.

It’s a head full of long waves and it’s a long, slender body and it’s Harry. Harry, who hasn’t noticed him yet because he’s walking towards the table, reaching for the tape. Fuck, the second Harry turns he’ll see Louis and then—then there’s going to be yelling. Maybe. Maybe yelling within the silence. He’ll see the same sharpness he found a week ago. Maybe, maybe, maybe…

“Enjoying yourself?”

What the fuck?

He doesn’t even hear his mouth say it until the question hangs in the air like a levitated body. Harry’s shoulder stills so fast, it must ache.

And who the fuck does Louis think he is? How can he say that when he’s literally done everything wrong and he should leave. He shouldn’t be here at his own home when he left his home for Singapore and everything Singapore represented and Harry’s shaking. Louis watches with his eyes blown as Harry shakes like a wilted petal.

He doesn’t get a response. He wasn’t expecting one.

“Look, Harry, it’s Elliot’s birthday, and I promise I’m not here to do anything. She doesn’t even know I’m here, I—“

“Don’t.” It’s soft and breathless and tired, and it comes without a face. “Don’t say her name. You aren’t allowed to.”

“Harry—“

“Don’t say mine either. At least not to me. I’m sorry for coming in without knocking, I’ll see myself out.”

Fuck, Harry’s speaking to him like he’s the remains of a dead man with no family. As if the situation is so grey and vacant and useless that Harry’s lost any energy to portray anger or hatred. The hatred Louis knows Harry has and the hatred he has for himself, too.

(Fucking idiot, look at what’s happened. You did this. Finally happy, aren’t you?)

“Wait,” he blurts as Harry turns around, eyes trained to the floor. “Wait, I just…Harry, I just want to see her. I won’t say anything to her, and she’ll never know I came back to London, but I just—“

“No,” Harry spits, sharply turning to look at Louis and God, there’s the eyes he spent a summer falling asleep to. There’s the pink mouth and the even pinker cheeks. There’s his boy, his Harry in all his soft, warm glory and Louis loves him. Loves him even as Harry stares at him with all the hate he can manage into his tired body. “Never. This is already too close.”

“Harry,” he starts taking a step closer and he’s not thinking, he’s not, he’s just acting on instinct, he’s reaching his paper thin hands, ready to touch the boy he loves and he’s not thinking, he’s not thinking, he’s not—

And if he was caught in some trance, some strange, uneven cognition, then the blow to his cheek wakes him up. It takes a couple seconds for the sting to settle and a little longer for him to understand what’s just happened: Harry’s slapped him.

Fuck, he could laugh at this if it wasn’t for how much he wants to cry; staring at his boy, his boy who looks scared, as if Louis carries a metal box filled with liquid fire, nozzle aimed at Harry’s heart.

“You never listen,” Harry whispers, so gentle that Louis is sure it’s not for him. He has his hands clutched around his chest, as if he’s holding his heart together, struggling to hold onto every piece. “I just—I just need you to stop, and you can’t even do that, I just. I don’t understand why you hate me so much. What did I ever do to you, Louis? Why do you hate me so much?” He’s crying, oh god, Louis’ made him cry.

The feeling, this feeling, is blue. It’s cold and ringing and blue and he’s made his boy cry. Over and over again and—

Why do you hate me so much?

Louis hates Harry? Does he?

Wait. Wait, no. No, that isn’t right; that’s not a thought for this reality they’re living. No, no, no. No, that’s all wrong. Harry can hate Louis because he deserves it but—but Louis hating Harry? That doesn’t mean anything, that’s not true.

“Baby,” Louis gasps back, shocked and overwhelmed at how vigorously Harry’s shaking; at how suddenly the room is a clouded space for two unsolved boys—men—boys. “Harry.”

“It’s like you’ll come in right when I’m ready to forget you and it’s just ruined everything. Six months of unlearning your name and your taste and your fucking promises, only for you to come back as if you never left. How is that fair?

Harry’s ignoring the way Louis looks at him, the way he tries to look for an opening, a gap where he can slide through and tell Harry that he’s so, so sorry and that he’ll leave again. Again, forever and longer than that.

“Harry, I know. I know you don’t want to see me right now, I know that—“

“You don’t, Louis,” Harry whispers, walking back with no direction until he hits something—hits the bookshelf. “You don’t know anything and you’re horrible. You’re the worst person I’ve ever met and I hate you.”

Before he hears the last part, Louis mutters, “Fuck,” and the door’s opening again.

“Louis?”

A part of him thinks this is it; this is when Elliot sees him and this is where he tells her he’s sorry but yeah, I’m going to have to go again, and this is where he breaks his promise. Fate, it would seem, wants him to keep it a little longer.

“Yeah, hi. D’you want something Dais?” If she turned her head, she’d see Harry staring blankly at the wall behind Louis but she hasn’t noticed him. Instead, she’s looking at Louis.

“Nah, just wanted to see if you’re all right. Elliot’s so pleased with the party, thank you so much Lou.”

“Don’t worry about it, babe. It was a pleasure.”

“You sure you don’t want to see her?”

“Another time, I promise.”

“Yeah? I bet the best surprise for her would be you attending the party.”

Louis glances at Harry quickly, ignoring the way he bites into his hand, “I’m sorry, Daisy.”

She shrugs before she smiles at him and turns back to the living room, closing the door behind her. The ghostly quietness lasts for two, three seconds before Harry’s shuffling across the room, hand reaching for the door.

“Harry wait, look—“

“I told you stay away from her. Now I’m telling you to stay away from me, too.”

Harry faces the door as he says this and Louis is approximately five steps away from him. He can’t take his eyes away from the slope of Harry’s back and the way his hair licks at the bottom of his shirt collar. He had the chance to love the most beautiful boy, he really did.

“Liam says you came to visit your family? Visit your family. Forget about mine. Forget about us like you did so easily before because we’re learning to forget about you.”

Shut up, Louis wants to say. Shut up, shut up, shut up! It was easy to forget about you? You’re one thing I’ll never, ever stop remembering. You and your daughter and the way you cried for your sister the one night I promised you I’d stay. Do you think it was easy? The only thing easy about leaving you was hating myself for it, so shut up and listen and please don’t say you hate me because I love you, I do. I swear I do. I love you, I love you, I love you…

The air changes, a presence leaves and he turns around to see he’s alone. Alone and crying.

-

He hears the last part right when he’s about to fall asleep—

“You don’t know anything and you’re horrible. You’re the worst person I’ve ever met and I hate you.”

Louis has had his fair share of tragedies—an absent father since his birth and the god awful time he had in High School for his sexuality and whatnot, but nothing shakes him—rattles him with pointy nails and a sharp mouth—as much as that last part and it’s mostly because it’s true.

It’s all fucking true and Louis hates that. He’s manipulative, he’s a liar, he’s disgusting and he’s washed in blood because nobody wants to touch; they’ll look because it’s so fucking new, he’s covered in blood!—but they won’t ever touch like Harry has. He knows all the right things to say because he likes things going his way and he’s terrible at relationships; he’s barely had one since the breakup with his last boyfriend back when he was graduating university.

So he keeps listening to Harry—you’re horrible, the worst person I’ve ever met—and he doesn’t want to be that. He doesn’t ever want to be that, not to Harry, so come the next week, he doesn’t look back. He doesn’t search the blue streets for a golden girl. He leaves like it’s the best thing he knows to do.

You’re the worst person I’ve ever met and I hate you.

-

Five months later

June, Singapore.

“I want you to take me to the toilet,” he hears into his ear like a silk scarf. The mouth against his lobe is wet and warm. He wants to tug on his trousers—slide his fingers down his pockets to feel the way his flaming skin jumps with every word. “And fuck the living daylights out of me. Just for the fun of it.”

Fuck. Louis grunts in response, hands tightening around the thigh of this—this boy; this person he’s got his leg against, this person he’s been fucking for the past month.

“Jeremy, stop—just, just wait till we get—“

“But Lou,” he whispers, his nimble fingers sliding up Louis’ trousers, hidden under the dim lights and bar table. “I don’t wanna wait till we get home. I want you now. Please, Lou, you know how much—“

“Jeremy, if you don’t stop talking right now—“

“You’ll fuck my throat? Tie me up with your belt so that I have to carry marks to work tomorrow? Tell me Lou, what are you going to do to me if I don’t stop talking right now?”

He knows how to do this—how to change Louis’ plan, how to get what he wants. They’d come out to meet up with some business partners; just a quick meet up over a beer like it’s common.

But now the night’s older, turning itself into the music. Jeremy gets horny and he knows how to get Louis horny too.

“I won’t.”

“You won’t what?”

“I won’t touch you, babe. At all.”

That halts Jeremy’s hand, makes him look up with shaded eyes that look so ready to punch Louis in the face, he’s ready for the blow to land. See, Jeremy may know to get what he wants, but so does Louis.

“You will, Louis. If I can just get your cock in my mouth, I’d—“

“I won’t, sweetheart. You know I won’t.”

Jeremy’s jaw clenches and—and he’s a beautiful boy. He’s stunning. Olive skin and olive eyes and a gorgeous mouth that Louis loves to fuck. He’s slick black hair and a young mind; so young. His Caucasian father and Filipino mum are still in the dark about their son’s love for men. Older men. Men like Louis with too much money and a heart already gone for someone else.

Jeremy doesn’t want strings attached and he sure as hell doesn’t want Louis—his boss—to be his boyfriend. He wants a nice dick and coordinated schedules so that he’s happy and so is Louis. He doesn’t need anything more than what Louis has to give anymore.

Louis hasn’t got much to give anymore.

“Dammit Louis,” he grumbles, sliding his hands up and down his thighs. “Fuck you, honestly. It’s always so abstract with you; sometimes you wanna bend me over your desk and sometimes you—you’re all, wait till we get home, darling. God. I’m not twelve, okay? I can get home myself, I can decide when I want to have sex.”

Louis just grins, shaking his head. “I’m not that much older than you, Jay. Have I ever treated you like a minor?”

“Yes.”

“Well, jeez babe.”

“Let’s go home.” He turns so that suddenly, all Louis gets is a face full of lashes and eyes so brown, they’re unfamiliar. “Right now. Your idiot business partners from London have gone off, so lets go too.”

“No need to be rude—“

“Louis, I’m counting to fucking one and if you’re not up, I’m going home.” He looks Louis dead in the eye and a part of Louis, the part that still tells him, what the fuck are you doing, you don’t love this boy, you love the other boy, you love the one with green and brown and pink, you love him what are you doing, is shouting, jumping, telling him to stay sitting, just so he’ll miss one more night with someone that isn’t Harry.

He gets up anyway, following Jeremy’s slender back out of the club and into his car outside.

-

“Louis, you’re an idiot if you think another beer’s gonna soothe your migraine.” He ignores the sound, uncapping the bottle before he gets his mouth on the rim.

In Singapore, it’s always okay to walk around in boxers because it’ll never be too cold. In Singapore, it’s illegal for Louis to fuck another boy, have a relationship with another boy, but there’s Jeremy on his window sill; naked kept the singlet he’s borrowed from Louis’ wardrobe, a cigarette tucked in his mouth.

“Fuck off.”

“Whatever.” Louis watches as the boy in olive skin presses his fingers against the window, chasing the falling raindrops across the panel. It’s not hard to admit—he’s fond of the boy. It’s the first thing closest to a relationship he’s had since last summer and it’s nice. Another hand, another body, another cock—it’s all nice. Wonderful even. The guilt that simmers like current later on though…that’s not as nice.

It’s ridiculous, too. It’s not like Louis has other commitments, as if he’s betraying someone, but God would he give up everything right now—the boy sat beside the windowsill, a Bentley parked downstairs, the dazzling city lights—to be committed to the one place he lost once. Once long ago. Once so long ago. Remembering it feels like remembering a dream; something so blurred, it barely feels real.

“So tell me about him,” Jeremy says, following their routine. Louis walks up to sit on his desk. The apartment is drenched in cool lights, a dying moon, and there’s a used condom in the wastebasket.

Louis sighs. “I’ve told you everything.”

“No, you haven’t.”

If it were Harry here right now, Louis could imagine the scene. Louis would remain where he is now, sat on the chair by his desk, and Harry would wait by the door. He’d be wearing one of Louis’ sweaters, only because he likes air-conditioning scratching up the covered sleeves. He’d slip into Louis’ lap softly, without a sound.

They’d be touching—constantly, all the time. As if they’re made up of ferocious hands and mouth watering kisses and a glowing sun. Elliot would be here too, sleeping in the room Louis still keeps empty, to this day. That’s what it’d be like if he’d done things differently. What things? God, everything. But it’s hard to tell how accurate he is about his speculation because times have started to change and the Harry Louis once knew is not the Harry he would meet on the streets today.

What he has with the boy by the windowsill—there’s no touching beyond super hot, super incredible sex. After that, it’s empty words and empty thoughts and the mutual agreement that at any point, what they have will cut off completely and will disappear the second one of them finds something more worthwhile.

“What do you want to know, then?” Louis asks.

“Tell me what he tasted like.”

Louis grins at this closed laptop. “What? His mouth or his dick?”

He can feel Jeremy roll his eyes.

“You’re so stupidly immature,” he mumbles so softly, Louis barely hears. “His skin, you idiot. I don’t mean it literally. I just want to know what it generally felt like to taste him.”

Jeremy doesn’t know this boy’s name, nor does he know where he’s from. He just knows that this boy has Louis’ heart and that Louis has done something terrible, terrible because he’s let this boy go. He knows that whatever Louis had with the boy is gone because of Louis (only because there hasn’t been a time Louis hasn’t made that clear—it was me. I fucked up in every way. It was never him and it’ll ever be him because he was perfect in his own way, okay? It was me, it was always me).

And Jeremy asks about him because he knows Louis wants to talk about him. He may not know Louis too well, nor does he love him in any way, but he knows Louis hasn't gone for anyone here in Singapore. He also asks because it’s—it’s so tangible. Whatever Louis had with his perfect boy was incredible while it lasted and it was love even though no one said it out loud and he’s—Jeremy’s a twenty one year old intern with absolutely no clue about anything, especially not about love, and here’s this man he’s been seeing. His boss. And here’s the story of his boss.

“Fine,” Louis huffs, slowing down. He loves talking about his boy. In every way, even if it’s to the person he’s seeing instead of his boy. He loves to talk about his boy. He loves to hear about his boy. He loves his boy. “He…he was sweet. And he always tasted warm.”

Jeremy snorts, but in a way that suggests he’s surprised, so Louis doesn’t stop. He usually doesn’t when he speaks about Harry. He’d never stop if it weren’t for the fact that he had to.

“He wore moisturizer, so his skin was always soft and it always smelled like candies, or…or like something sweet. Something comfortable. So his taste felt the same. Sweet. Soft. The best thing in the fucking world.”

Louis does this thing when he mumbles about a place he loves. He can’t mutter half truths, even if it is to someone barely listening; someone just wondering.

“And did he kiss well then?”

Louis rolls his eyes. “Of course he did. He was the best at everything.”

“You’re sure?” Louis glances at him once, just to see the way he pulls his legs up to his chest. There are these similarities between Jeremy and Harry that he can’t help but notice. The way they both mumble and the way they curl up in bed and the way they barely have anything figured out, yet they’re so sure they’ll be fine. They’ll be fine.

“I’m trying not to be jealous,” Jeremy says, snorting.

“Good luck, pal.”

“Damn Lou, you sure know how to make a boy feel special.” Louis laughs, shaking his head.

“Whatever, Jay.”

“C’mon,” he mumbles, standing up. “Let’s fuck again. We’ve got at least four hours till we’ve got to get to work.”

“Again?” Louis asks, raising an eyebrow. “I don’t think my dick can keep up with you.”

“Brilliant. That means I’ll always have the upper hand.”

“But you want me to fuck you anyway.”

“Of course.” He’s already at Louis’ bed, a tan boy melting into the white sheets. He looks edible right then; as if Louis could pick him up with one hand and cover him whole with the other. And if he shuts his eyes as he crawls in after Jeremy, he can almost make out Harry’s shape in the shadows—a curve against the light that matches a burning brown. Slender fingers stretching out; yearning, calling out, come home Lou, come home to me. And if he tries hard enough, he can almost feel him here, feel his dying presence, his fading sound, the beautiful tug that makes living this life bearable.

“Hurry up, Louis,” the boy beneath him says. “Hurry up.”

-

On a blurry Thursday afternoon, with accounts spread over his desk like the pamphlets to a brand new death bed, Mel walks in with her threadbare notebook that dubs as the planner she keeps for Louis and a crisp, white letter in her other hand. All of it, in retrospect, should feel like any other normal day. Except for the fact that Louis doesn’t get handwritten letters. Especially not sent to his office.

“What’s this Mel?” he mumbles, frowning over the rim of his Police glasses. He’s got a format for his next meeting set out in front of him and there’s about five different people congratulating him on his most recent Most Influential Overseas Entrepreneur award from the Asian Banks ceremony held just last weekend.

He almost forgot about that night. It was golden and fast and sharp all over the messed up edges. He had fucked Jeremy with his Lanvin trousers on, white pearls decorating the seams like a blessing.

“‘M not quite sure, sir. Mr. Malik dropped me an email earlier telling me to pass this on. I found it on my desk this morning.”

She fiddles around with Louis’ file folder for his most recent deal with HSBC. Not only was the deal idiotic and impulsive, but it also required Mel to work double time in order to keep Louis in order.

“Is it more important than me looking over the meeting format?”

“I don’t know sir.”

“Do you think it is?”

For most of the part, the relationship he’s got with Mel is seen as an example of the imbalance in power distribution. Not only does Mel do everything perfectly, she does it in a way that seems too robotic. After nearly a year, Louis has managed to get her to look at him in the eye without flushing.

“See, Mr. Tomlinson,” she starts slowly, carefully, threading her sleek, polished hand over the drawers pressed against the far left of his office, “you don’t exactly get post mails that often. At least not sent directly to the office. So in terms of importance, I honestly wouldn’t know, but in the name of curiosity...I’d go with the mail, sir.”

Louis chews his lips. “You think?”

Mel shrugs noncommittally, grinning softly. “Yeah, I do. Should I get you your coffee ready, sir?”

“Please.”

“Of course. I’ll have the progress summary of this week sent to you after then. You’ll need to respond to every branch individually, as you know, so I suggest we get that out of the way before lunch so that I can have it edited and emailed back—”

“Mel?” he interrupts, blinking up at her in a manner that suggests he can’t keep track of what she’s saying, nor does he want to. “I trust you with my life. If I need to have the responses done by lunch, I’ll have them done by lunch. Please just make my coffee extra strong today. Thank you.”

Mel nods, smiling at him fondly. “Of course, Mr. Tomlinson.”

Once she leaves, it’s just him and his desk. His stare falls back to the letter and—and it’s quite endearing, really. The edges of the paper are faltering, bent around the corners, and his name is written in a messy, unrecognizable scrawl. Without giving it much thought, he tears the letter open. Inside, there’s a folded up lined page and a pink ribbon. Odd.

Only—only once he’s opened the lined page and skipped to the end does his breathing catch; in fact, he nearly falls off his chair. It’s the same one Jeremy’s ridden him on countless times.

Fuck, he’s going to be sick because right at the bottom of the page, in detached lines and a darling swirl, is Elliot’s name.

-

“Louis, I don’t know,” is Zayn’s response to him when Louis calls him up and demands to know what this letter is about. “Look mate, it’s been a year okay? I don’t know why Elliot would still want to contact you, to be honest. All I know is that she wanted the letter to get to you and that I couldn’t bear to see her sad, so I did what she wanted.”

“Zayn,” Louis gasps over the phone. His nose is red and he’s already been crying, but he hasn’t read the letter yet. “Zayn, fuck, I can’t read it. What the fuck, Zayn, I thought it was over. I thought this was useless, a space I can’t do anything else about.”

“Louis, look,” Zayn blurts out and Louis can’t see him, but he can sense his faint panic. Zayn’s probably scampering from one end of his office to the other. His tone is scared and unsure; as if he’s worried Louis might just make another incredibly insane mistake. “Louis, listen to me, okay? Listen to me carefully. I don’t know what the letter says, I don’t know what Elliot could possibly be trying to tell you right now, but don’t you dare make the mistake of ignoring this.”

When Louis makes a whimpering sound, something faint and pathetic. Zayn has to yell at him over the phone in order to make him listen. Make him finally listen.

“Louis, get a fucking grip. Louis. Listen to me. Babe, darling, doll, you’ve got to listen to me, okay? Liam thinks I’m wrong and he’s threatened to break up with me countless times, but I know that what happened between you and the Styles—what you left each other at—it isn’t finished. Okay? I’m probably the only one who thinks this—you don’t even think this—but I’m not willing to let this go again. How long has it been, Lou? How long’s it been since you last saw them?”

Louis holds onto the phone with two hands. It’s true, the whole thing with Zayn and Liam. They’d been fighting about him and Harry; about what right Louis had anymore. This is done and this is useless and it’s time to let it go, Z. There’s nothing left for me here because there’s nothing I deserve from here.

Out of everyone, Zayn’s been the only one to talk to him about Harry and Elliot and Anne and Robin. Even when he doesn’t ask, because he doesn’t anymore, Zayn will tell him, “El had an audition today. I drove them and Haz was so, so excited for her. Nervous, but so excited. They both were. Niall reckons she’s got the lead coz he was there with Harry, but Elliot’s been so modest about it. Harry hasn’t stopped talking about...”

Zayn’s the only one who thinks he still deserves to know and but Louis knows he doesn’t. He doesn’t deserve any bit of Harry anymore, any bit of Elliot. Any bit of that happiness he willingly let go.

“Tell me, Lou, how long has it been?” Zayn asks again.

They both know the answer. “Too long,” Louis whispers, voice cracking desperately. “It’s been too long, Z. I miss them.”

“I know, darling. I know, but I don’t care. Don’t make the mistake of ignoring the letter, Lou. Read it. Think of what it might say. Let go only when you know you have to, not when you’re scared of hearing the truth.”

And so, come that night, he cancels his plans with Jeremy. That’s all he’s been doing lately: fucking Jeremy and looking at Jeremy and talking indirectly about Harry with Jeremy. He opens the letter and he reads it. He’s not going to repeat what it says, not to anyone, but the ribbon had fallen off during the audition, right off of Elliot’s hair, and she misses him right back.

-

He flies back to London the next morning, booking the first flight and barely packing his suitcase, but a girl he loves more than the sun misses him and he has to see her. It’s been too long.

-

“Louis, this isn’t a good idea.” He’s sat outside Elliot’s Ballet School because it’s Friday and he wants to see her and he’s an idiot, and Zayn’s looking him in the eye. Louis got Zayn to drive him there, him barely pressing a kiss to his mum’s cheek before he ran out of the door to catch the metro. He’s still in the suit he wore to the plane.

It’s not like this is the first time he’s visited after his two weeks in January. He came home at least once every month, if only for a couple days, and that in itself was hard enough. The journey itself took over ten hours, depending on the layovers if there were any. This time, he’s at home just for a minute, just for a second, just to see someone who’s written to him as if they don’t know any better.

“Fuck, what am I supposed to do, Zayn?” He looks at him with some sort of desperation—something vivid and flustered and agitated, something disorientated, something unsure. He doesn’t have a book to follow, rules, suggestions, things he can ask anymore. He’s got honesty and he’s got the decisions he’s made and he doesn’t know where to go from there.

“Louis, look,” Zayn mutters, wrapping an arm around his shoulder. “I’m glad you came back, okay? I’m glad you’re here and I’m glad you opened the letter, but. But standing outside her school like this isn’t—it’s isn’t fair. Not to Harry. Not to Harry who asked you not to do this.”

“Then what is fair, Zayn? What can I do without fucking up even more?”

Zayn goes quiet, but it’s not because he’s speechless. He’s hesitant, especially when he says, “Talk to Harry.”

At that, Louis snorts bitterly. “Yeah, yeah, you know what? That’s actually the best fucking idea you’ve had so far. Honestly, Zee, it’s as if—”

“Shut up, Louis,” Zayn cries, narrowing his eyes. “If you don’t want my help, don’t fucking ask for it. I don’t why I’m helping you with this anyway; it’s not like you deserve this. It’s not like you deserve a letter from Elliot asking you to come home.”

That leaves Louis stunned. Not the harshness of Zayn’s words, but the honesty in them. How much he’s right—it leaves Louis’ mouth agape, shuddering a winter breath into his lungs during the storm of summer.

Zayn sighs, looking out the window. “Look,” he says, “I didn’t—I don’t mean that, Louis. Fuck. I just think—”

Louis laughs again, but this time, it carries a sadness with it like a stamp. “No, Zayn. You’re right. You’re absolutely right. I don’t deserve them—”

“Louis,” Zayn blurts, reaching for his hand.

No, Zayn. I don’t. It’s true.” He looks at the building sat in front of him. It’s the same place he found Harry after they’d kissed for the very first time and left each other for the very first time. He doesn’t know if he’s allowed in there again, even if it’s just to meet his sisters. He doesn’t know if he’ll let himself in.

“It’s completely true. I don’t deserve it but I have it anyway. I don’t know if I’m allowed to want them anymore, I really don’t, but I do and—and I’m not going to fuck it up again, yeah? Not again.”

Zayn looks at him sadly; as if he knows what he’s thinking, as if he can feel the itch in Louis’ heart second hand. “All right, Lou. Not again.”

Louis nods as Zayn pulls out of the parking lot. “Not again.”

-

Harry picks up the phone after the fifth ring, and hearing his voice feels like swimming through new tides for Louis. It’s as if he’s been away from the ocean for longer than time, and when he wades through the streams, he finds he’s forgotten to swim.

“Hey, Z.”

He stops, mouth flickering like a light out of flame.

“Hi,” he breathes, gripping onto his jeans. He’s at Zayn’s house and Zayn’s at work. It’s a warm day, but he’s drowning in the room. He’s forgotten how to swim.

The other line goes dead and Louis fears Harry’s hung up on him, except—except he hasn’t. He’s still there. That—that’s good, isn’t it?

“Who is this?”

Oh, but the question is even worse. Louis feels his throat tighten, clinging onto its restraints like he’s trying not to fall off an edge made of stone.

“It’s Louis,” he says, closing his eyes. “It’s Louis, Harry.”

I know, he can almost hear from the other line, I was giving you a chance to lie.

Harry doesn’t say anything more, he doesn’t have to, because he figures it out then—Louis using Zayn’s phone can only mean Louis is around Zayn. And that means he’s in London and that’s too close. Here, as they both cry through the different ends of the same boat, it’s too close.

Louis hears a sharp intake of breath and then Harry hangs up.

-

So Louis writes back. He doesn’t tell anyone, doesn’t bother to think of anything. He just writes down things he wishes he could tell Elliot, wishes he could say to her face to face. He writes and he cries, too, wet droplets staining the paper till it gets late and the salt water dries up. He writes the letter, but he doesn’t send it. Not this way.

-

Friday, June. London.

“Louis, it’s honestly a pleasure to have you back.” Simon’s in a tailored suit when he says this, sat in a convention hall one glamorous Friday night. The party’s filled with guests: already famous artists and upcoming artists and artists with burnt flames. There’s the recent X Factor winner, Ben Haenow, sitting right across U2 and Louis had been rooting for him when the show was still running. It’s a party night filled with sparkly champagne and Cosmopolitans and mature wine. Louis is only here because of Zayn.

He’d asked to meet with Harry one last time and he asked Liam. He told him, clear as a night sky during summer, “I just need to give him something and I’ll be gone. That’ll be it Liam, I swear. I won’t say anything, I won’t try anything. I’ll just give him a letter and go.

Liam, of course, punched him in the face and told him to fuck off. Zayn, later on, served as much more help. He told him Simon was having a party. The caterer Liam works for was hired the particular night and that the chances of Harry working was pretty favourable. So he called Simon who he’s been friends with since Louis began his business and he’s wearing a suit and a smile so wide, he’s sure every can see the plastic edges. He’s just waiting for Harry to come.

There’s a part of him that can’t wait. God, it always seems too long, the time between he sees Harry. From days to weeks to months. It just gets longer and longer and longer and Louis knows—he knows it’s going to come to the point where it’ll be full years. Groups of years, couplets of years, decades of years. He won’t see Harry after this night. And a part of him knows that.

Then there’s this other part of him that knows he isn’t ready. He’ll never be ready to see Harry. Because Harry hates him and Harry thinks he’s the worst human alive and Louis deserves it, he does, but he isn’t ready to hear it. He’s scared because Harry is scary.

He’s pretty and lovely and he wears the kindest smile sometimes and his eyes shine when they cry and he’s the scariest person Louis has ever met because Harry can hurt him more than anyone can and yet Louis is the one doing all the hurting. He’s got wounds from it himself, aftermath punches and blue blisters, but Harry’s nurturing broken limbs.

He isn’t ready and yet he can’t wait. All he’s got to do is give him the letter and hope he’ll pass it to Elliot. The chances are slim. Harry’ll probably throw it away the second Louis leaves, or even while he’s there, but at least he’ll know he had tried. It’s pathetic, but maybe that’ll be enough to get him to move on.

“No, it’s great to be back Simon. Thank you for having me,” he says.

They’re standing around, talking, mingling, and Louis wants to throw up over the dark maroon carpets. Zayn, on his part, is nowhere to be found. He’s wearing the same suit he wore to Dais and Phoebe’s party last year because he’s a sentimental idiot. The suit is tight, especially around the arms, but he’s hoping it’ll bring some sort of luck.

“Shut up, Louis. If I’d known you’d be in town I would’ve invited you in person,” Simon says, the quirk of lip looking a lot like a smile.

“I know.”

“Good.” Simon nods before he nods to the appetizer buffet. When Louis shakes his head no, Simon walks away with a smile and Louis is left alone like a stranded island sheltered for one.

The people move around and Louis pointedly moves towards the upcoming artists; the ones with the sparkly eyes and shaky hands, standing to the side as if not to disturb their space. He talks and talks and talks about absolute bullshit—about how Singapore the best thing he’s ever done, how lovely he’s settling in, how he’s found a home in the feeling of working, rather than the feeling of warmth.

It’s only twenty minutes later when he spots waiters and waitresses walking around with tray full of golden liquid and sugary fire, alcohol, alcohol, fruit. Crab cakes and prawns fried in lemon and lime. Dainty little breadcrumbs to give your hands something to do, something to hold, till you plop the sour taste into your mouth and swallow it with a gulp of melted stars and continue on bullshitting for the day. Why Louis thinks this, he doesn’t know. He’s just so tired and the flight Mel booked for him leaves tomorrow noon and that’s nowhere enough time because he was planning to sleep till noon and Heathrow is so far—

A plate shatters in the distance, from behind a closed door, and suddenly, Louis sees him and it’s all he can see.

He’s looking around, wide eyed, and his plate is filled with the little spinach and cheese fritters that Louis had tried, and he’s making his way towards the shattered plate, somewhere behind closed doors. Fuck.

Louis feels as if he barely got a glance. Because he’s seen him now, hasn’t he? He’s seen him and he can’t get enough. It’s like learning how swim again, the victorious feeling of rebirth, and Louis wants to swim through every shore, over and over again. He wants to keep looking at Harry, over and over again.

And the second he sees him, a quick light of green eyes and a pink mouth, and he’s gone.

He almost walks behind the doors, just to see him, but right then, Zayn comes up to him with a spread hand to his chest; his fingers press into the fabric of Louis’ shirt and he can Zayn’s eyes flicker around uncertainly. “Lou, are you sure you want to see him today?”

Louis frowns. “Don’t tell me Liam changed your mind.”

“He didn’t. I just want to make sure that you still want to do this. The last time you spoke to him alone, you left the country spontaneously and didn’t return for another two months. This time...”

“This time is the last time. Either way, no matter how tonight goes, I’ve got a flight tomorrow and I won’t see him again.”

“Lou—”

“Here’s the truth, Z: if I could, I would see him everyday and nothing else. More than anything, I want him back and I want Elliot back and I wish I had listened to you a year ago, but I didn’t. If anything, I’m excited to see him. I won’t have a reason to again.”

Zayn looks at him quietly. Then, softly, he says, “Loving him is a big enough reason to see him again.”

Louis smiles at him, but it’s littered in sadness and misery, as if the youth in him has been sucked up and spent. “But him not loving me, not wanting me around, is a big enough reason to stay away.”

Zayn sighs. Nodding, he mutters, “Okay. Be careful.”

“This is Harry we’re talking about Z. The kid with the biggest heart. He can’t hurt me as much as I hurt him. It’s practically impossible.”

“I wasn’t talking about Harry,” Zayn says fondly, “I meant you. You be careful around him because—”

“Because I don’t deserve it.”

Zayn sighs again, leaning in to give him a peck on the cheek. “That’s an awfully awful way to put it, pal.”

“It’s the truest way to put it.”

“Then listen to it, all right? Stick to what you said you were gonna do. After tonight...” he stops to blink languidly, taking Louis’ hand to lead him towards one of the tables. “After tonight, you’ll have to let him go.”

It sounds too bitter and Louis almost wishes it weren’t true. But he knows; he can’t be selfish anymore. He can’t keep coming back to the family to hurt them more than before. He’s got to let them go.

A voice in him says he already has. He’s already let them go and now he’s come back to catch them; latch onto them. A voice in him says that he knows what it means to let them go. He knows what it connotes, what feelings come along with losing somebody because that’s what tonight is, isn’t it? It’s losing Harry and Elliot and leaving behind a letter that’s as good as torn.

He turns to look at the party and it’s picking up pace. The music’s gotten louder (but it could just be the drums in Louis’ ears) and there’s obnoxious laughter filling up the system. Ridiculously rich people splash watery silver into each other’s faces and ridiculously unknown people grin from the background. All of this, of course, is a metaphor for what money does and what it brings. Money can’t buy happiness but money is happiness and that’s why Louis is at Singapore, isn’t he? For him mum and sisters? For a full insurance and even more?

Louis can’t buy happiness but he’s got the next best thing. It should be enough.

But when he turns his head away from the big mouths and the big pockets, fuck, he sees him again.

Harry and Harry and Harry; gliding across it all.

Everyone watches him. Louis can see it, even from where he sits with a shell shocked expression blossoming across his face. Everyone’s got their eyes on the beautiful waiter with the slender finger and soft face. Louis can see it and Louis hates it, but Louis doesn’t matter anymore and everyone’s staring at his boy.

Before he knows it, he’s walking over because his boy is right there, smiling at some man with grabby hands who should take two steps back or else Louis’ going to go dizzy with that same acetous feeling he felt when he heard the name Zayn had muttered to him five months ago. Fuck, he isn’t sure what he’s thinking, everything sort of blurry, but only because Harry’s there like a nicotine aftertaste, getting him warm and fuzzy and fucked up.

Harry moves on then, sliding past people, holding out the lavish tray full of food Louis doesn’t care about. He’s moving too fast, like a hurricane made up of slow wind and a cold hand. His skin looks blue with how quickly he’s stepping across the hall; as if he dancing with some sound attuned to him alone; flirting shyly with time as he hurries to empty his tray and head back inside the closed doors.

He’s good at it too, making time go by faster, and as quickly as Louis gets up to catch him, he’s gliding back towards the doors. Fuck. Louis moves behind him and he isn’t thinking straight. The sounds around him are getting louder and he feels manic, crazy, panicking and Harry’s so fast; he’s so beautiful and quick to slip from Louis’ hands and—and hands, yeah, he just needs—

His fingers brush the cotton of Harry’s shirt and he’s turning around swiftly. It’s so stupid, but it’s true when Louis notices that everything gets dipped in cool, cool candy and everything starts slowing down. Around him, decadent buds of flower fill his ears, as if something stuffing him full. A beautiful, darling, plastic smile colours Harry’s face as he turns, so sure it’s something he’s got to get a refill for, but Louis can see as the colour leaves. Carefully, as Harry draws in an ageless breath, his smile drops to the ground like a hairclip gone loose. Harry takes a step back and Louis can’t do a single thing about it. About the fact that now, when Harry will see him, a smile on him will erase and he’ll want to go as far away as possible. That, in itself, feels like punishment.

“Uh,” Louis starts because he’s done many things to get him so much, but he hasn’t got time. Not now. “Can—can I talk to you?”

He notices something grey and blue alight in Harry’s eyes. Something that gives Louis his answer before Harry even says anything.

“Don’t touch me,” is what Harry says first. Louis lets his hands retreat, aware of how they grip onto Harry tightly. “And no we can’t.”

He turns back just as fast. Louis doesn’t dismiss the way Harry mouth has never felt as harsh before.

He’s slipping again as he moves away, but—but Louis knows today he’s going to let Harry go. So Louis moves with him.

“Harry, wait, just—,” he tugs on his arm but he doesn’t turn, “just listen to me. I have one last—one last thing to give you and one last thing to say and then I’m gone. I swear to God Harry, this is it.”

“I don’t believe you. Let me go.” He sounds so calculated; as if he’s had this scenario planned and the answer memorized.

“Please, Harry,” he says again, except—something in his voice sounds more genuine than anything before. “Five minutes and I’m gone. I won’t come near you or Elliot. I’ll leave you for as long as you want me to and longer than that if you just...just give me five minutes. Five more minutes.”

He doesn’t get a response. He only gets a vacant sound. He gets time around him going to sleep, the night turning to stardust, and Harry’s silence. He gets that for what feels like forever.

“Five minutes. Go to the second floor toilet and—,” he finally turns around, his eyes shiny and gold, like turgid gems filled with soft gum, “and I swear, if you try anything—”

“Nothing. I won’t touch you.”

Harry snorts, turning around. And just before he goes, he says so softly that Louis is sure he isn’t supposed to hear, “Not again.”

-

Louis gets to the toilet before him and the letter tucked into his suit pocket feels heavy and burning. His hands are shaking, his fingers are cold and biting; he feels restless.

A drink—that’s what he needs. One drink, two drinks, ten drinks...just to keep his mouth from popping and his head from reeling in and out.

There’s a faint excitement in it; talking to Harry one last time. But then there’s the fact that it’s one last time. This is all he’s gonna get. Five minutes till a summer of falling in love is going to remain a faltered memory; something caramelized and hung up on lusterless walls. Five minutes till he gets to leave home, go back to Singapore and a boy he’ll fuck without any regards to anything.

It’s sad though because he talks about Harry with Jeremy, doesn’t he? And after tonight, he’s only going to have so much to say. Slowly, Harry’s going to turn to something he feels rather than something tangible. A year, two years, ten years...is he even going to remember?

God, he doesn’t want to think of that. God, not of forgetting Harry. Not that. Because forgetting Harry is like forgetting himself and how does that even make sense? How can he love someone he’s left for longer than known?

He doesn’t know how long Harry’s going to take. He doesn’t even know what he’s going to say, but he knows he’s not going anywhere.

Not a minute later, the doors are opening, and Harry’s entering the empty toilets.

His head is ducked and he looks ready to go home—tired and fed up and kicked to the curb by something Louis has done himself. He isn’t sure what to say, isn’t sure what he can say, but he knows that he wants to touch him. But fuck. He’s not allowed to do that.

“You’ve got five minutes,” Harry says, walking to the wall opposite Louis, leaning against the plaster. He doesn’t look angry; in fact, he doesn’t look as if he’s feeling anything. “Hurry up.”

“Okay, fuck, look—I-I got this—this letter from...from Elliot like three days ago and—”

“Wait,” Harry says, standing straight, frowning. “Who?”

“Elliot.”

“What the fuck?”

“Look, I know—doesn’t make sense, but I—”

“Louis, you expect me to believe my daughter sent you a letter?” Harry asks him incredulously. His eyes shine and for once, he isn’t staring at Louis like he hates him; he’s staring at him like he’s mad, which. That’s got to be better than before.

“Yes,” Louis says quietly. “And I wrote her one back. Except, I haven’t sent. I just—”

“Wait.” Harry holds a hand up, frowning. “Elliot sent you a letter? Elliot?

If the situation was different, Louis would grin at the crease of Harry’s forehead, the small dent by his eyebrows and the faint pout of his lips. He’s so beautiful. Fuck. Louis can’t think of that.

“Yeah,” Louis says, fighting back a smile because fuck he’s not supposed to smile.

“She’s seven,” Harry deadpans, the placid look crawling back. “She doesn’t know where you live.” Then, turning to look at Louis in the eye, he adds, “None of us do.”

Louis shrinks back. He knows what that means.

“Zayn helped her,” he adds, looking down. “He said she wanted him to send it for her.”

Harry doesn’t say anything and Louis wonders if today, not only will Louis let him go, but if a bit of Harry that trusted Zayn will go as well.

“I just—I wrote her a letter back. It—it talks about you, too.” He fumbles for it behind his jacket and he can’t meet Harry’s eye. “I wanted to give it to you so that you could...I dunno. I thought you should have it first.” He walks towards him, holding the envelope out. “It has my address in Singapore written in the end in case you wanted to write back, but.”

He stops himself and he thinks, I’ve done it now. I’ve ruined it. Ruined what? He doesn’t know.

“I don’t know.” He watches as Harry holds the envelope, turns it around in his hands as if the paper is the heart of a hummingbird gone mad. In the midst of it, as he watches Harry frown at the letter, he manages to blurt something out cautiously; something he can’t ask and something he didn’t even know he wanted to know:

“Why didn’t you look for me after I left you that morning? I wasn’t going to leave for another week. I just needed one reason to stay.”

Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck. Fuck. Fuck, what?

He can’t ask that and he knows; God, he knows, he knows, and he asked for five minutes and he just had to give the letter and—and Zayn had said. He said: “Stick to what you said you were gonna do,” that’s all Louis had to do, he knows, but fuck it if he isn’t going to ask before he lets Harry go and—

“Fuck you,” Harry gasps, looking at him as if he’s murdered the sun. “It was not ‘I had a week to find you,’” Harry says and there’s something clawing at Louis, something that makes him bombastic, something that’s going to kill him at the sound of Harry spitting bloody poison at him. “It was ‘you had a week to come back.’ And you didn’t.”

“But you—,” Louis starts, taking a step forward without even realizing. It’s only when Harry puts his palm up does Louis realize: he’s too close.

“Shut up, Louis,” Harry hisses, “do you—don’t you get it? You’re asking me a year after you left why I didn’t come to you when the last time I saw you was in January, and the time before that in the middle of some cursed night. Don’t ask me why I didn’t come for you when you left me without looking back. That’s why we’re here, like this, right now. Because of you.” God, when did Harry get so mean? When did he get these words and these harsh things to say stored in him? How much has he hurt him if Harry’s bringing his cruelty out?

“I know,” Louis says, his voice brittle and wavering. It’s like a calloused hand with no fingers; just a palm of skin that feels dead. That’s what he sounds like, right then as he speaks to Harry for what must be the last time. “I know.”

“Then why are you writing to Elliot?” Harry asks, eyes shining and fuck, he’s going to cry. “If you know what you’ve done, why are you still here?”

“Because I miss you.”

He could laugh at how fucking naive he sounds—at how hopeless he is. What he’s saying is forlorn, it doesn’t hold anymore meaning. But it’s true. After everything, what he’s saying now is the most honest he’s been with himself and Harry for the past year where he didn’t dare get close to him.

“I miss you, Harry. I miss you and I know what I did and if I could, I would go back and do it all differently. This is me trying to do it differently.”

Harry shakes his head and walks towards the door, his hair bouncing uncharacteristically on his head. He’s muttering something Louis can’t understand and he’s slipping through the gaps of Louis’ thumbs; falling too quick, too slow, with too much intention and Louis can’t catch him.

“No, Harry, wait.” He lunges forward and everything happens slowly—rigidly. He grabs the bony curve of Harry’s wrist, cups it between his fingers, and Harry turns around so quickly, it’s as if Louis’ burned him with concentrated acid. They look at each other and it’s so absent—it’s as if there’s barely anybody there, just the ghosts of two people who used to love each other.

Harry mumbles something akin to, “I don’t have to listen to this,” but he stays and Louis doesn’t do anything but wait. They’re looking at each other, but not really, because the next morning, Louis wouldn’t be able to recall any differences in Harry’s face because he wouldn’t have been looking. They’re just two bodies that are there, like sticky, solid statues of melted iron. They’re just there.

It’s the most painful thing Louis has had to do yet.

He just stands there, barely a meter away from the boy he has to let go, and he’s a beautiful boy that he can’t touch. But he’s holding his wrists and Harry isn’t saying anything and it’s a confusing, unearthly kind of situation because there’s no yelling, no screaming, no noise. There isn’t even watching. It feels as if there’s nothing at all and it’s scary— it’s scary because Louis can’t feel Harry’s skin on top of his and he can’t feel anything at all till both their heads are inching forward and they’re kissing.

If Louis where to turn around and look back at this happening, he’d say they were thinking. At that moment, when they started at each other’s mouths like crazed fireflies caught in a glass jar, they were thinking. They moved because something in them, something loud and ferocious and hungry, wanted each other like never before. It wasn’t Harry forgiving Louis for anything. And it wasn’t them figuring each other out. It wasn’t them crying as their knees curved into themselves as they fall into each others outstretched, burning arms. Fuck, it isn’t anything but Harry biting Louis’ bottom lip and Louis painting nail marks onto Harry’s hip.

So, they’re kissing and their hands won’t stay still and Louis thinks he’s going mad with how hot it is in the toilet. He feels Harry shake in front of him; feels his hands grab onto his collar. His eyes are open for long enough to see Harry press his ones closed. They aren’t kind to each other, they aren’t compassionate, but they’re mirror images; they hurt each other equally, especially with their mouths.

It’s a little too fast and Louis can’t keep up as Harry shoves him to a wall, pulls him in by the neck to push him back by the chest. It’s as if Harry’s trying to bruise him, trying to tear apart his stitched atoms to watch them fall helplessly to the floor.

But Louis—Louis can’t find it in himself to care. He wants to think of something, anything, that’ll tell him what they’re doing is right, but he can’t manage to find anything more important than Harry’s mouth on him after so, so long. And God, has Harry’s mouth always been his weakness. It’s still as caramel soft and cherry red as before, still raw and tender, as if Harry’s sucking on the skin constantly. But more than the way it feels, it’s the way Harry kisses.

He’s slow sometimes, back when they used to crawl into each other’s beds and sleep with their arms wound tight. And he’s breathless sometimes, barely managing short pecks as Louis palms at his cock. But right then, he’s angry and fueled with whatever it is that makes him grab onto the back of Louis’ neck and still their faces so close, Louis can feel the presence of Harry’s cheek, his ears, his nose.

When Harry whimpers, one of those soft, small, succulent sounds that Louis thrives within, Louis realizes how silent they’ve been. But Harry’s holding onto him tighter and Louis’ hands are itching down towards Harry’s bum, and it’s perfect and foolish and stupid. It’s so stupid what they’re doing; so completely idiotic that it’s going to be the first thing Louis regrets in the morning but. But this is better than letting Harry go. This is better than all of that bullshit he promised himself he’d do.

Louis isn’t sure what he’s allowed to do, knows Harry has the upperhand in this all, but when Harry makes another low sound from the back of his throat, Louis flips them around. He pushes Harry into the wall and he pins him down with his hands all up Harry’s sides, down to his waist, across his chest and finally, briefly, across his crotch. It’s getting hotter and madder and angrier, the room, their faces, their tongues, and Louis thinks this might be a dream, or else they’d both just grow bigger and bigger and bigger till they’d blow up onto the walls in patterns of red and gold.

Right before they combust though, Harry pulls away. He pulls away and rests his head against the wall behind him and fuck, his neck is right there. Open and pale and beautiful and Louis wants to mark it up, wants to nibble across the space, but he knows better than that.

“Fuck,” Harry mutters, but his hands are still on Louis. “Fuck.”

“I don’t think,” Louis starts, but the emptiness in his lungs stops him. He manages a breath. “I don’t think I’ll ever be able to have that with anyone else.”

Harry doesn’t look at him.

“Are you going to ask me to leave?” he asks to fill the silence, leaning forward to breathe into Harry’s neck and he’s—he’s being unfair because he knows what that does. Harry squirms, bites his lips to stop from giggling.

“I’m—,” Harry starts, letting his hands fall to his sides as he pushes Louis away softly, “I’m going to uh, get back to work.” He swallows, looks at anywhere but Louis’ eye.

“I’ll wait for you.”

“Don’t.”

Louis thumbs at Harry’s jeans. They’re close enough for him to do that comfortably, but he knows Harry’s going to start to move away.

“I want to. Please.”

“I’m—,” Harry starts to say, but he shakes his head, pulling away from Louis to walk towards the door.

“What is it?”

“It’s none of your business,” Harry bites with no bitterness, his back to Louis.

“Harry.”

Harry turns around, one hand tugging at his lip uncertainly. Louis can see his letter cupped behind Harry’s vest.

“I’m with somebody, Louis. I can’t—this wasn’t supposed to happen.”

A coldness takes over Louis; makes his heart beat slow down. He’s felt this before, this tightness of chest, this tangerine red clawing at him. It’s like sharp edges of a diamond hand have bound a hold around his lungs, making every intake of breath feel like acidic ice. Somewhere inside him, he can feel something laughing at him, yelling at him, “You’d think he wouldn’t find someone else? Someone better?”. He’s been fucking someone by the name of Jeremy, so why can’t Harry?

“What then, Harry?” Louis asks with a sharpness that he has no right to. He has no right to talk to Harry like that. He can feel his body take over with an unbreakable tingle, something that lights him up and drives him crazy. He hates this feeling and he hates the thought of someone else touching Harry and—isn’t that the most ridiculous thing? “Do I leave? Pretend we didn’t—”

“You wanted five minutes,” Harry says, his own eyes turning hard. “I gave you that. I’ve got your letter and I’ve been doing everything you asked me to, Louis.”

Louis wants to say something, anything, but his mouth’s gone dry. Harry's stolen all the life from it.

He thinks Harry’s going to tell him to leave and that it’s. He thinks it’s all over. Instead, Harry doesn’t say anything as he walks out the door.

-

Louis waits for him.

He waits for him and thinks, aren’t I absolutely brilliant at listening to him? But he waits for him. He leaves for his car the second he leaves the toilet and he waits for Harry. He watches as the London night filters on and on. Bright hues of colours he doesn’t notices run through the sky and he can barely tell the time. Some thoughts combust while he waits: what if he doesn’t come? Is that letting go?

Tendrils of the party fall through the venue. Various people walk out hand in hand. The sky turns to gold as it melts down on the partygoers like a veil of glitter and shine. Zayn’s called him seven times and Liam’s called him three. Nothing makes much sense anymore and he feels uneven, falling painfully into his lifestyle because nothing is fitting properly. He’s detached, unsure, like an out of date cresting hung on a wall of today. But he’s going to wait for Harry because Harry’s the one place he can be, only place he knows he’ll fit. Harry’s the once place that feels like home no matter what.

He sits for what feels like hours and he starts crying at one point because if—if Harry leaves tonight without him, then he’s already let Harry go. How can he do that when Harry’s the one he feels at home with no matter what? How could he have let him go? Where does he go from here?

The time changes from nine, to ten, to eleven to beyond; Past twelve and twelve thirty and then a quarter to one. Louis waits until barely anyone remains and his eyes feel sour and stinging. Then, he sees a flash something soft and barely moving in the velvet of the dark. He sees Harry.

Harry, who is stumbling down the road with his arm around someone Louis can’t recognize. Harry, whose hair makes a mane down his neck and around his head. Harry, who Louis had been waiting for.

He thinks of walking out of his car, taking Harry into his own arms, getting him home. But before he can, the stranger with his arms around Harry is unlocking a car right in front of his own, and helping Harry into and—and right before Harry goes in, he looks up once. From the lights of the street and the lights of the night, Louis can make out the dreariness in his eyes, the tiredness, the blankness. But those eyes look around until they fall on Louis—right on Louis. And those eyes look at him, wide and scared and beautiful, as they get into another man’s car.

-

The street looks the same; looks like it had a week ago, a year ago, a lifetime ago. The chicken shop is still bright on the corner like half a breaking star, and the house with the screaming souls quiet by the side. As Louis pulls up to Harry’s block, a hour after he watched Harry leave, he’s met with the night turning to watery, milky black.

There’s no car parked by the front. There’s nothing firing their poison and wine at him, telling him to leave. There’s absolutely nothing at all, but Louis gets out the car and walks up the steps anyway.

He isn’t sure what he’s doing—fuck, Harry’s probably asleep by now. Or not. He’s probably not going to want Louis here anyway, but. But God, does letting Harry go sound like the worst possible mistake he can make. A mistake he’s already made. A mistake he can’t make again. So he steps up to the porch where the large bins are lined and he rings Harry’s bell and he tells himself, I’ll be here for another thirty seconds before I go. Thirty seconds. He doesn’t expect he’s got to wait for any longer.

The doorbell rings and the sound reverberates across to the street, almost like a morning alarm. To Louis, it feels like a siren; loud and red and burning. He can’t imagine it inside and he can’t imagine Harry on the other side because the last time he saw this house, he was leaving it in a haze.

He counts in his head, one, two, three, and his eyes are pressed shut. Everything beyond his own skin is speaking to him; if he breathes hard enough, he can feel the flourishing night singing to him. He only counts to four, five, six, till the door’s opening and so are Louis’ eyes. He didn’t...

Harry stands there, his body outlined by the doorframe, and he looks just as alive as the night did two seconds ago, humming a tuneless song. Harry stands there with the clothes Louis saw him wearing earlier, his hair falling all over his face, down his cheek and to his shoulder in dainty waves, curving over his face like chassis. He’s blinking his beautiful, careful, lightning eyes and it’s Harry—standing less than an arms length, looking at him quietly. The mere thought, the simple situation, takes Louis a second to take in.

He can barely register it till Harry’s taking another step, making another move as quick as a flash of a thunderbolt, and he’s pulling Louis in with a hand wrapped around Louis’ tie.

Fuck; his vision goes blank and he can feel his body move along with the wind; nothing looks right until he’s stepping into a tangerine warmth, a feeling rather than a place that Louis can remember so faintly. The smell—a dark maroon smell, something that reminds him of oak and coffee and dissipated citrus clouds. It’s a room of last breaths, final breaths, reborn breaths. It’s a house made of chocolate sticks and a candy tree and too many winter coats.

He can barely make out anything, everything a bent shape in the darkness, like a shadow of its former self, but Louis doesn’t have much time to think about it because suddenly, there’s a hot mouth covering his own, and he can distinctly hear a door behind closed shut, his back pressing against it right after.

Harry kisses him with his teeth and his tongue and his mirth; all packed with some urgency Louis can’t figure out. Harry clamps his hands on Louis’ shoulder, his nails pressing into the skin with intent, and he kisses with his eyes shut, his heart heaving—Louis can feel it beneath his touch.

Instead of questioning it, Louis retaliates just as brutally. He cups a hand on the side of Harry’s neck before taking him by the hips; walking them aimlessly across the carpeted floor. Harry stumbles into something—something soft and cushy, as Louis bends across him to feel—and, like a firework shot during a prayer, something so unexpected it leaves you breathless, Harry giggles into his mouth.

And God, does it leave Louis breathless.

“Damnit, Louis,” Harry laughs, gripping onto him to keep balance. Just the sound, the soft rumble that falls down like autumn leaves, it grips Louis’ heart. Harry’s beautiful smile, shining amidst the ebony night, glows like a lit up wedding house, decked in fluorescent bulbs and red roses.

Something about Harry though, right then, feels disconnected from the Harry Louis met with half a year ago. Vestiges of the Harry he once knew, the Harry with the youthful movements and the uneven grin, the Harry who fell over the carpet ridges and held onto him with everything he had—in a second, he found that Harry.

He pushes him to what feels like an opposite wall and he holds Harry against it. Something in him, maybe the heat of the room, or the bulge on Harry’s jacket where he knows a letter he wrote lives, makes him ask, “Is Elliot home?”

The sound of her name leaves him shuddering. He hasn’t spoken that name out to anyone but Zayn, and all times he had been near tears.

“No,” Harry mutters, pulling away to tug at Louis’ tie. “D’you think I’d let you in if she were here?”

“Were you going to let the man who drove you here in?” Shit. Instantly, his eyes widen and so does Harry’s. He pulls away, placing one hand on Louis’ shirt to stop him. “Fuck, sorry, I—,” Louis stutters, one hand reaching to tug at his hair, “I didn’t mean—”

“Fuck you, Louis.” Harry’s eyes are turning back to the glare he’s fostered just earlier that night. “Who do you think you are—”

“I didn’t mean it, Harry. I just...”

“You just what?”

Louis sighs. Their faces are still kept close, their breaths shared, the details of their faces seen out of focus. “I just thought he was the guy you were with, I...I don’t know.”

“Ben?” Harry questions, his jaw set. “You thought I was with Ben?”

Ben. That name sounds so familiar, it—it rings something uneven and angry in him. Where has he—distinctively, he remembers Zayn saying that name months ago, in a furious rage, saying something about Ben and him being similar...

“I don’t know,” Louis mutters, looking away.

“No. Look at me.” When Louis does, Harry’s got something akin to a rainfall and summer fires stored in his eyes. “Whoever I’m with, you don’t get to ask me about him. You do not get to come here and act as if I’m someone you can look down on. Whatever I’m doing, I can and fuck you for coming in here and saying Elliot’s name as if you have the right to anymore. If it were anyone else, Elliot could be in here and I’d let them in. Anyone else. Even the person I’m seeing.”

God, Louis should apologize, yell out that he didn’t mean to, but Harry’s eyes and Harry’s words leave him alight. Burning. Angry. He wants to push Harry just like Harry’s pushing him by bringing in the names of people who get to touch Harry while Louis isn’t here.

“If there is someone else you’re seeing, why’d you let me in here?” Louis grins in malice, a volcanic ease in his voice that sounds manic, crazed. He watches as Harry’s mouth falls open.

“Why did you kiss me, Harry?”

Instantly, Harry’s cheek colours in a dark flush and he brings a hand up to slap Louis square on the face. The impact leaves him gasping, biting back his tongue.

“Fuck you, Louis,” Harry starts, but something in him sounds choked up, as if it takes everything in him to mutter the words out and instantly, Louis regrets it. He regrets ever opening his damn mouth.

“Harry, I’m sorry—”

No,” Harry says, loud and clear and tart, “fuck you. Fuck you. You’re right. I made a mistake letting you in this house again, you’re right. But for once,” he looks at Louis then and Louis had it right—his eyes are filled with salt water he won’t let Louis get close to. “For once I hoped you wouldn’t be. For once I thought I was doing the right thing.”

“No, Harry, fuck, don’t listen to me. I’m sorry, Haz, please, I didn’t—”

“Shut up.” He places both on hands on Louis’ chest, ready to push, but failing to make a move. Louis wraps his own hands around Harry’s, pulling him closer so that their chests are flush against each other and he’s breathing into Harry’s face. “No. Fuck that, Louis, get out.”

“I’m sorry.”

“I don’t care.”

Louis leans in and kisses the corner of his mouth, gently and tenderly. So easily, it could be forgotten and misplaced. “I’m sorry.”

“Fuck you,” Harry mumbles, pulling on his hands but he’s stuck. He’s stuck between the wall and Louis’ body, but more than that, he stuck between the Louis he hears and the Louis who left him a year ago. He’s so confused and scared, and he hates Louis so much, he can’t stop loving him. All this, Louis doesn’t know. Instead, he thinks he’s fucked up again, like usual. He thinks he’s lost his hold on Harry.

With another leap, he leans in to mouth at Harry’s jaw, down his neck, and like a mantra, Harry keeps saying, “Fuck you,” as if he can’t think of anything more than to push Louis away, as if it’s the safest thing to do.

“Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you,” Harry mutters till his voice goes hoarse.

But as Louis brings his mouth back to Harry’s and says, “I missed you. The entire time. I’m sorry,” Harry manages to let himself down. He lets out a soft whimper, something caught between a sob and a moan, and says, “Fuck you, but fuck me first,” and Louis does.

Louis does because it’s all shit, the whole letting people you love go. When you love someone so much, your mouth could go dry and your head could spin to the sun; when you find a home in somebody, a hole in the sky made for your hearts to fit like a compound, like a vacant space kept like a night bed, you cling on. You hold on. You don’t let them go and if you’ve made the mistake of doing it once, you don’t do it again.

-

August, London. Two years ago.

It’s the panic that settles on his bones first. The fear comes later. And the anger simmers last. But first, panic.

Harry runs past the kitchen and to the living room, opening the curtains with the hopes that maybe—maybe—Louis is sat in car, waiting. Maybe he’s still here. Maybe Harry won’t have to leave him for this, force himself to never forgive Louis for this.

But he’s not there.

The street is empty and the cool wind curls up to his face gently. The early morning feels a lot like a water splash, a calming blow that crumples like ice on his top lids and his teeth shatters like shuddering glass. He can’t find Louis, any trace of his warmth, anywhere. As if he left before he even came.

Last night feels like a lifetime away and he can’t—for the life of him, he can’t figure out what he was saying exactly, but fuck, it’s driven Louis away. Fuck, fuck, fuck...he was talking about Louis leaving and he—he remembers being furious, vicious, malicious. Cruel. He remembers telling Louis to leave him, but he remembers crawling back. He remembers them throwing their hands over each others eyes, blocking out unbalanced light, tearing each other apart only to hold each other together. He can’t remember anything at all.

Fuck. Does he call him? Does he look for him between the sheets? A part of him says this is for the better. Louis was to leave anyway.

But fuck. He was going to go with him.

Something in him crumples in on itself, growing small and useless, till it blows apart and Harry’s back hits the wall. Everything outside is layered in cool, windy air and everything inside him is falling to pieces. He gives himself five seconds, counts patient breaths into his lungs, before he lets out one sob and he’s falling to the ground like he fell once, years and years ago.

Sliding down the wall, he cups a hand around his mouth and his vision turns to water, all an uneven bump of furniture and colours. The rest of the world wakes silently as Harry finally falls, all because he trusted a boy he shouldn’t have let in in the first place.

God, he’s such an idiot. The biggest fucking fool. He deserves this, he truly does, because how could he have done this to himself? How has he let himself crawl so deep, that he can’t feel his legs to get on his feet? Fuck, this is all his fault. All his fault for trusting Louis when he said all that bullshit.

I’ll stay. I’m here. For as long as you want me—It’s all absolute shit. Right now, he can see it. The words coming out practiced, perfected, as if it took nothing in him to say because it meant so little. God, he so fucking stupid, he’s so, so pathetic.

What did he think? Louis would wait for him, stay for him? Would love his daughter? No. Something in him, something dark and wicked, laughs at him. You fool. You love him, don’t you? You love him so much. He left you, you see? He left you to find yourself, lost in all the things he promised. You fool, you should’ve known better. He should’ve known better.

He’s angry and he—he feels it tear at him, bite at him, gnaw at his inner thighs with small teeth. He feels manic, absent, loathing. He doesn’t hate Louis, but God does he hate himself. How could he do this to himself?

Once he’s on his feet, he does the first thing he knows—he turns to his mum. He dials the wrong numbers twice, body consumed with hurricane like hiccups that erupt louder tears as he falls apart piece by piece, limb by limb, eye socket by eye socket. Only when he hears a voice say, “Hello, Haz,” on the other side does the sobs start again.

“Mum,” he gasps, gripping onto the edge of the table because he’s going to sink to his knees. “Mum, he left me. Mum, he left me, mum, he promised. Mum, please mum, I’m so scared.”

“Harry?” she calls, panicked. Harry can see her now: sitting up straight, hands quivering, mouth gone dry. “Harry, baby, what’s wrong? Baby, listen to me. Listen to me, yeah? Deep breaths my love, deep breaths. Yeah, darling, that’s it. Shh...shh sweetheart, just tell me what’s wrong.”

“I can’t.” He’s so fucked ashamed. He can’t say it. “Mum, it’s all my fault, I can’t.”

“Harry.” She sounds crestfallen, sinking. But she doesn’t understand. “Harry, okay, okay, let me—let me come to you, yeah? I’ll—I’ll come home, all right? Let me just—”

“Mum,” Harry starts, panting, “no. No mum, you can’t.”

“Okay, Harry. Do you want someone else there, then?”

Harry bites his lip. “Niall. I want Niall, mum.”

“Okay, Haz. You just sit there and I’ll call Niall. Please just—just wait for Niall, okay? Don’t do anything, darling, just wait for him.” He can hear the fear in her voice—the fear she might lose him, too, but Harry won’t do it. He might love Louis, maybe, but he loves his mum, his Niall, his daughter more. He’s not leaving any of them behind.

So Niall comes fifteen minutes later and he bangs on the door as if he thinks Harry’s already leaving. But he’s not, of course, and he opens the door and Niall gets it. Niall gets it right then. He doesn’t get mad or angry and he doesn’t laugh at Harry like the voice in him did. He holds him tight, tight, tight, as if he’s wrapping the open wounds up with his arms. They stay by the open door like that and the wind from outside overwhelms their bodies—their matter. Niall cries for him and Harry cries for himself and he begs Niall to look for him.

He tells Niall, “Find him, Ni. I want to see him before he leaves,” but that’s the one thing Niall doesn’t do. Despite being the sunshine boy who’d follow Harry to the end of the world, he’s angry and he’s mad. Not at Harry, never at Harry. He’s angry and mad at the boy who made Harry cry as hard as he did years ago, when his sister left him. He’s going to kill the boy who made Harry think he was someone worth leaving.

Later, when Liam comes, he walks straight out the door once Niall finishes mumbling the basics of why Harry’s not eating and does what Niall’s been wanting to do. Liam, in retrospect, is the calm one. He thinks things through. He’s practical. But when he sees Harry staring out the window as if he’s lost himself, mumbling for his daughter and the boy he thought he might just marry, Liam can’t find himself either.

That day, and the couple days following, is all a game of hiding Harry as best as possible; keeping him with his daughter, who makes him the happiest, and away from the boy he wants to run to. They’re harsh days, unbearable days, for Harry and for the people who love Harry. For Niall, Liam, Perrie, his mum...

And most especially the boy across the city. The boy who left him.

-

June, London. A year after the night Louis left. The Styles Home.

Louis wakes up and he’s faced with the steely glow of the sun. It’s an unfamiliar angle, the cut of the light, facing him square in the face and he thinks this is not his flat back in Singapore. Singapore sunlight is a simmer—it’s warm, but it’s humid. It falls on your skin like a blanket, like sheets upon sheets of watery drops, but it isn’t doesn’t hold this undercurrent of wind. This is another sun he’s facing, another ambience, another room. As he gets up, the space beside him vacant, blinking the sleep away from his eyes, he’s met with a room he can remember faintly in the back of his head.

It’s—it’s the darling little room, a dainty hole in the wall that he spent most of his summer in. And it hasn’t changed at all. The carpet’s still endearingly messy in an organized way; fallen papers on the corner and a wastebasket filled to the brim. The hamper has clothes thrown around it, as if someone’s aimed at it but failed. The wardrobe is kept in the side quietly and the bed hasn’t moved from its space right under the window. His heart skips, misses a few beats, and falls behind on the current of time. He didn’t think he’d ever find his way back to this room.

The flat itself is weirdly quiet and he can hear the soft pads of movement from outside. As he gets up, he finds that he hasn’t got any clothes on. Slipping on his boxers and suit pants that have fallen haphazardly on the floor, he walks out of the room. The hallway is missing the mini keyboard it once had, so there’s a lot more space to walk.

In the kitchen, he can smell coffee. He finds Harry by the toaster, clad in a wrinkled, cotton white shirt, the sleeves rolled back on his elegant wrist, the ends of the shirt falling to the tops of his thighs. Other than that, he’s naked and humming. What the fuck?

“Morning,” Louis mumbles and God, isn’t this the most bizarre situation? He’s waking up to Harry. The last time he did this, it was in the midst of a dream.

Harry turns around and Louis’—he can feel it—breath catches. Oh fuck. Harry’s as beautiful as ever, face soft, hair like a veil around his head. He’s bathed in morning light, careful, caramel light. The space around his neck is littered in gentle bites; lovely shades of red and pink and purple brightening his milk and honey skin.

Louis loves this boy. He doesn’t need to think about it, doesn’t need to ponder why and when and how. He just knows. Somewhere near the ends of narrows, the empty bends of his bones, the chatter of his silicon teeth as if he’s a metal object and his heart is a myth—he knows he’s in love with Harry Styles. He loves this boy and there isn’t a thing he knows that more true than that. More permanent than that.

Harry, oblivious to Louis fighting every urge to pick him up and spin him around and yell out words he feels to his face like a fool, just nods and turns back.

“Toast,” Harry mumbles as he hands him a plate with jam spread across the brown bread.

“You can help yourself to coffee,” he continues without making eye contact. Then, he turns around, slides to the living room, and says, “You’ve got half an hour, and then I want you out.”

Which—okay. It hits Louis like a train—this isn’t something he can have forever, which...okay. Okay. Okay, okay, okay, okay. He holds onto the plate, frowns at it menacingly, and then he understands. And suddenly, it’s not just blurry things Harry’s telling him that morning for the sake of it, Have you got your clothes? Do you want my number? Ha, yeah, last night can definitely happen again.

“But,” Louis starts, following Harry’s back. “But I thought...”

Harry faces him and the look on his face—of patronizing humor that makes Louis wonder if he’s missed something—looks absolutely threatening in the most harmless way.

“What, Louis? That last night changed something?”

And the way he says it—again of condescending leer and a half smile—it makes Louis want to run, run, run, but with Harry on his back. Run from whatever Harry’s going to say—all the horrid, mean things he might just say—and to a place they were years, and years ago, before they met so that they can meet in a million different lives all over again.

Instead of saying something back, Louis looks to the wall, his face kept carefully tranquil. Harry must take this as Ready, Aim, Fire! because after that, he doesn’t stop.

“Let’s get a few things right then, Louis, just so you won’t have to think of anything anymore.” He takes a step closer to Louis as he says this, and even though Louis doesn’t look at him, he can feel two hot, glowing gems stare at him. “One, I was drunk off my ass last night, but that’s no excuse for what I did and what I let happen. Two, I don’t regret us sleeping together, but I don’t want it to happen again. Three, I’ve called Zayn and he says you’ve got a flight back to Singapore tonight and more than anything, I want you to get on that plane.” After that, Harry turns to the coat hanger kept by the front door and unhooks a worn out jacket.

The thing about what he says though, is that he it doesn’t hit Louis as quickly as he things he would. Something about him this morning, something in the way he’s thinking, has slowed down; has taken a decant dip in something toffee sweet and syrupy. Except Harry’s not done the same; this morning, Harry’s got everything already planned. It’s not the I don’t regret us sleeping together, but I don’t want it to happen again that makes him look up. It’s the more than anything, I want you to get on that plane. It’s that more than anything, Harry wants Louis away from him.

“I don’t...” Louis blurts, falling behind. He’s two steps behind where Harry’s ten steps ahead. He’s stuttering, mumbling, tripping over his legs as Harry progresses for his bedroom door. “Wait, Harry...”

“Look, Louis,” Harry says, sighing. “Here’s the deal about your letter: I’ll read it because I learnt a long time ago that I couldn’t trust you, and if I think she should read it, I’ll let her. I get that whatever you wrote is between the two of you and I’ll respect that, at most, but I am not going to let you say whatever the fuck you want to her.”

“Where are you going?” Louis asks, barely remembering anything to do with the damn letter because he thought he’d get more than that.

“I’m going to go pick up Elliot. I’ll be home after twelve, but I want you gone long before that.”

“Harry wait.” He walks behind him like a lost pet; whacking ever bit of his brain to get something to get Harry to stay. “I thought you were...I thought last night changed something, Harry.”

Harry shakes his head. “It didn’t.”

“Then you never answered my question last night.” Louis reaches out to touch his elbow, fingers grazing the skin quietly. “Why did you kiss me? Why did you let me kiss you?” Why did you ask me to fuck you? He can ask that, he definitely should, but even to him, it seems to vulgar for the morning.

Harry opens his mouth but he doesn’t seem like he’s got an answer.

“I guess...I guess I missed you then, Louis.” He stares up at him expectantly. “Is that what you wanted to hear? That I missed you?”

“I don’t believe you.”

Harry scoffs. “Fuck you then.”

“No,” Louis starts, “I mean...I don’t believe that you don’t want last night to happen again.”

At that, Harry glares at him sharply. “You absolute bastard—”

“I just want you talk to me without any restraint,” Louis interrupts, already guessing the words. He knows, he doesn’t want to hear them. “Please Harry. This—this isn’t you. You’re saying things, but it sounds as if it’s coming from somewhere far away. Fuck, Harry, if you missed me then don’t make me go. Please don’t make me go.”

He didn’t think he’d cry in front of Harry again, didn’t think he’d have the chance, but it’s as if fate’s been kind to him. So kind, too kind, because he’s crying now. And Harry? He’s does the opposite. He laughs in a lapse of bitterness, the sound lacking it’s burn.

“This isn’t me then, is it Louis?” He shakes his head again and meets Louis’ eye. Nothing in him is crying. “And how would you know the “real” me? What gives you the right to ask for the “real” me, if whoever that is isn’t allowed near you again?”

“I didn’t mean it like that, Haz—”

“I don’t care how you meant it!” Louis watches as Harry tugs at his hair, the first thing he’s done that seems spontaneous, honest. “Why won’t you stay away from me?”

Quietly, surely, Louis asks, “Why won’t you let yourself stay away from me?” and it sounds like bomb being dropped in a house of civilians.

“Because—,” Harry starts, mouth overlapping the last words out of Louis’ mouth. But once he’s heard them, he cuts himself off and gasps. It’s a silent sound and it raises Harry’s breathing a mile per minute. Louis watches as Harry scrambles to regain his composure. A part of him hates him for saying it, hates him for stretching this out longer than it needs to be. But a part of him isn’t ready to let go. He doesn’t want to leave for months, have a lifetime of change occur between them, only to run back to find Harry again. It feels this game has gotten old, and both of them are tired of playing.

“Because?” Louis whispers, taking a step closer to him because he’s crumbling. Louis can see it now, he’s crumbling. There are storm clouds walking into his eyes, tearing down the mountains he built to show Louis. With a sudden confidence in the silence Harry gives, he leans over to touch Harry’s hand, cup them in his own. Harry’s fingers are long, thin, and his palms are a reflection of all the things he’s done for his family. When Louis holds them, he feels as if after everything, he’s finally done something right.

“Because,” Harry continues, swallowing. His voice has gone small and unsure. “Because I—I...”

Louis shuts his eyes and leans forward to press his forehead against Harry’s. Harry lets him. Something tells him that if he hadn’t put Harry on the spot, he’d never get to do this again, but he’s reveling in the opportunity.

“You don’t have to answer, Harry. You don’t have to give anything to me because I know I don’t deserve it. But, I’ll give you one last thing, okay? It’s a promise and it’s that I won’t get on that plane. I won’t get on any plane.”

“No,” Harry says, and he’s crying but Louis can’t see. “No, you—you need to get on that plane. Louis, I want you to—”

“Harry.”

“I need you to, Louis. Please. Just do that for me, Louis. I can’t stay away from you, so stay away from me.”

He breathes. “What if I can’t do that?”

“Do it for me.”

Louis doesn’t answer. Instead, he lets go of Harry’s hands and places his palms on Harry’s neck, pulling him closer, closer, closer. “I don’t want to leave you.”

Harry smiles wetly, secretly. “You already have.”

“I missed you. Every single day that I didn’t see you, that I didn’t hear you, that I didn’t feel you, I missed you. I thought I could see you in the walls, somewhere between my coat hangers, but you were never there and I missed you so much, I couldn’t breathe. I missed you and I still do.”

“Shut up,” Harry says, shaking his head, but not hard enough that Louis would have to let him go. “I’m with somebody, Louis, shut up.

He breathes out through his nose and it’s cold inside. He hates hearing this, hates it so much. But more than that, he’d hate listening to it and leaving.

“I didn’t want to leave you so that you could find someone else. It took me a year to get that, it took me a thousand miles to get that, but I wanted you. I still want you.”

“How many times are you going to say that till it runs out of meaning, Louis?” Harry asks, gnawing at his bottom lip as if he’s trying to get it to move on its own. “It’s like—I’m so tired, you know, of you saying shit. Saying things like—like I want you, and—and you know what the saddest part is though, Louis?”

He looks at Louis in the eye, gaining some kind of confidence, as if he’s finally figured out, through cumulonimbus and saturn clouds, he’s got what he’s been trying to say.

“You never thought it was important to tell me. As if once you did, seconds before you actually left, I would pack up my shit, leave my entire life behind and follow you to the end of the world. As if you thought you meant that much to me already. And you know what else is quite sad? I probably would’ve listened. If you hadn’t left that morning, Louis, I would’ve done exactly what you wanted me to do. It’s fucked up. It’s fucked up that it took you leaving to make me realize I can’t want someone as much I had once wanted you and it’s fucked up that it took you losing me to realize you never wanted to let me go.”

“Stop,” Louis cries, voice catching in his throat angrily. “Stop it, Harry. Just listen to me—”

“No more. Not again.”

Louis heaves out a breath that feels a hundred years old. “God—”

“Leave.” He puts a hand in front of himself when Louis tries to get closer. “Leave or I swear—”

“I love you.” Holy fuck. Out of everything he’s said, every mistake he’s made, nothing seems as abundant and wrong and fierce as what he’s said now. The own words leave his mouth in a rush—in an out of focus, messed up rush that throbs his head and makes Harry stare at him.

Something in him laughs. Too late to take it back now. Might as well finish what you’ve started. “I love you, Harry. I—”

He’s interrupted by another laugh and it’s not from him and it doesn’t sound like it’s from Harry, but it is. Harry’s laughing at him. “You love me, Louis? Do you?”

“Yes,” he grits out, heart thumping. He can be accused of everything but this—everything but the love he has for Harry. “I do. I love you Harry.”

“How can you love me, Louis?” He all but yells this, body shaking like lightning; like out of focus, out of control strikes of rage and electricity and current. “How can you love me when you’ve been away from me much longer than you’ve been with me? How can you love me when the only version of me you know is the one that trusted you blindly; the one that doesn’t even exist anymore?”

“I don’t care, Harry!” He’s laughing then too, but he’s laughing through tears. “Do you think I love the fact that you let me take you to dates? Or the things you said to make me laugh?”

He shakes his head. He’s on his own planet now, a place that he can’t go wrong.

“I love you for the things that you can’t change about yourself, no matter how much you do to try and push me away. I love your love for Elliot. I love your head and your heart. I love you, and God Harry, I don’t care what you do; you can’t be anything but Harry Styles and this love that I have, I don’t have it for anyone but Harry Styles. I love you.”

His chest heaves, as if it’s a pump out of air, and the silence suspends in front of them, almost palpable. It could rain in this house but the tender way Louis looks at Harry couldn’t wash away. It could burn in this house but the way Harry’s eyes flutter open and shut in absolute shock couldn’t turn to smoke.

After what feels like a lifetime of staring and looking and speaking with their mouths shut, Harry asks, “Did you love me the day you left me?”

He sounds as if he’s shrunk to a size where he can’t move on his own. He looks under his lashes, body gone limp as if he’s given up, given in. He’s swaying even, slightly, as if all it takes to push him down is a sound wave.

Louis nods, everything soaked up so that all that remains is honesty. “I did.”

“The same way you’re saying you love me now?”

Louis hates that he has to answer this; that Harry doesn’t already know. “Yes.”

Harry lets out a choked sob that gets to Louis too late. “Then why...” he stops to catch his breath, unable to finish himself. “If you loved me then, why did you leave me?”

Oh, and isn’t that what’s been waiting to come out? Louis just has to smile.

Why did he leave Harry? Why, why, why, why? He’s spent ninety percent of his time, in Singapore and everywhere else, trying to figure it out. Not because he wanted to have an answer to give to Harry, even though that was part of it, but mostly because everything in him wondered the same. At the time, he thinks, he must’ve had a good reason. Because he must’ve had the best reason to be able to look at Harry’s sleeping face, felt the love he had for him, and just leave it at that.

“Answer me, Louis,” Harry says, still soft, still barely awake. “Tell me, then you can go and I’ll be able to move on.”

Fuck, no. He doesn’t—he doesn’t want to go. He doesn’t want to move on. He wants now and he wants it surely. But he owes Harry this, he’s owes him this much. So he tries to go back to the Louis that one morning, the one that left Harry, and he thinks of why and suddenly, quickly, briskly, he can see it; he can imagine it. Suddenly, it makes sense, but barely so.

“I didn’t want to say goodbye,” he starts. “I thought I was doing the right thing. There’s so much to that morning, Harry. So much that made me leave. It took a lot to leave you, though, took so much more than just one reason.”

Harry breathes in. “Then tell me them all. Make me understand.”

“I loved you,” he says again, “and that’s the underlying theme of it all, okay? I loved you—love you—and that’s everything.”

Harry shakes his head. “More. I don’t care about love.”

Louis reaches for his hand again. “You do. I know you do.”

“Not right now.”

“Then what do you care about right now?”

Harry thinks for a second, then chuckles. He looks worn out, like the jacket still in his hands. “I can’t believe I’m saying this, promised myself I wouldn’t, but right now, I care about why you left me. I care about your reasoning.”

Hearing that, for a second, makes everything seem all right. Louis takes a deep air, a light thought running up and down him. It doesn’t last, but he takes Harry’s hand, pulls him close again, and speaks the truth.

-

August, London. Two years ago.

Louis has done a lot of things in his life, accomplished so much that his mum’s got dents in her teeth from saying the same things over and over again, I love you darling you’ve made me so proud. You’re always making me so proud. He’s gone through shit years—the time after his GCSE’s when he failed year eleven and dropped out of school to work around town. From there, he thought he was done for. He thought that was it. His life and all the things he’s done; all of it would add up to him leaving school.

He remembers his mum crying for him. He remembers his second father leaving. He remembers nights so cold, he had to hold his sisters closer to his chest than ever. He’s had his share of misfortunes.

But he knows what it means to pick yourself back up. He knows what it means to leave community college and to start interning. From then on, it had been a stroke of luck; Louis being at the right place in the right time with the right idea. A trade business from China to Britain, exporting tobacco, steel, ironclad materials, and finally, solar panels.

Since then, he’s been in the spot light. He’s handsome, smart, a family man, and he’s got a past that wins the sympathy: From service apartments to streetlights overlooking the Thames—Louis Tomlinson reveals exactly how he brought his business from small town dreams to the lime light of the London Streets. He’s a model figure, not to mention extremely attractive which does little to calm womanizer slurs. He doesn’t care.

The public expected him to buy his family a house at Old Chelsea even though the place is reserved strictly for people who aren’t him. People with old money, which is the opposite of what he’s got. But he went ahead and bought them a place off of Piccadilly, conveniently near Hyde Park and the Piccadilly Circus; in the centre of all the things his sister wanted to be a part of growing up. The street they’re in is calm and filled to the brim with tall, tall people with sun hats and customized strollers. Range Rover sports cars aren’t as popular as Range Rover jeeps and BMW 7 seaters. It’s a street for families—rich families—but families with laws and broken vases littering the living room now and then all the same.

Him though—he’s at his penthouse by the Thames, like the newspaper articles publish every now and then. It’s lovely, beautiful, but the sheets look empty when Harry isn’t there.

God, and where did Harry even get into all of this? This—this fast paced carousel of a life that he’s living. Constantly moving. Before, just at the beginning of this year, he had been home only once or twice, for no more than two days. Business wise, it’s been a good half year for Louis Tomlinson. The import to Singapore, then back to Bangladesh and Bangkok, had been good—brilliant even. They want to clad the villages in Bangladesh and the schools around Singapore with the panels. Bangkok, too, has got the aesthetic for the possibility. He’s given up on the tobacco trade, and he’d dismissed the silk, spice and tea trade between India and Britain since basically everyone’s already in on how successful it is.

He’s been told to become the monopoly in the market; fuck the trends, Tomlinson. This country’s doing fine without you and it’ll continue being fine without you. Think bigger, think wider. Get out of this place, this continent. Get out.

So he got out and he’s being going out. Last year, he’d spent most of his time in the US and Singapore, going back and forth between the countries. He’s built a proper plan, got a proper team. He’s supposed to make millions, billions, trillions. More than that, he’s going to see the world and control it. God, it sounded like a dream when he’d first heard it, five years ago.

But Harry. Harry, Harry, Harry.

Harry’s come and messed it all up. Because when he’s with Harry, it’s no longer about materialistic blueprints and letters for visa and faxes being sent to people with foreign names. When he’s with Harry, it’s all about touch.

Between them, intimacy is the most progressed thing. It’s scary, really, how close they’ve gotten from just feeling, touching, staying quiet in places where they should be shouting down lives. When he’s wrapped in silk and sheets and skin, warmth on the walls, blue on the ceiling, he’s not thinking anymore. He’s not doing anything but feeling, touching, falling in love.

So Harry’s come and fucked up mostly everything, but it’s not like Louis hadn’t seen it coming.

He can remember the day, just months ago, when he’d first met him at Pheeb’s and Daisy’s birthday party. Where was he standing? By the food, Louis believes, or the drinks. Something like that. But Louis remembers watching him for less than a second, eyes falling to him from where he was chatting with his mum; he had noticed the way Harry stared at his cup, frowning (Louis, once again, thinks).

He had a bag, a large, spacey one, and he wore skin tight jeans. Between it all the one thing Louis remembers clearly, openly, perfectly, is how beautiful Louis had thought he was. Beautiful and silent and alone. Ever too often looking into the crowd of kids. Louis didn’t have it in him to stay away then, he hasn’t had it to stay away for a long time after.

Then came Elliot.

Elliot, in retrospect, is what made him make the promises he did, because honestly, he’d imagine he’d keep them. Elliot was just like Harry, Louis recalls. She was just as cautious, just as unsure, just as beautiful. She barely let him touch her, walking her own way when he’d offered to help her. He hadn’t taken much offense at first, but he noticed when she’d started to warm up to him and even then, she only did so because she thought he made Harry happy.

He could see it then, the love between Harry and his daughter, between Elliot and her father. They’d let Louis in on that love, let him feel it for just a while, let him learn in it for summer days that went too fast.

And now, as he drives aimlessly through the thick fog of the London morning, he’s giving it all away.

The first thing he felt when he woke up to Harry was the fondness. Whenever he sees this boy, he can’t help but smile. Harry’s got this effect on people, this kindness, glowing fire about him that makes everyone around him shine. He emits happiness, it would seem. But after last night started coming back, he felt the fear.

Harry had found out too fast. He found out about Singapore before Louis was even sure about Singapore and last night shouldn’t have happened. It was supposed to be a decision ready made, but after Harry, after the summer, Louis knew he’d have to make a choice with Harry, because his life isn’t about him anymore. It’s not about money or the press or the likeness of if only. It’s about Elliot and Harry and him, and how he’s got a family with them; about how he wants a future with them.

But Harry found out and it must’ve gone wrong somewhere because suddenly, Harry was talking about leaving and lying and being hurt and then he was saying nothing at all, just kissing Louis in the dark night and it had happened too fast, too soon.

He can hear Harry saying something about not leaving. Saying his home is here. Saying he couldn’t leave. And how selfish was it of Louis to even ask?

But he wanted it. He wanted Harry to say yes. Yes, Louis, okay. Let’s figure this out; let’s get this right together but now, he understands that no; no that’s not it. He loves Harry, and he can’t make Harry selfless for him. He can’t take Harry because he know how much family means to Harry, know how much security and surety means to him. He’d pack his bags and put all his trust on Louis and move with him. Louis knows this.

So Louis is on the road to walk away. He’s not going to make Harry leave. He’s not going to say goodbye. He’s going to walk away so that now, things are already done. He’ll leave to Singapore, Harry will wake up in an empty bed.

Despite the throb in his head saying he’s making a mistake, he goes on. Because he’s doing this for Harry, Elliot, his family, and for them, for these people he calls his home, he’ll do anything.

-

June, London. A year after the night Louis left. The Styles Home.

“I knew you’d come with me,” Louis says to a Harry that’s staring at him without a sound. “I knew you would follow me and I knew that a part of you promised yourself you wouldn’t.”

“That was my decision to make,” Harry mumbles, looking down at his bare legs. If it were any other morning, Louis would find them distracting; the pale flesh of Harry’s thighs, the curves of his legs, the buckles of his knees—they’d be begging for marks and Louis’ teeth would be aching to make them. Now though, now it’s innocent. Now, they’re adults making choices, apparently, and they’ve got no time for decadent cravings like marking up clear skin.

“I know. I also thought it would be easier than saying goodbye.”

“So it was you being selfish?” Harry asks, scoffing.

Louis bites his lip, shrugging. “Yeah, I guess it was.”

“Okay.” Harry rubs his hands together. “At least you’re being honest.”

“I couldn’t rob you of your life here, Harry. And I knew you’d never ask me to give up my opportunity. A part of me saw this coming no matter what and I thought—that night meant everything to me, so I guess I thought, why not leave things where they’re the most beautiful?” He laughs into the atmosphere, lets the sound hang around like a wandering soul, a wondering soul.

When he looks at Harry, he finds him glaring. He’s so tired of being the reason for the creases on his forehead. “The morning you left me was when things were most beautiful for you?”

Louis sighs. He’s laughing, inside, at how Harry’s looking at him. He’s seems almost petulant, childish, pouting out his words without even noticing. “I didn’t mean it like that. I meant us, together, not the sex or the fighting, but us together.”

“That was the worst night for me,” Harry says then, “it hurt me more than you ever did.”

“It was the worst for me too, Haz.”

Harry swallows. “I just—we shouldn’t have left it at that. We shouldn’t have. What we had deserved a better ending.”

Oh, how sentimental of Harry. How lovely of him to think of what they had when he should be bitter over it for years. Louis agrees wholeheartedly; they had a good run, a beautiful run, and it came to a stop in a halt; too sudden, unexpected, quick. Something tells him it shouldn’t have happened the way it did. “It doesn’t have to be our ending, Harry,” Louis says quietly.

“You’re right.” Harry looks at him. “Today is, isn’t it?”

Fuck. “It doesn’t have to be,” Louis says and he can hear it then, in his voice. He’s pleading, hoping, cursing at Harry to stop talking about goodbyes, God damnit.

“You have a flight today, Louis.”

“Damn it, don’t you get it Harry? I don’t want to go, I’m not going to go. Do you think I still want Singapore? All the shit I left you for?” He takes Harry by the shoulder, shakes him a little, makes him understand. If he were a snow globe, Louis would throw him to the ground, break him in half, just to build it again and make him understand. “You can’t buy happiness, but money’s the next best thing, and I’ve realized that with you, I had the first best. I had genuine, purified happiness at its most beautiful form and the day I left was the day I let that happiness go. Now I get it, Harry, I do. I don’t want second best anymore, Harry. I want you and that’s number one. The only thing I want. Next to you, next to the life I could have with you and Elliot, everything else doesn’t even stand a chance anymore. Before, money did. It stood. It did. It doesn’t anymore. Nothing does.”

“I can’t,” Harry weeps because he’s got streaks down his eyes, rives on his cheeks, filled with salt and water. He looks like the flapped page of a history book, something left behind so many times, it’s drained itself of everything, all that’s left behind is paper thin skin and wet, red eyes.

“I can’t let you stay back. That’s never what this was about. It was never about Singapore or your work or you wanting money. I can’t ever be angry at you for choosing your career, Louis, because in a heartbeat, I would’ve done the same. For Elliot, like you did for your family, I would’ve done the same. I can’t let you stay behind, Louis.”

“Then what do I have to do, Harry?” Louis asks, grasping at his restraints. What is this? What’s he got to say? He’s so confused because he thought that staying would be enough but it’s not. Harry’s gone and said what he has and he’s turned all the tables, flipped off all the lights that drove Louis back to him. “I just want you back and that’s it. You and Elliot.”

He watches as Harry bites his knuckles, backing up to a wall and letting himself rest against it, as if it takes too much for him to stand straight, stand on his own. “You can’t do anything, Louis, it isn’t so easy. You can’t just—just come back here and...and—and say shit like you want me. That’s not how things work because you let me go and I’m with somebody, damnit! I’m with somebody else; someone reliable, someone I can love and I won’t let that go just to give you a chance on something that might not work. I’m not going to risk anything on you anymore Louis, I can’t.”

He’s so tired of hearing the same things, he really is. But the burn he gets when he’s hears this “someone else” will never subside. Instantly, Louis can feel himself nurturing acid and poison, ready to fire even though it’s not Harry who deserves it.

“Why not, Harry?” What’s he got that I can’t give you anymore?

“I’ve got too much to lose. You know that.”

“So have I. To leave you again, I’ve got too much to lose.”

“Fuck,” Harry hisses. “Why don’t you get it?”

Louis doesn’t want to ask what he means. It won’t mean anything. So instead, he mumbles, “Do you love me?”

Too quickly Harry says, “No.” Then, he looks at Louis’ eyes and it’s a lie before anything else.

“You don’t care about me, you don’t want me anymore?” Louis asks, walking closer. Harry doesn’t react, he just blinks at him owlishly through soaked skin and blinking eyes.

“I don’t.”

“I don’t mean anything to you?”

“Yes.” He’s close enough to touch Harry’s cheek, so he does. That’s what they’re about—touch, skin, intimacy, attachment from the throat to the mouth; from the toes to the crown; from their eyes to their noses. It’s all about their hands on each other, their chests pressed together, them falling in love just like this because it’s all a lie when Harry says he doesn’t love Louis. It’s a lie.

“Do you want me gone? Do you want me on that plane, away from you. Far away from you?” His mouth runs swiftly through Harry’s nose, up and across his cupid’s brow.

“I do.” Harry’s breathing has fallen apart, like the time Louis got Harry on his back, mouthing at every patch of skin. His eyes are shut and that’s how Louis knows he’s lying. The gems are dead, and when they’re dead, they can do whatever they want, they can say whatever they want. His skin tastes salty and warm under Louis lips.

“Do you love me, Harry?” he asks one more time and when he sees Harry’s about to answer, he cups his face, makes him listen. “Say what you want to, and I’ll listen, but say it to me, Harry. Open your eyes and tell me you don’t love and I’ll leave.”

Harry doesn’t listen to him—not yet. He waits, breathes through his nose as if he’s preparing himself, and when he does look at Louis, he can’t manage to stare for over a second.

“I—I don’t—”

“Look at me, Harry. Please.”

He does, but his eyes are watery. “I don’t...I don’t, Louis.”

“You don’t what?” he whispers and it’s now, this one last time; their foreheads pressed so that Harry doesn’t have to look at him anymore.

“I don’t, Louis,” Harry mumbles even though it makes no sense. “I—I just, I—”

He grasps onto Louis’ bare shoulders then, crying helplessly into Louis’ face. “I love you,” he whispers, low and quiet, but Louis can feel it. He can feel, God he can feel it and fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, his boy loves him. His boy loves him, God. He manages to choke out a grin, but fuck, he’s crying too.

“Okay,” he says back.

“Fuck,” Harry gasps, pliant and soft against him, voice barely making anything out. “Fuck, I love you.”

“Fuck, I love you too.”

“No, it’s not—,” Harry starts, shaking his head. “It’s not as easy as that, Louis.”

“But it can be.”

“No.”

“I love you.”

Harry pauses, shakes his head again, and says, “I love you too. But I can stop. I can stop if you just leave.”

“Do you want to stop?”

This time, he looks at Louis when he says, “I do.” It shatters his heart a little, makes it shake in protest. Louis can’t do anything but stare at him, dumfounded. “I do, Louis, more than anything. I want to stop loving you but I can’t if you’re going to be here.”

Louis realizes then that he can’t say anything more. He thought he knew it before, thought staying would fix it, but that turned out wrong. And then he thought that Harry loving him would surely be the catalyst to something new, but apparently Harry wants to stop. So now he hasn’t got much of an option does he? Harry wants him to go. He’s put him through enough so it’s time to go.

“More than anything,” he starts, taking a step back. His mouth has gone dry and he’s finally feeling the chill of the morning against his bare shoulders. “More than anything, I wanted you and Elliot back, Harry. I wanted to love you. But I think—I think there are things I need to do more than that. I think you know what they are. So I’ll tell you this, Harry, I’m not getting on that flight, but I am leaving you today.”

He stops to breathe, his mind hesitantly finding Jeremy’s in the back of his head.

“There was—there’s this boy. He’s back in Singapore and I—well, we’ve been fucking, right, and every time I look at him, I see you there instead. If I were to go back there, I’d never get you out of my head. So today I’ll go and you should know that I love you. But today I’ll go and we’ll both move on and that’ll be the end then, okay?”

Harry’s crying, but he still manages a wet, “All right.”

“And the letter—the address has definitely changed and you don’t have to tell Elliot I’m staying now, but I am. I’ll listen and I won’t try to contact her beyond that.”

“Okay.”

“All right then, Harry.” He walks to the bedroom, looks around for his jacket and shirt, puts them on and walks back to find Harry just where Louis left him: standing in the living room, a dazed look across his face like a blanket.

“Should we say it then?” Louis asks, pushing his sleeves back. Harry turns to look at him abruptly, chest heaving up and down.

“Say what?”

“Say our goodbyes.” Louis holds a hand out in front of him.

“Oh.” He nods before taking the hand, giving it a lifeless shake. “Goodbye.”

“Bye, Harry.”

Harry just nods. “This is better than a year ago then?” Louis manages to ask, the question making him grin because no. This is no better. Leaving Harry can never be in a good way.

“I don’t know,” Harry says, shrugging, “I—I suppose. Yeah.”

“Okay.” He pulls his hand away and turns for the door, heart beating much too fast, his head spinning in green water. He doesn’t look back as he manages the last choked sound, “Goodbye, Haz.”

-

Harry watches as Louis leaves and something in him wants to eat him up.

Idiot, idiot, idiot...how is he ever going to stop loving Louis? If that were to be an option, it would’ve happened already. It just hasn’t because it’s not. Falling out of love with Louis won’t be possible, but he’s gone anyway.

This is what he wanted though, isn’t it? It’s what he wanted. He can’t trust on broken egg shells to shelter him across an ocean. He can’t trust on somebody who has left him with a handful of promises, a lifetime worth of kisses. It wasn’t enough before, it isn’t enough now.

A voice in him says you’re doing this for Elliot. You can’t afford to be as selfish as before. Not again. But then something in him says you’ve ruined love for the rest of your life. Who’re you going to want now?

But he doesn’t get the time to think of anything else because just then, just as he wonders if he should look out the window to watch Louis leave, the doors open with the sound of the wind and Harry can’t believe it’s happening.

There’s Louis, in all his glory, a crying paper figure with his eyes set on Harry, his body moving before his mind does. Harry watches as Louis takes one, two, three steps towards him, holds his hands out as if he wants to gather Harry into his arms, and kisses him square on the mouth.

This isn’t goodbye, this isn’t hello, this isn’t I love you. This is I want you and you want me so lets see where we go this time. Because with them, it’s all about touches. With Harry and Louis, and with them right now as Harry kisses back with a relieved heart and a filtering ache, it’s all about mismatched socks and uneven jam spread and trying. This is Harry taking a chance like he wanted to a year ago when he was going to go with Louis. This is the, He’s so fucking tired of himself, watching things go, watching the end. Observing, observing, observing, unvarying and static, like a soulless thought, a detached memory, a frangible figure. He’s so angry at everything he’s let go and everything he didn’t fight for harder and everything he’ll never get back. He won’t let it happen again—can’t. He’ll fight for once in his fucking life.

He’ll fight for once in his fucking life and he’s going to fight himself.

-

Louis doesn’t keep an eye on the clock, but he doesn’t get the chance to once he thinks of doing so because right then, Harry’s gasping into his mouth, sliding up his cock.

It’s only half an hour since he thought he was leaving, twenty five minutes since he walked back in and took Harry by the mouth. But now—now it’s just messed up sheets and Harry’s knees buckling on either side of him. Now it’s hot, hot, hot and Harry’s so fucking tight. He’s always been so good.

“Oh—oh fuck. Oh fuck.” Harry grips onto his shoulder and he makes sounds as quiet as the colours in his room, curtains drawn, the atmosphere cool and vacant. It’s as if he doesn’t want to be seen, doesn’t want to heard, just wants to feel the weight of Louis against him.

Louis doesn’t know what made him turn around when he thought he couldn’t. Maybe it was because he’s stubborn and he knows it’s a lie when he says goodbye. Maybe it was because there was some sort of pull, like the gravitational force field drowning people to the earth, tying Louis to the string around Harry’s mouth. Or maybe it was the pair of slippers he caught from his peripheral vision on his way out; slippers that can’t belong to Harry because they’re of an army suit pattern and they’re a couple sizes too big. Maybe it was the fact that they aren’t his, aren’t Harry’s, but probably some guy who Harry’s seeing; some guy who’s good for him, for his family, but not good for Louis.

And Louis has always been selfish, so maybe that’s why he’s still here. Because if he’s selfish, then Harry’s stubborn, and if Harry’s stubborn, then Louis can’t stay.

“Harry,” he grits, mouthing at the column of skin down Harry’s neck. They aren’t naked—not completely. Harry just dragged him to his room and took off his boxers, so he’s still clad in the loose shirt from last night, the collar of it slipping down his bones, down his skin like glossy caramel. “Slow down, baby, you don’t—”

“Shut up,” Harry groans, hair matted down on his face unfairly because it raises this ring of innocence around him; makes him look younger, lighter, brighter. As if he hasn’t had any tragedies of his own. “Shut up.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Shh...” Harry mutters, opening his eyes to look down at Louis and—and oh. Oh. Louis’ had his eye on him the entire time, watching the way his muscles contract and his body convulses. Harry watches him and there’s heat in the contact they have beyond their skin. Louis thinks he’s going to die. He thinks honestly, at this moment in time as Harry’s with him, he’s going to die from how much he feels, from how much he’s got to lose, from everything he’s done and everything he can’t change. Louis thinks, as Harry looks down at him almost shyly, eyes like glass as he trails one slender finger down Louis’ jaw, that Harry’s going to kill him. “Stop talking.”

“Okay.”

Harry nods, one arm making its way round Louis’ neck. “I don’t—,” he hiccups as Louis grips at his hips and thrusts up to meet with Harry as he comes down. At the sudden change, Harry loses his balance, falling onto Louis’ chest like he’s stopped himself from doing for so long. “Shit, fuck, Louis!

“I—I—,” Louis starts, his hand sprawled across Harry’s back, holding him in place, holding him steady.

“Don’t,” Harry warns, picking up pace but losing rhythm. He’s got his eyes shut again, mouth open, the bones of his collar displaying faint bruises the colour of pink lemonade.

“I love you,” Louis says anyway, jaw setting. It takes everything in him to stop himself; to keep from flipping them around, fucking up to Harry’s heat in a way that would make Harry gasp, cry, beg for more. It takes everything to stop because that’s not what this is about. It’s not about Louis, and whatever pride he’s got in being better than whoever it is Harry’s seeing. It’s about Harry. It’s seems it all about Harry for him. “I love you, I love you, I love you.”

“Shut up.” Harry makes a small sound then, something akin to a whimper, movements going rigid as he drops his weight onto Louis, crying out once, twice, before he’s coming on himself, all over his chest in white strings.

“Fuck,” Louis grunts, hips moving faster than his head as it bucks up, fucking into Harry in a way that he can’t stop, before he’s coming too, into his condom and into Harry, for the second time in less than twenty four hours. In itself, it feels like a gift; as if this is something he’s gotten lucky enough to get.

He thinks Harry might move away, but he sits on his lap for a long time; placid, hushed, still. He’s warm and the cloth of his shirt feels odd to Louis. He rests his head on Louis’ shoulder, breaths coming out slow, and he’s everything Louis wants.

“Harry?” he calls, running a hand up his back. “Baby?”

“I’m okay,” Harry replies quietly. He moves on his own, climbing out of Louis’ lap and falling to his bed, turning to face the wall.

Fuck. He wanted this, didn’t he? Did Louis somehow force this out of him? Something tells him he should leave, that Harry’s had it with him, that he’s latching onto a world that’s trying to leave him behind. He still doesn’t get it because not a second later, he slotting into the small space behind Harry, scooping him up with an arm going round his waist. He does this because Harry’s his darling—he remembers telling him once, long ago—Harry’s his darling and he adores him.

“You never told me,” Louis starts to say once he feels both their hearts drumming together, “you never told me why you were angry. You said it didn’t have to do with me choosing Singapore, but—,” he trails off, staring intently at the back of Harry’s head, the curls curling below the faint skin of his neck like an autumn fall.

“I wanted you to tell me. I wanted a goodbye,” Harry says, “I was angry at myself, too, for wanting to come with you. For trusting you so much, so fast, with nothing to show for it.”

Louis wants Harry to turn around. He wants to see his face. He doesn’t think he deserves to ask. “I’m sorry.” For what? For everything. That much, Louis thinks Harry knows.

“But see...you’re sorry, but that doesn’t change anything, does it? We had to learn to forget you and Elliot still cried for you and—and I still cried for you. You coming back here and saying all the right things...that doesn’t change anything, does it?”

For once, Louis remains quiet. For once, he tries to listen. In return, Harry turns around. “Tell me, Louis, can you take back what’s already happened?”

“If I could, I would,” he says, suddenly overwhelmed with the abundance that is Harry; with the sudden proximity of their faces, with the sudden urge to want to kiss him and love him and hold him closer than ever before. “You know that, Harry. If I could take everything back, I would.”

“But you can’t.”

“I can’t take it back, but I can show you that it won’t happen again.” Louis desperately searches his face, lifting his hand to touch Harry’s face, but dropping it before he can.

“Why should I trust that, Louis?” Why should I trust you?

“Because I’m going to keep coming back. Because for me, this life I have with you and Elliot—”

“Is what you want, it all you want,” Harry finishes for him, smiling sadly, shaking his head. “I know.”

Louis nods frantically, trying not to cry because it feels as if Harry’s going to do the worst thing—far worse than slapping him and yelling at him—he’s going to let Louis go. “And you know that I love you.”

Quietly, like the silence before a bomb, Harry says, “So what if I decide that it’s not enough?” What if I decide your love is not enough? Well, Louis doesn’t know. The love he has for Harry is all he has for him anymore.

“Why wouldn’t it be enough?” Louis asks softly.

Harry closes his eyes. “I can’t trust it, Louis. I can’t trust the love you have for a version of me that doesn’t exist. I can’t trust your love to be real, Louis, I can’t.”

It’s harsher than a slap, cooler than a glare. It hits Louis harder than anything. “No,” he gasps, eyes feeling heavy with a new batch of fresh rain water. “No, you—,” he stutters for the right words to say, for the best way to justify something that’s always been so black and white for him.

“I love you, Harry, and that’s the only thing—the only thing I trust wholly. When I was in Singapore—in the city of plastic and all things materialistic, I thought of the love I had for you and that was the only thing that was real. That was the only thing that I understood, so you can’t tell me it isn’t real, Harry. You can punch me in the face and shove a gun down my throat, but you can’t—you can’t—say I don’t love you.”

His lungs contract and fall in on itself, heaving and stretched to its limits. His skin is coated in sweat, but all he can think of is the way Harry looks at him as he speaks; the clear simmer of doubt, the wonder, and even the admiration.

“Test me out, Haz,” he continues, opening his arms wide, “try me. For a week, a day, a month—see if you want me in your life anymore. Whatever you want, Harry. But you want me, don’t you? You want me and I want you, so try me again. Test me. Do anything you want, but don’t—don’t give up on me, on us. Not so soon.”

Harry looks unsure, staring at the gap Louis’ offered, before he scoots forward, crawling closer until he rests his head on the slope below Louis’ collarbones, his curls brushing across Louis’ chest. “I don’t know, Louis. There’s so much for me to lose. I don’t know.”

“I know, baby,” he mumbles back, pressing a kiss to the crown of Harry’s head, letting his head rest there. He doesn’t know what Harry’ll say next, what will happen next, but Harry’s here and he’s in his arms, so for now, Louis can breathe. For now, and for the first time in what feels like forever, he can allow himself to feel content, complete, sure. “But I’m asking you to trust me. One last time.”

“I’ll be breaking all my promises,” Harry says, “to Niall and Liam and myself. I promised to stay away from you, to stop repeating past mistakes. I’ll be breaking them all.” If he’s trying to convince Louis, or himself, it’s all blurred across the borders now.

“I know. I’m breaking my promise, too.”

Harry shuffles around, aligns their hips and chests and hearts, looks up at him and nods, pressing a kiss to Louis’ chest, secretly. “All right.” He shakes his head and something warm and dumb and beautiful in Louis tells him that Harry’s smiling. That Harry’s smiling his dimples and warmth to display. “Fuck. All right.”

Right then, Louis can’t help it. When he grins and wraps his Harry into the tightest hug, he can’t help it. “Thank you. I love you. God, I love you.”

And it isn’t the fact that Harry stays or lets him hold him or love him. It’s the fact that he mumbles back, “I love you, too,” into Louis’ skin that lets him know that whatever comes next, whatever does, he might just be able to overcome it. If Harry’s waiting in the end, with Elliot in hand, he’s willing to do it.

-

Harry says he’s not allowed near Elliot. Not yet.

They’re going ahead with the test try method and he wasn’t sure what he meant exactly when he mentioned it, but all he can sense is that Harry’s more cautious around him. It’s as if he’s wearing a plastic sheet over his skin, letting Louis see through ant size holes. Even then, what he sees is not the truth, not always. Sometimes Harry smiles when they’re sat around the kitchen, but Louis knows it takes effort to make the tug of lip. Sometimes he’ll let Louis kiss him in the tiny dent by his collarbones, where he’s most ticklish, but Louis’ll look up and see him bite his lip.

He doesn’t share things as easily, and it’s been less than a week and Louis’ giving him space, but it’s so hard to pretend they’re trying, pretend they’re doing something right, when it all feels like a game. Either way, Louis isn’t going to stop.

Zayn’s on his back now, questioning his every move. He thinks he’s going to fuck up and Zayn’s already made it clear that he won’t be on his side if that happens again. Louis tells him he knows what he’s doing, that he’s doing his best.

It’s a week later. Harry’s doing the dishes, Louis’ drying them and Elliot’s at her gran’s place for the week. The silences between them are not comfortable, but they aren’t bitter either. It’s all questioning, walking on thin ice, Harry waiting for Louis to mess up, Louis waiting for himself to do the same. But it’s a week later and Louis finally asks about whoever else Harry was seeing.

“Hey, Haz?” he starts, making sure to keep from looking at Harry’s face directly.

“Yeah?” he mumbles back. He had a shift earlier and Louis suggested he drive him because he’s been sitting at home doing absolutely nothing. His mum’s asked him why he hasn’t returned to Singapore, and he’s gotten a few hundred calls from Mel completely freaking out because what do you mean you quit sir? You can’t—you can’t do that?

It isn’t really fair on a lot of people, he gets it, cause he’s sort of just dropped off the face of the universe; traveling to and from his mum’s and Harry’s house, relishing in what little time Harry’s been giving him. And this little time is in between shifts; when Louis will drive his mum's Volkswagen to the venue and wait for him in sweats.

“You aren’t—you didn’t tell me about the guy you were seeing...” He fiddles with the delicate handle of the cup he’s drying, hips bumping against Harry’s ever so often.

“Oh.” Harry glances at him quickly. “Oh, yeah, I-I...yeah.” And Louis would get it, he would, how they’re still not at ease with each other, still getting used to the barrier between them called time; trying not to remember how they once were, but figuring out how they’re going to be now.

“Yeah?” Louis raises an eyebrow at him. Harry doesn’t owe him anything—certainly not an explanation. But. But it still matters to him, and that should be of some worth now, shouldn’t it? Not before they agreed to try out whatever it is they’re doing, but now...it should mean something? It should, Louis hopes.

Harry sighs. “I’m not seeing him anymore, if that’s what you’re asking.”

“No, I-I know you wouldn’t do that, I know.” Fuck. That’s not what he meant.

“Then what are you asking for, Lou?” Louis doesn’t get time to smile over the little victory in the return of the pet name because right then, Harry’s turning to face him and he doesn’t exactly look pleased.

Harry looks done, and Louis can't help but feel something strangely akin to discouragement. “I dunno. Who he was? How you met? I feel as if I barely know you anymore, Harry, I...”

“I don’t exactly know you either Louis.”

He can sense Harry looking at him, trying to get some sort of an understanding as to what he’s feeling or saying or doing, but he must sense that Louis isn’t going to look back anytime soon because he continues with, “I met him at work. We were catering for an art gallery and he was one of the artists.”

When Louis does look at him though, they both start laughing. Because it’s just like Harry to find someone just like he found Louis.

“He’s an artist then?” Louis asks him, glance caught at how Harry keeps fiddling with a bracelet by his wrist.

“Um. It’s more of a passion, I think. He’s a real estate agent, most of the time.” Harry bites his lip, looks nervous then. “He was—he had a couple years on me. Like, uh, like you. Turned twenty nine just a few weeks ago.” Harry stumbles over his words, but he finally decides on, “I liked him. So did Elliot.”

It isn’t the best thing Louis’ heard, but then again, he was asking for the truth. “And you just...broke it off? Were you serious about each other?”

Harry manages a shrug. “I suppose we were. But if I-if I gave up on him as easily as I did...I mean, y’know, told him I wanted to stop seeing each other just cause you came back, then I don’t think it was all that serious.”

Louis wants to kiss him then. It’s awful because it’s as if he’s barely listening, but he is. He’s all ears, a couple nails, and a whole lot of heart because his boy came back to him. Even when he didn’t deserve it.

“I just—I feel bad about it because I think a part of me was always—was always waiting for you. For you to come back. Like you did. It wasn’t fair on him when all he did was be incredibly wonderful and all I did—,” he gasps, catching his breath. Louis watches as he crumples dryly, shaking his head, talking to no one but himself. “All I did was come back to a mistake.”

It hurts, of course it does. It stings harder than a shot, harder than a needle to the head. But it’s nothing compared to the way Harry turns sharply to the cabinets, thumbing through random things just so he won’t have to look at his mistake.

“Harry—”

“No. Don’t. I’m just—It’s just not fair, okay? To Mason or to Elliot because they were just getting to know each other. It’s not fair, what I did, but I said I’d give it a go, all right? And I did because it’s true.” Louis’ eye catches Harry’s and it’s overwhelming when Harry continues with, “It’s true when I say I was waiting for you. I always have been, I think, because I loved you. And a part of me keeps telling me I can love you again.”

“I’m sorry,” Louis finally whispers. It’s a poor attempt at condolence, mostly because he’s a dick and he’s selfish as fuck and he wants his boy all to himself, but also because he isn’t sure what else he can say. “I’m sorry Harry. None of this should’ve happened if I’d—”

“If you’d stayed. Yeah. I think we both get it.”

“I’m still sorry.”

Harry shakes his head. “I get it, Louis. You saying it a million more times won’t solve anything.”

Louis lets himself be silent then, watching patiently as Harry composes himself, trudging guiltily at his string bracelet. Finally, Louis thinks it’s time he be honest with Harry too. “I was seeing someone too. After—after I left in January.”

Harry looks at him, smiles a small smile. “I know. You said his name was Jeremy.”

Louis frowns. “I did?”

“Yeah. Before. I don’t think you meant to, but...”

“Well I was seeing him. It wasn’t like what you had with, um, Mason?” Harry nods, leaning against the opposite counter with his arms crossed.

“Mason,” Harry confirms.

He looks a warm kind of tired then, hair like loose ringlets of clouds, the turn of his jaw coming out too soft in the glow of the hanging lights. His hands are wet from the washing, fingers like long indents of the moon; thin, delicate, nimble. They were meant to be held, Louis thinks, all of him was.

Harry’s got a big heart is one thing Louis has always known without a doubt. He’s got a big, big, daring heart. And it’s never protected, never behind its rib cages no matter how much Harry tries to put it there. It’s always been a roaring heart, a vicious heart. It’s always been a heart that Louis wants. When Harry looks at him then, looks at him like he’s sort of wonderful, sort of crazy, sort of intimidating, Louis can’t help but look at him just the same.

“It wasn’t like what you had with Mason. It wasn’t serious, by any terms, because I-I knew it was useless to try and get into anything important with anyone that wasn’t you. I didn’t have that to give anymore.”

Harry looks down shyly at that, suddenly that image of the boy that climbed into his car, into his lap, into his damn life like a hurricane of a human; uncontrollably lovely and devilishly beautiful.

“He—Jeremy—would always ask about you though, and like, that was the only time I let myself think of you unabashedly. And it was usually after we’d fuck or something, he’d ask me something about you and I swear—,” he cuts himself off to grin at Harry, “I could go on for days when it came to you.”

“I—I don’t—”

“You don’t have to say anything. I’m sorry for asking about Mason. I wasn’t in the right place to.”

Harry shrugs again, his shirt sliding off his shoulder and fuck. That’s not something Louis should get to see without some restraints on him; something to stop himself from getting any closer than he’s allowed.

“It’s okay,” Harry whispers. “Thank you.”

Louis smiles as he moves closer to him. He’s slow in the sense that he lets Harry watch his every move, map him out for strengths, ability, weaknesses. The pull—he can feel it again, and he’s always talking about it; about how it drags him back, drags him to, drags him all over the place like a paper doll with no weights. But this drag always pulls him back to Harry. Maybe it’s because it’s working on both ends; keeping them both attached. Maybe it isn’t so much as Louis falling forward as it is Harry coming halfway to meet him.

“Can I—?” Louis asks so soft, it’s barely audible. But Harry must hear—he must—because he nods anyway, pushing himself straight and pressing himself to the counter. He lets Louis come closer, corner him, trap him in a way he didn’t think he’d let Louis do again.

“Was he good to you?” Louis asks, but only when he can mumble the words down onto Harry’s lobe, pressing their chests, their heads; their hearts aligned like gold bars, their breaths coming in like a call and response song; can you hear me? yes. Can you feel my throat against your fingertips? I can. Do you love me?

Do you, do you, do you?

“Yes,” Harry mumbles back, though it seems his voice catches in his mouth, comes out shaky as he stares at Louis’ lips, then up to his eyes, then back to his lips like he just can’t decide what he wants.

“Are you sure?” He isn’t sure what he’s on about exactly. Not really. But he likes how Harry curls a fist into his collar and pulls him close. Close, till he pushes him back, like his own little game of tug and war; still undecided if he wants to win or not.

“I’m sure,” Harry says. “He was always, always good to me.”

“He took care of you?” Fuck. What’s he saying? Is Harry going to punch him in the face?

No. The answer is no, Harry isn’t going to punch him in the face. He’s going to do worse: “He took the best care of me. Always.” There’s something in the way he says it, the way his eyes glint, the way he wants Louis to be hurt, but not really—it makes Louis’ jaw clench and the hairs down the back of his neck stand straight.

It’s a selfish, inconsiderate, egotistic thought, but he hates the thought of Harry with someone else (what else is new?). So it’s not a surprise when he asks, slow and careful, “Better than me?

Harry smiles, sweetly, lets his soft cheek graze Louis’ scruffy one, before he leans forward, pecks Louis’ mouth once, and mumbles, “Way, way, way better,” before he slips past Louis’ arms and runs.

He’s laughing down the hall, down the walls, down the rain in their bloodstream, and Louis’ never heard anything better. Harry, beautiful, kind, wonderful Harry, running and laughing and shining; it’s the best thing he’s ever seen, he thinks, it’s the one thing he can’t afford to lose again.

So he chases his boy, chases him till he grabs him by the waist and they topple over like overweight towers stood on stills, giggling breathlessly into each others mouths like they’ll never love again, like it’s useless to fight the urge. Because he’d chase his boy forever, till the end of time, because he could go for days, he could do whatever when it came to Harry.

-

July, summer. London.

A thing Harry’s learnt about time is that it changes everything, but only if it wants to. Certain things, the cheek of fate, the hourglasses of chance, maybe, can’t be altered in a hundred or even a million years. So just like time changes his hair, his strength and his ability to heal old wounds, it turns out time never touched the feeling he gets with Louis. When he’s with Louis, when he’s kissing Louis, when Louis is saying “I love you,” the feeling he got a year ago, a lifetime ago, is just the same today.

This, he realizes, is a surprise.

For most the part, he’d had the thought pinned: he pretty much, more or less, hated Louis Tomlinson. Why? Simple. He made his daughter cry. Indirectly, yes, but tears all the same. So this was a truth he thought he knew for sure, a truth weighed down on him for days, weeks, months.

It was something solid till after one fucking night, it wasn’t.

Louis showed up out of thin, sparse air. He used this expanse of surprise to his benefit. He got Harry alone, got him weak, said the right words the morning after, ran back into his home, made it out that Harry could still run into his arms, as if it were that simple, as if it could be that easy.

But who is Harry to complain when he went ahead and let it happen?

So yes he let it happen and yes he’s going to try...try what? It’s hard to tell, Harry thinks, hard to tell what any of it means at all. Test me out, Haz, Louis had said, try me. What did that mean? That if Harry decided he was a shit kisser who couldn’t hold his bum properly, he’d kick Louis out? Test out how long he’s going to stay this time, over the two and half month line? Test what out, Harry doesn’t know, nor is he asking.

He’s breaking rules, promises and the simple thing called common sense, but none of that really applies to Louis. It didn’t before, it doesn’t now. He’d taken a chance one summer afternoon a year ago and he’s taking a chance now.

There’s something about the way Louis looks at him now—as if he’s fragile, flimsy; easily breakable, and slowly fading. As if he’s a tenuous, unsure body made up of filtering matter; a space that won’t last—it makes him think that yeah, maybe he won’t have to regret much again.

-

He doesn’t have it in him to tell his mum, but when Niall hears about Louis coming back (coming home), he, quite casually, tells Harry that yes, he is crazy, and that no, no please don’t invite him for a drink with me, I am still mad at him. It provides no consolation and Harry finds himself stuck in a position he hasn’t been in for the longest time: risk.

“Harry, babe, you’re sure about this?”

“Ni, I told you. I haven’t said yes to anything, okay? I’m not with him, he’s not my anything...we’re just testing waters. Testing each other. Seeing if it would be worth it to try again.”

“Yeah, but “testing waters” sounds too much like forgiveness to me.” Barbara walks in then, with a tray and three mugs. She does, without a doubt, make the best coffee.

“I think you’re doing the right thing, Haz,” she says softly, reaching for the mug with the cartoon giraffes because it’s her favourite. “If you missed him and if he’s genuinely sorry, then I don’t see the problem in trying again. Good for you, babe.”

“Babs!” Niall looks affronted. “Don’t encourage him! We’ve got to keep Harry as far away from that fucker as possible! It’s our duty, darling, we can’t support the enemy.”

“Um,” Harry interjects, “I’m not too sure about—”

“I’m not supporting the enemy,” Barbara cuts in, narrowing her eyes. “And I’m not encouraging anyone, either. I’m just comforting him. Do you think yelling at the poor boy is going to help anything?”

“Babs, are we just going to forget what that dickhead, what that scoundrel, what that no good, absolutely rotten, motherfucking, shit eating—”

“Okay Ni, I think we get it—,” Harry mutters lowly.

Cunt did to Harry? To Elliot? Hm? Are we going simply dismiss him ‘cause he’s back with his pretty face and good for nothing charm and a perfect apology?”

“I’m not saying we should forget what he did—”

“Good, because neither am I! Babs, he’s not a good lad. He isn’t.”

“Niall,” Barbara starts, stressing the name, crossing her arms. Harry sighs tiredly, troubled by her diligence. “Don’t blow this out of proportion, babe, you’re going to tire your head. I’m not telling Harry he should go ahead and marry the man. No one is. I’m just saying that if he trusts himself to not let what happened last time happen again, then there’s no problem in wanting to see him if he does in fact, still want to see him!”

“Do you want to see him again, Harry?” Niall questions and wow, when did the conversation start to include him.

“I—uh, I don’t—”

“Let me rephrase for him, sweetheart,” she interrupts, resting a hand on his knee. “Do you still miss him? While he was gone, have you gotten over him? The Mason guy—d’you think you’re better off with him?”

“You’ve just made it harder on him,” Niall whines. “I know my Harry, okay, I know that he wouldn’t do anything to hurt his Elliot. So tell me Harry, do you trust him?”

“I don’t know.”

“Then do you think he’s going to hurt you, or Elliot, again?”

Harry thinks back very suddenly to the Louis who blurted out words like, “I love you,” and, “I want you,” and, “Test me out.” Those Louis’, who held out their open hearts in a pool of white and blue blood. That Louis with his tear stained cheeks and tender mouth and solid, solid hands. That Louis, the one that held Harry and looked at him as if he was seeing him for the first time. It’s that Louis he sees when Niall asks him if he thinks Louis’ll hurt him again.

“I don’t...” he looks at Niall, sees the desperation, and then sees Louis’ own eyes reflecting the same feeling. “I don’t think so, Ni. He—he said so many things, so fast, but what I remember most clearly is him saying that he loved me. God, he loves me, Ni, he loves me.”

“Fuck, Harry,” Niall mumbles in response, glancing at Barbara who sits on Harry’s other side with wide, round eyes.

“I know. I know you think I’m making a massive fucking mistake—”

“Harry,” Barbara cuts.

“No, Babs, I get it. You think he’s probably saying random bullshit, but I’m just seeing. That’s it. I’m just figuring things out for me, for Elliot, for our future. I promise you I’ll stop whatever I’m doing the second he gives me a reason to, but for now—now he hasn’t.”

They stare at him then, watch his every movement. Harry thinks maybe, just maybe, he knows what they’re thinking, fuck he’s going to hurt himself, what about Elliot, does Anne know? And he loves them for the way they reach for his hand and give it a squeeze. Finally, Niall mutters, “Did he answer your question properly then?”

Harry tilts his head, eyes wet. “Which question?”

“Y’know, the one that’s been eating you up all these past months.” Barbara gives him a warning look, but Niall goes ahead and ignores it. “Why he left that morning—did he have an answer for you?”

Harry finds it in himself to grin. “Yeah, Niall. I think he did.”

-

“Elliot,” he asks one night, both of them sprawled on the couch messily with mac and cheese on their laps. “Will you bring me the mail, darling? It’s on the kitchen countertop.” Before he finishes speaking, she’s jumping out of the mess of blankets, thundering to the kitchen and coming back a couple minutes later with a sulk.

“What’s wrong babe? Were you expecting something?” So, he knows what it means to be a parent, but he’s terribly awful at confrontations. He’s sort of hoping Elliot’s going to admit to writing to Louis easily and comply to the punishment of meeting up with the Tomlinson twins only once a week for a month. Excluding ballet lessons.

“No, pa, I wasn’t.”

“Are you sure?” He watches as she fiddles with the pink hem of her pajama pants. Hm. That was easy.

“Well, I just—have you gotten anything from um…from Louis, pa? Have you got any mail from him?” Close enough.

“Why? Should we get any mail from Louis?”

“Um. No.”

“Elliot.”

She sighs. “How’d you find out?”

Harry bites his lip, shakes his head. “Elliot, you can’t just do things like that without telling me. If you wanted to mail him, I wouldn’t have said anything.”

“Yes you would’ve, pa,” she says, soft but sure. “You would’ve told me to stop, pa. You would’ve told me he’s as good as gone. You wouldn’t have let me sent it.”

Harry opens his mouth, shocked. “Darling—“

“He hurt us, didn’t he? By leaving?”

“Elliot, that’s not the point—“

“But he did, didn’t he? So why can’t we ask for him to come back? Why can’t we ask him to stop hurting us?”

“Elliot.” He manages a sigh. “Elliot, this isn’t—it’s not about Louis, doll. It’s about how you sent someone mail without letting me know first. It was dangerous, darling,” he adds softly, reaching over to pull her close. “It was dangerous of you to do that and it’s my job to protect you, innit? I can’t do that if you don’t tell me when you’re going to send letters to people. Next time, I just want to know before, yeah?”

She looks down at her toes, sucks in the apple of her cheek. “I’m sorry.”

“I know.” He hums into her hair, holding her close. “You’re not off the hook yet though, missy. No playdates with the Tomlinson’s for a month.”

“Pa!”

“El,” he warms, tapping her nose.

“Fine, all right. I’m sorry.” Then, she tilts her head and lets her eyes study her father. “How’d you find out though, pa? Did Zayn tell you?”

Harry bites his tongue back. He can’t tell her about Louis…can he? “Um…no.”

He watches helplessly as Elliot’s eyes brighten up. “Then Louis must’ve written back. Or else you wouldn’t have known, oh my god. Can I read it, pa? Please? I won’t complain about no playdates at all if you let me read it.”

“Elliot—“

“And I promise, promise, promise I won’t complain about dinner and I won’t leave my tutus at the bathtub and I won’t leave crafts lying ‘round the table before breakfast and—“

“Elliot, I didn’t find out through a letter,” he says, warmth filling in through watery gaps where he decides that he’s got the best daughter in the world. The best daughter in the world who he isn’t going to lie to. “I found out through Louis.”

It takes a second for her to understand. Even after she does, she looks at him with wide eyes. “What do you mean, pa?”

Harry laughs, a soft, damp sound through the air filter. It’s been just a shy of two weeks, but he’s already telling his kid, “He’s back, El. He came back.”

Elliot stays quiet for a while, looks at her father then down to her hands. When Harry meets her eyes again, there’s this glimmer in them that look a lot like hope but still a lot like doubt. “Are you sure, pa?”

Harry can understand her hesitance. He mirrored the same look once, he thinks, two and a million weeks ago. “I am, darling.”

“He’s back?”

Harry nods.

“Oh, pa,” she whispers, scooting until she can wrap her arms around his neck, hold onto him as if he just might fly away, “He’s back. Lou came back. Lou—can we see him? Let’s go see him, pa, I want to see him.”

“Elliot, it’s nearing eleven o’clock, you—“

“But he’s back, pa! Is he going to stay with us?” She looks around the house frantically, eyeing the paintings that’ve made their way to the living room wall when Harry’d told her he wouldn’t have anything other than her work on there. Then, as if her movements have been influenced by a brisk wind, she snaps her head back to face Harry. “Is he going to stay with you?”

It warms his heart, makes him press a kiss to her forehead. “I don’t know yet, El.”

She frowns, disrupted. “Why not?”

“Well.” How does he put this? He’s hurt us, darling, I’ve got to be careful. But Elliot doesn’t really understand why he’s got to be careful anymore. He made us cry. But Elliot’s forgiven him. She forgave him before she even knew what he’d done. He says he loves me and I think that’s fucked up. He can’t swear in front of her now can he? “What if I was still angry at him?”

Elliot tilts her head. “For leaving us?”

Harry nods.

She grins in return, bright and full of life. “Well you can’t be angry at him for that. He came back.”

Fuck. Harry wonders why that logic doesn’t work on him anymore. “Well, he’s been gone for a very long time.”

“But in the end, even after that, he still came back to us, didn’t he? It’s like, wherever he went, it wasn’t enough for him, y’know. Like—like when I went to arts class instead of ballet class last March. I like arts, but ballet classes were way more fun, so I switched back. It’s like when you stopped buying regular milk for almond milk, pa. It didn’t take you a week to switch back, did it?” She’s bouncing on her seat, glitter washing her eyes like a varnish. Harry hasn’t seen this face, the one exactly like this, for the longest time.

“But it’s not really like that though, is it?”

“Of course it is. We all make dumb, um, decisions? Is that the word?”

“Dumb choices, dumb decisions…” Harry supplies.

Choices! Yes. Choices. Dumb choices, like what Lou did, but coming back home wasn’t one of them. Let’s go meet him, pa.”

Harry can’t help but grin at her, she’s like a golden star. “El—“

“Please, pa? You’ve met him, when he told you bout the letter, but I haven’t. It feels like it’s been for forever.”

Harry bites his lip. Would Louis come down? Is it appropriate to let him? Something in him says that there’s been enough Louis in their house for the night.

“Soon,” Harry says instead, grinning when she flops back on the couch with her head buried in a pillow. “I promise, El. Really, really soon.”

-

“Yes,” is what Louis says when Harry calls him up, asking if he’s free that weekend. He says it instantly, as if he hasn’t had to think of it at all. As if even if he wasn’t, he’s free now. “Why? What’s up?”

Harry pads over to Elliot’s room, clad in cotton shorts, and he watches from the door as the blanket wrapped around the bed lift and shudder and fall. She’s barely there, her shape marked onto the bed distinctively with the edges faltering.

“Elliot has a ballet recital this Saturday. She’s been practicing for it for weeks now and—“

He can hear the thrum of, “Can I—?”

“I mean, yeah. Um.” He waits a second, wonders if Louis will react in any other way. “That’s why I called? Um. She sort of knows you’re back and she—“

“Harry,” he hears on the other side. “Harry, please, I…”

“I know.” He leans against the refrigerator door, both hands holding the phone to his ear. “I know, all right? She wants to see you. I want you to come.”

“I want to come, too.”

“Okay.” Good.

After a beat, Louis says, “Zayn told me about it, y’know? About some audition Elliot had been worried over or something. He said it went well.”

Harry grins, but just a little, just enough for it to be barely justifiable. “It’s a production of Swan Lake. Elliot didn’t get the lead, no, but—“

“But whatever, yeah? She’s…she’s going to be brilliant, isn’t she? God, I can’t wait. Harry, you don’t know how much I wanted to be there.” He hears a laugh—a Louis laugh. “I thought, if things didn’t go well with us, then I’d watch her performance and just leave permanently.” Leave permanently? What does that mean?

“What do you mean?”

“What? About…what?”

“About leaving permanently.”

He hears another beat. “Oh. Shit. Yeah, um, things are going pretty brilliant in Singapore, or at least…they were. I sort of um, won this…thing, right? So. We were talking about extending my relocation for another five, ten years? Coz, um, I was supposed to return by the end of this year.”

“Shit, Lou,” Harry blurts, mind a little dizzy. “That’s…good? You’re doing good and that’s…good.”

“Yeah.” Harry can almost—almost—hear his grin. Almost. He can definitely feel it though, and it’s almost tangible in the ambience. “Things were good, but now they’re better. Anyway. What date, time? Should I chauffeur?”

“No, I—after the show, I think. She won’t know, and she won’t be distracted…”

“Yeah, all right. Definitely. All right.” Harry can see him nodding along, the image of an excitable pup, a beautiful disturbance. And then he’s laughing; he’s laughing and mumbling, “Fuck, Haz, I’m gonna see her, I’m gonna see Elliot.

“Finally, finally, finally. I’m gonna see our El.”

-

Saturday evening, London.

It’s Saturday and Elliot’s panicking.

It’s not inevitable, nor does Harry expect anything otherwise, but she’s pacing around the backstage of the auditorium the rundown ballet school has rented for the night and she’s looking strangely quiet.

“Hey,” Harry mumbles again, for what must be the tenth time, “Ni’s coming, yeah? You’re going to be brill, babe, c’mon. El—El, wanna sit down? Let’s sit down.”

“Pa,” she whispers, for what must be the hundredth time, “I’m scared.”

She doesn’t necessarily look scared. The way she says it is almost surprised, but Harry’s walked through the first day of school with her, and her first, full on audition. There aren’t very many times Elliot Styles is scared, exactly. Maybe a little startled, maybe a little unsure, swimming across unknown stars, but she’s not always scared.

Harry wraps an arm around her shoulder as she sits down next to him. “That’s all right, El.”

She nods. “I’m serious, y’know. We’re all here for you. Gran Anne’s outside and that’s for sure this time. Whatever happens, my love, we’ll still be here for you. So how about you go out there and you dance as best as you can just because you want to. Just because you can and because you’re that brilliant.”

“Yeah.” She breathes. “Right. Thank you.”

“And afterwards, I say we all go out for ice cream. Or fried chicken. Whatever you want.”

“Okay, pa,” she says, nodding along like the mindless rhythm of a bobble head. He isn’t completely listening. “And what about Louis? Is he still in London?”

It isn’t the first time she’s asked. Harry’s prepared. “I’d hope so. Why?”

Elliot shrugs, deflating. Harry hates that she adores him this much, that she doubts he’ll leave her behind and that she’s willing to let it happen. “No reason.”

“All right. You wanna drink some water?”

Elliot shakes her head, stretching her legs out in front of her. She’s dressed in a lovely powdery pink from head to toe. Harry’s managed to get her to pose for a couple hundred photos. “I’m all right, pa, thanks.”

“Well then.” He gets up and brushes his pants down. “I’m going to go get some water. I’ll see you before you start, yeah?”

“Of course. Please hurry.”

“Absolutely.” When he manages to get a fair distance away from, he pulls out his phone. Across the front in bright white lights read, I’m here . sitting at the back . xxx

It is undoubtedly from Louis.

good. thanks. i’ll see you soon.

-

Saturday, London. The ballet performance.

There are a few things in life Elliot knows to be true.

One, her pa is the best person. Like, ever. No matter what, her pa, with his curly hair and his big eyes and soft, soft hands, is the bestest person ever and he loves her no matter what.

Two, Raza is also the bestest person ever because he makes the bestest fried chicken ever. He also gives her extra fries and he gave her an oil pastel set for her birthday.

Three, Gran Anne hates visiting during weekdays purely because the line at Sainsbury after school is very long.

Four, painting and dancing aren’t done together. Ever.

Five, Fridays are basically the best days ever because she gets to see Phoebe and Daisy.

Six, Daisy and Phoebe are the bestest friends ever.

Seven, Daisy and Phoebe’s brother, Louis, loves her father.

Now, these things don’t always come in order, not to Elliot, anyway. They come when the situation calls for it. She’s also never hesitant to add to the list. For instance, Mason came over most Sundays and helped with her homework, and one time she caught Mason pecking her pa’s cheek, and that was something she thought was something to be true, something to be forever, but that was before he stopped coming.

So Elliot understands that not everything is always to be true and that even though the sun comes up some morning, the next they might not, especially if it’s nearing the end of the year. And Elliot gets that it must happen to everyone, the change of the leaves and the change of hair colour and the change of feelings. It must happen to everyone. But the Louis she thought she once knew—what happened to that?

The way Elliot saw it, one day he was there and the next he was not. One day his pa was this person sharing his life, and the next…he was not. One day she was crying for him to come back just one more time I promise I’ll be good, please stop making pa cry, I’ll be good, I promise and the next, she’s understood it was never her, it was never her pa, nor was it Louis himself. It must be something more than that.

It must be something. Something that made him go away. Louis’ feelings? She isn’t sure. Louis’ work? Possibly. God? The possibilities are endless. Whatever it was, she realized she could beat it. Sort of. She’d just have to talk to Louis once more.

That lead to a handwritten letter with absolutely perfect handwriting and spelling (Elliot checked), as well as a ribbon from the audition for the recital she’s just finished. So she’d sent it, waited, and got back the news that he’d come back. After what must’ve been forever, he came back.

Now if only her pa would let her see him.

She doesn’t get why her pa’s so unsure about it. Surely, Louis hasn’t changed. Surely, Louis must still love them, if he came back? That’s what should matter. Pa just needs to get that.

Once the performance is over, she feels ecstatic. She’d done well is the thing and she didn’t mess up her steps and she was counting the tempo, one, two, three, one, two, three in her head and she’d bowed in time with Daisy on her right and Phoebe two people to her left. And from the front, she could see her pa, standing and crying and yelling things with his mouth shut. She’s sure she’s never felt such a happiness before.

So when she goes off stage and pushes through a mess of hugs to find her pa, she doesn’t understand she’s going to find someone else entirely.

As she stumbles out of the backstage area, still clad in her gorgeous leotard and tufts of lovely fabric, she doesn’t understand that another turn to the right, she’s going to crash into something she only remembers from her past.

Obviously, as she looks up and as she pants heavily from her chest, she finds him.

She finds him. She finds him, she finds him, she finds him.

“Louis?”

He turns around instantly; from just his profile, Elliot can now see him as a whole: the grown, handsome man she’d once accidentally called pa.

“Oh my god,” she mumbles, heart feeling like it’s been galloped on by the hooves of trees, as if a blade has managed to skirt past the soft skin of the ceiling and now rose petals are falling to cover her line of vision. There he is, there he is, there he is, a room’s length away.

His mouth is open and he’s wearing a nice blazer over a plain white shirt but god, has Elliot missed his face; his lovely, familiar, laughing face that pulls the dumbest silly smiles and the nicest crinkles. The face that kisses her goodnight and the face that she fell asleep to once when she couldn’t sleep. This face has pecked her goodnight and kissed her dad good morning. This face she’s sure she loves.

“Lou?” Instantly, Louis grins, wetly, and from where she stands, she can see he’s got tears marking his eyes. His lovely, lovely ocean eyes.

She isn’t sure—should she go for a hug? Should she wave? Should she—fortunately, the choice is pretty clear because Louis gets down on his knees and holds his arms wide out. He’s saying something then, with his grin and his outstretched arms—he’s saying he wants her, too. He wants her too, so she’s going to run.

“Lou, Lou, Lou, Lou,” she’s muttering as she starts for a walk, then a jog, before a full blown run. As soon as she’s close enough, Louis wraps her up in various amounts of skin and warmth and Elliot has never, in the entirety of her life, felt so secure before. In the way Louis holds her right then, as if she’s just about to take off, she’s never felt this sure.

“Elliot,” Louis gasps, mouthing at her hair, kissing all over her head. “Oh, Elliot. Oh my gosh, Elliot. You—your show! God, you were brilliant out there sweetheart, I—“

“Lou, what are you doing here?” she squeals, pulling out of the hug. Louis just grins, shakes his head, and pulls her back in again.

“I’m here for you.”

She stays silent, clinging onto his neck because he might just take off too. When she looks up, head caught in the crook of Lou’s neck, she can see her pa. Her actual, lovely, long haired pa who adds extra sugar in his tea and who loves cookies and who braids both their hair before school and work. Her lovely, lovely pa is staring at them, eyes so wide, El thinks they just might explode, a hand cupping his face.

For some reason, she giggles.

It’s just—two of some of the most awesome people in the world are here right now, in the same room, just for her. She’s been waiting for this since forever and it’s happening on the best day ever and—and she can’t help but laugh.

When she starts, so does Louis, but his rumble is deep and erupting and whole. It takes her by the hand and dips her to a fountain of gold—it’s a lovely laugh that sends them doubling over. From where her pa stands, he gone still.

“What’re you doing, pa?” she calls, still holding onto Louis. “C’mere.” She makes grabby hands at him, the same ones she thought she’d grown out of.

“What—?” Louis stutters, pulling away, and no, Elliot doesn’t like that.

“No, no, no, no,” she mumbles, holding on even tighter.

“Oh, El.” Louis presses another kiss to her hair before he picks her up and turns them both around, and it’s like one of those scorching, lightning tinted summer days where Louis would carry Elliot around and Harry would frown at them both from the kitchen and they’d laugh like they were some sort of a disjointed family. When she finds her way back to Louis’ neck, it feels like a moment she’s going to want to remember.

She can’t see it happening, but her pa and her Louis are staring at each other. And she can’t see it happening, but the love Louis has in him for her is thriving and the love her pa has in him for Louis has taken over.

“Pa,” she murmurs, finally looking up, a small smile drawn on her face. It’s a smile that only Louis seems to initiate, a smile only Louis can take away. “Lou’s back.”

Her pa shrugs, look about a million years older, a thousand times kinder. “Yeah. I guess he is.”

“This is so good. Lou, Lou, Lou, Lou! I’ve missed you so, so much and—and I started art classes. D’know? I also got a pet fish last winter, but um. But it sort of died. Uncle Ni and The Babs got married just last month and I was there with flowers and whatnot and they got married at the park! Can you believe it? Also, also, also…Uncle Li took us to see gran and grandpa during term break and I was so, so excited to tell them…” she goes on. She goes on and on as if Louis had just left for the weekend and was back to her once again and that’s when her pa sees it.

Her pa, standing there, watching as his daughter accepts anything her way and his…his Louis getting everything he wanted, he realizes that she’ll never, ever have to go through anything he did. Because what happened to him is never going to be a reflection of what’s in store for El. Because they’re around different people, because they’re in love with different people. Because they’ve got Liam and Niall and the Babs and his mum and…and Louis. They’ve got all of them, so when Louis nods along and listens to her speak, Harry slips his way into the warmth. He leans over to wrap an arm around the free side of Louis and he doesn’t miss the way Elliot looks at them beautifully, looks at them as if she’s getting all she’s ever wanted. And maybe she just is.

-

No one stays for ice cream, no one suggests fried chicken. In fact, everyone’s a little shell-shocked to even see Louis there. But, with Harry and Elliot with him, the message is a little more clear that yeah. Yeah, he’s back. Yeah, some things need to get sorted. Yeah, Harry’s grinning like an idiot.

They take Louis’ car back home. (Home. What an absolute thought that only now does the title fit). Harry suggests Elliot take a little nap in the back ‘cause she must be tired, but it’s true when she mentions she’s never been more full of life.

“It’s the best day ever, pa,” she says as she gets comfortable on Harry’s lap on the passenger seat. “Like, ever. Why didn’t you tell me Lou was coming?”

“‘M pretty sure it was supposed to be a surprise, babe,” Louis adds, albeit uncertainly. He dares a look at Harry then, short and fleeting, but when Harry winks back—winks—he must get it because he laughs. “Plus, no one ever told me you got this brilliant at ballet. I am dumbfounded.”

Elliot probably doesn’t know the last word, but she laughs back anyway. “That’s all right, Lou. We were both surprised then, weren’t we? Like, we match.”

“You know who else matched?” Louis asks, eyes trained on the road.

“Who, Lou?”

“You and Daisy and Phoebe. You were all wearing the same colour, weren’t you?”

“Yup.” Her leg bounces and Harry taps on them once to get her to stop.

“Easy, darling. Aren’t you tired at all?”

She shoots her father an incredulous look. “Of course not, pa! How can I be tired when Lou’s finally come back. He hasn’t told me anything yet.”

“Yeah, but—,“ Harry starts, only for Louis to interrupt.

“Well tell me then El. What would you like to know?” When Harry reaches across the console to pinch Louis’ thigh, he just grins.

“Where’d you go? Where did you stay?” Elliot shifts on her father’s lap to look at Louis. “And why were you gone so long?”

“Well,” Louis begins and Harry’s just a little curious too because these are some of the things he couldn’t ask Louis just to keep his pride. “I went to Singapore and I stayed at a really nice flat. I um, I was gone for work, my love. I’m sorry it took so long.”

The way he says it—I’m sorry it took so long—is as if he’s merely saying, I’ll see you soon, or, Till next time. It’s as if he never really left for good, but left for him to always come back. Maybe, Harry thinks, that was the plan all along.

Elliot and Louis keep talking. Continuously and even after they get home, Elliot asks Louis what he ate for breakfast usually and Louis asks her what she’s been doing for maths now. It’s as if they’re trying to fit the unknown of a year into the time capsule of one night.

“Guys,” Harry says, walking into the living room in his pajamas to see Elliot and Louis still in their clothes from the recital. “Bedtime. Lou, you can take El’s bed. Gran took grandpa’s car back home, so the rooms freed up.”

“But pa!”

“No buts, El. I get you’re super excited and super ready to talk for the rest of the night, but it’s late and we need to get some sleep, yeah?”

“No. I can sleep tomorrow. I might not get Lou tomorrow.” Whatever Harry was going to say dies down in his throat as he hears that, and the look Louis gives her suggests the same for him. Eventually, Louis mutters, “There’s not going to be another day when you’ll want me and won’t get me, El. I’m not going anywhere, right? I’ve been gone long enough.”

Elliot smiles at that, but slowly, shyly. “Really?”

“Mhm.”

“Do you promise?”

Louis hesitates because Louis knows what he’s done with promises before. “I promise you, El. I’m not leaving.”

“El? Let’s go change?” Harry suggests softly.

“Why don’t we all just sleep in the living room?” Harry and Louis turn to face each other.

“Um.”

“Maybe—“

“Think about it! We’ll just spread out the two mattresses and get the blankets and sleep all together.” She leans in closer to Louis, grabbing onto his collar, and whispers, “Then we can still talk, but pa won’t know.”

Louis looks at Harry again, something in his eyes asking him, how is she real, Haz? How’ve I managed to stay away so long? “How come he won’t know, El?”

“He’ll be asleep.”

“Are you sure?”

“Of course! Pa loves sleeping.”

Harry scoffs. “Excuse me.”

Elliot looks at him sullenly, but gets up nonetheless, walks towards her bedroom. “I’m sorry pa. You weren’t supposed to hear that.”

Harry just grins after her. Turning back once, he asks Louis, “Are we going with the slumber party idea then?”

“I’m all for it.”

“Good. Then you go get the mattresses and set it up.” Harry giggles at the look Louis throws him.

Hey.”

But he does it anyway after a round of milk with biscuits because Elliot was hungry and wanted “the perfect ending to the perfect day.” They all roll out the blankets and fit into a position so familiar, it’s as if they’d been doing it for years. Harry on the right, Louis on the left, and Elliot in the middle. Like that, they fall asleep. Like that, they rebuild a family.

-

It takes a while for it to be a routine, for the inertia to sit, for it to be so memorable, it’s almost tangible. It takes a while, but the truth is, it happens.

So Louis comes back and he continues doing what he does in the best way possible. With his job, he brings along a mousey girl named Mel, who says she’s left nothing behind, that Singapore hasn’t got anything left of her. Louis still makes dumb suggestions like, “Let me help you get an interview,” and, “Can I see El’s school fees, please?” but then there comes a time Louis will say exactly the right thing, exactly two months after he comes back into Harry’s life:

“Move in with me.”

So they’re big words. Big, abundant words accompanied with, “Or I can move in with you. Or whatever. Let’s just—“ and he’ll take Harry’s hands, mouth around the red knuckles till they shine back at him, “—together, yeah? Let’s be together. Let’s take a common ground.”

Big, abundant words followed by big, abundant decisions: “Okay.”

And they’ll kiss again because they’re always kissing, aren’t they? Kissing till they go mad and kissing till their two front teeth start to feel hollow and desolate; kissing till the pads of their thumbs turn to book edges; kissing till it doesn’t make sense.

-

There are a few things Harry knew to be true, a few things he was told to be true, a few things that happened anyway:

One, Elliot was a mistake. Two, Louis was already gone. Three, his life could be complete with or without somebody there with him.

And now, a few more things are cleared up:

One, Elliot is the closest thing to the sun. Two, Louis came back, and he came back with love. Three, he can live his life without anybody, without everybody. He could’ve let his mum take care of Elliot the days after Elliot’s own mum left. He could’ve made Louis stay. He could’ve done anything and he could go on living his life alone. He just doesn’t want to anymore.

-

Four months later.

Harry’s got the taste of raw papaya glued to the pallets of his mouth and peanuts stuck to little gaps by his teeth by the time the dessert of mango sticky rice rolls in. He is, more or less, bracketed in the small bench like chairs, between Louis who’s kept an incessant hand by his thigh and Perrie, who keeps leaning over the table to talk to her girlfriend. From across him, Elliot’s next to Phoebe and Daisy, and she’s still working through her cashew chicken even though Harry’s given her the five minute warning sign. From the other end of the table, Niall won’t stop talking to Barbara’s belly because in it, there’s a little peanut of a person growing and Niall’s never looked more bright, has never seemed as opulent with a hand me down car and a shitty apartment he’s just bought with his own money.

On the other end of the table, Zayn and Liam have been stitched together, and they have been disgusting.

It’s as if they’re glowing, the bastards, as if something’s got them gliding their fingers across each others face, tucking helpless grins into each others mouths every now and then. Harry looks to Louis, makes a face, and starts squawking as Louis reaches over to kiss him as well.

“I’d like to make a toast,” Liam says, standing up from his wood-back chair as the plates start to clear and wine starts to lessen, “to taking chances. Thank you guys for coming here tonight, on this random November evening, by our request. Family gatherings, especially formal ones at public places like this one, are necessary, I think. Every once in a while.” Harry raises an eyebrow at formality of this random arse speech. Either Liam’s sold his house or they’re going to follow the steps of Sophia, who is now on a cruize, according to her most recent Instagram post, with a gorgeous girl named Eleanor, and elope. Dazedly, Liam continues, “‘Coz if I hadn’t taken a chance a little over a year ago, I may not have met the incredible man I’m sitting next to today. The same man I want to be sitting next to forever.”

Which—wait, what?

“Zayn, baby, I love you. And I want to love you for the longest time…” Harry tunes out then, not bothered by what Liam’s saying because it’s not really for him, rather for the person he’s kneeling in front of with a box. Holy fuck. Holy fuck.

He turns to Louis again, which feels a lot like turning to himself, turning to home, and Louis looks almost shocked. Almost shocked, almost nervous. “What the fuck?” Harry whispers as softly as he can because the entirety of the restaurant has gone quiet, as if a blanket of cool, liquid silence has stormed in and taken a seat right by everyone’s butter knife.

Louis’ hand starts moving up and down Harry's thigh, as if he’s creating some friction to help things slow down. “I don’t...really know.” He leans in then, mouth barely touching Harry’s ear as he speaks, “Did Liam tell you about this.”

Harry frowns, taking in the way Zayn cups a hand around his mouth and how Niall’s got his camera out. Elliot’s watching Liam with open, tender eyes because that’s her uncle, one of her pa’s bestest friends, all teddy bear happy and warm. “He did not,” Harry mumbles back to Louis.

“It seems this was to surprise us as much as it has surprised Zayn.”

Harry looks at him, at how his eyes have gone red around the brown and at how he’s shaking like he’s been left out for too long. “He’s going to say yes, isn’t he?”

“God yeah, he’s going to say yes.”

Harry, finally, grins. “This is heartwarming. I love them.” He reaches for his phone just as Liam mutters, “Will you do it, Zee? Will you marry me?” and Zayn’s nodding before Liam even finishes and, as if the silence has taken its bag and left the room with a smile, the applauds roll in and Niall’s laughing without restraint.

“I’m so shocked, I forgot to be excited,” Harry mumbles as he records their first kiss as mutual fiance’s, “this is like, the best thing ever. They’re getting married, Lou, fucking hell.”

Louis, in response, smiles all wide and yells out the loved up pair, “You’re getting married, guys! Fucking hell!”

“Shut up, Lou,” Liam retorts as Zayn flips him off and Harry squawks in indignation.

“No crude hand gestures in front of the children. I don’t care how engaged you are—hey! Lemme see the ring, gosh.” Zayn pets Elliot’s hair gently, asks her to stand before he takes her seat and pulls her into his lap.

“Liam, it’s stunning,” Harry gushes as he runs a thumb over the rectangular slab of diamond. It looks…lovely and darling and expensive. Harry should ask about this.

“I knew you’d like it,” Liam says, more or less, to Zayn. “But I’m expecting a proposal myself.”

“That won’t be fun,” Zayn says, wrapping an arm around Liam’s middle before pecking his cloth wrapped skin. “We already have an answer, babe. You’re going to have to say yes.”

“Would I not say yes under different circumstances?”

“Okay.” Zayn rests his head on the flat dent of Liam’s stomach. “Okay. You’ll get one from me.”

“Get in!” Harry claps feverishly, eyes feeling heavy with the weight of mirth. “Two proposals, and it’s for the same couple. You guys should have two weddings, too. Oh yes, and I’ll do all the flower arrangements. And the cake! I can do two cakes. I will personally make you both a cake.” He turns to Liam. “You hate cream cheese, but Zayn’s got a sweet spot for it. What are your plans?”

“Harry,” Louis says, laughing into his hair as he rests an arm around Harry’s chair and leans in to peck the beginning skin of his neck. “Babe. I think they’ve got a bit of time to plan for their cakes.”

“Haz is going to go mental,” Zayn starts to say, his crinkled smile taking permanent residence by his eyes, “why’d you propose in front of him? We should’ve waited the last minute and then told him we wanted him as our best man.”

“Hell yeah!”

Abruptly, and very surprisingly, Elliot chants, “Hell yeah!” right after him.

“No baby, no,” Harry coos, reaching over to brush her cheek, subsequently failing to pick up her knife in order to cut the chicken into smaller pieces even though Elliot wanted to eat herself and the five minute warning had expired. “There’s not—you’ve gotta finish your chicken, sweetheart. We’ve got no time for hell yeah.”

“But pa. You were saying it.”

“I know.” Harry pouts. “I’m sorry. I mean to say…Oh yeah. Oh yeah! Like, is this cashew chicken the best thing in the world?” he looks at her with encouragement.

“Oh yeah?” Elliot says, giggling, head tilted to the side.

“Oh yeah!” He gets up, leans onto his tip toes, and presses a kiss to her forehead. “Brilliant babe. D’you wanna come over here so pa can help you with your food, or…”

“I’m fine. Thank you.”

“Sure thing.” When he sits back down, Louis nudges his shoulder.

“Should we order the claypot tofu instead? I think the cashew chicken is a bit too spicy for her. Tofu ought to be a little nicer.” Louis frowns over the menu, and his eyes are shadowed by the glasses perched on the tip of the bone of his nose. Harry had picked out the warm, cashmere sweater for him because they’d been running late at home and he couldn’t be happier with the choice. Especially as he clutches onto spare fabric by the hem. It’s a very efficient attention catcher.

“‘D you think she’ll like it? I’m pretty sure it was a chicken and egg base…”

“Nah, the tofu’s in the kid’s menu.”

“El,” Harry calls finally, after reading the description under the picture. “Would you maybe like to try another dish? If the chicken’s too spicy?”

“I’m okay, pa. I like it.” She offers him a grin before turning back to Phoebe, who has gained both Daisy and Elliot attention beautifully.

“Next time then,” Louis comments. “Next time we can try the tofu.”

Harry runs a hand down Louis’ arm, angling his body to rest against Louis’ shoulder. “Sure thing, babe. Though I don’t think I’ll be able to come back here, or go to any Thai restaurant for that matter, without thinking about Liam giving that speech.”

Louis laughs. “Cheesy as fuck, w’nnit?”

“It was sweet!” Harry protests. They’re caving into each other then. As Niall flops down carefully on Barbara’s lap and as Perrie hogs most of her girlfriends green curry and as Zayn kisses the fuck out of Liam, Harry and Louis turn to each other. Harry gets a hand up to brush along Louis’ unshaven face and Louis bares his knuckles down Harry’s brow line, careful of every scratch or mark from age. They bend persistently around each other like insoluble dough, like burst opened stars, like something unforgivable, unforgettable. When Harry smiles into Louis’ cheek and Louis kisses Harry’s fingers, it’s as if it’s only them and nothing else. “It was sweet…and cheesy as fuck, okay.”

“Mhm,” Louis mumbles, “exactly.”

“But it was sweet.” Harry holds down the hand crawling tepidly up his side and brings it up to his chest. “It was so sweet.” He tilts his head, looks at his boy, his Louis as Louis looks at him. “I’m very happy for them.”

“Yeah, definitely.” Louis smiles one of those gentle, softhearted smiles that gets Harry warm and balmy all over the place. “Me too, darling. They deserve it.”

Harry nods. “They do.”

“You know who else deserves it?”

Harry wants to snort. The rest of the world! he wants to say, but by the way Louis looks at him, all careful and hesitant, he just shrugs.

“We do,” Louis says softly, into Harry’s orbit, as if he’s throwing a rock mounted heart into the space and hoping something there, something in Harry, will catch it. It does, it always does. This time, the sound registers with Harry’s eyes first because they go big and round.

“Lou?”

“Like. Marriage and engagement and stuff. All of it.” Louis takes both of his hands and holds them by his chest as Harry starts to get up, a little wound up over what he’s saying. “I think we deserve that.”

“Louis,” Harry starts cautiously because he could say the worst thing ever and never have Louis propose to him with confidence. “I think you’re right.”

His eyes shine, as if a meteorite had just blown up inside of them, the scattered pieces finding a common ground in the sea of drowning blue. “You do? Fuck. We do. We deserve to be married and we should—“

“Louis, I swear to god, if you propose to me right now—“

“But Harry—”

“I will never forgive you, Lou.” His voice has gone silky and thin and maybe even a little hysterical. “I swear, I will never put my mouth anywhere near—”

“The sooner the better though, innit?” He laughs at the torn face Harry wears. It’s hard because there is nothing Harry wants more than for them to be married. For a lifetime. Married a million times. But he’s also at a restaurant, and his daughter—oh, his stunning daughter—is right across the table and they’re not ready. Harry knows it, they’re getting there, they’re strapped on tightly on a road that’s just promised the same end goal, but they’re not there yet. “It’s okay babe, I’m just saying. Don’t—don’t get scary on me, please, I’m just saying—I want to be married to you so bad.”

Harry can’t help it then; can’t help it as he reaches over and gently nips at Louis’ bottom lip, letting his mouth brush over the boy he loves so much before retreating, keeping a hand by Louis’ neck. “Me too, Lou. But like—we aren’t ready. Not yet, yeah? Have you got a ring? Or an idea of what you want to say maybe?”

Louis pouts at him softly. “No ring, no. But. I know what I’ll say and it is, very simply, will you marry me? That’s just like, five words that determine my ultimate happiness. All the stuff Liam added on will come as well, but they’ll come to you only. I’m not good with big crowds, babe.”

Harry, smiling like he just can’t help it, is helplessly charmed and sitting there with his eyes caught on the most beautiful person ever. “Four words, baby.”

“What?”

“Will you marry me is four words.”

“Fucking hell.” He noses down Harry’s skin, up to the tangent line where his collarbones conjoin with the neck and bites down softly, unhurriedly.

“Ow,” Harry yelps quietly. “Jesus. If you get this awful just by being proven wrong, I don’t know how I’m going to survive once we get married.”

“Please,” Louis grins, “we’re practically already married.”

“So there’s no use of a…”

“No, no, no. I will propose and it will be magnificent.” Harry shakes his head. Ridiculous. His boy is absolutely, terribly, ridiculous.

“I don’t doubt it, Lou.”

“In fact, it would go a little like…”

Harry’s eye widen. “Louis, no.”

“Dear Harry, the love of my life,” Louis starts, loud enough for it to be odd, but soft enough for not anyone to care. Elliot spares them a quick glance, catches the way her two favourite people are seemingly wrapped up in some weird love nest, and then goes back to her food and friends.

“Louis,” Harry starts, panicked but also deeply amused. “Louis, wait—“

“I don’t think I am capable of living without you, and so I ask…”

“Louis, you will not get any celebratory sex.” At the sound of that, Louis makes a slow choking sound. “I will deny you of any and all sex. Oral, anal and beyond and I swear to god, if you make a mockery out of our future proposal, I will say no to you and that will be it.”

“But babe…”

“No buts, Louis Tomlinson.”

“Fine, fine, fine.” Louis sighs as he tugs at Harry’s weight, incessant until Harry groans, picks himself up, and drops back down on Louis’ lap. Instantly, Louis mouths at the back of Harry’s neck in a way that has him giggling rather than falling into lust. “If you won’t let me propose to you right now, at least let me ask you to promise me something.”

It gets Harry curious, and as he turns to face him, he’s folded into the attentive and kind Louis holds him in. “What is it?” he asks, the volume then, of not the room, but their mouths, go much lower. They’re just too marks in the corner, so closely wound, they could be mistaken for one.

“Promise me we’ll get married.”

Harry’s mouth drops open. “You’re joking.”

Louis shrugs. “‘m not, babe. I seriously want to get married and you seriously want to get married, but we’re mature and able to admit we aren’t ready, so let’s accept this future agreement that yes, one day, you will me Mr. Harry Louis Tomlinson and I’ll be Mr. Louis Harry Styles. Elliot will stay unchanged.”

“You’re ridiculous,” Harry points out.

“I am.”

“Have you got some sort of a ring for this, then?”

Louis looks disheartened, but only for a short, forgettable second. “No, but we can get creative.”

“Oh yeah!” The squeal startles them and as Harry turns his head, he can see his daughter standing right beside them, one hand resting on Louis’ shoulder. “I can get creative,” Elliot offers.

“C’mere here baby,” Harry says, in that velvet voice reserved only for her. As she lifts her arms, he lifts her up to his lap and then, it’s no longer two bite marks in the dark, but three. Pilled up like old, corroding books, they seem more unit than anything.

“What’re you talking about?” Elliot asks.

“Well,” Louis starts, kissing her knuckles as her hands wrap around his fingers, “we were just…looking for a way to keep a promise without something…solid to remind us of it.” He looks to Harry and Harry nods. No big, unknown words because in the face of a big, unknown word, Elliot gets very curious and very persistent.

“Oh.” She tilts her head. “What’re you promising?”

Harry grins at her and he can’t help it. He’s got the loveliest daughter in the world. “We’re promising to…,” he looks at Louis, who purses his lips and sends him a small wink. It’s a mini good luck baby. “We’re promising to always stay as a family. To always stay together.”

Yeah. Yeah, that’s…that’s about it, isn’t it? Elliot seems pliantly, plentifully happy with the response. “Oh, that’s brilliant, that’s…that’s oh yeah!”

“It is,” Harry giggles into her hair.

“You should just pinky promise, then. Here, I’ll do it too.” He holds her pinky out and together, they’re locked by the hand, the three of them, a unit. Elliot continues, “You just say what you promise to each other.” She looks intently at Louis, who fish mouths his way through the response of, “Um. To um, to stick together. To be the family we already are.”

“Good,” Elliot praises, kissing his cheek, “I pinky promise. There, that’s my part done. Lou, now you go.”

Louis looks a little shaken, a little magical. “I pinky promise as well.”

And it’s Harry’s turn and he knows that but—but it’s them, with their fingers locked together and their eyes meeting the other. There are the people he adores sitting across the table, all interwoven to know each other, to love each other, to harbour tender thoughts for each other. It’s him, it’s his daughter, and for sure—now for sure, it’s Louis.

He looks at his family and nods. “Oh yeah I pinky promise.”

 

fin.

 

-

 

“Was it a long journey?
Did it take you long to find me?
You’re here now,
welcome home.”
- Warsan Shire, Welcome Home.