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That Sounds Fake But Okay

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“I can’t believe I agreed to write this. I’m such an idiot!”

Harry leans forward in his chair with every intention of banging his forehead on his desk dramatically, but thinks better of it at the last second and opts for a few soft taps instead. No sense having a literal headache to go along with his metaphorical one.

Liam is leaning over the top of their shared cubicle wall (which could hardly be called a wall, by the way, it barely comes up to his chest), eating a sandwich and lazily scrolling on his phone. He doesn’t look nearly as sympathetic as Harry thinks he should.

“I don’t see what the big deal is,” Liam says, still not looking up from his phone. “I mean, it is your job after all. It’s not like I love every story that comes across my desk, either.”

Harry snorts. Easy for Liam to say. They’re both three months out of grad school, and Liam already has his dream job. After interning here at New York Weekly last year, they’d both been offered staff positions and accepted. Only, Liam is assigned to the political desk which is exactly where he wants to be, and Harry—well, Harry is stuck writing gossip articles about one vapid celebrity after another. It’s a far cry from the serious journalistic work he wishes he were doing.

“Excuse me, Liam,” Harry retorts. “Reporting on a city council measure you disagree with is definitely not the same as having to come up with 500 words on Louis Tomlinson’s latest fling. Ugh.” He wrinkles his nose in disdain. Harry could come up with 500 words about almost anything in his sleep, but when it comes to some of the drivel he’s faced with, it feels more like 100,000.

Liam finally looks up at Harry but remains unfazed. “Grin and bear it, Styles. One day this will all be a memory. You’ll be interviewing the Dalai Lama or crafting long-winded, pretentious literary fiction before you know it. You just gotta put your time in.”

Harry sighs. He knows Liam is right. Success comes from hard work, and it doesn’t happen overnight. He’s barely out of journalism school, and most of his classmates would have given their right arms for an opportunity—any opportunity—at New York Weekly. And, it’s not like all of his assignments have been bad. He attended the premiere of the latest Avengers movie (he prefers rom-com, but whatever), and he also had the chance to meet Stevie Nicks (Stevie Nicks!) when a senior writer let him tag along to an industry party. Plus, he can get free tickets to almost any concert or event in the city. Not that he really has anyone except for Liam to take with him.

Of course, at the exact moment Harry starts thinking about his empty social calendar, Ben walks by, looking like he just stepped out of a J. Crew catalog and smelling like expensive aftershave. Liam smirks as he watches Harry’s eyes trail after him.

“What?”

“Nothing.”

“Not nothing. You were smirking.”

“I was in no way smirking.”

“You were definitely smirking. Stop smirking.”

“I’m just saying. You should try actually talking to him instead of drooling over him every time he walks past your desk.”

“I do not drool! That’s simply offensive, Liam.” Harry frowns. “And what do I have to talk to him about, anyway?”

“Oh, I don’t know. I mean, you work at the same magazine, you live in the same city, you’re both hot. You like sports, he’s a sportswriter…”

“Liam! I like sports, but I don’t know sports. What if I said something stupid?”

Liam just rolls his eyes. “You couldn’t sound any stupider than you look when you stare at him with those puppy dog eyes.”

“Thank you. Your support is appreciated as always.” Harry groans and returns his forehead gently to the desk.

“Come on, Haz, I’ll buy you lunch,” Liam offers as a gesture of peace.

“But I just watched you eat a sandwich.”

“Harry, please. There’s always room for dessert.”

---

Louis is awake, but not awake awake. He’s got this little thing where he likes to take stock of the situation before opening his eyes.

Where am I?  He can smell the lavender detergent on the sheets. This is definitely his own bed. That’s always positive.

Does anything hurt? His head, but just a little. Good. Not in the mood for a hangover today.

Am I alone? Nope. He hears breathing on the other side of the bed. He thinks it’s…shit, he’s pretty sure his name is Nate. Or maybe Nick. It starts with an “N” for sure.

Most importantly, can I go back to sleep? He doesn’t see any reason why not.

Just as Louis is drifting back into a delicious state of unconsciousness, the door flies open, filling his bedroom with a vibrant energy that he normally loves, but not first thing in the morning.

“Good morning, sunshine!” Niall’s voice is far too loud for this ungodly hour. “Ooh, or should I say sunshines?”

“Yes, Niall,” Louis grumbles. “I have a guest. So why don’t you be a dear and come back in another hour or two?” He still hasn’t opened his eyes.

“No can do,” Niall answers. He’s close to the bed now. He’s setting something down on the nightstand. A cup, a plate. Louis’ tea is here. Morning tea is a non-negotiable requirement if he’s expected to act like a half-decent member of the human race. He still isn’t going to open his eyes, though.

“You have a meeting with the Sams at 10:00," Niall continues. "And after that you’re shooting the toothpaste commercial.”

“Toothpaste commercial? What the hell?” Louis' headache starts to dance around behind his eyes.

“Yeah,” Niall continues cheerfully. He’s unwrapping something. It smells like bacon. Okay, fine, Louis will open his eyes if bacon is involved. “The toothpaste commercial. It’s been on your schedule for weeks.”

“Niall, please explain why I, an Academy Award nominated actor, an A- list celebrity, a disgustingly rich and good-looking bastard, would stump for a toothpaste brand? Aren’t the Sams supposed to be protecting my high-class image?”

“I’m not sure doing a toothpaste commercial could hurt your image any more than the last time you screamed profanities at the paparazzi and I had to stop you from flashing them your ass,” Niall answers as Louis sits up and grabs the mug of tea. Nate or Nick is just starting to stir. “And anyway, it’ll only be seen in Japan.”

“Oh, Japan. Doesn’t Clooney do advertisements for Japan?”

“Yeah, and he actually has an Oscar. So, no fuckin’ complaints out of you.”

Louis nearly chokes on his Earl Grey, then throws a biscuit at Niall’s head. He’s honestly the most disrespectful personal assistant imaginable. He should be fired immediately. But, it would be hard to find a replacement who could make Louis’ tea just right, or procure top-quality weed when they’re in L.A. (he has a weird relationship with Justin Bieber that Louis doesn’t particularly want to know the details of), or convince Louis to get out of his perfectly warm and comfortable bed to fulfill his various contractual obligations. All right, Niall can stay for now.

Nate or Nick is now fully awake and looking at Louis and Niall with the appropriate amount of awkwardness for the situation.

“D’ya want some bacon?” Niall asks, as if the presence of a stranger in Louis' bed is as ordinary an occurrence as the sunrise. And, for Niall, it kind of is. For Nate or Nick, however, waking up next to a famous actor and receiving a casual offer of breakfast meat from a blond Irishman he’s never laid eyes on before is clearly out of the norm.

“Um, I…um, no,” Nate or Nick stutters, obviously trying to decide if he should move from the bed or not. “I should really go…”

“Great! I’ll order you a ride!” Niall cuts in agreeably, grabbing his phone out of his back pocket. He has an entire roster of discreet drivers who can be available on a moment’s notice. He can get Nate or Nick dressed, downstairs, out the back door of the building, and on with his life in less than 10 minutes. And that’s exactly what he does.

By the time Niall returns to the bedroom, Louis has finished his breakfast, taken a shower, and is pulling on a sweater and jeans.

“You gotta be more careful, Lou,” Niall says with an uncharacteristically serious note to his voice. “I can’t guarantee they’ll sign the NDAs after the fact.”

Louis looks up suddenly. “You couldn’t get him to sign?”

“Of course I got him to fucking sign. That’s not my point. I’m just saying you need to be smarter. Maybe one of these days I can’t work my morning magic and cover your ass, you know?”  

“My ass always welcomes your morning magic, Niall,” Louis jokes while patting Niall’s cheek, but he knows his friend is right. He has been a little reckless lately, but he’s just been so busy and stressed. It’s not like he has time for actual dating, and he doesn’t want that anyway. His career has finally kicked into high gear, and the last thing he needs is to be tied down. So yeah, he’s had a few one-night stands in the past month or so (definitely no more than four, he thinks), but he’s just letting off some steam. It’s no big deal.  

Thirty minutes later, Louis and Niall are entering the New York offices of Louis’ management company. They breeze right past the administrative assistant at his desk and into Sam Clifton’s office.

“Good morning, Louis. Niall,” Sam nods at them in acknowledgement and takes a sip of coffee, clicking out of whatever he was viewing on his desktop screen.

The boys flop unceremoniously onto Sam’s expansive leather sofa just as Sam Clayton walks in. That’s right, Louis’ managers are Sam Clifton and Sam Clayton—the Sams. They’re not too hard to keep sorted, though. Sam Clifton is a 55-year-old man with graying hair and wire-rimmed glasses, whereas Sam Clayton is a 29-year-old blonde with nice boobs and perfect teeth. Louis guesses she’s smoking hot, if one were into that sort of thing. Which Niall certainly is.

“Good morning, Sammie,” Niall says in a voice so sugary Louis wants to vomit. “You’re looking especially lovely today.”

“Okay, for the last time, don’t call me Sammie,” she responds, giving Niall a stern look that doesn’t quite reach her eyes. “I’ve got another meeting in fifteen, so we need to make this fast.”

She settles into an armchair angled between the couch and Sam Clifton’s desk, opens a folder on her lap and starts looking through some papers.

Sam Clifton clears his throat and starts talking. “We just wanted to meet with you in person, Louis, to let you know we’d like to start a new PR push for you. Your press mentions are up almost 50 percent over the past two months, which is great, but we’d like to increase that even more ahead of your next movie premiere.”

Louis shrugs, ambivalent. He knows how the game is played. They’ll probably have him become an ambassador for some charity or show up at a few high-profile industry events over the next few weeks, maybe the Met Gala. It was hardly worth getting him out of bed for.

“You’ve been single ever since you came out,” Sam Clayton continues, looking up at Louis from the papers in her lap. “Your ‘playboy’ reputation has worked for a while, but it’s time to link you to someone more seriously. You know, for longer than a week. And preferably someone at your same level of recognition.”

Niall immediately starts laughing while Louis just gapes at the Sams. This is not what he was expecting. They’ve done plenty to boost his notoriety over the past few years. Partying in Vegas, hanging out with Hollywood elite, an appearance on Inside the Actors Studio, etc. But they’ve never pushed him on the dating thing.

“What? Why?” Louis asks when he regains his voice. “That hardly seems necessary.”

“Don’t be naïve, Louis,” Sam Clayton chides. “The number one thing the public wants to know is who their favorite celebs are dating. Just being out isn’t good enough anymore. We need to create some buzz around you right now, and this is the quickest and best way to do it.”

Louis looks at Sam Clifton, who is leaning back in his desk chair with his hands laced behind his head. He simply nods in agreement with his partner. No help there. He turns to Niall, whose face is still red from laughing.

“Wait! Did you know about this?” Louis demands.

“No! I swear I didn’t,” Niall answers, shaking his head. “But you have to agree they have a point. And, I wouldn’t mind a vacation from NDA duty.”

Louis stares daggers through Niall at that, but Sam Clifton cuts in quickly. “It’s not like we don’t know, Louis. We get copies of everything. Listen, it’ll only be for a couple months, tops. Then, after the premiere, you can break it off, and we’ll get more press from that as well. It’s not going to kill you. It’ll be beneficial for everyone involved.”

Louis draws in a slow breath and runs his hands through the shaggy brown fringe he’s been growing out between films. There’s probably no getting out of this, he realizes. The Sams can be pretty persuasive, and he wouldn’t put it past them to push this thing even without his cooperation.

“Fine, fine. Who am I meant to be romancing?”

“Cam Richards.”

“Cam Richards! You can’t be serious,” scoffs Louis.

“I’m quite serious,” Sam Clayton assures him. “His new single is in the Billboard Top 10, and he’s getting ready to kick off a world tour this summer. He’s single, you’re single. It’s the perfect opportunity. His people have already agreed to it.”

Louis can’t deny that Cam Richards is a good-looking, talented guy. But he’s not Louis’ type at all. He seems way too high-maintenance. This could get interesting.

“Well, I guess I’m not an Academy Award nominated actor for nothing,” he concedes. Everyone else groans.

“Second time today, and it’s only 10:30,” Niall crows. “Impressive! But not as impressive as you look in that red dress, Sam.”

“Save it,” Sam Clayton responds with a roll of her eyes as she stands up. “Louis, thank you for being agreeable on this. We’ve reached out to our contacts at New York Weekly, and there should be some press rumors circulating by the end of the week. Cam is coming into town on Sunday, so we can set up some pap photos for Monday or Tuesday. Niall, I’ll be in touch with you about it.”

“You know I live for your calls,” Niall answers, and Sam “accidentally” whacks him on the head with her folder as she walks behind the sofa on her way out of the office.

“Well,” Louis says, sort of to Niall, sort of to Sam Clifton, and sort of to himself. “Here goes nothing.”

---

 It’s late, almost 10:00 p.m. Everyone has left the office, except Harry, the cleaning crew, and the overnight security guard. He’s staring at his computer screen and mulling over what his editor, Jeff, told him in their afternoon meeting.

“This will be the first whisper of a major push linking Louis Tomlinson and Cam Richards,” he’d said.  “Tomlinson’s people are giving us the exclusive, so we can’t screw this up. Just set the stage for some pap photos we’ll be getting next week. They’ve given us leeway on this one, so make it juicy but believable. If you deliver on this, I’ll give you the bigger story, too.”

When Harry first started interning at New York Weekly, he’d been shocked at how fabricated so many of the celebrity articles were. He’d never really paid much attention to gossip-type news and had no clue that so much of it was concocted strictly for PR purposes. He’s not a fan of it—at all. Harry believes that true journalism should be about truth, justice, and making the world a better place. It’s just one more reason he can’t wait to pay his dues and move on to something more respectable.  

Okay. Juicy but believable. Juicy but believable. Come on, Styles, you can do this. Jeff is trusting you with a pretty important assignment here. This isn’t that hard.

“Oh, hey, didn’t realize you were still here.”

Harry lets out an embarrassing yelp and almost jumps out of his seat when he hears Ben’s voice behind him, causing Ben to jump back in surprise as well.

“I’m so sorry! I didn’t mean to scare you!”

Harry’s face flushes a dozen shades of pink and red at once. “No, no, it’s okay, I just didn’t know anyone else was still around.”

Ben runs his hand through his hair and yawns. Harry doesn’t know how he manages to look so perfectly disheveled and beautiful at the same time. He has to shake his head a little to keep from openly staring.

“Yeah, I had to finish up my article on the new stadium proposal,” Ben explains. “I missed dinner, so I was thinking about going down the street to that diner? You know the one with the ridiculous chili-cheese fries? You could come with me…if you’re done here, that is.”

Oh shit oh shit oh shit. Dinner with Ben? Alone? To be honest, Harry can’t believe Ben even remembers his name. He doesn’t know whether to say yes or to crawl under his desk and hide. He glances at the blank document on his computer screen. He has written exactly 0 out of 500 juicy but believable words about Louis Tomlinson and Cam Richards, and his deadline is at 7:00 a.m.

But….it’s dinner…with Ben. Harry has had a crush on him since he first saw him last year- even though he’d probably die before admitting that to Liam or anyone else. And it’s only 500 words. He can have dinner at the diner, then come in early and fire it off before Jeff even arrives at the office. It’ll be fine. He does his best writing in the mornings, anyway.

“Sure, sounds good. I’m starving, actually. Let me just…” Harry clicks out of all his open tabs and sets the computer to hibernate. “Yeah, let’s go. Chili-cheese fries sound amazing.”

Looking back, Harry will say this was where he made his first mistake.

---

“Niall! Get me one of the Sams on the phone immediately!” Louis demands, rifling through his drawers for his favorite pair of athletic shorts. He needs to get to the gym to work off some anger before he punches someone.

“Sounds serious,” Niall answers, not looking concerned in the least. He has his phone in his hand but doesn’t appear to be dialing.

“Why aren’t you dialing?”

“Because I’m in the middle of an attack.”

“Stop playing Clash of Clans and dial the fucking office, Niall!”

“Mmmhmm. Almost done…yes! Haha, I completely destroyed their village! Sayonara, motherfuckers! Okay, who am I supposed to be calling again?”

Louis snaps up from where he’s been bending over his bottom dresser drawer. Niall’s not sure what’s wilder—his hair or the look in his eyes.

“Niall. My reputation is being destroyed in the press and you’re over here playing video games against 12-year-olds. I need to talk to the Sams right now!”

Niall finally complies with the request, walking out of the room while he dials the phone and leaving Louis to pull on his shorts and tank top in a huff. He never should have agreed to this stunt. He hasn’t even been in the same room as Cam Richards yet, and he’s already regretting this decision. The online edition of this week’s New York Weekly went live half an hour ago, and the blurb about Louis and Cam is completely outrageous.

Niall returns with the phone. “You’re on speaker with Sam Clifton.”

“Sam!”

“I’m here, Louis.”

“Have you read the New York Weekly article yet?”

“I have. I actually read it before it went to press.”

“Are you joking?! How could you let this happen? It’s utterly ridiculous!”

“Louis, calm down. This is how these things work.”

There are very few things Louis hates more than being told to calm down. It’s almost like an engraved invitation to get him ramped up even more. “Sam. This article makes me look like a complete sappy idiot,” he explains in the most level tone of voice he can manage. “It says, and I quote, ‘Insiders report that Tomlinson has been smitten with Richards for quite some time. He even went so far as to have his people call Richards’ people to ask for an introduction. After a romantic first date, Tomlinson sent Richards an enormous bouquet of irises to congratulate him on his Billboard Top 10 hit.’ Are you listening to this bullshit, Sam?”

Sam makes a noise on the other end of the line, and Louis could swear he’s stifling a laugh.

“I’m glad one of us thinks this is funny!” Louis is beyond exasperated. “This article makes me look like some sort of lovesick teenager! I would never beg Cam Richards—or anyone else for that matter—for a date. And I would never send anyone a bouquet of irises! I would send peonies. Maybe even roses. But irises, please!”

Now Sam Clifton is actually laughing out loud. “Listen, Louis, I’m sorry you’re not happy with the article, but it’s simply meant to be an initial link between you and Cam. If you want, I can ask the editor to have Cam falling at your feet by next week. We had to start somewhere. I think it actually makes you look quite romantic. This is good press—way better than the time you flipped off Donald Trump on the red carpet at the Golden Globes.”

Louis is scowling so hard he thinks Sam might be able to hear it through the phone. “His hair makes me very angry, Sam. You know that. You also know I’m not romantic and this article is shit. I’m not happy about this.”

“I know. Just hang in there. This is good for your image, I promise.”

Louis just frowns at the phone and hangs up, tossing it on to the bed.

“Niall!” he barks. “Get the car, we’re heading to the gym.”

---

Harry isn’t feeling as festive and chatty as everyone else at the bar tonight. He takes a long sip from his frosty glass of Kolsch and tries to focus on the conversation that’s happening between Liam and the new intern Sophia. They’re discussing circulation numbers and how well the magazine has been doing lately, especially online.

It’s true. New York Weekly’s market share is through the roof, with readership at an all-time high. Harry’s article about Louis Tomlinson was just published a few hours ago, and it already has several thousand hits and climbing.

Harry cringes inwardly when the thought of the article enters his mind. The thing was, he’d really enjoyed his dinner with Ben the night before. They’d sat in the ripped leather booth at the diner, eating greasy comfort food and talking until almost 2:00 a.m. After that, Harry had been too keyed up to sleep, so he’d stumbled into the office around 6:00 and dashed off his 500 words just in time for the deadline. So much for doing his best writing in the mornings.

If Harry’s being honest with himself, the article is pretty damn bad. It’s cheesy as hell and maybe, just maybe, partially based on a fantasy he had about receiving a comically large bouquet of flowers from Ben as a congrats on a big promotion out of the gossip section. Jeff had come in looking extremely distracted and had barely given Harry’s work a quick once-over before approving it for print. Harry thought it was strange considering how important he’d made the assignment out to be.

“Haz, what do you think?”

Harry snaps back to the present and finds Liam looking at him expectantly, as if he’d been in on the conversation all along and should now be prepared to add his own insight.

“Yeah, great,” is all he can muster as Liam eyes him with confusion. It clearly isn’t an appropriate answer to whatever the question was.

Harry shifts his weight from the bar stool to his feet and digs into his back pocket for his wallet. He lays a few bills on the table and tells Liam he’ll see him at home later. They’re kind of roommates in that their studio apartments are adjacent to each other. And in that they might have cut an illegal opening into their shared wall.

“You okay?” Liam asks, concerned.

“Yeah, just dead on my feet. Didn’t sleep at all last night.”

“Oh, yeah. Late-night dinner,” Liam says with wink. Harry has only given him the basics, hasn’t had time for a full rundown of the date yet. Not that it was a date, of course. He glares at Liam to prevent him from taking the discussion any further in front of Sophia. The last thing he wants is to be the subject of any office gossip. He feels enough like a high-school girl today as it is.

As Harry exits the bar, he pulls out his phone to check his emails and texts. A moment later, he’s completely frozen in the middle of the sidewalk, staring at the screen as hordes of unfeeling New Yorkers rush by him on either side. Uh oh.

---

An hour earlier.

The gym was no help. Louis returns to his apartment feeling more agitated than ever about the ridiculous New York Weekly article. Niall has already fucked off to God knows where, so Louis is left alone with no plans to speak of for the evening. This is supposed to be his “down time” between films but he doesn’t really know how to enjoy it. Well, he does, but he’s supposed to be taking a break from all that so he can fake-date someone he’s never even met.

After taking a shower, Louis decides that if he can’t go down to Hell’s Kitchen and pull tonight, he might as well treat himself to some top-notch porn, so he settles down on the bed with his iPad and a bottle of lube. The entire eastern wall of Louis’ bedroom is composed of nothing but floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking Central Park. He loves the classic Manhattan view; it’s one of the main reasons he purchased the property. With the click of a remote, he can darken the glass so that he can see out but no one else can see in.

Louis leans back against the pillows, one hand already down the front of his pants, the fingers of the other sliding across the screen of his iPad to unlock it. Great. The fucking New York Weekly article is still up on the screen. Who wrote this shit, anyway? Louis scrolls to the top of the page. Harry Styles. Never heard of him. There’s a link to his Twitter account under the byline. Don’t click it, Louis. He clicks it. Harry Styles has 356 followers. Pathetic. His bio is a quote from the Dalai Lama. “Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.” Seriously? How lame is this kid? Louis clicks on Harry’s profile picture. Okay, he’s got nice curly dark hair, but his goofy face ruins it, to be honest. He looks like some kind of self-satisfied frog. Why is his mouth so big? Why are his lips so full? Louis can’t let him get away with looking so fucking goofy. He clicks on the icon to compose a new tweet and opens a browser tab to google “Dalai Lama quotes.”

@Harry_Styles “In the practice of tolerance one’s enemy is the best teacher” Thanks for upping my bullshit tolerance with your inane article

Exactly 140 characters. Goddammit, Louis loves it when that happens. He clicks the “tweet” button but still doesn’t feel satisfied.

@Harry_Styles Maybe next time try checking your facts before you print any more ridiculous hearsay about me

Louis closes out of Twitter as his notifications start to go crazy. He has nearly 50 million followers, so he never even attempts to keep up. He just needed to spout off, and now he feels a bit better knowing that he just ruined some low-level hack journalist’s evening. He may be committed to going along with this stunt, but he’s at least going to demand some respect. The Sams aren’t going to be happy. This is definitely strike three against what they’d agreed upon in terms of Louis’ use of his Twitter account—strike four, too, if you count the follow-up tweet. But, Louis can’t be fucked to care at the moment. He’s made his feelings clear, and he can deal with the Sams tomorrow.

Right now, he just needs a good wank and a good night’s sleep, even though it’s barely 8:00 p.m. He heads right for one of his go-to videos. It’s nothing too hard-core—Louis actually isn’t into that. It’s more…artistic. It’s shot in black and white, the lighting is really excellent (in Louis’ professional opinion), and it features D’Angelo’s “How Does It Feel” in the background rather than your typical cheesy synthetic porn music. But at the end of the day, it’s still just two dudes fucking, and that’s all Louis really needs at the moment. After a couple of minutes, he drops the iPad and uses his free hand to push his shorts all the way down to his knees. This isn’t a long, luxurious wank. This is fast and dirty and needy. Louis comes with his lips parted but completely silent, at the exact same time as the guys in the video. So, maybe he’s watched this particular one a few too many times. It’s a classic, though.

He wipes himself off with his T-shirt, tosses it on the floor, turns out the light, and falls promptly to sleep. Tension relieved.

---

Liam snatches Harry’s phone out of his hand, throws it in his top desk drawer, and locks it before Harry can even react.

“Hey!” Harry protests.

“Stop looking at it,” Liam responds. “You’ve been looking at it all day. You’re just driving yourself crazy.”

Harry lets out a long, slow breath, trying to calm his nerves. Liam is just trying to help. Ever since Louis Tomlinson’s tweets last night, Harry’s Twitter notifications have been going crazy. He’s also gotten dozens of emails and texts. Sure, Harry has dreamed about publishing an article that creates a lot of buzz, but not like this. It’s so embarrassing, and the reaction has been 95-percent negative. Louis has fans—a lot of fans—and they seem to have nothing better to do than to jump to his defense in the form of bullying Harry as much as possible. There are even five new Harry Styles parody Twitter accounts that have cropped up overnight. Liam’s personal favorite is @Carrie_Styles, a Sex and the City themed one that includes a photo-shopped profile picture of Harry’s face with Sarah Jessica Parker’s hair. His sister Gemma is retweeting all of it. Harry could not be more humiliated.

A soft “ding” sounds from the speakers connected to Harry’s computer. It’s a calendar reminder that he has a meeting with Jeff in five minutes. He feels sick to his stomach.

“You look like shit,” Liam offers helpfully.

“Thank you. I appreciate the encouragement.”

Liam just shrugs. “I don’t know why you’re worried. Jeff approved the article before it went live.”

“But I’m the one who wrote it,” Harry whines. “It’s still my ass on the line.” Liam’s a journalist, too; he should understand this. Maybe he’d feel differently if someone had tweeted “Fave for Liam Payne; retweet for this moldy sock” and had only received three favorites like Harry had. And one of them was his mom, so really only two actually count. 

Harry stands up and trudges toward Jeff’s office with all the enthusiasm of someone marching to his own death. He actually thinks that death might be preferable to getting demoted to writing horoscopes or blind items.

As he rounds the corner in front of Jeff’s office, Harry runs into Ben—quite literally—knocking them both back a half step. Great. Now his loss of dignity can really be complete.

“Oh hey, Harry,” Ben says, looking like he’d rather be anywhere else in the world at this very moment. Harry can’t blame him.

“Hey,” Harry replies lamely, and they just stare at each other awkwardly for a few seconds before Ben excuses himself and heads back toward the “pit” where all the staff writers’ cubicles are located. So, not only is Harry’s career on its way down the toilet, it looks like his potential dating life might be, too. Not that it was a date, of course.

When Harry turns, he finds Jeff staring at him through the glass with an unreadable expression on his face. He motions for him to come in, and Harry obeys, slumping down in the chair facing Jeff’s desk. “I assume this is about the article.”

“It is,” Jeff responds, and Harry still can’t decipher his boss’s mood.

“Harry, I know you’re taking a lot of heat on social media, but you just have to let it roll off your back. We’re doing exactly what Tomlinson’s PR team asked us to do. He’s just a twat, that’s all.”

Okay, this isn’t what Harry was expecting to hear. I mean, clearly Louis Tomlinson is a twat, but Harry can’t believe Jeff’s so ready to dismiss this shitstorm as no big deal.

“So you’re not mad about the negative attention?”

Jeff chuckles. “Harry, there’s no such thing as negative attention. We’re here to sell stories and get hits on our web site. I know it isn’t fun for you, but it’s just part of the job. Try to shake it off. I’m going to need you on this story going forward.”

Noooooooooooo. The last thing Harry wants is to ever have to write another word about Louis Tomlinson. But, he’s too new at this job. He can’t beg off an assignment, any assignment, really, let alone a gold-star assignment involving an A-list celebrity. He’s stuck. But at least his boss isn’t mad at him.

“Well, thanks for the support. I’m getting harassed so hard, though—do you think maybe I should just lock or delete my Twitter?” Harry asks.

“Hell, no!” Jeff responds quickly, shaking his head. “People love a good Twitter feud. Keeps ‘em engaged. You need to tweet a response.”

“What?!” No way. There’s no way Harry wants to invite more abuse on himself.

But Jeff is just nodding encouragingly. “Yeah! Just don’t go for the jugular. Tease him back, but try to keep it light-hearted. Our readers will eat that shit up.”

Harry chats with Jeff for a few more minutes, but his mind is racing the entire time. He has to escalate this thing with Louis Tomlinson? How is he possibly going to do that? Snarkiness isn’t his main specialty. He doesn’t want to be engaged in an online fight with a celebrity. He wants to be writing a profile on a young person who is building wells in Africa, or rounding up news from the latest United Nations session. Anything but this. Maybe he should have just joined the Peace Corps like he’d thought about doing. But he knows he’s a good writer (despite his latest article), and he always thought he could use his talent to make a difference. 

When Harry returns to his desk, there are two things waiting for him. First, a curious Liam wanting to know how the meeting went. And second, an email from Ben wanting to know if he’s free to grab lunch. After their awkward exchange a little earlier, this comes as a bit of a surprise, but Harry isn’t going to question it. Maybe this day can be salvaged after all.

“Liam, give me my phone.”

“Are you sure?”

“I’m positive. I’m really okay. I’m not going to obsess over it anymore.” 

Liam unlocks his drawer and tosses Harry his phone. He opens his Twitter app before he can change his mind.

@Louis_Tomlinson Thanks for all the new followers! The Dalai Lama would want us to be friends though. Also, he thinks you & Cam are adorable

140 characters exactly. Damn, this day is looking up. Harry turns his phone off and leaves it on his desk when he goes to tell Ben he’d love to get lunch.

---

Louis, we’ve talked about tweeting without my approval.

Louis stares down at the text from Sam Clayton. He knew it would be coming.

Did we ever talk about OKing idiotic articles about me without MY approval?

Two minutes pass.

I approved the article. I know what I’m doing. Don’t make me lock you out of your own Twitter account.

I’m not afraid to start @Louis_Tomlinson2

Don’t tweet that writer again unless you say something nice. I mean it.

But have you seen how big his fucking mouth is? He could fit a softball in there.

Louis. Find something productive to do and stop sabotaging your own PR effort. You’re meeting up with Cam tomorrow afternoon, and tomorrow night is the fundraiser for the Ali Forney Center.

Louis decides to ignore Sam’s last text. He certainly doesn’t have anything nice to say to Harry Styles, but it’s okay because he’s already won. And the mention of the fundraising dinner makes him smile. Supporting LGBTQ+ youth is something he’s seriously passionate about. He knows that a night to forget about himself and his own ego is probably exactly what he needs right now, even though he’s loathe to admit it.

He’s feeling all warm and fuzzy inside when he happens to glance down at his phone again to see a text from Niall with a screenshot from Twitter. Excuse me? Harry Styles is @’ing him? Before he can even fully open the text, Louis is already fuming. How dare this no-name journalist try to get the last word in! Louis always gets the last word. He gasps when he reads the tweet. No respect whatsoever. Apparently, Harry Styles is a slow learner.  It’s time for another lesson.

---

Harry returns from his lunch with Ben on cloud nine. It feels like they’re really connecting even though it’s only been two dates. Not dates, though. Meals. Just meals. Eaten together. While joking and talking and looking at Ben’s ridiculously gorgeous face. Ben had wanted to go all the way downtown to eat, which took forever, but Harry didn’t question it. The longer the train ride, the more time he got to spend sitting close enough to Ben to smell him. Not creepily smelling him, of course. Just. Enjoying his classy taste in cologne.

He turns his phone back on and checks his Twitter notifications. They’re blowing up, of course. A lot of hate from Louis Tomlinson fans, more than a few people cheering him on for his cheeky tweet, and a few hundred new followers. Hopefully, this is the last of it until he’s forced to write another article. He’s too happy after lunch to worry about any of it right now. Like too happy. He tries sifting through his emails but he can’t concentrate. All he can think about is how long it’s been since he’s gotten laid. And, he’s a 24-year-old guy, he can’t help it if his mind gets stuck on thoughts of sex and if a few minutes later he’s half-hard while sitting at his desk.

There’s a unisex bathroom at the end of the hall. If he can just make it there without looking too conspicuous…Harry walks down the hall as casually as possible and locks himself inside. Why is the thought of getting off at work so hot? If only he weren’t getting off alone. He leans back against the door and unbuttons his shirt all the way, pushing it completely open and exposing his hard pecks and abs and the butterfly tattoo with its wings spreading out to the inner edges of his almost imperceptible love handles. Then he undoes his belt and zipper, pushing his pants and boxer briefs just low enough to get his cock out. Harry can’t help it. He turns himself on.

He’s moaning quietly before he even gets a good grip on himself, so hard that he’s already leaking everywhere. He strokes himself slowly with his right hand while bringing his left hand up to run across his chest, brushing over both nipples lightly. All his weight is on his shoulder blades as he leans against the door with his hips jutting forward and his cock sticking out obscenely. Oh God, he gasps while imagining how this would be even hotter if he had lube and could get a couple fingers up his ass, or better yet, if he had a particular co-worker on his knees in front of him. This will just have to do for now.

It doesn’t take long before the thought of his co-workers walking down the hall just inches away from him and the sight of his own throbbing dick in his hand pushes Harry over the edge. He bites his lower lip and watches himself come all over his butterfly tattoo and up to the middle of his chest. It’s not the best he’s ever felt, but in terms of solo office-bathroom orgasms, it’s pretty damn good. He wets a paper towel in the sink to wipe himself off, and as he’s throwing it away, he notices the tip of a used condom peeking out from underneath the trash in the bottom of the bin. So, someone fucked in the office bathroom—nice. Harry tucks himself back in his pants, zips them, buckles his belt, and buttons his shirt. He regrets nothing.

Harry feels relaxed and almost sleepy when he returns to his cubicle, stopping short several feet away and not believing his eyes. There’s an absolutely massive bouquet of flowers sitting in the center of his desk. It’s so big that Harry can’t even see his computer. Half the light from the window is blocked. He thinks Liam might be standing behind it, but he can’t tell for sure. It’s that big. What the fuck?

There’s a small crowd of co-workers standing around gawking at the bluish-purple monstrosity that has overtaken Harry’s entire workspace. All eyes turn to him as he approaches his desk.

“Nice flowers, Styles,” remarks Zach, one of Liam’s fellow political correspondents.

Sophia is gazing at the blooms in wonder. “Harry, who are they from? These are the most gorgeous irises I’ve ever seen!”

Fuck. Irises. Harry thinks he knows who the bouquet is from. There’s a card wedged in the middle of the green stalks, and he doesn’t want to open it, but he does, of course.

Promised my manager I wouldn’t tweet you again. Didn’t say anything about Instagram.  –LT

Perfect. Harry shoves the card into his top desk drawer and whips out his phone to look up Louis’ Instagram account. Dear God. He’s screenshotted and posted every humiliating photo manip of Harry from Twitter. There’s even a collage of Harry as each member of that British boyband, Princes & Rogues. Harry hates those guys. This is truly humiliating. Louis has millions of Instagram followers. Some of the photos have over 50,000 likes already. Is this what happens when spoiled movie stars get bored?

Without thinking much, Harry switches to the Twitter app and fires off a retaliatory tweet.

Rumor has it @Louis_Tomlinson & @Cam_Richards recently shared a romantic picnic under the stars. Louis even baked cookies for the occasion!

Dammit. Out of room. He’ll have to double tweet.

What will these two lovebirds get up to next? Stay tuned for my upcoming articles in @newyorkweekly!

Harry slumps down in his desk chair, contemplating what life choices he’s made that led him to this point, in a social-media fight with one of the most famous people in the world, making up tweets about cookies. Cookies, for fuck’s sake. If Louis is going to send everything Harry lies about to his office, he should have specified chocolate chip. Maybe next time he’ll say Louis bought Cam a Rolex. He wouldn’t mind having one of those. Maybe a Bentley or a yacht, who knows. All Harry’s sure about is that he’s in too deep for a graceful exit now.

---

It’s been a full 24 hours since Harry’s ludicrous tweets about picnics and cookies, and Louis hasn’t fired back yet. He’s really proud of himself, actually. It’s a superb testament to his high level of class and maturity. Also, he hasn’t thought of anything good yet. The Instagram collages were hilarious, but low-brow. His next move needs to strike fear straight into the heart of Harry Styles. He needs to understand who he’s dealing with.

“I know what you’re thinking about,” Niall accuses from the seat facing Louis in the back of the hired car. “Just let it go, for Christ’s sake.”

“You have no idea what I’m thinking about, Niall.” Louis responds in a wounded tone. “I’m just very excited for my date with the one and only Cam Richards.”

Niall snorts. “You don’t give a shit about Cam Richards. Please. You’re trying to think of how to destroy that writer, and all he did was what the Sams asked him to. On your behalf.”

“That’s where you’re wrong, Niall,” Louis argues. “He’s taken it too far. He’s having fun at my expense and trying to humiliate me. For no reason! What a pompous asshole. I’m doing society a favor if I cut him down to size.”

Niall raises an eyebrow and considers making a height joke, but thinks better of it and changes the subject.

“Okay, so Cam is supposed to meet you at the café at 2:30. There’s a window table already reserved for you. You’ll have tea or coffee or whatever. Please do not hide your face with your hands. Please do not cross your eyes or stick out your tongue at the paps. Please do not figure out how to work the ‘jack-off’ motion into the conversation.” Niall lazily makes the corresponding hand movement without looking up from his phone. “Please do smile. Please do make it look as if you’re interested in whatever Cam is saying. Please do walk out together when you’re finished. Go south for one block, and the paps will stop following you there. This should be quick and painless.”

Louis sighs. “Niall, I know you’re just a puppet here. There’s no way you made up those rules. You love it when I work the ‘jack-off’ motion into casual conversation.”

Niall looks at Louis wistfully. “That’s so true. So true. But, I promised Sam I’d keep you in line, and she’s got a nicer ass than you do, so don’t fuck it up for me.”

The two of them look at each other for a moment before bursting into laughter. A full minute later, Louis is still wiping the tears from his eyes. Niall and his jokes. Everyone knows that no one has a nicer ass than Louis Tomlinson.

---

Two hours later.

Louis is sitting at the window table with a cooling cup of Earl Grey and a blueberry scone in front of him. Cam was supposed to arrive 10 minutes ago, but there’s no sign of him yet. Louis checks his phone again and rolls his eyes. Typical musician diva behavior. Louis is always on time. Even if it means moving the blow job from his hotel room to the back of the car on his way to the set, he’s extremely considerate and always makes punctuality a priority. He’s already feeling a bit annoyed with his pretend boyfriend he’s never talked to.

He doesn’t have to look outside to know the photographers are there. He can feel their presence. When he first became famous, he was constantly aware of them. They made him nervous, watchful. It was hard not to look straight into their lenses. But now, he barely registers them. Doing this coffee date and pap walk will be a piece of cake. Except. Cam is now 15 minutes late. Louis’ phone vibrates with a text from Niall.

Don’t change the expression on your face when I tell you this.

Tell me what?

Cam isn’t coming.

Louis suppresses the instinct to roll his eyes again in exasperation. Instead, he simply smiles at his phone as if he’s enjoying what he’s looking at. You know, just a well-known actor, sitting in a coffee shop alone, watching cute cat videos on YouTube.

Why isn’t he coming?

I’ll explain in the car. You need to walk out and come to the car.

What about the paps?

We can’t call them off now. Smile and look happy.

This is fucking ridiculous, Louis types with a huge fake grin on his face.

It’s like 100 steps. It’s nothing. Just get back to the car.

Louis pockets his phone and lays a $50 bill on the table. This is no big deal. He’s done hundreds of pap walks. This one shouldn’t be any different.

But as Louis walks out the door of the coffee shop, something feels different. The camera shutters seem deafening in his ears as he hears the paps calling out his name and their orders for where they want him to look.

“Louis! Louis! Where’s Cam?”

“Louis, are the rumors true about you and Cam Richards? Where is he today?”

“Louis! Over here! Will Cam be with you at the fundraising event tonight?”

Louis tries to smile, but all he can focus on is reaching the car. He gets there as fast as he can without running. After a curt nod and smile toward the paps, he jumps in and slams the door behind him, letting out a long breath in relief. Not only is Niall there, Sam Clifton is, too. Louis doesn’t say anything, just stares at them waiting for an explanation.

“Cam backed out.” Sam cuts right to the chase.

Louis is confused. “You mean backed out of the coffee shop thing or backed out of everything?”

Sam and Niall exchange a look.

“Everything,” Sam answers.

“What?” It’s less of a question from Louis than it is a low growl of annoyance.

Sam rubs his hand over the back of his neck. He’s clearly stressed. Niall is suddenly mute, it seems. 

“He changed his mind,” Sam explains. “Apparently, he wasn’t as willing as his people made it seem. He thinks you’re too…opinionated.”

Louis explodes. “Opinionated? Opinionated?! Hell, yes, I’m opinionated, Sam! Is that something he only learned during the past few days? Jesus Christ!” Louis rubs both of his hands over in face in agitation. “This is so fucked up! Not only have I been made to look like a lovesick moron, but now I’ve been dumped? By a person I’ve never even fucking met?

Sam grimaces. “I know, Louis. It’s total bullshit. I’ve just spent the past hour screaming on the phone. I’ve already alerted half of my contacts in L.A. about what they’ve done. They’ll never be able to set anything up for him again.”

“Oh, that’s comforting,” Louis snorts. “I’m so glad to hear that Cam Richards will have difficulty finding PR boyfriends in the future, but that doesn’t change the fact that I have been screwed over in the here and now.”

Niall finally speaks up. “It’s gonna be okay, Louis. This thing was barely started. It’s just a couple articles, a couple tweets. The Sams can fix it.” Niall looks over at Sam Clifton like he’s hoping that what he’s saying is actually true.

“We’re already on it,” Sam says, but he looks nervous, too. “You’re not going to like this, but we need to run with the idea of you getting dumped.”

“Absolutely not!” Louis is shouting now. “How will that help anything?”

“Sympathy,” Sam states plainly. “Everyone’s been dumped at one time or another. People will identify with what you’re going through, and they’ll root for you to bounce back. Which you will. As soon as we line someone else up.”

“No.” Louis' head is still spinning a bit, but he’s sure about this one thing. “I’m not doing this again. Ever. I never should have agreed to this in the first place.”

Sam looks at Louis carefully. He’s used to handling high-strung clients, but something about Louis’ distress seems deeper than just his ego. Louis is a small person but he looks positively tiny right now, curled up in the leather seat of the town car. “We have to spin it, Louis.”

“Then spin it!” Louis shoots back. “Do whatever you have to do. But I’m not fake dating anyone again, ever. This has been a disaster. I should fire all of you.”

“Hey, what did I do?” complains Niall loudly.

“You let them talk me into it!” Louis fixes Niall with his harshest glare. “And also I hate your hair. Get it cut. You look like a goddamn treasure troll.”  

Niall sucks in his breath sharply. “You don’t mean that. You’re just talking crazy because you’re mad.”

Louis doesn’t answer. He actually does love Niall’s treasure troll hair. Niall’s treasure troll hair makes him feel warm and safe inside. But he’s livid with everyone right now, and they all deserve to suffer.

“Do you want me to cancel your appearance at the fundraiser tonight?” Sam asks.

“No,” Louis answers. As much as he’d like to disappear into his apartment all night and get high and eat pizza and wallow in his own misery, the center means a lot to him and he’s determined not to let anybody down. “No, I’m definitely still going.”

Sam and Niall both become engrossed in tasks on their phones while Louis rests his head against the back of the seat and watches the city go by. Dumped by a guy who’s never even had a #1 hit. Harry Styles should have a field day with this.

---

It’s been a good day, Harry thinks. So far he has not been the victim of any social-media attacks from Louis Tomlinson, and he’s actually working on a story he cares about for once- a round-up of the latest pro-LGBTQ+ actions from young celebrities ahead of the Supreme Court’s upcoming decision on marriage equality. He’s absorbed in his research when Ben stalks by in a cloud of glorious, manly scent without even stopping to say hello. Harry furrows his brow in confusion. Honestly, he’s having trouble figuring out Ben’s moods- one minute, he’s friendly and even a little flirty; the next, he’s ignoring Harry completely. Harry doesn’t have too long to dwell on it, though, because a second later, Jeff is at his desk. 

“Harry! The Tomlinson pap photos are in.”

Harry opens the appropriate program on his computer and starts clicking through the photos.

“Where’s Cam?”

“No show!” Jeff responds with delight.

Harry is confused. “So…we can’t use these, right? Are they rescheduling?”

“Nope.” Jeff is grinning now. Harry still hasn’t caught on.

“He got stood up!” Jeff explains excitedly. “Richards backed out at the last minute, so Tomlinson’s team is just rolling with it. So, now the story is that he’s been dumped and is heartbroken over it.”

“But it’s just a PR stunt. He’s not heartbroken.” Harry clicks on a photo and zooms in on Louis’ face. He’s actually really beautiful. His soft brown hair is growing out, swept over expertly to the side over his crystalline blue eyes. He has about three days’ worth of stubble growing over his jaw and chin and yeah, he’s gorgeous. But he’s supposed to be. He’s a movie star. And a grade-A twat. Harry hates him.

“A PR stunt. Correct,” Jeff says slowly, as if he’s talking to a child. “You know all this. I thought you’d be really happy about this development, though. Imagine all the shit you can make up about the break-up to torture him with!”

“They were never photographed together even once,” Harry muses aloud as he contemplates Louis’ face in the next photo. He sees something there that unsettles him. “They should just bury the story. Let it die on its own.”

“Do yourself a favor and don’t ever go into PR,” Jeff says. “The story has gotten enough attention- thanks to your little feud with Tomlinson- that it’s a waste for them not to try to grab a few more headlines. Everyone loves a good break-up. Misery is the only thing that sells more magazines than love.”

Harry clicks through to the end of the file. It’s full of great shots of Louis- there’s probably no such thing as a bad angle on this man- and he’s smiling in all of them. They look like very ordinary pap photos of a star walking down the sidewalk in New York City. But something about them isn’t right. The smile doesn’t reach Louis’ eyes, which are giving away some flicker of emotion that Harry can’t quite put his finger on. Nervousness? Tension? Sadness? It’s hard to tell, but Harry doesn’t like it. He can’t help but feel he played some part in creating that look.

Jeff’s now giving instructions. “…so, 250-300 words on the break-up by tomorrow morning. Use your imagination, but they want him to look good, so it can’t be his fault. Maybe just go with the angle you were already using- that he was way more into Richards than Richards was into him. We’ll run it with the pics of him leaving the coffee shop alone. Maybe a follow-up next week, I’m waiting to hear.”

Harry sighs. He just wants to be done with this mess.

Jeff clears his throat and changes the subject. “I’m headed out in a couple of hours to the big fundraiser for the Ali Forney Center. Would you like to come along? Expensive food, open bar, lots of beautiful people. You deserve a fun night after the week you’ve had.”

Harry says yes. There’s no way he’s going to pass up free booze right now, even if the Ali Forney Center weren’t an amazing cause he already supports and volunteers at frequently.

“What do I wear though?”

Jeff laughs. “I’m sure you could show up in ripped skinny jeans and a T-shirt and everyone would drool all over you. But, you know, I suggest something a little dressier. Maybe a tie.”

And that’s how Harry finds himself rifling through Liam’s closet an hour later in search of some decent neckwear. Liam’s just lounging on the bed, not helping, his dog Bruce curled up in his lap.

“I wish I were going to some fancy fundraiser tonight,” he grumbles.

“You go to fancy fundraisers all the time,” Harry responds from the back of the closet.

“Yeah, but they’re with stuffy, political types. I never get to meet celebrities.”

Harry wrinkles his nose as he examines a plain skinny black tie. “You don’t want to meet half of them, Liam. It’s like sorting through a bag of dicks.”

“No wonder you like it so much,” Liam says without missing a beat. “And trust me, politicians are just as bad, just in a different way.”

Harry pairs the black tie with a plain white button-up and his nicest black pants and black dress shoes. It’s a little plain, but he doesn’t necessarily want to get noticed tonight. He wants to stuff his face, get a little drunk, take a cab home, and not think about his next 300 words on Louis Tomlinson until daylight.

“How do I look?” he asks Liam, spinning around.

“Like the best damn dick sorter in town.”

Bruce yelps in agreement.

---

Louis is already on his third gin and tonic and the program hasn’t even started yet. He keeps getting disapproving looks from Sam Clayton, looks he is pointedly ignoring. She’s one of the people who got him into this mess over the past week, and he can hardly be blamed for wanting to drown some of his troubles tonight. He’s sat between her and Niall at one of the tables closest to the stage. The meal is delicious—Moroccan quail with porcini risotto—but Louis doesn’t have much of an appetite. As a matter of fact, he’s feeling downright queasy.

It doesn’t seem as if the program will be starting for a few more minutes, so he excuses himself to wander back toward the bar for another drink. When he gets there, he’s still feeling sick, so he leans over the bar and orders a ginger ale instead of another gin and tonic.

“If this weren’t an open bar, I’d buy that for you.”

Louis turns toward the voice on his left and the first thought in his mind is simply damn. Who is this hot guy with the dick-sucking lips sitting here potentially flirting with him? The second thought in his mind is considerably less welcome. Floppy hair, giant frog mouth, stupid-ass smile—it’s Harry fucking Styles.

He quickly steels his face and turns back toward the bartender before speaking. “Fancy meeting you here. I figured you’d be at your office having a grand old time writing captions for today’s photos.”

Harry places his empty glass on the bar and swings around to face Louis. He’s three drinks in himself; otherwise, he might have actually run away when he saw Louis Tomlinson approaching him. How had it not even crossed his mind that he might be here?

“Not due ‘til tomorrow,” he replies, watching Louis slowly sip his drink. Harry’s trying to play it cool, but he’s nervous as hell. First of all, he’s still not quite to the point where he feels comfortable rubbing elbows with A-list celebs. Second of all, this is the first A-list celeb he’s met who already knows who he is and already hates him. Third of all, Louis Tomlinson is hot as fuck in real life. So compact and curvy and pretty. Harry was not expecting that. Well, he wasn’t expecting to ever see him in person at all, certainly not tonight, and certainly not looking so good that Harry seems to have lost control of all his senses. No pap photo or headshot has ever done Louis Tomlinson justice, it seems. Maybe it’s just the alcohol talking. It’s definitely the alcohol talking, Harry reassures himself.

“So what’s it going to be this time?” Louis asks with a bitter chuckle, breaking Harry out of his trance. “Cam found someone younger and hotter? Maybe Zac Efron? Maybe he didn’t like my homemade cookies or my cheesy date nights?”

Harry flushes with embarrassment. Louis is looking straight at him without so much as blinking. Oh God, if he could figure out some way to just make himself disappear, or sink through the floor. His mouth feels frozen and he can’t speak. He’s considering just making a break for it when Louis speaks again, sounding a bit resigned.

“It’s okay, Styles,” he says as he places his empty glass on the bar next to Harry’s. “I get it. It’s your job. We all do what we have to do in this business. You should have a lot of fun with this little plot twist.”

With that, Louis turns and starts walking back toward the main part of the ballroom. Harry can’t believe he doesn’t want to spar a little more, especially since he clearly had Harry on the ropes. He should let him walk away. He really should.

“What do you want it to be?” he calls out before he can really think it through.

Louis stops short and turns around, confused. “What?”

“What do you want it to be? The story? What would you like me to write?”

Louis smirks. “Oh, you’re going to let me decide, then?”

He takes a few steps back toward Harry, who feels a rising panic in his chest. Shit. Why didn’t he just let him walk away?

“Well….I mean, I have some leeway. I’m open to ideas.”

More smirking. “You’re open to ideas. Okay, how about you write that I dumped his ass for Zac Efron? Cam didn’t appreciate my fine taste in floral arrangements or my romantic picnics so I moved on to someone else?” Louis’ words are biting. “Or maybe you could write the truth one time. You could say it was all a PR stunt that got horribly fucked up and now my team’s just trying to save their asses?”

He’s walked all the way back to the bar now and is standing directly in front of Harry. Harry can’t breathe. He thinks he understands that this is Louis’ way of bantering, but there’s something behind it, something that makes Harry’s chest constrict. Louis seems…tired, maybe. Or hurt.

“You know they’d never let me write the truth,” Harry replies in a near whisper, and it’s not the witty comeback Louis was obviously expecting. It’s a soft answer, plaintive, sympathetic.

Louis is enraged. The last thing he needs is Harry Styles feeling sorry for him.

“Fuck off,” he says, just as quietly as Harry had been speaking but with a lot more force. Then he spins on his heel and heads in the opposite direction.

---

Louis spends the next 20 minutes fighting nausea and bidding on items at the silent auction table while the program takes place on the stage. He’ll probably never have time for a trip to St. Lucia, and he has absolutely no use for a collection of rare Chinese vases, but…well, to be honest, he stormed away from Harry in the wrong direction and he doesn’t want to walk past him again to return to his table. Sam and Niall are probably wondering where the hell he is. This is usually one of his favorite events, but after the day he’s had, and running into Harry Styles here, he’s ready to call it a night.

He pulls out his phone to text Niall, but sees that Niall has beat him to it.

Couldn’t find you. Cut out early to get Sam home- she’s not feeling well.

Louis quickly types a response. That makes two of us then. I’m headed out, I’ll get a cab.

He pockets his phone and glances up to see if Harry’s still at bar, thanking his lucky stars when he doesn’t spot him anywhere. He has a clear path to the door, the sidewalk, and a cab ride home so he can fall into bed and forget this day ever happened. He crosses the rear of the ballroom without being stopped by anyone and steps out into the cool night air. As soon as he does, a wave of dizziness hits him and he slumps forward into the brick wall, spilling the contents of his stomach all over the sidewalk.

---

Harry’s back at his table with his fourth cocktail of the evening, trying to enjoy the program, trying to pretend he doesn’t give a shit that Louis Tomlinson told him to “fuck off,” and failing miserably. There’s a knot in his stomach and a tension in his chest that the booze just isn’t taking care of. Jeff has barely said two words to him all night. He’s been glued to his phone and isn’t even paying attention to the program, the program that Harry’s pretty sure would be amazing and compelling if he could just pull his head out of his ass to enjoy it. It’s no use.

“Hey,” he nudges Jeff. “I think I’m going to head out. I’m tired, and I want to get a head start on my article.”

Jeff nods his acknowledgment without looking up from his text conversation. Harry stands up and makes his way to the exit, grateful their table is so close to the back. He’s lost track of Louis’ whereabouts, so he tosses up a quick prayer that he’ll be able to get out the door without running into him again.

“Thanks,” he tells God when he makes it all the way outside without incident.

There’s a retching sound to his left. He can’t be sure, because the person is doubled over and facing away from him, but he thinks it might be…dammit. It’s Louis. It’s Louis and he’s puking everywhere and it’s completely disgusting and also his ass looks amazing sticking straight up in the air like this. How? How is that possible?

Harry points his eyes toward heaven for a moment and revokes his earlier gratitude. Then he takes a tentative step toward Louis, careful to keep his best shoes out of the vomit puddle. Just as he’s reaching a tentative hand out toward Louis’ bent frame, Louis lurches upright violently and backs right into Harry.

Harry puts both hands out to support Louis’ weight, expecting to be yelled at or cursed at, but Louis is so sick he can’t even be fucked to care that it’s Harry he’s run into. He makes a weak attempt to pull away but winds up collapsing even further into Harry’s arms.

“Are you okay?” Harry asks, immediately feeling stupid. Of course Louis isn’t okay. “Do you need to go to the hospital?”

Louis shakes his head, his eyes barely open. “No, I just need…I just need to get home. I’m fine.”

“I don’t think you are,” Harry says as gently as possible. Louis is covered in sweat and his face is completely grey. He’s shaking. “You’re really ill. You better let me take you home.”

“Absolutely not,” Louis can hardly open his mouth to get the words out. “Fuuuuuck….” Instead of finishing the “fuck you,” though, he leans over the curb and throws up again.

Harry’s already hailing a cab. When it stops in front of them, he pushes Louis inside before he has a chance to protest, jumping in next to him and closing the door.

“I’m making sure you get home okay. As soon as I do that, you can tell me to fuck off or push me down the stairs or whatever the hell you want to do. But I’m not leaving you on the sidewalk to die- or get papped like this.”

Louis doesn’t look at Harry, just mumbles his address to the driver, then slumps against the door and closes his eyes.

Harry’s heart is racing. He can’t believe he just pushed an Academy Award nominated actor into a taxi against his will. An Academy Award nominated actor who may or may not even be conscious at the moment.

Looking back, Harry will say this was where he made his second mistake.

Chapter Text

Harry gazes out the window as the first pink tendrils of sunrise appear over the treetops of Central Park. On the sidewalks below he can just make out the opaque figures of joggers stretching and setting out on their morning circuits, as well as the early birds bustling to work and the late-night stragglers making their way back home.

It’s breath-taking. Harry loves the sunrise. As much as he hates waking up early in the morning, there’s just no other feeling that compares to observing the Earth as it wakes up around you. To Harry, it always feels like a promise. Like nothing that has taken place up until this point matters because it’s a new day and a clean slate. Like anything good might happen now, even if it seemed impossible the night before.

Harry lets out a wide-mouthed yawn. Well, he definitely didn’t have to wake up early to enjoy this particular sunrise. He’s been up all night.

He glances over his shoulder to where Louis is asleep in his giant bed. He looks so small. He’s finally quiet and still, his fever-fueled hallucinations subsided. The worst has definitely passed. So as much as Harry would love to remain mesmerized by the striking view out of Louis’ expansive bedroom windows, he knows it’s time to get the hell out of there.

The last several hours were interesting, to say the least. After they’d arrived at Louis’ building, Harry had half-wrestled, half-carried him across the lobby to the elevator, the night guard barely raising an eyebrow. It made Harry wonder how many times Louis had stumbled home with a random guy before.

At least Louis had been able to punch the correct code into the elevator to get them to his apartment. As soon as they stepped inside, he muttered, “I’m fine now. You can go,” then promptly threw up all over Harry’s shoes.

Harry stepped out of them gingerly and guided Louis gently to the bathroom, where he wet a washcloth for his burning forehead. For an hour or two, Louis had alternated between dry heaving over the toilet and lying with his face pressed against the cool tiles of the bathroom floor. Harry busied himself cleaning up the entryway floor and scrubbing his shoes in the kitchen sink. Then, he scoured Louis’ cabinets looking for some Tylenol or anything that might help with his fever.

When he found it, he returned to the bedroom with a glass of water and discovered Louis wearing nothing but an extremely tight, extremely tiny pair of bright red briefs, looking quite delirious and aimlessly pulling clothes out of one of his dresser drawers.

Harry nearly dropped the glass of water on the floor. He wasn’t expecting so many tattoos.

“I need clean clothes?” Louis scrunched his forehead like he wasn’t sure whether he was telling Harry this or asking him. He looked completely lost in his own bedroom.

Harry rushed to place the water and the pills on the bedside table and then chose a pair of blue Adidas joggers and a plain white T-shirt out of Louis’ drawer. It took every ounce of willpower in Harry’s body not to look down for a better view of Louis in his red underwear.

“Here you go. These look comfortable,” he said, handing the shirt and pants to Louis. “I didn’t know Adidas came in extra small.”

Louis snatched the clothes away and narrowed his eyes at Harry, stumbling over to the bed to put them on. “Okay, you can fuck off now. I don’t need you,” he declared, then proceeded to spend three straight minutes struggling to pull the pants on.

When Harry couldn’t bear to watch any more, he asked if he could help.

“No.”

“It’s just a pair of pants. You’re really sick. Just let me help you so you can get in bed and sleep.”

Louis flopped back on the bed in defeat. “Don’t get handsy.”

“I would never,” Harry promised as he grabbed the tangled joggers at Louis’ feet, untwisted them, and guided them up and over Louis’ hips. His fingers barely grazed the skin there—Louis' skin felt like it was on fire.

“Here.” Harry backed away from Louis quickly. “I brought you some Tylenol. It’ll help with your fever.”

Louis had barely even swallowed the pills before he was curling up in a fetal position and closing his eyes. Harry spent the next hour cleaning the bathroom and spraying disinfectant over every surface in the apartment that Louis might have touched.

When he went back to check on Louis, he found him tossing and turning in the bed, moaning unintelligibly and covered in sweat. Harry went back to the bathroom, wet another washcloth with cool water, and took it back to press against Louis’ sweaty brow and neck. He repeated the action no less than 10 times over the next couple of hours, worrying as Louis went through his fever dreams, wondering if he should be doing something different to help him, and cursing himself for not leaving the gala 10 minutes earlier so he could have avoided all this completely. Eventually, Louis’ fever had broken, and the fitful sleep turned restful.

Now, Harry makes sure that Louis’ phone is charging on the bedside table and that he has a full glass of water next to him before he quietly leaves the bedroom, shutting the door softly behind him. In the kitchen, he’s happy to discover that his shoes are finally dry. He’s slipping them on by the door when he looks up to see a sleepy, bedraggled Louis emerging from the hall.

“What are you still doing here?” Louis asks with a rough voice. He looks exhausted but not mad.

“Was making sure you lived through the night,” Harry answers, fitting his left shoe over his heel. He stands up and loops his borrowed tie over his shoulders, then grabs his suit jacket from the coat rack.

“You didn’t have to do that.”

“Well, I didn’t necessarily want to get stuck writing your obituary on top of everything else.”

Louis manages a small smile. “Please don’t ever write my obituary. I’d like it to be good.”

Harry just chuckles and places his hand on the doorknob, turning to leave.

“Hey, did you call Niall for me?” Louis asks.

“Niall?”

“Yeah. My assistant. I thought I remembered asking you to call him.”

Harry shakes his head. “No, sorry. You said a lot of things when you were out of it. You probably did say ‘Call Niall,’ but you also said ‘Talk dirty to me, Niall,’ and ‘Respect my authority, Kevin,’ and ‘Get the fuck away from my cheesecake, Stan.’”

“I did not.”

“You did. You were really airing out all your grievances. I was surprised I got left out.”

Louis knits his brow in contemplation. “I don’t even know anyone named Kevin.”

Harry laughs out loud this time. “Sorry I didn’t get a hold of your assistant for you. I’m glad you’re feeling a little better, but you really should get some more rest. You had a rough night. I’ll just…let myself out.”

“Let me walk you,” Louis offers, grabbing a faded grey hoodie and slipping it over his head. “I’ll show you the side door. There are paps out front sometimes.”

“Really?” Harry’s surprised. There aren’t a lot of roaming paps in New York City.

“Yeah. Taylor Swift lives in this building.”

“No shit,” Harry marvels. “They should have set you up with her instead of Cam Richards.”

“Weren’t you just leaving?” Louis asks, ushering Harry out the door and towards the elevator.

They ride down to the lobby without saying anything to each other. When the doors slide open, Louis guides Harry away from the main entrance and down a long corridor to a small service door. They step out onto a little concrete stoop.

“You’re not even wearing anything on your feet,” Harry notes. Louis is starting to shiver a little in the morning chill. “You better get back inside and get back to bed.”

Louis turns to go but hesitates. “Um. Thanks for…bringing me home and looking after me. That was above and beyond…considering everything.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Harry replies. “The stomach flu is definitely grounds for a temporary truce. Even in, like, a real war, I think.”

“Well, then back to battle, Styles,” Louis says, one foot back inside the building. “Don’t you have a break-up article to write?”

Before Harry can answer, Louis is giving him a little salute and shutting the door.

Harry walks down the steps and rounds the corner out of the alley. He can’t stop thinking about what Louis said while he was dreaming. Not the thing about Niall or the thing about cheesecake. The thing he didn’t tell Louis about. The sun is almost all the way up now. The day is a blank slate, but Harry already knows one thing- no matter what it brings, he’s not going to write anything else to hurt Louis Tomlinson.

---

Harry drags himself home and sleeps for three hours before forcing himself awake again. He’s late for work. He’ll never have his article written on time, but at this point, it doesn’t matter. He’s going to talk to Jeff as soon as he gets to the office. He’ll either convince him to let Harry write something decent about Louis this time, or he’ll flat-out refuse the assignment and suffer the consequences.

Harry tells himself that he’ll just consider it his first real battle as a journalist. Of course, he’d imagined it happening more dramatically, like going to jail for refusing to reveal his sources after a huge exposé on corporate pollution or something. But, defending the honor of a rich, spoiled, promiscuous movie star will just have to serve as a substitute for now.

There’s no milk in his refrigerator, so he slips over to Liam’s place and finds him sitting at his tiny kitchen table, reading the paper and eating a bowl of cereal. Harry sits down wordlessly and fills his own cereal bowl with the milk sitting out on the table. Bruce lays his head on Harry’s bare feet, and they consume their cereal in companionable silence until Harry asks Liam what he’s still doing home so late in the morning.

“Have to cover a ground-breaking ceremony for a new community center in Brooklyn at 11:00,” he replies, taking a sip of his orange juice. “One of the city council members is cutting the ribbon. Going in to the office after that. What are you doing here? How was the charity gala?”

“I just got home a couple hours ago.”

“What? Why? Where were you all night?”

“Louis Tomlinson’s.”

“What?!” Liam looks like he might actually be having a heart attack. He sucks in a breath in the loudest and most dramatic fashion possible. “Oh my God, did you fuck him?!”

“No!” Harry practically shouts in response. “God, no! I would never!”

Liam immediately deflates to his normal-looking self, only to suck in an even louder and more dramatic breath two seconds later. “Oh my God, did he fuck you?!!”

“Liam! No. Calm down. He got really sick outside the gala, so I made sure he got home okay. I was just helping him out.”

Skepticism etches its way across Liam’s face. “Why would you want to help that asshole?”

Harry sighs. “Well, to be fair, I kind of started it with my article. And I would help anyone in that situation. He was not going to make it home on his own.”

“Fine, fine,” Liam replies. “Just don’t become friends with him. That’s like, a conflict of interest or something. What was his place like? Does he have, like, a pet tiger or a sex dungeon?”

Before Harry can answer, his phone buzzes with an incoming text. It’s from Jeff, and it’s a link to something on The Star’s web site, no comment attached. The Star is New York Weekly’s main competitor, so it’s not unusual for an editor to send a staff writer a link to something relevant they’ve published, just as a heads up.

Harry clicks on the link and nearly falls off his chair. A squeak escapes from his mouth, and it sounds strange in his ears, like it’s coming from somewhere else rather than from his own body. Before he can even read the headline, he sees the photo. It’s him and Louis. Him and Louis standing together on the little side stoop of Louis’ building, less than five hours ago. Louis looks like hell warmed over in his old sweats with no shoes or socks. Harry looks like he’s doing the walk of shame after prom night, with his tie draped over his shoulders and suit jacket crushed in his hands, hair a mess. All that’s missing is a wilted boutonniere.

“Oh. My God. Oh my God,” is all he can manage to get out before Liam is grabbing the phone out of his hands to see what’s made Harry turn as white as a ghost.

Liam’s mouth drops open as soon as he realizes what he’s looking at. “Louis Tomlinson’s wild night with Harry Styles of New York Weekly,” he reads aloud. “It looks like the feud between Tomlinson and the entertainment reporter may be over, if the photos taken this morning outside Tomlinson’s building are any indication. Both men were spotted at last night’s fundraiser for the Ali Forney Center, and several partygoers reported seeing them leave together in the same car, ‘laughing and looking like they definitely weren’t ready for the night to end.’”

“What?!” Harry croaks. “That didn’t happen! There was no laughing. There was just vomiting. Lots of vomiting.”

Liam keeps reading. “Styles was spotted leaving Tomlinson’s building around 6:00 a.m., in what definitely appear to be his clothes from last night’s gala. So, what does this mean for Tomlinson’s budding romance with singer Cam Richards? Bet we know which reporter will get that scoop!”

Liam looks up from the phone, eyes wide.

“I am so fucked.” Harry feels like he might actually start crying. His phone buzzes again in Liam’s hand.

“You just got another text from Jeff,” Liam informs him.

“Oh God, what does it say? Wait, don’t tell me! Okay, tell me.” Harry is beyond tired, and he feels like he’s starting to fall apart a bit.

“It says, ‘Meet me at The Pierre at noon. The Salon room.’ What the hell does that mean?”

“I have no idea,” Harry responds. “But it can’t be good. Maybe he’s taking me somewhere private to fire me—or kill me.”

For once, Liam doesn’t have anything to say. The two of them just sit together in mutual shock while their cereal gets soggy and their orange juice gets warm.

---

Louis pulls his knees up to his chest and tugs the hood of his sweatshirt as far over his head as he can possibly manage. To say he’s not feeling up to being at this meeting is an understatement. His fever is gone, but he feels like a wrung-out dish towel. Niall had come over and basically given him a shower, coaxed him into eating a few crackers, and practically carried him to the car that drove them to this hotel. This is not Louis’ best day.

He knows things are fucked up. Niall showed him the pap pics of him and Harry Styles outside his building. Still, Louis doesn’t think it’s worth calling an emergency meeting over. The Cam thing isn’t happening anyway. Let people think he and Harry had a one-night stand and be done with it. It wouldn’t be the first time Louis had done something like that, nor will it be the last.  

If it’s shitty for Harry’s career, well, that’s kind of too bad because Harry does seem like a somewhat decent guy after everything he did last night. But, Harry made his own bed. He started this, Louis reminds himself. None of this is Louis’ fault. He should be curled up in his lavender-scented sheets right now, sleeping for the next one million years or at least until he feels like a human again.

He leans against Niall and closes his eyes while Sam Clifton remains deep in conversation with the editor from New York Weekly.

A minute later, Sam Clayton enters the room looking like a damn model. Her blonde hair is pulled back into a sleek high bun, and she’s wearing a perfectly tailored jacket with a pencil skirt and stilettos.

“How the fuck do you look so good?” Louis asks in surprise. “I thought you were sick, too.”

Sam looks confused. “Sick?”

“Yeah, Niall said you were sick.”

Before Sam can answer Louis, the door opens and Harry walks in, looking like the epitome of a deer caught in the headlights. He’s changed into a pair of tight blue jeans and a plain black t-shirt, a pair of silver necklaces hanging down over his chest. Louis thinks he can see the edges of a chest tattoo peeking out above the soft V of his neckline. His curls are pulled back in a ridiculous headscarf. Who does he think he is wearing that headscarf? Is this a fucking joke? He looks absolutely gorgeous, and Louis is very annoyed.

“What are you doing up? You should be resting.” It’s the first thing out of Harry’s mouth, and it catches Louis by surprise, considering Harry has just walked into a lion’s den where God knows what is about to happen.

Louis gives Harry a half-smile and scoots closer to Niall to make room for him on the couch. “Big emergency, you know? More important than a stomach bug.”

Harry sits down next to Louis and assesses his face more closely. “You look like shit.”

“Thank you. You journalists sure have a fine way with words,” Louis responds, then waves his hand to his left. “This is Niall.”

Harry and Niall shake hands, the Sams introduce themselves to Harry, and everyone sits down in the loose circle formed by the sofa and chairs. Harry looks over at Jeff, who hasn’t spoken a word to him since he entered the room. He has no idea what to expect, but if this were a simple firing, it doesn’t make sense to involve Louis Tomlinson and his team.

Sam Clifton takes the lead. “Well, we’ve all seen this morning’s pap photos and the article in The Star. And, we all know what actually happened. Harry, thank you for looking after Louis last night and making sure he got home safely.”

Harry looks directly at Jeff, who smiles reassuringly. Well, that’s a relief. At least Jeff knows Harry wasn’t fucking his subject matter.

“Obviously, we aren’t happy with The Star for running this,” Sam Clifton continues. “We haven’t given them information for years, so they had nothing to lose. It was the perfect opportunity for them to try to discredit New York Weekly. But we can spin it.”

“Yes!” Niall pumps his fist in the air. “I love when we spin it!”

Sam Clayton silences Niall with a stern look and picks up Sam Clifton’s train of thought. “There’s no way anyone is going to believe the truth, not after seeing those pictures. As far as the public is concerned, you two slept together last night. So…we go with it. Announce that the two of you are actually dating.”

“No way,” Louis and Harry say in perfect unison, and then turn to give each other mirrored looks of shock and offense.

“Excuse me?” Louis rasps. He sounds awful. “Why wouldn’t you want to date me? I was recently voted the most eligible bachelor in the world. I have a shit ton of money, and I’m universally loved.”

“Right,” Harry responds. “Your reputation is flawless. But, not everyone is looking for someone rich and famous. Sorry, but you’re not my type—at all.”

Louis is so momentarily stunned that he can’t even respond. On the other side of him, Niall is laughing uncontrollably.

“And what makes you think I’d want to date a low-level gossip reporter with a gigantic mouth?” he finally manages to spit out. Niall only laughs harder.

“Well, at least we agree, then,” Harry says by way of an answer. He looks at Jeff and the Sams. “I guess that’s a no.”

Jeff clears his throat. “It’s not that simple, Harry. It’s a really bad look for the magazine if you’ve been sleeping with the same guy you’ve been writing articles and tweeting about.”

Harry’s confused. “So, to fix that, we…say I’m sleeping with him? That doesn’t make any sense.”

“People are already loving the feud between you two,” Jeff clarifies. “We can make it seem like you’ve been joking all along. The story will be that you’ve been privately dating for a while, and that all this has been a prank you started that’s just escalated back and forth. A huge inside joke.”

“Hilarious,” Louis says without a trace of humor. He’s too tired to fight right now, which is a shame, because this would be one damn good fight.

“Louis, this is better for you than what we had going with the Cam break-up,” Sam Clifton jumps back in. “We really wanted to frame you in a relationship with someone famous, but this could actually work out quite nicely as a Neil Patrick Harris-David Burtka type thing.”

Niall is crying. He’s actually crying and maybe not breathing. Harry thinks his face might be the same shade of red as the underwear he’d seen on Louis the night before.

“Are you going to need to leave the room, Niall? Maybe take a breather?” Sam Clayton asks. She looks furious. Niall can’t even speak. He just bends forward and places his face between his knees, motioning for everyone else to carry on.

“Anyway,” Sam Clifton continues, “Their relationship is a great model for us to work from. Both of their careers have exploded since they’ve been together. The public loves them. There are so many possibilities here. We could even do some fun things for television, like Harry interviewing Louis for film promo. Stuff like that.”

“Doesn’t David Burtka wear a lot of bow ties or something? I think you’d look good in a bow tie, Harry,” Louis offers sweetly. “Are you ready to wear some bow ties so you can look like David?” His fever is definitely coming back.

“Are you ready to grow six inches taller overnight so you can look like Neil?” Harry replies, just as sweetly, but neither of them are smiling. Niall’s shoulders are shaking violently, but he hasn’t dared to raise his head again.

“Listen, that’s great for David Burtka and everything, but, the thing is, I don’t actually want to be an entertainment reporter,” Harry explains. “So this arrangement does nothing for me.”

The Sams both look to Jeff for support. “I understand that, Harry,” he says quietly. “Just keep in mind this is only a temporary arrangement. Two or three months, tops. There are a lot of things you could do with it. Not all celebrity partners aspire to get a gig on E! News. You could be like…a male Amal Clooney.”

“Now, that’s very nice,” Louis nods his head. “I am on board with male Amal. A-male. Let’s do that one.”

Harry looks at Louis like he has lost his mind. There’s no way Louis really wants to do this, Harry thinks. Why isn’t he fighting harder? Harry knows Louis is sick, tired, and probably doped up on medication, but he really needs his help here.

He levels Louis with the steeliest glare he can manage. “So if I’m Amal, does that make you George? How come you don’t have an Oscar?”

Niall may be choking on his own tongue from the sounds of it. Louis whacks him on the back a few times to make sure he’s still breathing.

He turns to his managers and sighs. “I told you I didn’t want to do this again. I especially don’t want to do it with an unwilling partner. So if Harry says no, then I say no.”

Louis bites his bottom lip and doesn’t look at Harry. Even though he’s been running his mouth at close to his usual speed and confidence throughout the meeting, he looks a little vulnerable at this moment. Harry can’t help but think of what he heard Louis say in his sleep less than 24 hours ago, and his resolve weakens just a fraction.

“We’ll do everything in our power and use all our contacts to make the experience helpful for your career—whatever you want to pursue,” Sam Clayton says, choosing to ignore Louis and appeal directly to Harry. “We’ll draft a contract to make sure you’re protected in all this. It’s three months at the most.”

“How do you know I’m not already involved with someone?” Harry asks, vaguely thinking of Ben. They’re hardly involved. It’s a last-ditch effort, really. He can feel himself being sucked in.

“He’s not involved with anyone,” Jeff informs the Sams sharply, taking Harry by surprise with his forceful tone. Okay then. He turns his attention to Harry. “I’ve been authorized to increase your pay by 75 percent. And, you can have your pick of entertainment assignments while this is going on. This is great publicity for New York Weekly, and my bosses want to make this happen. If everything goes well, I’m almost certain I can move you out of the gossip section when this is all over. Politics, international news, travel—whatever you want.”

The room is quiet as Harry contemplates Jeff’s offer. He stares at his boots and attempts a few deep, cleansing breaths. He really hates all this deceitfulness. It was bad enough writing the PR lies—now he’s expected to live the PR lies? He’s not the actor here; he’s not sure he’ll be able to pull it off. It’s disingenuous, unethical. He doesn’t know what it says about him as a journalist—or as a person.

He should stand up right now, say no, and leave this room. Quit his job on principle. Start over at a small, local paper in…who knows…Iowa or something. Forget this ever happened. But that’s not what Harry does. What Harry does is glance over at Louis, who is resolutely looking at the floor, and nod his head ever so slightly.

“Is that a yes?” Sam Clayton asks, her voice filled with hope.

“Yes,” Harry answers. “Okay. I’ll do it.”

Looking back, Harry will say this was where he made his third mistake.

---

Two days later.

The sound of the phone ringing pierces its way into the best sleep Harry has had in days. It might have been ringing for five seconds or five minutes, he has no idea. He’s suspended in that thin slice of consciousness between slumber and wakefulness, unable to move toward either successfully. Finally, he forces himself awake just enough to grab at his phone, answering it without even looking to see who’s calling.

“You’re going to put mom in an early grave,” a voice comes through the line before Harry can even mumble a hello. “Do you feel good about that?”

“Fuck’s sake, Gemma. It’s three in the morning.”

“It’s eight in London,” comes the chipper reply. “The sun’s shining, I’m enjoying a delicious breakfast, and it seemed like the perfect time to check in on my baby brother.”

Harry’s brain is trying desperately to catch up to reality. “Wait, what did you say about mom? Is she all right?”

“Gee, I don’t know, Harry, she’d probably be better if she didn’t find out about you and Louis Tomlinson on Access Hollywood.”

“Fuck.”

The past few days had been a whirlwind of negotiations between him, Jeff, Louis, and Louis’ team, almost all of it via text and email, and none of it involving him and Louis communicating directly. In the end, Harry had made some major concessions, including agreeing to accompany Louis on a trip home to meet his family as well as to conduct the cutesy, sit-down TV interview with Louis that Sam Clifton had been so keen on.

For his part, Harry had gotten a massive raise and some assignments for special-interest pieces that were right up his alley. He’d also been promised that he’d be released from any and all obligations the day after the premiere of Louis’ upcoming film. Harry had insisted on an end date written in stone, and apparently Louis had, too.

He hasn’t even seen Louis again since the awkward meeting at The Pierre. All that’s happened so far has been an official statement from Louis’ rep confirming the relationship which, as of this evening, has been widely picked up by media outlets, and two tweets—

One from Harry: @Louis_Tomlinson Sorry babe I guess that prank got a little out of hand xx

And one from Louis: @Harry_Styles You’re doing the dishes for the next month xx

As if Louis Tomlinson didn’t own a dishwasher or couldn’t pay 20 housekeepers at a time if he wanted.

Harry had been utterly exhausted, and it had totally slipped his mind to warn his mom or sister.

“I’m so sorry, Gem,” he pleads. “It’s been so crazy. I swear I was going to let you know as soon as possible, it’s just so hard with you in London and Mom in L.A.”

“You can text in any time zone, Haz.” Gemma sounds legitimately pissed off. “She shouldn’t have found out something so important from the telly.”

It’s not an appropriate moment, it’s really not, but Harry can’t stop himself. “Telly? Seriously? You’ve lived in London for six months and you say ‘telly’ now? What next? Rubbish? Arsehole? Bugger?”

“Oh, shut the fuck up,” Gemma responds exasperatedly. “I think we have more important things to discuss. Like the fact that you’re dating one of the most famous people in the world and you didn’t bother to tell your family about it.”

Harry groans. “It’s not what it looks like, Gem.”

“That’s what you said when I caught you blowing my prom date.”

“Are you going to bring that up for the rest of our lives? That was years ago!”

“I was in love with Jake Ryan, Harry.”

“Well, that’s fortunate, then, because your prom date’s name was Jake Bryant.”

“It was not!” she huffs. “Wait, are you sure?”

“Yeah, Gemma. I’m sure. I’m the one who blew him, remember?”

“Fine then,” Gemma concedes. “Still. That was a major breach in the brother-sister code. And so is not telling me you’re dating one of People’s 50 most beautiful.”

Harry rolls back against the pillow and stares at the ceiling, the lights of the city peeking in around the edges of his drawn window shade just enough for him to make out the cracks in the texture. “We’re not really dating…it’s not like…I don’t know how to explain it.” It isn’t true. Harry could explain it, he just doesn’t want to. “I mean, we know each other, but it’s just being blown out of proportion media-wise. It’s PR stuff.”

“So all that shit you were throwing at each other last week on Twitter? That was PR too?” Gemma sounds completely confused, and Harry can’t blame her one bit.

“It’s kind of a long story,” he says through a yawn. “I’m so fucking tired, but I promise I’ll tell you all about it at a more reasonable hour. And I’ll call Mom as soon as I know she’ll be up. By the way, I’m gonna need your help with her.”

“Help with Mom? What are you talking about?”

“I want to help her out more…like with money. She’s got her hands full with grandma, you know, and I just got a raise. I just don’t know if she’ll accept it, but she might if you talk to her.”

Gemma hesitates a moment. Harry can almost hear the thoughts turning in her brain from across the Atlantic. “How did you get a raise already? You’ve only been at New York Weekly since January.”

“Well, what can I say, Gemma. Things happen fast. You’re already saying ‘telly.’”

She laughs, and Harry exhales in relief when it seems he’s gotten off the hook with the money question, at least for now.

“So what’s he like in real life?” Gemma asks.

“Who?”

“Louis Tomlinson, dickhead! Who else would I be asking about?”

“Oh God,” Harry moans. “I don’t know where to start, honestly.”

“Well, is he as hot in person as he is on film?”

“Hotter,” Harry answers before he even realizes the word has come out of his mouth. “But he’s a certified pain in the ass,” he tacks on quickly. “Listen, Gem. It’s just a media thing and it’s nothing serious, I swear. We’re just…friends.”

Harry cringes as he listens to himself lie to his only sibling and best friend. He and Louis Tomlinson are certainly not friends. But he doesn’t know how else to explain to Gemma what they really are, or why Harry is even doing this, when he doesn’t completely understand it himself.

“Okay then, I’ll let you get back to sleep.” Gemma seems mollified, at least for now. “Just promise me you’ll fill Mom in as soon as possible. She was flipping out, but she didn’t want to wake you up.”

“I will. I promise,” Harry pledges. “Have a good day. Love you.”

“Love you, too, you dick. And are you sure it was Jake Bryant?”

“Bye, Gem.” Harry ends the call and tosses his phone back on the bedside table. With any luck, he can quiet his mind enough to go back to sleep.

---

Harry feels just about as awkward as he’s ever felt, and that’s saying something considering everything that’s happened to him in the past week. He’s currently sitting in Louis’ living room, waiting for him to emerge from his bedroom so they can leave for their first official “date.” He’s been here for 15 minutes, and so far there’s no sign of him.

There’s just Niall, the blond Irish guy who couldn’t stop laughing during the meeting at the hotel. He’s sitting directly across from Harry on a matching sofa, sizing him up wordlessly while slowly eating Cheetos. Niall, it seems, has absolutely zero problem openly staring at someone without striking up any sort of conversation. Harry’s squirming and looking all around the room- at the big-screen TV (turned off, no help there), at the grand piano near the window, at a row of awards and framed photos on a shelf near the kitchen. The only sound in the room is the faint ticking of the clock. Why the hell is Louis taking so long?

Niall brings another Cheeto to his mouth and looks at Harry thoughtfully as he chews. Never before has Harry witnessed someone eating Cheetos so deliberately and passionately. It’s like Niall is making love to the Cheetos with his mouth.

“Do you like sports?” Niall finally asks. Thank God.

“Yeah!” Harry responds with probably too much enthusiasm, but he’s just so grateful that Niall has finally verbally acknowledged his presence in the room.

Niall seems pleased with Harry’s answer. He leans forward and tips the open end of the Cheetos bag toward Harry in a gesture of camaraderie. Harry takes a handful. He and Louis are going out for dinner, and he really shouldn’t be eating junk food right beforehand, but if it gets him in good with Niall, it’s a risk he’s willing to take. They’re probably going to be seeing a lot of each other.

“Who are your teams?” Niall asks.

“Oh. Um…well, I like hockey and I’m from L.A., so…the Kings. And I like the Dodgers.”

Niall frowns. “What about football?”

“Yeah, I like football. I’ve been to a few Jets games since I’ve been living in New York.” Harry hopes it’s an acceptable answer.

According to Niall’s face, it isn’t. He leans back, withdrawing the Cheetos of friendship. “I meant real football. You know…soccer.” He says the word soccer with the amount of disgust a person would normally reserve for something like taxes or root canal.

Before Harry can think of a way to recover, Louis mercifully enters the living room. Harry’s breath catches a little at the sight of him in black skinny jeans and a white T-shirt with a chambray button-up open over it. His long fringe is perfectly soft and messy, and he has just the right amount of scruff. It’s not that Harry is attracted to him, it just that he looks like…well, something from the movies. Anyone would appreciate seeing Louis up close like this.

Harry stands up from the couch uneasily, not really ready to jump into this fake date with Louis but also more than ready to escape from Niall’s disappointment.

“Ready to get this over with?” Louis looks up at Harry as he slides his wallet into his back pocket. “We’re just going to catch a cab, all right?” His eyes are so blue that Harry wonders if he wears colored contacts. He doesn’t remember him taking any out the night he was sick, though.

“Ready,” Harry answers. “You look a lot better than the last time I saw you.”

“God, I sure hope so,” Louis says. “I definitely feel a lot better. Glad I didn’t die that night. No thanks to Niall, of course.”

“Hey!” Niall complains from the couch as he’s grabbing the remote and flipping on the TV. “You never even called!” He tunes in to a football match while giving Harry a look of pointed dissatisfaction. “You two crazy kids better get going or you’ll miss your reservation. There’ll be two paps out front when you leave. Try to act like you don’t hate each other!”

Louis flips Niall off and leads Harry out the door.

The cab ride to the Lower East Side is an exercise in stilted conversation if Harry’s ever had one. It’s painfully obvious that this is the first time that he and Louis have ever really been alone together, at least when Louis hasn’t been deliriously ill. Their social-media sniping seems like it happened a million years ago, even though it’s only been a matter of days.

“Have you been to Schiller’s Liquor Bar before?” Louis asks.

“No, but I’ve heard it’s really good. I’m looking forward to trying it.”

“Yeah, me too. Someone told me to try the garlic shrimp. Supposed to be delicious. And since this isn’t a real date I can eat all the garlic I want.”

Neither of them can think of anything to say after that, so Harry pulls up Yelp on his phone to look up more reviews on the restaurant (and to sneak a peek at his email to see if Ben has written him). Louis sends a text to the Sams to check in. They remain absorbed in their phones until the cab pulls up in front of Schiller’s.

There’s no private dining area there, so for the first fifteen minutes they’re seated, various people come up to the table to talk to Louis, most just gushing hello but some asking for photos and autographs. Louis is gracious to all of them, and no one really pays any attention to Harry, which is just fine with him. Finally, the interest dies down enough for them to order dinner.

Louis orders a gin and tonic, and Harry asks for water. Louis raises an eyebrow at that. “Taking this whole thing on sober, huh, Styles? Bravery.”

“Gonna try,” Harry replies. “I’m not used to all this, being in public with a celebrity, getting papped and stuff. I don’t want to fuck it up.”

Louis laughs. “Do you know how many times I’ve been papped drunk? They got me walking through the drive-thru at Taco Bell once. FYI, they won’t take your order if you’re on foot.”

“Thanks for the heads up.”

“Of course, you probably only eat kale and organic shit,” Louis continues. “I don’t think they have free-range tofu burritos at Taco Bell.”

“How could tofu possibly be free-range?” Harry is incredulous. “It’s made of soy beans.”

“I don’t know. It just seems like something you’d be into.”

“This coming from the actor who gets bird poop facials.”

“I’ll have you know that’s bullshit,” Louis snaps defensively. “They’re sheep placenta facials. God, have you ever used a fact checker in your entire career?”

Thankfully, their drinks and food arrive just then, Louis’ garlic shrimp and Harry’s salad niçoise. It tastes amazing, and they’re both fairly starving. Eating is also the perfect excuse to stop talking to each other.

Harry’s mind wanders back over his day. He’d had a quick conversation with his mom before work, telling her the same things he’d told Gemma and feeling just as bad about being dishonest with her as he had with his sister. Then he’d headed into the office—his first time back since the pap photos were published and the “news” about him and Louis had broken. Jeff had been absolutely insistent that no one else at New York Weekly find out about the arrangement. Of course, Harry had told Liam immediately.

There had been a lot of stares directed Harry’s way as he’d approached his desk that morning. The irises were starting to droop. Sophia had dropped by, breathless and begging for all the details. He’d delivered the vague lines he’d been given by Louis’ PR team and had been rehearsing in his head for two days. He knew it was good practice for all the similar questions he’d be getting in the coming days and weeks.

And then there was Ben. Ben whom he hadn’t seen or talked to yet. Ben whom he really wanted to explain things to, even though he wasn’t supposed to tell anyone, even though there was really no reason to after just a few dates that weren’t even official dates. He’d been out of the office all day on assignment, so Harry had emailed him, saying things had been crazy and he’d love to grab some coffee soon if Ben had time. So far, no response.

Louis puts down his fork and clears his throat. “So, since no one else is around, I guess we can talk about what we’re really gonna do for the next three months.”

“What do you mean?” Harry snaps back to the present and tries to tear his thoughts away from the Ben situation. He really wants to check his phone again.

“What I mean is, I don’t care who you fuck.”

Harry almost spits out his drink of water. “What?”

“I don’t care who you fuck,” Louis draws the words out slowly, like maybe Harry is too dumb to understand. “Just don’t get caught because I’m not dealing with my managers losing their shit over another busted stunt.”

Harry has no idea how to respond. He hadn’t really considered any of this, to be honest. Clearly, Louis gets laid on a much more regular basis than he does. He settles on saying, “All right, thanks.”

“Yeah, sure. I don’t expect you to be, like, celibate this whole time,” Louis explains as he drains the last of his gin and tonic and motions to the waiter for another. “God knows I won’t be.”

Harry takes another sip of water and tries to force the mental image of Louis having sex out of his mind. This was definitely not a conversation he’d anticipated having, but it’s good, right? It’s definitely good. If he can just get Ben to talk to him and let him explain, maybe they still have a chance. An idea starts to bloom in his mind.

“Are we almost done here?” he asks Louis.

“Yeah, I’m just waiting to get my card back. Calm down, Styles, you only have to spend like five more minutes with me.” Louis is just about finished with his second drink.

“No, it’s just...sorry. Do you mind if we only take the cab together a few blocks so I can catch another one? I just remembered there’s something I need to do.” Now that Harry’s decided on a course of action, he’s anxious to get going.

Louis agrees and gives Harry a little “pap walk pep talk” before they leave the restaurant, instructing him to look friendly but not to respond to anything the photographers say.

“Should we like…hold hands or something?” Harry asks. The idea of touching Louis like that makes him shiver a little. He knows they’re going to have to do it sometime, but he’s not ready.

“Did the Sams say we were supposed to, tonight?” Louis doesn’t seem keen on the idea, either.

“I don’t think they said either way.”

“Let’s skip it, then,” Louis decides.

Harry’s first official pap walk is a success. It’s short, only about 20 feet into the waiting cab. He and Louis walk close to each other and smile without looking directly into the cameras. There’s only a couple of paps, and they’re fairly polite. Just “Louis! Louis! Over here!” and “Harry, what’s it like dating Louis Tomlinson?” Before Harry knows it, they’re safely in the cab and pulling away.

They drive about four blocks before Harry asks to be let out. Louis is texting someone, doesn’t even ask where Harry is going or what he’s doing. It’s pretty obvious that Louis is going to be all business about this from here on out, but that’s fine. They don’t need to be friends. Harry just considers it a success that they made it through Date One without killing each other.

---

The elevator dings loudly and opens onto the quiet, mostly dark expanse of the writers’ pit. It’s late, but Harry thinks there’s a decent chance of catching Ben here finishing up his article after being out of the office all day. He’s itching to talk to him and let him know that things with Louis aren’t what they seem. It’s risky, considering Jeff’s stern directive, but it’s a chance Harry’s willing to take. He’s always been a romantic at heart.  

Harry passes his own desk on his way to Ben’s cubicle. He really needs to throw out those fucking irises. Ben’s desk is empty. Dammit. He checks his phone again. Still no email. It’ll have to wait until tomorrow. He’ll just take a piss and head home. He drank way too much water at dinner trying to occupy himself during the long silences between him and Louis.

He reaches the hallway bathroom, only to find it locked. At 9:30 pm? Who’s even here at this hour? Before Harry can knock, he hears noises coming from behind the door. It takes a few seconds for his ears to adjust to the sounds, but oh my God, it’s definitely rhythmic grunting and heavy breathing. Someone is fucking in the bathroom.

Harry knows he should leave right this second, but he can’t seem to move. He’s frozen in front of the door, transfixed by what he’s hearing and the pure disbelief that someone is fucking in the office bathroom right now.

Oh God, oh my God, yessss.” There’s a shuffling of feet and a soft banging noise. Are they up against the sink? On the toilet? Harry needs to know.

“Fuck me! Oh God! Yes. Right there. Harder!” More grunting and heavy breathing, punctuated by some needy moans. This is some pretty hot sex right here. Harry wonders what it is about this bathroom that just makes people want to get off. He’d give anything for Liam to be here right now so they could be scandalized together. Like most sex-related things, it just isn’t as fun experiencing it alone.  

He really does intend to walk away, but right as he starts to, there’s a huge crash from inside the bathroom, followed by a wail of ecstasy and a loud groan. Jesus Christ, someone just came hard. There’s a few soft oh oh ohs, and then it’s quiet for several seconds, followed by more shuffling sounds.

Before Harry realizes what’s happening, the lock is turning and the door is swinging open. Fuck. It’s too late to run. He can only stand there gaping at the sight of Jeff and Ben, staring back at him in an equal amount of shock. The broken paper towel dispenser is on the floor, clean paper towels littering the entire room like confetti.

Chapter Text

Harry grits his teeth and jams his finger into the “down” button at least 10 times in rapid succession. This elevator needs to show up right fucking now. The sooner he can put distance between himself and the scene in the office bathroom, the better.

His mind is still spinning, not quite able to believe what he just saw—and heard. Ben and Jeff? Jeff and Ben? It doesn’t make sense. It has to be a really bizarre nightmare, like the time he dreamed that he had walked in on his grandma and Frank Sinatra. It had taken months to get that visual out of his head.

“Harry!” A voice is calling down the hall. Shit. Harry punches the button a couple more times, wondering how the hell the elevator can be so slow at this time of night when no one is even using it.

“Harry!” He sees Ben rounding the corner, taking the hallway at a near run. Shit shit shit. He’s been spotted. There’s no escaping this confrontation now.

Ben pulls up short in front of Harry, putting his hands on his hips and bending forward a little to catch his breath. “Harry. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. This is…I’m so embarrassed.” He looks as stricken as Harry probably does, his whole face flushed a bright shade of red.

Harry doesn’t have a clue what to say in this moment. He’s not even sure how he feels. Is he angry? Sad? Disappointed? His brain is too stunned to process anything. “It’s okay,” he finally stammers. “It’s really…really none of my business.”

The elevator dings and the doors open. Thanks a fucking lot, Harry thinks. Where were you a minute ago? For a split second, he considers jumping inside and pressing the “door close” button as fast as he can. The relative safety of a box suspended by a string eighteen floors above the ground is far more appealing than continuing the current conversation. But, it seems awfully rude after Ben has sprinted all the way across the office to talk to him. And, it’ll only make things more awkward the next time they see each other.

“No, but it is…your business” Ben is saying, shaking his head. “We were talking, you know? I feel like such an asshole. You shouldn’t have found out this way.”

Harry swallows hard. His mouth and throat feel as dry as a bone. “I just feel…kind of stupid, you know? Like, how did I not see this? I didn’t see this at all. How long has it been going on?” He knows he has no right to ask, but the question just tumbles out.  

Even as he’s speaking the words, Harry’s mind is a whirlwind of flashbacks and realizations. How Ben seemed to run hot and cold from day to day. How he wanted to go as far away from the office as possible for a lunch date. How he looked so awkward outside Jeff’s office. How Jeff had been lightning quick to let Louis’ management team know that Harry wasn’t involved with anyone.

“It’s been…it’s been going on for a while,” Ben admits. “But we’ve been trying to end it. I mean, he has a girlfriend. I don’t know if it’s ever going to work out, but…” his face crumples a bit, “…I just keep going back to him, Harry.”

Well, this is certainly unexpected. Harry would never have guessed that Ben and Jeff were sleeping together, and he certainly would never have guessed that it was anything with this level of emotional attachment. Ben looks truly upset. Harry reaches out to pat him on the shoulder and realizes that it’s the first time they’ve ever actually touched.

“I’m so sorry,” Ben repeats. “I thought that…maybe if I tried seeing someone new I could forget about Jeff and move on. And then, when I found out you were dating Louis Tomlinson, I knew you only saw me as a friend, and I just…”

Guilt hits Harry like a swift kick to the gut. Ben has no idea that his relationship with Louis isn’t real. The only person who could have told him is Jeff—and, well, that clearly wasn’t going to happen, Harry realizes now. He has no right to expect any kind of loyalty from Ben. He doesn’t even deserve the explanation he’s currently getting.  

“I don’t know what’s going to happen, Harry, but I just…I think I’m in love with him.”

Ben’s eyes go wide for a second like he can’t believe he actually just made that admission out loud. Harry can’t believe it, either. All of the sudden, he feels tension seeping out of his body like warm water draining out of a bath. Ben loves Jeff. He and Ben were never going to happen. He has a sudden urge to laugh but stifles it because poor Ben is standing there looking so miserable.

 Instead, he grips Ben’s other shoulder and gives him a little shake. “Take a deep breath, Ben. It’s going to be okay. I’m sorry if I caused any problems or confusion. I really didn’t mean to. Me and Louis… it just kinda happened. And things got serious fast. I was going to tell you. That’s actually why I’m here right now.”

Ben nods and offers a weak smile. He still looks overwhelmed with either embarrassment or heartache- probably a mix of both. Harry can’t find it in himself to be upset with him.

“You should get back to him,” Harry says, giving Ben’s shoulders a reassuring squeeze before releasing him. “Tell him I’m not going to freak out or tell anyone. But I’m definitely going to make him feel as awkward as possible at our next department meeting.”

Ben laughs a bit at that. “I just left him standing there in shock. I wonder if he’s even moved a muscle. God, Harry, I’m so mortified. Please don’t ever tell me how long you were standing there or how much you heard.”

“I won’t,” Harry promises, and he definitely means it. This is not a scenario he wants to relive anytime soon.

“And good luck with Louis,” Ben adds somewhat sheepishly. “That’s just….wow. Louis Tomlinson. I bet you two look so good together. I just couldn’t even believe it when I heard.”

“Me either,” Harry mumbles under his breath.

“What?”

“Nothing. I was just saying good luck with Jeff, too. He’s crazy if he doesn’t choose you.”

“Thanks, Harry.” Ben is already looking much better than he did a couple minutes ago. “I’ll see you later, then.” With that, he heads back down the hall and toward his unknown future.

Harry pushes the elevator button again and sighs. The past several days have been some of the strangest and most confusing of his life. He needs eight hours of sleep and a fresh sunrise before he can even begin to make sense of it all.

---

Date Two is a casual lunch at Cafe Mogador in the East Village. It's a beautiful day, warm for so early in April, and Louis and Harry take a table outside where they can easily be seen by passersby. The sun is shining, but Harry is a raincloud.

"You're in a mood today," Louis observes over a bite of chicken tagine. 

 "Huh? No, I'm not," Harry replies without much conviction, poking at his food with his fork. 

 "Okay, but you kind of are," Louis accuses without any malice. "You're usually a bit more cheerful, or at least you take a bit of pleasure in putting me in my place somehow. You've barely said two words today. Is the glamorous lifestyle of dating an actor boring you already, Styles?"

 Harry shakes his head and picks over his falafel listlessly. "Nah, just tired, I guess." 

 "That's fine," Louis tells him. "I don't mind if you want to be Crabby Bear today. The less you talk, the less I have to see your weird mouth flapping around." 

 "Crabby bear?" Harry ignores the insult to his facial appearance, but he can't let the other part slide. 

 "Yeah. You know, the crabby Care Bear. Crabby Bear."  

 Harry looks at Louis like he's lost his mind. "There's no Crabby Bear. It's Grumpy Bear." 

 Louis purses his lips like he's thinking hard. "No. I'm pretty sure it's Crabby Bear. He's the purple one." 

 "What the fuck are you talking about?" Harry is affronted. "It's Grumpy Bear, and he's blue." 

 Louis shakes his head decisively. "You must be thinking of Eeyore. He's blue. But also a very good description of you today, as he is also quite sullen. I think I like that even better than Crabby Bear. You're Eeyore. Eeyore Styles." 

Harry leans back in his chair and rubs his hands over his face. He wants to argue. He wants to throw a handful of organic mesclun in Louis' face and dismantle his Care Bear and Winnie the Pooh knowledge point by point until Louis is forced to admit that he's a failure of a human being. But, he's too worn out today. It feels like months since he's gotten a decent night's sleep. And, even though he's not mad at Ben for what happened, he's still just...bummed. He misses the feeling of liking someone, the excitement of getting to know them, the wondering if it's going to lead somewhere. The butterflies.

He thought he had that with Ben, that it might somehow work out under the radar of the whole Louis thing. Now, Harry knows that it'll be a while before he's free to pursue someone again. And he’s already wondering if every new person he’ll meet after this will just see him as "Louis Tomlinson’s ex." Everything's going to be different then, and not necessarily good different. 

He’s already committed, though, so he has to ride this out. He's been telling himself that he's young, that it's not important to settle down anytime soon. The next few months of hanging with Louis might even lead to some crazy adventures he can tell his grandkids about one day. Who knows what could happen or who he might meet. Fuck, maybe he will end up dating Cam Richards. He thinks about bringing that up to Louis but decides to save it for when he really wants to piss him off. 

 "Fine. I'm Eeyore today if it entertains you that much," he concedes as Louis turns his attention back to the table after taking a photo with a fan who was leaning over the wrought iron railing from the sidewalk. 

 "It's settled then," Louis gives a delighted clap.

 "The purple one is Share Bear," Harry mutters under his breath, before finally giving into his hunger and digging into his lunch. 

 A few minutes pass in silence as the two work on their meals, then Louis puts his fork down abruptly and asks, "Is it boy trouble, Styles?"

 "What?" Harry sputters, thrown off balance by the unexpected question. "What are you talking about?"

 "Boy trouble. I'm trying to figure out why you're such a downer today. My guess is boy trouble." Louis clasps his hands together and leans in excitedly, like he's a nosy mom ready to give advice. 

"Who says 'boy trouble?'” Harry responds with a roll of his eyes. “We're not discussing who we want to ask us to the eighth grade dance here.” He's buying time. This is only the second (well, third, technically) time he's been alone with Louis, and they've never discussed anything personal, unless you count the "I don't care who you fuck" conversation. He's not sure he wants to disclose anything about what happened with Ben. 

"So...it is boy trouble then," Louis nods his head triumphantly. "Something happened between the other night and now. I can tell. God, I am so intuitive." 

Harry narrows his eyes. "For someone so intuitive, you don’t seem to be picking up on the fact that I don't want to talk about this."

"Oh, come on," Louis pleads. "You know all kinds of gossip about me. As a matter of fact, you've made some of it up yourself, so you owe me. Spill it." 

Harry groans. There's something about Louis that always seems to make him give in. It's annoying as hell. But, if they're going to be in close quarters for the next several weeks, they might as well be able to talk to each other about something other than what’s on the menu.

"It's not trouble, really," he explains. "Not ongoing trouble, anyway. Just...I thought there was something between me and someone else. But it turns out there wasn't, and that's okay. I'm not looking for anything serious, anyway, so it's no big deal." He hopes this is enough information to satisfy Louis' curiosity and provide a clean getaway to a new topic. 

Louis stares at him for a long minute, appraising. “You seem like a relationship type guy," he finally remarks. There's no judgement in his tone.

"Not particularly," Harry lies. Is it that obvious, he thinks, frustrated with himself for potentially revealing too much. "And, it doesn't matter right now anyway. I've got you to wine and dine me for the next three months, what more could I want?" 

Harry doesn’t do sarcasm well, at least not in person. Louis raises an eyebrow but doesn't push the subject any further, perhaps more intuitive than Harry gave him credit for. He just goes back to scrolling through his phone while Harry finishes up his food. 

After a few minutes, Harry breaks the silence to declare, "You know, it's pretty rude to be glued to your phone when you're on a date with your fake boyfriend."

Louis looks up and smiles. "Well, this is for work. And this would technically count as a working lunch, right?"

Harry shrugs. "I guess so. What are you doing?" 

"I'm reading a script," Louis replies, his face tinged with excitement. "It's really different from anything I've ever done before. The Sams are totally against it, but I don't know...I just find it really intriguing." 

Harry's never seen Louis speak about something with so much enthusiasm. His entire face looks different right now- younger, softer. He looks even more beautiful than usual, which is no easy task. 

"What's it about?"  

"Um, it's a werewolf movie, actually," Louis responds, and for a moment Harry thinks he's searching his face for some kind of ridicule. "I usually do dramas or romantic comedies. I've never done any sci-fi or action before." He hesitates a moment. "They say I don't really have the height or body type for it." 

Louis suddenly looks vulnerable, unsure. Harry flashes back to the night he spent in Louis' apartment, when he looked so small and sick in his giant bed. 

Harry snorts. "You mean, with all the movie magic they work nowadays, it really matters how tall you are?"

"Oh, it matters," Louis seems less hesitant to share now that it seems Harry isn't going to make fun of the concept of him as a werewolf. "It all matters, everything about you. It can be really hard to break into a new type of role once you've done a lot of the same types of films." 

"So what makes you want to do this one?" Harry finds himself sincerely interested now, dammit. 

"I don't know exactly," Louis explains, his blue eyes shining. "It would be a challenge. I guess I've just been feeling sort of...restless. I'd love to just change things up a bit, try something new." 

"And the Sams don't support that?" 

Louis shakes his head. "I'm a commodity. There are a lot of people who depend on getting the maximum value out of me. I know it sounds crazy because I'm a spoiled diva and everything, but I don't always get what I want." 

Harry's never really thought about it like that before. He would have assumed that anyone with as much star power as Louis Tomlinson would have their pick of roles and would be able to pursue any project they want. Apparently, Harry isn't the only one whose career isn't completely within his own control. 

"Well, screw it, I think you should do it, anyway," Harry declares over his last bite of salad. 

"Really?" For the brazenly overconfident loudmouth he is, Louis seems really uncertain about this.

"Yeah," Harry nods. "Fuck 'em. Do what makes you happy." 

Louis smiles. "Thanks, Harry."

Harry’s caught off guard when Louis doesn’t address him with the usual “Styles.” It feels like a friendship-type moment. Harry can't allow that to happen. "Sure thing, Louis. If you can't be an alpha male in real life, you should definitely be one in a werewolf movie. You’ll make an excellent Twink Wolf."

"Oh, fuck off," Louis snaps back, but they both grin a little. 

Louis pays the check, and just before they stand up to leave, he reaches out a hand to grasp Harry's forearm. "Can I give you some advice, as your well-meaning fake boyfriend?" 

Harry's not sure what to expect, but he nods his head in agreement anyway. 

"You need to get laid."  

Harry's eyes widen, and Louis just laughs. "I’m serious. You need to shake off that guy, whoever he was. He sounds like a real idiot." 

A smile plays at the corners of Harry's lips. He hadn't said a single thing to describe Ben- as an idiot or otherwise. "I'll work on that, I guess."

Louis gives his arm a pat. "That's the spirit. Get fucking laid." 

---

Harry closes his eyes, takes a cleansing breath, and opens them again. Nope. It’s still there. Louis Tomlinson’s big, round, perfect, bare ass right in front of him. He shifts uncomfortably on the plush red sofa and tries not to stare. It’s really, really hard not to. It’s just…right there.

Louis glances back over his shoulder and catches a glimpse of Harry. “Take a picture, it’ll last longer,” he taunts.

“For the hundredth time, I am not staring at your ass,” Harry informs him.

“Of course you are. I’m practically waving it in your face. And, it’s a very nice ass.”

Harry lets out an exasperated huff and gets up to saunter toward the craft services table yet again. It’s way too early for full frontal, and that’s probably where this is heading if he sticks around any longer.

Date Three has turned out to be accompanying Louis on set for a GQ photoshoot. The Sams want Louis and Harry to be together around industry people, and they also want Harry in the background of the behind-the-scenes video that will go up on the GQ’s website next month. Win-win. For everyone except Harry, of course, who has now witnessed naked Louis Tomlinson ass at least four times between wardrobe changes. Harry, who can’t stop hearing Louis’ words in his head over and over again. Get fucking laid.

But instead of doing anything with his life that might actually result in getting laid, Harry is stuck here, watching Louis change in and out of ridiculously expensive designer clothes and put on sultry looks for the camera with his outrageous crystalline blue eyes and his stupid scruffy beard. The last look was a classic Tom Ford suit that hugged every curve on his body in the exact right way. Harry’s so sexually frustrated he might actually cry.

He grabs a Danish and another cup of coffee. The whole morning’s been a real trip, even outside of being confronted with his very fake boyfriend’s very real ass for the first time in front of a team of stylists. Harry’s never been on the set of a major magazine photoshoot before. It’s frenetic. There are people running around everywhere, shouting orders at each other, demanding this jacket to be steamed, or this piece of photography equipment to be brought in from another room. Harry doesn’t even understand half the terms being used. He’s just trying to stay out of the way and not make an idiot of himself.

It’s also the first time that he and Louis have been on display together in a setting where they really have to sell the relationship thing. They didn’t discuss it beforehand, but it’s almost as if there’s an unspoken challenge between them to see who can lay it on the thickest without going completely overboard. Louis had led Harry into the bright, open studio with one hand on the small of his back, introducing him to everyone as “my boyfriend.” Harry had hummed appreciatively as the stylists tried different pieces on Louis and said things like, “Wow, looks so good on you, babe.”

Louis had definitely had to stifle a giggle when Harry had broken out “babe.” He then upped the ante by loudly letting everyone in the room know how much Harry enjoyed watching him change clothes at home. “I have to lock him out of the bedroom sometimes because he can’t keep his hands off me. Makes me late all the time. Quite a professional hazard, actually.” Thus had begun Harry’s multiple trips away from the dressing room or set to grab expensive pastries he didn’t even care to eat.

About an hour and a half into the shoot, Niall and Sam Clayton show up. It’s about time, Harry thinks. People have been treating him like Louis' handler all morning.

“How does he take his tea?”

“What’s next on his schedule for today?”

“Would Louis like to take this pair of chukka boots home?”  

Harry has no idea how to answer any of their questions. Louis Tomlinson ™ is a much bigger business than he realized.

Louis is in the middle of yet another wardrobe change, and Harry’s still hiding out by the muffins. He can’t take any more hot, naked Louis Tomlinson today. Sam heads to check on Louis, while Niall makes a beeline for the food.

“What’s up, Harry?” he asks, reaching for a chocolate chip scone.

“How does Louis take his tea?”

“What?” Niall responds through a mouthful of scone. “Did he ask for tea? I’ll make it.”

“No, he’s fine,” Harry replies. “I just…I thought I should know maybe. How he takes it. For, like, future reference.”

Niall raises an eyebrow. “Way to commit to it, dude. He’s super picky about his tea, though, if you can imagine that. He likes Earl Grey, with a little milk. Sometimes a little vanilla almond milk if there’s any. And he thinks that he doesn’t like sugar, but I always put a tiny pinch in.”

The idea of Niall sneaking sugar into Louis’ tea is maddeningly endearing to Harry. Niall asks how the shoot is going and seems completely unfazed by the amount of rear nudity Harry reports witnessing. “Comes with the territory, man. I’ve seen it more times than I’ve seen my own. That ass doesn’t just belong to Louis- it belongs to the world.”

Harry simply nods in agreement. Louis’ ass truly is an international treasure. It’s just too bad it has to be attached to such an obnoxious little shit.

Niall wanders off to find Louis and Sam, and a few minutes later, a hipster-looking guy with a beard and thick, black-rimmed glasses approaches Harry.

“Harry Styles?” He holds his hand out to shake, and Harry obliges. “I’m Donovan Marks. I’m writing the feature article on Louis. Nice to meet you.”

“Likewise,” Harry tells him.  

“These shoots are always so hectic. I usually just hang out at craft services, too.”

“Yeah, I’m a bit out of my element here,” Harry admits.

“You’re an entertainment reporter, though, right?” Donovan asks.

“I am. But not for these types of assignments. I’m more the guy who’s covering the red carpet, trying to get a quote but getting pushed out of the way by all the photographers.”

Donovan laughs. “Well, I expect you’ll be getting some better assignments soon, what with your famous boyfriend and all.”

Harry doesn’t really respond, just puts on his best David Burtka smile and follows Donovan into the dressing room. It appears Louis is done with shooting, or is at least taking a break. He’s wrapped in a thick, navy blue robe, curled up on the couch conversing quietly with Sam and Niall. His hair is still perfectly styled, and he’s rubbing his beard softly while he talks. He looks like he just stepped out of a movie screen.  

Sam has no intention of letting the interview go on without her presence, so Niall and Harry stick around, too. Niall coaxes Harry into sitting in front of the huge, lighted make-up mirror with him, making funny faces and stealing various cosmetic products out of the cases to test on each other. Niall’s goofy, and Harry likes that. Everything has been so tense lately, trying to figure out how to co-exist with Louis in this crazy arrangement. Niall seems to have forgiven Harry’s lack of football knowledge- at least temporarily- so Harry intends to take advantage of his goodwill while it lasts.

He tries not to listen in too closely to Donovan’s interview of Louis. It feels like eavesdropping, even though Niall and Sam are in the room as well, and Sam is practically hovering over Louis’ shoulder. It sounds like a lot of the standard questions, anyway. What it was like filming his last movie with Bradley Cooper and Scarlett Johansson. Where he drew the inspiration for his role. How he hopes the film will be received once it’s released. Harry zones out a bit. He’s heard all this before.

His interest perks up when Donovan starts asking Louis questions about his childhood in Missouri. Harry’s honestly done only minimal research on Louis’ background. He knows that his parents are divorced and that he has a gaggle of sisters, but he doesn’t even know their names. Louis goes through some basics—he was always interested in acting and loved entertaining everyone, starring in his high school production of Grease is one of his favorite memories—but when Donovan begins asking some more probing questions about Louis’ upbringing, Sam Clayton steers him away from that topic.

Unfortunately, the next topic of interest is Louis’ new relationship. It takes Harry a full minute to realize that it’s him who’s being discussed. Louis is halfway into explaining how they met.

“…it was a party, yeah, I know, so cliché. We have some mutual friends. As soon as I saw his curly hair, I just wanted to touch it. I might have been a little inebriated. I told him I’d give him 50 bucks to let me touch his hair, and he just laughed at me. I loved his laugh. We spent the rest of the night talking on the balcony even though it was freezing.”

Harry is watching Louis in the mirror as he talks. He’s so animated, so confident. If Harry didn’t absolutely know this story was bullshit, he’d believe it himself.

Donovan is asking what makes Harry different from other guys, why Louis has finally decided to settle down. Oh shit. They’ve rehearsed a lot of the fundamentals—where they met, when, how—but this is like, a personal, feelings type question. He feels the blood rise to his cheeks and considers bolting from the room, but he knows that would be way too obvious. So he just sits, frozen in the make-up chair, unable to stop watching or listening.

“Well, I’ve always wanted a relationship, as much as no one believes that,” Louis tells Donovan, laughing. “I’ve just never met the right person, I guess. Until now. It’s hard to put into words, but Harry just really…grounds me. I was kind of closed off before. But having him in my life has made me realize that love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries.”

It’s a fucking Dalai Lama quote. As soon as he says it, Louis catches Harry’s reflection in the mirror and gives him a big, shit-eating grin. What a little fucker. Before Harry can react, Niall reaches over and swipes some plum-colored lipstick across Harry’s lips. It’s a welcome distraction, and Harry retaliates by using an eyeliner stick to draw a line straight down the bridge of Niall’s nose. Thankfully, it seems like Donovan’s relationship questions are winding down.

The interview has moved on to how Louis has been spending his time off. Meditating and reading, Louis lies; unless, of course, meditating means partying and reading means pulling hot guys in bars. Finally, Donovan asks him what’s next for his career. Harry sees Louis perk up a little, and he wonders if he’s going to bring up the werewolf script.

“I’m actually thinking of trying some new things, some new challenges,” Louis begins with a sideways glance toward Sam, who’s temporarily distracted by her phone. Donovan encourages him to go on.

“I’ve always wanted to take on an action role, or a more physical type role. Maybe even sci-fi. I’ve been reading a really intriguing werewolf script this week.”

Louis and Donovan talk about the werewolf script for a full minute before either Sam or Niall—who is also engrossed in his phone—seem to notice. As soon as Sam realizes what’s going on, she intervenes immediately.

“Don’t print that,” she snaps at Donovan. “We really don’t want him attached to that project at this point in time.” She shoots Louis down with a look that’s clearly meant to get him to stop talking. And to Harry’s surprise, it works. Louis shrinks down and shuts up. Sam takes over the conversation with Donovan, distracting him from Louis’ comments with a promise of exclusive access to something or other. Louis stays quiet.

Harry starts replacing makeup in various bags. He has no idea if anything’s going back into the right spot or not. He just can’t look at Louis right now. He knows how excited he was about that script. And even though Louis Tomlinson needs to be put in his place more than just about anyone else Harry has ever known, there’s something about watching it happen that is less than satisfying.

As soon as Harry’s finished cleaning up, he returns to the craft services table and makes Louis a cup of Earl Grey, with a splash of milk and a sprinkle of sugar. When he takes it back to the dressing room, the team is packing up for the day. He delivers the cup to Louis, who takes it with a skeptical look.

“I’m very picky about my tea.”

“I’ve heard. Just try it.”

Louis rolls his eyes and takes a sip. For being an actor, he sure has trouble hiding the fact that Harry’s made his tea exactly how he likes it.

“This is amazing, Harry.”

“Yeah?” Harry’s really pleased with himself now.

“Yeah. You don’t know how long I’ve been waiting for this. I can finally fire Niall.”

“I heard that!” comes a voice from behind.

It’s not exactly a thank you, but at least Louis is smiling. Harry doesn’t know when that started counting as a win in his book. 

---

The night after the GQ shoot, Harry, Louis, Niall, the Sams, and Jeff have drinks together at The Pierre. Harry has seen Jeff a few times since the bathroom incident, but there seems to be a silent agreement between them that they’re not going to talk about it. They’ve stuck to communicating mainly through email.

Sam Clifton buys a celebratory round for everyone. “This couldn’t be going better,” he beams. “Louis’ name is soaring in the press, and we’re getting exactly the kind of mentions we were hoping for.”

“My bosses are happy, too,” Jeff adds. “Hits on the entertainment section of our site have gone up 15 percent, and I’m already getting requests for Harry to cover more high-profile events. He’s interviewing Rihanna next week.”

“Nice!” Niall butts in, totally cutting off whatever Jeff was about to say next. “Now I’d like to propose a toast to the happy couple. To Louis and Harry, thank you for blessing us with your inspirational love.”

Everyone groans but participates in the toast before turning to more private conversations. Sam Clifton and Jeff are clearly talking strategy, while Sam Clayton actually appears to be half interested in something Niall is saying for once. She must have started drinking early tonight.

Louis turns to Harry. “Date tomorrow at the park, then?”

“Yep,” Harry affirms. “I’m planning on working from home tomorrow to file a few assignments, but I’ll be free by noon.”

“Why don’t I come pick you up?” Louis suggests.

“It’s totally out of your way.”

“It’s not like I’m on a time schedule. Besides, it’s probably important for me to see where my pretend boyfriend lives. You know, in case I’m ever quizzed on it.”

“It’s a sixth floor walk-up in Alphabet City the size of a closet. You’re not missing anything,” Harry protests.

“Perfect! I’d love to see it! I’ll be there around 12:30, honey.” Louis grins.

Harry takes a long drink of his beer. He knows there’s no use arguing. “I’ll be waiting, babe.” 

---

Harry sends off his last assignment and shuts his laptop. It’s 11:55. A quick glance around his tiny studio shows him that there’s not much picking up to do before Louis arrives. Harry’s pretty neat, and there isn’t enough room to make a mess anyway. He straightens the duvet on his bed and fluffs the pillows. Then he takes the five steps to the kitchen to rinse out his coffee cup and wipe down the sink.

Liam appears in the illegal doorway, trying to look super casual.

“Lookin’ really relaxed and informal over there, Li,” Harry observes. “And why are you home again?”

“Just thought I’d work from home today. I’m not feeling that great.” Liam lets out a suspiciously unauthentic-sounding cough, looking carefully around the room as if Louis might somehow be hiding in it somewhere.

“He isn’t here yet, Liam.” Harry narrows his eyes. “And if you’re not feeling well, why are you wearing your nicest jeans and why is your hair full of gel and why are you just hanging out in the doorway like a creep?”

“I’m here to give you moral support,” Liam offers, trying to sound as earnest as possible.

“Oh okay, thanks. I was almost going to suspect that you were here because you want to meet a celebrity.”

“Harry! I’m offended,” Liam exclaims. “I hate Louis Tomlinson just as much as you do. I just wanted to be here if you needed protection from his verbal assaults.”

Harry rolls his eyes. “You wanted to be here because you want to meet him, and you have this ridiculous idea that you can become friends with him and he’ll introduce you to Emma Stone.”

Liam draws in a sharp breath. “This is slander. Here I am, trying to be the friend you need during these trying and confusing times, and you’re accusing me of underhanded dealings.”

Before Harry can begin picking Liam’s statement apart, the door buzzer goes off. It’s perpetually broken and sounds like a dying toad. Harry buzzes Louis through as Liam arranges himself in the doorway, trying to look as cool as possible.

“You look like a dickhead in a gay club,” Harry informs him, and they wait for a full minute before there’s a knock at the door. Harry opens it, and Louis blows through like a gust of wind. He’s wearing a thin grey sweater, rolled up at his slim wrists, tight black jeans, and a pair of Old Skool Vans with no socks. Harry’s not sure he’s ever seen Louis wear socks. Maybe at the photoshoot when he had no other choice.

“Six flights of stairs, Styles!” he huffs loudly. “I’d think you’d have a better ass by now after climbing those fuckers every day. I’m seriously considering buying this building just so I can put an elevator in it.”

“I don’t know why you’re complaining. You are the one who insisted on coming here,” Harry reminds him, but Louis just ignores him to ask, “Who’s your handsome friend here?”

Liam’s face lights up like a fucking Christmas tree.

“This is Liam,” Harry replies. “And he’s not my friend.”

Liam yells “Hey!” at the same time Louis looks at Harry with raised eyebrows and says “Oh, so is this the guy?”

“No, no, this isn’t the guy,” Harry quickly reassures Louis. “I was only kidding. I was going to say Liam isn’t my friend, he’s my best friend. And co-worker. And sort of roommate.”

Liam puffs up his chest a little as Louis shakes his hand. “It’s so nice to meet you, Louis. I’m a big fan. I loved your work last year in the film with Emma Stone.”

Harry gives Liam the cut-throat sign, but Liam just shrugs his shoulders like he doesn’t comprehend.

“It’s good to meet you, too, Liam,” Louis reciprocates, oblivious to the silent conversation going on just over the top of his head. “Is this a…what’s going on with this door here?”

“Oh,” Liam answers guiltily. “It’s not supposed to be here. That’s why we’re only sort of roommates.”

Louis seems satisfied with this answer as he glances around Harry’s cramped but cozy apartment.

“Would you like the grand tour?” Harry asks.

“I would indeed,” Louis plays along.

“Well, over here is my bed. That’s where all the magic happens,” Harry says with a wave of his hand toward the corner.

“I find that quite difficult to believe,” Louis responds, drawing a laugh from Liam and a pout from Harry.

“Through that door is my bathroom,” Harry continues, spinning in a circle. “And over here is my library, my guest suite, my indoor pool, my trophy-slash-game room, and finally, my gourmet kitchen designed by my good friend Bobby Flay.”

“Brilliant! You’ve got a great place here,” Louis confirms with a smile. “Bobby Flay is my friend, too. We should eat at Gato sometime.”

“I’m going to be so fat by the end of this relationship,” Harry bemoans.

“You can go on a break-up diet this summer,” Louis assures him. “Maybe the tabloids can call you ‘scary skinny,’ that’s always a good one.”

“Look at you two,” Liam coos. “Planning your break-up already. That’s so sweet.”

Bruce chooses this moment to come flying into the room, most likely just waking up from one of his dozen daily naps. He immediately jumps on Louis, wagging his tail, sniffing him everywhere, and trying like crazy to lick every exposed patch of skin he can find.

“Ooompf, okay, hello,” Louis greets him as Liam apologizes profusely and attempts to pull Bruce back.

“I’m so sorry,” Liam babbles. “This is my dog Bruce, he’s just really friendly. I’m sorry. Bruce, Bruce! Get back here. Get over here! Get off the nice, expensive movie star.”

Louis doesn’t seem bothered. “It’s okay. I like dogs, I’ve just never had one, so I don’t really know what to do with them. I’m actually probably better with babies, if you can believe that.”

Harry’s non-existent ovaries give a tight squeeze. He clears his throat. “So…hand-holding in Central Park today, huh? Big step for us. You up for it?”

“Up for it!” Louis answers enthusiastically, but he bends down to pet Bruce instead of looking at Harry. Bruce is panting hard. He’s clearly as star-struck as his owner.

Harry’s a bit nervous, if he’s being honest with himself. The Sams had asked them for more PDA during their next outing, so today will be different from any of their previous dates. They’re expected to walk closely together, hold hands, probably feed each other hot dogs or cronuts or something equally cliché. All of the sudden, Central Park seems a little huge and overwhelming.

“You know,” Harry puts forth tentatively. “We could just go someplace closer to here instead of going all the way back up to the park. I’m sure someone could let the paps know.”

Louis shrugs and continues scratching Bruce behind the ears. “I mean, that’s fine with me. Is everything okay, though?”

“Yeah, yeah,” Harry says hastily, trying to cover his anxiousness. “I just thought…that…we could take Bruce to the dog park! Yeah! People would eat that up! They’d think we got a puppy together. Puppies make good press.” He gives himself a little internal pat on the back for thinking so quickly on his feet.

Louis stands up and smiles. “Yeah, all right. I think that’d be fun. I have a pretend boyfriend, why not have a pretend dog as well?”

Liam clears his throat loudly.

“Oh…is that okay with you, Liam?” Louis is polite enough to ask.

“It’s fine,” Harry cuts in before Liam can respond. “Bruce is, like, half my dog anyway. He winds up at the foot of my bed at least three nights a week.”

“I pay all his vet bills and buy all his food,” Liam objects.

“But I walk him more. And I gave him a bath that one time he knocked over your candle and rolled in the wax. And he clearly loves me best, so I think I deserve a 49-percent ownership,” Harry argues back.

“He does not love you best,” Liam whispers with pain in his voice. “But fine, whatever, you two can take him to the park. Just keep him away from that one little Chihuahua, she makes him crazy. And don’t Instagram him.”

Louis cocks his head to one side and stares at Liam, confused. “What?”

“Don’t Instagram him,” Liam repeats. “I would prefer that Bruce not be Instagrammed.”

Louis looks at Harry. “What the fuck is he talking about?”

Harry just shakes his head and reaches for Bruce’s leash. “It’s better not to even ask. Come on, you can call the Sams on the way and tell them about the change in plans. Want to go for a walk, Bruce? Walk?! Come on then!” 

Bruce spins in at least three joyful circles before following Louis and Harry through the door. Before he shuts it, Harry sticks his head back in for a word with Liam. “That was really smooth, bro. Excellent work. You’ll be ‘not Instagramming’ yourself with Emma Stone in no time.”

Liam gives Harry the middle finger. “Have fun on your fake date with your fake dog.”

“Will do.” And with a thumbs up, Harry’s gone. 

---

The Sams are delighted to hear about Louis and Harry’s change in itinerary. “Dogs really sell it,” Sam Clifton tells Louis. “Great idea, I’ll let the paps know.”

Harry inwardly delights in the thought of paparazzi coming to his neighborhood. He wonders if they’ll even be able to find it. He’s pretty sure he’s never spotted a celebrity anywhere even remotely close to his building.

They make their way to the dog park, Bruce alternately pulling on his leash to go faster and stopping to thoroughly sniff every interesting piece of garbage along the way. When they make it to the green space, Bruce bounds off to explore every tree and emerging flower bud. It’s a gorgeous day, finally fully spring in New York City.

It’ll be a while before the paps arrive, and the park is pretty dead. There’s only one or two other dogs and owners there. Louis and Harry lean against the fence, checking their phones and taking in the warm, fresh air.

“Did you ever get yourself sorted out?” Louis asks, not looking up from his phone. He’s wearing sunglasses, and Harry can’t read his expression.

“What do you mean?” Harry asks cautiously, although he’s pretty sure he knows what Louis is talking about.

“You know what I’m talking about,” Louis replies, still not looking up.

“If you’re referring to ‘getting fucking laid,’ then no, not yet,” Harry says. “Not that it’s any of your business.”

“Okay, okay.” Louis is grinning. “I was just checking. I mean, it is kind of my business. I have to hang out with you for the next couple months, and I’d prefer you to be in a good mood.”

“You know what would put me in a great mood? If you’d stop asking me about my sex life.”

Louis doesn’t respond, just laughs and pockets his phone. “The paps are almost here.”

Harry tries his hardest to act naturally even after he knows he’s being photographed. It gets a bit easier every time, but he doesn’t think he’ll ever be able to handle it as flawlessly as Louis does. They play around with Bruce, throwing him a tennis ball and laughing when he comes bumbling back toward them with his slobbery prize. Harry notices that Louis is standing so close to him that their arms are touching. Which is fine. It’s fine.

After 15 minutes or so, Louis suggests that they get a hot pretzel, so they put Bruce on his leash and amble over to the cart on the sidewalk. Louis buys them a gigantic pretzel and splits it in two, holding up half to Harry’s mouth for him to take a bite. It’s so awkward that Harry wants to laugh, but he goes along with it anyway. Louis is playing it off beautifully. There’s a reason he wins so many acting awards. Or, gets nominated, at least.

The pretzel makes them both thirsty, so they decide to go for a lemonade a little further down the block. Harry has Bruce’s leash in his right hand with Louis to his left. They’ve walked about five steps when Louis slips his hand into Harry’s, as casually as if he’s done it a thousand times. It happens so quickly that Harry doesn’t have a chance to think or be nervous about it. Louis laces his fingers between Harry’s and gives his hand a reassuring little squeeze. It feels…nice.

Harry can’t believe Louis didn’t go for top hand. He assumed their hand-holding would be an epic battle for dominance, just like everything else between them seems to be. But holding hands this way…just feels natural. A few butterflies take flight in Harry’s stomach, and he clenches around them with full intent to kill them immediately. It doesn’t mean anything. He just likes holding hands. He always has.

They must be presenting quite the perfect photo op, strolling through the grass, clutching hands, Louis leaning into Harry while he takes a bite of his pretzel, Bruce moseying ahead of them on the leash, stopping for a moment to investigate a particularly fascinating rock. The perfection lasts approximately 10 seconds before all hell breaks loose. Bruce spots his lady Chihuahua friend and takes off at a dead run, yanking Harry’s right arm so hard he topples to the ground, pulling Louis down on top of him. Harry’s shoulder hits the ground hard, and he’s too stunned to let go of the leash until Bruce gives it one final yank, breaking free and wrenching Harry’s arm forward at an almost impossible angle. After a brief, stunned moment, Louis rolls off Harry and scrambles to chase down the dog.

He returns a moment later, breathless and dragging a clearly unapologetic Bruce behind him.

“Harry! Oh my god! Are you okay?”

Harry still hasn’t gotten up. He whimpers as Louis helps him to his knees, cradling his right arm gingerly. “I think I might have hurt my arm.”

Louis kneels in front of Harry and tries to assess the damage. “Can you move it at all?”

Harry attempts to move his arm but stops short and winces in pain. “I think my shoulder might be out of place.”

Louis helps Harry to his feet with an arm around his waist. “We better get you to the hospital then. Come on, let’s get Bruce home and I’ll call us a driver.”

Harry’s in too much pain to argue against Louis taking him to the hospital, even though he’s sure he could make it on his own. Louis keeps his arm around Harry’s waist and leads him back toward his building, holding Bruce’s leash in his other hand. The paps seem to be gone; Harry wonders if they documented his epic tumble but decides not to worry about it just yet. There’s nothing he can do about it, anyway.

Liam’s gone to work when they get back, so Louis puts Bruce in his crate, rounds up some Tylenol and a bottle of water for Harry, and takes him back down to wait for the car. They don’t have to wait long. Apparently, when Louis Tomlinson wants a car, he gets a car right away.

At the hospital, they’re ushered back to a private room, and there’s no delay in ordering Harry a series of X-rays and tests. Louis dutifully helps Harry out of his shirt and does his best to keep his jaw off the floor when he’s confronted with Harry’s abs, Harry’s tiny love handles, and Harry’s tattoos. Harry’s tattoos.

“Harry, I just…I know you’re in a pain, and this probably isn’t a good time, but I just have to ask. What am I looking at here? Is this really a fucking butterfly tattoo across your entire stomach?”

Harry groans and lies back on the bed. “Butterflies lead transformative lives, Louis. A butterfly tattoo represents a connection to nature and—”

“Oh my God. No. Forget I asked. Please.” Louis shakes his head and flops into the bedside chair.

After the tests are completed, there’s a bit of lag time before the doctor comes in. Harry is laying on the hospital bed with a thin blanket pulled up over his bare chest. His curls are sticking up a bit wildly, and there’s still a few blades of grass in his hair. They’ve given him more medication for the pain, so he’s a little loopy. The room is quiet save for the muffled sounds drifting in from the hallway. Louis shifts in the uncomfortable chair. “Are you okay, Harry? Do you need me to ask for anything for you? Some more water?”

Harry shakes his head. He feels slow, thick. “I’m good. Very good. Very, very, very good.”

Louis chuckles. “Okay, well, I’d say you don’t need any more Percocet for now, anyway.”

Harry’s eyelids are so heavy. He feels like he can’t open his eyes even when he tries. “Thank you for staying with me.”

“It’s no problem at all,” Louis says softly. “I’m your pretend boyfriend and you’ve just received a serious injury from our pretend dog. I’d never leave you alone.”

“Good,” Harry responds very slowly. “I’m like you. I don’t want to be alone.” His eyes are still closed.

“What?” A strange frisson of panic spikes in Louis’ chest when he hears Harry’s words.

“I don’t want to…be alone…either.” Harry’s just about to fall asleep, but Louis is determined to figure out what he’s talking about.

“Yeah, but you said you’re like me. What does that mean?” Louis asks, scooting his chair closer to the bed. The scraping sound on the floor makes Harry’s eyes flutter open a bit.

“S’what you said. When you were sleeping,” Harry slurs.

Louis is so confused. “I said what?”

“You don’t want to be alone. So I stayed. I stayed…with you.” Harry’s breathing deepens and evens out. He’s asleep.

Louis’ confusion slowly gives way to understanding. The only time Harry would ever have seen him sleeping was when he was looking after him while he was sick. Had he really said something like that in his sleep? God, how embarrassing. And how completely untrue. Is that why Harry agreed to this PR stunt? Louis suddenly feels distressed. A burning, unpleasant feeling takes over his body when he considers the fact that Harry might be doing all of this out of some sort of pity. And to think- he was just kind of starting to not hate Harry and his stupid frog mouth. He tells himself he won’t be foolish enough to let his guard down again. Crossing his arms against his chest, he silently wills the doctor to hurry up so they can get the fuck out of there. 

---

“Been a long time since I packed for a sleep-over,” Liam says excitedly, throwing way too much stuff into his large duffel bag.

“It’s only one night, Liam,” Harry chides. “You’re putting enough stuff in there for a week!”

“Well, I’ve never slept over at a celebrity’s place before!” exclaims Liam. “I don’t know what I’m supposed to wear. I need options.”

“You don’t need options,” Harry sighs. “Just take something comfortable to sleep in. We’re going to be there for like 12 hours.”

It’s a Friday night, and Harry’s not exactly thrilled about staying over at Louis’, but he’s supposed to be papped leaving the building in the morning, so Louis had invited him to come the evening before and bring Liam along. Niall will be there, too. The plan is to order pizza and watch movies. Harry’s right arm is in a sling and he’s still in quite a bit of pain, so a night in is probably exactly what he needs, anyway. 

Liam is actually packing his alarm clock. His…alarm clock. Harry snatches it out of his hand and puts it back on the dresser. “For Christ’s sake, Liam, you can’t pack your alarm clock. What are you thinking?”

“We have to be up at a specific time tomorrow!”

“That’s why God gave us iPhones, you idiot." 

“I’ve never been to Louis Tomlinson’s apartment before! How do I know where we’ll be sleeping or what the outlet situation will be? What if our phones went dead and you missed your pap call? I’m just thinking of you.”

“Do you honestly think he’s not going to have a place for us to charge our phones? Pull yourself together, Liam,” Harry hisses.

Liam stands up from where he’s been bent over his duffel bag, takes a deep breath, and uses his hands to straighten the front of his shirt. “Okay, okay. I’m cool. Sorry, got carried away there for a minute.” He zips up his bag and grabs Harry’s from the floor.

“It’s all right, Liam. You’re just getting overly excited. You do know that Emma Stone isn’t going to be there tonight, right?”

“Yes, I know that, Harry,” Liam answers indignantly as they head out into the hallway, locking the door behind them and heading down the stairs.

After they climb into the cab, Harry reaches over and gives Liam a little side hug with his good arm. “I’m sorry for calling you an idiot. I’m just a bit tired, and my shoulder is killing me.”

“Apology accepted.” Liam can never stay mad for long. “You still not sleeping well?”

Harry shakes his head no. “It’s been even worse since I can’t sleep on my right side.”

“You also haven’t gotten laid in months,” Liam helpfully points out.

“I was just becoming un-annoyed with you, Li,” Harry grumbles.

“I know, I know, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have brought it up. I’m just saying…you know. Louis was right. It’d probably help.”

“Well, I know it would help, Liam, but it’s kind of hard to make that happen when I’m spending all my time either with Louis or working. And people are actually starting to recognize me when I’m out. It’s so bizarre. I can’t just go out and hook up with some guy I meet in a bar.”

“Am I going to have to take one for the team?” Liam asks.

“Excuse me?”

“I mean, you know I’m totally straight and everything,” Liam blurts out. “But I’ve always had lots of older gay friends and stuff. And there was this one guy in my undergrad—he was like the dark and broody, artsy type. I never did, but man, did I think about it a few times.”

Harry stares at Liam. The cab is absolutely silent. Even the driver appears to be holding his breath.

“Liam. Listen to me. I love you, but you need to shut the fuck up sometimes.” Harry says it with a smile and a pat to Liam’s knee.

Liam looks relieved, probably on several levels. He gives Harry a reciprocal knee pat, and they spend the rest of the cab ride in welcome silence. 

---

The bass of the club mix pounds through Louis’ body as he moves through the crowd, drink in his hand. It feels like forever since he’s been out like this, lost in the flow of the music and the buzz of too much liquor and the crush of sweaty bodies on a darkened dance floor. He hadn’t meant to wind up here tonight. It was just supposed to be a quick dinner and a couple of drinks with his friend Oli before heading back home. But, one drink had led to another, which had led to another, and now he’s well on his way to getting shit-faced and letting the entire night slip away.

His phone buzzes in his pocket again. Another text from Niall.

Pizza’s getting cold. Getting ready to start our second movie. Where are you, dude?

Louis doesn’t answer. He doesn’t want to think about Niall, or pizza, or movies. And he especially doesn’t want to think about Harry Styles or Harry Styles’ lush curls or his honest green eyes or his ridiculously plush lips or his slim hips or his long legs. Or the clearly unnecessary and obnoxious pity he has on Louis, agreeing to “date” him because no one else wants to and poor little Louis is all alone.

It’s ludicrous. He’s Louis Fucking Tomlinson. He can pull any guy he wants to. Two at a time if he feels like it. Maybe he can’t get out of the latest PR stunt his managers have roped him into, but he certainly doesn’t need to be sitting at home having a goddamn movie night with a guy he isn’t even actually dating.

He spots Oli chatting up a guy near one side of the dance floor, so he doesn’t butt in. Instead, he heads toward the bar for another drink. Another buzz in his pocket. It’s Harry this time.

I can’t believe you stood me up tonight and left me to take care of the kids on my own with a busted shoulder. They keep crying for their daddy and I don’t know what to tell them.

A couple seconds later, another text comes through.

Just let Niall know you’re okay. Apparently, it’s a big deal to have a Louis Tomlinson out there unaccounted for.

Louis drains the rest of his gin and tonic and orders another. Goddammit. The least Harry could do is be a jerk about it. Louis ditched him tonight, and Harry can’t even act mad? Does he really think Louis is so pathetic? Does he really feel that sorry for him?

He fires off a quick text to Niall.

Catching up with Oli, don’t wait up.

It’s a dick move, but at least Niall will know he hasn’t been kidnapped for ransom or anything.

Dick move, Niall texts back.

Louis turns his phone off and leans against the bar. He hasn’t had this much to drink in a while, and the club is starting to spin a bit. It feels good, though. He just wants to have some fun. Every part of his brain is screaming at him, begging to just get lost for a bit, to turn off, to stop thinking, to stop caring.

Twenty minutes later, Louis is getting his wish in a bathroom stall, his back against the wall and his fingers buried in the blond hair of the stranger on his knees in front of him. The guy doesn’t have much technique but at least he’s eager. Louis closes his eyes and tries to give himself over to the pleasure of coming down the throat of someone he’ll never have to see or talk to again. It almost works. 

---

Louis’ apartment is quiet. Too quiet. Harry wishes he’d brought the small fan he always sleeps with at home. He can’t sleep when it’s this quiet. Liam is sprawled out beside him on the guest bed, breathing softly and completely dead to the world.

The night had actually been a lot of fun. The moment he’d introduced Liam to Niall, Harry had immediately become the third wheel, and he didn’t mind. He enjoyed sitting back and listening to them chatter about everything under the sun- from football (Liam had been appalled to hear about Harry’s football v. soccer faux pas) to food to favorite bands. You would have thought the two of them had been friends for years.

Niall had become increasingly apologetic as the minutes stretched into hours and Louis hadn’t returned home. Harry kept reassuring him that it was fine. And it was fine. Why should Harry care? He and Louis are under no obligation to spend any time together behind closed doors. It’s a convenient business arrangement and nothing more. Louis’ whereabouts are none of his concern.

There's no part of Harry that wishes Louis had been there, bemoaning the terrible dialogue in the latest Transformers movie or helping to perform the Heimlich on Liam after his and Niall’s “how many M&Ms we can throw into each other’s mouths in 30 seconds?” challenge went awry. No part of him at all.  

Louis hadn't come home, and they’d all fallen into bed a little after midnight. Harry’d been drowsy from the ill-advised combination of pain medication and beer and had passed out right away. But the pain in his shoulder had pulled him back to consciousness about an hour later and now he can’t go back to sleep because he can’t lay on his right side and because it’s too damn quiet.

After what feels like ages of lying there in the dark and staring at the ceiling, Harry swears he can hear something coming from the other end of the apartment. It sounds like soft music playing. Thinking his mind’s playing tricks on him, he pulls himself to his feet, fitting his arm into his sling and padding down the hallway to investigate. Even if it’s a murderous intruder or a ghost, it’ll be better than lying there awake any longer.

As he gets closer to the living room, he can recognize that the song is a beautiful, slowed-down piano version of “Sweet Disposition” by The Temper Trap. Harry pauses in the hallway just to listen for a minute. It reels him in; it’s absolutely gorgeous. He first wonders where Louis got this track for download, and second, why Louis is listening to it at two in the morning. Unless it’s Niall.  

Harry rounds the corner into the living room and stops in his tracks. It isn’t Niall. And it isn’t a recording. Louis is seated at the grand piano in the corner by the window, playing. There are no lights on in the room, but he’s illuminated by the city lights blinking through the enormous panel of windows behind him. The scene is almost surreal. Louis looks so lovely and so relaxed.

That is, until he looks up and notices Harry standing there in nothing but a loose pair of boxers and an arm sling. He stops playing immediately.

Harry is speechless, mesmerized. Louis is not. “Go back to bed, Harry. This isn’t Fifty Shades of Grey, for fuck’s sake. I’m not going to pick you up and carry you into my sex room, no matter how bad you need to get laid.”

Harry’s feet feel like they are glued to the hardwood floor. “I didn’t know you played the piano,” he offers, a bit lamely. He feels like he’s intruded on Louis here, and he’s not sure what to say.

Louis snaps the cover over the piano keys and stands up. He’s wearing a soft grey T-shirt and black sweatpants. “Well. Now you know.” He crosses his arms and stares Harry down, daring him to complain about his absence or ask where he’s been.

Harry wishes he could cross his arms, too, but he can’t. His left arm just dangles there awkwardly. He takes a few steps toward Louis. “You play so beautifully. How come you never talk about it? I’ve never seen anything about it in any of your interviews.”

“It’s not that important,” Louis responds. “I’m an actor, not a musician. And it’s just…just like one thing about my entire life that I keep for myself.”

“I get that,” Harry offers in a placating tone. “That makes a lot of sense, actually.”

He takes another step toward Louis, so that they’re both now bathed in the light coming in through the windows. Louis takes in the sight of Harry’s beautiful body, his pale naked torso and arms littered with tattoos. Even his absurd butterfly tattoo looks like a work of art in the glow of the streetlights.

“Let’s not talk about my piano skills right now, Harry. How was your night?”

“Fine. We had a nice time. I think Liam and Niall have kicked off an epic bromance already.” He hesitates a beat. “And how was yours?”

“Very satisfying.” Louis cocks an eyebrow so that Harry knows exactly what he means.

Harry refuses to take the bait. “I’m glad to hear it.”

“What are you doing up at this hour? Did I wake you?”

“No. Can’t sleep,” Harry says, lifting up his busted arm as far as he can before it starts to hurt. “Can’t lay on my side.”

Louis eyes him carefully. “You haven’t slept well for weeks, though.”

Harry shrugs and starts to turn away. “Should try some sleeping pills maybe.”

“Should try getting laid, like I told you.” 

Harry whips around and closes the distance between himself and Louis. “You know, I’m getting really fucking tired of hearing that. It’s no one’s business.” He looks Louis up and down. “And we clearly have different views on sex.”

He starts to turn away again, but Louis grabs him by the good arm and spins him back around. All his anger and frustration from the past couple of days is bubbling to the surface now. “And what makes you think that your views on sex are any better or more valid than mine? Sex is just sex. It doesn’t mean anything. Whoever your man was fucking instead of you? It didn’t mean anything. Whoever I fucked tonight? Meant nothing.”

Harry takes full advantage of the couple of inches he has on Louis as he crowds him a little closer to the window. “I don’t think you believe that.”

“Why?” Louis cries indignantly, a little louder than he means to. “Because you overheard me having a weird dream and you think I don’t want to be alone?! You're ridiculous, Harry.”

Harry takes a small step back, confused. He doesn’t remember talking to Louis about what he’d heard him say in his sleep.

“I do want to be alone,” Louis continues, his voice evening out a bit, a hardness creeping in. “I like my life just the way it is, even if I have to play along with some nonsense headlines to keep my managers off my back. I’m happy. And I sleep fine at night. Because I get laid. And if I can’t…” His eyes flit over the sling holding up Harry’s arm. “Well then, at least I can take care of myself when I need to. But you can’t do that right now, can you? Christ.”

Before Harry can fully register the meaning of Louis’ words, Louis is placing one hand on his waist. His eyes are locked on Harry’s, suddenly full of unmistakable intent. Harry can’t look away. Without breaking eye contact, Louis slips his other hand down the front of Harry’s boxers and wraps it around him. Harry moans before he can even think about stopping himself. It feels so amazing. He’s getting so hard, so damn fast, but it feels so good he doesn’t even care.

Louis gently pulls Harry toward him using the hand wrapped around his cock. Harry goes easily. It’s been so long, and Louis’ warm hand feels so incredible on his skin. Louis starts stroking him, softly at first, then firmer and faster the harder Harry gets and the more he starts leaking. His eyes haven’t left Harry’s for a second.

Somewhere in his brain, Harry knows he should say no, should put a stop to this, but he…can’t. His dick has officially told his brain to fuck off for the next ten minutes. All he can do is lean in toward Louis, bracing himself with his good arm against the window behind him and giving into it, all of it. Their faces are impossibly close now, Harry taking in shallow, shuddery breaths while his top teeth dig into his bottom lip. Louis’ expression remains unchanged, deep in concentration while his eyes stay trained on Harry’s face.

Harry’s so close now, all it would take to push him over the edge would be a kiss or a word of encouragement. But Louis doesn’t offer either. Instead, he speeds up his hand, working over Harry’s cock even faster until Harry’s entire body draws up tight with the last of its tension, and finally releases in a hot rush of come that pours over Louis’ fist and halfway down one of Harry’s thighs.

Harry lets out a breathless moan and slumps forward to the side of Louis, burying his face in the crook of his arm, the window holding up all his weight. Louis slips his hand out of Harry’s pants, wiping them off a bit on the inside, and releases his hold on Harry’s waist.

“Like I said, sex is just sex,” he calls over his shoulder as he walks out of the living room, leaving Harry panting against the window. “Get some sleep.”

After a minute or two, Harry pulls himself together and finds his way to the bathroom to clean himself up. He shakes his head disapprovingly at his reflection in the mirror. He should never have let this happen, but he’ll worry about it in the morning. Right now, he’s boneless, exhausted, and satisfied. Looking back, Harry will say this was where he made his fourth mistake, but he sleeps better than he has in a month.

Chapter Text

Harry clicks off his voice recorder and flops backward onto his pillow, stretching his good arm over his head. He’s just finished dictating his Rihanna article for an intern to type up later today. His shoulder is getting better, but he’s still wearing the sling and is useless on the computer these days.

A smile creeps across his face as he thinks about how fun the interview had been. He’s starting to remember why he loves writing and why he started a journalism career in the first place. He feels the excitement growing inside him again, like it had back when he was in school.

Closing his eyes, Harry lets his mind wander—not for the first time today—to what transpired between him and Louis the other night in Louis’ apartment. They haven’t seen or talked to each other since. Harry had left early the next morning to be papped outside the building, and Louis was in his bedroom with the door closed.

Harry’s cheeks flush, his face burning with the memory. He knows it was a terrible idea to give in to Louis like that, but given a chance to go back and do it over, he’s not sure he could do anything differently. He can’t stop thinking about Louis’ eyes, how intense they were, never straying from Harry’s face. And he can’t stop thinking about Louis’ small, delicate hand working him over so expertly, as if he’d done it a thousand times before. Harry’s dick perks up just thinking about it, and he groans internally. He still has no good way to take care of himself. Louis had been so excellent at it that he’d probably let him do it again.

Harry can’t believe he’s even entertaining the thought. He’s not a fan of casual sex. Louis is completely wrong when he says it doesn’t mean anything. Right? Harry knows he holds the superior view, but fuck, if there isn’t a part of him that wants to believe Louis, just as an excuse to do it again. They’re not due to see each other for a few more days, though, and Harry knows that’s probably a good thing, considering his current state of mind.

He shakes his head and tries to clear his thoughts. When that doesn’t really work, he does the best thing he knows to rid his brain of sexual fantasies- calls his mother, Anne. She answers on the third ring, delighted to hear from him.

“It’s about time you called your poor mom,” she reproaches Harry, but he can tell from her voice that she’s smiling. “How’s your shoulder? I saw the pictures of you online with your sling on. My poor baby.”

“Ugh, Mom, that’s so weird. Don’t look at pictures of me online.”

“I can’t help it! You’re everywhere! I’m starting a little folder on my computer so I can make one of those digital scrapbooks. Gemma’s going to help me. I loved the ones of you two at the dog park!”

“Mom!” Harry moans. “You can’t make a scrapbook of my relationship with Louis. I told you, we’re just friends.”

“I know, I know,” she says. “You’re just so cute together. And I have one of those online coupons for the scrapbooking site. And, well, since I don’t have any grandchildren to…”

“Hey!” Harry interjects. “I’m only 24! You’ve got to give me at least five more years before you put the grandkid pressure on!”

“I know, honey, I’m just teasing,” Anne reassures him. “How’s work going?”

“Great, actually,” Harry responds, grateful for the change in subject. “I just interviewed Rihanna this week. It was so incredible. She has a foundation to help terminally ill children, and she does all kinds of work for cancer and AIDS charities. My whole article is focused on that. I think they’re going to let me start an entire series showcasing celebrities’ philanthropic work. I’m pumped about it.”

“That’s wonderful, sweetheart! I know that dealing with celebrities hasn’t always been your favorite thing.”

“It hasn’t,” Harry admits. “But I think I’m realizing that it’s not the celebrities that bother me…it’s the whole gossip/PR machine. If you can strip all that away and focus on who they actually are…some of them are really amazing people.”

“That’s lovely, dear. I’m glad to hear it. You haven’t seemed all that happy since you started working at the magazine.”

“Well. Things are looking up a bit, I guess.” Harry hesitates before he asks his mother what’s been on his mind since she answered the phone. He wants to know, but at the same time, he doesn’t. “How’s Gram?”

“She’s okay, Harry,” his mom starts in, and Harry knows that voice. It’s the I don’t want my kids to worry voice. Harry’s known that voice since he was five years old. She’d used it when his dad left, when they’d had to move into yet another new apartment or change schools again, when she’d had to pick up a second or even third job to make ends meet for her, Gemma, and Harry. Harry hates that voice.

“Some days are better than others,” Anne continues. “There are days she’s her usual self, ready to take on the world, and there are other days when she’s more confused, has trouble remembering things. Has trouble recognizing me. But she’s really okay, Harry. She’s happy. She loves the new place, and the people there are so, so wonderful. I don’t want you to stress out about this when things are so hectic for you.”

Unbidden tears spring up in Harry’s eyes. He’s been so busy and distracted lately that he’s forgotten how much he misses home sometimes, how much he misses his mom and his grandma and his sister, even though Gemma isn’t even living in L.A. anymore.

“Mom,” his voice cracks a bit. “I’m so sorry you’re going through this. And you’re going through it alone.”

“Nonsense, Harry,” she replies. “Like you just said, you’re 24 years old. You need to be building your career, having a life, having fun. Everything is fine here. I’ve got it all under control.”

“But mom,” Harry protests. “I know the new place is more expensive. And, I’ve just gotten a raise. Like, a good raise. Please promise me you’ll let me help out, at least a little.”

Anne sighs. “Harry. I don’t want your money. We’re fine.”

“You don’t have to decide right this second,” Harry pleads, a bit of desperation creeping into his tone. “We can talk about it in person. I’ll be out there for Louis’ movie premiere on 4th of July weekend.” There’s a funny little twist in his chest when he thinks about it- the end date to the stunt. He brushes it aside as best he can.

“Okay, we’ll talk about it then,” Harry’s mom concedes, although he suspects she’s just putting him off for now. “I’ll be so excited to see you, dear. And will I get to meet Louis, too?”

Harry realizes he hasn’t given even a second’s consideration to what will happen on the L.A. trip. But, he’s already scheduled to go with Louis to Missouri and meet his family there, so he figures Louis will be gracious enough to at least have coffee or something with Anne in July.

“Count on it,” he tells her.

They chat for a few more minutes about mundane things- Anne’s cat, Harry’s well-documented history of getting injured in the most improbable ways, whether or not Gemma is lying to them about having a boyfriend in London.

Before hanging up, Harry tells his mom he loves her. He always does.

“I love you, too, sweetie,” she says. “Be careful on those publicity dates. Seems like they’re becoming a bit rough on your body!”

She has no idea.

---

Louis groans quietly as the hot spray from his rainfall shower hits the top of his head and starts rushing in rivulets down his naked body. He’s sore from a long workout at the gym, but if he’s being honest, none of his tension has been released. He can’t stop thinking about Harry, and the more he thinks about Harry, the more frustrated he becomes. It’s a vicious cycle.

He knows he has no one but himself to blame for his current predicament. No one made him reach out for Harry the other night, no one forced him to touch Harry’s body. He did that all on his own. It was impulsive, stupid. In the heat of the moment, he’d thought it would be just another of the many, many “one-time things” he’d done. He’d justified it in his mind by telling himself that he was doing them both a favor. Giving Harry the release he had so clearly needed for weeks and giving himself a more relaxed, better-rested fake boyfriend to deal with.

Only now it seems that having a “one-time thing” with Harry is not what Louis’ brain wants. Or his dick, for that matter. All he can think about is how he wants more. He wants to get his hands on Harry’s cock again, but not just that. He wants to know what it would be like to put his mouth on him, what Harry would feel like inside him, and shit, Louis is getting hard just thinking about it—and not for the first time this week.  

Harry’s big, thick cock. Fuck, Louis hadn’t even had a proper look at it, but it’s all he’s thought about for days. It’s all he’s thinking about now as he reaches between his legs to take hold of himself. It immediately feels so good that he backs himself up against the tile wall of his wet room and slides all the way down to the floor, letting his knees fall easily to each side. He strokes himself slowly as the warm water washes over him, tipping his head back and closing his eyes.

The better it feels, the more he gives in to it. He’s here alone—there’s no one to hear him, so he moans as loud as he wants. And that’s pretty fucking loud. Louis has always loved being loud, and the more the volume of his voice increases, the hotter it gets. He speeds up his pace, and as his mind wanders to the memory of how Harry had felt coming apart in his hands, his other hand slips below his balls, almost before he even realizes what he’s doing. He’s not at a good angle to do anything other than tease himself, and he doesn’t have any lube, but just the pressure of one fingertip at his hole and the lightning-flash of imagination in his mind of Harry fucking into him is enough to send him shooting in waves of pleasure over his fist, shouting unintelligibly over the sound of the water splashing against the tiles.

So fucking good , he thinks as his body comes down from its high, his stress temporarily relieved.  And I’m so fucking screwed.

---

Of course, Louis and Harry’s next date also happens to be their first red-carpet event. It would be nerve-wracking enough for Harry, even without the whole “the last time I saw you I was coming into your hand” situation hanging over his head. At least they’ll have a bit of time in the limo beforehand to work out the inevitable awkwardness.

For Louis, a stroll down the red carpet in front of hundreds of flashing cameras and screaming fans is nothing out of the ordinary. But for Harry, just the thought is enough to send him running to the bathroom, leaning over the toilet for a second to make sure he’s not actually going to be sick.

“You okay? You look a little green,” Liam observes from the doorway.

Harry stands up and wipes his sweaty palms across his thighs. “I’m fine.”

Liam appears unconvinced, but he doesn’t push it. “Niall’s here with your clothes.”

Harry had been grateful to learn he wouldn’t have to dress himself for this event. After an intense measuring session with a team of at least three stylists, Louis’ people were sending him everything he’d need. Which, after he unzips the garment bag Niall has laid out on his bed, turns out to be a pair of designer jeans, a light pink sheer button-up shirt (with instructions to button only halfway), a dark jacket, and some really fucking nice Ferragamo Chelsea boots. There’s no directive for how he’s supposed to do his hair, so he opts for holding it in place with a plain black headscarf. He slips on the two long necklaces he wears every day and calls it good.

Liam and Niall greet him with wolf whistles and jeers as he enters Liam’s place through their “door hole,” as Niall has decided to call it. Both boys are wearing track pants and T-shirts, drinking beer, and lounging on the couch. Harry would give just about anything to be able to join them for the night instead of facing Louis and the public.

“Lookin’ good, Styles,” Niall approves. “Now just don’t puke your guts up on the red carpet, and it’ll be a successful evening.”

“Knock ‘em dead, Burtka,” Liam chimes in with a thumbs up. Niall guffaws. That Irish traitor. Harry definitely hadn’t told Liam about the David Burtka thing. The two of them are knee deep in potato chips and an episode of MythBusters before Harry’s even out the door.

The limo’s already waiting in front of the building when Harry steps outside. He knows Louis has already been picked up, since the Independent Film Center is closer to Harry’s place than his. Harry’s not ready—at all—but there’s no choice other than to slip inside the car when the driver opens the door for him.

Louis and Sam Clifton are sitting side by side in the seat opposite Harry. They greet him with smiles and hellos. Harry may be imagining it, but it feels like Louis’ eyes are dragging over him a little more slowly than they normally would.

Not that Harry isn’t taking in the view as well. Louis is wearing jeans and boots just like Harry, but he’s got on a plain white button-up with a black tie and waistcoat. Okay, no problem, Harry tells himself. It’s just clean-shaven Louis with slicked-back hair wearing a tight waistcoat and even tighter jeans. Harry’s finding it a little difficult to breathe in the limo. He’s about to suggest opening a window, but Louis and Sam look perfectly comfortable. 

“What happened to your sling?” Louis asks Harry with a raised eyebrow.

“Oh, they said I could be done with it by the end of this week,” Harry explains. “I figured a few days early wouldn’t hurt too much. It didn’t exactly go with the outfit.”

“Well. Congratulations then. Must be quite a relief for you,” Louis replies with a smirk. He goes back to looking at his phone.

Harry should let it go, but he just can’t. “Why? Do you miss it?”

Louis head pops up.

Now it’s Harry’s turn to raise an eyebrow. “I mean, did you have a thing for the sling?”

Louis casts a sideways glance at Sam Clifton, but he’s listening to his voicemails, paying no attention to them.

Louis looks Harry straight in the eye. “Nah, I imagine you’re probably a lot better off without it.”

They both laugh, and, thank God, any lingering weirdness seems to dissipate. The rest of the ride to the theater is pretty uneventful, but the closer they get, the more Harry’s nervousness increases. Shortly before they arrive, Sam gives them their instructions.

“Harry, get out of the car first. When Louis gets out, let him give a little wave to the crowd, then take his hand. I’ll be behind you. I’ll let you know the stopping points for photos. No interviews. Harry, you’re not used to this, but they’re going to try to suck you in and get a sound bite from you. Just smile, don’t say a word. I know it feels like you’re being rude, but you aren’t. Louis, you’re under your usual don’t-fuck-it up orders.”

Louis doesn’t even appear to be listening, but Harry takes it in with the fervent hope that he can remember it all and not do anything embarrassing. There’s no time left to worry now, though, because the limo is pulling up to the red carpet, and the driver is walking around to let them out.

Harry leans forward to exit the car, and Louis catches his arm, just long enough to make Harry look at him. He doesn’t say anything, just offers a wink of reassurance. Harry gulps. He doesn’t feel that reassured.

As Harry exits the limo, the screams of the waiting fans immediately intensify. They recognize him, and they know what his presence means. Louis is here. It’s a wild concept that Harry doesn’t have a chance to properly consider because Louis is stepping out of the car behind him. Harry takes a step back and allows Louis to emerge, flashing a smile and a wave to the fans, who lose it just at the sight of him. Harry can’t even hear himself think. He knows Louis is famous, but wow. This is the first time they’ve been together in a crowd like this, at an official “oh my God, this guy really is a world-famous movie star” type event.

Harry feels stunned for a few seconds, but recovers himself enough to take Louis’ hand and start leading him down the red carpet. Shit. Sam Clifton didn’t say who was supposed to walk first. It seems like it should be Louis, but he seems perfectly happy to trail just slightly behind Harry, pointing at fans, waving, blowing kisses.

Sam Clifton signals to Harry when it’s time to stop and pose for photos. The flashes are blinding. This is a whole different ballgame from having a few paps following them down the sidewalk. The photographers call out their names, instructing them to pose this way or that, but it all blends together into one gigantic, unintelligible roar in Harry’s ears.

He’s overwhelmed, maybe even shaking a little, he’s not sure. He looks to his left. Louis is totally unfazed. Without looking at Harry, he slides his arm around his waist and gives him a light squeeze. Then he twists towards him, leaning up on his tiptoes a little to put his mouth close to—but not touching—Harry’s ear and whisper, “You’re doing great. Don’t be nervous. Best-looking date I’ve ever had, I think.”

Harry can’t help the huge grin that takes over his entire face at Louis’ words. He’s closing his eyes in concentration, trying to hear over the din of the crowd and the clicks of hundreds of cameras. The next day, Sam Clifton will email them both the photo of “the whisper” and tell them what a great job they’re doing at making it look authentic. Anne Styles will copy it directly into her scrapbook folder. It’ll be at the top of every celebrity gossip web site. But, Louis and Harry don’t know any of that yet.

Louis drops down from his tiptoes and tilts his chin up at Harry. “I’ll never admit saying that, just so you know.” Harry laughs, and the photographers beg them to kiss, but they pretend not to hear. Two more stops for photos, and they’re safely inside the film center, dropping each other’s hands in exchange for mixed drinks and appetizers.

By the time the film is starting, they’re both a little tipsy. Harry slides into his seat next to Louis feeling a tad dizzy. “I think those Jack and Cokes had more Jack than Coke,” he reports.

“I think you’re right,” Louis agrees, as an event photographer kneels down in front of them and asks for another photo. They lean toward each other, smiling, and Harry impulsively places his hand on Louis’ thigh. He feels Louis tense ever-so-slightly, but he doesn’t pull his leg away. The photographer moves on, but Harry leaves his hand where it is. He doesn’t exactly know why. He tells himself he’s testing Louis, seeing how far he’ll let this go, like the little game they played during the GQ photoshoot.  

The lights dim, and the movie begins. It’s a documentary about war atrocities, possibly the least sexy film ever made. Harry slides his hand off Louis’ leg and decides to concentrate, even though he feels slightly too inebriated to really learn anything from the film.   

He’s trying his best to transport his mind to 1940s Yugoslavia when he senses Louis shifting in the seat beside him, leaning a little closer. The next thing he knows, Louis’ lips are brushing his ear. A shiver races down Harry’s spine before Louis even opens his mouth to murmur, “I lied before. I do miss the sling. I was thinking about taking you back to my place later and tying you up with it.”

Harry stops breathing for a full three seconds. Louis just leans back and stares straight ahead at the screen, as if he’s totally engrossed, a little smirk playing at his lips.

Harry knows the alcohol is clouding his judgment a little, but he also knows that he can’t let Louis win at this. He leans over to return the whisper. “I’m wearing a belt. Would that work?”

He expects Louis to laugh, maybe to elbow him in the ribs or something. He doesn’t expect Louis to grab his hand, yank him out of his seat, and pull him toward the exit of the theater. Harry almost trips over his own feet trying to keep up.

The small alcove behind the theater is deserted. Louis pulls Harry through the door and wastes no time turning him and pushing him into the wall. Harry is almost certain he’s about to be kissed, but instead Louis looks down, concentrating on his own hands as he presses them both to the front of Harry’s jeans. Harry inhales sharply and bites his lower lip. Once again, he’s getting hard embarrassingly fast, but he’s just intoxicated enough not to care.

Louis moves his hands up to Harry’s hips and squeezes, pulling him closer and pushing their lower bodies together. “I can’t stop thinking about your dick.”

Harry snorts. “Is that your version of sweet talk?”

Louis drags his eyes up to meet Harry’s eyes. “I only do sweet talk if it’s scripted. But I do honesty really well if I’m a little drunk.” He presses his crotch up against Harry’s, and Harry can feel that he’s getting hard, too.

“Shit,” Harry breathes. Louis is giving him no room to move, no time to think, as much as he’s trying. “If we’re both drunk, maybe we should just go back to our seats and sober up.”

Harry ,” Louis pleads, and the sound of his name on Louis’ lips in that kind of tone goes straight to Harry’s dick, as if it possibly needed any more encouragement. “I’m not so drunk that I need to sober up. I am, however, just drunk enough to tell you that I want to suck your dick.”

 “Fuck,” is the only word Harry can think of to respond with. He’s just drunk enough to let him.

 Louis pushes away from Harry and holds up one finger. “Just a second.”

He jogs the few steps out of the alcove and around the corner. Harry has no idea where the hell Louis is going, but at least it gives him a minute to breathe and try to pull himself together. This is not what he thought was going to happen tonight.

His ears perk up when he hears a psssst coming from around the corner. Louis is poking his head around and beckoning Harry toward him. Harry goes. He goes so easily. He wonders if Louis has any clue how far Harry would go at this moment to experience a repeat of the other night.

Louis takes Harry’s hand and leads him toward a door that a theater employee currently appears to be unlocking.

“Where are we going?” Harry whispers, even though there’s no one else around. “I thought we were leaving?”

“I’m not waiting that long,” Louis continues pulling Harry toward the door. The employee opens it for them, and Louis winks at her as they slip by and start climbing a dark, narrow staircase.

Harry jumps as the door clicks shut behind them. “Louis!” he hisses. “Are you taking me to an isolated place to finally murder me over those tweets?”

Louis’ loud laugh echoes through the quiet stairway. “No, I would have hired someone else to do that for me, you idiot.”

They’ve reached the top of the stairs, and Harry realizes that they’re in a dimly lit equipment booth overlooking a theater that isn’t in use. He looks around incredulously. “Are we…literally…hooking up in the projection room above the auditorium?”

“We are,” Louis answers gruffly, pushing Harry down into a chair and kneeling in front of him. “That okay with you?”

All Harry can do is nod. Louis doesn’t hesitate after that. He goes for Harry’s clothes, pushing his jacket off his shoulders and down over his arms. It’s clumsy work while Harry is sitting in a chair, but the jacket is a crumpled heap on the floor in a few short seconds. Harry doesn’t even want to think about how mad Louis’ stylists will be. Then again, they’ve probably dealt with this before.

The jacket out of the way, Louis bypasses Harry’s shirt and goes straight for his jeans, unbuttoning them and tugging them down, along with his boxer briefs, over his lifted hips. He shoves them all the way down to Harry’s ankles and uses both hands to push Harry’s knees apart.

“You aren’t fucking around, are you?” Harry asks, dazed at what’s happening and how fast it’s happening. There’s never any preamble with Louis, it seems, but Harry certainly won’t complain.

Louis takes Harry in his hand and starts stroking him gently. Harry has an instant flashback to the other night in Louis’ apartment, the first time he experienced what it was like to have all of Louis completely focused on him this way. Only this time, Louis is on his knees. He’s on his knees in front of Harry, his tight waistcoat still completely buttoned, looking up at him with these fathomless blue eyes and just working Harry’s cock like it’s something he does every damn day.

“I haven’t been able to stop thinking about this,” Louis tells him, his voice rough with arousal. “I haven’t been able to stop thinking about how big you are, how much I wanted to get my hands on you again. Fuck , Harry. I didn’t even get to see you the last time. Look at you. You have one of the nicest cocks I’ve ever laid eyes on.”

Harry’s a sucker for dirty talk. And it doesn’t surprise him for a second that Louis is goddamn good at it. He’s so turned on already, it’s almost too much to take. He closes his eyes, and of course that’s the split second Louis chooses to switch from his using his hand to his using his mouth. The contact is so instant and so warm and so fucking good that Harry jerks back, scooting the chair a few inches across the floor.

Louis tilts his head up. “You all right there, Styles?”

“Good, m’good,” Harry fibs. He’s a giant puddle of weakness, is what he is.  

Louis leans down again and very, very slowly licks Harry’s dick from base to tip. It’s the most focused, unhurried action Harry has ever seen Louis take in the time they’ve spent together. He does it once, twice, three times, before shifting forward and taking Harry almost entirely in his mouth at the same excruciatingly slow speed.

“Holy fuck,” Harry shouts way louder than he intends to, leaning his head back and gripping his own thighs so tight he’ll probably find bruises tomorrow. Louis has one hand up Harry’s shirt, stroking his tummy, and the other covering the few inches at the base of Harry’s dick that are physically impossible for him to take in his mouth. He pulls off slowly, sucking in pulses along Harry’s dick the entire way up.

Then, nothing.

Harry opens his eyes and tips his head forward, searching Louis’ face to figure out why he’s stopped.

Louis is wearing a sly grin. “Admit it.”

“Admit what?” Harry’s brain is a muddled mess. He has no idea what he should be admitting to at this moment, but whatever it is, he’s going to do it. He’ll admit to secretly keeping up with the Kardashians, or jacking off to Wizard of Oz porn, or pretending to like Mumford and Sons even though he really hates them. Anything.

“Admit that sex is just sex. It means nothing.”

Except that. He doesn’t want to admit that.

“Dammit, Louis! Right now?”

“Now seems like the perfect time, don’t you think?” Louis answers as he wraps his hand around Harry again and starts rubbing, firm but slow. “Just admit it, because as soon as you do, you’re going to get the best fucking blow job of your life.”

Well, shit.

Looking back, Harry will say this was his…fifth mistake? He doesn’t even know anymore. He’s losing count at this point. There’s no future Harry here to worry about that right now, however. There’s just here-and-now Harry, the Harry who’s half-naked and sprawled out in a chair in an upper room of the Independent Film Center, about to get blown by Louis Tomlinson.

“It’s just sex. It doesn’t mean anything.” He tries to believe it when he says it.

Louis is a man of his word, if nothing else. He pushes Harry’s legs even further apart so that he can move in even closer than he was before. At the same time as he takes Harry’s cock back into his mouth, he uses both hands to grip him by the ass, pulling him forward and driving him in even deeper. He doesn’t bother using one hand to cover the rest of Harry’s dick anymore. He just uses his grasp on Harry’s cheeks to coax his hips into a thrusting motion.

So, Harry is fucking Louis’ mouth, but he isn’t really fucking Louis’ mouth- Louis is in complete control. Harry moves when Louis moves him, at the pace Louis moves him, as far as Louis moves him. He wonders how it’s possible to be the one getting blown but to feel completely manhandled at the same time. It’s the hottest thing anyone has ever done to him.

Harry’s consciousness decides to completely detach itself from his body and float in the air above them. Every drop of blood in his veins seems to have rushed to his dick. He can’t think, he can’t form words, he can’t do anything but surrender to Louis’ grip on his ass and his mouth on his cock. There’s a vague awareness somewhere in the back of his mind that he’s receiving the best blow job he’s ever had in the very same week as the best hand job he’s ever had, but he’ll have to process that later.

He wants to reach down and put his hands in Louis’ hair. He wants to grab, to pull, to show Louis how intensely he’s feeling everything that he’s doing to him. But even though Louis is on his knees with his mouth full of Harry’s cock, it still feels like a bridge he shouldn’t cross yet.

He’s so close already. Louis is still using his hands to rock Harry’s hips back and forth, the rhythm picking up in intensity. Harry reaches both of his long arms down, gently cupping Louis’ jaw and placing his index fingers into the hollows of Louis’ cheeks. He can feel himself there, and it’s too much. “Louis. Louis, I’m…”

Louis takes Harry in as deep as he can and becomes motionless with the exception of tightening his hold on Harry’s ass and digging in with his fingernails. Harry feels himself exploding, completely out of control, unable to breathe, unable to comprehend anything in the universe other than the earthquake ripping through his entire body. It feels like he’s coming forever. A stray concern for Louis’ ability to breathe flutters through his brain, but he can’t grasp it in his blissed-out state.

He’s so out of it that he barely notices Louis easing off of him, standing up and unbuttoning Harry’s shirt with one hand and his own jeans with the other. And it’s…how is it so hot watching him do this when Harry just came? He briefly considers trying to assist Louis, but he’s absolutely boneless right now after one of the most intense orgasms of his entire life.

As soon as Louis has Harry’s shirt open, he’s straddling him, one knee on the chair and the other foot planted on the floor. He starts stroking himself, giving Harry a look that says, “Is this okay?” Harry nods. He doesn’t even have the strength to force out a “yes.” He wants to help Louis out here, he really does, but he can’t seem to move his arms. It doesn’t matter, anyway, because Louis is coming on Harry’s butterfly tattoo in a matter of seconds, muttering something under his breath that sounds a lot like, “fucking gorgeous,” but Harry can’t be sure.

Louis recovers more quickly than Harry, zipping himself back up and exiting the room with the assurance that he’ll be right back. By the time he’s returned with paper towels in various levels of wetness and dryness, Harry has at least recovered his wits enough to have his own jeans zipped. He cleans Louis’ come off his stomach with the paper towels, marveling at how perfectly put together Louis still looks, with his unperturbed quiff and his tight waistcoat that never so much as got unbuttoned.

“That was...unexpected,” he tells Louis, standing up to button his shirt. “But really amazing.” He reaches down and grabs the discarded jacket from the floor.

This feels like a moment in which Harry would normally give someone a kiss of appreciation, but he understands that Louis doesn’t want that. It’s just sex. It doesn’t mean anything.

At least Louis seems pleased that Harry enjoyed it so much. “Of course it was amazing, Curly. I’m the best in the world.”

Curly? Okay. Harry can’t quite tell if the new nickname is meant to be affectionate or mocking.

“Best in the world, huh? Then it’s too bad they don’t give out Academy Awards for sucking dick. You’d finally win.”

“Very funny,” Louis retorts over his shoulder as he heads down the stairs. “Apparently you don’t want to experience my talents again any time soon.”

Harry picks up the pace to catch up to Louis. “Sorry. You must have misunderstood me. I definitely didn’t mean to imply that.”

They’re both giggling like children as they tiptoe back into the theater lobby. The documentary is still running, and there are only a handful of people milling around.

“We should probably go back in,” Harry says without any conviction at all.

“Yeah, we should.”

They don’t go back in. Instead, they rush out to the street to find a cab, leaving poor Sam Clifton to deal with their absence later. They make it back to Harry’s place in plenty of time for part two of the MythBusters marathon, catching each other’s eyes every once in a while from where they’re sat across the room from each other.

Around midnight, Harry wakes up in the recliner to find Liam and Niall sacked out on either end of Liam’s sofa, Niall hugging a pillow and breathing with his mouth wide open. Louis has made his way over to Liam’s bed and is sleeping peacefully with a snoring Bruce curled up at his feet. Harry knows this isn’t real life, that it’s all temporary. But he still can’t help feeling happier than he has in a long time.  

---

“Niall!” Louis calls from his bedroom. “Do I have shoes that are appropriate for hiking? What kind of shoes does one wear to go hiking?”

“How the hell should I know?” Niall yells back.

“I don’t know! I figured you probably did a lot of hiking growing up in Ireland. It seems very hike-able, like you would go out to check on your sheep and to find the ends of rainbows and stuff.”

Niall walks into the bedroom, eating a bowl of Lucky Charms. “That’s really stereotypical, Louis, I can’t believe you would say that. And are you seriously going hiking ? Can I please come? I really want to witness this firsthand.”

“No, Niall, you can’t come on my romantic weekend getaway with Harry. That would be really awkward.”

Niall pauses with the spoon halfway between the bowl and his mouth. “Even more awkward than the fact that you are going on a romantic weekend getaway with someone you aren’t dating and don’t even like?”

Louis ignores the question and ducks into the bathroom to grab his toiletries. He really needs to do a better job of making it seem like he’s dreading this trip with Harry. He can’t risk Niall finding out what’s been going on between them.

It’s the strangest feeling- he never hides anything from Niall. He’s never needed to. Niall knows all of Louis’ dirty secrets. He’s the one who offers Louis’ hookups breakfast and walks them to the door in the morning. But this is…different. It’s still just sex, but it’s sex with the potential to really fuck up Louis’ current PR plan. Niall isn’t going to approve, and Louis doesn’t want to hear it.

On a certain level, Louis knows he’s being selfish. He knows this thing with Harry can’t last and that getting physically involved is going to make things potentially messy at the end. He knows, but he just can’t help himself. He wants it too much to stop right now, and he’s justifying it by focusing on giving Harry pleasure more than on taking it for himself. And giving it to Harry is just so easy. Louis has probably never enjoyed it more- but he’s not going to think about that right now.

When Louis emerges from the bathroom, Niall is sprawled out on his bed flipping through the channels on the enormous flat-screen. Fuck it, Louis thinks, throwing his regular gym shoes into the bag. They’re probably fine for hiking.

“So what kind of trouble am I paying you to get up to while I’m gone this weekend?” he asks Niall.

“Not much,” Niall replies. “Probably hanging with Liam.”

“You two seem to be getting close,” Louis comments, zipping up his bag.

“Liam’s awesome,” Niall informs him. “I hope you’ll ask for him in the divorce.”

Louis snorts. “No way. I’m asking for the dog. And then I’m going to Instagram the shit out of him.”

“Huh?” Niall’s completely lost.

“Just…never mind,” Louis shakes his head. “I have to get going if I’m going to pick up Harry on time.”

“You sure you want to drive yourself? I could still get you a driver. It’d make me feel like I did something employee-ish today.”

“Employee-ish? That sounds terrible, I’d never ask you to do something like that.” Louis realizes he’s grinning goofily at Niall, and dammit, he’s supposed to be acting like he’s not looking forward to this trip. He drops the smile as inconspicuously as he can and clears his throat. “Well, gotta get this over with. See you Sunday. Don’t have sex in my bed.”

“I make no guarantees,” Niall calls after him as he’s walking out the door.

Two hours later, Louis and Harry are finally escaping from the city traffic and letting the top down on the convertible Louis rented for the weekend. The April sun is warm, and the vibrancy of the new season is all around them. The air smells like cool earth and damp grass and fresh hope. The breeze is whipping through Harry’s dark curls and his stupidly wide mouth is stretched into a grin.

“Crazy how good it feels just to get out of the city sometimes!” Harry shouts over the sound of the wind.

Louis nods in agreement. “Shouldn’t take us long to get to Bedford!” he shouts back.

After a few minutes, they give up on trying to yell at each other and turn the music up instead. Harry has his phone hooked up to the car’s Bluetooth connection and is playing DJ. His taste in music surprises Louis. Sure, there are the standard hipster-y selections he expects (most of which he doesn’t recognize), but every once in a while Harry throws in something like Hanson or the Spice Girls, and Louis can’t help but smile.

Before long, they’re pulling up to the Bedford Post Inn, a gorgeous historic property dominated by a large, white, farmhouse-style building and surrounded by woods. It’s breathtaking. And so…quiet.

“This place is beautiful,” Harry observes, climbing out of the car to retrieve their bags from the trunk. They climb the porch steps to the lobby, which is just as quaint as the exterior of the building. It feels like stepping straight into an 1800s homestead- if 1800s homesteaders had had unlimited funds and access to Restoration Hardware, of course.  

A middle-aged woman with a kind face greets them from behind the desk. “Hello, Mr. Tomlinson! We’ve been expecting you!” Harry drops the bags on the carpet quietly, expecting to wait for a few minutes while they get checked in, but apparently checking in is not something Louis Tomlinson needs to do. Another employee appears to whisk their bags away, and the nice lady at the desk—Sandra, her name turns out to be—fills them in with information about the inn’s two restaurants and the schedule for this weekend’s yoga classes.

Harry seems to be soaking in all the yoga info, but Louis is distracted. They’ll be staying in the same room for the next two nights. With one king-sized bed. He knows Harry received all the details from the Sams a few days ago, but the two of them haven’t discussed it. Staying in separate rooms is not an option, as it would defeat the entire purpose of the trip. They’re not in Bedford for pap walks or photo ops, but to be seen by normal people, doing normal couple stuff. To charm the staff, to talk to the other guests at dinner, to hold hands while browsing through antique shops (and hopefully be caught by someone’s iPhone camera while doing so). They’re here to reinforce how organic this relationship is. Louis isn’t sure if it’s more or less pressure than stunting in the city.

“Coming, Lou?” Harry breaks Louis out of his thoughts, gesturing toward Sandra, who’s showing them down the hall toward their room. Lou . That’s a first. Louis tries to conceal the blush he feels creeping up his neck toward his cheeks at Harry’s use of the nickname. It’s no big deal. Harry’s called him honey and sweetheart in front of photographers before, so Lou is nothing. It’s nothing. It shouldn’t feel so intimate, but somehow it does.

There are only eight rooms in the inn, and Louis assumes they’ve been given the best one. He’s stayed in so many posh places over the years that it all starts to run together, but he can certainly appreciate how nice this room is, with its lush bedding and charming fireplace and delightful claw-foot tub in the marbled en suite. He slips the porter a $20, and with a soft click of the door, he and Harry are alone in the room.

Harry’s standing by the bed, looking a little timid, staring at the toes of his boots like he isn’t sure what to say or do now. Louis wants to absolutely wreck him. Instead, he clears his throat tentatively. “Um…is this going to be okay with you? I know it’s kind of awkward but…”

“It’s fine,” Harry looks up. “I understand why. And, I don’t mind sleeping on the floor if that’s what you want.”

Louis crosses the room to stand in front of Harry. “No, of course not! I’d never put you on the floor.”

As soon as it comes out of his mouth, Louis realizes what he’s said. Harry’s already snickering.

“Well, I mean. I would…if you wanted me to.” As soon as Louis looks into Harry’s deep green eyes, Harry stops laughing. They spend a beat staring at each other before Harry tears his gaze away. “You hungry for dinner?”

“Yeah, starving. Let’s get something to eat,” Louis replies, trying to clear his mind. He can’t just pin Harry down on the bed the second they’re in a room alone together. Maybe Harry doesn’t want that. Maybe Harry’s thought it through after their projection-room hook up and wants to back off. Maybe Harry’s decided to be smart about this after all. God knows one of them should be.

They take turns changing in the bathroom and head to Campagna, the more upscale of the inn’s two restaurants. It’s an intimate place featuring a wood-fired grill, and when they walk in, it smells like everything delicious in the world. They order a bottle of red wine and a gourmet pizza to split.

It’s dimly lit inside the dining room, and Louis can’t help but drink in the way Harry looks right now. His curls are still messy from the convertible ride, but Louis has seen high-fashion photo spreads where stylists have spent hours achieving the same look. His green eyes sparkle even without much light to reflect in their irises, and Louis wonders how that’s even possible. Harry’s wearing a crazy patterned button-up with black jeans, and honestly, he looks so out of place amongst all the stuffy, rich clientele at this inn, but Louis is completely endeared by it. Harry stands out in all the best ways, and Louis tells himself that he’s only admiring Harry objectively, as a fellow human being, and nothing more.

The bottle of wine is halfway gone before the pizza shows up. They’re not drunk like they were the other night at the movie premiere, but they’re pleasantly buzzed and their conversation flows easily. They cover a wide range of topics, from how Harry met Liam in school (at a political protest that Harry mistakenly thought was a flash mob and tried to join), to their favorite video games, to Louis’ first acting job in a country-western show at a local theme park. It isn’t deep, but it’s comfortable. You could get used to this, a little voice in the back of Louis’ head tells him, but he drowns it with a little more wine.

After dinner, they order coffee (for Harry) and tea (for Louis) and take it out to the terrace. There are a few other guests around, and they chat for a while. Everyone clearly recognizes Louis, but no one makes a big deal out of it or asks for a photo or an autograph. Still, the story of Louis and Harry together at the inn will make its way into the press. The Sams will make sure of it.

Even though winter is long over, the night is still chilly, and there’s a lovely fire going in the large outdoor fireplace. It’s so relaxing to be here, away from the pressures of the city, away from the prying eyes of Niall and Liam, away from the Sams, away from the hustle and the noise and the pollution. Just…away.

“My favorite thing about being out of the city is being able to really see the sky,” Louis confides in Harry after they’ve settled into a couple of comfy patio chairs. Harry takes a sip of his coffee and looks up. It’s a clear night, and the sky is littered with stars.

“When I was little, my grandma used to tell me that the stars are really points of light from heaven shining through the darkness,” he tells Louis. “She said that God poked tiny holes all over the sky so that heaven could shine through for us just a little. To give us hope.”

Louis turns his attention from the sky to Harry, who’s still looking upward with a peaceful expression on his face. Louis doesn’t know what’s happening to him, why he isn’t taking this perfect opportunity to call Harry out for such blatant cheesiness. But he just can’t do it. He can’t bear to do anything that might erase the look on his face right now.

They sit for a long time in agreeable silence, enjoying the quiet and the stars. Louis can’t help but think that, under different circumstances, he and Harry might actually have become friends. But instead they’re here, wrapped up in a lie with a pre-planned ending. Louis knows that as soon as it’s over, Harry will be anxious to put it all behind him, and that’s all the more reason not to get too attached to Harry as a person. Harry’s dick, on the other hand…well, Louis kind of hopes to squeeze all the fun (figuratively and literally) he possibly can out of that before time’s up.

When they return to their room, however, they’re both tired. There doesn’t seem to be any air of expectation between them tonight, and that’s okay with Louis. Harry half-heartedly reiterates his offer to sleep on the floor.

“Oh please, Harry,” Louis says dismissively. “I share my bed all the time- and with guys I’ve known way less time than I’ve known you.” It’s a true statement, and they both know it, but Louis immediately regrets saying it. The last thing he wants is for Harry to feel disposable in all of this, or that he’s on the same level as a one-night stand. “I could sleep on the floor, though, if you’d be more comfortable.”

“No, it’s fine,” Harry assures him, turning down the covers. “This bed is huge, I’m sure we can manage for a couple of nights.”

When Louis emerges from brushing his teeth and taking out his contacts in the bathroom, Harry is already asleep. He slips into the other side of the bed and turns out the light. The bed is so big that he can’t even feel the dip Harry is making on the other side. This is no big deal. It’s not. Louis shares a bed frequently just like this. He loves sex and doesn’t mind when guys sleep over afterwards, but he hates cuddling and always sticks to his own side of the bed. So, the physical draw his body is experiencing, trying to pull him closer to Harry, to reach out, to touch gently- it’s unsettling, to say the least. It took him a good year to feel comfortable with Niall hugging him, and he and Harry aren’t even friends. This feeling doesn’t make sense. Louis stays awake for nearly an hour, listening to Harry’s soft, even breathing, before falling into a troubled sleep.

The next morning, Louis wakes up to the sound of the shower running in the bathroom and a hot cup of Earl Grey- prepared just the way he likes it- on the bedside table next to him. He sips it while making the morning rounds on his phone- checking his texts, emails, voicemails, etc. A few minutes later, Harry emerges from the steamy bathroom, curls wet, wearing nothing but a tight grey pair of boxer briefs.

Louis holds the mug up to his face long after he’s drained the last drop of tea, hoping it’ll hide his expression. He can’t wrap his mind around the mystery of Harry being so toned and so soft at the same time. His sharp jawline and his plush lips. His deep baritone voice and his smooth curls. His bulging biceps and his fathomless dimples. His tattooed abs and his sweet little love handles. His long, sinewy legs and his squishy little bum. It makes no sense how it all fits together, but it does, and it’s so hot, and well, Louis needs to stop thinking about it this early in the morning. They have a long day ahead.

After Louis showers and they’re both dressed, they head into the little town to grab breakfast and stroll through some of the shops. Whenever Harry senses that someone is taking a surreptitious photo of them, he puts his hand on the small of Louis’ back or laces their fingers together for a few moments. It’s so natural that Louis almost doesn’t notice it anymore. Almost.

They’re not shopping for anything in particular, but Louis buys something small in every shop they go in because he always feels bad if he doesn’t. In one shop, he sees Harry admiring a John Robshaw beach towel with a giant elephant on it, and he’s paid for it before Harry even realizes what’s happening.

“Louis, you just bought me a $125 beach towel,” Harry protests when Louis hands him the bag as they’re exiting the shop. “I go to the beach…maybe once a year when I’m back home.”

“Well, now you can take your new elephant friend with you,” Louis answers with a smile, pulling Harry toward their rented convertible parked at the curb. He doesn’t add the part where he’s hoping that maybe Harry will remember him when he uses it.

Back at the inn, they order a variety of items from the restaurant to pack into a picnic lunch. “Tell me why we’re doing this again,” Louis inquires as he watches Harry dividing the food between their two backpacks and adding a few bottles of water.

“Because the contract states that if we spend more than 24 hours in a row together, I’m allowed to choose one activity that you have to do with me,” Harry states nonchalantly, zipping up the backpacks.

“Really?”

Harry laughs. “No, not really. I knew you didn’t read that contract.”

“Well, it was long!” Louis protests. “That’s what I have the Sams for! And I really can’t believe you chose hiking when you had the opportunity to make me do yoga.”

Harry just shakes his head and offers one of the backpacks to Louis. “I can make you do yoga in the city. We should commune with nature while we have the chance. Ready to go?”

“Ready as I’ll ever be.”

---

The Old Growth Forest Trail at Mianus River Gorge isn’t difficult, it’s just 6.4 miles long, which is a good four miles longer than Louis would care to dedicate to hiking. It isn’t that he lacks the required physical fitness, it’s just that…well, he’s never been a huge lover of the outdoors. He can appreciate nature in reasonable doses, maybe a few quiet moments to himself on an outdoor set while waiting for his call. But definitely not when trying to keeping up with a stupidly long-legged gossip journalist who won’t stop reading the informational brochure out loud.

“The Mianus watershed has been continuously inhabited for 8,000 years,” Harry lectures over his shoulder as Louis huffs behind him, trying to close the distance. “Paleo-Americans from the Ohio River Valley chased saber-tooth tigers and woolly mammoths across the arctic tundra around 6000 BC…Louis, are you listening? Saber-tooth tigers! That’s bad ass!”

Louis doesn’t answer. He’s discovered a nice, flat rock to sit down on, and he’s taking a break. Right here, right now. Maybe Harry will forget about him and pick him up on the way back. No such luck. Harry turns around and doubles back, plopping down besides Louis on the rock.

“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have dragged you out here. I just thought it might be fun.”

There’s a little catch in Louis’ chest at the idea of making Harry feel bad. Which, ironically, was something he was living for just a few weeks ago. “I’m totally having fun!” He may be selling it a little too hard. “I just need a short break. You might have noticed I’m a few tiny inches shorter than you, so I’m having trouble keeping up.”

“Sorry,” Harry replies sheepishly. “I got a little carried away. It’s really pretty here. I love seeing new places.”

Louis looks around. It really is very beautiful. The spring air is crisp, and the entire forest seems to be coming alive after a long, cold winter. There are fresh blades of grass springing up everywhere and even a few stray flowers starting to bloom. Birds are singing, leaves are rustling, they’ve even seen a couple of bunnies hopping around. It’s some real Bambi-type shit out here, and Louis is going to appreciate the hell out of it if that’s what Harry wants.

“I couldn’t agree more,” he assures Harry, pulling off his backpack and unzipping it. “Do you want to eat lunch now? Apparently hiking makes me hungry.”

Harry frowns and studies the brochure. “It says here that eating outside the designated picnic areas is strictly forbidden.”

Louis creates the most dramatic pout he possibly can by pushing out his lower lip and fluttering his eyelashes. “Pleeeeeeease? I’m so hungry. Can’t you break the rules for me just one time?”

Harry rolls his eyes and starts opening his backpack. “I think I’ve already broken at least a dozen rules for you.” He tries to look displeased, but he’s smiling as he starts unpacking the picnic food and spreading it out between them on the rock. There’s roasted carrot salad, giant chicken club sandwiches overflowing with juicy tomatoes and ripe slices of avocado, and several containers of fresh fruit, cookies, and brownies. It’s enough for at least half a dozen people.

They’re so hungry that they don’t talk much while they’re eating, but after their bellies are full and the food containers are packed away again, they stretch out on the rock, side by side on their backs.

“I’m stuffed,” Louis groans. “There’s no way I can continue this hike, so you are just going to have to carry me back to the car like a baby koala. Is there something about that in the contract?”

“Actually, yeah. The Sams stipulated that I’m allowed to leave you in the woods whenever I deem appropriate.”

“Does this feel like an appropriate time?” Louis wants to know.

Harry rolls over on his side facing Louis and props his head up on his elbow. “No way! We still have to see the waterfall.”

“Ughhh…okay, but I need at least five more minutes to let this food settle,” Louis bargains. “Let’s talk about something.”

“What do you want to talk about?” Harry asks.

“I don’t know. Anything but the history of this river gorge, please,” Louis begs. “Tell me something about yourself that I don’t know.”

“Hmmmm. Okay. My name actually isn’t Harry, it’s Harold.”

“Harold?!” This is excellent news, and Louis is delighted.

“Yep. Harold. It’s after a great-uncle.” Harry’s blushing a little, waiting for Louis to make fun of his name.

Louis shifts his focus from the sky to Harry’s face. “I like it, Harold. It suits you. You’re an old soul.”

This level of eye contact is way too much for the forest in the middle of the day. Harry flops back down on his back again.

After a moment of silence, Louis asks, a bit hesitantly, “So have you seen that guy again? The one you were so torn up about?”

“I wasn’t torn up,” Harry disputes. “I was just…confused. And yeah, I see him all the time. I work with him.”

“You do?!” Louis stiffens a little. “It’s not…is it Jeff?”

“No, it isn’t Jeff,” Harry chuckles. “Although he does figure into the story.”

“How?” Louis narrows his eyebrows.

“You know what? This isn’t fair. I told you something you didn’t know about me, and then you changed the subject before I could ask you the same question.”

“Sorry, I can’t risk my personal information winding up in New York Weekly.”

“Oh please, I’m going to print your personal information in New York Weekly no matter what.” Harry wavers for a moment, trying to decide whether or not to say something else. “Have you ever had a boyfriend?”

“I’ve had tons of boyfriends, Curly. You know that.”

“No, I mean, like a proper boyfriend. A real relationship.”

Louis sighs dramatically. “If you must know, I did once. It was back when I was living in L.A., trying to get my acting career going. He was a publicist, still is. I met him at a studio one day when I was walking out of an audition. Ran into him and we knocked each other down. Just like in the movies. Some real Hollywood shit.”

“And….?” Harry presses.

“And what?” Louis shrugs. “I was 23. It was more than five years ago. We broke up. The end.”

“What’s his name?”

“Why the fuck does it matter?” Louis clearly doesn’t want to talk about this anymore. “His name is Aiden. You know what? I’m feeling so much better, my food is all settled, let’s hike another 10 miles!” He sits up abruptly, grabbing his now much-lighter backpack and slinging it over his shoulders.

Harry decides not to push the subject any further for the moment. They press on for two more miles in silence until they reach the waterfall. It’s not nearly as impressive as Harry had hoped, but it’s still picturesque and big enough to create the satisfying roar of water rushing over rock. He takes out his iPhone to snap a few photos for Instagram. The Sams will want Louis tagged in them. Louis is a few feet away, looking lost in contemplation as he watches the stream flow by.

“He left me because I wasn’t ready to come out.” Louis’ voice can barely be heard over the sound of the waterfall.

Harry doesn’t respond yet, just turns to look at Louis, waiting to see if that’s all he’s going to share.

“I was just starting to get some real acting gigs,” Louis continues, not looking away from the rushing water. “My managers at the time—not the Sams—were insistent that my image remain as ‘neutral’ as possible, which of course meant as straight as possible. I just couldn’t do it.”

“It’s okay to not be ready,” Harry says cautiously, as if Louis is a bird he’s afraid of startling away.

“I know,” Louis replies, even though he doesn’t sound convinced. “But it wasn’t okay with him. And after we broke up, I realized how much I enjoyed being single and living without that kind of attachment. It’s liberating. As a matter of fact, I think you even agreed with this viewpoint the other night at the movie premiere.” He puts on his classic Louis smirk but it doesn’t reach his eyes.

“Well,” Harry says, tossing a rock into the flowing water and watching it disappear. “You can be very persuasive.”

They stare at each other, and suddenly, lightning flashes. Literal lightning. Followed by a rolling rumble of thunder in the distance. The sky begins to darken eerily quickly.

“Did you check the weather? Was it supposed to rain today?” Louis questions Harry, scrambling to pick up his backpack from where he’d laid it on the ground.

Harry follows suit quickly, glancing up at the sky. “I didn’t see anything in the forecast. Shit, we better start moving, we’re miles away from the car.”

They start out as fast as they can, but Harry makes a conscious effort to slow down for Louis instead of stalking too far ahead on his long legs. For the first half a mile, it seems like the storm clouds might pass them over, but then the wind picks up again and the first few splashes of cold rain begin to hit their noses and cheeks. A few minutes later, the sky opens up and it starts pouring.

It isn’t long before they’re soaked to the bone. Harry’s curls are matted to his forehead and his white T-shirt is clinging to his biceps, chest, and abs. Louis’ fringe is equally destroyed, and there are tiny raindrops hanging from his long eyelashes and the tip of his nose. Harry turns around to make sure Louis is still behind him. They both realize their sorry state of affairs and burst into laughter.

“This is the worst hike I’ve ever been on, Harold,” Louis accuses.

“It’ll be even worse when you remember you didn’t put the top up on the convertible,” Harry responds with a wink.

"Fuck! I didn’t?!”

Harry’s laughter peals out through the rain. “I’m just kidding. You did. Come on, let’s get out of here before we get struck by lightning.”

The storm begins to intensify as they push down the trail toward the relative safety of the car. The path is getting slick with the rain, and at one point Harry’s foot loses traction, causing him to slip a little. Louis steadies him with a hand to the waist and gives him a little push forward. Without thinking, Harry grabs Louis by the hand, and they continue on in the downpour.

With about a mile to go, lightning strikes somewhere in the woods near them, making them both jump out of their skin. A deafening peal of thunder immediately follows, the air still crackling with electricity. There’s a distinct scream and then the sound of crying coming through the rain. Harry’s heart begins pounding as he searches to see where it’s coming from.

Just ahead of them on the trail is a family- a dad and mom with three small children- trying to make their way out of the woods in the deluge. Their progress is clearly being impeded by how frightened the children are of the storm. The dad is attempting to carry both little boys and a large picnic basket, while the mom is struggling to calm a slightly older little girl who is clinging to her leg, too scared to move.

Louis and Harry catch up to them easily. There’s a hint of recognition in both parents’ eyes as soon as they see Louis. Another lightning bolt strikes nearby, and all three children scream bloody murder. Even the adults are alarmed as a hiss whistles through the air, followed by another earsplitting crack of thunder. The wind is whipping through the forest so violently now that branches are beginning to crash to the ground.

Louis is bending down in front of the little girl, whose dark hair is sopping wet. “I’m Louis,” he tells her over sound of the storm. Her brown eyes are as big as saucers as she clings to her mother. “I’m really fast on this trail, and I want to get out of here and go home as bad as you do. Would you let me carry you so we can all go faster?”

She gives a wary nod, and Louis scoops her up into his arms. Harry offers to take one of the little boys, the dad transfers the picnic basket to the mom, and all they take off at the quickest pace possible.

“Thanks!” the dad yells to Louis and Harry over the roar of wind and rain. “Thought we’d be forever getting out of here!”

“What’s your name, love?” Harry hears Louis ask the little girl as they press forward.

“Mia,” she tells him shyly. “I’m five. My brothers are two. They’re twins!”

“I have twins in my family, too!” Louis exclaims, as another lightning strike streaks through the air and hits somewhere in the trees on the right. Mia lets out a terrified squeal and buries her face into Louis’ neck. Harry can’t make out anything Louis says after that. He’s speaking in Mia’s ear in a low tone so that she has to strain to hear him over the pounding rain, so that all her concentration has to be on whatever he’s saying. She’s so intent on listening to Louis that she doesn’t even seem to notice the next round of lightning and thunder.

By the time they finally reach the head of the trail near the parking area, the storm is dying down a little, and Mia is laughing at whatever Louis is telling her. Harry’s insides are positively twisted as he watches Louis deposit the sweet girl in her mother’s arms and carry the picnic basket to the family’s SUV.

The rain calms to a drizzle, and the adults are finally able to have a proper conversation standing next to the car. The parents introduce themselves to Louis and Harry as Steve and Rebecca and thank them profusely for helping them bring the kids down the trail.

“You’re the sweetest couple,” Rebecca tells them, eyes shining with gratitude. “Just a complete godsend right when we needed you. That storm came out of nowhere!”

She blushingly asks if the family can get a photo with Louis, and he obliges, taking Mia back onto his hip and giving a thumbs-up to Harry, who’s been handed Rebecca’s iPhone. After that, all seven of them take a selfie together. They look like exhausted, waterlogged messes, but it’s still adorable.

At long last, Louis and Harry are able to climb into their rented convertible and turn the heat on to start drying off. They’re both freezing.

“You have that beach towel in the backseat you could dry off with,” Louis reminds Harry.

“I can’t dry off with a $125 beach towel!”

“Why not? That’s what it’s fucking for!” Louis looks at Harry like he’s insane.

“It’s too nice!” Harry explains. “I don’t want to mess it up.”

Louis shakes his head but he’s laughing. “That is exactly what someone named Harold would say. Do you also keep the plastic wrap on your lampshades so they won’t get dusty?”

“Very funny. Now shut up and drive, movie star.”

The rest of the ride back to the inn is quiet, only the sounds of rain ticking on the windshield and the whoosh of the car’s heater. Harry’s mind is preoccupied by the image of Louis with Mia. He knows Louis has little sisters, so it probably just comes naturally to him, but seeing him that way had felt like getting a glimpse into a side of him that stays mostly hidden from others. Kind of like the first night they’d met, when Louis had been so sick and vulnerable.

They’re not even close to being dry by the time they return to the white farmhouse, and as they enter the lobby, the thunder starts to rumble again. It’s almost completely dark inside the inn. No power. An employee greets them with a large flashlight, a few fat candles, and a lighter.

“We have a back-up generator, but it seems to be malfunctioning right now,” he informs them apologetically. “We have someone here to work on it, but it might be a couple of hours. Housekeeping has already turned on the fireplace in your room for you.”

Weary, cold, and soaked, they head down the hall. As Louis is opening the door to the room, they hear someone or something inside. He looks at Harry quizzically, but as soon as they step in, they realize that it’s Harry’s phone, still on the bedside table playing music from earlier in the afternoon.

“Is that the Kidz Bop version of ‘Love Me Like You Do’?” Louis asks incredulously.

“Uh, I don’t know how that got on there. I think my sister did it to mess with me,” Harry lies through his teeth.

The fire has warmed the room up nicely and is casting a welcoming glow around the room. Louis sets the candles around in the places where it’s darker and lights them. When he turns around he finds that Harry has stripped all his wet clothes off right in the middle of the room. He’s just standing there- naked as the day he was born- pinning Louis down with a deliberate stare. The ridiculous cover song fades to something Louis has never heard before, but his brain latches on to the word “wild,” and it immediately sets his heart racing.

Harry takes one step closer. He looks utterly and completely serious, and it makes Louis’ stomach flip all the way upside down.

“Take off your clothes.” Harry’s voice sounds deeper than Louis has ever heard it, and fuck.

He obeys without hesitation, stripping off his wet T-shirt, shorts, boxer briefs, socks, and shoes, kicking everything into a pile at the foot of the bed.

Harry steps closer until he’s standing an arm’s length away from Louis.

“Let me look at you. I haven’t actually ever…” Harry’s voice breaks a little as he reaches out to brace Louis’ hips with his hands, tilting him backwards and laying him down on the bed. “Is this okay?” he asks, and Louis nods. It feels like his skin has gone from freezing to burning in 10 seconds flat. He’s so turned on by being naked with Harry, but he feels like he has no control right now and it scares him to death. He tries to focus on the song lyrics. White noise in my mind…won’t calm down…you’re all I think about. Okay, well, that isn’t helping.

Louis is on his back now, and Harry sits next to him, not touching, just looking. Well, looking probably isn’t the appropriate term. More like devouring with his eyes. Louis can’t remember ever feeling so exposed.

“Do you ever let anyone just look at you?” Harry asks so softly Louis can barely hear it.

“Of course,” Louis tries to deflect, his voice coming out in a wrecked whisper he doesn’t even recognize. “People look at me all the time.”

Harry brings his gaze up from Louis’ lower body to look directly into his eyes. “But do they ever see you?”

Louis swallows hard and lets out a shuddery breath. He’s burning with a need unlike any he’s felt before, something so much more than physical. He doesn’t want to feel it, but he’s powerless to push it away. He’s so hard it almost hurts, and Harry hasn’t even touched him.

“Can I touch you?” Harry murmurs, right on cue. Louis nods again. He doesn’t trust himself to speak.

The next 10 minutes can only be described as an act of reverence. Louis’ body is a church, and Harry has come to worship. He touches Louis softly, everywhere, running his hands down the length of his body and back up again. He isn’t groping, he isn’t grabbing. He’s learning. There’s no urgency to it. It feels like it could go on forever. Outside, the storm has returned, rain pounding on the windows and thunder rolling over the roof. But inside, it’s nothing but Louis and Harry and the light of the fire, Harry’s hands moving over Louis’ skin like a silent prayer.

On his second pass down Louis’ body, Harry pauses and tenderly grasps his right foot.

“You have a tattoo here. I never noticed.” He leans down and presses his lips lightly to the triangle inked on Louis’ outer ankle. Louis moans out loud. It’s his ankle, for Christ’s sake, but it’s also the very first time Harry has ever touched him with those lips, and those lips have been on his mind since the moment they met.

Harry crawls up Louis’ body, pressing kisses into his skin all the way back up his right leg, across his belly, to the top of his chest, and over his collarbones. He’s on his hands and knees on top of Louis now, keeping his weight off him, but his dick still brushes against Louis’ hip. Their faces are so close that their noses are almost touching. Louis is sure that Harry is about to kiss him on the mouth, but when Harry parts his lips it’s only to ask, “Do you have lube?”

Louis struggles to swim back up to a reality in which he can form words. “Never leave home without it.”

Harry jumps off the bed to rummage around in Louis’ toiletry bag for the lube. Louis can’t even form the words to direct him to it. He’s breathless and expectant and anxious and, more than anything, hard as a fucking rock.

Harry finds what he’s looking for and returns to the bed. He kneels between Louis’ legs and gently pushes his knees apart. A moment later, he’s pressing one lubed finger inside while Louis gasps and arches his back, his eyes squeezed shut tight while he focuses on the feeling and tries to breathe.

The thing is, Louis has sex all the time. Whenever he wants it, really. But it usually involves standing up for blow jobs in bathrooms and bending booty calls over the kitchen counter for a quick fuck. It’s not…this. It’s not being slowly considered, slowly explored, and then slowly taken apart. It’s never this. Louis can’t remember the last time he wasn’t in control, the last time he let someone in, in any sense of the word.

Because of that, it takes a minute to get used to even one of Harry’s long fingers, and Louis doesn’t really mind that he’s still going so slow. Harry’s lost in deep concentration on what he’s doing, taking in the full sight of Louis spread apart in front of him. Louis’ cheeks flame when he realizes what Harry’s view must look like, but he’s too far gone to care.

When Louis finally relaxes, Harry pushes a second finger in beside the first, eliciting a fresh gasp followed by another moan.

“Okay?” Harry whispers, his voice coming out almost as wrecked as Louis’.

“Yes,” Louis rasps. “But Curly,”—he has to catch his breath—“if you’re trying to open me up for you, you’re going to have to give me at least one more. I’ve seen your cock.”

Harry responds by working his fingers even further inside, searching for Louis’ prostate.

“I’m not opening you up for me. I just want to make you feel good. Louis. I just want to see you.”

And oh. Harry’s definitely found the right spot now. Louis thrusts his hips forward and his head back, reaching down for his cock, but Harry pushes his hand away. He takes Louis into his own hand, squeezing his cock with just the right amount of pressure and rubbing his thumb back and forth over the leaking head. Louis bucks his hips up, hoping that Harry will start stroking him in earnest, but Harry doesn’t. Instead he focuses all his effort on rubbing Louis’ spot with the two fingers he has buried inside.

“Like this,” Harry instructs him. “I want you to come from the inside out.”

Inside out is exactly how Louis feels as his orgasm hits him, every nerve ending in his body flipping end over end as he clenches down on Harry’s fingers and shoots into Harry’s hand and up over his own stomach, not even realizing how loud he’s crying out. Harry strokes him through it before slowly pulling his fingers out.

“I’ll be right back,” he reassures Louis, rolling off the bed and heading to the bathroom, flashlight in hand. He barely makes it through the bathroom door before he’s got a hand on himself, coming with two quick jerks into a washcloth. He feels around for some towels, dampening one in the sink and taking it along with a dry one back out to the bedroom. Louis’ breathing has returned to normal, but he hasn’t moved a muscle.

Harry wants to clean him up, but he’s not sure if that’s okay. So he just hands the towels to Louis and uses the flashlight to look in both of their bags for underwear. They put them on and slip under the covers together, Harry taking the liberty to lie much closer to Louis than the night before, but still not touching.

“That was…um,” Louis finally has his voice back but his brain still hasn’t quite caught up. “I didn’t get a chance to…did you want…”

“Wanted to make you feel good,” comes Harry’s sleepy reply. Louis feels himself starting to drift off, too, so he doesn’t say anything more. It’s been a long, eventful day. Somehow, the music is still playing from the bedside table. Louis recognizes this one- Joni Mitchell.

Oh you are in my blood like holy wine,

You taste so bitter and so sweet oh,

I could drink a case of you darling,

and I would still be on my feet.

Harry’s iPhone dies before the second verse. The last thing Louis remembers is hearing the rain and seeing the fire and feeling the weight of a broad hand settling on his hip.

---

Post-Bedford trip, a dam seems to have broken between Louis and Harry. It’s as if both of them have given up fighting the urge to keep their hands off each other, even though they want different things, even though their time together is caught in an hourglass they can’t break open.

Louis is thoroughly surprised and elated to learn that Harry is a huge fan of sending dick pics. Not only that, but he’s artsy about it. Black-and-whites, inventive angles, artistic balances of light and shadow- it’s so fucking absurd, but Louis can’t even bring himself to care because…well, it’s one nice cock.

Harry begs him to send pictures in return, but for once, Louis abides by the contract he’s signed with his management team. He can’t send photos, but he makes up for it with dirty texts. And if Harry is an expert in the realm of nudes, then Louis is more than proficient at sexting.

A couple of days after the trip, the story of Louis and Harry helping the family in the woods gains traction because of Steve and Rebecca’s post about it on social media. The next day, it’s syndicated all over the world. The Sams are ecstatic, as are Harry’s bosses at New York Weekly. Another story emerges as well, reports from hotel guests about the “intimate noises” coming from Louis and Harry’s room while they were staying at the inn.

“This is fucking fantastic!” Sam Clifton exclaims to Louis over the phone. “We don’t even have to make this shit up, they’re doing it for us!”

One afternoon the next week, Louis has Harry pinned to Harry’s bed, the sheets pulled up to their shoulders, working both of their lubed-up cocks in his hand furiously. They’ve been at it for at least half an hour, teasing and biting and touching, and they’re both so wrapped up in it that they have no idea that Bruce is peeking over the foot of the bed and will never be the same.

Louis has Harry right where he wants him- desperate and whimpering. As their rhythm reaches a fever pitch, Harry’s voice goes uncharacteristically high, and all he can do is chant ohmygod ohmygod ohmygod over and over until they both fall over the edge together, panting and gasping.

“OH MY GOD!”

Louis snaps his eyes open. That definitely wasn’t one of Harry’s ohmygods. It appears that someone is standing in the “door hole.”  

“Oh hey, Liam, what’s up?” Louis asks nonchalantly. Thank Jesus they’re covered by the sheets. Harry is just now coming down enough to realize what’s going on.

“Liam, what are you doing here?” Harry exclaims before Liam even has a chance to answer Louis. The look on Liam’s face is potentially the greatest and worst thing Harry has ever seen.  

“What am I doing here?! I came home to check on the dog!” Liam finally squeaks out, as flustered as Harry’s ever seen him. His face is bright red. “What are you two doing? And in front of Bruce! Look at him! He’s clearly traumatized!”

Bruce barks loudly and wags his tail, but it’s difficult to tell whether he’s agreeing or disagreeing with Liam.

Louis awkwardly slides off Harry and to the side, keeping the covers tight around them. “Well, Liam,” he begins, “First of all, I want you to know that your mom here and I really love each other—“

“Oh, shut the fuck up,” Liam interrupts, stepping cautiously toward the foot of the bed to retrieve his dog, as if something might jump out and grab him if he gets too close. “Come on, Bruce. I’m so sorry you had to go through this.”

Liam and Bruce pause at the doorway on their way out of the room. “I’ll speak to you young men about this later- when you’re decent,” Liam scolds, his face scrunched up in a look of disapproval. “But right now, I have to go look up a dog psychologist for Bruce so we can get him some help as soon as possible.”

Liam turns to go, but Harry calls him back. “Liam! You can’t tell Niall about this. Please…we just…we aren’t…it’ll be a mess with the contract and…”

“Liam, I’ll give you $10,000 if you don’t tell Niall about this between now and July,” Louis intervenes coolly.

“What the hell?” Harry and Liam say in absolute unison.

“What?” Louis asks. “Is that bad? It seemed like a reasonable amount.”

Harry shakes his head. “You don’t have to buy his silence, Louis. We can trust Liam. If we ask him not to tell, he won’t tell. Right, Liam?”

“Of course,” Liam promises. Harry knows he has a lot of explaining to do, but he can’t worry about that now, not when his body is quite literally still stuck to Louis’ with come and sweat. He relaxes a bit as soon as Liam shuts the door, though his heart is still pounding from the sex and from getting caught.

“Ten grand, huh?” he asks Louis. “And all I get is a hand job, maybe a nice dinner tonight?”

“You want more then?” Louis teases. “What can I buy you?”

“The moon,” Harry decides arbitrarily.

“The moon it is, young Harold. I’ll work on getting that for you right away,” Louis laughs as he gets up to head to the bathroom, ignoring the little part of him that unreasonably wishes he could do exactly that.

---

So are you ever gonna fuck me orrrrrr

Harry chokes on his coconut water when the text comes in from Louis. He’s sitting at his desk at New York Weekly¸ putting the finishing touches on a piece he’s written about Chris Pratt’s involvement with the March of Dimes. He quickly throws his phone into his desk drawer and slams it shut, as if that will somehow cause his face to quit burning and his stomach to stop trying to relocate into his chest.

He wants to. He definitely wants to. It just feels like kind of a big deal, especially for two people who are supposed to be counting down the days until they never have to see each other again. It’s a dangerous enough game they’re playing already. He grabs his phone back out of his desk.

I don’t know, maybe. Are you ever going to let me kiss you

He nervously waits for a response. Maybe it’s too much to ask. But if today’s the day for being bold…

Yes

Holy shit. Harry shifts in his chair. How is he getting hard over a simple one-word text? His phone buzzes again.

Tonight?

Holy shit, holy shit. This is going to happen tonight. Harry types a quick response as he starts gathering his belongings from around his cubicle.

I can be over around 6:00

A minute after that and I won’t let you up, comes Louis' reply.

Harry doesn’t believe that threat for a second, but he’s still not planning to test it. He runs into Liam on his way out of the office.

"Where are you headed in such a hurry?” Liam wants to know. “Or do I even need to ask?”

"Gotta run,” Harry responds, slapping Liam on the shoulder and ignoring his question. “Lunch tomorrow…we’ll talk, I promise.” It’s not that he’s been avoiding Liam since Liam caught him and Louis in bed together, it’s just that…okay, he’s been avoiding Liam. It’s just that he knows Liam will ask the tough questions, and right now, Harry just doesn’t know how to answer them, even for himself.

“I’m going to hold you to it!” Liam calls after him as he takes off down the hall. Harry knows he will.

---

It’s 5:55. Louis bites his lip nervously while making one last trip around his apartment to make sure everything looks right. His housekeeper had been in earlier in the day, so everything is clean and organized. He’d lit some candles and put on some music. He’d showered and put on a pair of soft sweatpants and an old New York Islanders T-shirt. No underwear—no point in that. Nothing left to do but pace around like an idiot waiting for Harry to arrive.  

Any voice in his head telling him that this is a bad idea has been silenced for hours now, maybe even days. He doesn’t understand what it is about Harry that does this to him, that draws him in with such an aching need to be closer, and he doesn’t allow himself to think about it. This thing is like a boulder that’s been pushed down a steep hill. It’s rolling, and nothing is going to stop it now. All Louis can do is enjoy the ride and hope that no one gets crushed at the bottom.

His buzzer rings at 5:58, and he smiles, relieved that he won’t have to pretend he’s not going to let Harry up for being late. “Come on up, the elevator code's 1224 in case you forgot,” he speaks into the intercom and drops the button so that he can go grab two bottles of water out of the kitchen.

He hears Harry walk in a minute later and turns around from the refrigerator to greet him.

Only. It isn’t Harry.

Louis stands in stunned silence as his visitor smiles apprehensively. “Louis. It’s been a while.”

Before Louis can form a coherent thought or plan, Harry enters the room with a huge grin that quickly turns to a look of confusion. Louis would quite like to sink through the floor and into an alternate universe where this isn’t happening. But there’s no escape like in the movies.

He clears his throat and extends his hands toward his two guests. “Aiden, this is Harry. Harry, this is Aiden.”  

Chapter Text

Harry freezes for a beat, and Louis can tell he’s processing the information he’s just received. Aiden. Realization dawns on Harry’s face, but he quickly hides whatever expression was forming and extends his hand for Aiden to shake.

“Nice to meet you,” he says, smiling widely. “Are you the private chef? I didn’t think we were doing that tonight, babe.” He looks from Aiden to Louis expectantly.

Louis’s eyes widen as he understands what's going on. Harry knows exactly who the fuck Aiden is, he’s just refusing to let on. He shoots Louis a quick wink.

“Uh, no, no, not a chef,” Aiden chuckles uneasily, dropping Harry’s hand. “I’m just an old friend of Louis’, from L.A. I’m in town to see a client and thought I’d drop by since I was in the neighborhood. I’m sorry to interrupt…I should have called first.”

“Oh, no, it’s no problem! What a lovely surprise!” Harry is still smiling and looking at Louis- who has yet to say a word- silently urging him to speak up and end the awkwardness.

“I’m just so surprised to see you,” Louis finally stammers. It’s the understatement of the year, but it’s all he can come up with at the moment. Aiden’s timing could not possibly be worse.

Louis and Harry are still staring at each other, even as they both address Aiden. Aiden looks back and forth between them uncertainly.  “Well, listen, I should let you two be, but I’ll be in town for a few days. Maybe we can grab lunch or something?”

Louis finally shifts his gaze from Harry to Aiden. His eyes are searching Louis’ hopefully—for what, Louis can only guess. He still can’t believe Aiden is here, standing in his kitchen. It doesn’t seem real. There were nights in his past that he would have given just about anything to have Aiden show up like this, but this isn’t one of those nights. Louis has plans.  

When Louis doesn’t answer Aiden right away, Harry clears his throat and says, “You know, Louis and I don’t have anything important going on tonight. Why don’t you two grab dinner and catch up? I can meet you for drinks later.”

“That’d be great,” Aiden responds in a rush, looking at Louis for approval. Louis feels as if he’s moving under water, like everything he says and does is happening with a 10-second lag time behind reality. He can’t very well say no to this now. Thanks a lot, Harry.

“Um, sure,” he agrees, trying his best to sound like it’s no big deal. “We can do that. Just let me walk you out, Harry.”

Louis grabs Harry’s elbow and guides him back to the front door, growling at him the entire way. “I’m glad to hear we didn’t have anything important going on tonight.”

“I had to do something,” Harry defends himself. “You were standing there like a deer in the headlights!”

“I’m sorry,” Louis offers. He knows he was useless in there. “This is just so… I don’t even know what to say. I haven’t even talked to him in almost a year. I swear.”

Harry hesitates for a moment, choosing his words carefully. “You don’t owe me an explanation,” he finally says. “You can do whatever you want. You know that.”

“I do know that,” Louis replies with a huff. Harry is being way too nonchalant about all this, and it’s pissing him off, even though he doesn’t know why. It’s the condition Louis imposed on this arrangement, after all. “I just thought…never mind. I’ll call you after dinner.”

“Sounds good.” Harry looks Louis up and down and bites his lower lip. “I’ll just take a raincheck on the…you know.” He raises one eyebrow at Louis suggestively, leering as Louis shoves him out the door. Honestly. If Harry is going to sell Louis out to his intruding ex-boyfriend so easily, he’ll be damn lucky to get a raincheck.

Now that Harry’s gone and the reality of the situation is setting in, Louis feels nervous as hell. He can’t believe Aiden just showed up like this, no call, no text, nothing. It’s not at all like the Aiden Louis knows. He’s not spontaneous. He likes order, schedules, absolutes. Louis wipes his sweaty palms on his T-shirt as he heads back to the kitchen to face the only man he’s ever loved. Well, maybe loved. He sure thought so at the time, anyway. 

Aiden’s standing by the large granite-topped island, still looking unsure of himself. He’s wearing his hair differently now, a little longer on one side, but everything else about him looks just the same as Louis remembers. He’s handsome in a very conventional way, like a 1980s movie villain. He’s wearing a dark jacket and a grey scarf, which is ridiculous in this weather, but Louis remembers what it was like living in L.A. and freezing in 65-degree weather.

“What’s with the asymmetrical look?” he asks, flicking Aiden’s hair with one finger as he walks past him to lean across the other side of the island.

Aiden smiles, looking relieved that Louis doesn’t seem to be mad about him showing up out of the blue.

“It’s fashion forward, L. The crooked look is in right now. You’d know if you ever dragged your ass to L.A. anymore.”

“Mmmm,” Louis answers noncommittally as he starts pulling take-out menus from a drawer. “I prefer to hide my ass in New York. It’s quieter here.”

Aiden snorts. “Are you kidding? This is the loudest place in the world. The noise never stops here.”

“Quieter in a different way, I mean. And I like the noise,” Louis says with a shrug. “It’s comforting.”

Aiden just shakes his head. He’s L.A. through and through. Louis knows he’ll never understand the appeal of New York, so he doesn’t try explaining further. “Is take-out okay? I’m in the mood for Chinese.”

They order dinner in, several cartons of fried rice, sesame chicken, and crab wontons. Louis opens a bottle of white wine, and they eat on the floor in the living room, the food spread out on the coffee table, just like they used to do in Louis’ tiny apartment in West Hollywood.

The shock of seeing Aiden has worn off, and Louis spends most of dinner questioning him about work and their mutual acquaintances in the business, getting all the latest gossip. He fills Aiden in on his last few film projects and some of the scripts he’s been reading. He doesn’t mention the werewolf movie, though. He knows Aiden well enough to know that he’ll side with the Sams. He’s an industry person first and foremost, and always will be.

“So,” Louis finally says when he’s too full to take another bite. “What are you really doing here, Aiden?”

Aiden tries to look shocked by the question. “I was in town. I wanted to see you.”

“Aiden, you come to New York at least five times a year, and you never even call. Don’t think I can’t still spot your bullshit from a mile away.” There’s no malice in Louis’ tone, just the directness that comes with intimacy and tends to remain even after the intimacy itself is gone.

Aiden sighs, knows he’s been caught. “Okay. The truth is, I’ve been seeing you and your boyfriend everywhere, and I can’t stop thinking about you.” The words tumble out as Aiden stares intently at his glass of wine. “I can’t stop thinking about how, if you want to be out like this, it should be with me.”

Louis thinks he must be hearing this wrong. He and Aiden have been over for years. “Out like this? That doesn’t make sense,” he responds, shaking his head with disbelief. “I’ve been out for a long time.”

“You’ve been out, yeah, but you haven’t been with anyone. Not like a real relationship,” Aiden explains. “I guess I always thought that when that time came…I don’t know. I thought it would be with me.”

The sting of long-forgotten hurts rises in Louis’ chest and throat as he attempts to process what Aiden is saying. He takes another sip of wine- more like a swig, really- to try to tamp the memories back down.

“It was with you, Aiden. We were in a relationship. It just wasn’t good enough for you when I was still closeted.” Louis sighs. “You don’t get to change your mind and come back now, when things are easier.”

All of the sudden, Louis feels tired. Like really tired. Maybe even a little bit drunk, except he’s only had a glass and a half of wine. Maybe seeing his ex-boyfriend so unexpectedly is affecting him more than he realizes. Aiden is looking down at his hands, trying to figure out what to say next.

“I know I don’t have any right to barge back into your life, Louis,” he says quietly. “It’s just so hard knowing that you’re ready for everything now, and I’ve missed my chance to be the one you share it with. No disrespect to Harry. It’s just…seeing you with him has made me realize how much I miss you.”

It’s a completely inappropriate reaction, but Louis laughs and inadvertently snorts wine up his nose. “Shit! Ouch!” he exclaims, leaning forward and pinching the bridge of his nose to make the pain go away.

“Are you okay? Do you need some water?” Aiden scrambles to his knees and puts a hand on Louis’ shoulder. He seems concerned, but also a little put-out that Louis is now giggling in the middle of their serious conversation.

“No, no. Sorry. I’m sorry.” Louis falls back to a seated position, trying to get a grip on both his wine glass and reality. He feels like he’s floating on air, like he’s listening to the sound of his own voice from another room. It’s so weird.

“Well, not that it’s any of your business,” he informs Aiden, with a little poke to the chest for emphasis. “But Harry isn’t actually my boyfriend. It’s PR. My management set it up.”

Aiden doesn’t say anything at first. He just reaches for his glass of wine and takes a thoughtful sip. “I’m honestly surprised. And a little disappointed in myself for not catching it. You two are very…convincing.”

“Well, Aiden,” Louis blusters, “That is why I get paid the big bucks. I’m a very excellent and accomplished actor.” Louis’s head falls forward after this statement, and he feels like lifting it again will be far too much work.

“Louis, are you all right?” Aiden’s worried voice cuts through the haze in Louis’ mind. “You seem really out of it.”

“I feel out of it,” Louis slurs. And suddenly he remembers. “I took a…muscle relaxer earlier. Do you think…”

“Louis!” Aiden admonishes. “You took a muscle relaxer and then you drank wine? No wonder you’re about to pass out on top of the fortune cookies. You can’t do that!”

“I did do that,” Louis mumbles. “Oops.”

“What did you take a muscle relaxer for?” Aiden asks, his brow still creased with concern.

“Why, to relax my muscles, of course, dear Aiden,” Louis giggles. When he can see that Aiden’s not amused, he adds, “My back hurt,” in the most serious tone he can muster.  

Actually, I took it because I was going to get a dick up my ass tonight for the first time in a long time, and I was nervous about it and afraid it was going to hurt a little. Louis hopes he didn’t say that out loud.

“Since when do you have back problems?” Aiden inquires as he gathers up the empty cartons and wine bottle from the table. Thankfully, he doesn’t seem to expect an answer. “Stay here for a minute. I’ll clean up the food and help you to bed. You need to sleep this off.”

Louis isn’t sure how long Aiden is gone while he’s nodding off with his head resting on the sofa. He’s vaguely aware of some pressing matter, but he can’t put his finger on it. When Aiden returns, he gently shakes Louis awake.

“Louis…L…do you want me to help you to your bed?”

“I have to call Harry!” Louis’s eyes snap open for a second as he remembers. “We’re s’posed to meet him…”

“I’ll take care of it,” Aiden promises. “Let’s just get you to bed. You need to rest.”

Louis feels like putty in Aiden’s hands as Aiden puts an arm around his waist and helps him up from the floor. “Which way is your bedroom?”

Louis points the way down the hall. As Aiden leads him toward his room, he has a brief flashback to the last time someone had to help him to bed, and in his sleepy, honest state, he can’t deny to himself that he wishes Harry were here to do it again. Especially because this time there’s no puking.

Fortunately, Louis doesn’t need to change his clothes. What he has on is comfy enough for sleeping. Aiden simply pulls the covers back and helps Louis slide underneath them. There’s a moment, a split second really, where Louis is transported back to how comfortable and right it used to feel being in Aiden’s arms like this. Aiden laying him down on the bed, Aiden’s face close to his own, Aiden’s lips moving down his neck. It used to be so easy, so familiar. Maybe it still would be.

Aiden hasn’t removed his arms from around Louis’s body even though they both know he’s safely in bed. Clearly, Louis isn’t the only one remembering right now. Aiden runs his hands lightly up and down Louis’s arms, like he’s unwilling to stop touching, like he doesn’t want this moment to end.

This is the touch Louis knows.

But this is not the touch Louis wants.

“Will you call Harry from my phone?” he requests drowsily as he turns on his side, away from Aiden and away from his memories. “There’s a guest room across the hall if you want to crash here tonight.”

He’s asleep ten second later.

---

Harry tosses his phone on his bed and stalks over to the kitchen to make another cup of tea. Fucking tea. He didn’t even like it before he started spending so much time with Louis, and now he’s already getting addicted. This is his third cup of the night, but he needs something to do with his hands other than checking his phone- again. He really thought Louis would have called by now. It’s nearly 11:00.

He’d come home and changed out of his comfortable “just going to rip them off and leave them on the floor until morning” clothes into something more appropriate for going out for drinks with Louis and his stuck-up, undeserving ex-boyfriend with the obnoxious haircut. Not that Harry is bitter about it.

It had felt like the right thing to do to give them some space, to let them have some time to catch up, even though Harry doubts that Aiden deserves it, after what Louis had told him about their break-up. What he didn’t expect was to be waiting for nearly five hours without so much as a text from Louis, especially after they’d planned to meet up.

Harry fixes his tea the same way he fixes Louis’, mostly because he doesn’t know any other way to make it yet. He sips it while pacing back and forth across the room, silently cursing the way that pacing loses its dramatic impact in a tiny studio apartment. And that’s how Liam finds him, turning a tight circle between the sink and the foot of the bed, muttering into his mug of tea.

“Didn’t think I’d see you here tonight,” Liam observes from the doorway.

Harry stops walking and faces him. “Was supposed to be at Louis’. You know, until his ex showed up at the door.”

Liam flops down on Harry’s loveseat. “Whoa. So, you just left?”

“I didn’t know what else to do. I mean, it’s not like I have any right to tell the guy to fuck off. We were supposed to meet for drinks after they had dinner, but…” Harry sets down his cup of tea and crosses the room to check his phone- still nothing. “I haven’t heard anything from him at all.”

Harry sprawls out on his bed and stares at the ceiling. He knows what’s coming next.

“Well, while you’re waiting, we can finally have that talk,” Liam begins.

A deep sigh escapes Harry’s mouth as he rolls over on his side to face Liam. Might as well get this over with. It’s not like he has anywhere else to be right now.

“Okay, fine. Although I can probably guess what you’re going to say.”

Liam’s quiet for a moment. “I think I need a beer for this,” he finally admits, getting up and opening Harry’s refrigerator.

“I know you think I’m being stupid,” Harry informs Liam’s back. “And I’m not even going to argue with you. It’s just…it happened, and now it’s really hard to stop.”

Liam emerges with his beer and takes it to the counter to pop the top off with Harry’s novelty bottle opener that looks like a penis. Liam doesn’t approve of this bottle opener, but he’s come to grudgingly accept it as part of his life. He leans against the counter and appraises Harry’s pouting face.

“I just don’t want to see you get hurt, that’s all.”

“I’m not going to get hurt, Liam,” Harry assures him. “We’re both really clear on what this is. And what this isn’t. We’re just…blowing off some steam since we’re stuck together all the time.”

Liam takes a thoughtful drag from his beer bottle. “Nothing wrong with blowing off a little steam, I guess.”

“Exactly! We both know it’s going to end. There aren’t any expectations.” Harry checks his phone again.

“Looks like you’re expecting something right now, though,” Liam observes.

“What?” Harry’s distracted for a second before looking up at Liam and realizing he’s been caught. “Well, it’s just not like him to make plans and then bail. I’m just worried about him.”

“Why would you be worried about him?” Liam asks.

“I don’t know,” Harry answers. “I don’t know much about this Aiden guy, except that he really hurt Louis a few years ago. I don’t trust him.”

Liam settles on the edge of loveseat closest to Harry’s bed. “It doesn’t matter if you trust him, Harry. You don’t have a say in it.” He uses his gentlest tone.

“I know that,” Harry snaps. “It’s just…” His voice trails off. He doesn’t have a good excuse for why he’s so anxious.

“Harry,” Liam continues to tread softly. “I just don’t want to see you fall for him. He’s not a relationship type guy.”

Harry sits up cross-legged on the bed. “I know he isn’t, Liam. That’s what I’m telling you. He’s been totally upfront with me. There’s nothing wrong with what he wants. Or doesn’t want, I guess.”

“You’re absolutely right,” Liam replies.

And now Harry is intrigued. He’d certainly been expecting a full-out diatribe on the dangers of “a guy like Louis.”

“There’s nothing wrong with him at all,” Liam continues. “If someone’s only interested in casual sex and doesn’t want to get involved, that’s 100-percent okay. And like you said, he isn’t leading you on.”

“Okay, then we agree,” Harry responds cautiously. He’s surprised but pleased. “Great talk, Liam. Now, do you think I should text him or what?”

“Oh, sorry, I wasn’t finished yet,” Liam says, far too sweetly. Harry knew it was too good to be true. “What I was saying is that there’s nothing wrong with what Louis wants. But there’s also nothing wrong with what you want.”

Harry narrows his eyebrows. “And what is it that you think I want?”

“Everything, Harry. You want everything with someone, and you deserve it. Don’t waste your time on anything else.”

“Maybe I’ve changed my mind,” Harry protests weakly, picking at a loose thread on his duvet.

“You shouldn’t have to change your mind.”

Liam can sometimes be the verbal equivalent of a bull in a china shop, thrashing about with his words and kicking someone in the gut before he even realizes what he’s done. But this is not one of those times.

“Harry, you’re okay, and he’s okay. But you want different things,” Liam continues. “And that means the two of you together- it has the potential for disaster. Just be careful. Please?” His soft brown eyes are full of concern, and Harry can’t help but well up with a surge of affection for his closest friend.

“I’ll be careful,” Harry promises.

Liam rewards him with a smile. “Can you believe a month ago you hated this guy and now you’re…you know…doing stuff.” He whispers the last part.

“You don’t have to whisper, Liam,” Harry says, but for some reason he’s whispering, too. “We’re the only ones here. And we’re not in the fifth grade.”

“I know, but if we were in the fifth grade, I’d tell you that you’re my first best friend, but Niall is becoming my second best friend really fast, so please don’t fuck this up and take him away from me.”

Harry’s in the middle of laughing at Liam’s statement when his phone buzzes with a text from Louis. Finally.  

“Harry, this is Aiden,” he reads out loud, glancing up at Liam with a frown. “Louis accidentally roofied himself with a muscle relaxer and wine so I sent him to bed. Sorry about drinks.”

Liam raises his eyebrows. “Hmmm. That sounds a little fake, but okay. Are you going to respond?”

Harry’s already typing.

I’ll come over and take care of him then.

Liam’s on the bed reading over his shoulder now. “Oooh, that’s good.”

Harry’s too agitated to care if Liam’s being nosy. He’s worried about Louis and annoyed that Aiden is texting him from Louis’ phone. And the thought of Aiden possibly staying over at Louis’ to look after him makes his heart race- and not in a good way.

Another text from Aiden comes in. It’s okay. He’s asleep. And he told me about your arrangement so you don’t have to do the dutiful boyfriend thing for my benefit. :) He’s fine, but I’ll crash in the guest room just in case.

“Oh, hell no. I don’t like that passive aggressive smiley face one damn bit,” Liam offers helpfully from behind Harry. Harry attempts to bat him away blindly while re-reading the text.

“What are you going to say?” Liam asks.

Harry considers it for a moment.

“Nothing.” He closes out of his messages and stands up from the bed, sliding his phone into his back pocket. “Let’s go out. I need a drink.”

“Are you sure? Don’t you want to-”

Harry cuts Liam off before he can finish the question. “Liam. Let’s go out.”

Liam follows him without another word.

---

Harry wakes up the next morning in Liam’s bed. Glancing over the edge, he finds Liam on his belly on the floor, half of his body hidden beneath the frame. It can’t be comfortable, but Liam is sleeping peacefully, a little puddle of drool forming on the floor beneath his face.

Harry definitely has a slight headache and feels a little sick to his stomach, but it’s not the worst hangover he’s ever had. As his grogginess clears, he remembers the reason he went out last night in the first place. He needs to check his phone to see if Louis has called or texted.

The only problem is…his phone is nowhere to be seen in the immediate vicinity. He vaguely remembers Liam taking it away from him last night after he’d gotten just drunk enough to consider calling Louis. He gets out of bed and gingerly steps over Liam, looking around the tiny space for any sign of it.

After a minute or two of searching, Harry hears a muffled beeping sound coming from somewhere back near the bed. As he gets closer to Liam, it becomes obvious that the beeping is coming from his butt. Harry reaches under the bed frame and feels the phone in Liam’s back pocket. As he’s attempting to retrieve it without waking Liam up, it beeps and buzzes again.

“Mmmm…feels so good,” Liam murmurs in his sleep.

Harry will file that away for another day. Right now, Louis is calling.

“Hello?” Harry answers, his voice squeaking embarrassingly after several hours of not being used.

“Harry! I’ve been calling you all morning!” Harry can’t tell if Louis sounds concerned or annoyed.

“Sorry, I slept in a little,” Harry replies, attempting to return his voice to its normal register. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah, I’m fine. I just…well, you got Aiden’s text,” Louis answers, sounding a bit sheepish.

“I did. Just glad you’re okay.”

An awkward silence follows Harry’s statement. He’s not sure what to say. Louis is the one who called him, after all.

“So, we leave the day after tomorrow for St. Louis,” Louis finally says. The trip to meet Louis’ family. As if Harry could have forgotten about it. “Is that…I mean, are you still okay with doing that?” Louis sounds so uncertain.

“Of course!” Harry replies. He’s contractually obligated to go, and Louis is well aware of that, but Harry doesn’t bring it up. He’s actually been looking forward to another trip with Louis ever since their weekend in Bedford. And if he’s being honest with himself, it wasn’t just the sex. He’d genuinely had fun, even getting drenched in the storm.

“Okay, great.” Louis sounds relieved. “Niall will let you know about the travel details and all that. It’s pretty warm there right now, so you probably don’t need to take a coat.”

“Got it.”

There’s another awkward silence. Harry curses inwardly. He’s literally had his fingers up Louis’ ass, but he can’t think of anything to say to him right now. He wants to ask about Aiden, to find out if anything happened, to know if and when he’s going to get that raincheck, but it doesn’t feel like the right time. If anything, last night was an excellent reminder that he and Louis are not a real couple.  

“So, I guess I’ll see you Monday, then?” he asks instead.

“See you Monday, then,” Louis responds. He sounds just as unsure of himself as Harry does. “Okay…bye.”

“Bye.”

Mercifully, the call is over. Liam is just starting to stir on the floor.

Uhhhh. Shit, Harry, I think I’m getting too old for this. My back hurts.”

Harry helps Liam up from the floor and promises to make him his favorite breakfast, eggs over easy and hash browns with ketchup. Liam is a good friend.

---

The next day is Sunday. Harry’s finishing up some last-minute research for his next article and procrastinating on packing for the trip when his phone buzzes with a text from Louis.

Wondering if you’re free tonight? It’s Aiden’s last night in NY and thought we could go out like we planned on Fri.

Harry frowns. He was really hoping he’d seen the last of Aiden- and that Louis had, too.

I might be able to. Not sure if I’ll be finished packing.

He hopes the non-committal answer might be enough to get him off the hook.

Boooooo. Whore.

Harry can’t help smiling at that, but he still isn’t thrilled at the prospect of seeing Aiden. An uncomfortable thought pops into his mind. He fires off a question to Louis:

Are you allowed to go without me?

Bubbles pop up below his message, then disappear, then pop up again. Louis is clearly trying to think of the right thing to say.

No.

A beat later- But that’s not the reason. I really want you to come.

Harry knew it. There’s no way the Sams would allow Louis to be seen in public with a “mystery man” without Harry being there, too. He’s half-tempted to say no, just so Aiden doesn’t get the satisfaction of going out with Louis, but at the same time, he realizes it’s a bit selfish. And, if Louis and Aiden can’t go out, they might stay in, which would be even worse.  

Okay, he texts back. Just tell me the time and place. And I’m bringing Liam to make it less weird.

Thank youuuuuuuu, you’re the best pretend boyfriend a person could ask for

Don’t I fucking know it

Three hours later, Harry is sitting down for dinner at Gemma in the Bowery Hotel with Liam, Louis, Aiden, Niall, Sam Clayton, and two random associates from the management firm he’s never met before. The tables are long, family style, and somehow Aiden has maneuvered himself and Louis to one end, while Harry is stuck at the other end with Liam and the associates, Sam and Niall in the middle.

Harry isn’t exactly pouting, but…yeah, he’s pouting. Liam is engaged in conversation with Niall and Sam, and the associates- Josh and Olivia, he thinks their names are- have been trying to talk to Harry, but he’s totally distracted by what’s going on at the opposite end of the table. Aiden is sitting next to Louis- way too close to him, actually. He keeps leaning in closer to talk to Louis, nearly causing their heads to touch, and Louis has either smiled or laughed at things Aiden has said a total of five times now, not that Harry is counting. Harry can only hope that Louis is at least partially laughing because of Aiden’s stupid haircut.

Louis and Harry have been planning to try this restaurant for weeks, and now they aren’t even enjoying it together. When the waiter comes to take his order, Harry hasn’t even glanced at the menu yet. He orders a $45 glass of Johnnie Walker Blue and the tagliata de manzo with an extra side of Brussels sprouts just because he feels like it.

“Did you just order the most expensive drink and the most expensive entrée on the menu?” Liam asks, a bit incredulous.

“No! I just ordered what sounded good,” Harry lies.

“Oh, okay. I didn’t realize you were such a Scotch enthusiast.” Liam sounds amused as he watches the waiter set the glass of amber liquid in front of Harry. He continues staring, so Harry feels obliged to take a drink to prove himself.

“I definitely enjoy a good Scotch every now and then,” Harry responds, returning Liam’s stare as he downs a big swig of the liquor.

It burns. It burns so bad. “Ahhhhh, refreshing,” Harry chokes out, trying to sound satisfied and but in fact sounding very much like he’s swallowed a flaming hairball.

He looks up to see Louis staring at him quizzically from the other end of the table, cocking his head to one side and making a face that’s clearly asking you okay down there? Harry gives him a thumbs up as he guzzles water to stop the fire in his esophagus.

The rest of the dinner goes much the same as the beginning. Louis pays most of his attention to Aiden, smiling and talking, and Harry slowly begins to resent his role in this whole evening. Louis had said he wanted him to come, but they’ve barely even spoken since arriving at the restaurant. Harry is obviously only here to facilitate a night out for these two ex-lovers who are more than likely on their way to a complete reconciliation and an autumn wedding, so if Harry orders both the calzone di nutella and the piatto di frutta fresca for dessert, then it’s only fair.

“Such a fancy name for a plate of fruit,” Liam decides, snatching a strawberry and dipping it in the Nutella and ricotta filling of the calzone. “Good combo you’ve got here, though.”

Harry hasn’t taken a bite of the sweets. His stomach’s still a little off from the Scotch and the ridiculous overabundance of Brussels sprouts he’d felt compelled to finish because he knew he’d never hear the end of it from Liam if he didn’t.

“Niall says we’re headed to Cielo after this,” Liam informs him after conferring with the middle section of the table.

“Hell, no.” Harry rejects the idea immediately. “I’ve got to get home and pack. I’ve done enough for tonight.”

Five minutes later, however, Liam and Niall have begged and pleaded and promised enough backrubs and donations to charity that Harry has agreed to accompany the group to the club “for no longer than 30 minutes.” They spill out of the hotel onto the sidewalk to procure cabs for the ride over.

“Was dinner good? Sorry we didn’t get a chance to talk,” Louis has appeared beside Harry. It’s the first time they’ve been face to face since their ill-fated rendezvous that Aiden so rudely interrupted. Louis’ fringe is soft, and he hasn’t shaved for a day or two. He’s wearing a grey tank top with a worn-in denim button-up over it and tight black jeans. He smells like a mixture of lavender and Yves Saint Laurent cologne, much subtler than Ben ever smelled and a hundred times more delicious. Harry would like to push him up against the window of the hotel lobby right now and give everyone inside a show.

But here’s Aiden butting in, of course. “Nice to see you again, Harry,” he angles himself between Harry and Louis. “Thanks for coming out tonight. I owe you one! L tells me you’re a really great guy.”

 “Oh yeah?” Harry responds to Aiden, but he’s looking at Louis. “Nah, he’s exaggerating. They just needed someone to fit the wardrobe and I happened to be walking by.”

Aiden laughs at Harry’s joke, but Louis’ face clouds over with an expression Harry can’t read. Before any of them can speak again, the cabs arrive and they’re being jostled into them- unsurprisingly, Aiden pulls Louis into the first one with him and Harry is relegated to riding with Sam Clayton and Olivia the intern. Or associate. Whatever. He has way longer legs than either of them, but he’s somehow stuck in the middle.

“You should have ridden with Louis,” Sam Clayton says in a clipped voice, checking her phone.

“Oh. Sorry?” Harry doesn’t know what to say. He doesn’t even want to be out tonight. He isn’t packed for St. Louis, he has to be up really early tomorrow, and now he’s in trouble for not riding in the right cab, apparently.

“Stick closer to him at the club, please,” is all Sam says in reply.

Harry looks to Olivia for some kind of moral support but she just widens her eyes and turns toward the window. No help there.

Rolling up to the club with an entourage is not something Harry ever really aspired to, but it’s what happens when the cabs let them out in front of Cielo and they’re ushered inside by a group of burly security men. The place is crowded and loud, the bass reverberating through Harry’s chest as he struggles to keep up with the rest of the group making its way toward the bar.

Louis orders a round for everyone. Harry doesn’t really want his, but the club is way too loud to hold a conversation without screaming in someone’s ear, so he just drinks it to keep himself occupied. Aiden is stuck to Louis’ side like glue, and the crowd around the bar is too thick for Harry to get any closer.

By the time they’re on round two, Harry decides that Aiden is looking way too cozy next to Louis. Sam Clayton obviously thinks so, too, as she catches Harry’s eye and jerks her head toward the pair, clearly instructing him to intervene. However, by the time Harry finally inches his way to where they’re standing, Louis is gone.

“He’s hitting the toilet,” Aiden explains, yelling to Harry over the music. “Can I buy you another drink?”

Harry shakes his head no. The song morphs into something with a slightly different beat, just as intense.

Aiden takes a sip of his drink. “Nice of you to do what you’re doing for Louis.”

Harry just shrugs. “It’s no big deal. We’ve been having a good time together.” He says the second part a bit more pointedly than strictly necessary.

“I’m sure you are,” Aiden replies. “There are a lot of perks to dating a celebrity.”

The sentence hangs in the air for a few seconds before swirling away into the dense atmosphere of the club.

“That’s not why I’m doing this,” Harry states plainly, looking Aiden straight in the eye.

Aiden sets his drink down on the bar and sweeps his dumb uneven fringe to one side.

“Louis belongs with me,” he says as quietly as he can while still making himself heard over the music, meeting Harry’s stare without flinching.

It knocks the breath out of Harry. It really shouldn’t surprise him that Louis’ ex would want another chance. Who wouldn’t want a chance to be with Louis? But it’s still a shock to hear it straight from Aiden’s lips.

Before Harry can form a coherent response, Louis returns, slotting himself neatly between the other two men with a smile. “Comparing real boyfriend and fake boyfriend notes?”

It’s meant as a light-hearted joke, but it falls flat in the tense air between Aiden and Harry. If Louis notices, he doesn’t let it show. As Louis orders another round for the group, Harry excuses himself to the bathroom.

He splashes some water on his face and contemplates himself in the mirror. His green eyes look tired, and he doesn’t want to face the reality they’re telling him. He’s jealous of Aiden. The feeling is there, plain as day, but Harry refuses to consider it any more deeply than basic acknowledgement. For now, he’ll just chalk it up to pure biology. Aiden came between Harry and a night of what had promised to be amazing sex. It’s surely some sort of natural response to hate him for it, right?  

When Harry returns to the bar, Louis and Aiden are nowhere to be found. As a matter of fact, he doesn’t see anyone from his group. Until he looks out on the dance floor, that is. He sees Liam dancing with Olivia, Josh with an unknown girl, and Louis with Aiden. Of fucking course. Just as Harry trains his eyes on them, the beat slows down and Aiden moves in closer to Louis. Much too close.

Harry searches for Sam Clayton or Niall, but there are bodies crowded everywhere, illuminated only by flashing lights. It’s going to be impossible to find them in here now that he’s lost track of them. He knows Sam wouldn’t like the idea of Louis and Aiden dancing so close in public. And neither does Harry.

He makes his way across the crowded dance floor, not remotely sure of what he’s going to do, but feeling like he needs to do something. He draws close to Louis and Aiden just as Aiden turns Louis around so he can dance with his front pressed to Louis’ back. Louis looks surprised by the move, and even more surprised when he comes face to face with Harry.

“Back the fuck off.”

Harry makes sure that Aiden can hear every syllable of what he’s saying and can understand that he means it.

The look on Aiden’s face tells Harry that this isn’t going to be that easy. Aiden snakes his arm around Louis’ waist and pulls him in even closer.

“Aiden, stop,” Louis protests, attempting to put a little wiggle room between them.

“Let him go,” Harry commands, surprising himself with the level of anger in his own voice.

Louis breaks free and steps to the side, but the result is only a reduction in the amount of space between Harry and Aiden, which Aiden immediately fills by moving toward Harry with an air of intimidation.

You’re the one who’s interfering,” he growls at Harry, punctuating the statement with a light shove to Harry’s chest.

Louis attempts to separate the other two men with his arms, but it’s a losing battle as Harry crowds even closer to Aiden, their noses practically touching.  

Liam!” Louis calls desperately for back up.

“You don’t manhandle him like that,” Harry informs Aiden. “Ever.”

“Fucking stop it, you two,” Louis pleads. They’re starting to draw attention from the crowd. “Liam!

Aiden leans close so only Harry can hear him. “I’ve manhandled him plenty.”

Harry’s never actually been in a fight before, but he sure wants to punch the shit-eating grin right off Aiden’s face.

So he does.

He punches Aiden so hard that Aiden drops to the floor clutching his jaw. Harry is frozen in time and space, unable to believe what he just did. His hand hurts, and he tries to shake the sting away.

“Holy shit!” he hears Louis yell in surprise, and now Liam’s here, looking confused as a huge security guy grabs Harry by the arm and starts dragging him off the dance floor.

Harry doesn’t appreciate being manhandled, either (well, not in this context, anyway), and the harder he struggles, the tighter the security guy grips his arm.

“You’re out of here, dude,” he tells Harry, pulling him toward the exit.

“Good!” Harry yells in response. “This place fucking sucks!” As they pass by the rear bar on their way to the exit, Harry reaches out a long arm and swipes an entire stack of small white plates onto the floor. It’s too loud in the club to hear them shatter, but the sight of them breaking into a million little pieces is still very satisfying.

“I’ll add that to your boyfriend’s tab,” the security guard grunts, swinging open a heavy door under the red “exit” sign and unceremoniously dumping Harry into the alley.

It’s a shock to his system going from the booming bass of the club into the relative silence outside, from the heat and adrenaline of being in an actual fight to the cool, calm of the Manhattan night.

Shit,” Harry hears to his left. He turns to discover Niall, with Sam Clayton pushed up against the wall, removing his hand from beneath her skirt as quickly as possible. They both look absolutely wrecked.

“What the fuck, you guys?!” Harry’s still reeling from what just happened inside and he’s not sure he’s perceiving reality correctly.

“Harry, did you just get thrown out of the club?” Sam Clayton demands, smoothing her dress and straightening her hair as quickly as possible. She looks completely embarrassed, but Harry can also practically see her switching into management mode.

“Yeah.”

“What the hell for?” She grabs her purse from the ground and starts digging through it for her phone.

“I punched Aiden.”

“Oh my god, yes!!” Niall shouts. “Ahhh, I can’t believe I fucking missed that!”

Sam fixes Niall with a murderous glare as she starts dialing someone- Sam Clifton, most likely. “This is not good, Harry,” she says. “This is not good at all.” She starts turning in a tight circle waiting for her call to go through.

Harry looks at Niall, scared, but Niall just gives him a thumbs up and a smile. As soon as Sam turns to face him, he quickly drops his hand and shakes his head disapprovingly at Harry. Harry almost wants to laugh, but he’s really worried about just how much trouble he might be in.

“Sam,” Sam Clayton barks into her phone. “We have a bit of a crisis at the club. Hold on a second…”

Sam puts her hand over her phone and turns back to Niall. “Niall, get Harry out of here now. Back to his own place, not Louis’. I’ll call you in an hour. Go that way.” She points toward the end of the alley that doesn’t lead back toward the entrance of the club.

Niall takes Harry’s arm, in a much more friendly way than the bouncer did, and starts to lead him away.

“Oh, and Harry,” Sam calls after them. “You absolutely cannot tell Louis what you just saw here.” Her face flushes red.

Harry looks to Niall, who nods his head in agreement. “Please? We’re…not ready.”

“You got it,” Harry agrees. “Secret’s safe with me.”

He and Niall slip out of the alley and into a cab before Sam even turns around again.

Chapter Text

“Niall, will you please ask Harry to pass me the SkyMall magazine?”

Niall glances nervously from Louis on his right to Harry on his left.

“Harry, will you pass Louis the…”

Harry sighs and removes the magazine from the seat pocket in front of him, handing it to Niall without even looking.

Louis snatches the magazine out of Niall’s hand in a huff, looking over at Harry to see if he’s reacting. But Harry already has his eyes closed and his head tipped back against his seat. He looks like he’s about to fall asleep. That’s just unacceptable.

“Wait, this is the same issue as I have over here, will you ask Harry to put it back?” Louis thrusts the magazine across Niall’s lap, pushing the corner of it sharply into Harry’s arm.

“Ouch!” Harry yelps, jerking forward and snatching the magazine back. “They’re all the same issue, Louis. Listen, I know you’re mad at me, but I’m fucking tired right now. I got no sleep last night. So save it until we get to St. Louis.”

“Niall, would you kindly remind Harold here that none of us slept last night?!” Louis responds, the volume of his voice rising. “I know I personally didn’t because I spent the whole night keeping his ass out of jail.”

Harry just shakes his head. “Not now.”

Niall clamps his hand over Louis’ mouth before the inevitable string of curses can start streaming out. “Louis, he’s got a point,” he says firmly, lowering his voice to a whisper. “There are other people on this airplane. We don’t need you two publicly fighting and having it splashed across the tabloids.”

Niall holds his hand steady until he can feel Louis start to relax a little. “Are you gonna stay quiet if I let you go?” he asks skeptically.

Louis nods.

Niall cautiously removes his hand, and Louis lets out a long breath. “Isn’t the Dalai Lama a pacifist?” he hisses loud enough for Harry to hear. “He would be so disappointed in you.”

Harry reacts by putting on his headphones and closing his eyes again.

Infuriating.

“Niall, order me a gin and tonic, will you?” Louis snaps.

“It’s not even 8:00 a.m.”

“With lime,” Louis adds, shuffling furiously through his carry-on bag for nothing in particular. His entire body is humming with nervous energy even though he’s exhausted.

They should have postponed this trip, they really should have. But the Sams considered it important damage control to keep their travel plans intact, including the commercial flight. The news about the scuffle at the club was going to get out no matter what, but they wanted to spin it as Harry defending Louis from a potential threat to his personal safety. Harry the hero.

To spin it, though, they’d first had to get Aiden on board. Sam Clayton had enlisted security to rush Louis, Aiden, and Liam out of the club through the side exit and into a waiting car. At Louis’ apartment, Aiden had clutched a bag of frozen peas to his jaw while Louis had practically begged him not to press assault charges against Harry, Sam chiming in with all kinds of offers of professional favors, while Liam sat stunned and silent in the background.

In the end, Aiden had acquiesced. Louis wasn’t sure what had tipped him in the right direction- Sam’s promises, or his obvious hope that there would be something left for him and Louis when Harry was finally out of the picture. Frankly, Louis hadn’t really cared what the reason was. He’d walked Aiden out to a hired car sometime around 3:00 a.m. and begrudgingly accepted a kiss on the cheek before his presumptuous ex-boyfriend was whisked away back to L.A.

I never want to see him again. The thought had sprung into Louis’ mind without any warning as he’d watched the taillights fading into traffic. He hadn’t pushed it away.  

When he’d made it back upstairs, Niall had arrived from dropping Harry off, and he and Sam were locked in a heated argument.

“They can’t go by themselves. They’ll kill each other!” Sam practically yelled.

“It’s gonna look weird if I go on their trip with them, though,” Niall protested. “I’m gonna look like the fuckboy personal assistant third-wheeling on their holiday!”

“No, you won’t,” Sam shot back. “And even if you do, it’s your job. You know as well as I do that we can’t send them alone. You’re going.”

Louis froze as Sam and Niall glared at each other. He caught Liam’s eye, and Liam just shook his head slightly, clearly afraid to move.

This is going to be good, Louis thought. Niall never backs down from a fight with anybody.

“Fine,” Niall sighed, the air going out of him like a used-up balloon. “I’ve been missing Jay’s cooking, anyway. I’ll go pack.”

Louis couldn’t believe what he was hearing. Niall and Sam continued their tense eye contact as Niall put on his jacket and prepared to leave.

“Um, can I go home now?” Liam broke the silence meekly, the first words he’d uttered since leaving Cielo.

“Of course you can,” Sam snapped, irritated. “And you don’t have to raise your hand to ask a question, for Christ’s sake.”

As Liam was heading out the door behind Niall, Sam stopped him. “What do you have planned this week? Maybe you should go, too.”

“Um,” Liam swallowed hard, and as tired and stressed as Louis was, he couldn’t help but enjoy this scene just a little. “I…I have a deadline Tuesday, but I could probably go after that?”

“Good,” Sam nodded her head. “That’s good. The more people there to keep things on track, the better. I’ll book you a ticket. And tell Harry the car will still be there to pick him up at 6:00 a.m. as planned.”

Finally, it was just Louis and Sam. They sat for a few moments in silence, the first time Sam had stopped moving or talking or planning since the moment Harry had been thrown out into the alley.

She sighed and closed her eyes, pinching the bridge of her nose, a sure sign she was fighting a stress headache.

“Can you make it through this week with him, Louis? Without blowing up all the good publicity we’ve built in the past month? I’d consider it a personal favor, babe.”

Louis promised her he could.

---

He promised her he could, but now Harry’s sitting in the aisle seat, looking rumpled and gorgeous in ripped jeans and a Haim T-shirt, and Louis doesn’t know why, but he’s mad at him. He’d expected Harry to apologize for punching Aiden and causing a scene, but Harry had simply shown up at the airport with a yawn and a gruff “hey” and now for some reason, Louis just wants to fight.

“You need to let it go,” Niall tells Louis after they’ve reached cruising altitude and he’s sure that Harry is asleep.

“He needs to apologize!” Louis retorts.

“For what?!” Niall demands, as quietly as possible. “For being nice enough to come along last night so you and Aiden could go out to dinner? He could have said no, and then none of this would have happened.”

“He punched him in the face, Niall.” Louis struggles to keep his voice down. Is he the only one who thinks last night got out of control?

“Fuck yeah, he did. If I’d been there, I would have, too.”

Louis looks at Niall, shocked. “What are you talking about? And, where were you, anyway?”

“This isn’t about me, Louis,” Niall is clearly tired and irritated, too. “Aiden’s a fucking jerk. He always has been, and you know it. Harry doesn’t owe anyone an apology.”

Louis sighs as he looks out the tiny window and over the wispy, early-morning clouds. The ball of anger he’s been storing up in his chest all night starts to unravel a little as he considers Niall’s words. Aiden had been a jerk, many times. And Niall had been there when it all went to shit at the end. He’d flown home with Louis and slept on a lumpy pull-out sofa for a week while Louis’ mom fretted over him and plied him with all his favorite comfort foods just to get him to eat. Louis spent a few years working to block that entire period of time out of his mind, but Niall clearly hasn’t forgotten.  

“You’re probably right,” he admits after several minutes of silence.

“I’m definitely right,” Niall says, adjusting his travel pillow around his neck. “Now, you might want to get some sleep before your family gets ahold of you. There’s only an hour left in the flight.”

---

Louis, Niall, and Harry accept the offer from security at Lambert International to take them down a private corridor to their rented vehicle. They’re silent the whole way, in-flight cat naps clearly not enough to make up for last night’s shenanigans.

It’s only when the three of them are settled into the SUV, Louis behind the wheel and Harry in the passenger seat, that Louis begins to feel a little anxious.

“You’ve never been to St. Louis before, right?” he asks Harry, a tentative step onto the ice that’s formed between them.

“No, I haven’t,” Harry answers with a yawn.

Louis has no idea how to do it, but he knows he needs to call a truce quickly, even if it’s just a temporary one.

“Well, there isn’t much to see between here and my mom’s. We’re north of the city now and traveling west. But I can show you around tomorrow.”

Harry nods and stretches, and that’s when Louis notices his right hand. His knuckles are bruised and there’s a tiny cut on the middle one.

“Looks painful,” Louis remarks quietly.

Harry looks at him for what feels like the first time all morning. “I’ve been hurt worse.”

Well shit. “Harry, I’m…I’m just…” Louis glances toward Niall in the backseat. He appears to be engrossed in a game on his phone, but still. Louis really doesn’t want to have this conversation in front of him.

“Later,” Harry tells him, shaking his head. “I need another review on the family details first.”

Louis spends the rest of the 30-minute drive going back over the basics with Harry. “My mom’s name is Johannah, she goes by Jay. My oldest sister is Charlotte, she goes by Lottie. Then, there’s Felicite, she goes by Fizzy. Then the big twins, Daisy and Phoebe. Then the little twins, Ernest and Doris. She goes by Dottie. And my stepdad, Dan.”

“And what does he go by?” Harry asks, a serious expression on his face.

“Dan. He goes by Dan.” Louis looks over at Harry quizzically.

“And who’s his twin?” Harry looks sincerely confused.

“He…he doesn’t have a twin.” Louis thought he had explained this better. “The twins are…”

Harry finally cracks a smile, while Niall starts snickering in the backseat.

“I’m just kidding, Louis.”

“It’s not funny, you two,” Louis says exasperatedly. “I’m just nervous about everything going well.”

“Why would you be nervous about that?” Harry asks, seriousness creeping into his voice.

Louis ignores the question, turning the car onto a heavily wooded street, the large houses few and far between. “So this is Wildwood. I didn’t grow up here, but I always wanted to live out this way. My mom’s house is here, and I also own the one next door.”

“It’s really beautiful,” Harry replies. “Also, to circle back to my earlier question, why would you be nervous about everything going well? It’s just your family, right?”

Louis pulls up a long driveway and parks close to the four-car garage of an expansive two-story home. He switches the engine off quickly and jumps out of the car, rounding the back to pull out their bags. Now Harry is really suspicious. Louis is carrying the bags.

Niall and Harry pile out of the car behind Louis, following him up the sidewalk to a wide front porch, dotted with a few whitewashed rocking chairs and potted plants.

“Louis,” Harry calls, catching up with him by the front door. “What’s going on? Why are you worried about how this will go?”

Louis looks Harry in the eye and bites his lower lip nervously. When he’d pictured himself telling Harry what he was about to tell him, he hadn’t anticipated everything between them would be so fucked up.

“There’s a possibility that I didn’t tell my family we aren’t really dating.”

“What?!”

Niall’s laughing.

“Were you going to let me know?!” Harry demands.

“I’m letting you know right now!” Louis’ voice holds the petulant tone of a child who knows he’s wrong but just can’t admit it.

More laughter from Niall. Harry whips his head around. “Secrets are hilarious, aren’t they, Niall?” he asks pointedly, and Niall snaps his mouth shut faster than the speed of light.

Harry turns back to Louis to continue the argument. “Louis, I never agreed to lie to your family. I’m not going to cover for you, you’re going to…”

But before Harry can finish his threat, the door is swinging wide open, and Louis’ mom is pulling all three of them into the house with hugs and kisses. What feels like at least a dozen small humans assault them instantaneously, squealing with excitement and demanding piggyback rides and presents. It’s loud and crazy and affection is pouring out everywhere. Harry feels himself being swept along in it almost immediately, his eyes searching Louis’ for some sort of explanation as to why he hasn’t told them the truth. But Louis just looks away.

---

An hour later, Louis and Harry are seated at Jay’s kitchen table, fresh cups of tea in front of them, their stomachs full after the huge breakfast she’d prepared for everyone. The younger kids have scattered throughout the house, and Niall has made his way next door with the bags to take a long nap. It’s the first chance they’ve really had to talk.

“You’re growing out your hair, baby,” Jay says, leaning over to tousle Louis’ fringe. “I like it. It looks good like this.”

“I like it, too, babe,” Harry chimes in. Louis looks a bit startled and then relaxes into a smile when he realizes that maybe Harry isn’t going to blow his cover after all. He hopes Harry doesn't lay it on too thick, though. His mom is very perceptive.

“So, I saw some photos online this morning,” Jay mentions, her voice serious but her eyes twinkling at Louis over the rim of her cup.

“You’ll have to be more specific than that, Mom,” Louis tells her. “There are millions of photos online.”

She clears her throat a little. “Oh, I mean the ones from your little scuffle at the nightclub last night. Apparently, a few people took pictures on their phones.”

Louis and Harry look at each other in alarm, but Jay intercepts them quickly. “They’re blurry. Trust me, no one will be able to tell who’s even in them. Except I think I might have recognized…Aiden?” She looks at Louis with raised eyebrows.

Louis sets down his cup and nods. “Yeah, it was him.”

Jay turns her attention to Harry. “And he’s the one you got in a fight with?”

Harry flushes and looks down at his hands. Louis’ mom is simultaneously comforting and terrifying, it seems. “I…yes, ma’am.”

Jay looks back and forth between Harry and her son, both squirming like teenagers caught with a pack of cigarettes.

She draws in a deep breath and lets it out again. “Well, if I remember anything about Aiden correctly, I’m sure he had a punch in the face coming.”

She smiles and reaches across the table to cover Harry’s hand with her own, giving it a few soft pats. “Thank you for looking out for my boy, Harry. I like you already.”

Harry turns to Louis, beaming and smug.

“Mom!” Louis protests. “You never condone fighting!”

Jay turns her sweet smile away from Harry and fixes Louis with a stern look. “I made an exception this time. He never treated you right, baby. Don’t think I’ve forgotten how broken-hearted you were after the break-up.”

Louis widens his eyes at Jay, silently begging her not to say anymore in front of Harry.

“You two must be so exhausted after your late night and early morning flight,” she adds quickly, changing the subject. “Why don’t you go over to the house and get settled, take a nap? We’ve got a big dinner planned for tonight, and the kids want to play games.”

Louis gives his mom a grateful kiss on the cheek and leads Harry out the back door into the warm spring sunshine. There’s a little path between the two houses that runs through the wooded lots, well-worn and soft beneath their feet.

It’s the first time they’ve been alone since…Louis doesn’t even remember when, actually. They trudge silently up a steep flight of wooden stairs to Louis’ back deck.

“Can we maybe talk for a minute before we go inside?” Louis forces the words out. He’s not good at this.

Harry eyes him with a guarded expression. “Yeah. I suppose we need to discuss a few things.”

Louis drags two deck chairs over from where they’re pushed up against the house, frowning when he sees a few stray beer cans rolling around underneath them. He’ll have to talk to Lottie about that.

They sit down face to face, the air between them laced with tiredness and tension. Fuck, Louis hates confrontation. At least the quiet, meaningful kind of confrontation where he has to admit he might have been wrong. He wonders how everything has gone sideways between them in the span of just a few days. They were having so much fun.

“Before you say anything,” Harry surprises Louis by speaking first, “I want to apologize for punching Aiden. I was out of line. I don’t know what came over me. I’ve…never actually done anything like that before.”

Louis shakes his head. “I know you feel bad, Harry. And I’ve been making you feel worse. I was just…overwhelmed and over-tired this morning. He was going too far with the dancing. It would have messed up the image we’ve got going. You stepping in...it was for the best, honestly.”

Harry leans forward, a bit hesitantly. “I should probably tell you something. Aiden made it very clear to me at the bar that he wants you back.”

“He did?” A light bulb flips on in Louis’ brain. Was it more than just the dancing that had set Harry off? He pushes the question aside for the time being.

“Yes, he did. Did he not make that clear to you as well?” Everything about Harry seems to be softening now- his voice, his posture, the look on his face.

“I mean…I guess he did,” Louis responds, letting out a breath he didn’t realize he’d been holding in.  “He told me the night he showed up that he always pictured us back together when I was ready for a relationship. I thought it was just talk. Aiden’s always been a lot of talk without a lot of action.”

He scrubs his hands through his hair and continues. “I shouldn’t have dragged you out last night. I wouldn’t have if I’d known he was going to take it that far. I put you in a difficult position.”

Harry reaches out and puts a hand on Louis’ knee. It’s an easy, natural gesture, but it sends a warm tingle straight up Louis’ leg into his stomach. He’s missed having Harry touch him.

“It’s okay, Lou. I'm not mad. Let’s just agree that we both screwed up and we’re sorry. Can we put it behind us and forget about it?”

“Yes, absolutely,” Louis readily agrees. He doesn’t want to spend this whole trip home fighting with Harry.

“Good,” Harry returns with a reassuring smile. “Now we can move on and argue about the fact that you’re making me lie to your mom and family about us.”  

Dammit. Louis should have known he wasn’t going to get out of this that easy. Time to turn on the charm.

He tries to yawn as cutely as possible, curling himself up in the deck chair like a sleepy cat. “I don’t know if I can stay awake long enough for that argument right now, Curly. Can we fight about it after a nap?”

Harry rolls his eyes. “Sure. But you’re not getting out of it.”

“I know, I know,” Louis concedes, standing up and opening the back door. “I appreciate you going along with this, Harry. It’s asking more of you than anything we agreed to.”

Harry frowns a bit. “Well, I’m shit at lying to moms. Makes me nervous. But I’ll try.”

Louis slides the door open with a grimace. He hates being the person responsible for making Harry Styles a better liar. “Come on, then. Let’s get some sleep.”

---

Louis’ house is laid out quite similarly to his mom’s, with a big, open kitchen, breakfast nook, and a large stone fireplace in the living room. There’s a piano against one wall, just a spinet, nothing like the expensive grand in Louis’ New York apartment. It looks well-loved, and the top is laden with mismatched picture frames filled with various family candids from throughout the years. There’s one of Louis as a chubby toddler, holding up a fish on a line and grinning from ear to ear. There’s another of Louis holding Daisy and Phoebe as babies, Lottie and Fizzy leaning in with their heads on his shoulders. And there’s one of Louis, maybe around seven years old, dressed as a pirate for Halloween, Jay bending down with an arm around his neck. They both look so young and innocent.

Upstairs there are four large bedrooms, and Niall is already fast asleep in one of them. The master suite is spacious and has giant windows that overlook the thick woods behind the house.

“You can stay in here,” Louis tells Harry, a bit of discomfort creeping into his voice. Last week when he’d imagined this trip, he’d imagined them both staying in here. He’d imagined laying Harry out on this very bed, maybe flipping him over and eating him out for the first time. Then dragging him into the shower to soap each other up and…well, anyway. No chance of that happening now. Last week’s fantasies hadn’t included Aiden screwing up the good thing they had going, nor had they included having Niall in the house with them.

“Oh, no, I don’t need the master bedroom,” Harry declines. “I’m fine anywhere. I’m sure you’re more comfortable in your own room here.”

“Harry, I insist. This bed will be more comfortable for your back.”

“My back is fine,” Harry claims, but Louis isn’t buying it.

 “I’ve seen you shifting around when it starts to bother you. And I’ve seen you put one of those Icy Hot patches on it before, too. Don’t lie to me, Styles. Take the best mattress. It’s the least I can do after you defended my virtue last night.”

Harry’s too tired to fight about it, so he accepts the offer and lets Louis fuss around for a few minutes, making sure he has enough pillows and clean towels before softly shutting the door and leaving Harry to catch up on his rest.

Louis catches up on his rest, too. He sleeps hard for a good three and a half hours before waking up and stumbling downstairs to find Harry and Niall playing FIFA in the living room. Niall seems delighted that he’s finally converting Harry into a true “football” fan. It makes Louis smile to see the two of them starting to become friends. Not that it matters, he quickly reminds himself. Harry isn’t going to be around after July. That’s the agreement.  

Louis joins their game for a bit, and eventually they make their way back over to Jay’s house for dinner, the whole family gathering around one big table in the dining room. Ernie and Niall seem to have a special bond, but little Dottie insists on sitting next to her new friend Harry. Louis’ oldest sisters flank him on either side, pulling his attention back and forth between them like a tennis match, filling him in on all the latest gossip from home.

With everyone talking at once, it’s hard for Harry to keep up with the conversation. He’s not used to a big family. It was always just him and Gem and his mom, sometimes his grandparents. He doesn’t really know where to jump in, so he just sits back and listens while he eats. It’s…really lovely, just to feel enveloped in the warmth of their chatter and affection, even when no one’s speaking to him directly. He never knew what he was missing.

“So, Harry,” Louis’ stepdad Dan’s voice breaks through the noise to catch his attention. “We know you’re a journalist. And we know you’ve got a pretty good right hook.” He winks at that. “Tell us something else about you!”

A hush falls over the table, and suddenly Harry feels very exposed, ten pairs of eyes focused directly on him.

“Uhhhhh…well, I’m a graduate of Columbia…I grew up in Los Angeles…”

“…his full name is Harold and he’s into guys with nice butts…” Louis chimes in from across the table, sending all of his siblings into a frenzy of giggles and causing his mom to tsk her tongue at him and reach over to half-heartedly smack him on the arm.

Dottie looks up at Harry with wide, innocent eyes. “Louis said butt,” she whispers.

She’s stolen his heart in two seconds flat, and he leans down to whisper back to her, but they’re interrupted by another question from Lottie, who’s casually passing a platter of green beans to Harry with an anything-but-casual look in her eyes.

“So what are your intentions with my big brother? Are you going to make an honest man out of him?”

Harry almost chokes on a bite of pork steak, but Louis saves him by exclaiming, “Lottie! We just started dating a few months ago! You can’t ask him that!”

“What?!” she shoots back, obviously too old to be intimidated by her older brother anymore. “I just want to make sure that Harry here is pure of heart and noble in deed.”

Fizzy and Niall start snickering, and Louis just shakes his head with a smile.

Harry clears his throat. “I am. Um…pure of heart, I mean.  I’d never hurt Louis, I promise. He deserves the world.”

Everyone at the table is silent. Louis just stares at Harry from across the table, his mouth hanging open a little. Uh oh, Harry thinks. Maybe I wasn’t really supposed to answer the question.

“That’s so sweet, Harry,” Jay says from her place at the end of the table. Harry holds Louis’ gaze for a beat too long, trying to discern if he said the right thing or not. He can’t tell.  

“Speaking of sweet,” Jay continues breaking the awkward silence, “Phoebe made Louis’ favorite for dessert! Gooey butter cake!”

“Oh God, you’re gonna love it, Harry,” Niall enthuses. “It’s so good, if you put it on top of your head, your tongue would eat your brains trying to get to it!”

The little kids spin into laughter at Niall’s wild facial expressions.

“Gooey butter cake,” Harry repeats. “Never heard of it, but it definitely sounds good.”

“It’s a St. Louis specialty,” Jay tells him, bringing the cake pan and a knife over to the table, Daisy trailing behind her with a stack of dessert plates. “The recipe was actually created by mistake. It happened at a German bakery here in the 1930s. The baker accidentally reversed the proportions of butter and flour in a cake recipe but baked it anyway because they couldn’t afford to waste anything in those days. Turns out, it was delicious. And the rest is history.”

“It’s legendary around here,” Louis adds. “We all grew up on it. Everyone seems to put their own little spin on the recipe now, but my mom’s has always been the best.”

Jay beams and serves Harry the first slice. It only takes him one bite to become a big believer in the power of gooey butter cake. It's absolutely delicious. After dessert, the kids want to play games. They’re all on a sugar high and laugh their way through several rounds of UNO and Clue, games Harry hasn’t played since he was a kid himself. He’d forgotten how much he enjoys them. Dottie insists on being on Harry’s team every time and eventually just takes up residence on his lap. Jay allows all the little ones to stay up “extra late,” but eventually the yawns outnumber the giggles, and it’s time for everyone to turn in.

Harry, Louis, and Niall slip through the adjoined backyards and into Louis’ house, which seems deafeningly quiet after the chaos at Jay’s. Niall immediately heads to his room, shutting the door and speaking to someone on the phone in soft murmurs. Harry can probably guess who that someone is.

After changing into a pair of gym shorts and a T-shirt, Harry wanders down the hall with his toothbrush hanging out of his mouth. He leans against the doorway of the room where Louis is sleeping, watching as he turns down the bed and plugs his phone into the charger.

“You need anything?” Louis looks up at Harry, and Harry can’t help but think that Louis is at his most beautiful like this, when he’s not being Louis Tomlinson™, but just being somebody’s son, somebody’s brother, somebody’s rival in a family card game …just being home.

“I’m good,” Harry mumbles around a mouth full of toothpaste. “Just wanted to say good night.”

Louis blinks. “Okay. Good night. And thank you for being so great with my family today. I think Dottie might want to replace me now.”

“Nah,” Harry shakes his head. “No one could replace her big brother. I was just sneaking her extra cake, that’s all.”

“Well, that’s always a good tactic," Louis laughs. "I hope you know how much I appreciate…all this. Get a good night’s sleep. Let me know if you need anything.”

Harry bites down on his toothbrush. He wants to tell Louis that he does need something. He needs that raincheck right about now. He needs to push those Adidas joggers off Louis’ hips and onto the floor. He needs to put his mouth on the silky sliver of skin where Louis’ thigh meets his hip. He needs…to say good night and go to bed.

“Good night, Lou,” he manages before heading back to the master bedroom, almost at a run.  

Later that night, Louis finds himself unable to sleep. When he pads down to the kitchen to grab a bottle of water, he hears voices murmuring out on the back deck. Sliding the door open, he catches Niall right in the middle of passing a joint to Lottie.

“What the fuck, Niall? You can’t give my little sister pot!”

Niall’s frozen, but Lottie just inhales and says, “Calm down, Louis. I’m the one who gave it to him.”

Louis drags a chair out for himself and sits down. “Lottie, you can’t give my little assistant pot.”

“Sorry,” Lottie responds, her tone at complete odds with the word itself. She reaches over to pass to Louis, who takes the joint reluctantly.

“It feels so wrong to smoke with my baby sister.”

“I’m not a baby, Lou,” Lottie rolls her eyes. “I’m 22.”

Louis snorts and puffs on the joint. “Trust me, you’re a baby.”

“I’m not too much of a baby to see that you’re in looooove with Harry,” she replies with a wink and a grin.

Louis chokes on the smoke coming out of his mouth, causing Niall to cackle as he takes the joint from him. He meant to sell the relationship to his family, but he didn’t mean to do that good of a job.  

Love, Lottie? Listen, we’re dating, but it’s not that serious between us yet.”

“Bullshit,” she fires back. “I know you. I can just tell.”

“How?” Louis demands.

“The way you two look at each other! It’s obvious!” Lottie gestures vigorously with her hands to make her point. “And look how good he is with the kids. He’s, like, perfect for you. You better not fuck it up, Louis.”

Louis sighs. “Niall, tell her it’s not that serious and it’s none of her business.”

Niall breathes out a flawless smoke ring, perfectly visible in the moonlight. “It’s not that serious and it’s none of your business, Lots. Trust me on this one.”

Lottie frowns. It’s not like Niall to take Louis’ side over hers. “Fine, I’ll shut up,” she says, grabbing the joint back from Niall. “You two are both idiots, I hope you know.”

“We know,” Louis sighs lazily, dragging another chair over to put his feet on. He relaxes into the seat, a mellow feeling starting to drift through his veins. He doesn’t want to think about what Lottie has said. He just wants to gaze up at the Missouri stars and breathe the Missouri air. It’s good to be home.   

Chapter Text

Liam’s flight arrives late the next morning, and Louis, Harry, and Niall swing by the airport to pick him up.

“Now, I want to take you on a real tour of St. Louis,” Louis tells them all, grinning, as soon as Liam’s thrown his bag in the trunk and slid into the backseat. “Niall’s been here a few times, but he won’t mind, will you, Niall?”

“Not at all,” Niall confirms. He and Liam are already bent over their phones, strategizing about their next Clash of Clans battle.

“Maybe you should attack a lower town hall and three-star that first,” Niall advises Liam. “Then move up.”

“You’re so right,” Liam agrees. “Anything less than a three-star is pointless.”

“Well, hello to you, too, Liam,” Harry turns around from the passenger seat. “Didn’t realize you had joined Niall’s…clan…war thing.”

Liam flushes pink. “Hey, Haz. Sorry. It’s just…this battle is starting in two minutes, so we gotta…oh, what if I use goblins here instead of giants?”

“Fucking genius!” yells Niall.

Harry just shakes his head and smiles at Louis, who’s mirroring his amused expression from the driver’s seat. It feels as if everything is really okay between them now, and Harry likes it this way. He hopes it can stay like this forever. Well, for the rest of the agreement, he reminds himself.

He can’t stop sneaking glances at Louis from the passenger seat. He looks so relaxed now that the tension of the past few days has dissipated. He’s wearing a new pair of Aviators, and his hair is getting so long it’s curling past his ears and over his collar. He clearly hasn’t shaved since before the ill-fated club outing. Harry wants to feel that scruff on his thighs again. He can’t help it- Louis is so fucking hot. He knows now that Louis is not the kind of thing you can have just a couple of times and get out of your system. And that’s exactly why it can’t happen again, he tells himself.

“So where are we off to first?” he asks, shaking his head a little to try to break the spell.

“Lunch,” Louis declares.

He drives them to an old section of the city called The Hill, explaining a bit of its history as a neighborhood of Italian immigrants, starting back in the 1800s.

“You like baseball, right, Harry?” Louis asks, and Harry nods. “Yogi Berra and Joe Garagiola both grew up here on The Hill. Their childhood houses are right across the street from each other, actually.”

“And this place has some of the best Italian restaurants you’ll ever find,” Niall adds.

“Better than New York? Doubtful,” Harry teases, knowing full well Louis will make it his personal mission to prove him wrong.

They settle on a casual place called Zia’s, where the owner is kind enough to give them a private room in the back. And despite his resolve not to give Louis any satisfaction, Harry has to admit that toasted ravioli is something he never knew was missing in his life until he tried it.

“Is this another St. Louis thing?” he asks.

“Yep,” Louis says proudly, dipping another ravioli in marinara and popping the whole thing into his mouth. “I knew you’d like it.”

“Well, at least we’ll have the memories of all the fantastic meals we’ve had together,” Harry answers.  It’s meant to be light-hearted, but the statement hangs heavy in the air between them until Niall speaks up.

“So what’s next on the agenda, Louis? Brewery tour? You know I can’t pass up free beer…or Clydesdales.”

“Yeah, we could definitely do that,” Louis says, pulling up the Budweiser site on his phone to check the times.

“What about the Arch?” Liam suggests.

Louis looks up. “The Arch. Wow, I haven’t been up in the Arch since like, the second grade.”

“Really?” Liam asks over a bite of spiedini prosciutto. “That seems like the most St. Louis-y thing you could do.”

“Well, no one who lives here ever goes up, but yeah, I suppose we could,” Louis shrugs. “It’s kind of windy today. Not too bad, though.”

Niall scrunches his eyebrows together. “What does wind have to do with it? It’s enclosed at the top, right?”

“Right,” Louis answers with a slight smirk. “Yeah, let’s go for it. It’s not too far from the brewery. We’ll do both.”

An hour later, park rangers at the Gateway Arch have hustled the four of them to the front of a long line, and Liam is staring into an egg-shaped tram capsule, regretting he ever opened his mouth.

“Nope,” is all he can say, shaking his head at its five-foot diameter. “Nope, nope, nope, nope, nope.”

Niall can barely contain his laughter. “Oh, it’s not that bad, Liam. Kind of small, yeah, but we won’t be in it that long. They said four minutes to the top.”

“I thought there would be stairs ,” Liam exhales with a whine.

“Stairs?” Louis laughs. “This thing is over 600 feet tall!”

“Okay, then maybe an elevator! A real elevator! This thing is the size of a washing machine!” Liam practically shouts.

Harry puts his hand on Liam’s lower back. “We don’t have to do this if you don’t want to. I’ll stay down here with you. We can go through the museum and watch the movie. Louis can take Niall up.”

Louis slides his arm around Liam from the other side and whispers in his ear. “If you do it, I’ll introduce you to Emma Stone.”

Liam’s face crumples. “Fuck.”

“Now you gotta, Liam,” Niall encourages. “Come on, I’ll get in first.”

Niall climbs into the cramped tram capsule and reaches out his hand to Liam, who hesitates in the tiny doorway.

“For Emma,” Harry says solemnly, gently pushing him forward.

Harry ducks his head to climb in after Liam, Louis’ hand on his lower back sending a pleasant shiver up his spine. The door closes behind them, and even Harry, who isn’t claustrophobic in the least, feels a slight sense of panic for a moment. This thing is small . It’s meant for five people, but even with just four, their legs are completely smushed together as they sit in the tight semi-circle of seats.  

“Oh God,” Liam moans, putting his head between his knees as the tram slowly starts to climb. Harry rubs circles into his back while Niall giggles like a schoolboy on a field trip.

“Okay, I’ll admit, this thing seemed a lot bigger the last time I rode in it,” Louis remarks.

“Oh really?” Liam retorts, his voice muffled by his thigh. “So you’re saying maybe you’re bigger than you were in the second grade? Who would have thought?”

Harry looks at Louis as he continues rubbing Liam’s back. “Well, to be fair, Liam, I don't think he's grown that much.”

Niall loses it, and Louis can’t think of any reaction other than sticking his tongue out at Harry.

The ride to the top of the Arch seems to take forever with a nervous Liam, but it’s really just a few minutes. In short order, the four of them are stepping out of the tram capsule, up a small set of stairs, and into the enclosed observation deck. Liam breathes a sigh of relief as he steps over to a pair of long, thin windows angling downward.

“What an amazing view of the river!” he exclaims. “Niall, come here! Look at this!”

Harry lets out a half-snort, half-snuffle. He’s clearly being replaced, but he can’t even be mad. Niall’s charm is irresistible. Sam Clayton certainly thinks so , he thinks to himself with a smirk.  

As soon as Niall steps over to the window, his knees buckle and he hits the floor.

“Are you okay?” Louis rushes over to see what’s happened. “Is it your bad knee?”

Niall scrubs both hands over his face and lets out a shaky breath. “It’s just…so high up.”

Louis chuckles. “Niall, you live in New York City. The Arch isn’t nearly as tall as the Empire State Building.”

It’s impossible to tell from the look on Niall’s face whether he’s about to laugh or cry. Maybe both. “I’ve never been to the goddamn Empire State Building, Lou! I gotta get down from here- like now!”

Liam is completely ignoring the scene behind him, ooh ing and ahh ing over the view and calling Harry over to see as well.

“Just sit tight for a minute,” Louis tells Niall. “As soon as they’re done, we’ll take the tram down the other side. Just…don’t move for now.”

Niall nods. He’s as white as a sheet. “Louis…is this thing swaying? I swear to God I feel it swaying.”

Louis considers his words carefully. “Well, it…sways a little .”

“Oh my fucking God, Louis! You didn’t say anything about fucking swaying !”

Louis pats Niall’s knee reassuringly. “I promise you this thing is structurally sound. Hasn’t fallen down for over 50 years.”

“Oh my God, get me out of here as soon as humanly possible,” Niall pleads.

“Just hang in there a couple more minutes,” Louis tells him.

Louis joins Harry and Liam at the windows for a few minutes, pointing out some landmarks such as the Old Courthouse just below and the Cahokia Indian Mounds in the distance. A few people stop and politely ask for pictures with Louis, and he obliges with a smile.

Niall stays put on the floor, taking the deepest breaths he possibly can. A few small children walk by, giving him questioning looks.

Do you feel this thing swaying? !” he demands of them before their mother gives him a dirty look and hurries them away.

Finally, Liam decides he needs to pee.

“There’s no restroom up here,” Louis informs him.

“What? No restroom?! I really gotta go!” Liam starts bouncing up and down a little.

Louis turns to retrieve his frightened assistant from the floor so they can leave, but Niall has no intention of standing up. Instead, he opts to crawl the length of the observation deck to ensure that he won’t accidentally see out of a window again, Liam hopping from foot to foot beside him and prodding him to move faster. People might be staring. No, people are definitely staring.  

Louis and Harry hang back several feet in an attempt to appear unassociated with the two of them, but it’s already too late.

“This is literally the most embarrassing thing that has ever happened to me,” Louis whispers. “And I was once in a Hallmark Channel movie where I finally discovered the true meaning of Christmas.”

Harry bursts out laughing, holding his belly with it, until the sound infects Louis and he gives in to laughter as well. By the time they reach the descending tram, they both have tears streaming down their faces.

The ride down isn’t as traumatic as the ride up. Niall feels safer as soon as he’s off the observation deck, and Liam is so preoccupied by his need to pee that he doesn’t have time to realize he’s stuffed into a little metal tin like a sardine.

As soon as they hit the lobby, Liam takes off for the bathroom like a bat out of hell, Niall sauntering behind him, extremely relieved to be back on solid ground.

“You have to introduce him to Emma Stone now,” Harry reminds Louis.

“Goddammit.”

They erupt into laughter again. Louis can’t remember the last time he had this much fun on a visit home. He’s so excited to show Harry everything here, and he isn’t even sure why. Aiden had only been to St. Louis with him one time, for a disastrous Thanksgiving in which they spent 95 percent of their time fighting.

Louis can sense they’re being subtly photographed by a few of the tourists around them.

“Can we…?” he murmurs quietly to Harry, brushing their knuckles together and nodding his head almost imperceptibly toward the soft clicks of intruding iPhone cameras.

It takes Harry a second to catch on, but then he wraps Louis’ hand in his, presses the lightest of kisses to his temple, and starts leading him toward the door where Niall and Liam are waiting for them. The contact sends a jolt of electricity straight to Louis’ gut, where it starts spreading downward and making his legs feel like jelly.

Temporary, he reminds himself. This is temporary.

 

After their traumatic Arch experience, Niall and Liam feel the only way to salvage the day is to get rip-roaring drunk on the brewery tour. It’s all fun and games until they attempt to ride some Clydesdales and the Tomlinson party is politely asked to leave (but not before taking several selfies with the security crew).

After sobering up for a while in the park, they return home to spend the rest of the evening with the family. Liam’s just on the right side of tipsy when they hit the front porch and Harry slaps a hand on his shoulder and says, “Hey, Louis’ family thinks he and I are really in a relationship. Just go with it. Thanks”

“What the fu—”

Harry cuts off Liam’s question by throwing open the front door and pushing him straight into the Tomlinson chaos, Louis and Niall close behind. Such a simple but effective move. He gives Louis a thumbs up and receives a grin in return.

They stay up way too late again, playing canasta, raiding the pantry for snacks, and teasing Louis’ sisters about their crushes. Back at the house, Harry fully intends to pull Louis aside and talk to him about why he’s lying to his family. But it’s been a nearly perfect day, and there’s really no point in spoiling it now, he tells himself. The last thing he remembers is falling asleep on the couch to the sound of Liam and Niall plotting their next epic war, Louis softly snoring from the opposite end, their legs tangled together.

---

The next day, Louis takes the three of them to Busch Stadium for the Cardinals game. He’s secured a private suite full of more food and booze than they could possibly consume in one afternoon. Niall and Liam are torn between the buffet, the game, and their phones, but it’s a beautiful day and all Harry wants to do is sit outside and enjoy it.

“Having fun?” Louis asks, sitting down next to him with a beer and knocking their knees together.

“I am,” Harry replies with a smile. “I’ve always wanted to come to a game here.”

“I know you have,” Louis responds. Their eyes lock momentarily, causing Harry’s cheeks to flame without warning.

“What?!” Louis laughs when Harry can’t seem to come up with any words. “I do listen to you sometimes, you know.”

“I had my suspicions you might,” Harry finally says, grabbing Louis’ beer without permission and taking a long drink. “This has been a fun trip. Any more big plans before we head back on Friday?”

“Not really.” Louis takes his beer back. “I just want to pack in some more time with the kids, and…I thought if you wanted, tomorrow we could go for a walk by the river. Like, the spot where I used to go when I was a kid. I’d like to show you…I mean, only if you want to. If you don’t, that’s okay.”

He looks so unsure of himself that Harry’s heart feels like it’s caving in a little.  

“Of course!” He rushes the words out. “Of course. I’d love to.”

Louis looks so pleased. “Okay. Great. I think it’s supposed to be nice out again, so hopefully we won’t get rained on like when we went to Bedford.”

As soon as he says it, he regrets it. Both of their minds are flashing back to the night at the inn, and they both know it . Harry’s cheeks are more flushed than they’d been a few minutes ago, and Louis’ almost match them in color. Less than a week ago, they’d been naked and pressed together in Harry’s bed, and now everything is just so awkward .

Louis jumps up. “I’ll just…get you a beer. Be right back.”

Harry lets him go without a word, leaning forward to let out a long breath as soon as Louis disappears back inside the suite. He’s absolutely sure that they need to keep their hands off each other to avoid making this entire thing a huge mess all over again, but fuck , it isn’t easy. He resolves to spend the rest of the game concentrating on balls and strikes instead of blue eyes and thick thighs.

 

When they arrive back at Jay’s, there’s a baking marathon in progress. As much as it kills Harry not to join in and show off the skills he picked up working his way through college at a pastry shop, he wants to give Louis some alone time with his mom. So he sets up Candyland in the dining room for him and Dottie, while Niall and Liam play catch with Ernie and the older twins in the front yard.

Dottie is as competitive as her older brother when it comes to playing games. She beats Harry three times in a row, and they’re just deciding whether or not to break out Chutes & Ladders when Louis emerges from the kitchen with flour on his face and a plate of chocolate chip cookies fresh out of the oven. He’s wearing one of his mom’s floral-print aprons and if he isn’t the most adorable thing Harry has ever seen, he doesn’t know what is.

Louis sets the plate in front of Harry and Dottie with a flourish. “I made these myself! Mostly.”

He’s so proud. Harry wants to kiss the flour right off his face.

“Well…aren’t you going to try one?” Louis asks anxiously.

“I’ve tried your cooking before.” Dottie’s voice is as full of skepticism as any six-year-old’s can reasonably be.

“I’ll try one,” Harry offers, reaching out for a cookie and taking a bite. It’s actually pretty good.

“It’s delicious, babe,” he tells Louis, whose cheeks immediately turn pink with either embarrassment or pleasure, Harry can’t tell. Maybe it isn’t completely necessary to sell this relationship in front of Dottie, but oh well. “Babe” is starting to come all too naturally to Harry when he’s talking to Louis, and he’ll definitely start trying to fix that. Next week.

“I told you, Dottie!” Louis crows triumphantly at his little sister, who reluctantly takes a cookie for herself.

“I’ll go get you some milk.” He rushes back into the kitchen.

Harry chews slowly and winks at Dottie.

“Thank God Mom was here to watch over him,” she sighs, grabbing another cookie and heading out the front door to investigate what her siblings are up to.

Louis returns with the milk, still keyed up on his baking success, and takes Dottie’s empty chair.

“Hey, Harry,” he remarks mock-casually, trying to dunk a cookie and appear intimidating at the same time and failing miserably. “Remember when you tweeted about how I made cookies for my romantic picnic with Cam Richards?”

Harry’s entire body wells up with embarrassment. “Oh God, did you have to bring that up?”

“Yeah, I did,” Louis answers very seriously. “Because first of all, fuck you very much for that. And second of all…” he drags out the moment by taking a dramatic sip of milk. “You’re the only person I’ve ever baked cookies for.”

Surely being the first person Louis Tomlinson has ever presented with homemade baked goods is not that big of a deal, but try telling Harry’s insides that at this moment.

He counters with a dramatic milk sip of his own. “The only thing that could make it better is if that apron were the only thing you had on right now.”

They burst out laughing simultaneously.

“God, Styles, that was the cheesiest line I’ve ever heard,” Louis cries, wiping a streak of flour from his face.

“I know, I’m so sorry,” Harry moans. “I ruined the moment.”

“Not possible,” Louis reassures him, untying his apron and standing up. “I’m very proud of my cookies, and I insist you tweet my praises before the day is over. Now let’s go embarrass Niall and Liam in wiffle ball.”

 

Later that night, after Harry excuses himself from smoking on the deck to take a piss, he finds himself wandering into the living room instead of back outside. He sits down at the old piano and starts pecking at the keys, attempting to remember how to play “The Entertainer,” the last song he learned before throwing in the towel on piano lessons in the fourth grade.

It’s not going very well, and he’s just about to give up and head back out when he feels a soft touch on his shoulder. He hadn’t even noticed Louis entering the room. Without a word, Louis slides his arms around either side of Harry, covering his hands on the keys. Harry goes boneless as Louis directs his fingers to tap out the basic melody he was trying to recall. It’s painstakingly slow and completely unfitting for the upbeat, ragtime tune.

Harry can’t see Louis’ face but he’s so close- he can feel his breath on his neck and his stubble brushing against his ear.

“Scott Joplin was from Missouri, you know,” Louis says as he maneuvers Harry’s fingers through the last few notes. The song is over, but neither of them move a muscle, Louis’ hands resting over Harry’s larger ones on top of the keys. The room is absolutely silent. Harry’s not even sure if he’s breathing.

“I wasn’t aware of that,” he replies quietly, the words barely making their way past the dryness in his throat. And he knows, he knows , that with the slightest turn of his head there’s no going back. His lips will be against Louis’ and they’ll be kissing. And if they kiss, he may never be able to stop wanting more. The worst possible move right now would be turning his head.

He turns his head.

“Oh, HEY, I WAS JUST LOOKING FOR YOU TWO,” Liam’s loud voice breaks the spell, and Louis jumps back a good three feet from where his lips were just beginning to touch Harry’s, wiping his mouth and looking like a startled housecat.

Liam shoots them both a meaningful, wide-eyed look as a clueless Niall enters the room behind him.

“You dudes doing piano lessons or something?” he wrinkles his nose. “But me and Liam are nerds for playing Clash of Clans. Okaaaaay.”

Niall’s phone rings and he holds up a finger to silence everyone, even though no one is attempting to speak. “I gotta take this,” he announces, exiting the living room and bounding up the stairs.

Harry looks at the piano keys. Louis looks at the floor. Liam looks back and forth between the two of them.

“I thought Niall wasn’t supposed to know,” Liam finally says, his voice serious but not unkind.

Louis clears his throat. “You’re right. It was a good save. Thanks, Liam.”

He looks over to Harry, but Harry doesn’t look up.

“I’m just gonna…head to bed. It’s late,” Louis continues haltingly. This is for the best. He had gotten lost in the moment and was about to kiss Harry. Kissing Harry is not a good idea.

“Good night, Louis,” Harry tells the piano keys.

“Night, Louis,” Liam echoes. “Thanks so much for today. It was a lot of fun.”

Louis slips out of the room and up the stairs, fully aware that there’s going to be a conversation between Liam and Harry about what just happened. Good , he thinks. Tell him, Liam. Tell him he deserves more.

---

The weather is gorgeous again the next day. There’s a warm breeze blowing when they leave the house mid-morning, not a cloud in sight. As much fun as it’s been having Niall and Liam around, Harry finds himself wishing that the trip to check out Louis’ favorite childhood spot would be just the two of them. He’s not smooth enough to make that happen, though, and that’s how he finds himself standing on a brushy riverbank, listening to Louis explain the finer points of barge transport to a fascinated Liam while Niall throws rocks into the deep, muddy water.

“I can’t believe how wide the Mississippi is when you’re looking across it like this,” Niall observes, shaking his head in awe. “Makes River Shannon look like a little stream.”

“Okay, challenge,” Liam declares. “Let’s see how far we can walk down the bank before we can’t go any further.”

“You’re on,” Niall accepts eagerly, turning to Louis and Harry. “You two in?”

“Nah, you guys go ahead,” Louis answers. “I know this part of the river like the back of my hand. You’ll get all the way down to that patch of woods down there,” he points into the distance. “And then the brush will be too thick to walk through.”

“You coming, Haz?” Liam inquires halfheartedly, as if he doesn’t know the answer.  

“I’ll stay here with Louis,” Harry declines. “I don’t want him getting kidnapped if any pirates sail by.”

Liam snorts and takes off after Niall, who’s already gotten ten steps ahead somehow.

“River piracy was real, you know,” Louis says sternly, stepping over to a fallen tree trunk, half covered in moss, and sitting down. “You’re just a couple hundred years too late, smart-ass.”

Harry takes a seat next to Louis on the log. “If you were kidnapped by pirates, I’m sure they’d try to send you back as soon as possible.”

Louis has no witty comeback. He just chuckles and picks up a nearby stick, using the sharp end of it to draw circles in the damp dirt by their feet.

“So you used to come here when you were a kid?” Harry asks. “All by yourself?”

“Yep,” Louis nods. “I actually didn’t live too far from here. There’s a few houses over on the other side of those trees.” He points up the bank in the opposite direction of where Niall and Liam had headed.

“Wow. So you really did grow up right on the Mississippi. Like a genuine Tom Sawyer.”

Louis shakes his head and smiles ruefully. “It’s not as glamorous as it sounds. All the nice houses are up on the bluffs overlooking the river. Way out of flood range. Living in an area like this one is for…people without as much money.”

Louis continues to trace shapes in the dirt while Harry contemplates his next question. It feels like he’s treading on sacred ground down here. Sacred, muddy ground. He wants to know so much more, but he doesn’t want to push Louis too hard.

“Wasn’t it dangerous for you to be down here by yourself? I mean, this is not a river you could fall in and get back out of very easily. Or at all. It’s kind of scary even sitting five yards away.”

“It probably was pretty dangerous, looking back,” Louis admits.

“So what did you do down here?” Harry struggles to imagine a child version of Louis, spending time by this great big river unsupervised.

“Nothing much. Just explored. Chased frogs. Looked for turtles. Pretended I could build a boat and go anywhere I wanted to in the whole world.”

Louis hesitates, like he’s unsure whether or not he wants to share more. “I was alone a lot when I was a kid.”

Everything in Harry longs to reach out and take Louis’ hand, but he doesn’t.

“Don’t get me wrong, my mom was great,” Louis continues. “But she was just a teenager when she had me. She was trying to work and go to school and figure out who she even was. And by the time we got ourselves sorted, my siblings started coming along, and they needed the attention more than I did.”

Harry isn’t sure whether or not he should ask, but Louis seems more open than ever here in this place, so he decides to risk it. “What about your dad?”

“Fucked off before the first diaper change,” Louis answers quickly, as if this is a stock answer he’s given before. “I think he sent me a birthday card once when I was four or five.”

“Do you talk to him at all now?”

“No. Not since he saw me on E!News for the first time and tracked me down through my agent. I told him to fuck off, and I don’t regret it.” Louis’ face hardens a bit, and Harry knows that it’s not the time to push.

“What about your dad?” Louis asks.

“He wasn’t around much when I was growing up,” Harry shares as he stares out across the rushing brown water. “He sent his check when he could, visited when he could. I feel like I’ve been finally getting to know him over the past few years.”

Louis looks over at Harry and smiles. “Good. I’m glad you’re doing that. I bet he’s really proud of you. Your mom, too.”

“Thanks. I can tell your mom is really proud of you, too, and everything you’ve accomplished.”

Louis’ smile fades a tiny bit. “I’ve just never wanted to make her worry.”

Harry turns his body away from the river and straddles the tree trunk, facing Louis. “Is that why you don’t want to tell her that we’re not really dating? You think she’ll worry?”

Louis shrugs and continues scratching at the dirt. “I guess that’s part of it. That, and not wanting my little sisters and brother to think that lying is okay. I know we all do what we have to for our careers, but that doesn’t mean that I always like it. Or that I’m always proud of it.”

“Louis,” Harry says gently, scooting forward and closing the distance between them just a fraction. “You haven’t done anything wrong. I was in that meeting at The Pierre. You were under an enormous amount of pressure to agree to this.”

“So were you.”

Louis’ eyes meet Harry’s, and they’re both silent for a beat.

“I know you didn’t want to do this in the first place, Harry,” Louis says after clearing his throat and looking away. “I’m sorry I dragged you into it, made you lie, exposed you to all this industry bullshit. For fuck’s sake, you’re a pacifist, and you punched somebody because of me.”

Harry reaches over and stills Louis’ hand. “You didn’t drag me into anything. I dragged myself. I promise. And, as far as your ex-boyfriend goes, some people just need to be whacked in the head for good measure. He’s one of them.”

Louis fights the urge to interlace his fingers with Harry’s, keeping his hand as still as possible. “You’re a really good person, Harry,” he says quietly. “You didn’t have to do this, and I hate the reasons why you agreed, but I’m still thankful.”

“What reasons?” Harry quirks an eyebrow suspiciously.

Louis sighs. “You know exactly what I’m talking about. You pity me because you think I don’t want to be alone. But I’m fine alone. I was good at it when I was a kid, and I’m good at it now.”

Harry takes his hand off Louis’ and runs it through his curls exasperatedly. “Are you seriously still stuck on that idea? That I’m doing this out of pity because I overheard you having a bad dream? That’s ridiculous, Louis. You need to get that out of your head.”

“That’s why, though, isn’t it?” Louis gazes out across the river, unwilling to look anywhere else right now.

No ,” Harry answers emphatically. “Seeing you vulnerable like that just made me realize that you were a real person and that I didn’t want to write any more stupid gossip articles about you. But this, what we’re doing…Louis, look at me.”

Harry stops talking and waits. It takes a long moment, but Louis finally turns to look him in the eye. “I am doing this because I want to. I truly do. There’s no place I’d rather be right now.”

Louis’ heart feels like it’s leapt into this throat for a second. He tries to swallow it back down. “You mean…you wouldn’t rather be doing some important journalistic work? Instead of wasting time here talking Niall down from national monuments and playing Candyland with a six-year-old?”

Harry ignores the question and inches closer to Louis, one leg on either side of the tree trunk, his right knee now pushing into Louis’ thigh. “Did I ever tell you I was counting my mistakes?”

“Your mistakes?” Louis is confused.

“Yeah,” Harry chuckles. “Trying to figure out how I got myself into this. My first mistake was writing that God-awful article- the very first one, remember? Did I ever tell you I stayed up all night the night before, and then I wrote it, like, 30 minutes before the deadline?”

Louis tries to appear horrified. “I am an A-list celebrity, Styles. I deserved at least an hour of your time.”

Harry continues. “My second mistake was taking you home the night of the gala and getting caught outside your building the next morning.”

Louis grimaces a little when he remembers the stress of that day. “And your third?”

Harry scoots closer. “Saying yes at The Pierre.”

Louis is keenly aware of how very close Harry is to him right now. There’s a growing hum in his veins as he realizes how intently Harry is gazing at him.

“The fourth?” he presses.

“Getting out of bed and walking into your living room the night you were playing the piano.” Harry places his hand on Louis’ thigh.

Louis gulps. “Fifth?” The words barely come out above a whisper.

“I don’t remember. It doesn’t matter anymore.” Now Harry’s whispering, too. His breath is on Louis’ cheek as he reaches one hand up to softly turn Louis’ face toward him. “I’m sorry you were alone so much when you were young.”

Louis shakes his head slightly and tries to look away, but Harry is holding him firmly in place. “It’s all right, Harry. It is what it is.”

“It doesn’t have to be.”

As soon as the words leave Harry’s mouth, Louis surges forward to kiss him. Finally, finally, finally, a voice repeats inside his head as his lips meet Harry’s and Harry pulls him in closer, his thumb gently stroking the scruff on Louis’ cheek. It’s a soft kiss, a quiet kiss. If it weren’t for the sound of the Mississippi gurgling past, completely unaware that silent fireworks are exploding on its mossy bank, Louis would think that time is standing still.

Harry breaks the kiss and rests his forehead lightly against Louis’, the tips of their noses brushing against each other. “You kissed me first,” he says with a little laugh, like he can’t believe it.

“Been trying to shut your frog face up for weeks now,” Louis replies, reaching up to tangle both of his hands loosely in Harry’s curls. “It was a last resort.”

Harry responds by pressing his lips against Louis’ again, this time parting them just slightly, daring Louis to come inside. Louis takes the bait so easily, slowly pushing his tongue past Harry’s lips to explore the warmth of his mouth. He’s practically on Harry’s lap now, fingers scratching languidly at Harry’s scalp while Harry moves his hands to rest on Louis’ hips.

It’s lazy but heated. It’s simple but thick with meaning. It’s the type of kiss that isn’t going anywhere at the moment but is promising to go everywhere just as soon as it has the chance.

Louis finally pulls away, breathless, drinking in the sight of Harry’s darkened green eyes, his flushed cheeks, his plush lips. He marvels at his newfound assurance that Harry wants to be right here, right now, in this place with him. He doesn’t want this moment to end.

“What number mistake is this, then?” he asks, searching Harry’s face for any sign of regret.

“This isn’t one,” Harry tells him, his voice so sincere that Louis has to look away.

“Niall and Liam will be back any minute,” he laments.

Harry nods in understanding, leaning back in for one more quick peck before giving Louis’ hips a firm squeeze and scooting a respectable distance away from him on the tree trunk. Less than a minute later, Niall and Liam come tripping back along the riverbank, covered in mud from head to toe and laughing hysterically. Louis and Harry follow them back to the car, stealing glances the entire way.

---

It’s another evening of stuffing their faces with homemade food and laughing over card games with Louis’ family. Since it’s his last night at home, the youngest twins beg Louis to read to them at bedtime, a request he’d never refuse. Liam and Niall head next door, and that’s how Harry finds himself alone with Jay in her kitchen.

“You want to sneak the last two pieces of gooey butter cake before anyone else finds out?” she asks him with a mischievous twinkle in her eye.

Harry agrees instantly, and Jay warms up two small plates in the microwave before joining him at the table.

“I’m so glad we were able to meet you this week, Harry,” she says with a smile as she hands him a fork. “We’ve all enjoyed getting to know you.”

Harry doesn’t quite know what to say. He feels a gnawing sense of guilt in his gut for deceiving Louis’ lovely mom. He’d really like to get out of this conversation without having to lie directly to her face.

“I’ve really enjoyed getting to know all of you, too,” he replies. It’s the truth. So far, so good.  

“I’m so pleased Louis is dating such a kind, down-to-earth person,” she adds, looking Harry straight in the eye as she pops a bite of cake into her mouth.

Well, shit.

Harry starts to squirm. “Uhhh,” he stammers. He’s so shit at lying to moms. “Thank you.” It comes out sounding more like a question than a statement. But still…it’s not a lie. Yet.

Jay just smiles at Harry and takes another bite. “You know what my favorite part of the story of gooey butter cake is?”

Harry swallows hard. He’s not sure if the question is rhetorical or not, but before he can respond, Jay continues.

“It’s that it was never meant to happen at all. It was just a mistake, a misunderstanding. But it turned into something unexpected and amazing. A beautiful accident.”

Harry stares at the golden brown confection on the plate in front of him. He’s starting to suspect that she isn’t talking about cake.

“Harry.” She says it in a gentle tone of voice that reminds Harry so much of his own mom.

He forces himself to meet her gaze. “Yes, ma’am?”

“I know you aren’t dating my son.”

Harry’s heart drops out of his ass, and the space in his chest is simultaneously flooded with terror and relief. “How did you know?”

“A mother always knows,” Jay scoffs, but the look on her face is kind. “Honestly, I don’t know why children ever bother lying. It would almost be amusing if it weren’t so exhausting.”

“Are you mad?” Harry bites his bottom lip anxiously, the same way he always did when he was caught lying as a child.

“No, honey, I’m not mad,” Jay reaches out and gives Harry a little pat on the cheek. “I understand why he wouldn’t want to involve the kids in a lie or give me a reason to worry. And I don’t want you to tell him that I know. He’s under enough stress all the time trying to make a million different people happy.” Her voice cracks slightly. “He’s always tried to keep us all happy.”

Harry feels so guilty. The last thing he wants is to make Louis’ mom cry. “What was he like when he was little?” he asks, thinking back over some of the things Louis had told him by the river.

“Oh, he could be a little shit,” Jay chuckles, using a napkin to wipe away a tear that’s threatening to leak out of the corner of her eye.

“But he was also so very sweet and such a wonderful big brother. We didn’t have the easiest time at first.” Her voice falters again, and Harry gives her what he hopes is a reassuring smile. “I’m so proud of everything he’s accomplished. But he’s not invincible, Harry. Being rich and famous doesn’t mean your heart can’t be broken.”

Harry’s own heart squeezes so tightly that it aches. “I know, I know, ” he tells Jay earnestly. “I care about Louis, I really do. I hope you’ll believe me when I say that. I don’t want to see him get hurt.”

“I do believe you,” Jay replies, her sad countenance lifting into a slight smile. “And the only reason I’ve even brought this up, Harry, is that if I don’t see you again…I want you to know that I haven’t seen Louis look this happy and relaxed in years. You can fake a lot of things, but you can’t fake that. So, thank you.”

“I haven’t done anything,” Harry protests weakly.

“Yes, you have, sweetheart.” Jay reaches over and squeezes Harry’s hand. “Maybe you don’t realize it yet, but you have. He needs someone like you.”

Harry shakes his head. “He really doesn’t. We… just view things differently. He isn’t looking for a relationship.”

Jay releases Harry’s hand and spears the last bite of her cake with her fork, waving it a little and smiling in earnest now. “I’ve always loved this cake. Can you imagine if that baker had followed the recipe correctly that day and never messed up the plan? We’d really be missing out. Thank God he didn’t just throw it away before testing it out.”

Before Harry can even register her full meaning, Louis bursts into the kitchen indignantly. “You’re eating the rest of the cake without me?! That’s bullshit!” he cries.

“Louis! Language!” Jay admonishes as her son leans over and steals the bite right off her fork with his mouth.

“Sorry, Mom,” he mumbles through a mouthful of cake, no real conviction behind his words.

Harry stands up and offers his chair to Louis. “I’m just gonna head back over to your place,” he tells him. “Let you and your mom have some time together. Thanks again for the cake,” he directs this statement to Jay, leaning over to offer her a brief hug. “I’m happy it was invented, too.” The last part is for her ears only.

---

Louis’ conversation with his mom lasts longer than he’d anticipated, but they haven’t had much alone time this week, and one topic leads to another and then another. Before he knows it, they’ve spent nearly two hours discussing everything from this year’s flooding predictions to what type of car they should buy Fizzy to whether Gwen Stefani and Blake Shelton are real or just promo. Just promo, they decide, and Louis quickly steers the conversation in another direction.  

By the time he slips back over to his own house, everything is quiet and dark inside. Niall’s bedroom door is closed, as is Liam’s. The master bedroom door is open a few inches, but the light is off. Louis stands in the hallway for a moment, trying to decide if he should go in. He finally tears himself away and heads down the hall toward his own room. Surely Harry is asleep by now. He doesn’t want to wake him.

He takes a quick shower and jumps into bed with damp hair, wearing only a pair of soft, grey joggers, determined to go to sleep. He and Harry can talk more in the morning. Maybe he’ll steal a kiss when Niall isn’t looking. Or maybe he’ll even try to get Harry alone in the first-class lavatory on the flight back to New York. It’d only take a couple of minutes to… nope. Go to sleep, Tomlinson, before you get yourself all worked up .

Attempting to sleep only results in Louis replaying the afternoon’s kiss in his mind at least three times. He can’t stop recalling the feel of Harry’s lips on his, the firm pressure of Harry’s hands on his hips. Finally, when he can’t stand it anymore, he throws back the covers and pads out into the hallway, trying to be as quiet as possible so as not to wake Niall or Liam.

He hesitates in front of Harry’s door for a brief second before taking a deep breath and pushing it open just wide enough to slip inside. He tiptoes closer to the bed, barely able to make out Harry’s sleeping form in the soft glow of the ensuite bathroom’s nightlight. You’re a total creep , he chides himself. Just one quick peek to make sure he’s asleep and then back to bed to pretend you never did this.

When Louis nears the side of the bed, Harry stirs. Shit . He’s got to get out of here. But before he can back away stealthily, a big, warm hand shoots out from underneath the blankets and grasps him tightly by the hip.

“I thought you were never coming,” Harry rasps deeply.

Louis can’t even start on whatever lame excuse he’s trying to invent before Harry pulls him straight into the bed and on top of him. He gives a dissatisfied little grunt at being manhandled but shuts up fast when Harry’s lips meet his.

This is not a sweet first kiss on the riverbank. This is deep and desperate and blindingly hot. Louis struggles to keep his bearings as he straddles Harry, Harry’s tongue searching his mouth like it’s looking for some long-lost treasure. He’s vaguely aware that Harry is also freshly showered but, unlike Louis, very much naked.

“I thought you were asleep,” Louis says breathlessly into Harry’s mouth, barely able to break away long enough to form the words.

“Hmm-mmm,” Harry murmurs as their mouths meet again. “Was waiting for you.”

The words go straight to Louis’ dick, which is already mostly hard inside his joggers. He presses his crotch down against Harry’s and discovers that the feeling is mutual. Harry groans in response as Louis reconnects their lips for another deep kiss.

It’s not that they’ve never been in bed together before, never touched or given each other pleasure before, but it’s never been like this. Louis can’t believe he waited so long to kiss Harry. Now he can’t get enough of it. He can’t keep track of how many minutes pass while they’re lost in kissing each other, Harry’s hands down the back of Louis’ joggers, shamelessly squeezing and stroking his ass.

Louis could probably keep kissing Harry forever, but his dick would like him to move this thing along a little faster. He forces himself to pull away from Harry’s mouth so that he can press his lips down his neck and chest, moving lower to suck little kisses into his tummy and to trace the outline of his butterfly tattoo with his tongue.

Harry gasps and squirms under the attention, which only motivates Louis to give him more. But first, he leans back a little so he can appreciate the sight of Harry’s impressive cock, now standing at full attention, framed by his laurel tattoos. Fucking ridiculous¸ Louis thinks as he goes down again, nosing at Harry’s dick and licking it lazily up and down. Harry moans and runs his hands through Louis’ hair, pulling slightly.

It’s not something they’ve ever discussed, but Louis fucking loves having his hair pulled. Just the hint of it has him groaning and taking Harry into his mouth. He can’t fit all of him but he gets pretty damn close. Harry’s breathless, spreading his legs and trembling. Louis can tell he’s trying his best not to buck up and choke him. And while Louis doesn’t particularly want to die tonight, having a cock like this down his throat wouldn’t be the worst way to go.

Louis would be perfectly content sucking Harry into oblivion, but after a minute or two, he feels strong hands lifting him up, and before he knows it, he’s on his back. Harry settles on top of him with a smug look on his face, bending down to connect their lips once again.

“As much as I was enjoying that,” Harry’s deep voice rumbles as he nips at one of Louis’ earlobes, “It isn’t what I want tonight.”

He moves lower to press a few soft kisses into Louis’ neck. “And I don’t think it’s what you want, either.”

Louis shudders as Harry’s lips blaze a trail down the front of his body. When he reaches the waistband of Louis’ joggers, he taps his hips, and Louis immediately responds by lifting up so Harry can slip them off of him. He grabs Louis’ ass in both hands and shifts himself upward again so that their cocks can rub together.

“You’re a mess,” Louis teases as Harry rocks back and forth on top of him, creating a frustratingly insufficient amount of friction. He’s leaking all over Louis’ stomach, but then again, so is Louis.

“I could say the same thing about you,” Harry returns, ceasing his grinding for a moment to kiss Louis again.

Louis reaches a hand up and runs it along the length of Harry’s jaw. “You know, I really love foreplay. But we’ve been engaging in foreplay for a month, and I’m going to need you to fuck me now.”

Harry turns his face into Louis’ hand and kisses his palm. “Whatever you want, baby.”

Baby . Louis has never been much for endearments in bed, but that single word dripping from Harry’s swollen lips is enough to make him moan in anticipation. He shoves Harry off of him unceremoniously and dashes into the bathroom for some lube and a condom. He hesitates by the bathroom door, then goes back and grabs two more. You never know, right?

On his way back to the bed, he pulls the bedroom door shut softly and clicks the lock into place. No sense traumatizing Liam a second time. Or Niall a first time.

Harry’s waiting for him, spread-eagled and stroking himself.

“So fucking obscene,” Louis tells him, pressing the lube into Harry’s hand and settling next to him in the bed, pulling the sheet up to their waists.

“Feeling shy?” Now it’s Harry’s turn to tease as he wraps an arm around Louis to pull him closer.

“Not shy,” Louis protests as he climbs on top of Harry and nudges their noses together. “Just…maybe a bit nervous.”

Harry kisses him softly. “Nervous? Louis Tomlinson gets nervous in bed?”

Louis buries his face in the crook of Harry’s neck. “Just shut up and prove to me that you actually know how to use that dick of yours.”

“Oh, believe me,” Harry responds, rolling Louis to the side and flipping the top of the lube open. “I know how to use it.”

He pours some lube onto his hand and pulls Louis in for another deep kiss. Louis closes his eyes and braces for the sensation of a finger near his rim, but what he gets instead is a big, warm, slick hand wrapped around his cock, stroking it slowly and coating it with lube. It feels… so good .

“Mmmm…what’re you doing?” he mumbles into Harry’s mouth. “You’re gonna make me come like this.”

“ ’M relaxing you,” Harry rumbles lowly. “Don’t worry, you won’t come until I’m ready for you to.”

Fuck . Louis never lets someone else have this much control in bed. He’s used to being the one in charge, the one calling all the shots. He doesn’t know what it is about Harry that makes him want to let go, to give himself over to someone else’s will, but it may just be the hottest and most turned on he’s ever felt.

He responds with a groan, reaching down to help Harry stroke him, getting his own hand slicked up with lube and then gripping Harry’s cock and stroking him as well. Two can play this game .

And they play it for a few more delicious minutes, their tongues pushing back and forth between each other’s mouths while their slippery fingers and palms play with each other’s erections as if they’re teenagers who just discovered they could get away with it.

Harry has Louis so relaxed and distracted, so lost in the kissing and the sweet sensations, that he barely notices that Harry has him on his back now, his hand working its way lower, lower. He spends a minute or two working Louis’ balls gently in his palm before the pad of his pointer finger starts rubbing lightly over the exterior of Louis’ hole.

Louis draws in a deep breath, but he’s more than ready. He rocks his hips downward, hoping that Harry will know. Slowly, slowly, Harry works his finger inside, never breaking their kiss.

“So fucking tight,” he finally pulls his mouth away momentarily to praise Louis. “Just like the first time, when you came on my fingers.” He begins working a second finger in beside the first. “Can’t wait to feel you on my cock, Louis. Oh God… ” his voice breaks over a desperate moan.

Louis grapples in the sheets, searching for anything to anchor him through what he’s feeling right now. He winds up with one hand wrapped in Harry’s curls and the other back on Harry’s dick, which is hard as a rock and slick with precome and lube. He doesn’t even have the wherewithal to rub it for Harry, he just grips it roughly by the base as he takes Harry’s second finger inside him. If his grip is too rough, Harry doesn’t complain.

By the time Harry has a third finger worked in and starts brushing Louis’ prostate with each stroke, Louis feels like he’s hurtling through space, an astronaut who’s lost his tether to the ship and is now just careening through the stars.

“Don’t come yet,” Harry mouths gruffly against Louis’ lips, the first time he’s come up for air in what seems like hours , though surely it’s only been a few minutes. Abruptly, he pulls all of his fingers out, leaving Louis to clench around air and let out an incoherent little sob of desperation.

Harry leans back on his haunches, rolling the condom on and applying more lube. While he does, Louis scrambles onto his hands and knees.

“Can we… like this?” he asks Harry uncertainly, biting his bottom lip. “I just haven’t…for a while.”

The sight of Louis, naked and trusting, on his hands and knees in front of him makes every bone in Harry’s body melt like butter.

“However you want, baby,” he answers, scooting closer and rubbing his hands over Louis’ lower back and bum. “We don’t even have to do this if you change your mind, if you aren’t sure.”

Louis arches his back under Harry’s soft, sure touch. “I’m sure. I’m really sure. Just…go slow.”

So Harry goes slow. He drapes himself over Louis’ back and holds him close, running his free hand up and down Louis’ side a few times. His dick is pressed into the cleft of Louis’ ass, but he makes no move to push it in yet. Instead, he balances himself on his right hand and uses his left to grip Louis’ left hand and bring it up to Louis’ chest.

“Your heart is pounding,” he whispers into Louis’ ear.

Harry ,” Louis whimpers brokenly, unable to form the words he needs to ask for what he wants.

Shhhhh, ” Harry reassures him. “I know what you need, and I’m going to give it to you. But first you have to relax all the way.”

Without warning, Harry drops Louis’ hand and slides down the length of his body until he’s kneeling behind him, Louis’ glorious ass right in front of his face. He grips one cheek in each hand, pulling them apart rapidly and leaning forward to lick one long, unbroken stripe from Louis’ balls, over his open hole, and up to his tailbone.

“Holy fuck ,” Louis gasps, shaking and falling forward onto his elbows.

“That should relieve the tension,” Harry assesses smugly, raising up to realign himself with Louis. He keeps a soft hold on Louis’ hips as he pushes inside as slowly as he can.  

“Fuck, baby, you’re so tight. You feel so good,” he groans as he inches forward.

Louis can’t do anything but swallow hard as he adjusts to the feeling, trying his best to push back so Harry knows how bad he wants it. When Harry finally bottoms out, he takes just one moment to look down and appreciate the view of his hips flush with Louis’ ass, his cock completely disappeared from view, before he fits himself over Louis’ back again so he can be close enough to whisper in his ear, to kiss his neck, to bite his shoulder.

“Can’t believe I’m finally inside you,” he whispers, grazing his teeth along Louis’ earlobe.

“Took you long enough. Now move, ” Louis demands, and Harry begins thrusting slowly, gauging every reaction from Louis to make sure it feels good for him. If Louis’ moans and whimpers and backward thrusts are any indication, he’s doing all right.

Louis Tomlinson, the king of dirty talk in the sack, can’t seem to form any words once Harry’s cock starts hitting his prostate and he starts snapping his hips faster and faster, driving himself deeper into Louis with each thrust.

Harry, on the other hand, seems to have no shortage of words to speak into Louis’ ear, into the back of his neck, into his sweaty shoulder blades.

“You’re doing so good, baby. So good,” he assures him, leaning back for just a second to watch himself driving in and out of Louis’ hole. Fuck , if it isn’t the hottest thing he’s ever laid eyes on.

Louis grunts in response as Harry continues. “I love having you this way. I want you every way, Louis. I want you on your knees, on your back, I want you bent over that grand piano of yours with your hands tied behind you, while I fuck you so good you jizz all over the keys before I make you lick it all up.”

Shit ,” Louis moans in response. He’d like to say more, but his entire brain seems to have short-circuited.

Harry keeps up his rhythm as he leans in as close as possible to Louis’ ear and wraps his big right hand around Louis’ cock. It’s still coated with lube from earlier and the slide is easy. He begins stroking Louis in time with his thrusts, whispering in his ear so low that Louis has to quiet his own moans and strain to hear it.

“You know why I punched him?”

It takes Louis a few beats to realize that Harry’s talking about Aiden. He can’t get any words out, can only shake his head to respond.

“I was jealous,” Harry confesses, his voice barely audible over the rhythmic slapping of his balls against Louis’ ass. “I didn’t want his hands on you. I don’t want anyone’s hands on you- but mine.” He punctuates the last two words with two powerful thrusts and then Louis is coming with a muffled cry, spilling over Harry’s hand and the bedsheets as Harry continues relentlessly pounding into him.

The feel of Louis coming in his hand is enough to send Harry over the edge a few thrusts later. He drives in as deep as he can and stills, pulsing into Louis’ tight heat with a string of curses he won’t even remember putting together.

Exhausted, he pulls out as gently as possible and rolls Louis over onto his back, away from the wet spot. Louis’ eyes are barely open. Harry presses a kiss to his nose and each cheek before stumbling into the bathroom to discard the condom and to grab a wet cloth. Louis is barely coherent as Harry wipes him down and wraps him up in the blankets, pulling him close.

“I know you’re not much of a cuddler,” he says, burying his nose in the crook of Louis’ neck and inhaling deeply. “I won’t get mad if you leave.”

Louis responds by curling himself tighter into Harry’s side, linking their ankles together beneath the sheets. His mind is finally clearing up enough to form an actual sentence.

“So, do you always confess all your fantasies and sins during sex?” he asks with a sleepy, mischievous smile.

Harry blushes. “Not always. Just felt right this time, I guess.”

“Well, I have a confession, too,” Louis tells him, snuggling in even closer. “Been on my mind a while now. I guess now’s as good a time as any to admit it.”

Harry draws in a nervous breath, not sure what to expect.

“You know the GQ shoot?” Louis asks, and Harry nods tentatively, wracking his brain to try to figure out where this is going.

“Remember how mesmerized you were by my bare ass?” Louis presses.

“Well, I wouldn’t say mesmerized , but-”

“You were mesmerized,” Louis corrects him with a kiss, tugging on Harry’s bottom lip just a little with his teeth. “Anyway, I feel like I should tell you that changing underwear wasn’t part of the shoot. Good night!” He closes his eyes and rolls slightly away from Harry, as if the conversation is over and he’s ready to fall asleep, but Harry hauls him back to demand more information.

“What do you mean it wasn’t part of the shoot? You mean you could have kept the same pair on the entire time and never flashed your ass at all ?”

Louis puts on his best apologetic face. “That…is correct. I just wanted you to get an eyeful of it. Welp, I guess it all worked out. Sleep tight!”

This time, Louis can’t stop himself from giggling as Harry pulls him back again, digging his fingers into his ribs mercilessly.

“You little shit!” Harry exclaims. “Trying to seduce me!” His voice goes an octave deeper before he whispers, “I ought to punish you for that.”

Louis’ dick stirs in interest, but the rest of his body is already half asleep. “I hope you will. But first, sleep.”

Harry hums in agreement and gives Louis’ bum an appreciative little squeeze. They both fall asleep with smiles on their faces.

Chapter Text

“Hmmmpf.” Harry’s face hits the pillow hard as he scrambles toward the headboard.

“And where do you think you’re going?” comes the calm, steady voice from behind him.

Before Harry can respond, he feels his ankles being gripped firmly, and suddenly he’s being pulled back down the length of the bed. Again.

“Fucking hell , Louis,” he whines as he feels Louis’ tongue making its way back inside him for what feels like the fiftieth time in the past hour. He rests his sweaty brow on his forearms and tries to breathe.

Apparently, Louis really is into the punishment thing they had laughed about in St. Louis. Only, it turns out he’d rather be on the giving end of it.

It had all started earlier in the evening when Louis was sorting through the mail in his kitchen while Harry sat on the counter, digging absentmindedly through the fruit bowl. They’d just gotten back from a highly-papped date to Michael’s, where they’d lunched on spring pea soup and wedge salads, and the MoMA, where they’d pretended to be very interested in the Degas exhibit while really just whispering filthy things in each other’s ears.

“What the fuck is this? What’s Cielo?” Louis asked Harry as he struggled to rip the envelope open.

“Beats me,” Harry shrugged, bypassing an apple to reach for a handful of grapes.

Louis’ eyes scanned the paper briefly, confused. Then, realization dawned.

“Are you shitting me?! Harry, this is a bill for $744.12 from that club we went to. It says it’s for broken plates. What the hell? We didn’t break any plates!”

Harry paused mid-chew, his eyes wide.

Louis grabbed his phone and started dialing, outrage seething in his voice. “I’ll have one of the Sams straighten it out. Can you believe that, Harry? They’re trying to charge me $750 for broken plates ?”

Harry leapt off the counter and kissed Louis, fiercely and passionately, taking him by surprise and causing him to drop the phone. Louis didn’t protest, sinking into the kiss and allowing Harry to turn him around and hoist him up on the island. As he wrapped his legs around Harry’s waist, Sam Clifton’s voice came through the line.

“Hello? Hello? Louis?”

“Mmmmm,” Harry moaned loudly into Louis’ mouth, his hand blindly reaching for the phone to push it further away.

“Louis? Is that you?”

Louis attempted to break away from the kiss and retrieve his phone, but Harry pulled him back, and he was powerless to resist. Eventually, Sam Clifton gave up and ended the call.

“What was that all about?” Louis asked, breathless, when Harry finally let him pull away for a moment. Their faces were so close together that their noses were almost touching, and Harry could still feel the sting of the kiss on his lips as he looked into Louis’ sky-blue eyes. Goddammit, it was so hard to lie to those eyes.

Harry bit his lip. “I might have broken some plates that night.”

“What?! When?!”

Harry stared at the floor and scuffed the toe of his boot against the tiles. “Um. On my way out. When the bouncer was escorting me out the back.”

Louis hesitated a moment, trying to recall the exact events of that night. Then he tried his very best to look serious, although the idea of Harry belligerently smashing plates on his way out of the club after punching Aiden in the face made him want to grin from ear to ear and start kissing Harry all over again.

“And why’d you do that?”

“I was upset, okay? It felt really good at the time. I’ll pay for the plates, I promise.” Harry nuzzled his face into Louis’ neck and dragged his lips against the stubble there. “Now are you going to let me blow you while you sit on this counter or…?”

“Nice distraction technique, Curly,” Louis replied, a rough edge setting into his voice as he ran his fingers through Harry’s hair and pulled his head back so that their eyes could meet again.

Harry stuck out his lower lip and tried to pout as cutely as possible. “I’m sorry?”

Louis’ eyes darkened. “I could make you sorry.”

It was certainly not what Harry was expecting, but his dick advised him to play along.

“I said I’d pay for the plates,” he offered again plaintively, sliding his hands up Louis’ thighs and leaning in for another kiss.

Louis refused him, catching Harry’s face in his hand and taking a firm hold of his chin. “What if I pay for the plates…but you let me take it out on you a little?”

Harry groaned a little without even realizing it. “I would say…yes.” His voice came out in a gruff whisper. “Yes, I would definitely let you do that.”

And that’s how Harry finds himself wearing nothing but his two necklaces, covered in sweat, and breathing hard in Louis’ lavender-scented sheets with his ass up in the air, begging to come.

Louis had taken his time, fingering Harry open slowly before pulling him over his lap and spanking him until tears were streaming down his face. It was a first for Harry, and he loved every fucking second of it. He almost came just from the combination of the sharp, tingling slaps to his backside and the friction of his cock on Louis’ bare thigh.

When Louis decided that Harry’d had enough, he put him on his hands and knees on the bed and ate him out until he was practically sobbing, alternating between using his fingers and his tongue, and adding a well-timed smack or bite when Harry least expected it.

To say that Harry is currently wrecked is an understatement. He whines again when Louis replaces his tongue with two fingers and reaches between Harry’s legs with his other hand to play with his balls. He hasn’t touched Harry’s dick once the entire time.

Louis. Lou. You gotta…let me. You gotta…either let me…myself…or fuck me . Please.”

Harry knows he’s begging, but he can’t bring himself to care.

Louis takes his fingers out and rolls Harry onto his back, crawling on top and caging him in with his hands and knees.

“You want me to fuck you?”

Louis’ voice and breathing seem controlled in contrast to the shaking, whimpering mess beneath him.

“God, yes,” Harry moans, trying to catch his breath. “ Please .”

Louis doesn’t move, just waits for Harry to focus and look him in the eyes. He finally does.

“And are you sorry for breaking the plates?”

“Yes,” Harry whimpers. “So, so sorry. Fuck me, Louis. Please fuck me.”

Louis leans back on his heels and thinks for a moment. “Okay. Up against the window, Haz.” He nods his head to indicate the floor-to-ceiling glass panels overlooking Central Park. It’s late evening by now, the sun casting a warm glow over the trees as it inches toward the far side of Louis’ building.

Harry furrows his brow, confused. “Against the window? That huge…window? Will anyone see?”

“I can darken them, Harry,” Louis answers firmly, giving Harry’s ass a little pat to get him moving.

Relieved, Harry rolls off the bed and walks to the window, placing both of his palms on the glass. Louis draws in a deep breath at the sight of him standing there, completely still- waiting. He unwraps a condom as fast as he can, rolls it on, and coats himself with lube, reaching for Harry from behind and slowly, wordlessly pushing into him. After what they’ve been up to, there’s definitely no need for further prep.

As soon as Louis bottoms out, he expands on his previous sentence.

“I can darken them,” he whispers wickedly in Harry’s ear. “But I’m not going to tell you whether or not I did .”

Harry doesn’t have time to think before Louis grabs his hips and starts fucking him in earnest. The head of his dick hits the windowpane with every thrust, and all Harry can think is that he doesn’t care if the entire city of New York watches him come because it feels so goddamn good. There’s nothing to hold onto- no sheet, no pillow, no headboard. All he can do is splay his giant palms on the glass to brace himself- and just take it.

It isn’t the first time Louis has fucked him. The first time was the night they got back from St. Louis, fresh from the shower and warm and quiet in Harry’s little bed, face to face, and with a gentleness Harry could never have imagined Louis even possessed. Afterwards, Louis had kissed him on the nose and gotten up to make them both tea, muttering to himself that it didn’t taste quite right. Harry didn’t have the heart to tell him that it was because there was no sugar in it.  

That was then, though, and this is now. Now, Louis is pounding Harry hard against the window after an hour of edging him, and Harry isn’t going to last long. It takes less than thirty seconds before Harry is crying out and shooting all over the glass. Exhausted, he pulls away from Louis and collapses to his knees.

Louis shucks off the condom and tosses it aside, grasping Harry by the shoulders and turning him around to face his still-hard cock. Harry doesn’t miss a beat, taking Louis in his mouth and letting Louis take control once again. Louis has been so focused on Harry for so long, but now he finally loses himself in the moment, chasing his own orgasm.

“I’m close,” he warns Harry, and much to his surprise, as soon as he starts to come, Harry pulls back and takes it fully in the face, allowing Louis to paint his lips, his cheeks, his closed eyelids. Louis isn’t sure he’s ever seen anything more beautiful.

He sinks to his knees so that they’re facing each other. Harry is absolutely destroyed, Louis’ come covering his face while his own drips slowly down the window behind him, distorting the postcard-perfect glow of Central Park on a late spring evening. It looks like modern art, Louis thinks. Definitely more interesting than anything they saw in the MoMA today.

He grabs his own discarded T-shirt from the floor and uses it to wipe Harry’s face clean. They’re both speechless, panting for breath. When they’ve recovered enough, Louis dips his head in for a long, slow kiss.

“Come with me to London,” he says.

Harry groans and collapses in a dramatic heap on the floor. “You know I can’t.”

“What do you mean you can’t?” Louis asks, even though he already knows the answer. He settles on the floor beside Harry, pulling him in close. Harry’s still shaking a little. “Doesn’t it say in the contract that you have to follow me wherever I go? Hold my sunglasses when I pose for fan photos? Maybe wear some panties when we get back to the hotel?”

“Panties? What the hell?” Harry giggles into Louis’ shoulder. He feels so sleepy. “No, that is definitely not in the contract. And you know I have to stay here and catch up on a million things at work.”

“You could see your sister, though. And London is gorgeous in the spring.”

Harry snorts softly. “No, it isn’t. It’s cold. And rainy.”

“Okay, fine,” Louis concedes, burying his face in Harry’s hair. It smells like sweat and Moroccan Oil dry shampoo- not that Louis could put a name the latter scent- but he loves it. “I’ll take Niall with me instead. He’s got a girl in Islington he likes to see.”

“Does he,” Harry mutters, sleep beginning to overtake him. “Let me know how that goes.”

Louis shakes his head fondly. “You’re not making any sense now, Haz. Come on, up to the bed. We’ll clean up the rest of this mess in the morning.”

Harry gives a mild protest but allows Louis to pull him to his feet for a moment before flopping unceremoniously back onto the bed. Louis makes a quick walk-through of the apartment, turning off lights and adjusting the thermostat, before crawling in beside Harry. Harry’s barely awake, but he scoots a little closer so that he can press a kiss to the side of Louis’ neck.

“Lou.” His words are slurred and barely above a whisper. “Did you darken the windows? Before?”

Louis freezes. Holy shit . He was so caught up in the moment that he can’t remember if he’d actually darkened them or not. He’d meant to, honestly.

“I mean...did you want me to darken them?” he asks, buying time while he searches his brain for the right answer.

Harry laughs softly. “I’ll never tell.”

Thank fuck.

“Then I won’t either.”

Louis doesn’t get a reaction. Harry is already asleep.

Chapter Text

It’s raining in London. No surprise there. It’s been a long week of interviews and industry events, and Louis is exhausted. London usually lulls him a bit. The grey skies, the fog. It’s like New York, only a half-step slower. He usually sleeps better when it rains, but he hasn’t this time. He’s tossed and turned every night until he either gives in and knocks himself out with a pill or calls Harry. Which means nothing, he tells himself- it’s just that Harry’s voice is so deep and his stories are so long and boring that it’d be crazy not to utilize him as a sleeping aid.

Today is their last day here, and Louis finally has an afternoon to himself. It’d been fairly easy getting away from Sam Clifton, but ditching Niall had proven more difficult. He’d been sticking closer than usual throughout the entire trip and didn’t seem interested in seeing his Islington girl. Louis told him he was going to take a nap and then slipped out of the hotel as soon as Niall returned to his own room.

He climbs the narrow staircase into Candid Café in Angel five minutes after the agreed-upon time and immediately spots her at a table near the back. It has to be her. She looks just like her brother.

No one in the café seems to notice him as he slips to the small table-for-two at the back and sits down across from her, taking off his sunglasses and pasting on a nervous smile.

“You’re late,” she says, her nose wrinkling a little, and Louis can’t tell if it’s amusement or disapproval. God, Harry does the exact same thing.

“I’m so sorry, Gemma,” Louis apologizes. “I got a little turned around on my way here. I should have taken a car instead of walking.”

Her expression gives way to a slight, crooked grin. “You walked? I’m impressed. I would have expected a limousine, or at least an Addison Lee.”

Relieved, Louis lets out a small chuckle. “I was trying to stay incognito.”

Gemma glances around the cozy space. There are a half dozen other patrons there, and no one seems to be paying any attention to them. “I think you succeeded.”

They order tea and slices of cake with custard- carrot for Gemma, chocolate for Louis- and make a bit of small talk about the weather and the traffic and the exchange rate between the dollar and the pound. Gemma rolls her eyes when Louis complains that the tea is shit.

“Maybe your American palate just isn’t sophisticated enough to appreciate our fine British variations.”

“Excuse me, you’re from California, miss,” Louis answers defensively, but his eyes are smiling. “And I’ll have you know that I take my tea in a very British way- a splash of milk, no sugar. My taste is actually quite refined.”

Gemma groans and shakes her head. “I’m trying to imagine you and my brother in the same room, but it’s too much. No wonder you two get along so well.”

The statement catches Louis off guard. “He said that? We get along well?” He tries to ask without seeming overly invested in the answer.

“Well, no, I guess he didn’t,” Gemma replies. “But I just assumed? I know it started out a little rough, but you look like you’re having fun in every photo I see of you together. And Harry is…happy. He sounds happy every time I talk to him.” Her eyes meet Louis’ and she doesn’t look away.

A flush starts to creep up Louis’ neck as he takes a gulp of the awful tea. “You know,” he stammers a little, “that we’re not…I mean, it’s kind of a PR thing…we’re just…well, you know…we’re friends.”

Gemma settles her cup into its saucer gently. “Friends just sleep in another bed.”

Her gaze is still fixed on Louis, but it’s clear from her expression that she isn’t trying to be intimidating.

In the split second he has to decide, Louis chooses to act dumb. He’s been nominated for an Oscar, after all. He can definitely pull this off.

“Oh, you like Ed Sheeran?” he deflects as quickly as possible. “Great song!”

Gemma furrows her meticulously shaped brows. “No. Well, I mean, yes, I love Ed Sheeran, but what I meant was…I know you’re sleeping with my brother.”

“What?” Louis goes for surprised and slightly indignant without laying it on too thick. He’s pretty sure he’s nailing it, too. “What makes you think that?”

“Well, for starters, you’re surprisingly terrible at lying,” Gemma observes with a smirk. “Your face is bright red. Also, the last few times I’ve called Harry when it’s late in New York, he whispers into the phone the entire time. You know? Like you do when you’re trying not to wake someone up?”

She’s good. She’s really good. But, Louis isn’t ready to concede just yet.

“Okay, so maybe young Harold’s got someone in his bed. What makes you think it’s me?”

“If it were someone else, he would have told me. Besides, Lottie says the two of you are completely into each other.” Gemma waves her hand as if the case is settled.

“Lottie?!” Louis sputters.

“Yeah. You know, your sister?” Gemma takes a bite of a cake and looks at Louis as if she’s a little worried about his sanity.

“Yes, I know my own sister,” he responds with a roll of his eyes. “I’m just wondering how you know her!”

“Oh,” responds Gemma with a slight shrug. “She started following me on Instagram, I followed her back, blah blah blah, now we chat.”

Louis raises his eyebrows. “You chat?”

“Yeah, Louis. We chat.” Gemma sounds slightly exasperated, but she’s smiling. “It’s something nosy sisters do. Now, stop trying to distract me from my point. You’re totally boning my brother- or he’s boning you and please don’t tell me which one it is- and as his protective older sibling, I want to know how likely he is to get hurt. Because this situation, you have to admit is—unusual.” Her smile fades into an expression of genuine concern.

Louis knows he’s finally been pinned down. He clears his throat uncomfortably. “I know. It’s very unusual, but…I promise I have no intention of hurting Harry.”

“I appreciate that, but that doesn’t guarantee that he won’t get hurt.” Gemma’s dead serious now. She shifts forward in her chair, leaning over the table a bit. “Listen. I like you, Louis. I like that my brother seems so happy lately. But I have to be honest. I’m skeptical. I don’t feel like I’m meeting a stranger here. I know too much about you already. You have a reputation for ‘playing the field.’ God, that sounds like something my mother would say. But you know what I mean.”

Louis fumbles with his tea cup as he tries to come up with the right words. Gemma isn’t wrong at all. And she has every right to be questioning him this way. “I do know what you mean. But, listen, Gemma, this situation is completely different than all of that. Harry and I have an agreement, and we both understand the parameters. He’s not some random guy from a club. It started off as more of a business arrangement, I’ll admit, but we’ve gotten to know each other. Harry is an amazing person. I care about him.”

“And you’re also fucking him.”

Gemma is nothing if not direct. It terrifies Louis a little bit, but he also appreciates it. And he can’t complain- he was the one who had called her and asked to meet up. He’d known there was a chance he’d end up in the hot seat, but he just couldn’t resist the opportunity to meet a member of Harry’s family and see what she was like.

“We’re kind of stuck with each other for a while,” he finally offers in lieu of a flat-out admission. “We’re just making the most of it.” 

Victory flashes across Gemma’s face, followed by a small frown. “I guess I’m just surprised, is all. Harry’s always been more of a…relationship guy. He doesn’t usually go for casual sex.”

“Well, he definitely went for it last week,” Louis quips before he can even stop himself. Shit.

But Gemma’s laughing now. “Listen, Louis. I don’t know how you’ve done it. You’ve got my almost-annoyingly ethical brother to lie for you on a global scale. You’ve also somehow convinced him to shag you with no strings attached, when he’s such a romantic at heart that I’m fairly sure he still makes homemade Valentines. And the crazy thing is, he’s happy about it.”

Louis feels a cold stab of guilt and a warm rush of delight all at the same time, and he doesn’t understand how that’s possible. He doesn’t like being the one to make Harry lie or compromise, but he loves the idea of being the one to make Harry happy, and- where the hell did that come from? He shakes the thought out of his head and refocuses on Gemma.

“Harry’s lucky to have such a protective big sister who loves him so much,” he tells her. He takes a sip of his tea, but it’s gone cold and he can’t pretend to like it anymore.

Gemma smiles fondly. “Well, don’t ever tell him that I said this, but he’s pretty easy to love.”

Louis’ breath gets stuck in his throat when a voice in his head that he can’t control whispers, he really is.

---

Harry yawns and drags his feet all the way across the writers’ pit to his desk. He’s been sleeping like shit all week, and no, it doesn’t have anything to do with the lack of sex or the lack of a mouthy little celebrity in his bed. It’s just…stress from work. Jeff has been pushing him to show up at a ton of industry events to keep his face out in public, and he’s had almost zero time to work on any of the articles he’s started. He’s starting to feel less like a journalist and more like New York Weekly’s designated mascot.

It's only as he’s pulling the strap of his messenger bag over his head and placing his coffee cup on his desk that Harry notices the eerie quiet in the office. Frowning, he peers over the partition between his desk and Liam’s. Liam is dead focused on his computer screen, but the look on his face betrays nervousness.

Pssst.” Harry tries to get his attention as quietly as possible.

Liam jumps about three feet out of his seat before settling his wide, brown eyes on Harry’s face. He looks like an injured deer. 

“Bro,” he whispers very seriously. “Some shit just went down here.”

Harry sighs. “Liam. We’ve talked about using ‘bro.’ Remember? The rule of thumb is that you just don’t do it.”

Liam opens his mouth to protest, but stops and shakes his head instead. “Don’t you want to know what happened?”

“I do,” Harry concedes, lowering his voice even further. “It must have been something major. You could hear a pin drop in here.”

Liam clears his throat and looks around uneasily. “Ben just got fired.”

What?!” Harry’s stunned question comes out a little too loud. That was the last thing he’d expected to hear.

“Yep,” Liam confirms. “Apparently, he plagiarized an entire article about how windsurfing is going to be the next big sport or whatever. They pulled him into a meeting with all the editors, and then when he came out here to clean out his desk, Jeff followed him and they were practically screaming at each other. In front of everyone!”

“Oh my God,” Harry whispers, his chest constricting a little. “Did you hear it? What did they say?”

“Couldn’t really understand much,” Liam answers with a shrug of disappointment. “A lot of the ‘F’ word, though, if you know what I mean.”

“Yeah, Liam. I do know what you mean. I’ve heard the ‘F’ word before.” Harry sighs impatiently. He’s just about to press Liam for more information when Sophia the intern passes by, balancing drink carriers full of Starbucks in both hands. She pauses to join their hushed conversation.

“Did you guys see what happened? That was crazy.” Her long brunette hair is pulled up in a sleek ponytail that swings back and forth when she talks.

Liam nods his head. “Yeah, but I couldn’t really hear anything. What were they yelling about?”

Sophia leans in closer to whisper conspiratorially. “I didn’t catch everything, but it sounded like Ben was really angry with Jeff for not defending him. Which is weird, right? Because he doesn’t even report to Jeff. Anyway, he swears he didn’t plagiarize anything, but no one seems to believe him.”

She raises one eyebrow before continuing. “At one point, Jeff yelled, ‘Well, that’s not what you said in fucking Connecticut! And then Ben slammed his hands down on his desk and was like, ‘Fuck you for bringing up Connecticut!’ I seriously thought he was going to throw something at Jeff’s head. Anyway, so I guess Ben is heading to LA. He told Jerry in accounting that his friend works on a TV show there and can get him a job.” Harry can tell that Sophia is excited about this particularly juicy bit of gossip and wants to wave her hands for emphasis, but the risk of spilling hot coffee is too great.

“Gotta drop these off before they get cold,” she says, nodding her head toward the to-go cups. And then she’s gone, the click of her stylish black heels echoing across the still-silent office while Harry and Liam stare at each other, speechless.

Harry’s heart plummets. He’s torn between running out to look for Ben and running into Jeff’s office to yell at him for being an idiot. In the end, he just sinks down in his chair and allows a helpless feeling to wash over him. There’s nothing he can do to fix this, and it’s not his place to do so, anyway. Ben and Jeff should never have gotten involved the way they did, and look what happened- it totally blew up in their faces. He suddenly wonders if that’s what’s destined to happen between him and Louis. 

Surely not, though. First of all, he and Louis are nothing like Ben and Jeff. Ben had told Harry he was in love with Jeff. Obviously, that had been Ben’s first mistake. Getting seriously involved with someone you work with? Never a good idea. And letting yourself fall for someone you know there’s no future with? Absolutely terrible idea. But that’s not what Harry and Louis are doing. They’re not falling for each other. They’re having frequent, casual, mind-blowing sex, and that’s all there is to it, thank you very much.

“You okay?” Liam is peering down from his side of the cubicle divider.

Harry releases a long breath he hadn’t realized he was holding in. “Yeah. I just…feel bad for Ben. That’s really fucked up.”

“It is,” Liam agrees. “Ben’s a decent guy. I know you really liked him.”

Harry shakes his head, still trying to wrap his mind around the situation. “I can’t believe Jeff did this to him.”

“Did what?” Liam is confused. “He’s not even Ben’s editor.”

“Just…never mind.” Now is not the time or place to explain the Ben-Jeff saga to Liam, who will no doubt have a million questions for Harry, starting with why the hell he didn’t tell him about it sooner. “We can talk about it later.”

“We have a lot to talk about later,” Liam returns in his best mom-like tone. “Like why the entire Tomlinson family thinks that you and Louis are in a relationship. And why I didn’t see you at breakfast for an entire week before Louis left for London. And why—”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah, Liam, I know,” Harry huffs. Suddenly, the perfect distraction pops into his brain. “But I think you have bigger things to worry about today, don’t you?”

Liam swallows and nods, immediately forgetting about his interrogation of Harry. Yep- tonight’s the night. Liam has an actual date with Emma Stone. Sort of. Louis has asked an agent friend of his to take Liam to an industry party and introduce them there. And he’s also put in a good word with Emma ahead of time. So yeah, it’s practically a date. Liam has been trying desperately to play it cool all week, but now it looks like he’s starting to sweat just thinking about it.

“You’ll be home at 7:00 to help me get ready?” he checks with Harry for what must be the hundredth time.

Harry assures him that he will be, although they’ve spent every night this week finalizing Liam’s clothes and hair, so he’s not sure what more he can do to be of service, except for offering his moral support. On second thought, Liam will probably need a lot of that.

After a couple of hours at his desk, Harry finds himself completely unable to concentrate on work. He can’t stop thinking about what happened to Ben, about his growing distaste for Jeff, and about how messed up the entire situation between him and Louis really is. But mostly, he can’t stop thinking about how much he misses Louis. Louis’ body, he corrects himself.

He finally gives up and ducks out of work earlier than he’d planned. A little while later, he finds himself wandering through Central Park, trying to walk off some of the tension that seems to be holding his entire body in check. He’s crossing the Bow Bridge when his phone buzzes in his pocket.

“Hey, Mom.” 

“Hi, sweetie.” The sound of Anne’s voice fills Harry with the kind of familiarity and comfort that can only come from one’s mother.

“Everything okay?” he asks, always a little worried that there might be bad news about his grandma, or that something will go wrong for his mom while he and Gemma are both living thousands of miles away.

“Of course!” she replies. “Just calling to check on you.”

Relieved, Harry stops and leans against the bridge railing near one of the giant cast-iron urns overflowing with spring flowers in all shades of purple and yellow.

“I’m all right.”

“You sure?” Anne presses gently.

Harry hesitates. His mom has so much on her plate already. He doesn’t want to burden her with his problems, especially when he can’t even sort them out in his own head.

“Yeah, I’m sure. Mostly. I’m just…confused about work. I’m not sure I’m where I should be, or doing what I should be doing.”

“Oh, honey.” Anne’s voice is full of warmth and concern. “I thought you said things were looking up. You were getting more assignments that you liked, right? And a raise? You seemed so happy about it a few weeks ago.”

“I know, I know. It’s just…I don’t know how to explain it.” Harry stares up at the Manhattan sky as if some answers might drop out of the gathering clouds. “There are a lot of factors.”

“Is Louis a factor?”

“What? What do you mean?” Harry scrambles, not wanting the conversation to take this turn. Things are already complicated enough with the Tomlinsons. He shouldn’t drag his mom into the mix. “You know that’s not really a thing, Mom. We’ve talked about this.”

“Yes, honey, I know. You keep saying that.” If Anne is frustrated with her son, her voice doesn’t betray it. “I’m just a little confused. You seem so up and down lately, and I worry about you. But when I see the photos of you and Louis, you look so genuinely happy. What’s wrong with just being together? Why does it have to be so complicated?”

Harry sighs as a fat raindrop lands directly on his nose. “Mom…I just…it doesn’t work like that. Just because we look good together in pictures doesn’t make us a real couple. There’s so much more to a relationship than that.”

“What’s missing then?” Anne wants to know, and fuck, why is she asking all the right questions right now? “Does he not have the personality to match those handsome looks? I’ve always read that he’s fun and adventuresome- that reminds me of you.”

“Adventuresome for me is ocean kayaking, Mom.” Harry begins to make his way across the park, as a few more raindrops splash onto the pavement around him. “Adventuresome for him is more like…a threesome with two former boyband members or something.”

“Language, Harry!”

“Threesome isn’t a bad word, Mom.”

Anne makes a disapproving noise but decides to let that one go. “We can pick up this conversation later, dear. Now what’s wrong at work?”

Harry skirts his way around an elderly couple opening an umbrella near Strawberry Fields. “I just don’t know if this is where I should be. Even with better assignments, I… just don’t feel good about what I’m doing. I feel like my editor is pushing me down a path I don’t want to go down.”

His mom is silent for a moment before responding. “Honey, if there’s one thing I know about you, it’s that you always follow your heart. If you do that, and trust your judgment, I know you’ll find your way.”

But what if my heart and my judgment are telling me two completely different things? Harry wonders to himself.

As Harry continues his path toward Central Park West, Anne updates him on his grandma, her work, and the LA weather (considerably sunnier than New York today, apparently). Just talking to her makes him feel more grounded, like there’s a normal world somewhere outside this crazy city and the crazy situation he’s gotten himself into, and maybe he’ll find his way back to it somehow.

By the time he reaches Louis’ building, the sky is completely filled with rainclouds, but Harry’s head feels a little clearer. He decides he just needs to concentrate on taking one step at a time. He has to get through the rest of his agreement with Louis and go from there. If things don’t get better at New York Weekly, he’ll start thinking about his next career move. At least he’s making some extra money that he can put aside for his mom and grandma. Right now, all he’s going to do is have as much fun as possible with Louis before they go their separate ways. It’ll all work out. It has to.

He nods at Louis’ doorman, Julio, as he passes through the lobby and enters the elevator, punching in the code for Louis’ apartment. When he walks in the front door, he freezes, the hair on his arms standing on end. There are definitely noises coming from the back of the apartment, and it can’t be Louis. Louis is in London.

He looks around for a weapon, silently cursing Louis for playing the piano instead of playing baseball because people always use bats in the movies for this type of thing. Then he starts imagining Louis in baseball pants and loses his train of thought for a moment until he hears more shuffling coming from down the hall. There’s no doubt now that someone else is here.

Harry tiptoes through the kitchen, bypassing the knife block and opting for a rolling pin instead. Why the fuck Louis has a rolling pin he doesn’t know, but he’ll worry about that later. The hallway is dark but there’s light coming from the open bathroom door. Harry creeps closer and raises the rolling pin over his head. A second later, he sees a streak of blonde hair flashing toward him and feels a sharp pain in his chest.

“Ow! Motherfucker!” he screams, dropping the rolling pin to the floor with a loud clatter and instinctively bringing his hands to his chest to claw at whatever’s causing the intense pain. It’s…a pair of tweezers?

The blonde streak is coming toward him again but stops short in realization.

Harry? What are you doing here? You scared the shit out of me!”

“You stabbed me!” Harry wails, pulling the tweezers out and holding them up in front of Sam Clayton’s face.

“Oh my God, I’m so sorry, Harry!” Sam scrambles, taking the tweezers and attempting to examine Harry’s injury, which is impossible through his shirt. Now that she’s up close, Harry can see that Sam is a mess. Her eyes are rimmed red, her makeup is streaked from crying, and her normally perfect bun is hanging lopsided and loose.

Harry momentarily forgets his surprise and pain, clasping her hands and drawing them away from his chest. “Sam, are you okay? What’s wrong? What are you doing here?”

Instead of answering, Sam leans back against the hallway wall and lowers herself slowly to the ground, a look of sheer misery etched on her face. Harry has no idea what to do, so he follows suit, lowering himself to the floor next to her and crossing his legs like a kindergartner. They’re silent for a long moment.

Finally, Sam speaks. “I needed to get away from the office, and Louis’ place is closer than mine. I didn’t think anyone would be here.” She looks at Harry, tears threatening to spill from her pretty hazel eyes. “I’m sorry I stabbed you.”

Harry unbuttons his shirt just enough to get a good look at the wound. It’s barely bleeding. Unbelievable. He was just brutally stabbed and he’s not even going to have stitches to show for it. “You didn’t hit any vital organs. I’m all right. But...you aren't. What's wrong?”

Sam heaves a long sigh, dragging herself up to her knees and shuffling back into the bathroom. Harry’s thoroughly confused for several seconds until she returns, still knee-walking in her perfectly tailored pantsuit, with an off-white plastic stick grasped in her right hand. 

“Is that a thermometer? Are you sick?”

“No, Harry. I’m pregnant.” The tears are flowing now. “At least, I think I am.”

She thrusts the stick in his face, which- ew- but that doesn’t seem like the most important thing to focus on right now.

“What am I even looking at?” Harry’s brain is finally starting to catch up to reality. “How many lines means pregnant?”

“Two. Two lines.” In a twist of irony, Sam also has two lines of mascara running down each side of her face.

Against his better judgment, Harry reaches out and takes the pee stick so he can inspect it more closely. “Okay, but does this second one count as an actual line? Because it’s really light, and the other line is really dark.”

Sam scoots over, sniffling, and sits so close to Harry that their shoulders are touching. “I don’t know. I’ve never taken one before.”

Poor Sam. She’s usually so polished and poised. Harry has never seen her so undone. Well, except that one time outside the club. With Niall. Oh God. Niall.

“This is…like, if you are…” Harry trails off, unsure how to ask her or if he even should.

Sam makes it easy for him. “Yeah. I haven’t…I’m not seeing anyone else.”

They spend the next ten minutes on the hallway floor, poring over the pregnancy test instructions like two clueless high school lab partners. They finally come to the conclusion that Sam needs to give it at least a day or two before taking another test. There’s nothing to do but wait.

“God, I don’t know what I’m going to do with myself,” Sam laments miserably. “I’m a nervous wreck.” 

Harry thinks for a moment. “You wanna come watch Liam get ready for a date with Emma Stone?”

“Huh? Oh, that’s tonight? Shit, I can’t believe Niall and Louis are gonna miss it.” Sam smiles for the first time since Harry walked in the apartment.

“We could live-tweet it for them,” Harry offers, and Sam decides that’s an excellent idea.

It isn’t until they’re in a cab on the way to Alphabet City that Sam finally thinks to ask Harry what he was doing at Louis’ place. “I never even asked why you were there. Did you need to get something?”

Shit. Harry can’t exactly tell her that he was going to set up some candles and strategically place a few sex toys throughout the bedroom for Louis’ return tomorrow.

“Oh, I…yeah, I did. I left my hoodie there last week. It’s okay, I’ll get it later.” What’s one more lie at this point, Harry thinks to himself with a frown. A guilty feeling gnaws at his stomach. At this point he knows a lot of Sam’s secrets, and she seems to trust him with them. And yet he and Louis are hiding something from her that directly affects her work. He tries to tell himself that it’s for the best.

The two of them spend all evening giggling on Liam’s bed while they watch him fuss over various belts and watches, style his hair to perfection, and briefly consider a scarf, which they promptly veto. Bruce lays with his head on Sam’s lap, completely uninterested in the proceedings.

Once they usher Liam out the door, Sam looks tired. She hugs Harry and says, “Thanks for being there for me tonight. You’re really such a great guy.”

She pauses for a moment. “I almost wish you’d met Louis under different circumstances.”

Me too, Harry thinks, but he can’t say it. “Everything will be all right. I know it,” he says instead. “Get some rest.”

He puts her in a cab home and immediately dials Louis. It’s really late in London, but he’ll probably be up. Harry knows he often stays up all night before early morning flights.

Louis picks up on the first ring, but Harry doesn’t even let him say hello.

“I can’t wait for you to get home tomorrow morning. I’m going to swallow your dick so hard they’ll have to send a search party to look for it.”

There's a moment of silence on the other end of the line, then Louis’ voice.

“You’re on speaker with Niall.”

Harry’s heart stops, and his stomach lurches. “Oh my God…

Louis is already cackling. “Just kidding.”

“That wasn’t funny!” Harry complains, taking a deep breath to try to slow his heartbeat down. “I almost had a stroke!”

“Oh, come on, it was a little funny,” Louis responds, laughter still twinkling in his voice. “Don’t be mad, gorgeous. Let me make it up to you.”

Harry doesn’t respond. He can’t think straight when Louis calls him gorgeous.

“What do you think about getting on a plane tomorrow and meeting me in St. Lucia?” Louis continues.

“St. Lucia? What?” It’s been a long day, and Harry feels like he can’t process any more new information.

“Remember the benefit for the Ali Forney Center?” Louis asks. “The night we met?”

“How could I forget? You puked on my shoes.”

“Yeah, and you could probably sell those puke shoes on eBay for a lot of money,” retorts Louis. “Anyway, I won a trip in the silent auction that night. A week at this really nice place in St. Lucia. Sam Clifton just got a call about it. You wanna go?”

“Tomorrow? That’s so soon! I’d have to get packed…I need sunscreen…probably some flip flops and—”

“Harry, don’t think,” Louis interrupts. “Just throw a few things in a suitcase. We can buy everything else when we get there.”

“I don’t even know if I have swim trunks in New York,” Harry muses, already aware that any resistance to this plan will likely be futile.

“Good. We can skinny dip.” Harry can practically see the wicked grin on Louis’ face as his words come through the line.

Harry goes through a quick mental checklist of his work assignments. He’d really like to work on some of his hand-picked articles, but there’s nothing too pressing. Jeff will probably be thrilled to get some exclusive “pap shots” of Louis and Harry on a Caribbean getaway.

And, to be honest, he misses Louis. He just wants to be wherever he is, whether it’s on an island or in the city or on a fucking mountain somewhere. He just wants to see him and touch him, and no, he doesn’t want to think about why right now. He just wants to go.

“Okay, okay. Let’s do it. Now hang up so I can pack.”

A few minutes later, Harry gets a notification that his flight leaves JFK at 8:00 am. He checks the time. Midnight already. Shit. He opens his tiny closet and starts searching for anything that resembles appropriate island-wear. Unsurprisingly, there’s not much there. He’s rifling through a drawer in his dresser when his hand brushes against a soft piece of material. He grasps it and pulls it out of the drawer. It’s…something he bought a long time ago and had forgotten about. Without taking too much time to think, he stuffs it in his suitcase and continues his frantic packing.

At 2:00 am, he realizes that he’s too wired to sleep and it’s not worth it for only a couple of hours. He’ll sleep on the plane. He makes himself a cup of tea and opens his laptop to fire off an email to Jeff about leaving town. He guesses Sam Clifton has already notified him, though. He’s halfway through reading an article about kidnappings in Yemen when Liam stumbles through the door.

“Dude. Emma Stone was all over me.”

Harry raises a skeptical brow. So does Bruce. “She was?”

Liam flops onto Harry’s bed and drapes one arm dramatically over his eyes. “How do I let her down easy?”

Harry shuts his laptop. Yemen will have to wait because this has to be good.

“What do you mean, let her down easy? Why would you want to do that?”

“We’re just not compatible,” Liam sighs sadly.

“How can you possibly know that? You just met her!” Harry exclaims.

“Harry.” Liam shakes his head like a teacher who just can’t seem to get the class to grasp his point. “When you know, you know. She was clearly very attracted to me, but I just wasn’t feeling it. What am I going to do when she calls?”

Harry’s at a loss for words. “Did she even ask for your number?”

Liam flips over onto his stomach and looks up at Harry earnestly. “Well, no, but I’m sure she’ll have her people ask Louis’ people for it.”

Harry just…can’t right now. He’ll deal with this ridiculousness when he gets back from his trip. He fills Liam in on his last-minute travel plans.

Liam isn’t impressed. “So you’re just gonna fuck around with him all week and make things even worse?”

“Worse? I actually think things are better, Liam.” Harry stands up to double check that his passport is in his backpack. “We get along now. We’re no longer at each other’s throats.”

Liam snorts. “Well, that’s true. Because now you’re up each other’s asses.”

“Liam!”

“Sorry. You’re up his ass?”

“Liam.”

“He’s up yours?”

Liam.”

“Okay, okay.” Liam raises both hands to indicate that he’ll drop that particular subject. “I’m still just afraid that you’re in over your head with this. I mean, his family thinks you’re actually together. Why did you even play along with that? This can’t end well, Harry.”

“I just…it’s complicated, okay?” Harry starts fixing himself another cup of tea. If he’s going to have this conversation, he’ll need more caffeine.

But to his surprise, Liam simply stands up, places a hand on his shoulder, and says, “I’m not sure it’s as complicated as you’re making it.” He whistles for Bruce to follow him through the door hole. “Have a nice trip, Harry.”

---

Harry sleeps through almost all of the five-hour flight to St. Lucia and lands at the Hewanorra International Airport just after 1:00 pm. He takes in the lush scenery of the island with a sense of awe during the 40-minute ride between the airport and the resort along the narrow, winding St. Jude’s highway. It feels like he fell asleep in New York and woke up in heaven. Except heaven probably has better cell service. He has no way to call or text Louis to find out if he’s arrived yet.

When he reaches the breathtaking Ladera Resort, Harry checks in with a friendly employee named Melvin at the front desk and receives his key card for the Hilltop Dream Suite. He declines the bellhop’s offer to carry his bag, instead asking for directions and making his own way through the curving green paths to the suite. He opens the heavy door and steps inside, dropping his bag on the ground. Nothing’s disturbed. Louis isn’t here yet.

The suite is nothing like he expected. Everything is dark wood, including the walls and the giant four-poster bed that dominates the space. It resembles a mountain cabin more than an island resort, and of course, it is technically in the mountains, but then- wow, there’s the view. The entire western wall of the suite is completely open, offering up a wide expanse of the Caribbean Sea and the towering Pitons over the edge of a private infinity pool. It doesn’t even look real- it looks like a life-sized postcard or a sad office worker’s computer screensaver. But somehow, it’s right there in front of him. Harry can’t believe his eyes.

There’s a shuffling sound in the bathroom, and suddenly, Louis appears, padding across the tile in a short, white silk robe. For the second time in 30 seconds, Harry can’t believe his eyes. Or his heart. Or his dick. He’d thought he was alone. People really need to stop emerging from bathrooms to surprise him this week.

Before he can even react, Louis is opening the robe as he walks, letting it fall to the ground behind him. Harry loses his breath as Louis pulls him into a deep kiss without even saying hello. It sets every nerve ending in his entire body on fire. Harry falls into Louis like Odysseus coming the fuck home.

He doesn’t care that he feels gross from the flight and probably needs a shower. He doesn’t care that they should probably speak some words to each other before ripping their clothes off. All he cares about is the warmth of Louis’ skin under his hands, the way Louis’ tongue tastes against his own, the all-consuming feeling that’s welling up inside him after being reunited with Louis after a week that somehow felt like a year.

He allows Louis to strip his thin white T-shirt over his head, and fuck, if the fact that Louis has to stand on his tippy toes to get the job done isn’t one of the hottest things ever. Louis goes to work on Harry’s belt and zipper while pressing urgent kisses into his neck.

“Baby.” It’s the only word that seems to come out when Louis does this to him.

Louis doesn’t answer, just hums into Harry’s neck while he pushes his jeans and boxer briefs to the floor. Harry stumbles a bit trying to step out of them as quickly as possible, but miraculously doesn’t fall over. Louis runs his hands up and down Harry’s bare back, dipping lower each time, and Harry’s brain begins to short-circuit.

He grabs Louis by the backs of his thighs and hoists him up. Louis eagerly complies, wrapping his legs around Harry’s waist and reconnecting their lips. Hmmm. Harry should have thought this through. There are at least five tiled steps leading up to the bed, and he’s got to get them both up there without wiping out. It isn’t super fast or overly graceful, but he accomplishes his mission, gently placing Louis down on his back and crawling over him slowly, his necklaces hanging down and pooling on Louis’ bare chest.

They kiss for what feels like an hour, slowly grinding against each other, and making no sounds other than the occasional quiet sigh or moan. Harry is so turned on he feels like he could come at any moment, from nothing other than the feel of Louis’ soft skin against his dick. He’s about to go down on Louis when Louis looks in his eyes and whispers, “Fuck me,” in a throaty rasp.

They’re the first words he’s uttered since Harry walked in the door, and Harry literally has to reach down and grab the base of his cock to keep from coming at the sound of his voice. He kisses Louis again. “Okay, sweetheart, you don’t have to ask me twice.”

He runs his right hand down Louis’ jaw, tracing his side and his hip, crossing his thigh and pausing to grip his cock for a brief second before slipping a little lower, brushing over his balls to touch his hole. He pulls his head back to look at Louis curiously, and Louis is smiling like a smug little kitten.

“Well, aren’t we prepared?” Harry murmurs, leaning down to bite Louis’ neck while he pushes two fingers into his already-open hole.

Louis gasps. “I had some time to kill.”

Harry wastes no time reaching for the condom and lube that Louis has set out on the table by the bed. When he’s ready, he looks down at Louis questioningly. Louis answers him with a slight nod of his head. He wants it this way, then. They’ve never done it like this before.

“Are you sure?”

“I’m sure,” Louis answers, letting his knees fall to each side and raising his hips up toward Harry to emphasize his point.

Harry leans forward and presses his forehead to Louis’. Louis is sweaty and shaking, and his eyes are clenched shut. Harry can tell that he’s a little nervous. He pushes in slowly while Louis breathes deeply and bites his lower lip in concentration. Harry bottoms out and waits for Louis to relax around him. When he does, his entire face relaxes as well, and he finally opens his eyes.

“Hi.”

“Hi,” Harry responds sweetly. “I missed you.”

“I missed you, too, baby.”

It’s the first time Louis has ever called him baby, and it’s…overwhelming. It flips a switch inside Harry that he didn’t even know existed.

Willing himself to concentrate, he begins to thrust slowly, never taking his eyes off Louis’ face. He wants to take in every moment of this. He wants to remember exactly what Louis looked like the first time he was on his back underneath him. And he looks perfect. He’s freshly shaven, but his hair has gotten even shaggier over the past week, and it’s not quite dry from the shower, sticking up in random places that somehow make him look even more attractive. His eyes are crinkled up in pleasure, and he tilts his head back, emitting soft mmms and ahhs as Harry moves in and out.

After a minute or two, Harry picks up the pace. He’s so turned on by being inside Louis this way, face to face, that he can’t hold back much longer. He’s already been waiting a week. He hoists Louis’ legs up and around his back and begins to thrust as deep and fast as he feels like Louis can take.

“Oh God, Harry,” Louis moans loudly, his hands moving wildly in the sheets. “Yes, baby, fuck me. I missed you so much.”

Harry begins to thrust even harder, pushing Louis farther and farther up toward the headboard. When they settle into place again, he leans back just far enough to grip Louis’ dick between them.

“Are you ready to come?” he asks, his voice coming out much deeper than he’d intended.

“God, yes, Harry,” Louis groans. “Please.”

“Did you wait for me?” Harry asks, slowing his thrusts.

Louis looks up in confusion.

“In London,” Harry clarifies, but Louis still doesn’t understand. He’s breathless and desperate for Harry to get on with it. He pushes his hips up a few times, hoping Harry will get the message.

“What do you mean?” he asks.

Harry narrows his eyes. “I mean, did you wait for me, or did you come in London without me?”

“Harry, I—”

“It’s a simple question, sweetheart,” Harry cuts him off. “Did you come when you were in London?”

Louis flushes deeply. Harry is still balls deep inside him and holding him by the dick. “I did.”

“How many times?”

“Are you serious right now, Haz?” Louis huffs in frustration. “I don’t know! Maybe…twice? Three at the most.”

“By yourself?”

“Yes. Of course by myself. Did you really think I’d…” It’s too much for Louis to handle at the moment, and Harry’s not even sure why he asked. “I’m not fucking anyone else.”

Harry buries his face in Louis’ neck and resumes his thrusting in earnest. “Say it again,” he begs.

“I’m not fucking anyone else. I’m not fucking anyone else.” Louis repeats.

Harry starts thrusting even harder, and Louis realizes how much this is turning Harry on. So he decides to push it a little further.

“Why would I fuck anyone else when I have you?” he pants, tangling Harry’s hair in both of his hands. “I can’t even go to sleep without you. No one else feels like this. No one else does this to me. Just you, baby. Just you.”

Harry whimpers with every word that comes out of Louis’ mouth. A tiny part of his brain knows that Louis is just playing a game with him, but he doesn’t care. He loves it. He props himself up with his left arm and uses his right hand to stroke Louis in time with his own thrusts. There are a thousand words stuck in his throat but none of them will come out. All he can do is keep going, keep listening to the murmured praises, until he finally falls over the edge, releasing all his tension into Louis with a deep cry.

He almost loses his grip on Louis’ dick but holds on long enough to bring Louis with him, feeling him pulse in his hand as he finally goes quiet. They stay like that, gasping and sticky, for a long minute before Harry extricates himself and rolls off Louis onto his back beside him. Neither of them speak for quite a while.

Finally, Harry speaks. “So, thanks for inviting me to St. Lucia.”

Louis lets out a high-pitched, eye-crinkling laugh. “Thanks for coming.”

---

Time begins to pass in a haze of delicious sex, solitude, and seafood. They don’t even leave the suite for the first day and a half, opting to order sweet potato-coconut soup and lamb salad to the room, take long, indulgent naps, and even longer, more indulgent showers together in the blue-and-green tiled bathroom.

On the morning of the third day, Harry’s awakened by the sensation of Louis’ scruff rubbing on his neck.

“We should leave the room today.”

Without opening his eyes, Harry rolls to the side, wrapping Louis in his arms and drawing him close. “Mmmmm,” he murmurs into Louis’ hair. “That sounds like a terrible idea.”

Louis tries very half-heartedly to escape Harry’s embrace. “This island is beautiful, Harry. We should, you know, see a little more of it.”

Harry raises his head off the pillow and blinks sleepily into the morning sun. “I see the Pitons. I see the ocean. This is the most incredible view in the world. How could it get better?”

“The concierge told me about a private beach we could rent for the day,” Louis says, wiggling out of Harry’s arms and reaching for the glass of water he’d left on the nightstand the night before. “Come on, Harry, we’ve been here for two days, and I haven’t even felt the sand between my toes yet! I need to immerse myself in the sea and feel the waves around me to feel truly alive!”

“There’s saltwater in the plunge pool,” Harry grumbles, but he’s already swinging his legs over the edge of the bed. “I could fuck you in there. That’d probably make some waves.”

The only response he receives is the dull thunk of a heavy feather pillow hitting the back of his head.

 ---

Two hours later, Louis’ wish has been fulfilled, and his toes are in the sand. After a short ride in a hired car, he and Harry have been ushered through the lush grounds of a private residence and onto a deserted stretch of beach. There’s a small cabana there, stocked with beach chairs, towels, sunscreen, snacks, and a cooler full of ice-cold water, glass bottles of Coke, and several cans of Piton, the local beer.

“I’m starting to think we’re the only people on this entire island,” Harry remarks as they drag two lounge chairs toward the water. He plops down on the end of his chair and cracks open a Piton, taking a long sip and then making a bitter face while he swallows it. “I don’t think I’ve ever been on the beach alone before.” His mind wanders to the crowded LA beaches of his childhood.

“Well, you’re not exactly alone,” Louis points out with a grin, adjusting his chair until it’s angled perfectly to the sun. “I’m here, you know.” With that, he strips off his knee-length black swim trunks, kicking them aimlessly into the sand before settling himself onto the chair, wearing nothing but his Ray-Bans.

Even though Louis has barely worn more than a towel the entire time they’ve been holed up in the suite at the Ladera, and even though Harry had that exact same dick filling up his mouth as he was on his knees in the shower no less than twelve hours ago, he can’t help but stare. Louis was born to bask in the sun. Every golden ray seems to be drawn to him, begging to be soaked up by his buttery skin, to reflect every contour and angle of his small but powerful body.

After a beat or two, Louis pulls his sunglasses down the bridge of his nose to return Harry’s stare. “You’re blocking my light,” he complains without a trace of annoyance in his voice.

Harry doesn’t answer, just drops himself down in the other chair and stretches out.

They lie in silence for a while, relaxing to the sound of the gentle waves kissing the shore. Harry’s never been to the Caribbean before. The ocean is so much calmer here than it is in California. Everything is more frantic back home, it seems. A part of him wishes they could just stay here forever and hide from what’s coming. He wants to say something, to explain to Louis how he feels in this moment, to ask him if he feels anything close to the same way.

“Aren’t you afraid your dick will get sunburnt?” is what comes out instead.

Louis lets out a little, snorting laugh. “I never get burnt, Harry.”

He reaches into the backpack he brought and pulls out two bottles, one pink and one brown with a yellow lid. He tosses the pink one to Harry. “Here you go. You might need this.” The label says Coppertone Water Babies SPF 70.

“You brought me kids’ sunscreen?” Harry asks, incredulous.

Louis shrugs and opens his own bottle. “Just looking out for you, babe. You know, for someone from LA, you’re pretty damn pale.”

Harry’s mouth drops open in offense, but dammit, Louis is right. If he doesn’t use this stuff, his skin will definitely burn. Oh God, it’s a spray bottle. Harry stands up and attempts to spray himself as evenly as possible without looking like a total idiot. The first spray makes him yelp involuntarily, and Louis bursts out in laughter.

“What?! It’s cold,” Harry pouts, trying in vain to rub the foamy spray evenly into his skin.

Louis just shakes his head and pours some of his own dark tanning oil onto his stomach. He begins spreading it over his belly and chest. Harry has no idea if he’s purposely trying to make it look sexy, but if he is, he’s succeeding.

Eventually, Louis looks up from his task and realizes that Harry’s staring—again.

“Can I help you?” he asks innocently, working the tanning oil into his nipples.

Harry swallows hard. “Um. Can I…do you need any help with that?”

Louis rewards him with a quirk of his lips and extends the brown bottle to him in a silent offer. Harry takes it hastily and fumbles around for a bit before he’s able to pour some oil into his hand, some of it dripping through his fingers onto the white sand. Louis is reclined with his hands laced behind his head, sunglasses hiding his expression.

Harry hesitates for a moment, unsure how to proceed. Louis gives him no direction. Harry’s not even sure Louis’ eyes are open. Finally, he decides to kneel carefully on the lounge chair between Louis’ legs. He starts with Louis’ chest, even though it’s already pretty much been covered. Louis lets his arms fall to his sides, and Harry attends those next, working the oil into his tattooed biceps as Louis continues to feign disinterest behind his shades. All right, then. Harry pours more oil onto his hands and works his way down Louis’ sides, bypassing his half-alert cock to concentrate on his thighs.

Louis’ thighs. Harry thinks there’s a strong possibility he could be happy forever just touching them. They’re thick, a perfect complement to his tight, round ass and trim waist.

Slowly, by degrees, Louis begins to lose his ability to act casual about the rub-down. Harry’s worked the oil all the way into his calves and even the balls of his feet. It feels so damn good to have every muscle kneaded by those large, steady hands. Louis has had hundreds of massages in the past several years, and perhaps most of those were more practiced, but none ever felt this good.

Harry briefly considers asking Louis to turn over but decides he doesn’t want to wait any longer. He slides his hands up Louis’ thighs and goes straight for his dick. Louis lets out a loud groan and snaps his head to the side. Harry’s hands are so slick that he has to work to keep them from sliding completely off the shaft with every stroke. After several seconds, he switches to one hand, using the other to rub Louis’ chest, swiping his big palm over his pecs and stopping occasionally to pinch or tug a nipple.

“Harry, oh my God,” Louis moans.

Harry’s legs are about to fall asleep from the way he’s been kneeling, but he’s not about to move a muscle with the perfect rhythm he has going.

“Take your sunglasses off and look at me,” he orders, his voice half an octave deeper than usual.

Louis obeys immediately, reaching up to tear the glasses off his face and fling them into the sand. As their eyes meet, Harry quickens the pace he’s using to work over Louis’ cock, shifting his other hand down to take control of his balls, gripping them lightly and giving a slight squeeze with every thrust.

“Fucking hell, Haz,” Louis shouts. It’s loud. Really loud. Harry looks around to see if anyone’s watching. Not that he would want them to, of course, but…damn, it’s hot doing this right out in the open. The beach is deserted, though.

Louis is drawing closer and closer to the edge, his mouth falling open and his eyes screwing shut with pleasure. Harry doesn’t know what comes over him, but before he knows it, he’s let go of Louis’ cock and is using one oil-covered hand to smack him hard on the side of his ass. Louis lets out a surprised yelp and opens his eyes wide in shock.

“I said look at me,” Harry growls.

So Louis does, keeping his eyes locked on Harry’s as Harry resumes his frantic stroking, and calling out Harry’s name along with a string of curses as he comes all over his oil-bronzed stomach and chest.

Harry barely lets Louis catch his breath before he’s gripping him by both hips and flipping him over on the lounge chair in one smooth motion. Louis couldn’t protest even if he wanted to; every bone in his body feels like Jell-O.

Harry stands up to strip off his swim trunks, reaching down to grab the brown bottle off the sand and pouring some of the warm oil onto Louis’ bum. He spreads it with his hands, over and between Louis’ cheeks. Then he crawls on top and slips his hard, aching cock in between.

“Is this okay?” he asks, leaning over to bite Louis’ ear softly.

Louis is too fucked out to respond, but he tilts his head to the side, resting it on his forearms, and makes a satisfied hum of consent.

Harry begins to thrust slowly between Louis’ slick cheeks. The slide feels so good that he can’t help but let out a long, loud groan. As he picks up the pace, he bends forward to nip at Louis’ ear again.

“You’re perfect,” he whispers into Louis’ neck. “Without any…just…just the way you are.” His words are soft, private, even though there’s no one around for a mile and absolutely no need to be quiet.

Louis doesn’t reply, just buries his face into his arms as if perhaps he doesn’t want Harry to see whatever’s written on his face.

Harry pulls back, sitting up so he can watch himself moving up and down in the crease of Louis’ Oscar-nominated ass for several thrusts. The sight of it overwhelms him. He bends forward again.

“How do you do this to me?” he asks, his lips pressing into the back of Louis’ neck where it meets his shoulders. “How? How? Tell me how.” He pleads for an answer in a desperate whisper, over and over again, in time with his movements.

Louis has finally come down enough to form words. He lifts his head just enough to say, “What, Harry? What do I do to you?”

“God, Louis,” Harry moans. “You make me…you make me…” But he can’t finish the sentence before he finishes himself all over Louis’ glistening bronze back.

He slumps over Louis, unable to move for a minute or so, until Louis finally stirs beneath him. Harry lifts up enough to allow Louis to flip over onto his back and face him.

Louis’ body is relaxed, but his mind is racing. He wants so badly to know what Harry’d been about to say to him, but he can’t bring himself to ask.

“Ugh, I’m all sticky,” he complains, and Harry answers him with a soft, chaste kiss to the lips before rolling off him.

“Come on, let’s clean you up,” he offers, taking Louis’ hand and leading him across the short stretch of sand between their lounge chairs and the water. The Caribbean is warm and practically still. Harry feels like he’s pulling Louis into a bath. They bob in the barely-perceptible waves for a while, Louis scrubbing the rest of the come away with his hands.

“All my tanning oil is gone now,” he remarks with a frown.

“You need me to redo it?” Harry offers, grinning, and receives a salty splash in the face in response.

“No, I don’t think so, Harold. It wasn’t so successful the last time.” Louis floats toward Harry in the water, enjoying the sensation of weightlessness, and wraps his legs around Harry’s waist. Harry brings his arms down to hold Louis beneath his thighs, which isn’t strictly necessary in this saltwater environment, but neither is Louis circling his arms around Harry’s neck. No one seems to be complaining.

They kiss each other playfully for a while. Nothing deep or intense, just soft, short pecks and lazy drawing out of each other’s bottom lips while the sea moves them gently up and down and swirls of colorful fish swim between their legs.

Louis feels like he must be on another planet. Everything seems surreal. This isn’t something he does. He holds someone’s head down while he gets his cock sucked in the back of a West Hollywood club. He brings someone home from Hell’s Kitchen and fucks them hard across the end of his bed, leaving Niall to usher them out in the morning and promptly forgetting their name. But he doesn’t do this. He doesn’t cling to someone like a baby koala, giggling and nuzzling against their neck while his soft dick presses up against their belly. Come to think of it, he never even did anything like this with Aiden. The sudden realization of how vulnerable he’s become with Harry hits him so hard that his hands and feet go numb with fear. A voice in the back of his mind screams at him to run, and yet…Louis finds that the voice isn’t so loud that he can’t ignore it if he wants to. And right now, he wants to.

They spend the rest of the day snorkeling and lounging naked on the private beach (putting on their own sunscreen this time to avoid any distractions), and when their driver picks them up in the evening, they ask him to drop them off at the best hole-in-the-wall place he can think of. It turns out to be a little dive near the beach, frequented mainly by locals. It’s a little dim and the chairs are a bit sticky, but the drinks are cold and sweet, and the shrimp are perfectly seasoned.

They’re already getting a little tipsy when Louis takes out his phone to check his messages. “Sam Clayton’s checking in,” he says, shaking his head as he thumbs his way down the screen. “I knew they couldn’t leave us alone for an entire week.”

He pauses for a moment, then begins reading aloud to Harry in what turns out to be a fairly spot-on Sam Clayton impression. “Hope you’re having a lovely time in St. Lucia blah blah blah...please undertake an activity where you might be seen and photographed by other humans blah blah blah…you are booked to fly back to New York City together on Saturday morning at 10:30 am blah blah blah…Okay, this is weird,” Louis breaks character and scrunches his nose in confusion. “Tell Harry that I’m positive he’ll know where to go through customs at JFK, but just remind him to use the door where two lines form- not one line- two lines. Whatever that’s about…” he trails off.

Harry tries to keep a straight face, but he’s screaming inside. He knows exactly what message Sam Clayton is sending him, and oh my God. He takes another sip, his buzz growing stronger. An image flashes in his mind of Niall and Sam doting on a blonde baby toddling around the Christmas tree, Louis kneeling down to help him or her look at each ornament more closely. For some reason, Liam and Emma Stone are there, too, snuggling on the sofa with mugs of hot buttered rum, and fuck, everyone seems to fit neatly into this snowglobe scenario except for Harry, the hired hand, the temporary boyfriend with a summer expiry date. The steel drum music in the restaurant grows a little louder as Harry gulps down the rest of his drink and indicates to the server that he’d like another.

Louis is finishing up reading. “The rest is just info for my promo schedule starting next week.” Frowning, he shuts off his phone and shoves it into his backpack.

A heavy silence settles in the air at the mention of promo, but Harry refuses to let himself think about it. Right now, all he wants to think about is how there’s no way Louis could possibly look more attractive than he does in this moment, in the glow of the neon bar lights, a fresh tan kissing his skin, scruff starting to regrow on his face, hair drying wildly from the saltwater, wearing a ratty Guns n’ Roses T-shirt that must be at least 15 years old.

Louis attempts to break Harry from his reverie, nudging his foot under the table and raising his eyebrows at him as he pops the last shrimp into his mouth. For a brief second, Harry considers confessing everything he’s been thinking all week- that his feelings for Louis are seeping into every muscle and bone in his body, that the thought of their planned public break-up makes his chest ache, that if someone gave him the option at this exact moment, he’d agree to live on this island with Louis forever. It could work. Harry could write for the local newspaper or start his great American novel. Louis could…be a swimsuit model? An actor in the thriving Caribbean theater scene? Is that a thing? Dammit. Harry knows that there’s no way he could ever keep Louis from the world. The world would come looking for him. And Harry wouldn’t blame it.

Harry’s just on the right side of drunk now. Louis is pulling him up from the table, paying the check, and calling for their car. Harry knows that he can’t hold on to Louis any more than he can hold on to the vibrations of the steel drum music filtering through the air. He can’t change things, and trying will only make it worse. But at least they have a little more time.

---

In order to be seen and photographed by other humans, per the Sams’ request, Louis and Harry choose a ziplining excursion for the next day. It’s an activity much more suited to Louis’ compact frame than Harry’s ganglier one, a fact that brings Louis no small amount of joy.

“You do realize that you look just as ridiculous as everyone else with that helmet on?” Harry asks petulantly after his latest flailing trip through the air.

Louis only laughs harder. They’ve been grouped with some college students stopping for a vacation on their way home from several weeks of volunteer work in South America, and they’ve already taken what feels like a thousand pictures with them. The Sams will be pleased to find their faces all over Instagram and Snapchat later this evening. It’s been a day full of laughter and adventure, and although Harry will never admit it to Louis, he’s having a lot of fun.

“You’re having a lot of fun, aren’t you?” Louis accuses, after Harry’s backed him into a thick tree trunk to steal a kiss. It doesn’t exactly work. Their helmets clash together with a loud clack, drawing attention and snickers from a few of their companions.

“No, not at all,” Harry answers, angling his head awkwardly to attempt another kiss. This one goes a little better. “I’m very offended that you’ve been laughing at my expense all morning.” He puts on his best pouting face, and Louis responds by stroking Harry’s jaw gently and looking very faux-sympathetic.

“I might forgive you if you take me on a sunset cruise,” Harry pushes.

“A sunset cruise?” Louis is amused. He runs his thumb over Harry’s bottom lip.

“Yes,” Harry replies, still grumpy. “I saw a brochure for it in the hotel lobby.”

“All right, then. Anything for you, baby.” Louis says it soft and slow, continuing to brush Harry’s lip with his thumb, and even though Harry’s the one who has Louis literally pinned to a tree here, the figurative situation is the complete reverse. Harry’s getting hard embarrassingly fast, and he couldn’t move if he wanted to. Louis has no idea what he does to him when he calls him baby. Or maybe he does. Either way, Harry’s frozen in place. It takes Louis pushing him away to finally break the two of them apart before the rest of the group gets a more eye-opening experience than they paid Adventure Tours St. Lucia for.

That evening, there’s a change in the air as Louis and Harry get ready for the cruise. It's a strange feeling.  They’ve been photographed together on dozens of planned outings and at high-profile events. They’ve fucked each other six ways to Sunday. But this? For some reason this feels like an honest-to-God date.

They shower separately, and Harry puts on the only half-decent thing he brought to wear- a well-worn pair of khaki shorts and a slightly wrinkled white button-up. His normally milky skin now has a rosy glow from a few days in the sun- nothing like the golden tone of Louis’, but at least enough to tell he’s been to the beach. His hair is still a little damp from the shower, pulled back by a black and white skull-patterned headscarf.

When Louis emerges from the bathroom, he’s dressed in designer jean shorts and a lightweight blue sweatshirt. The sleeves are a bit too long, so he has them rolled up at the wrists. He’s shaved and made an impressive attempt at styling his own quiff. It never looks quite as perfect as when a stylist does it, but Harry likes it even better this way.

“Shall we?” he asks Harry with a grin after he’s slipped on his white Vans.

Harry stands up from the bed, wiping his sweaty palms on his shorts and giving Louis a long look up and down. He’s halfway regretting suggesting this cruise on their last night here. He can think of a few other things he’d rather do right now.

But an hour later, after they’ve boarded the catamaran and are skimming along the craggy St. Lucia coastline, he can’t think of anywhere else he’d rather be. They’ve been enjoying the beauty of the island for several days now, but nothing compares to the way it looks and feels from the water at sunset. The twin Pitons stand a never-ending watch over both land and sea, their dark green cover turning even darker in the waning light. Below, the waves sparkle and reflect a thousand different shades of yellow, orange, and pink. It’s so beautiful and utterly unlike any other sunset Harry’s ever seen before.

There are two other couples on the boat with them, sharing drinks and hors d’oeuvres, but everyone’s pretty much keeping to themselves, captivated by the view. Harry and Louis are cozied up in the stern with a martini glass full of ceviche they've barely touched. The boat is rocking gently, and Louis feels a little tipsy even though he's only had one sip of champagne.

He reaches for Harry's hand, something he's done a hundred times probably, but somehow it feels different tonight. Tomorrow, they’re flying back to New York City, back to reality. Promo for the movie will begin in full swing, and...things just won’t be the same after that. Louis wishes he could make this night last forever. But he’s an actor, not a magician. And right now, he has to act like everything’s okay, like something inside him isn’t unraveling right now.

“What are we supposed to be looking for again?” he asks, gazing at the horizon.

“The green flash,” Harry answers, giving Louis’ hand a squeeze. Louis can tell that Harry is looking at him instead of the setting  .

“Ah, right. I can honestly say I've never noticed a green flash at the end of a sunset before.” Louis is still somewhat skeptical even after hearing the boat captain’s explanation of the phenomenon.

“Maybe you’ve just never paid close enough attention,” Harry replies softly.

Louis meets his gaze. “Styles. That is the cheesiest line I’ve ever heard.”

Harry starts giggling. “Oh my God, I know. I felt it as soon as the words were coming out of my mouth, but I couldn’t stop it.”

“What about you, though?” Louis asks, grinning. “Lived on the West Coast your whole life and never seen the green flash?”

Harry shakes his head. “Nope, never. I guess I wasn’t paying attention, either.”

The captain comes around to check on them just then. He’s one of those rare people who genuinely doesn’t seem to recognize Louis, and Louis always finds himself oddly grateful when he gets to experience being just another face in the crowd, or in this case, just another tourist on a boat.

“You two are on your honeymoon?” the captain asks in heavily-accented English. His face is weathered by years in the sun, and he has a very kind smile.

Louis and Harry both laugh a bit awkwardly, surprised by the question. “No, no, just vacationing,” Louis answers quickly. “But maybe we’ll come back for that someday.”

He feels Harry stiffen beside him and immediately regrets saying it. Fuck. This game used to be fun to play in front of other people- to see how far they could push it or how believable they could make it. But lately, everything feels like too much. Too real. It isn’t quite so fun to pretend anymore.

“...very happy together,” the captain is saying as Louis tunes back into the conversation, which thankfully Harry has been holding for the both of them. “I hope you enjoy our beautiful island. My best wishes to you.” He shakes both their hands and moves on to talk to the next couple.

Louis isn’t sure what he should say to Harry, but Harry saves him by speaking first. “He’s a nice guy,” he remarks a little blandly, searching for a place to set down the ceviche they’re clearly not going to finish.

“Harry, I-”

“It’s okay, Louis, really,” Harry interrupts, and the look on his face is so sincere that Louis can barely stand it. “I’m not upset about it. You don’t need to apologize or anything.”

Louis turns away from the sinking sun to focus all his attention on Harry. “Fine, but just let me say something. I want to tell you that I’m so glad you came here with me this week. I haven’t felt so relaxed in a long time. When I’m with you...I can just be myself. I’m thankful for that. I’m thankful for you.”

Harry face melts into a sappy grin and he looks eager to respond, but as soon as he opens his mouth, something over Louis’ shoulder catches his eye, and he grabs him by the shoulders to turn him around.

“The green flash!” he whispers excitedly in Louis’ ear.

A beautiful emerald gleam appears just above the water where the sun is slipping lower and lower. A second later, it disappears completely below the horizon, swallowed up by the sea.

--- 

As soon as they get back to the Ladera, Louis heads for the tiny strip of patio next to the plunge pool to smoke a cigarette. It’s not something he does very often, and not something he’s ever done when he’s been with Harry, but- fuck- if his insides aren’t twisted in knots right now, and he needs something to take the edge off.

Meanwhile, Harry’s in the bathroom having a full-blown existential crisis. He’s holding the soft fabric that he’d shoved in his suitcase on impulse back in New York. It’s blue, a bold hue caught somewhere between royal and navy, and it’s so...tiny. He stares at his naked body in the mirror for a moment. Does Louis even like boys in panties? They’ve never discussed it. Harry thinks he would, but he doesn’t know for sure. He knows that he really wants to wear them for Louis, but that doesn’t mean that Louis… oh, fuck it. He takes a deep breath and steps into them, taking a few seconds to get everything...situated. Before he can change his mind, he walks out to the patio, stepping onto the opposite side of the plunge pool from where Louis is leaning over the rail with his back turned.

Oh God, he doesn’t know how to stand. How does a person stand while wearing nothing but boy shorts from Victoria’s Secret? And why are they called boy shorts when they’re clearly meant for girls? There’s not nearly enough room in these for anyone with a generous-sized…

Before Harry can finish his anxious internal monologue, Louis catches him out of the corner of his eye and turns around. They both stare at each other in complete shock- Harry because he’s never seen Louis smoking, and Louis because he’s never seen Harry in panties. His mouth drops open so far he nearly loses his cigarette.

Harry still doesn’t know how to stand. He feels more exposed now than he ever has naked. For a split second, Louis doesn’t move, and Harry’s afraid he made the wrong choice. Then Louis throws the rest of his cigarette on the ground, stamps it out quickly with the toe of his Vans, and walks around the edge of the pool. He stands in front of Harry for a minute, staring, as if he’s trying to determine if this is real or just a dream.

“Turn around for me.”

Harry does, allowing Louis to appreciate the full view of his ass in the boy shorts, from the shadow of his crack peeking out the top to the curved bottoms of his cheeks peeking out the bottom. Louis sucks in a deep breath and puts his hand on Harry’s hip, guiding him back around to face him again. Harry’s turned on just by wearing the panties, and it shows. He’d had to tuck his dick sideways just to make it fit, and now his erection is appearing as a thick, almost horizontal line. Louis runs his hand across it lightly, and Harry lets out a soft moan.

“You look so fucking good in these, baby,” Louis murmurs, not taking his eyes off his own hand as it strokes Harry’s crotch.

“You like them?” Harry asks, still feeling a bit unsure.

“Like them?” Louis asks in disbelief. “Shit. I love them.”

He reaches around and pulls the thin elastic waistband out a few inches from Harry’s skin. Harry expects to get a hand down his panties, but instead he hears a snapping sound and feels a sharp sting when Louis lets the elastic go. Before he can recover from that little surprise, Louis is kissing him, pushing his tongue roughly into his mouth, his hands roaming all over Harry’s backside.

Harry loses himself in it, so turned on and relieved that this is turning Louis on, too. He leans forward into Louis, a little too eagerly, and nearly plunges them both into the pool.

“Easy there,” Louis chuckles, shifting them both back in the right direction. “The pool’s great and everything, but I want you on the bed.”

He grips Harry’s hips and backs him slowly through the room and up the tiled stairs before pushing him down gently on the smooth white duvet. He kicks off his shoes and stands at the foot of the bed for a moment, contemplating.

“I want you to ride me,” he finally declares as he strips his sweatshirt over his head and pushes his shorts to the floor.

Harry backs up the bed a little, biting his bottom lip at the thought of it. They’ve never done that before, and the idea is so hot.

“I mean...will you?” Louis asks, sounding a little less certain than he had five seconds ago.

“Yes,” Harry rushes to answer, nodding his head as fast as he can. “Yes, I want to.”

He lifts his hips to start taking off the panties, but Louis reaches forward to still his movements.

“Not yet, baby.”

Louis takes off his boxer briefs and crawls onto the bed with Harry, pulling him up into a kneeling position. He settles behind him, rubbing circles into his back.

“Do you think you can stay like this for me for a bit?” he asks, pressing a kiss into Harry’s shoulder, and Harry nods.

Louis reaches for the lube beside the bed. Good thing it’s their last night here- it’s nearly gone. He notices that the box of condoms is almost empty, too. They’d stopped trying to be discreet by Day Two and had just left everything out on the nightstand. There’s no way the housekeeping staff doesn’t know what’s been going on in this room.

He coats one finger with lube and slips his hand down the back of Harry’s panties. It’s a tight fit, but he manages to work his finger toward Harry’s hole and begin pushing inside. He places his other hand flat against Harry’s abs, anchoring him in place.

Harry’s instincts tell him to fall forward, to get on all fours. It would make this easier. But he can tell that Louis wants him this way, sitting up so he can hold him close.

“You feel so good,” he whispers in Harry’s ear as he slowly works his finger all the way inside. Harry responds with a groan, letting his head fall back and exposing his neck for Louis to kiss.

“More,” Harry begs.

“More what?” Louis teases as he nips at Harry’s ear. “More fingers?”

“Mmm hmm.” Harry’s eyes are closed and his cheeks are flushed, his bottom lip red from biting it.

Louis gently adds more lube and another finger. It’s difficult to maneuver with his hand trapped between Harry’s body and the tight-fitting underwear, but it’s so hot that it’s worth the effort. It feels so illicit to be touching Harry this way, like he shouldn't be allowed, like he's breaking all the rules.

As Louis considers adding a third finger, he notices that Harry is subtly pulling at the front of the panties, trying to free himself from the confines of the restrictive material.

“What are you doing, baby?” he asks, delicately moving Harry’s hand away. “I thought you wanted to wear these for me.”

“They’re so tight,” Harry groans in frustration. “I need out.”

“Just a little bit longer, sweetheart. You can do it.” Louis reassures him with a kiss to the temple.

He begins moving his fingers inside Harry, searching for the right spot. Harry lets out a loud “ohhhhh” when he finds it, and he watches over Harry’s shoulder as Harry grips his own thighs and tries desperately not to touch himself. His cock is bulging and stretching the cotton material, an obvious dark patch spreading around the head.

After a minute or two, Louis decides to show some mercy. He uses his free hand to pull the panties down just enough for Harry’s cock to spring free. Harry moans from the feeling; Louis moans from the sight. He slips his fingers out of Harry’s ass and pushes the panties down as far as he can with Harry still on his knees. He starts stroking him.

“Oh God, don’t,” Harry implores breathlessly, even as he’s bucking up into Louis’ hand. “I’m gonna come.”

Part of Louis really wants to make that happen right now, but another part of him wants to stick to the plan. It’s a damn good plan, after all. Through sheer force of will, he lets go of Harry and reaches for a condom. He lies on his back and rips the packet open, allowing Harry to take it and roll the condom on for him, coating it with the last of the lube.

Harry quickly slides the panties off the rest of the way and straddles Louis, leaning over for a long, deep kiss. Then he shifts back, reaching behind himself to take hold of Louis’ cock and guide it toward his entrance. He hesitates a little. Harry doesn’t have a lot of experience with this.

“It’s okay, babe,” Louis reassures him, running his hands lightly up and down Harry’s thighs. “Go as slow as you need to. And if you change your mind-”

No way is Harry changing his mind. He lowers himself down, probably a little faster than he should, but the way it stops Louis right in the middle of his sentence trumps any minor discomfort he may feel. He stays still for a moment, locking eyes with Louis and giving him a little wink. Then he slowly raises himself up and lowers himself back down again. Louis moans and grips Harry’s thighs, willing himself to stay as still as possible.

As Harry gets more comfortable, repeats the motion faster and faster. It takes a lot of effort, but it feels so fucking good, and it's amazing to witness the sheer pleasure etched across Louis’ face. They’re both starting to work up a sweat in the heavy night air. Harry realizes that he isn’t going to come from this, but he doesn’t want to stop until Louis has.

After a few more minutes, Harry’s really beginning to regret skipping cardio so much over the past few months. His thighs are burning and he's out of breath. He’s just about to admit that he’s getting tired when Louis asks, “Can I fuck you now?”

Harry’s grateful, but he tries his best to act like he’s doing Louis a favor. Louis takes control, grabbing him roughly by the hips and thrusting into him as deeply as he can.

Louis wishes he could somehow record what he's seeing right now. It's better than any porn he's ever watched. Harry’s lighter-colored thighs are gripping Louis’ sun-kissed abs, a trail of dark hair disappearing where their bodies connect. Louis is completely hidden beneath and inside Harry, but Harry is fully on display. His heavy balls rest on the skin just below Louis’ navel, and his cock is center stage, standing out from his body, heavy and swaying and leaking as Louis thrusts in and out at the speed of a jackrabbit. It's utterly obscene, and Louis is losing his mind just looking at it.

“Fuck, I could come just looking at you,” Louis pants. “Goddamn ridiculous butterfly tattoo. You're so beautiful, Harry. Make me come. Make me come inside you.”

Harry is barely listening, though. He’s so focused on the the hot, penetrating feeling of Louis in his ass, teasing his prostate with each thrust. He runs his hands up and down the front of his body, searching for a place to land. It feels good when he brushes over his nipples, so he stays there, rubbing and teasing himself. As the pressure builds, he begins to pinch them, harder and harder until harder isn’t enough. He tugs at them desperately, giving them all the attention he wants to give his cock right now but won’t. He wants Louis to come first.

And he does. Pushed over the edge by the sight of Harry abusing his own nipples, he shoots off with a shout, so hard that Harry can feel it deep inside him. Louis is still pulsing into the condom when he begins giving orders.

“Make yourself come, Harry. Show me what you do to yourself when you’re not with me. I want to see it.”

And Harry wants nothing more than to show him. He starts jacking himself off vigorously, while Louis still thrusts weakly inside him and encourages him with his filthy words.

“Going so fast, baby. You can go that fast because you're so wet for me. I know. You've been dripping all over me the whole time I've been fucking you. That's it. Come on, Harry, you know you want to come for me. Give it to me. I want to taste it.”

And that does it. Harry opens his mouth in a silent cry and comes all over Louis’ chest, one stripe even hitting his chin.

They're both panting hard for breath. Harry slumps over Louis, adjusting their bodies so that Louis can slip out of him, and neither speak for several long minutes. They’re covered in sweat and their limbs are aching, their bodies exhausted and satisfied all the way down to their bones.

Louis turns his head to check the time on the bedside clock. “Shit. We have to be up in four hours. Sleep or shower?”

“Sleep,” Harry mumbles into Louis’ neck. “I'm too tired to move.”

Louis concurs. Even though they’re both sweaty, sticky messes, he doesn’t want to leave this bed. If he's being honest, he doesn’t want to leave this island. And if he's being really honest, he doesn’t want to leave Harry.

Harry, who's already asleep. Harry, the little fucker who didn’t even bother to wipe his come off Louis first, goddammit. Harry, who seems to have worked his way under Louis’ skin and into almost every fiber of his being.

“I think I'm in love with you,” he whispers.

Harry responds with a soft snore.

 

Chapter Text

They've been back in New York for a total of four hours, and Harry is already fighting the urge to call Louis.

“Fucking ridiculous,” he mutters to Bruce in embarrassment as he fixes himself a cup of tea and tries to think of something, anything, else to keep himself occupied. Liam is MIA, leaving nothing but a note saying to take care of Bruce, and Harry can't bring himself to face his work emails just yet.

He browses through Netflix for a while before finally giving in and putting on Beethoven’s Christmas Adventure for the hundredth time. Bruce yelps his agreement and settles down on the bed next to Harry.

“Yes, I know it's your favorite,” Harry says, scratching him behind the ears. “Everybody knows this is the best movie in the franchise.”

Bruce gives a low growl in response.

“Well, Liam's simply wrong about that,” Harry reassures him. “ Beethoven’s Big Break doesn't have nearly the same cinematic quality. Now be quiet so we don't miss the beginning.”

Fifteen minutes into the movie, Harry feels overcaffeinated and itchy with the need to know where Louis is and what he's doing. He gets up and paces around the apartment for a while, hoping the feeling will pass, but all he accomplishes is transferring his restlessness to Bruce, who jumps off the bed and starts whining.

“You think I should just call him?!” Harry asks incredulously. “But won't that look desperate?”

The dog replies with an authoritative bark.

“You're right,” Harry agrees with a sigh. “I really should tell him thank you for the trip. It'd be rude if I didn't.”

He doesn't bother mentioning to Bruce that he already thanked Louis in St. Lucia. And again in the airplane lavatory. But really, can too much gratitude ever be a bad thing?

Harry grabs his phone from the kitchen counter and opens his recent contacts, furrowing his brow when he sees that Louis has replaced his own name with the peach emoji. He clicks it, making a mental note to edit it to “Pain in the <peach emoji>” as soon as possible. Satisfied, Bruce returns to his spot on the bed in front of Harry's laptop.

It's ringing for the third time when Harry hears a soft knock at the door. No doubt Liam's forgotten his keys again. He swings it open, ready to scold his scatter-brained roommate, but unexpectedly finds himself face to face with Louis, both of them holding their phones to their ears.

“Hi,” Louis says into his phone as they lock eyes.

“What are you doing here?” Harry stammers in surprise, clicking off the call and trying not to grin like an idiot.

“Shhhh,” Louis shushes Harry as he steps through the doorway, holding his finger to his lips and looking displeased. “I'm talking to a really hot guy right now. Don't interrupt.”

Now Harry's definitely grinning like an idiot.

“Great, he hung up on me.” Louis keeps the annoyed look on his face a little longer as he hangs up his phone and sets it on the tiny kitchen table. “Way to go, Harry.”

“Sorry. Maybe he'll call back,” Harry offers completely unapologetically, sitting down in one of his two ancient kitchen chairs. “But now you have to tell me what you're doing here uninvited.

“I came to see Bruce, of course,” Louis replies without missing a beat. “We've been apart for two weeks!”

At the sound of his name, Bruce, who had been totally engrossed in Beethoven’s yuletide escapades , suddenly realizes Louis is there and jumps off the bed to greet him. Harry watches fondly as Louis bends down to pet him and let him lick his hand.

When he straightens back up, Harry cocks one eyebrow and pins him down with the question again. “So why did you really come over? You didn't miss me already, did you?”

Louis responds by straddling Harry in the rickety chair, pressing their crotches together and capturing Harry's mouth in a long, hot kiss.

“No.”

“Well, that's good to know.” Harry says quietly, trying his best to catch his breath. “Because I didn't miss you, either.”

Louis dips his head and smiles into Harry's neck.

“Liar.”

He pulls back to look at Harry's face again. “My apartment’s too quiet. I think Niall and Liam went away for the weekend. Can I stay here tonight?”

Harry kisses him again, short and sweet, as the chair creaks beneath them. “I guess so. But...we might want to get out of this chair before we break it.”

Louis reluctantly backs up off Harry’s lap. “Can't help it if I've got some junk in the trunk.”

Harry laughs and smacks him on the ass before getting up to start more tea.

“So Liam and Niall went out of town? Where’d they go? God, don’t tell me they’re antiquing in New Hampshire.”

“No, some music festival, I guess. They left this morning,” Louis answers, flopping down on the bed next to Bruce. “I don't know. Niall’s been kinda weird lately.”

Harry chews his lower lip and takes a surreptitious glance at his phone. Sam Clayton hasn't answered his texts from this afternoon, and he wonders if she's told Niall her news yet. If she has, Niall leaving the city with Liam probably isn’t a good sign. Harry’s worried about her- and he wishes he could talk to Louis about it, but he can’t break his promise.

By 8:00 pm, Beethoven has returned Santa’s sleigh in time to save Christmas, and Louis and Harry are settled in Harry's little bed for the night, absorbed in their phones while cups of tea cool on the nightstand and Bruce dozes at their feet.

“What's Liam's number?” Louis asks absently as he scrolls through his texts.

“I don't have it memorized, but I'll send it to you.” Harry opens his contacts, then pauses. “Wait. Why?”

“Emma Stone wants it,” Louis answers without taking his attention from his phone. “Hey, do you want to get breakfast at that one place in Midtown in the morning? You know, with the toasted banana bread?”

“Hold on, back up.” Harry’s brain is struggling to register what he just heard. “Did you just say that Emma Stone asked you for Liam's number?”

“Yeah,” Louis replies, still browsing the menu he’s pulled up online. He clearly does not understand the utter ridiculousness of the situation. “I might actually try the vegemite this time. I'm feeling adventurous.”

Harry puts his hand over Louis’ phone screen. “Babe. Focus. I'm trying to wrap my mind around the information you just gave me.”

Louis finally looks up. “About Emma?”

“Yeah. I mean, don't you think that's wild? That she’s into Liam?”

Louis smiles softly and gives a little shrug of his shoulders. “I don't know. I guess crazier things have happened.”

Harry can’t help but return the affectionate look. “Yeah, I guess you're right. But I'm telling you, I don't think Liam was feeling it.”

Louis stares at Harry blankly. “Are you joking?”

Before Harry can begin to explain, Louis’ phone buzzes with a text.

“Sam Clifton,” he reports. “He's really happy with the pap photos from today.”

Harry grabs his own phone again. He opens the first gossip site he can think of and starts scrolling. It's still a little crazy to see himself in pap photos. He remembers the first couple of times he’d been papped with Louis and how nervous he'd felt. He realizes that today he hadn't even noticed that the photographers were there.

He studies the photos as closely as he can on the small screen. He and Louis are walking through the airport terminal, looking a bit flight-rumpled but glowing with fresh tans. Louis is wearing a pair of baggy black joggers and a tight white T-shirt, his hair fluffy and his face unshaven. He's looking down at the floor in most of the pictures because Harry had lied and told him that his shoe was untied. Even without a full shot of his face, Louis’ smile launches a thousand butterflies in Harry’s stomach. His own face appears impassive in the photos, but he knows himself well enough to recognize the beginnings of a smirk. Louis had just called him a curly-haired cunt, and he couldn't keep a straight face.

Then it hits Harry like a punch in the gut. These pictures look completely and utterly...real. It's the first time he’s ever seen pap photos of him and Louis together without feeling like a fraud, without feeling guilty. And he doesn’t want to think about what that means.

Beside him, Louis is silent, looking through the photos on his own phone. After a minute or two, he clears his throat. “Um. We look good,” he says, his voice a bit raspy. “Rested.”

“Do I look like I just bruised my shins trying to blow you in the world’s tiniest airplane bathroom?” Harry asks in his most sincere tone of voice.

Trying to blow me?” Louis scoffs. “As I recall, your attempt was successful. Give yourself more credit, Styles.”

Harry's just about to attempt it again when Louis’ phone rings. He sighs in defeat and reluctantly returns to his own side of the bed. He'd forgotten just how busy non-island Louis Tomlinson gets- and just how much non-island Louis Tomlinson doesn't belong to him, even on a weekend, even alone in bed.

“Hi, Mom.” Louis answers his phone, grinning at Harry's aborted attempt to go down on him. A pause. “Yeah, I'm with him. Why?” Louis looks sidelong at Harry, who's gone back to his phone and is wondering if he should get out of bed so he doesn't eavesdrop. Unfortunately, his apartment is far too small to achieve that goal effectively, so he doesn’t even bother.

“Oh please, Mom.” Louis rolls his eyes. “You can't tell that just by the sound of my voice...no, you can't...no, you can't…” He lets out an exasperated huff. “Fine, hold on a second.”

He drops the phone from his ear and looks at Harry sheepishly. “She wants to talk to you.”

Harry tries his best to hide the oh shit reaction he's feeling inside as he takes the phone from Louis.

“Hi, Jay.”

Her laughter sparkles through the phone all the way from Missouri. “Don’t worry, darling. I’m not going to put you on the spot. I just wanted to make my son sweat a bit.”

Harry laughs, too, relieved. “How’s everything in St. Louis? Is Dottie missing me pretty badly?”

“Oh, she certainly is,” Jay tells him. “She’s asked about you quite a bit.”

“Would you say she probably misses me more than she misses Louis?” Harry asks, grinning at Louis and receiving an indignant smack on the arm.

“I don’t know,” Jay chuckles. “I’ll have to ask her. Or maybe you can ask her yourself sometime. All the kids would love to see you again.”

She lets the statement hang in the air, knowing full well what it implies, and Harry can’t help but stare at Louis, who’s grabbed Harry’s phone (no doubt to make more obnoxious edits to his contacts list) and is trying not to seem overly interested in the conversation. Harry’s heart swells just looking at him.

“I’d like that, too,” he finally responds to Jay, not taking his eyes off the smooth planes of Louis’ bare chest, the dark ink of his tattoos, the slight rise and fall of his ribs as he breathes in and out.

“So how’s my son doing?” Jay graciously changes the subject. “He usually gets a bit antsy before a big promotional tour.”

“He’s good,” Harry reports. “We were just in the Caribbean for a week, so that was relaxing.”

“Oh yes, you both look very relaxed in the photos I just saw online.”

“You saw them already?!” Harry can never understand how moms stay on top of so many things all the time. “They just came out a few minutes ago!”

“I know that, dear. I get alerts.” Jay says it like it’s a completely normal thing for a mother to subscribe to internet updates on her son. “It helps me organize for scrapbooking.”

“Oh my God . You really should meet my mom sometime.” Harry’s laughing, but a part of him is actually a little scared at what his mom and Jay could accomplish if they somehow joined maternal forces.

“I’m sure we’d have a lot to talk about,” Jay replies, her voice full of warmth. “And I’m sure we both want nothing more in the world than for our children to be happy.”

Harry’s at a loss for words. He wants to be happy. And he wants Louis to be happy, too. If only they’d met some other time, some other way.

“Will you look after him for me?” Jay asks softly, her voice fading out a bit.

“Yes. I will,” Harry promises, and he means it. Even if he and Louis are only together for a little while longer, he means it.

He says goodbye to Jay and hands the phone back to Louis, who quickly becomes absorbed in updates on all his younger siblings. Harry is still going over his conversation with Jay in his mind when his phone lights up with a text response from Sam Clayton. Finally.

No I haven’t told him yet. I’m freaking out!!

Harry’s relieved to at least know that Niall hadn’t skipped town on Sam after learning the big news.

Don’t freak out. N is a good guy - he’s gonna be supportive

I know, it’s just - it was supposed to be a casual thing. This wasn’t supposed to happen

Some of the best things ever weren’t supposed to happen. Harry briefly considers telling Sam about the origins of gooey butter cake but decides that it might not translate well over text. Just tell him.

I will. As soon as they get back. For real

Everything’s gonna be ok

I hope so

Harry hopes so, too.

---

Louis shifts uncomfortably in his leather seat at the Sams’ conference table. The room feels hot, the lights too bright. He almost wishes they were still holding these PR meetings in secret at The Pierre. Beside him, Harry looks just as irritated. They’d known today was coming, and they should have talked about it beforehand. But everything had just been so perfect, even in the few days since returning from St. Lucia, and Louis hadn’t wanted to spoil anything. More like hadn’t wanted to shatter the illusion, he reminds himself glumly.

The usual crew is present, and Louis hadn’t even bothered saying hello to anyone when he came in with his shitty Starbucks tea and slumped down into his chair. Harry’s sitting to his left, his Starbucks coffee dumped into a Stumptown cup so it won’t be completely obvious that they’ve already been together this morning. Everyone knows the basics of the break-up plan, but today they’ll finally go through the specifics. Louis is dreading every second of it.

“All right, let’s get started,” Sam Clifton announces to the group, rubbing his hands together before opening a file folder in front of him. “Thanks for being here, everyone.”

Jeff pumps his fist in the air. “Get those fake tears ready, Harry, you’re about to be on the front page of the entertainment section for four weeks straight! Hey, maybe you should think about getting a haircut.”

Louis hates Jeff’s stupid face. Harry is touching his hair self-consciously now- it’s at an awkward, in-between length, and he’s been having trouble taming it lately. Louis thinks he looks perfect.

“No haircut,” Sam Clifton cuts in, all business. “Don’t make any major changes to your appearance until the bulk of the papping is over. You need to stay recognizable.”

Recognizable. Louis knows that being recognizable is the last thing Harry ever cared about, and now he’s going to be hounded by paps for weeks, most of the time without Louis even being there to help shoulder some of the pressure.

“He’s growing it out, anyway,” Louis snaps, at everyone and no one in particular.

“Um, before we get started, I have a question.”

It’s Liam. He’s sitting at the end of the table between Niall and Sam Clayton, and Louis honestly hadn’t even noticed he was there.

“How will all of this affect my relationship with Niall? I mean, will we still be allowed to go out publicly, or will that send the wrong message? Because we have tickets to James Bay next week.” Liam looks around the room, his face full of concern.

No one speaks. Everyone just stares at him.

“Who are you?” Sam Clifton finally asks.

Liam is taken aback. “I’m...Liam? Roommate of Harry? Best friend of Niall?”

Harry shakes his head like an embarrassed parent while Niall smiles and pats Liam’s back reassuringly. Sam Clifton is still staring blankly.

“We’ve met several times,” Liam mumbles quietly.

“Okay, well, I’m not sure who invited you to this meeting,” Sam Clifton says, ignoring Niall’s “I did!” before continuing. “But feel free to go out whenever and with whomever you want.”

Jeff snorts and rolls his eyes at Liam, and it doesn’t escape Niall’s notice.

“Aren’t you excited that another one of your employees is dating a celebrity? Someone else you can exploit for website hits? Guess not.” His Irish accent sounds thicker when he’s annoyed.

Jeff perks up like a dog who just heard the word walk . “What are you talking about?”

“Liam here’s datin’ Emma Stone ,” Niall answers with a casual jerk of his head toward his friend.

Everyone in the room suddenly seems interested, now staring at Liam for an entirely different reason. His eyes go as wide as saucers. “Um. I’m not actually...we’re not…”

“They’re keeping their relationship very private.” Harry interjects, speaking up for the first time since he sat down at the table. “Her people already have Liam under an NDA. So forget about it.” He directs the last statement squarely at Jeff, who holds up both hands in a begrudging sort of surrender.

“Can we please move on to the agenda?” Sam Clayton chimes in, sounding exasperated. She seems about as happy to be there as Louis is.

“I’d like that very much,” her partner Sam responds, flipping to the first sheet in his folder. “Okay, so Louis flies to LA tomorrow morning…”

It’s important information, it really is, but Louis is zoning out. The next few weeks are going to suck , and he feels powerless to stop it. This is what Harry agreed to, what they both agreed to. He can’t beg Harry to extend things. And he can’t tell Harry how he feels. Harry has made it abundantly clear that he doesn’t want to be involved with someone famous. And that happens to be the one thing Louis can never give him.

Sam Clifton is going over Harry’s schedule when Sam Clayton suddenly pops up like a jack-in-the-box and flees the room, leaving her chair spinning in her wake.

“Was it something I said?” Sam Clifton jokes, drawing a chuckle from almost everyone.

Harry looks concerned, shifting in his seat as if he’s unsure whether he should get up or not. Louis nudges his foot under the table and gives him a questioning look, but Harry just shakes his head.

“I’ll check on her,” says Niall, standing up and following her path out the door.

Sam Clifton doesn’t miss a beat going back to the agenda. Louis looks at his watch. It’s going to be a long morning.  

---

Harry checks his texts again as he punches the code into Louis’ elevator. Still no word from Sam Clayton on how Niall took the news. He frowns and puts his phone away. Everything’s probably fine.

He and Louis hadn’t even discussed whether or not they’d spend Louis’ last night in New York together- it was a given. Liam hadn’t so much as raised an eyebrow as he’d watched Harry throw a few things in a duffel bag, give Bruce a pat on the head, and walk out the door.

Louis is already in bed watching a movie on his iPad when Harry arrives. He drops his bag on the floor unceremoniously and flops down beside Louis on the lavender-scented sheets.

“Whatcha watching?”

“Porn,” Louis replies blandly.

“Oooh, let me see,” Harry petitions, snuggling closer. He grabs Louis’ hand to lower the screen. “This is An American Werewolf in Paris .”

Louis powers the iPad down quickly and tosses it on the nightstand. “Okay, you caught me,” he pouts.

“You’d rather I think you were watching porn?” Harry teases, circling his arm around Louis’ waist and pulling him a little closer.

Louis grumbles but allows himself to be drawn into the embrace. “Honestly? I think the Sams would rather me star in a porn than in an action movie.”

“Porn would be an action movie- of sorts,” quips Harry, but Louis doesn’t laugh.

Harry pulls Louis as close as he can and leans in to give him a harmless bite on the shoulder. “You should do that movie, Lou. You know I’m serious when I tell you that.”

“I need to go to sleep,” Louis responds stiffly, reaching over to switch off the light and laying back on the pillow. “I have an early flight.”

Harry knows better than to push the issue. He releases Louis from his hold, and they lay quietly for a minute before he speaks. “I’m going to miss you,” he whispers, quickly adding, “When you’re in LA.”

“Nah,” deflects Louis. “You’ll have a lot more free time to work on that Pulitzer instead of having to get papped with me at The Polo Bar or wherever the latest trendy spot is.”

Harry doesn’t respond, and Louis slowly begins to drift toward sleep. The next thing he knows, he’s jerked wide awake, as Harry pulls him on top of him and into a deep, dirty kiss.

“I’m going to miss you,” Harry repeats firmly when he finally pulls his mouth away. He hooks his thumbs in the back of Louis’ boxer briefs and drags them down to his thighs. Then he kisses him again, this time even more intensely, letting his hands roam freely over Louis’ backside.

“Can I...just...” Harry’s too breathless to get the rest of the question out. “Let me show you.”

“Okay,” Louis answers, his voice already on edge. “Yes. Whatever you want.”

Harry flips them over and quickly strips Louis’ underwear off the rest of the way. He kisses all the way from Louis’ throat down to his belly and then stops, contemplating.

“Turn the light back on,” he directs Louis, who hastily leans over to click on the bedside lamp.

Louis’ naked body is bathed in a soft, warm glow, and Harry thinks he looks good enough to devour. He pushes Louis’ knees to the side and leans forward to nose at his dick, giving it a series of teasing kisses and licks. Then he works his way lower, sucking gently on Louis’ balls and making him squirm with pleasure.

He breaks away momentarily to sit up and force Louis’ knees even further apart and backward. Louis looks up, a bit shocked.

“Hold these for me?” Harry requests, his words soft but his face full of intent.

Louis nods in agreement and does as Harry asks, hooking his arms around his legs to hold them open. He’s folded in half, his knees almost touching his ears. They’ve fucked like this before, but Louis isn’t prepped right now- at all. He’s completely vulnerable. Surely Harry isn’t going to-

Fuck! ” Louis cries out as Harry bends forward and licks straight across his hole. Jesus Christ, Harry is going to eat him out like this, on his back.

Harry licks again, this time with more pressure, and Louis groans and pulls back even harder on his legs. His muscles are going to be so sore on the flight tomorrow, and he doesn’t even care.

Harry presses his thumbs against either side of Louis’ hole, pulling him ever so slightly apart as he laps at him, pushing a little deeper with his tongue every time.

“Oh God,” Louis moans, wanting to move, wanting to writhe away from the intensity of it, but determined to hold on.

Harry is completely immersed in the task at hand, and with his lower body bent so far upward, Louis is getting a front-row view of everything Harry is doing to him. His big hands are working as hard as his tongue. He alternates between squeezing Louis’ cheeks, rubbing his thighs, and stroking his cock and balls, never letting Louis get used to one sensation for too long. It looks almost as good as it feels. Louis doesn’t know if he’s ever seen anything hotter than the mess of dark curls bobbing between his legs.

By the time Harry works his tongue all the way inside, tears are running down Louis’ cheeks. He knows he’s talking, but he has no control over the words that are tumbling out. It’s an incoherent mix of Harry’s name and curse words and please and oh God . His legs are trembling and aching from being pulled back so tightly, the sweat dripping down his skin threatening to make his hands slip. He’s so close to coming, though. He’s never come from this before. There's no way in hell he’s letting go.

Harry ,” he begs weakly, struggling to form the words. “I’m so close. Harry, please . Make me come.”

Harry answers by burying his face and pressing his tongue as far inside Louis as it will go. Then he moans so loudly that the vibrations run through Louis’ entire body, from the tip of his nose to the tips of his toes. Louis comes instantly, in a burst of short spurts that drip all over his stomach and pool in his belly button.

His high-pitched ah ah ah ’s continue for several seconds after his orgasm has finished and Harry has drawn himself back on his knees, out of breath but grinning like the cat who ate the canary. Or, in this case, the journalist who ate the ass. Louis is spent, tears drying on his cheeks and a look of deep satisfaction washing over his face.

“You can let go now,” Harry rasps, his voice wrecked.

Louis hadn’t even realized he was still gripping his legs. “Oh my God, I don’t know if I can move,” he whines as he releases them, pain shooting through his hips and hamstrings as he attempts to straighten his body back out. Harry helps him unfold himself and rubs his legs soothingly for a few minutes. Louis feels absolutely boneless.

“I’ll go get you a washcloth,” Harry finally says, rising off the bed, a thick erection visible in his sweatpants.

“Wait just a second there.” Louis uses what little remaining strength he has to grab Harry’s waistband and pull him back toward the bed. Harry follows easily, straddling Louis’ abs and showing zero concern that his pants are getting covered with come.

Louis pulls Harry’s pants down just low enough for his cock to pop out.

“Hmmmm,” he muses. “So many possibilities. I wonder what I should-”

Harry interrupts him by pressing himself forward, presenting his dick right in front of Louis’ face.

Louis looks up with a sly grin. “Oh, is that what you want?”

He licks the tip and watches Harry’s eyes roll back in his head. But instead of proceeding with the blow job he knows Harry’s expecting, he pauses, suddenly realizing that this could be the last time. He’s leaving for LA in just a few hours, and their agreement will be over soon. This could really be the last time.  

“I want you to fuck me.”

Harry’s eye pop open. “Right now?”

“Yeah, right now,” Louis answers, scrambling to remove Harry’s pants as Harry opens the nightstand to search for supplies.

“No. No, not tonight,” Louis protests, pulling Harry back toward the bed.

“Babe,” Harry puts his hands on Louis’ biceps to still him. “What are you talking about? We have to.”

“No, we don’t,” objects Louis. “We really don’t. I promise we don’t.” A hint of breathless desperation enters his voice. “Just let me feel you.”

Harry leans back, running his hands up and down Louis’ thighs gently. “You’re not ready.”

“Just a little,” Louis pleads, and Harry loves him so much, so fucking much , that he bends over to kiss him before he says it out loud.

Louis winces slightly as he spreads his legs again- not so far this time- and Harry hovers over him, one hand on the pillow by Louis’ head, the other pressing the tip of his cock against Louis’ hole, skin to skin. They both stop breathing for a moment.

Then, slowly, slowly, Harry begins to press inside, just the head.  

“Louis..I can’t...I’m so…”

Louis reaches up and takes Harry’s face in both his hands, and that’s all it takes. Harry loses himself just barely inside of Louis, for what feels like forever, pulses of come leaking out and dripping down Louis’ crack and onto the sheets.

“God damn ,” Harry breathes before collapsing on top of Louis, who for once doesn’t complain, just kisses Harry on the temple.

By the time they’ve showered and fallen asleep with their feet tangled together, Louis has three hours to sleep and zero regrets.

---

The break-up rumors begin less than 24 hours after Louis hits LA.

Trouble after paradise? On the heels of romantic Caribbean getaway, Louis flies to LA...alone

Sparks fly! Louis flees New York after major blow-up with writer boyfriend

“Stop looking at those,” Liam orders Harry, snapping his laptop lid closed. “It’s a beautiful day, and you need to stop moping around here. Let’s take Bruce for a walk.”

Harry knows Liam is right. Everything is going according to the PR plan everyone agreed to, and it does no good to sit around and read all the fake headlines about him and Louis. Every headline has been fake from the very beginning, anyway. It’s just that...things have changed now. For Harry, at least.

Liam wasn’t lying about it being a gorgeous day. Harry thinks there's almost nothing that a perfect spring day in Manhattan can't cure. They wind up at the same dog park where Harry busted his shoulder.

“This is where we held hands for the first time,” he laments, more to himself than to Liam as they stroll across the grass. Harry keeps a close eye out for any wayward Chihuahuas.

Liam stops walking and puts his hand on Harry’s arm. “What are you going to do, Harry?”

“About what?”

“Goddammit, Harry.” Liam huffs in frustration. “About all of it.”

Harry knows he’s been caught out. He’s been dodging Liam on this topic for weeks , and there’s no sense in continuing to hide it. “There’s nothing I can do, Liam. I signed up for this. I knew what I was getting into. I just have to finish it out.”

“But you’re in love with him.”

Harry stops and stares at his best friend. “Is it really that obvious?”

“It is to me,” Liam says with a shrug. “But I don’t think Louis gets it. You need to tell him.”

Suddenly, Liam’s eyes go wide, and Harry hears a clicking sound behind him. He knows that sound. He looks over his shoulder and sees two paps standing at the edge of the park, zeroing in on them with their long-range lenses.

“Oh my God, what do I do?” Liam asks in a panic. “Do I pose?” He puts his hand on his hip and smiles awkwardly toward the paps.

“No. Liam, stop. Liam! ” Harry bats Liam’s arm down and grabs his hand to start dragging him out of the park. “Come on, Bruce. Liam, you just have to ignore them. Don’t acknowledge they’re here.”

The paps follow their path out of the park but back off when they turn on the street back toward their building.

“That was wild,” Liam announces, panting as though he just ran a 5k rather than walking briskly down the block. “I think we lost them.”

“Liam, they’re photographers, not assassins,” Harry says, stopping to let Bruce pee on a tree. “They get their shots and then they leave.”

“Well, excuse me if I’m not used to this like you are,” Liam retorts. “And don’t think we’re done discussing your situation. You need a plan.”

They’re climbing the stairs now, letting the dog off his leash to bound ahead of them.

“No, I don't,” Harry insists. “I do what I’m supposed to do for the next few weeks, and then this is all over. Louis doesn’t feel the same way. He made it clear that it was just a casual thing. You warned me about this, and I didn’t listen. You should be saying I told you so right about now.”

Liam stops in the hallway outside their doors. “I don't want to be right, Harry. I want you to be happy.”

“I will be, Liam. Maybe not right away, but I will be. Please don't worry about me.” Harry unlocks the door and lets Liam step inside ahead of him. He isn't going to tell his best friend yet, but he definitely has a plan.

---

“HAVE YOU SEEN THIS?” Liam storms through the makeshift door into Harry’s apartment the next morning, clutching a copy of The Star.

“Liam, why are you buying the competitor’s paper?” Harry asks, sitting up in bed, groggy with sleep and unappreciative of the early wake-up call.

Liam smacks the paper for emphasis and tosses it to Harry. It takes a moment for his eyes to focus on the page. Slowly, he realizes that he's looking at a photo of him and Liam from the dog park yesterday, holding hands as Harry leads Liam out of the park, with the headline Doggone! Harry Walks Louis’ Dog with Hunky Mystery Brunette.

“LOUIS’ DOG!” Liam cries out in offense. “This is libel! Bruce is my dog, Harry!”

Harry is unable to keep himself from bursting out in laughter. “At least it calls you hunky,” he offers.

“My mom called me this morning,” Liam continues, ignoring Harry's attempt to placate him. “She told me that she loves me unconditionally, and she supports me 100 percent, no matter what kind of lifestyle I choose.”

Harry falls back into bed, dissolving into laughter until tears are flowing down his face. It takes a full three minutes for Liam to stare at him disapprovingly before he settles down.

“Okay, okay,” he says, wiping his eyes. “I’m sorry you got dragged into this. I have an easy solution for you, though. Just get papped with Emma. She’s a million times more famous than me. You’ll get your no homo rep back in no time.”

“God, she keeps calling me.” Liam looks even more stressed than he did a minute ago.

“She does ?”

“Yeah, I’m trying to blow her off, but she’s not getting the message,” Liam reports with a sigh. “I guess I’m just going to have to let her down gently.”

Harry wants to say so much in this moment, but there's suddenly an insistent banging at the door. The roommates look at each other in surprise. Who would be here so early in the morning? A part of Harry’s heart hopes against all logic that it’s Louis, missing Harry so badly that he made an unannounced trip back from LA. But as Liam swings the door open and Niall practically falls into the room, he realizes that it was just an irrational wish.

“Niall! What’s up?” Harry inquires, swinging his legs over the edge of the bed and looking around for some clothes. “Aren’t you supposed to be in LA with Louis?”

“Sam’s pregnant!” Niall blurts out. He’s wide-eyed and out of breath from running up the stairs.

“She is?” Liam exclaims at the same time Harry says, “I know.”

Liam and Harry lock eyes suspiciously.

“You know about them?” Liam asks Harry.

You know about them?” Harry asks Liam.

The three of them stare at each other for a few seconds before Niall waves his hand dismissively and announces, “Okay. We all know. I mean, except Louis. And Sam Clifton. And the other people at their office. And our other friends and family.”

“So literally just her and the three people in this room,” Harry clarifies, but no one’s listening.

“She’s pregnant ?” Liam is still absorbing the news. “Wow! That's...unexpected.”

Harry pulls out a kitchen chair for Niall and heads to the kitchen to start tea. “I kind of found out by accident.”

“She told me about that,” Niall acknowledges. “I’m thankful you were there for her.”

“Of course,” Harry replies, tossing Niall a blueberry muffin across the table. He doesn't look like a man who remembered to eat breakfast.

Liam sits down on the bed. “So, what did you say when she told you?”

“I asked her to marry me,” Niall says, taking a gigantic bite of the muffin.

“You did ?” Harry asks in surprise. “Did she say yes?”

“Nope.” Niall swallows his bite. “She told me to get the fuck out and that we can’t just go from no strings attached to an engaged couple in thirty seconds like it’s no big deal.”

“God, I’m so sorry,” Harry tells him, setting a cup of tea in front of him and sitting down in the opposite chair. “What are you going to do?”

“I’m gonna buy a ring,” Niall answers, as if it’s clearly the most logical next step. “I came over to see if you’d go with me.” He’s addressing Liam now.

Liam nods enthusiastically. “Awesome plan. Just let me change my clothes real quick.”

“Hold on a sec,” Harry intervenes as Liam jumps up to leave the room. “How is this a good plan, Niall? She already said no.”

“Then I’ll keep asking until she says yes,” replies Niall with shrug. “The next time I’ll have a ring. And I’ll get down on one knee. And I’ll brush my teeth first.”

“Those things alone have to improve your chances by like, 150 percent,” Liam offers encouragingly before disappearing into his apartment to change.

Harry isn’t sure what he should say next. He doesn’t want to dampen Niall’s enthusiasm, but he’s worried that this won’t end well.

“Are you sure about this?” he asks.

“I love her.” Niall says it so simply and so sincerely that Harry believes him instantly. “I love her, and it's time to stop screwing around and show her.”

Liam re-enters the room, pulling on a slightly wrinkled blue button-up. “I felt like I should wear something with a collar,” he announces, unaware of the serious moment Niall and Harry are having.

“Looks great, Li,” approves Harry. “You'll be the perfect wingman for this.”

Niall stands up and takes a giant gulp of his tea before leaning over and putting his hands firmly on Harry's shoulders.

“This was always gonna happen,” he says, the raw sincerity still present in his tone from before. “I didn't know when or how, but me and her? Inevitable. She just needs to realize it. So wish me luck.”

Harry's chest constricts with an ache that almost takes his breath away.

“Let’s gooooooo,” calls Liam, already out in the hall.

“Good luck,” Harry tells him, and he means it.

Niall grins, smacks Harry on the cheek, and follows Liam out the door.

---

Later that night, Harry finds himself immersed in the quiet darkness of his office. He’d come here under the pretense of catching up on work, but the truth is that he didn’t want Liam to find out what he was working on. The glow of the computer screen illuminates his face, drawn tight in concentration. When his phone rings, he almost jumps out of his skin, the mellow tone echoing starkly through the empty writers’ pit.

“Hello, handsome.”

Harry can’t help but smile at the sound of Louis’ voice. It’s the first time they’ve connected all week, other than a few texts.

“Well, hello. Shouldn’t you be out doing exciting Hollywood things right now? It’s only 9:30 there.”

Louis yawns. “I begged Sam Clifton for a night in, and he had mercy on me. For once.”

“You should take advantage of it then, and get some sleep,” Harry suggests. “This promo schedule is crazy. How many interviews did you do today? Fifteen?”

“Eighteen, I think. I don’t know, they all started to run together.” Louis sounds so tired. “What about you, though? What have you been up to?”

Harry glances at his computer and feels a stab of guilt. He swiftly minimizes the screen, as if Louis might somehow see what he’s doing through the phone line.

“Ummm...I’m just at work. Trying to get ahead on a few things before I come out to LA next week.”

“Seven more days,” Louis singsongs in a raspy voice. “Not that I’m keeping track. I could care less if I ever see your face again.”

A warmth spreads through Harry’s body at Louis’ teasing words. “Oh, that’s too bad. I was going to ask you if you wanted to Skype.”

Louis supposes that he could be persuaded, and a few minutes later, they’re grinning at each other through the screen, Louis looking tiny and exhausted in a posh hotel bed, Harry self-consciously wishing the harsh glare of his desk lamp were a bit more flattering.

“You look so good. Christ,” Louis groans, his voice dropping to a near-growl.

“So do you.” Harry returns the compliment, feeling a little twitch in his pants just thinking about the things he could do to Louis if he were able to lay him out on that giant bed right now.

“Have you ever…” Louis trails off, peering into the camera and biting his lip.

“Ever what?” Harry asks with a smirk, leaning back in his chair and subtly running a hand over his crotch. “Ever gotten off at the office?”

Louis swallows hard and moves a little closer to the screen. “Um, yeah...have you?”

Harry thinks back on all the times he’s done exactly that, debating whether or not he should admit it.

“I may have.” He plays it coy for now. “But never at my desk.” He rubs himself over his jeans a little more obviously now. “I may have gone to the bathroom down the hall, leaned against the door, jacked myself off listening to everyone walk by outside. Maybe.”

Louis lets out a low moan and slides his hand down the front of his baggy athletic shorts. “Show me what you did.”

“Right now?” Harry asks in faux shock. “Someone could walk in here any second!”

“I don’t care,” Louis says, breathing faster but with a note of authority in his voice. “Show me.”

Harry makes sure that the camera angle is just right, then he unzips his jeans at a painfully slow pace, just enough so that he can touch himself through the soft fabric of his boxer briefs.

“Show me yours first.”

Louis is so mesmerized by watching Harry on the screen that it takes Harry repeating himself to snap him back to reality. He rustles around adjusting his laptop, knocking the entire thing to the floor in his haste, but eventually settling so that Harry can see his entire body as he sits cross-legged in the middle of the bed. His shorts are gone, hard cock resting against the hem of his white T-shirt.

“Okay, I showed you mine.”

“Yeah, you did,” Harry murmurs, slipping his own jeans and briefs down to his knees. He takes himself in his hand, rubbing slowly, more to tease Louis than to tease himself. Louis mirrors his actions, his mouth falling open slightly.

“Tell me what you would do to me if you were here,” Harry demands.

“I’ve done that to you before,” Louis responds with a wicked grin. “Or don’t you remember?”

Harry’s mind flashes back to the night by the piano. The first time Louis ever touched him. It felt so fucking good then. It feels so fucking good now just thinking about it.

“But I wouldn’t do it like that this time,” Louis continues, breaking Harry’s reverie. “I’d take you to my bedroom. I’d pull you down on my bed.”

Harry hums a low response, quickening his pace as precome starts to leak onto his fist.

Louis keeps going. “I’d straddle you from behind and pull your neck back so I could bite it. I’d kiss you and tease you and talk dirty to you, but I wouldn’t touch you. I wouldn’t touch you until you were dripping wet and begging me for it. And that’s when I’d finally reach around and give you what you want.”

Harry’s eyes are closed and he’s jerking himself hard now, faster and faster in time with Louis’ filthy words.

Louis wants nothing more than to push him over the edge, his words running together rapidly now. “I’d barely touch you before you’d be coming all over yourself, Harry, and all over me. You’d be shameless, just like you are right now. Look at you, with your pants down in your office, dick out where anyone can see if they come in.”

Harry is completely lost in Louis’ words, chasing his orgasm as his moans echo through the darkened floor.  

“So loud, Harry,” Louis admonishes. “If you’re going to make such a racket, you should give me some credit and say my name. Say my name and show me how you come when you think about me.”

Harry obeys immediately, moaning Louis’ name from deep inside his chest, streams of thick come flowing over his fingers and down the back of his hand.

Fuck ,” Louis utters in awe. He’s been slowly working himself over the entire time, too invested in Harry to focus on himself. Now, he realizes how close he’s gotten just from watching. A few quick jerks of his hand, and he’s coming, too.

Harry’s starting to return to himself, looking around the office in a daze. He’s nearly forgotten where he is.

“You’re so filthy,” Louis accuses, stripping his shirt over his head and using it for a rag. “I can’t believe you just did that. Who jerks off at their place of business? The readers of your fine magazine would be completely scandalized.”

Harry grabs a handful of Kleenex and wipes himself off. “Shut up,” he answers without a trace of annoyance in his tone, wiggling back into his jeans and zipping them up.

Louis smiles sleepily through the screen, and Harry cannot for the life of him understand how a man who just spouted such unspeakable things, a man covered in tattoos, a man who once got into a Twitter war with Betty White...can somehow look exactly like a kitten when he yawns.

I’m crazy about you , Harry wants to say. Tell me you don’t want this to end. Tell me this doesn’t have to end.

“You need sleep,” he chooses instead. “And I need to take the walk of shame out of the offices of New York Weekly .”

Not that it hasn’t become a walk of shame for him every day he works there.

“I sent you flowers there once.”

“I remember,” Harry responds quietly after a pause, slightly surprised that Louis remembers, too.

“Irises,” Louis huffs. “I’d never send irises.”

Sorry. I know that now.”

“I’d send you sunflowers,” Louis continues, tired and indignant. “Sunflowers stand for happiness.”

“Good night, Louis. Get some rest.” Harry cuts the Skype connection before Louis can see the tears forming in the corners of his eyes.

---

A week later, Harry arrives in LA, awaited by a crush of eager paps at the airport. He's almost gotten used to being photographed alone, but the LA paps have an entirely different vibe from the New York ones. They're louder, more rabid.

Tomorrow's headlines will be painfully predictable:

Desperate Harry rushes to LA to win Louis back

Reconciliation? Louis flies Harry to Hollywood and begs for one more chance

But Harry doesn't care about that at all right now. He’s just anxious to see Louis. He slips into the sleek, black car waiting for him and is immediately pulled on top of a small, warm body and into a deep, familiar kiss.

“I thought I was meeting you at your hotel,” he says breathlessly when Louis finally releases him.

“Couldn't wait that long,” Louis replies with a little shrug. “You know the traffic here’s a bitch.”

“How’d you get away from the Sams?”

“Niall got here Tuesday,” Louis answers, stealing another kiss before continuing. “He said he'd create a diversion.”

Harry can only imagine what form that diversion might take. He's grateful for any second of stolen time, though, and he plans to take full advantage of it. He pulls Louis onto his lap.

“We have to get papped tonight looking unhappy at the Four Seasons,” Louis reminds him, but right now Harry has no interests other than sucking a bruise into Louis’ collarbone.

“I think we get bonus points if we visibly fight,” Louis adds.

“What if we visibly fuck?” asks Harry in a low voice, biting down on Louis’ neck hard enough to make him yelp.

“Yeah, I'm pretty sure that wasn't on the memo I got earlier.” Louis is breathing faster, shifting in Harry's lap and bringing their mouths together again. Harry slides his hand up Louis’ chest.

“No talking strategy,” Harry murmurs as he starts working open the buttons on Louis’ shirt. “Actually, no talking at all.”

Louis asks the driver to take the long way.

---

By 9:00, the two of them are sipping handcrafted cocktails at the Four Seasons, attempting to look dissatisfied with each other, and failing miserably. They're fucked out and ridiculously happy to be reunited after more than two weeks.

“Let’s talk about things that make us mad,” Harry finally suggests after several minutes of goofy smiling and nibbling on mushroom croquettes.

“Juvenile diabetes,” Louis begins.

“Puppy mills.”

“Paper cuts.”

“Dark chocolate.”

“Televised singing competitions.”

“Snobby actors with huge egos.”

“Arrogant journalists with giant mouths.”

They both start laughing. Total fail.

“Singing competitions are actually my favorite,” Harry admits to Louis through his giggles. “God, I can’t believe you’re this bad at acting. You’ve been nominated for an Oscar, for Christ’s sake.”

Louis stops smiling immediately and cocks his head, swallowing the bait completely. “You want to see acting, Styles? I’ll show you acting.”

Before Harry can even blink, Louis rises from his seat, screaming, “How dare you involve my DOG in this?!” at the top of his lungs. He hesitates just slightly, and then with a mischievous glint in his eye, grabs his nearly-full glass of gin and tonic, and throws it straight into Harry’s face. Then he turns on his heel with a dramatic flourish and storms off.

Every guest in the lounge is staring, and there are more than a few people taking sneaky iPhone photos and videos. Harry's shirt and lap are soaked, and there's gin dripping from his nose and chin.

He sits, stunned, for at least two full minutes before he gathers himself together enough to dry off a little and call for a car. As he’s standing up from his seat, the waitress approaches him timidly.

“Um, excuse me, but...the bill hasn’t been paid. Mr. Tomlinson didn’t leave a credit card number.” She pauses awkwardly. “I’m sorry.”

Goddammit, Louis.

“Okay, no problem,” Harry tells her, reaching in his back pocket for his wallet. “I’ll take it.”

The waitress shifts uncomfortably before continuing. “Ummm...and also...he took a bottle of Dom Perignon from the bar on his way out. It was a special edition.”

For fuck’s sake.

Harry gives her his card and waits for her to run it while everyone in the entire place continues stealing glances at him and whispering. When she finally brings the card back, he signs the receipt without even looking at the total and practically runs outside. Thank God the car has already arrived. There are paps on the sidewalk, yelling questions about his relationship status and asking about the fight inside. Shit, that traveled fast.

The car takes him down the street to the Viceroy, where he’s papped again entering the hotel. He thinks he does a pretty impressive job of looking upset. And he is upset. Because that little shit just made him pay for a $500 bottle of champagne and embarrassed the hell out of him in the middle of a crowded restaurant. Harry doesn’t even slow his pace as he walks through the hotel lobby and out the service door in the back, where he’s already called another car to take him to Louis’ hotel. So much fucking subterfuge. He shakes his head, still having a hard time believing this is actually his life right now.

The second car drops him off behind the Mosaic, and he takes the stairs two at a time, letting himself into the suite with his key card.

Louis is sitting on the bed, naked except for the strategically placed bottle of Dom Perignon. As soon as Harry opens the door, he pops the cork.

“And you said I couldn’t act.”

Harry puts out the do not disturb sign and locks the door.

---

A slew of texts come in overnight from both the Sams.

Very funny. But stop overselling it please

We still have the interview and the movie premiere to get through

Give me three more days of cooperation. THREE DAYS!!

Where the hell are you two

Neither Louis nor Harry mention the messages to each other as they get dressed and call a car to sneak over to Anne’s for breakfast.

Walking up to the front door of Anne’s bungalow, Louis feels nervous, but not as nervous as he'd been introducing Harry to his own mom, and not nearly as nervous as he’d been meeting Harry’s sister. Jay hadn’t known enough; Gemma had known way too much.

Anne puts Louis at ease the moment he meets her. She’s gracious and warm and beautiful- there's no doubt as to where Harry gets his good looks- but she seems a little...confused.

“I’m so happy you still came!” she exclaims, a look of shock on her face as she hugs Louis around the neck.

“Of course!” Louis is equally confused now. “Why wouldn’t I?”

“Oh! Well...the photos from last night…” She looks at Harry questioningly. “And the stories online…”

Harry laughs and pulls his mom into his side, kissing her on the top of her head. “Mom, you’ve got to stop reading the tabloids. I told you, it’s hardly ever the truth.”

“I’m sorry, Anne,” Louis apologizes, kicking himself internally for his impulsive actions from the night before. Causing a scene like that probably hadn’t been the smartest thing to do- even though he can’t deny that he’d thoroughly enjoyed the consequences once Harry had tracked him down in the hotel room.

“It’s just promo for Louis’ movie,” Harry tells his mom. “Sorry, I should have let you know that everything was okay.”

Anne still looks slightly confused, but also relieved, and thankfully, she doesn’t ask any more questions. “I’m just glad you’re both all right. I spent all morning wondering how that incident was going to fit into my scrapbook.”

“I’m starving!” Harry announces before Louis can ask any scrapbook-related questions. “What’s for breakfast, Mom?”  

Anne leads the way to her sunny little kitchen, where the well-worn oak table is laden with a quintessential California breakfast- fruit salad, granola with almonds and honey, and an avocado and tomato quiche, accompanied by piping-hot coffee and a pitcher of fresh-squeezed orange juice. It’s delicious, and Louis enjoys every bite as he listens to Harry and Anne catch up.  

Anne draws him into the conversation naturally, asking simple questions about his family, if he likes hiking when he's in LA, whether he prefers turkey bacon to regular. It’s so refreshing after weeks of fake-smile interviews and media-trained answers. He doesn't feel famous at all this morning. He feels like he's at home.

After they've finished breakfast, Louis grins and says, “Well, I really think it's time to get down to the reason I’m here.”

Harry’s eyes open wide with fear but Louis just continues smirking and turns to Anne. “Got any baby albums I can look through?”

Does she ever. And against Harry’s urgent protests, she gathers an armload from the back closet and lays them out on the coffee table in the family room.

“You were an absolute cherub,” Louis teases as he flips through the pages. Harry's little bowl cut, baby green eyes, and chubby porcelain cheeks are almost too much to bear. “What in the world happened to you?”

Harry doesn’t answer. He's hiding his face in mortification, half-real and half-exaggerated.

“He really was the sweetest boy,” Anne tells Louis, wearing the look of nostalgia that only moms get. “Always helping others, always doing the right thing. I knew the minute he was born that he would change the world for the better.”

“Mom, please,” Harry begs, genuinely embarrassed now.

“It's true!” she insists. “You were an angel. You still are.”

“I have to agree,” Louis adds quietly, giving Harry a sly wink and trying to keep the atmosphere light.

Inside, however, something breaks a little. Louis realizes that whatever bit of hope he was holding onto that this might work, that this could last beyond the boundaries of a stupid PR arrangement, fizzles away. He can't hold Harry back from everything he's going to do to make the world a better place. Harry has a fathomless heart and big dreams for change. He's meant to be so much more than just a gossip writer or a piece of celebrity arm candy.

They sift through photos and talk a while longer, Louis trying his best to keep the sinking feeling in his heart from showing on his face. When Anne and Harry decide to go visit Harry’s grandma, Louis begs off with a lunch engagement of his own. Three more days. He just has to make it through three more days, and then maybe he can start convincing himself to get over Harry Styles.

---

Harry lies in bed the next morning while Louis showers, going over the interview questions the Sams have written for him. They’re cheesy, generic, and exactly what Harry had expected they’d have him ask Louis on national television. He sighs and switches out of his email, telling himself he has a few more hours before he has to worry about it. The first tab on his internet app is open to a tabloid site, and Harry does a double take when he catches Louis’ profile in the top photo. They hadn’t been photographed together yesterday, had they? No . They hadn’t. It’s not Harry sitting across a cafe table from Louis, leaning over, smiling and touching his arm.

It’s Aiden.

Chapter Text

“Pap pics are in,” Harry says quietly as Louis emerges from the bathroom freshly showered, a fluffy white towel wrapped around his waist. He tosses his phone across the bed.

Louis doesn’t look fazed at all. Pap pics are in is a phrase he hears almost every day. He flops down next to Harry and grabs the phone to look at the photos. His face falls immediately when he sees the screen.

“Harry…”

But Harry’s already scrambled out of the bed and is busying himself stacking last night’s room service dishes.

“This is not what you think it is.” Louis’ voice is firm.  

“It doesn’t matter what I think,” Harry replies hastily as he opens the door to set the dishes in the hallway. He turns to face Louis, who’s sitting on the edge of the bed now, a worried look beginning to etch its way across his face. “You can do whatever you want. You’re not obligated to me.”

“That doesn’t mean I don’t want to explain!” Louis exclaims. “It was just lunch. He called me because he had early access to some new scripts. He was doing me a professional favor by giving me first look.”

“Doing you a favor?” Harry snorts, leaning against the door with his arms crossed over his chest. “You don’t need any favors from him. He only wants one thing from you.”

Louis rises from the bed, accidentally dropping his towel and picking it back up awkwardly. “Harry, I have absolutely no feelings for Aiden anymore. This was strictly about work. I need to find my next job.”

“Bullshit,” Harry accuses, hearing the petulance in his voice but feeling powerless to stop it. “You already have your next script picked out. You have for months .”

Louis sighs and sinks back down on the bed, running a hand through his damp hair. “It’s not that easy, and I’ve told you that.”

Harry pushes off the door and stalks across the room, picking up his clothes and stuffing them into his suitcase haphazardly. “It could be that easy if you wanted it to be.”

“You don’t understand how the industry works.” There’s a cutting edge to Louis’ tone now, his defenses rising fast.

“You’re right,” Harry responds roughly. “I don’t.” He drives his knee into the top of his overstuffed suitcase so that he can zip it. “I’m just the idiot you found to play this PR game with you. What the hell do I know, right?”

Louis stands up again, holding tighter to his towel this time, but Harry backs away, dragging his suitcase toward the door.

“You know I didn’t mean it that way. Why are you being like this?” When Harry refuses to respond, Louis softens a little, changes tack. “I’m just...listen, I’m sorry. I should have told you I was meeting him for lunch.”

“You don’t have to tell me anything, Louis.” Harry’s voice is tremulous, and he knows he shouldn’t continue, not when he’s upset like this. He should stop talking immediately and leave until his emotions are under control. But he doesn’t. Of course he doesn’t.

“This is a business arrangement and always has been. You can fuck every guy in West Hollywood for all I care.”

Say it again.

I’m not fucking anyone else. I can’t even go to sleep without you. No one else feels like this. No one else does this to me...just you.

Silence blankets the room like a sudden snowfall. Louis is too stunned to speak, opening his mouth and then closing it again quickly.

Harry can’t meet his eyes. “I’m going to get ready at my hotel,” he mumbles, opening the door. “I’ll see you at the interview.”

“Harry, wait…” Louis croaks, scrambling to command his voice to work again.

But the door’s already clicking shut.

---

It’s a blazing hot day in LA, and it feels just as warm inside the TV studio. They’ve dressed Louis casually- a band T-shirt and ripped jeans- but he’s already sweating, and he’s not even under the lights yet. Harry was already there when he showed up, but Louis hasn't succeeded in catching him alone yet, despite his best efforts.

Louis stands at the craft services table, watching Niall devour a giant croissant stuffed with chicken salad. His stomach growls, but he feels too queasy to eat. He really needs to talk to Harry and straighten all this out. It’s nothing but a misunderstanding, certainly not worth fighting over.

It’s just that...had Harry really meant what he'd said this morning? That this was nothing but a business arrangement to him? And if he did, why did it hurt so fucking much to hear him say it? It’s the truth, after all. At least, it was in the beginning. Louis scratches his stubble anxiously. He can't think about that right now. He just needs to explain things to Harry before the situation gets even more out of hand.

“Where's Harry?” he asks Niall.

“In hair and makeup,” Niall replies, offering him a sandwich from the table. Louis shakes his head and checks his watch. They're supposed to be on the air in less than ten minutes. There isn't going to be enough time.

Louis briefly considers barging in on Harry in hair and makeup, but he’s not sure how the conversation will go, and he doesn’t want to cause a scene right now. There’s already a sizzle of tension in the air, and both Sams have been giving off a nervous vibe. Louis can’t tell if they’ve noticed something amiss between him and Harry or if they’re just that used to Louis fucking up their best-paid plans.

The flurry of activity in the studio grows more intense with every second that ticks off the clock. Before Louis knows it, he’s being miked and led into the harsh glare of the studio lights. It aggravates him to realize he’s being seated first. The interviewer is supposed to be the one who waits for the interviewee - not the other way around. Everyone knows that.

Sweat is already forming on Louis’ neck by the time Harry finally slips into the chair across from him. It’s the first time Louis has gotten more than a quick glimpse of him since he left their hotel room this morning. He’s wearing a fucking bow tie and jacket and deliberately avoiding looking at Louis, pretending to study some notes that Louis can only assume are the pre-approved questions the Sams wrote.

Louis takes a deep breath and tells himself that he can get through this. He and Harry are good at faking it - they've had plenty of practice. They just have to make it through the interview, and then he'll insist that Harry hear him out.

Harry shifts in his seat and clears his throat, betraying his own nerves a bit. There’s shuffling and murmuring all around them, but it’s impossible to see anyone else in the studio with the lights shining on them so brightly. A clear, measured voice begins the 10-second countdown from somewhere behind the cameras.

“Five, four, three…” Louis’ heart stops beating completely during the last two unspoken counts and then...silence so pristine you could hear a pin drop.

Here we go.

“Hello, Access Entertainment viewers, I’m Harry Styles, and I’m here with a man who needs no introduction, the star of Milan Blues, premiering tomorrow night right here in Hollywood- Louis Tomlinson.” Louis knows Harry well enough to see that he’s reaching way down deep for the resolve to go through with this, but it won’t be obvious to anyone else.

“How’s it going, Louis?” Harry finally makes eye contact.

“Well! It’s going well,” Louis answers, a bit too enthusiastically, crossing his right ankle over his left knee. “Happy to be here today.”

Harry grins at him, fake as hell. If there’s one thing Louis hates seeing more than Harry feeling upset or sad, it’s seeing Harry only pretending to be happy.

“You’re not nervous for this interview, are you?” Harry teases, and Louis can tell he’s trying his best to keep his tone light.

“Should I be?” Louis responds, attempting to sound flirtatious.

“I’ll try to go easy on you,” promises Harry. “Let’s start with the basics. Tell me about the new film. What was it like working with Scarlett Johansson and Bradley Cooper?” Stock question.

“Amazing,” Louis enthuses for the 394th time since the beginning of this press tour. “We had such a great time together on set.” Stock answer.

“I heard you pulled some epic pranks on each other.”

“We really did!” Louis launches into his prepared anecdote about putting hot sauce into Bradley Cooper’s kale smoothie and Bradley retaliating by filling his trailer with balloons. So far, this interview is pretty much the same as every other one he’s done in the past two weeks.

The scripted movie Q&A goes on for a few more questions before Harry shifts gears.

“So, Louis, anyone special in your life?”

So this is where it’s supposed to get cutesy.

“You could say that.” Louis smiles coyly.

“Want to tell us more about him?” Harry presses, doing an excellent job of creating the cheeky vibe the Sams were just gagging to produce in this interview.

Louis feigns shock. “Well, if you'd done some more research before this interview, Mr. ...Styles, is it?” he pauses with an air of indignation, actually waiting for Harry to respond.

“Yes, Styles,” answers Harry, playing along perfectly.

“Styles,” Louis repeats as if the name sounds strange on his tongue. “Anyway, if you'd done more research, Mr. Styles, you'd know that I strive to keep my personal life as private as possible.” He cocks an eyebrow at Harry in challenge.

“Is that why you were photographed naked on a beach in Spain in 2014?” Harry lobs back without missing a beat.

Louis can't help but grin. That had been a great trip. He quickly tries to school his face back to its offended look. “I guess you could say I've been trying to change my ways. Grow up a little.”

“Fair enough,” Harry concedes. “Rumor has it he's fabulous, though. Very handsome.”

Louis shrugs. “Yeah, he's okay.” He can practically feel the Sams radiating with pleasure because of how well this flirty banter is going. What they don't realize- and what hopefully no one will realize- is how very fake it is. Forced. Nothing feels right.

The fluffiness continues for another minute or two before Louis senses that the interview is wrapping up. He breathes an internal sigh of relief. They made it through somehow.

Harry taps his notes on his knee, stacking the papers back together neatly. All that's left is to tie a bow on it and throw it back to the Access Entertainment anchors.

“So what's up next for you?” Harry asks casually, a typical end-of-interview question.

Louis launches into his standard answer. “I've had a bit of time off now, so I'm itching to start a new project soon. Just narrowing down ideas…”

“I heard you might be doing an action film next,” Harry interrupts.

There's a nearly inaudible squeak from behind the cameras. This is most certainly off-script.

Louis laughs nervously, taken completely off guard. “That would be...an interesting choice. But, you know, I feel very at home in my current genre, and I've read several amazing new scripts, so I'm excited for whatever's next.”

It’s a perfectly acceptable answer. Harry should nod his head in agreement and close out the interview. But instead he’s just staring at Louis, his jaw set determinedly.

“But wouldn’t you like to break the mold? Challenge yourself a little?”

Louis hears a shuffling sound from behind the cameras. No doubt one of the Sams is already scrambling to shut this down.

He searches for the right words, his mind still locked in its media-trained mode from the past few weeks. “I think that every new script is a challenge. Immersing yourself in that character and…”

“Werewolves,” Harry cuts him off. Goddammit. “The news just broke that Michael Bay signed on to direct the werewolf epic that’s coming out next year. It’s supposed to be a game-changer for action films. Would you ever have any interest in a project like that?”

The shuffling behind the cameras grows louder. What the hell is Harry doing?

“I’m not sure,” Louis stammers. He’s starting to become flustered, something that never happens to him during an interview. “I’ve...never really thought about it.”

Harry snorts. “Never really thought about it. Okay. Well, for what it’s worth, I think you should go for it. The Dalai Lama says that happiness is not something ready made. It comes from your own actions.”

That’s enough, then. Louis stands up and yanks the mic pack from his waistband, dropping it to the floor with a deafening thud followed by a screech of feedback.

Fuck the Dalai Lama!” he yells at Harry, but his voice is dull and muted after being disconnected from the sound system.

Harry doesn’t move a muscle as Louis stalks off the set, the studio erupting into chaos as the Sams and several producers rush to cut the live feed. Louis doesn’t wait around to see what happens next, making his way through the crowd behind the cameras toward the back of the studio. He can hear people calling his name, asking him to stop, but he isn’t listening. He doesn’t slow down until Niall appears and grabs him by the arm.

“Don’t say anything,” he orders Niall, though it comes out as more of a plea than a command. “Just get the car and get me out of here.”

---

Echo Park Lake is nearly empty at this hour. Harry can’t believe more people haven’t discovered this hidden gem since he moved away from Los Angeles. This has always been his favorite place to watch the sunrise, and this morning’s was one of the most beautiful he’d ever seen here. He’d arrived in darkness and made his way to his favorite grassy spot on the western edge of the lake using nothing but muscle memory and the light of his iPhone.

He’d sat motionless, a towel pulled tightly around his shoulders, while the sun splashed a million shades of pink, orange, and yellow over the sparkling water, until the entire downtown skyline to the south was bathed in its warm summer light.

But somehow, Harry still feels cold. The park slowly comes to life around him: a pair of teenage boys with fishing gear making their way along the shore, an elderly man out for a morning walk, the calls of rock pigeons and white-throated swifts growing louder overhead.

His body aches from sitting on the hard ground for too long, and his heart aches from remembering how royally he fucked things up yesterday. He doesn’t even know what he was thinking. He’d been so upset over the photos of Louis and Aiden- irrationally jealous , more like- and he’d just lost control of his emotions. He’d wanted to poke Louis, to upset him, to make him feel as bad as Harry was feeling. But all he’d done was hurt him by bringing up a sensitive topic in a live interview, made him angry, and pushed him away- possibly forever.

This entire arrangement had been a colossal mistake, and Harry had known it, he’d known from the beginning. But he’d done it anyway.

“And now you’re paying the price,” he reminds himself out loud, because saying it in his head doesn’t feel like punishment enough. But the thing is...this isn’t the price he’d expected. He’d thought he’d pay in annoyance, embarrassment, or possibly career suicide. He’d never imagined that his heart would be broken like this.

He’d lain awake all night in his old room at his mom’s house, agonizing over whether or not to call or text Louis. He wanted to apologize, to explain, to say whatever it would take to fix things between them. But in the end, he’d felt too paralyzed to do anything at all. He’d finally gotten up and slipped out of the house to drive down here. This is the place he always came when he needed some quiet and some clarity, to feel the clean slate of a new day. Today, though, nothing feels clear or clean at all. Just quiet.

“Ouch! GODDAMMIT!”

Harry whips his head around, startled by the ruckus behind him. It’s Louis , stumbling toward him. He looks ruffled, tired, and pissed off.

For a moment, Harry thinks the early morning light is playing a trick on his eyes. But then Louis bends down to rub his stubbed toe and mumbles a gruff “Mother fucker !” so he knows it’s real. He’s so stunned he can’t even speak as Louis traverses the last few feet between them and sits down next to Harry.

“Nice towel,” Louis says, his voice rough around the edges. He smells like cigarette smoke.

Harry looks down at the elephant beach towel Louis bought for him on their bed-and-breakfast trip. “Stupidly expensive towel,” he murmurs, cinching it a little tighter around his shoulders. “How did you know I was here?”

“I didn’t,” Louis answers. “I just love getting up at ass o’clock in the morning and breaking my toes while exploring the LA’s shittiest public parks.”

Harry’s mouth drops open, affronted.

Louis sighs. “I went to your mom’s house. She told me I could probably find you here.”

Harry doesn’t know how to react to this news. He can hardly believe that after everything that happened yesterday, Louis actually came looking for him. His heart contracts inside his chest, and he can’t look Louis in the eyes.

“This park isn’t shitty,” he protests quietly, focusing on the soft ripples on the surface of the lake. “It’s beautiful. And usually serene. Unless some idiot comes down here wearing flip flops and trips and hurts himself.”

Louis furrows his brow as he looks down at Harry’s sturdy pair of Keens. “It’s a goddamn city park, Harry. How was I supposed to know it was a hazardous death trap?”

Harry smiles wryly. He’d love to continue this back-and-forth sniping that he’s somehow grown to actually enjoy, but...he has to know.

“Why did you come here, Louis?”

Louis picks at a frayed thread on the hem of his jean shorts. “To apologize,” he answers softly.

“For what?!” Harry is incredulous. “I’m the one who ruined the interview! God, I was such an asshole yesterday. Why in the world should you apologize?”

Louis turns to Harry. “First of all, nothing was ruined. They cut the live feed in plenty of time and blamed it on technical difficulties. And second, it would never even have happened if I’d just told you about Aiden.”

“It doesn’t matter.” Harry shakes his head in dismissal. “I had no excuse to act the way I did. It was very…unprofessional, and I’m sorry.”

Louis snorts. “None of this has been professional , Harry. We’ve been sleeping together for months.”

Harry can’t argue with that, but he still feels like he needs to say it one more time. “I really am sorry, Louis. I can’t believe I behaved that way. That’s not like me.”

Louis studies Harry carefully. “I know that.”

“So does that mean you’ll forgive me?” Harry asks, forcing himself to meet Louis’ gaze.

“There’s nothing to forgive,” insists Louis. “It was my fault for putting you in that situation to begin with. All of this...it’s my fault.” He makes a broad gesture toward the city of Los Angeles, as if he’s not only responsible for the situation with Harry, but for everything that’s wrong in the entire world.

“Louis,” Harry begins, and it’s all on the tip of his tongue… everything that he feels… how Louis makes him crazy in all the best ways… how he never could have imagined actually falling for him like this... how he misses him every minute they’re not together… how he utterly and completely loves-

“You don’t have to come to the premiere tonight,” Louis interrupts, completely derailing Harry’s thoughts.

“What?”

Louis places his hand on the ground, so close to Harry’s that they’re almost touching. “I just...I can’t change the past, or go back and undo everything that’s happened,” he says haltingly. “But I can do this one thing for you. You’ve done so much for me, Harry...more than enough. You don’t have to do any more.”

Harry’s mind is racing. “But the contract isn’t over until midnight. The Sams will lose their shit if I’m not there.”

“Fuck the contract, Harry. I’ll deal with the Sams.” Louis assures him. “We’ve already asked way too much of you, and I’m not going to put you through even one more day. You’re off the hook.”

Harry doesn’t know what to say. From the beginning, he’d been counting down the days until this whole debacle would be over, and now… the time is actually here, and being “off the hook” doesn’t feel nearly as good as he’d thought it would. It doesn’t feel like being free. It feels like being dumped.

Louis claims that he isn’t angry and there’s nothing to forgive. But maybe he’s just trying to let Harry down gently. After yesterday’s disaster, the last thing Louis probably wants to do is show up with Harry at the premiere to his new movie. He likely can’t wait to get this over with and move on.

“Okay,” Harry responds hoarsely. He can feel tears threatening behind his eyes, and he doesn’t want Louis to see. Thankfully, Louis is already rising to his feet. Harry doesn’t move, keeping his jaw steady and his eyes locked on the horizon. Louis hesitates before placing a hand lightly on Harry’s shoulder, for the briefest moment.

“I’ll see you, Harry.”

Harry lets him go.

 

---

“You what?!

Sam Clifton rarely raises his voice, even when he's angry, so Louis knows this is serious. Still, he’s a grown man and he stands by his decision.

“I let him go,” Louis repeats. “I told him he didn’t need to come tonight.”

“Louis, that wasn’t the plan,” Sam Clayton admonishes, but it’s half-hearted and she doesn’t even look up from her phone. She's been uncharacteristically distracted lately, but Louis isn't complaining. He certainly doesn't need both his managers on his case right now.

“Wasn’t the plan?!” Sam Clifton exclaims. “I’d say this is the opposite of the plan, Sam. This actually really fucks up the plan .” He says the last sentence so loudly that an assistant just entering the hotel suite jumps about three feet backwards. The room is filling up quickly the closer it gets to time to leave for the premiere.

Louis sighs and holds his arms out to his sides as the stylist checks the fit of his custom blue floral David August jacket. “It’s not the end of the world. Most people think we’ve already broken up, anyway. Just tweak the story a little. Say he stood me up for the premiere.”

“Oooh, that’d be super dramatic. I like it.”

Sam Clifton whips his head around to scowl at Liam, who’s lounging casually on the plush, king-sized bed, flipping through a copy of Teen Vogue .

“Thanks, Li,” Louis says appreciatively, standing as still as a mannequin while the stylist checks the length of his trousers.

“I still can’t figure out who the hell that guy is,” Sam Clifton complains to Louis through gritted teeth.

“LIAM! You made it!” Niall bursts into the room as if on cue. “Just in time for some fresh local cuisine!”

Liam sits up excitedly as Niall dumps an armload of In-N-Out bags onto the bed and begins sorting them. Sam Clayton crosses the room and plops down next to Liam. Niall carefully chooses a wrapped sandwich from one of the bags and offers it to her.

“You should eat something” he says, his entire face softening when he looks at her. She nods and accepts the food, Liam beaming goofily between them. Louis is facing the opposite direction, but his mouth is watering over the heavenly smell filling the suite.

“Don’t even think about it,” the stylist warns as he twists around to cast a longing look toward the impromptu burger buffet spread out on the bed. She narrows her glitter-lidded eyes at him. “This suit is worth more to me than your life.” Louis believes her.

He’s about to begin negotiating with her for a few French fries when Sam Clifton clicks off a phone call and makes an announcement.

“You can’t show up without a date.”

“Why not?” Louis asks.

“The studio is livid,” Sam tells him, his voice full of anxiety. “They don’t want you on the red carpet alone. A date generates a lot more public interest. I shouldn’t have to tell you this.”

“Harry signed a contract, didn’t he?” one of the interns pipes up before Louis can respond. “Just call him and tell him you’ll sue his ass off if he doesn’t show up.”

“I released him from the contract,” Louis says dismissively.

“He has a point, actually,” Sam Clifton cuts in, a thoughtful look growing on his face. “Louis technically doesn’t have the legal authority to cancel the contract.” He picks up his phone again and starts scrolling.

“You better be fucking joking,” Louis says in a low growl, his tone deadly serious. “If you pull this shit, I swear to God I’m walking out of here. We’ve already asked way too much of him. You saw what happened yesterday!”

The emotions he’s been keeping at bay all day start to rise in his chest. He’d done what he’d thought was best for Harry, even though it had killed him to walk away not knowing when- or if- they’d see each other again. All he wants to do now is get the premiere over with and go home to New York.

“Calm down, Louis,” Sam Clayton stands up and steps between him and the other Sam. “We’re just exploring our options here.”

“Harry is not an option,” Louis hisses, fixing his glare on Sam Clifton, who has no problem returning it in equal measure.  

Sam Clayton watches the standoff with growing desperation. Her eyes flick back toward the bed momentarily.

“Liam!” she blurts out.

Liam immediately snaps to attention, as if he’s been sleeping in class and suddenly the teacher’s called his name.

“I don’t know where he is! I swear!” he insists. “He’s not answering my calls. I don’t…”

“Not that,” Sam Clayton interrupts. “ You .”

“Me?” Liam is utterly confused.

“Yes!” she declares triumphantly. “You! You can go as Louis’ date tonight. It’s perfect. You’re unknown, you’re handsome, you’re...here.”

Niall nods enthusiastically. “That’s brilliant!”

Sam Clifton relaxes his pose, contemplating his partner’s proposed solution. Louis just shrugs and reaches for a bottle of water. As long as Harry doesn’t get dragged back into this mess, he really doesn’t care. He’ll show up at the premiere with Liam. Hell, he’ll show up with Taylor Fucking Swift if he has to.

The stylist is already sizing Liam up determinedly, motioning her assistant over. “What’s your shoe size?” she demands.

“What? No!” Liam has finally recovered enough to speak. “I can’t.”

“Why can’t you?” Sam Clayton inquires. She’s attempting to sound serious but is barely suppressing a smile. “Did you have other plans tonight?”

“No, but…”

“We’re just going to have to work with these jeans,” the stylist informs her assistant sadly. “We only have an hour.”

Liam yelps as she tugs at his pants, her hands perilously close to his crotch. “She touching my personal area ,” he whispers to Louis pleadingly.

“You don’t have to do this, Liam,” Louis assures him, trying not to laugh.

“Awww, just do it, Li,” Niall encourages. “It’ll be fun. You can be Louis’ mystery man.”

“But I was already Harry’s mystery man,” Liam whines. “My mom’s gonna be so confused.”

“I’ll call Karen and explain,” Niall promises, putting his arm around Liam’s left shoulder as the stylist yanks his right arm out to take a measurement. “I’ve been meaning to catch up with her, anyway.”

“You talk to Liam’s mom?” Louis asks, but no one is listening.

Liam frowns at Niall but it’s clear that he’s already acquiescing to Sam’s plan. “You’re just agreeing with her because…” He stops himself short, eyes wide, realizing that he’s within earshot of the entire PR team.

“Sorry,” he murmurs to Niall, who just winks and grins.

The next 30 minutes are a blur of activity as the stylists rush to get Liam ready and the rest of the team attends to last minute logistical details. “The cars will be here in 15 minutes,” an intern announces, hurrying through the room as Louis receives a last-minute touch-up to his quiff. It’s not the same intern who suggested suing Harry, though. Louis will definitely make sure that kid gets fired.

Louis is looking down at his Louboutin loafers, trying to guess what ridiculous price they’d be at retail, when all the activity in the room comes to a sudden and crashing halt. He looks up, startled by the abrupt silence.

Harry is standing in the center of the room.

No one seems to be breathing, least of all Louis. Harry looks more stunning that he can ever remember seeing him. He’s in all black from head to toe, the fitted suit pouring over every angle and curve of his body. His face looks like it’s been fresh-scrubbed after a day outdoors, and his hair falls in perfect brown waves that barely brush his shoulders. He’s standing awkwardly, his hands shoved into his pockets and his feet pointing slightly inward. Every eye is locked on him, but he’s only looking at Louis.

“Hi,” Harry says in a low tone, as if he and Louis are the only two people in the room. “I hope it’s still okay that I came.”

Louis swallows hard. His heart is pounding.

“Yeah,” his voice cracks. “It’s okay.”

There are at least two dozen people in the suite, and not one of them so much as blinks as Louis and Harry stare at each other for several seconds.

Finally, Sam Clifton breaks the silence, stepping into the space between the two of them. “Harry. I’m glad to see you’ve decided to honor the contract-”

“Mmmhmm,” Harry interrupts, suddenly in motion and not even glancing at Sam as he pushes past him and captures Louis’ face in his hands, kissing him like a soldier coming home from war.

If either Louis or Harry were remotely aware of the room around them, they’d see Sam Clayton’s jaw hitting the floor, Sam Clifton transforming into the perfect combination of shock and anger, Niall simultaneously staring at them while punching Liam repeatedly in the arm, Liam ignoring Niall and just grinning, and about a dozen staff members in various states of confusion based on what they actually know about Louis’ PR plan.

But they don’t see any of it, too lost in each other and in the moment to care. Louis wraps his arms around Harry's neck and draws him deeper into the kiss, while Harry slides his hands down Louis’ body to hold him firmly by the hips. They don’t come up for air until Niall physically pulls them apart and starts demanding answers.

“What the hell is going on, you two bastards?!” he yells as he smacks Louis in the balls.

“How long has this been happening?!” He grabs Harry by both cheeks and gives him a little shake.

“Were you ever gonna tell me?!” He pokes Louis right where he knows he’s the most ticklish along his ribs.

“I can’t believe you fuckers! I thought you couldn’t stand each other!” He puts them in headlocks, one under each arm, and continues asking questions so rapidly that neither of them has any reasonable chance of answering.

Sam Clayton is engaged in an animated conversation with Liam, while Sam Clifton stews. Some of the others in the room have gone back to their assigned tasks, but a few others, particularly the interns, remain glued to the action. Louis and Harry don’t offer anyone an explanation. They’re just smiling at each other stupidly when Sam Clifton’s frustration finally boils over.

“I can’t believe you’d do this, Louis! All this time! Do you know how dangerous it is to carry on like this behind our backs?!”

Harry can feel Louis’ body tightening with tension. He keeps his arm firmly around Louis’ waist as Sam Clifton continues his tirade.

“How can we protect your interests if we don’t even know what’s going on? This is completely unacceptable! Our entire business model is built on openness and trust! We don't keep things from each other. Right, Sam?”

He turns his attention to his partner, who isn’t listening at all. Instead, she’s looking down and kicking helplessly at Niall, who somehow in the last 30 seconds has produced a diamond ring from his jeans pocket and has gotten down on one knee in front of her.

“What the fuck ?!” Sam Clifton roars.

“See?” Harry points out calmly. “They’re doing it, too.”

“Oh my God!” Louis yelps, breaking away from Harry and tackling Niall the rest of the way to the ground. “Tell me you’re not sleeping with my manager!”

Niall’s reply is muffled in the sounds of struggle as the ring flies out of his grasp and bounces across the floor. Liam bends down and swiftly scoops it up for safekeeping. He looks across the room at Harry. They both shrug and shake their heads in a silent agreement not to intervene.

“I can’t believe you!” Louis huffs as he attempts to pin Niall’s arms to the ground. The entire room has stilled again, watching the scene with rapt attention.

Niall’s face is beet red as he struggles to reverse his position. “I LOVE HER!” he yells, using all of his strength to flip Louis onto his back.

“That’s true, he does,” Liam offers helpfully.

“What?” Sam Clayton’s voice breaks in softly. She gives Niall another kick in the back with the pointed toe of her high-heeled shoe. “What did you say?”

Niall bats Louis’ hand away from his face and puts his knee in Louis’ chest so he can turn his attention to Sam.

“I love you. Isn’t it obvious? Why do you think I keep asking you to marry me?”

“You’ve never said it. I thought you were only asking because I’m pregnant.” Sam instinctively puts her hand on her still-flat stomach.

What?! ” Louis’ strangled voice comes out from beneath Niall.

Niall digs his knee deeper into Louis’ chest. “I’ve never said it? I’m so sorry. Maybe it’s because I thought you must already know. I love you, Sam. With all my heart. You and the baby.”

Baby?!” Louis is losing oxygen.

Niall covers Louis’ face with his hand and looks up at Sam earnestly. “So, does that change your answer?” he asks.

Tears stream down Sam’s face. And Liam’s face. “Yes,” she answers, with a happy little sob. “I’ll marry you. I love you, too.”

A few baffled interns break into a smattering of applause as Niall rises and pulls Sam into his arms. Harry and Liam surround them both in a group hug.

“Wait. Did you guys know about this?” Louis asks incredulously, just as the stylist walks back in and screams when she sees him on the floor, his suit rumpled from his wrestling match with Niall.

“Get up !” she orders, Louis already scrambling to his feet with a scared, apologetic look on his face.

“Sorry. I’m sorry,” he pleads. “But my assistant got my manager pregnant.”

“While wearing this suit?” she demands.

“Um...no.”

“Then there’s no excuse! Lydia, get the steamer!” she yells at her assistant, who scurries to obey. She bends down and starts fussing with Louis’ trousers again, leaving Louis, Harry, Niall, Liam, and the Sams eyeing each other warily.  

“What the hell just happened here?” Sam Clifton has gone from livid to bewildered and is now holding a full glass of Scotch.

“There’s no time, the cars are here,” one of the junior associates informs him. “We have to get going, or the studio is going to lose its shit.”

Before Louis knows it, he’s been re-steamed, re-styled, and whisked into a limo with Harry, two interns, Sam Clifton, and his Scotch. He sits pressed up against Harry, Harry’s arm resting lazily on his lap. All he wants to do is get him alone so they can talk, but he knows that’s going to be impossible for at least a few hours.

“I’m sorry, Sam,” Louis says after a few minutes of silence. “I should have told you.”

“Me, too, for whatever it’s worth,” adds Harry. “And I’m sorry for messing up the interview.”

Sam sighs and takes a long drink. “I suppose all’s well that ends well. Let’s just get through the premiere, and we can sort the rest out later.”

Louis feels Harry tense up, but before he can ask what's wrong, the car is pulling to a stop, and they're starting their red carpet routine. Staff out first, then Harry, then Louis. Harry smiles, Louis waves. Cameras flash, fans scream, reporters jockey for position.

“I can’t believe you still came,” Louis whispers in Harry’s ear when they reach the first stopping point to pose for photos.

“I promised I would.”

They shift their stances a bit to accommodate a group of paps to the right. “And I can’t believe you didn’t tell me about Niall and Sam.”

“I promised I wouldn't.”

Louis elbows Harry in the ribs, eliciting a laugh, and they hold hands the rest of the way down the red carpet, stopping for Harry to charm reporters and for Louis to take selfies with fans.

Louis doesn’t typically watch the premieres of his own movies. It makes him feel weird- overly conspicuous and exposed.

“You wanna get out of here?” he asks Harry almost as soon as they’ve been seated in the theater.

“What are you talking about?” Harry responds, perplexed. “It hasn’t even started yet.”

“Eh. It’ll come out on Blu-Ray eventually. Let’s go see if there’s an empty projection room around here. That’s kind of our tradition, isn’t it?” Louis raises one eyebrow at Harry suggestively.

Harry laughs and squeezes Louis’ knee. “If I didn’t know any better, I’d think you don’t want to watch the film.”

“I don’t need to watch it!” Louis’ voice is a bit petulant. “I already know how it ends!”

“But I don’t.” Harry pulls Louis in for a long kiss. “I want to see you,” he says as soon as he pulls away. “I’ve been waiting forever for this!”

“Fine,” Louis pouts, slumping back in his seat. “But that’s way more boring than what I wanted to do.”

Harry genuinely loves the film, grinning up at movie Louis on the screen while real Louis buries his face in Harry’s neck every time it gets too overwhelming to watch his own performance.

“It’s amazing. You’re amazing,” he tells Louis as the credits roll, and Louis stops his mouth with a kiss before he can say anything further.

There’s an afterparty at the Chateau Marmont, and it seems like half of Hollywood is there. Louis and Harry get separated almost as soon as they arrive, Louis carried off by a wave of studio execs and producers and other famous or powerful people. Harry is more than happy to join Liam, Niall, and Sam Clayton at the back of the room.

Niall has his arms wrapped around Sam from behind, and she’s leaning back into his chest while he chats with Liam. They both look ridiculously relaxed and happy. Harry kisses her on the cheek and demands to see the ring.

“It’s beautiful,” he tells her, leaning in to add softly, “I told you he’s one of the good ones.”

She smiles sleepily. “Today was the first day in six weeks I haven’t thrown up. And I got engaged.”

“I’d say that’s a pretty good day.” Harry smiles back at her.

“An excellent day,” she agrees.

Harry is about to compliment Niall on the ring when Liam gasps and jumps behind him, ducking down and hanging on to his waist.

“What the fuck are you doing, Liam?” Harry can barely get the question out before Liam is shushing him.

“He’s hiding from Emma Stone,” laughs Niall.

“She’s on the prowl,” Liam whispers from behind him. “And I’m her prey.”

“For Christ’s sake!” Harry is exasperated. “A month ago you wanted nothing more than to meet her!”

Liam lets out a regretful sigh. “That was before I knew she wouldn’t be able to get enough of me. Listen, Harry, if you could just hide me for a min…”

But it’s too late. Emma has spotted Liam and is making her way over too quickly for him to escape. Harry barely gets the chance to meet her and say hello before she’s whisking Liam toward the exit. He looks back wistfully, but try as he might, Harry just can’t feel bad for him.

“Is he really with her ? I thought that was a joke.” Sam Clifton approaches, pointing at Liam’s receding figure. He’s slurring his words and stumbling a bit. Harry’s pretty sure he hasn’t stopped drinking since they left the hotel suite.

“The jury’s still out on that,” answers Sam Clayton, grasping her colleague’s elbow to steady him.

“Well, I’ll be damned. That’s amazeballs.” He blinks, looks down at his hands, and gasps. “My Scotch is gone! Who took it?!”

Niall snickers. “My guess is the bartender.”

Sam Clayton shoots Niall a warning look, but her eyes are smiling. “You’ve had a long day,” she tells Sam. “Let’s get you back to the hotel.”

Sam Clifton makes a pouty face, but his partner isn’t going to be swayed. “Trust me, you’ll feel better after you get some sleep. You’ll feel amazeballs .”  

“Fine,” he concedes, allowing Niall to take his other arm as the newly engaged couple lead him toward the door. “And I’ll talk to you tomorrow,” he lobs at Harry over his shoulder.

Harry grimaces. He does feel largely responsible for Sam Clifton’s current state of stress, confusion, and inebriation. And he knows it’s not going to get any better tomorrow.

Suddenly, he realizes he’s standing alone. A quick glance around the room reveals no sign of Louis, and Harry briefly- just briefly - considers leaving. For all his careful planning, he hadn’t really anticipated what had happened today.

Maybe he shouldn’t have come here tonight, he thinks. Maybe he shouldn’t have showed up at the hotel today and kissed Louis in front of absolutely everyone. Louis had given him an out- a way to exit gracefully- and he hadn’t taken it. But he just couldn’t make himself stay away. All the more reason to stick with the plan, he tells himself as he makes his way to the bar.

He’s two California craft brews in when someone slips into the stool next to him.

“Kinda reminds me of the night we met,” Louis rasps. He’s definitely smoked a few tonight.

Harry casts him a sidelong glance as he drains the rest of the bottle. “You mean the night you threw up all over my shoes.”

“You were charmed, don’t deny it.” Louis motions to the bartender for two more beers.

Harry snorts. “Hardly.”

“Well. If I remember correctly, you went home with me.” Louis grins and slides one of the bottles toward Harry.

“More like saved your life,” Harry retorts. The beer is starting to go to his head a bit. Everything feels a little fuzzy around the edges.

Louis doesn’t argue the point. Instead, he takes a swig of beer and glances down at his watch. “Midnight on the dot, young Harold. Looks like our contract is officially over.”

“Thank God,” Harry lies. “Felt like it would never end.”

He looks into Louis’ unfairly beautiful blue eyes, sparkling with the exhilaration of the evening, and he wants to confess everything . Just like this morning by the lake. He wants to lay himself bare for Louis, to tell him everything he feels, everything he fears, everything he doesn’t dare to hope for. He wants to rip his heart out right here at this hotel bar and offer it to Louis, to see what he’ll do with it. And he’s just drunk enough that he might have the courage to do it.

Only Louis doesn’t give him the chance, rising from his stool and spinning Harry to face him. He leans in for a kiss, pressing Harry’s back into the bar as it deepens. Harry spreads his legs to let Louis in closer, reaching up and threading his fingers through the back of Louis’ hair. It’s a bit much, even for the Chateau Marmont after midnight, and people are staring, but Louis doesn’t seem to care, and Harry can barely even remember where he is right now.

Louis is breathing rapidly when he finally pulls away. “Let’s get out of here,” he decides, but it feels more like a question. Harry just nods and follows him out the door.

---

Louis guides Harry through the door of the hotel room and shuts it with a soft click. Wordlessly, he grips Harry by the waist, turns him, and presses him back against the door. He kisses him softly, slowly, as if they have all the time in the world. Harry returns the kiss, deepening it and working his tongue into Louis’ mouth. They’re both so hard already that’s there’s no doubt where this is going, even before Harry starts fumbling with Louis’ zipper and breathes the words “fuck me ” into his mouth.

Louis answers by gently spinning Harry around to face the door. Working from behind, he slides his hands up Harry’s chest and painstakingly unbuttons his shirt from the top down. He tugs it off Harry’s shoulders and lets it fall to the ground. Harry braces his hands against the door and stays still. Louis kisses his back, stretching up on his toes to brush his lips against the back of his neck, his hands still gripping Harry firmly by the waist.

Harry lets out an anticipatory groan without even realizing it. It feels so good to be in Louis’ arms, under the power of his hands. He wants to make every moment of this last as long as possible.

“Come to bed,” Louis whispers, taking Harry’s hand and leading him across the suite. There’s no sign of the chaos that was here earlier in the evening during the prep for the premiere. Everything’s been whisked away, swept clean.

They stop at the foot of the bed to kiss again, achingly slow and deep, undressing each other reverently, touching and exploring each other’s bodies as if they’ve never done this before. They’re naked, pressed together, shamelessly leaking onto each other’s thighs, but unwilling to break their kiss even long enough to sink down on the bed. Every movement of Louis’ mouth against his own, every brush of Louis’ skin against his body, sends butterflies coursing through Harry’s veins.

He wants to stay like this forever, tracing his fingers over Louis’ tattooed biceps, tasting the cigarette smoke on his tongue, but he’s also desperate to be even closer, as close as he can possibly be. He finally breaks away and buries his face in Louis’ neck.

“Please,” he begs, barely audible, taking Louis’ hand and bringing it downward, between them. He swipes Louis’ index finger over the wet tip of his cock and then guides it around to his backside.

Louis pulls back and looks Harry in the eyes. But he doesn’t need to ask permission; he already knows he has it. Without breaking eye contact, he slowly pushes his finger between Harry’s cheeks and just inside his rim. His finger is wet with Harry’s precome, but it’s not the same as having lube, and it’s not easy when they’re both standing up like this. Still, Harry moans with pleasure.

“Lay down, baby,” Louis murmurs, pulling his finger out and lowering Harry onto the bed. Harry pulls him down on top, unwilling to allow too much space between them. Louis fumbles toward his toiletries bag on the nightstand while attempting to hold on to Harry at the same time. “Give me a second,” he soothes. “This will feel a lot better.”

Louis moves as quickly as he can to coat his finger with lube and return it to the place Harry wants it. It slides easier this time, and he pushes it in further. Before long, Harry is begging for another. Louis adds his middle finger, letting Harry get used to the feeling for a moment before he starts moving. He stretches him a little, just for the hell of it, and then begins pumping his fingers in and out, slow and teasing.

Propping his head up on his free hand, Louis takes in the scene before him- Harry on his back, hips canted and legs spread, cock hard and dripping, head thrown back and eyes closed, lower lip between his teeth, completely lost in the feeling of Louis’ fingers inside him. God, he could probably get off on this memory alone for the rest of his life.

“Fuck, don’t make me come,” Harry blurts out suddenly when Louis finds his prostate.

“That’s not what you said the last time we were in bed,” Louis counters, rubbing the little spot harder.

Harry’s eyes fly open, and he reaches down to grasp his dick at the base. “No,” he pants, trying to pull his wits together. “I mean...not like this. Come here.”

He pulls Louis’ fingers out and draws him in for another deep kiss. Then he grabs the bottle of lube and squeezes some onto his hand before wrapping it around Louis’ cock and pumping it up and down. It’s slick and messy and hot, and it feels so amazing that Louis simply can’t hold out any longer.

There’s no condom and no discussion. The thought is only a fleeting one across the back of Louis’ mind as he pushes Harry up toward the headboard and puts a pillow under his head. Then he’s guiding himself inside. He goes in easily after fingering Harry for so long, bottoming out in just a few seconds. And it’s just...as if everything that ever mattered in the world is here on this bed. Tears are streaming down Harry’s face and Louis hasn’t even started fucking him yet. It’s skin on skin on skin, and Louis has never felt anything so good.

He takes his time, pumping in and out slowly, leaning back a little to watch himself spreading Harry’s hole, to marvel at how easily he glides inside without a condom. There’s nothing between them. When he comes, he’ll be coming inside Harry, and the thought alone almost sends him over the edge.

Louis doesn’t know what comes over him, but he just wants to watch himself breach Harry’s rim again. So he pulls out, and thrusts back in. Out, and back in. Out again, in again. Harry is so loose and pliant that it makes it easy. Louis is mesmerized by the sight of himself emptying Harry’s hole and filling it up again, over and over. Harry’s completely gone for it, moaning and writhing with pleasure every time Louis penetrates him, alternating between thumbing his nipples and stroking his cock.

Eventually, Louis can’t take it anymore. He wants to fuck Harry into the bed. No. Not into the bed. Through the bed and into the floor. He wants to make it hurt just a little, to fill Harry with his come, so Harry will know how much he loves him, how much he doesn’t ever want this to end. He presses inside Harry again and stays there, fucking him with short, hard thrusts.

“So good,” Harry groans, spreading his legs wider and reaching one arm over his head to grip the headboard.

“God, Harry, you feel so amazing,” gasps Louis, touching his forehead to Harry’s. Then, before he can even think about it, the question pops out. “Will you wear a plug for me after I come?”

Harry’s eyes widen in surprise, unsure whether or not Louis is joking. But when he sees the serious look on Louis’ face, he nearly whites out. “You have one? Here?!”

Louis blushes as much as it’s possible to blush when you’re in the middle of fucking someone into the headboard. “Actually, I bought it for you. I was going to give it to you last night but-”

“Yes. God, yes,” Harry doesn’t even need to hear the rest. “Please.”

Louis picks up the pace of his thrusting, so turned on by the thought of Harry holding his come inside him that he feels ready to explode. “I’m gonna make you feel so good, baby,” he promises breathlessly, wrapping a hand around Harry’s dick and stroking it. “Gonna give you whatever you want. Let you come on my cock if you want. Or make you wait.”

“Make me wait,” Harry cries, even as he’s bucking up into Louis’ hand.

“Okay, sweetheart.” Louis moves his hand from Harry’s dick to his balls, gripping them lightly as he continues talking and thrusting. “I’m gonna fill you up now. But I want you to wait. Because when I’m done...” he squeezes Harry’s balls lightly. “...I’m gonna swallow every ounce of come in these.”

“Jesus Christ,” Harry moans, and then Louis is coming, his face contorted in silent ecstasy as the warm liquid pulses out of his body and into Harry’s. After a minute of catching his breath, he reluctantly pulls out, spellbound by the sight of his come dripping out of Harry’s hole and down his crack. Snapping himself back to reality, he scrambles toward his bag on the nightstand, rummaging through it to retrieve the little velvet bag with the gold plug.

It slips inside Harry easily, eliciting a slight groan from the sensitivity. But Louis is already on his knees between Harry’s legs, not allowing him any time to move or think before he takes his cock in his mouth. He doesn’t tease or get cute with it; he wants to make Harry come. And it doesn’t take long. A slight twist of the plug and a flick of the tongue, and Harry is exploding, gasping for breath as his pleasure comes in waves. True to his word, Louis swallows every drop.

He closes Harry’s legs and moves up the bed to wrap his arms around him, pulling the blanket over them both as he goes. Harry is trembling and has yet to open his eyes again.

“You okay?” Louis asks, pressing a soft kiss to Harry’s collarbone.

Harry moves his head in a motion that doesn’t really commit to a yes or a no. “I’m sorry,” he whispers, a tear streaming from the corner of his eye straight down into his ear.

Louis frowns. “I thought I told you there’s nothing to be sorry for.”

Harry doesn’t answer.

“You’re just tired,” Louis tells him, squeezing him a little tighter to try to stop his shaking. He cups the swell of Harry’s bottom in his hand. “Are you uncomfortable? You want me to take it out?”

This time Harry shakes his head with a clear no.

“All right, I won’t,” Louis assures him. “There’s nothing to clean up tonight, babe. Let’s sleep. You’re exhausted.”

Louis draws Harry in closer and waits for his breathing to even out. He buries in face in Harry’s curls and murmurs as he drifts off himself, “I love you. And when you wake up in the morning, I’m going to tell you.”

But Louis doesn’t wake up first. And when he does, Harry is already gone.

Chapter Text

Six months later…

Shit . The WiFi’s gone out again. Harry shakes his battered iPhone up and down, as if that will somehow magically restore the connection. Louis had seen him do this once, not long after they’d met, and had given Harry hell about it. That won’t work, dumbass. It’s not a goddamn Etch-a-Sketch.

Harry sighs and pockets his phone. A 15-minute walk into the village for five minutes of spotty WiFi. Happy Fucking New Year. He hands Suraj, the shopkeeper, ten rupees for his tea and zips up his jacket. He really needs to stop feeling sorry for himself. He chose this, after all. He wanted a clean break, and he got one.

He just has to stay focused. The food security initiative here in Nepal is important, and even on the worst days, it feels good to be a part of it. It’s hard, dirty work, exhausting in a really satisfying way. Harry lives with a Nepali family in the hills outside the village, and the Peace Corps literature wasn’t kidding when it told him to pack “flexibility and a sense of humor.” At least he has his own small bedroom with a sink and a door to the outside, which is more than most of the other volunteers here can say. Electricity and running water are no guarantees from day to day, but Harry finds he doesn’t mind it all that much. He tends to rise and set with the sun, spending six days a week working on projects from organic farming to building cookstoves for local families.

He’s learned so much since arriving here, and everyone on the team is really cool, though he hasn’t really opened himself up to new relationships, even friendships. His host family has been kind, and he communicates with them and expresses his gratitude the best he can, but the language barrier makes it difficult. Occasionally, he’ll walk into the village with some of the other volunteers to eat dinner at one of the two options there, but most days he heads home after work for a quick, cold outdoor shower, a plate of daal bhaat , and collapses onto his mattress.

When the electricity is on, he sometimes reads for a while if he can stay awake. He brought a few favorites with him - The Giver , A Wrinkle in Time , and of course, The Heart of Compassion . Gemma sent him a few more in his Christmas care package - The Corrections (terrible!), Pride and Prejudice (gets him every time), and Big Little Lies (he has to read it so he can watch the TV series with Liam when he gets home).

Mostly, though, he tries not to think about Louis. Some days it works, and some days it doesn’t. Harry swore to himself that he wasn’t going to search Louis online during his precious few minutes of Internet access each week. And at first, he succeeded. He scanned world news headlines, sent email updates to his mom and sister, checked in with Liam, and smiled over photos that Ben sent of him and his new boyfriend. After all that, he’d congratulate himself for staying strong, then go back to his tiny, lumpy bed and dream of Louis all night.

Before long, Louis started invading Harry’s waking thoughts as well. He told himself it was a strictly biological need- material for jacking off. His go-to is the first time they ever had sex, that night in St. Louis. The way it felt to finally be inside him after so long- Louis felt as good as Harry had imagined. Better, actually. Louis spanking him and then fucking him against the window in New York is a close second, though. Then there’s riding Louis in St. Lucia…

The problem is that one thought always leads to another. Soon enough, Harry started drifting to the kiss on the riverbank, or the rain-soaked run through the woods with Louis carrying little Mia on his hip, or the wild pounding in his own heart when he showed up unannounced before the premiere. He just had to see Louis one more time. So many memories that make him ache with loneliness and certainly don’t qualify as wanking material. He just thought it would be easier by now.

The first day after New Year’s is particularly grueling. There’s less outdoor work to do during the winter months, so the team sits through nearly six hours of training on fruit tree propagation- a newer program that has been receiving unprecedented levels of donor support. After a late dinner in the village and a little too much ayla , Harry finally breaks down and does it. He checks Louis’ Twitter.

His hands are shaking. He knows he shouldn’t open this door, but he’s tired and weak and a little drunk and he just needs... something . There are no personal tweets as far back as he dares to scroll on unreliable WiFi. The Sams are clearly the only ones using this account these days. All the posts appear to be standard social media management fare- promotional, philanthropic, sterile.

One tweet catches Harry’s eye, though. It’s a link to an Access Entertainment story about Louis’ newest film. When he clicks it, he sees that it includes photos from the filming location. He zooms in as best he can. Wherever they are looks cold and snowy. The pictures aren’t great, but they’re good enough to take his breath away when he focuses in on Louis’ face. He’s lost weight, but he still looks beautiful . His cheeks are ruddy from the cold, and his scruff has nearly turned into a full beard. His eyes are a piercing blue in contrast to the grey skies behind him, and his hair...it’s so long , longer than Harry has ever seen it, even in pictures. He just looks so shaggy...and rough ...and hot ...and oh my God .

He’s doing the werewolf movie.

Harry scans the article text just to be sure, and holy shit , Louis is doing the werewolf movie. A thousand emotions bubble up in Harry at once, but the most intense one is pride. He knew that feisty little shit had it in him.

There will be time later tonight in the darkness of his bed for Harry to sort through the rest of what he’s feeling right now- what he’s always feeling, if he’s being honest- how much he misses Louis, how much he still loves him, how he wonders if leaving the way he did was actually the biggest mistake of his life, how terrified he is of what comes next because his plan only brought him here for a year and he sure as hell can’t ever work in journalism again after the way he left New York Weekly .

But in this moment, his elation for Louis wins out over everything. He hits reply to Louis’ retweet of the article and quickly types, “As human beings we have intelligence and courage. Provided we use these qualities, we will achieve what we set out to do.”

He hopes the Dalai Lama quote won’t piss Louis off too much (if he even reads it). He just can’t bring himself to address Louis directly, not after all this time. He has to at least say something , though, to try to express how fucking proud he is that Louis followed his heart and took this chance.

He takes a deep breath before pressing the tweet button. Just as he begins saving the photos of Louis, the WiFi cuts out. Harry turns his phone off and begins the trek back to the hills. It doesn’t matter if he has the photos or not. He’ll see Louis in his dreams tonight either way.

---

Three weeks later...

New York

If you love me, let me goooooooooo

If you love me, let me goooooooooo

Niall stalks into Louis’ bedroom and swiftly turns off the power on the Sonos speaker. He flops down onto the bed next to his best friend.

“Louis, we need to talk. I love you. I love Panic at the Disco. But if I have to listen to the piano version of This is Gospel one more time, I’m going to murder you and dump your body in the East River.” His Irish lilt sounds as cheery as ever.

Louis’ face is buried in his pillow. He pulls his phone out from underneath it, the song still playing softly.

“Truth be told, he never was mine,” he mumbles into the lavender-scented fabric.

Niall sighs and grabs the phone, shutting the music down completely. “You need to get out of the apartment,” he says, his voice growing considerably more serious.

Louis groans and turns over on his back. “I was just out of the apartment for 16 weeks,” he argues. “I’m tired .”

“You’re not tired. You’re moping.”

They’re both right. Louis is tired. Shooting the action film had been the most intense, strenuous experience of his entire career- physically and mentally. He’d returned to New York exhausted and had barely left his place over the past few weeks, relying on Uber Eats and Niall to keep him alive.

Still, Louis knows he’s at least toeing the line between tired and moping at this point. He just...can’t believe it still hurts this bad. He’d thought Aiden had broken his heart all those years ago. That was nothing.

At first, he didn’t understand. He thought maybe Harry had gone to get breakfast or the newspaper. He smiled thinking of how he’d tease him for always wanting a physical copy while everyone else in the world was reading online. Harry would frown, it would be adorable, and Louis would make it up to him by rimming him until he came, no matter how long it took.

But Harry never came back to bed. He never came back at all. He’d caught a flight to New York, Liam said, looking as confused as Louis felt. Louis had two more days of promo to get through before he could follow him. He went through them in a fog, checking his phone every five minutes to see if Harry had replied to any of his messages. He hadn’t. He wasn’t answering calls, either.

When Louis finally burst through the door of Harry’s apartment less than 72 hours later, he found only Liam, Bruce, and a brief, impersonal note from Harry explaining to everyone where he’d gone. He’d already left the country. And he hadn’t told a soul about his plan- not his mom, not his sister, not his best friend. In fact, it seemed the only person he’d spoken to at all was the editorial staff at The Star . He’d given them the full break-up scoop planned for New York Weekly - although he placed much more of the blame on himself than the “mutual, amicable” line they were supposed to follow- before he skipped town. Jeff had been furious , though the Sams shielded Louis from most of the fallout. Even now, Louis can’t help but grin a little at how Harry screwed his former employer over. He only wishes he hadn’t been blindsided as well.

At first, everyone- Liam, Niall, even the Sams- urged Louis to contact Harry. To Niall and the Sams, Louis downplayed the nature of their relationship- yes, they’d slept together, but it was nothing serious. It was no big deal that Harry had fucked off to the Peace Corps without so much as a goodbye.

But Liam, of course, was a harder sell. “This is bullshit,” he told Louis the very first day, when they’d both returned to find Harry gone. “You can’t just let him run away.”

“It’s too late!” Louis spat out the words as if they tasted horrible in his mouth. “He’s already gone, Liam. This is what he wants.”

“But you can’t just give up!” Liam pleaded.

“I didn’t! He did!” Louis shouted in reply, knocking a coffee mug off the counter and causing Bruce to whine with fear.

Louis and Bruce later made up, as did Louis and Liam, but from that point on, Liam avoided the subject of Harry whenever Louis was around.

Louis couldn’t stand to stay in New York for long. Telling the Sams he was doing the werewolf movie turned out to be much easier than he had anticipated. It already felt like the bottom had dropped out of his life- what did he really have to lose? He was surprised when they didn’t put up too much of a fight. He supposed it was partially Sam Clayton’s distraction with Niall and the baby and partially Sam Clifton’s general demeanor of resignation ever since the debacle in LA. Whatever it was, Louis didn’t look a gift horse in the mouth. He just hopped on a flight to Iceland.

The shoot had been grueling and unbelievably lonely. The location was too remote and inhospitable for anyone to visit him for more than a day or two. Sam Clifton came once, as did one of the junior associates, but other than that, Louis was on his own. The studio provided him with a personal assistant on set, a sweet but nervous woman who was so starstruck by Louis that he felt bad even asking her to make him a cup of tea (not that her tea tasted good, anyway). Normally, he would have refused this arrangement and insisted on having Niall with him, but he couldn’t justify taking him away from Sam during her pregnancy.

Louis was determined to use the time to focus on his craft, to grow as an artist, and most of all, to clear his mind of anything related to Harry. He was so focused, in fact, that it took him several weeks to notice a certain young, hot, production assistant shamelessly flirting with him. That was something he never used to miss. He wasn’t interested, but the PA came on strong, and after a rare night out drinking with the crew, Louis wound up balls deep and stayed that way for the rest of the shoot. He told himself it was only to help him sleep- he’d been a miserable insomniac without Harry, and he really needed better rest to keep up with the demands of his role. But he hardly felt better after fucking Dylan (or was it Devin?). He just felt guilty- and then mad at himself for feeling guilty. He wasn’t cheating on Harry. Harry walked away . Louis should have been able to sleep with anyone he wanted to without a trace of regret. It made perfect sense in his head, but his heart was in total disagreement.

The day he returned from Iceland, Niall showed him Harry’s tweet. Louis hadn’t been on Twitter or any social media for months, and he spent that entire first night soaking in his giant tub, jet-lagged, high, and hungrily searching the Internet for any other trace of Harry. There wasn’t much to find, though. He hadn’t tweeted much from Nepal, just the recent reply to Louis and some older links to a few Instagram photos he’d taken of the farms he was working on. No selfies, of course - Louis could never be so lucky. He spent hours contemplating a response to Harry’s tweet before finally giving up and going to bed. He wasn’t a writer like Harry, but he was still pretty sure that the words he needed simply didn’t exist.

“I’m figuring out what to do next,” he finally says to Niall, who’s been lying next to him companionably for several minutes now. Promo won’t start for a few months, and Louis is far too spent to do another film so soon. Maybe he’ll take a trip to St. Louis or take his family on a vacation. He groans at the thought. Right now he doesn’t even feel like walking from the bedroom to the living room.

“I just want you to be happy again,” Niall tells him, his voice so sincere that it almost hurts to listen to it. “I can’t have a mopey, miserable bastard as the godfather of my son.”

Louis sits straight up in bed. “It’s a boy?!”

Niall grins. “Wanted to wait to tell you in person.”

“And you really want me to be his godfather?” Louis’ eyes are filling with tears, and he doesn’t give a shit if they decide to spill over.

“Of course I do!” Niall answers, hoisting himself up to face Louis. “Sam and I discussed it. It’s what we both want.”

The tears decide to spill over. A few of Niall’s do, too. “I’d be honored,” Louis whispers.

“Bring it in for a hug,” Niall demands, pulling Louis over so forcefully that they both nearly topple off the bed. It’s the first time in months that Louis doesn’t have to fake his smile.

---

A few nights later, Louis is sitting at the piano trying to work out a new cover when Niall comes in the room.

“That sounds really good, Lou. What song is it?”

Louis doesn’t take his eyes away from the piano. “It’s called Oceans Away . By Arizona.”

“Well, I’ll assume the lyrics are still depressing enough to suck your soul out through your asshole, but it’s a welcome change from All By Myself and Don’t Speak .” Niall hesitates a moment. “Hey, do you think you could you help me in the kitchen for a minute? The tea kettle seems to be broken.”

Louis continues playing. “Just get on Amazon and order a new one.”

Niall bites the inside of his cheek nervously. “Well, maybe I’m just doing something wrong. You might want to look at it yourself.”

Louis finally takes his hands off the keys and looks up. “For God’s sake, Niall, you’ve used that kettle a million times. If you think it’s broken, it’s probably broken. Just order a new one!”

Niall gives up. “Just come to the fucking kitchen, Louis.”

Suspicious, Louis follows Niall out of the living room to find his kitchen full of guests. Liam is there, as is Bruce, both Sams, and...Gemma Styles?

“What’s going on?” he asks, all the air leaving his lungs as if he’s been kicked directly in the diaphragm. “Is something wrong? Did something happen to Harry?”

“No, no, he’s okay. Everything is okay,” Gemma assures him swiftly. “That’s not why I’m here.”

Relief floods through Louis immediately. He can breathe again.

“Then why are you here?” He directs the question to Gemma, but he’d certainly welcome an answer from anyone in the room.  

Liam clears his throat and pulls a folded piece of paper from his back pocket, while Bruce watches him curiously. “Louis, we are all here because we care about you and are worried about you,” he reads aloud. “We know how much you’re hurting and how much you miss Harry. If you accept our offer of help today-“”

“Wait.” Louis holds up a hand to pause Liam. “Is this an intervention? A... Harry vention?”

Liam looks around for backup.

Gemma steps forward, glass of white wine gripped tightly in her hand. “Look, Louis. We all understand that this isn’t really any of our business. But we know you’re miserable, and I’m positive that Harry is, too. I miss my brother.” She wrinkles up her nose at that last bit, trying not to betray her emotions.

She looks so much like Harry that Louis can hardly bear it. This is so fucking unfair. “I’m sorry you miss him,” he begins, determined to shut all this down as quickly as possible. “But I can’t help with that. In case you haven’t noticed, he isn’t here. He’s 7,534.74 miles away.”

No one says anything.

“Approximately,” Louis adds lamely.

“I have noticed, Louis,” Gemma responds softly. “And I think he’s hiding...from you.”

Louis shakes his head. He doesn’t want to hear this. “He’s not hiding, Gemma. He’s doing exactly what he wants to do. He couldn’t get far enough away from me.”

Sam Clayton is leaning against the granite counter, still looking nothing short of a supermodel even with her giant baby belly. Niall’s arm is curved around her back.

“Louis, this is about more than just a personal relationship. The promo you have coming up...” she glances over at Sam Clifton, who nods his head. “It’s going to be the biggest promo you’ve ever done. This is the biggest movie you’ve ever done. You have to be on top of your game. Any baggage you have needs to be dealt with.”

Louis isn’t sure he’s following.

“You’re clearly still hung up on Harry,” Sam Clifton cuts in to explain. “You should deal with this, not only for yourself but also for your career.” He stares into his Scotch for a second before mumbling, “And this is why you don’t mix business with pleasure.”

“Business?!” Louis’ frustration boils over. “I love him!”

“I knew it!” Liam triumphs, looking over at Niall, who grins in return.

“Why didn’t you just tell him that?” Niall asks, pouring some gin into a glass and sliding it across the counter to Louis.

“I was going to!” Louis protests. “He left too fast! I...don’t know what happened. I thought everything was going to be okay.” He drains the gin in one long gulp.

“I think he’s just scared,” Liam offers. “He wasn’t sure how you felt about him. He didn’t see a way out of the crazy situation he’d gotten himself into.”

“Did he tell you that?” Louis wants to know. It’s the first time he’s asked Liam for any information about Harry whatsoever.

“Well...no,” admits Liam. “He won’t talk to me about you.”

Louis fills his glass again. “You see? He went away- far away- for a reason. He doesn’t want me in his life, and I promise I will get over it. You all just need to give me a little more time.” 

“Louis, Harry loves you,” Liam argues. “You shouldn’t have to hear it from me, but fuck , you two are so stubborn. He told me himself. Before he left.”

“That was then.” Louis really wants to stand his ground, but he can’t ignore the way his heart skips a beat at the possibility that Liam’s words are true.

“I really don’t think so, Louis,” implores Gemma. “I know my brother. He’s exactly the type of person who would go halfway around the world before he’d try to change someone else or tie them down. I think this all just boils down to bad timing. But, it isn’t too late to fix it.”

As if on cue, Sam Clifton places a plain white envelope on the counter in front of Louis. “I can’t believe I just dropped 20 grand on this.”

Sam Clayton shushes her partner as Louis opens the envelope. It’s two first-class tickets to Kathmandu.

The words printed on them blur as tears prick Louis’ eyes. “I can’t.”

“Yes, you can,” Niall encourages him. “It’s been half a year and you still feel the same way about him. What do you have to lose?”

Louis opens his mouth and closes it again. He can’t think of any more arguments. Damn Harryvention.

“Okay. I’ll do it. I’ll go.”

Bruce barks with joy while the rest of the group collectively exhales. Niall pulls a six-pack out of the fridge, and Sam Clayton wraps Louis in a tight hug followed by a peck on the cheek.

Louis picks up the two tickets and studies them. The flight leaves in less than 24 hours. He knows it can’t be Niall going with him, not with Sam due so soon.

“You coming with?” He looks at Gemma hopefully. At least if Harry doesn’t want to see him, he’ll have her there as a buffer.

Gemma frowns. “That was the plan, actually, but I got a call from work about an hour ago, and I have to go back to London in the morning.”

“So who’s goi-”

Liam pops out from behind Gemma and flashes Louis his most enthusiastic jazz hands. “Bro! I’m already packed.”

---

Two days later…

Nepal

It’s been a long day, and Harry is filthy and tired. He doesn’t even feel like eating. He communicates this as best he can to his host family and steals away to his room, seriously contemplating just going to bed dirty and sweaty. It’s a real toss-up between how gross that would feel versus another freezing shower outside. In the end, he opts for the shower. Not so much because he values cleanliness as because he doesn’t want to get woken up later by his own stench.

He makes it as quick as possible, running back into his room naked and wrapping himself in his elephant towel. It’s seen better days by now, but it still feels like a luxury item to Harry. There are a lot of nights that he’s so tired he falls asleep wearing that towel and nothing else, and tonight will probably be one of them.

He struggles to run a brush through the tangled mop on his head. He hasn’t cut his hair or shaved since he arrived in Nepal. And while he still can’t grow a decent beard to save his life, his hair is getting quite long, well past his shoulders now. One of the girls on the team even puts it into double French braids for him now and then.

He’s just about to give up and fall into bed when he hears a slight commotion coming from the main part of the house. Muffled voices that definitely don’t belong to the family. This could be trouble. They never gets visitors this late in the evening. As Harry looks around for a potential weapon, there’s knock on his door followed by the soft voice of his host “mom,” Niharika. He can’t quite make out what she’s saying, but she doesn’t sound distressed, so Harry responds with “Come in.”

The door swings open, and Harry is so shocked to see Liam that he can barely hang on to his towel. Liam smiles broadly at his best friend but doesn’t say a word- he just quickly steps to the side to reveal what - or rather, who - is behind him.

Harry thinks he must be dreaming. There’s no possible way that Louis is really standing in front of him...in the flesh... almost close enough to touch. His mind races to process what he’s seeing, trying to make sense of Louis being here , in Nepal. He couldn’t speak even if he tried.

Louis appears to be having the same problem. He knows he needs to say something, but how can he speak when he can’t even breathe ? Millions of people know his name, watch his every move- but he’s never been as goddamn nervous in his life as he is standing here in this tiny hut in the middle of nowhere in Nepal. And of course, of course , Harry is standing here fucking naked except for that damn beach towel.

A part of Louis- a huge part of him, actually- wants to scream at Harry, to shove him up against the wall, to get in his face and ask why the fuck he thought it was okay to leave like that, why he thought it was okay to leave at all. He wants to yell and throw things and demand if Harry has any idea what he’s done to Louis these past six months, if he has any idea at all how much Louis has hurt and wondered and regretted and hoped and felt.

But he doesn’t do any of those things. There’s been enough fighting and misunderstanding and playing games and going back and forth. Louis didn’t fly 7,534.74 miles ( approximately ) to start another round. Instead, he reaches inside his jacket and produces a crumpled paper bag, offering it to Harry.

“I love you. And I brought you cake.”

“Wh...what?” Harry stammers, clearly confused but reaching out to take it anyway. He opens the bag and pulls out a smaller, plastic bag from inside.

“I made it myself.” Louis isn’t sure what to do with his hands, so he opts for shoving them in his pockets. “It’s gooey butter cake.”

Harry looks down at the package in his hand, his conversation with Louis’ mom at her kitchen table flooding back into his mind.

“It’s, um, a little smashed from the flight,” Louis continues. “But it still tastes good. There’s actually this story about how this cake was invented by mis-”

“Yeah, I know,” Harry interrupts, still contemplating the crushed confection he’s holding. “You love me?” He looks up at Louis.

Louis draws a shaky breath. “I love you. And I know you left for a reason and it’s probably a little crazy coming here like this and I understand if you just tell me to get the hell out of-”

Harry stops Louis with a kiss, prompting a tiny squee from the corner of the room. Liam clamps his hand over his own mouth.

Louis pulls back and meets Harry’s eyes. “I know you don’t want to be with a celebrity,” he says softly. “And it might not mean anything to you, but if I could go back and never become famous, I’d do it. If it meant having you, being with you.”

“Shut up,” Harry laughs, and kisses him again, short and sweet. “Just shut up. I love you, too.”

Louis narrows his eyes. “Then you have a lot of explaining to do.”

“I know I do,” admits Harry, releasing Louis long enough to re-secure the towel around his waist. “But there’s just one thing I need to ask first.”

“What’s that?”

Harry tilts his chin over Louis’ shoulder. “Why is Liam wearing the world’s heaviest parka?”

Louis spins around, suddenly remembering that they aren’t alone in the room. Liam’s eyes widen under the attention. Well, what’s visible of his eyes peeking out of the ring of fur around his face. “It’s Nepal! In January!” he exclaims.

“Yeah, but this isn’t the mountains,” Harry tells him. “The average temperature here in the winter is like, 52 degrees. It’s warmer than New York.”

“Well, I know that now ,” Liam hisses, a bead of sweat rolling down his temple.

“Take the fucking coat off, Liam,” Harry instructs.

Liam sheds the parka and crosses the room in two quick strides to wrap his friends in a tight hug. “I thought this day would never come, you guys. Who would have ever thought this journey would lead here, to the three of us hugging in this yurt?”

“Liam, it’s not a- just, never mind. Get in here.” Harry is so elated to see his friend that he gives him a big, fat kiss on the forehead.

After Harry gets dressed, they walk into the village to check in with everyone at home.

“You might want to message your sister,” Louis tells Harry on the way, giving his hand a squeeze.

“Gemma?” Harry is confused. “Why?”

Louis laughs. “She was part of my Harryvention. She even flew to New York to help convince me to chase you down.”

“She did ?! Wait, what’s a Harryvention?” Harry is dying to know more, but just then Liam’s FaceTime call connects with Niall. Niall and Sam Clayton’s faces crowd the tiny screen together.

“Oh my God, Liam, finally!” Niall exclaims. “We’ve been waiting up all night. Give us some good news.”

Liam turns the phone around to show Louis and Harry standing next to each other. Louis winds his arm around Harry’s neck and pulls him down for a kiss. Niall and Sam’s cheers reverberate through the tinny connection.

“This is so amazing!” Sam is a little weepy. “I’m so happy for the two of you. Two people in love, it’s just so beautiful, it’s so…”

“Mother of God!” Niall yelps, looking down at something off the screen.

“Holy shit,” cries Sam. “I think my water just broke.”

“You think?!” Niall sounds a little panicked. “It’s either that or the apartment is flooding.”

For a brief moment, the two of them stare at each other, frozen in a state of both sheer terror and sheer joy.

“Hang up the phone and get to the hospital, you idiots!” Louis yells at the screen.

Niall drops the phone on the floor and picks it up again. “Oh my God, oh my God, okay, we’re going. We’ll let you know when we-”

The call drops, leaving the three of them with nothing to do but grin at each other like idiots.

“We should have good WiFi at our hotel in Kathmandu. I know it’s a couple hours away...but do you want to go back with us and wait for news?” Louis looks at Harry hopefully.

Butterflies swirl in Harry’s stomach at the idea of spending the night with Louis. “Yeah, yeah, of course. I just have to check in at the field office first. I can have some time off.”

They aren’t settled in at the Kantipur Temple House until nearly 1:00 a.m. Liam is deliriously tired and goes straight to his room to sleep, but there’s no way Harry can even think about rest before he has a chance to speak with Louis alone.

“We have so much to talk about.” He tries in vain to stifle a yawn as he sits down in one of the room’s not-terribly-comfortable chairs. At least there’s no chance he’ll fall asleep in it.

Louis takes the other chair. “That may be the understatement of the year.”

“God, you have no idea how fucking proud I was when I saw you took that movie.”

Louis smiles. “Long story short, it was miserable. But I’m so glad I did it. I can’t wait to tell you everything about it. And I can’t wait to hear about the work you’ve been doing here.”

“Speaking of that,” Harry leans forward and rests his chin on his palm. “Have you been making anonymous donations to our fruit tree propagation program?”

Louis freezes. “I have no idea what you’re talking about. I don’t even know what fruit tree propagation is.”

“Well, that last part I believe,” laughs Harry. “But I think you know exactly what I’m talking about. Thank you.”

Louis just shrugs his shoulders, his face turning a little red.

“I do believe in this work, you know,” Harry continues. “I didn’t come here just to run away from you.”

“Jesus, Harry, I know that. You’re the most caring person I’ve ever known. This is exactly the kind of thing that matters to you. And it was amazing the way you stood up to New York Weekly and their bullshit.” Louis pauses. “I would have supported you no matter what. I just wish you had talked to me before you left.”

Harry pulls his chair closer to Louis so that their knees are touching. “I’m sorry I left the way I did. I’m sorry I left, period. I wasn’t thinking straight. I was just so confused, and I didn’t know exactly where we stood. At the beginning, you said no strings attached. And then I fell so stupidly in love with you. I just didn’t see a way out of our situation- the way we met, how everything happened.”

Louis can’t take it anymore. He reaches out to pull Harry closer, and Harry comes easily, all the way onto Louis’ lap. “That last night,” Louis begins, using all of his willpower to talk to Harry instead of kissing him into oblivion. “That was the most amazing night of my life. I was going to tell you the next morning. Everything. That I loved you, that I was willing to do anything to work it out, to stay together.”

Harry sighs. “Our timing could not be more shitty.”

“No, it could not. And Harry, there’s one other thing I have to tell you. You’re not going to want to hear it.”

Harry pulls back to look Louis more fully in the face. “What is it?”

“I slept with someone else. In Iceland.” Louis winces as the words come out.

Harry takes a cleansing breath. “Who was it? Did you-”

“It was a production assistant,” Louis supplies. “I was so heartbroken and lonely. It didn’t mean anything, but I still wish I’d never done it.”

A stormy look crosses Harry’s face as he swiftly removes himself from Louis’ lap and stands up.

“Harry-” Louis begins anxiously, but his words are cut short when Harry lifts him out of the chair and tosses him not-so-gently onto the bed. Before Louis can protest, Harry’s on top of him, caging him in.

“No one should put their hands on you except me,” he growls lowly into Louis’ neck.

Louis is half-amused and half-aroused. “I know that, babe. Trust me, it’ll never happen again.”

“Damn right it won’t,” Harry mumbles, more interested in gaining access to Louis’ collarbones than staying upset. “Because I’ll never be an idiot again. Maybe I’ll just never let you out of my sight.”

The time for talking appears to be slipping away fast. Louis knows there’s no way they can wait much longer to get each other’s clothes off. But he tries to keep his head together just another minute.

“Harry?”

“Mmmm.”

“I love you.”

Harry tears his attention away from Louis’ neck and presses his forehead to Louis’.

“I love you, too.”

“Where do we go from here?” It’s the question on both their minds.

“I don’t know,” Harry says honestly. “But I know we’ll figure it out.”

Louis puts his hands on either side of Harry’s face and kisses him again. “It feels so good to have everything out in the open. Nothing left unsaid.”

Harry hesitates for a beat.

“What? What is it?” Louis demands. Surely there can’t be any more secrets or miscommunications to clear up.

“You like sugar in your tea.”

“Uh…no, I don’t. I like it just the way Niall makes it, and the way you make it, and…”  Realization hits him. “You absolute bastards .”

Louis grabs a pillow to throw, but it’s too late. Harry’s already under the blankets making it up to him.