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To the Ends of the Earth

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To the ends of the earth, would you follow me?

There’s a world that was meant for our eyes to see.

- Lord Huron

 

> > L < <

 

January 2016

On his ten-hour flight from London to Boise and the succeeding five-hour drive from the airport into the Idaho mountains, Louis had a lot of time to consider the list of reasons why this was a bad idea.

And the list—if it could still be called that with its magnitude (better terms might have been “novel” or “anthology”)—continued to plague him as he began his trek through three feet of snow on uneven terrain. If the path ahead of him wasn’t a metaphor for what was to come, he didn’t know what was.

He could breathe a little easier when he remembered that Harry had invited him to come visit. (Never mind that it was in an email directed to all of the boys. Or that if there was a way Harry could get away with not inviting Louis, he would have done so. Never mind that.) Harry had invited him. So there Louis was.

And it would have all gone alright too. If not for one Niall Horan. He was originally set to visit Harry at his new cabin in the woods. He was the one to tell Louis about his plans at Calvin Harris’ album release party in Paris. And thus, every blunder Louis had made since was entirely his fault.

Apparently, taking a break from the band didn’t mean suspending public appearances. The folks at Hackford Jones insisted that they show their face and keep themselves relevant, especially leading up to the agreed end of their hiatus. But Liam had a wedding to attend with Sophia. Zayn was taking his family on holiday to Fiji. And Harry—well, Louis didn’t know where Harry was at the time. He never did.

That left him and Niall sipping some fancy French beer at a cabaret called Crazy Horse with Cara Delevingne and Barbara Palvin on the opposite end of their booth, chatting with one of the costumed women who’d brought them their drinks. Calvin Harris had taken over the DJ booth for his own party and there was an assortment of people covering the space in front of him—Taylor Swift swinging her hips with Karlie Kloss, Fergie being a bit obscene over by a champagne fountain. Paloma Faith slow dancing with her date. Lily Allen seemingly discussing politics with Russell Brand. A very odd assortment, to be honest.

Louis leaned across the table to pluck another prawn from the intricate cocktail at the center while sliding his thumb down his phone to survey his Twitter feed.

“Did you hear about Harry’s place in Idaho?”

His thumb and his Twitter feed froze. He looked at Niall, brows instantly creased. “Who?”

Niall pulled his beer away from his mouth and shot Louis an unimpressed look. “Harry.”

Yeah, okay, Louis had actually heard him clearly the first time. It was the Idaho part throwing him off. “Why would he buy a place in Idaho?”

Niall shrugged. “Who cares? Do you not check your email?”

“What for?” Louis asked. Niall looked about ready to pour his beer over Louis’ head. Louis couldn’t blame him. It was just a lot to take in. Especially when Louis was bordering on tipsy and still couldn’t handle conversations about Harry, even after all this time, without feeling like he was nineteen and naive.

“He sent an email,” Niall said. “He invited us to come by and check it out. I’m gonna go see him in two weeks.”

By us, Louis assumed Niall meant all four of them. Because there was no way Harry would have sent just Niall and Louis an invitation. There was no way he’d direct any sort of special attention Louis’ way. Not when he’d spent the last two years avoiding Louis as artfully as he could without actually being labeled ‘avoidant’.

Louis ate another prawn and chewed deliberately. He then lifted his glass and took a long gulp, draining half of the dark bubbly liquid. “You’re going just by yourself?”

“Not unless you want to tag along,” Niall said, tilting his beer toward him, brows arching.

“Not a chance, mate,” Louis said. He would rather lie in bed for the next four months than spend even one second of it being made to feel shitty about his relationship with Harry. He’d done that enough on tour, thank you. “But I'm sure you two’ll have a blast.”

By the next afternoon, he was back in London —alone, sober and sprawled out on his couch. The sobriety sucked most. It meant he had a harder time trying to nullify the muck in his head. He had a pricey bottle of Remy Martin waiting in the kitchen that he’d brought with him from France. But it was meant for a special occasion. And a headful of muck was an average occurrence.

On any given day, he had a million thoughts he tried to ignore and perhaps 99.99% of them were about Harry. Which made him wonder: how he could spend years avoiding a person and still suffer sleepless nights thinking about the very one?

And it was that line of questioning that led him to take his phone in hand and type out a quick message before the universe convinced him to stop and reconsider.

Congrats on the new house.

He didn’t expect Harry to text back. He wasn’t sure he wanted him to. And once it was sent, he wished there was a way to get the bloody message back. But maybe now he could stop thinking about it, about him.

His phone, still in hand, buzzed with a reply.

Thanks.

He stared at that one solitary word for so long each letter began to blur into the ones beside it. He locked his phone and tossed it onto the coffee table with a scowl. He stared angrily at the football match on the TV screen, his lips pressed into an unhappy line.

He retrieved a beer and then another when he found he still couldn’t relax, the tension building up at the base of his neck like a constrictor knot.

“Thanks?” he repeated aloud.

He sucked on his beer can before crushing it in his hand.

There used to be a time when he couldn’t get Harry to shut up. He was always talking to him, always sending him messages either straight to his phone, or through Twitter, or Facebook. He left him Post-It notes and letters sometimes tucked beneath his pillow on the tour bus. And each word was always more poetic than the last. Everything Harry said was always heartfelt and effective and always made Louis weak.

And somehow, after years of him never shutting up and Louis never really wanting him to, they’d wound up here. At “thanks” and nothing more.

Louis shook his head. “Amazing,” he said to the poorly stocked cupboards and the dripping tap. He turned away and turned back and started pacing.

Who did Harry think he was anyway? Who else would invite a person to come see their sick new “cabin” while also lacking the basic dignity to reply to a well-intentioned message with more than one word?

Really, who the fuck did he think he was?

Louis got another beer. He took a long pull on the can and stood there in his lonely kitchen, hands against the marble countertop.

Harry didn’t want him to visit.

Louis should’ve seen it sooner. Should’ve seen the invitation for the farce it was. Clearly, Harry thought he was an idiot.

Or a coward.

Yeah. Yes, that was exactly it.

He must have thought Louis would never dare go all the way to Idaho, right? He wouldn’t subject himself to any amount of time with Harry that wasn’t absolutely fucking necessary, right?

No, he wouldn’t dare.

Right?

Louis snatched his phone up again, pulled up Niall’s contact, opened a message, and let his thumbs fly.

Changed my mind. Headed to Idaho with you, pal.

Niall must have been waiting for it or something, counting on this break in Louis’ psyche. His response came instantly.

Fuck yeah! H will be happy to hear that!

Yeah, right. Louis’ smile didn’t quite meet the mark on being smug. He couldn’t feel anything past the dread already starting to pool in his stomach.

What the fuck had he just done?

The next two weeks flew by before he could answer that or come to terms with the guaranteed plethora of shit he’d landed himself in. Then, on the drive to the airport, with thirty minutes left before boarding, somehow, it got worse.

“Don’t do this to me, Niall,” Louis breathed, his forehead cradled in his palm, his phone pressed to his ear. He could feel Alberto shooting him worried looks from the front passenger seat. Louis couldn’t even spare a second to reassure him. His life ending, for sure. He was certain. “Please don’t do this.”

“Sorry, I can’t. Bad flu, mate,” Niall said sounding absolutely, perfectly fine.

“Niall. Niall, listen to me. I can’t— I can’t fucking— You know how we are, me and him. I can’t just show up by myself. You’ve got to be fucking joking,” Louis babbled, voice climbing to pitches only dogs could hear. “He’s going to murder me in my sleep. He's going to chop off my dick and store it in his freezer. He’s—”

“Come on, Lou. Be serious.”

“You don’t know what he’s really like! And you seem to have missed the part where he hates my bloody fucking guts,” Louis seethed, words slipping through his mouth like fire from a dragon. “Niall. Don't fucking do this to me, mate. I’ll do anything.”

“Mum says it’s best I stay here, sorry. Have a blast! And tell Haz I said wey hey!”

There’d been more to the conversation. More profanities—at least on Louis’ part. But in the end, he’d boarded the plane at London Heathrow alone.

And that brought him here:

The driver of the rickety family-owned cab disappeared back down the serpentine road, leaving Louis and a cloud of black exhaust fumes behind. Louis stood in front of a lonely misshapen bus stop sign. What stretched before and behind him was a deserted, wooded, snow-covered path, where somewhere nearby sat Harry’s secluded cabin.

Louis extracted his phone again, grateful that he’d taken a screenshot of the email Harry had sent to the boys. Trying to load the email now in the middle of Narnia would‘ve been torture.

“2209,” he mumbled to himself, the sound of his voice lost in a sudden gust of wind. He curled inward, hunching his shoulders, squeezing his eyes shut until the bitter gale passed and loose snow settled once again onto the ground. He pulled his fur-lined hood more tightly around his head, adjusted the strap of his duffle, and started walking. Each time he took a step, his feet carved craters into the snow. He made a mental note to check that his nose and toes were still intact once he reached Harry’s. He glanced up into the trees as he passed mailbox after mailbox but the pines, the firs and the cedars were all caked with the stuff and it wasn’t easy to see much beyond them. A portentous crow darted across his path from the edge of a waste bin. He was cold and tired, and so nervous his gut was morphing into the sludge collecting on the side of the roads.

It wasn’t much longer before he saw a little mailbox to his right marked 2209. A winding path, wide enough for a vehicle to maneuver, hooded by snowy trees, led upward to what Louis hoped was Harry’s home.

With a sigh and a wavering show of bravery, he carried on.

 

> > H < <

  

Initially, the only person Harry told about the house in Idaho was his mum. And she’d responded with all the confusion and uncertainty he’d expected of her.

“Of all the places in the world,” she’d said. “Idaho?”

He had tried explaining but as with most of the decisions Harry made, the reasoning didn’t make sense to anyone else. There was only one person who somehow got him every time, even if it took him a second. And in fact, when Harry finally found a house that he liked, the charming one-level log-style cabin where he’d been staying for the past a month, Louis was the person he wanted to tell most. Even after all this time.

Of course, that didn’t happen. He told his dad next, then Gemma and later mentioned it to Niall. Afterward, when he was moving into the place, he messaged Zayn for his opinion on wall colours. And finally, by a slip of the tongue, he told Liam he was in Idaho and Liam wouldn’t let him off the phone until he provided a satisfactory explanation.

So, as it turned out, the person he wanted to tell most was the last to find out.

Harry shook out some kibble into the porcelain dish near the kitchen, the sound like a bell to Neon’s ears. The grey tabby tiptoed over to the dish and started her meal, allowing Harry to run his hand over her head. Harry finished towelling off his hair with one hand, taking a sip of his tea with the other, his body angled toward the windows running along the wall beside his kitchen.

Purchasing a house in the mountains where no one could find him was drastic, yes. But he had a genuine love for the acres of trees and grey bodies of water, for the snow and the woodland creatures strolling through Harry’s backyard every now and then. For the permanently overcast sky and those rare sunny days.

This world was familiar and foreign. He had few secrets here. He wasn’t clawing on the walls of his closet or coding more tweets for some avid fan to decipher. All he had to do was be himself and Mother Nature accepted him for all that that meant and what it didn’t. Out here, he got the distance he sorely needed — from the spotlight, from the fame. Mostly, from Louis.

A year ago, he would have beaten himself up about how shitty things had gotten between them. He would have blamed himself for not trying to forgive and move forward. But as he drew near to the end of their hiatus, Harry was learning that the silence and the tension were all necessary parts of his healing process. Finding space from Louis was significant to taming the parts of himself still eager for Louis’ attention and approval.

Sometimes no matter how hard Harry tried he was still the curly-headed sixteen-year-old, completely enamoured with all that Louis said and did and was. And those were the consequences of falling in love for the first time, too young and inexperienced to notice the disaster lurking around the corner. He didn’t want to be that person anymore. And with this time away, that might soon be possible. Maybe they could even be friends.

Neon brushed up against Harry’s leg, pushing her head against his ankle before peering up at him with big bright green eyes. Harry lifted her into the crook of his arm. “Let’s go check on the veggies,” he said, walking to the glass door. He pushed his feet into his snow boots and stepped outside, sliding the door closed behind him before trekking over to the small greenhouse at the edge of the backyard.

His one confession would have to be that the fans—or at least the ones who believed he and Louis were destined to be together—hadn’t been entirely wrong. He may not have bought the house for Louis, as reported on the many blogs he still sometimes took a peek at.

But he had bought it with him in mind.

When he’d surveyed the expanse of blue water in the lake behind the home, his first thought was how perfectly the colour resembled Louis’ eyes. He thought of how much Louis would love to swim there during the warmer months and Louis would like the wooden swing built in out back and the hiking trails that stretched out around the property and the sunset and the perfect view of the stars without the obstruction of light pollution. When Harry bought the house, he considered that Louis would see it and love it just as much as he did.

Even though Louis would never visit.

And given their history and all the feelings Harry still couldn’t keep at bay, that was probably best.

 

> > L < <

 

In terms of surprises, this might have been Louis’ greatest one.

The expression on Harry’s face when he opened the door said it all. His mouth was slack and his eyes wide, unblinking, and moist from the cold air meeting them. Louis would be proud of himself if the lad didn’t look a bit terrified too.

“Uh,” Harry said and then nothing else. Louis watched Harry’s eyes dart furtively around behind him like he was looking for someone else, someone like Niall.

“Hi,” Louis said, forcing a smile. Awkward situations were usually his pastime. He could joke his way through them with ease. It was the thing that won Harry over in the toilets backstage at the X-Factor when a bit of his piss landed on Louis’ shoe. He’d been mortified, his eyes widening, even more than they were now. He kept repeating, “Oh my God” and “I’m so sorry. So sorry,” while pumping furiously on the handle of the paper towel dispenser.

When he started to lean down to wipe Louis’ shoe, Louis stopped him with a hand to his shoulder. “Hey, Cinderella,” he’d said. “I see what you’re trying to do. But you can’t bend down in front of me in the toilets. Someone might walk in and get the wrong idea.”

Louis took the paper towels from him and while cleaning off his own shoe, he told him he’d seen him perform and thought he was amazing. Harry’s face brightened at the word “superstar.” The spark he had in his eye never left, not for years to come. Then, one day, it did.

This situation was maybe a little too awkward even for Louis to handle.

They stared at each other for a few seconds more, until Louis thought his eyes were crossing.

“It’s pretty cold,” he said.

Harry blinked and shook his head as if Louis had snapped his fingers in front of his face. He’d been tempted to, really.

“Sorry. I’m sorry. Come in if you’d like,” Harry said stepping away from the door. “Which I’m sure you would. Like. To come in, I mean…” He rambled off quietly, holding the door open. Louis stepped inside and automatically lifted the strap of his duffle off his shoulder and placed it on the floor. He sighed in relief, massaging the tense muscles near his neck.

“Thought my arm would fall off,” he said rolling his shoulder back and forth.

Harry stood there, toes turned inward, with wary eyes like he’d let a wild animal into his home. Louis had expected as much. He tucked his gloves into the pocket of his parka and rubbed his hands together to warm them.

The house was somewhat small, compared to the other places they’d lived in. But it was rugged and yet somehow cozy, like a person could fall asleep anywhere in the home, right on the polished hardwood floors for instance, and be completely comfortable. There was a fireplace blazing off to the left and a fuzzy looking rug right before it. Two couches sat adjacent to each other, one covered in a printed throw and the other in a quilt that Louis was pretty sure Harry’s mum had made.

“This is nice,” Louis said, smiling up at the high vaulted ceilings, divided by wooden beams. He glanced at Harry. “Really nice.”

“Thank you,” Harry said. Louis turned to face him and found him smiling. Before he could dissect his expression, a grey cat slipped out from behind Harry’s legs and sniffed at Louis’ shoe.

“Who’s this?” Louis asked. He knelt down offering his hand for a sniff.

“Neon,” Harry answered.

Louis lifted his head. “What?”

“Um. It’s like Nyan cat,” Harry explained. “It’s wordplay…”

Louis blinked and lowered his gaze, trying not to laugh. He wasn’t sure if Harry would take it in offense. “Cute,” he said instead. He felt Harry’s eyes on the top of his head.

“Thanks,” he responded.

More silence followed while Louis ran his knuckle over Neon’s chin. He watched her as she started past him. “Oh!” he said suddenly, snapping his fingers. He reached into his duffle and pulled out the bottle of Remy. “This is for you. Housewarming present, I guess.”

Harry turned the bottle in his hands. He nodded like he was impressed. “This is great. Thank you.”

Louis smiled. “Sure. Congrats again on the house.”

Harry cradled the bottle in his hands. His smile was fleeting. “So…” he began.

What the fuck are you doing here?

That would’ve been Louis’ first question anyway. He raised his brows expectantly. Harry surprised him. “How’s the break treating you so far?”

Louis liked Harry’s use of the term “break” instead of “hiatus” since the latter had always sounded a bit scary to him. Hiatuses often heralded eventual disbandment and that wasn’t what any of the boys had wanted. Louis knew for a fact that they had all been writing, still working on music while not officially working and even if he wasn’t 100% sure about everyone else’s dedication to the band, he knew Harry wouldn’t give up on them.

If no one else, Harry at least was born to be on stage.

“Not bad,” Louis said. “Starting to get a little boring.”

Harry frowned. “Really?”

Louis could tell he didn’t relate. Which he should have known would be the case. Harry always had something planned, some party or event to go to. When he didn’t, he made something up. And when that failed, he always seemed completely fine being on his own. It was one of the things Louis missed about Harry—his ability to remain contented no matter where he was. It was infectious.

“I don’t have a place like this to escape to,” Louis explained.

Harry looked as though he understood. “Well, you’re here now. And I assume you’re staying a while?” he asked.

“If it’s alright with you, yeah,” Louis said. Even if it hadn’t been okay, Harry wouldn’t send him away. “Sorry I didn’t call. Originally, I was supposed to tag along with Niall. But he cancelled last minute.”

“Suppose you were the ‘surprise’ he was talking about?” Harry said.

“Is that what he said?” Louis smirked, thirsty all of a sudden for Irish blood. “In that case… surprise.”

Harry’s answering smile was grim.

“So,” Louis sighed. “Where should I put my things?”

“Oh, right. Follow me,” Harry said.

Before turning away, he reached down and grabbed Louis’ duffle, just as Louis reached for it too. “I’ve got it,” Harry said, smiling politely and slinging the strap over his shoulder.

Louis didn’t complain, not with his shoulder still sore. He kicked off his boots and followed Harry down the hallway close by. Harry pushed open the door to one of the guestrooms and stepped inside, placing Louis’ duffle on the ground.

“Sorry there’s not another fireplace in here but I’ve got an electric heater and electric blankets too,” Harry said, going to the window to open the curtains a little. “The toilet is across the hall. There’s only one in the house but you’re the guest so you’ve got priority.”

“That’s not fair. It’s your house. I’m only taking up space,” Louis said.

“Yeah, but I don’t mind,” Harry said. He must have felt the need to elaborate because he hurried to do so. “Sometimes it’s too quiet around here. The company’s nice.”

Louis frowned. “Haven’t been too lonely, have you?”

“Only sometimes,” Harry admitted and then smiled. “But not now.”

Louis smiled at the tops of his socked feet. “Well, if you insist, I might take a shower. Still can’t feel me toes, to be honest.”

“Give the door a good push when you’re in there. Sometimes it doesn’t like to close all the way. And then the draft blows it open.”

That was bound to lead to misfortune someday. “I’ll do my best to remember that,” Louis said.

“Do you need anything else?” Harry asked, sliding his hands into his back pockets, rocking back on his heels.

“Nope, think I’m good,” Louis said, clapping his hands together in front of him. “I’ll let you know if I think of anything.”

“Alright,” Harry said, backing towards the door. “I might get started on supper, then.”

Finally, something to look forward to. “Sounds great.”

Harry hesitated for an awkward three seconds before he shot Louis another smile, picked up the bottle of Remy where he’d set it on the small dresser by the door, and swiftly left the room. He didn’t shut the door, mindful of Louis’s intentions to shower but when Louis poked his head out the doorway a moment later, Harry had cleared the area to give him privacy.

Louis took a seat on the bed and looked around, taking everything in. He ran his hand over the quilt on the bed, another of Anne’s creations. He had one just like it in his own home, an old relic from Princess Park. The electric heater was humming in the corner and just then Neon sauntered past the door, stopping for a moment to lick her paw and stare curiously at Louis.

Louis dragged his hands down his face and breathed unsteadily. He just couldn’t believe he was actually here, alone with Harry in a house that seemed so much smaller when it was just the two of them, a cat, miles of snow and no easy way of turning back.

Louis dropped his hands to his thighs. “Alright then,” he mumbled to himself. With a little breath and a push against his thighs, he sought the shower.

 

> > H < <

 

His thumbs raced across his screen like the devil chased them.

What. The. Fuck.

He placed his phone down, watching the blue bar ease to the right of the screen. He pressed his palms into the edge of the counter, blinking down at the swirling marble as he tried to just- just think clearly. The marble kept swirling. His stomach started to do the same.

If Louis’ boots weren’t visible by the door, he wouldn’t believe the last ten minutes had happened. Or that Louis was only a couple feet away now, using his shower, for fuck’s sake.

Harry was actually alone, in this tiny ass cabin with the one person he’d wanted since forever and that was not even close to a good idea. What line had he crossed or who had he pissed off to stumble into such misfortune?

With shaking hands, he snatched his phone up the instant it rang.

“I take it he arrived?” Niall said, laughing his bright laugh that under different circumstances might ease the rolling of Harry’s stomach.

“Yes.” Harry focused on keeping his voice quiet, stepping into the laundry room and shutting the door. “What is he doing here, Niall? Why is he alone?” he clipped.

“What good would it do to have anyone else there?” Niall sounded genuinely confused.

Harry’s eyes widened. “What is this? Were you— you were planning this the whole time?” He didn’t wait for the answer he didn’t need. He gripped his fringe, hard enough to strain the roots. “Oh fuck, Niall. Did you think I’d be happy about this?”

“I thought you’d at least say thank you, yeah,” Niall grumbled.

Unable to support his weight much longer, Harry sank down to the hardwood floors, his back against the door. “Fuck. I’m so fucked. Oh, fuck…”

“That’s the spirit,” Niall said with another laugh. He sounded like he was munching on popcorn. “Haz. You’re going to be fine, alright? It’s just Louis, the same bloke you’ve been in love with for years,” he said. Then paused. “You still love him, don’t you?”

Harry exhaled a pitiful laugh. He dropped his forehead into his palm.

“Still do,” he confessed quietly.

“Well. Now you have a chance to do something about it,” Niall said. “You’ve got lots of time out there by yourselves, lots of time to maybe talk, maybe fuck around a bit. I think it’ll be great for you both.”

“You should have asked me. If you’d asked, I would have told you not to waste your time. He doesn’t even talk to me anymore. This is… It’s not as easy as you think,” Harry said, his throat burned. After a second, he added, “I’m not looking to just… It’s not about sex. It’s so much more than just sex.”

“Then tell him what it is about,” Niall suggested. “Tell him how you feel. Be honest and see what happens. I’m tired of seeing you unhappy. You can’t let your feelings go. So just do something about ‘em, yeah? Talk. Fuck. Whatever you need to do, mate. Just be happy.”

Niall made it sound simpler than it could ever be. For Harry, the truth was that being happy depended almost entirely on Louis. He had found ways to be independent. He had carved happiness from whatever edifice he could. But true happiness might never be possible for him. Not without Louis.

If Harry told him how he felt, only to be met with rejection, all of Niall’s effort would be for naught.

Harry lifted his head up, staring out the floor-to-ceiling windows at the lake behind his house, reflecting a line of trees, the tops of the snow-capped mountains and an overcast sky. It would snow again soon as if there wasn’t already enough of the stuff piled up. Another three feet would trap him in here with Louis indefinitely.

For four years, he’d been in love with this boy, all started by an uncertain kiss on the balcony of their hotel room during tour. It was hurried and slobbery and clumsy, but Harry knew he’d never want to kiss another person again.

After they’d broken up, he’d still tried. Tried meeting other gay men in similar situations to his own, famous people who would understand the pressure of keeping secrets, most notably Nick Grimshaw for a period of time. He thought that maybe if he could start a nice, private relationship with someone, he could be happy. He’d tried hard to be happy.

But Louis turned out to be the beginning and the end of Harry’s love life. Some people had multiple lovers, some people only one. Harry fell into the latter category. And four years later, he was learning to accept that.

He just wasn’t happy, wasn’t sure he ever would be.

Maybe that was where Niall had a point. Maybe the least Harry could do was try again. It wasn’t as if he had anything to lose.

“Haz?”

Harry blinked and looked away from the window. “Yeah, I’m here.”

“Ya alright?” Niall asked.

Harry nodded even though Niall couldn’t see him. “I’m good, yeah,” Harry said. “Uh. I’ll talk to him.”

Niall sighed in relief. “Tell me how it goes?”

“I will, definitely,” Harry said. “And thank you.”

Niall laughed, crunching on more popcorn. “I was kidding about you thanking me.”

“Even so,” Harry said smiling.

When they hung up, he was back to the quiet space of his head, not quite ready to take on all the complex feelings of self-loathing that Louis’ presence would undoubtedly conjure up. Already he was feeling sort of miserable.

Louis seemed completely unaffected by Harry, just his usual calm, collected self. And Harry was all too affected by him. Even the thought of him undressing and showering nearby made Harry weak.

He stood up and left the laundry room to scrutinize his kitchen. Thankfully, he’d always kept the place tidy but looking around now, he was struck with paranoia. If it had been Niall, so long as the place wasn’t in shambles, Harry would have worried little about the overall state of his home. With Louis here, it seemed that small problems stood out all over. He’d been meaning to fix the leak in the roof over the kitchen and repaint the walls in the loo. Had he even done the laundry in the basket he kept near the toilet? Had he washed the sheets of the guest bed?

And he’d essentially promised Louis supper, but did he even have ingredients? He mostly ate those frozen dinners he got whenever he went into town or some of the fish he kept frozen in the freezer. Only on nights when he was feeling particularly creative would he commit himself to make an actual meal. Other nights his neighbors would bring him plates of their own dinner. Patrick and Jenny just beside him had a nine-year-old daughter—Abby—who knew exactly who Harry was and hadn’t yet leaked his address on Twitter. As a sign of his gratitude, he joined them for dinner every now and then or accepted the plates of food they brought over. He wouldn’t dare turn away a free meal.

He opened the fridge and surveyed what he had in there. Fresh cheese, and tomatoes from his greenhouse. He spotted butter and garlic too. A box of linguine was in the cupboard, and fresh herbs were growing by the window. He could probably fix up a simple pasta dish before Louis was even done getting dressed.

Harry shoved the sleeves of his jumper up to his elbows and took a breath.

“Right,” he said, glancing at Neon. “Best get started.” He paused. “Not you, obviously. I’ve got it.”

 

> > L < <

 

Louis stepped out of the guest room, dressed in a faded, blue sweatshirt and black joggers tucked into knit socks, which he deemed necessary given the cold. The smell of garlic and herbs made his mouth water, made him walk a little quicker toward the kitchen.

“Smells good,” he said as soon as he came into view. Harry lifted his head and smiled at him in that way that sent warmth straight to Louis’ toes. Maybe he didn’t need the socks after all.

“Thanks,” Harry said. “Um, do you want beer or wine? Or just water maybe? I also have orange juice.”

“Beer is good,” Louis said, coming to the small table in the kitchen and sitting down. He leaned back in the chair, watching as Harry grabbed plates from a cupboard up high. Louis couldn’t help it. His eyes drifted downward over Harry’s broad back, past his slim waist, over the small swell of his bum, and then down, down his long legs clad in knit black leggings.

Harry went to the fridge then for two beers and set a plate and a bottle in front of Louis. He spooned pasta onto Louis’ plate, not really making eye contact but Louis watched him the entire time until he noted a flush darkening Harry’s ears.

Louis waited until Harry was seated before twirling his fork in the pasta and taking a bite. When he glanced up, Harry was watching him, studying his reaction.

He threw up a thumb and when he was finished chewing, he added, “Still the best cook.”

“Thanks.” Harry smiled, puffing out his chest like a proud bird.

Eating and trying to hold a conversation was impossible. When they’d lived together years ago, it was never a problem because the silence was always comfortable. They’d shared each other’s space as if there was no clear line to designate where Harry’s space ended and Louis’ began. It all simply belonged to them both.

But the silence was anything but comfortable now. Their forks scraping plates like nails on chalkboard. Each time they swallowed, the sound seemed to echo throughout the whole house. It was too much. Louis clawed through his head for a question or comment.

“So. What do you do out here for fun?” he asked after taking a sip of his beer.

Harry pushed pasta together on his plate. “I go fishing a lot now. I’m pretty good at it.”

“You go by yourself?” Louis tried to shape the surprise in his voice to something sounding more like esteem. He just couldn’t work past the image of Harry getting tangled in his own line or throwing every fish he caught back to freedom because they looked sad.

“Usually,” Harry said. “I take the boat out on the lake. Sometimes though I go with one of my neighbors named Rick. His daughter’s a fan.”

“Really?” Both of Louis’ brows reached for his hairline. “You aren’t worried she’ll post pics of you on twitter?”

Harry laughed. “Well, I was at first. But she’s actually pretty good at keeping secrets,” he said. “Her friends are fans too and she hasn’t told any of them.”

Louis wasn’t entirely convinced but he’d humor him for now. “So, boating, fishing, what else?”

“Hiking too,” Harry said. “You’d love the trails around here.”

“I’m sure I would. We should go,” Louis suggested.

“Yeah, absolutely,” Harry said, his eyes glittering for a second. He quickly regained his cool, just not before Louis noticed. He hurried on, “We should actually probably go tomorrow. There’s a snowstorm coming later this week.”

“Don’t you get tired of all the snow?”

“I love the snow, you know that,” Harry commented. That was true. “I only stay here for about a month before going to LA for a little while. There’s no time to get tired of the snow.”

“Right.” Louis felt his mood take a nosedive. It probably wasn’t healthy the amount of loathing he harbored for that one U.S. city.

When things went sour between him and Harry, it wasn’t long afterward that Harry started running off to LA. It was around that time too that Harry’s new friends like Nick Grimshaw and his gang of posh deviants started popping up in pap shots with him. Louis had been bitter then and he was bitter now, about LA, about Nick Grimshaw and if he was being honest with himself, about Harry.

Having a relationship might not have worked for them. But Louis found himself longing for the times when he was simply Harry’s best mate. He wished Harry had shown him photos of the house before he bought it so Louis could give suggestions about the flooring or paint swatches or whatever. He wished he still had a right to braid Harry’s hair or roll up Harry’s short sleeves the way he liked. He wished Harry still asked him for advice on birthday presents for the boys or his family.

He wished he’d been the person Harry ran to when he was heartbroken, even when he was the one responsible for breaking Harry’s heart.

Sometimes, Louis could be a selfish prick. But at least he was aware.

“When’s the next time you’re headed to LA?” Louis asked.

“In the next three weeks, I think,” Harry said. “If you stick around till then, you’re welcome to come too.”

Louis turned his beer bottle slowly on the tabletop. “No, I’ll probably take off by then. Can’t expect to just scrounge off you for too long. Wouldn’t be fair.”

“I don’t mind,” Harry said, his eyes cast down at his plate.

Louis sipped more of his bear, shaking his head more to himself than anything. “I’ll be gone before then,” he said. “So, no thanks.”

“Suit yourself,” Harry said, pushing more food around his plate, though all that remained were broken strings of pasta. Louis set his eyes on him, not sure if he was hearing the slight ring of contempt in his voice or just imagining it.

He put his beer bottle down. “I’m pretty knackered from that devil of a flight. Think I’ll head off to bed,” Louis said, standing, picking up his plate.

“I’ll clean up. It’s fine,” Harry said.

“You’re sure?”

Harry looked at him pointedly. “You’re my guest. Of course, I’m sure.”

“Alright then,” Louis said. “Good night then.”

“Don’t you want tea?”

Louis paused.

It was a known fact that he didn’t go to bed without a cup of tea. Not because the stuff had any particular effect on him getting to sleep. It was a habit that had survived childhood. His mum always fixed him a cuppa before bed, and when they’d lived together, Harry had too.

Louis felt something warm settle behind his sternum just from the memory.

“I could bring it to you,” Harry offered.

Louis blinked at him. It was just tea. It was just Harry offering to make him tea. It was just like old times. “Yeah… If you insist,” he said.

Harry smiled. “I do.” He stood and turned on the hob to get the kettle going. Louis watched him lean against the counter, a little perplexed about when and how Harry had shaped up the way he did, with the curves and such. Louis didn’t usually allow himself to focus too much on Harry. He was always worried that he wouldn’t be able to stop. Harry raised a brow. “Did you want to have it here?”

“Huh?” Louis blinked, mouth parted in a stupor.

Harry poked his thumb in the direction of the kettle. “Tea,” he said. “I said I’d bring it to you.”

“Right,” Louis said, closing his mouth. He swallowed. “Right, okay, thank you. I’ll just be in the room then.”

Harry didn’t respond. He watched Louis turn and stroll off to the room. Louis could feel his eyes on his back, or maybe on his bum. Harry always did have a thing for Louis’ bum. And why was Louis even thinking about that?

He tossed himself into bed, cut on the TV, and somehow ended up watching the news. Nothing particularly interesting happened in the Idahoan mountains it seemed. Except, this morning, a herd of buffalo had wandered into the road, preventing five poor travellers from getting to work.

Louis was bored out of his mind. And he’d lied about being tired. He was a bit too keyed up on being here to fall asleep.

There was a knock at the door a moment later. Louis dropped his phone on the mattress beside him and sat up straighter. “Yeah?”

Harry pushed the door open and stepped inside, carrying a steaming mug. If his hair weren’t so long now, if his shoulders weren’t so broad, if he weren’t so tall, Louis would think Harry was still sixteen. Still in love with him.

“Here you are,” Harry said, carefully handing the cup to Louis.

Louis smiled. “Thank you.”

“Do you need anything else?”

“I think I’m good. Thank you,” Louis said again.

Harry smiled and hovered for a millisecond, arms hooked behind his back. “Alright then. Good night.” He started to turn.

“Hey, Haz.”

Harry faced him again. His brows shot up, immediately eager. Louis liked that a lot. “Yeah?”

“Tomorrow morning, we should hit those trails, if you’re up for it,” Louis said.

Harry’s smile was back, more genuine now than ever. “I’m up for it.”

“Good.” Louis took a sip of his tea. “This is perfect,” he said lifting his cup. It was the truth but also, he was feeling high on Harry’s smile, and the dimples were teasing an appearance any second now.

“I’m glad you like it,” Harry said, still smiling. No dimples though. Not yet. He took a step back. “So, I’ll see you in the morning?”

Louis nodded. “If the Abominable Snowman doesn’t get me, yeah. I hear he has an appetite for Englishmen.”

Left dimple, fuck yes.

Harry was making a concerted effort not to laugh outright. It wasn’t really working.

“It’s okay,” he said, lips quivering. He spoke his next words like a secret. Louis found himself leaning close to hear him. “I have special defenses against him.”

Louis raised his brows, ready for the punchline.

Harry smiled like a conspirator. “He hates boy bands, apparently. I just play some of our music. Wards him right off.”

Louis barked a laugh. Harry giggled, hiding his mouth behind his hand. He pressed his lips together the way he did when he thought he was laughing too loudly or smiling too widely. The entire notion was absurd. Harry’s laugh was still Louis’ favorite sound. His smile was a work of art.

“Guess we’re safe then,” Louis said.

Harry gave a firm nod of his head. “You have my word.”

Not for the first time today, Louis felt like he was eighteen. He felt young and exposed and excited. He licked his lips, searching for something else to say. Even if it was just to ask Harry to stay for a bit longer, watch the news with him maybe.

How quickly his magic took effect. Louis was helpless to it. He dragged his hands down his face as if to wipe his idiotic smile off.

“Hey, listen,” he said. “I know this is weird. And I wouldn’t have come if—“ Bad wording. He could do better.

“If you knew it’d be just us,” Harry finished.

Louis hesitated. “I mean, would you?”

Harry’s eyes flickered to the floor, but not before Louis caught some hidden defiance there. Like maybe the answer wasn’t as obvious as Louis thought. Like maybe Harry’s answer was yes. Just the thought had Louis’ heart tripping over itself.

“It’s not the worst thing in the world,” Harry said quietly. “At least I don’t think.”

“Guess we’ll find out,” Louis said, shrugging. “Since you’re stuck with me and all that.”

Harry’s pensive little pout gave and he flashed Louis a smile, grabbing the doorknob. “Seems like it,” he said. “Night, Louis.”

“Goodnight,” Louis said.

Then Harry slipped out, pulling the door shut. Louis heard his feet padding on the hardwood floors outside his room. Minutes later, another door shut down the hall.

The news continued on. Another story about buffalo. Louis drank his tea slowly and pictured Harry as he’d been making it, knowing he’d blown softly on the surface to cool it down before bringing it for him. He pictured his lips pursed, his eyelids lowered, the cup cradled in his palms.

He wasn’t surprised to feel the yearning start in the corners and on the edges of his heart. He’d been prepared for it, knew that coming here would recall a tidal wave of emotions and memories he’d been keeping at bay. (Maybe that was why he’d come.)

But he was safe for now in this room, to feel and think what he wanted, to picture Harry fixing his tea, to dream about his smile when he finally fell asleep.

 

> <

 

April 2011

“I broke up with Hannah…”

Harry lowered the binoculars in his hand, Glasgow forgotten beyond their hotel balcony. His big green eyes shifted to Louis’ face. And then, like he had something to hide in his gaze, he looked down at his lap.

“I’m sorry to hear that,” he said quietly.

Louis didn’t think so. Because Louis wasn’t sorry. He doubted Harry would be. “It’s alright. We decided we would keep it secret for a bit, I guess. Just let people figure it out on their own.”

“Who broke up with who?” Harry asked, just to be sure. He never assumed anything with Louis, knowing how crafty his wording could sometimes be. Especially if he was a few questions away from being certain.

“It was kind of mutual, I guess.” Louis looked back out over the city.

“Oh,” Harry said, running his thumbs over the binoculars. He placed them aside and pulled his knees up to his chest and for a second, they just sat there in silence. They never sat in silence. Especially not silence this heavy and full.

A week ago, they’d been wrestling on the couch, incited by Harry’s claim to the last of the biscuits by licking it.

He was such a cretin sometimes. And slightly stronger too, but Louis fought dirtier. Nothing was off limits when kicking someone's arse. One minute Harry had him pinned to the couch. The next, Louis had straddled him, his thighs squeezing Harry’s narrow hips, and he leaned in and licked a long, fat stripe up Harry’s cheek.

It was meant to be gross. It was meant to be this grand offensive attack. But they were too close, breathing too heavily, too keyed up. And when Louis did it, it was— too much.

The fight drained from Harry’s body like water sucked through a drain. He went pliant, just blinking up at Louis with bright feverish eyes and Louis’ saliva drying on his flushed cheek. And whatever it was that had been brewing between them for nearly a year, ever since Harry pissed on Louis’ shoe, this palpable, throbbing thing, it solidified in Harry’s gaze right then.

Liam had come into the room and plopped down on the couch, completely oblivious. The moment fled and so did Louis, mumbling excuses about having promised to call his mum as he disappeared into the hall, trying with no avail to wipe the picture of Harry’s parted lips from the very center of his mind.

They hadn’t been the same since.

The conclusion that Louis came to was this: he had a big, nasty, uncontrollable crush on Harry. Like a fat fly that buzzed too close to his ears. Or one attention whore of a pimple right in the middle of his forehead. Or every other annoying thing in life that Louis couldn’t and didn’t know how to deal with.

He was moving in with Harry in another two months. Now was not the time to fuck things up. But this was one of those things you couldn’t ignore once you’d taken notice of it. It grew worse each day like a contagion. It began last week. And now on this balcony with Harry just close enough to feel the heat of his body, it demanded resolution and release.

“I told her I liked someone else,” Louis said.

Harry looked at him so fast Louis worried about the muscles in his neck, Harry’s thick brows creasing immediately. “Who?” he asked. He almost looked offended. “Someone I know?”

This boy was ridiculous. Louis rolled his eyes. “Yeah, quite well.”

“Who?” Harry repeated, demanded. He was a second away from stamping his foot or beating his fists against his chest. Such an absolutely ridiculous boy and Louis was a goner for him.

“This really daft boy, actually,” Louis said quietly, his voice cracking. “Like…I thought if I told him I liked someone, he would just know I meant him. And this wouldn’t have to be more awkward or embarrassing than it already is. But he’s like really daft. He has a headful of curls and I’m beginning to wonder if there’s even a brain tucked away in them at all.”

Harry was tomato red by the time Louis finished, his perfect mouth parted. He blinked and the flutter of his eyelashes reminded Louis of the butterflies in his stomach. “Louis…”

“Just say you feel the same way, please? Or I’m going to throw myself over the balcony.”

“Of course,” Harry exhaled, shuffling closer so he was right in Louis’ space. That was another thing about him. It was like nothing scared him. Everyone thought Louis was the one to charge headfirst into things. But it had always been Harry.

He was already balling his fists up in Louis’ denim jacket. “You’ve some nerve calling me daft. Of course I feel the same,” he mumbled, pressing their foreheads together. “Of course.” He couldn’t stop saying it.

They moved at the same time, tilting their chins forward. Their noses brushed as they exhaled twin sighs past each other’s lips, clinging to clothing as if to rip it, as if they were worried about sliding off the balcony and tumbling towards the ground below.

When he kissed him, Louis felt like he was falling anyway. And he never wanted to stop.

 

> > H < <

 

January 2016

That morning, Harry fully expected to see Louis’ holdall at the door and perhaps, a taxi cab pulled up down the road, waiting for him. So, when Louis came sauntering into the kitchen, fuzzy-hair, well-rested, it dawned on Harry fully, for the first time, that Louis was here to stay.

It didn’t make any sense.

Of the two of them, Harry was more the masochist, more inclined to put himself in situations where he wasn’t all too comfortable. Not because he wanted to, but because those situations appeared to seek him out. And if anyone believed in self-preservation, it was Louis. Primary reason why he’d ended their relationship in the first place. But that was a story for a later time. Never, even.

Louis leaned against the counter, and it was a little sad how immediate the desire was to curl up against his chest, tuck his face into his neck, run his knuckles across Louis’ stubble. Harry knew his skin would be sleep-warm and that he’d smell of cotton. Those were the best things about his mornings, years ago.

“Hi,” Louis said. He stretched his arms back, rising onto his tippy toes, revealing a bit of his tummy, a thin trail of hair fading into his waistband.

Harry sipped his tea, feeling parched all of a sudden. “Good morning,” he said.

Furtively, he watched Louis walk to the glass door and peer out at the lake. “This is beautiful. Really nice view to wake up to,” he said, hands braced on his hips.

“It’s even better once you get out there,” Harry said. His eyes betrayed him, trailing down over Louis’ bum. When Louis turned away from the view, Harry did the same. He busied himself with forking eggs onto a plate for Louis beside a piece of toast.

“I haven’t had a chance to run out for groceries yet,” Harry said, placing the plate down on the table. “But I will once we get back. Any thoughts about what you want for dinner?”

Louis went in on the eggs as soon as Harry withdrew his hand. He looked up with the fork hanging out of his mouth. “Hm,” he hummed, chewing his food before he spoke. “I’d eat anything you made, to be honest.”

Harry was ridiculous. That shouldn’t have made him blush. He shouldn’t have been blushing. And yet… He turned away. “I was thinking I could grill some of the vegetables. In the garden. Maybe with chicken? Rice or mash?”

“Mash,” Louis suggested. He was a firm supporter of mash. Not even because he enjoyed it all that much. It was just easy, simple and filling. Any time he’d cook for Harry, he included a heap of the stuff. And Harry, unsurprisingly, never got tired of it.

“Right,” Harry said, and they exchanged a smile. He watched Louis eat for a second longer, drumming his hands on the sides of his teacup. Louis looked at him with his brow raised. Harry deposited his cup in the sink. “I’ll go get changed.”

 

> <

 

August 2011

Harry could be an outright brat sometimes but at least he knew it. Other people knew it too. All he hoped was that they didn’t know why. But even that, to the conscious observer, might be obvious.

Harry loved how easily Louis lit up a room. He admired how effortlessly Louis won people over and brought them under the wing of his friendship. It was all imbued with the same charm Harry himself had fallen victim to. The same winning smile. The same buoyant laugh. The same sarcastic humour.

He understood why he had to share Louis with so many people, but that didn’t mean he had to like it.

They threw a party for Liam’s birthday at their flat. What had to be the tenth party Harry and Louis had thrown since moving in, which was a feat considering they hadn’t been there long. But Louis loved to show off.

The boys were all there, including the band, a few girls Harry had never seen before, and their friends. It was a modestly sized assortment, gathered in the living area. And at the centre of it all was Louis, teasing Liam, making everyone laugh. Niall was half-listening to the girl at his side. Zayn was half-sleeping on the couch, a cup wedged precariously in the crook of his elbow.

Harry brought another bowl of chips out from the kitchen and set it on the coffee table, glancing at Louis with his arm thrown over Liam’s shoulder. Then, at the girls, sitting on the floor by the couch, giggling and cooing over their interaction.

One girl wasn’t looking at Liam at all.

Harry figured it was as good a time as any to tidy up and offer refills. They had a lot of booze left. The rest of it — or a good portion — was swimming in Harry’s veins. He teetered over to the other side of the coffee table and blocked everyone’s view of Liam and Louis, gathering cups off the floor and such. He shot Louis’ admirer a grin. “Cup’s empty,” he told her.

It was incredibly offensive how quickly her attention shifted. Like her admiration hadn’t been genuine for Louis at all, but easily transmittable to anyone she thought she could snag. She stared up at Harry, doe-eyed, and laughed. “I’ll have some more.”

“Sure,” Harry said. “Come with me.”

When he looked at Louis again, Louis was looking back. It was like clockwork; Louis stepped into the kitchen behind him less than a minute later.

“Whatcha up to?”

“Just taking care of our guest,” Harry said, sending the girl in his company another smile. She laughed, looking back and forth between Harry and Louis like she couldn’t believe her luck.

Harry grabbed the cola and filled the cup, then tossed in some vodka. Louis was at his side, reaching for an empty cup. “Some for me too, please,” he said. “If you don’t mind.”

“Not at all,” Harry said, filling his cup as well.

Louis turned to the girl and slid the other cup towards her. “Do you mind taking this to Liam, love? He’s expecting it.”

“Sure,” she said, slipping off the stool. She headed back into the living room.

“Such a great host, you are,” Louis said, leaning into the counter.

“You’re doing such a good job entertaining everyone,” Harry replied. “I’m just doing my part.”

“Obviously,” Louis said. “Probably just want some attention too.”

“I was getting attention,” Harry said, pointedly. “Until you sent her back into the living room.”

“Whatever you say.” Louis turned away. “Better get back to my duties, then.”

Harry grabbed him by the arm. Quickly, without thinking, he kissed him. Both hands on Louis’ face, head tilted, mouth open. Louis drew back first, licking his lips.

“Risky, Harold,” he said, hooded eyes on Harry’s mouth.

“I don’t care,” Harry said petulantly.

Louis tsked. “You’re lush. Might need a lie-down.”

“Only if you’re on top of me.”

Louis shook his head and peeked at his crotch. “Look what you’ve done to me.”

“I can take care of that,” Harry practically begged.

“Behave yourself and maybe I’ll let you,” Louis said, extricating himself from Harry’s hold. “Later.”

Harry thumped his head a few times on the fridge when Louis was gone, got the bottle of vodka and poured himself what he hoped was shot-sized or less in a plastic cup. He tossed it back, then sauntered into the living room, feeling flushed and needy and bratty. Feeling like making a scene.

Louis was perched on the arm of the couch, running his fingers through Zayn’s hair. He was awake now, chatting with him. Even that bothered Harry. God, he hoped he grew out of this someday. Like if (when) he and Louis were married with kids. He hoped he learned how to manage love in an adult way. And wasn’t so inundated with it that it found outlets in the forms of jealousy and lust.

Lately, that was all Harry thought about. The future. And love, especially. Love, love, love. Soon enough the word itself was going to find an outlet too.   

“Think I’m going to be sick,” he said to the room, but he wasn’t sure anyone heard him. No matter. He was lying, anyway. He felt fine. He just needed an excuse to do this:

Harry pulled his t-shirt over his head and dumped it on the floor at his feet. Immediately, one of the girls looked at him. He unbuckled his belt and hooked his thumbs over the waistband of his jeans.

“Harry’s getting naked again,” Niall reported.

That was an overstatement. Harry wasn’t going to get completely naked. Just a little. Just enough. He stood there in his boxers and sighed. “Is it hot in here or is that just me?”

“Alright,” Louis said, clapping his hands together. “I think this one’s pissed. Going to get him to bed.”

“I’m fine now,” Harry said.

“Everyone feel free to see yourselves out,” Louis announced, ignoring him. “Or stay. Doesn’t matter.”

Harry intended to protest, but once Louis had a firm hold of his bicep, he allowed himself to be tugged along. “Goodnight,” he called. “Happy Birthday, Liam.”

The bright side was that everyone was probably too drunk to notice or care. Or hear, Harry hoped. Because once they were in the safety of Louis’ bedroom, Harry dropped to his knees in front of Louis and got too loud, eager work. Harry’s bedroom was cleaner, but too close to the living room. Louis’ was in a private loft area, perfect for gratuitous moaning on Harry’s part.

“Look at you,” Louis said, two fingers in Harry’s mouth just because he could, a blot of come drying on Harry’s cheek. He tugged Harry to his feet and held him there, against the door, while sliding his hand down the back of his jeans, damp fingers at the cleft of his arse. Their eyes met in the dark. So far, it had been blowjobs and handjobs for them, which were inarguably fantastic, but Harry didn’t think he needed to say out loud that he wanted more. And most of the time, it was obvious Louis did too. Like, in that moment, for example.

Brows creased deeply in contemplation, Louis pressed his pointer finger between Harry’s cheeks and then further, against his hole.

“Fuck,” Harry muttered, slumping against him. Instantly, Louis removed his hand.

No,” Harry breathed, “I didn’t want you to stop.”

“I know what you want,” Louis insisted. But now, he was wrapping a hand around Harry’s cock, which felt nice, obviously. But still. Louis pressed a kiss to Harry’s neck and kept his face there, hidden away. “I’m a bit drunk. I’d rather be sober if we—”

Understanding dawned on Harry. He let his eyes close, rested his head against Louis’.

“Don’t want to hurt you,” Louis said.

God, Harry loved him.

“Come for me like this,” Louis whispered, leaving another kiss on Harry’s cheek.

Harry was surprised to hear a hint of question in his voice. A hint of uncertainty. Like this was at all unsatisfactory. Like Harry might choose to do anything else in this moment. And that degree of concern coupled with the sure heat of his hand on Harry’s cock was enough to have him seeing stars.

“So needy,” Louis said, afterwards, lying beside him in bed. Harry watched the way his chest rose and fell, the way sweat and moonlight lined his skin like a nimbus.

‘Needy’ sounded right. Harry did need him and though the thought had worried him at first, he was making peace with it. This was never supposed to be a lifetime arrangement. They weren’t supposed to fall in love like this — one and done. Two-fifths of a boy band, among other things. And yet, there they were. (Or there Harry was. He could only hope Louis loved him back. He was fucked otherwise.)

“Aren’t you?” Harry asked.

Louis looked at him. “Some of us have self-control.”

“Some of us shouldn’t,” Harry said. And Louis huffed a laugh. Harry shuffled closer, resting his head on Louis’ chest. “Can’t help it if I want you all the time. Or if everyone else wants you too.”

“I don’t care about everyone else,” Louis said.

Harry lifted his head. “I know that, but I’m an irrationally jealous person,” he said. “I know you’re mine. You’ve been mine all summer. Mine, exclusively.”

Both of Louis’ brows arched. “Exclusively? Serious words there, Harold.”

“You want to hear another one?”

“I’m listening,” Louis said.

Harry paused for dramatic effect. “Boyfriend.”

They stared at each other for a silent, and admittedly scary, second. And then at the same time, twin smiles stretched across their faces. Harry laughed and flopped down beside Louis. Louis grabbed his blanket and drew it up over their heads and they brought their faces close.

“Did you just call me your boyfriend?” he asked.

“I might have.”

“You’re getting carried away,” Louis said, mouth hovering near Harry’s. Too much of a tease.

Harry kissed him, firm and urgent. “You only just noticed?”

 

> <

 

January 2016

For a moment there was just silence and the crunch of snow beneath their boots. Distantly a few birds chattered in trees and close by, snow fell from heavy branches and landed softly on the mounds below. Like a colossal eye on the face of the earth, the lake made a study of them as they began their ascent up the mountain. The sky, spread out above and full of promises, was a primordial gray, hinting at snow and rain and God knew what else. Perhaps that was what he liked most about this place: the perpetual uncertainty combined with the acceptance of not knowing what was to come.

As pop sensation Harry Styles, even the constant travelling and touring sometimes grew monotonous to him, even in unfamiliar regions because there was hardly ever time to get out of their hotel rooms and explore, especially not covertly.

That wasn’t to say he didn’t enjoy what he did. On the contrary, he remained convinced he had the best job in the world.

But there was still something marvellous and miraculous about not knowing and being unknown. About waking up and finding the world blanketed in snow and figuring out what to do from there. Something so liberating about having to find his way through life. About buying a house away from family and friends and surviving without them. About waking up early to dig the Range Rover out of its snowy grave. About hoping to catch something on the lake and determining what to do when he didn’t.

It was always “what now?” And each time, Harry had to figure out the answer on his own. And he liked it that way.

“What’s the fence for?”

Louis’ voice caught him off-guard. Not because he’d forgotten he was there. Harry was so accustomed to surrendering to the silence when he was out here. He never had anyone to talk to anyway. Even when he spoke to the birds, they obviously never responded.

His eyes drifted over the wood log fence lining the trail on both sides. He peeked at Louis, just out the corner of his eye. “To keep out bears or wolves,” he answered. Louis’ eyes snapped to him instantly. Harry’s lips curved.

“Seriously?” Louis chirped.

Harry nodded. “Seriously,” he said. “But they don’t normally come all the way out here. They tend to avoid humans.”

“Even you?” Louis asked with one brow raised. Harry looked at him curiously. Was he flirting with him? Louis didn’t give a chance to figure it out. “What do we do if one of them decides to switch it up today?”

“Well,” Harry began. He jutted his hip out and fingered the bottle hanging off a keychain on his belt loop. “I’ve got animal mace here. But I’d really like to not use it if possible. It can cause them permanent damage.” He pointed a thumb at his rucksack. “There’s like an air horn in there. And flares as well.”

“You’ve got a fucking arsenal. When were you going to tell me our lives were at risk?” Louis questioned.

Harry resisted the urge to laugh, folding his lips together for a moment. “This is just in case of emergencies,” he eventually said. “But it never happens. People don’t get attacked out here. It’s not likely unless we go much further up the mountain.”

Louis still looked sceptical. Harry still wanted to laugh. “Yeah, well how far are we going?”

Harry glanced up the trail. “There’s a golden eagle’s nest ahead that I want to show you. It’s not too far. And there’s a particular spot where you get a really good view of the lake. Great for pictures. Then we’ll turn back.”

Louis was studying him again, his eyes contemplative and unfamiliar, like he was looking at Harry for the first time. Harry was glad for the cold that kept his face ruddy. He would have blushed. He usually did when Louis looked at him for more than five seconds.

“You’re careful when you’re by yourself right?” Louis asked. “You don’t go too far in?”

Their eyes locked this time. That, Harry thought, sounded a lot like concern. It had been such a long time since he’d last heard it in Louis’ voice. He’d almost forgotten how it sounded at all.

“I’m very careful,” he said quietly, looking away again, blushing for sure now. He adjusted his hat on his head just for something to do with his hands.

More silence descended on them. But it wasn’t the stuffy, awkward kind that had trapped them yesterday during dinner. It was the hush in the midst of nature, to catch the sound of a light wind rustling in the trees and a bird chirping close by. Harry paused. “Those are barn swallows.”

Louis came to a stop beside him, brows creased. “How do you know?” He asked, a smile growing on his face. “You’ve been studying bird calls too?”

“No,” Harry said quickly, pursing his lips.

Louis gave him a look. "You sure?"

Harry rolled his eyes. “Just for the ones around here.”

“Knew it.” Louis laughed. Harry’s eyes drifted to him again. He should have worn his sunglasses. It wouldn’t be so obvious when he did that. He could full-on stare at Louis as he laughed without fear of being caught.

“Where are they?” Louis asked. “The swallows?”

“Um,” Harry blinked. He looked around at the trees. “They’ll be in a hollow somewhere, I think.”

He crouched down a little, tilted his head to peer up at the canopy of trees. “Wait. There,” he said suddenly. And he reached out without thinking to slap his hand against Louis’ coat. “Lou, look. Right there.”

Louis stepped close, staring off in the direction Harry pointed, his breath pluming excitedly. The barn swallows were tucked away in a tree hollow, bedded comfortably in their nest. One of them lingered at the edge, wings folded back, chest puffed out like a proud little thing. It sang its morning song and, in the distance,, fellow swallows answered back. “I see it,” Louis mumbled, a bit of a late reaction. He spoke in awe. “I see it.”

Harry lifted his camera to snap a few pictures. He felt Louis’ eyes on him but when he looked, they were directed away. He set his camera against his chest once more and they continued forward.

They approached a small brook, mostly frozen, but trickling still. Harry got closer to take more pictures. Louis took a step after him and his foot caught on the gangly root of an oak tree. He stumbled and tipped forward as if to face plant. But Harry took hold of his forearm, steadied him, and held tight.

Louis’ eyes flickered to his. “Thank you,” he said, gaze returning to the ground, mindful of his next step. “I think I’m good now.”

Right. Harry released his arm. And then they were on their way again, drawing closer to the spot, Harry’s spot, the point on this trail where Harry truly fell in love with Idaho’s mountains when he first saw it.

He knew there was a jagged boulder approaching and an odd naturally-made staircase of roots and matted dirt. And as he was approaching it, he didn’t really think twice before reaching back, extending his hand for Louis.

Their eyes met, Louis’ such a deep blue Harry could have slipped and fallen into the lake. Louis set his hand in Harry’s. Harry blinked and hauled him up the rock.

“This is my favourite,” he announced, stepping out of Louis’ way, so he could catch the full view before him.

They were high enough now that they were not only overlooking the lake but the acres and acres of pine trees, where smoke from hidden homes billowed up from chimneys. The rest of the mountain spread out in the distance framing a portrait that no artist could recreate so perfectly. The backyard of Harry’s home was still visible too, sunlight gleaming off the roof of the greenhouse, but the rest was shrouded by trees as well.

“Fucking hell,” Louis murmured. “This is unreal.”

“I know,” Harry said quietly, not wanting to break the spell descending on Louis.

Louis shook his head in dismay, gazing from left to right. “How do you ever come down?” he said, looking at Harry. “When you get up here and see this, how do you manage to go back down?”

Harry’s first thought was to answer with something cheesy like you and nothing more. But that didn’t really make sense. It might have been the perfect opportunity to finally mount the elephant in the room (or on the mountain), to say once and for all, “Hey! there’s a fucking elephant in the room. And by the way, I’m in love with you.” But if he knew nothing else, that was bound to scare Louis right onto the next flight home.

His second thought was this: “I just remind myself there’s a lot of beautiful things down there too.” And he didn’t stare meaningfully into Louis’ eyes when he said it because again: first flight to London.

Louis nodded, more to himself than to Harry, and looked out again over the lake. “Makes sense,” he said. He held his arms out at his sides and tilted his head back and sucked in a deep breath, his eyes slipping shut.

Harry lifted his camera and took the picture. Louis’ eyes popped open at the sound of the shutter. Harry snapped another.

“Hey,” Louis whined.

Harry snapped a couple more, lips trembling with laughter. “Stay still. This is a good one,” he said. Louis tipped his head forward, arms crossing his chest. He looked like a man conquering a mountain. Harry took several more pictures and lowered the camera to study the images on the display.

“How do they look?” Louis asked, stepping closer.

Harry glanced at him with a small smile. “Beautiful,” he said easily.

That was another thing about dwelling in the wild outdoors: No filters.

Louis looked at him. Harry looked back. And okay…maybe some filters. Because there were a thousand words racing to Harry’s lips and perhaps the same amount rushing to Louis’. And they said nothing.

The moment passed when Louis’ eyes fell on the camera. He reached for it. “Can I?” he asked. “Let me get one of you.”

 

> > L < <

 

September 2011

Most people called their mum their best friend, but it wasn’t true, not in the actual sense of the word. Their mum was more like that one friend in the clique who they were happy to have around sometimes but not all the time. Because you couldn’t share everything with a mum. Not usually.

Louis and Jay were different. They had to be. Because Louis grew up with her depending on him almost as much as he depended on her. They had a mutual respect and understanding unfound between most parents and their children.

She was his best friend. The best of the best. No doubt about it.

And so, it only made sense that when he started to panic, he called her first.

She let him ask questions for a bit about how the girls were doing, and if work was going alright, and then after a while, she said simply, “So, what’s wrong, babe?”

Louis was sat on the bathroom floor of his hotel room, having wiggled out of lunch with Harry and the rest of the boys by swearing he wasn’t hungry. It wasn’t a complete lie. Since yesterday he’d been feeling nauseous. The last thing he wanted was anything in his churning stomach.

“I think I really messed things up, mum,” he said.

“What happened? Tell me and we’ll see how we can fix it,” she said. We. Always we. They were a team, him and her. His troubles were hers and vice versa.

“I wanted to tell you about this sooner but I didn’t— It didn’t seem like a big deal then.”

“That’s alright. Whatever you need to tell me, you can do it when you’re ready.” She didn’t sound impatient at all. Even though Louis hadn’t yet gotten to the point.

“I broke up with Hannah,” he said. “I guess you probably noticed that on Facebook.”

“I did. But you seemed okay about it,” she said. “I didn’t want to push you to talk if you didn’t need to.”

Louis rested his forehead in his palm. “Do you think…” he began, his voice unsteady, “Do you think it’s possible to fall in love with someone after only being with them for a little while? Like a month?”

Jay was quiet, he imagined, as she turned the question over in her head. “Well, yes,” she said eventually. “I think falling in love is possible under almost any circumstances. No one can really tell you when or how to be in love. It just is.”

Louis' throat closed tighter, the words like a hand around his neck. He forced himself to breathe, begged his body to just let him breathe. “I think I really messed up. With Harry. I think I just- it wasn’t meant to be anything serious. I didn’t know what it was meant to be but it wasn’t this. It wasn’t—”

“Love, you have to tell me what you’re talking about. It’s alright. Just tell me what’s wrong so I can try to help. What’s this about Harry?”

Louis was happy now that he’d had that conversation with her a few months ago about how he maybe kind of fancied boys as well as girls. She hadn’t been as surprised as he thought she would be.

Anyway, it made his next words easier to say. He sucked in as deep a breath as he could. “I’ve been like fooling around a bit with him, with Harry,” he said quickly. He didn’t give her a chance to respond. “But it wasn’t meant to be serious. It was just…we’re just having fun. It’s fun, that’s all.”

It wasn’t entirely true, he supposed. They’d started using the term “boyfriend,” a few weeks ago. Louis remembered how it’d made the blood in his veins bubble and fizz like the best champagne. But even then, even when they put a word to what was happening between them, it wasn’t serious. It wasn’t like they intended to be together forever, or anything like that. It was just fun.

“Then what’s the problem?” his mum asked.

“I messed up. It got serious. I messed up and I let it get serious.”

“Did Harry tell you he loved you?” Jay asked, beginning to fit pieces together. She always was good at puzzles.

Louis choked on a laugh. He wished. How much easier would this be if that was the case? Maybe it wouldn’t be easier at all. Louis didn’t know anymore. His head was in ruins.

“No.” Louis shook his head as if she could see him. “No, it was me.”

“You told Harry you loved him?”

Louis curled his knees up against his chest, pressed his forehead against them. “I didn’t tell him, no.”

“You think you’re in love with Harry?” Jay asked quietly. And she didn’t sound like she was mocking him at all. Even though Louis felt silly saying it. What did it even mean to be in love? How could he know when he was only eighteen?

The thing was that he did. The thing that had him choked up and nauseated the past few days was that he did know. Without ever having felt it before, he knew what this was.

At the start of the week, he woke up from a nap in his bedroom with Harry pressed against his chest and snoring. He was drooling on him too. And Louis was pretty sure he’d farted in his sleep. His curls were in Louis’ mouth and up his nose, choking him like dust. When he coughed and sneezed, Harry woke with an indignant, “Shh.”

Louis coughed louder.

Harry sat up, his face all mushed and wrinkled with red lines. He wiped his mouth and then wiped at the damp spot on Louis’ chest. “’M sorry,” he’d grumbled.

“For the fart or the drool?” Louis asked.

Harry looked instantly scandalized. “I didn't fart.”

“Yeah, you did. It's all fine though, love,” Louis said. “I happen to love being slobbered on and all that.”

“You do technically,” Harry said with a meaningful glance at Louis’ crotch.

Louis rolled his eyes. “You’re not funny. At all.”

“I’m kind of funny. I make you laugh all the time,” Harry said, shifting overtop Louis’ body. He smiled, dropping a kiss at the corner of Louis’ mouth. “Since we’re speaking about me slobbering on your cock…”

Heat flushed Louis’ body. “You’re the only one speaking about it.”

He heard Harry laugh, the sound turning muffled as he disappeared beneath the sheets. The breathy puffs of laughter ruffled the tiny hairs of Louis’ skin. Harry sucked tenderly on his tummy, slinking down a bit further, tugging at the waistband of his pants. Louis pushed the sheets away so he could watch (also you know, so Harry could breathe).

The moment Harry wrapped his mouth around Louis’ cock was the same moment—the very first moment—that the thought occurred to him. Here he was with Harry’s drool drying on his skin and all he could think about was how perfect and right this was, how he wanted to wake up this way every time, forever. And he thought, God, I love him. And then alarmingly, I’m in love with him.

Afterwards he felt he was sinking. It felt like teetering precariously on the roof of a towering building and then suddenly having the ledge give way beneath you. Like falling with your heart in your throat and your blood rushing up towards your brain. Like reaching out and having nothing to grab hold of. He spent the next day trying to talk himself out of it. Which brought him here, on the floor. Because, as it turned out, he couldn’t.

His mum was waiting on the phone for his answer. But Louis was willing to bet by now that she already knew what it was.

“I am,” Louis mumbled, his eyes burning. He didn’t want to cry. But he was frustrated with himself for letting this get out of hand, for messing things up. Frustrated with Harry for being so bloody perfect. He dragged his palm over his eyes, roughly. His breath came shakily. “I really am.”

 

> <

 

January 2016

He found Harry in the kitchen the following morning, standing by the stove, eating a bowl of cereal with sliced banana. His hair was fixed into a sloppy bun. He wore a large loose-fitting t-shirt and black leggings. A pair of knitting needles, a spool of vibrant yarn, and a working garment waited on the counter.

“You knit?”

At the sound of Louis’ voice, Harry nearly jumped out of his skin and attached what remained of himself to the ceiling. “Jesus,” he hissed. He pressed his hand to his rapidly inflating chest, staring wide-eyed at Louis.

“Did you forget I was here?” Louis huffed a laugh.

Harry made a face, one second away from sticking out his tongue. Louis would have liked to see that. The more time they spent together, the more Harry seemed like he hadn’t changed much at all, was still just a kid in a man’s body.

“Didn’t even hear you coming down the hall,” Harry said, wiping at a bit of milk that had spilled on his t-shirt.

“That’s called stealth,” Louis replied with a smile, bracing his hands on his hips.

Harry shook his head, but his lips curved whether he wanted them to or not. Wordlessly, he pushed himself away from the edge of the countertop and retrieved a mug from the cupboard. He filled it with freshly boiled water and dunked a tea bag around a few times. He went to the fridge for milk, tossed in a splash, and withdrew a spoon from the drawer to give it all a stir.

It took him about two minutes tops. And then he turned and handed the mug to Louis. “Would you like cereal? I bought Cocoa Puffs yesterday. Still like those, right? I have Corn Flakes too.”

Louis blinked at him. Harry arched both of his brows. “Yeah. Cocoa Puffs sound good. Thank you…” Louis said slowly, staring at Harry until he fidgeted and looked away.

“No problem,” Harry said.

He smelled nice, Louis thought. Something rosy and woodsy at the same time, drifting away from him when he turned and pulled a bowl down for Louis. He took the unopened box of cereal down from the top of the fridge and slid the milk across the counter. He placed a spoon neatly beside the bowl.

“There you are,” he said with a fleeting smile. He returned to his own cereal, though by now his granola must’ve been a little soggy.

“So,” Louis said, fixing his bowl of cereal. “You knit…?”

“Oh. A little, yeah. My mum taught me a bit. And I’ve had a lot of time lately to practice, so…” Harry trailed off.

Louis thought of Harry and Anne hunched over needles and yarn and smiled. One of the things he missed most about his relationship with Harry was Harry’s mum. Anne adored him right from the start, took him in like she’d raised him herself. And for all that love, he’d repaid her by breaking her son’s heart. Figure that.

Louis filled his bowl with milk and stirred his spoon around, pensively.

“So, what’s on the agenda today?” he asked before his first bite.

“Haven’t come up with one yet,” Harry confessed. He poked a finger through his bun to scratch at the center of his scalp. “Whatever you want to do.”

Louis pointed his spoon toward the fridge. “I noticed the list on the whiteboard there,” he said, returning the spoon to his cereal. “Could help you with that.”

Harry glanced at the dry-erase board he had mounted on the fridge. A To-Do List had been scribbled hastily in blue marker. “Paint the greenhouse” was number one, followed by “fix the leak.” Numbers three and four were having to do with the garden in Harry’s greenhouse. Number five was “Finish the hat.”

The list went on. Plenty of the items were beyond Louis’ area of expertise. But he’d done some handiwork at home, especially before the band. Painting didn’t seem particularly daunting. And if Harry needed him to water some vegetables, he could manage that too.

Harry’s gaze swung back to him. He shook his head. “I couldn’t ask you to do that.”

“Good thing you’re not asking then. You said, ‘whatever I want to do’ and that’s it,” Louis explained, staring aggressively into his cereal bowl. He’d spent so much time pretending he didn’t care about everything Harry said or did, like he wasn’t subconsciously looking out for him, or glaring in his direction when he teetered too close to the edge of the stage. And yet there he was, undoing years of indifference by going out of his way to be charitable.

Harry was quiet for a long time, forcing Louis to chance another look. Harry’s mouth was pursed and twisted contemplatively, his ringed fingers drumming on the countertop.

“It’s not a big deal, is it?” Louis said. “Just tell me what needs to be done and I’ll do it, really.”

“Thank you,” Harry said. “I won’t have you do it by yourself. But you can help? We can start with painting the greenhouse. Then I guess you can help me figure out the leak in the loo. And then we can finish off with the vegetables.”

Louis should have expected that answer in the first place. Because Harry was never the kind of person to pass his work off to someone else, regardless of how much they offered. If he could do it himself, he would.

“Sounds like a plan to me,” Louis said.

Harry nodded and smiled without trying to hide it. “Good.”

“Is that the hat you’re meant to finish?” Louis asked, nodding his chin toward the knitting needles and yarn sitting on the countertop.

Harry huffed a weary laugh. “It’s something. I wanted it to be a hat. But it’s more complex than I thought it would be. Was supposed to be a gift for Gemma or someone. I don’t know…”

“I’m sure you’ll figure it out. And it’ll look lovely,” Louis said, sticking another spoonful into his mouth, munching and avoiding unnecessary amounts of eye contact. He didn’t really enjoy the hollow silence either or the way the crunching of cereal between his molars seemed so loud. It was like last night all over again.

They hadn’t been this way on the mountain. But perhaps that was the magic of that part of the earth. Come down from the mountain and the spell breaks.

They made their way through breakfast. Harry fed Neon while Louis got changed into something more suitable for the weather. He met up with Harry again at the door to the backyard, slipping on his Hunter boots.

It was even warmer than the day before and slightly windy which would be perfect for the paint to dry. Harry drew two cans of dark red paint from his shed, along with brushes, and trays. Most of the greenhouse was made of glass—the entirety of the roof for example. But there was wood installed all along the bottom and the door was bare, unfinished wood too.

It was slow, easy work. Tranquilizing with each upstroke and downstroke of Louis’ brush, and the deep lull of Harry’s voice.

“There’s the Clearwater Mountains, where we are. And further down, there’s the Salmon River Mountains,” he explained. “And the Salmon River that runs through those mountains is actually responsible for the lake here.”

“And the lake here?” Louis replied. “It doesn’t have a name?”

“I don’t think so. I think it’s too small to have one.”

“And you didn’t think to give it one?” Louis tsked. “Sad.”

Harry smiled. “I have an idea…”

Louis leaned down to load his brush up with paint. “Let’s hear it.”

Harry hesitated a second, brushing one particular area on the door repeatedly. “Lake Delilah,” he said finally.

Louis’ brush slowed. “Delilah,” he repeated.

“Like the song,” Harry said.

Now Louis was sorry he asked. His face suddenly felt hot. He focused again on the spot he was painting. Like the song. Like Louis’ audition song, he meant. And no, Louis wasn’t arrogant to make the connection. He knew for a fact that Harry adored that song primarily because Louis sang it. He knew that, at a time, Harry had the audio from Louis’ audition saved on his phone. He knew that whenever Harry got fussy with him, it would only take a few notes sung in his ear to get him smiling again. These weren’t things he’d forget. Or that Harry would forget, apparently.

“Good one,” Louis finally got himself to say. He powered on. “Do you catch a lot of salmon then? Because of the Salmon River?”

Harry noted the subject change. Because of course he did. Because it was fucking obvious. He stared at Louis for a full two seconds of pure agony. And then he looked away. “I’ve caught some. But they’re more elusive than trout,” he said. “Or maybe that’s something novice fishermen say.”

“Probably the latter,” Louis joked.

Harry glared at him. “Watch it,” he said. They laughed, Louis a little more eagerly than Harry to dispel the tension.

It felt like every conversation with Harry was a test of dodging landmines and a trick of false calm. Louis just needed to make it to next week in one piece.

They finished with their paint job and slipped into the greenhouse while it dried enough for a second coat. Harry showed Louis th e tomatoes and peppers, and the sunflowers he was growing as well.

“Jenny planted the sunflowers. I just learned how to take care of them,” he explained.

Louis brushed his thumb over one bright gold petal. “I love sunflowers.”

“I know,” Harry said. He’d given him fifty for his birthday the year they started dating. Louis’ heart did something odd when he thought about it. About Harry in their hotel bed, surrounded by gleaming vases. He was sprawled nude on the mattress with one flower between his mouth. He’d removed it to say seductively, Happy Birthday, Sunflower. They couldn’t stop cackling for hours.

“I have herbs too,” Harry said all of a sudden. Louis blinked to dispel the reverie. When he looked, Harry’s ears were rosy. Maybe because he remembered to. He turned away, mumbling about his herbs.

It was only a matter of time before Louis stepped on a landmine.

Harry watered the vegetables, while Louis left to clear his head and start on the second coat of paint. When Harry returned, they worked in silence. As it turned out, silence expedited the task.

“I think that’s more than enough for one day,” Harry said. “We can work on the leak tomorrow if you’re feeling up to it.”

Louis couldn’t protest to that. He needed a moment to himself, from underneath the weight of tense silence, or fond memories. He hadn’t managed to dodge anything, he realized. The landmine was waiting right beneath his foot.

 

> <

 

February 2012

The two of them would probably never do an interview together again.

Not when they had looked ready to climb into each other’s laps the entire time, right there on camera. Not when the French interviewer herself gave them multiple narrow-eyed looks, seemingly attempting to discern whether she was imagining the tiny pink hearts floating between their gazes or not.

Louis couldn’t help himself. He was young and stupid and in love. Harry’s curls were especially springy that day— Valentine’s Day, to be specific. And maybe it was the charm of Paris that kept his cheeks permanently flushed and his lips perpetually bitten red with excitement.

It was a wonder they got any footage at all where Louis wasn’t looking at him.

They fled the hotel together afterwards, narrowly avoiding a stern reprimanding by their PR team, and took a car to the Eiffel Tower. Because “we’re in Paris, for fuck’s sake,” said the one and only Harry Edward Styles, “You can’t go to Paris and not visit the Eiffel Tower!”

Louis had responded with a roll of his eyes but proceeded to follow him like the lovesick puppy he was. If Harry told him in the morning he wanted to have peanut butter and banana sandwiches on the moon or piss off the top of Mount Everest, Louis would haul ass behind him without question.

Before they got to the Tower, they had dinner at a lovely café with a stellar view of the Louvre. And shared a slice of cake, dusted with chocolate powder and topped with strawberries. Louis even let Harry feed him a bit, although he felt like a proper idiot. He slapped Harry’s hand away when he tried to dab the corner of his napkin to Louis’ mouth. “Don’t push it,” he said, cheeks flaming.

And then they took on the Tower.

“We’re almost there,” Harry singsonged, turning to shoot a half-manic smile Louis’ way. The lift kept climbing and Harry kept bouncing on his toes. Louis watched the ground below grow farther away and the pedestrians grow smaller. Good thing neither of them were afraid of heights.

“What if this lift just like gave out? Like just plummeted to the ground?” Louis said, just because he could.

Harry looked at him seriously. “At least we’d be together,” he said, working his dimple extra hard, turning the charm up much higher than was necessary for someone he’d been dating for months. Louis rolled his eyes.

The lift came to a stop, making a loud buzzing noise. The doors opened and Harry threw both arms into the air like a cheerleader, fists raised to the heavens. Louis gave up playing cool and marched out of the lift, looking through the glass windows with wide eyes. “Holy shit,” he breathed.

“Race you,” Harry called. Louis’ gaze snapped to him, just in time to catch him mounting a set of stairs to the uppermost deck. Louis dashed after him, colliding with him on the stairwell. They laughed, bursting off the stairs into the frigid night air.

The deck was barred by crisscrossed metal fencing. There were telescopes and a lone attendant off to the side who, like the rest of the staff, would be paid generously for their services after hours. When the attendant saw them, he nodded and started down the steps to allow them privacy.

Harry put his eye to a telescope. Louis wrapped his fingers around the metal fencing, staring out at Paris, so miniature it could belong to a doll. He could cover half the Seine with his thumb if he shut one eye. He felt Harry appear at his side.

“What if this deck just collapsed and we both went falling into the river?” Harry said.

“What an end to our night that’d be, Harold,” Louis murmured.

Harry bumped his hip against Louis’. “At least we’d be together,” he said. Louis looked at him. “Do you ever think about dying though? Like how you’d die?”

“Doesn’t everyone?”

“Maybe. But I mean like specifically, are you ever in a moment so perfect that you think, ‘it’d be alright if I died right now’?” Harry elaborated. He didn’t wait for Louis to answer. “I remember our first time performing together as a band, thinking ‘if I died right then, that really wouldn’t be the worst thing.’ We all have to die at some point, yeah? At least our last moment should be incredible.”

Louis pulled his gaze away from him. Because he always got a little dopey when Harry started waxing poetic like that. The worst part was that even when he talked utter shit, Louis always got him. He got this too. “Yeah,” he said simply. “I know what you mean. Although if you died on stage, our fans would be scarred for life.”

“True…” Harry said. “I thought about it when you kissed me too.”

Louis turned and sent him a smug smirk. “Oh really? The first time or every time?”

Harry snorted. “Just the first. Let’s not get carried away,” he said. Louis poked him in his side and poked him again when Harry squirmed away. He stepped close, trapping him in his arms. Though it wasn’t much of a trap if Harry wanted to stay. He glanced around for the attendant before dropping a kiss on Harry’s cheek. “How about that one?”

Harry smiled. “Hm. Maybe.”

They looked out on the city again, unable to capture it all with their own eyes.

“We should just stay this young forever,” Harry spoke again. “Everyone else can grow old. But me and you’ll stay just like this.” He looked at Louis, eyes lit with boyish wonder. His red muffler tossed around his neck by the wind. “How about it?”

“Or we can grow old like we’re meant to,” Louis said. “But it’ll be alright because at least we did it together.”

He was only mocking him. But Harry’s whole face suddenly went soft. Starlight appeared to ignite in his eyes. “You want to grow old with me?”

Louis’ cheeks warmed, even in the bitter Parisian air. “Well, I can’t think of anyone else I can tolerate for that long. Especially in my old age. Liam would probably nag me into my grave. Zayn would always be asleep. Niall would never let me sleep. So, yeah, I think you’re perfect for the job.”

A laugh bubbled up from Harry’s red mouth. “Oh. So that’s your reasoning?”

The disbelief rang clear in his voice. He started walking backward toward the railing on the other side of the deck, his eyes steady on Louis. “Not because you want to be with me, right?”

He tilted his head, his curls bouncing with the movement. Louis felt hypnotized. He bit his lip to suppress a grin and took an unconscious step forward.

“Not because I’m your favourite person,” Harry added, his eyes challenging him closer. Louis stepped right into his space, leaning in to kiss him finally. It’d been hours.

Harry whispered, “Not because you love me.”

Louis froze immediately, locked in place like the ground had turned to tar. His eyes flew from Harry’s mouth to Harry’s unwavering gaze. His next breath shuddered on the night air, just as Harry’s cold hands met his face and drew their mouths close.

“Not because I love you?”

The words took shape like an arrow. There was barely enough time to react when they found their target—right in the centre of Louis’ heart. Because Harry’s mouth was on his and he wanted nothing more than to just kiss him back.

His arms came around Harry’s waist and held tight like he was afraid he would disappear. Harry curled his arms over Louis’ shoulders and kissed him and kissed him, clinging to him just as desperately.

“I love you,” Louis broke away to say. “I love you so much. I’m sorry I haven’t said so sooner.”

“Me too,” Harry said. And he kissed him again, their mouths moving together like this was the thing they were made to do. Not to sing. Not to conduct interviews that they spent fawning over each other. Not to entertain the masses.

But this right here. To meet. To part for breath. And to meet again.

“I love you, Harry,” Louis said again. Now that he could say it, he might never stop. “I’m so in love with you. I love you.”

Harry tucked his face away in Louis’ neck. “Me too. I love you too,” he breathed. “Grow old with me, okay? Stay with me.”

“I will,” Louis said immediately. “I promise I will.”

Harry sighed, tilting his head back so his hair swayed a bit in the wind. His eyes slipped shut. “I think this is the happiest I’ve ever been in my life,” he said with a small laugh. “If this is a dream, I hope I never wake up.”

Louis’ smile grew, his eyes leaving Harry reluctantly. He mimicked him, tilting his head back as well and they stared together at the starry winter sky. The stars stared back at them.

If this was a dream, he hoped they never woke up.

 

> <

 

January 2016

But at some point, you have to, Louis thought. Lying in bed, immobilized by a lingering dream, he watched the sun kiss the peak of a mountain far off. A sight from a fairytale, it seemed like. These were the opening minutes of some Disney film. This little cabin was a kingdom far, far away. And if Louis was the hero, that made Harry the fair maiden he was fated to be with. Louis smiled, rolling over, pressing his face into his pillow.

Everything about this place felt like a fairytale. Perhaps that was why his mind dared to recall the Eiffel Tower. Because that too had seemed surreal, too good to be true. He should have known it then, right?

A rose cut from its bush would eventually die. A dream syphoned off by reality was destined to expire.  And whatever that bright, boundless thing was between them way up above Paris— It started to peter off the second they were foolish enough to come down.

“Oh, shut the fuck up,” Louis groaned aloud to himself, rolling onto his back. He pressed his palms into his eyelids and then, in one rush, disconnected himself from his bed and from his macabre line of thinking. He planted his feet on the floor and stood.

Harry was frying something up and Louis could smell the peppers already. Could taste them, even. The fair maiden was a damn good cook.

 

> <

 

“I think your cat is obsessed with me,” Louis said while Neon pushed her head against his palm, soft fur like a feather beneath his skin. He obliged her and pet her gently between the ears. He glanced at Harry and couldn’t tell whether the fondness in his gaze was for Neon or for him.

Obviously, for the cat.

“She’s just a flirt,” Harry said. “Careful she doesn’t put a spell on you.”

Louis huffed a laugh. “Too late,” he said. To Neon, he cooed, “I’m already enchanted.”

Harry smiled, cheeks dimpled. He placed a dish on the table. Louis was still reeling from Harry’s breakfast burritos and the ham and cheese toasties he made for lunch. And now, for dinner, they were having steak that Harry had seared, artfully and effortlessly, while nursing a glass of wine while roasting potatoes and broccolini.

The whole spread looked like something Nigella Lawson might whip up and then swoon over. And yet Harry spoke about it all regrettably. “I couldn’t get out there and fish today, but I’ll try tomorrow,” he’d said. “This’ll have to do.”

Louis hadn’t known what to say to that. And he forgot to come up with something. Because right then, Harry bent over in the fridge, the clink of glass meaning he was pulling beer bottles, and for just a second, the smallest fraction of a second, Louis let his eyes graze over his bum and his thighs, hugged so close by his black jeans.

Heat settled fleetingly in his stomach, a dim reminder of earlier that afternoon, when Harry had stepped out of the bathroom after lunch, freshly showered and nude, save for a towel bounding up his hair.

He hadn’t seen Louis standing near the end of the hall because his gaze was directed at his phone. Or—a dark part of Louis’ brain suggested—maybe he had seen Louis and simply pretended otherwise. Maybe this was phase one of Harry’s elaborate plans of seduction.

Or Louis was ridiculous and Harry probably thought Louis was in the greenhouse like he said he’d be, watering the vegetables. Harry definitely wasn’t trying to seduce him. Harry still couldn’t maintain eye contact with him for more than a minute.

The specifics didn’t lessen the effectiveness at all. Louis’ dick had stiffened up at record speed, quicker than when he was eighteen and Harry actually had his hands on him. He watched in shock—and wonder, to be honest—as Harry sauntered off to his bedroom, all that pretty, glowing skin and lean muscle.

Louis had stood in front of the freezer for about ten whole minutes, letting the cold cloudy draft wash over his skin and cleanse him of his mental transgressions.

Harry stood upright, cradling two beer bottles in the bend of his arm and holding two more in his hands. He placed them on the table and popped the top off one for Louis. “Sorry I finished off the wine. Would have been better with the steak.”

Louis shook his head, hiding a grin.

“What?” Harry asked, his smile growing curiously.

“Nothing at all,” Louis teased. “It’s all perfect the way it is.” He let Neon slip out of his lap.

Harry took his own seat across the table, placed his napkin in his lap. He waited for Louis to serve himself first, and then he took the spoon and did the same.

“So, I have to ask— Why Idaho?” Louis asked. “It’s beautiful. But just— why?”

Harry ran his teeth over his bottom lip. “Uh…” He seemed to fidget over the question. Louis’ brows creased deeper and deeper. “It’s just far away from things, you know…”

Things. Louis turned the word over in his head. He wasn’t paranoid. Not really. But by ‘things’, Harry might’ve just meant him. It wouldn’t be the first time. He had run from Louis before.

“Seems like a valid reason to me,” Louis said, as unsarcastically as possible. But he never was any good at biting his tongue. The way Harry’s gaze lingered on him said he hadn’t succeeded this time either.

“How did you end up picking this house in particular?” Louis diverted.

Harry took a sip of his beer. “I was just actually Googling places for sale near a lake. I wanted something small and secluded. And I sent this list to Rob,” he said. “I couldn’t like drive around and check them all out by myself… He mentioned that this property had the best view out of them all. And it was high in value. And I trust Rob, so.” Harry finished his long-winded speech with a shrug. “I came and had a look. And I loved it.”

“Rob?” Louis raised a brow. He thought he might already know. But he asked just to be sure.

“My realtor,” Harry confirmed.

Louis resisted the urge to roll his eyes. Like, he understood the whole first-name-basis thing with the realtor. Louis had the same with the woman who’d sold him his house, Karen. But there was something about hearing Harry say he trusted Rob that rubbed Louis wrong. His annoyance flared. Just for a second. He took a sip of his beer and reigned it all back in.

Harry went on, “And I sent my mum pictures and Niall too. And everyone was pretty much in agreement about how nice it is.”

And the annoyance came flooding back. Louis knew that he had no right to feel the way he did right then. But knowing didn’t make it any easier. Louis would have told him he liked the house. At first, Harry running off to Idaho didn’t make any sense to him. But once he’d seen the pictures, he would have understood and given Harry his full support. But Harry didn’t care for Louis’ support at all, did he?

“I know things are…different for us. And we aren’t as…close…as before.” Putting it lightly, but Louis trudged on. “But you could have talked to me about it too? I would have been happy to help,” Louis said, keeping his voice measured. He said it the way one might suggest adding more salt to a dish, a mild comment of little importance.

Harry’s brows creased. “What would have been the point?”

Well, okay. Louis blinked at him. “If you needed more than one opinion…”

“I had my mum, Gemma, and Niall. And I mentioned it to Zayn and Liam a bit later. Lots of opinions.”

“So, I was the last to find out then,” Louis clarified.

Harry simply looked at him, sort of expressionless. Louis’ skin grew hot, his ears prickling. He was giving too much away, wasn’t he? He was revealing too many emotions where Harry offered none. The game had changed and all the tables were askew.

He wondered briefly if Harry was taking pleasure in seeing how this bothered him. He knew it was plain on his face to see and even if it wasn’t, Harry had always been the best at reading him. When Louis was tense, Harry was always there to rest a cool hand on the back of Louis’ neck. When Louis was sad, Harry hugged him a bit tighter, pressed a kiss to his neck where Louis liked it best. He was always there, hardwired and synced to Louis so thoroughly, he never missed a beat.

It’d been such a long time since they’d been together like this, Louis had let himself forget. And now with Harry’s eyes on him, he was forced to remember. He was giving too much away. And he couldn’t even stop.

“So, how’s Nick?” he asked, setting his bottle down on the table with a heavy thud. He was feeling defensive now, ready to push some buttons while his own were still smarting.

Harry’s eyes narrowed. “Fine, I’m sure.”

“Did you ask for his opinion about the house too?”

“No. But he gave me his opinion when he visited a month ago,” Harry replied.

Fuck. Fuck this. Louis wanted to kick something. He released the beer bottle, curled his hand into a fist.

The silence that descended over them was stifling. It reminded Louis of the last three years they’d spent in this tense, obligatory partnership, solely intact because of their commitment to the band. He wanted to leave, maybe go for a walk to clear his head. The bitter cold might stop him from fucking this up any further.

“How’s Eleanor?”

Louis’ mouth dropped open. “What?” He wasn’t sure he even spoke the word or if he breathed it, like a dragon did with fire, or hissed it like a snake.

Harry shrugged one shoulder. “I think if you can ask me about Nick, I can ask you about Eleanor,” he said.

“Seriously?” Louis said. “You’re being serious?”

Harry pursed his lips, the way he did when he was trying to keep from speaking. Or saying something stupid for example. Too late.

If he was trying to make a comparison between Eleanor and Nick, Louis had to laugh. In fact, he did. He laughed.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “You’re not seriously comparing my former beard to your fucking boyfriend.”

“He’s not my boyfriend,” Harry said.

Louis snorted a condescending laugh. “Right. Sorry again. You’re comparing a woman I can’t even look at anymore to a man you’re fucking?”

Harry threw the rest of his beer back and stood up, the chair squealing too loudly along the hardwood floors. He pressed his hands into the table. It was a strong stance. Louis probably wasn’t meant to find it attractive. Unfortunately, he found everything Harry did, in any capacity, attractive as fuck.

And as furious as he was right then, he wanted nothing more than to bend him over the table and have him right where he stood, just like that.

“I don’t want to fight with you, Louis. That’s not why you came here. I really don’t know why you’re here but I doubt that’s it,” Harry said. “So. I’ll go take a shower and go to sleep and we’ll talk again in the morning.”

He said it all so calmly, Louis was momentarily speechless. Because when he was seventeen, Harry would shout and maybe throw something across the room and end his tirade by locking himself in the bathroom to mutter to himself and cry.

But that wasn’t the same Harry as the one standing before Louis now. This Harry was cool and collected as he placed his plate in the sink and left the room.

Louis didn’t move until he heard the shower cut on a few minutes later. And then he stood up and slipped into the guest bedroom. He shut the door and sat on the edge of the bed, looking out the window across from him.

He waited to hear the shower cut off and the bathroom door open. There was silence for a moment. He pictured Harry standing there with beads of water dripping from his smooth skin and the ends of his hair.

When they were younger, this was the point where Harry would come shuffling into the bed, naked and sorry or ready to forgive. They would snuggle close together. Louis would allow himself to be undressed by Harry’s unsteady hands. And they would kiss and kiss and kiss the hurt away. In the morning, there would be time for apologies. But the only words they had at night were the ones spoken by the press of their skin.

Louis didn’t know how long Harry lingered there outside the bedroom door now. It seemed as if hours passed before he heard the soft patter of Harry’s feet on the floors, moving away from him.

Always moving away from him.

Harry’s bedroom door closed and Louis finally exhaled this breath he didn’t realize he’d been holding, dropping his head into his palms.

“Fuck…” he muttered. He remained that way for another hour and somehow stumbled fitfully into sleep.

 

> <

 

August 2013

The nature of their arguments changed over time. At first, they hardly argued at all. The few times they did, Harry referred to them as “disagreements” or “debates” because terms like “row,” “fight” or “argument” were too aggressive in his opinion.

Their first genuine argument was so silly that eventually, Louis couldn’t remember what it was about. He remembered Harry throwing his phone across their hotel room. Which was stupid. Louis said so. The phone hit the wall and left a dent they would probably have to pay for. Louis told him that too. Harry told him, as kindly as he could, to fuck off.

He’d stormed into the en suite for a shower, punctuating his departure by slamming the door closed. Louis remembered how badly he’d wished the door was the kind that could only close softly.

It was stupid and they were drunk and when Harry came out afterwards, he said he was sorry and gave Louis a blowjob. And if all their arguments had played out that way, they would have been just fine.

Then came Eleanor.

The first time Harry met her, he didn’t hate her. In fact, he seemed to like her quite a lot. They were told she would be the answer to their problems. She would allow Louis more freedom and security in the end. Freedom to come out when he chose. Security from the constant rumours and scrutiny about him and Harry. They weren’t ready for people to know. They didn’t realize at the time that their label wasn’t ready either. That the world wasn’t ready. That it might never be.

Back then, the lies kept them safe and they were grateful for it. Harry was grateful.

The thing about lies though is that they fester. They’re wounds hidden beneath dirty bandages, unable to heal until they’re cleaned and allowed to air.

Looking back, Louis can’t pinpoint where or when it started. In his memory, it happened quickly. One day Harry was enjoying a cup of tea with him and Eleanor. The next day, he couldn’t stand to be in the same room as them, making excuses for why he couldn’t turn up to a particular party or event. And none of them were ever fun when Harry wasn’t there.

And that was the beginning of the end, of the real arguments and the rage. Jealousy, irrational jealousy. Louis didn’t want her. Of course not. He told Harry so. But that wasn’t really the problem.

Harry grew to hate everything. He hated the lies. He hated hiding. He hated Eleanor. He hated himself. He hated Louis.

And it took Louis a while but eventually he understood.

Their very last argument crept up on them like a snake in the grass. The day had started on a high. As in, Louis was literally high, perched quite happily in Harry’s lap with a blunt passed back and forth between himself, Harry and Zayn. Inside the hotel room, Niall and Liam were yelling over a game of FIFA.

Harry was being particularly cuddly. Most likely, because last night they’d had another argument. Or Harry had argued and Louis had fallen asleep on the couch, with his earphones buried in his ears. Usually, he didn’t bite his tongue or mince words. But sometimes Harry couldn’t be reasoned with. And last night, Louis didn’t feel like trying.

Early this morning, Louis had fingered him to delirium and washed his hair in the shower and ordered breakfast. And all was forgiven. Or so it seemed.

They smoked while staring sleepily on London. It was early morning, a couple hours remaining until they needed to start dressing for the This Is Us premiere. They would probably arrive late anyhow.

Zayn mumbled, “Don’t feel like going to this thing at all, man.”

“Just have to get it over with,” Louis said with a sigh.

“Should go out afterwards. Do something fun, just us boys, you know?” Zayn said. And considering that he was probably the most introverted of them all, it had to mean a lot that he was proposing the idea.

They were all worn out from industry things and staying cooped up in their hotel rooms during tour. They’d had a few weeks off from the tour but Louis was starting to equate the perpetual tension shrouding him and Harry to the lack of fresh air and time apart.

“I’m definitely in,” Louis said. He passed the joint to Harry. “How about you?”

Harry opened his lips for Louis to tuck the joint between them. Louis watched him take two quick puffs before Harry pulled away. He exhaled toward the sky. His arms tightened around Louis’ waist. “Sounds good. I’ll go if you go.”

Zayn scoffed. He reached back and rapped on the glass door. Niall and Liam looked toward them. “We’re going out tonight. Us five,” Zayn called through the small space where the door was cracked. Niall and Liam shot thumbs up.

 

> <

 

This was how it happened. How it always happened.

At first, things would be fine, right. They’d be laughing together, flirting like they had in the early days of their relationship. And then Eleanor would show up for some planned appearance or another and like someone flipped a switch, Harry would recede. He’d get quiet, irritable, and eventually he’d just be gone. Literally, Louis would look around and he’d be gone.

Eleanor was with him for the premiere. They took some pictures as they exited their limo, before entering Leicester Square, and immediately after the showing was over. He was antsy each time, unfocused, eager to get it all over with and have a night with his boys.

At the hotel, he found Harry with his back to the door.

“That wasn’t so bad,” Louis said, kicking off his shoes. They still had a little bit before they were meeting up with the others. Harry didn’t respond, scrolling through his phone for a second. Louis steeled himself before he asked, “Want something to drink?”

“I think I’m good,” Harry replied, setting his own shoes by the foot of the bed. He lifted Louis’ shoes and righted them too, careful to look extra annoyed about it. But no one asked him to do that.

“No one asked you to do that,” Louis commented listlessly, popping the top on a can of beer.

“It’s tidier that way,” Harry said. “You have your own room you can stay in if you don’t like it.”

Louis hooked one arm over the back of his chair. He looked at him. “Do you want me to stay in my own room?”

Harry laughed breathily. He removed his blazer and spread it across the end of the bed.

“Are we going to do this again tonight?” Louis said with a heavy sigh. “Really?”

“Do what?”

Louis waved toward him. “You’re clearly upset.”

“I’m fine,” Harry said.

“But you’re not fine. I can tell that you’re not fine. You and I both know you aren’t fine,” Louis said. He hardly ever was.

“If it bothers you that much, just ignore me.”

Louis set his beer can down. He hadn’t even touched it. “What kind of logic is that? Why would I do that when it’d just piss you off more?”

Harry shook his head, ducking down into his luggage. He noticeably pulled out a t-shirt and set it on the bed. “I don’t want to talk about it. I’m not looking to fight.”

“Okay,” Louis said, his knee bouncing. “Well, are you going to come out with us still?”

“I don’t really feel like it,” Harry said, picking his shirt up off the bed.

Louis clenched his jaw and squeezed his fist tight. “Alright. You never feel like it, but alright.”

He grabbed the cigarettes off his bedside table and went out to the balcony, leaving the door cracked just a bit. He heard the shower cut on a second later as he was lighting the cigarette between his lips.

He stood out there, leaning against the railing until he finished, and crushed the smoking butt into a dish they kept there. He considered having another but then the shower cut off. He slipped back into the room and tapped lightly on the bathroom door with the tip of his forefinger.

“I’m coming in,” he said quietly. He waited another second before pushing the door open.

Harry was standing in the mirror, pushing a comb through his hair, white towel thrown loosely around his waist. Their eyes met in the mirror and Harry looked down quickly, just not quick enough. He dragged his arm beneath his nose. “You could have knocked.”

“I did,” Louis said. He drummed his fingers on the door. “Why are you crying?”

Harry shook his head. “I just need to be alone, Louis. Please?” He set his red-rimmed eyes on him again. “Can I just be alone?”

“Harry,” Louis said. His voice cracked embarrassingly. “I can’t help you if you don’t let me help.”

“You can’t help. Period,” Harry said. He reached for his toothbrush and loaded it with toothpaste. When he stuck the brush into his mouth, it seemed like a clear end to their conversation. Louis looked at him for a bit longer, genuinely terrified about what was happening to them, about their lack of ability to communicate, knowing how easily that killed relationships. He didn’t want them to die. He just didn’t know how to save them either.

He pulled the bathroom door shut, collected his keys off the table and left the room, his annoyance and frustration causing his feet to move like the ground was on fire.

He didn’t return for hours.

 

> > H < <

 

January 2016

Harry struggled to leave his bed. The sunlight glared on his face like an accusation. It urged him to get his ass up and make things right. Eventually, he would have to.

Last night was bad, to put it simply. Maybe not as bad as previous nights and previous arguments. But it had been such a long time since they’d done this, Harry had forgotten what it was like. He forgot how spiteful they could both be, all in an effort to prove they’d been wronged more than the other.

Maybe he thought he’d had something to prove last night too. When he realized Louis was jealous, when he read it in his posture and the tenseness of his words, Harry forgot himself for a moment. As shameful as it seemed in the light of morning, last night, he’d loved it. He loved knowing that he still had an effect on Louis, could still get under his skin, and push the buttons only he knew where to find. It was ridiculous and he was embarrassed now about the whole thing, if nothing else especially for mentioning Eleanor.

As much as he dreaded it, an apology of some sort was due.

Only when he was pulling on a clean t-shirt did he smell bacon.

He shuffled out of his room and down the hall. The guest room door was open and Louis’ bed was made and abandoned. He tilted his head inside just to make sure his luggage was there. It was. Of course, it was. Louis would never leave without at least saying bye. At the very least, he had good manners.

Harry headed into the kitchen and instantly went weak in the knees.

There was breakfast on the table: eggs, bacon, sausage and pancakes with sliced strawberries the way Harry liked them. Louis was standing at the sink, washing up all the utensils he’d used this morning and the dishes from last night. His hair still looked a little damp from a shower earlier.

He spotted Harry as soon as he stepped into view and smiled, pushing his glasses up on his nose with his knuckle.

Harry smiled back. They smiled at each other.

“Morning,” they said at the same time. And smiled some more.

Harry exhaled a quiet laugh and rubbed the side of his neck. “This looks really great,” he said rocking back on his heels.

“Good. Eat as much as you can. I think I made too much.”

Louis reached up into the appropriate cupboard to fetch Harry a plate. He was already learning his way around the place, which was…nice. Harry accepted the plate gratefully. Louis set a mug down, a teabag waiting inside, and brought the kettle over. Steam drifted up as he poured and fogged up his glasses. They shared another laugh as Louis wiped them clear.

Louis stopped washing the dishes and finally sat down adjacent to him.

“So,” he said, watching Harry pour maple syrup over his pancakes.

Harry glanced at him. Louis smiled again, smaller this time, his expression tense.

“I’m sorry about last night,” he said.

Harry sliced a section of pancake and speared it with his fork. “So am I,” he said.

“I don’t think you have anything to be sorry for.”

“I tried to make you feel bad about Eleanor. Which was senseless and mean and uncalled for,” Harry said, cringing at the thought. His face felt hot. “I shouldn’t have done that.”

“I had it coming. I made you feel bad about Nick,” Louis said.

“What I said was worse. And I should know better. So I’m sorry,” Harry said. Before eating a piece of bacon, he added, “There’s nothing going on between me and Nick, by the way. Between me and anyone.”

Louis studied him for a second. Harry returned his gaze, chewing slowly. He hoped that Louis could hear what he wasn’t saying.

It wasn’t just that he and Nick weren’t together. It was that they couldn’t be. He couldn’t be with anyone else.

Only Louis.

He watched Louis’ Adam's apple bob as he swallowed. Harry wanted to cover it with his mouth. Anywhere, really. Even as he ate, there was a different sort of hunger scratching at him inside, searching for that itch he’d never be able to reach on his own.

“Aren’t you going to eat too?” he asked Louis.

“I burnt a few of the pancakes and ate those,” Louis snorted at himself. “I’m full for now.”

“They taste really good. Did you add cinnamon?”

“Like you taught me,” Louis assured him with a smile.

Harry remembered that. Crowded up in front of the hob while Harry showed him how to make the perfect pancakes. A bit of cinnamon. Lumpy batter. Medium heat. Louis made them for him the next morning. He was a quick learner. Harry told him so while he was giving him head afterwards.

Harry smiled and shoved more pancake into his mouth, telling his mind to behave. Those weren’t proper thoughts for breakfast.

“So, what’s on the agenda today?” Louis asked him, arm crossed over his chest, fingers rubbing into his bicep.

Harry took a sip of his tea and frowned when it burned his lip.

“You always do that,” Louis commented. It was true. Harry had never taken that first sip of tea without burning himself.

“It’s hard to resist when it’s just sitting there in front of me,” Harry explained, for the millionth time.

“You don’t blow on it enough. Whenever you bring me tea, it’s never too hot,” Louis said.

“I’m more careful with your tea,” Harry said. He pretended not to see the way Louis looked at him and leaned over to feed Neon a piece of bacon. “As for the agenda…I need to run into town a bit later. There’s a storm coming. Tonight, they said. I was thinking we could go out on the lake though. In the boat. And I could try to catch something for dinner.”

“Sounds like a plan to me,” Louis said.

Harry smiled. “Good.” He stood and shuffled around in the cabinet where he kept Neon’s food.

“Oh, I fed her this morning.”

Harry looked at Louis. “Oh,” he said. “Thanks.”

He was already a goner for Louis. He had been since he first met him, first kissed him, first had sex with him. And as much as he thought it was impossible to feel any more than he did, he might have slipped a little farther down the rabbit hole right then.

Apparently, the way to further infiltrate his heart was through his cat.

“Isn’t that nice of him?” Harry said to Neon. The gray tabby sat at his feet, peering up at him. He leaned down and scooped her up. “Aren’t you very grateful?”

Neon purred in reply, licking at Harry’s chin. Harry smiled at Louis. “She says yes.”

Louis grinned. “Tell her she’s welcome.”

Neon licked Harry’s chin again. If Harry could speak cat, he’d tell her that he intended to keep Louis around. But she would figure it out for herself, wouldn’t she? If she had the chance. He placed her down, scratching her head one last time.

When he straightened back up, Louis’ eyes snapped up to meet his. And he’d definitely just been staring at his ass. No doubt about it. Harry used to think he’d failed in terms of storing junk in the trunk (although when they were together, Louis seemed very appreciative of what little he did have).

But lately, all his squats were paying off. Even he could see it when he looked in the mirror. He liked the way his body looked even more these days. Having Louis’ appreciation wouldn’t hurt at all either.

Harry returned to his seat, lifted his fork and knife, and started on his breakfast again.

 

> > L < <

 

So, last night’s drama was settled. At least on the surface. Which, Louis supposed, was good enough for now.

On the surface, they were just two lads, fishing and having a grand time. Technically, Harry did the fishing and Louis sat in the boat, cheering him on, but still very grand.

Harry’s third attempt was a close one. He managed to snag a fish that somehow wiggled its way to freedom, and the line came up empty. Louis laughed.

“That’s alright,” he’d said with a sympathetic squeeze to Harry’s shoulder. “You’ll get the next one.”

His hand sort of lingered there on Harry’s shoulder until Harry peeked at him from the corner of his eye. Louis noticed and quickly curled his fingers away. The moment then passed as if it hadn’t come at all.

Harry finally caught a sizeable trout and they headed back to the house. Louis dragged the boat up onto the bank. Harry hurried to set the fish on ice.

He showed Louis how to scale the fish, holding the tail in one hand, dragging the knife down the body. “Just have to do it slow. Be gentle,” he murmured. “You want to try?”

Louis shook his head. “Next time.” If he stood a little closer than necessary, they both pretended not to notice.

Harry had nice, strong hands, which kept Louis plenty distracted as he chopped some vegetables for dinner and rubbed the fish down with seasoning he said his neighbour had made for him. While they worked and chatted, Harry’s playlist filled the kitchen with folksy tunes that Louis could nod his head to.

On the surface, things were quite alright.

But beneath their ostensible peace, there were the complex emotions their argument had dredged up. Jealousy and want and need, all of it now displayed for them to craftily ignore. Those were things you couldn’t pretend away. Louis knew it. And Harry did too.

There were moments when they would catch each other’s eye and Harry’s gaze would flitter away. Or Louis would brush up too close behind him to get to the waste bin and Harry would tense up.

And even when they weren’t dancing around each other’s bodies or gazes, Harry was still on Louis’ mind. It was impossible to think of anything else. He watched him while he washed his hands and tucked a strand of hair that had avoided his bun back behind his ear. He studied him as he ran his thumb over Neon’s head. He watched the way Harry rubbed his foot over the back of his leg. Or pressed his fist into a sour spot on his lower back.

He couldn’t remember how he’d ever been able to look away from him. As his vision filled with Harry, his head and his heart swelled with him too. And Louis just felt so much. Too much. He was eighteen again with all these feelings he needed to let out. He was the kid panicking because he was falling in love with his best friend and he didn’t know how to deal with that. He was panicking again.

Harry caught his eye and this time he smiled. “Want a sandwich for lunch?”

“Sounds good,” Louis said, and then he tried not to watch him while he made sandwiches for them both. He tried and failed.

“Cheese?” Harry asked, not looking up from the slices of turkey and ham he was layering neatly over wheat bread.

“Sure,” Louis said studying his hands, the tattoos on his forearm, the creamy skin of his neck, his bottom lip tucked beneath his teeth.

Jesus, how had Louis made it this long? He started to retrace the three fucking years he’d gone without succumbing to the crushing need he felt now. And he couldn’t figure out how.

Harry finished the sandwiches and they ate at the kitchen table, looking out at the lake. Dark gray clouds hovered in the distance, creeping closer by the minute.

“How bad do you think it’ll be?” Louis asked.

Harry’s eyes scanned the sky carefully. “It’ll probably snow tonight into most of tomorrow. And leave a foot or more of snow,” he said. “It’s been worse.”

Louis shook his head in dismay. “Still don’t know how you deal with it.”

“It’s not so bad when you have somewhere nice to stay,” Harry said. “You’ll see.”

Louis hadn’t thought of it that way before. The place was nice, yeah. It was cosy and warm and Louis wasn’t looking forward to leaving just yet.

But he also wasn’t excited about the idea of being trapped in here with Harry.

“I’ll go chop some more firewood. And then run to town for a bit to stock up,” Harry said, collecting his plate. “Finished?” he asked reaching for Louis’ plate.

“Yes, thank you. Do the people in town not recognize you?” Louis wondered.

Harry placed the dishes in the sink and turned the tap on. “Not usually. Most of them are old people. But once, a man said to me that I looked a lot like Harry Styles,” he said, glancing over his shoulder at Louis. “And I said, ‘who’s that?’”

Louis laughed. “Clever.”

Harry’s gaze lingered until Louis’ laughter trickled off. He looked away to focus on scrubbing the dishes. “If you want to come into town with me, you can.”

Louis considered it for a moment. He was curious about what this fabled “town” looked like. He pictured log-style buildings, streets covered in snow, and charming gnomish people skipping about in peacoats.

But he needed a break from Harry. Maybe to have a wank, another beer, and a very deep breath. “No, I’ll stay.”

“Just let me know if you need anything before I leave,” Harry said.

“Sure,” Louis said. He watched Harry rinsing the dishes for a second and then he left the kitchen. He would probably call his mum or something once Harry left for town. He needed to get his head in order and she would help him do it.

He sat on the floor of the guest bedroom, his head leaned back against the bed. A soft purr made him blink his eyes open, just in time to see Neon hop down off the bed and land at his side. She nuzzled close to his thigh, purred again, the sound rumbling softly in her chest.

Louis smiled, setting a gentle hand on her head.

“You have a good owner,” he said to her quietly. She stepped into his lap and collapsed there, stretching her arms out. She watched him carefully.

“He’s the very best, isn’t he?” he asked her. She didn’t reply. It was a testament to how emotionally distraught he was that he hoped she would.

He’d never felt more like a kid than he did now. He’d never felt more unprepared and terrified and small than in this moment. Even when he was eighteen and blundering through his life, at least he could say then that he was young and everything that happened was just a part of growing up.

But he was older now. Much older. And it was terrifying to think, that even after all this time, he was still the boy curled up on the floor of a hotel bathroom, crying to his mum.

Neon’s big green eyes remained on his face. Louis exhaled a trembling breath, resting his forehead softly on hers.

“I still love him very much,” he said quietly, his voice breaking. He either wanted to scream or cry. He, of course, did neither. And conducted his frustration into resignation like always. “Doesn’t matter now, does it?”

He waited again as if she would respond. He sighed and lifted her from his lap. He needed a shower and a wank. And maybe a cigarette too. He’d made that bet with his mum on Christmas that he could stop smoking until his next birthday. So far, he’d been doing well.

But maybe he’d ask Harry to pick him up a pack. Just to have them here. Just in case. He checked his face in the mirror on the dresser. He was a little pink but his eyes were dry, which was good enough.

He shuffled back toward the kitchen. The dishes were drying on a rack by the sink. The table was clear. And the dull thwack he heard forced his gaze to the glass doors.

Harry was out back, chopping wood. He wore the thick red plaid top he’d had on earlier over a black long-sleeved shirt. His blue jeans were skin tight, outlining every curve he’d developed over the years, the hems tucked into his snow boots. His hair was knotted up into a bun, his brow wrinkled in concentration. He lifted the ax into the air, sucking in a big breath, and swung down.

The wood split in half. Harry leaned over and collected the two pieces there and tossed them toward the pile he was building. He lifted another wood log and set it down. He dragged his tongue over his lip and lifted the ax again.

Louis watched him. And wanted him.

The ax hit the chopping block with a great thud that seemed to signify this moment of horrendous clarity for Louis. He felt suddenly like the world’s biggest idiot. For coming here and thinking he could last two weeks without this happening.

When had he ever wanted someone or something, anything, as thoroughly and steadfastly as he wanted Harry?

That boyish yearning was like fire in his chest. He wanted to stamp it out. He lingered there for a second, watching the sweat add a sheen to Harry’s neck and collarbones, and then he turned away, moving fast.

He grabbed the pen and a sticky note Harry kept there by the phone and scribbled: Cigarettes and a lighter. Please and thanks! :)

Quickly, he went to the bathroom and turned the shower on, letting the water heat up while he stood in the mirror and scrutinized the mess he’d become. He pushed the door closed and leaned back against the wall, positioned between the tub and toilet, his chest heaving like he was on the verge of an asthma attack. He didn’t even have fucking asthma.

Harry filtered through his head like images on a film reel. His perfect pink mouth. His starry eyes. His smile and the dimples that came with it. His soft laugh and the louder unrefined one. The way he looked when he sang and when he cried and when he moaned and everything. All of it.

He pushed the waistband of his trousers down and wrapped his hand around his cock, sucking in a deep, steadying breath. He knew this wouldn’t solve a thing but he was desperate.

He exhaled slow, sliding his hand up his length. He groaned, repeated the movement, speeding up a little, squeezing more firmly. So, so desperate.

He pressed his back into the wall and shut his eyes, conjuring up more images of Harry, reminding himself of all the things he had ever done and still wanted to do to him and with him. He wanted to touch Harry the way he was touching himself. He wanted to lick every inch of his body, every curve that had materialized while Louis hadn’t been looking. He wanted to sink his cock into the heat of Harry’s pert little bum and he wanted Harry to do the same to him.

He groaned again, ran his palm over the tip of his dick, precome providing for an easier glide of his hand. He hung his head, looking down at his hand, picturing Harry’s mouth there and then his arse.

Louis was so lost in his encroaching orgasm, so eager for it that he would never have heard Harry coming down the corridor. Or realized that the door hadn’t closed properly in the first place.

Instead, Harry seemed to just appear in the doorway, clutching the doorframe like he needed something to hold onto, looking like he was a second away from falling over anyway. Louis saw him and froze, hand stilling mid-stroke.

Harry didn’t even look surprised. Maybe it would have helped if he did. Maybe then Louis would feel ashamed, would take his hand off his dick, pull his pants and trousers back up, and try to work through the awkwardness.

But Harry’s eyes were dark and attentive and expectant, his lips slightly parted. His gaze went from Louis’ face to Louis’ cock and back through the cycle again like he couldn’t figure out what he wanted to look at more.

“Louis,” Harry exhaled.

Louis shut his eyes briefly, the sound of his name on Harry’s tongue like morphine. He looked at him again through hooded, bleary eyes and saw the moment Harry took a small step inside followed by another, pressing himself into the wall adjacent Louis, as if he wanted to mount the wall itself. Be the fly, or whatnot. Be invisible so he could just watch. If Louis understood nothing else, that much was clear. Harry wanted to see this. And fuck, if Louis didn’t want to put on a show for him.

Louis moved his hand slowly, tentatively, and Harry’s gaze immediately dropped. His chest sank with another heavy exhale. As Louis jacked himself, Harry seemed to cave in on himself more and more until it seemed he could barely stand. Louis would be concerned for him if he weren’t in a similar state. He felt the sweat mixed with steam condensing on every part of his body and still, he exerted himself further, fighting back an orgasm to prolong this moment. He could come easily just from the sight of Harry biting his pink lips or palming the erection tenting his own trousers.

Louis’ breath started coming short and shuddery. He was so close, so much closer with Harry watching him.

“Louis,” Harry whispered hoarsely. “I want—”

Louis’ brow creased in mild, unfocused confusion. “What?” His voice didn’t even sound like his own.

Harry took another step forward, then another and when he was right in front of Louis, before Louis could speak, Harry dropped to his knees. His lips parted, his round green eyes floating upward.

The realization of what he wanted hit Louis like an asteroid to the earth. He had to squeeze his eyes shut against the sight of Harry waiting below him. He pushed his hand into Harry’s hair, holding tight, and Harry moaned this breathy, needy sound that shoved Louis right over the fucking edge. Harry braced his hands on the wall on either side of Louis’ hips and readied himself.

“Fuck,” Louis hissed as the first band of come shot free and Harry was right there, tongue out to receive it. He moaned when it struck his mouth and then shuffled closer. Louis rested the tip of his cock on his tongue and Harry closed his soft lips around him, sinking down until the tip of nose brushed Louis’ pubic bone. He ran his tongue up the length of Louis’ cock and over the tip, all the while looking at him with shining, reverent eyes.

When he was done, Harry sat back on his haunches, knees parted enough to reveal the dark stain in the front of his jeans, and he swallowed for Louis to see.

So eager to receive and so eager to please.

For a moment, Harry looked at Louis like he was seeking further instruction. Whatever Louis wanted, Harry would have given it to him that second.

But then he blinked and the haze over his eyes cleared, and he pushed himself to his feet, raking his hair away from his forehead.

“I have to go,” he said quietly. “Sorry, I’ll just- I’ll see you later.”

Maybe Louis nodded his head. Or maybe he didn’t. But he couldn’t speak. He watched Harry leave the room, pulling the door closed properly. Louis listened to Harry’s bedroom door close and reopen moments later, hopefully after he changed his jeans. Then, seconds later, he heard the front door close as well, and Harry was gone.

 

> <

 

August 2013

Louis crept inside, returned his keys quietly to the table, and toed off his shoes. If he was sober, he would have remembered to go brush his teeth and even take a shower because Harry hated that lingering scent of alcohol and sweat from clubbing when he wasn’t drunk himself.

But Louis wasn’t sober. And he wanted to feel Harry’s skin on his. He wanted to make sure he was still there. Lately, Louis kept fearing that he wouldn’t be.

He crawled into the bed, still dressed in his clothes. He just wanted to touch him, just for a second. He slipped his arm around Harry’s waist and rested his head against his shoulder blade, and breathed him in.

“You smell like women’s perfume.”

Louis blinked, his eyelashes close enough to Harry’s skin that they probably tickled. He cleared his throat. “Probably from a fan. Or it might be El’s, I don’t know,” he said. Even drunk, he knew he shouldn’t have said that.

Harry shifted out of his touch and reached for the bedside lamp. He cut it on. “I don’t understand why you smell like her.”

Louis sat up in the bed, his eyes already rolling. “She was there, Harry. We were all dancing for bit. And there were some fans who wanted pictures of us.”

“But why was she there? It was just supposed to be you and the lads.”

“I don’t know? She wanted to come along. Pretty much everyone ended up going, except for you.”

Harry studied him for a moment. “I’m glad you all had fun. Please go take a shower. I can’t sleep when you smell like that,” he said, voice dull.

Louis groaned. “Could you not be ridiculous right now? We literally did this last night. And I think two nights before that. It seems like every fucking day we’re talking about the same thing. Aren’t you tired of us talking about the same fucking thing?”

“Go take a shower and I’ll stop talking about it,” Harry said.

If he was sober, he would have done it. But he shrugged. “Don’t feel like it.”

“Don’t be a dick, Louis. Just go take a shower.”

Louis shuffled out of the bed. “’M sleeping on the couch.”

“I don’t want you to sleep on the fucking couch,” Harry said.

Louis was already standing, rubbing at his forehead. He’d drank too much, more than one too many shots, and his head was reeling. He wasn’t sure if Harry was making sense and Louis was just too far gone to tell. But he was pretty sure Harry wasn’t making any sense.

“You have to stop speaking in code. You have to stop saying things that you just expect me to understand. Lately, I don’t. Lately, I don’t understand anything you’re saying.”

Harry breathed a bitter laugh, nodding his head. “At least you’re being honest.”

“Just tell me what’s wrong, Harry.”

Harry licked his lips. He shook his head and then rested his head in his palm. “I just— I really can’t do it anymore. Like the pretending. I don’t know. It seemed— It seemed like a good idea at first. When they first proposed it. But it’s become too much. We’re hardly together anymore.”

“We’re together all the time. We’re together right now. And you’re wasting time being mad at me about things I can’t change.”

Harry stared at him for so long Louis fidgeted. Harry swallowed and cast his gaze down at his hands. “You asked me to explain, so I did,” he said.

“It’ll get easier,” Louis said. “That’s what they said. It just takes time.”

Harry shook his head. “It’s not getting easier though. It’s getting harder,” he said. “Maybe you can’t change it. But I can. I’ve been talking to my mum about, like, me potentially coming out. Maybe next year.”

Louis was too drunk for this. “What does that mean for us then?”

“If I’m out, I think people will make…assumptions. Maybe that’s what we need. A chance to just be who we are.”

“No.”

Harry’s mouth snapped closed. His lips trembled. He exhaled a breath. “Louis…”

“You told me yourself you weren’t ready. Harry, we literally agreed on this. Neither of us were ready. For the interviews, the questions. They won’t let us anyhow,” he said. “Don’t do this to me, come on.”

“I’m not,” Harry said, his voice watery. He sat in the centre of the bed. Louis hovered just near the door, unable to come any closer. He couldn’t tell if Harry even wanted him to.

“Just because you’re suddenly ready for something, doesn’t mean I am,” Louis said. “We’re not the same person. We agreed to this. Together. You don't even know what you're saying. We agreed--”

“I know that,” Harry said. More half sentences. “I just… I change my mind. I don’t want to do this anymore. Not like this. There has to be another way.”

“There’s no other way. We signed contracts.”

“I really can’t anymore,” Harry said, hiccupping. “I feel like I’m losing my mind, Lou. I can’t…”

“Then don’t,” Louis said. He exhaled. “Fuck, let’s not do it anymore.”

Harry’s lips parted, his eyes rounded. Louis was struggling to keep up with himself, not entirely sure he’d just said what he said. “Huh?” Harry squeaked.

Louis walked towards the door, walked back, chest heaving. Fuck, he didn’t know what he was saying. Or he wished he didn’t know. He wished these words weren’t true, were coming from some dark, hysterical part of his soul, not from the true parts, not from the real ones.

But he meant them, he did.

“I’m done, H,” he said, sinking into the chair. His first thought should have been to flee. To speak the truth and run. But he couldn’t will his body to move right then. “This is just…too much. I think it’s just run its course.”

His eyes burned with each word and he dropped his face into his hands.

“Wait. What’s run its—” Harry struggled for a breath. Louis nearly fetched his damn inhaler. “Louis. Just- Just wait a minute, okay?” He was off the bed now, and on his knees in front of him, hands on Louis’ kneecaps. “Please…” His voice broke and so did Louis’ heart. “I’m sorry, okay?”

Harry grabbed for his collar and held tight. “I’m sorry,” he said, eyes swimming. Louis didn’t think he even knew what he was apologizing for. “It’s stupid and I’m sorry.”

“It’s not stupid. It’s not. We’ve been fighting almost every day. That’s not stupid. That’s a relationship falling apart,” Louis said, unable to make eye contact.

“That’s ‘cause you’re just not listening to me. You just haven’t- It’s not important, Lou. I mean it. It doesn’t matter.”

“Yeah, it does. It does. And you’ll be upset about it tomorrow. It matters to you,” Louis said. “Haz, let me go. Come on.” Louis started to stand up. Harry stood with him, holding tighter.

“Please, Louis. I’m sorry. Please, please, please. Let’s just go to sleep. Let’s just sleep, babe. And we’ll talk in the morning.” Harry pulled at his collar, pulled him closer. “Please.”

“Harry, let me go,” Louis repeated, his voice rougher with urgency and the threat of tears. He pulled Harry’s hands from his shirt. “This is crazy. We can’t keep doing this. We don’t want this anymore.”

You don’t,” Harry choked on the words. His tears fell and he dragged his sleeve over them. “You don’t want this. I do. I still do.”

Louis shook his head, ready to protest. But he couldn’t. Because it was true, maybe. Louis couldn’t speak for Harry but he knew he couldn’t do it anymore.

Harry sank back onto the bed, exhaling a big breath, too shocked to really cry. “You don’t want me anymore?” he asked, his eyes locked on Louis.

“I don’t want this anymore.” Louis gestured between them. He would probably always want Harry. Even now, he still wanted him. “It’s me and you together, that’s the problem. We’re fucking poison to each other or something. I can’t even get you to stick around for more than two minutes. This is crazy. I just can’t— I can’t do it. I’m sorry. I am.”

Harry was biting his top lip, his eyes sort of wide and scared. He looked like he was sixteen, looking to Louis for guidance, for something. And maybe for the first time, Louis had nothing to give.

He took a step back, grabbed his keys and his cigarettes.

“Louis, please don’t do this,” Harry said, his voice small. He wasn’t even looking at him anymore, like he couldn’t stand to watch Louis walk away.

“I’m sorry. I love you and I’m sorry,” Louis said. And he marched to the door, pretended that he didn’t hear the sob that escaped Harry’s throat, and he left.

 

> <

 

January 2016

He was finished with his shower and dressed long before Harry returned. He rang his mum, only to realize it was midnight back home, and hung up quickly. He sent a text and promised to call again later.

As he was lying there, considering his options—between facing Harry or burying himself beneath the snow outside—he decided to call Niall, knowing he wouldn’t sleep for at least another hour.

Niall had always been a bit more protective of Harry. And for that, Louis had been grateful. Looking back now it was a bit arrogant of him, but the fact was he never trusted any of Harry’s other friends to look after him in his absence. The only one valiant enough, in Louis’ opinion, was him.

Liam had remained neutral in the midst of their breakup, determined to be the glue that kept them all together, and Zayn loved everyone but naturally stuck a little closer to Louis. It seemed logical then that it would be either of them that Louis turned to now.

He just knew that if anyone had an idea of where Harry’s head was it, it would be Niall. And he kind of owed Louis guidance for luring him into this mess, didn’t he?

Niall yawned into the phone first thing. “Hey, mate,” he said, groggily. Louis didn’t even feel sorry for waking him. “How’s it going?”

“Good. Really good. It’s lovely here,” Louis said, running his hand down his damp hair. “I’m, uh- I’m glad I came.”

“That’s good to hear!” Niall genuinely sounded overjoyed. “How’s Harry?”

Louis picked at a loose thread on the quilt, his eyes tracing the paisley pattern. “He’s great. He has a cat, you know?” Louis said because he found a strand of Neon’s fur on his bedding. “And he goes fishing and all that. He’s doing really well out here. Wish you could’ve seen.”

“Yeah, definitely. We’ll all go. Be nice to write some tunes in the mountains, yeah? Like hipsters…” Niall laughed.

“That’s the dream, isn’t it? Lots of inspiration to be found up here.”

“You and Haz should try it,” Niall suggested. “There’s an idea.”

For no reason at all, Louis’ heart stuttered in his chest. “Yeah,” he said quietly, and then again, a little louder, “Yeah.”

Niall didn’t respond for a long time it seemed. Like he was just now picking up on the downward slope of Louis’ voice and the fact that Louis was calling him in the first place. “So, what’s up, Lou?” he asked.

Louis rubbed at his eyelids. He sighed. “I don’t know, mate. I just—” he took a deep breath. There was no point in dicking around about it. Harry was due back any minute. And Louis needed answers before then. "I think I'm still in love with him.”

"Yeah. I think you are too," Niall said right away.

Louis blinked wide-eyed and rapidly at the ceiling. Certainly not the response he was expecting. “I didn’t know. I didn’t- It’s not that I ever tried to stop. Loving him, I mean. But I just assumed… that it happened. I didn’t expect to come here and feel like it’s bloody 2012 all over again.”

“You didn’t?” Niall questioned. “Because the way you two left things off— Seemed kind of inevitable to me.”

Sad to say, Louis was shocked by the notion. And no, it hadn’t donned on him before. “Niall, if I’d known we’d be picking up right where we left off, I probably wouldn’t’ve come. I wanted to prove him wrong. That I wasn’t afraid to be here. That’s all it was.”

Niall made a whiny ‘eh’ sound. “Dunno, mate. Maybe that’s one reason. But I think it’s more likely things felt unresolved. Maybe deep down, you wanted to try fixing it all? And only way you’re gonna do that is by picking up where ya left off.”

Louis wanted to know when Niall became a fucking love guru. Or whatever it was, he was doing. Reading Louis’ heart back to him like it was wide open book. Louis tugged at his fringe as if to rip his hair from its roots. He groaned. “Fucking hell, do you think—  I don’t know— Do you think maybe he's still in love with me?"

"You should ask him," Niall replied.

Louis thumped his forehead against his knee. "I could, yeah, but-” He sucked in a breath. “I don't want to hurt him. He’s got things sorted here. He’s, like, at peace here. And I don’t want to fuck him all up. I know, maybe, you don't believe that."

Niall scoffed. "Tha’s not true at all. Come on, you know that’s not true. I don't think you'd deliberately hurt anyone.” The ferocity in his voice caught Louis by surprise, but everything about this conversation seemed to do that. Especially because Niall had only just woken up, hadn’t he? “I think…you’ve both made lots of mistakes. But you still have a chance now to make 'em right. Whatever that means for you. Just talk to him. Maybe tell him how you feel. Ask him how he feels. But only if you absolutely want to."

Did he absolutely want to? He couldn’t even imagine what would happen afterwards. Would they try dating again? Would Harry laugh in his face?

“There’s no way you can know what happens until you try,” Niall said, answering a question Louis hadn’t even given voice to. Psychic love guru realness.

“Thanks, Niall. For your help. And for getting my ass here, I guess.”

“Wow. Didn’t think I’d ever get to hear that.”

Louis rolled his eyes. “Yeah. Well, I’ll take it back if Harry ends up kicking me out.”

“Guarantee you he won’t,” Niall said. “You know Harry. It’s been years, yeah. But you still know him.”

Louis nodded. “Thanks again, mate. You’re a good lad.”

He could hear the smile in Niall’s voice when he answered. “So are you, Lou. Happy to help.”

After they hung up, Louis dropped his phone on the bed, spreading out across the mattress like a disgruntled starfish. He flinched when he heard the front door close. He pictured Harry pushing off his boots, petting Neon who would be waiting for him by the door.

Louis stayed there, listening to him move around the kitchen, music from his playlist floating down the hall. He listened to the clanging of pots and pans, and there were a million moments where he attempted to get up and go offer Harry a hand.

He wasn’t being a coward. Not purposefully. He legitimately just couldn't move.

An hour later, a knock at the door made him fly upright. He cleared his throat. "Yeah?”

Harry didn't open the door. Considering what happened earlier, Louis didn’t blame him. "Dinner's ready."

"I'll be right there," Louis said, already climbing out of the bed. He checked his face in the mirror again. He was all pink with shifty eyes. He pushed his fingers through his hair a few times. One deep breath. Okay, maybe one more. Hell, third time's’ the charm.

He left the room, found the hallway abandoned, and headed toward the kitchen. Harry was in the living room, adding wood to the fireplace. He spotted Louis and smiled. Not a full smile, Louis noted. Guarded and tense. "You can have a seat. I'll be right there," he said easily, stoking the fire.

"Alright," Louis said. He wiped his sweaty palms along his trousers, stepped into the kitchen, and took a seat at the table.

The trout was positioned in a white dish in the centre of the table, with lemon wedges and sprigs of rosemary as a garnish. In the bowl beside it was a heap of mashed potatoes. And in the next dish were veggies.

Harry had already fixed up a plate for Louis and himself. What waited on the table was there in case they wanted more.

Harry stepped back into the kitchen. "I bought wine," he said excitedly or manically, depending on how you looked at it. "I bought a lot of things actually. Just in case, we get snowed in for a bit."

He was very deliberately not making eye contact as he filled Louis’ glass with wine. He took a seat and filled his own. All the way to the brim.

"This all looks amazing," Louis told him. “Thank you.”

Harry smiled, his eyes flitting to his shortly. “I’m glad you think so." He lifted his napkin off the table and set it in his lap. And then he lifted his knife and fork.

Louis sliced into his fish and took a bite. “Tastes good too,” he said after a second.

“That’s Jenny’s doing. It’s the rub she makes,” he said.

“Send my regards to Jen,” Louis raised his glass of wine to her. Whoever she was, exactly. He took a sip, then asked, “Were things in town alright?"

"Yeah. Lots of people stocking up for the storm."

"Still didn't get recognized?" Louis raised his brows as he forked mash into his mouth. He resisted fluttering his eyelashes or moaning. Harry made excellent mash when he was ready.

"No. I told you, I'm stealthy," Harry said.

"I'm still having a hard time believing that."

Harry took a big sip of his wine. “Can’t win them all,” he said, and took another sip. Louis watched him drain half the glass and then refill it. He couldn’t resist smiling. Harry loved a rich glass of wine whenever he could get his hands on it. Throw in the cat, the gardening and the knitting, and Harry had all the likings of a middle-aged woman.

Harry met his gaze over the rim of his glass and raised his brows.

“Are you just going to drink the whole bottle?” Louis asked.

“Maybe. That’s why I bought two,” Harry said, smiling serenely. Louis’ gaze trailed over his lips. There was a bead of wine there in the middle. Just then, Harry dragged his tongue over it. Louis returned his attention to his food. Safer for everyone.

Harry fed a bit of trout to Neon and cooed to her for a bit. He poured himself another glass of wine before Louis began to catch on.

“Are you trying to get yourself drunk?”

Harry’s docile green eyes floated to him. ”Why would I want to do that?”

“To avoid talking to me?” Louis suggested. “Just a guess.”

“I’ve been talking to you,” Harry countered.

“About what happened earlier, H,” Louis said, pushing mashed potatoes to one side of his plate.

Harry drank the rest of his wine, needing to swallow four consecutive times before it was all gone. He replaced the glass on the table with a thud.

“Alright. Let’s talk,” he said.

Louis stared at him, vaguely impressed. And turned on, maybe? But that wasn’t new. He put his fork and knife down.

“Okay,” he nodded. He took a breath. “I feel bad…about what I did.”

“You mean have a wank?” Harry questioned. “Nothing wrong with that.”

Louis’ brows furrowed. He looked at him like he was daft. “Well, maybe there is, since I’m a guest here and all.”

Harry snorted a quiet laugh. “There’s no rule that says my guests can’t have a wank.”

“Is there a rule against guests coming in your mouth?”

Harry dropped his gaze. His face was suddenly pinkish under the dim lighting. And that wasn’t what Louis wanted at all. He didn’t want to embarrass him. Not that there was anything embarrassing about sucking cock like a fucking champ.

Harry licked his lips. “Seeing as it’s never happened before, I’d have to say no,” he said. “And it’s not like you forced me. I got down on my knees by myself.”

Louis resisted the urge to groan aloud. He’d forgotten— Somehow he’d forgotten how much Harry loved sucking cock. How sometimes that was all he wanted. How once when they were still in the company of other crewmembers, Harry had pressed up as close to Louis as possible and whispered right into his ear, “Can’t wait till we get back to the room so I can suck you off.”

Louis dug his nails into his palms to disperse the memory. “Haz. Harry, listen. I just— I want to apologize anyway. I didn’t intend for that to happen. So…I’m sorry, alright?”

Harry was quiet for so long, Louis started to think he should repeat himself. Maybe his words had been sucked into some invisible void and never made it across the table. Harry was pouring himself another glass. He really should slow down. At this rate, he’d start saying things he didn’t mean.

When he replaced the bottle on the table, he said, as strongly as he could manage, “I’m not.”

“Sorry?” Louis inclined his ear. He’d heard him just fine. But he was dramatic and in denial.

“I’m not sorry it happened,” Harry clarified with a shrug of his shoulder. “I wanted it to happen. And I’d do it again.”

Jesus. Louis sat back in his seat, his lips parted. How in the fuck was he meant to respond to that?

Surely, this was the alcohol talking. Surely…

But, no. He knew better. He knew alcohol only made people say the things they’d been longing to. They called it liquid courage for a reason. And right now, it seemed, Harry had the courage of a lion.

“You’re drunk, love,” Louis started to say.

“I’m not drunk,” Harry cut him off. Louis knew that too. He’d seen Harry drunk plenty of times and this wasn’t it. But Louis was also scared shitless and he wasn’t ready for this, wasn’t ready to make confessions, to speak up. Harry sighed, “And that was my favourite thing, when you called me that. ‘Love.’ I had so many favourite things.”

Louis’ heart lurched. As if to jump out of his throat. And the words lingering on his tongue would come with it. I love you. I’m still in love with you. “Maybe you’re tipsy, then.”

“No, I’m just telling you the truth, Louis. And there’s more. You know it.”

They were doing this then. This was happening whether Louis liked it or not. Strangely, it was both. He felt like a cornered rabbit and like a bird just beginning to flex its wings. And he was either going to be slaughtered by the things they said here.

Or he was going to soar.

“Okay,” he said. “I’m listening.”

And then the lights went out.

“Fuck,” Harry groaned. The legs of his chair squealed and Louis could faintly make out Harry’s dark form standing and shuffling over to the sink, beginning to bang cupboards open. “Perfect fucking timing,” Harry grumbled to himself.

Under different circumstances, Louis would have laughed.

He stood as well and went to the window. But he couldn’t see a thing. It was like driving on an abandoned road and killing the headlights. The moon’s light was blotted out by thick snow-heavy clouds above.

The wind was howling like a banshee, pelting white flakes against the window and rattling the house. The wind chimes Harry had outside tinkled wildly. The wooden swing rocked back and forth, thudding against the side of the house.

Suspended in that dome of tension with Harry, Louis had missed the storm growing in rage. And now it was hard to ignore.

Louis heard the hiss of a flame and turned to see Harry lighting one of those tall prayer candles with depictions of Jesus painted on the glass. The lighter hissed again and Harry lit another, his face glowing orange for a second.

“Does this usually happen?” Louis asked.

Harry lit another candle, three in all spread out and lined up beside each other. “No. This storm is worse than I thought it would be,” he mumbled, digging around in the cupboard beneath the island. He pulled out more prayer candles. “Can you put some of these in the rooms? Your room and the loo?”

Louis stepped forward. “Sure. Will Neon be alright? In the dark?” he asked.

“She’s probably getting on better than us,” Harry said. He slid a lighter to Louis, atop a box of cigarettes. “Keep the lighter when you’re finished. You said you wanted one.”

Louis nodded. “Thank you.”

Harry didn’t reply. He exhaled a quiet breath, lifted his candles and left the room. Louis followed him. He heard Harry’s lighter hissing in his bedroom, while he lit candles in the guest room. He finished before Harry and lit another candle in the loo as well.

“That’s good, yeah?” Louis asked as Harry came out of his bedroom, feet padding softly on the carpet. He could hardly see him.

“Should be,” Harry’s voice floated down the hall. He eased past Louis, their shoulders brushing, sending a shock of static to Louis’ skin. For a second, Harry stopped. Both of them just paused there, breathing, waiting. For what? Louis had no fucking clue.

“H…” Louis murmured. He didn’t even know what he wanted to say.

Harry sighed. “I should cover the food down,” he said, his voice unsteady. “Before Neon gets into it.” Without another word, he headed back to the kitchen. Louis squeezed his hand into a fist, thumping his head against the wall. His chest expanded with a deep breath.

He’d always accused Harry of being the one who ran. But it was Louis first, wasn’t it? And even now, he felt like running.

But he also felt like moving closer too. He felt like giving himself over to the sure warmth of Harry’s body, to his strong arms, and soft lips.

He was never going to stop wanting him. Or loving him. They would never stop, him and Harry. And he didn’t want them to. That was the truth. Truer than everything in this world, than the storm outside and the darkness too.

He pushed away from the wall and went to the kitchen.

Harry retrieved his glass of wine off the table and the open bottle as well. He leaned against the counter’s edge, crossing his long legs at the ankles.

He didn’t realize Louis was moving toward him. Maybe because his line of sight was partially blocked by the wine glass at his lips, or because it was too dark. The last drop of wine fell to his tongue, and he set the glass down and didn’t see Louis until he was right in front of him.

Louis took the wine bottle and slid it down the marble countertop. He didn’t care where it went. Both hands were back on Harry’s hips right away, pinning him there. He didn’t have any time to waste. He’d run out. And there were all these feelings clawing at him, pleading. Finally, he’d give them release.

He kissed him, mouths together so forcefully for a second it hurt. And then the pain gave way to pleasure. It started where their lips met, pooled momentarily in the pit of his stomach, and then ricocheted down to his toes.

Harry came alive like a flower unraveling its petals toward the sun. He locked his hands in Louis’ jumper and pulled him as close as their bodies would allow. He exhaled into his mouth and it struck a match beneath Louis’ skin, igniting every bit of bone and marrow. Every nerve in his body turned to lines of gunpowder.

With his grip on Louis’ collar, Harry shoved him into the edge of the opposing counter and pressed close. Louis slipped his hands up along his broad back, dragging his nails down the warm expanse of his skin. He pushed his hands down past his waistband to fill his palms with the meat of Harry’s arse, and Harry answered him with a groan.

Louis forced him back against the counter where they collided so roughly the cupboard doors rattled. He broke his mouth away to suck hungrily at the skin of Harry’s throat. Harry’s hands went to Louis’ bum, pulling him closer, his legs spread wider for him.

Louis worked the buttons of Harry’s plaid shirt open and tugged it down his shoulders and let it drop to the floor. He reached for the hem of the black tee Harry wore underneath and lifted that off too, slowly like he was in a daze.

Harry’s torso looked like it’d been carved from marble. He was already sweating, bringing a glow to his skin by the light of the burning candles. Their mouths met again, teeth clacking, lips bruising. Harry pulled at Louis’ shirt so roughly he nearly ripped it. Louis yanked it off and tossed it away, mouth returning again to Harry’s, then sliding to his neck, landing on his shoulder to bite.

“Louis,” Harry murmured. “Please.”

Louis drew back and looked at him, panting like he’d come up for air. He waited until Harry’s eyes fluttered open and their gazes met. He wondered if the need was written all over him, the way it was scribed into Harry’s damp mouth and flushed skin. He stepped away with a steadying breath.

“Bring the wine,” he said.

He was going to devour him. He’d have him tonight for dessert. And perhaps later for a midnight snack. And in the morning too. Louis’ favorite meal of the day was breakfast. And it would be Harry’s too.

If Louis was allowed to have him, he was going to be thorough about it.

Harry reached for the bottle of wine without question and followed Louis into the living room.

“I want you to wait on the couch for me,” Louis said. “I’m going to find condoms and lube.”

“Left bedside cabinet, bottom drawer,” Harry offered.

Louis had a hard time walking away from him. He watched him beginning to unbutton his trousers, his mouth going dry.

He took a step back, still watching Harry push his trousers and pants down his long legs and kick them away. Louis’ eyes flickered back up over his naked body, the damp head of his cock beginning to curve up toward the ceiling.

“Louis, please.” He sounded hoarse.

Louis released a breath, one that made his whole chest sink inward. “On the couch,” he repeated, before turning away. He was trying to be cool about it. Not because he was particularly concerned with looking cool but because years ago, that always got Harry squirming. And he wanted very much for him to squirm.

Nonetheless, when he was out of Harry’s view, he made a mad dash for the bedroom. He found condoms and lube right where Harry said they would be and hurried back, slowing down before he came into view, sucking in a deep calming breath.

Harry was lying on the couch like he’d been asked, one arm thrown over his eyes. The other at his side, hand squeezed into a fist. He was much harder than Louis had left him, the nearly purple crown of his cock spreading pre-come between the two laurels on his stomach.

Louis tossed the condoms onto the coffee table and the sound made Harry drop his arm away. When their gazes met, he looked ready to bolt. Louis wasn’t going to let that happen.

He set the lube down with a thud on the table and stepped up to the couch, sinking one knee into the cushion. He cupped Harry’s jaw and leaned in and Harry didn’t fight it at all. He touched his hand to the back of Louis’, and let the kiss happen, let it build until Louis was licking deep into his mouth.

Louis planted himself in Harry’s lap. Even the small contact there made Harry moan.

“When did this happen?” Louis asked, sliding his hand down Harry’s firm chest. “You’ve always beautiful, I know. But you’re fucking…glorious now. How’d that happen?”

Harry stopped biting his lip to speak, leaving it red and blotchy. “You stopped paying attention.” he said, sounding sad for a half-second.

“Not true,” Louis reached for the bottle of wine on the coffee table beside them, wrapping his hand around the cool neck. “It’s impossible to look away from you. You’re the only thing worth looking at.”

He put the bottle to his mouth and took a big gulp. Harry’s eyes were focused on his throat, his lips parted, eyes hooded. Louis pulled the bottle away and wiped the back of his hand over his mouth. Then he tipped the rim forward carefully and a thin fountain of the dark liquid spilled free. Harry jolted slightly when it met his skin and started to run down the center of his stomach. Louis leaned in and drank from between his abs.

“Louis, fuck,” Harry gasped, pushing his hips upward. Louis pressed the palm of his hand against Harry’s stomach, trying to keep him still while he slid his tongue down his body. He tasted sweet and salty, his skin so hot it almost burned. Louis carefully avoid his cock, though he watched it twitch and smiled.

“Please, please, please,” Harry babbled. Louis pushed their mouths together to quiet him.

“That is some damn good wine,” Louis said. “Tastes even better on you.”

He finally ground down against him, the friction so good it made Harry groan and kick his foot out reflexively. The sound of glass shattering on the hardwood floors made Louis’ head snap up.

“Shit,” Harry panted. “Shit. Was that the wine?”

Louis shot a glance over his shoulder. “Sure was. What a shame. Gotta be more careful, love,” he said.

“I should- I should clean that up,” Harry said, half-heartedly.

Louis hummed his agreement but remained where he was, sliding his slightly sticky fingers around Harry’s thigh, hitching it up his waist.

“Did it get on the rug?” Harry asked.

Louis tilted his head over the edge of the couch to see. “Nope.”

“Good. Come on, Louis,” Harry said closing his other legs around Louis’ waist.

Louis huffed a laugh into the damp skin of his neck, thrusting his hips against Harry’s again. Harry answered him with a weak groan, locking his legs tighter on Louis’ waist. Louis rocked their cocks together, his own still covered by the thin material of his joggers. Harry sucked Louis’ earlobe into his mouth. “So fucking close.”

Louis reached between them to push the waistband of his joggers down. Harry caught on immediately and helped shoved them down with his hands and his feet, enough to expose Louis’ cock. Louis rutted between his legs again, matching Harry’s groan when their cocks met. It’d been too fucking long.

Harry dropped his head against the couch cushion, his eyes rolling closed, his nails digging into Louis’ lower back. Louis pulled back when he felt the warmth spilling between them, simply to watch Harry orgasm, his cock twitching against his stomach. Most phenomenal sight in the world. He squeezed his own dick punishingly.

Harry’s eyes fluttered open as Louis cupped the back of his knee and pressed a kiss to the inside of his soft thigh. He couldn’t stop looking at him, eyes bouncing anywhere they could. He detected that the flush blooming across Harry’s cheeks had something to do with that.

He ran his nose over Harry’s groin when he got there, breathing in the rich smell of his come. He licked over the sensitive head of his cock, still leaking on his stomach. Harry trembled while Louis worked, licking and sucking his skin clean.

“Come here, Louis. Please,” Harry breathed when he finished, running his fingers through Louis’ fringe. Louis shuffled back up his body immediately and allowed himself to be drawn into the kiss Harry was looking for. He let Harry run their mouths together for a bit. When he reached for his cock, Louis pulled his hips away. “Let me—” Harry started to complain.

“Not yet,” Louis said. “I’m not done with you yet.”

Harry’s eyes darkened again.

“Do you trust me?” Louis asked. He probably shouldn’t have. It wasn’t the time and he couldn’t pretend that the way Harry hesitated didn’t hurt. When he started to respond, Louis interrupted with, “You’re going to have to.”

Harry nodded, popping his bottom lip out from beneath his teeth, and murmured, “Whatever you want.”

“I just want you to feel good. That’s all I’m after,” Louis said. “That’s it.”

“What about you?” Harry questioned. “Don’t you think I want you to feel good too?”

Louis smiled. “There’s time. We’re going to be here all night,” he assured him. “Turn over.”

Harry hesitated again. He always did like seeing Louis’ face when they fucked. Louis slapped his thigh lightly. “Come on babe,” he said shuffling further back. “You’ll like this. I promise.”

Harry pushed himself up onto his elbows and then turned over, his little bum arched into the air. It was too bad about the wine. Louis would sip it from the dip in Harry’s spine or the crease of his arse if he could. Instead, he pressed a kiss on his lower back and smiled when Harry flinched.

“I’m going to eat you out now, okay?” Louis told him, spreading kisses down his spine.

He thought Harry nodded his head but that wasn’t good enough. Louis bit on Harry’s left ass cheek. “Is that okay?” he asked again.

“Yes. Please,” Harry murmured, his voice muffled by his face pressed into the couch cushion, mostly hidden from view.

Louis pressed both hands to either side of Harry’s arse and pushed his cheeks apart. He began at his tailbone and dragged his tongue downward. A tremor started up all along Harry’s body, as if synced with the glide of Louis’ tongue. He licked over Harry’s hole, continuing his path until he reached his balls and sucked them into his mouth.

He did it again until Harry’s hips started to sink into the couch because he couldn’t hold himself up. Louis did it for him, his fingers secured on Harry’s waist. Louis pressed his mouth around Harry’s hole and pushed forward with his tongue. Harry moaned, burying his face into the couch to mute the sound, squeezing his fingers into a fist and then flexing them outward like a star.

Louis let saliva gather on his tongue and slicked Harry down with it. “Let me hear you,” he said, as he pushed his thumb past the tight ring of muscle. Harry didn’t stifle the sound he made then.

Louis talked a lot during sex. He had an obscene mouth on him whenever he was being fucked.

By contrast, Harry hardly spoke unless he was begging or answering questions or speaking Louis’ name. But he was loud in a different way. He groaned, and moaned, and whined and mewled so freely, so…filthily. Louis had recorded him once before they left for a break in their tour, so he’d have a soundtrack for his midnight wanks.

Harry groaned for him now, loud and lengthy, and pushed his hips back.

“That’s it, baby,” Louis said. “I bet you’d love to ride my tongue.”

“Fuck yes. I would,” Harry choked out. Louis rewarded him for that by pushing his thumb in a bit further, just past his knuckle. It wasn’t a lot but Harry was still dry and though the lube sat nearby, Louis didn’t reach for it. The slight burn that Harry felt as Louis stretched him on his thumb must’ve been good, as he moaned louder and thrust his hips back towards Louis.

Louis pulled his thumb free, and Harry’s whine at the loss was cut off when he returned with his tongue. He pushed into him, pulling at his hips to get Harry to rock back against him again. He did. Even in his delirium, he knew what Louis wanted.

Louis didn’t know how long he did that for, licking into him. It felt as if he couldn’t grow tired of it. When he thought about the few times they’d done this before, he couldn’t remember wanting to ever stop.

Harry was a trembling mess by the time Louis did stop, his hand extended back and tangled in Louis’ hair. It almost sounded like he was crying or maybe laughing or singing—who really knew with this kid?

“Please…” Harry mumbled.

Louis pulled away, licking his lips. “Please what?”

Harry looked back at him, his head still pressed against the couch. His eyes were damp and heavy-lidded. “Fuck me,” he murmured, except it sounded like a question. Which was absurd. He didn’t have to ask and he didn’t have to tell Louis twice.

Louis uncapped bottle of lube and wet his fingers. He started again with his thumb, rubbing Harry’s hole and applying a bit of pressure. With his free hand, he scrambled for the condom.

He switched to his index finger and pushed in gently, leaning in to kiss around his finger. “Such a pretty hole,” he murmured. “Just so pretty all over.” He pressed in a little deeper, biting into his own bottom lip, ears trained on the sounds Harry made. He kissed the smooth swell of his bum. “I love looking at you.”

Harry tilted his head against the couch, keeping his eyes on him as best as he could with the angle. “Another,” he exhaled. “I can take it.”

Louis didn’t even have one whole finger in yet. But he obliged him, entering with two fingers the next time he pressed forward. Harry rocked his hips back on his fingers, murmuring nonsense words into the couch cushions, biting his lip hard enough to draw blood. Louis wouldn’t be surprised if he was casting a spell.

Slowly, he worked another finger in along with the two but Harry was the one to fuck himself on them, perfectly content to keep thrusting his bum back on Louis’ hand, doing a damn good job of getting himself ready.

Louis sat entranced and immobile, lips parted and head nodding each time Harry rocked back and pushed Louis’ fingers against his spot.

Harry suddenly pulled off, twisting his hips down and away. He turned to face Louis, his flushed body glistened with sweat, chest heaving, his cock full again and bobbing slightly against his tummy. “Want you to fuck me now,” he said gruffly.

Louis took a moment to catch his breath, felt like he’d been running a marathon even though Harry had been doing all the work. “Like this?” he asked.

Harry shook his head. “Let me ride you.”

Louis’ heart did a loop-de-loop thing again. He was getting pretty tired of his internal organs playing daredevil. “Yeah,” he said, shuffling back against the couch. “Come on.”

“By the fire,” Harry said, his eyes dark and focused now with renewed strength. He shuffled off the couch. Quickly, Louis followed him.

They walked around opposite ends of the coffee table and met at the fireplace, pausing for only a second before smashing their lips together and kissing for a long, tender minute. They sank to the rug like they were melting by the heat of the crackling fire. Harry pushed Louis onto his back and climbed over top of him. Louis sheathed himself with the condom he’d dropped to the floor.

“So long,” Harry said, spreading his palm out on Louis’ chest. “I’ve wanted this for so fucking long.”

He refused to look at Louis once he said it. And Louis didn’t force him to. He watched Harry reach, his heart beginning to thrum a bit faster when his hand slipped around him. In about two seconds, he’d be tucked away in the perfect heat of his bum.

He rested his hands on Harry’s hips. “Whenever you’re ready.”

“I’m ready now,” Harry answered immediately. He lined himself up and sank down, enough to push the head of Louis’ cock past his rim. He paused for a moment, brows creased in concentration, his mouth parted.

He licked his lips and rocked down a bit further, his right hand clutched at Louis’ shoulder. He pulled up a little bit and sank back down, releasing a heavenly sigh. His eyes were closed. Louis didn’t like it at all now.

He slid his hands into Harry’s hair and tugged. Harry’s eyes popped open but his gaze remained on the ceiling. His moan was directed upward. Louis wanted it directed at him.

“Look at me,” Louis said.

Harry hesitated for a fraction of a second before he blinked and met Louis’ eyes.

Louis thought it was just him—the only one still stupid in love. And that might still have been the case. But he’d always been good at reading Harry. Just as Harry was good at reading him. They knew each other too well to hide anything in their gazes.

And when he looked into Harry’s eyes, he thought for the first time that it might be Harry too. Harry might still love him too.

“Babe,” Louis started. He didn’t even know what he was planning to say.

Let’s work this out? Let’s try again? I love you. I’m in love with you. I want to try again.

He didn’t really know. But he wanted to say something.

“Don’t,” Harry said, his voice small. His eyes were damp again but Louis suspected it was for a different reason. When they weren’t for joy or pleasure, Harry’s tears always manifested as a physical ache in Louis’ chest.

He didn’t want him to cry. But he wanted answers. Needed them. “Why not?”

Harry shook his head, his hair falling over his face. He sighed, pushing it back. “We always fuck things up, Louis. Always. I don’t want to fuck this up.”

Louis’ frustration sparked. “You mean me? I always fuck things up.”

“No, we. Both of us. Please, Louis. Don’t do this,” Harry mumbled. “Please.”

Louis was tempted to keep pushing, to demand the words Harry refused to say. But Harry was pleading with him silently. He leaned forward and pushed their mouths together and pleaded further with the urgency of his tongue. “Please,” he said again, when he broke away.

Louis said nothing, had nothing to say. He pressed his hand into Harry’s hip, urging him to move. And Harry breathed a sigh of relief, his eyes shutting again as he rocked forward.

Louis lay back against the rug, the fire crackling beside his head. It cast dancing light over Harry’s glistening skin. Harry pressed his hands into the rug on either side of Louis’ head and worked his hips just as rhythmically as the e ag e r flames.

Gradually, their fucking turned furious. The snap of Harry’s hips turned punishing, each of Louis’ answering thrusts equally so. Harry dug his nails into Louis’ chest as if to mark him up. Louis did the same to Harry’s pillowy hips. Louis punched his hips upward, trying to convey all the frustration and anxiety and confusion he felt.

Trying to tell Harry that he loved him with a kind of intensity that rivaled the storm outside. Trying to tell him that he hated him too for all the years he had to spend without him. Even if it wasn’t fair to blam e that on him.

His eyes burned and he was too focused on the boy above him to care when he felt tears spill. He felt Harry’s thumb on his cheek and turned his face into his touch. Harry kissed over his damp face and then his lips met Louis’, steady and warm, the taste of his tongue tinged salty by his tears or Harry’s tears or both. Harry pulled away to rock his hips forward and back, his eyes locked on Louis, shining and burning with need.

Louis didn’t know what to feel anymore. But he felt it all, every good thing and bad thing, and whatever lay between — it swelled in his chest.

“Fuck,” he grunted, driving his hips up again just as Harry slammed down. Harry’s head was thrown back, his mouth falling open with an aching cry.

“You’re so beautiful. You’re so fucking beautiful,” Louis babbled. He never babbled. He didn’t become the master of dirty talk by babbling. Still, he couldn’t stop. “I lied about not looking away. Sometimes I do, yeah. I have to. ‘Cause I feel weak, H. I mean it. I look at you and sometimes I just feel weak.”

“Louis…” Harry moaned. His voice went breathless when he uttered it again. “Louis.”

I’m here. Louis wanted to say. I’m here. And I never want to leave.

Instead, he urged him on. “That’s it, baby. Want you to come now,” he said, dragging his hand down Harry’s chest. “Love to see you come. Dreamt about it.”

Louis thumbed his right nipple. He pushed himself up to wrap his mouth around it. Harry whimpered, fisting his hand in Louis’ hair. His breath was just a shiver. Louis reached between them and stroked him, capturing his nipple between his teeth. Harry stilled, biting down on Louis’ shoulder. He spilled between them and over Louis’ fingers.

He pushed Louis back down into the rug and kept rocking his hips. He flattened his palm out on Louis’ chest and reached for Louis’ hand covered with his own come. Louis’ eyes fluttered when Harry wrapped his lips around his fingers and sucked.

“God, Harry- I’m-” Louis tried to talk and then to just breathe but all he managed was a gasp. “Baby, I’m—”

Who knew what he was trying to say? He never got the chance to say it. Everything exploded then. He squeezed his eyes shut, head tilted back, mouth open around a weak cry. Harry rested his head beside Louis’, hips still circling, working him through the high. His breath puffed on Louis’ skin, his heart thudded rapidly where their chests were pressed together.

“Fuck,” Louis mumbled, clutching Harry’s hips, giving himself over to the final dregs of his orgasm. Harry slowed to a still, body trembling.

Louis pressed a kiss to his cheek, eyes slipping closed. “Jesus,” he murmured. “That was—”

“I concur,” Harry said, his voice muffled. His laughter was warm air on Louis’ fevered skin. With a soft grunt, he lifted his hips and slipped off of him and onto his back. They laid there in pregnant silence, blinking sleepy eyes at the wood-beamed ceiling.

“So sleepy,” Harry muttered, turning to face him. His thumb brushed again over Louis’ cheek, tracing tears perhaps. Their eyes met and crinkled at the corners when they smiled.

Louis shuffled closer to drop his arm around Harry’s waist. Harry pressed a kiss to his bicep, his collarbones, and the base of his neck. He was beyond tired. Louis could tell from the barely-there pressure of his mouth.

He started to comb the hair away from Harry’s eyes. He kissed him firmly on his forehead and ran his hand slowly down Harry’s back. “Should sleep, love.”

Harry nodded, his eyelids drooping. He had his fingertips pressed to Louis’ jaw, drumming them lightly. He said something, his voice soft, trailing off gradually.

“What?” Louis said, his smile marked by uncontainable fondness.

“When the snow stops,” Harry mumbled. “…we should build a snowman.”

Louis watched him curiously, eyes bouncing around Harry’s sleep lax face. For an instant, he looked sixteen. And sounded that way too. “We should,” Louis said eventually with a gentle laugh.

“Or a snow woman,” Harry added. “Named…”

“Susan Boyle,” Louis suggested.

Harry’s eyes fluttered open a bit wider. His dimple appeared. He breathed a laugh. “Yes. Yes, a snow woman named Susan Boyle,” he murmured. His eyes drifted shut once more. “Let’s do it.”

Louis kissed his forehead again, rubbed his back steadily. “Okay.”

“Sweet dreams, Lou,” Harry sighed.

Louis pressed his nose into Harry’s hair, held him close and breathed him in deeply. “You too, love.”

He waited until he heard his breathing even out and his expression slacken. He left him to get a wet flannel and returned to wipe his body clean.

With a flashlight tucked beneath his chin, he took care of the broken wine bottle, carefully seeking out bits of glass and sweeping them up. They’d have to go over it again in the morning.

He put the food away in plastic containers, hoping the fridge would come back on before Harry’s hard work went to waste. He filled Neon’s bowl with fresh water. He ousted the candles in the kitchen, save for one, and grabbed the throw pillows off the couch and returned to the rug beside Harry. He then settled down beside him again, throwing the quilt over their bodies, tucking himself right against his body.

He fell asleep watching him, almost afraid to close his eyes for fear that Harry would be gone when he woke up.

For years, he’d told himself that he’d done the right thing leaving Harry. But now, he couldn’t figure out for the life of him why he’d ever given this boy up.

 

> <

 

August 2013

He was awake at 6 AM, watching the morning light grow stronger and gradually penetrate the sheer hotel curtains. It was a miracle that he’d gotten to sleep at all. Zayn’s bed wasn’t any less comfortable than his own, except for the fact that Harry wasn’t there.

Zayn’s iPhone started up with the foghorn sounds right at 8 AM. But he didn’t move. They all knew that Zayn had to hit the snooze button at least three times before he could convince himself to get out of bed.

Louis slipped out of the armchair by the window. He shut the alarm off and nudged Zayn’s shoulder. “Hey.”

“Five more minutes,” Zayn mumbled.

Louis’ eyes burned. He wiped at them quickly, sucked in a breath. “Please tell me I didn’t break up with Harry last night,” he exhaled.

Zayn was silent for a moment, so long Louis thought he’d fallen asleep again. Then he turned his head on the pillow and their eyes met. “You did,” he said, his voice sleep rough. “Least that’s what you told me.”

“Fuck,” Louis dropped his forehead into his palm.

“You can fix it though, man,” Zayn said, pushing himself upright. He rubbed at his sleepy eyes. “You just need to talk to him today. Right after breakfast. Don’t put it off.”

Louis shook his head. “I fucking promised him.”

“Promised him what?”

Louis couldn’t speak. He’d promised Harry a lot of things. That he would never leave him. That they would grow old together. Them against the world, always, no matter what.

The phone on the bedside table rang. Zayn snatched it up.

“We’ll be right there,” he said, paused. “Me and Louis. Everything’s fine, yeah. Alright, see ya.”

“I’m not feeling breakfast right now,” Louis said. “At all.”

Zayn sighed as he shuffled out of bed. “You want to talk to Haz, yeah?”

“Is he there?”

“Liam didn’t say. But this would be a good chance to find out. If he’s still in the room, you can come back up and talk things out.”

Louis nodded, still pacing. Yeah, okay. That made sense. He could— maybe there was a way he could fix this. They could talk and maybe see a counselor or something. A couple’s counselor. Or Louis could just make him a cup of tea and give him a back massage, maybe fuck him afterwards. That always put things right.

“Okay,” he sighed. “Breakfast and then I’ll talk to him.”

“Yeah.” Zayn patted his shoulder and headed to the loo. “Maybe a shower too, mate. You smell.”

Louis sniffed his shirt. “Fuck. Yeah, okay. Shower. Breakfast. Harry.”

He showered after Zayn finished brushing his teeth and slipped on borrowed clothes: pants, a plain t-shirt, and gray joggers. He pulled his Toms back on and they left the hotel room and started to the lift.

He shot a glance down at his and Harry’s hotel room, wishing he had x-ray vision so he could see if he was there, bypass breakfast, and fix things now. Already he felt he’d put this off for far too long.

They got off the lift at the second floor and entered the private drawing room where they were served their breakfast every morning. Harry wasn’t there. Louis continued toward the table because maybe, hopefully he was on his way down.

He started forking eggs onto his plate while a staff person filled his cup with tea. Louis nodded his thanks and started to pour a bit of milk into his cup.

Only then did he realize Niall was looking at him across the table, unsmiling. Louis’ brows creased. He stirred his tea and took a sip. “What?” he finally asked, annoyance flaring. Where the fuck was Harry?

“Nothing, mate,” Niall said, taking a bite of his toast.

Liam glanced back and forth between them. “So, where’s Harry?”

Good man. Now everyone was on the same page. Liam was looking at him though and Louis didn’t have answers for him. He started to say as much. Niall cut him off.

“He left this morning.”

Louis blinked at his eggs and his eyes popped up, round as planets and frozen on Niall. The breath felt as though it had been sucked out of his lungs.

“What— Why?” Liam asked. He directed the question at Louis. Why wouldn’t he?

Louis said nothing, kept his gaze on Niall.

“He was a mess last night,” Niall said. “He needed to go home.”

Again, Liam looked to Louis. But by then, Louis had his head cradled in his palm. “Fuck…” he whispered.

Liam had more questions that Louis didn’t answer while Niall sat there quietly and pretended not to be pissed at him. And when he finally explained, confessed to having broken up with Harry, Zayn hugged him and told him it was alright.

From the look on Niall’s face, it wasn’t.

Liam suggested calling him. Niall told them that wouldn’t work. Harry had gone home to pack his things and planned to take off again. As soon as possible, he'd said. To where? Niall didn’t know. Harry would update him when he could.

Calls to Harry’s phone went straight to voicemail. Gemma’s response to Louis’ message was to “Give him space.”

Anne advised the same.

“Time,” his own mum said. “He just needs time. You both do.”

As it turned out later that night, Harry agreed. He answered his phone with static and white noise for several seconds before he cleared his throat and spoke, “Hello.”

Louis sunk down to the floor of his bedroom, curling his arm around his knees. “Harry,” he said, relieved. “Where are you?”

A beat of silence passed. “Just away for a while. Taking a trip.”

“Okay,” Louis breathed. “Okay, well. When are you coming home?”

“I don’t know. I just need some time to myself,” Harry said.

“Okay,” Louis said again, gnawing on his lip. “Then when you come home, we can talk, maybe? About us. I said some things the other night— Harry, you know I love…”

“Louis,” Harry said, his voice squeaking like a rusty pipe. “You were right about us, I think. About us not being ready. I don’t know when we’ll ever be. And right now, we’re poison…to each other, like you said.”

“Harry, I was drunk. Please,” Louis said fiercely. “Let me come to you. We’ll talk about this, okay? Let’s talk…”

“Please don’t. You were right,” Harry said. He was crying again, evidenced by the soft gasps he took between his words. “I have to go, Louis, sorry. I’m sorry.”

He hung up and, though Louis didn’t know it at the time, it would be their last phone call for years.

Time, Louis remembered, was what they needed.

He offered up as much of it as he thought Harry needed. But days turned over into months. Summer burned out to autumn and autumn faded to winter. Their third album was a huge success and Louis had never felt more like a failure. His birthday, Christmas, New Year’s passed like pages flickering by in a book. The sun rose and gave way to the moon repeatedly while they toured and sang, wrote and sang, and sang. About love and forever. And a million other things that no longer existed.

Louis grew jaded, cynical. He stopped crying. He stopped hurting and accepted the piss poor state of his love life for what it was. He felt hatred root itself in the parts that were bruised most, freezing his wounds so they became numb.

He let him go.

Harry, who for so long inspired Louis to be better and do better, to conquer the whole fucking world if he wished it. Harry, who left Louis enchanted right from the start. Harry, his one true love, the reason perhaps that love existed in the first place.

He let him go.

 

> > H < <

  

January 2016

Harry couldn’t get up just yet. His back and his bum were sorer than he could remember them being in a while, even after all the rowing and wood chopping he’d been doing lately. But the ache was good. Just the kind he’d been craving.

He ran his fingers through the hair at the center of Louis’ chest. He watched his hand rise and fall with each of Louis’ deep breaths and traced the curve of Louis’ jaw.

When things had started going sour, Harry had lived for these moments of peace in the morning. They seemed like opportunities to begin anew. Even if they never quite worked out that way.

He pressed a light kiss to Louis’ cheek and then gritted his teeth against the pain and pushed himself up for a shower.

A knock sounded at the bathroom door no more than five minutes later. Harry pulled away from the spray of water, wiping the water away from his eyes. He poked his head around the shower curtain. “Yeah?”

“I need to wee,” Louis said through the door.

“Come in then,” Harry said, stepping back under the water. He heard the door swing open and Louis’ feet pad softly on the tile floors. Harry peeked his head around the shower curtain again.

Louis was dressed just in his pants. There were red welts all down his chest to match the ones on Harry’s hips. Their eyes met.

“Didn’t invite me for a shower,” Louis said, standing before the toilet and whipping his dick out. Harry couldn’t tell if he was genuinely offended.

“You were sleeping,” he said.

“Excuses, excuses,” Louis sang. He finished up and went to the sink to wash his hands. He started to brush his teeth, angling his body to face Harry, leaning his hip against the counter.

“Do you want to come in?” Harry said quietly.

Louis shrugged, annoyingly. Harry huffed and stepped back under the water with a roll of his eyes. Well, he’d offered.

The sink cut off and then the shower curtain rings screeched as the curtain was pushed open. Louis, now stripped of his pants, stepped inside and met Harry’s gaze. For a second, they looked at each other. Louis ducked his head under the spray of water, his hair darkening and clinging to his head. He pushed it back away from his eyes and then he smiled.

“Hi,” he said.

Harry’s stomach did a nosedive. “Hi.”

“Do you feel alright?” Louis asked, as he reached for one of the spare flannels drying on the shower wall.

Harry felt jittery, not nervous per se, but like he had too much energy to contain. Louis wasn’t asking about how he was feeling emotionally though. At least Harry didn’t think.

The way he posed the question reminded Harry of the first time Louis had fucked him. And afterwards while they were cuddled up, Louis asked him a million variations of the same question: Do you feel alright? Are you okay? Are you in pain? Do you still feel alright?

“Yes,” he’d said back then. He said the same now. He didn’t add that he felt more than alright, that his hips and bum were a little sore but he loved it.

“Good,” Louis said. He leaned down and plucked Harry’s body wash off the tile floor. “Coconut Sunrise,” he read the label. “Alright then. I was expecting something more fit for your surroundings. Like Pine Tree Sunrise or Wood Log.”

Harry snorted. “And this is why you’re in a boy band and not making body products.”

“Hey.” Louis slapped his thigh with his flannel. “We have five perfumes out.”

“Jesus, you’re right. I completely forgot. For our next fragrance, why don’t you suggest the scent of wood log?” Harry raised his brows, lips curving.

“Don’t test me. I just might,” Louis said, slapping him with the flannel again. Harry curled away from it, his giggle combining oddly with a squawk.

This should have been awkward, Harry thought. But it wasn’t. He didn’t know what he’d been expecting once the passion from last night had simmered down. But it certainly wasn’t the comfort he felt now, naked and showering and laughing in the light of day.

Louis started soaping himself down, sliding the flannel over his chest and down his stomach.

“Could I wash your hair?” Harry asked.

“Can’t say no to that,” Louis said with a grin, turning so his back was to Harry.

Harry leaned down and grabbed his shampoo bottle. Eyes trailing up over Louis’ thighs and his bum. He kind of really wanted to eat him out. Of all the things he’d ever done to Louis, that might have been his favorite. Actually getting him on his cock—that was amazing too. But Louis went completely delirious from having his arse licked. Any sort of teasing really drove him up the wall. He’d be swearing and weeping and begging, and Louis hardly ever begged.

“You have too many shower products, that’s the problem,” Louis said, glancing back at him. “Can’t even find the right one.”

Harry rolled his eyes. “I have it here,” he said shaking the bottle. He straightened up behind him and started in on Louis’ hair. He scrubbed softly behind his ears or near the base of his neck. When he was finished, Louis tilted his head back and let the water run down his scalp and his back, soap sliding over his bum.

“Thanks, love,” Louis said, shooting him a smile over his shoulder.

Maybe Harry said, “you’re welcome.” But his head was a bit of a mess and he couldn’t remember. He touched Louis’ lower back. He told himself, just to feel his skin. Louis didn’t seem to mind. He didn’t even turn his head to acknowledge him.

Harry curled his hand around Louis’ hipbone and tugged him a little closer.

Louis stumbled back into his hold. “Whoa. Getting rough with me, are you?”

Harry ignored him. Louis was so chatty. Always so chatty. Harry kind of just wanted to shut him up. He pressed a kiss to Louis’ shoulder, followed by a bite. His mouth moved to Louis’ neck and he sucked harshly over a spot where he’d left a bruise last night.

Louis kept his head bowed and tilted just a bit to allow Harry better access. Even under the stream of water, Harry heard his breath catch.

Harry mouthed at his ear. “I want to kiss you.”

Louis turned his head to him, his gaze falling to Harry’s mouth. “Then you should,” he said, lips curving like a challenge.

Harry slid both arms around Louis’ waist and let their damp lips glide together, let his tongue press against Louis’. The angle was weird. But like this, Harry’s dick nudged against the cleft of Louis’ arse. The flannel fell from Louis’ grasp with a wet slap and Louis pressed his hand against the shower wall, pushed his bum back against him.

Harry tightened his grip on him, heat shooting up from the base of his spine. He broke his mouth away to gasp and suck almost punishingly on the dark red bruise again.

Louis reached back and grasped his hip, pulled him impossibly close to grind his plump arse over him. “You’re gonna fuck me today,” he announced.

Harry’s breath shook. “Lou…” he said quietly.

“Do you want that?” Louis asked.

“Yes,” Harry said, tucking his face into Louis’ neck. “God, so much.”

Louis let his head fall back against Harry’s shoulder, his eyes closed. “Me too,” he sighed, slowing the grind of his hips. Harry resisted the need to whine. “Can’t even wait.”

“You don’t have to,” Harry said. Because like there Harry was, harder than fucking steel, and there was Louis’ arse, and Harry was sure he had a bottle of lube in the cupboard beneath the sink. No need to wait.

Louis cut the shower off and stepped out of Harry’s grasp, his breathing deep, his eyes darker. “First, breakfast,” he said.

“I’m not hungry,” Harry said, his lips forming a pout against his will. He started stepping close again, ready to cage Louis against the shower wall, or beg even. If he begged well enough, Louis would let him. At least, he hoped that was still the case.

Louis flattened his hand to Harry’s chest to stop him. Even that small amount of contact made Harry’s knees feel weak. “Some of us are,” Louis said. “And we should make that snow lady you were talking about last night.”

For a second, Harry couldn’t remember.

“Susan Boyle,” Louis added.

When he did remember, he wanted to pretend he didn’t, so they could scarf down slices of toast and then carry on with the fucking. But given how persistent Louis tended to be, he didn’t think that would work anyhow.

Louis slid his hand into Harry’s hair and just for a second, he pulled him down for another kiss, a painfully slow, tongue-swiping kiss, so perfectly executed Harry actually went wobbly kneed, slumping forward before he braced himself on the shower wall.

Louis pulled away with a laugh. “Breakfast. Susan Boyle. Then I’m yours.”

You’re already mine, Harry wanted to say. But he didn’t. Because last night in front of the fire, when he was actually seated on Louis’ cock, and Louis had given him an opportunity to say as much, Harry had panicked. About telling Louis what he wanted, about telling him he loved him still and wanted them together, now and forever.

He thought maybe he saw in Louis’ eyes that it wasn’t just him. But just the thought of confessing and defining all this— Harry had thought he was ready for that. Now he wasn’t so sure.

He let Louis step away from him and out of the shower, and then followed after him.

 

> <

 

They ended up eating slices of toast and a piece of fruit each, a banana for Harry and a peach for Louis. Harry made him a cup of tea and then stole sips of it because he didn’t want his own. “Thank you,” he said, returning Louis’ cup to him, pressing a kiss to his cheek and then the corner of his mouth. He wrapped his arms around Louis’ shoulders and pressed another kiss to his jaw. Louis sipped his tea and eyed him curiously.

“Are you trying to seduce me?”

“Yes.” Harry took Louis’ teacup from his hand and placed it down and pushed their mouths together. If he was allowed to do this now, how was he expected to stop?

Louis indulged him for a bit, his hand gentle on Harry’s waist. He even let their warm tongues slide around too. And then he pulled away, lifted his teacup and slipped out of his chair. “Susan Boyle.”

Harry pressed his forehead to the countertop and groaned.

They got dressed in their snow gear, big boots and bigger, fluffy coats. Harry let Louis borrow one of his own thick parkas because it was better suited for the weather. Louis swam in it and grumbled at the way it fell to his knees and dwarfed him.

“I think you look adorable,” Harry said, lightly flicking his nose.

Louis stretched his tongue up to lick his finger.

They wrapped thick scarves around their necks, Harry’s a sunflower yellow that his mum had knit and Louis’ a bright apple red. They donned mismatched hats and gloves. And then they shuffled out into the cold.

“Fuck, this is a bad idea,” Louis shivered when a blast of wind sent loose snow flying into his face. He turned away from it and into Harry’s chest.

Harry laughed, his arms coming around Louis’ shoulders. “We could always go back inside. And you know…cuddle.”

Louis pulled away. “Nice try. Come on. Let’s get this over with.”

Harry sighed and considered that his last attempt. Susan Boyle, it was.

They weren’t particularly skilled in the art of constructing snow people. It’d be a long time for them both. It hardly snowed in London and they’re schedules didn’t allow for frolicking in what little snow there was.

They started pushing big clumps of snow together, collecting one big base and patting it down well, slapping their gloves against the snow to pack it in. They worked on the second layer using the same technique and started to develop a bit of system. Louis was formed little snowballs in his hands and plopped them on top, and Harry would follow after him and smooth them out. If not for him, Susan would be sad and misshapen.

“Wish I had a curly wig for you, Sus,” Harry told their incomplete mass of snow.

Louis laughed, his breath pluming in the cold air. “We’ll use a trash bag. We can like tie it to her head. Won’t be curly obviously. But at least then, she’ll have hair. She has to have hair.”

“Aren’t you clever…” Harry said with a smirk, dropping a random kiss on Louis’ cheek.

Louis smiled, unashamedly chuffed. “I think she’s probably ready for her hair now.”

Harry nodded. “I’m on it,” he said. He hurried back into the house and dug around for a black bag and duct tape. He pulled a red muffler he had lying at the bottom of his cupboard and hurried back. Just as he was crossing the threshold, he saw the look of alarm on Louis’ face and froze.

There was a young girl standing there with a plastic-wrapped plate of food in her mittened hands, staring wide-eyed and open-mouthed at Louis.

“Abby,” Harry said. Her eyes and Louis’ eyes flickered to Harry as he stepped outside.

Abby blinked quickly. “Um. My mom—” her gaze drifted back to Louis. Her face was bright red, her lips quivering. She held out the plate with unsteady hands. “My mom said…she said to bring this…bring this to you.”

And then she started crying.

Louis hopped up immediately, his knees covered in snow, his feet sinking as he trekked closer. “Hey, come now, love,” he said soothingly. “It’s alright. Don’t cry.”

He held onto her shoulders, though years of experience would have told him that any physical contact with a fan was bound to make them cry harder. Abby full on sobbed.

Harry walked closer to take the plate from her hands so that she could give Louis a proper hug. Her arms, clad in the puffy material of her purple coat, came around Louis’ waist.

“I love you so much,” Abby cried, clinging to Louis’ coat. Louis hugged her tightly, resting his cheek atop her head.

“Aw. I love you too,” he murmured, his eyes flickering to Harry.

Harry shot him a smile, half-apologetic, and something else too. He’d always gone particularly soft seeing Louis with fans, either because of the fondness in Louis’ gaze or because he envied them just a little.

Louis held Abby for long minutes, stroking her back and the top of her head.

“Is your mum waiting for you, Abby?” Harry asked.

“Yes, she’s in the car,” she blubbered, dragging her mitten under her nose. Louis pulled the end of his jumper over his gloves and wiped her cheek.

“I’ll walk you down to her, yeah? She might be wondering why you’re taking so long,” Harry said, handing Louis the plate of food.

Abby nodded, hiccupping and still looking at Louis. “Bye, Louis,” she said.

“Bye, Abby,” Louis said. “It was lovely to meet you.”

Her eyes filled with tears again. Even when Harry rested his hand on her shoulder and started to lead her back down the drive, she kept turning back to look at Louis. Harry understood her pain.

“I’m sorry I cried so much,” Abby said to Harry as they started toward the road. He could already make out the red of her mother’s truck. “I can’t believe I just met Louis Tomlinson.”

Harry grinned. “I’m happy you did,” he said. He waved at Abby’s mother, Jenny, when they came into view. He paused to take Abby gently by her small shoulders. “Abby. You can’t tell anyone you saw Louis here, okay? I know you’re good at keeping secrets and I trust you.”

Abby pretended to zip her lips, lock them and flick the key into the snow. Cute but a little too apparent. Harry glanced at Jenny to make sure she hadn’t seen. She was too busy reapplying her lipstick in the visor.

“Our secret,” Abby said.

Harry drew her into a hug and held her as tightly as Louis had. “Thank you for stopping by. Tell your mum thanks for the food.”

“It’s a potato casserole. And there’s enough for Louis too.”

Harry smiled. “Thank you,” he said. “I’m sure he’ll love it.”

“Does this mean you and Louis don’t hate each other?” Abby asked. “People say that sometimes on Twitter.”

“It’s best not to pay too much attention to what people say online,” Harry said. “I don’t hate him at all. Not even a little bit.”

“Then…” Abby began. “You love him?”

Harry inhaled deeply, his heart thudding in his ears. He glanced again at Jenny and then up toward the house before he settled his green eyes on Abby’s big brown ones at last.

“I love all of the boys very much,” he said. “We all love each other.”

Abby was a bright girl and far more intuitive than any child should be. Her eyes searched his and seemed to find whatever they were looking for. A tiny private smile lit her face. “I won’t tell anyone, I promise.” Harry no longer knew which secret she was referring to. “Please tell Louis it was nice to meet him.”

Harry nodded, squeezing her shoulders. “I will,” he pressed a quick kiss to her forehead. “Go on to your mum now. See you soon.”

With another big smile, she started off toward the truck. Harry waved again as they left, the truck wobbling and bouncing on the snowy road, and then he trudged back up his drive.

Louis was sat on the porch, his brows lifting as soon as Harry came into view.

“I’m so sorry,” Harry said, releasing a big sigh.

Louis shook his head. “Don’t be. It’s fine. She’s a sweet girl.”

“She is.” Harry smiled. “And you just so happen to be her favorite. She told me so after we first met.” Louis winced. Harry shook his head and laughed. “It’s okay. I told her you were mine too.”

Louis’ gaze went impossibly soft. His face and ears were already pink from the cold but Harry indulged in the thought of him blushing.

“Come here,” Louis said after a moment, resting the plate of casserole on his opposite side.

Harry sat down on the porch beside him and dropped his head on Louis’ shoulder. Louis wrapped his arms around his shoulders.

“She has a cardboard cut-out of you and everything,” Harry mumbled.

“Jesus.” Louis laughed. He rubbed his hand up and down Harry’s shoulder. “It’ll be alright with her knowing I’m here, right?”

“Yes. Abby is very good at keeping secrets,” Harry said. “Do you want to finish Susan now?”

Louis cleared his throat. “Does she look unfinished to you?”

Harry’s gaze shifted to Susan and his mouth dropped open.

Her “hair” had been done up into an odd, abstract hairdo, taped and fashioned this way and that. Two sticks for arms jutted out of her sides. And the scarf was thrown loosely around her neck.

“She could use some pearls or a nice dress. But she’ll do, yeah?” Louis murmured.

Harry grinned. “She’s perfect. A true god-dess.”

“Well, good. Because I can’t feel my face anymore,” Louis said. “Please let’s go inside.”

Harry watched him stand with a pleased smile on his face. He took Louis’ hand when he held it out for him. They stepped back into the house and lingered for a moment by the window, watching the wind toss Susan’s scarf around lightly.

“Thank you for forcing me to do that,” Harry said idly.

“You’re very welcome,” Louis said. His coat fell to the floor, followed by his scarf. Harry turned his head, brows raised.

“I think you’ve waited long enough now,” Louis said, stepping into his space. He tugged at Harry’s scarf and dropped it beside his own and stretched up to attach his mouth to the spot below Harry’s ear.

Harry made a sound like a kitten. “Yes, please.” It may or may not have been a proper response. Louis licked into his mouth, hands sliding up along Harry’s chest. He pushed his coat off his shoulders. It fell at their feet, followed quickly by his shirt.

Harry reached for Louis’ thighs, as best as he could without disconnecting their mouths, and hoisted him up into his arms. He lost his balance for just one second and his back thudded against the wall.

Louis chuckled and said quietly, “If you drop me, all bets are off.”

Harry laughed. “Sorry, sorry. I’ve got you,” he promised. He started off toward his room, spreading his palms securely under Louis’ bum.

“Neon’s following us,” Louis noted, looking over Harry’s shoulder.

Harry didn’t glance back. He was trying to balance here. “That’s not good. Bit weird to have her watching.”

“I’m sure she caught a little glimpse last night,” Louis said, sucking Harry’s earlobe into his mouth.

Harry hurried to deposit him on the bed, worried that if Louis kept licking at his ear, they’d both go crashing down. “It was darker then,” he reasoned.

He clucked his tongue, wiggling his fingers at Neon, starting to walk out of the room. She followed him, probably because she thought they were about to play. He waited until she’d exited the room and turned back to peer up at him expectantly.

“I’m sorry, love,” he said with a genuine pout, shutting the door behind her.

“That was just cruel,” Louis said. Harry turned back to face him and found that he’d peeled off his shirt and was pushing his jeans down his legs.

“So are you,” Harry said. He slapped Louis’ hands away from his pants. “Undressing you is the fun part.”

“You think every part is fun,” Louis said.

“That’s ‘cause it’s true.” Harry hooked his fingers over Louis’ waistband and dragged his thin black pants down his legs. Louis was leaning back on his elbows, watching him. Harry’s eyes flitted back up over Louis’ body, his cock bobbing slightly in the air. Louis took hold of himself and squeezed the base, the bird on his forearm shifting under the tendons in his arm.

Harry’s next breath was like a whisper. “Fuck…”

He had to draw this out. Because Louis liked that. He liked being desperate for it, if Harry remembered correctly. But Harry— he just wasn’t sure how long he was going to last with Louis looking the way he did.

Louis brushed his foot over Harry’s crotch. “Why are you still wearing these?”

“Fuck, stop—” Harry groaned and pulled away.

Louis raised his brows. “Oh. Someone’s really excited.”

Harry grumbled, “Why are you still talking?” He pushed their mouths together to shut him up. And pressed his hips down between Louis’ legs. Louis made a noise in the back of his throat. His legs fell open wider. He shuffled backward on the bed, pulling Harry along with him.

“Off,” he said, pushing at his jeans. “Take these off.”

Harry fumbled to do so quickly, his heart rate kicking up to what seemed like dangerous levels. When he’d unfastened his jeans, Louis pushed them down his thighs, eyes following Harry’s cock as it sprung free. Louis smirked up at him. And then he ducked down and sucked the head into his mouth.

Harry dug his fingers into Louis’ shoulders. “Lou, I can’t.”

“You can,” Louis said, pulling off with an audible pop. “You’ve held out for longer.”

“That’s different. It’s been too fucking long,” Harry said. Not since he’d had sex. Just since he’d had Louis. And that made a world of difference.

Years ago, Harry could hold out on coming for as long as Louis asked him to. He could see Louis through multiple orgasms, no matter what they were doing, and evade his own. But again, that was years ago.

Louis seemed to understand. His gaze turned soft. “We’ll have to work on that then.”

Yeah, they would. And that meant more sex. And that was really good news.

“Come on,” Louis said, pulling him close again, right on top of his body. He kissed him for long tender moments, just running their mouths together, slowing everything down to a transcendent calm. This instance right here would be one Harry remembered in crystal clarity for years to come. With Louis’ arms around his body and Louis’ legs around his waist and Louis meeting every brush of his mouth with a stroke of his own.

"Have you done this with anyone else besides me?" Harry murmured, tucking his face for a moment between Louis’ chin and his shoulder, hiding away.

"What?"

Harry pulled back and looked at him as boldly as he could manage. "Like this?"

Louis blinked his bleary eyes at him. “I don’t— “

“I’m asking if anyone else but me has fucked you?”

He was trying to ask as lightly as possible because really, he no longer had a right to this information. He told himself he was only curious. He didn’t really care, just wanted to know. And yet the thought haunted him. Because Louis had once been adamant about being on top, about dominating in the way he knew best. And Harry had always been more than willing to play along.

But it was also groundbreaking, the day Louis let him in. It meant everything to Harry, even now. And he hoped, desperately, that there had been no one else.

Louis' reaction said otherwise. “Harry,” he said firmly.

“Louis.” Harry was just as firm.

"Why are you even—" Louis' voice fell off. He shook his head. “Just fuck me already.”

Harry frowned. “Why can’t you just say yes or no?”

“Because it doesn’t matter,” Louis shot back. “It shouldn’t matter.”

“Yes or no, Louis,” Harry repeated. “Just answer the question.”

“No,” Louis grunted. “As in no, I won’t answer the question. Fuck, just forget it. This is stupid,” he said. “Just—”

Harry tightened his grip on Louis’ wrists. “God damn it. Louis,” he cut him off.

Louis was biting his lip now, eyes slightly narrowed. “Why don’t you make me?”

For a second, they were just staring at each other, mouths hovering, breathing heavily though so far they’d done nothing. Harry thought he knew what he was seeing in Louis’ gaze. But it’d been too long for him to know for sure. And they’d only done this a few times to each other, when they were young and stupid and far from experts.

But Harry knew Louis. And he didn’t think he could put it more plainly than to say, “make me.”

And so Harry lifted his hand and planted a slap right on Louis' arse. His hand stung on contact. Louis hissed and swore aloud, turning his head into the mattress as if to hide.

“Fuck,” he breathed, his back arching. His eyes found Harry’s again, stark blue against his flushed face. "Do it again."

That was all Harry needed really. Louis never had to ask him for anything twice. Harry was always willing to give him what he needed. Even if it wasn’t entirely possible. He would bleed himself dry just trying.

"Hands and knees,” he said.

Without hesitation, Louis pushed himself up onto all fours, spreading his legs, pushing his bum towards Harry. He presented himself eagerly and Harry repaid him by laying his palm out on his left cheek.

Louis’ hips rocked forward. His head sank to the mattress. When he rocked back, Harry met him with another slap to his right cheek, bright red unfurling under his skin like petals on a rose. Harry met the spot with his lips, kissing and then biting Louis’ arse cheek. He pulled away and hit him again.

“Fuck yes,” he heard Louis murmur, face buried almost completely in the mattress. He probably couldn’t even breathe.

Harry tangled his hand in Louis’ hair and tugged hard. Louis hissed again, lifting his face away from the mattress. Harry rubbed his cock over Louis’ bare ass, rutting up against him for a second. He pressed his lips to Louis’ flushed neck.

“Drive me fucking insane,” he grunted, pushing Louis back into the mattress, tugging his hips up when they sank downward. He spanked him again and Louis groaned, biting into his arm. His whole face was bright pink, the corners of his eyes were damp, and he was breathing like there wasn’t enough air in the room. And still he pushed his arse toward Harry’s hand, desperate, silently begging for more. And Harry denied him nothing.

Each time his palm met Louis’ skin it felt like another link in the chain around their ankles fell loose and Harry just kept going, hoping foolishly that this might somehow careen them past the heartache.

In truth, it couldn’t fix everything, but it would fucking help.

It took a lot to make Louis cry. The birth of his last siblings after minor pregnancy complications. His grandfather’s successful heart surgery. A stadium filled of adoring fans. The last show of tour.

And this, giving himself over to Harry —

Harry caged Louis’ body against the bed and kissed over the silent tears streaking his cheeks.

"That's enough. You've had enough," he murmured.

“There was no one.” Louis’ voice was a gossamer note, so quiet Harry barely heard him. “Hasn’t been anyone else. I can’t wait any longer, Harry. Fuck me now.”

No one else. Harry nodded dazedly and pulled back to fumble around in his drawer for condoms and lube. “I’ll do it like this.”

Harry popped the bottle of lube open, leaning in to press a kiss to the bottom of Louis’ tailbone. “Have the best view right now,” he murmured with another kiss.

Louis breathed a quiet laugh. “Even with these snow-capped mountains. And that pretty lake.”

Harry ran his hand over Louis’ arse, pushed his cheeks apart. “Even then. You’re the prettiest of them all.”

Louis laughed again, turning his head to look at him, blinking past the tears lingering in his eyes.

Harry slipped into a trance as he worked with one, then two fingers, pressing kisses to Louis’ bum and his lower back, watching the twitch of Louis’ brows. “So beautiful, Louis. You’re so beautiful to me.”

Louis made a noise as if to reply. He rocked back against Harry’s fingers, pushing them deeper. Harry licked his lips and watched him for a moment, working his plush bum over his hand.

Harry added a third finger and curled them downward gently. Louis turned his face into the mattress again but pushed his bum back to chase the feeling of Harry’s fingers against his spot. Harry, of course, gave him what he wanted.

“God, that’s good. That’s good enough,” Louis panted after a moment, hips stilling. He turned over, blinking dazedly at him, spreading his legs. One last time he told him, “Come on.”

Harry leaned in for a quick kiss. Louis cupped the back of his neck and held him there for a moment, their hot tongues meeting and conversing for longer than intended. Harry broke away first to wrap a condom down his length. Louis reached for the bottle of lube, sitting up to coat his cock and pump his fist over him a few times.

“Fuck me hard,” he instructed, eyelashes fluttering upward. His eyes were like raw sapphire, wild and immaculately colored, endlessly blue. “Do you hear me?”

“I hear you,” Harry cupped the back of Louis’ knee, pushing his legs apart. He pressed a kiss to the inside of his thigh. “Been waiting so long for this, Lou.”

“Make me pay for it.”

Their eyes locked. Harry scooted up close and ran the tip of his cock over Louis’ hole. He nudged forward and snatched a groan from them both. His eyes rolled shut. He worked his way onward with short, steady strokes, pressing kisses to Louis’ flushed chest and his sweaty collarbones. “Shit, you feel good,” he whispered. “I might not last—”

“You’re not gonna come until you fuck me well and good,” Louis said. His hand found its way into Harry’s hair and locked the strands up in a fist. Harry whimpered, his hips rolling forward on command. Another firm, deep thrust. “That’s it, baby. Just like that.”

Harry craved the praise, was spurred on by Louis’ mumbled, adoring words and the tug of his fingers in his hair. He threw Louis’ leg over his right shoulder and rocked into him desperately. He fucked Louis into his mattress as if to dismantle the damn thing. He fucked him like he might never get to do it again. Because that was entirely possible.

Louis exhaled high-pitched whines into the air, his voice gone hoarse. He praised him anyway: “Always know just how to give it to me,” he said.

“You always know how to take it,” Harry replied, driving his cock forward with enough force to shift Louis up the bed. Louis dug his nails into Harry’s back and then the curve of his ass, urging him deeper as if he wasn’t deep enough.

The room was filled with the music they made, the grunts and whines, and the slapping whenever their skin met. Harry covered Louis’ body with his own. He released his ankle so Louis could lock both behind his back. Their chests pressed close, their mouths smashed together. He shortened each thrust, simply grinding his cock in deep, hypnotic circles. The scent of Louis’ skin was the sweetest aphrodisiac. The dull thump, thump, thump of Louis’ heartbeat, the sweetest melody.

With Louis’ cock pressed between them, the glide of their bodies close together now was friction enough. Harry rolled his hips against him just the way Louis needed him to and the come leaked from him and spread like honey on their stomachs.

Louis appeared to be in another world as he came, his eyes closed, lips parted around quick, arrhythmic puffs of air. Harry pushed into him twice more and then he was done, clinging to Louis’ body, groaning into the fevered skin of his neck, where his heartbeat thrummed at double speed.

Louis gathered him in close, pushing Harry’s sweaty hair away from his face. He pressed a kiss to his forehead and ran a hand gently down his back, each touch of his fingers fleeting but reverent.

“Missed that so much,” he murmured finally.

“Me too,” Harry huffed, sucking in another deep breath. “You’re incredible.”

“So are you, babe,” Louis said. “Thank you…”

Harry pushed himself up and rested his chin on Louis’ chest. “Thank you,” he replied, brushing his thumb over Louis’ nipple. He smiled. “Want to take a bath with me? I’ve got this milk and honey bath bomb. Makes your skin glow.”

“Well, I’m sold,” Louis said. “What the fuck are we lying here for?”

Harry giggled like a charmed school boy or a kid on Christmas. Both were accurate comparisons to how he felt in that moment. He pulled out and reached for Louis’ hands to pull him up and off the bed.

They squeezed into Harry’s tiny porcelain tub, murky white water surrounding them, smelling of cinnamon and vanilla. It glittered too, as promised, with tiny gold specks that stuck to their skin. A pink candle flickered near the edge of the tub, filling the room with an added floral aroma.

They sat facing each other, knees jutting up a bit out of the water, legs entwined. Harry was slumped forward with his head against Louis’ chest while Louis washed and rinsed his hair and combed the tangles free. “It’s so long,” he heard him comment.

“Should I cut it?” Harry murmured softly.

He’d often wondered how Louis felt about his hair and every other physical change he’d undergone over the years. There was always a voice in his head prompting the question, “Does he still find me attractive?” Always followed by a voice telling him not to care.

“No,” Louis said. “Not unless you want to. I think it’s beautiful.”

And that was why Harry didn’t listen to the voices in his head. Not only because that had worrying implications. But because, at the end of the day, the facts remained: Of course, Louis found him attractive. Even months ago, there were scarce fleeting moments he might catch an appreciative spark in Louis’ gaze. Whether he was wearing an especially revealing shirt or his tightest white jeans or putting his newly acquired levels of flexibility to use onstage.

And Harry knew that he cared what Louis thought of him. Because there had never been a point where he stopped.

“Thank you,” Harry said, turning to press a kiss to Louis’ chest.

He was starting to feel lulled by all the warmth — of the water and of Louis’ body and his fingertips against his scalp. He let his heavy eyes slip shut.

“Don’t fall asleep,” Louis said. “You always fall asleep in the tub.”

That had only happened once. Harry hummed. “’M not asleep. Hey…” He lifted his head and smiled dopily. “Want to take a nap with me after this?”

Louis huffed a laugh. “Sounds perfect. Need to rest off my bum.”

Harry’s smile faltered. “I didn’t hurt you, did I?”

One corner of Louis’ mouth curved upward. He pushed Harry’s damp hair back and kept his hands against the sides of his face. “No more than I wanted you to,” he said with a leveled gaze. “Did you think I was joking when I said it was amazing?”

Harry’s frown remained. “We should have talked about it first, though, right? ‘Cause it’s been awhile. And I could have hurt you.”

Louis shook his head, defiant. “No, you never would.”

“Are we still talking about sex?”

Now they were both frowning.

“I mean, I was, yeah,” Louis said, confusedly.

Harry felt bad for ruining the moment, but this was another thing he simply needed to know. “I’d love to, like, talk about everything. We never really had the chance to. ‘Cause the power went out and—” He licked his lips. “There’s a lot I want to say.”

Louis’ gaze flickered away for a moment, down at the water. He dropped his hands and sat back.

“I know I hurt you,” Harry said. “When I left and stayed away…”

Louis sighed abruptly. “Let’s not, Haz.”

“Why?”

“We’re getting pruney,” Louis said. “Come on. Can’t get any cleaner unless we use bleach.”

He pushed himself up using the sides of the tub, water dripping off his skin and pattering loudly where it fell. Harry watched him step out and grab a towel to dry off.

“We’ll have to talk about it eventually,” Harry said. “All of it. Whether you want to or not.”

Louis ran his towel through his hair. “Really? Because honestly, I don’t see the point in reliving all the shit that happened years ago,” he said. “And I don’t know what you want me to say. Yeah, it was awful. Everything about it was really fucking awful, Harry.”

“Well, that’s a start,” Harry said, smiling sadly.

Louis seemed to deflate, then. He wrapped a towel around his waist and returned to the tub. “You know what’s not awful? This, right here,” he said, touching Harry’s chin. “Can we not just enjoy what’s happening right now? No expectations or anything. Just you and me.” He leaned in and Harry accepted a kiss.

“How about that nap now, yeah?” Louis asked.

“I’ll be right there,” Harry said, sending him a smile that Louis probably wasn’t fooled by at all.

 

> <

 

Harry watched the bird on Louis’ forearm ease around his waist, his hands clasping together atop his tummy. “Is it safe?” he murmured, hooking his chin over Harry’s shoulder.

“I think so,” Harry replied. He held the fridge open and balanced the plastic container of trout in his other hand. He sniffed at it again and then inclined the container to the side so Louis could take a whiff too.

“Think it’s fine,” Louis agreed. “Smells like fish.”

Harry snorted. “Well, that’s no good. Fish that smells like fish…”

Louis bit his shoulder blade punishingly, and then countered his own attack by gently rubbing his hand up and down Harry’s stomach, fingers trailing through the hair below his navel.

Harry was still mentally preoccupied with their tub talk, but Louis being delightfully clingy had to be prioritized. And Harry had to keep believing that things would work themselves out. He had to trust that this week together would be exactly what they needed and that they’d come out on the other side, new and changed and better.

He had to move to put the food in the microwave and Louis, unfortunately, released him. He wouldn’t have minded if Louis just shuffled along with him. Like a young koala clinging to its mother’s back or a joey in a pouch. (Louis would never touch him again if he made the comparison aloud.)

Louis eventually had to release him, complaining that he was cold and needed to put on a shirt. He disappeared to the bedroom and returned a minute later wearing one of Harry’s jumpers, a gray, thickly knit one that fell slightly off one shoulder, exposing his collarbones, and with sleeves that covered his hands.

Harry watched him open the fridge and extract a beer. He munched slowly on his grapes while Louis knocked the top off his beer and stepped up to the counter. He plucked one of Harry’s grapes from his hand, tossed it into his mouth, smiling when he caught it.

“What?” he said after a sip of beer.

Harry shook his head. “Nice jumper,” he decided to say.

Louis looked down on himself “Thanks,” he said laconically. He narrowed his eyes a second later. “This isn’t yours. I brought this here with me. I’ve had it forever.”

Harry smiled. “Because you stole it from me.”

“No. This is mine…” Louis rolled his eyes. “It’s always been mine.”

“Louis… That’s the same jumper you took from me within a month of us meeting. You said it was soft and smelled nice. And I never asked you to return it even though it was one of my favorites. Because I had a crush on you and I didn’t want you to dislike me. And because you thought I smelled nice. And you looked cute wearing it.”

“How would you even remember that?” Louis asked.

“I remember everything about you,” Harry replied, skin prickling with heat even before the words were done leaving his mouth. It felt sometimes like he went out of his way to embarrass himself. “About us,” he mumbled, as if that would help. It didn’t.

Louis’ eyes flickered over his face, his lips twitching upward.

The microwave chimed. Harry took an eager step away to retrieve their food. Louis’ hand slipped around his forearm and tugged him back. Their lips met.

Harry spent hours longing for kisses like this when he was sixteen. Not sex or passionate tonguing, though that was great too. Sometimes Louis would just get him on the couch and kiss him in this slow, sweet, measured way, covered by the dark of their living room. He would touch Harry’s jaw the way he was doing now and move their mouths together like they had all the time in the world.

Louis’ lashes fluttered down when they separated. He held them there in silence, brushing his thumb over Harry’s dimple, breathing him in.

“Thanks for letting me keep it then,” he said with a smile. Harry nodded, with nothing sensible to say. Louis released him and lifted his beer bottle to his mouth and took a long pull, the moment over.

Harry exhaled a quiet breath, pushed himself away from the counter and toward the microwave. He knew he couldn’t hide the blush creeping up his neck. He didn’t even try.

They ate their leftovers on the couch while watching The Time Traveler’s Wife. Harry finished eating and switched his plate out for his knitting needles during the latter part of the movie, his gaze shifting occasionally to Louis.

Louis was resting his chin in his hand, drumming his fingers on his cheek, eyes narrowed suspiciously at the screen. Eventually, he started chewing his fingernail, his nerves growing as the movie neared a close.

“He’s going to die, isn’t he?” he finally asked.

“Just watch,” Harry answered, as he always had when Louis begged for spoilers.

Louis watched for another two minutes. “Oh, fuck. He’s going to die. Jesus, Harry. You know I hate bloody sad endings.”

“It isn’t sad. It has a nice ending,” Harry said. Louis glared at him disbelievingly.

The term he should have used was bittersweet. Henry, the time traveler, died, but there was a lovely surprise at the end. It wasn’t enough to appease Louis. His eyes were damp, his jaw set firmly, and his arms crossed over his chest.

“What the fuck kind of an ending was that?” he asked, his Doncaster twang shaping each letter sharply.

Harry set his needles aside, lifted the remote and shut the TV off. “Hey,” he said, leaning close to him. “Want to play Scrabble?”

Louis maintained his frown for all of five seconds. His lips curved, slowly and stubbornly, but surely. “Yeah, okay.”

Harry hopped up and pulled the box out from amongst the books in his bookshelf. It was a bit dusty since he never had anyone to play with. But it was also a new box, one he’d bought specifically for this house. (He had a thing about arming each of his residences with Scrabble. A Louis thing, really. But no one needed to know that specific detail.)

He set up the board on the coffee table, while Louis went to the kitchen to make them tea. They always played with cups of tea.

Harry had the pouch ready by the time Louis returned with two steaming mugs and set them down on the table. “Thank you,” Harry said, holding the pouch out to him. He took a sip of his tea with his free hand. “I drew ‘J’.”

Louis reached into the pouch, drew out a tile, and smiled. He turned it so Harry could see. “F.”

Harry rolled his eyes, but his lips twitched around the rim of his mug. Louis sat down and crossed his legs. They drew their seven letter tiles, positioned them on their racks, and Louis began.

Scrabble had always been especially fun for them. The other boys grew bored towards the end. But Harry and Louis could play for hours, leaned over the board, eyes constantly flickering to meet and glowing with challenge.

It calmed them down and riled them up at the same time, their long-suffering hunt for words. Words they didn’t know the meanings of. Words they made up. Like “vibey,” Louis’ concoction, which sparked an intense month-long debate between the two of them. It wasn’t a bloody word. Not according to the Oxford English Dictionary. But then Zayn started using it. And Liam. And then Niall.

And Harry, in all his good English graces, decided to concede.

Harry lifted his chin off his fist and peered down at the board. “Did you just add a ‘y’ to green?”

Louis sipped his tea. “Yeah. Greeny for 10 points.”

“Greeny,” Harry repeated.

Louis smiled. “Yes. Like your eyes.”

Harry narrowed said eyes. “Charming. But that’s not a word.”

“It’s absolutely a word,” Louis replied. “Greeny. Like the aspect or likeness of being green.”

Harry rubbed at his temples. “Don’t make me get the dictionary. I really don’t want to get the dictionary.”

I’ll get the dictionary. It’s a word, I’m telling you,” Louis said, pushing himself to his feet. He went to the bookshelf and got the dictionary.

Greeny was not in the dictionary. Greeny was not a word.

Harry did what he always did when he successfully shot down one of Louis’ ‘words’. He leaned in and kissed his cheek. “You’ll get the next one.”

Louis stared at him for a long while after that as Harry took his turn. Not in defiance, but something else. Something softer. Harry felt his eyes on him and his ears once again grew hot from the attention.

“I missed this,” Louis said quietly, as he was placing his tiles down. “A lot.”

“Me too,” Harry said right away, glancing quickly at him and then to the board.

Regardless of losing “greeny,” Louis still won the game by a slight margin of ten points, the difference of one letter X or Q. But Harry always liked to see Louis win, more than he craved it for himself.

Louis never boasted about it, especially not when he beat Harry, but he walked around properly chuffed and unashamedly smug. And Harry always found it both oddly charming and attractive.

They packed the board back into the box, but left it on the table because Harry demanded a rematch tomorrow. They placed their cups in the sink and shuffled off to bed.

“Good night,” he heard Louis say. He stopped and turned. Louis stopped too, right at the door of the guestroom. Both of them stood frozen in the hallway.

“Where are you going?” Harry asked him.

Louis glanced into the guestroom, his brows creasing. “I’m not sure, to be honest,” he finally said.

Harry huffed a laugh. He reached out and grabbed the hem of Louis’ jumper. “Come on,” he said tiredly, tugging him along into his room. “You’re sleeping with me.”

Louis smiled, waddling into the room after him. He pulled off his jumper and set it at the foot of the bed. Harry tugged off his t-shirt and did the same. They shuffled beneath this quilt, bodies turned toward each other.

Harry brushed his thumb over Louis’ cheek, his smile small. “Know what else we should do?”

Louis lifted his brows. “What’s that?”

“We should go ice skating,” Harry said. “There’s a rink in town. I’ve always wanted to go.”

“Look at us,” Louis said. “Building snow ladies. Ice skating. Really doing the whole winter wonderland thing. I love it.”

Harry laughed. “We’ll need to make snow angels too then. And maybe go snowboarding.”

“Fuck yes to both,” Louis said. “Should have more than enough time.”

Harry’s smile waned some. He lowered his gaze to Louis’ mouth, just to avoid his eyes. He kept forgetting their time was limited. It was easy to get caught up in being here, to pretend they were in a dome where time didn’t exist at all.

“You look so much older,” Louis mumbled after a second.

Harry’s eyes flickered back to his. His brows creased. “You’re not insulting me, are you?”

Louis breathed a laugh. “No, I mean that you look mature. In a good way. I’ve been wanting to say that to you for a while. That I like how you look. That you look good.”

Harry raised both brows. “Are you blushing?”

“I don’t blush,” Louis said, laughing. He looked away, down at the mole on Harry’s chin probably. It was too dark in the room to see clearly but he was absolutely blushing. That made two of them.

Harry laughed. “Well,” he began. “I like your beard.” He ran his hand over Louis’ scruffy cheek to emphasize his point. “It’s nice.”

“It’s kind of fitting out here too, isn’t it?” Louis smiled. “Pulling off the mountain man look quite well.”

“That’s debatable,” Harry said and then he barked a laugh when Louis jabbed his finger into his side. “Stop.”

That, of course, only prompted Louis to assault him further, running his fingers up and down Harry’s ribs, until Harry’s stomach ached from laughter. Louis leaned in and dropped a surprise kiss on his mouth.

“You’re lovely like this,” Louis murmured.

Harry’s breathing slowed as Louis pressed another kiss to his mouth. He closed his eyes and moved his mouth in tandem with Louis, sliding his hand into his soft hair. He spread his palms out over Louis’ warm back and then over his biceps, the muscles shifting under his touch. Firm and somehow soft.

“This,” Harry breathed. “I like this. How strong you are. It’s— amazing.”

“Speak for yourself,” Louis said. He kissed him in the spaces between their words. He couldn’t seem to stop and Harry didn’t want him to.

“I love how generous you are,” Louis said. “How kind. How encouraging you’ve been in the past year to the band, and our fans. Our gay fans, especially. That’s amazing.”

You’re amazing,” Harry answered, laughing when Louis pressed a kiss to his neck. He felt ticklish all over.

“You’re amazing,” Louis replied, kissing him several times more.

“Louis, do you feel…” Harry paused between kisses. “Do you feel like you’ve travelled back in time? Like you’re eighteen again? ‘Cause all day I’ve felt sixteen. Makes me want to do really stupid shit. Like send nudes to Liam.”

Louis chuckled. “Me too. Like no time has passed.” He settled beside Harry again but kept his hand on his hip like it had been.

“Yeah, exactly like that,” Harry mumbled. “Let’s prank call the boys.”

“And send nudes to Liam?”

“To all of them,” Harry replied.

It was past midnight and they were both tired enough that if they set their heads to their pillows and remained quiet for at least one minute, they would fall asleep easily. But still, they crawled out of bed and stripped out of their pants and set about taking a picture of their bare bums in Harry’s mirror.

Harry got the Sharpie marker from the little desk in the corner of his room, giggling while he drew a little smiley on Louis’ left bum cheek and then kissed it. Louis did the same to his right cheek. They took their picture and sent it with a simple caption of “Good Morning” because it was 8 AM in London and Ireland.

They were also generous enough to give their best friends wake up calls. Zayn answered with a prompt “fuck off” before hanging up. Liam lectured them about the importance of sleep before they decided to hang up on him. Niall was the only one smart enough not to answer.

It was nearly 3 AM by the time they returned to bed, naked and still ridden with laughter. They talked until 6 AM when the sky was turning cobalt and the sun was starting to burn on the outskirts of the lake. They shuffled again out of bed to watch it burst out of the horizon, blinding orange reflecting on the surface of the water. It was a wonder they could still keep their eyes open to take it all in.

Again, they returned to bed. Harry looked over while he was in the middle of a winding abstraction about buffalo and found Louis’ eyes closed. Finally, he turned toward him, lifting his arm to tuck himself beneath it, closed his eyes, and followed suit.

 

> <

 

At noon, he woke Louis up, kissing a line down his spine until he landed at the slightly tender skin of his rim. He licked him out until Louis was swatting at him with a pillow and begging, demanding really. “Get in me now.”

Harry wasn’t in the business of denying him a thing. He fucked him slow, still teasing like he had the day before. He loved teasing him. So often it was Louis driving Harry mad. But when they had sex like this, just for a little while, Harry took the upper hand.

But eventually Louis had enough. He flipped them over, gripped the headboard in his hands, and rode him like a getaway car, hips snapping, head thrown back. “You feel amazing,” he said breathlessly, directing his words up to the ceiling. He dragged his hand down Harry’s sweaty chest. “God, so fucking good.”

He was a miracle. Harry was experiencing a miracle and he wanted to tell the world. For science purposes at least.

“Let’s go get breakfast,” he said afterwards, rubbing his hand lazily over Louis’ chest.

He didn’t know how they’d ended up on the floor. His back was against the bed and Louis’ head rested in his lap. Neon sniffed suspiciously at Louis’ toe. She didn’t trust him anymore, Harry thought. Twice now she had been locked out of Harry’s room. And she was beginning to figure out that it was Louis’ fault.

Louis didn’t seem to get that. He rubbed at her with his toe, sending her a smile. She raised her proud kitty chin and sauntered away, her head perhaps spinning with plans to rid herself of this new human. Harry might also have been crazy.

“Sounds great,” Louis said, tilting his head back to meet Harry’s eyes.

Harry leaned in and kissed his smiling mouth.

 

> <

 

They cleaned the snow off the car. Or they attempted to. But they were children after all and it was no surprise that a low-scale snowball fight ensued. Louis started it. He always started it. Harry was merely forced to defend himself, armed with a fallen branch, attempting to bat Louis’ snowballs away. Snow lady Susan watched them with disapproval.

“Oh, nice,” Louis shouted when Harry actually got one, the snowball exploding in a puff of white. He gathered the rest of his snowballs in hand and counted them. “Think you can handle five at the same time?”

Harry tossed the branch away and charged at him, as best as he could with his feet sinking deep in the snow. Louis started to laugh before they even hit the ground. Harry pinned him with their gloved hands entwined. “There’s been a plot twist,” he grinned, laughter tumbling through his lips.

Louis smiled up at him. “You think you’ve won?” he mused. “Don’t be so sure.”

“Why don’t you try to get away from me then?” Harry challenged, tightening his grip.

Louis shrugged. “I could if I wanted to.”

“And you don’t want to?” Harry lifted both brows.

“Hm…” Louis hummed. “I quite like where I am actually.”

Harry smiled wider, childish glee spreading over his face like the sunlight passing through the snow-covered trees. He dipped down to press their cold lips together, summoned a soft moan from deep in Louis’ throat. Louis wriggled his right wrist and Harry released him. Louis smoothed his palm down Harry’s back, licking into his mouth, keeping him distracted with the glide of his lips.

Freezing cold ricocheted all along Harry’s neck. He squawked, jumping off Louis’ thighs to shake the snow from beneath his flannel. Louis rolled around in the snow, bubbling with laughter, hugging his stomach. “I win,” he howled. “I fucking win.”

“I’m having breakfast by myself,” Harry grumbled, stalking off toward the car.

Louis scrambled after him, chuckling still, unable to stop. Harry couldn’t help but smile just to see him happy. It made his morning just to see Louis happy.

“Come now, love,” Louis was saying, popping the passenger door open. “Don’t be glum.”

Harry grumbled all the way to the diner at the edge of town, accepting every apologetic kiss Louis leaned over the console to give him, grumbling louder so Louis would be guilted into giving more.

They ordered the Deluxe Family Breakfast, which was meant to feed 8. They were gluttons but at least there was no one to judge them but themselves.

It was a full spread; complete with eggs, bacon, pancakes, hash browns, grits. Every staple American breakfast food item you could think of. And of course, cups of tea were needed as well.

They ate most of it, a task made manageable by the fact that they stayed there for nearly two hours, playing with their food—again, because they were children—linking their feet beneath the table, daring to let their fingers touch when they thought no one was looking.

It was possible that Harry hadn’t ever been this happy in his life. And all that happiness had to find an outlet, even if that meant he spent the better part of breakfast drawing faces on his pancakes, and building a small structure with their sausage links, and flicking a bit of egg across the table to stick to Louis’ jumper or land in his hair. He’d feel sorry afterwards and lean forward to brush it away.

He looked up once to find Louis with a bacon moustache and snorted so hard a bit of tea dripped from his nose.

They wrote notes on their paper napkins with the crayons available for children. They drew lines of hearts connecting their names. Played multiple games of tic-tac-toe until Louis crumbled up the napkins following his third defeat.

Amazing how being with Louis seemed to reverse time. They were back in a hotel room during their first tour, blowing raspberries into each other’s skin, making out for hours without questioning what it meant, touching and laughing, and falling in love in the blundering, tumbling way teenagers tended to do.

Years had passed. But Louis was still his favourite person, the most fun person, the most bright and beautiful. And Harry loved him with his whole heart, and every other part of himself too.

 

> <

 

They were both out of practice on ice skates. In his attempt to gracefully glide up beside Louis, he collided with him instead, his arm shooting out to catch Louis around the waist.

Louis squeaked in surprise, legs spreading out on his skates like a baby giraffe. He wobbled and struggled for his balance, clinging to Harry. It proved impossible. They tumbled. Louis hit his bum. Harry collapsed atop him.

“Why are you attacking me?” Louis groaned. “I’m just here minding my business.”

“It was supposed to be graceful. I was going to twirl you,” Harry mumbled, pushing himself up with more wobbling of his coltish legs. “This is harder than I remember.”

Louis tossed his head back when he laughed, watching Harry struggle to his feet. “Help me up,” he said, wagging his skate at Harry.

Harry reached his hands down for him and hoisted him up. They remained very still for a moment lest gravity get them again.

“My arse is smarting,” Louis murmured.

Harry chuckled. “Very sorry. Later I’ll kiss it better.”

“You’d like that wouldn’t you. At least there’s no one here really to witness our failure,” Louis said, dusting off his poor bum. There were only four other people there with them but two of them were an elderly couple sitting outside the rink, drinking hot chocolate, and supervising their two grandchildren, a young girl and boy who were clearly figure skating pros, whizzing around the rink with little concern for Harry and Louis.

“I think one day they’re going to be Olympic gold medalists,” Louis commented as the two children zipped by again.

Harry nodded thoughtfully. “Maybe we should ask them for their autograph now.”

He and Louis shared a meaningful look, both travelling back to the X-Factor toilets, donned once again in their ill-fitting clothes and clunky shoes, smiling like dorks at each other while they peed. Louis finished their odd first encounter by asking for his autograph. Superstar, he’d called him in parting. That might have been the moment for sure—the one that did Harry in.

Louis didn’t release Harry’s other hand even after they were steady on their feet. In fact, he held tighter. “Alright,” he breathed. “We’re gonna get the hang of this together.”

Together. Harry in all his irrepressible optimism felt thrilled by the word. He wanted that from here on out. They could do it all together.

“You sound like a motivational coach,” he said, and added randomly, “We should have worn our jerseys.”

Louis raised confused brows.

“Team Tomlinson, remember?” Harry murmured.

Louis came to a still, halting Harry too. “You still have yours?” he exhaled, two spots of bright colour on his cheeks. Because it was cold in the rink. Or something else.

Harry didn’t meet his eyes. “Of course.”

Louis started to grin. “Well, fuck,” he said. He dropped a kiss on the back of Harry’s hand. “You’re lovely, Harry, you know that?” He gave his hand a gentle tug, drawing him into motion. “Come on. Can’t make it to the Olympics unless we practice.”

Harry laughed. He clutched Louis’ hand tightly and they ambled together around the rink, cutting slow lines through the ice. They got the hang of it eventually. Because they did it together.

 

> <

 

Harry’s eyelids fluttered and shut as Louis started on a bruise beneath his earlobe, his hot tongue lathing over Harry’s skin. Heat shot up through his body from his toes curling in his boots to the tips of his fingers digging into Louis’ coat. “Let’s—” he licked his bruised lips, still feeling the sting of Louis’ mouth there. “Let’s go inside.”

“You’re so fucking beautiful,” Louis murmured into his ear as if he hadn’t even heard him. He bit gently on his earlobe. Harry melted further into his car seat. “Can’t keep my hands off you.”

“You don’t have to. Just let’s go inside.” Harry pulled away, molding his back against the car door to keep himself from jumping Louis here and now. It was tempting. So bloody tempting. But Abby could come back or his other neighbor could stop by. Both would be scarred for life. He sucked in a deep breath, his eyes dropping to Louis’ cock straining against his trousers. He grabbed blindly for the door handle. “Inside. Come on.”

Louis was back on him at the cabin door, arms around Harry’s waist, grinding against his bum like a wolf in heat. Harry fumbled for his keys, dropped them, scooped them up, and tried again. He got the door unlocked.

They didn’t even make it to the bedroom. They didn’t undress properly.

He was stripped of his coat and his scarf. His plaid shirt became a bind around his arms, pulled down just enough to partially expose his back. Louis pushed his face into the couch cushion and set his mouth on his bare shoulder, on the back of his neck and the dip of his spine. His cock nudged against Harry’s bum. There was no time to be thorough. Louis wanted him now. Harry needed him now.

There was lube tucked away in the couch from nights ago. Louis dragged Harry’s jeans down to his thighs and made quick work of him, spreading him open with just two fingers, stoking the fire inside of him, coaxing it to burn hotter. He stretched him well, though every move they made felt frenzied and reckless.

Namely, this one:

“Don’t,” Harry grunted when he heard Louis rustling with a condom, trying to rip it open with his teeth. “Leave it please. It’s okay.”

“Harry…” Louis began.

“I’m clean. Are you?”

Louis nodded, pressing his forehead to Harry’s shoulder. “I am.”

“I trust you,” Harry murmured. “It’s okay. Please. Come on.”

“Fuck,” Louis hissed. “Okay.” He kissed the back of Harry’s neck again. Slowly, he pressed the tip of his cock past Harry’s rim, and slipped inside.

Harry mouthed at one of the throw pillows beside his head. He pushed back to meet him, urging him deeper. Louis pulled out for more lube, coating himself sloppily, tossing the bottle away. He dragged Harry’s hips into position again and returned. Harry’s eyes prickled with tears that he blinked away furiously. It felt remarkable, physically, spiritually, to have Louis this way.

Louis leaned over his body, drawing his hips back, thrusting forward. “Fuck, you feel good,” he murmured in his ear. He whined. “So good. Jesus.” He entwined their fingers, pressing their joined hands into the couch. He set his other hand on Harry’s chest, fingers spread over his heart.

Each stroke of his cock was smooth and deep, finding his spot easily. When his sweat dripped to Harry’s back, Harry swore he heard it sizzle. Louis caged him against the couch, holding him to his chest, grinding his hips in steady circles. He mouthed at his ear and his neck and anywhere else he could reach.

“Harder,” Harry pleaded. He rubbed his cheeks against the couch to dry his tears, couldn’t figure out why he was crying at all. He spoke breathlessly. “Fuck me harder, Louis.”

They’d spent months and years unable to communicate with each other. Harry had once begun to think they spoke a different language altogether and that the letters and symbols of Louis’ tongue had grown so complex, they might never understand each other again.

But he was filled with an unexplainable kind of joy when Louis heard him now and answered Harry’s request with powerful, almost merciless drives of his cock. He pounded into him, slow and then fast. He kept him on his toes, kept him suspended, and Harry just let Louis have him, his eyes slipping closed as he ascended into the heady space where they were the only two people who existed or mattered.

When Louis hit him with rapid thrusts, Harry beat his fist into the cushion and cried out. The corners of his eyes grew damp again, the cushion grew wet with his own saliva. He was delirious, didn’t know what planet he was on anymore, didn’t even fucking care.

He mewled, squeezing his eyes shut, and his tears fell. “Close.”

Louis panted into the crook of his neck, grinding his cock forward. “Go on, love.” He pressed a cool gentle kiss to his heated skin. “You deserve to be fucked like this, Harry. Any way you want it.”

Harry choked on a sob. His body locked up, his hole clenching tight on Louis. And then he was coming in a breathless chorus of swears and whines. The tension poured free. His whole body relaxed. Even in the depth of his orgasm, he kept working his hips back lazily until he felt Louis throb where he was tucked inside him. Louis clutched him like a vice, tucked his face into Harry’s neck and shot into him for long trembling minutes.

They stayed like that, unable to move or speak, or do a thing except breathe. Louis kept his palm pressed to Harry’s chest as his heartbeat eventually slowed to a steady pace. His breathing normalized. But he remained in Louis’ arms, unaware and unbelieving of a place where he was better off.

 

> <

 

“You know what we should do tonight?” Louis murmured around the last bite of his ham and cheese sandwich. He dusted his hands off and leaned back on his perch atop the kitchen counter, swinging his legs side to side.

Harry leaned against the opposing counter and looked at him curiously, lifting his mug for a sip.

“We should make s’mores,” Louis said. “Using that fire pit thing you have in the back.”

Harry glanced through the kitchen window at the fire pit thing in the back. He smiled. “Hm. Okay then. Let’s make s’mores.”

“And,” Louis began, hopping down from the counter. “We’ll start on that bottle of Remy.”

Harry chuckled, eyeing Louis as he stepped close. “What else?”

“We’ll get drunk obviously…” Louis mused. “And we’ll…kiss. Until the stars…just…burn out.”

He pressed both hands into the counter on either side of Harry’s body and leaned in, looking too pleased with himself.

“You should write that into a song,” Harry suggested, mostly to play off how weak-kneed he’d just gone. He granted Louis one kiss.

“Maybe I will. Do you get a lot of writing done out here?” Louis wondered, eyes reluctantly leaving Harry’s mouth.

Harry nibbled his top lip and stared into his mug. “I do, yeah.”

Louis ducked his head, forcing their eyes to meet. He lifted his brows. “You’re saying it like it’s a secret.”

“It’s not. No, just— I mean I’ve written things. But it’s nothing we can use,” Harry said. “Like, they aren’t songs for the band… They’re personal.”

Something changed in Louis’ gaze immediately. His eyes hooding, his mouth tensing. Like he’d picked up what Harry wasn’t putting down.

Harry hadn’t been sitting out here writing songs for their comeback like he was meant to. Every single song he’d written was solely for Louis. And sure that wasn’t any different from every other song Harry had penned in the past. But these songs weren’t ones the world was meant to hear.

Louis nodded, like Harry had said everything aloud. He knew for sure that he hadn’t, that he probably never would. “Would you play one for me?”

Harry’s eyes floated up to meet his. He stared at him speechlessly. The obvious answer, the one pushing at the back of his lips, was yes. He’d written them because he wanted Louis to hear them.

But he felt exposed, laid out and bare, like he was tied to the tracks and the light of an oncoming train was glowing just off in the distance. How much more was Harry willing to show Louis before impact?

“Hey,” Louis said. And now his hands were on Harry’s face, directing his head up because he’d been glaring into his mug again. Their eyes met. “You don’t have to, H. I get it.”

Harry opened his mouth to say something but all he had was air. Louis kissed him quickly.

“It’s alright.” Louis pulled back and lifted his brows again. “So,” he said with a grin. “S’mores?”

Harry smiled timidly, still feeling caught, and silly now too. He set his mug down behind him. “Yes, please,” he said. He could at least handle s’mores.

 

> > L < <

 

They were sat out on the wooden swing and turned toward each other. The fire pit crackled nearby and a big fluffy woolen blanket shrouded their bodies. A thermos filled with tea was balanced between them and Neon was wrapped around the thermos. Smart kitty, Louis thought. They were all more than cozy.

“It’s still kind of rough,” Harry said for the millionth time, adjusting the guitar in his arms for the billionth.

“Harry,” Louis groaned. “Please play the song, love. Please?”

It had been clear earlier on in the kitchen that Harry didn’t feel comfortable sharing whatever it was he’d written. And Louis was okay with that. In spite of how badly he wanted to hear Harry’s music, he wouldn’t push him.

But they’d barely finished lighting the fire pit when Harry went back into the house and returned with his guitar. “We’ll do s’mores afterwards,” he announced.

And that was how they ended up here.

Now Louis just felt anxious and it grew worse the longer Harry kept him in suspense.

“Please?” Louis said again, running his thumb over Harry’s kneecap.

Harry shot him another small smile and took another very deep breath, shifting the guitar again. “Alright,” he said, lifting his ringed fingers to the strings, positioning three fingers of his other hand to the fret.

He started to strum, looking at Louis, shifting his gaze out toward the lake. He kept strumming and Louis started nodding his head unconsciously to the beat.

Harry tapped the hollow body of the guitar, strummed and tapped the body again like it was a drum. Louis mimicked the beat with his hand on his thigh. And then Harry started to sing. Long Road Out, an original by Harry Styles.

You’re too far away and I need you closer

It was evident that this song had been birthed out of nights of loneliness and frustration.

Too hard to find and I’ve looked all over

It was a melody of a broken heart, an opus of pain, a ballad of healing, or a combination of all three. It progressed and changed as it hit the chorus a second time. The strumming picked up and grew happier, hopeful.

So take me as you find me now

We can get away from here

Written solely for Louis and meant only for him to hear.

Let’s just take the long road out

We can get away from here

Their eyes locked when Harry sung and when his voice broke on the last turn of the chorus, his eyes flickered away and slipped shut. He sang out, strummed, beat on his guitar, and brought the song to a fading end.

Let’s just take the long road out

Take me far away from here…

Louis leaned forward right away, balancing his mug of steaming tea in his hand, and kissed him. Harry lifted unsteady hands from his guitar and pressed his palms to Louis’ cheeks.

“Beautiful,” Louis said, running his hand through Harry’s hair. He pressed a kiss to his cheek. “So beautiful. Thank you.”

“You’re welcome. Thanks for listening,” Harry said quietly, setting his forehead on Louis’ shoulder.

“Could you play it again for me sometime?” Louis asked. He felt Harry nod.

“Anytime,” he said. Harry drew back to shoot him a smile. He lifted his guitar trap over his head. “I’ll go get things for s’mores.”

He returned without his guitar, arms filled with supplies, including skewers, a bag of large marshmallows, chocolate bars, a box of graham crackers, and a treat for Neon. “So, she won’t get jealous,” he explained.

Louis hadn’t done this in so long but it was simple enough. Harry still managed to burn his lip. Louis laughed, leaning in to kiss the pout away. They each completed one without further injuries.

“Hey,” Louis said. Harry’s brows rose expectantly. Louis cleared his throat, sucking a bit of chocolate off his thumb. “You have weed, don’t you?”

Harry laughed abruptly, gooey marshmallow hanging above his mouth. “Yeah. Why?”

“Why not?” Louis said. “That’s the real question.”

Harry blinked.

“Why don’t you go get the weed, Harry?” Louis deadpanned.

“Oh. Why didn’t you just say that, silly?” Harry chided, slapping his thigh. He shook his head. “Be right back.”

He returned shortly afterward with his box of weed and a pipe. Louis set it up because he’d always been better at it, handed the pipe off for Harry to take the first pull. Harry passed it back, exhaling smoke through his nose. He took the last bite of his s’more.

“When’s the last time we did this?” Louis murmured.

Harry held two marshmallows over the fire pit, one for him and one for Louis. “I can’t even remember.” He made Louis another s’more and handed it to him. “Too long ago.”

“Where’d you even get this?” Louis asked. His head was already swimming. In a giant pool of stars. He laughed and Harry laughed because he laughed.

“You’ll never believe. It was Patrick and Jenny,” Harry whispered.

“Abby’s parents?” Louis gasped.

Harry nodded and snorted, taking a big bite of his s’more. “They have the best shit.”

“Damn right,” Louis said. They smoked and laughed and theorized about Patrick and Jenny growing weed in their basement. Harry shuffled closer, setting his head on Louis’ shoulder for seconds at a time, only to grow animated and lift his head again and ramble.

He had a bit of chocolate on his lip. His curls were chocolate too but Louis couldn’t lick those. He didn’t think Harry would appreciate that. But the chocolate on his bottom lip. Yeah, Louis could take care of that.

Harry was still talking, just talking on and on about moose and maple syrup and constellations. And Louis loved to hear him talk. He could listen to Harry talk about anything with honest fascination.

But he set his hand on Harry’s jaw and directed his mouth to his own. Harry melted into this kiss right away. Like chocolate. He tasted sweet too and bitter from smoke. He pulled Louis close to his body, right into his lap.

Louis drew the blanket around them both, encircling Harry’s shoulders with his arms. He rocked gently in his lap, forward and back, slowly like he didn’t even realize he was doing it. He kissed him and pulled away at random, let Harry chase his mouth, and tug him back.

He ran his fingers through Harry’s hair, tossing it around, laughing into his mouth when Harry grumbled. When he trapped the smooth strands between his fingers and tugged, the sound Harry made changed, deepened, no longer a complaint but a plea. Louis looked him in the eyes. “So pretty,” he said quietly, and leaned in again. “You’re beautiful. Want you all over me.”

Harry answered him by spreading his palms out over Louis’ lower back. Louis leaned backward in Harry’s lap, trusting Harry to keep him secured. He tilted his head, directing his gaze upward. “Until the stars burn out.”

Harry curled his arms around Louis’ waist and held him close. He ran his mouth over Louis’ collarbones and sucked a bruise near his jaw. His lips were warm and firm and made Louis think he was floating up toward the stars wherever they met his skin.

“Harry—” Louis breathed, returning his gaze to him. “It’s time to go inside.”

Harry blinked at him dazedly, pupils blown from the weed and Louis in his lap. He licked his shiny mouth. “Yeah. Please.”

Louis climbed off of him, reaching back to take his hand, and they slipped back into the warmth of the house, eager for the warmth of each other.

 

> <

 

Thursday, Louis was slow to wake. It had to be near noon when he blinked his eyes open, shifting his body toward the sun. He caught sight of bright yellow in his peripheral and craned his neck to find a vase on the bedside table. Full of sunflowers. Along with a note.

Good morning, Sunflower. These are for you. -H

Louis smiled, pressing the slip of paper to his mouth, and then sat upright, drawing the vase into his lap. He felt almost laughably overwhelmed, running his fingers along the gold petals. He turned to the windowsill, spotted the snow there, and wished his heart would do like it had and settle.

But thus was the nature of love — not to settle, but to consume — and he was in love with Harry. For the second time and what felt like the very first.

It made sense when he thought about it. The person Harry was now was much different from the one he’d been when Louis was eighteen and nineteen. There were nuances he kept discovering and he was falling for each one.

He left the bedroom, drawing a robe on over his bare torso, and paused in the hallway, struck by the smell of something freshly baked. He hurried to the kitchen where there was a loaf of banana bread just perched on the countertop, golden brown, still warm. Louis couldn’t help himself. He sliced off a bit and stuffed into his mouth, almost guiltily, as he scanned the backyard.

No sign of Harry there. The bathroom had been quiet and the living room was empty too. He dusted his hands off, resisted another go at the baked goods, and called, “Harry?”

He felt a brush against his ankle and smiled, reaching down, hoisting Neon into his arms. “Not who I was looking for, but I’ll take it.”

Louis set her down again and turned the kettle on, then watched her saunter off towards the side of the kitchen and paw at a door there. Curiously, Louis watched her nose at the door jam. “What’s over there, love?” he wondered.

He approached the door, tried the knob, and then pushed the door open. It was dark inside, lit only by a red light, and Harry was hanging photographs to dry. He noticed Louis immediately and smiled. Tugging an earphone free, he said quickly, “Come in. Shut the door.”

Louis stepped inside.

“It’s not yet noon,” Louis began, incredulously, “and you’ve baked a loaf of banana bread — which was fucking delicious, might I add — and now you’re developing photos?”

Harry laughed. “Don’t think the banana bread was cool yet.”

“Nice and warm,” Louis said, stepping behind him, sliding his arms around his waist. His voice was soft, infinitesimal, when he spoke again. “Thank you for the flowers. Loved them.”

Harry leaned his head back against Louis’ shoulder. “Thought you would,” he said.

Louis glanced at the photo Harry had just hung on the wall. One of himself. Harry had taken it while he was seated in Louis’ lap. Louis was shirtless and messy-haired. The photo was black and white, but he could picture the flush of his cheeks. And the spark in his eye was there too.

It was almost embarrassing, seeing the look on his face. How obvious it was. He had to look away.

They left the dark room, much to Neon’s satisfaction. And ate banana bread in the living room with cups of tea. And Harry fooled around on his guitar, lying on his back by the fire. And Louis—

Louis was trying to keep it altogether, weary now of the way he looked at Harry and how little he could help it.

“What?” Harry asked, fingers pausing on strings.

Louis shook his head. Harry was fucking beautiful, that’s what. He had always been beautiful. But now more than ever. In every way a person might achieve beauty, Harry seemed to have done it.

It had been this way three years ago too. A bundle of feeling like a flower bud that eventually exploded into a whole field. It was what led Louis to that moment on the phone with his mum, actual tears on his face, overwhelmed by the sudden, merciless fury of young love.

It was all happening again, ten-fold.

Louis loved:

How much stronger Harry was. There was a serenity about him, a measured way of carrying on that had to be admired.

(And the physical strength was hard to miss. Harry was soft and smooth all over, even where he was muscled. Louis could pull him close and Harry would turn pliant in his arms, like he had in the dark room. But, just a day ago, Louis discovered that he could sit on Harry’s lower back while Harry completed a few push-ups. And it was, in all its right, mind-numbingly hot.)

Louis loved:

The way Harry moved and how every movement seemed artful. As he strummed his guitar in that moment. As he flipped a frying pan or kneaded dough, as he gripped an ax to chop wood. As he cuddled Neon, moseyed around the kitchen with her in his arms, speaking softly just for her to hear. And it was no wonder the cat followed him around afterwards, like even she was aware how hypnotic and magnetic Harry could be.

Louis loved:

How much fun they had, doing everything and anything at all. From Scrabble to snow angels to cleaning out that shed in Harry’s backyard, the one he said had come stocked with a ton of shit the last owners left behind.

Louis loved:

How Harry looked at life, and at the world with affection and optimism…

And how he looked at Louis. Especially that. Especially when he woke up in the morning to Harry beaming at him and the troubles of the day, despite still being unknown, seemed small.

“Let’s go out on the lake,” Harry said suddenly, setting his guitar aside.

“Yeah, alright,” Louis said, stupidly. He felt stupid. He felt half-awake. One foot in reality, one in some version of reality where he could feel everything he felt and he wouldn’t get burned for it, like he had before.

They got suited up and dragged the boat onto the water. And Louis watched Harry, strong arms working the oars back and forth, unable to look at the scenery when that had been the whole point.

Harry wore a knit hat that kept his hair out of his eyes. But the wind still found ways to tease and toss the curls falling over his collarbones. He pushed forward on the oars, his eyes ablaze as ochre sunlight settled on his face. His gaze shifted away from the lake and landed on Louis. He smiled and said something.

Louis was too enchanted to even hear him. “What?”

Harry’s brows creased and he laughed. “I asked if you wanted to try?” He lifted the handle of one oar a bit off the edge of the boat. “Rowing?”

“Oh. Uh--” Louis looked at the oars. He shrugged. “Yeah, why not?”

“’K. Come here,” Harry said. He nodded at the space between his parted legs. “Sit here.”

“In your lap?”

Harry smirked, shaking his head. “That’d be nice. But no.”

Louis stepped forward carefully along the beam at the base of the boat. He settled between Harry’s legs, putting his back to him. He reached out and gripped the oars, his hands sheathing the wood just beside Harry’s.

“Probably don’t want to let go just yet,” Louis advised him. “Not sure where we’ll end up if you do.”

Harry ‘s laughter ruffled the ends of Louis’ hair and raised goosebumps on the back of his neck. He was a proper mess, so in love his body was going haywire.

“I won’t let go. But it’s easy,” Harry replied, his voice a warm lull in Louis’ ear.

With Harry’s guidance, Louis pushed forward on the oars and pulled back, his back meeting Harry’s chest, warmth surging up through his body on impact. He was nineteen years old again and blushing while Harry stood beside him in just his pants, right up against Louis’ body, teaching him how to make pancakes.

And at the same time, he was twenty-four and resisting a full-on blush when Harry leaned in and pressed a kiss to the shell of his ear.

“You’re doing great,” Harry said, releasing the oars. “Take us home.”

It made Louis feel better if he convinced himself that anyone would be in love with Harry if they spent enough time with him. If they witnessed him at first light. Or if they found a way to make sense of how he spoke, found the hidden poetics in his lilting and rambling. If they heard him laugh a few times and experienced both the giggle and the guffaw, or the squawking combination of the two.

Louis loved:

All of him, really.

Enough that he didn’t feel restless at all when they curled up on the couch, passing time until they grew hungry. He was perfectly content, breathing Harry in, speaking in whispers like they had secrets to keep from the world.

And they did, Louis supposed. One secret in particular.

They were in love. Both of them. No matter how many years passed, Louis knew this boy better than he knew anyone else. And he wasn’t the only one consumed by this thing.  It only took one solid, unwavering glance from Harry to know that for a fact.

Later, at midnight, they occupied the center of Harry’s bed, swathed in darkness wherever the moon didn’t touch them. Harry held Louis close to his body with his hands on his lower back and his legs around his waist. They were quiet this time while Louis moved inside of him. No begging or pleading to be heard. Nothing tumbling from their mouths except hot, eager breaths, a random whimper or groan. They kept their eyes locked, traveling off to this other world where it was just them and all the things they’d left unsaid, materializing in the space between their gazes.

It’d been too long since they were genuinely honest with one another. Sincere talks were legends and fables. And even years ago when they existed, he and Harry always managed to muck them up.

Long after they came down from the high, with Harry’s hair spilling over his chest, and his even breaths tickling his skin, Louis thought about it. It should have been a comfort, knowing the feelings were all mutual, but the outcome of confessing his feelings seemed terrifying and stark:

It was being in a relationship that had destroyed them in the first place.

What if that was the very thing to ruin them again?

 

> > H < <

 

Louis stepped out of the hallway with Neon in his arm and a blanket around his shoulders. His hair was jutting out in a hundred different directions. His eyes were bright and filled with mirth, taking Harry in spread out on the couch.

“Found him,” he said to Neon, releasing her onto Harry’s outstretched leg. She pushed her way past the journal in Harry’s hands, toeing up his chest, and touched her damp nose to his chin.

Harry smiled. “Good morning,” he said to her and Louis both. She hopped down and moseyed away. Louis sank into the couch, crawling his way between Harry’s legs, and dropped his head on his stomach. Harry closed his journal and placed it on the coffee table.

“Woke up and you weren’t there,” Louis mumbled.

Harry blinked down at the top of his head. “You must have been devastated.”

Louis shot him a glare. “I was.” He set his head down again.

Harry rubbed his hand over Louis’ back and then up to his neck, kneading his fingers into the muscles there. “What will you do when you leave then?”

Louis was quiet for a long moment. He made a soft noise when Harry massaged his thumbs into a particularly sore spot. “Feels good,” he murmured.

Harry kept working firm fingers over Louis’ skin.

“When I wake up in London to find you aren’t there, maybe I’ll go back to sleep and dream I’m here instead.”

Harry’s fingers slowed to a still. He took a deep breath. “Or,” he said softly. “You could just not leave.”

Louis sighed. “I can’t stay here forever.”

But you could stay with me.

Not there necessarily. Anywhere. Harry would go anywhere with Louis. He stayed quiet, instantly frustrated. It felt like an insurmountable task just to be honest. “Only a joke…” he mumbled.

Louis lifted his head and looked at him squarely, his eyes lacking the same easiness they’d contained just seconds ago. His mouth sat in a tense line. “I love being here with you,” he said, eyes flickering down. He traced the line of Harry’s abs with his forefinger. “You know that.” He rested his chin on Harry’s tummy.

Harry swallowed and nodded. “I love having you here.”

“Lt’s not decide anything right now,” Louis said quietly. His head was once again on Harry’s stomach. “We don’t need to rush things.”

Harry squeezed his eyes shut.

They had lost so much time already. To Harry, it didn’t feel like he was rushing anything to just say “I love you. And I still want to be with you.” Not when he’d been thinking those things for years.

How was it possible that after all this time, they still weren’t on the same page?

“Maybe we’ll hang out when you’re back in London,” Louis murmured. “We’ll get dinner or something. Who knows? We’ll figure it out.”

It felt like a step back. Like a million steps back. To have what they had these past two weeks reduced to ‘dinner or something’.

And all this because Harry couldn’t just say the things that mattered most. He really had no one and nothing to blame but his own cowardice.

Louis lifted his head and looked at him expectantly.

“Sounds good,” Harry said with a small smile. He looked away, sparked by a sudden memory and eager for a change of subject. He reached beneath the couch. “Hey. Could you try this on?”

Louis looked at the knit hat Harry held out to him. “You finished it,” he said happily. He sat back on the couch before taking the hat. “Think my head and Gemma’s head are a little differently shaped,” he murmured. “Don’t want to stretch it out.”

Harry shook his head. “I’m not giving it to Gemma,” he said quietly.

Louis pulled the hat over his head and repositioned his fringe. He held out his hands. “Think it works,” he said with two thumbs up.

Harry huffed a laugh. “Good… I like you in red.”

“Yeah?” Louis smiled. He shuffled back to his spot between Harry’s legs, chin on his tummy. More adorable than a grown man with tattoos and five o’clock shadow had a right to be. “How else do you like me?”

Harry smiled, sliding his fingers through Louis’ fringe. “Keep the hat,” he murmured. “I finished it for you.”

Louis’ brows furrowed. “You knit me a hat?”

“I did,” Harry said proudly. “Do you like it?”

Louis shuffled up Harry’s body, lining their torsos up, and leaned in to kiss him. Harry’s hand met his cheek, cradling his face. “I love it,” Louis said when they parted. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” Harry replied, dimples appearing. He shimmied out from beneath Louis. “Now let me just go get my camera.”

 

> <

 

For dinner they were having a simple yet colorful dish — fresh salmon, bright orange and yellow carrots, golden potatoes and firm red tomatoes for a fish stew. Cooking with Louis was a new experience too. Even at Princess Park, they were more likely to order a pizza or go for take-out than cook anything. And really Harry was the one to do it every time.

Holed away in the cabin, they made their meals together. Louis helped him every step of the way, was eager to help wherever he could. He drained the vegetables, lifting the heavy colander with his delicate but strong hands. He sang along to the music drifting softly from Harry’s speakers.

When ‘Dancing in the Street’ came on, they howled with joy. Louis drummed his hands on the marble countertop. Harry grabbed the pot cover and beat it like a drum with his wooden spoon, marching circles around the island. Louis tipped his head back as he laughed. And Neon judged them from the windowsill.

They goofed off until the saucepan started to bubble for attention and Harry scurried back to the hob.

“Taste this.” He dipped his spoon into the now simmering stew and held it out to Louis, watching his face for a reaction after he’d sipped it clean.

Louis tapped his tongue to the roof of his mouth a few times. “Nice,” he said, licking his lips, nodding. “Very nice, love.”

Harry grinned. “Think it needs more salt?”

“I think it’s perfect,” Louis said.

“Could you check the bread then? Think everything should be ready soon.”

“On it,” Louis said, turning toward the stove, reaching for the oven mitts on the counter. Harry lifted his wooden spoon for one last taste.

The opening notes of a song started to trickle out of the speakers and an audible, hushed silence fell over them both.

Harry could feel Louis’ eyes on him right away, burning like the heat rising off the hob. Reluctantly, he lowered his wooden spoon and glanced over at him.

Both of Louis’ brows arched high. “Wouldn’t It Be Nice…?”

Harry shrugged. His cheeks flamed up, and not because he was leaning over the bubbling pot. He kind of wanted Louis to laugh it off. He could handle him making a joke of it. Then Harry could laugh too and pretend like he hadn’t spent nights listening to this song on repeat.

To a lot of people, it was just a sappy ballad, a song played in the background of a cheesy romantic montage, and there had been a point when Harry might have believed the same. Before Louis. Everything was different before Louis.

Harry remembered the night they danced to the song on the balcony of their hotel room, a day when they’d both been feeling the effects of keeping their relationship secret. He remembered later, when Louis held him close and hummed the tune in his ear as he drifted to sleep. He remembered declaring in an interview that this was the theme song of his life. Because It was Louis’ promise to him, his love song and his lullaby, and listening to it now felt like one more wound exposed.

And suddenly Louis was stepping right up to his side. The fear and anxiety unfurling in Harry’s head gave way amidst Louis’ smile, spreading slowly on his face like honey. He lingered there beside him for a moment, taking him in. His hand settled softly on Harry’s lower back.

“Dance with me,” he said.

Harry closed his eyes and exhaled a small breath. He turned away from the hob without further coercion and slid his arms atop Louis’ shoulders and stepped close enough to mold their chests together. He rested his head against Louis’, forehead to forehead. Their eyes slipped shut.

Beyond the foggy kitchen window, a light snow was beginning to fall over the lake and the surrounding woods. But inside where the fire kept them warm and a long-forgotten tune played on, they swayed together, Harry and Louis, drawing slow lazy circles with their bare feet on the kitchen floor.

 

> <

 

In the end, it all came down to a phone call.

Louis had been there for four weeks, two weeks longer than planned. And he seemed to have lost sense of time. They both had.

Olly Alexander was the one to remind them. He called to ask Louis if they were still on for some writing later that week. Louis had also promised to have drinks with Zayn when he got back from Fiji. To Harry, they weren’t impossible engagements to postpone. But Louis wasn’t going to postpone them.

So just like that their time together was over.

Harry took it upon himself to pack Louis’ things like some act of contrition for not asking him to stay. He deserved this for not being honest. He’d practically asked for it. Louis stood beside him, folding his jumpers and handing them to Harry to tuck neatly into his suitcase.

They worked silently for the most part, except for vague chatter here and there, folding and packing, like tired, gray workers in an assembly line.

Perhaps this was just easier. To have a short, lovely time together, and have it end here on a good note. Perhaps it was easier to let it go now.

Harry could feel the emotion welling up in his throat, so that it felt sore. But they still had a whole night together, and he wouldn’t waste it crying.

“Want to go for a walk?” he asked when they were finished with the luggage. He needed air that didn’t choke him and the sound of the woods to drown out the mess in his head.

“Please,” Louis said immediately.

They got suited up in their coats. Louis wore his red hat. And as they stepped outside, he took Harry’s hand.

“I’m going to miss this,” he said as they started on a trail through the woods.

Harry nodded. “Me too. Once I’m back home.”

“When’s that going to be?” Louis asked. “Soon?”

Harry glanced at him. “We still have a few months left. I’m not in a hurry to get back to London just yet.”

“Not even to see me?” Louis asked, lifting his brows. He was trying to make a joke of it but failed. And suddenly, Harry couldn’t dance around the subject any longer. It was quite literally now or never. He came to a full stop, his hand slipping out of Louis’.

“If you want me to come see you, I will,” he said. Both of them paused there in the snow. Louis stuffed his hands into his pockets and waited for him to go on. “I can book a flight, be there next week.”

Louis hesitated. “There’s no need to rush. Any of this, really.”

Harry tilted his head, curiously. “Are we rushing?” he wondered. “It’s been three years, Louis.”

“Of us being apart,” Louis supplied. “We’re just now figuring things out.”

“Do you think we need more time apart to do that?”

“I think anything is worth a try.”

Harry stared at him for so long the cold made his eyes dry. And then, when he blinked, it made them swell. As if he were crying.

Bound to start some time, he thought, cynically.

Harry drew a quick breath. “I’m not going to beg you to stay if you don’t want to—”

“Harry—”

“Just let me finish,” Harry said. “I tried to force you into things before and it backfired. So, fine. Take the time you need to make a decision or whatever it is. But it would be nice to know— I need to know what exactly it is that you’re considering. Like, what we had before, is that even something you can see us having now?”

Silence. The rustle of trees. A bird darting into the air. A soft collapse of fallen snow from a nearby branch.

“I don’t know,” Louis admitted, dragging his hands down his face. “Genuinely, I don’t know.”

Harry let that settle in. “I think that’s the wrong answer,” he said. And with a sigh, he turned away. “I’m not feeling a hike anymore.”

“Come on, Harry.”

“Forget it,” he mumbled. He didn’t know exactly what he meant by that.

They hadn’t made it far at all before Harry started back down the trail, setting a great distance between them with just a few strides. He reached the cabin and yanked all his winter gear off, then stood in the stillness of the kitchen, grasping the back of a dining chair until his knuckles were bone white.

Somehow this was worse. Before Louis had come here, before Harry bought this cabin, things had seemed indefinitely bleak, that was true. But somehow, having been with Louis for the last several days, the possibility of being without him again seemed much worse. Seemed unbearable.

It had been a risk from the start. Harry knew that. But he’d also been foolishly hopeful. He’d listened to Niall. He’d believed that time alone with Louis would do the trick. But perhaps it hadn’t.

What the fuck was he going to do now?

The glass door zipped open.

“Know what?” Louis said upon entry, shutting the door behind himself with slightly too much force. “I’m not going to forget it. You’d always say that and then you’d sit there, stewing about whatever it was all day.”

“Don’t be an idiot,” Harry said tiredly and with a glance over his shoulder. “Obviously, if I say, ‘forget it’, that doesn’t mean put it out of your mind forever or act like things are perfectly fine.”

“Well, what’s the point of that?” Louis asked, incredulous. “Just say what you bloody mean.”

“Says you,” Harry said, turning sharply. “You never actually say what you mean. You don’t know what you feel or what you want, so how could you?”

He fled to the living room because if he didn’t he would probably cry. He thought he had a handle on that by now: the angry crying. But, shocking to no one, he didn’t.

The fire they left behind had been small and fading, which was why they hadn’t bothered to put it out. The tiny bursts of flame seemed to mirror the current state of his love life. Alive and hot in one instance, dim and dying the next. He began stoking the fading coals angrily.

“You do, then, yeah?” Louis asked, stepping into the living room. “You’ve got it all worked out? This is all it took for you? Two weeks and a couple of shags? That undid everything?”

“This is everything,” Harry said, brows creased. “What we have right now is what matters. At least to me.”

“You think it doesn’t matter to me? I wouldn’t have stayed if it didn’t.”

“You want a round of applause for getting your rocks off?” Harry asked. “Two weeks and a couple of shags. You said that not me.”

Louis snorted. “You’re still impossible to talk to.”

“Can’t see how you’d know that when you never tried talking to me.”

“Is this the shit you’ve been telling yourself for three years?” Louis asked, wide-eyed. “I never tried to talk to you?”

Harry stood, tossing the poker down by the fireplace, dusting his hands off. “The second I was a hundred percent honest with you about why I’d been so miserable, you walked out, didn’t you?”

“That’s not how it happened. You wanted to throw everything away because things weren’t going exactly the way you wanted them to. Because I had to play boyfriend with someone else for a few hours a week.”

Harry’s eyes stung again. He clenched his jaw and squeezed his hand into a fist until it hurt and when none of that worked, he started past Louis and into the kitchen. “Fuck off, Louis. I don’t want to do this.”

“Of course, now all of sudden you don’t want to do this,” Louis said, right on his heels.

Harry pretended to ignore him, digging around for the corkscrew, bottle of Pinot Noir already in hand.

“You don’t like what I’ve got to say? Too bad,” Louis said. “This is the same as it was before. We always got caught in the magic when it was just us. When we were holed up in some posh hotel. Or up on the bloody Eiffel Tower.” At the mention of Paris, Harry’s hand trembled. “But we had to come down, didn’t we? And we weren’t so prepared for that. You ran away, Harry. When reality got to be too much, you left, alright?”

“After you broke up with me, Louis,” Harry snapped and Neon darted out from the kitchen table. He abandoned a half-filled glass of wine on the counter. “I begged you not to and you did it anyway. You broke my heart and then you said ‘sorry’ like you didn’t have a choice.”

“I said sorry because I was sorry! I still am. But I was drunk,” Louis said. “And you knew that. And you cornered me. After months of being distant and running off and being a pain in the arse over the stupidest shit. You pushed me away. You were itching to leave me every chance you got.”

Harry felt that one like a punch to the gut. “You’re not serious.”

He had asked for this. He had wanted to hash it all out with Louis and here they were. But he should’ve known he wouldn’t like everything he heard.

“And even after all of that,” Louis continued, ruthless once he got started, “I still tried to get you back, didn’t I? I called and I called like a fucking idiot. But you must have changed your number or something.”

“I didn’t change my number,” Harry said with a roll of his eyes. “You just stopped trying to call.”

“Was I supposed to keep calling for a year? Jesus.”

Harry tilted his head back for a second, trying to keep new tears from falling. He was shaking, his left leg bouncing. When he looked again, Louis had his head turned away. His profile was beautiful. Everything about his appearance, so elegant and graceful, it would be breathtaking under different circumstances. It was remarkable. How he stunned like the finest art and hurt like the sharpest blade in the same instance.

“I used to think you understood me better than anyone back then,” Harry said quietly. “But maybe that’s not true.”

Louis squinted at him. “What are you on about?”

“If you thought for a second that I wanted to leave you, that I was waiting for the chance, you didn’t know me at all,” Harry said. “I wasn’t perfect. I said stupid shit, yeah. But leaving you was never an option I considered. Everything reminded me of you. I was confused and I was hurt and being in London made it a million times worse. I could've picked up the phone, yeah. I wish I did. But I wouldn’t have had to, if you didn’t walk out of our hotel room, Louis. I left because you didn’t leave me a choice.”

He pictured himself alone, knees to his chest, head in his hands. The tears had choked him. It felt like the very air was choking him. The hotel room felt small without Louis. Not cozy like it had when he was there. Tiny and stuffy and inescapable. He felt ridiculous and he avoided looking at the window, at his reflection, because he must have looked ridiculous too. Small and needy and useless. He vacillated between rationale and panic, staring at the door and thinking that surely Louis would march back in. Any second. Any minute. And then a new wave of tears, a breathtaking rush of panic when another hour had passed and the door had not opened and Louis had not come back.

In the kitchen, Louis shut his eyes and turned away again, covering his face with his hand. Maybe he was picturing it all too. They stood there in silence, not looking at each other. It was always deathly quiet inside and outside the cabin and that had never bothered Harry until now. He was about to excuse himself, go draw a bath and cry when finally, Louis turned back to him.

“I shouldn’t have said that.” He propped his hands on his hips. “I’m sorry.”

Harry shook his head, feeling oddly guilty. Because he didn’t want Louis to say sorry. He wanted Louis to say he loved him. He sank into a dining chair, his arms thrown into his lap. Neon reappeared, brushing against his ankle, and he was grateful for her, for something to study in the silence. Louis was leaning against the glass door, his arms crossed.

“What stops it all from happening again?” he asked quietly, his gaze on Neon too. “Have you thought about that?”

Harry shrugged. The irony of the gesture wasn’t lost on him. Feigning nonchalance even as his eyes filled immediately with more tears. “I have.”

“And how do you make sense of that?” Louis asked.

Harry shook his head. “I can’t answer that for you.”

But he could answer it for himself.

Harry could say with certainty that he wanted Louis a thousand times over, even in this moment, even if nothing could guarantee that it would work out perfectly. Because if they were to fall apart a second time, he would pick himself back up and try again. And again and again. As many times as it took to get it right.

He stood by the belief that love was meant to consume. That the best kind was beautiful and painful at the same time. Louis was the unrelenting core of some bright star and Harry was caught in his orbit. Louis was his soulmate. The one he chose even when it hurt.

But if love was a fire that consumed, Harry wasn’t meant to burn alone. The only way it worked was if they did it together. If they chose each other.

“Why did you come?” Harry asked. “If you weren’t prepared to pick up right where we left off?”

Louis squeezed the bridge of his nose. And looked anywhere but at him for a second too long.

“I just wanted to prove that I could. To myself. And to you. That’s not to say… in the past, I haven’t imagined having any of this with you again. Of course I have. But that’s not what I came expecting. ‘Cause it felt like a dream. It still does. And I’m not really sure those last.”

“If you want them badly enough,” Harry said.

Louis’ shoulders sank. “Haz…”

“It’s fine,” Harry said, sitting forward. “When I left London, I was trying to find time away from you. And if you think that’s what you need now, I guess I’m not really in a place to judge.”

“Thanks,” Louis said, quietly, his gaze on the floor.

Harry ran his eyes all over Louis, taking every part of him in, committing it all to memory. He felt like he’d just conceded somehow. And like his concession would mean the end of them. Like, once Louis walked out of his door, he wouldn’t come back.

 

> <

 

Resignation settled on him with a cold touch that left him numb. He wasn’t angry anymore. Not even hurt.

He felt like his time with Louis had concluded hours ago, even though Louis was still there, sitting on the couch beside him (albeit with a wealth of space between them).

They even talked, but it was in stunted sentences about the forecast tomorrow, and their families, and the song Liam had sent around for them to check out.

It wasn’t how Harry pictured their last night going at all. He didn’t know how to fix it and he wasn’t sure he even had the will to. When it was time for bed, he started off towards his bedroom.

“Think I’ll just sleep here,” Louis said. Harry turned back and saw him poking his thumb toward the guest room. “I still have some packing to do, so…” He trailed off.

Harry nodded, giving him a little smile.  “I’ll see you in the morning then.”

“Sure.” Louis stepped into the guest room. “Good night.”

“Good night,” Harry said, lingering a second before he shuffled into his own room. He shut his door and leaned against it. Neon, now at his feet, nosed at his ankle and peered up at him with her glowing green eyes. He lifted her into his arms and climbed into bed.

The numbness ebbed when he did that. Lying in bed alone brought it all back into focus. If this was the beginning of the end for them, he had so many lonely nights to look forward to. This didn’t need to be one of them.

“What am I doing?” he said to the ceiling. Neon’s head perked up.  “You wouldn’t know the answer to that.”

He got up, snagged the lube from his bedside drawer, and absconded to the bathroom. He had to be quiet, weary of the thin walls, as he slicked his fingers up and propped a foot on the edge of the tub.

When he was loose around his fingers, he left his pants on the bathroom floor, and in just an oversized t-shirt, he stepped into the hallway.

He didn’t knock before he pushed the guest room door open. It was dark but Louis was awake, lying on his back with his arms folded behind his head. Harry knew he never slept on his back. His head turned slightly toward the door and he propped himself up on his elbows.

Harry felt his gaze on him as he approached. He sank his knee into the mattress and slung his other leg over Louis’ lap and planted himself in the cradle of Louis’ strong thighs.

“Harry—“ Louis began.

“Shut up,” Harry said. He pinned Louis’ wrists to the pillow. “This is what’s going to happen…”

Louis’ brows arched. His gaze fell on Harry’s mouth.

“I’m not spending our last night in a bed by myself,” Harry said.

“You don’t know that it’s—”

“I said shut up,” Harry said, lifting his brows. Louis fell silent, exhaling a frustrated breath. Harry shook his head, long tendrils of his hair touching Louis’ cheeks. “I don’t know what’s going to happen for us after tomorrow, but I have you right now. And that’s enough. I’m sorry…that it wasn’t before. But it is right now.”

There was a lot he still wasn’t saying. A lot he still couldn’t say. In another world, maybe he would be braver. But this was it for right now. This would do.

“I don’t want to fight with you, Louis,” he said. “We aren’t little boys anymore. I’m done fighting you.”

Louis’ hooded gaze was on Harry's mouth again and his dick was swollen between them. He nodded in agreement. Harry reached into Louis’ joggers and drew him into the open. He directed the tip at his rim and slipped down on him. Louis’ eyes fluttered shut. He gasped beautifully.

“Just make love to me,” Harry murmured. He pushed his hand through Louis’ hair, rocking forward. “Just be mine for right now.”

Harry met Louis’ lips with his own, sighing contently into his mouth. This was enough. It would have to be.

 

> <

 

“Text me when you land…”

Louis kissed Neon’s head for the third time. To Harry, he said, “I will.” He set Neon down on the ground and wiggled his fingers. “Bye, love.”

Neon brushed her head against his leg. Louis reached for the strap of his duffle bag and lifted it over his head, standing to his full height.

“Are you sure you don’t want me to drive you to the airport?” Harry asked.

“It’s too long of a drive. You won’t make it back before the storm,” Louis said. “I’ll be fine.”

Harry just wanted more time with him. Bugger the storm.

Louis stopped patting his pockets for his wallet and keys and made eye contact with Harry like he’d been avoiding. “Think I’ve been keeping the driver waiting long enough,” he said. “So…”

Harry nodded, clenching his jaw. “Just text me, like I said. And you know, we’ll talk.”

“Yeah, we’ll talk,” Louis said. He sighed, glancing out the door. “Thanks for having me.”

“Any time,” Harry said, smiling.

Louis licked his lips, pulling his red hat over his ears. “Do I get a goodbye kiss?”

Harry laughed. “I don’t know…” he drawled. Louis narrowed his eyes. He reached for the bottom of Harry’s shirt and pulled him closer.

Harry touched his cheeks very delicately, just the tips of his fingers as he kissed him. Like it was their last. His eyes stung as he pulled away. His nostrils flared. He bit into his bottom lip and stepped back.

“Don’t cry,” Louis said.

Harry rolled his eyes. “Speak for yourself.”

Louis smiled, brushing his thumb over Harry’s cheek. “I’ll see you.”

Harry smiled back, reaching for the doorknob. Louis stepped outside, pulling his hood up over his hat. He waved one last time as he started down Harry’s drive.

Harry waited another second before pushing the door closed, resting his head to the grain. “Okay,” he breathed, blinking to stop his eyes from stinging. He pushed away from the door, squeezing his hands into a fist.

“You’re fine,” he told himself, marching into the kitchen. He pulled the bottle of wine from the fridge and poured himself a glass. He clucked his tongue against the roof of his mouth, grabbing the bag of treats from off the top of the fridge.

He had it all planned: first, snuggle up with the cat and then, drink the pain away. It was foolproof.

Neon met him in the hallway. He lifted her into his free arm and pressed a kiss to her head. He started in the direction of his room and froze, picturing Louis sitting on the edge of his bed. He glanced into the guest bedroom and saw him there too. It even smelled of him.

He took a deep breath, throat tightening. He turned back and his eyes fell on the couch, where he and Louis had taken naps. He walked back into the kitchen and though the space was blurred, he could see Louis there too. Everywhere.

How ironic that he’d carved this space to escape him and now it belonged in part to Louis too.

Harry held Neon to his chest and pressed his face into her fur. Resigned and hoisting his white flag into the air, he released her and retreated to the darkroom. Louis was here too, in the photographs Harry had taken himself, some still drying. He recounted them all: ones of Louis in the woods, staring off towards a mountain peak, ones of Louis at the cabin, looking more peaceful than Harry could ever remember him, and one of Louis in bed, seated in Harry's lap, and smiling with his mouth, his eyes, and the wrinkle of his nose.

The sob that left Harry's throat startled Neon, who sat curiously at his feet. But he’d been expecting it. The pain came rushing back and he welcomed it like his next visitor. He sank to the floor, tucked his head between his knees, and cried.

 

> > L < <

 

The snowy trees beside the road blurred. And it wasn’t because the car was whizzing past them. It wasn’t. In fact, the car was progressing rather slowly with the mounds of snow marring the road.

The trees blurred because two fat tears were threatening to slip down Louis’ cheeks. He shut his eyes and rubbed them away with the end of his sleeve before they could. Two more sprung up in their place. Louis exhaled a frustrated breath, sucked in another, and turned in his seat, searching for the cabin behind them. Of course it was gone from view. Harry was gone from view.

Louis’ knee started to bounce. He drummed his fingers on his thigh. And bit his lip and raked his hair away from his forehead. He pressed his hands to his face. “Fucking hell,” he whispered.

He pictured the driver’s gaze sliding to him in the visor, marked by concern. Louis wouldn’t blame him. He was a little concerned for himself too. He didn’t even think he was breathing.

Where was he going?

To London. To an empty flat.

Why?

When everything he’d ever wanted was back there.

For no reason at all, Louis was struck with a memory. Of himself when he was younger, when he was stepping out onstage. He always looked in Harry’s direction. Hidden away in the folds of the curtains, sometimes he would press a kiss to his smiling mouth. Being onstage, being anywhere, always seemed less terrifying, if he could spot him and find his way back to his side.

And that led to a rambling thought about the North Star. Because he remembered Harry telling him once that when seafarers began any voyage, they looked first for a lodestar and noted its location so they could always find their way home.

And wasn’t Harry the very same?

It was so simple and so clear suddenly. The panic and the dread he felt as the car progressed further away said it all. And the way that fear seeped from his body as the solution solidified said even more.

Harry was the solution. Him and Harry together, that was the answer to every question Louis had asked himself over the last three years. And even the question he had asked Harry yesterday.

What would stop the past from repeating itself?

Nothing. Nothing could guarantee that things would be perfect. But what mattered was that they tried again. And they kept trying. As many times as it took to get it right.

What mattered was that they kept choosing each other, returning to each other, finding each other.

Harry was his lodestar. His point of gravity. And that meant he would always make his way back to him. It meant he had to. Even after all this time.

By that logic, he could go back to London. Because he was confident, now more than ever, that they would be alright. But it no longer made sense to leave. Why go elsewhere when he’d only just found his way home?

“’Scuse me, mate,” Louis said, roughly drying his face. He exhaled a shaky breath. “Sorry, but could you turn around?”

“Not on this road, son,” the driver said.

“Reverse then, maybe?”

The driver peeked into the rearview mirror. “Looks like we’ve got another car coming up the road. Did you forget something?”

Louis took a deep breath. “No, I think I just found it,” he said. “I’ll just get out here.”

The car came to a shuddering stop. The driver peered into the visor at him.

“I’m sorry,” Louis said, popping the door open. He shuffled out and reached inside to grab his duffle. He handed the man some cash for his trouble. “Thanks. Sorry again, mate.”

He threw his bag strap over his shoulder, adjusted his hat, and started to run.

It was snowing again. Because it was always fucking snowing. It got in Louis’ eyes. He slipped at one point and his ankle throbbed as he stood. He braced himself, bit his lip against the pain, and ran. He couldn’t stop. He just wanted to get home.

He was out of breath by the time he spotted 2209. He paused at the end of the drive, hands braced on his knees while his chest heaved. He glanced up the slope of Harry’s drive, thought of Harry up there, waiting for him. He hoped to God he was waiting for him.

He started up the drive, taking wide quick and steady steps, careful not to slip again in the snow. He threw himself onto the porch, sucked in deep breaths of air, curled his hand into a fist. He beat hard on the door, flattened his hand out and slapped on the wood, almost furious that it was shut in the first place.

“Harry,” he called through the infinitesimal space between the door and the frame. He started to pace, started to consider going around to the kitchen door, kicking a window in (or not).

The door swung open.

Harry stared at him, wide-eyed. Louis’ heart broke when he noticed they were red and a bit puffy. His nose was running as well. Louis hobbled closer.

“Why are you limping?” Harry asked immediately.

Louis looked down at his foot. “I’m fine. Hurt my ankle a little bit. Not a good idea to run in the snow.”

Harry’s expression didn’t change. He looked at Louis like he was worried he might fall over. “Why were you running? Did the cab break down?” he asked, craning his neck as if to spot the cab.

Louis’ breath plumed in the air. He shook his head. “No. Cab’s fine. I just— I just got out and started running back here. I feel— Jesus, I feel like I’m in a bloody Hallmark movie. I didn’t leave just so I could make this big, dramatic return, I swear. I left because I honestly thought— It was my honest intention to go home, back to London.” Louis sucked in a deep breath. “But, like. Fuck, Haz, that doesn’t even make sense. That doesn’t even make sense. London isn’t home. Home isn’t even a place. It’s wherever you’re happiest.”

Harry sniffed and wiped his sleeve across his nose. “Louis. What the hell are you talking about?”

“I need you to tell me what I did wrong before. With you,” Louis said, stepping forward. Harry was forced to step back to allow him inside. “Where did we go wrong?”

Harry stood speechless, his grip tightening on the doorknob. He shook his head again. “Louis…”

“I know you’re scared, love. I am too. But please,” Louis said. “I need to know. I know I didn’t understand then. But I want to now.”

Harry shook his head. “Why?”

“Because—” I love you. Louis’ voice broke off. “I just need to know, Harry, please.”

Harry covered his face with his hands. “I don’t get this,” he mumbled. He dragged his hands over his eyes again and took a breath. “I don’t know how to answer that. It wasn’t any one thing. It was everything. It all just became too much. It felt like there would never be an end to you and her. I started to panic. I started thinking that my whole life I’d be chasing someone and something I couldn’t really have. It felt like a waste to live like that.”

“But you had me,” Louis said. “I was yours.”

“Not in public,” Harry said solemnly. “Which started to matter more than it should. I was caught up in being…validated, I guess. In not living a lie. That’s how it felt. When I was younger— I don’t know, Louis. It’s not logical. I panicked. I wasn’t prepared for how much you meant to me. You meant the world… And I know now that you shouldn’t live your life like that, to make your whole life one person. I know that now.

“But I couldn’t picture life without you. And that was maybe the problem. To feel that way so young. I needed you so much that I felt helpless. And sometimes it felt like you were getting on fine. We were meant to be a team but I felt like I was on my own. You looked at me sometimes like I was crazy. And I felt crazy. And maybe I was a little crazy…”

“I never meant to make you feel that way. I hated it all too,” Louis said. “You have to believe that.”

Harry raked his hair back. “I know that now. I told you, it’s not logical,” he said. “I was young and stupid. I just didn’t expect to lose you for it.”

“We were a mess. I didn’t know how to fix us.”

Harry shook his head. “Neither did I,” he said. He sighed, rubbing his tired eyelids. “But it doesn’t matter now, does it? I got caught up in the dream, like you said. Living with my head in the clouds. Maybe I still am. Maybe I haven’t learned a thing.”

Louis stepped close. “That’s just it, though. I was wrong about that. It’s why I came back. I was wrong about everything.”

Harry’s eyes darted about his face. “You said you needed time.”

“I was definitely wrong about that. I figured it all out. Do you remember what you said to me in Paris? ‘If this is a dream, I hope we never wake up.’ You said that. And, baby, we haven’t. We’ve been through some shit, yeah, but I still want you just as much as I wanted you then. I never stopped wanting you. I never stopped being yours.”

“Louis,” Harry sighed right before his face crumbled.

“Do you get what I’m saying?” Louis said. “I’m still in love with you. I never stopped being in love with you. And I’m not going to. Not ever.”

Harry pressed the heels of his hands into his eyes. It wasn’t helping at all. His whole face had dissolved into snot and tears. He wiped his hands on the sides of his jeans and drew a trembling breath.

“Me too,” he eventually managed to say. “I love you too. Never stopped.”

Louis knew that, but God, did it feel good to hear it. After three years.

“I want the world to know. I want the whole world…” Louis stretched out his arms, trying to encompass the vastness of the earth between his palms, “…to know I’m yours. I want to scream it to everyone who’ll listen and even the ones who won’t. I’m yours,” he hesitated, dropping his arms, “…if you’ll have me.”

Harry laughed and cried at the same time. “Jesus. Enough already,” he mumbled. Then, more ardently: “Of course I will.”

Louis exhaled a big breath of relief. “I feel like I’m in a bloody soap opera,” he said. “I want to go stand in the boat and yell out on the lake. Til my voice is gone. I want to tell everyone. I want—”

Harry sort of catapulted into him, his arms coming around Louis’ neck. They stumbled backward before finding their footing again. Louis laughed, holding him as securely as he could. Harry pressed their foreheads together, his eyes closed. “I love you so much, Louis.”

“I love you too,” Louis exhaled. “I’m so sorry. I’m sorry for everything.”

“It’s okay,” Harry said fiercely, holding him as tight as he could. “You’re here.”

Louis tried to hide his face away on Harry’s shoulder so he could have his own silent cry. Harry pulled back, his eyes darting between Louis’ damp ones.

“I’m not crying,” Louis mumbled.

Harry gave a watery laugh. He smiled and cupped the back of Louis’ neck, tipped his chin forward and pushed their mouths together gently. Louis’ eyes slipped closed, tears finally falling freely. He breathed his next sigh of relief into Harry’s warm mouth and licked apologies and promises into Harry’s waiting tongue. He kissed him like they had forever. Because, in fact, now they did.

They ended up on the couch. Louis’ coat and shoes and scarf thrown around the floor. They looked a bit like a pretzel, their limbs all tangled up, Harry’s face hidden away in Louis’ neck. But Louis didn’t mind. He wasn’t moving. Not unless the couch spontaneously caught ablaze.

He rubbed his hand up and down Harry’s back. And Harry kept his hand on Louis’ thigh, fingers stroking idly, a bit distractingly too. But they had time for that later.

“I don’t think I’ve said sorry enough,” he said.

Harry tried to shake his head but couldn’t in their position. And Louis wasn’t letting him go so he could. “You have. And you’re here now,” he said. “You came back.”

“I shouldn’t have left,” Louis said, pressing his mouth to Harry’s forehead, combing a stray curl behind his ear. “I’m sorry I did.”

“Me too,” Harry murmured. “I should’ve stayed in London.”

Now, Louis sat upright, his brows creased. “What?”

“I’ve been thinking about what you said. And it’s true, I should have. Or maybe I should have immediately come back. I should have answered the phone. Or called you myself. You tried to hold on after that night. I tried to let go. And I regret that. And I’m sorry.”

“Harry, I think you had every right to leave. I didn’t like it, but it’s not fair for you to feel guilty about that. About any of it.”

“But you tried to fix things and I didn’t let you.”

“I could have tried harder.”

Harry sighed heavily. “We both could have.”

Louis studied him carefully. He felt like this was something Harry needed to be forgiven for in order to move forward. And Louis understood that better than anyone. “I’ll forgive you for anything if you forgive me for everything,” he said, taking Harry’s hand again. “But think about it like this: If you’d come back and we patched things up, we wouldn’t be in this fucking amazing cabin right now, would we?”

Harry laughed. “Suppose we have Niall to thank too, then.”

“I thanked him already,” Louis said. “Rang him up when I wanted to know whether you were still in love with me.”

Harry sat upright and looked at him. “First of all, shame on you for thinking I wasn’t. And second, I can’t believe Niall’s been giving us both relationship advice.”

“He’s not to be trusted, that one,” Louis said. He pulled Harry back into his arms. “Although this makes up for things.”

“It just might.” Harry laced their fingers together and held them aloft, outlined by the glow of the fire. “I do think maybe it had to happen the way it happened. Maybe we needed it all in the end. I couldn’t see it back then, how messed up it all was. ‘Cause maybe we needed to fall apart for a bit to see it clearly. And put ourselves back together.”

All Louis wanted to do in that moment was kiss him and assure him that he was fully committed to the task of putting them back together. He was excited for it, even.

“I was always going to find my back to you, that’s true,” Louis said. “But I’ll never need to again. I’ll never leave again, I promise. You’re stuck with me forever.”

“It’s not too late to sic the Abominable Snowman on you, actually,” Harry said. And then, at Louis’ aghast expression, he leaned in. “But I wouldn’t have eternity any other way.”

And that was cheesier than a fucking pizza pie. But Louis felt the full effect of it anyhow. His heart beat in his chest, eager like a bird freed from its cage.

“God,” he groaned, tugging Harry by the waist, drawing him into his lap. “Just get here.”

 

> <

 

They went to LA together because Louis was insistent about not thwarting Harry’s plans just for his sake.

Harry introduced Louis for the very first time to his friends there. He even met up briefly with Nick Grimshaw. And he couldn’t say he liked him, not with knowing he and Harry had history. He was just too jealous of a person. But he made an effort to be cordial and he could see why Harry had taken a liking to him.

Eventually, LA got to be too much. Too noisy and busy when all they wanted was more time with each other. But Louis never said so.

On their fourth night there, while they were seated in a VIP club booth with a few friends and a myriad of dancing strangers, they looked at each other and Harry leaned in close to say quietly, “I hear Hawaii is really great this time of year.”

Louis exhaled a confused laugh, his glass stilling on its way to his mouth. “Hawaii?”

Harry merely looked at him, his lips beginning to curve. Louis was slow to pick up what he’d put down. And then he grasped it fully with both hands.

He threw the rest of his drink back. “Shall we?” he said. And they were off.

The next three months of their hiatus they spent traveling to what seemed like every part of the world with no plan or schedule. It all just sort of happened. They had the time and the means to go wherever they wanted. So they did.

They spent some time in Hawaii, tanning their winter pale skin and having sex on a private beach. It was there that Louis discovered he had a thing for eating or drinking off Harry’s sculpted body. He spilled his pinà colada on the dip of Harry’s back and spent an hour licking every drop from his skin, somehow finding his way to the cleft of his cute bum. He made him come three times that night.

After Hawaii, they hit up Montreal and Quebec, spent days in a hotel near Niagara Falls, and then flew off to Iceland. They stopped in Ireland next and paid Niall a visit. While they were feasting on his mum’s best stew, Niall revealed that he hadn’t been sick at all, and Louis didn’t attempt to kill him. The thought, very briefly, flashed into his head. But he had the love of his life back where he belonged. He couldn’t even pretend to be anything but grateful.

They bypassed London and flew to Egypt and then Nigeria and Madagascar. Next was Sydney. They stayed a week when they turned up in Japan, returning to spots they had visited on tour but hadn’t enjoyed together. They went to the karaoke bars in Tokyo, got drunk while they belted the lyrics to their favorite songs. The next day, they sought the tranquility of Okinawa’s hot springs and soaked and soaked until their skin was loose and prune-y and they were compelled to sleep for hours.

Somehow from there, they ended up all the way in South America, first Brazil, then Peru, and finally Argentina. Every night, they returned to their hotel bed, spent from good adventures.

It was mid-April by then and at the end of the month, they would be expected in London with the rest of the boys.

But they went back to Idaho. And the next three weeks were given over to sleeping off their jetlag and planning their return and talking. They did a lot of talking.

Years ago, one thing they were both guilty of was trying to solve their problems with sex. Granted, they had great sex but it was like painting a broken fence and calling it fixed. At some point, they stopped talking things through. Louis internalized all his frustration and Harry did the same and it turned out to be just one of many nails in their coffin.

Louis was determined this time to talk. About everything. About how terrified he was especially, not of being out but of being out with Harry, of putting their relationship out there for scrutiny when it was all still, in a sense, so new.

He didn’t want to risk what they had again. It wasn’t something to be bargained with or worked around. It was the most important thing to Louis now. And he would protect it with all his might. Whatever it took, this time for sure — forever — he would make them last.

 

> <

 

There was a big kick-off dinner on Thursday, the day after they returned to London, to celebrate the end of their hiatus. It was held at the upper part of a pub in the city, big enough for most of their crew and some family and friends.

“It’s not too late for us to cut and run,” Louis told him, while Harry adjusted the collar of his patterned shirt.

Harry smiled. “No, I bet we could make it home before anyone noticed.”

Home. Louis liked that a lot. In three years, his flat had never been more deserving of the title. Even if he and Harry had spent only one night there so far. Harry had brought clothes and books along with him. And of course, a very jet-lagged Neon, who sought out a nap immediately in a rectangle of sunlight by the window. Louis couldn’t wait to get back.

He tucked one of Harry’s long curls behind his ear and gave his earlobe a tug. “No one would have fun without us though. We’d spoil the whole thing.”

He marveled at the brightness of Harry’s smile, the dip of his dimples. He truly was the most beautiful person alive, and that made Louis the luckiest. He studied him closely, eyes narrowing, “Do you want to leave?”

Harry shook his head, smoothing his hands over Louis’ shoulders. “No. I’m following you. Wherever it is you go.”

“What if I choose to follow you? We can’t both follow each other,” Louis said, and that conjured up images of them walking in a never-ending circle like idiots. He wouldn’t put it past them, to be honest.

“We can. We’ll do it side-by-side. And hand in hand,” Harry said, taking his hand right then. “We’ll lead each other.”

“I like the sound of that,” Louis told him. Were ordinary couples this disgustingly sappy? Or were they this way because they wrote songs for a living?

“Team Tomlinson, right?” Harry said, lifting his brows.

Color bloomed on Louis’ cheeks. “Team Tomlinson-Styles, you mean.”

“Absolutely,” Harry said with one firm nod of his head.

Louis stretched up on his toes and dragged Harry down to meet him for a kiss. He rested their foreheads together, drawing strength from Harry, pouring his own strength into him. “I love you,” he said quietly. “You make me the happiest in the world.”

Harry brushed his thumb over the back of Louis’ hand. “You make me the bravest.”

Louis kissed him again, holding their mouths together for a moment. He stepped back reluctantly and met his gaze. They both exhaled and shook out their shoulders.

Harry cracked his knuckles. “Let’s do this.”

Together they pushed open the wooden doors they’d been hiding behind and stepped into the room. It was dimly lit, merely by stringed bulbs decorating the ceiling. The bar was doubling as a buffet area but the food hadn’t yet been served, still covered by aluminum lids. The few tables in the center of the room were mostly occupied. One table was reserved for the boys and already Liam, Zayn, and Niall were seated and joking amongst themselves.

A quiet hum started to descend over the room, as slowly all eyes floated over to them. It was enough that they’d shown up at the same time. They hadn’t done that in years. But then Harry looked at Louis. Louis looked at Harry…and reached for his hand again, crushing their palms together.

If some eyes went wide, if there were whispers, they didn’t pay attention. Their families knew and had smiles waiting for them. The boys knew as well. That was about as official as it was going to be for now.

Soon enough, the world would know too. And someday Louis had every intention of putting a ring on Harry’s finger (if Harry didn’t beat him to it first). And if the pressure or publicity ever got to be overwhelming, they would pack up their things and flee to the other end of the earth.

One day in June, with a few weeks left before their U.S. tour was set to start, Harry turned to him and said, “You know, you’d love Idaho in the summer.”

The late afternoon sun filtered into the room and ignited the spark in his smiling eyes. Louis’ breath got stuck in his throat. Just for a second. And then he was smiling too, pulling him closer to conspire.

“When do we leave?”

 

> <

 

The End

 

Chapter Text

> > H < <

 

December 2020

A week before Christmas, Harry kissed his mum goodbye and promised to be back early in the new year. He had a lengthy pitstop to make in London. Pop by the flat, make sure everything was packed up and ready to go, etcetera, etcetera. And the next morning, just hours before his flight, he had an interview. With the only person he’d chat to that early, that close to the holidays.

“We’ve got Harry Styles in the building,” Nick announced, looking smug sat across from him. He had a right to be smug. This was, after all, Harry’s very first interview since One Direction’s last concert.

The other boys had started talking months ago; But Harry hesitated to do the same, too worried about timing and wording. The last four years had been the best for the band. All that renewed energy between Louis and himself had done wonders. They were smarter about being stupid in love, and that streamlined everything else — interactions with the other boys, the music especially.

Harry didn’t want to cheapen it all by answering the question all the tabloids wanted to know: “What’s next?”

What was next for Zayn, Liam, Niall? What was next for Louis? For Harry?

The fact was: Harry didn’t know.

Their departure this time around had felt right, unlike the one in 2016. They were growing older and curious about other possibilities for themselves. They came to a consensus, wrote one last album, took it on tour, snagged a Grammy they hadn’t expected, and then they bid the world farewell. Much to its surprise.

But none of that left time to sort out next steps. And beyond plans for Christmas and New Year’s, Harry wasn’t in a hurry to.

Anyway, if there was anyone Harry would explain all this to, it was Nick. Who knew how ridiculous and impossible he could be, not least for Harry’s humorously poor attempt at using him as a rebound several years ago.

“So, Harry—” Nick said after another song from Harry’s Christmas playlist. “I have to ask.”

“Do you?” Harry wondered.

Nick sort of shrugged, palms open. All of which meant yes. “What are you up to now? Not even with music, but just life. What’s the plan? Are you going into hiding? Settling down? Marriage and kids?”

It was obviously a joke, the last bit, but Harry didn’t laugh as immediately as he should’ve. Because of course, he could see himself settling down. When he thought of Louis, at least. He could see it all too clearly. And Nick knew that because he smiled mischievously with his lips pressed tightly together as if he’d much rather laugh.

“I do want some time off, yeah,” Harry said, smoothly he hoped. “Maybe I’ll take up a hobby.”

“You’d be good at voice acting.”

Harry laughed. “What?”

“I’m not the first to have said this,” Nick said, completely serious. “And it’s really easy to get into. Especially for you, I’d imagine.”

“It’s going to be a ‘no’ from me but thank you.”

“No settling down, though?” Nick circled back. “Too young for that, maybe?”

“I wouldn’t say that,” Harry said. He could see Louis in the car with the music on loud, the Lionel Richie to Harry’s Diana Ross. And in bed beside him, half asleep with Neon on his chest. He could see Louis barging into the shower with claims that Harry was taking too long before hopping in with orders to ‘budge over’.

And then, suddenly, he could see Louis cradling a baby in his arms, herding their kids off to school.

“Anything’s possible,” Harry said.

Nick’s brows arched. “Even at 27?”

Even as young as you are. That was how Harry heard it. The memory manifested like a song, like some old favorite Harry hadn’t played in a while. It concertinaed within, flooding all the corners of his head and heart. And his smile softened, and he forgot for an instant about the interview or the cameras. And immediately after, when he regained his self-control, the memory lingered.

“I don’t think age matters so much when it comes to that,” Harry said. “You could, like, get married and have kids and retire before you’re even 30.”

“That’s ambitious.”

“I’ve seen it done before,” Harry said. He wasn’t sure he had. He wasn’t sure what point he was trying to make either. His mind was overrun with thoughts of Louis and it was safer to steer the conversation into the realm of the nonsensical.

“You’d have to meet the right person quite early on, though, yeah?” Nick asked, brows arched. “Like maybe a longtime, childhood friend.”

Harry shrugged.

“He shrugs,” Nick said. “I’m taking that as a yes.”

Harry laughed, shaking his head. He looked off to the side of the studio for help.

“For those who can’t see at home,” Nick said, “Harry Styles is blushing.”

Harry shook his head at him, grinning in spite of himself. “I don’t know what we’re talking about anymore.”

“Alright, let’s move on from your upcoming wedding and talk about plans for Christmas.”

Harry put his forehead in his hand and practically wailed, much to Nick’s amusement. But Harry noticeably didn’t protest. He didn’t correct him. He didn’t try to play it off. And perhaps he should have done one or all the above.

Because it took less than five minutes before Twitter and Tumblr and the tabloids were alight with the gossip. Just who had Harry Styles been blushing about? And then there were the folks on the other side of the scale, who didn’t have to guess at all.

“It’s Louis,” one person tweeted. “It’s always been Louis.”

At their North London flat, there was a car waiting to take him to the airport. Louis was still in Doncaster and it was quiet, aside from Neon, eating her last meal before Gemma came by to pick her up. Harry had been so ready to leave, but now at the last minute, he hurried back to the bedroom and into his cupboard. (Louis’ was on the other side.) He stretched up on his tippy toes and snagged a hat box. A dark brown inconspicuous one that was stuffed primarily with tissue paper. At the bottom, though, was another box. This one small, velvet and midnight black. Harry removed the box and tucked it in his duffle. And then, with a kiss to Neon’s head, he left.

 

> <

 

It was late when Harry touched down in Boise.

Quickly, he switched off airplane mode and collected his holdall. Countless times, he’d made this trip by now, but he still got the same rush when the pilot welcomed them all to Idaho or when he caught his first sight of the snow-capped mountains or when the city lights shrunk in the distance behind his cab.

Idaho was a place of peculiar reprieve. It soothed in a way that somehow no other place had been able to. It had everything to do with the isolation and obscurity he was allowed there. Everything to do with being alone on a few snowy acres of land with nothing but the lake they officially called Delilah and the birds and the crackling of firewood and, of course, Louis.

He checked the cabin’s mailbox just in case, but felt comforted by the fact that it was empty. No one was contacting them out here. He headed inside, knowing he was alone, but half-hoping Louis would appear from around some corner and rush into his arms anyhow.

He checked his phone again. Still nothing.

He set the phone on the counter face down, then snatched it up immediately when it chimed.

It was Niall.

Five laughing emojis later: you should just propose to him on national radio and be done with it!

Please shut up, Harry sent back.

Another ten laughing emojis from Niall, then: ya alright tho mate?

I’ll let you know after Louis gets here, Harry sent back. He went to the kitchen, paced for a bit, yanked the fridge open…

The fridge was empty.

Brilliant, he thought. It would ease his mind, a quick trip into town. He got the car out from the garage, waited for it to warm up and started on his way. He passed Abby’s house. She was twelve now and still an avid fan if her Instagram was anything to go by. (And while she knew things that other fans would dream of knowing, she never hinted at a thing.)

He passed the only pub in town where he and Louis had drunk themselves silly. 3 AM last summer. In the company of four oblivious men and women, and Queen on the jukebox.

The coffee shop was closed but the diner was open. Street lamps made the snow glitter like gold. And as for the streets, they were mostly empty, but a few cars remained with their windows frosted over.

In the center of town, there was a Christmas tree, modestly sized, lit up and dusted with snow so that the glow of its lights was especially luminous. And just beyond the tree was the general store, open ‘til midnight.

Harry’s worries were worlds behind him by the time he’d wrapped things up. He even had plans to make a pot of soup. He pulled into the drive back at the cabin, gathered his two large paper bags in his arms, and came to a sudden stop. Had he left the light in living on?

The front door swung open.

Louis smiled from ear-to-ear. “Thought the Snowman finally got you.”

Harry laughed with such immediacy it was almost embarrassing. But he was more relieved than ever. Why had he expected anything from Louis other than a smile and a joke and a wave of warmth that made Harry feel as though he hadn’t left the cabin at all?

“Get in here,” Louis said.

Harry hurried inside and Louis shut the door behind him. And after a second of standing there, smiling, like a complete tit, Harry got a grip on himself and leaned in for a quick kiss. “Let me put these down.”

“Did you get beer?” Louis asked, following him into the kitchen.

“I did, and wine.” Harry removed his coat and scarf, tossing it all on the back of a chair. “Think everything should last us until after Christmas.”

“Hope so. There’s a huge storm coming in two days,” Louis said. He started unpacking one bag while Harry worked on another. “Might have us a white Christmas.”

“Typical,” Harry said with fake annoyance and got a little laugh from Louis. He drew a quiet breath. “Did you catch the interview?”

“Of course.”

Harry glanced at Louis and found him smirking. “What?” Harry asked. “I wasn’t about to ask you to marry me on national radio, if that’s what you’re thinking. I was making a very general statement.”

“Oh.” Louis tsked. “That’s too bad. Here I came all this way, expecting you to get on one knee.”

Harry laughed in spite of himself. “Fucking hell,” he said, and that made Louis laugh, harder than he had already begun too. It was true that laughter fixed everything. True that there had never been a reason for Harry’s anxiety at all.

“Amway,” he said. “Would you like tea?”

Louis snorted. “I’d love some.”

Harry put the kettle on and got two mugs down from the cupboard. When he looked at Louis again, his smile had turned pensive.

“What?” Harry asked. He put his back to the counter, folded his arms over his chest, and Louis took a step towards him, then another. He rested his hands on the counter on either side of Harry’s hips.

“Just what exactly were you trying to say, though, love?”

Harry shook his head. “I have no idea,” he said. “The question surprised me. But it’s not such a bad idea, is it? We’ve got our careers to think about, yeah— But after ten years of keeping this all a secret, I won’t pretend like it’s not tempting to say fuck it all.”

“And do what?” Louis asked, both brows raised. “Get married?”

“Exactly,” Harry said. “The whole shebang. Especially with New Year’s coming up. Perfect time for it, really.”

“Would we settle down here?” Louis asked.

“Here’s good. Anywhere will do.”

“And kids?”

“I want tons of ‘em,” Harry said. “I can’t wait.”

Louis’ eyes moved back and forth between either of Harry’s. His smile was curious, cautious. “All jokes aside. Are you being serious?”

Harry pushed his hands through his hair, messing it up a bit, hiding a grin. Louis narrowed his eyes. “You cheeky shit,” he said, laughing. He took Harry’s hand and set it on his chest. “Feel my heart.”

It was racing. Harry laughed again. “Aw, babe. I got you worked up.”

“That’s twice today,” Louis said. “Jesus.”

Harry wasn’t ready to give up the closeness just yet. He wrapped his arms around Louis’ middle, pulling him against his chest. He loved Louis’ breathy little laugh and how easily he surrendered to Harry’s hold. No one else got to see him quite this tenderly.

“For the record,” Harry said, voice slightly muffled with his chin on Louis’ shoulder. “I feel like I’m married to you already. Like I have been for ten years.”

Louis rested his hand on Harry’s forearms, his way of hugging him back. “Really should have cued me in on that. I at least deserved a honeymoon.”

“This is the honeymoon,” Harry said, pressing a kiss to Louis’ neck, then his jaw. Each kiss he left was softer and more sensual than the last. A brush of his mouth to the base of Louis’ throat, to the shell of his ear, or the point where his pulse thrummed. Louis turned in his arms and their gazes met, Louis with that merciless smolder. Harry didn’t stand a chance.

“Maybe we’ll have tea later?” he suggested.

“Don’t have a choice, do we? You have to finish what you started,” Louis said with a glance at his own crotch.

“Would love to,” Harry said.

Louis reached past him and shut off the stove.

 

> <

 

It was absurdly cold in the morning, even with the duvet and an extra blanket. (Harry was naked, head to toe, but nevertheless…) He climbed out of bed begrudgingly, got the fireplace in the bedroom going, and then climbed back in. Although not before he noticed Louis’ eyes quickly slipping shut.

Harry snorted. “I know you’re awake.”

“No, I’m not.”

Harry scooted as close to him as possible, burdening Louis with the full weight of his body. “You promised we’d go get a tree.”

Louis grumbled, perhaps in agreement, but didn’t budge.

“Hey,” Harry said, then whisper-sang, “Louis.” 

“Five more minutes.”

Harry watched him sleep for one minute more and then he flicked him on the nose.

Louis turned away. “Get off.”

“Not what you said last night.”

Louis’ lips twitched. “Shut up.”

“Didn’t say that either,” Harry said. He peeled the duvet back a little bit and peeked at Louis’ chest. One love bite, followed by another. His nipples seemed fine despite Harry’s incessant biting or sucking. He tugged the duvet down a bit further until he spied another bruise on his hip.

“‘S cold,” Louis complained.

Harry ignored him. “Did a number on you, didn’t I?” he said softly, admiring faint traces of his work with both appreciation and anticipation. Eager to do it all over again.

He looked at Louis and saw him looking back, a faint heat there he was attempting to conceal. “Are you going to let me go back to sleep?” he asked.

Harry rested his chin on Louis’ chest. “Are you going to get a Christmas tree with me?”

“Told you I would.”

“Fine,” Harry said. “But the answer is no. I’m not going to let you go back to sleep.”

Louis’ brows arched. “Oh, really?”

“Really,” Harry said, employing his dimples because he knew Louis was weak for them. He leaned in; Louis pushed his face away.

“You’re a bloody menace,” Louis said.

Harry smiled, lip bitten. “But you like it.”

And Louis could deny that, but they both knew it was true. He rolled his eyes. Harry pressed a kiss to his sternum, kept their eyes locked. Another kiss to his left pec and then his nipple. A little tongue, just enough to tease.

“Still want to sleep?” he asked.

Louis had too much pride to answer that. Not with words anyway. Harry leaned in for another kiss and this time Louis let him lick into his mouth, slowly at first then not slowly at all.

What they had in bed was as nonsensical as every other aspect of their lives together. Sometimes Harry liked to be pushed around and sometimes he liked to push. Louis was as often in a giving mood as he was taking. And there was hardly a way to determine what would be what or when. Last night — and currently, this morning — it was up to Harry.

He reached between Louis’ legs and wondered, if he pushed a finger inside, could he feel his come there still— Louis groaned, his head tilting back, elegant line of his neck exposed. The answer was yes.

“Beautiful,” Harry said, breathless, like he’d just ran a marathon, not like he was seconds away from creaming himself. “Are you sore?”

“Yeah,” Louis said.

“Want me to stop?”

“Did I ask you to stop?” Louis asked. And there it was. That quick play for dominance. Harry was mostly unbothered. He shoved his middle finger past Louis’ rim.

“God fucking—” Louis squeezed his eyes shut.

Harry pulled his finger free. “We should go get the tree now.”

“Harry, if you stop right now, I’ll personally go get the tree and shove it up your—”

“Alright, alright,” Harry said. “No need for that.”

He snagged the lube off the bedside cabinet and coated his fingers. Louis propped himself up on his elbows and it was beautiful, the way his abs clenched as Harry pushed two fingers into him, the way he dropped his head back. “Fuck, yes,” he said softly.

Harry couldn’t get enough of him. Couldn’t even conceive a point in his life, in the future, where he didn’t want more and more and more of Louis. Even in that moment, with Louis tight on his fingers, Harry wanted more, wanted too much, wanted it all.

He ducked his head down and took a greedy lick of Louis’ cock. And then, because he couldn’t help himself, he started to suck him, slow pulls with his mouth like they had all the time in the world. Louis started rocking his hips back and forth, down on Harry’s fingers, up into his mouth.

“Got me doin’ all the work,” Louis said. “Doesn’t seem fair, does it?”

Harry couldn’t smile with his mouth occupied, but he would have otherwise. Somewhere, somehow, Louis had taken over. And now that Harry thought about it, he’d been at Louis’ mercy all morning, hadn’t he? At the mercy of his grogginess and his sleep-warm body and now the quick thrust of his hips, the clench of his hole, the flush of his chest…

And to prove it, Harry opened his mouth and kept it open, and Louis didn’t hesitate a second before he began thrusting freely into his throat.

“I know you want me to come in your mouth,” Louis said, shoving a hand into his curls, holding tight. “Always want it in your mouth.”

Harry didn’t have to admit that. He let his tongue hang out of his mouth, wagged it back and forth, and Louis smirked. His cock hit the back of Harry’s throat and together they moaned. Harry squeezed his eyes shut, dug his fingertips into Louis’ hips.

“Can’t just give you what you want, can I, love?” Louis asked. “Not when you refused to let me sleep.”

Harry simply looked at him, waiting.

“Turn over,” Louis said, hips sinking to the bed, cock slipping out of Harry’s mouth.

Harry did as told, lying on his back, eyes trained on Louis as he got onto his knees. Harry reached for his own cock. Tight fist, just enough to take the pressure off. Louis slapped his hand away. “You know better.”

Harry pouted. “Hurry up.”

“Stop whining.” Louis upended the bottle of lube over Harry’s dick and poured messily. He sank down on him with practiced ease and only a slight twitch of his brow. Harry felt love-drunk and lust-silly, so arrested was he by the hot clench of Louis’ body, by Louis’ face caught in a corona of morning light. And he was grateful no one else got to see him like this, got to see how useless and ruined he was wherever Louis was involved, whenever Louis had his way. Louis grinned as if he could read his mind. He set his hands on Harry’s knees and snapped his hips forward faster, which was a power pose and they both knew it. Didn’t make it any less effective.

“Fuck,” Harry wheezed, grabbing Louis’ bum, needed something to hold on to. “Fuck, Louis. Fuck.”

“Good?” Louis panted.

“So good.”

“This what you wanted?”

“Yes. Yeah. I’m gonna come.”

Louis slowed. “No, you’re not,” he said, shaking his head. “You better not.”

He fucked Harry lazily, with frustratingly slow, wanton circles of his hips. He started stroking his cock, his chest rising and falling rapidly. His brows pinched. Harry knew that look.

“Louis, please—”

Louis slipped off his cock and scrambled up Harry’s chest. He braced himself with one hand on the wall. Harry’s mouth dropped open. He moaned, shamelessly, when Louis’ come hit his lip. What landed on his chin, he tried to collect with his tongue. He opened his mouth wider and when all else failed, he craned his head forward and sucked Louis clean. Louis’ grin was boyish and cheeky and over-satisfied. He sank down beside Harry when he was finished, chest still ballooning.

“Ready to get that tree?”

“Louis,” Harry groaned.

Louis smiled and shuffled closer. He reached for Harry’s cock and began stroking him. “This good?” he asked.

“Yeah,” Harry breathed. His gaze darted all over Louis’ face. “I love you.”

“I love you,” Louis replied, kissing him, once on his mouth, then his cheek, his jaw, his neck. “Come on, baby,” he whispered. “Fucked me so good.”

Harry’s eyes slipped shut.

“Always so good,” Louis said.

Harry smothered Louis’ face with kisses. A whole barrage of kisses that made Louis laugh as Harry groaned and sighed and came. He tucked his face away in Louis’ neck as an orgasm rolled through him, a soft, fluttering one, tender and steady as a heartbeat. Harry kissed him, right at his pulse, which must have tickled a bit because Louis snickered and tried to roll away. Harry held him tighter, the two of them sticky and clumped together. Everything went still for a bit, Louis’ hand gentle on the back of his neck, then raking through his hair, down his spine.

“Still want my Christmas tree,” Harry murmured.

Louis laughed. “Fucking hell.”

 

> <

 

After tea and eggs and toast, they got dressed and sprinted to the car, shivering and rubbing their shoulders until the heat kicked in. The tree lot was set up on the side of the road, just past the post office; there were three other people strolling around. One was younger and yuppier than Harry had seen before. He killed the engine. He and Louis stared at the woman for a second. There weren’t very many new faces around here, but one ever paid any attention to the ones that sprang up.

Louis shrugged, reaching for the door, popping it open. And Harry realized he didn’t care all that much either. If she knew who they were, so be it. But there was no indication whatsoever that she did. The woman and the old man with her snagged a sick tree and went about their way.

For all his grumpiness, Louis took the business of tree hunting more seriously than Harry. And when he found one he thought was right, he refused anything else. It was huge — the kind you’d see in a shopping center — and it would be a nightmare to get home. But Harry was too cold to argue.

It barely fit on top of the car; Harry had to drive painstakingly slow, glancing into the rearview mirror every two seconds because he was sure he’d spot the thing lying in the road several yards behind them.

They dragged the tree past the front door, needing to relay instructions to each other, Louis complaining that Harry wasn’t bearing enough of the weight, Harry retorting that a smaller tree wouldn’t need two people to carry.

But then it was there in the living room, in front of the windows, and framed mystically by a mountain peak on either side. Harry wouldn’t admit it yet, but it filled the room perfectly. And he kept pausing to inhale its scent, but he didn’t really have to; The whole cabin smelled of pine and it was hard to miss.

Louis brought the decorations in from the shed. Harry poured them glasses of wine. And they got started.

What they could have done in an hour took them over two. They kept stopping to drink and admire what they had done so far. They took a break after wrapping the lights and then another after the garland and another after hanging the ornaments the youngest twins had made. Louis sat sprawled on the floor with his legs propped on the couch, fingers drumming to the beat of “Santa Baby” playing on the stereo while Harry tried to explain the significance of the ornament Alessandro Michele had sent him. A heart with a dagger through it, trimmed with lace.

Louis held his hand out for a high five when they were actually, completely finished, and Harry slapped their hands together, lazily.

They were lying on the couch, limbs tangled up together. Harry didn’t know what to admire first, the twinkling lights or the crackling fire or the scene beyond the large windows or Louis beginning to doze beside him.

And so with his heart near to bursting, he admired it all, all at once.

 

> <

 

Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime” was on at the pub and Louis was three sheets to the wind, doing a madcap jazz step, snapping his fingers and alternating his legs like Beyoncé in the “Single Ladies” music video. Harry laughed, the sound echoed in his fourth pint of the night. Or was it his fifth? He was beginning to lose count.

The bartender this time was an older woman who Harry had seen working at the grocery store just a few days ago. She leaned with her arms crossed against the counter and sent Harry a smile when he met her eye.

“Why don’t you dance with him?” she suggested.

Harry laughed awkwardly, looked at Louis who held both hands open, entreating him. Another glance around the room told him that no one else was paying much attention or they were too drunk to try. Harry shrugged and set his pint down. He took Louis’ hands. And allowed himself to be spun around and shaken up.  The song changed not a minute later, a slow instrumental of The Christmas Song, and Harry hesitated for only a second before he stepped into Louis’ arms and Louis’ hand fell to his waist. The four others at the bar, including the bartender, ceased to exist. They turned to shadows. In his ear, Louis hummed the line, “Jack Frost nipping at your nose,” and Harry smiled, let his eyes slip shut.

They bought everyone shots of whiskey at some point, as if they weren’t drawing enough attention to themselves. And everyone — even the burly guy in the corner — sang along to Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You,” Louis standing on the seat of a booth, using a scarf like some sort of feather boa and the ketchup bottle like a mic. Started from the top and now they were here, entertaining a venue with a capacity of fifty. And neither of them could be happier for it.

It must have been three a.m. when they stumbled out of the little pub and started back home. A fifteen-minute walk lay ahead, maybe less. The sky was clear and the snow was fresh from midday and the crisp, biting air sobered them a little.

Louis took Harry’s hand and tucked both of their hands into his pocket. “Cold,” he complained, running his thumb across Harry’s skin.

Harry studied his profile. He wondered if Louis was actually glowing or if he was just that drunk.

At home, Louis shook his shoulders out in the foyer and brushed a bit of snow that had fallen from a tree out of his hair. He missed a bit, so Harry helped.

“I think it’s good luck,” Harry said, “The snow falling on you like that.”

“I think you’re thinking of bird shit,” Louis said.

Harry smirked. “No, this too. It’s good luck.” He brushed a bit of snow off Louis’ nose, then pulled Louis’ scarf free and pressed a kiss to his neck.

Louis hummed contentedly. “Coat too, please.”.

“No problem.” Harry unzipped Louis’ coat and discarded that on the floor as well. After a pause, he slipped his arms around Louis’ waist, just hugging him, resting his head against his shoulder, caught in the sudden renascence of a sixteen-year-old sense of security.

Seconds after sex for the first time. Hotel room suspended in dark silence, except for their heavy breathing. Louis’ eyes had been shut and that had unnerved Harry. Made him worry that perhaps Louis couldn’t look at him, couldn’t face him just yet. And then, as if he could read Harry’s mind, Louis had opened his eyes and given him a smile.

“Why the fuck haven’t we done that sooner,” he’d said.

It had been the perfect thing. Not too serious because Harry hadn’t been ready for that yet. But not too much of joke either. Not an awkward deflection.

This had always been the case with them. Before they fell apart. And even after, it was like no time had been lost. Louis was still that eighteen-year-old in the dark, a beacon of safety and security, a source of strength when necessary and humor whenever possible.

And Harry genuinely couldn’t imagine spending his life with anyone else. Couldn’t imagine his future panning out in a way that didn’t include the man in his arms.

“Could you start a fire?” he asked abruptly, withdrawing.

Louis looked at him curiously. “Sure.”

Harry left him there and went to the bedroom. He had to be quick. He went to his duffle and dug around until he found the black velvet box again and then sat there on his knees. He reminded himself that this wasn’t as absurd or spontaneous as it seemed. That a million strangers on the internet had seen this coming before Harry did. ‘It’s Louis. It’s always been Louis,’ that one person had said. And it would always be Louis.

Harry shut his eyes, sucking a deep breath through his nose. He said a little prayer even and then he stood, stuffing the box in his coat pocket.

The first thing Louis asked when he reappeared was, “Why have you still got your coat on?”

“Oh.” Harry removed it and tossed it over the back of the couch where it was within arm’s reach.

The fireplace was blazing. The Christmas tree lights were on. It was perfect and Harry could potentially ruin it all. Louis leaned forward, patting the empty space on the couch, and Harry plopped down beside him, trying to act natural, smiling broadly.

“What’s wrong with you?” Louis asked, not remotely fooled.

“I’m fine,” Harry said, brows creasing.

Louis pursed his lips. “Don’t think so.”

Harry looked away. “Did you have a good birthday?”

“Of course,” Louis said. “I’m pretty drunk, though, so you might have to ask me for a full review in the morning. But I’d say it’s up there on the list of best birthdays ever.”

Harry laughed. “Good. Glad to hear it.”

“Seriously, H. If something’s wrong, you tell me. No matter what it is,” Louis said, looking at him unwaveringly. Drunk or not, he was as lucid as ever when it came to this. “And don’t worry about ruining my birthday or Christmas or whatever. We’re more important than all that, yeah?”

“Of course,” Harry said. He covered his face with his hands. “This is already going terribly.”

Louis reached for his wrists, pulling his hands away. “What is? Talk to me.”

Harry sort of wanted a do-over. Louis had read his nervousness wrong and now he was prepared for some critical heart-to-heart, which maybe this was. But the mood lacked the buoyancy and lightheartedness Harry needed.

A last-ditch effort, Harry leaned forward and kissed him and Louis, in spite of himself, couldn’t help how easily his mouth fell open. He drew back after a second of tonguing and said, “You’re trying to distract me.”

“I’m not,” Harry said, loosening Louis’ fly, slipping a hand into his trousers.

“Clearly you are.”

“This is birthday sex.”

“I got a really nice blowjob this morning,” Louis said.

“We’re celebrating your birthday all week long,” Harry replied. “New day. New sex.”

Louis snorted a laugh and allowed Harry to peel his shirt off.

“I want you on your stomach,” Harry said after another kiss. “Arse in the air. And I might fuck you if you don’t come.”

Louis looked at him, brows arched high. “Merry Christmas to me.”

Harry laughed, peeling his own jumper off while Louis turned over. He got to do it all. Lick Louis’ arse until his jaw hurt and Louis went boneless and came with a weak groan. And Harry still fucked him anyway. Because Louis insisted and Harry wasn’t going to last long. Not after watching Louis perform the way he had, not with all his emotions and wants pent up over the last hour.

He came inside him and then slumped with him by the fireplace, quiet and pensive and still.

“So what’s up?” Louis said as if the last half hour hadn’t passed at all.

Harry faced him. “I might have lied.”

“Alright,” Louis said, carefully. “‘Bout what?”

“I wasn’t totally surprised by the question Nick asked me. About settling down and all that. I have thought about it in the past,” Harry said, propping himself up on his elbow. “Not even that long ago, actually. Just last year, after we had our last meeting with the band, the first thing I thought about was us. And what it would mean for us once things were really over.”

“It doesn’t mean anything for us,” Louis said. “The band is the band. It’s got nothing to do with me and you.”

“I know that, I do,” Harry said. “But I wanted to make sure you knew that I knew. That no matter where our careers took us individually, I was still with you. 100 percent.”

“I do know that,” Louis said, adamantly. “No matter what anyone says, or what the papers say—”

“I believe you,” Harry assured him. “But last year, I wanted a way to make it really, explicitly clear. So, I went out…and I bought something. For you.”

He got up and went to his coat, retrieved the box and held it behind his back as he returned to Louis. He sat cross-legged and Louis sat upright as well, his face mostly impassive, but open and patient.

“This can mean whatever you want it to mean,” Harry said. “But to me, it means— I want to be with you forever. I want a family with you and a future with you, completely out in the open. And I don’t know how long it’ll take for us to get all that. But I intend to have it, if you want it too.”

He watched Louis’ Adam’s apple bob as he drew his hand from behind his back and held the box in his palm.

“Jesus, Harry,” Louis exhaled.

“I know,” Harry said. “Is this completely nuts?”

Louis laughed. “I mean— Why don’t you open it and I’ll tell you then?”

Harry popped the box open, his bottom lip bitten. Louis leaned close, inspecting it. The ring was silver and antique. The man at the store in New York had described it as an infinity ring because it was comprised of two silver bands entwined around each other. Infinitely. Louis peered up at him through his long ebony lashes, a little smirk on his face. “I love it.”

“Well, that’s a good start,” Harry said, grinning.

Louis looked at him, drawing a tiny breath in through his lips, then out. “So, are you gonna ask me or what?”

“Yeah,” Harry said quickly. “Sorry, yeah. Do you want to stand so I can get on one knee?”

“Well, I’m not wearing clothes, so my dick will be in your face. Might get the wrong idea.”

Harry facepalmed and giggled. “Okay, this’ll do,” he decided. He removed the ring from the box and then took Louis’ hand in his own. “Louis William Tomlinson.”

“That’s me.”

Harry resisted a laugh. But the fact that his proposal inspired this much laughter was a good sign. He hadn’t needed any further signals in the first place. But still, he was more certain than ever. “Will you marry me someday?”

Louis smiled. “Yes,” he said, and then, firmly, “Of course.”

Harry slipped the ring on Louis’ finger and then they sort of collapsed into each other’s arms, laughing. They lay side-by-side and curled up, surrendering to a rush of giddy boyish feeling. Kids at Disney for the first time. That was comparable. Happiness so pure and potent, it overwhelmed.

“Were you all nervous ‘cause you thought I’d say no?” Louis asked.

“I thought there was a chance,” Harry admitted.

“In hell, maybe,” Louis said.

Harry grinned. “I’ll take those odds.”

A few minutes went by. “How do we do this?” Louis murmured. “And when? Where?”

“I don’t have a clue,” Harry admitted. “And I’m not in a rush. But someday, yeah?”

It took him a second to realize Louis hadn’t replied to him and he turned his head, found Louis’ eyes on the ceiling, his brows furrowed.

“What is it?” Harry asked. “What are you thinking?”

Louis exhaled. “I’m thinking, ‘Fuck it all.’”

Harry was half-humored, half-concerned. “What?”

“We’ve lived a chunk of our lives, pleasing other people, doing what’s best for the band and whoever else. But I’m going to be thirty in another year. For lack of a better term, our careers are about to go in new directions.”

Harry snorted.

“Shut up,” Louis said, laughing. “You get where I’m going with this, yeah?”

“I don’t know,” Harry said, a little breathlessly. He was almost afraid to say it. It was almost too good to be true. “Maybe.”

“This might be as good a time as any,” Louis said, “to just say, ‘Fuck it all’.”

Harry looked at him, eyes wide. “What do you have in mind?”

“Nothing yet,” Louis said after a second. “But I’m still a bit drunk, so ask me again in the morning.”

Harry got to his feet and reached down for Louis, helping him up. “I’m not going to have to propose again, am I?” he asked, warily.

“Maybe just do it again to be sure,” Louis joked. “But the answer will be the same, so all’s good.”

They headed to bed. Harry dragged the duvet up to their necks and they shuffled close, exchanged smiles. Louis pressed a kiss to his mouth and ran his thumb across Harry’s cheek. His gaze was just as soft as his touch. His voice even softer. “I love you,” he said.

“I love you,” Harry replied. “Happy Christmas.”

“Fuck, I completely forgot,” Louis said, dragging a hand down his face. “Too busy getting engaged and all that.” He laughed. “Happy Christmas, love.”

 

> <

 

They sat huddled at the kitchen table, knees brushing, and Louis’ mobile rested in his palm. The other line rang twice before connecting.

“Mum?” Louis asked.

There was some commotion, a youthful scream and a giggle. “Hiya, love,” Jay finally replied.

“Hi, mum.”

“How are you?” she asked. “How’s Harry?”

“Good. We’re good. You’re on speaker.”

“Harry, love, how are you?” she asked without pause.

Someone in the background yelled ‘Harry’ and then there was a chorus of hellos specifically for him. Harry smiled until his face hurt.

“I’m doing great,” he said. “How’s everyone?”

“We’re all fine. Little ones are settling down, finally, now that the holiday’s over,” Jay said. “So, what’s up, boys?”

Louis raised the phone to his mouth. “Mum, Harry and I are engaged.”

What?” she exclaimed. One of the kids had called to her. “Not now, love. One second. Hold on, boys.”

Everything on her line went quiet. The sounds of the others drifted away. Then, a door shut and Jay said, “Boys! You’re engaged?”

“Yes,” Louis said, laughing. “Harry proposed on Christmas.”

Harry,” she said, her voice thick with emotion. “Well done, love. I’m so, so happy for you both. It’s like a belated Christmas gift, isn’t it?”

Louis sent Harry a little smile. “Listen, that’s not all. I might do something stupid with Harry? Like something publicly stupid,” he said, exhaling a big breath. “And we just thought you should know before we do. We’re gonna call Anne next and the boys, probably…”

“Well, it can’t be all that stupid if you’re doing it together.”

Louis laughed, glancing again at Harry. “That’s not necessarily true…”

“If I’m understanding you correctly, it is,” she said. “I’d love it if you two didn’t elope, though.”

“Well, if you feel that strongly about it, we’ll try not to,” Louis said. “That’s not quite what we were thinking. We’ve got a lot to talk about, but maybe when things die down even a little and we’re back home, yeah?”

“Of course,” Jay said. “I’m so proud of you, darling. Both of you. I’m so very, very proud.”

Louis shut his eyes. Harry wrapped an arm around his waist, resting his head on his shoulder. “Thanks, mum,” Louis said. “I love you, alright?”

“I love you too. I love you both,” she said, sniffling. “Good luck. Can’t wait to see you soon.”

 

> <

 

At first, they thought maybe they should consult Abby. She had stopped by on Christmas with biscuits shaped like snowflakes and raspberry linzers and Harry had been tempted to tell her they were engaged, to approximate what the reaction from fans might be. Abby would be willing to help without a doubt. Not just willing, but eager.

In the end, Louis took off his ring and they decided to leave her out of it. She knew enough already and to some, having her keep their secret for all these years was too much to ask of a twelve-year-old.

This thing was theirs to unburden and they could manage it on their own.

(Harry did text her days later. Big news coming, he’d said, and when she pressed for more info, he sent some vague emojis in response and left it at that.)

The boys responded with a surprising lack of concern. Mostly, they were curious about specifics. “You’re sure you don’t want to just do an interview?” Liam had asked. But that was exactly what they didn’t want. Not yet anyway. Not for a while. Niall, of course, had suggestions. And considering he had been instrumental in getting them back together, Harry didn’t immediately disregard his input.

They had a plan already was the thing, and the more Harry thought about it, the more sure of it he was. This would be a return to simpler times. This would be reminiscent of 2011, the two of them on Twitcam or in some behind-the-scenes X Factor footage. They had gone from being unknown idiotic teenage boys to having a platform so unfathomably big, the best they could do with it was tease each other and flirt and fall in love for everyone to see.

And that privilege — of being on camera together — had been taken from them, like so much else, like any real control over their image or their impact. So, it seemed right that now, at a new bend in their lives and careers, they would take the reins back. And that they’d do it in the ill-advised and not-quite-televised manner this had all begun.

New Year’s Day. Breakfast had been quick and simple. Harry’s stomach was churning with nerves and he couldn’t handle much more. Sometime after noon, Louis set his laptop up in the living room with the fireplace just on screen and the big windows behind him, snow and all in clear view. The video was live. Already there were half a million tuned in and the number kept climbing every second that passed.

“Hi, everyone,” he began. “Thanks for joining me sort of randomly here. I’m sure you’ve all got fun holiday things going on right now.  But I just wanted to wish you all a very Happy New Year. You might not be able to tell, but I’m away and I have been, actually, for a few days. But I’m also genuinely looking forward to getting back home and getting back to work. All of the boys are the same. This year has just been incredible for all of us. And it’s been nice to have a break too and get ready for another incredible year— I keep getting distracted by the view in the screen. I can see the mountains behind me,” he said, standing with the laptop in his hands and walking backwards. “This is one of the most beautiful places on earth.” Then, without pause: “Right, Hazza?”

Louis turned the laptop a bit, and Harry, perched on the couch, gave a little wave, smiling.

“Didn’t hear you agree, love,” Louis said.

“Oh, yeah, you’re right,” Harry agreed, nodding studiously. “As always.”

Louis grinned, turning the laptop back to himself. “That’s my boy,” he said. “As I was saying, we’re all looking forward to whatever happens next. I know Harry and I definitely are.” He walked over to the couch and plopped down beside Harry, who draped an arm over Louis’ shoulder and hoped to God it wasn’t obvious that his hands were shaking. With his left hand, Louis swiped his fringe away from his eyes and he did it slowly. Even if a person didn’t replay this video frame-by-frame, it would be hard to miss the ring. It was a marvel how calm Louis seemed, how calculated, as if he had been prepared for this for ages.

He looked like the bright-eyed boy Harry had been instantly enamoured with years ago and like the man he couldn’t wait to marry.

“Until then, what have we got planned, darling?” Louis asked, and Harry couldn’t help but laugh. At his almost arrogant use of pet names. He was enjoying this. Harry could too.

“I don’t know, sweetheart,” he said. “Maybe we’ll put the Christmas decorations away.”

Louis scoffed. “I think not. You can do that. I’ll be sitting right here, watching.”

Harry narrowed his eyes, resisting a smile. “We could also build a snowman.”

“Sounds more like it,” Louis said. He looked at the camera again. “We’ve got a few decisions to make over here, so we’re gonna get to it. Hope you all enjoy the rest of your New Year’s.”

“And hope you had a lovely Christmas,” Harry said.

“Yeah,” Louis agreed. “And Happy Hanukkah!”

“Happy Kwanzaa,” Harry added, smiling.

“Happy Holidays, if none of those suits you,” Louis said, laughing. “Lots of love as always. We miss you and you’ll hear from us again soon.”

“Bye,” Harry singsonged, waving. He blew a few kisses. Louis blew a few of his own and then he shut the laptop, dropped his head against the back of the couch and exclaimed, “Fuck!”

Harry laughed. “Fuck,” he echoed. At the moment, it was all they had left to say. And it seemed appropriate, considering. For the millionth time, he wished Neon were here. Because they could both probably use her brand of comfort. Thinking about Neon led to thoughts about London in general and about going back, facing the music and the noise. And Harry wasn’t afraid, so much as he was in shock.

“What did we just do?” he asked.

“What we’ve waited forever to do,” Louis said without a second thought. He seemed pensive but mostly unperturbed, relaxed in a way that made Harry relax too. Harry slumped into the couch and leaned into Louis’ warm body against his own.

“What’s next, then?”

Louis gave it a significant amount of thought. So much thought Harry started to worry. Fun’s over. Time to ring the lawyers and publicists and whoever else. Christ, Harry thought.

Louis set the laptop aside and glanced through the window. “Well, we’ve got all that fresh snow out there,” he said. “Maybe we should build a snowman.”

Harry’s brows creased. “Seriously?” he asked. And then, seeing that Louis was in fact completely serious, he laughed, all dimples. “Susan Boyle?”

Louis rolled his eyes. “Who else?”