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Finding Lou

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Part I

 

 

June 16, 2016

1:54 PM

“So, when are you coming home?”

It’s funny. Knowing the question is coming doesn’t make it sting any less. Or maybe it’s more of an ache. Like when your foot falls asleep, and after you’ve stood up and shaken it around a few times, it still doesn’t feel quite right.

Louis’ mum has a way of doing that to him. Of saying things and making them ache.

He turns away from Niall and Ed, dodging a chip that one of them has sent sailing across the table, and speaks his next word softly.

“Soon.”

She doesn’t believe him. Before she speaks, he knows. And really, she shouldn't. He said the same thing a week ago and a month ago too. Louis has been coming home “soon” for over a year.

The disbelief is clear in her sigh and the question she asks next. “Did you book a ticket?”

“Not yet,” he says. “Money is tight right now. But soon.”

His mum is quiet for what feels like a long time. He drums his fingers on the wooden café table, watches a bright blue bus move past the window and down the street. Niall keeps stealing chips off his plate and Louis almost tells him to bugger off. But again, he knows his mum. He knows what comes next and she’ll want his complete attention for it.

“He doesn’t have much time, Lou,” she says. Louis clenches his jaw but keeps listening. She won’t be finished until she makes him feel thoroughly guilty. “I know this is hard for you, love. It’s hard for all of us. But you have to come home. And soon isn’t good enough. You have to come home now. Because it’s down to a matter of weeks. Perhaps even days.”

Her voice breaks and Louis’ heart does too. Cue the tears. (For his mum, at least.)

“You might not feel like you want to say goodbye,” she says, tearfully. “But you should. Because if you don’t, I think you’ll regret it. I really do.”

Niall and Ed have stopped with their low-scale food fight. Not because they’ve reached a truce,  but because they can read the tension in the firm set of Louis’ mouth. Maybe they can even hear his mum crying.

Louis decides then to put an end to the call. The boys are looking at him with something that alarmingly resembles pity and he can’t stand that. When people pity you, they follow up with questions like “are you okay?” and “what’s wrong?” and “how can I help?” But the answer is always no, just no. No, I’m not okay. No, I won’t tell you what’s wrong. No, you can’t help. Just no.

“Mum, it’s alright. I hear you. I promise I’m coming home.”

“When?” she asks again.

He doesn’t say soon. That won’t cut it this time.

“I’ll book a flight by the end of the day. I’ll try to be home by next week,” he replies.

She breathes, like it’s her first breath in a long time. “Okay,” she says. “That sounds good, love. Let me know when you’re coming in. I’ll send Lottie to pick you up from the airport.”

“Sure, I’ll call back with more details,” Louis says, munching on one of the chips on his plate. They’re starting to grow cold but he keeps eating them. He’s miserable enough. He doubts a soggy chip will worsen a thing.

“I’ll let you get back to your friends then,” she says.

“Tell the girls I said hi,” he replies. "How are things going with Dan? Still seeing him, yeah?"

“Yes, really well.” She pauses. "He came by and cooked dinner for all of us twice already. He's been so understanding with what's going on too. I wish you could meet him."

"I will when I'm home," Louis says. "Promise."

“Good," she says. "I love you, Louis. Very much.” Her voice is emphatic, firm, like she wants to drill the words into his head. She says it the same way every time. Like she thinks he’s forgotten or something. And maybe Louis has. They say absence makes the heart grow fonder. But all it’s done is make him forget.

“I love you too,” he replies. “I’ll talk to you soon.”

And then she says goodbye and he lingers on the line while he waits for her to hang up. He exhales long and slow when he finally places his phone down on the table. He looks again out the window, avoiding the gazes of his friends.

The last few months of summer, Louis has spent with his head far above the clouds, or buried in books, his eyes filled with stars, alternate realities, pretty boys and parties. In space, or anywhere but here, anywhere the weight of ordinary life doesn’t exist. But all good things are prone to end.

He may pretend that the money won’t run out, that the parties won’t stop. And that his father isn’t dying in a bed in Doncaster.

But eventually, Louis has to return to Earth.

 

゚*・✧°・゚*・

 

June 17, 2016

8:46 AM

He wakes up in a room he doesn’t recognize next to a half-naked girl that he’s about 90% sure he didn’t sleep with. It’s possible. Alcohol intake will do that to person. But he’d have to take in a lot.

He turns over to his side and finds another boy resting there. When he shifts the boy opens his eyes and smiles. “Morning.”

His breath is foul enough to burn Louis’ lashes clean off. Louis sits up. “Did I have sex with you?” he asks right away. He juts his thumb to his other side. “Or her?”

“Nope. Just came in here and crashed. We had sex while you were sleeping,” he says with a laugh. “You didn’t seem to mind.”

Right. Well, that’s as good a cue as any. Louis scrambles out of the bed and starts to search for his trousers. He grabs the box of cigarettes from the bedside table, not entirely sure if they’re his or not. He’s already pulled one out of the box and tucked it between his lips.

He lifts the first pair of trousers he sees and eyes them carefully. Too long. The second pair he finds has a burn mark on the left pocket. While buried nose-deep in Hyperion, his cigarette had slipped free of his fingers and fallen in that exact spot a few days ago.

He tugs the jeans on, finds his shirt, and flees the room.

There are more people spilled over the couch and the armchair in the living room. Slowly, vague images of the party booming between these walls begin to filter back. He sees himself dancing on the table, knocking over a bowl of popcorn and laughing like it was the funniest thing to happen to any human ever. They were all out of their minds, every single person here last night. All high on a little too much weed, way too much booze, and more than enough life.

He doesn’t even remember if he had fun. That’s the craziest part. Right now, he feels a little ill, desperately craving a cuppa and a bed of his own. But there’s none of that waning thrill he gets after a night well spent. There are no happy memories that have him smiling now.

He finds Niall sprawled over a lawn chair on the balcony, curled around an empty beer keg wedged beside him. Louis nudges him awake and musters up what little energy he has to help the lad locate his trousers.

He makes him drink a cup of water while he lights his cigarette. Niall stares around the room at all the sleeping bodies and snorts a laugh.

“Let’s get the fuck out of here,” he mumbles, dumping his red Solo cup.

Louis laughs, exhaling smoke, sucking in a breath. “Let’s.”

 

゚*・✧°・゚*・

 

10:20 AM

He has a cup of coffee instead. A Peruvian blend that he selects because Starbucks has signs displayed everywhere and he’s a sucker for good advertising. It’s not bad either. He adds a splash of milk and forgoes the sugar, like he would with his tea. It gets his brain going again, and forces the hangover pangs thrumming around his temples to ease off.

He refocuses on the screen of his MacBook.

It’s impossible to find a cheap flight this close to his planned departure. There are tricks that he’s learned as a frequent traveller. But none of them apply here. He hadn’t lied about money being tight either. He doesn’t have as much in his account as he would like. Putting down this money for a flight home will hurt.

He has the money is the thing. He has the money and no excuses left.

He takes another big gulp of his coffee and lets the burn of it on his tongue distract him while he navigates to Travelocity. Only, when he gets there, he can’t find the nerve to do much else. He just stares at the screen, while ahead of him there’s a barista at the empty table, circling a rag lazily on the surface. His eyes dart to Louis for the fifth time that morning.

“Hey,” Louis says, leaning forward. “Sorry, could I ask you a question?”

The barista steps closer, shooting his brows upward.

Louis pulls a slip of paper from his pocket. “Could you tell me the fastest way to get to South Spring Street? I’m looking for this place here.” He sets the paper on the table and his thumb atop the paper. Summertime Books. An interesting name for a bookstore, considering the lack of inclusion for the other three seasons. What it's like, for example, to visit in the winter?

“Oh. Just up that street there, East 6th Street, cross South Main, and you should see it,” the barista says. Louis knew that already. And there's Siri even if he didn’t. He doesn’t need directions. This is more about him and the barista exchanging looks ever since Louis stepped into the place.

“Thank you,” Louis says, smiling. “And how about your number? How would I get that?”

This bloke smiles so hard Louis’ jaw hurts for him. That wasn’t challenging at all.

“Do you have a pen?” he asks. Of course, Louis does. He slides the pen from between the pages of his journal and holds it out.

“I’m free tonight,” the barista says when he’s finished scrawling his number on a paper napkin. He lifts his rag, smiles like a goofball again, and turns away.

And that, friends, is how you snag a date for a Friday night.

Louis packs his Macbook and his journal away in his rucksack. He tucks the napkin into his pocket and leaves, shooting the barista a wink as he pushes through the door.

 

゚*・✧°・゚*・

 

11:43 AM

Summertime Books is one of those hipster joints that sells just as many books as it does biodegradable tote bags and canteens and granola bars infused with cannabis. There are soy candles with scents like Pumpkin Juice, Gatsby’s Mansion, and unsurprisingly, Bookstore. Louis rolls his eyes so hard he nearly dismantles them from their sockets.

The bell above the door rings again as another patron comes through and slips past him. A regular, it seems. They’ve brought their yoga gear with them, as they head to the back towards a small group gathered in the corner. Maybe for book club?

Louis wanders through the store, sliding his fingers seductively along the spines of new and used books. He touches the old ones with particular delicacy, with the admiration they deserve. He tilts his head back to peer up at the soaring shelves of books, like a rainbow of cardboard, pitted leather and paperback. He hears a cash register chime and he drops his gaze, refocusing on the task at hand. He eases past the shelves and the register comes into view, a word and its definition painted on the walls behind it.

litmosphere ( lit’ məs fēr ) n: 1. the vast domain of the world’s readers and writers 2. a lively literary mood permeating the air

He draws his phone from his pocket and snaps a picture. He knows he’s being watched, even before he lowers his phone, because the person waiting behind the register ends up in the bottom corner of his picture.

“Sorry,” Louis says.

“It’s no problem,” the man replies. “It happens a lot.”

The instant he registers the deep British drawl, Louis steps closer to the register, glancing behind him to make sure no one else is waiting. He hasn't had the pleasure yet of meeting another British person in LA. “People take your picture a lot?” he questions.

The man—Harry, his nametag reads—lifts his brows. “The quote.” He pokes his thumb behind him. “You were taking a picture of the quote, weren’t you?”

Louis smiles. “I was. But I’d feel justified in asking for your picture too,” he says with a smirk. He can’t help it. Pretty boys are his hamartia. His homme fatale. And this one, Harry, might be the prettiest he’s seen in awhile. He has the whole hipster vibe going for him. On anyone else, Louis would find it ridiculous. He makes it a point to be annoyed about people who try too hard to be something they’re not, but on this man, it all feels genuine. Almost accidental.

His hair is tied up into a half-hearted bun and he’s wearing brown-framed glasses. There’s a book sitting beside the register, face down and split open. The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson. A good choice. His plaid shirt is loose and sort of untidy. His nametag is slightly crooked. Most importantly, he’s beautiful. Effortlessly beautiful.

“Um,” he says, mouth opening and then closing. “Are you flirting with me?”

He says it incredulously, like no one has ever flirted with him or would ever deign too. Which is basically impossible. Louis refuses to believe that.

“Sort of. But, anyway,” he hurries onward. He draws another slip of paper from his back pocket. “I’m actually looking for this book. It’s been here for a few years. Maybe you could tell me where?”

Harry’s eyes bounce all over Louis’ face. His cheeks are slightly pink, maybe from Louis’ comment about the picture. Louis spreads the slip of paper on the countertop and pokes at it until Harry drops his gaze and reads.

“The Importance of Being Earnest.” Harry looks at Louis. “Great book. We’re definitely not the only bookstore in LA with a copy.”

“This copy is special. It was donated here by a man named Peter Kalmar—” Louis pauses to remove his rucksack. He shuffles around inside for his journal and opens it on the countertop. He sees Harry’s eyes moving over the pages, over Louis’ scribbles, and sonnets. “He donated it after his husband died, along with the rest of his husband’s books to various bookstores from here to New York. And in this particular one, the one I'm looking for, he left a poem. I read it first online. But this book is the first place he wrote it down.”

Harry stands there, just blinking at him, lips parted in stupor. Louis knows he must sound like a bat-shit librarian crossed with a wannabe Sherlock Holmes. But you know, that’s not the worst fate.

“Um,” he says. “So anyway, I heard about Stella, the woman who used to work here.”

Harry’s lips turn downward. “She owned the store,” he corrects. Louis knew that. He also knows she died quite suddenly only five months ago.

“I’m sorry, I know losing her must have been hard on everyone,” Louis says. “I know this is going to sound crazy, but I met Stella’s daughter, Renee, while I was in New York and we started talking about this poet, Peter Kalmar. Renee told me about the book. And since Stella is no longer keeping it, it should be here for sale.”

Harry licks his lips, staring at the paper again. He has nice lips, Louis notes. Ones that are nice to admire. “Um…” Harry slides a loose strand of hair behind his ear.

“You could ask your manager?” Louis suggests. Another strand of hair falls free of Harry’s bun, the end touching the base of his neck. There’s something seductive about it. Louis’ eyes trace its spiral column carefully.

Harry breathes a quiet laugh. “I’m asking myself a lot of questions right now,” he says. He glances at Louis and taps his crooked name tag, which is when Louis notices the word “manager” above Harry’s name. Right.

“Why do you want it? The book?” Harry asks.

“I collect them.”

“Books?”

“Special books. With inscriptions,” Louis clarifies. “Books with a C story.”

“A C story,” Harry repeats slowly.

“Yeah, you know how novels have the A story, which is the main plot line,” Louis says, drawing a little diagram with his fingers. Harry watches them move. Louis just watches him. “And then there’s the B story, some side drama that eventually ties in with the overall plot?”

“Mhm,” Harry hums, following along.

“Well, when you have a book with an inscription, it’s like another plot line, in a way,” Louis finishes. “A C story.”

Harry looks at him, his lips curving. “But why?” he asks again. “Why do you collect them at all?”

“It’s just something I do?” Louis says confusedly. He doesn’t mean for it to sound like a question. But he’s unsure of the answer himself. “It’s the same reason I buy a book from every bookstore I visit. Or why I sometimes leave notes in my own books. It’s why you’re reading that book there. Just because. For some reason that’s important to you. Even if it won’t be to anyone else…”

“I’m reading this book for class,” Harry says.

“So you’re a university student?”

“Second time around. I'm in for a graduate degree,” Harry says, drumming his fingers on the countertop. “So basically you don’t know? You don’t really have a reason is what you’re saying?”

“Exactly,” Louis replies, grinning. Harry’s eyes flicker over his face. His lips twitch. He bites his bottom lip gently to stop them and Louis admires that too. His whole mouth is ripe. Like fresh fruit from farmer’s markets Louis has frequented.

“I’ll look for the book during my lunch break. Maybe you can come back at one?” Harry offers.

“Great, I’ll just sit in that park across the street,” Louis says, waving his finger in the general direction. “Do you know a good place to get lunch around here?”

“We sell raw food here at the store,” Harry says brightly.

“No thanks,” Louis replies hastily. “I was thinking a burger. Like with meat. Cooked.”

Harry looks away. But not fast enough to hide a smile. “Sure, I know just the place.”

He pulls out a sticky notepad and a pencil. “We’re here,” he says, drawing a dot. He follows with a few more lines, and then another dot. “And McDonald's is here. I think it fits your criteria.”

When Louis looks at him again, he sees a spark of something in his eyes. Something clever and flirtatious. Louis smiles, his brows furrowed the way they do when he encounters an especially challenging crossword puzzle. He reaches for the sticky pad, peels Harry’s messy directions off, and waves it. “Thank you,” he says. “I’ll be back at one.”

Harry lifts his book and rights his glasses, pretending not to watch Louis as he leaves. But Louis’ bum sort of demands to be watched. Any gay man knows this, and he’s almost 100% sure Harry is gay. Louis pauses at the fridge full of raw food and arguably, the choices don’t look as gross as he would have imagined. He glances back anyway and says, “McDonald's is looking better and better.”

He thinks he sees a dimple appear in Harry’s cheek, just before Harry raises his book higher to cover his face. With a triumphant smile, Louis exits the shop.

 

゚*・✧°・゚*・

 

He doesn’t go to McDonald's. He’d appreciate a meal but greasy burgers and fries with more salt than the Dead Sea are better left for late nights of recklessness. Given how likely the food is to clog his arteries and stop his heart, it fits.

He goes across the street to the patch of lawn and trees with a few picnic benches and spreads himself out on the grass. He draws Ready Player One from his rucksack. Science fiction is an old favorite of his. If he needs to get lost in space or alternate dimensions, there’s no better way to do it than with a good book. He reads to Chapter Eight and switches gears, remembering a poem he needs to finish. Right now, with a cool California breeze coasting through the streets, and butterflies flittering around the lawn, it’s a good time to do it.

Sometimes Louis writes poems that are just rambling, disjointed fragments of past and present thoughts. Most, if not all of them, are winding, senseless ministrations, that he’ll be lucky to find anyone understands or even cares to read.

He isn’t sure he wants anyone to read them. That’s like peeling his skull back and allowing someone to poke around at his brain.

He grows sleepy and shuts his eyes for a moment or two, to listen to the soft busy sounds of LA on a Friday at noon. He hears the chiming of a shop door and thinks of the bookstore. He wonders how much time has passed, opens his eyes to check, and spots Harry.

Not standing over him or watching him sleep. As pretty as the lad is, even Louis would be unnerved. He sees him across from the park at the door of the bookshop, locking the door behind him. In his hand is a book and a slip of paper. Harry turns and somehow their eyes connect over the short distance.

Louis shakes the drowsiness from his body and gets to his feet quickly, throwing his book into his rucksack. He’s dealt with runners before—people who try to get away with his books after he’s shared their stories. Harry definitely seems like a runner.

Up ahead, Harry starts to turn away but Louis breaks into a sprint, cutting across the street with little regard for traffic. He intersects him, slapping his hand against the glass pane of the shop window. Harry flinches, his shoulders shooting upward.

“Hello again,” Louis says, slightly out of breath.

Harry sets his slightly narrowed eyes on Louis. The glasses are gone, which means the full vibrant color of his irises is clear to see, caught in the glimmer of the sun. Louis’ stomach flutters, though he knows he left the butterflies at the park behind.

“It’s not one o’clock yet,” Harry says. His left hand noticeably curls the book he’s holding closer to his side. Definitely a runner.

“That’s my book in your hand,” Louis says.

“It’s not your book. You haven’t paid for it yet,” Harry says with a shake of his head.

“I have every intention of paying for it if you don’t plan on stealing it for yourself.”

Harry rolls his eyes. “I can’t steal from my own bookshop.”

“Sure you can. Where are you going with the book then?”

Harry sighs loudly. “I’m going to lunch. I wasn’t stealing the book. I just wanted to have a look through it. To see what you’re talking about.”

Louis studies him, disbelievingly.

Harry sighs louder. “There’s more than just the inscription in the front.” He lifts the book in his hands. Nice strong, nimble hands. Louis pictures them clicking away at the keys of a typewriter or grasping him by the hips. Harry opens the book. Louis’ eyes trail up along his profile and then down at the open page. “See, there’s a lot written here. It seems Peter wrote couplets here and there. He even drew a small picture in the back.” Harry starts flipping through the book in search of it.

“Where were you going for lunch?” Louis asks. “McDonalds?”

Harry smiles. “No,” he says. He looks at Louis and seems to consider him very carefully. “Guisados. It’s a taco place down the street.”

Louis waits, lifting his brows. Harry shuts the book and hesitates for a moment before asking, “You could come along too, if you’d like. To discuss the book.”

Louis grins, swinging his hand gracefully toward the pavement behind him. “Lead the way.”

 

゚*・✧°・゚*・

 

12:16 PM

Harry removes his glasses from the breast pocket of his shirt and slides them on.

“I think the poem he writes for his late husband is like the first of several poems. It sounds like the start to a story. Or an epic,” Harry says. He starts flipping through the pages again. Louis takes another bite of his taco and watches him.

“So like the poem ends off on this line about cosmic love and he talks about drifting into the stars. He says he imagines himself ‘drifting up, up, up’ and then he just ends there. Only he hasn’t actually drifted. He’s just looking up at them, wanting to be up there with them—with his husband, I imagine. And sure it could be like an open-ended thing, but if it’s a poem about cosmic love I’d think he would end it in the cosmos, don’t you?”

Harry’s eyes finally flicker toward him and Louis swallows around the weird little knot in his throat. “Yeah…” He blinks, nodding. You’d think he’d never spoken with another man before. He’s spoken with plenty. Flirted with almost all of them. “I think you’re right. Peter wrote several poems. But I don’t know if any of them were continuations of the one there.”

“Maybe he didn’t publish them online at all. Maybe he just wrote them in his husband’s books,” Harry says. “Have you ever thought to look for those?”

“No,” Louis says. “Honestly, I only know about this one book from Renee. And Peter died a half a year after his husband. So it’s not like I could ask.”

Harry shakes his head. “That’s a shame,” he says. He lifts his own taco for a bite, noticeably turning away from the book so he doesn’t risk dripping meat and salsa juice on it.

“I’m Louis, by the way. I don’t think I mentioned,” Louis says.

“No, I don’t think you did. I’m Harry,” he replies with a smile.

“I saw on your nametag,” Louis informs him, gesturing to it.

“Right,” Harry sighs. He wipes his hands on a napkin and yanks the nametag pin off. “You know, I have this sticky note by the door that just says ‘name tag’ to remind me to take it off. I’ve had strangers start talking to me like we were old pals until I realized I’d left the bloody thing on.”

Louis laughs. “Not surprising. I’m sure people are desperate for excuses to talk to you.”

Harry averts his gaze, threading a loose curl behind his ear again. They aren’t very obedient curls. It seems he always remembers to tame them when he has nothing else to do with his hands or when he’s caught off guard.

Louis quits his study of him and asks instead, “So you just manage the bookshop, or…?”

“I own it now actually,” Harry says.

“And what’s that like?” Louis asks.

Harry takes a moment before he can answer.

“It’s a lot, I guess. Before it was just me and Stella but we made it work fine. I didn’t know she was sick. I didn’t expect her to leave the shop to me either. I haven’t found another employee. Every week, there’s those people coming in for book club and there’s the delivery from the raw food producer and all the other deliveries. And it’s just a lot,” Harry says, all in one enormous breath. His shoulders sink. “But I love that shop. And I want to take care of it, so.”

“Well, I think the hipsters are enjoying it. Which means you must still be doing alright,” Louis says.

Harry laughs for the first time.  A full on laugh, with the dimple and all. “When they stop coming, that’s when I’ll know for sure.”

“I don’t think that’ll happen. I’m sure you’ll do great,” Louis says. “Doing great already, from what little I’ve seen.”

Harry curls his hand around the back of his neck and looks at Louis curiously. “Thank you.”

Louis happens to glance across the store right then and sees, of all people, Ed with his bright orange hair and guitar strapped to his back. He shoots his hand into the air and waves to get his attention. When Ed spots him, his face splits in a grin and he strolls over.

“Hey,” he says.

“What are you doing here?” Harry asks him with a smile. “Thought you had to work.”

Ed laughs. “I’m skipping. I need to practice for that gig tonight.”

Louis looks confusedly at both of them. He opens his mouth.

“How do you two know each other?” Ed asks before he can.

“Was going to ask the same thing of you two,” Louis says.

“I’m also curious,” Harry murmurs, glancing between Ed and Louis. Ed pulls a chair up to their table and sets his food down.

“We met like a week or two ago?” Louis says. “Right?”

Ed nods. “At the Troubadour,” he confirms.

“Right. And another friend of ours, Niall,” Louis says.

“I've known Niall for years,” Harry says. “How long have you known him?”

“About two weeks,” Louis says with a smile.

Harry looks at him. “How long have you been in LA?” he wonders.

“Two weeks,” Louis says again with a laugh. “Before then, I was in New York.”

Harry looks mildly impressed. “And how long were you in New York?”

“A week and a half? Something like that,” Louis says, smirking. “You sound very curious, love. I’ll answer as many questions as you have."

Harry reaches for his cup for a sip of his water, shifting his eyes away. His cheeks have gone slightly pink. If he were a crossword puzzle, Louis would be having zero luck figuring him out. He’s more perplexed than when he started.

Ed’s eyes flicker back and forth between them. “So how did you two meet?” he asks, smiling.

“Harry’s selling me a book,” Louis explains.

“I haven’t decided if I’m selling it yet,” Harry inserts.

Louis’ mouth drops open. “You can’t refuse to sell me a book. There has to be law against that or something.”

“There are actually laws in favor of it, to protect shop owners,” Harry clarifies.

“Sorry, am I threatening you by wanting to buy a book?” Louis might have some weird, random crush on this bloke but he’s getting his book, one way or another.

“If Stella was keeping the book, I think I should too. Clearly she didn’t want it to be sold,” Harry says. “And what do you do with all these books you buy anyway? If you’re always travelling?”

Louis exhales a frustrated breath. “Sometimes I sell them if I need the money. I keep most of them. Sometimes I give them away to people I think need them more. But what does that matter?”

“Sorry,” Ed cuts in, holding up a finger. “Were you two on a date? I’m feeling very third-wheel-ish right now.”

Harry does the whole blushy, shifty-eyes thing, which sounds weird but is actually kind of adorable. “He just said: we met like an hour ago.”

“Right. Don’t you have to get back to the shop?” Ed asks.

“I closed early today. I need to pick Liam up from his class and take him furniture shopping. And the book club people left, so.” Harry shrugs. “My shop means I close when I want.”

“Yeah, except you still have one customer?” Louis points out.

Harry ignores him.

Ed looks at Harry with a private smirk, one that Louis can’t decipher and isn’t sure he should. Ed turns his attention to Louis. “Me, Harry and Niall went to UCLA together. Now me and him live next door to each other. Harry’s coming to the show tonight, by the way. You said you didn’t know if you would.” He lifts his brows, suggestively.

Louis narrows his eyes. “I have a date tonight, actually,” he says. “But I’ll see if he wants to come.”

He sees Harry glance at him but pretends not to. He knows how to play the game. And play it better.

“Why don’t you come by tomorrow then?” Harry suggests. He starts to stand, collecting his empty food tray. “I’ll have an answer for you about the book then.”

Louis clenches his jaw. “Alright, then.”Even if he wanted to object, Harry was gone, tossing his food into the waste bin.

The three of them filter outside, Harry still sipping his refilled cup of water. A longboarder comes zipping down the sidewalk. They hear the rolling of his wheels but they don’t see him until he’s colliding with Harry. The cup of water goes flying and nails a perfect landing on Louis’ stomach, dousing the front of his light pink shirt and his jeans.

“Shit,” Louis hisses.

“I’m so sorry,” Harry says, hand to his mouth. His gaze glues itself to Louis’ abs, visible now through the damp fabric of his shirt. He averts his eyes and says again, “Sorry.”

Louis smirks. “Don’t worry— Wait, fuck—” He digs into his pocket to find the napkin from the coffee shop earlier, not surprised to find it soaked through. When he unfolds it, the numbers have been reduced to blots of ink. “There goes my date.”

He tosses the napkin in the trash.

Ed, standing off to the side, winces. “You can change at my place if you need to, mate. I'm heading home now.” He looks at Haz. “You?”

“I wasn't, but I could,” Harry says.

“I think it’s only fair that you tag along. To make up for this,” Louis says, wiggling his shirt.

“We live in the same complex,” Harry deadpans. “So technically, you’ll be the one tagging along.” He smiles haughtily. Just before he turns away, his eyes dart to Louis’ abs again.

“Come on,” he says. “I'll give you a ride.”

 

゚*・✧°・゚*・

 

12:39 PM

Harry happens to wander past the bathroom door just as Louis has stripped out of his jeans. He lowers his gaze and says quickly, “Sorry.”

“I don’t mind,” Louis replies easily, lifting his shirt. By the time he’s pulled his head through, Harry is gone. He finishes dressing and leaves the loo.

Harry waits in the kitchen with two beers, one of which he slides over to Louis.

“Thanks,” Louis says, leaning against the counter. “Where’s Ed?”

“Changing, I think.” Harry leans into the opposing counter. They put the rims to their mouths and take long pulls. Louis watches Harry’s Adam’s apple bob, watches him drag his hand over his mouth when he lowers the bottle.

“So where are you originally from?” he asks, setting his bottle down.

“Cheshire,” Harry says. “You?”

“South Yorkshire,” Louis says. “What made you want to stay here permanently?”

“I think most people who come here want to stay permanently,” Harry says, taking another sip of his beer. “I fell in love with it. Among other things, I guess.”

“Like?”

Harry shakes his head. “Just...other things…”

Louis hates to press. But it’s the puzzle that Harry proves to be that gets to him, charged by the desperation to solve him. “What’s your story?”

Harry huffs a laugh. "No one has just one story,” he says. “We're all made up by millions of different ones."

"Fair enough. And poetic,” Louis says. “What's your favorite story then?"

Harry sighs, scratching a spot on his scalp. "Um. When I was eight, I saved a cat from a house fire. I was at my aunt’s home when the stove caught ablaze and I saved her cat."

Louis smiles. “The Invincible Harry."

Harry tips his beer bottle to him. “All I need now is a cape…”

“We’ll have to find you one,” Louis agrees. "How about your least favorite now?"

Harry’s smile dissipates instantly. He casts his eyes downward, swaying the beer bottle back and forth in his hand. “Those aren’t any fun…” he says.

“They’re not supposed to be. But tragedies are popular for a reason,” Louis says. He watches him carefully. The discomfort in Harry’s expression suddenly reads loud and clear. Respectfully, Louis backs off. “Anyway. Who’s Liam, if you don’t mind me asking?”

“Just a friend,” Harry says. “His car is in the shop for its transmission. So I’ve been picking him up every now and then from his martial arts class.”

“Is he going with you to the show tonight?” Louis asks.

Harry shakes his head. “No, I’m going alone.”

“You know,” Louis begins, steeling himself. He’s usually much better at this. And yet, with Harry, he feels like a kid on training wheels. “Since you basically doused my date with your water, I think it’s only fair that you be my date instead.”

Harry licks his smiling lips. “Do you flirt like this with everyone or…?”

“Of course not,” Louis says, aghast. “I have to like the person to some degree.”

“I can’t,” Harry says simply. “I don’t know you. And you’re just trying to get me to sell you that book.”

“Do you need to know someone substantially before you have a good time with them?” Louis lifts his brows and lifts the bottle back to his lips. This time it’s Harry’s eyes on his mouth. Like they should be.

Ed steps into the kitchen before Harry can answer. “Still picking up Liam?”

Harry peels his eyes away from Louis and glances at his watch. “Yeah. I should probably leave now,” he says. Not good.

“I actually need a ride back to Niall’s,” Louis says quickly. “If you don’t mind?”

Harry hesitates for only a second, which is an improvement. “No. Come on,” he says, leaving the kitchen.

Louis throws back the rest of his beer and gives Ed a pat on his shoulder. “See you tonight, man.”

“Hey,” Ed says, grabbing Louis’ bicep, firmly but not unkindly. He drops his voice to a whisper. “Be easy with him.”

Louis lifts his brows. “You talk like he’s made of porcelain.”

Ed releases him. “Just about.”

 

゚*・✧°・゚*・

 

12:58 PM

Harry lowers all the windows of his Jeep, so that the wind tosses his hair about his face as he’s driving. He seems to like it like that. He’s wearing a pair of sunglasses. One arm is braced on the window. The other is extended with his fingers wrapped around the wheel.

He keeps glancing to his right. But he never catches Louis looking at him. Louis never lets himself be caught. He catches Harry enough though.

“What?” he says after the fifth time.

“You’re the one staring at me,” Harry replies.

“I’m literally just sitting here minding my business,” Louis replies. “Just listening to your interesting music. Who is this anyway?”

“It’s a German band called Foxos,” Harry says. “This song is called Morning. You were definitely staring at me.”

“You started it.” Louis shuffles through the shoebox of CDs Harry keeps on the floor of the passenger seat. “This is a sick ride, by the way. Teal is very you.”

Harry adjust his sunglasses. “Thank you. It was Stella's actually.”

"She left her car for you too?" Louis asks.

"No, but I bought it from Renee," Harry says. "She would have sold it to someone else if I hadn't."

Louis nods, drumming his fingers on the window frame. The song changes. Harry glances at him again as they come to a traffic light. Louis rolls his head to the left and lifts his brows.

“Yes?”

Harry looks at the road again. “Where are you travelling to? What’s next after LA?”

Louis sets the CD box down. “I haven’t the slightest clue. Been wanting to visit Canada for a while. Maybe Vancouver. But I haven’t found a way of getting there yet.”

“How’d you get here?” Harry asks.

Louis smiles. “I bummed a lift off these folks going to Vegas from New York. And then another lift with people leaving Vegas to head back to San Diego. And then I took a bus from San Diego to LA. All to find your shop.”

Harry shakes his head, smiling. “You’re like a nomad.”

“I like the sound of that,” Louis says. “What about you? Been anywhere fun?”

“Not so much recently. I travelled a lot more when I was younger,” Harry says.

“You say that like you’re fifty,” Louis says.

Harry laughs. “Sometimes I feel like it,” he says. “I’m only 24.”

“26,” Louis says of himself.

Harry looks at him. “I wouldn’t have guessed. You seem younger.”

“Is that a bad thing?”

Harry shakes his head. He refocuses on the road. “Not at all.”

The car slows to a stop and Harry turns the key in the ignition. Only then does Louis realize that they’re parked outside of Niall’s apartment complex. He peels his gaze away from Harry to collect his rucksack. “Coming in for a second? To say hi?”

Harry pushes his hair away from his forehead. “I really should get going.”

“Come on,” Louis urges. He’s never been so eager to make someone stick around. “He’ll be happy to see you.”

Another two seconds of contemplation pass and then Harry says finally, “For a bit then,” and pops his door open.

They head up the steps to a modestly sized home Niall can afford being the big shot Hollywood cameraman that he is. He’s worked with more celebrities than he can remember the names of, A-listers to Z-listers. Louis had the pleasure of meeting him while Ed was playing a short set at the Troubadour. They’d had a few drinks together. Niall had offered Louis his place to crash for the duration of his time in LA and that had been the end of that.

“Was wondering where you ran off to,” Niall says, and then he looks at Harry.

Harry waves. “Long time no see.”

“About two months, yeah. How are you?” Niall asks. He says it with concern heavy on his voice and a cautious set to his gaze.

Harry nods, smile tight. “Good.”

“How do you two know each other?” Niall says.

“I went to his bookshop,” Louis explains. “We had lunch. He spilled his water on me. It’s practically fate.”

Harry almost succeeds in not smiling. But his dimple gives him away. “I was just dropping him off. I have to go pick up Liam and take him to Ikea.”

“Fucking love Ikea,” Niall says. “Can taste those meatballs now. We should go.” He’s looking at Louis, lifting his brows.

Louis almost tells him he’s already had lunch. Then he thinks about going to Ikea and having more time with Harry and that’s all it takes to get him onboard. “Mind if we tag along?” he asks Harry.

Harry looks at Niall, incredulously. “Just for meatballs?”

“That’s all I need,” Niall explains.

Harry sighs. “Come on then.”

“Fuck, yeah,” Niall cheers. He rushes back into the house, leaving the door ajar. Harry leans against the doorframe. Louis does the same, opposite him.

“You made his day,” he says.

“It’s all thanks to you,” Harry says, crossing his arms. “Are you planning to find reasons to follow me around all day? Because in that case, you can have the book for free.”

Louis winces dramatically. “Ouch. First, you’re making me sound like a stalker, which I’m not. Tell me to leave you alone and I will. Second, in case I haven’t made it obvious, I think you’re pretty fucking fit. So no, it’s not just about the book. Third, I’ve got nothing else to do, mate. And boredom kills at least twenty people a day.”

Harry looks away, his dimple still exposed. “I appreciate your honesty,” he says. “And I don’t think of you as a stalker.”

“Well, good,” Louis says stupidly. His eyes linger on Harry’s face and then Niall reappears at the door, tossing his fists into the air.

“Let’s go get meatballs!”

 

゚*・✧°・゚*・

 

1:10 PM

Liam goes to throw his gym bag into the back seat when he notices Niall and Louis. “Hi,” he says curiously. “Niall, good to see you again, mate.”

“Same to you,” Niall says. “We’re tagging along for meatballs.”

Liam laughs, climbing into the car. He holds his hand out for Louis. “Liam,” he says.

“Louis,” Louis replies, shaking his hand. “Nice to meet you.”

Liam smiles, shifting his eyes to Harry. Harry glances at him. “He’s a customer,” he says. Which, again, ouch. Harry glances at him in the rear view mirror. “Also he’s a friend of Niall and Ed’s.”

“Oh, sweet. How long have you been in LA?” Liam asks Louis.

“Not long,” Louis says, simply.

Liam’s brow furrows and it looks like he wants to ask more but Harry’s mobile starts blaring, sitting in the tray at the front of the center console. Liam glances at it. “Want me to get that?”

Harry shakes his head. “It’s just him,” he says quietly.

“Still?” Liam says incredulously. “Thought you blocked the number—”

Harry looks at Liam, or better yet, glares, and Liam quiets. Harry glances into the mirror again, meets Louis’ gaze, and focuses adamantly on the road for the rest of the drive. Louis looks at Niall, who’s watching Harry, and frowning.

So, Louis isn’t actually anything close to Sherlock Holmes. He’d make a shit detective, he’s sure, but he’s good at figuring things out by listening, snooping, and piecing together context clues. He’s starting to work Harry out bit-by-bit. When you take Ed’s warning, Harry’s reluctance to accept compliments or go on a date with Louis, and now this: the mystery caller whose number should be blocked, and all roads lead to an unfortunate ex-lover.

They pull into Ikea’s parking lot and hop out, Harry lingering back with his phone in his hands. He catches up with them eventually, looking distant.

Liam pulls a list out of his pocket. “Just have to pick up a few things. I’ll meet you all back around here.”

“I’ll come with you,” Harry says, pushing his sunglasses into his hair. He looks at Louis and Niall. “Enjoy your meatballs.”

Louis watches him go, worried not just for Harry but for himself now too. He doesn’t know when his curiosity turned to concern, but it has. He can’t even enjoy his meatballs when he gets them.

“What’s the deal with Harry?” he has to ask Niall.

“What do you mean?” Niall mumbles, mouth full and eyes focused intently on his plate.

“Come on,” Louis says, nudging him with his elbow. “Someone broke his heart, yeah?”

“You should ask him,” Niall says.

“It’s not like he would tell me.”

“Which means he doesn’t want you to know…” Niall eats another meatball. He shrugs. “I wouldn’t ask if I were you though. If you like him, which I’m thinking you do, asking him things he doesn’t want to talk about won’t score you any points.”

Louis doesn’t even bother to deny the part about liking Harry. He does like Harry. The same hasn’t been true of anyone else in a long while. He’s only known him for a matter of hours but Harry is already more intriguing than all of the blokes Louis has met in the last few months. As he works out the mystery presented to him now, one thing he can’t figure out is why anyone would give someone like Harry up. From the start, Harry has always read loud and clear as a keeper. Louis, at least, would want to keep him.

He stands, pushing his plate of meatballs closer to Niall. “Is he lactose intolerant?”

Niall’s brows furrow. “No?”

“Great. Finish up those meatballs for me, yeah? I’ll be back,” he says. Niall watches him suspiciously, dragging the plate of meatballs closer to himself.

Louis buys two ice cream cones and wanders through the store, head turning this way and that in search of curls. It’s not his best idea. By the time he finds Harry, his cone is dripping over Louis’ hand. Louis holds it out to him. “Take it quick,” he says.

Harry takes the cone. “What—?”

“That’s for you,” Louis says. “You didn’t have dessert after lunch, which is why, I imagine, you’re looking so glum.”

“Right.” Harry nods. “You definitely figured it out. I get very sad whenever I don’t have dessert.”

“Of course you do. Everyone does,” Louis says.

Harry takes a lick of his ice cream at the bottom where it’s starting to run onto his fingers. He laughs softly and takes another lick. “This is a mess,” he says, trying to catch all the streams of melting cream. “But thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” Louis says, grinning.

Up ahead, Liam rounds a corner with a big blue Ikea bag hooked over his arm. “Hey. Where’s mine?”

“Sorry, mate,” Louis says. “No such thing as triple-fisting. Not for me at least.”

Harry chokes on air and presses a hand to his mouth, eyes crinkling from barely restrained laughter. Liam stands there, perplexed, gaze flickering back and forth between them. He shakes his head and turns back the way he came, mumbling about finding the lighting section.

“You have a dirty mind,” Louis says, chuckling.

Harry doesn’t deny it, which Louis will remember for future reference. “Let’s help Liam find the lighting,” he says. He takes another lick of his ice cream and Louis falls into step beside him.

 

゚*・✧°・゚*・

 

1:32 PM

“Favorite color?”

Harry bounces around on the mattress, patting it to test its firmness. “Blue,” he says, throwing himself backward and lying there, his dark hair spilled out around his head. “This is fucking divine.”

Louis takes a seat on the bed too and lies backward. “You’re right.”

“How about you?” Harry asks.

“Oh, green, I think. Or yellow. Sometimes blue,” Louis rambles. “I like summertime colors, really.”

Harry glances at him. “You seem like a very summertime sort of person.”

“I know that’s a compliment, but care to elaborate?” Louis asks. Two people walk through the display bedroom, eyeing Harry and Louis lying there. They hurry on. As they should.

“You’re just very…bright, I guess. Or sunny? I imagine you like to be outdoors…” Harry says. He looks away. “I don’t know. You gave me ice cream and now I’m not making sense.”

Louis laughs, turning over onto his stomach and propping himself up on his forearms so he can look at Harry better. “Can I just say you’re adorable?” he murmurs, wanting strangely to press a kiss to Harry’s cheek.

“You can’t call me adorable,” Harry complains. “I’m a grown man. Not a cat.”

“You actually seem very cat-like,” Louis argues. “Do you like cats?”

“I love them. They’re great book-reading partners,” Harry says. He runs his fingers over the quilted duvet. “My last roommate didn’t like cats. Or dogs.”

“Is that why you got rid of them? Your roommate?” Louis says with a laugh.

“No, actually, we broke up.” Harry smiles, and adds, “And not because of his distaste for pets.”

Louis studies him carefully, noting the tension behind Harry’s smile and the shadow that passes over his irises. He has tons of deep, soul-searching questions for Harry then but he asks none of them. “Favorite song?”

Harry looks to the ceiling. “I have too many to pick just one. Something by Coldplay or Kiss probably. Or the Beach Boys.”

“Wise choices,” Louis says, cradling his head in his palm. Another couple passes through the room slowly and ogles Harry and Louis.

This time, Louis gasps loudly and throws an arm over Harry’s chest.

Harry,” he says hysterically. “There are people in our bedroom!”

He grabs one of the blankets Ikea has thrown artfully over the end of the bed and uses it to cover their bodies hastily.

“Call the bloody police,” he screeches.

The two intruders scurry away, looking partly amused but mostly disturbed. Harry cackles, his body wracked with laughter, both hands covering his flushed face.

“Oh my God,” he wheezes. His eyes fill with tears. “You’re so embarrassing.”

Louis chuckles, climbing off the bed. “Come on,” he says, reaching for Harry’s hand. “Before they send someone in here to investigate.”

Harry takes Louis’ hand and allows himself to be pulled upright. Louis doesn’t let his hand go as they hurry out of the display bedroom, sweeping his gaze back and forth to ensure that the coast is clear. He doesn’t let his hand go until they’re turning the corner towards the curtains, and only then because Harry’s phone starts ringing. Louis’ heart sinks without even knowing who the caller is, unprepared to see Harry’s smile flee again.

It turns out to be Liam on the other end. “We’re on our way,” he tells him. When he hangs up, he tells Louis. “Liam is at the checkout with Niall.”

Louis looks around. “Guess we should find our way out of here.”

Harry huffs a laugh. “I can absolutely see you getting lost in here.”

“I resent that,” Louis shoots back.

Harry reaches for his arm and tugs him along. “Follow me.”

He’s treating Louis like a little kid, which is completely offensive and downright preposterous, but his fingers curled around Louis’ forearm are warm and gentle, thus silencing any complaints Louis might have. He lets Harry lead him to the check out and when Liam and Niall come into view, he tries not to feel bitter about Harry releasing him.

He has less than 30 seconds to come up with his next move. By then they’ll have caught up to the queue and Louis thinks he has a better chance of success while they’re alone.

“So,” he says abruptly. “Plans for the rest of the day?”

Harry turns to him, hands stuffed into his back pockets. “There’s just Ed’s show later. That’s about it for me…” he says, trailing off. “How about you?”

Louis shrugs, scuffing the floor with his shoe. “Nothing besides Ed’s show, I suppose…”

Harry nods, looking away, chewing his lip.

Louis scratches his scruffy chin. “I’m debating whether to ask you out again because the last two times, you insinuated I was up to no good.”

Harry smiles, his eyes directed toward Liam and Niall up ahead. “I still think you’re up to no good.”

“Fair enough.” Louis turns to him, brows lifted. “Want to be up to it with me?”

Harry can’t help a laugh. He pushes his hair away from his forehead and faces Louis again, eyes slightly narrowed, skeptical. “What would we even do?”

Score.

“You don’t expect me to have a plan, do you?” Louis says. He reaches up and flicks Harry lightly in his dimple, which makes Harry smile wider, and swat his hand away. “Let’s go wherever the wind takes us.”

“You sound like a bloody pirate,” Harry says, laughing. He rocks backward on his heels, and says quietly, “Alright then. I’ll be your date for the rest of the day.”

“Lucky me,” Louis says.

Harry glances away, his cheeks rosy. “I’m feeling pretty lucky too.”

That might be the first time Louis feels the rush in his chest, like a cool breeze or summer blossoms drifting from trees. His skin grows warm and he looks away, just as Harry has, unprepared for whatever that feeling is, unaccustomed to it.

They wait for Liam to finish checking out and then they all grab a few of Liam’s things and carry them to the car. Louis climbs again into the backseat with Niall, glancing often at Harry in the visor and sometimes finding Harry glancing back.

They pull up to Liam’s place and park the car. Liam hops out and then Niall, both eventually looking into the car at Harry and Louis expectantly.

“You two planning to get out?”

Harry taps his fingers on the steering wheel, looking at Louis again.

“Actually,” Louis says. “I’m kidnapping Harry for a bit.”

He pulls the passenger door closed behind Niall and climbs over the console and into the front passenger seat.

Liam looks appalled. “Who’s going to help me set up all this furniture?” he asks.

“I think you and Niall could at least handle the bookshelf,” Harry says, starting the car up again. “Promise I’ll come by tomorrow and help with the rest.”

“I don’t even live here,” Niall says.

Harry winces. “Sorry.”

Louis buckles himself in and whispers to Harry, “Think you should probably hit the pedal now.”

Harry laughs, waving again to Liam and Niall, and pulls away from the kerb.

“Think they’ll make it without us?” Louis asks.

“They’ll be fine,” Harry says. He glances at Louis when they come to a traffic light. “The pressure’s officially on. What's next?”

Louis grins. “Well, first,” he begins, reaching out and tweaking Harry's radio. He turns it until he finds something sounding like Classic Rock. “Yes. First, we set the tunes.”

Harry smiles. “Okay.”

“Next, sunnies,” Louis says, reaching into his rucksack and pulling out his shades. He slips them on and rights them, glancing at himself in the rear view mirror.

Harry reaches up, pulls his own shades out of his hair, and slides them on. “Done,” he says.

“And now,” Louis says. Harry waits expectantly. “I want you to take me to your favorite place in LA.”

“Impossible. I have too many,” Harry says.

“Good thing we’ve got time,” Louis replies. “Let’s go, Harold. The city awaits.”

They pass palm trees lining the gleaming black streets, the sun hot on their shoulders and arms, but the breeze cools them down plenty. When they get to the next light, Harry makes a left.

 

゚*・✧°・゚*・

 

2:02 PM

It's a long winding journey past a sprawling sign that reads Griffith Park. All around them are the high peaks of Hollywood Hills, a clear sky, and visitors climbing the same slope on foot. Harry parallel parks expertly along the side of the road and turns to Louis with a smirk. “Ready for a hike?”

“You say that like it’ll be a challenge for me,” Louis says, glancing around. “Did you forget the whole backpacking through the US thing?”

Harry glances skeptically in his direction and climbs out of the car. He digs around in the back seat for a pair of tennis shoes and changes out of his boots quickly.

“Do you have any family here in the States?” Louis asks, following him up the hill.

“No, my sister travels here sometimes to cover stories for the paper she works for. But she lives in London,” Harry says. “How about you?”

“My family’s in the UK. Four sisters but they’re all still quite young.”

“How long have you been away from home?” Harry asks.

Louis squints at the sky as he thinks. “Since last May.”

It seems like Harry tries not to openly judge him. But even then, his eyes widen slightly. Louis pretends not to see. “I finished up my last semester of uni, which I should have finished two years prior, and then I took off. Had an opportunity to go stay in Glasgow for a bit so I went.”

“What happened with uni?” Harry asks.

Louis can’t think of a way to shift the attention back to Harry but he would love to. “Family things came up. I was helping my mum out at home.”

Harry nods, his eyes flickering away. “I went to Glasgow for an exchange student thing one year. Love it there.”

“Oh, yeah, there’s a crazier party every night. And Mitchell Library is incredible,” Louis says.

“Your ability to balance copious books and a party every night is impressive,” Harry says.

“I just think you can’t ever have too much of one thing. Too much reading and you turn into a recluse. Too much partying...and I don’t know, something bad, I’m sure,” Louis says, eying Harry’s dimple when he laughs. “You have to find a balance. Everything needs balance.”

“Have you considered being a life coach?” Harry questions.

“Maybe once I get my own life in order,” Louis says with a smile.

They grab maps of the park for the rest of their hike. Harry has two places he wants to show him, both of which are a significant distance away. But Louis meant what he said about being able to keep up.

They get there within the next thirty minutes. Table #29.

“So what’s the story?” Louis asks, eyes on the wooden table before them. A large tree lies prostrate over the surface of it.

Harry takes a breath. “So, two people were having sex on this table when this tree came down and crushed them to death. Their ashes were spread here. And now they haunt the table, and sometimes speak to hikers.”

Louis lifts his brows. “Sick,” he says. “Wait a minute. Harry, I think… I think I hear them.”

Harry smiles. “Yeah? What are they saying?”

Louis lifts a hand to his ear and leans closer to the table. “What’s that, young lovers?” Harry snorts a laugh, pressing his hand to his mouth. “Aw. I agree. They say you’re cute.”

Harry rolls his eyes.

“They also say...Oh. Oh, dear,” Louis says. “Seems like they’re getting back to it. You know, the fucking. I think we should give them some privacy.”

“You’re ridiculous,” Harry says, shoving Louis’ shoulder. “Come on.”

They start on their way again, and it’s another several minutes before Griffith Observatory comes into view, perched at one of the highest peaks with the tops of its three domed ceilings arching into the sky.

“I majored in astronomy for my undergrad,” Harry mentions nonchalantly. “Which doesn't make sense really with me owning a bookstore now.”

“Is it as glamorous as it sounds? Being an astronomer?” Louis asks.

“Probably not as glamorous as you think it is. But it has its moments. Like coming here and knowing what all these things are used for,” Harry says. “Like that thing up there.”

They're standing in front of the astronomers’ monument. At the top where Harry directs his gaze is a spherical iron construction.

“That is called an armillary sphere. It’s one of the first instruments used to track the movements of celestial bodies,” Harry says with an appreciative smile. “I have one on my bookshelf at home.”

“Consider me impressed,” Louis says.

Harry shoots him a smirk and wanders on.

Louis hurries to keep up with him. “What are you studying now? In grad school?”

A short breath leaves Harry’s mouth. “This is going to sound crazy,” he begins. “But I don't know. I'm not sure I want another degree in anything. There was a literature course that seemed interesting so I signed up for it to keep myself busy. Then Stella passed and now I'm busier than ever.”

“Nothing wrong with testing the waters. Eventually, you’ll end up where you’re supposed to be,” Louis says, reading one of the plaques on the ground quickly.

“I’d like to teach someday. In addition to owning the bookstore,” Harry says.

“You’re going to keep it forever?”

“I thought about giving it up, allowing Stella’s family to sell it if they wanted,” Harry says, pausing beside Louis to admire the colorful, narrative art decorating the ceiling. “I couldn’t do it though. I love that place too much. So, forever it is, I guess.”

“Once you hire some people to help out, I bet you could teach,” Louis says. “You can do it all.”

“I like to think so,” Harry muses. “How about you? What are your career plans?”

Louis does his best not to laugh. “Don’t have any.”

“You’re a writer, aren’t you?” Harry asks confusedly.

“I write poetry and freelance articles sometimes. But I don’t know, not much of a career, right? And the degree in English hasn’t helped much.”

They wander past displays with facts about stars, tides, and phases of the moon, and interactive instruments used by astronomers back in the day. Harry explains each one to Louis. They fool around with one of the telescopes on display, pressing buttons to operate it.

“You should take your own advice,” Harry says suddenly. “Keep testing the waters and see where you end up.”

“You’re right,” Louis says, as if it’s that simple. He’s been testing the waters for so long now he’s grown fins. Things are never as easy as motivational lines make them out to be.

An unchaperoned kid rushes between them, forcing them to shimmy apart, and pulls them both from the daze they were in. They gather with a crowd around Foucault’s Pendulum, while a suited observatory worker explains how and what the massive device was used for — to demonstrate Earth’s rotation.

Louis overhears a conversation about the gift shop and that’s where he and Harry end up next. The shop is a combination of Griffith Observatory merch, NASA goods, and general tokens of space nerdism. Louis buys a stargazing pocket notebook, figuring it'd be nice for his poems. He also picks up a keychain with a holographic 3D portrait of the solar system and gives it to Harry.

“What’s this?” Harry asks, munching on an apple he bought from the cafe across the hall, while Louis extends the gift bag to him.

“A gift,” Louis says. Harry puts the apple in his mouth and reaches into bag. He draws the keychain out and smiles.

“I love it,” he says, twirling it in his hands. “I didn't get you anything.”

“You brought me here. That's more than enough,” Louis assures him.

Harry’s brows remain wrinkled. But he hooks the keychain onto the metal ring attached to his belt loop. “We should keep going,” he says. “There’s more I want to show you.”

 

゚*・✧°・゚*・

 

3:15 PM

I Want You Back comes on halfway to their next destination and Louis throws his head back and howls.

Harry judges him silently from the passenger seat.

Louis stares wide-eyed at him. "Stop it. You're telling me you can resist this song?” he says. “You're serious right now? Seriously?"

Harry keeps his eyes on the road. Unacceptable.

Louis turns the song up, and sings just for him. “Oh, baby, give me one more chance!”

Harry laughs, shaking his head.

“Come on, Harry,” Louis says. “Won’t you please let me back in your heart.”

And then the words burst from Harry’s mouth. “Oh, darlin’, I was blind to let you go!”

“There we go!” Louis cheers.

Harry sings on, head lolling. “But now since I see you in his arms.”

He looks at Louis, expectantly.

“I want you back,” Louis sings on cue.

“Yes I do now,” Harry echoes.

Louis shimmies. “I want you back.”

“Ooh, ooh, baby,” Harry croons and points to him. He’s met with silence. ”Why aren’t you singing?”

Louis cranes his neck, peering out the window.

“Stop the car!” he shouts. Harry slams his foot on the brakes and his wide eyes snap to him. The car behind them starts honking up a storm. “Park the car.”

Harry glances back and forth between him and the road.

“Come on, H. Park the car,” Louis says.

Harry swings into the next available parking spot, waving his hand in apology to the car behind them. “You’re going to get us both killed,” he says.

Louis hops out. “Yeah, but you’ll love this.”

Harry follows him onto the pavement. Louis reaches back without thinking twice about it, and loops an arm around his waist. Harry lifts both brows.

“How good of an actor are you?” Louis asks.

“I’d say I’m pretty good,” Harry says.

“Oscar worthy?”

Harry tilts his head, face wrinkling with deep thought. “That’s debatable.”

“Good enough.” Louis brings them to a halt, fingertips pressing into Harry’s hips. Even through the material of his shirt, he knows his skin is soft there, and lush. He forgets for a moment that he’s just doing this for show, not because he’s meant to indulge.

He wants to though. He’d like very much to indulge in Harry for hours.

He points his chin to the chalkboard sign on the ground in front of them.

Today’s Our Anniversary! Couples get free froyo!

Harry laughs. “No way.”

“We have to,” Louis says. “Free froyo? We have to do it.”

Harry keeps shaking his head and laughing quietly to himself, like even the thought is ridiculous to him. “Okay,” he says suddenly, hooking his arm over Louis’ shoulders. “Let’s do it.”

They enter the shop together, a bell above their heads chiming, and see two women chatting behind the counter, wearing hot pink aprons. One has thick dreadlocks and tortoise shell glasses, and a nametag that reads Cookie. The other has her blonde hair looped into a messy bun. Her name tag reads Joy. They’re standing closely with similar wedding bands adorning their ring fingers, and bright smiles on their faces.

“Hello,” Louis says to them. “Saw there’s an anniversary celebration going on here.”

“That’s right,” Cookie says, smiling at Joy, who Louis now surmises must be her wife.

“Congratulations,” Harry says. “How long have you been together?”

“We got married back in 2008, the day after the gay marriage legislation came through in California,” Joy says happily.

“How about you two? Are you married?” Cookie asks.

“Not yet,” Louis says, grinning. He glances at Harry. “But someday maybe.”

Harry looks at him, brows arching slightly. “Maybe,” he replies. “For now, how about froyo?”

“Yes,” Joy says. “Free froyo!”

“First,” Cookie begins, holding up her pointer finger. “We want to hear the best memory you two have of each other.”

Louis nods, rubbing his thumb over Harry’s hip. He looks him in the eye. “Mine would have to be the day we first met.”

Harry’s lips quiver, and he lets himself smile wide when it’s clear he’d rather laugh.

“Remember that, kitten?” Louis says, pausing to bite into his own bottom lip. If they giggle, the whole thing is ruined. “Such a long time ago now.”

“How long ago?” Cookie asks.

Louis’ brows furrow. “What’s it been? 10 years?” he asks Harry.

“Think about 9,” Harry argues, smiling.

“Right, of course. 9 years ago, I walked into his bookshop. He refused to sell me this particular book. And I just kept coming back to the store, begging him to sell it to me. And then, one day I realized it wasn’t the book that kept me coming back. It was him.”

Harry’s smile grows even wider and his bright eyes glimmer. His dimple makes a crater of his left cheek. “Aren’t you poetic?”

Cookie and Joy look on with hearts in their eyes. “And how about you?” Cookie asks Harry.

“Hm, there’s just so many good memories, I don’t know which to choose,” Harry says.

“Aw, babe,” Louis says, wrinkling his nose. “Give it a go.”

Harry laughs softly. “I think I have to say the same. The day that started it all would be the best.”

They admire each other for show, but Louis’ gaze falls to Harry’s mouth and he’d like to kiss him, deeply and without ceasing, and not for show.

“You two are the most precious…” Joy says. “You can have all the froyo you’d like.”

She and Cookie remove two cups and take their requests. Louis has caramel and Harry has toasted marshmallow. They thank the ladies profusely, wishing them a Happy Anniversary on their way out of Cookies & Cream Frozen Yogurt.

“I just noticed the name,” Louis says, pointing with his spoon at the sign. “Cookies for Cookie and Cream for Joy.”

Harry smiles. “They’re cute,” he says.

Without asking, Louis takes a tiny spoonful of Harry’s yogurt. Harry takes his own spoonful of Louis’.

“Bet they’d go well together,” Louis says, licking his spoon clean.

Harry glances at his cup. “Wanna split them?”

“Let’s,” Louis says and starts to messily split his portion of frozen yogurt in half. They spoon yogurt into each other’s bowls. Their fingers are sticky afterwards and there’s melted caramel yogurt on Harry’s thigh. But he merely wipes it away with his thumb and licks his thumb clean. Louis could have done it for him if he’d just asked.

“I think we make a pretty good team, you and me,” Louis says with his mouth full. “Froyo and ice cream twice in one day.”

Harry nods, spoon in his mouth. “I don’t disagree.”

“And you make a stellar boyfriend too,” Louis adds. “For the few minutes I had the pleasure of calling you mine.”

“I think you’re the only one who would say so,” Harry says, scraping his yogurt bowl clean.

“You’re saying your exes wouldn’t agree? Because their opinions don’t really count,” Louis says.

“Just one ex,” Harry says, dumping his bowl in the bin beside them. “And no, I don’t think he would agree.”

He stands before Louis can think to ask him more questions. “Come on. I want to show you something else,” he says.

“Not finished my yogurt,” Louis complains.

Harry reaches for his hand and tugs him up. “Finish along the way.”

Once their palms are together, the protest dies on Louis’ tongue.

 

゚*・✧°・゚*・

 

3:43 PM

“Come on,” he says, shutting the door behind him and starting off towards the fence ahead.

Louis climbs out after him. “Where are we?”

“Lake Hollywood Reservoir,” Harry says.

Louis follows him towards a barrier with a sign carved of oxidized iron reading “Hollywood,” and up ahead there’s a set of metal gates with signs and warnings of “No Smoking” and “No Trespassing After Hours.”

“It’s a bit of a walk,” Harry says.

“I don’t mind,” Louis tells him.

“What’s your favorite story?” Harry asks after they’ve slipped through an entryway in the metal gate. He slides a fingertip across his cheek, pulling a tendril of hair away from his mouth. “I told you mine but you didn’t tell me yours.”

“Right,” Louis says with a nod. He stalls. “I don’t know if I have one yet.”

Harry’s gaze drifts away, toward the winding cement path ahead of them. “Even though you’ve done so much?”

“Even then. It all sort of runs together eventually,” Louis explains. “I’ve been to hundreds of places. And the places themselves are great. But the memories I make there are all sort of the same. A bookshop. A pub. A party.”

A bloke, but saying so won’t help his current cause.

“None of it is really extraordinary,” Louis finishes.

Harry frowns. “Then all the traveling, do you do it hoping you’ll find something that is?”

Louis looks at him, oddly skeptical about answering the question. A question no one’s ever asked him before. It’s the same as the “why” Harry posed at the bookstore. Louis doesn’t know why he collects books with inscriptions either. Yes, they fascinate him. But chasing them around the country? He doesn’t have a solid explanation for that. No one’s ever asked for one. Until Harry.

“I don’t know,” Louis says honestly. “Maybe in part.”

Harry slides his hands into his pockets. “I hope you find it then.”

“I hope the same for you,” Louis says. “You deserve a new favorite.”

“Are you saying you weren’t impressed by me saving a cat?” Harry questions, lips curving.

Louis laughs. “No, no, I was very impressed. So impressed,” he says emphatically. “What I’m saying is that I hope something really good happens to you, and knocks saving a cat out of the water.”

“You know, you have this way of saying things,” Harry says, looking perplexed. “Everything you say is sort of poetic.”

“Bullshit,” Louis replies succinctly. “You haven’t seen me drunk.”

Harry nods his head side to side, turning that one over. “Good point. But I stand by my observation,” he decides.

“Hey. If you’re an astronomer and you’ve been observing me,” Louis wonders, “Does that make me a galaxy?”

“My point exactly,” Harry says, laughing. “I like that. Describing you as a galaxy seems fitting. Actually, you have…”

Louis lifts his brows when Harry trails off. “Have what?”

Harry stops walking and looks at him. “These freckles,” he says, gesturing towards Louis’ face. “There’s a constellation that’s identical to those freckles.”

They look at each other. Behind Harry and all around them is the lush spread of trees that make up Hollywood Hills. But even as vibrant as their color is, especially in the heart of summer, they don’t compare, not even a little bit, to Harry’s eyes.

He runs his fingers over the bridge of his nose. “The ones here?”

“No,” Harry says. And he lifts his hand and brushes his thumb over Louis’ cheek. “Here.”

Louis’ brows twitch, struck again by that feeling. He’s reminded of sitting on a swing as a child, getting too brave, and kicking up too high. He remembers that feeling of being parallel to the ground. Sometimes the swing would swoop back down with him nestled safely inside. Sometimes, after the few terrifying seconds suspended by inertia, he’d slip from the seat altogether and hit the playground floor. Right now, he feels like that kid waiting for the outcome.

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

Harry’s eyes trace the skin beneath his thumb. “The Summer Triangle,” he says, glancing just once at Louis’ mouth. Their eyes meet again and he drops his hand. “I’ll show you a picture.”

He pulls his phone out and starts walking again. Louis continues beside him with slow steps. If he were alone, he might pinch himself. He’s not convinced that would be enough.

Harry shows him this picture of the constellation and takes a picture of his freckles to compare them, and it’s true that they’re identical.

“So maybe not a whole galaxy,” Harry says. “But I’d say you’re maybe part of it.”

“But isn’t that true for all of us?” Louis questions. “Aren’t we all just blood and space dust?”

They’ve paused again, simply looking at each other. Harry smiles. “I think some more than others, some more celestial than terrestrial.”

“You’re definitely in the first category,” Louis says.

Harry turns toward the path again. He murmurs, “I think the same of you.”

His voice is quiet but strong. For Louis, it’s like a breeze rolling off the ocean, and it settles on him just as mightily.

They walk in silence for a little while, until Harry tells him there are supposedly mountain lions beyond the fence beside them, which is...comforting. Every five seconds or so, he pretends to hear something rustling in the bushes. The first time, he manages to ruffle Louis’ feathers. By  the fourth, Louis merely looks at him, highly unimpressed.

“Hey, we’re close,” Harry announces. All Louis sees ahead of them is more of the cement path and more trees. Harry says, “I’ll race you the rest of the way.”

“I don’t even know where I’m going,” Louis protests.

Harry smiles. “You don’t have to.”

He starts running, his hair flirting freely with the air he stirs up. Louis dashes after him, his Vans beating against the pavement in rhythm with his heart. Harry throws glances at him, a happy, determined look on his face.

He doesn’t win, although he comes close. Louis takes into account that Harry had a three-second head start and used his smile as a distraction, and considers it only fair that he reach out and snag the back of Harry’s shirt, yanking him backward, throwing his arms around him.

He would have done it to a friend, anyone, but he isn’t prepared for how it feels when he does it to Harry. His back meets Louis’ chest and he “oofs” and laughs and accuses Louis of cheating. His body is warm, soft, and belongs where it is now, between Louis’ arms.

Harry pushes his hair back. “You’re disqualified, so I win,” he tells him.

“You had a head start and the dimple,” Louis argues.

“The dimple?”

“Yes, that crater in your face is distracting.”

Harry’s laughter makes his body shake against Louis’. “Are you going to release me?”

“I don’t really want to,” Louis replies. “To be honest.”

Harry tilts his head back, bopping the back of his head to the top of Louis’. If he means for it to be annoying, he forgets that his hair is soft and smells of sunrise. Louis tilts his nose closer to it and inhales.

And then Harry pulls away. But not entirely. “Come on,” he says, reaching for Louis’ hand again. His cheeks are rosier now, but that could just be from the run. Louis is an opportunist though. If he’s getting to Harry, he wants to keep that up. He wants to find a way under his skin and maybe venture toward his heart. So he threads their fingers together and holds tight.

“I used to jog up here sometimes,” Harry says. “Or just come to breathe.”

He doesn’t have to ask him what he means. The trees clear up ahead, giving way to the view before them, and immediately Louis understands.

Hollywood Reservoir is the kind of place you go to and forget to leave. You might get stuck there for hours but you won’t mind because you’re completely and utterly at peace, so high above the rest of LA that the concerns of real life can’t reach you.

The air is lighter here, freer, without the congestion and pollution of chatter and smog. Louis takes in the view across the water: Hollywood Hills, with its ever-present monument of towering white letters, frames the soft blue of Lake Hollywood and downtown LA in the distance behind them.

Everything fades, except for Harry’s hand in his own.

“If you weren’t with me, I’d probably pitch a tent in the trees over there and never leave,” Louis says. They release each other’s hands, hooking their arms over the metal railing.

“I wouldn’t be opposed to pitching it with you,” Harry says.

Louis presses a hand to his heart. “You would abandon the rest of the world with me?”

“I kind of already am.” Harry smiles. He has a point. Louis hadn’t thought of it that way but once he does, he starts feeling embarrassingly giddy. Not that Harry would know. But it’s the thought. It’s internal embarrassment.

But you don’t have a tent.” Harry shrugs. “No camping for us.”

“Not to mention they wouldn’t let us stay overnight,” Louis adds.

“Would that stop you from trying?” Harry wonders.

“Not at all,” Louis says.

“I have to ask,” Harry begins. “Have you been arrested before?”

“Yes,” Louis says easily. “Twice, kind of. Once I was belligerently drunk so the officer cuffed me and made me sit on the kerb for about two hours until I calmed down. The second time, I actually spent a night in jail. I was protesting in Baltimore and broke curfew.”

“For Freddie Gray?” Harry asks. Louis nods.

“How about you?” Louis asks after a somber bout of silence. “Ever been arrested?”

“Nope,” Harry says.

“You’ve never gotten up to illegal shit? Not even considered it?”

“Sure I have,” Harry says. “Honestly, there’s something I’ve been wanting to do for months.”

“What’s that?”

“Don’t laugh….”

“No promises, but I’ll try.”

Harry must think that’s good enough. “There’s this book at the shop…” he says. “First edition Pride & Prejudice, valued at at least ten thousand. It has pictures and everything. Stella was keeping it on a bookshelf above the shop window. She told me once that it was donated to her when she started the shop but she never even had it appraised. She just stuck it up there and said if someone ever noticed it, and offered at least 500 dollars for it, she’d sell it to them.”

Louis whistles low. “That’s crazy.”

“That’s what I said,” Harry agrees, a little hysterically. “I wouldn’t be able to sell it for that cheap. I don’t want to sell it at all. I want it for myself.”

Louis folds his lips together when he feels like laughing. It takes him a second before he can speak. "Why not just take the book home?"

"I can't,” Harry says. “That would be stealing."

"You can't steal from your own shop.”

"That's not what you said earlier,” Harry reminds him.

"That was when it suited my own interests,” Louis fires back. “This is a used book we're talking about. That was donated to you, to a shop you now have full ownership of. You can't steal it."

Harry looks at him, and it’s hilarious how Louis can look through the black of his eyes and see the wheels turning in his head. Harry shakes his head. “No, I couldn’t,” he says. “I couldn’t. Stella would haunt me or something.”

Louis has to laugh. He covers his face with both hands and turns away, allowing himself a moment. “Harry, you’re kind of ridiculous,” he mumbles. “Just take the bloody book home. It’s that simple. We can go get it today.”

Harry stares wide-eyed at him. “You’re willing to get arrested with me?”

“I don’t think anyone’s getting arrested, but yes,” Louis says. “I would gladly spend a night in jail with you.”

Harry bites his bottom lip when he smiles. “Okay,” he says. “Fuck, okay. We’ll get the book.”

He reaches forward and takes Louis’ forearm. “Let’s go now.”

“We just got here,” Louis complains. “Let me at least get a picture.”

Harry starts to step out of the way.

“Wait. What good would the picture be if you aren’t in it?” Louis says, stopping Harry with a hand on his hip.

Harry laughs, returning to his spot by the railing. He slips one hand into his pocket, and lifts the other for a peace sign.

“See? Picture just got a million times better,” Louis murmurs, tapping his thumb to the button on his screen, just as Harry’s smile grows.

“You deserve an award in flirting,” Harry says.

“I’ll take any award you want to give me,” Louis says, eyes flickering up from the screen to meet Harry’s. They laugh. Louis’ cheeks ache from smiling.

“Would you like me to take one of you both?”

Louis turns to the woman standing there with a man beside her.

“Um...” Louis glances at Harry. “Yeah, sure.”

He hands his phone off and steps up to the rail beside Harry. He slips his arm around Harry’s waist. “This okay?”

Harry slides his own arm around Louis’ waist. “Yes,” he says. The dimple shows up again. Louis is so accustomed to making others swoon. He’s unprepared for it himself. His knees seem to weaken, or maybe that’s just in his head. He leans against the railing for more support anyway.

Louis pulls his gaze away when the shutter sounds. Quickly, he smiles, grateful that the woman takes another. “Thank you,” he tells her, accepting the phone.

“Of course. You’re a lovely couple,” she says.

Harry smiles, eyes flittering away.

“Could I see?” he asks Louis when the two strangers have carried on. He takes Louis’ phone right from his hands and glances at the picture of them looking at the camera. He swipes left to the one of Louis looking at him and pauses, lips twitching.

“This one’s my favorite,” he says, handing the phone back. There’s something smug about his smile, something sexy and coy. Louis’ knees weaken again. He’s fucked.

Harry slides his sunglasses over his eyes and tosses his hair.

Really, really fucked.

“Let’s go rob a bookstore,” he says.

 

゚*・✧°・゚*・

 

5:10 PM

"Now if we're engaging in thievery, we have to do it well."

Louis glances at Harry, trying again and failing not to laugh. “Okay. Where do we begin?”

“I don’t know that yet,” Harry says. “But we have time to work it out. First. We need inspirational music.” He snaps his finger at Louis and there’s a second where Louis wars with whether to snap back or accept the fact that he finds the gesture hot. He goes with the latter.

Louis starts flipping through radio channels. “Count yourself lucky that I’m your DJ.”

He finds something as soon as he says it, and though the song is halfway through, they come in at just the right time. Harry’s whole face lights up like a star and they say the words together: “All I do is win, win, win, no matter what.”

“Got money on my mind I can never get enough,” Harry says, one hand lifted from the steering wheel, gesturing.

“And every time I step up in the building,” they say in unison. “Everybody’s hands go up!”

They shoot their hands into the air in unison, faces splitting with big smiles. For one terrifying second Louis wonders how Harry’s got his hands off the wheel. But they’re paused at a stop light.

DJ Khaled yells, “And they stay there!”

“And they stay there!” they echo him, eyes comically wide. “Up down, up down, up down!”

There are two men sitting in the car beside them, looking in. Louis joins Harry in rapping the last lines just for them.

“And all I do is win, win, win!” They point at the men with each word. “And if you goin’ in put your hands in the air make ‘em stay there!”

The light turns green and Harry peels off, head tilted back, breathless with laughter. “Are they gone?” he asks, peering up into the rear view mirror. “Is that them behind us?”

“I think we lost them,” Louis reports. “Probably had too much swag for them to handle.”

Harry looks at him. “That’s exactly the kind of thing a nerd would say.”

“I’m not a nerd,” Louis protests.

Harry clears his throat. “I collect special books,” he begins, chin lifted. “Books with a C story.”

“What kind of date is this? I didn’t get dolled up to be insulted,” Louis says.

Harry smiles. “I didn’t realize you’d gotten dolled up for me.”

Louis bats his eyelashes. “You can’t tell I’m wearing mascara?”

Harry laughs, turning his keys in the ignition. “You wouldn’t need to get dolled up,” he says, plucking the keys free. “I bet you look perfect in the morning.”

Louis rests his elbow atop the center console and sets his chin atop his fist. “Go on.”

Harry glances at his smiling mouth. And then he reaches for the door handle and pops his door open. He steps out. “Coming?”

They’re parked at a 7/11. Harry doesn’t wait for Louis to catch up before he steps inside. With a sigh, Louis heads after him, waltzing past the first aisle before he doubles back and sees Harry surveying hats.

“Is this a part of the heist?” Louis asks.

Harry models a bucket hat, wiggling his brows at Louis. “How’s this?”

“I think you look lovely in anything,” Louis says.

Harry’s eyes narrow. “You can’t be trusted,” he says. He returns the hat to the rack. The next thing he picks up is a ski mask. Two of them.

These are a part of the heist,” he says.

Louis stares at him. “You legitimately want to rob your own bookstore.”

“Shh,” Harry hisses. “Amuse me.”

Louis squeezes the bridge of his nose. “Alright, what else?”

“Maybe snacks?” Harry suggests. “Brain food, yeah?”

“Absolutely,” Louis says.

Harry grabs a pack of M&M’s, Oreos, and two Cokes. He places a pack of gum onto the counter along with the rest of their goods and gives the cashier a friendly smile. She eyes the ski masks, as she must do when anyone purchases them, and then she eyes them. Harry smiles wider, his dimple working overtime. The woman slides the first of their items across the scanner.

“So, I say...” Harry begins, once they’re seated in his car. He talks around a mouthful of M&M’s. “We go in through the back door where my office is. And pick the lock.”

“Do you know how to pick a lock, Harry?” Louis lifts his Coke bottle to his mouth.

“No,” Harry answers. “But I knit. So it can’t be that hard.”

And Louis can’t even respond to that one. He rests his head to the window, covers his face with his hand, and doesn’t even try.

It takes another ten minutes before they make it back to Summertime Books with its pleasant green awning and the sunflowers painted on the windows. The dark oak of the door and the golden handle appear inviting and peaceful in their stillness. If the shop could talk, she would greet them kindly, unaware of their plans for intrusion. Louis almost feels sorry.

But then he remembers that Harry is ridiculous and the shop belongs to him.

He parks around the corner where he says they’ll be able to make a speedy getaway if things go awry. “We get in, get the book, get out,” he says, lifting his ski mask.

“You look ridiculous,” Louis tells him plainly as he pulls it on. “And your curls are showing.”

Harry tries to tuck the ends of his curls beneath the hat.

“Why not just put on the hat when we get to the door?” Louis suggests.

Harry pauses. “Good idea.” He yanks the hat off, his hair protesting wildly with static. Louis shakes his head, grabs his mask and climbs out of the car.

“Stop laughing,” Harry tells him while they slip into the alley behind the row of shops where his own resides. It proves physically impossible for Louis to stop laughing. Harry starts to tug on his mask again, forcing his curls beneath the brim. “You have to wear the mask.”

“Do I really?”

“There’s a camera,” Harry says.

A camera that Harry probably has the controls to. Louis pulls the hat on anyway and smooths it down over his face. They approach the back door. Harry removes a large safety pin from his pocket and pries it open. With his bottom lip folded beneath his teeth, he starts to pick the lock. He tries really, really hard to pick the lock.

“You’re doing great,” Louis tells him.

Harry stops and glares at him. He tries again, going at the lock with a vengeance. Louis leans against the brick wall beside the door. “Want me to try?”

Harry doesn’t answer. He presses his ear to the door as if to hear the lock’s pins shifting. But being that he’s never picked a lock before, that method would be lost on him.

“Harry,” Louis says.

He groans in reply and relinquishes the safety pin to Louis’ waiting hand. “Thank you,” Louis says with a little bow of his head. He steps up to home plate and ducks to level himself with the lock. It’s only been a few seconds when it gives with a click and Louis swings the door open.

Harry looks at him, unsmiling. “Why not just say you know how to pick locks?”

“You didn’t ask,” Louis says. “After you.”

Harry hip checks him out of the way and slips inside. Louis slides in after him, pushing the door shut just a bit.

“Sorry for the mess,” Harry murmurs.

With a turn on his heels, Louis surveys Harry’s nook. It’s a disarray of books and papers and boxes. There’s not a place to sit that Louis can see. There’s no evidence that someone could even conduct business here.

“What a strange thief you are, apologizing for not tidying up beforehand,” Louis says, laughing. He follows Harry to the door. “Just need to finish unpacking. What’s in the boxes anyway?”

“Books that were donated here,” Harry says, casting a pitiful glance toward the boxes. “I haven’t found the time to unpack them or shelve them afterwards.”

“Could give you a hand tomorrow,” Louis says. “If you want.”

Harry glances at him. “I’d like that.” His mouth behind the ski mask appears to curve with a smile.

“Back to it then,” Louis prompts.

“Right,” Harry says with a nod. They leave the nook and enter the storefront. The sun is low in the sky by this time but there’s more than enough light to see everything clearly. No need for flashlights but alas, Harry pulls one out anyway.

“Where did you even get that from?” Louis asks.

“Glove compartment,” Harry tells him. It’s a small pocket-sized one that he clicks on as he approaches the old-fashioned ladder along the back wall of shelves. He mounts the first step and says, “Cover me.”

“That’s why I’m here,” Louis assures him.

Harry climbs the ladder until he reaches the row of shelves over the window. He reaches for the book in the center, secures it, and takes a look at the cover with the flashlight tucked beneath his chin. He wiggles it at Louis.

“You sure it’s not rigged?” Louis asks.

“I’m pretty sure,” Harry says.

Louis smiles. “Let’s see it then.”

Harry hands him the book for Louis to peek through. “Fuck.”

Louis’ eyes dart away from the book and follow Harry’s gaze to the front of the store. There’s a woman standing behind the shop door, peering in.

“She’s looking at your hours. This is all because you closed early,” Louis whispers.

Harry watches her. “She’s a regular. She comes by to share newspaper clippings with me. With Stella, really. But now me. I think sometimes she thinks I’m doing a terrible job.”

There’s a somber look in Harry’s eyes, even if he says the words with a laugh. Somehow Louis finds it in himself to look past the ski mask and pick up on it. “Hey,” he says, nudging Harry’s arm. He holds up the book in his hands. “Mission accomplished, yeah?”

Harry looks at him and smiles. “Mission accomplished.”

They sneak out the way they entered, yanking off their masks before they exit the alley, checking for the woman at the front door of the shop. She’s nowhere to be seen. At least not on the pavement. But then they hear someone calling, “Harry!”

And they pause, turn, and see the champagne-colored cadillac parked on the curb. The front window is lowered, allowing for a little gray head to poke through. “Harry,” the woman says again.

Harry walks back to the car. “Mrs. Fields.”

The woman looks at him.

“Sorry,” Harry says with a laugh. “Kelly. Hi.”

She smiles. “Are you closed for the day?”

“Yes,” Harry says, glancing at the shop. He pauses. “Um, I— My—”

“Hi,” Louis says, stepping forward. He waves.

Harry looks at him. “Boyfriend,” he says to Kelly, pointing a finger at Louis. “My boyfriend’s in town. So I closed early.”

Kelly looks at Louis, brows arched high. She sticks her hand through the window for a shake. Louis smiles and takes her hand in his. “I didn’t know Harry was dating anyone. He’s always cooped up in the shop.”

“I agree,” Louis says. “Which is why I had to get him out of there today. Hope you don’t mind.”

“Of course not,” Kelly says. “I always tell him he needs to take a break. It’s a lot to take on, what he’s had to deal with recently.”

“I’m just happy he has people like you to keep him encouraged,” Louis says.

“And someone like you,” Kelly says happily. “What was your name, dear?”

“Louis,” he says. “Nice to meet you.”

Kelly looks at Harry. “I like him. Bring him around more often.”

Harry looks at Louis, skin slightly pink. “I’ll consider it,” he says.

“Enjoy the rest of your day off. I’ll be back tomorrow. I have some coupons to share with you, and there’s an ad about a book sale next week.”

“I’d love that,” Harry says. “I’ll see you then.”

They say their goodbyes and start back to the car. Kelly starts on the road again, the car zooming past them, her hand extended again to wave.

Harry sits for a moment in silence when they’re in the car, eyes distant with thought.

“Sounds to me like she thinks you’re doing pretty well,” Louis says quietly.

Harry laughs softly, directing his eyes to his hands in his lap. “Maybe it’s just me then. I just feel sometimes like I’m not doing enough. With everything, really. With my relationships and with the shop. I get overwhelmed sometimes and then I doubt myself.”

“You can’t be expected to think positively of yourself 24/7. That’s impossible,” Louis says. “It’s enough that you keep going even then. And that you get to a point where you do. You have to be aware that we can be such cunts to ourselves sometimes.”

Harry laughs, resting his head to the back of his seat. He angles his body toward Louis.

“We’re not so easily impressed by ourselves,” Louis says. “But that doesn’t make us any less extraordinary. Because there are others who disagree. Kelly, who clearly thinks you’re amazing. Niall, Ed, Liam, who love you. Your family, I’m sure.”

Harry’s gaze dances over his face. “You?”

“Definitely me,” Louis says.

Harry slides a hand through his hair and sighs. “I’m finding it increasingly hard to believe that you’re single.”

“If I wasn’t single, I wouldn’t be here with you,” Louis says.

“Sure,” Harry says, sitting upright in his seat. “But how are you single?” He starts the engine and looks at Louis. “Men like you aren’t single.”

“Men like me?”

“Good men,” Harry says. “Which is an understatement.”

Louis laughs. “Now look who’s being flirty. First you tell me I’m a constellation. Now I’m a good man. You’re laying it on thick.”

“Listen,” Harry says. “You wouldn’t even survive if I really flirted with you.”

Both of Louis’ brows arch like mountain peaks. “Don’t hold back for my sake.”

Harry reaches into the backseat for his leather bag. When he sits forward again, he’s holding The Importance of Being Earnest, Peter Kalmar’s copy, and hands it to Louis. “This is yours.”

“Just like that?” Louis questions.

Harry nods. “Just like that. I think you’ve worked hard enough for it.”

“I haven’t been with you all this time for the book, Harry,” Louis reminds him.

“I know that,” Harry says. “I specifically meant with the heist just now. I think helping me rob my own store grants you as many books as you’d like.”

Louis runs his thumb over the cover of the book. “Thank you,” he says quietly. “I appreciate it.”

Harry rests both arms on the center console. He’s close now, enough that Louis can smell his shampoo and the fading scent of his cologne. When he looks at Louis, the two sea glass shards he has for eyes are curtained by long lashes and radiate light from the sun reflecting off the dashboard. Louis is rattled, irrevocably, as if God himself has taken him by the shoulders.

“You deserve it,” Harry says, voice deep, hushed, like a lullaby sung by the celestial chorus.

Louis can’t find words to respond. He’s just looking at him, perplexed.

“This and so much more,” Harry murmurs, smiling so that his dimple cuts deeply into his cheek. Louis thinks he leans in. He doesn’t even mean to lean in. Not here. Not in a moment he has no control of. But he does it anyway.

And Harry draws back, grinning. “That was easy.”

Louis squeezes his eyes shut. “Fuck.”

He hears Harry laugh but he can’t even look at him.

Harry shifts the car into drive. “Let’s go get burgers,” he decrees. “I’m feeling like having a burger.”

 

゚*・✧°・゚*・

 

6:47 PM

After a trip to In-N-Out, they make the 30 minute drive to the coast. The wind pouring in from the open windows tosses their hair across their faces while they sing and gorge themselves with burgers and animal-style fries.

Venice Beach and the surrounding coastal town is primarily a tourist destination, but for Harry, having been in LA long enough, he knows how to experience it all like a local.

They pull a blanket from the boot of his car, along with a bottle of Don Julio and Harry’s old boombox, and trudge down to the shore. After one sip of Don each, Louis starts fiddling with the radio. “Could you hand me a cigarette?”

“Sure,” Harry says, lifting Louis’ rucksack into his lap. He finds the pack of menthols and sets them down on the blanket.

“Thanks,” Louis murmurs. He hears him digging around in the rucksack again.

“Makeup?” Harry asks.

He’s holding a tube of Revlon lipstick. Louis smiles. “Yeah. From drag shows.”

“You do drag?”

“Once or twice while I was in New York. Just for the hell of it,” Louis says. He finds a good station and lies down on the blanket, one cigarette lit and tucked between his lips.

“You should do my makeup,” Harry says.

“Yeah?” Louis tilts his head back to look at him.

Harry shrugs. “It’d be fun.”

“Okay,” Louis says. He sits upright. “What kind of look are you going for?”

“Your signature look,” Harry says. He hands the lipstick off to him and purses his lips, as if the strawberry red he was born with isn’t already the perfect shade. Louis regrets having to smear another color over them. But he reaches his hand and takes Harry’s chin gently and begins dressing his lips.

Next is eyeshadow. He pauses to exhale his cigarette smoke, and then he reaches into the rucksack for the only shade he has, a rose gold.

“Pretty,” Harry notes, while Louis begins coating his eyelid with the tip of his forefinger. Harry presses his finger to the palette too and then he starts shading Louis’ eyelid gently. They finish with the eyeshadow after gentle strokes of their fingertips.

“We’re going to make a mess of this, doing it at the same time,” Louis tells him, stubbing his cigarette.

Harry smirks. “No one will care.”

Louis attempts to give him a cat eye with black liner. He’s not as successful as he pretends to be. He hands the eyeliner off for Harry to do the same for him. It’s slow, careful work. Neither of them speak much, keeping their mouths lax so their facial muscles are lax too.

Blush comes next. Louis taps a little on the tip of Harry’s nose, causing him to snort and draw away.

“Adorable,” Louis comments.

Harry wrinkles his nose at the word, but sits close again, allowing Louis to finish his work. He lifts the lipstick and paints Louis’ parted lips. And when Louis is finished with the blush, he applies that to Louis’ face too. They finish with mascara and then, with all the supplies spread on the blanket beneath them, they look at each other.

“Beautiful,” Harry says.

“Agreed,” Louis says. “Now all we need are dresses. I do have a feather boa, though. That counts for something.”

Harry digs around in Louis’ bag. “How do you fit all these things in here?”

“It’s a pretty big bag,” Louis says.

“You’re like Mary Poppins,” Harry says, drawing the black feather boa out and throwing it around his neck. “Take a picture with me.”

Louis shuffles close, accepting one half of the boa to adorn himself too. He lifts his phone and positions it in front of them. He does his usual shocked face, just as Harry turns and presses a kiss to his cheek. The electronic shutter sounds, loud enough to drown out the sound of Louis’ heart rate spiking. When he glances at Harry, he’s already looking away, taking a bite of his burger. Louis mimics him, as one song ends and another begins.

“Oh my God,” Harry says suddenly, tilting his head back. “I love this song.”

Louis scrambles towards the boombox to twist the volume dial. “So do I,” he calls to Harry over the tune now blasting from the speakers. Someone a little ways down the shore whoops loudly. Harry claps his hands, getting to his feet. He throws the feather boa around his neck and claps to each beat, belting each word.

“Too ra loo ra, too ra loo ra, aye!” he and Louis croon loudly. Their neighbors sing along with them. “And we’ll sing just like our fathers!”

Harry jumps, up and down on his tip toes, swinging his hair side-to-side. When he looks at him, Louis thinks of those kids dancing in the Charlie Brown movie and laughs.

Come on Eileen!” they shout together. Harry throws his hands into the air, waving them around like a drunken jellyfish, and twirls the ends of his feather boa like batons. “Take off everything!”

They’re prancing around the blanket, kicking up sand and seashells. The girls near the shore are doing the same, and it’s like this impromptu party that’s sprung up out of the ocean. It’s a portrait in choreographed disorder.

The song slows down and another group of people are on their feet, clapping along with them. This is the part you have to dance for, a moment everyone wants to be a part of.

“Come on. Eileen, too loo rye aye,” they chant. Louis marches toward Harry, snapping his fingers. Harry struts toward him, big, enormous, earth-stopping grin on his face. “Come on. Eileen, too la rye yay.”

“Now you’re full grown,” Harry sings, fist curled at his mouth like a mic. “Now you have shown. Oh, Eileen.”

One would almost think the song was about him. He looks beautiful. Radiant and cosmic, as though several years ago, the stars converged and whispered, “Let’s make something amazing,” and out came Harry.

Louis wraps his arms around his waist. Harry throws his boa around both of their necks. They sway and shimmy, both drunk on the sound of the music, and laughter, and the whooping of strangers who might as well be friends. They spin and twirl and never, ever before has Louis felt quite so young or quite this free.

Their mouths are suddenly close, curved with smiles. Another inch closer and Louis could kiss him. He wants to. It’s possible he’s never craved anything more.

Harry draws away with a joyful laugh, spinning out of Louis’ arms. He collapses onto the blanket, panting with exhaustion. Louis throws himself beside him. The folks around them are still dancing as the song nears a close. Their shadows are cast on the shore in the abating ochre of sunlight. Harry’s eyes are on him.

“Have I said yet that I think you’re beautiful?” he says.

Louis breathes a soft laugh. “I don’t think you have, no.”

“You’re beautiful, Louis,” Harry says. He sets an arm around Louis’ waist and wiggles close. “Very beautiful.”

“Still trying to make your point about flirting?” Louis wonders. “Or is it because of the makeup?”

“No,” Harry murmurs. “I mean it. With or without the makeup.”

Louis smiles. “Thank you then.”

Without warning, Harry leans forward and presses one kiss to the corner of Louis’ mouth. His eyes drift shut, and the second they do, Louis finally accepts how tired he feels too from running around all day. It takes him longer to fall asleep, his skin still tingling from the touch of Harry’s mouth, however fleeting it was. But eventually, with Harry’s arm snug around him, he drifts too.

 

゚*・✧°・゚*・

 

8:52 PM

They wash their faces at the sinks stationed outside of the portapotties and dry them using restaurant napkins Harry has in his glove box. The crumpled take-out bags thump on the sides of a rusty recycle bin when they toss them. They duck back into the car. Harry guns the engine and they head off.

Ed’s concert is held at the Echo, a small venue in Echo Park, once primarily home to a majorly latino community before gentrification brought overeager yuppies and hipsters in for bar crawls. Unfortunately, the same can be said for most of LA.

But Ed’s concert is maybe a little token of grace here, since it affords struggling artists an opportunity to showcase their work, whether that’s paintings, pottery, jewelry, or music. Once a month, they all get together to throw down for the public, and considering that it’s Louis’ first time being here, he expects to be well-entertained.

They’re running a little late when they arrive, but lucky for them Ed isn’t the first to perform. Some electronic ensemble has just departed the stage making room for the next act to set up. Louis takes Harry’s hand, guiding him through the crowd and toward the front. They spot Ed onstage with the rest of his band and wave. Ed waves back, light catching on all the colorful tattoos decorating his arm.

“Do you want something to drink?” Harry speaks into Louis’ ear, lifting goosebumps on his skin.

“Yes, please,” Louis says.

“Be right back,” Harry tells him. He slips his hand out of Louis’ and shuffles back through the crowd. When Louis looks, Ed is standing on the stage still directly in front of him. He leans down, arms braced on his knees.

“How’s it going?” Ed asks, lifting his brows.

Louis considers lying or playing nonchalant. He even settles on going that route. But when he opens his mouth, it proves impossible to lie about Harry. Some feelings are too intense for pretending.

“I like him,” he says. “A lot.”

Ed smiles. “Good. He likes you too.”

“He said so?” Louis questions.

“He doesn’t have to,” Ed says. He straightens up suddenly, sliding his in-ear back into place, and refocuses on tuning his guitar.

Harry reappears beside Louis with two beers in hand. He glances at Ed. “Here you go,” he says to Louis, handing the beer off.

“Thanks,” Louis says with a smile.

They put the rims of their bottles to their mouths and look toward the stage. Ed finishes tuning. The violinist finishes up a second later. Ed steps up to the mic, strumming his guitar. “Good night, every one,” he says, over the music. “We’re Ed and The Shrimp Shack Shooters. Thanks for being here. This is called I See Fire.”

Niall joins them about five minutes in, looking out of breath like he ran here on foot. He throws them a little wave. There’s no time to greet him. Ed’s band kicks up the beat and after that, they’re all focused on the music sliding off the stage, Ed’s fingers tiptoeing on his strings, the violinist working the bow across hers. It’s not the first time Louis has heard Ed play but he’s just as stunned as he was then.

Ed’s entire set is magnificent. The crowd loves him and the rest of the Shrimp Shack Shooters. Harry is doing a little sway, nodding his head, and singing along here and there. He glances at Louis often and wrinkles his nose affectionately.

Ed closes with an upbeat number called Sing, which sounds crazed with the addition of the violin, but everyone goes wild for it. His red hair is damp with sweat when he’s finished. He waves and thanks everyone. They all give a bow.

The next act to come on is just a lone woman with a thick afro and a harmonica. She takes a seat on a barstool and begins to play a soulful tune that Harry seems to like given the way he’s still swaying, eyes fixed on the stage.

Their hands brush but Harry doesn’t move his away. Louis only hesitates a second before he curls his pinkie around Harry’s. Harry doesn’t even look at him, almost as if he doesn't feel a thing. But Louis feels enough for both of them. With a breath, he takes Harry’s hand and threads their fingers together.

Harry looks at him and smiles, fingers tightening on Louis’. He brushes his thumb back and forth over his skin. Each swipe of his finger drives Louis’ heart to beat faster and wilder, until it feels rabid and uncontrollable.

He’s just about to give Harry’s hand a tug and ask him to take a stroll around the park. He thinks if he doesn’t say or do something, his heart will just break free and make a fool of them both. But then there’s someone bumping into him, jostling him.

He and the bloke look at each other, ready with a pardon and an apology. But he recognizes him immediately when their eyes meet. “Luke,” Louis says, happily.

“Louis!” Luke cheers and tugs Louis in for a hug, breaking his hold on Harry. He squeezes him. “I thought you were leaving after that party last night.”

“No,” Louis says, glancing at Harry. “Sticking around for a little longer.”

“Oh, yeah? There’s a VIP party tonight at Bootsy Bellows. I can get you in if you want to come,” Luke says. “I never got your number actually.”

“Oh, here—” Louis starts reaching into his pocket for his phone. He glances again to check that Harry’s there, and finds that his suspicion is right. The space beside him is empty. He looks around, phone forgotten, Luke forgotten. He manages to mumble an apology in the lad’s direction before he starts pushing through the crowd. He spots Niall by the bar and asks, “Where’s Harry?”

Niall answers with a shrug.

Panicked yet dazed, he wanders on and finally, spots Harry strolling between one booth and another, curly hair ignited by the light of a tiki lamp, before he’s shrouded in darkness. Louis hurries after him.

Harry keeps walking even after he calls to him. He puts his long legs to use, one big stride after the next. Louis reaches for him, takes his arm, and yanks him around.

“What the hell,” he pants.

Harry just looks at him. The fire in his eyes has burnt out. The happy flush of his cheeks has paled. “I’m sorry. I think I need to head home,” he says. “Thank you for today—”

Louis makes an incredulous sound, half-snort, half-gasp. “Why?

Harry pulls his arm from Louis’ grasp. “Just…” He takes a trembling breath. “There are things I need to take care of. I have a lot to do, so—”

“So you were just going to leave?” Louis finishes for him. “Without a word?”

Harry rakes a hand through his hair. He sighs, shoulders sinking, and shakes his head. “I don’t know what I’m doing. I can’t do this.”

Louis doesn’t have to ask him to elaborate. His meaning is clear. “We’re just having a good time, that’s all.”

Harry shakes his head again, eyes solemn. “It’s more than that.”

The words sit heavily on Louis’ heart. At least now he knows it’s not just him. “Maybe it is,” he says hesitantly. “What’s so wrong with that?”

“I can’t. I can’t do this again,” Harry says. Again being the keyword. “I can’t get caught up. I had fun with you, Louis. But I just— We’re getting ahead of ourselves. And just now that guy—”

“What about him?” Louis asks. “He’s a friend. And so is his boyfriend. But let’s say for a second that wasn’t the case. What did you think was going to happen? I’d change my mind about you? I’d wander off with him? Is that the impression I’ve given you? This whole day we’ve been running around together, you think I’ve just been waiting for a chance to leave?”

“Just forget it,” Harry says, turning away.

“Fuck that. Just be honest with me. Just say you got jealous. Say you want my attention,” Louis says. “I’ve got news for you: you have it. It’s yours. I haven’t looked at anything else but you since I walked into your store.”

Harry groans, dragging his hands down his face. “You don’t want me, Louis,” he says, exasperatedly.

“Have I not made it obvious that I do?” Louis steps close, his shoulders set. Harry doesn’t step away from him but it looks like he wants to. Like he wants to run. “I don’t know what happened with you and your ex. It’s clear something did. But I’m not him. You have my complete and undivided attention. Please, for fuck's sake, don’t go home.”

Harry clenches his jaw, fists curled at his sides. He looks away and takes a deep breath, chest expanding. “I don’t know what to say,” he says quietly.

“You don’t have to,” Louis says. “Just stay with me.”

There’s a frightening moment in which the situation could turn in either of two directions. Harry could go home or he could stay. He looks at Louis and seems just as terrified as Louis feels.

“I’m sorry,” Harry says.

Louis steps toward him. “Harry…”

“Can we just take a walk?”

Louis blinks. Not the response he expected, but more than welcome. “Yeah,” he says. “Of course.”

Harry nods for him to lead the way. Louis turns and heads further into the park, keeping Harry in his peripheral at all times. They mount a slight hill, near a broad tree, find a patch of grass overlooking the lake and settle there, knees pulled close to their chests.

It’s silent but not awkward. They can still hear the concert from here, and with the breeze tickling their skin and the view ahead, it’s just the kind of moment you’re supposed to shut up and appreciate. But there are also things Louis needs to say.

“Want to smoke?”

That’s definitely not one of them.

Harry shrugs. “Sure.”

Louis finds the blunt he has buried in some crevice of his rucksack and sparks it up. He takes two quick puffs before handing it off. Harry takes his turn, sneezes for no reason, and hands it back. Louis laughs, quick clouds of smoke slipping from his lips.

Harry picks a blade of grass and twirls it between his fingers. “I’m sorry for that just now.”

“Don’t be,” Louis says. “I get it.”

“I was jealous,” Harry says. “It took me by surprise how jealous I was. I didn’t expect…”

Louis waits for him to finish but he doesn’t. “You’ve got nothing to be jealous of, love.”

“You were right about my ex,” Harry says. “I never felt that way with him.”

Louis knows that. He can tell. “I’m not your ex,” he says as he offers Harry the blunt.

Harry takes it and draws on it. “I know that,” he exhales.

They sit in silence for just a moment, working through their supply.

“When are you leaving for Vancouver? Or wherever?” Harry asks.

Louis almost forgot he was headed there at all, anywhere that Harry wouldn’t be. Even the thought of it feels like a mistake. Like bubbling in the wrong answer on a multiple choice test, knowing with every fiber of your existence that it’s the wrong answer, and bubbling it in anyway.

The whole concept is terrifying; even the notion that Louis doesn’t want to leave Harry. He’s only just met him.

“Maybe I’ll go to San Francisco instead. Or just spend some more time around here. Heard San Diego is pretty cool,” Louis says nonchalantly. He feels Harry look at him, and diverts by asking, “What about you? If you had to go somewhere, where would you go?”

Harry shrugs. “Everywhere. I haven’t travelled in years.”

“What have you been doing all this time?” Louis asks.

“I don’t know,” Harry says with a sigh. “Existing?”

“Which is a fantastic contribution to the world, mind you,” Louis says.

Harry rolls his eyes. “Such a charmer.”

“Only if you’re charmed,” Louis replies.

Harry rests his head atop his arms. “I am…” he says. “But you knew that.”

Instead of feeling smug, Louis thinks for the millionth time about kissing him. He looks at his mouth. Harry sees him do it and then he blurts, “I’ll tell you my least favorite story if you promise to tell me yours.”

Louis turns that sentence over a few times, dissecting it, trying to figure out if it means “Kiss me” in another language. “You don’t have to do that,” he says.

“I want to now,” Harry says. “I want you to know. Please?”

Louis studies him with narrowed eyes. “Okay.”

“Only if you’ll tell me yours,” Harry reiterates.

Louis nods. “It’s a deal.”

Harry takes the blunt from Louis’ fingers and draws on it deeply. He exhales slowly, lips pursed. "I was engaged to a man I'd been dating for four years. We were engaged for two," Harry says. "He proposed to me at my graduation party in front of all my family and friends. I wanted to say no, but I didn’t have a plan for after I left school except to move back home and I didn’t want that. So I stayed here in LA with him. Because I thought I loved him and I didn’t have any better ideas.

“And then five months ago, he told me he’d been sleeping with a friend of ours from school. He begged me to forgive him, and so I did.” Harry’s voice quiets. He takes another hit. His fingers shake as he draws the blunt to his lips. His eyes grow distant as he exhales.

“A week later he decided it wasn’t going to work. He was a musician and I wasn’t inspiring him creatively anymore. He wrote a lot of songs about me until, I guess, he couldn't. And so he packed his shit and took our goldfish and he left,” he says. “He still calls sometimes. Because he says talking to me makes him feel good, even if we aren’t meant to be together. I’ve stopped answering, but he still calls.”

Louis stares at him, speechless and wishing he hadn’t ever asked in the first place. Harry shrugs and smiles, lifting the blunt to his lips. He exhales a cloud of smoke and says softly, “That’s it. My least favorite story.”

“What a fucking dick,” Louis seethes.

Harry laughs bitterly. “I agree.”

“How…” Louis can’t finish the sentence. He doesn’t even know what he wants to say. He’s just shaking his head, curling his hands into fists. Harry hands the blunt back to him and Louis sucks eagerly on it, trying to quell the burst of rage in his ribcage. He wants to uproot the tree beside them with his bare hands and use it to pummel the guy into the ground.

“He had a point though, about me. I stopped paying attention to him. I was busy with school and Stella was taking days or weeks off to deal with an illness that I didn’t know about at the time. I was swamped and unavailable. It makes sense that he got tired of me…”

Louis turns to him, sucking in a deep breath. “Listen to me, Harry. Fuck that, okay? Seriously, I need you to listen to me,” he says, setting his eyes on Harry’s. “Like fucking hell it makes sense. The whole concept of a relationship relies on perseverance and determination. When you choose to be with another person, you accept the fact that they’re going to displease you sometimes. But you talk it out. When you care about them, you at least try.”

Louis shakes his head. “There’s no way you deserved any of that. No matter what you say. You deserve so much better,” Louis says, all in one seething breath. “The whole world, really. Fuck, you deserve the whole universe.”

Harry smiles, resting his chin on his knees. “Thank you,” he says, softly. They’re silent for a few minutes while Harry sips his beer and Louis smokes his weed.

“The whole thing has left me wondering if it’s possible to really know people at all,” Harry says quietly, staring out at the lake. “And if we can’t really know them, how can we really love them?”

Louis sighs. “I think when you really know someone, you know it,” he says. “And when you don’t, you don’t. And I think…that maybe somewhere there’s a part of you that always knew, that was always unsure.”

“I think you’re probably right,” Harry says. “You know, we kept putting the wedding off. Because we didn’t have time, or because of the money, or because some random family member wouldn’t be able to make it. But I think we were both looking for excuses.”

“Because you knew you were cut out for something incredible. And anyone who makes excuses not to be with you is a fucking idiot wanker,” Louis says. “He’s the world’s biggest idiot.”

Harry looks at him, smiling with that one dimple carving a similarly shaped cavity in Louis’ heart. His eyes drop to Louis’ mouth. Louis’ gaze drift all over his face. He can’t stop looking at him and he doesn’t ever want to.

“Your turn,” Harry whispers.

Louis looks at his mouth. Unconsciously, he leans in. For the millionth time, Harry draws back, biting his beautiful bottom lip, and pressing his fingertips to Louis’ chest.

“My turn for what?” Louis asks, his voice hushed. “When are you going to let me kiss you?”

Harry laughs, shaking his head. “You’re supposed to be sharing your worst story,” he says, his eyes on Louis’ lips, just as Louis’ are on his. “We had a deal.”

“Right,” Louis drawls. He casts one last glance at Harry’s mouth. “Okay. Well, my dad is dying. As in, any minute, his heart could just give out and I haven’t spoken to him in over a year.”

Harry’s eyes widen. The smile he was wearing slips to the ground and dies, which is exactly what Louis didn’t want. He doesn’t look at him. He looks out toward the lake so he doesn’t have to see when the pity takes over Harry’s face. It’s really too nice of a face for that.

“He left my family when I was young. And for years, we hardly saw him at all. Then five years ago, he calls and tells us he’s got cancer. And everyone basically just rushed to his side. Just forgot all his bullshit and forgave him just like that. After decades of silence. Of cheap birthday cards sent in the post. Or drunken phone calls on holidays.”

Louis squeezes his fists around the beer bottle in his hand, with enough force to break it.

“The cancer went into remission for a while. And then a year ago, it came back. Worse than before. And right before I graduated uni, a doctor sat us all down and told us he’s got months left. My family expected me to finally let everything go, to have some grand reunion with him, and tell him I forgive him and love him so he can rest in peace.”

Louis clenches his jaw. “And I just… I couldn’t do that. I still can’t. I’m too fucking angry to pretend otherwise. I’m never going to stop being angry. And I’m never going to forgive him.”

Harry takes the beer bottle from Louis’ hand and slides his own hand in its place. His thumb strokes Louis’ skin, back and forth, as if to hypnotize him. Louis watches their hands together for a moment.

“The worst part is,” he says quietly. “All this time I’ve been angry with him for abandoning us. But look where I am. My family is a thousand miles away and I’m here. I’m no better.”

Harry squeezes his hand. “Louis. I think…” he pauses. Louis looks at him, expectantly. It’s okay for him to say whatever he wants. He looks at him so Harry will know that. He couldn’t give a shit about most people’s opinions but he cares about Harry’s.

Harry licks his lips and continues. “I think that there’s a point for all of us where we start to turn into our parents. Just a little bit. I think it’s inevitable. And it’s up to us to figure it out and decide which things we want to do differently.”

Harry covers Louis’ hand with his other hand.

“You have every right to be angry. Of course you do. And no one can force you to let that anger go until you’re ready. I don’t think you’re running from anything. I think you’re chasing something. I think you want to be free like anyone else,” he says, shrugging. He pauses. “But maybe— I think maybe you have to change your perception of what freedom looks like. Consider for a moment if never seeing your dad again will make you feel free. Or if it’ll be this burden you carry for the rest of your life. I think either one is possible.”

“You’re saying I should go see him?” Louis asks calmly.

“I’m saying you should do whatever makes you happiest,” Harry says. “Because you really deserve to be happy. More than anyone in the world.”

Louis exhales a deep, quiet whisper of a breath and with it goes this weight he’s been carrying on his chest for months. The corners and the backs of his eyes sting when he thinks about going home and he doesn’t know if doing so is the right move.

But just hearing someone say those words, giving Louis permission to do what makes him happy, to be selfish, it’s like fresh air exhaled into dying lungs.

“Thank you,” Louis says.

“You’re welcome,” Harry says, gently. “Thank you for sharing that with me.”

“Thank you for asking me to.”

They pause for a moment with soft, appreciative smiles. Their gazes lower at the same time, tracing the curve of each other’s lips. Harry keeps brushing his thumb back and forth over Louis’ skin, and then wordlessly, he lifts Louis’ hand and presses a kiss to it.

Louis lifts his other hand, slides his thumb across Harry’s dimple. Harry leans his cheek into the touch, turns his head and kisses the palm of that hand too.

Louis leans in close. He smiles triumphantly when Harry lets him. The distance narrows between them and disappears. Their foreheads touch, their noses, and then—finally—their mouths.

Harry’s lips are unbelievably soft. They both make small, abortive noises but when Louis groans, that’s his reason. Because he couldn’t have fully imagined this: they’re softer than rose petals, but not as delicate, not with how firmly they give and demand, opening beneath Louis’ and pushing back.

It’s the best kiss he’s ever had or ever will have. Harry moves with him, follows his lead, and meets him halfway each time. He pulls at Louis’ shirt and draws him closer. He parts when he can’t breathe, panting into the space between their lips, but doesn’t let him go.

“Feel so lost with you,” Harry murmurs. Their mouths meet again. “...and found too. How is that?”

Louis shakes his head, their noses brushing. “I don’t know.”

Yet another question he doesn’t have an answer for. Another mystery in an anthology of mysteries. But he thinks that’s just life. Some things aren’t meant to have answers. Some things are answers in and of themselves.

He slides his fingers into Harry’s hair and kisses him and kisses him. He likens it to sleeping on one of those memory foam beds. When you find comfort like that, why would you want to wake up? And when you kiss lips like these, why would you ever stop?

Their mouths are just making way for their tongues to meet, when they hear Ed shout, “Harry.”

Their lips separate audibly.

“Let’s not stop,” Louis whispers. Because Ed might not find them if they don’t answer.

Harry groans and draws back. “Yeah?” he calls, sucking in a deep breath. He pushes his hand through his hair.

Ed comes up on the hill and takes them both in, Louis sitting with his arms braced on his knees and swearing the whole world can hear his heart racing. “Sorry. I can give you two a minute,” Ed says. “Or an hour.”

Louis answers with his middle finger.

Ed smiles devilishly. “Laura’s kid got sick and she needs to pick her up. Was wondering if you could give her a ride?” he says to Harry. “It’s cool if you can’t.”

“Oh,” Harry exhales, pushing himself to his feet. “Yeah, of course.”

Louis stands too, meeting Harry’s eyes for one second before they flicker away. They head back towards the car park. He follows Harry and Ed to the pavement where Laura, the bassist, is waiting by the car, smoking a cig. Ed waves goodbye to them before trudging off in search of the band’s equipment van.

“Thanks, Harry,” Laura says while Harry unlocks his car for her.

“It’s no problem,” he says. He looks at Louis. “Do you need a ride back or...?”

Louis wishes he did. But with Niall here, the answer is no.

He shakes his head, feeling sort of stunned by the notion of them parting ways, and perhaps alarmed by how badly he doesn’t want that to happen.

Harry takes him suddenly by the front of his shirt, and kisses him again. It’s a little rough, this one. It hurts even. But it’s nothing like the sting when he pulls away.

“Thank you,” he says with a sigh.

“You’re welcome,” Louis replies, though he doesn’t know what for.

Harry releases him and steps toward his car. Louis watches him dazedly, drunk on beer and something that feels a little like love, as Harry climbs into the car and shuts the door behind him. He waves. Louis waves back and then he’s pulling away from the kerb and the car is zooming down the street.

And it hits him. Or backhands him, really.

He doesn’t have Harry’s number.

“Fuck,” Louis says, watching the car round the corner up ahead and disappear from view. He folds his hands together atop his head, conscious of the people outside watching him. He says it again anyway. Yells it this time. “Fuck.”

“What are you yelling about?”

Louis turns to Niall. “Why couldn’t you give Laura a ride home?”

“Don’t have my car with me,” Niall tells him.

“How’d you get here?” Louis asks.

Niall answers promptly, “I walked.”

 

゚*・✧°・゚*・

 

10:37 PM

The word is that Zayn Malik goes to Akbar every Friday night, lounges in a booth with the rest of his posse, and allows a choice few to catch a glimpse of him and maybe an autograph or two. It just so happens that Niall is obsessed with Zayn Malik.

They’ve worked together twice before, Niall being one of the cameramen to shoot Zayn’s music video and the movie he had a small part in earlier that year. They’re both also asexual, a fact Zayn revealed about himself in an interview only months ago. Louis was in Philly at the time, but he remembers the stir it caused when the world-proclaimed prince of pop music declared to the masses that in fact, he prefers to cuddle. In addition, he’s fucking fit and everyone knows it, like Niall, who has stopped to admire Zayn’s face on every billboard or magazine cover he’s seen in the few weeks Louis has known him.

Anyway, the point is that it’s Friday night, Niall is feeling reckless, and he needs Louis to accompany him to Akbar.

Usually Louis never turns down a chance to party, but he’s currently in a state of actual, literal mourning.

“Louis,” Niall says, snapping both fingers at him.

“Please just leave me here to rot,” Louis mumbles, lying prostrate on the couch.

“Seriously, what the fuck is wrong with you?”

Louis groans. “I let him get away. I didn’t even get his number and I let him go.”

“This is about Harry?”

“Who else would it be about, Niall?”

“Can’t you just go to the bookstore tomorrow?” Niall asks.

Louis groans louder. “That doesn't help me right now. I can't wait until tomorrow to talk to him again. You might as well say next year.”

“You are so dramatic. You realize I have his number, right?” Niall says. Louis’ eyes pop open. “And I’ll absolutely call him and get him to come tonight. Only if you agree to come with me.”

Louis flies upright. “Would you really?”

Niall pulls his phone from his back pocket. “Just say the word.”

“I’m there,” Louis says. “I’ll go with you, mate. I’m there. Ring him, please? Please?

“Calling now,” Niall says.

Louis hops up, raking his fingers through his hair. “I need to take a shower. I need to look like a human being,” he babbles, racing to the bathroom. He slams the door shut behind him before throwing it open again. “Also, I love you.”

Niall grins. “I know you do,” he says, putting the phone to his ear.

 

゚*・✧°・゚*・

 

11:11 PM

“Make a wish,” Niall says. “It’s 11:11.”

Louis looks at him and laughs. His only wish is for Harry. Each face that passes him by is the wrong one. Each man that throws him a smile has the wrong smile. Louis is ruined for anyone without green eyes and curly hair, and even then, they wouldn’t do. None of them would do if they aren’t Harry.

“There he is.”

Louis pauses with a fresh whiskey sour at his mouth, turning on his bar stool. He sees Harry weaving his way toward them. He looks beautiful, just as he has all day, still wearing black jeans, but now with a semi-sheer top. Louis takes a sip of his drink to steel himself.

“Hi,” Harry says as he comes closer, looking first at Niall. He takes a second before his gaze shifts to Louis. There’s an audible pause as they study each other. The surrounding world slows for them to do it.

“You look nice,” Harry says quietly to him, Niall forgotten.

“So do you,” Louis says. “I ordered you a drink.”

He lifts the extra whiskey sour from the counter. Harry takes it without question. “Thank you.”

Niall stands. “That’s my cue,” he says. “Time to find Zayn.”

Harry slides onto the abandoned bar stool. “Is that why he dragged you here? For Zayn Malik?”

“Yes,” Louis deadpans. “Did you know he’s obsessed with him?”

Harry smiles. “Ever since the X-Factor. When we were all in university together, Niall watched every episode just for him. Working with him only made things worse. And then when Zayn came out a few months ago, he pretty much went into a meltdown. It was great.”

“I think they’d be cute together,” Louis says.

“I do too,” Harry agrees, adjusting his hair.

“What about you? Why did you come out tonight?” Louis asks. (Other than Niall asking him to.)

Harry drums his fingers along the sides of the glass. “Honestly?”

The butterflies in Louis’ stomach start with the fluttering again. “Yeah, honestly.”

“For Zayn,” Harry says. “I too am obsessed with him.”

Louis laughs, his nerves deflating. “Right, of course,” he says, looking away. He watches the lights of the club flashing over all the swaying bodies on the dance floor.

“Also for you.”

Harry has to lean close so he can be heard. When Louis looks at him again, he doesn’t bother to lean away. Louis’ eyes fall to Harry’s mouth. He needs to kiss him again, uninterrupted, and in private.

“I got in the car and realized I didn’t even have your number,” Harry says. “I never even got a chance to say thank you for today, for how much fun we had.”

“You did say thank you,” Louis reminds him.

“That was just for the kiss,” Harry says with a smile.

Louis knows he’s blushing and he’s grateful for the dim lighting so it isn’t quite as obvious. “Anytime, love,” he says. “I had fun too. I still am.”

They smile at each other like fools. Harry’s one foot comes to rest on the bottom of Louis’ barstool. He leans even closer, setting his elbow atop the bar, curling his hand around the back of his neck.

“Tomorrow, maybe we could do it again,” Harry says. “Wherever you want, this time.”

“Careful,” Louis warns. “You think you could handle another day with me?”

“Several more. I think it’d take a lot for me to get tired of you.”

Louis’ cheeks ache from smiling. “Now, you’re just lying to me.”

“I’m not. In fact, I haven’t done that all day,” Harry says, brows furrowed. He takes a sip of his drink and sets the glass down. “I’m so used to lying to people when they ask me if I’m alright lately. I get tired of them asking so I tell them I’m fine. Or I make up some reason why I can’t see them or hang out. And you’re the first person I haven’t had to lie to about that. You told me to be honest with you and I have been.”

Louis brushes a stray curl that’s fallen over Harry’s forehead away from his eye. The gesture comes naturally to him. He doesn’t question it until it’s complete. Harry looks at him and then he looks at Louis’ mouth.

“There’s something else I feel like I should be honest about. Something I want to say clearly, so there’s no room left for doubt,” Harry murmurs. Louis wouldn’t be able to hear him if they weren’t close enough for their lips to touch.

His thumb brushes Harry’s dimple. “What’s that?”

“I like you a lot,” Harry says. “Much more than I expected to.”

Louis takes his chin between his thumb and forefinger and draws him in that last inch. It’s not the private kiss he’s been wanting but it’ll do. It’s not uninterrupted either. Before their mouths can open under each other’s, Niall appears beside them again. He catapults into them, forcing their faces apart. “I saw him,” he says breathlessly. “He told me to bring my friends over for drinks.”

“Tell him we’re busy,” Louis replies.

“No way. Come on, please?” Niall begs. He tugs at them until they’re on their feet and nudges himself offensively between them. Louis shoots a glance at Harry with his lush pink lips and mourns the loss of them. Harry shrugs, trotting along with Niall’s arm slung over his shoulders.

They’re led towards the back of the club, and to a dimly lit booth where Zayn Malik himself and two other lads are sitting. They take in the frosted pink tips of his dark hair and the shimmery top adorning his slender shoulders, fine fingers curled around a glass, which he lowers when he spots Niall. His eyes shift to Harry and Louis and he smiles. “Have a seat, please,” he says.

Louis will admit, as much as he’d rather be making out with Harry, he’s somewhat starstruck. He and Harry slide into the booth beside each other, and Niall sits beside Zayn. “Drinks are on their way,” Zayn says for no reason, much more quietly and modestly than Louis would have expected. He seems quiet in general, which is odd for someone being at a club. In the next second, a man comes by with a tray of drinks that he sets in the center of the table.

“Which one of you is Harry?” Zayn asks. Harry lowers the drink he’s just picked up, looking stunned. “I think Niall told me before that you own a bookshop?”

“Surprised you remember that,” Niall says, smiling.

The corners of Zayn’s eyes crinkle deeply when he smiles. “I think it was only recently that you mentioned it. When you left the shoot early one time.”

“Right,” Niall nods. His gaze lingers while Zayn’s returns to Harry.

“People don’t appreciate books like they used to,” he says. “We have to keep the trade alive for as long as we can.”

Harry blinks. “I agree, absolutely. You should tweet that. Your fans would probably listen to you.”

“He already does,” Niall chimes in. “He tweets a quote from a book every week. And then sales on those books spike each time.”

Zayn looks at him, brows lifting.

“I mean, not that I’m always on your Twitter. Because I’m not,” Niall says.

Louis chokes on his drink or the awkwardness or both. He leans close to Harry to whisper in his ear, “Think they’re hitting it off.”

Harry takes a sip of his drink to disguise his laughter. Louis watches the little dimple appear in his cheek and wishes he could lean close and press a kiss to it. He probably could. Instead, he hooks his arm over the booth behind Harry’s shoulders.

Louis says to Zayn and his bandmates. “Love the new album, by the way. Good stuff.”

Niall takes the distraction as an opportunity to throw back another drink.

“Thank you,” Zayn replies happily. The other two thank Louis as well. Zayn looks at Niall, watching him reach for another drink. “Should I order more?”

Niall takes a sip of his drink. “Huh? Oh, yeah. Sounds great.”

Louis threads his fingers through Harry’s hair, brushing the back of his neck. Harry sets his hand on Louis’ thigh, running his fingers over the seam of his jeans. It’s impossible to focus on anything else from that point on. He studies the mole on his jaw and the wispy tendril of hair beside his ear and the natural pout of his pink lips.

Harry turns suddenly and looks at him. “You’re staring.”

“Do you blame me?” Louis asks.

Harry shakes his head, smiling bashfully. “I’d do the same if I had my shades.”

“Oh, is that the trick?” Louis asks.

“It’s worked for me all day. You can’t ever tell when I’m looking at you.”

“That’s mildly creepy,” Louis says.

Harry shrugs. “You asked.”

Louis smiles. He leans in and says quietly, “I want to get you out of here.”

“Yeah? And go where?” Harry replies.

“Anywhere,” Louis says.

Harry tilts his head discreetly toward Zayn and Niall. “I think that would go a lot better if we weren’t here,” he whispers.

“I agree.”

Harry pats Louis’ thigh. “Let’s give it a minute.”

The good news is that Niall and Zayn are engaged in a quiet conversation when they zone back in. Harry reaches for another glass in the center of the table and hands it to Louis before seizing one for himself.

Harry might have one too many drinks. He ends up with his head lolled on Louis’ shoulder, humming and then attempting to rap along with the club music.

Louis laughs, combing Harry’s hair away from his face. “Think you should probably slow down.”

“Think you should probably keep up,” Harry babbles in reply, laughing to himself. He lifts his glass again, downs what was left, and turns to Louis. “Let’s go dance. I want to dance.”

Louis smiles. “Let’s.”

They shuffle out of the booth, hand in hand. Zayn and Niall hardly notice.

“It was lovely to meet you,” Harry says to Zayn with a flourishing wave of his hand.

Zayn lifts his drink to him.

Louis guides Harry to the small dance floor and draws him beneath the strobing lights, into the one vacant spot he can find. There’s a spark in his eyes that’s only been there as of late, and it looks good on him.

They step close. They have to with the density of the crowd. Their arms slip around each other’s waists and then they start moving together, side to side to the thump of the beat. Harry’s head ends up pressed to Louis’ and he curls himself close.

Louis rests his hand on the slight swell of Harry’s bum and turns his nose toward his hair. Harry lifts his arms atop Louis shoulder’s, still swaying and bobbing slightly to the music. He cups the back of Louis’ neck and runs his fingers through his hair.

They keep closing around each other with incremental movements, holding tighter, until Louis’ arms are snug around Harry’s waist and Harry’s face is buried in Louis’ neck. They’re still moving, but also caught in a hug, wrapped in a bubble of space that’s just their own, where even the music seems unable to touch them.

Harry draws back, his eyes shifting between Louis’, and then he leans in, touching Louis’ jaw, and drawing their mouths together.

This kiss is different from the first. This one belongs to Harry, and Harry alone, and Louis is perfectly content with that. He’s pleasantly surprised by Harry’s tongue on his own.

“I want you to come home with me, Louis,” he says when he draws back. “Will you?”

“Yes,” Louis says immediately.

Harry pulls himself away from Louis’ arms and takes his hand instead. “Let’s go.”

He drags Louis out of the club, throwing his hand into the night air to hail a cab. He even tries to whistle with two fingers, but it comes out sputtering. Louis takes pity on him and lifts his hand. A cab pulls up to the curb within the next minute.

“Show off,” Harry murmurs.

Louis smirks and takes his hand to help him into the cab.

“How drunk are you?” he questions, taking Harry by the chin and looking into his eyes.

“Pretty drunk,” Harry says. “But I’m going to be just fine in like five minutes. Just you wait.” He taps Louis’ nose with his forefinger.

“I think when we get to yours, I should put you to bed,” Louis says regretfully.

“Is ‘put you to bed’ an allusion to sex? Because yes,” Harry says, head lolling against the back of the seat. He blinks at Louis, his eyes suddenly comically wide. “Unless you don’t want to. If you don’t want to, that’s fine. Consent is sexy. But even if it wasn’t sexy, it’s still just the right thing to do. I find it pretty sexy though.”

Louis laughs, glancing in the direction of the driver. The partition is half-down and Louis doesn’t know what else Harry is planning to say. So he kisses him to shut him up. Harry moans softly, stroking Louis’ cheek, and he doesn’t let him go for the rest of the ride.

 

゚*・✧°・゚*・

 

12:24 AM

Harry gets his key ring out of his pocket. He blows his fringe out of his eyes while sorting through his color-coded keys. Louis finds everything he does amusing, including the way he squints at the keyhole. He stumbles into the dark apartment, pulls Louis inside, pushes him into the door, and subsequently pushes the door closed.

“Don’t hurt me, love,” Louis complains.

“’M sorry,” Harry says, kissing Louis again, fast paced with quick breaths exhaled from their noses and mouths. It’s a contrast to how soft and warm his hands are, when every other place that their bodies meet feels rough, reckless, and hot. “I can kiss it better.”

“How about a cup of water instead?” Louis says, drawing back. “Let’s get you some water.”

Harry reluctantly lets him go, allowing Louis to walk him backward and sit him down on his couch. He pushes his hair away from his eyes, watching Louis stroll off. “Hurry back or I’m starting without you.”

“Wouldn’t want that,” Louis says, humoring him.

There are a few pictures on the bookshelf Louis passes on the way to the kitchen. He scans them all and finds one of Harry with Niall, Ed, Liam and one other man with his arm around Harry’s waist. It doesn’t take much to figure out that he’s Harry’s ex.

Louis…” Harry sings from the living room.

Louis hurries into the kitchen and fills a glass with water. He goes back to the living room and hands it to Harry. “Drink this for me?”

Harry takes the glass. “Thank you,” he says, smiling. He pats the couch for Louis to take a seat beside him. Louis does as requested. It’s funny: Louis has waited all day, it seems, for a moment with Harry completely alone to do as they pleased. And now that it’s here, all he wants is to maybe tuck him in or massage his feet.

Harry finishes his glass of water and sets it down. He rests his head against the back of the couch, blinking lazily at Louis. “Hi.”

“Hi,” Louis replies, smiling. He brushes a curl away from Harry’s eyes. “How are you feeling?”

“Drunk?” Harry says unsurely. “But I’ve been worse.”

“Do tell,” Louis says, genuinely curious.

Harry chuckles, dragging his hand under his nose. “I’ve gone streaking before. My second year at school. I got so drunk me and Ed just went running nude through the commons. Got in so much trouble.”

Louis laughs. “Really wish I could have seen that,” he says.

“No, oh my God. It was actually embarrassing. I tripped right before campus police caught us. I scraped my chin up pretty good and busted my lip. It was terrible. And Andrew was so mad at me.”

“Your ex?” Louis questions.

“Yeah. You know, he was honestly so boring. He just sat around strumming his guitar all the time. And it always sounded like shit,” Harry complains. “We never had fun. Not like with you. I have fun with you, Louis.”

Louis tucks another strand of hair behind Harry’s ear and strokes his jaw. He doesn’t really want to hear more about Andrew. If he ever crosses him, he’s already determined to clock him one good time. For now, he wants to kiss Harry until he forgets the man’s name.

He leans forward, cupping his jaw, and does so. He presses his mouth to Harry’s jaw and then his neck. He pulls back to look at him.

“How sober are you?” he asks.

“Sober enough for you to keep kissing me,” Harry says. “And other things. Whatever you want…”

“Shouldn’t give me that kind of power,” Louis warns him.

“I want you to have it,” Harry whispers. “I’m not worried at all.”

Louis will dissect those words at a later date. If Harry turns out to be a sub, he’ll have to just put a ring on the lad’s finger and call it a lifetime.

He nips gently at Harry’s throat again and licks over the spot before sealing his lips around it and sucking. Harry hums contentedly, tilting his head, exposing more of his skin to Louis’ mouth. Louis appreciates every inch. He drops his hand to Harry’s thigh but doesn’t get far at all before Harry makes a soft noise of complaint. Quickly, he draws back.

“Feeling sick?” he questions.

Harry shakes his head. “No,” he says. He takes a deep breath and drags both hands down his face and his green eyes meet Louis’ imploringly. "I have something to confess, okay?”

“Okay…” Louis says warily.

“I'm really attracted to you. Like really, really attracted."

Louis quirks an eyebrow. "That’s pretty good news,” he says slowly. “I'm also very attracted to you. Is that your confession?"

Harry smiles, all dopily and lopsided. "No. It’s just— The last time I was involved with anyone..."

"That person was a dick," Louis supplies.

"No, I know,” Harry agrees. “I mean to say, that it's been a long time since I've been with anyone. Like even before ending my engagement. We just didn't have sex for like three months."

Louis scrubs his face frustratedly with his palms. "I don't get that,” he says wearily. “I can't even wrap my mind around that. I wouldn't be able to keep my hands off you."

A big smile spans Harry’s flushed face. He runs his hands up and down his thighs to dry his palms. “That’s good to know,” he says. “I’m just nervous. I can’t remember the last time I was nervous before… Or the last time I cared…”

It sounds like he’s saying more than he actually is. There’s another level to the words that Louis can’t compute right now. He’s half-afraid to, honestly.

"We really don't have to do anything,” he says easily, smiling. “We can just sit here and stare at your ceiling and talk. That's fine with me."

Harry shakes his head. He looks at Louis’ mouth again. "That sounds fun. But no, just—" He lifts Louis' hand and sets it on his own hip, meeting Louis’ gaze.

He doesn't even know what to ask for. That much becomes clear right then. Or he's afraid to ask for it. And that's fine with Louis. Louis can handle that.

"Just tell me if you ever need me to stop," he says, caressing Harry’s hip, easing his hand up beneath the hem of his shirt, over the soft swell of his tummy to his waist. Harry leans in again to kiss him. His palms meet Louis' cheeks, fingers stroking his chin.

Harry’s mouth is soft as always and plush like a peach. He pops Louis’ jeans open while their tongues are still engaged, easing his hand past the zipper and stroking him, smiling when Louis’ cock twitches beneath his fingertips.

Louis moves overtop of him and into his space. He unbuttons Harry’s shirt slowly, running his knuckle down the center of his abs. Harry drops his head back on the couch, dark hair spilling around his head like a crown, mouth falling open for a soft hitch of breath. Louis kisses him and draws back for Harry to chase him, leaving him flushed and panting.

“You should know how beautiful you are,” he says. “And even when you don’t, when you don’t feel it, someone should tell you everyday.”

“I like when you tell me,” Harry says.

“You’re beautiful,” Louis reminds him. He kisses Harry’s jaw and the little mole on his chin. “Ridiculously beautiful.”

“So are you,” Harry sighs. He cups Louis’ face and draws their mouths together again. His thumb brushes Louis’ cheek, where his three freckles are. “Let’s go to my room.”

Louis smiles, climbing off his body. Harry reaches for his hand and holds it tightly, pulling him along through the bright patches of light from the moon thrown on the floorboards.

He draws him into the room and pushes Louis, somewhat roughly, onto his bed.

Louis laughs breathily, watching Harry’s hands sliding down his chest and abs. “Is this the part where you turn into an animal in bed?”

Harry climbs atop him, dragging his lips over Louis’ jaw, up to his ear. “You’ll have to find out.”

“Mystery is my least favorite genre,” Louis says regretfully, and then he flips them, pushing Harry into the mattress, and pushing his hips down against Harry’s. He crawls backward and plants his feet on the ground, drawing his t-shirt up over his head.

Harry shoots upright suddenly, grabbing Louis’ waist. “What is that?” he gasps. “Oh my God. Louis, your bellybutton is pierced.”

“Is it?” Louis says, grinning impishly. He glances down at the small charm hanging over his belly button. “Forgot about that. Lost a bet, actually.”

“Oh my God,” Harry breathes. “This is so hot. You’re so— And these tattoos.” He runs his hand over Louis’ chest and his hips. “Fuck, you’re so beautiful.”

Louis smiles, leaning in for another kiss. He reaches for the waistband of Harry’s jeans, unbuttons, unzips, and drags them down his legs. He brushes his fingers over the laurels decorating his hips. “These are ridiculously sexy. You’re definitely an animal in bed.”

“Still a mystery,” Harry croons, lifting his hips.

Louis takes the thin black waistband of his briefs and keeps his eyes on Harry’s as he pulls them over his thighs and his kneecaps, down his longs legs and over his feet. He drops them to the floor and his eyes fall on the place where Harry is most honest and most eager. It’s true that he’s a marvel all over. Louis wants to feel the weight of him on his tongue and his throat, so far back he chokes. Given his size, it’s practically guaranteed.

He pushes his own jeans down, dragging his pants along with them, takes a breath and stands tall again. Harry holds his hand out for him, beckoning him closer. He curves his hand around Louis’ forearm. Their mouths brush and hover. Louis draws away and starts a path back down Harry’s body, leaving tender kisses and bruising bites in his wake.

“How many times did he ever get you to come?”

Harry’s back rises off the mattress as Louis sucks his nipple into his mouth. “What?” he breathes.

“Your ex,” Louis clarifies. “Twice?”

Harry remains speechless, blinking bleary eyes at Louis. Louis drags his tongue down the dip between his abs, and the hair beneath his belly button. He lifts his head.

“Three times?” He bites Harry’s plush hips and sucks.

Harry drops his head back against his pillow, panting. "Fuck. Once," he confesses. "Only once whenever he did."

Louis lifts his head and stares at him for a full five seconds. Slowly, he grins. "Shame," he says. "Three it is then."

And then he sets his tongue at the base of Harry’s cock and drags it upward, slower than molasses.

“Fucking shit,” Harry gasps. His fingers twist in the sheets.

Louis smiles and does it again. He wraps his mouth around the head, bobs around a few times, his eyes slipping shut. And then he eases down around him. He watches him while he sucks, smiling as best as he can with his mouth occupied. He pulls off, licking his lips. “Where’s your lube?”

Harry takes a second to catch his breath and if he’s that out of it already, Louis doesn’t know how long they’ll last. Harry pokes his finger toward his bedside drawer. “Bottom drawer,” he murmurs.

Louis finds it quickly and uncaps it. Harry watches him.

“Are you going to fuck me?” he asks.

Louis smiles, pouring lube onto his fingers. “Is that what you want?”

“Yes,” Harry says right away. “You?”

Louis kisses the inside of Harry’s knee and shuffles down between his legs. “Yes, very much,” he admits. “Tell me if you need me to stop.”

He brushes the back of his hand over Harry’s bum and licks the length of his cock again. “It’s alright if you come. I want you to.”

It’s a lot to focus on at once, especially when he wants to focus on just one thing for hours on end: the way Harry twitches in his mouth, the way his brows crease and his lips open, or the way he clenches on Louis’ finger. But he has to take it all in at the same time, leading to some sort of sexual nirvana, where every sensation overwhelms him until he’s swimming in them. With no friction for his own cock, this still feels better than every prior experience Louis has had.

He works his way to three fingers after a lot of patience and careful observance of Harry’s expressions, each twitch of his brows and his mouth, each gasp and grunt. He works on just getting him open, and then he presses down, presses into the bundle of nerves that makes Harry’s eyes pop open.

“Oh, God…” Harry groans, squeezing the duvet in a fist.

Louis wraps his mouth around the head and nurses him, sucking tenderly. He presses inside, eases out before shoving back in. He pushes himself up onto his elbow and repeats.

“Louis,” Harry pants. His hand ends up in Louis’ hair.

Louis pulls off to murmur, “Go ahead and pull if you want to.” He sinks his mouth down on him, his tongue out. He takes him as far as he can, aiming for the back of his throat. It doesn’t happen on the first go. He pulls off, licks his lips, and tries again. He can’t help the gagging sound he makes when he manages to nudge Harry’s cockhead past his tonsils. Harry is heavy and full on his tongue, and twitches in his mouth. Louis’ eyes close reverently and he swallows.

Harry gasps, yanking hard on Louis’ hair. Louis moans in reply, the sound drowned out by Harry swearing and whining and perhaps praying too. And really, the fact that he’s falling apart only makes Louis work harder. His jaw aches. His throat aches. But he’s never relished in that as much as he does now. He alternates between bobbing around and just shoving Harry toward the back of his throat and staying there. He tests himself to see how long he can stay down on him, breathing harshly through his nose. He’s not even interested in breathing anything that isn’t the musk of Harry’s skin.

It doesn’t take long at all before Harry comes. Maybe he offers a warning that Louis just doesn't understand. But he coughs and pulls off for a breath before returning and taking every drop Harry gives down his throat.

Harry’s pupils are blown wide and glazed over. His chest rises and falls so rapidly Louis worries his lungs are about to give out. And then he reaches for Louis, wrapping his hand around Louis’ hip and drawing him close for a kiss.

Louis licks into his mouth. “See how good you taste?” he murmurs, pushing his tongue against Harry’s, holding his mouth open with a thumb to his bottom lip. He breaks away to press kisses to his neck, damp with sweat, while Harry sucks happily on his thumb.

“Taste so good all over.”

He slides his hand down the side of Harry’s body and runs his fingers over his thigh. He cups the back of his knee and hoist his thigh up his waist. “Can’t wait to see how you feel.”

“You don’t have to wait,” Harry says, stroking Louis’ back.

“Ready so soon?”

“No. But I’m worried you’re going to impale me,” Harry murmurs, glancing between their bodies at Louis’ cock poking against his tummy.

Louis drops his forehead to Harry’s shoulder and laughs. “You’re killing the mood.”

“And you’re literally trying to kill me,” Harry replies. They laugh, bodies trembling together. Louis presses a few more kisses along Harry’s collarbones before Harry pats his ass and says, “I mean it, you don’t have to wait. I’m ready.”

Louis kisses him on the mouth and runs his nose across Harry’s cheek. “You sure?”

“Very sure,” Harry says. He reaches for the condom on the mattress and opens it up. “Let me.”

Louis props himself up with one arm while Harry slips the condom onto him carefully. He looks at Louis and smiles, pressing a gentle kiss to the corner of his mouth. It’s all a very sharp contrast from the rough, sloppy sex Louis has had in the past. He doesn’t expect anyone to treat him this gently. He’s not used to it. But he could be. He feels good suspended over Harry. He feels wanted there, and not just because he’s an attractive guy, but because he’s Louis.

Rather than get lost in what that all means, he grabs the bottle of lube and slicks himself up quickly. He lines himself up with Harry, stroking his side comfortingly while he pushes into him, but Harry  doesn’t look uncomfortable at all. He just runs his hand up and down Louis’ back, encouraging him closer, until Louis’ hips meet his bum.

“Good?” Louis questions.

Harry nods. “Fuck me.”

“Alright then,” Louis says with a laugh.

He takes Harry by the hips and then he pulls him down on his cock, pushing forward at the same time, resulting in contact with his spot right away. Harry's eyes widen, his mouth dropping open around a shocked gasp.

Louis pulls out, nearly slipping away completely and then he does it again, his hips slapping audibly against Harry's bum.

"Oh my God," Harry breathes.

"Name’s Louis actually," he says, smiling smugly. He thrusts again, just as meticulously and powerfully. He might be showing off a little bit.

Harry tries to laugh but it dissolves into another moan when Louis hits him again, right where it counts, the only place it counts. "Holy fuck."

Sweat pops on their skin, dampening their hair, and making their bodies slick when they move together.

"Faster," Harry murmurs breathlessly. "Please?"

"Since you asked so nicely," Louis says cherubically. He leans over Harry's body, propping himself up with his palms to the mattress. And then he starts snapping faster for several seconds without pause. Harry squeezes his eyes shut, digging his nails into Louis' lower back, maybe so he can feel Louis move or maybe so he can urge him deeper.

Louis leans in for another kiss, scarily desperate to keep every part of them together at all times. Harry rests his hands on Louis' bum, sinking his nails in as Louis sinks into him. Louis hisses, pumping his hips forward, gripping the edge of the mattress like he wants to rip it all apart.

“Louis,” Harry groans. “Lou. Baby, touch me. Please…”

Louis slows down, worried he’ll come before Harry does. He reaches between their bodies and starts to stroke him, rubbing his thumb over the head of his cock.

“Fuck, I’m coming,” Harry murmurs. “Louis—”

He starts repeating his name over and over again, spewing it like a prayer. He starts pushing his hips up, pushing his cock through Louis’ fist. He starts coming, spreading creamy white over Louis’ fist. Louis releases him to lick his fingers clean and Harry watches him, cock still twitching against his stomach.

Louis pulls out. "Turn over for me, love," he says, grasping Harry's hip and helping him onto his hands and knees. Harry moves dazedly as instructed, resting his head against his forearms, and peering back at Louis.

Louis doesn't enter him again. He just slides the length of his cock between Harry's crease and grinds forward. He thrusts his hips against him, knocking him forward each time. The contact is more than enough. Watching his cock slide between Harry's arse is way more than enough. He whips off his condom and comes easily, painting Harry's bum and his lower back.

"You're a fucking vision," he says. He leans in to kiss Harry's shoulder blade. "I owe you one more, baby. Is that okay? You want one more?"

Harry takes a second to answer, pushing himself up onto his elbows. "Yeah," he murmurs. He tosses his hair away from his face and smiles. "If you think you can."

Louis smirks. Nothing he loves more than a challenge. And maybe Harry's arse. He kisses his broad back a bit more, biting and sucking leisurely.

"I think I could fuck you all night.”

"You're not even human. I'm officially convinced," Harry says.

"Speak for yourself," Louis replies. He kisses his way down Harry's spine. Harry peers over his shoulder at Louis expectantly. Louis wishes he had a blindfold. Next time, he thinks, before he remembers there probably won't be one.

He bites the back of Harry's thigh, just a nip. He cups both cheeks, shooting Harry a smile, before he licks right over his hole and through the come he's left behind.

Harry shivers, sinking his head to his forearms again.

Louis rubs his unshaven chin between Harry's arse cheeks. "How does this feel?" he asks carefully. "Does it hurt?"

"No. Feels good," Harry says softly. "Louis..."

Louis hums in reply, as if to say he’s here and he doesn’t plan on going anywhere. "Need another taste now..." he murmurs. “You’re so good, baby. Just need another taste.”

He licks him again with a broader stripe of his tongue, and keeps licking, like a dog lapping at water.

"Fucking Christ Jesus..." Harry babbles.

Louis grins, curling his forearms around the front of Harry's thighs. He pushes his tongue against Harry's rim and massages him for a moment before slipping the tip past the firm muscle.

Harry whines, his thighs quivering under Louis' touch. He starts babbling to himself again, perhaps not even speaking English. It doesn’t sound like English. Louis presses his tongue relentlessly against Harry's walls. Harry pushes his hand through Louis' hair and rubs the back of his neck encouragingly.

"How are you real?" Harry pants above him. "How—? I'm— fuck, I might come."

"Might?" Louis questions, pulling away for a moment. He laughs and dives back in, tugging Harry back against his mouth.

"Oh my fucking—" Harry’s voice drops off and goes muffled, probably because he's buried his face in the mattress.

"Don't suffocate yourself now, love," Louis murmurs, blowing cool air against Harry's damp skin, licking, biting, sucking, and doing it all over again. He reaches between Harry's legs and fondles his balls, rubbing them together in his palm. He sucks on them and drags his tongue up over Harry's taint and towards his hole. Harry makes a sound like a sob, face still hidden away.

"How about this?" Louis says. "You're no longer allowed to come until I say. Can you do that?"

Harry looks at him again, his face and neck flushed crimson, his eyes bright and feverish. Usually there's some discussion before orders and commands are issued in the bedroom. But given that they just met and all sense of decorum is obliterated for Louis with Harry, he just goes for it. Harry blinks slowly, lovely rose of a mouth open around heavy pants. "Yes," he says hoarsely. "Not until you say."

Louis' cock twitches eagerly and he smiles. Someone will have to drag his ass out of this apartment. He's not sure he'll ever leave willingly now. "Very good," he says, leaning in for more.

It’s almost instantaneous: once Harry knows he can’t come, that’s all he wants. He starts trembling and whining within seconds and the next thing Louis knows he's begging.

"Please?" he murmurs, hips sinking towards the bed for friction.

Louis tugs them back up and slaps Harry's thigh. Harry swears loudly, rocking forward, fingers twisting in his bed sheets.

“Was that okay?” Louis questions quickly, kneading his fingers into the spot.

Yes,” Harry moans.

"You aren’t being good, H. I know you can be good," Louis says, his voice shaking. His hands on Harry's thighs shake. Every part of him thrums excitedly and even after he takes a deep breath, he can’t seem to calm down.

He has never wanted to bend someone over his knee until now. He's never wanted to fuck someone until his heart gives out. He's never felt quite so crazed...and neither has his cock. Even as he keeps Harry's hips suspended up above the mattress, he has to reach down and squeeze himself for a little relief. He’s near to bursting without any contact at all.

He slides his hands to Harry’s ass and spreads him apart before he returns his tongue and pushes into him relentlessly. Harry’s whole body quivers. His fingers and toes curl.

"Please, Louis. Touch me, please," he whispers.

"You want to come on my cock?" Louis asks, licking the sweat from his upper lip. Really, he just wants to fuck him again.

"Please?" Harry says again, quiet and submissive. Louis nearly tumbles off the bed in his haste to line himself up again. He grabs the extra condom and the lube, readying himself sloppily.

Harry turns over and spreads wide. Louis scrambles forward, heart quivering like the strings of a crazed violinist. He slips back into him easily, his eyes rolling closed.

"You're so incredible," he sighs. “Fuck, Harry…”

He almost wants to tell him he loves him or something equally ridiculous. He thinks it has to be true, given the sort of sexual cosmic energy radiating between the two of them. He hasn't considered the possibility of a soul mate since he was fifteen, officially out of the closet, and in love with his maths professor. But he's considering it now, with Harry's green eyes focused unwaveringly on him and his body thrumming from the attention and the contact and everything that Harry is and has been and will be.

Louis starts to fuck him again, thrusts short and firm because that’s all he can manage without coming. It doesn’t take long before Harry shuts his eyes, looking like he’s in a trace, and murmurs again, “Please?”

“Look at me,” Louis says. Harry’s eyes flutter open. “Keep your eyes on me…”

Harry nods. Louis leans in and kisses him gently. "Go ahead."

Harry's mouth parts beneath Louis'. He gasps into his mouth and between them, his cock twitches and leaks across their stomachs. He hugs Louis close to him as it happens, his body wracked by tremors. Louis withdraws his hips, tugs off the condom, and wraps a tight hand around himself.

“In my mouth,” Harry breathes.

Desperately, Louis crawls up Harry’s body, until his knees bracket Harry’s shoulders. He pushes the head of his cock into Harry’s soft mouth. Harry closes his lips around him and sucks eagerly, barely for two seconds before Louis comes. He pulls back slightly so it runs past the corner of Harry’s mouth and down his cheek, then chases the line of come with his thumb, drawing it back up Harry’s cheek and into his mouth, feeding it to him. Harry takes it gratefully, eyes closed as he sucks Louis’ thumb and then shifts back to his cock to lick him clean. When he’s done, he takes a massive breath like he’s downed a drink, and drops his head to the mattress.

Louis hardly has the energy to roll away but he manages and collapses beside him.

Harry's eyes remain closed, his chest ballooning rapidly. A look of calm has settled over his face, his mouth lax around soft, quick breaths. He blinks and turns to Louis, a wide smile breaking out across his face. Louis lifts his brows.

"That was amazing," Harry whispers, rolling closer. He drapes his arm over Louis’ waist. “You’re really amazing.”

“Thank you,” Louis says, inexplicably shy all of a sudden. “So are you.”

Harry strokes his back lightly with his fingertips. He glances down at his body and cringes. “I really need to clean myself up. Will you stay…?”

Louis smiles. “I’ll be here when you get back. Nowhere else to go.”

Harry kisses his cheek once. “Good. I’ll be quick,” he says. And then he climbs gingerly off the bed and into the bathroom, his shoulder colliding with the doorframe along the way. He only takes about ten minutes altogether before he’s climbing back into bed, still nude, which Louis, of course, is grateful for.

Harry lies on his stomach, head reclined on his forearms and eyes focused on Louis. Louis slides his hand across his shoulders, just to have something to do. And then Harry’s voice comes, whisper quiet, “I’ve never felt like this with anyone.”

Louis’ fingers still on their way down his spine. “Felt like what?”

Harry hesitates for a moment. “Free.”

Louis flattens his palm on Harry’s lower back and pulls him closer. Harry’s arm snakes around his waist again and holds tight. “Me neither,” Louis confesses.

“I’ve dreamt about it before, though,” Harry says.

Louis’ brow furrows. “How’s that possible?”

“You weren’t there specifically, but I’ve dreamt about being this happy with another person beside me. I’ve dreamt about waking up with a person and never wanting to leave.” Harry draws back to look at him. “Does this scare you?”

Yes. The answer should be yes. Time and time again Louis has met men who’ve spoken seriously of him, who’ve made promises, and asked Louis to do the same. This is soulmate talk, what Harry’s saying. This is two-seconds-from-I-love-you talk and they’ve only just met. And usually that’s exactly the kind of thing Louis runs from.

But the answer is, “No.”

“Not at all,” Louis adds. If anything should scare him, it’s that he feels it too. It should scare him that he isn’t scared.

They peruse each other, eyes and fingertips roaming across skin. Louis can never stay in bed if he isn’t sleeping. He has to sit up or leave the bed altogether. He’s always too restless to recline and when he lies anywhere for too long, he starts to think thoughts he’d rather avoid.

But here with Harry, he feels at ease. His mind is clear. He sets his head on the pillow and kisses Harry’s thumb when it eases across his lip. It’s late, but he isn’t tired at all, and yet he could lie here for hours.

It’s Harry who proposes otherwise. “Let’s go watch a movie. I’m not ready to sleep yet.”

“Me neither,” Louis says.

They shuffle naked into the living room with Harry’s massive duvet thrown around their bodies and collapse on the couch. Harry leaves to make them cups of tea. He flips to a random channel and a random movie, and rests his head in Louis’ lap, stroking Louis’ forearm lying across his chest.

His phone starts to vibrate on the coffee table beside them. Harry’s eyes flicker towards it and then, after a beat, away.

“That him?” Louis asks.

“Yeah,” Harry says with a shrug. “Likes to call around this time.”

Around 1 AM. Because he clearly has no respect for Harry’s sleep. Louis shakes his head, clenching his jaw, and cracking his knuckle. “May I?”

Harry’s gaze floats to his and locks. The phone keeps buzzing. In the next few seconds, the call will go to voicemail. It’s now or never. Harry sits up quickly. “What would you even say?”

Louis snatches the phone up. “You’ve reached Harry’s phone,” he says promptly.

On the other end, Andrew is silent for several seconds, and then he clears his throat, “Uh, yeah. Could I speak to Harry?”

“He’s otherwise engaged right now. Would this be Andrew?”

“Yeah…” the other man says unsurely. “Who’s this?”

“Just the lucky bastard Harry’s chosen to spend his time with now,” Louis says. Harry covers his mouth with his hand. “And I’m not sure I appreciate you calling and interrupting us mid-coitus.”

Harry snorts and buries his face in the couch cushion.

Louis presses his lips together and waits.

“Listen, man,” Andrew begins.

“No, you listen. And listen close because I really hate to keep Harry waiting and I’ll only say this once. I bought him a new goldfish and we named him Sharky because he likes human flesh.”

Harry rolls right off the couch, laughing aloud, and Louis hopes Andrew can hear him. He hopes he can hear the sound of Harry’s laughter, best sound in the world.

“If you so much as think about calling here again, I’ll know. And I’ll find you. And I’m sure Sharky will be very, very pleased when we’re through.”

He hears a click and pulls the phone away from his ear to glance at the screen. Harry lifts his head, wild curls framing his flushed face. “What happened?” he pants.

“He hung up,” Louis says. They look at each other and then dissolve into laughter, curled over with trembling shoulders, until their ribs and their jaws ache. Harry returns to the couch and crawls forward, kissing Louis in the spaces where their laughter subsides.

“You are so lovely,” he says, his hand gentle on the back of Louis’ neck. “And so deserving of your own comedy show. I’d watch every day.”

Louis smiles. “Don’t send in the good reviews yet, love. I owe you a goldfish now.”

“I’ll hold you to it.” Harry chuckles, settling down again with his head in Louis’ lap, eyes on the TV screen, and a soft smile on his mouth. Louis watches him for a little while, confessions rising and dying on his tongue, all of them about staying here in LA and never wanting to leave. Louis never wants to leave.

When he fails enough times at speaking the words, he lifts his journal from the end table and decides to write them down.

“You carry that with you everywhere,” Harry murmurs, tilting his head backward. Louis shifts his hand to the side so he can see Harry better.

“I do. I bought a pocket sized one for that very reason,” Louis says. “You never know when an idea will pop into your head.”

“I usually just jot it down in my phone,” Harry says.

“Me too sometimes. But paper forces you to be more honest. You can write something down but if you second guess it, you can’t just delete it and pretend it never happened. You have to cross it out…” Louis says. He tries to tell himself to shut up but knows Harry wouldn’t want him to, that Harry wants to listen. His green eyes never leave Louis’ face as he waits for Louis to go on. It’s one of the things he likes most about Harry (on a list of things that grows longer each second) — he has this way of looking at a person and making them feel important, of making everything they say and do seem important.

“I just like writing poems on paper,” Louis concludes. “I like what I come up with, mistakes and all.”

“I think that’s brilliant,” Harry says, touching his hand to Louis’ forearm. He strokes the inked bird there with his thumb. “Would you read me one?”

Louis licks his lips, ignoring the wild fluttering of his heart. “Yeah,” he says, clearing his throat. He flips through the pages of his journal. “This one’s good.”

Harry never looks away until he has to. He grows sleepy listening to Louis read, his lashes falling and rising more slowly. Even once he closes his eyes, he murmurs drowsily, “Keep reading.”

Louis shifts them around so that he’s lying beside Harry with Harry’s curls spilling over his shoulder. Their voices grow softer and fainter, until they’re just whispers and hums. He keeps reading until his eyes, like Harry’s, have drifted shut.

 

 

Part II

 

 

June 18, 2016

8:22 AM

The first breath Harry breathes that morning fills his lungs righteously. It’s deep and satisfying. His chest swells with it and all the feelings from the previous day rush in to fill that air. His first thought is Louis, and his second thought too. His third is to turn over and look at the sun spilling over Louis’ face.

But he’s halted by his fourth thought: that the warmth of Louis’ body against his back is missing.

He sits upright and looks at the couch beside him, which is now empty. He glances up and around his apartment but it’s not even so much that it looks empty. It feels empty. Before he’s even stood up and made his way around the place, he knows he’s the only one there.

He checks the bedroom anyway and the loo. He checks the bloody coat cupboard.

“What the fuck,” he breathes, shoving his hair away from his forehead. He loops it up into a bun and pulls on a pair of pants. He finds his phone buried under a mound of clothes and scrolls through it, past messages from other friends, but of course, there’s nothing there that helps. He and Louis never exchanged phone numbers.

His gaze catches on something else, just beyond the phone in his hand. Something on the couch where he was lying. He reaches down and draws Louis’ leather notebook close.

“What the fuck,” he says again.

As he’s throwing on clothes, he ignores the note of panic and dread that play on in his head. He heads down the hall and bangs on Ed’s apartment door, his leg bouncing while he waits. The door flies open. Ed stands there with wild, bed hair and a bare chest.

“Hi. Sorry to wake you,” Harry says.

“No, it’s cool. You alright?” Ed asks. Harry must look crazed.

“Yeah. Is Louis here?”

Ed’s brows crease. He smiles confusedly. “I thought he’d be with you…”

“He was,” Harry says, his stomach swooping with memories. He thinks of them in bed and his skin grows warm. “He just isn’t here right now. His shoes are gone. He left his notebook but… Do you have his number?”

“No,” Ed says sadly. “We never exchanged numbers. His phone was dead half the time.”

Harry sighs. “Alright. If you hear from him, tell him to stop by? Please? And get his number if you can?”

“Yeah, sure.” Harry starts back to his apartment. Ed calls after him, “How was last night anyway?”

“Perfect,” Harry answers without hesitation. Maybe so perfect he dreamt the whole thing. Maybe he’s still dreaming and Louis isn’t real at all.

He takes a moment in his apartment to take a deep breath. He needs several more before he can move again. He makes himself a cup of tea and forgets it on the countertop to tidy the place up. He throws all his dirty clothes into the wash and cleans the cigarette tray. He passes the hoover over the floors and fluffs the throw pillows before spritzing everything with Febreeze.

He nukes his cup of tea for thirty seconds and throws it all back hot.

He doesn’t feel any less nauseous. But his heart has stopped racing and that at least is enough for now.

 

゚*・✧°・゚*・

 

He gets a late start opening the shop that day and by the time he gets there, a few people have lined up outside the door, shooting him daggers and arrows. He smiles apologetically, fumbling with his keys. He holds the door open for them to filter inside.

A late start means he’ll have to stay a little later to make up for it. There’s also a shipment of books coming in after noon. The yoginis start their book club like clockwork and a regular brings him a latte from Starbucks and a muffin, which he’s tremendously grateful for. He unpacks the boxes of books when they arrive but doesn’t even bother shelving them.

Each time the bell above the door chimes, his eyes snap toward the entryway to find someone who isn’t Louis. He keeps his phone right in front of him on the countertop in hopes that Ed will text with news. He can’t focus on the book in his hands during his lunch break and eventually he gives up trying to. Kelly comes by with her clippings but he can’t even focus on what she’s saying either.

He sweeps the shop after the yoginis leave and the only patrons left are a mother and her young child. He polishes off the tables and dusts the books on display. He changes the book of the day, but doesn’t put much thought into the selection.

It’s nothing short of a miracle that he makes it to closing. He sits in his car at five o’clock, listening to 100.3 FM’s choice of Classic Rock.

He goes from feeling numb, to feeling sad, and then to feeling angry. He settles on maybe fighting Louis the next time he sees him or throwing Louis’ journal off his balcony. He knows he won’t do either but pretending he would feels nice.

He starts the car and pulls away from the curb, struck by another, less violent idea.

 

゚*・✧°・゚*・

 

“Do you have company?” Harry asks, brows arched. He hears music drifting from inside Niall’s home and perhaps the running of a faucet.

“Yeah but you can come in,” Niall says, pulling the door open further.

“No, it’s alright. I just wanted to ask—” His voice trails off as Zayn Malik steps to the door, pulling a shirt on over his head. Appropriately, Harry’s eyes drop to his abs. His mouth falls open.

“Sorry to interrupt,” Zayn says. “Just on my way out.”

Harry can’t even speak. Zayn presses a kiss to Niall’s cheek. “I’ll ring you,” he says. “Thanks again for having me.”

Niall smiles dopily as Zayn steps through the door, tossing a nod Harry’s way. He pushes his sunnies on and hurries down the steps to a gleaming black SUV waiting conspicuously beside Harry’s Jeep.

Harry’s gaze snaps back to Niall. “Holy fuck,” he says. “Did you…?”

“Nah,” Niall says, rubbing his scruffy chin. “He spilled ice cream on his shirt and threw it in the wash. He did make me a milkshake and a sandwich for lunch, and then he stuck around and played FIFA. Seriously, mate, I might be in love.”

Harry smiles. “I’m happy you had a good time,” he says. The SUV peels out of the car park and soon enough, it disappears from view. Harry glances at Niall, who’s staring off towards the road still. “Will you see him again?”

“Maybe. I have his number and he’s planning to follow me on twitter. So hopefully?” Niall says with a shrug. “Anyway, what’s up with you? You look awful.”

“Thank you,” Harry says curtly. “I actually came hoping Louis might be here. I can’t— This sounds ridiculous, but I can’t find him. And I don’t have his number.”

“Neither do I. I was going to ask you for it actually. Looks like he came by and got his bag, but he left a t-shirt in the loo,” Niall says.

Harry’s heart sinks. He sighs heavily, his shoulders sagging. “I don’t know whether to be terrified or angry. He just left without a note or anything…”

“Well, what happened last night?” Niall asks cautiously. “Did you have an argument or something?”

“No,” Harry says. “Far from it…” His eyes sting and he can’t do this here. If he’s going to cry, he’d like to do it in the privacy of his own home. He’s had enough of crying over men in front of his friends, and he’s sure they’ve had enough of it too.

“If you hear anything, let me know,” Harry says, backing away. “I’ll see you later.”

“Haz, you can stay here for a bit, if you want. Don’t go wallowing alone,” Niall says.

Harry gives him a small smile. “Thanks. I’m alright though. See you.” He heads back to his car and starts home. His vision blurs the entire way there.

He starts carding through the previous day in his mind, trying to find the hitch in the playback. Had he come on too strongly? Had he said something while he was drunk? He remembers the word love floating around in his head but not because he intended to actually say it. He knew it wasn’t the sex. It couldn’t be the sex. No way was it that mind-blowing for him alone.

By the time he pulls up to his complex, his fingers are shaking. He reaches for Louis’ book and his bag and shuffles into the lift, leaning his head against the cool metal. He strolls into his lonely apartment and drops everything onto the couch. He pulls the bottle of cranberry Vodka from the freezer and pours himself a glass, taking a big gulp as he enters his bedroom.

The rush of alcohol warms his throat and his stomach while he lies there on his bed. He tilts his head backward to look through the window at the sky. Only then do his eyes catch the glint of light reflecting off a piece of paper on the book by the window. Harry sits up and shuffles quickly across the bed.

His name is written across the front. He plucks it up and unfolds it, heart thudding wildly.

I’m so sorry I had to run. Yesterday with you was the best thing to happen for me in a while. -Louis

He turns the slip of paper over in search of a number and finds a quote instead:

“Never love anyone who treats you like you’re ordinary.”

He flips it over again, sure that he’s missed something, but of course there’s nothing there. He drops his face to the mattress again and stays until his oxygen supply has depleted. He lifts his head for a big breath of air and reads the note again, tracing the lines of Louis’ handwriting with his thumb.

The rest of his vodka makes him sleepy, causes his damp eyelashes to droop, only to flutter open so he can read the note again. He presses his mouth to Louis’ penmanship, his last act before his eyelids lower again. It’s a fitful sleep that comes, but a much needed reprieve.

 

゚*・✧°・゚*・

 

Nothing really makes sense. As he’s lying there, studying the ceiling, he plays it all back again. And in retrospect, everything is brighter and more beautiful, and perfect. Like something out of a dream, although he knows he didn’t dream Louis up. He has a note and a journal and pink bruises along his collarbones to prove that.

He pushes himself up, eager for a shower to clear his head. He stays beneath the spray for much longer than needed, until his skin is so pink the bruises can hardly be seen. He wishes they would go away entirely.

He stands in the mirror afterwards, running a hand over his slightly stubbled chin. He shaves quickly and distractedly, avoiding his own eyes. He spreads cool water over his jaw when he’s finished and grabs the towel from the edge of the sink to pat himself dry. His eyes flicker upward and once he’s made contact, he can’t look away from the hollow point of his irises.

They fill quickly, once he stares long enough.

He places the towel down on the sink ledge and drops his face into his palms, warm tears hitting his skin. “Idiot,” he mumbles, his palms growing damp.

He knew better. Or at least, he thought so. He took a lot of time after Andrew preparing himself for the next person who might come along, although he avoided any chance of letting that happen. He never went to clubs with the boys anymore. He never returned the gaze of men who seemed interested. He definitely did not sign up for Tinder like Niall suggested.

And then there was Louis.

Then there were the curious blue eyes, the eager smiling mouth, the freckles, the fringe. Then there was Harry enchanted by it all.

He thought he’d come away from his failed relationship stronger, smarter, and more guarded. Only to let a stranger into his heart within the span of a day. He’d made it so easy.

He just thought…

He shakes his head, dragging his palms over his cheeks. After a deep breath, he retreats to his bed again, climbing beneath the covers, naked and ready for his next nap. His eyes feel puffy, reminiscent of months ago when he came home to an apartment devoid of his fiance’s belongings.

Unsurprisingly, the pain feels worse this time around. He hadn’t been in love with his fiance. He probably never would have been.

But with Louis…

He pulls the covers up to his chin.

He just thought that with Louis…

He shuts his eyes.

If he ever truly fell in love with anyone, he thought it might be him.

 

゚*・✧°・゚*・

 

“He just doesn’t seem like that kind of person, H…”

Harry takes the second shot Ed pours for him and shrugs. “Doesn’t matter,” he says, like he has repeatedly for the past day.

“You keep saying that.”

“Because it’s true.” Harry replaces the shot glass on the table and nods to it. Ed lifts the bottle of tequila and pours him another.

“Yet here you are, trying to drown yourself in booze,” Ed says, shaking his head.

Harry rests his forehead in his palm. “Could you not judge me, please?” he murmurs, massaging his forehead. “I came here for company, but I can do this at my own place. Either way, I’ll be ‘drowning myself in booze’. Men love to fuck me over. That’s the only thing that matters.”

He clenches his jaw when he feels his eyes burning. He hasn’t stopped weeping for two days. He’ll stop for an hour or so at most, only for it to happen again the second he’s alone. So he’s determined not to be alone. No one seems able to keep him distracted though. Between Niall, Ed, and Liam, they all just want to see him fixed.

“I’m sorry, mate,” Ed says sincerely. “But—”

Harry drops his forehead to the countertop.

“I just think something must have come up.”

“He didn’t leave his number,” Harry says. “That’s a clear sign he wants nothing to do with me.”

“He left you a note,” Ed argues.

“A note with no number. A note that basically means ‘thanks for the shag and goodbye forever,” Harry explains. “I’ve gone over this a billion times.”

“And you don’t think he genuinely cared about you? ‘Cause that’s not what me and Niall, or even Liam, think. As much as he’s threatening to track the bloke down and kill him, even Li thinks he seemed to really be into you. Me and Niall have seen him around plenty of other guys. You and him were different.”

“Didn’t need to know any of that,” Harry mumbles, pushing his hair away from his eyes.

“He left his journal,” Ed says.

“Because he was in a hurry to leave before I woke up.”

“Come on, Harry,” Ed sighs.

“Come on what?” Harry questions. “You’re acting like this hasn’t happened before. Like men haven’t done this to me before.”

“One man, not men. You were with one man for a really long time who was a complete arse, which, by the way, you knew. You knew he was fucking shit. You knew it from the second you met him, probably. Tell me I’m wrong.”

He’s not wrong. At all.

The first time Harry met Andrew was in a political science course Harry took for his Gen Eds. They sat beside each other since the beginning of the class and Andrew often gave him flirty looks that Harry had swooned over or blushed about for weeks. He was fit and well-known and charismatic. All reasons why, during their very first exam, when Andrew blatantly copied Harry’s answers, Harry let him.

Thanks for helping me out, Andrew had said after class. And like an idiot, when he asked to repay him with drinks, Harry said yes. Their first date he took him to a club, got so smashed he threw up twice, and spent the rest of the night on Harry’s couch.

It was a wonder Harry ever agreed to see him again.

But there were good sides to him too. He was a musician, and though Harry never liked his music much, Andrew taught him how to play a bit of guitar. He was kind and funny too. And the second date went a lot better, mostly because he felt so badly about the first.

The truth still stood, that from the very beginning, Harry always had a niggling in his gut, had always been dodging warning signs, and never once was there a point he felt absolutely certain of him.

He throws his shot back and stands. “I’m going to drink by myself in my apartment.”

Ed scoffs. “I’m not wrong then, is what you’re saying,” he says. “So, tell me this...”

Harry waits for him to go on, completely bored with this conversation, tipsy but not drunk enough, and eager to fix that once he’s alone.

“Did you ever feel that way about Louis?”

Harry’s heart and lungs still for a moment. He frowns, gaze dropping to the floor.

The answer, of course, is no. Even when it was clear that Louis was a flirt and even after he shamed the raw food selections at his bookstore, Harry never felt anything other than curious. And soon enough, curiosity turned to admiration. And admiration turned to enchantment. And now the whole thing looks alarmingly like love.

But never once did he feel wrong about Louis.

“What am I supposed to do?” he asks Ed, quietly. “Tell me, please? Because I haven’t a clue.”

Ed’s bright eyes fill with sympathy. “Don’t give up? You’ll figure the rest out from there.”

Harry pushes his glass toward Ed. “How about another drink to encourage me?”

Ed laughs, pouring him another. “Last one, seriously.”

Harry nods, putting the rim to his mouth. His eyes are damp but neither of them speak about it, which he appreciates. He wipes the back of his hand beneath his nose. He finishes the drink off and sets the glass down and exhales. “Okay.”

 

゚*・✧°・゚*・

 

January 6, 2016

Stella removes her glasses, attached to a beaded strap around her neck, and lets them rest on her chest. “What are you thinking about now?” she asks, setting her newspaper down.

Harry looks at her. He lowers the book in his hands. “I’m reading.”

“No you aren’t,” Stella stays. “You’ve been staring at that one page for a whole minute.”

He breathes a soft laugh. “I’m thinking... about what we should do when you get out of here,” he says. “Maybe we’ll go to Portland for the book fair again.”

When Stella smiles, Harry’s own smile dims. He looks away so she won’t see. His suspicion grows worse each time such an exchange happens. She still won’t tell him what’s wrong. She hasn’t even told her own daughter. Stella has always been a secretive person. Harry just never expected it to cause him as much trouble as it does now. It’s one thing to know someone is deathly ill. It’s another thing entirely to simply suspect. The Grim Reaper could be waiting just outside the door and he doesn’t even have a clue.

He tries to tell himself that that’s just life. Vitality is fleeting for all of us. But it never helps. One of his best friends might literally be dying and it doesn’t comfort him to know that, in a way, we all are.

“I’d love to go to the book fair, but I don’t think that’s what you were thinking about,” Stella says. “Your eyes were a little swollen this morning. You look like you haven’t slept.”

“I’m worried about you,” Harry says.

“Sure you are. But that’s not it either,” she says, staring curiously at him. “Is it him again?”

Harry looks down at his hands in his lap. He sighs heavily and suddenly, his eyes are stinging once again. Funny, he thought he’d run out of tears. “He left yesterday.”

“And went where?” Stella asks.

Harry shrugs. “I have no clue. He just says he can’t do it anymore. He took my goldfish.”

“That bastard,” Stella snarls. “I always told you you could do much, much better.”

“And yet I got him,” Harry says. He tries to laugh but the tears ruin it for him. He covers his face with his hands. He feels Stella’s hand come to rest on his shoulder and rub his back like his own mum would if he were home. Times like these he regrets the distance from his family, but Stella has always been there to fill the void for him, as she does now.

“I don’t know what to do,” Harry mumbles, drying his face with the end of his t-shirt. “I wasted four years of my life on him. My heart is broken. I feel like a fucking idiot and I feel used. I feel lonely. It’d be better if I didn’t have a heart at all.”

“What would the next man do then?” Stella wonders. “If he comes and finds you with no heart.”

Harry looks at her. “There is no next man. There’s just me. I’m getting myself a cat. I’m going to turn the spare room into a library like I’ve always wanted and I’m going to be happy.”

“That was the wrong answer,” Stella says. “You were supposed to say he’d find it for you.”

“You’re too poetic,” Harry says with a laugh. He sniffles and gratefully accepts a few tissues from the box Stella extends to him.

“It’s poetic and prophetic,” Stella says, lifting her brows. “I believe that some charming little man is going to come along and love you the way you’re supposed to be loved. And the only way he’s going to do it is by seeking your lost heart and finding it.”

Harry’s eyes brim again. “What if he can’t?”

Stella smiles. “The right one will,” she says. “You’ll know it when he does.”

Harry exhales a quivering breath. He sets his head to the hospital bed and shuts his eyes. Stella’s hand sorts through his curls.

“Please tell me you’re going to be alright,” Harry mumbles.

Stella is quiet for a little while. When Harry opens his eyes and looks at her, the truth is there in the dark brown of her eyes. His heart sinks.

“I know that you’re going to be alright,” Stella says. “Which means that I will be too.”

 

゚*・✧°・゚*・

 

Oddly enough, the idea comes to him by way of a Passenger song called Scare Away The Dark.

He’s been drowning himself in music for the past hour, earphones plugged into his ears because it’s a slow period at the bookshop, and when there’s too much silence and too few tasks to occupy him, his mind wanders to Louis. Which is also why he coded and reordered all of his books at home, and bought a cactus, and started rewatching The Office.

So this song comes on while he’s listening to a playlist on Spotify, simply titled “No Fear,” a playlist he chose primarily because it featured “Come on Eileen.” Yes, he’s pathetic but point him to one person who would be surprised.

He makes it through four songs before this one comes on and he’s just nodding his head along when the lyrics start to hit him, one word after the other, like blows to the face.

We should laugh, we should cry,

We should love, we should dream

We should stare at the stars and not just the screens

You should hear what I’m saying and know what it means

To sing, sing at the top of your voice,

Love without fear in your heart.

Feel. Feel like you still have a choice

If we all light up we can scare away the dark.

They speak to him, perhaps more clearly than even Ed did a few days ago. They speak to him of being brave and seizing freedom wherever he can find it. He feels his heart open like an eagle’s wings and he straightens his back a little and breathes deeper than he has for the first time in days. He breathes in the smell of books, and cedar from the desk, and California air drifting in through the open shop windows. He had forgotten the magic of music. The way it can take us from somber to soaring in a nanosecond. He’d forgotten.

He feels lighter, like he could morph into a sparrow and float off and away from here. And maybe, hopefully, end up wherever Louis is. He plays the whole song again, seizing that hope and holding tight to it.

Then he gets to this verse:

It's the meaning of life and it's streamed live on YouTube

But I bet Gangnam Style will still get more views

We're scared of drowning, flying and shooters

But we're all slowly dying in front of fucking computers

He knows the songwriter is making a point about people forsaking the simple joys of life for what’s behind a computer screen. He knows it’s similar in a way to the point Louis made about writing in a journal versus writing digitally. Harry knows that, but an idea occurs to him in spite of it.

The fact is that half the world at this very second is sitting in front of a computer screen or a phone screen. Half the world is tweeting or chatting on some other medium (or reading this story). And maybe they aren’t slowly dying. That might be a little extreme. But they’re here, on the world wide web, and they’re accessible.

Perhaps...even Louis.

Harry has to play it again, just to strengthen his resolve, though it’s already quite strong and so clear now like the stars on a summer’s night. He knows what he has to do. And he knows, if he does it right, it could solve everything.

He sucks in another deep breath and lifts his phone off the countertop, punching in Niall’s number, and waiting while it rings. Niall answers right away.

“Hi,” Harry says. “I need a favor.”

 

゚*・✧°・゚*・

 

This all seemed so much easier in his head. Make the video. Upload the video to Youtube. Find Louis. Obviously, there’d be more involved. But in his head those things aren’t such a massive pain in his arse.

First, there’s the issue of lighting. They try recording at Harry’s apartment but it’s too dark and he looks more melancholic than he’s aiming for. Outdoors doesn’t work either because it’s too bright and washes him out. Their next attempt is the bookstore, and surprisingly enough, that works best.

The nook in the back has just the right amount of light, and a small couch where Harry sits, mentally preparing himself for the task at hand.

The other thing they didn’t account for, though?

The number of times Harry can flop on one recording.

Take One

“Hi, I’m Harry! And I have a favor—”

He pauses.

“That was too abrupt.”

Take Two

“Hi, I’m Harry Styles—” He purses his lips. “Should I say my last name?”

“Probably,” Ed says. “Not having Louis’ last name is part of the problem. Best to play it safe…”

“Right,” Harry says. “Let’s go again.”

Take Three

“Hello! I’m Harry Styles.” He searches for his next words and can’t find them. “And…”

He licks his lips, brows wrinkling. “Um…”

Niall and Ed lean forward, waiting.

“And…” Harry tries once more, narrowing his eyes. He’s got nothing. “Fuck.”

Take Seven (Kind of…)

He shuffles through the pages of his notebook.

“I wrote this all down. A whole speech. I have no idea why it’s so bloody hard to say it now…”

Not even a take, honestly. Just Harry questioning his existence.

“He was amazing. His eyes. The freckles. That little wispy lock of hair...”

He drops his face into his hands.

“How about you just start talking?” Niall suggests. “We can edit later. Don’t overthink it. Just start talking and see what happens.”

Harry lifts his head, blowing his fringe away from his mouth. “Sure.”

Take Nine (after a shot of tequila and fresh air)

“Hi,” Harry says. He waves to the camera once and sets his hand on his lap.

“My name’s Harry Styles… I’ve never done anything like this before and I don’t know if it’ll work or if this video will just get lost in the void or…something. But I have a favor to ask of you… As in, everyone who watches this. And hopefully there’ll be a lot of you, because otherwise this won’t work.”

He exhales, smiles.

“A few days ago, I met someone named Louis. He’s got brown hair, blue eyes and a nice smile. And the best laugh, the kind that makes you laugh too, even if you don’t know what’s funny. And he was always laughing or making others laugh, which was one thing I liked most about him. I liked most things about him. Everything, really… Um, he writes poetry. I have his notebook here, see?” He holds up the leather bound notebook for the camera. He taps the cover. “All, or most, of his poems right here. He collects books too, which is how we met. He visited my bookstore, looking for this particular book. Anyway, he has a lot of tattoos as well. Sort of silly ones, like a game of tic-tac-toe or a stickman on a skateboard.” He trails off, thinking. “And he’s also a pretty, like, fantastic kisser?”

Niall and Ed laugh. Harry covers his face with his hands.

“We’ll cut that bit out,” he tells them, and goes on. “So, anyway, we spent the day together recently. I couldn’t get rid of him. And then eventually, I didn’t want to. I had more fun with him than I’ve had in a long time. Some awful things have happened to me this year. I lost a best friend. I lost hope in love. And then Louis came along…and changed everything.”

He rakes his hair back and continues, “The reason for this video is that he’s, by far, the most amazing person I’ve ever met. I don’t think I told him so enough times. And now I might not get the chance to. Because I seem to have lost him…" Unsmiling, he adds, “Seriously.”

Ed and Niall laugh to themselves. Harry laughs too. And then sighs heavily.

“As pathetic as it sounds, I have his first name. I have this journal. And that’s about it. No way of contacting him. And it’s possible he isn’t even in the US anymore.

“So. That’s where you come in. I know this is crazy and ridiculous. I know this might not even work. But if I don’t try, I’m pretty sure I’ll be missing out on something really incredible and then maybe I'll just be miserable for the rest of my life. If nothing else, I’d like to at least return this book to him. I’m sure he misses it. My hope is that if this reaches enough people, it’ll reach him.”

Harry smiles. “Right. So, if there’s anyone out there who knows who he is or if you’re him, if you’re Louis and you’re seeing this, my number is here below this video. It’d be great if no one spammed me or anything because that’d be pretty mean. But I’m here in LA. And if you still feel...anything at all, I’m here waiting for you.”

He exhales a big breath.

“Thank you all for listening. Bye!” He gives another wave for the camera. Niall ends the recording and Harry collapses sideways on the couch, exhaling a big breath of relief. He peeks at Niall and Ed. “How was that?”

Ed grins, shooting two thumbs up.

“I don’t know, mate.” Niall shrugs. “I think, if that doesn’t get him running back to you, he’s an idiot.”

 

゚*・✧°・゚*・

 

His sister comes in for a brief stay the next afternoon. He swears he isn’t feeling like having company at all until he sees her and feels significantly better. Once they’ve left the airport, she turns suddenly in the passenger seat and stares at him.

“So…” She pushes her shades up into her dyed gray hair. “Watched your video while I was waiting for my flight.”

“I’m disappointed. I expected questions from you the second I uploaded it,” Harry replies.

“I figured I’d ask in person. Care to explain?”

“You mean more than I did in the actual video?” Harry questions.

He feels her glaring. “Give me the outtakes.”

He focuses for a moment on driving, changing lanes, and making his next turn. He reaches out and turns the radio down. “I think I’m in love,” he says. “Without knowing too much about the feeling, I’m pretty sure this is it. To explain fully would be to get into a lot of talk about fate and soulmates. But what it comes down to is that I just feel right about him. I feel certain.”

Both of Gemma’s brows shoot upward. “You don’t think you’re moving too fast? Saying you’re in love with someone you only knew for a day?”

Harry’s fingers flex around the steering wheel. “I’ve thought about that. But the fact that I haven’t stopped thinking about him once since he left, and that I’m going out of my way just to see him again, says no. I feel like I’m not moving fast enough, like I’m letting him slip away.”

Gemma stares wide-eyed at him, speechlessly sifting through his words. It takes a moment before she says quietly, “You’re ready for a relationship so soon? After what you’ve been through this year?”

“I’m ready for him,” Harry says. “For how he makes me feel. How life feels around him. I want that again, preferably for a long time. That’s it. I know it’s crazy. But he changes everything.”

“Was the sex that good?”

Harry laughs. “It was phenomenal. But it’s not about that, I swear,” he says. “I’m in love with him. And when I see him again, I’m going to tell him so. And that’s it. That’s the best I can do. I just want to see him again.”

Gemma sighs, lifting her phone. Her thumbs move over the screen while Harry shoots glances between her and the road ahead. “Done,” she says. “Retweeted.”

Harry smiles warmly and pats her knee. “Thank you.”

“Of course. Have you spoken to mum?” she asks.

“She emailed me this morning,” Harry says. “With like fifteen questions for me to answer when she calls later.”

Gemma laughs. “Good luck.”

“I don’t think I’ll need it,” Harry says, grinning. “Won you over quite well, didn’t I?”

“Only a little. Hopefully, Louis wins us over too,” Gemma says.

He likes the sound of that. He likes the thought of Louis having that chance, knowing that he would win Harry’s family over without difficulty. Even talking about it now makes this all feel more real, and despite the lack of attention the video has gotten, and how silly Harry still feels about the whole thing, he takes that strand of hope in his hands and holds tight.

 

゚*・✧°・゚*・

 

Three days pass after the video goes up. The results are discouraging. Even after Harry, Ed, Niall, and Gemma retweet the link, it doesn’t garner many views at all, just a lot of questions from friends and family.

He and Gemma are on the couch, sharing a tub of ice cream, when he gets a Twitter notification to his phone. He barely glances at it, too invested in The Blue Lagoon playing onscreen to care about much else. Then Gemma’s phone buzzes too and she squeals.

“What?” he questions, mouth full.

Gemma slaps at his shoulder. “Look at your phone!”

He reaches for the phone beside his lap and squints at the screen. He needs his glasses, but not so much that he can’t make out the words there.

Zayn Malik retweeted…

Harry chokes on cookie dough pieces, dropping the tub of ice cream on the coffee table. He scrambles for his laptop and his glasses, pausing The Blue Lagoon. He pulls up Twitter quickly, pushing his glasses roughly onto his face, and finds the tweet right there on Zayn’s feed.

His phone chimes again and then six more times in rapid succession and then ten more times immediately afterwards. Harry counts them until he can’t anymore. The phone keeps chiming. For the first time ever, Harry’s notifications are in the double digits.

“Oh my God,” he gasps, clapping a hand to his mouth. He feels his sister’s arms slip around his shoulders and squeeze him.

His phone starts ringing, and Niall’s number is there across the screen. Harry lifts the phone to his ear and Niall starts shouting right away, about Twitter, and Zayn, and how he’s “definitely in love with him” and Harry laughs, dropping his head to Gemma’s shoulder. All three of them laugh and laugh. The hope grows until it’s ready to split him open.

Because this is it. This is exactly the boost he needed.

 

゚*・✧°・゚*・

 

Within hours, his follower count triples, and then triples again. Zayn must convince all of his friends to retweet the video, friends from his personal life and from the industry. Aunts and uncles, big name singers and smaller ones, actors and actresses. He even retweets it again the following day.

Zayn Malik (@Zayn): Sick video! Help him out? #findinglou

Harry thanks him profusely. In spite of Zayn’s help, he keeps expecting things to slow down but they never do. The momentum builds and builds until #FindingLou starts trending on Twitter. Gemma sadly leaves the day after but she sends him an article from Buzzfeed when she’s back in London, and promises to write one of her own for the Debrief.

How cute is this? reads the Buzzfeed article by Matt Bellassai. Let’s help this man find the love of his life.

The pomp of it all makes Harry blush and scroll onward. The article includes the video and tweets from Zayn and a few others. It implores its readers to retweet. “It’s basically our duty to help this man, for the sake of love,” the writer says in conclusion. “But hey, if he never finds his Louis, I’m available too!”

As embarrassing as it is, that article starts trending on Facebook and Tumblr. Tyler Oakley talks about it in his video of the week. Fucking Sam Smith retweets Harry’s link and Nick Grimshaw and Ellie Goulding and it just never slows down. #FindingLou is global by the end of the week.

He gets so many calls he has to get another phone with a separate line so that his family and friends can actually reach him. People show up to his bookstore, which is a little alarming at first, but they all turn out to be quite friendly.

He sees it on TV. He hears about it on the radio. The first time someone recognizes him in public, Harry spends the rest of the day in disbelief.

Sitting in his office on the second day of Week Two, he signs onto Twitter to once again check his mentions, and finds them as they usually are lately — a mixture of skepticism and kindness...and a marriage proposal or two.

Leonora Geisler (@richterschaling): @summertimeharry is hot af. My computer is sweating.

James Mower (@jellybeanjames): @summertimeharry i would be the louis to your harry anyday. dm me.

Kitty Cosenza (@thecatburglar5522): @summertimeharry marry me??

We Love Harry (@weloveharrystyles): @summetimeharry hoping today is the day you find him!

Flushed and flustered, he crafts his own tweets.

Harry Styles (@summertimeharry): Really overwhelmed by the amount of support I’ve gotten! Thanks so much.

Harry Styles (@summertimeharry): Can’t really handle the volume of calls! so I have an email address now! harry@summertimebooks.com

Harry Styles (@summertimeharry): Look forward to hearing from you. All the love!

It only takes two minutes before he gets his first email. He walks away to check on the shop and by the time he comes back, he has ten more. They’re all just tokens of encouragement or admiration. He appreciates them, of course. But so far, those messages are the only kind he’s gotten. No one has found Louis. It seems no one even has a clue where to start looking.

He’s just about to trudge back to the front desk when his Macbook chimes again. He opens the messages reluctantly and adjusts his glasses.

To: Harry Styles

From: Eden Prowse

Subject: A Clue?

Harry’s heart stills. He hurries to the office door and pushes it closed. When he returns to the desk, he’s leaning forward this time, eyes narrowed as he reads.

Hello, Harry!

It took me a while but I finally worked up the courage to contact you. I watched your video a day ago and tried calling soon after, knowing you get too many calls to see just one of mine. Then just now I saw your tweet with the email, and considered it a sign. I’m pretty sure I've met your Louis before and hopefully this information will be a little helpful to you.

Before I begin, an intro: When I was 11, I was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma, and told I wouldn’t live past 12. I’m 16 now, and each year, I live longer than they expect me to. It’s hard most days but there are days like today, when I’m just happy for more time with my family and friends and for opportunities to meet people like Louis.

In May, I went to this party I wasn’t supposed to. If my mum ever found out and I wasn’t dying, she would probably kill me herself. Ha! (Not funny, right? I never really am.) Anyway, I went to this party with my cousin, just to see what it was like, just to say I’d had a beer and danced until midnight and maybe met someone to have a first kiss with?

Except when I got there, it wasn’t at all what I expected. I think people were freaked out by me not having any hair or something? They watched me like I would keel over any minute. My cousin disappeared with a guy. I got a beer and took up a spot on the couch alone. No one spoke to me.

I was leaving. Who wants to be that kid crying at a party, right?? And as I’m passing through the door in tears, this guy smoking a cigarette goes, “Party’s not that bad, is it?”

So I explained to him. I don’t know why. Something about him said he was the kind to listen. Before I knew it, I’d given him a whole rundown about what I was doing there, and how old I was, and how my mother would kill me if I wasn’t already dying. He actually laughed, God bless him. I told him the beer wasn’t good and he took my cup, took a sip, and cringed. It was flat, apparently. So he got me back inside and poured me a fresh cup.

After that, he dragged me into a game of beer pong, me and him against two guys who looked reluctant to play with me. We beat them four times in a row. They wouldn’t give up. Then we beat three other teams too. He made me dance, and when I told him, I couldn’t get too carried away, he demanded that the song be changed to something slow.

Reading over this, it sounds sort of romantic. But I figured he was much older than me, and I’m also pretty sure I’m gay? We talked about that too. He told me he was leaving New York the following day, but when he came back, and when I was old enough, he would take me to a gay bar, and maybe I’d have my first kiss then.

I wrote his number down on my hand but I was a little hungover the next morning and stupidly, washed my hands. He gave me his email too and I think it went something like: louist91@wessex.edu ??? but I tried emailing a month ago and I’ve never heard from him. :(

The way you spoke of his laughter and his love for books was enough to convince me that we might be speaking of the same person. But you also mentioned his tattoos. I remember the tic-tac-toe one definitely. And also a bird tattoo on his forearm?

It comes as no surprise what he’s done for you. You were unhappy prior to meeting him and so was I. And when he left, life seemed brighter for both of us. I think that’s how it is for anyone who meets him. I don’t think there’s anyone who spends a day with him and walks away unchanged.

The t in his email must stand for his last name? The 91, perhaps, his birth year? I don’t know if that will help at all. But I hope you find him, Harry. I really, really, really do. And when that happens, please tell him I said hi and thanks again.

Best of luck!

Eden

Harry removes his glasses and reclines in his desk chair. He reads the message again, then calls Gemma to read it aloud. It’s more than he’s gotten so far. Even without any concrete leads, it gives him another burst of hope. He sends a simple “Louis?” to the email Eden provides. And then he writes a response to Eden herself.

To: Eden Prowse

From: Harry Styles

Subject: Re: A Clue?

Hi, Eden! Thank you so much for your email. We definitely met the same person. I do remember the tattoos you mentioned. And somehow getting you to play that many games of beer pong is something I think only Louis would be capable of. He’s pretty amazing, right? Hearing someone else agree with me on that is more helpful than you know. I’ve been starting to think I dreamed him up.

I’m sorry to hear you haven’t been in contact with him either. If I find him, I’ll be sure to fix that.

Would you mind if I share your story online? Without including your name, of course.

Hope to talk to you soon!

Love,

H

 

゚*・✧°・゚*・

 

It all starts with Eden Prowse. After he posts her story that night and links to it on his twitter, it somehow sets off a chain of emails from people who claim to know Louis or have met him in the past. Some sound a little disingenuous. But there are others, which reference his tattoos, little traits and quirks that Harry never mentioned in his video.

A newly divorced man from Glasgow says Louis jumped into a bar fight with him, knowing they were both outnumbered. They got knocked around pretty good, but shared a blunt and a pint afterwards, and of course, ice for their bruises.

A man from New York said his conversation with Louis talked him off a ledge. He was a struggling, uninspired writer having one last drink at his favorite local bar until Louis struck up a conversation with him. They ended up seated in one of the booths while Louis took a look at his manuscript. “Never thought I’d say this but you write like Wilde,” he’d said. “You need to get yourself an editor and give this another go.” The man took his advice. A few hours later, he might not’ve been alive to do so at all.

There was a boy from Baltimore who said Louis fixed his skateboard and then taught him how to do his first ollie.

A woman from Vegas remembered Louis helping her with a song she was writing, and she repaid him by teaching him “Hey Jude” on guitar.

A young girl in Philly cried to Louis about her recently deceased mum and Louis spoke of his own dad dying too. He bought her ice cream, told her jokes about his wild childhood, and somehow before she knew it, she was laughing again.

None of these stories lead Harry to Louis. None of them are the great beacon in the sky he longs for. But they all confirm for him what he knows already. Louis is beautiful and remarkable. Each story that Harry collects leaves him a little more in awe than the last. Each one is evidence and proof that Louis is the kind of person everyone dreams about knowing. The kind of friend you crave. The one you’re never truly convinced is real.

 

゚*・✧°・゚*・

 

There's a smile on his face that’s been there all day, a result of several calls and emails with people who knew Louis to some degree, namely Noel Cosby. In Wales, Louis helped him find a way to propose to his girlfriend, and she, of course, said yes.

Even the call now with his mum has him laughing.

“Louis McPherson. You played footie with him a few times. You used to have a little crush on him too?” she says. “Don't act like you don't remember.”

“Sure I remember him,” Harry says. “But I'm about a million percent sure it isn't him.”

“You haven’t seem him in a while. He grew up well,” his mum assures him. “I'll send you a picture!”

“No need,” Harry says. “I'm friends with him on Twitter. Definitely not my Louis.”

Harry twists the key to the shop door and tugs on the latch to ensure it’s closed. Sliding the key into his pocket, he turns and freezes.

“Hey,” Andrew says.

Harry looks at him for five long seconds. Andrew fidgets.

“Mum,” Harry says. “Sorry. Let me call you back.”

Having to end a perfectly good talk with her only pisses him off more. He and Andrew stand there looking at each other. And then, Harry says, quietly and as calmly as he can manage, “Me not answering your calls isn’t an invitation for you to come visit me.”

“I didn’t think it was,” Andrew says. “I just want to talk.”

“About?”

“I watched your video,” Andrew replies. “Everyone’s been talking about it at work. My whole family’s seen it.”

“Good. Tell them to email me if they’ve got clues,” Harry says, starting toward the driver’s door of his car.

“So, you haven’t found him yet then?” Andrew questions, followed by what sounds alarmingly like a breath of relief. “You don’t know how happy that makes me. Harry— I can’t stop thinking about you. Ever since I called and I heard him on the phone, for the past two weeks, that’s all I’ve thought about, you being with someone else. But you haven’t found him — And I just, I feel like that’s a sign, baby. I feel like that’s a chance… For us. For us to try again. I want that, to try again, if you do.”

Harry looks around the street in search of the hidden cameras, the props, a fucking blimp in the sky, anything to signify what a joke this is. He sees nothing and says anyway, “You’re joking.”

“I’m not. I watched that video and— H, the passion I saw. That’s what we’ve been missing. That spark in your eye, that’s what I’ve wanted to see all this time. You never looked at me like that anymore. But I see it now.”

Harry pushes his hand into his hair and cradles his forehead in his palm. He waits while his heart rate steadies. “This conversation requires more self-control and patience than I have.”

“All I’m asking for is a chance,” Andrew says.

“You’ve had chances,” Harry reminds him. “I don’t have any more to give you.”

“I love you,” Andrew tries, sounding desperate.

“No, you don’t,” Harry says, quietly. He shakes his head. He almost feels sorry for him. “That passion you saw is for him. Because I love him. And you don’t love me at all, mate. You never did. I know you know that. I know that whatever it is that’s convinced you to come here will be gone by the next month. I know your feelings are probably a bit hurt right now, but I’m not sorry. I don’t think I have any reason to be.”

Something changes in him. The anger leaks from him and trickles away into the storm drain lining the street. “I truly hope that you find someone, and that you love them, and treat them well,” he says. “Because it’s such a good feeling, Drew. To really love someone is an amazing feeling.”

“You only knew him for a day,” Andrew says.

“It was more than enough,” Harry replies, opening his car door and climbing in. He pauses. “Also, we were literally engaged for years and it got us nowhere. I’ve done enough waiting.”

“It’s over then?” Andrew mutters. “Really?

Just before he shuts his door, Harry tells him, “It has been for a while.”

 

゚*・✧°・゚*・

 

The boys insist on coming over on Friday night of that second week. Harry doesn’t get much time for silence these days. As days pass without any solid lead on Louis, his family and friends grow more concerned. When his mum isn’t calling him, Gemma is. And when it’s not one of them, there are the boys, cramming themselves into his apartment with beer and pizza, and swearing not to mention “you-know-who” while there.

Oddly enough, Niall brings Zayn. No one knows exactly how to respond to him, or what to say without sounding idiotic. But once Ed pulls out a joint, they eventually forget his numerous Grammys or his recent single with Beyonce.

They’re gathered around the couch and the coffee table, the TV channel set for The Late Late Show when it starts up. Troye Sivan is on that night, along with John Mayer, and Rosario Dawson.

“So here’s the new story everyone’s talking about,” James says, about 20 minutes in. “Finding Lou, as the hashtag is called— Have you heard of it?”

“I’ve definitely heard about it,” Troye says. “My friends won’t stop tweeting about it.”

“I’ve watched the video, yeah,” John says.

“What did you think about it, Troye?” James asks,

“At first, I just kept scrolling past it,” Troye says. “‘Cause, you know, sometimes there’s this new meme or something, and you’re still so exhausted from the last one, you just ignore the next one. And finally, I actually watched the video by the guy, I think his name is Harry? Yeah, and I was floored.”

“I think everyone is the first time they watch it,” James says. “My wife thought it was really cute.”

“I mean, essentially—” John says. “it’s nice and all, but essentially, this is about a one-night stand, right? He calls the other guy a fantastic kisser. He’s blushing through the whole video. Come on. They had a really fun night, is my guess. And maybe it was so much fun that this Harry guy just wants it again. Happens all the time. Most people don't go making a video about it, but—”

Harry’s heart sinks. He keeps his eyes trained on the screen but he can feel the attention of the other boys in the room. His cheeks burn.

On screen, Troye makes a face, a scrunch of his nose, and shakes his head.

“I don’t think so, man. I think it’s more than that. They spent the whole day together. They got to know each other. I think maybe they fell in love or something. I don’t know. I think this is way more about love than sex.”

“Maybe more of a romantic story, not a raunchy one?” James says.

“That's what I think,” Troye says.

John shrugs. “Just saying, not too many one-night stands turn out that well. But I wish him luck.”

“Speaking of love...” James says, and then he switches gears to preview a clip of Troye’s upcoming music video.

Harry tunes out the rest of the show, sitting silently in front of the TV, waiting for it all to be over. When it finally is, Liam pats his shoulder.

“I’m fine,” Harry says, smiling. “He was actually kind of right, so…”

“Haz,” Niall begins.

Harry pushes himself to his feet. “I have to open the shop really early tomorrow. I’m off to bed. Lock the door up when you all leave?”

He doesn’t wait for an answer. He collects the empty beer bottles and the pizza box on the coffee table and shuffles off towards the kitchen to recycle them. He stands there afterwards, arms crossed tightly over his chest, taking one deep even breath.

By the time he makes it into the bathroom to brush his teeth and then into bed, the boys have left, his heart has stopped racing, and the need to cry has dissipated. Or so he thinks. He feels the tear slip down his cheek before he knows it's happening and shuts his eyes, turning his face into the pillow completely. Then he allows himself a moment he hasn't in days.

He’s exhausted.

Exposing his life and his heart to the world has gotten him nowhere, it seems.

After two weeks, he has 1,657,598 views on YouTube, 686,344 retweets, 783,921 likes, 1 potential book deal, and a very weary heart.

But still, no Louis.

 

゚*・✧°・゚*・

 

He wakes early the next morning, fueled by a need for fresh air and a moment to clear his head. There are still hours left before he needs to open up shop. He enters through the back door, into his untidy office, and with a heavy sigh that sinks his shoulders, he gets to work.

He pushes the windows open and lets the white curtains billow in the wind. He unpacks the first box of books and sorts them all by fiction, non-fiction, romance, sci-fi, young adult, etc. He doesn’t shelve them all but he gets them into neat stacks for when he’s ready to. He even builds a stack of books he wants to read himself.

For lunch, he has a peanut butter and banana sandwich, using the ingredients he keeps in a cupboard near the desk. Afterwards, he heads across the street with his books and his sandwich.

One thing Louis taught him was to appreciate the simple things, which is always easier said than done, but he has that day they spent together stuck in his memory as a guide.

So he reclines in that same spot he saw Louis all those weeks ago, kicks off his boots, and opens his book. He may not know where Louis is. He may not ever find him. But he feels him here anyhow. In the cool breeze teasing his hair, in the blossoms still blooming nearby, in the grass beneath him and the butterflies drifting above him.

 

 

PART III

 

 

June 18, 2016

6:10 AM

The only thing worse than waking up to a call that your father’s gone into cardiac arrest is waking up to that call and having to leave the arms of someone you’re already half in love with. He has to abandon the couch just to console his sister on the phone, voice quiet so he doesn’t wake Harry. Once he hangs up with her, he has to gather all his things and dress quickly and quietly.

And then he has to leave.

He studies Harry on the couch and nothing has ever proved more than difficult than this right here. He knew this was coming, perhaps not as quickly as it has. He hoped for at least two more days here in LA.

But he knew.

Harry’s face is a study in serenity. He’s a marvel, even as he sleeps, wild curly hair tumbling over the couch cushion, pink lips lax and lush.

And Louis has to leave him.

In the bedroom, he gathers his jeans. There’s a small notepad on the bedside cabinet. He scribbles a quick note, folds it, and leaves it by the lamp. It won’t be enough. He pictures Harry waking up without him and he knows what he’ll think. He also knows it’s better that way. It’s better than Louis telling him how he feels only to leave anyhow.

The sky is beginning to lighten. Louis grows nervous, worrying that Harry will wake before he’s gone. He doesn’t even finish lacing his shoes before he steps out of the apartment and into the hallway. It’s only as he’s starting down the stairwell that he remembers his journal. But he’s locked the front door behind him already, and to knock would mean to wake Harry. Caught in a Catch 22, he chooses to continue down the steps, mourning the loss of all the poems he hadn’t yet copied to his computer.

He takes a cab to Niall’s, uses the key Niall loaned him, and slips inside. The bedroom door is closed but he thinks he can still hear Niall snoring. He gathers his rucksack, sets the key on the table by the door and leaves for the airport.

His bank account is depleted by the time he pays for the ticket, even what he had in his savings, which wasn’t much to begin with. But he gets a flight home leaving in the next two hours.

He thinks of his dad then, when the realization of what he’s about to do sets in. He thinks about seeing him face-to-face for the first time in a year. He imagines how he’ll look, how much different he’ll be, and if he’ll even be conscious enough to know who Louis is.

All he hopes is that the bastard hangs on long enough for him to get there. He hopes he has a chance to say good riddance.

 

゚*・✧°・゚*・

 

His family is waiting at Park Hill Hospital. He finds them huddled together in a row of chairs. His mum is in the middle of Lottie and Fizzy, the two oldest, cradling one of the twins, Daisy, in her arms. It’s Phoebe who happens to look up and see him first. She slips out of the chair quickly and runs to him, catapulting into his arms. He stoops low and squeezes her back, pressing a kiss to her cheek.

“Hi, love,” he murmurs. The rest of his family takes notice of him then too. Daisy scrambles out of his mum’s arms and heads for him. Fizzy eventually joins them. Lottie is the last to make her way over, looking at Louis with a tentative smile. Louis puts Phoebe down and tugs her close.

“Sorry I took so long…”

She shakes her head, pressing her forehead to his shoulder. “You’re here now.”

By the time he gets over to his mum, there’s a doctor standing there with her, speaking with her quietly.

Her eyes are downcast as she nods. “Thank you for all of your help.”

Louis’ heart sinks. His plan has always been to miss this part altogether. He hoped to be on a beach somewhere when it finally happened, preferably intoxicated. The last thing he expected is to be here at the onslaught of his father’s passing, too late and shockingly sad about that fact.

Then his mum looks at him. “He’s not likely to last through the night,” she says quietly. “He’s awake now but he can’t talk.”

It’s not relief that floods him. He doesn’t feel any lighter. But he does takes a deep breath for the first time since he arrived. He releases Lottie and takes a step toward the room, only to be halted by his mum’s hand on his arm. She tugs him back and presses a kiss to his cheek.

“I’m glad you’re here,” she says.

Louis quirks his lip. He can’t say “me too” because that would be a lie.

When he steps into the room, it’s as though he’s crossed a canyon to get there. The moment feels momentous. That first step across the threshold shifts one era into the next. He made it this far. At least now the man can see his face.

His dull eyes are focused on Louis right away, far from listless like he’d expected.

Louis swallows around the lump in his throat and strolls further into the room, hands stuffed in his pockets. He takes a seat in the chair by the hospital bed, feeling the man’s eyes on him still. He sits in silence for several minutes, wishing his dad would stop staring. He clenches his jaw and cracks his knuckles, muscles in his neck winding up tightly. He’s not going to sit here and just be watched. If it’s a show his father wants, he’ll give him one.

“I’m gay,” he says suddenly. He looks at him. “I never told you that because I never thought you’d care. And I didn’t think you had a right to know, even though I’m sure you always suspected. But I just want you to know now. I’m gay. I’ve always been gay. I’m always going to be gay. And I’m very happy about that.”

His dad just looks at him. Louis knows he can’t do anything else.

“Also, I still think back to that championship game. When I made the winning shot and you weren’t there. Because by then you’d packed your bags. You left while I was at school, waiting for you. You know, when I was a kid, I thought I was being selfish for wanting you to be there. I told myself it wasn’t a big deal, that I should be grateful I had a dad at all. That’s an awful fucking thing for a kid to have to feel: that they’re selfish for wanting their dad to be proud of them.”

Louis wants to shut up now but he can’t. His eyes burn and his nostrils flare. He looks down at his lap. “I used to call you and hang up. And I wrote you letters that I never sent. Sometimes I’d get angry at you and have arguments with you in my head. ‘Cause all I wanted was a chance to just tell you how much you’d hurt me and my family. But I never even got that. You came back and it was like nothing happened. You never even said sorry.”

Louis shakes his head, dragging his hand over his eyelids. They look at each other and Louis waits for something else to come to him but nothing else does. He can’t think of anything else he needs to say. So he sits there for a while, just looking at him or looking at his hands clamped together atop his stomach. He needs a cigarette and a drink. He needs this man to pass on so he can finally be free of the shit and the misery that’s been growing like an infection in his chest.

“’M sorry.”

If the room weren’t dead silent, he might have missed it.

His dad swallows roughly. It looks painful for him even to do that. Those words are the only ones he can manage. He doesn’t have the strength to say anything more.

Louis’ eyes lock on him. He’s stunned silent while in his head, he dabbles with the impossibility of this moment. He searches for responses. He tries to build outcomes. He fails.

He doesn’t forgive him. That’s the first fucking thing he settles on. If this is meant to be the grand moment of redemption and reckoning, Louis isn’t on board. He can’t do that. He won’t do that.

He stares at him and his father stares back with glassy eyes and a trembling mouth.

Louis finds himself nodding. His eyes fill quickly and suddenly with tears, and he nods. He lets his father see him nod, dragging his arm across his eyes. His decision, it seems, is to let him know it’s okay. It’s all going to be okay.

The sob that slips out of his mouth catches him by surprise. His father too. He watches Louis with wide eyes, swimming with tears. Louis grits his teeth and tries to force it all back down.

But he can’t. Years and years of hatred and longing crawl outward with nowhere else to go. And Louis sobs. He crumples over the edge of the bed. He grips his father’s bony hand, hard enough to hurt. He almost wants to hurt him. He wants him to feel the agony. He wants him to know what it’s like to receive an apology much too late, when there’s nothing left, when there’s no chance to turn things around.

He hates his father, he does. But there’s a part of him that still loves this man too, or loves what could have been. And that part aches so badly he wishes he could claw it from his body. In a way, that’s what he’s doing now—pouring it out and laying it there to pass away too.

His father squeezes back as strongly as he can, which isn’t strong at all. He can’t speak or comfort him, although his body trembles like he might be crying too. Louis doesn’t look. He keeps his head pressed against the hospital bed. It’s all he can do while wracked with tears.

When he’s worn himself out, when his throat is sore and his eyes are swollen, he still holds onto his dad’s hand. He rests his head on the bed, blinking tiredly at him. He can almost feel the life draining from the man’s body and he never lets go until he has to.

 

゚*・✧°・゚*・

 

By now, Louis is used to taking over for his father. He did it enough when he was alive. It’s no different now, except that his siblings cling more desperately to him than ever.

They’re all still dressed in funeral garb. Louis has removed his suit jacket but his tie hangs loosely around his neck, the first two buttons of his shirt undone. Daisy, in her black and white dress, is asleep on his lap, her head rested on his chest. Fizzy snores with her head against his shoulder. Lottie has taken the other end of the couch, but her toes are tucked beneath his thigh, and Phoebe is snuggled up under her arm.

The other difference between now and then is that Louis doesn’t plan on going anywhere. There isn’t enough room on this couch for all of them, but he’s fine where he is, where he belongs. He holds his sister close in his arms and focuses vaguely on the movie on screen. It’s finishing up now and he can’t even remember what it was in the first place. But he uses it to pass the time, hopeful about falling asleep eventually, even if he doesn’t feel tired at all.

“What’s the new tattoo for?”

Louis turns his head and meets Lottie’s eyes in the darkness of the living room.

“Thought you were asleep.”

“I’m not,” she answers. Which, obviously. Louis rolls his eyes. “What’s it for?”

Louis shrugs, looking down at the bird on his arm because he’s pretty sure that’s the one she’s speaking of. “Just a fat bird, really.”

“I like it. Reminds me of you,” Lottie says.

Louis raises his brows. “I remind you of a fat bird? Bit rude, innit?”

Lottie laughs, jostling Phoebe a bit when she does. But their sister stays asleep.

“You remind me of a bird. Like an actual bird in the sky, not a lady,” she says. “You’ve always wanted to, like, spread your wings and all that.”

“Poetic,” Louis deadpans. There’s a smile tugging at his lips though. Lottie sees it and she smiles back.

“I have something even better. Wanna hear?”

“I’m not sure,” Louis says. “If you pull some roses-are-red-violets-are-blue shit, I’m leaving.”

Lottie laughs. “None of that,” she says. Pauses. “I’m glad you decided to fly back home.”

He looks at her, thoughts drifting silently between them, as they remember their childhood, their family and their father, bonding without having to speak a word of it.

“Me too, love,” Louis says, turning back toward the TV. And that’s all they have to say. In another five minutes, Lottie is asleep. Louis tries to get as comfortable as he can on the couch but it’s not so easy. He doesn’t expect to have much of a rest tonight anyhow.

He watches the next movie that comes on and flips the channel to catch early morning reruns of 90’s television. He stays awake until the sky begins to turn blue and birds croon faintly somewhere beyond the windowpane. His eyes feel heavy, his body weak, and he’d love to head upstairs to his own bed.

Still, he doesn’t move or attempt to wake the girls.

There’s a point where he shuts his eyes and dreams for what feels like only five minutes. But when his eyes flutter open, Daisy is tucked in the arms of his mother, who looks down at him with a warm smile.

“Up to bed, Lou,” she says, as if he’s still just a boy. She brushes her hand over his forehead, pushing his hair away from his eyes. The TV is off and Lottie is shuffling up the stairs with Phoebe on her back. Fizzy is gone too.

“Come on, love,” his mum coaxes. With a yawn, Louis pushes himself to his feet, feels his mum press a hand against his back. It must be six in the morning or so. He isn’t interested in knowing for sure. He gives his mum a sleepy smile before he starts up the stairs and collapses minutes later in his childhood bed.

 

゚*・✧°・゚*・

 

Sometimes his mind drifts to Harry. (Read: All of the time.)

When that happens, he’ll sort through the two photos he has on his phone of them standing at Hollywood Reservoir. Sometimes he reads through The Importance of Being Earnest. He doesn’t look Harry up online, or visit the bookstore’s website. Perhaps at some point in the future, he’ll reach out, just to see how he is. But to do so now would be unfair to them both.

Mostly, he keeps himself busy those next few days by looking after his family and helping out where he can. He takes on the role of chauffeur, driving the girls to football practice, and always stays afterwards to help out with the team. He takes them for ice cream one night and Nando’s the next. He patches up the leak in the roof over the kitchen. He fixes the rickety wooden swing in the backyard. He spends a night at Stan’s playing FIFA and drinking cheap local beer until his stomach hurts. He throws out some junk from his childhood bedroom, and reorders and shelves his books.

He finds plenty to occupy his time. But there are always seconds to pause between one activity and the next. And whenever they come, he thinks always of Harry.

 

゚*・✧°・゚*・

 

By some miracle, a whole two weeks pass.

He wakes Sunday morning of the third week to rain and the sound of his phone buzzing every three seconds on his bedside table. He reaches for it. Before his fingers can even brush the screen, there’s a knock on his door.

“Louis,” his mum pokes her head in. “Decent?”

She hasn’t stopped asking since she walked in on him at sixteen with his first boyfriend atop him. Seriously, awkward for everyone involved.

“Decent,” he assures her.

“Want to come down for breakfast?” she asks, stepping inside. “Made you a cup of tea.”

“Yeah, I’ll be right down,” he says, forgetting the phone. “Keep it warm for me?”

She smiles and leaves him to take a speedy shower. He doesn’t bother to wash his hair. It takes him a little over ten minutes before he’s enroute to the kitchen. He finds his siblings gathered around the table or in the living room, watching the telly.

He helps himself to a scone and jam, grabs his tea, and squeezes into a spot on the couch beside Lottie.

“Have you looked at your phone?” Lottie asks. “Stan sent me a message. Said he texted you.”

Louis takes a bite of his scone. “About?”

“I don’t know,” Lottie mumbles. “Should check your phone.”

Louis sighs, looking at Phoebe, sitting in the armchair. He considers asking her to grab his phone for him. She’d most likely say no. But every now and then, he gets her on a good day.

The doorbell rings. Daisy hurries to get it, while they all crane their heads to see who’s there. Stan comes waltzing in, drenched in rainwater.

“Jesus, Louis,” he sputters. “Have you checked your phone?”

Louis groans. “Can I just wake up to some peace…”

“Check your bloody phone!”

Louis pushes himself up and out of the couch, while his family watches him. “Better have won a lottery,” he mumbles to himself, taking the steps two at a time.

Alone in his bedroom, he has to push his glasses on to read, and blinks a few times against the glare of the phone.

There are nearly twenty text messages waiting for him and another ten tweet notifications, most from people he hasn’t spoken to in months or even years.

One reads: Hi Louis. It’s Carrie Luston from 10th year. I saw this article this morning… You should take a look!

Rachel Evan (@raebae_evan): @L_Tommo I think this might be about you??

Another message from an unknown number: mate pretty sure this is about you!

Hey Lou. I think you might want to check this out?

Jimmy (@goldensnitchbabe): @L_Tommo LOUIS. READ THIS SHIT.

Louis! Have you seen this?

Check this out man!

Tommo!! Take a look at this!!

Ben Hoult (@thebennigan2): @L_Tommo Dude. Pretty sure you’re in this article...

And, of course, from Stan:

is this the bloke from LA u mentioned????

They all run together, containing the same link, which Louis clicks quickly with trembling fingers. His first thought is that something terrible has happened. That Harry’s been hurt or worse. It doesn’t make sense but logic fails him in that moment. A hundred horrifying scenarios crop up in its place.

The link is to an article published that morning in the Independent and listed in the Indy 100 for the top trending topics. “How Far This Man Went To Find Love” is the title. The pressure Louis feels in his chest morphs. Fear turns to anticipation. The article features a photo of him and Harry, the one of them wearing makeup, and a video. He taps it, watches it load, and rotates his screen as it starts up.

“Hi, I'm Harry Styles…”

Just seeing him there weakens Louis. He's more beautiful than he even remembers. His whole body begins to ache and he sinks to his bed.

Lottie rushes to his bedroom door. “Come down here quick.”

“Hang on,” Louis mumbles.

“You’re on TV,” she says. “Now! Come on, Louis.”

He feels overloaded by information as if a million camera flashes are going off at once. He follows Lottie down the steps but he barely feels his body moving. Next thing he knows he’s standing in the living room, where his whole family has gathered to watch This Morning on ITV. Stan is hovering by the door, arms crossed over his chest.

Holly Willoughby and Phillip Schofield are on screen. The frame is split and on the left panel is the same picture of him and Harry, wearing makeup.

“His name is Harry Styles. He's originally from the UK, and right now, he’s on this mission to find this man he met and fell in love with in LA,” Holly says. “He uploaded this video onto Youtube about two weeks ago and it’s just exploded. We have that video. So we’re going to play a bit of it for you now...”

And then Harry is on his television screen, just as he was on the phone.

“Hi, I’m Harry Styles…”

Louis sits on the edge of the couch and listens. He can’t look at anyone else, especially not when Harry begins to describe him. Definitely, absolutely not, when Harry says he’s a fantastic kisser. It doesn’t stop everyone from turning and staring at him. He feels their eyes on him but pretends otherwise.

At times, Harry looks heartbroken and somber, and those are the moments that hurt most. But they’re few and far between. Mostly, he looks hopeful, eager, and even incredulous, like he can’t believe he’s been driven to this point. And honestly, neither can Louis.

“The reason for this video is that he’s, by far, the most amazing person I’ve ever met. I don’t think I told him so enough times. And now I might not get the chance to. Because I seem to have lost him…” He pauses to shoot his audience a look. “Seriously.”

Laughter fills the small space of the living room. Louis quiets them so he can hear.

“...I know this is crazy and ridiculous. I know this might not even work. But if I don’t try, I’m pretty sure I’ll be missing out on something really incredible and then maybe I'll just be miserable for the rest of my life.”

Louis sets his hand over his heart. He has to when it aches.

“if you’re Louis and you’re seeing this, my number is here below this video… And if you still feel...something, anything at all, I’m here waiting for you.”

He says thank you and with a wave and a smile, the video ends. The hosts start talking again but Louis can’t hear them or anyone, really.

His family babbles around him, thrown into a frenzy with questions. He doesn't have any answers for them. He heads back up to his room with his entire family on his trail. He reaches his room and turns back. “I need a second,” he says, and shuts his door.

“Are you calling?” he hears them asking. “Louis! Are you calling him?”

He gets his MacBook onto his lap and starts typing.

In the two weeks that Louis attempted to drown himself in his family, over in the US, and even to some degree, here in the UK, a hashtag had caught like fire on dry land.

#findinglou

It includes links to the video, photos of strangers with Harry, articles, and copious tweets to @summertimeharry. That’s where Louis ends up next, looking at Harry’s latest tweet.

Harry Styles (@summertimeharry): Thanks again for the love and support. Still no good news to report.

Harry Styles (@summertimeharry): Keep all the stories coming. Love them and all of you!

Louis finds a link for the stories too. He’s taken to Harry’s blog, and a catalog of posts, all about himself. None of them were written by Harry. The earliest is from Eden Prowse. The name faintly rings a bell. It’s only as he begins to read that the bells turn to foghorns and whistles. He remembers her clearly when he’s finished: This girl wearing a baseball cap, rushing away from an admittedly boring house party. Louis, in fact, had been ready to leave himself. He scribbles her name down on his palm and reads on. He reads them all, laughing at times, suppressing sobs at others. He remembers the bar fight, the skateboard, the girl whose mother was dying.

He turns out to be wrong about the posts. There is just one from Harry, the very last one posted only hours ago…

Some people have asked how long I plan to keep this up, and the answer is that I don’t know! I hadn’t yet considered the possibility of having to give up. But with all the attention this has gotten and the lack of results, I spent the last day really giving it some thought.

I got to this depressing state of mind where I imagined Louis didn’t want to be found. Maybe he knew all about my manhunt and he’d chosen to ignore it. I’ve imagined scenarios in which he’s not even alive anymore. I’ve imagined him being secretly married with children. I’ve imagined him never existing at all.

I have my memories of him to disprove most of that. I know the person I spent my time with. I know that he’s kind and true, and I trust that he had good reason for taking off. I trust that if and when he knows I’m looking for him, he’ll find me. But sitting alone in my apartment or in my office, it isn’t always easy to think happy thoughts. Sometimes my imagination runs wild.

When that happens it’s so good to have stories like the ones that have been shared with me. They make this all even more real and amazing. They give me hope. And I think they prove what a wonderful person Louis is. I wish everyone in the world could meet him. I think we’d all come away from that experience as better people.

Even in the event that I never find him, I have these memories of him that I’ll cherish anyhow. Maybe our paths might even cross in ten years. Maybe not. I don’t know. Louis would say that about a lot of things and with him, it was okay. Not knowing is okay.

All the love,

H

Louis’ eyes sting again and there’s no time to stop the tears before they come. He abandons the laptop glowing in the dim space of his room to press his face into a pillow. He stays there, sniffling like a heartbroken adolescent. He is well and truly overwhelmed. He feels again like he’s in the hospital room, except this here is the outpouring of every event over the past three weeks, every bright thing and dark thing that has happened to him, and Harry most of all. Louis cries for Harry.

“Louis,” he hears his mum call through the door.

“I think he’s crying,” he thinks Daisy says. “Louis…”

He goes to the door, dragging the end of his t-shirt over his face. His family are all still crowded there. Ears having been pressed to the grain, they pull away in shame, and then their faces fall, seeing his own. He sniffs, running his hand beneath his nose.

“I need a drink,” he says, stepping past them.

“There’s a fresh bottle of wine in the fridge,” his mum says. Louis heads down the steps, into the kitchen, and pours himself the biggest glass they own. He’s brought his phone with him. His family trickles down the steps and into the kitchen, watching him warily. He understands they’re concerned but he already feels as if a millions eyes are on him. Another twelve is more than he can take. He lifts his phone, pulls up the number from the Youtube video, and lets it sit there on his screen for a moment.

He doesn’t even know why it’s taken him so long to get this far. The first thing he thought to do after seeing Harry’s face was to respond. He glances at his family, and decides that no, he can’t have an audience for this too.

“I need a moment,” he says, and leaves the room, ignoring their grumbles, as he steps into the backyard. They’re all probably still listening through the glass pane if possible. He taps the call button and waits.

“Hello.”

He opens his mouth to respond.

“This is Harry Styles. Sorry I didn’t pick up the phone. Promise I’ll try to next time. ‘Til then, leave me a message after the beep. Beeep!

What a dork. And how terribly anticlimactic. The phone beeps. Louis glances at it in offense. He coughs softly to clear his throat and speaks as clearly as he can.

“Hi, Harry. This is Louis...Tomlinson, since you were wondering,” he says. “Uh. You found me! As you guessed, I’m not in LA anymore. I’m home in the UK. My dad passed away actually. So that’s why I left in a hurry. I’m sorry that I left the way I did. Or that I didn’t leave a number. I had my reasons. None of them seem quite right now but…”

He licks his lips. “Anyway, give me a call back when you can. I’d love to talk. Bye.”

He misses a call from Harry while he’s polishing off his wine and blowing his nose in the bathroom. Harry leaves him a voicemail too, and at first, he’s laughing.

“I’ve not put my phone down once in the past two weeks,” he says breathlessly. “And just now, I happened to step away from it for two minutes and you called!  The one time I put the phone down! That’s incredible.” He sighs. “I’m so, so happy to hear from you. I’m sorry about your dad. Please call me back soon.”

Louis listens to the voicemail again, just to hear Harry’s laugh. He’s curled up on his mattress, fingers shaking as he punches the call button again. The line clicks on right away.

“Hello?”

Louis sits upright. “Hi.”

“Oh my God. Hi,” Harry breathes. “Hi.”

“Hi.” Louis laughs. “Fuck.”

“You are officially the world’s hardest person to get in touch with,” Harry says.

“Yes, well, I aspire to break the world record on everything, so. Sounds about right.”

Harry hasn’t stopped laughing since they started the call.

“Although,” Louis says. “I think the one we should be celebrating is you. You’re like on TV. And all over the internet. The world thinks you’re the most romantic person to ever live.”

“How about you?” Harry asks. “Do you think so too? Or are you actually really creeped out by this whole thing?”

“Are you kidding? I have a hashtag dedicated to me. I have fans. We have fans. I think that’s pretty incredible.”

“Someone called me yesterday about a book deal.”

“Fucking hell. What did you say?” Louis gasps.

“I told them I don’t know. I don’t know how to respond to any of this. I just wanted to find you.”

Louis tilts his head back, dragging his hand down his face. “Well, now you have…”

“Yes,” Harry says. “It’s so good to hear from you, Louis.”

“Even better from you,” Louis replies.

Harry takes two seconds before he speaks again. “I’m not as romantic as everyone thinks. I don’t know how to say this at all but I really need to say it now before something else happens. I guess, I kind of said it in the video. Did you watch that?”

“Me and my whole family. Which, by the way, fantastic kisser?”

“Um, yes. So anyway…” Harry plows on. “I told you that I liked you and I meant it. But it’s more than that.”

Harry doesn’t give him a chance to respond.

“I haven’t— I’ve not stopped thinking about you once since you left. Obviously. And I don’t think I’m likely to anytime soon. I don’t know if you feel the same but it’d be really great if you told me. So I can stop obsessing about it? Even if the answer is no…”

Louis is still just smiling like an idiot, his forehead cradled in his palm. “You have my journal right?”

Definitely not the question Harry was expecting. He seems caught off guard when he speaks again. “Um, I do. It’s right here beside me. Been carrying it around in case I ran into you.”

“How kind of you,” Louis says. “Have you opened it?”

“No. I’ve been tempted, definitely.”

“Go ahead and turn to the last page,” Louis tells him. “The last page I’ve written anything on.”

“Okay, one second.” He hears the ruffling of papers. “Okay. I’ve got it here.”

“Read it to me?”               

“Is this your way of turning me down?” Harry asks. “Because you can just say it, it’s fine.”

“Don’t even joke,” Louis says. “I have a point, I promise. Please, can you read it?”

“Okay,” Harry says after another moment. He begins to read:

give me your empty heart,

your burden and your pain.

all that has survived the hurt

is welcome with me.

Hearing the words tosses him back to the moment when he wrote them, sitting on a blanket at Venice Beach while Harry slept on. Even before knowing about Andrew, it was clear Harry had been hurt in the past, and he wanted him still. With all his guards and walls mounted, Louis wanted him.

Harry’s voice is deep and soft as he reads, so similar to that night.

give me your fleeting smile,

your bruised hand to hold.

though you stumble in the dark,

seek light here with me.

His voice changes in pitch and grows weak as he draws to a close.

there’s beauty where you think it lost.

there’s something in your eyes.

give me your all just as it is.

it’s home here with me.

He clears his throat but when he speaks, his voice still sounds the same. “That’s lovely, Louis.”

“I wrote it about you,” Louis says easily, without pause.

Harry is quiet for a moment. “Thank you,” he says, softly. He takes another pause, followed by a heavy breath. “I really need to see you again.”

“Me too,” Louis says. “But I can’t leave home right now. I’m not sure when I’ll be able to visit again if at all. My family needs me here.”

“I know,” Harry says. “Would it be alright if I come to you?”

There’s still time to stop this now. Louis knows he should. With little to no potential for a relationship, given the distance, this will only end in broken hearts. But just talking to Harry and seeing him in that video brings back a plethora of untapped feelings. The chance to have him in person again is a little too hard to pass up.

So he says, “Yes. More than alright.”

“I’ll be on the soonest flight I can get,” Harry answers.

 

゚*・✧°・゚*・

 

The rest of that day feels, in every way, like a reverie.

Louis finds himself shamelessly reduced to a kid with a crush. It’s 6 am over in LA when they have their first call and regretfully Harry has to open up the book shop. But he promises to call again during his lunch break, and Louis sits antsy with the rest of his family, waiting for him.  The second the phone rings, he’s gone, dinner forgotten.

Harry talks in detail about his crusade. He recounts for him where the idea came from in the first place and how crazy he’s felt for it along the way. He leaves again to see to the shop but ends his day early to call Louis after he’s locked up. By then, it’s 12 AM in Doncaster. Louis’ eyes are heavy from crying or staring at his computer screen all night. Being in bed with the covers to his chin doesn’t help either. He forces himself to stay awake anyhow.

“You should sleep,” Harry says.

“I can’t talk to you if I’m asleep,” Louis replies, eyelids drooping.

“Tomorrow comes faster if you sleep.”

“Touche,” Louis murmurs. He lets his eyes stay closed. He can’t open them again even if he wanted to. “See you tomorrow then?”

“Send me your address? I’ll get a ride to you.”

“No way, I’ll pick you up,” Louis says. “You get in a little after two, yeah?”

“I do,” Harry says.

Louis smiles. “I’ll be there.”

 

゚*・✧°・゚*・

 

The theory of their reunion is sweeter. Ideally, Louis would pull up to the airport and Harry would be there waiting for him. They would embrace and the moment would be every bit as beautiful as Louis imagined it being. But that's in theory.

In reality, Louis can't even start the car. He's sitting there with the steering wheel strangled between his hands and he thinks about the fact that he left Harry on a couch in LA for reasons that don’t seem as valid now as they did then.

As he's sitting there, he realizes that the reality can't be as sweet as he hoped because there's too much involved. There are explanations to be given and apologies to be made. Sooner rather than later. Needless to say, he’s terrified.

He gets the car started.

At least he has the drive to work through what he wants to say. He won’t have the chance at the airport. But afterwards, how long will it be until they finally have that talk? How long until he’s faced with the why, the how, or the what-were-you-thinking?

Pulling up at the arrivals terminal, he feels ill. He almost needs a paper bag to empty his lunch into. He’s nearly convinced to pop the car door open and do so on the tarmac.

Then, through the windscreen, he sees Harry. Harry looks around for a moment, raking a hand through his hair. He looks down at his phone and begins composing a message, Louis thinks. Louis opens the car door and steps out, all intentions of getting sick forgotten. Everything forgotten aside from Harry.

Then Harry sees him too and they’re just looking at each other, in this profound, cinematic moment.

“Hi,” Harry exhales.

Louis lifts his hand and gives a small wave. Harry makes an abortive movement, as if to step closer but he hesitates. It’s enough for Louis. It’s a call and he answers. He takes one step and Harry meets him with two. His arms come around Louis’ shoulders. Louis’ encamp his waist.

There aren’t any words to say right then. They simply hold each other and squeeze, like on the dance floor when every movement knitted them tighter and tighter.

“Someone must think we’re filming for a movie,” Louis says.

Harry laughs, unwinding himself slowly. “Did I mention I got an offer for a movie deal too?”

Louis’ mouth drops open. “You’re joking.”

Harry draws an “X” over his heart and shakes his head. “I said I’d talk it over with you. It’s with an indie film company, I think.”

“I have only one request,” Louis says. “I’d like to be played by Hugh Jackman.”

Harry snorts, covering his face with his hand. “Perfect choice,” he mumbles.

“I think so too,” Louis says. The flush of Harry’s cheeks recalls memories of LA, lying on a blanket at Venice Beach, or howling some song from the windows of Harry’s car. Harry looks at him, perhaps with the same recollections unfolding in his own head. Louis reaches for his duffle. “I’ll put this in the boot.”

“Thank you,” Harry says.

Afterwards, in the car, it’s silent.

They’re only a minute into their drive but it’s been more than long enough.

“So,” Louis says, turning down the radio. “I feel like before we talk about anything else, I should apologize again—”

“Please don’t,” Harry says. “Not today. Or tomorrow, really.”

Louis glances at him, mouth parting with an objection ready.

“I don’t have much time with you as is,” Harry says. “I’ll only be here for three days. I promised my mum I’d stop by and visit one of those days. It doesn’t leave much time to just be with you, and that’s what I care about right now. That’s why I’m here.”

Louis’ heart does yet another nosedive. He nods once. “Alright. If that’s what you want.”

“That’s all I want,” Harry assures him.

Louis focuses on the road, but his mind is fixed on the “just be with you,” on the concept of someone traveling all this way just for that reason alone. Not someone. Harry. Louis thinks about actually being with him, alone with him without the stress or anxiety of unsaid words or unresolved tension. Being alone and at peace with him. In a bed or on a couch or anywhere. That’s all he wants.

He chances another glance at him and sees Harry wringing his fingers together, cracking a knuckle, or flexing the digits outward. This tension is different. It makes the air in the tiny space of Louis’ car pop and frizz with static.

Louis pulls the car off the motorway and parks it. Harry looks at him, his eyes a little wide and concerned. Louis sighs. “Can we just—?” His gaze falls on Harry's mouth.

He doesn’t have to finish. “Please,” Harry says, leaning close, reaching a hand for Louis’ cheek. Their mouths meet seamlessly. Louis pulls him closer by his collar. When they break, he says, “This is wild.”

Harry rests his head on Louis’ shoulder. “I like wild. And weird. Lucky me that you’re both.”

“You think I’m weird?” Louis asks with a gasp.

“Oh, yeah. And a nerd too, don’t forget,” Harry murmurs. He kisses Louis’ cheek, the corner of his mouth, and then they’re at it again.

“I missed you every day,” Louis confesses.

Harry’s lips against Louis’ cheek form a smile. “I missed you every second, so I win.”

 

゚*・✧°・゚*・

 

His family is relentless with questions and stares. They treat Harry like a celebrity and Louis can’t necessarily blame them when in a way, Harry is one. They remember his face from their TV screen and now suddenly, he’s in their living room.

Harry handles it well for the most part. But between the yawning and the delayed responses, it’s clear he’s tired. While his mum is distracted on the phone, Louis takes his hand and leads him up the steps. “I’ll show you where you’re sleeping.”

“Thanks again for letting me stay here,” Harry replies.

Louis glances at him. “My mum wouldn’t have wanted you staying anywhere else. Neither would I. This is my room,” he says, pushing open the door in front of them. He turns on the desk lamp while Harry takes a glance around.

“Smells like you,” Harry says, running his fingers over the denim jacket hanging by the door. He pulls it close to his nose and inhales. Smiles. “Are you sleeping in here too?”

Louis hesitates. “I thought you might want space for yourself,” he says. “I’m on the couch.”

Harry nods. “Shower?”

“Down the hall,” Louis says, gesturing.

“Should I come back down to say goodnight?” Harry asks.

“No, you’re tired,” Louis says. “They’ll understand.”

They look at each other for a second. Harry smiles. “Goodnight then?”

“Goodnight,” Louis says, stepping towards the door. Harry brushes his hand across his arm as he passes him, fingers sliding to Louis’ palm until their fingers hook. He presses a kiss to his cheek and releases him.

 

゚*・✧°・゚*・

 

There’s a foolish moment, while he’s lying on the couch, where he thinks he might be able to fall asleep. But when the house quiets and he has stared long enough at the ceiling to count the cracks in the plaster, he gives up and creeps upstairs.

Harry lifts his head, prompted by the soft complaint of the door’s hinges.

Louis pushes the door closed. “Is this okay?” he asks quietly.

“Yeah,” Harry says, propping himself up onto his elbows.

Louis locks the door and steps close to the bed. He climbs in beside Harry, the springs creaking with his added weight.

“Hi,” he says quietly.

Harry smiles. “Hi.”

Louis shuffles a bit closer, sliding his arm around Harry’s waist. “Is this okay?”

“Yes,” Harry says, laughing.

Louis’ smile is timid. He situates his head more comfortably on the pillow and then he looks at Harry. And Harry looks back.

“Why didn’t you say bye?”

Louis drops his gaze to the sliver of space between them. “Thought you didn’t want to talk about it?”

“I change my mind. That’s my only question for now,” Harry says.

Louis still hasn’t prepared the well-polished answers Harry deserves. Even now, the words that leave his mouth taste funny. “I knew what it would mean for me to come back home. I didn’t think it was right to pretend otherwise.”

“What does it mean?” Harry asks.

Louis swallows. “It means I have to stay here. I feel like I owe it to my family. Especially after not being here for a year.”

“But that doesn’t answer my question,” Harry says, propping his arm up. “Why didn’t you just say bye?”

“I couldn’t,” Louis says. He shakes his head. “I don’t think I would’ve been able to walk away from you. Not as quickly as I did. It was hard enough. If you saw me, spoke to me— I wasn’t prepared for that.”

Harry frowns. “Waking up without you, I thought—”

“That I was running from you?” Louis concludes.

“I said some things that might have scared you off,” Harry says.

“You didn’t scare me, I told you that. The way you feel isn’t scary to me,” Louis says. “But maybe the circumstances are. I won’t hide anything from you, Harry. You don’t have to hide anything from me.”

Harry opens his mouth to speak. After a long pause, he finally does. “Well, maybe I’m a little scared too.”

“It’s okay if you are,” Louis says.

Harry presses a kiss to the corner of Louis’ mouth, followed by a deeper, more eager kiss. He moves in close and mounts Louis’ lap.

“Is this okay?” Harry asks this time.

Louis nods, hands sliding beneath Harry’s t-shirt to brush his hips. “More than okay,” he says, sounding breathless already.

Harry kisses him again. Their bodies turn pliant wherever they meet, relaxing and reclining into each other. Louis finds that his frenzied mind settles once they touch. His body’s natural reaction to Harry appears to be one of peace.

“I kept thinking about this,” Harry whispers. “How good it was with you.”

“That good, huh?” Louis teases.

Harry sits upright, hands on Louis’ chest. “Shut up,” he says. “That was cruel of you. Touching me the way you did, then leaving me without a way to have it again.”

“I didn’t think you’d miss it that much,” Louis murmurs.

“I missed you,” Harry corrects, pushing his hands up underneath Louis’ t-shirt. His fingertips are warm and lightly calloused. Louis allows him to pull the shirt off completely. Harry presses his mouth to his collarbones. “You’re like a drug, Louis. I feel addicted to you.”

He sits up straight again, pushing a hand into Louis’ pants and drawing him into the open. Louis can’t do much but watch him, descending down his body with soft kisses to his hips and his thighs. He sucks Louis' belly button piercing in his mouth and bites on the soft swell of Louis' tummy. This must be just a taste of what it's like to be well and truly worked over by him. Louis hopes he has the chance one day to spread out beneath Harry for hours and let him have his way.

He runs his fingers through Harry’s soft hair. “I’ve been addicted to you,” he whispers.

Harry looks up at him, eyes caught in the faint glow of moonlight. His lashes lower and then his mouth, opening around the crown of Louis’ cock like a rose bud in the sun.

After having waited for just a mere touch of Harry’s skin, every inch given into his warm mouth is significant and wholly satisfying for Louis. Like crumbs to the starved and raindrops for the thirsty.

He makes the mistake of shifting his hips, a half-executed thrust before he remembers himself. Harry’s answering moan is just this side of too loud. Every sound they make seems ten times louder in the quiet of the house. Louis tugs on his curls until Harry pulls his damp mouth free with a gasp.

Louis sits forward and says, raspily, “You have to stay quiet.” His lips brush the shell of Harry’s ear and he bites his earlobe gently. “Can you stay quiet for me?”

He feels Harry nod eagerly and he slips his hand away, reclining again. He gives him what he wants. What they both want. He fucks Harry’s throat in the desperate, abandoned way their reunion demands. He punches his hips upward, almost frantically, trying to untangle the knot of pressure in the pit of his stomach. Harry digs his nails into Louis’ thighs, hair spilling wildly past his shoulders, hips canting downward as he chases his own release.

“I’m coming.” Louis doesn’t even get enough air to his lungs to speak the words clearly. Harry hardly hears him before it happens, but he stays, mouth open and eyes shut in supplication. He shudders and moans softly when he comes, head falling to Louis’ hip.

“Come here,” Louis says. Harry returns to his side and Louis kisses him deeply, full of apologies and promises he knows he shouldn’t be making. But he has Harry here now. Someone who travelled 5378 miles to be with him. So he’ll do and say what he wants.

He turns his nose toward soft curls, inhales the scent of floral shampoo and sweat. He wants to wrap himself in Harry and all that that means: his scent, each breath he takes, and the warmth of his body. He wants to be covered in it all and never resurface.

 

゚*・✧°・゚*・

 

Harry beats him down to the kitchen, which is probably best for discretion but Louis missed waking up beside him. That’s a scary thought given he’s only woken up beside him once before.

He’s at the kitchen table, chatting over tea with Daisy and Phoebe. Their eyes meet as soon as Louis steps into view and they share goofy, private smiles. They have toast and muffins with the rest of Louis’ family, but they’re eager soon enough to escape the curious gaze of them all, and have a moment to themselves.

So they leave and shuffle into Louis’ car, donned in their shades.

“Where are we going?” Harry asks.

“Don’t really know. We have some time before we need to head to your mum’s. Figured we’d just drive around. I’ll give you a little tour,” Louis says, starting the car. He doesn’t even know where to begin, but he has a full tank and more than enough time. So he drives Harry to Costa Coffee for lattes and then he shows him the Toys “R” Us where he worked for a little while.

“I worked at a bakery,” Harry says. “When I was still in the UK.”

“And yet you haven’t baked me a thing,” Louis says, shaking his head. “Shocking.”

“We’ve only been together for a total of three days now,” Harry says. He shifts his gaze out the window, taking another sip of his latte, and says, “Maybe when you’re in LA.”

Louis glances at him. “Maybe,” he says quietly. He starts the car again and pulls back onto the road. His next stop is Keepmoat Stadium and somewhere along the way, their hands end up linked atop Harry’s thigh. It’s such an intimate gesture. For Louis, it solidifies how far down the rabbit hole he’s already fallen, that touches like this one seem intrinsic.

“Let’s go for a walk,” he tells him after they’ve parked. “Around the lake there.”

The area isn’t heavily populated. There aren’t any games today and it’s midday when most people are still at work. So Louis takes him for a short walk along the pavement overlooking the lake. They let the crisp air and the smell of the water wash over them and clear their minds for a second. There’s a lot to say, a lot that Louis isn’t looking forward to saying, but it’s the truth that Harry came here for.

“I don’t know when I’m going to make it back to LA,” Louis says quietly. “I think my travelling days are up for a while.”

Harry takes a moment to respond. “I can do long distance,” he says.

Louis releases a sigh. “You deserve better than that. The last thing you need is someone who’s never there.”

“You don’t know what I need,” Harry says.

Louis scrubs his eyelids with his palms. “We both deserve better then.”

“I don’t think you understand, Louis,” Harry says. He glances toward the lake, the wind tossing wispy curls towards his eyes. He pushes one hand through his hair, and says, “I’m ridiculously in love with you. I know it doesn’t make sense, believe me. But you’re the one who taught me that’s okay, for things to not make sense.”

Louis suspected as much. Nothing about him and Harry has really made sense since they met. From the moment he met him, he could almost see this coming. He could feel the instant he fell in love with him hovering not far in the distance. He just wishes time and circumstance allowed that love a chance.

Harry hurries on. “After just one full day with you, I know you better than most. While I was looking for you, all these people came forward with these stories, people who’d met you in the past, and each story was beautiful. Everything about you is beautiful, and I love you.”

They’re just looking at each other. Louis searches for the right words to say and can’t find them. Harry takes a shuddering breath. “I understand— I get it if this is all there is for us. I don’t want to become a burden for you, Louis. I can’t be that again—”

The allusion to Andrew, in any capacity, stings. Louis shakes his head. “This isn’t the same thing at all.”

“No, it isn’t,” Harry agrees. “And I don’t ever want it to be. But I just told you I love you and—”

“And I love you too,” Louis says.

Harry stands stunned, as if he’d been primed for rejection, not reciprocation. He’d confessed his feelings while expecting to be hurt again. In the same instant that Louis’ heart feels mended by Harry’s love, it breaks for him to.

“How could I not be in love with you?” Louis says, breathlessly.

Harry bites into his quivering bottom lip and turns away for a moment. “You love me?”

Louis nods. “I really do.”

Harry’s fists curl and his feet are turned inward. He suddenly appears small, and his voice when he speaks is soft too. “I’m scared, Louis,” he says. “I don’t know what I’m doing at all. Even now there’s a part of me that thinks this is crazy. But I want to be with you. Even if this is sort of senseless, it still makes the most sense.”

Louis squeezes his eyes shut, which is a mistake with the tears filling them already. He stops them from spilling by dragging his palms across his eyelids.

“5000 miles is a lot,” he mumbles.

“We’ve gone through a lot already. I think we could handle it,” Harry says. He steps close, sliding his hands over Louis’ cheeks, holding his face between his palms. “I love you.”

“I know.” Louis rests his head to Harry’s chest and shuts his eyes. He feels like he’s being asked to make a choice between Harry and his family. And the answer is an easy one. Family comes first for Louis. Always. But Harry is family now too.

He knows that their relationship will only make him long to be in LA. He knows that after a month the distance will seem like 10,000 miles and after two months, it’ll double again. He’s trying to be in the place where he’s needed most. And right now, that’s here with his mum and his siblings.

All that being the case, only one answer seems right:

“I’d be an idiot to not try with you. And I’m pretty sure I’m not an idiot.”

Harry exhales a breath of relief, his eyes slipping shut. “Definitely not an idiot,” he says with a laugh. Louis pulls him close and holds him tightly, running his hands up along his broad back. He breathes him in, trying to commit it all to memory for when he’s gone.

“Remember the quote you left me?” Harry murmurs.

“Oscar Wilde, right?”

“Never love someone who treats you like you’re ordinary,” Harry recites.

Louis smiles. “I remember.”

Harry looks at him, and grins. “I think I nailed it.”

 

゚*・✧°・゚*・

 

Harry’s last visit home was over four months ago, which means that dinner with his parents isn’t the quaint affair Louis came expecting. Two of his cousins, an aunt, and a childhood friend named Georgiana all show up for dinner too. In a way, it’s a blessing with more people to evenly distribute attention to. But very rarely is the collective attention on anyone but him.

Dinner is delicious and he tells Harry’s mum so, only to find out it was Harry’s stepdad who did the cooking. His blunder makes the whole table laugh, which he takes as a win. Harry stroking his thigh comfortingly is a win too.

He helps Harry clear the table afterwards. He plays with one of their many cats. He peruses the framed photographs along the walls. He waits for the questions he knows he deserves. He sees them in Harry’s mother’s eyes whenever she looks at him. He sees them on the quirk of his sister’s lips. Throughout dinner they watch him with unfettered curiosity and cautiousness, and yet nothing happens.

“Come with me,” Harry says, appearing in the hall. He takes Louis’ hand and starts up the stairs.

“Where are we going?”

“My room,” Harry says. “I’m rescuing you.”

“From?”

“Any second my mum would have offered you wine, you would have accepted, and then she would start asking you questions,” Harry explains. His room turns out to be in the loft. They take another set of stairs to get to it.

“I don’t mind questions,” Louis says along the way. “I’ve been expecting them.”

Harry turns on a dim lamp inside, shuts the door and pulls Louis over to the bed, where he collapses with a great sigh. He angles his body towards him. “I don’t think you have answers yet for all of them.”

“How can you know that?” Louis asks.

“Because we haven't had a chance to figure things out for ourselves. They’ll want you to make promises that you can’t.”

“Like what?”

Harry turns his gaze toward his ceiling where he's stuck those glow-in-the-dark stars. Louis looks too.

“You know I put those up there in the shape of constellations. Right here,” he says, pointing, “is Cassiopeia. Over there is Gemini. The Little Dipper is by the window. And...I think I’ll put the Summer Triangle there by the desk.”

Louis looks at him. “You flatter me.”

“Everyone should,” Harry replies. He moves closer, resting his head on Louis’ chest, wrapping one hand around Louis’ bicep. “You can’t promise to be there all the time for me because we’re going to be worlds apart. You can’t promise to never hurt me because relationships don’t work that way. I don’t expect that from you. But they’ll want you to promise anyway.”

“That's understandable. With the video, I'm sure they're concerned,” Louis says, fingers sliding through Harry's hair.

“I just want to keep you to myself for right now,” Harry says quietly.

Louis can't look at him from this angle but if he did, he thinks he’d see the edge of fear in Harry’s eyes when he looked back. “If you're worried they’ll scare me off,” Louis says. “You're wrong.”

Harry’s hand drops to Louis’ waist and he squeezes. “I've never chased anyone before you,” he says softly. “I don't mean this to sound arrogant but men have always chased me.”

“I don't blame them,” Louis says.

Harry lifts his head and looks at him, clearly wanting to smile but aiming for all-business. “I’m trying to make a point. I'm trying to express how important you are to me.”

“I know how important I am to you. Me and the general public,” Louis reminds him.

“Then you know how badly I want to protect something I've only just found,” Harry explains.

“It's safe,” Louis says easily. He draws Harry close again, running a hand up and down his spine. “I might not be able to promise some things but I can promise you that. I'm not going anywhere.”

Harry answers by winding himself more tightly around Louis’ body but his own body is less tense now. His shoulders aren't hunched. His touch is lazy, unfocused.

“I don't mind answering questions. I've even been thinking,” Louis begins. When he pauses, Harry lifts his head again and gives him that same look he did before Louis read his poem. The one that says I want to listen . “I feel like I should make some kind of response video or something. I feel like I owe the world an explanation.”

“No,” Harry says, firmly and quickly. “Helping me find you was the extent of the world’s participation. The rest is just me and you.”

That emits a surprised laugh from Louis’ mouth, brows arched high. “Didn't know you felt so passionately about it,” he says. “No worries. I don't like to share either.”

Harry makes a face, dropping his head to the mattress. “If you want to make a video, I stand by that decision too,” he mumbles.

Louis looks at the flush of his cheeks and ears, and laughs louder. He presses a kiss to his temple. “You're adorable,” he says.

Harry scoffs at the word, eyes drifting toward the ceiling again. They lie there in silence for a moment, Louis’ fingers running up and down Harry’s forearm.

“How about a selfie?” Louis says suddenly. “You can post it to reassure your fans.”

Our fans,” Harry corrects.

“Right,” Louis says. “How about it?”

Harry purses his lips. “But then everyone will know how hot you are.”

Louis snorts. “There are people literally proposing to you online. I saw your mentions,” Louis says. “They must think I'm an undeserving bridge troll. I say it's only fair we even things out.”

Harry laughs. “If you insist.”

“I do,” Louis says with a nod.

Harry lifts his bum off the bed to retrieve his phone from his back pocket. He shuffles close to Louis’ body and holds the phone above their heads.

“Ready?” he asks.

“Mhm.”

Just before the shutter sounds, Louis turns and presses a kiss to Harry’s cheek. Harry laughs, turning to him. He kisses him on the mouth, dropping the phone on the mattress. Louis slides his arms around his waist and that's how they remain until they grow sleepy. Harry drifts off first, words softening until Louis can't hear him. Louis dozes but deep sleep never comes. He wakes for the third time after only thirty minutes and decides he needs water.

He creeps down the two sets of steps to the kitchen, having to pass the living room first. He hears voices and pauses, not to retreat but to listen. It must be Harry’s mum and sister from the soft, chime of their laughter. The room is dark save for the glow of the television, set on I Love Lucy. With their backs to him, he doesn't know whether he should make his presence known. Then one of the cats brushes his ankle and he stoops to brush a hand over its head. When he looks up again, Gemma and Anne have noticed him.

“Hi,” Louis says with a smile. “Just came down for a glass of water.”

Gemma glances at her mum. She lifts the wine bottle from off the coffee table. “How about wine instead?”

Louis looks at them, clearly a little tipsy with their glasses cradled in their hands. Gemma wiggles the bottle and lifts her brows. Louis shrugs, crossing the short distance to the couch. “Thank you,” he says, sitting down in the armchair. He takes the glass Gemma hands to him while she fills it up, all the way to the brim where their half-empty glasses must have started.

He takes a sip and glances at the TV, feeling their eyes on him, waiting.

“So, Louis,” Gemma begins. He gives her his full attention. “What is it you do?”

“I'm not sure,” he says honestly. “I write poetry mostly. Some short stories as well. That's what I'm best at.”

“Are you planning on going back to LA with Harry?” Anne asks.

Louis glances at the wine glass in his hands. “No, I'm staying here.”

“Until you can relocate to LA?”

Louis takes a small breath. “I'm not sure if or when I'm relocating to LA. It's not the plan right now.”

Gemma and Anne are quiet for a moment. “Is Harry planning to come back here then?” Gemma asks.

“He has the bookshop to look after, so I don't think so,” Louis says. Before they can ask anything else, he adds, “and I wouldn't want him to relocate unless that was something he wanted for himself.”

Anne swirls her wine glass around. “No plan, just seeing how it goes then?”

“I suppose so,” Louis says. “Not knowing is okay, I think. Not knowing exactly where you're going with someone so long as you're sure of them.”

“I agree,” Anne says quietly. “I don't think Harry has had the opportunity to do that yet. With his last relationship, I think he just sort of went along with things…”

“He definitely never made YouTube videos for them,” Gemma mumbles, and then she giggles.

Anne taps her shoulder, as if to say behave. “It's true, though,” she murmurs after a sip of her wine. “He's always been dramatic, but this is new. Brilliant, yes, but very dramatic.”

“It worked, though. Have to give him that,” Louis says, taking a drink. Anne and Gemma laugh, the sound echoing in their own glasses. When Lucy begins stuffing her face full of chocolates onscreen, they laugh at that too. Louis rests his head to the back of the couch, the wine warming his bones, soothing his nervous mind.

“Do you love him?”

Louis glances over at the women on the couch. Gemma’s head is now in her mother’s lap, but her eyes are on Louis. Anne, though, is the one who asks. She looks embarrassed after she says it, lowering her gaze.

“I'm sorry to ask,” she says. “He says he loves you. I've never heard him say that about anyone. I used to think he loved Andrew. When he came back a few months ago, he seemed devastated.”

“Think that might have been more about losing Stella,” Gemma says.

Anne nods. “That's true,” she says. She looks at Louis again. “You don't have to answer that question, love. I've had two glasses of wine and I wouldn't have asked otherwise.”

Louis smiles. “I do love him. More and more each day,” he says simply. Anne and Gemma look at him, smiles growing on their faces. Their gazes drift to the right of him. Louis turns his head as Harry approaches the armchair with a small, knowing smile on his face. He squeezes in beside Louis, blanket wrapped around his shoulders, and reaches for his wine glass. Louis gives it to him.

After a long sip, Harry says, “Aw, I love this episode. Can we rewind?”

Gemma sighs, “So needy.” She tosses the remote to him and he restarts the episode, snuggling close to Louis’ body.

“I posted our pic,” he says to Louis. “Already has a couple thousand retweets.”

Louis smiles. “We’re one step closer to that movie deal.”

Harry laughs, head reclined on the couch, sleepy smile on his face. He waits until they're about a minute into the episode, until Gemma and Anne have seemingly averted their attention, and turns to whisper quietly, “I love you too.”

Later, after they've made their way back into Harry's bed, Louis remembers. He's sleepy, pliant from the wine and a new sense of assurance, but he musters what little energy he has to pull up Harry's Twitter.

The picture is there at the top of his feed, having climbed to six figures in retweets and likes over the past hour. Harry’s eyes are bright and filled abundantly with mirth. Louis’ lips are curved in a smile and pressed to his dimpled cheek.

A caption is included too. After Louis reads it, he puts the phone away and curls himself around Harry’s body. It’s simple, and yet significant.

Found him.

 

゚*・✧°・゚*・

 

“Thank you for having me,” Harry says, kissing Jay’s cheek one last time.

Jay squeezes him in one of her tightest, most suffocating hugs. “Come back whenever you’d like. Or whenever you’re here to visit your family. We’d love to see you.”

“Thank you,” Harry says, grinning. “You’re all welcome to visit too if you’re ever in the states. Stop by the bookstore.”

“Count me in,” Lottie interjects, raising her finger.

Harry laughs. “I’ll give you a tour.” He hugs her and then Fizzy and then Phoebe and Daisy too. He lifts his duffle over his shoulder and then his eyes flicker to Louis’.

Louis grabs his keys off the countertop and starts toward the door, his stomach swooping. It’s been doing that all morning. He opens the door for Harry and watches him step outside and his stomach does it again. Louis starts the car up while Harry throws his duffle into the boot and returns to the passenger seat.

“Off we go then,” Harry says with a small smile.

Louis appreciates his effort in trying to lighten the mood. But it doesn’t work. He smiles grimly and reverses the car down the drive.

The ride is quiet for the most part, save for the radio. It starts to rain and then there’s just the sound of Today’s Pop Hits and the windscreen wipers. He’s not sure what would be worst: no conversation at all or small talk to pretend they’re alright. The fact is that they’re not. This is the last time he’ll see Harry in the next several months.

He spots a plane soaring low overhead and signs on the motorway all indicate the airport is only minutes away. Without a word, Harry sets his hand on Louis’ thigh and strokes back and forth with his thumb. That, surprisingly, helps a little.

There’s just nothing to say, really. There’s truly nothing worth conversing about. And with the way his throat is narrowing, he’s not sure he could speak if he wanted to.

He walks Harry into the terminal when they get there. He waits while Harry queues for his boarding pass, wishing he was doing the same. He wants nothing more than to be LA-bound right now. Harry returns with the slip of paper in his hands.

“I have another half hour before I have to go through security,” he says. “There’s a Starbucks right there, if you want to sit with me for a bit?”

“Sure,” Louis squeaks. He’s not going to cry. He follows Harry to the Starbucks, with his hands jammed in his pockets. Harry orders a latte macchiato. Louis orders a tea. They take a seat for a minute, sipping quietly.

“Don’t forget to send me the emails for Eden and the rest,” Louis says. “I want to write back as soon as I can.”

“I won’t forget,” Harry says. “I should probably go through security now. I think the queue is getting longer.”

Louis looks at him, eyes swimming. They stand. Harry lifts the strap of his duffle over his shoulder, dumps his drink, and starts walking. Louis trails behind him, hands curled into fists in his pockets, and digging painfully into his skin.

They trudge towards security, feet moving like they’re made of lead. Harry walks slightly ahead of him and Louis has the terrifying realization that he won’t see the summer green of his eyes for a long time. His hand shoots out of his pocket and encircles Harry’s arm. He gives him a rough tug and they halt. Harry stares at him with wide red-rimmed eyes.

“What is it?” he croaks.

Louis wipes his sleeve across his eyelids. “You’d think someone had bloody died.”

“It feels like it,” Harry says, bottom lip trembling. He laughs tearfully and steps closer, dropping his duffle, and slides his arms around Louis’ shoulders. “We’ll be alright, yeah?”

“Of course,” Louis manages to whisper, voice breaking. The tears that come are inevitable. It’s all very dramatic for an airport terminal. There are people watching and perhaps judging. But let them. “I love you.”

“I love you too,” Harry mumbles.

“Missing you already,” Louis says, squeezing him close.

Harry presses his face into Louis’ neck, squeezing him back. “I miss you too. But I’ll see you soon.”

Louis is sad enough as is. So he ignores that it probably won’t be ‘soon’ at all. He just holds him until there isn’t any time left and Harry has no choice but to leave. He kisses him one last time, his heart sinking through his body and into the earth with each step Harry takes away from him. He watches him tromp through security, both of them wiping drying tears from their cheeks. He watches him wave and lifts his hand to wave back.

Harry blows him a kiss, smiles brightly, and then he’s no longer in sight. But he’s his, at least. So long as that’s true, Louis trusts that he’ll see him again.

 

゚*・✧°・゚*・

 

It’s just as hard as Louis imagined it being. But other couples have survived greater distances and Harry is nothing if not resilient.

“I made a YouTube video to find you. I’m not letting you go for anything,” Harry reassures him one night while they’re on the phone. He’s always reassuring him. He tells him he loves him in the morning, at noon, and at night, even though their time zones don’t match. Louis tries to beat him to it sometimes. He leaves voicemails for Harry to wake up to over in LA. Making time for lengthy conversations with the time zone difference is a pain in the arse. It’s always 2 o’clock in the morning for Louis and 9 PM over in LA whenever they find time for a Skype call. But they always do.

Also, tonight’s call is especially important.

“Happy One Month!” Harry says immediately, grinning into the camera. He does a little shimmy from one side of the screen to the other.

Louis smiles so widely his cheeks hurt. “Happy One Month,” he says.

Harry raises a cupcake toward the camera. “I’m celebrating with these cupcakes I baked and a glass of wine.”

Louis waves his beer at the camera. “This is it for me,” he says. “Those cupcakes look delicious.”

“I’ll have a few on your behalf,” Harry says. He takes a bite of one and licks his top lip seductively. It takes a lot for Louis not to groan out loud.

“They’re coconut with vanilla frosting,” Harry informs him. “I’ll bake you some when you’re here.”

“I’ll just have the frosting, actually,” Louis says, lifting his brows, “…on you.”

Harry snorts into his wine glass. “Filthy. Count me in. I’m planning another trip there soon,” he says. “I just got the check for doing that interview.” Harry lifts the check into view and shows it to Louis. He points at the cash amount. “$5,780 after taxes.”

Louis laughs. “Well, shit. How come no one wants to interview me?”

“They do. They’re just all here in the US. I’ve even had an offer to interview us both.” Harry wiggles his brows. “Just something to keep in mind.”

Louis drums his fingers on his desk, watching Harry eat the last of his cupcake. “How are things at the shop?”

“Good,” Harry says, disposing his cupcake wrapper. “I interviewed Nadiv for the position. He’s a first year and he could really use the money. And he’s smart. So I think I might hire him. Only thing is if I have to take the time to train him, it means I won’t be able to leave as soon as I thought.” Harry shrugs. He takes a sip of his wine, leaving his mouth shiny. Louis thinks about the last time he kissed him. And then he advises himself not to think of it again. He’s not a masochist.

“But in other news,” Harry says. “I finally cleaned out the spare room at my place. So I figure we could store our books in there. Turn it into a library.”

Louis stares at him, his eyes widening a fraction.

“Or I don’t know,” Harry says absently. “Maybe just a guest room.”

He sets his wine glass down and meets Louis’ eyes. “What?”

Louis swallows. “You said— When you said, our books? Did you mean books from the bookstore or…?”

Harry blinks. His eyes flicker away from the camera. “Did I say that?”

“You did.”

“Um--” Harry sighs, shoving his hair away from his face. “I don’t think I meant to say that out loud. Probably had too much wine.”

Louis drops his gaze to the papers on his desk, shifting them around. “So, you meant our books?” he concludes. “As in yours and mine?”

Harry lifts his shoulders. “There’s more than enough room…” he says in lieu of an answer.

Louis looks up and meets his gaze.

Harry rests his head in his palm and smiles. “It’s just something to consider. If you ever find your way back here—to stay. You have a place you could call home.”

Louis aches in that moment. His whole body aches with love for the person on the other side of his screen, on the other side of the world, and with the need to brush his thumb over his dimple or hold him at night. He wakes sometimes with the phantom feeling of Harry’s body against his own and no way of finding relief for that. It feels like there’s no end to the yearning. And now this—an offer to stay—only makes the yearning grow worse.

If only the answer could be yes.

“Thank you, love,” Louis says.

“You’re welcome,” Harry says. He throws back the rest of his wine. “Is your door locked?”

Louis’ smile grows. “It is.”

“Good.” Harry places his glass on the table. He peels his shirt off and reaches for the hair tie keeping his bun secured and pulls it free. His hair tumbles over his shoulders.

Louis sighs. “You’re so bloody gorgeous....” he murmurs, dragging his hand over his face.

Harry smiles. “So are you. Take your shirt off,” he says, standing so his hips are in the frame. All he’s wearing are thin black briefs. In the next second, he isn’t wearing them either. Louis feels the air sucked from his lungs. He removes his shirt as though it suddenly burns and tosses it aside.

Harry’s face returns to the frame and he grins deviously. “Time for anniversary Skype sex.”

 

゚*・✧°・゚*・

 

“Good morning, love,” Jay says, happily receiving a kiss to her cheek.

Louis squeezes her shoulders and steps toward the stove to retrieve the kettle. “How are you?”

“Good. I’m thinking of heading to the gym for a bit. If you want to come with,” she replies, taking a sip of her tea.

“Why not?” Louis shrugs. He hasn’t been to the gym in ages. Now that he isn’t hiking and walking all over the U.S., he might have to get back to it.

“How are you and Harry?”

Louis glances at her while he dunks a tea bag into his mug. “Pretty good. Celebrated one month recently. Feels like it’s been much longer.”

Jay smiles. “How about the long distance?”

Louis goes to the fridge and fetches a carton of milk. “We’re dealing with it. It’s tough but we manage.”

Jay leans against the counter. “Well, I’ve been meaning to ask. When were you planning on going back to LA?”

Louis freezes with his mug at his lips. “I wasn’t? Harry understands that you all need me here right now.”

Jay’s brow wrinkles, and then so do Louis’. They look at each other confusedly. His mum laughs. “Louis,” she says. “I love you, babe. I love that you’re here with us… But we don’t need you to stay.”

Louis places his mug down. “Yeah,” he argues. “That’s why I’m here. Because things are hard right now.”

“For who?” Jay questions. “We’re all getting on just fine.”

Louis shakes his head and rubs vigorously at his temples. “I’m so confused. I thought you needed me to come back, and help support you all,” he says. “After I’d basically abandoned you.”

“Abandoned?” Jay’s eyes widen. Her smile dissipates. “Louis. Look at me.”

Louis looks at her.

“I wanted you to come home because I wanted you to say goodbye. Not because you owed it to us. You owed it to yourself.”

Louis’ chest sinks. He can't respond for long minutes. He just stares at her. And then he says, voice wobbling, “I just— I thought I was turning into him. You all needed me to be here and—”

Louis,” she says again firmly. He zips his lips, shocked silent by her tone. She hasn’t spoken to him that way in years. “Listen to me. God rest his soul, but you are a million times the man your father was. Your sisters and I are million times better off because of you. You’ve done more than enough.” She takes his face between her palms. Her brown eyes are steady on his. “You’ve never failed us. Not once.”

Louis’ eyes sting with tears. He squeezes them shut while his mum draws him close to her body. She sways with him as if he’s still wrapped in swaddling clothes and says quietly, “I read some of those stories that people posted about you online. I’ve never been more proud of you, of your adventures. Everything you’ve experienced and done for others makes me so happy. I'm so tremendously proud of the man you’ve become.”

Louis presses his face against her shoulder, thankful the girls are asleep and can’t bear witness to him unraveling.

“I’m so sorry if I made you feel any different,” she says, rubbing his back. “You don’t have to stay here, love. All I wanted you to do was come back. And you did.”

He drags his hand under his nose and inhales through his trembling lips. He hugs his mum tightly.

“You’d be alright if I left then? Really?” he mumbles.

“Of course we would,” Jay says. She rubs his back like he's still a toddler. "There's something I've been meaning to say actually for a few weeks now. I think this is probably the best time to say it."

"What's that?" he asks.

"Dan proposed to me," she says quietly. "About a month ago. I didn't give him an answer until after the funeral, but I said yes."

Louis draws back and looks at her, drying his eyes with his palms. "You're getting married?"

"Not for a little while," Jay says timidly. "But yes."

Louis pulls her in again and hugs her. "I'm so happy for you, mum."

"Really?"

"Of course I am," he says. "He loves you, I can tell. The girls will be happy for you too."

It's her turn to cry then. As he holds her, he feels the fabric over his shoulder grow damp with tears.

"Look at us," she says when she pulls back, swiping her thumbs beneath her eyes. Louis does the same.

"A proper mess," he agrees.

Jay smiles, her face flushed and tear-stained. Her eyes fill again. “You should go to LA," she says. "I really like this one, Lou. Don’t let him go.”

Louis never planned to. Letting go is no longer an option. “I love him.”

“Then go tell him so,” Jay says, taking his shoulders in her hands. She gives him a weary look. “But. Maybe clean your face up a bit first.”

They laugh tearfully, hugging each other again. Their tea grows cold beside them as the morning ambles on. But he holds her for a long while, even despite how eager he is for the next flight to LA.

 

゚*・✧°・゚*・

 

“Thank you. Come again soon.”

The two patrons collect their merchandise and depart. Harry lifts his book on the countertop and pushes his glasses back into place. It must be a good one with how dead he is to the rest of the world. He doesn’t even notice his next guest.

“Excuse me.”

“Yes?” he says, glancing upward. He slaps the book down on the countertop, his mouth falling open.

Louis grins. “I was hoping you could direct me to the closest McDonald’s. I’m looking for someplace to take my boyfriend for dinner.”

“What the fuck are you doing here?” Harry gasps, scrambling to his feet. “Am I dreaming?”

Louis pinches his own cheek. “Well, I’m not, so…”

Harry marches around the counter and throws his arms around Louis’ shoulders.

“You're real,” he mumbles, squeezing him so tightly Louis struggles for breath. He runs his hands up and down his back like he still needs to be sure and Louis does the same to him, hands assessing every inch of Harry’s body that he can reach, revelling in the warmth of him, the firmness of his muscle and the softness of his skin.

“It’s so fucking good to see you,” Harry murmurs, pressing his face into Louis’ neck.

Louis turns his head and presses a kiss to Harry’s cheek as best as he can with the angle. He inhales the scent of his hair. “You too. Jesus, I’ve missed you so much.”

“Me too,” Harry says. He pulls back and after a look, he presses their mouths together, finally. All of the dreams that Louis has had about Harry’s lips never did him any justice. They’re softer than he even remembers. He cups Harry’s face in his hands and kisses him back again and again.

“Let’s get out of here,” Harry babbles. “I’ll close early…”

“Um…”

They break apart, both turning to the boy standing there—Nadiv, Louis thinks his name is.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt,” he says sheepishly.

Harry laughs, all bubbly and excited. “It’s okay. Nadiv, this is my boyfriend, Louis.”

Nadiv steps forward and shakes Louis’ hand. “It’s nice to finally meet you.”

“Same to you,” Louis says, smiling.

Harry pulls his eyes away from Louis, grinning dopily. “You’re getting the day off,” he tells Nadiv.

“Sweet,” Nadiv says. “I’ll go surprise my girlfriend too. Thank you both!”

“What a nice boss, you are,” Louis murmurs when Nadiv disappears into the back room, pressing a kiss to Harry’s cheek. He strokes Harry’s hip and squeezes him close again.

“He has you to thank more than me,” Harry replies, eyes fluttering shut while Louis kisses his earlobe. He shivers and pulls away.

“Okay. I have to show you something. We got a book in today with a cool inscription,” Harry says. “I’ll close the shop. And we can eat here.”

“Sounds good to me,” Louis says, resting his head on Harry’s shoulder.

“You have to let me go first,” Harry says, chuckling.

“I physically cannot do that,” Louis replies. Harry laughs, somehow kissing and wiggling his way out of Louis’ arms. He goes to the door to turn the sign from open to closed. Nadiv comes back through the shop with his rucksack and baseball cap.

“Thanks again,” he says to Louis and Harry both.

Harry holds the door open for him and waves. “I think there’s a few other people still here,” he says to Louis. “Once they leave, I’ll have you all to myself.” He throws a wink Louis’ way.

“Not in front of the books, Harry, please,” Louis says, scandalized, with a hand pressed over his poor heart.

Harry laughs, tapping Louis’ bum as he passes behind him. “I’m going to go lock up the other door,” he says. “And maybe prepare for my strip tease.”

He saunters off toward the back, swaying his hips purposefully. Louis definitely has plans involving that ass tonight.

Harry’s still in the back when the last remaining patrons come to pay for their books. Louis considers asking them to wait. But it’s not like he’s never worked a cash register before. He hops around the counter and rings them up, bagging their merchandise.

“Thanks. Come again!” he says happily.

Harry reappears with his hands in his pockets and a fond smile on his face. “Look at you. Are you in need of a job?”

Louis smiles. “Maybe. Are you hiring?”

“The more people working, the merrier,” Harry says nonchalantly, unaware that Louis might actually want the job. “You want to lock the door while I order food? Meet me in the back.”

“On it,” Louis says. He locks the door up and heads to the back. Harry’s office is much neater since the last time he was there. The window stands open to let in a cool breeze. The table off to the side bears a solitary candle.

“Sorry it’s such a mess,” Harry says.

Louis shakes his head. “It’s definitely improved,” he says, lifting a book into his hands and dusting off the cover. “It’s cozy too.”

“Thank you. Food should be here soon,” Harry says, watching him. “Let’s make up for lost time.”

“How so?” Louis saunters over and takes a seat. Harry plants himself in Louis’ lap, which is answer enough. He slides his hands into Louis’ hair and slots their lips together. And that’s how they spend their time until the food arrives.

They have Thai and bottles of beer Harry stored in his mini fridge. Harry pulls out the book he mentioned, pushes his glasses back onto his face, and begins sorting through it. Their ankles end up hooked beneath the table and Louis spends more time looking at Harry than he does at the book.

He didn’t need to come here to know for sure. But now that he’s here, his decision feels absolute. He’s right where he needs to be.

“There’s another one I wanted to show you,” Harry says, removing his glasses. “But it’s at the apartment.”

“We should go over both of them again later. I’m a little distracted,” Louis says.

“By what?”

“You,” Louis answers honestly. “I just can’t believe I’m here. Keeps hitting me that I’m not looking at you from behind a computer screen.”

Harry smiles, running his thumb over Louis’ forearm. “And how long are you here for this time?”

Louis pushes his plate of food towards the center of the table and folds his hands together. He looks at Harry. “As long as you’ll have me, I guess. If there’s still room…”

Harry blinks. His lips and brows twitch. The soft billow of wind through the window comprises the only sound in that moment. Slowly, Harry’s eyes widen. “Seriously?”

“Yes,” Louis says with a bright smile.

Harry takes Louis’ hand in his own and squeezes. “You’re not leaving?” he says quietly, his eyes beginning to shine with moisture.

Louis shakes his head, his eyes stinging and his nostrils flaring. “I’m not leaving,” he confirms.

Harry pulls him close, their foreheads and noses brushing. “There is always room for you,” he breathes, running his hand through Louis’ hair. “Are you really serious?”

“I am. If you are,” Louis says. “I’m here to stay.”

“How will I ever get rid of you now?” Harry mumbles.

“You basically can’t,” Louis replies, before he’s drawn into a kiss. Harry doesn’t let him go for a long time. It appears now he’ll never have to.

 

゚*・✧°・゚*・

 

“I’m in the library,” Harry calls.

Louis comes scurrying into the room where they house their books and the one desk where he sometimes writes his poems and Harry finishes his coursework. Darcy, their Siamese cat, tiptoes behind him. “Are we all set?” he asks, pulling up a chair beside Harry at the desk.

“All set,” Harry says. He bounces excitedly in his seat.

Louis sweeps his fringe to the side. “Ready when you are.”

Harry taps the spacebar on his keyboard and the recording starts.

“Hi,” they say in unison, waving at the camera. Already the comments start racking up, which is amazing for their first live recording, but also a little expected.

“I’m Harry, as I’m sure you know if you’re tuning in live. But for those of you who might not, I’m the one who made that one dramatic video that got really popular a few months ago. All for the sake of this man here,” he says, holding his hands out toward Louis. “And as you can see, I found him.”

“Hello,” Louis says again with a grand wave of his hand. He turns to Harry and sings, “It’s me. I was wondering if after all these years—”

Harry covers his mouth with his hand. “Enough.”

Louis laughs, little puffs of air through his nose. He pulls Harry’s hand away. “I’ll be good, I promise.”

Harry looks at the camera again. “To everyone who retweeted and reposted the video, do you see what you’ve gotten me into?” he says with a solemn shake of his head. “Look at what you’ve done.”

“Well, excuse me…” Louis leans back in his chair and does his best to look absolutely appalled. “Here I was thinking you truly loved with me. Greatest person you ever met, you said. Fantastic kisser.” He looks at the camera with a wiggle of his brows. “And of course, there’s the whole asking the world to help you find me...”

Harry’s dimples appear in his cheeks, unrestrained. “Anyway,” he says breezily. “We wanted to make this video as a thank you. And also to update you on where we are now and what you’ve all done for us both.”

Louis jumps in. “And I especially wanted to say thank you. Considering if I’d just left my number, you wouldn’t have had to go through so much trouble. But I’m very happy you did.”

He slides his arm around Harry’s waist. Harry grins, dropping a kiss on his cheek.

“So,” he adds. “We’re here in LA together now. Today is our four-month anniversary. Sorry it took us so long to make this video but moving in and unpacking is the worst.”

“The good news though,” Louis says, “is that we’ll be adding lots more videos where this one came from with updates on life—” Darcy hops up onto the desk without them noticing and suddenly she’s walking across the frame, demanding attention. Harry laughs and pulls her into his lap.

“Updates on our cat,” Louis adds. “Her name is Darcy, by the way. Named after Mr. Darcy, because Harry is a huge Jane Austen nerd.”

“Damn right,” Harry says, kissing Darcy’s fluffy head.

Louis smiles. “Also, there’ll be updates on our bookshop as well, and if you’re ever in LA, stop by Summertime Books. We’d love to meet you.”

“And you can pick up a copy of Louis’ new book, full of poems he wrote while travelling the US, and of course, full of ones about how much he loves me,” Harry says, smugly.

Louis shrugs. “It’s true.”

Harry presses another kiss to Louis’ cheek and on the display, even he can see how it makes him blush, how much wider his smile grows.

“We’ll try to put out a new video every week,” Harry says, bouncing Darcy gently in his arms. “But you can talk to us anytime on either of our twitters. We’ll try to respond as soon as possible.”

Louis nods. “We’re really excited to get to know all of you. And we can’t stress enough what an incredible thing it is that you’ve done. Big, big thanks,” he says, shooting two thumbs up.

Harry presses a kiss to his fingers and wiggles them at the camera. “All the love.”

 

゚*・✧°・゚*・

 

January 1, 2017

It’s snowing in LA for the first time in over five decades, and the view from Zayn’s home is a marvel.

The estate is positioned like an eagle’s nest, tucked away in Hollywood Hills, and overlooking the sparkling city below. He and Niall are curled up by the fireplace while Niall strums a soft tune on his guitar. On the balcony, Louis looks to Harry and pulls the fleece quilt more tightly around them both.

“This is a miracle,” Harry says, breath pluming. It isn’t as cold as it seems. The fire pit is lit and they’re more than close enough to each other. Louis could stay out here all night so long as Harry stayed with him.

“It’s also our first New Year’s together,” Louis murmurs. “Think that has something to do with it.”

Harry grins, lifting his champagne glass to his mouth. “I think it must.”

Louis watches his green eyes drift over LA, glowing in the moonlight like gems. “Do you remember when you asked me what my favorite story was?” he asks. “The day we met? And I told you I didn’t have one yet.”

“I do,” Harry replies.

Louis smiles. “I have one now.”

Harry lifts his brows, waiting. He laughs when Louis says nothing. “Are you going to tell me what it is?” he asks.

“Just you,” Louis says. “Everything about you. Everything since I met you has been part of my favorite story. And everything that’s to come.”

Harry smiles slowly and lowers his head to Louis’ shoulder. “I fall more in love with you whenever you open your mouth.”

“Is that homage to my fantastic blow jobs?” Louis questions.

Harry snorts, drawing his arms around Louis’ waist. “I love you. And your blow jobs.”

“Back at you,” Louis murmurs.

“You’re my favorite story too,” Harry says.

“I figured,” Louis replies, running his hand through Harry’s hair.

They let the silence settle on them again, watching the snow coat the street and the lampposts and the tops of cars. There’s something magical about it. He feels its spell working on him but that isn't what inspires his next words. He's been thinking them for months.

“I’m going to ask you to marry me someday.” He takes a breath when he feels Harry tense. “Not now. Not until you’re ready. Because I don’t want you to feel stuck in a commitment until you’re ready for one. Because we’re still unpacking and working on the shop. Because I still haven’t gotten you a goldfish.”

Harry lifts his head and looks at him, eyes unwavering and steady.

“But I just want you to know that one day, I’m going to propose to you. Maybe in the morning when we’ve just woken up. Maybe right before we fall asleep. Maybe in the pages of a book. I haven’t figured it out yet. I just know it’s going to happen. I’m certain about you, more than I’ve been about anything.”

Harry’s eyes are so wide they could rival the moon. Slowly, he takes Louis’ hand in his own and holds their joined hands against his chest. “I’ll have an answer for you when you do,” he says, softly. He leans in for a kiss. “I love you, Louis.”

“I love you,” Louis says, planting a kiss on his forehead.

Harry returns his head to Louis’ shoulder, still holding Louis’ hand tightly.

“May be a little too early to call it,” he murmurs, “but I think this year’s going to be a really good one.”

Louis rests his head against Harry’s. “I think so too.”

 

゚*・✧°・゚*・

 

August 22, 2023

Louis balances Emily in one arm and draws a book from his crossbody bag. He hands it off to the librarian waiting behind the counter.

“Just this one?” she asks.

Louis nods. “Just this one today,” he says. Behind him is another man waiting with a large box of books. Usually, he and Harry donate at least that many when they can, but today is for a special delivery.

“Is it damaged at all? Missing pages, perhaps?” she asks with a pen poised on a sticky note.

“No,” Louis says. Emily runs her chubby fingers through his hair, nearly knocking his glasses off his face. He rights them and explains, “There’s an inscription I wrote inside, though. For my husband.”

The librarian’s brows crease. “And you’re giving it away?”

“It’ll make it’s way back to him someday, I’m sure,” Louis says with a bright smile.

She hesitates, eying the book carefully, like Louis has handed her a prized heirloom. And maybe in a way, he has.

“Thank you for your donation,” the librarian says, skeptically but with a smile. She hands him a receipt for his tax deduction. Louis thanks her as well and leaves, securing both arms beneath Emily.

“How about lunch?” he murmurs to her.

She responds by yanking on his hair.

“Suppose that means yes,” he says.

It’s a short drive from the library to the deli for sandwiches. He picks up flowers along the way for the vase in the shop, and starts on his way back with Emily in the backseat giggling to his rendition of Smooth Criminal.

He finds Harry behind the register when they arrive, the bookstore smelling of espresso from the new machine they purchased recently. Harry turns when he hears the shop bell ring and grins.

“I definitely mastered this thing,” he announces.

Louis steps behind the counter and sets Emily atop the ledge, straightening her skirt. He stores his bag away. “I can see that,” he says, lifting his green apron from a hook on the wall. He slips it on, easing behind Harry to press a kiss to his cheek. “Smells like Starbucks in here. By next month, they’ll be out of business.”

Harry snorts, removing his cup of finished espresso, placing it on a tiny saucer, and handing it off to Louis. “Try it,” he says, as he slips past him, reaching for Emily, who reaches for him. He lifts her into his arms, pressing several frenzied kisses to her flushed cheeks.

Louis braces himself. The taste of anguished espresso beans hasn’t left his mouth from Harry’s last test run. He takes a sip gingerly, tapping his tongue to the roof of his mouth. He takes another sip, brows shooting up. “That actually,” he begins, after a third sip. “That actually doesn’t taste like battery acid. Amazing.”

“You’re hilarious,” Harry says, flatly. He wiggles his brows. “I think we can put the sign up now.”

Louis shuffles around beneath the counter for the sign they made recently with their daughter’s help. Now Serving Espresso, it reads, decorated with baby hand prints of colorful paint. “Done.”

Harry sets Emily down again and removes his glasses to wipe them clean. “Nadiv just brought in another box of books,” he says. “Was waiting for you to open them. I have some time before my next class.”

But even if unpacking and shelving books took longer than expected, the children would wait for him to finish. "Space Exploring with Harry" is their biggest event each week, so big that Harry has started uploading his talks online to meet demand. He’s always surprised by the amount of attention he gets but Louis never is. He’s brilliant and funny, and who wouldn’t want to watch a beautiful man talk about stars for an hour?

“What’s the topic for today?” Louis asks, while Harry lifts a large box of books onto the countertop. Darcy moseys past his leg and nudges Louis. Most of their patrons love her, except the one lady with pet allergies, and even she is having a gradual change of heart. Their aging Siamese has become the resident bookkeeper. So long as she doesn’t eat Sharky, sheltered comfortably in a tank behind them, she’s there to stay.

Harry tilts his head toward the chalkboard mounted on the wall. There’s a vague portrait of a swirling galaxy drawn there. “Guess,” he says.

“The Milky Way?” Louis asks, polishing off his espresso. “Or is it Andromeda?”

“Nope,” Harry says, grinning. “Well, I’ll mention those too. But no. It’s specifically about...The Sombrero Galaxy!” He holds up both hands. “And…”

He reaches beneath the counter and draws out a sombrero. “I have props!”

Louis looks at him with the sombrero sitting crooked on his head. “That’s brilliant,” he says.

Harry smiles. “You think I don’t know when you’re being sarcastic?” he asks, sweetly. “But thank you, babe. I also got maracas for you to help me.”

Louis laughs. “Why didn’t you mention the maracas? I couldn’t be more excited.”

He finds the box cutter and opens the box up, while Harry lifts Darcy into his arms and sets her down to keep Emily occupied. Louis draws the first stack of books from the box.

“Another copy of The Kite Runner and Oscar Wao,” he reports, flipping through the pages, as always to check for inscriptions.

Harry sorts through his own stack. “Got a copy of the Reader. We’re short on that one,” he mumbles, “I think.”

“You’re right. Hey, look,” Louis says. “Fifty Shades of Grey.” He tosses the book off to the side.

Harry glances at the book lying dejectedly on the counter. “You didn’t check for an inscription.”

Louis scoffs. “I’ll pass.”

Harry laughs, reaching for another stack, just as Louis does the same. He hip checks him, just because he can.

“Hey,” Harry says excitedly, turning the book in his hands towards Louis. “Importance of Being Earnest.”

Louis glances at the cover of the book Harry’s holding, searching like he usually does for the coffee stain. If it’s the copy he donated the week they married, it’ll be there.

He freezes when he sees it.

Harry flips the book open. “I got one!” he chimes happily, pushing his glasses further up his nose to inspect the inscription there. Louis’ inscription, it must be.

Louis hasn’t expected this to happen for years. He’s been donating these books with notes for Harry with the assumption that they wouldn’t find their way back to him until they were much older, if ever at all. They haven’t yet been married for a decade, much too short of a time to expect this now. And yet here they are.

Harry’s expression changes instantly, full brows creasing. He remains quiet, reading the inscription several times before he lowers the book, yanks his glasses off and looks at Louis. His green eyes are wide and glow in the sunlight pouring in through the shop windows.

“What does it say?” Louis prompts him, voice hushed.

“You know what it says,” Harry says. “This is your book.”

“Remind me then.”

Harry shakes his head, his bottom lip twitching like it does before he cries. He looks at the book again. “To my loving husband, Harry…” he murmurs. He glances at Louis again. “The summertime and butterflies all belong to your creation. Jesus...” His voice breaks off and his face crumbles. Emily watches him with alarm, and then starts crying as well. In a second, Louis will cry too. And then maybe Darcy will cry. And he doubts they’ll have any patrons left when they’re through.

Harry lifts Emily into his arms and sways with her. “I’m sorry, love,” he says, kissing her cheek.

Louis sets his own books down and steps close to them, caressing Harry’s hip with one hand, rubbing Emily’s back with the other. “You’re distressing our child.”

“This is your fault,” Harry mumbles, resting his head to Louis’ shoulder and turning away from the rest of the store. “How long have you been doing this? And why?”

“Since we got married,” Louis says. “And you know why.”

“I hardly know why you do anything.” Harry drags the back of his hand beneath his nose.

“I love you,” Louis says, softly, only for Harry to hear, “I do most things for that reason alone. It’s the reason for this, and it’ll be the reason for the next book you find. I want someone to open one of my favorite stories 10, 20, 50 years from now and know how much I love you. And after we’re gone, how much I still love you. When Em has children of her own and when her children have children, I want someone to know then too—”

Harry halts him with a firm kiss. The rawness of it reminds Louis of their very first. “Forever, then, is that it?” Harry asks. “You just want our love to live forever.”

Louis grins. “Did you expect anything less?”

Harry shakes his head. “Not at all. I’m only sorry you beat me to it,” he says with a soft smile. “I’ve got a few Austen books floating around for you too.”

“I can’t wait to find them,” Louis murmurs. Harry kisses him once more and rests his head to Louis’ shoulder. Emily rests her head to the other. Darcy circles their feet.

If joy had a face, it might look like Louis in that moment, caught in a slow impromptu dance with his family, having found a love that would last forever.

 

 

June 17, 2032

"Hope you all can see me," Louis says to the camera. "I'm recording today in bed because I've still got this nasty sinus infection and Harry is kind of forceful about me resting as much as I can.

"He's at football practice right now with Emily. I'm usually the one to go and I'm feeling a lot better today but again, my queen insists I stay here. He did leave me my favorite soup and the baby's with me too, so I'm not complaining," Louis says with a smile.

"So, in a little while, all the lads are coming over, along with my sister and Harry's sister, and a few other friends. And we're having a small dinner party for our 15th wedding anniversary, as some of you know."

On the mattress beside him, baby Stella writhes for a moment, and Louis looks away from the webcam, breath held. Her eyes remain shut, no tears are shed, and she settles again.

"Sorry," Louis whispers to his viewers. "I'm going to have to talk a little softer so I don't wake Stella. This'll be a quick video anyway. I've just been waiting to share something with you all, and with Harry too, whenever he sees this."

Louis lifts the copy of Sense and Sensibility off the bedside table and holds it up to the camera. "This is Harry's book, or it used to be," he says. "I purchased it while I was in Portland for a poetry slam. I only know it's Harry's book because he wrote something inside for me."

He cracks open the book and adjusts his glasses. "So, I'm going to read this to you all, I guess. It's really simple. I don't know if everyone will really get the significance of it, but. Anyway, it reads: To my husband, Louis, finding you meant finding home. Love you always, H."

Louis looks up at the camera with a big smile. "So, imagine me finding that in this bookstore in Portland. When I get to the register, I'm crying. My face is a mess. The cashier's looking at me like I'm crazy. I got on the phone with Harry afterwards, while I was sitting in the car, and I must have told him I loved him at least a million times. But I never told him why.

"I figure this video will be a nice surprise for him, so that he knows now why I had that break down that one time in Portland. This is it, babe," Louis says.

"I still feel like I don't say I love you enough. I don't think there are enough ways to say it. Even when I leave notes behind for you, it's never enough. You're my best friend, my partner in crime, my greatest supporter, and I love you in ways that can't fully be expressed."

He smiles, setting the book down in his lap, cradling it in his hands.

"Happy Anniversary, baby," he says softly. "I know I say this every year, even after 15 years, but thank you for finding me."

 

 

The End