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I won’t be afraid (just as long as you stand, stand by me)

Chapter Text

 

Disclaimer: I know next to nothing about child development even though I studied it at school and somewhat at uni so I apologise if there are things that are slightly off. Kym, please forgive me for not being a baby expert like you <3

Also, it starts in the early 90’s but seeing as I was born in 1996, it may be somewhat inaccurate. Suspend your disbelief.

 

 

Jay had said a million times over that they probably should have seen it coming from the beginning. While Anne quietly agreed with her, she also said that it was nice they didn’t. Because if they had known the kind of unshakeable bond that would be forged between their two sons, would they really have been able to stop themselves from interfering? Oh we did our fair share of interfering, Jay would remind her with a delighted laugh. We did, Anne would concede but then she also knew that neither of them could have orchestrated the entirety of it if they tried. The nursery, Jay would hum, looking over at Anne with a smile worth years of fond memories, we can blame it all on that damn nursery. The nursery, Anne would agree, reaching over to grab hold of her best friend’s hand, we can be forever grateful for that damn nursery

 

*

February 2nd 1991

 

Jay was singing to Louis in his cot when she saw her. The woman had been wheeled in about an hour ago, her lower half obviously still strained from giving birth. Jay was also quite sore but she refused to be wheeled around in a chair like some kind of invalid. Especially when she was perfectly capable of walking to see her son herself. The nurses had tutted at her quietly, shuffling out of the room with irritated looks on their faces. Jay, to her credit had remained silent but she felt like lifting up her night gown and simply showing them what was going on down there (it wasn’t pretty). Maybe then they’d have a valid reason for looking so personally insulted by her behaviour.

Although she saw the woman, Jay really hadn’t paid much attention to her when they wheeled her in. She was too busy recounting the story of the nasty nurses to her little boy, enchanted by the way he would pink up every time she touched him. It brought a few tears to her eyes when she thought about how it was just going to be the two of them for a long while, but she rarely let herself grieve anymore. It felt wrong to mourn the loss of the life she’d once lived when she’d been given the most miraculous chance at a new one. Instead she dried her tears on the pink hospital gown and started to sing a soft melody that she remembered from her own childhood. Louis seemed to like it if the way he slept peacefully throughout was anything to go by. Jay was considering going back to her room when she looked up and noticed the woman again.

She was standing this time but looking quite the worse for wear. Her arms were folded atop her baby’s cot and she looked positively exhausted, her eyelids drooping down halfway. Despite that, her lovely lilac dressing gown made her look dainty and soft. Jay’s dressing gown made her look like a pastel purple marshmallow. She envied the woman but pitied her in equal parts. This woman was clearly beautiful with her delicate, porcelain like features, plump limps and impossibly shiny hair. Still there was something hauntingly sad about her and almost fragile, as if a strong wind could blow her over at any moment. It was clear that it was more than physical exhaustion. It broke Jay’s heart to see this new mother looking so obviously hopeless. Jay waddled over to her with a friendly smile at the ready.

“Hello love, I’m Johannah but you can call me Jay.”

She spoke quietly as not to startle her but the woman startled anyway, teetering on her feet dangerously. She looked as though she may crash into her baby’s cot. Jay grabbed a hold of her arm and steadied her gently.

“Thank you,” the woman murmured, her cheeks steeped in pink.

Jay chuckled.

“No worries. Just please tell me you haven’t given birth in the last twenty four hours because you look absolutely flawless. I look like a bedraggled dragon.”

The woman laughed surprisingly loudly at that, her hand stretched across her belly like she’d forgotten her baby was no longer in there.

“I’m Anne, it’s so nice to meet you.” She had a smile that seemed more genuine than most. Jay didn’t doubt for a second that for Anne, it really was nice to meet her. “And if it makes you feel better, my obstetrician is a really, really cute doctor and he saw me push a baby and a whole lot of disgustingness out my vagina. So I don’t think he’d touch me with a ten foot pole.”

Jay cocked her head to the side.

“I kinda expected you to call it your flower or your hoo-ha.”

“Call what a hoo-ha?”

Jay grinned.

“Your vagina.”

Anne doubled over laughing but was interrupted by a sudden burst of pain. Jay looked on in sympathy.

“I’m not that posh. I mean c’mon…I’m wearing slippers with cat ears.”

Jay looked down and sure enough, Anne’s feet were cloaked in brown wool with soft, little pointy ears on either side. It was terribly endearing.

“I may have to adopt you,” Jay quietly informed her.

Anne choked on her laughter, looking quite startled by the revelation of her own amusement. Her eyes went from watery amusement to achingly sad in a heartbeat. Jay reached out to her, feeling troubled.

“Are you alright Anne? C’mon love, you can tell me.”

Anne reached up to wipe at her eyes, sniffling quietly. She shuffled her feet along the cold hospital floor and Jay knew even then that she’d never forget those soft brown slippers and Anne’s quiet melted teardrops.

“I’m sorry,” she said, between sniffles, “this is so embarrassing. I’m not usually like this.”

“It’s not embarrassing at all. You’ve just given birth, you’ve got every excuse to shed a few welcome tears.”

Jay held Anne’s hand as she spoke, willing away the demons in this woman’s beautiful green-grey eyes.

“It’s not my baby…I cried when I held Harry for the first time. He’s so so beautiful and I’m so happy. I’m not—I don’t regret him.”

“No, Anne!” Jay squeezed her hand, confused by the overwhelming fear on her new friend’s face, “I wasn’t suggesting that at all.”

“I’m just scared.” Jay could see that very clearly. Anne’s fingers hadn’t stopping shaking inside hers. “Because I—I think I might have to do this all alone.”

“What do you mean you think you might have to?”

Anne’s eyes welled up again and she lurched forward, scooping Jay up into a hug and burying her face in her shoulder. Jay held her until she was ready to speak again.

“I should have gone home by now. My husband was supposed to take me home yesterday afternoon but he never came. I--I don’t think he’s coming back.”

Jay’s response was automatic and immediate. She could only think of her own husband who loved herself and their little baby so very dearly.

“Of course he’s coming, love. You’ve just given birth to his son who, may I just say has to be the most angelic looking infant in the world.”

They both looked down at the cot. Anne’s tears were streaming down her face while Jay held tightly to her hand. Harry was sleeping soundly, his snowy white cheeks blowing out with each whistled breath. He had large everything, a contrast to Jay’s little Louis. His lips were plump and cherry toned just like Anne’s, his nose and ears far surpassing the size of most infant’s. He also had these chubby legs and big, long feet like a swimmer. Despite all that, he looked as infinitely tiny as all babies should, curled up inside his cot with a fist beneath his cheek. He looked precious and Jay had a strong feeling that he’d break a lot of hearts when he was older.

“Isn’t he?” Anne’s voice was saturated with love. “I can’t believe he’s all mine.”

She turned to Jay, tears still shining in her eyes but with a look of brave determination settling over her features.

“He’s not coming.” Jay opened her mouth to protest but Anne smiled and squeezed her hand. “He’s not coming because he never wanted a baby to begin with. He wanted to travel first and to establish himself more securely at the firm. I don’t blame him really because it’s what I wanted too. I wanted us to make a proper life for ourselves before we introduced anyone new in to it.”

“But these things happen…things that you don’t foresee?” Jay prompted, thinking of her own husband.

“These things happen,” Anne agreed, “and when you least suspect them too. I thought a baby would be the worst thing for us at this point in our lives and I didn’t think I was even nearly ready. I’m twenty three years old. I didn’t want to have my first until I was thirty.”

Jay couldn’t imagine waiting that long. She was twenty five and even that had felt like a sacrifice. She’d been ready to have a child since the day she turned twenty. It was just a pity really, what with Patrick’s job…they never really had much time to conceive. It wouldn’t have been right though anyway because Patrick was away so often for his work. Jay knew it was useless but she couldn’t help wondering what could have been and what would have been if she’d just gotten pregnant a few years earlier.

“But then I got pregnant with Harry and it was like it was always meant to happen that way.” Anne continued. “There wasn’t one moment of indecision for me. I knew I was going to have the baby and I knew I would still have an amazing life whether it was the one I planned for or not. Because I felt him in there and loved him instantly. My little angel.” Anne reached down and stroked the back of her finger across Harry’s puffy cheek who turned his little head toward her, eyes still firmly closed. “I love him even more now that he’s here. I knew I couldn’t give him up. It didn’t make sense to me that Irwin wanted to. There was no indecision for him either but it was because he was firm on the fact that we weren’t keeping him. As if Harry was just a stray that I’d picked up and brought home.”

“Oh love,” Jay murmured, keeping her hold on Anne’s hand.

It was all she could think to say. Jay simply couldn’t imagine anything worse than being with someone who wasn’t capable of the same amount of love as she was. In at least one way, Jay had been very lucky to have lead the life she did.

“Forgive me,” Anne said with mournful eyes. Jay thought it would be hard for anyone not to forgive her with a puppy dog look like that. “I believe in women having a choice, I do. But we’re not too fresh out of luck teenagers without a hope of giving him a good life. I’m not a victim of sexual violence or an addict of any sort. We were in love, we are in love and if the last nine months has taught me anything, it’s that we can endure. Irwin tried for me. He came to all the ultrasounds, the birthing classes…he read all the books. He took care of me like I always thought he would. He even decorated Harry’s room and started setting up the cot. I thought—“ Anne swallowed, her eyes welling up again. “I thought he was getting excited to meet him.”

Jay felt her own eyes misting up.

“And you haven’t heard from him? Was he here when Harry was born?”

“Yes! He held Harry and kissed him and he—he looked so happy,” Anne broke down into a breathless sob then. “He said he was just going outside to call his parents but he never came back and he’s not answering any of my calls. At first I thought something might have happened to him, like…something terrible. It’s not like him not to answer my calls on the first ring, let alone not to answer any of them at all. But then I thought about it, I thought about the way he looked at me before he left, the way he kissed me and—“

Anne cut off then, unable to continue. She turned and rested her elbows on Harry’s cot, burying her head in her hands. Jay massaged the back of her shoulder.

“You think he was saying goodbye.”

Anne lifted her head. She was as pale as a ghost, except for her cheeks which were generously decorated with patchy pink.

“I know he was. He’s not coming back and I’ve been waiting here for him like an absolute idiot. They’re going to kick me out soon, I know it. And you know the worst thing? The worst thing is that when I realised he’d left me, I wished something terrible had happened to him because at least then I’d know he didn’t leave us by choice. Isn’t that awful?”

Jay nodded her head to one side.

“Yes…and no. Let me tell you a bit about myself. My husband was a soldier stationed over in Iraq. He was a hero to millions of people yet at the end of the day, he was just my hero. My husband. When I told him I was pregnant with Louis, he cried. I stood there and made fun of him, mind you but I wish now I had told him how grateful I was to have somebody like that by my side. Somebody so loving and warm.

“It was such a meaningless way to die…caught in enemy crossfire. Those are the words you hear in the news report, they’re the ones you read in the paper. They’re supposed to be inspirational… to make you feel proud of the men who died to serve our country. They’re just not the words you expect to hear when you pick up the phone and someone informs you that your husband is gone. It meant nothing to me, the way he died. Because he died without me there to hold his hand and kiss him goodbye. He died without his family beside him. But I know it would have meant the world to him. Those men were his family, almost as much as we were and if I know anything about Patrick, it’s that he truly believed in the saying, ‘live for what you believe in, or die fighting for it.”

Anne had gone much paler. She reached out and gripped Jay by the forearms.

“I am so sorry. I should never have said what I did.”

“It’s okay. It’s not your fault Patrick died and it’s certainly not your fault your husband left you. All I’m saying is, I was seven months pregnant when I got that call. I honestly didn’t know if I could still do this but I had wanted a baby for so long. Patrick’s baby. We met when I was seventeen and he got deployed the following year. We bided our time, we waited and when we did start trying, it was because Patrick decided he was going to leave the army in order to start a family with me. It wasn’t a sacrifice for him because it was a blessing. He loved his boys but I know he loved our little boy even more.” Jay’s throat constricted around her words but she bravely blinked back her tears. “When I got that call, I thought…how can I do this alone, how can I do this without Patrick? This is our baby and Patrick should be here to see him, to meet him like we planned.”

“How did you do it? Your family must have rallied around you.”

Jay fluttered her eyelashes down and softly shook her head.

“My family and I fell out years ago. I married Patrick before he was deployed and they didn’t approve. As the cliché goes, they thought I was too young to know what I wanted. I proved them wrong every day of the eight years we got to spend together and I have no doubts that I would have spent the rest of my life with him. I’m too strong minded to let a man like that fall out of love with me.”

Anne chuckled wetly and squeezed Jay’s arm.

“My family and I aren’t close either.” She admitted.

Jay smiled gratefully at the woman who seemed to share none of her personality traits but all of her struggles.

“It took less than a week for the dust to settle,” Jay murmured, encouraged by Anne’s support. “For me to realise that the baby was coming one way or another and I had to be prepared. I knew it wasn’t going to be the life I thought I’d lead. It wasn’t going to be happiness in the same way I used to define happiness to myself…but my baby was coming and I loved him. I knew that if my son was never going to have a daddy, I’d have to love him twice as much to make up for it. So I did. I have. I’ll never stop. I am lucky…I’m lucky my husband was such an incredible man. He would never have abandoned me and I can take some small comfort in that but he never got a chance to meet his son. He wept at the news of Louis but he never even got the chance to hold him. Worse than that, my baby boy never got to grasp his daddy’s finger and he never will. Your husband could still come back, Anne. He could still decide he wants something to do with Harry.”

Anne looks troubled by the notion.

“I don’t think I could forgive him, I—“

“I’m not saying you should. But one day Harry might want the chance to get to know him and he still has that chance, however remote. Louis doesn’t. So I don’t blame you for wishing your husband didn’t abandon you. I just think, loving Louis as much as I do… I’d rather have Patrick alive and still connected to Louis than for Louis to never know him at all.”

Anne shook her head disbelievingly.

“I could never be as strong as you.”

Jay tangled their fingers together.

“You already are. Because you’re here with your little boy, fighting for your son the same way I’m fighting for mine.”

They stood there like that for a moment, smiling softly at each other. Then Jay threw her arm around Anne’s shoulders and gently knocked their heads together.

“Did we really just confess our life stories in the middle of the nursery?”

Anne chortled.

“I believe we did. Now are you going to let me see your Louis or what?”

Jay’s expression lit up at that, ever so eager to show off her beautiful newborn. She led Anne over to the other side of the nursery and the cot that had Louis William Tomlinson scribed on the side. Anne peered into the cot, her expression melting into awe almost as soon as her gaze settled on the tiny infant inside.

“He’s lovely,” she sighed, “but so small! Is that why you’re still here?”

Jay nodded her head, a slight frown worrying her features.

“They said everything’s working well. He’s breathing on his own, his heartbeat is strong…he wasn’t born preterm. They just wanted to keep him a little longer to make sure he was still going strong.”

Anne squeezed her shoulder.

“Don’t worry too much. I’m sure your gorgeous boy will grow into a chubby little man like mine soon enough. Who knows, maybe he’ll even outgrow Harry?”

Jay’s smile was wistful as she leaned down into the cot and brushed a kiss over Louis’ forehead.

“His dad was very tall.”

Anne none too subtly looked her up and down.

“We’ll just have to pray the kid didn’t get your genetics then.”

Jay turned to her with a mildly horrified gasp. Secretly, she was quite pleased.

“How very dare you! I’m 5’9, I’ll have you know and a perfectly respectable height! You should just hope that your son doesn’t inherit that froggy mouth of yours.”

Jay immediately wondered if she’d gone too far. The woman had been through hell in the last twenty four hours. It was quite the pleasant surprise when Anne shrugged happily, grinning from ear to ear.

“There is no hope. He’s definitely inherited it.”

They burst into laughter together, clutching at each other for support until one of the babies started to cry (thankfully not one of theirs) and a disapproving nurse came bustling in to give them a stern reprimand. Jay walked Anne back to her room, arms linked between them. Nurses smiled at them from across the ward, many of them having been a part of one of the births. When they got to Anne’s room, Jay helped her into bed and reclined on the visitor’s lounge beside her.

“What happens when I leave here?” Anne spoke, reaching out for Jay who took her hand instantly. “I’ll be all alone. I don’t even live around here. We came to Doncaster for a weekend away and now Harry’s here and I have to go back to Holmes Chapel on my own.”

Jay looked up at her with a quizzical expression.

“Where on god’s earth is Holmes Chapel?”

“It’s a small town in Cheshire, about two hours away.”

“Two hours,” Jay hummed, her features fell slightly as she realised what that meant. It was likely the two women would never see each other again. “Well that seriously blows.”

Anne lowered the head of her bed and closed her eyes. Jay watched her closely, noticing how she breathed much too shallowly for someone who was properly calm.

“You know I won’t accept distance as an excuse for your lack of visits.” She added, purposefully high and mighty. “With the look of that dressing gown, you’ve probably got a hired car back home.”

Anne’s features turned up in a brilliant smile which quieted only as she turned on her side and stared at Jay with watery eyes.

“I know you’re trying to take care of me but I want you to know something, Johannah Tomlinson…I’m going to take care of you too. For Patrick. I think he’d be happy you’ve got someone like me on your side.”

Jay laughed, ever so fond of the woman beside her.

“Oh would he now? You didn’t tell me you could convene with the spirits, love.”

“Oh yeah, I’m a total pro. Actually he’s whispering in my ear right now.”

Jay rested her chin beside Anne’s hip, her whole face glowing.

“Really? What’s he saying?”

“That for a bedraggled dragon, you really know how to rock a hospital gown.”

Jay shrieked with laughter, playfully batting at Anne’s side. The other woman caught her hand and squeezed, something that was so very quickly become a normal gesture for them.

“And….he says he’s so proud of you for having his baby. He thinks you’re mad for talking to the crazy lady in the nursery but he adores you for it, because it’s exactly the woman he fell in love with.”

Anne was grinning at her from ear to ear but all Jay could do was drop her head slightly and wait for the teardrops to stop falling. It was incredible how that faux message from Patrick actually sounded like something he would say. What had he said when they moved into their first flat together? It was after Jay made friends with the strangely depressed hippie on the next floor.

I worry about your sanity baby but I do admire your empathy. You always pick the ones with the broken wings.

As if what he did for a living was so far removed from that. But then looking at Anne’s skinny form and her dampened eyelids, maybe Jay finally got it. She liked to fix what everybody else deemed irreversibly broken.

Anne’s eyelashes fluttered open, her smile hazy and quietly contented.

“Do you think they’ll celebrate them together?”

“Celebrate what?” Jay asked.

“Their birthdays.”

“Hmm,” Jay drummed her fingers on Anne’s body, “do you believe in fate?”

“Yes, why?”

Jay shook her head, impossibly fond. Of course this woman believed in fate. She was like a fairy princess herself.

“Because I don’t. I believe in making sure our kids grow up together.”

Anne’s mouth pulled up in a reluctant turned up grin.

“Now Jay, we’re not to interfere. The boys don’t have to like each other just because we do.”

“You’re right,” Jay reassured her, patting Anne’s hand. Her eyes glimmered. “But something tells me they just might.”

Chapter Text

Harry and Louis: One Month Old

“Bring him here,” Jay says, without thinking too hard on the matter.

Why should she? She’s worked a twelve hour day, done two loads of washing, cooked dinner for herself and Patrick’s sister and expressed milk for tomorrow. She’s exhausted and being deprived of contact with Louis for twelve long hours has only added to her perpetual headache. She’s quite certain that leaving Louis in the mornings is one of the hardest things she’s ever had to do. He always screams his head off, wriggling desperately inside his auntie’s hold. It breaks Jay’s heart when he’s still crying as she walks out the door every day, keys in hand but with her heart left far behind with her.

Far worse than that though is the pain of returning when Louis’ already achieved so much while she’s been gone. She’s missing the most important milestones of his life while she’s away at work and it kills her…but there’s nothing to be done. Even with the money Patrick left her in his will and the money they had saved for Louis’ future, it’s a struggle. Jay has to work if she wants to keep the house. She has to work twice as hard if she wants to keep them both afloat.

The nights are the hardest. Harder than Jay had expected really, despite everything she’d heard about new parenthood. It’s more than Louis’ poor sleeping habits and the impressive set of lungs he’s got on him. It’s the fact that she’s doing this alone, virtually without help. After Rosie leaves at the end of the day, it’s just her and Louis, a fact that both pleases her and terrifies her with equal measure.

Sometimes, on her worst days she’s afraid that she won’t have the strength to hold Louis in her arms and comfort him when he starts to cry. There is no sharing the night-time duty or calling for Patrick’s help when she’s too tired to continue. There’s no ready-made coffee in the mornings or someone to commiserate with at the breakfast table about the extensive loss of sleep. It’s a constant repetition of long hours at the firm, a pitiful number of hours spent re-getting to know her child in the evenings and next to no sleep at night.

The up side? She has the most beautiful, darling baby that ever lived. Every flutter of his long eyelashes or kick of his tiny feet is a small miracle. It never ceases to make her warm inside when he reaches out to her with his chubby little arms each time she returns home. Those reunions, those close, tight cuddles…they’re the things she cherishes most in this world. It reminds her that the labouring of each day is worth it, if only for those few minutes that she has to spend with her tiny, infinitely precious baby inside her arms. It’s worth it because she’s been blessed in a way that Patrick never was. She has, at the very least, the next eighteen years to spend watching Louis grow into a beautiful young man, loving him unconditionally and without pause. At the stroke of midnight each night when Louis starts wailing, Jay reminds herself of that very fact. She is lucky.

She’s lucky, not least because she’s got one hell of a friend in Anne Styles. Anne, who without much discussion has become her main confidant and support base. When Jay mistakenly thought Louis was running a fever, it was Anne who talked her down and told her to check again. She’d known full well how little sleep Jay had had. Likewise when Anne started getting small payments from Irwin but with no signs of communication from him, Jay drove the two hours to see her in Holmes Chapel. She brought chocolate, crisps and some psycho-wife-kills-philandering-husband horror movies with her. They stuck Louis and Harry in the same cot and sunk into the couch together, Anne’s tears melting down her top as Jay hugged her close. Point is, they’ve stuck together since they met at the hospital a month ago. So when Anne called her at the point of tears, Jay jumped at the chance to help her…

“He won’t stop crying Jay, I’ve tried everything. The nanny said he’s been finicky all day and for no good reason. I thought maybe he just missed me but I’m back now and he’s still screaming his head off.”

“Maybe it’s not you that he misses.”

“Excuse me?” Anne sounded sharp. “Well who exactly does he miss? If you’re talking about Irwin—“

“I’m not talking about Iriwn,” Jay said quickly, “I’m talking about Louis. Maybe he misses Louis.”

There was a beat of uncharacteristically awkward silence.

“What? That’s crazy. He’s not even six months old, how could he—Jay, don’t be silly. I know you’ve got this notion in your head that they’re going to be the best of friends when they’re older but I really don’t think—“

“Bring him here,” Jay says now, her tone leaving no room for argument.

Anne tries anyway.

“I can’t bring him there! It’s a two hour drive and I’ve got work tomorrow.”

“So stay over,” Jay shrugs, even though Anne can’t see her, “you’ve stayed on my foldout couch before. Just chuck a sickie.”

Anne is bordering on hysterical. Funny how it only makes Jay more certain that this is the right thing to do.

“I can’t afford to chuck a sickie Jay, you know that. And I’m not driving all the way down there at this time of night.”

“You can afford to. If you’d just use Irwin’s money—“

Anne cuts her off quickly.

“It’s Harry’s inheritance. It’s for when he’s older, not now. I can do this on my own. I don’t need his guilt money.”

“Anne, just listen—“

“No, you listen to me Jay Tomlinson. This isn’t your dead husband’s parting gift…it isn’t about love.”

Jay’s breath leaves her. Of course she’s aware that her husband is dead but to hear it said with such flippancy…it completely blindsides her. She takes the phone away from her ear from a moment, even though she can hear Anne yammering on in her absence. She just needs a moment to breathe.

It started a couple of weeks before Louis was born. It happened for the first time when she finally decided to clean out the last of Patrick’s stuff and it hasn’t stopped since. When it happens, she feels suffocated and panicked to the point of paralysis. Her chest tightens up, her voice leaves her and for that minute or so that she’s overtaken by panic, she feels completely incapacitated. She’d been to see someone about it after it happened at work in front of half the office but the breathing techniques have yet to cure her.

Finally, after a few minutes spent staring at the kitchen table and concentrating on its solid, blank surface, she picks up the phone again.

“Jay? Jay, are you there? God I’m so sorry! You know I didn’t mean it like that. I know how you get—how your panic attacks can be so vivid, I—“

“Please,” Jay stops her before she can say anything more, “don’t call them that. I was just having a moment. I’m fine now. It’s fine. I know you didn’t mean to be so cavalier.”

“I didn’t, I really didn’t! I just wish I didn’t need his dirty money. I don’t want to need him anymore.”

Jay’s features soften. She’d forgotten for a moment that Anne is doing it just as tough as her.

“You don’t need him babe but Harry does. Get off the phone in a minute and call your work. Bring Harry here. I know you don’t think it will help but remember how peaceful they were the last time we put them in the cot together? Maybe the car ride here will help, you never know.”

“I suppose so,” Anne agrees with a hint of resignation.

She knows better than to argue with Jay once she has her mind set on something. They talk for a few more minutes until Jay reminds Anne that her boss is probably about to leave the office. She ought to call her before she does.

A couple of hours later Jay opens the door to her best friend and her best friend’s son, all bundled up in his favourite blanket. It would make a lovely reunion, if not for the fact that Harry’s still howling like a fire engine. Anne hurries inside with her miniature fire alarm, looking harried and frankly stressed out of her mind.

“I’m ready to try anything at this point,” she pants, speed walking down Jay’s hallway toward the nursery.

Jay follows her, hauling Anne’s bags up onto her shoulder and dropping them off in the living room on her way. The howling cuts off before she gets there and Anne comes running out of Louis’ room with her eyes as big as golf balls.

“He stopped screaming,” she whispers, completely blown away. “I put him down next to Louis and he just…stopped. Jesus Christ, you were right. He missed Louis!”

Jay’s face alights in a charmingly smug grin. She has to see this for herself. They hustle back into the room together, Jay’s arm hooked around her friend’s shoulder. She looks down into the cot and sure enough, there they are, all snuggled up together like two peas in a pod. Harry’s eyes are half shut and his hand is stretched over Louis’ little stomach. His face is a bit pink from all the screaming and now that it’s over he looks just as knackered as Anne. Jay coos at him and reaches down to stroke the place where his cheek meets Louis’. Louis looks a little bit more awake than Harry, having gone down much earlier. He’s busy studying Harry’s hand on his stomach, his big blue eyes fixed solely on this body part that doesn’t belong to him.

“Our boys,” Jay murmurs fondly, stroking both their cheeks, “our gorgeous little boys.”

Anne rolls her eyes but Jay can see the softness in her smile.

“Speak for yourself. Harry wasn’t so gorgeous when he was screaming his head off all afternoon.”

“Look at him now though,” Jay can’t take her eyes off the two of them, “he looks so happy to be here.”

It’s true. Harry’s lips are very slightly upturned and when his eyes fall closed, he rubs his puffy little cheek against Louis’ small one.

“So,” Jay says after a moment or two of watching them sleep, “what shall we do with the rest of our night then? We’ve both got tomorrow off.”

Anne grabs onto her shoulder for support.

“I don’t know about you but I’m dying for a nap.”

Jay steers her in the direction of the living room.

“Thank fuck.”

Harry and Louis: Four Months Old

“What is he laughing at?” Anne asks, chuckling herself at the exquisite sound.

Harry and Louis are on the mat beside them wriggling around with each other while the women watch on from above. From her spot at the living room table, Anne can only see the back of her son’s head. He’s lying on his stomach facing Louis with Louis on his back beside him. Louis’ got all of his little fingers stuffed inside his mouth at once, dribbling spit all over them and giggling loudly. It’s a wonderfully hearty giggle, like the kind of laugh you’d expect to hear on a villainous infant, if there ever were such a thing. It’s infectious and Anne can’t stop herself from grinning at Jay over the top of her mug.

“Harry’s making funny faces,” Jay says, with a giggle of her own, “I think Louis really likes it.”

Anne’s grin turns even goofier at that. She can’t help herself. The cost of driving herself to and from Doncaster every weekend is insane but it’s honestly worth it to see their boys together like this. It’s worth it to see Jay, who has needed her more over the past few months than Anne ever would have imagined when she made that promise to look after her all those months ago.

Jay’s panic attacks went from the occasional “moment or two” as Jay slyly liked to refer to them, to a daily hassle that interfered with her job and her ability to look after Louis. Anne had to step in. She took a couple of weeks of work, subsisting solely on Irwin’s weekly payments while she looked after Jay and Louis.

In that time, the boys got to know each other with the kind of unfathomable curiosity you only ever see in infants of that age. They started reaching out for each other instead of their mum’s whenever they were upset and sleeping with their ankles and hands crossed over each other in the cot. It was something quite magical, watching them fall in love with each other over the space of just a few weeks. It was the only thing that seemed to put a smile on Jay’s face as she lounged around in her dressing gown and avoided dealing with her grief.

It became quite clear that while Jay had accepted Patrick’s death, she hadn’t properly mourned him. She hadn’t had the time really. When she got the news, Louis was just two months away and there was no time to go to pieces over her husband’s death. No time at all. She did what she had to do to get through and pushed it to the back of her mind. Anne admired her for it but it was obvious that it had only worked for so long. Now her demons were catching up with her and she had to face the huge wave of sadness that had amassed within her. Her panic attacks had nothing to do with her voracious little newborn, Anne was sure of it…they were triggered by her refusal to deal with the lingering loss of Patrick.

So Anne helped out. She did the cooking, the laundry and all the washing up while Jay vacationed on her own couch and pretended that everything was okay. Jay hadn’t asked Anne to come but that didn’t matter. She knew she simply couldn’t stay put when her friend was clearly suffering.

It also became clear that Jay wasn’t going to get help on her own. Anne was aware she’d been seeing someone for her anxiety but she was also quite sure that Jay had quit the sessions cold turkey. Anne got a hold of the psychologist and without too much prompting, he revealed that Jay hadn’t been to see Patrick’s grave since he died. He personally thought that it was a big part of her developing anxiety. She couldn’t lay his ghost to rest until she confronted her own grief.

It was a typically wintry day when they strapped the boys into the car and took them to the cemetery. Louis wailed the whole car ride there but when they stepped out in front of the cemetery, his cries cut off as he looked around, too intrigued by how much there was to look at. Anne let them go on ahead as she put Harry in his stroller and followed at a slow walk.

She watched from afar as Jay knelt at the grave site with Louis in her arms, pointing at the inscription and bouncing him gently on her lap. It looked like she was telling him a nice story with a happy ending and she could have been, if not for the way there were tears streaming down her face. Her mouth opened around a howl every now and then and she pulled Louis closer, shielding him from the wind. Louis, for his part looked fascinated with the rough texture of the stone. He reached out to touch it, dragging his fingers across the inscription with childlike reverence in his eyes. It only made Jay cry harder.

When Anne reached the headstone, she knelt down beside them and said a silent prayer. She knew Jay didn’t believe in things like that and ordinarily, neither did she but it was the only way she could think to pay her respects to a man who had given his life for hers. For so many others. She said a silent prayer and then picked some daises from the grass beside them, laying their stalks down at the foot of Patrick’s grave. When she turned to her friend, she found that most of Jay’s tears had dried aside from the ones left rolling down the curve of her chin. She had Louis tucked into her neck and she pressed her lips to the crown of his head, clad in a red woollen hat.

“Thank you,” she breathed as she reached for Anne’s hand, “thank you for making me do this.”

Anne felt awed as anything when Harry wriggled inside her arms to get closer to Louis. She shuffled closer to Jay, allowing their little boys’ hands to touch. The four of them sat like that for a while, hand to hand in the middle of a cemetery. Something about it was remarkably healing.

Jay still isn’t 100% but what widowed wife is? She does the best that she can with the lot she has and Anne has never been more in awe of her strength. The bond between them feels almost unbreakable. Watching Louis’ eyes light up and his cheeks bounce with laughter, Anne feels like she has two sons. It’s not uncommon for her to bounce Louis on her lap for hours, cherishing his raspy giggle or for Jay to sing Harry to sleep over the phone. It’s just the way they are. Anne has a strong feeling that it’s the way they’ll always be. The Tomlinson-Styles, two broken families that make one complete one.

Harry and Louis: Six Months Old

“Anne, you have to come see this!”

“What?! What is it? Is it the boys? Are they okay?!”

Anne comes running in with her hair sticking up in all different directions and half her fingernails painted. They’re going out tonight for the first time since they became mothers, or really since before they had husbands. The big deal is that it’s also their first time leaving the boys at night.

Rosie is going to be looking after them but since Anne’s only met Patrick’s sister once or twice, she’s understandably bordering on panic. Jay assured her that Rosie was trustworthy and that Patrick had named her Louis’ godmother for a reason but Anne had been like a major hurricane all afternoon. Jay had only just convinced her to go blow-dry her hair and do her nails when the most incredible thing happened right before her eyes. She couldn’t help calling Anne back.

“They’re fine, you nong. Just look at them.” Jay can barely contain her squeal. “Louis’ using Harry’s finger as a pacifier!”

Anne looks down at the boys, her eyebrows tented in like she thinks Jay might be pulling her leg. It’s not totally out of the realms of possibility. She did once convince her that Harry had said something in Spanish while she was out of the room. Jay regretted it when Anne decided to chase her round with a bloody frypan of all things. She ended up swatting Jay over the bum with it.

This time Jay wasn’t playing any kind of prank. They had put the boys down on their play mat a couple of hours ago, switching posts as they attempted to get ready. Louis and Harry seemed to be having a ball, needing only each other’s body parts as entertainment. They’d settled down about fifteen minutes ago, their eyes drooping slowly. The next time Jay looked over, Louis had Harry’s finger in his mouth and was sucking on it gently. His little hands gripped the sides of Harry’s open palm as he slobbered on his finger. His eyes were glazed over with the first signs of sleep. Harry stirred at the sensation and looked over at Louis with wide eyes but Jay watched in amazement as Harry neither struggled nor revolted. Instead he fell asleep with his index finger claimed by Louis’ mouth, apparently unbothered.

“Oh my god, I can’t believe this,” Anne whispers, “can you believe this?”

“Grab me my video camera.”

Anne grins at her and runs off to collect it. She stuffs it into Jay’s hand when she returns and sits down beside her, clearly mesmerised. Jay takes a couple of photos (50) and then a video of Louis suctioning his lips around Harry’s finger like a fish.

“Do we have to go out tonight?” Anne whines. “I want to stay with the boys.”

Jay silences her with a murderous look.

“We are going out tonight and if you think I’m going to let you call Rosie and annoy her again, just forget it.”

“I just wanted to make sure—“

“She’ll be fine A, just relax.” Jay grabs hold of her shoulder, smiling evilly. “Think of it this way…if you go out tonight with a sexy dress on and your best high heels, it’s a pretty big fuck you to Irwin.”

Anne’s expression shifts slightly. She looks down at her half-finished nails.

“Better finish these off then.”

She hops up and marches off towards the bathroom. Jay does a triumphant little dance which stops when she looks down and catches sight of her gruesome lower calf.

“Damn it, I forgot to shave again.”

Harry and Louis: Ten Months Old

“Louis, can you say “mum--ah”?”

Louis looks at her with a mixture of annoyance and confusion. There’s a quiet huff like noise that falls from his mouth as he collapses back into a sitting position. He’s just recently learned to pull himself into a standing position but it takes so much energy out of him, the poor little guy. Harry’s strong legs can support him for much longer periods. Speaking of Anne’s little joy, Harry’s sitting down beside them, busying himself with the interactive piano mat that Jay got him last month. Anne had been a little angry with her for it, tutting that she couldn’t afford it but the woman was a massive hypocrite, having bought Louis a bunch of new toys when he first learnt to crawl.

“Ha—rah.”

Jay mimics her son’s look of confusion.

“No sweetie, not H. M…for Mumma. Can you say “mum--ah”?”

Louis screws up his face, as though the sound of her name is unpleasant in his ears. It’s the same face he makes when she tries to feed him carrots. Apparently the orange vegetable is beneath him.

“Ha--rah,” he repeats, this time with more emphasis.

It amazes Jay how sassy he is for a ten month old. He’s already mastered the tired, pissed off look better than most hormonal fourteen year olds. Maybe he’s mimicking the look she gives him when he chucks his toys at her in a fit of temper.

“Baby, what is “Ha—rah?” That’s not a word, darling.”

Louis kicks his feet out at her as she sweeps him up into her arms, his little blue eyes turned stormy. Jay has no idea what’s gotten into him. He usually loves being picked up, no matter what.

“One more time, c’mon love…can you say “mum—ah” for me? Please?”

Louis wriggles furiously in her grip and wrenches himself around in order to look at Harry. That’s not so atypical. The boys are almost always watching each other. Jay wouldn’t be surprised if Harry’s lack of attention was the source of the heat behind Louis’ temper.

Anne walks into the playroom then, sitting down beside her with a tray of tea and biscuits. She smiles adoringly at her son, still giggling happily at the sounds of his piano.

“Harry, you’re such a good boy.”

She bends over to kiss his cheek and that’s when it clicks. Jay grabs hold of her arm and Anne looks back at her with a raised eyebrow.

“Ha—rah. Oh my god A, he’s trying to say Harry!”

“What?” Anne’s eyes widen dramatically and she looks between the boys. “Louis said Harry’s name?”

“Yes!” Jay squeals and then pauses immediately after. “Well…kind of. He basically did. He called him Ha—rah. I was trying to get him to say mumma but he just kept repeating himself, getting angrier by the second when I didn’t understand. My little baby’s going to be a genius!”

Jay showers him in noisy kisses and Louis’ squealing laughter fills the room. Anne’s expression fills with just as much happiness as Jay’s and she tickles Louis’ stomach.

“Are you a smart little boy Louis? Are you going to grow up to be a big boy genius?”

Louis’ enthralled, his small body jerking away from Anne’s fingers as he laughs his little head off. That eventually catches the attention of Harry who abandons his piano in favour of crawling over to Louis. He reaches out for him, making Jay’s heart melt a little inside her chest. She sets Louis on the ground in front of him and Harry hugs him close.

“Ha—rah,” Louis babbles, sounding just about as happy as it gets.

“Yeah baby,” Jay smiles at them both, “you hug your Ha—rah.”

Harry and Louis: Twelve Months Old

“Harry, we don’t have time to play right now. You can play when we get to Mumma Jay’s. And stop your sulking.”

Harry stands up and takes a few wobbly steps towards her. He collapses at her feet, his legs stretched out in a wide V. It tugs on her heartstrings to see him steadily gaining confidence. He’d taken his first steps a few weeks ago and Anne has yet to find herself not halting whatever she’s doing every time he tries it again.

“Good boy Harry,” she scoops him up in her arms, pulling his backpack over one shoulder, “now how about we go celebrate your birthday with Louis and Mumma Jay? Would you like that lovey…to go see Louis?”

Harry claps his hands together and babbles some more nonsense words. Jay furrows her eyebrows at him. It’s been two months since Louis said his first word and since then he’s cottoned on to “mumma” too. Deep down Anne knows it’s not a competition and that there’s nothing wrong with Harry but every time she hears Louis call for Jay, it breaks her heart a little. She knows Harry recognises her name. Her nanny says he lights up every time she tells him mummy is going to be home soon. It just frustrates her that he’s yet to say the actual word.

“Harry, can you say mummy please?”

Harry puts a hand on her cheek and smiles up at her, all angelic. It’s precious and usually it would be enough to make her smile but at that moment, Anne just wishes he would say something. He’s got a lovely voice, all rhythmic and slow paced. It’s the opposite to Louis’ who talks a mile a minute and sounds like he’s permanently on helium. Anne loves him but she often wonders how Jay doesn’t have a permanent headache.

Anne takes Harry into his car and straps him into his seat, passing him his little hedgehog toy. It’s one of Harry’s favourites and if there’s one thing Anne knows, it’s that a long car ride with a one year old is a hell of a lot more peaceful when the child is content.

It’s a hell of a journey to get to Jay’s, what with the miles of evening traffic stretched along the road and the headache niggling at her temples. Work has been kind of crazy lately, what with their sudden onslaught of new clients, all of which seem determined to work with her. It’s a blessing, she knows. Her income has tripled over the past three months due to commission alone but it’s been harrowing for her spirit. Not because she doesn’t love what she does at the advertising firm she works at but because it’s meant less time with Harry and less time for herself.

She’s been working herself to the bone just to save some money for a new house. She hadn’t told Jay yet but she has plans to move somewhere closer to her and Louis. Even if it was just outside of Doncaster, it would be a hell of a lot better than making the two hour drive four days a week. They used to stick to just weekends until they figured out that their babies were rarely happy unless they were in the same room. It’s been good for them too, getting to veg out in front of the TV with somebody else for a change.

They have movie nights and nights where they leave the kids with Rosie and go out dancing. The clubs never turn up anything good in the form of dateable men but Anne has to admit, she has a seriously good time when they go, that first time excluded. The first time was admittedly awful because she was calling Rosie every fifteen minutes to check on Harry. The next time, Jay confiscated her phone from the get go and after bitching at her for at least an hour, Anne decided that it might be a good idea just to make the most of her night off.

The point is, petrol costs a hell of a lot more than it used to and frankly, Anne’s sick of always being so far from her friend. What if something ever went really wrong? It’d take her two hours to get there and that’s if the traffic is minimal. Anne doesn’t want to go through that anymore and she doesn’t want to live in the house she shared with her husband before he left. It feels like she’s constantly trapped in the heartbreak of her marriage break-up and it’s not what she wants for her or Harry. It might be tough to get work somewhere else but she’s willing to leave the job she loves to have the kind of life she would love even more.

When Anne gets to Jay’s, she’s feeling cranky and rundown. It’s selfish and awful of her to say it but she’s not in the mood for a birthday party. It’s her son’s first birthday and she’s not even excited. She opens the car door and undoes the car seat with her mind somewhere else and a blank expression on her face. She only snaps out of it when Jay opens the door and loudly blows a party whistle in her face.

“Thanks for that,” she snaps.

Jay’s eyebrows jump with surprise and she flattens herself against the side of the wall in a typical theatrical display.

“Please don’t shoot.”

Anne rolls her eyes and steps past her, sighing at the sheer number of guests inside. Did Jay really have to invite everyone from their mother’s group?

“Hello little one,” Jay’s murmuring to Harry, squeezing his side and rubbing her nose against his. He looks thrilled with the attention. “Happy birthday darling. You’re a big boy today, just like Louis! Do you want to come see him?”

Harry squeals happily and Jay lifts him from her arms without asking. Anne stalks after the two of them, frustrated with the way Jay seems to be ignoring her now.

“Look baby, it’s Louis!”

Louis’ sitting in a high chair at the end of the table with his hands in what looks like a paint set. His big blue eyes alight at the sight of Harry and he bounces in his high chair, wanting to be let down.

“Ha—ray! Mumma…Ha—ray!” He pleads, wriggling from side to side and stretching his hands out in front of him.

He’s made some progress with Harry’s name but not enough that his attempts aren’t still too adorable for words. Jay chuckles at the look of pure awe on Harry’s face and kisses his little cheek.

“Looks like someone’s excited to see you, love. Do you want to see Louis too?”

Harry turns his head up to look at Jay and spreads his hands out across her chest.

“Lou—wee.”

Anne unfreezes from her place beside them, reaching out for her baby with a little gasp. She locks eyes with Jay who gives her a nod of confirmation (and forgiveness) and hands her son over.

“Harry, what did you just say? Did you say Louis? Can you say it again for mummy? Lou---wee, that’s what you said, wasn’t it?”

Harry’s not saying anything now. He looks annoyed with her and Anne wonders not for the first time whether babies understand more than we give them credit for. It seems to her that Harry understands she was taking her shitty mood out on him and he’s not happy about it.

“Mummy’s sorry baby,” she whispers to him, her eyes watering slightly, “I’ve been such a mean mummy on your birthday, haven’t I? I love you Harry. Mummy loves you.”

Harry places his hand on her cheek just like before. His beautiful green eyes are wide with a plea.

“Mum—“ he pauses, an innocent look of concentration on his face. Anne can feel Jay holding her breath beside them. “—ee.”

Anne’s tears trickle down her cheeks, unbidden. She presses her forehead against Harry’s.

“You’re such a good boy.”

Only, Harry’s not done. He tugs on the side of her shirt. She hoists him up higher, kissing the side of his face.

“Mum—ee,” he turns around and points at Louis, “Lou—wee.”

“Of course,” Anne sighs, quietly adoring. “Of course you want Louis.”

Anne sets Harry up in the highchair beside Louis’, laughing with Jay as Louis paints Harry’s entire face a putrid shade of brown with his fingers. They both take videos on their phones, laughing even harder at the look of complete puzzlement on Harry’s face. He doesn’t seem to understand why Louis wants to paint him but he lets it happen anyway.

“I’m sorry about before,” Anne leans into Jay’s side, reluctant to take her eyes off the boys. “I was having a bad day. Bad week actually.”

Jay wraps an arm around her waist.

“I know. Why do you think I just ignored you? I know it’s best to wait for the storm to pass.”

Anne turns her head to look at her, expression muted.

“And what about you?”

“What about me?”

“Has your storm passed?”

Jay tilts her head in the direction of Louis who’s laughing to himself, seemingly about nothing.

“What do you think?” She asks with a quiet grin.

Anne picks up the cake knife from the table, wiggling her eyebrows like a crazy person.

“I think it’s cake time.”

Jay grips her by the shoulders and steers her towards the kitchen.

“My dear, I thought you’d never ask.”

Chapter Text

Harry and Louis: Two years and Six Months

Harry is screaming and Anne doesn’t even know why. One minute they were singing along to his favourite nursery rhymes in the car and the next he was screaming bloody murder.

“What is it? What’s wrong?” She asks him in the rear-view mirror, face pinched with distress.

Louis has been somewhat of a terror since he learned proper voice projection but Harry’s bouts of toddler fuelled rage have been few and far between. They’re confined mostly to Louis’ absence or for those rare times when Louis ignores him. Right now Anne hasn’t got a clue what’s caused it and it’s the worst time for it too. They’re already late. If they don’t get to Jay’s soon, little Louis will probably combust. His temper is ten times the size of his tiny body.

“Wanna stay!” Harry yells, crossing his arms.

Right, that’s why. She was telling him that they’d have to head back tonight instead of staying over like they usually would. She doesn’t want to give it away yet but she has a little surprise in store for him tomorrow. She’s already called the nanny to tell her she’s not needed tomorrow because Anne’s organised to have the whole day off work to spend with her little boy.

There’s something more to it than that though, something she’s quite certain Harry is going to love. To make matters even more exciting, Louis and Jay are coming over to see Harry’s surprise. Anne can’t wait. It’s only slightly tempting to placate him with the truth.

“Well we can’t, I’m sorry love.”

Harry continues to sob and thrash about in his seat like any irrational toddler. Anne just ignores him. It’s her and Jay’s brilliant new strategy for dealing with their little terrors. Harry is more of a little darling than a little terror but even he has his moments. They figured it was only fair that they developed their own kind of weaponry to use against those gorgeous pouts and sad little eyes.

Anne and Harry arrive at Jay’s in stubborn silence. Harry is sporting a stiff upper lip and a sour look, an obvious attempt to garner sympathy. Anne resorts to the lowest common denominator.

“If you don’t wipe that sad little look off your face before we get inside, Louis won’t want to play with you.”

Harry’s expression changes almost instantly, morphing from sullen to desperately fearful in an instant. At which point the guilt swells in Anne’s chest.

“Oh c’mon then,” she sighs and shepherds Harry up the black cobbled driveway.

A little round head appears in the bottom of the front window. Anne would have mistaken it for a fluffy little hedgehog, if not for those unmistakable blue eyes. The little face disappears from sight and a moment later, the front door flies open and Louis runs out to greet them.

“Hawwy!”

“Louis, what did I tell you? You’re not to go running out the front by yourself!”

Louis does a pretty excellent job of acting like his mum hasn’t spoken as he throws himself clear across the driveway at Harry. Harry catches him…just, and hangs on just as tightly.

“Lou--ee!”

Jay appears at the top of the driveway, her arms crossed but with a helplessly endeared smile spreading across her cheeks.

“Louis was in the middle of a giant strop when you two arrived,” she huffs as Anne leads both the boys back up the driveway.

She flicks her thumb at Harry.

“This one was screaming the car down.”

Jay shakes her head, irritated but indulgent.

“Boys.”

 “Our boys.” Anne corrects, grinning manically.

The boys are practically beside themselves with excitement, racing each other to the corner of the living room where Louis’ toys are kept.

“Slow down Louis!”

Anne nudges her, leaning in to whisper, “has he ever slowed down when you tell him to?” in her ear.

“Well…no.”

They both share a chuckle. Jay takes a seat on the lounge beside the boys and Anne heads to the kitchen to make them both some tea. She knows where just about everything is by now, bar the sugar because Jay forbids her from adding it to their tea. She’s taken to hiding it in increasingly difficult places after that one time when Anne dared to disobey her.

Once they’re settled with two steaming mugs of tea, their plates balanced precariously atop their knees, Jay turns to her with a wide smile.

“It’s been a month,” she shakes her head. “Where have you been love?”

“Working. Always working.”

She still hasn’t told Jay that she’s what working for is a new house. She’ll save that surprise for another day. Harry’s surprise on the other hand, Jay is fully aware of.

“Does Harry know?” she whispers, leaning her head in. “About the surprise, I mean.”

“Of course not. It wouldn’t be a surprise then, now would it?”

Jay bumps their shoulders together.

“I’m only asking because I know you. I wouldn’t be surprised if you cracked and told him.”

“Oh hush you!”

They laugh together, watching the boys with fond grins. It seems they’ve abandoned the toys in lieu of rediscovering each other. Nothing aside from the norm really. Louis’ hands are around Harry’s wrists and he’s giggling happily, kicking his feet at Harry who digs his fingers into Louis’ little tummy.

“Do you sometimes forget they’re just two years olds?”

Jay watches her son push Harry to the floor and climb on top of him, poking at different parts of his face. Harry looks enamoured.

“I sometimes forget they’re not married,” she confesses.

Their chuckles are tempered only by how very true the statement seems.

 

*-*-*-*-*

The previous owner has just dropped off Harry’s surprise; a white fluffy kitten with big blue eyes. Anne is bursting at the seams to see Harry’s reaction but unfortunately for her, her son seems to have chosen today of all days to start sleeping in. It may have something to do with the hour he spent roughhousing with Louis the day before. Jay had to hold Louis back while Anne dragged Harry kicking and screaming to the car. It tore her heart in two but she knows today will definitely make up for it. It’s why she finds herself doing the unthinkable and going to wake her child, a soft, placid kitty purring quietly inside her arms.

“Harry darling, wake up please.”

She combs his short blonde hair away from his forehead, planting a gentle kiss there. His hair has started to look a lot darker at the roots of late. She’s secretly hoping he might end up with naturally dark hair like hers. Irwin’s hair is a dirty blonde colour and while t might be slightly petty of her, Anne is very much hoping Harry winds up with more of her features than his.

Harry stirs in his sleep, kicking his feet inside the blanket and fluttering his eyelashes. These are the moments she saves for a rainy day. They’re the ones she saves for a moment of quiet in which she can truly appreciate them. There have been so many of the former over the last two and a half years and not nearly enough of the latter. She’s spent more hours working than she has with Harry and it’s painful to think about.  She often worries she’s neglecting him or that maybe Harry and herself aren’t as close as Louis and Jay, who might as well be joined at the hip.

That’s not to say that Jay doesn’t work as hard as she does but she does get better pay. Consequently, Jay has to work less hours to achieve the same result as her friend. Plus her boss gave her a pay rise because she admitted she was struggling to pay her mortgage. Anne isn’t bitter about it, she’s happy for her friend really but there are times when it does get her down. What she wouldn’t give just to have a few spare hours to spend with Harry in the evenings instead of getting home just in just in time to give him his nightly bath and put him to sleep.

Unfortunately there’s just no way can that she sacrifice that extra money for those extra hours with Harry. Not yet. It may make her sound like she isn’t committed to parenthood but that couldn’t be further from the truth. She isn’t some workaholic that’s lost sight of what the concept of family means. She’s a young single mother working to pay her bills and settle her finances so that she can buy the house she’s been dreaming of for the past two years. Anne knows deep down that if she can just reach her goal, things will be easier for them from then onwards. For now, she cherishes these moments that she gets to spend by Harry’s bedside, watching the innocent dreams of youth flit across his perfect little eyelids.

“Sweetheart, I’ve got a surprise for you.”

Harry’s face fills with unhappy creases, like he’s trying to think of a way to get the surprise without opening them up. It’s adorable.

Anne places the kitten on the bed beside him and chuckles when the fluffy little thing swishes her tail in his face. Harry wrinkles his nose and reaches out to swat her away. The kitten takes that as an invitation to curl up in the space between his chin and the bed covers. Harry’s eyes fly open.

“Mama?” He looks down at the white fluffy object curled up against him. His bottom lip wobbles. “What’s this?”

“You know what this is baby. C’mon, why don’t you give her a pat? See how soft and fluffy she is.”

The look of wonder on Harry’s face is precious. He gingerly reaches a hand out and strokes along the kitten’s back, his mouth hanging open. She nudges his hand with her head, encouraging him to stroke her there and mewing happily when he does.

“Can you tell mama what your surprise is?”

“Ca--at?” Harry says slowly, sounding it out into two syllables.

Anne’s got her camera bag slung over her shoulder. She unzips the case and pulls out her camcorder, flipping it open and pressing record.

“Good boy Harry,” she acknowledges, watching his little face light up. The kitten snuggles even closer to him and Harry giggles brightly. “Can you tell mummy what the cat feels like?”

“Soft,” Harry says with quiet reverence, “soft like Lou--ee.”

Anne struggles to contain her affection.

“And Harry,” she says, in the kind of overly theatrical tone parents only ever use in their own home videos. “Can you tell me what the cat’s name is?”

Harry looks stumped.

“I don’t know mama!”

“That’s okay baby. Maybe you can name her? What do you think a good name is for your little princess?”

Harry sits up with the kitten in his arms. He holds her in the air and turns her this way and that, studying her features with a pensive look on his face. Thankfully the cat is as good tempered as Harry. She only mewls once and begins to purr as soon as he places her back down in his lap, a comforting hand atop her head.

“Louis,” he says decisively.

Anne chokes on nothing.

“Why Louis, darling?”

“Lou-ee like princess,” he shrugs, as if that explains everything. He points at the cat’s wide blue eyes. “Like Lou-ee mama.”

Anne is so glad she’s got the camera in her hand in this moment. This is absolute gold.

“But Harry love, I think that might get a bit confusing. What about the cat from Alice? You remember when we watched Alice?”

Harry nods vaguely, like he doesn’t understand much of what’s been said.

“Well how about we call our new pet Cheshire? That’s where we live Harry—in Cheshire.”

Harry doesn’t look convinced so Anne scoops him up in her arms and throws him over her shoulder, letting him dangle down as she walks. Harry giggles and squeals, thumping her back with his hands as she purposely jostles him. She sits him down on the couch and puts the tape in the VCR. Harry’s expression brightens noticeably when the Cheshire cat finally makes an appearance. He happily agrees on the name but cries out for the kitten. Cheshire comes running into the living room when Anne shakes her food.

“I’ve got one more surprise for you baby. Guess who’s coming over to see you and Cheshire today?”

Harry’s all curled up in the corner with his head in Cheshire’s fur.

“Chesher mine mummy.”

Anne strokes his hair down.

“I know love, no one’s going to take her from you. It’s just that Louis’ coming over to meet her! Isn’t that nice?”

Harry giggles. He closes his eyes, obviously a little drained from all of the excitement of this morning. (Not to mention his impatient mother rudely waking him up before he was ready).

“Princess Lou-ee,” Harry mumbles, curling his arms around Cheshire, “Lou-ee mine princess.”

*-*-*-*-*

“Hawwy, look. Hawwy? Hawwy! Haww-eeee!”

Louis isn’t used to this treatment and he doesn’t like it. Harry is sitting right beside him but he’s not listening to him at all! He’s got this little buzzing toy and he keeps dragging it along the floor to get that stupid fluffy monster to chase after it. He strokes its hair every time it does anything even slightly interesting, which it really doesn’t.

When Louis asked, Mummy said the buzzing thing is a moose…or something like that, Louis wasn’t really listening. He was too preoccupied with the fact that Harry barely even noticed his arrival. Usually they scream each other’s names and wrestle for a bit or something. Louis likes it so much because Harry always lets himself be tackled by Louis at least once, even though he’s so much bigger than the other boy.

Harry continues to laugh at the attention-seeking ball of fluff while Louis looks on grumpily from the side. Both mummy and Mumma Anne are watching Harry, clearly loving this awful display of attention seeking behaviour. No one is paying Louis any attention at all!

Louis decides to cry because—well, why not? There’s not much he can’t achieve with a few tears and some well-timed sobs. He doesn’t really understand the idea of faking it but he understands that it’s generally the easiest pathway to getting whatever he wants. Usually. Sometimes mummy sees through him.

Louis draws in a big breath and starts wailing. The tears aren’t so much of a problem when he realises how very upset he actually is about this whole Harry business. Speaking of, Harry finally drops the moose in favour of seeing what’s wrong with Louis. Louis would give up this tantrum in favour of his attention, if it weren’t for the fact that that stupid creature is still nestled inside his arms. Louis shoves him to the floor and pulls the kitten’s tail until it screeches and scurries under the couch. Harry’s eyes well up with tears and he buries his face in the floor, kicking his feet out unhappily.

“Oh baby, it’s okay,” Mumma Anne murmurs, soothing Harry with a hand on his back. “Louis didn’t mean it, love. Cheshire will come back out when he’s ready.”

Harry’s tears are the least of Louis’ worries because his mummy appears above him with eyes like something out of his nightmares. She looks as mad as he’s ever seen her and that’s including the time he ran outside without permission and almost got run over by a car.

“Louis, that was an awful thing to do. Come here now!”

She holds out a hand for him to take which he does, tearfully. Her grip is tight on his fingers as she leads him from the room and into the kitchen where she crouches down in front of him.

“I don’t want to yell at you because I think you know that you did a bad thing but I’m very angry with you. Poor Harry just wanted to play with you and you pushed him. We don’t push people Louis.”

“Hawwy no play wif me,” Louis grumbles. “Harry play Chesher.”

Understanding dawns on Jay’s face. She takes him into her arms, hugging him close.

“Oh baby, don’t be jealous. Harry loves you.”

Mummy just said a whole lot of words that Louis doesn’t quite know the meanings of yet.

“Hawwy play Chesher, no me.”

Jay pulls back to look at him, her eyes creased with a smile.

“Sweetheart, you can’t get upset with Harry just because he’s excited to play with Cheshire. It doesn’t mean Harry won’t want to play with you anymore.”

“Harry play now mummy?”

“Well maybe if you say sorry to him…”

Louis hates apologising almost as much as he hates Cheshire but if saying that magic word (magic, according to adults) will make Harry love him again, he’ll say it in a heartbeat. He goes running back into the living room, ignoring both of the women’s cries to slow down.

“Sowwy Hawwy! Sowwy!”

Louis bowls the bigger boy over with a hug but Harry doesn’t throw his arms around him and squeeze him tight like he usually would. Instead he gently pushes Louis off. His eyes are downcast and he looks like he’s sucking in his cheeks.

“Chesher.”

They have their own language sometimes. Louis gets it. He reaches under the couch and drags the ridiculously whiny thing out by the back of her neck. She looks up at him with pleading blue eyes and Louis feels a little remorse. Maybe she isn’t so awful after all. He curls a protective arm around her and rubs a hand over her head like he saw Harry doing before. Cheshire mews and rubs her head against his wrist which makes Louis let out a surprisingly delighted laugh. Harry giggles along with him.

Louis bends down then, wobbling a little with the added weight of the kitten and places her on the ground between them. She looks sideways at them both as if deciding who is more worthy of her attention and then rolls over onto her back, proudly displaying her tummy. The two of them spend the rest of their time together making shapes in her fur and encouraging her to chase the moose around the living room. It’s the best day Louis’ had in a while.

Harry and Louis: Two Years and Ten Months

“Jay, is Louis okay? You might want to go check on him.”

“What? He’s fine.”

Or at least he was. He was completely fine when she left him in the hands of the trusted preschool carer half an hour ago. Harry and Louis aren’t actually in preschool yet but Jay wanted to give Louis a chance to get used to the place before he starts next year. She’d never admit it but she also wanted a chance to get acclimated herself. She’s never been very shy before but knowing she wouldn’t have Anne there to ease the transition was frankly unsettling.

Jay turns away from the table, abandoning her steaming mug of tea in favour of checking what’s going on with her child. Unfortunately Alana, (mother to two and a half year old Nick) is right. Louis is standing with his arms wrapped around himself and his chin tucked into his neck. The primary carer has her arms around him and is talking to him quietly, Louis nodding along with a strangely sullen look on his face. He looks defeated and Jay’s heart breaks for her gorgeous boy. She pushes away from the chair and hurries over to him.

“Louis, are you alright?”

Mummy.”

Jay bends down, arms outstretched. He meets her halfway, winding his arms around her neck and burying his face in the familiar scent of her top. Jay meets the eyes of the carer over his head. She looks concerned.

“It seems Louis got a little bit shy,” she tells Jay, her smile steeped in kindness. “It’s alright. It’s quite normal.”

The slightly worried edge in her eyes says different. Jay is definitely worried. Louis has never shown any signs of shyness before and she can’t comprehend what’s changed. It takes a moment for her to realise that she’s actually never seen him interact with any other kids apart from Harry.

“What exactly happened?” Jay whispers, her hand smoothing down the back of Louis’ hair.

The carer, Julie, if Jay remembers correctly, motions for Jay to join her over to the side. She tries to pull away from Louis, whispering that she’ll be right back but Louis grips on to her shirt. Heart wrenching sobs tear from his lips. She scoops him up and holds him, rocking him from side to side as she talks to Julie, knowing Louis’ too preoccupied with his own emotions to really take stock of what’s going on anyway.

“He just seemed a bit nervous around the other children, is all. It’s nothing to panic over.”

“Nervous how?” Jay frowns at her.

“Well he…he sat down by himself and started playing with the blocks on his own. Tommy came over  to say hi and Louis ignored him.”

Jay feels the teensiest bit defensive.

“He’s not a mean boy. Louis wouldn’t ignore someone. He never ignores Harry!”

Julie offers a sympathetic head tilt. There’s nothing worse than a sympathetic head tilt when you’re already worked up.

“Is Harry his brother?”

“No!” Jay pauses. “Well…kind of.”

Julie looks more than a little concerned for her sanity but that’s okay because the woman is wearing a tartan patterned blazer. No self-respecting woman (or man for that matter) wears a tartan patterned anything to work.

“Okay….well I wasn’t suggesting Louis is a mean boy. Far from it. Once I talked to him for a little bit, he actually came out of his shell and really seemed to trust me. He just struggles a bit, is all. I would suggest brokering some more interaction with other kids to get Louis used to the idea of being around people he doesn’t know. It’s very different with a sibling than it is with other kids.”

“Sibling?”

“Harry? His brother?”

Jay lets it go. No point correcting her now. Not when she’s got a teary child on her hip and more than a few troubles on her mind. Her kid is shy, which is fine. Patrick was shy when he was younger too. He basically grew out of it and was very well liked by people at his base. The thing that worries her is that Louis is only two and he’s already having difficulties trusting new people. She just hopes that being a single mother with a semi-demanding job hasn’t played a role in that. Perhaps she’s been so focused on making up for lost time with her little boy that she hasn’t spared a thought for the time he’s been missing with other kids?

 Regardless of whether they’re related, maybe Julie’s right. Maybe Harry doesn’t count. Maybe the strangely intimate connection between the boys and the boldness that comes with it is Louis’ exception. It seems there’s something about Harry which dispels Louis’ fear and replaces it with trust. Trust and love. Jay can only hope that his beautiful friendship with Harry doesn’t hold him back in other areas.

She calls Anne that night.

“He really freaked out, hey?”

“Yep. He was beside himself. I just wanted to protect him from whatever bully he was facing but it’s so much more difficult when the problem is inside his head. He doesn’t have the words to describe it yet and even if he did, I don’t know that I’d have the words to comfort him. A, what if he doesn’t grow out of it? What if it’s more than just a little hiccup?”

“Why would you think that?”

“The look in Julie’s eyes…it was like she’d seen it before. I know she doesn’t have all the answers but she’s had to have dealt with a lot of kids in her time and a lot of worried parents. I’m not saying I couldn’t handle it if Louis had….some kind of problem but I mean shit, what if I’m no good? What if I make it worse? What if Louis needs his dad?”

“Johannah Tomlinson, you stop that right now.” Anne’s voice is firm. “You are an incredible mother! With or without Patrick…and you can do this on your own, I don’t doubt that. But the fact of the matter is, you aren’t alone. I am here for you and will continue to be for years to come, no matter what happens with the boys. Okay?”

“Okay.”

Jay’s voice is an emotional croak that gives rise to their laughter.

“I love you Jay, you know that?”

“I do, Annie Styles.”

“You know Anne isn’t short for Annie right?”

 “I guess I just thought, what with you nicknaming Harold, Harry—“

“Harry is not short for Harold!” She shrieks.

Jay snorts down the line, filling the silence with loud, obnoxious laughter. Anne sighs.

“Someone get me a new best friend. This one laughs like a hyena.”

“Maybe I do but your accent makes you sound like you’ve got a permanent cold. Should have heard yourself the other day…’don’t mind uz. Harry’s juz cranky.’”

She smirks at the sound of Anne failing to contain a giggle.

“Excuse you! What about when you asked the cute waiter for a drink the other week? “Me warr-ter’s run out Jamie, mind getting us anotha?”

Jay laughs outright. She does have a habit of cutting the ends off of words.

“At least I didn’t mistake my son’s cat for a duster.”

“No,” Anne wheezes, “you just pop down to the shops in PJ’s and no bra!”

“I stand by that decision one hundred percent.”

“You’re crazy.”

“Right back at ya, love.”

Jay can hear her friend beaming. They both love a healthy dose of banter.

“Louis will be okay.” Anne assures her after a beat of silence. “I’m sure it was just the shock of new people for the first time. Harry wasn’t there to play with and that’s got to be hard on the kid.”

“Speaking of Harry, did I mention how Julie assumed he was Louis’ brother?”

Anne guffaws.

“I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. Although she’d only have to see them together once to realise it’s so much more than that.”

“You’re making it sound like our two year olds have a house and four kids.”

They both laugh at the sheer impossibility of such a statement.

“I really hope Harry’s partner, boy or girl loves kids. I want at least four grandkids, maybe five.”

“I think you’re aiming too low. I’d love about six.”

“Six! Sheesh, you better hope Louis’ swimmers are top notch.”

Jay shakes her head in total disbelief. She can’t believe this is the same seemingly prudish woman she met in the nursery way back when.

“Can we not talk about my two year old’s swimmers, please? I like to pretend he’s going to be this little forever. My little handful.”

“How is the little handful after his eventful day?”

She takes a peek into his room. Louis is sleeping soundly, curled up on his side with a look of pain free contentment on his features. His eyelashes are almost longer than her own now.

“Sleeping. He was alright after I took him home. It was almost like it never happened. Maybe you’re right, maybe it was just a one-time incident.”

“Mm, probably. He left his crown here by the way.”

“Louis doesn’t own a crown?”

“No, but Harry does. He gave it to Louis when he ordained him. He calls Louis his ‘itty princess’.”

Jay’s eyebrows pull together.

“His itty princess?”

“I’ve taken to calling him “itty bitty Louis” whenever I talk to Harry. I think that was Harry’s best attempt.”

Jay puts a hand to her heart, bursting with fondness.

“Bless your boy, honestly. I bet Louis loved being his itty princess too.”

“He did. It was while you were off making tea. Unfortunately his crown fell off because Harry rudely tackled him from behind.”

“You mean Harry hugged him? Harry doesn’t tackle. Itty bitty Louis does but not Harry.”

“Exactly. Harry hugged itty bitty Louis and itty bitty Louis fell over.”

Jay giggles.

“It’s going to be brilliant when they’re older. I hope Harry will still greet him by squeezing him half to death.”

“You’re just praying Louis will still be the same size.”

“Guilty!”

“Hey Jay?”

“Yeah?”

“I know I said I’d be there for you both but I think it’s more than that. I think the boys will be there for each other.”

“Yeah,” Jay’s smile is the most genuine it’s been all day, “I think they’ll be there for each other too.”

Chapter Text

Harry and Louis: Three Years Old

Harry’s birthday is his favourite time of year, not because his mum always buys him the best presents or because he gets to eat ice cream cake but because it’s Louis’ birthday too. There is nothing more delightful than Louis’ scrunched nose smile and the way he runs around with his arms spread out, making silly plane noises with his mouth. Unfortunately for Harry, Louis expects a lot of him in the way of fun and adventure. Harry’s not always sure he can live up to it. That’s why on their third birthday when Louis asks Harry if he can cover him in mud, he just gives a meek nod and plants his butt on the grass.

It rained last night so the backyard is a sloppy mess. The mud is cold on Harry’s cheeks when Louis starts painting him. He takes it upon himself to rub it into every conceivable part of Harry’s body including his hair, which now feels gritty and damp.

“’s cold Lou-ee,” he mumbles, pouting.

Louis pays him no mind, giggling as he streaks mud over Harry’s arms.

“Think of what our mums will say.”

Harry glances over to the outdoor seating area where Jay is busy telling his own mum what looks like a very involved story. Neither of them has glanced at the boys in so much as five minutes, clearly preoccupied with catching up on each other’s news. Harry and Louis are supposed to be having a joint party this evening but for now it’s just the four of them.

They exchanged presents earlier. Jay and Louis gave him a tape recorder with a microphone attached to record his singing while Harry and Anne gifted Louis with the Beauty and the Beast video which Louis has yet to see. Harry begged his mum to buy it for Louis. He knew without a doubt that he would love it. More importantly, Louis reminds him of the princess, Belle. Just like Belle, Louis is a dark haired beauty with a high, pleasing voice. He doesn’t sing as often as Harry but in Harry’s completely biased opinion, Louis’ voice is much nicer than his own.

Thinking of the way Louis had hugged him tight and smiled his crinkly little smile when they gave it to him makes Harry feel awfully warm around his toes. It offsets the horrible cold of the mud. He finds himself giggling along with Louis, agreeing to whatever ridiculous idea Louis suggests next.

“Yeah, they’ll be so mad.”

He doesn’t usually like to antagonise anyone but seeing the spark of admiration in his tiny friend’s eye spurs him on. He starts helping Louis collect the mud to cover his own body. At just three years old, Harry Edward Styles is so very whipped.

 

*-*-*-*-*

They’ve barely been talking for ten minutes when Anne grabs her arm with a horrified shriek. Jay whips her head around in the boys’ direction, prepared for the absolute worst. She’s mystified by the sight that befalls her. Her own son is sitting on the grass with dirty hands and a worryingly innocent expression on his face. She shifts her glance sideways in hope of an explanation. She finds it in the shape of a mud encrusted little boy.

“Harry! Dear god.”

Anne runs over to him, kneeling down by his side. She attempts to clear the mud from the tops of his eyelids.

“Sweetheart, what were you thinking? These are your nice clothes! Mummy spent a lot of time picking them out for you. What do you have to say to mummy?”

Harry’s little green eyes blur with tears. His wobbly lip tears at Jay’s heartstrings.

“Sorry,” he cries, throwing his arms around Anne, “I’m so sorry mummy.”

Jay shifts her glance back to her own son who pointedly avoids her eyes. Jay gets up from the table and meanders down to the grass. She kneels in front of Harry, gently pinching his chubby thigh.

“Harry, is that you?” She cocks her head to the side. “You look a little different to usual. Maybe it’s those new clothes your mummy bought for you. Is that it?”

Harry giggles and presses half of his face into Anne’s shoulder, twisting his body from side to side.

“Nooo.”

“Oh…really?” Jay pokes the tip of his dirty nose, “then what could it be?”

“Umm….” Harry flutters his eyelashes at her, scrunching his nose. “I don’t know.”

“Oh. Okay. Well I guess I’ll just ask Louis what happened, hmm?”

“No!”

“What was that Harry?”

Anne frowns at him.

“Harry, don’t be so rude.”

Jay shakes her head.

“He wasn’t being rude Anne. Were you Haz?” She digs her fingers into his side. “He’s just trying to defend the real culprit.”

Harry’s expression twists unhappily. He looks of all things, offended.

“I helped.”

Jay lets out a bark of laughter and ruffles his hair.

“Oh babe, of course you did. But not without coercion.”

“What’s cohershon?”

“Coercion,” Anne corrects, sharing a fond look with her friend. “It’s when someone convinces you to do something you don’t want to do.”

The poor boy looks confused but he throws his arms around Louis anyway, pleading with them desperately.

“Don’t punish him please. It’s his birthday!”

Jay would say she’s astonished but she’s learned to expect this kind of nonsensical devotion when it comes to their boys.

“It’s your birthday too darling.” Jay strokes his little cheek. “I bet you didn’t want to get covered in all that mud on your birthday, did you?”

Harry hesitates which is when Louis jumps in.

“He didn’t mind.”

Evidently Louis thought the whole stunt would mean more attention for him. As if he needs any more attention than he already gets.

“Why don’t you let Harry speak for himself Louis?”

Louis takes Harry’s hand then and interlocks their fingers the way he’s seen Jay do with Anne so many times before.

“Do you want to watch the movie Hazzy?”

Her three year old is an expert at manipulation. Harry nods his head excitedly. He turns back to Jay with heart shaped eyes.

Please.”

“Fine,” she sighs, “but the two of you are having a bath right now, no complaints.”

Louis moans and grumbles a bit until Jay gives him a warning look and he shuts his mouth quick smart. After they’ve bathed and changed the boys, Jay and Anne put on Beauty and the Beast for them in the living room. Harry clings to Louis as the opening credits start, whispering into his ear whenever Belle’s on screen. Jay watches her son blush and snuggle back against Harry as if they were teenagers rather than two rambunctious little three year olds. It’s as disconcerting as it is comforting.

Jay leans her head on Anne’s shoulder who shifts slightly to look at her, her face pinched with distaste.

“Is it just me or can you still smell mud?”

*-*-*-*-*

There’s a moving truck outside. It’s been lingering for days but Jay hasn’t been privy to even one momentary glimpse of their new neighbours. It’s almost as though the new inhabitants are hiding from them. Jay went over to have a sticky beak yesterday afternoon but all the blinds were shut with no visible signs of life from outside.

“What do you think? Do you think I should go over there and check it out?”

Louis puts down his toy truck and gives her a considering look.

“Can I come?”

That settles it then.

She marches across the front lawn en route to her neighbours’ doorstep but stops dead in her tracks when she spots a familiar pair of shockingly green eyes.

“Harry?”

The little boy looks up at her with an adorably toothy grin. He’s holding a garden hose in his chubby little hand, spraying the potted plants which border their neighbour’s front yard.

“Hello Jay.”

The boys have stopped prefacing their names with “mumma.” Jay misses it a bit if she’s honest.

“Hazzy?”

Harry drops the garden hose, water still gushing out along the grass. He throws his arms around Louis, squeezing him tight.

“Louis!” He squeals. 

“Mummy dinnit say you were coming.”

Louis tears his head away from the comforting support of his shoulder to look back at Jay with a grumpy pout.

“Why dinnit you tell me mummy?”

Jay really should stop letting him get away with so much. It’s not my job to inform you of other people’s comings and goings, she should say. You’re not old enough to be this demanding. But Jay’s always been a sucker for her adorably sassy boy. She ruffles his hair and smiles sweetly into Harry’s contented little eyes.

“I didn’t know they were coming. Which begs the question H, what are you doing watering our new neighbour’s garden?”

Jay hears the squeak of the water being turned off. She looks in the direction of the noise and finds Anne walking towards her across the yard, a dazzling smile upon her face.

“I brought Harry out here to tidy up a little. If I’m going to be living next door to someone with a black thumb, we might as well upstage you completely.”

Jay does a ridiculous double take, shifting her glance between the charming brick house and Anne’s shit eating grin.

“Fuck me.”

“Jay!”

Jay shakes her head, muddled then casts a semi-horrified glance down at their kids. Harry looks as doe-eyed and angelic as the day he was born. Louis on the other hand, looks like he might be plotting ways to use this against her. It’s not the first time he’s heard her slip up.

“I mean…dearie me.”

Anne rolls her eyes fondly.

“Bit late for that now, don’t you think?”

Jay makes makeshift scales out of her palms.

“Swearing in front of the boys…” she lifts her other palm higher, “…buying a house next door without telling me.”

“Okay okay, I see your point.”

“Anne,” Louis tugs on the side of her friend’s jeans.

She makes a mental note to ask Anne where she got them, they’re gorgeous.

“Yes love?”

“Are you and Hazzy living here now?”

He points at the house behind them, bouncing on his heels a bit while he waits for her answer. Jay tuts and cautions for him to stop. She’s been trying (and failing) to get him to stop with the fidgeting.

Anne crouches down in front of him and lifts him up by the armpits, settling him on her hip. Louis looks delighted by this turn of events and nuzzles into her neck. It makes Jay smile. For all that you can say about her extremely energised, slightly troublesome son, you can’t say that he isn’t cuddly. In fact sometimes he’s even cuddlier than Harry which is saying something given that Harry’s now tugging on Jay’s trousers too, begging to be picked up. She happily obliges.

“Yes Lou, we are.” She smiles at Jay, a soft promise that they’ll talk about this later. Jay grudgingly returns the gesture. The woman did move next door just to be closer to them. “And guess what?”

She taps Louis’ nose. He giggles and stuffs a couple of fingers in his mouth.

“What?”

“You can play with Hazzy any time you want!”

Louis squeals and throws his chubby arms around her neck, effectively strangling her.

Why, Jay mouths at her, why would you tell him that? Her friend gives a mock shrug and a lax smile. Because, she mouths back, if they’re playing together, they’re not pestering us. And suddenly the whole world looks brighter. She clasps Harry to her chest and rocks him from side to side, stepping close to Anne so he can stretch his fingers across the space between them and pat Louis’ hair.

Genius, she mouths.

Anne just grins and then beckons them inside her new home.

Evidently, mi casa es su casa.

*-*-*-*-*

Preschool is a harmless enough place, he decides…so long as Harry is with him. When Jonny steals Louis’ bucket of water and uses it for his own sandcastle, Harry pushes him over and calls him a poo poo head. Louis tells everyone it was him and no one questions it for a second. It is something he would do. He would have done too if he didn’t feel so fragile and weak around the other kids. He lets them push him around because when he’s around them, his voice disappears almost completely.

There’s just something about meeting new people that Louis doesn’t like. He feels safe when he’s with his mummy, Harry’s mummy and Harry. The four of them are a rock solid unit. Outside of that, almost everything feels like uncharted territory. It’s unsettling because it’s so different when he’s around Harry. When he’s around Harry he feels bright and confident, like he could do anything he wanted so long as Harry was by his side. It’s when it’s just the two of them that he feels most like himself. When they’re together, he can tell Harry what to do (in a mostly nice way) and protect him from all the monsters that might come to get him in the middle of the night. He can be Harry’s princess and no one will laugh at him or call him “girly” like Callum did that one time he brought his sparkly crown to preschool. 

It’s different at preschool. At preschool Harry is the one to lead Louis around by the hand and introduce him to the other kids. It’s Harry who comforts him. When Callum was mean to him, it was Harry who promised him that they’d play prince and princess again when they got home, this time without stinky Callum watching. It’s Harry who holds Louis’ hand every morning when the other kids crowd him, invading his space in an effort to talk to Harry. When they’re not at home, Louis is not the powerful princess who entrances the prince with her sword skills. He’s just the helpless peasant who needs Harry to hold his hand every time he visits the bathroom.

The other kids don’t like him, Louis can tell. It might be because he’s taken to grunting rather than talking when they dare to ask him questions or because everyone likes Harry, while Harry really only has eyes for him. Louis heard his mummy talking about it to Anne once. She called it “preschool politics.” “Who knew there was such a thing?” she’d laughed, although she sounded almost sad about it. It gave Louis a funny feeling in his tummy. “I know he isn’t the easiest kid but I just wish there was some way to make them understand. Being there isn’t easy on him for Christ sake. He’s a three year old with no dad and a shoddy single mum.” Anne had raised quite the ruckus at that but it didn’t seem to stop his mummy from feeling sad. It was equally obvious the other night when she came in to his room and sat down on his bed, thinking he was asleep. She stroked his hair while she whispered soothing words into the darkness.

“It’s so hard for you baby. You’re such a beautiful brave boy. I wish you’d let them see it.”

She planted a kiss in his hair which tickled slightly. He fought the urge to squirm

“Mummy loves you so much Louis. No matter what, never forget how much I love you.”

Louis promised himself right then that he wouldn’t. He promised he’d show the other kids at preschool what a brave boy he was.

*-*-*-*-*

When Louis arrives at preschool, he tries to copy what Harry does and be friendlier towards the other kids. He smiles at them more and makes more of an effort, even with Jonny who has taken to kicking his sandcastles over whenever the urge strikes. He tries speaking in small sentences first, answering questions with a nod or a shake of his head, careful never to set himself up to fail. He takes to asking to use the toilet whenever he feels overwhelmed and needs some space.

Both Harry and his mummy seem to appreciate the effort but show it in vastly different ways. At the end of the day, Harry grips him by the cheeks and plants a wet kiss on one side of his face, beaming widely. Louis’ cheek feels hot and his toes turn inward. He’s not sure if he likes it so he runs from the scene.

His feet make loud noises on the gravel as he tucks himself into his mummy’s side, hiding his face while pointedly ignoring the sound of Harry’s forlorn voice calling his name. It’s a strange feeling, a scary one really but after thinking on it a little on the car ride home, Louis decides it is a nice one. A very nice one in fact.

Just like Harry, his mummy is pleased but instead of kissing him, she tells him how proud of him she is and then takes him out for ice cream to celebrate. She even lets him have an extra scoop. When they get home later that night, she tucks him in and leaves with an air kiss and a swish of her soft smelling hair.

Louis can’t stop tracing over that spot on his cheek where Harry kissed him and his tummy feels extra full from all the ice cream. The problem is, the end of the day was the best part. He didn’t actually enjoy talking to Myra or Ryan or even Cody who was nicer to him than just about anybody. He just doesn’t feel as light or as happy as Harry always looks when they go their separate ways at the end of the day. He feels almost the exact opposite, as if the weight of pretending to enjoy it all is pressing him down into his mattress. Louis never really feels too tired at the end of the day but after today, he feels like he could shut his eyes and float away right now.

It’s confusing, to say the least. Why is he so different from Harry? Why does he feel so different around other people than he does around Harry? Why does the thought of talking to Myra, Ryan and Cody again fill him with dread instead of excitement? Is there something wrong with him? These are a lot of big questions for a three year old and Louis’ understanding only goes so far. He understands that there’s something different about him, something that sets him apart from Harry and the other kids but he’s not exactly sure what. He thinks again about the way Harry kissed his cheek and how much his mummy loves him. In that moment he thinks that it’s not his fault people don’t like him or more importantly that he doesn’t like them. Myra, Ryan and Cody are just as stinky as Jonny and Callum. He has Harry and that’s all that matters. Harry will protect him.

*-*-*-*-*

 “And then I cut the dragon with my sword!”

Louis violently slashes his hand through the air, his eyes all lit up like Christmas lights. Jay sighs. Anne gives her a look that says, that’s your kid violently slaying invisible dragons. They’d attempted their own conversation for the first half an hour but the sounds of their children playing had become too ominous to ignore. How obtuse of them. Of course it’s just another game of Prince and Princess. Only this one has dragons. Of course her son would dream about slashing dragon’s throats.

“No Lou Lou, that’s bad! Now you hurt the dragon.”

Harry kneels on the floor, pretending to nurse the invisible dragon’s fallen body. Louis looks heartbroken by Harry’s lack of admiration. The women both purse their mouths to avoid laughing.

“Sowwy.” Louis crouches down by Harry and precedes to pet the dragon’s invisible hide. “I could heal it with my princess magic?”

Now Harry looks enthused. He jumps up and holds out his hands for Louis, abandoning the dragon’s lifeless remains in the process. Poor dragon.

“Yeah! But Lou Lou we have to hold hands, otherwise it won’t work!”

Jay nudges her friend with raised eyebrows. And that’s your son, her look says, manipulating my son into holding hands with him. Anne gives her trademark shrug, clearly unbothered.

“Okay!”

The boys join hands while Louis chants a bunch of gibberish words, the two of them giggling manically. When it’s done, Louis collapses onto his back in a remarkable show of theatrical skill. Harry’s face drops and he leans down over Louis, petting his hair.

“Lou-ee?”

“Is it just me or does it suddenly feel like we’re watching a lifetime movie? My boy’s obviously the heroine.” Jay whispers out the corner of her mouth.

Anne cackles, accidentally spitting her tea back into her mug.

“Classy.”

The other woman just rolls her eyes.

“Hazzy, my magic is gone. You have to kiss me!”

Little Harry doesn’t even ask how that will fix it. He just lies down on her boy’s chest and presses his lips to Louis’ in a chaste and adorably gentle kiss. Louis miraculously rises from the dead and the boys resume playing like nothing ever happened. Their mothers are still stuck on the rom-com moment that unfolded right before their eyes.

“I can’t believe—“

“They had their first kiss—“

“Together!” They chorus.

“My boy! Your boy kissed my boy! This counts right? They were each other’s first kiss!”

Anne’s too overtaken with hysteria to listen.

“Harry kissed him! Did you see it? Did you see it?”

“Yes Anne, I saw it. I was sitting right here, remember?”

“All right, no need to get stroppy with me!”

Jay turns to her with an arched eyebrow, preparing for a proper fight but they both collapse into laughter instead.

“Jesus Christ, our sons are soulmates,” she says, wiping away tears of mirth.

“Don’t be silly,” Anne grabs her arm, “it’s not like they were born on the same day!”

That sends them into fits of laughter again and Anne spills her tea all over herself and Jay. Neither of them really mind. It’s quite obvious to them both that the best choice they ever made was becoming each other’s best friend.

Harry and Louis: Four Years Old

"Look mummy's going to have some. Mmm peas. Tastes just like heaven."

Louis gives her one of his signature looks. Jay would be feeling very proud/amused, if she wasn’t so exasperated with his trademark stubbornness.

"I'm not stupid mum." He challenges.

Her little boy is four now. Four! As of two days ago. Jay valiantly fought the urge to cry all day on his birthday. She lost that fight when she watched him fall asleep with Harry wrapped around him like a blanket in a castle made of their combined presents.

Louis’ still tiny, still perfect as ever but her little boy is growing up and quickly too. He doesn't even call her mummy anymore. Except when he's really upset…or when he wants something. Usually the latter to be honest. He knows just how much that word gets to her. In fact she's a bit worried that he’s a deceptively harmless looking deviant but hey, at least all of his limbs are still attached to his body. That’s an achievement with a child like hers. Anybody who's ever babysat him knows full well that taking your eyes off him for thirty seconds is like taking your eyes off a normal child for five minutes.

"Louis, you won't get any dessert if you don't eat your vegetables. Don't you want some ice cream baby?"

He licks his lips, considering, like this is the hardest decision he’ll ever have to make.

"Nope," he shakes his head contentedly. "I'm not hungry."

It's a lie and a poor one at that, especially given how easily he demolished his mashed potato just ten minutes ago. Jay's not in the mood to argue. She's not even in the mood to punish him for the cheeky little smirk that's taken over his expression.

"Well then, I guess that's that." She claps her thighs and stands up from the table. "Just wait here while I get a cloth for your face."

Louis wiggles happily in his seat, thinking his efforts have proved successful. Little does he know that Jay takes the scenic route to the linen closet, stealing the phone on her way through. Less than two minutes later, there's a knock at the door and Jay pauses where she's wiping Louis' face.

"Do you want to go get that love?"

His face creases unhappily.

"What if it's a stranger?"

Jay ruffles his hair, affection stemming only from her imminent victory.

"I have a very strong feeling it might be someone we know."

Louis takes that as his cue and jumps off the chair, running at the door, full throttle. He yanks it open with an enthusiastic grin.

"Hazzy, what you doing here?"

"What are you doing here," Anne corrects gently, shuffling them both inside.

She plants a kiss in Louis' hair in greeting and then turns to Jay with a subtle roll of her eyes. The other woman merely nods.

"Mum said you not eating Lou-ee. And I’m not allowed talk to you if you don't eat your vegetables."

Harry crosses his arms and cocks his hip. Jay stifles a giggle with her hand while Anne looks similarly afflicted.

"I am," Louis' face crumples as he realises that Harry’s friendship is what's at stake. "I am eating."

"Louis," Jay scolds him, "what have I told you about lying?"

His bottom lip betrays him, quivering slightly.

"I couldn't eat them Hawwy, they’re yucky."

Harry looks over at the table then reaches his arms out to be picked up by his mum. Louis follows suit. Sitting at the table across from him, Harry nudges Louis' plate towards him.

"Pleeeease Lou. Oth-wise we can't be fwends. Mum said."

Louis looks up at Anne with betrayal stinging his eyes and then turns his blinkers on Jay. His eyelashes are wet.

"Mummy?"

"That's right love. You better eat those vegetables or Harry won't come over and play anymore."

Louis bursts into hysterical tears. To Jay's utter disgust, he starts shoving handfuls of peas into his mouth. Unfortunately she's too busy trying to hold back the laughter to tell him off for it. It is a hilarious sight really; her boy shoving peas down his throat with snot dribbling down his face, sobbing throughout the whole ordeal. She would say she feels bad but, well…she wouldn’t want to lie.

After Louis finishes his dinner, she fixes him some ice cream to assuage her guilt for threatening to take away the one thing that means anything to him. She lets him play with Harry, revelling in the sounds of his happy giggles after the whole Pea Saga. Anne joins her for a cuppa, still wiping away tears of laughter.

"His face," she squeaks, "I don't think I've ever seen him so sorry."

"He would do anything for your boy," she agrees, laughing.

Anne chuckles quietly to herself.

"What?"

"Oh nothing. Just...I know where he gets it from."

She cackles.

"I'm not the one who moved right next door!"

Suddenly the sounds of high pitched sobs can be heard from the living room.

"I'm so sowwy Lou."

"My crown," there’s a pitiful, dramatic sob. "It's br—roken. 'M not a princess an'more.”

There's a low mumble from Harry that Jay strains her ears to catch.

"You're aways a princess Lou-ee, even wi-hout your crown."

"Thanks Hawwy."

"Do you want a huck?"

Harry sounds so cute with his blocked nose.

"Hug?"

"Yeah."

"Yes pwease."

When Jay looks over her shoulder, she sees them embracing tightly. Not for the first time, she feels extraordinarily lucky to have met Anne and Harry in the hospital that day. There's no shortage of ways to describe how much it's done for her and her boy. She'd be lost without them.

*-*-*-*-*

Harry was just about to run up the playground again and go down the slide for the second time when it happened. Louis seemed to think it would be much more fun if they went down the slide lying on their stomachs. He felt a little trepidation at the thought but hadn't yet learned how to say no to the boy with the bright blue eyes and vivacious smile.

"Don't be scawed Hazzy, just watch me."

Watching Louis was almost as fun as playing with him so Harry clapped his hands excitedly while Louis mounted the playground. It occurred to Harry a second too late that Louis was mostly probably going to wind up hurt. He yelped louder than Louis did when the bottom of Louis’ chin came into contact with the hard bitumen at the bottom of the slide.

Louis is pretty good at putting on a brave face when he wants to but his emotions do seem to overwhelm him a lot more than Harry’s. Harry knows the moment that Louis looks up at him from his twisted position on the ground that things aren't good. For one thing, Louis' arms are scraped all over, from the beginnings of his lovely delicate wrists all the way up to his elbows. For another, his chin is dripping blood. It makes Harry feel rather queasy but he puts that aside at the sight of pained tears fogging up his best friend's eyes.

"Help! Lou-ee's hurt!" Harry calls.

He helps Louis sit up and lean against the side of the slide, brushing the dirt from his arms and legs. He combs back Louis' hair with his fingers while they wait, hoping to calm him down. His mum did it for him when he got a stomach bug a couple of weeks ago and it really helped relax him. Louis' breath hitches a couple of times. He pleads with Harry, worrying the other boy greatly.

"It huuurts Hawwy! I want my mum!" He wails, reaching out for a hug.

Harry embraces him carefully, trying to avoid his bleeding chin. It drips onto his new t-shirt anyway. Harry doesn't mind. He knows that it's up to him to look after Louis, even if it’s not always what Louis wants.

Harry looks up at the sight of a shadow looming over them. It's Melanie, their kinder teacher. She’s one of the few fairly anonymous adults that Louis took a liking to straight away.

"Hello Little Lou, what have we here? Did we take a bit of a fall sweetheart?"

She tickles the side of his waist and he pushes her hand away, giggling.

"I fell off the slide."

"And how did that happen? Did somebody do something they're not supposed to?"

"No," Louis giggles again, sharing a loaded glance with Harry.

"Hmm, that's funny because careful little boys like you don't usually end up with injuries like these," she hums, pointing at his chin.

Louis blushes and tries to hide behind Harry's shoulder. Harry grins.

"He went down the slide on his stomach, head first."

"Hawwy!"

Louis nips at his neck in punishment. He’s never anything but gentle but he’s been told countless times not to bite. His teeth seem to find their way to Harry's skin every time regardless.

"Well young man, we might have a bit of a talk later," Melanie vows, moving around Harry to get to Louis, "but first, we've got to bandage up that nasty looking cut of yours."

Louis seems to tremble at the reminder, pressing his face into Harry's shoulder with a cry of protest. Harry can feel him shaking.

"You can't bandage him up." Harry argues, curling an arm around Louis.

Melanie raises her eyebrows at him, confused.

"Louis' hurt sweetheart, he needs to be taken care of."

"I'll take care of him."

"He needs to be taken care of by an adult," she amends. She uses that patronising ‘adult’ voice that says she isn't taking him seriously.

Harry turns around to face Louis. He wraps the smaller boy in his arms, tucking Louis' scared little face beneath his chin. Louis hangs onto his shirt, crying softly.

"I can do it. You can't touch him. You don't know how."

Melanie's eyebrows are starting to do that angry dance that his mum's do before he gets screamed at. Not that she screams a lot. He tries to be good for her when he can.

"I'm just going to put a bandage on him Harry. That's all. It will make him feel better."

"I make him feel better," Harry maintains, "I can make it better."

Louis mumbles something unintelligible into his shirt.

"What Lou?"

"Make it better Hazzy."

"Harry, that's enough! I know you want to help Louis but he needs first aid. I'm going to have to bandage him up."

Melanie makes to pick him up but Harry holds on tighter.

"Stop!" He yells at her. "Stop it! You don't know!"

"Harry," she cries out, completely exasperated, "what makes you think I can't help him?"

Harry sticks his bottom lip out, grunting. His mum does it sometimes when she's frustrated with him. Harry is very frustrated right now. He loves Melanie but she obviously doesn't know how to fix Louis like he does. Harry presses his lips against Louis' hair like he's felt his mum do a thousand times before. He looks back up at their kinder teacher with determination in his eyes.

"You need to wash his cut first! It could have dirt in it. If you don't wash it first, it will get infected. I know, mummy told me."

Melanie looks blown away. She nods slowly.

"You're right sweetheart. Your mum was right. I promise I'll wash it first. Now is it okay if I help Louis now?"

He considers it for a moment. He's just about to agree when Louis grips onto him tight.

"Pwease Hawwy. Come wif me?"

"Can I carry him and hold his hand?"

"Yes," she says, semi-impatiently.

"Okay."

Harry holds Louis' hand throughout. Louis squeezes it tight when Melanie rubs a cloth with some antiseptic on it over the cut. It takes Harry more than a few goes to distract Louis from the pain but when he starts reciting Louis’ favourite nursery rhymes, his whole face lights up. Soon enough there’s a white bandage wrapped around Louis’ chin. Melanie gives him a red lollipop as a reward for his bravery and Louis rips the plastic off, gives it one cursory lick and then hands it straight to Harry.

Surprisingly Melanie chooses not to tell them off at all but Harry has a feeling they haven't heard the end of it.

*-*-*-*-*

"Hello? Mrs Styles? This is Melanie from the kinder. It's about Louis Tomlinson."

"Louis?" Anne looks up from her work desk at that, surprise sharpening her brow line. "What about him?"

"He was injured."

"Oh my gosh, is he okay?! Is Jay unavailable? Is that why you're calling me?"

"He's fine actually. More than fine. Him and Harry are busy building a whole city in the sandpit."

"So what's the problem then?"

"Harry, surprisingly."

"Harry?" Anne scoffs, a disbelieving laugh bubbling up her throat. "You've got to be kidding me."

"I wouldn't have believed it myself before today but I've seen a different side of your son."

Anne doesn't take kindly to that description. She can feel her hackles rising.

"How so Melanie?"

"Well he wouldn't let me tend to poor Louis."

"He what? That's ridiculous. He loves Louis like a--well not quite like a brother, but they're each other's very favourite person. He'd never do that."

"Well he did. He put up quite the fight actually. Wouldn't let me touch Louis unless he was there, holding Louis' hand."

That's their boys. Nothing short of a chainsaw can separate those two.

"He's a four year old boy, how much of a fight could he possibly put up?"

"Well he yelled at me..."

"He yelled at you?" Anne's hand rises to her mouth. She lowers her voice slightly, aware of more a few pairs of judging eyes flickering her way. "That's not like Harry."

"Exactly. He was completely out of control. I understand that the boys are close but if Louis had been really genuinely hurt--"

"Harry would take care of him, he always has and he always will."

"I suppose you’re right," comes the defeated sigh.

She cocks an eyebrow.

"You do? Weren't you just saying my son is out of control?"

"Yes, but..."

"But the reason he stopped me from tending to Louis…” she sighs, “well it was because I didn't mention anything about washing the cut. He was worried about infection." And then for emphasis, "your four year old was worried about infection."

Anne gives a delighted laugh.

"That's Harry for you. I don't think he's a genius quite yet but he listens to everything I say."

"I can see that. He's a beautiful boy Anne. I was really only calling to tell you what happened. I hope you will talk to him about yelling at his kinder teacher but I can't quite bring myself to punish either of them."

"If only parenthood were that simple."

They share a laugh of mutual understanding. Melanie has four kids under the age of six. She definitely knows what's up.

"Just out of curiosity, have you called Jay yet?"

"Oh yes."

"And what did she say?"

“How did she put it…that she thinks the boys were conjoined twins in another lifetime and now they're suffering withdrawals?"

Anne pisses herself.

"Yep, sounds about right. Thanks for calling Mel. I'll see you this afternoon."

"No you won't."

"I won't?"

"Jay said that she'd pick them both up and give them a ‘stern talking to’."

"And did she say anything about taking them for ice cream after this so called ‘stern talking to?’”

"Um."

"That's what I thought. Bye Mel. I'll see you this afternoon."

*-*-*-*-*

Louis holds the pink flower up to Harry's curls, giggling at Harry's obvious displeasure.

"No Louis, flowers are for girls."

He scrunches his nose.

"Why? That's dumb."

Harry has his thinking face on.

"Daniel said--"

"Daniel’s dumb, Harry."

The other boy giggles.

"What bout me?"

He looks up at Louis with a coy smile. Louis hooks his fingers in the front of the other boy’s shirt and tugs gently.

"You're not dumb. You're Harry."

That seems to be enough for Harry who throws his arms around him and squeezes tight.

"Thanks Louis!"

Louis pushes him away so he can hold the flower up to his hair again.

"Pretty," he mumbles.

Harry tries to bat him away, giggling again.

"'s not."

They play fight for a little while, Louis attempting to pin the flower on the Harry while Harry struggles to bat away his tiny (but very deft) hands. Eventually he gives in, allowing Louis to tuck the stem behind his ear.

"D'ya like it?" Louis asks, looking unexpectedly vulnerable.

They stand in front of the bathroom mirror, inspecting Harry's new hair accessory up close. Harry doesn't look too impressed. Louis' heart breaks a little.

"Yeah," Harry says brightly, a terrible liar if ever Louis knew one. "It's pretty."

Louis thinks about challenging him for a moment. He decides against it when he sees the resolve shining in Harry's eyes. He knows that Harry thinks he's saved his feelings from getting hurt. If he challenged him now, it would just upset the other boy. In Louis' opinion there is nothing more tragic than a sad Harry Styles.

"Pretty Hazza," Louis reaches up to ruffle his curls, "I'm going to make you a flower crown."

Harry looks genuinely excited now.

"A whole crown....made of flowers?"

"Yeah Hazzy. Mum taught me."

Harry's eyes light up. He takes a step closer.

"Show me."

And so begins their flower crown extravaganza. It starts with Louis trying to show Harry how to wind the stems around each other and pull tight without breaking them. He quickly realises Harry is terrible at it. His fingers are too big and he doesn’t have a very steady hand. The curly haired boy eventually settles for just watching Louis' fingers work. Louis makes him a crown made of daises interspersed with bright pink flowers that he finds at the edges of the garden.

Harry is so enraptured by the way the petals sit in his curls that Louis makes him two more, this time wandering out further to find some different flowers.

"Mum, look what Louis made me!"

When Anne comes to pick them both up, Harry shouts at her from across the room. Melanie tells him off for it which makes Harry blush. He still runs off to meet Anne halfway across the room.

"Look! Look mum!"

He stands on his tiptoes and thrusts the flower crowns in her face. Anne takes them with a put upon sigh. There’s a quietly endeared smile gracing her features.

"What do we have here? Flower crowns? Love, I thought Louis was the princess."

"He is," Harry looks offended. "Princes have crowns too."

"Ah, I see."

Louis waddles over then, dragging his backpack along the floor behind him. Anne swiftly tells him off for it but then plucks him up off the floor. She spins him around for a full minute, joining in his noisy giggles that echo around the walls of the playroom. She plants his feet back on the floor, a wide smile taking up her face.

"You're so sweet Little Louis."

She ruffles his hair then and when Louis looks over at Harry, he seems just as pleased with him, if not more. From that day on, he makes Harry at least one flower crown every day. Harry keeps them in a box under his bed. He tells Louis that it helps preserve them but whenever Louis sneaks a peak, he finds the flowers have mostly fallen apart and disintegrated anyway, littering petals all over the box. He likes that Harry keeps them though, likes that Anne sometimes has to pry them from his head before his bath or before he goes to sleep every night.

"Lou Lou, why don't you make crowns for the other boys?" Harry says to him one afternoon.

They're sat in the grass together, Louis busying himself with another crown while Harry tells him made up stories about how he hears Santa on the roof every Christmas. Louis knows they're made up because Harry giggles his way through each and every one. He chooses not to point it out, pretending to be shocked and awed, widening his eyes at all the appropriate times.

Louis' pretty sure he can tell what Harry's thinking 90% of the time. For instance he almost always knows when Harry needs Anne and he definitely knows when Harry needs him. There's a big difference between the two. He can also tell when Harry is afraid to ask him something and when he has no clue why the question might be hard to answer. So he knows Harry is only asking him this because he doesn't understand why Louis isn’t friends with anybody else. He doesn’t understand why Louis doesn’t get along with anybody. Harry gets on with him spectacularly which must confuse him but then Harry gets on with everybody spectacularly, he's Harry.

"Cos." Louis winds another two stems together. He smiles at Harry's hand, poised atop his ankle. "None of the other boys look as pretty in a flowa crown as you do Hazzy."

Louis places the finished crown atop Harry's curls, rearranging them slightly to fit around the little pink flowers.

"There."

"Thank you Lou."

Harry's cheeks bloom pinker than the flowers settled in his hair. His eyes are alight, his dimples showing. He looks like a real life fairytale. Fascinated, Louis brushes the tips of his fingers over Harry's reddened cheeks. Harry's breath ghosts over the backs of his knuckles, slightly shallow.

"Lou?"

"Yeah?"

He can't seem to stop touching his friend. He doesn't want to. Ever. Harry's skin is so soft, he never knew. The other boy curls his fingers around Louis' and holds them gently, protectively.

"That feels nice."

And so it begins.

Harry and Louis: Five Years Old

 

It's the best day of the whole year today, Harry's birthday but even more importantly, it’s Louis' birthday too. Louis' birthday is the only day of the year that Jay doesn't try to stop him from eating too much sugar and Harry's mum follows her lead. Louis is ten times the fun he usually is when he's hyped on sugar. Harry loves playing with him when he's like that, all happy and carefree. It's not as if he hasn't noticed that Louis can be a little tense and withdrawn sometimes. Especially around other people. So he appreciates those rare times when Louis completely let's go. He worships them in fact, worships them the same way he worships Louis himself.

 

His favourite part of their shared birthday isn't the sugar high though. It's not present time or cake time or even watching Louis' lovely face fill with quiet awe when Jay gives him his bi-annual present from his dad in heaven. It's what comes after all that when the festivities are drawing to a close and the wrapping paper is balled up and recycled, the leftovers arranged like platters inside the fridge. It’s when all the guests finally make their way home and it's just the four of them again, the way it always should be. His favourite part of their shared birthday is what happens when Louis comes down from the sugar high because when he starts to come down, he gets really sleepy and lets Harry hold him until he falls unconscious. When he's fully conscious, he might let Harry hold him but not without a prolonged attempt at putting up a fight. When he's already sleepy and soft and nestled within the cocoon of Harry's arms, he seems less obliged to point out to Harry that he's "not a baby Hazzy." Harry cherishes it. He cherishes Louis.

 

What he doesn't cherish is being woken up at what feels like a very early hour by the sounds of his mother screaming. It's his birthday, nobody should be screaming. Especially his mum who's not really known for it. Harry sits up in bed and takes a peek out his curtain. He finds only darkness. Is it still night-time then? He creeps to the door and peers out. He can see a light on in the living area and the side of somebody's body who doesn't look like his mum. It looks like a man actually. Harry’s not sure what compels him to stay there, keeping quiet instead of wandering out into the living area to see what's going on. Perhaps it's because he knows he'd only find himself in trouble for being up past his bedtime but he thinks it's more than that. There's a sixth sense telling him he shouldn't go out there right now.

 

"You can't just show up here in the middle of the night holding a toy truck with a bow on it and think that it’s going to fix everything! We're not a family, Irwin. Harry and I are a family...you're just the guy who left us the day he was born."

 

His mum has never said much about his dad when he asked. She always gives him the saddest looks, like he’s inflicting some kind of pain on her without meaning to. It makes him hesitant to ask questions. He hates making her feel that way. She's told him that his dad left them but she's never said why, she's never said that he might come back. 

 

"I can't apologise for that enough Anne but this is ridiculous! He's my son, it's his fifth birthday. I just want to give the little tacker a present."

 

"The little tacker?" She snorts. It's a weird sound and Harry's not used to her making it. "His name is Harry. He’s got beautiful green eyes and he used to have blonde hair like yours but it’s slowly getting darker. It’s curly too, like mine used to be. He loves music, the swings and his best friend Louis. I know these things, see because I've been here for the last five years raising him. Alone. What makes you think that you have the right to drop in, in the middle of the night and give him something? You’re not anything to him. I'm not waking him up Irwin. He's five for christ’s sake, he needs his sleep. You could have at least come in the morning."

 

"I don't want to see him."

 

All Harry can see of the man are some lean legs clad in some pretty faded denim and a baggy jumper that’s pretty rough looking too. Something about the man's voice is slightly sinister to Harry, perhaps because he seems less than kind towards Harry’s mum. He sounds cold and slightly superiorm just like Damien from kinder who stole Louis' sandwich to make the other kids laugh. Harry pulled his pants down in retaliation and all the kids laughed at Damien instead. 

 

"Excuse me?" His mum sounds absolutely livid now. "You turn up here in the middle of the night after five years and you don't even want to see him? You don't want to see your son?"

 

So it's confirmed then. This man who makes his mum raise her voice is his long lost dad. Harry is resolute. If his dad doesn't want to see him, he doesn't want to see his dad either.

 

"You were just pissed at me a second ago when you thought I wanted to see him! You can't have it both ways."

 

His mum huffs.

 

"Of course I'm pissed! I haven't seen you for five years. The last time I saw you I'd just given birth to a beautiful baby boy with my loving husband by my side and then suddenly you fled the scene. You left me there, abandoned and afraid. Worse, you left Harry there. Without his father. Do you know how many dads would kill to have a son like Harry? He's the kindest, brightest, most beautiful boy and you didn't even want to know. Do you know his best friend will never know his dad because he passed away before he got the chance? He wanted to meet Louis so badly and he never got that chance. You had that chance. You've had it for five years and you never took it.

 

“Was I furious when I thought you were trying to walk back into his life without a thought for all you'd missed? Of course I was...but I would have gotten over it. For Harry's sake. A wise woman once told me that Harry might want to get to you know you and that I'd have to let him, to give him that choice. But you know what makes my blood boil worse? It’s that you're right here right now, within ten steps of your sleeping child and you can’t even bring yourself to go see what he looks like. You don't want any part, do you?"

 

"Look, I know this present is not a huge gesture but it's something for the lad to associate with me. It'll be good for him. He'll know his dad cares about him."

 

"Cares about him? Please!" Her voice is shaking. She sounds like she's going to cry. "You have never cared one iota about that boy in there. Or me, for that matter. I'll give him your present, fine” she spits, “but don't think this is ever going to work. There’s no open door policy here. You can't drop in and drop out of his life whenever you feel like it. That's going to do him more damage in the end. Either you want to know your son or you don't, it's your call but you can't keep traumatising our family like this."

 

It's quite for a moment. The man sets whatever it is down on the ground. He backs towards the door and Harry gets his first proper look at him. He's got a hard looking face, a bit older than Harry expected. His skin is slightly weathered in places where his mum's is smooth. He’s not very handsome.

 

"I'll go then."

 

"Is that it then? Is that your decision?"

 

His mum is definitely crying now. He can tell. It makes his own eyes well up painfully. He's not sure why but this moment feels pivotal. He feels a sudden rush of hurt. Does his dad really not want him at all?

 

"I'll send a cheque next month."

 

The door closes softly behind him. Then his mum is sobbing. Loudly. He can hear her through the wall, struggling to catch her breath. He listens for a while, crying with her, even though he doesn't fully understand why. He does understand that the man who makes his mum yell doesn't want them. Harry thought that unlike Louis he has a dad, an absent one but a dad all the same. Now he thinks that's not true. Dads don't leave in the middle of the night without kissing their son's goodbye. Dads don't make mummies cry. Not like this. Dads aren’t cowards who leave in the dark of night. Harry doesn't have a dad.

 

After a while he crawls into bed, his cheeks still wet with tears. Sometime later when he's just on the edge of sleep, his mum slips in to his room. She pulls the covers tighter around him and pushes the hair back from his face. She's not crying anymore but the air feels heavy anyway. It doesn't feel like a birthday. It feels like the day Harry found out Louis' dad was dead.

 

"I love you darling. I love you so much more than you know. I'm so sorry baby."

 

When Harry wakes up for real, he doesn't mention it. Maybe it's because it feels like a nightmare or because it's just easier that way. His mum seems slightly subdued but she pretends too, smiling at all the right places and making a big deal over him like she always does. They eat pancakes for breakfast and Louis comes over right before present time. This year present time is slightly different though because when Jay gives Louis his dad's present, Anne also hands one over.

 

"It's from your dad Harry."

 

Harry stares at the truck. It's bright red with big flashy wheels and a toy driver with a hard hat in the front seat. It looks expensive. Harry pushes it away.

 

"I don't have a dad."

 

Jay looks on, confused

 

"What? Harry, of course you have a dad."

 

His mum doesn't say anything so Harry kneels beside her.

 

"Mummy is my dad."

 

And something about that feels like the most correct sentence he'll ever say. His mum's eyes fill with tears. Harry's stomach lurches.

 

"Don't cry mummy! Don't be sad!"

 

She crouches beside him and pulls him into her arms, holding him tight to her chest.

 

"I'm not baby. I'm the happiest I've ever been." 

 

And so their shared birthday isn't so bad after all. Louis still goes on a ridiculous sugar high. They still run wild around the house. Louis still let's him hold him until he falls asleep, soft and sleepy inside Harry’s arms.

*-*-*-*-*

 

Louis won't talk to her and her heart is breaking. It's the morning of the Big First Day at school and Jay's growing boy is disintegrating right before her eyes...

 

First it was the socks. They're too long mum, they look silly. Then it was the cereal. I don't want cornflakes, I hate them. He doesn't though. Jay had replied, "Well we don't have anything else young man so I suppose you'll just have to make do. Usually that would incite a tiny breathless giggle, a burst of helpless innocence that Louis couldn't contain if he tried. He likes it when she calls him young man. Usually. This time he pushed her away and ran off to his room. Now he's not talking to her. He's not talking to her and refuses to get out of bed and finish getting ready.

 

"That's it. If you won't talk to me, I'm taking you to the police station."

 

She scoops him up into her arms, grinning evilly when he starts wriggling around like mad.

 

"No mum, don't be stupid. You're lying."

 

The way he's squirming around in her arms says he’s not so sure.

 

"Baby I'm sorry but if you can't act like a big grown up boy and tell me what's wrong then the police will have to deal with you."

 

Jay carries him outside, locking the front door behind her which is when he really starts to panic. He grabs onto her shirt, wailing loudly.

 

"No mummy, pwease! Pwease don't take me to the powice!"

 

Jay can't help cracking a smile. Louis doesn't see it. 

 

"Well are you going to tell me what's going on then?" 

 

He crosses his arms and pointedly looks away. Jay starts carrying him towards the car.

 

"Right then--"

 

"No! No! Okay, okay, I'll tell you. I'm..." He mumbles something into her chest.

 

"What was that?"

 

"I'm scared I won't have any friends. Just like kinder."

 

Jay wishes the world was kinder to her beautiful boy. She wishes he hadn't already had to deal with such hardships. It's not fair. He deserves to be loved more than anybody. More than all of those kids who get to go home and see their fathers every night. Louis will never will have that. 

 

"Oh baby, you had friends!"

 

"Harry's friends," he protests with a sullen look, "not mine."

 

Her poor child. If Harry weren't an absolute godsend where Louis' concerned, Jay might feel a little bit spiteful about the fact that he continually outshines Louis in the social arena.

 

"But you have Harry. No matter what. Harry will always be your friend."

 

"What if he wants to play with the other kids w-without me?"

 

"He won't, he won't," she coos, "and if he ever did, you know what would happen?"

 

"What?"

 

"Anne would make him eat peas for the rest of his life."

 

Louis giggles, precious as anything.

 

"No she wouldn't."

 

"She would, I promise you and every day Harry would have to watch you eat cake and biscuits and all those sugary treats you both love."

 

"That would really suck," Louis says with a somewhat toothless grin.

 

"Yep. Now, seeing as we're out here, we might as well go see that friend of yours, hey?"

 

Louis jumps down and runs across the yard screaming Harry's name. She would tell him off but she's too busy silently thanking her friend for giving birth to such a lovely boy. It seems when the problem concerns Louis, the solution inevitably involves Harry and vice versa. It's horrifying to think what would happen if Harry were to decide Louis wasn't fit to be his friend. Louis' so dependent on him, she fears he wouldn't recover. Luckily she's about 99% certain that they won't ever outgrow each other. If anything, she thinks they'll only grow on each other. More so than they already have, if that's possible. 

 

*-*-*-*-*

 

Dress up a day is a shambles. Louis has never felt so humiliated in his life. When his mum suggested Peter Pan, he very enthusiastically insisted on Tinkerbell. She pulled a funny face at first but obliged anyway. They spent a whole month working on the costume for the fairytale theme at school. It was to be their pride and joy. Louis has never seen so many sparkles on a work desk in his life. When his mum asked him what he wanted, he told her he’d decided on leggings and a shimmery top. So they made a shimmery green top and cut it so it looked jagged around the bottom just like Tinkerbell's dress. They found also found a green sparkly headband and some ballet flats to match. Louis loves his outfit. Correction: loved

 

He got up at six this morning to fix his hair into a proper Tinkerbelle like fringe. He had the top and leggings on before his mum even opened her eyes. Unfortunately they were late to Harry's house because Louis couldn't stop twisting around in front of the mirror, loving the way the shimmery fabric followed every movement of his body, swishing to and fro. His mum said it looked just like fairy dust. Louis was positively glowing.

 

When they got to Harry's, Louis struggled to contain himself. Harry looked so handsome dressed as Prince Charming from Snow White and all that was missing was a flower crown to sit in amongst his pretty curls. Louis resolved to make him one later.

 

"Like your costume," Harrysaid somewhat shyly. "It's very pretty."

 

"Give him a twirl Lou," his mum encouraged, nudging him forward.

 

Louis spun and spun until he made himself dizzy and Harry was hunched over in fits of giggles. Their mum's rolled their eyes. Louis was as usual proud as punch for making Harry laugh. He was much prouder of his costume though and the way Harry's eyes followed the swish of his top whenever he moved. It made Louis feel like the prettiest boy in the room (even if it was just the two of them and their mum's).

 

The euphoria of the morning was a stark contrast to how things unfolded once they got to school. Every boy in their class, including Samuel, his only other friend aside from Harry, laughed at him for what felt like an age.

 

"That's a girl's costume," Wesley cried, "you look like a girl!"

 

So? Louis wanted to scream. What's wrong with looking like a girl? All the girls he knew were beautiful. Even Kaitlyn who constantly had snot bubbles up her nose. Girls were delicate and lovely. Louis felt like he wanted to be those things too. What was wrong with that?

 

In that moment he couldn't find it in himself to say the words that were stuck in his throat. He felt like his whole body was frozen and he'd never been so humiliated. He faintly registered Harry telling the other boys to back off as he pulled Louis close to him but it was like some kind of horrible nightmare and everything was blurry. The teacher came over to see what was going on at that point but the other kids has dispersed. It was just Harry holding him up in a sea of vicious, ignorant five year olds.

 

"Love you Lou."

 

Harry whispered it to him, curling his arms around Louis so tight that he struggled to breathe. He nodded against Harry's shoulder and took his seat. When the bell for recess sounded two hours later, he rushed to find his lunch box in the bag room. His mum had packed him a special lunch to go with his special costume.

 

Louis felt his lip start to wobble when he thought about how differently he had imagined this day going. He thought he’d finally stand out, that he’d finally he'd be worthy of someone’s friendship aside from Harry’s. He thought that if he could just feel pretty and unique, maybe he wouldn't be so scared to talk to the other boys anymore. He never realised you could stand out for all the wrong reasons. Louis stood out because he wasn't like the other boys. Louis stood out because he was more like a girl. 

 

It didn't bother him as much as it should. In fact it was very obvious to him what the difference was. He sometimes enjoyed doing 'girly' things like playing the princess instead of the prince and he probably liked glitter more than most boys too but that didn't mean he couldn't be a boy. It didn’t mean he didn’t like being one. He loved football and playing around in the mud with Harry. He loved his race car bed and the new trainers he'd gotten last Christmas. He was both, he decided and that was okay. What wasn't okay was feeling like he didn't belong. He didn't feel like anyone but Harry understood him.

 

"We're all playing football at recess but you can't play," Wesley leaned over to tell him.

 

Louis' heart broke. He loved footy more than anything. The boys always let him (and Harry) play with them at recess and lunch. They let him play even though he never talked to them that much in class. It was only because he was good. One of the best in their grade actually. Apparently that curtesy didn't extend to boys who dressed like girls.

 

"Why not?" His voice trembled, he knew the answer.

 

"No girls." Wesley grinned at him, obviously enjoying Louis’ embarrassment.

 

Louis tucked his lunch box beneath his arm and ran from the room, darting straight out the door without waiting for Harry like he usually would. He didn't stop until he reached the furthest tree at the edge of the schoolyard. Technically it was out of bounds but Louis was too cut up to care. Tears streamed down his face as he settled by the base of the tree, kicking his lunch box away from him with a violent sob. 

 

Ten minutes later, there's still no sign of Harry but that would be Louis' fault, having run off without him. Harry probably has no idea where he is right now or why he hadn't waited. He's probably worried. Louis wants to go find him, he does but he doesn't want the other kids to see him crying. He doesn't want anyone to think he's a baby.

 

It's another five minutes before Harry finds him, curled into a ball around the base of the tree with his fists tucked under his chin, his ballet flats left discarded beside him. 

 

"Louis! Lou," Harry crouches down beside him and grabs Louis' cheeks. "Louis, are you okay? Oh no, Lou. Why are you crying?"

 

Louis hiccups, burying his tear streaked face in Harry's thigh. Harry's arms scoop him up from the ground and he finds himself pressed up against Harry's chest, his arms slung around the taller boy’s neck.

 

"They said I couldn't p-play," he tries, "c-cos I'm a girl."

 

"What?" Harry looks endearingly confused. "Louis, you're not a girl."

 

"I know that!" He lashes out, sobbing wretchedly. "What's wrong with liking glitter? You like glitter, don't you Haz?"

 

Harry shrugs. Their faces are a breath apart so Louis can see every minute change in his expression. 

 

"It's alright. I don't like it like you do. But you look way prettier in glitter than I do."

 

He gently fingers the bottom of Louis' sparkly top and Louis blushes, hiding his face in Harry's shoulder.

 

"I sh-shouldn't have worn it."

 

"No! Lou," Harry's hand palms the back of his head, "you look beautiful."

 

"B--but no one else thinks so."

 

"So?" Harry kisses the side of his forehead and then the tip of his nose. Louis giggles and rocks back and forth in his lap. "Mum always says I should just be me no matter what. I think this is what she means. But can I tell you, Lou…I think you're more like Peter Pan anyway."

 

"Really?" Louis' smile is brief.

 

"Really. You're just like him! Mischievous and quick on your feet. You’re a hero too."

 

"'M not a hero Hawwy," his voice is thick, "I'm just Louis."

 

Harry holds both his cheeks in his large hands. Louis' face feels hot. It gets a lot hotter when Harry leaves a prolonged kiss on his cheek.

 

"Either way, you're my very best friend Lou."

 

"You're mine too."

 

"Promise?"

 

Louis nuzzles his head into Harry's shoulder.

 

"Pwomise." 

 

At the end of recess, Harry slips his shoes on for him and leads him back to class.

 

*-*-*-*-*

 

"I'm sorry to have to tell you this but Louis will have to repeat."

 

"What? That's ridiculous."

 

"Jay," Mrs Eilsbrook is using that soft tone, the one you use to break it to someone that they're completely delusional. "Louis hasn't learned to read yet."

 

"He--he couldn't see!" Jay splutters, completely indignant. "We didn't know he needed glasses but he has them now. He's fine."

 

"Fine now? Yes. But how do you think Louis will feel when he goes into first grade without basic reading and writing skills? He'll be behind his whole grade Jay, including Harry and I doubt that will make his situation any easier."

 

"And what situation would that be?"

 

Mrs Eilsbrook looks slightly distressed at having to explain further. Jay takes a little bit of vindictive pleasure in seeing her on the back foot.

 

"You know what I'm talking about Mrs Tomlinson." Oh so it's Mrs Tomlinson now? "Louis struggles to get along with other kids. He's very...shy."

 

It's true, he is but Jay can hear the undertones to that statement. Louis isn't just "shy," he's antisocial. He's not a ‘normal’ kid. He should be treated differently. Jay feels herself bristle at the thought. Louis is just as brilliant and capable as any of the kids in Mrs Eilsbrook's class.

 

"He's a strong kid and he'll get through it. I'll help him catch up if I have to. Louis' not stupid."

 

"Far from it!" Mrs Eilsbrook jumps on the defence. "Like you said, he just needed the glasses and now he has them, things are starting to look promising. But Jay, I'm not saying this for my benefit. I'm saying it for yours—and for Louis'. He needs to repeat. You can't possibly catch him up on your own. It's too big a task for a single mother such as yourself."

 

Jay's expression hardens further. 

 

"I handled the death of my husband on my own just fine, thank you. I think I can handle this."

 

"With all due respect, this isn't an emotional hurdle. I do not doubt your strength of will but you need to do what's best for Louis. This isn't about proving yourself as a mother."

 

The nerve!

 

"I always do what's best for him. He's my son."

 

Mrs Eilsbrook shuffles some papers on her desk and flashes her a businesslike smile.

 

"Well I'm sure you'll make the right decision then. If you do choose to hold him back, you might want to think about some simple ways to ease the transition--"

 

"Ease the transition?"

 

"Well Harry won't be staying with him of course. Louis won't be in his grade anymore."

 

Fuck.

 

*-*-*-*-*

 

Louis doesn't understand, that's his only thought. Why is Harry moving on without him? Is he too stupid to go up to the next year level? His mum's saying something about his glasses and how she wishes she didn't have to do this but it's what's best. When she finally falls silent, there’s a deep frown on her face and guilt in her eyes. Louis raises his head. His eyes swim with tears.

 

"What did I do wrong?"

 

"Nothing! Oh sweetheart, you didn't do anything wrong." 

 

But it doesn't feel that way. His mum has never purposely separated himself and Harry. He must have done something wrong. He must have disappointed her somehow. 

 

"Can I have a nap mummy?"

 

"Yes darling, of course."

 

Louis cries himself to sleep with his teddy bear clutched tight to his chest. He wishes Harry were here with him. He’s terrified. He doesn't want to go to school if Harry's not by his side. He doesn’t want to go anywhere without Harry. He can’t do this without his best friend.

 

Chapter Text

Harry and Louis: Six Years Old

 

The first day of school isn't as bad as Louis expected. They get to take the school bus for the first time and Harry helps him on board (it's a big step up for someone as little as him).

 

"Do you need a lift Lou?"

 

"Please."

 

He raises his hands up in the air and Harry lifts him up by the armpits. 

 

"There you go Little Lou."

 

"Shh," He glares at Harry, whipping his head around the bus to check that no one heard. "You'll embarrass me."

 

Harry just pats him on the head and leads him to a seat in the middle of the bus.

 

When they get to school, Harry's unsurprisingly swarmed by people. Myra wants to show him his new backpack, Cody just has to tell Harry about the new set of toy soldiers that he got for Christmas and Lila wants to hear all about what Harry did on his break. Louis watches in total exasperation as Harry listens to them all, smiling dutifully and exclaiming excitedly whenever one of them reveals something shocking. It's sickening. He's like the Pied Piper. All their peers would just follow him to the edges of the earth, no questions asked. Not that Louis is any different but seeing it makes Louis more determined to do well on his first day on his own in a new class. If he could just make one proper friend that isn't Harry or a friend that doesn't belong to Harry instead of him, maybe he could actually be Harry's equal. Maybe people wouldn't look at him as Harry's loner friend anymore.

 

"C'mon Hazza, you've got to walk me to my class." he begs, tugging on Harry's bag straps.

 

The taller boy turns his way with a patient look and fond smile. Harry never seems to be angry with him. It's ridiculous really. Louis can be a right pain in the behind sometimes and he knows it.

 

"Alright then. Sorry guys, Lou and I have to go. I'll see you in class. Who's excited for first grade?"

 

Some of them cheer, some of them boo but it's obvious to anyone with a pair of eyes that all of them admire Harry.

 

Louis hates the damn first grade. Largely, he supposes because he's not in it. Repeating has to be one of the worst things that has ever happened to him. It's definitely in the top five. 

 

His end of year break was completely ruined by the fact that he knew his time with Harry was somewhat limited. He knew that when they got back to school, there was a good chance Harry would decide not to bother with him anymore, that he might get closer to the friends in his class and find a new best friend to replace Louis. It was that which gave Louis the most fear; the thought that Harry really would find someone who was significantly better than him to be friends with. Someone braver. Someone who didn't need him to lift them up onto the bus or to hold their hand when they got scared. 

 

Harry assured him that wouldn't happen.

 

"You're my best friend Lou. It's not going to change."

 

"But what if--"

 

"I promise Louis. Pinky swear."

 

He held out his pinky with an endearing little grin and Louis obligingly wrapped his own around it. It didn't feel as iron clad as their vow never to talk to Wesley again but it did feel somewhat certain. At least in that moment. Though when Louis was on his own again, he didn't feel certain about anything, least of all their friendship. 

 

"You ready Lou?"

 

They're standing outside Louis' classroom now, which happens to be Harry's old one. Their old one. It looks the same as last year, only the birthday wall is blank again and Mrs Eilsbrook looks a lot more tanned.

 

"No," he shuffles his feet. "Don't want to be in a class without you."

 

Harry takes his hand.

 

"Me neither, Little Lou but mum said we should just make the best of things."

 

He rolls his eyes.

 

"Of course she did."

 

Harry frowns at him.

 

"Don't be mean Lou. She was just trying to help."

 

"I'm sorry Hazza."

 

He feels defeated. Harry wrenches him into a hug, burying his nose in Louis' hair.

 

"You'll be fine Lou, I'm sure of it. It'll be recess before you know it."

 

"What if no one likes me? What if I'm all alone again?"

 

"Then I'll pants them all."

 

They both giggle at the ridiculousness of it.

 

"See you at recess?"

 

"I guess." Louis shrugs, disheartened. 

 

"Don't look at me like that," Harry whines.

 

"Like what?"

 

"Like you're waiting until I leave to cry."

 

Louis stamps his foot.

 

"I'm not!"

 

"Promise?"

 

Louis holds out his pinky.

 

"Pinky promise." 

 

They lock fingers and then Harry hugs him one more time. He pulls back after a moment to straighten Louis' crooked glasses. Louis pushes him away forcibly. 

 

"Go on. Run along to your stinky class with your stinky friends."

 

Harry's delighted laughter follows him into the classroom. 

 

Louis sits down at a mostly empty table, hoping to be left alone. At least to begin with. Thankfully, there's just one other person at the table. A small blonde girl with soft features. Her cloudy blue eyes are wet with tears and she's shaking like a leaf. It's Louis that speaks first.

 

"Excuse me." 

 

The girl continues to state determinedly at the table, her arms shaking. 

 

"Excuse me..." Louis repeats, getting frustrated now. "Are you okay?"

 

"No," the girl finally whimpers, turning to look at him. "My mum left me here."

 

"Your mum can't stay with you at school," Louis says quite knowledgeably, if he does say so himself. 

 

"I know that," the girl scrubs angrily at her tears. "But she shouldn't have left me here."

 

Louis' whole face creases up in confusion. Who is this bizarre girl?

 

"But you're a kid? You have to go to school. Your mum had to bring you."

 

"You don't get it," Bizarro Girl sighs, turning away, "you probably don't even have a mum."

 

That properly annoys Louis. He pokes her in the arm, hard. She turns to look at him again.

 

"I do so! It's my dad who's dead."

 

"Your dad is dead?" Bizarro Girl's eyes are kind of nice when they're opened all wide like that. "That's sad."

 

"Yeah," he agrees because what else is there to say? "He died before I was born."

 

"How?" Bizarro Girl asks, tracing the line between the two tables.

 

"He was a soldier."

 

"Oh, that's scary."

 

"Yeah. But mum says he was brave."

 

Bizarro girl looks him over carefully.

 

"Are you brave too?" 

 

"No."

 

"Me neither." She smiles. "I'm Hannah."

 

Her face looks a little bit kinder when it's not all creased and blotchy. Her eyes are really very friendly. He doesn't feel like he has to pretend with her.

 

"I'm Louis. I'm supposed to be in first grade."

 

"Really? Are you stupid?"

 

"No, you're stupid." He crosses his arms.

 

Hannah flicks his nose. Usually he would take issue with a total stranger touching him but he's too annoyed to care.

 

"I'm not stupid," she insists.

 

"Well you ask stupid questions."

 

"Well why are you rep-rep-repreating?"

 

"Repeating," he corrects, feeling very slightly superior. "I'm repeating because I needed these," he taps his glasses. "I couldn't read without them."

 

"Oh." Hannah takes the glasses off him and puts them on herself. Louis doesn't kick up a fuss. She's kind of nice (kind of rude too but so is Louis). "How do they look?"

 

"You look like an idiot with glasses," Louis giggles.

 

"You're nasty." But she's smiling.

 

"So are you."

 

They grin at each other. She hands his glasses back to him.

 

"Are we friends now?" 

 

He considers it.

 

"Only if you can go the whole class without talking to me once."

 

She doesn't question it. It reminds him of Harry.

 

"Deal." 

 

She makes it through most of the lesson before caving.

 

"Psst."

 

He ignores her.

 

"Psst! Louis!"

 

"What? I told you not to talk to me!"

 

"Oh."

 

He sighs.

 

"What is it?"

 

"I'm sorry, it's just--your glasses are crooked."

 

Yep, she definitely reminds him of Harry.

 

"Louis Tomlinson, are you talking while I'm talking?"

 

A thrill shoots up his spine. He's never gotten in trouble for talking during class before, even with Harry.

 

"No Miss Eilsbrook."

 

"That's your first warning Louis."

 

"Thanks Miss Eilsbrook."

 

She looks at him like he's just said something crazy. 

 

"Why are you thanking me?"

 

"Because I think it's nice to be warned before I get detention so that I can prepare myself."

 

The rest of the class breaks out into slightly nervous but equally admiring laughter. Hannah nudges him under the table. He can see her grin out the corner of his eye. Miss Eilsbrook doesn't look very impressed. She's very pink in the face and it's not nearly as pretty as it is on Harry's cheeks. 

 

"Do you think this is funny Louis Tomlinson?"

 

"No. When I think something is funny, I usually laugh."

 

"That's it. Detention! Hannah, you can walk him."

 

Louis walks down the hallway to the principal's office with Hannah in tow. She's not speaking.

 

"You can speak now..."

 

"Oh thank goodness, that was killing me!"

 

She's quite wordy for a five year old. 

 

"So do you think Miss Eilsbrook hates you now?"

 

"Don't care."

 

"Why?" She looks puzzled.

 

"I made a friend."

 

She beams at him. 

 

"You made a friend."

 

"Yes, that's what I said? Race you to the office?"

 

"Okay. 1....2--"

 

"Go!"

 

"No Louis, that's cheating!"

 

She races after him anyway. 

 

*-*-*-*-*

 

"I got a detention from Miss Eilsbrook."

 

Louis is proud as punch.

 

"You what?!" Harry looks at him as though he's gone completely mad. "Little Lou, why are you smiling?" 

 

"Because I made a friend. We made a vow not to talk but then she broke it. That's what got me in trouble."

 

Harry's face looks grumbly. He starts marching away from Louis at a furious pace.

 

"Harry, where are you going?!"

 

"She got you in trouble? Doesn't sound like much of a friend to me."

 

"I get you in trouble with our mums all the time."

 

"That's different!"

 

Louis pushes him in the back. 

 

"No it's not! Quit being a baby. Hannah's really nice."

 

"Your new friend is a girl?" Harry looks even angrier now but confused too, as if he doesn't know why he's so angry.

 

"Yes? You have friends that are girls."

 

"That's different!"

 

"Stop saying that!"

 

"Did she try to kiss you? Wesley says girls always try to kiss you when they like you."

 

Louis shakes his head. His chest feels much more inflated than usual, as if all the hot air is blowing about a gale in there.

 

"Wesley? Why were you talking to Wesley? Harry?"

 

"Me and Wesley made up." It's a low grumbly noise. He won't look at Louis. "We're friends now."

 

Louis backs away slowly.

 

"He…he was mean to me. He never said sorry. How could you be friends with him?"

 

"He didn't mean it Little Lou. You've got to stop getting so upset."

 

"Don't call me that," tears spring to Louis’ eyes against his will. "Don't ever call me that again."

 

He turns and runs off, leaving Harry and his lunch behind him. This is the worst first day ever.

 

*-*-*-*-*

 

Thankfully, Hannah greets him with open arms. Literally. He trips and tumbles down onto her and she catches him before he hits his head. Then he just kind of stays there. He cries and she hugs him. She doesn't even ask what's wrong until he backs away and sits down across from her.

 

"Will you share your sandwich with me?"

 

"Yeah. Thought you were spending lunch with your other friend though?"

 

She only looks a little bit bitter when she says it.

 

"Not anymore," he says sullenly. "Harry's got his own friends now."

 

"So do you." She pushes half of her wrapped sandwich across the ground towards him. 

 

It's ham and cheese, Louis' favourite. 

 

"Yeah," he agrees, "but it was still supposed to be just us. That's why I left you."

 

Hannah shrugs.

 

"Maybe you both need a break."

 

Louis baulks at the idea.

 

"I don't need a break from him! I'd miss him too much."

 

"Would he miss you?"

 

"Yes."

 

"Okay."

 

And that's that. 

 

"Do you want to play a game?" She asks.

 

"Like what?"

 

Louis' sceptical. Nothing could be as good as playing with Harry.

 

"I will list all my favourite lollies and when I say jelly beans, you have to jump up and run a whole lap of the school and make it back before I get back to jelly beans again."

 

"That's so easy."

 

"Prove it," she challenges him, eyes gleaming.

 

"Fine."

 

"Strawberries and cream, raspberries, gummy bears, snakes, musk sticks, coke bottles..."

 

She keeps listing for a few minutes and then very abruptly shouts--

 

"JELLY BEANS!" And Louis is up and running.

 

When he gets back, he's gasping for breath and feeling like this whole thing was a very bad idea. Then Hannah screams "you made it!" And he collapses on the ground laughing. Maybe this whole making friends thing isn't so bad after all. Maybe he'll be fine without Harry. Harry can make Wesley his new best friend for all Louis cares. He's got Hannah now.

 

*-*-*-*-*

 

"Louis! Don't run off. We've got to get the bus together!"

 

"I'm walking."

 

"No you're not! You're not allowed!"

 

"Don't care."

 

Harry catches hold of his bag straps and tugs to bring him to a stop. 

 

"What is wrong with you today?"

 

"Nothing. I'm great. I met Hannah."

 

"Hannah is stinky!"

 

Louis pushes him in the stomach.

 

"Not as stinky as stinky Wesley!"

 

"You know who's the stinkiest one of all?"

 

"Who?"

 

"You! You're so stinky, you smell like rubbish."

 

Louis' mouth drops open. He shoves Harry again who shoves him straight back.

 

"Well you smell like dirty socks and seafood stew."

 

"I like seafood stew!" Harry sticks his tongue out. 

 

"Yeah? Why don't you take Wesley home so Anne can make it for him? Bet he likes it too. He's your new best friend, isn't he?"

 

"What? No. You're my best friend!"

 

Louis' reflex is to shout at him some more.

 

"No I'm not!"

 

"Why? Because Hannah's yours so you can't be mine anymore?"

 

"What are you talking about? Don't be stupid." Louis lowers his voice. "You'll always be my best friend Haz."

 

Harry curls in on himself, suddenly shy.

 

"Even if I smell like dirty socks and seafood stew?" 

 

"Yes."

 

"Lou, I'm sorry. I shouldn't have forgiven stinky Wesley. He's awful."

 

"He really is," Louis agrees, pouting. 

 

"Can I have a hug?"

 

"Will you say sorry for calling Hannah stinky?"

 

"Yes. I'm sorry. I'm really really sorry. Now..." He opens his arms up and Louis throws himself at the other boy, squeezing him tight.

 

"We're going to miss the bus if we don't hurry."

 

"C'mon then. Race ya."

 

So they sprint. Louis wins by a mile but Harry's still beaming from ear to ear as he lifts Louis up onto the bus, following straight after. 

 

*-*-*-*-*

 

The next day is both better and worse. Worse, because Louis finds out just what the other boys think of Harry taking care of him and giving him lifts onto the bus but better because Harry and Hannah meet for the first time and happen to get on pretty well. Hannah still prefers him over Harry which is something of a miracle since every other kid in their school would easily pick Harry over him. It endears her to him even more. Harry is a bit grabby with him whenever Hannah's watching but Louis enjoys the attention so he doesn't say a word about how weird it is. 

 

The day starts while they're waiting for the bus. They're having a discussion about what would be worse; chicken pox that never went away or a snotty nose that ran down your face like a river every day for the rest of your life. 

 

"But I would be itchy all the time Harry!"

 

"I'd scratch for you."

 

Louis shakes his head, tutting slightly.

 

"Scratching is bad. Then I'd get scars."

 

"You'd still be pretty Lou," Harry says with a soft blush, "you're always pretty, Lou." 

 

Louis doesn't know what to do with that so he shoves Harry slightly, cackling delightedly when he trips over a stick and lands with his foot in a puddle.

 

"Poohead."

 

Louis' still laughing. 

 

"That's a bad word Harry! Do you want me to tell your mum?"

 

Harry shoves him this time but Louis' a lot smaller and he stumbles even worse. He would have face planted if not for Harry's chubby arms reaching out to wrap around his waist and hold him up against his chest. 

 

"Silly Hazza," Louis whispers, pushing him away. "Shoulda let me fall. I was being nasty."

 

Harry bops him on the nose.

 

"Never, Little Lou."

 

Louis rolls his eyes at the endearment. He doesn't hate it as much as he should. The bus pulls to a stop in front of them, whirring noisily. Louis is first to dash over to the door as always, his tongue sticking out the corner of his mouth when he runs. The bus driver gives him a fond smile and opens the doors up for him and Harry.

 

"Need a lift Little Lou?" Harry whispers in his ear. 

 

Louis shakes his head vigorously but he knows nothing short of a huge leap could get him up onto that bus by himself. Harry gently hoists him up by the waist, plopping him down on the bus, then jumps up behind him, linking their arms together. They only make it two thirds of the way down the bus before the jeering starts. Someone must have overhead them.

 

"Does Little Loser Lou need a lift from his only friend, does he?"

 

Harry pulls him into a spare seat, pushing Louis onto the window side while he takes the aisle. As the bus starts moving, they both turn to face the music. It's a little boy that Louis' never seen before with dark hair and tanned, exotic looking features. He has mean eyes though. They’re all screwed up tight at the corners. The way he tenses his whole body makes Louis shiver and press into the side of the bus. He's so much bigger than Louis.

 

"Shut up Dan," Harry growls. "Leave us alone."

 

Dan whispers something to the light haired boy beside them which makes them both snicker. Then the light haired boy rises up onto his knees and leans over the seat in front of him, whispering whatever it is into the next person's ear. It doesn't take long for the vicious words to get back to Louis and Harry. Louis loses his breath when they do. The whole first grade knows he has no dad. According to this Dan kid, that's why Louis stayed down a grade. That's why Harry never leaves his side. Louis’ different. He's strange. He's a loser with no dad. 

 

"How does he know?" Louis says in a desperate, vicious whisper. "Did you tell him?!"

 

"No!" Harry's eyes are wide and panicked. "No, Lou! He must have heard it from his parents or something. I swear, I wouldn't tell."

 

"This isn't fair," his eyes well up, blurring painfully. "You don't have a dad either."

 

"I'm sorry Lou."

 

Harry's eyes look wet too. He grabs Louis' hand and squeezes, intertwining their fingers in the way he knows calms Louis best.

 

"Oh look, Harry's holding hands with Little Loser Lou," Dan mocks, smirking confidently. 

 

Harry leans across the aisle towards him and grabs hold of Dan's hand. Louis can't really see what he’s doing from where he's got his head tucked against Harry’s shoulder but he can see the wince on Dan's face.

 

"Isn't holding hands fun?" Harry asks him with a grin that stretches too wide for his face. 

 

He drops Dan's hand and pulls back. With gritted teeth and narrowed eyes, Dan agrees.

 

"Yes, holding hands is fun Harry."

 

It cheers Louis up immensely. He spends the rest of the ride cuddled up to Harry's side and no one says a thing. Harry walks him to his class again but this time he peers inside intently, looking for something Louis can't decipher.

 

"Where's Hannah?" He finally asks.

 

Louis shrugs. 

 

"Late maybe. Her mum works at the school across town." 

 

"Oh. Okay."

 

Harry looks like he's concentrating very hard on not saying something.

 

"I'll see you at play?"

 

Harry smiles and swings their hands.

 

"Yeah…but bring Hannah this time."

 

"Really?"

 

"Yeah. She sounds fun."

 

"She is!" Louis gushes. 

 

Harry rolls his eyes but doesn't correct him. He ruffles Louis' hair and then walks off in the other direction just as the warning bell sounds. Louis grins to himself for a full minute and then hurries into class.

 

*-*-*-*-*

 

"Are you sure he wants to meet me? Not someone else, was it?"

 

Louis rolls his eyes and links his arm with Hannah's, dragging her along against her will. She's quite little for her age but still a bit bigger than him so he has to put a lot of effort into it. 

 

"Is your name Hannah?" 

 

"Yes?" She says, dumbfounded.

 

"Then it's you he wants to meet."

 

"Oh. Okay then."

 

That seems to convince her and she picks up the pace, tugging him along now, clearly excited. They reach Louis' and Harry's spot to find him already waiting. He's sucking on a juice box quite violently but his face lights up when his eyes meet Louis'.

 

"Louis!"

 

"Hazza!"

 

They grin openly at each other as Harry opens up his arms and Louis runs forward. It's a more dramatic greeting than usual but not totally out of character for the two of them. 

 

"How was class?" Harry asks into his ear, smoothing his hair down.

 

"Great! Miss Eilsbrook read us The Rainbow Fish and I could read most of the words!" 

 

"That's so good! You're so smart Lou."

 

Louis giggles and pushes him away as he's prone to do.

 

"Don't be silly."

 

"Hi." 

 

It's then that they both remember Hannah's presence. She's standing just beyond them with a hesitant look in her pale blue eyes as she fiddles with her school dress. 

 

"Hi Hannah, 'm Harry."

 

"I know," she says quietly. "You're Louis' best friend." 

 

"Yeah. Do you want some biscuits?" Harry says suddenly, thrusting some chocolate biscuits into her hands.

 

"Yes please," she smiles at him gratefully, "thank you Harry."

 

Louis looks between them with a heart full to bursting with happiness. He claps his hands together and sits down between them.

 

"Let's play duck duck goose!"

 

Hannah and Harry sit down on either side of him and Hannah grabs his knee.

 

"Yeah! I love that game!"

 

Harry's eye roll is hard to miss.

 

"It's not that fun with three people."

 

Louis shuffles closer to his other friend.

 

"Fine. Me and Hannah will play by ourselves." 

 

Hannah looks a little nervous at the first signs of conflict but Harry just looks mad. He reaches over and grabs Louis by the waist and hauls him back towards his own side.

 

"Can't play with only two people. I'll play with you but only if I get a hug."

 

Louis shakes his head at Harry's ridiculous pouty face but obliges anyway, stretching up onto his knees so he can wrap his arms around Harry properly. Harry grips him so much tighter than usual.

 

"Let's play!" Louis shouts happily. "I'll go first!" 

 

*-*-*-*-*

 

 

Harry finds that year one isn't so bad after all. Not that he thought it would be. He was actually very excited to meet his new teacher and start learning new things. He just figured that without Louis by his side, it would be so much harder to enjoy himself. He was wrong. 

 

Okay so it's not that he doesn't miss Louis every day....because he does. Painfully so. Sometimes when they see each other at break, Harry will squeeze him so tight, he begs to be released. But Harry's classes are awesome. He gets to work on cool projects like dioramas and paper mâché volcanoes and his handwriting is the best of the class according to his teacher. She whispered it to him one day as he was tracing his letters. Harry couldn't stop beaming all lesson. So much so that one of his best friends, Johnny asked him what was going on. Harry lied and said James was making a funny face. Of course then Johnny made a funny face at James and James looked at them both like they were crazy. Still. Harry was pleased as punch.

 

As for Louis' new friend, well the jury's still out on that one. She's not the worst person he's ever met but she's a bit touchy with Louis sometimes. Too touchy for Harry's liking anyway. Harry's never seen anyone touch Louis like that, aside from himself. Not without Louis making a fuss anyway which he's prone to do. There was one instance in which Harry was sure she was making him uncomfortable but it turned out it wasn't so...

 

"Can I put my clips in your hair Louis?" Hannah had asked him, teeth poking through her lips. 

 

Louis screwed up his face at the thought of it and Harry took that to mean he didn't want to. Usually that was what it meant. He knew Louis liked pretty things like tiaras and glitter but after the whole Tinkerbell incident, he usually preferred to do that stuff at home. Besides, only Harry was allowed to do that kind of stuff to him. Harry was special. 

 

"No Hannah," Harry rolled his eyes, "Louis doesn't like people touching his hair."

 

But Louis shrugged and pulled Hannah over to him.

 

"It's okay Hazza. She can if she wants to." 

 

Hannah clapped her hands and pulled the butterfly clips from her silky blonde hair. It fell around her face in waves. She was a pretty girl but whenever Harry looked at Louis, he knew that no one was prettier than his best friend. 

 

"Do you want me to put them in?" Harry had offered, trying not to feel hurt that he had been wrong. "I can, if you want."

 

"No that's okay," Louis smiled at him and blinked his eyelashes. They were especially long and curly that day. "I don't mind if Hannah does it."

 

And that was that. Harry sat and watched with a sour look on his face as Hannah put the clips in Louis' hair, the two of them making silly faces at each other and giggling for no reason at all.

So Hannah wasn't Harry’s favourite person in the world but truthfully that spot had been reserved for Louis since the first time he laid eyes on him.

 

First grade wasn't so awful after all and Harry had some pretty great friends to boot.  Johnny, Louise and Tom were the best of the bunch and had seamlessly accepted Harry into their group even though Harry had tended to spend more time with Louis than anyone else the year before. They never complained that Harry didn't play with them at recess and lunch and they always, without fail saved him a seat in class. He usually got to class just as the bell rang because he insisted on walking Louis to his class every day. 

 

It started to feel as though things might be alright for the two of them; himself and Louis. After all, they both had separate friends, they both enjoyed their classes and Louis seemed much happier and more relaxed than usual. They hadn't fought in ages. Which is why it's such a disappointment when Louis comes running up to him after school with tears pouring down his face, shoving a piece of paper in Harry's face with an angry huff. 

 

"Why dinnit you---" he struggles for breath and Harry's heart revoltes in his chest. "Tell me?"

 

Louis tends to revert to simpler language when he's upset and he especially struggles with breath control. It's like his emotions are too vast and overwhelming for his little body to handle. Sometimes Harry is the only person who can make it stop.

 

"Breathe Little Lou."

 

"Don't--" he hiccups, his nose streaming. "Call me that."

 

The both know he likes it much more than he's willing to admit.

 

"What is it?"

 

Harry takes the piece of paper from him and stares down at in in earnest. It's an invitation to Matt Dwyer's sixth birthday party. He doesn't understand.

 

"How did you get this?" 

 

It obviously isn't the right thing to say. Louis' face turns red and his eyes shed even more tears than Harry thought possible. He looks like he's about to burst. Harry tries to grab his hand, knowing that sometimes touching him helps but Louis pushes him away.

 

"It f-fell out of your pocket at lunch. I dinnit look, was gonna give it back to you after school b-but Hannah acc--accden--accden--" he huffs, his face crinkling up further.

 

"Accidentally?" Harry offers helpfully.

 

Or so he thought.

 

Louis' voice turns shrill.

 

"I know the word! She accdentally mixed it up with her worksheet. She o-opened it. A-and Darcy Lit-Little said the wh-whole first grade was invited."

 

He wrings his hands, looking small and sad in his baggy school jumper that Jay says he'll someday grow into.  Harry hopes he doesn't. He wouldn't be able to call him Little Lou anymore.

 

"But you're not in first grade Lou? You're not friends with Matt. I'm invited cause we're friends."

 

Louis looks a little less upset but no less angry.

 

"So," He stubbornly crosses his arms over his tiny chest, eyelashes flirting dangerously with the temper behind his eyes. "Still shoulda told me."

 

"I'm sorry Lou," Harry's face drops. He didn't mean to upset the other boy. "Really."

 

He reaches his arms out for Louis but the other boy dances out of reach.

 

"How are you gonna make it up to me?"

 

"We'll have a party too and you'll be invited because it's our party."

 

Louis rolls his eyes like he's not at all impressed.

 

"Derr."

 

"It'll be fun. Promise."

 

"Pinky promise?"

 

They link pinkies and Louis lets Harry hug him all the way to the bus stop. It's hard to walk that way, particularly because Louis takes small, quick steps while Harry takes larger ones but somehow they manage. Harry doesn't want to let him go and judging by the way Louis giggles every time they stumble, he doesn't want Harry to let him go either. 

 

And that's how they figure it every time Louis gets upset. If Harry gets invited to a party and Louis doesn’t, Louis gets his own. That's just the rules. Jay and Anne even agree to buy them party food and let them watch at least three movies so long as they go to bed when they're told and clean up after themselves. It's like a ritual for them. Sometimes Louis invites Hannah which isn’t ideal but doesn’t spoil things too much because she always brings good snacks. He knows Louis likes having her there but honestly it's always more fun when it's just the two of them…

 

"Hello Prince Harold," Louis curtsies.

 

His eyelashes flutter softly against the curves of his cheeks like the wings of a hummingbird.

 

"Princess," Harry greets him back, bowing deeply.

 

Louis squirms in place, blushing fervently.

 

"It's Prince Louis! I'm not a girl!"

 

Harry wishes things were as easy as they used to be. Once upon a time they could play like this without Louis getting self-conscious. Harry loves him most when he's all sparkly and soft. Louis reminds him of the sun. He shines brighter than everyone around him. It confuses him that Louis doesn't seem to know that. 

 

"You don't have to be a girl to be a princess, Lou. You're a warrior princess."

 

Louis seems to like the sound of that. He giggles and mimes slashing a sword through the air. Harry applauds.

 

"Alright you two, do you think Lou and I might be able to come inside anytime soon?"

 

Louis giggles again and nuzzles into Jay's leg. Everyone smiles at him.

 

"Sorry mum." 

 

Anne lets them both in then and Harry tows Louis away to his room.

 

"Ta-da!" Harry shouts, giggling at the stupefied look on his best friend's face. "It's a balloon world! I thought we could play a game..."

 

Louis' eyes light up, sparkling blue. He looks around at all the balloons like they're treasure.  

 

"What game?"

 

Harry grins.  

 

"The floor is lava. We have to jump between my bed and the spare mattress. If you touch the balloon floor, you're dead! And if you pop a balloon, the other person wins."

 

Louis looks positively thrilled with the concept. He takes a big running leap and jumps onto Harry's bed, landing on his bum. 

 

"C'mon Harry, now you!"

 

Harry does a running jump of his own and lands right next to Louis, their knees knocking together. Louis pulls him up by the arm and links their arms together.

 

"Together?"

 

Harry nods.

 

"Together."

 

Both of them seem to have forgotten that this wasn't the point of the game. 

 

They leap across to the other mattress with a shout, their limbs getting tangled in the process. Harry snakes his arms around Louis' waist in the fall, protecting him. Louis laughs uproariously as Harry's feet go straight up in the air.

 

"Again!"

 

They keep going until Louis decides to strike out on his own and make a solo leap. His foot catches on the edge of the bed and he goes down right before Harry's eyes, popping a bunch of balloons in his descent. He jumps at the sound, scrambling to get away from them like a startled kitten. Harry watches his chin start to wobble and his face start to droop. It's heartbreaking.

 

"I hate loud noises," Louis says quietly, trying not to look too upset. "Can we play something else?"

 

Harry jumps down beside him and pulls Louis' hand into his lap, knitting their fingers together. 

 

"Of course Princess Lou. Maybe we can have some party food now?"

 

"It's probably not ready," Louis sulks but there's a slightly cheered smile creeping onto his face.

 

Nothing cheers him up more than the prospect of a feast.

 

"Why don't we go see?"

 

Harry takes Louis' other hand and uses his grip to pull Louis up and into a hug. 

 

"Balloons are stinky," he whispers in Louis' ear. "Stinky balloons."

 

Louis' bright, bubbly laughter is music to Harry's ears. 

 

*-*-*-*-*

 

"It just doesn't make any sense. Why can't they just run wherever?"

 

Louis nudges Harry's foot with his, smiling. It's not often that he feels like the smart one.

 

"Because Haz, that's the offside rule. It's supposed to stop players sneaking towards the opposing goal and waiting for a pass."

 

"But why?" Harry throws his hands up, exasperated. "That's a smart move!"

 

Louis chuckles.

 

"I can explain it to you better with a demonstration. Get me a couple of sauce bottles from your cupboard." 

 

Harry starts to get up but Anne restrains him with a hand to the shoulder. Where did she come from?

 

"Please." She corrects Louis, in that silly voice adults use to tell kids off, leaning over him to grab the washing basket. "Please Harry, can you get me a couple of sauce bottles from your cupboard so I can help you understand?" 

 

Louis rolls his eyes but concedes. She ruffles his hair, her smile affectionately teasing.

 

"Please Harry, can you get me a couple of sauce bottles from your cupboard so I can help you understand?"

 

Harry jumps up and scurries off to the kitchen immediately. 

 

"He'd follow you to hell and back," Anne laughs, clearly astonished. 

 

Louis's face lights up.

 

"You think?"

 

"I should probably worry about it..." She ruffles his hair again. "But I'll wait until you're old enough to get him into any real trouble. Right now, it's just really cute."

 

Louis beams at her, soaking up the attention. Then Harry comes back with the sauce bottles and it's time to get down to business. Anne leaves them to their own devices, taking the washing basket into her room. 

 

"Okay, so..." Louis lines up four of the bottles in the middle of the coffee table. "This is the centre line. If you cross it, you're on the opposing side."

 

Harry seems to understand that. He nods, encouraging Louis to go on. Louis puts one sauce bottle at each end of the coffee table.

 

"These are the goals."

 

Louis reaches into his pocket and picks out a blue marble. He figures if he keeps using bottles, things might start to get a little confusing for Harry. He places the blue marble near the goal closest to Harry. 

 

"This is the ball." 

 

"Okay." Harry's brow wrinkles, like he's concentrating really hard so as to not get confused later. Louis loves him so much. "What next?"

 

"So..." Louis collects another marble; this one red. "This is a player. If I put him here..."

 

His tongue sticks out the side of his mouth as he places the marble between the centre line and the ball. 

 

"He's not in the offside position."

 

"Okay..." Harry sounds slightly muddled.

 

Louis moves the player so that it stands between the ball and the goal at Harry's end.

 

"But if I put him here, he is." Harry's frown deepens. "Because he's between the ball and the opposing goal. This is his goal." Louis taps the sauce bottle at his own end. "This is your goal," he reaches over and taps Harry's goal. "Because you're the opposing team Haz." Harry smiles slowly, always so contented with Louis' nicknames for him. "So if he's my player but he's stood in between the ball and your goal, he's in the offside position. Get it?"

 

Harry nods slowly, hopefully.

 

"I think..."

 

"Good." Louis smiles at him and Harry smiles back, twice as brightly. "Now..."

 

He places two green marbles closer to the goal than the red player.

 

"If these two defenders are level with my player or in front of him, he's still onside. There has to be two though!"

 

Harry puts a sauce bottle in front of the goal.

 

"What about the goalkeeper?" He asks, eyes sparkling like he knows he's onto something. "Does he count?"

 

Louis grins at him.

 

"Yes, good job." He removes one of the green marbles. "So if this guy is ahead of him and the goalkeeper is there, that makes two. That means he's not doing anything wrong. But..." he drags Harry's green defender back towards the centre line, behind his own player. "But if this guy is behind him, he's not onside." 

 

Harry bobs his head determinedly.

 

"Okay, got it."

 

Louis wants to pinch his cheek, so he does. Harry giggles and bats his hand away. 

 

"What's next?"

 

"Okay so it only matters what position this guy is in..." He flicks the red player, "when his teammate touches the ball."

 

He puts another red marble down around the centre line.

 

"When this guy gets the ball..." he puts the 'ball' down in front of the player.”Every person's position freezes. It's not actually bad if you're offside unless your teammate has the ball."

 

"So it doesn't matter unless you can pull off the smart move?"

 

Louis chuckles.

 

"Yes. But it's not smart, it's illegal."

 

Harry's eyes cross.

 

"How's it illegal?" He tilts his head, trying to muddle it out on his own. "Do the police come and take you away?"

 

Did Louis mention how much he loves this boy? He wraps his arms around Harry, eliciting a shocked little gasp from the other boy's lips and then squeezes him tight. Harry wraps his arms around him too after a few seconds.

 

"Wassat for?" Harry hums, pressing his head down into Louis'.

 

"It's only illegal on the field." Louis tells him. "The referee punishes you, not the police." 

 

"Oh." Harry sounds mystified. "So why are we hugging?"

 

Louis pokes him in the rib.

 

"Because I like hugging you Hazza Styles."

 

Harry grins and squeezes him tight.

 

"Okay. But can you explain the rest to me now?"

 

They let go. 

 

"Yes. So you know when I make you watch football with me, you always see players like this guy..." he taps the red marble, "...running ahead of the defenders. Do you know why?"

 

Harry shakes his head, the whites of his eyes glowing as he looks up at Louis with total awe.

 

"It's because they're allowed to receive the ball in offside position if they were behind the defender when the ball was released. Let me show you..." Louis puts the ball down in front of a red player near the centre line. "When the player kicks the ball..."

 

He drags the ball along the table towards another red player.

 

"This player has to be behind the defender." He taps the green marble that's close to the goal than the red one.  "But he can run ahead and receive the ball when he's in front of the other player."

 

Harry pouts at the table, looking sorrowful.

 

"What if he's not quick enough?"

 

Louis giggles.  

 

"Well then he should probably train harder," he advises, his bottom lip tucked behind his teeth.

 

Harry appears crestfallen.

 

"Oh." He taps the red marble.  "I bet he trains really hard already, Lou."

 

Louis ruffles Harry's curls gently.

 

"He does Hazza but all of the players do. You have to work really hard to be the best. It's why I make you do sprints with me in the yard," he explains knowledgeably.

 

Harry groans but leans into Louis' side.

 

"I hate sprints."

 

"I know Haz," Louis squeezes his shoulder.  "But one day we could be big strong footie players if we work hard at it. Mum told me."

 

Harry's eyebrows fold together. He looks up at Louis with confusion and sadness.

 

"I don't want to be a footie player Lou Lou."

 

It doesn't make sense to Louis. How could you want to be anything else? 

 

"Oh." He scratches his chin. "Then what do you want to be Hazza?" 

 

"A dad," Harry says without pause, smiling dreamily. "A good dad who never leaves."

 

Louis grabs his hand and knits their fingers. His hand usually feels so little in Harry's but today is different. Today he is the strong one. 

 

"You will be Haz." He smiles reassuringly. "You'll be the best dad there ever was."

 

Harry grins, delighted. 

 

"There's one more thing Hazza..."

 

Really there's more to it than that but it took Louis a whole week to memorise all the exceptions to the offside rule. He only managed to learn it because he asked his mum. She spent some time researching it and drawing diagrams until he could understand properly. It just made him love footie and want to be a footie player all the more.

 

"Okay." Harry's smile is patient, his eyes kind.

 

"You only get punished if you interfere with play. That means...offside is only bad if it works in your favour."

 

Harry nods but his nose is scrunched with annoyance. 

 

"I still think it's stupid," he admits, slightly sassy. "I thought having an advantage was good."

 

"You'll understand when you're older," Louis tells him.

 

His mum said exactly that when he asked her why his and Harry's family are so different from everybody else's. Harry doesn't look impressed though. He crosses his arms and pushes out his bottom lip.

 

"We're the same age. You don't know more than me," he says sulkily.

 

"I know the offside rule," Louis clambers to say, "aaand how to tie my shoelaces!"

 

Harry is really angry now. He pushes Louis away from him with a horrid glare.

 

"You only know that because Hannah taught you!"

 

"So?" Louis sticks out his chin. "Doesn't mean I don't know more than you."

 

"You're stupid," Harry says viciously, or as vicious as you can be when you've got a head full of curls and a face like a cherub. "You should go home. Muuuuum! Louis wants to go home!" He shouts.

 

Anne wanders out of her room with a wary expression. She finds the boys in a standoff, Harry with his arms crossed, his hands covering his elbows protectively and Louis turned away from him with a sour, disappointed look on his face. When he sees Anne walk in, his face starts to wobble and his eyes shimmer with tears.

 

"Now now Harry, Louis doesn't look like he wants to go home. He looks very upset." She warns her son. 

 

Harry pushes Louis from behind, knocking him forward a bit.

 

"He's faking," he says with a scowl. "He's a big faker!"

 

Louis turns around to face him with tears swallowing his eyes and pink streaking his cheeks. His voice comes out raspy and thick. 

 

"Am not!" He says with a latent whimper. "I'm not a faker!"

 

Harry looks surprised to see him crying and it immediately melts his anger. He steps forward and pulls Louis into him, tucking his little face into his chest.

 

"Sorry Little Lou," he pulls his fingers through Louis' hair, the way he's seen Jay do when he's upset. "I didn't mean it. You're not a faker…or stupid. You're my best friend."

 

Anne watches them silently, fondly. Her and Jay's boy, always making them so proud at every step.

 

"You're my best friend too." Louis sniffles as he pulls back from the hug. Harry wipes the smaller boy's snot away with his sleeve and if that's not disgustingly cute, Anne doesn't know what is. "I'm s-sorry too."

 

They embrace again, Louis wilting against Harry and it's a full two minutes before Anne can bear to remind them that Louis has to be home before five anyway. They both predictably make a fuss, Louis latching onto the couch tight when Anne tries to pick him up while Harry plays his part by latching onto her leg and trying to pull her away from Louis. It's ridiculous. If she were in a worse mood, she'd punish Harry and tell Jay but unfortunately, they've both cast a spell on her tonight. 

 

"How was he?" Jay asks as Anne ushers him inside her door. She curls a hand around her boy's head. "Were you good bub?"

 

Louis likes to pretend he hates her calling him that but he leans into her side, eyes shining.

 

"I'm always good mummy." 

 

Jay rolls her eyes at Anne.

 

"Seriously, was he alright?"

 

Anne not so discretely winks at Louis.

 

"He was a dream."

 

Louis giggles into his mum's pant leg who sighs and curls an arm around his shoulders to pull him closer.

 

"Oh alright then, if you're both going to keep lying to me, I guess I'll just have to settle for not knowing."

 

Anne leaves a kiss on her cheek.

 

"See you tomorrow, Tomlinson."

 

Jay waves at her as she crosses the yard back to her own.

 

"Later, Styles."

 

*-*-*-*-*`

 

Harry and Louis: Seven Years Old

 

There's two things Harry knows with equal certainty at seven years old. The first; that grade two is the best grade. The second; that he's going to marry Louis Tomlinson when he grows up. He tells his mum when they're eating breakfast together in the morning. It's the first time that they've done it in a while because she's been so busy with work. Usually she just drops him at Jay's house, gives him a kiss and then hurries out the door with a worried, distracted look on her face.

 

"I don't know if you should be driving in your state," Jay said once. "You look like you've got a million things on your mind."

 

She had her hands on hips like she always does when she's telling Louis and himself off. 

 

"Yes, well hopefully after today I'll have a million minus one," Anne told her.

 

And yet the next day when she dropped him off at Jay's, she had that same distracted look on her face and barely remembered to kiss him goodbye before leaving. He had to shout out to her to remind her and then she hurried back in the door and gave him a quick swipe of her lips on his forehead that barely felt like anything. He cried for the next fifteen minutes until Jay was finally able to rouse Louis from sleep. Louis sat on his lap and snuggled into him until he couldn't really remember why he was so upset in the first place.

 

Which brings him to the conversation he's currently immersed in.

 

"I want to marry Louis." He tells his mum while kicking his feet against the chair legs and chasing a stray cornflake around his bowl. "I thought I should tell you because I'm planning on asking him today." 

 

Anne spits up a bit of her toast which makes Harry giggle happily. She wipes away the debris from the corners of her mouth, sparing him a fond little smile. 

 

"Are you now?" She asks with raised eyebrows. "And why is that?"

 

Harry pauses with his spoon in mid-air and gives her his best "I'm smarter than you" look. Louis is a whole lot better at it than him.

 

"Because I love him. Miss Faris said that when two people love each other very much, they get married and make a baby. I want to get married and make a baby."

 

His mum makes a weird face, like she's not sure how to respond. 

 

"With Louis?" She clarifies. "You want to get married and make a baby with Louis?"

 

Harry rolls his eyes. Didn't they just go over this?

 

"Yes mum."

 

"Okay..." She takes a long sip from her tea and then flattens her palms out on the table. "Well first of all, you know that you and Louis can't make a baby together, right?"

 

Harry doesn't take kindly to her telling him what he can and can't do.

 

"Why not?" He challenges with a stormy expression. "If we try really hard, we can do anything we want to."

 

"Oh baby." She tugs at his cheek with her fingers and he scowls. "You can do almost anything you want to. But some things are just impossible, no matter how hard you try. You can't make a baby with Louis because boys can't make babies together. Boys and girls can…but not two boys, or two girls. You know why?"

 

Harry shakes his head, feeling sad. He really wants to make a baby with Louis. They could call it Thomas (like the Tank Engine) and teach it to huff and puff like a train.

 

"Because they don't have the right parts. It's like a puzzle, see. A boy and a girl fit together perfectly so they can make a baby but two boys don't because they both have the same shape puzzle piece."

 

"Oh." Harry's face falls. "So I can't marry Louis and make a baby?"

 

Anne takes his hands and squeezes.

 

"You can marry anyone you want and have a baby with them but you can’t make a baby with Louis. However there are other ways to make a family, love."

 

Harry's mind spins.

 

"Like what?"

 

She ruffles his hair.

 

"We'll talk about it someday when you're older. But just know that if you decide to marry Louis and he decides to marry you, that's fine."

 

Harry lights up like a Christmas tree.

 

"So I can ask him?" He bounces in his chair. "Do you think if I give him my snack pack, he'll let me marry him?"

 

Anne trills a laugh.

 

"Oh love, that's not usually how it works but if you think it will, you can give it a try. Just don't give away all your food. Make sure he gives you something in return because if you come home with a hungry tummy, you won't be getting any more snack than usual."

 

He pouts.

 

"But mum--"

 

"But nothing Harry, you need to stop giving away your food to your friends."

 

"I only give it to Louis!" He protests. "And only when he's sad. He gets sad sometimes."

 

It's true. Louis sometimes has moods where he doesn't want to talk to anybody but Harry...not even Hannah, who has quickly become an established part of their lives. Harry can't help but be proud of the fact that he's the only one Louis wants when he's sad. 

 

"I know." She smiles at him, slightly melancholy. "I think he misses his dad, sweetheart."

 

"But he doesn't know his dad," Harry wonders. "How could he miss him?"

 

"I think he wishes he did know him. Jay's started telling him a few stories here and there. I think that makes him sad."

 

Harry's frustrated with Jay for upsetting him.

 

"So why does she tell him then?"

 

"Because he has a right to know and because one day he'll be glad to have those memories of his father, even if he's just borrowing them from Jay."

 

Harry thinks on that for a second and then looks up at Anne with something vulnerable shining in his eyes.

 

"How come I don't have any borrowed memories of my dad?" He says, voice small.

 

It's true that after what happened with his dad (the night that he dropped in and made Harry's mother cry), Harry didn't really care to think of him anymore. But suddenly it seems important that he know what his dad was like. Maybe he's not all bad. If his mum married him, there must have been something nice about him. Anne looks sad though as she makes her way around to his side of the table and bends down in front of him. Her eyes look watery and red and her bottom lip shakes a little when she gathers his hands in hers. 

 

"Do you want to hear some memories I have with him?" 

 

She sounds like her throat is sore and she's losing her voice but Harry knows what that means. It means she's really sad and she's only ever really sad when it comes to talking about his dad. 

 

"Maybe..." He admits, biting his lip nervously.

 

He doesn't want to make her any sadder than she already is. Anne wipes away a stray tear.

 

"I'll get the photo albums," she says, her breathing laboured.

 

They spend the next twenty minutes or so going through photos together, talking about the people in them and the memories they made together. Harry hears about his dad's sense of humour and his affinity for pranks. Apparently he could turn any three objects into a hilarious prank on somebody in the office. He learns about the first time his parents met, how Anne had been in a junior position in the office they shared and how his dad had come over to ask for a specific document he didn’t really need.

 

"He was very charming," she tells him, waving her hands through the air like she always does when telling a story. "I thought he had nice eyes...and a nice smile. It wasn't until he spoke though that I knew I had met someone special."

 

"How did you know?" Harry asks, thinking of the way he feels whenever he's around Louis.

 

"I felt really warm," she reveals in a soft voice, tracing a finger over a photo from their Christmas work party. "And safe. Like as long as I was with him, I would never need anything else. It felt very easy to be around him."

 

"Louis makes me warm." Harry tells her, eyes wide. 

 

She smiles at him, slant eyed.

 

"I'm glad. You deserve to have someone like that by your side."

 

"Mum?" 

 

"Yes?"

 

"Why didn't he want me?" He asks with a trembling lip. He tries to control his tears. "If he was so nice and warm, why didn't dad want me?"

 

"Oh darling, it wasn't that," she tries to reassure him but Harry is seven now, he's not stupid.

 

"Don't lie to me. He didn't want to stay because of me. Why?"

 

"Some people..." She pauses and then silently shuts the photo album. "Some people seem very warm when you first meet them but then turn out to be very cold."

 

Harry frowns.

 

"So he seemed like a good man but really he was evil?"

 

Anne shakes her head, nursing her own elbows.

 

"He was neither good nor evil. We're all a little bit of both, actually." Harry struggles to understand that. "He was just scared. He shouldn't have left us but it's a bit more complicated than that."

 

"Okay..." He feels sobered by the truth. "Mum, can we pick up Louis now?"

 

She checks her watch and then gasps.

 

"Yes! We should definitely go now or else you'll both be late! Go put on your shoes on and brush your teeth please."

 

"Okay," Harry stops and then leans over to kiss his mum's cheek. "I love you Mumma."

 

She hugs him close.

 

"I love you too darling." She pats him on the bottom. "Now get a move on or poor Louis will think we've forgotten all about him."

 

It's that thought that sends Harry running for his shoes.

 

 

***

 

"Haaaaaaanah."

 

"Yes Harry?" 

 

She looks at Harry with considerable vexation. Louis admires that about her. Not many people can resist Harry's cherubic face, least of all Louis.

 

"Would you mind getting me another juice cup from the canteen?"

 

"Harry!" Louis scolds him, pinching the ankle nearest to him. "She's not your lap dog, she's our friend."

 

The three of them have gotten considerably closer in the past year but Louis still sometimes worries that he'll be forced to choose between the two. He knows who he'll choose if it comes down to it but he doesn't relish the thought of leaving Hannah without any friends. She's a dutiful companion and it's thanks to her that his writing and reading skills are getting better every day. She always takes extra time to help him in class and never seems cross with him when he asks her. Plus she's sassy. And brave. She told Miss Dyson, the art teacher that she wouldn't paint an apple just because someone asked her to. She'd paint a strawberry instead ...because that's her favourite fruit. Louis had been a bit dazed after that. Suddenly she seemed like one of those hero characters that refuses to submit to evil. Okay so Miss Dyson isn't exactly the wicked witch. In fact she kind of has a soft spot for Louis and always puts extra stickers on his work. But still, he admires Hannah's gall. 

 

"It's fine." She gets up, taking her half eaten sandwich with her. "I'll get you a juice cup Harold but you can return the favour tomorrow."

 

"Of course." Harry rushes to say. "You're a gem, Han."

 

Hannah gives him a caustic look followed rather contrarily by a wide smile.

 

"Of course I am."

 

Then she skips off, her blond pigtails swinging in the wind. Louis lays down in the grass and drums his fingers on his chest.

 

"I'm going to marry that girl someday." He says, smiling dreamily up at the sky.

 

One of the clouds looks like a rocking horse. He's just about to point it out to Harry when the other boy rolls over on top of him, effectively stealing his breath.

 

"Ouch! Harry!"

 

Harry plants his hands beside Louis' head and leans in close. He looks angry and unsettled.

 

"You're not marrying Hannah, you're marrying me," he grumbles.

 

Louis laughs in his face and tries to push him away. (He's unsuccessful). The laughing seems to trigger something in Harry. He looks like he might cry now. 

 

"But I love you." His bottom lip juts out. "I asked Hannah to go get me a juice cup so I could ask you to marry me. Why don't you want to marry me? Do you love Hannah more than me?"

 

Louis touches his face. 

 

"What? No, Haz. I love you the most. More than anyone. Including Hannah. And my mum."

 

Harry's frown lines disappear but he's still trembling all over.

 

"Then why won't you marry me?"

 

Louis rolls his eyes and pushes at Harry's chest again. Harry relents but doesn't take his eyes off Louis' face.

 

"Because boys don't marry other boys. That's not how it works Hazza. I'll marry Hannah and you marry someone and then we'll all live together in the same house."

 

Louis feels quite cheered at the concept. He can imagine sharing a house with Hannah and Harry. He and Harry could share a bed and Hannah could sleep in a bed next to them. They could have pancakes for breakfast every morning.

 

"No," Harry's voice is coarse like it is when he's about to cry. "I don't want you to marry her. My mum said I can marry anyone I want!"

 

"Harry." Louis tugs at his wrists, trying to pull him into a hug but Harry fights him and wins. "You're being ridiculous. Why does it matter who we marry? We're still going to be friends forever." 

 

Harry drops his eyes. Louis can tell that they're still swimming with tears. He can always tell.

 

“But I just want it to be you and me forever Lou. Just you and me.  No Hannah. No girls."

 

Louis doesn't get it. He honestly doesn't. Harry has been such a good sport about his friendship with Hannah so why is it suddenly different now? 

 

"Hazza? I'm sorry. Let's just go find Hannah and enjoy the rest of lunch."

 

"No." Harry growls. He stands up and angrily brushes his tears away. "Tell Hannah she can have my juice cup. I'm going to play with my other friends."

 

Louis is heartbroken and it shows. He drops his hands to his lap and screws his eyes shut, trying not to cry. When he opens them again, Harry has already run off. He cries until Hannah gets back and a little bit after. She calms him down by telling him another story about her grandparents’ farm. Louis loves her stories. They're always interesting. 

 

"The cow had a baby?" Louis' eyes shine with wonder and forgotten tears. "Really?"

 

Hannah laughs, delighted with the attention. Usually Harry has Louis' sole focus when all three of them are together.

 

"Really! It was a little calf. My grandfather named her Rosie after my grandmother."

 

"Wow." 

 

He thinks about it for a moment. He decides he'd quite like to name a calf after Harry. 

 

"Harry wants to marry me," he blurts out, well aware that Hannah hasn't yet asked him what happened.

 

"Oh." She smiles at him. "Well that's good, isn't it?"

 

"Is it?"

 

"Well you love each other, don't you?" She raises her eyebrows. "Like really love each other?"

 

Louis digs his nails into the dirt on the ground.

 

"I suppose so..." He pauses. "I mean, yeah."

 

"So you should marry him. When you're old I mean." She giggles. "You can't marry him when you're only seven."

 

"Seven and a half," he promptly corrects her.

 

And then realises she's right. He should marry Harry, even if it's not something boys do. Maybe if they marry each other, they won't ever be apart. Louis would quite like that.

 

"I'll think about it." He tells her. "He's so mad at me, I don't think he'll ever ask me again."

 

"He will," she promises. "You just have to be patient."

 

And she's right. Patience is a virtue. At least according to his mum.

 

*-*-*-*-*

 

Harry spends the afternoon weeping on Anne's knee, trying to find the composure to tell her what happened but somehow unable to stop himself from crying. After two glasses of water and twice as many sweet biscuits, he finds his voice.

 

"Louis doesn't want to marry me," he sniffs. "He wants to marry stupid Hannah."

 

"Harry," she scolds. "Don't call Hannah stupid. She's a very sweet young lady."

 

Harry sobs a bit, feeling betrayed. 

 

"Sorry mum." He hugs her thigh. "I'm just sad. I wanted to be with him forever but he just wants to be friends."

 

"Oh honey," she sifts through his hair with careful fingers. It feels nice and starts to lull him to sleep. "That doesn't mean you can't be with him forever. Even if he doesn't marry you, you'll always be the one he loves the most."

 

"Promise?" Harry mumbles, on the edge of sleep.

 

"I can't promise the future baby but I think you'll find Louis will still be there, leaning on you for support as long as you let him."

 

Harry smiles into her pant leg. 

 

"I'll always let him."

 

*-*-*-*-*

 

Hannah and Louis concoct the plan together in gym. They're doing laps of the oval, huffing and puffing as they try to maintain a conversation. 

 

"Do you think Harry would look good with shorter hair?" Louis pants, feet pounding against the track.

 

Hannah looks slightly more out of it than him. Her cheeks are all pink and blotchy and she keeps holding her side as if she might have a stitch. 

 

"Yeah," she agrees, her voice run ragged. "He gets those nice springy bits every time he gets a haircut."

 

"Exactly," Louis grins. "I think it's about time we give our Hazza a haircut."

 

Hannah looks perplexed. 

 

"Do you know how to cut hair?"

 

"Cut yours, didn't I?"

 

Hannah's mum had given him a real tongue lashing for that one.

 

"That was just my fringe," she argues. "And I still think it looks a bit uneven."

 

It does but that's neither here nor there (as the librarian would say. She's very posh).

 

"Haven't we been over this?" He sighs, irritated.

 

Hannah looks like she might challenge him but at the last moment decides against it.

 

"I guess so. What did you want to do to Harry? He'll never let you cut all of his hair. It's just starting to get long again," she reminds him, and quite rightly so.

 

"You're right but that's why I have you."

 

"What am I supposed to do?" She puffs, slowing slightly as they enter a new lap. 

 

"Tell Harry you let me cut your hair. He'll hate it. If you say I did it for you, he'll want me to do it for him."

 

"Isn't that kinda..." She pauses. "Tricking him into it?"

 

"Yes."

 

"So you don't feel bad?"

 

"No," Louis huffs, annoyed. "I know what's best for Harry. He'll love it when I'm done."

 

"If it's even..."

 

"Hannah," Louis raises his voice. "Are you going to keep going on about that?"

 

"I'm just saying Lou..." She pumps her arms, pushing him to run faster to contend with her. "Be careful."

 

"I always am."

 

If only that were true. 

 

*-*-*-*-*

 

"It just seems like a bad idea Lou," Harry tells him. "I don't want to wind up with really short hair."

 

"You won't Hazza!" Louis urges. "Hannah, tell him he won't."

 

Frankly Hannah looks like she'd rather be anywhere else. But Harry and Hannah both know they'd do almost anything to make Louis happy. It's a side effect of loving him.

 

"He's right H," Hannah smiles, though it doesn't really reach her eyes. "He cut my hair and I loved it!"

 

"You cried," Harry corrects her. "I know you cried because Louis cried to me about making you cry."

 

"Yes but..." She pauses, brow furrowed. "But I still let him do it. Cause I'm a good friend. His best friend actually."

 

She blushes immediately afterwards like she's not sure it's something she should have said and she's right, it really isn't. Harry is Louis' best friend. That's a given. Hannah should know that by now. He's learned to accept that she's Louis' friend too but there are levels and he is miles above her.

 

"Well I am too," he huffs and then turns to face the smaller boy. "Louis, you can cut my hair. I'm your bestest friend, aren't I?"

 

"The bestest," Louis agrees with a wicked grin on his face.

 

Harry is 99% sure he's going to regret this.

 

*-*-*-*-*

 

Anne has just settled down in the break room with a piping hot cup of tea when her phone goes off. Carefully placing the tea back on the table, she retrieves her phone from her pocket. 

 

"Hello?" She asks fearfully, always expecting the worst.

 

Just because her child has been in school for almost three years, doesn't mean she's gotten any better at sending him off every day without worrying that some terrible injury might befall him.

 

"Hi Anne, it's Cherie. From the office?"

 

"Right...yes, Cherie. Hello." She bites her lip. "What happened? Has he broken something? Is he okay?"

 

"Calm down, Mrs Styles," Cherie chuckles. "He's just had a bit of a haircut."

 

Anne shifts her phone to the other ear, blocking out the noise of some of her colleagues chatting in the corner. 

 

"A haircut? Okay. No wait, what?!"

 

Cherie chuckles again.

 

"Well it seems they got a bit carried away, the two of them. You know Louis--"

 

"Yes I know Louis," Anne rolls her eyes. "He always gets carried away when it comes to Harry."

 

"Yes, well. It seems that he convinced Harry to let him cut his hair and well, it's a bit shaggy...and very short...and Harry is a bit upset really. At Louis. Because of his hair." 

 

"Can I speak to him?" She asks. "I think he'll be alright till I get there if I can just talk to him."

 

"Of course Anne, I'll pop him on."

 

Anne hears her footsteps trailing away and then the sounds of her returning with a quietly sobbing Harry.

 

"Mum's on the phone, love. Do you want to hop up on my chair?"

 

A couple of seconds later Harry's thick voice comes through the speaker.

 

"Mummy?"

 

And that's how she knows he's in a bad way. He tries to avoid calling her that, especially in front of Louis. It makes him feel like a baby.

 

"Hi sweetheart. What's going on? Are you okay?"

 

"L-Louis cut my h-hair," he sobs, whimpering slightly. "It looks s-silly."

 

"Oh baby, I'm sure it's not as bad as you think. I'm sure Louis didn't mean to make you look silly. I bet he was upset that you didn't like it, wasn't he?" 

 

Harry sniffles.

 

"Yes. He's locked himself in the t-toilet." 

 

"Okay love, can you do mummy a big favour?"

 

"I guess..." He croaks.

 

She smiles, wishing she were there so she could wrap him up in her arms. She feels a little melancholy herself. Harry had lovely hair.

 

"Can you be a big brave boy and go get Louis from the toilets?"

 

Harry starts to protest but Anne cuts him off calmly.

 

"I know you're mad at him, darling and I understand why. Louis should never have cut your hair. Jay will talk to him about it, I'm sure. But did you say he could?" She asks him gently.

 

"Yes," he whines, "but I didn't really want him to!"

 

"I know, love and that's what you should have said. You need to learn to stand up for yourself a bit more. Just think of it this way, Louis wasn't trying to make you look silly. He would never do that to you. He made a mistake, Harry but I don't think it's worth losing your friendship over, do you?"

 

"I guess not." Harry admits grudgingly, his sobs fully subsided. 

 

"Exactly, so I need you to persuade him to come out of the toilets and then I'll come pick you both up. We can go to the hairdressers, get you fixed up and then go for ice cream. How does that sound?"

 

She can hear him wiping his snotty nose. It draws a smile to her lips. 

 

"Good, I guess."

 

"Okay...well you better go get Louis because if he's not out by the time I get there, we might not have time to get ice cream," she warns. 

 

"Okay, I'm going!"

 

He doesn't even say bye. She hears the clatter of the phone on the desk and then Cherie picks it up.

 

"Mrs Styles?"

 

"Yes?"

 

"We spoke to Jay. She asked you to pick Louis up for her."

 

"Yes I'm going to," Anne assures her.

 

"Oh and one more thing...."

 

"Yes?" 

 

"She said to tell you she's sorry if her son turned yours into a sheepdog."

 

Anne guffaws loudly. Her colleagues give her varying looks of judgement. She ignores them.

 

"Thanks for letting me know Cherie."

 

There's a smile in Cherie's voice.

 

"You're very welcome Anne. See you soon.

 

"See you soon," she says and then hangs up the phone, shaking her head in disbelief.

 

Only their boys, she thinks, only their boys would end up in this situation. 

 

*-*-*-*-*

 

Harry knocks on the door of Louis' cubicle, feeling stupid. Why should he be the one consoling Louis? He's the one who looks like he's been electrocuted. But then he hears the tell-tale signs of Louis struggling to breathe through his tears and he's reminded of his own sacred vow to always look after Louis. That means being nice to him even when he's acting like a little brat.

 

"I'm not coming out. Tell Miss Percy I'm not coming back to class!" Louis shouts, breath hitching. "Just leave me alone."

 

"Lou?" Harry calls out, voice echoing around the bathroom. He hears Louis' sobs falter for a moment. "It's Harry?"

 

"Harry?" His voice sounds fragile and shaky. "What are you doing here?"

 

"I've come to get you." He says determinedly. "I'm not leaving without you so you might as well come out."

 

"But..." His voice hitches again. "You hate me."

 

He starts crying in earnest again and Harry hates him for it. He hates that the sound of Louis crying is like kryptonite to his anger. 

 

"Just come out. Please Lou." 

 

"Will you hit me?" Louis whimpers.

 

Harry steps back in shock.

 

"What? I would never hit you Louis. Just come out already. My mum is probably waiting for us."

 

The lock slowly turns and then the door falls open to reveal a snotty nosed Louis. His sleeves are wet from where he's obviously been wiping his face with them and he looks pale faced and small.

 

"I'm sorry Harry," he croaks, voice hoarse. "I didn't mean to mess up your hair."

 

"I know," he sighs. "You were just trying to help."

 

"Yes," Louis agrees with a sniffle. "I thought you'd look good with those little springy bits you had when you were little. Besides, you said yes!"

 

Harry frowns at him.

 

"I said yes to make you happy, not because I wanted to."

 

"Oh." Louis' eyebrows knit together. He gathers the edges of his sleeves in his hands. "Why didn't you tell me?"

 

"Because I was scared. I didn't want you to make Hannah your new best friend," he says honestly.

 

"I wouldn't!" Louis lurches forward. "Haz, you'll always be my bestest friend!"

 

Harry smiles gently. 

 

"Even if I don't let you cut my hair?"

 

"Even then." Louis tells him, his expression earnest, eyes pleading.

 

"Mum is coming to get us," Harry tells him, grinning softly. "She's gonna take me to the hairdressers and then we can go get ice cream."

 

"Me too?" Louis' expression brightens. "She wants to take me too?"

 

"Of course!" Harry beams. "But I think you may be in trouble with your mum."

 

"Yeah," Louis toes at the ground. "I deserve it."

 

Harry's never met anyone who demands cuddles without saying a word.

 

"C'mere Lou."

 

Louis' face lights up and he launches himself at Harry, almost knocking them both to the ground. Harry laughs delightedly.

 

"Hey Haz?"

 

"Yeah Lou?" He curls his arms tighter around his friend, feeling so much better than he did before.

 

"Do you still want to marry me?" He says quietly...shyly. 

 

Harry pulls back and finds Louis blushing from ear to ear with his pretty blue eyes appearing completely translucent. 

 

"Yes." He says, drying the last of Louis' tears with his thumbs. "I'll always want to marry you. Even if you never want to marry me back." 

 

Louis doesn't say anything but his cheeks redden further and he squeezes Harry tight.

 

"Let's go get ice cream," Harry whispers in his ear.

 

Louis nods and then turns around and runs off without him. Harry gives chase only seconds later.

 

*-*-*-*-*

 

It's a good day. For starters, Harry's hair has started to grow back since Louis cut it. It's also Saturday, the sun is shining and the school year is almost over. Harry can't wait until the holidays because that means he and Louis can have unlimited sleepovers without their mums using school as an excuse not to let them. Harry jumps out of bed and runs into the kitchen.

 

"Morning!"

 

He runs straight at his mum and wraps his arms around her in a hug. She laughs and pats his bed head down.

 

"Morning yourself! What's got you so cheery?"

 

"It's Saturday!" Harry chirps. "That means Louis and I can have a sleepover right? Because you said--"

 

"Actually," his mum's smile dims. "We're all going hiking."

 

"Hiking?" Harry says, puzzled. "Why?"

 

"Because it's the anniversary of Louis' dad's death today."

 

Her face is solemn.

 

"Oh."

 

"Jay thought Louis might like it a bit more than another visit to the cemetery. His dad hiked a lot when he was younger. Jay wants him to experience that."

 

"Okay..." Harry trails off. 

 

He'd forgotten about the anniversary. He can't be blamed really, he's only seven. He still feels sad. This must explain why Louis seemed kind of down at school yesterday. He barely touched his food. He didn't even giggle once when Harry pulled faces at him through the window when he was in the class next to him.

 

"So we're going to go with them. It'll be a nice trip for you guys. Do you want to go pack some things? We're going to get going in about half an hour."

 

"Okay," Harry nods. "But can I bring some hob nobs? For Louis? They're his favourite. And Cheshire? He loves Cheshire."

 

Cheshire takes that as her cue to barrel into Harry's legs, mewling loudly. Harry picks her up and hugs her close, planting a kiss in her fur.

 

"You can bring the hob nobs but not Cheshire. She can't come hiking with us Harry, she might get hurt or run off and get lost. We'll have to ask Mrs Lane to watch her."

 

"But it will make Louis happy, mum." Harry's mouth drops slightly. "I don't want him to be sad."

 

"Hey," she frames his cheeks with her hands and kneels down in front of him. "You can't take away his sadness about his dad. All you can do is be there for him. You're so sweet to him love. I know it helps Louis just to have you around."

 

"You think?" Harry says doubtfully.

 

"I know." Anne tells him. "Now go pack your bag mister. The mountains await."

 

*-*-*-*-*

 

Louis awakens to a hand on his forehead, smoothing back his hair. 

 

"Morning sweetheart."

 

Louis blinks his eyes open, squinting at the sudden rush of light that attacks his retinas.

 

"Morning." He croaks. "Mum, is that tea?"

 

She hands him the steaming cup with a smile. It's a drink preference they've come to share over the past year or so. They take it the exact same; no sugar and just a splash of milk. Louis blows across the surface of the steaming liquid and then takes a sip. It soothes him immediately.

 

"So do you remember what today is, love?"

 

Louis shakes his head. It's too early for him to remember anything apart from the fact that he doesn't have school. Plus he rarely keeps track of the date. The only exceptions being in the lead up to Christmas and his and Harry's birthday.

 

"It's your dad's anniversary."

 

Her smile is weak and wobbly at the corners, the same way it usually is before she starts to cry, which, although it doesn't happen often, is something Louis has come to recognise by now. 

 

"Oh." He remembers now. "Okay."

 

He always feels a weird mixture of desperately vulnerable and awfully empty on this day. He misses his dad, of course. Or misses the idea of him really, since they never got a chance to meet. He'd give anything to hear his dad come through the door in the evenings, tired from work but nonetheless as excited to see Louis as Louis would be him. They'd run down the hall toward each other and his dad would lift him up into his arms and spin him around until they both got dizzy from it. Then his mum would call them both, yelling obscenities about dinner going cold and they'd both giggle and race each other to the table. Jay would waggle her finger at them both, trying for stern but they'd all know who her two favourite boys were. 

 

So yes, Louis feels a deep, bone aching sadness every year when he's reminded again that he'll never have that. His family will never be quite complete. As much as he loves Jay, she can only be so many things at once and Louis is sometimes left pining for the dad he never knew. The dad his mum assures him would have adored him completely. But that's the other side of it, isn't it? That all of Louis' knowledge comes from one source and though he trusts his mum implicitly, he often wonders what he could be missing out on, what she might not be telling him for fear of upsetting him. He wishes he could make judgements for himself, that he could know what his dad is like for real.

 

The truth of it is that his dad is rather like a fairytale character. He's heard so many tales of his dad's heroics, his sense of humour and his unfailing kindness--that the man he pictures in his head is scarcely a real person. He's a caricature of what Louis' real dad is like and he knows it. So as much as the reminder of his dad's death depletes him emotionally, it often leaves him feeling equally empty and unsure. How do you grieve someone you never really knew?

 

"Are you okay baby?" His mum asks, bringing him back to earth.

 

Her hand is on his shoulder and she looks like the conversation is very painful for her. Louis sets his tea down on his bedside table and grabs her hand.

 

"Are you?"

 

The smiles that spreads across her face is brilliant...and yet still tinged with sadness.

 

"I'm okay love, thank you for asking." 

 

He studies her intently, squeezing her fingers.

 

"I don't think you are okay, mum. You miss dad. A lot."

 

Jay chokes on whatever she'd been about to say. A few tears brim over her eyes and she scoops him up into a hug, pressing him to her chest.

 

"I do miss him. You're right. But I'm so lucky to have you, my perfect boy."

 

Louis shakes his head and pulls back, nose scrunched.

 

"I'm not a boy, I'm a young man."

 

Jay snorts a laugh and then holds a hand to her chest, bowing slightly.

 

"My apologies, young man. You just looked so cute and little in your racing car pyjamas." She says and proceeds to poke his tummy all over, eliciting a few helpless giggles. "Forgive me."

 

Louis squirms away from her hands, cheeks flushed and eyes bright.

 

"Stop it mummy," he begs. "Tickles!"

 

Jay doesn't comment on the fact that he's just reverted back to calling her mummy. Best not to ruin a good thing. 

 

"Sorry love," she plants a wet kiss on his cheek. "Couldn't help myself. Now, I have some good news for you."

 

"Okay...." Louis trails off warily, unsure about why his mum would suddenly look so excited after they've just spent the past five minutes talking about his dad's death.

 

"We're going hiking…and camping!" She cheers. "And Anne and Harry are coming with us. How does that sound little love?"

 

She grins at him expectantly but Louis just screws up his face, confused.

 

"But what about dad?" He pouts a little, his spirits dropping. It's not as if he likes the cemetery per se but it's kind of an established tradition. That's his dad's home, as far as he's concerned and Louis' worried his dad might miss him if he's not there like he usually is. "We always go see him! We can't go camping."

 

Jay's face drops. She looks like she feels a little guilty, her brows drawing together but it's a brief change because then she scoots closer to him on the bed and gives him a proud little smile.

 

"You're a wonderful boy, baby. Your dad would be so proud of you." She traces his cheek with the side of her finger, smiling softly. "But he wouldn't want you to be stuck at the miserable cemetery with him when you could be out exploring and having adventures of your own. Of course, if you do want to go visit him like we usually do...we can but I don't think we need to. Your dad isn't stuck in the cemetery Lou. He's all around us, watching over us and walking alongside us whenever we feel most scared. I believe that."

 

Louis' eyes widen and his heart starts to race excitedly. He never thought of it that way.

 

"Is he..." He gulps, slightly nervous. "Is he here right now?"

 

Jay smiles, her eyes wet and then tilts her head inquisitively.

 

"I don't know," she says truthfully. "I hope so. I don't know for certain that your dad is with us all the time..." She admits and Louis' face falls. "But I feel him with me. In my heart. And I know because of that, that it doesn't matter where he is or where I am. We're always together. In here."

 

She places a firm hand over her chest and taps it twice. Louis mimics the movement. His hand shakes a little. He closes his eyes and focuses all of his energy on the image of his dad. It's a photo of his dad from when he was a lot younger. His mum is in it too, tucked under his dad's arm, laughing manically about something his dad must have said. His dad has his lips pressed to her temple and a slant eyed smile on his face, like he has a secret he doesn't feel obliged to share. It's Louis' favourite photo of his dad and definitely his favourite photo of his parents. In his eyes, that's what true love looks like. That's what it should feel like. A secret you don't want to share.

 

"We love you dad," Louis whispers, his mind's eye trained on the image. "Mum loves you so much. Rest in peace."

 

When he opens his eyes, Jay is full blown crying. Her eyes are wet and puffy and she's barely holding back sobs.

 

"I love you so much Louis." She says, slightly winded. "You are my favourite person on this earth."

 

Louis climbs into her lap and kisses her cheek.

 

"You're mine too. Well...except for Harry."

 

She laughs loudly at that.

 

"Of course." He can practically hear her rolling her eyes. "It's always going to be Harry, isn't it?"

 

"Always," he agrees happily, tucking his face into her neck.

 

She strokes the back of his head for a while, telling him stories about when his dad used to go camping and all the mischief he used to get up to. Louis giggles at every new story, pleased to note that his mum shows a similar level of exasperation with him and his antics.

 

"Okay lazy bum," she pats his behind. "Story time is over. We have to get going."

 

He pouts at her, feeling only mildly disappointed. Story time might be over but he'll be seeing Harry soon.

 

"But mu-uuuum," he whines, just because he can't help himself.

 

Evidently, theatrics is in his blood.

 

"Don't 'mum' me, young man. I let you stay in bed for half an hour longer than I should I have. Now go get dressed, we need to be on the road soon." 

 

"Fine," he huffs but once she's left his bedroom, his skips his way over to the wardrobe.

 

*-*-*-*-*

 

The boys spend the car trip playing I spy with little eye, quietly squabbling about whose turn it is until their mum's collectively agree that they're not allowed to play for the rest of the trip. So instead they discuss what Pokemon they'd each be. 

 

"You'd be pikachu, Harry because everybody loves pikachu." Louis tells him. 

 

Harry just laughs and pushes him in the chest.

 

"Idiot."

 

"Hey," Louis pushes him right back. "I was being nice!"  

 

He leans away from Harry and crosses his arms, straining the seatbelt slightly but Harry just scoots closer. He wraps an arm around him and then squeezes his knee.

 

"Sorry Lou. Listen, my favourite Pokemon is Sawk." Louis rolls his eyes because well, derr. It's all Harry ever talks about lately. "You're Sawk because Sawk's got big manly arms just like you."

 

He squishes Louis' scrawny arm beneath his palm then, pulling Louis further into him in the process. Louis giggles and buries his head in Harry's chest, weakly slapping his tummy.

 

"Don't be silly." He bites his lip, still giggling. "You're so stupid." 

 

Harry hugs him close. 

 

"Shh Sawk, we're almost there."

 

Louis gives him a wet willy just for that.

 

*-*-*-*-*

 

They start hiking pretty late in the day. The sun has started to drop behind a cloud and the mountain is cast in a slight shadow. It's warm though and there's a nearby brook bubbling noisily. As his mum hands him his backpack, Harry feels excitement settle in his bones.

 

"C'mon Harry, we have to get to the top before our mum's!" Louis keeps telling him, climbing the rocks at an astounding pace which Harry thinks might be dangerous.

 

Jay seems to have the same idea.

 

"Slow down sweet child of mine because if you fall, poor, sweet Harry is going to have to catch you."

 

Louis looks back at him with a sparkling grin. The one he reserves for dazzling Harry into submission.

 

"You'd catch me, wouldn't you Hazza? I'm not that heavy."

 

"Course," Harry pats his head, smirking. "But it's only cause you're so small."

 

"Sod off," he bites back....but he's grinning widely.

 

"Did I just hear you swear Louis William Tomlinson?"

 

Louis rolls his eyes and sighs exaggeratedly.

 

"No mum. ’Sod' is not a swear word."

 

"It is when you're saying it in place of something else," she warns him. "And I know exactly what it was in place of, young man."

 

"Do you hear that?" Louis stage whispers. "I'm a young man!"

 

Harry giggles and then winks.

 

"A short young man, yeah."

 

Louis swats at his arm.

 

"Buzz off!"

 

"Louis William Tomlinson, do I have to come up there and give you a hiding?" 

 

Truth is, Jay never has and she never would but she's theatrically trained and the threat never ceases to settle her rambunctious boy. 

 

"No," he sulks. "I'll stop."

 

Jay winks at Anne who simply shakes her head and nudges Jay's shoulder.

 

"Maybe you should shorten his name. Saying his full name every five minutes must get tiring."

 

Jay throws her head back, laughing.

 

"That it does my friend, that it does."

 

*-*-*-*-*

 

They reach a good camping spot just as the sun starts to set completely which is fortunate for them because the boys both look absolutely pooped and Anne is starting to feel the journey a bit herself.

 

"Okay, who wants to come with me to get some firewood? Harry?"

 

Harry is sitting down with his legs splayed out in a V in front of him, looking the very definition of done. Louis, on the other hand looks excited by the prospect of another adventure.

 

"I'll come with you Anne!"

 

Anne holds out her hand, hoping she won't have to use reverse psychology to get him to take it. Thankfully he seems pretty happy to hold her hand, even if it is just because they're well and clear of anyone who might judge him for it.

 

"Well alright then love, let's go."

 

Louis leans down and pats Harry's knee, smiling gently.

 

"Be back soon Haz."

 

Harry grins at him and pats Louis' ankle in return.

 

"Go get us some wood Sawk."

 

Louis giggles light heartedly and then tugs on Anne's hand to get her to move.

 

"Don't I get a goodbye then?" Jay protests from her spot on the other side of the clearing.

 

Louis rolls his eyes for show but blows her a kiss which she pretends to catch and hold to her heart.

 

"Be careful baby," she yells out. "Let Anne carry the heavy ones."

 

"'M not a baby," he grumbles but let's Anne pull him along anyway.

 

"We'll set up the tents while you're gone," Jay tells them. "C'mon Harry, up you get."

 

Anne hears the tell-tale signs of her son's groans as they depart for the surrounding woods. It draws a laugh from her lips.

 

"He's a bit of a baby sometimes, isn't he?" Louis says, squeezing her hand.

 

She really should tell him off for that but she can't help but agree.

 

"Just a bit," she concedes with a little grin.

 

Louis looks pleased. They walk for a little ways in silence, picking up wood as they go. When Louis' pile starts to get a bit too big, she suggests they head back. Louis sighs but agrees and they start to make their way back, listening to the sounds of small animals searching for a place to sleep.

 

"Anne?" Louis pipes up, a little uncertain.

 

"Yes Lou?" 

 

She swings their hands up really high and then back the other way which paints a delighted smile on Louis' lips.  He might act a bit bratty at times but Jay's boy is still relatively easy to please if you know which buttons to press. Anne does. She knows that Louis just likes people to pay attention to him and to remind him that they care for him. Trying to make him smile is sometimes enough to elicit one. He's so tuned in to whatever other people are willing to do for him.

 

"Do you think my dad is proud of me?" He whispers, breath a little harsh in the quiet of the evening.

 

Anne tries unsuccessfully to swallow the lump that's suddenly appeared in her throat. She stops Louis walking with a tug on his hand and then kneels down before him. 

 

"Why would you ask that love? Why wouldn't he be proud of you?" She questions him, eyebrows tilted down with concern.

 

Her heart breaks further at the look of quiet distress on his face. It's obvious he's been thinking about this for a while and yet somehow has managed to hide it from Jay. It's an impressive feat really. Jay has a knack for reading people. When it comes to her son, she's a seasoned expert. 

 

"My dad was a soldier." Anne nods her head slowly, a little confused. "And I'm...me. I'm small and scrawny and not brave at all. I'm nothing like my dad. He would have hated me."

 

Anne shakes her head vehemently, her eyes threatening tears. The thought that this beautiful little boy could think his deceased father hates him is a huge blow, one she was not prepared for. Her desire to help him is overwhelming. She cups his little cheeks in her hands and kisses his nose just to make him smile. It works but there's still the sting of sadness and self-doubt in his eyes.

 

"Sweetheart, listen to me when I say this. You are exactly like your father." She tells him, eyes watering.

 

He shakes his head, his expression downtrodden and disenchanted.

 

"You never met him. He was brave. He was a solider!" He protests loudly. 

 

She carefully pushes his hair away from his face, smoothing it back repeatedly in an effort to calm him.

 

"You are brave Louis William Tomlinson. You are a soldier."

 

He shakes his head, his face darkened with anger. He doesn't get it.

 

"I'm serious. Love, look at me for a sec. Please." 

 

He does, reluctantly. There are stormy wells of tears inside his bright blue eyes.

 

"Your dad wasn't brave just because he fought in the war. He wasn't a good man because he was taller or stronger than other people. He was a good man because he fought for your mum and for you. He loved you both so fiercely and that was what made him brave. He was scared of a lot of things, I'm sure of it. Just like you are. But the only thing that really scared him was losing you. The thought of having a son, that's what inspired him. That's what made him happy and your dad would be so proud of who you are, you know why?"

 

Louis shakes his head, his eyes unfocused and remote, like maybe he's imagining his dad inside his head, like maybe he's re-evaluating everything he’s known to be true.

 

"Because you love your mum just as fiercely, don't you?" She squeezes his shoulders and he nods, steadfast and certain. "And me and Harry too. You love us all with that big heart of yours and it makes you brave darling. It makes you just like your father. I know you're scared a lot Little Lou but that's okay. No one expects you not to be afraid, the key to being brave is letting other people help you when you are afraid. It's making sure your love for other people is stronger than your fear, that it’s strong enough to let people help you with your fear."

 

Louis looks a little bit astonished. He wipes at his nose, which has started to stream a little.

 

"Harry helps me," he tells her with wide, earnest eyes. "He makes me feel brave."

 

"You are brave baby," she presses a kiss to his hair. "And your dad knows that. Who else could look after your mum but a big brave boy like you?"

 

"Yeah." Louis' eyes are wide and bright as he smiles at her shyly. "You're right."

 

"I usually am," she agrees with a twinkling smile.

 

They share a giggle. Anne tries to suppress the enduring love swallowing her whole. It's hard enough feeling this way about Harry. She loves him so intensely, sometimes she's afraid it'll break her but he's still the best thing that ever happened to her. She should have known she was hopeless against Louis’ charms from the moment she saw his tiny body lying in that crib in the nursery. After all, Louis and Jay are the second best thing that ever happened to her, Harry being the first.

 

"C'mon Little Lou, let's go see if those slackers have done anything while we were gone."

 

Louis laughs brightly and follows her back to the clearing, beaming the whole way.

 

*-*-*-*-*

 

When his mum and Louis get back with the firewood, Harry tentatively lifts his head back up from the ground. His mum does not look happy.

 

"Have you been laying here this whole time while poor Jay set up the tents on her own?"

 

"I helped," he protests, pouting and rightly so, in his opinion.

 

"He helped for a bit," Jay huffs as she hauls the boys' packs into their tents. "Then apparently my son's absence grew too much for him and he felt compelled to mourn him. God help them Anne, that's all I can say."

 

"'M back now Hazza." Louis crouches down in front of him and pats his hair down the way he likes best. The way only Louis knows how to do. "You wanna go look at our tent?"

 

"Yeah!" Harry perks up at that and grabs Louis' outstretched hand. "Let's go!"

 

They run over to the tent and then launch themselves inside it, laughing manically at the sounds of their mum's telling them off for it. 

 

"At least it'll hold up if there's a storm," Harry says, cheerily.

 

But Louis' face collapses.

 

"Is it going to storm?" He whimpers.

 

"Oh." Stupid. He forgot how much Louis hates them. "No..."

 

Louis gives him a disbelieving look.

 

"Don't lie to me!"

 

"I'm not!" Harry tries to placate him. "Honestly, Lou. Mum said it was supposed to be nice all weekend. It could still storm, I suppose but if it does, the tent will protect us."

 

"No," Louis' chin wobbles. "No it won't!"

 

Harry knees his way over to Louis' side and wraps him up in a tight hug.

 

"Then I'll protect you."

 

"Pinky promise?" Louis smiles gently, the traces of anxiety still lingering in his expression.

 

Harry squeezes him tight.

 

"Promise!"

 

Louis links their pinkies together and they sit like that for a while, listening to their mum's talk and revelling in the fact that they both have one person who will always protect them no matter what. Someone who will always be on their side. A best friend. But somehow more than that too.

 

*-*-*-*-*

 

As dusk falls, the sky turns from rosy pink to murky purple and the only sounds to be heard are the quiet rush of the nearby river and the quiet crackle of the fire in their clearing. It's peaceful and Louis feels safe and secure with Harry by his side. They have sausages for dinner and then afterwards Anne retrieves a bag of marshmallows from her pack.

 

"How do you boys feel about roasting some marshmallows for dessert?"

 

Louis just resists squealing. It's been the thing he's been looking forward to most all day. Harry looks equally excited. Probably because they're both big fans of every single kind of sugary treat there is. 

 

"How do we do it?" Harry asks, always the more practical of the two.

 

"You both need to find a good stick, a long one. Then we put the marshmallow on the stick and toast it in front of the fire. But we need to be really careful around the fire, okay? No shoving. No running. No acting silly."

 

They both nod their heads obediently. Louis jumps up.

 

"Can we go get sticks?"

 

Anne nods and Louis pulls Harry up by his sleeve, tearing off into the trees with an excited yelp, Harry just hanging on. 

 

"Stay where we can see you!" Their mums shout at the same time.

 

Louis lets out a delighted noise when he spots a great big stick with a little hook like twig on the end. It's perfect. The best, manliest stick a first time camper could possibly want. Louis holds it to his chest for a second, savouring the find and then turns and thrusts it at Harry.

 

"Here you go H, take this one," he says softly, wrapping Harry's fingers around it.

 

Harry stutters his reply.

 

"R..really? But you found it Lou! It's yours."

 

"It was. Now it's yours." Louis grins at him and then winks. "The wand chooses the wizard Mr Potter, it's not always clear why."

 

Harry erupts into fits of delighted giggles and swishes the 'wand' through the air, calling out nonsensical words that Louis supposes are meant to be spells. It gets him giggling too.

 

"S-stop," his voice trembles with encroaching humour. "You're so silly Haz."

 

Harry beams at him like it's the best compliment he's ever received. It just might be.

 

"C'mon, let's go back."

 

Harry's face drops.

 

"But you don't have a stick! You gotta get a stick Lou!"

 

Louis picks the first decently sized one he sees.

 

"This'll do."

 

Harry stares at him in awe as he so often does. Then again Louis might be a little amazed by Harry himself. Louis is somewhat more adventurous(sometimes) but Harry is bolder and less easily swayed by things that happen to him. Louis loves that about him. Harry is his port in a storm, as his mum would say. Harry is the hand he can always hold when his own is shaking.

 

"You sure?" Harry asks. "You can still have my stick."

 

He tilts it toward Louis with a tentative smile like he might even prefer it if Louis just took it from him. Louis shakes his head. He's not that kind of friend. 

 

"Nah, it's fine. Let's go!"

 

So they race back to the clearing and find their mums in a similar fit of laughter to the one they'd been in before.

 

"What's so funny?" Harry asks with his hands on his hips.

 

"Yeah." Louis frowns at them. "What are you laughing about?"

 

"Never you mind, young man," Jay waggles her finger at him. "You're too young to know."

 

Louis sighs but let's it go on account of the fact that he's much more excited to toast marshmallows. His mum helps him toast his in the fire while Anne helps Harry and when all is said and done, it's just him and Harry lying in their tent, eating the last of their marshmallows with cheesy grins on their faces.

 

"This is so good," Harry moans. "Wish we had more."

 

Louis looks at him, considering.

 

"I think your mum probably has more in her pack. For tomorrow."

 

Harry claps his hands together.

 

"Yay! Pity we have to wait until tomorrow though."

 

"Yeah." Louis shrugs because he's actually kind of full. "Want to go to sleep now?"

 

Harry pouts at him with his sad little puppy dog eyes.

 

"No."

 

Louis rolls his.

 

"Well what do you wanna do?"

 

"Can we just talk?" Harry says tentatively, as if Louis might say no.

 

Louis rolls onto his side, facing Harry.

 

"What about?"

 

"Can I ask you about your dad?" Harry says, biting into the tender flesh of his lip. "We never talk about it."

 

Louis sticks his chin out defiantly.

 

"We never talk about yours either."

 

"Not much to talk about," Harry claims. "He's gone. I don't really know him."

 

Louis huffs, annoyed.

 

"My dad's gone. Your dad isn't gone, he just left you. He could still come back, Harry. My dad can never come back."

 

Harry looks equally annoyed, his face all scrunched up into angry lines.

 

"He won't come back. He never will. I wouldn't want him to anyway."

 

Louis' mouth gapes open. Tears smart in his eyes.

 

"How could you say that? He's your dad!"

 

"My dad who left me when I was just a baby!" Harry shouts, tears leaking down his cheeks. "That's not a real dad. Your dad was a real dad."

 

Louis' heart sinks at that. The angry energy drains from his body. He can't understand it, can't even begin to explain it but somehow Harry's sadness is equal to, if not worse than his own.

 

"Yeah. He was." Louis pats Harry's cheek, trying to comfort him by thumbing away his tears. "Sorry Hazza." 

 

Harry does the same to him. He lays a hand on Louis' cheek and rubs his thumb across Louis' skin. 

 

"It's okay Lou. I know today is your dad's day. I shouldn't have made it about me. I was just going to ask you...how does it feel?"

 

Louis presses his face deeper into Harry's palm, liking the way it feels.

 

"How does what feel?"

 

Harry shifts his eyes away from Louis'.

 

"Having a..." He trails off awkwardly.

 

"A dead dad?" Louis finishes, lip wobbling just a bit. "It feels...strange. It's like...like that time we couldn't find one of my Pokemon cards but we couldn't work out which one it was."

 

Harry tilts his head and his curls flop sideways. He looks like an inquisitive little puppy dog. It makes Louis giggle.

 

"What?" Harry grins at him, blushing slightly.

 

"Your hair Hazza." Louis laughs. "You look like a little poodle."

 

"Hey!"

 

He pouts but Louis can tell it's a sham from the way his lips twitch as if his mouth is having little happy seizures he can't quite control.

 

"I'm just kidding around Hazza. Besides, puppies are cute!"

 

Harry subtly preens at that, curling in on himself just a little. Louis grins.

 

"You wanted to know what I meant, hey?"

 

The other boy nods, still glowing.

 

"Well...when we couldn't find the card, it was so frustrating and sad because like, obviously I knew it was missing. I knew I didn't have a full set but at the same time...I didn't know what I was missing exactly. I missed the card but not what was on the card. Does that make sense?"

 

Harry nods slowly.

 

"Yeah. Like you miss your dad but not what your dad was like? Cause you don't really know what he was like. You just know you miss him."

 

"Yeah." Louis smiles at him softly. "Yeah I miss him."

 

And then Harry says something that no one's ever said to him before. With his innocent green eyes staring back into Louis' and his hand cupping Louis' cheek, he says, "I bet he misses you too Little Lou."

 

Louis shifts over, cuddling into Harry's chest.

 

"You think so?"

 

"Yeah!" Harry kisses his head. "I know I would if I were an angel."

 

A tear makes it's way down Louis' cheek, trickling over his closed mouth.

 

"You think my dad is an angel?" His eyes feel wide in his face, his smile tentatively hopeful. 

 

"Yeah Lou," he taps Louis' nose, sparking a giggle. "Just like you."

 

Louis nuzzles his head into Harry's chest.

 

"You're my best friend Hazza. No one else. I bet my dad would have really liked you."

 

"Really?"

 

"Yeah." Louis links their pinkies. "You know why?"

 

He feels more than sees Harry shake his head.

 

"Because you're an angel too."

 

*-*-*-*-*

 

They resume hiking early the next morning with plans to make it to the top of the mountain by the end of the day. The sun is shining, the birds are chirping and Louis' in high spirits.

 

"Careful Louis, don't lose your footing." His mum warns him.

 

He rolls his eyes and continues climbing at the same pace.

 

"I'm fine mum."

 

Harry leans in to him then.

 

"You can hold my hand if you want, Lou. Some of these rocks are pretty big."

 

Louis glares at him.

 

"Are you calling me small?"

 

Harry's eyes go wide and he furiously shakes his head.

 

"No, of course not! I was just saying...I can help you if you want," he offers, smiling sheepishly.

 

"I don't need help!" Louis replies, feeling aggravated. "I can do it on my own."

 

He starts climbing faster then, determined to prove a point but all at once, his foot catches on a rock, he screams and then goes tumbling back down the hill. He lands on his arm with a shock of pain shooting up into his shoulder and making him cringe. He can hear his mum's panicked cries and the sounds of her rushing down towards him but all he wants is Harry. 

 

"Harry!" He yells, tears filling his eyes. "Harreh, help me!" 

 

Harry and his mum reach him at the same time, Anne following closely behind. Jay kneels to inspect his arm, gently holding his hand as she does. She pulls it out from where it's tucked into his side and Louis whimpers and cries out.

 

"I think it's broken, boo," she pushes his hair back from his face. "I know it hurts but you're going to be just fine baby."

 

Louis whimpers again, feeling frightened. He's never broken anything before. It hurts so much.

 

"Harry?" He calls out, stretching his hand out blindly.

 

Harry grips it and kneels down on his other side.

 

"I'm here Lou. You'll be okay."

 

Louis' eyes swim. He lets out a little choked breath and grips Harry's hand tighter.

 

"Hazzy, it hurts!"

 

Harry puts his other hand on Louis' cheek.

 

"I know Lou but we're going to get you some help. Right Jay?"

 

"Right Harry." His mum nods, looking more authoritative than concerned now. "We just have to get you back down to the car and we'll be on our way."

 

And so his painful journey back down the mountain begins. He cries until his eyes run dry and his voice can no longer provide sound. Harry keeps an arm around him the whole way down though, guiding him over rock after rock, branch after branch and holding his pack for him. 

 

"'M sorry I didn't let you help me before," Louis mumbles dejectedly, pressing his face into Harry's neck. 

 

"It's okay." Harry squeezes him. "You're letting me help now."

 

By the time they make it to the car, Louis is so worn out that he manages to sleep the whole way to the hospital.

 

*-*-*-*-*

 

"Mum, when can I go in and see him?" Harry taps his foot against the ground impatiently.

 

His mum doesn't look particularly bothered about the fact that Louis is lying in a hospital bed alone in a room he's never been to before. He's probably distraught. And yet his mum continues to sip her coffee and recline in one of the hard backed chairs in the waiting room as if nothing is even wrong.

 

"After Jay finishes filling out the paperwork, I told you that love. Now sit down please."

 

Harry whines and throws his hands up in an exaggerated motion of defeat.

 

"But mu---uuum."

 

"Harry, I'm not in the mood. Sit down. Jay will take you in with her in a moment."

 

Harry complies but spends the next couple of minutes calculating the distance to Louis' room and whether his mum can see it from her vantage point.

 

"Mum..."

 

Anne rolls her eyes.

 

"Yes?"

 

"Can I go to the toilet? It's just around the corner. Please. I really need to go," he complains, wincing slightly.

 

She sighs but flutters her fingers at him.

 

"Alright then but just go to the ones around the corner, no detours. Stay where Jay can see you."

 

"I will," he calls out, already speed walking away.

 

When he gets to the crossroads, he turns the opposite corner and keeps walking until he finds the room where Louis' being kept. He walks in, expecting to find Louis waiting for him, possibly in tears, stuck trying to remember the journey to the hospital and then the operation that followed.  Instead he finds him asleep, his bright shiny cast contrasting with his deep olive skin. Harry steps up to the bed and gently runs his fingers over the cast, watching his friend's small breaths flutter his fringe. On the night stand, there's a pen.

 

Get better soon Little Lou, he writes on the cast, Love Harry. 

 

He draws a stick figure beside it that's supposed to be Louis and then a speech bubble filled with the words, "Harry Styles is the best."

 

What can he say? He's only seven. His morality is questionable at best.

 

Louis awakens hours later when Harry and Anne are preparing to leave. He tugs on Harry's sleeve and tearfully asks him for a hug.

 

"Don't want you to go," he says glumly, resting his injured arm in his lap. "I miss you already."

 

Harry hugs him fiercely tight.

 

"I don't want to go either."

 

Unfortunately that's not a good enough reason for his mum so they depart shortly after that but Harry makes it clear to his mum on the way home that he'll be seeing Louis first thing tomorrow, no matter what. It's a promise he can't break.

 

*-*-*-*-*

 

The next morning Harry comes back with Anne and they sit at Louis' bedside until he wakes, fuzzy haired and bleary eyed.

 

"Morning Lou Lou." Harry squeezes the hand he's been holding since they got here and Louis cracks a smile. "We brought you a surprise."

 

"A surprise?" Louis lifts his head, smiling hopefully. "For me?"

 

"Course," Anne assures him. "We thought you might like a certain someone to come visit you."

 

"Who?" Louis looks mystified and intrigued.

 

At that moment, a soft mewling noise comes from Anne's handbag and she pops the button to reveal a familiar white, fluffy head. Louis laughs delightedly.

 

"Cheshire!"

 

Harry grins.  

 

"She missed you."

 

Anne nods her head, agreeing.

 

"But you can't tell the nurses Lou. She really should't be here. She's not allowed."

 

"Oh." His face drops but then his mouth curls up into a secretive smile. "I won't tell no one Anne."

 

"Anyone." Harry and Anne correct at the same time.

 

Louis giggles and it's the high, appealing one that Harry loves most of all. So it's alright. They might not have finished their camping/hiking trip...but they had a ball anyway. And Louis is okay. That's all that matters to Harry.

 

Harry and Louis: Eight Years Old

 

Turning eight should rightfully be the best part of Harry's year. For one thing his birthday is always on the school holidays so there's nothing much to do other than enjoy his birthday celebrations. For another, it means that he's officially heading into grade three which means he's exactly half way through his primary schooling. However, it's recently occurred to him that sharing a birthday with your best friend can be a bit of a pain. For example just yesterday he was telling Louis about his plans for their joint birthday party this year and he found that Louis seemed to want the exact opposite.

 

"I was thinking it would be really cool if we wore army paint and carried around fake guns!"

 

Louis twisted his face up in confusion.

 

"Why would we wear army paint if we're not really in the army? My dad was in the army, he died because of it."

 

"I know." Harry replied with an air of "so what?" in his voice.

 

Louis' nose twitched like it always did when he was annoyed.

 

"Well I don't want to dress up as a soldier because it just makes me think of my dad."

 

Harry rolled his eyes.

 

"Don't be so sensitive. It's not about your dad."

 

"It is!" Louis insisted, his face scrunching wildly. "If it makes me think of him, I don't want to do it. My birthday should be a happy day."

 

Harry crossed his arms.

 

"Well it's not just your birthday Lou, it's mine too and I think you're being selfish."

 

Louis narrowed his eyes and huffed, "well I think you're just annoyed cause you always get your way."

 

Harry's cheeks flushed red and he stamped his foot a little.

 

"Do not."

 

"Do so."

 

"You're such a cry baby Louis Tomlinson."

 

Louis' eyes shot daggers.

 

"You're such a bully Harry Styles."

 

And that was that. That was the end of the conversation for the day. Or any conversation for that matter since they both insisted on completely ignoring each other after that. 

 

It's okay though. Harry has a plan...

 

"Ah mum?" He asks gently, hovering just behind her as she fluffs the cushions on the couch and then wipes over the coffee table.

 

"Ah yes Harry?"

 

He can practically hear her smile.

 

"I was just wondering if I could ask you something."

 

She whips around and heads past him to the kitchen.

 

"Of course darling," she trills, flicking the kettle on beside her.

 

"Well..." He twists his hands nervously and toes at the tiled floor. "I was wondering if I might be able to have my own birthday party this year."

 

His mum gives him a puzzled look as she pulls two mugs from the wooden hooks above the bench.

 

"But you always have your own birthday party. What are you talking about, love?"

 

"I mean..." He pauses, awkwardly. "My own separate party. Louis and I have very different ideas about the theme this year and I don't want to share with him. I want my own party."

 

He thinks of all the attention he'll get, all of it directed his way.

 

"Have you talked to Louis about this, love?" She looks concerned. "Because something tells me he might be a bit upset to find you planning your own party without him."

 

Doubtful, Harry thinks. Louis only cares about one thing, himself.

 

"Course." He lies. "He was fine with it."

 

His mum gives him a sceptical look but doesn't seem to believe that her son is capable of an outright lie.

 

"Alright then, well if he says he's okay with it..."

 

"I can do it?"

 

"Yes." Anne sighs, defeated. "But I really think you'll regret not sharing the day with him."

 

Harry rolls his eyes at her.

 

"He'll still be there mum. It's not like he's banned."

 

His mum just shakes her head.

 

"Kids," she sighs.

 

"Parents," he echoes, sticking his tongue out at her.

 

That earns him a sharp look and no dessert. Harry never should have let Louis show him "what a real attitude looks like Hazza." It's only gotten him in trouble ever since.

 

*-*-*-*-*

 

Anne calls Jay up the following evening to discuss the new developments in their sons’ lives. 

 

"So have you heard about this whole birthday party mess?" 

 

Jay's exhaustion echoes down the line. She's been working herself silly lately to pay back the debts on her credit card.

 

"What birthday party mess?"

 

"Oh you know, how the boys suddenly seem to think it's essential that they have separate celebrations instead of a joint one. Apparently they can't agree on a theme." 

 

"Kids," they both huff and then chuckle at the understanding between them. 

 

"It's funny though," Jay says, her voice arcing higher. "I could have sworn that Louis was drawing up invitations for him and Harry just last night. It looked like a mess on paper of course but he said something about an army theme before he fell asleep in my arms."

 

"Your baby still falls asleep in your arms? You lucky duck, you."

 

Jay's tone turns adoring.

 

"He is a special one, isn't he? I wanted to tear his hair out just the other day when he refused to take a bath unless Harry came over but he's a right Angel when he's asleep." She laughs brightly. "That's the only time I can have a conversation with him without him butting in every two seconds."

 

Anne snorts her laughter.

 

"He's precious."

 

"Mm." Jay sounds sleepy but content. "He is."

 

"Anyway," Anne's loud voice interrupts the thoughtful silence unfolding between them. "I just wanted to make sure you were aware that our sons won't be sharing a birthday party this year and we will have to shell out the money for two separate cakes, two sets of party food and a whole host of other party goods."

 

Jay hadn't seem to have thought of that when Anne mentioned it before.

 

"I'm going to kill that little troublemaker." 

 

"Oh no Jay--" she tries but her words fall on deaf ears. Her friend is on a mission.

 

The line goes dead and the words "I think it was Harry's idea" lie dead on Anne's lips.

 

*-*-*-*-*

 

"Louis William Tomlinson, I need to see you please." Jay calls, her tone brokering no argument.

 

Louis wanders out with a sad little pout on his lips.

 

"What is it mummy?" He asks, looking a little too forlorn for it to be genuine.

 

"Oh no, Louis William..." She shakes her head in disapproval. "Don't you 'mummy' me. I know all your tactics."

 

Her son's lip begins to drop and he hunches forward in defeat. Usually that's followed by an admission of guilt but instead...

 

He bursts into tears. And they aren't the crocodile kind. Jay would know.

 

"Sweetheart, what's wrong?" She crouches down in front of him and cups his cheeks, watching his body heave with all the sadness built up inside. "Is this about Harry? Because baby, you can always apologise. Tell him you still want to have the party with him, I'm sure he'd love it."

 

"What?" He stops crying. "What are you talking about?"

 

"Harry, love. Anne's just told me you boys want to have separate parties this year."

 

Her son's eyes go wide in shock and then he begins to cry again in earnest.

 

"No," he sobs, gasping for breath and breaking her heart a little in the process. "No, I never said that! I made the invitations. Harry was mad at me...s-so I made them. I didn't want to dress up as a solider cause of D-dad but Harry was mad at me!"

 

Jay feels terrible. How could she have assumed so quickly that it was Louis who started the argument?

 

"Oh baby, I'm sorry!" She sweeps him up into her arms, clutching him tight as she pets his hair. "Hey, you're alright. You're alright darling."

 

She soothes him for about an hour before he finally quietens down. He's tired after all the weeping and she manages to persuade him to have a little sleep. He needs it. After that she calls Anne and tells her what really happened. Her friend is shocked and understandably furious. Jay feels for Harry but by the same token, she knows that he's the reason her little boy cried in her arms for an hour today. Harry needs to be spoken to, before he does irreparable damage to his friendship with Louis.

 

*-*-*-*-*

 

"I just want to know why you lied to me."

 

Anne fights to keep her voice steady. It's a serious challenge. Harry looks up at her with a guilty, sheepish expression.

 

"I'm sorry. I just wanted to have the army theme. Louis didn't want to."

 

"I'm very disappointed in you." Anne tells him and watches Harry's eyes fill with shameful tears. "You should have talked about it with him some more. It's called compromise, Harry. We can't always have things the way we want them, especially when someone else's feelings are involved. Did he tell you it was because of his dad?"

 

"Yes..." Harry admits, his lip wobbling. "But I didn't think he was actually upset!"

 

"Stop lying Harry," she raises her voice a little. "I'm not in the mood to hear more fibs. Especially where Louis is concerned. Louis is your best friend. He's important to our family. His feelings are just as important as yours. Do you understand?"

 

"Yes, but--"

 

"But, nothing Harry. He told you why it would upset him and you ignored that. Is that what a good friend does? Is that how a good boy acts? Did you feel good about it afterwards?"

 

"No," he admits with a little frown. "Sorry mum."

 

"Sorry for what?"

 

"For lying," he sniffs, wiping at his tears. "And for making Louis sad. He didn't deserve that."

 

"No, he didn't." She reaffirms. "Especially because while you were telling me you want your own birthday party, he was making invitations for your joint one. Army theme."

 

Harry looks up, shocked. His whole face reddens and then cracks again, tears speeding down his face. 

 

"But I'm sorry?" He says confusedly. "I didn't mean it."

 

"Well you better hope that you can make amends Harry." She warns him. "Otherwise you may not be having a party at all."

 

Harry swallows at that but looks steadfast and determined. Anne just hopes her angelic boy is back. The one who would never lie to her, not even as a joke.

 

*-*-*-*-*

 

"Louis, wait up! We have to sit together!"

 

Harry is running down the bus after him but Louis is fast on his feet. Small but quick. It's embarrassing, really. Louis is completely ignoring him and everyone on the bus is looking at him like he's completely bonkers. He plonks himself down in the seat next to Louis who scowls and turns away.

 

"Fine," Harry sighs, impatient. "Don't look at me...but you can listen. Lou, I'm sorry about the whole birthday thing. I didn't do it to upset you. I just thought...maybe it would be nice if we did things separately for once instead of always doing them together?"

 

A bone shifts in Louis' cheek and it somehow makes him look angrier.

 

"...but I see how that was stupid. And mean. I...I don't want to have a separate party Lou, not if you won't be there. Mum told me you made invites?"

 

"I chucked them out." Louis says quietly. "I'm not sharing my party with you. You were right Harry. We don't have to do everything together anymore." 

 

Harry feels the panic set in. It squeezes his chest tight. What has he done?

 

"But I...I want to," he stutters, on the precipice of begging. "You're my best friend."

 

"Not anymore." Louis sighs, almost as if it's a relief.

 

Harry shuts up for the rest of the ride, too distraught to form an argument about why Louis is wrong. Besides, if Louis doesn't love him anymore, what can he do? Louis' going to leave him, just like his dad. Except it's worse than that. Louis has been there every step of the way. Louis is his little ray of sunshine.

 

*-*-*-*-*

 

It's a Thursday today, which means it's been exactly two weeks since Louis told him they're not best friends anymore and exactly two weeks since he stopped talking to Harry at all. Harry tried to force him into it by telling his mum and begging her to talk to Jay but his mum told him that he had to sort it out himself this time. She told Harry that Louis would forgive him when he did something worth forgiving him for. Which makes no sense really because he's only seven. What could he possibly do to make Louis think he's great again?

 

It comes to him in a fit of inspiration. The following morning he's sitting in his undies watching telly when an ad for The Best Present They Could Ever Get comes on. Louis' been raving about it for months but he was sure Jay wouldn't be able to afford one so he hasn't asked for it.

 

"Mum!" Harry yells. "I've got it!"

 

Anne walks into the living room with a curious arch of her eyebrows.

 

"Got what love?"

 

"I know how I'm going to get Louis to forgive me! It's brilliant!"

 

"Okay..." Anne motions for him to continue.

 

"I'm going to use all my pocket money to buy Louis a gameboy!"

 

His mum laughs.

 

"That's a lovely idea Harry but I think it might cost a bit more than what's in your money box."

 

"Oh." His face falls.

 

"However given your determination to mend things with Louis and the fact that you've been on your best behaviour these past few weeks, I'm willing to put in the rest."

 

"Really?" Harry jumps up excitedly. "Because I've got another idea too! We could throw him a surprise party! I know he'd love it mum."

 

Anne's smile is as wide as her son's now.

 

"I'm sure he would darling. We'll just have to talk to Jay first but I'm sure she'll agree."

 

"Yay!" Harry punches the air. "This is going to work out. I know it."

 

*-*-*-*-*

 

It's their birthday today. Hooray. Louis' not that excited. For one thing his mum said there wouldn't be a party at all now because it's too much trouble. It's probably just as well, the only person that would turn up is Hannah. And as much as he enjoys spending time with her, it would be a pretty sad party if she was the only one there. Funny how it's a different story when he imagines it being just him and Harry. But Harry won't be there and Louis wouldn't want him there anyways, he tells himself. Not a chance. It must be morning by now, what with the bright sunshine leaking into his room but he feels no desire to get up and open his presents. He knows he's not getting the one thing he's wanted all these months and it's enough to dampen his mood completely.

 

"C'mon birthday boy, get yourself up and out here. I've got pancakes and apple juice on the table." 

 

That makes him sit up. Nothing beats his mum's pancakes with as much maple syrup as he can get away with and a big glass of juice. It's a treat breakfast and Louis demands it every birthday without fail. 

 

He rubs at his eyes, clearing the crusty muck that clings to the corners of his eyelids and then throws back the covers, climbing out of bed. He doesn't bother to put anything on over his undies, just grabs his glasses and meanders out to the kitchen. When he gets out there, there are no pancakes on the table....because the table is covered in presents and food.

 

"Happy birthday baby." Jay calls.

 

Louis looks through the kitchen to the dining room where his mum is standing, a wide grin on her face. He ambles out there and finds that this room is packed too. Except not with presents or food…with people and lots of them by the looks of things. It looks like the entirety of the second and third grade are here which doesn't make any sense unless...

 

Harry steps out from behind Jay and Anne. He's wearing a weird stiff shirt that pulls tight at the elbows and a little pink bow tie. He looks different. Louis' stomach bubbles like he ate something bad. Harry comes towards him with a nervous smile, the smile slipping more with every step. Louis doesn't know what to make of it. Of any of it, really. 

 

"Hey Lou," he says, his eyes clouded by sadness. "You don't like it, do you? I'm sorry. I thought--I thought maybe this might make it better. Don't worry. You go back to bed, I'll tell everyone to go home."

 

Harry tries to guide him out of the room but Louis puts his foot down and turns in his hold.

 

"Harry, what are you doing? And what is this?"

 

Harry purses his lips.

 

"A surprise party," he ventures cautiously and then whispers even more quietly, "surprise Lou."

 

Louis' open mouthed shock transforms into a brilliant grin. He clutches Harry to him by the neck.

 

"Really?" He can't stop smiling. "You got all these people to come? For me?"

 

Harry releases him with a gentle kiss to his cheek, rubbing the wetness away with his thumb.

 

"They wanted to come. I didn't have to do anything."

 

Louis narrows his eyes at him. It's near impossible to believe that all of these people would willingly show up for Louis' party, given how very few friends he has at school. Still the earnestness in Harry's eyes and the gentle tugging of his heart lets Louis believe it. Just for a second. All of these people. Here for him. Just him.

 

"Thank you," Louis tells him with as much gusto as he can manage. "Thank you Harry."

 

Harry's dimples fill his cheeks. His eyes glow like little paper lantern lights.

 

"Happy birthday Lou. I'm sorry I said I wanted my own party. The only one who deserves their own party is you."

 

"I don't want my own party though." Louis grabs his hand. "I want it to be our party. I forgive you, Haz. Really. Happy birthday."

 

Harry interlocks their fingers with a mischievous grin and pulls Louis through the crowd of people yammering away around them. In the corner of the room there's a table set up, stacked high with more gifts. Harry takes a small one from the top of the pile. He hands it to Louis.

 

"From me," he says. "And mum. But mostly me! I came up with the idea."

 

Louis pats his hand, reassuringly. 

 

"I'm sure you put a lot of effort in."

 

"Wrapped it meself." He nods in agreeance. 

 

Louis carefully strips the paper away from whatever's inside but when he sees what it is, he can barely believe his eyes.

 

"It's a gameboy," he breathes, absolute wonder filling his expression. "Haz, this must have cost heaps. Mum couldn't even afford it." 

 

"We combined forces, me and mum." Harry grins excitedly. "Do you like it?"

 

Louis crushes it against his chest like it's a teddy. 

 

"I love it. Harry, I can't believe you got me a gameboy! A gameboy!" He repeats, making Harry giggle. 

 

"Thank you," Louis tells him and then clutches him tight once more. "You're the best friend I've ever had."

 

"Including Hannah?" He says with cheek.

 

"Including Hannah." He flicks Harry's arm. "You daft thing."

 

"So do you want your present now?"

 

Harry does a double take.

 

"My present? You got me something?"

 

"I made you something actually," Louis says with a soft little smile. "It's in my room."

 

Harry follows him back through the kitchen to the hallway and then into the quiet of his room. Louis shuts the door behind him.

 

"I was very upset with you." He admits, eyeing Harry meaningfully. "But I didn't want you to have a bad birthday or anything. So I made you this."

 

He reaches into one of the drawers in his desk and pulls out a silver chain with two tags of some sort hanging from the middle.

 

"This was my dad's," he says calmly. "He wore it when he was at war. He got my mum's initials on it because it reminded him of home and it also has the number they used to identify him. It's not much but I thought maybe if you wore it...you would feel like a solider too and maybe...maybe you'd understand that it's not just a game. It wasn't a game to my dad. He died for it.  I put it on a new chain and I got mum to get your initials engraved on it, plus your own identification number."

 

Harry looks astounded. 

 

"Lou, that's amazing but it's your dad's. You don't have to give me something that belonged to your dad."

 

"I want to." Louis carries the necklace over to Harry. He pushes up on the tips of his toes and gently drops it down over Harry's head. "I'm sure he would have wanted you to have it."

 

Harry closes his fist around the metal and squeezes tight. 

 

"C'mere," he begs and opens up his arms.

 

They melt together like they always have; like coming back to each other is the same as coming home.

 

*-*-*-*-*

 

Louis had his first sleepover just over two weeks ago when the school organised for the whole of grade two to camp out together in the gymnasium. Harry did it the year before and swore it was the best night of his life. Even still, Louis was hesitant to say yes and in fact very teary when his mum dropped him off, especially knowing Harry wouldn't be there to hold his hand if he got scared (no third graders allowed). Yet in the end, it proved very enjoyable. The teachers bought them all hot chips to share and they watched two whole movies before lights out. Louis was so tired from the movies that his eyes slipped shut almost instantly and he slept the whole night through. 

 

But tonight is a whole other story. Tonight is his first sleepover at a friend's house. And it's a Big Deal. For starters, Louis had to beg his mum to let him go because she was concerned that he might feel left out with Harry and the other boys. Then there's the fact that he's only been invited because Harry is so popular.

 

 It's Harry's friend Oliver who’s hosting and Louis’ the only second grader invited. He suspects that Harry had to convince Oliver to let him come, seeing as the invitation came through Harry and through word of mouth, not on a printed out invite like Harry's did. Yet he refused to engage Harry in a discussion about it, partly because he didn't want him to know Louis knew and partly because it was kind of nice to pretend it was just a normal invite from a nice boy. What Louis wouldn't give to meet another boy like Harry. The struggle to get to the sleepover was hard enough and Louis is determined to prove that he belongs here, in a circle of people comprised of boys his own age. He's eight years old. He slept fine at the school sleepover when his mum wasn't there to kiss him goodnight or lull him to sleep with a story. He's all grown up now and tonight he's going to show them all that. Even Harry. They'll see he's not afraid of anyone or anything. Not anymore.

 

Two hours in and the isolation has already crept in. Louis feels like crying or curling up into a little ball but he forces himself to remain stoic in the face of their exclusion. Harry holds his hand under the table as Oliver begins another tale about the awesome adventures they've all had together in the third grade. Later, Oliver's mum readies them for bed, setting up their air mattresses in Oliver's room and ordering them to brush their teeth in pairs. Louis makes to go with Harry but Oliver grabs his arm first and pulls him along, Harry stumbling awkwardly behind. He throws Louis a well-meaning look over his shoulder but Louis' heart sinks. There's no doubt in his mind anymore. He's not here because Oliver and the others decided to give him a chance. He's here to be the subject of their humiliation. Who knew eight year olds could be so cruel? Louis certainly didn't.

 

When Harry and Oliver return, Louis heads to the bathroom alone, his head down. A minute later Harry is there beside him, locking their fingers together and squeezing hard as he stares at Louis' downtrodden expression in the mirror.

 

"They don't mean it," he promises, a little too insistently if you ask Louis.

 

Louis spits his foamy mouthful into the sink.

 

"Of course they mean it Harry, don't be stupid." He says. 

 

Which earns him a scowl and the sight of Harry's back disappearing into the hallway. Well fine then. It's not like he was much help anyway. He hasn't stood up for Louis once all night.

 

The biggest problem comes when Oliver's mum shuts the door and switches the light off, leaving them in almost total darkness, the alarm clock acting as the only source of light. It's too dark. Louis' never been afraid of the dark, not really but then he's never stayed anywhere so unfamiliar. It's disconcerting. The school sleepover was different because it was a place he knew and frequented. It was the gymnasium he spends an hour of his time in every day. Besides which he was so tired that night that he fell asleep right away.

 

Tonight, Louis is wide awake. Tonight his skin positively crawls with fear as he looks around the room, trying to find anything that might remind him of home. Suddenly he misses his mum. He misses the way she can always calm his fears and lull him back to sleep every time he has a nightmare. The only other person who's capable of doing that is Harry and Louis' sure he's already asleep. So he lays there, trembling, fighting back tears as the panic sets in. How is he going to make it through the night this way?

 

Then, as if he can feel Louis trembling beside him, Harry speaks up, startling Louis from his thoughts.

 

"What's wrong now?" He asks.

 

He sounds annoyed. No wonder, after Louis snapped at him in the bathroom before.

 

"Nothing. Go back to sleep." Louis whispers with an unsteady voice.

 

Harry rolls over to face him and then reaches out a hand. He traces over Louis' cheek, cupping it slightly.

 

"What's going on Little Lou?"

 

And that endearment is enough to bring his tears forth. It's enough for Louis to admit that he's scared out of his mind and that he can't do this on his own.

 

"I'm scared Haz," he bites down on his lip, punishingly hard. "Everything looks different. It's so dark. I can't tell where I am."

 

Harry strokes over his cheek with his thumb and then grabs one of Louis' hands in his. 

 

"You're okay Lou." He says softly. "Nothing is going to happen to you if I'm here. I won't go to sleep until you do."

 

Louis chokes back a sob.

 

"Promise?"

 

Harry brings Louis' hand to his chest and tucks it between his own, linking their pinkies.

 

"Pinky promise."

 

It's quiet for a few moments as Louis tries to slow his heart and focus on the shared warmth in their hands.

 

"Lou, look at the stickers on the door. See that one in the right hand corner?" Harry looks to him for confirmation and Louis shakily bobs his head. "It kinda looks like a swan doesn't it?"

 

Louis cocks his head to the right a bit and finds that Harry is right. It looks just like a swan floating on the water. 

 

"And the stickers above it....they're kinda shaped like clouds, right?"

 

Louis looks up and sure enough Oliver has a few wavy looking stickers plastered to his door. 

 

"And if you look towards the bottom, there's a fish and a jelly fish right next to it."

 

The jelly fish looks more like a cloud than a jelly fish but Louis deigns not to correct him.

 

"Did I ever tell you about the time I got stung by a jellyfish?"

 

Louis snaps his head to the right.

 

"What? No!" He wonders when this trip to the beach happened and why Anne didn't ask him and his mum to come along. "Did you go to hospital?"

 

"No," Harry smiles a bit, like he's enjoying the memory which makes no sense whatsoever since Louis' pretty sure that jellyfish stings aren't pleasant. "But I stopped breathing for five whole minutes."

 

"Five?!" Louis gasps, horrified. "Harry, you could have died!"

 

"I know." Harry sounds smug. "But they gave me an antidote."

 

Louis gives him a quizzical look.

 

"I thought that was if you were poisoned."

 

"Well...yeah." Harry shrugs. "But the jellyfish poisoned me as well."

 

"Oh." Louis' mouth forms a round shape.

 

"Do you want to hear about the time I almost got eaten by a crocodile?"

 

Louis wonders yet again how this could have happened without him knowing but it doesn't stop him from excitedly begging to hear the story. A few stories later, Louis' eyes slide shut and they don't open again until dawn. 

 

****

 

Harry lies there with Louis' hand on his chest and a proud little grin on his face. He did it. He got Louis to fall asleep. So what if he had to make up a few adventurous tales to get him there? It was worth it. Harry rolls over, about to shut his eyes himself when a voice sounds from his right. Oliver.

 

"Didn't know 'Little Lou' still needed a babysitter."

 

Harry's had enough. He sits up and glares straight at Oliver, the boy he thought he knew well enough to let him befriend Louis. 

 

"Don't talk to him. Ever. And stay away from me too."

 

"Fine by me," the blonde haired boy says with a scowl. "Who'd want to hang out with you and that baby?"

 

He jerks his head towards a sleeping Louis.

 

"You're the baby." Harry tells him. "Louis is braver than you'll ever be."

 

And with that, Harry settles down and turns back over to face Louis. He cups Louis' cheek again and grazes the spot beneath his eye.

 

"G'night Lou. Sweet dreams."

 

Louis sighs in his sleep and presses into his hand. Harry falls asleep still holding him.


*-*-*-*-*

 

It's their first time ordering on their own. His mum and Jay had pushed them both towards the counter with encouraging smiles, or in Jay's case, a mischievous little grin. As if this was their master plan all along. As if the only reason they agreed to a trip to McDonald's in the first place was to teach them this little lesson about independence. It probably was. 

 

"Hi...Sarah." Harry reads off her name tag. "Can I please get a six nugget happy meal?"

 

Sarah's eyes light up and she beams at him as if he's just done something special.

 

"Of course you can sweetheart. You've got very good manners. What's your name?"

 

"Harry," he tells her with a proud little grin. "My mum says I'm a little gentleman."

 

This seems to be working out alright so far.

 

"That you are." Sarah, who looks only a bit younger than his mum laughs. "And what drink would you like Harry?"

 

"Coke please." He beams. "My mum said it's a treat."

 

"Did she? You must have been a very good boy to get a treat like that."

 

Harry shrugs and then wiggles his hand a little like his mum does when she says she feels a bit wishy washy.

 

"I was alright, I guess. I helped hang out the washing."

 

"That's good of you," Sarah tells him as he hands over the money.

 

"I suppose. I like helping her most of the time. She works very hard."

 

"I'll bet." Sarah hands him his change and a receipt. "Here you go darling. Now you just wait over there for your food."

 

Harry steps to the side and stands there for a moment, holding his elbows and feeling quietly accomplished. It's only when he hears Sarah's voice pick up in volume that he realises Louis' having trouble.

 

"I'm sorry sweetheart, I can't hear you. Can you speak up for me?"

 

Louis' doing his best not to show his frustration but it's there in the wrinkled set of his mouth and the rigid set of his shoulders. It's clear though that the frustration lies with himself and not with Sarah. His cheeks are turning pink with embarrassment and Harry can see the beginnings of tears brewing in his eyes. Harry moves into Louis' space and curls an arm around his waist.

 

"C'mon Lou, she's not very scary. Her name is Sarah. She has pretty hair." Harry's not even lying. Her hair is a deep red colour like Ariel's from The Little Mermaid. "She's not going to bite."

 

Louis takes a deep breath. His lips tremble slightly as he places his hands face down on the counter and leans forward, standing on the tips of his toes to make himself taller. Harry keeps a hand on his back, just pressing lightly because he knows it helps...even if Louis will never admit it.

 

"Can I please get a happy meal? But with like a cheeseburger? And lemonade?" He says in a mostly steady voice.

 

He's louder this time and closer to his normal tone of voice. Sarah's face breaks into a smile and she briefly touches Louis' hand. 

 

"Of course love."

 

Louis flinches a bit at the physical contact but then smiles at her immediately afterward, looking more than a little overwhelmed.

 

"This is where you give her the money," Harry stage whispers.

 

Louis blushes again and basically drops the money into her hands which thankfully, she catches.

 

"Sorry," he says meekly. "That was an accident." 

 

"I know darling." She winks at him. "I'm accident prone too."

 

Louis giggles brightly.

 

"Now do you and Harry want to wait over there," she points to the other side of the counter. "I'd love to talk to you lovely boys all day but I need to serve the next person."

 

"Sorry," they both chorus and then laugh at the bewildered expression on Sarah's face.

 

She's probably wondering whether they're brothers or not. Harry tugs Louis out of the way then and instantly squeezes him tight.

 

"You did so good Little Lou!" Harry gushes. "Your mum is going to be so proud!"

 

And sure enough Jay comes up behind him then and lifts Louis three feet off the ground, showering him in kisses and making him laugh. Harry and Anne watch on with identically adoring expressions.

 

It's a good day, that one. It's one of those days where Harry goes to sleep smiling, his only qualm being that the day has come to an end. He doesn’t worry too much though. He knows he’ll see Louis again tomorrow.

 

Chapter Text

WARNINGS: I decided to put the warnings here, just in case any of you decided not to read my long ass note. So, warnings for mentions of anxiety, homophobic language/gender based discrimination and some scenes where Jay is portrayed as less than flawless. If you want that explained, read the damn note :P <3

 

                                                                                                 Harry and Louis: Nine Years Old

Harry knows something is wrong with Louis because the other boy has been especially clingy for weeks now. Normally, Harry would love it but whenever he notices the sad look on Louis’ face, he’s reminded that something else is going on.

“Lou.” He says, one morning when they’re on the bus. “You’d tell me if something was wrong right?”

“Of course Hazza.” Louis’ smile is fleeting at best. “I’d never keep anything from you.”

He turns to look through the window, ignoring Harry for the remainder of the journey.

When they get to school, Louis gives him a quick squeeze around the middle and runs off to class, before the first bell has even rung. Harry stands there, crestfallen, wondering what he could have done to deserve such treatment from the boy he loves most.

Of course then Hannah rushes past him and Harry’s forced to do the unthinkable and call her back to talk to him. Oh, what he wouldn’t give for it just to be him and Louis again, the two of them against the world. Deep down, he knows that if it weren’t for Hannah, Louis would be quite lonely in his classes and that, objectively speaking, she’s really quite nice but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t resent every last wispy blonde hair on her head.

“Harry?” She asks, rushing back towards him. “Are you okay?”

She grabs him by the elbow, guiding him over to the side of the hallway and away from the hordes of obnoxious third graders. Harry hates it when she does that, acts all high and mighty, as if she’s older than him or something. It’s like she doesn’t even understand that Harry’s a whole year older than her.

“I’m fine.” He grumbles, pulling away. “But something’s wrong with Louis. Do you know what it is?”

“Oh.” Her eyes stray quite determinedly from his and her stockinged feet shuffle from side to side. “Well.”

“Hannah.” He does his best to sound threatening. “Remember the time I told Louis you pushed me?”

She gives him a knowing look, crossing her arms and cocking her hip out just like Louis does.

“You mean the time you lied and told Louis that I pushed you?”

He grins.

“Exactly.”

“I’m sorry but I can’t tell you.” She’s shaking her head, all uppity again. Harry doesn’t have the slightest clue why Louis likes her so much. “Louis made me promise.”

“He made you promise?” He frowns at that, his stomach swirling uneasily. “Why does he want to keep something from me so badly?”

“I’m sorry Harry.” She says and places her hand on his shoulder. “Maybe you should just ask him at play.”

“Forget it.” Harry knows he looks furious and he hopes Hannah tells Louis all about it. “Tell Louis I won’t see him at play.”

“Harry—” Hannah tries to dissuade him but he’s already past that.

If Louis wants to keep secrets with Hannah, that’s fine. Harry really shouldn’t be hanging around with two third graders anyway. He’s been teased for it enough. When he gets to class, he slides into his seat between Louise and Tom, determined to forget that his best friend trusts Hannah more than him.

                                                                          *-*-*-*-*

Louis knows things have gone from bad to worse when Hannah walks into class with the most unconvincing smile he’s ever seen. She looks as though she might cry.

“Hi Han.” He greets her, trying to pretend like she isn’t rubbing at her eyes or toying with her dress distractedly. “How was your weekend? Did your mum let you watch Saturday morning cartoons? My mum did. Well...” His expression splinters. “Until Nathan got up and turned them off.”

Hannah breaks at that, shoving her face into her hands and weeping noisily.

“Lou, I’m so sorry.” She says, cut up. “I didn’t mean for Harry to get upset.”

“You...” His voice grows quiet. “You told him?”

“No!” Hannah rips her hands away from her face to shout, the sound echoing around the classroom harshly. Their teacher gives them a warning look and Louis makes a point of shushing his boisterous friend. Class hasn’t actually started yet but their teacher knows full well what the two of them are like. “I didn’t tell him.’ Hannah says, earnestly.  “But he knew you had a secret and he...he was really mad that you didn’t want to tell him so he um, he said he didn’t want to play with us today.”

Her shoulders drop when she’s finished, like someone just cut all the strings that were holding her taut.

“I’m sorry Lou.” She repeats, looking up at him with red cheeks and damp eyelashes. “It’s all my fault.”

“It’s okay.” He says but his breath feels shallow. “I should have just told him. But my mum would of found out! I know he would of told his mum...and I would of got in trouble.”

Louis’ eyes fill with anxious tears while he does his best not to think of Nathan. Yet every time his heart swells, he’s reminded of how wrong it is to be as sensitive as he is, at least according to his mum’s new boyfriend.

 The first time Nathan had caught him in a costume, Louis had wept openly. In his defence, Nathan had shouted at him and asked him what the hell he thought he was doing, getting dressed up like that. When Louis had burst into tears, Nathan had called him a, “crybaby who needs to grow up and start acting like a real boy.”

“But I am a real boy?” Louis had said, lips trembling.

The tutu around his waist and tiara on his head didn’t make him less of a boy, did it? Isn’t that what Harry and his mum had always tried to tell him? They had always encouraged him to dress up and play princesses because playing princesses made him happy. He happened to be just as content playing princesses as he was playing footie or having pretend sword fights. The Tomlinson-Styles’ had always acted as if it was just another part of him to be fond of.

He did know what the boys at school thought of people like him and so he saved his love of dress-ups for at home. He’d been too nervous to be himself at school after the boys’ reactions to his Tinkerbell costume. But he’d never felt as humiliated as he did when Nathan caught him prancing around his room in a pink tutu and sparkly tiara.

It was different to how the boys in his class had jeered at him and treated him differently. Louis had come to believe that perhaps he knew something they didn’t. But when Nathan raised his voice at him, he honestly felt like it was his fault. No adult had ever spoken to him in such a grisly voice before and with the strangest kind of smirk, as if he were enjoying the way Louis’ face had instantly changed from exhilarated to embarrassed.

“Your mum will be home any minute.” He’d said. “I think you should take your little girl’s costume off now.”

Louis had wanted to say no. He’d wanted to tell his mum all about what Nathan had said to him and have things go back to the way they were. But a part of him feared that maybe it wouldn’t make any difference. His mum had been so stressed with work lately and the only thing that seemed to cheer her up was Nathan. Even Louis’ repeated requests for cuddles only seemed to vex her. In fact, it seemed like the more he tried to help her, the less she seemed to want him around.

He thought about telling Anne, he did. In fact, it was one of the very first ideas he’d had after Nathan caught him in a costume for the second time. Especially because the second time was worse than the first...

Louis had spent the night before looking at his parent’s wedding album. When he laid eyes on his mum’s pearly white gloves, he had immediately fallen in love. The following afternoon, Anne dropped him off at home, promising that his mum would be home soon. Louis was quite certain she wouldn’t and so had searched through the back of her wardrobe until found them. He slid them on, careful not to tear a single seam and was delighted by how soft they felt against his hands. When he looked in the mirror, he was pleasantly surprised to see how dainty and princess-like they made him look. He was so excited and couldn’t wait to show Harry the next time he came over. That is, until Nathan walked in, looming over him with a rage like nothing Louis had ever seen before and nothing he ever wanted to see again.

“You’re a disgrace. Your mother would be ashamed of you if she knew. And so would your late, great father.” He sneered, crouching down at Louis’ height and getting real close to his face. “Louis,” he smiled gently. Louis knew Nathan had used that exact smile to fool Jay into thinking he was kind. “Do you want to take the gloves off and put them back? Or, do you want me to tell your mother that I caught you wearing them? Think Louis, think how ashamed she’d be.”

Louis felt sure it would be awful if his mum found out. She would hate him for going into her things and prancing about like a girl and she’d surely be disappointed in him for not being the son his dad would have wanted. He knew she didn’t want him as a son because she’d barely spared him a second look in months. If she had, it had only been to tell him off or to remind him not to mention anything about Nathan to Harry.

“But he’s my best friend, mum.” Louis had reminded her, pouting. “I’m not s’posed to keep things from him.”

“I know, darling.” She’d pushed his fringe away from his eyes and kissed his forehead tenderly. He glowed helplessly, lavishing in her much-needed affection. “But I’m afraid Harry would feel the same about telling Anne and well, Anne might not understand at all.”

“Why not?” Louis had been confused. What is there to understand about his mum falling in love with someone so awful? “Is it because he’s here all the time?”

He’d often caught her on the phone to Anne, falsely assuring her that the six-foot-five stranger, with dark hair and dark blue coveralls was only a plumber, forced to come and fix a recurring leak. It wasn’t a total lie because Louis knew it was how they’d met the first time. Still, he got the feeling Anne didn’t believe her.

After Nathan had brought Jay home from dinner the first time, Anne had stared out the front window of her house, watching, stony faced, as the couple stumbled down the path, making no effort to hide their wandering hands. She’d glanced back at Louis every so often, frown lines etched into her cheeks. Afterwards, she’d gently asked him if there was something going on that she needed to know about.

“No,” he’d said, not sure if that was one hundred percent true. “I just think mum is really good friends with the plumber.”

At that point, his mum had told him that was all it was. It wasn’t until Nathan stayed over that she finally came clean…

“You understand, love?” She’d smiled weakly, tugging her fluffy pink dressing gown tighter around her own bare chest. “Nathan makes me really happy, love…and I think, I think he could make us both happy someday.”

She’d hugged him tight, seemingly oblivious to his panicked tears or the fact that he’d never said he understood. He didn’t, really. He didn’t understand why she needed somebody else to make her happy. Wasn’t Louis enough? And what about his dad? Didn’t she love him anymore? Didn’t she care?

Jay never explained it to him or asked if it was okay if Nathan stayed over. In fact, they seemed to live in a state of perpetual misunderstanding, wherein Louis didn’t understand why his mum loved someone like Nathan and she didn’t understand why Louis wouldn’t warm up to the “giant teddy bear” she had fallen so deeply in love with.

Louis knew the biggest problem with telling Anne was that she’d be angry on his behalf and then she’d tell his mum everything. As much as Louis wanted Nathan to go away, he knew that if his mum found out, there was every chance he’d be the one in trouble, not Nathan.

The most horrible part of it, Louis thinks now, is that Nathan’s only been around a few months and already, it’s like Louis’ dad never existed. His mum never talks about him anymore and when Louis purposely brings him up, she says only a few words before silencing him completely.

The truth is, she’s hardly ever home anymore due to all the hours she works and when she is, she’s busy entertaining Nathan, carting Louis off to Anne’s in the meantime. Anne is always happy to have him and Harry even more so, but Louis has a feeling Anne’s not too happy with his mum. He simply has no choice but keep the secret of all the things Nathan has said to him. As sad as it makes him, he knows he can’t tell Harry or Anne. Not now. Not ever.

“Lou.” Hannah says, gripping tight to his shoulder. “I think I have an idea.”

                                                                                                                  *-*-*-*-*

Anne knows there’s something going on with Jay. In fact, she’s known for a while now but it’s a bit hard to do something about it when the woman herself refuses to admit there’s a problem. Anne has said to her so many times that whatever she’s holding on to is only doing her harm, but Jay has plainly refused to hear her out.

“I’m fine.” She’d hissed once, lowering her voice further so the boys wouldn’t hear. “I’ve just been really stressed with work, okay? Just leave it.”

Anne wasn’t happy with that. How could she be? Louis was clearly suffering and Jay didn’t seem to be doing much better.  The light in her eyes had gone out a long time ago and despite her numerous nightly outings, she didn’t seem to be any less miserable.

“So, it has nothing to do with the tall, dark stranger who’s been unclogging your drain for months now?”

“I told you.” Jay’s voice was cold. Her eyes, far removed. “He’s implementing a new drainage system.”

“And that involves taking you out for dinner three nights a week, does it?” Anne raised a sceptical eyebrow. “That’s some stellar service, you’ve got there. Think he might help me out with the same thing?”

“Stop it.” Jay had backed away out the door, not stopping to give Louis a goodbye kiss. “If this is about Louis staying over so much, I can find someone else to look after him.”

Anne felt deep hurt seep into her expression, colouring her pale.

“Honestly Jay, there’s no need for that. You know I love having him here.” She reached out for her friend’s forearm but Jay wrenched it away. “I just...I think he might miss you, is all.”

The other woman scoffed at that and shut the wire door between them. “You don’t know what you’re talking about. It’s easier for you, Anne. You have as many free hours to spend with the boys as you’d like, now that you’ve got your new position.’ It was true, Anne had been promoted and given more flexible hours as a result, while Jay’s continued promotions seemed only to cause her more stress. ‘And I’m grateful, I am but I can’t help the fact that I have a mortgage to pay off and a job that demands just as much of my attention as my needy little boy. What I need from you, is for you to lay off, okay? If you’re really my friend, you won’t press me on this.”

She couldn’t help feeling that Jay was asking too much of her. While Anne understood where Jay was coming from and felt deeply sorry for her, she wondered how long this snappy, defensive attitude would last. She also wondered how long it would be before she herself decided she couldn’t take it anymore.

“Okay.” She said, unsmiling. “Take care of yourself, Jay.”

“I always do.” Jay’s answering grin was fleeting and tinged with bitterness.

It was not the mark of a well contented woman.

After Jay left, Anne couldn’t help thinking her friend must have lost sight of what taking care of herself really meant. And as much it pained Anne to think it, she thought Jay seemed to have lost sight of taking care of Louis too.

It was that and several other conversations with Louis that had her permanently worried. In fact, the thought of Louis feeling alone in his own home had begun to truly haunt her. It had kept her up at night, most nights and her concern for Louis had only doubled in recent weeks. So much so, that it had inspired countless attempts to cheer her favourite little Tomlinson up.

“Do you boys want to take Cheshire for a walk?” She’d asked them the other week. “Louis, maybe you can hold the leash.”

Louis seemed skeptical at first, his moth twisting unhappily.

“But you can’t walk a cat, Anne.”

“Well why don’t we test that theory?” She’d grinned at him, undeniably thrilled when he tentatively smiled back. “Harry, do you want to go and grab the leash?”

Cheshire had growled and been somewhat unenthusiastic for the first block but when they entered the park, her growls turned to mewls of delight and Louis’ joyous giggles filled the air with warmth.

On the walk back home, Cheshire had plonked herself down in the middle of the pavement and refused to budge. Louis had merely scooped her up into his arms and nuzzled her furry head as he carried her the whole way back to the house. It had been a lovely afternoon, spoiled only by the light on the answering machine when they returned home, flashing bright and ominous red.

By that point, Anne knew what it meant and so did Louis. Neither of them needed to hear the message to know who it was from or what they wanted.

“Looks like you’re staying for dinner, Lou.” Anne crouched down beside him, her own throat thick with the kind of sorrow that couldn’t be unclogged. “Won’t that be fun?”

Harry was busy throwing air punches and listing all the games they could play while Louis himself had become silent and withdrawn. Anne saw the traces of rejection darkening his expression and she wanted to wipe them all away.

“How bout we go for ice cream after dinner, love?” She’d whispered, ignoring Harry’s shouts of glee, focusing all of her attention on Louis. She knew that was what he needed. “I’ll let you get extra sprinkles if you promise not to tell your mum.”

“I won’t tell her.” He agreed. “She doesn’t have time to talk to me anyway.”

Anne spent the rest of the night trying to make him laugh as many times as possible. She bought both the boys an extra scoop of ice cream and let them turn the entire living room into a cubby house. Then, when Jay called round to pick Louis up, Anne stiffly told her that Louis would be staying over.

“But it’s a school night?” Jay’s face had twitched. “You know he needs his own bed.”

“I know he needs Harry.” She’d said, dismissing her friend’s frustration. “And I know right now, he wants to be here.”

She didn’t say what she was really thinking; that Louis only needed to be in her house because he couldn’t stand to be abandoned inside his own. Whoever this man was, he clearly wasn’t the right man to be around Louis and it disturbed her to think Jay couldn’t see it. She knew if things continued on this way, she would have to intervene. There was no way she would let Louis suffer.

Jay had left that night, looking visibly relieved, as if maybe she had known things were harder with Louis around and didn’t have the energy to think about why. Anne’s spidey senses were tingling then and they had been ever since the night she overheard Louis telling Harry that he couldn’t wear tiaras anymore. Something was very seriously wrong in the Tomlinson household and Anne knew it was only a matter of time before she was forced to do something about it.

                                                                                                                       *-*-*-*-*

“Lou, we can’t do that!”

Harry was looking at him like he was crazy but Louis knew this was the only way. When Hannah thought of it, he almost kissed her for being so brilliant! He thought better of it when he remembered Harry was already angry with him.

“Why not?” Louis could feel a pout forming. They were standing at the far edge of the bus stop, waiting for the school bus. He knew once the driver saw them, there was no chance they could get away with it. It had to be now. “We’re nine years old, Hazza. We’re not babies!”

“But. What about our mums? He gulps. “They’d miss us, Lou.”

“Were you not listening at all?” Louis’ starting to get angry. “My mum couldn’t care less!”

“I know.” Harry looks sorry and wraps an arm around him, cuddling him tightly. “But maybe you’re wrong? Maybe she still loves you a bit. And what about my mum, Lou? She doesn’t have a boyfriend like yours.”

“That’s because she doesn’t need one.” Louis grits his teeth. “Not like my mum. Hazza, please. I know your mum might miss you and I know you’ll miss her too, but if you don’t come with me, I’ll just go alone.”

“Louis!” Harry complains. “It’s not safe! You’ll get lost on your own. Please don’t go.” He begs. “I’d miss you, little Lou.”

“Then come with me.” Louis tugs on the hand that’s wrapped around his shoulder, pulling Harry away from the other kids. “We’ll be alright, Haz. Maybe we can come back and visit your mum on Christmas and…and our birthday!”

Harry smiles weakly at that, letting himself be dragged away.

“But what will we do for food? Where will we sleep?” He says, muddled. “Mum says I’m really lucky to get to sleep in a warm bed every night.”

“I, um.” Louis’ face twitches when he thinks about what it will be like without their mum’s looking after them. He tries not to let on that he has no idea what he’s doing. “Well, um.”

Tears threaten. He looks down at the ground, standing stock-still as the reality of life on the street hits him.

Harry links their fingers together and starts tugging him along instead.

“Don’t cry Lou.” He says, gently. “I’ll look after you.”

“Pinky promise?” He squeezes Harry’s finger.

“Pinky promise.” He holds up the dog tags Louis gave him last year. “I don’t think your dad would like me very much if I let you go alone.”

Louis’ tears start to bubble over. He smiles through them, knocking his hip against Harry’s.

“You’re the best, Hazza Styles. There’s no one I’d rather run away with.”

                                                                                  *-*-*-*-*

Anne calls her in the middle of a meeting in floods of tears.

“Anne, I’m sorry love but I can’t talk now— “

“Jay.”

Anne’s breathless sob is devastated, at best and unhinged, at worst. The sound of it stops her dead in her tracks and has her stumbling out of the meeting room with a barely decipherable excuse.

“Anne? Anne, what’s happening?”

“It’s the boys.” She gasps. “Oh god.”

“A, you’re scaring me.” Jay braces the full weight of her body against the wall outside her office. “What’s going on?”

“They’re missing.” Anne’s voice is shaking. “Our babies are gone.”

                                                                                *-*-*-*-*

Jay speeds the whole way there and runs down the main hallway of the school with her handbag knocking against her hip.

“Jay!” Anne steps out from inside the principal’s office, waving her over.

Jay rushes towards her and meets her in a full-bodied embrace. They might not have been on goods terms lately but Jay can’t think of anyone she’d rather go through this with.

“How could this happen?” She shakes her head, tears sliding down her cheeks. “Where are they?”

“I don’t know.” Anne’s cheek is on her shoulder, face damp against the side of her neck. “The principal said they were in class all day. They left together at three fifteen and a couple of teachers saw them waiting at the bus stop but by the time the driver got there, they were gone.”

“And no one saw where they went?!” Jay pulls back, hands shaking. “Anne, what if—what if someone took them?”

Anne’s face goes ghostly white with fear. She grips Jay’s shoulders tight.

“We need to report it to the police.” She says. “Now.”

Jay leads her from the school with fingers intertwined.

                                                                                   *-*-*-*-*

They’re sitting in a nearby park, kicking their feet in the lake and sharing Louis’ uneaten snack pack, when a man with silver hair and sharp features approaches.

“Boys.” He towers over them menacingly. Harry grabs Louis’ hand, ready to make a break for it if they have to. “By any chance, are your names Harry Styles and Louis Tomlinson?”

The man is in ordinary clothes; a dark blue jacket and straight legged black jeans, but there’s a badge pinned to his chest and a white car with blue flashing lights loitering just behind him.

“Lou.” Harry scrabbles for Louis’ hand. “I think we have to go now.”

Louis’ face pales and he desperately kicks his feet into the bank of the lake in an attempt to stand up. Harry wrenches him up by the waist, holding tight to his hand as they launch themselves away from the lake.

They don’t get far. The police officer grabs Harry around the waist, pulling him up against his chest while another officer, this one in uniform, chases Louis down within less than a minute.

“Harry!” He screams, kicking his feet at the man. There’s the clear threat of panic in his voice. “Harry, help me!”

“Don’t touch him!” Harry shouts at the officer, paling immediately when he realises what he’s just said. “Please.” He adds belatedly, halting his attempts to get away. “Please don’t touch him. He doesn’t like it.”

The police officer holding Harry deposits him in the back of the police car, quickly strapping him in.

“Sorry mate but he needs to come with us.” The man crouches down beside him. “His mum is worried sick.”

“And mine?” Harry gulps.

“Yours too.” The officer says, voice stern. “Do you boys think it’s wise to wander away from school on your own?”

“We didn’t wander away.” Harry denies hotly. He reaches for Louis’ hand on the other side of the car. The other police officer is busy strapping him into the seat, Louis wriggling around like mad. “We ran away on purpose.”

“On purpose?” The officer quirks an eyebrow. “Why would two smart young boys like yourselves run away from two parents who love you dearly?”

Harry doesn’t even react to the compliment. He turns his head to look at Louis whose moist cheeks and dribbly nose make him look especially pitiful.

“It’s okay Lou.” He nuzzles the side of his best friends’ head. “It’ll be okay. Maybe mum can adopt you!”

“Adopt him?” The police officer chuckles. “And why on earth would she do that?”

Harry settles the police officer with his best attempt at disinterest.

“Because Louis’ mum doesn’t love him anymore.”

                                                                                  *-*-*-*-*

They won’t let her in. They won’t let her talk to her baby and the police offer who found him is just staring her down like it’s perfectly acceptable that her son only wants to talk to Anne.

“I’m his mother!” She finds herself screaming, shooting crazed looks at the room where her son is being kept. “I’m the one he needs!”

The glass is perfectly clear and she can see the three of them, making up without her. They’re seated at a small metal table, chairs pushed close together. Louis isn’t using his, though. No, he’s perched in Anne’s lap instead, hugging her around the middle with her hands in his hair.

“This isn’t legal.” Jay tells the officer. The man has dark eyes and a straight back that probably explains why he keeps looking at her as though she’s a wild animal, in need of quarantine. “You can’t keep him from me. I don’t care what he wants, I’m his mum! He has to come home with me.”

She feels like she might keel over at any moment. She can’t believe this is even happening. Louis can’t be sitting in that room with Anne, telling her all the reasons he doesn’t want to see her. That’s her baby. It’s her and Louis against the world.

“I’m sorry, mam but until child services get here— “

“Child services?!” Jay shrieks, shaking from head to toe. “Who called child services?”

“That would be me.” He admits, taking her by the elbow and steering her into another room. “Mrs Tomlinson, I think we need to talk.”

“The hell we do.” She attempts to struggle away. “You can’t keep me from my son. He’ll want to see me, I know he will. Just let me talk to him.”

The officer pulls her into an office and shuts the door firmly behind him.

“No.” He stares her down. “And if you don’t want me to restrain you forcibly, you’re going to have to  sit down.”

“Officer—“ she shakes her head, sniffing quietly. “Sorry, what’s your name?”

There’s a slight tilt to his frown, dragging one corner of his lip down as he regards her sadly.

“Townsend.” He tips his head. “Constable Townsend.”

“Well, Constable...do you have children?” She asks, biting her bottom lip.

“Yes.” He agrees, puffing his chest out. “I have three step-daughters with my wife, Lacey. And none of them have ever run away.”

“Are you forgetting that Harry ran away too. It wasn’t just my boy.”

“Right.” The Officer crosses his arms. “But it was Louis’ idea, and it was Louis who told me that his mum doesn’t love him anymore.”

“He said what?” She watches the world tilt before her, grabbing hold of his desk.

Officer Townsend grips her shoulder firmly, head tilted.

“I’m sorry Mrs Tomlinson. Truly. But we have a duty to investigate claims of this nature— “

“Your kids have never blindly said they hate you?” She fires back, panic dissipating with anger. “Not when you wouldn’t give them something to eat or buy them the latest toy? Because I don’t know about you, but my kid is pretty fickle. He doesn’t love that I have to work so hard to keep my job. He doesn’t love that I had to keep him down a grade. He doesn’t love that there’s a new man in my life but by god, I know he loves me.”

Officer Townsend appears unmoved.

“I wasn’t talking about that particular claim.” He says. “I’m sure he does love you and I’m sure he didn’t mean it. But there was something else he said, something that I am bound to report...” He pauses, eyes shifting away from hers. “Mrs Tomlinson, he said your boyfriend’s been bullying him for months. Said now he’s told me, he’s afraid the guy will hurt him.”

The whole world comes crashing down right before her eyes.

                                                                               *-*-*-*-*

“I’m going to get in trouble.” Louis’ breath hitches. He buries his face in Harry’s shoulder, almost falling off Anne’s lap in the process. “He’s going to hurt me, Hazzy.”

“No!” Harry cries out, palming his cheek. “I’ll protect you, Lou. No one will make you go back there...right mum?”

Anne’s hand covers the expanse of Louis’ back, rubbing soothing circles into the back of his t-shirt.

“Boys, you have to tell me what’s going on first.” Louis watches her grab hold of Harry’s hand. “You know it’s not safe to go off on your own like that. Why would you do such a thing?”

“Because we had to!” Harry strokes Louis’ cheek with his thumb. “Louis is all alone in that house.”

Anne holds him tighter still, rocking him back on her knee so that they can look into each other’s eyes. Louis’ a bit too old for it now, the sitting in her lap like a baby, but he’s still small enough to fit.

“What do you mean?” She defers to Louis. “What about your mum, love?”

“She’s never there. She’s always working or out for dinner.” He clings to her stomach, eyes filling up. “She loves Nathan more than me.”

“Nathan?” Anne’s eyebrows form a crinkle. “Is that the plumber, love?”

“Y-yeah. H—he hates me.”

The last of Louis’ words are swallowed up by a sob.

“He what, darling?”

“He said Nathan hates him.” Harry says, keeping a hand on him at all times. “Lou...Lou maybe we should tell.”

“You should definitely tell.” She agrees, using the tone of voice that Louis hates the most. It always makes him want to come clean. “C’mon sweetheart, tell me what’s been going on.”

Louis opens his mouth to protest and instead, the truth comes hurtling out.

                                                                                    *-*-*-*-*

Jay woke up from her fainting spell three hours ago and yet, she’s still sitting in Officer Townsend’s office, alone, nursing a cup of black tea and trying to ignore the headache brewing behind her eyes. A knock sounds against the other side of the door at twenty past seven. Jay leaps up to open it, hoping to see her baby on the other side. Instead, she finds Anne, looking wan and mournful.

“Anne!” Jay pulls her into a tight hug, her voice edging on hysteria. “Thank god! They won’t let me see Louis. You have to tell them! You have to tell them I can. They said...they said Louis told them something about, something about Nathan--but it can’t be. They must have got it wrong.”

Anne pulls away, face contracting strangely.

“Actually Jay, you’re the one who’s got it wrong.”

Jay takes in her ashen face and the barely noticeable trembling of Anne’s mouth and thinks oh, she’s about to unleash. But why?

“Our boys didn’t run away from us.” Anne says, with emphasis. “Your boy ran away from you, Jay and he took mine with him.”

Jay shakes her head, in full disbelief.

“What? So now you’re mad at Louis for corrupting your precious angel?”

She hates herself for saying it but it’s too late now. Anne’s eyes turn to steel.

“No. I’m furious with you for letting him get here, to the point where the only option he sees is to run away. For Christ sake, Jay. Do you not see it? Do you not see what your big handsome plumber has done to your boy?”

“I—“ She stops, deflating quickly. “What are you talking about? Is it—is it true then?” She gulps. “What Louis said?”

“Look,” Anne puts her hands up defensively, “I know you don’t want to believe it because if it’s true...it means that you didn’t notice him struggling but I think it’s about time I tell you that he is struggling. And Jay, so are you. You have been for years now but you never let yourself even think of it. I know you stopped seeing your psychologist. I know you never took the proper time to get better.”

“I didn’t have the time!” A sob is ripped from Jay’s body, shattering into empty air. “Fuck, Anne. I didn’t even have time to sleep or raise my boy, myself. If Louis thought the only way out of this was to run away,” She shudders, choking on the pain. “I clearly didn’t raise him well at all.”

“No, no Jay!” Anne starts forward, crushing her into a bruising hug. “Hey, you listen to me. You are an incredible mother. I’m sorry. I’m sorry if I made you feel like you weren’t. You raised Louis to be an incredible person and he is! He’s kind and brave and smart and he would never hurt you this way on purpose. He just...he has some doubts. About you. And I think...I think maybe Nathan came into your lives at the wrong time. I think he moved in to your orbit too quickly for Louis to catch up.”

“Is that your professional opinion, is it?” Jay snaps, close to breaking point. “Because I don’t think I asked for it.”

“Stop it.” Anne’s voice is just as biting. “Stop hitting out at me because you think it‘ll make you feel better. Like I said, you’re not a bad mum, Jay so stop acting like one.”

She recoils, pushing Anne away from her with more force than she intended.

“Is that what you told them, then?” She accuses her friend. “You told child services I wasn’t fit to look after Louis?”

“No.” Anne’s inflection has gone cold again. “I told them Louis had it wrong, that it was just a misunderstanding between the three of you.”

“Why would you do that?” She breaths harshly. “You clearly don’t think Nathan is the right person to be around my son.”

“I also told them that you were planning on leaving Nathan and that you’d be taking both yourself and Louis to see a counsellor.”

Heat crawls up Jay’s spine, igniting inside her eyes.

“You had no right.”

“Of course I did.” Anne snarls. “That’s my boy in there with yours, trying to protect him. He almost got hurt himself, in the process. But he’s always going to try and protect him. As will I. And I’m trying to protect you too.” She implores. “Because despite your shitty attitude, I still think of you as family. And family, they look after each other. I don’t care if you’ve lost sight of that these last few months because I haven’t. You’re my best friend, Johanna Tomlinson and I refuse to let you kick me out of your life because you’re scared to face up to things. I won’t let it happen.”

Jay can’t look at her in that moment. It’s just too hard. She can feel long trails of tears dripping down her cheeks and the taste of bitterness seeping through her tongue and making her nauseous.

“Why won’t they let me see him?” She repeats, single-minded. “If you told them all that, then why aren’t I in there right now? And why are you still here? Surely you can go home now?”

She shoots the other woman an accusing look but Anne barely flinches.

“I was busy filling out forms and talking to child services. They said Louis is fine to go home with you but Louis asked me if he could stay with us. Just for tonight.”

“Okay.” She sniffs. “Fine. If that’s what he wants, then just take him. I suppose I’ll be seeing Nathan tonight anyway, won’t I? Got to break up with him, apparently.”

“Are you even going to ask what happened? Or are you in so much denial, you don’t even want to know?”

Jay’s head feels dizzyingly light. She wants to push Anne out the room and lock the door behind her. It would be easier that way, she thinks. She could just drown in her own floods of tears and let Louis be with the surrogate mum he obviously prefers. Yet there’s a flicker of hope inside her chest and she knows that while her baby is still breathing, she can’t afford to let him down. Not again.

“Tell me.” She says, on a gasp, clearing her tears away with a sweep of her trembling hand. “Please tell me what Louis said.”

“Do you want to sit down?” Anne’s voice goes quiet. She gestures at the wooden desk on the far side of the room. “It might be easier.”

“No, A. Just tell me.”

Anne starts at the beginning, asking Jay if she had ever run the idea of Nathan past Louis before inviting him into their household.

“Of course I did! I asked him if he understood.”

“And did he say yes? Did you ask if it was okay with him?”

“I—I don’t remember. But I’m sure I did. I must have.”

Anne presses on, explaining how Nathan had caught Louis in his tutu and tiara, dancing around his room the way he only seemed to do at home.

“He told Louis to start behaving like a real boy. He told him to take off the little girl’s costume before his mum got home.”

Tears ease down the slopes of Jay’s cheeks and her chest feels too small for her emotions. She thinks about how Nathan’s smile has always been slightly sharp, if not smarmy and how his views have always struck her as unnecessarily conservative. She thinks about his undeniably racist jokes and the way he used to touch her in bed, just the wrong side of too rough. She’d ignored it. In the right light, he’d been charming and handsome and everything she wanted in a father figure for Louis. He’d been able to cook and willing to clean, both with equal enthusiasm. He’d rubbed her feet when she came home tired from work and would often spend hours helping Louis with his homework, despite Louis’ less than sunny disposition.

Now it made sense.

She understood that Louis hadn’t been fighting Nathan for the sake of being difficult. It had been about more than him adjusting to the idea of having a new man in the house or someone who might possibly try to take the place of his father. No, he’d been scared and angry. He’d been ashamed and unable to protect himself. All the while, Jay had been busy, always busy, never available for a chat or a cuddle, the things that might have drawn it out of him if Jay had only had the time.

“But he wasn’t like that when I was around.” She blusters. “He seemed so fond of Louis, and kind.”

She hadn’t even noticed any considerable changes in her boy, apart from an added layer of grumpiness. It felt obvious now, remembering all the times he’d walked around the house with a sullen look on his face, dodging glances from the two of them. It was like he couldn’t bear for them to look at him anymore and now she knew why. Now she knew why it had been months since Louis had dressed up in one of his costumes or declared himself a warrior princess.

“I know.” Anne is placating now, watching the hurricane of emotion wreak havoc on Jay’s face. “But behind closed doors, when you weren’t there, he was threatening Louis.”

“Threatening him? Did—did he hurt him?” It occurs to her that he might have and a wave of hot panic gathers momentum, rising up inside her chest. “God, please tell me he didn’t.”

“He didn’t.” Anne agrees and Jay breathes a quiet sigh of relief. “But Jay, he might as well have. That’s how downtrodden he made Louis feel. He caught him in your wedding gloves one afternoon and told Louis, you’d be ashamed of him. He said that Patrick would be ashamed of him too and now that precious boy actually believes his father isn’t proud of him.”

Nothing in Jay’s life could prepare her for the sharpness of her grief or for the onset of such animalistic rage.

“I’m going to kill him.” She determines. “I can’t believe I ever let that man touch me. I’m going to ruin him for what he’s done.”

Anne grounds her with a hand around the shoulder.

“I don’t think that’s the best thing you can do for Louis.” She says calmly. “I think the best thing you can do for him now is show him that you love him. Because he doesn’t think you do.”

“But I do! Oh god, I do.” Jay laughs, tearful. “I love him so much, it hurts to carry it around all the time. I want to protect him, Anne. I want to make it right. I just...I got so busy at work and in life. It felt like everything was pressing down on my chest and I couldn’t breathe. And then Nathan came along and for the first time in a long time, I felt like I could. I felt like if I just stopped trying to give Louis the world, he would find it on his own.”

“I know.” Anne is crying too, but there’s more colour in her cheeks than there has been all day and she’s starting to look at Jay like she used to; as if Jay might still be the one with all the answers. “And that’s okay. But I just think...Louis wasn’t the thing that had to give, you know? I know you need the job. I know you need to provide. But if you lose him in the meantime, you’ll have no one to provide for.”

“I know.” She says. “I know I need to cut back. And I will, I promise. I’ll find a way.”

“We’ll find a way.” Anne wraps an arm around her, sniffling into her shoulder. “We’ll find a way together.”

“We will?” Jay says, voice hoarse. “After everything I’ve done? You could have lost Harry because of me. I’ve been a shit mother and an even worse friend, Styles. Don’t act like that’s okay.”

“I’m not.” Anne squeezes her around the middle. “But Louis is Harry’s Tomlinson and you’re mine. We look after our Tomlinson’s, it’s what we Styles’ do.”

                                                                                 *-*-*-*-*

Louis is busy plaiting Harry’s head when their mum’s come to get them. Louis shrinks away from his mum at first, burying his face in Harry’s tummy, but then his mum is picking him up and holding him close, whispering soothing words into his ear.

“It’s okay, baby. I know, I know you’re upset.” She kisses his hair and his cheek. “Mummy’s so sorry. I’m going to make it better, I promise. You won’t ever have to see him again.”

“Really?” Louis leans back to look at her. “You promise?”

“I promise.” She rubs their noses together, crying softly. “I love you Louis and I’m so sorry you didn’t know that. I love you so much. More than anyone, okay? More than Nathan. More than my job and more than any man that might come into my life.”

“And Dad?” Louis asks, tentative. “Do you still love him?”

“Sweetheart, of course.  I’ll always love him. No matter what. I should have told you that, god.” She sighs deeply. “But sometimes talking about your dad makes me miss him even more than I already do. But I’m sorry. I know you like to hear stories about him and I haven’t told you any in a while. I’ll work on that, I will. But I want you to know that even if I do fall in love with someone else, it will never, ever make me love you or your dad any less.”

“But...but you stopped talking about him. And you stopped talking to me!”

“I know, I know love.” She squeezes him tight. “But it wasn’t because I didn’t love you, it was because I was stressed. Too stressed. I was working too hard, baby but I’m going to stop now.”

“Not completely?” Louis gasps. “How will we eat?”

She laughs delightedly and Louis hears it’s echo on the other side of the room. When he looks over her shoulder, he sees Anne and Harry watching them with matching grins.

“No, not completely, you dolt.” She chuckles, kissing the side of his face. “We’ll still be able to eat.”

“Oh.” He breathes a sigh of relief. “Well that’s okay then.”

Jay laughs but it soon turns to tears of relief as she nuzzles the side of his face and whispers over and over how glad she is that both her boys are safe.

“Mummy, don’t cry.” he tells her, brushing his fingertips across her cheeks. “It’s okay now.”

She laughs at that, bouncing him a little.

“Does that mean I can put you down? You’re way too big for this.”

                                                                               *-*-*-*-*


They ride home in the same car, vowing to come back for Jay’s car in the morning. They eat dinner together at Anne’s and watch movies until the boys fall asleep, cuddled together under one duvet. The two women wear matching elated smiles and together, they put the boys to bed, kissing both of them and wishing them sweet dreams.

“Thank you.” Jay says when they’re both settled in Anne’s bed. “For letting me stay here tonight. You didn’t have to.”

“I know.” Anne’s hand stretches across the bed to grab hers. “But I told you. We look after our own.”

                                                                               

                                                                            *-*-*-*-*

The first visit to the psychologist is painful to organise. Jay has to book a child psychologist for Louis and a separate session with a different psychologist for herself. During Louis’ session, she stays in a separate room while the child psychologist talks to Louis, encouraging him to play with different toys and observing him closely. For his part, Louis looks a little uncomfortable to be around a stranger but not entirely panicked. It’s a good sign. This is usually the first stage of him getting to know someone.

Half an hour later, the ginger haired psychologist departs the room, clipboard in hand.

“Jay, would you like to come into my office? We can talk in there.”

“Sure.” Jay follows her into a small room across the hall.

She gestures for Jay to take a seat on a ghastly green couch that sits opposite an overflowing bookcase. She herself takes a seat on a high-backed chair, watching Jay like a hawk.

“So. May I ask how long ago Louis’ father passed away?”

“Did he tell you that?” Jay says, shocked. It’s not something Louis usually talks about with people he barely knows, or not without serious prompting anyway.

“No.” The woman smiles deeply, her laugh lines stretching out to meet. “But he did tell me a bit about your last boyfriend.”

“Oh.” She knew she would have to talk about this. She knew it was necessary if she wanted to do the right thing by Louis but the thought of what that man did to her son makes her sick. “Yes.”

“He abused Louis?” She says, blunt as anything.

“Verbally, yes.”

The psychologist smiles again, but this time, less kindly. She looks at Jay as though she’s already formed an opinion, one she isn’t prepared to contract.

“You didn’t realise and that’s why you’ve brought him here, yes?” She guesses. To find out what damage has been done? You want to know how you can help him?”

“Yes.” Jay agrees. “I just want what’s best for him.”

The woman, Wendy nods and glances down at her notes.

“Good. Let’s start with Louis’ social anxiety— “

“His what?” Jay interrupts. “I know he’s had some difficulties but, social anxiety? Really?”

“Yes. His difficulties, as you call them, are a product of his social anxiety.” Wendy informs her. “Louis has an innate fear of new people and struggles to interact with them in a spontaneous manner. He can’t be in the moment with anybody, not without experiencing serious doubts about himself, as well as serious doubts about whoever he’s with. But Jay, I think you should know that it’s likely he suffered this from a very young age and thus, that it’s no fault of yours.”

“It isn’t?” Jay feels the exhaustion inside her soul start to ebb. “But he’s so...he’s so unsure and angry all the time. He’s so volatile. And I don’t know what to do. I don’t know how to help him.”

Tears threaten.

“Jay.” Wendy crosses her legs. “Have you thought about seeing someone yourself? We have many other specialists at this clinic, some who specialise in depression and anxiety. I think they might be able to help you.”

“I’m booked in for next Monday.” She concedes. “But Louis is my priority here. I want to know how to make things easier for him, not me. The last few months shouldn’t have happened, the way they did. I shouldn’t have let my problems become his problems.”

“No.” Wendy agrees. “But Jay, you’re getting the help you need now and it’s the best thing you can do for him.  Of course, let’s discuss some other ways that you may be able to help him.”

“Please.”

“Well, firstly...Louis needs more stability in his life.”

“More stability?” Jay feels her hackles rising. “Why? Because I’m a single mum doing it all on her own.”

“No.” Wendy is calm, unruffled “Because Louis needs to know when you’re going to work and when you’re coming home. He needs to spend time with you regularly and be confident that this is a regular appointment.”

“Okay. I um, I think I can do that.” She smiles, feeling less like she’s under attack and more like this woman in front of her might actually want to help. “But Louis? Is he...”

“Okay?” Wendy smiles, encouraging. “Of course, Jay. You’ve done a brilliant job at communicating to him that he did nothing wrong and I think, with some gentle encouragement, we might even be able to help him regain some of that lost confidence.”

“Oh. Oh thank you.” Jay squeezes her own cheeks. “Thank you so much.”

“Not at all, Jay.” Wendy’s face is creased inwards into a sad smile. “I’m sorry you never got the help you needed after losing your husband so young.”

“Oh I—I saw someone. For a bit. I guess I just stopped seeing them a bit too soon, I think. But I’ll be alright, I’ll get through it.”

“I know.” She says, gaze drifting over to Louis. “You both will.”

                                                                                        *-*-*-*-*

“What do you mean Louis won’t be catching the bus home anymore?” Harry demands. “Me and Lou always catch the bus together!”

“I know, love but Jay’s going to be picking him up every day from now on. He won’t be coming over here in the afternoons either but you’ll still see him at school and on the weekends. He can still come over for sleepovers and what not.”

“But mum.” Harry whines. “What will I do without him? This is stupid. I’m going over there right now so I can tell Jay it’s a stupid idea.”

“No, you will not. Not unless you want to go without dinner, young man and be banned from seeing him on the weekends too.”

“Mum!” Harry stomps his feet. “This isn’t fair!”

“Neither is life, my boy. What Louis needs right now is his mum.”

“His mum’s the one that’s done this to him! He won’t even play princess anymore, because of her. He says it’s girly and stupid.” He frowns. “It’s all Jay’s fault.”

“No.” His mum raises her voice. “No, it’s not. And I don’t want you to say that again, okay? Jay is doing the best job she can, just like I am. She makes mistakes sometimes. That doesn’t mean you can be nasty to her.”

“I just don’t understand. Why do Louis and I have to be apart?”

“It’s not about you and Louis being apart, love.” His mum hugs him close. “It’s about Jay and Louis being together. Don’t be upset, sweetheart. You and Louis will still see each other all the time.”

“No we won’t.” Harry pouts. “He’s not even in the same grade as me.”

                                                                                        *-*-*-*-*

“I’ve thought of a brilliant idea, Hazza.”

Louis’ laying down at the top of a hill with Hannah and Harry on either side. It’s out of bounds, technically but no teacher has ever been up here to tell them off. Louis likes it best here because on a rare cloudless day, he can picture himself floating through the sky on his way to Oz.

“I know how we can still see each other.” He says.

“Really?” He can feel Harry twisting to look at him. “That’s amazing, Lou! It’s only been a week and I already miss you like crazy.”

“You guys are so weird.” Hannah interjects. “You act all lovey dovey like my parents.”

“That’s because we love each other.” Harry sneers. “We love each other even more than your parents.”

“Harry!” Louis elbows the other boy. “Don’t be nasty.”

“Whatever.” Louis can hear him rolling his eyes. “Do you miss me or not?”

“Course I do, dolt.” He takes hold of Harry’s hand, squeezing it softly. “Now listen up...”

                                                                                *-*-*-*-*

Harry sneaks out at midnight on the dot. They both agreed it would be much cooler if it was the witching hour.

He finds it’s literally much cooler and in fact, freezing and as he pushes the Tomlinson’s back gate open and sneaks inside. He notices pale white frost covering ever plant in sight and his teeth begin to chatter. He picks his way through the stones lining the pathway, wondering if this is such a good idea.

“Harry?” Louis whispers lowly. He’s sitting on a picnic rug in just a t-shirt and soft blue pyjama bottoms. “Quick. Before mum comes out and sees you.”

Harry runs the rest of the way and settles down beside Louis, instantly drawing him into a hug.

“You must be freezing Lou.” He scolds. “Do you want my jacket?”

“I’m f-f-fine.” Louis’ teeth are chattering worse than his own. “Y-y-you don’t need to look after me, Hazza.”

“Of course I do. Now let me put my jacket on you.”

His jacket is a navy-blue parka as thick as a duvet and just as woolly on the inside. Harry’s face is cold but the rest of him is toasty from the material, so he hastily pulls it off and drapes it around Louis’ shoulders. He watches as Louis sticks his little arms through the sleeves, making grumpy little noises. Harry draws the zipper up for him and pulls the hood up to cover his reddened ears.

“Oh Lou.” He coos, squeezing his cheeks. “My jacket is bigger than you are.”

“No it isn’t!” Louis insists, holding his little hands up. They’re completely dwarfed by material. “It fits me perfectly!”

Harry giggles.

“No, it doesn’t.”

Louis pouts, ignoring Harry as he opens up his backpack and pulls out a bag of Doritos, a packet of hobnobs and a fizzy drink for them each.

“Lou, it’s too cold for that!”

“Well I couldn’t make hot chocolate in the dark!” He hisses. “Hazza, don’t be nasty.”

“Sorry.” Harry instantly feels guilty. “This is great, Lou. Thank you.”

“Much better.” Louis grins. “Now shh. You’re talking too loud. Mum’s going to hear you.”

Harry mimes zipping his lips.

“My mum would kill me if she knew we were out here!”

“Mine too.” Louis laughs. “Isn’t it wicked?”

“Lou!” Harry pokes him in the side. “You’re such a little brat sometimes.”

“Well you can be plain nasty Hazza. Like today. Why were you so mean to poor Hannah? She didn’t mean anything bad.”

Harry looks down at their feet, Louis’ clad in lace up runners and his own in little black boots.

“Well.” He blushes. “Sometimes I think Hannah just needs a friend of her own.”

“What.” Louis’ eyebrows crinkle. “She’s got a friend of her own. Me.”

“No.” Harry argues, grabbing Louis around the ankle. “You’re my friend.”

“Can’t I be both?” Louis looks sad when Harry looks up at him. “I like you both.”

“But you like me more.” Harry presses. “I’m your favourite.”

“Yeah.” Louis rips open the Doritos, placing some in Harry’s cupped hands. “But that doesn’t mean I can’t be Hannah’s friend too. That’s like me saying you can’t be friends with Louise and Tom.”

“I guess.” He doesn’t really think it’s the same thing. “I just don’t really like it when she says stuff about us. She thinks she knows everything.”

“Well...” Louis licks the cheese dust off his fingers, smirking at Harry. “Sometimes I think she does.”

“She can’t.” Harry shakes his head. “She’s a girl.”

Louis slaps him.

“That’s nasty, H. You need to stop. Girls know a lot, you know. Maybe even more than boys.”

“Are you sure?” Harry lays back against the blanket, shivering. He kind of misses the jacket, though not enough to ask for it back. “Because that sounds like something someone should have told me.”

“I’m telling you now.” Louis lays back with him. “Now, tell me again why you think Louise has such a huge crush on Tom.”

“Well, she’s always trying to get his attention, and like blushing whenever he talks to her. And she giggles really loudly when he says something, even if it’s not that funny. Aaaaand she’s always staring at him. Like it’s kind of creepy. But I don’t think Tom finds it creepy. Cause he kind of smiles at her, like he doesn’t mind.”

“Oh.” Louis looks thoughtful, staring up at the few measly starts that litter the night sky, drumming his fingertips against his belly. “Do you think we’ll ever feel like that?”

“Maybe.” Harry reaches for Louis’ hand, loving the way it feels inside his own. “But I doubt we’ll act that silly.”

“You’re right.” Louis nods happily. “I don’t think anyone will be able to tell how we’re feeling.”

“Yes! We’ll keep it a secret and only tell each other.”

“Hazza?” Louis turns his head, eyes glowing brightly. His nose is tinted red and his teeth are still chattering a bit.

“Yeah Lou?”

“Do you want to do this again tomorrow night?”

“Definitely.” Harry pushes their noses together, giggling at how funny Louis looks this close up. “I want to do this every night for forever.”

“Forever is a long time.” Louis complains and pushes his forehead into Harry’s neck. “But I think I wouldn’t mind it with you.”

                                                                           *-*-*-*-*

Harry knows he should be paying more attention to what his new girlfriend, Camille is saying but Louis is glaring at him from the other side of the playground and Harry can’t help wondering why.

He’s been with Camille for a month now. Even though he doesn’t really understand what all the fuss is about holding hands with a girl, it did feel quite nice when she told him she liked him more than any boy in their year. She’s pretty too, not as pretty as Louis, but kind of princess-like all the same. Harry’s pretty sure he still wants to marry Louis and he’s pretty sure Camille knows it but he doesn’t mind being her boyfriend for now. The word doesn’t really mean much to him, anyway when all they seem to do is walk around the playground, holding hands and talking about who they think might end up student of the week.

Still, it obviously means something to Louis because when Harry told him, Louis had immediately announced Hannah as his own girlfriend.

“That’s a lie, Harry.” Hannah had told him, which he thought was rather nice for someone so annoying. “I don’t know what he’s talking about.”

Louis had stormed off on both of them then and Harry had been forced to talk to Hannah for the remainder of play. It was just about the worst thing that’s ever happened to him. He’d been so mad about it that he refused to sneak out and meet Louis in the garden for a whole week. He caved when Louis began to cry and explained that he just didn’t want Harry to be the only one with a girlfriend.

“It’ll happen for you too.” Harry had promised. “I know it will.”

“But it happened to you first.” Louis said lowly. “I don’t even know why you like her.”

“She’s pretty.” Harry said, because it sounded exactly like something someone in a movie would say. “And nice. Plus, her hand isn’t sweaty.”

“Are you saying my hand is sweaty?!” Louis accused him.

“What? No. Don’t be silly, little Lou.”

“Don’t. Call. Me. That.” Louis said, scowling but Harry thinks he might have been secretly pleased.

Harry had tickled him until they were both in floods of tears from the joy of it.

But now Louis’ staring him down from across the football oval and while Harry can’t actually see the expression on his face, he knows it’s not good.

“Harry!” Camille squeezes his hand hard. “Are you listening to me?”

“Yes. Of course.” He lies. “It’s just...Louis’ looking at us.”

“Louis’ always looking at us.” She rolls her eyes. “He’s so weird about you.”

“Don’t say that.” Harry narrows his eyes at her. “He’s my best friend.”

“But he’s in grade three. It’s weird that you’re still friends with him.”

“Well I think it’s weird that you always wear odd socks.”

She gives him a harassed look, as if she doesn’t have the energy to deal with him right now. She stands up, gathering her lunchbox in her arms.

“Well I’ll go spend lunch someplace else then.”

“Good.” Harry says, and means it. “Then I can spend it with Louis.”

Which is when said best friend appears, marching up behind Camille and shoving her hard in the back. She squeals and falls hard, on her side.

“Louis!” Harry shouts, reaching out a hand to help Camille up. “What are you doing?!”

“Nothing.” Louis’ cheeks are fire engine red. He looks at Camille, eyebrows furrowed. “I’m s--sorry.”

He runs away faster than Harry can blink.

“See.” Camille points at Louis’ retreating back, rubbing her side. “Weird.”

Harry glowers at her.

“Camille. I’m breaking up with you.”

“Oh.” She looks down at her rain soaked school shoes, suddenly shy. “Okay. But Harry, I... I thought we would be valentines.”

Harry hadn’t forgotten about it being valentine’s day today. They’d learnt about the special holiday just yesterday in class and Harry had been planning to ask her. He’d even bought a candy necklace for her. Only now, it doesn’t feel right. Her hand might be nice to hold but it doesn’t fit his as well as Louis’.

“Sorry.” He shifts from side to side, feeling guilty.

“It’s okay.” She smiles at him, pink cheeked. “Thanks for being my boyfriend.”

“And thank you.” He grins. “For not pushing Louis back.”

“He would have gone down fast, huh?”

Harry nods. If there’s anything Louis’ taught him, it’s that girls are just as strong as boys. In fact, in Louis’ case, they’re usually much stronger.

Harry takes off then, determined to find him. It doesn’t take long. He finds Louis walking up the path to the office, escorted by the grumpy old librarian.

“I saw you push that girl, Louis Tomlinson and you’re not going to get away with it.”

“But miss— “

“Shh.” She snaps. “No talking.”

Harry follows at a distance, sitting down right outside the school office and waiting as Louis is escorted inside. He already knows he’ll wait as long as it takes. He needs to know if Louis pushed Camille for the same reason that Harry’s often nasty to Hannah.

                                                                                  *-*-*-*-*

They call his mum and when Jay walks into the office, she looks ready to drag him out by the ear.

“You pushed someone, Louis?” She asks, disapproval making itself known. “Why would you do that?”

“I—I can’t tell you.” He blushes again, just thinking of it.

“You better tell me, Louis William or else you won’t be sleeping at Harry’s this Saturday.”

“What?” Horror fills his voice. “Mum, please. Please let me sleep over. I didn’t mean to hurt her. I didn’t even mean to push her, really. I just...I thought Harry and I would be valentines. I thought he’d meet me on the hill at play and ask me, just like Hannah said.”

“Sweetheart.” Jay’s face softens exponentially. “Do you even know what a valentine is?”

“Yes!” Louis crows. “Our teacher explained all about it yesterday. He said you ask the person you like the most, you give them something special and if you’re lucky, they might give you a gift in return. So I made Harry something for when he asked me but then he didn’t show up at our spot today! And, and Hannah saw him holding hands with Camille. I thought Harry would ask me, Mum. I just wanted her to be punished for taking Harry away.”

“Louis William Tomlinson.” He could tell from her tone that she was not impressed but there was something about her wrinkled nose that also made it look like she was about to laugh. “That is not the way we handle things, okay? If you wanted Harry to be your valentine, you could have asked him yourself. And if he chose to be Camille’s, then you should have respected that and asked Hannah instead.”

“I really like Hannah.” He agrees. “But…”

“But not as much as Harry.” Jay finishes, chuckling. “Darling, you love him with all your heart, don’t you?”

“Um, I think so.” Louis places a hand across his chest, eyes wide. “Mum, what if I don’t have any room left for anyone else?”

“You will.” She kisses the top of his head. “But even if you don’t, I’m sure Harry will be thrilled to have you all to himself.”

Louis’ not too sure about that, especially after the horrible thing he’s just done. He loves his mum though and he loves how good she’s been to him the past month, picking him up from school every day and taking him to do different activities with her. She seems happier now and less prone to screaming at him when he does something wrong. He hugs her tightly and apologises for being nasty to Camille.

“Good boy.” She says. “Now how about you go apologise to Harry.”

“Harry?” Louis frowns at her. “But I didn’t push Harry?”

“I know, Lou.” She guides him out the door. “But I think he’ll appreciate it anyway.”

“Okay. Bye mum. Love you.”

“Love you too.” She says fondly. “I’ll see you at three fifteen.”

Louis’ too busy scrambling down the steps outside to wave at her. In fact, he’s so busy hurrying down and away from the office that he almost misses Harry sitting just beside the stairs.

“Oh. Harry!” He calls. “I thought you were with Camille.”

“I was.” He twists his hands nervously. “But we broke up.”

“Oh.” Louis shifts closer, wondering when they started playing music over the school speakers. He hadn’t noticed before. “Is she alright then? I didn’t like, hurt her…did I?’

“No. But you shouldn’t have pushed her, Lou.”

“I know.” Louis’ shoulders hunch forward. “I’m sorry Hazza. I just thought...I thought we’d be valentines. I made you this in class.” He pulls the crumpled paper crane from his pocket. “Thought you’d like it. It floats on water and everything.”

“Cool! I love it, Lou.” Harry beams at him. “Thank you.”

“It’s alright.” Louis’ cheeks are red and his shoes have suddenly become very interesting. “You can still be my valentine Harry, even if I’m not yours.”

“What if I want you to be mine?” Harry says shyly and pulls a brightly coloured necklace from his lunchbox. “You could um, have this. If you want.”

“But it’s for Camille.” Louis protests. “Hazza, I think you should still give it to her.”

“No.” Harry pushes it into his hands, blushing just as bad as Louis. Louis can hear that slow song from The Lion King playing over the speakers now. “Lou, take it. I want you to...”

The rest of the sentence trails off into a quiet mumble.

“What, Haz?”

“I want you to be my valentine.” He says, looking somewhere over Louis’ shoulder. “If you still want to.”

“I do.” Louis agrees shyly. “Can I have the necklace now?”

“You don’t think it’s too girly?” Harry checks. “I know you think you need to act like a ‘real boy’ but--“

“But am a real boy.” He says, and means it. “There’s nothing wrong with a boy who likes to dress like a girl.”

Harry grins with approval and drops the necklace down over his head. Louis bites off a sweet and offers it to him.

“Share with me?”

“Okay.” Harry takes the sweet from him and places it in his mouth, holding his hand out for Louis to take.  “Hold my hand?”

“Okay.” Louis takes it.

He tugs Harry all the way back down to the oval, giggling and swapping sweets the whole way there.

“Happy Valentine’s Day, Hazza.” He says, at the end of play, eyes bright.

Harry pulls him into a hug, holding tight to the paper crane in his pocket. “Happy Valentine’s Day Lou.”

Chapter Text

“Are you sure you’ll be okay?” His mum pets his bag straps down one last time and smooths his hair back. “I only ask because, well...Will’s Harry’s friend, isn’t he?”

“Yes mum.” Louis rolls his eyes. You’d think now that he’s ten years old, she’d have stopped treating him like a baby. “But Harry didn’t even have to convince Will to let me come. Will says I can kick a footy just as well as any of the boys. He invited me himself.”

“Okay but...” She frowns, grabbing him by the wrist. “Are you sure you don’t want me to walk you in? Because I could talk to Will’s mum and tell her to call me if things get tough for you. I know you get overwhelmed sometimes, and that’s okay! Remember what Wendy said. We all have limits and it’s perfectly okay to use them.”

“I’m fine.” Louis sighs. “You’ve walked me up the driveway. That’s bad enough.”

Jay pinches his cheek.

“You’re lucky you’ve still got these adorably chubby cheeks, Louis William Tomlinson, because otherwise, I’d be dragging you back home right about now.”

“Sorry mum.” He beams and throws his arms around her waist. “I love you.”

“You always know just how to get me on side, don’t you?” She accuses, crouching down to nuzzle the side of his head. “Okay, off you go love. Before I change my mind.”

She pats his behind and sends him running up the stairs to knock on the door, his black overnight bag knocking against his tanned legs.

When Mrs Sweeny opens the door, his mum blows him one last kiss and disappears back down the driveway. Louis’ relief is suddenly replaced by nerves.

“Hi Mrs Sweeny.” He greets her, rocking back and forth on the balls of his feet. “Are Will and Harry in there?”

He blushes a bit when he realises how stupid he must sound.

“Of course, love. Come through.” She sweeps him inside, ruffling his hair on the way past.

 

Her kindness helps a bit with the nerves and reminds him that Will’s family isn’t all that different from his own. Unlike most of the kids at school, Will doesn’t see his dad very often and is part of their unspoken Dad-less Kids Club. It’s not something the three of them talk about much. Yet, Louis knows that Will sometimes appreciates having the two of them to talk to, especially when his mum gets sad about it being just the two of them.

“Lou!” Harry sweeps him up into a hug and lifts him clear off the ground.  “You’re here!”

“I’m here.” He giggles. “H, put me down.” He beats at the other boy’s shoulder until Harry releases him with a sigh.

“Louis, hey.” Will appears from behind a mountain of junk food and video games, holding a can of Coke. “Thanks for coming.”

“Thanks for inviting me.” Louis says, a bit shy.

 

He buries his teeth in the back of Harry’s shoulder, an instinctive coping mechanism he’s never been able to control.

“Ouch Lou!” Harry scolds him but he’s giggling nonetheless.

“Sorry.” He snickers.

Together they collapse onto one couch while Will takes the other. He can’t help but think Will and Harry could be brothers if it weren’t for the height difference. Will is quite small, closer in height to Louis, but his hair is dark and wavy just like Harry’s.

“So.” Will turns to them with a wicked smirk. “What do you want to play first?”

Louis burrows into Harry’s side, trying to hide a dopey grin. It’s his first real sleepover in a while (aside from his ones with Harry) and he can’t believe Will really likes him just as much as Harry. They aren’t even in the same year. Yet, somehow, Will treats him just the same as the other boys. Louis couldn’t be happier about it. In his last session with Wendy, he told her all about Will and how amazing it was that a boy like Will was actually interested in hanging out with a boy like him.

“A boy like you?” Wendy had lifted her chin, crossing her legs the opposite way. “Can you tell me what you mean by that, Louis?”

Louis was forced to explain all the many, many ways he was different from other boys his age and how usually that meant he wasn’t particularly easy to get along with.

“But you have a friend in Harry, another friend in Hannah and now Will, too. You seem very likeable to me, Louis.” She’d smiled gently. “So. Perhaps being different doesn’t mean that you are hard to like?”

Louis didn’t know what she meant by that and he still doesn’t. Obviously, he’s hard to like, or else he’d have more friends. She tried to explain it to him better, using soccer terms to describe it, but Louis still didn’t understand. He’d grown up knowing he was burdened with something Harry didn’t have; a kind of strangeness that kept new friendships at bay. His experiences with the other kids at school have only ever taught him that it’s safer to be on his own and wiser too. People don’t like Louis and most of the time, he doesn’t like them either.

“How bout FIFA?” Harry suggests, pointing to one of Will’s many video games. He grins at Louis, all dimpled, knowing full well it’s Louis’ favourite look on him.

“Yes! How bout it Lou?” Will peeks around Harry’s body, not even the slightest bit of mocking in his expression. “Do you want to play FIFA too?”

“Definitely.” He grins. “Hazza always loses.”

Harry crows in protest but Will is laughing far too hard and far too knowingly, for him to make a convincing case.

                                                                                   *-*-*-*-*

Things get tricky when Mrs Sweeny finally herds the three of them into Will’s bedroom and informs them that there’s to be no more chatter. She shuts the door, plunging them all into darkness and Harry can almost feel Louis’ fear escalating into something solid.

“Lou.” He pulls the smaller boy across the room and into his side, holding tight the way he needs. “Lou, it’s okay. Don’t freak out. I’m right here. Nothing can happen if I’m here, right?”

“What’s wrong?” Will’s hand lands on Harry’s arm. “Is he sick?”

“No.” Louis whines, snaking his arms around Harry’s waist. “‘M fine.”

He isn’t fine and he won’t be, so long as they stay surrounded by complete darkness. Louis hasn’t yet been able to sleep without a night light and Harry wonders why they didn’t think of it before.

“He’s a bit nervous.” He tells Will. “Because it’s so dark.”

“Harry!” Louis hisses but the other boy shushes him gently.

Will should get it. He should be able to help them find something.

“You’re scared of the dark?” He can hear the scepticism in Will’s voice and he doesn’t like it one bit. “Aren’t you kind of old for that?”

Louis digs his fingers into Harry’s waist and buries his face in the taller boy’s shoulder.

“Wanna go.” He whispers, his words gone wobbly at the ends. “Hazza, please.”

Harry can’t resist his boy now, any more than he could resist him when they were five years old.

“Okay, give me a sec.” He says lowly and kisses Louis’ forehead twice, for good measure. “Just follow my lead.”

“Okay.”

“Should we go to sleep now?” Harry asks. “Think Lou’s real tired.”

Harry can only just see the faint outline of Will crossing his arms.

“I thought he was too scared?”

“I’m fine.” Louis pipes up, squeaky voiced. His little fingers dig deep into Harry’s arm. “Let’s go to sleep.”

“Fine.” Will sounds annoyed but Harry doesn’t really care about that right now. All he cares about is getting Louis out of here as soon as possible.

Silently, he tucks Louis into his sleeping bag and then slips into his own.

“Night Will.” He calls out, drumming his fingertips on his belly.

“Night H. Night Lou.”

When Will’s deep snores start to echo through the room, Harry crawls up to the bed and grabs the other boy by the wrist.

“Will, wake up!” He cries. “Please!”

Will wakes with a start, scrambling away from Harry and back towards the wall.

“Harry? What are you doing?!”

“Will.” He summons a few tears, feeling awfully grateful that Louis taught him this exact trick. “I think I need to go home.”

“What? Why?!” Will sounds exasperated. “Is it because of that baby over there? Because he’s afraid?”

 

He sneers.

“No.” Harry shoves the other boy, hands shaking. “It’s because I miss my mum, okay? I’m homesick. Now can you please go get your mum?”

“Really?” Will climbs out of bed and switches on the light, bathing the three of them in bright orange. “Because that didn’t happen last time you slept over...or the time before that.”

“Well maybe— “

“Leave him alone, Will.” Louis is at his side an instant, slotting his fingers through Harry’s and glaring at the older boy. “If he says he wants to go home, he wants to go home.”

“Fine.” Will storms off down the hallway. “But next time, leave the baby at home.”

As soon as he’s gone, Harry turns to check for signs of tears.

“Don’t listen to him, Lou. You’re not a baby. It’s okay to be scared.”

“Yeah.” Louis’ eyes are wet, his smile disjointed. “But only when I’m with you.”

“Lucky we’ll always be together then.” Harry rubs their noses together, watching carefully for his favourite little eye crinkles. “There’s no need to change.”

“Okay.” Louis giggles, going crossed eyed. “If you say so, Haz.”

Mrs Sweeny comes striding into the room then, disrupting their moment.

“Boys, what’s going on?”

Harry is about to tell her when Louis drags him over by the hand and looks up at her with his best puppy dog eyes.

“I’m very sorry Mrs Sweeny but I think Harry, here wants to go home.”

                                                                                  *-*-*-*-*

“I knew it was a bad idea.” Jay says, shaking her head as their old red car slowly scoots up the hill. Louis stares out the window at the pale white light illuminating the road in front of them. “I should never have let you go! And if you’re pouting because Harry went home with Anne, you should remember that he’s not your property, Louis William Tomlinson. You don’t get to decide where he sleeps.”

“But mum, we wanted to sleep over! Together.” Louis turns to glower at her. “It wasn’t that bad, anyway. It would have been good if I didn’t get so scared.”

He frowns at himself and kicks out at his bag, wishing he could be as brave as Harry or any other boy his age.

“Hey.” Jay’s hand lands on his knee. “There is nothing wrong with being afraid of the dark. You’ll grow out of it, love. Just give it time.”

“I guess.” He shrugs feebly. “I just wish I hadn’t ruined it for Harry.”

“Well you weren’t the only one throwing a four-year-old tantrum, were you? Harry was just as adamant about staying with you as you were him.”

“Mum?” He rubs his fists into his eyes.

“Yeah love?”

She takes one hand off the wheel to card a hand through his hair.

“I don’t want Harry to worry about me all the time, the way you do.”

“I don’t worry about you all the time!” Jay blusters, a horrible liar. “A perfect kid like you? What could there possibly be to worry about?!”

“Mum.” Louis gives her a knowing look. “You still cut the crusts off my sandwiches.”

“You’re only ten.” She says, blushing. “It’s not like I’m still giving you baths.”

“I know, just...” he shrugs. “Hazza worries too much. He’s a really good friend and I’m...”

“Just as good. You are just as good, Louis Tomlinson. Christ. I’m so sorry for what happened last year. I’m sorry for allowing you to doubt how much I love you. But Lou, you are a beautiful boy and you deserve a beautiful boy, like Harry, as your best friend.”

“Are you sure?” Louis watches her closely. “You’re not lying again?”

“Baby.” She flicks her eyes over to him. “The last time I was this sure of anything was the moment I decided to give birth to you.”

                                                                             *-*-*-*-*

It’s a Saturday, the best day of the week in Louis’ most important opinion, and not just because it’s the best day for sleepovers or trips to London. It’s because every Saturday, Harry comes bounding in to his room with a bunch of hand-picked flowers from Anne’s garden. He arranges them on Louis’ windowsill, swapping out the old for the new. Then he tells Louis all about what each new flower means. It’s a tradition they’ve cultivated over the last few months and one that Louis has grown to love more and more with each passing week.

So, when he wakes up one Saturday in July to find an empty room and a bunch of dead flowers sitting on the window sill, he’s understandably annoyed.

“Mum, can you believe it?” He rushes out of his room with the dead stems crushed in his hand. “Harry hasn’t even come by yet!”

“I know, love.” His mum looks like someone pinned her smile to her face and kept it there with thumb tacks. “But I think maybe you should go and see Harry instead.”

“Why?” Louis scowls. “He always comes here. It’s tradition, mum. You don’t break tradition.”

“Lou.” Her eyelids blink rapidly. “Cheshire’s had a bit of an accident.”

“Cheshire?” His heart pounds loudly inside his ears. “What do you mean she’s had an accident?”

His cheeks start to wobble and his eyes feel damp. He’s not sure why his mum looks like she’s about to cry but it fills his heart with dread.

“She got run over by a car. Baby, I’m so sorry.”

She opens her arms up for a hug and Louis runs headlong into them, clutching her tight and fisting her dusty rose cardigan in his hands.

“It’ll be okay, love.” She smooths his hair down with one hand while drying his tears with the other. “She’s in a better place now.”

“With Dad?” He asks, hiccupping. “Is she with dad now?”

“I think she might be.” She agrees, smiling. “Your father will look after her.”

Louis’ heart feels too small for the vast expanse of hurt in his chest. He can’t think of anything worse than going over to Harry’s place and not seeing Cheshire snuggled up in bed with Harry. Then it occurs to him, if it’s this hard for him—

“What about Harry?” Louis’ eyes fill with devastated tears. He rubs his cheek against Jay’s stomach. “He loves Cheshire so much, mum. He must be so sad.”

“I know. He is sad, Lou and he’s going to miss her.” She pulls back, smiling weakly. “But we’ll be there to give him lots of cuddles and kisses, now won’t we?”

“Will says—“

“I thought I told you to stay away from that boy.” She holds him tight by the shoulders. “He’s nothing but trouble.”

“I know.” His eyes drop to his feet and he taps his shoes together, wishing it was as simple as that. “But Harry says Will is a really nice boy.”

He isn’t, Louis knows. Will’s always telling the two of them to stop hugging each other or holding each other’s’ hand, ‘like a bunch of babies.’ Louis heard his mum tell Anne that it must have something to do with Will’s dad but Louis didn’t really care either way. All he knows is that it’s getting in the way of his friendship with Harry.

 

Nowadays, Harry shifts away from him when Louis tries to hug him at school and has even asked Louis to stop trying to hold his hand. Louis spends his days nuzzling Hannah instead and wondering why it doesn’t seem to bother Harry quite as much as it used to.

“Do you think Will is a nice boy?” His mum asks.

Louis shakes his head, feeling sick in his tummy at the thought.

“Well then you just stay away from him. Harry will follow your lead. He always does.”

“Okay, mum.”

“So, do you want to go over and see him now?”

“Yeah.” Louis hiccups again, crushed by the thought of Harry feeling sad. “But we need to go to the flower shop first.”

                                                                            *-*-*-*-*

Harry’s keeled over on his bed when Louis walks in, eyes closed, with all four limbs wrapped around a fluffy white pillow.

“Hazza.” He can hear the extra burst of sunshine in Louis’ voice and he’s so relieved to hear it. Somehow, Louis always knows when he needs to be taken care of. “Hazza, it’s me...Lou.”

“Lou.” He opens his eyes, turning his head to look at the bashful figure in the doorway. “What are you doing here?”

He knows his voice sounds thick with tears and he buries his face in the pillow beneath him. He still remembers the day he got Cheshire; how he’d clutched her so tight and had been so sure he’d name her after Louis. Only after watching Alice in Wonderland had he been persuaded into naming her Cheshire. It had suited her to a tee, the gorgeous white cat with a penchant for mischief. Harry remembers when Louis met her, how’d they had a slightly bitter rivalry at first, then fallen in love with each other just as quickly. Cheshire had always been like Louis in that sense, easy to adore and impossible to despise. Harry’s going to miss her like crazy.  

“Oh Hazza.” He hears Louis’ light footsteps travel across the carpet floor and then there’s a warm hand pressed to his side. “Don’t cry, please.”

“Can’t help it, Lou.” His breath hitches repeatedly. “She’s gone. Forever.”

“I know.” Louis’ fingers curl around his shoulder. He butts his head forward, burying it in Harry’s neck. “I’m sorry, Hazza.”

“It’s not your fault.” He says, rubbing his cheek back and forth over Louis’ hair. “I just want her back.”

“I brought you something.” Louis says and pushes something soft into the hand Harry used to grip his cheek. “They’re lillies. Like the ones you gave me—”

“The last time we visited your dad’s grave.” Harry stares at the lovely white petals, very nearly crushed between his fingers. “They’re so pretty, Lou.”

“Wanted to help, Hazza.” Louis’ cheeks glow pink like the strawberry milkshakes Harry likes so much. “Even if you don’t want me to cuddle you anymore.”

“I do!” Harry protests loudly, pushing his bottom lip out. “I always want cuddles from you.”

“Even at school?” Louis narrows his eyes. “Even when Will’s there?”

Harry’s heart races at the thought. He’s not sure what’s so bad about the two of them touching the way they do but he knows that Will has a problem with it and, well, Harry’s not sure there’s anyone smarter or kinder than Will.

“Not sure” He says, mouth twisting. “But I always want them here. At home.”

Louis smiles at that and crawls into bed beside him, wrapping his arms around Harry’s waist and resting his head on his shoulder.

“You can pet my hair if you want.” He says, lifting his big blue eyes up. “I know I’m not as soft as Cheshire...”

“You are.” Harry kisses his cheek, giggling, when Louis tucks his chin. “Thanks for my flowers, Lou.”

“You’re welcome Haz.” He curls around Harry, just like Cheshire, small and soft enough to pet. “I’m sorry Cheshire went away. But I promise dad will look after her now.”

                                                                          *-*-*-*-*

It’s a warm day, mid-July, when Jay gets a loud knock at the door. It’s an unusual sound in her house because the Styles’ rarely knock and Jay isn’t prone to inviting just anyone round for tea.

“Who is it?” She calls out, carefully picking her way through piles of freshly folded laundry to get to the door.

Having a week day off is a rare occurrence. As sad as it may seem, when the day stretched out before her, endless and somewhat lonely, she could only fantasise about the notion of an empty washing basket.

“Daniel.” Comes a deep, gravelly voice. “It’s Daniel Deakin.”

His name hits her mid-step. She sways from side to side, teetering dangerously, as the blunt force of it hits her right in the chest.

“Oh.” She clenches her shaking fists and stills her rising chest. “I’ll be right there.”

Daniel. God, she remembers Daniel. She remembers reading his name in every single letter she received while Patrick was away in Iraq.

 

Daniel and I saved two children today, he’d write, in his charmingly feminine script, you can’t even imagine what it’s like here. I miss you baby, I’ll see you soon.

 

Sometimes he’d write whole paragraphs about his friend, never sparing any detail, like the true storyteller he was.

 

Daniel, or Dan, as he has me call him, is just like you baby. He’s got this gift for helping the most fragile of people and he uses it like a weapon out here. The other day we were tracking a militant group through some shrubs. It was dead out there, completely silent. No villages for miles. I could see the sun bouncing off our guns and I thought if they so much as catch a glimmer, we’re in this. There’s no going back. But we tracked them all the way to this huge ramshackle building where we suspected they’d been holding an Australian journalist hostage. I could have sworn they heard us when we crept up behind them from about three metres away but they kept walking right up until we jumped them. I snatched the gun off my guy and jabbed him with it until he took off running. But the other one was a real fighter. He was digging his fingernails into Dan’s cheeks, trying to gouge out his eyes, and shouting in Arabic. I grabbed the guy’s arm and tried to pull it up behind his back but with one hand, he shoved me into the dust and both guns I had rolled away into a ditch. Then I watched as Dan got him in a headlock and whispered something in Arabic. Whatever it was sent this big, tough militant soldier sprinting away in the other direction. After that, we stormed the house, took down all six abductors and carried the journalist all the way to safety. She was close to dying, I could tell, but Dan just kept speaking to her the whole time, willing her to keep her eyes open. He even made her laugh at one point. He was amazing, Jay, I think you’d love him. The woman survived, by the way. Not that I had any doubts. Dan is made for this stuff. When I come back and our little boy is born, we’ll do dinner. God knows the man can eat. I love you. I miss you. I’ll see you soon.

Only he wouldn’t, because two weeks after he sent that letter, he was killed. Caught in enemy crossfire. Presumably, Dan had returned home like they’d both planned and he had never thought twice of the grieving widow he may have one day met. Until now. Now, here he is, waiting on the other side of her door and for what? She doesn’t know. There’s nothing tying them together now. She’s never even met the man, for Christ sake. All she knows about him is that he’s tall, well-built and that he never came to her husband’s funeral.

She opens the door with a bit too much force and Dan almost comes toppling inside.

“Sorry.” She blushes. “That was rude of me.”

“No, no. You’re fine, love.” He smiles, exposing a set of perfectly white teeth. They look particularly pearly against his copper toned skin. He’s aged well, she thinks, stupidly, because it’s not as though she’d known him before. Still, there’s a hint of charming impishness about his smile, which goes well with the depth of his laugh lines and the visible creases beneath his eyes. “I’m sorry to just turn up like this. I know we’ve never met. It must be strange for you.”

“A bit.” She admits, holding out a hand. “Hi. I’m Jay.”

This man mightn’t have been there for Patrick when he died but she knows he was there for her husband when he was alive and that still counts for something. Dan was one of the few men who fought alongside of Patrick, instead of following behind. He matched him strength for strength, instead of leeching it from him. It’s why they must have gotten along so well; because Patrick was always attracted to those who could provide a challenge.

“Jay, it’s lovely to meet you.” Dan leans forward, clasping her small hand in both of his. “I’m Daniel but you can call me Dan. Your husband did.”

“I know.” Her eyes creased helplessly into one another. “It was always, Dan this...Dan that.”

He chuckles deeply, his light blue eyes turned to ocean-like murals in the light of the sun. He makes a remarkably pleasing picture, towering over her in tight fit suit pants and a white collared shirt, unbuttoned to the beginnings of his burly chest.

He presses an arm to the top of the door jamb and looks down to meet the open curiosity in her gaze. There’s nothing sleazy about it, the way his eyes trace her face, encouraging their silent communication. But it unnerves her to realise how instantaneous the attraction is and how powerful. So, she does her best to ignore it.

“Would you like to come in?” She offers, standing aside to let him through. “I suppose you want to talk.”

“I’d love that.” He smiles, gazing at her still. “It’s funny.  You look exactly how I imagined.”

“I do?”

 “Pat said that looking at you was like looking into the face of the sun.”

They stand there in the living room for a moment, gazing at each other in deep silence, held captive by the weight of their own memories. A moment passes before Jay’s inappropriate sense of humour gets the best of her and it takes her a moment to realise Dan’s laughing too.

“Oh my god.” She wipes the tears of laughter from her eyes, shaking her head. “He really spouted that crap?”

“He really did.” He grins. “Can you believe it?”

Their smiles are painfully wide as Jay leads him through to the kitchen with a hand wrapped around his elbow.

“Would you like a cup of tea?” She asks, busying herself with the kettle.

“Have you got any coffee?”

It takes her a minute to lift her eyes away from his striking features.

“No. It’s tea only.” She crosses her arms, resting her back against the bench in a silent challenge. “So, what’s it going to be, Deakin? Tea or no tea?”

His laugh is a lovely raspy sound, which she tries hard to ignore.

“No tea.” He makes a cross with his arms. “I’ll just have water, thanks.”

“If you must.” She sighs, enjoying his resounding chuckle.

Once they’re seated, Jay, with a cup of hot Yorkshire and Dan, with a glass of water, she asks him point blank.

“Why weren’t you there?”

He beats around the bush a bit, running a hand through his sandy coloured hair and messing it up in the process. He takes a long sip of water and crosses and uncrosses his legs.

“Because of this.” He scoots his chair closer to her and rolls his left trouser leg up to his thigh, showcasing a black bionic leg. “Because I couldn’t walk down the church in front of all my former comrades like this. I couldn’t beg off carrying the coffin just because I’d had my leg blown off and hadn’t learnt to walk yet.”

“‘Just because’.” She echoes, staring at him in wild disbelief. “Are you stupid?”

A bark of laughter bursts through his pursed lips and suddenly, they’re both grinning.

“That’s not the response I usually get when someone finds out I’m an amputee.”

“I’m sorry,” she says, eyebrows folding into one another. “I’m sorry this happened to you.”

“It’s okay.” He says, with a smile stretched to the very limits. “It happened a long time ago.”

“I still miss Patrick every single day.” She tells him, looking down at where his real leg once was. “Time doesn’t seem to make it any less painful.”

“I’m sorry, you know.” He wraps a hand around the top of her forearm, squeezing gently. “I mean, I’m sorry that I wasn’t there and that I didn’t get in touch with you to tell you why. He made me promise—“

“He made you promise what?” She jumps in, emotion flaring.

“He told me that if anything ever happened to him, I should look after you--and your son. He said that you wouldn’t want me around at first and that you’d fight me every step of the way but eventually, you’d realise, you didn’t have to do it all on your own.”

Her breath hitches.

“He knew me so well.” Her eyes fill with tears. “Fuck.”

She covers her face, sobbing into her open palms as the shame of it splits her open further.

“Hey.” Dan’s palms find her cheeks, cradling them softly. “It’s okay. You can cry in front of me, Jay. I’m here now. Like I should have been ten years ago.”

“Why didn’t you—“ She lifts her hands away, still shaking. “Why didn’t you come then? Why now?”

“I wasn’t in a good place.” Dan speaks softly, frowning down at his leg. “After what happened, I could barely support myself, let alone anyone else. It was terrible, Jay. That day...it wasn’t just Pat and I. There were so many of us and we all got caught out. We were all in the wrong place at the wrong time. That day, Pat must have saved a hundred lives. A hundred, Jay. We freed an entire village. But on our way back, we ran into the Americans. Some of whom had done terrible things to the Iraqis. I stopped instantly, knowing something was off and then I saw Dan go down in front of me. It didn’t matter that we weren’t the targets. It didn’t matter that we’d saved a hundred lives. We had ivory skin and we were soldiers. So, they didn’t care to discriminate.

“I don’t remember much after that. I woke up back here, in London. They’d transported me pretty quickly for security reasons and they kept me asleep while they made the decision to cut off my leg. It was terrifying, honestly. I woke up with a stump and no memory of how I’d gotten from a war-ravaged country to a clean, well equipped hospital. When they explained it to me, I wept like a little boy.”


“And when they told you...” Tears stream down her cheeks. “When they told you about Patrick?”

“I shut down.” He says, imploring her to understand. “I couldn’t believe it. I remembered him going down but I never thought for one second, he wouldn’t get back up. He always did. Pat always seemed to be able to do what other people couldn’t. But this time was different. I had lost a brother. I hadn’t known him long but we risked our lives together. We shared a tent together. We spent so many nights sleeping cold and rough, talking about our lives back home and god, how excited he was to make it back to you Jay. He couldn’t wait to meet your little boy.”

“I know.” Her eyes had closed of their own volition. She felt her chest rise and fall quickly, in time with her breath. “I know he would have loved to meet him.”

“I failed all three of you.” Dan says, suddenly. When Jay opens her eyes, she finds him angrily rolling down his trouser leg and attempting to stand. “I should go. It’s not right for me to be here.”

“No!” She grabs hold of his fingers, jolting slightly when they touch. “Please. Stay.”

He sits back down slowly, watching her with bated breath.

“I forgive you.” She tells him, squeezing his hand. “I forgive you for not coming to see me. It wasn’t your job to look after me and it isn’t your job now. You didn’t know me. I’m happy he wanted to protect me but he had no right to ask you to take care of me.”

“Maybe.” Dan allows. “But I wish I had come anyway. I’ve felt guilty about it for years. It’s why I’m here now. My wife found some things of mine, the few things I have from that time. She thought maybe if I came to see you, it might help me move on. But I just...I just wanted to see you.” He blushes then, as if the kindness of that comment is something to be embarrassed about.

“Oh.” She finds herself strangely put off by the thought of his wife, most probably kind, beautiful and completely deserving of such a wonderful man. “Well. I hope I can help?”

“Your son. Is he here? Does he have brothers and sisters?”

“No—he’s...he’s an only child.” It’s her turn to blush now. “I haven’t been married since.”

“Oh, well...that’s okay.” He squeezes her hand. “I am surprised though. You’re very beautiful, Jay.”

“Thank you.” She releases his hand. It feels a bit too close for comfort now. “I suppose I’ve never met anyone who I was attracted to in the same way and no one who loved Louis as much as I do.”

“Louis. That’s your son?”

She nods. “He’ll be home from school any minute now. You can leave now, if you’d like.”

“Why on earth would I do a thing like that?” His eyes sparkled dangerously. “I want to meet him.”

So, half an hour later, Jay found herself watching in awe as the man her husband had been so charmed by, successfully charmed her son into liking him too.

“So let me get this straight,” He says to Louis, using over exaggerated hand gestures to make him laugh. “You can kick a ball twice as far as Harry?!”

“Yes!” Louis leans forward, slapping his hands down onto Dan’s thighs. “Hazza is terrible.”

 Dan just laughs and ruffles his hair.

“Well, it sounds like maybe you should be giving him lessons.”

“That’s a good idea.” Louis beams, no signs of the shyness Jay has come to associate with his meeting strangers. “But he might want to bring Will.”

“Who’s Will?” Dan glances between Jay and Louis.

“He’s not a very nice boy.” Jay interjects. “He makes fun of the boys for holding hands or hugging. He calls them babies.”

She waits patiently for the judgement or disapproval to show itself. She’s sure it had been there the first time she brought Nathan home. Yet, somehow, she missed it. Not this time. If there’s any chance of a friendship with this man, it can’t come at the cost of her son. It won’t.

“Sounds like he’s the one with the problem to me.” Dan gives Louis’ shoulder a squeeze. “Just ignore him, Lou. If you’re honest with Harry about how you feel, he’ll probably understand.”

Jay tries to keep the astonishment from showing.


“Oh. Yeah I suppose I could do that.”

And god almighty, Louis looks like he’s actually considering it. Jay should probably be mad that she couldn’t convince him herself but all she can do is sit back and beam at them, wondering why she’d hesitated to answer the door in the first place.

Hours later, when the sun is setting and Dan’s wife has called at least two times to check on him, Jay walks him out. They get halfway down the driveway before Louis runs up behind them and throws his arms around Dan’s waist.

“Thanks for playing kick to kick with me.” He says, a smile stretching his cheeks wide. “And thanks for telling me about my dad.”

 

His eyes drift down and away from Dan who crouches down and hugs him, holding him for a beat too long.

“Anytime, bud. You remind me of him, you know.”

“I do?” Louis presses his hands to his cheeks, eyes glimmering with excitement.

“Of course.” Dan lifts his eyes to Jay’s. “You’re the perfect mix of your dad and your mum.”

Jay’s heart throbs and Louis goes running back to the house with the kind of energy he usually reserves for Harry.

“Thank you.” She says to Dan, throwing her arms around him. “Thank you for coming to find me.”

“I’ll come back.” He promises. “Soon.”

“Okay.” She smiles, as he gets in the car, the sun setting just behind his head. “Have a safe drive back to London.”

“Take care of yourself Jay.” He grins, the definition of charm itself. “I’ll call to check that you are.”

“Off with you.” She says, but it’s about as fond as it can get. “I’m sick of you now.”

He throws his head back on a laugh and starts the car, lingering just long enough to make her heart falter. She goes inside only once she can no longer see his car. Once in, her eyes betray her at the sight of an empty glass and a discarded football. She misses him, she can’t pretend she doesn’t, but she can’t bring herself to question it. Not now, in the afterglow of her happiness.

Instead, she tucks Louis in, wondering how in the space of one day, one person could so thoroughly sweep the two of them off their feet. She feels closer to Patrick than ever before and can’t help but look forward to seeing Dan again.

“Goodnight love.” She kisses her son’s hair. “I’ll see you in the morning.”
                                                                       

                                                                             *-*-*-*-*
                                                                
Anne can’t say she’s done the vacuuming yet, or that Jay doesn’t have a load of washing waiting for her back at home. The boys are sleeping over at Hannah’s house which means it’s the perfect time for the two of them to catch up on their housework. However, it’s also the perfect time to catch up on each other’s lives and Anne’s desire to hear about the new man in Jay’s life is a lot more compelling than her desire to clean the house.

“Tea?” She asks, having already switched the kettle on and fetched two mugs from the top cabinet.

“Please.” Jay leans back to grin at her. “And a muffin, if you’ve got one.”

“Wow.” Anne smirks. “You must be getting the royal treatment from this new suitor of yours. Does he bring you baked goods every weekend?”

“Oh shh.” Jay waves her away, shoulders shaking with unwitting laughter. “He’s not my suitor.  He’s married, remember? And to a lovely woman, at that. I met her last weekend. I mean, she seemed a bit nervous around Louis but that’s fine.”

“So she’s not good with children?” Anne waggles her eyebrows and dumps a cube of sugar into her tea. She carries both mugs over to the table. “Sounds like trouble in paradise to me.”

“Stop!” Jay giggles. “I’m not even interested in him. We’re friends, that’s all. And he’s good with Louis.”

“He treats you like a queen, he brings you baked goods...” she says, ticking the items off on her fingers. “He helps you do your washing, he spends almost the entirety of his weekends here and let’s not forget, Patrick loved him. If that isn’t a ringing endorsement, then I don’t know what is.”

“Anne. He’s married. And the last thing, the absolute last thing I would ever do…” Her voice shakes. “…is get involved with my husband’s best friend.”

“I’m sorry.” She rubs at Jay’s shoulder, sipping nervously at her own tea. “I didn’t mean it like that. I didn’t mean to make light of it.”

“I know.” Jay smiles, clearly worn from overthinking this exact thing. “It’s just...it’s not the same as you and Irwin. You have every right to move on and you should, you really should. But it’s different for me. Patrick didn’t abandon me. He didn’t walk away. He died. I can’t stop loving him just because he died.”

“But you don’t have to.” Anne urges. “It doesn’t have to be a betrayal. Don’t you think he would have wanted you to be happy? He would have wanted you to fall in love again. It doesn’t have to mean letting him go.”

“Maybe.” Jay twists the silver wedding band that fits perfectly on her ring finger. “Maybe I’m just not ready. And even if I was…I would never get involved with a married man.”

“I know. I was just teasing.” She asserts, though she can’t help but wonder if there isn’t something between Jay and her mystery man after all. The way Jay keeps frowning down into her tea makes it clear that something is on her mind. “I know you’d never do that to another woman. He is lovely though, isn’t he? A good friend for you, hmm?”

Jay nods, her eyes downcast.

“He’s wonderful.” Her eyelashes flutter like happy little butterflies. “It’s only been a month and he’s
already got this amazing relationship with Louis that I’m not even privy to. They get along like a house on fire.”

“Harry’s a bit miffed.” Anne admits with a laugh. “He said it to me the other day, ‘Lou’s been spending so much time with that Dan guy, mum. He never wants to hang out with Will and me.’”

Jay sighs. “I remember the days when they used to ask each other over to play.  What is this ‘hanging out’ business? When did that change?”

“I dunno.” She shrugs, feeling a bit melancholy herself. “When did they stop asking us to help them with their homework and demanding bedtime cuddles? When did they grow up?”

“And how long before they don’t need us anymore?”

Anne takes a purposely noisy slurp of her tea, watching as the bubble of light reappears behind her friend’s eyes.

“Are you serious?” Jay laughs, narrowing her eyes.

“Am I serious about what?” She takes another noisy slurp. “I’m just sitting here quietly enjoying my tea— “Jay snorts a laugh. “---and you’re having a damn conniption.”

“Jesus.” Jay pushes her, laughing to herself. “No wonder Harry has such a strange sense of humour.”

“As opposed to your son, who giggles every time Harry sticks two straws in his mouth and pretends to be a walrus.”

“To be fair, I also think that’s very funny.” Jay pouts.

Anne grabs two sugar packets from the table and lodges them in her gums. The silence lasts only long enough for Jay to hunch forward, laughing, while Anne leans back, cackling just as loudly.


It’s a good day to be Jay Tomlinson’s best friend.

                                                                            *-*-*-*-*

The agreement was that they could only walk home without adult supervision if they had at least two more people to go with them. So, Louis had asked Hannah and Harry, much to Louis’ dismay, had asked Will.

The four of them usually get along pretty famously. Well, unless Hannah spends too much time talking to Louis or Will says something acerbic to Louis and Louis says something even more acerbic back. Truth be told, it’s a precarious arrangement.

Still, Harry thinks there’s no better feeling than when Hannah and Will turn left at the third intersection and Louis and himself turn right. There’s nothing more satisfying than the moment he knows it’s just the two of them again, Harry and Louis, the way it’s supposed to be.

Today Louis ignores him right up until the moment Hannah and Will leave. It’s not uncommon for him to do that when he’s feeling particularly peeved at Harry for something, but it’s also not uncommon for Harry not to know what he’s done. Harry usually has to spend the rest of the walk home trying to figure it out. His mum says he and Louis are like a married couple. Harry tells her that the whole marriage joke isn’t funny anymore. He’s ten. He knows he’s not going to marry Louis now.

“Lou-eee.” Harry calls after him. Louis’ currently marching ahead, a sour look contorting his face. “Wait up.”

“No.” Louis shouts, walking faster. “Maybe you should go over to Will’s. Ask him to walk you home.”

“Louis, don’t be stupid. Just tell me why you’re angry.”

If you don’t know,” Louis shoots him a look, “I’m not going to tell you.”

“Well that’s just idiotic.” Harry throws his hands up in the air. “How am I s’posed to make it up to you if I don’t even know what I did?”

“I dunno.” Louis grumbles. “Ask Will.”

“Would you stop saying that?” He yells. “It makes no sense! Is this about Will? Did Will say something to you? I’ll talk to him, Lou. Just tell me what he said.”

“Nothing, Harry.” His shoulders sink towards the ground. “It doesn’t matter.”

“Tell me, Lou.” He begs. “I’m sorry for whatever I’ve done. I’m sorry that I didn’t figure it out sooner. That’s why you’re angry, right? Because I’ve been talking to him like normal?”

“You don’t get it, Harry!” Louis wheels around on the spot, catching Harry by surprise. “Will always says something. He thinks I’m soft and sensitive and not good enough to be your friend. He hates me. But you think he’s some kind of hero. You treat him like he’s cooler and smarter and better than me. And maybe he is, but at least I’m kind. At least I don’t make fun of you for holding hands with a boy.”

“Lou.” All he wants to do is take Louis into his arms and press him tight against his chest. “Lou, I’m sorry.”

Louis’ bottom lip quivers.

“Mum says that if you won’t stop hanging out with Will, maybe I should spend more time with Hannah.”

“What? No.” Harry begs, winding his arms around Louis’ waist. “I want you with me, Lou. Always. If it’s a choice between you and Will...”

“You’d choose him, right?” Louis’ eyes water. He tugs at the bottom of his own shirt, fisting it tightly in his little hands.

“No. Louis, I’d choose you!” Harry pulls Patrick Tomlinson’s dog tags out from beneath his shirt. “You’re my best friend, Lou. My favourite person. I’d never let anyone hurt you, at least… not on purpose. I’m sorry I didn’t realise how bad he was making you feel.”

“It’s okay, Haz.” Louis mutters, wet eyelashes clumping together.

Harry can see quite clearly that it’s not. He should have known Will’s comments were upsetting Louis.

“I’m going to tell him not to come near us.” He takes Louis’ wrists and uses his grip on them to pull the smaller boy into a hug. “It’ll be okay, I promise.”

Harry squeezes him tight, gently rubbing his back.

“Oh. Oh, Hazza! Hazza, look!”

“What?” Harry releases him. “Look at what?”

“There!” Louis points in the opposite direction to home. “By the light post!”

When he turns around, he sees a bushy tailed, ginger haired cat, nestled into the grass at the bottom of the light post. It’s probably a kitten, actually, given how small it is. Harry can’t help but want to scoop the little thing up into his arms and take it home.

“C’mon.” He tugs on Louis’ fingers, dragging him over to the kitten’s makeshift bed in the grass.

“Do you think it has a home?” Louis peers down at its raggedy fur, bending down to softly stroke its side. “It looks like it needs a good brush.”

The kitten seems disgruntled with this, waking only long enough to blink its murky green eyes open and meow in Louis’ direction.

“I think he likes you.” Harry giggles. “You should keep petting him, Lou.”

“How do you know it’s a he?” Louis asks, scratching the kitten’s head. The kitten purrs softly, encouraging further petting.

“I dunno, I just do.” Harry shrugs, not willing to explain cat anatomy to Louis.

“Well.” Louis scoops the kitten up into his arms and stands up. “Let’s take it home then.”

“Think they’ll let us keep him?” Harry asks, more than sceptical. “Your mum didn’t even like Cheshire that much.”

“Well, we don’t know until we try, do we?” Louis flashes a mischievous grin.

“C’mon then.” Harry quickens his step. “They’ll be more likely to say no if we’re late getting home from school.”

 

                                                                              *-*-*-*-*


“Boys, you can’t possibly keep him as a pet. Just because he doesn’t have a registered owner, doesn’t mean there isn’t someone out there looking for him right now. And where is he going to live? Here or at Anne’s? You’d have to share custody.”

Louis glances at Harry who flashes him a discreet thumb up.

“Mum, we can share custody.” Whatever that means, Louis thinks to himself. “We’re old enough to take care of it ourselves.”

“Him, Lou.” Harry pats his thigh. “It’s a him, remember.”

“Right.” Louis grabs Harry’s hand, kicking his feet against the bottom of the couch. “We’re old enough to take care of him.”

Anne leans forward, balancing precariously on the edge of the coffee table. She and Jay had sat the boys down on the couch the moment they got back from the vet, stern expressions fixed firmly in place as they went through with the plan they’d discussed.

“And are you old enough to pay for him too?” She asks Harry, watching for any signs of indecision. “Because I don’t see you two being all that willing to spend your pocket money on food and cat litter.”

“We will!” Harry insists, sharing another glance with Louis. “We want to. And if the owner turns up, we’ll give him right back, we promise.”

“But can you handle the responsibility?” Jay inserts. “Because caring for a pet is a lot like caring for a child and while I know you both loved Cheshire very much, it was Anne who took care of him. You boys are going to have to handle it your own this time around. You’re going to have to feed him and fill up his water and clean up his litter. You’re going to have to brush him and make sure he’s in at a reasonable time every night. And sharing custody isn’t going to be easy. There might be nights where one of you wants to have him but the other one does too. You’ll have to compromise and come to an agreement between you.”

“We can do that!” Louis nudges Harry in the ribs. “Can’t we, Haz?”

“Yes!” Harry latches onto Anne’s knees. “Besides Mum, we already named him.”

“Oh?” Anne raises an eyebrow. “And what have you chosen?”

“Well...” he looks at Louis who does a drum roll on his knees. “His name is…Biscuit.”

“Biscuit?” Jay laughs. “Darlings, are you sure?”

“Are you saying we can keep him?” Louis grins.

Anne and Jay share a look.

“If—” The boys cheer. “And only if, you promise to look after him as if he were your own child. The way we’ve always looked after you two.”

“Thank you mummy!” Louis squeals, throwing his arms around Jay’s neck.

Harry does the same, piling on behind Louis, before they both throw their arms around Anne.

“Thank you, thank you, thank you.” They chorus, grinning at each other in between kissing their mum’s.

Much later, when Biscuit is tucked into bed with Louis, Jay calls Anne.


“Think the boys knew we were always going to let them keep him?” She asks.

“No.” Anne snorts into the phone. “Jay, we got them to agree to do all the work themselves. We’re bloody geniuses!”

They giggle about it for the next half an hour.

                                                                                  *-*-*-*-*

“Louis, why can’t you just look after him tonight? I have a guitar lesson!”

“Well I’ve got piano!” Louis shouts back, storming off down the path away from school.

“Louis, it’s your night! You’re not doing your part. Biscuit misses you. He probably thinks you don’t love him anymore.”

“Don’t be obtuse.” Louis twists around to glare at him. “He’s just a cat.”

“He’s our cat.” Harry corrects. “And you’re neglecting him. You’re just like my dad.”

“Take that back!” Louis screeches, scrunching his face. “Take it back!”

“No!” Harry roars. “Not unless you take biscuit!”

“Fine.” Louis tilts his chin, defiant. “I’ll just ask Hannah to look after him.”

“You wouldn’t.”

“I would.”

“But Lou! I don’t trust her with him! He’s ours, Lou.” He sulks. “You can’t just hand him off to someone else.”

“She’s not just anybody, Haz.” Louis shifts his feet, turning his face away from Harry. “She’s my girlfriend.”

“What?” The colour drains away from Harry’s face. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I dunno, H.” Louis pulls on the hem of his t-shirt. “I didn’t think you’d be happy about it.”

“Well I’m not.” Harry says, winded. It’s like Hannah stabbed him in the gut with the one thing she knew was sharp enough to hurt. “Why her, Lou? She’s not even pretty.”

“Shut up, Harry.” Louis turns away from him, taking aggressive strides to get away. “I’ll have biscuit tonight, okay? I’ll just cancel my lesson.”

“No, Lou.” Harry can feel the loss of his friend coating the back of his throat like thick layers of immovable glue. “Don’t cancel it, Lou. I’ll take him. I’m sorry for what I said. I just thought...I thought that if you and Hannah ever started going out, you’d tell me straight away.”

“Well I’m telling you now.”

Louis doesn’t turn to face him again the whole way home and when Harry calls him just before dinner, Jay tells him that Louis doesn’t want to speak to him. After that, Harry cries into his mum’s shoulder for an hour and demands that Biscuit sleep in his bed.

“I’m sorry Biscuit.” He says, just before his eyelids dip closed in defeat. “I’m sorry I screwed it all up.”

 

                                                                                        *-*-*-*-*

“Louis, we need to talk.”

“About what, mum?”

Her son stares up at her with the age of innocence lingering in his expression. She wonders, briefly, how long it will last, especially with what she has to tell him.

“Louis, you remember when we talked about high school? About how, usually, when you turn eleven, you move to a different school?”

“Yeah?” He leans back against his wall, dragging Biscuit into his lap. “Why?”

“Well...sweetheart, Harry’s almost eleven. In a few months, he’ll be old enough to move on.”

“And so will I.” He says, confused. “Right?”

“Well...” Her heart flutters anxiously. “Actually, you won’t be moving on. Sweetheart, Harry’s in the year above. That means you’ll actually have to wait another year before you move on. Which means...”

“Harry and I will be at different schools.” Louis’ mouth parts, horror taking shape inside his eyes. “Mum, Harry and I are going to be apart, aren’t we?”

“I’m so sorry, love.” She cups his face in her hands, watching with regret as his eyes fill with tears. “I know things have been difficult lately.”

“He doesn’t even come over anymore. Not unless I promise not to talk about Hannah.” He whimpers. “Mum, what’s going to happen if we’re not even at the same school anymore?” He asks, heart racing.

“It’ll work out darling, I know it will.” She kisses his hair, smoothing it back into place. “You’ll make new friends, Louis. And you’ll have Hannah, remember? Hannah isn’t leaving you.”

“I know.” He says, mouth pulling downwards. “But I think maybe Hannah and I should break up.”

Jay’s heart aches watching such dark emotions play out across her little boy’s face. He looks so small, sitting there with the corner of his thick duvet clutched between his little hands, a lost look in his eyes.


“Really?” She feigns surprise. “Is it not working out?”

“Well.” He chews on the side of his mouth. “I think I liked it better when we’d race each other to our spot at break? Now we always have to hold hands.”

“Oh.” She hides a smile. “And you don’t want to hold hands?”

“Only with Harry.” He admits, pinking up. “Is that strange?”

“Of course not. You’re not strange at all. I’m sure Harry will be very pleased to have you back. And Hannah, she’ll be okay. She’s a smart girl. I’m sure she’ll understand.”

“But what about Harry, mum?” He pales at the thought. “What about him going away to high school? He probably won’t want to hang out with a baby like me.”

“You are not a baby!” She tells him, contradictorily wishing he still was. “And I am certain that Harry will still be your friend in a year’s time, okay?”

“Okay.” He agrees, eyebrows tenting. “Mum, can I sleep with Biscuit tonight?”

She agrees quickly, knowing full well that sometimes he’s the only thing that stands between her child and his anxiety. Well, that and Harry Styles. It’s just hard on the nights when Harry can’t be here and Jay needs her sleep. That’s why she’s so grateful that Biscuit wandered into their lives. Without him, Louis would probably be in a full-blown panic by now and it’s not lost on her how lucky they are to have found something that helps. She discussed it with Louis’ psychologist, Wendy, just last week…

“Do you think it’s a problem?” She’d said. “That I depend on Biscuit so much to keep him calm?”

“Of course not, Jay.” Wendy assured her. “I think you’re in a difficult position, as any working mother would be, and you cope remarkably well. Louis is doing better for having Biscuit as a pet. It helps soothe him at times but more than that, it’s looking after something more vulnerable than himself that’s helping Louis to build confidence. He’s starting to feel more and more capable with every passing week and the more capable he feels, the more he’s capable of, Jay.”

Jay had slept very soundly that night and has every night since.

“Goodnight sweetheart.” She says now and kisses the tip of Louis’ nose, enjoying the fleeting grin it inspires. “I’ll see you in the morning.’

“See you in the morning, mum.” He clasps her to him and presses his face into her neck.

 

In that moment, she can feel just how wet his eyelashes are. But when she pulls back, she finds his eyes half lidded and his hands buried quite happily in Biscuit’s fur.

“I love you.” She tucks him in. “And remember, Dan’s coming over on Sunday. I know he can’t wait to hear all about your class trip.”

His eyes momentarily light up, dull blue bursting into bright fluorescence.

“I can’t wait either.” He presses his cheek down into the pillow. “I love you mummy.”

 “I love you too darling.”

It’s all Jay needs to sleep soundly tonight.

 

                                                                                  *-*-*-*-*


When Hannah comes to meet him in the bag room before break, Louis tells her he’d rather not hold hands. In fact, he’d rather that they never held hands again.

“But why?” She asks, an angry little crinkle making itself known at the top of her nose.  “What’s so bad about holding hands with me?”

“Nothing.” He insists. “I just don’t want to do it.”

“It’s because of Harry, isn’t it?” She cocks her head to the left, her pigtails swishing to the side. “Because he doesn’t like me?”

“No, Harry had nothing to do with this. Hannah,” he begs her. “I still want to be your friend.”

She screws her face up at him and plants her feet a metre apart.

“Well maybe I don’t want to be yours.” She tells him, sour faced. “You’re a bad boyfriend, Louis Tomlinson and an even worse friend. You’ve always liked Harry more than me.”

“That’s not true!” He cries out, ignoring the other kids rushing past them to get out the door. “Besides, Harry’s leaving anyway. He’s going to high school next year.”

“So?” She grabs her lunch and tucks it under her arm. “I don’t want to be your back up, Louis and I certainly don’t want to hang around with someone who likes Harry Styles more than me.” She says with a sneer.

And with that, she sprints out the door, linking arms with a girl Louis didn’t even know she talked to until today.

                                                                                     *-*-*-*-*

Things go from bad to worse when they’re walking home from school and Louis tells Harry his news.

“Hannah and I have split up. Oh, and apparently you’re going to high school without me.”

“You split up?” Harry turns to face him, walking backwards down the path. “Why? Are you sick of her?”

“No.” Louis snaps. “She got sick of me and broke up with me. I wish she hadn’t.” He lies. “I wish I could hold her hand every day for the rest of my life.”

“Great.” Harry smiles, fake as anything. “Because I can’t wait to go to high school and find someone much prettier than stupid Hannah to hold hands with. And this time, you won’t be there to screw it up. You know, like you did with Camille.”

Louis curls in slightly, poisoned by the memory. He’s already lost Hannah today. He can’t lose Harry too.

“Harry.” He runs over, throwing his arms around the taller boy. “Harry, I’m sorry. But you can’t say mean things about her. You just can’t.”

“Okay....” Harry’s shoulders sink with defeat. He curls his arms around Louis and rocks them from side to side. “I’m going to miss you next year, little Lou. It won’t be the same.”

“I’ll miss you too.” Louis’ tears dampen Harry’s school shirt. “I’ll miss you like crazy, Harry Styles.”

                                                                            *-*-*-*-*


When Louis bursts through the door with tears streaming down his cheeks, he’s immediately enveloped in a tight embrace.

“Mum?” He asks, clutching her around the waist.

“Try again.” He hears a deep voice rumble, and when he looks up, he sees it’s Dan.

“Dan!” He crows, itching to be picked up.

His mum may not be strong enough to hold him anymore but Dan always hoists him up like it’s nothing.

“Hey mate.” Dan looks him over. “Are you okay, bud? Did something happen while you were walking home?”

He puts Louis down then, smoothing his hands over his shoulders.

“You can tell me, Lou. What happened? Your mum’s just gone to get something for dinner.”

“You’re staying for dinner?” A smile breaks through the surface of his tears. “I thought you weren’t coming till Sunday?”

“It’s a surprise.” Dan grins. “I thought maybe you needed one.”

“How did you know?” Louis asks, awed. “Did mum tell you about Harry?”

“She did. Is that’s what’s bothering you?” He pokes Louis’ side. “Is that why you’ve been crying?”

“And...and Hannah stopped being my friend today.” Louis’ spirits sink even lower. “I think I’m going to be all alone next year.”

“Oh Lou.” Dan grabs him by the hand and leads him over to the couch, pulling him down into his lap. “Lou, you’ll never be alone. Not with an incredible mum like yours and a brilliant, funny, adventurous friend like me.” He winks. “Plus, you’ll still have Harry. Even if he’s not around at school. And you never know Lou, maybe you’ll meet someone else. Maybe you’ll make friends with someone even nicer than Hannah.”

“No one is nicer than Hannah.” He grumbles. “And no one could replace Harry.”

“You’re right. Of course, you’re right, you brilliant boy.” He squeezes Louis around the waist, eyes twinkling. It’s one of Louis’ favourite things about him; the fact that he always looks like he’s about to say or do something heroic and exciting. “But that doesn’t mean you won’t make friends with someone just as fun. It’ll be scary, Louis, I know that…but I want you to know that you can always talk to me. These last few months, getting to know you and your mum, it’s been one of the best things that’s ever happened to me. I love spending time with you two and if you ever need me, I promise I’ll come right away.”

Louis lays his head against Dan’s chest, curling his fingers in the older man’s light blue polo.

“You promise?”

“I promise.” Dan pets his hair down. “I’ll never let you down, Louis.”

Chapter Text

Harry and Louis: Eleven Years Old

The first day of every school year is always nerve wracking but today is just down right miserable. In fact, Louis’ never felt so much dread at the thought of it. It takes three wake-up calls before he will even consider lifting his head off the pillow and even then, his mum basically has to drag him to the breakfast table. And now they’re arguing.

“You have to eat, Louis,’ she says, pushing the bowl of cornflakes across the table. “This is not up for discussion.” 

“Says you,” Louis mutters, for which he receives a highly arched eyebrow that promises definite punishment.

“I’m not eating those anyway,” he scowls, pulling a mewling Biscuit into his lap. “Cornflakes are a standard… not a favourite.”

She shakes her head, looking at him like someone must have swapped her child for someone else’s.

“Where on earth did you get that?”

“Dan.” He shrugs. “He says rice bubbles are the best.”

Jay clicks her tongue and pushes away from the table, snatching the phone off the hook and marching into her room.

“Dan is not always the authority you seem to think he is,” she says over her shoulder, “and if you’re not done eating those cornflakes by the time I get back,’ she points a finger at him, ‘so help me god, I will stop you from going over to Harry’s after school. Is that what you want?”

She doesn’t wait for his answer before slamming the door. Louis grumbles his reply anyway.

“No, that’s not what I want.”

He digs into his cornflakes then, knowing nothing could make this day any worse. He’s completely friendless, Harry’s moved on to high school without him and he hasn’t even heard from Dan who promised to call him on his first day.

                                                                                       *-*-*

The ringtone is echoing a bit and slightly slower than normal which could indicate that Dan’s already engaged in another call. Figures, Jay huffs to herself as she carefully tucks the corners of her violet bedspread under her mattress. The man is only contactable when it’s Louis calling.

“Jay!” He finally picks up, sounding obnoxiously cheerful, as if everything in this universe exists simply to please him. “It’s been a while since we spoke. I mean, I know we saw each other last weekend...and the one before that, but you were avoiding me so—"

“What are you talking about?” She says, left eye twitching. “I wasn’t avoiding you.”

“Oh really.”

Jay rolls her eyes, muttering insults as she places the phone between the crook of her shoulder and the hollow of her neck, sliding her arms into the navy blazer she’s just picked out for work. 

“I can hear you, you know,” he says. “C’mon Jay, don’t pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about. Every time I come over there, you palm me off on Louis and leave us both to go do some errand. Or, you busy yourself with housework that just has to be done inside your room with a closed door and a five-foot mile radius between us.”

So he noticed that. Great, she thinks, angrily whipping through the trousers in her closet.

“Oh excuse me, I thought you liked spending time with my son. But I suppose I was wrong about that, wasn’t as I? Seeing as you promised you would call him on his first day and you obviously forgot. Louis’ probably beside himself. And you know what, while we’re on the subject, I wanted to tell you to stop putting silly ideas into his head.”

“One thing at a time,” Dan says. “First of all, I do like spending time with him and you know that. Louis is everything I could ever want in a son.” She falters, hand slipping from inside the folds of a pair of grey trousers and landing on her chest instead. Her heart thrums, suddenly mobile beneath her skin. “I didn’t say I don’t love every minute we spend together, because I do. I was just saying I enjoy spending time with you too. I thought we were friends and I miss you.”

She sits down heavily on the freshly made bed, pressing the phone right up to her ear as if the sounds coming from it are too sacrosanct for anyone but her to hear.

“You miss me?” She presses a hand to her forehead. “Dan, look, I—I miss your company too,” she concedes, “but I just think—your wife— “

“My wife?” he cuts in, voice raised. “What does Nora have to do with anything?”

“You don’t think it’s a bit strange that you spend all your weekends with another woman and her son? I know it’s nothing, um...untoward but maybe, maybe you shouldn’t be spending so much time with us. Surely Nora must miss you?”

“Yeah.” Dan scoffs, exhaling a sigh into the phone. “I’m sure she’s missing me a lot. That must be why she’s been living at her parent’s house for the last six weeks.”

It’s like an actual punch in the gut. How did she not know this? 

“Oh Dan, I’m so sorry.” She gnaws at the side of her bottom lip. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Because,” he laughs, bitterly, “you weren’t there to hear it. Although I must admit, even if we had found time to talk, I’m not sure I would have been ready. I’ll tell you more on the weekend but it turns out that Nora doesn’t want to have a baby anytime soon. In fact…’ he breathes heavily, ‘she says she might not want to have one ever.”

“Oh.” The air is quiet between them, crackling with static and unspoken tension. “And this came up because...”

“Because of Louis,” he confirms with a rush of breath. “Because I see what a damn good kid he is and how brilliant you are with him. I mean, the way you two are together... I want that. I want to mean to someone what you mean to Louis. I want to take care of him.”

“Your own son, you mean?” she asks, kneading her pyjama clad knees.

“Exactly.” His voice is rough. “I just...I want the kind of weekends I have when I’m with you two. I want to be that happy all the time.” 

“You deserve that,” she says, sure of only that. “You deserve to have a big family with someone who wants one just as much as you do.”

“Right. So.” His breath is short, almost like he’s been pacing. “Moving on. I did call Louis...or I tried to. That’s why it took you so long to get through. I was calling you guys at the exact same time.”

“Oh.” She deflates. “Sorry.” 

“It’s okay. But what’s all this about me putting ideas in his head? I can’t think of anything particularly damaging that I could have said to him.”

“Not damaging to him,” she laughs, shaking her head, “damaging to me. Did you or did you not tell him that he shouldn’t eat cornflakes anymore?”

There’s a telling pause which makes her roll her eyes.

“Well…not in those exact words.”

“Dan!” 

“I’m sorry,” he chuckles. “I just feel so comfortable with the lad, I end up talking to him like we’re just two blokes sitting in a pub, having a chat. He’s very mature, I’ll have you know.”

“I sincerely hope you haven’t been treating my eleven-year-old,” she pauses, “as if he’s just another bloke in the pub. Daniel Deakin, if that boy gets even a sip of your beer— “

“I’m just kidding, sweetheart,” he laughs to himself but Jay instantly falls silent, perturbed by the painfully intimate term of endearment.

“Did that make you uncomfortable?” he says, after a moment of quiet. “I didn’t mean anything by it.”

“Of course not.” She rushes to say, grimacing to herself. “It’s fine. Would you like to talk to Lou?” 

“I’d be honoured,” he says. “Put my little lad on.” 

Jay presses her lips together hard.

“He’d be terribly mad at you for calling him that, you know.”

“Well, I think he’d also be terribly mad to know his mother is monopolising his phone time with me.” She can almost hear the twinkle in his eye. “Wouldn’t he now?”

“I’ll just get him for you,” she agrees, in spite of herself.

“Thanks, love.” 

She opens the door. “Louis, there’s someone on the phone who wants to speak to you!”

She ignores the feeling of unrest stirring inside her chest. 

                                                                                     *-*-*

It’s not a first day without Louis. That’s the only thought in Harry’s head as he walks down the new and unfamiliar halls of high school without Louis by his side. Everything is different here, from the size of the lockers to the way the older kids smirk at all the first years as if they know something the new kids don’t.

The teachers are tougher, more expectant and after two periods, Harry’s binder is already half full with homework. He could use a comforting presence right now as his eyes dart around, cataloguing the hordes of students pressed up against their lockers or waiting outside classrooms, their young faces sporting shiny piercings or strange, spiky haircuts.

Not to mention that a shaky, jittery feeling steals over his entire body every time his eyes float past another classroom that doesn’t hold a head of soft, woodsy hair.  Louis isn’t here to commiserate with or protect. Usually, Harry feels emboldened by the way Louis relies on him but here, in these big, grey halls that smell of cigarette smoke and too-sweet perfume, Harry is just a naive little first year. He feels like he has no hope in hell of making it out alive. If it weren’t for the way Louise and Tom link their arms through his and drag him through the crowd of loud, apathetic teenagers, Harry thinks he might have just stood there gaping all day. 

“He’s probably fine, you know,” Louise whispers to him, nudging his side as they line up outside the home economics room. 

“Who?” Harry says, completely spaced out as he watches two rugby players push their way through the other students, their meaty arms twice the size of Harry’s lanky limbs.

“Louis.” Louise hits him over the shoulder, the ‘duh’ implicit in her tone. “I know you must be worried about him.”

It makes Harry feel like the single worst best friend ever. How could he have been so selfish? He was thinking of how awful this is for him, not Louis. Yet, he knows for a fact Louis is twice as likely to struggle today as he is. At the start of Christmas holidays, Louis had given him a walkie talkie with explicit instructions of how they would use them to communicate on their first day back…

“I’ve checked with mum,” he had said, eyes glimmering. “And it turns out, we have breaks at the same time. So…we went and got these.” He pulled out two walkie talkies and wrapped Harry’s hand around the one on the left. “And mum said so long as they don’t come out until break, we can use them to talk. You have to turn it on, though to hear me call. Don’t forget, Hazza.”

“I could never,” Harry had promised, wide eyed.

How could he ever forget Louis? 

Except, he has. Because while he’s thought about Louis not being here with him, he’s scarcely thought about Louis being stuck at their old school, alone. He didn’t turn the walkie talkie on at break and in fact, he’s pretty sure in his nervous rush to do his new, fancy tie this morning, he forgot to pack the thing. Louis is going to be so mad at him. Worse than that, he’ll be devastated. 

Harry suddenly latches on to what Louise said.

“Do you really think he’ll be okay?” He asks, pressing his thumb into a loose hangnail. “He doesn’t have any friends anymore and the other kids were always so mean to him. What will he do without me?”

Louise rolls her eyes—an interesting habit she’s just picked up in the last year—and pushes him ahead of her. They file into the classroom behind their teacher, knocking elbows as everybody fights their way to the work benches near the heaters.

“He’s not a baby, H,” she says, looking so much hipper than him with her new choppy haircut and recently pierced ears. “He’s the same age as you. You always act like he’s your little brother or something.”

Because he is, Harry thinks to himself, Louis is some of the only real family he’s got. 

“Louis’ not like other kids,” Harry finds himself saying. “He gets upset easily. He needs someone to protect him.”

Louise shrugs, grabbing one of the navy aprons that the teacher offers them both. Harry takes one, following her and Tom to the back of the room. 

“Maybe he just needs to work it out on his own.” She smiles softly. “It’s not like you can make his friends for him.”

It’s a frustrating but accurate conclusion. Louise somehow always seems to get right to the truth of things. She once told Harry she wants to be a psychologist and he doesn’t think that’s particularly far-fetched. She’s good at sorting out problems, whether it’s basic arithmetic or the fact that Louis and Harry are completely separated for the first time ever.

“You’re right,” he tells her, smiling openly. “Louis will be alright by himself.”

                                                                                     *-*-*

It’s halfway through lunch and Louis’ lying down on the grass in their old spot, the one that sits beneath the big oak tree which borders the schoolyard. It’s raining softly overhead and Louis’ using his navy winter jacket as a tent-like hood. The walkie talkie is pressed to his ear and there’s a solitary tear sliding down his icy cheek.

He’s had nothing but static for the last half an hour, the same as recess, and now a multitude of tears start to track their way down his face as he lets the walkie talkie slide from his hand. 

“Fuck you, Harry,” he says, kicking his school shoes into the dirt. 

“Your mum know you’re using that kind of language?” a voice says from above, a hint of a smirk embedded in his tone.

“What’s it to you?” Louis asks, tilting his head back to look at whoever’s come to tease him. 

He’s never seen this boy before and at this point, Louis knows almost everyone in his year level as well as the year below. He should recognise the boy but doesn’t. The boy is about a head taller than him with almond-toned skin, warm eyes and dark features.

“I’m Zayn.” The boy gets down on the ground with Louis and stretches his body out beside him. “I’m the new kid. You must be Louis, the loner.”

Louis blinks his eyelashes quickly and digs his fingers into the dirt.

“They call me that?” His voice is weak at best. 

“Sure.” Zayn rolls over into his side, looking down at Louis’ disgruntled expression. “But I think that it’s cool.”

“You think it’s cool?” Louis arches his eyebrows. “It’s cool that I’m out here in the rain, spending my break alone?” 

“Um, yeah.” Zayn says, as if it’s obvious. Louis is quickly learning that Zayn always sounds like he’s about to flip you the bird or laugh at your expense. Somehow, Louis doesn’t mind it. “Why would you wanna be sitting around with those idiots, swapping fart jokes and rating the prissiest girls in our grade?”

Louis doesn’t know what ‘prissiest’ means but he likes the way Zayn talks. He likes that all his words have hardened edges. 

“Well...I’d rather sit with them than sit alone.” Louis pushes his shoe back through the dirt, watching the rain pool inside the hollow space he’s carved out in the ground.

“You’re not alone.” Zayn shoves his shoulder. “And if you are, well now we’re alone together.” 

Louis giggles at that and pushes Zayn hard, laughing harder when Zayn squeaks in surprise. 

“Do you have any food?” Louis asks, after several moments spent watching the rain coat the dewy leaves in front of them. “I ate all my lunch at recess.” 

Zayn goes cross eyed trying to figure that out. 

“Why would you do that?”

Louis picks up the walkie talkie and switches it off, tucking it deep inside his waistband. 

“Cause.” He shrugs, lips pursed. “I had nothing better to do.”

“Open your hand and close your eyes,” Zayn says and Louis finds himself doing exactly that, not really sure as to why he trusts someone with a bowl haircut and Velcro shoes. 

A rattling sound emanates from Zayn’s direction and moments later, a handful of small, cold items descend into Louis’ palm. 

“You can open your eyes now.” 

Louis opens his eyes and finds that his palm is full of M&M’s, a novelty to Louis whose household is a no-go zone for most forms of refined sugar. 

“Your mum gave you these?!” Louis squawks, pressing his palm to his mouth and sucking them all in at once. “My mum—“ He swallows. “My mum only gives me a sandwich…or carrot sticks or disgusting dried fruit.” 

Zayn smirks at that and tilts the packet into Louis’ open hand, pouring until there are so many M&M’s, they start to spill over the sides.

“Stop!” Louis laughs, pushing him away. “You’re wasting them!” 

Zayn chuckles and tucks the rest into his pocket, watching slant eyed and smiling as Louis deposits the whole handful in his mouth again. 

“So. Can we be alone together?” Zayn asks, the corners of his mouth shifting as he watches Louis intently. “I can get you more M&M’s.” 

“Deal,” Louis says and watches the other boy momentarily light up.

It turns out Louis didn’t need Harry to look after him, after all. 

                                                                                   *-*-*

They’re sitting on Louis’ bed that night, Louis snuggled tightly under Harry’s arm, and Harry couldn’t be less enthused with the topic of conversation.

“He split his M&M’s with me, Haz,’ Louis is saying, his smiling cheek pressed to Harry’s chest, ‘and at the end of the school, he offered to walk me home.”

“Why would he need to walk you home?” Harry huffs. “You’re not a baby.”

Louis’ eyebrows furrow and he pulls the bowl of chips they’d be sharing back onto his lap, curling a protective arm around it.

“Wanting someone to walk home with wouldn’t make me a baby.” Louis scowls. “We used to do it every day.”

“It was different with us,” Harry says and rolls his eyes. “This Zayn kid sounds like someone you shouldn’t trust.”

“And why’s that?” Louis twists away from him, wiggling over to the other side of the bed. “Because he wants to be friends with a loser like me?”

He fixes his eyes on the window on the left side of his room, clearly trying to calm his breathing. Harry follows his gaze to the storm clouds fast approaching. They both watch the clouds move towards each other, their swollen forms threatening a vicious outburst.

“That’s not what I meant Lou.” Harry grabs his arm, drawing him back down and into his side.
“I just think…it doesn’t make sense.”

Louis rears up at that but Harry holds fast.

“Not that he likes you. That makes sense. It’s just strange is all, him being so kind for no reason at all.”

“Some people just are,” Louis says. “Not that you’d know. Are you going to tell me why you never answered my call?”

Crap. Harry had hoped maybe Louis had forgotten to take his walkie talkie too.

“Um, I forgot it at home.” He nuzzles his head against Louis’, pulling Louis’ pink coverlet up and over them both. “I’m sorry.”

Just then, a loud clap of thunder echoes overhead and Louis jumps, burying his face in Harry’s neck.

‘This doesn’t mean I’m not mad at you.’

“About Zayn or because I forgot the walkie talkie?” Harry squeezes the arm that’s curled around Louis and lifts the bowl of chips that’s threatening to topple over onto his sheets. He plants them on Louis’ bedside table, beside his Batman alarm clock, straightening it up the way he knows Louis likes.

“Both,” comes the reply, Louis pinching his side.

They don’t talk about either for the rest of the night and Harry’s mum agrees to a school night sleepover. It’s basically a miracle, according to both boys, but Harry quietly thinks it’s not half as miraculous as the way Louis pulls Harry’s hand onto his chest and falls asleep with it cradled between both of his own. Why does Louis need Zayn at all when Harry will always be here for him? Harry will always be on his side.

***

When Harry walks onto the muddy pitch with Louis, his hands are shaking and his whole body is telling him this is a bad idea.

“I told you, you didn’t have to start up just cause I started up.” Louis knocks their shoulders together, shivering quietly as a freezing blast of wind hits them both square in the face. Big, fluorescent lights shine down from overhead, making Harry squint a little as he looks up at the storm brewing in the evening sky. If it starts before they finish training, Louis will freak out. “I’ll be fine. Zayn’s on the team, remember?”

Of course he remembers. That’s what made his mind up. He can’t have Louis hanging out with Zayn without him. At school, he has no choice. There’s nothing Harry can do about the fact that Louis and Zayn have become fast friends. And, even if he could, he would never want Louis to spend all his lunchtimes alone. But outside of school, Harry is his best friend and that’s not going to change. Not if Harry has any say in it. 

“Yeah but does Zayn know about your weak ankle? Does he know about your favourite position or that you can’t play without your lucky soccer pin that I gave you for christmas?” Harry says, curling an arm around Louis’ waist as they make their way over to the centre of the pitch. He pulls away when they start to become visible to the other boys. “Does he know that you don’t like storms?”

“Of course,” Louis laughs, giving Harry a funny look. As if it’s ridiculous to think Zayn might not know these things about Harry’s best friend. 

Louis looks so grown up in his new red football jersey with the number ‘28’ stitched onto the back in white, but all Harry wants to do is go home and play one on one like they used to. Why do they have to be on a team with a bunch of idiots who will only end up hurting Louis? And why did they have to join the same team as Zayn? 

As they join the huddle at the centre of the ground, a dark-haired boy with pale brown skin and long eyelashes breaks off from the group and wanders over.

“Lou, you’re here.” He grins and throws his arms around Louis’ neck, squeezing him tightly. “We’re going to show these losers how it’s done.”

Louis giggles at that and sinks his teeth into the boy’s shoulder. Harry’s expression darkens and he grips the other boy’s shoulder tightly. 

“Are you Zayn?” he demands. 

“Uh, yeah.” The boy doesn’t take his arms off Louis, merely turning his head to meet Harry’s blistering gaze. “You must be Harry, Lou’s friend from high school.”

“His best friend,” Harry corrects, folding his arms.

“Of course.” Zayn slowly uncurls his body from around Louis’ but tugs him under his arm instead, pressing his chin to the top of Louis’ head. “I’ve heard so many stories about you.”  

“I haven’t heard much about you.” Harry shrugs. “Louis doesn’t talk about you much.”

Zayn chuckles, as if it’s a brilliant joke, but Louis scrunches up his face. He looks pretty, even with a sour look on his face, the tips of his ears flushed pink from the cold and the ends of his thick hair starting to curl around the edges of his face.

“That’s not true. I told you all about him,” Louis says, jaw stiff.

 “I don’t care,” Zayn says, much to Harry’s annoyance. “Leave him be, Lou.” 

“Fine, we will. C’mon.” He curls his arm around Zayn’s waist and turns him in the direction of the rooms. “Let’s go grab our drink bottles before we start.” 

Harry is clearly not invited and he stands there, head bowed and shoulders hunched as Louis turns at the last minute to shoot him a look of betrayal. With that, he disappears back into the rooms with Zayn and Harry is left standing on his own on a football pitch, of all things.

“Damn it,” he growls and kicks at the turf.   

He reaches down into his top and pulls out his treasured dog tags, squeezing them so tightly that they leave imprints in his palm. What would Louis’ dad think if he was here now? Would he think Harry’s a lousy best friend? Harry’s sure he would. That thought is enough to have Harry jogging back toward the rooms, the dog tags still clenched in his fist.

                                                                                   *-*-*

“I’m really sorry,” Louis says as he and Zayn reach their respective bags, their cleats leaving behind a fresh trail of dirt. “I don’t know what’s up with Harry lately.”

“I do,” Zayn says. “He’s afraid of losing his friend.”

“But he hasn’t lost me!” Louis whirls around, his black adidas drink bottle clutched in one hand. “Besides, he’s the one who went to high school without me! Was I supposed to not make friends? Does he want me to be a freak for the rest of my life?” 

When Louis’ eyes drift from Zayn’s, he spots Harry, edging into the locker room like he’s not sure if he can come any closer without Louis whipping his drink bottle at his head. His mint green eyes are wide and his dark, curly hair is frizzier than usual, as if he’d run the whole way here.

“Lou, can we talk?”

Louis’ chest is still heaving from his rant and he’s just about to tell Harry to go to hell (even if he’s not supposed to use that word) when Zayn turns around and claps Harry on the shoulder.

“Go for it, mate.” There’s a beat of heavy silence and though Louis can only see Harry’s face, he just knows Zayn is communicating silently. He does that a lot, Zayn. He’s not a big talker but you can tell a lot about how he feels just from looking at his face. “He’s your best friend, isn’t he?”

Harry’s face visibly unclenches and a quick twist of his lips is all it takes to turn that defeated frown into the hint of a smile. He claps Zayn on the shoulder just as Zayn had done him.

“Thank you for looking out for him.” He says. “I think his dad would have wanted me to say that.”

The tension in Louis’ chest dissipates as quickly as it had come and all he can feel is that same desire he usually feels to grab Harry’s hand and squeeze it tight. If only Harry wasn’t so picky about touching each other in front of other people their age. 

Zayn turns to wink at Louis and exits the rooms with a final squeeze of Harry’s shoulder. 

“Harry.” Louis crosses the room in a minute and wraps his body around Harry’s. “You’ll always be my best, best friend. You know that right?” 

Harry cups his head and strokes the back of his hair softly.

“I do now,” he says. “I’m sorry, Lou. Zayn seems like a cool kid.”

“He is.” Louis grins, sinking his teeth into Harry’s neck. Harry usually squeals or swats at him for that but this time, he just buries his face in Louis’ hair and inhales. “He doesn’t care what people think. He just does whatever he wants to do.” 

“Sounds like you picked one good friend.” Harry pulls away, a genuine smile lifting his cheeks.

“No,” Louis disagrees. “I picked two.”

*-*-*

When Anne’s dickhead boss, Myron asks her to join him for a week long, out of town conference, her natural instinct is to say no. However, she’s been trying to save money for Christmas early this year and Harry’s already mentioned that he wants a brand-new soccer goal for him and Louis to practise with. So, she knows she can’t afford to be choosy. However, her mind isn’t made up until she catches Harry sequestered away in the corner of Jay’s backyard, tearing the stems of flowers as Louis, Dan and Zayn kick a ball between the three of them.

“Harry, come play!” Louis shouts between passes, a little furrow settled between his brows.

“I don’t feel like it,” Harry yells back, his eyes quietly following the to-and-fro motions of the ball, his trousers stained with the remnants of picked apart flowers.

Jay comes up behind Anne with two cups of tea just as Anne starts across the lawn to go talk some sense into her son.

“Hey,” Jay says, a hand pressed to the fragile space between Anne’s shoulders. “it’s okay. He’s just not in the mood for a kick around. It’s no big deal.”

Anne sighs, grasping the tea that Jay pushes into her palms. She holds it close to her chest.

“I just don’t get it. He wants to spend time with Louis. I know he does.”

Jay nods, her features devoid of any tension as she follows Dan’s movements with her eyes.

‘Exactly. He wants to spend time with Louis, not Dan…or Zayn. And I think….’ She sucks her lower lip in, clutching her mug tight. ‘I think maybe it’s difficult for him to see Dan with Louis, even if he doesn’t realise it. I mean, look at them…’ she trails off, overwhelming warmth saturating her voice.

Anne can’t help but agree. She looks out across the backyard and sees Dan kneeling down in the grass, his expensive trousers collecting ever more grass stains. He’s got one hand on Louis’ foot, moving it back and forth through the air, while speaking rapidly to a quietly enthralled Louis. The other hand is on Louis’ shoulder, squeezing every time Louis begins to show even the slightest sign of being discouraged. Anne sees a father and a son out there, and looking back at Jay, Anne knows anyone could be forgiven for thinking she was Dan’s wife.

“You’re right…” A lump forms in Anne’s throat. Her eyes drift back to her own boy, his knees bent and pressed up against his chest, his arms curled protectively around them. “I think maybe he needs some quality time with Lou.”

‘That can be arranged.’

“How would you feel about Harry staying with you guys for a whole week?” Anne says. “I’ve got a conference in London and Myron said he’d pay double. I wasn’t sure if I was going to go but maybe this is what Harry needs right now, to be reminded that it’s not just the two of us.”

‘That sounds lovely.’ Jay agrees. At that moment, Dan turns and flashes her a brilliant smile, the sun catching his eyes. ‘But I think I may have a better idea.’

*-*-*

Zayn, Anne and Harry have headed home, Louis is fast asleep and the final remnants of biscuit crumbs have been swept from the floor, as Jay finally sits down to eat at eight thirty.

“You should be getting home,” she tells Dan, subtly inhaling the rich scent of the steaming bowl of pasta he’s just laid down in front of her. ‘You didn’t have to do this.’

“You need to eat,” he says with a withering look, managing to look as handsome glaring at her as he usually does smiling. He’s got a plethora of grass strains on his knees, a wrinkled shirt and a fluffy pink apron hanging down over the top of it. It shouldn’t be as attractive as it is. “And I happen to love cooking for you. You’re easy to please.”

“I am not!”

He raises his eyebrows at the huge forkful of pasta that must have somehow materialised in her hand. She relents with a chuckle.

“Okay…maybe I am,” she agrees, stuffing the whole thing in her mouth, “but it’s not my fault I’m such a bad cook. Anything made by someone else tastes a million times better.”

He rolls his eyes both at her speaking with her mouth full and her lack of cooking expertise. He’s used to both by now which should surely be of some concern. She never planned to let any man know her this intimately again. Yet, somehow, with him grinning down at her with that familiar hint of exasperation around the eyes, it doesn’t feel like such a problem anymore.

“Well sit down then.” She sprinkles more cheese on her pasta, then pushes that and the pasta dish over to him. “If you’re not going leave at a reasonable hour, at least have something to eat before you go.”

He slides into the chair quickly and smoothly, as if he’d only been waiting for verbal permission. Jay smothers a fond smile and sets about asking him the one thing she’s wanted to ask him for weeks but hasn’t yet had the courage to.

“How’s counselling going?” She lifts her wine glass up to her pink cheeks, taking a short sip, yet extending it when he stops, forkful of pasta suspended in mid-air. “Do you think...I mean, do you think Nora’s coming around on the whole baby thing? I know you said a couple of weeks ago—"

“That she refused to even talk about it with the therapist?” he interrupts, the hand holding the fork tightening into a fist. “Yeah, well we finally talked. Or…we did. I talked about why I want a baby so much and she talked about why she doesn’t. And then…”

“And then what?” She doesn’t realise she’s leaning forward until the pasta sauce begins to drip off of her fork and onto her new lilac blouse.

Dan doesn’t seem to notice, his whole face tensing sporadically as he glares down at the pasta, tendrils of steam curling up into his nose.

“And then…” he sighs, his expression shifting and softening until it becomes a mosaic of all his darkest emotions. “Then she said she would have one. She said she’d have a baby. For me.”

His eyes slowly lift to meet hers and she doesn’t have time to harden the planes of her face into something less self-centred and unfair. Her heart is pounding wildly in her chest and it feels like there’s another person in the room with them, even though there’s not.

A new baby would mean less time for her and Louis, it’s that simple and yet it can’t be. It can’t be that simple because that’s not something that should ever concern her. It certainly shouldn’t be this terrifying. She shouldn’t be fighting the panic trying to claw its way up her throat from within.

“The thing is, I don’t think I want her to.” He exhales heavily, as if maybe he’s saying it out loud for the first time.

Jay’s hands are trembling and she shoves them beneath her thighs, trying to hide the way that statement alone makes her eyes sting. Not about you, she tells herself, but Dan’s ring finger is noticeably bare and she can’t help but think, what if.

“You don’t?”

“I don’t want to force her to have a baby simply because she’s afraid of losing me,” he says. “I want to have a baby with someone who wants that too. She’s the love of my life, or at least I thought she was…but lately, I don’t know if that’s true. And I think, I think perhaps she feels the same.”

“Dan.” Jay gets up from her seat. Abandoning her napkin on the seat of the chair, she rounds the table. She kneels at his side, the same way he’d kneeled beside Louis today, and opens up her arms, dragging him into an embrace. “I’m so sorry, love.”

His hands are on her hair, pressing her to him as silent sobs wrack his body. He presses his face into her neck, dampening her skin. She rubs at his back for ten long minutes until his breaths even out and the air between them starts to feel less heavy with the totality of his grief.

“This is awful.” He rubs at his face as he pulls away, sniffling slightly. “I was supposed to be taking care of you. Not the other way round.”

“We take care of each other,” Jay tells him, a smile slowly blooming. “That’s how it works in the Tomlinson household.”

“Is that right?” he says. “Well then I suppose you don’t have grounds with which to refute my right to cook you dinner whenever I want.”

She backs away from his side of the table, heart jumping in and out of her chest cavity as his eyes follow her the whole way back to her seat.

“I suppose not.” She says, tampering down a smile. “I do have a favour to ask, though. It’s about Harry.”

“Harry?” He quirks an eyebrow, raising his glass to his lips and drawing her attention to his thick, flushed mouth. “Is he having problems at school? Is someone giving him a hard time?”

‘No.’ She smiles softly, endeared by his concern. ‘It’s his dad, actually.’

‘I thought his dad wasn’t in the picture?’

“He’s not. That’s the problem, see.”

Her gaze floats, unintentionally, to the photo frame hanging front and centre in the living room. It’s a photo of the four of them at the cemetery, taken just last year when for the first time, Louis had told her he wanted to choose his dad’s flowers himself. Harry had helped him choose and the two of them had even written a short acrostic poem that they’d taken in turns to read when they visited the grave.

Jay was the one who suggested they capture the moment, enchanted by the hint of a smile on Louis’ face and the utter commitment to Louis’ every happiness on Harry’s. They’d set the camera on timer and huddled together in front of the grave, Louis shifting sideways so Patrick’s name could be seen. Harry had turned and pressed his lips to Louis’ cheek at the last moment.

 Louis had felt connected to his father that day, Jay is sure of it and she only wants the same for Harry.

“Well, Harry’s having trouble getting used to the bond you have with Louis,” she says. “But I think maybe I know a way you could help. Anne’s going away for a week and Harry’s coming to stay with us. I thought maybe you could come down on the weekend and take them out for the day? Or maybe even just Harry. I’m sure Louis would understand.’’

“I’d love to,” Dan says, glowing from the inside out. “It’s about time I get to know him properly.”

*-*-*

This week has been one of the best of Louis’ young life. First, Harry has come to stay with them for the whole week. Then, he got asked to be captain of the school’s football team and finally, he remembered the father-son football game is on this weekend and Dan has already agreed to come. It’s not going to be the same as having his real dad there but there’s no one else who quite believes in him or accepts him the way Dan does.

“It’s going to be so much fun!” Louis is telling Harry as they jog out onto the pitch for Tuesday night training, his new contacts starting to irritate his eyes. “Dan is such a good player. The dads will probably win because they’ve got Dan on their team. Last weekend, he showed me this new thing---"

“Do you ever talk about anything but Dan?” Harry snaps, scowling at Zayn, who approaches with a timid expression. “He’s not that great.”

“He is too!” Louis argues. “Haz, why would you say that? Dan is always nice to you. It’s not his fault you never want to play with us anymore.”

Zayn ambles up to them both then, bumping fists with a reluctant Harry and clasping Louis in a loose, brotherly-like embrace.

“Hey boys,” he greets them both, eyes darting between them. “Why do you look like you want to kill each other?”

“Because Louis won’t shut up about Dan and the stupid father-son game.” Harry rolls his eyes, stomping at the ground like it did something to personally offend him.

Louis rolls his eyes right back and ignores the downturn of Harry’s lips. What right has Harry got to be sad?

“You’re just jealous because no one’s going to come play with you,” Louis tells him. “You don’t have a dad or a Dan!”

Harry looks up at him with tears blurring his vision and little streaks of pink feathering out over his cheekbones. He screws his fists up by his sides and advances on Louis.

“I hate you, Louis Tomlinson,” he says. “You stay away from me. I’m going to get your mum to call my mum and she’s going to take me home.”

‘Good.’ Louis’ chest heaves with the weight of anxiety that’s currently pressing down on him and making it hard to talk. This wasn’t supposed to happen. Harry was supposed to apologise; not tell Louis he hates him. “I don’t want to spend the rest of the week with you anyway.”

Harry stalks off to the other side of the huddle and continues to avoid Louis for the rest of the training session, even going so far as to wait at the opposite end of the carpark for Louis’ mum to pick them up.

“What’s going on?” Jay demands when Louis jumps into the back and Harry steals into the front seat, stoic and silent.

They always sit in the back together. Harry should know this. He shouldn’t be breaking tradition for the sake of a stupid fight.

“Harry, this is stupid,” Louis says, ignoring his mum as he leans forward, resting his chin on Harry’s seat. “You can’t stay mad at me forever.”

Apparently, though, he thinks he can, because he doesn’t say a word the rest of the way home and when they finally arrive, he jumps out straight away, grabs the keys off of Jay and is first through the door before Jay or Louis even move.

“Louis, what did you do?” Jay asks, voice unnervingly calm.

“Nothing…” Louis trails off, drumming his fingers against the edge of the worn, slightly stained seat and avoiding his mum’s penetrative stare.

“Fine. I guess I will have to call Anne and ask her to come collect Harry. You can explain it to her,” she says, climbing out the car and pushing the lock down as she goes.  

“Wait!” Louis jumps out too, feeling smaller than usual as he turns his feet inward and shuts the door with a petulant slam. ‘I’ll tell you. But you have to promise that you won’t get mad because Harry is already mad at me and I don’t think I could stand it if you were mad at me too.’

His mum gives him a considering look, probably cataloguing how pathetic he looks with his lower lip sticking out and his hands shoved down low into the pockets of his grey joggers.

“Fine,” she agrees. “I promise not to be mad, so long as you tell me the truth.”

Louis tells her the whole story, leaving nothing out, including the horrible things he’d said about Harry not having a dad or a Dan. Repeating it makes it sound worse and Louis’ stomach is in knots by the time he finishes.

“Louis Tomlinson,” his mum says. “‘I’m so disappointed in you and you should be very disappointed in yourself.”

“I am,” he swallows, fighting back tears. “Mum, I didn’t mean to make Harry upset. I heard him crying in the toilets afterwards and he sounded really, really sad.”

“Louis, you have to understand that Harry not having his dad around is just as hard as you not having yours alive. The fact that you’ve got Dan just means you’re luckier than he is. Don’t you see how that might hurt him? Don’t you see why talking about Dan all the time might upset him?”

“I just never thought of it that way…” he admits, frowning deeply. “He never told me he was upset.”

“I know, love, she guides him across the lawn and up the path to their house, “but sometimes you need to figure it out for yourself. And I think maybe you need to make it up to Harry. Dan was thinking the three of you could—"

“Mum, stop. I know exactly what to do.”

*-*-*

It’s Saturday morning, the day of the father-son game and Harry still hasn’t spoken to Louis nor has Louis spoken to him. Harry had thought that Louis might have come to speak to him last night after they got home. but when Louis came in, he simply got into bed, rolled over and went to sleep.

It hurts. Harry thought Louis understood how awful it is to be one of the few kids who doesn’t have two parents. He didn’t think Louis would ever use it against him or make fun of him for it, as if he hadn’t been just like Harry before Jay met Dan. Stupid Dan. Harry could happily do without all the unnecessary hair ruffles and shoulder pats. He treats Harry like he’s a puppy or something while Louis gets treated like a prince. Louis can’t get enough of the guy. Every time Dan comes down, it’s like Harry doesn’t even exist to him anymore and now, it’s like Louis doesn’t even care about him anymore.

How can they be best friends if Louis doesn’t even care that he’s upset? He’s obviously not sorry about what he said and the thought of it makes Harry’s eyes fill with tears all over again. He just wants to go home and never think about Louis Tomlinson ever again.

“Haz, are you awake?”

Harry rolls over on the bed and finds Louis’ gleaming blue eyes waiting for him, his hair gently mussed from sleep.

“I don’t want to talk to you,’ Harry informs him. ‘You’re not even sorry. You didn’t even talk to me when you came in last night.”

“I know.” Louis’ face falls and he reaches out to grab Harry’s hand, playing with his fingers while he talks. “But mum said it might be best to leave you be for the night. She said you’d probably had enough of me for one night.”

Harry secretly thinks he could never have enough of this boy in front of him but he doesn’t say that. Louis doesn’t deserve it.

“I had,” he agrees and feels Louis intently kneading his palm in response. “But you could have at least said sorry…and goodnight,” he adds. “You always say goodnight.”

“I’m so sorry Hazza I didn’t mean any of what I said. I was just mad about what you said about Dan.”

“But you were right,” Harry pushes his head into the pillow, sadness coating the back of his throat. “I don’t have a dad or a dan. I’ve got no one.”

“No!” Louis says. “That’s not true. You’ve got your mum, and my mum, and me, and everyone at school. You don’t need anyone else.”

“But what about the game?” A single tear drips down his face as he thinks about the flyer he’d hidden from his mum before she went away. She never would have left if she’d known about the game and if she hadn’t left, he wouldn’t have been able to stay at Louis’ for a week. “I have no one to play with me.”

“Actually…” Louis sits up and pulls Harry with him, squeezing his hand. ‘You do.”

“Dan!’ Louis calls out, grinning to himself,’ you can come in now!’

The door creaks open and Harry turns to watch as Dan wanders in, decked out in an adult version of their red jersey, the name ‘Deakin’ printed on it in white. Jay hovers just behind him, a tentative smile creasing her pink cheeks.

“Harry,” Dan kneels down in front of him slowly, his trouser leg sliding up to reveal his black bionic leg. He pulls a jersey out from behind his back. It’s got Harry’s number on it but instead of Styles, it says ‘Deakin’ in white print. “How would you feel about playing against each other today?”

“The last name is Dan’s.” Louis practically squeals in his ear, bouncing up and down on the mattress. “Mum made it special!”

“You...” Harry’s eyes start to water and he rubs at them with pink-faced embarrassment. “You really want to play with me?”

“Of course, I do,” Dan says. “You’re a great kid, Harry. I was devastated that I couldn’t play against you both.”

“You were?” Harry’s eyes shift between the jersey and Dan, who suddenly seems like a real-life hero. He never knew Dan liked him so much, but he must like him at least a little to give up playing with Louis.

“Harry,” Louis pushes him in the back of the shoulder and he turns to meet Louis’ beaming face. “Are you going to say yes?”

“But what about you, Lou?” Harry reaches for his hands, tugging Louis into his lap. “You don’t have to give up the game just cause you’re sorry.”

“I’m not. ‘I’m just sharing Dan. Because you deserve to have a Dan, Haz, even if you never have a dad.”

Harry hears the unmistakable sounds of Jay sniffling.

“You’re the best, little Lou.” He plants a kiss on the tip of Louis’ nose, nuzzling in closer when Louis giggles and bites at his shoulder.

“Dan,” Harry says, “you’re on.”

Later that day, Harry is running across the pitch with his arms in the air and the team hollering around him after scoring his first ever goal. Dan comes running up to him and swoops him up into his arms, spinning him around until they both get dizzy.

“That was brilliant Harry!” he shouts, squeezing Harry’s shoulder. “Go get ‘em mate. Kick these dad’s arses.”

Jay yells at him from the sidelines for that comment but Harry is laughing too loudly for it be considered much of a problem. Dan grins and ruffles Harry’s hair as he runs off, but it doesn’t seem like he feels sorry for Harry anymore. Besides, how could Harry be anything but happy when he’s got Louis cheering him on from the sidelines, his face painted with Harry’s number and his big blue eyes gone dewy with pride?

*-*-*

Summer holidays are usually the highlight of Harry’s life. He spends half the time lounging in the pool with Louis and the other half coming up with new and increasingly creative ways to get their mums to buy them chocolate sundaes from the ice cream parlour that’s two streets away.

Only, this summer is different. This summer, something is so messed up, Harry doesn’t know how to fix it. It starts slowly and at first, he’s not worried. Some mornings he wakes up and he smells a little bit more strongly than usual. It’s fine. He knows it’s fine because they talked about it in the personal development class he had to take at school. It doesn’t mean he’s growing up or anything crazy like that. It just means he’s ‘going through a few changes.’  Except… that’s not where it ends.

“What was that with your voice?” Louis says him to one day when they’re lounging in the local pool, Anne and Jay camped out on loungers just beside them.

“What do you mean?” Harry asks, but he hears the answer in the question.

His voice had gone all squeaky, as if he’d just sucked helium out of a balloon. Then it had gone back to normal, as if nothing had even happened to begin with.

“I dunno,” Harry says, panicking a little. “Do you think maybe I’m….you know.”

“That you’re what?” Louis rolls over on the pink donut he’s currently poised in, twisting his face up at Harry. His skin is especially brown this time of the year and he looks particularly pretty with his wet hair slicked back over his head and a pair of low cut, red board shorts showing off the beginnings of hips Harry didn’t even know he had. He smells like a mix of sunscreen, chlorine and the raspberry icy poles they’d had with lunch.

“You know!” Harry says, waving his hands about like a madman. He huffs when Louis continues to gaze at him like he’s gone mad. “Puberty. Do you think I’m going through puberty?”

‘Oh.’ Louis’ pale pink lips form a perfect ‘o’, drawing Harry’s attention. Harry’s never noticed how maddeningly soft they look until now. He wonders if Louis uses pink chapstick like all the girls in his grade. It would make sense, after all. Louis’ nails are currently painted shimmery pink and Harry thinks that might be Louis’ new favourite colour. It looks good on him, too. So good that Harry had all but demanded Louis paint his nails too. Although, he had been firm about it being only his toenails. He couldn’t risk the boys in his class seeing. ‘Don’t you think you’re a bit young? Do you even have hair under your arms yet?’

“Yes.” Harry gulps. “Don’t you?”

Louis shakes his head, staring at Harry as if he’s some kind of alien creature.

“But I’m sure you’re not going through puberty yet,” Louis says, nodding his head. “You’d know if you were, wouldn’t you?”

‘Would I?’

“I think you would.”

And so Harry decides he’s not, simple as that. Louis said so and that means it’s most likely true. Or so he thought, because two months later, the worst happens….

He’s lying in bed with Louis, watching Grease for the millionth time and Louis’ tucked neatly under his arm.

‘You smell nice, Lou.’ Harry says, sniffing around the fruity strands of Louis’ hair, looking for the sweet scent that seems to fill every crevice of his brain.

“It’s my chapstick.’ Louis says, tilting his head up for Harry’s convenience.

Harry’s eyes zero in on the light pink sheen to Louis’ lips and without thinking, Harry lowers himself down and pushes his lips against Louis’, wanting a taste. The softness of Louis’ lips against his combined with the firm sensation of his body beneath Harry’s is too much for his eleven-year-old brain to handle.

His eyes fly open, a startled breath erupting from his chest as wetness seeps into his underwear, leaving his lower half warm and sticky.

“What the…?” He shakes his head, muddled and completely having forgotten the dream. He lifts the front of his pyjama pants away from his tummy and looks down, hoping it’s just some kind of crazy nightmare and that he didn’t actually wet himself. “Did I just—oh. Oh crap.”

He remembers the dream now, despite his best efforts. He remembers pressing down into Louis’ soft lips and feeling his rounded hips. He remembers the sweet scent of strawberry chapstick and the smell of apple scented shampoo, making his brain foggy. It was the most realistic dream he’s ever had and yet, Harry can’t help but feel ashamed. How could he dream of Louis like that? Not just because Louis’ a boy but because he’s Harry’s best friend. It’s disgusting. Louis would be disgusted if he knew…or would he? It’s just puberty after all. That’s the only reason Harry had that dream.

Harry falls asleep again half an hour later, his cheeks still pink and his heart still heavy with the weight of a secret he can never share. He dreams of kissing Louis again but doesn’t know what to blame it on this time when he wakes up with his underwear completely dry. Hormones, he tells himself as he goes to stuff his crusty underwear in the bottom of the laundry basket. It has to be hormones…right?

Chapter Text

High school is hell on earth, Louis knows that much. Harry’s classroom is on the complete other side of the campus, Zayn isn’t even in his class and the boys he ended up sitting with have been talking about the prettiest girls in their class all lesson.

“Emily,” says a broad-shouldered brute with dark hair. “she’s so hot.”

“No, no, no.” A ginger haired kid with lots of freckles butts in. Louis thought he might have an ally in him seeing as he looks like a natural outcast but surprisingly, he seems to be the leader of the group. Louis wonders if they all went to the same school before this. “Emily’s got a big fat pimple on her chin. Raja is the hottest. I think she wears a C cup.”

Louis wants to get up and walk out of the classroom. He’s never felt so uncomfortable in his life. Over summer holidays, he’d gotten his nose pierced and he’s wearing a sparkly pink stud. He’s grown his hair out a little bit and his fringe covers the tops of his eyes, shrouding his discomfort from view. But after twenty minutes of this, the ginger haired kid turns to him.

“So, faggot.” Louis jumps. He’s heard that word before on the lips of his mother. It was as he put his stud in yesterday and then painted his nails to match. She explained to him the difference between boys who draw attention to themselves by being different and boys who are afraid of people who do. “Who do you think is the hottest girl?”

He says it with an outright smirk, like he knows Louis doesn’t have the faintest idea what to say. Louis glances around the room and the first person his eyes fall on is a raven-haired boy with long limbs and pale white skin. He has an angry, almost violent edge to the way he’s writing. Yet, the hardened shape of his mouth and the flick of his muscular wrist is magnetic. In fact, it’s far more interesting to Louis than any girl he’s seen all day.

“Um.” Louis swallows noisily and allows his eyes to slide sideways. There’s a blonde girl with illustrious curls and thick mascara, frowning down at her textbook like it holds the answers to the universe. He points at her. ““She’s hotter than all of those girls put together.”

It’s not true, of course. All of the girls in their class are equally stunning and Louis feels awful for comparing them. But then the ginger haired kid leans over and bumps fists with him, two of the guys at his table slap him over the back and Louis is okay. Louis is not a faggot. Louis does not have to bear the brunt of that shameful word before he really understands what it means to him.

***

Harry sucks in a breath when he sees Louis walking towards him across the yard. The wind is blowing his newly grown out fringe across his eyes. He looks undeniably sharp with his tie secured around his neck and his starchy white shirt clinging to his rounded hips.

“Lou.” Harry wraps his arms around him the minute he gets close enough to do so. “How was your first lesson?”

“Horrible.” Louis pouts into his shoulder, pressing his warm face into Harry’s neck. Lately, the sensation of that has been doing funny things to Harry’s insides. “I missed Zayn. I missed you.”

Harry tries not to grumble too loudly.

“I hope you missed me more.”

Louis rolls his eyes and pushes him in the stomach.

“Stop it.”

“Fine.”

“Can we go find Zayn?” Louis tugs at his heart strings with bright, puppy dog eyes. “Please.”

The wind is whipping around their faces and the shouts of people playing sport and calling to each other across the oval form a cacophony of noise that threatens to drown him out.

“If we must.” Harry grins at him.

Louis tugs him by the wrist, rather than the hand, and Harry finds it hard to admit to himself that he wishes their hands were locked together like they are when they’re alone.

“Lou!” Zayn comes running at that precise moment and lifts Louis up into his arms, hoisting him up over his head. He’s rolled his shirt sleeves up to form cuffs and he somehow manages to make plain grey trousers look fancy.

Louis giggles and buffets Zayn’s shoulder, begging to be put down. Harry gnashes his teeth together but stays miraculously silent.  Recently, his mum had a few more conversations with him about how Louis doesn’t belong to him and how eventually, he’ll have to accept new people into Louis’ life.

“How was class?” Zayn asks, tugging Louis down onto the damp grass of the oval.

Harry sits across from them and busies himself with pulling out his lunch, unwrapping the foil slowly. Zayn’s eyes dart to him as it crinkles noisily and he winks, a smile gracing his cheeks. Harry’s eye twitches. He sinks his nails into the moist earth beneath him but he smiles back.

“The boys I sat with spent the whole lesson comparing the girls.”

Louis scowls.

“Ferals.” Zayn spits then nods at Harry. “Hey Haz.”

If there’s one thing Harry likes about Zayn, it’s this. It’s Zayn’s absolute commitment to not only hating the same things as Louis but hating them in his own right. He’s just as deeply affected by injustice.

“Hey.” Harry smiles, genuinely this time. “how was your first lesson, mate?”

“Ugh, awful. The amount of homework they gave me should be illegal.”

Harry laughs, in spite of himself, enjoying the way Louis’ eyes light up.

“Yeah, I remember that from my first day. Don’t worry, they always go harder on you at the beginning. Louise says it’s to help establish dominance.”

“My English teacher is dominant, alright.” Louis says. “She pulled four people out of class for not having the correct pen.”

Harry whistles through his teeth.

“You must have Miss Carpenter?”

“Yeah.” Louis nods. “I kind of admire her though. It’s obvious she won’t take crap from anyone.”

“Kind of like you.”

Louis giggles and elbows Harry in the side.

“Don’t be ridiculous, Hazza. We both know I’m a coward.”

“Don’t say that.” Harry and Zayn say at the same time, with the same amount of fierceness.

Louis’ eyes dart between them and he shakes his head, clearly amused.

“It’s crazy you two don’t get on.”

***

Harry meets Eli in his fourth period class on his second day back. It’s art class, one of his favourite subjects, and when he notices a small, blonde haired boy struggling to set up his easel, Harry happily offers to help.

“God, thank you,” the boy slumps over on his stool, eyeing Harry gratefully, “I feel like an idiot. I’m Eli, by the way ”

Any reservations Harry had about departing from the solitude he usually spends art class in are decimated. This boy is just as vulnerable as Louis and almost just as adorable. He’s got a close-cropped haircut, bright hazel eyes and pale white skin with blonde freckles. He looks about ten years old, even though he must be the same age as Harry, and Harry can’t help but be endeared.

“I’m Harry. And you’re not an idiot,” Harry pats his shoulder, “it’s okay if you need a hand.”

Their art teacher, Miss Hanson, gives him an approving nod from her spot at the front of the class and begins handing out canvas paper.

Eli holds up the palette, eyes wide.

“Great. Um, do you know what this is for?”

Harry laughs.

“It’s called a palette. It’s where you keep your paints. You can use it to mix them too.”

“Oh.” Eli giggles to himself and it reminds Harry so much of Louis, he has to dig his fingers into his palm just to keep from wrapping his arms around the other boy. “Got it.”

They spend the rest of the class chatting about their families and friends, as well as all their favourite movies. It turns out Eli is obsessed with musicals and he even sings some Grease aloud which Harry knows Louis would love. He’s a good singer, too, drawing the attention of the other students.

“Where did you learn to sing like that?”

“I don’t know,” Eli smiles, “I’ve always been able to. It’s kind of the only thing I can do.”

“I’d be pretty happy with that, if I were you. You’re amazing. You’ll have to come meet Lou at lunch.”

“You think?” Eli shifts a little on his stool. “I’m not that great with new people.”

“You were fine with me,” Harry points out, smiling.

Eli inclines his head.

“You’re easy to get along with.”

Harry squeezes his arm.

“So is Louis.”

 

*-*-*

At lunch,, Harry drags Eli out to the oval where Louis, Zayn, Louise and Tom are waiting, their lunches piled high in the middle. They’d agreed at recess that they’d pool their food and split it, seeing as Louis and Harry always get stuck with the worst lunches.

“Guys,” Harry guides a trembly Eli over.  “This is Eli.”

They all turn at once, gaping at the small boy who looks like he doesn’t meet the height or age requirements for high school.

“Hey.” Louis is the first to talk, crinkles appearing around his eyes. He pats the spot beside him, previously saved for Harry. “I’m Louis. Come sit.”

Eli walks over, wobbly at best. He sits down but looks like he may be about to bolt so Harry follows him and sits down on his other side.

“Hey,” Louise reaches across and squeezes Eli’s hand.  “I’m Lou. Number Two.” She adds when Eli’s eyes dart to Louis. “Just call me Louise.”

Tom reaches over and grabs him by the forearm, shaking him so hard, his teeth must be rattling. Tom’s started to fill out over the last year, earning himself the name of the incredible Hulk among their group.

“Hey mate, I’m Tom.”

“And I’m Zayn,” Zayn holds a hand up.

“Nice to meet you all,” Eli’s eyes skitter between them. “I um, I’m new here so thanks for letting me sit with you.”

“It’s fine,” Louis cups his shoulder, “just relax.”

Harry watches the two of them over the course of lunch and notices something developing, something that might be even more concerning than the bond between Louis and Zayn. It starts with Eli handing over his chocolate to Louis.

“Here, have this,” he says quietly, amidst all the chatter. “I’ll take your banana.”

“Really?” Louis looks like someone just gifted him the world. “I could split it with you?”

“No,” Eli pushes the chocolate into Louis’ hands. “You have it, please.”

Then they start discussing Grease and Louis looks the most animated Harry’s seen him all year.

“You’d be a Sandy for sure!” Louis practically squeals.

“Tell me about it, stud.”

Louis buries his giggles in Eli’s shoulder and the two of them spend the rest of break just like that; falling all over each other, swapping giggle for giggle. Harry is left feeling isolated and alone and for the first time, he finds himself on the complete same page as Zayn, who watches Eli like a hawk.

At the end of lunch, Eli stands and holds out a hand to Louis who looks at it like it’s another bloody chocolate bar. Louis twines their fingers and hip checks the other boy. They walk all the way across the oval like that, chins raised high, shoulders pulled back and their fingers intertwined between them.  Eli has his fingernails painted the same colour as Louis’ eyes and with their hands locked together like that, it’s glitter on glitter; soft caramel coating whipped cream. When they part for class, Louis hugs Eli close, whispering in his ear. Then he turns and gives Harry a perfunctory squeeze that leaves him feeling cold and unimportant.

Harry and Eli walk to their locker bay together, Eli wearing a toothy little grin. When they get there, Harry grabs him by the shoulder.

“So, you like Lou, huh?”

The other boy’s eyes light up like something from a Christmas lights extravaganza.

“Yeah. He’s amazing. He told me he knows Grease word for word! Did you know that?”

Harry wants to scoff. Of course, he knows that. He’s known Louis his whole life.

“Yeah.” Harry smiles. He doesn’t want to burn any bridges yet. “Um, there’s something I should tell you though. About me and Louis. But you have to promise not to talk about it to anyone, including Louis. He’s very shy about it.”

“Of course,” Eli leans close, “what is it?”

“Louis’ my boyfriend.” The words feel like sugar straps in his mouth; sweet and sour and altogether addictive. “So, just, remember that, okay?”

Eli frowns at him, eyebrows raised.

“Okay?”

“Great.” Harry beams at him and then gives him a bro hug to smooth things over. “See you in class.”

***

The knock on the door at eleven pm on a school night frightens Jay. What if something’s happened to Harry? What if something happened to Anne? She’s rushing to the door before she can even finish folding Louis’ uniform, her heart jammed in her throat.

“Dan?” She gapes at the man before her whose stubble is overgrown and whose hands hold two hefty suitcases. He looks pale, haggard and his eyes are darker than she’s ever seen him. “My god, what are you doing here?”

“I told Nora I want a divorce.” His deep voice rumbles from his chest, giving her the sa me thrill it always has, yet his face is devoid of any glow, his body thin and uncared for. “She kicked me out. I didn’t know where to go. I’m so sorry to turn up like this.”

“No, don’t be sorry. Come in, come in.” Jay ushers him in, pressing her grey work trousers down, hands fluttering around her red V-necked top that’s stained with laundry powder. “You can stay as long as you like.”

Dan collapses on the couch, dropping his bags on the ground. Then he grabs Jay’s hands, squeezing them tight.

“You’re an angel, I swear.”

Jay laughs and works her way around the bags into the kitchen.

“Cup of tea? You look like you could use one.”

“Yeah, thanks.” Dan scrubs a hand over his sandy blonde hair. “I just…god, I missed you these past few weeks. She told me if I came down here, it was over.”

Jay’s hand tightens around the sugar pot.

“But that wasn’t why…”

“No, god no.” Dan assures her. “It was the whole baby thing. She said there was no way she would ever consider having a baby. Not now. Not in two years. Not ever.”

Jay turns to him, mouth twisting.

“Dan, I’m so sorry. You deserve the life you dreamed of.”

“It’s just crazy, you know.” He slams his fist into the coffee table. “She told me she wanted children when we first started dating. It wasn’t supposed to be like this.”

Jay carries their mugs over and sits close, putting a hand on Dan’s thigh. He covers her hand with his larger one and for a moment, everything narrows down to the places where their skin meets.

“I’m going to get you through this,” she promises and lifts a hand to card through his hair. “I know you’ll get through this.”

At that moment, Louis wanders out, rubbing his eyes and smiling blearily at the sight of Dan. Dan rushes over to him and sweeps him up in a hug.

“My boy!”

Jay’s heart melts.

“Dan, what are you doing here?!”

“He’s going to be staying with us for a bit, love.” Jay says. “He’s not living with Nora anymore.”

“You broke up?” Louis looks suspiciously happy.

“Afraid so, mate.” Dan ruffles his hair. “You’re stuck with me for now.”

“Can you drive me to school tomorrow? Haz will want to see you too. Oh, and maybe you can meet Eli. It’s only been a few weeks but Haz and I think he’s so great. He loves musicals and he’s got a really good voice too and he always shares his snacks—”

“Sweetheart,” Jay interrupts him, grinning at Dan whose eyes are positively lit up now. “I think you’re overloading poor Dan with information. How about you go back to sleep and in the morning, you can catch up properly?”

“Okay.” Louis sighs and then throws his arms around Dan one more time.

It hits Jay that she doesn’t have to feel guilty anymore. She doesn’t have to question how well the three of them fit together.

*-*-*

It starts with Louis begging for a sleepover on Friday night. Just before he’s about to leave, he banishes his mum and Dan from the kitchen and sets everything up. He pulls out a loaf of bread, some ham, a block of cheese, two wine glasses and some fresh flowers Harry helped him pick from the garden. He sticks the flowers in a vase, drapes a table cloth over the table, sets the table then lights a few candles. By the time he’s done, it looks like a scene from one of his favourite rom coms.

“Come in!” He shouts, practically bouncing on his heels.

His mum walks in first and looks positively flabbergasted by the sight of sandwich ingredients and fresh flowers. Okay, so Louis couldn’t cook them a fancy meal. He doesn’t know how to cook. But fresh sandwiches go well with wine…right? He knows that wine and cheese are supposedly a match made in heaven, just like his mum and Dan, who are currently staring at him like he’s lost his marbles.

“So, what do you think?”

Jay is shaking her head, a bemused smile gracing her lips.

“Louis, what is this?”

“It’s dinner for two! Harry helped me pick the flowers but it was my idea to get fresh bread for the sandwiches. I used my pocket money.”

“Lou,” Dan moves towards him and grips his shoulder, shaking him slightly, “is all this for us?”

“Yep.” Louis beams at him. “I wanted to do something special for you both.”

“Oh love.” His mum is blushing! “We couldn’t possibly—”

“We could possibly.” Dan takes her hand. “Thanks Lou.”

Louis picks up his overnight bag from where he stored it in the corner. This plan is going to work a treat.

“See you in the morning!”

“Bye sweetheart.”

“Bye mate.”

Louis giggles the whole way across the yard. When Harry pulls him inside, he sighs happily.

“Haz, they’re going to fall in love.”

***

‘Can you feel the love tonight?’ plays on the CD player on the corner of the counter. Apparently, Louis had put it there before he left. Dan had found the note and read it out to Jay.

Please dance. Love your beloved boy, Louis.

They’d both laughed. Then Jay had sat down and continued eating, hoping to ignore her son’s very obvious attempt to get them together. But Dan had grabbed her hands and pulled her up, pressing play on the CD player.

The soft music caresses the back of her neck as Dan draws her close, one hand intertwined with hers, the other holding her hand to his chest.

“I think your boy is a little bit mischievous,” Dan breathes in her ear.

His scent is so sharp and inviting and all she wants to do is bury her nose in his neck and inhale.

“I agree,” she laughs. “He’s well intentioned but honestly, I don’t know what he thought would happen.”

“Maybe this?’ Dan whispers. His eyes are aglow in the low light of the candles as he cups her chin in one large, calloused hand and swallows her croak of surprise with his mouth. Their lips meet in the middle, tangling softly and drawing the deepest breath from her chest.

“Dan,” she breathes against his mouth, eyes tightly shut. “It’s only been a month since—”

“Since I realised that everything I want in life boils down to what I have here with you and Lou.”

She inhales sharply.

“You told me---”

“You weren’t ready to hear—”

“But you could have been honest—”

“But you wouldn’t have believed me—”

Jay throws all caution to the wind and wraps her arms around Dan. Her tongue darts out and licks across the seam of his bottom lip and he invites her inside, pulling her closer by the waist.

“Jesus,” she bows her head against his, panting from all the excitement. “Louis cannot find out about this. He’ll be insufferable.”

Dan throws his head back and laughs, squeezing her waist. Then he leans in and kisses her quiet.

“You, my dear, are as insufferable as your boy.”

***

The first time Louis’ hand finds its way down there, he’s standing in the shower thinking about how Harry had pushed him down into his sheets earlier and planted kisses all over his neck.

“Tell me what you and Eli were laughing about at lunch,” he’d demanded, mouth moving across Louis’ collarbones and up the side of his throat, leaving wet sticky tracks.

“No!” Louis had squealed, pushing his sparkly green fingernails into Harry’s sides. “It’s none of your business.”

Harry had growled and rolled them over so Louis was on top, his legs slotting into the space between Louis’, bringing their groins into close contact.. Sharp spikes of heat had travelled all the way down from the top of Louis’ spine to the space between his hips and he had rolled away from Harry, panting.

“Lou.” Harry had leaned over him, carding his fingers through Louis’ fringe but that just made it so much worse. “Lou, are you okay?”

“Yeah, Haz.” Louis had palmed Harry’s cheek, pressing his thumb into the spot where his dimple usually was. “Just tired.”

“Here, lay on me.”

Louis had curled up into Harry’s chest, trying to forget the throbbing between his legs and the way it as so inevitably tied to the way Harry was touching him. Harry kissed his hair, his cheek and finally his shoulder.

“Love you little Lou.”

“Love you too,” Louis croaked back.

Now Louis’ standing in the shower with hot water cascading down over his shoulders and he’s throbbing all over again. Blood fills his heavy cock and for the first time, his fingers close around its hefty weight, tugging and pulling until he shoots against the shower tiles with a groan.

It’s like being electrocuted. It’s like being lit on fire. It’s like running a marathon and feeling the burn in your lungs transition from painful to absolutely mind-blowing. He has never felt more alive. He has never felt more guilty. It comes as a shock, despite everything leading up until this point. He might actually be gay.