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the impossible now

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“If I were to live a thousand years, I would belong to you for all of them.

If we were to live a thousand lives, I would want to make you mine in each one.”

–Michelle Hodkin

+

The voice calling to him sounds like his sister’s, and rightfully, Louis panics.

He stopped caring months ago if Zayn or Liam saw him lying in his own filth. By now, they’ve grown used to it. But he’s managed to keep the members of his  family at a relatively far distance for the past eleven months. If Lottie sees the state he’s in, she’ll call in the cavalry. His mum and his other siblings and the bloody priest will be at his door by morning, staging an intervention. He can see their faces now, marred by pity and concern. It’s the absolute last thing he needs when all he wants is more booze.

Unfortunately, it would take about a week to get rid of the mounds of beer cans and dirty laundry and empty take-away containers that now litter his flat. He’d need two to get rid of the stench. There’s no point even trying.

Within seconds, Lottie is outside his bedroom door. By the time he sits up, she’s standing there, hand frozen on the doorknob, eyes frozen on him.

“Good morning,” Louis mumbles.

Lottie looks around at his bedroom with wide eyes. A beat of silence passes. “I’m ringing mum.”

“Lottie, no . Don’t do that.” Louis hurries to his feet. He reaches for her arm now buried in her handbag, digging for her mobile. “There’s absolutely no need to-- Would you please stop looking for your phone?”

“When’s the last time you showered?” she asks.

He has to think about it. “Yesterday,” he says. “I know how this all looks but I’m fine.”

“You look like you haven’t left your bed in months. This place is filthy. You’re filthy,” she says exasperatedly. “Your birthday is tomorrow, Louis.”

“Please don’t remind me.” He sinks back down to his mattress.

Lottie shakes her head, looking around. She finds a clean space on his desk to set her bag and removes her coat. “Okay,” she sighs. “Let’s get to work.”

He starts to complain and she lifts a hand to silence him.

“Two choices,” she says, raising two polished nails. “We clean or I ring mum.”

He so dreads the amount of work ahead of him that for a moment, he considers going with the “ring mum” option. But the fact is she’s a hard-working nurse with plenty of mouths to feed and barely enough time for herself. He won’t be another problem for her.

“Five more minutes,” he wagers.

Lottie gives him a look. “Now.”

Cleaning takes more effort than Louis has given anything in months. Lottie ensures that he does most of it too, which is only fair, but he begins to resent her, where she’s reclined on the couch, taking selfies. When his bedroom is habitable again and he can see the bottom of the kitchen sink, she hands him a cup of tea and allows him a moment to sit and rest.

Her eyes are on him. He avoids them.

“Have you spoken to him at all?”

Louis clenches his jaw, shakes his head. Obviously no.

“Is it really over then?”

Louis sighs. “It seems so,” he says. “Which means I don’t want to talk about it.”

She watches him a bit longer and then stands. “I’ll get the hoover.”

The place is spotless by the time they’re finished and the air is fresh again. Lottie practically drags him from his flat to get food and stock up on proper groceries. She tells him about her boyfriend, Sam, who she’d been visiting in London, before popping in on Louis.

“He’s coming over on Christmas,” she says. “So you’ll get to meet him then.”

Louis smiles, poking at his ramen noodles.

Christmas.

The holiday, like almost everything else, is covered in memories. Last Christmas, he hadn’t imagined himself in a lonely flat. He hadn’t imagined the floor covered in his clothes and his clothes alone. And yet, here it is, the season of special days he’ll have to spend on his own. Here he is, at the brink of twenty-five, with little to look forward to.

He isn’t excited for his birthday, or Christmas, or New Year’s.

He isn’t excited for anything these days.

Not without Harry.

+

Things fell apart on a Sunday.

Louis remembers exactly because each Sunday, he and Harry watched the newest episode of Game of Thrones and that night was the first they missed it.

Things fell apart but not unexpectedly. Louis had seen it coming months before it finally did, and it would take months before the heartache and loss really hit him.

They tumbled into yet another heated argument because that was all they did those days. They argued about life and love, about finances and their careers, about marriage and moving. They were too young for all of their issues. They fought like an old married couple without the same stability and Louis couldn’t see them ever being married.

It didn’t make sense to be so young and so troubled. It didn’t make sense to start off so in love and end so filled with rage. They didn’t make sense.

So it wasn’t like Louis hadn’t seen it coming. But it hurt all the same.

Now, in December, Louis thinks that the signs were everywhere. He could have stopped this if he tried. And then Harry wouldn’t be in New York right now, like he’s been for the past year. Maybe if he’d stopped blaming himself for things neither of them could change. Or maybe if they’d been a bit older and wiser, he would have understood better what they had. Louis would have known that guys like Harry came around once every millennium and you were lucky if one ever crossed your path. Like a comet, Harry had crossed his. And he’d let him pass.

It’s all finally starting to settle on him now. It’s been about a year since he last saw Harry (barring that one time in October where a glance across a pub had sent Louis back home in tears), a year since he touched him and kissed him. And he still wakes up feeling his fingers on him anyway, feeling his mouth. He’s a persistent phantom. He’s the ghost that haunts his dreams. He’s close, the memory of him breathing down Louis’ neck. And yet, he’s never been further away.

+

Zayn serves up a dry martini to a man at the end of the bar, flashing him a smile, and then tugs a rag from his back pocket to wipe down the counter.

Louis watches him, leaning his head up against his palm. “You’re really fit, Z. You know that?” he says, somewhat coherently.

Zayn raises a brow as he polishes a few martini glasses. “Thanks?” he says. He glances at the empty glass in Louis’ other hand. “You think maybe you’ve had enough now?”

“No,” Louis drawls. “I turn twenty-five tomorrow. Keep ‘em coming.” He slides the glass across the bar top.

Zayn sighs, grabs the bottle of Scotch behind him and fills Louis’ glass. “Last one,” he says firmly.

“Hey, I’m older than you. Don’t you tell me what to do,” Louis mumbles, pointing a finger at him before picking up his glass.

Zayn scoffs and wanders off to tend to other customers. Louis watches him as he does. Zayn’s wearing all black—a black button-up shirt with the sleeves rolled up to his elbows and black trousers. He looks crisp and clean as though he would probably smell like a rainforest. Louis can’t help the thoughts building in his head. The next time Zayn comes over, Louis says, “Why didn’t we ever…you know?”

Zayn pauses. “What are you talking about?”

“Like me and you. We’re both attractive, yeah? Why didn’t this ever happen?” Louis asks, gesturing between them. He lifts his glass and takes a huge gulp.

Zayn furrows his brow. “Because you had Harry?”

“Well, I don’t now,” Louis says. He polishes off his drink and slaps the empty right side up on the counter. “So why not?”

Zayn shakes his head and puts the glass he’s holding down as well. “Louis, listen to me,” he says. He looks at him more seriously than he ever has. He ducks down and leans forward so that their eyes are perfectly leveled. His are a rich brown, typically warm but stern in this moment. “You’re drunk and you’re lonely. You aren’t interested in me.”

Louis snarls. “Oh, piss off—”

“I’m not interested in you either,” Zayn says, ignoring him. “You know that. We both know that.”

Louis does know that. He and Zayn met at the start of Year 12. Zayn moved into the same neighborhood as Louis and happened to know Louis’ best friend, Stan. And that was all it took. Without trying at all, they become close—closer even than Louis and Stan.

But never once in all that time did it make sense for them to be more than friends. Even with Zayn being one of the most attractive lads at their school. They were friends and nothing more and that had always been perfectly fine.

Louis still feels annoyed by it all now. At least annoyed that Zayn is right.

He puts his head down on the bar. “Whatever.”

“You have to stop doing this to yourself,” Zayn says. “I can’t keep letting you do this. Neither can Liam.”

Louis groans, feeling a little sick all of a sudden. Maybe he drank too much after all. “I fucked up,” he says, quietly. He lifts his head up off the bar. “I had someone who loved me and I fucked it up. And he fucked me up. And now I’m fucked up,” Louis babbles. “Who’s going to want me like this? And even if they did, I wouldn’t want them.” He puts his head back down with a thump. “I don’t want anyone else.”

“Louis,” Zayn says sadly. He reaches out to pet the back of Louis’ neck. “It’s going to be okay.”

“No, it’s not,” Louis replies tiredly. The next time he looks up, his eyes are glassy and his words broken as he speaks. “It really won’t.”

“Louis,” Zayn says again. He sounds like he wants to cry himself. “I can’t get off work until midnight but I’m going to call Liam to pick you up. You just need some rest. Things will seem better once you get past Christmas and New Year’s. I promise.”

Louis doesn’t reply. Talking hurts. Moving hurts.

Everything really. It all hurts.

+

The next day is Christmas Eve. It’s also the first birthday Louis spends without Harry.

His mum calls first thing to ask him how it feels to be twenty-five. Not the best question she could have asked. Being twenty-five simultaneously feels like shit and also just like being twenty-four. But he doesn’t say so. She tries to sound happy but the despair in Louis’ voice rings clearly through the phone. Unconsciously, she begins to sound sad herself. “Can’t wait to see you tomorrow, love,” she says.

“Yes, you too,” Louis replies. It’s technically his life falling apart but he wishes for a way to cheer her up. Problem is he’s spent the majority of the past year unable to get himself out of his funk. He doubts he’ll have any luck doing so for his mum. So she tells him she loves him and they say their goodbyes.

Louis does pull himself out of bed around one in the afternoon, if only to get cat food for Poppy. Louis thinks that if he keeps the cat alive long enough, Harry will eventually come back at least to see her. Poppy hisses at him as he leaves. She's totally in on his difference to her, but Louis still doesn't care.

He steps outside, bitter London air pinching his skin, and gets a cigarette out and lights up. He quit smoking after meeting Harry, and for the better part of their relationship, he didn’t touch a single cigarette. In the past year, he’s well made up for lost time.

He doesn’t get the cat food right away. Instead, he decides on a whim to take a drive to Hyde Park, as was his custom on Christmas Eves with Harry. Every year, the park is transformed into what they call, “Winter Wonderland,” with an observation wheel, plenty of brightly lit rides and a skating rink. There are outdoor vendors and live music and even good ole Father Christmas waiting for a visit with his elves.

Louis strolls through the park, trying not to think about how Harry’s eyes lit up at almost every turn when they were here last. But he’s kidding himself if he thinks he came here for any other reason than pure masochism.

Hyde Park is packed full of memories with Harry and Louis lets them all envelope him like he knew they would. He feels the burn of those memories as he watches the couples throughout the park huddling against the cold or skating hand-in-hand. He watches them buying hot chocolate or mulled wine, laughing quietly. He remembers making out with Harry near Santa’s Grotto one year when it was dark and people were too busy counting down the hours till Christmas to notice.

“Happy Christmas, Lou,” Harry had said, brushing his nose across Louis’ cheek.

“It’s still my birthday,” Louis protested.

Harry smiled and shrugged. “It felt like a good time to say it anyhow. The mood was right.” He kissed Louis again. “And happy.”

“Very happy.” Louis wrapped both arms around him and squeezed. “Happy Christmas, H.”

It wasn't their last Christmas together. That one had been much less cheerful. They’d still gotten each other gifts, still had mulled wine late at night while watching a film, but the undercurrent of doom and tension lurking them for months was there too by the Christmas Tree.

Louis doesn’t realize he’s crying until someone clears their throat just beside him. He looks to his left, wiping beneath his eyes. There’s a young man dressed as Santa a few feet away from him. Louis looks around and finds he’s wandered to a mostly deserted section of the park.

“You alright?” Santa asks, raising a cigarette to his lips.

“Cold’s making my eyes water is all,” Louis says lamely.

Santa nods but clearly doesn’t believe him. He blows out a puff of smoke, still eyeing Louis with shadowed eyes. It’s dark enough out here that Louis can’t entirely make out his face.

“Aren’t you supposed to be back there?” Louis asks pointing behind him towards the more populated areas of the park, where Santa’s Grotto is too.

Santa holds up his cigarette. “I’m on break,” he says.

“Huh,” Louis grunts. “Didn’t know Santa took breaks. Isn’t that like part of his thing?”

“Sure,” he replies, “But Santa’s not real.”

Louis nods, lips curving in a faint smile. “Right. Don’t let the kiddies hear you say that.”

When Santa smiles, light catches on the silver braces over his teeth. It isn’t like Santa wouldn’t have braces. Santa must be all about dental excellence. But now that Louis’ inspecting the man narrowly he can see that he’s really just a boy, maybe not even older than Louis. His Santa costume is a bit cheap looking too and he’s wearing worn trainers instead of Santa’s shiny black boots. Louis looks around again and for the first time it dawns on him that he’s in a deserted, sparsely lit area of the park with a dishevelled boy who couldn’t possibly be the official Hyde Park Santa.

Louis doesn’t know if he should be worried or not. The boy is watching him intently, inhaling deeply on his cigarette. Louis could probably take him if he pulled any funny moves. But honestly, with the way this birthday is going — the way the whole year has gone — it wouldn’t be all too surprising if Louis got gutted by Santa the Serial Slayer on Christmas Eve.

“Why were you crying?” the man-boy asks.

Louis shrugs and reconsiders. He can’t pass up having someone to whine to. “I got dumped. And now I’m alone on Christmas Eve. And it’s my birthday.”

“Shit,” Shady Santa says. “Sounds like you’re not missing out on much, though, with the girl who dumped you. I’d say you deserve better.”

“Not a girl,” Louis says without pause. “And there’s no one better than him.”

“No?” Shady Santa seems unfazed by the revelation that Louis is gay. “Even though he dumped you on your birthday?”

“He dumped me nine months ago. And I practically asked for it,” Louis says. “Practically told him to go.”

“And yet here you are, still crying about this guy nearly a year after he broke up with you?”

“I’ll probably be crying about him for the next decade.”

Shady Santa throws his cigarette to the ground and ousts it with his shoe. “So, what’s his name?”

“Harry,” Louis says.

“And you love him?”

“Very much.”

“Tell me about him.”

Louis raises an eyebrow. But the boy is just waiting for him to go on. Louis slides his hands into his pockets and rocks back and forth to get some warmth flooding through his body. “He’s um-- He's twenty-two years old. Right now, he’s living in New York, him and the lot of posh arseholes he’s made friends with. He left London in January. I don’t know if he’ll ever come back. And if he ever does, I don’t think it’ll be to see me.”

Louis takes a deep breath. “He’s...” he begins softly. “He’s the greatest person I’ve ever met. He’s beautiful and brilliant and funny. Sometimes people don’t agree on the funny bit but I think so. He’s got curly hair. Smells of roses sometimes. He pretends to be a saint but he’s got a crazy temper when he’s ready. He made me adopt this cat two years ago and then left me with the stupid thing. But if I’m honest, Poppy is the only part of him I’ve got left.”

Louis wants to shut up, but he can’t now that’s he’s started. The words flow freely from a part of him he’s kept locked away.

“Harry had a job in New York to do and he wanted me to come with him. He wanted us to start fresh there. He proposed to me. And I said no. To all of it.

"I wanted to go with him. I should have. But I don’t know-- I didn’t have the money. I never had the money. His career was soaring and mine was going nowhere. I thought I was holding him back or something. I always pretended to be so confident but I wasn’t, really. Not with him. I felt way too much and sometimes it was terrifying. Harry — he’s kind, you know, and selfless,” Louis says, wiping his eyes again. “The only thing he ever asked of me is to love him. And I did. I do. But it wasn’t enough.”

Fake Santa reaches into his pocket. “Would you do anything to get him back?”

“Absolutely,” Louis says, sniffling. His eyes fall on the boy’s hand, buried in his pocket, searching for something. Louis draws a quiet breath. This might be it. This might be the moment Louis gets knifed by Fake Father Christmas. What a shitty bastard he is to make Louis pour his heart out before finishing him off. Bet he thinks Louis will make it easy for him because he’s so miserable, yeah?

Guess again, pal, Louis thinks, curling his fists.

The boy pulls a silver pocket watch into the open. “What’s your name, mate?” he asks Louis.

After a second’s hesitation: “Louis.”

“I’m Niall. Nice to meet you.”

He presses a knob at the top of the watch and it pops open. He takes one step closer to Louis. Louis is too mesmerized by the spinning silver dial inside the device to take a step back. It’s a compass, not a watch, and the polished face seems to emanate a bluish white glow. A trick of the moonlight, surely.

“If you could make one wish, would it be to have your Harry back?” Niall asks.

Louis looks at him. “Of course.”

Niall smiles. “Good. Then I think I’ll grant your wish for you,” he says, holding his right hand up. “Repeat after me. I, Louis Tomlinson…”

Louis glances around to see if maybe anyone else is witnessing this spectacle. There’s got to be some hidden cameras tucked away in the trees or the lampposts. And then another thought backhands him and he takes a large step away from Niall.

“Never told you my surname, mate,” he says.

Niall snaps the pocket watch closed. “I’ve got a glowing Time Clock open in front of you and that’s the thing you’re concerned about?”

“Time clock—” Louis holds up a hand, one finger raised. “Who the fuck are you?”

“Not important,” Niall dismisses. “I’m giving you a chance to fix things. You said you lost the person you love most. I’m giving you a chance to have him back. You can stand here and question me all you want but this opportunity won’t last forever. In fact, you’ve got about five minutes.”

“I don’t understand,” Louis says. “How can this fix anything?”

”I can’t tell you the specifics. You’ll just have to have faith.” Niall pops the compass open again. Its glowing light has faded. “Three minutes.”

“Fuck,” Louis hisses. It had to be the hot chocolate he had earlier, spiked with Wonka’s finest drugs. He hasn’t been sleeping well. Maybe it's the exhaustion and he's dreaming this all up. But he can’t walk away. Not from any opportunity, as wild and weird as it is, to have Harry back. “What do I have to do?”

Niall smiles. “Just repeat after me,” he says. “I, Louis Tomlinson…”

Nearly every horror film Louis has seen bears great warnings about dabbling with strangers and foreign magic. He knows better and yet, Louis finds himself slowly lifting his right hand into the air.

“I, Louis Tomlinson…” he repeats.

“…do solemnly swear…” Niall says.

Louis licks his lips before reciting, “…do solemnly swear…”

Niall continues. “…To stay true to my love for Harry Styles…”

“To stay true to my love for—” Of course, Niall knows Harry’s surname too.  It still gives Louis reason to pause. He inhales sharply and tries again. “—To stay true to my love for Harry Styles…”

“And to fight for my love...”

“And to fight for my love,” Louis repeats firmly.

“In this world and the next,” Niall says.

Those words nag him. He’s never believed much in a world beyond this one. Life is hard enough here. Niall is looking at him impatiently, waving his hand for Louis to hurry. “In this world and the next…” Louis spits.

Niall nods. “And I hereby establish this wish…”

“And I hereby establish this wish…”

“On this 24th day of December…”

“On this 24th day of December.”

“Amen,” Niall says.

“Amen,” Louis says with a firm nod.

Niall snorts a laugh. “Was just fucking with you about the ‘amen’, mate. You didn’t have to say that.” He snaps the compass closed again.

“What happened?” Louis asks. “Should I go to New York?”

“No, you should go home and wait. Don’t rush the fates,” Niall says, sliding the compass into his pocket.

“Who are you?” Louis asks. “At least tell me that.”

Niall shrugs. “Just a friend.” He turns his back to Louis and says as he’s walking away, “Good luck!”

Louis watches him as the distance grows between them. He turns to leave as well. At the last minute, he feels like he should get Niall’s phone number or something. He should at least ask if he’ll ever see him again and if there’s a way he can thank him if this all works out.

But when he turns back around, Niall is gone.

A light snow is beginning to fall from the sky and a frigid breeze rushes through Hyde Park. Louis wraps his arms around himself and heads home.

But first, he buys cat food.

+

He’s curled up on the sofa with a blanket around his shoulders when the door buzzes. He pushes himself up, despite the heaviness of his limbs. The time on his mobile reads 10:00, hours having passed right before his eyes with nothing extraordinary to report. He’d resisted the urge to call Harry as soon as he got home. The way Niall made it sound, Louis wasn’t supposed to do anything.

Now he feels mostly like an idiot for letting some lunatic in Hyde Park convince him that all he had to do to get the love of his life back was say a few fancy words and sit on his arse. But Louis has been out of ideas for months. Forgive him for being desperate.

He isn’t expecting anyone but he hurries to the intercom. Sometimes people ring the wrong door looking for someone else.

“Hello?” he calls. The person on the other side is quiet for a moment.

And then, “Hi, Louis.”

Louis freezes, all 206 bones in his body locking up and cementing him to the floor. His heart barely manages to stay in his chest. It’s racing, threatening to burst free and run downstairs. Run to Harry.

No fucking way.

Part of him, a huge part, is ecstatic and the blood in his veins fizzes like champagne. Harry is at his door and that means everything.

Another part of him wants to go back to Hyde Park and track down Niall, wants to confirm with him that angels, demons, genies, fairies are all real. Aliens are real. Hogwarts is real. Louis has discovered that the universe is truly a magical place, just as we had all hoped.

But Harry.

Harry is at his door.

And that’s more important than all the magic in the world.

“Yes,” Louis says. Way too eager. He clears his throat and tries again, “Harry, hey.”

“Hi,” Harry says. “Could I come up?”

“Yes, yeah,” Louis says, pressing the button to unlock the building door. He throws the blanket off his shoulders and races to the mirror to check his face. Harry has long legs and it won’t take him long to climb the stairs. But Louis works with what little time he has.

He looks like shit. He doesn't need a mirror to know that. He tries to adjust his fringe and runs his fingers through his hair. The result is mostly unsuccessful. He grabs some mousse on the edge of his sink and squirts some into his palm, just as there is a knock on the door. He’s massaging mousse into his hair and adjusting it with his fingers as he walks to open the door. He checks himself in the front-facing camera on his phone. He still looks like shit, but presentable shit and that’ll do.

On a last second impulse, he remembers the engagement ring on the coffee table and snatches it up. He shoves it down beneath the couch cushions, hurries to the door, yanks the door open.

Harry stands there, dressed in a green parka, black jeans and brown boots. He’s wearing a dark gray beanie over his curly hair and the strap of a large duffle bag across his shoulder. He looks nervous and fidgety, sliding his hands into his pockets, eyes darting over Louis’ face.

“Hi,” he says quietly.

Louis feels weak all over. He feels like his insides are made of cottage cheese and soup and melted ice cream. He feels the weight of the past few months sliding off his shoulders, and he can breathe easier because there is hope.

Because Harry is here.

“Hi,” Louis says. He smiles warmly. “Come in.”

Harry smiles back awkwardly, stepping past Louis and into the flat. “Happy Birthday…” he says.

Louis can’t stop smiling. “Thank you.”

“Um,” Harry says, hands still in his pockets. “So, I just…I need a place to stay for the night.”

Louis’ face visibly falls but Harry is looking at his shoes and doesn’t notice.

“Yeah, of course,” Louis says, trying to cope with the fact that Harry didn’t come here to see him. Harry didn’t come to fix things.

“There’s a snowstorm and all,” Harry explains, motioning towards the window where said snowstorm is in full effect. “I tried to reach Liam but I think he might have left already?”

“He did,” Louis says. He ignores that he wasn’t even Harry’s first choice. Of course, he wouldn’t be.

Harry nods. “Um, yeah, so I’ll just stay till the morning and then I’ll be on my way.”

“Okay,” Louis says. He hates that he feels like crying. Whatever he’d been expecting, it wasn’t this. Harry isn’t even happy to see him. It’s evident in the downward shift of his gaze when Louis smiled or the way he looked like he wanted to cut and run as soon as Louis so much as blinked.

But still, Louis made a vow.

As awful as this feels, he vowed to fight for it, through it.

Maybe this won’t be as easy as he hoped. But in all honesty, it shouldn’t be. Because completely falling apart means it'll take some work to put it all back together. The most important thing is that Harry is here and so long as he is, Louis can make this right.

“Have you eaten anything?” Louis asks.

Harry shakes his head. “Had a croissant at the airport but that was it.”

“How about cheese on toast?” Louis asks. “And tea? I’m sure you’re cold.”

Harry smiles, lifting the strap of his duffle over his head. “That would be nice. Thank you.”

Louis lets Harry kick off his shoes and remove his jacket while he busies himself fixing a late night meal. He melts cheese on toast and then randomly decides to make bacon and eggs too.

“Where’s Poppy?” Harry asks.

Louis glances around the floor. “Somewhere around here.”

Harry looks concerned, looking under the table and then across the carpet all over the flat. “Is she dead?”

Louis snorts. “I can keep a cat alive, Harry. She’s fine. Probably like burying a hairball or something.”

Harry doesn’t laugh like Louis wants him to, though there’s a smile on his lips. Louis counts it as win. Harry is seated at the table, waiting patiently. They try not to stare openly at each other. But Louis has glanced at him and met his gaze enough times now that there’s a faint blush creeping up to his ears.

“Have you been smoking a lot?” Harry wonders.

Louis scratches the side of his neck. “Only a little,” he says. Harry stares pointedly over his shoulder and Louis turns and catches sight of the ash tray with about fifteen cigarette butts jammed into a heap of ash. “Zayn comes around sometimes and smokes too.”

Harry nods but he doesn’t seem to believe him.

Louis brings the plates of food over to the table. He sits down opposite Harry.

Harry picks up the toast and bites into it. “When are you going home?” he asks.

“Tomorrow morning,” Louis says. He gets distracted by the way Harry’s eating. When they first started dating, he used to think it was a weird the way Harry would stick out his tongue whenever he took a bite of food. Eventually, like everything else about Harry, Louis came to adore it. “How was New York?”

“Very nice,” Harry says. “Always something to do.”

Harry sounds enamored with what is, to Louis, the other side of the world. Louis imagines the incredible life Harry’s built with incredible people miles away. Harry always had an ability to draw people to him, his warmth and radiance keeping him perpetually linked in a giant network of friends. The most recent additions to the network, these new New Yorkers, can’t be conducive to Louis’ goal of winning Harry back and he determines right away that they’re all the enemy.

“Are you planning on coming back once your next project is over?” Louis asks the question nonchalantly. But it’s one of the most important questions he’ll ever ask and the one that's been nagging him since Harry showed up.

Harry looks up from his food, his expression stunned and tense. Louis stops chewing, his brow furrowed. Harry stares at Louis for what feels like forever but is probably only six seconds. “No,” Harry says slowly. “Actually, I’ve found so much work over there. And I really like it. I even found a nice apartment, so…”

Louis’ mouth hangs open until the cool apartment air makes his teeth hurt. “Wow.” He clears his throat but it doesn’t help dislodge the lump there. “That’s great, Haz,” he says after taking a gulp of water. “Really great. Wow.”

Harry doesn’t respond. He simply watches Louis, his lips pressed into a small frown.

Louis is going to cry. He feels the telltale burn around his eyeballs and panics. He scoots his chair back and stands. “I’m going to run to the loo. Be right back,” he says quickly. And he leaves Harry sitting there, staring after him. He shuts the door and turns the tap on so the water will drown out any sound he makes. He takes a few deep breaths, wiping furiously at his eyes to stop them from moistening and burning. It’s counterproductive and only irritates his eyes more but he isn’t thinking rationally.

Harry isn’t back to stay. Not even close.

Louis lets that sink in.

Then he throws up a little in the toilet. He should have known better than to think he could tolerate any food tonight. He splashes cold water on his face and rinses his mouth out and then pulls the door open.

Harry watches him as he comes back and sits down. They grow quiet, avoiding each other’s gazes. Harry pushes food around his plate and Louis doesn’t even attempt to eat anymore.

“I need a drink,” Louis announces.

Harry’s eyes dart up to his.

“Do you want a drink?” Louis asks.

Harry hesitates for a moment. “Sure,” he says tentatively. Then more strongly, “Yeah, please.”

Louis goes to the fridge — for beer, Harry must think. Then Louis withdraws a bottle of Don Julio. He sets the bottle down on the table with two shot glasses and fills them up. Hoisting his glass in the air prompts Harry to do the same. They throw them back. Their empties hit the table simultaneously with a heavy thud and Harry’s mouth stretches in a slow smile. Louis grins and lifts the bottle again.

“Another?”

Harry nods. “Another.”

+

He and Harry are sitting in front of the TV with the bottle of tequila on the coffee table between them. Four shots later, it’s starting to hit them well, making everything blur and condense around the edges, especially that tension from earlier. Now, it’s only noticeable if he squints.

“Are you still watching Game of Thrones?” Harry murmurs, biting into a lime. He reaches for the salt.

Louis looks at him incredulously. “Of course. That last episode was sick.”

“I want to be Queen in the North,” Harry says.

Louis hiccups. “We’ve been through this. Jon Snow is mine.”

“I don’t respect your claims to the throne,” Harry says, sticking out his tongue. It’s so pink. His lips are so pink and supple when he does that Louis thinks it’s obscene. At some point during the night, Harry removed his beanie and the longer front portion of his hair now falls partly over his face. He must have grown too warm to keep his gray jumper on too because all he’s wearing is a simple white t-shirt. Louis hasn’t slept with anyone in nearly a year and now Harry is here, looking overwhelmingly beautiful with his shiny mouth and messy hair and thin shirt and Louis wants to fuck him into their couch. Their couch, yes. It’s never stopped being theirs.

Of course, he says none of that. “Shut up.”

“You shut up,” Harry says with a soft laugh.

Louis attempts to toss a lime wedge at him but he’s so uncoordinated at this point that his elbow slips off the coffee table and he falls over, hitting the rug with a thud, and groans. The sound of their subsequent laughter intermingled in the air is the only thing he wants to hear for the rest of his life.

He pulls himself up to lean against the couch, bringing himself closer to Harry, not too close, just enough to reach out and brush his ankle if he wanted to. Harry has his forehead resting on his palm, hair falling to the side, and he's smiling widely enough that his cheeks are dimpled. Poppy decides to appear from whatever crevice she's been hiding in and nudges up against Harry's cotton shirt.

"She is alive!" Harry says excitedly, scooping her up, and peering into her eyes. "You are alive!"

Louis scoffs, watching as Harry begins rubbing his cheek against her soft fur. He coos and whispers sweet nothings into her ears.

"Are you seeing anyone?"

Louis doesn’t know what convinces him to ask. He thinks that nothing does. Every sensible part of his brain tells him to avoid the subject. But he just can’t. He has to know, even if it ends him.

Harry's big green eyes meet his. Louis clears his throat and adds, "In New York?"

"No..." Harry says, drawing out the "o" for too long. He puts Poppy down and lets her saunter away. "Are you seeing anyone here?"

Louis shakes his head. Harry unconsciously shifts his leg a little, his toes just grazing Louis' thigh. For some reason, the contact makes Louis remember how they would give each other foot massages after long days at work. Louis was constantly on his feet at the daycare, chasing volatile children while they chased each other. Harry started working with a photographer he'd met through his mum, Anne, and whenever he got called in, he spent the day shooting weddings or graduations or bar mitzvahs with little time to sit down. If he spent the night at Louis' or Louis spent the night at his, they often ended up at opposite ends of the couch, with one foot extended into the other's lap in what they considered a genius position for them to both get the massage they needed.

It's both the little things, like dual foot massages, and the big things, like how easily and perfectly they fit together, that Louis misses most. It's the minute and the massive and all that lies between. Everything that comprised his relationship with Harry, he wants it all back.

"Why…?" he starts to say slowly. Harry's listening to him intently, despite looking like he wants to sleep instead. "Why aren't you seeing anyone?"

Harry frowns. "Why would I be?"

Louis doesn't know how to answer that seriously. This is probably a conversation they should have when they're both sober and in better control of their syntax. So he settles on saying something stupid instead, something that doesn't require a lot of thought. “’Cause you’re beautiful? Talented? Smart? You’re a catch. Arturo definitely thought so too.”

Harry sits closer and tries to sound firm when he says, “Enough about him.”

“You mean he still hasn't made his move,” Louis asks. “Poor bastard. Nothing stopping him now.”

Harry gets that stubborn pouty-lipped look on his face. “He did,” he says. “He has a place in New York. He asked me to move in with him.”

Right away, Louis’ stomach starts turning. He focuses on a random stain on the coffee table, trying to steady himself, stop the room from spinning.

Harry looks at him. “I said no, obviously. You were right about him. I think I always knew. Just wanted to believe someone truly believed in my work, just because it's good.”

“I did,” Louis says.

“I knew that.”

Louis rolls his eyes. “Didn't feel like it.”

Harry stares at him, drumming his fingers on the coffee table, thinking hard or trying to. “I'm sorry. I'm sorry I didn't listen to you,” he says quietly. “And I'm sorry that I kept you in a situation that made you uncomfortable.”

Louis shakes his head. “Don't--”

“I'm sorry I proposed to you,” Harry says. “I knew you didn't want that and I tried to force you--”

“I did, though,” Louis says. He pours himself another shot sloppily, spilling a bit of tequila on the table. “It killed me to say no to you. It still does.”

Harry’s eyes could burn a hole through Louis’ skull. He feels their intensity as he lifts the shot and throws it back. “I don’t understand,” Harry says. “Why would you even— Why do you say things like that?”

“Things like what?” Louis asks.

Harry sighs loudly. “Like that .”

“I’m just being honest.”

“You’re trying to get into my head.”

Louis shrugs. “Maybe.”

“I know you are. I know you. And I make it so easy. Every fucking time.” Harry rests his head down on the coffee table but keeps his eyes on Louis, blinking slowly. “You haven’t changed.”

“I have.” Louis reaches out and brushes his fingers across Harry’s ankle. Harry keeps looking at him sleepily, lush lips parted. Louis wraps his hand around Harry’s ankle and then slides up to his calf.

“Louis,” Harry says. “What are you doing?”

“Touching you,” Louis murmurs, pushing his fingers up under the hem of Harry’s jeans.

“Louis,” Harry repeats. He pulls his leg away from Louis’ touch and sits upright. He sucks in a big deep breath, pushes it all back out. “I’m going back to New York after Christmas. That’s the only reason I’m here. Then I’m leaving. I’m going back to New York.”

“I’ll come with you,” Louis says. In general, this conversation, if it can even be called that, has been one of the stupidest he’s ever had with Harry. Up until this point, very little of what he’s said has come from careful consideration. But this , what he’s saying right now— He means it with every part of his being. He knows these words are true. If Harry will have him, Louis will pack up everything he owns right the fuck now. He will stuff Poppy in one of his suitcases and buy the first ridiculously expensive ticket available.

Harry’s eyes widen. “What?” he breathes.

Louis exhales quietly. “I’d follow you anywhere.”

Harry stares at him, a million emotions crossing his face at once, colliding with each other. His face is a war zone for several silent seconds, and then slowly, everything crumbles. Louis is stunned when he cries. It seems to come from nowhere but he knows that’s not true. Maybe like him, Harry’s been crying for the past eleven months too.

“Haz,” Louis says, scooting forward, touching Harry’s cheek. He cups his face in his hands. “Babe…”

Harry tries to pull away and Louis holds tighter.

“Please don’t run away again.”

“You pushed me away. Let me go. I need to go.” Harry chokes on his words, bringing his hand up to wipe his nose. “I don’t understand why this keeps happening? I don’t want to do this anymore.”

“I’m sorry,” Louis says. “I’ve changed, I swear.”

Harry shakes his head, shutting his eyes, wet lashes dark and long where they fall against his cheeks. “I shouldn’t have come here. But I wanted to see you. 'Cause I missed you— But I need to let you go, Louis. I need to go— I’m trying—” Harry sighs, his lips trembling. “I’ve been trying so fucking hard.”

 The words hurt but Louis understands them. For a while, he tried to let Harry go too.

“Stop trying. Please? I love you,” Louis says, leaning forward and nosing along Harry’s damp cheek. His voice cracks as he speaks, eyes stinging. “I love you so much. I know I hurt you. But I can fix this. We can fix this, can’t we, love?” Harry’s still shaking his head slowly and Louis presses his lips to his forehead. “ Please .”

He should’ve rehearsed the proper words. But as it is, he can only speak from his heart what he’s been thinking all year. "I'm sorry I didn't trust you. I should have. You're my best friend, my favorite person, the best person. And I should have trusted that, but I just needed time. I needed to get my head in order and I have now and I love you. That's what I know. Not what the future looks like, although I want it to be with you. I don't know what I'm going to do yet for work. I don't know yet what I'm doing at all but I want to figure it out with you. I love you. I love you. Always. I love you."

Harry exhales shakily and pulls back, his eyes opening. Louis braces himself for the rejection coming. Can't say he didn't try. Harry pushes his hand through Louis' hair, fingers brushing the nape of his neck.

"Say it again," he says.

Louis could say it forever. "I love you."

Harry stares at him -- into him -- as if searching for the answers to all his questions, for promises and reassurance. He sniffs but it doesn’t do anything to stop his nose from running. He wipes his hand under his ruby-rimmed eyes and releases a heavy breath. His thumb brushes the corner of Louis’ mouth. He leans in, turns his head slightly and their mouths meet. Tenderly, then not tenderly at all.

Harry moves slowly into his lap, knobby knees pressing into Louis’ sides firmly. He cups Louis’ face with both hands, using the angle to lick deep into his mouth. He pulls away with a soft bite to Louis’ bottom lip.

“Touch me, Louis,” he murmurs, rocking his hips down. Put your hands on me, he’d said years ago.

So, Louis does, running his palms up Harry’s thighs, up his waist, his chest.

“Been dreaming about this for months,” Louis confesses.

“Me too.” Harry reaches for the hem of his own T-shirt and drags it upward, exposing all of his pretty skin. Louis sucks a line of bruises down the center of his chest and abs, forcing Harry to lean back to give him better access. He tugs at Louis’ shirt, yanking it up over his back, nails catching on skin. Each breath that leaves his mouth is fire as he licks and bites at Louis’ collarbones. Louis cups his arse and urges his hips downward, knocking their crotches together.

“Jesus,” Louis breathes. He actually feels an orgasm on the horizon. He’s going to come just like this.

Then Harry breaks their kiss again and says, “Fuck me.” He curls himself around Louis, speaking into his ear. The alcohol drips from each of his words. “I’d be so fucking tight.” Louis whimpers. “Missed your cock so much. Fuck me, Lou, come on.”

“You’re drunk,” Louis tells him.

“We both are and I want you to fuck me.”

“Not gonna last,” Louis says. “Want to so bad. There’s no way—”

“I don’t care,” Harry says, resting his forehead against Louis’. He looks into his eyes. “Thought I was never going to have this again. Doesn’t matter how long it lasts.”

For that, Louis kisses him. He hesitates a second just holding him, breathing him in. “Wait here.”

There’s a degree of awkwardness in how they move from then on. Louis returns with lube and condoms to find Harry naked, lying on a quilt he’s spread out on the floor. He kneels and crawls forward, Harry’s legs parting as he grows closer. He settles on top of him and for a second, they pause just looking at one another.

“Are you sure?” Louis asks.

Harry answers with another kiss to Louis’ mouth, pushing Louis’ sweats down with his hands and feet. He grabs the lube and presses it into Louis’ palm and that’s all the affirmation Louis needs. Louis works quickly on him with one, two, then three fingers. He keeps watching Harry’s face for signs of regret or a change of heart but they never come. Harry gasps and writhes plenty, twisting at the waist, arching his back, pushing himself down on Louis' fingers.

"Enough. Louis, please," he pants.

Louis wipes his fingers off on the quilt and slips a condom on. Harry draws him as close as their bodies will allow.

Pushing into him is like returning home from a long war. It’s true that he’s unyieldingly tight, even after Louis took so much time. He’s clenched around him like a lover hugging a long-awaited soldier. They make aborted groans and Louis buries his face into the crook of Harry’s neck, pulls out, and rocks back inside of him.

“You mean it?” Harry asks when he isn’t panting or gasping. “You’ll come with me?”

Louis holds him tighter. “I will.”

Harry’s fingernails press into his arse. “Come on, baby,” he murmurs, mouth brushing Louis’ ear. He kisses and sucks on any spot his lips can reach. “Fuck me.”

And so Louis starts to move. It comes easily to him. He’s been with the same man for five years and that has taught him much about how Harry likes to be touched. How he likes it equal parts rough and gentle. He likes a bite to his shoulder here or a slap to his arse there. He likes to slow down at random to kiss. He likes to be manhandled and he likes to push Louis around sometimes too. Whatever it takes really. Louis has learned Harry will go the limit to see them both pleased well.

They're both so loud, grunting and swearing and panting. Louis can barely keep himself upright. He lies flat atop Harry's body and snaps his hips against his bum as rhythmically and smoothly as he can. He pushes his fingers into Harry's mouth the way he likes and Harry sucks on them hungrily, lathing his tongue between the digits.

Louis happens upon the perfect angle when he hitches Harry's leg up further on his waist and Harry cries out and slaps his hand against Louis' bum. "God, yes. Right fucking-- right there."

Louis delivers his next thrusts exactly where Harry asks for it with wild, desperate drives of his cock. Harry pulls Louis' hand from his mouth and directs his wet fingers down to his cock. "Please," he says. "So close."

Louis wraps his fingers around Harry's cock, saliva, and precome making for an easy glide. He starts to work him over, fist tight and relentless. It's so much work, moving his hips at the same time, trying to keep the pace. But it's so rewarding. Nothing has ever been more rewarding than bringing the one you love to the edge and then tumbling through the air with him. On the next upstroke, Harry falls first, making a mess of them both, and Louis follows not long after, whipping off his condom, stroking himself until his chest is heaving and he's thoroughly spent. 

Harry uses his T-shirt to wipe them clean. He pulls Louis close, presses a kiss to his shoulder, and tucks his face away in Louis’ armpit. Warmth floods Louis’ whole body. He swallows around a nervous wad in his throat, looping his arm around Harry’s waist too. Harry hooks a leg over one of Louis’ and clings like a monkey. He used to do this plenty when they first started dating. The first time Louis fucked him they stayed like this for hours until ligaments were falling asleep and their stomachs were rumbling. In a sense, it’s sad that they’re back here, to a point where Harry feels the need to hold so tightly, but Louis chooses right now to simply indulge. He inhales the faint scent of Harry’s shampoo and the sweat drying on his skin.

“Did you really mean it?”

Louis looks at him, knowing what he means without having to ask. He hesitates for a moment. He thinks Harry even sees him do it. Swallowing again, Louis says, “I meant it. If you’ll have me, I’ll come.”

Harry looks into both of his eyes, one by one. “I’ll have you.”

Louis would be lying if he said he wasn’t afraid. He thinks he should even confess that to Harry, that he's scared but he wants to go for this anyway. But Harry's breathing evens out then, his eyes shut, a look of calm on his face.

Louis is afraid to sleep too. He worries that he’ll wake to find that all of this has been a dream. He’s terrified to sleep when sleeping in a figurative or literal way could mean losing Harry. He finds himself fighting against the pull now, blinking rapidly at the ceiling each time his eyelids lower.

And then he remembers mulled wine.

A Christmas never passed without him and Harry concocting a batch of the stuff. He thought this would be the first but it doesn’t have to be now. The problem is that he doesn’t have wine. He didn’t bother to buy any. He didn’t dare indulge in the tradition without Harry here.

But how nice would it be to have cups of mulled wine and breakfast together in the morning? He doesn’t have a Christmas present for Harry obviously but this could be it. He regrets having to leave the couch but now that he’s set his mind on the idea, he has to. There’s a liquor store just across the street. He’ll be gone and back before Harry even notices.

Carefully, he removes himself from Harry’s arms and hurries to slip on shoes and his coat. He grabs his keys and leaves quietly.

It’s still snowing, marring his vision slightly. The neighbourhood is silent aside from a soft howling of wind. Many have gone to their relatives for Christmas. Some perhaps are at parties. Most are likely asleep. He pulls his coat tightly around his shoulders and starts across the street.

He hurries to the 24-hour grocers and buys a bottle of Merlot, wishes the lonesome cashier a ‘Happy Christmas,’ and hurries back. He pauses on the pavement, looking up at the window of his flat.

“Hey,” Harry calls to him, the duvet wrapped around his bare shoulders.

Louis’ cheeks feel warm in spite of the cold. “Hi.”

“That for mulled wine?” Harry asks.

“Maybe.”

Harry smiles, pulling the duvet more tightly around himself. “Well, hurry in here so we can get started.”

Grinning, Louis starts across the street. “I love you,” he hears Harry say loudly. It's the first time he's said it since he returned. Louis pauses right there in the middle of the road.

"Say it again," he shouts. They’ve probably woken at least one of their neighbours already and Louis doesn’t care at all.

Harry laughs. "I love you, Louis Tomlinson."

Louis opens his mouth to shout the words back when a strong gust of wind and snow make him pause and shield himself. He thinks he hears Harry yelling again but there are too many sounds all of a sudden. The wind. The growl of an engine. Tires on the tarmac.

He doesn’t hear Harry and he doesn’t see the car coming until it’s all suddenly upon him.

“Louis, look out,” Harry has said. Screamed.

But by then, it’s too late.

+

“Do you mind if I take your picture?”

Louis looked up, lifting a hand over his eyes to block the sun. His brows creased and he pretended that he’d never seen the tall boy standing in front of him before. But obviously, that wasn’t true. It was hard to miss this kid with his curly hair and his camera and all the little oddities Louis had catalogued about him in the last month. His name was Harry Styles. He was a first-year. Louis had something resembling a crush on him.

“Why would I let you do that?” he asked, careful to sound genuinely confused. “What do I get out of it?”

“A nice picture,” Harry said.

Louis closed the textbook in his lap. “Why do you want to take my picture?”

Harry gave it some thought. “Well, you’re beautiful, for one. And so is the tree you’re sitting against. The two of you together would make a lovely photograph in my professional opinion.”

Louis smiled slowly. “I didn't realize I was dealing with a professional,” he said. “That changes things. I guess since I know you won’t make me look bad, why not?”

Harry grinned and removed his rucksack. “I'm sure it's hard to make you look bad. I’ll just take a few,” he said. He walked 180 degrees to the left and right of Louis, looking for the perfect angle.

“Do you normally take people’s pictures without introducing yourself?” Louis asked.

“I’m Harry,” he said. “And you’re Louis Tomlinson. You’re a third-year. You study botany.”

“And this just got creepy,” Louis said.

“I’m in a class with your flatmate, Zayn. I asked about you.”

“And why’d you do that?”

“Because I’ve been trying to work up the nerve to talk to you for a few weeks. You eat here every day and I eat over there, by that other tree,” Harry said, pointing.

Louis was a con-artist in his prime. He knew all of this already. He knew Harry spoke to Zayn because Zayn told him so. He knew Harry ate across the courtyard because every day he’d see him with his peanut butter sandwich, a banana, and a bag of crisps. Same thing every day.

He knew Harry was a first-year because he would have noticed a boy walking around with a face like that in the years prior. If you were attractive enough, eventually everyone found out about you. Louis often felt proud of himself knowing that he noticed Harry before anyone else did, back when Harry was just a wide-eyed newcomer armed with his camera, his rucksack and a constant supply of bananas.

Their schedules overlapped and Louis often ate lunch alone because his friends were otherwise engaged. Harry ate alone because he was a loner. At first, eating lunch at the same time was purely coincidental. Eventually, if Harry was running late to lunch, Louis ate a bit slower.

Louis lifted his brows. “The nerve to ask me for my picture?”

“No,” Harry said, squatting, lifting the camera to his eye. “For your number.”

He snapped the picture and surely, must have caught the blush creeping over Louis’ cheeks.

“And why would I give you my number?” Louis asked. “When I don’t even know you?”

“You ask a lot of questions, Louis.” Harry smiled. “I see you looking at me all the time.”

“That’s because you’re always taking pictures of dandelions. Before they’ve even matured into clocks. Clocks are pretty. A regular old dandelion is just that.”

“I thought you didn’t know me,” Harry said smugly.

Louis stumbled for a response. He was blushing something fierce now.

“As for the dandelions,” Harry began. “I find beauty in all things. Even the simplest ones.”

His eyes were bright, big and green. And Louis liked dandelions too if he was being honest. He liked their ability to reproduce without pollination. He liked how they changed. How they went from golden yellow to the white achenes that drifted in the wind. He loved plants and earth and Harry’s eyes reminded him of both. Everything about him was verdant and colourful and full of life.

The shutter sounded again.

Harry lowered his camera and smiled broadly. “Beautiful.”

Louis didn’t know what had happened. He thought he’d started out in control of this interaction. And now he couldn’t even form words. Harry had him flustered. Louis, the flirt, the charmer. People didn’t leave him flustered.

He probably should have known then how in danger he was. But those thoughts would be out of mind for years to come. The clock tower at the cathedral down the road chimed, signalling the start of a new hour. Louis had about five minutes until his next class.

“Give me your hand,” Louis said.

Without question, Harry stretched his palm out. Louis extracted the pen from behind his ear and scrawled his number beneath Harry’s thumb.

“I’ll be here tomorrow,” he said, standing. “If you want more pictures…”

Harry grinned, looking down for a moment. His ears were pink now too. “See you tomorrow, Louis.”

Encounters with him at lunch started Louis on a long chapter of his life entitled ‘Being Late to Class’. They talked and talked for so long sitting by the oak tree that Louis always lost track of time. They laughed sometimes until they cried. Louis teased him about his vast collection of photographs featuring woodland creatures and weeds. He got him to blush. He loved the way he blushed. He taught him strange things about plants and Harry taught him a bit about photography. Sometimes they just reclined in the grass in silence with either of Harry’s earphones tucked into their ears.

The space between their bodies as they sat against the oak tree got smaller. Good bye hugs lasted longer, and so too did their gazes. When it grew too cold to stay outside, they ate in the library. When the library was too crowded, they ate in Harry’s car or on the stairwell leading to the roof. Good bye hugs turned to kisses on the cheek. An accidental brush of their knuckles turned to purposefully, hooking their pinkies together.

The way things changed was gradual yet phenomenal like the seasons.

In autumn, Louis spotted Harry photographing dandelions.

By winter, he was in love with him.

+

Louis wakes up feeling like an elephant has spent the night on his face. His head is throbbing so severely he’s genuinely afraid it’ll explode. This is by far the worst hangover he’s ever had, and the most unusual considering that he’s consumed more alcohol with less pain in the past. He needs water and ibuprofen as soon as possible or he thinks he’ll die. He rolls over and tumbles right off the couch.

Two things dawn on him at once. First, there is someone on the floor beneath him. Second, that person isn’t Harry.

“What the hell, Louis.”

Louis relaxes somewhat when he recognizes Zayn’s voice. He pushes himself upright and away, narrowly missing the coffee table with his forehead. “Sorry,” he says. There’s sunlight streaming through the windows. Louis squints his eyes against the glare. “I think I’m dying.”

From his spot on the floor, Zayn chuckles sleepily. “You might have overdone it last night.”

“Probably, yeah,” Louis mumbles. He uses the arm of the couch to pull himself to his feet, feeling like a baby giraffe taking its first steps. He doesn’t inquire about how Zayn knows what happened last night or what he’s doing here. Those are important questions, yeah, but first, “Where’s Harry?”

“Who?”

Louis rubs his temples. His head pulses even worse now that he’s standing. “Harry.”

“The boy from last night?” Zayn mutters.

Louis looks at him. He’s seen Zayn hung-over enough times to know what it looks like. But all those times they woke up after wild dorm parties, Zayn never suffered memory loss.

“Forget it. What are you doing here?” Slowly, Louis’ eyes widen. “ Fuck— what am I doing here?”

It’s fucking Christmas.

Zayn should be with his girlfriend's family and Louis should be home. And Harry… Now it seems likely that Harry left early in the morning to head home too. He ignores the sick feeling in his stomach when he considers the reasons Harry might have left without saying goodbye. Last night as far as he remembers had ended on a good note. He’d gone out for wine. Harry had shouted that he loved him for the whole world to hear.

There’s no time to dwell on all this now. Louis’ mum is probably half-finished the turkey and strongly considering roasting him too. He can’t be late for her Christmas meal.

“Where else would I be?” Zayn mumbles.

“It’s fucking Christmas, mate. I thought you were visiting Gigi's family,” Louis says, hurrying to the sink to fetch his toothbrush. He doesn’t hear Zayn reply. The realization must have finally hit him. Maybe now he remembers who Harry is too. Maybe he can also confirm that Harry left earlier this morning in a good mood because trying not to think about him isn’t working.

Except when Louis comes back into the living room, Zayn is sitting up and looking at him like Louis is the one confused.

“Christmas,” Zayn says flatly.

“Yes, December 25th. That’s today,” Louis explains slowly.

“Louis, stop taking the piss," Zayn says, lying down. "I’m tired.”

“You’re going to be late for dinner and then you'll be mad at me for letting you sleep--”

Zayn sits up again and stares at him. “Alright. Did someone give you something to take last night? Was it that boy we met?”

Louis frowns. “What shit are you talking?”

“Are you being fucking serious, Louis?”

“Are you ?”

“Louis, it’s not Christmas. Stop fucking around,” he says.

“You stop fucking around. Don’t you think I’d know the day after my own birthday?”

“Mate, I think you should go back to sleep,” Zayn says, standing. He has both hands raised like he’s approaching a wild animal.

“Look,” Louis says firmly. “I don’t know what toxic shit you drank last night but it’s messing with your head, alright?”

“Go look out the window, Louis.”

“Why? Is it still snowing?” Louis asks.

“Snowing?” Zayn asks, eyes wide. “Jesus, just go look out the window.”

Louis shakes his head and walks over to the window. He hopes the snow has stopped. Travelling back home in it will be a nightmare. He expects to see his street blanketed in white. But the first thing to catch his eye isn’t snow. It’s a woman across the street walking her dog. It’s not her tiptoeing poodle that gets his attention. It’s the fact that she’s wearing shorts. And a few feet behind her is a man wearing shorts as well. All along the pavement are people dressed in their coolest clothing, no scarves or hats or coats in sight.

“What the fuck,” Louis whispers.

“So now that we’ve settled that it’s not Christmas…” Zayn begins.

Louis isn’t listening to him. He’s confused, yes, and terrified too. But none of that is important. If by some unexplainable reason, it isn’t Christmas, then where is Harry? Did he dream all of that? Is it even possible for a dream to feel so real. Where the fuck is Harry?

Louis puts his hand against the wall to steady himself. “Where’s Harry?”

“Who is that? Why do you keep asking me about them?”

“Zayn, what the fuck is going on?” Louis breathes. Black spots creep across his vision and recede.

“Okay, Lou, you have to calm down, yeah? Is Harry the guy from last night?” Zayn asks, looking a little scared himself. He’s taken a step closer.

Louis pushes away from the wall and stumbles toward the couch, pushing the blankets aside until he’s located his mobile. He starts scrolling through his contacts. He can’t believe his eyes. He scrolls through the entire list three times before tossing the phone to the floor like it’s caught on fire. There’s no Harry Styles in his phone.

“Oh my god,” Louis says, sucking in deep breaths of air. “I’m dreaming. I’m fucking dreaming.” He turns to Zayn, eyes wide. “You have to wake me up. Hit me.”

“I don’t think you’re dreaming, Lou.”

“Just hit me, Zayn,” Louis says, setting himself up in front of him. “Hard as you can.”

“I don’t want to hit you.”

“You have to. Just do this for me, please?” Louis begs. “Come on. I can take it.”

Zayn still doesn’t move.

“If you don’t hit me, I’ll have to find another way to wake myself up. If you think I won’t hit myself with a frying pan, you’re wrong.”

“Fuck this,” Zayn mutters. He takes a deep breath as Louis squeezes his eyes shut. Gentle as he is, Zayn can’t bring himself to use a fist. So he stretches out his hand and slaps Louis as hard as he is able.

Shit,” Louis hisses as the pain explodes across his face. “Jesus fucking— ” He presses a hand to his throbbing cheek, blinking back tears.

“You’re still here, Louis,” Zayn says.

It would appear that is the case.

“I don’t understand,” Louis says to himself, pressing a hand against his forehead. He has to shut his eyes because his vision is looking like a chessboard again, black spots burgeoning everywhere.

“Louis,” Zayn calls to him and his hands grip Louis’ shoulders. For a second, that's all he can feel. Eventually, that too fades away. The sound of Zayn calling him fades. The world, this day that is not the 25th of December, it all fades into black and then there’s nothing at all.