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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.

Chapter Text

“Being with you and not being with you is the only way I have to measure time.”

-Jorge Luis Borges

+

It was raining the first time they kissed.

The month was October and the breeze passing through London was just this side of uncomfortable. But Louis also tended to get cold easily and they’d been standing in Hyde Park for a while.

The leaves in the trees and the ones falling to the ground had gotten to the point now where they were all golden or copper. Harry claimed this was the best time to take pictures, said it was as if the sun had touched all of the leaves and given them a bit of its radiance. Louis, being a botanist, told him technically that was always true.

Harry never said it explicitly but Louis liked to think of himself as his muse. He was the sole model in the last two projects Harry had completed for class. Lately, they were always running off on Saturdays to fulfill one of Harry’s many photographic wishes.

That brought them to this Saturday in October amid hundreds of fallen leaves. Louis was buried beneath a freshly raked mound of them, his head poking out from the top.

“Bit itchy in here,” he said, resisting the urge to move his hand and scratch his neck.

“You can tolerate a little itch,” Harry said, moving closer to Louis’ leaf cocoon. “As long as there’s nothing crawling on you.”

“There just might be,” Louis said slowly.

Harry smiled. “If that were true, I think you would have gotten yourself out of there by now.”

“Now what kind of model would I be if I didn’t put up with a little spider crawling up me trousers?” Louis said. He looked over Harry’s shoulders at the sky, which had grown menacingly black. “There does look to be a storm coming, though.”

“You’ll do anything to escape those leaves, won’t you,” Harry said, shaking his head.

“No, really,” Louis said. “Look.”

Harry turned away from Louis, looking upwards at the foreboding sky, a faint rumble of thunder sounding far off in the distance. He turned back to Louis with a frown on his face. “How about a few more shots and then we’ll go, yeah?”

“Whatever you want, boss,” Louis teased.

Harry smiled, leaning down to find Louis’ ankles buried beneath the mound of leaves and tugged on them, pulling his legs out from under the leaves.

“Don’t know how I feel about being manhandled by you,” Louis said snippily as Harry brushed leaves off his face.

“Because you want to manhandle me?” Harry questioned.

Louis lifted his brows. “I’m sure you’d like for that to be the case.”

Harry looked at him sideways, his hand slowing as he brushed another leaf off of Louis’ forehead. “Hmm,” he hummed, a discreet smile growing. He stood. “Maybe you’re right.” He picked the camera up off his chest and brought the eyepiece close. “Now, look bored.”

“Around you? Not possible,” Louis said. Harry lowered the eyepiece, narrowing his eyes at Louis.

“Be serious,” he said despite the smirk tugging at the corners of his lips.

Louis smiled again and then made a concerted effort to stop smiling. He put on his best poker face, made himself look uninterested in Harry circling him with his camera. Then he felt a raindrop hit his cheek. One must have fallen on Harry as well because his finger froze over the shutter button and he looked at a spot on his hand. Then he looked at Louis. Louis shrugged as best as he could beneath the leaves.

“Should we go?” he asked.

“Yeah,” Harry said. “Before it gets any worse.”

Saying those words seemed to bring about just that. Harry had just enough time to zip up his camera before the rain began to fall with purpose. Louis had freed himself from his prison of leaves and now hurried to grab the tripod. The rain showed no mercy, pouring from the sky and making the already cold air feel even colder against Louis’ skin.

By the time they made it to Harry’s Jeep, their hair and clothes were drenched and stuck to their skin. They got into the Jeep, shut the door and the sound of heavy rain dulled around them.

“Well, that didn’t go as planned,” Louis commented as Harry started up the car and cranked the heat.

“It never does,” Harry said, shrugging. He reached into his backseat, digging around for something.

“How’s the equipment?” Louis asked.

“It’s fine. Kept it nice and dry,” Harry said. He pulled a blanket forward. “Here,” he said, shaking the blanket open and holding it out to Louis.

“What about you?” Louis asked.

“I’ll be fine,” Harry smiled warmly, throwing the blanket around Louis’ shoulders. “What kind of photographer would I be if I didn’t take care of my model?”

Louis blinked at him. He felt warmer already, either from the heat pouring into the car from the vents or from the way Harry looked at him. He didn’t have much time to figure out which one it was because Harry looked away, putting the car into drive and pulled out of the car park.

Louis turned on Harry’s music, though he left the volume down low. He snuggled further into the seat, tugging the blanket tight around his shoulders. His gaze slid to Harry, taking notice of the way he drummed his fingers on the steering wheel to the beat of the music and at one point, raised his hand to push his hair back off his forehead. They were at a traffic light when Harry turned and caught Louis looking at him.

“What are your plans for the rest of the afternoon?” Louis asked.

“Don’t have any,” Harry said. “You?”

“Same. No plans that I know of.”

Harry looked at Louis, his lips parted like there was something he wanted to say. The traffic light changed then and he accelerated once more, reluctantly looking away.

Louis retreated again into the ramblings of his own head. He didn’t know what to say next. If he was being honest, he was on uncharted territory here. He knew he was attractive. He never had any trouble finding a lad to cosy up to every now and then. But sleeping with random men didn’t scare him. Falling in love did.

It seemed presumptuous and hasty to even be thinking about love and Harry in the same spectrum. But Louis had to. Because Harry was exactly the kind of person Louis would fall in love with and he'd been halfway there for weeks.

It was ridiculous. They hadn’t even kissed yet. It seemed that too much time had passed since Harry first approached him for his picture. They flirted all the time and Louis thought, by now, that he'd been obvious enough. But still, neither of them had made a definitive move. And maybe they never would.

Harry pulled up to the kerb outside of Louis’ flat and kept the engine running.

“Might just wait a minute to get out,” Louis said when a flash of lighting in the distance startled them both and the rain seemed to fall even harder than before.

“Want to look at the pictures?” Harry asked, turning the engine off.

“Might as well,” Louis said, moving closer while Harry got his camera out. Harry started navigating through the photos, pausing every now and then to stare at one in particular. There was one of just Louis’ smiling face, surrounded by gold and copper leaves. His eyes were squinted and crinkled at the corners, with just enough crystal blue exposed to catch the glow of the sun. Harry lingered on the picture for longer than Louis thought was necessary and he felt his face begin to warm again.

Louis cleared his throat quietly and Harry turned his head to look at him questioningly, bringing his face much closer to Louis’ than they expected. Harry’s eyes dipped to Louis’ lips, then back up. His own lips twitched. Louis exhaled quietly, dropping his gaze to the camera in Harry’s hands.

“Enough of me,” he said, reaching out and gently taking the camera from Harry’s hands. Harry allowed him to do so, watching Louis with amusement. “I think I should take one of you.”

Harry laughed softly, pushing his free hand through his hair again. “The lighting’s probably all wrong in here, Lou.”

“I bet you look good in any lighting,” Louis murmured as he lifted the eyepiece to his eye and shut the other. “How about a silly face?”

Harry sighed exaggeratedly but he did as told. He tucked his hands behind his ears to make elephant ears and stuck out his tongue to one side and made his eyes as wide as possible. Louis snapped the pic. It was dark like Harry had predicted it would be, the sun having faded significantly in the last twenty minutes, but half of Harry’s face was illuminated by the light that remained. Considering his minimal photographic experience was based entirely on an iPhone camera, Louis hadn’t done such a bad job.

“Beautiful,” he said smiling. “I want this one to pin to my wall.”

“You want a picture of my face to put on your wall?” Harry asked, laughing.

Louis scoffed. “As if you don’t have all of my pictures posted on the ceiling above your bed.”

“On my pillows actually. There’s nothing better than waking up in the morning and seeing your lovely two-dimensional face beside me.”

Louis laughed until tears dotted the corners of his eyes. Harry watched him, laughing more at Louis’ reaction than at the joke itself.

They sat in oddly tense silence once they quieted down watching as the rain slowed and the sky grew darker. Eventually, it was just a drizzle but Louis wasn’t eager to get out of the car, face the bitter October air or leave Harry.

“You should probably get some dry clothes on now. Wouldn’t want you to catch a cold because of me,” Harry said.

“Do you want to come up for a bit?” Louis asked. Harry paused with his hand over the key in the ignition. “I can put your jumper in the dryer. Maybe make you a cup of tea?”

Harry thought it over. “Dry clothes and tea?” he said. “How can I resist that?”

“You can’t and you shouldn’t,” Louis said, pushing the blanket off his shoulders. He reached out to grab the door handle. “So what will it be?”

Harry pulled the keys out of the ignition. “Lead the way,” he said drawing a smile from Louis. They opened their doors and stepped out.

Once they were inside and surrounded by dryer, warmer air, Louis held his hands out. “Here, let me have your top.”

“Eager to get me out of my clothes?” Harry wondered while he kicked off his shoes.

“Oh, shut up,” Louis said, watching as Harry reached for the hem of his jumper and began peeling it up to reveal smooth, defined abs. He averted his eyes. Not right away, but he managed eventually. He busied himself with straightening the mail on the table beside the door. Harry cleared his throat and Louis looked up to find him holding out his clothing, all balled up.

It wasn’t like he hadn’t seen a half-naked boy before. He just hadn’t been face-to-face with many half-naked boys, completely sober with the lights on while harboring a massive crush.

“Are your jeans wet too?” Louis asked.

Harry raised one eyebrow, a smirk on his face. “They are. Should I take them off as well?”

“It’s up to you,” Louis said nonchalantly.

Harry was still smiling as he pushed his jeans down to his ankles and stepped out of them, exposing his long legs and purple polka dot socks.

“Nice socks,” Louis commented dully, like that was where his attention lay and not the bulge in the front of Harry’s pants.

Harry pouted. “My mum bought them for me.”

“Cute,” Louis said, taking Harry’s jeans from him. Harry swatted at him but Louis was faster and more coordinated. He laughed as he strolled away. “I’ll fetch you something warm to wear. You can sit if you want.”

Harry plopped down on the couch right away and folded one leg underneath the other. Louis had done something right this week. He’d somehow mustered up enough good karma to allow him this moment with this beautiful boy comfy on his couch.

He turned the kettle on and put Harry’s clothes in the dryer. He found a clean pair of sweats and a grey t-shirt that fit loose on him but would probably fit comfortably on Harry. He got changed himself and then went back into the living room to hand Harry the clothes and a bath towel.

“Thank you,” Harry said smiling up at him. He pulled the shirt on over his head and then scooted his bum forward to tug the sweats on as well. Louis stood there watching him as he ran the towel through his damp hair. Harry looked up when he realized Louis was making a study of him.

“I’ll just go make the tea,” Louis said.

He returned to the couch a little while later with two steaming mugs and took a seat beside Harry.

“Thank you,” Harry said, cupping the mug in his hands.

Louis smiled. “Do you want to watch something?”

“Sure. Anything’s good,” Harry replied.

Louis flipped through a few random channels and then settled on something. He glanced at Harry and Harry glanced at him.

“Think this is my first time being at your place,” Harry said.

“I think you’re right.”

“It’s nice. Lots of plants,” Harry said, noting the cacti and the ferns Louis had all about the place. He looked at him again. “Where’s Zayn?”

“Being studious,” Louis said. “He has a lot of projects due at the end of the term. Spends a lot of time on them in the studios on campus.”

“Must get lonely for you.”

“I haven’t been here much either,” Louis said. “I have you now.”

“We have been spending a lot of time together, haven’t we?” Harry mumbled, sipping slowly on his tea while his eyes stayed steady on Louis.

“It’s starting to get ridiculous. Can’t seem to get rid of you,” Louis said with a smile he tried to suppress. “My clothes look good on you.” His sweats fit baggy but too short on Harry’s legs and the shirt was snug enough to make his nipples stand out. Harry had the most attention-seeking nipples.

“You think?” Harry said, looking over his own body and running a hand down the front of his borrowed t-shirt. “I wasn’t sure about this shade of gray but now I think it brings out my eyes.”

“It does make your eyes look quite nice.”

“Aren’t you sweet?” Harry said.

“You’re only just noticing?” Louis said cheekily.

Harry chuckled lightly, putting his mug down on the coffee table. “I notice everything about you.”

“Easy there,” Louis said, laughing. “Coming on really strong.”

“Good.” Harry smiled. “That’s my goal.”

Louis glanced at his mouth and then away.

Harry ran his fingers along the rim of his mug. “I have maybe a silly question.”

“If it were all that silly, you probably wouldn’t ask,” Louis said. He looked at Harry expectantly.

“Probably,” Harry murmured. “You and Zayn are just friends, right?”

Louis blinked at him in confusion. “Yes?”

“Are you not sure?” Harry wondered.

Louis laughed. “I am. I’m just— Is that the silly question?”

Harry shrugged, looking down at his feet.

Louis set his mug down and turned to him. “Have you seriously thought all this time that I’ve been dating Zayn? How would that even make sense?”

Harry’s lips formed a pout for a moment. “No, but people on campus talk about you two all the time. You’re both popular, I guess. You’re like a genius. You’ll probably be valedictorian and Zayn’s the most talented art student. I’d know because I have classes with him. All the professors are in love with him. And people see you two together and think you’d make a good pair. ‘Cause you’re both talented and fit and you live together, so….”

Louis couldn’t resist. “You think I’m fit, do you?”

Harry huffed. “Yes, me and everyone else.”

Louis grinned. “Zayn and I are just friends. People thinking we look good together doesn’t mean we’re actually good together. Not in that way at least. We’re good friends, that’s all.” He ducked his head to catch Harry’s gaze. “I thought we established that I’ve been spending all my time with you.”

Harry drummed his fingers on his thighs. “That’s true.”

“Do I seem interested in anyone else?” Louis asked.

There was a flash of lighting somewhere outside Louis’ kitchen window and a clap of thunder. The rain was coming down heavily again but at least they were inside where there was warmth and each other.

Harry blinked. “No, that’s— I don't know. It's just—” He groaned. “I don't know.”

“Just what?”

Harry didn’t answer, shaking his head slightly.

“Just what ?” Louis repeated.

“Fuck,” Harry breathed, as he leaned in, cupping the back of Louis' neck. He gave him a slight tug and then paused. “Is it alright—”

Louis didn't hesitate. He closed the distance between them with only a quickly uttered, "Yes." Their lips were warm from the tea and eager from pent-up frustration and need. Sliding his hand into Harry’s hair and tugging made Harry’s mouth drop open and Louis had to slip his tongue inside and kiss him as deeply and relentlessly as he’d wanted for ages. He crawled forward without disconnecting their lips, pushing Harry down into his couch, climbing atop him. Moving too fast.

He drew back slightly, just enough to see Harry’s entire flushed face.

“Just that?” Louis asked.

Harry bit his lip, looking uncharacteristically shy. “Just you,” he said. “That’s all I want. I’m tired of being friends who flirt. Tired of people talking about you and Zayn.”

“Got you jealous?” Louis asked, pressing a kiss to the mole on Harry’s chin. Yet another thing he’d been longing to do.

Harry ran his hands up Louis’ back. “Of course.” He looked at Louis’ mouth and tilted his chin up.

Louis drew back again. “There was a reason I hadn’t kissed you yet,” he said, kissing Harry’s cheek instead. He spoke into his ear. Not in a sexy way. He had something to confess and couldn’t meet Harry’s eyes as he did it. “I don’t want to move too fast with you, H. I like you. I think the world of you. I don’t want to fuck this up.”

Harry groaned softly, wrapping both of his strong arms around Louis’ torso. “Me neither.” He pressed his face into Louis’ neck, breath tickling Louis’ skin. “Have so much I want to say to you. So much I want to do. I want you so badly it’s driving me insane.” With that, he pushed his hips up a bit, and it came as no surprise that he was just as hard as Louis. The contact made their breath stutter.

“Slow—” Louis said, though it pained him to. “Want to take it slow. Do things at the right time.”

He didn’t know if he was making sense at all. Just knew he couldn’t fuck this up. He was terrified to. He’d been through enough men who he’d hurried into bed with and never heard from again. He liked that Harry hadn’t pushed for anything since they met, although yes, at times, that had left him nervous. Like maybe Harry wasn’t as interested.

And now here they were. Both of them so ready for whatever logically came next. Louis wanted that, so badly it hurt. But also he was terrified, honestly thought he was falling in love with Harry well before their mouths met.

He couldn’t lose him when they’d hardly begun.

“I’m not going anywhere,” Harry said, as if he heard him. “You can take it slow if you really want. But the right time is here already. Every moment feels like the right one with you.”

“You’re unreal,” Louis said. He had to kiss him, tongues meeting instantly. Harry’s knees squeezed his hips. His hands were everywhere, roaming up and down Louis’ back, cupping his arse. Their cocks brushed again. Louis found himself grinding down, as he murmured again without conviction, “Not too fast—”

“We’re not,” Harry panted, sucking a bruise into Louis’ collarbone. “Does this feel right to you?” He pulled Louis’ hands away from his jaw and put them on his chest. His heart was racing. “Just touch me. Put your hands on me.” He met Louis’ gaze as he dragged their palms together down his abs. “You want to go slow? Fuck me slow then.”

Louis whined or whimpered, and looking back that would be embarrassing, but it wasn’t right now. It was simply honest.

“Take your time with me,” Harry said, pushing Louis’ hand down against his own crotch. He groaned, his eyes fluttering shut, mouth falling open.

Louis kissed him again, pushed the waistband of the sweats down, and touched. He undressed them both and touched more. He’d waited long enough, hadn’t he? The right time was here. Now.

+

There always exists a few precious seconds immediately after a person wakes up where they don’t know who or what or where they are. Sometimes only two seconds, sometimes shorter or longer, but equally precious all the same.

For Louis, it seems to be nonexistent.

From the moment he opens his eyes and comes to consciousness, all of his memories crash into him like a freight train. He remembers being with Harry on Christmas Eve, snuggled up to him on the couch and flooded with hope after eleven hopeless months. And he remembers waking up, on what was supposed to be Christmas morn, to Brits in booty shorts, a mobile phone devoid of Harry's number and a very worried, terrified, though blessedly familiar, Zayn.

Louis wants nothing more than for the latter to have been a very bad dream. He hasn’t prayed in so long. He doesn’t even remember how. But for the first time in a long time, he squeezes his eyes shut and begs God, or whichever deity will hear him, to please, please let it be Christmas with Harry by his side.

Louis hears a muffled voice nearby and he lifts his head up from under the duvet, scanning the expanse of his bedroom. The shades are drawn, blocking out most of the sunlight but Louis can still see enough of the dimly lit space. The first thing he notices is the absence of Harry’s painting, which for the past two years had been set on the wall opposite the bed. The wall Louis stares at now is terrifyingly blank.

The rest of the room looks normal.

The voice outside of his door grows closer and for a moment, Louis considers burrowing under the covers again. But he stays put, watching as the doorknob turns and the door eases open.

Zayn comes to a stop in the doorway. “You’re up,” he says. He puts the phone in his hand to his ear and says, “I’ll call you back.”

Louis sits up fully as Zayn moves over to the window and parts the curtains a bit. With the light pouring into the room now, Louis looks to his left at the outlet on the wall beside the windows. A year ago Harry bought him a nightlight, a creepy-looking frog-shaped one, which he’d stuck in that very outlet. And Louis, despite finding the frogs glowing eyes and plastic smile disturbing, never moved it. Which doesn’t explain why it’s no longer there.

“That was my dad,” Zayn says, coming to sit on the edge of the bed. “Called him when you fainted. I wasn’t sure if I should take you to the hospital. He said you were probably a little dehydrated from the drinking last night and I should get you something to eat for when you wake up. So I have some soup on to boil. And there’s a glass of water there that I think you should drink.”

Louis glances at the bedside cabinet where there is, in fact, a glass of water, fat droplets running down its sides. “Thanks,” he says trying to smile. He forces himself to sit up and lift the glass.

Zayn watches him, his brow furrowed. “So,” he says slowly. “Still think it’s Christmas?”

Louis sighs. “I think that it should be, yes.”

Even in this universe, it seems Zayn isn’t a good liar in any regard. He can’t hide the disappointment on his face, though he appears to try. He must have been hoping Louis would be back to normal after waking up. He isn’t the only one.

“Can I just say that if you’re playing a prank, this has absolutely passed the point where it’s even a little bit funny,” Zayn says. “And I would probably not talk to you for at least three weeks.”

“I’m not playing a prank, I promise,” Louis says, though he does laugh for the first time since this all started.

“And you aren’t on drugs?”

“Do we still enjoy a blunt every now and then in this dimension?”

Zayn smirks. “Hard drugs, Lou.”

“No,” Louis says, scoffing. “I’m not on drugs. And no one’s given me anything to take. Would have worn off by now anyway.”

Zayn crosses his arms. “I mentioned some of this to my dad. He thinks you should come in and see him if that’s something you might be interested in. Maybe?”

“I’m still hoping this is all a bad dream. Not quite ready to see a therapist just yet,” Louis says, taking another sip of his water. “I know you want to help. I appreciate that. Right now, I don’t know how you could. Except by just answering some questions? Just humor me, yeah?”

“Sure,” Zayn says hesitantly.

“How old am I?” Louis asks.

Zayn lifts an eyebrow questioningly. “25?”

So, Louis knows he hasn’t travelled back in time. But that still doesn’t explain a thing.

“And you don’t know who Harry is?” he asks. “Harry Styles?”

“Styles? Everyone knows him, Louis. If you mean the pop star Harry Styles, pretty sure everyone in the world knows him.”

Louis snorts. “No, definitely not—” His voice trails off. It isn’t possible. His Harry only ever sang behind closed doors, in the shower, while cooking, or sometimes after sex when the music from Louis’ iPhone was still playing softly in the background and they were curled up in such a way that Harry’s mouth was just beside Louis’ ear. His voice was remarkably beautiful but Harry never seemed interested in singing for anyone else or making a profession with his talent.

Louis would have to be incredibly out of touch with pop culture if he never noticed a famous singer with the same name as his Harry, and Louis isn’t out of touch with pop culture. He dabbles quite frequently in gossip magazines and trashy gossip television. During the last eleven months especially, it helped to read those articles or hear those stories about people who had somehow managed to self-destruct worse than him.

He would have read about a famous Harry Styles at least once. He has an alarming thought right then. It doesn’t seem possible but nothing in the past few hours has.

“What does he look like?” he asks quickly.

“He’s pretty fit. Curly hair. Dimples. Nice smile. Everyone’s in love with him.”

Louis stares at him for a long time. His breathing grows increasingly ragged. Zayn puts a hand on his shoulder and squeezes.

“What’s happening, Louis?”

“I need to see a picture of him,” Louis says. “Of Harry Styles, please?”

Zayn’s eyes dart all over his face, brows wrinkled with fear and worry. He tugs his mobile from his back pocket, his thumb moving quickly over the screen, and then he hands it off. “That’s him. Just searched Harry Styles and he came up immediately.”

Louis can’t believe his eyes or the words leaving Zayn’s mouth. He sees his Harry there on the screen, looking almost exactly as he remembers him. His hair is still curly but long, enough that the strands brush his collarbones. He looks like Mick Jagger.  Eyes soft and kind. Mouth lax, curved by a smile. His Harry. His.

“What the fuck is happening…” Louis whispers. He puts his head in his hands, dropping the mobile on the mattress. “I don’t understand what’s happening to me. I think I’m going insane. I can’t—” He pulls at the front of his shirt. “I can’t breathe.”

“Louis,” Zayn says, grabbing both of his shoulders. “Look at me, mate. Just look at me.”

Louis looks at him, blinking tears away as more form in their place.

“You’re not going insane,” Zayn says firmly. “We’re going to figure out what’s happening, yeah? We’re going to figure it all out. Just talk to me.” He ducks his head to keep their eyes locked. “Just explain what you think’s happened.”

“You won’t believe a word of it,” Louis says, dragging his palms over his eyelids. “I have to be dreaming.”

“If you’re dreaming, you’ve got nothing to lose just explaining yourself,” Zayn says. “Just try me.”

Louis exhales slowly and shakily. He falls sideways on the bed. Zayn mimics him so that they’re lying side-by-side, facing each other.

“Maybe start with who Harry is to you?” Zayn suggests.

Louis hesitates a moment, feeling vulnerable. He doesn’t want to talk about Harry while being looked at like he’s delusional. He doesn’t want to feel like he’s making things up, like he’s making Harry up. For Louis, nothing has ever been more real than Harry and what they had.

When he looks at Zayn, he doesn’t see judgment or skepticism. He simply looks curious, though perhaps a little worried. The sincerity in his warm brown eyes forces the words out of Louis’ mouth.

“The love of my life,” Louis says. “To put it simply.”

Zayn raises both eyebrows. “You’ve never been in love with anyone.”

“Before him, yeah. But he changed everything,” Louis says smiling and shrugging the shoulder not pressed into the mattress. “He’s a photographer, my Harry. I met him in uni. I fell in love. After he graduated, we moved in together. Harry’s work took off. Things were a bit harder for me, being a botanist. I loved him but we argued often about money and our careers and marriage. And eventually, he left me and moved to New York and we didn’t speak for nearly a year. On Christmas Eve, what was supposed to be yesterday, he came home and I thought for a moment, that we fixed things. And now I’m here and nothing makes sense. And I have to be dreaming. This has to be the dream because what we had together can’t be. I didn’t dream all that up. It’s just not possible.”

Zayn reaches into his back pocket and withdraws a pack of cigarettes. One for himself. One for Louis, which he accepts gratefully. He lights their cigarettes.

“This really sucks, you know?” Zayn says, exhaling his smoke toward the ceiling. “To hear you talk like this about someone and not know who they are.”

“You do, though. Harry Styles, that’s him,” Louis says. “I know it doesn’t make sense, but that’s him. I’ve got to find a way to wake the fuck up, Z.”

“You’re my best mate, you know?” Zayn says. “I’ve never seen you like this. You’ve got me fucking scared and confused. And at this point, I’m willing to believe anything. I’m willing to help you however I can.”

“‘ppreciate it.” Louis smiles and lifts the cigarette to his mouth with trembling fingers. “Of all the people I get to travel dimensions with, I’m glad it’s you.”

In this world and the next…

Louis’ brows furrow when the words come to him. He latches onto them, thinking hard. Digging and digging deeper into his memory bank. He remembers Hyde Park. He remembers a wish made. A strange boy. Then his memory fails him. But it’s enough in that moment at least. It’s a clue.

“Listen,” Zayn says. “Tomorrow’s that concert I’m supposed to be taking my sisters to? You probably don’t remember anything about it right now. And I don’t know if it’s the best idea for you to go.”

“No, no, I can handle a concert,” Louis says, sitting upright. “I have to get out of this flat, mate. It’s not like I’ll run into Harry in here.”

“That’s the thing,” Zayn says. He draws a deep breath. “Do you know One Direction?”

“I do, yeah,” Louis says. It’s hard to miss the boy band that’s stirred up more than enough talk in the past three or four years. He’d have to be living in a cave to have not heard of them. He and Harry used to listen to a few of the songs on the radio. Eventually, it turned into them belting that one song, ‘What Makes You Beautiful’, to each other when the other was least expecting it.

“Then you know that Harry Styles is a member?”

It takes several minutes for Louis to remember his tongue and how it works. It feels like he’s got cotton jammed down his throat. “That’s not possible.”

“Nothing you’re saying really is,” Zayn says. He holds his phone out. “Look for yourself.”

Louis shakes his head and stands, wobbling slightly. He begins to pace. In this world and the next, he remembers again. There’s a reason this is happening. There’s a strong possibility he’s not dreaming. That he’s somehow landed himself in an alternate dimension. He did something yesterday before Harry returned to him. There was a wish. A strange boy. And those words spoken.

“I have to go to the concert,” he says. “I think that’ll jolt my memory or something. I think I’m meant to go.”

Zayn looks at him, his eyes slightly narrowed. “I don’t know. It might be too stressful.”

“Fuck that. Were you not hearing me, mate?” Louis says. “I need to see Harry. Nothing’s right until I do.”

“I hear you, Louis,” Zayn says. “I guess we’re on then.”

Louis takes a shuddering breath and nods. “We’re on.”

+

Seeing familiar faces is a blessing. Even with Zayn’s sisters, Waliyha and Safaa, who Louis hasn’t seen in at least a year. London is the same as Louis remembers it. He lives in the same apartment and drives the same car. Nothing is futuristic or dystopian like he might have imagined. But even so, familiar people are what calm him most. And when he sees Zayn’s sisters, he hugs them for longer than usual, patting their heads, squeezing them until they push him away and accuse him of being weird.

Speaking of weird, Harry’s face is everywhere. Literally on every sign, poster, and T-shirt they encounter during their long wait in the queue outside of Wembley Stadium. There are three boys altogether in the band and Harry is always at the center or to the side or in the back, pulling funny faces Louis has spent years falling in love with.

He’s thankfully distracted with thoughts of his own sisters and his family in general. He should have checked on them sooner, but last night after his talk with Zayn, he’d had his soup, taken some sleeping pills and slept until noon the following day. Now he can’t stop worrying that something might have changed at home.

When they’re through the gate and headed to their seats (which are on the floor thanks to Zayn’s generous dad), Louis tugs on Zayn’s arm to stop him. “Hey, I’m going to ring my mum and then I’ll meet you down there.”

“Need me to come with you?” Zayn asks.

Louis gives him a look. “I think I’ll manage.” He’s legitimately offended by Zayn’s constant coddling. He doesn’t blame him. Sometimes Louis feels like he’s seconds from passing out, but still, he doesn’t want to be looked at that way.

“Just call me if you get lost,” Zayn says.

Louis shakes his head. “Will do, mum.”

They part ways. Louis walks through the stadium, past the numerous merchandise stands, avoiding Harry’s face because there’s only so much he can take. He hurries to find a quiet spot, or at least a spot that’s a little quieter than everywhere else.

Louis shuffles into a corner and gets his mobile out and rings his mum.

“Was wondering when I’d hear from you,” she answers. “You know I try not to bother you too much. But if you don’t ring me more often, I’ll have to start.”

Louis smiles and for a moment, he can’t even respond. He clears his throat. “You can bother me when you like. I wouldn’t mind.”

“You say that now. But you know I can get out of hand.”

“I’ll tell you if you do,” Louis says, turning away from a group of concert-goers talking loudly as they pass by. “How are the girls?”

“They’re doing great. They’ve been whining about not being at the concert with you,” his mum says. “You did go with Zayn, didn’t you?”

“Yeah, I’m here now. It’s crazy,” Louis says. “I wish the girls could've come. Maybe we can work on getting them tickets for the next tour.”

“That would be nice. But Dan and I will figure it out, Lou. I don’t want you spending your hard-earned money on things like that,” his mum says. “You should be spending it on a nice lad.”

Louis frowns, his stomach knotting up painfully. He forces himself to laugh, though he knows his mum will most likely pick up on the lack of authenticity. “Yeah, I probably should.”

“No pressure, though. There’s nothing wrong with being a bachelor,” his mum says, trying to smooth over the sudden, unexpected tension. Louis suspects that in this dimension he and his mum talk about him being single all the time. And he remembers a time in his own dimension where they would joke about his perpetual bachelorhood before he met Harry. How is his mum to know that things are different now? Or that he isn’t the same Louis she last spoke to?

The next time he speaks, he tries for more genuine laughter. “The most eligible bachelor, at that,” he says. “And there’s also nothing wrong with me helping to buy concert tickets for my sisters. They deserve to be here. So we’ll all make it happen together…”

His mum is quiet for a second. “You’re a good son and an even better brother. The very best,” she says. “Now, go enjoy the concert.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Louis deadpans. He hesitates before saying goodbye. “Alright. There are girls screaming and perhaps, dying. I think that means something’s starting. Should get to my seat now.”

“Love you, Louis,” she says.

“I love you too,” he says, and then they hang up.

He hurries to his seat, stopping to show his ticket at two different checkpoints. He slips into the row of seats and sits next to Zayn.

“Good?” Zayn asks.

Louis settles on giving him a nod. As good as things can be, anyway.

There are two Jumbotrons on either side of the stage, playing music videos and advertisements. The people in the stadium scream each time a new one starts up. Harry’s face pops up there times that eventually Louis can’t even look up. About five minutes pass while he busies himself with a game on his phone before the opener comes on. He doesn’t recognize the band, 5SOS, but he stands during their hour-long performance anyway.

After they leave the stage, Louis and Zayn leave to buy food and merch for everyone. He queues at the concession stand while Zayn buys his sister’s t-shirts and posters. It’s a longer wait than Louis would normally tolerate for a hot dog but it keeps him busy at least. Zayn joins him after a while and they order enough nachos and chicken strips for everyone before hurrying back to their seats.

It’s weird. Louis actually enjoys the atmosphere here. He loves the excitement practically bursting forth from the stadium. He loves how happy everyone seems to be and it’s easy to relax somewhat. He thinks Harry would want him to enjoy himself. His Harry would have taken his hand, squeezed, and told him not to worry. So Louis tries very hard to do just that.

Another ten minutes pass while Louis munches on nachos when suddenly the stadium lights dim to black. There’s screaming all over the stadium. Louis gets to his feet, his heart thumping, sweating palms curled into fists.

An array of maps flickers across the Jumbotron screens. Everyone is on their feet, throwing their hands in the air and wailing.

The excitement throws Louis off again. He has a brief thought that he wishes Harry were here with him, and that he remembers that he technically is. Some funky, upbeat music starts to play and a boy on screen holding a newspaper in front of the Louvre begins walking towards the screen, Louis makes a mental vow to himself, that in his dimension, he’ll not only take his sisters to a One Direction concert, he’ll take Harry too.

The music continues to play, Louis’ eyes glued to the screen. There are three boys walking closer, all holding maps and when they get close enough they look up, revealing their cherubic faces, ushering up screams and cries from everyone in attendance.

The lights flicker and dance in the stadium and stimulated smoke billows up from some crevice of hell. One moment there is nothing on stage and then there are three boys, music playing loudly around them. One boy is singing and Louis is genuinely terrified that he’s going to die because he knows that voice so well. He’s been lulled to sleep by that voice, fucked to that voice, cross with that voice and now it’s filling the great expanse of Wembley Stadium for everyone to hear.

Harry is there on stage with a mic to his mouth as he struts down the down the runway, singing loudly. He’s wearing black skinny jeans and a black t-shirt, his long hair held back by a blue bandana. He looks more remarkable than Louis has ever seen him. He grows closer, pumping his fist in the air, shooting smiles at his overwhelmed fans.

If ever there was a time Louis thought he might die, it's now. His eyes burn. His throat closes up. His heart tightens in his chest like it’s a sponge and God himself is wringing it out. He doesn’t know how he’s still standing but he does reach out and grab onto Zayn’s arm.

There’d been a part of him that still hoped the person on stage wouldn’t be Harry. That this would be the moment Louis woke the fuck up, but that’s not his reality, is it?

He feels so overwhelmed and weak. Happy and helpless.

Louis hears Zayn saying something to him but he can’t even listen, his eyes and ears focused entirely on Harry. Louis will send flowers and chocolates to Yaser Malik if he survives this because these seats are so close to the stage, close enough for Louis to make eye contact with Harry. He wills Harry to look his way.

Please ,” Louis says to himself, to Harry.

He catches a shock of blond hair behind Harry and somehow finds the strength to look away from him, for just a second. He knows that face. From where? He stares hard, his eyes burning when he refuses to blink. He knows .

It’s Niall. Fake Santa. The boy from Hyde Park that Louis met on Christmas Eve. Louis pictures a compass, spinning and glowing. In this world and the next, he had said, and suddenly those words make sense. Louis feels his knees turn to pudding.

Harry is so close, standing directly above the area where Louis is, dancing in a way Louis has only ever seen him dance when they were drunk and their favorite music was up too loud.

Louis should put his hands up and scream Harry’s name like the others around him. He should do something, anything, other than standing there with his mouth slack, his eyes unblinking, and his legs growing weak. He squeezes Zayn’s arm, digging his fingers in deep, trying to center himself in the here and now.

And right before Harry turns away and starts to dance to the other side of the platform, he looks over at Louis, or someone beside or behind Louis, and he grins. It’s the shit-eating, dimple-packed, pearly white grin that made Louis weak when he first met him. And combined with everything else, its effect is multiplied ten-fold.

The edges of Louis’ vision go speckled and fuzzy, his head swims and, for the second time in two days, it’s lights out.

Chapter Text

“Time is making fools of us again.”

- J.K. Rowling

+

The nitpicking and nagging came first, and fissures caused by those tiny aggressions were subtle and easy to miss. They’d have a quarrel and not understand the gravity of the things they said because in the time it took them to get angry, they were already getting over it. That was back when they still loved each other too much to stop trying.

That night, for example, Louis had brought drinks with their friends to a tense end after making a comment in passing about their cat. He simply mentioned how expensive cats were, and that he and Harry might've been able to afford a new car by now if they didn’t have one. In retrospect, he shouldn’t have said it. But he also hadn’t expected the backlash the very instant they were in the car.

“If you had a problem with Poppy, you could have mentioned that much sooner and in private. You made it sound like I was selfish for getting us a cat. Like we had a discussion at some point about whether to get a cat or a new car.”

“It’s honestly impressive how you manage to take one small thing and turn it into a massive entirely different thing,” Louis said.

“You made me seem selfish. Like ‘the cat was all his idea’,” Harry said. “That was embarrassing.”

“I never said that.”

“You might as well have.”

“Alright. You’re being ridiculous,” Louis said, resting his head against the window. “Wake me up when we’re home.”

“Don't think I will,” Harry muttered.

Louis sighed loudly and let his eyes close. He tried to doze off, knowing the time would pass more quickly if he did, but it was easier said than done. When they were home, he’d spread Harry out on their mattress and work him over, promising that he loved Poppy. Best cat in the world, he’d swear while Harry came undone.

He glanced at him. Harry caught him before he could look away. They said nothing.

Louis crossed his arms over his chest, staring through his window. He zoned out for a bit, thinking on his entire day. How it’d gone from good to bad so quickly. He’d had a job interview earlier that he thought went well. Things could finally be turning around. He had a lot to look forward too.

He snapped out of his trance. “Did you just raise the volume?” he asked Harry, who was just replacing his hand on the steering wheel. Louis’ lips curved in a knowing smirk.

“What?” Harry said, glancing at him. “I like this song.”

“Since when?” Louis kept smiling while the car filled with the crooning complaint of pubescent boys. “You told me you didn’t like them.”

“No, I didn’t,” Harry dismissed.

“Yes, you did,” Louis said, beginning to chuckle at the embarrassment etched in Harry’s expression. “It’s okay. You’re allowed to have a change of heart.”

“I never said I didn’t like them. I said they sounded a bit whiny,” Harry corrected.

“No, love, you were drunk and this song came on and your exact words were, ‘One Direction is kinda shit,’” Louis said.

“I did not.”

“Calling me a liar?” Louis asked, raising an eyebrow.

Harry glanced at him, a small smirk on his face. “Ain’t callin’ you a truther.”

Louis' whole body shook when he laughed. “Seriously, you said it. I remember clearly.”

“If I said that, and I’m not admitting that I did, I would have been wrong. This is a good song. And the lyrics are deep.”

“Does have a nice kind of rhythm to it,” Louis said, nodding in agreement.

“'Specially this part,” Harry said, turning the volume up again. “ Everyone else in the room can see it. Everyone one else but you-uu .” Harry sang while pointing his finger to each word.

Louis’ eyes widened. “Shit, you know the lyrics?”

“I bought it. The whole album,” Harry said seriously. “I know all of the songs.”

“You’re joking.”

“Of course I am." Harry scoffed. " But I’ve strongly considered buying it.”

“We should. And then...” Louis said, turning up the volume even louder as the chorus came around once more. “We should fuck to this song.”

Harry glanced at him, looking shocked. And then not so shocked. He bit his bottom lip. “I'm still upset with you.”

“Does that mean you’re opposed?” Louis asked.

“Not exactly,” Harry said, his dimple appearing for a second.

“You know I love Poppy. I can't believe I even have to say that. But I'm sorry if I made you think differently. Or embarrassed you.”

“I'm sorry if I overreacted,” Harry said. After a second, he added, “I would be up for fucking to this song.”

They shared a smile across the center console. Harry lifted Louis’ hand and pressed a kiss to his knuckles quickly.

“It’s on then,” Louis said. “Sing it, H.”

Harry drummed his hands on the steering wheel and waited for the next turn of the chorus. “ If only you saw what I can see , you’d understand why I want you so desperately!

“Fuck yeah you do,” Louis said. And that was when they dissolved into laughter, nearly drowning out the song still blasting from the radio.

+

“I think he’s waking up.”

Whoever says that happens to be right. Louis has been awake for about thirty seconds, clinging to the dregs of a memory about his Harry, of them fucking while One Direction played in the small space of their bedroom.

He isn’t ready to open his eyes at all. He lies there for a bit longer until the urge to cough or scratch becomes too much. He's also hungry, and the people standing close by don’t seem to be going away anytime soon.

He makes a grumbly noise and his eyes flutter open.

Zayn hovers over him, looking relieved. “You have to stop passing out on me,” he says. “Next time I’ll pass out too and we’ll both be fucked.”

Beside him is a tall man dressed in black.

Louis pushes himself upright. Zayn rests a hand on his back to help him, not that it’s necessary. Louis feels better already.

Or about as better as a person can feel after finding out that his boyfriend is suddenly a superstar.

“Where are we?” Louis mumbles, looking around. He’s seated on a comfy leather couch in a dimly lit room. A plate of fresh fruit waits on the coffee table beside him, the one Zayn is sitting on the edge of.

“Not going to believe this,” Zayn says.

Louis pins him with a look. “I’m willing to believe anything at this point.”

“Right,” Zayn says. “Well, we’re backstage. Sort of. You passed out right in front of Harry. And he called the security folks over. The girls were whining about having to miss the concert. So Mike”—Zayn juts a thumb at the man standing beside him—“took you back here to have one of the medics look you over.”

Louis sends Mike a grateful nod. And then he addresses the most pressing concern. “Harry looked at me?”

“Straight at you.”

“What kind of face did he make?”

“He just looked really worried.”

“He’s actually on his way back here,” Mike chimes in. “In a few minutes. Just to see how you’re doing.”

Louis’ eyes widen. “ Why ?” he squeaks, which comes out sounding much worse than he intended. Ungrateful, even. He starts to comb a hand through his hair.

“No one knows why Harry does half the things he does. I suppose he just wants to,” Mike says, smiling.

Louis might actually die. He should be excited about the prospect of seeing Harry. But how is he supposed to interact with a Harry he doesn’t know? One who potentially doesn't know him? “Could I have a cup of water?”

“Sure. There’s also some fruit there if you’re interested,” Mike says.

Zayn grabs a cup and fills it with water and shoves it into Louis’ hands. “Stay calm.”

Louis throws the water back like a shot.

Zayn hands him a cup of fruit as well. Louis looks at it and puts it down on the table. He can’t stomach food just yet.

Mike presses a hand to his earpiece. “Alright, he’s on his way,” he says, stepping to the door. He pulls it open and stands there, waiting.

“Holy fuck,” Louis breathes quietly to himself, beginning to wring his hands together.

Zayn is standing now, facing the door. Louis is— Well, there’s a very good chance that Louis is dying. He stopped breathing several seconds ago.

Then Mike steps aside and Harry steps into the room.

He pats Mike on the shoulder, giving him a big smile. Behind him is another man, dressed in black, who hangs back to talk with Mike while Harry progresses further into the room.

“Hi,” he says to Zayn first. He shakes his hand. “I’m Harry.”

As if all of London doesn’t know who he is.

“Nice to meet you,” Zayn says.

Harry drops his gaze to Louis where he’s still sitting on the couch, and his face splits with a grin. “You look like you’re feeling better.”

This is crazy. All of this is crazy. Louis licks his lips. “I am, yeah. Thanks for your help and all that.”

“No problem,” Harry says. “Gave me a bit of a scare.”

“Me too,” Zayn says, and Harry rewards him with another killer smile. He’s beautiful like this. He’s always been beautiful. In every way a person might achieve beauty, Harry has.

His hair is long and lush. The first three buttons of his floral shirt are undone, exposing his tattoos. Those, from what Louis can see, are familiar.

“It was the humidity, I think,” Louis says. He glances around the room at Zayn and Mike and everyone else. He wishes they would all leave but he doubts Harry’s security would allow them to be alone.

Harry’s security. How odd.

Louis isn’t sure what he’s supposed to do now. He just knows there’s a reason this is all happening the way it is. He knows he wouldn’t be thrown into this dimension, into this room right now, only to waste this opportunity.

And it never hurt to try, right?

“Do you have any idea who I am?” Louis asks. He sees Zayn give him a strange look but ignores it. He ignores everyone but Harry.

Harry’s brow furrows. “A fan, I hope?” he says, laughing at his own little joke. “I don’t think I got your name actually.”

“Louis,” Louis says with a smile he forces. “And actually, yes. My boyfriend and I used to love your music.”

“Used to? What on earth did I do?” Harry says, taking a seat on the edge of the coffee table now. “How can we fix this, Louis?”

Louis has to laugh then. He’s still impossibly cute. “I still like your music. It’s just— my boyfriend and I aren’t technically together anymore.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

Harry speaks to him like an old friend, like Louis’ problems are instantly his in that second, like he truly cares. Louis isn’t exactly comforted by that but it makes it easier to talk to him.

“Thanks,” he says.

Harry smiles. And there’s an almost invisible second where his gaze lingers. But he turns his head to the man who entered with him. The man hands him two small posters and a CD.

Harry pulls a Sharpie from his pocket. “Maybe you can win him back with a free CD?” he says, shooting Louis a grin and scrawling his signature over the CD.

Louis huffs a laugh. “Doubt it. But I’ll let you know.”

Harry gives a free CD to Zayn as well. And before Louis knows it, he’s standing and joining his bodyguard.

“Nice to meet you both," Harry says.

Louis feels like he should do something. He knows he should. Rather than just let Harry walk away from him. But he has no time and no plan. And all he can do is wave and watch him leave.

The experience is short-lived and ultimately, leaves Louis feeling worse than before.

+

“Louis, get the fuck up.”

The sheets are yanked away from his body, exposing him to air so chilly his nipples harden. His head begins to throb and an empty bottle of wine sits guiltily on his bedside cabinet. He turns over, hand held over his body as if to ward off the evil that is Zayn.

“Why are you doing this to me?” Louis groans.

“You have a job to get to remember?”

Louis presses his fingers to his temples, trying to compress that pain. “No, I don’t. I quit my job a month ago, while I was self-destructing.”

“Are you fucking—?” Zayn sighs. “Louis, you work at the bloody botanical gardens, mate. You’ve been employed there since January. We went out together and got fucking pissed the day you got hired. I remember it all clearly. You love your job. There’s no way you quit.”

Louis sits upright. “The Botanical Gardens?”

“Yes, the Royal fucking Botanical Gardens.”

Louis’ eyes widen. “Holy shit.”

“You said that when you got the job too,” Zayn says. “I know you’re feeling funny right now, Lou. But you will literally never forgive yourself if you lose this job.”

Louis pushes his hands through his wild hair. “What do I do there?”

“I don’t know exactly. Some horticultural specialist or something. You speak during guest tours sometimes. You do some research.”

“Is it paid for? The research?”

“What?”

Louis licks his lips. “Do you know  if my research is fully funded?”

“Yeah, you mentioned something like that before.”

Louis scrambles out of the bed. “I have to get to work,” he says.

It would have been lovely to report that when he woke up this morning, he was back where he belonged. Of course, there was a sinking feeling in his chest when that didn’t happen. Of course, he wants to be back in Harry’s arms. But he’s here for whatever reason and he’s somehow managed to land one of his dream jobs. After years of joblessness. After arguing for months with Harry about money. After feeling useless and unsuccessful in comparison to him. He’s finally achieved something of his own. Albeit in another dimension.

He would do anything to get back to his Harry, but he’s here right now and perhaps, he needs to make the best of it.

“What do I usually wear?” he asks Zayn. “Where do I keep my ID? What’s my boss’s name?”

“Jesus,” Zayn says, sinking down onto Louis’ bed. He starts to tell Louis what he knows about his job. He recounts the names of co-workers and research partners. He even directs him to one of his journals where Louis finds pages and pages of research.

“Fully funded?” Louis repeats.

Zayn shakes his head. “Go to work,” he says, shoving a banana into Louis’ chest. “Go now, or you won’t beat the traffic.”

Louis goes. Traffic is a nightmare, as usual, but he makes it to work in under forty minutes, swinging his little car into a space, waving his ID around to security like a badge of honor. No one stops him. No one asks him if he’s just a boy from another dimension. Why would they?

It’s only as he passes security that he realizes he’s got no idea where he’s going. Zayn unfortunately didn’t have that information for him.

There’s a directory posted on the wall. He finds his name easily enough and heads to the office, pushing the door open triumphantly, and…

Niall.

“Looks like you’re settling in splendidly,” he says.

“Good morning, Lou.” Louis looks to his right and sees a woman there, wearing a lab coat identical to his own. He looks at Niall again, who’s reclined in what appears to be Louis’ seat, his feet propped on Louis’ desk.

Louis opens his mouth.

Niall lifts his pointer finger to halt him. “She can’t see me,” he says. “You’ll look like you’re talking to yourself, and considering you’ve only been working together for about two weeks, not the kind of impression you want to give, is it? You’re also being rude. She said good morning.”

Louis takes a deep breath before he turns to the woman again.

“Her name is Leigh Anne,” Niall chimes. “You call her Lee.”

“Good morning, Lee,” Louis says, approaching his desk. He sets his bag atop the surface.

“How was the concert?” Leigh Anne asks.

Louis nods. “Not bad.” Leigh Anne stares at him, expecting more. Louis clears his throat. “I mean, fit boys with the voices of angels? Doesn’t get much better than that.”

She laughs. “And how was Harry Styles?” she asks, with an upward shrug of her brows.

Louis’ heart sinks, as it has every time he’s thought or heard of Harry in the past few days.

“He’s the one you found cutest, right?”

“Right,” Louis says. “Yeah, he was great.”

Beside him, Niall laughs like an arse.

Louis clenches his jaw tight. “I’m going to go grab a cuppa.”

Leigh Anne pokes her pen towards the kettle behind her.

“Right,” Louis says again. “I’m actually feeling like having Starbucks, so—”

“Oh! Bring me back a white mocha, please?”

“Will do, love,” Louis says. He looks at Niall. He sends daggers at him. Loops a metaphorical lasso around him, so that when Louis exits the room, Niall is sure to be on his heels. He doesn’t think he could actually harm Niall, given the whole spawn of Satan thing he’s got going for him. But if looks could kill, Niall would have fallen dead.

Instead, he stands and follows Louis out of the room.

“Make yourself visible,” Louis hisses quietly.

“Can’t,” Niall says. “I’m a popstar in this dimension unfortunately.”

Louis passes a room marked ‘Lab 4,’ visibly empty through the windows. He doubles back and tries his card on the scanner. The door beeps, the light turns green, and Louis pushes through.

“It goes without saying that I’ve got a lot of questions,” he says to Niall, pulling the blinds on the windows down. He crosses his arms. “I expect answers for all of them.”

Niall smiles. “I’ll see what I can do.”

Louis opens his mouth and again, Niall stops him.

“Let me guess,” he says, and then in an impeccable impression of Louis’ voice: “What the fuck am I doing here?”

Louis narrows his eyes. “Let’s go with that one, yeah.”

“I don’t know, to be honest with you, mate,” Niall says. He finds another chair and plops down in it, resting his hands atop his tummy. “The Fates work in mysterious ways. Last time I granted someone’s wish, they rewound time a bit, gave the lad a chance to undo their mistake. They must not be a huge fan of yours. You consider yourself a skeptic, Louis?”

Louis has no idea where this conversation is going. “You mean prior to ending up in an alternate dimension, yeah, sort of. Can’t say I believed in much of anything.”

Niall shakes his head. “The Fates aren’t a huge fan of skeptics.”

“Who the bloody hell are you talking about?”

“The Fates,” Niall says. “Overseers of time, wisdom, love… and fate, obviously.”

“Like God?” Louis asks.

“Sure,” Niall says. “There are many names for them. They like them all.”

Louis presses his fingers into his temples. “You’re telling me that some deity, or multiple deities, threw me into an alternate dimension? Why? For fun? That’s something they do to a lot, I imagine, yeah?”

“No, that’s what I meant. Usually, they’ll rewind time. Sometimes they’ll swipe memories and give you a chance to play things out differently. What’s happened to you has only happened four times in the last million years.”

“That’s just brilliant.”

Niall beams. “Good for you, being positive.”

Louis buckles his knees to stop from pouncing across the room.

“Can’t talk long,” Niall says, looking at his watch. “I’ve got rehearsal in a few minutes.”

Louis’ heart sinks again, just thinking of Harry. He grits his teeth and bites down on his pride. “What am I doing here, Niall? Why was I sent here? Am I stuck like this?”

“Nah,” Niall says. “You’re being tested. Pass the test and you get to go home.”

“Funny that, taking a test you don’t have instructions for.”

Niall groans and snaps his fingers once. The room goes dark and then there’s a small orb of glowing light between them and a dial in the center spinning. “This is called a Time Clock, but it’s really a map, containing points to each and every dimension that exists, or has existed since the beginning of time. Dimensions are like rivers. Go further upstream and you’re in the past. Downstream and you’re in the future. Jumping from stream to stream means jumping to an alternate version of yourself.”

He snaps the Time Clock closed and the lights brighten again.

“We’ve all got a soulmate. Even my kind, Nephilim, half angel, half human, loyal servant of the Fates.” He grins, after reciting his tagline. Louis has never been more unimpressed. “Your relationship with your soulmate varies across dimensions. In some, you’re just friends. In others, you’re lovers. And in a few, you never find them at all. But you always cross paths with that person at least once. You always have a chance to connect with them. You had yours in your own dimension. You fell in love with Harry and then you lost him.”

“No, but I got him back,” Louis says. “This doesn’t make any sense. Harry and I were together that night on Christmas Eve, and then I woke up here. I had him back.”

“Huh.” Niall makes a face. “Well, that's shit timing.”

Louis simply looks at him. It’s all he can do at this point. “So they sent me here to connect with this version of Harry?”

“Exactly,” Niall says. “Make the connection. Go home.”

“Sounds easy enough,” Louis says. He snaps his finger. “Except for that one little fact that Harry is a pop star.”

“Yeah, that also sucks, doesn’t it?” Niall winces. “I’ve really got to go.”

“Are you fucking serious, mate?”

“We’ve got a big show tomorrow,” Niall says. “ But afterwards, we’ll be at 67 Peabody Street.”

Louis freezes, pursing his lips. “Is that a clue?”

“Maybe,” Niall says, smiling. “Wear something nice.”

+

67 Peabody Street turns out to be a hotel in Kensington, one of the poshest parts of London. Louis thought he’d taken Niall’s ‘wear something nice’ too seriously. He borrowed one of Zayn’s navy-colored blazers and paired it with a shimmery gray shirt, tight fitting black trousers, and shiny Oxford shoes, and managed all-in-all to look like the richest gay man in the Isles.

He gives the concierge his name on a whim and is led to a private party in the lounge and knows immediately that he’ll fit right in.

Everyone looks filthy rich.

He spots Cara Delevigne and surmises that everyone probably is filthy rich.

He almost feels out of place now. Worried that someone will be able to sniff out his lesser origins. He plays it cool, though, goes to the bar and orders a drink before worrying that he won’t be able to pay for it. He’d checked his bank account recently, and thankfully, regardless of who he is in this world, he’s at least smart with his money. Not to mention, working at the Royal Botanical Gardens doesn’t hurt at all.

Still, there’s no way to tell if the rum he orders is the budget or break-your-bank kind.

He asks the barman how much when he slides the drink over to him and receives a smile and a simple, “No payment needed.”

Louis notices then that no one is paying for their drinks. They come to the bar, order, and walk away with their glass in hand. Louis smiles, taking a sip of his drink. It’s going to be a good night, he’s certain. Except he still needs to find Niall.

Of course, right then, is when someone bumps into his shoulder. Some of Louis’ rum splashes the marble bar. He turns to glare when they don’t bother to apologize, and it’s Niall. Always Niall. Standing beside him, ordering a drink.

Louis puts the glass down before he spills any more of it. “Hello to you too,” he says.

Niall turns and gives him a broad smile. “Louis,” he says happily. “How are ya?”

Louis wants to drop kick him. He’s never performed a dropkick but now’s a perfect time to try.

“I don’t know,” Louis says. “A few days ago, I woke up to find myself in a world where my boyfriend—”

“Ex.”

“What?”

“You said boyfriend. But technically, in your world, he was your ex, right?”

Louis narrows his eyes. “Where’s Harry?”

Niall smiles, turns and points his pinky towards the other side of the room.

And Louis spots him through a gap in the throng of partygoers. He’s wearing a big round-brimmed black hat but it works on him. Everything always works on him. He has a drink in his hand and he’s laughing and for a second, everything in this world and the next world is alright.

Then Louis remembers that Harry is a pop star with no idea who he is.

“Go,” Niall says. “Talk.”

Louis determines then that he hates Niall. And the Fates or whoever. Everyone responsible for this ordeal, including himself. He hates them all.

At least back home, he had a fighting chance. He knew how to talk to his Harry. He knew his oddities. He knew what made him laugh and laugh a certain way. There was the giggle and the guffaw, and Louis could summon either with ease.

He knew what made his Harry happy. And what made him sad. What made him sing. And what made him cry.

But where in the bloody hell is he supposed to begin with filthy rich, internationally known Harry Styles?

Louis doesn’t know and doesn’t have much choice but to figure it out.

He downs his drink. And orders a martini. The bartender has it to him in seconds. Louis raises his glass to Niall. “Here goes.”

Niall simply smiles and starts up a conversation with the lady beside him.

Louis heads toward Harry, building a plan as he goes. Harry will wonder why he’s here. Harry might not even remember him from the concert. And what if one of the people standing close beside Harry is with him?

Louis doesn’t come up with a plan in time. He’s already a foot away. He pulls his phone from his pocket and drops it at Harry’s feet.

“Shit,” Louis says. “Sorry.”

Harry bends right away to scoop the phone up. He holds it out with a smile before recognition blooms on his face. In the next second, it’s clear that he’s struggling to remember Louis’ name and perhaps where they met, his lips twisted, eyes slightly narrowed.

“You were at the concert, weren’t you?” he says.

Louis nods. “I was.”

“Louis,” Harry decides. “Right?”

He feels reduced to a school boy with a crush simply because Harry remembered his name. “That’s me,” he says, smiling.

The furrow returns between Harry’s brows. “What are you— Not to be rude but I’m surprised to see you here.”

“Oh. Yeah, well, I have some friends who are actually—” Louis struggles for an explanation. “They’re into music and all that too. So you know, they said they were coming. And I wasn’t even interested. But you know”—Louis raises his martini—“Free booze.”

“Right.” Harry’s lips are stretching in a grin, and he’s turned away fully from the people he was speaking with. Which is a good sign. Very good sign. “How are you liking it so far?”

“The free booze? It’s great. I’ve honestly never tasted a mango coconut martini before. That bartender is talented, let me just say.”

“Oh, yeah, Kevin’s great,” Harry agrees.

Of course, Harry knows the bartender by name. He must know all the servers’ names too. Harry always addressed their servers by name. Some things never change, filthy rich or not.

“Yeah, gotta love Kev,” Louis says, taking a sip of his drink.

Harry seems incredibly amused by Louis. His dimples are out in his cheeks, and he’s got the whole lopsided smirk situation going on, which is probably Louis’ favorite thing in the whole world.

“Is your other friend here?” Harry asks.

“Zayn? No, he couldn’t make it,” Louis says. “Just me and my other music friends.”

Harry clearly doesn’t buy his story, but he also doesn’t seem concerned with the truth either. “Are you a music person yourself?”

“Of course. I compose a little. In the shower, mostly.”

Harry snorts and presses two fingers to his mouth. Without need for further confirmation, Louis determines that he loves this Harry quite a lot too. He hasn’t changed from dimension to dimension. But Louis thinks that even if he did, he would love him just as much.

“Great acoustics in the shower,” Harry says when he stops laughing, pushing his hair away from his forehead. Louis can’t get used to the fucking hair. He likes it, but he can’t get used to it.

“Finally a man who understands,” Louis says. Harry’s laughing again. He can’t seem to help it. Louis’ eyes flicker over his face. “Your drink’s getting a little low there.”

Harry looks down at the glass in his hand. “It is,” he says, looking back up at Louis, a small smile on his lips.

“You could maybe walk with me to the bar. We’ll pay Kev a visit and get you a new drink.”

Harry glances once at his group of friends, and then he focuses on Louis again, running his teeth over his bottom lip. “Good idea.”

+

They’ve been talking for an hour.

Louis doesn’t know how it happens, how they get so much time just to themselves. It may have something to do with them hiding away in the courtyard, behind a large fountain that sprays them every now and then with a fine mist of water. It feels nice, though, especially with the warm air around them.

They’ve both finished their drinks by now. But neither makes a move to get another.

“You never get tired of it?” Louis asks. “Like never, ever?”

Harry shrugs. “It’s just like any other job. There are good parts and bad parts. The only difference is that, for me, the good always outweighs the bad. And the bad fades over time ‘cause you get used to it.”

“Like what exactly?” Louis asks.

“Like…” Harry takes a breath as he thinks. “Twitter. Lots of not-so-nice people on there. And when we first started doing this, I was devastated by the shit I read. I didn’t understand how people could hate someone else. For no reason, at all.”

“People hate you?” Louis says incredulously. He’s not sure how any person could. He’s both confused and angered by the notion.

“Everyone’s hated by at least one person. It just so happens that the more popular you get, the more that number grows too.”

“But you aren’t bothered by it now?” Louis asks. “By twitter and the like?”

“No, I just ignore the haters.” Harry grins. “Also, there’s the dating thing.”

"The dating thing?" Louis repeats.

“It’s impossible for me to date anyone," Harry says. "Not privately at least.”

Now, Louis has to ask. He spent a lot of time Googling Harry recently and learning some things he wished he hadn't. He wasn't planning to bring it up, but this is clearly an opening. “What about Taylor Swift?” he asks. He thinks he knows the answer already. He's heard about celebrity romances for the sake of publicity and marketing, and Harry is obviously gay.

Harry laughs breathily. “That’s exactly what I mean. About not having something private. I wish I could answer in more detail, but that doesn't count, me and her.”

Louis asks, “Any luck finding something that does?”

“I haven’t been looking,” Harry says. “It’s not like I can.”

“So, you just don’t date?”

“Nope,” Harry says.

“Are you like…abstaining or—” Louis doesn’t realize how unbelievably rude and forward it is until the words are out. He keeps forgetting that there’s a boundary here. He’s not used to boundaries with Harry.

“Sorry," Louis says quickly. "You don’t have to answer that. You just— you remind me a lot of my boyfriend. I keep forgetting to bite my tongue.”

Harry smiles. “I’m not asking you to.”

They’re quiet for a second, just looking at each other. Harry's gaze brings the blood in Louis’ veins to a simmer. It’s always been that way with them. All he ever had to do was glance in Louis' direction.

Louis licks his lips. “This is going to sound crazy. But you really have no idea who I am, do you?”

Harry frowns. “Is your name not Louis?”

“No, it is. That’s me. But just— like, other than Louis? Like say I thought we were friends some time ago, would you remember that?”

“Were we friends some time ago?” Harry asks slowly.

Louis isn’t sure how to answer that. He could go with the truth but he’s willing to bet Harry would think he’s crazy. “I don’t know,” he chooses to say.

Harry studies him, his eyes narrowed. “I’m sorry,” he says quietly. “I don’t either.”

Louis nods. “I figured.”

Harry looks confused now and Louis wishes he hadn’t said anything at all.

“I think I know what you mean, though. There’s something about you,” Harry says. Louis thinks he stops breathing. “I can’t figure it out but you feel...familiar to me.”

Louis can’t stop himself from smiling. “Well good. Glad that’s not just me.”

Harry just keeps looking at him, contemplating something, battling something else. It’s like he can’t quite make up his mind.

“Are you out here with me because I remind you of your ex?” Harry asks.

Both of Louis’ brows arch high. He opens his mouth but nothing at all comes out, not even a breath.

Harry shakes his head. “That was wrong of me to ask,” he says. “I’m just curious about why you’re bothering to talk to me. I know it isn’t because I’m a celebrity. You don’t seem like the type to care about things like that.”

“What if I’m just interested in talking to you because you’re you?”

Harry looks down at the glass in his hands. “Well then—” He drags a hand over his face. “I’d definitely think you were flirting with me.”

Louis needs a deep breath before he can speak. “And if I were?”

Harry bites his bottom lip, shaking his head slowly. “I can’t say I’d mind,” he says, grinning. “Although…”

Louis is so busy simply trying to breathe, trying not to throw himself into Harry’s lap, he’s not preparing himself for whatever Harry has to say next. Numbly, dazedly, he murmurs, “Although?”

“Well, I’m straight,” Harry says with a shrug. “So, I’m afraid all I can do is be a tease.”

Slowly, very slowly, those words settle on Louis. His smile dissipates. “Sorry?”

Harry’s brows twitch and he releases an awkward little chuckle. “I mean, I know people like to speculate, but I’ve never been with a man before. There’ve been men I’ve found attractive but more in the way you admire a friend.”

Louis sets a hand on his stomach. “I think I’m going to be sick.”

Harry reaches for him, taking his elbow. “Louis.”

His firm grip, the way he calls Louis’ name, the fact that he’s apparently straight in this universe — it’s all too much. Louis stands, slipping away from Harry’s touch.

“I really have to go,” Louis says. “I need fresh air.”

“We’re outside,” Harry says, getting quickly to his feet.

That’s a very good point, but still. “I need to go,” Louis says.

“Was it something I said?” Harry asks, looking a bit frazzled himself. “I’m sorry… if I led you on. I didn’t think—”

“Of course you didn’t,” Louis says. “How could you? You don’t even know who I am.” Harry obviously can’t respond to that. Louis feels like an arse, for coming here, thinking there was any hope whatsoever of fixing this. Perhaps he is crazy. Perhaps he’s Teddy Daniels in Shutter Island, so convinced that he’s right and everyone else is wrong. Look where it’s gotten him. How in the bloody fuck is he supposed to win this Harry when he’s not even the right gender?

“This was my mistake,” Louis babbles. “It was nice meeting you. I have to go.”

“Louis—”

Whatever it is Harry wants to say, Louis doesn’t give him the chance. He hurries back into the club, walking as fast as his feet can carry him. He hasn’t had much to drink, but he ends up in the loo anyhow and concludes his night curled over a toilet bowl.

Chapter Text

“Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow has not yet come. We have only today. Let us begin.”

- Mother Teresa

+

A whole week passes in a blur. Louis sleeps a lot. Drinks a lot. He goes to work because it’s the one thing about this universe that he actually enjoys. He stays up-to-date with Harry on social media and the more he finds, the more convinced he is that Harry can’t be completely straight. But even thinking about that saddens him because there’s nothing he can do about it regardless.

On Wednesday night, he accidentally follows Harry’s Twitter. Or well, he’s drunk and purposefully follows him, but feels better if he tells himself it was an accident. Thursday morning, he wakes to find he’s been followed back. (By Harry and a slew of curious fans.) There’s also a message.

Does this mean I’m forgiven?

If the bed could somehow swallow him whole, this would be a great time for it to happen. He groans into his pillow for several minutes and then with a big breath, he lifts his phone and starts typing.

Nothing to forgive. :)

Harry replies quickly. I'm too much of a flirt.

Yes but so am I.

How can I make it up to you?

Louis rolls his eyes. Still feels like you’re flirting with me.

Harry takes a while to reply this time. Louis gets out of bed and brushes his teeth while staring at his phone which he’s set by the sink. It buzzes. He snatches it up quickly.

I’m trying here.

Louis smiles. You can do better. Let’s pretend I’m your brother. How’s mum?

Wouldn’t you know if you were my brother?

I’m the wayward son. I don’t call as often as I should.

Got it. Mum’s great. Adopted a new cat recently.

How many cats does mum have?

I really think a wayward son would at least know this one.

I’ve been away for several years. I don’t even know the way home.

Wow. You should be ashamed of yourself.

It still feels like you’re flirting with me.

How is that possible?

“What are you smiling about?”

“Fuck.” Louis drops his phone, sending it sliding across the kitchen floor. Zayn hovers by the fridge, watching him chase after it. “You can’t just sneak up on me,” Louis murmurs. “I’m in a fragile state of mind, remember?”

“I remember,” Zayn says with a nod. “I also remember that you haven’t smiled like that for a week. So...?”

Louis sets the phone down, ignoring that it’s buzzed again. He lifts his cuppa and takes a slow sip.

“Louis,” Zayn says.

“It’s him,” Louis says cryptically. He sets his cup down. The phone buzzes yet again, and this time, Louis can’t help it. He lifts the phone.

“Him who?”

To be fair I feel like you’re flirting with me too.

How about lunch sometime?

Louis’ eyes bulge. “Jesus,” he hisses.

“Jesus?” Zayn repeats.

“No, obviously not Jesus,” Louis says. “Harry.”

“Harry Styles, you mean?” Zayn asks. “You’re talking to Harry Styles of One Direction?”

He’s talking in that slow, careful way he has with Louis since last week. He sounds like his father, the therapist, except after several hits of weed. And yes, Louis gets that all of this is hard for him to swallow. He understands that in this dimension, Zayn went to sleep one night after clubbing with his best mate and woke up to find him in hysterics, that he’s been attempting to pick up the pieces ever since, and that he’s doing the best he can.

But right now, Louis can’t deal with the perpetual therapy session. Not when he’s sort of but not really flirting with his heterosexual soulmate.

“I have to go,” Louis says, grabbing his cuppa. Zayn starts to ask him another question but Louis disappears into his room. He’ll apologize later for slamming the door shut. He doesn’t mean to. Spilling a bit of tea is unintentional too. But he’s not even thinking. He slides to the floor right against the door, thumbs moving quickly across his screen.

Are you asking me out on a date, Harold?

Doesn’t that count as a pet name? Look who’s flirting now!

You just asked me out on a DATE.

A friend date.

We’re friends now?

We could be.

And it should ache, the thought of them being friends. But Louis is more caught up in the possibility of seeing Harry again. Any date, in that moment, is enough.

I feel like a dick honestly. I’d really like to make it up to you. You could say no and I’ll leave you alone. Or you could have lunch with me tomorrow.

Louis puts his head between his knees for a moment.

Don’t you have some important pop star plans tomorrow?

Not if you say yes?

Do you know how to talk to someone without flirting with them?

I’m starting to think no.

That should come as no surprise to Louis. Harry’s intrinsic methods of seduction, coupled with Louis’ own insecurities, were the cause of several arguments in his own dimension. But Louis can’t think about that right now.

I have work tomorrow.

And a lunch break I’m assuming.

Louis hides a smile in the crook of his elbow. And a lunch break. At noon.

I’ll come to you. Just tell me where.

I work at the Royal Botanical Gardens.

Doing what?

I’m a botanist.

That’s kind of hot.

You’re awful.

:) See you tomorrow.

+

He does his hair so many times the following morning he swears he starts to go bald. By some miracle, he happens to own that black button-up that his Harry favored. He slips on his black skinnies too, the ones that pretty much guaranteed Harry’s hand on his arse at some point when he had them on. He doesn’t shave because Harry liked to rub his cheek against Louis’ scruff. He styles his fringe in a swoop across his forehead because Harry liked to twirl the one tendril beside Louis’ eye around his finger. He wears the cologne that Harry would tuck his face into the curve of Louis’ neck just to smell.

It occurs to him when he’s finished that he’s done all this for a version of Harry who will appreciate none of it, and then he feels miserable.

His stomach is in knots for the rest of the morning. He has coffee, thinking his inability to focus is partly due to his lack of sleep recently. He turns out to be wrong. He’s jittery by the end of his second cup. Time is racing like his mind, and if it were possible for Louis to literally rocket off the face of the earth, he would fire up the engines and be gone.

Leigh Anne asks him several times if he’s alright. ‘Feeling great’, Louis says on one occasion. ‘Peachy’, he says around the fourth time, as he’s downing his coffee. He feels manic. He leaves to stand in the toilets and calm himself down. It doesn’t help. He comes out to find a tour reminder on his computer screen, which is terrible news. No way he can manage a tour in his state.

He removes his contacts because his eyes are itchy and dry, and pushes on his glasses instead. He shrugs his white lab coat on. He swaps the Vans he's wearing out for the dressy shoes in the coat cupboard. The Louis of this dimension has several suit jackets, collared shirts, and ties he keeps there as well. In any dimension, it seems the concept of being dressed up for too long is daunting. He gets away with wearing his T-shirts and his Vans to work though they're contrary to the dress code. On tour days, he has no choice but to change into something nicer, hence the spare clothes.

Louis checks his hair in the little mirror inside the cupboard and takes another deep breath.

He finds Leigh Anne staring at him. “I won’t ask again,” she says. “But good luck.”

Louis doesn’t tell her he’s alright this time. He doesn’t bother to hide his anxiety. He says, “Thank you,” and means it.

He’s only done one tour so far, though he suspects his former self has done plenty. It went surprisingly well. Plant biology is his passion, and thus, it’s easy to talk about. That first tour was comprised mostly of children, their parents, and one elderly man. This one turns out to be the same.

There’s a tour guide who directs the group through the gardens, and then there’s the botanist—Louis, in this case—stationed along the route to provide them with a short lesson on common plant families. His hands have stopped shaking by the time he spots the group approaching up ahead, but he has to wipe his palms down his jeans. He gives a little upward push to the bridge of his glasses and folds his hands together in front of himself.

The tour guide is Kevin, slowly walking backwards as he points out the many plants and flowers along the way. “And now we have one of our resident botanists,” he says, his hand swinging out towards Louis, “Louis Tomlinson, who’s also the assistant director of horticulture here at Kew.”

Louis works a smile onto his face. “Good morning, everyone,” he says, eyes roaming across the group. Mostly children. Two teachers, it seems like. Two elderly women. And a man standing near the back, wearing a black baseball cap and sunnies.

A man who smiles, carving a dimple deep in his left cheek.

Louis would know that dimple anywhere. He nearly swallows his tongue.

Harry lifts his hand and gives him a little wave.

“Um,” Louis begins, clearing his throat. He looks at Kevin. “So, yes, welcome.” His eyes slide to Harry again, who’s grinning this time. Louis tugs on his collar. “So, I guess we’ll just talk about—” He turns toward the table behind him and lifts a sunflower. “This. Could anyone tell me what this is?”

Harry’s hand shoots into the air, along with several of the children. Louis’ lips twitch. He points at a little girl wearing pigtails.

“Yes, love.”

“A flower,” she says.

Louis smiles. “Very good. And does anyone know what kind of flower?”

Again, Harry raises his hand. Louis presses his lips together and calls on another child.

“Is it a sunflower?”

“Yes, it is,” Louis says. He lifts another flower. “And this one is called a chrysanthemum. Does anyone know what these two flowers have in common?”

Again, Harry lifts his hand and waves it around and bounces a bit on his toes. Louis adores him. “Yes, sir,” he says. “You in the back.”

“They’re both in the daisy family,” Harry says.

Louis smiles. “Aren’t you clever?”

“I get that sometimes,” Harry says, and the group laughs. Louis’ eyes linger on him, and then he carries on with the rest of his lesson, and only stares at Harry for half of it. In the remaining five minutes, Louis talks about a few other flowers in the daisy family, and then several other plant families, with comparisons to human and animal families. He ends his short lesson with a single sunflower for each guest.

Harry takes his own sunflower and lingers back as the rest of the group continues forward.

“Is this your usual disguise?” Louis asks.

Harry removes the sunnies, revealing the bright green of his irises, which has always been and will always be Louis’ favourite colour.

“No, I’ve got a fake beard and a robe I like to wear sometimes. Makes me look like Dumbledore.”

“Would have much preferred that.”

Somehow, Harry smiles even wider. “You look great, by the way.”

“Thanks, bro,” Louis says, ignoring the warmth flooding his cheeks . “And how’s mum?”

“Same as usual. She asks about you,” Harry says, laughing softly. “But really, the lab coat is great, and the glasses. Lovely shirt too.”

“Enough,” Louis says. “How are you here?”

“I thought I’d take a walk around while I waited until noon, and then I saw your name listed on the 11:30 tour and bought a ticket. I’m very pleased. I plan to give you a good rating.”

“Jesus, Harry. Just propose already,” Louis says, rolling his eyes.

Harry laughs. “How about lunch first?”

Smiling, Louis says, “Lunch sounds good. Just need to run back to my office and change my shoes.”

Harry looks down at Louis’ shiny dress shoes. “Change them to what?”

“My Vans,” Louis says. “I hate these things.”

“Oh no, you’ll want to leave those on with where we’re going,” Harry says. “Also, do you happen to have a suit jacket? You’ll need that too. But I’ve got an extra in the car if not.”

“Should I ask where we’re going?”

“You could,” Harry says. “But it’s a surprise, so I won’t tell you.”

+

Barring the tiny fact of Harry being straight, Louis’ lunch hour has all the form and likeness of an actual date. Not a friend date, as Harry called it. But a date that leads to a second date, which leads to a snog on the front step, which turns into a night cap, and perhaps a tumble in bed, or at least, the understanding that they’ll get there soon enough.

They arrive at an exclusive members-only spot called Harry’s Bar, which Louis laughs about when they pull up to the kerb and then laughs about again once they’re seated by a window.

“Stop it,” Harry says.

Louis shakes his head. “I physically cannot,” he says, lifting his menu. “For our next date, I’ll take you to Louis’ Pub. How’s that?”

Harry laughs into his glass of water. “I should have gone with that shawarma place.”

“We’ll go there for the third date,” Louis says.

“Well, it’s good to know you plan on seeing me again.”

“I’m still thinking about it,” Louis says, and he lifts his menu higher to hide his face and his smile.

Louis orders the beef carpaccio. Harry has the red snapper. They both order cocktails. It’s all delicious and the service is fantastic. The waitress knows Harry by name and is equally friendly to Louis. He’s enjoying himself, as much as he can while pretending not to be in love with Harry. It takes great effort not to stare at him longingly. Several times he’s tempted to brush his ankle across Harry’s or touch the back of his hand or send him a wink.

The only way he manages is by poking fun at the very issue.

“I have to say,” he begins. “This doesn’t feel like a friend date at all.”

Harry winces. “I think it’s a lost cause at this point.”

“I think so too,” Louis says, shrugging.

“Suppose we’ll just have to get married then.”

Louis laughs. “I’m afraid so.”

Harry sets his fork down, chewing on his bottom lip. “I think part of the problem—or not really the problem, but the issue—is that I feel—” He pauses for a sip of his water. Louis waits nervously. Harry gives him a small smile. “When I said you felt familiar to me, it’s because of the way you talk to me like you’ve known me your whole life. It’s strange and it’s different from what I’m used to. And I suppose, maybe that’s because I remind you of your ex, but I can’t say I don’t like it.”

Louis narrows his eyes. “You like that you remind me of my ex?”

“No. Not exactly. I like that you talk to me as effortlessly as you must’ve talked to him.”

Louis looks down at his near-empty dish.

“I’m sorry. I don’t want to mess this up,” Harry says. “I’m just trying to say that I like talking to you. It takes me a while to make friends these days. It's hard to tell who's genuine and who just likes me because I'm famous right now. One day, I won't be famous at all. And half those people won't remember who I am. But you don't seem like the type.”

Louis takes a sip of his cocktail. “It's kind of hard to imagine someone forgetting you.”

Harry smiles. “I take that to mean you won't then.”

“Well, I didn't say that.”

Harry kicks gently at his foot beneath the table, prompting a laugh from Louis as he finishes off his cocktail.

“I won't forget you,” Louis says. “You don't have to worry about that. And not because you remind me of my ex. You can forget I even said that. I was a bit tipsy that night, to be honest. Think I made it a much bigger deal than it is.”

“It’s forgotten,” Harry says easily.

“Also, thank you for lunch but you did nothing wrong. You were honest with me,” Louis says. “Can’t be faulted for not finding someone attractive.”

“I think you’re very attractive,” Harry says.

Louis sighs. “Mate, seriously?”

Harry holds up both hands in a show of surrender. “I think anyone would agree with me, regardless of how they identify.”

Louis massages his temples. “Right, well, that doesn’t help with the whole us-being-friends thing.”

“Got it,” Harry says. “I’ll try to refrain from complimenting you.”

“Great.”

“So then, we’re friends?”

This time, it hurts. It’s a dull ache in Louis’ chest. He’s come so far from being friends with his Harry. This gives new meaning to taking a step backward. But it was as Niall said: In some universes, he and Harry are simply platonic soulmates. Maybe this is one of them. Maybe now that they’ve made this connection, Louis can go home.

With that thought in mind, he smiles. “We’re friends.”

+

Nothing has changed the next morning, except that Harry’s number has returned to his phone’s contact list. Louis secretly logged it as ‘Kitten’ because that's how it had always been in his universe. In Harry’s phone, Louis had been ‘Boo’. Yesterday, Louis watched Harry log him simply as ‘Louis Tomlinson’.

That had been easy enough to bear when Louis envisioned himself awaking today on Christmas morning. He wondered what his own universe looked like. Had time stopped? Was Harry still there by the window waiting for him? Or had the consciousness belonging to Louis in this dimension replaced him over there?

“Fuck,” Louis groans, pressing the heels of his hands into his eyelids. It's like grade school maths all over again. His phone rattles on the bedside cabinet.

Headed to Stockholm today. We should make plans for when I’m back.

Perhaps he should change Harry’s contact to just ‘Harry’. Kitten texting him about travel plans Louis knows nothing about is bizarre. But then again, what isn’t?

What’s in Stockholm?

Another performance.

And when will you be back?

In a month.

Louis drops his phone on the mattress, buries his face in the pillow beside him, and lets loose a long scream. Every response he imagines sounds wrong. He starts several messages and deletes them. The irony of it all is that several months ago, he’d found himself in this exact position, except back then he’d practically told Harry to go.

Back then, Harry had chased Louis endlessly, in spite of Louis growing further and further away. And now, it’s Louis chasing him (or trying to, anyway).

Louis responds with a ‘sounds good’ and then crawls out of bed to get ready for work.

+

Harry onstage is this whole other life form that Louis longs to fully understand. It’s daunting, discovering a new side to him after all this time, but captivating too. His Harry never danced and sang like this. He’s wild and wanton, alluring and illustrious. The crowd always goes wild for him, and Louis, sitting at home watching video clips from his computer, feels the same.

He jumps around and sways his hips this way and that like he’s casting a spell on everyone. The long hair is nice too. Harry has a blast shaking it around, running his fingers through it the way Louis longs to do. When Louis makes it back to his universe, he might even suggest Harry growing his out.

These days, he has two things to look forward to -- watching Harry perform being the first. It’s the greatest consolation of this world. He gets a strange rush of pride hearing the people weep and marvel over him, so similar to the very start of Harry’s photography career before the bitterness got to Louis.

Secondly, and ironically, it’s Harry’s commitment to them being friends, which guarantees Louis at least one picture from each of the places Harry visits on tour. It means that Harry sends him jokes and songs he’s just fallen in love with. It means he takes pictures of foreign plants he encounters during his travels and quizzes Louis’ (unfailing) knowledge on them all.

And it means that on Friday of Louis’ fourth week in this alternate dimension, Harry calls him for no reason other than “Just want to see how you’re doing.”

Louis freezes in the middle of lugging his groceries into the flat. He leans against the doorframe, his heart in his throat for a second before he swallows, coughs, swallows again. “What a good fiance you are.”

“Only the best for you, my love,” Harry says, laughing.

Louis thumps his head a few times on the door. This can’t be healthy. “Do you ring your other friends just to see how they’re doing?”

“Yes, actually,” Harry says. “Which was why I felt awful for not doing the same with you by now.”

“You absolutely should. We’ve only been friends for what, two weeks?”

“Can you find it in your heart to forgive me?”

Louis makes a whiny noise. “Hm, I am a very forgiving person. So why not?”

Harry laughs again, making a noticeable effort to stay quiet.

“Where are you anyway?” Louis asks, finally stepping into the flat. He pushes the door closed.

“Hotel room,” Harry says.

The dread fills Louis so quickly it makes him dizzy. “Oh. Uh-- are you speaking softly because you have a guest?”

Harry scoffs. “Not quite. It’s just Niall, but he’s asleep. Don’t want to wake him.”

“Aren't you considerate?” Louis coos, setting his grocery bags down. He digs around for the box of Oreos he just purchased and turns on the kettle.

“I get that all the time,” Harry says. “Hang on.”

Louis hears a door shut. “What are you doing?”

“Getting in the tub,” Harry says.

Louis lifts his brows. “Talking to me while you're having a bath?”

“I'm not that much of a tease, Lou,” Harry says. “Just sitting in here to talk to you.”

A fond smile spans Louis’ face from ear to ear. His Harry would do the same while they were still in university. He even Skyped Louis once while sitting in the tub, fully clothed and another time completely naked and submerged in soapy water. Louis derails that train of thought before it ventures south.

“You could ring me back when it's more convenient for you,” Louis says, silencing the kettle.

“No, now’s good,” Harry says. “So, tell me. How are you doing?”

“No complaints. Having tea and biscuits.” Louis shrugs. “Might have a soak in the tub myself later on.”

“But I'm not soaking.”

“Not sure I believe you just yet,” Louis says. “Bet you've got one of those bath bombs swimming around in there too.”

Harry groans, all deep and guttural and unnecessary. “I love those things.”

“No surprise there,” Louis says, considering his Harry liked them too. “And how are you?”

Harry is quiet for a moment. “Exhausted.”

Not the answer Louis was expecting. Concern forces his brows into a crease and turns his soft smile into a frown. “Are you not sleeping?”

“It's more like mental exhaustion, not so much physical.”

“Still think sleep should help with that.”

“I'm sleeping enough, honest,” Harry says. “I think what I need is a nice long holiday in my own home.”

“Should have it soon enough,” Louis says, pouring hot water into his mug. “Hang in there, kitten—” He coughs, wheezes. “Wow.”

“Did you just call me kitten ?” Harry asks.

Louis covers his face with his hand. “I call all of my mates kitten,” he mumbles. “Or kitty. Tiger sometimes.”

“Do you really?”

“All the time,” Louis says. “But anyway, if I can help somehow, just let me know.”

Harry is quiet for a moment. “You're helping enough already,” he says. “Talking to you helps.”

Louis’ spoon slows as he stirs his tea. “You can ring me anytime.”

“You’ll never get me to stop ringing you now.”

“Good thing I don’t want you to stop.”

Harry tsks. “You’re flirting again.”

“Thought we established that was our default way of speaking?”

Harry laughs. “Right, right. Forgot about that.”

Louis leaves the groceries where they are when he’s certain none of the items will melt or spoil if he leaves them for too long. He takes his tea into his room and plops down on his bed. “So how much longer ‘til you're back here?”

“Why? Do you miss me?”

“Terribly,” Louis says, although that doesn’t even begin to explain. If he described the degree to which he missed Harry fully, they’d be here all night.

“I’ll be back soon, tiger.”

Louis snorts. “Stop it.” He buries his face in his pillow again, though he leaves the phone pressed to his ear. He listens to Harry’s laughter, echoing softly on the bathroom walls. He pictures him curled up in the hotel tub. Perhaps it’s too small for him and his knees jut over the top awkwardly. Maybe he’s got them pulled up to his chest.

Louis is struck by a memory of them sneaking around Harry’s childhood home one Christmas. Harry’s grandmum sleeping in one of the upstairs rooms was an ordained deacon, and while she knew Harry was gay and Louis was probably not just a friend, they still tried to behave themselves. Meaning that they waited until she fell asleep, rang each other up, and rendezvoused in the large kitchen cupboard for midnight blowjobs.

“You’ve gone quiet on me,” Harry says.

Louis turns over and stares at the ceiling. “How much longer until you’re back?” he asks again.

“Two weeks,” Harry says. “And then I’m going to ask a favor of you.”

“Ah, the real reason he called.”

Harry hushes him. “I only just thought of this while sitting in the tub.”

“Let’s hear it then.”

“I bought a new house last month. Had it decorated and all that. I’ve only spent a few nights in it so far, but you know, it’s nice. I like it.”

Louis purses his lips, fingers drumming on his stomach. “I think it’s a bit too soon to ask me to move in.”

Harry doesn’t miss a beat. “But we’re engaged?”

“I’ve not even met your mum.”

“But she’s your mum too, isn’t she?”

“This just got weird,” Louis says, earning another round of soft, bubbly laughter from Harry’s end of the line. “Seriously, H, what’s the favor?”

“I just thought it’d be nice to have some plants around the house,” Harry says. “I like the feeling I got at the Botanical Gardens. I’d like my home to feel something like that, obviously on a smaller scale.”

“Are you asking for plant recommendations?”

“Kind of, but it’s a bit more than that. When I’m back, it might be fun to, like, go plant shopping. You could help me pick some nice ones out.”

“No one’s ever asked me to go plant shopping before.”

“Which means you basically can’t say no to this opportunity.”

“Seems I can’t,” Louis says. “Plant shopping sounds fun. I’d be happy to help.”

“Great. Thank you,” Harry says, sounding genuinely relieved.

“Any ideas about what you might want?”

Harry hums as he thinks. “I like roses.”

“You would,” Louis says, and not because his Harry did too. This time, it’s just an observation that Louis makes instantly and one he shares without second thought.

“Why’s that?”

Louis licks his lips. “You have a lot in common with them. Roses are quite versatile, for one, and I mean that not in a sexual way.”

Harry laughs. “Go on.”

“They make any space more beautiful, yeah, but the petals can also be used in tea and jam. Rose hips, which are the fruit that roses bear, are high in vitamin C. Rose oil has medicinal properties. And you— you’re a singer and a songwriter and something of a dancer all at once, and you’re a son, a brother, a friend.

“And the simplest roses are the purest too. The ones that haven’t been mutated or altered only have five petals. That’s you in a strange way. I think maybe you worry about what life will look like when you aren’t as famous anymore when you’re just Harry. But I think the simplest you is probably the purest you, and the rarest.”

It’s completely quiet on the other end, although it’s a wonder Louis notices with how loud his heartbeat thumps in his ears. He clears his throat. “Still there?”

“I’m here,” Harry says. “Have I actually made you fall in love with me?”

Louis’ stomach swarms with anxious, angry butterflies. Harry’s question, however playful, comes too soon after Louis just poured a bit of his heart out. There’s no time to send back a quip of his own. instead, Louis says, “Shut up, Harry. You asked.”

“And I liked the answer,” Harry says quietly. “Really, thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” Louis says. “We’ll find some nice roses for your place.”

“I’d love that.”

+

“The yellow ones are my boyfriend’s favorite,” Louis says, turning his phone’s camera for Harry to see one of the hundreds of rose bushes at the Gardens. Even Louis’ lunch hour won’t be enough time to show off them all. That said, they’re only focused on the ones Harry might like in or around his home.

“They’re lovely,” Harry says.

Louis turns the camera back to himself and smiles. “I think so too. Perfect for summer and autumn.”

“You said boyfriend just now,” Harry says abruptly.

Louis looks at his screen and finds Harry’s brows creased.

“Are you two together again?” Harry asks.

“No, not really. It’s complicated, I guess.”

Harry has the good sense to let the conversation drop, or so Louis thinks. He’s showing him another species of rose in a soft baby pink, when Harry asks, “What happened between you and your boyfriend?”

Louis sighs exasperatedly. “Right out with it then?”

“Hasn’t been much of a filter between us since we met,” Harry says. “Sorry if I overstepped.”

Louis shakes his head, pushing his free hand into his pocket. He glances around but he’s the only one in that section for now. “We just didn’t have the same future in mind. He wanted more and at the time, I didn’t think it was a good idea. So we split.”

“Wanted more like…? Marriage?”

It’s odd discussing this with him, especially when in another dimension, this same conversation had sparked tears and rage. “Yes.”

“That’s weird. I see you as the marrying type.”

“What about me makes you think that?”

“It’s just the feeling I get from how you spoke of your boyfriend,” Harry says with a shrug. “It seems like people hardly fall in love anymore like it’s turned into a myth. I can’t picture anyone saying to another person ‘i’m in love with you’ without sounding cheesy or dramatic. But you seem like the kind of person who would say it differently, who falls in love once and gets married early. A romantic, I’d say.”

“I’ve listened to your music,” Louis says. “The biggest romantic here is definitely you.”

Harry grins. “That’s fair.”

This is the thing that had drawn them to each other in Louis’ universe: their love of love. They believed in soul mates and spouses. They started talking about marriage and children before a year of dating had passed, not because they planned to have both immediately, but because it was something they wanted eventually. Particularly with each other.

Louis hadn’t allowed himself to want those things until he met Harry. The men he dated prior weren’t the type. They left him afraid to want too much. Harry was always about wanting and having it all.

“Do you still love him?” Harry asks.

Louis doesn’t look at him this time. He walks to another rose bush, directing the camera away from himself. “Of course,” he says, clearing his throat. “Always.”

There’s silence for a while afterwards.

“Hope I find something like that someday,” Harry says eventually. Louis hears the hollow hum of a guitar string and looks at the phone screen again. Harry’s instrument is suddenly resting comfortably in his lap. “Want to hear something I'm working on?”

Louis turns up the volume in his earphones. “Now?”

Harry starts strumming. “Why not?”

Louis looks around again. “Alright.” And within seconds, Harry starts to sing, filling every corner and corridor of Louis’ mind with his soft voice. He sounds like a flood, like deep, troubled waters, and Louis is the unassuming land where he crashes.

Hope I find something like that someday , he’d said.

He has it already.

+

What if time hasn't frozen in Louis’ dimension? The last thing he remembers is Harry yelling from the window, “I love you,” and Louis can't remember saying it back. There's so much he never got a chance to say. He sees flashes of things sometimes that he can't piece together. Headlights. Harry's face twisted with terror. Those visions give him no answers.

What if he’s just walking around like a robot with his consciousness stuck here? And what if Harry has attempted several times to talk things through only for Louis to stare blankly at him?

There are so many questions and only one person who can answer them. With a week left until One Direction returns home, Louis finally gets his chance.

Harry calls him that night, an hour to midnight. It's a video chat, which Louis isn't at all prepared for, looking as tired as he feels. But Harry— He looks sinful. His face is flushed. Mouth damp and colored red like he's been sucking on fruity drinks all night. And he has to have been. Because he's clearly drunk off his arse.

“Hi, Louis,” he sings into the phone.

Behind him, Louis sees Niall bouncing around the hotel room, and Harry's three other band mates throwing themselves across the beds. Music is blasting and someone—Niall, Louis thinks—is strumming a guitar.

“Who's Louis?” someone else asks.

“Harry's new best mate,” someone else answers.

Louis smiles.

Harry shushes them theatrically with a finger pressed firmly to his lips.

“It's always Louis this, Louis that,” Niall says anyhow. “Bet Louis would know the answer to this. Bet Louis would love to hear that.”

Harry looks at the screen again. “Don’t listen to them.”

“Why?” Louis asks. “Sounds like you’ve got lots to say about me.”

This time, Harry shushes him too. “I didn’t mean to call you,” he says. “I’ve had a lot to drink.”

“I can tell.”

“There was a lovely garden today. So lovely. Lots of flowers. Sunflowers. I thought you’d like it.”

“There he goes,” Niall says.

Harry laughs, seemingly at himself. “Took pictures too. Have to send them when I’m sober.”

“Sounds good, love.” Louis watches him smile widely into the camera, half his face hidden because he’s so close. He’s all teeth and one dimple, and Louis is weak with how much he adores him.

Harry drops his head down, hair flying out in all directions .

“H,” Louis says. “Give the phone to Niall.”

Harry glances upward, through the curtain of his hair. “You want to talk to Niall?”

“Just for a second.”

“Gonna talk about me?” Harry babbles.

“Only good things, I promise,” Louis says with a roll of his eyes. “Come on.”

Harry turns over, lifting the phone into the air, and beckons Niall loudly. He waves the phone around so much Louis can’t look at the screen or he’ll get dizzy. Eventually, everything stills and Niall’s face appears on Louis’ screen.

“Think that’s enough Facetime, don’t you?” Louis asks, somewhat menacingly. He’s well aware that he and Niall are unevenly matched, Niall being supernatural and what not. But he also doesn’t care. It’s time they talked spiritual semantics.

Niall grins and thankfully switches the call to a voice call. “What can I do for you, Lou?”

In the background, another of Harry’s bandmates complains, “When do I get to talk to Louis?”

“Look how popular you are, mate,” Niall says, laughing. “You’re one of a kind.”

Louis scoffs. “That’s enough sweet talk too. I’ve got some questions.”

“No surprise there,” Niall says. Louis hears a soft thud. The music of the room turns muted. Aside from that, there’s no sound at all. “I’m listening.”

“What does my universe look like? What’s my Harry doing?” Louis asks.

Niall hisses. “Haven’t been granted permission to say just yet,” he says.

“What are you good for, mate?”

“That's a little mean," Niall says. "If it weren't for me you wouldn't even have gotten this far. Harry gets hundreds and thousands of followers a day. How do you think he happened to see yours?"

"What'd you do?" Louis asks suspiciously.

"What needed to be done," Niall says. "That's my job."

Louis cradles his forehead in his palm. “I need to know that he’s not waiting for me. That he doesn’t think I’ve abandoned him. That I’m not just walking around like a vegetable.” He’s mostly just speaking to himself at this point, and the more he says, the more he feels like crying. Except he can’t do that with Niall, with anyone in this world. They won’t understand. “I can’t hurt him again. I promised I wouldn’t— that I wouldn’t leave him again.”

“You have a history of leaving him, do you?”

“Oh, fuck off, mate,” Louis says. “You and the Fates and whoever. I’ve got a history of fucking up, yeah, but I fixed it. We were fine. Now I’m here and you won’t give me even the slightest clue about what I’ve left behind—” His voice breaks audibly. His face burns with embarrassment. “Fuck.”

Niall is silent for a long while. Louis considers hanging up on him. He’s getting ready to when Niall speaks again.

“Time is moving in your dimension, but Harry doesn’t think you’ve left him. Can’t say more than that right now. But that’s not the case.”

Louis feels like he can breathe more clearly all of a sudden. The heaviness on his heart lets up a bit. “That’s— Thank you,” he says quietly. “That’s good to hear.”

“You’re doing great, by the way. In my opinion,” Niall says, sounding chipper again. “Keep up the good work.”

Louis snorts. “Right. I’m apparently Harry’s new best mate, but that’s not the connection I’m supposed to make, is it? Because I’m still here. Haven’t pleased the Fates just yet, have I?”

“Seems not.”

“So I can only assume I’m meant to make a romantic connection with this Harry, yeah?” Louis muses. “Wouldn’t you say that’s the most logical conclusion?”

“Seems so,” Niall says. “Not that I can confirm or deny—”

“Right, but there’s one small problem with all that,” Louis says. “Harry in this universe isn’t fucking gay.

“I see what you’re saying,” Niall says. “Does seem impossible.”

Finally. They’re finally on the same page here.

“Travelling across dimensions. Encountering multiple versions of the same person. Even working at the Botanical Gardens,” Niall recites. “All seems a bit…” A dramatic pause. “Impossible, right?”

Louis grits his teeth.

“But what do I know?” Niall says. “I’m just a half-human, half-angel.”

He starts to laugh. This deep, belly laugh that in different circumstances might be contagious. But Louis, of course, doesn’t join him.

No, right around then is when Louis decides to hang up.

+

He had a history of fucking up. A history of leaving. But not without cause.

One of the very last times was the night of Harry’s first major solo exhibition. Prior to that evening, his photographs had only been showcased as parts of larger projects with several other photographers. His work had been featured in magazines and newspapers. Their alma mater had a few pieces hung on the walls of the art studio. His career had been on the rise well before he even graduated, but this night, in particular, was his biggest yet.

And it was all mostly thanks to a man named Arturo Geating, or Art as Harry sometimes called him, which had to be the most ironic and convenient name for an artist to be called. He was a painter, a sculptor, a photographer, the fucking second coming of Christ. Literally, there were few things this man didn’t do. Louis despised the overachieving types with a passion, but he hated Art most for two reasons.

One being his millions, which he gave generous portions of to support Harry’s career.

The second, and most infuriating, was his infatuation with everything that Harry currently was and was destined to be.

And the third—yes, Louis recalls three reasons now—was how shamelessly he used being a benefactor to win Harry’s affection.

By January, it was safe to say Louis and Harry had reached an all-time low in their relationship. Harry spent nights following an argument with his sister. They hardly had sex, although whenever they did, it was angry or repentant. Harry’s browser history revealed that he’d been looking at engagement rings. Louis hadn’t meant to see. He wished he hadn’t because several days passed afterwards and an engagement still made no sense to him. They had good days and nights, but those dwindled as time wore on. And by January, they were a rarity.

Which was why the very last thing Louis needed upon arriving that night was to see Arturo introducing Harry to his eighty-year-old mum.

Maybe that wasn’t a big deal. Louis had a drink and then another as he tried to decide if he was being irrational. Arturo had a darling mum if Louis was being honest. Who wouldn’t want to meet her? But also, why did Harry have to meet her? And why was she gazing at Harry as if her son had spoken plenty of him? And was that Art’s fucking sister making introductions now too? Why not bring in the whole bloody family? Why not have the wedding here?

Louis was being slightly irrational.

He finished his second drink and after a deep breath made his way over to Harry. And Harry’s potential in-laws. He rolled his eyes at himself. Harry noticed him as he grew closer and smiled a bit tensely, taking a slight step toward him. He knew all about Louis’ distaste for his Arturo. Louis let him hear enough of it at home.

“Glad you made it,” he said, pressing a kiss to Louis’ cheek. He wrapped a hand around Louis’ forearm and tugged him gently into his circle. “This is Art’s mum, Sharon. She’s an artist as well.”

“Not so much anymore,” Sharon said to Louis. “And who’s this?”

“This is my boyfriend, Louis,” Harry said.

“Oh,” Sharon said, her grey brows arching. Her daughter standing beside her glanced at Arturo, who glanced at Louis, who stared right back at him. Louis’ lips twitched as he extended his hand to Sharon. They shook.

“Lovely to meet you,” she said. “Are you an artist as well?”

“Louis’ a botanist,” Harry answered before Louis could. “Right now, he works with children.”

Louis tried to reign in his flare of annoyance, but he hated when Harry did that when he answered for him in front of his artist friends. He always tried to dress things up, make them sound better than they were. ‘Louis is a botanist who works with children’ was a euphemism for ‘Louis can’t find work in his field and works as a nanny’.

“That’s wonderful,” Sharon said with a small smile. She glanced at her daughter. “Think I’d like to sit down now.” The girl took her mother’s arm and walked with her to their table.

Arturo smiled. “Good to see you again, Louis.”

Louis nodded curtly. To Harry, he said, “Going out for a smoke.”

“Should I come?”

“And leave your guests wondering where you are?” Louis asked. “I’ll be fine.”

Meaning that he’d pace the balcony, sucking on at least two cigarettes, and wallowing in his misery until he was forced to head back inside.

The night trickled on. Louis had another drink and took another cigarette break and stood in the loo for longer than necessary. He chatted with some of Harry’s posh friends who used words they didn’t even seem to know the meanings of. He gorged himself on admittedly delicious finger food. He bit his tongue through one of Arturo’s monologues in which he praised Harry’s work and friendship and grace.

Louis escaped to the balcony again. He’d run out of cigarettes but it didn’t matter.

He felt better outside. He felt like he belonged outside. There used to be a time where he felt at home wherever Harry was too. Lately, it was the opposite. He breathed more clearly when Harry was away. He got more done when Harry wasn’t hovering and pitying him.

How had they gotten here? How the hell do they get back?

“Lou.”

He squeezed his eyes shut. Again with the hovering. He pasted a smile on his face and turned. “Hey,” he said. “Been looking for me?”

Harry eyed him warily. “Of course.”

An awkward beat of silence passed. “I’m sorry,” Louis said.

“For?”

“Forcing you to come find me. This is your night. It should be about you.”

Harry stepped up to the rail beside him and looked him in the eye. “What’s wrong?”

Louis shook his head. “Nothing.”

“You don’t like my artist friends.”

“You like your artist friends and that’s good enough for me.”

Harry gave him a look.

“They’re nice people,” Louis said. “A bit stiff. But they’re supportive.”

“You’re supportive too,” Harry said.

“Not as much as I should be.”

Harry sighed heavily. “Please, please tell me this isn’t about money. Not again.”

“It’s always about money.”

Harry set a hand on Louis’ shoulder and turned him. Both hands trapped Louis’ face between his palms and he leveled their gazes. “You’re scaring me. As many times as I say I don’t care, you never believe me. I don’t care about the money. I love you. I want to be with you. I want a future with you, however it is we manage to get there. I don’t know how we can if you refuse to believe that.”

Louis clenched his jaw. “How can you not care about money and want a future at the same time? What kind of future can we have if we can’t support ourselves?”

Harry dropped his hands and massaged his forehead instead. “We’ve always been just fine with what we have.”

You’ve always been just fine. Because you’ve got your head in the clouds half the time,” Louis said. “You don’t care about the money but you wouldn’t even be here tonight if not for your biggest donor. I’m glad you met mum, by the way. Did she invite you for tea?”

“He cares about my work,” Harry said. “That’s all it’s ever been.”

“He cares about getting in your bed ,” Louis said. “You’re being bought and just letting it happen.”

“You want me to turn down thousands of pounds because you’re jealous?” Harry asked. “To reassure you that I’m loyal when I’ve never given you reason to think otherwise? Are you hearing yourself?”

“You’d do the same fucking thing, Harry. If there was some bloke blowing money up my arse, you’d do the same fucking—”

Two guests stepped onto the balcony. The bite of Louis’ voice alerted them to their company. Quickly, they turned back and left Harry and Louis alone.

Harry angled himself away from the door, his palms pressed roughly into his eyelids. He dragged his hands down his face, leaving his eyelashes damp, face blotchy. “I’m so fucking tired of this,” he said with a sigh. “If you don’t want to be here, go home.”

Home was a funny word choice. Two years ago, home was their tiny barely-affordable London flat, but it scarcely felt that way now. Wherever it was, Louis didn’t want to be there if it meant leaving Harry like this. And yet, he said, “Maybe that’s for the best.”

Harry stared at him, wide-eyed. “You’re actually going to leave me?”

Louis’ eyes burned. He took a moment to respond, both of them just staring at one another. “No,” he said finally. Before the relief could settle on Harry’s face, he added, “But I need another drink.” Without another word or touch, he slipped past him and back into the gallery.

He planned to stick it out. There was less than an hour left by then, and if he made it that long, he and Harry could go home together, go to sleep, and maybe wake in the morning to one of those rare good days. He only made it ten minutes.

Arturo had returned to Harry’s side with a slew of other guests to introduce him to. He rested a hand on the small of Harry’s back and Louis watched his thumb stroking back and forth. He took another sip of his scotch, his eyes and nostrils stinging. Slowly, Arturo curled his arm completely around Harry’s waist. Louis looked around at all those unfamiliar faces to see if anyone else noticed. He saw no one else who did but who would think anything of it? Perhaps none of these people even knew who Louis was. None of them knew that he was Harry’s or Harry was his. He’d never felt like more of an outsider than he did then, filled with all this rage and frustration that no one else understood, and he wouldn’t mind the outside so much if Harry weren’t on the inside.

He saw Harry look around, scanning the crowd as if for him, but Louis left the barstool before Harry’s gaze made it his way. He threw back the rest of his drink and deposited the glass on a random table on his way out the door.

+

Harry comes back to London on Thursday of the following week. Louis hovers by the phone all day, but there's no word from him.

He's not used to giving chase, which sounds like a conceited thing to say but the men he dated before Harry had always been after him. Even Harry pursued Louis throughout their relationship. Harry was the first to approach him. The first to go for a kiss. The first to suggest moving in together. The first to propose.

The first to run. Sort of.

Anyway, Louis isn't familiar with having to work for Harry’s attention. It gets under his skin. Whether their subject to be friends in this world or not, he wants Harry to notice him, to care.

It's been a whole day and a half of him in London and still there's no word.

Louis groans, ripping his glasses off his face. He massages his eyelids and lifts his phone for the twentieth time that morning and starts a message. Deletes the message. Slams the phone down.

“I'm concerned,” Leigh Anne reports.

Louis flattens his torso out on his desk, crumbling papers, smashing an array of laptop keys with his forehead. “You should be.”

Leigh Anne reaches out and squeezes his forearm. “What's on your mind?”

“I don't know how to chase someone,” Louis grumbles.

All this time he’d just been waiting for things to happen, for the right moment to come along, for a genie disguise as Santa to come along. Even on Christmas Eve, when Louis supposedly fixed everything, Harry had practically fallen into his lap. Louis never got on a plane like he wanted to. He'd never chased Harry.

“I have someone worth chasing and I don't know where to start,” Louis says. “How do you pursue someone who doesn't even want you?”

“Well, generally, if a person doesn't want you, it's probably best to not pursue them,” she says warily. “But I find it hard to imagine a bloke you want this badly not wanting you.”

Louis looks at her. “He's straight.”

She silent for several seconds. “For fuck’s sake, Louis,” she says, slapping her pen down. “Why would you go and get involved with a ‘straight’ man?” She does air quotes. “It's one thing to be figuring yourself out, but fucking around with someone of the same sex tends to mean you're not straight.”

“You wouldn't believe me if I explained and I've had enough of people looking at me like I'm crazy,” Louis says. “All you need to know is that he's worth it.”

“And who's the 'he' we’re talking about?” she asks.

Louis shakes his head. “I just said, you wouldn't believe—”

She sighs loudly before he can finish, rolling her eyes up and around her sockets. “Try me.”

Still, Louis hesitates, his jaw clenched, eyes narrowed. He takes a breath, opens his mouth. A soft knock sounds on the door. The two of them divert their attention.

“Are you looking for the gardens, babe?” Leigh Anne asks. She points. “They’re that way.”

“Think I’m in the right place,” their intruder says, and the entire time, Louis is silent.

And then not so silent.

“How in the bloody hell did you get back here?” he asks.

Harry, in what he considers a disguise (the baseball cap and sunnies), smiles. “Was actually way too easy. Found the door marked ‘staff’ and walked right through.”

“Impossible,” Louis says.

Harry smiles wider. “Very possible.” He looks at Leigh Anne and steps further into the room. He pulls off his glasses with one hand, extends the other. “Hi, I’m Harry.”

As if he didn’t come in disguise. As if she and half the world don’t know who he is. As expected, she emits a small screech and cups her hand over her mouth. She mumbles something that sounds like ‘oh my god’. Harry looks at his outstretched hand waiting in the space between them and then he shakes the air.

“Lovely to meet you too,” he says with a soft laugh.

Perhaps Louis hasn’t said it enough times but he adores him.

Leigh Anne drops her hands and takes his. They shake. “Harry Styles?” she asks, but she’s looking at Louis. Louis gives her one small, discreet nod and pretends to scratch a spot on his scalp when Harry glances at him.

“That’s me,” Harry says to Leigh Anne. He pokes his thumb in Louis’ direction. “Mind if I steal him?”

“I’m not finished with my work here,” Louis says. The toe of Leigh Anne’s ballet flat connects with his shin beneath the table. His face twists in pain. “Fuck.”

Leigh Anne closes her book. “I have a tour to do actually.”

No, she doesn’t. “No, you don—”

She widens her eyes at him. “I have a tour to do,” she says again. “And you can’t really finish this project without me. So, I think we’re done for the day.”

Louis looks at Harry, finds him smiling brightly, and yeah, he thinks he’s done for the day too.

Leigh Anne touches Harry’s shoulder, looking like she has plenty more to say. But she refrains. “It was nice to meet you, Harry.”

Harry watches her go. “I like her,” he says to Louis.

“She’s growing on me,” Louis says, standing.

“Haven’t you been working with her for a while?”

“Time flies,” Louis says, removing his lab coat. He tosses it over the back of his chair. “Feels like it’s only been a few weeks.” He pulls his glasses off, massages his eyelids. “Seriously, what are you doing here now?”

“It’s my first weekend back in London,” Harry says. “Where else would I be?”

Louis expects the rush of warmth well before it spreads across his cheeks and the tops of his ears. “That eager to go plant shopping?” he asks.

“Thought we’d do that tomorrow actually,” he says. “I have some people for you to meet first.”

+

As if they needed further proof that Harry’s disguise is incredibly shitty, they are quite literally mobbed leaving the Royal Botanical Gardens. To Louis at least, the gaggle of youth bombarding them is a mob. One minute they aren't there. The next minute they’re materializing from every sculpted bush or potted plant, and the bubbling water of a fountain or the soil of a flower bed.

One minute they're passing security, pushing through the glass doors, heading towards Harry’s Range Rover parked nearby, and the next minute Harry is tugging him close, pressing a hand to Louis’ lower back, and ushering him forwards.

There's a pop of light and a shout from somewhere or everywhere, and then Harry’s opening the car door, pushing Louis inside. He hurries around to the driver’s side climbs in, locks the doors.

A shadow suddenly appears by Louis’ window, scaring the absolute piss out of him. He slaps a hand to his chest. “Christ—” A flash explodes right in his eyes, and then Harry is pulling away from the kerb.

He glances at Louis. “Good?”

“I’ll let you know when I can see again,” Louis says.

Harry holds up three fingers when they come to a stop light. “How many fingers am I holding up?”

Louis gives him a look. “What have we learned today, Harold?” he asks. “A cap and sunnies don't count as a disguise.”

“I'll wear the Dumbledore get-up next time, I promise,” Harry says. “In my defense, that pap wasn't there for me. Must have gotten a tip about someone else. I just wandered into the crossfire.”

“Seemed more enthusiastic about you, though.”

Harry shrugs. “I'd say it was more you. The Director of Horticulture.”

He says it proudly. Again, Louis blushes.

“And how about the little girl bawling her eyes out when she laid eyes on you?”

Harry laughs. “Also sobbing about you.”

“Whatever.” Louis pushes his shoes off, leans back in his seat, and props his feet up on the dash. Halfway through the gesture, he realizes it might be inappropriate. He and Harry are good friends now, yeah, but they haven't had much time together in person. And it's not like this is his and Harry’s shared hoopty. The fresh leather interior says otherwise.

But it's too late to not put his feet on the dash. It'd be awkward if he stopped now. So he just does it and changes the radio station while he's at it.

Harry just looks at him and releases this breathy laugh. He almost looks pleased.

“I'm in the mood for some Drake,” Louis decides, hoping the authority in his voice detracts from the soft pink of his skin. “How about you, kitten?”

Harry laughs again. “I like Drake.”

And within minutes, Louis has Hotline Bling blasting from Harry’s car.

+

Speaking of Drake, Louis decides to blame him for what he's in the midst of doing. Drake and Rihanna both. And anyone else involved in the composition of ‘Work’. He also blames The Weeknd for ‘Earned It’ and Britney Spears for ‘Toxic’ and whoever sold Harry his expensive bottle of tequila.

Because it's all those things thrown together that have led Louis here: drunk, shirtless, and in the heat of a strip tease.

But first, a recap.

When Harry mentioned ‘people’ he wanted Louis to meet, Louis had pictured a few close friends, perhaps even Harry’s sister Gemma who Louis maintained a love-hate relationship with in his former dimension. He'd been thrilled that Harry felt it was time to induct him into his small circle.

He hadn't been expecting a party with a guest list thirty people deep. Not a massive amount, necessarily. But large enough to ruin the intimacy that had brewed between them in the car. In fact, shortly after they arrive to said party, Louis loses sight of Harry altogether.

He’s got a lovely orange-colored drink in hand, which is the only way he can tolerate another conversation with another random person. Half of the people surrounding him are drunk, which makes them talkative and nonsensical—an exhausting, lethal combination. There’s not enough alcohol in the world to get him through this. He excuses himself to the loo, leaving the girl talking his ear off to stare after him.

He, of course, doesn't help at all. Somehow they end up in an intense game of quarters and lose. Niall convinces him to do a shot and then another before he drags him out onto the balcony to howl at the unsuspecting people of London and sing. Drunkenly, while they’ve got an arm around each other’s waist, Louis decides he doesn't hate Niall so much.

That's when Harry finds him. He appears behind them, throwing his arms over both their shoulders. Louis smells him before he sees his face. He tilts his head back and smiles.

“Finally found you two,” Harry says, words slurring slightly. “Come play Twister.”

“That's a terrible idea,” Louis says. “I'm in.”

The party has cleared out significantly since Louis and Niall were hiding out on the balcony. There's someone asleep on the kitchen floor. Someone snoozing in the cupboard, if the snoring from inside is any indication. There are at least five people sleeping or talking softly around the apartment. In the living room is the rest of Harry’s band.

Louis has always been a master at this game. He's flexible and coordinated, especially for the sake of competition. He's just never played Twister while drunk. He barely has a chance to introduce himself to Harry’s band before they’re all teaming up. Stupidly, they take shots. Of Harry’s expensive tequila.

“What are the stakes?” Louis mumbles.

“The loser does a strip tease.”

That’s Harry, plopping down on the couch, crossing one leg over the other. He looks smug. Louis would love to take that smirk off his face. He'd love to see Harry take his shirt off too. And that means Harry has to lose.

The first time around Harry doesn’t even play. It’s Louis and Niall against another of Harry’s bandmates named Luke. Luke loses, too drunk to win or do the strip tease. He barely manages to remove his shirt and they all take mercy on him afterwards.

The second time it’s Louis, another bloke named Nick, and Harry playing while Niall acts as referee.

The three of them get into position.

“Let the games begin,” Louis says his eyes on Harry. He even tosses him a wink.

Harry snorts and looks to Niall for their instructions.

“Right hand, blue,” Niall calls out.

They each find an available blue circle, although it’s made difficult with the alcohol still coursing through their veins. Louis is determined, though. He gets a little dizzy bending forward but maintains his balance. Easy enough.

“Left foot, yellow.”

It’s a miracle they make it as long as they do, but Harry has always had a competitive side. Louis appreciates that he can keep up, not only because it’s impressive but also because he’s got Harry’s whole chest pressed against his side. His breath tickles the skin on Louis’ neck. Their arms brush. Louis thinks Twister is the best game ever made. Even more so when Harry falls.

“And he’s out!” Louis says. “You’re out.”

Harry hangs his head. “Fuck.”

“You know what that means,” Louis says, parking himself on the floor, spreading his hands behind him. “Strip.”

Harry laughs. “Alright then.”

“Hardly wears clothes, this one,” Niall mutters. “Thinks the tour bus is a nude beach.”

Louis’ eyes widen. First, he hates that Niall has seen Harry naked. Second, why in the fuck is he not a member of One Direction in this universe too?

“It’s true,” Harry says wobbling to his feet. He pushes his hair back. “I need some music. Nick--”

“I’m on it,” Nick says and turns on ‘Toxic’ by the one and the only Britney Spears.

Harry laughs again, his two dimples out and proud. “This is a terrible idea.”

Your terrible idea,” Louis specifies, lacking any sort of bite to his words because Harry has started unbuttoning his shirt. His fingers move down each button slowly, rings catching the dim lighting in the living room. He starts to swing his hips left and right, still just laughing at himself.

He lets the shirt slide to the floor and throws his arms into the air over his head in some odd sort of yoga pose. All those ridiculous tattoos paint his torso proudly. He stretches his arms out to the side and does a spin.

“Is this a strip tease or fucking Swan Lake?” Nick asks.

And that's it. That's exactly what Louis needs to burst into laughter. Nick is right. This isn't sexy at all. He's not turned on, just entertained. And endeared.

Harry shushes him. “Put on that really sexy song,” he says. “The one by The Weeknd. The one about BDSM.”

Louis snorts and lies flat on the carpet. “You're embarrassing,” he says. It's an odd comment to make, but it comes naturally.

Nick turns on ‘Earned It’ by The Weeknd.

“Fuck yeah,” Louis practically howls. They're all in fits of laughter.

Harry swings his hair out to the side and bites a finger seductively. A little hot, mostly ridiculous. He pinches his own nipples and makes a show of wincing. Louis’ cock gives the slightest twitch of interest. Very slight. Harry pops the button of his fly. Louis licks his lips and sits upright.

“That's all I've got for now, folks,” Harry announces.

Nick shakes his head disappointedly. “And you were just starting to look appealing.”

Harry sticks his tongue out at him.

“Maybe if there were some girls here,” Luke mumbles. “We’d all been starkers.”

“Not I,” Nick says. “I'm as gay as they come.”

Louis grabs the bottle of tequila and hoists it in the air. “Cheers to that.” He has a sip.

Harry watches him, looking amused. Louis likes that quite a lot. He likes having Harry’s gaze on him, whatever the reason.

And then ‘Work’ by Rihanna and Drake comes on, and Louis gets the bright idea to hop to his feet and yell, “My turn.”

Harry laughs confusedly. “For what?”

“Let me show how a real strip tease looks,” Louis says, smirking.

“Gays do it best!” Nick cheers, cranking the music.

Immediately, Louis slaps his hands against his thighs and drags them up his hips, his waist, his chest, curving his palms over his pecs. Hooking his hands over the collar of his shirt, he begins to pull his T-shirt off and then throws it aside.

“Work, work, work, work, work, work…” Rihanna sings as Louis turns his hips to the beat. He thinks he hears someone whistle, but it doesn't sound like Harry.

Harry.

Louis remembers. He's the reason he jumped up in the first place. He's still sat on the floor when Louis sets his eyes on him. He sinks to the ground and crawls forward, still moving his hips.

Slowly, he stands in front of Harry. He's too drunk to have all the steps planned out. He slides a hand through Harry’s long hair. It feels the way it always has. He wants to curl a lock around his finger and massage his scalp the way he knows he likes. He refrains. He pinches Harry’s dimpled cheek. He does a backward shuffle like Michael Jackson and then, pops his jeans open as Harry had done.

“Please don't stop there,” Nick begs.

Louis laughs. He pushes his hand down the front of his jeans, rotating his hips, singing along to the song.

His eyes flicker again to Harry. The laughter fades and dies in his throat.

Harry’s eyes are wide in a subtle way. Not comically. Not like Luke’s or Niall’s or Nick’s. Harry’s eyes are wide open . Unblinking. Unflinching. And focused entirely on Louis.

There's a smile on his lips so small Louis might be the only one who notices. And then Harry tucks his bottom lip beneath his teeth. Slides both hands into his lap and covers his crotch.

Oh.

Louis stops breathing.

He’d love to rave and rant about this accomplishment. He’d like to stake a flag in the center of the living room with a plaque. ‘Here Louis Tomlinson dismantled Harry Styles’ heterosexuality’, it would read. But he can’t do any of those things. The instant Harry knows that Louis knows, he drops his gaze and stands.

“Need to run to the loo,” he says quickly. He can’t cover his crotch or everyone will know. He leaves the room as calmly as he can with a ruby blush creeping over his face and neck.

It takes Louis only a second before he turns and follows him. Harry isn't in the bathroom nearest to them. There's a girl fast asleep in there. Louis climbs the stairs carefully, keeping a hand against the wall to steady himself. Louis tries the handle of the upstairs loo and finds it locked tight.

“Harry?” he mumbles.

There’s no answer, but he hears a soft scuffle like feet against the floor.

“Are you alright?” Louis asks. More silence. “Don’t know if that’s you in there but I’m going to sit out here all night if you don’t answer me.”

“I’m fine, Louis.” Harry doesn’t sound fine at all. “A little woozy from the alcohol.”

“Need some help?” Louis asks after a pause.

“No, I’ll be back down in a minute,” Harry says. “Promise. I just need one minute.”

It sounds like a very clear dismissal. He’s not used to Harry pushing him away, but he gets it. If ever there was a time for Harry to start, it’s now. In a world where he’s not as straight as he first thought.

As much as Louis would love for Harry to open the door and work this all out with him, it's clear that's not going to happen. Respectfully, Louis backs off.

“I’ll be downstairs then.”

Chapter Text

“There’s only one thing more precious than our time and that’s who we spend it on.”

-Leo Christopher

+

Arturo had connections with all the right people. Or all the wrong ones, in Louis’ opinion. And he loved to make use of those connections, especially when it made him look good in front of Harry.

New York Fashion Week was in February, but Louis wasn't really aware of that until Harry brought it up over a month ago. He did so in the rambling way he explained most things, and there was a time Louis found it endearing. In that moment, it was infuriating. There was a point Harry refused to get to, probably because he knew Louis wouldn’t like it.

And he would have been right.

Somehow, Art had worked out a way for Harry to join the team of photographers for Harper’s Bazaar. It meant he’d need to leave at least a month early. Harry had travelled for work before but never for a whole month and never with Art. And that changed everything.

So, they argued about it (because of course, they did). And they had make-up sex. And they forgot or pretended to.

And maybe that was the real beginning of the end. Not Harry’s art show. Not the fact that Louis walked out. The timer had been set the minute Harry was bound for New York. Everything else since then was simply a montage of their decline.

Unsurprisingly, Harry didn’t come home that night after his art show wrapped up. A few days passed, and Louis actually enjoyed the silence. He felt like he could breathe again. It shouldn’t be that way with someone you loved. He knew that, but the implications were too daunting to think about now. Or ever.

He just wanted to have a calm bowl of cereal before work.

Then the lock sounded on the front door. It swung slowly open and Harry stood there, cheeks ruddy from the cold. He didn’t see Louis at first, too busy reaching back into the hall for his tripod. When he stood up straight, finally, their eyes met.

Harry dropped his gaze. He placed his rucksack and the tripod on the ground, and his camera on the table by the door. He pulled his hat off, ran his fingers through his short hair. He looked at Louis again.

“Hi.”

Louis slid his cereal bowl onto the coffee table. “Hi.”

“Can we talk?” Harry asked.

“Have to leave for work in a bit,” Louis said. “But, yeah, let’s talk.”

Harry ventured closer, looking like he was walking a plank. He reached into the pocket of his leather jacket and pulled a dark blue box free. With an unsteady hand, he set the box down on the table. Louis’ heart fell into his stomach.

“This isn't how I wanted to do this,” Harry began, looking down at his feet as he spoke. “This isn't what I planned, but I also didn't see us here. You hardly look me in the eyes anymore. You hardly touch me. Sometimes I genuinely think you hate me and I don't know how we got here.”

At first, Louis wanted to write the notion off as absurd, but he realized he'd felt the same -- that they'd grown to hate each other to a degree, which didn’t explain what he thought was happening now.

“I don't want to lose you,” Harry said. “I can't imagine my life without you, even now when things are such a mess. I still want all the same things that we used to talk about. A family. Pets. But before all that, a wedding.”

Louis shook his head. “Don't do it, Harry.”

“I want to hear you tell me no,” Harry said. “I'm going to ask you this question and I want you to look me in the eyes and say no to me.”

Louis put his face in his hands. “Please don't.” He heard the soft thud of Harry's knees hitting the floor. “Harry, please—”

“Marry me,” Harry said. “I'm asking you to marry me. And come with me to New York. I don't want a long engagement. I want the fastest simplest wedding we can have. All I’m asking is that you please marry me.”

Louis curled over, forehead to his knees. His heart ached. He felt so utterly broken. So devastated in a moment that should have been happy and bright. How could you listen to the one you love say those words and feel so empty?

“I can't.”

“Look at me,” Harry said, his voice like gravel.

Louis dried his face with his T-shirt and met Harry's gaze. “I can't marry you. We’re not ready for this. I don't know when or if we’ll ever be. I can't. I'm sorry.”

“Come to New York with me then,” Harry pleaded. “Please let's fix this.”

“I can't,” Louis said.

“Then you want me to leave without you?” Harry asked. “You want me to leave now when we’re like this?”

“Maybe that's for the best.”

Harry covered his face with his hands. “Damn it, Louis. Don't do this to me.”

“I’m sorry,” Louis said.

Harry set his hands on Louis’ knees. “Please don't do this.”

Louis tried to stand. Harry’s hands slid to his hips and held tight. He curled his arms around Louis’ waist and refused to release him while Louis pushed weakly at his chest. Harry buried his face in Louis’ neck.

“I love you. Please come with me.”

“And then what?” Louis snapped. “What the fuck is there for me in New York? You want to get married? What comes next, huh? A house we can't afford? Kids we can't afford? What the fuck do you want from me at this point? What more do you want?”

“We can start over,” Harry said. He sat on his haunches. His face was tear-streaked and blotchy. Louis wanted to kiss the bright red patches of skin and wipe the saline trails from beneath his eyes. He did neither.

“You’re not being realistic,” Louis said with a minute shake of his head. “Starting over won't fix our problems. We’ll still have them in New York, only then it'll probably be too late to turn back.”

“You won't even give us the chance.”

“How are you not tired of this?” Louis asked. “Of me?”

“I am,” Harry said easily. “But I still can't let you go.”

Louis stood. “You're gonna have to. I need to go to work.”

Harry let him walk to the door, grab his keys and his coat.

“Louis, if you leave now, I won't have any choice.”

They had no choice no matter what they did. They’d worn each other out. They’d fallen not completely out of love, but enough that their bleak future seemed clear. They’d been tested and they’d failed.

Louis understood, even if Harry didn't.

His hands trembled like Harry’s had, but he gripped the door knob firmly, pulled the door open and left.

+

January and February had been fine.

Harry moved his things out over the next week in preparation for his departure to New York. He came with his sister and they threw as much of his clothes into a suitcase as they could. Gemma begrudgingly asked Louis to ship the rest and Louis did so the very next day, gathering all of Harry’s knick knacks into boxes, shipping them off. Harry left for New York before they could reach him.

Louis was fine.

Fashion Week approached and passed swiftly. It was true that he had brief random moments where he missed him, particularly on Harry’s birthday, but he refused to ask their mutual friends about him or check his social media.

So, even then, Louis was fine.

There wasn’t a clear point where he started to not be fine. It seemed like one day he was getting on through life, and the next he was struggling to get out of bed. He saw a picture of Harry one day in an email sent from their university. ‘Alumni Updates’, it was titled. Louis should have known. There was just a small blurb on Harry included. He was smiling in the picture. He was radiant and Louis was devastated.

He was in Tesco one afternoon buying ice cream and brought Harry’s favorite instead of his own. He’d sent all of Harry’s records away but he looked the tracks up on Spotify and listened to them one evening while trying not to cry. He cried. The first time it happened he found one of Harry’s old jumpers forgotten under the bed. A soft baby blue one that Harry had bought because it reminded him of Louis’ eyes. It’s not correct to say Louis cried. He sobbed. He wheezed. Fetal position, hiccups, snot for days, the works.

That was in April.

In May, Louis finally caved and asked Zayn about him. ‘He’s doing alright, yeah?’ he’d said quietly. And Zayn had answered him with the full rundown that he knew Louis truly wanted. Harry was doing fine. He had another assignment. There was no shortage of work for him in New York, and he was subletting a flat there with a friend of Arturo’s. Hearing the man’s name made bile rise in his throat. He was a bit drunk at the time already. To no one’s surprise, he threw up.

In June, Louis was fine again. He even went on a date with a single dad whose daughter went to the daycare. He even brought that date home. He made it as far as a drunken snog and then asked the man rather rudely to leave. (He apologized via text the next morning.)

In July, he ‘stumbled upon’ a video on Harry’s Instagram of him singing karaoke in a pub in fucking Toronto. He was a little tipsy. His face was flushed. He was singing a Weezer song. ‘Put Me Back Together’, which he’d sung for Louis once before. ‘I’m a mess since you left’ , he sang raspily, and again Louis cried. Then he rang Zayn, and cried some more.

Later in July, he released that Harry had left the engagement ring behind. Hidden by a stack of magazines and one of Poppy's toys. He left the ring where it was and cried. Ate. Showered. Fell asleep. All while crying.

In August, Harry sent a birthday card for Lottie. It arrived while Louis was visiting home. Everyone had looked at him furtively, had gone so quiet Louis could hear the blood rushing in his ears. He’d left the table, locked himself in his childhood room, and cried.

In September, Louis forgot to feed Poppy and cried. ‘ This is why he left me ’, he’d told her. ‘ Soon you’ll leave me too ’. He got a bit of snot on her and so it was no surprise that she scurried away from him.

In October, Harry came home for his mum’s birthday. Louis saw him at the bar where Zayn worked the following day, having a drink with some friends from uni. They saw each other. Harry smiled. Louis’ eyes burned as if he’d poured his whiskey sour straight into them. He managed something of a smile in return and then he’d left to cry in his car.

In November, he quit his job at the daycare and didn’t worry too much about money because he had enough in his savings and hardly ever went out. Zayn and Liam worried about him, but he couldn’t care. He couldn’t get out of bed. Life was bleak. Louis was definitely, absolutely, not fine.

And now, somehow, in what should be December (or January, by now), he finds himself here, in an alternate dimension, shopping for plants with the boy he’d been sobbing over for months.

The thing is, though, right now, Harry is surrounded by dozens of rose bushes at a local nursery, and Louis can’t stop to feel sorry about how this year has turned out when he looks this beautiful. Roses suit him well.

“Do I have something on my face?” Harry asks, tucking a tendril of hair behind his ear.

Louis shakes his head. “Nope. I was just thinking with that shirt you've got on, sort of looking like a rose yourself.” He gives a little wiggle of his brows afterwards. “How's that for a pick-up line?”

Harry’s lips twitch. “Effective,” he says. “Like I imagine it would be on someone you were actually trying to, you know, pick up.”

Louis’ brows furrow. “Right.”

Harry looks away. “So I'm thinking lots of red roses and some pink. But I’d like for the red to be a little pink too, not dark red.”

“Got it,” Louis says.

“And I'd like some greenery too. Some shrubs, some topiaries. But I think the focus should really be on the roses,” Harry says, turning to him. “What do you think?”

Louis thinks--or knows, really--that he loves the way the excitement lights Harry’s eyes. “I think you’ve got a good solid plan for a proper rose garden.”

Harry smiles. “Good.” He nods. “Maybe I’ll even throw in a bubbling white fountain too.”

Louis rolls his eyes. “Very posh. When do I get to visit this palace of yours?” he asks. “Haven't even invited me over for tea.”

“I'm still unpacking! There are boxes everywhere. It's not really presentable for guests just yet.”

“Sure. I think you’re hiding something,” Louis says, narrowing his eyes. “You’ll have to have me over to plant the roses eventually. Best to fess up now.”

“I’m hiring a landscaper to do that,” Harry says.

Louis slaps his hand against his chest. “Excuse me?”

“It's going to be a lot of work, Louis. Not just with planting but actually preparing the grounds too. It's not really been cultivated and what not. New soil has to be brought in. It's a lot.”

“Are you actually just trying to get rid of me?”

Harry’s eyes widen slightly. “Never.” He says it too earnestly.

Louis’ skin tingles with warmth. It does that a lot around Harry. Too often, Louis would even say. “That was a joke, H.”

“I know,” Harry says petulantly. He’s pouting a bit. “But just so you know-- You’re hard to forget.”

Internally, Louis whimpers. Loudly, he snorts. “Trying to beat me at my own game. Trying to make me swoon and all that, yeah?”

Harry smiles, shoving his hands into his pockets. “Me? No.” His dimple, when it appears, could kill a man.

Louis looks at him for a second too long, the same second in which Harry begins to look skittish. Quickly, they direct their gazes elsewhere.

They obviously haven't talked about the party or its aftermath. There hasn't been a moment to and even if there was, where would Louis even begin?

Quite a boner you had the other night, huh? Care to explain?

Absolutely not.

“Let’s take a look at those ones over there,” Louis says. “Seem like the right color.” He turns away. Harry follows.

+

Harry takes him for burgers afterwards, as in Louis grabs the food while Harry hides away in his car. And that's where they eat too, in the front and passenger seat with the tinted windows raised. They take extra precautions by parking on a relatively deserted street.

“Can’t have a repeat of last time,” Harry says, checking their surroundings again. He finds Louis looking at him and must feel compelled to explain. “If I get papped with you twice, people will start to wonder who you are.”

“You mean they're not already?” Louis asks, sounding as offended as he feels.

“Not enough,” Harry says. “If enough people start to wonder, they’ll actually find out who you are.”

“How exciting,” Louis says, smiling. “Maybe they'll even think I'm your lover.”

Harry looks at him. Then he looks away. “You think they would?”

Louis lifts his brows, thrown by the serious edge to the question. “I was joking,” he says with an awkward chuckle. “Your sense of humors‘ not really up for it today.”

Harry's got the angry caterpillar brows going on. “Just wondering.”

Louis doesn't know what to say at all. He’s constantly worried about exposing himself, constantly having to school his answer into one appropriate for this Harry. He still has the knee-jerk reaction to respond the way he would to his Harry. Of course they would , he wants to say. We’ve only been dating for four years.

He takes a bite of his burger in lieu of any response. Harry’s eyes drift to him again.

“If you’re not going to eat your burger,” Louis says. “Just pass it on over.”

That earns him a soft laugh. Harry takes a big bite of his burger and smiles as he chews. “Think I'm good,” he says, voice muffled. A morsel of food falls from his mouth.

Louis can't decide whether to cringe or laugh. “Think I've lost my appetite.”

+

The sun has nearly set when they make it back to Louis’ flat, and it's not that Louis wants to get away from Harry. He’d be happy enough to spend all night with him. He just thinks Harry might actually need the time to himself.

He’s caught Harry looking at him more than ten times at least, and not to smile or pull a funny face. He just looks. So intensely Louis can feel the heat of his gaze boring holes into his temples. And whenever Louis catches him, he looks away.

He’s been chewing his lip, and Louis knows from his own dimension that he does so when he’s in deep thought. He’s not singing along to the Coldplay song on the radio. Sometimes he has moments where he makes a joke or laughs. But they’re few and far between.

When they pull up to Louis’ flat, he thinks even he feels relieved, although he’d still gladly spend more time with Harry if offered. That doesn’t seem to be happening tonight. He reaches for his door handle, turning to say ‘bye’ when Harry pushes his door open and climbs out.

Louis watches him walk around the front of the car and wait there on the pavement for him. Slowly, Louis climbs out.

“Did you need to use the loo?” he asks, confusedly.

“No,” Harry says, gnawing on his lip.

Louis starts toward the steps to his front door. Harry follows him.

“Did you just want to come in for a bit?” Louis asks.

Harry shrugs, then shakes his head. “No, just-- I’m walking you to your door.”

Louis freezes, staring at him.

“Like in a friendly way,” Harry says. “I don’t mean anything particular by it. Just thought it’d be nice, from one friend to another.”

Louis never wants to hear the word ‘friend’ again.

“Alright then,” he says, taking the steps quickly. Perhaps he’s a little annoyed. He doesn’t say anything to Harry as he unlocks his door. It’s like he overstepped at some point and this all is Harry trying to fix things, trying to be kind to Louis so it won’t sting as much when he starts to distance himself. How odd that he would be the one to distance himself at all. In another dimension, that was Louis’ move.

What happened at the party freaked Harry out and now he has to drive the point home that they’re just friends, that’s all they’ll ever be.

Louis tells himself that it's the insecurity talking. He thinks about how much it’s cost him in the past to allow anxiety into his relationship, regardless of how it looks. He doesn’t want to bid Harry goodnight and walk away with his dignity somewhat intact. He doesn’t care about his dignity at all right now.

He turns to face Harry, which from the look on his face appears to startle him.

“If this is getting weird for you, me and you being friends or something-- If I'm being clingy or if you just need time to yourself, just tell me,” Louis says. “I'd rather you tell me so that I know to back off.”

Harry’s eyes widen. “No,” he says. “That's not-- it's not you. It's me.”

“Literally sounds like you're breaking up with me,” Louis says with an incredulous breathy laugh. Is it possible to lose two Harry’s in two separate dimensions when he's not even dating one?

Harry presses his hands to his face. “If we were somehow dating, the answer would still be no. I'm saying that it's not your fault that I'm being weird. I know I'm being weird. But it isn't you. It's just me.”

Louis gets that. He still thinks it has to do with what happened at the party, and so in a way, it might be a little about him. But who really knows? “Well, do you want to talk about it?”

Harry chews his bottom lip.

Louis reaches out and takes his hand. He rubs his thumb across Harry’s palm.

“If there's something you need to talk about,” Louis begins. “You know I'm here for you.”

Harry looks at their joined hands. He brushes his thumb across the back of Louis’ hand just once and then pulls away. “I’ll be fine,” he says. “Maybe I just need some sleep.”

“We’re still on for tomorrow, yeah?” Louis asks.

“Tomorrow is good.” Harry pauses there, just staring at Louis like he has a million things to say. He settles on just one. “Bye.”

And turns away.

+

An article comes out the next morning about Harry and some girl. Louis doesn’t bother learning her name. He doesn’t bother doing much of anything that day, except lying on his mattress, hoping Harry will call. He doesn’t call, although, around five, he sends a message. With an address.

Laying low today, he says. Meet me here?

Louis would typically fix himself up a bit, but he’s exhausted this morning. He once again feels defeated about this universe he’s landed himself in. He pulls on a pair of joggers and a beanie and heads to the address Harry sent him.

It turns out to be Harry’s illustrious, somewhat quaint home. It’ll look lovely with a rose garden. Louis comes bearing a gift, which he lifts when Harry answers the door.

“What is that ?” Harry asks.

“It’s my gardening kit,” Louis says. “You said you didn’t have one.”

“Right,” Harry says. He’s not looking at the gardening bag, though. He’s looking at Louis. “You look...nice.”

Louis looks down himself. He huffs a laugh, ignoring his ridiculous propensity for blushing. “Thanks, I guess.”

Harry just looks at him, smiling a bit, but not enough. He’s doing the fidgety thing again. Several days later and it seems impossible to get him to loosen up.

“There’s also--” Louis deposits the bag in Harry’s arms and turns back to grab the potted rose he set on the ground. “This.”

Harry’s mouth drops open. “What is this ?”

“It's one of the ones I had home. It's yours now. I figured we could plant it outside. Make it the first addition to your garden.”

Harry looks at the small bright red roses. “They're beautiful,” he says, touching one of the flowers. “I love it. Thank you so much.”

“You're welcome,” Louis says. “Now, are you going to let me in?”

Harry steps back quickly. “Sorry, yes. Please come in.”  

Louis steps around him. He doesn't think he's very close but their arms brush. He swears he hears Harry draw a tiny breath. It happens quickly. It's over before it's really begun.

“Lead the way?” Louis asks, adjusting his fringe so he has something to do.

“Right,” Harry says. Fidgets. “Follow me.”

It’s jarring how shy and nervous he seems. Louis has never known any Harry to be shy for any reason. When he’d met Louis' family, he’d been exactly himself. When he’d walked the stage at graduation. When they moved in together. It was like nothing ever fazed him.

Louis doesn’t know what his coming out was like emotionally. Harry said one day he wandered onto some gay porn and judging by the speed at which his cock reacted, he came to the appropriate conclusions. Louis doesn’t know if he was afraid. He makes a note to ask him when he makes it home.

The point is that he doesn’t know how to navigate this, like so much else about this universe.

The backyard is massive, green and verdant but bare. Louis can picture the potted plants and flower beds when they’re all set up, even the white fountain too.

“Let’s pick a good spot,” he says.

Harry’s pink lips twist as he thinks and scans the yard. “Maybe here by the door,” he says.

Louis looks down and his brows furrow. “We’re going to need soil, H,” he says.

“I thought you were leaving it in the pot,” Harry says.

“No, I’m teaching you how to garden,” Louis explains. “Can’t learn if I leave it in the pot. How about by that tree there?”

“Think that should work,” Harry decides after some thought.

“Good,” Louis says, and heads on over. They sit cross-legged by the tree, bathed in shade. It’s a much cooler day than the rest have been. There’s a soft breeze that teases the ends of Harry’s hair. He’s wearing a lavender jumper. He looks at Louis and then down at his hands in his lap.

“So where do we start?” he asks and looks up again. The color of his eyes is Louis’ favorite shade of green.

Louis gets his little shovel out from the bag. “Do you have a hose?”

“Yeah, one that came with the place,” Harry says, nodding toward a corner of the house. “I’ll get it.” He comes back a second late with a green hose, which he drops to the ground beside Louis.

“Get the ground damp,” Louis instructs.

Harry does as told, soaking the earth down at the foot of the tree. “Good?”

“Good,” Louis says, pushing his shovel into the soil. He starts digging.

“Could I help?” Harry asks, kneeling beside him.

“Sure. There’s a pick in there too, I think,” Louis says.

Harry rummages around in Louis’ bag and withdraws the pick, which looks like an L with a forked end. He drives it into the earth and they both work to get the soil loose.

“So, why are you laying low exactly?”

Harry shrugs. “Lots of articles about me and Paige Rivaler or something. I keep forgetting her name.”

“Was it her? Thought we were talking about a different blonde.”

“I actually like brunettes. My team doesn’t care what I like, though, really,” Harry says. “But technically, you’re right, yeah. I'm supposed to have cheated on Paige with this girl I met at a party, the one who’s in the paper today.”

“Right. Another stunt, of course?”

“Always another stunt,” Harry says. “And I just don't feel like dealing with other people today.”

“I'm here.”

“Yeah, but you're different,” Harry says. “I don’t mind you.””

“How generous,” Louis says snippily, in spite of all his blushing. Gently he pulls the rose from its pot. “I need you to take the soil in the pot now and toss it into that spot we just dug.”

“Got it,” Harry says, lifting the pot.

Louis sets the plant into the hole when Harry’s finished. Together they pat the earth down.

“A bit more water,” Louis says, and Harry grabs the hose, gives the rose a sprinkling of water.

‘Looks beautiful,” Harry says.

“Very,” Louis agrees. “You can keep that tool bag. I have another one at home.” He brushes the dirt off his hands. “I know you’ve been stressed lately. Gardening really helps.”

Harry smiles. “Thank you,” he says. “I appreciate you being here too. That also helps.”

“Well, good,” Louis says. “That’s my whole goal.”

Harry looks at him a bit too intensely, like he can’t seem to stop doing, and Louis breaks his gaze away first, dropping his hands in his lap. 

“You know, I do think we should talk about whatever’s troubling you--” he says. “I know it’s none of my business but I think you need someone to talk to. I know with being famous, it must be hard to be completely honest with everyone. But I’m here and I won’t judge you regardless of what it is.”

Harry looks at him intently. “I don’t know how to explain.”

“Best thing you can do is try,” Louis says, shrugging. “Only if you want to.”

Harry sighs, dragging his hands down his face, which leaves one cheek lightly dusted with soil. He doesn't seem to care. “Being who I am, it's difficult to really be anything outside the norm. I've gotten away with a lot but there are things that would be difficult for me to say or do.”

“You don't have to worry about that with me. You know that,” Louis says.

“It's not so much what I want to say…” And his eyes flicker to Louis' mouth for an infinitesimal second. Louis nearly misses it. “But what I want to do.”

Louis feels like he's wearing a tie that he's put on too tight. If he did, this is the moment when he would loosen it. He's not wearing a tie. His neck feels just as constricted.

“--what I've been thinking about doing for a week,” Harry says, pushing his hands through his hair.

“And what's that?”

“I can't say,” Harry says, his shoulders sinking. “And I can't do. And that's probably for the best because none of it makes sense.”

“And you can't say or do because of that reason? Or because you don't know how? Or because of who you are?”

“All three,” Harry says.

Louis nods. “Got it.” He drums his fingers on his knee, thinking up a response to an invisible question. “Well, I think that sometimes things take time to make complete sense. You just have to be patient with them. And when that time comes, then I think you'll know what to do.”

“Very vague,” Harry says.

“That's your fault, not mine,” Louis says, grinning. Harry's eyes linger on him again.

“In response to you not doing something because of who are you, I say fuck that,” Louis says. “And be who you want to be. And yeah maybe some things might not benefit your public image, but you don't have to make them public. Not until you're ready.”

They stare at each other, both on the same page even if they don't say so plainly.

“Thank you,” Harry says. “You're a good friend.”

Louis doesn't wince internally this time. “I know.”

“And I'm sure, a great secret lover too.”

Louis narrows his eyes. “Thank you? Really random for you to say.” He gives Harry a nudge with his elbow. “Is the position open?”

Harry’s Adam’s apple bounces. He picks up a pebble and tosses it away. “Maybe I'm taking applications.”

“Hm, good to know,” Louis says. “I'll have mine in by tomorrow.”

Harry smiles, still without looking at Louis. “No need. Position’s yours.”

“That easy, huh?”

“Just about.”

And then he lifts his head and looks at Louis. His eyes are so green. So reminiscent of the earth when glanced at from above. Louis feels like doing something stupid. He doesn't know how much longer he can resist. He lifts one hand to Harry’s cheek and brushes the dirt away.

“Got a little something…”

Harry looks at his mouth again and it'd be so easy to lean in. So incredibly easy... Louis feels himself teetering close.

And so he lifts his other hand, covered in drying mud, and drags it down Harry’s opposite cheek.

Harry’s mouth drops open.

Louis sputters. “Gorgeous.”

Quickly, Harry plunks his hand down into the mushy earth, lifts a muddy hand into the air and splays his fingers out on Louis’ cheek, dragging his hand down to his neck. Louis reaches for the hose. Harry is right on his trail. His fingers wrap tightly around Louis’ wrist. He laughs victoriously as he wrenches the hose out of Louis’ grasp. They’re both laughing, faces muddy, hands grappling.

Somehow, Harry manages to pin him and Louis goes pliant. All his bones and muscles turn soft beneath Harry. He knows that this is how he’ll get the upper hand -- by feigning defeat and then attacking unannounced. So that’s what he’s preparing himself to do, only once he’s there beneath Harry, he doesn’t want to leave.

Harry’s laughter fades completely. He stares down at Louis, eyes round and bright and searching. Once again, Louis feels like he’s teetering, even though he’s lying down and gravity is on his side. Somehow still he feels like he’s falling forward.

He stops thinking.

He and Harry’s faces are close enough that if he tilts his chin up, their lips will brush. Louis tilts his chin up. Their mouths slide together like dew drops on tree leaves. Harry’s lips are dry but soft and warm. Louis has a hard time forcing himself to draw back.

Harry opens his eyes and stares at him, or Louis’ mouth rather. He’s breathing heavily. His face is flushed. He loosens his grip on Louis’ wrist. Louis pulls his hands free and spreads them on Harry’s back.

“It’s okay,” he says. “It’s just me.”

Harry starts to shake his head. “That’s the problem,” he says. “You’re not just anything.”

Louis rubs Harry’s back from his shoulder blades to his lower back, urging him downward. He lifts his head again for another kiss, one that Harry grants him after only a second of hesitation. It’s good. It’s always good with Harry. It’s the newness of it that gets to him. It’s how similar this kiss feels to their very first. Tentative lips and quick, nervous breaths that first time on the couch. This kiss takes him back there, to an easier time, a time when Harry wasn’t running in the other direction.

“I can't do this, Louis,” he says, drawing back. “I don't even know what this is.”

“You don't have to,” Louis says quickly. It’s a little selfish of him, but he can’t help it. There’s no time for extensive explanations when Harry looks ready to bolt. He takes Harry’s hand in his. “Just touch me.” He remembers how Harry had done this years ago, how easily he'd cast his spell. Louis recites the same one now. “Put your hands on me.”

Louis wants so much so badly. He’s desperate for it. His lips tingle. His fingers ache. He wants them tangled in Harry’s curls. He wants his chest pressed to Harry’s own. Their bodies close. Hearts somehow closer. He’s so sick and tired of being apart from him in every possible way.

“It’s okay,” Louis says again, setting Harry’s hand on his chest.

Harry sinks his teeth into his own bottom lip. With his free hand, Louis pulls his lip free. He leans up again, sealing their mouths together. Harry groans softly, sinking down onto his forearm, flattening himself atop Louis’ body. He’s heavy and solid. Louis lifts his legs, wrapping them around his hips.

Harry breaks the kiss again. “Haven't stopped thinking about you for days,” he says. “Not since the party. Not since you undressed for me--”

“Wasn't just for you,” Louis mumbles.

“It was. You were looking right at me. You touched me, and I felt it, more than I've felt anything with anyone. It’s crazy. You’re crazy. I'm ruined.”

Louis kisses his jaw, where the mole is that he loves. “Should I say sorry?”

“No,” Harry says with a minute shake of his head. “I don’t want to ruin this. I like what we have already. It's good.”

“You’re not ruining anything. You're much more than a best mate to me, Harry.” A soul mate, that's what he is but Louis obviously doesn't say so. Not to this Harry. Not right now. “We can still just be friends if that's what you want, but that’s not what I want.”

“I don’t know what this is,” Harry says again. “If I’m gay or what--”

“Doesn’t matter right now,” Louis says. “I’m telling you I want you. Do you want me?”

Harry traces Louis’ lips with his gaze. “I do.”

“Good.” Louis cups his face with both hands. “I know you're scared, but you don't have to run from me.”

“I won't run,” Harry says. “I’m not running, I promise.”

“Me neither,” Louis says, and he means that in every dimension where it makes any sense. He doesn’t want to run anymore. He wants what he wants, even if it seems impossible.

“We’re not running anymore,” Harry assures him. Still, there's a pause when he leans in, a slight second of hesitation. Louis cracks it open. He lets all that fear and anxiety spill out between them. He welcomes Harry to do the same. He kisses him with all those emotions laid bare and the kiss turns wild.

“Let’s go inside,” Louis says, drawing back.

Harry chases his mouth. His hair is disheveled from Louis' fingers, his eyes have turned glassy. The need is written all over him, unexpected and unfamiliar as it is. Between them, he's hard but not attempting to hide it like he had at the party. "What happens inside?" he asks, eyes searching Louis' for answers before he even has time to process the question.

Louis lets his head fall back against the grass. "Whatever you want to happen. Whatever you're ready for."

"Don't know what that is," Harry says. "Or if I'm ready for any of this."

"It's a little hard to be prepared for me, I know," Louis says. "I'm naturally overwhelming."

Harry looks at his mouth. "You're so chatty. Such a busy mouth."

"But you like it, don't you?" Louis asks. He tilts his chin up, kissing Harry's jaw. "You like me."

"I do," Harry says, quietly.

"We don't have to do anything you aren't ready for," Louis says. "You know that, yeah?"

"Yeah," Harry says. A pause. "Let's go inside."

So they stand. Harry links their fingers together and leads Louis back into the house and to his massive room. The bed is large, covered in white fluffy linens. Louis pushes him down onto the mattress and climbs atop him. They kiss again. Their tongues meet, dance, chase.

Without really thinking, Louis grinds his hips downward. Harry groans into his mouth and then breaks away for a deep breath.

"This is crazy," he says. "Think I'm close."

"You want to come?" Louis asks. "I can help you with that."

Harry licks his lips, his eyes dropping to Louis' crotch. "I've seen--" He begins and then stops abruptly.

Louis runs his thumb across Harry's dimple. "You've seen what, kitten?"

"You don't really call all your friends that, do you?"

Louis laughs. "No."

"Good," Harry says firmly. He swallows, his Adam's apple jumping visibly. "I've seen another man with, you know, a stiffy before." (Louis snorts.) "More than one actually. The boys in the band-- When we're all on the tour bus, sometimes you see things. And I've never-- I don't know. I don't know if I've ever felt like this."

Louis' lips twitch. "Like what?"

"Like I want to see," Harry says. "And touch."

Heat--more heat--rushes to Louis' groin. "You want to touch?"

"Yes," Harry says, whisper soft.

Louis pulls off his shirt first. Harry's fingertips brush his hip and play with his waistband.

Slowly, Louis pushes his joggers down, just enough to expose his pants. "Are you sure?"

Harry only manages a nod this time. Louis pushes the pants down too and wraps a hand around the now exposed, flushed length of his cock.

Harry licks his top lip and swallows again. "Would you--? I want to see all of you."

Louis shoves his joggers and pants down his legs completely. He kicks them off. "Just me?"

Harry's eyes leave Louis' dick reluctantly. He gives a small shake of his head and reaches for his shirt. He lifts it off and reaches for his waistband, unbuttoning his jeans. Louis helps him, pulling the jeans down the length of his long legs. He goes for the waistband of his pants next, pausing to receive a nod from Harry. He pulls them off too.

Louis settles between Harry's legs again and every part of their bodies is touching, including their mouths.

"Can I touch?" Harry asks.

With another kiss, Louis says, "Yeah." Harry reaches between them and tentatively brushes his fingers over the tip of Louis' cock. Louis touches his hand, positions his fingers around the whole girth of his dick. "Like that."

Harry strokes him once, watching Louis' face intently.

"That's good," Louis says patiently. Every instinct screams at him to fuck Harry's fist. His hips practically itch to thrust, but he refrains. He looks between them to watch Harry stroke him again and at the same time, catches sight of Harry's cockhead glistening wet.

"Louis," Harry says, his voice unsteady.

"Hm?"

"I think I might be really gay," Harry says.

Louis huffs a laugh. "What on earth makes you think that?"

Harry smiles. "I told you I liked sex, and I do, but it's never felt like this. I've never felt like this and you're not even touching me."

"I can fix that," Louis says, kissing Harry's throat and his collarbones. He runs his fingers down his waist and hip and then wraps his hand around Harry's cock, giving him a squeeze. He speaks over Harry's loud answering groan, "You don't need to know exactly whether you're gay or bisexual or whatever. Not right now. Not until one feels right to you." He shifts, positioning himself more comfortably, pushing Harry's legs apart with his free hand. "Right now, you just have to think about coming. Want you to come all over my fist. So I can lick us both clean."

Harry squeezes his eyes shut. "So close."

"I know you are, baby," Louis says, thumbing Harry's slit. "Now show me."

Harry pushes his hips upward, pushes his cock through Louis' fist. He comes within the next second, spilling over Louis' fist, wetting his abs and Louis' abs. He shakes through his orgasm, his eyes shut, mouth open. Louis strokes him until he knows he's finished and then he wraps his own sticky hand around himself.

"Let me," Harry pants, pushing Louis' hand away. He starts to stroke him again. "I can do this much."

Louis tucks his face away in the bend of Harry's neck. "Doing good too."

"It's the more difficult things I've got no clue about," Harry says. "Like sucking you off. Will you teach me?"

Jesus. Louis groans as Harry rubs the head of his cock and sucks Louis' earlobe into his mouth. He's a fast learner, at least when it comes to working a man over. "Yes," says Louis, or moans, actually.

"And the fucking. You'll have to show me that too. I'll be tight, yeah? You'll have to take your time."

"Fuck, Harry--" Louis' voice crackles. He bites into his own bottom lip and then bites Harry's shoulder instead. Harry hisses softly.

"I think I want that," Harry says breathlessly. "I want you."

Then I'm yours, Louis wants to say but can't. Not because the laws of the universe might prevent him from doing so. He doesn't give a fuck about that. He doesn't say because right then, all the righteous, euphoric pressure building in his body crescendos, and he comes. His whole body locks up as the pleasure overwhelms him. He sinks atop Harry's body, still caught in the high.

"Thank you," Harry murmurs, kissing his shoulder. "Best gay experience ever."

"You've got nothing to compare it to," Louis says, laughing.

Harry grins. "Still the best."

+

In the hazy glow of moonlight flooding Harry’s bedroom, it’s difficult to make out the figure hovering by the door at first. But Louis blinks several times and sits upright and finally Niall comes into focus.

“You two make a lovely picture,” he says.

Louis glances at Harry, who’s still fast asleep, lying on his stomach. It’s been so long since Louis woke up beside him like this, he almost tells Niall to piss off. But he figures if Niall is here, there’s a reason why. He even thinks he might know it already.

He pushes the duvet off his body. His feet meet the floor and he stands, strolling quietly closer. He urges Niall onto the balcony and pulls the door closed.

“I hope you weren’t snapping pictures of us sleeping,” Louis says.

“Of course not,” Niall says. “Just of you. You looked like an angel.”

Louis narrows his eyes, crosses his arms.

“I’ve come to escort you home,” Niall says. “Figured it was the least I could do.”

Louis shakes his head. “I only just-- It’s too soon now.”

“Too soon to get back to your own Harry?”

Louis can’t answer that, but the truth is that it’s never too soon. He’s more than ready to be back where he belongs, and yet… “What about this one?”

“He’ll be fine.”

“You’ve gotta give me more than that, Niall. Enough with the half-arsed answers. I love him, both of them. I’m not leaving him if it means he’ll be heartbroken.” Louis curls his fists, taking a strong stance. “What happens if I leave?”

Niall rubs his scruffy chin and sighs. “I hate this job,” he says. “Nothing happens, except that he won’t remember some interactions. But a version of you will still exist in this world. The consciousness that belongs here has been lying dormant for some time. When you leave, he’ll wake up. It’ll be as if nothing happened.”

“Some interactions?” Louis repeats.

Niall sighs again. “He might not remember you.”

“Are you fucking joking?” Louis says. “Absolutely not--”

“Louis, the Time Clock--”

“Fuck the bloody Time Clock,” Louis says. “You’re not going to drag me away from him until I know that he’ll be alright.”

“He’ll be alright,” Niall says, listing his hand into the air as if he’s about to recite a pledge. “But you need to get home as soon as possible.”

“Why?”

Niall props his hands on his hips and says gravely, “Would you like to see for yourself? Then you can decide if you’d like more time here.”

If Louis finds that all is well in his own dimension, maybe he can even stay here and see Harry through some of the harsher aspects of his sexuality. He could get to know the intimate side of this Harry. He could show him what it’s like to actually be with someone.

“Buckle in tight,” Niall says, snapping his pocket watch closed. In the same instant, Louis’ head spins. The room turns technicolor with bright spots waxing and waning all over. He feels like he’s been tossed into the inner workings of a kaleidoscope. He can make out faint images here and there.

“Let’s check in on your mum, first,” Niall says, and then Louis is reeling forward, being sucked into an image. He hears the whirring of wheels close by and turns just in time to see a nurse, pushing a cart toward him. There’s no time to move out of her way. She barrels right into him, only there’s no pain. There’s no clatter. She barrels through him as if he’s not even there.

“It’s already been too long.”

Louis turns when he hears his mother’s voice. She’s standing a few feet away. Beside her is Lottie with an arm around her waist. And in front of them is a doctor in a white lab coat.

“He wouldn’t have wanted this,” his mum says. “That’s what he said years ago. I never want to be a vegetable. Louis was-- He's an active person. He likes football. He likes to go out. He wouldn’t want this.”

“I understand you’re in a difficult position here,” the doctor says. “This is obviously not easy for anyone. Especially with the boyfriend involved as well.”

His mum nods. “Yes, that does complicate things.”

“But since they weren’t married, ultimately, the final decision will come down to you and your family,” the doctor says. “Take as much time as you need.”

“Thank you, Dr. Dorsey,” his mum says, exhaling an unsteady breath. She waits until the doctor turns away before she turns to Lottie. Her face crumbles for a second, but she stops herself, pressing a hand to her lips. She draws a breath. “I have to talk to Harry.”

“Tomorrow, mum,” Lottie says. “Let’s head home for tonight.”

Louis turns to Niall who’s standing beside him. “What is this?" he asks. "Are you telling me I’m dying or something?”

“Essentially,” Niall says. “Although it doesn’t have to be that way. Let’s go visit Harry.”

Again the room spins. Again there are the bright colors. Louis is a bit more prepared for it this time but still jarred and nauseated by the journey. And this time, when he comes to, he finds himself in a hospital room.

The person on the hospital bed is himself.

He looks relatively the same, if not a little frail. His eyes are shut. Louis is starting to suspect they've been that way for a while. He's snapped from his trance by the sound of a sharp sniffle, and there Harry is. He has one of Louis’ hands folded up in his own as he looks at him with eyes lined by dark circles.

"How did this happen?" Louis asks Niall. "What happened to me?"

"You were hit by a car on Christmas Eve," Niall says. "Miraculously enough, you didn't sustain fatal injuries, but with your consciousness elsewhere, it's impossible for you to wake up here. Your doctors call you a medical mystery."

Louis looks at him with more questions ready, but he doesn't get the chance to voice them,

“Louis,” Harry says. He leans forward and props his arms atop the bed. “I know you can hear me, Lou. I hope you can.” His lips tremble. “You know they’re trying to take you away from me. You’ve been asleep for too long now and they’re trying to take you away from me. And I need you to come back now because I can’t-- I don’t want to live without you again. I don't even know how.”

When he blinks, the tears drop freely.

“I shouldn’t have left you,” he says. “Wasted so much time. I should have come back when my work was finished. I don’t know-- Maybe I should have insisted you come with me. Should have sat in your lap or at your feet until you agreed. Maybe we wouldn’t be here now. I don’t know”--he pushes a hand into his hair--”I’m losing my mind thinking about what could have been, what could have happened differently, what I did wrong.”

Louis wants to reach out and tell him ‘Nothing’. He knows what will happen before he does it, but he tries to touch Harry anyway, tries to set a hand on his shoulder. His incorporeal fingers pass right through him.

Harry lifts his head and stares at Louis.

“I can still feel you sometimes,” he says with a weak smile. “I know you’re still here with me, baby. I know you can hear me. Maybe you can’t make your way back to me”--he chokes on a sob--”And that’s alright. If you need to let go, it’s alright.” He presses a wet kiss to the back of Louis’ hand and rests his head on the mattress. Tears run across the bridge of his nose. “I don’t know how to live without you. I don’t know what to do if you’re gone. If there’s no hope of having you back. I only just got you back...”

He’s quiet for a long time. Louis nearly tells Niall to get him out of here. His eyes are wet too, and he can’t see Harry this way. He swore he’d never hurt him again, didn't he?

“You’re so beautiful,” Harry murmurs. “I remember the first time I saw you, I stared for so long a girl nearby took notice. And she said to me, ‘I think he’s single. And gay.’” He laughs tearfully. “All I really wanted at first was just your picture. And then I had that and wanted you. I’ve always wanted you so badly. I always will. You’re the greatest person in the world. So brilliant and funny and kind. You’re so good. I’m always impressed with you. Always a little in awe that you ever wanted me back.”

He kisses Louis’ hand again, and his face crumbles.

“I still want to marry you,” he says. “I still want a future with you. I want you to come back, so we can work things out. Please come back to me. I love you.” He leans closer now, torso against Louis’. He brushes his thumb across Louis’ cheek. “I love you so much.” He kisses his mouth, and then again. Kisses his cheek. He buries his face in Louis’ neck and cries harder than Louis has ever seen before. “Please come back to me.”

“That’s enough,” Louis tells Niall. “Get me out of here.”

“It gets better,” Niall says.

Louis turns to him, eyes flashing with anger. He reaches for the front of Niall’s shirt with both hands. He’s pleased to find that his fingers can curl in the boy’s shirt and he yanks him forward.

“This is not a fucking joke, mate,” he begins. He’s seething, never more angry than right now.

“I’m not laughing,” Niall says calmly, setting a hand atop Louis’. “Easy, Lou. Not a joke this time, I promise. Just look.”

The room spins once again. Louis’ hands fall away from Niall’s shirt. The room refocuses, although it’s still the same one. Louis is still lying in a hospital bed, all wired up, surrounded by beeping animated machines. The hospital door opens and Harry slips inside, a small smile growing on his face.

He removes his leather camera case from across shoulders and sets it down. He pulls a baseball cap from atop his hair and runs his fingers through the short strands. He kisses Louis’ forehead, brushing his fringe away from his eyes. “Good morning,” he says, mouth still pressed to Louis’ skin.

Finally, with a sigh, he sinks into the chair by Louis’ bed.

“I brought something for you,” he says, reaching into his back pocket. “Got this letter in the post yesterday. It's from...Aaron Bastable”--he says his name highly--”of the European Space Agency. Turns out you applied for work there. I wish you’d told me, but I understand why you didn’t. Why you couldn’t.” He gives him another tiny smile. “Anyway, this letter-- I'm going to read it to you.”

He unfolds it and smooths the paper out against his thigh. He sits forwards, resting his elbows on the hospital mattress. “Dear Mr. Tomlinson, As ESA’s Special Projects Director, I’d like to thank you for your interest in working with us and for submitting your extensive research to us for review.” An upward shrug of his brows. He starts to grin as he reads on, “We are pleased to announce...that you’ve been offered a position with our US team in New Jersey.” Harry glances at Louis. “New Jersey, as in very close to New York, he means.” His lips twitch. “We understand the stress that relocation demands. Should you decide to accept the position, full financial support will, of course, be extended to you. A decision such as this one also requires time, so take the next four weeks to respond. Best of luck to you. Sincerely, Aaron.”

Harry looks at him. He’s quiet for a minute, just smiling. “This is the part where you wake up and we jump all around the room and on the bed. And then we get the fuck out of here and grab a bottle of champagne. And I fill the bath for us at home. We kiss and fuck and order pizza. And we’re happy.”

He tilts his head back, letting sudden tears run down the sides of his face. “It kills me that we could be so happy and yet we won't be.” He wipes his eyes. “Your mum made the decision this morning. This is your last week with me. And so I don’t want to spend it crying. I want to share happy things with you. You got an amazing job. Liam is working some high-profile gig and he met someone. He’s keeping her a secret because he doesn’t want to jinx anything. Zayn is coming to terms with all this. He said to me yesterday that he wants to open his own pub. And name it after you.

“Your mum and the girls are doing alright. As alright as they can be right now, but I’ll take care of them. Poppy misses you. She sleeps in your spot on the bed. I’m planning to get a new tattoo. Something about you like almost all of them are. You’ve touched so many people here. You’re an incredible person, Louis Tomlinson, and I’m so happy--” He cries. He said he wouldn’t but it can’t be helped. “I’m so happy to have met you. And I will always be happy for that. And I will always, always love you.”

He gives himself another minute, just looking at Louis. He wipes his face again and sets the envelope on the table where all of Louis’ flowers are. He stands and kisses Louis' mouth just once this time. He hovers for a moment, both hands jammed into his pockets. With a small nod and an exhale, he leaves.

+

There’s not much of a decision to be made after all that. And there's hardly any time left for Louis to do anything. Time moves much faster in his own dimension than this one. As Louis had requested of her years ago in an offhand comment, his mum is pulling the plugs keeping him alive. By the end of the week, Harry had said. But for Louis in this universe that could only be a few minutes.

And so, he needs to say goodbye to this Harry quickly. He doesn’t know if he'll even remember this when Louis is gone, but Louis has to say something. He loves this Harry too. This one who is so similar and yet so different from his own. He’s fallen in love with him too.

When he’s back in Harry’s bedroom, still shaken up from his trip home, he can’t find the right words. He starts to wake Harry but he can’t think of what to say to him. Nothing sounds right in his head. After getting Harry to open up to him, how can he leave him like this? Without knowing what happens next for him?

“I can’t do this,” Louis says. He knows Niall is hovering nearby. He turns his head slightly and sure enough, he’s a few paces behind him, leaning against the wall.

“There’s no time left. You have to.”

“I mean, say goodbye,” Louis says. “How am I supposed to say goodbye to him?”

“You’ll still exist here. It’s not a goodbye.”

“Will he forget everything that happened between us? Will it be like we never met?”

Niall hesitates. “The Harry and Louis of this dimension are meant to be together. You’re soulmates. That’s how it works. You meeting this Harry and connecting with him was more for your sake. If you leave and Harry forgets you, there’s still the Louis here that he will eventually cross paths with him.”

Louis shakes his head. “This is such bullshit.”

“I’m going to have to agree,” Niall says, with a glance up at the sky and a disappointed shake of his head meant for his supervisors. “The important thing is that you’ve proven your love in not one, but two dimensions. You’ve done what you needed to do. The fact is that this Harry isn’t yours. He belongs to the Louis that’s waiting to come back here. And you belong to the Harry who’s waiting for you.”

Louis shuts his eyes. “Just give me a second.”

“I’ll be on the balcony,” Niall tells him.

Louis sinks onto the mattress. He runs a hand through Harry’s long curly hair and then buries his nose in the locks. He presses a kiss to Harry’s cheek.

“I love you,” Louis murmurs. “Harry Styles of One Direction. I love you very much.”

Harry’s eyes flutter open. Louis sits back and away from him.

“I’m sorry," he says quickly.

“What did you say?” Harry asks, and then, “Say it again.”

Louis starts to shake his head. “I didn’t mean to.”

“Say it again,” Harry tells him.

“I love you,” Louis says easily. Harry just stares at him. Louis thinks this might be a good time now to leave, but he promised not to run anymore. “I know that seems impossible with us only knowing each for a short time, but it’s just the truth.”

Harry’s gaze travels all over Louis’ face. “You’re in love with me?”

“Yes.”

“No one’s ever been in love with me before,” Harry says softly.

“No one’s quite as brilliant as me,” Louis says, grinning.

Harry laughs, his smile bright and wide. He reaches for Louis’ hand. “I don’t know if I can say the same yet, but I can get there if you give me time. If we take things slowly.”

At first, Louis struggles to make that promise. But then he remembers what Niall had said. Eventually, in this world, this Harry and the Louis who belongs here will find each other and fall in love. That’s a promise.

“Take as much time as you need,” Louis says.

Harry leans forward, propping his head on Louis’ shoulder. “I feel so good with you,” he says quietly. He runs his hand up and down Louis’ arm. He presses a kiss to Louis’ jaw and then his mouth. “I might already be halfway there.”

They look at each other. Harry’s lips twitch. He shuffles down into his bed, reaching for Louis’ arm. “Come cuddle with me,” he says, tugging him close.

Louis goes easily, slipping under the covers with him. Harry’s arm slips around his waist. His chest is strong and warm. Louis can feel his heartbeat. He never wants to leave, but this is also waiting for him back home.

“I have to leave,” he says. “There’s something I need to do.”

Harry’s brows crease. “Now?”

“Yes, before it’s too late,” Louis says, pulling away from him. He kisses him firmly on the mouth. “I’ll see you really soon, though.”

Harry stares at him. “Are you alright? It feels like you’re saying goodbye.”

“I’m not, I promise. I love you,” Louis says. “It’s not goodbye. It’s never goodbye. You’re everything I want, Harry. You’re so important to me. And I want to make you happy.” He says it to this Harry but he means it for the other one too. “You can do and be whoever you want and I’ll support you and love you, I promise.”

Harry smiles. “I think I could probably conquer the world then,” he says. "Me and you both."

“Definitely,” Louis says. He sees a shadow passing by the balcony and imagines Niall is pacing, getting nervous because his window of opportunity is closing. Louis stands, brushing his hand across Harry’s cheek. He leans in to kiss his forehead.

“See you soon,” he says.

Harry nods, his eyes shutting for the second that Louis’ lips touch him. “See you soon,” he replies. He watches him collecting his clothes and pulling them on. He watches him move toward the door. Louis waves once and blows him a kiss. Slowly, he pulls the door closed.

Niall doesn’t give him a chance to get much farther than that. He’s suddenly in the living room. He grabs Louis’ hand and the room spins, fuzzes, fades.

It’s a spectacle of the impossible, the now fading into nothingness. One second Louis is standing in Harry’s home and then he’s nowhere at all. Everything is dark.

“Open your eyes,” he hears. This voice sounds like Niall’s.

Even now, he’s not too keen on listening to Niall’s instructions. He swears he’ll do as he says, open his eyes and find himself on the inside of a casket. He opens them anyway. He opens them slowly because he has to, feels like they’ve been glued together in some places.

His other senses trickle back slowly. Like his hearing. He picks up the steady beep of a machine. His sense of touch. He feels the sheets against his arms and legs. He feels the warmth of someone’s hand in his own. He moves his head to the side and sees Harry, his head against the hospital bed, his eyes shut.

Slowly, Louis lifts his other hand, turning his body as little as he can manage. He runs his fingers through Harry’s short hair. “Hi, love,” he tries to say, but his throat is dry as stone and feels like it’s breaking.

And then Harry opens his eyes and they lock with Louis’.

Harry must think he’s dreaming. He exhales a tiny breath, shuts his eyes again and turns his head.

“Ouch,” Louis says, voice croaking.

Harry turns back, his eyes wide. His hand squeezes Louis' own as if to prove to himself that he's real and he's here.

“Do I look that bad?” Louis asks, hoarsely.

Harry releases this heavy breath like it’s being torn out of him. “Oh my God,” he breathes. His eyes fill quickly with tears. He stands, moving closer. “Oh my God. Louis--”

Louis smiles.

Harry presses a hand to his mouth and then he’s crying, full-on sobbing. He buries his face in Louis’ neck and cries forever. “I’m not dreaming,” he says, as his hand moves across Louis’ cheek and his chest. “Tell me I’m not dreaming.”

Louis would love to, except he really thinks his throat is falling apart.

“Water,” he croaks.

Harry stands upright. “I’m sorry,” he says, reaching for the pitcher on the bedside table with shaking fingers. He pours a cup and adds a straw, extending it to Louis carefully. His face is damp and his nose is shiny and red. Louis wraps his lips around the straw and drinks deeply while he looks at Harry. When he’s finished Harry places the cup down and looks at him.

“I thought--” He begins.

Louis shakes his head. “You were wrong and you’re not dreaming.”

Harry begins to cry yet again. “I should get your mum. She’s in the hall.”

“Not just yet,” Louis says. “I want to say something to you. I have to say this now.”

Harry dries his eyes with the hem of his T-shirt. “Okay.”

“I love you, and you’re the best thing to ever happen to me. I won't ever run from you again and I won’t let you run from me either. I'm not the best at working out my problems. I know that. But all this has proved-- Everything we’ve been through in the past year has proved that I want to work them out with you. I want to wake up after dark points in my life and see you the way I see you now.”

Louis lifts a weak hand to Harry’s face. Harry shuts his eyes, pushes his cheek against Louis’ palm.

“We've got a lot of shit to talk about,” Louis says. “And we’re going to talk about all of it.”

Harry nods. Tears have formed at the seam of his closed lids. He presses them into Louis’ skin too. He grasps the back of Louis’ hand and kisses his palm, his wrist. “I'm not going anywhere,” he says, voice rough but strong. He rests his head on Louis’ stomach. “We’ve got time.”

“Plenty,” Louis says as he slides his fingers through Harry’s hair. They’re quiet for a while just like that, and then Harry begins to hum, the sound vibrating softly against Louis’ stomach like a kitten’s purr.

Louis runs a short tuft of Harry’s hair between two fingers. “Hey, love.”

Harry turns his head, lifts his brows.

Louis grins. “You ever considered growing your hair out? Like to shoulder length, maybe?”

+

"Hey," Harry says, appearing in the doorway. He rests his head against the frame. "Was thinking pizza tonight for dinner. Sound good?"

Louis stuffs another jumper into his suitcase and smiles. "Pizza sounds great, love. Thank you."

Harry lifts his head, his smile dissipating. His eyes fall to Louis' chest and widen a bit. Louis glances down at himself and freezes.

Right.

He doesn't bother to tuck the ring, strung on a silver chain he bought recently, back into his shirt. It's too late to hide it now and it isn't like he wants to. "Uh," he begins, licking his lips. "Just thought I'd start wearing this."

Harry lifts his brows. "Just because?" he asks with a small twitch of his lips. "You thought you'd wear an engagement ring just because?"

Louis gives him a look. "Oh, shut up and come here." He beckons him with a tilt of his head. "Let's talk."

Harry nods and takes a seat beside him on the bedroom floor, folding his legs together. Their knees brush. Louis takes his hand, sliding their palms together, holding tightly. They've been doing this a lot in the past month, initiating random heart-to-hearts. They talk a lot and they talk about everything, even the most difficult and most cringeworthy things. About insecurity and fear and doubt. About happy things too. About how excited they both are to move. How different New York will be.

Harry's eyes are on the ring.

Louis takes a breath. "I still don't think we're ready for marriage. Not just yet."

Harry looks at him. "Okay."

"But I think someday soon, possibly very soon, we will be," Louis says.

Harry smiles and tucks a lock of his hair behind his ear. He's been letting it grow the past month. It's still short, especially at the back but long enough in the front to brush his earlobes or get into his eyes. "I agree."

"But I still want to keep your ring close because it's important to me," Louis says. "Really, really important."

Harry's cheeks have gone a little pink. He leans forward for a kiss, which Louis gives him easily. Harry rests his head against his shoulder, allowing Louis to run his fingers through his hair and cup the back of his head.

"When the time comes, I'll take it off the chain and I'll wear it. And I'll give you your own ring too."

Harry slips his arm around Louis' waist. "I can't wait," he says breathily, sounding overwhelmed. "I love you, Louis."

"I love you too," Louis says. "So, pizza. Are we making or buying?"

Harry sits upright. "Buying. All the packing has worn me out. Maybe we'll christen our new place with a pizza party and make everything ourselves then."

"Just us two," Louis says.

"And Poppy."

"If you insist," Louis mumbles.

Harry laughs and pushes him away, standing to his feet. "It looks good on you, my ring."

It's Louis' turn to blush now. He looks away. "Everything looks good on me."

"Very true," Harry says, leaning forward for another kiss. "Hawaiian?"

They kiss again. "Sounds perfect," Louis says.

+

Of all the things to forget while packing, Louis somehow leaves his vibrator. He's so exhausted by this point and so eager to be on the flight to New York already that he nearly just leaves it. They're running late as is.

"It's the rainbow one?" Harry asks.

"Yeah," Louis says, buckling his seat belt. "I can just buy another one. It's fine."

"With five speeds?" Harry asks incredulously. "And the ribbing?"

Louis looks at him. "Were you going to tell me you've been using my dildo regularly?"

Harry starts to grin. "You use mine all the time," he says. "Please get it, Lou. I really like that one."

Louis thumps his head on the headrest. With a sigh, he unbuckles his seatbelt.

Harry places a hand on his knee. "If you're too tired, I'll go."

"It's alright. I'll be quick," Louis says, pushing the car door open. "Keep the car running."

"Will do," Harry says, pushing his sunnies onto his face.

It's a good thing they haven't turned in their keys and Louis can still get back inside. The apartment is completely unnervingly empty. All their memories, good and bad, appear to be gone. Louis heads to their room and into the cupboard. On the top shelf, tucked away in the corner is his toy box. Popping it open, he finds the rainbow vibrator, a collar he and Harry sometimes share, and a slew of other gadgets. Louis would have regretted leaving them.

"Quite a collection you've got there."

Louis freezes. He never thought he'd hear that voice again. He turns slowly and he's still a little surprised to find Niall standing there in the center of what used to be his bedroom. He looks exactly the same except brunette.

"I really hope you're not here to whisk me off somewhere," Louis says. "I have a plane to catch."

Niall waves the thought off. "Of course not. Unless you want to go for a trip? Never had someone to surf dimensions with me before."

"Maybe another time," Louis says with a laugh. Niall smiles. Louis smiles back. He's a little surprised as well to find there's no animosity here. He would never ask Niall to grant a wish of his again, not even if he were on the toilet and he needed another roll of paper, not even if he were hungover and needed water. He knows better. But he also knows that the opportunity Niall gave him to traverse dimensions, to fall in love with Harry all over again, was priceless, and he surprisingly feels grateful.

"So?" Louis says. "What can I do for you?"

"The better question," Niall says, "is what can I do for you?"

He looks at him knowingly. Louis chews his bottom lip as he tries to work the jumble in his head into one cohesive question.

"How is he?" he asks.

Niall nods. "He's doing very well," he says. "When your consciousness left that world, the body stayed. So Louis in that dimension woke up in bed next to Harry the next morning. They're under the impression that they got to talking at a party. For the past two weeks, Harry's been coming to terms with his sexuality. But he's also falling in love too quickly. His opinion, not mine, and thinks the world of you."

Louis grins, his skin heating and tingling. "That's good to hear."

"They're going to be really happy," Niall says. "Just like you and yours."

"I hope so," Louis says. He and Niall smile at each other again in a moment that is unbearably sappy and warm. "Thank you, mate."

"Happy to help, Lou," Niall says. He opens his arms. "We might as well hug."

Louis scrunches his nose. "I don't know..."

"Come 'ere," Niall says, drawing close.

Louis shrugs and gives the lad a hug as best as he can cradling his box of sex toys. They pat each other's backs a few times before separating. "Harry's waiting for me in the car. I better get going."

"Have a safe flight," Niall says. "Don't use those things onboard."

Louis looks down at his box and snorts. "I'll try to resist the urge to," he says with a roll of his eyes. "See you, Niall." He pauses. "I will see you, yeah? This isn't the last time, is it?"

Niall laughs. "Not a chance. We're friends now. You'll see me soon enough."

Louis might come to regret that. For now, he simply smiles. "Looking forward to it," he says and then he heads to the front door.

He wants to ask if he'd ever see Harry of One Direction again, but he thinks the answer is probably no. He misses him horribly, daily. That's the truth. But he's happy knowing Harry is happy too.

Louis' future is set on a course in this world with this Harry and that will always be enough. He opens the door, steps out, and hurries to him.

Chapter Text

The flat is dark save for the TV’s glow and moonlight sliding in between a space in the curtains. It’s a modestly sized home in a part of Brooklyn called Park Slope and even with their sparse but growing decor, it’s cosy. On the couch is Harry curled up with a blanket over his torso. Poppy is at his feet, folded up and seemingly limbless.

Louis sets his bag down and hangs his coat and scarf up. He pushes his shoes off on his way over to the couch. He’ll have to remember to pick them up later. Harry always makes a fuss when he inevitably trips over them.

Carefully he joins him, slipping into the space between Harry’s back and the couch. He slides his arm around his waist, presses his face into his hair.

“I want details.”

“You're supposed to be asleep,” Louis replies.

“Not with you clunking in here like a horse,” Harry says. He turns over, meeting Louis’ gaze. “Hi.”

Louis leans in and kisses him, pressing his thumb into his dimple. “Hi.”

“Details,” Harry insists. “How are your coworkers? And your office—”

“It’s more like a cubicle.”

Harry gives him a look.

“The finest cubicle there ever was,” Louis amends.

Harry smiles. “What about your boss?”

“I’ve got more than one. They’re all great so far. Except Kevin. Seems like he could be a bit of a dick.”

“There's always one.”

“Always,” Louis agrees. “My cubicle is nice. It’s by a window, so there’s lots of light. Close to the labs and the kitchen. A bit far from the loo.”

“Careful not to piss yourself on the job.”

Louis pinches his nipple. “Not a bed-wetter like you.”

Harry flicks him on the nose and Louis flicks him back and they dissolve into a small scale tickle fight before Harry huffs loudly. “Enough. Tell me about your coworkers, your team.”

“They’re great too. Brilliant, really. I thought I knew my shit—and I mean, I do —but they’re all geniuses.”

“I’ve always been attracted to your humility,” Harry says.

Louis laughs. “Just saying.”

Harry brushes a tendril of hair away from Louis’ eye. “So it’s all good so far?”

“All good,” Louis says. “It was nice of them to treat me to drinks afterwards too. Although, my mind was elsewhere.”

“Like…?”

“Here,” Louis says. “With you.”

Harry wrinkles his nose and Louis does the same. “You’re sweet. I made lasagna for dinner.”

“My favorite,” Louis says. “I’m sorry I couldn't be here sooner.”

“Don’t be,” Harry says, his voice much softer, his mouth closer. Louis only has to lean in a bit. He kisses him again, sliding his hand into Harry’s hair. The curls touch the base of his neck now and he seems to like it that way, gives Louis something to hold onto.

“So proud of you,” Harry murmurs, cupping Louis’ face in his hands. “My space boy in the making.”

“I’m not going to space, Harry.”

“I can dream,” Harry says, kissing him quiet. “Have we had sex on this couch yet?”

Louis’ brows crease. “I think it’s still on the list.”

Harry tsks. “I think it’s time to cross it off. First day of astronaut training? That warrants sex on our new couch.”

“I’m not training to be an astronaut, Harry.”

“Fuck me,” Harry says.

Louis laughs. “You're so ridiculous,” he says, his smile soft. He kisses him. Never gets tired of kissing him. Especially after a long day. These days, being with Harry is equivalent to resting. Time away from him, by contrast, is exhausting.

The first press of their tongues has them shifting around, repositioning themselves so that Louis can settle between Harry’s legs, so that Harry can push his hands up beneath his top.

“Remember how we use to keep a set of condoms and lube beneath the couch?” Louis asks.

Harry groans. “Such a good idea.”

“We’ll have to start doing that again,” Louis says, dropping another kiss on Harry’s mouth. “I’ll be right back.”

He’s quick about getting what they need and returning to him. Harry has his shirt off already, which Louis would normally protest but they’re in a hurry. Not because they have anywhere to be or anything to do, but because they’re needy.

It’s better to not break up at all. Plenty of people don’t come back from it. He and Harry nearly didn’t. It’s stressful and it hurts and the scars never quite go away.

But it’s got to be the soulmate thing for them. It’s got to be the fact that their paths in life are crisscrossed and tied that makes this all work. Or it's the whole dimension travel thing mixed with the nearly dying thing. But they’re stronger now than ever. More attuned to one another. More honest, more passionate.

Eventually, maybe things will go back to normal, but they look for every opportunity to be affectionate these days. They take comfort in each other when things are tough, when they miss their families or when New York has bruised them in some way. They kiss like a new couple but know each other's mouths like they've been kissing forever. They fuck like each snap and roll of their hips means I love you and you're mine.

Harry grabs his camera off the coffee table before he’s even caught his breath, before the come smeared on his abs has dried. He documents everything now. First time cooking in their new kitchen. First time taking a bath together in their new tub. First of Poppy’s hair balls collected from around the house. First plant Louis brought home. First time fucking on their new couch.

“I love this couch,” Harry says from his perch in Louis’ lap, his camera aimed downward. The shutter sounds.

“It's a great couch,” Louis says, stroking Harry’s bare thighs, the soft hair slightly damp with sweat.

Harry runs his fingers through Louis’ hair, reshaping it or ruining it further. He takes another picture. “I love you.”

Louis smiles, just as Harry's camera sounds again. “I love you too.” He reaches for the camera. “My turn.”

+

Louis wakes in the backseat of an Addison Lee. Or he opens his eyes rather. There’s no grogginess or disorientation like he’d have if he'd just woken up. He has full awareness the moment his eyes open. One minute he was half-naked in bed with Harry and now, suddenly, he’s not.

He looks through the windows and knows he’s not in New York anymore. It’s nighttime in London, the streets still populated with people, street lamps and stop lights glowing. He catches sight of bleached blond hair from the other corner of his eye and squeezes his eyes shut, digs his nails into his palms. This has to be a dream. It doesn’t feel like a dream, but it has to be. He can still hear the boy beside him talking to the cabbie and then…talking to him.

“You’re not trying to wake yourself up, are you?” Niall says as the car swings onto the road.

Louis meets his gaze, his own eyes wide. “Fucking hell…”

“Not gonna work.” Niall laughs. “‘Cause you’re not dreaming.”

“No,” Louis breathes. “No, no, no—”

“Relax,” Niall says. “Just a short trip this time, I promise. I'll have you back in time for work.”

Louis doesn’t believe him. There are several reasons why he shouldn’t. ‘Just make this wish and you’ll have Harry back’ being the most notable example. But he doesn’t want to piss off the Fates either. He feels like he’s treading on glass. Best to play it cool until he knows the stakes.

“Just won't get any sleep then, you mean?” Louis says. “Perfect for my second day on the job.”

“You know I thought you'd be happier about the chance to see your popstar,” Niall says. “But I guess I was wrong.”

Louis quiets. He watches the smile grow on Niall’s face. “You’re taking me to see Harry?” Louis asks, his voice tentative. “One Direction Harry?”

“I’m doing you a favor,” Niall says. “Thought you might appreciate it more.”

Louis sits back in his seat, lets his shoulders relax, tries to play it cool. He wrings his fingers together and dries his palms on his jeans. “Is he alright?”

“You’ll have to see for yourself,” Niall says. And again Louis knows he shouldn’t trust him, but he takes comfort in the smile on Niall’s face. “Anyway, your body in your dimension is still sound asleep. When you get back, you’ll feel fine.”

“As long as I’m not in a coma,” Louis says and Niall has the audacity to laugh.

+

When the car finally stops, they’re parked beside a large house with a white exterior and its many windows all aglow with warm yellowish light. There are several cars parked in the drive and along the kerb. The last time Louis was here, he was planting a rose in the garden, planting kisses on Harry’s mouth, saying goodbye.

Niall pops his car door open and thanks the cabbie, who turns and gives him a polite smile, tells him to have a goodnight. Louis thanks the man as well, but he doesn’t so much as look at him. Odd.

Louis steps out behind Niall and waits for his next move.

“Follow me,” Niall says, pushing through the black iron gate door and veering to the left.

“Are we breaking in?” Louis hisses.

“That’d be stupid. Louis in this dimension has a key.”

Louis’ heart stutters. He has a key to Harry’s home. That shouldn’t feel like a personal victory but it does. Niall walks them around the side of the house and to the backyard and Louis comes to a halt.

There are roses everywhere. In fairy-lighted trellises, climbing towards the roof. In flower beds. In taller shrubs and shorter ones. There's a path through an ornate garden lined by roses. At its center is a bubbling stone fountain and a small white bench.

“It’s beautiful,” Louis says.

“Oh, yeah. They love to show it off too,” Niall says. ‘Come here.”

Louis steps into a flood of light from the glass-paned back doors and nearly ducks back into the shadow before Niall grabs his arm.

“They can’t see you,” Niall says. “No one can. Your physical body is where you left it. And the body of the Louis in this dimension…”

He doesn’t have to say any more than that. The Louis of this dimension is straight ahead of them. Through the glass doors and windows lining the back of the house, there’s a party in full-swing. And there’s an exact likeness of Louis, dressed in a rich dark red shirt, his hair styled, his smile enormous. He’s chatting with someone, holding a drink in one hand.

It’s weird. Louis used to want a twin growing up. He was happy enough being the one and only Louis Tomlinson, but picture how much mischief he could get up to if there were two of him. Looking at another version of himself is jarring but feels almost like having the twin he never did.

Also, he’s looking great in this dimension, he must say.

There are people all over the house. Louis starts looking for the only one who actually matters. He thinks he catches a glimpse and steps a bit closer, trying to see past other heads.

And there, he is.

Stepping from another room of the house, holding a big fluffy black dog in his arms is Harry. His hair is still as long as Louis remembers. His smile still as bright. He sets the dog down, running a hand over his fluffy ears. And moves into the kitchen, beside Louis. He slides his arm around his waist with ease and familiarity and props his chin on Louis’ shoulder.

“This is weird,” Louis says to Niall. “I almost feel jealous.”

Niall huffs a laugh. “That’s fair.”

One of their friends makes a joke and Harry and Louis laugh in the most coupley way they can manage, all folded over one another.

He's definitely jealous.

“I miss him,” he confesses quietly. “Is it wrong to miss him as much as I do?”

“I don't think so.”

They stand there in silence for a bit, just watching.

“Does Harry throw parties like this regularly?” Louis asks. “Just because?”

“No. They’re celebrating,” Niall says.

Louis looks at him. “Celebrating what?’

“Guess.”

Louis sighs. Of course, he’d make a game of it. Louis looks at the house again, trying to find a banner or something that would give the answer away, but there’s nothing. “They’re moving in together?” he asks.

Niall snorts. “They did that after six months of dating.”

Louis’ eyes widen. “Jesus. Didn't waste time, did they?”

Niall’s brows shoot upwards. “Are you surprised ?”

Not really, no.

He and his Harry moved quickly too. They wanted everything as soon as they could get it.

It makes even more sense now that Louis has a key. This is their home. That’s their dog lying at Louis’ feet. And these are their guests.

“I don’t know,” Louis says, wracking his brain, looking at all the guests, trying to place faces. “Is it something related to the band? New album, maybe?”

“No,” Niall says. “The answer is right in front of you.”

Louis looks at Harry and Louis again. They’re not chatting with the other guests anymore. They’re chatting with each other, swaying to some music that Louis, standing outside, can only hear faintly. Harry has his left hand cupped over the back of Louis’ neck. Stray light catches on all the rings adorning his fingers. Louis notices one in particular and can’t look away. There, on his ring finger, is an engagement ring.

“Holy shit.”

Niall grins.

“They’re getting married ?”

“In December,” Niall says. “Something small and private before Harry comes out in the spring. That’s the plan, anyway.”

Louis just stares at them, watches how they curl around each other, how Harry rests his head on Louis’ shoulder and seems content to just stay there. There are a few guests looking at them and they must see it too. How obvious it all is. How in love they are.

There are tears prickling Louis’ eyes. He needs a deep breath, his nostrils flaring, lashes blinking rapidly.

“It’s okay to cry,” Niall says.

Louis sniffs. “Not crying.”

“You did, though,” Niall says. “After proposing, you cried like a baby. I’ve got pictures on my phone. Want to see?”

“No.”

“I’ll send them to you.”

Louis ignores that. “How did I do it?”

“We’d just finished up the first half of our tour so you and Harry went on holiday. You'd only been dating for a year then, but you were stupid in love, and you said ‘Let's get married’ and Harry said ‘Okay.’ He came back to London with a ring on his finger.”

“That’s not how I said it,” Louis says.

“That’s exactly how you said it.”

Louis shakes his head. “I think I would have gone with something more poetic.”

“And yet you didn’t,” Niall says.

If he could, Louis would have a talk with himself in this world, tell him to step it up for the wedding vows at least.

He finally spots Zayn and Liam in attendance at the party as well, and some of his family members, some of Harry’s family too. He spots Ed Sheeran and Cara Delevingne and Harry’s friend, Nick. A few other celebrities.

“We should probably get back in there, yeah?” Niall says. “I’m obviously late.”

“We?” Louis asks.

Niall smiles. “Didn’t bring you here just to stare through a window.” He snaps his fingers. Instinctively, Louis squeezes his eyes shut. The music is suddenly louder. The air is cooler. There’s someone in his arms.

Louis opens his eyes.

He’s inside now, inside the home and inside this Louis. He’s tangible and corporeal, and he can feel Harry’s fingers on the back of his neck, can smell his hair and his faint cologne. He feels the rushing of blood in his chest, the gazes of their guests.

“Harry,” he says.

“Hm?” Harry hums.

Louis doesn’t even know what he planned to say. He’s thought of this Harry every day since he left him, but there's so much that can't be said or explained. It’s been odd, loving two versions of the same person, loving their complexities. This Harry is a bit wilder, more carefree. Maybe being a wealthy entertainer has allowed him to be that way. His Harry is absolutely more mature, although as of late, they’re trying to resurrect their youthfulness and breathe life into the parts of their relationship that had been starved -- the silliness and playfulness, in particular.

Right now, his mind is stuck on how ridiculous it is that this Harry and Louis got engaged before he and his Harry, but Louis gets it. These two haven’t gone through a rough patch. They haven't had to worry about money or building a life or taking off. And because they haven't fallen apart, they're not putting pieces back together. They’ve only just gotten started. They hit the ground running.

And maybe it's wrong of him to think so, but it makes being here feel a bit like a holiday.

Harry pulls back a bit so that he can look Louis in the eye. His smile is soft. “Are you alright?”

Louis meets his gaze and his mind blanks again. “You’re gorgeous.”

Harry’s dimples deepen. “So are you,” he says, leaning in. He presses a kiss to his lips. “Seriously, though, are you alright?”

“Yeah,” Louis says. Sometimes Harry’s gaze is too intense. He can’t think when he looks at him like that. He looks at his hands on Harry’s hips instead. “I’m just thinking about how you actually want to marry me.”

Harry laughs. “You sound surprised.”

“I am a little bit, yeah,” Louis says. “It feels like a dream. That you want this with me, you know?”

“I can’t think of anything I want more,” Harry says, and then he narrows his eyes. “Are you having second thoughts?”

“No,” Louis says quickly. “Never. This is the only thing I want.”

Harry runs his fingers over the back of Louis' neck, the touch so gentle it almost tickles. “I know it’s all happened really fast. Sometimes I can’t believe it either. But I’m happy. I’ve never been this happy. And if we're dreaming, I hope we never wake up.”

They lean in at the same time, their lips curved with smiles as they kiss. Louis speaks into his ear. “Come with me for a second.” He takes Harry’s hand. They try to be discreet about escaping to their room. Louis catches Niall’s gaze and the devious smirk on his lips. He flips him a bird before he's out of sight.

Harry kisses him as soon as the bedroom door is shut. They kiss deeply, panting in the spaces when their lips aren’t together.

“Can’t wait until tonight?” Harry asks, his hands sliding over Louis’ bum.

The prospect of spreading Harry out on their bed is beyond tempting. In this world, they're fiancés and that calls for celebratory sex. But also this isn't Louis’ world. Not technically. And remarkably, he feels wrong for taking up more time than he needs.

“No, I think I'd rather make you hold out,” Louis says, kissing him again, in the slow, lazy way he knows Harry likes.

“You're just getting me all worked up then?” Harry asks, kissing his way from Louis’ jaw to his ear, pulling his earlobe into his mouth.

“Jesus,” Louis breathes. “I just wanted a second alone with you.”

“You have me,” Harry says, resting his head back against the door.

“Let’s go outside for a bit,” Louis says. “I feel like we don't spend enough time in the garden.”

“We had breakfast out there this morning.”

Louis rolls his eyes. Of course they did. He gets the feeling that Harry and Louis in this world are an annoyingly perfect couple and he'd love tips on how they manage that. “There's just never enough time with you and the roses.”

Harry laughs, taking Louis’ hand. Louis walks him over to the glass doors of their bedroom, which lead to the garden and they step outside, warm summer air settling on them. Louis takes a seat on the bench, pulling Harry down with him. He kisses the back of his hand, and rests their joined hands in his lap, and studies the ring.

“You’ve gotten so pensive all of a sudden,” Harry says.

“It’s all just hitting me, I guess,” Louis says, tilting his head back and staring at the sky. “I get to call you my husband soon enough. That’s all I’ve wanted for years.”

Harry's brows crease. “Hasn’t even been two years for us.”

“Right, yeah.” Louis clears his throat. “You know how I exaggerate.”

“Right,” Harry says with a laugh. “Does feel like it’s been much longer. Like I’ve known you forever.”

“Same here, kitten.”

Harry rests his head on Louis’ shoulder again. Across the yard, through the glass doors, Louis makes eye contact with Niall, who taps his wrist. Out of time already. Louis rests his head atop Harry’s and squeezes his hand.

“I love you,” he says. “I wish I could explain how much.”

“I think I know already,” Harry says. He lifts his head, looking Louis in the eye. “You can’t explain it because it’s unexplainable. Feels magical. And like it’s powerful enough to change reality or cross dimensions or something like that.”

“Something like that, yeah,” Louis says, smiling.

“I feel the same,” Harry says, cupping Louis’ face. “I love you just as much.”

When Harry kisses him, Louis melts. And not in the way a really romantic kiss will cause a person to melt. His consciousness just slips away and suddenly, he’s not touching Harry anymore. He’s standing outside again as Harry and his Louis walk back into the house hand-in-hand.

Niall steps outside moments later, hands jammed into his pockets. “Ready to go?” he asks.

“Do I have to just yet?”

Niall shrugs. “We’ve got some time to kill.” He faces the house with Louis again. “Was it a mistake to bring you here? Did it help at all?”

“Definitely not a mistake,” Louis says, watching as Harry and Louis are swept up by their friends. Time for presents, it seems. “You know, I’ve got this ring for Harry back home. Because I’ve been wanting to propose for the past month or so. And all I've done is second-guess myself since. And here these two are, completely fearless, just charging into things. I’m jealous of that. It feels so effortless here. It feels so easy to be reckless and brave, even when I know it isn’t.”

Louis takes a deep breath.

“I love my Harry. I have history with him. I have a good life with him. And I want us to be this happy too.”

Niall smiles, wide and boyish. “Ready to go then?”

“Yeah,” Louis says, smiling. “I’m ready to go.”

+

It’s around five when he finally hears the heavy thump of Harry’s boots outside the door. Louis lifts his feet off the coffee table and sits forward, bracing his arms atop his knees. Poppy appears from some crevice, hopping up onto the couch, and Louis puts her back on the floor.

“Not now,” he says, ignoring the glare she shoots him.

The lock sounds and the door swings open.

Harry enters all bundled up, a green beanie atop his head, a thick scarf around his neck. He sets his tripod down by the door and slips off his coat and the rest of his winter gear. He rolls his shoulders out as he turns away from the coat rack and suddenly, slaps a hand to his chest.

“Jesus, Louis,” he hisses.

“Sorry,” Louis says, smiling.

Concern trickles into Harry’s expression. “What are you doing home so early?” he asks, pushing off his shoes. “Something happen at work?”

“No, I just left an hour earlier, so I could get here,” Louis says, his hands folded together in front of his mouth.

Harry looks at him. He moves his shoes out of the way and then steps a bit closer.

“Why?” he says carefully.

Louis drops his hands. “When we first moved here, about two weeks afterwards, I saw this ring in this shop and I thought it would be perfect for you. And I’ve held onto it, just waiting for the right time,” he says. “I’ve thought about marrying you every day since you asked me. Every day since we moved here. Sometimes it’s all I can think about. One day, I know we’ll have it all. You’ll be my husband and hopefully the other father to my children. And I want that with you so badly. It’s literally all I ever think about. And I keep just waiting for the right time.”

Harry has finally taken notice of the small black box on the coffee table. He crosses his arms over his chest and meets Louis’ gaze again, his eyes wide, focused.

“But that doesn’t make sense, does it?” Louis goes on. “If you’ve already asked me and I can’t stop thinking about it, what are we waiting for? How is this not the right time?”

Louis can see the light reflecting on the tears collecting in Harry’s eyes already. Harry lifts his shoulders, his bottom lip bitten hard. He draws a shaky breath. “Should I ask you again?”

“No, I think I’ll ask you this time,” Louis says and swipes the jewelry box up off the coffee table and stands and closes the distance between them. Harry releases an overwhelmed little breath as Louis sinks to his knee. “Harry Edward Styles--” Louis begins, laughing at himself. “I have a lot to say, but I can’t quite put it all into the proper words. But it’s something like this. I love you. I’m going to spend the rest of my life with you. I know that for a fact. I know some things in the universe just make sense. Like science and math and love, especially. And us. We make sense. And I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to get here, but I had to be sure. I had to get it all right this time because I can’t lose you again. Never again. And this”--Louis gestures with the ring—”is really just a piece of metal and whatever papers we sign are just papers. And we don’t need any of it, really. Even if we didn’t get married, I’d still feel married to you. I already do. But I really, really want to get married. I want to call you my husband. My spouse. I want it all with you.”

Harry drags his palms over his eyes, leaving tears smeared across his cheeks. “This is really good.”

Louis smiles. “Maybe I should have been a poet.”

“You would have made a lovely poet,” Harry says, laughing tearfully.

“Last line,” Louis says. “Will you marry me?”

“Yes.” Harry gets to his knees, reaching for him. “Yes, I will.” He kisses him, sliding his arms around his body, pulling him close. “I love you so much. Of course, I will.”

Louis buries his face in his neck, in his soft hair. “Only took us about seven years,” he says, laughing. His eyes burn fiercely and he lets it happen. He doesn’t even bother to wipe the tears away when they come.

“Got there eventually,” Harry says. “We always do.”

+

In June, there’s a wedding. And at the same time, in some other world, it’s December and there’s a wedding there too. And it seems impossible, but it isn’t. It’s exactly as it's meant to be.

Chapter Text

Harry wakes feeling like someone is taking a hammer to his head. He wants to stick a hand out in front of himself to fend them off. Instead, he presses his palm against his temple and squeezes his eyes shut, reasoning that there’s no assailant because there never is when he wakes up after a wild night. He’s just hungover.

He went a little further than usual this time around, which doesn't become clear until he forces his eyes open and sees a boy asleep and sprawled across the bed beside him — completely, gloriously naked.

Harry’s eyes move down the length of the stranger’s body. All the way down the valley of his spine to his bare arse, burnished by sunlight. He’s gorgeous. Harry can’t see his face but he remembers how lovely it had been. He remembers his mouth. How could he forget? They’d kissed in the cab ride over, in the doorway, in bed.

So, not much of a stranger, really.

His name is Louis.

And that's the extent of Harry's recollections. How they ended up here is lost to him.

“Fuck,” he whispers, reaching blindly for his phone on the bedside table. He needs to ring his publicist, maybe his sister, or Nick. He needs someone to tell him what to do now that he’s just woken up in bed with a man. Does that make him gay? Or bisexual? He has slept with women before. Only two, but he’d enjoyed it.

He attempts to push the duvet off himself carefully, but he's too dizzy to be graceful and maybe his hands are heavier than he originally thought. Because the moment Harry moves, his bedmate does too. Louis, ‘the one with the nice bum’ as Nick had called him, turns his head. His lashes flutter twice like tentative wings and then his eyes are open and on Harry. He takes a deep inhale through his nose and pushes himself up onto his elbows.

“Good morning.” His voice is slightly hoarse but perfect that way. Harry's body betrays him, a shiver running the length of him.

Louis may be the most gorgeous person Harry’s ever woken up beside, and he means that in a normal way. He thought so the first time he saw him. It was too hot that day at Wembley Stadium and the place was packed. And this boy had passed out right there in front of him. Later, backstage, Harry remembers thinking how sharp his eyes were. That he'd never seen a blue as endless as the sky until then.

Louis’ hair is a mess and he’s got sleep lines across his cheek. And probably morning breath too. But still, he's a marvel, which is why he’s owed a way more cordial greeting than the one Harry gives him.

“Did we have sex?”

“Can't remember all the details but” — his eyes venture furtively down Harry’s chest and abs — “I think we got up to something, yeah.”

Harry massages his forehead. “I’m so sorry.”

“For?”

“I don’t remember anything,” Harry says. “And I don't do… this .”

“Sleep with men?”

“Yes, actually. But also just sleep around in general.”

Louis’ brows furrow as he sits upright. “Well, to refresh your memory, there was the concert. And then that party. Don’t remember who invited me. I did a strip tease. Must have been pretty good…” He trails off. “That's about all I remember, to be honest.”

Sitting the way he is leaves his cock exposed, just resting there freely between his thighs. Harry averts his eyes, but he remembers touching him, stroking him. He’d liked the weight and warmth of him in his palm. God.

“I think I remember the strip tease,” Harry says, clearing his throat.

“Well—” Louis lifts his brows. “You would.”

He's charming. Harry’s so often accused of being the charming one, always putting the moves on someone when he's not trying to. He hardly ever has someone do the same to him. “That's about all I remember too. I was really drunk. I’m sure you were too. So, I don't know— Should we just— I can't have anyone knowing about this, you know? Not that I'm ashamed. Confused maybe. But—”

Louis huffs a laugh. “I'm not looking to out you, Harry. Don't worry.”

Harry smiles politely. “Thank you, but I'm not—”

Louis’ gaze slides away from him. “Alright.” He turns and plants both feet on the floor and stands, stretching upward, swinging both arms back and forth. Harry’s eyes travel up his body, down his body, across his shoulders, his waist.

Louis pulls on a pair of maroon-colored briefs.

“Anyway the party was fun,” he says, as he hops into his jeans and fastens them. “My sisters would die if they knew I’d been there. Or here. Not that I'll tell them but they're obsessed with you.”

“Right. They were with you at the concert.”

“No, actually.”

Harry’s brows creased. “So you came alone?”

Louis laughs. “Also, no. I came with my friend’s sisters. Zayn, who you met.”

Harry vaguely remembers him. He’s a little distracted by Louis’ tattoos. He had been last night as well. “Right,” he says again. “So you’re not a fan at all?”

“I like maybe one song, no offence. That's what makes you beautiful ,” he sings. “That one’s good.”

“That's the only one you've heard, isn't it?”

Louis pauses. Laughs again. “Yes.”

“That’s settled then. I'll have to send you a signed copy,” Harry says.

“God, no. You can't do that,” Louis says. “If you send me a gift after we’ve had sex, I'll assume you want to do it again.”

“I wouldn't—” Harry swallows. “I know what this looks like. But I'm really not gay.”

“So you've said.” Louis smiles. “Your secret’s safe with me, kitten.”

Harry’s cheeks grow warm. Louis had called him that last night, right before Harry came. He’d breathed it into his ear. He remembers Louis’ hand around his cock now too. And just like that, he’s hard. He gathers more of the thick duvet over his crotch, rests his hand there and exhales slowly.

“Anyway,” Louis says. “Last night was fun. Thanks for having me. I won’t tell a soul.”

“Thank you.” Harry watches Louis pull his shirt on.

“See you around,” Louis says.

Harry could at least see him out. He forgets completely about the massive erection he’s hiding. He just stands right up. Louis’ eyes drop immediately to his crotch and he emits a low, sweeping whistle.

“If you’re trying to get me to stay, consider it done.”

“Oh my God.” Harry ducks behind the mattress. “I’m sorry—”

“I’m not,” Louis says, laughing.

Harry is an idiot. He can't help but laugh at himself too, pulling on a pair of briefs that do absolutely nothing. He laughs again, covering his face with one hand, covering his crotch with the other.

“Just a bit of morning wood,” Harry says.

“Of course.”

“I need to just get myself sorted. So if you don’t mind just—”

“Right, I’m on my way,” Louis says. “Nice meeting you both.”

Harry chokes on another laugh. Louis shoots him a smile and leaves through the bedroom door. When he's gone, Harry sinks back down onto his mattress and doesn’t move until his heart and his dick have settled down.

+

He can’t remember giving Louis his number or following him on Twitter, and yet “Louis Tomlinson” is there in his contacts and on his Twitter feed. It’s dangerous for Harry to know too much about him. He’s having enough trouble avoiding thoughts of him as is. He considers deleting his number and unfollowing him. Louis wouldn’t even care. He probably wouldn’t even notice. He’s not even a fan. He only knows one song.

Harry has to delete every trace of Louis if he’s going to move on from all this. There’s nothing to be done about the love bite on his collarbone, but he can start with Twitter. He navigates there with the intention of unfollowing him.

And then he never does.

Instead he learns that Louis takes a lot of selfies and posts them all. (Harry studies each for longer than necessary.) He also turns out to be a genius, evidenced by his constant debates with the science side of Twitter, about new studies and old studies, about energy and conservation. He’s a bit vulgar about it, sometimes resorting to a simple ‘fuck off’, sometimes employing the middle finger emoji to do it for him.

Louis skateboards. He likes to argue about football. He’s funny. He’s kind. He takes nice selfies. If Harry were interested in men, and he's not, Louis is probably the kind of person he'd go after. Which is an incredibly normal thing for a straight man to think about another man.

What’s so wrong with them being friends anyhow? They’ve slept together. He’ll be better at keeping that secret safe if he keeps close to Louis. And he’s not got a lot of friends. Real friends anyway. And Louis— He seems real.

The problem with Harry’s brain is that once it’s set on a thing, it’s very hard for logic to intercept. Ideas form quickly like contagions and before long, he’s overcome by them. He’s making a fool of himself onstage or he’s starting a conversation with some celebrity at some party about something he doesn’t understand or sending a message to a stranger he never meant to sleep with.

How about I just gift you a song on iTunes?

Louis texts back right away.

Who’s this?

Harry’s eyes widen.

Just fucking around with you, Harry.

Harry thumps his head backwards against the pool chair.

That was mean.

so sorry. :( also no you can’t gift me a song on iTunes.

Why not?

What would be the point?

I want to impress you with my music?

Are you flirting with me?

No?

You sound unsure. What’s the point of impressing me with your music when we won’t be seeing each other again?

Did I say I didn’t want to see you again?

You’re doing it again.

What’s that?

Flirting.

Not purposefully.

Must be a side effect of the mind-numbing sex.

Harry’s cheeks burn, and not from the sun overhead. He adjusts his sunglasses.

If you say so. I’m gifting you a song on iTunes.

You’ll have to pay for my dinner too.

I’d love to get dinner.

Harry.

Do you like Italian?

Harry.

Are you free tomorrow night?

Louis doesn’t respond for several minutes, leaving Harry to wonder if he went too far. He has enough time to get up and walk into the house, to pour himself another glass of lemonade. He should apologize and then he should actually delete Louis’ number. Because maybe he is flirting with him? And maybe he likes it too much when Louis flirts back.

I’m finished work at 5.

Harry folds his bottom lip beneath his teeth, typing quick.

Where do you work? he asks. I’ll pick you up.

The Royal Botanical Gardens.

Doing what?

I’m a botanist.

That’s kind of hot.

You’re awful.

:) See you tomorrow.

+

He shows up at Louis’ place of employment and decides to go inside because some part of his brain convinced him that’s a swell idea. And it’s kind of worth it for the way Louis smiles at him, the way he can’t contain a laugh, can’t stop looking at him. Harry has always liked making people smile and he’s always like being looked at. And that’s all this is.

At Harry’s Bar, Louis’ face is lit by the glow of a solitary candle but he’s got a smile that gives off its own light. The kind that makes other people smile upon seeing it. He probably makes a great tour guide for that reason. The guests at the gardens couldn’t seem to stop staring at him. Harry doesn’t blame them.

“You’ve got to stop looking at me like that,” Louis says after the waiter serves them their drinks.

Harry lifts his brows. “Like what?”

“Like you’re trying to count how many bloody eyelashes I have,” Louis says. “Like we’re on a date.”

“Oh, I was counting the freckles actually. On your cheek there,” Harry replies.

“You’re exhausting.”

Harry laughs. “I’m sorry, really. Thank you for actually agreeing to dinner.”

“I’m just trying to figure you out,” Louis says, his eyes roaming Harry’s face, which makes Harry lean closer involuntarily. “Why’d you want me to come in the first place?”

“It’s going to sound crazy,” Harry begins.

Louis takes a sip of his martini, lifting his brows as if to say, ‘Try me.’

“I can’t stop thinking about you,” Harry says with a shrug. Probably not his best approach.

Louis smiles. “Are you about to propose?”

“I’ve considered it, yeah,” Harry says, and they laugh again. “What I mean is that you’ve been on my mind since… the other night. I think it’s because of how I left things. You’re a nice person, not a dirty secret. You don’t deserve to feel that way.”

Louis studies him for a second, his lips curving. “I don’t,” he assures him. “Honestly, it’s not like I want to run around telling people I slept with you. I’d never hear the end of it. Not to mention, you’re supposedly not gay. Meaning you don’t actually find me attractive. Not something to boast about.”

“I never said that.”

“Never said what?”

“That I don’t find you attractive,” Harry says, reaching for his drink.

Louis sits back in his seat. “Oh, really?”

“I think it’s fine for a man to say that another man is attractive. It doesn’t mean he’s necessarily attracted to him, right?”

Louis doesn’t answer. He licks his lips, the tip of his tongue touching his moustache, and smiles.

Harry looks at his mouth, his thoughts slowing like honey. He clears his throat. “So what’s it like working at the Gardens?”

“Good. I just started earlier this year,” Louis says. Their food arrives just then and they thank the waiter while unwrapping their silverware.

“What do you do exactly?” Harry asks.

Louis looks at him. “It’s going to sound boring if I try to explain.”

“Not to me.”

Louis’ eyes linger on him for a moment. He looks down at his plate, starts twirling linguine around his fork, and says, “I’m the assistant director of horticulture, which means I’m in charge of a team of researchers who study plant biology and cultivation.”

Harry looks at his mouth again. He has the loveliest mouth. Especially when he says things like ‘director’ or ‘in charge’.

“I study medicinal plants, fruits, vegetables, flowers, and herbs from all over the world. It’s my job to know what they need to survive, especially if we’re planning to bring a new species here to London. I grow things. I plant things. You’re giving me that look again.”

“I’m a little attracted to you,” Harry says. Or vomits, really. One minute the words are in his head, the next minute they’re not.

Louis’ fork comes to a still. “Now we’re getting somewhere,” he says. “Is it the plant talk that gets you going?”

Harry huffs a laugh. “Maybe.” And there's a dull panic settling on him slowly, one he tries to ignore. He doesn't know what gets him going. He just knows that Louis is a man and he's attracted to Louis and Harry Styles, the putative frontman and proclaimed lothario of One Direction, can't be attracted to men. Not to the public anyway.

But he says none of that because he’s enjoying his meal and he’s enjoying Louis. And for right now, he can trick himself into thinking this is all okay, and tomorrow maybe he’ll deal with the fact that it isn’t.

Louis tells him more about his work. He tells him about some of the private research he’s doing, which is also fully funded by Kew.

“Why botany?” Harry asks. They’ve finished their meals and moved on to dessert. Harry imagines himself sharing a slice of cheesecake with Louis. The image pops into his head unbidden. He slices into his cheesecake viciously. “When did you realize that was what you wanted to do?”

“As a kid, I gardened a lot with my mum. When my dad left us, it was one of the ways she kept us occupied, like her own brand of therapy. And she’s a nurse, so my guess is I picked up on the medicinal track, except instead of wanting to treat people, I wanted to treat plants.”

“How young were you then?” Harry asks.

Louis’ brow wrinkles as he thinks. “Seven or eight maybe?”

“And you knew what you wanted to do at that age?”

“I guess so. When I actually got into uni, environmental biology seemed like a good choice. Then I got close with a professor who worked at Kew, and shadowed her while she did her research. And I loved it. And then I knew for sure.”

“Impressive,” Harry says.

“Glad you approve.”

Harry finds himself just staring at him until Louis cracks another smile and then Harry smiles back, resting his cheek against his fist. And that’s how the rest of dinner goes.

“Could I give you a ride home?” Harry asks after he’s tucked a tip away in a small black folder and pushes his wallet in his pocket.

Louis doesn’t give him an answer right away. Silence lasts for long enough that Harry begins to fidget. “Sure,” Louis says.

Harry leads him back to the big Suburban parked on the kerb. Louis opens the door for him, gesturing inside. And Harry takes his hand, half-joking as he steps inside. The problem is that once he’s holding his hand, he doesn’t want to let go. But he does.

“So, you’ve asked me a ton of questions,” Louis says. “But I haven’t asked you any.”

“I’m an open book.”

Louis looks disbelieving. Smart man. Harry is a trick book. One that appears to be just as open as any other but is actually a locked storage box with hidden compartments.

“What’s your favourite thing to do when you’re alone?” Louis asks.

And of course Louis would ask a question like that. One that’s not so easily thwarted. Harry sticks a smile on. “Sounds like a kinky question.”

“You’ll know when I’m being kinky,” Louis says. “You didn’t answer the question.”

“Sometimes I just enjoy the feeling of being alone,” Harry begins very slowly. “I don’t try to fill the time with anything. I’ll lie in bed and stare at the ceiling and allow myself to be totally aware that I’m alone for the first time in a while.”

“Sounds like meditation.”

“I guess it is, but a very unofficial form of it,” Harry says. “I don’t enjoy being alone, though, to be honest. I’d rather be in a room filled with people I really like.”

“Was expecting you to say you read a book.”

“Sure. That too.”

“Should have known you’re not so simple,” Louis says, glancing at Harry’s mouth. “What’s your relationship with your mum like?”

“Uh.” Harry blinks. “Good. She’s great. One of my favorite places to be is back home with her..”

Louis seems to appreciate that. “What would you do if you weren’t singing?”

“I have no idea,” Harry says. “Become a solicitor, maybe?”

“Can’t imagine that.”

“No, me neither,” Harry says, laughing. He and Louis look at each other for a second too long, and then Louis pulls a funny face and Harry laughs more than anyone else probably would.

It’s addictive how easy it is talking to him and they talk the whole way to Louis’ flat. And then they arrive and Harry finds his tongue-tied.

“So,” Louis says and then nothing.

Harry picks at the inseam of his jeans. “I’d really like for us to stay in touch. As friends, if that’s okay.”

Louis’ brows arch high. His gaze slides away. “Wow,” he breathes.

“What?”

“I don’t think I’ve ever been turned down twice by the same person.”

“I’m not-- That’s not what I’m doing,” Harry says. Is it?

“That’s exactly what you’re doing,” Louis says. “You buy me dinner, you tell me you’re attracted to me, you look at me the whole time like you can’t wait to take me home. And now I’m home. With you. And you want to be friends.”

Harry exhales. “I can't—”

“No, of course not,” Louis says. “It’s a bit ridiculous for me to think you could, or would. My flatmate thinks I've lost my mind, by the way. Sleeping with you and then agreeing to dinner.”

“You told him?” Harry asks, incredulously.

“No, he guessed. He knew I was going to that party, and then I told him the next morning I shagged a celebrity and he knows you’re my type— He figured it out—”

“I’m your type?”

Louis rolls his eyes. “That’s not the point.”

Harry bites into his cheek so he doesn’t smile.

“Mate, you don’t get to be flattered,” Louis says. “Not when you’d rather us be ‘friends’.”

Harry pushes his hands through his hair. “I’m just a bit confused right now,” he says, looking to him imploringly. “You’ve got my head a little fucked up.”

“Clearly,” Louis says, unbuckling his seatbelt. “Here’s the thing, Harry. Unfortunately, I fancy you a bit, alright? I haven’t stopped thinking about you either, which means I can’t be your friend. Trying to be friends with people you want to fuck is bad on a lot of levels.”

“Couldn’t we at least try--”

Louis huffs a loud exasperated breath that startles Harry into silence. Louis cups the back of Harry’s neck all of a sudden. Harry feels the heat of his breath on his skin and there’s no time to react before Louis kisses him, sealing their mouths together for several reverent seconds, several holy life-altering seconds. Harry feels Louis’ pulse jump beneath his fingertips and it’s only then that he realizes he’s got both hands cupping Louis’ jaw. Louis’ lips are soft and warm, and patient. Too gentle. Harry admits to himself that he wants more, but that’s all he gets. Louis pulls away, his eyes on Harry’s mouth before they meet his own.

If Louis asked him to come inside right now, Harry wouldn't think twice.

“Why would you want to be friends when we could be doing that?” Louis asks. His hands fall away and Harry feels cold. He watches Louis in a daze as he pushes the car door open and exits. “Have a good night, Harry.”

With a thud, the door is shut. Harry is alone, though it’s never felt as lonely as this.

+

A guitar pick hits Harry in the cheek and he blinks, shooting a glare across the room. “Ow.”

Niall stands nearby looking guilty as ever, but not sorry at all. “Do you want to practice or what?” he asks.

Harry scowls. “I’m ready.”

No one believes him, which is why Harry makes real effort to focus for the duration of their rehearsal. Later, as he’s packing his things, he feels gazes on him.

And then: “So, who’s the girl?” That’s Lance, who punctuates his question with a swig from his water bottle and a wiggle of his brows.

Harry rolls his eyes. “There’s no girl.”

All four of his bandmates look at each other.

“You always get mopey when you’ve got a crush on some girl,” Lance says.

And Harry won’t admit it but in a weird way, it’s true. He likes women, but can’t remember the last time he had a crush on one. Three of his favorite people are women; That’s his mother, his sister, and Stevie Nicks. He likes the way some women smell or the way they laugh. He likes making them happy. Harry can daydream about a woman for days on end but it’s never been what his bandmates think it is. He believes God is a woman because it makes perfect sense. Women are the salt of the earth and Harry lives a life in full appreciation of that.

So if he meets a girl in some diner named Olivia and wants to write a song about her, it’s not because he wants a shag or because he’s in love with her. It’s because they made each other laugh and she smelled of apples and guessed his favorite ice cream flavor correctly.

Anyway, he’s not got a crush on a girl.

Not a girl.

But he thinks the fact that he keeps crafting song lyrics about Louis’ soft, red mouth means something. He keeps catching himself and scratching his pen across the words. His moleskin is full of angry black lines.

He’s fucked.

He manages to evade his bandmates and makes it home without exposing himself, but there’s no relief for the mess in his head. He goes to bed earlier than usual but he’s got an early morning ahead of him and can’t stand being awake right now.

He lies there staring at his ceiling, trying to fall asleep but thinking about the way Louis kissed him. He can’t remember the first time it happened. He can hardly remember anything from that night. He was too drunk. His head was spinning. He gets vague flashes of memory. Louis on top of him, between his legs, pressing his wrists down. That had scared Harry and thrilled him. Louis’ tongue in his mouth. Louis’ breath on his face. Louis’ hand shoved down the front of his jeans.

Harry is fisting his own cock before he knows it. He sees Louis there in the dark behind his eyelids as he squeezes and strokes himself. He’ll feel awful about it later, about petitioning a person to be his friend and then wanking to the thought of them. But he doesn’t feel awful now. He feels relief. His back arches away from the bed as he comes, and then he collapses, sweaty and spent. He reaches his clean hand across the bed and grabs his phone, moving his thumb across the screen quickly, blindly.

We need to talk, he sends Louis and then he turns over onto his stomach, messy as he is, and falls asleep.

+

“Thought I scared you off,” Louis says. On his end, a horn blares and Harry imagines him stuck in traffic. He sees him in his Vans and a T-shirt because when he picked him up for the dinner, Louis had been wearing exactly that beneath his white lab coat. He has a spare pair of dress shoes for when he has to do tours, which Harry kind of adores about him.

Harry flips his electric kettle on. “I’m not that easy to scare off.”

Louis huffs a laugh. “Alright, then.” They’re quiet for a second. “Well, I’ve been doing some thinking.”

“Me too.”

“Could I go first?”

Harry hesitates. “Sure.”

“I’ve been thinking… I was a bit insensitive the other night? I remember how it was for me when I first realized I was gay. I had friends who supported me but it wasn’t until I met another gay person that i actually felt okay with who I was. So I imagine it must be even worse for you, being in the spotlight like you are. Not saying you’re gay, but whatever it is— It was wrong of me to just shoot you down when you probably need a friend who understands. And I can be that person. I’m here if you need me to be.”

Harry licks his lips, drumming his fingers on the countertop and thinks again about Louis’ mouth and Louis’ body atop his own, because if he’s honest with himself, that’s the only way he wants Louis to be there for him. He’s an awful person, and Louis is unfailingly good.

“Thank you,” Harry says, pressing his fingertips into his heavy eyelids. “I really appreciate that.”

“Of course,” Louis says. “Your turn.”

I can’t stop thinking about how you kissed me . I want you to kiss me again.

Harry puts his head in his hands. “Um.”

“Come on, kitten. I can take it.”

Harry nearly whimpers. “If we’re friends, are you still going to call me that?”

Louis doesn’t answer for a beat. “I call all my friends kitten, so…”

“Do you really?” Harry asks, bearing down on a twinge of jealousy.

“Sure.” Louis clears his throat. “So…?”

“So, does that mean I should give you a pet name too? Tiger, maybe?”

Louis laughs. “I’d be alright with that.”

Harry smiles, cracks a knuckle, then pours water into his French press. “I’m headed to Stockholm in three days. I’ll be gone for about a month.”

“Oh.” Louis quiets for a second. “That’s great. What’s in Stockholm?”

“Another show, followed by some more shows.”

“So, I guess I’ll see you when you’re back?”

Harry presses the heel of his hand against his forehead. “I was actually thinking maybe I could see you before then. If you’re free?”

Louis’ silences are so loaded. Harry can feel the weight of them through the phone lines. “Not planning to break up with me, are you?”

Harry smiles. “Not this time, no.”

Louis exhales loudly. “What a relief. Should we meet somewhere then?”

“Actually was thinking you could come to my place? If you remember the way? There’s this rose planted by a tree in my backyard. I was thinking maybe I’d want more to liven the whole space up a bit, you know? Maybe plant a few more?”

“That sounds like a great idea.”

“Yeah, so I was thinking maybe I could get your professional opinion on that. Maybe you could take a look and suggest some ideas.”

“Oh. Yeah, I’d love to. I mean, I’m not a landscaper but I know roses,” Louis says. “Count me in.”

“Perfect. Tomorrow then?”

“Tomorrow is good.”

“Do you like Thai?”

“Love it,” Louis says.

“Okay, well don’t have dinner beforehand.”

“You’re going to make a lovely husband someday, Harry.”

“Are you telling me we’re not married?” Harry asks.

“I thought we were engaged! Bloody hell, did I sleep through the nuptials?”

“Seems so,” Harry says, laughing. “Just don’t miss the divorce.”

“You’re breaking my heart, love.”

Harry presses his face into his shoulder, hiding a smile like there’s anyone around to witness it.

“Listen, I’m at work now, so I’ve got to run,” Louis says.

“Let me know when you’re finished tomorrow.”

“Will do.”

“Have a good day, Tiger,” Harry says, covering his face with his palm.

Louis laughs. Harry loves the sound of it.

+

Louis arrives just after 5pm, dressed in a black T-shirt and black trousers and his Vans. Harry thinks immediately about their kiss. His instinct is to lean across the threshold and press their mouths together, which is how he’d greet anyone he was dating. And then he reminds himself that they’re not dating, that they’re friends, and that would be weird.

“Welcome back,” he says instead, stepping back.

Louis snorts at that, steps past him and into the flat. “Looks different.”

“I got the couch delivered yesterday,” Harry says. “I just moved in 'bout a month ago. Still working out the decor.”

“It’s coming together nicely,” Louis says.

“Thanks. You look great,” Harry says a bit randomly.

Louis looks at him from the corner of his eyes. “Thanks.”

“Hungry?” Harry asks, feeling like he’s on the verge of a conniption. He doesn’t wait for Louis’ answer, just starts towards the kitchen trusting that he’ll follow him. He thought the glass of wine he had before Louis showed up would help calm his nerves but it’s clear he needs another. He fills his glass and Louis’ glass and has a big sip while Louis dips into the toilet.

“Why are you so nervous?” Louis asks, reappearing at the edge of the kitchen, his shoulder leaned into the wall there.

“Why would I be nervous?” Harry asks, dishing food out on two plates.

“You tell me. You’re the one who’s nervous.”

“I’m not nervous,” Harry says.

Louis squints at him. “Maybe a little bit.”

“Might have to do with how we left things the last time,” Harry says. “If I were nervous, that might be it.”

“Worried I’m going to kiss you again?” Louis asks.

Harry laughs, or tries to laugh but it sounds like he’s wheezing. “No.”

“Good. Because we cleared all that up, didn’t we? We’re just friends and that’d be weird.”

“Exactly,” Harry says. He pushes a plate into Louis’ hands. “I thought we could eat outside. I’ll show you the garden while we’re at it.”

Louis’ eyes are so relentlessly blue. When he looks at him, it’s hard to look away. Harry is forced to hold his gaze, forced to allow Louis time to read him, and read him he does. Louis looks away, smiling. “Lead the way.”

Harry can’t help feeling like he’s answered a million questions without ever opening his mouth.

Dinner is slightly less tense. The wine starts to take effect and there’s a nice breeze coasting through the garden and yes, Harry stares a bit too much and Louis catches him every time, but they talk and they laugh and it’s nice. It’s addictively nice.

Louis helps him load the dishwasher afterwards. They refill their wine glasses and take a seat on the couch with Harry’s laptop open on the coffee table.

“Climbing roses are always a good bet,” Louis says, tapping away at Harry’s computer. He gestures towards the images he’s pulled up. “Get yourself some trellises. They grow quickly enough. They’ll look fantastic in a year. I’d even string some lights up.” He types. “Now this particular rose is my favorite, and they mix well with the others…”

Louis’ voice gets lost in Harry’s head. He can’t stop looking at him. They’re sat close enough that he can smell his cologne, can see all the freckles on his cheek, can see two eyelashes stuck together. He could count the hairs in Louis’ beard from here and perhaps the greying strands scattered around his head. He wants to ask him if that’s hereditary or if it’s stress. He wants to know what his family is like and if he exercises regularly and if he’s ever been to the US? And does he bike? Would he do it in the city? Does he like kimchi? Has he ever watched the sunrise from the deck of a beachfront property in Jamaica and would he be at all interested in doing so with Harry?

“Alright,” Louis says, laughing. “We’ve got to talk, babe.”

Harry blinks several times. “About what?”

“About the massive crush you have on me,” Louis says.

Harry chokes on a laugh. “I thought we were engaged?” he jokes. “Bit late for that.”

“I thought we were married,” Louis shoots back.

“This is a sham of a relationship,” Harry says, clucking his tongue

“It is, yeah.” Louis quiets, staring at him in that relentless way again. “I’m being serious, Harry.”

Harry’s smile dissipates. “About what?”

Louis looks at his mouth. “About the crush. About whatever this is, whatever you’re feeling right now. About the fact that you probably want me to kiss you again.”

Harry purses his lips. “That’s all very presumptuous.”

“That’s the wrong answer.”

“And what would be the right answer?”

“No, Louis, I don’t want you to kiss me again,” Louis says. “Something like that.”

“That’s silly,” Harry says.

“Wrong answer.”

“I don’t want you to kiss me again,” Harry says, but he’s unable to look at him when he says it.

“Okay,” Louis says. He drains the rest of his wine, sets the glass down and stands.

“You’re leaving?” Harry asks, his eyes wide.

“Looks like it,” Louis replies, starting towards the door.

“Why?”

“Because if I don’t leave, I’ll do something stupid.”

Please do something stupid.

Harry can’t ask for it. He wants Louis to kiss him like he kissed him the last time and not stop. This time Harry won’t let him stop. He’ll kiss him back. Or he’ll lure him into his bedroom. But he can’t ask for it. Because he doesn’t know how. Doesn’t know where to start. Or maybe that’s all an excuse. He’s never been so confused about anything in his life.

Harry follows him, watching Louis push his feet into his Vans. “What was all that you said on the phone about us being friends?”

“I meant that,” Louis says. “I still mean that, but let’s be honest for a second, yeah? You’re obviously still confused about what you’re feeling. And I’ve been around enough men to know when one is into me. We can be friends, but not alone in your flat after a couple glasses of wine.”

“I do that with friends all the time.”

Louis stops at the door. “But not friends you want to fuck.”

Harry groans. “Please don’t leave.”

“Why not?”

“Because I won’t see you for a month.”

“That’s not good enough, Harry.”

Harry swallows, his eyes drifting away from him. Louis opens the door. “Louis—“ Harry panics and pushes the door closed with both hands. “Alright,” he exhales. “No one’s ever kissed me the way you kissed me.” He rests his head against the door, looking at Louis who looks wide-eyed back at him. “I’m losing my fucking mind.”

He sees Louis’ Adam’s apple bob and wants to put his mouth right there.

“I don’t know what I’m doing,” Harry says.

Louis’ gaze goes soft. “I’m not exactly an expert either.”

“More of one than me,” Harry says, his heart knocking against his chest. He leans against the door, putting his back to it. Louis takes a step closer, putting them within a literal inch of each other.

“Should I show you then?” Louis asks, leaning in until their foreheads touch.

“Please.”

Louis kisses him like they’ve got only five minutes left on earth and that urgency seeps into Harry, makes him just as frenzied. He balls his hand up in the front of Louis’ shirt, wringing it away from his skin enough that he exposes Louis’ stomach and waist, and then he touches him there, flattening his palm on Louis’ lean abdomen. Louis pins him against the door, hips against hips, and the angle isn’t right. If Harry could just position their legs the right way, there’d be friction and he’d come so hard in his pants he thinks it’d rattle the globe.

“We should stop while we still can,” Louis says, which is so contrary to Harry’s interests right now, he pulls back and gapes at him.

“Why on earth would we do that?” Harry asks.

“Things might get out of hand.”

“Good,” Harry says, surprising even himself. He’s sober and inexperienced and nervous, but somehow none of that deters him. “Let’s get out of hand.”

Louis grins. “I didn’t get a good look at your bedroom the last time.”

Harry licks his lips. “I could give you a tour.”

“You could,” Louis says.

Harry takes his hand and practically drags him there. He’s about to get off with a man for the second time and this time, he’s going to remember every second of it. He shuts his bedroom door by pushing Louis against it.

“I don’t remember you being this assertive last time,” Louis says.

“You don’t remember last time at all,” Harry reminds him.

“And you do?”

“No, not really,” Harry says. “Some things, I remember.” He reaches for Louis’ jeans and unbuttons them. “Like touching you.” He glances at him. “I’d like to do that again.”

“I think I remember that bit,” Louis says, releasing a little breath. “Can’t believe I’m getting worked over by a pop star.”

“I take offense to that,” Harry says, pouting. “We’re human just like everybody else, you know? Perfectly capable of giving hand jobs and— blow jobs and whatever else.”

“I’m sold,” Louis says, his gaze on Harry’s mouth.

And so is Harry. He sinks to his knees, pushing Louis’ shirt out of the way, kissing his hip.

“Harry—” Louis says, cupping his face. “You don’t have to do that.”

“What if I want to do it?” Harry’s heart thunders in his chest. It hurts almost. He dries his sweaty hands on his thighs and reaches for Louis’ hips again, lifting his gaze. “Just teach me.”

Louis thumps his head against the door. “Fuck,” he breathes. He looks at him again. “You can stop at any point if you change your mind. Obviously.”

Harry smiles. “Do I need a safe word?”

Louis gives him a look. “That’s probably not a bad idea.”

“How about botany?”

Louis snorts. “Alright. I’ll never be able to think of that word the same way again.”

He unzips his jeans painfully slow while Harry zeroes in on his hands and his fingers. Their every movement is seductive. Harry’s lips are parted already, impatient. Louis pushes the waistband of his pants down just enough for his cock to spring into the open. Harry can feel Louis’ gaze on him, can tell by his silence that he’s cautious. This is probably the part where a straight man would run or cower away. But Harry looks at Louis’ cock and says, “Beautiful.”

Louis huffs a laugh. It sounds like relief. “I think maybe you should consider that you’re a little gay.”

“No way,” Harry says with a gasp.

Louis nods. “I’m afraid so, baby,” he says. “Don’t think any man’s ever called my cock beautiful.”

“It is, though,” Harry says. “Can I—?” Touch, he means, lifting his hand but hesitating.

“That’s the idea.”

Harry rolls his eyes. He lifts his hand and runs his fingers up the underside of Louis’ dick before curling his fingers around the whole gerth. He likes the heat and the heft of him. He runs his thumb over the tip and smirks when Louis’ stomach clenches. There’s a bead of moisture collected there and Harry doesn’t think twice before he leans in and licks. It’s salty. Louis’ reaction does more for him than the taste — the way he sinks against the door like he’s the puppet and Harry’s cut his strings. Harry moves closer to him, shutting his eyes, wrapping his lips around the tip.

He tries to think about what he likes, tries to work some logic into the carnal need to please. It’s less about sucking with abandon and more about applying friction in all the right places. He does a sloppy, clumsy job of it, but he gets his tongue everywhere.

“Your mouth is perfect,” Louis mutters.

The praise makes Harry dizzy. It strikes right in the heart of his ego. He attempts to sink his mouth all the way down Louis’ length and gags, of course. He pulls off, coughing. Louis runs his thumb over his cheek.

“Alright?” he asks with a smirk.

Harry resists the urge to nuzzle his face into Louis’ palm. He nods, cups the back of Louis’ thighs and takes him into his mouth again. His jaw eventually starts to ache and he’s drooling a bit and he’s worried Louis’ fallen asleep with the way his head is reclined and his mouth hangs open. All that’s left is for him to snore. But then Louis swears and tugs on Harry’s hair, and to his shame, Harry whimpers.

“You’re gonna make me come,” Louis tells him.

Harry draws back, licking his lips. “That’s the idea,” he echoes him. He feels proud . He’s achieved so much in the last year and responds to most of it with shock and dismay. But his reaction to possibly bringing Louis to orgasm is sheer and utter pride. He peers up at him. At the most beautiful man in the world. Hundreds of concerts performed. Dozens of awards accepted. But he feels luckiest on his knees before him.

Shutting his eyes, Harry leans in again. His mouth is worshipful. When he licks Louis, he does it with reverence and a degree of tenderness he’s never felt with another partner. Louis touches him with a similar delicacy, stroking his cheek or petting his hair, even as his breath quickens and shortens, and he gasps—

Harry .”

He tries to draw away, but Harry follows him. Or tries to follow him. He doesn’t get his mouth on him again before Louis comes, striking Harry’s cheek and neck.

“Fuck,” Louis says. “’m sorry.”

Harry slumps against him, his head cradled by Louis’ thigh. He shoves a hand down his trousers. He’s not sorry. He can’t think of a thing to be sorry about. He can’t think, period. He’s reduced to base level survivalism. He’s stroking his cock all of a sudden like it’s the only thing keeping him from spontaneous combustion. It’s fast and it’s desperate, and then he comes — with Louis’ fingers in his hair and his soft assurance of ‘that’s it, baby’ — and everything is calm and cool and he feels alive.

He opens his eyes to the sunlight seeping in through his curtains and sits back on his haunches, his movements sleepy and languid.

Louis lifts his brows. “Alright?”

Harry wipes his cheek with his forearm. “Honestly?” he asks, nibbling his lip. A laugh escapes him. “I feel fucking incredible.”

Louis huffs a laugh. “You are fucking incredible,” he says, wiping a bit of come off Harry’s cheek. It’s an innocent gesture, but Harry is insatiable. He licks Louis’ thumb before wrapping his lips around his pointer finger and sucking. Maybe it’s Harry’s imagination, but he thinks Louis’ cock twitches. Louis draws his hand away. “Ready to go again?”

“I think yes,” Harry says.

“Good,” Louis says. “Think I’ve had enough of you working me over.”

“It’s not my fault I’m irresistible,” Harry says.

Louis rolls his eyes. “Just get on the bed, Styles.”

+

On one hand, it’s nice, having someone like Louis who he’s allowed to share his frustrations with. In spite of the sex, they’re still just friends, or friends with benefits, Harry guesses. While he’s away, they talk all the time, almost every night, and Harry voices all his anxiety about being gay or bisexual or whatever. Louis is the only one he feels he can talk to about those things and he wouldn’t want anyone else.

On the other hand, and speaking of wanting, Harry wants him . Every time they joke about their undying love for one another, every time Louis calls him kitten, every time they talk in any way whatsoever, Harry wants more. He wants it to be real. He wants to be head-over-heels for this person because he’s already halfway there.

Being as close as they are is both the best thing in Harry’s life and the worst. Louis makes him feel like the luckiest man alive, but he’s the very thing Harry can’t have.

“Can’t wait to come home to you,” Harry says on the phone one night, curled into a large, lonely hotel bed. It hurts when Louis laughs. It hurts that he doesn’t know how much he means it.

+

He can’t actually wait a month to see him is the thing. Drunkenly, on the phone one night, he asks Louis if he’d fly to Barcelona for their show. If Harry sent him a ticket, if he could get the time off work: “Would you come see me?”

And somehow, Louis says yes.

He returns from an interview to find Louis in his hotel room, and quickly, shuts the door behind himself, wary of the other boys in the hallways. Louis lifts his brows.

“Sorry,” Harry says. “It’s the boys.”

Louis shoves his hands into the pockets of his sweatpants. “So they don’t know about us?”

“Um.” Do they know that Harry has just discovered an attraction to men? Do they know that Harry is kind of, maybe in love with his friend who is also a man? “No.”

They would tease him mercilessly, and he’s already giving himself a hard time.

Louis shrugs, but he doesn’t meet Harry’s gaze for a second, which means maybe it bothers him. That’s absolutely not what Harry wants right now. He sweeps his gaze over Louis from head to know. He can already tell how warm he is, how firm his body is, how good he’ll feel against Harry’s body. That's what he wants.

He steps forward, or rushes forward, and sort of slams into Louis, taking his face between his hands, kissing him hard.

“Fuck,” Louis breathes, as they stumble towards the bed. He digs his fingers in Harry’s hips, pulling him down with him, and then Harry is in his lap. He’s dreamt about this so often over the past several weeks, about being just as he is now, seated atop Louis, where he can feel the press of his erection against his bum. He’s been thinking a lot about Louis fucking him too, and wonders if that’s too far for them, if that’s a kind of intimacy he’d never move on from and if he’d turn eighty someday, still writing songs about Louis dicking him down.

He can’t come up with answers to that so he removes his shirt. When it doubt, get naked, he thinks, and nearly laughs out loud.

“Fucking look at you,” Louis says, running his hand up Harry’s chest, toying with a nipple, pinching it. Harry lets his head fall back, knows how that makes him look. Louis takes his hips and drags him forward a bit, grinding them together. Harry presses his hands into the mattress on either side of Louis’ shoulders. “You like that?” Louis asks.

“Yeah,” Harry says, working his own hips forward and back.

“Couldn’t stop thinking about you,” Louis says.

“Me neither.”

“Want to do what you did for me,” Louis tells him. “Want you on your back, and I’m going to suck that big cock of yours, how’s that?”

“Jesus Christ,” Harry whispers just as Louis flips him over and lays him out on the mattress. Louis drags his jeans and pants down his legs with some difficulty because they’re so goddamn tight. And then he hooks his hands over Harry’s thighs, pulling them apart and dips his face between his legs.

And it’s amazing. It’s hard to say how much. It’s hard to say anything so he doesn’t try. He presses his face into a pillow and comes when Louis tells him to.

They order room service and eat on the balcony, the two of them wearing fluffy bathrobes. Harry can’t stop staring at him. Louis doesn’t seem to mind, meeting his gaze every time with a smile.

“I’m really happy you came,” Harry says.

Louis smiles. “I’m happy you asked. Thanks for the ticket.”

“You already thanked me a million times.”

“Yeah, but— no man has ever flown me out of the country, so. I feel like I can’t say thank you enough,” Louis says. “Best date I’ve ever been on.”

Lately, the lines around all their jokes are blurred. Everything Harry is meant to laugh about doesn’t seem funny anymore. He smiles instead.

“I’ll definitely make it up to you when you’re home,” Louis says. “But first— I was wondering if you’d like to have lunch with my mum?”

Harry lowers his fork. He forces another smile. “I thought I was her wayward son.”

“Very funny,” Louis says, making a face. “But seriously— she’s been kind of insistent ever since I told her about you. I didn’t mention who you were, just that there was someone…”

Harry swallows and then swallows again, trying to clear the bit of food in his throat. He’s not entirely sure there’s food stuck there at all. “That’d be kind of cruel, though, wouldn’t it? It’d be taking things too far…”

“How do you mean?” Louis asks confusedly.

Harry sets his fork down and rests his hands in his lap. “Just— I mean, that’d be like if I was actually your boyfriend or we were actually together— then I’d understand me meeting your mum, right? But to do it now, to pretend like— I think that’d be a bit cruel.”

It’d be cruel for Louis’ mum. It’d be a waste of her time and energy. But it’d be cruel for Harry too. He wants so badly to be Louis’ person, the one he introduces to his family and friends, but he’s not and he has to draw a line somewhere.

Louis sets his fork down too, except the sound is louder than it should be. It clatters on the edge of the plate. Harry meets his gaze and feels ill all of a sudden. He’s always felt sick to his stomach when people were mad at him or disappointed. Louis looks both.

“What exactly do you think this is?” Louis asks, gesturing between them. “I’m just curious.”

Harry shrugs. “We’re friends, I guess.”

“And what part of us fucking led you to believe that?”

“We haven’t been— We haven’t done much.”

“Fucking hell,” Louis says, standing.

“I thought we were friends with benefits,” Harry clarifies.

Louis laughs breathlessly, shaking his head. “You’re a piece of fucking work, mate, you know that?” he asks, heading back into the room. Harry flies up out of his seat and goes after him. “I thought I’d been with enough dickheads, but they don’t compare to you at all.”

“Wait a minute, wait a minute. Louis—”

Louis shoves his feet into his Vans. “What part of me flying out to Barcelona to see you made you think we were friends, Harry?”

“With benefits!” Harry says. That’s the wrong thing to say, but he can’t think. He has about ten seconds to figure this out because Louis never unpacked his carryall. He’s only got to lift it off the floor and leave. “I didn’t know what to think. I don’t know what this is!”

“I haven’t stopped thinking about you or talking about you to Zayn or to my mum. I was counting the days till you came back. I check my phone every two minutes waiting for texts from you, even just a stupid emoji. I’ve already got dinner reservations booked weeks in advance at some posh fucking spot that costs a fucking fortune. When you asked me to come here, I dropped everything. And I’m saying all of this even though it probably means nothing to you. I’m fucking…love sick or some shit and it makes me feel like an idiot half the time but I tell myself it’s okay because maybe you feel it too. And you’re telling me this whole time you thought we were friends with benefits?”

Harry feels everything at once. Fear and happiness converged in this terrifying panic-inducing jolt of emotion.

Louis grabs his luggage and tosses the strap over his shoulder.

“Louis,” Harry says. He’s never told anyone he was in love with them, but he’s going to now and it’s going to be epic.

And then Niall bursts into the room, using a door key Harry doesn’t remember giving him. “Who’s this?” he asks which seems to be the thing that breaks the camel’s back because Louis turns and storms out of the room.

+

The irony of being in love with someone who loves him back but also refuses to speak to him isn’t lost on Harry. It’s the kind of situation he was always bound to end up in — sending text messages that go unanswered, leaving voice messages that have probably gone unheard.

He tweets ‘Gone and done it’ which is a reference to Shania Twain’s ‘Love Gets Me Every Time’. As in gone and fallen in love, but he’s sure Louis misses it because Louis unfollowed him days ago.

He doesn’t know what to do, but he doesn’t wait to figure it out when his flight lands in London days later. He heads from the airport to Louis’ flat, engaging a bit of detective work to find his address.

He doesn’t think about what he needs to say on the way over because really, he already knows.

Zayn lets him in, his eyes going wide. “Harry Styles,” he says.

Harry waves awkwardly. “Hi. Is Louis here?”

“Yeah, mate. Come in. I’ll get him,” Zayn says. “I thought Louis dumped you.”

Harry wants to facepalm, reminded that, all this time, Louis had been going around telling his best mate and his mum that they were in a relationship. Harry is an idiot.

“Sort of,” Harry says. “If I could just—”

Louis steps into the hallway up ahead with his earphones tucked into his ears. He freezes there, the two of them staring at one another.

“I was just leaving,” Zayn says.

Louis glares at him all the way to the door, while he pushes his feet into his shoes, and even after he’s gone. He glares at the door for ten seconds and then finally, he looks at Harry again. He pushes his hands into his pockets.

“Guess I wasn’t clear when I asked you to leave me alone,” Louis says.

“You were,” Harry says. “But I don’t think you actually want me to.”

“Oh, alright. Didn’t realize you knew better than me what I wanted.”

“Louis, please shut up for a minute? Please?”

Louis tilts his head like Harry’s speaking another language. And the defiance in his expression would be incredibly sexy under different circumstances. As it is, Harry thinks he’s only got about five minutes tops before Louis kicks him out.

“I don’t see myself coming out for a while,” Harry begins. “I’m just figuring this all out and I need time to do that. Years, maybe. And even then, I don’t know what would happen. Or how it’d happen. But I’m not ready yet.”

“I never asked you to come out for me,” Louis says.

“Louis, please?” Harry begs. “All I’m saying is— When I come out, the person I’m with— It might not be the best situation. Maybe it won’t be worth it in the end, going through all that with me. All the attention and the negativity? I don’t know if it’ll be worth it in the end, being with me. But I’d like for that person to be you. I’d do it for you.

“I let you leave the other night thinking all I wanted was a friend I fuck sometimes. I thought maybe that was what you wanted. Because I’m a pop star and I’m confused about everything and I don’t know— I couldn’t tell when you were joking or not anymore. I wanted you to not be joking. You caught me by surprise wanting me to meet your mum. Because I’d actually love to meet your mum. I just worried it’d mean a lot more to me than I thought it’d mean to you. I want… to meet your whole family. And your friends. And I’d love to spend more time with you. And I’d love— I love you. I’m in love with you. That’s what I’m trying to say with all of this. And I’m sorry that I let you think for a second that I didn’t. Love you, I mean. Because I do.”

Harry’s eyes sting and he presses his palms into his eyelids.

“Don’t cry on me,” Louis says, his voice incredibly soft.

“I don’t think I can help it,” Harry says, pulling the hem of his shirt up to his face. “Fuck—”

“Hey,” he hears Louis say, and then he feels his hands on his hips. “Come on, kitten.”

Harry releases his shirt, just as Louis rests his head against Harry’s chest. His arms slide around Harry’s midsection and Harry hugs him back, holding onto him as tightly as possible without hurting him.

“I don’t care at all about you being a pop star or whatever the hell you just said,” Louis mumbles. “I don’t care what happens in the end either. If the whole world hates me, I still wouldn’t give a fuck.”

“Is it weird to feel all of this so soon?” Harry asks. “I feel like I’ve known you my whole life. Like I’ve been waiting for you forever.”

Louis grins. “Thought that was just me.”

“We have to talk more,” Harry says. “Open up about all this.”

“Agreed.”

Harry glances at Louis’ bedroom. “I’ve been doing a bit of research and I kind of— Before coming here, on the flight actually, I took care of myself. With the lube and all of that.”

Louis narrows his eyes. “You fingered yourself, you mean?”

Harry’s face feels hot. “Yes.”

“For me?” Louis asks, biting his bottom lip.

“Yes,” Harry says. “In case you forgave me, which you have… I wanted you to know I’m all in this and I want you to, you know, pop my gay cherry.”

“Your what ?”

“Forget I said that,” Harry says, backing him towards his bedroom. “Just fuck me.”

+

The decision for Louis to move in with Harry arises out of a joke. The lease for the flat Louis shared with Zayn was almost up and Harry was over so often that Zayn said he could get a contract drawn up for him too. At the time, they all laughed. But it got Harry thinking about living with Louis, about how much more convenient it’d be to see him if he came home to him everyday, and about having a place that belonged just to them.

Zayn probably hadn’t meant for it to backfire the way it did, but one thing led to another and he was out of a roommate. Harry had a house, after all, and it was huge.

And now that Louis is moved in and things have been going well for half a year, it leaves Harry thinking that being a gay celebrity isn’t as daunting as he first thought. And maybe he and Louis can have this life together in plain view for everyone to see. Maybe that goal is just within reach.

Late one night, Louis turns over in bed and his brows wrinkle when he sees that Harry is awake and staring up at the ceiling. “You okay?”

Harry glances at him. “Yeah, I’m fine.” He turns to face Louis. “I had the weirdest dream just now,” he says. “Kind of scary actually.”

“Want to talk about it?” Louis asks, sliding his arm across Harry’s middle more securely. “Might help.”

“It doesn’t even make sense,” Harry says, but he tries to work it into words anyhow. “We were in the garden, planting a rose. And you kissed me—”

“Off to a good start,” Louis says, smiling.

Harry smiles back. “It was, yeah. We went inside and—  stuff happened.”

“Good stuff?”

“Really good stuff,” Harry says, laughing. His brows wrinkle. “We fell asleep afterwards. And when I woke up, you told me you had to leave. And I got this feeling I wasn’t going to see you again. It felt like you were saying goodbye. Even after you told me you loved me.”

Louis looks concerned now. “I do love you.”

Leave it to him to get defensive about a metaphysical version of himself.

“I know that. I knew that in the dream too,” Harry says. “But somehow it still felt like… Somehow it wasn’t enough to keep you forever.”

Louis props himself up on his elbow. “Well, that sounds like a lot of shit to me.”

Harry scoffs. “So eloquent.”

“I’m just calling it like it is,” Louis says. “I’m yours forever, Harry. You don’t have to do a thing to make that real or true. It just is.” He cups Harry’s face. “Even in your dreams, yeah? I’m yours forever.”

Harry pulls Louis close when he kisses him. He doesn’t know what the future holds for them, but he believes that. If anything his dream which felt so terrifyingly real makes him more sure than ever. He can’t imagine a universe where he doesn’t have this.