Actions

Work Header

Adore You

Chapter Text

1.

Summer had just begun to touch down on the south coast of England when Harry had arrived at the house by the shore. The leaves were a bright-lit green at the crown of the trees, and the rose buds on the bushes had long since begun to flower. Only miles from Brighton, the crisp, biting wind was gone and replaced by the pleasant flutter of a tame ocean breeze.

Harry had disembarked at the private, gated community from a town car only hours earlier, but already he felt a probing sense of drowning. It had nothing to do with the fresh summer air, the close proximity to the sea, or the large, breathing mansion his father had purchased the spring subsequent to Harry’s eighth birthday. No, the grand summer estate was of great wealth, and far from a sore spot to the eye. However, it was the company, the dreadful members of its environs that seemed to smother each vessel of pumping blood in his body.

As a young boy he had adored visiting the summer haven during the holidays, had been absolutely delighted the moment he laid eyes on the property for the first time each year. There he could swim in the sea, lounge about under the beams of the frying sun, and bike along the gravel roads for hours. But, the older he became the less he found himself able to endure the pressured ambience his family provided.

These days, university was where he thrived, studying law and jurisprudence, living alone in the local pupil housings far from people operating under the family name. Twenty years of age, he was emancipated from all but his heritage and trust fund, which with infortune ultimately did not account for less than anything. Having failed to visit the southern mansion for the last three years since his mother and father had stopped consistently requesting his presence, he wasn’t thrilled this particular summer when they had all but escorted him there in person.

The reason behind this was unbeknownst to Harry, and had the decision lain in his hands he would have rather worked in a diner, sweating at the fryers and waiting tables for the entirety of the holidays until his university once more commenced, than spend over two months in Deansville. He had only budged once his mother mentioned his financial position as a final resort. There were things he was obliged to do. He was a van Styles son after all.

He’d unpacked his two suitcases in his old room that morning, on the second floor in the west wing. It still looked the very same as when he’d last seen it; fiction on the bookshelves, a radio on the wooden desk, record player on the bureau, and the bedspread an unflattering, pale champagne. The room was spacious, and could fit at least three more beds, rather than the expensive sofa and layers of decoration that lavished every room of the house in similar fashion. The entire mansion in Deansville — much like his parents’ home up north — was embellished redundantly at the agency of the woman of the house. Harry, however, profusely preferred the moderate flat in the school housings… the one his father had acquired him as he’d received his acceptance letter from the prestigious university two years ago.

Now, as he stared across the property from his window, eyes on the beach waiting past the oaks that framed the impeccably green lawn, he felt his shoulders sag in defeat. He was there, and there was nought to do about it.

**

Afternoon tea was served on the patio, the wide table overlooking the expanse of the back yard. A couple of acres stretched before them, perfectly attended to bushes and trees adorning the grounds with colourful flowers. Harry’s most dear instalment of the garden was the gazebo. It was located at the end of the property, under the high oaks, near the wicket that constructed the very origin of a stone path leading all the way to the shore. The gazebo itself was relatively hidden, too far from the mansion to be spotted behind the garden. It had been painted a summery yellow with white corners when Harry was twelve, and the tiny porch was built in a pale grey marble. Harry had used to love spending his afternoons there, reading and having the occasional, secret smoke. Something inside him hoped desperately it still smelled the same.

Harry smiled gratefully as the maid carefully refilled his coffee cup, and repressed a pleased hum as he finally took a sip. The drive down to Deansville had exhausted him — or perhaps the fatigue was simply a result of the company, which had only surrounded him for a few hours.

“You shouldn’t consume so much coffee, dear,” tsked Harry’s mother disapprovingly. “That’s your second cup. Petunia, bring the man some tea instead.”

“Sorry, Mum,” he apologised. “I’m afraid the car ride has worn me out.”

The maid tied her hands behind her back. “Would you like me to bring you something for any disturbances, sir?”

“Nonsense.” Mrs van Styles waved her off. “Have a lie down after tea, and you will feel better.”

Harry watched his mother’s round, violet hat defeat the breeze, the brown curls rounding her ears beneath it struggling slightly worse. “I’m fine, Petunia. Thanks,” he reassured, and took another sip of the beverage.

His father cleared his throat at the head of the table. “When did your sister say she’d arrive, son?”

“Last we spoke she told me Saturday morning, in company of her husband, of course.”

Harry had not seen his sister since Christmas, as she nowadays resided in Paris. Her husband was a wealthy politician, who happened to agree increasingly with Harry’s own father’s policies. The arrangement had worked out surprisingly smoothly, and as far as Harry was aware, his older sister was happy. Whilst Harry socialised properly for the first time in weeks with his parents, he longed for her arrival, wishing desperately for a comrade to share his misery.

“Just in time for the big hurrah!” nodded Mr van Styles, clearly pleased.

“Absolutely terrific,” agreed his wife almost giddily, wiggling a brow at Harry as she sipped from her tea.

Harry glanced from one end of the table to the other. “Pardon me. What big hurrah?”

“Oh!” said Mr van Styles, appearing inexplicably delighted. He squeezed his hands together, explaining to Harry, “We are throwing a garden soirée this Saturday! The entire community have confirmed their attendance. Your mother has been planning the event for weeks.”

“Exciting, isn’t it, Harry?” she said loudly, nodding at him expectantly until he reluctantly copied the gesture.

“How wonderful,” he lied.

His mother clasped her hands on the table, the lipstick on her mouth not a bit out of place as she nailed him with her grey eyes. “Harry, you must dress impeccably. Jean-Pierre will help you get sorted. I presume you don’t have a fresh suit yet?”

“No, Mum.”

“Did you bring the cufflinks you were given on your eighteenth birthday, son?” inquired his father.

“Of course.”

Mrs van Styles grinned widely at her husband. “Excellent! Wear them, please.”

Harry frowned in confusion. The investment in his appearance seemed unusual, even for the two of them.

His father winked at him. “I’ve got a couple of entirely new Dapper Dax’s. To tame those curls of yours.”

“Oh,” said Harry in surprise. Those were rare, even so to people of their wealth.

Taking an extremely slow swig of her tea, Mrs van Styles finally disclosed the secret behind the hurrah.

“We invited our new acquaintances from uptown. You’ve simply got to meet their oldest son!” she said with a flourish, and suddenly it became abundantly clear as to why his parents had so adamantly demanded he join them in Deansville for the entirety of the summer.

Harry’s older sister was already married, and now went by Mrs Gemma van der Hollande, and it was only a matter of time before she would carry Mr and Mrs van Styles’ first grandchild. Meanwhile, Harry, away at university, had so vigorously hoped he would escape any meddling hands in his personal life. Not so lucky, clearly.

He stared quietly at the table, the corners of his mouth lowering in sync with his heart sinking down his gut. He heard the sound of more tea pouring into porcelain cups, the rustle of the tree branches, and felt the prominent scent of lemon cake. In that moment, he despised Deansville more than he ever had.

He wished not even to know the name of this family his parents had in mind, or who the son was. He already knew he was of most certainty handsome, polite, and presumably inordinately wealthy, if the giddy look in his father’s eyes spoke of anything. Harry desired nothing less than drowning at the bottom of the ocean.

“He is twenty-six, Harry,” revealed Mrs van Styles as though it was a secret to be cherished. “He is studying to be a doctor at a university not far from your Yorkinshare. Only has a year left before he is eligible to practice medicine. Very smart boy.”

Harry’s father nodded, eyebrows arched as he indubitably waited for Harry’s welcoming smile. It didn’t come.

“And he is oh-so dashing!” added his mum, nodding encouragingly. When he still didn’t reply, she looked at their maid. “Isn’t he, Petunia?”

“Very handsome,” agreed Petunia bashfully, and a faint pink coloured the apples of her cheeks, unveiling the truth behind the words.

“There is something rather pleasing about his looks,” even Mr van Styles hummed. “Quite dapper, or am I wrong, Lillian?”

“Not at all, Richard, not at all. With those parents, nothing short of dazzling could have come out,” she chuckled heartily, and her husband joined her not a moment too late.

Harry cleared his throat. “I think perhaps I will go for that little lie down now, if you would excuse me. Mum. Dad.”

“Oh,” said his father, and stood up as Harry rose from his seat, napkin grasped in his lap. “Of course.”

“Don’t forget dinner at seven. On the dot!” Mrs van Styles called after him, as he left the patio with a searing concoction of anger and distress stirring in his gut.

**

Harry’s sister, along with her husband and multiple heavy suitcases, had arrived early Saturday morning as expected. Her hair was bleached and curled upward as demanded by the current trends, and an artificial flower sat tucked in the band of her round, yellow hat. Relieved to see her face, Harry had embraced her for a full two minutes.

Gerard van der Hollande spoke English, but he carried a heavy French accent that Harry found increasingly annoying. He didn’t pronounce the letter ‘H’, and each time he were to address Harry by name it took him several moments to force the sound from the roof of his mouth. Harry knew the man was only looking to be polite, but he had never quite been able to help his slight resentment toward the man who stole his sister out of the country.

The soirée his parents had planned commenced at six o’clock that evening, and as Harry reluctantly emerged outside through the patio doors he was instantly submerged in loud conversation and live jazz. Though Harry didn’t tend to enjoy these events, he would admit his mother did have excellent taste in music and decoration. The garden before him was beautifully garnished with light strings and lanterns, the people milling about in swanky outfits and sipping on upscale beverages. The men were dressed in dark suits, most of them — similarly to Harry’s own — patterned in thin stripes. As for the women, the latest fashion called for knee-length flapper dresses, feathery shawls, and long pearl necklaces that reached their lower stomach. Everyone appeared every bit as wealthy as they wished, and while Harry wasn’t a fan of the redundancy, he did enjoy a neat pair of braces and the contemporary hat.

Magically turning up at Harry’s side as he joined the crowds, his sister linked their arms. “Thank you for finally joining us,” she said, the sarcasm light on her tongue.

He shrugged. “Figured I’d shave off an hour, or so. It’s easier to socialise with these people once the alcohol has set in.”

Gemma chuckled, and the delicate feather attached to the side of her headpiece, that matched her dress, tickled Harry’s ear. He bumped her shoulder with his.

“Word in the house this afternoon had it Mother and Father are introducing you to someone special tonight…?” said Gemma gently, as if unsure of how he would feel about this particular statement.

He gritted his teeth. “They can introduce us all they want. Doesn’t have to mean anything.”

“You know it does,” she sighed, patting his wrist. “They expect you to comply.”

Harry shook his head. “I’m not going along with this. They practically blackmailed me to come, only to stuff a marriage down my throat.”

“You know, you might like him,” she said quietly. “You won’t know until you meet him. I love Gerard with every bit of my heart, even though I never expected to.”

“I’m sure he’s a slimy prick,” he simpered.

Gemma cackled loudly, and he snorted, rolling his eyes with a tiny grin.

“Harry.” Their mother’s voice cut through their laughter, and Harry’s smile fell.

Repressing the urge to groan juvenilely, Harry pressed his lips down as he turned around, watching his mother approach. She was dressed in an elegant, bone white dress, the pearl necklace around her neck extensive and shining in the evening light. Her hair was wavy and fastened in a short do, following the newest trends, naturally.

Mrs van Styles placed a silky glove on his elbow.

“Darling,” she said, her red lips never ceasing to smile pleasantly at her guests. “How is it you are joining us an hour late?”

“My apologies, Mum.”

“I have guests waiting to meet you,” she chided, and her fingers squeezed around his arm; he wasn’t getting away. “This way, dear.”

She steered him between the crowds through the garden, leaving his sister behind on the patio. Every so often they stopped, greeting one neighbour or another member of the community. Harry smiled politely and engaged in conversation, secretly hoping to procrastinate as much as manageable. The less time spent knowing whomever his parents’ ideal suitor was, the better. His mother gave him a knowing glance at the third stop, and quickly excused them. Drat.

By the time his mother’s firm grip on his elbow began to relent, they had reached the end of the garden. The yellow gazebo stood prettily in the right corner, watching the party guests mill about and sip on various alcoholic beverages. Past its corners and the tangle of bushes, Harry could spot the beach, although, the sound of the evening waves was almost undecipherable against the jazz currently performed by the live band. Mrs van Styles’ steps slowed by the time they reached the gazebo, a slow smile spreading on her lips as her complete demeanour changed from determined to self-assured.

Harry followed the direction of her gaze, and found it alighted on a small group of people chatting in a circle. There was a man and a woman about his parents’ age, dressed equally as elegantly in suit and gown. The man was tall, a greying moustache growing atop his lip, and by his side he grasped a fashionable cane. The woman was rather short and petite, but along with the rest of the group she irradiated importance and evidently wealth, from the way their chins were held high and poised, to the sparkling jewellery and the hefty watches attached to their wrists.

There was another girl, who appeared close to Harry’s age. Her hair was bleached like Gemma’s, but she was smaller, and seemed unbothered with hiding her boredom as she stared uninterruptedly into her flute of champagne.

By her side stood a man, significantly taller than both women, but not quite as sturdy and broad as the older men. His shoulders were simultaneously neat and muscular beneath the striped suit, and his hands were carefully grasping a glass of neat whiskey. Beneath an in vogue hat, his hair was a soft, caramel brown. It swooped gently over his forehead, probing only somewhat into his blue — perhaps even cerulean — eyes. Despite the notably unmodern hairdo, he was almost overwhelmingly handsome in his slacks, and the small, upward curve of the corner of his mouth had something almost playful sparking in his eyes. The cheeky impishness on his mid-twenties face was alarmingly attractive, and Harry couldn’t recall ever being privy to a man so inexplicably enticing at first glance. There was something rather aesthetically pleasing to his smart clothing, mixed with his sharp eyes and confident stance.

Steadfastly neglecting the pinch in his stomach procured by the man’s evident beauty, Harry perused the company he was in. As his mother lead him toward the gathering, he quickly assessed the situation.

The oldest couple were presumably married, standing closely with rings on their fingers. The artificially blonde girl’s looks resembled the woman’s so much it was eerie, and thus she had to be a daughter of the couple. The rest were harder to place, but the only man appearing respectably appropriate for Harry from the van Styles’ perspective, was undeniably the handsome boy with the blue eyes.

Harry despised him immediately.

Quickly, Harry sidestepped his mother’s path, and swiftly snatched a colony cocktail off a waiter’s tray. He downed a third of the triangle shaped glass before his mother managed to tug painfully at his wrist, scowling disapprovingly through her grey eyes. Harry only reaffirmed his stony grasp on the beverage, swallowing another swig of the gin based drink as they approached.

“Johannah! Derek!” greeted Mrs van Styles gracefully, and the older pair swivelled, large smiles erupting on their faces.

“Lillian!” the woman, Johannah, cheered delightedly, and Harry was instantly struck by a similar pair of azure eyes. Some genes, she seemed to have passed on to the young man, who must’ve been her son. The two of them exchanged their obligatory pecks, and the man, who had to be Derek, cordially placed a kiss to Mrs van Styles’ hand.

“So lovely to see you again, Lillian. It’s a wonderful party you have thrown. Stunning, stunning,” he complimented.

“Thank you, Derek. You are the most kind,” she affably replied. “And this must be your daughter.”

“This is Charlotte,” smiled Johannah warmly, rubbing the girl’s arm. “And, of course, our oldest son, Louis.”

Harry pretended not to notice the tiny glance the woman sent him at the name of the latter.

The girl curtseyed diminutively. “Nice to meet you, Mrs van Styles.”

The older bloke, with the blue eyes, took her hand and shook it politely. “It’s my great pleasure to see you once more, Mrs van Styles.”

His voice was soft, but raspy, inexplicably reminding Harry of the chocolate his father used to bring home from Switzerland, or perhaps a sweet honey from France. Furthermore — and worst of it all — he sounded completely genuine. Harry’s mouth tasted bitterly of grapefruit and Luxardo Maraschino liqueur.

Lillian van Styles kept a winning, close-lipped smile on her face, and squeezed Harry’s arm. “Derek, Johannah… Louis. This is my son, Harry Edward van Styles. Harry, this is Mr and Mrs Tomlinson, and their family.”

Harry could feel Louis’ attentive eyes land on him, and he shifted uncomfortably on his feet as he forced a small smile onto his lips. Louis’ gaze didn’t waver.

“What a handsome boy you’ve got, Lillian,” chuckled Johannah kindly, and shook Harry’s hand. “The photographs your parents have shown us at dinner do not do you justice, my dear. I’m Johannah.”

“Pleasure to meet you,” he declared quietly, and respectfully squeezed both of their hands, before eventually taking a small step back, deliberately retreating from the spotlight. He expected his mother to take over, to start conversing as was her specialty — socialising — but before Harry could start measuring his chances of escaping, Louis himself took a step forward, extending own his palm.

“Harry,” he said, his voice clear, and yet entirely raspy and ridiculously sultry. His blue eyes beneath that brown fringe remained closely on Harry’s face. “I’m honoured to finally meet you. Your parents have told me so much about you.”

Oh, boy.

Harry swallowed strenuously, and reluctantly took his hand, feeling Louis’ firm but careful grip close around his own. Harry let go as fast as manageable. “Nice to meet you, also.”

He didn’t have to look sideways to confirm his mother’s smirk, and the Tomlinsons’ probable satisfaction. Personally, Harry wished nothing more than to call a taxi service, and start packing his suitcases.

“Louis,” said Harry’s mother amicably. “Harry, here, is currently studying law at Yorkinshare. He is starting his third year next autumn.”

Louis’ mouth twisted into an appreciative grin. “So I’ve heard, ma’am. Yorkinshare is not far from my school.” His sharp eyes met Harry’s. “Myself, I finish my medicine degree next spring. I study at Bradshaw. Perhaps you’ve heard of it?”

“I have,” muttered Harry, glancing away. He took a slow sip from his colony cocktail, and ended up draining the half-filled glass. He felt his mum’s heel press into the side of his shoe.

Louis cleared his throat. “Law must be truly fascinating. How many years have you got left until you’re allowed to practice, Harry?”

He refused to meet his eyes. “Three,” and he intended to be neither married nor engaged before he graduated, for that matter.

For a small moment, silence was cast over the group. Harry could still feel Louis’ intent stare on him, and he wasn’t sure what to think of it. Surely, the older boy could decipher the situation for what it was? There was no need for pleasant conversation, because Harry wanted no part in this ludicrous endeavour by the hand of their families.

Not waiting for the cows to come home, Harry ended up vividly waving in a waitress to exchange his empty glass for a full one. He began consuming before his old drink was retrieved, eyes looking everywhere but at the boy across from him.

“It’s an incredible garden you have, Mrs van Styles,” said Louis’ voice. “I must say I especially adore the gazebo.”

“Why, thank you, darling!” chirped Harry’s mother. “As a matter of fact, the gazebo is Harry’s favourite spot to read during the day. The summer mornings turn it particularly charming.”

“Is that so?” hummed Louis, and when Harry threw a quick glance up he found his eyes softly browsing over his face. “Reading is one of my dearest passions, as well. It must be heavenly.”

Mrs van Styles nudged Harry’s arm.

“Sure is,” he agreed fleetingly. The alcohol did not so much as scold his throat anymore.

“Personally, I love to sit on our porch swing at dusk. The sundown is gorgeous from our view.”

“Oh, it must be, Louis,” retorted Mrs van Styles, voice candied and far too benevolent to ring without agenda to Harry’s acquainted ears. “Derek, your property is just stunning.”

Harry listened half-heartedly as his mother began discussing the estate with the Tomlinsons, slowly but surely emptying his second drink of only the start of the evening. At one coincidental point, his eyes found Charlotte, Louis’ younger sister, and it appeared her champagne flute was nearly empty as well. He met her eyes, and soon received a tiny quirk of her lip. He only tuned back in to the ongoing conversation when he heard his mother’s unusually bright laughter.

“You simply must join us for Sunday brunch! Eleven o’clock, dear?” she requested eagerly.

“It would be my absolute pleasure, Mrs van Styles,” laughed Louis, and Harry’s brows shot up his forehead, belatedly realising what was happening without his consent. “I would love nothing more than to join you tomorrow.”

“Terrific!” grinned Mr Tomlinson, jovially patting the back of his son’s shoulder. “Now, where is that husband of yours, Lillian?”

She shook her head, to the guests’ amusement. “Too busy handling our service. I suppose if you want things right, you have to keep a short leash on the staff.”

The Tomlinsons laughed exuberantly, and before long they were exchanging brief goodbyes for the time being. Harry watched as Charlotte once more curtseyed, the rest exchanging kisses and handshakes. He shook the Tomlinson couple’s hands, and before he knew it Louis had quickly grasped his, and was softly squeezing his palm.

“So lovely to meet you, Harry,” he said quietly, his piercing, blue eyes staring right into his without inhibitions. Harry forced a stiff nod, and as he removed his hand, he felt Louis’ fingers linger for the shortest of moments. It was barely noticeable, but Harry had felt it.

Following his mother along the small path through the garden, he wondered if she was finally pleased, knowing she’d introduced her bait to a family who were interested in hers.

“Nice, wasn’t he?” she sighed.

“The Tomlinsons?” he asked, feigning oblivion. “Sure.”

She elbowed him lightly. “I mean Louis, of course. So, handsome, or what do you think?”

“Sure,” he replied curtly.

She stopped, frowning at him as she took the nearly drained glass from his hand. “What was the matter with you over there? Behaving like an alcoholic. Louis was perfectly nice to you, and you completely neglected his attempts at conversation!”

Harry’s teeth sank into his cheek, keeping himself from saying something he would positively come to regret.

“Now, go socialise,” she ordered. “Don’t drink any more. We have guests tomorrow.”

The first thing he did out of her sight was snatching a bottle of white rum from the kitchen.

**

The morning after his parents’ hurrah, Harry awoke at six AM to the sound of his sister slipping into his room.

He had spent the remainder of the soirée intensely avoiding the Tomlinsons, and especially their son, sneaking out of sight each time he spotted so much as the brim of his hat. At one point he had seen Louis’ eyes find him across the garden, and had in panic hidden behind a tree with the bottle of rum as his sole comrade.

He had never quite enjoyed the flashy, extravagant events. Before he had moved out of his parents’ house up north to attend university, he had learned to endure and persevere, believing that someday it would become a bearable chore to socialise with these people — these people whom he perpetually found discussing the wellbeing of their finances and properties, and never proved to care particularly for cultural phenomenon, or intellectual entertainment in general. Two years later, he now understood that unless a miracle — or an extreme tragedy — occurred, he would never find himself comfortable at these functions.

His sister, who was several years his senior, had always been more suitable for the family’s lifestyle. Yet, it seemed even she had taken precautions to manage surviving the aforementioned evening.

“What are you doing?” he groaned quietly as she claimed the empty side of his bed. The room was still dim, but he could spot a strip of sun slipping around the corner of the blinds.

“Woke up sick,” muttered Gemma, making herself comfortable beneath the covers.

“Pregnant?” he asked, being a bit of a prick.

She kicked his leg. “Alcohol.”

He pressed his face further into the pillow, voice muffled. “Was it as bad for you as it was for me?”

“Doubt it.”

He squeezed his eyes shut, releasing a quiet moan as the memories resurfaced in pieces and finally compacted into one. When he had arrived a few days ago he could barely believe he had two full months to spend in Deansville, and now with the additional weight on his shoulders he wasn’t sure he would make it through half.

“I met him,” whispered Gemma, nudging Harry’s calf with her big toe. “He was very charming. Quite the looker.”

Harry rolled over, scowling indignantly at her over the duvet.

“I’m aware you don’t want this,” she sighed, “but he wasn’t a slimy prick. He was perfectly nice.”

“So? It won’t matter if he is. Mum and Dad still want to shove me into a marital bed with him.”

Gemma chuckled, and reached out to pat his fluffed hair. “Yes, but it might make it more endurable.”

Harry looked at her, a painful wrinkle between his brows. “I want to go back to Yorkinshare,” he whispered.

She stared back at him, sadness tugging at the corners of her lips. “I know, baby brother.”

They returned to silence at that, and after a successful attempt at keeping his distressing thoughts at bay, Harry fell back asleep for another few hours.

The second time he awoke that morning, the sun was fighting a sumptuous battle with the blinds, and the room around him was brighter than should’ve been possible. The alarm clock on the nightstand disclosed there were only thirty minutes until the arranged brunch with the Tomlinson son, and Harry’s deep wish to depart from the balcony on the third floor re-emerged at the fact.

Drawing one last inhale from the lavender scented sheets, he braced himself for the day to come. Frankly, he had no clue how to persevere, or how to handle his parents’ imminent attempts at making him interested in Louis Tomlinson. He wondered briefly if Louis would look at him in that same attentive way today, if he would act as charming and polite. He vigorously hoped not. He hoped Louis would prove difficult and unbearable — even to Lillian and Richard van Styles.

Gemma had left his room, Harry realised as he parted with the bed and found the other side vacant. She was presumably downstairs with everybody else — it was only Harry’s thing to perpetually make a business out of being as late and absent as possible.

Harry took a protracted shower, in vain trying to rid himself of the previous evening, and search for some sort of strength lingering somewhere inside him. When he couldn’t find much, he stepped out and began to dress. There were a pair of bright slacks in his drawers that seemed casual enough, and he chose an appropriate dress shirt to fit on top, tucking it in, naturally. He opted to leave a few buttons of his shirt open due to the warm weather, and proceeded to tame the curls at the top of his head. His dark brown hair was shortly cropped at the sides, and with the help of his father’s Dapper Dax gel he combed the curls at the top back. It was still rather wavy, but he felt presentable enough.

Twenty minutes past eleven, he lethargically began to make his way downstairs, dreading every bit of the meal to come. Through the large windows of the downstairs area, he could quickly spot the table on the patio, which had already been made and waited patiently under the shadows of a parasol. As expected, everybody were by this time gathered outside, Harry as per usual the last to arrive.

Taking a breath, squaring his shoulders (and begging for a miracle entailing some sort of cancellation from the Tomlinsons), Harry stepped out on the patio. All he had to do was throw a casual glance to his left, to find his father and Louis Tomlinson amicably chatting under the morning sun.

It was truly too much for the time of day.

At this early hour, Louis had arrived adorning grey slacks, and a white dress shirt that hadn’t been buttoned all the way up, either. A pair of braces sat snugly across his chest, and another one of them hats pushed his brown fringe into his eyes. Today, his sharp, blue eyes were hooded by round sunshades, and as he sat lounged on one of the sun chairs next to Harry’s father, left ankle resting atop the opposite knee, Harry felt another pinch in his stomach. Louis was undeniably handsome, and yet Harry desired nothing more than turning on his heel and disappearing.

He spun around, and headed for the opposite end of the patio, where Gemma and Gerard were engaged in quiet conversation, her smaller hand held in both of his.

“Morning,” he greeted, interrupting them without remorse.

“Morning, ‘Arry,” said Gerard benevolently, and Harry ignored him in favour of reaching down to place a small kiss to his sister’s cheek.

“Hi,” she smiled. “Sleep alright?”

“Just fine, thanks,” he hummed, keeping his gaze furthest possible from the other side of the patio. Still, his eyes caught on Louis’ profile next to his father, and was unable to help noticing his tan complexion against the white shirt he adorned.

“Our guest is over there,” Gemma pointed out, bumping into his shoulder.

He sighed. “And why do you think I’m here?”

She rolled her eyes. “You petty little prick. Go over and greet him. Our parents will be pleased, and they might cut you some slack during brunch.”

Harry would under no circumstances initiate a conversation with the man. He wanted no part in this preposterous arrangement.

“Harry!” gasped Mrs van Styles from the doorway. “There you are, I have been looking all over for you.”

Internally sighing, Harry fastened a strained smile on his face, and turned around to find his mother in a yellow dress and hat, eyes silently berating him for being late. In his periphery, he saw Louis quickly rising from his seat, tugging his braces in order. As he began to approach, he pulled his round sunshades off and tucked them into the breast pocket of his shirt.

“Harry,” he said warmly as he reached the spot where he was huddled, forcing Harry to turn and face him. “My sincerest apologies. I completely failed to notice you had joined us.”

He extended his hand, and Harry compelled his own arm to move, avoiding Louis’ blue eyes at all costs. He shook his hand carefully, Louis’ fingers firm but comfortable enough around his.

“Hey,” he ultimately replied and stepped back, leaving Louis at a slight loss of words at his succinctness. However, he quickly recovered, and tipped his head to the side.

“I’d like to thank you for inviting me to join you this morning.”

Harry had most certainly not invited Louis to brunch.

He glanced away nonchalantly. “Welcome.”

Feeling Louis’ gaze on him, Harry gnawed on the inside of his cheek, trying and failing to quench that prominent sense of discomfort in his gut. It would’ve been easier if Louis’ eyes weren’t so ridiculously blue, and he didn’t look at him with such intrigue.

“Well,” said Mr van Styles good-naturedly. “Now that we are all here and sound, shall we take a seat?”

“Yes,” agreed Harry instantly, and rounded Louis with fast steps, eagerly retreating from his proximity. The man wasn’t taller than him, but he was six years older, and the manner in which he held himself was secure to a much greater extent, and light years more authoritative. Furthermore, the way his eyes kept settling on Harry’s was slightly unnerving, and he fled with aggressive enthusiasm.

Mr van Styles naturally claimed the head of the table, and his wife sat down on the other end. Harry managed to seat himself next to his sister, by his father side, with Gerard across the table from him. Louis, located diagonally from Harry, seemed at a total ease next to the Frenchman and Mrs van Styles, and Harry viciously hoped it wouldn’t last long.

Petunia, the maid, began to serve beverages at command, and Harry completely disregarded his mother’s scowl as he asked for black coffee. At her side, Louis was drinking tea with a splash of milk. Harry couldn’t stand him, and his evident immaculateness. No wonder his mother was in love; he drank tea with a splash of milk.

“So,” said Mr van Styles as they had begun to eat. “Louis, do you live on campus at Bradshaw?”

“No, sir,” he replied politely. “I live in my own house in a calmer area, just a short car ride away. Ever heard of Bellmore?”

Of course they had heard of Bellmore. Who hadn’t? It was every poor man’s dream to reside in a place as neat, green, and decadent. Harry, though, wondered if it wouldn’t be lonely to live in one of those grand villas, in total solitude. He had never understood the notorious hunger for the exclusive, luxurious district, or less so why Louis of all people would wish to live amongst snobs and old people. Louis was young, only twenty-six, and the area was closer to Yorkinshare than Bradshaw, anyhow.

“Naturally,” nodded Mr van Styles. “It is a very nice community, and a good estate investment, too.”

“It’s very quaint,” agreed Louis. “I love the greenery surrounding the property. The trees and bushes are beautiful in the spring. I never thought I could fall in love with a garden before I saw it for the first time.”

Quaint was the last word Harry would have used to describe the swanky neighbourhood. It was redundant, and grossly overpriced.

“Sounds marvellous,” said Gemma amiably, and Harry resisted the urge to kick her leg under the table.

“Have you ever been, Harry?” inquired Louis, attention landing on him.

He forced his lips to move, and subsequently buried his nose in the coffee cup. “Once or twice.”

Louis nodded expectantly. “And what did you think?”

He cleared his throat, shrugging testily as his eyes traced the pattern on the porcelain. “Pricy.”

Richard and Lillian laughed, and Gerard began chuckling quietly as he nursed his tea. Gemma seemed to roll her eyes at their arrogant manners, but Harry couldn’t hear any sort of response from Louis Tomlinson himself. Sneaking a glance, he found Louis studiously watching him, something calculative in his shrewd eyes.

“Obviously it’s expensive, Harry,” tutted his mother, shaking her head with a fond smile that she directed at Louis. “If you wish to live comfortably, that’s just the way it goes. Now, more tea?”

Louis smiled. “Please.”

The brunch resumed with conversation solely consisting of Louis, Louis’ leisures, and Louis’ education. The interrogation was rather ridiculous, although, Harry did enjoy watching his parents’ favourite potential suitor hardly catch a moment of reprieve throughout the long process of their queries. Harry was devotedly prepared to watch him break, to find the fracture in the bone that had got to be hiding somewhere, and hear the man eventually reply with an answer that would be far from good enough. Louis couldn’t be stainless, could he? Every person had flaws, and Harry’s parents would expertly find it, and change their minds.

Unfortunately, that moment never came. Louis spoke good-naturedly and freely, never once breaking a sweat at the many questions slung his way from all corners of Harry’s family. And throughout, Louis didn’t stutter, didn’t fumble over his words, and every so often his eyes would alight on Harry, speaking as though to him even though he never uttered sound, and then subsequently watch every reaction on his objecting face. It was extremely trying, and though Harry should have been able to decipher every piece of Louis by now, he hadn’t. It vexed him disturbingly.

“And are you engaged in politics?” quizzed Gerard eventually, arching a critical brow. For the first time, Harry’s eyes willingly flickered to Louis, who let out a barely decipherable, nervous breath as a light blush began to creep up his neck. Harry’s lip tugged in amusement, finally seeing Louis shed some sweat under the hot interrogation. Smugly, Harry suddenly found a surprising appreciation of Gemma’s French husband.

“I’m afraid only as an occasional recreation,” admitted Louis, and Harry tried and failed to hide his smile, smirking down at his lap. Before anyone could let a condescending chuckle slip out, however, Louis leaned closer to the table, his eyes settling evenly on Gerard’s.

“You know, sir, even though most of my involvement includes voting and following the politics at an at most ordinary rate, I have always been extremely interested in civics and history. Naturally, politics are a massive part of that. The works of our society, and how it develops and recreates from the past is fiercely fascinating, especially how so many vastly different incidents can compile into something altogether ground breaking. You can see it in numerous variations of history, not only war and politics, but in art, fashion, literature, and music. It’s all connected, and the more I’ve learned the more amazed I find myself. I’m constantly fumbling in the midst of a world filled with so much knowledge, and wonder — in different shapes, and perhaps not of the most conventional definition of the term.”

Louis inhaled softly.

“Mr van der Hollande, I wish I did have more time to invest in politics, but for the moment I am focusing on my medical studies. It has been my dream to become a paediatrician since I was a teenager, when one of my younger siblings, as Mr and Mrs van Styles may know, passed away during the influenza that has plagued so many families. Since then I have made it my sole mission to get my degree, to help as many children and families in our country as manageable. If I could help only one child, I’d consider my purpose fulfilled.”

Louis finished with a small, humble smile, leaning back in his chair as the rest of the table sat in quiet, Harry himself staring at Louis unblinkingly.

“And it is completely understandable why you have chosen to lay our interests elsewhere,” concluded Mr van Styles, nodding comradely at Louis. His wife and daughter instantly agreed, both grinning appreciatively at the Tomlinson boy with approving tilts of their mouths.

And damn it if Harry wasn’t impressed. And he absolutely detested it.

“I agree with Mr van Styles,” nodded Gerard, and returned to his tea without a shrug. And that was that. Harry instantaneously retracted his previous comment about the Frenchman. Unreliable bastard, he was.

“So, you’re into art and literature?” inquired Gemma brightly, and her leg nudged Harry’s beneath the table, knowing both were subjects he held a deep penchant for.

“Yes, I am,” confirmed Louis, seemingly delighted at the new topic of conversation. “Music, particularly.”

Gemma’s hand laced over Harry’s wrist atop the table, pearl bracelet cold against his skin. “Harry, as well. He owns every vinyl you could possibly find. Lew Brown, Jimmy Dorsey, Benjamin Sparks, Luna Lowe — you ask for it!”

Louis’ eyes found Harry’s for the first time in a few minutes, and this time there was a sweet smile on his lips, as though he was genuinely charmed. “Really? I’m a massive fan of Walter Donaldson.”

“Yeah,” nodded Harry quietly, teeth sinking into his plush bottom lip. “He’s great.”

When he looked up next, he found the older boy still staring softly at him, the corners of his mouth tilted upward. When Harry directly met his eyes, his lips formed into a full grin, and the skin under his eyes crinkled delicately. Suddenly overwhelmingly aware of the silence around the table, Harry broke the gaze and looked away, certain his mother and father had watched every bit of the short exchange with hawk eyes, and were presumably rubbing their hands and laughing like lunatics on the inside.

Exhaling hotly, Harry found a bitter anger building in his gut. It infuriated him the manner in which Louis had to behave: so attractive, and charming Harry’s parents into an infatuation Harry would never escape. He needed the brunch to end; simply being under the constant scrutiny of Louis’ intrigued eyes was taxing enough. Dealing with his entire family at once on top of it was thoroughly draining.

“Pardon me,” he huffed, and stood from the table. His family looked up in surprise, and of course Louis just had to tactfully rise from his seat, before Harry could round his chair and retreat into the house.

Behind him, he heard his mother invent a quick excuse, and the click of her heels against the floors followed him the entire path he chose through the living room, past the first restroom, and into the large kitchen. There were a couple of maids in service, but Harry ignored them and grabbed a simple glass from a cupboard, filling it with cold tap water. Before he had emptied it, Mrs van Styles stepped into the kitchen. Her brown hair was still fastened tightly under the hat, and the colour on her lips was smudge-free, despite having consumed an entire breakfast. The woman stopped a few feet from Harry, crossing her arms.

“And what do you think you are doing, young man?” she inquired sternly, and her eyes displayed the major indignation her voice didn’t convey — quite.

Harry sighed, wholly exhausted of the notion that he was to simply go along with these antics.

“Mum,” he said, voice poised in a cooler tone than he had used in years. “I’m no fool; I recognise what you and Dad are doing.” He waited for a response, but his mother did no more than arch a careless brow. He firmly shook his head. “I am not entering a courtship with that man!”

Mrs van Styles’ face hardened, and she took a slow step toward him. “Louis Tomlinson is a fine man, from a fine family,” she said in a low voice. “It is your duty to your house to commit to a fine man. You have strolled about with your own ideas for too long, Harry, but it’s time you realise that it’s not appropriate for a man like you to choose just about anyone you’d come across.”

Harry stared at her imploringly. “I’m not ready to marry, Mum. Why can’t it wait?”

“Why should it? You are twenty years old. The Tomlinsons are interested, and Louis is more than eligible.”

“Because I ask you to!” exclaimed Harry. He could feel everything boiling beneath the surface of his skin. “It should wait on behalf of your consideration of my feelings.”

Mrs van Styles’ hard gaze narrowed even further. “Consideration? Since you were born, you have been your father’s and my first priority! You were raised in the best of worlds, with anything you could have asked for and more. You have always been privileged to anything, and especially that precious university of yours, with a flat on campus. All of it is by virtue of your father’s connections.”

She took another approaching step.

“Since you arrived this week you have been behaving outrageously. Don’t you think it is the most opportune moment to reimburse your parents for the trouble they have gotten into for your sake for the last twenty years?”

“That’s not fair,” he growled through gritted teeth.

His mother purposely strode forward until there were only inches separating their chests. She stared up at him, barely reaching his chin, but there was something so authoritative about her demeanour that he was left feeling dauntingly subordinate.

She stared him coldly in the eye. “Remember why you came to Deansville in the first place, son.”

And if that wasn’t a threat, he didn’t know what was.

**

The days following the brunch, Harry spent most of his time as far from his parents’ proximity as manageable. He would go for walks in the morning, keeping himself busy during the afternoons with books, reading and writing in the gazebo. He would occasionally come along with his sister and her husband when they went for swims in the sea, but mostly he preferred to keep to his own business.

Each time he’d come in contact with his parents, his insides seemed to pull in different directions, twisting painfully whilst he feebly attempted to veil how miserably he felt. There was nothing to be done with the situation he found himself in. He couldn’t prevent his parents from associating with the Tomlinsons, and couldn’t stop them from inviting their son over to proceed with their obvious agenda. Harry couldn’t leave; he was forced to stay lest his parents stop paying for Yorkinshare. It wasn’t fair, but it was a foolproof plan they had constructed.

Most of the time he remained alone and unbothered during the day, but even as he profusely tried, dinner at seven o’clock each evening was inescapable.

Three days after the brunch with the Tomlinson son, they were dining on the patio, Harry silently poking at the duck he’d been served. Though Harry didn’t intend to act anything more than necessarily polite toward his parents, they didn’t seem bothered by his sullen appearance. They chatted elatedly throughout dinner, and never once addressing him.

He hadn’t heard anything regarding the Tomlinsons since Sunday, and he hoped — although aware of the staggering odds — that his parents had changed their minds. Just as he believed he had victored through another dinner without a mention of Louis or his family, ready to retreat to his room, Mrs van Styles cleared her throat.

“Harry, dear,” she said, and he sunk back down into his chair, heart sinking. “Since you missed us at afternoon tea, tomorrow we are visiting the docks at Wellbridge.”

He waited for it.

“Please, dress nicely.”

Brilliant. A secret ploy to bring him along to meet the Tomlinsons. There was no room to decline the invitation either, as he was expected to join their activities and behave during these two months in Deansville.

Harry nodded reluctantly, eyes dark as he watched his mother’s mouth shape into a sly smile. He detested her, and the entire situation had his skin crawling as he watched her pleased smirk. Mrs van Styles had finally after all these years introduced him to an older, eligible man, and she had certainly already began planning the commencement of their courtship. Derek and Johannah Tomlinson appeared to be on the very same page. What bothered him something as fiercely, was that Louis didn’t seem to mind. Rather, he insinuated… interest. Harry wasn’t at all certain of how to deal with that prospect.

He left the table, throwing his napkin to the table with a lot more vigour than appropriate. He sent his father an angry scowl, and disappeared inside.

He didn’t want it, he didn’t need it, and he refused to end his summer with a fat diamond on his left hand. Louis Tomlinson could shove off to where he came from.

**

At midday on Thursday, Harry accompanied his family to Wellbridge, an area a few miles east. Gemma was wearing a light, faintly pink dress with a cloche hat, lipstick on her mouth, while Harry and Gerard had dressed similarly in knee-length shorts, dress shirts, and gambler hats to acclimate to the weather. The summer was getting warmer each day, and as Harry stepped out of the car he felt the heat wrap around him like a glove.

Wellbridge was a posh location by the shore, most likely named after the wide dock that prevailed along the beach, and a good fifty yards into the sea. Along the boardwalk, bars, restaurants, and shops had been set up, and at the end of the dock there were people jumping into the sea and climbing back up on the few ladders attached. It was a lively area, and it was one of the few places Harry tended to enjoy in Deansville.

“Let’s go,” prompted Mrs van Styles once the car had been parked, and her husband took her hand and placed it at the crook of his elbow as they began onto the boardwalk. Gerard gently captured Gemma’s palm in his, and their fingers linked between them as they strolled, Harry rolling his eyes in annoyance at their affection. Disgusting, honestly.

They came across various couples and families as they ventured, passing by ice cream shops, and bars that had yet to open for the day. Harry would have killed for something alcoholic to ease his humming nerves, but it seemed the world wasn’t on his side as of late.

The predictable and inevitable moment came into the works as they reached Mr van Styles’ most beloved gelato parlour: a place called Hoot, where they inhabited a soda fountain, endless rows of liquor, and countless flavours of the Italian ice cream. During the three years since Harry’s last visit, the shop hadn’t seemed to change in any noticeable manner, and it reminded Harry of being a teenager, sitting at the bar counter and tirelessly attempting to persuade the barkeep into adding liquor to his milkshake. He wondered if Carl still worked there.

By the entrance of Hoot, stood the Tomlinson family. There were more of them on this day, as three additional girls had joined the fray, all somewhat younger than Charlotte. The girls were all brunettes, dressed in colourful dresses and hats, and were altogether an admittedly adorable bunch. Just like at the soirée, Charlotte was standing by her brother’s side, this time a slight hint of amusement on her face as Louis was leaning down and murmuring something into her ear.

Today, Louis appeared to have also dressed in shorts to accommodate the weather, but there were braces attached to the hems, and his caramel hair was freed of any hats. The breeze from the sea was pulling at his fringe above the same round sunglasses he had adorned on the previous Sunday, and Louis was gently tucking it into place every so often. His skin looked as warmly tanned as before, and the man was just as infuriatingly attractive as on any other day.

“Derek,” grinned Mr van Styles elatedly, gaining the Tomlinsons’ attention. Derek Tomlinson chuckled merrily, and instantly took his hand, shaking vigorously as they greeted one another.

“Oh, Lillian,” sang Johannah, kissing her cheek. “You absolute beauty. And Gemma, you pearl. Come, meet my daughters.”

Greetings were exchanged in split directions, Gerard seemingly already acquainted with Mr Tomlinson and his wife, while Gemma curtseyed prettily before the man. Harry nodded at Charlotte, who gave him a slight smirk back, and he quickly found he quite liked her; neither of them was particularly interested in the antics of their families.

“Hi,” said Louis’ voice, and Harry finally let his eyes alight on the man. He’d taken off his shades like at the brunch, and he was appraising Harry with an upward quirk to his lip. His eyes trailed across him, that impish twist to his mouth sticking, meanwhile Harry forced himself to focus on keeping an even respiration. Louis extended his hand, slowly shaking Harry’s as he met his eyes. “How good to see you again, Harry.”

“Likewise,” he replied, and tied his hands behind his back, glancing down at his shoes. He felt his sister’s hand on his arm, squeezing for comfort.

“How have you been?” inquired Louis, gaze lingering on his face.

“Just fine,” he assured shortly. Louis nodded, and awkwardly cleared his throat after a moment when Harry didn’t return the pleasantries.

“Louis has been helping his father plan the remodelling of our guest house,” supplied Johannah Tomlinson, eyes sliding over Harry before landing on Mrs van Styles. “Impeccable taste, this one.”

Of course. The man was God’s definition of perfection, according to any potential mum-in-law, at least.
“You’re boasting, Mum,” said Louis, shaking his head, and surprisingly there was just the barest indication of disapproval written on his face. Harry had never seen him anything other than civil, and was momentarily entertained. “I merely offered my opinions.”

Johannah rolled her eyes affectionately. “You’re too modest, Louis.”

Mrs van Styles shared a fond look with her, both of them acting as though it was the silliest thing they had ever heard.

Derek clasped his hands together, swiping a glance across the group before settling on Harry’s father. “Richard, what do you say we all grab a bite?”

“Terrific idea, Derek. We would be delighted to.”

“Actually,” interrupted Louis, drawing everyone’s attention. His eyes were on Harry. “I had intended to ask Harry if he wouldn’t terribly mind accompanying me for a short stroll on the beach?” His brows arched, looking at him with a smile. “Promise I won’t keep you long.”

Harry felt each pair of eyes fall his on his face, and there was suddenly an uncomfortable warmth building beneath the surface of his skin. His father was waiting impatiently, eyes staring into the side of his face.

“Sure,” he muttered, unable to stand the suspense that was causing an all too prominent blush on his cheeks.

Eyes brightening significantly, Louis grinned. “Excellent. Don’t let us keep you, though, Dad. Why don’t you move along, and we will catch up with you?”

“Brilliant idea, Louis,” nodded Mrs van Styles.

Louis gestured to his right. “Shall we, Harry?”

Harry refused to look at his parents, sure their faces were several shades of pleased, and instead gave his sister a helpless glance before hesitantly following Louis, departing from the group. His heart began thumping heavily against his ribcage as he joined Louis’ side, nerves sparking at the realisation that he wouldn’t be able to escape, and was forced to exchange more than just the minimum of pleasantries with the man.

“You have to forgive my forwardness,” said Louis from Harry’s right, somewhat abashed. “I’ve been dying for a moment with you alone,” he admitted. “It can be a rather pressured ambience with our families present.”

No kidding, Harry thought, and enthusiastically pretended not hear the part with Louis’ confession.

They reached the short wooden steps leading down to the sand, and as they descended, Louis began undoing his shoes and gestured for Harry to follow his lead. Harry silently complied, tugging his shoes off, and watched as Louis straightened up, his fringe tousled across his forehead.

Ready, Louis held his palm out toward him. Insides twisting in complete disdain, Harry stared at it hostilely.

“Your shoes,” clarified Louis, brow quirked patiently.

“Oh,” breathed Harry, relief flooding his veins. “I’m alright,” he told him, and Louis only looked at him for a moment before he shrugged, and began to make toward the water.

Louis remained quiet until they reached the very edge of the shoreline, where the sand was wet under the constant maintenance of the waves.

“This is one of my favourite places in Deansville,” he said as they started to stroll along the sand, shoes held in their hands. The wind was playing uninterruptedly with his hair, and seemingly unbothered, Louis pulled his sunshades from his pocket, and placed them back over his nose. “The sand is unbelievably smooth. Barely any rocks. It feels like a beach from a book sometimes, especially in the mornings. I sometimes walk all the way from the east origin to the west end.”

He waited patiently for a response, but when Harry didn’t reply even after a full minute, he slowed his pace, and gently tapped Harry’s arm, just once, before locking his hands behind his back again. Shocked at the briefest moment of physical contact, Harry’s eyes widened painfully, flickering over the man in alarm.

“Harry, I…” said Louis. “I’m aware I might be coming off too forward again. I know you didn’t expect to be here right now, but… I’d love for you to tell me something about you. At brunch we only seemed to be talking about me. A shame, really, when you’re sitting across from me.”

Flattery. Boy.

“So?” prompted Louis around a modest grin.

Holding back a grunt, still a bit unsettled, Harry shrugged, eyes keeping to the ground. “I dunno what you wish to find out.”

“Anything. Do you read?”

“Yes.”

In Harry’s periphery, Louis was possibly raising a waiting brow. “Anything in particular…?”

Harry sighed, curling his toes around the sand beneath his feet. “Fiction.”

“Of what kind?”

Harry repressed an irritable huff, but only because Louis sounded genuine when he asked, as though he really did wish to know. Harry kept his eyes down, but he could feel the man’s near presence by his side as they continued to stroll.

“Of the romance, fantasy, and science variety.”

“The best sort, then. Ever ventured into horror?”

Harry frowned. “No?”

Louis let out a small chuckle at his reaction. “It’s occasionally quite gory, but there certainly is something fascinating about it. Much like science-fiction, it’s intriguing.”

Harry stopped for a slight moment and squinted dubiously at him, properly appraising the older man for the first time since they’d stood on the dock.

Louis laughed. “I’m not creepy. I promise, dear.”

Dear. Harry rapidly averted his gaze, something tight bundling in his chest as they continued.

“And music? Your sister said you are an enthusiast?” asked Louis after a few moments of silence.

“Something of the sort.”

“Who is your favourite?”

Harry sighed. Louis really didn’t put a leash on his curiosity, did he? “I don’t know.”

“It is a difficult choice, I presume,” hummed Louis. “There are many talented people at this time, so much music it’s difficult to settle on just one performer. Jazz has always spoken particularly to me, though. The band at your parents’ party was immensely talented.”

“They’re called The Jackson Boys,” supplied Harry, for the first time speaking without a moment of thought beforehand. He bit his lip, silently scolding his own eagerness for conversation for once regarding something interesting. He couldn’t talk with Louis, though. In fact, not bonding with Louis was essential. Louis shouldn’t like him.

The older boy grinned. “I will definitely try my best to procure their vinyl.”

Harry forced his eyes to relocate to the beach once more, and remained silent as they walked, sand slipping in between their toes and over their feet.

“Have you listened to any Jack Hylton?” asked Louis after a while. “You seem like the type.”

“Yes.”

“Did you hear his latest track? I like it a lot.”

Painting the Clouds With Sunshine. Harry had heard it, too.

“It’s great,” he mumbled, coming into a stop. His eyes had caught on something far out on the sea — perhaps a boat, he couldn’t quite tell — and watched over the water for a moment. At the end of the horizon, the various shades of blue melted into one. In the middle somewhere, the water appeared in its darkest form, almost matching Louis’ azure eyes. Almost.

“Forgive me, Harry…” murmured Louis by his side, voice quiet as not to break the serene moment for him. “You strike me as a rather opinionated person, but you don’t ever seem to say much. I can’t help but wonder if you’re just quiet in general, or if it has something to do with my presence in particular?”

Well, Harry did have opinions. A few of them, actually. A couple of them about Louis’ apparently insatiable curiosity. However, there were different levels of the definition of the word. Take his mother, for example: gruesomely anal, and controlling to a point Harry had felt like his house were a prison growing up. Harry had lived through twenty years of her unreasonable ideals, and at this point he was biting at the worst of it. So, no, he did not consider himself opinionated as such, but yes, he did have a thing or two to say about particular matters.

“Look,” he said, turning around and staring back at Louis’ shaded eyes. “I did not expect to be here, yeah? I hadn’t even planned to be in Deansville this summer, so…”

Louis nodded. “Perhaps we can just make the best of it then?” He raised a hopeful brow.

Boy. Louis didn’t get it. Or maybe he did, and just preferred to neglect it.

“Let’s go back.”

“As you wish.”

They walked almost all the way to the docks in silence, Harry keeping a slight distance and choosing to wade through the ankle-deep water. Along the way, they passed people swimming in the sea and tanning atop their towels on the beach. A group were playing kick-around with a football, all of them at ease under the warming sun. Harry, however, felt hot despite the cool water licking around his calves. There was a pit of scorching chagrin curling somewhere inside him. Most of it sizzled at the fact that his mother had gotten what she wished for, played him like a fool into the hands of some bloke whose family she’d acquainted, only he had been aware throughout the whole process, and could do nothing but stand by and let it happen. The rest, felt tricked because somehow Louis wasn’t a total pest.

“Do you know of Niall Horan?” inquired Louis after a moment.

Harry stopped, feeling a small wave rush around his legs. He corrected the position of the hat atop his head. “Yes. Why do you ask?” he squinted.

Louis shrugged. “He’s a friend of a friend. I knew he was studying law at Yorkinshare, so I figured you might be of his acquaintance. Are the two of you friends?”

They had had a few courses together this past year. “Yes.”

“Have you known him long?”

“You ask a lot of questions,” said Harry disapprovingly.

“It’s how you find things out,” replied Louis easily.

Getting slightly indignant and fed up, he told him, “It’s rude.”

“How come?”

Harry rolled his eyes, exasperation practically leaking from his ears.

“Wow,” breathed Louis all of a sudden.

“What?” he said, not bothering to veil his annoyance. The sunglasses were still hiding Louis’ eyes, and he couldn’t tell what he was staring at.

Louis frowned, mouth slightly ajar. “Your eyes are so green. It must be the ocean — they’re amazing.”

Harry stilled, taken aback. Louis had complimented him before, if in a lot subtler manner, but somehow Harry was caught entirely off guard. His eyes had always been green, a colour he had inherited from his father, and never had he especially enjoyed the fact. Louis looked at him as though he’d never seen anything like it before, and Harry didn’t know what to do.

“It is a colour,” he said stiffly, staring at the older boy petulantly. “Ever seen grass, or trees?”

Louis’ lip pulled, and that boyish look on his face returned. “A gorgeous colour, mind. And I like trees. Grass, too, as a matter of fact. Do you like grass?” he said, a spark flickering to life in his smile.

“Oh, my God,” exhaled Harry, and swivelled, instantly starting to walk away.

“I was joking, Harry!” called Louis, but there was laughter in his voice. For whatever reason, Harry’s face felt red, and he refused speak to this man one more time before they got back to the dock.

Louis quickly caught up with him, and spent the remainder of the stroll whistling, good-natured and quiet. It was a pretty tune, but Harry was internally a mess of emotions. Louis had turned from annoyingly polite, to somewhat cheeky, and Harry’s frustration with the situation in general wasn’t handling it well. Louis never seemed put off at his rude behaviour, either, and when Louis was discussing literature and music, Harry found it difficult maintain a solid facade.

They returned to the dock, and neither of them put their shoes back on as they made their way up the steps. They headed in the direction of the gelato parlour, and it wasn’t until Harry could spot the Hoot sign down the boardwalk that Louis spoke again.

“Thank you for joining me, Harry,” he said, voice warm as he removed his round sunglasses again. The wind had done a bit of a number on his hair, which was askew and severely tousled. It wasn’t unattractive. “I apologise for my overwhelming plethora of questions. I will try to keep a rein on my curiosity in the future.”

His eyes were still glinting with something, though, and part of Harry hated it, because that moment on the beach could easily be depicted as banter, and he wasn’t meant to be bantering with Louis Tomlinson. The other part, significantly smaller in size but just as ferocious, was embracing the pinch in Harry’s stomach that appeared each time he was struck by this man’s stupidly handsome face.

Harry looked back at him, watching a small, impish grin spread on his face. His laughter from the beach, bright, cackling, and inexplicably charming, kept ringing in Harry’s ears.

It had not been a moment. That little thing on the beach, it was not a moment. It was forgotten.

“Let’s find our families, Louis.”

Louis’ smile didn’t dissipate. “Okay, love.”

Clenching his teeth, Harry ignored the second term of endearment of the day, and headed purposefully down the boardwalk. Louis trudged along, but thankfully he didn’t attempt at starting another conversation.

They eventually found the rest of their company at one of the posher restaurants in Wellbridge, already dining outside on the dock under the boiling sun. Harry’s neck was warm as they returned, and he could spot delicate beads of sweat at the temples of Louis’ head. His brown hair was damp at the spots, and Harry forced himself to keep from staring at it. He didn’t know what it was, but Louis extracted a strange mixture of feelings inside him, and he more than once ended up gazing angrily at the side of his head anyway.

“Look at your feet!” gasped Johannah Tomlinson in horror as they returned. “And Harry!”

The sand was still sticking to their feet and ankles, and even farther up Harry’s calves.

“It’s was a beach stroll, Mum,” sighed Louis. “A little sand is to be expected.”

She inspected them carefully. “Hope you didn’t ruin your clothes.”

Mrs van Styles took hold of Harry’s wrist, voice quiet yet demanding. “Put your shoes on, for God’s sake, Harry.”

Rolling his eyes, he sat down on one of the free chairs at the end of the table. As he began brushing the sand off his feet, Louis took place by his side, between him and Charlotte. They both cleared themselves of sand and dust, treading their shoes back onto their feet in silence.

Richard van Styles took it upon himself to order in food for both of them, and after a few minutes Harry was presented with pasta with a wine sauce. Figuring he had earned the right to ignore his company for a while, he indulged in his own appreciation of pasta, and did his best to pretend Louis Tomlinson wasn’t sitting right by his side, arm inches from his. Still, his hushed conversation with his sister cut through Harry’s concentration.

“Are we still going midnight swimming, Lou?” mumbled Louis’ sister, turning her head closer to his. Harry frowned, just a bit intrigued.

“Hush,” whispered Louis back. “Definitely, Lots, but remember what we said last time.”

“No, I know,” she promised. “Tell Liam to come?”

“‘Course.”

“And the whiskey…?” asked Charlotte, and Harry’s eyes widened. He kept his eyes on the plate before him, listening for Louis’ reply.

The man chuckled. “No problem. Just don’t go fucking flinging yourself off the dock, though.”

She laughed, and the first real smile Harry had ever seen on her erupted on her face. Louis was evidently close with Charlotte, and when he pondered it, it did seem as though she was only really happy when talking to him.

Slightly shocked at Louis’ manner of speech, though — Harry had almost begun to think Louis was incapable of profanities — he poked at his pasta in distress. Louis only seemed to confuse him the more he was exposed to his company.

“That was you, you knob head,” hissed Charlotte at Louis, and Harry’s front teeth sank into his bottom lip, another wave of confusion washing over him.

He thought he had started to figure Louis out; polite, calm, handsome, and as boring as the next man with few exceptions, and essentially a mother’s ideal son. Today, so many new sides of this man had sneaked up on him, and he definitely did not like it. But he also wondered, slightly amused, what in the world Johannah Tomlinson would do if she knew her son brought his younger sister out for nightly rounds at a dock with his friends. He wondered where this side of him fit into the puzzle.

But, anyhow. It did not matter, did it? In the end, Harry had no intention of indulging in this courtship, and he had no interest in what Louis was actually like. He was not about to get invested, either. While his parents could compel him to be at their dinners and outings with the Tomlinsons, they couldn’t actually bring him to utter either ‘yes’ or ‘I do’.

As lunch finished up, Harry felt Louis’ knee nudge his underneath the table. Jolting in alarm, he found the man looking at him, head tilted toward him while his hands rested safely in his lap. His eyes shone so impossibly blue, and still glinted something unbearably pretty. Harry sucked in a breath, glued his teeth into his cheeks, and furrowed his brows into a scowl, but couldn’t for the sake of him glance away.

Louis’ grin only widened, and as though he were still thinking of that moment on the beach, he pressed his leg against his, and firmly kept it there for rest of the meal.