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Wrapped in Red

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Louis Tomlinson was out of his depth. All he had done was step through the glass entryway, and stop about one foot into Sephora before he started to feel overwhelmed. He had been rather successful at avoiding the store, but now it was two days before he was supposed to drive home for Christmas, and he needed to get presents for his four sisters. Yesterday.

The store was total sensory overload. There were products everywhere. Shelves and shelves lined up and down the floor, on the walls, and on special racks right in front of him. Everything was shiny and glittery. He took a deep breath. He could do this. Lottie, Fizzy, Phoebe, and Daisy had all asked for Christmas presents from this store, independently of each other, and if his sisters were agreeing on something, he must be in the right place. The only problem was, he had no idea where to begin.

As if his prayers had been answered he heard a voice next to him say, “Is there something I can help you find?”

He turned to face the employee, and if he had a better idea of what he was looking for, he probably could have come up with a better response than, “Um…” but thankfully, she seemed to be well versed in the language of overwhelmed gift givers.

“Who are you shopping for today?” she continued, barreling right through Louis’ lack of response.

“My sisters. I have four of them. I have a list.” He pulled the piece of paper he had written everything down on, and handed it over.

“Okay, great! Let's take a look.” As the employee began to try and decipher his writing Louis felt himself relax. He was in the hands of a professional. It was no longer his sole responsibility. Plus this girl, Melissa, her name tag read, seemed to know what she was doing. He was startled when she let out a laugh, and then kept laughing.

“What, what is it?” Her laughter calmed down as she dabbed the tears starting to form at the corners of her eyes. She didn't seem to be laughing at him, so presumably it was the notes he had written down while face-timing with his family the other day. He had been a bit preoccupied grading his students’ finals at the time.

“Disney princess Renaissance eyes” Melissa said as her giggles trailed off. “I'm only laughing because I knew exactly what you meant, though I will say Anastasia isn't technically a Disney princess, and what you're looking for is the Modern Renaissance palette by Anastasia Beverly Hills.”

“Yes! That's it! I recognize that!” Melissa smiled at him again. “Come on in, then, and we’ll definitely get you sorted out.”

Thirty minutes, and a hefty dent in his bank account later, Louis was armed with gifts that matched Melissa’s interpretation of his list; the palette for Lottie, a set of different colored face masks for Fizzy, sparkly handled brushes for Daisy, and some kind of lip gloss set for Phoebe. He vowed to send Melissa a fruit basket after the holidays.

He continued to shop around, managing to find a nice new leather wallet for his step dad Dan, and some books and games for his youngest siblings Ernie and Doris. Seven children all told. His mum, Jay, was a hero. For her, he had heard about the new Lush spa opening up soon and had purchased a few treatments already. Definitely the priciest present of them all, but so worth it.

Feeling the effects of a productive morning, Louis decided to stop for some lunch at the new sandwich stand in the food court. Because it was new and still a novelty, the line was relatively long compared to everything else, but he had heard from his students that it was worth the wait. There were about fifteen people ahead of him in line, and after studying the menu and deciding what he wanted, he took a brief glance at them. As other customers were served, the line naturally began to shift forward and the relatively tall man in front of him shifted to the side, revealing the customers at the front of the line, and one of the most attractive men Louis had seen in a long time. The man had close to shoulder length chestnut curls, actual ringlets. He had never been attracted to someone’s hair before, but there was a first time for everything. He could only barely see the man’s profile, but what he saw seemed to match his hair. God, Louis was getting pathetic, “matched his hair.” Come on. The man was wearing a loose Black Watch flannel shirt over a white t-shirt and tight black skinny jeans, he looked comfortable and relaxed, but stylish at the same time. Louis loved Black Watch flannel, especially around the holidays, it just always made him feel cozier. He smiled to himself as he watched the man collect his sandwich, grin, thank the cashier, and put a dollar bill in the tip jar. All that and generous, too.

Louis watched him step away from the counter, secretly hoping he would sit down in the food court to eat his sandwich, and possibly give Louis the chance to talk to him, but unfortunately he continued off down the hallway out of sight.

After ordering and receiving his own sandwich, Louis settled with all of his various shopping bags at one of the tables in the general seating area. His students were right, the sandwich was definitely worth it. He pulled out his phone and began messing around while he ate, checking social media, watching his sisters’ snapchats, when the phone in his hand began to vibrate, and a picture of his mum popped up on the screen. He quickly swiped to answer, “Hi, mum!”

“Hello, darling.” Louis let his mum’s voice wash over him. He was really looking forward to going home. This semester had been fairly busy and he hadn’t been home in awhile. Definitely less frequently than he would have liked.

“I’m just at the mall doing some last minute shopping. What’s going on?” He figured the call would be about the logistics of his coming home.

“Just wanted to check in about what time you were planning on getting here on Thursday,” she said cheerily. “Want to make sure to leave a place if you’ll make it before dinner.”

“Of course, mum. I was planning to get there between four and five.” The drive would only take about forty-five minutes, and he was hoping to finish all of the grading he needed to do and submit his final grades around lunch time.

“Perfect,” Jay replied, but Louis could tell, it was not her actual “everything is fine, let’s move on to other business” tone of voice, which could only mean one thing. She had something to talk about, and he was not going to like it.

“So, about Friday night,” she began. Friday night, Friday night… what was supposed to be happening Friday? His birthday wasn’t until the twenty-fourth, so it wasn’t about his birthday. Had he forgotten something?

“The Horan’s annual Christmas party...” Oh. Oh no. He really had forgotten something. Something very important. Every year his friend Niall’s family threw a big fancy Christmas cocktail party, and invited what amounted to almost his entire hometown. He had managed to avoid it for the last few years, but he had forgotten the twenty-third would be a Friday this year. What perfect timing. Louis groaned. “Now, Lou, I know it’s not your favorite thing to do, but we’re going as a family, and that’s that. Niall will definitely be there, and I’m sure his lovely fiancée will be there, too.”

“Yeah, I know, mum,” Louis sighed. This was shaping up to be a much more stressful visit home than he anticipated.

“And you know, a little birdie told me that John will be there as well.” Great. Wonderful. Perfect. He wondered if there was some kind of ritual satanic sacrifice he could perform to produce a snow storm on short notice that would prevent him from making the drive.

Louis had been in a relationship with John Ford their last year in school, before foolishly trying to make it work semi-long distance their first year in university. The first whiff of John cheating on him-a text from Niall saying there had been some rumors around town about John’s university antics-had Louis on a train to go confront him. When he got there John didn’t deny it, using the age-old cliché of not wanting to be tied down in his prime. He had just never bothered to tell Louis, theoretically hoping Louis would feel the same and just forget about him. That had been an awakening for Louis. Clearly John had never truly understood him if he thought Louis would just forget about, and ignore, a committed and (apparently only slightly) monogamous relationship. That was just not how Louis was programmed.

After eight years of minor attempts at dating, and some self reflection, Louis had come to the conclusion that nine times out of ten he preferred the day to day act of being in a relationship more than the actual men he was seeing. Not exactly a heartening concept or dating philosophy.

He knew he was being picky, but he had accepted that and was completely unapologetic about it. Why shouldn’t he he be picky about someone he could possibly spend the rest of his life with? He would be turning twenty-seven on Christmas Eve. He was at the perfect age to be looking, but didn’t feel the pressure of settling down quite yet. When it came down to it, he craved the intimacy of a relationship more than anything but hadn’t found anyone with a compatible personality that wanted the same thing.

Unfortunately, none of this would placate a concerned mother. Jay had loved John, and had been campaigning for Louis to try and revisit the relationship, believing the break up was “part of their story.” She also hadn’t completely believed the cheating, brushing off John’s desire to not be tied down as the “naïveté of youth.” Louis had mostly ignored her attempts to get them back together, which was now biting him in the ass. He should have shut the attempts down years ago.

“Mum. That’s never going to happen. Ever. No way. The end.” It was his mother’s turn to sigh, “I know you say that, darling, but I’m just concerned you’re going to end up an old maid, and then what will I do about grandchildren?” She had six other potential grandchild-producers, but he knew from past arguments that bringing this up would only make things worse. Also, old maid? He rolled his eyes, garnering him some odd looks from the table of teenagers sitting at the table next to him.

He had reached an internal impasse. He knew her concern was coming from a place of love and a desire for him to be settled. She was also a big believer in romance. After two failed marriages, she had never stopped believing in love, and it had led her to her current husband, Dan. Louis had always admired that about her, and he hated to disappoint her. Maybe one little white lie wouldn’t hurt? Okay, who was he kidding, it was going to be a big lie, but she would never be able to prove otherwise, “Well, I’ve actually just started seeing someone...”

“WHAT?!” The response was both deafening, and immediate. “Why didn’t you say anything before?”

“Mum, I date. I’ve told you, I just haven’t found anyone worth sticking around for.” His mother let out a rather inelegant snort.

“Well you should bring him to the party,” his mother continued, and really, Louis should have seen that one coming. He can’t believe he didn’t think that all the way through.

“Mum, what part of ‘just started seeing’ do you not understand? We’re not even close to meeting each other’s families,” Louis said, incensed on behalf of his fabricated boyfriend.

“What’s his name?” His mum’s completely logical question sent him into a panic, so he did the only thing he could and kept talking as if she hadn’t said anything.

“Plus, you know how overwhelming we are as a family. On top of that meeting our entire neighborhood, and half the town. Can you imagine all of the embarrassing things people might say at the party? How could you willingly subject me to that?”

“Now, Louis don’t be ridiculous. You’re bringing him. And that’s final. Ta, darling!” The beep intoned in his ear before Louis even had the chance to process what she said. She had hung up on him.

Well, shit. Louis sat there staring at phone for another few minutes trying to let his panic subside. He was an intelligent, responsible adult. How the hell had he managed to get himself in such a mess in a matter of minutes. Seriously, minutes. The phone call had barely lasted any time at all. He took a deep breath and called the only person he knew would both pick up and help him in a crisis.

“This is Niall.” The Irish brogue shone through, meaning he was probably at home with his family. His accent was always thicker when he was with them.

“Nialler! How’s it hangin’?” He cringed at the brightness and false enthusiasm in his own voice.

“What did you do, Louis?” What? What did he mean what did he do?

“What do you mean what did I do? How do you know I did something?” Was he really that transparent?

“You never say ‘How’s it hangin?’ like that unless something has happened. And that something usually involves you getting into trouble,” Niall replied.

“I find your lack of faith in me astonishing,” Louis said. He was met with silence on the other end of the line. “Alright, fine. I may have possibly, kind of, sort of, told my mum I was seeing someone, and then she insisted that someone be my date to your party.”

“Well that’s great, Lou! I didn’t know you were seeing someone.” Louis dropped his head down to rest on his forearm where it was folded on to the table in front of him.

“I’m not.”

“Well, shit. That sucks.” Not the most helpful Niall has ever been.

“Yes. Yes it does,” he paused, not knowing how to continue. Ripping off the band-aid was probably his best bet, “You have to help me find someone to take to the party.”

“What, like a fake boyfriend?” It sounded so wrong said out loud like that. Louis much preferred dancing around the subject with subtlety to try and ease his guilt.

“Yeah, I guess.”

“Sorry, Lou. I don’t know really anyone that would be a believable fake boyfriend for you on such short notice.” Louis hopes crashed down around him.

“But Niaaaallllll, you know everyone!” He hoped his pout and puppy dog eyes that were usually so effective in person, would be implied heavily enough over the phone.

Niall blew out a breath, “I’m sorry, Lou.” It was only two days before, and Niall really did sound sorry, so as much as he hated to, he had to let Niall off the hook.

“That’s okay, Ni, I’ll figure something else out.”

“Just talk to your mom,” he said, like it was just that easy to put Jay Tomlinson-Deakin off an idea once she already had it in her head. To be fair, he was the one to put the idea in her head in the first place, but still.

After catching up with Niall a bit more, Louis ended the conversation and gathered up his things. The sheer size and volume of the bags had him thinking about the wrapping nightmare he now faced on top of everything else. He wasn’t sure he would have time if he wanted to get all of his grading done on time as well. He could just buy gift bags and take the lazy way out. His sister Fizzy, the lover of all things stationery and gift wrapping, would probably side-eye him but she knew how hopeless he was at it, so she would also forgive him. Eventually.

He began the trek down the long hall towards the train station, thinking he would have just enough time to catch the train that his tracking app had said was about 4 minutes away. He picked up his pace weaving in and out of kiosks, and other shoppers that were crowding the hallway. Just as he took a sharp left to avoid a double wide stroller whose navigator seemed to be paying attention to everything other than where she was going, he ran side long into a sandwich board sign that proclaimed in big shiny letters, “Charity Gift Wrapping HERE!!!!”

That was one solution.

Louis walked towards the booth he could vaguely make out through the crowd. When he approached, there was a rather frenetic looking older woman with a very festive name tag that read “Barbara,” who looked to be in the middle of helping the person already standing there. The sign on the booth said it was a five dollar donation per package. His mum’s didn’t need to be wrapped because it was already in a decorative envelope, so that left him with seven packages. Thirty five dollars to a good cause, and he wasn’t the one who would have to do the wrapping? Sold!

“The other person helping me will be back in just a moment, he just stepped away to use the restroom,” Barbara said, interrupting his mental schedule liberation party.

“Not to worry,” he reassured her with a smile. She seemed to be a little stressed and he noticed the counter was in mild disarray, he must have just missed the lunch time last-minute-Christmas-wrapping rush. Who knew there was such a thing? He pulled out his phone again to pass the time.

After a few minutes, he heard a deep voice cut through the din of the noisy hallway, “Hello, there! How can I help you?” Louis looked up and came face to face with his sandwich line mystery man.

“You!” he said, before he realized what he was saying. If there was one lesson he could take from this day, it was that he really needed to develop a better brain to mouth filter.

The man continued to smile at him with bright, expressive green eyes, “I’m sorry, do we know each other?”

Louis recovered quickly enough, “Oh, no. I’m sorry, I thought you were someone else for a moment.” That sounded mildly plausible.

Thankfully the man didn’t see any problem with that explanation, shrugged, and repeated his question, “How can I help you, today?” wide smile still in tact.

“I have quite a few gifts I need wrapped, and I was hoping you could take care of that for me.” Louis cringed internally, that sounded a little dirty there towards the end, but thankfully mystery man again seemed completely immune to any awkwardness. Flirting with random people he wasn’t attracted to had always been easy because there was no pressure, but flirting with someone he actually wanted to flirt with always seemed to make him slightly awkward and stumble over his words.

“How many is quite a few?” the man looked almost excited by the prospect which horrified Louis, though one would think he had to at least enjoy wrapping gifts a little bit to volunteer at the booth in the first place.

“Seven,” Louis replied while bringing his collection of bags up on to the counter.

“Perfect, let’s pull them all out and decide where to start.” Louis did as he was told, and removed the various gifts. The biggest and bulkiest by far were the toys for Ernie and Doris, the younger twins. Everything else was fairly small and relatively rectangular shaped. “So, erm… what’s your name?” the man asked, sounding almost uncertain all of a sudden.

“Louis. Louis Tomlinson. I see you don’t have a name tag like Barbara, there.”

“It’s Harry, and you’re right! I don’t know where it got to, I must have lost it when we had our rush earlier.” Harry seemed to relax now that introductions had been made. Louis was at a loss, because this man was so utterly charming. When he had noticed Harry in line earlier, he could see that he was attractive, but so far he seemed incredibly open and kind. He had only known the man for five minutes, though. He needed to get a grip.

“It’s nice to meet you, Harry. I’m eternally grateful that you’re doing this for me, I am hopeless at gift wrapping.” Harry smiled at him, and Louis could honestly just bask in it all day.

“My pleasure, I like being able to help spread the joy. We’ll see what you can do to make it up to me,” Harry teased with a little wink. Was he flirting? He was flirting. Oh, God this was happening. Harry took Lottie’s make up palette in hand, and began to pull the flashiest paper off the roll, clearly matching the personality of the paper to the gift item.

Louis took a breath to reply with something he was sure would be a perfect blend of pithy and adorable, when all of a sudden Barbara interrupted their conversation, “Harry would you like me to get started on some of those to make it go faster?” Louis could honestly begin to strongly resent Barbara.

“Oh, um… Yeah, sure I guess.” Harry seemed just as put off by the idea of her helping as Louis was, which bolstered his confidence a bit. Barbara picked up the set of sparkly make up brushes for Daisy, and went to go pull a plain red paper with snow men off the roll. Louis had never had strong feelings about wrapping paper matching before but after five minutes with Harry, he knew that her choice was all wrong. Fortunately, Daisy’s brushes were saved from their very boring fate by another person coming up with presents in hand.

“Whoops, I guess I better help them,” Barbara said, turning to the new customer, leaving Louis and Harry to their conversation once again. Now that they had gotten out of the rhythm of flirting, Louis wasn’t sure how to get back into it. Harry also seemed to be struggling with how to reconstruct the conversation.

“So… who are all of these gifts for?” Harry inquired.

“My siblings, actually. I’m headed home for Christmas in a few days, and I was worried I wouldn’t have time to wrap them.”

“Siblings?” Harry eyed the large variety of presents, “How many do you have?” he asked, clearly confused.

Louis gave his usual canned response to this question, “Six, actually. Five sisters and one brother, ages four through twenty.”

“That’s amazing, so the difference between you and the oldest is…?” Louis smiled to himself, Harry was digging for his age, it was an incredibly cute attempt at subtlety.

“I’ll be turning twenty-seven on Christmas Eve,” Louis braced himself for the normal enthusiastic response.

“Oh what a fun birthday to have! Though, I’m sure as a kid you didn’t like the holiday overshadowing your day."

“Yeah, pretty much,” Louis beamed. Normally people went straight for the novelty of a holiday birthday, no one hit the nail on the head so immediately before.

“And with six siblings, your mum is a hero. I’ve always wanted a big family myself one day.” Louis was so used to the guys he dated being put off by his family being so large, and so involved in each others’ lives, that Harry’s enthusiasm was like a breath of fresh air. He had to remind himself, again, to play it cool.

“Do you have a lot of siblings?” Louis asked, realizing he could take the same approach to sussing out Harry’s age. He looked younger than Louis, maybe about twenty-one or twenty-two. God, Louis hoped he wasn’t a student where he taught, he hadn’t even thought of that before. This is why being a young teacher could be dangerous sometimes.

“Nope,” Harry said, mouth popping on the last consonant, “just me and my sister who is a couple years older than I am.”

Louis tried to dance around the question, but in the end just went for it, “And she’s how old?”

Harry chuckled, clearly recognizing his technique being thrown back at him, “She’s twenty-seven. Which makes me twenty-five,” he responded with a little wink.

“Ah,” Louis said, “how interesting.”

“Yes, it is.” Harry responded, the ribbon around Lottie’s palette all but forgotten as they stood there grinning widely at each other. It wasn’t until Barbara, noticing Harry’s lack of productivity, cleared her throat, snapping them out of their trance, both blushing furiously. Really, Barbara, was that necessary?

Harry went back to tying the ribbon with renewed vigor, and was finished curling it into a beautiful cloud soon thereafter. As he reached over to pick up Fizzy’s face masks, Louis tried again to restart the conversation, “Are you going home for the holidays?”

Harry looked up from concentrating on the precise corners of Fizzy’s gift, with the very tip of his tongue sticking out between his lips. The effect made Louis practically weak in the knees. “Yeah, I’ll be heading back on Christmas Eve. I’m making a stop at a friend’s first, so it will only be about a twenty minute drive from there.”

“Nice, I have to head back on Thursday.” Louis knew it was a long shot, Harry had just said he was stopping at a friends before heading home, but he hadn’t specified whether that was during the day on Christmas Eve or the night before. It would be amazing, beyond Louis’ wildest dreams, if he could get Harry to come with him to the party. The only issue was, he was actually seriously interested in Harry. If he didn’t have this party looming over his head, he would have asked him out for sometime after they were both back in town, and let it play out naturally. He did not want to mess it up with him before they had even gone on their first date by asking him to meet his family, and pretend that he had already been dating Louis for a few months.

Maybe he would just start laying the groundwork, and make sure to leave himself an out if he needed. “I have to head to a big neighborhood Christmas party while I’m home. It should be… eventful.”

“Eventful? How so?” Harry seemed genuinely concerned at Louis’ tone of voice.

“Eventful in the sense that one of my ex-boyfriends will be there,” Louis tried to infuse as much distaste as he could to make it clear to Harry that he wanted keep the “ex” part permanently attached.

Harry was still concentrating on the gift in front of him, so Louis couldn’t see his whole face, but he did catch Harry’s slight smile come through. “Got it. Ex-boyfriends can be difficult to handle. Most of mine are okay, though.” There it was. Louis had been sure Harry was gay, what with the flirting, but it wasn’t until now that he was completely certain.

“That’s good. This one is the big one, though. School sweetheart turned first year uni break up. Tale as old as time.” Harry giggled, and Louis could feel the warmth in his chest spread. He wanted to make Harry giggle like that all the time, and he barely knew him.

“Disney, nice.” Harry was an adorable dork, and Louis had completely forgotten why they were talking about this. Right. John.

“He’s kind of a twat, and is definitely going to be a passive aggressive twat about me showing up without a date.” Harry’s eyebrows rose towards his hairline at that. He had finished with Fizzy’s present, and had moved on to Daisy and Phoebe’s -they were the older set of twins, and Louis couldn’t believe he was buying them makeup, but they were fourteen now. Yikes, that made him feel old.

“You don’t have a date?” Harry asked, emphasizing the “you” as if couldn’t possibly believe that Louis was dateless, and Louis had never felt more flattered in his life.

“No, I don’t. I kind of forgot about it, and now I’m being forced to go.” Harry gave a little hum of sympathy.

“I’m sorry. That won’t be fun.”

With Harry’s kind reaction to that, and general sense of humor so far, Louis figured he would justgo for it, “Well my mum actually thinks I’m brining a date, because she thinks I’ve been seeing someone for a few months.”

Harry’s eyebrows scrunched forward on his face in confusion, “But you’re haven’t been?” Louis didn’t say anything, letting it sink in for a second. Harry gasped, “Louis! Lying to your mum? For shame!”

Louis had the decency to look sheepish, “I know, I know,” he said bringing his hands up to cover his face. “She just seemed so disappointed that I hadn’t been dating anyone, so I panicked and lied, and then she just declared I would bring him to the party and hung up. What was I supposed to do?” He finally managed to let himself look at Harry, only to be met with amusement dancing in his brilliant green eyes.

“Mums are like that sometimes.” Harry replied, still very clearly amused by the whole situation. “You know,” Harry started, his voice getting a little higher as if he was unsure of what he was about to say, “if what you need is someone to pretend to be your boyfriend, I could do it?” Louis just gaped at him. What?! The words had flown straight from his thoughts out of Harry’s mouth. Harry barely knew him, why would he volunteer for something like this?

“Louis?” Harry was trying to get his attention, “I mean that’s cool if you don’t really want me to, I get that it’s kind of weird, like who would pretend to be a boyfriend, and you could already have a back up in mind or something,” Harry’s speech had gotten faster and more mumbly as he continued trying to back track, and Louis couldn’t stand to let him continue to feel embarrassed about his offer.

“No! Wait, I mean, yes! That would be amazing, and totally not weird at all! Okay maybe a little weird, but it was my weird idea first. I was just shocked because I’ve been trying to work up the courage to ask you this whole time, but who wants to be asked to be a fake boyfriend?” The smile was back on Harry’s face, and Louis felt something click into place somewhere in the vicinity of that warmth in his chest he had been feeling earlier.

“Oh wait, when is the party?”

“Friday night, the twenty-third.” Harry’s face fell, dragging Louis’ hopes down with it yet again.

“I’m so sorry, I told a friend I would go to his place that night.” Harry looked so distressed that Louis could only reassure him, despite his own crushed dreams of showing up to the party with a date straight out of his fantasies, and the definite chance to see Harry again.

“That’s okay, Harry. Truly, even the fact that you offered was above and beyond.” He noticed Harry had also reached the last present he had to wrap, and was being much more careful and precise about the ribbon than he had been earlier.

Once he finished the ribbon, Harry began to bag the presents back up into their original shopping bags. Louis took a deep breath. Harry had gone for it, so now it was his turn, “Do you think I could get your number? I’d really love to take you out sometime, for real, not as a fake boyfriend.” Surely his rapid heart beat was being broadcast through the mall PA system, echoing down the glass hallway. Maybe he read the situation wrong and Harry was really just so extraordinarily nice that he would do such a huge favor for a relative stranger, but didn’t want to actually go out with him.

“You, uh, might want to check out the Sephora bag,” he nudged the bold black and white striped tote back across the counter, “I may or may not have possibly slipped my business card in there. Accidentally.” The pretty flush on his cheeks began to spread down his neck.

Louis was positively giddy, “Smooth. Very smooth,” he complimented as Harry lifted and handed him the bags.

“So...”

“You sho-” they both started at the same time.

Harry cleared his throat, “I was going to say, you should text me. Or call me, whatever, when you’re back from visiting your family.”

Louis made sure he had all the bags in hand, “Will do, Curly. I promise.” He forced himself to turn away from Harry, and saw that Barbara had her whole body turned in their direction, and had clearly been watching them openly for awhile. In his peripheral vision he could see Harry reach a hand up to tuck some curls that had come loose back behind his ears, and Louis decided right then and there he would let Barbara off the hook. Nothing negative like resentment could take up residence in his good mood today. Not even a little bit.

- - -

After finishing his grading, double checking, and submitting the finished list, Louis was ready to get on the road. He had packed all his clothes, and it was just a matter of packing up the car. He took a look over his shoulder at the gifts sitting on the bed, deciding he should transfer them out of the bags from the stores. His sisters would know anyway, but he could at least maintain a modicum of the element of surprise.

He hadn’t let himself look in the bag for Harry’s card because he hadn’t wanted to distract himself from grading, but he couldn’t wait any longer. He pulled the gifts out carefully so as not to upset Harry’s beautiful wrapping job. Lo and behold, at the bottom of the bag was an elegant, minimalist business card for “Harry Styles, Photographer” with a mobile number listed in neat letters.

He pulled out his phone and tried to come up with something clever.

Hi, I’m not sure who this is, but I found this number at the bottom of one of my shopping bags? ;)

The response was instantaneous:

Hiiiii! That is weird, I could have sworn I only left my number for 3 guys this week, and they’ve all got back to me already. xx

What’s your name? I’ll check my list. xx

Louis threw his head back and laughed. This was what he needed, someone who could understand and keep up with his humor. The “xx” at the end of his texts were endearing, too.

Louis. 27. Attractive. Desperately awful at gift wrapping.

Hmm… doesn’t ring a bell? The only Louis I know made me a rather specific promise. xx

Well, I did promise to ask you out on a date for when I was back in town… so what are you doing a few days after New Years?

I’m free on the 6 th . Dinner? xx

Sounds good. I can’t wait :)

That didn’t sound overly eager. He could do this.

I wish it could be sooner. xx

Me too, curly.

With that, Louis got in the car and drove all the way home on cloud nine with Christmas music blasting on his car speakers.

 

- - -

 

Unfortunately, his good mood was not long for this world. When he arrived home on Thursday afternoon, it was to the usual chaos of having so many people in the house. Thankfully, his mum had moved into a much larger home after she married Dan. Because they had grown up in tighter quarters, his mum had made sure in the move that the three oldest siblings always had privacy and a room to call their own when they were at home. In Fizzy’s case she still lived there, but wouldn’t for very much longer.

His mum came out to greet him, and her immediate response to his arrival was, “Louis! You’re home! I thought you were bringing someone with you?”

“Hi Mum, I’m doing well, thanks for asking!” Jay swatted her hand through the air like she could physically brush his sass away.

“Don’t give me any of that, you said you were bringing someone,” she said with her mum interrogation face. Even at the age of twenty seven, that face still made him squirm like he had been put in detention in school and faced even more trouble at home. That had only been once… a year… but it had been enough.

“Mum, you insisted I bring him, and you didn’t even give me a chance to explain that he has other plans that night, and won’t be able to make it.” None of that was necessarily a lie. He hadn’t really known any of that at the time when she hung up on him, but he did now! Even if he and Harry hadn’t officially been on a date yet. So Harry didn’t technically qualify as the “guy he had been seeing for a few months” but at least he had real human traits and characteristics that Louis could use to flush out this fantasy image of his “boyfriend” for her.

Jay’s face fell, “Oh, that’s a shame.” Her disappointed face was the whole reason he was in this mess in the first place. He hadn’t wanted to see it, and it was just as painful as he had anticipated. It had always been him and his mum, together, taking care of the other siblings. She had been married to Mark, but he was kind of distant, and had started to pull away towards the end, and then especially during the years between Mark and Dan, she had worked incredibly long hours as a nurse trying to provide for all five children and cover the loss of a second income. Louis helped out where he could, babysitting, picking up the younger kids from school, and eating ice cream with her on the couch watching her favorite movies when it all got to be too much. He hated lying to her, but he hated even more to see her disappointed.

“I’m sorry mum, but I told you we haven’t been seeing each other that long, and he had known about these plans for awhile.” Louis kept digging himself deeper, and was definitely going straight to hell.

“Alright, love. Come on in, put your stuff down, and I’ll make you some tea.”

Louis smiled and hefted his bags out of the car and over his shoulder.

Throughout the rest of the evening, and well into the next afternoon, time was spent having family dinner, family brunch again the next day, baking Christmas cookies, watching cheesy movies, and the general banning of the Justin Bieber Christmas album from the house sound system.

Before he knew it he was alone on the couch and all of the girls had escaped to their rooms to put their makeup on and get ready for the party. He huffed out a breath, and went to go help his mum with the younger twins to try and delay the inevitable. Today of all days, the four year olds chose to be cooperative and got dressed calmly, and quickly. He had been banking on at least one temper tantrum - he really couldn’t win with this party.

He stalled as much as he could getting dressed but eventually it was time to leave. When he packed to come home, he had decided that if he was showing up stag, he was going to look his best. He had picked an outfit with significant input (and irritation) from his best friend Liam. They had decided on a crimson scoop neck fitted t-shirt that had made his last date drool into his dinner, with a gray suede motorcycle jacket, some black fuck-me jeans, and light brown lace up boots. He left his hair soft, piecey, and swept to the side, if only because he always thought it looked amazing and John had hated it, always telling him he should wear it away from his face in a quiff. He wore it up sometimes, but this was a matter of principle.

He turned around in front of his mirror to double check that everything was in place. He looked hot, if he did say so himself.

Lottie agreed with him when he made his way downstairs, “You look great, Lou! You’re totally going to make John eat shit!”

“Charlotte!” Jay yelled from the kitchen, “watch your language!” Lottie just smirked unapologetically at Louis.

He put his arm around her, and pressed a kiss to her temple. “Thanks, Lots.”

“Not a problem. Now, while mom is in the other room, what is the deal with the fake boyfriend thing?”

Louis gasped, “Lottie, what the hell do you know about that?”

“Hah! I knew it was fake! Fizzy is so buying brunch next time we go out.” That was a lot of information to process very quickly.

Louis brought his voice down to a whisper, “How did you know it was fake? Is it really that unbelievable?”

“Relax, Lou. Mum has no idea. I just know that if you were really with somebody you would have told us about him well before bringing him to the party. Plus, ‘He has other plans’? Give me a break, any guy who even came close to deserving you would try to rearrange his schedule.” That brought Louis up short, and as a result he was just standing there staring at his sister with his mouth open.

“That was… that was incredibly sweet,” Louis replied, when he got his voice back. Maybe a little idealistic, he reasoned, but still very sweet. “There is someone who offered, and actually couldn’t make it, but I just met him the other day after mum called about it. Plus we haven’t actually gone out yet.”

Lottie beamed at him, “Oooh, tell me about him! What’s his name?”

“Harry. He was volunteering at the gift wrapping station, and he wrapped your present.”

“Aww, Lou! That’s great! Harry, you said?”

“Who’s Harry?” he jumped when he heard his mum’s voice from somewhere over his left shoulder. He turned to face her, hoping she hadn’t heard the rest of the conversation.

“The guy I’m seeing. His name is Harry,” he saw more than felt Lottie’s elbow jab in his side acknowledging the lie. This is why one should never loop younger sisters in on a secret, no matter how deceptively sweet they were being just minutes before.

“Harry? That’s a great name. I do wish we could have met him. Oh well… will you two grab coats for the twins?” Louis breathed a sigh of relief, and prepared himself for the battle of putting outerwear on two four-year-olds.

 

- - -

 

Every year the tradition was that Louis’ family would arrive early to Niall’s so they could help get everything ready. The Tomlinson-Deakin clan was nothing if not pure manpower, and they were immediately put to work distributing hors d'oeuvres and setting up beverage stations. Alcohol. Perfect, exactly what Louis would need later.

Niall’s mother Maura was organizing the chaos from her place in the kitchen making sure everything was perfect before it left her hands to be spread out strategically around the house. Nothing ever changed, the bowl of egg nog always sat in the same place, so there was no need to direct traffic, but he suspected it was what kept her sane year after year.

Slowly, guests began to arrive, and Louis mother went from placing wine bottles to sipping from a glass in her hand while catching up with friends. Louis noted from across the expansive open plan living room when John and his parents arrived with someone unfamiliar in tow. Presumably John’s date, by the looks of it. It was a natural human instinct to be hypercritical of a new person in your exes life, but the man with John looked to be one of those people who was too perfect. Every hair slicked back in place looking like the quiff could come out of a tornado in tact, and straight teeth that were blindingly white to offset a tan that was too precisely caramel for England in December. If this was the kind of guy John was looking for, good riddance.

Louis scoffed, and went off to pour himself a glass of red wine. ‘Tis the season after all. Niall found him as he was pondering the different varieties of red – this was why he loved the Horans, always the best booze.

“Hey, Lou. You look great!” Louis smiled back at him as he picked up a Cabernet and began to pour.

“Thanks, Ni. You too. Where’s your better half?” Louis loved Niall’s fiancée Stacey. She was fun and energetic so she could keep up with Niall, but she worked hard and was an extremely dedicated journalist. Niall always said he loved how much smarter she was than him, and Louis loved that she could keep up with his own humor.

“Off somewhere charming the pants off someone I imagine. God, she’s amazing.” Niall got a dreamy far off look on his face that may have had something to do with the hickey Louis saw peeking out from under the edge of his collar when he turned his head. Louis reached up to wave a hand in front of Niall’s face which seemed to bring him back to reality. “Oh, right. I was thinking about what you said the other day, about me knowing everyone and surely I know someone to be your fake boyfriend?” Louis brought his finger up to his lips to shush him. Mums had special hearing superpowers. “Sorry, sorry. The thing is, I think you’re right. I do know someone. We’ve worked quite a few events together, and he’s become a really good friend recently. Kind of odd, but totally your type,” Louis let out an indignant huff at the implications of that comment but Niall ignored him, “and I invited him to come to the party. Obviously that doesn’t really help you tonight, but I think you should still meet him. He texted me a little while ago, so he should be here soon.”

Louis really appreciated the sentiment, and he did ask for it in the first place, but when it came to actually dating, there was nothing he hated more than a set up. It usually ended up disappointing everyone involved. “Thanks, Ni, really, but I kind of met someone right after I talked to you-”

“Oh, here he is now!” Louis squeezed his eyes shut and prepared for an awkward night. “Harry! Over here!” Wait, Harry? What were the odds? Just as Louis went to turn around, he saw a tall lean body come into his field of view, with silky chestnut curls.

“Louis?”

“Harry?”

“Niall!” Niall interjected.

Louis responded by rote as he continued to stare at Harry, “You can’t say your own name, Niall that’s not how this bit works.”

Harry’s lip quirked up on the side into the cutest smirk Louis had ever seen in his whole life. In the days since he had first seen Harry he thought maybe he had been making him out to be more than he wasn’t. He couldn’t have been that pretty, and that engaging. But now that Harry was standing in front of him, Louis realized he hadn’t exaggerated him at all, he was everything Louis had originally seen and more. He looked amazing.

“Thanks, Louis,” Harry said breaking eye contact, and looking down at his feet a little bashfully. Wait, had he said that out loud?

“Yeah, you did.” Niall replied, only to willing to help. Seriously, brain to mouth filter. Engage. “So…” Niall started, glancing back and forth between the two of them, “I take it you two know each other?”

Harry, thankfully, had working brain cells, “Yeah we met when-” he cut his sentence off abruptly and his gaze snapped to meet Louis’ again. “Wait,” he bit out before quickly scanning their surroundings, “What’s behind that door there?” he pointed somewhere behind Niall’s head.

That brought Louis back to attention, “A bathroom, why?” Next thing he knew, he felt Harry’s hand on his elbow. If he was being honest it was less a feeling, and more the sensation of his stomach swooping a little. This evening had taken a surprising turn to say the least. Harry was here, touching him. Well, dragging him. Why was Harry dragging him?

Before he knew it, he and Harry were locked in the Horan’s narrow downstairs bathroom, pressed chest to chest. Louis lifted his face to meet Harry’s gaze, realizing just how tall Harry was. That had never been something he looked for in a partner, but he was beginning to think it was something he could get used to, especially if Harry came with the deal.

“Louis, is this the party you were talking about the other day? Where your ex-boyfriend would be? Wait, Niall’s not your ex-boyfriend is he?” Harry’s brow furrowed in confusion.

Louis shook his head to try and get the cobwebs out, “What? No! No, God no. I’ve known Niall my whole life. My family lives two streets over, and he is very straight. Probably making out with his fiancée right now. She’s great, you should meet her.” He was blabbering, a nervous habit, just to try and say something, but then he finally caught on to what Harry was asking. “Yeah, this is the party. He’s here with his parents and a date,” he finished with clear distaste.

Harry’s brow had cleared while he was talking but quickly furrowed again, “Oh,” he said dejectedly, “I didn’t realize it was like that. Do you, um- you don’t have to keep our date if you don’t want to – if you maybe want to try and work it out with him?”

Louis smiled at him, “You’re definitely not getting rid of me that easily, Curly. I’m sorry I gave you the wrong impression, I only said it like that because his date is basically a walking Ken doll and it’s pretty off-putting, from a human perspective, not a jealous ex-boyfriend perspective. I promise.” Taking a chance, mostly because he couldn’t fight the urge, Louis reached out for Harry’s hand and intertwined their fingers.

Harry’s answering smile was effervescent, “Yeah?”

“Yeah.” They stood there staring at each other, hands tangled together, for a few heartbeats while the potential of whatever this was blossoming between them began to expand.

Unfortunately their bubble broke with Niall pounding on the door, “Uh, guys? Are you in there? You kind of left me all alone out here.” Both Harry and Louis began to laugh quietly, and Louis put his finger to his lips indicating they shouldn’t answer. It was all fun, games, and torturing Niall until Harry’s gaze seemed fixated on the spot where Louis’ finger met his mouth. “If you guys are making out in there, please keep it PG. No one is drunk enough for that yet.”

Louis rolled his eyes, “Just a second, Ni!”

“When we go out there, what do you want to tell people? We need a story,” Hary said, looking at him expectantly.

What? A story? “What do you mean a story?” Louis asked.

“You know, fake boyfriend? We’ve been seeing each other for ‘a few months’? Where did we meet?” All of a sudden everything clicked in Louis’ head.

“Oh! You don’t have to do that, Harry, it’s really okay.” Even as the words were coming out of his mouth, he thought about his mum, and John, and John’s weird date, all on the other side of the bathroom door.

“Don’t be silly, Louis. You know you still want me to, I want to, it’ll be fun! Plus, this was Plan A. We had to get there through Plan B, but we still got here! Let’s take advantage of it.”

“You do talk some shit, don’t you,” Louis said on a laugh.

Harry giggled with him. “Come on, Lou. Where did we meet?” Louis tried to focus on the task at hand, and not on Harry’s dimples.

“When you got here, Niall was in the middle of trying to get me to agree to being set up with you. Only I didn’t know it was you at the time. Maybe we should just go with that?”

Harry nodded to himself, and went to open the door. Next thing Louis knew, Harry had grabbed Niall, and pulled him in to the now even smaller space. Harry looked pointedly at Louis, “Does he know already?” Louis nodded. This tendency Harry had towards manhandling was very promising, and having Niall in the space had only made the distance between his and Harry’s bodies even smaller. Focus.

“Niall, we’re going with Plan A. We’re going to pretend you set Harry and I up a few months ago.”

Niall looked confused, “Plan A? Wait, Louis, you actually asked Harry to be your fake boyfriend?”

Harry interjected on Louis’ behalf, “Technically I kind of offered first, but yes, we met a few days ago. Unfortunately, I realized I couldn’t go with him because I had other plans. To be here. Where we are. Now. Together.” Louis watched the realization dawn over Niall’s face as he put all the pieces together.

“Ahh. Got it. Okay, I’m on board. What’s the story?” Both men turned and looked at Louis.

“Alright,” Louis started, wheels turning, “should we say about three months? I took you to Brick and Mortar. It’s my favorite restaurant, so that makes sense, and we’ve been seeing each other casually since then?”

“Yeah, that sounds good. What level of PDA are you okay with?”

Niall’s eyes bulged, “And that’s my cue to leave! See you out there, boys.”

Laughter bubbled up out of Louis riding a wave of adrenaline, nerves, and something else he couldn’t quite identify, “It’s a family party, so maybe let’s go a little light on the PDA. And if anything comes up, just follow my lead.” Harry nodded in agreement.

“Ready?”

“As I will ever be. Let’s go lie to my family a little more,” Louis said flippantly as he made his way towards the door. Harry’s hand on his elbow stopped him.

“If this is big a problem, the lying and all that, we really don’t have to – I didn’t mean to pressure you into it.” Harry looked incredibly distraught at the idea, and Louis felt his stomach swoop again.

The urge to grab Harry’s hand hit him again, so he gave in, “Harry, that’s pretty silly given I’m the one who needed a fake boyfriend in the first place. And, honestly the lie already exists, I’m already going to hell for lying to my mum to make her happy, so I might as well enjoy myself while I’m at it,” he said ending on a wink. That seemed to lighten Harry’s mood, if his answering grin was any indication, and they began to move for the door again, hands still intertwined.

Things had clearly progressed during their time in the bathroom, the party was now in full swing with guests arriving in a constant stream. They weren’t out of the bathroom for more than a minute when Louis mum appeared out of nowhere, eagle eyed stare fixed on their hands, “Who is this, Boobear?” He shut his eyes against a wave of humiliation as though that could will him back in time when he and Harry were pressed together in the tight bathroom. Really, anytime before his mum just used his childhood nickname in front of this very fit guy that he was developing a massive crush on would be perfect.

“Hi, mum,” he said, mostly to clue Harry in on who they were dealing with, and he immediately felt Harry’s hand squeeze his in response. “This is Harry,” he gestured to Harry with his free hand, and paused for dramatic effect until he saw Jay’s eyes light up in recognition, “his plans changed, and he was actually able to make it after all.”

“Harry! Oh, Harry! How lovely to meet you darling,” Jay exclaimed as she pulled him into a tight hug, “What a pleasant surprise.”

“It’s lovely to meet you Mrs. Tomlinson,” Louis winced internally at the incorrect last name, there was a lot more information he should have given Harry, but he had been so busy riding the adrenaline wave of seeing Harry again and putting the plan into action, that he had forgotten.

Thankfully, his mother waved Harry off, like Louis figured she would, “Don’t be silly, call me Jay.”

“Alright, Jay,” Harry replied with a grin as they dropped their hug. Louis’ heart sank when Harry didn’t immediately move to join their hands together again, he had been enjoying that. He needn’t have worried though, because Harry moved from being next to Louis, to angling his body slightly behind Louis’ and dropping a hand to his waist. The very smooth move, combined with Harry’s slight height advantage, had the overall effect of surrounding Louis and pulling him in towards Harry’s body, pressing heat all along Louis’ right side. Louis had to restrain himself from leaning further into that heat, because as it was he could feel himself on the verge of practically purring like a kitten while they were standing in front of his mum.

Jay interrogated Harry a little more before Louis had begged her to stop and let them enjoy the evening. She agreed reluctantly, and Harry stayed by Louis’ side as they continued to mingle with other guests. Harry’s body continued to brush back and forth along Louis’ side, and his hand stayed firmly parked at his hip. Every once in awhile Louis could feel Harry fiddle with the hem of his shirt and the belt loop that was hidden beneath it. He hadn’t advanced to actually touching the skin above his waistline, but it was all Louis could think about which was almost worse. Between the anticipation and a glass of good red wine, Louis had never been so pleasantly warm in his entire life. This easy intimacy was exactly what he had been looking for, and hadn’t found, in any of the men he had dated in the past few years, and he and Harry hadn’t even kissed yet.

Louis had tuned out of the conversation Harry was having about molasses cookies with a woman named Meredith that Louis vaguely recognized, when he finally realized she had turned her back and was walking away. Now about that kissing... maybe he could find a more private space to rectify the situation.

As he began to lead Harry to a different part of the house, they were finally accosted by John who seemed to be momentarily Ken Doll free, “Louis! Hi! I was hoping to see you tonight.” Louis really could not catch a break when it came to alone time with Harry.

“John, hello. It’s been awhile.” This time Louis could feel the squeeze of Harry’s recognition on his hip. His evening had progressed quite nicely in the touching department at least.

“Who is this then?” John smiled and nodded at Harry, not unkindly. Louis scrutinized John’s face for a moment, looking for any trace of sarcasm, or resentment, or anything really, but he looked sincere.

When Louis didn’t say anything right away, Harry put his wine glass down on the end table next to him, and held out his hand for John to shake, “I’m Harry, Louis’ boyfriend.” Boyfriend. That made Louis’ breath catch in his chest, and he ceased studying John to smile up at Harry. Even though it wasn’t technically true right now, he was beginning to realize just how desperately he wanted it to be real. They just had to get through tonight first.

“Oh, wonderful!” John said, forcing Louis to bring his gaze back to him, and even Louis could tell he honestly seemed to mean it. Louis could not comprehend this new maturity John seemed to possess, “I’m not sure if Lou told you or not, but we used to date back in school. Proper sweethearts we were. Well, Louis was. I was just a twat.” Louis barked out a laugh of sheer surprise. “C’mon, Lou, you know it’s true.”

Louis smiled, “Yeah, you’re right, you were a bit weren’t you.” Realizing that all was well, and the tone of the conversation was much lighter and friendlier than expected, Harry gave a little chuckle, paired with another hip squeeze that felt like a bolt of lightning shooting down Louis’ spine. To show his appreciation of Harry’s support, Louis shifted, and tipped his head back slightly to lean more of his weight on Harry’s body. The completely unintended consequence of his action was Harry dragging the hand resting on Louis hip up to now rest over his belly button, drawing his arm tighter around Louis’ waist. If he was having trouble before, Louis’ focus was almost completely shot to hell now.

He couldn’t believe the turn of events, he had worked himself up and been so convinced that John would be the same “twat” he was in their first year of university that he hadn’t even counted on character development. But there was this new John in front of him who had a completely different attitude than his younger self, and he genuinely seemed to be wishing Louis well. Louis would never be able to forget the hurt that John had caused, but he wouldn’t be averse to being civil, or even friendly. It would make gatherings like this much more palatable in the future. To think, he probably wouldn’t even have needed Harry’s help, aside from the business with his mum.

“I’ve actually brought a date, too. He was around here somewhere looking for a restroom.” Just as John’s sentence trailed off, Mr. Ken Doll came around the corner and stopped dead in the middle of the hallway.

“Harry?!” Louis could feel Harry’s body tense under his immediately, and alarm bells began to go off in his head. Who was this? An ex? But Harry had said he didn’t have many problems with his exes. Whatever it was, Louis picked up the language of touches that he and Harry had developed throughout the evening. As naturally as he possibly could, Louis covered Harry’s hand that was resting on his stomach with his own. He then very carefully began to stroke his thumb back and forth over the back of Harry’s hand. Harry very lightly increased the pressure of his finger tips on Louis torso before releasing again.

Harry cleared his throat, “Peter. Hello.” While Louis’ greeting to John had been cautious, Harry’s had been downright bitter. Louis was shocked. This was the first time Harry had ever sounded anything close to guarded. Louis had been beginning to think that “open book” was his constant state. This was not good.

Harry had been so supportive all evening, Louis decided it was his turn. The memory of whatever this Peter person had done had made Harry’s face harden, and lose his beautiful smile, which made him Public Enemy #1 in Louis’ book. He looked at Peter, but Peter looked to be torn between looking at Harry's face, and their hands clasped together on Louis’ torso. Louis increased the arc of his strokes on Harry’s hand, and felt satisfaction course through him as that caused Peter to look at him for the first time. Louis gave him a tight lipped smile, and simply said, “Hello, I'm Louis,” without extending his hand, choosing to remain wrapped up in Harry.

With Louis and Harry’s rather chilly greeting to Mr. Ken Doll – Peter – the line in the sand had been drawn, and no one really knew what to say. They all just stood there staring at each other for a beat, before John gained consciousness, and said, “Well, my parents are gesturing to me, so I’m just going to… go… over there.” He seemed to have retained his cowardice while he was polishing off his personality traits.

That left just Louis and Harry staring at Peter, two against one, it appeared. Peter looked as though he finally built up the nerve to speak, “Harry, I, um, would love to speak to you,” he began.

Harry was having none of it, “So, speak.” Louis made a mental note to never make Harry angry like this. Because his baseline was naturally extremely pleasant, Angry Harry was downright terrifying.

“In private,” Peter pleaded, looking to Louis as if trying to broadcast his desire for Louis to vacate the premises. Like, hell. He was sticking with Harry until Harry told him otherwise, thank you very much.

Harry could probably feel the indignation ripple through his body, because he gave him another squeeze, and said, “It’s alright, Lou.” Louis absolutely melted at the nickname. When John had said it, he hadn’t felt anything, but when Harry used it, it felt like a caress.

Louis turned his whole body around to meet Harry’s gaze, “Are you sure?” Harry nuzzled his temple – which only pushed Louis further on his journey to becoming a giant puddle on the floor – pulled back, hesitated, and then nodded.

For the first time in at least an hour, Louis pulled away fully from the warmth of Harry’s body, and went to go find Lottie. He did not have to go far, “LOUIS! What was that?” she said gesticulating to where Harry and Peter were talking in hushed voices, the steely look on Harry’s face not letting up. “Who even is that guy who has been all over you? And why did he just push you away? What about that Harry guy you told me about?”

“Take a breath, Lottie,” Louis said holding his hands up to try and get her to calm down and stop talking so loudly. They weren’t far enough from Harry, and God only knew where his mum was. “That guy I was with is Harry. He’s friends with Niall, and it turns out his plans were to come here. There was no reason for us to know that it was the same party though. When he got here, we just decided to go with Plan A and pretend to have been seeing each other.”

“That’s Harry?” she questioned. Louis nodded, “And he’s friends with Niall?” he nodded again, “And he was always supposed to come here?”

“Are you just going to repeat everything I say, Lotts?” Louis asked exasperatedly.

“Sorry if I’m trying to catch up on an incredibly eventful evening. Jesus, Lou, the party’s only been on for an hour.” She rolled her eyes in a way that reminded him of himself. He wasn’t sure whether to be proud or worried. “Now, who is that guy? And where did John go?”

“I have no idea who that guy is, but Harry really doesn’t like him. I could tell. John ran away at the first hint of a confrontation, which is about as surprising as Niall drinking a Guinness.”

“That was a horrible analogy, Lou.”

“Whatever!” Louis cut in, “the point is, that guy is here as John’s date, and he and Harry clearly have some kind of past, but I don’t know what it is. Hell, I’ve only known Harry for a total of an hour and a half in the grand scheme of things, and we haven’t even kissed yet. Cut me some slack.”

Lottie’s eyes bulged out in surprise at the end of his outburst, “You haven’t even kissed yet? I don’t buy that, the heat coming off the two of you made the fireplace seem like the North Pole.”

Louis could see Fizzy coming up behind Lottie, “Louis! Who was that guy? You’re clearly going to get lucky,” she said with a waggle of her eyebrows. Louis could do nothing more heave a sigh and send Lottie a pleading look to have her explain. He had been so wrapped up in everything surrounding John, Harry, and finally convincing his mum he wouldn’t become an old maid, he didn’t think about the stir Harry would cause with all of his siblings.

“Harry. He and Louis have been seeing each other for a few months. He wasn’t supposed to be here, but he is now. We don’t know who that guy is, except that he’s John’s date,” Lottie said succinctly.

“Well, whoever he is, he’s definitely trying to hone in on your man.” Louis turned around sharply to try and find Harry again, and Fizzy was right. Peter had one hand curled around Harry’s bicep, and was clearly trying to convince Harry of something. Harry looked incredibly fragile and vulnerable, which made immediately want to go over and hug him and pull him away from this guy, whoever he was. At the same time, the moment did look private, and Louis didn’t want to interrupt, it was none of his business. Despite how close he and Harry had become over the course of the evening, he was still a relative stranger. A stranger who was helping Louis, and being incredibly supportive. Did he go over there and insert himself to try and help? Or would Harry think he was being intrusive. Harry had been the one to send him away in the first place, but at the same time he looked upset, and Louis wasn’t sure how much more of that he could stand.

In the end, his decision was made for him. Peter brought his other hand up to curl around Harry’s other bicep. It began to look almost look like an embrace, which made Louis’ vision short out and turn bright green as jealousy curled around his gut and begin to snake itself around his limbs, making him shift his weight as if to go over there. If Louis hadn’t been studying Harry so carefully, he might have missed it, but just before Peter’s hand could make contact with the fabric of Harry’s shirt, Louis saw Harry flinch.

Louis didn’t even remember crossing the room, but he must have because next thing he knew he was right next to Harry, leaning into him and jostling his arm enough that it dislodged Peter’s hand. “Hey baby,” he had no idea where this was coming from, he had never in his life called one his boyfriends “baby” before, but he was going with it, “Lottie found that recipe for pumpkin scones, and wanted to give it to you before she forgot,” Harry’s eyebrows raised towards his hairline, but he still looked affected by whatever his conversation with Peter had been about. He probably had no idea who Lottie was, but would hopefully catch on quickly enough, “Are you all set here with, I’m sorry what was it? Paul?”

“Peter.”

“Right, Peter,” Louis gave Peter his tight-lipped smile again before turning back to Harry to tuck a stray curl behind his ear, not bothering to remove his fingers from the nape of Harry’s neck when he was done.

“We weren’t quite-” Peter tried to interject but Louis wouldn’t let him get a word in edgewise.

“She’s in the kitchen. Let’s go.” Giving Harry a much more genuine smile, he released the baby curls he had been playing with to grab Harry’s hand and practically drag him towards the kitchen. Once they got there he didn’t even stop long enough to properly introduce Lottie and Fizzy, just throwing their names out as they continued to pass through to the back area of the house. If he remembered correctly from his hide and seek days there was… a… Yes! A back stair case. These older manor homes had their uses.

Unfortunately, standing between them and the door was John and his parents, so Louis knew Peter wouldn’t be too far behind them. Time to adjust the plan. Instead of going for the door, he made an abrupt left and dragged Harry back towards the front of the house.

“Lou, where are we going?” Louis took a glance back and saw that Harry looked better, but still not back to his normal level of sunshine.

“Patience, Harold.”

Dodging guests left and right, Louis finally found what he was looking for, opened the door, flipped the small overhead light on, and pulled Harry in after him. Louis simply could not wait any longer, “Louis, you do realize that this is a coat cl-”

Before Harry could finish, Louis leaned up to grab his shoulders and press his lips to Harry’s with slightly more pressure than he originally intended. The second he did though, he felt his body go hot and then cold, and then back to hot again as little sparks raced their way down his skin. It wasn’t the best kiss ever, Harry was too surprised to respond at all, and they came a little too close to clacking their teeth, but Louis let up before they could go any further. Harry still looked a little shocked.

“Sorry, we really need to talk about some stuff, but I wanted some privacy, and I really wanted to do that before anything else happened.” Harry hadn’t said anything yet, and Louis was starting to second guess his decision. He thought Harry had been sending pretty clear signals, but maybe after his interaction with Peter he hadn’t been into it any more? He had looked a little shaken from that. Maybe Louis should have waited. The front hall closet wasn’t the most romantic venue for a first kiss, and there were so many people at the party that it’s three walls were stuffed with heavy winter coats and made the whole thing a little claustrophobic, but at the same time it made him and Harry stand as close together as possible.

Finally, Harry blinked and refocused on Louis’ mouth, “Yes, I’m on board with that, let’s do some more of that,” he said as he moved towards Louis. Louis put his hands up again, this time to stop Harry as he was moving towards him.

“Wait, Harry,” Harry immediately looked dejected, so he quickly tried to explain, “No! I mean, yes! I want to do more of that, but I’m afraid if I start I won’t be able to stop, and I really want to talk to you first.” Harry’s face cleared, and his expression turned downright dirty at the implication that the kissing would not stop, eventually. He had a question for Harry, he really did. If only he could remember it. “Peter! Who was Peter, that was my question.” He immediately regretted bringing it up because even though they were standing so close together Louis could faintly feel Harry’s breath on his cheek, it still felt like Harry had pulled away from him as he dropped his gaze down to the floor. “You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to, I just wanted to make sure you were okay.”

“No, it’s fine, I promise, it’s just kind of a downer, and I don’t want to ruin the party.” Louis cupped Harry’s cheek, resisting the urge to stroke his strong, sharp jaw line.

“I promise you won’t ruin the party. There’s one every year, its the same every year, wine, whiskey, carols, general merriment,” Louis ended on a chuckle. “I really just want to make sure you’re not uncomfortable. If you are we can walk back to my house, no one will even realize we’re gone.” That was a lie, his family was way too nosy for that, but it seemed to have the desired effect.

Harry sighed heavily, “No, Lou, I’m not uncomfortable. Well, I guess, I kind of am, but I really want to be here at this party with you, and everyone is having a great time, and I really just don’t WANT to be uncomfortable.” He managed to get the whole sentence out in one breath, and Louis could feel his heart rate picking up where his hand was resting gently against the pulse point in Harry’s neck.

“Shh, baby, tell me what’s wrong.” Apparently calling Harry baby was a habit that was going to stick around. Harry was looking everywhere except Louis’ eyeline. Who could this Peter person possibly be to Harry? Louis was starting to get nervous, but managed to maintain his own calm by stroking Harry’s jawline with his thumb. He was glad it was providing Harry comfort, but if he was being honest, the steady back and forth was the only thing helping him maintain his patience.

“Um, I guess it’s not such an interesting story,” Harry started, as he continued to avoid Louis’ eyes he seemed to be struggling over the words to say. “When I was in high school I was pretty comfortable with who I was and my sexuality, you know?” Louis hummed in agreement, not wanting to interrupt, but understanding Harry needed some encouragement to continue, “but not everyone was okay with it, so I got teased some. Normal name calling in locker rooms and things like that.” Louis’ gut roiled thinking about how innocent Harry, who was angelic even now in maturity, must have been. “Well, Peter, he was kind of the ring leader. Teased me any chance he got in the hallways, in class, things like that.”

That startled Louis enough that he had to interrupt, “Wait. That Peter? Out there? Who is here as my ex-boyfriend’s date? He used to make fun of you for being gay?” Harry nodded timidly, but clearly had more to say. “Okay, then. Sure, yeah.” Louis tried to bite back the rest of his questions.

“He got caught enough times that he began to settle down, he was smart enough to know that disciplinary action would go to any universities he applied for, so the last year was relatively peaceful. I started to forget about him, went off to uni myself, and began to live the freer life I had always tried to live when I was in school.” Harry let out a bitter chuckle, “Imagine my surprise when I showed up to a party in my hometown one Christmas, and there he was-” Just as he was getting to the good part someone opened the closet door looking for their coat, the harsh additional light momentarily blinding them.

It was Meredith, the woman Louis vaguely remembered talking to earlier, “Alright, Harry?” she inquired, glancing back and forth between the two of them. Harry nodded and handed her the coats she indicated, pulling them off the hanging rail in a big lump. Despite the heaviness of the situation, Louis had to bite back a smile. She had only met Harry that evening, and already he had charmed her just by being himself, and had clearly sparked some motherly protective instincts. “Okay, well, don’t forget to send me that recipe,” she said, continuing to watch them as she closed the closet door, enveloping them once more in the much dimmer amber glow of the overhead light.

Harry didn’t say anything for a moment, so Louis tried to prompt him to pick up where he left off, “You were saying something about a party?” Harry’s gaze shuttered for a moment, and Louis tried to smile lightly despite his nerves doing the cha cha in his stomach.

“Yeah, so, I showed up to this party and Peter was there hanging off some bloke, looking much like he does now, you know? Perfect hair, perfect white teeth, spray tan, blah blah blah.” The way Harry described Peter made it sound like that was the exact opposite of what he wanted, which allowed Louis’ nerves to quiet down to a smooth rumba, and allowed him to breathe slightly easier as well. “He came up to me after he was proper wasted, and told me he had always had a crush on me, and that’s why he had been so cruel, he was ‘coming to grips with his own homosexuality,’” Louis couldn’t help himself and rolled his eyes dramatically making Harry giggle a bit to lighten the mood. He understood ‘coming to grips with your own homosexuality,’ he really did, he went through it himself, but what he didn’t understand was using it as an excuse for cruelty and making someone else’s life miserable. “You can imagine my response to that was pretty unfavorable, so I told him to never talk to me ever again, and I spent the rest of the evening getting drunk with my real friends. We’ve run into each other a few times in the shops and things, but never talked again until tonight.”

Louis tried to process Harry’s story and get his bearings, his mind positively racing, “What did he say tonight?”

It was Harry’s turn to roll his eyes, “More of the same, you know? He had always had a crush on me, probably still has feelings for me, stuff like that.”

Louis felt his body go hot and then cold again as he tried to scoff dismissively, but it ended up coming out as more of a strangled whimper. Clearly, if his story was any indication, Harry had never been interested in this Peter bloke in anyway whatsoever, and he posed absolutely no threat to whatever this thing was between Louis and Harry that they had yet to define. All of that knowledge could not stop those green coils of jealousy from surging back through Louis limbs.

His scoff must have been more pitiful than he thought, because next thing he knew Harry’s lips were lightly pressed against his. The touch was fleeting and meant more for comfort than anything. “Lou, don't worry. I told him I wasn’t interested, which is the truth, he just really didn’t like that answer.”

Louis answered with a dopey grin, choosing to focus on the fact that he and Harry already had kisses with different meanings. “I can kind of understand where he’s coming from, I wouldn’t like having to say goodbye to you, either,” he confessed.

Harry didn’t say anything, just continued to stare at him with only the dim overhead light shining down, creating their own little world in Niall’s coat closet. Harry then nodded to himself as if he had come to a conclusion in his head, wrapped his hands around Louis’ biceps, and twisted their positioning abruptly so that Louis was trapped against the door. He had been in worse positions in his life.

Harry’s mouth came down much more insistently on his own this time, clearly deciding it was time to move on to the making out portion of the evening. Louis brought his arms up to Harry’s shoulders, leaning more fully into his body. He felt a jolt of electricity shoot through him when his mouth parted and Harry deepened the kiss. He could feel Harry’s hands begin to wander, stroking up and down his sides before getting more bold and making their way towards his lower back and hopefully beyond. Louis could feel his trousers tightening, and when Harry pulled him closer, he could feel Harry developing a problem of his own. Louis was beginning to get a little overwhelmed by the kiss, and pulled away slightly to kiss his way down Harry’s throat. At most it was a stalling tactic so Louis could get his breath back, but when he began to nip and suck at Harry’s neck, Harry began to make the most gorgeous whimpering noises Louis had ever heard in his entire life. He could physically feel that Harry had been affected by the kiss, but he hadn’t realized quite how much.

Just then Harry let out a low moan, “Lou.” Louis continued his nibbling waiting for the rest of the sentence, or for Harry to ask for something, but he never continued.

“What do you need, baby? Tell me.” Louis wanted to please Harry, because he had never felt someone be so responsive to just a make out session before. His reactions were beautiful, and the idea of this man being so affected by him made Louis feel incredibly powerful and attractive. That feeling made a naughty little itch settle in his bones in a way he had never felt before.

He brought one hand up to tangle in Harry’s curls at the back of his neck, “You want my mouth?” He felt more than he heard Harry’s gasp of surprise, and if he was being honest he had even shocked himself with the suggestion. When he and his friends went out to the club, he was never the one to find a random guy for a quickie, so to suggest giving a blow job, in a very public coat closet, with his entire family nearby, was not exactly in keeping with his character. He found that he really could not care less when he had Harry wrapped up in his arms, panting warm breaths into the crook of his shoulder and teasing his collar bone.

He began to press little kisses onto Harry’s chest through his shirt and began to lower himself down to get on his knees slowly popping Harry’s buttons exposing his chest. He was slightly shocked to see a few splotches of black ink emerge on his pale skin, so he stopped for a moment to admire what looked like swallows just under his collar bone. What he really wanted though was to keep moving, so he popped two more buttons, stuck his free hand out to rummage around for a moment, felt what seemed to be his coat sleeve, and pulled it down so that his knees would have something to rest on other than the unforgiving hardwood floor.

He had three more buttons to go on Harry’s shirt when he felt Harry shove his very large, and very yummy hands under his armpits and try to pull him up so quickly that he got a little bit of a head rush. Just as he was about to straighten out his spine and protest the interruption, the closet door was yanked open to reveal John, Peter, and both of John’s parents.

Harry was the picture of guilt. Louis made a mental note to never let him play poker. It didn’t help that his lips were swollen for everyone to see, his cheeks were flushed, and his shirt was unbuttoned all the way down to the top of a butterfly tattoo just peeking out from his defined abdomen. Before he could say anything, Louis tried to do some damage control and turned to Harry, “Nope, doesn’t look like Ernie and Doris are hiding in here, does it?” He hoped that was good enough, but based on Harry’s doe eyed stare and the faces of their interlopers, he didn’t think so. He nodded to both of John’s parents, “Mr. and Mrs. Ford, how is everything?”

Mr. Ford recovered first giving Louis a knowing look and a little smirk, “Great, Louis. Yourself?” Louis had always liked him.

“Yeah, great. Everything is going great.” He just wished he didn’t sound so out of breath.

“Wonderful. We’re, um, headed out, so if we could just grab our coats?” He reached into the left of the closet to pull out a bundle of three coats and handed one to John, one to his wife, and then herded them away from the closet to put them on and gather their things.

Peter hadn’t been handed a coat but was still standing in the doorway gaping at the two of them, and his expression hadn’t changed since the door was opened.

Now that he knew the story, it took every ounce of willpower in Louis’ body to not punch Peter in the face, but practically speaking, it was looking more and more like he would need his hands later for other fun very much boyfriend-like activities.

“Can I help you with something?” Louis asked. He needed Peter to go away. He hadn’t ventured another glance at Harry to try and maintain his composure, but he could guess that the mood had been effectively dampened, at least for now.

Peter finally recovered, and leveled Louis with one of the nastiest looks he had ever had the pleasure of receiving. Instead of saying anything Peter just pointed to the coat that Louis had pulled to the ground, and was now standing on, not having had time to kick it away after Harry pulled him up.

Louis bent down to retrieve the coat, and handed it to Peter. Before Louis could say anything else. Harry came back to the conversation, “We have some business to take care of, so you can go away now,” he blurted, reaching for the handle and slamming the closet door closed again right in Peter’s face.

As soon as the door was closed Louis was laughing maniacally, “Did you see his face?”

Harry’s face was in his hands and he was groaning, “Lou, I am so mortified.” Louis wrapped his arms back up around Harry’s neck as he tried to stop giggling.

“Don’t be, love, their opinion doesn’t matter.”

“Yeah, but they could tell your mother, and then she’ll think I’m a slut and not good enough for you!” That set Louis giggles off again, and Harry lifted his face long enough to glare at him.

“Harry, I’m sure if we asked her to, my mum would stand on the other side of the door and guard it so that we could finish what we were doing uninterrupted. She’s great like that.”

“Really?”

“I promise. Speaking of, I know she would want me to ask, would you like to stay at my house tonight before you drive home tomorrow?”

“I don’t know, Niall invited me, and I had kind of been planning to stay here, I wouldn’t want to intrude.” Harry looked like he was trying to look torn, but Louis could clearly see that he wanted to take him up on his offer. Seriously, no poker for Harry. Ever.

“Come on, I insist.” Louis nudged his side and went to open the door again, sparing a wistful thought for the blow job that would clearly be tabled for now. “Plus, that way you’ll be there for at least part of my birthday tomorrow morning.”

Harry’s eyes lit up at that idea. “Alright,” he conceded putting his hand up to stop Louis, leveling him with a gaze, “but NO funny business! She may be okay with it, but I don’t want to take advantage of your mum’s hospitality.”

With that very definitive statement, they shuffled back out into the party that was still in full swing around them.

“Sure, Harry. Absolutely no funny business.” Louis agreed with a smirk as he pulled the door shut behind him.

He hoped the night before Christmas Eve was too late to be added to Santa’s naughty list for lying to one’s potential new boyfriend.