Actions

Work Header

got the sunshine on my shoulders

Chapter Text

It’s raining.

Of course it’s fucking raining.

“Niall,” Harry grumbles into the phone, holding on to it with one hand while he tries to figure out how to turn the wipers on. “When I said ‘something inconspicuous’, I didn’t mean a Ford Fiesta.”

“What’s the problem?” Niall asks on the other end. He sounds like he’s sipping something, the bastard, and the faint hum in the background can only be waves washing onto a beach. “It’s a sensible car. I thought you didn’t want anyone to recognise—“

“It’s too low,” Harry interrupts. He’s not ready for another lesson, not with the journey he’s just had. “The water, it’s—it’s everywhere. I’m going to aquaplane and flip into a ditch, and then you’ll be out of a job.”

His voice is a little shrill for the microscopic interior of the car. He wishes he could help it. Stay calm, stay calm, stay fucking calm

Niall takes a deep breath. “Listen to me,” he says. “Put your useless feet on the pedals and drive.”

“But I don’t want to,” Harry whines. One corner of his mouth twitches; he’s being such a brat.

“You’re a baby,” Niall says, dry. “I’m giving you ten seconds to hang up and start driving, or I’ll call Peter and tell him to fly over there.”

“No security,” says Harry sharply. He’s gone over this so many times it’s more of a mantra, really. “No security. I’m going.”

“Good,” Niall replies. He’s grinning, judging by his tone. Harry hopes, only briefly, that he’ll drown in whatever sea is causing the soothing noise on his end of the line. “Don’t call me until it’s done. Do you hear me?”

Harry sighs. “I hear you—“

“Do not. Call me.”

“You should be a motivational speaker,” Harry says, finally turning the correct wheel to get his wipers flying over the windscreen. A Ford. For God’s sake.

“Bye, Harry,” Niall replies, makes a noise that sounds vaguely like an air kiss, and then the line is dead.

Harry sighs, again, and the car rumbles underneath him like it’s getting annoyed. It also might simply be on the verge of giving out – he’s got the headlights on even though it’s three in the afternoon, and the vents are blasting hot air. His bum is still bitterly, bitterly cold; as it turns out, heated seats do not come standard with this glamorous model.

His mobile buzzes in his hand. Start driving!!!!!!!!!!!!! the text says. By the time Harry unlocks his phone, another one has come in – this time a picture of Niall grinning on a sun lounger, dark sunglasses on his nose and his cheeks already pink.

WEAR SUNSCREEN, Harry writes back. He throws his phone in the backseat, too worried he’d cave and call himself a taxi if he kept it close, and fiddles with the radio instead. It’s afternoon commute time – every station he can get out here is playing the top 40. More than once, his own voice crackles back at him from the speakers. Usually, he’d enjoy it. He does still get that little bubble of pride in his chest when he’s reminded of all these things he’s accomplished.

Today, though. Today, even the opening chord feels like a vice around his throat.

Harry abandons the radio and leans back in his seat, trying to breathe. The rain is coming down harder now, lashing against the windows, blurring the outlines of the world outside – except for the sign that Harry knows stands proudly in the distance, every last letter of it burned into his memory.

Holmes Chapel, Twinned with Bessancourt. Please drive slowly through the Village, except the r and v have come off a long time ago.

Please die slowly, Louis used to grin every time they’d—

“Fuck,” Harry says, matter of fact, shaking his head to get the memory out. The grey interior of the car throws the word right back in his face.

Fuck.

*

People Magazine
24th April 2017

EXCLUSIVE: Popstars to Tie the Knot

Everyone’s favourite singer/songwriter couple have recently decided to get hitched, a source revealed exclusively to People.

Harry Styles, 25, and his beau Marcus Ward, 25, have been an item for a couple of years now, sending fangirls all over the world into a tizzy with every Instagram picture. Now, it seems they’ve decided to take their relationship to the next level.

“They’re extremely happy,” a source close to Marcus has told People. “Marcus whisked Harry of on a romantic vacation to Bali, and he popped the question while they were having dinner at sunset. Harry said yes immediately, and they’re both over the moon!”

While we don’t know anything about wedding plans just yet, we’re probably not going to have to wait very long.

“They’re really very, very deeply in love,” said our souce. “They want a big wedding, and they want everyone they love to be there.”

The pair themselves have yet to officially share the news. Harry has been taking a break from social media following the end of his sold out tour to support his second studio album, while Marcus is in the studio hard at work on album number four.

In the past, many have pointed out the singers’ careers as a potential weak spot in their relationship. They are often on the road at different times – but, as fans of the couple will confirm, they seem to be together more often that not. During Harry’s tour, we saw Marcus attend at least half of the concerts, following his boyfriend – now fiancé! – all over the globe.

And at least year’s Grammy’s, where Marcus finally turned his fourth nomination into an award, he didn’t forget to thank Harry either: “To Harry, the love of my life, for dealing with me playing the drums at four in the morning, and for his undying support.”

Remember, you heard it at People first! The music industry’s favorite couple is going to don wedding tuxes soon, and we can’t wait.

Representatives for the couple declined to comment at this time.

*

It takes Harry almost an hour to actually get moving. His feet seem to have a mind of their own, slipping on the pedals until the car stalls again and again. He can barely keep his fingers wrapped around the wheel because he’s shaking so hard.

“Get it together,” he mumbles, squinting through the rain. The road ahead is straight and intimately familiar, but the Ford rolls down it at a crawl. Harry’s situation gets increasingly pathetic with every second that ticks by.

When he passes the sign, he has time to notice that someone has stuck new letters on. It must have been a while ago, too – the r and v look just as discoloured and weather-beaten as the rest.

Maybe they were always there, Harry’s brain suggests. Maybe you hallucinated the first twenty years of your life.

Harry wishes, desperately, that that were true. He even tries to convince himself of it, to find another excuse to turn back around, but then—then he sees it. A gap between two sets of pristine semis, opening up into darkness, marring the picture-perfect village like a missing tooth. On it starts a road, leading back through what used to be someone’s back garden and beyond the trees that stand guard in the back.

Harry’s chest feels a little like it’s caving in when he puts the blinker on, then steers off the concrete road and onto dirt. Every bump and lump of it feels familiar, somehow, bringing with it a steady trickle of memories he’d been hoping to avoid.

He can do this; he can. Louis will be reasonable this time around. He has to be.

As soon as the canopy of trees closes overhead, Harry spots a glimmer in the distance. That, finally, is something he can’t remember. He strains his eyes, but the shape is hard to make out in the miserable weather, and stays blurry in the greyness until the last minute.

Harry has to jump on the breaks. The wheels squeak and slide dangerously.

“What,” he says without realizing, as he stares up, and higher still, at an imposing metal fence. This is the spot where the forest is particularly thick, he knows. Remembers.

“What,” he says again, half-expecting the trees to answer him.

He didn’t anticipate—this. Not at their house, not when it used to be one of the busiest places in town. Their door was rarely closed, and they used to love it that way.

Of course, that was before everything went to shit. Before Louis drove him away; before Harry left and realised there’s an entire world beyond this village, an entire world that was waiting for him.

Things have changed, and of course they have. Something was bound to jar him sooner rather than later.

He just wasn’t—he didn’t think.

He kills the engine. He immediately misses the warm air, and tucks his hands under his vest, but it doesn’t help. The chill goes beyond the tip of his nose and the pads of his fingers, latching on to him from the inside and stubbornly holding on as he rubs his hands together. He feels wrong, wrong, wrong.

Harry’s a little dizzy when he gets out of the car. His legs feel heavy, and his tongue has turned to rough sand inside his mouth.

He’s been wondering, every since he got a new ring on his finger and realised he’d have to come back here, how it would feel. Like death wasn’t an option he considered at the time, which had clearly been a mistake.

He stands there a minute, his shoes (very, very expensive shoes, and not even a promotional pair) sinking into the rain-soft soil. There’s a steep slope on either side of him, and trees that are too tall to help him with branches. He used to know how to climb them, but frozen as he is, he’d probably slip and break himself. Niall would never let him hear the end of it.

Over the gate he goes.

Naturally, that’s easier said than done. Niall had called a few photographers to the airport when Harry was leaving, and ordered him to wear his brand new Gucci jeans – which are skin-tight and wonderfully comfortable.

They’re also white.

He reaches back into the car, fishes out his phone and his folder. Do I need to give these jeans back, he writes. Niall, thankfully, must be playing Candy Crush, because he replies in less than 30 seconds.

U dont, his text says. Do i want t kno? There’s a fence, Harry sends. Then he looks at how high it is, checks his pockets to confirm that not a single one has a zipper, and puts the phone back in the car. He ignores the itchy feeling he gets as he shuts the door and locks it; Marcus is always telling him to disconnect anyway.

He takes a deep breath, and pushes the folder to the other side through the bars. It lands in the mud with an impressive splat, but stays closed.

There are horizontal bars a little more than halfway up the gate, making it relatively easy to climb, or so Harry thinks. Except the bars themselves, shockingly enough, are made of metal – and it’s raining cats and dogs.

He manages to get his foot on a rung that’s a couple of feet off the ground, and stretches up to grab the highest one he can reach. For a second, he balances. Then the sole of his shoe slips and gives out, and his fingers get wet, and he lands on his arse with a thud.

There are birds flying between the trees. Harry can feel the rainwater and the mud soaking through his shoes, his clothes, coating the hair on the back of his head.

This is, without question, the lowest point of his woefully short life.

He stands up with his cheeks burning, instinctively looking around to check that nobody saw him. His collar is soaked through and incredibly heavy, but he feels better, safer in the vest. Like he’s got at least some excuse for an armour to help him through what’s coming.

Harry wipes his hands on a dry patch of his jeans, and grabs the bars again.

It takes three more attempts, one of which almost kills him, until he’s high enough to swing his leg over the top. One, two, three, he thinks, and spares a moment to appreciate how utterly pathetic he feels. Then, he pushes off with one of his feet, and swings.

It works – kind of. He gets a leg over the fence, but the metal is too slippery to hold on to, so the rest of his body immediately follows. He ends up dangling ten feet off the ground, holding on like a limpet. His jeans are cut in at least five different places.

“Fuck!” he yells, trying to release all the anxious energy that’s pent up inside him. He’s loud enough to startle a squirrel out of a bush.

Unfortunately, while yelling obscenities does help calm him down, it does nothing about getting him on the ground safely. There are no bars to stand on this side of the fence, just smooth wood. He’s seen one too many episodes of 24 Hours in A&E; he knows exactly what’s going to happen if he lets go and falls feet-first.

Still. It’s not like he has any other options.

He lets go with his left hand first, still holding on with the right while he tries to loosen up his knees, to make sure that his ankles don’t take all of the impact.

Then he falls.

As falls go, it’s one of his more graceful ones. He lands on his feet, wobbles, slips, and falls into the mud arse-first. Again.

Now that the worst is behind him, though, he feels a little bigger. He revives his pride the best he can, picks up his folder and, dripping mud and chunks of soil, sets down the intimately familiar path.

As if sensing his reawakened determination, the rain lets up a little. It’s almost completely gone by the time he can make out the silhouette of a house in the distance.

This is it, he thinks, and desperately stomps on his fear. Before he sent him to do this, Niall had told him to breathe slowly and ‘focus on the goal’; but Niall is somewhere in the bloody Bahamas, and he’s also never come face to face with an angry Louis Tomlinson.

Because, let’s face it – there’s no way Harry’s going to be invited in for tea.

Harry expects a sense of déja vu to completely overwhelm him when he comes to a stop at the bottom of the steps, but it doesn’t come.

It doesn’t come, because the house is nowhere near the same.

He can’t quite put his finger on it, at first. He has to blink through the waning light, and sweep his eyes slowly from side to side to notice how many things are gone: the boarded-up window they broke two days after moving in, the messy array of shoes on the front step, the toys in the front garden; Harry’s poor attempt at growing tomatoes in a planter.

The door looks recently painted, and the rug in front of it has changed. Harry feels hollow as he looks at it.

It’s Louis’s house now. He can do whatever he wants with it.

Still, he can’t resist looking up and into—into what used to be their bedroom. He spent what he thought were his happiest days there; now, watching the familiar curtain ripple behind the glass, he can’t help feeling grateful that he escaped it.

It wasn’t just the room; it was this house, this town, the relationship. All of it felt like walls surrounding him, and it took him two decades to find a door.

A small sound tears him away from his thoughts. He clutches the dirty folder to his chest, thinking it might be the door squeaking, that Louis had heard him screaming down on the road and—

“Meow,” she says once he lifts his head and their eyes meet. He recognises her immediately, even as skinny and grey as she is.

“Dusty,” he says, barely audible, and she cocks her head when she hears the name. “What are you doing here?”

The tip of her tail wobbles a little as she sits down, right on the doorstep. She hunches her shoulders and stares him down. Harry fidgets.

“It’s so nice to see you,” he says, quiet, extending a hand before he can stop himself. She’s too far to touch, but she used to come straight to him whenever he so much as looked like he wanted to stroke her.

Not this time. Dusty stays put; her whiskers look frizzy with age, but her eyes are as alert as Harry remembers them. She must recognise him, she must.

“Come here,” he whispers, crouching down. “Come on, lovely girl. I haven’t seen you in so long.”

He barely avoids a pang of guilt when he realises how long it’s actually been. I left for my own good, he repeats in his head, a mantra that’s half a decade old. It was for the best.

Dusty meows again, louder this time. Harry leans forward, stretching towards her, wanting to touch her just once—

Then, the door creaks open. Harry has absolutely no time to prepare himself.

“Hey, babe,” a voice comes from indoors. Harry’s instantly feels two inches tall. Goosebumps race down his back, he shivers, and then completely freezes. He can’t move a single muscle, can’t get his chest to rise so he can breathe—

“What’s going on, love?” Louis says again, impossibly soft. He’s speaking to the cat, Harry, his brain tells him, evidently the only part of him that’s still functioning. The cat. “Why don’t you just come inside?”

God, he—he sounds the same. The exact same.

Harry stares at Dusty with his eyes watering; watches her look at the sliver of darkness peeking out from behind the door, tilt her chin up, and meow again.

“What,” says Louis, and there’s a hint of something happy, something that sounds like laughter in his voice. Then, he must reach out a hand; a couple of fingertips emerge from the darkness, then knuckles, then skinny fingers, then a wrist. Harry knows them as well as his own, but at the same time, he absolutely can’t reconcile them with the way he’s thought of Louis in the last five years.

He was expecting him to be older, uglier, more tired. To be real, not the fantasy that fourteen-year-old him thought he wanted.

Dusty looks right at him. Harry holds his breath.

“What—“ he hears Louis say, quiet, his tone completely different, before the door slams closed with a deafening crack. Dusty jumps away, licks her paw, then lets herself in through a cat door that Harry hadn’t noticed before.

As soon as Louis is gone, Harry’s body releases him. He stands up, only slightly panicked, and tries to get the tremor in his limbs under control.

Deep breath. Deep breath, he has to, it’s why he came all this way.

“Louis!” he calls, daring to come closer. His voice doesn’t sound anywhere near sure, or unaffected, or even calm.

There’s silence on the other side of the door, then a shuffle, then a creak. Then: “Leave.”

This time, it’s most definitely aimed at Harry, and the amount of venom behind it is chilling.

“I just wanted to—“

Leave,” Louis repeats. The word feels like lightning striking Harry right in the chest, and not in a good way.

“Louis, please,” Harry says. Something about the words makes him feel dirty. “This has gone on long enough. I just need you to sign the papers, and then I’ll be out of your life for good.”

A humourless bark of a laugh. Harry’s right up against the door now, pressing one of his palms against it, hoping he can persuade Louis with a phantom of a touch.

“Louis,” he says again, suddenly helpless. There’s a lump in the back of his throat that’s making him feel nauseous. This shouldn’t be so difficult – he’s practiced what he was going to say, over and over in front of the mirror, but he can’t recall a single word. “Open the door.”

“Fuck off, Harry.”

Harry. It’s never, never sounded so cold.

“Give me five minutes,” he says, pleads, starting to realise that he’s not going to be able to talk his way in.

No,” Louis replies, incredulous. The floor on the other side of the door creaks. He must be standing right there; Harry would be touching him if it weren’t for the solid wall of wood between them. “What makes you think you can just show up here after five years—“

“I wouldn’t be here at all if you weren’t so stubborn!” Harry interrupts, his normally dormant temper flaring back to life. He hasn’t shouted at anyone in months. Years. Of course Louis is the one to make him do it. “It’s three fucking signatures, I can’t believe you still want to spite me—“

“I can do what I want!” Louis barks. “I’m not going to sign shit if you can’t be bothered to ask me in person—“

“I’m here!” Harry shouts, banging on the door to make his point. “I’m asking you in person, stop being a stubborn prick and give me—“

“It took you five years!”

“What does it matter?” asks Harry. God, he can’t—can’t believe how overwhelmed he’d been. It’s the same old Louis pacing on the other side of the door – just as mulish, just as childish. Just as incapable of seeing past the tip of his nose.

“What does it—“ Louis starts, but his voice gives out. There’s a tremor in it, and Harry can hear him breathing now, hear every heavy inhale and shaky exhale. At least he’s not unaffected. Good. “It fucking matters, Harry. I’m not going to sign until you figure out why.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Harry asks, but he doesn’t get an answer. He presses harder against the door, hearing steps fading into the distance, feeling Louis drawing away. Being refused is not an option; that’s not why he’s here. “Open the door.”

“Go away,” Louis says again. He sounds like the fight’s gone out of him. “Go, Harry.”

“I’m not going anywhere,” he replies. “Just divorce me, for God’s sake—“

“Goodbye,” Louis replies, and then a door slams shut somewhere in the depths of the house.

Harry gapes for a while, then screams, then bangs on the doors and windows. He tries the back door, but it’s locked, and all of the spare keys seem to have changed positions.

Finally, once it gets so dark he can barely see his own hands, he gives up.

He sits down on the top step and leans against the door. The stone is freezing, so is the wood, and the light breeze in the air feels like a blizzard blowing through Harry’s wet clothes.

The light above the door is the only one that’s on, thankfully still fitted with a sensor. A flock of mosquitoes is dancing around it. Harry blinks slowly as he watches them, dozens of little wings fluttering in the darkness.

He has to leave, he knows. Louis made it very clear – he’s not opening the door.

But Harry came here with a single purpose: to get a divorce. He can’t go back home until Louis has signed the sodding papers.

He thinks of calling his lawyer, asking if there’s anything they can do if Louis doesn’t want to cooperate. There must be, but the thought of dragging out the process makes him shiver in horror. If the media got a hold of it – if they found out he’s already married, oh God – they’d tear him to pieces.

And Marcus—Marcus can’t know.

Blinking into the darkness, Harry comes up with a plan. A stupid plan, but a plan nonetheless.

He gets up, and gives one last bang on the door in a futile hope that Louis has changed his mind. There’s no answer, but one of the lights inside turns off.

Harry sighs, and rolls up the folder to stick it in his pocket. Then he draws his jacket tighter around himself and, going more by memory than by sight, makes his way down the road and back to his car.

Climbing the gate better be easier from this side.

*

He wakes up just before five in the morning to a furious banging on his car window. It takes him a minute to come to and figure out where he is.

Right. The Ford. His stubborn arsehole of a husband. Hopefully ex-husband, by the end of the day.

He looks to the window that’s currently creaking under the force of the blows. It’s fogged over after he’d been in all night, trying to fight the jet lag and fall asleep; Louis is little more than a silhouette.

“What?” he calls, wiping drool off the corner of his mouth, trying to make himself look somewhat dignified in his torn, muddy jeans.

“Get off the road!” Louis shouts. His voice is muffled, but Harry can still tell it’s sharper, angrier than yesterday.

He rolls down his window about half an inch, and sticks the folder out. “Sign it.”

“I already told you—“

“Yeah, yeah, you won’t sign. But I’m not going to move until you do, so you don’t really have a choice.”

Louis lets out a furious breath. He snatches the folder from Harry’s fingers, and Harry thinks he’s won for one whole, glorious second. Then he hears the tell-tale slap of plastic falling to the ground.

“I’ll ram you off this road, I swear to god. Move your fucking car.”

Harry pinches the bridge of his nose. He can barely feel his fingers, and there’s a spectacular headache building right in the centre of his forehead. He’s also dirty, and hungry, and miserable.

“Can you just talk to me?” he asks, his voice smaller than he’d like. “Just step away so I can get out of the car—“

“Come on, then,” Louis interrupts. His shoes squelch a little as he backs up.

In any other circumstances, Harry would just give. He’s met his fair share of angry, confrontational people over the years, and it’s always ended in punches.

But this—this is Louis. Louis would never lay a hand on him, no matter how much he hates Harry, how much Harry hates him.

Plus, the papers.

He opens the door slowly, tentatively, not sure what to expect on the other side. He hadn’t actually seen Louis yesterday, except for a few fingers and a wrist, and those were enough to send his body into overdrive.

Harry knows he’s grown up since they last saw each other, knows he’s taller, broader, prettier. He has no idea how the years have treated Louis.

To his surprise, it isn’t raining. That, at least, immediately puts him in a better mood as he folds himself out of the car, cracking his neck and stretching his legs.

“You said you wanted to talk,” Louis says behind him. He sounds calm, collected. “So talk.”

“Okay,” Harry sighs. “Okay, listen—“

He doesn’t get to finish. The words are blown straight out of his mouth, because he turns around, and—there he is.

Louis.

He’s standing with his legs spread wide, hands in his pockets, and a hood over his head. A closed-off stance if Harry has ever seen one, but that’s not what gets him.

Louis looks older. So much older. There are crow’s feet around his eyes, and dark circles right underneath; his mouth is set in a thin, furious line, and he’s watching Harry like an angry bull, ready to charge.

Without meaning to, Harry takes a step back. Maybe it’s the shock of coming face to face with what he’d left behind, maybe the sudden fear that settles in his chest, ice cold. Either way, Louis notices, and his shoulders tense underneath the hoodie.

God, he’s small. Smaller than Harry remembers. His cheekbones are sharper, and the line of his jaw looks like it’s made out of stone. He used to be much, much softer than this.

To his own eternal embarrassment, Harry feels the sting of tears coming on. He’s certain they’re shocked tears, because he doesn’t feel anything about Louis anymore. Anything besides anger and regret, that is.

“Today, please,” Louis says, with an arrogant quirk of his eyebrow. Harry’s stomach turns.

“Right,” he says, clearing his throat. Don’t vomit, he tells himself, holding on to the car door like a lifeline. Don’t you dare vomit. “I, um—I’m sorry.”

It sounds so awkwardly, painfully fake. Louis can tell.

“You’re sorry?” he asks, incredulous. He’d seem perfectly unaffected if it wasn’t for the rapid rise and fall of his chest. Harry’s taken a step forward, and he’s close enough to see it; that and a thousand other little things.

It’s bizarrely like looking at the house yesterday, but he doesn’t have to focus so hard to notice things that aren’t there anymore. There was a warmth—all those years ago, Louis’s eyes used to be the warmest blue. Harry’s stupid little heart used to do a somersault when Louis so much as looked at him.

His skin is slightly more sallow, sitting on his face unhappily, wrinkling in all the wrong places like it doesn’t want to be there. He used to shine from within, used to have this light that made everyone around him fall in love. Now, he’s little more than a hunched shell of the man he used to be.

Then again, maybe this is what he always looked like. Maybe this is him without Harry’s rose-coloured glasses.

“I’m sorry,” he says again, and manages to make it a little more genuine, “for ambushing you like that yesterday. I see how, um. How that wasn’t the best idea.”

“You think?” Louis snorts. “Can you even—do you have any idea—“ he doesn’t finish, just bites his lip and goes quiet. His shoulders droop; his cocky confidence fades a little.

“I’m sorry,” Harry repeats. He feels a little surer on his feet now, and the world spins a little slower, coming into focus around him. It’s a drab, wet morning, but the trees around them are bright green and alive, humming in the breeze.

They only put into contrast the greyness of what used to be Louis, once upon a time. Maybe all the smoking finally caught up with him, Harry thinks.

He realises, then, that they’re both just people; the illusion of Louis he’d carried around in his mind is gone, and in its place is this small, angry man that feels like a complete stranger. Harry remembers that he hates him, remembers all the pain he’s had to go through because of him; remembers that he’s travelled the world three times over, and Louis is still stuck here, still frying fish for a living.

It’s just the boost that he needs. He straightens up, and brushes off his shoulders, shaking every last crumb of conflicted feelings about Louis. There’s nothing there, and there never was – he’s here to rectify their mistake of a marriage.

“Look,” he starts, when Louis doesn’t say anything. “I’m just trying to make both our lives easier. I’m sure you don’t want to be married to me anymore.”

“Mhm,” Louis hums, looking at the ground. He looks, suddenly, like a child.

“Then sign, for Christ’s sake. I don’t understand why we’ve been stuck here for so long when you could’ve just signed the first copy and mailed it back to me—“

“That was four years ago,” he says, and he looks Harry in the eye this time. Harry can’t help searching in them for the person he used to know. “It took you four years to come here and ask me in person. I never knew you to be a coward, Harry.”

Harry grits his teeth. “I’m not.”

“Whatever you say,” Louis shakes his head. “You wouldn’t even be here if you didn’t get engaged.”

“You,” Harry says, then blanks. Swallows. “You know about that?”

“You’re a popstar,” he says. Harry can’t pinpoint any emotion behind it. “News travels fast.”

“I love him.”

“Do you?”

“Yes,” he frowns.

Louis nods silently. He looks up at the sky, then takes a step forward. They’re close now; Harry can almost see the faint freckles he knows are dusted along Louis’s nose.

He pulls one hand out of his pocket. Harry doesn’t dare breathe as he picks up the dirty folder and extends it into the space between them.

Louis touches the plastic, but doesn’t take it. “Does he know?” he asks, suddenly.

Harry frowns. “What?”

“Your fiancé. Does he know you’re here?”

Harry bites his lip.

“Does he know you’re already married?” his fingers are resting right there, just a few inches from where he needs to sign to end this for both of them, but he’s not looking. His piercing gaze is leveled on Harry.

He sighs miserably. “No,” he says. “He doesn’t know I’m here. And he doesn’t know I’m married, because I’m not.”

Louis raises his eyebrows. Slowly, deliberately, he pulls his hand away.

“Marriage is more than just a piece of paper,” Harry tries, desperate. “I haven’t even seen you in five years. We’re not married.”

Louis takes a step back, then another, until he’s hovering by the door of his car. “You’re right,” he says, with a quirk to his lips that looks like a genuine smile. “You argument still needs a bit of work, though.”

“Louis, please—“

“No,” he shakes his head. “Not right now. Move your car.”

“Please,” Harry says again, but Louis doesn’t hear him. He takes a seat and slams the door after himself. His headlights blink to life a second later, blinding Harry where he stands in the middle of the road.

“I’m not moving,” he yells, crossing his arms.

Louis releases the handbrake and starts rolling toward him.

“Stop being a brat!”

He revs the engine in response.

Harry almost slips as he backs away, walking backwards until he’s all but sitting on the hood of his Ford. He can just about see Louis’s face through his windscreen, his expression set and both hands on the wheel.

Louis: one. Harry: nil.

“Fine,” he yells – screams, really, because all that pent-up frustration has to go somewhere. “Fine! Fuck you, Louis.”

He gets in the car and starts with frozen hands, reversing sideways until the road is wide enough for Louis to pass. The engine screams as he tears away, and it’s only then that Harry realises the car was new – a shiny, black Land Rover. It’s the kind he’s used to seeing every day around LA, but it’s certainly not common in Holmes Chapel.

As he buckles his seatbelt, he thinks about the ugly old Clio they used to have. Wonders what happened to it.

When Louis got rid of it.

Why.

*

As luck would have it, he finds out less than fifteen minutes later as he’s rolling down the main street – the only street, really. It sticks out like a sore thumb among muddy pickups and black sedans, all parked around Barb’s at breakfast time.

Harry’s got the driver’s side window cracked open, trying to get rid of the condensation coating the inside of the car. The air that trickles inside brings with it the scent of bacon, and of freshly baked bread. It’s only then that he realises he hasn’t eaten a thing since his flight.

He’s only got two options here: drive to one of the neighbouring villages, which would take the better part of an hour, or get out and hope he’s grown up enough that nobody recognises him.

That’s a futile hope, of course – everyone must have heard of him packing up and leaving, and he hasn’t exactly been lying low.

It’s the car that makes up his mind for him. It’s not Louis, just connected to him, so Harry lets himself admit he’s missed it a little. He’s somewhat desperate to find out what happened to it.

He tries to dust himself off while he walks to the door, self-conscious. Chatter is wafting out through the door and into the street; half the village must be in there at this time of morning.

He’s sweating, the back of his neck tacky under his once-fluffy collar. Everyone in this building probably knows him. God, what if his mum

“You coming or going?” somebody asks, and Harry instinctively steps out of the way. It’s a man he doesn’t recognise, and he doesn’t give Harry a second glance as he pushes through the door and walks to his car.

Good. That’s good.

Harry takes one more breath, and wipes his palms on his shirt. It’s just a pub, for God’s sake. He’s been on stage in front of sold-out arenas.

He slips through the door a little more tentatively than he’d like, trying to blend in with the wallpaper. It’s still a nondescript shade of brown, same as the chairs and tables. Here, at least, absolutely nothing has changed.

He contemplates taking a seat and waiting for someone to come to him, but decides against it. He could probably grab food to go and just go sit in his car, watch until someone comes out and gets in the Clio.

“Hello, darling,” a woman greets him as soon as he gets to the counter. She’s bent over a stack of receipts, not looking at him. It takes Harry exactly two seconds to recognise the grey ringlets pushed behind her ears, and the spotty golden bracelet she’s been wearing since Harry was in nappies.

“Hi, um. Helen.”

She looks up immediately, sharp eyes boring into his. He tries to put on some semblance of a smile, but it’s night impossible with the way she’s staring at him.

“Look, I—I know, okay? I promise I’m not in town for long, I’d just like some breakfast—“

“The chippy’s open,” she interrupts. It’s rather like she dumped a bucked of ice water over his head. He’s never known her to be anything but endlessly kind.

“Helen, please,” he tries.

She gives him something that could pass for a smile, but it’s very, very sad. “Sorry, Mr Styles.”

Then she turns and walks away, wringing her apron in her hands as she goes.

Harry sighs. He stretches his arms out, feeling a thousand little bones slot back into place after a night in the car, and leans his forehead against the sticky countertop. It’s not like he has any more dignity to lose.

“Alright, mate? Helen’s just in a bit of a mood, don’t worry about it,” someone says, just as a heavy hand falls to rest on his shoulder.

For what has to be the millionth time in the last twenty-four hours, Harry freezes.

He knows that voice, too.

“It’s okay,” he mumbles into the counter. If he doesn’t lift his head, he might not be recognised. “I’ll just drive somewhere else, but thanks.”

“Don’t be silly,” he replies, and squeezes Harry’s shoulder. It’s so comforting – and intimately familiar – that it makes Harry want to cry. Again.

In retrospect, it’s obvious that he came here severely underprepared. Every single pebble under his feet feels like a mountain of nostalgia, and meeting people he loves – used to love – makes it that much worse.

“No, really,” he says, and makes the mistake of lifting his head a little, just to make sure his voice carries. “I’m—“

“Harry,” he says. He doesn’t sound—surprised, or shocked, or disgusted, or anything, really.

Harry breathes out. “Liam,” he replies, and a small smile settles on his face without permission. He leans into Liam’s touch, because he knows he’s going to pull away any second.

“I thought Louis was hallucinating,” says Liam. His hand is still there. Still warm. “I really—he said to drive up and get you to leave, and I told him I’d do it in the morning, I—wow.”

“I’m sorry,” Harry apologises, though he’s not sure what for. “As I said, I can just drive to get breakfast somewhere else.”

He finally dares look Liam in the face. In the darkness of the pub, he finds another eerily familiar face, still round and earnest, looking back at him.

He’s got a beard now, though, a small one. For a crazy second, Harry thinks of reaching out and touching it.

Liam bites his lip, and furrows his brows. Harry can’t stop being laser-focused on his hand, still squeezing the dirty shoulder of his vest.

“I’ve got some extra toast, if you want,” he says, slowly and still frowning like he can’t quite believe what he’s saying. “I can order you something proper when Helen comes back.”

Don’t cry, Harry. Don’t fucking cry. “Are you sure?” he asks, a little shaky in the face of all this kindness and a piece of toast. “I mean, you shouldn’t—you’re the last person who should be nice to me.”

Finally, the hand slides away. Liam tucks it into his pocket instead.

“I think that’s Louis, actually,” he says, and points away with his chin. “Come on.”

Harry follows him, arms wrapped around himself, through the dark depths of the pub. He’s—of course he’s in the corner booth, all the way in the back. That one’s theirs.

“Sit down, Harry,” Liam says, politely interrupting Harry’s staring. He should expect this by now, but he still feels a little wobbly on his feet as he takes a seat on the familiar worn leather. “Eat.”

Liam pushes his whole plate toward him. The toast piled on the edge is the perfect shade of brown and shiny with butter; even though Harry feels indescribably guilty, he can’t stop himself from reaching for it.

Liam watches him for a minute, arms crossed and leaning back against his seat. Then, about halfway through Harry’s second slice, he opens his mouth.

“So. You really want a divorce,” he asks. States. Harry almost chokes on his food, but only almost.

“Yes,” he manages to say, firm but not firm enough to sound like a prick. “Louis doesn’t want to give me one.”

“Are you surprised?”

“I—“ Harry tilts his head. “Yes.”

That’s the thing, really – he’d expected to roll up to his old house, only meet Louis for long enough to see the relief on his face as he signs the papers, and be back in London by eight o’clock.

Somehow, he got it colossally, fundamentally wrong, and he can’t figure out why.

“Oh,” Liam raises his eyebrows. “That—I didn’t expect you to say that.”

Harry swallows a particularly dry mouthful. “I don’t understand what’s so bad about it,” he says. “I came here to relieve him of his past, so we could finally get rid of each other for good—“

“Do you think that’s what he wants?” asks Liam. He’s implying something, but Harry’s terribly out of practice. He can’t catch it. “Do you think he wants to get rid of you?”

“Of course he does,” Harry frowns. “He hates me, and I understand that, I hate him too, so I just don’t—I don’t understand why he won’t sign. We’ve been stuck in this marriage because of him, but I figured he was just stubborn for no reason as he always is—“

“Okay,” Liam interrupts. “All right, that’s enough. I don’t want to hear it.”

Right, Harry remembers. His and Louis’s mutual friend. Whom Harry abandoned when he left Holmes Chapel.

“Sorry,” he mumbles. The food in his mouth starts tasting suspiciously like ash. “I shouldn’t have—you shouldn’t have invited me, I’ll just go.”

“Sit down,” Liam replies. Any trace of friendliness has gone from his voice. “And listen to me. Are you listening?”

Harry gulps. Nods.

“I’m not telling you this because we’re friends,” Liam starts. His tough act is already cracking, and the benevolence he’s made of reluctantly shines through. “We’ll never be friends again, but that doesn’t matter. I just want Louis to be free, and I want him to move on, so I want you to listen to me.”

Harry nods silently. He thinks the loud chatter in the pub might have quieted a little, but he hopes he’s wrong.

“Don’t leave until you get him to sign. I don’t care what it takes, do you understand me?”

“He said,” Harry says, quiet, not sure if he’s allowed to interrupt. “He said he’s been waiting for me to come ask him in person.”

“Then it’s a good thing you’re here,” Liam replies, frowning wildly at the tabletop. “I’m serious, Harry. You’ll have to badger him, and he’s probably going to scream at you, but I want every last trace of you gone from his life, and you can make it happen right now.”

He immediately looks apologetic, but he seems to bite his lip to prevent himself from saying anything to that effect.

“Do you want more food?” he asks then, a complete non sequitur.

Harry holds a hand over his stomach, which is making sickening somersaults for no good reason. “No,” he says. “I’m fine.”

Liam nods. “He’s not in town today,” he says. Harry immediately itches to ask where he’s going, what could he possibly need to do that’s more important than work.

He doesn’t have a right to know, though. He realises that much.

“But he’ll be back tomorrow. Don’t drag it out, just get him to do it and leave him alone.”

“Understood,” Harry says, nodding. He avoids Liam’s eyes, and instead looks at the crumbs he’s left on the table. “I don’t want to be here any longer than I need to, I can promise you that.”

“Good,” Liam replies, shrugging into his hoodie. “I don’t think there’s anything left here for you.”

With that, he gets up. “Goodbye, Harry,” he says, looking Harry in the eye for a split second. Then he pulls his phone out of his pocket and walks away.

He doesn’t invite Harry to follow him. Harry doesn’t.

He does, however, feel as if the booth was closing in on him, reminding him of too many things that need to stay buried, so he waits just long enough to let Liam leave and then heads for the exit.

He passes one familiar face after another, but he keeps his head down, and they all seem to be avoiding his eyes anyway.

Harry pauses just next to the door, looking outside through the dirty window. The Clio is still there – and the boot is open. Liam is standing beneath it, rearranging something before he pulls out a backpack and lets it fall shut.

That—makes sense, Harry thinks. It makes so much sense. Of course Louis would give Liam the car.

Speaking of the devil, just as Harry decides to walk out and get in his own car, he spots the Land Rover pulling in from up the street. It stops by the curb, where Louis puts the blinkers on and jumps out.

Liam smiles when he sees him, and Louis—shit. Louis smiles back.

It hits Harry somewhere very, very deep in his gut, seeing the soft expression on Louis’s face, watching as his eyes get a little shiny in the time it takes Liam to walk to him.

They hug right there on the sidewalk, with Liam’s arms wrapped tight around Louis’s shoulders, rocking him side to side just a little. Louis’s small palms are splayed wide over Liam’s back, holding him close, and his face is buried in Liam’s shoulder. Harry thinks he might be saying something, and Liam must answer back, because Louis’s cheeks lift in another smile.

Harry’s not prepared for the nagging sense of longing it wakes in him. He shakes his head, and presses a couple of fingers against the glass.

It’s all right. Everything is fine. Liam essentially just gave him his blessing.

He gets back in the car, and shivers in the cold for a while because he’s dangerously low on petrol. He feels a little more—free, suddenly. It seems like years since he’s arrived, though it hasn’t even been a day, and he spent all of that time would so very tight, looking over his shoulder. Now that he knows Louis is gone, he finally feels a little bit of the tension seep out of his shoulders.

He’ll have to get back on track tomorrow – nobody knows where he is, and he can only avoid his phone for so long.

But for now, he drives. He lets the roads take him where they want, and is barely surprised when he ends up at the riverbank. The ground there is still soft from the rain yesterday, but he gets out anyway, and walks down to the tree.

He can almost see the silhouettes of them from twelve years ago in the shifting shadows of the trees; him leaning against the trunk, and Louis laughing into his neck.

He was thirteen. It’s so surreal to think about.

Harry knows what he’s going to see once he gets close enough. They went back here on their wedding night, high on happiness and drunk off their faces, to carve their names into the tree that started it all.

They’re still there, a little higher than he remembers. He has to tip his chin up to see the Harry, the plus sign, the faded lines of Louis beneath it. He’s a little surprised they’ve not been scratched off.

He leans his head against a neighboring tree, and closes his eyes. It’s silent out here, like everywhere in the village. It’s like a bubble compared to the quiet but ever-present noise of LA, even around his house up in the hills. The silence unnerves him, and makes him uneasy – he’s left all alone with his thoughts, with absolutely no distractions when he desperately needs them.

It’s why, he tells himself later, he gets angrier with every breath he takes.

He thinks of Liam first; thinks about his kind eyes and his cruel words and his heartbreaking devotion to Louis.

He used to be their best friend. There is no them anymore, but he knew—Harry talked to him, more than anybody else, about everything that was going wrong.

He left for the right reasons. He left to make his life better, and isn’t that what everyone wanted him to do? His mum never stopped talking about how talented he was, Louis paid him compliments in every other sentence he spoke; he and Liam used to daydream together, sharing a guilty smoke while waiting for Louis to get off from work, about the day Liam was going to produce an album for LouisandHarry, the UK’s new dynamic duo.

Liam knew how scared Harry was, back when he thought that he loved Louis, that that love was more important than getting out of here to do what he was meant to do. He could’ve had a little more compassion, could have made more of an effort to reach out—

He takes a deep breath, stalling his thoughts before they spin out of control. His cheeks feel warm from the blood pumping aimlessly through his body, full of pointless anger.

What’s done is done, he thinks, but he can’t help curling his hands into fists, squeezing around the car key he’s holding until it’s cutting into his palm.

His career started the day he left for London. He never had time to look back, even if he had wanted to, and that must be why—why all of this is proving to be too much to handle.

“Harry,” he mumbles slowly, contemplatively, tracing his own name in the tree bark. He thinks of himself at thirteen, himself at sixteen, himself at eighteen, always so endlessly caught up in Louis that he never realised he had his own life. He feels, in a way, like he’s avenged the naïve boy he used to be.

And, at the same time, he feels like he’s failed him. There’s something in him that hasn’t quite let go of this place – that much is clear now. He’s so angry, angry that he’s affected, that Louis won’t give, that nothing about this has been as easy as he wanted it to be—angry that he’s been forced to come here, to poke at a wound he’d long thought healed and scabbed and scarred. Gone.

He contemplates the weight of the car key in his hand, then lifts it to the pale lines that spell his name in the bark. He digs in, and doesn’t stop until every last trace of him is gone.

Louis’s name is still there. Harry looks at it dispassionately, traces it with his fingers, but leaves it alone. If Louis doesn’t want it erased, it’s his own problem.

He breathes in the scent of fresh wood, of wet grass underneath his feet. Closes his eyes again, and feels them burn.

Then, he sits on the ground and cries.

*

As Harry soon figures out, the one B&B in the village shut years ago. He walks up and down the main street, his face still sticky with tears, looking for a place to stay, but he’s too afraid to ask a passersby.

He could go to Northwich, to Stoke on Trent, to any of the dozen villages that are a stone’s throw away – there’s bound to be a bed somewhere.

His mum is also bound to hear about him being in town.

He’s not too sure he’s ready for another reunion, especially with a mum who’s probably going to be angrier than Louis was.

It’s Harry’s one single regret about leaving this place – the fact that he wasn’t brave enough to tell his family. That he wasn’t brave enough to pick up the phone. He’s a horrible, horrible son, regardless of the fact that he sings praises to his mum in every other interview. She hasn’t seen him in five years.

And he misses her; he misses her like he would miss a limb, misses Gemma, Robin, the house that saw him through the best years of his childhood.

He’s here now. Maybe he can fix the one thing he really broke all those years ago.

After all the hours he’s spent in the car, the inside of it smells like wet dirt and sweat. He decides to leave it behind, tucked into a side street, and makes the walk up the hill on foot. He tries his best to not think along the way, just enjoys the ever-present wind lashing past his ears. It finally feels like May outside, and he gets warm enough to actually take his vest off.

He still looks like he bathed in a mud pit, but it’s a little bit better.

The walk is over much sooner than he’d like. He stops before the eerily familiar hedge, still meticulously shaped, and hesitates with his hand on the gate handle. As much as he hates to admit it, this house stopped being a home as soon as he moved in with Louis, and the years that have passed since then must make him more of a guest than anything else.

He looks through the windows, again, and wonders if his old bed is still up there somewhere.

He stands, and lets the wind blow the hesitation out of his head; he’s got to do this one thing. He presses the handle.

“Harry?” asks someone – his mum, definitely his mum – from behind.

He gets choked up before he even tries to speak. He hasn’t heard her voice in—God, half a decade.

“Hi,” he gets out, with no small amount of trouble, and hunches his shoulders. Her soft breathing behind him feels like a freight train loaded to the very top with regret, just slamming into his chest at full speed. “Mum. Hi.”

“Oh my God,” she says. She doesn’t sound angry, and that’s the only reason he feels brave enough to turn around.

There’s a couple of shopping bags on the ground, a handbag, a set of keys – all things she must have dropped. By the time he dares to look her in the face, he can’t make out any of the details because his vision is blurry.

“What happened?” she whispers, and Harry—Harry just has no idea where to start.

He shakes his head, desperately biting his lips to keep the tears away. It’s barely been an hour since he stopped crying, his tear ducts should be completely wrung out—

Amid the hazy shapes that now make up the world, he can make out, in bizarre crystal clear quality, as she opens her arms. There’s a bit of hesitation in it, but Harry won’t, can’t, question the comfort she’s offering. He will, later. Right now, he just needs a hug.

“I’m sorry,” he says as soon as he’s got his arms wrapped around her shoulders. She’s shorter than he remembers. “I’m so sorry.”

“Shush,” she says, rubbing his back. It’s a little hesitant, but it’s there. “I’ll shout at you, do you hear me? I will shout your little head off, but I need you to sleep on it first. You look exhausted, love.”

“I am,” Harry replies, and feels it down to his bones. “I’m sorry, Mum, I—“

“Come on, then,” mum interrupts, squeezing his shoulders and turning him around, then nudging him until he starts walking. “It’s open, just go straight in. You know where your room is.”

“Is it still there?” he asks, already in the hall, trying to get his shoes off without making a mess. The house is pleasantly cool, and smells of flowers. It envelopes him instantly, makes him feel sleepy, content. Safe, if only for a little while.

Mum sighs as she closes the door behind them. “Of course it’s still there. Go on, I won’t wake you up. Sleep as much as you want.”

“I—thank you,” he says, and turns around to see her. She looks tired too, her skin a little pale, but she musters up a smile like she always does.

“Go,” she says, asks, really.

Harry doesn’t need to be told twice. He reaches out for a moment, wraps his hand around hers, then pulls away and walks up the stairs.

Everything he touches feels familiar – he’s done enough sneaking around in the dark to know exactly where his room is just by the wrinkles in the wallpaper, and he flips all the light switches as he goes just out of habit.

The door opens easily under his touch. It feels a little like entering the tomb of a Harry who no longer exists.

He doesn’t look at the walls, the shelves, anything other than the bed. It doesn’t have any bedding on, because mum would choose practicality over keeping a preserved shrine to him any day, but when he reaches for the storage boxes underneath, he finds a couple of pillows and a duvet folded neatly and ready to use.

Harry takes his jeans off, and rolls them into a ball to stop the dirt from spreading. Some of his old clothes must still be here. He’ll find them when he wakes up.

Finally, he lies down, and every fibre of his being relaxes instantly. There’s only a few blinks separating him from sleep, he can feel it, but he can’t help his eyes wandering into the shadowy corners of the room.

The room. He didn’t ever think of it as his room, not really – it was always theirs. It’s where they went to hide away from the world, where they escaped when the merry chaos of Louis’s house got to be too much.

He can see the two of them now, in that place between waking and dreams: they’re sitting at the far end of the room, right by the wardrobe, looking out of the window at the night sky and naming constellations. They’re pressing drunken giggles into each other’s necks as they struggle into their borrowed wedding tuxedos. They’re wrapped around each other at the foot of this very bed, Louis’s skin soft to the touch, Harry tracing invisible letters into his shoulder.

Maybe—maybe that’s how to get to Louis. Maybe Harry needs to make him remember what they used to have, make him a little less stubborn.

He turns over to face the window, and falls asleep with a frown on his face.

*

The next day, he manages to avoid the conversation he and mum desperately need to have. He showers, shoves down several helpings of breakfast, kisses her on the cheek in thanks, and promises to be back in the evening to receive the shouting-at he’s due.

The first thing he does, walking down into the village in search of his car, is call Niall.

“Harry Styles!” Niall yells into the phone, a touch too loud for the early hour. “My favourite client, are you finally on your way back?”

“I’m your only client,” Harry points out. “And no, that’s actually why I’m calling.”

“I told you not to until you’ve got the papers signed.”

“There’s been a—complication.”

“Let me guess,” Niall sighs. “He doesn’t want to do it.”

Put so simply, it makes Harry feel like an idiot. It would seem that he’s the only one who didn’t anticipate this.

“Well…no,” he replies, only a little sheepishly. “But it’s more complicated than that.”

“More complicated than a vindictive ex who refuses to give you a divorce because he’s bitter that you’ve moved on without him?”

Harry blinks. Who knew Niall understood the intricacies of human romantic relationships, seeing as he’s never been in one.

“So you’ve met him before,” he tries for a joke, and it gets him a reluctant laugh. It’s better than nothing, and actually warms him all the way down to his toes; it’s nice to remember that he’s got someone who knows everything, and is firmly in his corner despite of it.

“Listen, mate, I don’t think there’s any advice I can give you,” says Niall. “As far as I remember, I’ve never been married.”

“Thank God for that,” Harry murmurs, low enough to only just be heard, and this time, Niall’s laugh is loud and bright.

“What I’m trying to say is, just dig your heels in and work on it. You’re not due in the studio until September, so I’m afraid you’ve got plenty of time.”

Harry sighs. Right. He’s still a popstar, in the world outside this dinky village.

He took the break because he needed one, entirely exhausted after two albums and two tours, and he wanted—he’d been hoping to organise the wedding in the meantime. Maybe even get married, in those few days at the end of August that always run hot.

His last wedding was in the spring, and it’s not turned out very well for him. He doesn’t want to repeat his mistakes.

“Can I call you to complain when he leaves me on the doorstep again?”

“He did that?” Niall asks. His voice is suddenly firmer – Harry can imagine him straightening his back and tipping his chin up, ready to fight Louis on Harry’s behalf from thousands of miles away.

“It was fine,” he tries to placate. “I survived. My clothes didn’t, but I’m just on my way to get new ones.”

“Do you want me to make calls?” Niall asks, immediately in business mode.

“No, relax. I’ll just buy some. I’d love if you could extend my car hire, though.”

“Ah, I see how it is. Suddenly you’re not too good for a Fiesta.”

“Piss off,” Harry grins. Grins, and doesn’t stop smiling, walking down the main street in Holmes Chapel, where ghosts lurk around every corner. It feels good. “We’ve been through tough things together, Niall. Adventures.”

“All right,” Niall says, and the eye roll is implied, “done.”

Then there’s a silence, but the kind that speaks without words. Harry frowns – he’d expect Niall to want to get back to the beach as soon as possible.

“What is it?” he asks, a little scared that he already knows the answer.

“There, um. There was another call.”

Harry stops walking. “When?”

“Last night,” Niall says reluctantly. He always hates telling Harry, because Harry gets scared; it seems even worse now, just because they’re so far away from each other.

“Did they,” he starts, but has to clear his throat. “Did they say anything?”

“No,” Niall replies. “Just heavy breathing, laughter in the background, the usual.”

“The police?”

“Yep, called it in right away. They told me they’d try and trace the number, but I don’t think they can be bothered.”

Harry leans against the nearest wall – the Costa, as it so happens. Thankfully, it’s closed, and it’s only his own face staring back from the sticky glass of the shopfront.

“I didn’t get anything this time,” he says, though he’s not really been checking his phone.

“That’s good,” Niall sounds relieved. Harry can hear him pacing on the other end. “I didn’t want to—I wasn’t gonna call you, you’ve got enough to deal with as it is, but now that you’re there. Do you want me to send Peter down?”

“Does anyone know where I am?” Just saying the words makes him look over his shoulder, up and down the street, into the lane on the right that barely accommodates some bins and a stray cat.

“Nobody we know of,” Niall replies. “No one knows about Louis, and you never go home, so I’m sure that helps—“ Harry grimaces so hard his muscles twinge, “but, no. Twitter’s been quiet, your frequent flier number’s still safe, car hire will hopefully keep their mouth shut too.”

“Then no,” says Harry. “Tell him I might need him at some point, but I—I want to do this on my own.”

“Okay,” says Niall, with great, great reluctance. “Just—look out for yourself, okay? If anything seems suspicious, let me know.”

“It’s Holmes Chapel, Ni. The most dramatic thing that’s ever happened here was probably a cat getting stuck up a tree.”

“Good. I hope it stays that way.”

“Me too,” Harry replies, and goes back to walking with a lot less pep in his step. “Me too. I’ll call you later, okay?”

“Do that,” says Niall. “Good luck, Harry-o.”

“Thanks, Ni. I love you.”

“Love you too, wanker. Now hang up, I think my topless room service is here.”

It leaves Harry smiling when he disconnects the call, but his skin still feels itchy. He jogs the rest of the way to his car, and locks it from the inside as soon as he sits down.

It’s fine, he tells himself. Everything is fine. There’s no way anybody would go to the effort of following him all the way to Cheshire.

Still, he makes sure to disguise himself as well as he possibly can once he gets to Stoke. He’s wearing his old joggers from sixth form, and one of Robin’s t-shirts; he puts a cap on as well, and pulls his hair into a ponytail, which makes him look somewhat questionable, but works perfectly with the look he’s going for.

It seems to work, too – barely anyone gives him a second glance when he walks into the shopping centre, only looking around to spot a shop that sells something along the lines of what he usually wears. It looks like he’s going to have to face Louis many times over the next few days – maybe even weeks, God – and he needs to be as put together as he can manage.

He grabs everything without trying it on: a few pairs of jeans, joggers, some t-shirts, some button-ups, a jacket, two pairs of shoes, socks, underwear. And a hat, because it’s got a shiny red lining that he really likes.

All that probably takes less than half an hour, and then he’s rushing out again, laden down with shopping bags and looking firmly at the ground.

Which is, of course, why he bumps into somebody.

“Sorry,” he apologises immediately, slowing down but still moving. He’s so deeply paranoid after what Niall told him. “I’m so sorry.”

“It’s okay,” the person replies – sounds like a girl, a young girl, which makes Harry even more spooked. If there’s anyone who’s going to recognise him—

“Wait, aren’t you—“

“I have to go, I’m so sorry,” he says, and he genuinely is. He prides himself on being courteous to fans no matter what, but the way he is now, hunched in on himself and running like a criminal – no fan deserves that.

He can’t help himself from looking at her, though, just once. The look of recognition that settles on her face is one he’s seen hundreds of times.

“I’m really sorry,” he says again, whispers really, jogging in place.

“That’s okay,” she whispers back, a small smile tucked into the corner of her mouth. Harry blinks, breathes an enormous sigh of relief, and smiles back before he gets back to running.

By the time he’s safely in the car, his heart is off on a sprint. He tries to slow down his breathing as he texts Niall – Got spotted in Stoke but it’s fine I think, didn’t take any pics – but it doesn’t come easily.

He doesn’t—do this, usually. Go places alone. Especially not after one of those phone calls.

It gets easier once he’s on the road, too fast for anyone to try to break in and kidnap him. He turns the radio up, squints into the sun, and tries to relax into the rigid seat.

Everything’s okay.

*

Once he gets back (and changes in a side alley – he’s not proud of it), he decides to go back to trying to have a conversation with Louis. It’s only three in the afternoon, though.

He stops by the chippy, feeling marginally more confident in fresh clothes.

“Hiya,” someone who is definitely not Louis says from behind the counter. In fact, it’s someone Harry doesn’t recall ever seeing before: still a teenager, he’d bet, with a few angry red spots on his nose. “What can I get you?”

“Um, hi,” says Harry, certainly not projecting any of the confidence he feels. “I’m looking for Louis?”

The kid frowns, then tilts his head. “Who?”

“Louis Tomlinson? He works here.”

“Oh,” he raises his eyebrows. “I know Louis, I think, but—mate, he definitely doesn’t work here.”

Harry purses his lips. “Are you sure?”

“Positive. I’m here every day, I think I’d know.”

“He did work here though, right? Some time ago,” Harry tries. His thoughts are running off in a dozen different directions. He’d just thought—he’d assumed.

“Not since I’ve been here,” the kid shrugs. “And it’s been a couple of years now.”

Louis doesn’t work at the chippy anymore. The information is shocking to Harry, mundane as it is – he’d had an imagine of Louis in his mind that was stable, never changing, never moving forward, just like Louis himself: lives in the same house, dresses the same way, works at the chippy.

But he doesn’t. He’s—is he jobless?

“Do you know where he works, then? I need to talk to him.”

The guy shrugs, smirks. Stirs through a pot of gravy. “No idea. Just try his house or something.”

“Right,” Harry nods. “Yeah. Thanks for your help.”

“No worries, mate,” says the kid, with his back already turned. “Hope you find him.”

Harry laughs, then heads back out into the sunny street. To the house he goes, just as he was told – and also because he can’t think of anywhere else to look.

It’s a lovely walk at this time of day, warm and quiet, and the gate is open, but Harry doesn’t stop to appreciate any of it. He’s thinking, always thinking, about the fact that Louis has changed.

It is a little naïve to expect everything to be the same. And yet, because Louis had been a constant for a better part of Harry’s life, Harry expected him to just stay stuck and never move on.

To wait.

It’s a horrible, horrible thing to realise, but he can’t quite bring himself to feel bad as he stomps up the road and remembers the way Louis treated him. He has moved on, clearly – to being a tired, small, angry man.

He squares his shoulders when he knocks, fully expecting to be turned away again. This time, though, he’s not leaving.

“Don’t tell me you’re back,” Louis’s voice comes from behind the door. He doesn’t sound that angry today.

Harry almost cracks a joke, but he stops himself in time. He’s on very, very thin ice here.

“I wouldn’t have to be if you signed the papers.”

“Do you ever get tired of saying that?” he asks. There’s a thud, like he’s sat down to have a conversation.

Harry feels a spark of excitement travel down his spine.

He didn’t leave.

“Not really,” he says, leaning one shoulder against the door. It doesn’t do anything, but it makes him feel a little more powerful. “It’s the only reason I’m here, so if you would—“

“If you’re not going to go,” Louis interrupts, “let’s talk about something else.”

Harry holds his breath. “Like what?” he says – whispers, but Louis hears him.

“I don’t know. You’re the one with a glamorous career, remember?”

“I went to the chippy looking for you,” Harry starts, thinks maybe, maybe he could get Louis to slip up and satisfy his curiosity. “But they told me that you don’t work there anymore.”

Silence. It stretches on for long, long seconds. Harry desperately listens out for signs of movement, signs that Louis has retreated again.

“I don’t,” he replies, finally. “Why do you care?”

“I don’t,” Harry says, automatic. “I was just curious—“

Naturally, that is when a roll of thunder echoes in the distance. Then, like mother nature is staging a cheesy movie scene, the sky quite literally opens. The rain starts falling immediate and freezing cold, lashing sheet after sheet of bullet-sharp raindrops against Harry’s bare arms.

He squeaks, and flattens himself against the door, trying to hide in the miserable excuse for an alcove above.

This cannot possibly be happening again.

“Is it raining?” Louis asks, as if he couldn’t hear it drumming against the windows.

“Yes,” Harry rolls his eyes. The temperature has fallen rapidly, and the drops of water feel like entire icebergs sliding down his arms. “Just a little.”

Fuck, he’s—he’s going to have to run home. The sky looks predictably grey, suddenly completely overcast where the sun was only a minute ago. This probably isn’t going to stop for hours.

“Ow, fuck,” he mumbles, rubbing his freezing hands together to get his blood flowing. He squints into the distance, trying to map out a route that’s at least partially covered by trees, and has not yet turned into a mud pit.

There’s an enormous sigh from the other side of the door. Harry forgot Louis was even there for a moment. He wouldn’t even have to be here if it wasn’t for him, that stubborn, greedy—

“Do you want to come inside?”

Wait, pause. Rewind.

What?

“What?”

“Don’t make me fucking repeat it,” Louis says. He’s growling a little. “Come inside.”

“I—okay. Thanks,” Harry says, but he feels wrong-footed as he steps away to let Louis open the door. He didn’t—he wasn’t expecting this. He’s not prepared to see the inside of the house. He doesn’t want to.

On the other hand, his only other option is an impending storm. He’s going to have to brave it.

Louis opens the door a sliver. Harry slides inside and closes it behind himself before he can change his mind.

It’s only in the dry warmth of the house that he realises how wet he is. The tips of his hair are dripping on the floor, making a mess on the familiar tile.

He looks up. Louis’s face hangs in the semi-darkness pale like a moon, and he’s squinting at Harry like he’s trying to figure something out. Harry had hoped for some trace of kindness, or at least civility, but he might as well be looking at a slab of marble.

Louis used to be good at guarding his emotions when he wanted; he’d never pushed Harry out.

“Do you want tea?” he asks through his teeth, like he’s being forced to say the words.

He’s making Harry feel—timid. Small. Afraid of overstepping.

He frowns a little at the injustice of it all – it’s been all Louis yelling at him, Louis being rude, Louis making him uncomfortable in places that used to be his home.

Maybe that’s good, though. Maybe he can get what he needs sooner if he lets Louis think that he has the upper hand. He follows his ex-husband into the kitchen, and determinedly stares at his own feet as he walks. There are too many ghosts haunting this house.

Despite this, there are a few things he can’t help noticing: the chairs are the same, and so is the table, but the hideous placemats he got from a charity shop once are gone. There are pale circles pressed into the wood instead, reminders of hot plates and wet glasses. Harry tries to rub them away after he sits down, but they don’t budge.

“Dusty kept getting her claws stuck in them,” Louis says in explanation, waving at the tabletop. Harry hadn’t even known he was looking.

He pulls his hand away and folds it in his lap, self-conscious.

There’s silence, of course, and he can’t help himself when he starts watching Louis out of the corner of his eye. It’s a scene he’s seen a million times, because Louis has always been the designated tea maker in this house, but there’s something foreign about it all the same. Maybe it’s Louis’s too-lean silhouette, or the fact that the mugs have moved two cupboards to the left.

Maybe it’s the expression on Louis’s face, and the way he moves like he’d rather be anywhere else.

Good, Harry thinks. Let him be uncomfortable.

“What was she doing here anyway?” he asks. Louis’s hands jerk a little as he digs in the tea box. “Dusty, I mean.”

“She comes around,” Louis shrugs. He keeps standing at the kettle even though he’s readied his mugs, speaking to Harry with his back to him. “I’m not going to keep her out.”

“Right,” Harry replies. Some of the rainwater has been replaced by nervous sweat beading along his hairline. This feels like a really bad interview – the kind where the interviewer tries to hit on him as she asks him about Marcus. “That’s. Nice of you.”

Louis turns around, finally, and smirks. “I like to think I’m a nice man.”

Harry’s eyebrows fly up before he can stop them. They stare at each other for a minute, unblinking while the kettle whistles in the background. Then Louis shakes his head and turns away to fix their tea.

He doesn’t ask about milk and sugar. Harry realises, with something that feels like dread, that he doesn’t have to.

His suspicions are proven right when Louis hands him his mug – very careful to avoid any part of their bodies touching – and the liquid in it is a perfect medium brown. Harry’s grateful for the heat of it as it sinks into his hands, because everything else inside him has gone glacial with anxiety.

So Louis remembers. It’s not a big deal. He spent almost a decade fixing Harry’s tea; it must be muscle memory by now.

“Sorry,” he says, as he sits down at the opposite end of the table. He doesn’t sound sorry. “Didn’t know if you still take it the way you used to.”

Harry bites his lip against the malice that’s playing in the lines of Louis’s face. “I don’t—I don’t really drink it much, anymore.”

“Right, of course,” Louis nods. “Can’t have your adoring subjects thinking you’re a commoner.”

Harry liked him much more when he was screaming.

“It’s not like that,” he mumbles uselessly.

“Sure,” Louis says. “I guess I imagined you coming here in white jeans and a fur vest.”

“It’s fake fur, you idiot,” Harry replies, even quieter than before. He’s starting to struggle with keeping his anger in check.

Louis quirks an eyebrow – just one. It’s so sharp it could probably cut, if Harry wasn’t used to taunts like this.

“Was it also fake Gucci?”

“Versace,” Harry corrects, then closes his eyes bitterly. Shut up, Harry.

Louis actually, genuinely laughs. “Right, popstar. Give my apologies to Donatella the next time you see her.”

“You know,” Harry says, desperate to control himself and failing. “I can’t even be insulted. I just feel bad for you, I mean—it must be hard to see me achieve what you’ve always wanted.” Louis noisily swallows a mouthful of tea. His eyes narrow. “Especially when you were the only thing standing in my way.”

For the love of God. He really can’t keep his ruddy mouth shut, can he?

Louis recoils, but he manages to hide it impressively well. He’d been balancing on the back legs of his chair, but he clangs to the ground now, and leans forward.

“At least I didn’t abandon everyone I loved to get what I wanted,” he throws back. He doesn’t sound particularly venomous, just. Tired.

“I never loved you, Louis. Never. I just didn’t know better.”

“You married me,” Louis spits. His fingers start to tremble around his mug.

“Of course I did!” Harry replies. He’s raised his voice now; he didn’t have much hope of staying calm anyway. “Nobody told me I wasn’t supposed to marry the first idiot who got me to crawl into bed with him. You—you tied me to you. You made me feel like your life was my life, because you knew I’d leave you if I found out what was out there.”

Louis opens his mouth, then closes it. He looks—shocked. Wide-eyed, and suddenly so young.

“You really believe that,” he says. There’s no question in his tone.

Harry frowns. “It’s the truth.”

Louis leans away again, away until only his fingertips are touching the table. He nods, and looks up at the ceiling.

“You know,” he says, and it echoes in the room. “I would have supported you through anything. Anything in the world. If you told me you were off to start a career, I would’ve said okay, do you want me to go with you. And if you’d said no, I would have fucking let you go, I would have given you a divorce then, I’d never stand in the way of—just. You’re a complete arse, do you know that?”

Harry breathes, in and out around the lump that’s grown in his throat. Louis is making things up as he goes, and Harry knows that, but it doesn’t make them any easier to hear.

“Give me a divorce now, then,” he says, low and slow, to make sure his voice doesn’t wobble. “If you’re so fucking altruistic, just sign the papers.”

“Now isn’t then,” Louis shrugs. “You didn’t bother to tell me you were leaving.”

Harry shakes his head. “You must have felt—“

“I didn’t feel shit, Harry,” he cuts in. His eyes are blazing blue again. “I felt just as stupidly in love with you as the day before, except I woke up and everything was gone. Every last bit of you, your fucking toothbrush—“

“I needed to go,” Harry says. “It was time.”

“Right,” Louis nods. “Then I say it’s time you learned your lesson. You’re not getting a divorce.”

“I can’t believe how selfish you are,” Harry says. Shouts. “I can’t believe someone can be this full of spite.”

“Is that what you think this is?” Louis raises a dispassionate eyebrow.

“Of course it is.”

He shakes his head. Puts it in his hands, just for a second, but it’s still a show of weakness, a chink in this mean mask he’s put on.

“Do you have any idea of the kind of hell you put me through?” he asks.

Harry is surprised into a silence. That’s just about the last thing he expected Louis to say.

“Of course,” he continues, not willing to wait for Harry to speak. “Why would you care, right?”

That’s not it, Harry wants to say, even though he’d said the exact opposite not five minutes ago. There’s something about how small Louis suddenly looks, about the tired hunch of his shoulders, that makes Harry want to not be cruel anymore.

Louis stands up. Harry’s eyes follow him of their own volition, trace the unexpected narrowness of his frame, and the tired lines around his eyes. He’s small, so small.

“You know what,” he says, soft, bereft of any more fight. “Just let yourself out whenever it stops raining. And don’t come see me again.”

He abandons his half-drunk tea on the table, turns away, and leaves through the far door. Seconds later, there’s a slam elsewhere in the house.

Harry sits for a while, alone, in silence. Reeling. He hopes, against hope, that Louis will come out of wherever he’s hidden himself and announce that you know what, actually, I’ve had enough and here’s your signature.

It doesn’t happen. That horrendously loud clock Jay bought them is still there on the kitchen wall, and every tick that echoes around the room feels like a punch to Harry’s stomach.

He’s—not sure what happened, just now.

When it becomes apparent that Louis isn’t coming back, Harry throws back the last dregs of his tea and stands up. The rain is still coming down in droves outside the kitchen window.

Technically, Louis told him he can stay. In practice, he feels dirty, like he’s overstepping, in this house that used to belong to him too.

Still, he can’t help himself. This could be his only chance to see the kind of life that Louis has led without him.

It’s curiosity, and just a bit of lingering spite, that makes him move, walk into the hall. He expects—he’s not sure what he expects, really. Maybe holes in the walls where picture frames used to hang, and empty corners missing houseplants that Louis could never keep alive by himself.

The reality is none of that. The frames are all there, in the exact same places they were the night Harry left, dotting the length of the walls and curving up around the stairs. There are more than there used to be, even.

Harry is very, very scared to look at what’s in them.

He only peeks at the few that are closest to him, and sees exactly what he didn’t want to see – him and Louis. In Jay’s back garden as kids, at Leeds as teenagers, in front of the house on the day they moved in. They’re all over each other in every single one, too, their arms around shoulders, waists, necks, and blinding smiles on their faces. Harry barely recognises this version of himself, so beautifully, obliviously carefree.

He moves across and to the living room, reluctant to relive his past through deceptively happy scraps of memories.

There, he finds some new furniture; a new TV; a darker shade of paint on the walls. The fireplace is still there, though, and it makes him smile. It used to be his pride and joy, his favorite spot to wrap himself in a blanket and write down the haphazard melodies that always tangled in his head. It still looks clean, and well looked after, though there’s no wood in sight.

He feels warm, almost, looking at it. Happy he’s found a memory that doesn’t make it hard to breathe.

But then—then he makes the mistake of looking up.

He would have never, not in his wildest dreams, expected Louis to keep that. He was so adamant about how tacky it was, too ostentatious, too big – Harry had to work on persuading him for weeks. It should’ve been the first thing to go, but there it is, all these years later.

A three-foot tall copy of their best wedding picture, still in the ornate frame Harry had picked out. They look deliriously happy in it: Louis is grinning at the camera, so wide his eyes are all but closed. Harry’s holding his face with both hands, trying to press a kiss to his cheek, but he’s smiling too hard to get his lips to purse.

Looking at it, Harry remembers a little bit, just a flash: the bright scent of grass, and the warmth of Louis’s skin, the photographer’s desperate pleas for them to stand still while she tried to get a picture that wasn’t blurry. Feeling like his veins were full of champagne, like he could burst with how happy he was right then. He feels it, even, right in the centre of his chest like a shock of electricity.

It disappears as quickly as it came, but Harry’s eyes are left stinging.

Why would Louis—if he hates Harry so much, if he’s so stubborn against Harry’s every attempt to communicate, why would he keep this up?

He wants to take the picture off the wall, put it face down on the ground, just to make some kind of statement. Thankfully, he’s got enough wits left about him to stop himself. He turns around instead, intent of getting out of here despite the weather.

He trips over the coffee table in his haste, pushed a little closer to the centre of the room than it used to be. The impact takes down a stack of magazines and newspapers that was precariously balanced on the corner.

Harry bends down to put it back together as quick as he can. He’d prefer not to leave any traces of his wandering around, because it’s clear now that he shouldn’t have done this in the first place.

He picks up yesterday’s copy of the Telegraph, and one of those mail-order catalogues that’s still wrapped in plastic.

Suddenly, from underneath them, his own name stares up at him. He blinks, and rubs one of his eyes, but it’s still there, hastily written on the back of an envelope: Harry Tomlinson, and right underneath, London.

He picks it up carefully, lifting it off the carpet with both hands. He definitely recognises the handwriting.

When he flips it over, he realises it’s already been opened. A folder sheet of paper just peeks out over the edge.

He pulls it out.

It’s double-sided, littered with more of Louis’s wonky scrawl, smaller than usual and stretching all the way to the edges to get it to fit. Harry’s eyes can’t seem to focus—

Somewhere in the house, a door opens. Harry immediately feels cold sweat break out on his forehead. It must be Louis, and he can’t find him here.

Without thinking, he puts the envelope back where it was, and tucks the letter into the pocket of his jacket.

Then he pulls his hood up, runs across the room, and bolts out the front door before he can change his mind.

The rain soaks him immediately. Somehow, impossibly, it’s still better than the look Louis would have given him if he’d found him snooping through places he doesn’t have a right to go anymore.

*

*

“Harry,” his mum’s voice stops him when he sneaks inside, hoping to avoid this just one more time.

“Mum,” he says, resigned.

He’s dripping wet again; it’s a ten-minute run from the house to here, and the rain outside has turned into what must qualify as a hurricane. But mum’s eyebrows are furrowed, her mouth set in a stern line, and he knows she’s not letting him slip this time.

He takes off his jacket, now unbearably heavy on his shoulders, and surreptitiously checks that the inside of his pockets is still dry; that the stolen scrap of paper survived the journey here.

Mum hands him a towel, which he immediately wraps around his hair, and then steps away from the doorway to let him through into the kitchen.

There’s two cups of tea waiting on the table. He’d laugh at the ridiculous sense of déjà vu that hits him, but he thinks mum might take it the wrong way.

He takes a seat, and a sip of his tea. He hates that it’s not as good as Louis’s was.

“So,” mum says, with her arms crossed. Harry can’t tell how much of it is a front and how much is genuine anger. He can’t read in her anymore. “You’re back.”

“I am,” he nods. He watches her just as carefully as she’s watching him.

“Are you staying?”

“No,” he says immediately, then pinches himself in the thigh under the table. Idiot. “I mean—I will, yeah, for a while. Just not forever.”

“Not what I meant,” she replies. She’s holding back on asking him what she really wants to know, he can tell that much. “But I’m sure you’ll understand my surprise when I found you on my doorstep, after you didn’t so much as send a card for—how many years?”

“Five,” Harry whispers, acutely ashamed. His cheeks are burning. “I’m sorry, Mum. So, so sorry.”

She sighs, and looks up instead of at him. “I just don’t understand, Harry. I don’t understand what I did, what any of us did, to deserve being treated like that.”

“You didn’t do anything,” he says, quietly, urgently. “Not you, or Robin, or Gems, it was—I was just scared, Mum. I was worried you wouldn’t treat me the same.”

She blinks. “Why on earth would we do that?”

Bile is crawling up the back of Harry’s throat. He valiantly swallows against it, gets ready to bring up the one subject he never, ever wants to talk about.

“Because of Louis,” he says finally, only choking on his name a little. “He—he was your family, just as much as I was, and I was sure you wouldn’t see it the way I did—“

“He still is family,” mum interrupts, firm. “He’s my son, but so are you. I might have been angry, but I would’ve got over it, because I’d never want to lose you,” she looks at him, her gaze heavy. “But I guess you saw it fit to make that decision for me.”

“Mum,” he whispers, feeling miserably small. He’s really got to stop crying one of these days, but right now, he thinks the tears gathering in his eyes are justified. “I’m sorry. I—do you think I didn’t miss you? I did, every single day. I was just scared, I still am.”

She softens a little. Her arms fall down to her sides, then rest on the table.

“You’re still my baby,” she says quietly, and a corner of her mouth lifts in a smile. “You always will be, do you hear me? There’s nothing you could do that would make me stop loving you,” and she extends one of her hands, palm-up, into the middle of the table. Harry takes it. “But I won’t lie, what you did came close.”

He closes his eyes, and nods. “I figured it would.”

“Why did you do it?” she asks then, not content to beat around the bush. “Why that way? Why just—disappear from our lives overnight?”

“See, that’s what I meant,” he says, and sniffs. “I knew you wouldn’t—“

“Not what I meant,” she repeats. She doesn’t let go of his hand, though, so he clings to it while he puts an answer together in his head.

“I never loved him, Mum,” he repeats what he’s already said today. It makes him feel even more certain in the truth of it. “I just wasn’t made for a town like this, I needed to go and find myself, and he—our relationship was in the way. I completely tied myself to him before I had any idea what life was about.”

She tugs on his hand. He lets her go, and watches her draw back into herself.

“That doesn’t sound like the Harry I used to know,” she says contemplatively, looking into his eyes like she’s actually searching for the Harry of yesteryear. “And the Harry I used to know wouldn’t have abandoned his lifelong best friend without a word, especially at a time like that.”

“I—he said the same thing,” Harry admits, and feels his cheeks burn with shame, more shame. “I could’ve told him I was leaving, but I didn’t think he’d let me go. His life was going nowhere, and he knew it. I was his ticket out, that’s all. I don’t see how he could have loved me when we were so young.”

Mum physically leans away from him. It makes him feel like dirt.

“That’s not what you really think about him,” she says.

Harry shrugs. “It’s the truth.”

“Tell me,” she shakes her head, “who put that into your head? This idea that—that you’re too good, too big of a star, to treat the people who love you like human beings?”

“You know that’s not how I feel,” he says, pleads.

“I don’t know that I do, Harry. The last time I saw you, before yesterday, you came barging in here talking about an antique umbrella stand you were going to buy and put in the hall at your house, and let me tell you, I don’t think that Harry would ever say what you’re saying right now.”

“I’ve changed, Mum,” he says. That ever-present spark of anger is there, still, merrily dancing through his veins like it knows it’ll never go out, not as long as he’s around people who knew him before. “People change.”

“You’re right,” she nods. “Maybe I’m wrong. It’s just—it’s a big change, you know. I still saw you as a baby when you left, and now you’re—you know.”

“Grown up?” he asks. One corner of his mouth stretches into a hesitant smile.

“Yeah,” she replies. She sounds tired, and the lamp overhead paints long shadows on her face. “Yeah, I guess that’s the word.”

He can’t stand to see her looking so—sad, so crestfallen. She’s always been a source of endless positivity in his life, picking him up whenever he so much as thought of being down. She was the one who taught him to follow his dreams, and the one who let him go when he was hell-bent on marrying Louis the minute he turned eighteen. Throughout it all, she had a smile on her face, like she was proud of him.

It’s gone now, and he never knew he could miss it so much.

“Mum, I’m sorry,” he says again. Can probably never say it enough. “I’m—is it okay if I stay? I want to, for a while. I promise I’m still the same.”

“Of course you can stay, love,” she says, smiles, but it’s still sad, still small. She doesn’t reach out to hold his hand again. “As long as you want.”

“Thank you.”

She shakes her head, only a little. “You’ll always have a home here, you know.”

He nods, and smiles.

He does know, but he can’t stop the realisation that, somewhere on the road to chasing his dreams, he had forgotten.

*

The same night, he finally comes face to face with Robin – who’s a little stiff, and hovers around mum all evening, but Harry can’t blame him – and Gemma, who throws a punch that he only narrowly avoids and then hugs him for over ten minutes.

She doesn’t leave him alone after that. She drags him out to Manchester, takes him shopping, insists that he come with her to work and meet everyone there, and forces him on long, quiet walks around the fields. He pretends to dodge her as much as he can, but he secretly loves every minute of it.

More importantly, he forgets all about Louis, if only for a few minutes at a time. Technically, he should be chasing him for a signature, but he kind of prefers it this way.

Four days in, just as he’s settling into bed to read, Gemma barges into his room and announces that they’re going to the pub.

“But why?” Harry asks, reluctantly taking the clothes that she’s throwing at him. He’d like to take advantage of the tranquility here while he can, thank you very much. The pub’s not really his scene – not this pub, anyway.

It may or may not have something to do with the fact that his mother-in-law is the owner.

He’s avoided it so successfully so far. Leave it to Gemma to throw a wrench into his plans.

Because,” she says, “I finally have a drinking buddy who doesn’t live an hour away from here. I’m taking advantage while I can.”

“Can we at least go to a different village?” Harry asks, even though he knows it’s futile, and slowly pulls a t-shirt over his head. “I’ll drive, you can drink.”

“Nope,” she grins. “I bet it’s been too long since you had a pint.”

She’s definitely right about that. Harry can’t remember the last time he drank anything other than fancy wine. He’s got a fridge full of it at home – it seems to come with the territory of having moderately famous friends who like house parties.

“What about Barb’s, then?”

She looks at him like he’s grown another head. “Barb’s hasn’t served booze for—wow, probably three or four years.”

“Oh,” he blinks. “What happened?”

“Lost their license,” she shrugs. “They had a bit of a, um. A thing. When Liam worked there, I don’t know if you remember.”

“I do.”

“Yeah. I—I don’t really want to tell you, even though the whole village knows. He wasn’t very well back then.”

Alarm bells start going off in Harry’s head. Liam was fine when he saw him earlier in the week, if a bit sulky, what could have possibly—

“If you want to know, you’ll have to ask him yourself,” Gemma says, pursing her lips at her reflection in the mirror and fixing the line of her lipstick. “I don’t want to be the next village gossip.”

“I think Barbara still has you beat on that,” he reassures her, smiling through his confusion. He buttons his jeans, runs a hand through his hair, and sprays on a bit of cologne even as Gemma makes a face. “Let’s go, then.”

It’s just getting dark outside, but the weather’s finally decided to be warm, and Harry feels surprisingly comfortable walking in his short sleeves. He’s a bit self-conscious about the tattoos, once he catches Gemma looking at them and realises that he didn’t have any when he left.

He and Louis used to talk about them all the time, but—well. Nothing ever came of that.

It’s an unfortunately short walk. He holds the door open for Gemma, trying to delay actually going in for as long as he can. Once it becomes inevitable, he hunches in on himself, and keeps his head down as Gemma finds a free table and beckons for him to follow. Nobody’s actually stopped him on the street yet, or done anything other than ignore him, but paranoia is still prickling on the back of his neck.

Thankfully, his sister seems to pick up on some of his hesitation, because she picks a table that’s tucked into a dark spot, close to the bar but away from all the other patrons.

“I’ll get the drinks,” she says, putting her hands on his shoulders and physically pushing him into a chair. “Pints?”

“Please,” he replies, quite keen on the thought of getting drunk now that he’s here. The overload of being back in Holmes Chapel is slowly getting less extreme, but he could definitely use booze to take some more of the edge off.

He watches her head off to the bar, and looks for Jay’s familiar mop of hair behind it. She’s nowhere to be seen but, as luck would have it, Louis is. Seeing him is barely a shock to Harry anymore.

He smiles at Gemma when she gets his attention, beautiful and bright, and abandons the patrons he was chatting to to make his way to her instead.

Harry can’t hear them, and he thinks that might be a good thing.

“Harry Styles,” a voice pulls him away from the fascinating display. “As I live and breathe.”

He doesn’t recognise the voice, which means he’s already nervous when he looks up.

“Hi,” he says, into the rough face of a man. He hasn’t got any familiar features about him, nothing that would jog Harry’s memory: square jaw, patchy beard, blue tracksuit. Eyes that seem to see straight through him. “Do we, um. Sorry. Do we know each other?”

He knows asking is a risk, but pretending to know who he’s talking to would probably be worse in the long run.

“Not really,” the man shrugs. His posture’s relaxed, non-threatening, but something about him makes Harry uneasy. “We went to primary together. Johnny?”

“Oh,” Harry frowns as he fishes somewhere deep in his memory. “Oh, I remember!”

He actually does, is the most amazing thing – Johnny MacLeod, who used to be the shortest boy in their class, and constantly refused to wear a tie with his uniform. Harry’s assigned seat used to be right behind him. “I’m afraid I mostly remember the back of your head, but I do remember.”

He laughs. He’s—friendly, Harry thinks, but he’s not sure. Can’t be sure.

“No worries, mate, I didn’t remember much of you either. I only realised we were in the same class after I saw you in the Metro.”

Harry’s cheeks burn a little. He tucks a strand of hair behind his ear, not quite sure what to say, but fortunately, he’s saved.

“Johnny,” comes Gemma’s voice, full of fake enthusiasm, “fancy seeing you here. Did you want something, or are you just here to embarrass my brother?”

Johnny immediately takes a step back, plunging his hands even deeper into his pockets.

“Just saying hi. Anyways, Harry, I’ll see you around,” he says, and doesn’t wait for a response before he turns on his heel and flees into the busy depths of the pub.

Gemma sets their pints down, sits, and brushes off the hem of her skirt. “He’s trouble,” she informs Harry, and takes an elegant sip of her beer.

“Okay,” he says, blinking. “Why?”

She looks over her shoulder. Johnny’s blue tracksuit is bright across the room, on the other side of the bar.

“You were quite the big deal here, for a while,” she says, brisk. She’s got a foam moustache, but Harry’s a little afraid to point it out. “Everyone talked about you, and I mean all the time. Everywhere. It was ridiculous.”

“Oh,” Harry says again. He chooses to watch the swirly golden depths of his drink instead of looking at anyone, anything, in the room.

“And Johnny over there was first in line when the reporters came.”

“They came here?” Harry frowns.

“Of course they did. Barbara had to close the bakery for a couple of weeks because they wouldn’t stop bugging her and scaring away customers.”

“Oh my G—“

“That’s not the point, Harry,” Gemma leans forward. “I promise the bakery was fine. I was going to tell you about how you and Johnny, apparently, had a secret secondary school romance.”

Harry chooses that exact inopportune moment to take a swig of beer. He chokes, and only narrowly avoids spitting all over himself.

“We what,” he wheezes, trying to wipe foam off his chin.

“You heard me,” she raises an eyebrow, and looks over her shoulder again. There’s Johnny, still in the same seat on the other side of the room, but the light has changed, and Harry can tell he’s looking right at them. “It backfired for him, obviously, but I still almost killed him after I heard.”

“That’s—such a bizarre thing to lie about,” Harry says, reluctantly amused. He’s seen his fair share of fake stories, and this one definitely falls in the harmless range. “Especially when everyone here knew that,” he pauses then, swallows, angles his body away from the bar.

“That you and Louis were already as good as married in secondary school?”

“Yeah,” he mumbles. “That.”

The music in the background dims a little. Harry instinctively looks up, right as Louis starts on a round around the room, collecting small mountains of empty glasses.

This must be his job now, Harry realises – Jay must have wanted to have more time with her other kids, or something, and it’s fallen on Louis to pick up the slack. That’s why he doesn’t need to be at work during the day.

“Earth to Harry,” Gemma says, impossibly dry, and snaps her fingers in front of his face. “We were having a conversation?”

“Yes!” Harry almost shouts, and turns right back to her. “Yes, we were. Sorry, please continue.”

“I mean, there’s not really much else to say,” she purses her lips contemplatively. “It’s really just that I’d prefer to see Johnny at least five feet away from you at all times, if you don’t mind.”

Harry laughs. “Sure, Gems. You got it.”

She grins and taps him on the nose with a coaster. He grimaces, but lets her.

It takes less than ten seconds for it to escalate into a full-on coaster fight; they’re flying from one side of the table to the other as the two of them try to score – ten points for the nose, five for the cheek, two for the chin, just like old times. Harry almost gets his ear cut off by one that’s shaped like Great Britain.

He starts laughing, though it barely registers, and doesn’t stop until he’s out of breath, giggling tiredly as he lines up for a winning shot at Gemma’s forehead.

She ducks, and the coaster splats to the floor. It sets both of them off again.

“Look at him,” someone says across the room, deliberately loud. “Writes one song, and thinks he can leave a mess everywhere he goes.”

They both turn that way, with smiles still frozen on their faces. It’s the table Johnny sat at, and of course it is – a group of boys around Harry’s age, all looking at him with a cruel kind of spark in their eyes.

“We’ll obviously clean up after ourselves,” says Gemma. They laugh.

“Please,” another one says. “Mr Popstar probably hires people to wipe his arse—“

“I mean, he pays someone to dress him, and to do his make up—“

“Is that what they do in America? Teach you how to be a bird?”

The content bubble of happiness in Harry’s chest pops and disappears. Gemma stares into the darkness with her mouth hanging open, lost for words. The other patrons are just as quiet as they watch the scene unfold.

Harry, for some reason, looks around the room to find Louis. He’s standing still behind the bar, a crumpled dishtowel in one hand, looking at the ground with his jaw set. He must feel Harry’s gaze on him – he looks up, and their eyes meet for just a second.

“I bet he was a bird this entire time, what with being a poof—“

There’s a crash. Then Louis is zipping across the room, and tearing the men’s glasses out of their hands.

“I think that’s enough, lads” he says, ice cold. The tone makes Harry want to curl into himself. “Get out.”

“I paid for that!” Johnny screams, and one of his friends immediately joins in.

Another two stand up, but one of them turns around and gets right into Louis’s space, looming over him, trying to get him to back away. Louis stands his ground.

“This is illegal,” he says.

Across from Harry, Gemma snorts.

“This is my pub, Gary,” Louis smiles. “I can kick out whoever I want.”

“Didn’t know it was a gay one,” Gary spits back. Gemma snorts again, throwing back the last of her pint. “Otherwise I wouldn’t have come in the first place.”

“Well,” says Louis, and sets the glasses back on the table to roll up his sleeves. “Unless you want my gay fist in your face, get out of my gay pub.”

Gary tries to make a grab for him, but he’s clearly had one too many to drink: Louis grabs him by the wrist, and twists it in his grip.

“You absolute wanker,” he hisses. “Walk away.”

“Come on, G,” says Johnny, pulling him by the hood. The rest of their friends have already made it out the door. “You’re embarrassing yourself, mate.”

Gary makes a somewhat constipated face, then spits on the ground. He narrowly misses Louis’s foot.

“Charming,” Louis raises an eyebrow. “Get out. Don’t come back again.”

He mumbles some more swears, but Johnny renews his efforts to pull him away and finally manages to get him out.

It’s only as he watches them leave that Harry realises he’s halfway out of his seat, his hands curled around the edge of the table, ready to run to Louis’s aid.

Stupid.

“Anyone else want to have a go?” Louis asks, throwing his arms out with two pint glasses clutched in each hand, spilling beer on the floor.

It’s silent.

“Good,” he says, and takes a mocking little bow. “Don’t be arseholes, everybody. Let people drink in peace.”

Then he turns on his heel. Harry relaxes back into his seat, but he’s still jittery, and he can’t, can’t take his eyes off Louis.

“H, he’s fine,” Gemma says, squeezing his elbow. Her soft touch feels startling on his skin. “He can hold his own, you know that.”

When he turns to her, she gives him a look that’s more knowing that he’d like.

Louis wasn’t holding his own. He was standing up for Harry – protecting him.

“Yeah,” he says, and clears his throat. “Yeah, I know.”

Louis chooses that moment to come over to collect their glasses. He very skillfully avoids Harry’s eyes, even as he’s standing right above him.

“Lou, could we get two more?” Gemma asks.

“Of course, love,” he smiles. Harry’s heart lurches. “Give me a minute though, I’ve got some glass to sweep up over there,” he tilts his chin toward the bar.

“That’s fine,” she smiles back, and Louis turns to leave.

Harry—Harry can’t let him.

“Hey, Louis,” he says – too quiet, he thinks, there’s no way Louis is going to hear it when he’s already halfway to the bar. To Harry’s surprise, he freezes on the spot and turns around.

His eyes land carefully on Harry’s face. He looks—afraid.

“Thank you.”

Louis blinks. Then, slowly, thoroughly, he nods. Harry smiles at him, even as he watches him turn around and walk away.

His cheeks burn a little when he faces Gemma. She’s watching him with both eyebrows raised.

“I thought you hated him,” she says.

“I do,” Harry says, digging one of his nails into a coaster. “I think.”

And isn’t that the root of all his fucking problems. He’s gone too soft, under the onslaught of memories that this place brings with it.

“You don’t have to, you know,” she says, and also takes a coaster off the table to flip between her fingers. “You can divorce him anyway. Plenty of separated couples get along.”

Harry rolls his eyes a little. As if he didn’t grow up the child of divorced parents.

“I don’t want to, though,” he replies. “I don’t want to—to not hate him. He hurt me. He stole years of my life, and I’m not ready to forgive that.”

“That’s not how any of us remember it,” she says. “No offense, Harry, you’re my brother and I love you, but I think you’ve convinced yourself of something that isn’t there.”

Harry stars shaking his head before she’s done speaking. “Why would I do that?”

“I mean—don’t you remember how devastated you were back then? You were inconsolable, you even pushed Louis away for a while, I can’t help thinking—“

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he interrupts. He knows, though. He knows.

He’s just pushed it out at every available opportunity. Ran away from it all the way to London as soon as he got the call, threw himself into work so he wouldn’t have to think about it, avoided speaking to anyone who knew for—well, five years.

He can’t talk about it, he can’t. She wouldn’t understand. Nobody would, except. Except maybe Louis.

“Harry, please. Did you ever deal with it? Did you ever mourn?”

“Nobody died,” he replies, too sharp. She pulls back a little.

“That doesn’t mean it can’t hurt,” she says. “Even after all these years.”

She gets up to get their pints, leaves him to think about it. He doesn’t want to. He doesn’t want to.

As soon as she hands him his beer, he tips his head back and chugs more than half of it. It’s not the strongest thing, but he’s not a big drinker, and he hopes it’s enough to get his mind a little fuzzier, to bring a bit of relief.

“Did you become an alcoholic too?” she asks, just this side of cool.

“I don’t want to talk about it,” he replies.

“You have to.”

“I don’t. I’ve gone five years without so much as thinking about it, and I’d like it to stay that way.”

“Harry,” she says, and pries his hand off his glass to take it in hers. “That’s not how you heal, okay? You can’t repress things and hope they go away. They never do.”

“I forgot you have a psychology degree,” he mumbles miserably. “I can’t do it, Gems. Not tonight, not—not here.”

As if on cue, Louis walks by with a crate of empty bottles. He stirs up a breeze that plays with the tips of Harry’s hair.

“Maybe you don’t need to talk, then,” Gemma says. “Just—think about it. Let yourself do that.”

She’s holding his hand, keeping him anchored to the here and now; that’s the only reason he lets his mind wander, carefully, gingerly, toward all the doors he usually keeps closed.

“We were so close,” he says, in a voice that can’t possibly belong to him. “We were—we had the bedroom ready and everything. They promised us, Gems, they said we were a shoo-in.”

“I know,” she whispers.

“I just—we were ready, Gems. We would’ve—“

He can’t quite finish through the lump in his throat. The words get stuck somewhere deep down inside him, half-formed because he doesn’t know what he wants to say.

“I know,” she repeats. He curls his fingers around her palm, grateful, even if he hates that she’s made him think about it. “You don’t—you don’t have to talk about it now, not with me, just. Take your time.”

“I don’t want to,” he says, truthfully. “I don’t want to talk about it.”

“That’s fine,” she sighs. “Just don’t try to forget. You’re not going to, it’s always going to be there.”

Harry braces his forehead against one of his hands, and closes his eyes. He’s unlocked a whole vault of memories, all of them devastatingly sad.

“I—yeah. I’ll do that.”

“Good,” she grins. “Now, what do you say we get pissed?”

*

And pissed they get. Louis lets them stay past closing time, until he’s literally about to lock up, watching their antics with a reluctant smile on his face.

Harry drinks much, much more than he usually would. He feels a little ill by the time they stumble through the front door, arms around each other and giggling about something Gemma has just said – interestingly, he can’t remember what it was.

“Goodnight, Gems,” he whispers when they arrive at the foot of the stairs; her bedroom is on the ground floor now.

“Night,” she laughs, and continues on, her black dress disappearing in the darkness.

Harry solves the issue of stairs like any inebriated twenty-five-year-old: on all fours. He makes it up to his room surprisingly fast, and tries to crawl all the way to the bed, but he gets tangled in his jacket, still on the ground after the last time he took it off.

He solves that issue, too: he wraps it around his shoulders and lies down, covering himself with it instead of a blanket.

After the amount of booze he’s had, he’s not sleepy at all, but he’s too woozy to do anything other than stay in bed. He rolls over, hoping the fact that it’s three in the morning will register with his body soon, when he hears the unmistakable crunch of paper.

He startles, patting the sheets underneath him to try and rescue whatever song draft he’s probably rolled onto, but finds nothing.

Then, he remembers he’s still got something in this pocket that doesn’t belong to him.

Or maybe it does, technically, because his name was on the envelope, but—nevermind.

Either way, his drunken brain thinks it’s a good idea to read it just then. Harry doesn’t resist for once; maybe it’s the fact that Louis defended him earlier, or those couple of looks they shared where he didn’t look like he wanted to strangle Harry where he stood.

He pulls it out of the jacket pocket. He’s put a few creases in it, but it’s perfectly readable still. Unfortunately.

He has to blink a few times to get his eyes to adjust in the semi-darkness. Then, he reads.

Love, it says on the top, instead of something formal and stupid like “dear Harry”.

Where are you? I know your phone’s probably off on purpose, and you’re ignoring emails on purpose too, but I’m so worried. Anne said you didn’t tell her anything about leaving, either.

Come home, please. I know you’re hurting, I am, too, but it has to be easier if we try and get through it together, right? Everything’s always been easy with you and me.

Please, Harry. It’s only been a week, and I don’t know if this will ever reach you, but—I can’t sleep without you. I can’t do anything, really, I’m a mess. I’m not used to living life without you, I have no idea what to do with myself. I almost burned the kitchen down today because it’s been so long since I last cooked something, which is really embarrassing and I shouldn’t tell you, but I’m secretly hoping you’ll take pity on me.

Remember how the agency said they’d send a letter to explain why we got rejected? It got here yesterday, but I don’t want to open it without you. I bet it’s something stupid. I bet we can try again soon, yeah? It’ll be hard for a while, but I will always, always be there for you – you know that.

I know this is the most difficult thing we’ve ever had to go through, but we promised, remember? I, Louis Tomlinson, choose you above all to share my life. That’s what I said, and you told me the same thing. We need to honour that now more than ever. I need you here to help me through the pain, and I think – I hope – that you need me, too.

You can’t do it alone, darling, nobody can. Please come back home to me.

Yours,
Louis

Harry blinks as he watches the shaky lines of Louis’s name blur right in front of his eyes. He barely notices the tears as they slip out, too busy hanging on to the words, re-reading them until he thinks he’s committed them to memory.

He runs a finger over the first word, written a little jerkily, like Louis was hesitant.

Love, it says. Love.

All this time, Harry has been certain that Louis never loved him, not really. He still is – he has to be – but his resolve has been thoroughly shaken.

But—that’s what the agent had said, just days before he and Louis were rejected, days before Harry finally packed up and left, after half a year of reluctance. You don’t deserve to rot in this town. You don’t deserve to be tied down to someone who only married you because you were the convenient choice. Come down to London. Let’s make a record. Let’s make you a star.

I, Louis Tomlinson, choose you above all to share my life.

This—this isn’t the Louis he’s made himself remember, the one who always had to have his way.

He’s stubborn, sure. He never backs down if he knows he’s right.

But he always, always put Harry first.

It might be the alcohol that makes the memories come back so vividly. They’re all but alive in front of him, and closes his eyes to let them play out on the inside of his eyelids.

There’s Louis, probably around six, giving up his seat on the swing so Harry could have a go.

There’s Louis, leaning against their tree, and there’s Harry right next to him, reaching out a tentative hand to run his thumb over Louis’s bottom lip.

There’s Louis, folded in the back of the Clio, blinking at Harry with startled eyes after he accidentally slipped an I love you into his mouth.

There’s Louis, standing next to him in front of the officiant, crying his eyes out because he’s so happy, then laughing as he fumbles with the ring that refused to go on Harry’s finger.

There’s Louis, slumped in the corner of the sofa, looking like the weight of the world rests on his shoulders, and still opening his arms so Harry could curl up in his embrace.

There’s them, weaving like an unbroken thread through every single moment of Harry’s life.

They were in love.

Oh God, they were in love.

And this—this is what Harry made of it.

He wishes this didn’t come now, of all times, when he’s in his childhood house in the middle of the night, and everyone else is asleep. He has to turn his face into the pillow so nobody can hear him cry, drowning in his drunken misery.

It’s a lot, after five years of nonstop praise from friends and strangers alike, after five years of feeling like he’s on top of the world. It’s a lot to realise how wrong he’d been.

And—and the things he’s said to Louis, fuck. It’s no wonder Louis hates him.

Harry has a sudden urge to scramble for his phone, to call Louis right now and let him know he’s realised, that he’s sorry, that he knows how much he’s asking now.

He can’t find it anywhere, though – and he’s sure he’ll be grateful when he wakes up tomorrow morning, but now, it makes him even more upset.

He’s crushing the corner of the pillow with one of his hands, and it’s gone ice cold under his cheek where all the tears have pooled. He’s trembling, but he’s not sure why.

He wraps the jacket tighter around his shoulders, the letter still crumpled between his fingers, and rummages around on the bed until he finds his actual duvet, too. It doesn’t help with the shivers, but it does make him feel a little more alone, a little less like he’s imposing this nervous breakdown on everyone else in the house.

Sleep finds him there, eventually, sneaking up on him. It softens the sharp edges of the memories, makes them blur into one another and fade to black until his mind is somewhat blank.

But, even as he nods off with sticky tears still clinging to his cheeks, the words haunt him in the greyness of the room.

Yours,
Louis.

*

He wakes up at – Jesus, eight in the morning – to his phone ringing. He frowns a little as he paws around on his bed trying to silence it, and it takes him a few seconds to register the time.

It’s late back home; it’s probably bad news.

He almost strangles himself with the duvet trying to get it then, and finally spots it on the ground, kicked halfway under the bed.

He barely registers his splitting headache as he looks at the screen.

Marcus, it says, alongside no fewer than eight heart emojis.

“Hello?” Harry picks up, panting.

Babe,” Marcus’ voice comes through the line. He doesn’t sound hurt or worried or—anything, really, other than cheerful. “Were you just on a run?”

A run. Right. Because Harry likes to do that in the mornings, at least when his life is not being turned upside down.

He tries to slow down his heart, and in turn his breathing.

“No,” he replies. “Just got a bit scared, isn’t it midnight over there?”

“Oh,” Marcus laughs. Harry can hear his friends making a ruckus in the background. “I guess it is. We’re just on the move, and we had reception for a bit, and I just missed you so much, so I talked Johnny into lending me his phone.”

Right. Right. He’s on another retreat. Wilderness in the middle of nowhere, his mates, a couple of guitars, writing. That’s what he does, and that’s why he hasn’t called.

Harry hasn’t really had time to miss him yet, but he doesn’t want to think about that.

“It’s good to hear your voice,” he says instead, and it’s the truth. He feels immediately relaxed, and he falls back into the sheets with his limbs splayed. “When are you coming home?”

He asks someone in the background, or at least that’s how it sounds. “Is it Saturday today?” he asks.

“Uh,” Harry blinks. He has absolutely no concept of time. “I think so?”

“Right,” Marcus laughs. He’s—very happy. “If it is, then Wednesday afternoon. Do you think you’ll be back yet?”

Harry bites his lip. “Probably not, I’m sorry.”

He says something to someone else again. “That’s okay, don’t worry about it. I told you you wouldn’t want to leave when you saw your family after so long.”

His family. That’s right, Harry, remember the lie you told your fiancé about why you’re flying out here?

“Yeah, it’s just—yeah. It’s really nice to be back.”

“How are they?” Marcus asks. He sounds so interested, and Harry doesn’t have the heart to tell him no. “Did they miss you a lot?”

“Of course they did,” Harry smiles, drawing mindless shapes into the wrinkled duvet. His finger catches on a sheet of paper, and his thoughts stutter. “It’s been a few years. I’m worried they won’t let me go back.”

“Just call me if you need saving,” Marcus laughs. “I don’t want my first time meeting them to be when I have to tell them off for hogging you so long, but if I need to do it, I will.”

“My hero,” Harry says, ignoring the barely-there edge to Marcus’ voice. They’ve been together for two years, and Marcus took him to meet his parents only a few months in.

They don’t like Harry, but that’s beside the point. Marcus clearly wants him to return the favour, and it’s only right that he should. They’re getting married soon, for Christ’s sake.

“Anything for you, honey,” he says. Harry blushes a little, uncomfortable. “Listen, I have to go—“

“Already?” Harry pouts. This is the first time they’ve talked in almost a week. Now that he was able to stop, and think about his fiancé, he’s greedy for his attention.

“I’m sorry. We’re trying to get to this campsite before they close, so we’ve got to move.”

“All right,” Harry says. One of his hands is still resting on the letter that’s next to him in bed; it feels like he’s being unfaithful, somehow. “Hurry, then. I don’t want you to sleep in a forest.”

“I’m not afraid of a forest,” he laughs. “I can kill a bear with my bare hands, you know.”

“Of course you can,” Harry smiles up at the ceiling.

“Bye, babe. I love you.”

“Love you too. I’ll talk to you on Wednesday?”

“Hopefully,” Marcus laughs. “Bye.”

“Bye,” Harry says into silence.

He disconnects his end of the call, and closes his eyes. Smiling, he burrows back into the pillows in hopes of falling back asleep. He imagines reuniting with Marcus, going back to their house in the hills, being surrounded by things that are beautifully familiar.

He already knows it’s not going to happen, though. Not when the letter is all but burning a hole into his palm; not when the memory of what happened last night is imminent, just hanging about the edge of his consciousness, poking its head in and out of the room and waiting to pounce.

He opens his eyes, and sits up. It’s cool in the room, and the air runs up his back quick like fingertips, leavings goosebumps behind. Outside, it looks like a beautiful day.

That’s why, of course, Harry has the worst hangover he remembers having. He feels dizzy even when he’s not moving, and his stomach is dangerously wobbly. The sun outside is bright, painfully so.

“Great,” he mumbles and – surprise – his mouth also feels like it’s full of cotton balls.

And he stinks, Jesus.

He needs to take a shower. Rationally, he knows this, but it’s way too early to be doing real things. He’s just going to—lie down. Let his mind wander.

Think about Louis, inevitably.

He lifts the letter to his eyes again, and guiltily fixes a corner he must have bent in his sleep.

He fixates on the loops and lines that look the same, traces every single I, watches them lean this way then the other. He picks out every pet name, all the words he’s heard come from Louis’s mouth before, and fights not to remember the way they sounded, the way they felt against his skin. They tangle in his sheets and wrap around him like ghosts, fragments of whispers, keeping him from falling asleep and from waking all the way up.

He knows exactly what he needs to do if he wants to get rid of them all, if he wants to untwist his thoughts. Right now, he seems to be grabbing pieces of himself that don’t fit and trying to force them together. He needs help.

He rolls out of bed wrapped in his duvet, too lazy to put on a t-shirt, and wanders out into the house. It’s quiet, peaceful; lit through with that ethereal kind of light that only exists in the mornings.

“Hello?” he calls. There’s no answer – but when he gets to the kitchen, he sees Dusty sitting right in the middle of the table, grooming herself like she’s not got a care in the world.

“Hey, you,” he smiles, and reaches out to scratch her behind an ear. She tenses the second he touches her, making up her mind about him, but eventually lets him do it.

Harry enjoys the softness of her fur. He’d always had pets growing up, but he doesn’t have time for one now. Their house feels hollow for it, sometimes, but Harry figures it’s just a stepping stone to a real home.

“I thought you didn’t live here anymore,” he says to the cat, because he can’t go ten seconds without bringing up Louis, apparently. “Where’d you leave him?”

He’s not being serious, except.

Except.

A set of keys rattles in the lock, a little clumsily. At first, Harry has no reason to be suspicious: other people live in this house, and it’s a beautiful morning for a walk.

Then, Louis walks in.

Not only that: Louis walks in wearing joggers and a jumper, soft and sleep-ruffled, and holding a child. He freezes in the doorway the second he sees Harry; Harry, for his part, is immediately self-conscious about his near-nakedness.

“Uh,” says Louis. “Hello.”

“Hi,” Harry whispers, through the cotton balls in his mouth. It’s suddenly very cold in the kitchen; he starts trembling, just a little. “What, um. What are you doing here?”

“Dropping off these ones,” he says, and playfully jostles the child in his arms. Then he turns back in the doorway – had his neck always been this long? – and shouts: “Ernie, get in here. Auntie Anne can show you all the flowers later, but we have to ask first.”

Auntie Anne. What?

Louis doesn’t seem to notice Harry’s building confusion – he doesn’t seem to pay Harry much mind, really, and just goes about the kitchen like it was his own. He opens the cupboards one-handed, rummaging through until he finds all the fixings for tea.

Harry watches him up until something – someone – very small barrels into the room and crashes right into his legs. Dusty jumps in surprise.

On instinct, Harry reaches out to steady the tiny human. It’s a little boy, with blond curls and eyes that are an all-familiar shade of blue. He grins as soon as he looks Harry in the face.

“’Lo,” he says confidently, his teeth peeking out.

“Hello,” Harry replies, utterly charmed. “Are you okay?”

Before the boy has a chance to respond, Louis unsubtly slides in-between them, and puts a hand between his shoulderblades.

“Have a seat, come on,” he says, and holds one of the kitchen chairs still until the boy has climbed up. “Good boy, Ernie. Stay right there.”

“Tee?” he asks, watching Louis with eyes as big as saucers.

“Tea,” Louis replies, in what is surely the softest, fondest tone of voice a human being has ever produced. “I’m making you some, but you have to wait a minute, okay?”

“Wait,” Ernie repeats confidently. “Okay.”

“Okay,” Louis replies. Harry catches a look at him from the corner of his eye, and really wishes he hadn’t.

Now that he’s looking, though, he might as well keep at it. With one eye on Ernie, just in case he’d look close to falling, he watches Louis treat his mum’s kitchen like home, tearing off a decaf tea packet and dropping it into one of the God-awful olive green cups that Harry got Gemma for Christmas when he was twelve.

His movements are sure, practiced even though he’s only using one hand. When it comes to putting the kettle on, though, he bites his lip and looks worriedly at the toddler in his arms.

“I can do it,” Harry offers without thinking. Louis’s eyes snap to him, startled. “The water,” he says, pointing. “I’ll put it on, you have a seat.”

He realises, then, that there was a silence between them for a few minutes, maybe by some unspoken mutual agreement, and he’s just broken it.

“If you don’t mind,” Louis finally says, but he looks reluctant to have his routine disrupted.

Harry gets up in answer, holding the blanket around himself like a cape. He silently thanks his last night self for having the mental capacity to put on some pyjama bottoms.

He runs the water a little too quick, hoping it’ll drown out Louis’s soft, mostly one-sided conversation with the kids. He needs time to let his mind race, to think—he’d recognise the eyes anywhere, but it can’t be. Surely it can’t.

Once the kettle is on, he fiddles with the cups, lines them up handle first then handle in the back, adding the saucers and spoons before he realises toddlers probably shouldn’t be around any more breakable objects than strictly necessary. It does buy him enough time for the water to boil, after which he pours it in, and then he has to have a seat.

He sits back in his chair, leveling Louis with a look that’s returned right back. They’re not—hostile, necessarily. Harry thinks they’ve got past the screaming part for now.

Still, he doesn’t feel particularly welcome, even though it’s his own house.

“So, um,” he starts, with no idea where he’s taking the sentence next. “How’s your morning been?”

He only just resists the urge to smash his head against the table. How’s your morning, really?

“Moh-ning!” Ernest yells, banging a small fist against the table.

Harry just—finds it adorable, if he’s honest. Louis grimaces.

It’s then that Harry realises the other toddler had been asleep, and is now very much awake. She slowly pulls away from Louis’s chest, blinking up at him with eyes just as big and blue as Ernest’s.

“Hi, beautiful,” Louis grins, reaching up to pluck a stray curl from the middle of her forehead.

Harry’s eyes, inexplicably, fill with tears.

He goes back to the tea instead of indulging his hungover emotions.

It doesn’t help that he can tell which cup belongs to Louis, because he’s been using the same one in this house for well over a decade. He puts the milk in it, curbing his automatic impulse to add sugar, and hesitantly leaves the other two black.

He could—ask. Ask Louis. If his mouth would move, just about now.

“Just black?” he finally manages to get out. Turns out there are still new ways to embarrass himself.

Louis is silent for too long. Harry looks over his shoulder, and finds him staring with his brow furrowed.

“Milk, thanks.”

“I meant for them,” Harry says.

Louis’s eyebrows rise in comprehension. “Right,” he says. “Yes. Plain’s good.”

Harry nods, and manages to get all three cups to the table at once. Louis didn’t ask him if he wanted one, which stings a little, but then – Harry was the one who boiled the sodding water. He could have just added another cup.

“There you go,” he says as he sets one of the olive cups in front of Ernest.

He looks up at Harry with the happiest, most earnest look, and says: “Thanks.”

Harry grins at him. “You’re welcome.”

At the same time, though, his heart wants to beat out of his chest. He’s sure there’s a logical explanation for why Louis is here at nine in the morning with two toddlers, but try as he might, he can’t find it.

The other two cups are met with a considerably colder response when he slides them across the table. Louis looks like he’s sizing him up.

“Thanks, Harry,” he says, but there’s not a whole lot of emotion behind it.

It’s progress, though. Harry will take it.

He sits down again, and picks at his duvet as he tries to think about what he wants for breakfast rather than—well, everything else. There are eyes constantly on him, though, and when he looks up, he finds the little girl, now in Louis’s lap, watching him distrustfully.

He tries smiling at her, but it doesn’t help. She just grabs a handful of Louis’s jumper and pulls it over to cover her face.

“What is it, Doris?” Louis looks down. There’s that tone again, God. “What? Are you afraid of Harry?”

She pulls the fabric off her eyes, looks at Harry, then looks back at Louis, and repeats this several times.

“Yeah, that’s Harry,” Louis tells her. Harry wishes his name always sounded that sweet on Louis’s tongue. “I know he looks it, but he’s not scary, I promise.”

Harry—isn’t even hurt. He can tell, somehow, that Louis doesn’t mean it to hurt.

“Awee?” she asks. Harry blinks, because that’s—

“Harry,” Louis nods. He’s said Harry’s name too many times now, without sending over a single cool look.

“Kay,” Doris nods, like the problem is solved just like that, and lets go of the jumper. Louis smiles – soft, soft – and runs a hand through her ginger hair.

In the meantime, Ernie has scooted closer to Harry, teetering on the edge of his chair. He’s holding one hand over the side of his cup, presumably soaking up the warmth, but his eyes are carefully trained on Harry’s face.

Harry isn’t sure if it’s okay to say something to him unless Ernie speaks to him first, or crashes into him, as it were. These children are Louis’s, in some way, and his body language suggests that he’s fiercely protective of them. He has to tread lightly here – they’re tiny human beings, not a house full of replaceable things.

Thankfully, mum comes to his rescue. She walks in through the back door, which shuts loudly behind her before she can stop it.

Louis immediately straightens up.

“Do I hear my babies?” mum calls, coming closer.

“Auntie!” both kids shout in almost perfect unison, struggling to get to her before she’s even in the doorway. Louis lets Doris down after much wriggling, and Harry inconspicuously helps Ernie off his chair.

Darlings,” she says, her voice not unlike the one Louis had put on when talking to them. It hits in a different place in Harry’s chest, but it still hurts. “Oh, I’ve missed you so much! Look at how big you’ve grown.”

“They were here last week,” Louis calls. He’s smiling.

“My oldest baby!” mum shouts back and, from the sounds of it, starts moving toward the kitchen.

Harry wants the ground to open up and swallow him. He knows exactly what his mum’s face is going to look like when she walks in and sees them.

Thankfully, Ernie and Doris lessen the impact, both pulling her forward by the hands. She doesn’t have much time to stop and take in the scene before she’s being all but hurled at Louis, who’s stood up and is waiting with his arms open.

“There you are,” mum says, breaking off the stare she’s leveled at Harry.

“Hello, gorgeous,” Louis says, and wraps her in a hug as tight as Harry can remember seeing. “Mum said to say she’s really sorry about this, there was a last minute thing—“

“You know I don’t mind,” mum says after she pulls away. She puts her hands on Louis’s shoulders and touches him there, smooths down the collar of his jumper, pats him on the cheek. “They’re my favorite people in the world.”

Harry refuses to admit to any jealousy.

Anne. I’m hurt,” Louis says, pressing a hand to his chest. Mum rolls her eyes at him.

“I’ll give you Anne,” she says, still fiddling with his clothes.

“Sorry, Mum,” he sighs. It’s much softer, much more hesitant this time. He’s very aware of Harry sitting there uselessly, watching them.

“That’s better,” she smiles, and presses a kiss to his temple. Harry thinks she might be making a point. “Now, don’t you have to get going?”

“Not yet,” he says. “Got enough time to finish my tea.”

She steps away then, and nods. There seems to be some kind of silent conversation going on between them.

Harry feels like he’s been pushed aside, but he supposes that’s the point.

“I’ll take them off your hands, then,” mum smiles. She collects the smaller cups off the table, and walks around the far side, to Harry.

“Good morning, darling,” she says, and gives him a kiss on the cheek.

Harry suddenly grows a lump in his throat, but he steadfastly ignores it. “Morning, Mum,” he says, and manages to smile at her before she’s gone.

Louis sits down silently. He wraps his hands around his cup, and looks right down through the steam.

“Did you,” Harry says, because he never had learned when to shut up, “did you want to talk to me about something?”

Louis looks up sharply. There’s still no malice in his gaze, and Harry takes that to mean good things. “Why would you think that?”

“It’s just—you—mum basically gave you an out, and you didn’t take it.”

“I’m not going to bail on perfectly good tea,” he replies, taking a sip as if to prove a point.

At least he called it perfectly good.

“Can I ask you something?” says Harry, into the ceiling. He doesn’t want to see the kind of look Louis is probably sporting now.

“Would it matter if I said no?”

Harry doesn’t reply.

“Fine,” Louis sighs. “Ask me.”

“Whose kids are they?” He figures it’s only polite to look at Louis now, as he asks him do disclose some very personal information, the kind that Harry really isn’t privy to.

Louis looks like that wasn’t the question he was expecting. He opens his mouth a little in confusion, and then raises his eyebrows when he finally gets it.

“Doris and Ernest?” he asks, and Harry nods. “They’re my mum’s, obviously.”

Obviously. Of course. Harry’s world spins a little.

“She had more babies?” he asks, full of wonder. “That’s amazing.”

They used to—God, him and Louis used to pester her about it ever since she mentioned possibly wanting one more. They used to sit down for a Sunday roast at Louis’s house and immediately start talking about how they needed practice for when they had their own children, and how life has been kind of boring ever since Daisy and Phoebe grew out of their tantrums.

She’d always shake her head and smile. Harry didn’t think she was going to do it, but she did.

He thought—he thought.

“You thought they were mine,” Louis says.

“I didn’t,” Harry mumbles back, but the blush on his cheeks must be giving him away. Louis looks at him with eyebrows raised, surprise written all over his face.

“You thought—oh my God, Harry. That’s hilarious.”

Harry petulantly crosses his arms. It’s only partly to be defensive, and partly to protect that little flame that’s come to life in his chest after Louis teased him.

His blanket slips a little, falling halfway down his shoulders.

“It’s not that ridiculous,” he tries to defend himself. “They’ve got your eyes.”

“Millions of people have blue eyes,” Louis replies, and pierces Harry with his over the rim of his cup.

“They’re obviously not all the same as yours,” Harry says. “Stop being dense on purpose.”

He’s only teasing, but he bites his lip when it slips out on its own. He’s still all too familiar with the way this kind of banter goes, and every cell of his body is hardwired to respond playfully to Louis anytime he tries to bite, but.

They’re not there anymore, not there yet. They probably shouldn’t ever go back there.

With baited breath, he waits for Louis’s reaction. Nothing big happens, though. He just smiles. Sips on his tea. Looks at one of Harry’s naked shoulders and then can’t seem to look away.

Harry tugs the blanket back up, hiding himself in it. Louis averts his eyes like he’s been burned.

“Pray tell, Harry,” he says. “How and why would I have children on my own?”

There’s the venom. Harry was starting to miss it.

“You’ve always wanted them,” he says, attempting to deescalate, and removing past him from the situation even though it was never just Louis who wanted kids – it was the two of them together, always together. “I figured you might’ve gone ahead and done it.”

Louis puts his chin in one of his hands. “I guess you would,” he says, not looking at Harry, not really looking anywhere. “I don’t think I want them anymore. Not now, anyway.”

He looks immediately sorry to have shared something so personal, but Harry snatches the words out of the air before they can fade, keeps them inside himself.

Lets them hurt.

I feel the same, Harry wants to say, and is it because or what happened to us?

He was going to go to Louis anyway. He was going to knock, and get Louis to stay by the door with apologies, and ask, just ask, say—was this how it happened? Do I remember it right? I can’t honour the memory if I don’t have it.

But then, that’s selfish. The letter that’s still in his bed is full of pain, even if Louis didn’t put it into so many words. Harry’s one ghost of a long-gone past, and he doesn’t need to force Louis to face another one.

“I’m sorry to hear that,” he settles on, finally. It’s kind of empty; he’s not sure he means it.

“Thanks,” Louis scoffs. “It’s just. I don’t know if choosing to be a single parent would be fair.”

“I really don’t think we’re the only two gay people in this village, you know.”

To Harry’s surprise, Louis laughs.

“No,” he says. “We’re definitely not.”

Harry thinks of what to say. Mulls over a few sentences, thinks of where they could take him.

Louis must see it, must realise he’s treating this conversation like a tactical battle. He knocks back the last of his tea like it’s a finger of whiskey and stands up.

“Got to go,” he throws over his shoulder—and disappears.

Harry blinks at the empty space where he had been. Then he gets up and follows him outside, blanket and all.

He finds Louis leaning against the front of the house, not in much of a hurry. He’s bent forward a little, hands on his knees, staring into the ground. He doesn’t say a thing when Harry pads out and onto the rug on bare feet, but he does scoot over so Harry’s got space to lean next to him.

The winding little street is laid out in front of them, straight here then curling into the distance, flanked by trees and houses and not much more.

It’s silent.

Harry squints into the sun overhead. His headache makes comes back when the light hits his eyes, but all his other options include Louis in the periphery.

“You just can’t leave me alone, can you?” Louis finally breaks the silence. He sounds—fond, almost, if reluctantly so.

“Not really,” Harry replies. “I just—Gemma reminded me—I realised something yesterday.”

Very carefully, Louis looks at him. Harry looks back.

He’s not sure he wants to do this, not when Louis is looking at him that way – but what other option does he have? Gemma told him he needs to work through it, and she might be right. Maybe if—maybe if he can understand, if he can explain himself, Louis will be more inclined to finally divorce him. Maybe they can finally, finally go their separate ways for good.

“Did you ever get over it?” he asks.

Louis blinks.

“The adoption,” he says.

Louis physically recoils.

“After—after we got rejected. Did you ever move on?”

He takes a step back, then another one, keeps going until he’s barely close enough for Harry to read his face.

“I really wish you’d shut up sometimes, you know?” he says. He sounds strangled. “You can’t just—you can’t ask me that. You don’t have the right. You left me to deal with it on my own.”

“I’m asking you anyway,” Harry says. He sounds – feels, is – cruel, but he needs to do this. For both of them.

Louis looks at him, just stares for seconds that stretch into minutes. His face gives nothing away, but his eyes are a storm.

“You still don’t have a right to know. We’re done, remember? You’ve been hounding me for a divorce for years now.”

Harry wants to fight. He wants to, but that’s not the way to go forward here.

Instead, he gathers his blanket, and sits down on the front step. It’s already a little warm from the morning sun, soothing some of the thousand little aches in his body.

“I’m not going to bite this time,” he says, rolling a stray pebble between his fingers. “I’m not going to fight you. I just want to talk.”

“You’ll understand why I have trouble believing that,” Louis replies, but he relaxes a little, and comes a step closer. “And I appreciate that you want to talk, but I don’t want to. I told you to leave me alone.”

“You said not to come see you again, and I didn’t. You’re the one who came into my house.”

“It’s hardly your house,” Louis replies, jams his hands in his pockets, and walks over. Harry nearly forgets how to breathe when he sits right next to him on the stair. Their knees knock together once, twice, until Louis settles down and puts as much space between them as possible. Harry’s skin burns in the spot where they touched, and only there.

“I’m tired,” Louis says. “I’m so tired of all this.”

“I don’t want to point out the obvious, but I wouldn’t be here at all if you—“

“Yes, thank you, I get it. I’m mean and stubborn and standing in the way of your grand wedding plan, because every single thing on planet Earth has to be about you.”

“Will you tell me why, then? Why won’t you do it, if it’s not to spite me?” Harry asks. His own voice sounds softer than he’d like.

Louis sighs. He’s been sighing a lot. “It doesn’t matter anymore. You wanted to know about the adoption.”

Harry bites his lip, hesitant. “I did.”

Louis pulls the sleeves of his jumper down over his hands, leaving only the tips of his fingers peeking out. He uses them to pull at loose threads, fidgeting.

“See, the thing is,” he starts. “The adoption panel – they said they’d send us written reasons, do you remember that?”

“Of course I do.” He does now, anyway. Three men, three women, all a little too stern, going over their application ad nauseum, reading through the countless forms they’d filled out. It was a terrifying process, but one that promised indescribable happiness at the end. Plus, Louis had held his hand under the table the entire time, steadying him even though he himself was shaking.

“Right, so. They did,” his voice shakes. “And they said—“

Harry watches, in abject horror, as Louis’s eyes fill with tears. It hits him somewhere very, very deep inside the chest, gripping his heart like a vice. Louis looks so small, so—broken, and Harry feels like crying right along with him.

Louis always put more weight on his own shoulders, because taking care of others made him feel good about himself. Harry had seen it play out across the years, and was always there when the other shoe dropped, there to calm him, to hold him, to remind him that for Harry, he was everything that mattered in the world no matter how strong he was.

Harry left, though. He left, and he wonders now, for the first time, who was there to pick Louis up afterwards.

“Don’t cry,” he says, because he can’t keep quiet. “Don’t, please. Please.”

His hands are itching to reach out, just while they’re inside his moment, to offer comfort any way he can. He wouldn’t help, though, he knows.

“It’s just,” Louis says, breathing through his tears, blinking them away. “It was my fault. It was my fault, Harry.”

“It wasn’t,” Harry says. He has no idea what the letter said, but he knows this.

“It was the smoking,” Louis says, voice rough. “They said—they said they weren’t certain I got far enough with quitting, even after I told them I would never smoke anywhere near a child, I called them and begged them like an idiot, just—it was my fault. I was the reason we didn’t get to have a baby.”

Harry only just notices his hands shaking. He’s hurting, but he can’t pinpoint a source; it might just be sadness, and the pain he never went through years ago, all rippling angrily underneath his skin. He imagines what Louis must have felt, what he must be feeling, how much worse it must be.

“They didn’t even say that it was a definite no, they kept our application and said to get back to them in six months, but. Well. You were long gone by then.”

“They—what?” Harry breathes. It’s come back to him in flashes, the way he felt that day. How pointless everything seemed, because if they wanted to try again they’d have to go through the entire exhausting process from the start.

“We could’ve fixed it,” Louis says, but he’s lost some of that soft vulnerability. There’s an edge to his voice now, probably because he wants to let Harry know just how much he’d cocked it up. “Six more months, and we could’ve been approved.”

“I’m sorry,” Harry whispers, horrified. He never, ever thought. He never realised.

“What’s done is done,” Louis shakes his head. “You wanted to know if I ever moved on, and you can probably drawn your own conclusion from all this, so,” he breathes out, and wipes his palms on his jeans. “Unless you want to continue the interrogation, I’m going to go.”

“That’s not what I mean to do,” Harry says. Somehow, he’s broken things where he meant to mend them. “I didn’t mean to make you sad.”

“Bit late for that, isn’t it?” Louis asks, but it’s more benevolent this time. He’s even smiling a little, if completely devoid of joy. “Just leave it alone, Harry. I’m glad we don’t need to scream at each other anymore, but my life is mine, and your life is yours. There’s no reason they should have anything to do with each other, as you said.”

Then he walks away without waiting for a response. Harry watches him go, the blue of his jumper slowly becoming a mere speck in the distance.

What about the divorce? he wants to scream, wants the entire street to hear. It would be so, so easy to for Louis to get rid of him, and yet he—doesn’t.

It’s so very, pointlessly frustrating.

He goes back inside, and mulls over everything Louis said while he carefully eats a banana for breakfast. He did get his answers, or at least some of them, but he’s no closer to feeling like that chapter of his life is finally closed.

One of them doesn’t want to let go. At this point, Harry isn’t quite sure which one of them it is.

*

The first note arrives a few days later, as Harry’s helping mum clean up after lunch.

His phone starts buzzing in his pocket just as he pulls a pair of rubber gloves on. He leaves it, hoping whoever it is will call later, but the call stops and starts again in a few seconds. This happens a few more times, until mum grabs him by the shoulders and physically shoves him out of the door.

When he looks at the screen, what feels like a ball of lead suddenly falls into his stomach.

It’s Niall, and this is the ninth time he’s calling.

“What’s wrong?” he almost yells as he picks up.

“Jesus Christ!” Niall screams from the other end. “Are you okay? Are you alive?”

“What’s wrong?” Harry repeats, more urgently this time. He walks outside for a bit of privacy, but he can’t get himself calm enough to sit down. “I’m fine, but what—“

“There’s a note,” Niall pants. He’s breathing so hard it only makes Harry worry more. “I got a note delivered to the office, and it’s—“ he pauses, probably to inhale. “It’s bad, Harry.”

Harry shivers. “Niall,” he says, trying to keep himself from crying out of sheer stress. “Tell me what happened.”

“A note, like I told you,” Niall replies, impatient. “I’ll just text you a picture, hold on.”

A second later, Harry’s phone buzzes. He pulls it away from his ear and navigates to his messages with shaky fingers. When he pulls up the photo, his blood runs cold in his veins.

It’s a plain piece of paper, with a crease in the centre where it was folded in half. I know what he did, it says, and next to it is a picture of Harry from the fashion show he went to last month. His eyes have been furiously crossed out with black marker.

Harry immediately feels unsafe, exposed in the back garden of his mum’s house despite the fence that separates him from the rest of the world.

They just thought—they thought it was someone playing a tired prank. The police said not to worry, that things like this rarely escalate.

That Harry has nothing to worry about.

“Niall,” he says, teary, when he puts the phone back to his ear. “Niall, what do we do?”

“Listen,” Niall says. He sounds better now, calm, composed. In charge, like he’s supposed to be. “I don’t want you to lose sleep over this, okay?”

Harry thinks that’s a little hypocritical, considering the fact that Niall just almost gave him a heart attack.

“Where are you staying?”

“My mum’s,” Harry replies. “Am I—is it not safe? Am I putting my family in danger?”

“No, no, that’s good,” says Niall. “That’s great, actually. Stay where you are.”

“Did you call the police?”

“Of course I did,” he replies. “They’re on the way now. They told me on the phone that they might need to interview you, but I told them you’re laying low and wouldn’t know anything about a stalker anyway. You wouldn’t, right?”

Harry shakes his head. “No, of course not. They don’t even—they’ve only called me a couple of times, it’s usually you.”

“You’re right,” Niall says. “They said they’ll monitor the situation, and look over the note for evidence, but—I don’t know. I don’t know what they could possibly find.”

Harry wraps his free arm around himself. He spots mum peeking out of the kitchen window, a worried look on her face, and he forces himself to give her a smile and a thumbs up.

“Are you sending Peter over here?” he asks, though he suspects he already knows the answer.

“You know I can’t let you stay there unprotected. I told him to ditch the suit, and he’s going to be hanging back as much as possible, but you need security with you. I’m sorry.”

“It’s fine,” Harry sighs. He won’t admit he’s relieved – not to Niall, anyway, because they’ve had a million rows about this. “It’s okay. I just—I’m scared, Ni.”

“I know,” Niall sighs. “I know you are, so am I. This is the one thing I can’t fix for you, but I’m damn well going to try.”

“Thank you,” Harry says, and means it. He’d be so very, completely lost without Niall. “Thanks for letting me know. Will you keep me updated?”

“Of course, H. You’ll probably be able to tell when they catch this bastard anyway, because I’m gonna go on trial for murder.”

Harry laughs a little, stomping on his anxiety without effect. “Please don’t murder anybody. I need someone to run my life.”

“I guess I can hire a hitman,” Niall concedes. The familiar, creaky sound of his office chair comes distantly through the line. “I’ll bill it to you, though.”

“That’s fine,” Harry smiles. “And hey, if—if there’s anything the police need, or you, any expensive tests or a security system or anything of the sort, you can just foot the bill from my account.”

“Don’t be an idiot,” says Niall, and he must be smiling too. “You didn’t choose to have a weird stalker.”

Harry’s heart beats a little faster at the word. Stalker. Niall uses it to describe those fans that constantly try to get a hold of his personal information, but this—this is a whole new level. Someone out there genuinely has it out for him. Someone out there probably wants him hurt.

I know what he did.

What did he do?

“Hey,” Niall tears him away from his thoughts. “Please tell me you have some good news, at least.”

“Uh,” Harry scratches the back of his neck, which suddenly seems to be burning hot. “Depends on what you consider good news?”

“So he hasn’t signed,” Niall says. “Jesus, what a stubborn git. What the hell does he want from you?”

Harry tamps down on the urge to defend Louis. Niall is right; Harry is entitled to this divorce, and just because he and Louis have come to some sort of tentative understanding, that doesn’t mean Louis is being any less of a dick by denying him the one thing he came for.

“I wish I knew,” he replies.

“Do you want me to look for other options?” Niall asks, already shuffling some papers by the sounds of it. “I’m sure they can divorce you without him, too, I’ve got a friend who’s a lawyer—“

“I want you to relax,” Harry interrupts. He’s got to smile a little. Niall has been his fiercest protector from the media, from baseless criticism, from corporate greed. Most of the things he’s achieved in his career, he achieved because Niall was right there behind the curtain, pulling the strings. “I know you just got back from a holiday, but maybe take another one. Go to a spa, or something.”

“I don’t think you understand how much I cannot do that,” Niall replies. “I just don’t want you to waste your time on someone who doesn’t deserve it. You wanted to be planning your wedding by now, remember?”

Harry sighs. “I remember.”

He feels a little excited spark in his heart when he thinks about it. He couldn’t afford many things that he would have liked for his first sham of a wedding, but this time—this time he’s going to get it right. Flower arrangements, menu testing, cake tastings, a rehearsal dinner, every big white American wedding cliché his money can pay for, he’s going to have. He wants a real aisle, a real ceremony, a real husband – and a tuxedo that fits.

“Still,” he continues. “I’ve got things under control here. If I need you to do anything, I’ll give you a call.”

“Promise me, though. Don’t you dare deal with shit all on your own.”

“I promise,” Harry sighs. “I’ll call you when Peter gets here, all right?”

“You do that,” says Niall. Harry can tell he nods even over the phone. “Stay safe, okay? And look after yourself.”

“Yes, mother. Bye now.”

Niall laughs. “Bye, H. Love you.”

Then he hangs up. His boisterous voice in Harry’s ear is replaced by the eerie silence of the garden, of the village, nothing but birdsong and leaves humming in the breeze.

He’s almost forgotten what the call was about in the first place.

Almost.

Now that he has no distractions around, he realises how much open space is all around him. There’s a cluster of rose bushes in the far corner of the garden, full of shadows – several people could probably hide in there without much trouble. There are trees, too, ones that have been left alone for years and have branches hanging into the street. He’s horrified to realise anyone could just grab one and climb in with barely any effort.

He stands up, holding his phone to his chest, and scurries back inside. It makes him feel small, cowardly, like a cockroach running from a boot, but the other option could be coming face to face with someone who probably took pleasure in scrawling his eyes out of a picture.

“Everything okay, love?” mum asks as soon as he closes the door behind himself, standing in the hall with a dishtowel in her hands. Harry must look a mess after not-so-subtly running in from their peaceful, beautiful, perfectly safe garden.

“Of course,” he smiles. “Niall just urgently needed something, but everything’s fine. Sorry I missed the dishes.”

“You can do them all by yourself tomorrow,” she smiles, and pats down a flyaway strand of his hair. “Come have some tea.”

Harry puts his phone in his pocket, straightens up, and follows her. He tries hard to get rid of the feeling that someone is watching his every move.

He’s home now, behind locked doors, bathed in warmth and light and the love of his family. Nobody can hurt him here.

*

Peter gets in just after six. He claps Harry on the shoulder, politely introduces himself to his mum, and announces that he’s going to set up a tent in the back garden, if that’s okay with everybody.

“We’ve got a spare bedroom, you’re welcome to use it,” Anne assures him, eyeing the camping backpack he’s holding in his arms.

“No, Mrs Twist, that’s not necessary at all. I tend to be more alert when I’m outside, and this way I can make sure potential intruders can’t get in through the windows. You do have a security system, yes?”

Harry smiles a little as he watches them, his mum puzzled, Peter grinning with his ridiculous muscles wrapped in a bright green t-shirt. He’s brought a bit of normalcy with him, and it turns out that that’s exactly what Harry needed.

He helps Peter haul what he’s deemed ‘necessary equipment’ – he’s got an entire box of rations with him, for God’s sake – into the garden, and explains which flower bushes are off limits. It doesn’t feel as uncomfortably open anymore, doesn’t feel like every blade of grass has eyes that are staring into the back of his neck.

“How are you, Mr Styles?” Peter asks as he starts setting up the tent. Harry’s long given up on getting him to just use ‘Harry’.

“I’m all right, thank you, Peter. And thanks for coming so quickly, I was really hoping it wouldn’t be needed—“

“Not at all, Mr Styles. This is a dangerous situation, it shouldn’t be underestimated.”

Harry smiles, wishing he could do something other that uselessly hold the tent poles in his hands. He has been camping before, but Louis always insisted on building things by himself.

“I definitely feel safer now that you’re here,” Harry admits.

Peter crawls out from underneath the tarp with a grin. “Then I’m doing my job properly,” he says.

Harry sits down in the grass, and picks off a lone dandelion to stick behind his ear. He texts Niall to tell him Peter got in okay, and watches the sun slowly fall beyond the far side of the fence.

The lights in the house are on, almost all the windows shimmering happily as darkness descends. Mum and Robin are going to a function, Harry remembers, and with Gemma already back in Manchester for work, he’s going to be left in the house all alone.

Well, with Peter, but Peter is being paid to spend time with him.

Back at home, he usually wishes he could be more alone even when he’s by himself; somehow, the ever-present noise, the voices and footsteps that fill the city and engulf it – they all make their way to his ears no matter where he is.

Right now, in a house surrounded by fields, and with a faceless threat on the loose out there, he wants, needs, to be surrounded by people.

“Hey Peter,” he calls, as he stands up and brushes off his jeans. “How would you feel about having a drink?”

“Anything you’d like, Mr Styles,” Peter replies from inside the tent. “Just give me a few minutes to set up here.”

Harry nods, and retreats inside.

He drinks some water, eats a banana that ends up tasting like chalk, pulls his stubbornly tangled hair into a bun, and they make it out of the house just before seven. Harry leads them down the winding little street and toward Jay’s pub.

Jay might be there. Or Louis might. He can’t quite find it in himself to care.

To his luck, and despite the fact that it’s Thursday night, it’s packed. Harry happily makes his way to the bar, where an unfamiliar woman is pulling beer after beer, relaxed with Peter’s steady presence behind him.

“G&T, please,” he orders with a smile, and takes a seat.

Three hours later, he accidentally knocks his stool to the ground, and trips over three different people on his way out.

“Are you sure this is the way to your house, Mr Styles?” Peter asks, perfectly steady even as he half-pulls Harry down the street.

“Positive,” Harry grins. The cool night air feels strange against his teeth, sticking to his tongue. It tickles all the way in the back of his throat, and makes him giggle. “We’re going home.”

“All right,” Peter sighs, but he’s smiling. He’s used to escorting Harry from events when he’s slightly tipsy, but he probably went over that point a good two hours ago.

This is his second time getting drunk in less than two weeks. He doesn’t want to think about it.

“Aha!” he shouts when he spots the familiar turn, and makes a real effort to point his feet in that direction. Peter has to help him a little.

“Can you hear the bugs?” Harry whispers as they step into the dark road. Some moonlight makes its way through the trees, but for the most part, everything around them is shrouded in shadow.

“What about them?”

“They’re screaming,” he whispers again, then descends into another bout of giggles.

He trips over a tree stump while he’s doing it. Peter wraps an arm around his shoulder and pulls him up.

“Do you know what I think,” Harry continues, “I think they’re afraid of the dark. Think about it, Peter.”

“I’m thinking,” Peter laughs a little. Harry is deeply delighted; Peter’s rarely allowed to even crack a real smile while working. “I think you’ve definitely got a point.”

“Thank you!” Harry shouts, making Peter jerk away from him and startling a bird out of a tree somewhere high overhead. He’s about to explain some more when he sees a light in the distance.

“Oh, there we are,” he whispers, triumphant.

“Mr Styles, are you sure this is—“

“Shh,” Harry says, lifting a clumsy hand to put to Peter’s lips. “People. They’re asleep.”

Peter lets him walk up the front steps on his own, and watches from the side as Harry fishes his keys out of his pocket. One, two, three. The longest one is for the front door.

He manages to get it in, but when he tries to turn it, it won’t move. He whines at the door, and pushes, but it doesn’t budge.

“Mr Styles, maybe we should—“

“Hold on,” Harry whispers, and tries another key.

Nothing happens.

“Come on,” he says, trying the next one, and then the first one again, until the whole thing slips through his fingers and lands on the front step.

Harry pouts.

“Peter, help me,” he whispers, dead set on it even though he knows nobody’s home. “I have to get in.”

Peter moves, but before he can make it up the stairs, the door opens.

And in it—in it stands Louis.

He looks like he was lying down, if not sleeping, his hair sticking up on one side. The light above the door turns it golden, and Harry stares at it for a while, mesmerized by the softness.

“What the hell,” Louis says. He’s blinking a lot.

Watching his grumpy face, Harry has to giggle a little. He sways in place, and has to lean on the doorframe to keep himself upright.

“Lou,” he says, still whispering, “Louis. What are you doing in my house?”

“This—Jesus Christ, how drunk are you? This is my house.”

Harry hiccups, and upsets his balance. He tips dangerously far forward; Peter moves in his periphery, but before he can make it, Louis reaches for Harry’s arms and steadies him.

They’re close, suddenly, too close. Harry frowns.

“What do you mean, this is your house?”

Louis shakes him a little. “Harry. It’s my house. Your mum’s is ten minutes up the road.”

Harry blinks. Then he finally, finally looks around and realises his mistake.

Of course this is Louis’s house. Harry’s staying with his mum; he doesn’t live here anymore.

“Oh my God,” he says. He thinks his mouth might be open, but he can’t quite bring himself to close it. “Oh no, I’m so sorry.”

Louis is looking at him, he thinks, his eyes blue and softer than usual. “What did you—why did you come here?”

He’s still holding Harry up. His hands are warm, and if it wasn’t for them, Harry thinks he’d quite like to sit down on the ground and cry a little. His eyes are stinging, at least.

“I didn’t realise,” he shakes his head, and keeps shaking it even as it makes him stumble in place. “I just—I didn’t realise. I came straight home.”

Louis inhales sharply, and looks down at the ground. His hands stay curled around Harry’s elbows.

“You don’t live here anymore,” he says. “You don’t, all right? You’ve got a home somewhere else.”

He doesn’t sound angry. Harry would expect—why doesn’t he sound angry?

“I’m sorry, Louis. I’m sorry, for everything, I—“

“Mr Styles,” says Peter, somewhere behind him. He’s speaking quietly, too. “Let’s get you home.”

“No,” says Louis. Harry squints at him. “He can—it’s fine if he stays here. He can barely walk, you can’t drag him back through the whole village.”

“Mr Tomlinson, I assume?” Peter asks. He’s making an effort to not sound like Harry’s Big Tough Bodyguard. What a peach.

“That’s me,” says Louis. “Nice to meet you…?”

“Peter,” he says, and extends a hand. He’s weird, Peter is.

Louis gingerly unwraps one of his hands from Harry arms, and reaches out to shake it.

“It’s a pleasure, Peter,” Louis says, and he sounds like he means it. “But it’s really no bother. You’re welcome to stay as well, obviously.”

“Mr Styles,” Peter says, putting a heavy hand on Harry’s shoulder. Harry turns, only a little, to see his face. “Would you be okay with that? I can carry you back if you need me to, it’s not a problem.”

He’s so earnest, but he’s got a spark of laughter in his eye, too. Harry, despite the cloud of sadness that seems to have shrouded him, can’t help a giggle.

“I’m fine, Peter. If Louis doesn’t mind, then. Then I’m fine.”

There’s something—there’s a reason he shouldn’t agree to this. He knows it, somewhere in the back of his mind, but his brain’s way too foggy to make it out.

Peter nods, just once. “My car is parked off the square, I’ll go get it and sleep out front. Will just be five minutes.”

“You really don’t have to do that,” Louis says. When Harry turns back to him, he’s frowning. “It’s just me in here, there’s plenty of space.”

“That’s very generous of you, but I prefer to stay outside. The situation isn’t dire enough for me to intrude on your privacy.”

“The situation?” Louis raises his eyebrows.

Harry, for some reason, reaches out to try and pull them back down.

“It’s a long story,” he says, with his fingers in Louis’s face. Louis wraps a hand around his wrist and pulls it away.

“All right,” Louis sighs. “Just. Come in.”

He lets Harry go, and he tries to start walking by himself. He just makes it into the hall, far enough to see the first picture frames and remember what they did to him last time. Then he trips over his own foot and starts falling – again.

And again, Louis is there to catch him. He puts an arm around Harry’s waist, so Harry puts one around his shoulders, and together, they limp to the living room.

He slumps onto the sofa as soon as he sees it, without waiting for an invitation. It’s still the same one; fascinatingly enough, the fabric feels familiar under Harry’s fingers.

“Hang on a bloody minute, Jesus,” he hears Louis say, but he’s already closed his eyes, curled into the sofa the same way he used to for a nap. The house is warm, and it doesn’t smell of piss like the pub did. Sleep pulls at him immediately, and he doesn’t resist it.

He’s going to regret so many things when he wakes up in the morning.

“Don’t fall asleep yet,” Louis grumbles, apparently coming back into the room. Harry tries to keep himself awake just to hear more of this voice. It’s not got any anger left in it, finally.

He feels a hand on his forearm, pulling it out from underneath his head. He lifts it, squinting into the darkness, and Louis uses the opportunity to slip a pillow where his arms had been.

“Sleep on your side,” Louis says when Harry’s thuds down like a rock. “Or you’ll choke on vomit in the middle of the night.”

“Won’t throw up,” Harry mumbles into the pillow, but he does as Louis says, pressing his back to the back of the sofa. He wants to open his eyes, see how far Louis is, what he’s doing, but his eyelids are too heavy.

He tiptoes just on the edge of consciousness, listening to sounds around him fade in an out. He thinks he hears Peter’s voice, thinks he hears Louis laugh, and then there’s silence.

“Are you asleep? I’m making tea,” Louis says from the doorway. It’s almost too quiet, like he can’t decide whether he wants Harry to hear him.

Harry would love tea, he thinks, but he’d also love to nod off right about now. He curls tighter into himself, bringing his knees up.

Louis sighs. Harry expects him to leave, but his footsteps creak on the living room floorboards instead, coming slowly, hesitantly, closer.

“Every time,” he murmurs. Then there’s a gust of air as he reaches for something. A second later, a soft blanket lands on top Harry, immediately making him warmer. He cracks one eye open just enough to see Louis standing right above the sofa, his hands in mid-air.

Then, as if in slow motion, he watches Louis reach out with one hand, touch a strand of hair that’s fallen into the middle of Harry’s face, and tuck it behind his ear.

The skin he touches tingles, then burns in his wake. He brushes past the tip of Harry’s ear; it’s all Harry can do not to stir.

“Goodnight, love,” Louis says, with a tremble in his voice, then turns around and all but runs away.

Harry’s heart stumbles, then crashes and breaks against his breastbone like a tidal wave. It’s cold like ocean water too, and painfully sobering.

Love echoes endlessly in his ears, and he commits it to memory without wanting to, the exact way Louis’s voice broke in the middle of the word.

Love, his own brain whispers back to him, plastering it all over the inside of his skull, until he feels like he’s going to explode with it. Love, rustles around his lungs when he puts a hand on his chest to try and calm his breathing. Love, his skin whispers against the soft fleece of the blanket.

Love.

Harry puts his hands over his ears, turns his back to the room, and goes to sleep.

*

He wakes up to what sounds like an angry waterfall inside his head.

He grunts, then rolls over, and only remembers where he is when he almost topples off the sofa.

The room is unbearably bright, but he chances opening his eyes, blinking into the window that’s bang across the room from him, letting in sunlight with curtains wide open.

It takes him a few more seconds to recognise the noise as a kettle.

Someone – Louis – is banging about in the kitchen, opening cupboards much louder than necessary.

Harry wraps the blanket around his shoulders, carefully sits up, and tries to run through everything that happened last night. It doesn’t go very well.

He knows Peter was there, and that Harry dragged him off to the pub, and that he ended up walking to Louis’s house instead of his own like a complete and utter idiot.

I came straight home, his own voice echoes in his head, as does the confusion on Louis’s face.

Stupid, so stupid.

Almost everything after that is a blur, a vague jumble of memories that make no sense when he tries to untwist them. He can feel Louis’s fingers around his elbows, still, but that’s about as far as he can get.

“Ah, morning,” Louis says from the doorway, before Harry can find his shoes and quietly sneak out. “Hope I didn’t wake you up.”

He’s smirking a little, his hands wrapped around a steaming cup.

“No,” Harry says dumbly. He clenches his fists tighter in the blanket, pulling it around himself like a shield. This doesn’t look like a pleasant conversation; especially when he barely remembers what he did yesterday. “No, it’s fine.”

That seems to deflate Louis’s mischievous mood a little. He makes his way into the room, unbothered by Harry’s sorry state, and folds into one of the armchairs.

He looks—soft, Harry realises now. He’s got a jumper on with the hood up over his head, and his hands are lost inside the sleeves.

The TV is on across the room, playing what looks like a rerun of Emmerdale with the sound turned down. Louis watches it like it’s the most entrancing thing in the world; his eyes don’t wander to Harry once, not even when he gets the hiccups and stars squeaking miserably every few seconds. The movement jostles his sore head in a particularly nasty way.

“Do you have a paracetamol I could borrow?” he croaks. His throat feels like it’s lined with sandpaper.

Louis waits a few seconds before he tears his eyes away from the TV. The look he levels at Harry isn’t particularly bothered, or angry, or too nice. It’s—nothing, really. Blank.

“How are you going to give it back?” he asks. He manages to keep a straight face for a fraction of a second, but he seems unable to resist a little smile that curls one corner of his mouth. “If I lend it to you, I mean.”

Harry gives him a look. Give me a break, he tries to say, and Louis takes mercy on him.

“Hold on,” he says, and unfolds himself again to stand up. He comes back less than a minute later with a brand new box of pills, which he throws across the room. Harry barely reacts when it hits him in the forehead.

“Sorry,” Louis bites his lip. “Meant for you to catch it.”

He sets a glass of water down on the coffee table, almost apologetic. “Budge over.”

Harry moves, confused, clutching his paracetamol like a lifeline. Louis sits down right next to him, disturbing his nest, and slips under the loose end of the blanket.

Harry’s brain goes offline. He doesn’t have a single coherent thought to put together. Louis just came and sat down right next to him without being forced to do it.

He leans forward to get his water, keeping his leg under him until it cramps because he doesn’t want to accidentally touch. There’d be nothing bad about it, exactly, but it seems like the kind of thing to avoid, just in case.

Harry swallows his pills, and swishes some water around in his mouth. Then, there’s silence.

Louis is back to watching the telly with a laser-like focus, his features sharp, but the rest of him looks relaxed. He’s leaning back into the cushions, with his feet underneath him, his shoulders loose.

Harry thinks this might be the first time he’s seen him like that since he came back.

“I’m sorry,” it prompts him to say, hoping that Louis will accept his apology. “For coming here. I would have never put you in that position if I had been—well.”

“Sober?” Louis suggests. He turns to Harry, with his whole body, not just his face.

The light that streams into the room is bright, the white kind that tells Harry it must be early still. It catches in the tips of Louis’s hair that are peeking out of the hood, and turns them golden.

“Yeah,” Harry laughs. It hurts, and he’s sure he’ll need to throw up immediately after he gets to his feet, but he’s sitting down now. There’s no need to worry about it. “Yeah, I—I’m not sure how I got that bad.”

“Peter said you had eleven gin and tonics,” Louis says, an eyebrow raised.

Harry puts his head in his hands. “Oh my God. I can never look him in the face again.”

“It wasn’t that bad,” Louis says. “You could still stand on your feet. Kind of.”

Harry pulls his knees up to his chest. His entire face is burning. “I’m so sorry, Louis. I really am.”

Louis shakes his head. “It’s fine,” he says. “It’s just a sofa.”

He turns to face the TV again, his back a little stiffer. Still, he stays in his seat, close enough that Harry can feel the warmth of his body underneath the blanket. It feels—wrong. Harry can’t remember a time when they sat on this sofa together, but so far away, separated by a foot of space that might as well be a mile.

“You could have thrown me out on my arse,” he says. “That’s what I thought you would do when I realised where I was.”

“I’m not cruel, you know,” Louis says. He doesn’t look at Harry, but the hand he’s got wrapped around his cup has gone white at the knuckles.

“I know,” Harry nods. He’s facing Louis now, though he never even realised he was moving. “That’s not what I meant, and you know that. You said our lives have nothing to do with each other, and it should stay that way. I wouldn’t think you’d want me in this house.”

Louis takes a sip of his tea. It leaves a bitter kind of smile on his face.

“I’m all over the place, aren’t I,” he says. “I just—this is too much. All of it. I have no idea how to deal with this, with you, I—“

“You know I could be gone tomorrow,” Harry interrupts, but there isn’t much heart behind it, and when exactly did that happen?

Louis looks at him. There’s something like warmth hiding in his eyes. “Would you go, though? I bet you’d stay just to be a pain in the arse.”

Harry takes the bait, and takes it so very gladly. All of this can be easier if they talk to each other, if Louis doesn’t bristle at the very sight of him.

“You’ve got me,” Harry says, throwing his hands up. “I can’t believe you caught on to my plan before I ever went through with it.”

“You never could hide anything from me,” Louis replies. “I probably knew you were in love with me before you did.” Then he stops, frowns. Sighs. “I don’t know why I fucking said that.”

Harry barely registers what he’s saying. He’s got one word stuck in his mind, playing on a loop and taking him right back to last night, putting the memories in order—love, love, love.

Louis—called him that. When he thought Harry was asleep.

This beautiful, tentative peace is shivering in the air between them, but Harry opens his mouth anyway, intent on asking why, and what game does Louis think he’s playing—

“Hello?” another voice comes from outside. It’s loud, frantic—and it belongs to Harry’s mum. “Boys, are you in there?”

Louis is immediately alert, tumbling off the sofa before Harry can register his mum’s words.

He can just see into the hall from where he’s sitting, and he watches a frantic Louis unbol, then unlock the door.

“Anne?”

“Oh, thank God,” she says as she barges in. She’s wearing her dress from last night, but her hair is in disarray, pins sticking out of what used to be a bun on the top of her head. “Harry’s here, right?”

Louis takes her hands in his, trying to calm her down. “He’s here, he’s all right, what happened?”

“I’m here, Mum,” Harry calls weakly, tangling in the blanket as he tries to get to her. There’s a million scenarios running through his head, suddenly, of whoever sent the note following mum and Robin in the car trying to drive them off the road, breaking into their house to snoop through Harry’s room— “I’m here!”

“My baby,” mum says, reaching out to pull him into a hug. He stumbles a little, but lands safely in her arms. She clutches him a little too tight for everything to be okay.

“Mum,” he mumbles into her shoulder. The world is spinning around him after he stood up so quickly, and the hangover is banging around inside his head, splitting it right in two. “Mum, what’s wrong?”

“Oh,” she says, fussing with his hair, still squeezing him. Harry grows more alarmed by the second. “Oh, Harry. “

“You’re scaring me,” he tells her, but wraps his arms around her nevertheless, rubs her back until the tremor there goes away.

“It’s the house,” she says. “Some of the—the water pipes in the ceiling, they burst while we were gone.”

Harry pulls away, blinking in shock as he looks into her teary eyes.

“But,” he says, and not much else, until he manages to get his thoughts in order. “I thought that only happened in winter?”

“So did I,” she sniffs. She seems to accept the fact that he’s out of her arms, and she puts her hands on his neck instead, looking at him from all angles like she’s checking for injuries. “I think it was mice, I—we called the plumber, and the insurance company, Robin stayed behind to wait for them but I had to make sure—“

“Oh my God,” Harry says, suddenly sick with realisation. “I wasn’t there. I could have called someone right away—“

“No,” she shakes her head vehemently. “I’m glad you weren’t, you could’ve been hurt. The damage isn’t as bad as it could be, it probably only happened a couple of hours ago.”

“But Mum,” he whines.

“No,” she repeats, firm now. She sounds less teary when she’s got someone to scold. “I don’t want to hear it, Harry. I’m glad you’re here and not anywhere else,” Harry swallows, suddenly aware of Louis’s presence right behind him, “and because you’re okay, everything else is going to be fine.”

He nods, wrapping his hands around her wrists. “What about—what about the house? How bad is it?”

She looks at him, but stays silent.

“Mum,” he says, serious. His vision is blurry, but he can still see the trepidation in her eyes. “Can we stay in it?”

Quiet, she shakes her head. “It’s our bedroom, and yours, and a bit of the upstairs bathroom. Some of it went down the wall to the kitchen, and the carpets are soaked—“

“Oh my God,” he whispers, and thinks he’s hearing double until he realises Louis breathed the exact same thing right behind him. A look over Harry’s shoulder reveals him standing with a hand over his mouth, his eyes wide. “What are we going to do?”

“I don’t know,” she shakes her head, and the tears come back. She still hasn’t let any fall, though. Harry, as always, takes a moment to be in awe of how strong she is. “We need to stay nearby, we’ll have insurance people coming by, and contractors, they said they’d need to bring in dehumidifiers that’d need to be monitored, but I really—I don’t know. It’s going to take at least two months to dry out.”

“Two months?”

She nods. “That’s still a good estimate,” she says. “They said, if it had been more serious. They said it could take up to a year. We can—I think Robin knows someone with a holiday house in Northwich, we can go stay there once it’s drying but we need to be here right now and I don’t know—“

“Anne,” Louis’s voice comes from behind them again, a little rattled but determined. “You can stay here.”

She finally lets go of Harry, and they both turn to face Louis’s slightly hunched form. Harry pulls the blanket tight around his shoulders.

“Oh, darling,” mum says, reaching out to take Louis’s hand. “I can’t ask you to do that.”

Louis shakes his head, and looks at her with a smile, his lips pressed together like he does when he wants to cry.

“You’re not asking me to do anything,” he says. “I’m offering.”

“That’s…” she looks at Harry, only briefly, and back to Louis’s face. “It’s just too much. We wouldn’t want to be a bother, and—“

“Anne,” he interrupts. “Mum. We’re family, remember?” he asks, and she smiles at him, only a little wobbly. “I probably spent half my childhood at yours, and now I’ve got this big, empty house and you need a place to stay. I’m not letting you go anywhere else.”

He looks like he’s in pain as he says it. He must be thinking of the same thing as Harry: them. Them in every corner of his mum’s house, sharing whispers, stealing kisses, laughing together as they grew up, as they slowly forgot where one of them ended and the other began.

“If you’re absolutely sure,” mum says, still hesitant. “And if it gets too much, at any point, promise you’ll kick us out.”

For some reason, she looks back at Harry as she says the last part.

“I’m sure,” Louis says, smiling. “Absolutely certain. I won’t kick you out—“ Mum takes a breath to protest, but he shakes his head, “but I will ask you to leave. Politely. Not that that’s ever going to happen.”

Mum shakes her head, and even laughs a little. “What would we do without you?”

Louis laughs right back. “Let’s never find out.”

She hugs him, then, and he hugs right back. This is the second time Harry has seen it, but it doesn’t feel any less bizarre to realise that everyone’s lives had gone on without him; that fragments of what his own life used to be are still scattered all around, even though he thought he took them all with him when he left.

It’s because of him that his and Louis’s families all but became one, but it’s despite him that it stayed that way.

It leaves a bitter kind of taste in Harry’s mouth. He steps away a little to give them a moment.

“Harry,” his mum is saying, then, and it sounds like it isn’t the first time. He looks up to see her frowning at him softly, her head cocked to the side. “Where did you go?”

He shrugs. “Thinking,” is all he says. “Sorry, what did you say?”

“I asked if you wanted to go back with me and get your things,” she replies.

It’s then, only then, that the full extent of what’s going on registers with Harry.

He’s been staying at his mum’s, where his room is now inhabitable. Louis offered them a place to stay. That means—that means.

Oh no.

The pictures on the walls seem to be laughing at him, excited to torment him every day should he agree to stay here. He doesn’t have to, he knows – he won’t be much help with the insurance claim process, and he’s got a car. He could go stay anywhere.

Except. This is the best opportunity he’s had so far.

If he stays in this house – if he’s around Louis all day, every day, if he gets under his skin, it’s a question of days before he’s got the divorce papers in hand and signed.

If he can be here all the time, as a nuisance and an uncomfortable reminder that he’s not going away until he gets what he wants, Louis will cave.

He has to.

“Yeah,” is what he ends up saying.

Louis himself is looking a little green around the edges now, staring at Harry in mild horror as he keeps a soft hand on mum’s back. This is going to be—something.

“Yeah, that’d be great. We can ride back with Peter, if you want.”

As if on cue, Peter’s looming figure appears in the doorway. He’s got a serious look on his face, clearly in the know about what’s happened.

“Good morning, Mr Styles, Mr Tomlinson,” he says, and even bows a little.

“Morning, Peter,” Louis replies before Harry can. “It’s nice to meet you in daylight.”

Peter smiles a little. Something sparks in his eye. “Likewise, Mr Tomlinson.”

“Louis, please,” he grins.

He inclines his head, “Louis.”

Harry watches the exchange with a frown. He uses the first second of silence that occurs as an excuse to move; he pulls the blanket off, folds it into a haphazard rectangle, and sets it on the nearest table. Then he grabs his mum’s hand, loops her arm through his, and starts walking out of the door.

Thankfully, Peter follows.

“So,” Mum starts when they fold into the car, fastening their seatbelts for the five-minute ride. “Would you care to tell me what you were doing sleeping at Louis’s house?”

Harry meets Peter’s knowing eyes in the mirror, and refuses to say a thing.

*

Two hours later, Harry is walking back through the door with a box. In it are his currently meagre belongings – the clothes he’s bought, a bottle of shampoo, and his notebook.

Even though the box is small enough to carry under one arm, impermanent, Louis still glares when Harry walks through the door. He doesn’t look like he’s aware that he’s doing it, though, and Harry can’t quite be bothered with him just then.

He’s a bit shaky, still, his head full of snapshots of what he just saw, of what he considers his childhood home all but falling apart. Mum is close behind him, holding on to his hand; Robin is still at the house, trying to work something out with a plumber, so the two of them are each other’s emotional support for the time being.

The house looks different, now that Harry knows he’s going to be living in it. It’ll never be the way it was, of course – he’s not at home here – but the traces of Louis all over, the memories that lurk in every corner, they all seem amplified, scarier. Ready to pounce the second he lets his guard down.

“Where can we put these, darling?” mum asks Louis, pulling him out of whatever funk he was in. He looks up, and looks a little surprised to see them there.

“Right, sorry. Either of the two spare bedrooms is fine—do you need any help?”

Mum smiles sadly. “It’s just these,” she says, lifting her own box and pointing at Harry’s, too. “We’ll get more things tomorrow, I guess, but I just don’t feel like it today.”

Harry’s heart aches when he hears the barely-masked pain in her voice. Louis’s face softens, too.

“I’m so sorry,” he says. “I really—I know there’s nothing I can really say, but if there’s anything you need, you just let me know.”

“We’re already squatting in your house, love,” she smiles. It’s genuine, too, and Harry lets himself feel gratitude towards Louis for that. “That’s more than any sane person would offer, you know.”

Louis grins. “I wouldn’t know about that,” he says, and steps out of the way to let them through. Mum goes first; when Harry passes Louis, now standing in the kitchen doorway, he gives him a look that he hopes comes across as grateful. Louis looks back, and nods.

Harry hasn’t seen the upstairs of the house yet, not since the night he snuck out five years ago. It meets him full of more memories: that corner by the landing is where his suitcase fell and burst open, and he spent ten minutes frozen in fear of waking Louis. Down there by the window is where he stood for hours, unmoving, after they came home with the bad news.

That door—that door is where their baby’s bedroom was going to be.

He barely breathes as he passes it, itchy with the desire to look inside and compare memory with reality. They’d painted it yellow and green, on a beautiful Sunday afternoon in June. Right after they sent off their very last form.

It took them hours, because they had to stop every few minutes and go back to holding each other, delirious with happiness.

They were so sure. Harry wishes he could step through the door and back in time, to tell his younger self that dreams like this never come true. That you can’t, and won’t, ever have it all.

Mum doesn’t wait for him while he hesitates, striding down the hall until she reaches the very last door. She opens it like she’s been in there dozens of times, and just walks in.

Harry’s welcome here now, or so he’d like to believe. This was his home for years; he should be even more comfortable than mum, treading right over the footsteps of twenty-year-old him with ease, because he knows this house, down to the very last square of carpet. It’s impossible, though.

Technically, he still owns half of this place. In practice, he’s never felt like more of an intruder.

He moves, finally, slowly, toward the second guest bedroom, the small one. Lottie and Fizzy used to sleep there all the time, every time they came over for dinner and then claimed they were too full to walk back home.

There’s no traces of them when Harry squeezes into the room, no half-empty bottles of product or perfume lingering in the air. It’s just a room, a little dark, a little dusty, and filled with junk Louis probably needed to forget about over the years.

The bed is free, though, and the sheets are fresh. Harry lies down gratefully; he’s only been awake for a few hours, but they’ve felt like decades.

“Are you coming down for tea?” mum asks from the doorway. “Louis said there’s sandwiches, I think.”

Harry’s stomach picks that moment to remind him that he’s yet to eat today. Maybe he could turn to self-cannibalism, just to keep from having to spend time downstairs until he comes to grips with the reality of staying here.

Louis invited you to stay, he reminds himself. He was nice this morning. He sat down next to you. You can make him think you’re friends. You can get him to sign.

Plus, mum looks dead on her feet, blinking at him tiredly in the semi-darkness.

“Yeah,” he says, getting right back up, kicking his box of stuff under the bed. “Yeah, let’s go.”

She holds on to his elbow as they descend, even though the staircase isn’t actually wide enough to fit two people. He waits for her after every step, then lets her take the lead once they’re down.

She makes a beeline for the kitchen. Harry has no choice but to follow.

“I don’t know if these are edible,” Louis is saying, his voice loud, bright. “I can’t say I’ve got a well-stocked kitchen, but I tried.”

“You didn’t have to,” mum says, just as Harry enters the room to see them leaning over a platter, smiling at each other. “Honestly. We can’t eat you out of house and home on top of everything.”

Something unpleasant rolls in Harry’s stomach when he sees Louis’s smile.

“It’s just for tonight,” Louis rolls his eyes good-naturedly. “And I’m afraid you already did. I’ve got milk and cereal, and I think that’s it.”

“You’re almost thirty,” mum tells him, getting the platter and setting it on the table. Louis covers his ears. “You’re almost thirty!” she repeats again, laughing this time. “You can’t be too lazy to cook forever.”

“Says who?” Louis asks around a mouthful of sandwich. He joins mum at the table and sits down, relaxed. “Liam cooks. I can just mooch off of him for the rest of my life.”

“Have you heard about meal prep?” she asks, wrapping her hands around a cup.

It’s only now that Harry notices those, set out around the table. He recognises his own milky one in the seat—right next to Louis.

Okay. All right. Great.

He uses the fact that they’re engaged in conversation to slink through the room as quickly as he can. He soundlessly pulls out his chair, gets a plate, and gets food in his mouth before anyone can think of asking him questions.

“I’ve heard of meal prep,” Louis is saying. “I’ve also heard of using my spare time to do better things.”

“Like what?” mum raises an eyebrow.

“Anything else,” Louis grins. “Come on, you know I’m not fussed about what I eat.”

Mum sighs, and shakes her head. “You know I always worry. I just don’t want you to starve.”

“I’m not starving, Mum, there’s restaurants. And Liam. And I cooked some soup the other week.”

“You did?” she blinks.

Before Louis can answer, though, the front door creaks open. Harry stiffens in his chair, trying to make himself as small as possible. He’s quite content being excluded from all the conversation in the room, thank you very much.

“I heard someone take my name in vain,” is how Liam enters, in a sweaty t-shirt and jogging bottoms, bearing the distinct scent of outside.

Mum looks up in surprise, then beams. “Liam! I haven’t seen you in ages!”

“Sorry, Mrs T,” Liam says, leaning into her cheek kiss but otherwise staying away, pointing at his sweaty armpits. “You know we’ve been busy, what with finishing up all the—“

“Hello, Liam,” Louis jumps in, louder than necessary. “It’s nice to see you too.”

Liam reaches down to ruffle his hair. Louis—lets him. “I was here this morning,” he says. “In fact, I think I remember you begging me to stay until—“

“Okay,” Louis smiles. The obvious, sugar-sweet fakeness of it has Harry choking on his food a little. “We get your point, Liam. Sit down and have a sandwich.”

“I’ve got to go, actually,” Liam replies, but he eyes the pile of bread on the table longingly. “I just heard about what happened, so I drove—“

He doesn’t get to finish. In a scene that reminds Harry of their previous meeting, Ernest’s blond head barrels into the room, gunning straight for Louis. Louis opens his arms automatically, and scoops his brother up before he’s got a chance to get hurt.

“Owee,” Ernest says happily, clearly meant to be a variation of Louis’s name.

“Hi,” Louis grins at him, but it’s suddenly stiff. Over Ernest’s head, he looks at Harry, and there’s something in that look that Harry can’t decipher.

At the same time, Liam catches sight of him too, hunched over his plate and hidden behind Louis. His eyes widen, and he opens his mouth to say something, except he doesn’t get the opportunity.

“Anne?” someone calls from the hall.

Harry’s blood comes to a dead stop in his veins. The food in his mouth crumbles into sand, gets stuck in his throat when he tires to swallow.

No. No.

“Over here,” mum calls, still smiling, but she does give Harry a look before she gets up and walks out.

He feels all of two inches tall.

“You should,” Louis starts, then stops. Swallows. “You should probably go hide.”

It’s just your mother, Harry wants to say, but recognises that would make him an idiot. Jay is not just anything.

He blinks, at Louis and Louis’s face, then at a wide-eyed Liam who still hasn’t moved. At Ernie, who’s unbothered and playing with the strings of Louis’s hoodie.

“I’m serious, Harry,” Louis speaks again, harder this time. “She won’t—you don’t want her to see you. Not if you’re going to leave again.”

Harry can’t quite process what that means. He’s staring at the doorway, frozen in place.

Louis pushes him; not a lot, just enough to upset his balance, to wake him up from his trance.

He puts his food down, and untangles his feet from under the chair. He leaves it all crooked as he stands up, makes his way around the table with noise after noise as he trips over chair legs and the table, then loses his balance and has to catch himself on the wall.

He’s almost there, though. It’s three steps across the kitchen until he’s safely out, until he can lock himself behind a door and—

“Ernie, are you making all that noise? What did I tell you—“

Oh shit. Fuck, goddamned fucking shit.

He freezes right in the middle of the kitchen, just reaching for the doorway. His arm is slow to come down in the thick silence that fills the room.

He’s got to turn around, he knows. He just really, really doesn’t want to.

“Mum,” Louis pipes up in a voice that’s small, but brave. “Why don’t we—“

“Harry,” she interrupts. It’s not—an acknowledgement. She’s not pretending to say hello.

She’s telling him to turn around, and he’s got enough sense, and just enough courage, left in him to do it.

He hadn’t expected to come face to face with her, he doesn’t think. This was going to be a one-day thing, a quick fix; weeks later, he’s still here, still trying to figure out what he’s doing wrong.

Staring into the one pair of eyes he really didn’t want to see.

He tries to say her name, but nothing comes out. He clears his throat and tries again.

“Jay,” he manages. His hands start shaking; he tries to inconspicuously curl them into fists.

“I didn’t know you were back in town,” she says. Her voice is ice cold. It would probably be better if she were screaming – Harry has dealt with his fair share of screamers over the years, has gotten better at defending himself in the face of anger.

But this. This, he can’t deal with.

“I. Yes. Have been for a while.”

Nobody makes an effort to tell her why, or make any sound except terrified breathing, but she probably figures it out anyway.

“I think you’ll understand why I won’t say that it’s good to see you,” she says. Ernest, who had been wiggling in Louis’s lap at the sight of his mother, stops and stares.

Harry’s cheeks, neck, chest, all of his skin, burn under the look she gives him. He digs his nails into his palms, trying to stay focused.

“Of course,” he says, bowing his head a little. He’s not strong enough to look her in the eye. He just—can’t.

Behind Jay, his mum is standing in the doorway, not making a move to intervene. He can’t blame her for sitting this one out.

He deserves this.

“Were you just on your way out?” she asks, motioning toward the arch that leads back into the hallway. It’s the first movement she’s made since she walked in the room.

He looks toward it, then back to her.

“I—yes. Would you like me to go?”

“If you don’t mind,” she replies. “I’d like to spend some time with my family.”

Harry feels every word like a punch. His stomach turns, his eyes water, and still, he can do nothing but stand there and watch as her words sink in with everyone in the room.

It feels endless, like hours and hours have passed. In reality, it must be a split second.

First, his mum flinches, and presses her lips together. She reaches out toward Jay’s elbow.

“Mum,” Louis speaks up, next, and his tone is steel-firm. “That’s not necessary.”

She looks down at him. It’s enough for Harry to be released from his spell, to take a breath that doesn’t go as deep as he’d like.

“No, it’s okay,” he says. He sounds pathetic to his own ears. “I’ll—I’ll go, I’m going.”

He doesn’t stop to take in anyone else’s expressions, doesn’t wait to hear if anyone has a reply. He just turns on his heel, sways in place, and then walks away as fast as he can without running.

He makes it up the stairs in a haze, and blindly scurries into the guest room. The door closes, but doesn’t lock, and he battles with it for a moment, terrified at the thought of anyone coming in and seeing him like this.

He has to give up, eventually.

He crawls into bed, and pulls the blanket right over his head. It smells like washing powder and nothing else, and it wipes away all scents, all sounds, the world outside this room.

It’s just Harry and his breathing, getting quicker by the second.

He doesn’t know—doesn’t know exactly what to do. He feels like throwing up, but also can’t get enough air, and his heart his pounding, his vision doubling and tripling and going back to normal.

Jay’s voice echoes in his head: I’d like to spend some time with my family.

Between one inhale and the next, his breath catches, and a lump swells in his throat. It takes seconds for the tears to start falling, quick but not at all unexpected.

Harry turns his face into the pillow, and desperately tries to shut off his mind. It’s racing, though, replaying words, memories, going back through years until he’s twenty again, standing just outside the door determined to leave.

He sees himself, his hair so much shorter, sticking up in odd places, as he pulls the suitcase down the hall. As he turns around to look at their bedroom door, and thinks he hears Louis breathing, hears him saying Harry’s name.

And he remembers, for the first time, how hard it was. He remembers how much it hurt; that he’d been crying, and trying uselessly to wipe his face with his fingers. That’s why the suitcase slipped out of his hand.

He’d thought it was a sign, back then. That the universe was telling him not to leave, and he—he almost gave in, he did.

Every time he thought back on that night later, he’d remember it as the best decision he ever made; he’d remember walking out with his head held high, never looking back, but.

That’s not how it happened.

Leave it all behind, his first manager, Mark, used to tell him, whenever Harry would bring up Louis, bring up both of them moving South while Harry gets his career going. Give yourself a clean break, you deserve it.

And he listened. Harry, because he was a fool, and in pain, and couldn’t see past the end of his own bloody nose, listened to him every single time. Kept everything secret, because Mark said Louis would try to talk him out of it. Wrote songs he never showed Louis, even though they promised not to do that. Opened his own bank account all the way in Manchester, worried somebody in the village would find out if he did it somewhere close by.

Watched Louis, who worked from dawn to dusk every single day, come and go, and somehow convinced himself that working for a living wasn’t enough. That he was better, extraordinary, meant for someone who’s achieved something in life.

Gemma is in his head, and mum, both telling him that he’s convinced himself of something that wasn’t there.

That. That he was wrong.

All this time—this whole time, he was wrong, and the truth has been staring him in the face.

It washes over him like a wave, and it breaks right over his head ice cold. He shivers. He sobs, and his chest heaves with it so much he has to take conscious control of his breathing.

He wraps his arms around his ribs, curls into himself, and cries.

Everything he’s done – every last thing – he wasn’t in the right to do. He’s the one who broke what he and Louis had, all those years ago.

He ruined it.

Louis always loved him, and loved him enough. He would’ve brought Harry the very stars from the sky if he’d only asked.

They were happy. So very, very happy, and content to live their lives here, to build a family, and to love each other for the rest of forever, just like their stupid wedding vows said.

And Harry—Harry erased all of that, with one step over the threshold.

He’s got his own life now, he knows, and he’s happy where he is. But Louis—God, Louis must hate him so much. Harry shakes when he imagines it, imagines waking up and discovering his entire world has been taken away, that something he’s known all his life is no longer the same.

Imagines facing that all alone, without Niall, without Marcus.

It makes him sick.

He turns onto his other side, coughing when he chokes on a sob. He must be making a racket; they definitely hear him downstairs, and that makes him feel even guiltier. These people’s lives no longer have anything to do with his own, and he’s more than overstayed his welcome.

He bites his lip to keep the crying inside, and tries to deal with the storm that’s unleashing hell inside of him.

Realising that you’re an absolute piece of shit is—a lot to deal with. He hopes, at least, that Jay knows he feels like dirt. He deserves it.

Time passes, he’s sure, but he has no real concept of it. He could spend years under the blanket and not know, just then.

At some point, there’s a knock on the door. Harry holds his breath.

“You awake?” Louis asks, muffled.

Louis, who accepted him in the house that used to be theirs, not once but twice, and also has yet to murder him in cold blood.

“I’m just checking that, um. That you’re all right. You know how mum is.”

Louis, who’s come up here to check on him, despite everything.

“I’m fine,” he croaks, and sounds the furthest thing from it. “You don’t have to—it’s okay.”

“Fine, yeah,” he says. The floorboards creak under him. “There’s—everyone’s gone now, if you still want something to eat.”

He doesn’t wait for Harry to reply, just walks away. Harry waits for the sound of his steps to fade before he takes a breath.

He pulls the blanket off his head, and the mirror next to the bed projects a miserable image back at him. His eyes are all but swollen shut, tinted an angry red from all the crying, and his hair is lying on top of his head in a big matted mess. He doesn’t look well enough to be among humans, but he’s so hungry, still, and the crying only made it worse.

And Louis told him – Louis specifically came up here to offer.

He tries, and fails, to stand up a few times. His legs feel wobbly, brand new, like the Harry that lay on the bed and the Harry getting up off it aren’t the same person.

The downstairs is quiet. It’s still light outside, which means Harry can’t have been in his den of self-pity for too long, but the sun has started slanting towards the horizon, painting the kitchen in shades of yellow. It looks a little like a painting, like no one’s ever lived here; at the same time, he remembers a hundred sunsets like this, cooking as the sun shone in his eyes and watching the sky turn purple in Louis’s arms.

They’re everywhere, the memories. They just seem to be waiting for the right moment.

There’s no food left on the table, so Harry opens the fridge without thinking. The platter’s still there, barely touched, and he goes straight for it. He can’t, shouldn’t, snoop around in Louis’s other food. Not that there’s much, by the looks of it.

He sits and starts shoveling a sandwich into his mouth, certain he’s alone. The semblance of peace lasts for exactly five seconds; then there’s a noise from the living room, and a very, very soft “Shit”.

Harry freezes mid-chew, looking at his reflection in one of the cupboards. He looks even worse in natural light.

He keeps chewing, slow, cautious, but nobody shows. The silence falls right back, wrapping around Harry’s shoulders blanket-soft and comforting, and he gets to finish his food in peace.

Still, now that he’s aware of him, he thinks he catches Louis’s breathing in the living room from time to time. He must be there, doing whatever he does when he’s alone, and giving Harry privacy. Harry tries to avoid thinking about how good Louis has been to him, all things considered; that way lies another bout of violent crying, and he’d like to save that for tomorrow.

Back upstairs, he gets into bed and puts on a film. Just like years ago, Dusty comes to scratch on his door, and curls up right on his lap as soon as he lets her in.

He focuses on her soft purring instead of anything that’s happening on the screen, and tries to reassemble himself back into a human being.

*

A couple of days pass. The weather gets warmer, which apparently makes the water damage specialist optimistic, and he gives mum a conservative estimate of five weeks to get the house dry.

She immediately tries to pack up and find a place to stay in Stoke. Louis has to stand in front of the door to physically stop her from leaving.

“It’s five weeks!” she shouts, but only a little. Louis holds on to her shoulders and tries to explain that it’s fine.

Harry watches the whole scene from a corner in the kitchen, hands wrapped around a cup of tea and smiling to himself. Somehow, this has already become normal.

He has to keep reminding himself that it’s temporary, that it’s a life that belongs to somebody else, a Harry who’s long forgotten now. This Harry has got a fiancé and a career to go back to. He’s been meaning to get Louis alone, to explain himself, to apologise; to finally get him to sign the sodding papers so he can leave. Once Louis knows he’s serious about saying sorry, they won’t have anything to give each other anymore. He’s stayed for far too long.

“This is the last time I’m arguing about this,” Louis is saying when Harry tunes back in. He’s laughing, though, and he looks—younger, lighter. Different from when Harry first saw him that morning by the gate. “You’re staying. I don’t want to hear any arguments.”

“But—“ mum starts immediately.

“Have I been that bad to live with?”

“Wha—no, of course not,” she frowns. She’s still got her little suitcase sitting at her feet, but she’s stopped clutching the handle. Behind her, Robin is looking up into the ceiling with a smile on his face. He doesn’t have any luggage. “And it has been nice to actually see my own cat for a change.”

Louis scratches the back of his neck. “I’m sorry,” he says. “You know I keep dropping her off at the road to yours on my way South, and I always find her back here.”

Mum shakes her head. “She always does what she wants, that cat. Just make sure you look after her.”

Louis puts an affronted hand on his chest. “Who do you think I am?”

She laughs, nods. Kisses him on the cheek, and then she’s grabbing her suitcase and pulling it back up into the guest bedroom. Louis and Robin exchange a look. For a second, Harry wishes that he was a part of it, but he did hide himself away on purpose.

He’s just—finding it difficult to take up space in this house. He’s so full of guilt, and remorse, and a whole host of other feelings he can’t name; even so much as taking a cup out of a cupboard feels wrong.

He’s made a nest in his little guest room, and when he’s out of it, he prefers to slink along walls, hoping that everyone – Louis, mostly – forgets he was ever there. It’s not the best way to live, but it’s temporary. He’s just got to—rethink his approach, and come up with some miraculous plot to get Louis to sign. And somehow, impossibly, apologise.

At least he’ll mean it this time.

Liam comes by later that night, for what is apparently his and Louis’s standing Thursday night movie date. Harry’s spent all afternoon on the phone with Marcus, and is feeling a little lonelier than usual; he manages to actually make himself ask whether he can join them, and they say yes with no obvious reluctance.

He does sit away from them, aware of the years of friendship between them that he wasn’t a part of. They’re just—piled on the sofa, really, sprawled in each other’s personal space, and Louis is trying to get mushrooms off the pizza they ordered to stick to Liam’s forehead long enough to take a picture. Liam lets him, which makes Harry smile.

He’s curled into himself in the armchair, scrolling down his Twitter feed. He hasn’t actually posted anything in weeks, and his fingers kind of itch with the incessant need to tweet a sad song lyric or something, but he manages to resist.

It’s better if people forget about him for a while, even his own fans. He’s lying low for a reason.

At the end of the day, the point is this: the three of them co-exist, and sit in the same room together. It doesn’t feel friendly, but it does feel like something. Healing, maybe.

After Liam leaves, Harry goes to the kitchen to make himself another cup of tea before bed. He can’t quite stop, now that he’s started drinking it again.

He’s trying to put the kettle on without touching anything unnecessary when Louis walks in. He smells like the outside.

“Put a bit more in, will you?” he asks, and Harry doesn’t even have time to turn to him before his body automatically obeys. He opens the tap again and pours enough in the kettle to make a few cups. “Tragically, I’ve got to stay up tonight.”

Harry turns to him carefully, bracing himself with tentative fingertips on the countertop.

Louis looks soft, relaxed, lovely. Like he hasn’t got any weight on his shoulders, for once. And he’s—talking to Harry.

“Sorry,” Harry says aimlessly into the silence, waving an arm about to indicate the whole of the kitchen.

“What for?” Louis frowns, and even that is soft.

As if there wasn’t an entire list.

“Just,” Harry shrugs. “Using your things. Being around, and all.”

Louis sighs, and presses a hand to his forehead. It’s all covered with his sleeve, just his fingertips peeking out.

“Harry,” he says, slowly, as if he were speaking to a child. “Are you apologizing for existing?”

“No,” Harry replies immediately. The kettle starts rumbling behind him, letting out steam that curls around the underside of the cabinets and rises to the ceiling. “You know what I—“

That’s when he notices that Louis is grinning. It’s genuine, but a little feral, not the soft kind of expression he reserves for people he loves.

“Relax,” he says. “You live here, at least for now. If I didn’t want you touching things, I would’ve put them away.”

“I just,” Harry starts, tracing the rim of his cup. “I don’t feel like I should be here, or—or touching things. You said our lives shouldn’t have anything to do with each other.”

Louis sighs. “You’re the one who said it first, and they don’t. We share the same space, but that doesn’t mean we live here together.”

“If you’re sure,” Harry looks at him distrustfully. “I don’t want to—to overstep, I guess. I shouldn’t be where you don’t want me to be, not after everything.”

Louis opens his mouth a little, but doesn’t say anything.

This might not have been the best way of going about apologising – or explaining that he’s realised how badly he’d fucked up and doesn’t know where to even begin apologising.

“I mean,” says Louis finally, careful, tracing a pattern in the tabletop with his fingers. “It’s a bit late for that. No offense.”

Harry hangs his head, and pretends to only just notice that the kettle’s gone off. He’s debating the awkwardness of only fixing his own cup versus fixing Louis’s and not getting it right, even though he’s done it a million times; on top of that are Louis’s measured words, the heavy reminder behind them of how he’d acted when he first showed up.

“None taken,” he says, deciding finally to get over himself and fix two cups. The milk and sugar are in the same place, always in the same place. “You’re right.”

“That’s a first,” Louis says. When Harry passes him his tea, he raises his eyebrows. “I feel like I should call this into a tabloid. Harry Styles admits ex-husband is not an idiot after all. Do you think they’d pay me?”

Harry tries to hide his flinch as he leans against the counter.

Louis said ex-husband.

“I wonder if they would,” he says, trying to carry on as if nothing happened, “seeing as they don’t even know you exist.”

“Ah,” Louis grins. “There is that.”

He doesn’t say anything else, but he looks like he wants to.

Harry looks into the milky depths of his tea, trying to find some help there, some semblance of an answer.

“I really—I’m sorry, Louis.”

Louis puts his cup down. He seems to see, at least, that Harry isn’t messing with his this time.

“Your mum, she made me realise—“

“I’m sorry about her,” Louis interrupts with an apologetic look. “I’ve been meaning to tell you. She knows I’d prefer not to have you here, but she really didn’t have to be that harsh about it.”

Harry tries, and fails, to digest his words. “I deserved it,” he says. “What she said – it’s not like she was wrong. I don’t belong here, with you, any of you. I gave this up when I did what I did.”

Louis looks at him, his features lifted in mild surprise. “You’re serious,” he says.

“Yes,” Harry says, holding his gaze for as long as he dares. “I’m sorry.”

Slowly, Louis nods. “Thank you,” he says, and seems to mean it. Harry thought he was relaxed when he walked in the room, but his shoulders droop a little lower still.

Something changes in the silence that sits between them; it lightens, like a popped balloon, no loger pressing heavily on Harry’s chest. He can hear the sounds of the trees coming from outside, and Louis’s little sniffle of a breath; the faucet as it drips into the sink, and his own heart trying to find a rhythm amongst all these things shifting inside of him.

“I’ll be out of here soon,” Harry says. He doesn’t even have to mention the papers anymore – the implication is there, clear as day. “I’ll just—let you get on with your life, yeah? Liam told me you’ve been itching to move on.”

“Liam’s got a big mouth,” Louis rolls his eyes. “Also, if this is you trying to get me to sign, you already know what the answer is.”

Harry bites his lip, trying to keep back an annoyed why. “It’s not,” he says, and it’s not even a lie. It should be his one and only goal here, but he keeps slipping, keeps getting distracted.

“I’m not sure I believe you,” says Louis, half-grinning. “I’ve moved on, Harry, the best that I could. I’d love it if you disappeared tomorrow, sure, but you being here isn’t—I don’t know. It’s not breaking my heart in two, or whatever Liam would have you believe.”

He avoids Harry’s eyes as he says it.

“But—actually. Since you are here, I want to show you something.”

Harry blinks at the sudden change in demeanour, and has to scramble to get up and follow Louis out of the door. He’s walking up the stairs briskly, brushing his hand over the picture frames as he goes in what looks like an unconscious habit.

Harry catches up with him on the landing upstairs. He’s standing right in front of the white door that Harry tries to pretend isn’t there, looking at it with his arms wrapped around himself.

“What…” Harry starts, looking him over. He looks small, but determined, standing firm, with his chin tipped up.

“You know what,” he says, quiet.

Harry shakes his head. He hugs himself too, needing something to keep him together just in case.

“You don’t have to do this,” he says.

“I want to,” Louis replies. “It’s been too long. I just—I didn’t want to get rid of it without you. That’s just stupid, isn’t it?”

“No,” Harry says immediately, reaching out to touch Louis’s shoulder before he realises who they are, where they are, and pulls back. “It’s not stupid, Louis.”

“Don’t start indulging me now,” he half-laughs, rubbing his arms. “It felt like the right thing to do, I don’t know. It’s just that—regardless of the fucked up things you did,” and Harry flinches there, can’t help himself, “this hurt you, too.”

It’s not a question, of course it’s not. They’d cried about it together, enough times for Louis to know exactly how heartbroken Harry had been.

They share a look, there in the dark corridor, that’s heavy with understanding, perhaps for the first time.

Then, Louis reaches for the handle and presses down before Harry can run.

They walk into more darkness, so close Harry can hear every one of Louis’s sharp exhales. Their shoulders brush, and they step away from each other at the same time.

Louis turns on the light. Harry almost forgets how to breathe entirely.

It’s the same. The exact same, and still empty.

The tin of yellow paint is still sitting in the corner; they left it there after they finished, ready to add some detailing to the walls after they picked the furniture, and they never thought to store it away after they received the news.

“I didn’t do anything with it,” Louis says, though that much is obvious. “I mean, I come—I used to come here all the time, but I never moved anything. Didn’t feel right.” His voice echoes in the emptiness they’ve walked into.

He steps forward, away from Harry, to run his fingers over the paint. Harry can still remember when the wall was white, and he—

“Oh God,” he mumbles, just to himself, but his voice carries and Louis turns to look at him over his shoulder.

“You remember,” he grins.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he replies, but there’s a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth.

“I think I can still see it,” Louis says, and leans close, tracing something invisible on the wall. “Right here,” he taps, and there’s laughter in his voice, it’s beautiful— “I. Heart. L.”

Harry rubs his face, trying to get rid of the violent blush in his cheeks. “’S what happens when you leave me alone with a paintbrush,” he mumbles.

Louis laughs, almost too soft to be heard.

“That was such a good day,” he says, just as softly. “We couldn’t stop smiling, do you remember that?”

He doesn’t turn to face Harry, and keeps drawing shapes on the wall.

It feels like the first time he’s so much as acknowledged that they used to be happy together.

“We just laughed the whole way through,” Harry confirms, picking his own corner to explore, remembering the paint dripping on his nose there as he tried to paint the ceiling. “I wouldn’t let go of your hand.”

“It seems so far away,” Louis says. It’s even quieter this time, but he’s come closer. “Do you feel the same way? It’s like there’s a—a decade between then and now.”

“Yeah,” Harry nods. “Yeah, I do.” He’s turning in place now, tracing every wall with his eyes, and the room that never was emerges in his memory, how he imagined it down to the very last inch.

That’s where the cot was going to be, the changing table, the toy box they were going to commission. The beautiful patterned curtains, the lampshade shaped like a giraffe, his and Louis’s handprints on the wall so their baby would always have them right there, fuck

“We never even had them,” Louis says, his voice shaking. He has to be feeling this, too. “We were nowhere near as close as we liked to think, but it still feels like we lost someone, you know?”

Harry turns to him. He wants, for a crazy moment, to wrap Louis in his arms, to offer any comfort he can to make him feel better. He’s just—small now, and he’s got things in his eyes that run much deeper than anger.

“I know,” he says instead. “I miss them too.”

This baby was going to be their new happiness, their pride and joy; it was going to give their life a new purpose. But the room is empty now, and the place in Harry’s heart where Louis, the baby, this used to reside is, too. Harry can feel it healing, scabbing over, scarring more with every second he spends in here remembering.

Louis clears his throat weakly. “Anyways,” he says. “I just wanted to show you, and let you know. I’ll probably be repainting next year.”

“What for?” Harry can’t help asking.

Louis sighs, and his shoulders droop when he reaches forward to turn the light off.

“Moving on,” he says into the darkness.

*

The next note wakes Harry up at four in the morning.

It’s not Niall calling him this time; it’s his email notifications, one after another after another, making an absolutely hellish racket.

He opens one eye, and peels the pillowcase off his cheek. They’re all coming into his work mailbox, a dozen, two dozen, three, all from an address that’s little more than a jumble of numbers and letters, all with the same subject line:

Hello.

His blood runs cold, and he immediately hides his head under the blanket. It makes him feel a little more protected.

Peter is downstairs, he reminds himself. He’s probably standing guard right now. Nobody’s here, nobody’s broken in. Everybody in the house is alive. Everything is fine.

Still, as he opens the first email, his hands are shaking. They get a little steadier when he finds nothing there, or in the next three.

Then, he thinks of scrolling to the top. The very last, fifty-fourth message, has an attachment.

I’ll tell them everything, the letters spell, red on white. There are two pictures this time, both from official events. Harry’s smiling in them, but you couldn’t tell: there’s little x’s of what looks like tape across his mouth. His eyes are scrawled out, too, undetectable underneath dark marker lines, endlessly black no matter how much Harry squints.

Tell them what, Harry doesn’t stop to think. He shoots out of bed, his knees shaking, and dashes to open the window.

“Peter!” he whispers into the dark, clutching the windowsill so hard his fingers start stinging.

“Mr Styles,” Peter’s voice whispers back not three seconds later. The automatic light downstairs turns on, and he comes to stand right underneath the window, in one piece and wholly unharmed. “What’s wrong?”

“Oh, thank God,” Harry says, the tension in his body dissipating a little. If Peter’s okay, then everything else is, too. It must be. “Can you come inside, please?”

He nods, and makes his way to the front door. Harry pulls a long sleeve over his head and runs downstairs to let him in.

He pushes through the door while Harry’s still holding the bolt chain in his hand, his back ramrod straight, eyes alert.

“What happened?” he asks immediately, phone in one hand and ready to call in reinforcements.

Harry spares a moment to thank the heavens (and Niall. Mostly Niall) for finding someone actually competent to protect him.

“I just got these,” he says, trembling uncontrollably, and passes Peter his own mobile. He watches Peter’s face get darker and darker as he scrolls.

“Is this your work inbox?”

“Yes,” Harry nods, wrapping his arms around himself. “It’s—I have no idea how they got the address, I know everyone I’ve ever given it to.”

“What about Niall?” Peter asks, now scrolling on both phones at once. “Does he give it out?”

“Not without clearing it with me first,” says Harry. “He just gives people his own for official things, so I don’t think—“

“All right,” says Peter. He taps out a text at the speed of light and sends it off. “You’ll need a new one, obviously, and you’ll have to give me your password.”

“Uh, sure,” Harry says, and looks around for something to write on. He spots a pad of sticky notes on the entryway table, and squeezes past Peter to get to it. “Will you be able to trace it?”

“I’m not sure. It’s one of those 10-minute email addresses, it’s probably self-destructed by now, but they’ve got to keep some kind of record. You’ll need the police if you want to dig that deep, though.”

“They’ve been useless so far,” Harry says, frowning. He passes his password to Peter, who glances at it briefly and pockets it.

“They haven’t had much to work with, Mr Styles,” Peter says, smiling graciously. “But whoever this is left a digital footprint, so they might have an easier time going forward.”

Harry breathes out, and closes his eyes for a minute.

“I’m scared,” he says, again. The all-consuming, abject terror he feels after every new one of these is getting worse, and only God knows what his stalker’s going to come up with next time. “I just—I don’t understand why anybody would do this. It’s been months of calls, and now these, surely if they wanted money they’d have asked for it already?”

Peter shakes his head. “Not necessarily. You’ve been laying low, the timeline doesn’t correlate with any major events in your life, so we’re probably dealing with someone quite erratic. They could be doing this for any number of reasons.”

Harry puts his head in his hands, then rubs his face, a little numb from being woken up so suddenly.

“Could you call Niall for me?” he asks. “I don’t want to tell him this, he’s going to fuss and freak me out even more.”

He feels bad for putting it that way; Niall cares, loves him, that’s why he’s going to be worried, but Harry just—can’t. He’ll give him a call in the morning.

“Of course, Mr Styles. Would you like me to stay inside just for now?”

Harry sighs in relief. “Please, if that’s all right with you. Feel free to stretch out on the sofa,” he says, and only then realises that this house is not his to invite strangers into.

But then—Peter’s not a stranger, and he’s sure Louis wouldn’t mind if he knew what’s going on.

Peter smiles again, like he knows something Harry doesn’t. “Thank you, Mr Styles. I’ll be right here, then. Feel free to go back to sleep.”

“Thanks, Peter,” Harry says, and feels exhaustion pulling at his limbs even though his heart is still racing. “I’ll see you in a few hours.”

He goes back to bed after that, and is silently grateful for how small this room is. He imagines having to go through this back at home, in his big, open-plan house on the top of a hill, and shudders.

Just for now, for a few weeks, feeling like the walls are closing in on him may not be such a bad thing.

*

Niall, naturally, almost skins him.

After Harry assures him he’s fine, he still insists on getting in touch with a security company in Manchester and linking them up with Peter, just in case.

Harry doesn’t fancy going out much, from then on – he goes with mum to oversee the dehumidifiers being put in the house, and accepts Gemma’s invitation to dinner when she drives down for the day, but he feels jumpy out there, in the midst of all the woods and open fields. He’d be an easy target, if someone decided—

“Hi Harry,” Liam trills when he comes in, clearly in a good mood. Harry raises his head off the sofa, where he was attempting to read a book, and blinks in surprise.

“Um. Hello,” he finally manages, taken aback. Liam’s been lukewarm to him at the best of times. “What are you doing here?”

He could ask you the same, his brain reminds him. You’re a guest just as much as he is.

“Just picking up Louis,” he says, and comes over to sit on the far end of the sofa. He’s wearing a smart shirt, buttoned almost all the way up, and his cologne drifts all the way across the room.

“Special occasion?” he asks mildly, trying to mask his curiousity.

“Not really,” Liam shrugs. “Just have a really important meeting, we were talking with this—“

“Liam,” Louis interrupts, shouting from halfway down the stairs. “Light of my life, fire of my loins, apple of my eye. Shut your bloody mouth.”

Harry bristles, but refuses to show it. He’s got no right to know Louis’s life; he knows this. Has only gone over it in his head about sixteen thousand times.

“Nice to see you too,” Liam says with a roll of his eyes. He stands up just in time to catch Louis in a hug, and mumbles something into his ear that Harry has no chance of catching.

Louis’s eyes land on Harry when they separate.

Harry watches him, involuntarily looks him over, and realises that he, too, is made up as if he was going somewhere. His hair’s arranged around his face perfectly, golden in the morning sunlight and framing his face like it’s a painting.

“Morning, Harry,” he says, open. “Bye, Harry.”

Then he walks out of the door.

It makes Harry laugh, despite himself. He waves goodbye to both of them, and takes a minute to watch them through the window.

The white Clio is parked out front, a little dirty from the rainstorm they had a couple days ago. Liam pats the hood of it as he passes and gets into Louis’s car, the imposing black one. The sun glints off it as it rolls slowly down the driveway and disappears from sight.

It’s a beautiful, beautiful day outside. Peter’s out on the front lawn, lying on the ground shirtless with sunglasses on. He spots Dusty, too, stretched out on top of the fence and sunning herself.

Bright spots dance in his vision when he looks away and back to his book. He can barely read the letters now, in the relative comparative dimness of the living room.

“Come on,” he says to nobody in particular, shaking his head at himself. Then he gathers his things, steals a pair of sunglasses that’s lying on the coffee table, and walks out of the house.

“Mr Styles,” Peter grins as soon as he sees him, now sitting up with his head tilted back. He’s wearing a pair of violently green shorts, and matching trainers. “It’s nice to see you out here.”

“I figured I should show my face,” Harry replies. He dusts off one of the loungers lined up on the grass and carefully stretches himself out on it. “I’ve been complaining about missing the sun, so there’s no excuse for me to stay inside.”

Peter gives him a thumbs up, which makes Harry smile. Then he leans back and looks up at the sky, blue and remarkably cloudless. He feels comfortable as soon as the sun touches his skin.

He happily gets lost in his book, content in feeling safe.

It’s about an hour later that a big black car rolls up the drive. Harry doesn’t pay it any mind at first, just assumes that Louis and Liam are back, but in the corner of his eye, he sees Peter stand up.

Over the top of his book, he tries to get a peek at what’s happening.

It’s in that same moment that the car door opens and—Marcus steps out.

Harry scrambles to shut the book so fast it almost falls on his face. He tosses it to the side without thinking, gets to his feet, tries to check himself over for any visible traces of—of Louis, of anything that would give him away.

Marcus hasn’t spotted him yet. He’s standing in a pile of dirt, soft from last night’s rain shower, in a shiny pair of trainers and the jeans Harry bought him the last time they went to Malibu together.

He looks out of place, painfully so. Harry still can’t help the relief he feels when he sees him, barely noticeable as it is through the panic.

Peter’s walking out to meet him now, relaxed but brisk.

“Mr Ward,” he calls, waving. Marcus stops looking around and lifts his sunglasses with a grin. Harry smiles back, involuntary.

“Peter!” he says, and pulls Peter into a one-armed hug. Harry fusses with his hair, dusts off his cheap clothes, and wrings his hands a little. “It’s good to see you, my friend.”

“You too, sir. I presume you’re here to see Mr Styles?”

“How’d you guess?” he laughs. “I’ve got to say, I was expecting something different.”

“It’s a very nice house,” Peter says, bless him. “You can just come right through, I’m sure Mr Styles won’t mind.”

He knows, of course, that Harry is right behind him, nervously hopping in place. Marcus is here to surprise him, so he wants to surprise Marcus right back.

“Thanks, Peter,” Harry’s fiancé says, clapping Peter on the shoulder. “Is it just this way?”

Peter doesn’t get to answer, because Marcus turns to face the house, squints, and then beams.

“Babe!” he shouts, so loud he startles a couple of birds out of a tree. Harry has to bite down to contain his enormous grin.

“Hi!” he shouts back, and jogs down the garden path. Marcus opens his arms when he’s close enough, and Harry—leaps into them, really.

“Hey,” Marcus laughs in his ear, and Harry’s entire world is suddenly the right way up, firm on its feet for the first time in a while. Marcus smells like unfamiliar aftershave, but he feels the same, his embrace firm around Harry’s shoulders. “Hey, babe. I missed you.”

“God, I missed you too,” Harry sighs happily into his neck. “What are you doing here?”

He laughs again. “Um,” he starts, splaying one of his palms wide on Harry’s back. “Surprise?”

“I’m definitely surprised,” Harry smiles. “I didn’t even—how did you know where to find me?”

“Josh did some digging for your previous address,” he says, biting his lip a little as he pulls away. “Sorry.”

“It’s okay,” Harry says, but frowns a little, trying to think of where this house could possibly be listed as his home address. He’s changed it to his mum’s on every document he could think of at the time. “How, though?”

“I wish I knew,” Marcus shrugs. “Man’s a PA and a wizard on the side, I guess.”

Harry nods, and smiles, but makes a mental note to text Niall as soon as possible. Then he locks it away in a drawer somewhere, and vows not to think about it right now, because Marcus is here. They haven’t seen each other in weeks.

“I can’t believe you came all the way here,” he says, wrapping his arm around Marcus’ waist and curling into his side.

Marcus looks down at him, squinting happily. He looks down at Harry’s mouth, and looks like he’s going to lean in for a kiss, but changes his mind and presses his lips to Harry’s cheek instead.

“So,” he says, his voice playful, but a little hesitant. “You going to finally introduce me to you mother?”

Just like that, Harry’s brought crashing right back down. His mum’s not in right now, which is a good thing, because he needs time to prepare what he’s going to say.

But more importantly—more importantly, this house isn’t his house. It’s Louis’s, and for some reason, it’s a literal shrine to their relationship even after three years. There’s wedding pictures all over the walls, for Christ’s sake.

He can’t, can’t let Marcus go inside.

“She’s out,” he says. Technically, that’s not even a lie. “But I can show you around town, if you want. I don’t know if you’ve seen any of it yet—probably won’t take more than twenty minutes.”

“I’ve seen a bit,” he says, but doesn’t resist when Harry gently steers him away from the house and back on the road. “I knew it was small, but…”

“Yeah,” Harry laughs, only a little forced. They pass Peter, who waits for a few seconds, then discreetly follows. “Great place to grow up, though. I know a lot about cows, have I ever told you?”

“I don’t think you have,” Marcus grins. “Feel free, though.”

Harry does. He goes off on a bit of tangent, tells Marcus about how he and his childhood best friend (Louis) tried to figure out if cow tipping really worked and almost got trampled to death; about how he once got to witness a calf being born, was allowed to name it, and somehow decided on Jolene (Louis was the one who came up with the name); about how brown cows live longer than spotted cows, according to a teacher he had once (actually Jay).

All the while, Peter quietly snickers behind them, and Marcus looks down at him with a smile in his eyes. They walk through the small patch of forest quickly, and emerge on the main road.

“That’s the only chippy in town,” Harry points at the door, currently propped open by a chair. “They’ve actually got good chips, though.”

Chippy,” Marcus repeats, snickering a little. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard you say that before.”

“It’s not a very common word in America, is it,” Harry rolls his eyes, laughing. “You learn something new every day.”

Marcus nods, and presses a kiss in his hair. “What about that one?” he asks, holding on to Harry with his other hand as they cross the road.

Harry doesn’t even have to look to know the door he’s pointing to.

“That’s the pub,” he says, only sparing it a passing glance. He doesn’t want to so much as think of what happened the last time he was there. “It’s where people usually end up being if you can’t find them for a while.”

Poob,” Marcus teases. He narrowly avoids the swat that Harry aims at him. “Is that the only one of its kind too?”

Harry sidesteps to allow an older woman to pass. She’s the only one on the street beside them, but the nasty look she gives them is enough for five other people.

“Yeah,” Harry says, frowning after her. “Barb’s used to sell booze, but they lost their license, apparently.”

Marcus shakes his head, a permanent grin on his face as he takes in their surroundings, the empty streets winding around them as they make their way to the square.

“I can’t imagine growing up here,” he says. “And making it to where you got, I mean—wow, Harry.”

Harry fights a few different emotions at once. One side of him wants to blush, but the other – the other is thinking about how comfortable he’s grown here in the past few weeks.

“I just got lucky,” he says in the end, shrugging a shoulder. “I got scouted off Soundcloud, it could’ve happened to anybody.”

“But it happened to you,” Marcus says, poking him in the cheek. “And then you happened to me.”

This time, Harry does blush.

“Which reminds me, I brought something with me,” Marcus continues, and reaches into his pocket.

He pulls out a familiar box and rests it in the middle of his palm, unassuming. They’ve stopped right in the middle of the empty square; Harry thinks he can see someone watching from a shop window just over Marcus’ shoulder. As if reading his thoughts, Peter comes closer and blocks their view.

“I figured,” he says, and suddenly gets adorably shy. “I mean—you said you didn’t want to wear it until you told your family, and I figured if I met them, you could finally put it on.”

Harry takes the box, carefully wrapping his fingers around the smooth fabric. He opens it to a familiar sight – the ring has a smooth shine to it in sunlight, a beautiful, steely silver. He had worn it, along with his many other rings, until he had to leave for England. He misses the heavy, reassuring touch of it around his ring finger.

“You’re right,” he smiles, touching the white lining of the box. “You know what? I’ll just put it on now.”

Marcus wraps a firm hand around his wrist. “Are you sure?”

“Of course I’m sure,” Harry grins, and to demonstrate his point he plucks the ring out and slides it on. It settles comfortably right against his knuckle. “Just as pretty as I remember.”

“Hmm,” Marcus says, smiling. “I’d say manly, but I guess pretty is all right.”

“Shut up,” Harry laughs, and pockets the box. He takes Marcus’ hand again, fingers between fingers, and they go back to walking. “How was the retreat?” he thinks to ask. Marcus had been tight-lipped about it on the phone, told Harry he’d drag out all the details when he saw him in person, because they thought it’d be happening soon.

“Oh,” Marcus says, and his smile falls a little. Harry squeezes his hand in surprise. “It was okay, yeah. I wrote a couple of songs.”

“Sounded like a lot more over the phone,” Harry says. Marcus had called one more time before he went back to LA, again with a ton of voices in the background, and said that writing was going great.

“I ended up having to scrap most of them,” he shrugs, and looks away, watching the church as they pass it. “We got a bit too high on a few nights, just ended up with nonsense.”

“I’m sure they were great songs,” Harry smiles a little. He misses being at home with all the instruments they’ve amassed between the two of them, shooting songwriting ideas back and forth. Marcus writes lyrics that don’t usually fit into Harry’s melodies, but his music is always excellent. “Will you show me when we get home?”

“Course I will,” he replies, smiles, and tucks a strand of Harry’s hair behind his ear. “I’ve been meaning to talk to you about that, actually.”

Harry frowns. “Songwriting?”

Marcus laughs; shakes his head. “Going home.”

Harry instantly feels even guiltier. He’s been here for so long now, selfishly taking his time, doing anything other than working on getting the papers signed. And he’s been lying on top of it all.

“It’s been ages, I know,” he says. “And you’ve been so understanding, I can’t even tell you how much I appreciate that—“

“Harry,” Marcus interrupts. “You haven’t seen your family in three years, and I get that, I do. But you—you wanted to plan our wedding, didn’t you? And I miss you so much, the house is too lonely without you.”

Harry bites down on his lip until he all but tastes blood. “I know,” he says, and “I’m sorry. I—I’ll have to convince mum to let me, but I promise I’m going to leave as soon as I can. I miss you too, you know.”

Marcus stops, and kisses him; a soft, quick, dry press of lips. Harry smiles into it.

“I know you do,” he says. “That’s why I’m here.”

They don’t talk much more after that, except for Harry chiming in with a fun fact about this building and that shop, or a memory of something he and Louis did down that street that landed them in trouble. Marcus smiles through all of it, listening, and Harry wakes something up in himself – a nostalgia, a softness of sort, an affection for his dinky hometown he thought was long gone.

Unfortunately, dinky as it is, it doesn’t make for a very long walk. They reach the end of the main street soon, and with it the sign that announces they’re leaving Holmes Chapel.

“It’s so small,” Marcus wonders as they turn around and head back.

“You already said,” Harry replies. “I don’t know, it’s—you’re just used to it when you’re growing up here. You don’t really know anything else.”

That could apply to a few aspects of him growing up here, really.

“The New York kid in me is horrified,” Marcus laughs.

Harry doesn’t say anything, just squeezes his hand and tries to slow their pace down a little.

He has no choice but to take Marcus back to the house. He can’t pretend his mum has moved, because Marcus essentially found him sunbathing in the front garden, but he can’t take him inside. The walls are full of memories of a life that Harry never lived, as far as his fiancé, the media, anyone outside of this village, is concerned.

Marcus here help, he texts Niall in an opportune moment, typing in his pocket, mostly from memory.

What do u want me 2 do???? Niall texts back almost instantly.

That’s the issue, isn’t it – whatever trick Harry uses to get Marcus away, it’ll only be more lies on top of this already wobbly house of cards.

Idk, he says, and locks his phone. He’s alone in this one.

Walking up the road and past the open gate, he sees both mum and Robin’s cars parked in the front. There’s no way to avoid them.

“Oh,” Marcus says, spotting the same thing as Harry, and lets go of his hand to fix his collar and rearrange his hair. He doesn’t look particularly nervous, just a little uncomfortable. Harry thinks that might be a good thing. “What’s her name again?”

Harry laughs a little, and helps him smooth away a stubborn wrinkle. “Anne, but she’ll probably insist you call her mum. Robin’s her husband.”

“Your sister’s not here?”

Harry is strangely warmed by the question. He doesn’t mention his family often, in personal life or in interviews, so the fact that Marcus remembers makes him smile.

“Oh, she’s a Manc now,” he smiles.

Marcus squints.

“She lives in Manchester,” Harry clarifies, with a laugh. He considers being really loud, to alert his mother to the fact that his fiancé, whom she’s never met, is standing outside preparing to come face to face with her.

Then, his gaze falls on Peter, lingering a little ways away, just by the treeline. All he needs is one pleading look from Harry, and then he’s moving soundlessly, slinking into the house without being noticed.

Harry’s going to give him a raise as soon as they’re home.

“Any topics to avoid?” Marcus continues, eyeing the house distrustfully.

“Nothing outside the usual ones,” Harry shrugs. “She’ll talk your ear off about anything and everything, you’ll see. If you want her to really like you, maybe mention the cat.”

“She’s got a cat?”

“Dusty,” Harry nods, still standing in place. He hopes Marcus doesn’t notice. “She’s the family cat, technically, but she was mum’s baby after Gemma and I both moved out, so they’ve got, um. A special relationship.”

“Gotcha,” Marcus grins. He looks ready now, shifting in place. Harry probably can’t put this off any longer. “Hey, babe. Are you nervous?”

Harry pulls his hand away from his face, and realises he was about to start biting his nails.

“A little bit,” he admits. He is, but for all the wrong reasons. “You know how it is.”

“I promise I’ll be on my best behavior,” Marcus replies, taking Harry’s hand back in his. “Come on.”

And then he leads the way to the front door, pulling Harry behind him like a puppet. He knocks before Harry can tell him not to, and there’s a commotion inside; mum unsubtly whispers something, Dusty meows, someone walks heavily up the stairs.

Thankfully, Marcus doesn’t seem to notice.

Finally, the door creaks open. Mum’s face emerges from the shadow of it smiling; her lips are a little tight around the edges, but a stranger wouldn’t know the difference.

“Hello,” she says, showing her teeth.

“Mrs Styles,” Marcus says, quite excitedly, and Harry bites his lip at the blunder. That’s his own fault; he should have made sure that Marcus knew. “Hi. I’m Marcus, uh, Marcus Ward? I’m Harry’s fiancé, but I’m sure he’s mentioned me by now.”

She would have normally interrupted anyone else, always uncomfortable to see people flustered, but she lets Marcus finish, and then fidget for a bit. Harry frowns at her, and tries to be subtle about it.

“Marcus!” she says. “Of course, I’ve heard so much about you. Call me Anne, please dear, and come in.”

“Anne,” Marcus bows a little, grinning once he realises that she’s not going to bite him. He takes her invitation, and again goes first right into the hall. Harry silently prays that his mum is standing somewhere strategic, blocking his view of the pictures.

He ignores how wrong he feels as soon as he closes the door behind him, and tries his hardest to focus on keeping his lie alive.

“This is a beautiful house,” Marcus compliments. Harry can’t hide a flinch, but his mum handles it with grace.

“Thank you very much, love,” she says, patting Marcus’s forearm.

She’s being so polite. Too polite.

“Would you like something to drink?” she asks, leading him into the kitchen by the arm.

It’s then that Harry has the wits to look around, and realises why something felt off: the wall in the hallway, all the way to the staircase, is almost empty. If he looks closely, he can see the faint outlines of where the pictures used to be, left there by dust and sunlight.

At the end of the hall, Peter is standing with a pile of frames in his arms.

Harry is—horrified. Ashamed, most of all. This is Louis’s house, and nobody but him should be touching these things; least of all Harry, even if indirectly.

“Thank you,” he whispers to Peter, who nods, but the usual smiley spark in his eye isn’t there. It makes Harry feel even worse.

By the time he gets in the kitchen, Marcus and his mum are chatting away. They seem perfectly friendly, but Harry is an expert in both of them: he sees the tension in Marcus’ back, the too-tight grip his mum has got around the handle of the kettle.

He understands why she doesn’t like this, but Marcus—Marcus seemed to be looking forward to it.

“I’ve never had tea with milk,” he’s saying when Harry sits down and scoots his chair closer. His skin itches. This is where Louis sat this morning, scruffy and sleep-soft and reading a newspaper.

“I don’t think I’ve ever had tea without,” Mum laughs, only a little stilted. “There’s nothing like it in the morning.”

She brings over a couple of cups, both pale, milky the way Harry likes his. He grits his teeth for a moment, remembering just how much Marcus hates putting unnecessary fat in his body, but he does the polite thing and takes a sip anyway.

His eyebrows shoot up.

“This is great, Mrs—Anne. I don’t know what I was expecting, but I—I like this?”

He actually sounds surprised, and it draws the first genuine laugh out of mum. Harry dares to relax a little bit, just at the top of his spine, still hyperaware of every sound and movement in the house. God knows where Louis and Liam went – they could be here any minute, and Harry doesn’t think he’d make it through that particular meeting.

“I’m glad to hear that,” Mum says, now genuinely smiling. She’ll like Marcus, Harry thinks, and it helps slow down his whirring mind.

She produces a plate of biscuits, gives them all a few more minutes of sipping and polite chat, and then proceeds to the interrogation. Harry flashes back to the time she did this to Louis, even though she’d known him his whole life—and then immediately returns to the present.

That is not a good thing to think about right now.

“So, Marcus,” she smiles, crossing her legs. “What brings you here?”

“Well, mostly I missed my fiancé,” he grins, putting a possessive hand on Harry’s thigh. Harry flinches for about a dozen reasons. “But I also really wanted to know where he came from. He never talked about this place much, just said that it was a small town, but he never mentioned how charming it is, or how nice his mother is.”

Harry squeezes his thigh. Too much, he tries to say, but he’s not sure he succeeds.

Mum looks down at the compliment. She doesn’t say thank you. “Do you like it?”

“Here, you mean?”

She nods, watching him closely over the rim of her cup.

“I do. It’s not something I’ve ever experienced, being from a big city and all—“

Oh, which one?” she interrupts.

It’s probably a good thing; Marcus would have gone on about how small Holmes Chapel is, probably made a joke about the only pub in town. The idea of living here is genuinely incomprehensible to him, but mum has a huge soft spot for it.

“New York City,” he grins, immediately in his element. “I’m sure every New Yorker tells you this, but it’s just incredible. So many different people in one place.”

“I imagine it’s a bit different to the way it is here,” she nods. “We all know each other by name.”

“Everyone?” Marcus asks, his eyes a little wide.

“Well, most people. The older you get, the more faces you recognise.”

Harry tries to tell him not to go for the joke, but he doesn’t make it in time.

“You must not know very many people then,” Marcus says, grinning. Harry’s in love with an idiot.

It takes mum a minute, but when she gets it, she bursts into laughter. Harry stares at her, bemused.

“Tell me, Marcus,” she says, still giggling, “where has Harry been hiding you?”

Mum,” Harry interjects, finally. “Please.”

“I’m just asking,” she shrugs, and gives him an incredibly loaded look. “He’s lovely.”

Anne,” Marcus says, and puts an exaggerated hand on his chest before Harry can fully decipher her tone. “Thank you so much. I—that really means a lot to me.”

She smiles at him, small. A little bit sad. Thankfully, he doesn’t catch that.

“I’m glad my son’s found you,” she says. “But I’m afraid I’m going to have to be part of the wedding planning now, to make up for all the time I spent not knowing about this.”

She looks at Harry while saying the last bit, still meaningful, trying to tell him something.

“That’d be wonderful,” Marcus says, smiling. “Harry’s got all these cake tastings and things lined up, we should fly you out to join him!”

“You’re not going?” she asks.

“No,” he shakes his head, still with a smile. “It’s not really my thing, and I don’t have very good taste, you know? I wouldn’t want to ruin Harry’s special day by insisting on some godawful meal we should put on the menu.”

“Right,” she nods, smiling a little, but her gaze has turned calculating.

Harry thinks he might need to interfere in this conversation.

Before he can, though, mum rapidly changes direction. “How long do you think you’ll be staying?” she asks. Harry’s back to not being able to read her. “I’m sure Harry would love to show you around Cheshire, not just the village.”

“I’d love that,” Marcus says, with a hint of tightness around his eyes. He hasn’t forgotten their conversation, that’s for sure. “I’m not sure how long, though. I sort of—came over without arranging a place to stay.”

Harry fidgets in his seat, and gives his mother an apologetic look that she ignores.

“I’d love to offer you to stay with us,” she says, and actually looks sorry, “but we’re having some works done on the house, and we just don’t have the space. Harry’s room is the size of a closet at the moment.”

Harry’s sure they could fit somehow, even on the flimsy single bed, but they’re both used to being able to take some alone time. Cooping them up somewhere small would probably lead to a disaster.

And, of course, this is Louis’s house. He’s already doing too much by letting Harry stay.

“No, that’s okay,” Marcus rushes to reassure her. “I’m sure there’s a hotel close by.”

“I can go and ask my husband, actually,” she says, and makes to get up. “He might know a place.”

“That you would be wonderful, thank you, Anne,” he grins disarmingly, and she smiles back.

It’s only once she’s left the room that Harry realises that his hands had been curled into fists this entire time. He loosens his fingers quickly, hoping Marcus didn’t see.

“She’s great, H,” Marcus beams at him. “Do you think she liked me?”

“I think you did great,” Harry says, and pecks him on the cheek. “She’s very protective, usually, so I think this was a good start.”

Marcus beams again, and takes a drink of his tea. Harry slumps into his side, resting his chin on Marcus’ shoulder and looking out through the window.

He hasn’t even realised, but it must be evening already: the sky is turning purple at the edges, and the moon hangs low and bright above the horizon. It’s almost full, only missing a little piece.

Marcus wraps an arm around his shoulder, and bumps their temples together. Harry tries to reconcile the familiar warmth, the scent of him, with the place he called home for so many years.

That is, of course, when their little tranquil moment is burst wide open.

Harry has about half a second to prepare – he’d been nodding off, and it takes him a while to get his bearings back. That’s—Louis’s voice just behind the door, laughing at something, and Liam’s deep rumble of a laugh answering him. Harry’s heart is in his throat by the time the key rustles in the door.

“Babe?” Marcus asks, confused, but then realises that someone has entered the house. He’ll just think it’s nervousness, hopefully, as long as Harry manages to not fucking pass out

“Ah. Hello,” Louis says, suddenly standing in the doorway like an apparition. He’s got one eyebrow raised, snarky, and is eyeing them carefully. Harry can’t help pulling his chair away a little, hoping Marcus won’t notice the sudden space between them.

This. This was never supposed to happen, and Harry cannot breathe.

Marcus, to his credit, takes the intrusion in stride. “Hello,” he says, getting up with his hand already outstretched. Louis shakes it, but he has to look up to look Marcus in the eye.

He must hate that.

Over Louis’s shoulder, Harry spots Liam standing in the hall, arms crossed and very obviously furious. It spurs him into action, too.

“I’m Marcus,” Marcus is saying, blissfully unaware of the fact that he’s a landmine, and Louis has just stepped on him. “Harry’s fiancé.”

It’s in that moment that Harry reaches his side, and he doesn’t see Marcus’ arm coming to rest around his waist until it’s too late.

He squeaks a little as he’s pulled into his fiancé’s side, and finds it so very, incredibly difficult to meet Louis’s eyes. He should be making this introduction, but he’s—scared, and uncomfortable, and all wrong.

“Louis,” says Louis, smiling pleasantly. His eyes are cold, but he—he doesn’t look angry.

Harry bites his lip, and fights to keep his eyes open. This is where Louis can ruin him with a single word. He watches him as he takes a deep breath, his eyes wide.

“I’m, uh. A childhood friend,” he ends up saying. He hesitates, in the middle, but he’s still perfectly convincing. Marcus smiles at him.

“Well, it’s nice to meet you. Harry doesn’t talk about childhood friends much, do you?”

He nudges Harry in the side. In that particular moment, Harry kind of wants to die on the spot. His skin feels hot to the touch; his temples are pounding, and every breath he takes is shallower than the last.

“I guess not,” he manages to wheeze out. A single drop of sweat slides down his back, absolutely agonizing. “Don’t want to ruin the element of surprise.”

Marcus laughs. Louis—does not. Behind him, Liam makes a strangled noise and stomps away.

“Typical,” says Louis, and rolls his eyes in a half-convincing way. “It’s nice to meet you as well, Marcus. Did you come all the way from LA?”

Harry looks around, trying to think of some way to escape.

“I did,” Marcus is saying, still gracious in the face of all these questions, all the new people. “I wanted it to be a bit of a surprise.”

“Ah,” Louis raises his eyebrows. “Is that why he didn’t mention you’d be coming.”

Maybe the ground could open up and swallow him, just so he wouldn’t need to find a way out of this mess.

As if on cue, mum skips back down the stairs. Harry has never been more grateful to see her.

“Hi Louis,” she grins, and then turns to Marcus. “Robin says he knows a little hotel in Stoke, that’s about a twenty-minute drive?”

“Oh, that’d be great!” Marcus replies. “Thank you so much, Anne.”

“No worries,” she smiles, tight. “One of us can go with you, if—“

“No, no, I’ll go,” Harry jumps in. There must be air outside that’s actually breathable, right?

All his lies have come to the surface at once, wrapping around his neck like snakes, choking him until he’s got spots dancing in his vision.

“I’ll get you the address, then,” mum says.

“And I’ll go start the car, actually. I’m really not used to everything being on the opposite side,” says Marcus, rubbing Harry’s arm.

“All right,” Harry smiles at him, and all but pushes him outside.

He shakes Louis’s hand again, waves goodbye to mum, and slips out of the door. The second it snicks closed, Harry’s got a pair of eyes burning on the back of his neck. He doesn’t think it’s mum, who did actually go upstairs to get the address off Robin, which means—

“So,” Louis says. His voice instills an unearthly kind of fear in Harry.

“I’m sorry,” he’s saying before he’s even turned around, heart in his throat. He feels sick, so very sick to his stomach. “Louis, I’m so sorry, I swear I didn’t know—“

“I believe you, relax,” he cuts in, hands held out in front of him like he’s worried Harry might collapse. “I know.”

He’s—not acting angry? Harry’s head hurts.

“I didn’t know,” he repeats again, struggling to put words together. “He just showed up, and I—I don’t—“ he stops talking after that, because he doesn’t have enough air.

“Jesus Christ, sit down,” Louis says, pulling out a kitchen chair and rushing to him to stop him from falling when he sways in place. “Harry,” he says, but it sounds like he’s behind a wall somewhere. His skin burns on Harry’s, strong fingers clutching his shoulders.

“Harry!” he shouts this time, and the sound breaks all the way through to Harry’s ears. He blinks, and sluggishly lifts his eyes.

Oh, he’s sitting down. He hadn’t noticed.

“You’ve got to breathe, do you hear me?” Louis is saying. Harry’s heartbeat seems louder than his voice. “Harry. Can you breathe in?”

He frowns. He should be, he thinks, but when he tries, he meets a wall. A little trickle of air makes it in, and not much else.

Frantic, he shakes his head, trying to blink the spots out of his eyes. Louis is a blur, and so are his hands, reaching out toward him. He tries to grab one, but he misses.

“Oh my God,” Louis is mumbling. “Oh my God, Jesus. Your hand—give me your hand. Harry.”

Harry lifts one, too focused on breathing with the minuscule amount of oxygen that gets through to his lungs. It’s only when Louis touches it with cold palms that he realises his fingers had been curled in, tense.

“I’m gonna—oh fuck it, you can’t even hear me, can you?”

Harry makes a noise of protest. Then, his entire world is jostled as Louis pulls him closer, and puts Harry’s hand—on his chest? There’s skin, warm, soft skin, and bones underneath that rise and fall like waves.

“Right, can you feel that?” Louis asks, or so Harry thinks; his words all bleed together, becoming senseless noise before they reach Harry’s ears. “Just—breathe with me, come on.”

Harry tries his best to focus, feeling the tide of Louis’s breathing in his fingertips. It’s slow, controlled, even though underneath his heart beats like a drum.

In, Harry thinks, feeling it rumble in Louis’s chest. He tries to mimic the movement, ever so slow, and finds that the wall has disappeared. The air tingles in the tips of his fingers, tastes sweet on his tongue. Out.

His vision clears, like a cloud being blown away by wind, only a little blurry around the edges. He’s looking at Louis’s brand new trainers; they’re bracketing his own feet, just resting haphazardly on the floor like they’re not even attached to him. He can just see his own reflection in the tile, the hair that looks much messier than it did minutes ago.

In, he reminds himself, and it feels cold this time, like he’s breathed in a handful of snow. The busy humming in his ears starts dissipating; out.

In. Out. Louis laughs in relief. It’s the first sound that Harry hears in sharp, crystal clear quality.

He doesn’t move an inch, not until the world comes to a complete stop, concrete and full of noise once again. Then, he looks up at Louis.

He’s got red spots high in his cheeks, his eyes wide, a little too shiny for the low light here.

“Shit,” Harry says, and that seems to be a signal for Louis to drop his hand like he’s been burned. Harry won’t, can’t, admit that he misses the warmth underneath his fingertips.

“It’s been a while since we’ve done one of those,” Louis says, turned away from him, curled in as if he was shielding himself. He pulls out a chair and sits down. “Fuck, that was scary.”

Harry doesn’t know what to say. “I’m sorry,” he says, and remembers, now, the very same feeling of brittle bones cradling breath: when they were kids, when they were teenagers, when mum attempted to teach Louis how to deal with the panic attacks even though he already knew. “Jesus, I’m sorry. I thought—I thought these were gone.”

“Really,” Louis says. He’s looking into the wall in front of him.

“I haven’t had one in years,” he says. “Not since—um.”

Finally, Louis turns around. He lifts a single, tired eyebrow, waiting for Harry to go on.

“I had one the first time I performed live. It was terrifying, you can’t even imagine.”

He kicks himself pretty much immediately. Louis can’t imagine, because Harry abandoned what was going to be their career.

“Sure can’t,” Louis mumbles, clearly thinking along the same lines. “Nothing after that, though?”

“Not that I remember,” Harry shakes his head. “I just got used to high-stress situations, I suppose.”

Louis nods, biting his lip until it’s gone white. Then he leans forward, closes his eyes, and presses his wrists to his face. His hands are shaking.

“I was going to yell at you,” he says, a scary, trembling rush of breath. Harry wishes he could touch him, could steady him the way Louis just did for him. “I was going to—fuck, Harry, why do you always have to be so dramatic?”

Harry laughs, but only a little, self-conscious about it when Louis clearly isn’t okay.

“I’m so, so sorry,” he says again. “I don’t think I can ever say that enough, and you covered for me as well—“

“I didn’t want to make a scene in my own house,” he says, putting emphasis on the last two words. “Besides, your mum called me. I had time to get prepared.”

Harry blinks. “She did?”

“Of course she did,” Louis rolls his eyes, but it’s not mean, just—tired. “She wanted to know if I’d be okay with taking the pictures down for a bit.”

Harry had completely forgotten. When he looks out into the hall now, he’s greeted by a near-empty wall where his own happy face used to be. Louis was holding on to those photos, for some reason, and Harry just—Harry keeps turning his life upside down, still, even though he vowed to be gone from it years ago.

“I’m sorry,” he says again, whispers it this time. “I’ll try—I’ll do my best to keep him away from here. He can’t be in this house.”

It’s just this side of too harsh as it comes out of his mouth, but it’s only aimed against himself. This – all of this – is his fault.

“I’ll—maybe I’ll just go back to LA with him. He was badgering me about it anyway.”

Louis looks him in the eye, his expression mild. He only holds Harry’s gaze for a second, then slips away, watching the hand Harry’s reached up to rub his eye.

He freezes, and looks at Louis quizzically.

“You’ve got a ring now,” Louis says, inclining his head to indicate the band around Harry’s finger.

“I’ve always had a ring,” Harry says, clasping the hand with his other one to hide it. It’s—wrong, somehow, to let Louis look at it. “I just didn’t want anyone to take pictures before I sorted this.”

Louis frowns. “This, you mean?” he throws his arm out to encompass the kitchen, the house. “The life you threw away?”

“You know that’s not what I meant,” Harry rubs his forehead, anxiously looking out of the window. Marcus’ car is standing started in the driveway; he’s leaning against the passenger side of it and – oh, thank God. Talking to Peter. “It’s been a long day.”

“Tell me about it,” Louis says, dropping the frown and looking down at his hands instead, wringing and twisting his fingers until they go white at the knuckles. “Listen, I—why don’t you just go now, he’s not going to wait forever. We can talk tomorrow.”

Harry’s breath catches so suddenly he almost thinks another panic attack is coming on. “About what?” he asks.

Louis gives him an empty look. “The papers, I guess,” he says. His voice instantly saps all of Harry’s excitement. “Just—not now. I can’t quite look at you, I’m sorry.”

“No, that’s—thank you, I’ll go, I—thank you, Louis,” Harry trips over himself to say, standing up and stumbling in place. He feels—he feels like a mess, God.

Happy, because the possibility is back on the table; he might get what he want.

Sad. Angry, because—why?

“Thanks,” Louis says, looking at him expectantly where he’s frozen in place. Harry nods, stomps on his feelings for the time being, and leaves.

He tries, desperately, not to think about Louis still sitting in the kitchen with his head in his hands.

*

The hotel Robin sends them to is more of a glorified B&B, but it’s nice enough. Marcus can’t stop calling it ‘quaint’ as he drags his suitcase up the stairs.

Harry stays the night, immensely content to be next to Marcus again, to know he’s there on the other half of the bed. He has dreams that he doesn’t remember in the morning, but Marcus looks at him with concerned eyes and holds his hand over breakfast, which means they can’t have been good.

They stick close together as they go about their morning, taking a walk around the hotel on Marcus’ insistence. He’s excited about every single vaguely English house they pass, and Harry lets him go wild with his camera while he hangs in the background.

He wishes he could fully enjoy having his fiancé by his side again, but there are too many things weighing on his mind. He’s restless.

He’s eager to end this lie, but he knows, just knows, that it’ll go over much better once he’s already divorced, and once he’s separated from Louis by an ocean and then some. He’s so close to getting there, to getting exactly the kind of life he wants. He just has to—talk to Louis, somehow, while Marcus is around.

Around noon, mum calls and invites them to the golf club.

“It’ll be fun,” she says when Harry asks why. Marcus, listening in with his head on Harry’s shoulder, nods.

“You love golf, babe. Come on,” he says.

Harry does love golf, God help him. He just doesn’t particularly like to play with his mum, stepdad, fiancé, and their pet elephant in the room.

Marcus won’t let up, though, pressing warm kisses to Harry’s cheek until he gives in. Mum gives a whoop into the phone and immediately excuses herself.

“Yay,” Marcus grins once their afternoon is sorted, still waving his phone around open on the camera. “I love to watch you play. You get so focused, it’s so sexy—“

Harry giggles, only a little. “Shut up,” he says, and takes the hand Marcus is offering.

*

Harry’s going to die.

“I’m going to die,” he tells his reflection in the mirror. There’s a cough from one of the other stalls, but nobody comes out.

It’s a good thing, too – if they did, they’d be treated to the sight of Harry Styles, world-famous popstar, multi-platinum recording artist, triple Brit Award winner, contemplating his life after he’s just lost his lunch down a toilet.

Somewhere outside, on the club terrace, Marcus and Louis are sitting across the table from each other. Alone, because mum and Robin weren’t hungry, and Harry is a wimp.

“I’m going to die,” he says again, quieter. The man in the other stall uses this opportunity to exit, muttering a quick “All right,” in Harry’s direction.

It’s cold, way too cold for a restroom, but it helps keep Harry awake and somewhat alert. He bends down, presses his cheek against the marble countertop.

His heart is racing, his blood pummeling against the constraints of his skin. Everything is so terribly, terribly wrong.

He’d really thought he could make it through today when he walked onto the green holding Marcus’ hand and saw Louis standing there. He’d thought it would be fine if he just kept himself to himself, if he ignored the overwhelming brightness of Louis’s presence; the jokes, the self-deprecating grins, the running monologue about how much he loves golf.

He hates golf. At least he used to, and Harry’s pretty sure that hasn’t changed, but Robin invited him along as a treat and a thank you for housing them all.

Of course this was the one time that Louis was incapable of saying no.

The point is, Harry is dying. A lump the size of an orange has been stuck in his throat all day, and he’s been missing shot after shot. Mum’s knowing gaze has been burning on the back of his neck, and he’s sent her many a pleading gaze, but she’d only smile at him and give him a pat on the shoulder. He deserves that, he thinks.

He looks at his watch, and immediately feels sick again. He’s been in here for almost ten minutes. Louis could’ve ruined his life in that time, if he was so inclined.

Harry takes a breath, splashes some water on his face, then changes his mind and wipes it all off with a paper towel. The door feels unnaturally heavy when he tries to open it.

Their table is in perfect view right across the restaurant; it looks so fucking idyllic, the edges of the tablecloth rippling in the breeze, the course stretching vast and green just beyond, the sky fading from white to baby blue to cerulean right overhead, a gorgeous cloudless day.

The sun lights up the ends of Marcus’ blond hair, and weaves golden strands into Louis’s. Harry’s hands are shaking as he walks to them, so slowly people at the other tables turn to look at him.

They look fine. Friendly. They’re talking, and Louis—Louis is throwing his head back and laughing, a clear, joyful sound. The floor wobbles under Harry’s feet.

“No way,” Marcus is saying when Harry comes within earshot. “Seriously?”

“Yes,” Louis says, with happy crinkles by his eyes. He takes a sip of his ridiculously expensive wine, and the sun paints bright speckles on his skin as it breaks in the glass. “Actually, I used to date a Harry too.”

And here Harry was, thinking his blood pressure was going back to normal.

In a fit of incredible stupidity, he ducks behind the terrace door to eavesdrop. He’s a terrible person already; this is just another drop in the bucket.

“I can’t believe this,” Marcus laughs in response. He’s slurring his words. “What was yours like?”

Harry can’t see Louis’s face, thank heavens.

There’s a clink, a glass being set down too close to a plate. “Wonderful,” Louis says. Harry’s heart free-falls right out of his body.

“We grew up together, you know how it is,” he keeps talking, as if every word out of his mouth didn’t feel like a knife to Harry’s gut. “Never really knew anything other than each other. I told him I wanted to marry him when I was eight,” he laughs, no longer bright.

“That sounds amazing,” Marcus replies. “It’s the kind of thing everyone dreams about, isn’t it?”

“It was,” says Louis. “Amazing, I mean. I was—yeah. Yeah, it was brilliant.”

A waiter passes by, and Harry recognises their orders on the plates. He went to the toilet right after handing in his menu.

They’re silent for a minute, except for thank yous, and quiet murmurs Harry can’t catch.

“Was your Harry anything like mine? Did he ever disappear in the middle of dinner?” Marcus asks then, with a smile in his voice.

“Not really, no,” is Louis’s reply. Harry’s heart, all the way down on the fancy tile floor, gives a single painful squeeze. “And not that I remember. He used to be quite happy to stay where he was.”

The sharp, metallic clang of cutlery. They must have given up waiting for him.

“You can tell me to fuck off if you want,” Marcus starts, and Harry instinctively tenses. “But. What happened?”

Louis gives a light, miserable laugh. He must be thinking of what to say. If there ever was a moment—

Harry pushes away from the wall, crumpled dignity and all, and walks out onto the terrace before he can change his mind.

“Babe!” Marcus calls immediately. Harry realises his eyes are burning when he moves to look at his fiancé.

“Hi,” he tries to smile, but his face feels like it’s made of plastic. “Sorry about that. I met an old friend of mum’s, he wanted to catch up.”

Louis’s eyebrows get lost in his fringe as Harry sits down, but he says nothing. He and Marcus continue to talk, going from their respective Harry’s straight to the recent rise of dance music on the radio. Harry puts in a remark here and a smile there, but for the most part, he stares from one side of the table to the other in amazement. They’re—getting along. Louis is letting them get along.

He seems so perfectly relaxed, leaning back in his chair, laughing and drawing silly shapes into the condensation on the wine bottle. He’d taken the lead when ordering it, navigating all the choices that the waiter gave him like he was an expert. Harry had been trying to figure out where he could have learned wines when his stomach decided to try and leave his body.

Marcus tears him out of his thoughts mid-meal when he takes his hand under the table.

Okay? he mouths, and Harry’s chest grows heavy with guilt. His fiancé is here after weeks of them being apart, and he’s been completely out of it this whole time.

All good, he mouths back, doing his best to muster up a genuine smile. Opposite him, Louis stares into his plate.

Later that night, after Harry has waded through the knee-deep awkwardness of saying goodbye, driven them back to Stoke, and landed face-first in bed, Marcus climbs on his back and starts rubbing his shoulders.

“Thank you,” Harry sighs into the pillows, eternally grateful.

“You’re welcome, babe,” Marcus replies, fighting a stubborn knot just below Harry’s shoulder blade. “Will you take it back if I say that I want to talk to you?”

Harry sighs, defeated. “No. Fire away.”

Marcus matches him with a sigh of his own, his hands warm on Harry’s lower back. “You’ve been really—unlike yourself,” he says. Harry barely holds back a scoff, because, yeah. “And I’m just worried, babe, you’re so tense, I feel like you were barely there at dinner today—“

“I’m sorry,” Harry breathes into the bed. “I’m sorry, I know I’ve not been giving you the attention you deserve.”

“It’s not about me,” Marcus says, laying into Harry’s back a little too hard. “I’m worried about you. I assume you’d tell me if something was wrong, and the only thing that changed is that you came here, so I can’t help wondering if—if being here is good for you after all.”

Harry wraps a loose piece of sheet around his fingers, so tightly his hand closes into a fist on its own when he pulls.

“We talked about this already,” he says, without conviction.

“I know we did,” Marcus replies, and moves to the top of Harry’s shoulders. “But I hadn’t realised how different you were. There are moments when I feel like I don’t recognise you, Harry. It scares me.”

“I’m still me,” Harry says, and closes his eyes. “I promise you that. I’m me.”

He’s piling yet another lie on top of his rickety card house – the fact that it’s still standing is a mirace.

The most frustrating thing is that he doesn’t know why—he’s the same Harry that left LA two months ago, isn’t he? The fact that he’s that Harry is what’s kept him here this long in the first place. Louis has thrown it in his face enough times by now.

“If you’re sure,” Marcus says, and runs a hand through Harry’s hair, scratches his nape. “You know that you can tell me anything, right?”

“Of course I know,” Harry smiles, with the half of his face that isn’t squashed in a pillow. “I love you.”

“Love you too,” Marcus reaches for his hand, and intertwines their fingers. “Let’s go to sleep, yeah?”

“That is the best idea you’ve ever had,” Harry laughs. He kicks his shoes off hastily, but doesn’t have the energy to do anything else. He just wraps himself in the duvet, turns to face the wall, and sinks.

*

At five in the morning, he’s awake again.

His body point blank refuses to let him rest. He wakes up to his feet moving restlessly under the sheets and a cold patch that he’s sweated into the pillow. He doesn’t remember much of his dreams, just darkness, hues of blue and red and green in-between anonymous silhouettes, and a sense of terrible, terrible unease.

He gets out of bed with sweat still drying in the small of his back. There’s a light out in the corridor that never goes out, and it sneaks in a thin line around the door. It’s a comforting shade of yellow, a reminder that outside the room, the world spins on.

“Marcus?” he tries, just in case he’d woken him up with his fidgeting, but doesn’t get an answer. He’s itching, suddenly, to talk to someone, anyone. Ideally mum, but he’s awake a bit too early for that.

He just needs—clarity. Help with figuring out what’s going on, what he should do. His heart hurts, always, bruised from falling one too many times. He wants to be done with this.

Maybe it is time to go home after all.

Harry crosses the room to the window, and cracks it open a little. The air that spills in tastes sweet on his tongue, but it’s not enough to feel it on his face – he’s got to get out.

He picks up his shoes, still discarded at the foot of the bed, and pulls them on in a hurry. His golf clothes feel disgusting by now, but he doesn’t stop to think about it, just opens the door, crosses the hall, and knocks on Peter’s door.

Peter opens it within seconds, dressed and looking perfectly alert.

“Mr Styles,” he greets, with a hint of a smile. “Is everything okay?”

“I—yes,” Harry blinks. “Sorry, I didn’t wake you up, did I?”

“Of course not,” says Peter, reaching out of view for an overshirt and then stepping out. “I assume you’d like to go out?”

Harry looks down at himself – one leg of his trousers is tucked into his sock, and his laces are undone.

“Sorry,” he says again, utterly miserable. “I’d just go by myself, but I didn’t want to leave without telling anyone—“

“Mr Styles,” Peter interrupts, putting a heavy hand on Harry’s shoulder. It feels lovely. Grounding. “Getting me was the right thing to do. I’m here to protect you, remember?”

Harry smiles a little. “I don’t think anyone’s lurking outside a bed and breakfast in Stoke.”

“You never know,” Peter says, and starts walking down the corridor. Harry follows him like a duckling, immediately more at ease. Peter doesn’t know what he’s struggling with, but he’s witnessed more than one spectacular meltdown over the past few weeks, and he’s still here, still as unassumingly calm as always.

Also, it just feels nice for someone else to lead the way.

They scurry through the dim reception and emerge into a cool summer night. The streets are deserted, as expected, and Harry’s ears fill with a pleasant hum coming from the river. His cheeks have gotten hot without him noticing – the night air feels beautifully cold on them.

“Is there anything on your mind that I can help with, Mr Styles? Are you worried about your, uh, admirer?” Peter says into the near-silence. He takes Harry by surprise, but in a good way – usually, it’s Harry who has to initiate the conversation and keep it going through awkward silences.

“Not really,” he replies, trying to figure out if that’s the truth. He sticks his hands deep in his pockets, like maybe he’s hidden all the answers there and just forgot about them. “I mean, it’s been a while, maybe they’ve given up. And if not, I’ve got you with me, so,” he smiles. The corners of Peter’s mouth curl up. “It’s just—I don’t want to bother you with all this personal baggage—“

“I’ll listen,” Peter interrupts.

Harry takes a breath, and looks around. The sky is a watercolour painting, with a haze of red rising off the horizon. It’s turned into violet where it meets the dark blue of the night, like someone married them with a brush. It’s just like something he would hang in the foyer back at home.

He curls his hands into fists, protecting himself from nonexistent cold.

“I think I want to go home,” he says, finally. Releasing the thought makes it feel much less scary. “But I don’t—I didn’t get what I came for, I might not get it at all. And mum’s only just stopped looking at me weird, I—I don’t know.”

Peter hums in understanding. He doesn’t give any of this thoughts away when Harry turns to look at him, keeping his back ramrod straight as usual, walking with hands by his sides.

“It might sound simple, but have you tried making a list?”

“A list?”

“Of pros and cons.”

Harry blinks. “I can’t say I have.”

He’ll make one, though, right now.

Pros:

• He’ll get to go home, sleep in his own bed, see his friends.
• Marcus will be happy.
• He’ll get to see Niall again.
• The myriad of things that feel wrong inside him will magically right themselves again. Probably.

Cons:

• He’s still fucking married.
• Leaving—

He stops there, reluctant to finish the thought. Leaving my family, is what he wants to mean, but that’s not what would come out of him if he were to say it out loud.

“It can help sometimes,” Peter says pensively. “Sometimes we just have too many thoughts in our heads, Mr Styles. When you put them on paper, they stop rattling up here,” he knocks on his head, “because you know you’re not going to forget them.”

“I’ve never heard you say that many sentences at once,” Harry says, smiling. “I think you’re right, though. I’ll write it all down when we get back.”

Peter smiles back at him, actually smiles, and falls into step by Harry’s side.

Unconsciously, Harry follows the sound of the water. They make their way to the riverfront just as the town is on the verge of waking up, the first commuters weaving, heads down, through the sleepy half-light.

Harry finds a bench, and stares Peter’s looming silhouette down until he relents and sits down too.

It’s quiet, still. For a few more minutes, it’s just them and the water.

“Doesn’t this remind you of home?” Harry asks, thinking of the view from his terrace. “The way the light—“

“Hits the water? Yes,” Peter interrupts. Harry raises his eyebrows in happy surprise.

“Yeah,” he nods. The river looks slow, rumbling along in happy little waves. The waking sunlight glides over the bows of them, lighting them up until they look like they’re on fire.

In LA, every day is like this. Harry’s bedroom windows all look out onto the ocean, which is little more than a bright line in the distance, but the sun ripples on top of it in the exact same way.

It’s where he and Marcus stand together, whenever they’ve got time in the morning, and just let themselves exist in perfect, complete silence.

It’s where he was standing when he first realised that he’d need to come back here.

“I think I’ll go,” he says. It feels definite, somehow.

He’ll call Louis when it’s not five in the morning, and he’ll ask to talk to him like he promised. He’ll try one more time, and then—then.

He’s at the end of his rope anyway. There’s nothing else he could possibly try.

He’s got nothing left to give but his honesty.

“If you think that’s best,” Peter says benevolently, squinting into the sunrise. “Would you like me to call Mr Horan and—“

“No,” Harry interrupts. “No, no, that’s okay. I need to tell Marcus first.”

“I’m sure Mr Ward will be very happy to hear you’ve made a decision.”

Harry sighs. Closes his eyes. “I hope so,” he says.

He lets thoughts come in and leave his head again, fragments of ideas of what could be, what’s going to be. What’s going to happen with their wedding, with Harry’s divorce, with the fact that Marcus still doesn’t know.

Harry will tell him, that’s what’s going to happen. As soon as he’s holding a paper that legally releases him from his sham of a marriage.

He stands up, and opens his eyes into the emerging sunlight. He’s been in limbo here for so, so long now. It’s time to get back to his real life.

Peter follows without a word, but there’s something about him – a spark that wasn’t there before, or maybe Harry just couldn’t see it. It makes him seem like someone who could eventually be persuaded to drop ‘Mr Styles’ for just ‘Harry’.

The sky’s bright by the time they make it to the hotel, and the sun leans warmly into Harry’s back. He smiles at it before he goes inside.

As expected, Marcus receives the news with wild enthusiasm. He almost tackles Harry to the ground where he stands, and hangs off of him as he gets his PA on the phone to get him on a plane as soon as he can.

“I don’t know if I can leave that soon,” Harry tells him, rolling his bottom lip between his teeth. Marcus pulls him closer with the arm slung around Harry’s shoulders, digging into his neck.

“That’s okay, babe, I know it takes time. I just want to get everything ready for when you get back.”

He’s grinning as he says it, already picking out a seat – so Harry smiles back, agrees, and ignores the uneasiness crawling up the back of his neck.

They spend the rest of the day together; Marcus gets clingy, and Harry’s not much better. They were only together for a couple of days after so long apart, and also—also, as anxious as having Marcus here made him, everything was easier when he knew where his fiancé was and what he was doing. LA is so very far, and if something goes wrong now, if Marcus finds out somehow, it’s going to take a hell of a lot to fix it.

Over lunch, while Marcus chats to the waiter, Harry texts Louis.

What about that talk? is all he says, but Louis replies in a few seconds with Just stop by whenever.

So he does. He drives Marcus to Manchester, says goodbye, and drives back to Holmes Chapel with a heavy heart.

Being in the house again doesn’t help, either. There’s something different about it when he knows that this is the last time.

“Hello?” he calls, softly, when he lets himself in.

“You sleep here, no need to let everyone know you’re coming in,” Louis says from the kitchen. Harry relaxes and tenses at the same time.

It’s late, and the entire house is dark and quiet. Louis sits surrounded by a pool of light from the overhead lamp, bent over a notebook on the table. He’s chewing a pencil in a pretty brutal way when Harry sits down opposite him.

“Hey,” he says, and surprises himself with how tired he sounds.

“Hey,” Louis replies. He closes his notebook without a sound, and looks up with glassy eyes. “Not in my best shape tonight, sorry.”

Harry counts at least four different mugs surrounding him on the table. It’s not the smell of tea that hangs in the air, either: it’s coffee.

“What are you doing in here?” he asks automatically.

“Just,” Louis waves a hand, and yawns as he does it. “Things. Stuff.”

Harry squints. There’s more pencils too, littering the table far beyond where the light can reach. He spots a pen or two, without caps, and a small mountain of crumpled paper that he suspects continues on the ground below.

“What are you writing?” he asks again, now out of pure curiosity.

The look Louis levels him with could curdle milk, but all it sparks in Harry is a bizarre kind of fondness.

“That’s not what you wanted to talk about,” he says.

“Do I only have a certain number of questions? Is it a genie in a bottle kind of situation?”

Louis groans, and plants his forehead right on top of his notebook. The pencil quivers in his grip.

“Harry,” he says finally, resigned. “Please.”

Harry’s hands itch. To do what, he’s not sure.

“Sorry,” he says, but he can tell that some of the tension has gone from Louis’s shoulders. “We don’t…” he hesitates, rolling the words over on his tongue. He wants this done, but. But. Louis is exhausted. “We don’t have to do this today.”

Louis lifts his head. The bags under his eyes look particularly dramatic in the lighting.

“I said we would, though.”

“You’re completely out of it,” Harry points out, and moves a half-drunk cup of coffee away seconds before Louis puts his head down in the same spot. “I—you said it was about the papers, I don’t want you to make any decisions when you’re like this.”

Louis snorts. “I’m not going to make any decisions anyway,” he tells the floor.

“But—“

“I don’t want to sign it, Harry.”

“You told me we would talk,” Harry says.

He is, for some bizarre reason, hurt. He thought Louis was finally giving in—that’s what it had seemed like, even just minutes ago, when Louis didn’t so much as move away when Harry sat down. He thought he was finally, finally there.

“I know I did,” he raises his head, and rubs his forehead. He looks defeated. “I know, just—I don’t think I can do this now.”

“Tomorrow?” Harry asks. His voice is shaking, and, oh—his hands too.

“Yeah,” Louis nods. He’s not looking Harry in the eye, not looking at anything concrete. “Sorry for—no, nevermind. Goodnight, Harry.”

He doesn’t make a move to rise. Harry gets the message, and gets up himself. He’s hesitant as he walks up the stairs, listening out for sounds of Louis wrapping up whatever he’s doing, maybe calling something else after Harry, something that doesn’t sound quite so cold.

He only gives up once he reaches the top of the stairs. He brushes the pads of his fingers over the white door there, then moves on to where he sleeps.

The room is pleasantly cool, dark as he takes his clothes off. He does it all slowly, still trying to make himself understand that, if everything goes well tomorrow, this is the last time.

He wants to be gone, of course. It’s just the hour that’s making him feel all melancholy.

He lies down with a sigh. He’s spent the past two days sleeping on a comfortable king-size bed, but somehow, it’s this lumpy single mattress that puts him to sleep in seconds.

*

He wakes up to his phone ringing incessantly.

That, he’s used to – he likes to sleep in precisely on the days when Niall needs something from him at seven in the morning. It takes him a minute to roll over so he can reach for his phone, bleary-eyed in the darkness.

The darkness. It’s still dark.

His heart immediately flies up into his throat, beating heavy like a hammer as he fumbles out of the sheets and onto the floor, where a ridiculous picture of Niall is lit up to let him know who’s calling.

“Hello,” he gasps out when he finally manages to pick up. He’s out of breath, and on the other end of the line, Niall sounds the same.

“Jesus Christ,” is all he says, so comically exasperated it almost makes Harry laugh. “It’s been twenty minutes, I thought you were dead.”

“I’m here, what happened?” He leans back against the bed, and pulls his knees to his chest. He’s sure he’s not going to like this.

Niall takes a breath, and doesn’t say anything.

“It’s the stalker, isn’t it,” Harry says. Every time he almost manages to forget. “What happened? Do they know where I am?”

“No,” Niall breathes out. “I mean, maybe, but I think I can safely say they don’t want to murder you.” He doesn’t sound the slightest bit relieved.

Harry has to do everything in his power to stop himself from crying. The anxiety is so, so awful, this feeling of not knowing what’s hanging over him, whether he’s safe. It’s been draining him so slowly and steadily he had barely realised, but now it hits all at once like an avalanche.

“I texted you the picture.”

Harry’s hands bypass shaking and go straight to numb, clumsy on the screen while he navigates to the right app. It’s sitting right on the top, without a caption. He takes half a breath and opens it, like ripping off a plaster.

It’s a photo of Niall’s laptop screen, covered in fingerprints. The subject line of the email reads:

LIVE IN THREE DAYS UNLESS YOU LEAVE HIM

Harry’s stomach twists in on itself. He expects something like the image he scrolls down to, but seeing the real thing makes the entirety of his body feel like it’s shutting down.

It’s a front page mockup, red and black and white, terrifyingly real. HARRY LIES, it says in tall letters, and Inside singer’s secret marriage twists like a pit of snakes right underneath. Harry chokes on a sob.

“H, listen,” Niall is saying, quiet under the pounding in Harry’s ears. “I’ll do my hardest to take care of this, I promise you.”

“I didn’t even,” Harry says, but the words are slippery on his tongue and come out jumbled. “I didn’t even read it.”

“You probably should,” Niall replies, low and serious. “Just so you know what we’re up against.”

“I can’t—I—,” Harry stutters, fighting to speak through these terrified half-sobs that are climbing up his throat. “God, hold on.”

He blinks the mist out of his eyes, and does his best to focus on what’s in front of him. Even then, only snippets of sentences make it through and actually register – Harry Styles, Marcus Ward, engaged, already married, lies, deceit, fame.

Louis Tomlinson.

“They know,” he chokes out, as the truth hits him like one freight train after another. He has to set his phone down on the floor, and put his head between his knees; his lungs hurt, his head pounds, and he gets the tell-tale feeling of the room closing in on him. “They know about—they know Louis’s name—“

“Harry,” Niall says, urgently. “Harry, mate, please breathe. We can deal with this, we will, I won’t let them hurt you or your career—“

“They know,” he repeats again, holding on to it until they become the only words he knows. He can hear, vaguely, his breathing getting faster, louder.

“Listen to me,” Niall is saying, somewhere far in the distance. “I’ve got a full day of meetings starting at six, all the major newspapers are willing to work with us, it’s going to be okay. Nobody’ll find out.”

“I,” Harry tries to say, but it dissolves into something between a sob and a scream. He presses his knees against his head, tries to remember Louis’s hands on him, the soothing rhythm of in and out. It only makes him more afraid; if he gets Louis’s name in the papers because of something awful that he did, he can forget—everything. Anything. “Niall.”

Niall’s yelling a little, now, and banging around with something, but the sound sinks further and further away, like an invisible force is pulling Harry across the room. It’s not, or so Harry thinks. The ground is still there, solid under him.

“I’m fine,” he tries to say, but it doesn’t come out. He’s so very, abjectly not fine. He needs to move, needs to get help—

“Harry,” someone says, someone who’s not Niall, not behind a speaker. A familiar scent hits Harry’s nose, grounds him a little, but it’s one that he can’t place. “Not again, come on.”

Louis, it’s—Louis—Harry takes a heaving, empty breath.

Strong fingers wrap around his wrists, get into his clenched fists to loosen them. Harry doesn’t need to be told this time, he knows how to breathe, still remembers the ocean rhythm of Louis’s chest, rising and falling, in and out. He feels it, he thinks, pressed against him though he can’t quite tell where, like the only grounding point in a world of spinning shadows.

“You’re all right, love. Hey.”

He’s got to be hallucinating now.

He tries to get in a slow breath through his teeth, to charge his lungs and apologise, but it escapes him too soon. Louis keeps holding him, somehow everywhere at once, his hands on Harry’s hands, but also in his hair, on the feverish skin of his face.

Niall’s still shouting something on his end of the line. Harry registers Louis taking the phone out of his hand, and then not much else. Everything is blackness, spinning colours, looking for Louis’s voice amongst the white noise while he tries to remember how to breathe.

Every time this happens, it’s like a fog that seeps into the spaces in-between his bones, straight into his head, that clouds over his vision and his thoughts until he’s surrounded by a void. With every breath of air now, that same fog clears away. Shadows and shapes come into focus from one blink to the next: still the exact same spot in the guest room where he fell out of bed, the looming silhouette of the wardrobe. Louis’s hand covering both of Harry’s wrists, pressing them to his chest. Harry follows the line of his arm to where Louis is kneeling on the ground next to him, Harry’s mobile pressed to his ear and a wobbly smile on his face.

“Yeah, mate, don’t worry. Nice to meet you as well, do you want to talk to Harry again?”

Niall must say yes, because the next thing Harry knows, Louis is holding the phone up to his ear. Harry thinks he’d be able to hold it there himself – his fingertips are tingling, but otherwise back to normal – but he doesn’t make a move to do it. Louis’s fingers are touching the side of his face just so, warm, soft.

It might be the closest they’ve been in half a decade.

He clears his throat. “Hello?” he says into the phone.

Niall makes some sort of inhuman noise. “Are you okay?” he yells, out of breath. Harry’s lips curl into an involuntary smile.

“I’m fine,” he says, coughing. “Sorry I worried you.”

“No, it’s—oh my God, you’re going to kill me. I don’t have the time to die right now, Harry, do you understand? You’ve got to quit this.”

“Yes, Mr Horan, sir,” Harry laughs, only a little. Louis’s fingers twitch against his cheek. “I’ll buy you a spa day when I get back. Or an entire holiday, even. You can have as much time off as you want.”

“I’ll hold you to that,” Niall grumbles. In the background, his office phone goes off, and he sighs a sigh so massive it makes the connection crackle. “Okay, listen. I don’t want to—to bring it up again, but.”

But.

Harry blinks back to reality; to what set him off in the first place. Inside singer’s secret marriage. It’s not real yet, but it might be. It will be. God.

“I just want you to know that you shouldn’t worry, alright?”

“I can’t not worry,” Harry replies. He puts one of his arms across his middle, anxious again, needing to feel anchored. “I—you know how much this could cost me. I’m so scared, Ni, I can’t—“

“I’ll keep you updated, okay? Every meeting I get out of, I’ll let you know what was said and what kind of deal I made. I will make deals, don’t you worry.”

Harry sighs. He’s got a headache coming on now. “Okay,” he says, finally. “Okay. I trust you, you know that.”

“That I do,” Niall replies. He sounds like he’s moving – a door slams in the background, and the silence around him is replaced with a muted din of voices. “Do you think you’ll be able to go back to sleep?”

“Uh,” Harry blinks. He pointedly doesn’t look at Louis still hunched next to him. “No.”

“Do you have anyone—can Louis stay awake with you?”

Harry chokes on spit. He manages to pass it off as a cough, but only just.

“Are you on a first-name basis now?” he asks, to take his mind off—everything else. The very presence of Louis in the room, the fact of his existence in the universe, makes his skin burn.

“He’s all right,” Niall says reluctantly on the other end. “He’s, you know. I don’t think you should come back home yet.”

Harry’s brain stumbles a little at the sudden change of topic. “Why not?” he asks.

“I don’t think getting the papers signed is as impossible as you think, he’d—oh, okay, yeah. Sorry, H. I have to go.”

“Already?”

Us Weekly waits for no man,” Niall replies. Harry appreciates the disgust dripping from his tone. “Love you, H. I’ll speak to you soon.”

“Love you too,” Harry manages, and a weak “Later,” before the connection goes dead.

Louis pulls the phone away, and puts it on the bed. Harry hugs himself, a little too tight, as he gets ready to look at him.

To thank him, again.

“We’ve got to stop meeting like this,” Louis says. He sounds—mild, pleasant. Tired.

“I feel like we’ve got to stop meeting period,” Harry mumbles, probably too quiet to hear. It gives him courage, though, to lift his chin, turn his head, and look Louis in the eye.

He’s barely visible in the early morning darkness, only illuminated by specks of moonlight that sneak in through the curtains. He’s got bags under his eyes, and wisps of fringe sticking to his face.

He’s—fuck. Harry banishes the thought, locks it away, refuses to entertain it for even a second.

“What’s that?” he asks, eyebrows furrowed. His blinks are slow. Sleepy. Harry must have been loud enough to wake him up, which only makes him feel worse.

“Nothing, sorry,” Harry shakes his head. He feels literally and figuratively broken in several places, and the ground is bitterly cold at this time of night. “Thank you. Again. I’ve really got to stop doing this.”

Louis huffs. Now that Harry’s looked at him, he can’t tear his eyes away. He’s—different. Unguarded, like it’s too early for his walls to be up.

“You know you can’t help it,” he says, picking at something on the bedspread. Inexplicably, Harry still feels the touch of those fingers on his face. “I know you can’t help it. It’s okay.”

Harry clears his throat. “Thank you anyway,” he says. A silence settles between them, sleep-soft and comfortable. Louis stares at the wall for a minute, and Harry watches the pale column of his neck in the dark. There’s a new mole just above his Adam’s apple; he’s got stubble, but only a little bit.

Harry recognises the tense slant of his shoulders, the way he’s ever-so-subtly rocking on his heels.

“You can go back to sleep, you know,” he says, but somehow infuses it with exactly how much he doesn’t want Louis to do that. “I’m—okay now, I think. I can get myself back up to bed.”

“You’re not going to fall back asleep,” Louis says, like he’s sure. He sighs. “I’ll make tea, come on.”

He doesn’t even grace Harry’s original suggestion with a response. Instead, he offers a hand, and Harry barely hesitates before he takes it. He lets Louis pull him to his feet and into his space, close, too close.

There’s a kind of tension rising in Harry that he can’t take.

“How is it we always end up doing that?” he asks, even though they’ve been silent for a while.

Louis knows what he means anyway. “Tea’s a cure-all, you know that.”

Harry smiles a little at Louis’s back as he leaves the room, and moves to follow him down the hall.

He’s wearing another hoodie, so big it falls halfway down his thighs, with frayed cuffs and little holes all over from too much wear. It swallows him, makes his shoulders look much narrower than they really are.

They both stop at the white door. Louis doesn’t say anything, so Harry doesn’t either; they’re not even looking at each other, but it zaps through the air between them, an unspoken connection, an understanding.

The downstairs is pleasantly cool. The air there settles in Harry’s lungs with a little less effort, clearing his head. He sits at the table, wordlessly, and watches Louis’s familiar dance with the kettle.

There’s a question hanging in the air.

Harry puts his elbows on the table, intertwines his fingers, and says: “Ask me.”

Louis sighs. He probably thought he was being inconspicuous. “Stop that.”

“Just ask me, Louis. It’s fine.”

He turns around, leaning back against the counter in a way that looks anything but relaxed. He’s pressing his fingers against the countertop – they’ve gone white at the knuckles.

“It gave you a panic attack,” he points out. “The second one in what—five days?”

Harry presses his lips together.

“Besides,” Louis shakes his head and looks at the floor, “I don’t—want to know.”

“You’re a bad liar,” Harry mumbles, looking at him. He’s—comfortable, surprisingly so. Could probably fall back asleep right here at the table.

Louis laughs, only a little, under his breath. He turns his back to Harry to fix their tea, and then finally—“Why were you awake in the middle of the night?”

“It’s a long story,” Harry says, buying himself time to try and think. He invited Louis into this, and he’s surprised to realise that he wants to tell.

It’s just a difficult thing to explain. It’s difficult to tell someone the tale of how terrible a person you are – even if they’ve got firsthand experience of it.

“I don’t know if you’ve noticed,” Louis raises an eyebrow, “but we’ve got some time.”

He brings their cups over. Harry takes his gratefully, angles his face into the steam, and breathes. It’s his vocal coach’s favourite way of loosening up his vocal cords when he’s a little out of practice; this time around it helps to untwist his tongue, to put his words in order before he lays his burden at Louis’s feet.

Louis looks at him with patient eyes. Harry can almost feel the gaze like a touch.

“I have a stalker,” he says eventually, when the ticking clock on the wall really puts the pressure on.

Louis blinks. “Pardon?”

“A stalker,” Harry repeats. “Or—that’s what we thought it was, anyway.”

“You’re gonna have to elaborate,” Louis says, and sounds sorry. He’s got his bottom lip caught between his teeth, and all his attention trained on Harry.

Harry sighs, and looks into the depths of his tea. It’s the perfect shade of brown, as usual.

“They’re threatening me.”

Louis straightens up, a little violently. The motion pulls his entire body backwards, and makes him spill a few drops of his tea. He doesn’t reach out to wipe it away.

Harry doesn’t need another question to know that he has to go on.

“It started a few months ago,” he says. “Actually, just—just after Marcus and I got engaged.”

He waits for Louis to frown, to twitch, to give some indication of what he thinks of Harry getting engaged, but nothing comes.

“Niall started getting these calls at his office that were just silent, but there was someone breathing on the other end, so—“

“Wait,” Louis interrupts. “Why didn’t you tell me this?”

Harry blinks. “I’m telling you now,” he replies, but it comes out sounding like a question because he’s so confused. Why would Louis want to know?

“I meant before,” Louis says, just this side of gentle. “When you first got here, when we talked, when—when you moved into my house?”

“I didn’t tell anyone,” says Harry, careful. There’s landmines here, and he’d very much like to avoid stepping on any. “And I didn’t. I didn’t think you’d care?”

Louis rubs his forehead. “I care if you live or die, you absolute idiot.”

An involuntary shiver runs down Harry’s back. “I didn’t think it was serious back then,” he says, a weak excuse. “It never—escalated, or anything, they didn’t make demands, and my security never saw anyone. We thought it was safe for me to come here without a guard, since very few people know where I’m from, back in LA.”

Louis raises his head, but keeps a hand over his mouth. The way he’s looking is familiar, but not from recent memory. It touches something much further back in Harry’s mind.

“I assume it got worse,” he says.

“They started sending pictures,” Harry nods, staring into the tabletop. “The first one was the scariest, I think, just because—anyways, um, it was this picture of me from a fashion show I went to, and it had my eyes crossed out.”

Louis inhales sharply.

“Niall got it delivered to his office, and he—actually, hold on,” he says, and digs in his pocket for the phone he’d managed to grab before he went downstairs. He’s got the notes in a separate folder, all the way at the bottom; there if he needs them but far enough that he never has to see them by accident.

He pulls up the first one. I know what he did is still there, black on white, bringing back all that fear he felt when he first saw it. It had been like nothing he’d ever experienced before.

He puts the phone on the table, and nudges it towards Louis. Their hands brush when he reaches out for it.

Harry watches him as he takes the picture in, as a visible tension seeps into him as if it had been injected. His face looks tired in the beam of blue light coming from the screen.

“I know what he did,” he repeats, and looks up. “What did you do?”

Harry’s eyes sting. It feels acutely humiliating to open his messages, and pull up the picture Niall texted him not an hour ago.

“Listen,” he says, and puts his hand over the screen. “I—I just want you to know that I didn’t mean for this to happen. I swear I didn’t, and I’m so sorry.”

Louis reaches out. For a second, Harry thinks he might try to take the phone by force, but instead he touches the back of Harry’s hand, feather-light.

“Just show me.”

Harry does. He passes the mobile over again, noisy on the tabletop, and then looks into the ceiling.

Louis hisses. “Jesus,” he says, and Harry can’t get himself to move—“How did they find out?”

“I have no idea,” Harry shakes his head. He concentrates on Louis’s warmth, right there just across the table, to stop himself from crying again. It’s difficult to speak. “They must’ve got hold of the record somehow, but I just don’t know—I don’t understand—“

He loses the fight then, and his throat swells. “I don’t know what to do.”

Louis touches him on the shoulder. It’s barely fingertips, he probably changes his mind halfway through, but it helps to break Harry away from obsessively counting the ceiling tiles.

“Does Marcus know yet?” he asks, simple. Harry meets his eyes, looks away, then meets his eyes again. He must look as guilty as he feels – Louis sighs, and taps the screen of Harry’s phone to have a look at the mockup again. The light of it makes his lashes cast shadows. “You have to tell him, you absolute wanker.”

It’s the gentlest way anyone’s ever called Harry a fuckup.

“I know,” he says, bracing his elbows on the table. He runs his hands through his hair, over and over, until it feels limp and slippery between his fingers. “I know, I—I swear I was going to. As soon as I touched down back home with the papers, I was going to tell him everything. I never meant to keep it a secret.”

“That’s a lie,” Louis points out, mild.

Harry almost laughs, but he’s worried it’d turn into a fit of hysterics if he gave it a voice. “Yeah,” he says. The word tastes bitter. “Yeah, you’re right. I thought this was going to be easy back then, I was just gonna—do it. I didn’t think he needed to know.”

Louis makes a face. He passes the phone back to Harry, and takes a loud sip of his tea. “And you do now?”

Of course, is on the tip of Harry’s tongue, but it gets stuck there, enormously heavy with meaning. He’s let Louis back in in some way, no matter how small. He’s let him matter again.

“He’s met you,” he tries. “And it’s been so long, he deserves to know why I’ve been gone for months.”

“But not until you’re actually divorced.”

Harry has the decency to blush. That’s all his body does, though – he doesn’t feel anxious, uncomfortable, fidgety. Angry. If this is an attack, it’s half-hearted at best, and they both know it.

“Show me again?” Louis asks, pointing at the mobile, dark on the table between them. Harry types in his passcode.

Louis sighs as he reads. “That’s—that’s just fucked up. Do you have a lawyer ready?”

Harry blinks. “I haven’t thought that far ahead. Niall probably has, though.”

“Good,” Louis nods. He mulls his next words over, pursing his lips as if he’s trying to stop them from slipping out. “You might need a London-based one, though, for the—the divorce. I’m sure they can speed it through, that way this person doesn’t really have anything on you by the time someone buys the story.”

It takes Harry a full minute to register what he’s just heard.

“The. The divorce?”

Louis hides his face behind his mug.

“Louis, did you just say—“

“I can’t ruin your career,” he says. His hands are shaking, badly. “It’s—past time I got over myself, really. This,” and he waves a hand to indicate himself, “isn’t worth putting your entire livelihood at risk.”

Harry’s immediate reaction is to say no. No, you can’t do that.

Then he realises where he is, and who they are, and why he was ever here in the first place.

Still. “Are you sure?” he asks, as a hesitant bubble of happiness inflates in his chest. God, he can fix—absolutely everything, fuck—

“I’m sure,” Louis replies. He sounds a little like he’s hyperventilating. “Do you have a copy of the papers?”

He looks so utterly lost when he catches Harry’s eye. Harry, for a bizarre moment, wants to hold him.

“I—yeah. Yes. Give me a second.”

He pushes away from the table noisily, and clambers up the stairs on clumsy feet. His head is spinning.

He’s got two sets of papers, and both have somehow fallen through to the very bottom of his little suitcase. He has to grab clothes by the handful and throw them out, flinging them into every corner of the room like he’s in a movie. There, bent underneath a pair of shoes he’d bought just after he arrived, are the folders.

The one on the top is a highlighter-bright green, pristine and still unopened. Harry clutches it like a lifeline, presses it to his chest, and gets to his feet.

But—but.

There’s the second folder, the blue one. It’s missing a corner, somehow, and the papers sticking out of it are all dog-eared and muddy. The stains on them build a tentative memory in his head – Louis’s gaunt face underneath his hood, his blazing eyes, the anger that seemed to coil around every muscle in his body; move your fucking car; his drooping shoulders, and the way he avoided Harry’s gaze.

Do you have any idea—

Harry had been so angry that day, so incredibly full of bitterness. He can still feel it, like an ache that’s embedded into the walls of his veins, but the blood that runs through them is clear. He’s let it go, and he’d barely realised.

He’s been here for two months, and seen Louis almost every singe day, seen him angry and resigned and smiling in that soft, crooked way to which Harry’s yet to assign a meaning; seen him so frighteningly close to tears—

Do you have any idea of the kind of hell you put me through?

He grabs the other folder, too. The mud cracks and crumbles under his touch, flakes off as he tucks it close and walks out.

He’s careful as he walks down the stairs. With one hand, he traces the bright spaces where pictures used to be.

“I don’t want to pressure you,” Louis’s voice carries out of the kitchen, deceptively light, “but you’re kind of in a hurry, here.”

Harry can’t stop a smile.

He slides back into the kitchen through the half-open door, and lets the papers fall softly onto the tabletop. Louis doesn’t comment on the pool of dried dirt that comes with them.

He does swallow, though, so loudly it must hurt. He raises his mug to his lips, and puts it back down when he realises it’s empty.

“Do I need to sign both of these?”

Do you have any idea, Harry hears instead. It plays on a loop inside his head, echoing into itself.

“Tell me,” he says. It slips out entirely on its own, and it takes him a second to realise the words are hanging between them. He considers taking them back, but.

“Tell you?” Louis repeats. He can’t seem to stop staring at the folders.

Harry sits down.

“You said,” he starts, then shakes his head. “When you first invited me inside, do you remember what you said?”

Louis pinches the bridge of his nose. He looks at Harry, finally. “I said a lot of things.”

“Yeah, so did I,” Harry bites his lip. He’d been so needlessly awful. God, he’d told Louis he never loved him. What an utter fucking lie. “And you asked—you asked me if I had any idea of what I put you through.”

“Ah,” Louis raises his eyebrows. “So I did.”

“Tell me, then. I want to know.”

“I don’t think you do,” Louis replies. The morning has started crawling in through the windows, orange and yellow and molasses-slow. The sunlight has just reached Louis’s back, his neck, the tips of his hair, lighting all of them up like a field of golden wheat. Harry itches to touch that one long strand of his fringe, the one he wears tucked behind an ear when he’s at home.

“I don’t think you know what I want,” he replies. Selfish, he’s always selfish. Louis should be used to that by now. “I—I want you to have a chance to tell me whatever you want. Don’t mince your words.”

The look Louis gives him looks like pity.

“I’m a grown man, Louis. I can take whatever you’ve got to say.”

“I need a pen,” says Louis. “For the papers.”

There’s anger, a small bubble of heat at the base of Harry’s throat. He keeps a tight rein on it, but it would be so easy—

“Please,” he says, instead of something hopelessly infantile like fuck a pen. “Every time I see you, you look like you want to tell me something, like you’re just holding back to spare my fucking feelings, but I don’t deserve that, and I don’t need it, I can take—“

“You ruined my life,” Louis interrupts, calm, but only on the outside. “Is that what you want to hear?”

This time, Harry sees through him. “I want the truth,” he says. “Please, Louis. I think—I think you’ll feel better.”

Louis laughs. “So generous of you to consider my feelings.”

“Don’t do this,” Harry asks. He lets his shoulders drop, lets his face fall. Shows Louis the tendrils of exhaustion that are wrapped all around him like vines.

Louis softens. “You’re going to be gone by tomorrow,” he says. “You’ll never see me again, you’ll probably forget that I exist, so it’s—redundant, really. You don’t need to know.”

“I want to,” Harry replies, looking Louis in the eye. “I want to.”

Silence. Louis closes his eyes, pinches the bridge of his nose again. “A pen, please.”

Here Harry is, sitting in a kitchen that used to be his, entirely determined to stop his husband from signing their divorce papers. And he isn’t dreaming, either.

“Louis,” he says, putting on his best Rational Voice.

“It’s in the past, isn’t it? All of this, us, it’s gone now. It doesn’t matter.”

“It matters,” Harry counters. “Sometimes I wish it didn’t, believe me, but it matters. I’ve badgered back into your life asking all these questions, and you never got to say your piece, so please, please do it now. Do it while I’m here to listen.”

Louis groans. The angle of his shoulders changes, though, curving down and away from his body like a drooping tree branch. The sun has enveloped him whole now, and is reaching its golden fingers towards the table.

“I made it sound more dramatic than it was,” he says, fidgeting in his chair. Harry highly doubts that. “It’s just—I don’t know. What normally happens after the breakup in every terrible romantic comedy.”

Harry sighs. “Louis.”

He doesn’t get it, is the thing. All this time, Louis had been bursting with barely-contained anger, and now that Harry’s given him a chance to vent it, he’s just—running away.

“I couldn’t sleep, okay?” he says finally, too loud for the room, his fingers woven together in a death grip. “For—two years, probably, I just wouldn’t sleep through the fucking night. I’d go down for two hours, then end up wandering around the village at four in the morning, calling Liam at ridiculous hours, throwing stuff and punching walls because I was seeing things, it just—I don’t know.”

Dread, cold and electric, trickles down Harry’s body like ice water. It starts at the top of his head, like someone’s cracked an egg there, and slides down the sides of his neck, under his t-shirt, the small of his back. It makes him shiver.

Louis is holding his forehead in one of his hands now. Underneath, his eyes are closed.

“I’d do sleeping pills, and they wouldn’t work, then I stopped taking them because they gave me nightmares, or I’d wake up on the floor in the morning not knowing how I got there, it was—so scary, you can’t imagine. You have no fucking idea. I wanted to hurl myself out of a window, some days, just to make it stop, but then Liam slapped some sense into me, so,” and he laughs a little, somehow, staring down at the tabletop with a soft look in his eyes. “I found out that booze made me just pass out cold, so I overdid that for a while, but I also got a therapist, which was surprisingly helpful? Who knew that talking about things makes them better.”

The expression on his face seems more like an illusion, a thin smile that’s pulled over the anguish that he’s remembering. That Harry made him remember. That Harry caused in the first place.

He’s not surprised to find that he’s got tears pooling in his eyes, but he rubs them away with clumsy fingers.

“Anyways, she made me admit that I was really angry at myself, and I somehow got it together right around the time your second album came out, so you were in all the papers. The first thing I learned about your career is that you were going by Styles,” and he smirks, joylessly, at the ceiling. Sadness pulls at the soft lines of his face, and the sheer depth of it punches a hole straight through Harry’s chest.

“That was what got me, more than anything else. I dealt with the bed being too fucking big, with the fact that you didn’t say a single word goodbye, with being afraid to wake up in daylight because it reminded me of reaching out to your side of the bed in the morning and finding all of you gone—“ he pauses, and takes a breath.

A noise escapes Harry’s lips, but he’s not sure what it’s meant to convey. Louis doesn’t really pay it any mind anyway.

“I got over all that, eventually. But then Harry Styles put out his massively successful second record, and I just—I realised that I had no idea how to do any of this. My entire life was built on the foundation of you and me, because we were going to be forever, right?”

He waits, then. Maybe he’s waiting for Harry to speak.

“It never even occurred to me—it just wasn’t a possibility. We were never going to leave each other, so I never needed to figure out how to do life alone, except then you just—you,” he swallows. Blinks, a little too rapidly. “Well. You know what you did.”

“I left,” Harry supplies helpfully. His voice comes out a garbled mess.

For the first time, Louis looks at him, and must find something in Harry’s face that keeps his eyes there.

“Yeah,” he nods. “Yeah, you left. And I had to deal with the implications of that beyond me, beyond this house, so that’s when—that’s when I started with the drinking. Did anyone tell you about how Barb’s lost their license?”

“Gemma said,” Harry says. It sounds like someone else is speaking.

“That was because of me,” he quirks his lips. “Well, technically it was Liam, but I was the one who pulled him down with me.”

“What did he do?”

Louis wrings his fingers. Takes a breath, sighs, makes like he’s going to speak and then presses his lips back together.

Harry has changed his mind.

“You don’t have to tell me,” he gets out, through whatever horrors are happening in his lungs at the moment. “If you don’t want to, I—I’m sorry I made you do this.”

I don’t know if I can take any more, is what he doesn’t say.

Louis shakes his head. “It’s okay,” he says, and he’s soft, like he actually means it. Still, his skin has gone pale with more than just the bright light of the morning. “He, um. He made a bit of a scene. Fought someone, actually.”

Harry forgets to choke on tears for a second. “Liam?” he asks incredulously, blinking to bring Louis’s blurry face into focus.

“I know,” Louis replies. “I know, but it was because of me.”

Of course it was.

“I was—a mess, yeah? I’d get drunk every time I went anywhere, just to make it easier, and people talk here. They’d run out of pity at that point, and I wasn’t welcome in a lot of places, like Barb’s. But I went anyway,” he rolls his eyes. “And I’d split a bottle of bourbon with Liam on that particular day, so we were both completely fucked. We got kicked out one drink in, and we actually turned around to go, I think, but someone called me a sad poof as we were leaving,” he smiles, small, bitter. “Liam flew off the handle, and I was too drunk to even hold him back, and—I don’t know if I remember, actually. I just know that someone reported it, and they got their license taken away after that. Liam and I went home, slept it off on the front lawn, poured out all my booze in the morning, and that was the end of my love affair with unbridled self-destruction and ruining Liam’s life.”

Harry’s shaking his head, perhaps in a vain hope that Louis’s words won’t get into his ears that way. He can’t imagine Liam in a fight, can’t imagine Louis going wild like that, can’t imagine any of these things for which he’s directly responsible.

There’s a soft, animal-like hurt right in the centre of his chest, pulsing into every corner of his body. How can he possibly be discovering more ways in which he’s fucked everything up, after all this time?

“Are you,” he starts, but has to clear his throat, cough the sadness away. “Are you okay now?”

Louis looks down, scratches at the tabletop. Smiles. “No.”

Harry’s heart does a painful somersault. “That was a stupid question.”

“Yeah,” Louis says, through an inhale, and looks back up at him. There’s not a wall in sight; the vulnerability in his eyes steals the last of Harry’s breath. “You’ve asked stupider ones, though. It’s okay.”

Harry wants to scream, but all he can do is shake his head. “It’s not,” he manages. “It’s not, it’s not, I’m sorry.”

“I appreciate that,” Louis replies. “I really do, but please—don’t blame yourself again. It’s done now.”

“How can I do that? How can I possibly—“

“You can because I need you to,” Louis interrupts. He reaches out slowly, like he’s forcing his way through the thick air between them, and brushes the pads of his fingers over Harry’s forearm. “I’ve dealt with all of this, and I’m sorry that you found out all at once, but you asked, so please. Please don’t put your guilt back on my shoulders.”

Silently, Harry nods. This is on him, all on him, but he can’t suffocate Louis with how sorry he is, can’t make him relive things again and again—

“And also, it’s not really your fault.”

Harry scoffs.

“I’m serious, Harry. I told you, I just wasn’t ready to live without you. Not thinking of the possibility, not being a person outside of LouisandHarry, that—that was me.”

“You’re still angry at me,” Harry shakes his head. “Or you were, just a—“ he’s about to say a few days, but then he actually counts back in his head. The second panic attack, which Louis literally held him through. The lunch with Marcus, where he laughed and joked and looked every bit as comfortable as Harry had wished he could feel. The moment he let Harry’s new fiancé into his house, and covered for him, and barely blinked an eye. He’d been curt, sure, but that ice-cold spark of anger that had slept inside of him was nowhere to be found.

Louis gives him a second to finish the sentence before he shrugs. “I’m not,” he says, simply, and it’s true. It’s true. “I think I was, when you showed up. And I was angry at the situation. At myself, for still letting you in here after everything, but I’m just—tired. I want to stop this.”

Harry nods, patting at his swollen face. He’s got what he wanted. “I’ll get a pen,” he says. “And then I’ll…get out. I’ve already intruded on your life too much.”

“You used to be my life, Harry. I think I can handle you staying one more day.”

There’s this big, unspoken thing that passes between them as Harry gets up, a ball of heaviness hanging in the air. Their past, maybe, with nowhere to go now that Louis has put it out there.

Louis has a purposeless, messy desk tucked in the corner of the living room. It’s where Harry goes to raid the pen cup, studiously ignoring the empty frame above the fireplace. Louis, as it turns out, follows him in from the kitchen, and settles on the sofa with one foot tucked underneath his thigh.

He looks up when Harry stands behind him, and the morning sun turns his eyes azure. Harry finds it hard to breathe again.

“There you go,” he coughs out, holding out a beautiful black pen he’s found. It’s got a little LT carved into the cap.

“Thanks,” Louis bites his lip, and rolls the pen between his palms for a second. The cleaner folder is resting on his lap, open on a pristine white page. “I forgot that I had this thing,” he smiles a little. Harry chases it as it plays around his mouth; walks around the side of the sofa and sits down, and watches it until it’s gone.

Their knees are a breath away from touching.

“How many places do I need to sign?” Louis asks, and brings Harry back to the present. Right, he thinks, yes. The divorce.

“It’s three copies, so,” Harry reaches out, straight into Louis’s personal space without so much as stopping to think about it. Louis lets him find the correct three pages, and slips a finger under each to mark them. His breathing is scared, shallow, but it still stirs the hair on the back of Harry’s neck. “There.”

He pulls away then, a little awkwardly, his limbs heavy with how close they were.

“Thanks,” says Louis. He’s blinking a lot, scanning some of the lines in front of him. “Harry Tomlinson.”

Harry smiles.

He watches Louis write down his name slowly, carefully, with strokes so long they go over the line a little. There is no name he can put to what he’s feeling, but it tastes sweet on his tongue, bitter in the back of his throat, burns in his chest. This is what he’s come for.

“All right,” Louis says quietly, putting an unnecessary flourish on the last n. He keeps the pen against the paper for a few more seconds, until an inky flower blooms underneath the tip of it. “There you go.”

He snaps the folder closed, and holds it out to Harry.

They’ve been in this position a fairly ridiculous amount of times, Harry realises. From that very first morning down on the muddy road, he’s been putting these papers between them, and Louis has been running. Now that it’s the other way around, he can’t help feeling a little victorious when he gets his hands on the folder.

“Don’t you want your copy?” he asks.

“You can just leave it when you leave,” Louis replies, avoiding his eyes. “Is there anything else or is that it?”

“That’s it. We’re divorced, I think, at least on paper.”

Saying the words makes his lips go a little numb. Louis, too, looks a little shaken. All the blood in his face has drained to his mouth, and he bites at it over and over until the skin all around it shines red.

“Louis,” Harry says, and waits until they’re looking at each other, really looking. “Thank you.”

He blinks. “Of course,” is what he says, and even though his eyes are wet, he sounds sincere. “Like I said, I can’t ruin your career.”

“It would’ve been my fault if it got ruined, you know,” Harry says. He’s being serious, but a smile is fighting its way onto his face, apropos of nothing.

Louis smiles back. “You’re right,” he says. “You owe me now.”

Finally, unbelievably, Harry feels settled. Content. Happy, almost.

“I hope that look means that you’ve figured out how to tell your fiancé,” Louis crashes into his bubble. “Good luck with that, by the way.”

Harry rubs his forehead. “I’m working on it,” he says. He’s not, in fact, working on it, but he will once he’s on the plane. “I definitely want to do it in person, so I should probably—get my things together.”

“There’s no rush,” says Louis, mild and searching for something on the other side of the sofa. He comes up with an old copy of Rolling Stone, uncaps the pen, and scribbles something straight across Dave Grohl’s forehead. “Here’s a lawyer I know, down in London, he owes me a favour. Have Niall call him, he can probably get all of this done before you even touch down in LA.”

Harry takes the magazine, and presses it to his chest without thinking.

“Thank you.”

Louis shrugs a shoulder. “Don’t mention it.”

A door opens somewhere on the second floor. They both look at the ceiling, and listen to footsteps as they thud above them and fade out in the direction of the bathroom.

Silently, they get up and move outside. The sun greets them there bright and hot, already well on its way across the sky. The very last wisps of dark blue are just fading above their heads, circling the pale crescent that used to be the moon.

Harry settles in the front garden, sitting in the grass. Hesitantly, Louis sits down beside him, reaches into an empty flower pot, and pulls out a freezer bag. Inside of it is a pack of cigarettes and a cheap, see-through lighter.

Harry squints. “I thought you quit?”

“I did,” Louis grins. “These are for emergencies and special occasions.”

Harry doesn’t dare ask which one this is.

He tries to close his eyes, to relax, to enjoy the last minutes of early morning before mum wanders down into the kitchen and sees them out here. They keep opening against his will, drawn to the intimately familiar ritual of Louis lighting up. It does seem a little clumsier now – his fingers slip on the wheel of the lighter, and he coughs when he takes the first drag.

When he inhales properly for the first time, he closes his eyes. He leans back on his elbows, angles his face into the sun. Harry swallows.

“How long has it been?” he asks, because he needs, needs to disturb this silence. “Since you last had one, I mean.”

Louis opens one eye. “A while,” he says, tilting his head, tipping it back. “I reckon a year or so.”

Harry watches the long column of his neck, how pale it looks against the grass, the way his Adam’s apple bobs when he chuckles for no reason at all. He can’t look away.

Louis opens his mouth a fraction, just enough for the smoke to escape in small tufts. They used to be like this all the time, in gardens and parks and the forest a mile down the road, lying in dew-damp grass and watching the sky change colours. Louis would come meet him after footie sometimes, smelly, with his knees stained green and telling Harry all about how Liam kicked his legs out from under him. And Harry—Harry was usually preoccupied with how the light touched Louis’s face.

“I’m glad you did it,” he says, and watches the smoke rise skyward soft like cotton wool, then disappear. “Quit, I mean.”

Louis lies down. His hair tangles with the grass, and Harry is still looking. “Shut up, Harry,” he says, soft and good-natured, almost—teasing?

Does he feel as light as Harry feels? Was this a burden off his shoulders, too?

Harry has half a mind to ask, but the weight of their last conversation is still very much present on his shoulders, wrapped around his neck, running down the middle of his back sticky-slow. Besides, he’s overstaying his welcome right now. They don’t need to talk about anything else.

In the end, he tears his eyes away from Louis’s slack expression, and lies down beside him. The clouds overhead are torn into pieces, wispy, like milk disappearing into tea. There must be wind up there, though Harry can barely feel a breeze.

He closes his eyes. Lets the early coolness of the earth wrap around his shoulders like a blanket.

“I can’t believe we’re divorced,” Louis throws into the tranquil air.

The word sounds—different, coming from his mouth, than it does in Harry’s head.

“I know,” he says anyway. He turns his head, presses his cheek into the grass, to look at Louis; he’s already looking back. Harry’s close enough to smell the cigarette smoke on his breath.

“I, uh,” he says, and looks down. “I hope your wedding goes well.” He takes a drag, and blows the smoke away, up into the air.

“You don’t have to say that,” Harry replies. He’s slightly dazed by their proximity, and trying to discreetly shake himself out of it. It’s just—if he reached out right now, he could touch Louis’s face, the almost-bare curve of his shoulder. “I’m really, really grateful that you did this for me, but you don’t have to—pretend.”

Louis tries to shrug, then remembers he’s lying on one of his arms and abandons the movement. “I’m not,” he says. He doesn’t sound convinced. “I hope it goes well. You deserve to be happy, you know. Clearly you weren’t, here, so I hope you find it in LA. Or London, or New York, or wherever, since you’re a popstar now. ”

Harry’s eyes sting. “Louis,” he says, but he doesn’t know how to continue. Doesn’t know what to say to stop Louis from looking so small.

Louis sighs. He puts his cigarette out, reaches out with the same hand, and runs it through Harry’s hair.

It’s brief, barely a second, but his fingertips brush Harry’s forehead, his nape.

Harry’s breath freezes in his lungs.

“It’s all right,” he says, with a sad smile tucked into the corner of his lips. He’s taken his hand back, busied it with pulling grass out of the ground. “Everything’s fine. You get to go off and live your life and forget about me, like I should have let you years ago.”

Harry’s not going to cry again. He’s not. There isn’t much else to do, though, because he has no idea what to say to that.

“I’m sorry,” is what he settles on, hopelessly, woefully inadequate.

Louis smiles again. It brings out the faint crow’s feet around his eyes. “I’m sorry, too.”

He plucks a small yellow flower out of the space between them, and tucks it behind Harry’s ear. Then he turns onto his back again, hands across his chest, chin pointing at the sky. Like nothing happened – and nothing did, except Harry’s insides have all been swept up by an earthquake.

Gingerly, he touches the flower. It’s small enough that the single touch dislodges it from its place, and it gets lost in-between Harry’s curls.

He doesn’t mirror Louis, doesn’t turn on his back. He stays on his side, watching the line of Louis’s profile, the slope of his nose, that shadowy space where his lashes touch his cheeks. When mum comes out into the garden, he hears her before he sees, and just manages to sit up.

“Morning, boys,” she calls out. Harry doesn’t miss the befuddled look on her face, but he tries his best to smile.

“Hey, Mum,” he replies, slowly getting to his feet. One of his hands slips on the grass, and he has to dig his fingers into the dirt to stay upright. It gets underneath his fingernails. “Good morning.”

He doesn’t look back at Louis when he walks up to the front door and gives her a kiss on the cheek.

“What are you doing out here?” she asks, with a line between her eyebrows, but smiling. “It’s really warm already.”

“I, um,” he starts, tucking his hair behind his ears, patting down his clothes, trying to fight off the feeling that he’s been caught. “We—I, I guess, I’ve got some news.”

She tilts her head. The way she’s looking at him tells him that she already knows.

“Why don’t you come and tell me about it, then,” she says anyway, squeezing his shoulder. “I’ll make breakfast.”

Harry grins. It feels a little plastic, like that’s not what his face was made to do.

“That sounds amazing,” he says, and follows her when she turns to go inside. As he bends down to take his shoes off, the yellow flower flutters to the ground, a speck of muted colour in the windowless front room. He looks, stares at it, but leaves it on the ground.

Mum’s already got two pans on the stove when he makes it to the kitchen, and she’s opened the window to let some air inside.

Harry reaches for the fridge to take out the eggs. He can’t help squinting out into the sunshine as he does.

There’s Louis, still in the front garden, the earthy colours of him drowning in a sea of bright green grass. His hands are folded over his chest, still, his face relaxed, lips parted just a little bit.

Harry recognises that look, in some all-but-forgotten part of himself.

He’s asleep.

*

*

Harry spends exactly five minutes in Heathrow before he has to go back outside to take a breath.

It’s an unfamiliar kind of overload, this ever-moving mass of people, sounds, smells, thousands and thousands of them in a space that shouldn’t fit them all. It’s a dramatic change from the small towns and villages where Harry’s spent the last months, and the air feels like sludge, heavy in his lungs.

“Mr Styles,” Peter says, arms crossed and looking around warily. “I can get an attendant to take us through, there’s no need to actually walk through—“

“No,” Harry shakes his head. He runs his hands through his hair once, twice, three times, until it’s hanging loose by the sides of his face. It makes him feel safer.

That worries him – he does go out on stage in front of thousands for a living, after all – but there are more pressing matters at hand. Namely, getting on the plane.

“Are you sure?” Peter asks, clearly disapproving of Harry’s genius plan (commercial flight, no extra security). “I can at least get you a lounge while I drop off the luggage?”

Harry, mildly nauseous, smiles at him. “I feel better now,” he lies. “Let’s go, we don’t want to miss it.”

Peter nods, but the frown stays on his face all the way to their gate.

It’s a strange feeling, leaving England. It has a way of getting under your skin, despite the mild weather and terrible rain. Harry gets a little choked up looking at a Dairy Milk display.

“Everything okay?” Peter asks him, with a patient hand on his elbow. Harry shakes himself.

“I’m fine,” he replies, and turns away from the chocolate. It’s not like he’s never coming back, especially not if his mum has anything to say about it. “Just feel a bit—weird, like I’m forgetting something.”

Peter frowns, and counts their carry-ons just in case. It makes Harry smile, but it’s not the kind of forgetting he’s talking about – it’s more like leaving the house and having to go back because you’re convinced you didn’t lock the front door, like that nagging feeling you get halfway through a journey that there must be something crucial that you’re missing.

There isn’t, and Harry knows this. He packed every last possession he had, because he wasn’t going to leave any of him behind in Louis’s house, and the divorce papers should be safe in the hands of the lawyer Louis recommended (whose name, apparently, is Phil, and who sounded absolutely lovely when they spoke on the phone). Niall’s sorted everything on the LA end – he’s got an attendant waiting for him at LAX, and a car. He’s texted mum that he’s safely at the airport, and he successfully managed to contain his excitement and not text Marcus, because he wants this to be a surprise. Everything is fine.

“I’m sure Louis will let you know if you’ve left anything behind,” Peter points out, shouldering people to the side as he leads the way.

Louis gets a first name, apparently, no stiff Mr Tomlinson. Harry sighs.

The runway is windy when they’re led out, and patchy with the rain that’s starting to fall. Harry squints against it, following the black shadows of Peter’s heels up the stairs and into the plane.

He settles in to sleep as soon as he’s in his pod. Peter wishes him goodnight, even as he sits ramrod straight and scans every single passenger that passes. He looks like a gopher guarding the entrance to its tunnel, and Harry tells him as much, which makes him laugh.

Mum texts him just before he turns on airplane mode, a picture of Dusty sitting on the windowsill in the kitchen. Already looking for you, she’s written, with one of the tongue out emojis that make Harry intensely uncomfortable.

I’ll see her soon! he writes back, smiling to himself when another text comes through. He decides to ignore it, lest he get in a conversation he can’t finish, but it’s not mum this time.

Louis’s name sits, bright white, on his screen, completely plain and yet enough to get Harry’s throat to close up. He still doesn’t know why they exchanged numbers before he left, just that it felt like the right thing to do.

Louis’s message bears the same kind of sincere simplicity: Have a safe journey, and nothing else. Harry doesn’t reply, but there’s an undeniable warmth sparking in his fingertips as he turns off his phone and puts it away.

He leans back, trying to relax, and looks up at the grey sky outside. He tries to commit it to memory. It’s not a goodbye, he keeps telling himself.

Not again.

*

Los Angeles, as expected, is warm in a way that makes the English summer seem entirely inadequate. Harry only gets to feel the sunshine on his skin for the few seconds between the exit and the car, but it feels like it’s injecting its brightness straight into his veins. He’s smiling when he slides into the backseat, bizarrely happy to see the wide highway below, the blue sky, the larger-than-life buildings glistening in the distance.

The air conditioning is on, of course, keeping out the oppressive heat of the day, but Harry must be carrying some of it inside himself, spreading from his chest outwards, heating up his cheeks as he gets closer to home.

“Excited to be back, Mr Styles?” Peter asks, catching his eye in the rearview mirror. He looks relaxed, much happier than he did back at Heathrow – he, too, has finally come home.

“Is it that obvious?” Harry asks, his face all but pressed against the window as they ascend into the hills.

“I’m afraid so,” Peter smiles, and Harry grins back. It’s been months, and he doesn’t want to bother with hiding how happy he is. Twenty more minutes, and he’s finally going to be back in his own house, with his fiancé—

Ah, right. His fiancé, who needs to be informed about Harry’s situation right away. Harry had thought on how to go about it, once he woke up somewhere over the Pacific, but there’s no sensitive way to tell the man who loves you that you’d been married to someone else for the past five years.

It does put a bit of a damper on his mood, but it can’t completely extinguish the balloon of happiness inside his chest – nothing can, especially not when a familiar white gate comes into view.

Harry shakes the driver’s hand, thanks him hastily, and runs for the door without worrying about any of his luggage. Marcus’ car is in the driveway, and so is his PA’s, so Harry doesn’t bother with digging for keys either, and marches straight in. The smell of the place almost brings tears to his eyes – vanilla, their houseplants, a few of his favourite lotions he uses so much that they permanently hang in the air. It’s the kind of thing you don’t notice when you’re there every day, but it hits him square in the face now. He closes his eyes to breathe it in.

“Hello?” he calls, a little too soft. He’s not sure whether he wants to find Marcus, or wants Marcus to find him. Which one would lend itself better to the conversation they need to have.

Either way, there’s no response. Harry toes off his shoes, shrugs out of his jacket. It feels a little like coming home from tour, if tour made him exhausted and miserable.

There are boxes piled up in the hall, gifts from sponsors and things he’d probably ordered before he left, but he’d be hard-pressed to remember what they are. He makes his way around them. The tiled floor is chilly under his feet, makes him feel a little cold even after the cool interior of the car.

He’s happy, so happy to see that everything looks the same. Even his ficus, tucked in-between the sofa and one of the armchairs, is looking healthy and green. The leaves curl around his fingers when he touches them, and make him smile.

The ceilings, though – the ceilings seem to be much higher than he remembers, and he’s forgotten that every single step echoes as he walks across the living room. Still, his artwork is here, hung all over the far wall exactly how he likes it, and the terrace—oh, the terrace.

The breeze greets him happily when he slides the door open, immediately tossing his hair off his shoulders. Absolute silence rises up to meet him at first, and then, with another lick of the breeze, the shaky sound of wind amongst leaves. Beverly Hills is spread out below, white houses scattered in the greenery like pebbles, the crisp blue shapes of swimming pools, and that soothingly familiar light playing on the ocean. Harry steps to the very edge to see it, wraps his fingers around the railing and just looks, looks until his vision is flickering yellow and blue.

This is what he’s missed – the space, and the type of tranquility that doesn’t make him feel like he’s suffocating. He breathes in the air in deep, sweet lungfuls.

“Mr Styles,” Peter’s voice reaches him from inside, forcing him to turn away from the water. “I’ve brought all your things in.”

Harry’s cheeks go a little warm. He normally helps, but he’d been too excited.

“Thank you,” he says, reluctantly pushing away from the railing and going back inside. “I’m sorry I left you to do it by yourself, I just—“

“No, I understand,” Peter says. He’s still smiling, content; Harry is incredibly happy to see him this way, to know that he’ll finally be sleeping in a proper bed, rather than a car or a tent or Louis’s living room. “It feels like it’s been so long.”

“I know,” Harry replies, wrapping his arms around himself. The hum of outside doesn’t quite reach him in here, and he itches to go back to it, to look at the sky. There’s something unsettling about the ceilings – they’re just tall enough for him to forget that they’re there, but they meet him, white and uncompromising, every time he looks up. They seem to be quashing that light, happy feeling in his chest, preventing it from making him fly. “I don’t know if I’ve ever been away for this long, it’s just—so good to finally be home.”

Peter nods. He seems jittery, moving Harry’s suitcases back and forth until they’re arranged by size at the bottom of the stairs. This is when Harry realises that he’s safe now, protected by two gates and a state-of-the-art security system.

“Peter,” he says, to stop him from moving. Peter stills immediately, folding his hands behind his back as he listens. “I think I’ll be okay from here.”

“Would you like me to check the house, just in case?”

Harry smiles, bizarrely emotional. They’ll quite literally see each other the next time he fancies a shopping trip.

“You don’t have to,” he shakes his head. “Marcus is home, I don’t think we’ve got any stalkers hiding up here. You deserve to go home, too, so please – don’t stay on my account.”

Peter shakes his head. “You know it’s always my pleasure, Mr Styles. At the risk of sounding unprofessional, I don’t think I would have enjoyed camping in anybody’s front garden as much as I enjoyed camping in yours.”

Harry laughs – giggles, really, and once he’s started he finds that he can’t stop. “I’m happy to hear that,” he says through a grin. “I don’t think I would have let anyone else follow me around so much. Thank you for keeping me safe, Peter.”

“Of course,” Peter replies, and even bows a little. When he extends a hand for Harry to shake, Harry takes it, but pulls him into a hug instead.

Peter huffs in surprise, but hugs him back, patting him on the back with a hand so strong it almost knocks Harry’s breath out.

“I’ll see you later, Mr Styles?”

“See you later, Peter,” Harry smiles, and watches him go through one of the big windows next to the entrance. He waits until the car pulls off and disappears down the hill before he turns away, intent on getting back to the breeze and sunshine.

Except then someone’s running down the stairs. Harry freezes for a moment, can’t help feeling like he’s been caught doing something bad.

It’s Marcus, he’s sure, especially when he hears him clumsily pattering around the kitchen. He rounds the corner to see in there, thinking of how best to surprise his fiancé, but—he stops on the spot. The person in his kitchen has short black hair.

Harry squints, and waits until he can see them from profile. He recognises the upturned nose – it’s Josh. As in Marcus’ PA Josh, in Harry’s kitchen drinking coconut water out of the carton. Without a shirt on.

Harry has to physically pinch himself to stop immediately coming to conclusions. There has to be a good explanation for this, surely, and he’s being dramatic, but—the realities of the situation drop into his stomach one by one like stones, making him nauseous.

Okay, Harry. Deep breath. Walk in there like nothing’s happening, because nothing is.

He opens his mouth, shapes it around the word hi a few times to make sure he still knows how to say it. Then he steps forward, at the same moment as another set of footsteps descends down the stairs. This time, the rhythm of it is intimately familiar, to the point where it makes Harry’s chest ache.

“Hi,” someone is saying, but it’s not Harry, who’s still stuck in the foyer under his favourite abstract cat painting. It’s Marcus, with a playful lilt in his voice that Harry’s never heard.

“Hey,” Josh replies. Harry pokes his head back out, watching. Marcus isn’t wearing a shirt – actually, Marcus isn’t wearing anything. “You hungry?”

Harry’s got a front seat to see the end of his life.

“Starving,” Marcus grins, and tucks himself into a corner to let Josh rummage around the cupboards, the pantry, in the fridge. He takes out Harry’s fancy induction pan and his spatula and his cutlery and—

“What are you gonna make?” Marcus asks, just audible through the angry thrumming in Harry’s ears. There’s a pounding in his temples too, like the truth that he’s hell-bent on denying is demanding to be let in.

Josh turns around to face him. His bare back presses against the marble countertop. He’s got a look on his face like he’s squinting into the sun, grinning.

“Your favourite,” he says, tilting his head. “Pancakes.”

That’s not his favourite, Harry’s brain shouts, venomous. Marcus doesn’t even like sweets—

“You know me so well,” he says; Harry can’t see his face, but there’s a smile in his voice.

He feels so very, incredibly sick.

It’s like he’s watching a film, looking through this distorted lens at somebody else’s life. This isn’t happening to him, not after everything.

The distance between Josh and Marcus gets smaller, somehow, even though they don’t look like they’re moving. There must be some freak type of gravity pulling them together, making their smiles wider like they’re not doing what they’re doing, like Harry’s presence isn’t in every square inch of this house, every last pot and pan and pillow Josh has touched and—oh God—did they both just come out of his and Marcus’ bedroom?

Marcus takes Josh’s face in his hands. Every fibre in Harry’s body comes alive with cold, brutal rage. He watches for a few more seconds – just to see them kiss, to make sure that he’s not wrong. Then, he takes a step towards the kitchen, and he makes sure to be loud.

They jump apart, which gives Harry a twisted kind of satisfaction. He stares them both down as they take him in, as Marcus shouts and grabs a plate – a plate? – to cover himself.

“B-babe,” he stutters. The word pierces through Harry’s steely anger and embeds right in his heart, shard-sharp. “I didn’t know you were home.”

“I didn’t know I needed to announce my presence in my own house,” Harry replies. The sound of his own voice scares him a little. He turns to Josh, and puts on the fakest smile he’s capable of. “Josh, hello. Long time no see.”

Josh doesn’t have the same deer-in-the-headlights look on, though, and he doesn’t back down in the face of Harry’s fury. He’s got his arms crossed over his naked chest, defiant as you please, so very comfortable in Harry’s kitchen. This is far from the first time he’s been here – far from the first time he’s been here because of this.

“Harry,” he smiles, all syrupy sweetness. “We weren’t expecting you back so soon.”

We. Harry’s heart lurches; something in him gives way, and he has to brace against the wall to keep himself upright.

“Would you care to explain,” he turns to Marcus, “or should I just start packing your things?”

The thick grit of tears is creeping into his voice. He won’t give into it, at least not while Josh is still there.

Marcus, somehow, looks surprised. “Babe,” he says, like he knows exactly what the word does to Harry, like he’s using it against him. “Let’s not rush into anything, I know this looks bad, but let me explain—“

“Let you explain?” Harry throws back, shrill. He uncrumples himself, stands up straight, trying to look taller, and like he’s not dying of stab wounds. “What could you possibly need to explain, Marcus, I walked in here and saw the two of you—“

“Harry, please. Be rational about this. You can’t have expected me to be celibate for three years.”

Harry opens his mouth. For a minute, nothing comes out, but he feels the tell-tale heat of an embarrassed blush across his cheeks. “You,” he says, “you—you said you didn’t mind.”

Marcus sighs, and all but rolls his eyes. Harry’s knees threaten to give out. “I lied,” he says, like it’s obvious, like Harry shouldn’t have trusted him to tell the truth. “I can’t—it’s just not possible, Harry. I figured you were probably getting it somewhere else too, that maybe I just wasn’t for you and we could be partners in every other way, so just—don’t blame me for this.”

Harry crosses the room. There’s an island separating the kitchen from the living room, and it’s a good thing too, because if it didn’t stand in Harry’s way he probably would have put his hands on Marcus’s throat. He’s shaking, but the anger’s trickling out, slowly, hesitantly, making way for complete devastation.

“How could you do this to me?” he asks pathetically. “How could you—I wasn’t getting it somewhere else, Marcus, I wouldn’t dream of doing that.”

Marcus raises his eyebrows. He’s no longer hunched on himself in fear, but he is still holding a plate in front of his crotch. “How was I supposed to know that?”

Harry blinks.

“Look, I—when you said you weren’t ready to sleep with me, I thought okay, let’s give it a few months, I’m sure it’ll sort itself out eventually, but you just—never showed any interest. I thought you were getting off with someone else because you’ve barely kissed me in the last three years, but I guess you’re just that cold?”

Harry blinks again, but this time, his vision is blurry. “That’s not true,” he says, through the grief clawing at his throat. “You know that’s not true. I love you.”

“You gave me a peck on the cheek when I left England,” Marcus says, and there’s a fight gearing up in him now, coiling like venomous snakes in the tense line of his shoulders. “You didn’t even know when you were going to see me again, and that’s all I got. I need more than that, Harry.”

“Then you should have told me!” Harry shouts—screams. It rises to those terrifyingly tall ceilings and comes back as a tinny echo. “I can’t believe you’re trying to put this one me when—when you never said a thing. Why wouldn’t you tell me if you weren’t happy?”

He wipes at his face in embarrassment, erasing the few stubborn tears that have managed to escape. He’s not going to do this in front of him, in front of them. He’s got to stay angry, because otherwise—

“It’s just convenient this way,” he shrugs – only one shoulder, because Josh is leaning against the other, smirking at Harry as he presses a kiss there. The place where it joins Marcus’ collarbone used to be Harry’s favourite place to sleep, used to be where he felt safest, but—it was never his in the first place.

God, it was never his.

“Convenient,” he repeats.

“Easier,” Marcus corrects himself, speaking impatiently like Harry’s a child that isn’t getting something. “Everyone I hooked up with knew that I was in a relationship, and then engaged, so they wouldn’t get too attached, and I’d always come home to a warm meal and a cuddle and—emotional support, I guess. I didn’t see a reason not to marry you.”

“You mean aside from the fact that you were fucking other people—” he has to stop, to keep himself from hyperventilating.

Marcus didn’t see a reason not to marry him, and that was all. He didn’t see a reason not to.

Unbidden, scrawled words on a page emerge from the back of his mind. I, Louis Tomlinson, choose you above all to share my life. I choose you, above all.

God.

“You can’t really pretend you have some higher moral ground to stand on,” Josh pipes in. Harry’s spoken to him many times before, and he was always perfectly polite, nice and friendly in that effortless way that most people in LA tend to be. His voice now is all but literally dripping venom, and he’s smiling like someone who knows he’s about to deliver the killing blow. “Since you’re already married, and all.”

Marcus whips his head around to look at him, and Josh puts a hand on his face. “I’m sorry, babe, I didn’t want to tell you and stress you out.”

Marcus looks back at Harry, dislodging the hand. His eyes are—Harry doesn’t know. He can’t quite read in them anymore.

“You’re already married?” he asks, his tone something like polite interest. He’s certainly not on the verge of a breakdown like Harry is, and he’s the one who found his fiancé actually, physically cheating. “Who the hell are you married to?”

This is the conversation, then. It’s just—not happening the way Harry thought it would.

“Louis,” he says, plain and simple. He doesn’t really feel bad anymore. “We got married when we were kids. I hadn’t seen him since I moved here, and I went back to England to finally get divorced.”

“Louis,” Marcus repeats. Harry doesn’t want his name in Marcus’ mouth. “As in your childhood friend? The one who acted nice around me while you were, what – getting off behind my back?”

His shoulders rise even higher, almost all the way up to his ears until he’s hunching like an angry bull.

“We were not getting off,” Harry says. He’s stopped crying for now, thank God, but he feels—very, very tired. “I told you, I didn’t see him for years. But he—he kept sending the papers back unsigned, so when we got engaged I figured the quickest way to get a divorce was to ask for it in person.”

Marcus crosses his arms. “Then why did you stay for months?”

“He wouldn’t sign,” Harry replies, and takes his eyes off him. He’s got a mountain of a headache forming right in the centre of his forehead. He tries looking at the walls, so blankly, uniformly white, but it doesn’t help. “I tried every single day, and he always refused, so I just decided to—“

“Rekindle the romance?” Josh sneers. “You know, I really thought you cared about Marcus. I thought you’d at least speed it up a little after you got my little note.”

The air in the room disappears.

Later, Harry will probably try to figure how he missed the fact that nobody here, least of all Josh, was supposed to know about his marriage; that him bringing it up is probably the scariest thing that happened today.

Later, he’ll do that. Right now he’s too busy trying to breathe.

“You,” he gets out, gasps really, and finds pure malice in Josh’s eyes when he gets the courage to meet them. “It was you this whole time?”

“Of course it was me,” Josh rolls his eyes. He unglues himself from Marcus’ side and steps towards the island, until he’s leaning into Harry’s personal space. “I found a record of your marriage after Marcus asked me to get together some paperwork for the lawyer. You can imagine my surprise when I realised that the divorce date column was blank.”

Marcus joins them, walking clumsily to sit at the island, still holding on to the plate. A hysterical laugh bubbles in Harry’s throat, but it dies as he watches Marcus wrap his arm around Josh’s waist.

“What’s going on?” he asks, confused.

Harry doesn’t have the strength to explain. He doesn’t even need to, now that—now that their life together is no more.

He drops his forehead to the counter to collect himself, to refocus, to tame the anger pulsing behind his temples. It’s pleasantly cool, but it feels wrong now, as does everything else in the house. He sees silhouettes in every reflection, other people’s fingerprints on every surface. He wonders how many have slept on his side of the bed, over the years.

“I just gave Harry here a little fright, as punishment for being a bad person,” Josh replies, content. He’s won, Harry supposes – he can have Marcus now. Harry will happily leave him to Josh’s greedy little hands.

“What?” Marcus asks. Harry raises his head – he’s frowning.

“The phone calls,” he says, and even saying it raises goosebumps on the back of his neck. “I told you about them before I even left.”

“The weird ones? With the breathing?”

“Yes,” Harry nods. “Apparently, that was your latest toy boy, here.”

He feels around for his phone, and is pleased to still find it in the back pocket of his jeans. He’s got to text Niall, and his lawyer, and—shit, should he be recording this? Is this a confession?

“You—what?” Marcus turns to Josh, whose smirk is still wide, but a little less self-satisfied. He, too, must notice the genuine concern that draws Marcus’ brows together. “Why would you do that?”

Josh rolls his eyes. “I told you, I just wanted to scare him a little. It was a game, it’s not like I was every going to—“

“You threatened to give it to the press,” Harry interrupts. “You said it was going to go live today unless I left Marcus.”

Marcus opens his mouth, but magically, no words come out. He takes back the arm he had around Josh’s waist.

“Well, luckily for you, you just made it,” Josh smirks. “Not that that’s going to stop me from doing it, of course.”

“I’m divorced,” Harry smiles back at him, joyless. The words still taste bitter. “So I’m afraid you’re going to have to come up with something else.”

That, at least, seems to surprise him. Harry uses his momentary lack of wit to get himself up, stumbling on wobbly legs. He might be in shock, if his ice-cold skin is anything to go by, and he needs—he needs.

He reaches for his phone. Marcus speaks.

“Why would you do that?”

“Babe—“

“No, why would you—there’s no need to go that far, Jesus Christ. Why couldn’t you just leave him alone?”

Josh takes a few steps back. He’s cowering now, making himself small as he faces Marcus’ wild frown.

“It was just a game, babe. I swear, I would never make it messy—“

“You made me afraid for my life,” Harry jumps in. Hearing him call it a game when he spent days at a time scared of going outside, when he thought his career would be ruined for one idiotic mistake—“I had to fly in a bodyguard. I didn’t feel safe anywhere, I couldn’t sleep, you—you gave me a panic attack,” his voice rises, but he can’t bring himself to care. He’s allowed to shout, damn it. “You might have treated it like a game, but it was real for me, Josh. It was real.”

Josh locks his jaw, and doesn’t say a thing.

Harry shakes his head. “I can’t believe you’re both just as bad as each other,” he says, spitting the words out of his mouth like bad teeth. “At least you’ve found one another, I suppose. I hope you’re really fucking happy together.”

Marcus starts shaking his head, and gets up. He finally puts his plate down, grabs a dishtowel that he ties around his waist, and walks around the island – towards Harry.

“Babe, no,” he’s saying, in a voice that makes Harry feel dangerously pliant. “Look, I don’t like what he did to you, you heard what I—I can fire him if you want me to. We can be happy together again.”

Harry almost laughs, backing away as Marcus comes closer. “What?”

“It can be just you and me this time. I think—we’ve both done bad things, right? They can cancel each other out. We can stay engaged, bring the wedding forward, get married in big style like you wanted.”

His wedding. God, his wedding. Harry’s heart hurts when he thinks of all the preparations he’s made, the things he’s picked out, tuxes, flowers, rings, everything he wanted so very badly after years of thinking he got cheated out of having a real wedding the first time around.

“Please stop,” he manages to ask, still taking careful steps back into the foyer.

“No, Harry, listen to me – I won’t sleep around this time. Now that you know, maybe you can work on being less—you know.”

“Less cold.”

“Yeah,” Marcus smiles, like he doesn’t even realise. “Yes. We can be a real married couple, with everything that comes with it, let’s just talk—“

And he reaches out, then, fingers splayed wide to wrap around Harry’s wrist. Harry’s back hits a wall.

“Don’t touch me,” he says, but Marcus doesn’t stop. “Don’t—don’t you fucking dare, Marcus.”

Then, finally, a stillness. Josh is making soft noises back in the kitchen, like he’s crying.

“Babe,” Marcus tries. Harry wraps his arms around himself, curls into a ball against the wall.

“Leave,” he says, and despite the turmoil inside, his voice is firm. “Get out of my house, Marcus. I don’t want to be a real married couple, I don’t even want to see you, I just want you gone.”

It aches, somewhere deep inside, to talk to Marcus like this. On the way here, Harry had wanted nothing more than to curl up with him on the sofa and watch a terrible movie, and now it’s all gone. There is no them anymore, and Harry—Harry has nothing.

He’s all alone.

“Please,” Marcus tries, one last time, but he’s already walking backwards. “Just one more try?”

“Get. Out. Of my house,” Harry repeats. “Both of you.”

Josh picks himself up from the kitchen island, tips his chin up, and walks past both of them to the front door. He’s still not wearing a shirt.

“Goodbye, Marcus,” he says, his cheeks red. “I quit.”

Then he turns around and walks out. Harry blinks as he watches him go through the glass pane in the door. It’s not the last time he’s seeing him, if his lawyer has anything to say about it, but—there’s something in the air that disappears the second Josh’s car rolls through the gate and away.

“I—we weren’t in a relationship or anything, you know. He was just a good—“

“Oh my God, get out!” Harry shouts, and has to physically stop himself from throwning the nearest breakable object. Blood is thrumming in his veins, red-hot and angry.

That, thankfully, gets Marcus upstairs. Harry slides down the wall until he’s sitting down, hiding his face in his knees. He can’t even begin to deal with the gravity of this, with his life as he’s known it for years suddenly turning upside down, and God, there’s so much stuff here that they bought together, so many memories of what Harry thought was happiness when Marcus was really leaving to fuck somebody else—

He wipes at his face again. The cool scrape of metal against skin stops him short.

He wiggles the ring off, and looks at it in the watery evening sunlight. There’s no sparkle to it, barely any shine, just never-ending lines etched in silvery metal. Harry doesn’t like it, he realises.

When Marcus comes down the stairs, in flip-flops and shorts and messy hair with a full duffel over his shoulder, Harry extends it to him. He holds it between the tips of his fingers like a dead animal, more to make a point than anything else.

Marcus frowns, then looks down at it.

“Oh,” he says, squeezing the strap of his bag. “I don’t want it.”

“Fine,” Harry replies, and moves to leave.

“Where are you going?” Marcus calls after him, like he’s expecting Harry to see him out. “I thought maybe—“

“Stop thinking, then,” Harry turns around. He’s almost at the terrace, and the light pouring in through it hits the other end of the room, lights up Marcus’s blond hair and tan skin. Harry doesn’t want to look at him anymore. “Stop thinking, and get in your car.”

“Can I come get my other things—“

“Just call Niall to sort it out, I don’t care. I’m not staying here.”

The soft noise of a bag hitting the ground. Harry grinds his teeth in frustration.

“Where are you going to go?”

“Somewhere where you didn’t stick your dick in the first ass that passed you,” Harry returns, cruel with abandon. He doesn’t care, he doesn’t care, he doesn’t care. “Probably hard to find a place like that, but I’ll do my best.”

Marcus looks hurt. It’s almost laughable, Harry thinks, because he’s so thoroughly shattered it feels like his skin is hanging off of him in shreds, like his chest’s carved open, like if he wanted, he could reach inside and throw his heart right at Marcus as he leaves. Make a few stains on the pristine whiteness of the room.

“Goodbye, then,” Marcus finally says, and opens the door. The air gets close to being breathable again.

“Bye,” Harry says, and takes one last look into Marcus’ eyes. Blue, but too pale. “Leave the keys.”

Then he turns back around, and walks out onto the terrace. The breeze welcomes him back soft and warm, wrapping around him without stirring anything, like it knows he needs to be soothed.

Harry strains his ears, listens, until the gravel starts shifting under wheels, until the gate beeps as it lets Marcus out of his life and shuts behind him.

Then, he closes his fist, draws his arm back, and gives up what used to be his engagement ring to the green valleys of Beverly Hills.

Chapter Text

When Harry gets his phone out to call Niall, he realises it's still off from the plane. The second he puts his passcode in, a flurry of notification sounds spill out of the speakers.

He's got-five voicemails, twenty texts. Seventeen emails. A cold sweat breaks out on his forehead as he sits down on his front step and starts going through them.

Voicemails first, because he doesn't know anyone who leaves those anymore, so he figures it must be something pressing. To his chagrin, he's absolutely right.

“Hello, Mr Styles, it's Phil here,” the lawyer's shaky voice fills Harry's ear. “I don't want to worry you, everything's going well with your documents, but I did run into a bit of a hiccup, so I would really appreciate if you could call me back at your earliest convenience.”

No. Not this, not when-Harry sighs, and listens on. Maybe the other four are full of Phil apologising and reassuring him that everything is, in fact, going according to plan.

“Mr Styles, Phil again,” starts voicemail number two. It's considerably less composed that the first one. “I am really very sorry to bother you like this, but I am aware of the urgency of your situation, so I must insist that you call me back as soon as possible.”

The sweat's dripping down Harry's back now, cool and uncomfortable. His body doesn't seem to be capable of exhibiting any other outward signs of stress after what he just went through, but his heart is determinedly climbing higher and higher up the back of his throat.

The next voicemail is the same worried nonsense, but in the fourth one, Phil even skips the Mr Styles in the beginning.

“Harry, I've emailed you a scan of the document now, I hate to make this so complicated, but I've recently been made aware that you are now out of the UK, so could you just-actually, sorry, I just realised I didn't explain the issue. The papers are drawn up very well, like I told you when we spoke, and I've had Mr Tomlinson's signature verified, but Mr Styles, you didn't sign them. I can't use these to divorce you without consent from both parties, so please, if you could just print the copy out, sign it and scan it back for me? Thank you very much, sorry about all this. I wish you a safe journey.”

Harry's stomach does a sick little lurch.

“What do you mean, I didn't sign them?” he says into the phone automatically, and only realises that won't work when he hears the beep at the end of the message.

He exits the voicemail, and looks up at the sky trying to think back. He went through the folder over and over, reading over the terms, looking at the loops and lines of Louis's signature - he must have signed. There's no way he would be that stupid, after all this trouble. He remembers holding the pen in his hand and writing his name-

Into the blue folder. He groans out loud. He'd signed the papers in the blue folder on the plane to London, because he thought he was going to be able to bring the complete thing right back.

He lets the last message play, and jumps when it's not in Phil's nasally voice.

“Hey,” says Louis, breathing into the receiver. Harry's entire body just-relaxes. “You're probably still in the air, but Phil's just called about some issue he had that he needs you to sort out, and he's-mate, he's really stressed,” he chuckles. “So please call him when you get this. And, uh. I don't know if you saw my text before you took off, so just in case you didn't, I hope you had a good trip home.” There's silence. Harry holds his breath. “I-,” he starts, but there's a crash, and a voice that sounds very much like Ernest cackling madly in the background. “I have to go. Call Phil. Goodbye, Harry.”

And that's the end of it.

Harry doesn't check the texts or emails - they're all probably about the same thing anyway. He takes a deep breath, tells himself that he's making the right decision, and dials Phil's number.

*

He's back in England just a little over twenty-four hours after he left it. It welcomes him back with mild, wan sunshine.

The sun's just about to set when he makes it out to his rental - a Honda this time, Christ - and folds himself into it. He slept the entire journey back, trying to avoid descending into hysterics until he was in his mum's arms, but his body must be pissed at him for having to go through so many time zones, because he can barely stay awake.

There's no way he can stay the night here, though. He needs a shoulder to cry on, and he needs it now. He stops at a McDonald's drive through, and gets two coffees just in case. Then he puts on an EDM station to keep him awake, and turns North.

He makes it to the road in the woods just before midnight. The gate is still open, luckily, and he gets to drive all the way to the house. It emerges in-between the trees window by window, most of them lit up a warm yellow. Just looking at it puts Harry slightly more at ease, for reasons he refuses to examine.

There's a tattered football on the front lawn that wasn't there when he left, and the baby twins' pushbikes are parked just below the porch. Harry smiles when he steps over them.

He's nervous when he knocks, but jittery above all, going a little mad with pent-up anger and grief and these feelings he can't quite put a name to, itching to let all of it out. There's no reason to be nervous, he keeps telling himself.

It's not like the first time. He's welcome here.

His insides don't seem to be on board with the idea, though, because they all twist when Louis is the one to open the door.

Harry gets a second to take him in. He looks the same as yesterday, just a little more tired, a little softer in the bright hallway light. He's holding a cup of tea in one hand. A little bit of it sloshes out when his grips slackens with surprise.

He rubs one of his eyes. “I feel like I'm hallucinating,” he says, and Harry-Harry laughs.

“I'm real,” he says, and adds an awkward little wave. “I'm really sorry for barging in this late, but I was hoping mum would be in-“

“Oh, come in,” Louis shakes himself awake, and steps aside. Harry smiles gratefully and squeezes past him, automatically toeing off his shoes.

It smells the same. Looks the same, too. It's because he's only been gone one day, but he can't help cataloguing everything just like the first time. Now, though, his surroundings are much more comforting, and they wrap around his shoulders like a blanket - the pale remnants of pictures on the walls, an array of empty mugs he can just see on the kitchen table, the fading smell of dinner, all of it, it feels like-

Home.

“Your mum's not in, I'm afraid,” Louis says, biting his lip as he closes the door.

Harry frowns. The imaginary blanket slips off his shoulders, leaves him suddenly exposed to the cold.

“Where is she?”

“Girls' night out,” Louis replies, setting his tea down on a side table. He's watching Harry like he's a stray that's just come in from the street, like he's afraid of spooking him. “With my mum and sisters. I was babysitting, sorry about the mess.”

Harry just waves a hand. His mum's not here. He's been holding everything in so tightly, keeping it on a tight leash it because he knew he'd get to let it out as soon as he stepped in, but. She's not in.

“You're welcome to stay, obviously, your-the room upstairs is the same way you left it, if you need to sleep off jetlag or anything, just-you know where everything is, feel free to help yourself.” He's talking a lot, and fast. He hurries away as soon as he's done, puttering around the kitchen and dropping things, by the sound of it.

Harry takes a second to stand, breathe in, and try to decide what to do next. He won't cry himself to sleep, he decides. He's had more than enough dramatics for the day - days. He's not entirely sure what the date is.

Still, it would seem that he's staying, again. He wanders back out into the front garden, and to the car, to get his things. It's the same suitcase he left with, still locked with the padlock he put on just over there on the porch.

He almost laughs when he turns back around and takes in the dark silhouette of the house. Who would've thought?

Back inside, Louis is nowhere to be seen. It unsettles Harry, but he did just barge in uninvited, so he doesn't go off looking for him, and instead walks upstairs to put his things back.

The room is, actually, the same way he left it. Nobody's put the bedding away, and the wardrobe door still hangs open from when he got his clothes out. He decides to put them back, hanger by hanger, just to have something to occupy his hands, to help him calm down.

He could always call mum. She wouldn't hesitate to come back and give him the comfort he so desperately craves, but-he can't do that. Not when she's out enjoying herself.

Once he's done with clothes, he unpacks his toiletries, obsessively arranging them in neat lines on the dresser.

He orders them by purpose, then by size, then notices how badly his hands are shaking and sweeps them all to the ground.

“Harry?” Louis's voice comes from down the corridor. Its owner appears in the doorway a second later, with a concerned wrinkle between his eyebrows. “Everything okay?”

Harry looks at the pile of creams and lotions scattered at his feet.

“Not really,” he says.

When he looks up, Louis is nodding. He seems to be wringing his hands in the long sleeves he's wearing, even on a warm night.

“Right,” he says. “Do you-do you fancy a drink?”

Harry begins to realise they're both dealing with something. In fact, their somethings seem to be reaching out to each other, meeting in the middle of the room like long-lost friends. Look, they're saying. Louis's knees are shaking just like your hands.

Harry takes a breath, and turns his back to the room. “I'd love a drink.”

It's a wonder, really, that getting drunk out of his mind had not been an option he considered. Maybe he can avoid a breakdown altogether. Maybe he can cure himself of this terrible, terrible emptiness in his chest.

He follows Louis through the corridor - they both touch the white door, wordless - then down the stairs, into the living room. The telly is on there, with the volume just low enough to fill every corner of the room with pleasant white noise.

He takes a seat on the sofa. Louis walks on, to the cabinet next to the fireplace.

“Any preferences?” he asks as he opens it. Harry stares, hypnotized, at the swishing hem of his cardigan and forgets to answer. “Harry. Are you picky about booze these days?”

“No.”

Louis hums. Harry can't see the bottles he's looking at, only the gleaming black silhouettes of them. He touches one, pulls another one out from the back, then returns it.

“How bad is it?” he asks, turning to Harry. The blue light of the TV makes his wrinkles look deeper than they really are.

“How bad is what?”

“Whatever this is,” Louis waves a hand towards Harry. “Whatever brought you back here when you're supposed to be celebrating.”

Right. Harry unconsciously curls in on himself, sinking into the cushions. His heart jumps into his throat, then free-falls into the very bottom of his stomach, making him feel seasick.

“Bad,” is what he settles on. “Pretty-yeah, pretty bad.”

Louis's eyes soften. “That's what I thought.”

He bends down - the long piece of fringe comes loose, and he tucks it back behind his ear - to dig something out of the very back.

“Wine?” Harry raises an eyebrow when he realises what Louis has picked.

“It's not just wine,” Louis replies, with soft mischief tucked into the corner of his mouth. Harry watches his every move as he produces a corkscrew and two glasses out of the bottom half of the cupboard. It's a great way to distract himself, he's found. “It's a 2000 Château Margaux. Worth about seven grand, give or take.”

Harry blinks. “We can't just drink a seven-thousand-pound wine.”

Louis grins this time. He sets the glasses down on the table, tucks himself into the opposite corner of the sofa, and stabs through the cork.

“Why not?”

“Because,” Harry replies intelligently. “It's-the fancy kind's supposed to be for special occasions.”

“Nah,” Louis replies, and accentuates it with the lively pop of the cork. “The more expensive the booze, the better it is at getting rid of heartache. Trust me, I'm a connoisseur.”

“Seven thousand pounds,” Harry repeats. How does Louis even-

“It's fine,” he shakes his head. “Liam got a case of these as a gift, and he hates wine, so there's plenty more where this came from.”

Harry sighs. “Are you sure?” he asks, completely redundant because the bottle's already open, and Louis is all but sticking his nose in it.

“You mind if I don't decant this?” he asks. “I'm afraid I'm not posh enough to own a decanter.”

He's-animated, but in a different way than he was when Harry arrived. There's laughter written all over his face, but it's flimsy, see-through. Harry suspects a single word from him could blow it away.

It makes him feel lighter, though. Like everything's a little less fucked when it's just him and a grinning Louis and this ridiculously expensive bottle of alcohol.

“Suit yourself,” he replies, and stretches his legs a little.

“Thanks,” Louis says, and reaches for a glass. It's a fancy one as well - crystal, Harry guesses, with a delicate pattern carved into the glistening body of it. It fits perfectly into Louis's palm when he holds it in place.

Harry watches, hypnotised, as Louis tilts the bottle just so, his skin bright against the dark shape of it; as the small bones of his wrist shift; as ruby-red wine trickles into the glass and pools there.

Louis-knows how to do this, somehow. Harry's mouth goes a little dry as he takes in every slow, careful movement.

“There,” Louis mumbles, once the first glass is halfway full. Harry only has seconds to prepare himself before it's being extended towards him, still nestled safely in the palm of Louis's hand.

He's smiling, so very, impossibly soft. It feels like a balm on Harry's tired body.

“Thank you,” he says, and tries to smile back.

Their hands touch. Harry lets them, and relishes in the warmth.

He turns to the TV after, somewhat afraid to watch Louis pour another glass. Jon Snow is on screen - Harry can't quite make out what he's saying, but he looks particularly serious about it.

“He's been going on about some poor sod who got stuck in the escalator on the tube.”

In the escalator?”

“Slow news day,” Louis shrugs. He puts the bottle back on the table, pulls his feet up, and all but wraps himself in his cardigan. It makes Harry smile.

“What are you grinning about?” he asks, and turns the volume down another two notches. They're not going to sit here and pretend that nothing's happening, then.

“The cardigan,” Harry replies. “It's such an old person thing to wear.”

Louis's mouth falls open.

“But then, you are almost thirty, so I guess it's understandable.”

Louis is lost for words for a few more seconds. Harry bites his lip.

The silence between them is comfortable, but Harry is still on edge. They're not-like that. Louis might-

Smile, apparently. Smile so wide it makes the corners of his eyes crinkle. “Oh my God, you cheeky bastard.”

“I'm just saying, you're due a midlife crisis any day now-“

“Shut up,” Louis laughs, laughs. A real, delighted, belly-deep laugh. It's as if a fire was blazing in the room, all of a sudden, flooding Harry with warmth, with light. “Shut up.”

He lets go; lets the timid laughter inside of him bubble up to the surface. It's honey-sweet on his tongue, and soothing where it shakes him from the inside. It feels like-healing, but it can barely begin to mend all the torn edges inside him.

Louis takes a sip of wine. Their eyes meet as he swallows, and they both descend into giggles again, slumped helplessly into the sofa.

Harry's cheeks feel warm, even though he's not drunk yet. He presses his face into the familiar fabric, trying to get himself under control.

He feels free here, in Louis's messy, dim living room. The way they're looking at each other, right now - it's got nothing on the cool breeze of Beverly Hills.

He knows immediately that he shouldn't have thought of home. As soon as the image is in his head, it refuses to leave. The whisper of leaves in the wind fills his ears, and the gritty sound of gravel under wheels wraps around his neck like a ghost. He's only here because his real place to be free, his actual home, was taken away.

He doesn't realise he's crying until he tastes salt in his next sip of wine. He gulps, trying to choke the tears back down, to regain the composure that's slowly been slipping out of his hold, but when he reaches for it, he finds nothing there. He's opened the floodgates.

Oh God.

“Harry,” Louis's voice gets in through the incessant noise in his ears. He's not laughing anymore.

Harry sets his glass down, and all but claws at his face to get rid of the wetness. A sob is rising in the back of his throat, inevitable like a tidal wave.

“I'm fine,” he tries to say, tries to chuckle, even, to bring back that brief moment of magic he's completely ruined.

“I find that hard to believe,” Louis says, quiet. “Listen, I-I know I'm not Anne, but I can still listen. I feel like you're going to explode.”

Harry looks at him, hiding the rest of his face in the crook of his elbow. He shakes his head.

“I don't want to-you know. You've had to deal with too much from me already.” Even as he speaks, the tears keep coming. He has to dig in his pockets for a tissue.

Louis sighs. “Harry.”

Harry shakes his head again.

“I understand if you don't want to tell me,” he says, and sets down his wine too. “And you don't have to, but I'm the only one here right now. You're not gonna get anybody else's shoulder to cry on.”

He's right. He's right, but Harry can't-this is not how he wanted to do this. He doesn't want Louis, of all people, to see him this way.

“Hey,” Louis says, leaning forward, reaching into the space between them but not touching Harry. “Hey.”

It's his voice that does it, the endless softness in it as it wraps around the word. Harry reaches back, just presses his fingertips against the back of Louis's hand, and then completely loses himself.

Louis doesn't move away. He holds still as Harry slumps forward, into him, and his arms come up to wrap around Harry's shoulders. The warmth of his body envelopes Harry whole; he can sense the hesitation, through everything that's happening inside of him, but he can't let go now. He'll take, selfishly like he always does, because Louis offered.

He reaches out blindly, wrapping his arms around what has to be Louis's waist, burying his face into where his cardigan covers the swell of his collarbone. The familiar scent there is like liquid comfort dripping right into his veins, mending every ragged edge that heartbreak has left behind.

Louis pulls him in, once he realises that Harry's not going to draw away. He pulls him in, and leans back, until he's bearing all of Harry's weight, all this heavy, cloying sadness.

“I'm sorry,” Harry manages, in-between one bout of tears and the next. He's swallowing most of his sobs, pushing them down until they choke him.

Louis sighs, chuckless mirthlessly into his hair. Presses a half-formed kiss to the crown of Harry's head.

“What for?”

“I'll get your clothes all-snotty.”

He laughs for real this time, a beautiful, clear sound. “I promise I don't mind,” he says.

Harry nods. He's clutching the clothes on Louis's back in one fist, pulling and holding on like a child.

He's forgotten - completely forgotten - how at home he used to be in these arms.

He's supposed to be with Marcus right now. They're meant to be celebrating, and talking about their wedding, setting concrete dates, planning invitations, just-they're meant to be together. It's his arms that Harry's supposed to be in.

The next sob is too strong. It breaks through the barrier and slips right out of his mouth. Harry flinches a little at how anguished he sounds.

“Hey,” Louis runs a hand through his hair, then again, over and over like he's just remembered that it used to calm Harry down once upon a time. “Harry, hey. Please tell me what it is. You're scaring me.”

Harry pulls away, wiping his face into his sleeve. Louis's eyes are full of something he can't put a name to.

“It's Marcus,” he says. It's a little like popping a balloon - once the words are out, the wild sadness inside of him disappears, and leaves a resounding kind of emptiness behind. “It's-I-,” he stops, sniffs, looks at the ceiling. Louis squeezes the back of his neck. “I found him with someone else.”

The softness melts right off of Louis's face. “What do you mean you found him with someone else?”

Harry almost feels like laughing. “I mean I came home and found his PA shirtless in my kitchen.”

“His-what.”

Harry almost recoils at Louis's tone of voice, but his hands, still and always soft, keep him in place.

“His PA,” he repeats, and can't stop the venom from sneaking in. “Josh. I guess that's what he'd been doing while I was gone.”

“You're joking,” Louis says. His eyes have gone a couple of shades darker. “Please tell me you're joking.”

Harry shakes his head. “I think-I think he was cheating on me the whole time.”

That particular tidbit still hasn't quite sunk in. The fact that Marcus could have been anywhere, with anyone, while he was on the phone to Harry telling him how much he missed him-it's incomprehensible.

“I-oh my God, Harry.”

“He said,” Harry barrels on, unable to stop now that the floodgates have opened, “he said that it was convenient to be engaged to me. That it kept other people from getting too attached.”

Louis's eyes get wider. He's got a grip on one of Harry's elbows, and it tightens to the point of pain, until he realises what he's doing and lets go like he's been burned.

Something shaky, silent, permeates the breath of air between them. Harry watches a storm brew in Louis's eyes.

“You kicked him out, right?” he asks, so quiet even Harry can barely hear. “Not that-I mean, it's your life, but clearly-“

“Louis,” Harry jumps in. He can't help a smile - a smile - that stretches his face like a rainbow after rain. It only lingers a second before it melts away, but it's enough. “I kicked him out. I made a whole scene, too, and I dramatically threw my engagement ring off the terrace.”

Louis looks down at Harry's hand, which has somehow ended up on his sternum.

“Oh,” he says, and nothing else. Harry fights the urge to curl the hand into a fist, to hide it. The ring had had time to become familiar in the groove above his knuckle, and the absence of it is an unscratchable itch.

“I just don't know,” he says, and lays his head back down. The crook of Louis's neck feels like a sanctuary. “I don't know what to do, how to-I felt like a stranger in my own house. I can't go back there, but I can't-it's my home, where am I supposed to go?”

Louis runs a hand through his hair again, slow, soft, sensing the upset that's roiling in Harry's chest. Harry tries to focus on his touch only, on the comforting heat of his skin.

“Here,” is what he says, whispers. His hands are shaking. “Just-stay here.”

Harry's stomach pangs with something that feels like longing. “This is your house,” he shakes his head.

“And I've opened it to you, in case you haven't noticed,” Louis replies. “You're welcome here, Harry. Stop fighting it.”

His heartbeat thumps as it passes under his skin, just below Harry's ear. It belies the easy, soothing ebb and flow of his words.

They both know that this isn't his only option. There are hotels, bed and breakfasts, people that mum knows who would probably put him up for a few nights while he sorts out a rental back in LA.

They both also know that he's not going to choose any of those things.

“Thank you,” he says. He tries his hardest to say it the right way, to give it the gravity it deserves - to thank Louis for things that go far beyond this embrace, this sofa.

Thank you for the kindness, he would say if he could bring himself. Thank you for the words, for the signature, and for that smile.

Thank you for choosing me, all those years ago.

“You're welcome,” is what Louis replies. He doesn't sound like he'd heard all of Harry's meanings. “Technically, you still own half this place, so I couldn't kick you out even if I wanted to.”

“I really can leave-“ Harry starts saying, raising his head, pulling away because maybe he's severely miscalculated-before he realises that Louis is joking, his eyes alive.

He also doesn't let go.

Harry huffs, and smiles reluctantly. His hair falls into his eyes; Louis tucks it behind his ears.

“I can't believe it's grown this long,” he says, then blinks and shakes his head, like he hadn't meant to let that slip. Harry's cheeks flood with heat against his will.

It's something they used to talk about, like almost everything is. The two of them in Harry's room, with Harry's head on Louis's lap while Louis wove tiny braids into his fringe.

“It's a whole process,” he says, trying to sit up and look somewhat dignified while doing so. Louis steadies him with a warm hand over an elbow, in the small of his back. “I've been using this terrible Asda shampoo, but I promise it's usually much nicer than this-“

“I think it's nice,” Louis says, pointedly avoiding Harry's eyes. “Fluffy.”

Harry touches the tangled tips of it, self-conscious. They feel dry where they curl around his fingers.

They catch each other's gaze, and smile. Harry wishes it was daylight, so he could see that little golden halo Louis gets in sunshine.

“I feel like we need to drink more,” Louis says, and reaches across the table to get both their glasses. Harry accepts his, but he doesn't move back to his half of the sofa. He's perfectly fine where he is, with Louis's leg curled right against his.

He wipes his face into his single crumpled tissue, closes his eyes, and breathes out. Louis squeezes his shoulder.

“I'm so sorry,” he says. “I know there's nothing I can say to make it better.”

“I don't think that's true,” Harry smiles into his glass. Some of the weight's already slipped off his shoulders, evaporated right alongside his tears. Louis's laughter still rings somewhere deep in his ears. “And I really needed this, so thank you.”

“Anytime,” Louis replies. Harry realises, a little breathlessly, that he's serious. “If there's anything else you wanna get off your chest…”

Harry drinks, and stays silent. Then he drinks some more, and helps himself to another glass while Louis watches on.

“I think I've told him everything I needed to say,” he says finally, mindlessly looking at the TV. They've moved on to the weather now. Sunny, occasional showers, twenty-five degrees. “I'm just-so angry. I'm so angry.”

“I don't think anyone could blame you, in this situation.”

Harry shakes his head. “I'm angry at myself. I must be a complete idiot, right? How could I not realise that he'd been fucking other people behind my back?”

His voice has gone high-pitched without him noticing.

“Harry,” Louis butts in, calm, reasonable. “Listen, this probably isn't what you want to hear right now, but I know exactly what that's like. I've been there.”

The wine burns on Harry's tongue, all of a sudden.

“Don't-don't make that face, I'm not trying to kick you while you're down, but just-listen. I spent months wondering whether there were signs. Those sleepless nights I told you about? I'd just look out of the window and try to retrace the last decade of my life, minute by minute, trying to find something that could've told me you were going to leave before you broke my heart.”

Harry's throat closes. He looks away with his face burning, with shame beating hot against his temples.

“But it doesn't work that way when you're in love, you know? We can't see those things, because we want to believe that the person we love is as good as we think they are. He's the one who betrayed your trust, Harry, so be angry at him, but-you've got to give yourself a break. You don't want to end up like me,” and he raises his glass then, a mock toast.

Harry watches at his expression with bile stinging at the back of his throat, then looks up at the ceiling. It's just as nondescript and white as the ones in the house he used to call home, but this one's so much closer. He could probably touch it if he stood on the table.

“I was him, wasn't I?” he asks. The ceiling doesn't crack open with the revelation. “I hurt you just like this.”

Louis doesn't say anything.

“I hurt you more, because we were together since we were thirteen-oh my God. Oh my God, Louis.”

Silence, still. Harry doesn't dare look.

Louis had told him. He'd told him about how difficult it was, and Harry heard, but didn't listen. He didn't know, until this very moment.

He still feels ripped apart on the inside, and he and Marcus only knew each other for a few yearsThey didn't grow up together, didn't become an inextricable part of each other's lives, they'd never even-

God. Harry feels nauseous.

“How are you letting me do any of this? How are you not shouting your head off-“

“Because I've forgiven you, idiot,” Louis interrupts. “You're not exactly easy to get rid of once you set your mind on something, you know.”

Harry blinks at him. Tries to pick out the tell-tale signs of a lie in the purse of his lips, but he finds none.

He doesn't ask Louis if he's sure. He's done entirely too much pushing, too much questioning, too much taking. If Louis is sure - and he looks it - then Harry is going to take it, thank him, and continue to beat himself up once he goes to bed.

Something shaky and brand new is born in his chest when he takes a breath to say the words: “Thank you.”

Louis looks at him with mild eyes, a little wide from the wine. His mouth is raspberry-red.

“It's okay, H. You know I never could hold anything against you, even when you turned my life upside down.”

Harry leans back against the sofa. Turns his head towards Louis, and finds him already looking back.

“Remember when I borrowed your bike and broke it?”

The smile is instant, and blinding. “You mean when you stole my bike and then tried to ride it downhill? On gravel?”

“Yeah,” Harry blushes a little, but smiles too. “That time.”

“I couldn't even stay angry at you for the rest of the day,” Louis says, grinning at the ceiling. “Because you scraped your knee, and you kept crying about it until your mum let me in to give you a cuddle.”

“I don't remember the crying part,” Harry replies.

He does, of course. He'd been eight, still only a fledgling drama queen, but he had all but screamed his head off when he realised that his best friend wasn't there to tell him that everything was going to be okay.

“Yeah you fucking do,” Louis laughs. “And you went on and on apologising until you fell asleep.”

“And you stayed with me,” Harry shakes his head.

All their lives, Louis had been too good to him. It's no wonder that he went into his next relationship full of blind trust - Louis never would have gone behind his back, with anything. He wouldn't even have lied, much less cheated.

“Of course I did,” Louis says. “I mean-what else was I supposed to do?”

Harry chuckles, and doesn't answer. He stretches a hand, the one that's not busy cradling his glass, palm-up into the space between them. Louis barely hesitates a second before he takes it, slotting his fingers in-between Harry's, curling them together.

Harry squeezes. “Thanks,” he says again, for lack of something more appropriate. Louis deserves a whole essay filled with gratitude, but Harry's brain has gone woozy with the wine, and this is the best he can manage.

Louis, of course, seems to understand anyway.

“Don't mention it,” he replies.

Gently, carefully, he separates their hands and pulls his away. The smile he gives Harry is a little wilted around the edges.

Without needing to exchange another word, they both turn to the TV, slumped into each other's sides. Louis hands Harry the remote, and lets him browse until he's somewhere in the low 300s and they're watching a show about orphaned baby armadillos.

They finish the wine between them, and when the TV screen turns black, they watch the night merge with the first colours of day behind the window.

Harry's lips feel a little numb, a little fuzzy around every word he speaks. He doesn't let that deter him, and talks Louis's ear off about anything and everything, about songwriting and getting sponsored clothes and the particularities of how humid the air is in LA; anything, anything at all, as long as it keeps that blurry little smile on Louis's face.

Harry doesn't know when they go to bed, but he does know that when he leaves Louis's company, when the door closes behind him, he feels colder.

*

“So they believed you?” Harry whispers, trying to navigate his way down the stairs with his eyes closed.

“I think so,” Niall shouts on the other end. Harry hisses in pain. “They said they'd look into it, anyway, and I got the company lawyer on it because of the phone calls and all, so-I think it should be okay. I assume you'll need to testify or something, but I guess they 've got to run some background checks first.”

Harry's not entirely sure that he's comprehending all of it, but there will be time to be happy about it later. Right now, he's got to try and handle his second wine hangover in as many days.

He makes it downstairs and into the kitchen just as Niall is cackling into the phone, apparently at his own joke.

“Good morning, darling,” Mum says from her spot at the table. She's reading the paper and sipping on her coffee, watching him with a glint in her eye.

“Morning,” he smiles at her crookedly. He can't believe he's awake early enough to see her before she goes to work.

Although 'see' might not be the best word to use. He's only opened his eyes wide enough to see where he's going, intent on keeping out the sunshine that's pouring right in through the open window.

“Did you sleep well?” she asks, and Robin chuckles beside her. She's entirely too smug for Harry's liking. “I made some eggs, if you'd like.”

Harry wills his rolling stomach back down.

“I'm okay,” he croaks, trying to find the tea with only half an eye open. “Thanks, though.”

“They're right on the stove if you change your mind,” she replies. Harry automatically looks over at the pale yellow scramble resting in the pan, and immediately wishes he hadn't.

“Thank you,” he says again, laser-focused on the kettle. His own half-naked, bleary-eyed, wrinkled reflection blinks back at him from its shiny surface. “I, uh. I think I might skip breakfast today.”

Robin full-on laughs at this, and pats Harry on the back on his way to put his plate in the sink.

Harry only just remembers that Niall's still on the phone.

“Hello?” he says quietly when he presses it back to his ear.

“Nice of you to remember good old me,” Niall replies, dry. At least he's not yelling anymore. “I also put out the statement like you wanted, it went up online last night, but you probably already knew.”

“I've been ignoring texts.”

“Uh,” says Niall. “Okay?”

Harry pours the water in his cup and takes a seat. He doesn't say a whole lot, just enjoys every weird sound Niall makes on the other end of the line. He's not in the office, or doesn't sound like it, at least - he's huffing a lot, and something that sounds like wind is making the connection crackle.

Mum gets up, and kisses the crown of his head before she goes upstairs. He smiles at her and hopes it's enough.

“So what are you going to do now?” he asks Niall once he's had a few sips of tea, and they've had time to settle in his stomach. “Since your only famous client is on a break, and there aren't any more stalkers to chase.”

“That's a good question, actually,” Niall says. “I'm going on holiday.”

Harry perks up. “Where?”

“Well, uh. I think this is it.”

Harry laughs. Shakes his head. “Are you in Australia? Did you get lost in the bush again?”

Niall laughs back. “Open the door and find out.”

Harry sets his cup down so quickly he spills tea everywhere. “What?”

“I'm serious,” he says. “I might be standing in front of some random stranger's house, so I'd really appreciate it if-“

Harry doesn't hear the rest, because he sets his phone down and clambers out of the chair. He doesn't even mind the sun, suddenly, and he all but shoots down the corridor to throw the door open.

And sure enough-sure enough. There Niall is, right on Louis's doorstep. He's strapped into the ridiculous backpack he'd bought for his Eurotrip, a little more brunette than Harry remembers, and grinning into the sunshine.

“What are you doing here?” is the first thing that Harry says to him.

“Trying to get a face to face meeting with my client,” he grins, and throws his arms open. “I thought we'd be back at home having a pint by now, but you had to make it difficult for me.”

Harry's not going to cry again. Something in his chest does come loose, though, and he laughs as soon as reality actually sinks in. Niall's here; it's been months.

Harry tips forward, just over the threshold, and Niall steps in to wrap his arms around him. Harry worms his hands underneath the straps of his backpack, and presses his smile into his shoulder.

“Hey,” Niall laughs, almost giggles. His usual, wound up kind of energy is thrumming underneath his skin where Harry's touching it, and it's so very, achingly familiar. “Man, I've missed you.”

“I missed you too, Ni,” Harry tells him, and reluctantly lets go. He hadn't even realised how much - they've spoken on the phone almost every day, but there's nothing like seeing him in all his pale, grinning glory. “You didn't have to come all the way here, though, I would've probably-“

“Nonsense,” Niall jumps in, pulling away but keeping his hands on Harry's shoulders, looking him over like he's a child just come home from summer camp. “You're looking rough, mate.”

“I, um,” Harry rubs his eye. The glaringly bright sun is getting to his head now that the excitement's softened a little. “I had some drinks yesterday.”

Some drinks,” Niall repeats, grinning. “Looks like a few bottles to me.”

“If you're just going to lecture me, you can go back home,” Harry replies, but smiles to make sure it doesn't come across as serious. “I, uh, technically don't live here, but come in.”

“Oh, it's fine,” Niall waves a hand, undoing the strap across his chest. “I've talked to Louis.”

Harry blinks. “You've talked to Louis.”

“He has,” Louis says somewhere behind them.

Harry turns around. He's just coming down the stairs, looking a little worse for wear himself. He's got a t-shirt on that's so big it hangs well below his collarbones.

He walks to them, through the patch of orange sunlight that's spilling out of the kitchen, and the way it kisses the crest of his shoulder makes Harry a little breathless.

“I missed something,” he says, instead of something utterly stupid like hey, or good morning.

“Louis, my good man,” Niall says, in that jovial tone he puts on whenever he runs into someone Irish back in the States. Harry and Louis both flinch. “It's nice to finally meet you in person.”

Louis comes to a halt in the doorway, a hair's width away from leaning into Harry.

“Nice to meet you as well,” he smiles, and extends a hand, but Niall hauls him forward into a hug. That makes Louis laugh, and the sight of the two of them patting each other on the back has a tentative kind of warmth sparking in Harry's fingertips. “Sorry I didn't dress up to meet you, mate.”

“Does anyone want to bring me up to speed?” Harry says, unsubtly reminding them of his presence in the room. It's-strange, very strange, to see these two worlds he's kept completely separate in his head collide. Stranger than when Marcus was here, even, because Niall is-different. Closer, in some way.

“Right,” says Niall, patting Louis on the shoulder before he steps over the threshold. He drops his backpack on the ground, and toes off his shoes. It's this peculiar thing of his - wherever he goes, he makes himself right at home, and it seems like the most natural thing in the world. “We didn't conspire behind your back or anything, H, I just-managed to get Louis's number, and phoned him up to ask what the address was.”

“How'd you get his number?” Harry asks. Thinking feels like wading through a bog, slow and careful and very confusing. God, he's not going to even look at wine ever again.

Niall wraps an arm around his waist and pulls him into the kitchen, after Louis. They all sit around the table; Louis looks longingly at the kettle, but doesn't get up to put it on.

“You know how it is, H, I knew a friend who knew a friend who knew a friend.”

He's looking at Louis as he says it. Harry is sure he's still missing something, but his brain's too slow to even attempt catching up.

“Okay,” he frowns. Niall laughs, but Louis, just as hungover, takes pity on him.

“He genuinely only called me yesterday,” he says, quiet and raspy. “Said he wanted to surprise you, and who am I to stand in the way of a good surprise?”

Niall grins at that, obviously proud of himself. Harry's really missed his ridiculous facial expressions.

“I really didn't think-“ he starts, but changes his mind. “I'm really glad you're here.”

Niall ruffles his hair. “So am I, bud. If I had to pick up on more call, I would've flung myself out the window. Do you have any idea how annoying Us Weekly are? I had one meeting with them. One. And now they won't stop calling my fucking office.”

“I'd hate to be pestered by a massively successful magazine,” Louis nods. He's biting down on a grin, but he lets himself smile when Niall's mouth drops open.

“I have skeletons in my closet, Louis,” he replies, which makes Louis outright cackle. Harry looks away when he throws his head back. “My life could be torn apart by secrets and scandals if I gave too much away.”

“I'm sure the public would be appalled by how much takeout you eat,” Harry tells him, and pats him on the shoulder. “They'd start a witch hunt.”

Niall makes a face. “I hate both of you, and I take everything back. I'm really not glad that I'm here.”

Harry really, really wants to give him another hug, and there's nothing stopping him. He leans over to Niall's chair, wraps both arms around his shoulders, hides his laughter in his unusually brunette hair. Niall hugs him back, but Harry can tell he's rolling his eyes.

“Speaking of scandal, actually-have you seen the news yet?”

Harry's good mood vanishes.

“What news?” he asks, afraid, as he pulls away, but Niall's face doesn't seem to spell disaster. “Why didn't you text me about it?”

“Oh, I only found out when I landed. I think-it's not bad news, H. At least I don't think it is.”

Beside them, Louis finally gets up to start the tea. Harry's eyes seem to follow him of their own volition.

Niall has got his phone out, and he's scrolling through what looks like several dozen tabs in his browser. The one he settles on makes Harry very, very uneasy.

“TMZ?”

“It's not bad,” Niall repeats, and passes the phone to Harry. “It's-I laughed when I saw it, I'm sorry.”

Harry takes a breath to ask another question, but forgets all about it when the headline loads.

Superstar Singer's Shame: Marcus Ward Caught Panting Without Pants.

Marcus' name is jarring to see. Harry's spent two nights making a solid effort to drown every last memory in booze, but it's obvious now that none of it worked.

He puts his finger on Niall's grubby screen, and scrolls down. There's a video, one that he doesn't want to watch, but the article gives enough detail anyway.

Louis comes up behind them silently. He keeps his distance, but Harry is acutely aware of him, of the fact that he's looking at the article, too. It makes him feel-ashamed, for some reason.

“Did you have anything to do with this?” Harry asks Niall.

“No,” Niall replies, chuckling a little as he reads along. “Told you, I only found out a few hours ago, someone from the office texted me because they asked us for a comment.”

Louis leans closer. “What does that say?” he asks. “He got caught-shagging someone in a club bathroom? Ouch.”

There's something in his voice that makes Harry looks up. He's just biting into a piece of toast, and still reading over Harry's shoulder with an eyebrow raised.

“TMZ's source has confirmed that this is not the first such incident for Ward, whom we all thought engaged to popstar Harry Styles until yesterday afternoon. According to a close friend of the couple, Marcus' adulterous ways were what caused the split,” Niall reads. “Ouch. Do you think they actually spoke to someone?”

Harry shakes his head. He's-upset, a little, but he can't point at exactly what it is. To the media, they'd always been a private couple, mostly because Marcus wanted it that way, but seeing this, it's-a lot.

The article doesn't pull its punches, either. They've tacked on a whole section on Marcus' career so far, and how damaging this could be. His people, apparently, declined to comment.

“Have you watched the video?” Harry asks quietly.

Niall shakes his head. “I can't really look at him, to be honest with you.”

“Makes two of us,” Louis mumbles. He's come closer; some of the crumbs from his toast end up on the screen.

Maybe it's because Harry's caged between them, feeling sheltered, protected, that he taps the play button. Maybe it's because he's hungover and perpetually confused.

Maybe he's just a glutton for punishment.

It's dark at first, and full of noise. Someone, the person filming, is breathing hard in the background, winding through what seems to be the back of a club. The music pulses rapidly, blowing out the sound with every rhythmic thump, but it gradually fades, and then there's-other noises. Jesus.

“Hello?” whoever's filming says, and then something else, but the-the moaning, oh God-drowns them out.

They round a corner. Finally, some light creeps into the image, a fluorescent bulb overhead, reflecting on black tile, and it's just enough to light up the bodies tangled against the far wall. One's sitting on the sink, his legs spread wide, and the other one-

They're facing away from the camera, bent down and too lost in each other to even register that there's somebody there, but there's a mirror right behind them, and Marcus' face is plain to see. His hair looks almost white under the fluorescent bathroom lights. The other man is running his fingers through it, over his temples, right in the places that Harry used to love touching the most.

Harry's stomach turns. He tries to turn away, but the image on the screen is magnetic, pulling him right back in, holding him in place as he witnesses the destruction of what was supposed to be his happiness.

“Jesus Christ,” Niall lets slip, biting his nails as he watches.

The person filming, apparently, doesn't feel any shame about being in the room. They come closer.

Marcus finally notices when the camera is almost in his face. He jerks away, stumbles to the opposite corner of the room, trying to shield his face and pull his trousers up at the same time.

“What the fuck, man?” he's asking, over and over, scurrying into a cubicle. The camera doesn't follow, and turns to the other man instead.

Harry lets out a small sigh of relief. He'd been half-expecting it to be Josh, who's crawled back and begged for forgiveness; TMZ's put a watermark over his face, but the rest of his features are still completely unfamiliar. He lets out a panicked little noise, gets himself dressed, and runs out.

Harry feels terrible for him. Despite the face-blur, someone is sure to recognise him in the seedy video; it could ruin his life down the line, but Marcus probably didn't spare enough time to think about all the ways in which fucking in a bathroom is a bad idea.

It's Marcus' world, after all. They're all just living in it, little more than moving, talking toys.

“This is a bathroom,” the camera person finally speaks for real, strangely gruff-voiced. It's definitely a man. “Don't know what you think you're doing, mate.”

A British man?

“What the fuck is wrong with you? Get the fuck out, I'm going to sue you out of every last fucking penny-“

This makes the man retreat, and the image shakes as he takes a few steps back, the lights drawing dizzying shapes. Marcus storms out of the cubicle with his hair a mess, half of his shirt tucked into his trousers. The look on his face is undiluted rage, and he hurls himself at the camera snarling like an animal.

Harry wraps one of his own arms around himself. He's never, never seen him like this, and it feels like an entire bucket of ice being dumped right over his head. He could've seen this years in the future, years into their marriage.

The image shakes again; a resounding thump shivers through the speaker as the device falls on the ground, showing nothing but the bleach-white ceiling of the room. Marcus is shouting, more threats, more swearing, and it echoes off the tile, forming a terrifying chorus. The other man shouts back, then groans as if he's been hit, and all of Harry's blood freezes in his veins-

Someone picks the device back up, hand first, making the screen a dark orange. Then, the video fades to black.

They're all silent for a beat. Harry's hand has started trembling around the phone, so he hands it back to Niall and tucks said hand under his other arm, working hard on controlling the shivers sneaking through his entire body.

Niall puts the phone down on the table, his face drawn. “Fuck me,” is what he finally says, breaking the terrifying quietness clean in two.

Harry exhales, slowly, through his nose. He's calm, surprisingly so, but-overwhelmed.

“It's such a shame,” Louis says, fake concern all but dripping from his tone. “How sad for his family-friendly image.”

Harry looks up at him. He's looking down at his hands, picking at an invisible hangnail.

“He's apparently been doing this for years, too. Cheating on his fiancé and beating people up in clubs, I'm sure the public's going to love that.”

Harry tilts his head. There's something strange about Louis's laser-like focus on his own hands.

“At least they only caught him after I found out,” he says, slow, mulling over consequence after consequence as he speaks. “I look a little less stupid.”

Louis's gaze snaps up. “You don't look stupid.”

Harry rubs the back of his neck, which has become uncomfortably hot. “I mean, think about it. We were together for three years. Anyone who doesn't notice in that time is a bit of an idiot.”

“That's bullshit,” Louis and Niall say in perfect unison. Harry's heart gives a happy little flutter.

“Read it again,“ Louis says. “Seems like their source is adamant that you didn't know.”

Niall unlocks his phone before Harry can reach for it. The article's still loaded, and Harry reaches out a finger, scrolling down as he skims. There's another section on the bottom, after the ads, that he hadn't noticed before.

TMZ received the video from an anonymous member of the public. And, TMZ's source has confirmed that Styles had no idea about the infidelity, and ended the relationship as soon as he found out. We say good riddance! And more, two or three other paragraphs talking about Harry's career and his last album, mentioning the positive critical response, a sharp contrast to the way they'd torn Marcus apart. They made him look good.

“How did you know?” Harry frowns, looking up at Louis. He's taken a step back, and is picking toast crumbs off his t-shirt. He looks up at Harry with his head tilted, but doesn't say anything.

That something buzzes under Harry's skin again. He turns back to the article.

TMZ received the video from-

Read it again.

Harry's next breath freezes halfway up his throat. “Louis-“

But he's moving now, walking across the kitchen, dropping teabags into the cups he's set out and pouring water over them. He doesn't turn around even when Harry repeats his name, his shoulders tense as he moves along the counter.

Niall looks between them, and understanding spreads slowly over his features. “No fucking way, what-“

“I've got some work to do,” Louis interrupts, smiling as he wraps his hands around his cup. “Help yourselves to food if you want some, gentlemen, and I'll see you later.”

Harry bristles. “Hold on,” he says, watching Louis, pleading with him. “Just-hold on a second, please. I just want to know.”

Softly, slowly, Louis shakes his head. He crosses the kitchen, until he's all but standing in the doorway, and looks Harry in the eye.

“You don't look stupid,” he repeats. He touches the tips of his fingers to Harry's shoulder, rests them there for a second, then disappears into the hall.

Harry blinks at Niall, and Niall blinks back at him. They both look back at the article; the skin on the back of Harry's neck is crawling now that he knows-now that he's sure that Louis, somehow, had something to do with this.

Niall looks tentative when he speaks, but he's still got his eyebrows raised in surprise. “Should I-spin this? Do you want me to run a couple of articles about how devastated you are?”

“I-,“ Harry starts, then trails off as he looks at the video thumbnail. He's only seen it once, but it's entirely committed to his memory, every last sordid frame of it; Marcus' hair where the fluorescent bulbs made it burn white, and his twisted face when he realised what happened.

The deep, deep disgust that's churning darkly in his stomach.

“I'm not,” he says, finally, a revelation. The tears of a couple days ago are still there, heavy and bitter on the back of his tongue, but they're tears of self-pity, of fear over what's going to happen now that he's left floundering. He doesn't-miss him. “I'm not devastated.”

“That's not what I asked,” Niall rolls his eyes. He's apparently decided to take Louis's invitation, and gets up to find out what's in the fridge.

“I mean, I-I don't know. I feel like it'd be more effective if I tweeted, or something.”

Niall looks over his shoulder, halfway through unloading a carton of eggs. “You haven't tweeted in months.”

“That's why I said it'd be effective,” Harry replies, and joins Niall in the wide-open fridge door to dig out some orange juice. “ I'm so sad that I've broken my social media silence to thank everyone for their support in this trying time. Boom, articles, and you don't even have to do anything.”

The thought makes him a little itchy - he's learned to close off a little on Twitter, on Instagram, places where he used to go to share his happiness with his fans, because Marcus didn't want to overdo it.

“I mean, if you want,” Niall shrugs. “Then go for it. I was getting sympathy calls all morning yesterday, people definitely feel bad for you.”

Harry nods. He opens the window, leans out as he fishes his phone out of his pocket and re-downloads the Twitter app. He used to get a rush out of watching the notifications, being told that someone he's looked up to his whole life just followed him or sent him a message, or that he's reached a million, two million, three million followers. His own account looks a little foreign now. The last post is thanking everybody for the support, and letting them know he'll be off for a little while. It's from-Jesus, six months ago.

Determined, he opens a new tweet.

Thank you, he types, and then gets stuck. Behind him, Niall is banging around with pans, acting like he's lived here all his life.

Harry looks at him. He was Harry's first real friend, his best friend, after he moved to LA. He's been near dying on the phone every other day for the past couple of months trying to keep Harry safe, and now that the threat is gone but heartbreak is imminent, he's dropped everything and flown here - and surprised him, no less.

He turns back to his draft, and deletes it. All my love and thanks, is what he writes instead. All my love and thanks for your relentless and continued support. I treasure it more than words can say. H.

“Is this okay?” he asks Niall, and holds out the phone. Niall, with a half-eaten piece of tomato in his mouth, squints, then nods.

“That's beautiful, H,” he says once he's done chewing, and puts a dramatic hand on his chest. “Tugs right at the heartstrings.”

Harry laughs. He turns back to the outside, lovely and sun-bathed this time of morning, and taps send.

It pops up on top of his profile not a second later, and the numbers underneath immediately climb. Harry smiles for a while, warm all the way to the core of his bones as he's reminded that there are still people out there, people he's never met, who support him.

It's been a bizarre notion for the past five years, and it's even weirder now, when he's stuck in the country, in a place that seems so thoroughly cut off from the world he knows.

Niall puts on Bruce Springsteen. Harry relaxes into the window frame, leans his whole body against it and angles his face into the sun.

He's scrolling through his account, just out of curiousity, back to where he engaged a little more frequently, and he realises-he realises that most of those tweets aren't about him in the first place. There are five or six about the Grammy's, which he wasn't nominated for, and about how proud he is of his fiancé. One about an awards show they went to together, one about a charity they patroned for a couple of months, and then finally one about how well writing is going.

It's almost a year old.

While the PR professional in the room - who would certainly tell him that this is a bad idea - has his back turned, Harry hits delete, over and over and over, until the only things on his account are about him and things he supports and people he cares about; then he goes and does the same thing to his Instagram. It looks frighteningly bare afterwards, but it feels right, righter than anything has in the past three days.

Every cell in him is crying out for moving on, and he's certainly not going to stop himself.

He puts his phone away, puts it on silent, and resolves to forget about it for a while. He feels okay enough to have some of mum's eggs, and of the humongous breakfast spread that Niall has made, so he sits down and does just that.

Louis emerges half an hour later, lured in by the smell, and joins them at the table. Harry bites back his questions; Louis knows, if his grateful looks are anything to go by.

There's time, Harry tells himself. There's time to get all the answers he could possibly want.

*

Niall, it seems, has brought the LA sunshine right along in his suitcase. The hottest days of summer are exceptionally hot while he's there, and he and Harry use them to their advantage - that is to say, they play golf more or less every single day.

Niall is staying at the clubhouse there, which means he's got the entire body of staff wrapped around his little finger within hours, and they're allowed to stay on the green long after everyone else is gone. Harry finds that the tranquility of evenings there has nothing on Los Angeles - it's just him, Niall, the breeze and the sun going to sleep over rolling hills in the distance. It's exactly what he needs to get his mind off of absolutely everything, starting with Marcus and ending with the fact that he's theoretically homeless.

Some evenings, he stays at the club, and some evenings he goes back to Louis's and spends the night going through lyrics and demons Niall has brought him from potential writing partners. It's a relief to be reminded that there's something to go back to, still - that his career is his and his alone, something that he's built and that nobody's going to cheat him out of.

Some nights, Louis joins him, curling up at his desk. They sit on opposite ends of the room, and rarely speak, but the silence between them is always pillow-soft and comfortable. Everything about Holmes Chapel becomes synonymous with calm, with peace.

Which is why Harry is intensely suspicious the minute Niall bursts, panting, into the house, and demands that they go for a pint.

“I don't want to,” he says, waving Niall away. He's just stretched out on the sofa with a new sheet of lyrics. “I'm too tired.”

“It's four in the afternoon,” Niall replies, apparently unwilling to listen to anything that Harry has to say. “I haven't had a beer since I came here, Harry. I'm suffering.”

“Ask Louis to go with you,” says Harry.

“He's not here.”

“Then ask my mum or Robin,” Harry sighs, and puts his papers down.

“I can't do that,” Niall says, standing in the doorway with his arms crossed. He's wearing golf clothes.

Harry sits up, defeated. “Why not?”

Niall looks around, at the empty frame above the fireplace, at Harry's slippers abandoned halfway across the room, out of the window. Anywhere that's not Harry's face.

“I just can't. Let's go,” he says, and he doesn't wait for Harry to answer - just walks over to the sofa, physically pulls him up, and pushes him to the stairs. “Put some clothes on.”

Harry frowns. “I'm already wearing clothes.”

They're an old set of pyjamas, but. Clothes.

“I meant something you can go outside in,” Niall says, ruthless in his pristine polo shirt and golf trousers. “I'm waiting on the porch.”

For a minute, Harry considers going to bed and pretending to sleep until Niall goes away. As if he was reading his thoughts, Niall presses his face to the window by the front door and makes a face.

“Fine!” Harry yells at him, and reluctantly trudges up the stairs.

Ten minutes later, Niall's looping an arm through his, and all but dragging him through the forest. There had been a rainshower a few hours ago, and the dirt road is still mostly mud, but he doesn't seem to care, marching them straight down the centre of the road, through the gate, and into the village.

And into Jay's, of course.

It's unusually quiet for a Friday afternoon - there's a couple of booths filled in the very back, and a group of kids huddled around the ancient quiz machine, but the tables down the middle of the room are all clean, gleaming, and empty. Niall marches up to the one closest to the bar and sits right down.

Harry follows at a more sedate pace, stepping from one patch of lamplight into another, tentative on the familiar wooden floor. He's almost loathe to pull out the chair when he reaches the table, it's tucked under it so very neatly. He must be the first person to sit here today.

“Okay,” he says when he settles down, and realises that Niall is biting his lip and looking around like a hunted animal. “What's the real reason we're here?”

“What do you mean?” Niall asks, unconvincing. “Told you, I need a pint.”

“You know half the town by now,” Harry crosses his arms. “You could have a pint with literally anybody.”

“But I want one with you,” Niall smiles, but he doesn't really make an effort. He tries to set his elbows down on the table, but he's too restless, and ends up drumming on it with his fingers instead. “My favourite client.”

Harry's usual retort of I'm your only client is on the tip of his tongue. It dissolves as soon as Liam walks in.

Although, he doesn't really walk in per se. He pushes the door open a fraction, looks around, and then slips inside so quickly Harry barely notices him.

Niall ruins his sneaking by shouting and waving his arms over his head to get him to their table. Liam puts a hand over his face when he notices, but he does walk across the room, and even smiles when he slides into his chair next to Harry.

Harry pulls away, just a little. He's not entirely sure how Liam feels about him, these days. They see each other very frequently at Louis's, but speak very little. Liam's got this suspicious wrinkle right across the middle of his forehead every time he looks at Harry, and Harry can't get himself to ask him what it means. He's not forgotten their first meeting after he showed up here, and the look that Liam had on his face still haunts him a little.

Niall, on the other hand, doesn't seem to have any reservations.

“Liam, mate,” he says - yells, really, because he's yet to understand the difference between an inside and outside voice - “How are you?”

“All right,” Liam replies, still smiling, but he's looking around, craning his neck towards the front of the room.

Harry turns around, too. It's only now that he notices Louis behind the bar, leaning over to talk to somebody, animated and laughing He's wearing short sleeves for once, to match the stiflingly hot weather.

Harry doesn't realise he's smiling, watching him, until Niall nudges him in the side. He drops his eyes, and avoids so much as looking at Liam.

“How much longer is he gonna be?” Niall asks, looking at his incredibly expensive watch as if he's got places to be.

“He's working,” Liam replies, frowning a little. “Give him a minute.”

“We're gonna get found out if I give him a minute.”

Harry puts his arms on the table. “Okay,” he says, trying hard to not sound hurt. “Why does everyone except me know what's going on?”

“Oh, H, it's okay,” Niall pats him on the arm. “It's just that you can't keep a secret for shit.”

Harry opens his mouth to defend himself, but there's really nothing he can say.

Liam looks at him with his head tilted, considering, then takes pity on him. “It's Jay that thought of it, actually, but she's busy enough as it is, so Louis thought-“

“I thought what?” Louis interrupts, all but skipping to the table. He pulls on the collar of Liam's shirt, then ruffles Harry's hair as he goes, and finally plops himself in the chair next to Niall.

Liam instantly relaxes. “We were just telling Harry about why we're here.”

Harry coughs back a laugh. It sounds so sordid, like they're meeting about a drug deal of some sort, right in the middle of this dim, cool bar when it's full-blown summer outside.

“Ah,” Louis raises his eyebrows. “Yes. The all-important secret mission.”

He catches Harry's eye. Harry tries to let all of his frustration show on his face, and it must work - Louis grins wider and leans back in his chair

“So my mum thought we could do something nice for your mum and Robin,” he says, “Since they've been so stressed with the house and all, and I think they actually missed-“

“Their wedding anniversary,” Harry gasps, and almost covers his mouth in shock. He'd completely, completely forgotten. “Oh my God, and I promised myself I'd organise something nice for them too-“

“You're in luck, then,” Louis interrupts, halting Harry's rant before it really takes off. “Because we're throwing them a party.”

They're all leaning on the table now, heads bent close together, whispering to keep the secret in. Harry joins in, jostling Liam.

“What kind of party?”

Liam and Louis look at each other. “We don't know yet,” Liam says, leveling everyone in the circle with a heavy look. “We have to plan it. From scratch.”

“We were going to hire somebody,” Louis picks up. “But then Gemma said that's a stupid idea, and I realised that we've got a seasoned professional in town,” and he grins at Niall, wide and bright like they've known each other forever. “And that you might enjoy-being involved,” he tells Harry. “And getting to plan something.”

Harry's heart gives one tired, painful thud. The subject of his wedding clunks right into the centre of the table, an obvious elephant in the room, but nobody actually acknowledges it.

Louis, though - Louis is looking at Harry with soft, dark eyes, because he knows exactly what he said.

“I'd love that,” says Harry, unable to look away. The thought alone - the thought of creating something that celebrates love, even if it's not his own anymore - sends an excited shiver down his spine. “I-yeah. I think we can do it.”

Liam grins, and Louis follows. Niall puts his hand into the middle of the table, waiting for a fistbump; they all try to give him one at once, awkwardly meeting knuckles in the middle.

Harry smiles.

*

He starts planning later that same night, after he's sure that mum and Robin had gone to bed. Louis lets him hog his printer, and sits cross-legged in the armchair watching Harry out of the corner of his eye.

The first and most important step, of course, is the venue. He's got pictures spread all over the coffee table, the floor, and tacked up on the window, all places big enough to hold everyone, but small enough to feel cosy, all less than a two-hour drive away. He's going to have to call about availabilities first thing tomorrow, but he has to narrow down the options first.

“You know,” Louis says when Harry's trying to decide between two near-identical guesthouses. “It'd be a lot easier if you didn't give yourself this many choices in the first place.”

Harry glares at him, half-hearted because of how tired he is.

“It has to be perfect,” he says, picking one of the two and moving on to yet another near-identical set. “We can't throw them a party in somebody's back garden, it's got to be just right.”

Louis tilts his head. He'd been writing something into that mysterious notebook of his, but he closes it and rests it on his lap. “It'll be perfect no matter what you do,” he says. Harry throws a half-hearted paper ball at him, but it drifts to the ground halfway between them. “I'm serious. You could literally put up some fairy lights in the shed out back, and Anne would love it. You've got to stop overthinking.”

“I'm not,” Harry pouts, shining the torch of his phone onto a few pictures to distinguish between several hotels that are an identical shade of maroon. “It's good to have choices.”

“Not five dozen of them,” Louis replies. He's smiling.

It's a surprisingly chilly night, apparently because of Arctic winds blowing in from the ocean. Harry's taken the opportunity to start a fire in his beloved fireplace, at least once while he's still here. He'd almost forgotten the way in which live flames change a room, the soft flickering shadows that blunt every corner of it, this yellow-orange-red bubble that encases them, with the light only climbing halfway up the walls.

The shadows it paints under Louis's cheekbones; the way it lays, pale golden, on his skin.

“Help me, then,” he says, looking away and down at the task at hand. “You've got to have a favourite.”

“Oh, I do,” Louis grins, but he doesn't look at any particular picture, doesn't give Harry any clues that might help. “But I'm not the one who's supposed to pick.”

“What are you going to do, then?” Harry asks, getting on his knees to reach the furthest edge of his little paper pile. “I don't remember you setting yourself a task.”

“I'm here to take all the credit, of course,” Louis replies.

Harry ignores him for a minute, tossing out five more pictures.

Then he stands up, and realises that the past half hour's work has barely made a difference.

“Louis,” he whines before he can stop himself. Louis raises his head. “Help me.”

He sighs, and closes his notebook again. This time, he puts it on where the coffee table is hiding under piles of paper with a heavy thud.

“How?”

Harry looks over the mess he's made. “Can you-can you just toss out like half of these? I'll turn around, and you just bin whatever you think doesn't suit us.”

Louis stands up, brushing himself off. “Are you sure you want me to do that?” he asks, with one hand on his hip. “I'll be ruthless.”

Harry looks down, intending to pick a few favourites to save, but he realises that he has way too many by the time he reaches number 10.

“Just do it,” he says, and turns around.

Louis laughs. Somehow, he manages to move quietly enough that Harry can't tell where in the room he is until he hears the crinkling of paper.

“Is this-is this an abandoned amusement park?”

Harry peeks over his shoulder. Louis is biting down on a smile as he looks down at the printout.

“Renovated,” Harry corrects him, soft. “It's renovated, not abandoned.”

“Someone had to abandon it before they renovated it,” Louis taps his temple, like he's a grandfather importing some age-old wisdom. “Also, roundabouts are scary. Definitely not the place.”

Harry forgets about turning around - he wasn't going to last long, anyways. Instead, he climbs over the back of the sofa, folds his legs under himself, and watches as Louis moves on, towards the window.

“What's wrong with roundabouts?”

Louis scoffs, and shakes his head as he pulls a couple of pictures off the windowpane. “I fell off one when I was eight, remember?”

Harry-Harry does, of course he does. It had been Louis's first broken limb of many, because he insisted on riding next to Harry even though the only free horse was way too tall for him.

He grins. “You cried so much.”

“Uh. So did you.”

Harry frowns, trying to recall the specific memory. He'd been six, only just old enough to be allowed on the roundabout on his own - he remembers needing Louis's help to get up the little steps, remembers picking a pony that had a mane of what seemed like real horse hair at the time, remembers staring up at Louis and grinning at the way the wind whipped his hair into his face. Remembers tears on Louis's face, him holding his arm close.

“Did I?” he asks.

“Yep,” says Louis, now on the ground with an armful of paper, picking through the pictures at lightning speed. “You started bawling when my mum said it was broken. You thought they were going to have to cut it off at the hospital.”

Harry's cheeks feel warm. “I don't remember that.”

“You were six,” Louis shrugs, not looking at him. His hair has fallen into his face, soft against the sharp line of his profile. “And you liked holding my right hand better than my left. It's understandable.”

The fire crackles into the silence between them. Harry fishes through his memory some more, but he ends up with blank after blank.

He does remember sitting by the side of Louis's bed, though, having to kneel on Jay's lap because he was too short to reach from a chair of his own. He remembers drawing on the cast, too, practising writing his name until Louis's arm was covered in scribbles that he had to wear everywhere for three months, but he never complained.

He hadn't remembered any of these things until he went looking for them, though. It makes him wonder - makes him scared - about how many more are hidden in there, waiting to be dug out.

Then, Louis throws a balled-up sheet of paper at him, and knocks the memory right out.

“Done,” he declares, triumphant.

Harry looks around the room. Louis had thrown all the rejects in one corner, and they form a pretty impressive pile. On the table, he's left three lonely sheets.

Three?” Harry asks, only a little shrill. He all but throws himself across the room, kneeling in front of the coffee table to examine Louis's choices. One of them he'd already gone over and vowed to keep, but the other two are new.

“It's still too much,” Louis says, perching on the sofa with his legs tucked under him. “But I've got a couple of backups in case none of these have a space.”

Harry nods, absent-minded, and looks them over. It's the third one, with a bent corner and a little hidden under the other two, that catches his attention.

It's a hotel, apparently, and less than an hour's drive. It's a lovely, grey-tinged stone building, with flowers in every window and an arch in the front that leads to a courtyard. Harry instantly sees lights strung along the grooves in the stone, sees round tables and tall chairs along the front lawn, sees people dancing in whatever gorgeous room must lie behind the ground story windows.

“This one,” he says, without realising. He's cataloguing every square millimetre of the picture - a flower arrangement here, a garland here, and this is where the welcome drinks are going to be served-

“It's pretty short notice,” Louis says. Harry looks up at him - he's smiling, but trying to conceal it. “They might be booked.”

“I'll pay them more,” Harry says immediately, joining Louis on the sofa and pulling his laptop in, looking for more angles, for photos of the inside. “Do you think I can bribe the manager?”

Louis chuckles, and shuffles closer to look at the screen over Harry's shoulder. “Slow down, love,” he says. Harry shivers. “First of all, you're not paying for it, and second, you definitely cannot bribe the manager. I'm sure there are other places.”

Harry frowns, and reluctantly looks away from a photo of the ballroom, available for hire for weddings and other functions as per the helpful caption.

He doesn't expect Louis to be quite so close, and can't stop a flinch. Louis blinks, and shuffles away. It's all Harry can do to stop himself from reaching out, from saying no, please, stay where you are.

Not the time, or the place, or the life, he reminds himself. He's too late.

“Who is going to pay for it then?” he asks, remembering his original question, his side still cold with Louis's absence. “I thought-“

“Just leave it to us,” Louis smiles, a little stiff. He doesn't specify what us means. “You're going to be busy enough organising and ordering everything.”

Harry looks back at the photo, now blown up on his screen. God, Louis is right. He's got a very precise idea of the amount of flowers he needs in this room, and it's a lot. His head spins a little, but more than anything, he's so fully, indescribably happy at the thought. He's going to give his mum something so spectacular, so beautiful - something to make up for all the anniversaries he's missed.

“I need this place,” he tells Louis, nervously tapping the trackpad of his laptop. “It's perfect, I just-I need it.”

He sounds like a child, and he's aware, but he couldn't care less. He's getting his way with this one. There is no other option.

A couple of hesitant fingers press against his shoulder, warm and shaky. “You'll get it,” Louis smiles at him, rubbing one of his eyes tiredly.

Harry realises that his heart is racing; it's the excitement, he's sure, and the prospect of organising his scattered thoughts into concrete plans. Again, still, he feels dizzy, and he has to blink a few times to chase spots out of his vision. His hands are shaking, jittery over the keyboard. The whole sofa is jiggling under his restlessness.

“Tell me what you see,” Louis says, barely audible.

Harry looks up, and tilts his head in question.

“The room,” Louis grins, waving at the laptop screen. “Once it's all done up and ready. Tell me what's in it.”

Bouquets of white lilies, pink accent flowers, gold ribbons; strings of lights stretching from the chandelier to the corners of the room; that's where the food is going to go, and an over-the-top champagne tower, and the audio equipment in the alcove over there; the best dinnerware that the hotel has, and a flower on every plate; light, kissing every last corner of the room, painting the ceiling with soft shadow.

“Are you sure?” Harry asks, dubious, even though the words are already piling up rapidly on the back of his tongue, like snow gathering before an avalanche. “I have a lot-“

“Fire away,” Louis interrupts. He's stretched one arm along the back of the sofa, almost close enough to touch Harry's ear. He rests his chin on his knee and looks at Harry bright, attentive, alive. Wholly and entirely interested in what he has to say.

Harry refuses to admit that Louis's undivided attention makes him a little shy, and instead launches into an extremely detailed account of everything he's going to order. He points to the picture as he speaks, and Louis's gaze darts between him and the screen, but he never looks anywhere else, never gives the slightest hint of being bored of Harry's prattling on.

He goes on talking once he's done with one room, moving on to the outside, wondering whether there's a garden in the back, whether they could steal it from the hotel guests for a night. He slowly slumps lower on the sofa as he talks, then gets his laptop off his knees and onto the table to make himself more comfortable. Louis listens, watches him, lit up by the glow of the fire, curled in on himself and leaning against the pillows. The sky outside the windows goes from dark blue to black, with a white moon painting round clouds like puddles. Sleep pulls at him, soft but insistent.

When he leans his head against the back of the sofa, right where Louis's arm is still resting, Louis doesn't say a thing. Harry wants, needs something he can't put into words, but Louis must be able to read it anyway. He unfolds himself, opens his side to Harry, and does it just in time to catching his nodding head.

Even with his eyes closed, Harry talks, and Louis lets him know he's listening with little noises of consent, of admiration. The world is nothing but the scent of his freshly washed clothes, his shampoo, the wood as it crackles and breaks into pieces, painting on the back of Harry's eyelids with every spark.

He doesn't remember falling asleep.

In the morning, he finds himself stretched on the sofa, propped up by pillows. The mountain of papers is gone from the corner of the room, and Louis is gone, too.

He's still in the room, though - in the long-dead embers of the fire, and in the window that's been cracked open to let fresh morning air in.

In the way a blanket is tucked tight around Harry's shoulder, eerily reminiscent of a morning long lost in the past.

Love.

*

“Tell him to stop poking me,” Liam whines.

“Tell him to stop accusing me of farting,” Niall whines back, poking his fingers into Liam's arm with renewed vigour.

Louis has been laughing for going on half an hour, periodically wiping tears from the corners of his eyes.

“Niall,” he says now, and sounds like he's on the verge of hiccupping, “we all heard you fart, mate, I'm sorry.”

Niall makes an indignant noise. “Harry,” he tries, as a last resort. “Defend my honour here, please.”

Harry bites his laughter back and grips the steering wheel tighter, trying to navigate the narrow country road without driving off into a ditch.

“Stop distracting the driver,” Louis says. Harry thinks he might reach into the back and smack Niall upside the head. “Liam, you leave him alone.”

“But-“

“Eat your fucking snacks! You're not sitting together on the way back.”

Silence. Harry desperately tries to calm down, but it's been almost an hour of this, and he's tired of concentrating.

“You can't tell me where to sit,” says Niall. Liam, in the middle of digging for their granola bars in his backpack, joins him in heckling Louis. It ends with the three of them throwing various food items at each other, screeching like monkeys -though that's mostly Niall, who normally cannot handle any kind of travel that takes more than 20 minutes.

Louis had offered them all a drink before they hit the road, to “get in a road trip mood”, but Liam and Niall said no out of solidarity to Harry, who was the only one capable of using the sat nav in his borrowed car and was thus elected the designated driver. Harry had been touched at the time, but he's fairly sure that they only faked the solidarity long enough to go drink behind his back.

The point is, he's driving down a winding little road in the English countryside, towards a beautiful Victorian building, while three grown men turn his car into a warzone.

Somebody throws a biscuit against the windscreen just as he rolls to a stop and puts the brake in.

“We're here,” he says, turning towards the back, where Niall and Liam are tangled together, halfway off the seats. Incredibly, the sight makes him feel fond. “We've got to try and look serious, so the two of you are staying in the car.”

They're off of each other in a second, both sitting in their seats and glaring at him. When he looks across at Louis, he's grinning, with red cheeks and hair going every which way.

Harry raises an eyebrow.

“They started it,” Louis points out, and puts down the half-squished banana he's still holding. “I'm fine. Right as rain. Ready to go.”

Harry sighs. “You've got chocolate on your nose.”

Louis tires to look down at it until he's almost gone cross-eyed. Harry doesn't expect the painful pang in his heart at the sight, but it's-it's so silly, so much like the Louis that he grew up loving.

“Where exactly?” Louis asks, trying to reach the tip of his nose with his tongue.

Harry smiles, sighs, and reaches out to wipe it away for him.

The touch charges him with more electricity than the tiny interior of the car can contain, so he gets out immediately after without looking at anyone. With his ears full of serene silence and a pleasant breeze on his hot cheeks, he finally has a minute to take in the colossal building before him.

It looks just like the picture, complete with the sun hanging in the sky just behind it. The flowers in the windows look like paint splatters from back here, lending some life to the century-old façade of the hotel. It looks like a hidden temple, almost, nestled in a valley crowned by trees, with only a few reminders of the time they're in. Three different gravel paths skitter down the hills around the hotel like rivers, pooling around the fountain right in front of the entrance, where someone is already waiting and waving at them.

“Wow,” Liam says when he gets out, walking ahead with a look on his face like Harry hasn't seen since they were teenagers. Niall walks with him, as perfectly calm now as he was bratty earlier. The bright blue of his t-shirt makes him look like a giant raindrop amidst all this greenery.

Louis nudges him in the side, gentle, as he passes. Harry, already busy planning in his head, only just remembers to lock the car before he jogs to catch up with him.

The woman who meets them at the front gate is named Maxine. She's got a round, cheerful face, and a messy mop of blonde hair that billows in the wind. Harry likes her on sight.

Inside, the reception is drowning in plants of all shapes and sizes. They're tucked into every corner in sigh, and they make the air smell pleasantly clear.

“Welcome to The Royal Hotel,” Maxine smiles at them, dramatically opening her arms. Harry touches a dark green, leathery palm leaf, and smiles at the coolness of it underneath his fingers. “The ballroom is just this way, if you'd follow me.”

Niall and Liam have wandered towards the desk, and seem to be chatting to the receptionist. Harry rolls his eyes, and sends out a quiet prayer that they don't get into any trouble while he leaves them there.

Louis sticks by his side as they follow Maxine's snappy heels through an intricately decorated corridor. It's dark, but not unpleasantly so, interspersed every now and then with the brilliant rectangle of a window. Every door they pass is heavy, wooden, with a gleaming gold number on, and the carpet under their feet is a never-ending red and gold filigree. Harry feels a little like the heroine of a Jane Austen novel.

“It's lovely, isn't it?” Louis whispers to him as they walk down a twisty set of stairs.

“Why are you whispering?” Harry whispers back. Louis's only reply is a grin.

Finally, Maxine stops in front of a heavy double door. Harry has to tip his head all the way back to even see the top of it.

“How many people were you thinking of?” Maxine asks. Louis has to nudge him again to get him to focus on the question.

“Oh,” Harry says, apologetic. “It's between forty and fifty at the moment, not entirely sure.”

Maxine nods. “That should be just fine. I'll open the door for you, feel free to come through.”

She pulls it open one wing at a time. Harry only gets a glimpse of the room at first, but it's enough to get his heart racing. There's light, so much light the room is bathing in it, yellow and golden and pure white where it spills out of the door and to Harry's feet. He looks down, watches the shapes it makes on his shoes as he tries to prepare himself.

“Okay?” Louis asks, quiet, and puts a fleeting hand between his shoulder blades. “Door's open.”

Harry breathes in, and tightens his arms around the folder he's brought with him. “Yeah,” he replies, and looks up before he can change his mind.

He hadn't actually expected to cry. He got a little teary when he managed to book this appointment, just because everything was going so well, but he didn't-it's just a room, for God's sake.

Except it's not, is it?

He feels reverent as he slowly, tentatively takes a step inside. The floor bears his weight quietly, stretching out and away like a brilliant, shiny sea. It doesn't look real - he almost expects to drown in it, expects it to move underneath his feet as he makes his way straight across the room, to one of the tall, tall windows strung along the walls like a crystal necklace. On the top, clusters of cherub statues sit looking down at him with stony eyes, and beyond the pristine glass panes, the grounds of the hotel seem to never end, rolling in shades of green as far as eye can see.

“Wow,” Louis says behind him, breathes it, quiet enough that Harry wouldn't have heard if it wasn't for the echo in the room.

He turns around. Louis is standing dead in the centre, small surrounded by all these grand, exaggerated fixtures. He's drowning in sunlight - the rays look like spotlights where they slant in, chasing each other across the floor to see which one can get to him first, which one will get to light up the tips of his hair, the awed smile on his face.

Harry holds back a helpless sigh. God, he's beautiful.

The thought jolts him. It's too sudden, the proverbial bull in the china shop of Harry's careful, tame thoughts about his ex-husband. He tries to focus back on the ballroom, to trace every ornament on the ceiling from beginning to end, but it seems to have lost some of the lustre when he knows that Louis is right there, more intricate than anything a sculptor could have thought of.

Defeated, he looks back to Louis, but doesn't linger. Louis has his head tipped back, watching the patch of ceiling right above him, so Harry does the same, and realises-God, the chandelier.

There are a couple of smaller ones hanging in the corners of the room, but they've got nothing on the centrepiece. It glistens like a thousand shattered mirrors, moving ever so subtly even in the calm air of the room, reflecting specks of light back onto the walls, the windows, the bridge of Louis's nose. It seems to hang from the ceiling so effortlessly, like it's been right there, unfazed, since the house was built over a hundred years ago. Harry thinks he can feel the hems of a thousand different dresses brush against his ankles, can hear the clinking of glasses and the scandalous chatter of high English society. History's lurking in every step he makes from there on, in every chip and scrape in the floor underneath his feet. He can only imagine the amount of balls that took place here once upon a time, and the weddings-

“It's gorgeous,” Louis is saying, his voice carrying around the room like music while Harry wanders. “It looked gorgeous on the pictures, obviously, but seeing it like this-“

“It's quite something,” Maxine agrees. Harry takes one last look into the garden and turns around, heading back towards where they're chatting by the door. He's a little too wobbly on his feet. “There's a little terrace on the outside, if you'd like to have a look. Just up those stairs.”

Harry hadn't noticed the small, winding staircase in the corner of the room. He makes a beeline straight for it - he's being rude, he knows, but Louis seems to have Maxine engaged in conversation anyway, and besides, there's a terrace.

The top of the stairway is small and brightly lit, with a glass door that leads right outside. It opens smooth like butter when Harry leans against it.

Up here, the breeze is much stronger. It catches his hair and runs with it immediately, whipping it into his face and then away. It's worth it, though - the view is breathtaking.

He's quite close to the ground, still, barely a storey high and almost close enough to touch the rose bushes growing underneath the terrace, but this bit of elevation is all he needs to see miles and miles into the distance. The adjacent golf course rises and falls like a sea of grass to the left, perfectly green against the azure sky, and above the shimmering ruffle of treetops, the Manchester skyline glistens in the sun. Just beyond it, like someone was trying to underline the horizon, the mossy rocks of the Peak District reach for the clouds.

This, Harry thinks, and inhales a sweet lungful of air. This is exactly the kind of fairy tale spot he had envisioned for himself.

The wind stings in his eyes, and lures out a few tears. Harry wipes them away, plucks his sunglasses from his hair, and sets them on his nose. He's got to be in business mode today. He's got to convince Maxine to rent out this unbelievable, stupendous ballroom on very short notice.

He can cry when mum and Robin get their surprise. Nobody's going to ask why.

A lone pigeon gets blown off course mid-flight, and lands on the banister right next to Harry's elbow. It's not a city pigeon, either, but the posh kind, with a red neck and soft-looking feathers in all shades of grey.

“Hello,” Harry tells it, glad for a distraction. The bird cocks it tiny head, and rolls its neck. “Bit windy today, isn't it?”

“I see you've finally lost it,” Louis says from behind him. The pigeon ruffles its wings and bravely throws itself back into the gusts. Harry fights a potent desire to follow it.

Instead, he makes sure he's got a hold of himself, and looks over his shoulder. Louis is grinning, squinting into the sun.

“Just making sure it wasn't injured,” Harry replies. He shuffles sideways, to make space for another body next to him. Louis takes the silent invitation, hitting the banister with a soft oof and stretching his arms out toward the skyline. “They'd probably fine us if one of their posh pigeons got hurt on our watch.”

“Posh pigeons,” Louis replies, still grinning. He's been in high spirits all day, undeterred even by the drive, which he used to hate. It's incredibly relaxing to see. “I think they're called doves, you know.”

Harry laughs, a wild sound that gets lost in the whistle of the wind. “Fuck off,” he says, and makes a show of stepping away from Louis. “I think I know the difference, thanks.”

Louis doesn't even jibe back. He looks satisfied to have gotten a laugh out of Harry. Harry looks down into the rose garden, self-conscious. He's been a bore all day, he knows, all because of something that's firmly in the past.

Louis must either be reading his thoughts, or watching him very, very carefully. “Everything all right?” he asks, softer, gentler. The tone of his words translates straight into a growing lump in Harry's throat.

“I'm okay,” he nods, grateful for his sunglasses, and for the hair that's constantly in his face, trying to invade his mouth.

“Mhm,” Louis replies, clearly not convinced.

“I'm fine,” says Harry. “It's-I'm fine.”

Louis closes most of the distance between them, shuffling along the marble until he's just close enough to give Harry a semblance of personal space.

“It's okay, you know,” he says. Harry feels brave enough to look him in the face, just because his own eyes are hidden. “Nobody expects you to just be fine. I thought it might be a good idea to get you involved in this, but maybe-this place-“

“It would've been perfect,” Harry interrupts, because he knows that's where Louis is going. The edges of his sunglasses steam up; he can't take them off to clean them, can't reach underneath to wipe the tears away, because then Louis would know, and he'd pity him. “This was the wedding I wanted. The aisle would've been right there,” he points into the distance, where the garden is a little more trimmed. It's just far enough that his imagination can turn stone flowerpots into people, can lay a soft, dark carpet across the grass where Harry would've walked on his way to Marcus. “I'd wanted-you know those really cheesy arches they have in movies? With rosebuds and things woven through? I was going to have that, and bouquets of wildflowers around us, and we were going to wait until the sun started going down, because it would've made for the most beautiful photos-“

The next breath he takes gets stuck, and refuses to come back out unless it's shaped like a sob, so Harry shuts his mouth. A tear sneaks under the rim of his sunglasses and down the bridge of his nose.

“Please don't cry,” Louis says, soft. There isn't a hint of pity in his voice.

When Harry looks at him, with the blurry shapes of tears shuddering on his eyelashes, he's got the wind blowing his hair into his face, and a fire in his eyes.

Harry sniffles.

“Don't,” Louis repeats, his eyebrows drawing together. He makes an aborted movement, like he forgot himself and was going to touch. “Please don't. He doesn't deserve that. You'll find someone who actually loves you, and they're going to give you the wedding of your dreams, I promise you that.”

Harry gulps, and takes in breath after greedy breath in an attempt to quell the sobs building inside him. Because that-that's it, isn't it? He feels like he's all out of chances, out of attempts. Like he's failed this level of life one too many times and his checkpoints have been erased. He'd been completely lost, untethered, after he left Louis, but he found Marcus to fill that void and more, and now-now he has to start again.

“It's so many years,” he manages to say. “I feel like I lost them. I was with him for such a long time, and he never-“

“That's his loss,” Louis interrupts. This time, he must decide that touching Harry is worth it, because he brushes cool fingers over the hot nape of his neck, and then squeezes his shoulders. “It's his, Harry, and nobody else's. It was real for you, wasn't it?”

Harry thinks back to the pain, to feeling unmade, like someone had taken him apart and warped every piece of him so it'd no longer fit. Thinks back to standing on his terrace, with wind in his hair just like this, and listening to a chorus of gravel accompany Marcus' exit.

“Yeah,” he says, touching the wetness on his face. “Yeah, God. It was real.”

“Then you didn't lose anything,” Louis says. Somehow, impossibly, he's gone even quieter. “You loved someone, and you gave them everything you had. That sounds like the Harry I know.”

Harry chuckles joylessly, and looks out across the vast, vast hotel grounds - at the green-grey peaks on the horizon, and the countless windows of Beetham Tower, existing right next to each other and sharing the heights. The skyscraper makes him think of Marcus' city ways, of the short practicality with which he treated the idea of their wedding; the way he let Harry go as wild as he wanted with wedding planning, and then politely declined to participate.

Harry didn't see it at the time, but it's staring him in the face, as bright as the watery sunlight where it spills across treetops.

Marcus never would have fit.

He would have never seen married life the way Harry does. He never would've fit in this kind of space, would've gotten lost in the vastness of it, and ended up complaining about being too far from so much as a corner store.

Harry had grown up in the country, and had always envisioned going back to that, starting a family somewhere that wasn't Beverly Hills. It was so easy to forget how much he loves this, though, how much he's missed it, when he was so totally lost in Marcus. It was easy to postpone any compromises they might have to make, because they were young and in love - Harry was, at least - and LA is where their careers needed them to be. The future had been an abstract concept.

Now, though - it's real, bitterly so. Harry feels old to the core of his bones when he thinks of finding another man to fall in love with, of opening his heart in yet another way.

He's lost.

The tentative grip he'd had on himself finally snaps, and he hides his mouth in the crook of his elbow to muffle the sounds that tear their way out of his throat.

Louis's grip on his shoulder tightens. He says something - Harry's name - and then pulls, until Harry understands and untwists himself and lets himself fall, head-first, into Louis's arms.

It turns out to be the most familiar place in the world. Louis stops the spiral, the free-fall into misery, and catches Harry right before he hits the bottom with strong arms around his shoulders. Harry holds him around the waist, buries his face in his chest, breathes in his scent - the same, the same, the same.

“Sorry,” he croaks.

“Shush,” Louis says, almost laughs, somewhere just above his ear. “Don't be silly. You just need someone to remind you that you're going to be absolutely fine.”

Harry knows this, he's sure he does. He still cries, though, for the wedding he won't get to have, and the excitement he's going to have to put back away for another few years, at least. All of it soaks right into Louis's t-shirt, probably bleeds onto his warm skin, but he stands fast, and talks and talks and talks about things Harry can't quite understand.

The day starts fading while they stand up there, still enough to be mistaken for statues, and the wind turns cold on Harry's back. His overwhelmed mind keeps going a million miles an hour, and Louis's proximity feels like an all-consuming itch, making him want to buzz out of his skin, but-it's so familiar here, and Louis's voice finally sounds just like all those years ago, sounds like sunshine, like warmth when he says:

“We should get back,” and then rubs an open palm up and down Harry's back, leaves the imprint of a breath on his neck. “I wonder what the children are up to down there.”

Harry laughs wetly. “I'm sure they're fine,” he says.

Louis seems surprised to hear him speak - he makes a barely discernible noise, and jerks a little, but still he keeps holding Harry until Harry decides it's time to return to keeping a polite distance.

“I wouldn't be so sure,” Louis says, joking. Harry squeezes his waist to let him know he's going to try and unglue himself, and Louis presses a kiss into his hair in response. “Niall's a bad influence, you know. Liam is normally very serious these days.”

Harry unwinds his arms, and Louis takes his off Harry's shoulders in return. The space that grows between them feels awkward, tense, filled to the brim with Harry's tears and the fact that he just spent the better part of a half hour sobbing in his estranged ex-husband's arms.

Louis seems determined not to acknowledge it, though. He straightens his wet t-shirt, and waves off Harry's apologetic look. He smiles, turns away, heads down the stairs. Harry has time to wipe his face and rearrange his hair before they emerge back in the ballroom.

Maxine has given up waiting for them, but that's no surprise.

“I'm telling you,” Louis continues, carrying on a conversation with no answer from Harry. “Actually, I'll bet you ten quid we'll find one of them dancing on a table.”

Harry recognises it for what it is - an attempt to make him laugh - and is pleased to find that the laughter comes easily.

“I'm not gambling with you,” he replies, catching up as they weave through the dark corridors.

Louis tuts, and grins at him. “Of course you won't when you know you're going to lose. I can't believe how boring you are.”

Harry opens his mouth for a retort, but he doesn't get a chance to put it into words before they reach the reception.

To Louis's great and vocal disappointment, neither Niall nor Liam are dancing on a table, or even on a table period. Niall is, however, flirting up a storm with the same receptionist. Liam has wandered over to one of the armchairs scattered around, and seems very absorbed in a gardening magazine.

Harry sends Louis a triumphant grin, and comes up to Maxine, who's sitting behind the front desk. Her smile is a little strained once Harry lays out their preferred dates, and gets thinner when he mentions that they'd like the garden right outside the ballroom, too.

Harry thinks of how happy mum will be if he pulls this off, and draws on his hours and hours of media training.

Twenty minutes later, he walks out of The Royal Hotel with a reservation.

*

As expected, mum is beside herself when she realises what's going on. She kisses Harry so many times she leaves his cheeks lipstick-pink, and hugs Jay until everyone around them starts awkwardly fidgeting.

Everything that Harry has planned goes off without a hitch. The flowers come in early in the morning so he gets to arrange them himself, and the lights look absolutely beautiful as daylight gives way and the sunset creeps in. The kitchen sends out the right amount of meals, and they're all warm, and the band show up sober and in good spirits, ready to play. Everyone seems to have a good time, too - mum and Robin are on the dance floor more than anyone else in the room, and the Tomlinson girls run around the perimeter poking everyone they know until they get them up to dance.

By the time night falls, Harry has let himself relax. He's pleasantly warm after a couple of glasses of the house wine, wandering around the room with his eyes from where he's sitting. There's mum, holding Jay's elbow and whispering into her ear until they both break into drunken giggles, and over there is Gemma with Doris on her hip, talking to Jay's husband Dan like they're long lost friends. Lottie and Daisy are stood with the band, looking radiant in their dresses, probably requesting a song.

None of them have come up to Harry, or so much as glanced his way. He's not surprised, of course, but it's a special kind of hurt. He'd seen them grow up right in front of him, along with him, used to consider them his sisters just as much as he did Gemma, but they've always been fiercely protective of Louis, just like their mother. They wouldn't want to speak to him, and that makes perfect sense.

He pours himself another glass to chase the blues away. Tonight, he's intent on reveling in everything that's gone right, in a job well done, in the way he's taken his own hurt and turned it into this gorgeous, gorgeous celebration.

He's rearranging a snow-white bouquet of lilies when a shadow falls on the tabletop. He knows it's Louis without having to look.

“Hi,” he says, smiling despite himself. This is the first time they're speaking tonight, but he'd watched Louis twirl his mother and sisters around all evening, and flitting about the room saying hi to people he hasn't seen in a while, so very charming, confident, beautiful.

Beautiful.

“You've been sitting on your arse all night,” is what Louis says in greeting.

“I have not,” Harry frowns, and points at him with his half-full glass. “This is a lie.”

Louis smiles in an unfamiliar, radiant way, and leans against the back of an empty chair. “Get up,” he says, grinning. “Come on.”

He looks like he's stepped off the cover of a novel. His hair is tousled, but only a little, and the apples of his cheeks are red with alcohol. He's wearing an expensive-looking suit, has been parading around in it all bloody night, and a crisp white shirt underneath. He's left the top two buttons open, just far down enough to reveal the dip where his collarbones meet, and the sheen of sweat that's risen on his skin while he's been skipping around the room.

“Nuh-uh,” Harry mumbles, and gulps down his wine a little too quickly. “I'm relaxing.”

“You've been relaxing for an hour,” Louis points out. He reaches out and ruffles Harry's hair. “It's time to dance.”

Harry puts his elbows on the table. “Nobody's asked me yet,” he replies. He can't suppress a grin, one that's slightly cheekier that he'd like, but-this night doesn't quite feel real, and he's tipsy anyway. He's allowed.

At the same time, he's aware of several pairs of eyes watching them. Everyone here knows their history, knows what Harry has done. This might look very, very weird, and it is. It's the precipice of something that Harry won't let himself fall into, but he's been balancing on the edge for a while now, and it gets harder every single day, with every smile like that - with a light in his eyes, and happy-looking crow's feet blooming around them. With a soft, strange kind of focus, like Harry is the only thing he's seeing.

“Okay,” he says, still grinning. The initial mischief has drained from his face, and has left him looking earnest, fresh-faced, young. As if in a dream, Harry watches him extend a hand. “May I have this dance?”

The lights seem too bright, suddenly, orange and red instead of yellow, bearing onto the back of Harry's neck until he's overheating, instantly sweating underneath his jacket. He's unmoving, blinking at Louis, trying to remember how to shape his mouth around words.

Louis's expression goes tense, and his outstretched hand quivers. It's that waver, that entirely human split-second hesitation, that brings Harry back down to earth.

He shrugs out of his jacket, and lets it fall where it please. He knows he's blushing furiously, and his mouth is dry - is he taking a step off the ledge? Is there any universe out there in which this could possibly be a good idea? - and his voice is shaking, but he steels himself, and reaches back, and says: “Yes you may.”

Louis beams. Harry immediately becomes self-conscious about how sweaty his hands are, right along with the rest of him, about his tangled hair and the wine on his breath.

Then Louis inclines his head, and squeezes his fingers, and Harry remembers that they've known each other their entire lives; that if he is about to tumble down, into the known and unknown, there is no one better to fall with.

He gets up. His chair slides back noisily, probably drawing even more attention. Harry doesn't look around, doesn't seek out his mother or Niall or Liam or Jay in the suddenly monotonous throng gathered around the room. His heart is drumming against his breastbone, just as wild and confused as he is; the second he locks eyes with someone, anyone who isn't Louis, he's going to turn around and run.

Louis must know, must feel something similar, because he doesn't let Harry tear his gaze away. His eyes are an electric blue, and dancing with the reflection of a dozen candle flames from around the room. Harry's so absorbed in them he trips over the tablecloth.

He manages to round the table, eventually. Louis doesn't let go, and doesn't let their hands drop, either. He leads Harry across the room, like he's showing him off, like this is the most expected, the most natural thing for them to do.

The floorboards shift under Harry's feet. He hopes he's imagining it, but the chatter around the room seems to have died down a little. They're watching - it must be every single one of them, their looks scattering down Harry's back like ice water, giving him goosebumps. Still, he refuses to look. Louis is the one that matters here, with his beautiful messy hair and that wide-open shirt collar, with a bright smile and warm skin and a certainty in his step that Harry can't help but envy.

“It's all right,” he tells Harry, whispers it so it stays cradled in the space between them. “We're fine. If you want to go back to relaxing, just let me know.”

Harry recognises a challenge in his tone, but he also picks out the barest hint of a nervous tremor.

And then he realises who they are, and how they got here.

He tips his chin up, and reluctantly parts his gaze and Louis's to look around the room. As expected, almost everyone is silent, holding glasses of their preferred poison up to their faces, watching but pretending not to. Harry stares them all down.

This - Louis's hand in his, in this ballroom, in the same place where Louis held him while he cried just a couple of weeks ago - this is between them. Somehow, Harry has done enough to earn a tentative kind of forgiveness, has done enough for Louis to ask him to dance. None of these people have the right to know, to see.

But while they're here, Harry's going show them. He's going to let everyone know how proud he is to have come far enough to hold this man's hand.

The band seems to spot them on their short, slow walk to the dance floor, and they stop in the middle of a pleasant, mid-tempo song.

An anticipative kind of dread shudders up and down Harry's back.

Louis leads him right into the middle, where a space seems to have opened up. He's still got a smile playing across his features, but his forehead has started sweating.

“Who's going to lead?” he asks, and briefly lets go of Harry's hand.

Harry feels almost unbearably light. He smiles, and feels it all the way in his fingertips. “You act like we've never danced before.”

He wouldn't go there, normally, but. Tonight, all those unspoken rules seem to have lifted.

Louis grins, and laughs so loud it echoes. “I guess you're right,” he says, and puts a soft hand on Harry's waist. Harry expects it to be shaking, like his own, but Louis is relaxed, firm.

Sure.

The music starts again. It's a much slower song, one that Harry vaguely recognises, though he can't hear much through the sound of blood rushing in his ears. Above them, the chandelier spins slowly and bathes everyone in specks of light. One of them lands on Louis's chest, just above the first closed button, and Harry has to fight to pull his eyes away.

He puts his hand on Louis's arm, and links their hands again. This is easy, he thinks, relaxing his hips and following the way Louis moves. This is something they've done a hundred times, and it hasn't changed a bit across these years.

“Everyone's watching us,” Harry points out. He can't quite stop smiling, for some reason. “I think they're expecting you to pull out a knife and stab me.”

For a second, Louis glares at the room at large over Harry's shoulder. “They're ruining my plan,” he says. “Now I've got to poison you instead.”

Harry throws his head back to laugh. When he straightens up again, the distance between them has shrunk.

“It was a bad plan in the first place,” he says, but they're so close he only needs to whisper. “You shouldn't murder somebody in front of this many witnesses.”

“No, see, I've got an alibi. I've had-five? I think five gin & tonics. I won't be able to remember a thing, and everyone else will probably say you just mysteriously dropped dead in the middle of the dance floor.”

Harry stops himself from wondering whether a sober Louis would have done this; whether a sober Louis will regret this later on. It doesn't matter.

“I don't think that's admissible in a court of law,” he says. “Your honour, respectfully, I was pissed and remember absolutely nothing.”

Louis laughs, and sways them to the left. “Thanks, attorney Styles. I guess I'll just poison you, then.”

“Please,” Harry nods. Then they drunkenly guffaw in unison.

The song builds, and fills the tall ceiling of the ballroom all the way to the top. It'll end soon.

Theoretically, Louis only asked for one dance, but he doesn't look like he's getting ready to let go. He doesn't even look like he's aware of the song progressing, his eyes shimmering in the shade between them, watching Harry's face and his neck and the place where his arm winds around to Harry's back. He looks so indescribably lovely.

Slowly, as they sway in their little bubble in the middle of the dance floor, and talk in hushed voices, the atmosphere in the room lightens, and the terse silence lifts. More couples come out to join them in a slowdance, but they're barely shadows in Harry's periphery. His attention, his entire being, is focused on the man who's holding him in his arms, on savouring every last second of this because he has no idea how long it's going to last.

The song ends on a long, happy piano note. Louis looks up at Harry's face, and squeezes his hand.

“Can I have the next one as well?” he asks, wide-eyed, unassuming, sweet.

“You can have all of them,” Harry replies. It flies out of his mouth before he can stop it, but he's not sure he'd want to anyway. “As many as you want.”

Louis grins, a little wolfishly. He takes his arm off Harry's back, lifts their joined hands-

Before Harry knows what's happening, he's twirling, laughing into the heavy air as he remembers how to arrange his feet. Louis is a blur, golden and black and white whenever he comes into view.

They've got a video of them doing this years ago, Harry remembers as his head starts spinning. They'd been out to dinner with their parents, for Louis's 19th. He let Harry sneak sips of his champagne, and by the time the band came on they were both dizzy with happiness. Mum had pulled out her phone and filmed them jumping around with no real idea of what they were doing, complete with the silly smile on Harry's face and the sparks in Louis's eyes.

Louis stops him just as the memory starts to become painful, and pulls him close; close enough that their foreheads are touching, and they're breathing each other's air. Close enough that Harry can smell Louis's skin, the cologne that's dappled in the hollows of his collarbones.

“Were you thinking of-“

“Yeah,” Louis interrupts. Harry hears him swallow, but can't see his expression, not when their faces are touching like this, sweaty temple to sweaty temple. “Yeah, I was. I think I had a photo made of that, to hang up in the hall.”

“Oh,” says Harry. He did. It used to hang right next to the kitchen door, just above the light switch, Harry's floppy teenage haircut and Louis's infatuated expression.

There's nothing more than a silhouette, now.

“Why didn't you put them back up?” Harry asks before he can stop himself. “The pictures, I mean. After I was gone.”

“There wasn't time,” Louis replies, but they both know that's a flimsy excuse. “And then you came right back, and I figured-I figured they just made you uncomfortable anyway, so.”

Harry doesn't like this - this tense note that's crept into Louis's voice, into the wildly intimate space between them.

“They didn't,” Harry says, truthfully. “They scared me, at first, but I got used to them.”

“Scared you?” Louis asks. They're talking so quietly it almost feels like they're back at home - at Louis's - sitting in the living room and talking about Harry's plans for this place.

“Don't tell me you forgot that I was in denial,” Harry says, chuckles a little. “I was convinced we were never married for real. That I was never in love with you.”

“Ah,” Louis says, and sighs. The exuberant energy has gone out of him, but he's still loose, still careful on his feet, still holding Harry up rather than slumping into him. “That.”

Harry shakes his head. “I couldn't believe you still had them up,” he says. “And that you didn't mind seeing my face every day, after everything.”

To his surprise, Louis laughs. It comes out as a warm puff that breaks against the side of Harry's neck.

“It's not that simple,” he says, and his tone signals a clear end to that conversation. Harry squeezes his shoulder apologetically.

“Let's just dance,” he says, smiles. He feels Louis smile back.

They're so very, incredibly close. Their lips are more or less level with each other.

For a crazy, wine-fuelled second, Harry wonders what would happen if he connected them. If he tipped Louis's chin up, and tasted him after all these years.

The thought passes, quick, between one hot breath and the next, but it sobers him up uncomfortably. He leans away a little, just enough to put a sliver of air between them, to see Louis's eyes. They're a dark blue.

Another song fades, the last notes rising around them and echoing under the ornate ceiling. Louis loosens his grip a little, questioning.

Harry bites his lip. He doesn't want to let go, and he doesn't want to face the room at large, either. But if he stays-if one more memory bubbles up to the surface and tangles between their bodies-

“Actually, could you give me a minute?” he asks, regretfully untangling his fingers from Louis's and tugging at his collar. He's sweating buckets. “I need something to drink.”

The corners of Louis's mouth twist in an expression that Harry can't read. “Of course.”

He steps away, takes his gentle palm off Harry's sweaty back. Then he smiles, and looks like he's about to do something silly like thank Harry for the dance, and no, no.

This can't end yet.

“Wait for me,” Harry blurts, before he has a chance to so much as contemplate stopping himself. “Just-one song. Wait one song. I promise I'll come back.”

Something dark swirls in Louis's eyes, but his features are relaxed, loose. Flushed red.

“One song,” he says, puts a hand on his chest, and turns to walk away.

Harry fights the temptation to watch him go. One song, he repeats to himself. It's just one song.

He has to turn around a couple of times to find the refreshments table. He and Louis had moved from their original spot in the middle of the dance floor towards the tall ballroom door, open out into the cool, dark corridor. The lights strung around the room make him slightly dizzy, stay in front of his eyes even when he finally spots the pitchers of water he's after.

He smells like Louis's cologne, he realises as he walks, as the scent of it lifts off his shirt and drifts around him. It seems to buzz under his skin as he breathes it in again, alive, restless.

Harry sighs in relief when he gets his hands on a glass, and tries to discreetly press it to the feverish skin of his chest to calm himself a little. Then he pours himself some water, gulps it right down, and repeats this until the fire has been extinguished. It also helps wash down the wine a little, so that the next time he looks at the room, everything's come into sharper focus. The glinting chandelier, the canapés at the end of the refreshments table, a sweating pitcher that a waiter's just brought in, and-Jay.

Harry takes an involuntary step back when he sees her. She looks gorgeous in her dark blue dress, and has been all smiles ever since she greeted mum and Robin, but there's something cool, something dangerous in the way she looks him up and down.

He shudders when he remembers the last time they met.

“Jay,” he says eventually, swallowing a bitter ball of saliva. “Hi.”

He doesn't know if breaking the silence is the right thing to do, but it hangs between them so heavy, so impenetrable, that it makes him feel like he's suffocating.

“Harry,” she says, rolls the word around in her mouth like she was contemplating whether to leave him alone or tear him apart. “You're a better dancer than you used to be.”

Harry gulps. With a sudden, abject panic, he realises that Jay was among the many people watching them. Jay saw Harry get completely, utterly lost in Louis.

The blush that rises into his cheeks almost stings with how sudden it is.

“T-thank you,” he finally manages to say.

One corner of her mouth quirks up, dryly amused, probably pleased to see Harry squirm.

“Would you, um. Would you like some water?” he offers, incapable of coming up with an excuse to leave and go drown himself in the hotel pool. He holds up the pitcher he's still got in his hand, just to illustrate his ridiculous point.

Jay softens. It's minuscule, barely there, but Harry sees it and latches on to it.

“I'm all right, thanks,” she says. “I'll be on my way, actually, I just came over to ask you something.”

Harry's throat closes right up.

“Anything,” he manages to wheeze.

She sets her empty glass down on the table, and almost smiles.

While she's looking away from him, Harry casts a lightning-fast glance around the room, looking for Louis, for his mum, for anyone who could help get him out of here if things get dire.

Or if he passes out. It seems somewhat imminent, at the moment.

He holds an edge of the tablecloth in his hand, wraps it around his fingers, squeezes it in his fist. It's remarkably calming.

“Listen, Harry,” Jay says, and the way she says his name doesn't sound like an insult. “I just need to know, and I need you to be honest with me.”

Harry nods wordlessly.

“Are you here to hurt my son?”

Out of all the questions in the world, Harry could confidently say this was the one he was expecting the least. He stammers, and coughs, and makes a complete idiot out of himself in his haste to reply.

“No,” is what he says, looking Jay in the eye, willing her to see that it's the truth. “No, of course not. Why would I do that?”

She raises an eyebrow.

Harry's cheeks burn, still, anew. “Forget I said that,” he says, and drops his gaze, traces the lily pattern in the tablecloth that's been all warped in his grip. It had been the most natural, the most immediate, thing to say, but it's left an artificial kind of tang on his tongue. You've hurt him once, idiot, his brain reminds him, and then again, and again, and again. You've done nothing but hurt him.

“I-I know how much I hurt him, Jay, I promise you I do,” he tries. She looks at him, unimpressed. “But I don't want to cause any more pain.”

“You're not here to hurt my son, then,” she says, watching Harry with her hands clasped in front of her. In her midnight-coloured dress, she looks a little like a judge. “And I've got your word?”

“Yes,” Harry replies immediately, breathlessly. “Yes, you have my word. I don't want to hurt Louis, I-“

He inhales sharply when the next word forms naturally on his tongue, sweetly oblivious, and snaps his mouth shut so hard his teeth clack together. The word flutters around his mouth like a dying butterfly, tries to force its way out, but he clenches his jaw and holds fast until it disappears back down his throat.

He doesn't mean it like that. Of course he doesn't.

Jay, though, must see what he's managed to hide written in the struggle on his face. For the first time, her unaffected mask slips, and Harry sees a glimpse of the woman who was his second mother growing up - sees her in the brief, happy lines around her eyes, and in the way she puts her hand up to her face to catch her surprised gasp.

“Oh my God,” she says, and Harry panics, panics, panics. She's going to ask. She's going to say something that'll catch him off guard, and he won't be able to stop himself this time.

But, just as she opens her mouth, a familiar hand curls around her elbow.

“Mum,” Louis says, inserting himself into the dangerous space between them, and kissing her on the cheek. He's left his jacket somewhere, while Harry has been preoccupied, and his hair seems even messier. “Sorry to interrupt, but I've been promised a dance.”

When he looks at Harry, his features are steeped in concern, but-he also looks alive, alight, golden skin and blue eyes.

Harry tries his best to piece together a smile, a nod.

Louis doesn't offer him a hand this time. Instead, he steps into Harry's side, wraps a sure arm around his waist, and leads him back to the floor, where specks of light are dancing in-between people's feet.

Harry looks back at Jay over his shoulder, apologetic smile in place. She's got a hand on her chest as she watches them go, and something monumental has happened to her eyes.

They're kind.

*

Harry doesn't leave the house for the next few days, too tired of dealing with people. He barricades himself in the living room, surrounded by the last batch of the lyrics Niall had brought with him, half-heartedly reading them over as he texts Mark to ask where he'd found these so-called songwriters.

On one such stifling, sunny Tuesday, the heat chases him out of bed not long after dawn, and he's got the kitchen all to himself. He decides to celebrate the rare occasion by making enough pancakes to feed a football team, and even starts the coffee maker for when Robin gets up to go to work. Afterwards, he settles back into the dent he's made in the left side of the sofa, pulls up the last five songs he's got to go through, and finds their corresponding sound files in the depths of his email.

It's funny, the fact that not a single one of fifty-odd songwriters managed to get his attention, but Harry's a little too discouraged to laugh about it. He really wanted a new influence, something to pick up his next album, distinguish it from the previous two. He's never recorded or performed someone else's song.

He throws out something called New York City Streets before he even reads it, just because it reminds him a little too much of Marcus. Next up is a short little thing, just a verse and a chorus, by the looks of it.

Just Hold On.

The recording is a ballad - two soft, clear piano notes to begin with, and a still clearer voice on top of them, a falsetto. There's something familiar about it, but it doesn't sound like anyone Harry knows, doesn't sound like anyone he's ever heard sing.

He almost stops breathing as he listens. There's something so incredibly sad woven through those notes, despite the hopeful lyrics, something he can't quite pick up on.

He tries to sing along when he plays the demo again, and his voice wraps around the words with a miraculous ease.

What do you do when a chapter ends? he sings, and tries to imagine the song with a full production, a chorus, strings. Whatever instruments he needs to bring out that shivering, achy sadness he's hearing, to help it reach every single person who listens to the song.

He doesn't click play again when the demo ends. He puts the lyric sheet down, and looks out of the window where they day is just waking up.

He's found a song.

He's found a song.

He bites his lip to contain the wild smile on his face, and sweeps the rest of the papers to the ground. When he skips to the window and opens it, the heavy air feels calming on his face, almost like a touch. There's a flock of birds crossing the horizon, screaming bloody murder and arranged into the shape of an arrow; on the other end of the garden, Dusty's black silhouette ducks in and out of a bush as she chases something; and down there, on the grass, a small patch of yellow flowers bend their heads to the morning breeze. Even in the late August heat, the world is alive all around him, happy to share his new-found joy.

With the exception of Louis, it seems. Just as Harry closes his eyes and angles his face into the sun, there's a commotion at the top of the stairs, and then Louis's hushed voice:

“Fuck! Fucking shit.”

Harry has to clap a hand over his mouth to suppress a loud laugh. The rest of the house is still asleep, which is presumably why Louis is trying to avoid making noise.

Harry watches him walk gingerly down the stairs, and squint into the sunlight that's flooding the downstairs.

“Harry?” he asks, still whispering. Harry waves. “What are you doing awake?”

“Working,” Harry replies, and makes his way to him. It's automatic, entirely involuntary - Louis is in the room, so Harry's body gravitates to where it thinks it's supposed to be. “You okay?”

Louis rubs a hand over his harrowed-looking face. He's got bags under his eyes, and his hair is sticking up wildly at the back of his head.

“Fine,” he says with a sigh. “Fine, I've just got to-go. Yeah. I've got to go.”

He doesn't appear to make any attempt to move.

“Where are you going?”

Louis is too busy rubbing one of his eyes to register the question. It's only the silence that makes him realise that something was said.

“Huh?”

Harry holds back a hopeless, fond sigh. Louis looks so small in these shadowy retreats of the hall, in slouchy jeans and a shirt that Harry is certain is on backwards; his feet are bare, and he's got one arm wrapped around himself, squeezing at pale skin. His cheeks are still pink with sleep; he's got a pillow crease running like a tiny red river from the corner of his eye all the way to his neck.

“Where are you going?” he tries again. It comes out gentler than he intends.

Louis shrugs. “London,” he says. “Have you seen my shoes?”

Harry looks over his shoulder, to where Louis's trainers lie haphazardly on the mat where he kicked them off yesterday.

“I made breakfast,” he says, instead of answering the question. Louis's brow furrows, and he purses his lips, blinking at Harry slow and thorough like he's trying to translate whatever language he's speaking. “Kitchen. Come on.”

“No,” he shakes his head. “No, I. I'm going.”

Harry looks at his watch. 6:15. “Do you have to leave right this minute?”

Louis peers at Harry's watch too. “Oh.”

Harry grins. “Come have pancakes. Please.”

Despite the tiredness that's all but dripping off him, Louis immediately straightens up when he hears the word. “You did not make pancakes.”

“Oh, I did,” Harry smiles. Then, because they're still standing in the hall without moving, he reaches out, loops his arm through the crook of Louis's elbow, and pulls him forward. “It's my evil plan to make you late for wherever you need to be.”

“Of course,” Louis says, and slumps into Harry's side as they shuffle into the kitchen. His voice is hoarse in a way that takes Harry right back to countless mornings of waking up next to him - he has to look up at the nondescript white ceiling and blink rapidly to make those memories go away. “I forgot that you're here to ruin my life.”

There's not a hint of meaning behind it, no pointed heaviness. It's a joke.

Harry allows himself to laugh, a little wooden, as he pushes Louis into a seat and goes about putting a plate together. Out of the corner of his eye, he watches Louis lean back in his chair and spread his arms, relaxing. The sunlight spills over the velvety skin of his eyelids and tints it a rosy gold.

Harry wishes he could take a picture of this - of how much the light loves Louis Tomlinson.

He doesn't need to ask the specifics of how Louis likes his pancakes. Between one blink and the next, between cutting a strawberry in half and reaching for the syrup, eighteen-year-old him trots up to the kitchen counter with a ridiculous grin and curly, curly hair falling into his face. He's up and awake at six because it's their very first morning as a married couple, and he's going to bring his husband breakfast in bed.

All of that Harry's excitement, his beautiful naiveté, fill the kitchen all the way up until Harry can't help but breathe some of it in. His heart jumps, and he can't hold back the smile that the memory coaxes out of him. Eighteen-year-old Harry guides his hands, giddy with the prospect of watching Louis wake up, the scrunch in the bridge of his nose and the barely-there flutter of his eyelashes; that smile he reserves for Harry and Harry alone.

Over his shoulder, Harry looks at his Louis, lounging like a sunning cat. He's nothing like the Louis of the past, and yet the exact same, so very young when he lets his guard down like this.

But, unlike eighteen-year-old Harry, he can't just walk up to him and touch his face. He's not going to see Louis blink the last shadows of a dream out of his eyes first thing in the morning, not ever again, because he's thrown away his chance.

He shakes his head, and wipes the wiry silhouette of himself away until it's just the pristine kitchen tiles, the tick of the clock on the wall, and Harry, shaking.

“There you go,” he says, but he has to try a few times before the words make it out. Louis opens his eyes sleepily, eyes the plate in Harry's hands, and smiles.

“Wow,” he says, immediately awake, straightening his back. “I can't remember the last time-thank you, Harry.”

Harry's heart falls and flutters all at the same time. “You're very welcome,” he says, and - just because it's that hazy time of morning, where things don't always seem real - squeezes Louis's shoulder. It feels monumental, despite the fact that he was all but hanging off of Louis on the dance floor a few days ago.

“Oh my God, these are incredible,” Louis says, already with a smear of syrup across his cheek. “Are you not having any?”

“I already ate,” Harry shakes his head. He takes a seat across from Louis, stretches out his legs. His toes bump into Louis's ankle, and neither of them pull away. “Been awake a while.”

Louis raises his head. A worried line stretches across his forehead.

Harry looks at him, with his brilliant concerned eyes and his mouth full of food, and feels resolutely at peace.

“I'm okay,” he says, in response to a question Louis didn't ask. “Just had work to do. I'll have to go back into the studio soon.”

“Album number three already?” Louis asks. One corner of his mouth doesn't quite lift up in a smile. “You're fast.”

“I've got to milk this while I'm young and beautiful,” Harry says, and flips his hair over his shoulder. Louis hiccups a laugh. “Nobody's going to want to see my saggy face on the cover of an album in ten years.”

Louis shakes his head, and waves his fork in the air. “You're not going to be saggy in ten years,” he says, and looks Harry up and down. Harry blushes all the way to the roots of his hair. “Even I, in my old age, haven't even found a grey hair yet.”

“It's only a question of time,” Harry replies. Louis throws a strawberry slice at him. “Oh, is that too hard for you to chew? I'm sorry, I should have known-“

“Dentures,” Louis interrupts, grinning and tapping one of his front teeth. “Can't even tell them apart from the real thing, these days.”

They smile at each other for a content, quiet moment. Then Louis looks down at his plate and realises he's finished his food.

“Those were so good,” he says, almost whispers, as if he was talking to himself. Then he bites his lip, and hesitates before he says: “I've missed your pancakes, H.”

Harry's heart gives a single, heavy thump.

I've missed you, he doesn't want to say, because he's terrified of the avalanche that would come down right after it.

“I'll be around a while longer,” is what he says instead, as much a response as a reminder to himself that this is finite. That he has to pack up and leave, again, and this time he won't be coming back. “I can make some whenever you want, just ask.”

Louis's expression is too soft for words. “Thanks,” he says.

“You're welcome,” Harry replies. There's something about the fragility of the moment that makes him want to reach across the table and hold Louis's hand, but he doesn't do that. He wrings his fingers in his lap, touches the spot where his engagement ring used to sit, and long before it, a stained second-hand wedding band.

Louis is the first one to get up, to go put his plate in the dishwasher. He looks much more alive, Harry notes with satisfaction.

He puts the kettle on while he's at the counter, and digs into one of the cupboards to unearth a worn travel mug. Harry watches the way he moves, somehow languid and graceful all at the same time, and thinks about the elegant curve of his waist, about how warm the skin there used to be under his hands.

There's a loud, grating meow from outside. Dusty slips in through the cat door a second later, holding something in her mouth. Harry gets up to stop whatever it is from being buried in the house.

“Dusty, hey,” he says, blocking her way. “Hey, pretty. What've you got there?”

She sits and looks up at him, clearly unimpressed by his choice of nickname. In her mouth, still twitching a little and stained a distinct shade of red, is a dead mouse.

“No,” Harry says, and crosses his arms. “You can't bring that in, I'm sorry.”

Dusty mrows from behind her prey, and neatly jumps over Harry's extended leg to saunter into the kitchen, tail held high.

“Hey, love,” Louis's bright voice greets her. When Harry comes back in, he's kneeling on the floor, scratching the cat behind an ear with seemingly no regard for the dead rodent still in her mouth. “Good morning to you too. Is that for me?”

Dusty bends her head and drops the mouse right onto the shiny tile. Harry recoils at the way it splats, but Louis only smiles wider and nods.

“Thank you, that's very kind.”

The cat meows, rubs her head against Louis's knee, and skips off into the hallway. She doesn't use the door Harry is standing in, and he can't help feeling a little insulted.

“Does this happen a lot?” he asks, staring at the terrifying brown heap on the floor.

“Yep,” says Louis as he pours boiling water into his mug. “Once a week, at least. She's very good at catching them.”

Harry's overwhelmingly glad she'd never done anything of the sort while he lived at home.

“What do you do with them?” Harry asks, trying to figure out the best way to clean this up. “The mice, I mean.”

“I, uh,” Louis grimaces, “I put them in the compost bin. Just give me a second, I'll-“

But he never finishes, because his phone starts ringing in his back pocket. Harry doesn't intend to snoop, but Liam's name and contact photo are both very visible from where he's standing.

Louis picks up, frowns, laughs, says a single “yes”, and then hangs up. When he looks at Harry, his expression is crumpled into an apology.

“I really have to go now,” he says. “I hate to ask, but could you-“

“Of course,” Harry replies, before he fully realises what he's agreeing to. “Don't worry, I'll take care of it before mum wakes up.”

Louis smiles at him. “Thanks, H. And thank you for breakfast, I'll definitely pay this back somehow.”

“No need,” Harry smiles back, and rotates as Louis squeezes past him into the hallway. He reaches for the coat hanger and plucks off a cardigan, despite the near-tropical temperature outside. “I'm more than happy to share.”

“Sharing is caring,” Louis says, and bends down to put on his shoes.

“Charity starts at home,” Harry grins. It's a stupid thing Louis started when Harry went through his growth spurt and refused to share any of his food; just hearing him say it feels like a shot of happiness straight into his veins.

“Indeed,” says Louis, straightening up. The long piece of fringe has been dislodged from its place behind his ear. Harry doesn't question himself, doesn't hesitate, and reaches out to put it back into place. Louis has no reaction other than an absent-minded smile as he pats his pockets to make sure he has everything.

“I'll probably be back by ten,” he tells Harry, then blinks as if he hadn't meant to say that. “Can you tell Anne that I'm sorry I won't make it to dinner? She was telling me about a roast yesterday, she was really excited about it.”

Harry leans against the doorframe. Smiles. “I'll let her know, don't worry. Weren't you in a hurry?”

Louis laughs, and peers out of the window like Liam's going to be standing there tapping his watch. “Yeah,” he says. “Yes. Thank you for breakfast, again.”

“It was my pleasure,” Harry says. “Have a good day, Louis.”

The smile Louis gives him in return is radiant. “You too,” he says, and reaches behind him for the door.

Later, Harry's going to go back to this moment and question his own sanity. He'll will past him to stop - to not step into the hall, to not lean forward.

To not press his lips to Louis's fading smile and kiss him goodbye.

In the moment, it's the most painfully natural thing to do. It's a thousand mornings just like this coming back and taking over Harry's body; it's the memories of rolling out of bed and into the morning messy-haired and sated, of touching hands and noses and lips and leaning against the counter waiting for the kettle to boil; of being late for work every other day because they spent too long standing right here, smiling into each other's mouths as they said goodbye.

It's Louis's hands on Harry's hips, and the smile-it's the smile that breaks down the very last brick of the wall Harry's put up, the smile that makes him realise-

Louis leans into the touch. For a beautiful, fleeting second, his lips press back against Harry's, soft and terrified, but the same. Harry's very bones ache with the familiarity, with how right it is, but then-then he reaches out and touches air.

Then, reality crashes back into him, a tidal wave that washes away the beautiful pictures he's painted in his mind.

Shaking, he opens his eyes. Louis's are still closed; his hand is halfway into the space between them, frozen in mid-air, like he'd meant to touch just like Harry wanted to.

Harry watches, as if in slow motion, as he blinks, as the elegant sweep of his eyelashes turns into a tremble, as he pulls his arm to his side, as he steps back until he's pressed against the door. He looks terrified.

Harry opens his mouth, to say whatever will come out of him, to apologise, but Louis turns around, throws the door open, and runs away.

The minute his car is out of sight, Harry leans against the nearest wall and slides to the ground, feeling a little like he's been de-boned. His hands are shaking so hard he has to squeeze them between his thighs, and he's hyperventilating; he tries to find something to focus on, something to anchor him, but the hall is full of rays of light slanting in from doorways and windows, and they remind him of how Louis looked in that chair, bathed in gold, how unbelievably, incomprehensibly gorgeous.

“I kissed him,” Harry mumbles into his knees, rocking back and forth a little as he tries to comprehend the enormity of what he just did. It was habit, he tells himself, but that's not the whole truth.

There have been a lot of things he's had to re-learn since he came back, a lot of things that felt alien because it had been so long.

Kissing Louis was not one of them.

And loving him isn't, either.

Because that's what this is, and it's been lying in wait for weeks, waiting for Harry to slip up. He'd pushed it as far down as he could when he still thought he was getting married, but now-there's no real reason for him to not admit it, at least to himself.

He's in love with Louis, has been in love with Louis, again, always. On this creaky floor, in this messy, mismatched house - this is where he's home.

Except-except there's no place for him anymore. Not the way he wants. Louis deserves someone who'll treat him the way he deserves, who won't abandon him forever in the middle of the night. Harry used to be that person, and he's given up his chance.

He gets up and brushes himself off, careful on wobbly, wobbly feet. Louis's lips are still there against his, a ghost of a touch, and something white hot is spinning out of control in his chest, wanting to explode out of him.

I kissed him, he wants to scream, wants to open the window and tell the rest of the world as it wakes up. I kissed him, and it was perfect.

I kissed him, and it was the last time.

*

When mum wakes up, she finds him sitting on the sofa in complete silence, staring into the wall. He's cleaned up the mouse, mostly because he almost slipped on it when he went to get a glass of water, but he's been in the same spot since then, hoping for some kind of breakthrough.

The empty frame above the fireplace seems to be making a point today.

“Morning, darling,” she says, stepping into the room gingerly and looking around like she expects Louis to be nearby. “Are you by yourself?”

Harry blinks to shake himself out of the statuesque state he's been in. “Yeah,” he says, and turns to look at her. He tries his best to smile. “Louis left a while ago.”

In truth, he has no idea how long it's been. The mornings start to look the same after a certain time - he easily could've been here for hours and not realised.

She comes over and sits next to him, pressing a kiss to his cheek. There's a worried wrinkle between her eyebrows.

“Everything okay?” she asks, and pushes some of his hair off his forehead, touches the skin there like he's eight again and she's checking for a fever. “Are you feleing all right?”

He wraps his fingers around her wrist, feeling very small, and like he wants to hold her hand more than anything. “I don't have a fever, Mum,” he says, tried to make it into a joke, but it just kind of limply slips out of his mouth and falls onto the coffee table.

She frowns now, and fusses some more. Harry finally stops her when he tries to fix his collar, and intertwines their fingers. He feels so childish, but so safe.

“Harry,” mum says, quiet, insistent. “What happened?”

Harry squints into the sun outside and contemplates telling her. What happened is that he's been selfish again. What happened is that he's realised he never, never fell out of love; that he's been walking around for the past five years trying to fill an empty space he didn't realise was there.

What happened is that he's eighteen again, and completely, utterly, arse over teakettle in love with Louis Tomlinson.

“It's nothing,” he says, scrambling for an excuse. She wouldn't understand, he tells himself, because he's been so casually cruel, has made his stance clear over and over. “I, um,” he looks at the papers spread all over the coffee table, at his laptop which is still open, but asleep, “just struggling with picking out some songs.”

“Darling,” mum says. She doesn't believe him. “Is it-did Marcus-“

Harry shakes his head hastily. “No,” he says, and remembers that most normal people would probably still be mourning their lost relationship - the most recent one, that is. “No, of course not.”

She nods, and pats the back of his hand. “That's good to hear. You've been looking so much happier these past couple of weeks.”

“Have I?”

“Yes,” she smiles, tilts her head. Cups his cheek, and runs a thumb under his eye, until Harry has to double-check that he's not crying. “It's been really lovely to see you acting the way you used to, you know, not popstar Harry, but the one who fell into Mrs Johnston's sewage and then ran across the entire village with no clothes on.”

Harry laughs, unexpected but so very welcome. “Louis threw a two-pound coin in it and dared me to fish it out,” he says. Because that memory, like every memory, is infused with Louis's infectious laugh, with his blinding-bright smile while he watches Harry do his every bidding.

“I know,” mum grins. “Then Jay and I forbade you from seeing each other for two weeks, and you climbed out of your window in the middle of the night and left a note that said you were running away from home because you couldn't live in a dictatorship.”

Harry puts his head in his hands and hiccups with laughter. He met up with Louis that night, in the forest just outside of town, and they spent hours huddling against a tree trunk in the damp grass. That was the night Louis told him that he was gay, and he's found out because he kissed some boy in his grade, and Harry, in his ripe thirteen years of age, felt real jealousy for the first time.

“I'm sorry,” he says, even though he's sure he's apologised a thousand times. “I-I don't know what I'd been thinking.”

Mum laughs a little. “That's okay, love. It kind of was our bad for assuming you two could stay away from each other for more than twelve hours.”

She's right, so very right. Louis used to be Harry's entire life - every minute, every moment of it, up until the night Harry packed up and left - and it never felt anything but right.

From the moment Harry came into the world, and Louis toddled in on his mum's heels to say hi, they were meant to be, destined to be, each other's beginning and end.

“Mum,” he says, and his throat is hopelessly dry. “Mum. I love him.”

Mum frowns. “I know,” she says, and she sounds puzzled.

“No, I mean,” Harry says, “I'm in love with him. With Louis.”

“Darling, I know,” she says again, gentler, and pets his hair again. “Didn't you?”

Harry bites his lip, and shakes his head.

“Oh. Oh, Harry.”

“I don't know what to do,” he says, looking down at his knees, leaning into her concerned touch. “I can't-I know I can't ever have this again, but-“

“Why not?” she asks, as if it's that simple. Why not.

The amount of reasons he's got on the tip of his tongue is so enormous it won't leave his mouth. Their past, his guilt, the way Louis looked at him like he's seen a ghost after they kissed for the first time in five years, but what it boils down to is-

“He doesn't love me anymore,” he says, whispers really, but it's so heavy, so absolute, that it plunges the room into a terrifying silence. “Obviously.”

“Are you sure?” mum asks. When Harry looks at her, she seems tentative, timid in a way she never is, with her small shoulders hunched in on themselves. “I mean-God knows you've spoken to him more than I have, but-“

“I'm sure, mum,” Harry replies, takes her hand again, squeezes it. Thinks about Louis signing the divorce papers with a flourish, about his peaceful face when he lay down in the grass after, and immediately feels guiltier because they're not even- “I'm sure. He's told me enough times.”

Mum blinks at that, and her eyes seem a little too shiny for the shadowy corner of the room they're sitting in.

“Okay,” she says, and gives him a watery smile. “Then-then I suppose you've got to find a way to move on. Throw yourself back into your music, maybe.”

She looks at the papers curiously, reaching forward to lift up the corner of one and read what's underneath.

She's right, and Harry knows that. He can't stay here and dawdle forever, can't hover in this in-between, can't hold on to Louis in the vain hope that something is going to happen. He's got to get back into the studio, back to LA, to doing his job and moving on with these pieces of a life. He'll figure out how to put them back together, eventually.

“I've already picked one of these,” he tells mum, looking at the sheet he's set apart from the others on the far corner of the coffee table. Just Hold On. It makes him smile a little, the promise it holds, the idea of working on music again when he's been so preoccupied these past few months. “I'll probably go away for a bit to work on it.”

“Good,” she says, and stands up. Brushes off her pyjamas like they've been sitting on the ground. “Oh, I almost forgot - I actually came to tell you that I just got off the phone with the reno company.”

Harry perks up. “And?”

When she smiles this time, it's bright and unreserved, full of that spark that's undeniably mum. “The house is ready.”

*

Harry packs up his things the same day and moves back into his room.

He tells himself he'll go over around ten to say goodbye and thank you to Louis, stands by the window in the darkness and imagines he can see the light in the kitchen coming on somewhere in the distance, through the trees - but he ends up nervously pacing behind the door, reaching for the handle and then changing his mind.

He doesn't know what Louis is thinking, what he's feeling. Maybe it's better if they talk about it in daylight, when neither of them are tired and prone to saying things they might regret.

The house feels painfully empty without anyone else there. Harry's room has been repainted the exact same colour, and most of the furniture survived the water, but it still feels alien - that's no longer the wall that he and Louis leaned against when they first talked about moving in together, where Louis kissed him and told him that he'll follow him to the ends of the world. It doesn't feel like the same bed, even though it is, doesn't feel like it's got anything left that made the room Harry's.

And it's so dreadfully, dreadfully quiet, so dark and dull without a fire in the fireplace, without Louis sitting in the kitchen until the wee hours scribbling away like he does, without-Louis. That's what Harry misses most, here in his self-imposed exile - the knowledge that Louis is always close by, that the essence of him has soaked into every wall and floorboard in the house even if he's not physically there, that at any given time, his laughter could drift up the stairs and curl around Harry's ears like it's at home there. He already misses the evenings they would spend on the sofa, together, laughing about inane things. Warm, and comfortable, and at home. Here, with these clinically new walls and stiff new carpeting, Harry might as well be lying in a hospital bed.

At midnight, as Harry contemplates going for a walk to help him sleep, Mark texts him back about the demo.

Good 2 go, the text says. Meet in Ldn tmrw at 1, will text address writers name is Will T lol.

Will T sounds like a Black Eyed Peas reject. Harry becomes a little more wary, then, but it's not quite enough to quell his excitement about getting to work on new music with this person, whoever they might be.

He pulls up the demo on his phone again, and listens to the gorgeous piano while he goes online and Googles his potential writing partner.

Google comes up with a Wikipedia page, and a very extensive list of writing credits, but no personal information. No full name, no date of birth, no photo. It is a man, though - and he's written with two dozen artists Harry knows, with Ryan Tedder, on at least five songs that Harry recognises from the radio in just the last few months.

He scrolls through his other search results, but nothing real comes up. Will T doesn't have a single social media account, doesn't talk to the press, and wherever he's mentioned in an interview it's in very generic terms. He's an enigma, and Harry cannot wait to meet him.

He goes to bed with the ballad still ringing in his ears, already thinking of tweaks, of lyric changes he might suggest. He stubbornly thinks about music and music only as he stares into the dark, and ignores every thought of bell-bright laughter, of blue eyes.

*

Home Studios is hidden in a side lane somewhere in Clapham. Harry looks around a little warily when he steps out of the car, but the street looks normal enough - lots of people rushing back from lunch, a Sainsbury's on the far corner, a wedding salon tucked in right next to it, trees and bins and a paved sidewalk.

The entrance is a dilapidated metal door, with the bottom corner bent. Harry leans on the bell that's tacked onto the frame, and is let in with a loud buzz.

Inside, it's different from what Harry had been expecting. The walls there are properly painted, some kind of reddish colour that's not quite visible in the darkness. It's a single, narrow corridor, leading to a brightly lit stairwell.

Harry wipes his palms on his jeans, squashes any hints of nervousness swirling in his stomach, and goes down the stairs.

It's a small studio - tiny, even, with just about enough space for a couple of people. Some of it is standard: a single recording booth, a well-used control panel, an assortment of instruments hung up and tucked into corners and leaning against walls. Some of it, not so much: there's a couple of mini fridges stacked on top of each other in one corner, a huge leather sofa that takes up most of the room; a pile of papers spread over the volume controls, a mug, a hoodie hanging from the back of an empty chair. Frame after shiny frame with gold and platinum records.

Right.

“Hello?” Harry says into the room. It's dark, darker than he's used to anyway, only lit by a single standing lamp in the corner.

Maybe Will T is the Daft Punk of songwriting. Maybe he's going to sit in the recording booth with the light off the whole time, communicating through the microphone.

“I'm, uh,” Harry stutters as he steps further into the room and trips over a cable, “I'm Harry, I'm here about the demo?”

Nothing, not at first. Harry's own heartbeat echoes in his ears, a little scared despite himself. He might have come to the wrong place; maybe he does have a stalker after all, and they've lured him here to kidnap him.

He doesn't feel like he's in danger, though. There's something about this place, quiet and dark as it is, that makes him feel safe.

“Hello?” he tries again, going for nonchalant, managing to put his hands in his pockets on the third try.

To his left, a door clicks open, and floods the room with light.

“Hey,” says a familiar voice.

Harry blinks. His head starts spinning even as he's standing in place. He must have heard wrong-

“Sorry to keep you waiting,” Louis says as he steps into the room. It's him, and there's no question about it - Harry would know him in complete darkness, would know him anywhere. “Liam wouldn't get off the phone, as always.”

Harry can't look him in the eye. He stares at the toes of his own shoes as Louis walks towards him, soft footsteps on carpet. He stops when they're all but breaching each other's personal space, when Harry can feel him breathing into what little air is left between them.

Raising his head becomes inevitable, then. Louis meets him with eyes that look sad beyond belief and a wan little smile, barely a curl to the corner of his mouth.

“Hi, Harry,” he says quietly. “Have a seat, if you want.”

As if on cue, Harry's knees wobble underneath him like he's just learned how to stand upright. He stumbles his way to the sofa, but only sits on the very edge of it. Louis sits on the big office chair and twists it around a couple of times, looking into the ground. Then, he stops face to face with Harry and rolls closer, until he can stretch his legs and prop them up on the sofa cushions, just a breath away from where Harry's settled, curled in on himself.

He doesn't know what's happening, doesn't have time to think, because Louis is here and is overwhelming and his lips still, still burn on Harry's after days.

Louis sighs. “So,” he says. “You're here about a demo.”

Harry looks at him, and hopes all of his incredulity, all of his bewilderment, comes through.

It must - Louis shrugs, and hides his face in his own shoulder for a second. “We can pretend that we don't know each other, if you want,” he says, but there's something amused about it. “Or I can give you the finished song, if you'd prefer to work on it with someone else.”

Harry shakes off the cobwebs of confusion, and tries his hardest to start piecing things together.

“You,” is all he manages to say, looking into the endless blue of Louis's eyes like the answers are written there.

“Me,” Louis replies. The strained lines around his eyes soften a little.

They stare at each other. Harry's toes curl involuntarily inside his boots; he intertwines his fingers and squeezes until his skin tingles, then untwists them to pick at the frayed skin of his cuticles.

Finally, Louis reaches out and stops him, covers his hands with one of his own.

“Look,” he says, watching his own feet press into the leather. “I'm sorry I didn't tell you, especially after you actually agreed to come all the way down here, but it was-it's so much, Harry. I had no idea where to even start.”

Harry pulls his hands away, presses them against his thighs. Louis draws back like he's been burned.

“I just-I don't. I don't understand,” Harry manages. “This studio…”

“Is mine,” Louis nods. There are too many shadows in his face; Harry stuggles to read his expression. “And so is the song.”

Harry takes the crumpled lyric sheet out of his breast pocket. He kept re-reading it over breakfast in the morning, imagining where he'd like to add guitar, support the piano with a beat.

“This song,” he says, watching the words ripple under his touch. “You wrote this song?”

Louis looks at him worriedly. “Yes,” he says, slowly, like he's trying to make Harry understand.

“You're Will T.”

“Liam came up with that,” he grimaces, “but yes. Yeah, that's me.”

Harry's insides are spinning around. There's a-a tornado in there, something that fills his lungs all the way up and lifts his entire body, that makes it hard to breathe but also makes it feel like there's too much air in the room.

“You-have a Wikipedia page.”

Louis laughs. He's got hair falling into his eyes, and his shoulders are curled in, like he's a child being scolded. It hurts to see him like that when-when-

God. Louis is a songwriter. A successful songwriter.

“I do have that,” he says, still looking into the ground, surrounded by equipment that he's bought with his talent; by his version of the dream they used to have together of taking the world of music by storm.

And then, suddenly-Harry's got tears in his eyes.

“You did it,” he says, and the storm inside him clears to reveal a quiet, hopeful sort of happiness. “I did what I did, and you still…”

“Well,” Louis clears his throat, but his voice sounds hoarse anyway. He looks Harry in the face, finally. “I mean-it was because of you, originally. For you.”

Harry frowns. “What?”

“The whole songwriting thing. I figured-after I saw that you moved to LA, I figured it'd take a lot to bring you back here. To measure up against all the glamorous people you must have been meeting and working with. I figured you left me because I was a loser, right? So I made something of myself.”

Harry runs out of breath. He opens his mouth to say something, anything, but the only thing on the back of his tongue is his terrified, beating heart.

“It's not like that anymore,” Louis rushes to add, almost touches, his hand frozen between their bodies. “We're pretty successful, me and Liam, it's not like-I'm doing it for me, now. Because I love doing it.”

Harry's heart falls right back into place, heavy. It squashes something in his chest that felt an awful lot like hope.

He doesn't know what to say.

“Liam?” is what he ends up asking, wanting to get the full picture, but holding himself back from asking the wrong thing, something desperate like you wanted me back?

“Yeah,” Louis says, and smiles a genuine, soft kind of smile. “Yes. We own the place together. It's his voice on the recording, but I figured you couldn't tell if you still came here.”

“Oh,” Harry raises his eyebrows. So it is. He's listened to it so much he can replay it in his head by now, note for note - he can pick out the familiar bits now, can tell exactly why they sounded like something he's heard before.

He's such an idiot. The signs have been there, and been there for months, while he kept on assuming that Louis stayed stuck without him. That he still worked at the chippy, that he worked at the pub, that he was right where Harry left him - because somewhere, in some deeply horrible part of himself, the Harry that first came back to Holmes Chapel had convinced himself that Louis had been holding him back.

And he-he's been down here, in his beautiful little studio, writing smash hits without taking any real credit, and then going right back home. He found a way to stay and to follow his dream at the same time, just like they talked about when they were barely teenagers.

He found a way to live life on his own terms.

Without Harry.

Everything in this room, down to the cool leather underneath Harry's hands, feels bittersweet. Wherever he looks, he's reminded of how horrible he'd been, of just how thoroughly he ruined his chances. But then-Louis is happy, and he's just said so. He must be, if the loving way he's touching the buttons on the control panel is any indication.

“I,” he starts, and Louis turns to look at him again, but the words get warped inside his throat a few times before they actually come out. “I'm so happy for you, Louis. This is incredible.”

The sea-blue, heavy sadness that had been swirling in Louis's eyes lifts a little. “Really?”

Yes,” Harry leans forward, can't quite stand to see him looking so small. “I mean-you own a studio. You've written more number ones than me, than most people I know.”

There - a pleased little grin. “I try,” he says, shoving his hands into the pockets of another cardigan he's wearing. “Thanks, H. I'm sorry about-you know, the whole thing. A friend of a friend was looking for demos, and I was out of ideas for this one, so I threw it in the pool. I didn't know it was meant to be for you.”

“I'm glad you did,” Harry smiles. He wraps his fingers around the arm of Louis's chair, a touch without a touch, and it's when he feels the heat of Louis's body that close that he remembers-that he realises-that he pulls right back again.

It must hit Louis at the same time. He wheels himself away, until the back of his chair hits the desk, until he puts as much distance between them as the room will allow. He pulls one of his knees up, and wraps an arm around it, physically holding it in front of himself like a shield.

“So,” he says, and the word drops onto the ground between them heavy like an anvil. For a moment, Harry's convinced that he's going to tell him to get out. That he's going to say you kissed me, and make it an accusation. “I noticed you've moved out.”

Harry's throat constricts. “I'm sorry,” he says. It feels inadequate, but it's all he's got. “I'm sorry I didn't tell you, it was a bit sudden and I just-“

“It's okay,” Louis interrupts. Shakes his head. “You don't have to explain yourself, it's-it's your life. And I'm sure old habits die hard, so.”

Harry recoils. Louis bites his lip as soon as the words come out, and closes his eyes, but he doesn't take them back.

I kissed you, Harry wants to scream, until his words turn into white noise against the thick studio walls. You kissed me back.

He wishes he was brave enough to bring it up, to apologise, to ask if it was just muscle memory; to tell Louis that he's in love with him. But the expression on Louis's face is sad, dangerous, certainly not one that looks open to conversation.

He's hurt. Harry hurt him again, just like that, by leaving the house they shared. By removing every trace of himself from the kitchen, where they spent many a sleepless night, and the living room, where their laughter must still be ringing off the walls; by leaving his home behind again, even if he did move just up the road. It's only now that he sees how terrible it was, kiss or no kiss, considering what he did to get them in this mess of a situation in the first place.

“I can go,” he offers, and wraps a hand around the strap of his bag, entirely determined to get up. He loves this song, but he doesn't have a right to it in the first place, so if Louis can't do this- “If you want me to leave, I'll go.”

Louis runs a hand through his hair. “I don't want you to go,” he says, clear. For a second, Harry lets himself imagine it means something else than it does. “Just-put your stuff down, and come have a seat. We've still not got a second verse.”

Gingerly, Harry does as he's told. He takes the second chair tucked behind the control panel, pulls it out but leaves enough space between them to let Louis know he knows he's fucked up.

Louis promptly wheels himself close enough that their elbows are touching, laptop in one hand and papers in the other.

“Second verse,” he repeats, and hands Harry a pencil. “I've got a couple of suggestions, but nothing I really like.”

Dazed, Harry lowers his eyes to the loopy scrawl of Louis's handwriting.

Down here, the passage of time is only evident in the amount of paper balls they scatter around the room, and the fuzzy feeling in Harry's mouth as he talks over potential lyrics so much it makes him thirsty. The awkwardness stays right there, wedged between them like another person, but they both make a valiant effort to ignore it. They come up with a line, and then another that spins into a whole verse, and through them all, Harry doesn't take his eyes off Louis. All the light in the room seems to concentrate around him, and it turns his hair the colour of honey where it curls just behind his ear. Now that Harry's allowed himself to look, it's absolutely impossible to look away, because there's so much - so much.

He's staring at an unfamiliar wrinkle in Louis's forehead, cataloguing it to memory, when a pair of headphones is pushed into his hand.

Right. Right. He's here to write a song.

The recording booth is much smaller than he's used to these days. He'd done most of his last album in a huge live room, sharing the space with a whole band, but this one is just big enough to fit him if he spreads his arms.

“Whenever you're ready,” Louis says, dry, after Harry's been spinning around and marveling at the size for a couple of minutes. “I'll just take it from the top.”

Harry pulls himself together and puts his headphones on, but he can't focus on the sheet full of messy lyrics that he's got in front of him - not when Louis is right there, lit up the way he his, laying careful fingers over the keys of a keyboard. He's ethereal, extraordinary when he moves the controls like he knows exactly what he's doing, rolls his chair from one end of the room to the other to check this and adjust that and finally give Harry the go-ahead.

There's the piano - beautiful, as it always has been, but it sounds like entirely different music under Louis's hands. Now that Harry knows, he can hear him in every plucky note.

And that smile, that small, private curl of his lips as he strings together the chords of his own melody-Harry's chest shakes from the inside, his own personal earthquake. He wobbles, unsteady on his feet.

At sixteen, this is what he thought his life would be. Him, Louis, a recording studio. Music that they loved and worked on together, from beginning to end.

This is what he could've had, if he wasn't a complete, utter idiot.

Louis looks like a mirage behind the glass when Harry finally straightens up and looks down into his lyrics, letting the piano guide him through. This is where the chorus is going to end.

Harry takes a breath. Louis looks up; their eyes meet. Behind the microphone, Harry opens his heart and opens his mouth and sings.

It's not over until it's all been said.

*

Harry ends up sleeping in the studio, too tired to try and find his hotel after they wrap up for the day. He wakes staring at the word Home, written in tall letters on the wall just above the sofa, and to the scent of tea wafting in from that mysterious door Louis had opened yesterday.

Harry, naturally, follows his nose.

The room he pokes it into turns out to be a kitchen. It's decent-sized, modern, but still underground - the only thing that tells Harry it's still the morning is Louis, who's sitting at the rickety table in the corner with a newspaper and hair sticking up in all directions.

“Hey,” Harry says from the doorway, reluctant to come in unless he's invited.

“Morning,” Louis replies. He doesn't look up, but he does pull his feet under his chair to make some space.

It's enough for Harry. He steps in, still gingerly, weaving around the tight-packed bits of furniture as he fixes his cup of tea.

“How'd you sleep?” he asks, his tongue still clumsy with sleep. It's-an awkward question, at best, but it's better than the strained silence and the judgmental buzzing of the lights overhead.

“All right,” Louis replies. He's nodding when Harry turns to him and joins him at the table. “I always do in here, it's way quieter than home.”

Harry's not entirely convinced, not when he can feel the traffic rumbling through the walls as it passes overhead, but he says nothing.

He misses the easy way they talked to each other just a couple of days ago.

All of last night, he'd been thinking about telling Louis. It's not fair, not fair at all, to keep it a secret from him, but he can't help being scared. He has no idea what Louis's reaction would be, not after everything that Harry put him through to get what he wanted, but-but.

“So,” he says, forms and re-forms the sentence in his head between one breath and another, but what comes out instead instead is, “When do you think we'll be done with the song?”

Louis folds the top of his newspaper down to level Harry with a look. “Have a croissant, Harry.”

“What?”

“A croissant,” he repeats, and points to the kitchen counter where a bakery bag is sitting, patchy with grease. “Have one.”

“Uh,” Harry says intelligently, but he does get up and get the bag. When he pulls it open, the scent that hits his nose immediately makes his mouth water. “Thanks.”

Louis takes a loud sip of his tea in response.

It's then, as he delicately sits down with his breakfast, that he wakes up enough to notice Louis's body language - namely, the way he's leaning back in his chair, with a straight back and loose shoulders, tilting his chin this way and that as he reads his news. He doesn't look angry. Doesn't look sad. He's just sitting, and watching Harry bumble through what he's convinced himself will be an awkward conversation.

With a momentary bout of bravery, Harry takes a breath and says: “I've been meaning to tell you something. Since we're revealing our secrets and all.”

Louis puts the paper down. Harry looks for the ever-present kindness in his eyes, and finds it there.

“You know how I somehow forgot to sign the divorce papers?”

Louis nods, a little strained. The faint wrinkle around the corner of his mouth becomes more pronounced.

“Well, um. I only found the messages that Phil left about it after-after Marcus. I forgot to turn my phone on after I landed.”

“Okay,” Louis says, a barely concealed question. He's folded his hands on the tabletop, one over the other, digging his own fingers into the hollows between his knuckles.

“And I-obviously it's not a big thing, I can fix it with one call, but I haven't yet and I just wanted you to know before I-“

“Harry,” Louis interrupts, finally, finally soft.

“Right,” Harry takes a breath. “Right. Yes. So right after I kicked Marcus out, I checked my voicemail, and there Phil was, saying that we weren't actually divorced like I thought the whole plane ride home. And I'd just-I'd just told my fiancé to get out of my life, I'd ended something that I thought was going to last forever, it felt like I had no one, so I just-I just latched on to this. To the idea of not having lost everything, not yet.”

Louis seems to understand, if the way he tenses is anything to go by. Still, he gives Harry the benefit of the doubt, even as his hands go all white with the strength of his grip on the table.

“What are you saying?” he asks.

Harry blinks up at the ceiling, and bites his lip. “We're still married.”

To Louis's credit, he doesn't get up to angrily pace around the room, or sweep everything off the table like they do in the movies. All he does is lean back in his chair, and slide his hands in his pockets.

“We're still married,” he repeats. His voice is unexpectedly rough.

“Yes,” Harry confirms. Being honest hasn't really made him feel better, he finds, but it's still the right thing to do. “I didn't sign, and when I called Phil back I told him to leave it for the time being.”

Louis runs a hand through his hair, and-laughs. Harry looks at him, stunned, surprised.

“Sorry,” he shakes his head, and tries to hide a guffaw into the back of his hand. “I'm sorry, it's just-you spent such a long time hounding me for a signature. Months. Literally months.”

Harry smiles, a little. Louis's laughter makes him feel like he's allowed. “I know,” he says. “It's ridiculous, but I felt so lost. It was a spur-of-the-moment kind of thing, I promise I didn't do it to spite you.”

He did it because he was in love with Louis, then, always, even when his heart was broken right in two. He did it because he needed hope, however vain, that he wasn't all alone.

“Don't be silly, I know that,” Louis replies. He's a little more animated now. “You don't have to-you thought I'd be angry, didn't you?”

Harry presses his lips together and says nothing. His cheeks grow warm.

Louis sighs. “I'm not angry, Harry. I don't mind. I don't have a secret lover I've been dying to marry, so just-take your time, it's okay. I gave you the signature, do with it whatever you want.”

“Don't you want to be free?” Harry asks, even though he's already convinced himself of the answer.

Yes, Louis wants to be free. He's left the pictures off the walls. He wants Harry out of his life. This is the only viable option, the only one that doesn't make Harry's heart want to race out of his chest with stupid, reckless hope.

The real Louis, as he rises from the table, just shrugs. “I don't really mind,” he says, puts his mug in the sink, and disappears in the open doorway.

Harry can do nothing other than stare after him.

*

The first time they meet after the studio, Harry is standing in Louis's kitchen half-naked.

He's most of the way through a huge glass of water, has probably got it dripping all over his chest, when Louis walks in with his laptop under his arm and stops short.

“Oh,” he says in lieu of a greeting. “Sorry. I thought you were done.”

Harry swallows the last of the water that's suddenly turned acidic in his mouth, puts the glass down, and self-consciously wraps an arm around his middle. Louis is looking him in the eye with a scary, burning kind of focus.

“Almost,” Harry replies, pulling the bandana around his neck up to wipe at his forehead. He must look a red, sweaty mess, if Louis's pinched face is anything to go by. “Last couple of things out of mum and Robin's bedroom, and then we'll be out of your hair.”

He smiles as he says it, but it feels stiff. He's not happy to leave, to go back to a life that doesn't have Louis in it.

As both of them shift on their feet, he realises that the last conversation they had in here led to-

“Do you need help?” Louis asks, almost alarmed. “Anne said all the heavy stuff was done, I thought-“

“No, it is,” Harry replies. He tries to control his breathing, tips his head back, runs his hands through his hair to stir a little breeze around the back of his neck. Louis's face is even more drawn when he looks back at him. “I think that's me done, actually, mum said she's got two boxes left to find and that's it.”

Louis opens his mouth to reply, but he doesn't get a chance before mum all but trips into the room.

“I can't find it,” she says, and sneezes into the crook of her elbow. Her hair's come out of the meticulous bun she put it in in the morning, gone frizzy at the temples, and her face is flushed. Louis puts his things down and rushes over to pull out a chair for her.

“Find what?” Harry asks, concerned.

She coughs, and sneezes again, gratefully taking the glass of water he's offering. “The box I brought over with Dusty's things. She hasn't left me alone all day, and she's started sneezing because of the dust, I wanted to see if I could find those drops that the vet gave her.”

“Did you look under the bed?” Louis asks, rubbing her back. “There's a lot of old stuff down there, maybe it just accidentally got lost.”

She shakes her head. “I did, that's why I'm like this,” she points to her nose, which has gone a worrying shade of red. “I couldn't see it anywhere. There were just so many things we brought with us, I have no idea where-“

“I'll go look,” Harry offers.

“No, darling, that's okay, you've done enough today. I just needed a little break.”

“You look exhausted,” Louis says, looking at her apologetically. “It's just one box, I'm sure Harry can handle that.”

She sighs. “If you're sure.”

“I'm sure. What does it look like?”

“It's,” she coughs, “a shoebox. A black Nike shoebox, I think.”

“Okay,” Harry smiles, and kisses her on the cheek as he passes. “I'll be right back, then.”

She calls something after him that he can't quite decipher. He runs all the way to the top of the stairs without stopping, and has to take a minute to breathe once he's up there. The way Louis had been looking at him-it was a little too much in a whole lot of ways.

He peeks into what used to be his room, just to make sure it's really empty, and then enters the other spare one. It's a little bare now, after weeks of housing boxes and suitcases and rows after rows of mum's lotions and fragrances. The sun has just slipped in through a gap in the curtains, illuminating the dust that dances wildly from the floor to the ceiling and back.

Louis had said underneath the bed. Harry crouches down, already hopeful, only to find out that it is, indeed, full of old boxes. They're stacked into little mountains under the head of the bed, precariously balanced with lids missing or half knocked off.

Harry resists the temptation to look into them.

He moves to the other side of the bed, looking for anything black in the sea of dusty brown cardboard. He moves aside what looks like a cashbox, and there - just behind a tall crate that says B on it, and nothing else, he spots a black corner peeking out. He reaches for it, pulls until he dislodges it form underneath a pile of something Harry can't identify, and comes out victorious.

A black Nike shoebox, just like mum had said. A little dustier than Harry would have expected, but he's not exactly surprised seeing the company it was in. He wedges a finger under the edge of the lid and pulls it all the way out.

He opens it before he gets up, just to check that he's got the right thing. He's expecting a few of those frayed toy mice Dusty keeps losing, a bottle of the medicine mum was looking for, maybe a spare bell collar.

What he finds instead is letters.

There's two dozen of them at the very least, all tucked into neat envelopes and a little yellow with age - and every single one of them has his name on it.

He remembers, instantly, the letter that he found - that he stole - that's still tucked between the pages of one of his notebooks. The handwriting on these is the same slanted script, with an identical wobble on the a in Harry.

He looks around and through the empty doorway, strains his ears to listen for anyone that might be coming up the stairs, but everything is silent. Feeling enormously guilty, he flips through the envelopes.

Harry Tomlinson, most of them say, and the address changes from London to LA. There are exactly three, pressed against one wall of the box, that are addressed to Harry Styles, and no destination.

The guilt is so heavy it feels like a physical weight on his chest, but he can't resist his racing heart for too long. They're all addressed to him anyways - if he's quick, nobody's going to know, and he still remembers the way that the first letter made him feel, remembers reading the word yours over and over until it ceased to have meaning.

With another careful glance around, he reaches for an envelope. It's an older one, it seems, with one corner bent. The paper feels brittle in his hands when he unfolds it, as if it was going to crumble to dust any second.

Hey, love, it says on the top. Harry's throat immediately tightens.

He's spent so much more time with Louis, this time around. Enough to fall right back in love, to rediscover that part of himself that lived in constant hopeless admiration of everything Louis was and everything he did. These aren't just words on a page now.

I'm sorry for sending another one of these. The first few have come back, and Patty at the post office said she'd report me to the police if I brought her another undeliverable letter, but I've still got things to say, so I'll take my chances.

Liam came over to make me breakfast this morning. (He misses you too, you know. He keeps asking if I've heard anything and I have to keep telling him no, and you know that face that makes when he's really, really sad? He walks around like that all the time now.) The point is, he came over to make me breakfast, and he had this huge cowlick on the back of his head that made me laugh, so I turned to you to show you. And you weren't there. And last night, Dusty almost gave me a heart attack. She got into the bed at three in the morning and crawled over me, and I literally woke up crying because I thought you were back. That wasn't fun, so I've decided I might not sleep for a while now.

Listen - you know I've never been any good at writing things like this, but what I'm trying to say, to show you, is that I don't know how to do this without you. I know you've gone off to a better life, and I guess I can't really blame you for wanting more, and I hate that I'm about to ask again, but-please, please come home. I found some of your old things in the basement, so even if it's just to get those, please come back. Tell me, in words, that you're leaving for good, because my body and my mind are struggling to understand. It's like I'm doubting my entire life, really, I've almost convinced myself that you were a hallucination because you've removed yourself so thoroughly, but then I bumped into Anne the other day and she looked even rougher than I feel, so you must have been real. You must have been.

I'm always here to talk, you know that. Anything you want to tell me, even if it's just to yell, I'm right here wandering around the phone all bloody day.

Come back, my love. The spare key's where it's always been.

Yours,
Louis

Harry has to bite into the back of his hand to stop any sounds from coming out. Louis loved him, still, whenever he wrote this letter.

He's sure there are tears in his eyes, but he barely notices them as he carefully folds the letter, tucks it back in and folds the flap of the envelope over it. The physical words disappear, but there's this thrum pulsing through him, like his entire body is a wound.

Louis loved him. At some point, between one of these letters and the next, that changed.

He sniffs, trying to keep himself together, and skips forward a few envelopes. He shouldn't, shouldn't, shouldn't be reading these, but there's no stopping him now. Louis has been cagey, has been closed off, has been guarding some parts of himself even as Harry broke through his other walls, and-here they are. This is them.

Harry, the next letter starts, and the precise slant of the word sends a chill down Harry's spine.

I just really, really want an explanation. I want to hear what the fuck you have to say for yourself.

Was I not enough? I know making music had always been the dream, but I thought we both agreed that it could wait. That we were going to get there together once we had a life, a family, once we'd saved up enough money to pay off the mortgage on this thing and move away, I thought I remembered you saying that you'd be perfectly happy with anything as long as I was there with you, so pray tell, pray fucking explain to me - where the hell are you?

What makes you think you can leave an entire life behind like this? Your mum is absolutely fucking devastated, Harry. She's inconsolable. I've drunk two bottles of whiskey in the past two days just to fall asleep, and wherever I go people are looking at me like someone's died, like they expect me to explode any second, and you know what? I wish I could. I wish I could make a list of all the promises you broke and read it out to every fucking person who's seen us grow up together, see if they understand it any better than I can.

Where the fuck are you, even now? What are you doing? Did they already turn you into one of those coke-fuelled one-hit-wonder popstars? Am I going to get divorce papers in the mail next?

I swear to God, you better call me, or at least call your mother, at least let her know that you're okay. She's worried sick, and she doesn't deserve this, least of all from you.

I hope you're having the time of your life, whatever you're doing. I hope it was worth it.

It's not signed, but the period at the end is a deep, angry black, like Louis stopped there and tried to think of something else to say.

Harry wipes his eyes, curls in on himself a little tighter. It's been years since Louis wrote this, and they get along again now, but Harry can imagine him, sitting down in the kitchen and scrawling this with angry tears dripping off his nose; he all but hears every word in his head, in that small, devastated voice Louis had used to tell him about the years they've lost.

The envelope that's next in the row is torn down the middle, like someone tried to rip it apart and then changed their mind. Harry's not brave enough to try and open it.

He moves further down, stroking the back of every letter, trying to see a change in the handwriting, a difference between one and the next to pinpoint where Louis finally let him go.

Love, the next one says on the very top. Harry's heart lurches.

I'm tired. I don't want to write a whole letter again, I feel like I'm finally done with saying the things that I wanted to say, so I just wanted to tell you-I'm done.

I understand now, I think. I've finally understood that you're not going to be back. I'll never stop wondering what I did to make you even think about leaving, but not everything in this world can be explained, so I guess it's on me to come up with something that'll make me feel better.

I wish I could've left voicemails or something, instead of writing these. Now I've got this big pile of paper I can go back through to see just how much of an idiot I am. Maybe I should burn them, like they do in the movies. Have a barbecue, and be really dramatic about how I'm making something out of the ashes of our relationship.

Speaking of paper, I hope you understand that I won't sign these. Not yet. I wish I could set you free like you want me to, but it's not been long enough. I'm not that good at forgetting.

If you ever think about me, I hope it's not all bad. I hope I didn't manage to somehow hold you back here against your will, and I want you to know that I'm not expecting anything from you, not anymore, but-the invitation always, always stands.

If you ever need it, if you ever want to, come back home to me. I'll be right here.

Yours,
Louis

He doesn't fold that one back in, but keeps it spread open on the ground next to him, and frantically flips to the very end - to where the last envelope sits leaning against the side of the box, inscribed with a slanted Harry Styles.

He's breathing hard, and he's lost the battle with tears, but he doesn't even notice them, doesn't care. He almost closes his fist around the letter when he tries to give himself courage to read it, and catches himself just in time.

He inhales, and waits until the air has reached every last inch of his body. Then, he reads.

Hi, Harry,

It's been a while. Actually, I'm not sure who I'm writing this one for, but here goes anyway.

I saw the pictures of you with your new boyfriend, the first official ones, or so People said. And, to tell you the truth, I really, really wasn't prepared for how much it was going to hurt. I thought maybe I'd managed to move on well enough that I'd stop feeling like I was the only person that belonged by your side, but, as always, I got that one wrong.

I can't imagine how many words I've written in these over the past couple of years, and I really want to make this the last one. I stopped sending them two months in, so at this point this is actually just some fucked-up form of therapy, but at least I know you're never going to read it so I can say this:

I'm probably never going to let you go for good. I'm sorry, and I hope that the stain of your past doesn't mar your shiny new future too much. I promise I'm going to keep it all to myself. You're where you want to be, and I'm here still dreaming about you every other night, but I'm better. My therapist says that's all I can hope for at this point, how fucking depressing is that?

I wish there was another life, another universe, a version of us that got a chance. Maybe that Harry didn't bugger off in the middle of the night, and maybe that Louis was a little more open to possibilities. Maybe that Louis never picked up smoking, and they got to adopt a baby, and they're happy.

Maybe we were always destined to end up like this, but I don't really believe that.

I just hate that we're another one of those stories, you know the ones - best friends since the cradle, childhood sweethearts, fell madly in love only to be torn apart by life and circumstances and other difficult things. I never thought we'd be the couple that gives up, but you made the decision for both of us, and I guess one day I'm going to see how it was for the best.

I just miss you. I miss you, and I hate it, and I want to stop missing you but seeing you happy with someone else doesn't make it any easier. But then - if this is what you've wanted all along, then I can't imagine how miserable you'd have been with me, eventually.

Please, please be happy. Whatever you do, wherever you go, whoever you're with, be happy, my darling. If you are, then maybe one day I can get over my own heart getting destroyed in the process.

I'll stop writing now, I promise. I'm sure you wouldn't want me to.

I love you.

Always yours,
Louis

That's the last one. There's nowhere else for Harry to go, no later letters to rely on for comfort because surely in one of them, Louis had finally said goodbye.

He gets both his hands into the box, lifting up the entire pile to see if any have fallen to the bottom, but there's nothing; nothing in the crevices in-between the other boxes, nothing stuck underneath them or lost in the dusty recesses under the bed - nothing but Louis's last I love you, burning in Harry's grip.

He couldn't have been wrong all this time, could he?

It's because he's all but stuck under the bed that he misses the tell-tale noises of someone coming up the stairs. By the time he hears, it's too late, and he bangs his head on the bedframe as he tries to crawl out from underneath it, to gather the pile of letters that's now spread about him on the floor and put them back in the box, to tuck away the evidence.

He gets as far as lifting the lid. Then, a voice carries into the room, and-and it's Louis's. Harry's blood runs ice-cold in his veins.

“H? Everything okay up here? You've been gone a while.”

Harry paws at his face, trying to wipe his tears, hide his puffy eyes somehow. He scrambles, crawls backwards across the room until his back's pressed against the wall.

Louis pokes his head into the room, fluffy-haired and smiling. It melts right off his face when he takes in the scene. “Anne said-oh.”

Harry can't think, but he has to do something, has to try to find some kind of excuse for what he's just done.

“Louis,” is the only thing that escapes his lips. He sounds terrified. In his head, he tries to reconcile the Louis that he's just had a glimpse into with this one - this older, more reserved version of him, with actual wrinkles creeping in at the edges of his face. “Louis, I-Louis.”

Louis blinks. His eyes are wide when he glances at the box, still open and very clearly a mess on the inside, then back to Harry who's all but cowering in the corner.

“I'm sorry,” he manages to say, finally. “I'm so sorry, I swear I didn't mean-oh my God, I'm sorry.”

Louis isn't angry - or doesn't look it, anyway. He shakes his head slowly, dazedly, like he's not quite sure what's happening.

Harry can't stand the silence. “I found-I found one months ago, when you first let me in the house, and I took it because it had my name on it, and the way it made me feel-I couldn't stop myself, I'm so sorry.”

Louis coughs. He looks-wilted. “I was wondering where that went,” he shakes his head. “I took it out to read it after you first showed up, just to remind me how-well. If you've read it, you probably know.”

“I'm sorry,” is all Harry can say.

He expects Louis to bow out of the room, but he steps inside instead. He's looking at the floor, at a stray envelope that's landed at the foot of the bed in Harry's hurry.

“It's fine,” he says, and doesn't sound it. “I was thinking of giving them to you anyway. It's nothing you didn't already know.”

Harry reels. Always yours, Louis's handwriting spells in front of his eyes. I love you. I just miss you. I'm never going to let you go.

“What-what are you talking about?”

His heart free-falls, then picks itself right back up, bouncing around inside Harry's chest like a balloon running out of air. This isn't-this can't be. There's no way.

Louis has knelt down on the floor, and is turning the letter around in his hands. When he looks at Harry, his eyes are tired. “What do you mean?”

“I didn't know. Whatever you think I know, I don't know it.”

One corner of Louis's mouth lifts a little at Harry's rambling, but it falls right back down. He opens the envelope in his hands, looks at the top of letter peeking out, then abruptly closes it and throws it into the box.

“Harry,” he says, sitting back. “These are just-me screaming into the abyss about how in love with you I am. You already knew that.”

Something-something is strangling Harry. It's wrapped tight around his neck, squeezing until his windpipe is screaming in pain. He can't breathe, and there are spots dancing in his vision, gleefully obscuring the exact expression on Louis's face.

“What,” he manages to wheeze out. “What are you saying?”

Louis tilts his head, extends a hand into the space between them like he's concerned that Harry might break into pieces.

“I'm still in love with you, Harry. You know I am.”

Harry's still choking, but his hear soars, explodes, fills his chest with warmth to the very brim because if Louis just said that-if-if there's any semblance of a chance-

“I don't,” he says, and his voice his hoarse. “I didn't.”

Louis's mouth falls open in reluctant shock. He frowns, and his hands start shaking, even though he tries to hide that.

“How could you possibly not know?” he asks, and he sounds so small; Harry just wants to crawl across the room right to him, to take him in his arms, and he might be allowed but he needs to get everything out first, to make sure he's not wrong. “Harry, how-I don't believe that. I kissed you less than a week ago, and then you ran away from me. Obviously you know.”

“I kissed you,” Harry croaks, leaning forward and onto his hands, trying to get Louis to stay just while he gathers his thoughts. “I thought it was just, you know. Muscle memory for you.”

Louis's eyes get a little wider. “That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard,” he says, quiet. In retrospect, Harry can see what he means. “You really…”

Harry shakes his head hopelessly. There are too many words in his mouth, bumping into each other, getting stuck in his teeth until he's not sure how to string a sentence together.

He leans forward, further still, trying to make Louis understand. He's curled in on himself, already retreating, but Harry can't, won't let him run from this. Not now.

He inhales, exhales. Collects himself. Whispers: “All this time?”

Louis bites his lip and turns away, arms wrapped around his knees. With a start, Harry realises that he's crying.

He reaches out, but his hand falls just short of touching Louis, and lands on the carpet. Louis looks at him with soft, soft eyes, that look Harry hasn't been able to figure out for months.

He recognises it. Now, for the first time, he knows it for the same softness that Louis used to be made of, the one that used to permeate his entire body, imbue his touch. The one that used to shine in his eyes, unbridled and beautiful, every time he woke up in the morning to find Harry by his side.

Slowly, carefully, Harry puts the pieces together. Louis's anger, the endless sadness in his eyes, the countless sets of divorce papers he sent back unsigned.

He did keep the pictures off the walls, but they were up there for five years.

I'm never going to let you go.

“You were waiting,” he breathes, and the realisation explodes inside him like a star. “This whole time, you were waiting for me to come back.”

Louis swallows what sounds like a sob. “I thought you knew,” he whispers, bending his head to wipe his face in his sleeve. “This - us - it's not something that's ever going to go away, not for me. I promise I made my peace with that, you don't have to-worry, or anything.”

Harry frowns, just for a second, before he figures out what's going on.

Louis doesn't know. Louis doesn't know, because Harry barged in here all those months ago running his mouth off about how they were never in love.

Finally, his body obeys him, every cell of him united in the single purpose of getting Harry across the room and into Louis's arms. He can have this.

“Louis,” he's saying, whispering, repeating over and over until Louis looks him in the eye. Harry kneels in front of him, and their knees touch. “Louis.”

He raises a hand to Louis's cheeks, wipes away some of the wetness there. It aches to see him like this.

He leans forward, careful, slow, until their foreheads are touching. Louis doesn't stop him. It's into the bubble of air between them that Harry breathes, with the smallest hope in his heart and a whole new universe on his tongue; it's into the crackling electricity that's ever-present between their bodies that he whispers, and says:

“I love you.”

Louis pulls away like he's been burned. He's already shaking his head by the time Harry looks at him, and frantically wiping at his face.

“Don't say that,” he says. “I know we're-okay now, I know we get along, but I can't-“

“No,” Harry shakes his head, torn between following as Louis retreats and giving him space. “That's not what I mean. You know that's not what I mean, I'm in-“

“Don't,” Louis repeats, breathless. “Don't, Harry. You can't do this. You can't say that and then take it away from me again.”

The tears spring back into Harry's eyes like old friends. “I won't,” he shakes his head. “I won't, I swear to you. All you've got to do is want me to stay, and I'll stay. I'm here. I'm yours.”

Louis is still shaking his head, but he doesn't look like he knows that he's doing it.

“Why am I still here?” Harry asks.

Louis stops in his tracks. “What?”

“Why am I still here?” Harry repeats, and comes as close as he dares. He's glad he's not standing up; his knees are quaking. “I've got your signature. I have an album I need to be working on, and I've got to try and find a new place to live, there are so many things I left unfinished back in LA, but I'm here. Why?”

Louis bites his lip, closes his eyes. Shakes his head.

“I can't imagine how difficult it might be to believe, and I know what I've done, but I'll make it up to you if you let me. You're still my husband, Louis, and I wouldn't have it any other way. I promised you the rest of my life, and I know-I know I betrayed all those promises, but I'll make them again. If you'll have me, I'll make them again.”

“Harry,” says Louis, with an exhausted kind of hoarseness in his voice. “You have a life somewhere else.”

“I don't,” Harry replies. “Not anymore. This, this house, you - this is home. Whatever it takes to make it work, I'll do it.”

Louis exhales, and all the fight goes out of him. He wipes away another tear. “Tell me again,” he says.

“I love you,” Harry says, without hesitation. “I love you, Louis. I've loved you all my life.”

The smallest hint of a smile sparks across Louis's downturned face. “Again.”

Hope, like a flower after rain, opens and blooms and takes root in Harry's chest. “I love you,” he repeats, and takes Louis's hand. Their fingers slot together firm and familiar. “I love you.”

Louis tips his chin up. He goes to touch Harry's face with his free hand, but stops a hair's breadth away, hovering as his warmth curls around Harry's cheek. This is it, Harry knows. This is where he makes the choice.

“It's okay,” he whispers, and the words spill down the inside Louis's wrist. “I love you, either way.”

Between one breath and the next, Louis cups Harry's face in hands - and kisses him.

The force with which he throws himself at Harry tips them both backwards, and it's all Harry can do to reach his arms back and catch them, but he doesn't care-

God, he feels the same. Tastes the same, is heartbreakingly familiar down to how his stubble feels underneath Harry's fingers.

Harry's exploding. He must be - the second Louis's hands are on him, touching him properly for the first time in years, something rushes through his veins sparkling like a firework, and makes his head spin. Inside his chest, his heart seems to give out and grow anew.

Slowly, carefully, he lets go and lets them falls to the ground. Louis is heavy, real, on top of him, with legs on either side of Harry's waist, holding Harry's face in his hands like it's the most precious thing he's ever touched.

Harry kisses him with abandon, with every last ounce of love that he's got to give. He closes his eyes, and gets lost in the achingly familiar sweetness of those lips. He's thirteen, his back against the rough bark of a tree, Louis's soothing softness plastered all over his front, the two of them trying to look each other in the eye to see if they both wanted the same thing. He's fifteen, waiting for Louis after his shift, and Louis is grinning and reaching out to kiss him the second he steps out of the door. He's twenty, and kissing Louis goodnight for what he's sure is the last time.

It's every kiss they've ever shared, all at once, but flavoured with something brand new. With knowing just how close they were to never having this again.

He digs his fingers into the soft skin of Louis's hips, making sure he's there, that he's not grasping at air. Louis makes a noise, presses a soothing thumb to the underside of Harry's jaw-

And separates their mouths.

Harry follows him immediately, needing more, but Louis doesn't let him. He's breathing hard. His eyes are wild, and his lips are red, so red.

“Are you sure about this?” he breathes through the hummingbird-fast rise and fall of his chest. He puts one hand on Harry's breastbone, leaves the other one on his face, running over his cheek in barely-there strokes. He sounds choked up; desperate. “Are you sure? You have to be really, really, really, really sure. Please-“

“Louis,” Harry whispers, and wills himself not to cry. He's so beautiful, restless and messy-haired like this - his husband, his Louis. “I'm sure. God, I've never been surer of anything.”

“Yeah?” he asks, barely loud enough to be heard, allowing the distance between them to close until they're face to face.

“I love you,” Harry says, and it breaks against Louis's lips. “I love you, Louis. Please kiss me.”

He does.

He must see something in Harry's eyes, hear something in his voice that imparts just how serious Harry is being, because he pours himself back into Harry's lips with a brand new kind of vigour. It's like being blinded by the sun.

Harry sinks into the carpet, relaxes. He can do that now - he doesn't need to hide himself away, doesn't need to question his every move. He can be Harry, and just Harry, with the one person who's never wanted him to be anyone else.

He runs his hands through Louis's hair, a little longer than his fingers seem to remember; he touches the racing pulse at the hinge of his jaw, and trails down to where his heart is beating against the constraints of his chest, fast, alive. He can't help pressing a smile to Louis's lips, just to tell him - holding you like this is the best thing that's ever happened to me.

“I love you,” he says again, with words. Louis swallows them when he bites Harry's bottom lip.

“I love you,” he replies in kind, but it's so much more beautiful, and sets off a little earthquake of happiness in Harry's chest. “Harry, fuck. I love you.”

Tears sting in Harry's eyes, but they're happy, for once. “I know,” he whispers, presses into Louis's temple along with a kiss. “I know. Thank you for loving me.”

Louis laughs. It's short, quiet, gorgeous. Warm, right against Harry's collarbone. “You really don't have to thank me for that,” he says, and rubs his cheek over Harry's skin like a cat. “I never stood a chance.”

Harry takes his left hand in his, and runs his fingers over where Louis's wedding band used to be. Louis breaths in, surprised, but doesn't say anything. He presses loud, sloppy kisses to Harry's neck, to his cheek, and then stills, just breathing, over his lips.

Harry gives him a peck. “Okay?” he asks.

Louis shakes his head. His hair brushes across Harry's nose, feather-light.

“It's just,” he starts, and then goes quiet as he runs his fingers through Harry's hair, touches the tip of his ear here and the corner of his eye there. Every one unlocks a memory of being touched in that precise spot, always by Louis's careful, careful fingers. “I can't, it's-it's gonna take a while for me to realise that this is happening.”

“We've got a while,” Harry grins. “We've got all the time in the world, actually.”

Louis's next smile is wide and gorgeous, exactly the way it's supposed to be. Harry touches the back of his neck, leans forward to kiss it off his face, and is stopped in his tracks by a noise from downstairs.

Their noses touch. “Your mum's still here,” Louis points out. He makes no move to get up, though, his body still warm all along Harry's. “We should, um. You know.”

They should. If nothing else, they should send mum off so they can just-be alone for a bit.

“Do I look a mess?” Harry asks. It's kind of a redundant question - his lips are stinging, and he can feel the tangles Louis's fingers have put in his hair.

It's worth asking, though, for the way Louis grins at him. “Yes,” he says, and he sounds proud.

He sits up, straddling Harry's waist like they never stopped doing this, and fixes the messy curls that have fallen into his face. Then, he wipes his thumb over Harry's bottom lip - Harry can't resist pressing a kiss to it - and smiles again. The way it changes his face is incredible, and so unlike any other expression Harry has seen him wear these past few months.

“That's better,” Louis says, just for him, and finally stands up. He offers Harry a hand, and once they're both upright again, he goes on his tiptoes and looks over Harry's shoulder to the mirror hanging on one of the wardrobes. He tries to fix his hair, delicate fingers plucking at strands and untwisting them from the mess Harry has made.

“Let me,” Harry says, and brushes his fingers over Louis's wrist. “Mum's going to give up waiting at this rate.”

“Shut up,” Louis says, and grins like the sun. He lets Harry take over, though; lets him brush the fringe off his face, and tuck his favourite long strand behind an ear. From this close, Harry can see the tremble of his eyelashes every time he takes a breath.

He steps away a little when he's done, just to admire his work. Louis pulls him back in by the collar, presses the softest kiss to his lips, and then moves away and out of the room.

“Thanks, love,” he says over his shoulder, exaggerating the sway of his hips as he disappears down the corridor.

Harry takes a moment to marvel at the sudden miracle his life has become.

On his way to follow, he trips over one leg of the bed, and dislodges some of the things piled underneath. As if it's just been waiting for the right time, a black shoebox topples off the top and right to his feet. When Harry opens it, he finds piles of raggedy cat toys, and a couple of bottles of medicine.

He grins, shakes his head, tucks the box under his arm, and races down the stairs to catch up.

*

Harry breathes a sigh of relief the second mum's car rolls down the driveway. He leans against the door just in case, and peers out through the window until he's sure he sees it disappear between the trees.

“All right, love?” Louis asks, coming up behind him. There's a split second of a thick silence, of hesitation, but then he presses himself to Harry's back and wraps an arm around his waist, just like he would have years ago. The kiss he presses against Harry's shoulder blade makes all the tension there disappear.

“Yeah,” Harry smiles, leaning into Louis's warmth. “She was just being a little…”

“Nosey?” Louis suggests. “Suspicious?”

Harry laughs. “Yeah.”

“I mean-she knows you better than anyone. I'm sure she could tell that something was different.”

“That's what I'm worried about,” Harry sighs. He tries to press even closer, and Louis has to take a step back under the weight of his body. He does bring his other arm up to wrap around Harry's chest, though, so he'll consider it a win. “I have no idea how to even being explaining all this.”

Another kiss, this time on his nape. The warmth of Louis's lips seeps underneath Harry's skin, unfurls in little tendrils across his entire body.

How had he ever gone without this?

“We don't have to figure that out now,” Louis says. The way he says we makes Harry a little weak in the knees. “She doesn't need to know yet, nobody does.”

The anxious coil in Harry's chest tightens a little.

He sighs, and turns around in Louis's arms so they're face to face. Louis tucks a few hanging strands of hair behind his ears and looks up at him, gentle, concerned.

“I know it's literally been an hour, and that-that I haven't exactly given you a lot of reasons to trust me with this, with us, but-“

“Harry,” Louis interrupts. His hands on Harry's face feel endlessly soothing, but still-

“Let me finish, please,” he says. He's just got to lay this down somewhere - ideally right here, in the front room, where it'll stay sat on the doormat and let him get on with his evening. “I just wanted to tell you, again, that I love you. And that-if you don't want to tell anyone yet because you're not sure it's permanent, that's obviously your choice and I don't want to try and change your mind but-“

“Harry,” Louis says again, even softer than the first time. He'd bit his lip as Harry stared speaking, clearly determined to let him say his piece, but here he is, petting Harry's hair, tugging on the collar of his t-shirt, squeezing his hip, everywhere.

“It's permanent for me,” Harry says. It's the absolute, honest truth.

Louis sighs, and pats down Harry's t-shirt where the collar has peeled away from his chest. “It's permanent for me too,” he says, so quietly Harry has to strain to hear it. “I, um. I don't want you to think that I don't trust you, it's not that, but like I said - it's going to take a while.”

He's smiling when he looks up at Harry, and it's not as sad as Harry had been expecting. He returns it, and leans forward to press his lips to Louis's, just a peck, but even that much makes him shiver.

“Do you want to stay?” Louis asks.

“Do you want me to?”

They pull away, just far enough to look each other in the eye. Louis takes one of Harry's hands in his, and kisses the back of it. Harry's seconds away from bursting into a fresh bout of tears.

“I'll always want you to, darling,” Louis presses into the hollows in-between his trembling knuckles. “Always.”

Something shimmery and alive crawls up Harry's spine, explodes in front of his eyes like a supernova. He sways in place.

“Then I want to,” he says, trying to keep himself from sounding too eager. “I do.”

Louis lets their hands drop down between them, still holding on, and grins. “Not so fast, pal,” he says, and his eyes are sparkling. “I meant on the sofa.”

Harry opens his mouth, but no words come out. A sudden, embarrassed blush stings his cheeks.

Louis laughs. “I'm joking,” he says, leaning into Harry and wrapping an arm around his waist. “Obviously. Oh my God, your face-“

“I can't help it,” Harry squeaks, but he's got a laugh bubbling in his throat as well. His entire body aches in the most pleasant way, the way it does every morning while he stretches, while his muscles remember how to function. He's just-remembering. “And I can't believe you're making fun of my respect for boundaries.”

Louis laughs harder, shaking happily against Harry's chest. “You mean your inability to keep it in your pants.”

“That's not what I meant!” Harry tries to say, but he's overtaken by ridiculous, helpless giggles halfway through. “I just, I really want to stay with you. Even if it is on the sofa.”

“You're so sweet,” Louis sighs, on the tail-end of a laugh, and wipes a tear from the corner of his eye. “I can't believe I have to feel bad every time I tease you now.”

“I take it back,” Harry says immediately.

Louis yanks his forward by their joined hands and kisses him, deep like taking a breath of fresh air, like drinking water straight from the stream. Harry licks over his bottom lip, asks to be let in, and Louis opens up for him warm and soft, still smiling a little around the familiar ridges of his teeth. Harry sighs into his mouth, so perfectly content with the back and forth of their tongues.

He hasn't had a kiss like this in-years. Not since it was last Louis on the other side, holding him around the waist exactly the way he is now.

“Come on,” Louis says as he pulls away, dodging Harry's greedy kisses with soft pecks on his bottom lip. “We should sleep.”

Harry waggles his eyebrows.

“I can't stand you,” Louis tells him with a blinding smile. “Come on.”

They make their way up the stairs hand in hand, which is awkward, but they've got plenty of practice. This time, Harry notices, Louis doesn't touch the wall, doesn't pay any mind at all to where their pictures used to be.

Harry feels soft, relaxed, in love as he follows Louis and presses up against his back - until he realises that they're standing in front of the main bedroom. Which he hasn't entered since-

“Now, just to let you know,” Louis says, already reaching for the door handle, “I really wasn't expecting to be bringing you in here tonight, so it's a bit of a mess.”

“That's,” Harry clears his throat. “That's okay. You know I don't mind.”

Louis turns around in the circle of his arms, looks up at him with his brows furrowed. Harry looks back.

“Are you thinking about-“

“Yes,” says Harry miserably. He's been passing the door for months, but he always avoided looking at it properly. He still remembers trying to get his suitcase through without making a noise, remembers looking back at Louis's small silhouette underneath the sheets and feeling no remorse at all.

He'd felt like he was escaping something. What an absolute joke.

“It looks the same,” Louis says, shrugging one shoulder. Harry hates that he isn't smiling anymore. “I don't know if that helps or makes it worse. I haven't changed anything since you-left.”

Harry wraps his arms around Louis's shoulders, and pulls him into a hug. He needs to feel the spot where his own heart beats against Louis's chest, calm and so happy to be home.

“Stop trying to make me feel better,” he mumbles into Louis's hair, breathing in unfamiliar shampoo and immediately committing the scent to memory. “I don't deserve it.”

Louis huffs against his collarbone, his palms flat against Harry's back. “Can't,” he says, and the word tickles on Harry's neck. “I've literally been kissing your boo-boos better since you were born.”

Harry doesn't quite remember this, but his mum's told him the story often enough - no matter how minor a scrape or a bruise, he'd scream until someone went and got Louis to come and pity him.

He's dangerously close to reverting to that state now. Louis's comfort is so intoxicating, so addictive he has no idea how he ever broke away from it in the first place. He has so few memories of feeling worried or unsure, so few memories of panic attacks which Louis didn't suffer through right by his side. So few memories of feeling anything but completely, endlessly loved in Louis's arms.

“Come on,” Louis says, again. “I'll hold your hand like I used to do in haunted houses.”

That does make Harry laugh, if only a little. He lets Louis untangle them, and then lets Louis lead him across the threshold.

He hadn't been lying - it looks the exact same, save the bedding, and the messy piles of clothes that Louis used to claim were organised. All the furniture is where it used to be, the curtains are still a familiar dark green, and the books Harry never bothered to take with him are still lined up, alphabetically, in the little bookshelf they'd saved from a skip. It's much cleaner than it used to be, though, and it doesn't smell the same. Doesn't smell like anything, actually, just-empty air.

Louis lets him stand to take everything in, and sprawls face-up on the bed. The sheets, as always, are a mess, and they twist and curl around his body until they look like they're swallowing him up.

“Make yourself at home,” he yawns, and then huffs when he realises what he just said. “Most things are where they've always been.”

Gingerly, Harry closes the door behind him. It's only now that he realises he doesn't have any of his things left here - and nothing to sleep in.

He tries to find something to do with his hands, and ends up turning the light on. It's still early, just about the time that the sun sets in the summer, but he's still exhausted - and even if he wasn't, the thought of falling into bed with Louis is entirely too tempting to pass up.

Louis, still sprawled like a starfish, makes a disgruntled noise when the light hits his eyes.

“It's okay,” he says, and lifts one of his arms into the air, reaching towards Harry. “Everything's fine. Come to bed.”

Harry doesn't even think about it - his body obeys automatically. He takes the hand Louis is offering, and tumbles into the sheets right beside him. They smell of fabric softener, and no Louis. He has to pat them down to even see him, his hair spread messily around his head, still squinting at the lamp overhead. The scrunch of his nose makes Harry smile.

“D'you want me to turn it off?” he asks. “We can just go to sleep like this.”

“Your legs are hanging off the bed,” Louis points out, grinning a little. “Hold on.”

He sits up, scrambling in the slippery bedding. Harry feels overwhelmingly warm as he watches him rise, complete with a ridiculous bed head.

“Okay,” he says, hands on his hips, surveying the room like something's changed. “I'm gonna-go brush my teeth. You find something you can wear to bed.”

Harry doesn't point out that it's summer as he watches him go. He doesn't think he could handle sleeping here naked just yet, anyway - and if Louis says he's only comfortable sharing if Harry wears a fully-equipped diving suit, then that's exactly what Harry's going to do.

He assumes, a little bravely, that what Louis said was an invitation to look in the chest of drawers. He lifts his legs and moves them to the other side of the bed, the one that used to be his once upon a time. He overestimates his strength a little, though, and he too ends up clambering for purchase as he slides down to the floor - and as he goes, he notices the bedside table.

It didn't seem out of place when he walked in, because it looks exactly the way it did when he last left it. A stupid mechanical alarm clock he got at a street market, a ceramic rose ornament that Louis stole from Jay's collection when he was eleven and gave to Harry as a birthday present - and a picture from their wedding, Harry's absolute favourite at the time. Mum had said it was a little too racy to put above the fireplace like he'd originally wanted, so he settled for a smaller copy.

He almost starts crying as he looks at it now, sitting in a heap on the floor. Harry had had the idea to recreate the lift from Dirty Dancing, and Louis had gone through just enough champagne at that point to say yes. Harry had told the photographer not to shoot until he's in the air, started running, threw himself at Louis-and ended up in his arms, with his legs just off the ground, kissing him like his life depended on it. The sun was just setting behind them, painting the garden with every warm colour imaginable, flickering through the leaves in the trees. The photo ended up being so painfully, absolutely perfect, and Harry framed it the second he got in it his hands.

And there, just in front of the ornate little frame, is where the Harry of five years ago left his wedding ring.

He'd forgotten all about it, if he's honest. He did remember leaving it behind, but not quite where he put it. He hadn't realised he'd been so cruel about it, that he put it down right next to a picture of their perfect happiness just to let Louis know that he didn't care for it anymore.

How could he possibly have done that?

He reaches out for the faint golden outline of it, and lets it settle in his palm. It's cold, and heavier than he remembers as he turns it around and over, watches his own reflection in it become distorted then snap back into shape.

That's how Louis finds him when he exits the bathroom.

“Oh,” is all he says.

“You kept it,” Harry turns to him, standing up on wobbly legs. The ring is safely cradled in his fist, and he doesn't plan to ever let it go again. “Exactly where I left it, too.”

“I wasn't going to throw it away,” Louis says, running his fingers through the damp ends of his hair. “I tried, but it felt like I was lying to myself, getting rid of it but leaving the picture. Was too easy to pretend that everything was fine that way.”

Foolishly, Harry looks around the room for Louis's ring, as if he could spot it just resting on the other bedside table, on the dresser, hidden amongst the cologne bottles and hair products Louis has lined up by the mirror.

“I'm sorry,” Harry shakes his head, turning the ring over beneath his fingertips. He wants, more than anything, to put it back on.

Louis sighs, and steps closer. He puts his hands over Harry's, stops his restless fidgeting.

“You've really got to stop saying that every time we run across the past,” he says. “It is what it is, it's going to happen a lot.”

“But I-“

“I've told you,” Louis interrupts, holding Harry's face with one of his hands to make sure they're looking at each other. “You're forgiven. Stop apologising when you could be doing better things.”

Harry doesn't get to ask what he means, because Louis wraps his arms around his shoulders and demonstrates.

“Come to bed,” he says against Harry's lips, pats him on the chest, and leaves him in favour of burrowing underneath the duvet - on the same side he's always slept.

Harry puts the ring down, and blindly digs in one of the dresser drawers for a t-shirt that's so large he thinks it might have belonged to him once upon a time. Louis doesn't look up as he puts it on, but he's turned towards the centre of the bed, with one of his arms spread across the other half. Waiting.

Louis isn't the only one who'll need time to get used to this, Harry thinks as he sits down, feeling the mattress dip under him in a familiar way. Everything here, down to the way the moonlight sneaks in and stretches in a thin line across the floor, is a perfect replica of his last memory in this room, of him breaking both their hearts, though he didn't know that at the time.

And Louis has let him back in. Just like that.

He climbs under the duvet with an enthusiastic, but poorly-aimed kiss, one that catches Louis's chin more than his lips, but they both laugh about it. They laugh, Louis waits for him to lie down, and then snogs him properly.

“Hi,” he says to the smile that's curling Harry's mouth, to his bottom lip when he nips at it happily. He's grinning, but he makes a valiant effort at continuing the kiss. “I can't believe you're here.”

Harry's heart skips a beat. “Lou,” he says, and Louis breathes sharp, surprised, across his lips. “I'm not going anywhere.”

“I know,” Louis replies, and sounds like he believes it. “I know, darling.”

Without needing to speak a word, Harry can tell what both of them need, can feel it itching in his bones just because he's lying in this bed again.

He turns his back to Louis, and Louis immediately wraps his arm around him, pulls him in until every last inch of their bodies is touching one another. Louis has got a soft hand on his waist, another on his chest, and it's that one that Harry takes, cradles against him like it's made of diamonds.

He feels small, protected, here in Louis's arms - here where he belongs.

“Night,” he whispers, pressing his face into the pillow to try and stop a ridiculous smile from taking over his face.

“Goodnight, love,” Louis whispers back, warm breath fanning through Harry's hair. “Have you got any plans for tomorrow?”

Harry frowns. “Not really,” unless hanging off of Louis like a limpet counts as a legitimate plan. “Why?”

Louis's mouth curves into a smile in that sensitive spot just behind Harry's ear:

“I want to show you something.”

*

“Come on,” Louis is saying, standing outside and poking his head in like Harry's a stubborn toddler. “You know them. They don't bite.”

Uh, yeah, they do. Especially when Louis is concerned.

“You said you wanted to show me something,” Harry says, cowering in his seat and crossing his arms over his chest.

“This is just a pit stop,” Louis says, barely suppressing a smile. “What are you so afraid of?”

Harry gesticulates at nothing in particular. His heart is racing. “You didn't tell me we were coming here! They're going to hurt me.”

This time, Louis does laugh. “Nobody's going to hurt you, babe. I won't let them.”

Harry melts embarrassingly quickly at the pet name. He doesn't stop trying to blend in with the upholstery, though, his back pressed against the car door he'd locked fifteen minutes ago in case Louis tried to get him out from that side.

“Let's go,” Louis sighs, but it's fond. “You'll have to see them sooner or later, you know.”

“Later,” Harry replies. “I'm fine with later, I'll just wait in the car-“

“Harry,” Louis interrupts. “Get out.”

Harry whines, but he knows that Louis is right. Besides, he made a big show of telling Louis that he's not giving him up again no matter what, and he's not doing himself any favours by acting like this.

It's just-he's actually scared.

“Will you hold my hand?” he asks, semi-serious, and hesitantly unlocks the door.

“Of course I will,” Louis rolls his eyes, smiling, fond. He moves out of the driver's side door, slams it closed behind him, and walks over to the passenger side to open Harry's.

Harry slides out of the Land Rover into the Tomlinson-Deakins' front garden, and brushes non-existent crumbs off his shirt. Louis makes good on his promise and immediately connects their hands.

“You'll be okay,” he tells Harry, rearranging a couple of stray strands of hair on top of his head. “And if you really can't take it, you can just leave. I promise it's fine.”

“I'd never do that,” Harry frowns. Even if-even if Jay was as cruel to him as she had been when they met a couple of months ago, he wouldn't leave Louis's side.

“I know,” Louis shrugs a shoulder, and straightens up the hem of Harry's t-shirt. “Thought I'd offer anyway.”

Harry knows this house well. Out of the corner of his eye, he can see the curtains rippling suspiciously on the ground floor, and shadows of people who think they're out of sight moving beyond the kitchen window. They're all watching.

“I feel like Lottie's going to skin me the second I walk through the door,” he says, and watches as someone peels back the edge of a curtain in the living room. He thinks he can make out a single eye close to the glass, trained on the way they're holding each other right there in the front garden. “Maybe, um. Maybe we shouldn't hold hands, actually.”

Louis grabs him by the chin, and pulls his face away from the house until they're looking each other in the eye.

“What's this?” he asks, and he looks like he's suppressing a laugh. “Harry Styles, world-famous popstar who could buy all of us with his endless fortune, scared of my little sister?”

“She's terrifying,” Harry glups, remembering the graceful way in which she ignored his existence at the anniversary party. “And it's Tomlinson.”

Louis softens, and grins. “Is it?”

Harry shakes some of the nervousness off his shoulders. “Of course it is.”

“Well then,” he says, and steps even closer. “Harry Tomlinson, world-famous popstar who could buy all of us with his endless fortune. You've got nothing to worry about.”

“How do you know?” Harry asks, distracted. Louis has wrapped his arms around his neck.

“Because you're mine,” Louis smiles, and messes up Harry's carefully arranged hair by running a hand through it. “And I protect what's mine.”

Harry's the one who erases the last bit of distance between them, despite the entire house still very obviously spying. He kisses Louis soft and slow, breathes in the scent of him, early morning coffee and sweet-smelling body wash.

“Feel any better?” Louis asks when they part, his eyes sparkling.

“Loads,” Harry grins.

He's just about run out of time to stall, he knows, but he's still holding Louis in his arms. That, more than anything, helps him make the first step forward.

There's a commotion when Louis gets his key in the door. Several pairs of feet scatter deeper into the house, and someone whispers something very, very loudly.

“Hi, family,” is how Louis announces himself when he steps in, yelling it so it rings back off the ceiling. Harry follows him over the threshold on unsteady feet. “Anybody home?”

“Darling!” Jay shuffles out of the kitchen, wiping her clean, dry hands on an apron. “I didn't hear you coming up.”

Harry bites his lip, hard, to hold back a laugh. He's completely forgotten the merry chaos that this family creates when they're all in a house together.

Louis politely avoids calling out his mother's lie, and returns her hug.

“What are you doing here? I've just started on lunch, if I'd known you were coming-“

“Just passing through, Mum, sorry,” Louis smiles, holding her shoulders. “Need to get my keys off Fizzy.”

“Oh,” she nods. “She's-in here somewhere. Are you sure you're not hungry?”

“Positive,” he smiles. Harry's chest aches at the soft look in his eyes. “But Harry and I can come by for lunch any other time, just let us know.”

Harry has no time to recover from the beautiful, casual way Louis said us. Jay turns to him as soon as Louis says his name, finally forced to acknowledge the elephant in the room, and he immediately feels about two feet tall.

“Harry,” she nods.

“Jay,” he nods back. “It's so nice to see you again.”

She presses her lips together. She doesn't seem to want to strangle him, which is a good enough start - actually - as she looks between Louis and him, at the spot where Louis has quietly joined their hands, to their faces and to her own hands, Harry realises she's got tears in her eyes.

He's immediately alarmed, but Louis kisses the back of his hand, holds him back.

Jay dabs at the corner of her eye with her apron. “Sorry,” she says, and raises her head. She looks Harry right in the eye, in a way that makes him feel completely naked. Then she turns to Louis, reaches out and touches his face, and he smiles into it. “It's been a long time since I saw you smile like that, darling. I've completely forgotten what you look like when you're happy.”

“Mum,” Louis sniffs. Harry pulls his hand out of his grip and steps back to let them wrap their arms around each other again. “That's so dramatic, stop making me cry.”

She laughs, and Harry hides his own smile in the crook of his elbow.

“I'm your mother,” she says, and pats him on the back. “Being dramatic is my job.”

Then, she turns her gaze on Harry. He unconsciously stands up taller, straightens his back and clasps his hands behind his back like he's about to receive a scolding. He doesn't think he is, based on the softness in Jay's eyes, but one can never be sure.

“Are you free this Sunday?” is what she says. Harry blinks at her for a few seconds before he understands that he's meant to reply.

“I-um-yes,” is what he ends up stuttering out. Louis wraps an arm around his waist, but Harry can hear him snickering under his breath. “Free as a bird.”

“Good,” she nods, and wipes her hands again. “I'm making a roast, I think. Could you bring dessert?”

While Harry tries to form words out of the overwhelmed noises that want to come out of his mouth, Louis presses closer to his side.

“What she means is 'please make those brownies you won't let anyone have the recipe for'. Life's been very difficult without them these past few years.”

Harry stammers. Jay just-looks at him for a second, and then finally, finally cracks a smile. Harry almost drowns in the relief that floods him.

“Yes,” she nods, standing with her hands on her hips just like Louis always does. “Bring those, please. I've missed them terribly.”

Harry's heart beats painful and happy in his chest. “I will,” he says, finally managing some coherence. “Of course I will.”

She smiles, again. For a moment, they stand looking at each other in silence, and then she reaches out to pat him on the cheek. Harry stubbornly doesn't cry.

“Good,” she says. “You and I need to talk, young man, but for now-welcome home.”

She doesn't wait for a reaction. With an eerily familiar spark in her eye, she turns and walks straight back into the kitchen, banging about with pots and pans. Harry touches the side of his face where her fingers had been.

Louis pulls him in, and presses a happy kiss to his temple.

“See? Nobody's dead. She didn't even come out holding a knife.”

Harry's hands are shaking a little, but he wraps an arm around Louis's waist, half to hold him close and half to keep himself upright.

Louis presses another kiss to the side of his face, nuzzles into his neck, so happy and affectionate it does nothing to help with the lump growing in Harry's throat. He's just-forgotten. Forgotten that he used to have a family here, too, and how much he loved them.

Carefully, Louis pulls him deeper into the house. It hasn't changed much, aside from the toys scattered all over.

“Hello?” Louis calls, leading the way to where the general noise of conversation seems to be coming from. “Does nobody care that I'm here?”

As if on cue, a pair of tiny feet rushes down the corridor towards them. Doris barrels out of what Harry thinks is the living room, ginger curls bouncing all over the place - she's shouting, but Harry can't tell what.

Louis lights up the second he sees her. He lets go of Harry and crouches down, opens his arms to catch her when she throws herself towards him. She starts giggling once he's got her in his arms, and hides her face in his neck.

“Hiya,” he says, grinning. “How's my favourite girl?”

She says something that Harry doesn't catch, but it makes the corners of Louis's eyes crinkle. Harry's entire body aches, and he has to try very, very hard to stop himself thinking about what-ifs. This is certainly not the time - if Louis's other sisters decapitate him the second they see him, he doesn't want to spend his last moments thinking about all the things he's fucked up.

Bolstered by the happiness Louis is radiating, Harry decides to lead the way.

He did remember correctly, at least - the room he walks into looks different than it used to, but it has sofas, armchairs, a TV. Definitely a living room.

And it's full of people staring at him.

He clutches at the hem of his shirt with sweaty hands. It's a little like there was a spotlight aimed straight at him, except he's used to spotlights, and they definitely don't make him want to curl into a ball and cry.

“Hi,” he manages to say, but holds his own hands down to prevent an awkward wave. He gets four blank stares in response.

It's better than expected, he tries to tell himself. He's still alive, despite the fact that Lottie is holding what looks like a very sharp makeup brush. This is okay. They'll warm up to him, he's just got to-

Louis bustles in in a flurry of giggles and happy baby chatter, smiling at the room at large.

His sisters are instantly transformed. All four of them get up to give him a hug, or a kiss on the cheek, then push him towards the middle of the sofa when he makes to sit down at the edge. Harry feels a little like laughing at how obviously territorial it is, but that probably wouldn't go over well.

Plus, he's still standing in the middle of their living room like a sore thumb.

Louis looks at him over Doris' head, just this side of apologetic, but still grinning. “Come sit down,” he says, and inclines his head towards the free edge of the sofa.

Harry obeys. He does his best to take up as small a space as possible, but Fizzy still glares at him from where she's sitting on the next cushion. Harry leans forward to catch Louis's eye, more than a little afraid.

“Right,” Louis says. Ernest zips across the room, and Doris immediately starts wiggling in Louis's arms, so he lets her down. “Fiz. I just came to get my keys.”

She blinks at him. “What keys?”

“To my house,” Louis raises his eyebrows. “You're the last one who was there.”

“I was?”

Louis crosses his arms. “Did you forget to clean up again?”

Fizzy smiles. Harry almost laughs, again, but he bites his lip at the last second. “Of course not,” she says happily in the face of Louis's deadpan silence. “I mean-maybe. But it's not a lot.”

Louis closes his eyes, exasperated. It makes Harry want to coo a little.

“It is presentable? Am I going to be embarrassed when I walk in?”

“No,” she rolls her eyes. “It's just the guest bedroom, I promise.”

He squints at her.

“I didn't think you'd be going before I went back!” she throws her arms up. Next to Louis, Lottie rolls her eyes as she applies mascara. “You're never there.”

“I'm there,” Louis huffs, and Harry realises that he's got no idea what they're talking about. “Sometimes.”

“Like once a year,” Fizzy mutters, and gets up. She turns to Louis, and puts her hands on her hips. “What are you going down for anyway?”

Louis scratches the back of his neck, and messes up the short, soft hair there. Harry almost reaches across the now-empty space between them to pat it back down.

“I'm showing Harry,” is what Louis replies, and suddenly, all eyes in the room are on Harry again.

He'd really been enjoying not being the centre of attention.

“You're showing Harry,” Lottie pipes up, straightening her back. “Are you sure that's a good idea?”

Harry has the wits to not point out that he's sitting right there.

Louis sighs, and looks at her. “I'm sure,” he says, quiet, like he's continuing a conversation they'd had before. “I promise I've thought it through.”

“Hasn't it been like-a day?”

Louis blushes a little. Harry scoots up the sofa until they're sitting close enough that he could touch if he wanted to, if he needed to.

“And?” he asks, and the flush creeps down the side of his neck. Harry finds it unfairly endearing. In fact, he's so lost in staring at Louis that it takes him a second to realise that Lottie is looking at him, and to meet her eyes.

She looks-neutral. Not like she wants to put him through a shredder.

“Do I need to give you the speech? Because I'll do it,” she says. Just like with her mother, Harry can pick out the barest hint of warmth in her eyes, carefully guarded. But - they grew up together, him and Lottie. She's never not known him.

He's here to stay, and one day, even if it's not now, he's going to crack some terrible joke that will make her laugh again.

“You don't,” he tells her, and tries his best to keep his voice steady. “Really, no need. I know.”

Slowly, she nods. “I know people,” she says, picking at one of her braids. Louis chokes on a laugh. “Just so you know. They're a phone call away, so don't-“ she leans out into the hallway, checking for Ernest and Doris, “don't fuck it up again. I mean it.”

“Noted,” Harry replies, and gulps. He really is a little scared of her, he realises. “I won't.”

She squints, and takes a breath to say something else, but Louis puts a hand on her shoulder. They have some sort of staring match that Harry doesn't understand, and it's only interrupted when Fizzy walks back into the room and drops a keyring in Louis's lap.

“That's rude,” he says, laughing a little, and tucks into his back pocket. “Thanks, Fiz. I'll bring these back in time for the next party, don't worry.”

“You better,” she huffs. Louis stands up, and she takes his seat, jabbing Harry in the side as she does. He's only about ninety per cent sure it's on purpose.

A silence descends on the room, but it's a little easier to breathe than when Harry first walked in. He's still very careful to avoid everyone's eyes - everyone except Louis, that is, who's standing in the open vee of Harry's legs and looking down at him with a content little light in his eyes.

“We can go now,” he says, smiling. He offers Harry a hand, just like that, in front of everyone.

Harry takes it.

“You just got here,” Lottie says, not missing a beat. She's got her arms crossed over her chest.

“I'll be back,” Louis promises, curled into Harry's side. “Actually, mum's invited us for lunch on Sunday, so I'll see you then.”

Us runs down Harry's back with a happy shiver.

Lottie sighs, but smiles. “I guess,” she says, and gets up, presumably to walk them out. “Is Harry making the brownies?”

Harry smiles ridiculously into the darkness of the corridor.

*

The rain meets them about halfway down the M6, and doesn't stop.

It had been a lovely day back in Holmes Chapel, but as they drive into London the sky looks torn into grey-and-white shreds overhead. Louis has to self-consciously drive around one puddle after another to avoid completely soaking people on the sidewalks.

Harry, curled into himself in the passenger seat, enjoys it. He's not in London often anymore, barely at all, and it rushes in all at once when he rolls his window down a little. It smells like dust and concrete and city, all under the unmistakable scent of dirty rain. Everything looks grey through the windshield, blurred by the monotone back and forth of the wipers, but when he actually looks out, bright splashes of colour bleed through - a yellow raincoat here, a red bus there, the green steel of Tower Bridge swooping down among the monochromes. It's so busy, all of it, but it seems small. Like he could get out of the car and run into somebody he knows just around a corner.

It feels a little like meeting a long-lost friend he doesn't remember having.

Louis meanders around the outskirts of the city, tiredly squinting onto the wet road with a Fall Out Boy album playing through the speakers. Once London disappears behind green trees and rows of terrace houses, Harry turns to watch him instead.

He doesn't get to do it for long.

“What?” Louis asks softly as he lets a van pass before he turns right. There's a smile crinkling the corners of his eyes, but his lips are pursed as he focuses on driving. “Something on my face?”

Harry laughs. He doesn't reply, doesn't think Louis really needs him to. Somewhere in the gentle slope of his nose, in the shadows cast by his eyelashes, he tries to find the answer to the question he hasn't dared ask.

Where are we going?

Louis can tell that he's getting antsy, of course, but he just smiles beatifically and bats away Harry's attempts at distracting him into an answer with his hands.

“We're almost there,” he says, probably more than ten times, until finally, finally, he pulls into a driveway and stops the car. Harry peeks out of his window at a humongous, three-storey townhouse.

“Where are we?” he asks, but Louis is out of the driver's seat before he can answer, running to Harry's side of the car to open the door for him again. “Where are we?” Harry asks again, taking the offered elbow and curling into Louis as they jog into the shelter of the building, away from the rain.

“It's, uh,” Louis hesitates, his voice getting lost amongst raindrops drumming against leaves. “My house.”

Harry looks up at the imposing white walls, the ivy climbing up one of them, the perfect rectangles of the windows. He has to crane his neck far enough that it hurts to even see to the top.

“Your house,” he repeats. Louis doesn't explain, just tugs on his elbow and pulls him towards the front door. They're fast jogging through the front garden, but Harry still gets a few raindrops just beneath his collar, a shiver down his back. Louis works the key into the lock with hurried hands, turns it and leans against the door to get them in as fast as he can.

They leave the rain outside, right along with the noises rising up from the road. Perfect, unbreakable silence envelopes them, and they stare at each other for a minute in the semi-darkness.

“This is your house,” Harry repeats again, a little afraid to look around.

“Yes,” Louis nods, toeing off his shoes. Harry follows suit. “I'll explain, but let me get a towel for your hair first.”

It's then that Harry realises the tips of his hair are dripping on the shiny floor. It's expensive-looking, polished wood - he can see the shadow of his own reflection in it if he looks close enough, blurry where the water has settled.

Carefully, he looks up. Louis has left him standing in a hall, obviously, a windowless, winding little thing. There are a couple of open doorways letting light in, illuminating the dust they've stirred with their arrival, and next to each one of them stand pots that obviously used to host plants once upon a time. There's an ornate, antique-looking sort of table, the kind of thing that should be a centerpiece, but it's just-there. Bare, a little dusty, pushed right up against the wall.

Louis hurries back in from the far side of the corridor, and pushes a light blue towel into Harry's hands. He stands in front of Harry, fidgeting, while Harry squeezes water out of his hair and arranges the towel around his shoulders.

“D'you want a tour?” he asks, wringing his hands. Harry realises that he's not nervous like he'd assumed - there's a different kind of spark in his eye, a hint of mischief in his expression. He's excited. “It's not really furnished properly, I don't stay here much, but if you want to see-“

“I'd love to see,” Harry smiles. The idea of Louis owning-this is a little bizarre, still, but he can't wait to see what lies behind all those bright doorways.

“Okay,” Louis says, then whispers: “Okay. Come on.”

Harry takes his hand, and lets him lead the way.

The gloom of the hallway falls away the second they enter the first room, through to the right - a living room, by the looks of it. There really isn't a whole lot of furniture, but Harry barely notices, and wouldn't really care, because there's a fireplace.

It's not the kind they have in Holmes Chapel, either. This - this is the kind of fireplace Harry used to dream about when he imagined a big, bright future in some unspecified place with Louis and their two dozen children. It's bigger than the span of his arms when he stretches them out, with a beautiful brick hearth and shiny old-fashioned tiles speckled around the firebox. When he leans in, he's enveloped in the scent of old, old ashes, but it's intoxicating.

“Louis, this is gorgeous,” he says, a little hypnotised, running his fingers over the cold ceramic of the tiles, trying to figure out the worn-out pattern. “I didn't even think you could get something like this these days.”

Louis comes up behind him, and wraps an arm around Harry's waist. Harry immediately pulls him closer by the shoulders.

“It was a pain to find,” Louis says, swaying them from side to side. Harry smiles, relaxes into the movement. “When I said I wanted a fireplace, the agent told me to lower my expectations because everyone wants a fireplace now, but I guess the joke's on her.”

Harry shakes his head, trying to stop imagining the kind of room he'd arrange around it. He sees it, out of the corner of his eye - lightly-coloured curtains, soft old furniture all turned towards the fireplace like the centerpiece it is.

“Why'd you want a fireplace?”

Louis hums, and puts his chin on Harry's shoulder for just a second. “Just in case,” is what he replies, and then gently tugs on Harry's waist. “Kitchen's this way.”

It's gorgeously bright, just like the living room. The rain has stopped - sunlight spills in through a tall, arched window, flooding Harry the second he takes a step inside, warming his cheeks.

Louis walks ahead of him, almost skipping on the pristine tiled floor. He turns to Harry, smiles, and stops right in a beam of light that stretches across the room.

Harry finds it a little difficult to breathe.

He should know by now, should remember the exact way the sun kisses Louis's skin; the way it melts when it touches him, covers him in gold.

“This one's a bit bare,” he's saying, and Harry is hypnotised by the pale pink of his mouth. “I haven't really needed it.”

Harry makes himself look away, but not until he's got Louis in his arms, sun-warm and content.

It looks, he realises, a lot like his kitchen back in LA. He'd put that one together from scratch, catering to every one of his own whims he could think of - marble countertops, kitchen island, bar stools; a simple, bright colour scheme. He grimaces a little when he remembers Josh touching things there, irrevocably running any positive feelings he'd had about the place. But this one - this one is a blank slate, and he could-

Louis's house, Harry. It's Louis's house.

Still, he can't help himself. Everything here is so much bigger, so much more expensive, than anything they could have ever hoped for as twenty-somethings in Holmes Chapel. Louis has the money now, has his dream job, and yet this house looks like a photo off a real estate website.

Louis is saying something, and Harry guiltily tunes back in to hear the tail end of the sentence. It doesn't seem to be anything that required an answer, though, because Louis leans back against his chest, lets Harry envelope him completely.

“Hey, Lou?” Harry asks, watching patches of sunlight draw on cupboard doors.

“Mhm?”

“Why don't you live here?”

Louis stiffens a little, or maybe Harry just imagines it. Either way, he brings his hands up to wrap them around Harry's forearms, and squeezes before he answers.

“It's too big,” he says, and tapers off into a laugh when Harry breathes into his hair. “And too far. My whole family's at home, and the babies, I don't want to miss them growing up. I'd much rather drive down here a couple times a week, and Liam's the same. We don't really-need this.”

Harry imagines Louis here alone, wandering under tall ceilings, through half-empty rooms that echo his footsteps back at him, and understands.

Besides, it's somehow wrong to think of Louis settled anywhere that's not home.

“It's really just that-I haven't had a reason to think about moving. And it'd be lonely here, I don't know,” Louis says, leaning into Harry a little too heavily. “I was thinking maybe if my sisters would want to move down here, I could come with them.”

Harry blinks. “Then why'd you buy it?”

Louis chuckles, and it reverberates through Harry's hands on his chest. “I'll show you.”

They go back out into the hallway, and up the stairs. There, Harry has to shield his eyes - unlike the downstairs, the landing is set right underneath a gorgeous skylight, and dazzlingly bright.

It's here, as he looks up at the blue-grey sky broken up into squares by the window frame, that something starts nagging at Harry. He used to talk about a skylight, too, because his grandmother had one when he was a kid and it used to be his favourite thing. There's been something that made his hear beat faster in every room he's seen so far, and Louis said-

“The people who lived here before had five kids,” Louis is saying from behind him. By the time Harry's turned around, he has the door open to another room, and-and. “They had all of this furniture custom made to fit, and they offered to get rid of it when I told them it's just me, but. I took one look at it, and I couldn't.”

Harry steps into the room on reverent feet. It's got a green carpet, and beautiful white furniture; a changing table built into the wall, and a toybox mounted on that's painted like a pirate chest. A wardrobe, a chest of drawers, all clearly handmade and beautifully ornate and the walls-the walls are yellow.

Harry puts a hand over his mouth, and almost keels over at the wave of longing that hits him square in the chest.

“Louis,” he says, and doesn't even have to go to him because Louis is right there, wrapping his arms around Harry's waist. “Why did you buy this house?”

Louis sighs, and presses a barely-there kiss to Harry's neck.

“For us,” he says. “It was going to be for us.”

Harry had figured as much, by now, but the concrete knowledge of it still feels like a physical blow, still makes him sway in place.

“But I was gone,” is all he can say.

Louis holds him a little tighter. “I know,” he says, and chuckles. “I was gonna-remember how I said that I wanted to make something of myself and then get you back? This was going to be part of the plan.”

Harry's heart feels like it gets stuck mid-beat, torn between happiness and pain and twenty other emotions Harry didn't even know he was capable of feeling. He looks back over his shoulder, where more dust is dancing underneath the skylight.

“You remembered,” he says. His voice takes a few tries to start working. “Everything I told you when I was being stupid and daydreaming, and you actually-“

“Not stupid,” Louis admonishes, and turns Harry around until they're looking at each other. “Not stupid at all, H. I always loved the way you saw our future, always imagined myself right there with you, with the skylight and the ridiculous fireplace and,” he grins, “a four-poster bed, was it?”

Harry gasps. “You did not get a four-poster bed.”

“I had a lot of money to spend,” Louis laughs. Harry just blinks at him in disbelief, in awe.

“Oh my God,” he says, refusing to cry. “I can't believe you did this.”

“Anything for you,” Louis shrugs, like it's not a big deal. “And, to be honest, it was kind of therapeutic. Made me believe that I'd be fine eventually.”

Harry must let his heartbreak show on his face, because Louis shakes his head and puts a hand on his chest. “Don't even say it. Look at me, I'm fine. More than fine. You came home, in the end.”

“I love you,” Harry whispers.

Louis smiles, and runs a hand through Harry's hair. Harry has already gotten worryingly addicted to that, and it hasn't even been two days.

He melts into Louis's touch, tips his head forward, and kisses him.

“I didn't even get to say it back,” Louis protests, but his hands come up to hold Harry's face, so he must not mind that much. Harry laughs as he nips at his bottom lip, and shakes his head.

“I love you,” he repeats, leaning his forehead against Louis's, breathing the same air. “And, Louis-thank you.”

Louis pulls away a fraction, opens his eyes. “What for?”

He's frowning, so Harry reaches out to smooth the wrinkle away. “Not giving up on this.”

Louis's eyes soften. “I told you I never could. I'm just glad I won't have to become one of those lonely bearded men who live in the woods and eat squirrel meat.”

Harry bursts out laughing. A few of the tears he'd been holding back slip out, roll down his cheeks, and disappear somewhere into his collar, instantly forgotten.

A bright, dizzy kind of happiness breaks right over his head like a tidal wave, wriggling in underneath his skin until it breaks into goosebumps. It's headier than even the most expensive wine he's ever tasted, fiery and brilliant in his veins.

He kisses Louis deeply, trying to pass on some of this feeling, but he thinks Louis might already know. He's sweet and bitter and familiar on Harry's tongue, beautifully bold when he bites Harry's lip and leans into him and slides his hands underneath the hem of Harry's shirt.

Harry ends up leaning against the wall, somehow, damp palms on the sunshine-yellow paint. He and Louis look at each other, not entirely sure how they ended up there, but-Harry's got a star forming somewhere in the pit of his stomach, hot enough to draw sweat down the back of his neck, and he's remembering, only just remembering, how absolutely all-consuming this used to feel. Louis is right in front of him, his chest heaving, his lips shiny and redder than he remembers them being. His hair is falling into his eyes, but he won't let go of Harry's gaze, and his pupils are blown so wide they make him look a little wild.

He's stunning, and Harry-Harry did that. This is what Louis Tomlinson looks like laid bare, just for him.

He reaches out, and tangles his fingers in the collar of Louis's shirt. Louis must know what he wants to do, because he drops his head and breathes out and his voice breaks - and he doesn't resist, not one bit, when Harry pulls him in and crashes their lips together.

It's instantly different. There's intent behind it now, for both of them, and Louis leans all of his weight against Harry, pressing the lengths of their bodies together, tugging at the short hair on Harry's nape. Harry breathes him in, and tires to keep up with the sudden hunger of his kisses, but it's been entirely too long, and he's overwhelmed.

Louis immediately senses the change, immediately pulls away even though he's flushed and all but panting. His gentleness is still, always, there, in the hand he puts on Harry's face, in the concerned furrow of his eyebrows.

“Okay? Is this too much?”

Harry shakes his head vigorously, with stars still dancing in his vision. “No! No. It's just-it's a lot.”

Louis takes a step back. Harry desperately reaches for his waist to keep him where he is.

“Not like that,” Harry says, and hopes the urgency that's come alight in his stomach translates into his voice, that Louis remembers what he looks and sounds like when he wants something, because he wants this. “I promise it's not-I want to, it's just that-Christ, this is hard to say.”

Some of the pleasant heat in his cheeks is replaced with embarrassment, and Louis makes a concerned noise when he looks down at his feet. There's no way to make this sound like anything else than it is, no way to make himself look a little less stupid. He knows Louis is going to be lovely about it, like he is about everything, but-God. God.

“I haven't,” he starts, then stops, and has to collect his thoughts. Maybe there's a way to phrase it that's not going to mortify him.

“You haven't what?” Louis asks, still concerned, still putting soft hands all over Harry's body, comfortable on his neck and his hips and the top of his thigh. Everywhere, because he knows this.

Because they've done this before.

Harry takes as deep a breath as he can muster, and blurts it out all at once: “I haven't slept with anyone in five years.”

Silence. Harry lifts his eyes against the unbearable heaviness of embarrassment, because he needs to see, to know what Louis is thinking.

And Louis-Louis is looking at him, a little blankly, like he didn't quite understand. “What do you mean?”

Harry bites his lip, and rubs one of his eyes. “I mean I just-haven't. Since the last time we-yeah. Um.”

Louis blinks. “But y-I mean-you were engaged. You were in a relationship.”

“Yeah,” Harry laughs mirthlessly. “And he started cheating on me because I wouldn't put out.”

Louis pulls him close with a light, careful kind of touch. “I'm sorry, H, but you'll need to explain this to me. I don't understand.”

Harry leans against him, buries his nose in Louis's hair and breathes in the scent that lingers there, something reminiscent of vanilla.

“I couldn't have sex with him,” he says, and wills his blush to go away. “The first time we tried, I completely freaked out, but I figured it was because I wasn't really ready yet. Except then it happened again, and again, and eventually he just stopped trying.”

“Why?” Louis asks, in the absolute softest tone Harry's ever heard him use. “Why couldn't you?”

Harry shakes his head. He can't even call himself stupid, really. It was beyond that. “I didn't know,” is what he says, still hiding his face in Louis's neck. Louis lets him. “I could-kiss him, and touch him just fine, but the second I thought it'd lead to more my throat just closed up, and I felt like I had to run.”

Louis stands still and listens, waiting for Harry to stumble his way through an explanation. It's because of that he feels brave enough to pull away, just a little, and look Louis in the eye.

“I'm sorry, H,” Louis says, and wipes his thumb over the corner of Harry's eye even though there aren't any tears. “That sounds awful.”

Harry shrugs. He got used to it, eventually. Marcus touched him a lot, in platonic ways, to kiss him hello and goodbye and goodnight and just because, and for years, that was enough. He didn't really miss it, didn't really want to try and fix whatever was wrong because it'd never felt good, and the disappointment in Marcus' eyes became harder and harder to bear.

But he understands now - God, he understands. The heat still building inside him, and the way just looking at Louis like this makes his fingertips prickle-

“It was what it was,” he replies, trying to think of how to word what he's trying to say. “I got used to it.”

“You shouldn't have to,” Louis frowns. “Especially when you're-“ he stops there, presses his lips together, but Harry knows what he meant.

“Are you trying to think of a nice way to say I'm easy?”

Louis opens his mouth to defend himself, but ends up laughing instead. “I don't mean it like that,” he says, and pats Harry on the chest. “But you'd always enjoyed it so much, I can't imagine-five years, really?”

“Yeah,” Harry huffs. “It just felt wrong, no matter what I did. I thought I might have left it behind like I did with everything else, but I was just being stupid. I knew, I'm sure I did, but I didn't let myself even consider the possibility.”

Louis frowns. “Knew what?”

“It felt wrong,” Harry repeats, and stubbornly looks back down at the floor. “It felt wrong because it wasn't with you.”

Louis sucks in a breath. Harry's face is burning, all the way to the tips of his ears.

“Harry,” Louis says, and puts a gentle hand on the side of his face. “Harry, please look at me.”

Harry shakes his head. “It wasn't a conscious thing, but-you were my first, my only, and I don't think-I don't think I knew how to really love somebody who wasn't you. Looking back at it, I don't know if I even wanted to try.”

“Harry,” Louis says again, more urgent. His voice is shaking. “Baby.”

Harry's breath stumbles on its way out of his chest. He gives in to Louis's touch, looks up, and immediately feels like crying.

Louis is looking at him like-like he used to. With the same stars in his eyes that he had under that tree when they kissed for the first time, and in front of the altar on their wedding day.

Like Harry is the only thing that matters.

“I love you,” he says, feather-light. Harry commits it to memory, every last cadence. “Christ, I love you so much.”

Harry gives in to the ridiculous, soppy smile that wants to take over his face. “I love you,” he tells Louis, and kisses him again. There's something soft, something beautifully pliant in Louis's body as it meets his own.

“I can't believe this,” he says into Harry's upper lip. “I mean-I don't want to sound gross, but I didn't think you'd still be-“

“Just yours?” Harry interrupts, and the way Louis's breathing hitches tells him he's right. “I am. And you're-unless-“

“No,” Louis almost yells, and put his hands on Harry's shoulders. “God, no. I gave myself another ten years before I'd start even thinking about that.”

Harry's instinct is to laugh, but it gets stuck somewhere halfway up his throat. It's not funny.

“Hey,” Louis whispers, and nudges their noses together. “Stop that.”

“Sorry,” Harry mumbles, and lets Louis melt him with a soft, slow kiss.

“Don't apologise,” he says, into the sliver of air that separates their mouths. “Just-try and remember that we're both here. We found our way back to each other, love, like it was always meant to be.”

Meant to be reminds Harry of something, and he grins into the next kiss.

“What?” asks Louis.

Harry shakes his head, and wraps his arms around Louis's neck, content. “I just remembered how soppy our wedding vows were,” he laughs. “All about fate making sure that we ended up together.”

Louis laughs too, but it's softer, fonder. “They were also about choosing each other, you know. I, Louis Tomlinson-“

“Choose you above all to share my life, I know,” Harry says, and his own laughter dies away. He still has that letter, tucked in-between the pages of his songwriting notebook, folded and re-folded so many times that the paper has gone soft in the creases. He remembers exactly how it felt to read it for the first time, that small, shaky, terrified feeling.

He chose to stay that day. He chose Louis, even if it was for decidedly unromantic reasons.

“Yeah,” Louis says, nuzzling the side of his face. “And here we are.”

Harry hugs him close, and breathes. The house smells a little dusty, and a little like paint, but combined with the intoxicating scent of Louis's skin, it adds up to countless possibilities.

“Here we are,” he says. “Did you want to show me the rest of the house?”

Louis hums, and slips one of his hands underneath Harry's t-shirt, onto the overheated skin of his waist. “Like what?”

“You did say something about a bed,” Harry grins.

Louis grins back - the corners of his eyes are crinkled happily when he pulls away, and he runs his thumb over Harry's bottom lip, just once.

“There is a bed,” he nods. “Never slept in. I was saving it for a special occasion.”

Harry throws his arms out to the sides. “Here it is!”

Louis cackles. He does step back to let Harry stand upright and collect himself, but he lasts exactly three seconds before he's got his hands on Harry's hips, kissing him as he blindly navigates them out of the room. Harry bangs his shoulder blade against the doorframe, and barely notices.

The bedroom - presumably - is only a couple of rooms over. Louis crashes into the door back first with all of Harry's weight on him, and when he presses down on the handle they both lose their balance. They don't quite end up on the ground, but it's a close thing, and again, Harry doesn't care - he's got Louis, happy and laughing, right in front of him.

He does look around the room, just for a second, to locate the bed - and freezes.

“Babe?” Louis asks. “All right? Did you change your-“

“You bought a four-posted bed,” Harry says in disbelief. And what a bed it is - huge, ridiculously ornate, made of gorgeous dark wood.

“I told you I did,” Louis replies, running one of his fingers along Harry's waistband.

“I thought you were joking,” Harry squeaks. For some inexplicable reason, just looking at the bed makes him antsy in the best way. “This is-wow.”

“Best try it out, just to make sure you like the mattress,” Louis laughs. He pushes away from the wall, starts toward the centre of the room and leaves Harry behind.

Harry follows. He's about to make fun of Louis for how completely transparent he is, but then Louis reaches the bed, sits down, and takes off his t-shirt.

Harry's mouth goes completely bone-dry. Various parts of his body start screaming at him all at once - about how badly he needs to touch the soft slope of Louis's nose, and kiss the corner of his lips, and fix the hair that he's messed up while undressing, and get his mouth on the endless golden skin of Louis's chest. All of them add up to needing to be exactly where Louis is, so Harry gives in to the pull and crosses the room to his husband.

“Really?” Louis asks, leaning back on his elbows, so painfully, casually gorgeous. “Won't even take your shirt off? You're making me look a little desperate, babe.”

“You'll live,” Harry grins, and the second he's within reach, he lands on top of Louis and all but covers his body with his own. Louis's hands are in his hair immediately, much firmer than before, pulling him close and holding him there while Louis licks his way into Harry's mouth. “Besides, I want you to take it off.”

Louis moans, and the second he does, Harry completely loses himself. The sound goes straight to his cock, breaks some kind of barrier Harry had been desperately holding on to. Every tickle of Louis's breath over his skin, every brush of his fingers as he pulls on Harry's shirt and gets it over his head, feels electric.

“Jesus,” Louis mumbles, his hands immediately on Harry's naked skin, passing every ridge of muscle slow and thorough like she's worshipping it. “Oh my God, Harry.”

Harry kisses him, harder than he had before, determined to get a taste of every last corner of his mouth. Louis meets him more than eagerly, his lips wet and sweet, his body a beacon on the bare mattress.

Harry touches everywhere he can possibly reach - Louis's chest, the beautiful hollows of his collarbones, that spot where his waist narrows, warm skin on warm skin. He tries to taste some of it, but he's drawn right back up to the slender column of Louis's neck, just a little too perfect.

He used to get in trouble for this, once upon a time, and it's that much more satisfying to bite at the spot where Louis's shoulder meets his neck, suck a bruise there until Louis is moaning and pulling him off, back up into a kiss.

The grip he's got on Harry's hair feels like a drug, shooting little pinpricks of pleasure all over his body. He rolls his hips down to meet Louis's, and finds him just as hard; they both groan at the contact, letting the noises escape their lips and swallowing them right back.

“Pants,” Louis says, and doesn't sound anywhere near as collected as he did not two minutes ago.

Harry grins. “What about them?”

Louis huffs, and tugs at Harry's belt so forcefully he almost dislodges him. “Take them off, you wanker.”

Harry laughs - giggles, really, and he'll be embarrassed about it later - and wraps his fingers around Louis's wrist.

“I'll do yours if you do mine?”

Louis laughs into his neck, gently bites one of the tendons there. Harry holds back a desperate whine.

“It's like homework all over again,” he huffs, and then he's on Harry's trousers with both hands, trying to undo his belt buckle with slippery fingers. “Remember when we almost fought to the death about how to spell horse?”

Harry has to focus hard to hear what Louis is actually saying. “I was very convinced it was hores,” he nods, laughing into Louis's neck, trying to figure out where the button of his jeans is. It's a slow process, and he keeps getting distracted by the miles of unmarked skin spread out in front of him. “Mum almost pissed herself laughing.”

“Maybe not the time to mention her,” Louis says, grimacing into their kiss. His fingers are everywhere, so very close to where Harry wants them most, firm knuckles pressing into his stomach as he finally figures out the buckle. Harry gives up on undressing Louis entirely, and instead tries to work his hands underneath his waistband. “And stop cheating, Jesus. What kind of grade do you think you're going to get if you just stick a hand down my pants?”

“Is this a roleplay scenario?” Harry asks, grinning. “Do bad grades come with a spanking?”

Louis falls back down on the bed, laughing hysterically into the crook of his arm. Harry bites his lip and flushes, inordinately pleased at seeing Louis so happy, making him so happy.

“I cannot stand you,” Louis says, and looks into Harry's eyes like it's the only thing he ever wants to see. “I forgot that you do that.”

“Do what?”

Louis shakes his head, his expression soft. “Make this an experience every time.”

“That's my brand,” Harry smiles, making a real effort at ignoring Louis's fingers just resting where they are. “The Harry Styles Experience. Did you know that people pay thousands-“

“Okay,” Louis interrupts, and before Harry knows what's happening, Louis has him flipped onto his back, leaning over him and grinning like the cat that got the cream. “I really don't need this mental image.”

Slowly, casually, he opens the button of Harry's jeans. Harry holds his breath without realising he's doing it.

“Tell me what you want instead,” he says, and takes Harry's jeans off the best he can, down to his knees and then Harry has to help him by wriggling out of them. The air in the room feels shockingly cold on his sweaty skin.

Harry bites his lip, trying to be serious. “A pillow,” he says.

Louis blinks at him.

“I want a pillow,” Harry repeats, keeping his face as straight as he can possibly manage. “Bit of a hard mattress, this.”

Still, Louis keeps looking. Harry waits for him to crack a smile for so long he starts feeling cold.

Just as he opens his mouth to - apologise? He's not really sure - Louis makes a sound. Relief balloons in Harry's chest, right up until the moment that he realises it's not exactly a laugh.

“Louis?” he asks, alarmed, sitting up so he can reach Louis where he's kneeling on the bed, crying. “Oh my God, what-“

“I'm fine!” Louis protests immediately, ducking Harry's hands and wiping his face. He does laugh, then, but it's a little hysterical. “I'm sorry, this is-“

“Are you okay?” Harry almost yells, through a strange, intense pounding in his temples. He's going through too many different emotions at once.

“I'm fine,” Louis repeats, reaching out to calm Harry down until he's holding his face in his hands, and they're looking at each other. He does look fine, just a little teary-eyed. “It's just that-you're exactly the same.”

“Um,” Harry says intelligently.

Slowly, to give Harry time to pull away, Louis draws him close and kisses him. It's soft, sloppy, more about being close than getting anything out of it.

“I just kept thinking-it's not because of you, I just can't help it, I've been thinking, what if one day he does something or says something and I don't recognise him? What if he's actually changed, and it turns out that we don't fit anymore?”

Harry wants to put some space between them, to look Louis in the face, but Louis doesn't let him. He wraps one of his hands around Harry's wrist, stroking the skin on the underside of it.

“But you're you,” he sniffs. “You're really-you're just my Harry. You even have these, still,” he says, and touches the skin just above the waistband of Harry's boxers, where his hips swell just a little bit.

They kiss again. Harry lets himself take a break, just to breathe, to filter out everything that isn't arousal and bliss and this beautiful, all-consuming love that's tossing his heart around his chest in the best way. He touches the bare plane of Louis's back, draws shapes there and spells his initials over and over until Louis is laughing again, pressing small kisses to his cheek, the underside of his jaw.

Harry takes a breath. “You do realise I'll get to bring this up for the rest of our lives.”

“Me crying while trying to get in your pants?”

“Yes,” Harry grins. “Twenty years from now, you're going to take out your dentures to go down on me, and I'll say hey, Lou, remember that time-“

“Stop talking,” Louis laughs, trying to kiss him through the ridiculous expressions they're both sporting. “If anyone's going to have dentures in twenty years, it's going to be you, love.”

“Wanna bet?”

Louis stills. “Yes, actually. How much?”

He's been hovering over Harry's lap, holding himself up as they kisses, but he sits down now, almost entirely serious. Harry throws his head back and moans so loudly he's instantly embarrassed, but-the weight of him, and the constant live wire movement, are a little too much to take for his first time in half a decade.

“You know what,” he says, panting, looking at the top of the bed frame to avoid seeing Louis's no doubt smug face. “Let's talk about it after we're done with this.”

“Mhm,” Louis hums, so low that Harry's cock twitches in his pants. “What's this again? You still haven't told me what you want.”

He's got his mouth of Harry's neck, his tongue trailing behind torturously slow, and his fingers are dipping well below Harry's waistband now. Harry's mouth is simultaneously dry and way too full of saliva, and pleasure is creeping up the back of his neck, leaving shivers behind. It'd be so easy - so easy to just ask Louis to uncurl his hands, to touch him properly, but that's not what he wants today.

“I find it fascinating,” he pants, and gets his hands in Louis's hair while he works on what will no doubt be an impressive hickey, “that you need me to tell you what to do. Are you sure you're not having memory problems? At your age-“

Louis cups his cock through the fabric of his boxers. Harry forgets how to breathe.

“You're a brat,” Louis smiles, pressing a kiss to where Harry's collarbones meet. He strokes Harry soft, slow, exactly the way he likes. He's not forgotten a single thing. “I was trying to let you establish boundaries, but I think I can take a guess.”

Harry's still trying to get his lungs working again, feeling like a fourteen-year-old. “Guess, then,” he just about gasps, and he's unprepared for Louis's entire body to be on him in the next second, their chests meeting, heartbeat to heartbeat.

“I think,” Louis says, and finally actually rolls Harry's pants down, “that you want me inside you.”

Harry's eyes damn near roll into the back of his head. There's nothing particularly hot about the way Louis says it, he's just stating a fact because he knows exactly how badly Harry wants it, but the image alone-the idea-

He's not going to last very long.

“I do want that,” he says, and lifts his hips up so Louis can get rid of his boxers for good. Blindly, he looks for Louis's mouth, and Louis meets him in the middle. His tongue is hot, alive, thorough in Harry's mouth, and it leaves him with even less air than he had to begin with. “Please.”

It's Louis who moans then, for a change, pressing the sound into Harry's cheek. “Lie down, then. I'll get you a pillow.”

Harry does as he's told, sliding down onto his elbows as he watches Louis stretch across the entire bed and reach underneath. The curve of his spine actually makes Harry's eyes water.

“Here,” he says, and tosses the pillow to Harry. Harry considers the effort it'd take to raise his arms, and decides to just let it fall on his face. It does exactly that, cool and soft, enveloping him in semi-darkness. He gratefully presses it to his overheated cheeks, breathing through the toe-curling reality of Louis being right there, within reach, and well on his way to naked.

Louis, unfortunately, has no respect for Harry's moment of quiet contemplation. He takes advantage of the fact that Harry can't see, crawls back across the bed, and sucks a small, quick bruise into Harry's inner thigh.

Harry keens, and his entire body spasms.

“Easy,” Louis says. Harry can hear the grin in his voice. A second later, the pillow disappears, and Louis's smiling face is hovering right over his, nose to nose. “Hey,” he says, and runs his finger down the side of Harry's face. “I love you. Are you sure you want to do this?”

Yes,” Harry says, pointedly looking down to where his cock is lying on his stomach, very much raring to go. “I just-I don't know long I can possibly last.”

“Same here,” Louis laughs. “It's okay. It'll be just like the first time.”

“When you accidentally came in my hair?”

“Yes,” Louis replies, his eyes sparkling happily. “Exactly like that.”

He arranges the pillow against the headboard, and Harry scoots up towards it, staying up on his elbows to watch as Louis gets out of his own jeans. Harry's hands ache miserably at how much he wants to do it himself, but he probably wouldn't be able to. He's not sure that his fingers are still working, come to think of it.

“Do you, um,” he starts, and freezes for a second when Louis hooks his thumbs into the waistband of his pants. “Do you have lube? Condoms? Anything?”

“Anything,” Louis laughs. Without any qualms, or regard for what he's doing to Harry's sanity and general wellbeing, he wriggles out of his boxers and kneels on the bed in all his naked glory. Harry's mouth waters. “I do, in fact, have both lube and condoms, but they might be expired.”

He stretches out alongside Harry, giving him the most spectacular view this side of the Atlantic. And the other side, actually, because Harry's been to the Grand Canyon, and he can now confirm that it's got absolutely nothing on Louis Tomlinson's ass.

While Harry debates touching, or maybe biting it, Louis digs in one of the dinky bedside tables. He comes up with a suspiciously orange tube of lube, and a single foil packet.

“How long have these been here?” Harry asks, and gulps when Louis rolls onto his back.

“Since I bought the house,” Louis shrugs, his shoulder leaving an indent in the mattress. “Just an old habit, really, stashing these everywhere for emergency situations.”

Harry can't really hold himself back - he has to feel, just for a second. Before Louis can protest, he rolls over and kisses him, presses their bodies together head to toe. He's immediately dizzy with the warm touch of skin on skin, and when he grinds his hips into Louis's, when their cocks brush together clumsy and uncoordinated, he sees stars. Louis gasps wetly into his mouth, tangling his fingers in the hair on the back of Harry's head and pulling him, impossibly, closer.

“Hold on,” he gasps, but he doesn't stop Harry from rutting against him, doesn't stop twisting his own body to meet him at just the right angle. “I've got to-ah-I've got to check the expiration dates.”

Harry barks a laugh. “I'm sure they're fine,” he says, with a peck on Louis's lips. “And I don't really care, so just-please. Hurry up.”

Louis doesn't need to be told twice. He's just as close to the edge as Harry is, by the looks of him, sweaty hair sticking to his forehead. He's enchanting.

He flips Harry onto his back again. He's careful, but very firm about it, clearly remembering Harry's little thing for being manhandled. He gets between Harry's legs, leaves barely-there kisses on the skin of his inner thighs, wraps gentle fingers around his knees to ask Harry to let him in.

Harry shivers, feeling entirely exposed in a way he hasn't in a long time, but there are no hands more familiar to him than Louis's. There's a soft, trembling kind of feeling right in the centre of his chest that expands and envelopes him when he realises how tender Louis is being, how much more careful than when they used to do this quick and messy before their parents came home in the evening, in-between Louis's football practice and Harry going to work.

“Right,” Louis says, almost to himself, and squeezes a little too much lube onto his fingers. “Ready?”

Harry gives him a look. Louis grins, then presses his lips to Harry's thigh again, butterfly-soft as he works the first finger in.

Harry's entire body seizes, only at first, because the sensation has become so unfamiliar - but Louis is there, right there, whispering something nonsensical into Harry's skin, stretching up as far as he can to kiss him right where his heart is running off under his breastbone.

“You're all right,” he's saying, over and over, and Harry barely notices when he adds the second finger. “You're okay, love. I've got you, I've always got you.”

Harry has to breathe through a lump in his throat, one that swells bigger and bigger with how much all of this is. He gets a shock running up his spine with every drag of Louis's rough fingertips, every time he slips a little too far out and brushes over Harry's rim. He's so slow, so meticulous about it, covering Harry in attention that fills his veins like liquid fire, bent uncomfortably over Harry's body and so completely focused.

Harry stretches out a hand. Without a second thought, Louis reaches up and takes it, intertwining their fingers on Harry's stomach.

“Come on,” he whispers as he angles his hips, already feeling his arousal coiling tight in the pit of his stomach, heat burning in torturous little tendrils all over his body. “Louis, come on, I'm-“

“If you tell me you're ready, I automatically win the denture bet,” Louis says, matter-of-fact, and squeezes a third finger in. Harry hisses at the burn, but Louis holds his eyes, holds his hand, holds him together like he's never stopped doing it. “Hold on a second, darling. Just let me do it properly.”

“I don't have a second,” Harry says, more than a little desperate. “I'm really-it's been too long, Louis, please.”

He hasn't even touched Harry's prostate. Has barely touched his cock, really, and yet Harry is just about ready to cry with how turned on he is, how close to tipping over the edge. He wants Louis inside him, and that's all he knows.

Finally, Louis draws his hand back. He looks up, looks at Harry through the vee of his own legs, his mouth parted and cherry red.

“God, you're stunning,” he breathes, like he's not even aware that he's doing it. Harry would cry, he really would, but he's too overwhelmed for that.

He doesn't even have the wits to say thank you. “Please,” is all he's got, again and again until he loses track of where the word begins and ends. Louis hurriedly rolls the condom on, and slicks himself up, and all the while his hands are trembling.

He doesn't ask whether Harry wants to do this face to face, really doesn't need to. The second he leans over Harry's body, Harry has arms around his neck, is pulling him down and pulling himself up and crashing their mouths together in a kiss, needing to let Louis know exactly how much he needs this.

Louis hesitates, just for a second, hovering. Harry looks at him with wet eyes, with hair that's gone all matted on the top of his head, touches the corner of his mouth with a shaky finger.

“I love you,” he says. Louis smiles, a little wobbly, closes his eyes, and presses in.

Any noise Harry might have wanted to make dies in his throat, turns to dust and disappears right out of his mouth. Louis is on him the second he's all the way in, breathing hard, his forehead against Harry's and sweat dripping off his nose.

“Oh,” is all Harry can say. The entire world has narrowed down to this, to them on this naked bed, to Harry's hands clutching on to Louis's shoulders like he's a lifeline, and he might be.

“I know,” is what Louis whispers back, and his voice breaks right in the middle. “ I know,” and he kisses Harry's neck, his temple, his forehead, curls into him and holds him as close as he possibly can.

Somewhere in-between their bodies, though Harry can't pinpoint where exactly, their sweat-slick hands come back together, palm to palm. Harry holds on to the places they're connected, uses Louis to help anchor him down here, to stop himself from floating away. It's impossible to keep it away forever, though, and it somehow tightens still, pulling Harry taut like a bowstring.

“I love you,” Louis whispers. He moves, just once, testing the waters, and Harry shivers from head to toe. “Harry, fuck, I love you-“

His face is wet where he presses it against Harry's, wet with something that isn't sweat, and Harry's never understood him more. He's got shapes dancing in front of his eyes, blinking in and out of existence against the white backdrop of the ceiling, changing every time that Louis moves and Harry squeezes his eyes closed.

He's only holding on because he doesn't want this to end, not ever. He doesn't want to remember what it's like to exist when they're not together like this, when Louis isn't whispering reverent litanies into his temple.

He remembers, now, that this is what it used to be like. This is what he wouldn't let himself replace, and with good fucking reason.

Even when he'd thought this never existed, even when he threw that stupid line at Louis about any idiot getting him into bed - he must have known, somewhere deep inside. He must have remembered that this was real, and that it was always, always beyond sex, beyond making love, beyond words.

He wraps his legs around Louis's waist, pulls him in deeper, feeling that he's about to unravel at any second, that they both are, and he's gone the second Louis thrusts deep enough to hit his prostate. He shuts his eyes, muffles the noises clawing their way out of his throat into Louis's shoulder, but Louis is shaking against him too, his muscles spasming along with Harry's. The air between them is too thick to breathe, but it doesn't matter. Harry forces it into his lungs just to stay this close, to kiss Louis the second he opens his eyes, to tell him I'm here and I remember and you're everything.

Louis doesn't pull out for a while, and Harry doesn't ask him to. He pulls him close, returns every messy, exhausted kiss, presses thank yous into every patch of skin that crosses his path. The rest of the world only trickles back in very, very slowly, in bits and pieces. There's the scratch of the mattress on Harry's back, and the cool wetness of the pillow they're sharing; there's birdsong, somewhere beyond the window, and waning evening sunlight streaming into the room.

There's Louis, beautiful, alive. All Harry's, finally.

They don't move, not for a long time. Once the air has cooled, and the thrumming in Harry's ears has gone down, he can actually hear both of their heartbeats, slightly out of sync, but always racing to catch up with one another.

“You know,” Louis says, warm against Harry's collarbone, “I've been thinking. We should probably call off that bet.”

Harry tangles his fingers in the hair on the back of Louis's head. He grins, hopeless, happy. “Why's that?”

Louis chuckles. “I mean-another one of these, and I'm definitely not going to live to be forty-seven.”

Harry giggles, and doesn't stop. He's got the kind of happiness trapped in his chest that demands to be let out; it wants the entire world to know that twenty years from now, he's going to be holding Louis just like this, and he's never been surer of anything.

Louis joins him, after a second, hiding happy sounds into the skin of Harry's neck, the cup of their joined hands.

They laugh. Thunder rolls somewhere in the distance; their ridiculously opulent bed creaks under them.

They laugh, and with Louis's happiness cradled in his palms, Harry feels whole again.

* * *

* * *

“I don't understand why this is necessary,” Harry whines, not for the first time. Louis, who's been sitting on his lap the entire car ride and suspiciously quiet, gives him another kiss on the forehead.

“Told you, it's a surprise,” Liam trills from the front. Mum, who's sitting next to him, giggles. Harry's suspicions grow at an alarming rate.

“Why does it require me to be blindfolded?” he asks, fidgeting. Louis squeezes his hand.

“It's a surprise, darling. That means we don't want you to know where you're going.”

Harry whines into Louis's shoulder. He's still wearing his pyjamas, with a hoodie thrown over the top. Mum had barged into their house and kidnapped him before he even had a chance to eat breakfast, which means he's hungry, and cold, and miserable. And blindfolded.

Louis, at least, seems to feel a little bad. He's been showering Harry in attention the entire drive, running calming hands through his hair, but Harry is strong. He will not stop being mad once they let him out of this car, no matter where they've taken him.

“Here we go!” Liam announces, entirely too loudly for the tiny space. “Hold on to your hats.” Then he takes the car off the road, presumably, because Harry almost flies out of his seat. He has to blindly reach out to find a door handle, and hold on for dear life.

When they finally let him come out, Harry has half a mind to stomp off in whatever direction, just for a minute, to collect himself a little. The only thing that stops him is the fact that he might well be standing over a pit full of alligators. Maybe everyone's finally had enough of him pacing and worrying about going on tour, and they decided to get rid of him.

“Don't be mad,” Louis says, wrapping an arm around his waist, his chin on Harry's shoulder. “The blindfold was Liam's idea, I swear.”

Harry sighs. He's resolved to stay angry, but Louis is warm all along his back, and he still smells like sleep.

“Can I take it off?” he asks, relaxing into Louis's embrace. He's not sure where the others have gone - there are voices, somewhere, but they don't sound familiar, and he has no concept of how far they might be.

“Hold on one more second,” Louis replies, takes both his hands and leads him-somewhere. Harry thinks it's grass under his feet, soft and silent as they stumble through it; it gives way to gravel, then pavement. Their footsteps echo, and the breeze around Harry's ears dies down.

“Okay,” Louis says, holding on to Harry's shoulders and pulling him to a stop. “Okay, turn this way-there you go.”

“Now?” Harry asks, but his hands are already flying to the back of his head, trying to undo the ridiculous knot Louis has made in one of Harry's own scarves. A few strands of his hair have gotten caught in it, and it hurts coming off, but Louis helps him untangle the last bit.

When the blindfold falls away, Harry has to take a second to just squint at his impossibly bright surroundings. Patches of colour come into focus very, very slowly: a dozen shades of green, black to brown to grey, and then shapes. They're still outside, just standing under an awning. As far as Harry can see, there's nothing other than trees and hills and a blurry skyline shimmering all the way in the distance. They could be anywhere, but-but.

“Louis,” he says, and turns to him, but Louis is no longer standing where he was. Instead, the view that opens up in front of Harry is an eerily familiar one - a slim patch of gravel laid in the midst of all the grass, and a beautiful little fountain. “Louis, this is The Royal.”

Louis laughs. “I know.”

Harry goes to turn around so they're face to face, so he can drown his husband in his confused questions all at once, but Louis puts a small palm into the middle of his back.

“Now, uh,” he says, and he sounds-nervous? “Before you turn around, I want you to promise me that you're not going to scream.”

“Oh my God,” Harry gasps. “You did bring me here to be murdered.”

Louis laughs. It's not quite as bright as Harry would like, just a little wobbly around the edges. “Shut up,” he huffs, and the hand he's put on Harry's back trembles.

Harry's shoulders tense up against his will.

“It's just-I remember how this went last time, and I don't want to scare away any guests.”

“Last time?” Harry asks, his heart thudding against the constraints of his chest. “What-“

“Give me a moment,” Louis interrupts, and the warmth of him disappears. Harry reaches back, and only touches air. “Okay, turn around.”

Harry does. It takes him a second, or fifty, to even being processing what he's seeing.

Louis is on the ground. He's in his pajama bottoms, a vest, one of those ridiculous cardigans he insists on wearing, with hair sticking up in every direction and curling around his ears, a shaky smile on his face, on one knee.

He's-he's. What is he doing?

“What are you doing?”

Louis laughs, but it's a little strangled. He's shaking, and seeing him so unsteady turns Harry's knees right into jelly.

“What does it look like I'm doing? Actually, hold on-“ and he digs in his pocket. Harry feels a little like fainting, and a lot like screaming.

This can't actually-except yes, it can, because Louis has got a box in his hand, and he opens it to reveal the most gorgeous ring Harry has ever seen.

“Right,” Louis says, watching Harry's face. Harry has no idea what his own face looks like, actually, because he can't fucking feel it. His fingertips are tingling, rapidly going numb; for a few seconds, he's nothing more than a heartbeat. “I did prepare a speech, but I think it might have been too soppy, so I figured I could just wing this.”

“Louis,” Harry says, in this absolute garbled mess of a voice. He puts his hands over his mouth, tries to remember how speaking works, how to make words that don't sound like a different language.

“Shush,” Louis smiles, and some of the nervousness visibly goes out of him, melting onto the paving stones between them. “Listen. You already know that I can't imagine my life without you,” he starts, holding Harry's gaze. Harry feels lightheaded. “I think-I think we've pretty much established that we're both in this forever, yeah?”

Harry nods, wordless, clasping both his hands over his mouth in an attempt to not cry.

“Good,” Louis grins. “Then I don't think I need to ask you to be mine, or to make me the happiest man in the world, because you already do that every single day. But-it's been so long since we did this for the first time, and we're not the same people anymore.”

Harry's heart twinges. It's not much more than a memory now, a tender kind of scar that they usually tiptoe around - but Louis is right. That happy, curly eighteen-year-old and the gorgeous boy who married him seem a little like ghosts from an entirely different lifetime. It hurts to see them smile in that photo above the fireplace, just because he knows that they didn't stay that happy.

“It's been ten years since the first time,” Louis says, and the fingers he's got wrapped around the box go white. “And more than I care to count since I first realised I wanted everything in this world with you. I think I've been in love with you every single day of my life, so I guess what I'm trying to say is that I'm just a boy-“

“You're thirty,” Harry hiccups, letting the tears flow. He never had much hope of holding them back anyway, and watching Louis here, proposing in a place that's so special to them, bleary-eyed and in his pyjamas, he doesn't feel even a little bit ashamed to cry.

Louis grins. “Standing-kneeling, sorry-kneeling in front of a boy-“

“Louis,” he laughs, and his body finally lets him move - though move might be too strong a word. He more or less falls down in a heap right at Louis's feet, kneeling in front of him, reaching out until he's got his fingers wrapped around Louis's wrist.

“Asking him to marry him,” Louis finishes. His eyes are suspiciously shiny, too.

Harry touches his face, smiles at him through the hysterically happy sobs bubbling in his throat.

“We're already married,” he says.

Louis shakes his head. “I want to marry you again.”

“I don't think that's how it works,” Harry grins.

“I mean, if you're going to say no-“

“No!” Harry shrieks, then claps a panicked hand over his mouth. Louis giggles. “I mean, yes. Jesus Christ, Louis, yes I'll marry you, you know you don't even have to ask-“

He doesn't get to finish, because Louis steals the words right out of his mouth. He cups Harry's face in his hands, ring box and all, and kisses him until they've both forgotten how to breathe.

Yes,” he presses against Harry's mouth, whispers as he peppers silly little kisses all over his face. “I love you, thank you.”

“No need to thank me,” Harry grins, feeling more free than he ever remembers being. He runs slow, thorough fingers through Louis's hair, messes it up even more, nuzzles his face against Louis's and bites his bottom lip ruby red, needing to be closer. “Just give me the ring.”

Louis laughs, and raises the box in-between them. A couple more tears escape Harry when he looks at the band again. It's a delicate, braided ring, a shade of rose gold that looks like liquid fire in the morning sun.

“You already have one,” Louis points out, smiling down at where he's stroking the fingers of Harry's left hand. He pauses where a scuffed gold ring sits snug against Harry's knuckle.

“It's a good thing I have ten fingers,” Harry replies, and lays his right hand on Louis's raised knee. “There you go.”

Slowly, softly, Louis slides the ring on. His touch is reverent, so light it feels more like the whisper of wind against Harry's skin.

The grin on his face far outshines the sun.

They struggle back up together, neither of them willing to let go for even a second. Louis holds both of Harry's hands, raises them to his lips and kisses his knuckles one by one.

Behind his back, Liam's fluffy head pokes out of an alcove.

“Did you say yes?” he whispers, and Harry bursts into happy, happy laughter.

Once they've informed Liam that Harry did, indeed, say yes, he takes off straight across the lawn to let everyone else know. Harry and Louis get to walk a little slower, hand in hand, both smiling to themselves. Harry's already thinking about his second wedding, their second wedding, and the way Louis is going to look when they promise each other this life and the next.

They stop at the fountain, full of brilliantly clear water and countless pennies. Louis digs in the pocket of his cardigan, and adds another one to the pile.

“What's that for?” Harry asks, with an arm wrapped around his shoulders. Over in the restaurant, just a few steps away, mum is already waving at them and pointing to the table they've got set up to celebrate.

Louis shrugs. “Luck,” he says, and smiles up at Harry. Those gorgeous crinkles by his eyes don't quite go away these days.

“What with?”

He shrugs again, and goes up on his tiptoes to give Harry a kiss before he answers. “Life,” is what he says. “We've got to plan another wedding. I have to find something to wear that you're going to deem acceptable.”

“Oh,” Harry grins, and dips his fingers in the fountain only to paint a stripe of water down Louis's nose. “I've got a few ideas.”

Louis blinks at him, shocked, but it only takes him a second to retaliate. Harry sees him cup his free hand to take more water in, shrieks, and runs away.

They don't talk about it as much as Harry would like, in the end, but Louis waits for him at the end of the aisle in a beautiful midnight blue suit and a smile that Harry writes a song about. Everyone - Niall, Liam, Harry's family, Louis's family, their family, even Dusty with a little bowtie around her neck - is there to see them cry all over their rings, and laugh until they're hoarse as they dance their wedding night away. They take photos for their living room, and for Harry's ridiculously soppy Instagram.

They hold each other, first and foremost. Harry doesn't let go of Louis's waist, his hands, the very edge of his sleeve, any part of him he can reach; Louis kisses him every time their eyes meet, every time his favourite song plays, every time he catches sight of Harry's rings.

And then, just after midnight, and after many a bottle of champagne, someone presses a bouquet into Harry's hands.

“Throw it!” Gemma shouts, her voice carrying above the music, and soon enough Harry's got a crowd heckling him.

He climbs up on a table, wobbly on happy, drunk, exhausted feet. The lights in the room spin around him, and he breaks a few flower stems when he draws his arms back. Tiredly, drunkenly, he wishes he could hold on to this, keep it as a promise. Wishes that someday, maybe in another ten years, they could do this again, to remind themselves how far they've come.

The lights flicker, and Niall shouts something. Harry closes his eyes, uncurls his fingers, and throws the bouquet.

Across the room, hidden at the very back of the crowd, Louis reaches into the air and catches it.

~fin