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Louis

 

Louis has been looking at the same damn floor plan for what feels like hours now. If he has to read the phrase ‘spacious three bedroomed family home with a modern kitchen and two parking spaces’ one more time he’ll throw his stupid computer out the bloody window.

“Tina!” He hears his office manager Andy bellow from his office, footsteps approaching quickly. “Teen, have you got the figures from the- oh! She’s not here.” Andy stops as he bursts into the office to see Louis sitting solo at his desk, not another soul in sight.

“She’s gone home already.” Louis explains, looking up from his computer screen only very briefly. Lucky cow, he adds in his head.

“Oh,” Andy says, looking at Louis as if he’s waiting for him to offer to do whatever it is he was looking for Tina for. Well, Louis isn’t going to. He’s got five minutes until home time and-

Louis does end up doing the figures for Andy. He exports them from the database and imports them into Excel, formats the document and emails it out to all and sundry. He is pelted with out-of-office auto responses from seven out of eleven of the recipients and he hangs his head in his hands in frustration as they ping at him.

He makes it out the door at 5:45, only three quarters of an hour late, but if he thinks he can waltz in the door forty five minutes late on Monday morning he’s sadly mistaken. He’s just finding a song for the journey home when a text comes through.

It’s from Niall: a beer emoji, a clock emoji, the number 8 emoji and the question mark emoji, three boy emojis and one girl emoji. Four X’s and a kiss emoji.

Roughly translated, Niall is requesting the pleasure of his company at the public house for a beer, at eight o'clock tonight, along with his girlfriend Amy and their friend Zayn. Louis shakes his head and smiles reluctantly at the childlike display in front of him. He taps out a quick reply and settles for Brand New on the stereo.

*

He vents to Niall and Amy, Zayn quietly brooding in the corner, listening and taking everything in but saying next to nothing. Zayn is a lot like that; observant and almost mute at times, but he remembers everything.

He escalates his concerns quickly, starting off grumbling about his unwilling overtime and the traffic and the flickering light above the bar that is really pissing him off, to quickly turning onto the real sore point of this whole Godforsaken week. His troubles and woes, of which he has many, are quickly forgotten though once he’s got a few beers down his neck. He gets over his impromptu overtime with some helpful commentary from Niall, and he’s well on his way to getting drunk.

Fast forward an hour and a half, and hey presto, he’s drunk. Very drunk.

He isn’t, however, drunk enough to ever consider speed dating a good idea.

Five minutes ago, Amy and Niall returned from the bar with the last round; Niall with the beers and Amy brandishing a magenta coloured flyer. She’d slid it across the table proudly towards Louis, who had promptly ignored it. She’d yelped at him and forced him to look at it, and when he had he’d rolled his eyes so hard he could practically see his brain. Gross.

“C’mon! Do it!” Amy repeats, for the millionth time. “It’ll be a laugh!”

Louis buries his head in his hands again, sticking the heels of his palms into his cheekbones and covering his eyes with his fingers until he can see stars. Why he has to be friends with the only two people in the entire universe that read the notice board in pubs, Louis does not know.

“No!” He answers sharply, parting his fingers to look at Amy. “A laugh for who exactly? You gits, yeah, but not me!”

“How long’ve you been single now, Tommo?” She asks, eyeing him closely with a smirk. She knows it winds him up, that question. He loves his best mates’ girlfriend, he really does, but she is so interfering.

“Too long!” Zayn quips before Louis can answer, and who made Zayn the expert?

“Oi, I’m perfectly happy as I am thanks!” Louis pouts. He is fine in his routine, cheers. So what if he hasn’t held down a steady relationship before? He’s only twenty six. Besides, he’s done plenty of other things. “I don’t need to be in a relationship, I’m not co-dependent like you two!”

“Doesn’t have to be a relationship!” Amy counters, implying all sorts of debaucherous things that Louis isn’t in the mood to deal with.

“I don’t need some saddo convention to get laid, cheers.” Louis retorts, a bit more candidly than he’d prefer, but he’s drunk so he can be excused, right?

“Why not give it a go?” Niall pipes up this time, giving Louis a happy-go-lucky grin that makes Louis want to deck him. He wants to spit back, ‘why don’t you give it a go?’ but of course, that makes no sense.

Louis stares back disbelievingly at his so called 'best friend'. "Um, maybe because I’m not sad and desperate and pathetic?”

"Who even are you?” Niall asks, tone grave but face grinning broadly. “What happened to Louis ‘give anything a go once’ Tomlinson? Wasn't that what you once said?"

"Yeah, and look where that's got me in the past!" Louis argues. “Twice!”

"Oh come on, what's the worst that could happen?"

"Shut it, Dr Pepper."

"Good one!" Niall laughs. "Seriously though, best case scenario is you meet a nice girl-"

"Or guy!" Amy interrupts, rubbing Louis' knee for support, for some reason.

"Yes, or guy, to take out on a few dates, y’know. All that jazz. ‘Get laid’ as you so beautifully put it."

"Yeah, and worst case scenario, I meet a loopy fucking idiot who turns up at my window in the dead of night refusing to take no for an answer! I’ve got to consider these things!"

"Oh come on, that sorta thing doesn’t happen in real life!"

"Yes it does, don't you watch the news?"

Niall and Amy laugh at him, and he shakes his head in disbelief. "You two honestly, I weep for humanity, I really do."

"Shut up, you're just being a wimp!"

"A wimp? Sorry if not wanting to be murdered by a crazy stranger makes me a wimp!"

"So shall I sign you up for it?"

“No! When is it anyway, it’s probably on a week I can’t do.”

“It’s next Saturday night.”

“Ah, no can do then.”

“No, you’re free for the next two weeks, remember?”

Louis’ weekend shouldn’t be free, but due to ’ unforeseen circumstances’ , he is going to be free. He sort of regrets even mentioning it now, because he can’t come up with a good enough excuse fast enough.

“No, that’s untrue.” He lies weakly.

Amy gives him a look. "So I’ll sign you up then?"

"No you bloody well won't!"

*

But she bloody well did.

Eight days later, the 'big night' as Niall had infuriatingly been dubbing it, is finally here and Louis is no more in the mood for it than he was last time. He’d spent most of the afternoon in a rather clipped text message exchange and had only had time for a quick shower so needless to say the last place he wants to be is here, standing in the queue to get in with Niall, Amy and Zayn.

He pouts.

"Stop pouting." Zayn tells him.

"Am not pouting." Louis says, jutting his lip out even further and turning away pointedly. In a stupid posh accent, he mutters to himself, “Bloody interfering old witches.”

Amy is chatting to the people in front of them in the queue, the social butterfly that she is, and Zayn’s muttering something to Niall that Louis can’t quite catch. He resorts to scowling and sighing loudly several times but they are all ignoring him. He’s never been clubbing against his will in all his life - this is very new territory.

“He’s signed up for it too, haven’t you Lou!” He hears his name, and zone back in to see Amy grinning excitedly with a blonde girl next to her smiling quizzically.

“If I could count the things that are wrong with that senten- yeah, hi!” He mumbles then brightens up falsely, smiling lightly then turning away again.

Zayn rolls his eyes at him but smirks, and Louis revels in the fact that he’s pissing Amy off. The queue begins to move, eventually, and with a drink in his hand Louis feels slightly more placated. He’s still not happy though. There are posters up everywhere for the speed dating, he can’t escape it. The club is an L-shape and the speed dating is set up in the smallest corner of the place.

They stand together near-ish the bar; the place is packed. Getting elbowed and shouldered is hardly helping in improving Louis’ mood, and the amount of times he has been told to lighten up and chill out is starting to get silly.

It is getting closer and closer, and by the time Louis is on his second drink he’s starting to shift from petulantly reluctant to downright angry about the whole thing.

“I’ve changed my mind, I’m not going. They don’t know me; they won’t know it’s me if I just don’t go.”

"C'mon, if you don't go willingly they'll put out an announcement and then you'll be embarrassed." Niall says, raising his eyebrows and pointing at Louis with his drink.

Louis stops to consider this and hates how torn he feels, hates how true that is and how much sense Niall is making.

"Amy, can you control your boyfriend please? He’s doing stupid things like making sense when I don’t want him too, thanks." Louis mutters. Amy cackles and Niall throws his arm around her shoulders. The two of them share a peck and Louis turns away.

He throws down his glass and plucks a familiar fuchsia flyer off the bar, like he hasn’t read it a million times already, and jabs his finger at it.

"The cheek of this place, honestly, 'mix and match and have a little fun',” He sneers, flaring his nostrils and glowering at the paper so it knows it’s offended him. “That is just basically turning bisexuality into a joke! Like a girl and a girl or a bloke and a bloke matching on one of these things would just be funny? This is a bloody gay bar, you’d’ve thought they’d have more bloody nous than that!”

"Someone shut this tart up!" Niall looks to Zayn. "Are you hearing this?"

"Yeah, you’re soundin' a bit... whingey, mate." Zayn agrees, shrugging his shoulders.

"Whingey?" Louis repeats, aghast.

"Yeah, you've been spending too much time with Emmie!"

"Oi! That's my dau-"

"Look, c'mon it's starting now!"

Zayn points to where the closed off area is now being opened up and a surge of pathetically like minded people are making their way over.

“No!” Louis tries one last time, hopelessly, as Zayn has him by the shoulders. He is led unwillingly through the crowd, his so-called mates following behind him.

In the alcove – which is bigger than it looked from where they were previously stood - there is a row of square tables a foot or so apart, a chair on either side adorned with a garish fuchsia bow. Niall pushes him over the threshold, into the point of no return, and someone appears in his face.

“Speed dating?” A dark skinned guy in a slogan polo is staring at him, thoroughly uninterested and flustered. Louis hasn’t even nodded yet in response and the guy is thrusting a blue plastic baton thing into his hand. Louis stares at it in one hand and his drink in the other. He looks up and over at the group. Amy is stood in front of Niall, his arms draped over her body and they’re swaying like the disgusting humans in love that they are. Zayn is standing off to the side, clutching his drink with both hands and his hip is cocked. All three of them are purposely avoiding his gaze and he could kill them, he really could.

Huffing under his breath, he looks away from those three traitors and peers around at the other poor idiots here for the speed dating. He purposely makes a point of not looking too closely at anyone, because he isn’t bothered about them, he tells himself. He stays in his corner, turning his back on the other three and leaning against the railing behind him. He’s pretty sure he can pick out Niall’s goat-like laugh over the music and the chatter, but he’s not turning back around to verify that.

There’s a bloody fanfare and everything as some idiot with a microphone welcomes them all and runs through the rules and a brief overview of how the dating will go. Louis tries not to listen, but it’s unavoidable, so he puts on an aloof pretence and stares at the wall blankly as the words sink in but don’t settle.

He notices that the blue plastic thing in his hand has a number on it, five. He also notices that the same batons the girls have are red. There are six girls and six boys and they will rotate around until everyone has ‘dated’ each other. Louis’ permanent state of eye-rolling is about to give him an injury, he’s sure of it.

He listens; they have four minutes with each person. “Four minutes?” Louis mutters to himself. “What a stupid amount of time! Why not five minutes exactly? Why four?”

Thinking about it, he’d better nip the talking to himself in the bud if he is to get through this with a scrap of his dignity still intact. Maths has never been his strongest point but even he can work out in his head that twelve people and four minutes is forty eight. So this ordeal will be over in less than an hour. He supposes he can get through it.

He sits down in the fifth seat along from the right, or the second seat along from the left, depending on which way you looked at it, and puts his blue plastic thing – he still doesn’t know what to call it – down on the tabletop. He sips his drink, reminding himself to set a steady pace as he may need it later and there’s no chance of getting a refill.

The female number five that sits down opposite him just so happens to be blondie from the queue that Amy had befriended. Now Louis has a chance to look at her up close, he sees she is considerably younger than him. She’s clutching a pink drink and starts chattering nervously before their four minutes have even started.

"Hi! This is gonna be fun, right! I mean, I think it will be. And we’re only on date number one! This is so exciting! I’ve never done anything like this before, have you?"

Louis goes to reply but all he gets in is a head shake.

"And… go!" He hears the MC boom through the mic, and his four official minutes with Queue Girl begin.

"Hi, so I'm Amber!" She holds out a small hand across the table for him to shake, and he takes it weakly.

“Louis.” He introduces himself shortly, smiling politely but forcedly. He’s unsure if Amy had name dropped him in the queue or not.

"It’s quite exciting, like I said, to be in such a rush, it’s like, adrenaline I dunno! So what’re you into? Do you work? Where are you from?"

Louis’ eyes bug in his head a bit, unsure of which question to answer first. Tracking back to what Amber had asked, he remembers ‘do you work’, so he goes for that one. “Uh, yeah I work for a letting agency.”

“Oh cool, what’s that all about?”

“Uh, flats and houses mainly?” Louis says, wondering if she even knows what he is talking about. “Y’know, renting and- stuff?”

“Oh cool!” Amber says with a smile that is requiring little effort on her part. “So do you like, show people around?”

Louis had scraped through with average GCSE’s apart from English where he’d perhaps surprisingly excelled. He went on to do customer service at college and ended up in a letting agency for his workplace apprenticeship. Fast forward six years to today and he’s still there; he’s worked his way up a bit from office apprentice, of course, but something tells him Amber isn’t interested in hearing about that.

“Yeah, sometimes!” He says with a purposeful intake of breath. “What about you?”

“Hairdresser,” Amber replies. “I work with my mate Lissa. She got loadsa money when her dad died so she opened her own salon last year. Dead posh place, like, all gold mirrors and wooden floors, white walls and that.”

Ah, so it’s not talking that Amber is uninterested in, it’s just Louis talking. When the topic is herself she doesn’t seem to shut up.

“Cool, so what’s the best part of hairdressing?”

“Oh the social side, for sure! I love chatting, me!” Amber enthuses and Louis nods, smiling as genuinely as he can muster. “So are you bisexual?”

Louis is surprised at the question, given their current surroundings in a mixed boys and girls speed dating. “Uh, yeah?”

“Oh cool, I never know these days by looking. You don’t look it, I couldn’t tell.”

He keeps a cool exterior but inside he’s heating up. “What do you mean, I don’t look it?”

“Well, you know!” Amber says dismissively, but no, Louis does not know.

“So… aren’t you bi then?”

“I dunno really, I don’t know if I count.”

“How so?”

“Well I’ve snogged a few lasses on nights out; it’s all a bit of fun really isn’t it?”

Louis moves his hands to under his thighs, worried what he might do if he doesn’t. “What’re you doing here then? Not being funny but...”

She looks a bit like a rabbit caught in headlight, and she just shrugs. Louis can feel himself getting more and more irritated. This is the longest four minutes of his life.

“So you’re just here for a laugh really? You’re really not that interested in dating girls?”

“Why is it a problem, you’re not a girl.”

Louis laughs. “That wasn’t my point.”

Louis’ last two long term relationships were with girls and most of his one night stands were with men but that’d just been how it had worked out. His first ever relationship was with a boy and that lasted almost three years. He’d been on both sides and he’d enjoyed varying levels of affection and attention from both genders, but there wasn’t a tally chart in his bedroom comparing the two and how they differ.

Flippant attitudes of people just here to experiment for a bit of a giggle but not with any actual intention of considering half the contestants suitable potential partners is exactly what had irritated Louis about this whole set up to begin with. Thankfully, a claxon sounds and it seems their four minutes are up.

Saved by the bell, Louis thinks to himself as Amber gathers up her clutch bag and adjusts her hair. “It was nice meeting you, Louis! Take care!”

“You too. See you ‘round.” He nods and waves her off with a small smile and then gathers his hands in his lap under the table as everyone on the opposite side of the table shifts round one place.

His next suitor is a guy; quite handsome, gruff voice and light hair. Louis’ usual technique with guys is to play it coy and right into their hands, give them a feeling of power over him to get what he wants. His track record with men is a successful one, really, were success to be measured in pulls and one night stands. But after he’s left their bedroom, he seldom hears from anyone twice.

Shrugging it off, he smile and introduces himself. Handsome and Gruff isn’t much between the ears, it turns out, and Louis finds himself with zero inclination to try and make this work. He doesn’t even learn Handsome and Gruff’s name, so that’s a measure of how bothered he was about him. Disinterested, is probably the word Louis would use.

Next up is Alex; a frankly beautiful girl with olive skin and hair dyed jet black into a sharp shoulder length bob. Straight away, they launch into friendly conversation that flows easily and never feels forced.

Louis is still laughing residually at Alex’s comment about sexting while on the bus as she picks up her Long Island Ice Tea and holds it out for him. “Try this.”

“It’s just Long Island Ice Tea, what’s so special about it?” He asks, inspecting the glass and trying out a flirty, coy smile.

Alex smiles broadly back at him. “Have you had one from here, though?”

“Nope,” Louis says, popping the P. He sways the glass carefully so the liquid sloshes and the straw spins around. “Special, are they?”

“Very,” Alex says, cocking her head and leaning forward, elbows resting on the table and hands clasped together. “Try a sip.”

Dutifully, Louis directs the black straw into his mouth and takes a sip. The hint of orange from the triple sec and the caramel-sweetness of the splash of Coke are very indeed very nice, and the intensity of the combination of alcohols in the drink seem to amplify the longer he tastes it. “Mmm!” He says as he swallows. “Yum.”

“Told you!” Alex says, reaching up to tuck her hair behind her ear, showing the beginnings of a sleeve tattoo that disappears into the peach coloured blazer she is wearing. He watches her as her eyes sparkle and she holds up a finger. She reaches for her phone and smiles at the screen.

“Am I boring you that much you have to resort to going on your phone?” Louis asks, laughing as Alex does too. She cocks her head and pouts at him with a small shoulder wiggle. He can feel himself slipping further into the rabbit warren.

“No, I just thought of something and I wanted your… input?” She says quizzically as she taps away, concentrating hard on the screen.

“Okay…” Louis agrees with a slight chuckle. He’s really forgetting himself now and the fact that he is supposed to be loathing every second of this farce, but he actually likes this girl. She is fantastic and absolutely too nice to be resorting to speed dating.

Alex smiles, pearly whites bitten down on her plush bottom lip as she taps away at her phone, face illuminated by the white-blue light. “Anything ideas?”

She hands him her phone and he reaches out for it, feeling hot with anticipation. Their fingertips brush a little bit and she settles back into her seat with an expectant, nervous look on her face. He turns the screen around and sees it’s on her contacts. She has started a new contact entry, called it Louis with the cocktail logo – makes sense – and the cat with heart eyes emoji.

“Ohh-hhh very smooth!” He laughs, his shoulders collapsing in on themselves in the way he has a habit of doing when he’s loose with alcohol and physical attraction like he is now. “That’s... that’s impressive.”

“I know, right?” Alex throws her head back and laughs, enrapturing Louis with just how beautiful she is, not in a put together and stoic way but in a natural and real way. “By the way, I wouldn’t normally have the balls to do something that bold! I’m embarrassed!”

“Don’t be!” Louis smiles as he taps his digits into her phone, checks twice to be doubly sure, and then saves it carefully. He hands her phone back, light bouncing off the gold glitter case on the back. “I’m impressed. And flattered.”

He wonders for a second as the words are coming out of his mouth whether he is making a mistake, but once the words are out Alex’s smile grows and he thinks he probably hasn’t.

Not too much longer after he’s given Alex his number, the change around claxon goes. He’s reluctant to see Alex go; they were getting on so well, but she moves along to the next table and her replacement is a guy with soft hair combed over to one side and black-rimmed glasses. He’s a bit nerdy and a bit of an oddball; he reminds Louis too much of his college boyfriend Nathan.

The boy is sweet enough though, although again seems to be younger than Louis. Not that that’s a bad thing necessarily, just something to note. Yeah, Louis isn’t paying as much attention to his dates as he should be, but considering the fuss he made about doing this in the first place, he thinks he’s doing an all right job. Of course, there was one exception to the rule that had left him a bit giddy, Miss Alex, but he’s still not having fun. He’s not.

After… God, what was his name? The nerd with the specs? Nathan Two - that’s what Louis had been calling him in head anyway. After Nathan Two, the next few are okay. One guy has two drinks so gives Louis one. Not even stopping to worry about what might be in the drink, Louis gratefully accepts.

However, since the second to last rotation, Louis had been noticing a boy. During his ‘date’ with the last girl, he’d found his eye wandering several times. Now, the guy is up next and Louis feels bad for the girl that he's currently supposed to be entertaining because his attention keeps slipping. He smiles awkwardly and looks away as the guy catches his eye and smiles back; all lopsided and cheeky.

"So, uh, what're you into normally? Dating wise?" He asks his girl, and he was this close to calling her Chloe but he stops himself at the last available second because he's not one hundred percent sure that's what she told him her name was.

"Oh you know, nice meal somewhere. That's a safe bet right? Cinema too, a nice walk out somewhere if it's the right time of year. You?"

"Yeah, I mean same really. Nice to get out and about isn't it?"

Louis is trying earnestly to concentrate on what she is saying and seem interested, even try and think of something reciprocal to say back, but he's having a tough time. He finds it funny how each person that he’s ‘dated’ this evening has come with different levels of interest, and each separate four minute period seemed to go by at different speeds. With Alex, it was over too soon. With Amber it took far too long. And with this girl now, he’s sorry to say but it’s dragging too.

The guy at the next table along seems to catch his eye too, and Louis tears his eyes away, feeling embarrassed. He puts all his effort into dedicating himself to this girl – definitely Chloe – for the next four minutes. He owes her that much at least. However, at the end of their ‘date’ it’s clear to see that there are no hard feelings. Chloe moves on to her next date with a genuine “it was lovely to meet you.”

So. His name is Harry and he’s just turned twenty one in February. Louis being twenty six doesn’t seem to bother him, though Louis feels just a smidgen strange about it at first. His hair, as Louis already knew, is brown and long, a gentle curl to the ends and the tendrils around his face. His jaw could cut glass, and his eyes, well. Louis hasn’t seen eyes this sparkling in ever.

“How did you end up here then, what’s your story?” Harry asks, voice lolling and slow and deep; Louis wants to listen to it forevermore.

“Urgh!” Louis rolls his eyes but smiles. “The interfering old goats known as my best friend and his missus. Thought it’d be ‘a laugh’ and ‘an experience’.”

“That’s exactly what my so-called best friend said too; ‘it’ll be an experience, Harry’.”

“I mean, I’m not the only single one in my friendship group, dunno why they pick on me!”

“It seems like we are of the same opinion of this whole… mess.” Harry says, snorting as Louis nods. “Oh well, got to meet some nice people.”

“Are you for real? This has been largely very painful.” Louis snorts, though he quickly amends himself. “Present company excluded, of course.”

Harry laughs. “Thanks, I think.”

“Are you always this polite?” Louis asks him, picking up his drink though he doesn’t lift it to his lips.

“Pretty much, yeah.” Harry admits, shrugging his shoulder. “Is it too much?”

“No, not at all!” Louis says quickly, softening his eyes. “It’s nice. Refreshing.”

They don’t get much chance to exchange anything too specific. A lot of the chat is basic getting to know you stuff – interests, music, TV, worst date ever, best date ever, longest relationship, etc. Louis is automatically elusive when it comes to relationship based questions, and vaguely reveals that his longest relationship was almost three years, through the last year of school and the two years of college. He doesn't offer anything more than that. He almost lets slip that one of the people here tonight is that exes doppelgänger but he stops himself just in time.

However, he revels in hearing Harry’s long and winding rambles. Turns out, Harry’s longest relationship was between the ages of six months and three and a half years, and that was with his mum’s best friend’s daughter Olivia. Louis had laughed and bugged him for the real answer

“Well, I guess, if we’re being literal, and you’ve been good enough to give me a proper answer, I should too.” Harry says, deflecting and it’s driving Louis crazy with anticipation.

He rolls his eyes. “Yes, you do. C’mon, spit it out! I’m dying here.”

“I haven’t really had a relationship last longer than a few weeks.”

“Oh,” Louis says, unsure for a second how to respond. “Any, particular... reason for that?”

Harry shrugs, maybe a bit sadly. “I dunno, it’s just never happened. Can never find the right person, y’know? It’s not through lack of trying though.” He says, perking up slightly as he goes, then his eyes widen as he realises what he thinks he’s implied. “Not that I date loads and loadsa people, I just mean… shit, sorry I’m rambling now!”

Louis snaps out of his reverie, just watching Harry talk. “It’s all right. You had me hooked.”

Then it’s Louis’ turn to realise what he’d just said. They share awkward, embarrassed smiles and Harry is the first to break eye contact, pressing his chin to his chest and grinning into his shirt. It makes Louis’ heart swoop. He has no idea how long he and Harry have had so far, but hopes that the end isn’t approaching too quickly.

When he sneaks a quick peek down the row of people on the opposite side, he realises he’s been with them all. So his final date is Harry. What a way to make a lasting impression. At least, he hopes he makes an impression because this guy is devilishly handsome and it’d be a shame not to make the most of it.

Louis picks the conversation back up again, steering it away from their respective dating highs and lows to something a little lighter. They laugh in tandem about something that Harry says that he obviously hadn’t intended to come out with, and Harry is sharing a little anecdote with him when the final claxon goes. It’s got a lot of grandeur to it, this final alarm, and Louis winces as it blares out of the speaker just above his head.

“So! Thank you for…” Harry gestures to the table and in the air around him. “It was really great talking to you.”

“You too,” Louis says, leaning back in his chair and looking up as Harry climbs slowly out of his seat. Harry leaves him with a half-smile, motioning that he’s going over to submit his outcome sheet.

Louis remembers then. On the table at the start had been anonymous scorecards basically to fill in at the end of every four minutes, and so far he’s only given largely positive outcomes for one person out of six, no prizes for guessing who. Although, he had felt bad and given Nathan Two a middle-of-the road rating for all aspects apart from looks, which he’d given a ‘Quite Interested’.

It he was being objective, Harry would get a full house of ‘Extremely Interested’ too, and he’d had no trouble awarding those results to Alex because she was beautiful and edgy and seemingly up for a laugh, but Harry is something else. His looks alone would be enough, ordinarily, to get Louis through, and he knows that sounds awful and shallow but there’s actually much more to Harry that they barely managed to scratch the surface of. And so, Louis feels wrong scoring him like the others.

He huffs as he gives ‘Quite Interested’ as his answer to all questions, and he huffs as he pushes to stand. He rolls his eyes as he sidesteps his way out from behind the row of tables like a crab, and then huffs again as and drops his scorecard into the large post box made out of MDF and covered in purple glitter.

As he turns around, irritated by the crowds once again, he bumps into Harry.

“Hello, fancy seeing you here!” Harry jokes, wiggling his eyebrows weakly.

Louis giggles, actually giggles. Kill him. “Quite the surprise, I must say!”

“Are those your friends?” Harry asks, and Louis swivels around, looking through the sea of shoulders and heads to see Amy peering over excitedly, Niall and Zayn a little chiller in the background smirking and sharing some stupid joke or comment.

“Yes, that’s them.” Louis nods, turning back to Harry. “That short red-head, Amy, is the one who set me up here.”

“I should go and thank her.”

Louis blushes. “And why would you do that?”

“Wouldn’t’ve met you otherwise.” Harry says, low and slow.

Louis fixates on the way he says ‘otherwise’, a short -o sound and a long -i sound. He feels like he could melt. He raises his eyebrows, feeling out of his depth and struck by Harry in a way that he’d usually relish. The height difference between the pair of them isn’t astronomical, usually, but Louis has one hip cocked slightly and is slumping all of his weight onto his back leg, so he’s lost an inch or two of his already restricted height. Harry looms over him by a good three or four inches and my God Louis wishes there weren’t a million other people around.

“You’re quite the smooth talker aren’t you?”

Harry laughs and a bit of the tension is relieved. “Do you think?”

Louis laughs and nods earnestly. “I definitely think.”

“You staying for a bit longer?”

“Probably,” Louis shrugs, looking back over at his trio of idiots. “You?”

“Yeah. I’d imagine so.” Harry says, looking out over the crowd too. “Try and find Liam.”

Louis can only assume Liam is the aforementioned friend that set him up. Liam is to Harry as Amy is to Louis. And shit, he’s too drunk to be forming thoughts like that.

“Well, good luck.”

“See you out there,” Harry says, smiling, adding on the end a bit quieter, “maybe?”

Louis’s heart leaps into his throat again temporarily, and he could just keep on giggling like a school girl all night. “Not if I see you first.”

Smooth.

Harry laughs, softly, and seems to study Louis for a moment more before he breaks away with a small half-wave. Louis tries not to stare as Harry goes; shoulders deceptively broad for such a long-legged, slim body. He disappears into the crowds and Louis snaps himself out of his daze. He heads over to where Amy and the boys are stood, feeling maybe slightly less irritated now - not that he'd ever let on.

“So, how was it?” Amy asks, grinning like a pig in shit because she can see the look on his face, she knows he actually ended up quite enjoying himself, ergo she was right to sign him up for it.

“Shit, I hated every minute of it.” He says, trying to scowl but he ends up laughing and betraying himself. “‘Ere, one of them looked like Nathan.”

“What, Nathan Nathan? Your Nathan?”

“Yeah,” Louis confirms with a grimace.

"Aw, remember him?” Niall sighs happily. Louis throws him a look.

“Okay, but more importantly, who was that bloke with the hair?" Amy asks, folding her arms with interest. She means business, clearly.

"Harry." Louis says, trying to suspend the smile that is tickling his cheeks. "Why?"

"Hmm, very impressive..." Amy remarks, and Louis knows she means in looks but when Louis nods and agrees he's actually thinking of Harry on the whole rather than just his God-like looks, which are just a nice added extra.

"I got a number." He tells her proudly.

“What do you mean a number? A phone number?”

“Yes Aims,” Louis says slowly, patting her shoulder for effect. "A phone number."

"You were just bleating about serial killers at your window an hour ago!”

Louis shrugs. "Yeah, I know, but..." He has no excuse.

"So are you gonna text him?"

"Her."

"Eh?" She quirks a confused brow.

"It wasn’t Harry who gave me his number, it was a girl called Alex."

"Oh!" Amy yelps with a smirk. "You sly dog, you!"

Louis doesn’t feel like a sly dog - quite the opposite really, but he goes along with it and smiles anyway.

He's rewarded with free drinks all night courtesy of Niall and Amy for taking part even though they basically forced him when he didn’t want to, and so Louis definitely isn't going to spill that he’s actually quite happy he did it.

*

They drink, and drink, and drink. Zayn, no matter how much he ingests, never does anything more animated than a foot tap and a head nod. Even when Amy tries to prise his drink out of his clutches and pirouette with him, he just awkwardly shoulder dives with her a few times then goes back to nursing his drink.

Louis, however, is less inhibited than his dark and mysterious friend. With more booze than he could shake a stick at in his system, Louis is glad Harry hadn’t (yet) reappeared because he'd only make a fool of himself in front of him and that wouldn’t do at all. Not that he's obsessing over Harry, of course.

Two minutes later though, Louis thinks he sees Harry in the crowd, maybe by the bar? But he's not sure and downing the rest of his drink doesn't help at all. And, he’s still not obsessing over Harry, by the way.

But then a short time later as he is sashaying with Niall, he sees him again. He makes doubly sure, this time, and watches him the whole time as he leans in close to his friend, the one with the stubble and the nice hair, throws his head back and laughs, and then gestures towards the toilets.

Louis seizes the opportunity, ducking out on Niall without so much as an explanation. He’s sure Niall will understand though. Or he hopes he will.

His previous thoughts about being too drunk to be safely around Harry go out the window as he makes his way towards the doors. He must admit he feels a trifle less confident than his broad strides would lead you to believe, but he’s committed now and no-one has made any efforts to stop him. He will just blame them if this goes wrong.

A guy in a striped shirt holds the door open for him as he approaches, and Louis slips in under the guy's arm with a deft little shoulder wiggle and a grateful smile. It's only marginally quieter inside the toilets, the throb of the bass vibrating through the walls and he comes across Harry right away. Heh.

Harry, with his back to Louis, looks up in the mirror above the basins, their eyes locking. His neutral expression turns mischievous as he recognises Louis.

“Hello again," Harry goes first, which thank God because Louis most certainly wouldn't be able to.

And so, he just smiles. Harry turns around and he leans back against the basin, one hip cocked and legs crossed at the ankles. He oozes a confidence that Louis can only aspire to.

“All right?”

Louis nods.

"Cat got your tongue?" Harry asks, laughing softly and his chest shudders underneath his shirt.

Louis is across the floor and pressed up against Harry's languid form in a millisecond. Luckily there is no one else in the toilets, as Louis hadn’t actually stopped to think about that possibility before following Harry in. He presses his hips into Harry's and presses his forearms against the plane of Harry's chest. He tucks his fingers over the curvature of Harry's built up shoulders and digs his thumbs into the skin directly under the jut of his his collarbones. He keeps his head bowed in a way he hopes is teasing. He’s done it a million times before, playing coy to give the guy he’s with the feeling of control, but this with Harry feels different. His light submissiveness has always been an act before, but with Harry he actually feels like he wants to be led.

He waits, some of his confidence seeping back, for Harry to reach out and lift his chin up. Which he does do. He brings his left hand up from the edge of the basin and his skin is cool as he crooks his index finger and tucks it just under Louis' chin, in the scruff that grows there.

Louis lets Harry lifts his gaze. The dim lights above the mirrors flicker and shadows cast over Harry's face as he broods; his pale green eyes glowing in the dark shadowiness of his sockets, what little light there is bounces off the high points of his face and more shadows catch along the line of his nose and the sinfully chiselled V of his cupid’s bow.

Harry knocks the breath well and truly from Louis' lungs. He swallows, his throat feeling thick and dry. He licks his lips swiftly, Harry taking that, as Louis had hoped, as his invitation to kiss him.

There is nothing timid or held-back in Harry's kiss. Harry's hands make almost more of an impact on Louis than his lips; confidently carding through his hair and down the column of his neck while the other presses into his chest, between his pecs. He’s firm, like he’s trying to leave behind an imprint.

Louis breaks away first, desperate to take a breath. He rests his forehead against Harry’s, their breath mixing between them, and Harry flexes his fingers in his hair, tugging him a little closer. It doesn’t hurt, but it’s enough to make Louis' already compromised breath hitch in his throat.

Louis moves then, nuzzles into Harry's neck. He breathes in his scent, admiring his hair and the strong edge of his jawline, the thick muscles that make up the firm column of his neck and the smell of fresh linen on his shirt.

He feels Harry's hands slip down his body then, from firm on the back of neck, down the curvature of his spine, then settling at the bottom of his back, fingers kneading through the denim as if he could get any purchase. As he massages the swell, Louis rocks forward involuntarily, feeling the suggestion of Harry's cock in his jeans.

"You're so hard," Louis murmurs into Harry's warm skin, more as an observation than anything else, but he feels the tendons in Harry's neck move as he laughs softly and he looks up, breath taken from him once again as he meets Harry's gaze.

"You do that to me," Harry tells him, and holds him in his eyes as if he's making sure Louis fully understands. Louis feels himself heat up with an embarrassed blush but can't bring himself to care. "You're the most amazing person out here tonight."

"You're just..." Louis attempts, voice hoarse where his throat is so dry. He swallows. "...saying that."

Harry shakes his head gently and then leans in, presses the firm structure of his nose against Louis' cheek, coaxing him into looking up. Louis shifts his attention in the direction Harry was prompting it and bites down hard on his dry bottom lip as Harry makes quick work of the exposed skin of his neck.

His kisses are impossibly soft, lips plump and soft and just the slightest bit slick from the slide of his tongue. "Beautiful," Harry murmurs, and Louis shudders as goosebumps spring up all over his body. His clothes create an unbearable friction against his skin and he wants to burst right out of them. "Smell so good. Tastes-" he presses his lips firmly into Louis' neck and audibly groans. " So good."

Harry's hand on his crotch, albeit through his jeans, is not something Louis' would readily turn down, but he's painfully aware they could be discovered at any time by an innocent bathroom-goer.

"Harry, we- we're..." He breathlessly moves his head, looking around the place to convey what it is that his mouth cannot.

Harry nods, doesn’t move his hand but moves his head. He nods towards an empty stall; Louis can see them in the mirror behind him.

"Bit o' privacy?" Harry rasps, unhooking his leg from around Louis' ankle and pushing himself off the sink. Louis steps backwards in sync, Harry's hands now back around his waist, the fingertips of one hand slipped inside the pocket on the bum of his jeans.

They move back across the room together; it's only a few short steps and Louis' can't see a thing but their distorted reflections backing away in the mirror. They crash through the stall door, Louis only yelping a tiny bit as his back is the first thing to hit the door. They spin around to switch places as the door slams closed against the lock, a move that Louis is surprised to find so easy to execute. It's cramped and there is a coat peg precariously close to the back of his head but Harry working to unbutton his jeans distracts him from his peril sufficiently that when he does catch the very top of his crown, he doesn't care. Because Harry is on his knees before him, his left hand sprawled over the expanse of his thigh, thumb pressing hard into the firm plate of muscle and fingers pressing into the softer skin of the back of his thigh.

Harry's right hand is looped loosely around the base of Louis’ cock, ring finger and thumb joining and the other three fingers languidly sprawled through his sparse smattering of hair. He comes in a matter of minutes; one and a half at most, probably.

He drags Harry back up to his level. They kiss, Louis fumbling blindly for Harry's cock to bring him to orgasm too. Louis can taste himself on Harry's tongue and with the heat of his breath against his skin, Harry comes hard into his fist. Louis cowers as Harry slams a palm against the door, making it shudder on its hinges.

"Fucking hell, Harry," Louis utters, astounded and thoroughly breathless. It was only head; he shouldn’t be this in love already. "That was... you were-"

"You're amazing," Harry interrupts, sliding his hands into Louis' hair and cradling his face, forcing him to look up. "You get that? Tell me you get that?"

Louis, suddenly feeling shy and painfully aware they've both still got their dicks hanging out, shrinks back and makes a noise in his throat he hopes Harry will take as a confirmation, an acknowledgment.

Harry doesn’t let go, not immediately, but keeps watching Louis. Louis watches his eyes move, taking in every aspect of Louis' face, so much so Louis can see himself reflected in the pupils. He's sure that if Harry doesn’t let go soon, all of the atmosphere will turn to custard and he'll drown in it.

Maybe that metaphor isn’t appropriate?

When Harry lets him go, he can feel his traces all over his skin and in his hair. They burn and he feels like he has whopping great welts everywhere for all to see, but once he's back in jeans and has taken a few breaths, he steps out of the stall and steals a cursory look in the mirror. There are no signs of Harry ever being on him.

He turns as the man himself follows him out of the stall.

"Are we..." Louis doesn’t know what he was going to say.

"Get back out there," Harry says, softly. Almost too soft for the bass that he is competing against. "Your friends'll be lookin' for you."

Louis picks the words out of the background noise and savours them. If they're one of the last things this beautiful boy will ever say to him, he wants to try and cherish them for at least a few minutes.

"Thank you?" he says, unsure if that’s right. "I don't mean, just... for tonight. All of tonight."

"That's okay," Harry smiles, self-deprecatingly. He looks away then back, a shy vulnerability to him that hadn’t been there while they were in the stall. "I meant it, you know? You deserve the world, not some shitty blowie in the club toilets. I’m sorry."

Louis slips a hand around the back of his neck and lets it hang, staring at the terracotta floor tiles. “I don’t.”

“What?”

“I don’t deserve the world. What you just said, I don’t.” Louis says, lifting his head and looking past Harry to the doors. “I should go, like y’said. They’ll be looking for me.”

Harry nods solemnly, then lifts his hand to his mouth and chews on the edge of his middle finger. “Once you step outta there, is it gonna be like this never happened?”

Louis stares back, feeling an uncomfortable knot in his stomach that he’d never experienced before.

“I had a good time tonight,” He says, not really answering Harry’s question, maybe purposely. Definitely purposely. “Really good.”

“Can… can I have one last kiss?”

Louis has to smile; the innocence of it all, Harry standing there with his shoulders hunched and heart on his sleeve, like he wasn't just on his knees with Louis’ cock pressing into the back of his throat five minutes ago. He steps forward and lifts onto his toes, cradles Harry’s face with one hand and presses their lips back together again. Their noses press against the other’s cheek and Harry is smiling by the time they pull away.

“Go on, get out there.” He says, trying to tamp down his smile and failing. Louis feels so endeared. “Your adoring fan club awaits.”

Louis snorts. “Adoring? More like abhorring.”

“Come and say bye before you go?” Harry asks, delicately. Louis nods.

It’s only slightly bittersweet, walking away from Harry. Louis creeps out of the toilets, leaving Harry behind. He doesn’t look back, because he can’t.

Two steps over the threshold, he glances up and sees that, somehow, by complete chance, Zayn and Niall and Amy are all standing around. Looking at him. He pauses, feeling like he’s been caught, because that’s precisely what’s happened.

Before he can register and realise that there is nothing he can do to stop it, Harry follows him out, acting far too casually to be believable. Louis cringes internally as he watches Harry head into the crowd, stopping to carefully sidestep a rowdy drunk girl who is waving her arms around wildly to the music.

Rolling his eyes in anticipation of the ribbing he is going to get from the others, he approaches them sheepishly. He doesn’t have to think of an excuse because Amy is on him before he can even get his mind straight.

“Tommo?!” Amy squeals, half in disbelief and half loving it. “What happened to everything you said?”

“I believe the words he used were: sad and desperate and pathetic, Aims.” Niall butts in, grinning smugly.

Louis realises how it looks now, and he smiles awkwardly. "Yeah, so... I’ve changed my stance?”

“Oh Tommo!” Amy sighs, folding her arms but smiling.

“Sorry but he was bloody beautiful. Like, masterpiece in a museum levels of beautiful!” Louis argues, throwing open his arms in defeat. “And he didn’t kill me, so… everyone’s a winner."

*

Louis drinks to forget about the fact he really wasn’t ready to say goodbye to Harry. The club seems to have multiple happy hours that all merge into one, but all Louis knows is the fruity drinks keep on coming and for a good while he feels nothing, then all of a sudden he feels everything at once.

When he feels the weight of someone, definitely a bloke, behind him he’s ready to turn around, entertain the idea for a minute and then slink off again, but-

“Hello again,” A dark, rose water splashed on gravel type of voice slurs in his ear. Louis can’t help but smile; feels the light brush of Harry’s lips against the rise in his cheek as he smiles.

He turns around, keeping his body close to Harry’s, and allows himself into Harry’s arms, keeping his drink aloft in one hand and snaking the other around Harry’s hip.

“Can’t keep away from me!” Louis shrieks over the music, though he can barely hear himself.

“Can you blame me?” Harry bellows back, leaning in closer to Louis can hear him.

They’re as close as they were in the toilets, but this time they’re surrounded by people and there’s not much room to do much else than just move together in synchronicity. It could be the booze finally beginning to take effect or it could be the effects of Harry, but Louis feels considerably less stable than when they were together in the loos. He moves his free hand up Harry’s body, propping himself up with one hand on his shoulder.

Harry kisses him as though they are the only ones in the room though, stopping periodically to just be close to each other. Harry breathes him in and it feels like not one single inch of exposed skin goes ignored. It makes him shiver and his heart beats irregularly in his chest, out of sync with the bass of the music. He feels giddy to the point of in pain as the organ hammers against his ribs and threatens to leap right out of his chest.

Harry’s friend, Leo or whatever the hell his name is, snatches him away again much too quickly for Louis’ liking, jerking his thumb towards the doors.

They’d been holding hands, in between their red hot bodies. Louis had lost his drink and they’d got so close and he hadn’t even noticed until Harry is being dragged away from him again. Harry leaves him with a gentle knuckle squeeze and then his hands drop back to his sides. They share a brief smile and then Harry is gone.

It certainly doesn’t feel like any other random club hook up that Louis has had before. He pats his pockets for his phone, suddenly panicking when he can’t feel it, only to discover it in his back pocket. Funny, he doesn’t remember putting it in his back pocket; he never does because he’s prone to sitting down with force and cracking the screen.

Nevertheless, he moves it to his front pocket and meanders back towards where he last remembers Amy, Zayn and Niall being.

*

They have one more round of shots, Louis silently mourning the missed opportunity, then he allows Amy to chaperone him towards the exit, in Harry’s path, out into the early May air that is quite chilly at this unholy hour. They cross straight over the road to the nearby kebab shop, raucously ordering food to eat on the way home.

“Did you see him though?” Louis carries on crying about Harry as they continue down the street, kebabs in hand. He’s getting louder and louder as his enthusiasm grows, but he doesn’t care. “The eyes! The hair, oh my God, the hair! It was like… nothing I’ve ever seen before! This is a tragedy, honestly.”

"You sound like a twat,” Zayn contributes, helpfully, with a mouthful of chips.

"Sorry Zayn, just because you are limited to only twenty minutes of human emotion a day doesn’t mean the rest of us are!" Louis slurs, jabbing at Zayn's shoulder to annoy him.

“Fuck off,” Zayn elbows him and separates himself from them, stalking on ahead.

Amy and Louis look at each other and snort loudly, Amy’s cackling laugh echoing up and down the empty street. They carry on up the road; Louis shovels strings of doner meat into his mouth, tipping his head back and dangling it in. Niall, with splodges of garlic mayonnaise down his front, leads a chorus of Tubthumping by Chumbawumba. Amy sticks two drinking straws over her canines and pretends to be a walrus, and Louis finds himself holding a sliver of doner meat up to his lip and pretending it’s a moustache. He then pops it in his mouth, wrinkles his nose in disgust at the smell lingering on his top lip and wipes the grease off his skin with the back of his hand.

They head in the direction of Louis’ house first, as Zayn is going to crash at Niall and Amy’s for the night.

“Thank you mum, dad, little brother. I must now bid you all a fond farewell.”

“Shut up you tit,” Zayn rolls his eyes and tips the greasy wrapper of his food into the wheelie bin by Louis’ front door.

“Bye lover, see you soon.” Amy trills loudly, right in his ear, as they embrace. Niall claps him on the back firmly, almost sending him flying.

“Night losers!” He calls as they make their way on down the street. He can hear Niall’s singing until they’re out of sight, then he lets himself into his house, suddenly really ready for his bed.

*

He finds it on Wednesday evening.

It’s so deathly quiet at his house, though it shouldn’t be, and the sound of his phone vibrating on the table top scares him half to death. It illuminates with a number Louis doesn’t recognise, and he doesn’t answer it on the first ring. But seconds later, it’s at it again. Cautiously, he slides the answer bar across and puts it to his ear. There is wind and bustle on the other end.

“Hello?” He says, slowly.

“Lou? Lou, it’s mum!” His mum’s shrill voice cuts over the speaker, shouting to compensate for the background noise. “Can you hear me love?”

“Yeah!” Louis winces and pulls the phone away from ear slightly. “What’s up, whose phone are you on?”

“Ali’s!” Jay shouts after a brief pause. Her friend from work. “Listen love, can you tell me dad’s number, my phone has gone dead and I need to reach him.”

Louis feels a pang of residual adolescent irritation at his mum referring to Mark as his ‘dad’, but he lets it slide. “Hang on, I’ll have to look. Wait a sec.”

He switches her to loud speaker and scrolls his contacts until he finds Mark’s entry, under ‘H’ for Hellboy, appropriately.

Something catches his eye as he’s reading the number out, and he only stumbles very slightly. He’s glad (as bad as that makes him feel) that his mum doesn’t want to stop and chat because he’s tapping back to the contact above Hellboy and staring at it as she finishes up and rings off.

There, in all its glory, is Harry’s number. Well, presumably Harry from the club on Saturday night.

Of course, this could all be a practical joke. Could be a different Harry, one that he met years ago, got the number of and promptly forgot about it. Except Louis doesn’t know any other Harry’s, he knows that for sure. He’d named and shamed Harry in conversation to Niall, Amy and Zayn, any one of them could’ve done this to make him look stupid. But then he remembers that neither three of them had been anywhere near his phone to do it.

He closes one eye and grimaces as he sends a message to this number. To ‘Harry’.

‘Hi… so im gonna look really stupid if it’s not but is this Harry?’

He only has a few seconds to wait before he gets a reply.

Harry: Yes it is. How are you?

‘Im good. Yourself?’

Harry: ‘Yeah, all the better for hearing from you.’

Louis can feel himself blushing already, it’s quite pathetic.

Then, a thought dawns on him.

‘How do I know this is actually Harry?’ He types quickly. ’You could be Catfishing me.’

He is partly serious as he sends the message, but he’s glad ‘Harry’ takes it in a joking way.

Harry: ’It is me. I pinky promise.’

’Prove it.’

There is a pause and no bubble pops up. Louis starts to lose hope. Sure, it’s only been thirty-two seconds but all of ‘Harry’s’ other texts had been almost instant.

Then two messages come through one after the other.

The first is a picture message and the second is a brief message, three little words: ’told you so’.

Louis is not ashamed about the amount of time he spends studying Harry’s picture. It’s definitely him, definitely as perfect as he was in Louis’ memories. He suddenly feels bashfully embarrassed, tries to suppress the childish little giggle that erupts from his mouth as he remembers that night.

‘Okay, I believe you now.’

Harry: Good. You know I’d never lie to you.’

And no, Louis doesn’t like that. It seems too… personal.

To be honest, he doesn’t remember getting Harry’s number. He’s not sure if he demanded it from him or whether Harry voluntarily gave it to him, whose idea was it? The fact that Harry’d seemed to automatically know who he was when he sent the first message would suggest that Louis had given him his number too, but he can’t be sure of anything. Maybe Harry is just a nice guy who, when faced with a text from an unknown number, knows exactly who it is from because there is only one person he’d recently given his number out to.

Louis makes it another hour, barely, before picking his phone up again and tapping back into Harry’s message thread. He scrolls up, looks again at the selfie Harry’d sent, then taps in the text box. He tells himself over and over that he’s just after one thing, and he can’t understand why his tummy feels as jumpy as it does.

’If you’re not doing anything, fancy meeting for a drink or something? x’

He toys with the idea of adding an x on the end before doing it anyway.

Harry: Sure. I’m not dressed for going out, wanna come to mine? I’ll text you my address? x’

Louis knows what that means. At least Harry is on the same page as him.

’Sounds good to me.’

Louis involuntarily squeals as he sends the last message. It’s just a one night thing, he reminds himself over and over. The first night they met doesn’t count because nothing really happened, unless you count… well. There is nothing out of the ordinary about this situation, apart from the fact that he’s instigated it, rather than the other way round. And that he’s got this one's number. Saved in his contacts. And he sort of really likes him.

But no, it’s no different.

*

Louis falls back onto Harry’s bed, loosening his hips as Harry grips his shins. He rolls his body up and over so his knees are up by his ears. He shuffles his bum clear off the mattress and takes a second to be self-absorbedly smug at the look on Harry's face as he does so.

As Harry lines himself up, bottom lip bitten down as he does so, Louis watches with his own breath bated the changes Harry’s expression goes through as he initially breaches and then pushes all the way inside. As Harry bottoms out, Louis’ attention fritters away to his own sensations that he’s feeling and his eyes flutter closed. He’d anticipated the first push of Harry's cock inside him was going to be a lot, and he's not wrong.

“F-fuck, this is, you're...," Louis rasps, breathless in the best way from the feel of Harry's weight on top of him, skin hot to touch and sheened with sweat. He doesn't finish his sentence but it doesn't feel like he needs to. Harry draws back and pumps in three or four times, carefully at first as they get accustomed to each other. Louis can feel his hands shaking with the expectant exhilaration and he hopes Harry doesn’t notice it as he slips his hands around the man’s sides, fingers skimming the broad, wriggling skin of Harry’s flexed shoulders.

Harry lowers the rest of his body and Louis takes some more of the tension out of his lower back and thighs by wrapping his legs around Harry’s slim frame. Strong arms with defined wraps of muscle encase Louis’ head and he can’t help but whimper as the shift in Harry’s trajectory hits a new angle inside him and sends jarring shudders through his entire lower abdomen.

“You feel so good,” Harry tells him, craning his neck to catch Louis’ attention, locking eyes with an overwhelming sincerity that makes Louis’ heart swoop again.

“More,” He breathes, digging his heels into Harry’s lower back and letting the last bits of residual tension in his lower half drop away. “Harder, please. Give me more.”

Harry does so accordingly. He redistributes the weight on his arms, propping his entire weight plus what he’s carrying of Louis up on one arm momentarily while he shifts. When he settles back, he’s strengthened his stance on his knees and his arms are stronger than ever.

Louis clamps his eyes tightly shut as Harry fucks into him deep, an involuntary yelp expressing itself with every inward thrust. His own cock is hard between their bodies, crying out for attention but what Harry is doing to him feels too good and from the look of deep furrowed-brow concentration on Harry’s face when he does open his eyes, he mightn’t be too far off.

“So good,” Louis murmurs again, high and soft and scratchy. “Y’fuck me so good.”

Harry cries out at that, dropping his head to hang heavy between his shoulders as he spills into the condom, stilling his hips with his length pushed deep inside Louis.

“Fuck,” Louis breathes hard, unwrapping his legs and letting them fall to the side, knees bent and heels digging into the mattress as best he can when his limbs feel like helium filled balloons. He feels Harry twitch inside him as they move, and Harry murmurs a quick ‘ready?’ under his breath before pulling out.

Louis doesn’t watch Harry move away, take off the condom or move back into the space between his legs, just rubs his eyes with his fists, completely bulldozered. His feet slip down the bed and he sprawls his legs out, sucks in his tummy muscles and puffs out his ribs, desperate to fill them with air.

He’s just about to reach down and languidly bring himself to a muted orgasm when he feels Harry’s mouth close over his leaking head. His hips jolt off the bed uncontrollably and he throws an arm over his eyes as Harry sucks him back to rock hard and then to the point of coming in no time at all.

Harry sinks down next to him after he’d popped off the tip, wiping at the corner of his mouth obscenely with his thumb. He leans in for a kiss that Louis is happy to reciprocate, but his heart rate has barely returned to normal resting pace and he’s scrambling to leave.

He makes his excuses, and though they’re hurried he laces them with an air of apologetic regret as he shoves his arms into his jacket and heads for the door.

“Louis, wait.” Harry calls after him softly. He scrambles out of bed, the corner of the duvet cascading over the parquet flooring. His cock bobs between his legs, soft now, as he moves. He puts one hand flat against the wall, next to Louis’ face, and absentmindedly grips the lapel of his jacket with his other hand.

Louis turns his face away slightly, just enough so that he has to look up through his lashes to see Harry. He knows he’s being shameless, he knows there’s nothing natural about this look at all, but he doesn’t care.

He’s not sure what Harry was planning on saying, but what he ends up communicating has nothing to do with words.

*

Come Monday morning, Louis still can’t stop picturing the way Harry had vaulted out of the bed as he was leaving - the view , oh my God.

It was a good way to say goodbye, at least. Sitting in the car, engine off, Louis deletes Harry’s number while he still has the strength to do so. He feels mildly horrified as the pixels disappear, forever, but he turns they key over in the ignition and pulls his seatbelt across his body. He peers in the rear view as he backs out and thinks about nothing else but Harry the entire way to work.

To compensate, he blocks him from his memory the second he steps into the office.

*

In a very déjà vu but thoroughly unsurprising turn of events, Niall invites him to the pub on Friday evening. He doesn’t mind, as long as he doesn’t end up being cajoled into speed dating again.

He spots Niall at the bar as he arrives, chatting to someone Louis doesn’t know – though that isn’t surprising. However, on closer inspection this guy does seem familiar. His hair, well it’s pretty impressive, and Louis racks his brain trying to think where he knows him from.

“Tommo!” Niall spots him and breaks away from the mystery guy for just a second. He ushers him over and looks weirdly pleased to see him. Louis smiles awkwardly and watches Niall out of the corner of his eye as they approach the guy at the bar. Louis’ still thinking. Christ, he hopes he hasn’t slept with this bloke. That’d be embarrassing and also quite strange. It definitely wouldn’t make any sense for Niall to be hanging out with him. So that can’t be it.

“Lou, this is Liam, remember ‘im?” Niall says, slapping an arm around apparently Liam, and then it clicks.

Louis’ heart almost falls out of his arse. Behind Niall and Liam, around a square table in the corner by the fruit machines, is Harry. Harry, sat with Louis’ friends. There’s Amy, and Zayn, and three empty seats where Niall, Liam and ultimately Louis himself would sit.

That’s why Liam looks familiar. They’d met, very briefly, at the speed dating. Liam was Harry’s equivalent to Amy, the one that had roped him into the speed dating in the first place.

“Uh… y-yeah, hi.” Louis stammers, trying to remember his manners. He pries his eyes away from the back of Harry’s head and focuses on Liam. He’s smiling and his face is kind, brown eyes that make Louis feel secure. What the hell?

“Hey mate, how’s it going?” Liam holds out a hand and Louis takes a second to realise he needs to shake it. Feebly, he shakes Liam’s hand and wishes he was dead as Niall asks him if he wants a beer. He nods blindly, yes he wants all the beers, and takes the cold pint glass once it’s served to him.

He knows, realistically, he should be stopping Niall right now and asking him what the hell is going on. Niall and Liam begin to move towards the table and Louis has no choice but to follow, lest he make an idiot of himself in front of the whole pub.

Amy and Zayn sit next to each other on chairs, Niall and Liam next to each other on the bench and Harry sits on the corner. The only seat left for Louis is at the opposite end of the table, directly facing Harry. He drags the chair out with a trembling hand, sets his beer down and sinks down into his seat, feeling flushed and hot as he lifts his head for the first time to risk a look around the table.

Amy and Zayn greet him and he tries his best to act natural. He catches Harry’s eye down the table, and the younger boy smiles at him. Louis thinks he just about manages to smile back, but he feels like he’s going to throw up.

The banter and chat that had been going on without him carries on quite seamlessly. Louis sinks back into his seat with his beer and tries in vain to collect himself.

“How did you track these two down ‘en, Nialler?” He asks once he’s calmed down and there is a gap in conversation. He tries his best to sound casual and nonchalant.

He sees Zayn raise his brows and look away and Amy giggle behind her hand. A speckle of irritation and discomfort makes its way across his back and he looks pointedly at Niall, trying to block out Harry’s face in his periphery.

Louis can feel his cheeks burning with embarrassment as Niall tells him, completely seriously, that he’d found Liam on Facebook and then Harry. They’d chatted, briefly, at the speed dating – something Louis wasn’t aware of, and this meeting here tonight was scheduled pretty easily between the four of them. The only person that didn’t know, other than Louis, was Zayn.

“Facebook?” He repeats. Niall nods. “God what are we, fourteen?”

There is a bit of an awkward laughter that goes round the table but they manage to keep things afloat. Awkward confrontations roll off Niall like water off a ducks’ back, and the table is soon roaring with laughter again. Louis keeps his mouth shut, against his preferred desire, and tries to relax.

Tries, being the operative word, as Niall is still trying to play Cupid and keeps swinging the conversation round to Louis, bringing up things that are only just relevant to the topic.

Mentally plotting the Irishman’s death, he goes along with it as sparsely as he can. He laughs when he should and agrees at things that he finds acceptable, scolds Niall when he makes a ‘funny’ remark at Louis’ expense, and just hopes Harry doesn’t find this whole thing completely weird.

He wouldn’t be here, though, if he thought this was weird. He wouldn’t have showed up if he didn’t want to, he’s a grown man who can make his own decisions. Louis mentally tells himself off for letting his brain wander into those sorts of thoughts and blinks furiously to try and banish them away.

“All right there, Tommo?”

Louis snaps back to reality, seeking out Zayn’s voice. He lands his eyes on him, Zayn looking bemused at him sat there blinking like a weirdo.

“Yeah, fine.” He says promptly, reaching for his beer. It’s empty. He tries to remember whose round it is. “Just. Fucking. Peachy.”

They start talking about school and college, something Louis has zero interest in rehashing. School was not his finest hour, let’s just say. There’s no need to dredge it back up.

Niall is amazed to learn that Harry and Liam had gone to the same college as them, just at different times, and it turns out Harry and Zayn had worked in the same café after school, again just a few years apart. Niall coos ridiculously about how they could’ve become friends years ago instead of wasting all this time.

“I know, small world, huh?” Liam asks, laughing dreamily.

“It’s probably best we weren’t there at the same time, you’d’ve hated Tommo!” Niall contributes, directing his next comment right at Harry.

“Oh, a little rebel was he?”

“Less of the ‘little’.” Louis says quietly, only Niall to his left picking up on it. He reaches under the table and jiggles Louis’ knee playfully with his hand.

“Let’s just say, young Louis wasn’t one for conforming. Or rules.” Niall continues.

“Or actually turning up!” Zayn adds.

“Oi, what’s that supposed to mean!” Louis defends himself weakly. “I was a delight in college. And my attendance was fine.”

“You were a delinquent in college, more like!” Amy contributes, and what the hell, she wasn’t even there! Of note, Harry is cackling with laughter at the banter, at Louis’ expense.

“You weren’t even there!” Louis cries, rolling his eyes and glowering at her. “You lot piss me off.”

“Nah, to be fair, by the end of it he was a bit better.”

“I dunno about you but I wouldn’t change him for the world!”

“Yeah, exactly! Without these experiences, he wouldn’t be the Tommo that we all know and love today!”

“Oi, I’m sat right here, y’know! Stop talking about me like I’m not here!”

“There were a few bumps along the way! But he’s a cracking lad today!” Niall cracks, and Louis’ life flashes before his eyes as everyone apart from Harry – thank God – cottons on to Niall’s joke and makes awkward, stilted chuckles.

As far as Harry’s concerned, there is nothing untoward about the turn of phrase. Good.

“Niall, a word?” Louis says sharply, signalling to his Irish friend.

Louis carries himself away from the table without bothering to worry about how bratty he appears right now. He hears Niall make some smart remark before he gets up and follows him out, but Louis is heading away from the group at such speed he doesn’t hear anything apart from a ripple of laughter.

Louis leans up against the bar, the look on his face enough to keep the unsuspecting young barmaid from approaching and daring to ask him if he’s ready to order.

Niall falls into place next to him; they face each other and he looks so carefree and unbothered it temporarily makes Louis want to slap him.

“Niall, I know you think you're being funny but you're really fucking not. Just stop, okay?”

“All right, keep your hair on Tommo!" Niall holds his hands up in defence, and Louis automatically feels bad for snapping. Luckily, Niall is still laughing, albeit a bit cautiously.

“And anyway, what the hell are you playing at bringing him here?”

”I thought you liked him?” Niall says, shrugging his shoulder like he can’t understand what he’s supposed to have done wrong. “I knew you would drag your heels to do somethin’ about it so I thought I’d push you along a bit.”

“I do like him,” Louis says quietly, which isn’t what he’d planned. “I mean I did. But fuck, that doesn’t mean I want you lot inviting him out with us and becoming best mates with him. And dropping hints about the kids like he’s really not that thick he won’t figure it out.”

“Oh, c’mon, no one got that but us lot.”

“Well it won’t take a genius to put two and two together!” Louis hisses. “Look, Harry’s- he’s not, y’know… long term. He shouldn’t be here!”

“Not long term?” Niall repeats, eyebrows sky high. “Really?”

Louis can’t help the pangs of irritation that accompany his next move.

“What? Why are you judging me? You know how it is for me, with the situation as it is. No one gets close and no one gets hurt, it’s as simple as that. That’s the way things are.”

“No, Tommo, that’s the way you’ve made things.”

“What’s that s’posed to mean?”

“You don’t have to push people away, you don’t have to resign yourself to a string of mindless shags and think that’s all there is.”

“I don’t-”

“Oh really?” Niall interrupts. “What’s the plan, Tommo? Huh? Carry on as you are, work your way through as many nameless conquests as you can? Every few years go back to Jess and have another kid until you’ve got enough to fill the gap in your life caused by whatever it is that’s making you such a martyr?”

Louis is stunned into silence. With eyes wide, he struggles to breathe for a second.

“Well, fuck me Niall, say how you really feel, please!” He exclaims, laughing because he’s got absolutely no clue how to deal with what just happened.

Niall softens and Louis feels conflicted.

“I’m sorry mate, that was… that was harsh. You know I love you and the little ones, but the basic premise is true. You don’t have to put up with that. You don’t have to limit yourself to that life if you don’t want to.”

“Who says I don’t like that life?”

Niall shrugs, looks thoroughly disbelieving. “If you say so, Tommo, but for the record, I don’t believe you.”

Louis looks over at Harry, and when he looks back, Niall is grinning softly but smugly at him.

“Lou?” Niall says, attracting his attention back. “That guy is out there making friends with your friends, barking out laughing at every ridiculous thing that comes out of your mouth, and he’s been watching you like a hawk all night. What more do you want?”

“Niall, what twenty one year old in their right mind is gonna take on someone with two kids? Forget all the rest of the drama, that’s enough to make him run a mile. So what’s the point?”

“You don’t know that.” Niall says. “You’re underestimating him, I think.”

“Like you’re the expert on Harry all of a sudden!”

Niall just looks at him.

“I just thought we’d… y’know , and then he’d be gone. Like the rest of them.” Louis admits, feeling a bit crushed. He wants to go home.

“Well, I hate to break it to you mate but I don’t think Harry’s on the same wavelength.”

Louis hates that Niall is right.

He hates that he’s already way past the point of ‘one night stand’ with Harry. His plan is unravelling fast and he’s got no idea how to fix it.

“Goin’ to the loo.” He mumbles, sighing heavily and pushing off the bar. Niall doesn’t follow him.

He shuts himself in the stall furthest away from the door, slides the bolt across, puts down the seat and settles on top of the porcelain, phone in hand. Hating himself a moderate amount, Louis opens Facebook - having to go through Safari because he deleted the app – and goes to Niall’s profile. He studies his profile picture, him and Amy in Tenerife last June, then scrolls down a bit.

Lo and behold, there it is at the top: Niall Horan became friends with Harry Styles.

That must be his Harry. No, no – just Harry. He doesn’t belong to him, or anyone.

Curiosity gets the better of Louis and he clicks on the hyperlink. Harry’s profile is minimalistic in this view, his privacy settings prohibiting Louis to see anything more than Harry’s profile picture, gender, current location and pages he has Liked.

He stares until it goes blurry, then, feeling just a little bit egotistical, Louis goes onto his own profile and quickly changes his profile picture from one of his girl with her newborn brother propped up on her knee in swaddling blankets to a picture of him and his mum taken at Lottie’s birthday party last August.

Not that he expects in a million years the first thing Harry will do is look for him in Niall’s friend list.

*

Later on at home, as Louis’ laying on the sofa, the Sky box in sleep mode and his cup of tea long since gone cold, Louis thinks about what Niall said, thinks about Harry and Liam and this night that they’ve just shared together.

Niall’s scathing words repeat in Louis’ head; ‘that’s the way you’ve made things’ , ’such a martyr’ . Just who the hell does Niall think he is, bloody Jeremy Kyle? He doesn’t need to listen to anyone’s advice; he doesn’t want a relationship, he doesn’t want to introduce his kids to anyone.

He’ll find a way to exact his revenge on Niall, for opening up the can of worms in the first place, but for now all he has to do is cut ties with Harry completely. He’s already deleted his number, he’s halfway there.

That’s why, when a number he doesn’t have saved texts him just before one am wondering if he might want to get together tomorrow, Louis politely declines, turns his phone off and falls promptly to sleep.

Except he doesn’t do any of those things.

*

He’s back at Harry’s again the next afternoon. He arrives twenty minutes’ late, breathless and a hairs breadth from turning and bolting but Harry pulls him in through the door as if he senses Louis' unease and has him up against the wall in a second.

"Nice to see you again," He says, his breath hot on Louis' cheek.

"Hmm," Louis makes a noise, because he can't find the words. Harry’s kisses feel like the sweetest compliment, each one a whispered bouquet of honey and rose petals, and Louis has to put a stop to that.

They crash backwards through Harry's flat urgently, into his room and memories of the last time they were here come flooding back. Harry opens him up and he rests on his knees on the edge of the bed, Harry behind him gripping his hips tighter with every thrust. He’s positive Harry’s fingers are going to pierce right through his skin to the bone with the strength at which he holds him. He gradually inches his way down lower, closer and closer to the mattress until eventually his chest sinks down into the mattress and his bum is awkwardly raised, his weight on one hip as Harry fucks into him shallow and lazily.

Harry collapses down on top of him, his chest pressed to Louis’ back as he comes, hips stuttering and then stilling before drawing back and lifting himself off again. Harry doesn’t try and cuddle him this time after he’s rolled onto his back and brought himself to orgasm. He wipes himself down with the t-shirt he’d been wearing and goes home in his hoodie with nothing underneath.

He repeats to himself over and over. This is the last time. It is. It has to be.

*

It’s finally Sunday.

The past two weeks have felt uncontrollable and unending, but today, now, it’s finally Sunday. Life is getting back to normal today.

Knowing that peace will soon be shattered, Louis takes advantage of the opportunity to have a lie in. He stumbles to the toilet at about seven but gets straight back into bed, pulls the covers up to his ears because the house is still cold at seven in the morning, and promptly falls back to sleep until quarter to twelve.

He’s got washing up from Friday evening to do, as well as washing to hang out and dinner to defrost for later. It keeps him busy and the only time he thinks about Harry is when his phone vibrates and his stomach lurches, thinking for a second it might be him. The disappointment that lingers for a moment when he sees it isn’t Harry is quickly pushed aside.

At just after four, Louis hears a car pull up on the street outside, a door clunking open and then slamming shut, then another door opening a second later. He hears her first; she sounds stressed. Then he hears thunderous but tiny footsteps approaching, then a muffled, stumbling knock of tiny hands on the door.

His heart is in his mouth with giddy excitement as he leaps up, dashing to the front door to open it.

“Emmie!” He whoops as he opens the door to find his three and a half year old daughter Emilia standing on the porch step with her snuggle blanket in one hand and a battered box of Cornish clotted cream fudge in the other.

“Daddy!” She squeals over and over as he scoops her up into his arms and squeezes her tight. She wriggles as he does, and he settles her on his hip as he watches the other two approach.

His boy, Archie, is passed out in his car seat; Louis doesn’t get a good look at him until he is set down on the porch step.

“Jess,” He greets the blonde woman, trying to be nice. “How’re you doing?”

“Fine thanks, you?” She says, handing him Archie’s changing bag and Emmie’s Peppa rucksack, Emmie’s spare blanket and Archie’s green body warmer. He peeks in at Archie; cheeks pink, white-blonde hair fluffy and eyes fluttering open and closed. “He’s just waking up slowly, he’s been asleep for about an hour on and off.”

Louis’ dying to get his hands on his son but with his daughter on his hip and his arms full, he has to settle on waiting. “Hey sleepy dude, I missed you.”

Archie smiles almost bashfully and closes his eyes again. Louis nods for them to go inside, Jess picking Archie up and following them in. She doesn’t normally come in, but it’s only slightly awkward. She puts Archie down in the front room and his tiny hands grab at his blanket and pull it up close to his face, his blue eyes closing again.

“So, thanks for bringing them back.” Louis says, and Jess makes a face, as if he’s implying she wasn’t going to. “Did you have a nice holiday?”

“Yeah, was good. Nice weather, mostly.”

“Well that’s good.”

“Yeah.”

“How’re your mum and dad?” Louis asks, though he’s not really interested. The extent of his concern about Jess’ family is how well they treat Emmie and Archie.

“Fine too, yeah.”

“Good.”

Jess nods, looking around the front room before looking back at Louis. “Right, well I’m off now. See you in a week?”

“Yeah you will.” Louis agrees.

Jess cuddles Emmie and kisses Archie goodbye and then she’s gone, an awkward and stilted shrug and a goodbye for Louis. He takes Archie out once Jess is gone and lifts his warm, slightly sweaty body out of his chair. He lays his son over his chest and holds him tight, breathing in his smell. Archie snuggles against his chest and together they settle down on the sofa next to Emmie. She scrambles to his side and tells him in her own garbled, roundabout way about the past week, her holiday with mummy and Archie and nanny and grandad.

Louis’ irritation about the whole thing has dulled now, now that he has his two little monsters back. He still, if he thinks about it enough, wonders why the hell Jess just had to take them away with her parents on one of his weeks. They’d agreed on a week-on-week-off arrangement for the kids and it had worked perfectly well for three and a half years, why rock the boat now?

But he lets it go because Emmie seems to have had a whale of a time. She tells him about Fizzle (Fistral) Beach and St. Ives, eating chips with grandad and that her and mummy and Archie had a sleepover on the last night and she stayed up until ‘minnight’.

Louis indulges her, acting completely shocked and in awe of how amazing her holiday was.

“But did you miss me? Because I missed you loads and loads.” He asks, tapping her little button nose, making her giggle.

“Yes!” She answers. “How much you miss me, daddy?”

“This much!” He lifts his hand up in the air as far as it will go and she dissolves into giggles again, rousing Archie from his precarious sleep.

He kisses Emmie and then slides to the floor, peels Archie’s layers off, changes his nappy and sets about making the tea. He’s busy for the rest of the evening; having them both back gives him something to focus on, something else to focus on, so he’s too busy to sit around thinking about Harry. Mostly.

*

His plan seems to be working perfectly. With work and getting Archie to playgroup and Emmie to nursery, bath time, tea time and bed time, his days are back to the hectic routine that he loves. He doesn’t think about the fact next week he’ll be empty again. That’s a problem for Future Louis.

He hadn’t tied up his thing with Harry in a neat bow, is the thing, and because it’s still open and so much has gone unsaid, there’s been no closure. So when Harry texts him on Monday afternoon, he opens the message, reads it once and immediately locks his phone.

Thursday morning sat at his desk spinning aimlessly from left to right on his office chair and staring at his keyboard blankly, he finally replies.

He wasn’t going to, but he does anyway. Of course.

-

-

-

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Chapter Text

Harry

 

Harry's not stupid. He notices the change in Louis since they all met up at the pub. He’d messaged Niall since, double checking that all was okay, that Louis had seemed a bit off, but Niall’s response was nothing out of the ordinary and he reminds himself that he doesn’t really know these people yet, he should give them the benefit of the doubt. Sure, he knows Louis well enough to sleep with him – twice – but he doesn’t know him well enough to know if he’s happy or not.

Well there’s a sobering thought.

On Monday afternoon, work particularly quiet, he sends Louis a text. It feels casual enough and he doesn't worry too much when he doesn't get an immediate response. Louis could be busy, he doesn't know.

His initial confidence wanes as time goes on. It gets to ten o'clock and Louis hasn't replied. By the following day Harry is just plain embarrassed. On Tuesday evening in a fit of shame he deletes the message he'd sent, just so he can pretend it never happened.

Just when he’s given up hope, his phone illuminates with a reply from Louis on Thursday morning. His reply to Harry’s since deleted message is quite succinct and doesn’t give Harry much hope, and he almost doesn’t reply, just out of principle. Louis took four days to respond, so why can’t Harry?

Except he replies straight away, because he’s weak.

Louis doesn’t seem keen to meet up again, and that makes Harry’s cheeks tinge with embarrassment, even though no one can see him. No one knows by looking at him who he’s texting and what they’re saying or the fact that he just got rebuffed on his offer of a drink one night this week.

Despite Louis’ reluctance, though, they stay in textual contact for most of the afternoon. Louis goes quiet for an hour or so at about three, and Harry tries not to feel too much like the world is ending. Just after three, Louis returns again, not offering up any explanation as to where he was for the last hour – not that he needs to, Harry just feels… well, he feels over his head.

When Harry is perched on someone’s garden wall waiting for the bus home, some seven hours after the first message, Louis stops. He doesn’t hear from him again until Saturday evening.

Lou: ‘I know it’s short notice and im a twat but if that offer of a drink is still open im free tomorrow evening at about six?’

Sleep is difficult to come by that evening. Harry sends a few messages on Sunday morning, and while Louis is quite prompt to text back initially, they peter out quickly and he doesn’t hear from him until the evening, twenty five minutes before they’re due to meet.

Harry had been ready to offer for Louis to come over to his flat, but Louis mentions a pub in town that is walking distance for them both – not that he knows where Louis’ coming from – and Harry finds himself agreeing.

He gets to the pub early because he’s too wired to wait until an appropriate time to leave his flat. So, he sits on a bench outside the pub, nervously fidgeting his feet and transferring his phone from one hand to the other over and over.

When it buzzes in his hand it almost frightens the life out of him.

Lou: ’2 secs away. I can see you.’

Lou: ‘Look left.’

He tries not to grin as he looks discreetly over his left shoulder and sees Louis approaching. He’s just slipping his phone back into his pocket and lifting his head, smiling sheepishly and Harry is blown away.

He ambles along, a bit bouncy and a bit waddly; legs in sprayed on black skinnies, feet in black trainers, a grey t-shirt that skims the very tops of his thighs, a navy bomber and of course, that lovely hair.

Harry almost forgets how to speak.

“All right?” Louis greets him, voice as soft and sing-song as ever. “Sorry ‘m late.”

Harry just smiles; Louis isn’t late, Harry is just freakishly early, but he can’t articulate that information.

“Shall we go in?”

“Yeah,” Harry agrees, verbalising for the first time. “After you.”

Louis goes first, hands stuffed back into his pockets. Harry leans over to pull the door open for him and Louis smiles, perhaps a bit embarrassedly, into his shoulder as he slinks through the doorway. The dim light inside the pub casts Louis in a hazy glow and his skin looks even more tanned and golden than in real life. Harry, pasty and pale by comparison, feels like every other person in the room envies him right now, and so they should.

Louis takes a seat along the back wall, a small round table for two with padded leather booth seats on one side and a dining chair on the other. He slides along the booth and Harry takes the chair, still unbelieving that Louis is really here, with him.

Louis starts off with apologising for being a bit of a no-show this past week. He doesn’t offer up any sort of explanation as to where he was or what had been going on, but Harry takes that to mean there’s nothing he needs to know. If it was interesting, Louis would tell him and if it was a problem, he probably wouldn’t be here now.

Louis insists on buying the first round, and Harry sits alone at their table for a moment or two, rubbing gently at the skin around his thumb with his index finger nail and reading the desserts off the back of the menu for something to do. When Louis returns, from Harry’s vantage point sat down, he has an excellent view of Louis’ legs and bum as he puts down the drinks and side steps cutely between their table and the one next to them, rolling his hips as he sinks down onto the bench and settles in again. Harry can smell his aftershave as he moves.

There are periods of quiet in between their conversation, though it’s not exactly awkward. Things do become a bit easier once their second beers start going down, but that’s natural.

Louis goes to the bar for the third round and then Harry disappears to the loos once he’s back, so that gives them five minutes or so to regroup. When Harry comes back, Louis’ already taken a visibly large sip of his drink and he’s smiling.  They talk about their friends; Harry tells Louis more about Liam and the fact they met in college, Harry in the first year and Liam in the last year of his three year engineering BTEC. Louis seems surprised to find that out and says he and Liam seem like they’ve known each other a lot longer than just four years.

Harry learns more about Zayn and Niall, and Amy too, of course. He likes Amy, she seems fun, if a little overbearing sometimes. Louis and the two lads are lifelong friends, since nursery, and Amy and Niall are just about to clock over seven years together so she is like part of the furniture.

As they’re chatting, Harry tries slotting his foot between Louis’, just testing the waters, and he doesn’t seem to mind. They joke quite easily and Louis seems happy in his company; his silence over the past week must just have been an unfortunate coincidence.

But then, then the conversation turns heavy and Harry starts to feel a bit sick again. Sick with nerves, but not the same kind of nervous sick that he did two hours ago, though. He keeps his foot twisted around Louis’ ankle, but that’s only because he’s frozen into place and can’t move.

He tries to be nonchalant and just generally interested, but he fears he comes across as pushy and nosy when he asks Louis what’d held him up this past week.

Louis gives him a non-answer, and he tries to remind himself that they’re not dating, they’re not in a relationship so Louis has no obligation to be at his beck and call with an itinerary of his free time each week during which they can see each other.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to… pry, y’know?”

“It’s okay,” Louis says, shrugging. He reaches for his drink and there’s silence for a few more seconds, before he adds, “You weren’t prying. It’s me being a knob, not you.”

“What does that mean?” Harry asks, feeling nowhere near as prepared for what Louis’ answer might be than he would appear. When Louis doesn’t respond, he feels panic flares start to shoot up from his body. “Louis? What do you mean? Should I just… what should I do here? Tell me?”

“You don’t have to do anything,” Louis says, but it just feels like he’s being placated.

“You’ve been funny since that night we all met up.” Harry says. “Did I do something wrong?”

“No,” Louis says immediately but quietly. He doesn’t say anything else for a beat, and neither does Harry. In fact, Harry’s not even sure he’s breathing. “You haven’t done anything wrong. Like I said, it’s all me.”

“That doesn’t help.”

“I didn’t know you were gonna be there, okay? Niall ambushed me, I turned up not expecting to see fucking Liam at the bar with him, then I see you and I just… I just. I don’t know what I felt but it was a shock.”

Shock?

There are no positive connotations to that word.

That night with all six of them at the pub, the one that Harry had thoroughly loved every minute of and can’t stop thinking about, was a mistake. That’s basically what Louis is saying.

“I’m sorry,” Harry finds himself apologising, even though he’s not sure he actually has anything to apologise for. “Niall said you knew. Said you were okay with us coming.”

“Yeah well Niall’s an interfering twat. You shouldn’t believe anything he says.”

Harry shrinks back in his seat and can’t look at Louis.

“Sorry,” Louis’ voice comes a second later. He sounds ripped open and Harry looks up, risking a glance. He’s looking sincere and with hurt behind his eyes. “That was- I didn’t mean it like that. It was good to see you both.”

“Is it…” Harry starts somewhat confidently, but then he shrinks away again. “Don’t worry.”

“What were you gonna say?”

Harry bites his lip to stall a bit; he suddenly doesn’t want to know. He’d rather just keep his head buried in the sand. But he can’t. Louis is looking at him expectantly and he knows he has to be grown up about this.

“You’re not interested are you?” Harry asks. “In me.”

Louis reaches out for his glass again, obviously feeling awkward and needing something to do with his hands. Well, Harry will save him the embarrassment. He gets up, pushing the chair back with the behinds of his knees, and grabs his phone off the table top.

“It’s okay, you don’t have to explain. I’m- I’ll see you, okay?”

“Harry, wait!” He hears Louis’ voice behind him as he moves through the place, thankful it's Sunday evening and therefore the pub is not busy.

When Louis catches up to him, they’re halfway down the street. Harry has no idea where he thinks he’s going, but he keeps on going. He spins around as he feels Louis’ hand on his forearm, and all of the thoughts that have been pinging off the walls in his brain come charging to the forefront and the one that tumbles out first is, well.

“Last week, every single time any of your friends tried to talk to me or include me in something, you'd shut them down. Make a remark. Are you embarrassed by me or something? Have I said something wrong?”

“No! No you really haven't.”

“Then what is it? Am I too young? Is that it? You can just say, y’know, ‘cause I'm shit at guessing.”

“No it's not that. That doesn't bother me.”

“Because before, when Niall said about Facebook, you said ‘what are we, fourteen’ so you obviously think it on some level.”

“I don’t, I promise. It’s not… that was just a general dickhead thing I said, it wasn’t aimed at you, I promise.”

Harry is running out of ideas, except the massive one that’s been feeling more and more real in the past few minutes. It would make sense, given the elusiveness of Louis’ demeanour since that night at the pub with Liam and the others. If Louis’ got a partner already, then he obviously wouldn’t be able to spend all evening texting Harry. He wouldn’t be able to agree to plans all the time because he’d already have plans with someone that was very much not Harry.

Sure, he couldn’t really understand why Niall would go to the trouble of seeking him out, befriending him and then inviting him along on a night out if Louis had a girlfriend or a boyfriend and was cheating on them with him, but then he realises he doesn’t really know Niall, not really. He doesn’t know what his personality is like.

“Then what is it? Look, if you’re already with someone then I want you to know that that’s really shitty - on me and on them, and you’re an arsehole.”

Louis’ face falls, creases form between his brows and little wrinkles by his eyes are evident for the first time. He looks hurt.

Harry can tell almost immediately that he’s wrong.

“I’m… I’m sorry, that was too far.”

“I’m not cheating on anyone, okay?” Louis says gruffly. “I’m just completely fucked up and I don’t know how to be anything other than that, okay?”

“Why though?” Harry asks, reaching up to tighten the bun in his hair because it’s slipping and it's another thing that’s irritating him. “What’s the issue? Do you just not wanna try with me? I’m just that shit?”

“Harry, it's not you. Honestly. It's me.”

“Oh here we go!” Harry laughs humourlessly. “How cliché, honestly! I thought I might get better than that from you!”

“I…” Louis looks completely distraught, panic behind his narrow blue eyes, and Harry suddenly feels sick. “Can we go somewhere and talk proper?”

Harry shakes his head petulantly. “No, I changed my mind, I don’t wanna hear it. Whatever it is, just leave it.”

“Fine,” Louis sighs, his shoulders sagging. “If that’s what you want? I’ll just go?”

They look at each other; Harry wonders if Louis’ heart is beating as fast as his is.

Eventually, Harry shakes his head. “No, c’mon. Let’s go to mine.”

*

There is an amateurish silence and awkwardness when they first step into Harry’s flat. Harry’s never felt overwhelmed by the open plan layout before but right now it’s making him feel like he has nowhere to hide, and he’s shivering with nerves.

“Drink?” He asks, voice high and uncontrollable. Louis shakes his head solemnly and sits down on the very edge of the sofa.  Harry takes the space next to him, because there are no other options. He doesn’t feel comfortable as he sits back, watching Louis out of the corner of his eye. He sits with his forearms resting on his knees, shoulders tense and rigid.

“So...” Harry starts with confidence but it soon seeps away as he looks into Louis’ eyes. This feels like the end and he’s not ready for it yet, especially when they haven’t even got started yet. The single word hangs in the air, unfinished, the vocal equivalent of ink spots on a fresh silk tablecloth.

“So.” Louis echoes, clasping his hands together. Harry looks in Louis’ lap where they are clasped; knuckles white where he is gripping so hard. Whatever is coming obviously isn’t easy for Louis either.

Louis exhales softly out of his nose with a small, nervy smile. “God, my heart's beating so fucking fast.”

Harry braces but then Louis goes quiet again and Harry feels like ringing his damn neck. Instead, he laughs and runs his hands back through his hair.

“C’mon then, spit it out, please!

“Sorry,” Louis’ shoulders sag and he looks down at his hands balled in his lap. “So, uh, I don’t like, do relationships. Ever. It started off like a defence mechanism and it’s just stuck.”

“Okay,” Harry says slowly, filling the pause that Louis had created. “That sounds very vague.”

“Sorry, I’m trying.”

“Try harder.” Harry instructs, but he smiles, just in the corner of his mouth, and Louis releases the tension from his upper body and chuckles too. “Defence against what?”

“Okay, so I don’t do relationships,” Louis repeats and Harry nods. “Because I don’t have the sort of life that I’d want to let someone into.” Harry pulls a face and Louis’ eyes widen. “Shit, sorry I’m not explaining myself very well am I?”

“No,” Harry says dryly. “Don’t dance around it, maybe?”

“Okay,” Louis breathes heavily and unclamps his hands. “What you saw this last week or so, is not really my life. Not normally. Well, it's not my life every week.” Louis’ rambling already and losing grip on what he had semi-planned out in his head. “Shit, I’m not making- God I don’t know ”

“Lou, can you just- I don't understand what you’re trying to tell me here.” His mind is spinning.

“It's nothing bad. Not like, really bad anyway. I'm not a murderer.”

“No, I kinda gathered that, Lou.”

“I... fuck, just. Can I say something first? Before I tell you?”

“Sure,” Harry says through a tense, grim expression.

“Once I tell you, all of this," he motions between the two of them, "will all be over, and it's only just begun. I just want you to know it was really great and if things were different I know it coulda been really good.”

Harry starts to laugh, not because there is anything funny, and lifts one hand to his head; pushes down hard on his temples.

“I’ve never let anyone in close enough to stick around longer than one night because, I can’t do relationships okay? I’m a dad. I’ve got two kids and they spend half the time with me so I can’t commit to anyone or anything. I can’t put anyone or anything above them and I fucking like you so much it’s killing me because I really don’t wanna let you go but I have to because there’s no other option.”

For some reason, Harry’s first instinct is to laugh, so that’s what he does.

“Fucking Christ, Louis!” He laughs, maybe bordering on maniacal. “That was, you- God, I don’t know what I was expecting but it wasn’t that.”

“I’m sorry?” Louis says, tiny and quiet. “Just so you know, you’re the only person I’ve… been with , that I’ve told this to. You deserve more than a quick shag then dumped by text.”

“Thanks,” Harry says with a shrug. “I… I can see why you are of the mindset that you are. It’s a big thing. I’m… I don’t know how to react, to be honest.”

“If there was a way, I would die for a chance with you, I really would.”

Harry keeps silent, mulling over Louis’ words. When he lifts his head, Louis is looking back at him, eyes cautious and nervy.

“I mean, I don’t care, y’know?” He says, treading carefully. Louis looks at him, expression unreadable. “I mean, for me it doesn’t change how I feel.”

“It would though,” Louis counters. “Be realistic. Say over the span of a year, six months out of the year we wouldn’t see each other, I wouldn’t have time for you, I’d be stressed, tired, thinking about other things. It’s not practical.”

“I could help you out,” Harry says, aware of how ridiculous he sounds. “With them or with anything you needed?”

“I couldn’t and wouldn’t ask you to, Haz.” Louis says, but he’s not being cruel. “You’re just a lad; life shouldn’t be about kids and being sensible with money and fucking custody battles. I’m not gonna bring you into all that, it’s too early on in this… whatever we have- had, to be risking it.”

“That was patronising as hell,” Harry cuts in with a humourless shake of his head.

“Sorry,” Louis says sadly. “It’s hard not to be, sometimes. But it’s true though. I couldn’t ask you or expect you to give up your freedom. Put your time and effort and emotions into something just to basically only get half of my attention and half of my feelings in return. It’s not fair. On anyone.”

Harry pictures these faceless children, wonders what they’re like, if they’re like little mini-Louis’ or not. A boy and a girl? Two boys or two girls? He wonders how old they are. Louis is only twenty six himself, Harry can’t imagine him having pre-teens or anything, but supposes it could be possible.

“Niall and his fat mouth have made things slightly more difficult, now that your lot are sort of like mates with my lot, it’s a bit weird.” Louis carries on. “Forgive me for sounding like a complete arsehole but this was just supposed to be a one night thing too. That first night. But you… you drew me back in.”

They both stop to smile.

“I hope you don’t feel I led you on.”

“It’s okay,” Harry shrugs, though it feels fart from okay. “We can still be mates though, right?”

Louis doesn’t give him the resounding yes that he was expecting, but the distant smile and slight nod is a start. “I’d like that. I mean, it might be weird. I’ve never been mates with anyone I’ve slept with before.”

“I think it’ll work just fine.”

Louis sighs but then gives a staggered, soft laugh. “Well I admire your enthusiasm.”

“So is that a yes?” Harry asks, louder this time. He’s taking his humour and using it as a coping mechanism, sue him.

Louis snorts. “Is what a yes, you big weirdo!”

“Will you, Louis… wait, what’s your last name?”

“Tomlinson,” Louis says through a giggle. “Hence, ‘Tommo’.”

“Nice - mine’s Styles by the way - anyway, will you, Louis Tomlinson, do me the honour of being my friend?”

Louis is like sunshine when he laughs and smiles at the same time; friends or lovers or nothing, Harry can see that. But he pushes that thought aside before it has time to hatch into the walls of his brain.

“You’re somethin’ else, you are.” Louis rolls his eyes trying to pretend to be reluctant. “Yes, let’s be mates.”

*

Harry still has no idea how to feel once Louis’ gone, once he’s had time to process everything.

Thing is, before today he had no idea how to categorise what he and Louis were, and therefore he has no idea how to feel about what has just happened, the revelations that have come out.

This metaphorical foot off the gas pedal that they've perhaps shakily agreed upon feels like the best of a bad bunch of options. Part of him hopes that this is just a means to an end, once Louis figures himself out. Another part of him thinks that they’ll drift apart, Niall will unfriend him on Facebook and in six months he’ll have forgotten all about this whole thing.

The part he listens to, however, is the part that tells him he has to just go along with things. He likes Louis, a lot, but Louis isn’t an option anymore. Not like that anyway.

He realises, ashamedly, as he’s sitting there that this is the first time Louis’ been at his flat and they haven’t slept together.

He should probably start getting used to that.

*

Mikey, who he supposedly lives with but seldom sees, is at the kitchen table when Harry wanders down to start thinking about something for tea. Long gone are the days where Sunday meant a roast; they were lucky if they got beans on toast most days. But this being demoted to Friend lark could be useful for their diets. If he channels all his feelings into cooking something wholesome and nutritious for tea, he’ll be sufficiently distracted for the next hour or so.

“All right mate?” Mikey barely looks up from where he’s rolling an army of cigarettes. “How’s life?”

“Hmm,” Harry shrugs, glossing over the events of the last hour or so. “Okay. How’s you?”

“Yeah, good,” Mikey murmurs as he licks across the gummed edge of his roll up. They chat idly as Harry pours himself a half pint glass of milk and climbs onto the kitchen counter. He considers for a moment that it’s probably things like that that made Louis feel he wasn’t mature enough for a relationship where there is parenting involved.

It blows his mind, really, the thought of it. He wouldn’t have guessed in a month of Sunday’s that having two kids is what Louis’ secret was. He kicks himself that he didn’t ask about them, but at the same time it might be easier to let go when he doesn’t know really what he’s letting go of.

He couldn’t be a step-dad at twenty one anyway, that’s just ridiculous.

This is for the best.

“Anyway, you about for tea? I’m gonna make something.”

Mikey looks mildly surprised. “Yeah, definitely. What’re you making?”

“Dunno yet, gotta see what’s in.” Harry slides off the unit with a sigh and pulls open the under-cupboard fridge. Between them they manage to keep it fairly well-stocked. Mikey’s girlfriend fills it with things like Galaxy chocolate milkshake and packets of goodies from the Pizza Express chilled range at Tesco - Harry knows not to touch those. He pushes past an open packet of deli counter chicken pieces and scans the packets and cartons.

He springs up and noses in the cupboards too; plenty of tinned goods, packets of microwave rice, microwave pasta, microwave couscous. It really is the epitome of student living, even though neither of them are students anymore.

He takes an almost full bag of pasta down from the shelf and ideas begin pinging about in his mind; but forming any sort of plan feels impossible. There’s not one cookbook in the house, so he Google’s Jamie Oliver pasta recipes until he finds one he thinks he can manage.

‘Speedy spaghetti’ sounds pretty doable and it looks nice in the pictures. The recipe calls for anchovies which he omits, chopped red chili which he substitutes for dried chili flakes, and garlic, which he can do, actually. He has no idea what pecorino cheese is so Morrisons’ grated mozzarella from a bag will have to do. He forgoes the parsley as well, but all in all it’s not half bad. His presentation skills aren’t up to much and his own offering lacks the pizzazz that the one in the book has, but it's edible and it’s pretty good actually for a first attempt.

After tea, he’s alone again, Mikey having gone over to his girlfriend’s place for the night. Sat at the table at a loose end, the dirty dishes still sat in place, Harry flexes his fingers then drums them on the surface. He looks out of the small window at the industrial view out the back of their flat.

He picks up his phone that he’d placed face down on the table, cleans the smeary screen on his t-shirt and then goes to his messages. He knows he shouldn’t text Louis; it’s only been a few hours since they parted ways and he’ll never get used to their new terms if he can’t distance himself.

Instead, he goes for Niall.

’I know about Louis.’

Half a beat later, his phone is ringing with Niall’s name across the display. It’s a bit weird, having never talked to him on the phone before, but Harry picks up regardless.

“Hey, Niall.”

“All right, Harry? How’re you?”

“I’m fine,” Harry says, dismissive as a means of survival. “Bit surprised?”

Niall laughs softly down the line, stirring up a flurry of static. “I bet. What- what’s going on then? With yous two?”

“Nothing,” Harry says, trying not to sound as sad as he feels. “We’re just gonna stay friends. I’m fine with it.”

“That was unconvincing.”

“No it wasn’t,” Harry argues lightly. “Was it?”

“He’s always been like this, Haz, if it’s any consolation. I’ve never known him in a relationship in all the time I’ve known him, apart from before the kids were born. He thinks… he thinks it has to be that way.”

“Well, I have to respect that don’t I? Even if I don’t agree with it.”

Niall murmurs in vague agreement. “I think he’s a tool.”

“Thanks,” Harry snorts softly. “Can I- like, what’s the situation? He didn’t seem to wanna tell me.”

“Man, I don’t wanna step on anyone’s toes,” Niall begins, and Harry agrees profusely. “I guess it’ll be okay to tell you a bit. So, his eldest is almost four, and there’s a baby too.”

Harry’s heart soars, then an overriding sensation of confusion sets in. He’s silent for a while as it sinks in.

“Harry? All right, mate?”

“Y-yeah, sorry…” He stammers, cupping his chin in his hand. “I… I’m just surprised. Doesn’t feel real.”

“He’ll tell you more if y’ask him. Those nippers are his pride and joy, he’ll talk your ear off about ‘em.”

Harry smiles distantly, trying to picture these still faceless children, except now he knows one is a sticky faced toddler charging about and the other is a baby. Undefined in age, it makes Harry’s stomach lurch because a baby indicates that whatever there had been between Louis and the mother of this kid was fairly recent. His brain races with a million different scenarios; he wishes he knew more so he could set his mind at ease. He also wishes he could remind himself that Louis’ past is of no concern or impact on him.

“I’m sure we’ll get the chance to chat soon,” Harry says, not hearing himself for the whirring noise of his blood soaring through his veins. “No rush.”

Niall stays on the line until Harry’s head is clear and he’s feeling a bit better. The thing is, Niall didn’t have to do that, and the fact that he had been bothered enough to pick up on Harry’s unease and stay with him until he came out the other side was something to behold, really.

The weather is heavy, so heavy that night as Harry tries to sleep. The sky outside the window is midnight blue and glowing with stars, completely clear and still. He gives up trying to sleep and throws the duvet across the room, sidles over to the windowsill on irritated limbs and throws himself down on his elbows, looking out onto the deserted street below.

A cat leaps from the neighbours garden wall onto the top of their recycling bin, and a light in a window down the street turns on, but apart from the there is no sign of life anywhere. Harry hates himself for being so affected, and asks the Gods he doesn’t believe in why he had to go and catch feelings for the one who didn’t want him.

No one can give him a straight answer.

-

-

-

-

Chapter Text

Louis

 

The next morning, Monday, the penultimate day of May, the country wakes to a heat wave that will stay for eleven days.

Louis is irritated beyond all recognition and it's not even eight am yet. Archie was irritable for most of the previous day, and had fallen asleep in his pushchair as Louis was taking them home; another thing for Jess to bemoan him for. He’d asked her to keep him updated if he got better or worse, and then promptly left. The Sunday Afternoon Slump was a real thing that hit him every Sunday after four when Archie and Emilia were gone. Some weeks he and Jess could get through the exchange civilly and other weeks they’d be firing scathing jabs at each other as soon as the front door was opened. This week had obviously been the latter not the former.

He’d still been pretty tightly wound up when he’d text Harry.

He hadn’t intended on spilling the beans to Harry and pushing himself into the Friend Zone; that’s the opposite of what he wanted. He can only hope that Harry disappears into oblivion when he comes to his senses and Louis will never hear from him again.

Now he sits in the car, ten minutes or so behind schedule but not going anywhere; irritated by his self-inflicted situation and still mildly concerned for Archie. Jess had taken great obvious pleasure in telling him that morning that he still wasn't himself. Also, why the hell is it so damn hot? It’s still morning! He sits in the car with the engine running and the cold air blowers blaring out and sends a quick text to his mum, 'stressed already and the days not begun. Call u tonight?'.

He connects his phone to the AUX and cranks up the volume, backing out of his parking space. Hi mums’ reply plays out through the car stereo speakers a few minutes down the road.

*

By seven pm it's starting to slowly cool down. He eats tea stood up in the kitchen because it’s the coolest room in the house. He’s forgotten he’d said he’d call his mum and has to feign innocence as he answers her call.

“Hiya, y’alright?”

“Fine, and you?”

“Yeah, all right now.” Louis says, stabbing at a cherry tomato with his fork, his phone sandwiched between his ear and his shoulder.

“Good boy,” His mum says. “Everything feels worse when you’re on your way to work and rushing, eh?”

“Sorry,” Louis mumbles through a mouthful. “’m eating. Yeah, work sucks.”

“What’re you having for tea?”

“Salad.” Louis says monotonously.

“Salad?” Jay repeats sceptically.

“Yes.” Louis tuts. “Why is that so hard to believe?”

“Who are you and what’ve you done with my son?”

“Ha-ha, very funny, Johannah. " Louis deadpans, exaggeratedly pronouncing every syllable of his mum’s name.

“So what’s up, babe? You miserable because it’s a bit warm?”

“Mum, shut up. We’re Northern, we’re made for the cold not heat.” Jay laughs. “No, it’s not… it’s not that. Not really.”

“What is it then?”

Louis finishes his mouthful thoughtfully, weighing up his options. He is stressed, largely, because of Archie. Obviously, his kids take precedence over anything else in his life. And he doesn’t really want to tell anyone about Harry yet, because there is nothing to tell. It’s a bit difficult to bemoan the fact he and Harry aren’t seeing each other anymore because he was the one that put a stop to their thing. So, he goes with Archie instead.

“Archie yesterday, he was really miserable all day. He napped for almost three hours, mum, then fell asleep on the way to Jess’, which of course gave her something else to bitch about.”

“Oh dear,” Jay says, swerving the topic. “Poor little Archie dot, what’s the matter with him? Is he coming down with a cold? Teething?”

“Maybe,” Louis shrugs. “I asked Jess to keep an eye on him. I’ve texted her twice but she hasn’t replied.”

“Hmm,” Jay sighs. She’s never been one for taking sides in Jess and Louis’ unconventional situation, as much as that irritates him. “I’m sure if there was anything really wrong she’d call, Lou. She wouldn’t leave you in the dark. She’s probably busy with Emmie too, you know how it is.”

“How very diplomatic,” Louis remarks drily. “Nice one, Mrs T.”

Jay cautions him and they banter a bit more, Louis feeling much better after a chat with his mum. As they’re chatting he moves around the room, dunking his plate into a sinkful of lukewarm water, makes a cup of tea – because it’s never too hot for tea – and collapses down on the sofa, legs sprawled out and TV remote in hand, ready to turn on once they’ve said goodbye.

*

Louis feels quite proud of himself by Wednesday, for getting so far into the week without thinking about Harry. But then:

Harry: ’Pinch punch first day of the month!!’

Harry sends him with a smiley and three white rabbit emojis. Louis immediately wants to hate him for it but he can't. He sends back the crying with laughter emoji and from there a conversation is born.

*

Louis gets back to the office after a viewing at about half two that Friday afternoon.

“Hey lover, how did it go?” Tina greets him with a warm smile, looking up from her computer screen as he bursts through the door.

“Dunno really. Hard to read them.” He shrugs.

The two bedroom starter home that Louis had just shown to his couple was a cute one; one with more character and depth to it than any from the endless parade of boxy new builds that he’d been to recently. They hadn’t given away much on their faces and he’d left them to it, as is customary, after the initial tour of the downstairs.

He’d been in the garden exchanging multiple messages back and forth with Jess, trying to sort things out. She wants him to collect the kids tomorrow, Saturday, instead of Sunday this week and she won’t say why. Louis frankly doesn’t care and so agrees that Saturday is fine, resulting in a barrage of messages arranging a time and Louis just wishes she’d give a time and stick to it.

“They’re off to see a few more this afternoon, so…” He trails off. He doubts he’ll ever see the couple again.

The fans are blowing full blast in the office, oscillating around, which is useful when it’s on him but as soon as it rotates away from him he’s cooking again. He’s not going to complain about the heat again, though.

In a lovely twist of fate, Louis’ three thirty viewing is a no-show, and when he calls the office to let them know, Andy tells him just to head home early. He’s got a pile of entries on his desk and several phone calls to make, but he’s not going to argue with an early start to his weekend.

*

He goes home via Asda and buys a ten pack of beers, calls Niall to make sure there are no hard feelings, and falls asleep on the sofa at two am.

*

As painfully difficult as it was to arrange, he and Jess had eventually agreed that Louis would fetch Archie and Emilia from hers at two o’clock on Saturday afternoon. He’s going to take them to his mums’ house, hopefully catch Lottie too. Emilia loves Lottie, probably more than she loves Louis himself, and visiting his mum’s house always makes for an easy afternoon.

Emilia’s backpack and Archie’s bag are already packed and by the door when he arrives at Jess’ place.

“Hi, thanks for this, you don’t mind do you?”

“No, not at all. We’re gonna go to my mums I think.”

“Great, well, I’ll come by and get them next Sunday, okay?”

“Yeah, just text me when you’re on your way. I’ll have them ready.”

“Thanks,” She says to him, before turning and hollering, “Emmie, daddy’s here!”

The little girl appears at the top of the stairs, ascending carefully, setting both feet down flat on each step as she goes. Louis steps past Jess, unlatches the stair gate and holds his arms out for his little girl, lifting her clean off her feet on the second to last step and holding her high.

“Hey princess, ready to go to Nanny Jay’s? See Auntie Lott-Lott?”

Emilia squeals with delight and Archie kicks in his car seat at their feet, though there’s no way he understands where they’re going or who with.

“C’mon then, troop, let’s get going. Say bye mummy, love you.”

They exchange Emilia awkwardly and Jess kisses her on the cheek. She then sets her down on the floor and she toddles towards the door. They do the same with Archie and then the three of them make their way towards the car, Jess waving from the door.

Louis doesn’t say anything as Emmie shouts “bye mummy” over and over down the road.

*

“Emilia Rose!” Jay booms as the opens the front door fifteen minutes later. “Hello angel, how are you?”

Louis follows behind, laden down with bags and Archie’s car seat. He’s grizzly, possibly hot or hungry or tired or all of the above.

“Hey love, you look stressed.”

“Hmm,” Louis agrees, lips set into a straight expression. “Little man isn’t amused.”

“Oh dear, c’mon Archibald, come and see Nanny.” Jay takes the seat from him, swinging it in her hand effortlessly as he collapses through the front door and throws down all their luggage with a huff.

“Lottie’ll be around soon, she stayed last night at Tommy’s so she’ll need feeding, I’m sure.” Jay explains as they sink down in the plush leather sofas in the front room. She has Archie out of his chair and resting in the crook of her arm, legs tucked underneath her body and the little boy rests nicely against her body, all his previous woes forgotten about.

That’s the magic of the loving touch of a mother.

“Okay, cool. Emmie’s looking forward to seeing Auntie Lott-Lott aren’t you?”

Emilia nods happily but continues watching the telly.

Both Louis and his mum grin at each other and carry on chatting, Archie babbling and only occasionally interrupting with a shriek or a cry. Jay feeds Archie for him and Emilia tucks into his side, the heat radiating off her.

“Let’s take your cardi off, babe, it’s hot today.” He whispers, and she lifts her arms autonomously like a robot as he takes her mint green cardigan off. The cotton sun dress she has on underneath is enough to keep her cool.

When Lottie arrives, she goes straight to the kitchen, coming back ten minutes later with a rough chunk of French stick cut into little soldiers, the ends coated thickly with butter and the salt shaker in her hand.

“Salty bread and butter,” Jay remarks as Lottie enters, mouth full. “Strange child.”

Lottie waves with her mouth full, sits down cross-legged on the floor and stares at Jay. “You raised me!” She mutters eventually as she swallows her salty bread down.

“Lott-Lott!” Emilia squeaks, vaulting off the sofa and Louis and over to Lottie, settling down in her lap.

Lottie begins to tear off chunks of bread for Emmie.

“No salt for her, Lottie!” Louis warns, his oldest sister just tutting and sighing as if to say ‘yes I know that’.

*

They have to open the patio doors due to the heat, Emilia free to traipse in and out over and over to her heart’s content. A light breeze at about five o’clock finally starts to make life a little easier. They chat easily, the three of them. Archie lays quite happily in his bouncing chair, clothes off apart from his nappy and vest, watching the stuffed animals that hang from the bar overhead jump about as he moves.

“I wonder what he makes of it all,” Jay comments wistfully, watching her youngest grandchild thrash his legs around to make himself bounce.

When Louis’ phone vibrates on the arm of the sofa, his first thought is Harry, for some reason, and he hates himself for it. But the number isn’t one he has saved.

’Hey, its Alex from the other night, hope you remember me? Black hair, gobby? :) Anyway, I know this is a bit out of the blue but if you’re free anytime I’d love to meet for a drink? Let me know. Lexi x’

It takes him by surprise, gets his heartbeat racing in an instant.

“Who’s that, love?” Jay asks, peering over quite innocuously.

“Oh uh, no one?” Louis blusters, taken by surprise still.

Lottie’s ears prick up.

’Oh uh, no one’ ,” Lottie mimics, pulling a face. “Spill the beans brother, who is it?”

“It was Niall!” Louis lies. “Weirdo.”

“No it wasn’t, else you’d have just said that the first time.” Lottie argues. “Who is it?”

“No-one you know.” Louis says petulantly, but Lottie is nothing if not persistent, and she gets a name out of him eventually.

“Oooh, is that ‘Alex’,” She uses a high voice, “or ‘Alex’?” She uses a low voice.

He rolls his eyes. “If by that first voice you mean a girl, then yes.”

“Oooh, spill!”

“There’s nothing to spill, nothing has happened yet!”

“You two, calm down!” Jay warns, though she is soft in her intonation.

He saves her number to his phone, replacing Amy at the head of his contacts. He mulls over whether to reply or not, thinking back to that night they met, reigniting his interest.

’Hi :) yeah, couldn’t forget you could i! Would love to take you out for dinner if you’re up for it? Friday 17th suit you? x’

She texts back almost immediately and Louis sticks his middle finger up at Lottie who is grinning smugly at him. After he’s suitably chastised by his mum, he replies to Alex. They make their plans and Louis must admit, his tummy fizzles a little bit at the prospect.

*

They stay for dinner at Jay’s, the other three of his sisters arriving home at various stages of the afternoon. The house is hectic with the eight of them; Jay, the twins, Emilia and Fizzy eat at the dinner table and he and Lottie sit at bookends on the big sofa, Archie snoozing between them, comatose from his liquefied cottage pie and pureed apple.

Despite his mum warning him that he shouldn’t let Archie fall asleep so close to bedtime, he does anyway, and when they’re at home an hour or so later, Archie is wide awake and completely uninterested in sleep. He babbles, coos and shouts in his cot as Louis tries to focus on putting Emilia to bed, keeping one ear open for Archie the entire time.

She’s pink cheeked and had kicked up a fuss having her teeth brushed. Her hair is slightly damp on her forehead from the heat of the day and it takes every single ounce of patience he has to settle her down.

“Wanna story!” She whines, pouting and kicking her legs.

“Okay, let’s read Have You Seen Elephant, you like that one.”

“No!”

“Well which one then?” He asks, knowing trying to bargain with a tired toddler is the number one mistake. “Lost and Found? Goodnight Moon?”

“No, make one up!”

He rolls his eyes, feeling irritation flutter inside him as he hears Archie screech. He holds his breath, wondering if a breakdown is coming, but he just carries on babbling.

“Fine. When I was a little boy, about the same age as you are now, I wanted to be Jack from Jack and the Beanstalk, remember him?”

Emilia nods earnestly.

“But of course, I couldn’t be Jack from Jack and the Beanstalk, so Nanny Jay helped me to plant an apple seed in the back garden, okay, so I would have my own plant, just like Jack. And so I planted that seed in the ground and watered it every day for one whole year .” He says, exaggerating the three words. “Then we measured it and it was one metre high!”

“How big is that?”

“About this much?” Louis holds his hand up, approximating the point of one meter off the ground. “And then every year we’d measure it again until it was one hundred metres high!”

Emilia loves it, not aware of the logistical impossibilities of the story.

“Do you know how big that is?” He asks her; Emilia shakes her head with wide eyes with wonderment. "Bigger than grandad Mike!"

Emilia makes an O with her mouth and inhales sharply. "Wow! Grandad Mike’s taller than you, daddy!"

Louis laughs fondly. Yes, Grandad Mike - or Jess' dad - is taller than him, not that that’s hard. He’s a big guy, just on the intimidating side of friendly, and reason enough for Louis to live in fear - he's already knocked up the blokes daughter twice and not entered into a relationship with her on either occasion, he doesn’t need to do anything that might accidentally piss him off further.

“Yes he is, but not as tall as my apple tree was!”

“What ‘appened to it?”

“We chopped it down and turned the trunk into paper and made story books, and Nanny Jay made apple pie with all the apples. It was yummy.”

Emilia seems like she’s not going to go to sleep, but after a kiss on both cheeks and a cuddle, Louis tucks her in and she stays put once he’s pulled the door shut. Small miracles.

After a bottle and a cuddle, Archie falls asleep in his arms. He sits frozen still on the sofa, desperately afraid of waking the child, for half an hour until his arm is dead and he’s sure Archie is out cold.

*

It’s a busy, sweaty week. On Thursday, it rains. It rains and it rains all day and the heat finally breaks. It’s a welcome surprise and Louis is half tempted to go and lie down in the back garden and bathe in the rainwater, but he doesn’t.

*

After Archie and Emilia go back to Jess on Sunday afternoon, he finds himself at a bit of a loose end. It’s been nice to have them a bit longer, even if it was only one extra day.

Harry phones him on Sunday evening, and Louis’ not sure if it’s because they’ve never spoken on the phone before, or something else, but it shakes him right to the core. He’s still fidgeting and feeling nervous ten minutes into their phone call. Harry’d remembered what Louis had told him about the kids going home on Sunday, and Louis doesn’t want to attribute Harry’s call to the fact that he might be concerned Louis isn’t coping well since they’ve gone, but his mind does that anyway.

They talk about the weather and the extra day Louis’d had with the kids, the upcoming week and then Louis remembers his date with Alex at the end of the week. Something that feels an awful lot like guilt ripples through his body as he thinks about it but doesn’t mention it, and he tries to convince himself that he’d be doing nothing wrong in taking Alex out; he and Harry have worked out their situation and it's one of strictly friendship now.

That still doesn’t make Louis tell him.

 

 

Harry

 

 

Harry does his best with carrying on after shoving himself firmly into the chains of the Friend Zone and throwing away every single key in existence. He’d decided earlier that month that a pinch punch first day of the month text was innocuous enough to send; doesn’t mean he has feelings. He sends it to Liam, Charlie, Chlo and his mum and sister too, just to doubly prove how platonic it is.

Harry had told Liam that it wasn’t happening with Louis. The conversation was not one of speed or succinctness. Harry had struggled to give Liam a reason without giving away Louis’ big secret, and he doesn’t feel like it’s his place to do so, so he has to go with the general cliché of we realised we’d be better as friends.

Liam, to his credit, had stopped bringing Louis up in conversation so much in the last week or so, so now they’re free to just carry on as normal at work, Louis living on in Harry’s brain only.

*

He goes to Charlie’s flat on Friday after work because as far as thinking about Louis is concerned, prevention is better than cure. Charlie’s flat is up sloping streets and across several main roads, at the top of a hill looking out over the concrete jungle that is the town centre. Even though Harry works at a leisure centre and is theoretically surrounded by sports and fitness-keeping all day, the closest he comes to actual activity is when he and Robbie the lifeguard mess about with the foam footballs after the under-8’s session is wrapped up.

So, he’s already a little bit wobbly at the knees by the time he arrives, and that's before he’s tackled the steps up to the front door and then the two flights of stairs up to Charlie's 'penthouse'. Taking a couple of deep breaths to try and fill his lungs and gripping the wrought iron railing tight, he begins his ascent.

There’s no need to ring the buzzer for Charlie’s top floor flat, the heavy door with its peeling paint and weather-beaten brass numbers is wedged open where the lock hasn’t quite met the hole. Harry doesn’t even have the energy to laugh at his innuendo. He pushes the door and steps over a tonne of pizza delivery menus and flyers for Christmas savings at the Co-Op - it's June for fuck's sake.

The hallway is cold where the door's been open and where there is zero heating. The terracotta floor tiles are not clean at all, probably never have been, and the ceilings are high. Harry daren’t look because there’s probably a few suspicious looking stains and cobwebs and mould that he could definitely live without seeing.

He pauses briefly on the landing of the first floor, pausing to collect himself and stare at the door of number 2. Again, he's seeing too many stars to laugh at the joke.

He carries on with the next flight, counting the steps to try and ignore the fact his legs feel like jelly. Interesting fact, this flight is split into two parts and the last leg of the journey only has four steps instead of the usual seven.

He knocks on Charlie's door, hoping he will take his time to appear so he can catch his breath. But of course Charlie doesn't.

"Styles!" Charlie greets him, face folding into laughter lines immediately. "Still not used to the stairs yet then?"

"Shut up," Harry breathes heavily, pushing past Charlie. He falls onto the sofa, waving silently to Chlo who is sat with her legs up on the beanbag chair, heels digging in to stop her feet from slipping out from underneath her.

"Hello darlin'," she greets him, clearly amused at his state too.

Once he's recovered, which actually doesn’t take that long which is a sure sign of his fitness, he reaches over for his backpack and gets out the bottle of Cuervo that he'd transported all the way over here.

As he does, Chlo fishes a Tesco carrier bag out from behind the beanbag chair.Cans roll about loosely inside as she hoiks it overarm across to land on the coffee table. Harry pauses unscrewing the tequila to watch her unload all of the brightly designed cans.

"Cosmo, cosmo, cosmo... strawberry daiquiri times three... mojito times two... Woo Woo, Woo Woo and more Woo Woo," She lines the cans up in colour order - orange, pink, yellow and green - and from a second bag Harry hadn’t noticed before she produces a bottle of Tesco Everyday Value vodka, the own brand version of Red Bull and a bottle of Fanta Fruit Twist.

Upon closer inspection, the vodka is already opened. “Started without me, did you?”

Chlo smiles apologetically and slides the bottle along. “Go on Styles, get it down you.”

Harry pours a mouthful of Cuervo into the bottle cap and tips it back, wincing at the taste. He then changes out of his work joggers for something a little lighter. Assuring Charlie that he will in fact ‘make himself at home’, they get to drinking.

*

Waking up with his cheek smushed into Charlie’s sofa and one of Chlo’s bracelets inexplicably around his wrist, the first wave of nausea hits Harry and then his headache begins.

Charlie stumbles out of his room a short while later, topless and in Calvin Klein boxers that have seen better days.

“Morning!” He says through a yawn, arms lifted above his head. “Sleep all right?”

Harry winces at the sound and shakes his head miserably. Charlie just laughs at him. As Charlie sinks down next to him on the sofa, Harry’s phone slips out from behind a cushion. Harry grabs it and unlocks it, impressed to find he still has 7% battery.

“Can I charge this?” He asks. Charlie just bats his hand, unbothered about what Harry does, apparently.

Harry hauls himself up and staggers towards the kitchenette, sticking Charlie’s charger in the end of his phone. He sees a little 8 in the red circle over Snapchat and groans audibly as he opens it up. He holds his head in his hands wearily and watches the Snapchats from Chlo with the volume turned right down.

Ten seconds of him with Chlo, the dog filter on their faces and tongues wagging everywhere, a video of the alcohol and the caption ‘#messy’, a video of him pouring Fanta Fruit Twist, Woo Woo and Red Bull into the same glass and downing it. He hears himself in the background of the last one: “C’mon, Lou, pick up, wanna talk to you!” . Chlo asks indignantly who Lou is, but the Snap ends and there are no more.

When he looks at his call log, there are five unsuccessful FaceTime calls to Louis between 2am and 2.30am.

“Shit,” He mumbles under his breath as he looks away, feeling embarrassed.

‘Morning… looks like I owe you an apology for the harassment last night. Hopefully you slept right through it but on the off chance you didn’t I’m so sorry.’

Lou: No worries, you’re forgiven.

‘Breakfast on me? I’m hanging and need feeding and this can be my formal apology x’

Lou: You don’t have to Harry, honestly. x

‘I know, I just want to x’

Lou: Okay, that’d be nice. Tell me where and when x

 

 

Louis

 

 

Louis can’t help but think that a friend taking another friend out for breakfast to apologise for a drunken FaceTime call is a trifle excessive, but it doesn’t stop him from accepting Harry invitation; crawling out of bed to splash cold, cold water on his face to wake up, and then spend ten minutes choosing a t-shirt and jacket combo.

*

Town is pretty dead; everyone else with the slightest bit of sense is at home in bed, delaying waking up to a hangover for as long as they can. Louis can hear his own footsteps scuff against the ground and he doesn’t look down because the brickwork flooring that runs along the main avenue in the town centre is a crazy zigzag arrangement and it might just make his head explode.

They’re meeting at one of those pubs turned nightclubs. The last time Louis had been here it was the morning after Emilia went home from hospital with Jess. He and his mum had sat in the corner, ordered full English’s and left them untouched, Jay breaking down silently first followed promptly by Louis.

Harry is in a booth on the complete opposite side of the room, and the place has been refurbished since that day so it’s easier to step through the doors than Louis was anticipating. Louis doesn’t want to think about Harry ‘lighting up’ as he sees him but that’s basically what he does.

“I thought you were hungover?” Louis says as he sinks down into the seat opposite Harry.

“I am,” Harry says. “Those cans of pre-made cocktails? Avoid them. They’re delicious and they just taste like fruit juice so you have five and then all five hit you at once and you die.”

“Oh dear,” Louis stifles his chuckle. “So you’re coming to me from beyond the grave now?”

Harry nods grimly. “I’m afraid so.”

Louis laughs again. He’s going to ask Harry about his evening, that way he’ll have time to come up with a story for where he was and why he got so drunk.

“So how was your evening? Messy, by the sounds of things.”

Harry pulls a face; embarrassment and dread and only faint recollection.

“I was just with my friends, Charlie and Chlo.” Harry begins. Louis wonders what these characters are all about. “His flat is up in the roof, I think I blame lack of oxygen for my drunken state.”

“Oh yes, the air is thinner two floors up.”

“Three levels, actually.” Harry points out and Louis can’t help but smirk. “But no, I was… I can’t blame it on anything but my own stupidity really.”

“You’re only young once, make the most of it.”

“Thanks, I will Grandad.”

Louis laughs again. Seems to be all he does.

They briefly pause to look at the menu, even though this is the kind of place where the food availabilities are quickly learned, and there isn’t much straying from the usual. Still, Louis uses it as an opportunity to breathe and think about what he’s going to say next.

“Let me get these?” Harry says, setting down his menu. “What do you fancy?”

“Uh, can I have the vegetarian breakfast?”

“Sure…” Harry says after a puzzled pause.

“But with bacon and sausage?”

“So… a full English then?”

“No, make sure it’s a vegetarian breakfast, you get an extra egg and three hash browns on the veggie brekkie. They’re not conning me out of an extra egg and hash brown just because I want meat.”

Louis catches Harry’s eyes quivering as he registers the innuendo and wants to comment but he doesn’t.

“Okay, so a non-veggie veggie breakfast. Drink?”

“Tea please. Milky, no sugar.”

Harry nods dutifully and ambles on over to the bar to order. He joins the back of the short queue and turns to look over his shoulder, grinning bashfully with his mouth closed.

Louis has to lift his menu over his face as he blushes.

Harry’s concentration face as he’s carrying back their drinks is hilarious; brows furrowed and tip of his tongue clenched between his teeth. Louis reaches out to take his tea, freeing up Harry’s hand. He peers over the rim as Harry slips back into his seat. The tea looks a bit strong, but he doesn’t want to say anything. He moves to put back his menu at the same time Harry reaches into the pocket of his baggy Kurt Cobain era cardigan and produces a handful of milk sachets.

He rolls his eyes as Harry catches him grinning, and reaches for a stirrer, mixing two sachets of extra milk into the beverage.

“Perfect,” He muses softly as the white combines with the brown to make just the right tea shade.

Harry is grinning at him bemusedly as he looks up.

“So, I’ve been thinking. Something isn’t right.” Harry says, but his wistful playfulness doesn’t match up with his serious words.

“Oh?” Louis asks, trying not to smile, bugger it.

“We’re mates, but we don’t really know each other. Or rather, I don’t really know much about you.” Harry points out with that lopsided grin that Louis had first fallen for. God, no, not fallen for . The smile that first… piqued his interest.

“What do you want to know?”

“Well there’s one thing I do know.” Harry says and Louis raises his eyebrows expectantly. Harry nods and continues. “You’re a tea snob.”

They both start to laugh simultaneously and Harry yelps as Louis kicks him – lightly – under the table.

“I am not a tea snob I just know what I like!”

“What else do you like?” Harry asks, eyes a bit dark, and Louis stops laughing. Harry must notice too because he straightens his spine and then drops his shoulder. “Y’know, like hobbies. And interests?”

“Uh, umm… I dunno really. I don’t have hobbies, really.”

“Really?” Harry probes. “All that free time and you don’t have any hobbies?”

“Does drinking count?” Louis asks weakly. Harry rolls his eyes. “Wel… I suppose I would still be on the footie team now if I didn’t have the kids. I liked footie.”

“What position do you play?”

Louis smirks. “Do you really care?” Harry nods earnestly. “Centre forward.”

“Cool,” Harry agrees. “I like that one. That and striker. That’s a pretty cool one.”

“You don’t have a clue about footie, do ya?”

Harry snorts with laughter. “No, is it obvious?”

“Just a bit!” Louis smirks, taking his first sip of tea. “I started in the 8’s and under and played until I was twenty. Think the last time I played I was very drunk. Broke Niall’s wrist.”

Harry inhales sharply and his eyebrows disappear into his hairline. “ Broke Niall’s wrist ?”

“Yeah,” Louis grimaces. “We were very drunk, messing about on the field. I don't really know how it happened, but… God, I felt guilty for that.”

Louis concertinas a napkin idly as they chat; conversation comes easily and he doesn’t feel as caged in as he did when they were involved, so he contributes a lot to the conversation on matters of a more personal nature. The food takes no time at all to arrive, served on blue floral plates.

They continue to chat as they eat. Louis learns two things about Harry; his tongue lolls out of his mouth like an overzealous puppy dog before he takes a bite, and he tends to shovel it in so quickly he gives himself hiccups.

“Sorry,” He hiccups with embarrassment, covering his face with his hands. “Just so hungry.”

“It’s okay,” Louis smiles as he pulls a wedge of egg white off his fork with his teeth. “Good job you’re not trying to impress me, eh?”

Harry keeps his hands covering his face for a moment, but Louis can see him visibly freeze behind the dustbin lid extremities. Eventually when he does move his hands, he drags them down his face slowly, tugging on his under eyes and pulling his cheeks downwards.

“Yeah, ‘s a good job.” Harry agrees eventually. Too much time passes between Louis’ last words and Harry’s response for it to be anything but awkward, and Louis looks immediately down at his plate. He stabs the last piece of sausage onto his fork and drags it through baked bean sauce.

He has to admire Harry’s resilience though. He pulls it back and gets them both back on track. The waitress takes away their empty plates and Harry states he wants another drink. Louis slides his debit card along the surface.

“Take this. Contactless, yeah? Get whatever you like, I’ll take another tea.”

When Harry returns, it’s with two teas.

“I can’t have two lattes on the bounce, I’ll be on the ceiling.” Harry explains as Louis watches him stir one sugar sachet into his strong tea. “What are your plans for the week then?”

Louis exhales, trying to think ahead.

“Well, the little angels come back tomorrow. Everything depends on how they are really. My eldest can be quite stroppy and the baby is temperamental to say the least.”

Harry smiles fondly. “Do you wish it was different sometimes?”

“Not really,” Louis sighs, feeling wistful. “I don’t think we’d be better together, me and her. I mean, there’s a reason why neither of us fought to try and salvage a relationship for the sake of our baby.”

“It doesn’t always mean better does it, having your parents together.”

“It didn’t in my family, no.” Louis agrees.

“Same,” Harry remarks, and Louis takes a sip, concentrates on the taste then looks back up at him. “Mine’re divorced. When I was seven.”

“That’s shit,” Louis sympathises, though Harry doesn’t look as if it’s a cause for major upset anymore. “My dad left my mum when I was a nipper, haven’t met him in more than twenty years. Doesn’t know he’s a grandad, doesn’t know about my half-sisters. Doesn’t know a thing about what my mum did for us all.”

“What about your step-dad?” Harry asks. “D’you have one?”

Louis sighs, getting ready to recite a story that he’d kept pretty much under wraps for the past five plus years. He explains the divorce, the girls’ faces, him trying to make sure they’d be okay, the guilt when he moved out and left them all six months later. Harry asks him about his sisters and he mentions all four of them in turn, agreeing with Harry’s remarks about him being outnumbered. Then, things cool down a bit and the chat turns casual and general again.

Louis initially scoffs at Harry’s idea of playing This or That but Harry perseveres and he finds himself joining in. Music or film – film. Film or telly – telly. Telly or music – telly. Tea or coffee – that’s an easy one. United or Rovers – that one is agonising, but Louis has to stay loyal to his home team, so he picks Rovers.

Though none of their answers to the This or That questions seem to mesh well, it doesn’t feel like they’re two opposites sat facing each other. Louis would say that opposites attract, but that’s probably not appropriate. Harry doesn’t even ask him where he was last night or what he was up to. Thinking about the fact that he’d woken up in someone else’s bed this morning shouldn’t make Louis feel as uneasy as it does. He has nothing to feel guilty for so why does he?

“You okay?” Harry asks, pulling Louis from his reverie. Louis focuses on him again, a slightly concerned but largely relaxed look on Harry’s face. He nods vaguely and Harry’s expression turns to a smile. “Good. Day dreaming, huh?”

“Yeah, summat like that.”

*

The next day, Sunday, is Father’s Day. It’s his first as a dad of two so they’re going out for a meal to celebrate; him, Jay, Lottie and of course the kids. Louis isn’t quite sure why his oldest sister needs to be there too, but he assumes it’s to get a free pub dinner.

Jess texts him from the door; she won’t come inside. He motions to his mum and then heads out to meet her, Emilia running through the door to him when she spots him. He holds his arms out for her and she leaps up, pinning her legs around his waist tightly. Archie is in his car seat shouting, trying in vain to reach his dummy that has fallen out.

Surprisingly, having Jess drop off the kids at the pub for a meal to which she hasn’t been invited isn’t even the most awkward part of the whole day. They exchange their children and go their separate ways quickly; the flawed picture of a family that they paint panging sharply in Louis’ chest for a moment as she goes one way and he and the kids go the other.

Louis opens his card and gift, lovingly chewed by Archie, and they order their dinners. Archie sits on his mum’s knee while they eat and Lottie takes care of cutting up Emilia’s dinner into chunks.

“Don’t get used to this being waited on hand and foot, brother,” Lottie smiles. “One day offer only. One day in the future they’ll invent Auntie’s Day and I’ll be quids in.”

“They need to invent Nanny’s Day first!”

“You get Mother’s Day too; you don’t get Nanny’s Day!” Lottie cries, startling Archie.

“Anyway, how did the date go?” His mum asks, holding up a carrot baton for Archie to gum on. “Are we going to get to meet this one?”

“Yes, Louis, how did the date go?”

Louis feels his cheeks tinge with embarrassment; he’s going to kill Lottie. He doesn’t like it when Lottie implies things about his ‘dates’ when mum is around, for obvious reasons. He’s not a monster.

“It was fine, nice girl, but… y’know. Can’t see wedding bells.”

“Oh Louis, love, same old story is it?”

“I don’t need a relationship, what’re you bugging me about it for?”

“I just want to see you happy,” Jay says. Louis’ mind forms an image of Harry in his mind. Shut up, brain.

“I am happy as I am. Got my girl and my lad, mates and a good job. What more could I want?”

“Love?”

“I am loved, aren’t I?”

“No.”

“Charlotte, enough!” Jay scolds Lottie then turns to Louis. “Of course you are love, but you know what I mean.”

“I know I messed up in the past, did things backwards, and I’m sorry if that’s disappointing-”

“No!” Jay cuts in before he can continue, and the look on her face makes Louis feel like he’s been stabbed. “You know I would never hold that against you. You know I’m hardly one to talk about families. That’s not what I’m saying. I just want you happy, whichever way that is.”

It sits uncomfortably with Louis for the rest of the afternoon, and he takes Archie from his mum so he’s got something to focus on. He feeds Archie his milk; torn between being offended at the notion he mustn’t be alone, and wanting to shout about Harry to anyone that will listen.

Except, there is nothing to shout about.

 

 

Harry

 

 

Harry decides the best thing to do would be to give Louis some space, if only for his own sanity. The apology breakfast three weeks ago now had seemed like a good idea at the time for his own selfish satisfaction, but once they’d parted ways things felt more mixed up than ever.

It’s now Saturday. It’s been drizzling all morning even though it’s supposed to be mid-July. He and Gemma have been looking at flats all morning, only about two of the five they’ve been to see so far are actually any good but sometimes it’s nice to dream. They’re ten minutes early to the sixth and final flat of the day, so they sit in Gemma’s car for a while.

“Bloody rain,” Gemma muses, staring grimly up at the spattered windscreen. She is still gripping the steering wheel and wearing her seatbelt. Harry smirks at her.

“So sister, get any good vibes from any of the places?”

Gemma shakes her head miserably. “Most of them have been mansions, Haz, I don’t think so.”

“This place looks okay?”

Gemma nods.

“Shall we go in? It’s three minutes to three now.”

Gemma nods again.

They hoik their hoods up over their heads and make a mad dash for the front door. It’s a nice enough looking block; a new build three storey tan brick in and amongst family homes with driveways and gaudy plastic swing sets in the gardens. They buzz the button for number eight and wait.

“Come on up!” A friendly voice accompanied by static crackles through the intercom and Gemma pushes the door open.

There is no lift, of note, but they’re only going up one level. The hallway is nice, Harry notices, but it’s not him who has to like it, it’s Gemma. If Gemma moved in here, the only time Harry would see this hallway is when he’s falling down it drunk, so…

“Hi, nice to meet you, I’m Gemma.”

Harry can hear Gemma up ahead introducing herself, and he lifts his head at the sound of a second familiar voice, disbelieving for a moment.

His heart simultaneously sinks and then soars as he registers that it’s Louis standing in the doorway. Louis in smart grey trousers, proper shoes not trainers, and a soft blue button down with the sleeves rolled up.

“Harry, c’mon, stop dawdling!” Gemma calls, her tone sing-song but she turns and silently hisses at him with her eyes and the air leaves his lungs like a pricked balloon as he staggers towards them, mumbling a hello under his breath. Louis very casually greets him and steps aside so Gemma can enter. Harry follows, sticking close to Gemma’s side like a limpet.

A million thoughts race through his head. Obviously, this is Louis’ job. He didn’t know it before, but now he does. That’s good, friends should know their other friends jobs, that’s just human nature. But he looks so perfectly perfect like this, hair up and off his face, he clearly knows his work very well and doesn’t lose an ounce of professionalism as he shows them round.

“So we start off in the living room, obviously, nice and airy as you can see, the lack of furniture helps to give you a real blank canvas idea of what this room could become.” He says, twirling around with an arm out. “Double aspect windows are south facing so you’ll get some beautiful light afternoons and evenings in the summer time. And the walk-through aspect of the kitchen to the lounge means even more light flows. Weather permitting, of course.”

“Lovely, right H?” Gemma asks, a little bit more in love with this place than any of the others. Harry wonders how much of that is based upon Louis’ charm.

“Yeah, nice.” Harry manages, avoiding looking at Louis, instead focussing on a nail in the wall. “Could hang a picture there.”

Gemma scoffs and snorts out a laugh. “Okay, thanks for your input, love, you can go back to sleep now.”

Harry feels his cheeks tinge and he can only imagine the look on Louis’ face.

“As I say, the kitchen is a lovely size. Not too big, not too small. Good views out over the back fields behind the estate. Plenty of cupboard space and I believe the kitchen was refurbed by the landlord last year, so it’s got plenty of life in it.” Louis carries on as they traipse into the empty kitchen.

Harry looks around; units, cabinets, spaces for the white goods and a large window with a venetian blind and a pot plant sitting on the sill. A pretty basic kitchen. His mum always says the heart of the home is in the kitchen.

“I like this, I love the open plan design.”

“Yeah, it’s a lovely layout. This sort of property is very popular with young couples such as yourselves.”

Harry’s brows shoot up as he hears and then hears again Louis’ words. He can’t believe-

“Ha, no no, we’re not- no! This lanky loser is my brother.” Gemma snorts again, clapping her hands like she’s just heard the best joke ever.

Louis smiles politely, cocking his head to the side. “Well, my apologies. I can see the resemblance now that you mention it.” He says, looking over at Harry and then back to Gemma. “Same eyes.”

“Well, has this place got bedrooms or what?” Harry exclaims, perhaps a little too forcefully, because Gemma gives him dagger stares again as they follow Louis out of the kitchen, through the lounge to a little square corridor with three doors off of it.

“This little cubby leads to the two bedrooms and the bathroom,” Louis explains, pushing open the door nearest to him. “This is the master bedroom. A good size, I think you’ll agree. Nice big windows and built in wardrobes here still in very good condition.”

Gemma looks around and Harry stays by the door. Louis stands in front of the window, one hip cocked and his arms crossed over his front and hands clasped together. Backlit with the unfiltered light from the window, the ends of his hair glow like they’re aflame and his features are darkened and fuzzy in the shadows.

“Good size, love the wardrobes. Plenty of shoes to fill those shelves!” Gemma peers into the wardrobe, the mirrored door catching Harry’s reflection. He looks away, at Louis, who is watching him contemplatively.

When Gemma closes the wardrobe door shut, they look away, jump back to normality.

“Yeah, it’s a great room. Plenty of scope. If you follow me, the second bedroom and the bathroom await.”

Louis squeezes past Harry, careful not to touch, and he steps back into the small hall. He opens the opposite door and they step into the box room, not much to be said about that. There is a cupboard built into the corner and it’d probably be big enough for a sofa bed and all Gemma’s rubbish.

The bathroom, again, is just normal; shower over the bath, a sink, a loo and seahorses in the wall tiles. Their voices echo around unstably and it smells strongly of bleach and floor cleaner.

“Well, I absolutely love it to be honest!” Gemma exclaims as they reconvene back in the middle of the living room. Harry notices dents in the carpet from where the old sofa would’ve been, and the dining room table in the corner.

He wanders over to the window to look out over the car park that surrounds the building, and further afield to the other homes. There are slithers of grey sky in between the rooftops, but the view is mostly obscured by raindrops pattering on the pane. He listens absent-mindedly to Louis giving Gemma the typical speech about other people being highly interested in the place and that homes like this don’t stay on the market for long.

Harry rolls his eyes and softly shakes his head.

“Ready, bro?” Gemma’s voice shakes him out of his daydream and away from the window. Harry lingers behind Gemma, ignoring the voices in his head that want him to speak to Louis.

“Thanks for coming by, give the office a call when you’ve made a decision either way, okay? Cheers guys!”

Gemma shakes Louis’ hand and Harry’s palms positively itch with heat as he panics over whether Louis will reach for his hand too. As it goes, he doesn’t. Gemma is heading back down the hall, leaving Harry to make his own way past Louis. He can’t help but look up then; the look they share is electric and it leaves Harry feeling breathless.

“Nice to see you both,” Louis says, just an octave above a whisper, and Harry’s not even sure if it was meant for Gemma too, but she turns at that moment and smiles brightly, still oblivious somehow.

“Thank you, you too.” She smiles sweetly and then heads down the hall again towards the stairway.

“You okay?” Louis asks him, almost silently. Harry can only nod. “See you soon?” Again, he just nods. He dumbly holds up a hand, pointing in the direction of the stairs that Gemma is just disappearing down, and Louis nods too.

“Bye.” Harry manages, half a beat too late as he’s already heading across the hall.

He catches up to Gemma on the ground floor, the girl holding the heavy main entrance door open for him with her shoulder. She’s got her hood up already and isn’t facing him. Harry’s grateful for that. He pulls up the hood on his own jacket and follows her out to the car.

Gemma central unlocks the car as they’re dashing towards it and they jump in quickly, not worrying about taking them off again. Once the doors are firmly clunked shut, Gemma takes her hood down and squeals.

“That was nice wasn’t it? I loved it, I want it now!”

Harry muses that he feels much the same, just not about the flat.

“Yeah, was nice.”

“Nice?” Gemma repeats, digging the bumf out of her handbag. “C’mon Harry, some enthusiasm, please!”

“Sorry, it was beautiful! ” He tries again, poking his tongue out. “Let me look at that.”

Gemma hands him the front page of the paperwork for the flat, stapled to it a business card. Harry pulls them apart and studies it; the glossy white card, the blue lettering spelling out Louis’ name and mobile number, the contact details for the offices and their little logo in the corner.

He turns it over in his fingers, examining the back; blank.

“What?” Gemma asks, staring at him. “What’re you staring at?”

“Nothin’,” Harry shakes his head, handing her back the paperwork. Gemma takes the business card, about to slot it inside her purse when she stops and makes a loud ‘ohhh!’ sound.

“What?” Harry mumbles, feeling his cheeks rush with heat. The rain continues to pat on the glass and the inside of the car starts to fog up with the heat of their bodies.

“Oh my God, was that your Louis?” Gemma asks, pointing back towards the building as if Harry won’t understand her otherwise. Harry nods feebly. “Well done brother. He's gorgeous!”

“Yeah he is," Harry mutters, sighing. “He’s not ‘My Louis’, though.”

“I don’t get it, did you know he was gonna be here? Did you set this up or- what do you mean, not ‘your’ Louis?”

“No, course I didn’t set it up, Gem, God! I didn’t know he was gonna be here! I didn’t even know he was a letting agent!”

“What do you mean you didn’t know?”

“I just didn’t know. There’s nothing to ‘get’, I just didn’t know. I never asked and he never told.”

“He didn’t… you barely spoke, though, I still don’t get it? And why did he think we were a couple?”

“I dunno, do I!” Harry cries out. “We’re not… there’s been a change of plan.”

“But you were dead keen last month!”

“Yeah well, I spoke too soon and jinxed it didn’t I?” Harry snaps, irritated with himself for losing it with Gemma. “I just… it’s complicated okay. Things haven’t gone how I thought they would, so friends it is. Just friends is better than nothing.”

“Haz? That last bit, yeah? The friends bit?” Gemma says, drawing in his attention. He nods feebly. “That was the least convincing thing that’s ever come out of your mouth.”

Of course, he ends up telling Gemma everything. It’s not like he could keep it bottled up inside forever. He’s painfully aware that they’re still sat outside the flat, some twenty minutes later. The windows are almost completely steamed over now and Gemma has had to start the engine and put the blowers on to clear it away.

She promises not to tell their mum about Louis’ kids, or about the fact that things have petered off between them. As far as Anne is concerned, Harry is just casually going about dating and having a good time. They drive back to the family home that Gemma still resides at (for now) and by the time they’ve arrived Harry has gone over everything with Gemma that he feels she needs to know, and they’ve got it out of their systems.

Anne is full of chatter about the flats they’ve been to see, pouring over all the print outs and flyers, studying the dimensions of each room and pointing out the practicalities and

“H, what do you reckon about that one? Would you mind if I lived there?”

Harry looks at her across the table, shaking his head. “No, course not Gems, you make the choice for you not anyone else.”

Anne looks a bit confused as she glances between her children, but shrugs it off. “That one looks lovely, I’d love for you to take me along for a second viewing, Gems.”

Harry cringes silently inside. He can just picture it now; Gemma turning up for a second time, with mum in tow, Louis’ face a picture as he meets basically Harry’s entire immediate family. While they’re at it, they could phone his dad up, and Nanna Styles!

He slips away as soon as he can, taking over the sofa and the telly in the front room. He feels his phone vibrate in his pocket as he lies across the sofa, not really watching what is playing on the screen.

Lou: So I guess now you know what my job is…

‘I guess I do’

Lou: i never normally work Saturdays, this is the first time in years, how funny.

‘Yeah, hilarious’

Harry sends it and instantly feels it was perhaps too harsh, so he adds in the blushing emoji and the house emoji.

Lou: ‘I haven’t heard from you in ages, hope everything is okay? Did your sister like the place?’

‘Are you on commission haha’

Lou: ‘No, unfortunately. Just asking as a friend.’

They text for quite a while; Gemma giving him knowing looks and Anne telling him off for being anti-social, still none the wiser. He stays for tea, much later than tea actually, not quite willing to go home and be on his own again. Gemma drives him back at ten and demands more information from him. He’s not very willing to give it up but she wears him down until he’s blabbing it all up.

He salutes a vague hello to Mikey as he arrives back but heads straight for his room, closing the door behind him and falling face-first onto his bed. He’s two seconds away from pulling his jeans down and having a frustrated wank when his phone vibrates again in his pocket.

It’s a WhatsApp group chat.

Niall Horan: ‘Hey all, fancy a drink out Saturday night? Get messy and get loud!’

A message that is just a page of beer glass emojis follows, then more details of the plans. He watches all the messages pop up as everyone in the group chat confirms their attendance. Harry can’t help but smile, despite himself.

He’s got an angel out there looking out for him.

An angel that goes by the name of Niall Horan.

 

 

Louis

 

 

It had been a confusing week, and a lonely one without the pleasure of his children’s company to distract him. With the flat viewing with Harry and his sister and their night out as a group bookending his week, the middle of it has been extremely empty.

He’d picked Archie and Emilia up from his mum’s after work on Saturday and they’d had the evening together before Jess picked them up on Sunday afternoon. It was quiet again, and stayed that way for much of the week.

On Monday, he sends Niall a sharply worded message out of the group chat, complaining that he’d better not be trying to set him and Harry back up again, but Niall had simply laughed in his face (or rather he sent a row of crying with laughter emojis) and ignored Louis’ four follow up messages.

He’d had an email from Gemma Styles late on Monday evening requesting a second viewing, and he’d typed out as formal a response as he could muster on Tuesday morning, shifting the responsibility onto his ‘capable colleague Tina’. He didn’t even stop to consider that Gemma might not even know who he is, that Harry may not have bothered to inform her because he doesn’t care enough to. He then spends twenty minutes panicking that he’d been ridiculous.

On Thursday lunchtime when Tina returns from the Styles’ appointment, once Andy is safely back in his office Louis rolls over on his office chair to get the details.

“How did it go? Are they interested?”

“Yeah, went well. She loved it. Sweet girl, right?” Tina smiles, not aware of the connection between Louis and Gemma, as minuscule as it may be. Louis nods. “I’m half expecting a call this afternoon, to be honest.”

“Who, uh, who was there?” Louis stammers, before rolling his eyes at himself and swallowing. “I mean, who did she come with?”

“Her mum,” Tina answers after a puzzled pause. “Why?”

Louis shakes his head, feigning nonchalance. He pictures Harry’s mum in his head as best he can, using his memories of Gemma and the pictures of Harry burned into his retinas. She’s possibly dark haired like Harry – there’s no way Gemma’s white hair is natural so she’s probably got it too. A family thing maybe?

“Oh cool,” Louis tries to feign nonchalance. “Thought maybe she’d have bought her partner?”

“No, was definitely her mum. Why, are you trying to pull?” Tina asks with a cackle, and Louis feels himself blush immediately.

“No!” He cries, ignoring just how wrong Tina is. “Absolutely not!”

“That’s all right then, ‘cause they kept talking about a Harry? Figured it must be the partner? So looks like she’s already taken, sorry.”

“What do you mean, sorry? I said I wasn’t interested!” Louis cries, feeling his insides flip as Tina incorrectly places Harry as Gemma’s boyfriend. The sense of knowing that she has but Tina not knowing he knows isn’t as enjoyable as it probably should be.

On Friday, he really wasn’t in the mood for company but Amy had invited herself round with a bottle of rosé and they’d ended up ordering Domino’s and got quite happily drunk together. He broaches the subject with Amy, asking if Niall’s got some diabolic plan to get him and Harry together again. She laughs initially, but then assures him he won’t stick his oar in because she won’t let him. He’s not keen on pouring his heart out to Amy, no matter how drunk and melancholy he gets, so he has no option but to just brush it off and laugh too. He’s not naïve enough to think that Niall won’t have told Amy the situation, at least in part, but there’s no way Louis is admitting that he’d actually very much like to be with Harry but has no choice but to keep him as just a mate. That all or nothing is not a phrase that applies here.

He must’ve consumed enough calorific Domino’s to soak up the fumes of the wine because he’s lucky not to wake with a hangover on Saturday morning. All day he is restless. He rattles around the house at a loose end with nothing to do until six o'clock when he can finally start getting ready. He’s already picked an outfit, because he couldn’t help himself, and he knows how he’ll do his hair.

All he has to do now is wait.

He almost dies six times, but he makes it through.

*

Harry looks so soft and lovely to Louis after a week of not seeing him, in black jeans tight enough to pass for a second skin and a lilac button up that gets progressively less buttoned up as the night goes on. For a moment - a lot of moments, actually – Louis wonders why the hell he let Harry go, but his realistic side always prevails in the end.

Their table is the loudest in the beer garden; they stay there drinking fruity cider after fruity cider until the sky is hazy pink, blue and orange and the alcohol is stopping the chill from getting to their bones.

“Are you okay?” Harry finally plops down next to him later in the evening, the boys and Amy staggering about aimlessly between the bar and the loos. “Haven’t had a chance to speak to you!”

Harry’s a little bit merry, cheeks pink but his eyes are clear and he’s completely coherent.

“Yeah, I’m fine!” Louis goes for breeziness. “You?”

“Oh, you know, good.” Harry sighs and Louis smiles. Their arms brush together and the friction makes Louis’ hairs stand on end. “Gems loved that flat, by the way. Although you probably already know that.”

“Yeah, that’s great news,” Louis enthuses. “My uh, my colleague is eagerly awaiting her phone call.”

Harry giggles. “I was wondering what’d happened to you. When Gem’s told me it was a woman called Tina, I was confused.”

“Oh yeah, I uh, I had a load on so-” Louis leaves his pathetic lie of a sentence hanging. “I’m glad she liked it.”

When the rest of the group reunite they’re still next to each other, everyone else around the table in their own official – and some not-so-official – couples; Amy and Niall, Zayn and Liam, Harry and Louis.

He can feel Harry’s eyes on him as Niall carefully passes over a pint of coke. He takes it, nods a thank you, and then turns to Harry.

“I can feel you watching me, it’s very off putting.” He says, grinning broadly as Harry’s face dissolves into an embarrassed shy giggle.

“I’ve just noticed you aren’t drinking anymore?” Harry says, with a questioning inflection. “What’s up?”

“Nothing,” Louis grins. “My babies come home tomorrow, need a clear head.”

He assess closely for Harry’s reaction. He thinks he might see his eyes shift a bit, his expression become a bit more cautious, but there isn’t anything of real value.

“Oh, cute!” He says, and Louis rolls his eyes. “What do, uh, I bet you’re lookin’ forward to that.”

Louis nods. “Can’t wait.”

Part of him is itching to elaborate, talk more about his lad and his little princess, but he holds himself back. He catches Niall catching Harry’s eye and then Niall catches his own eye, but nothing is said.

Amy’s sister Natalie arrives and takes her and Niall home, Zayn and Liam go in together on a taxi and Harry insists that it’s a pleasant evening and not much of a distance so he’ll walk home.

“Oh no you won’t!” Louis interrupts, reaching out to grip Harry’s arm, reigning in his attention. “You’re not walking back alone, you’ve been drinking.”

“Watch out, Dad Louis is officially arrived.” Niall guffaws.

Has officially arrived,” Louis corrects, rolling his eyes. “Look, H, I’ve got the car, I’ve only had a pint and a half, I’m driving you back, okay?”

It takes some cajoling but Harry agrees, and they amble to Louis’ car that’s parked on a side street over the road from the pub. Their shoulders bump together with Harry’s uncoordinated steps.

“Easy, kerb here.”

Harry giggles profusely as Louis guides him by the elbow down the kerb and across the road. “God, sorry, I’m not really that drunk. I think Amy spiked my cider.”

“I think it’s more to do with the seven bottles you consumed, my love.” Louis points out, nervous at the term of endearment that slipped out so easily before he could stop it. He watches for Harry’s reaction out of the corner of his eye, but Harry’s head is turned slightly away and he’s concentrating on not going arse over tit, so Louis can’t get a read on it.

Louis unlocks the car from a distance, the indicators flashing orange twice. He holds the door open for Harry on the front passenger side and he sees Harry gaze at Emilia’s car seat in the back seat as he gets in.

It’s a bit of a job to get Harry in and make room for his legs and get his seatbelt on, but they get there in the end.

“Ready?” He asks before they set off, headlights spilling out over the tarmac and lighting the way. The radio plays club classics quietly in the background. Harry nods and off they go.

A bit up the road, Harry takes a sudden deep breath in as he’s sitting there and then exhales noisily.

“All right?” Louis looks over fleetingly, concerned.

“Hmm? Yeah, sorry. Just… tired.” Harry says, flipping down the sun visor even though it’s night time. He throws his head back and Louis can feel Harry’s eyes on him without even having to look round. “Tell me about your kids?”

“My uh, okay. Well what do you want to know?”

“Everything?” Harry suggests. “Like, pretend I’m Niall. Tell me as much as you’d tell him. We’re supposed to be friends, after all. Friends know things about each other. Because, like, you know my sister. And my favourite food, probably.”

Louis has to smile at Harry’s rambling, slightly incoherent speech.

“Emilia Rose is three and a half years old.” Louis begins, aware of Harry blinking, that’s how attuned he feels to him. Louis sneaks a glimpse out of the corner of his eye as he’s driving, Harry looking at him contently with a small smile on his lips.

“She was born on Friday the nineteenth of October, 2012. It was raining that day.”

“She sounds beautiful.”

“She is,” Louis smiles, looking away again. “And my lad, he’s ten months now.”

“What’s his name?”

“Archie. Archie James.”

“Do they look like you?” Harry whispers.

Louis shakes his head sadly. “I don’t think so. They’ve both got their mum’s blonde hair. My eyes, but I suppose all kids have blue eyes when they’re young.”

He hears Harry hum contentedly. Again, he looks over quickly to see Harry’s eyelids fluttering.

“Stay awake, soldier.” Louis says firmly, taking one hand off the gear stick to squeeze Harry’s knee. As he does, Harry’s hand shoots out reflexively and he lays his palm over Louis’, gripping it perhaps subconsciously.

Louis’ hand freezes and he slows the car down as he takes his eyes off the road to look at Harry. His eyes blurt open as Louis looks, and he pulls his hand off quickly. He blinks a few more times and then Louis draws his attention back to the road, so thankful for the occupation.

It’s lucky that he knows his way to Harry’s place because his direction skills aren’t up to much in this state. As they pull up outside, Louis cuts the engine and climbs out himself.

“Are you coming in?” Harry asks, looking from Louis to the front door and back again.

“Oh, no I just… just making sure you get in okay.”

Harry nods after a brief pause and Louis can’t work out whether Harry seems disappointed in that or if it’s just himself projecting that onto Harry.

“Okay, well, I’m fine. I can take it from here.”

“Where is your key?” Louis asks, looking sceptically back at Harry.

“In my… pocket?” Harry guesses, hopefully. He pats down the pockets of his black jeans, pulls out his phone, wallet and gum, and eventually his house key. “Got ya!”

Louis steps back and follows a few steps behind as Harry approaches the front door, key poised. He misses the lock the first time but gets it on his second attempt. Once the door swings open, Harry turns around. Behind him, there aren’t any lights on in the house.

“You okay?” Louis asks. “You gonna be okay?”

“Yeah, I’ll be fine. Mikey will be back in the morning to call the ambulance if I’ve died.”

Louis wants to ask who Mikey is, but then Harry answers that question unprompted.

“Mikey’s my housemate, by the way. Another fun fact for you to store, here.” Harry reaches out and taps his temple to signify where Louis should keep that snippet of information. He laughs softly and Louis can’t help but smile too.

“Okay, duly noted. But I hope you don’t die overnight.”

“I’ll do me best.” Harry says, letting his arm swing back down to his side heavily.

“Okay, well, take care, okay? You know where I am if you need me.” Louis says, cringing internally at how it sounds.

Harry nods, then he rocks forward on the balls of his feet and he puts his arms out to envelope Louis.

“Thank you for taking care of me.” He says, muffled, into Louis’ shoulder. The big lummox is like a teddy bear draped over his shoulders, holding onto him tightly. His clothes smell the same as they always do and the shampoo scent in his long hair is familiar.

Louis holds onto him, tucking his chin over Harry’s shoulder firmly. “Always.”

-

-

-

-

Chapter Text

Harry

 

Days pass.

Gemma is accepted for the flat that Louis had shown them around. She’d been over the moon and they’d celebrated with champagne. He’d told Louis about it and he’d agreed that it was really good news and he hopes she loves it. He says casually to let him know once she’s moved in and he’d send some follow up documentation on.

Niall is incessantly determined on getting the two friendship groups together more, and Liam is keen on it too, for some reason. Harry has begun to get used to Louis’ routine and knows the times that he won’t be around and the times that he will be. He tries not to overthink things and eventually the situation as it is with Louis becomes acceptable to Harry, because there aren't a whole lot of other options. A lot of the lingering attraction still remains but he’s recognised that they’re just friends now and he can enjoy the hilarious things that Louis says and the weird things they laugh about together without feeling too badly that they should be more than friends. Most of the time, he can tamp down the desire to grab him and kiss his face off.

The last day of July is a Sunday and Niall has organised a barbecue, and as he’s the only one with a garden, Louis has agreed to (been forced to) play host.

The idea of getting to go into Louis’ home, get some insight into how and where he lives, gives Harry an undeniable prickle of excitement that he can’t even bring himself to try and justify. Niall is picking Liam up, so Harry hitches a ride too. Amy will come straight from work and Zayn’s making his own way over too, apparently.

Harry feels like all eyes are on him as he climbs in the back of Niall’s car, Liam in the front, but he doubts anyone actually cares that much how giddy he’s feeling, especially considering he’s not supposed to care himself.

He watches the air freshener that hangs from the rear view swing as the car moves, and his nerves bounce about inside his tummy with every second that passes. Niall pulls into an estate, much like the one that houses Gemma’s new home, around a few turns and past lovely looking family homes. They pull up outside two semis, both with driveways, white uPVC front doors and wheelie bins out front. Harry looks out of the back window across; number 14 and number 16.

“Here we are!” Niall announces, cutting the engine and immediately flinging the door open. With the engine cut the cool air stops and it's immediately stifling so Harry beats a hasty retreat too.

Niall central locks the car and leads them across the road to the house on the right of the pair, number 16. He knocks down the door but pushes it open instead of waiting for an answer.

“Stripper’s here!” He shouts as they make their way through the corridor. Liam titters like a school child and Harry barely hears it, too absolutely terrified to do anything else but follow.

At the end of the small hallway, Harry can see a door propped open leading towards the kitchen, which then leads out to the garden via double doors. The stairs disappear off upstairs, the landing at the top shadowy and secretive. For another time, maybe. To his left, at the foot of the stairs is a unit with a potted plant, a bowl with keys and a stack of junk mail. Harry can see a tiny pair of glittery purple Converse gathered neatly in the corner of the third step of the stairs.

On the right hand side, on the magnolia wall is a three aperture frame; Harry’s first look at Louis and his children. He blinks back at it; taking it all in in the time that he has.

A beautiful little girl with a slim face, wide eyes and bright white blonde hair gripping the chains of a swing, mouth set into a wide, wide grin as if she was shrieking with joy at the time of the picture being taken. The same little girl, slightly younger there, with a cautious and caring expression on her tiny face, leaning over to gently place a kiss on the head of her tiny little baby brother wrapped in a white blanket and face screwed up with newborn fragility.

A stunning lady with round eyes and a big wide smile, Emilia tucked up close to the lady’s side and the baby boy, Archie, slightly older in this picture and now fair haired and smiling too, sitting in her lap. Harry can tell without asking that the lady is Louis’ mum.

“Hey Lou!” He hears Liam greet Louis, and he drags his eyes away from the pictures, following the sound of the hubbub. As Niall ducks into the kitchen and Liam follows, Louis is revealed. Standing in socked feet in his kitchen, dressed in knee length denim shorts and a white and blue striped t-shirt.

He returns Niall’s one-armed hug and smiles warmly at Liam, looking up at Harry as the commotion settles.

“Hey you,” He greets Harry, and he’s not sure if the softer than he’s ever heard before intonation is an illusion created by his mind. “How are you?”

Harry nods, stepping into the kitchen with everyone else. He spies more photos on the fridge, the timetable of activities for a local nursery, fridge magnets from multiple UK seaside resorts. A row of cereal boxes; Cheerios, Coco Pops, Frosties. A high chair folded up in the corner, a plastic table mat shaped like a princess crown and a booster seat attached to the chair. Another picture above the dinner table; a canvas of no fewer than eight people, all beautiful ladies of a similar make up, the older dark haired lady from the pictures in the hallway, and Louis and the kids.

Of course, Louis’ home would be a family home. Harry knew that, he just guesses he didn’t expect it to be quite so homely. It blows Harry’s perceptions wide open.

“Good yeah,” He finally replies, though he’s sure he’d only been looking round for a few moments. “What a lovely kitchen.”

Niall snorts and Liam looks at him. Louis smiles too, fondly.

“Thanks, it’s not much. Fulla clutter but, oh well. C’mon, let’s head out.”

They all traipse through, Harry deciding to keep his eyes to himself for the short journey, lest his heart fully expand and implode with the domestic realness than he had been anticipating but not ready for.

Outside, there is a small brightly coloured plastic table and chairs, a football and some garden games dragged into one shadowy corner, and a messy sandpit in the other. A round wooden top table with chairs set out around it is set up for them; Niall is setting down the Asda bag of beers that he’d brought with him.

“Chuck ‘em in this, Nialler,” Louis points to a cooler full of ice and water. “Have you parked on the drive?”

“No, across the street. Thought you might need the space.”

“No mate, go an’ move it now, I’ll do this.”

Harry watches Niall slope off to move the car, obviously intent on getting merry and leaving the car here overnight.

“Apparently, Amy’s sister will fetch you guys later on.” Louis explains, attracting Harry’s attention back. He’s taking the cans out pulling them from the plastic rings and putting them in the icy water. “She’s nice, she won’t bite, unless you ask her to.”

Harry laughs weakly. Louis turns away, taking one of the pre-existing beers out of the Coolbox and handing it to Harry. “Get this down your neck, lad.”

“Thanks,” Harry rasps, taking the dripping can and sliding into the nearest chair. Liam sits in next to him and Niall is soon back and grabbing himself a beer too.

Amy arrives next, letting herself into the house and shouting from the front door all the way to the garden. Female Niall. They all greet her, not getting up. She bounds over to them, wraps her arm around Niall’s shoulder and leans down for a kiss, Niall stretching up to meet her.

“Hey Aims, grab a drink.” Louis instructs, pointing at the box over in the shade of the fence. “Sit down.”

Zayn arrives next, and last, in his regulation skinnies and high tops, but when he throws down his jacket he’s got a baggy grey patterned tank on underneath. His shoulders, back and arms are tattooed. Harry hadn’t realised that before. He looks, trying to decipher some of the designs as Zayn moves around getting a drink.

Harry would have a million tattoos himself if he could afford them. Louis’ got a few, he’s noticed; ‘Far Away’ inside his arm, a spider web on his shin, a five tally and a paper aeroplane on his forearm.

“Not drinking, Lou?” He enquires suddenly, tearing his eyes away from Zayn and his mind away from Louis’ tattoos, to the pint glass of squash set down in front of him.

“Nah,” He says dismissively. “The kids are coming home tonight.”

Harry’s heart does a somersault in his chest.

“Oh, oh cool. That’s nice.”

“They’re at my mums,” Louis elaborates, though no one had asked him to. Harry is grateful that he does, though. “She will mind them for a few hours and I’ll go and get them this evening when we’re done here.”

Niall asks how the kids are, and Zayn appears flustered but obliges when Liam asks him to hand him another beer. Harry can barely find space in his mind to document that cute little interaction as he tries to collect himself and process all that’s happened so far.

Zayn is the chef, apparently, and Niall tops up the ice in the cooler, a flurry of activity going on around Louis as he sits back and relaxes and lets everyone else take over.

“What’ve we got on?” Harry tunes into Zayn and Liam’s conversation, the two men stood side by side at the barbecue, discussing meat and fire and other manly things.

“Burgers, two types of sausage, Franks, and chorizo.”

“Chorizo, wow.” Liam says, and Harry rolls his eyes to himself with a smile.

“Yeah, Niall’s request.” Zayn is explaining. He puts down his tongs and steps away. “Just gonna get the firelighters.”

“All right, Leemo?” Louis steps in alongside Liam, patting his shoulder kindly. “How’s it going, bud?”

“Y-yeah, fine cheers. Great do you’ve put on here, mate.”

“Cheers!” Louis says, reaching over and picking something up. Harry can’t see now, only hear their low voices. “We need to be sure to keep these ones separate. These are Zayn’s, it’s halal. Make sure not to mix them up with the other stuff, yeah?”

“Y-yeah, course,” Liam stammers, Louis patting his shoulder again and coming to sit back down.

None of these things should come as a shock to Harry. Zayn is Muslim and eats halal meat. Fact. Louis and Zayn are friends. Fact. Friends do thoughtful things for each other. Fact. But seeing it play out, seeing the softness Louis is blessed with in action around his friends makes a warm tingling syrup trickle into Harry’s veins.

“You all right for a drink, Haz?” Louis asks, reaching for another can before Harry can answer. “Here.”

“Thanks,” He rasps, leaving it unopened while he finishes the first. “Food’s looking good.”

“It’ll look better once it’s cooked.” Louis jokes and Harry feels his cheeks tinge with embarrassment.

“Y-yeah, of course, I… yeah.” He dissolves into embarrassed giggles as he catches Louis smirking at him. Louis leans back in his chair, arms crossed over his body; pointy elbows, fine hairs glinting in the sun, a far away dreamy look in his eyes.

They talk. Louis asks about work and if Gemma has started packing yet, how their mum feels about her finally moving out and then Amy joins the conversation as the other three mind the barbecue.

Flames leap up from the barbecue pit as Zayn drops an aflame roll of paper into the coals. It soon simmers down to a fug and the smell of cooking meat fills the air. Someone in their garden a few doors down seem to be doing exactly the same thing.

A phone pings a few times as they chat and Harry realises it’s Louis’ phone. He also sees him ignoring it. He immediately wants to know why, even though he has no right.

Finally, someone else points it out.

“Aren’t you gonna respond to that, Tommo?” Amy asks, staring across the table at him.

“Hmm,” Louis shrugs noncommittally. He lifts his phone, peers at the screen gingerly like he’s afraid of it. “I uh, no I don’t wanna.”

“Who is it?”

“Jess,” Louis says quietly.

From the grill, Zayn looks over. “What’s happening, bud?”

“Whinging again,” Louis says quietly. Harry suddenly feels he should look away.

Louis mumbles something else then pulls his sunglasses down off his head and onto the bridge of his nose, looking down at his phone with precision.

The conversation goes on around them and Harry tries to divide at least half of his attention away from what Louis is doing. Amy and Niall have gone back to talking about something Harry doesn’t quite understand, and he does his best to ignore Louis standing up abruptly, muttering a succinct ‘Jess’ into the phone and stalking back inside.

They all watch him go but no one seems to care. Amy and Niall carry on their conversation, Liam and Zayn continue to stand at the barbecue. He lifts the lid and a plume of smoke erupts. He backs off and swats at it, picking up the tongs and leaning back in as it clears.

Harry waits as long as he can. He takes a sip of his drink and idly pops a few Pringles into his mouth. Niall has joined the other two at the grill and Amy is looking down at her phone. Harry makes a few diluted attempts at acknowledgement. Louis has been gone a good few minutes now. No one seems to notice, or at least he won’t make eye contact with anyone to find out if they notice, as he gets up too.

He wriggles out of the seat, leaving his beer on the side. Heading back into the kitchen, he has to blink a few times to clear away the distortion from the change in light levels. He realises now he doesn’t know what he’s doing.  He’s not about to barge in on Louis’ private conversation. He doesn’t know what he’s doing still as he heads through the doorway and into the hallway.

He can hear Louis’ voice coming through the living room door. It’s pulled up but not closed all the way, and he can hear the conversation, at least from Louis’ end, perfectly as he lingers in the hallway terrified of getting caught but conversely not unselfish enough to turn around and go back to the garden.

“Just drop them with my mum, Jess, I don’t see the problem!” Louis says tersely; Harry gets the impression he’s repeated himself a few times already. “Why?” Pause. He hears Louis’ voice dim a bit; he must be pacing the floor. “What’s the problem, I will be there to pick them up by half seven at the latest.”

Louis doesn’t say anything for a while and Harry’s holding his breath, terrified to move in case he makes a noise.

“Hello baby girl, you okay?” Louis suddenly exclaims, voice high and full of adoration. Emilia has obviously taken over the phone. “I miss you too baby. Can you put mummy back on, babe? Thank you, love. See you soon! Love you, babe.” When he speaks again, the warmth is gone. “So are we agreed?”

There’s another pause and Louis tries several times to get a word in edgeways before finally getting through.

“Can you keep it down, you’re going to frighten Emilia… just the lads and Amy… no, no I’m not even drinking… c’mon, who do you think I am, you know I wouldn’t- no, Jess, Jesus Christ, do you hear yourself?”

Harry knows he should back off. He’s not supposed to be hearing this.

“My mum is perfectly happy to watch them, please just drop them off with her at the normal time. They will be perfectly safe and happy with her, Jess.” Louis says, and he must get an earful in response because he hears him sigh and let out a ragged, frustrated breath. “Thank you. Jesus, wasn’t so hard was it?”

Harry feels dizzy with the combination of held-breath and his super fast heartbeat.

“Fine, see you next Sunday then.”

Harry leaps back, away from the door and into the kitchen, maintaining a less than cool exterior as Louis emerges from the lounge and looks up to find Harry seemingly just wandering in from the garden.

Louis runs his hands through his hair and then throws his glasses back onto his head. His clipped, irritated expression turns gentler as he spies Harry, he thinks.

“Hi, uh, where’s the loo?” Harry asks quickly, praying he’s got away with it.

Louis looks distant for a moment, like he doesn’t know where the loo is, but then his expression refocuses and he points towards the ceiling.

“Upstairs, top of the stairs. The one with all the Finding Dory stickers all over the door.”

Louis’ smile prevails and Harry feels a bit better. He follows Louis’ instructions and finds the door with the stickers.

*

Later on, with a belly full of barbecued food and a head fuzzy with bubbly drink, Harry’s climbing into Amy’s sister's car with Niall, Amy and Liam. Niall is calling a pining goodbye to his car on Louis’ drive and Louis himself is standing at the door, arms folded and reluctant smile on his face as they drive away.

For some reason, Harry can’t bring himself to look.

 

 

Louis

 

 

When it’s just him and Zayn left, Louis finally has time to breathe. He’d known when he accepted Niall’s request to host the barbecue at his house things would blow up in his face when Jess got wind of it. He knew that she would have something to say but he couldn’t let her dictate his life, as his mum always says.

Zayn isn’t as drunk as perhaps some of his recently departed guests were, so they sit in the cool of the lounge for half an hour or so before Louis has to leave.

“You and Liam seem to be getting on well.” Louis goes in head first, straight to the point.

“’ You and Liam seem to be getting on well, ’” Zayn mimics, rolling his eyes. “Where are you gettin’ that from?”

“Oh, c’mon, I have eyes you know!”

“Well what about you and the Boy Wonder?” Zayn retorts and Louis rolls his eyes. “Don’t give me that look, Tommo.”

“There is no ‘me and the Boy Wonder’,” Louis says adamantly. “Just mates.”

“Okay, we’ll see how long that lasts.” Zayn snorts. “Does he know he’s in the Friend Zone?”

“He’s not in the Friend Zone ‘cause there is no zone, he’s just a mate.”

“A mate who you’ve slept with?”

“Zayn!” Louis cuts in, too sober to deal with this. “What’s your point?”

“All right, sorry!” Zayn holds his hands up and chuckles lazily. “You gonna take me ‘ome then? Go see your bubbas?”

“Yes,” Louis says decisively. “C’mon, off your arse, Malik.”

 

 

Harry

 

 

Now it’s officially the first week of August and the summer holidays are in full swing, the leisure centre is packed to the rafters every day and so Harry’s workload increases and his time for sitting about spinning on an office chair and sorting through information leaflets is seriously reduced.

Thursday is a big day, with lane swim first thing followed by junior swimming lessons from 9am until two with a half an hour lunch break at half twelve-one. Harry isn’t a swimming instructor, or a lifeguard, or even a lifeguard’s assistant (though Robbie had offered to try and create a position for him once to no avail). No, it’s his job to man the reception desk and make sure every single snotty nosed four to eight year old is checked in and accounted for.

Between each check in, before the next lot arrive, he has to scour the changing rooms for any lost property, ensure all the allocated locker keys and lockers in use match up, and be available for queries from the general public at any time, of which there are many.

The reception area is calm and still. It’s five minutes before the half past one swimmers will vacate and the final two o’clock crowd will arrive, and Harry has been sent to a loo paper blockage emergency in the disabled toilets. All he can do is put an obnoxiously yellow ‘Do Not Enter’ board up outside the door and report it to the facilities manager. As he’s walking back from the loos, along past the viewing deck for the pool, he’s hit by the surge of parents making their way to the deck to observe their little darlings.

He slinks along the wall, making sure to not obstruct the way, the double doors of the exit back into the main foyer looming close now. He emerges out into the natural light of the windowed, magnolia painted foyer, realising now how flickery the light in the corridor had been in comparison.

He sits back down at the reception desk and wiggles the mouse to awaken his computer screen.

“That’s the last of the swimmers,” His colleague Kate announces, appearing from out the back with two teas in Styrofoam cups. “The trampolines are set up in hall 1 and junior footie doesn’t start til three so we’ve got a bit of time.”

“A bit of time to do nothing, y’mean?”

“No, I didn’t say that.” Kate smiles out of the corner of her mouth and lifts the tea to her lips. “Enjoy the silence while it lasts, eh?”

Indeed it is very quiet. It always is once the hubbub of the incoming and outgoing swimmers have passed. The far off noise of the whistles blowing and children yelping is muffled by thick columns of bricks and mortar, and the vending machines whirr away in the corner, but other than that it’s just the sound of their voices.

In a minute or so, Harry will head out to the changing rooms and check for lost property – again – and if he can he’ll sneak in to watch the trampolining for a minute. He’s always loved watching that.

He swigs down his lukewarm tea a moment later and then heads towards the changing rooms, bracing himself for the familiar plume of chlorine-scented hot air to hit him. It takes his breath away when it does, as always.

He gives the changing rooms a once over, picking up just a rogue t-shirt on his travels, then heads back through the double doors, past the pool viewing deck and out to reception, but he doesn’t get that far. Even in the dimmed, unstable light of the corridor, he recognises Louis in a heartbeat.

But ironically enough, he recognises the woman he is with just half a beat before he recognises Louis. It’s been almost a week since they’ve seen each other or heard from each other, and that might as well have been a year for how rigidly nervous and unprepared Harry feels and Louis looks.

Once Harry has had a moment to take it all in, time comes hurtling back to normal speed. The woman that he knows from the pictures to be Louis’ mum is pushing a pushchair, inevitably staring back up at her is Louis’ kid.

“Lou?” She asks quietly, looking across at Harry then back at her son with a confused, weary smile. “Who’s this, babe?”

“Mum, this is Harry, he’s… he’s one of the lads, y’know?” Louis explains hurriedly as he springs back to life. He looks almost through Harry as he speaks.

“Hello love, I’m Jay, Lou’s mum. Haven’t met you before, have I?” The lady asks, kindness seeping out of every word and Harry sort of wants to hug her just because.

“No, I’m uh, we just met a few… a while ago?”

“Ah, that explains it. Well, it’s lovely to meet you still.”

“You too, Mrs… I mean, Jay.”

She’s smiling and just about to probably say something else when the displeased shriek of a nearby small child pierces through the air and her attention is stripped away from Harry again. Louis stands there gormless, his mum bending down and cooing in peacefully at the small child rocking their pushchair using just the power of their legs and the force of their anger.

Harry watches, unable to tear his eyes away, as Louis’ mum lifts a baby boy out of his pushchair and props him up on her hip. The young boy immediately calms down in the arms of his grandma. Harry watches the little boy, bright blue eyes like Louis’, hair as white as snow and cheeks bright red. He’s wearing soft little trainers, elasticated chino shorts and a yellow and green striped t-shirt that is all bunched up around his middle from being in transit.

Harry caves in on himself, blinking the scene away. He feels like he’s witnessing something he has no permission to witness.

“I’m uh, y’know. Gotta go. Was nice meeting you!”

“Bye lovey!” Jay leans past Louis and smiles, the infant on her knee in the process of taking a fistful of her long brown hair. He can hear her start to ask Louis to pass her something as he stumbles away, not even bothering to formally say goodbye to Louis.

*

He’s calmed down marginally, by the time he sees Louis again. He knew it was inevitable so he’s had time to accept it. He and his mum pass by the reception desk as they’re leaving; Jay pushing a sleeping Archie in his pushchair and Louis with a little girl who is obviously Emilia draped over his body, the little girls wet ringlets dripping onto Louis’ shoulder. Her face is flushed and pink and she looks tired and fed up; it feels like she watches Harry as they pass by, but for all he knows she could be looking at anything. Probably the plastic palm tree behind the desk.

It’s Jay that acknowledges him as they leave, which hurts.

*

“Nice balls, Liam!” Harry calls across the empty reception area as Liam appears, struggling a bit to get the giant net of foam footballs through the doors without trapping one.

“Har-har, very hilarious. How about get off your booty and help?”

“Booty?” Harry echoes, raising an amused eyebrow. He hauls himself up out of his chair, palms flattened against the counter and back clicking.

It’s been four hours since Louis had walked away and Harry has largely returned to normal now, the shaken flush removed from his pale skin. The last of the admissions for karate and trampolining are in now and there are no more sessions for the day, just the last two remaining ones that are still going, so it’s quite and has been for the last twenty minutes or so.

He ambles over to Liam. “Can I help you with your ball bag, babe?” He asks, poking his tongue out and giggling as Liam throws him a look and hoofs the bag at him.

Liam follows him over to the store cupboard with two crates of cones and markers and multi-coloured team bibs. They put away the stuff in the musty cupboard, taking a moment to laugh, as always, at the horrendous dummy used for health and safety briefings, and then emerge out into the reception again.

Harry takes in a lungful of clean air and heads back over to the desk, Liam following close behind.

“So how was your day?” Liam asks, throwing himself into Kate’s vacant chair. “Busy?”

“Yeah, so-so,” Harry shrugs, thinking about the seemingly endless stream of young people that have passed through their doors today. “Set for the next five weeks now, eh?”

Liam nods grimly, the prospect of the six week summer holidays from school one neither of them are overly happy about.

“Louis was here.”

“Oh?” Liam asks, his interest aroused. “In what capacity?”

“In a bringing-his-daughter-swimming capacity.” Harry says matter-of-factly.

“Oh,” Liam says again. “Did you… how did that go?”

“Fine,” Harry lies. “We’re just mates, so there’s nothing to ‘go’, obviously.”

Liam nods. “Obviously.”

Just friends like you and Zayn are just friends, Harry thinks, but instead he says, “I met his mum.”

“Oh right, what’s she like?”

“Nice,” Harry nods. “Long hair, friendly looking. Quite mumsy.”

“You’re really selling her, mate.” Liam exclaims with a soft laugh.

“Shut up,” Harry pouts, but he ends up telling Liam how much of a fool he felt he’d made of himself, and how Louis had blanked him when they’d been leaving. Liam, as always, is full of well-rounded advice which is so neutral and unhelpful it leaves Harry feeling no more sorted than he had before Liam opened his mouth.

They fall into an easy silence, spinning round on their chairs idly. Harry’s phone vibrating and illuminating on the countertop shatters the silence a few minutes later, and Harry glances over at it uninterestedly, expecting a junk email or a notification from one of the many useless apps on his phone. His heart does a double flip when he sees, however, Louis’ name on the display.

Lou: hey, nice to see u today, sorry about mum she will talk your ear off if you let her. Emi shattered from swimming so some peace while they both nap, afternoon sorted. Hope works okay, sorry didn’t get a chance to say bye x

“What’re you grinning at?” Liam asks, looking up from his own phone.

“Nothing!” Harry protests, but Liam slides his feet off the desk and onto the floor, rolls his chair across and dives into Harry’s personal space, getting a look at his phone screen.

“Oooh, ‘Lou’ is it?” Liam swoons, trying to snatch the device but Harry just manages to stop him in time. “I’m guessing by that megawatt grin on your face that it’s good news?”

Harry, again, keeps silent, trying hard to stifle his grin as he rolls his eyes at Liam and then focusses on Louis’ text.

“See!” Liam sings smugly. “Told you y’had nothin’ to worry about!”

*

It isn't anything to worry about, Harry tells himself repeatedly in the days after Louis tells him he's going away for a week to Spain. It's literally a holiday with his children and mother, what level of debauchery could he possibly get up to? But no matter how many times he tells himself that, it still doesn't stop his brain coming up with a million different scenarios, each one more ridiculous than the last.

He’s got a Sunday dinner at the pub with the boys and Amy to get through first, though, courtesy of Louis’ goodwill. He’s not sure - not that he really cares - whether referring to it as The Last Supper is in poor taste and a bit over dramatic or not, but nonetheless he heads off with Niall and Amy to meet Louis on Sunday afternoon. A message to Liam sits at the top of his thread:

‘Off to the last supper, definitely not getting into heaven now, see you in the fiery pits of hell, i‘ve already had 2 shots for luck cus im nervous so when this all goes wrong at least i will have something to numb the pain. Goodbye Liam x’

 

 

Louis

 

 

He’d panicked, okay?

He’d fabricated an imaginary roast dinner that he, Niall and Amy were going for and invited Harry along because he had felt just a little bit sick at the thought of not seeing him again until after the holiday to Spain.

Luckily, Niall was never one to turn down a Sunday roast and Amy would come along even if there was dead pigeon carcass on the menu. All Louis has to do is make sure that Harry never twigs there was no dinner plans until half an hour after Louis had invited him.

It’s the fourteenth, T minus one day until holiday. He’s picking the kids up from Jess at four and the plan is to get them to sleep as early as possible so the transition from bed to the car at four am isn’t too much. Lottie had texted him earlier in the week, full of glee that she’d managed to get a seat on the same flight, just a few rows down, so she’d be coming with them. Their youngers sisters weren’t amused at having to stay behind with their dad.

The bags are all packed and ready to go, he’s bought travel versions of everything he could possibly need for Archie, and spent an eye watering thirty six quid on four measly bottles of suntan lotion.

He’s sitting alone waiting for Niall, Amy and Harry because he’d purposely arrived twenty minutes before the agreed meeting time because he couldn’t sit at home and stew a moment longer.

He deflects every single pitying look he gets with a scowl, picking up and putting down and picking up again his phone just for something to do with his hands. His boring old Coke sits heavy in his stomach, expanding him with fizz and giving him a bit of a tummy ache. The nerves piled on top don’t help either.

By the time Louis sees the familiar face of Niall appear over the other side of the pub, he’s about ready to burst out of his skin. He jumps up with a hearty “wahey!” to greet them.

Amy goes right in for a hug, overtaking Niall as the leader of the gang as they filter through the growing crowds around the bar. She flings herself at him, lifting her five-foot-nothing self onto her tiptoes and throwing her arms around his neck. He breathes in the familiar scent of her perfume and the smell of her and Niall’s home.

“All right, gorgeous?” She says softly into his ear. He nods as they separate, hoping his smile is enough to convince her. She tilts her head and smiles back, subdued though. “Good boy.”

“Nialler!” Louis moves on to Niall as Amy slips into her seat, hauling her handbag up onto her knee to delve in. Niall’s hug is forceful and his Irish friend’s grip around his shoulder still permeates his skin even after Niall has pulled away.

Then he’s faced with a problem. A problem that he’s only got half a millisecond, one whole second at most, to worry about before he has to act. He’s hugged Amy and he’s hugged Niall, it’d be weird if he didn't hug Harry, right?

Harry approaches, skin pale as a milk bottle and bitten with a soft pink flush that Louis knows can't be down to coldness or unexpected exertion, so must be down to something else. He's got both hands stuffed into his pockets and his head bowed though he’s looking up at the scene unfolding through heavy lashes.

“Harry!” Louis exclaims brightly, hoping his hesitation wasn't evident. He approaches Harry with one arm open wide. Harry physically relaxes in his arms; Louis can feel it under his fingertips.

“Hi Lou,” Harry says soft and low into his ear. “How’re you?”

“Good, yeah, thanks. You?”

He rocks back on the balls of his feet as they separate, automatically reaching up to tug at the sweeping trail of his fringe with one hand.

“I’m fine thanks,” Harry grins, motioning towards the spare third chair that Louis is currently gripping the back of. “Is this my seat?”

Louis bursts back into life then, looking down at the chair and then behind him to where he’d been sitting previously, then back at Harry.

“Oh! Y-yeah, yeah, that’s free. I’m here, so....” He points to his seat, then promptly turns and throws himself back into it, feeling like Amy might be staring at him. He doesn't look up to check.

*

Their table is definitely one of the louder ones as they sit there with now empty plates. Niall laughs raucously, his Irish lilt cutting through the low level hum of noise around the room.

Harry, to Louis’ sheer delight, is throwing his body back into his seat laughing along with the others, his shoulders going limp and trembling as he laughs.

“Oh! Niall!” Harry suddenly exclaims, banging his outstretched palm on the sticky surface, flinching as he surprises even himself. Louis smirks. “Lou-Louis told me the other day that he broke your wrist! Tell me more about that, please!”

Niall throws back his head and guffaws, mouth wide open, as Louis outwardly groans and covers his face with his hands.

“Christ, I’ll never forget that night!” Niall hollers, before proceeding to recite the tale of the drunken night where they’d found a battered old football in the bushes on the way home from a night out. Louis’ dribbling skills were proved to be not what they once were and during an ill-fated tackle, they’d both got their feet tangled up and Louis had accidentally grabbed hold of Niall’s shirt to try and stop themselves falling, they’d both gone down and landed in a pile on the floor, Louis’ hip jarring Niall’s bent wrist backwards between concrete and, well, more concrete. The booze had numbed most of Niall’s pain, Louis still maintains, but all three of them had had a go on Niall’s gas and air and Louis fell over in the waiting area.

“Oh my God, that’s class!” Harry honks like a seal and Amy bursts out laughing at him. “I can’t believe I forgot to ask you at the barbecue!”

“That last bit didn't happen! I did not fall over twice in one night!” Louis cries, but it’s no use, no one is listening to him.

Amy orders herself the mega deluxe strawberry shortcake sundae for pudding, which the waitress inadvertently brings with four spoons so they all get stuck in, leaving Amy with very little to herself.

They all hug again as they go their separate ways; Louis normally doesn’t have time for Amy’s continuous insistence on hugging all the time, but he’s so grateful for it as he’s rising onto his tiptoes and feeling Harry’s arms around his back and his lingering hand on his waist.

As they step out of the doors into the open air, drizzle hits them and that’s how Harry ends up in Louis’ car with him, sitting in the passenger seat, knees pointing slightly inwards towards Louis and his hand gripping his thigh until his knuckles go white.

The drive isn’t far and Louis pulls up on the street outside, managing to find a narrow space to parallel park into. Once they’re stationary and he cuts the engine, Harry’s breath releases like he’s been hooked up to the car engine and his power supply is gone too.

“Thanks for this,” Harry speaks, looking away from Louis and out the rain spattered window pane. His voice echoes as it bounces off the cool glass.

“That’s okay,” Louis manages, looking down at a nick in the stitching on his steering wheel. There is a sticky mark on the centre where the horn is, from where Emilia had been ‘playing taxis’ last week. He mentally scolds himself for one, not noticing it until now, and two, letting it fester for a whole week. “Couldn’t see you head out in the rain, could I?”

“It’s still coming down,” Harry muses, looking back round. Louis nods. “It’ll probably go on all night now. All week, in fact.”

“That’s okay, I’m off to Spain in thirteen hours, I don’t care.”

Harry snorts softly and smiles at him. “All right, rub it in why don’t you?”

“Sorry,” Louis replies with his own bright smile. His eyes wander over to the dashboard clock then back at Harry.

“God, sorry, I forgot you’re on a time limit. I’ll head out now. Thanks again.”

“That’s okay,” Louis says quickly, not wishing to will away Harry with his eyes like he’d inadvertently done so. “Wasn’t tryin’ to rush you, I’ve got time.”

“Still,” Harry says, slowly. “You don’t wanna be late to pick up your babies.”

It sounds funny coming from Harry, but not funny in a bad way. Funny in a way that Louis wants to hear it again. And it’s funny that Louis is feeling that way because there is zero indication that he’ll ever be able to act on his feelings.

“Need a wee, actually,” He blurts out suddenly, mindful of the fact it's approaching half three and he really does need to be getting on the road to Jess’ soon. “Mind if I, uh, y’know?”

“Oh!” Harry exclaims, as if he’s only just caught on. “Yeah, ‘course. C’mon, let’s get inside quick.”

They cut a mad dash across the street, the rain still coming down steadily. Harry vaults over a puddle that occupies the gutter, stepping onto the pavement and side stepping an errant recycling bin that has blown out of place. He leads the way up to the front door and Louis follows behind, shielding his face from the rain whilst still trying to keep an eye on where he is going.

Harry pushes the door open with his shoulder, mumbling something that Louis doesn’t quite catch as he does so.

Neither of them want to acknowledge that Louis’ been here before and knows the basic layout, it seems, because Harry presses on with directing him towards the room and Louis doesn’t stop him, following the unnecessary directions.

Inside the privacy of the small room, with its old fashioned lilac bath and sink and scuffed floor tiles, Louis runs his hands over his face and breathes heavily behind them. This is ridiculous.

He flushes the loo, even though he didn’t even go, and makes his way back towards the kitchen that Harry told him he’d be waiting for him in. They exchange smiles as Louis heads in the door, only slightly awkwardly.

“That’s better, thank you.” He says, his attention drawn to the sound of far off thunder rumbling in through the open window. “Oh. Storm’s coming.”

Harry nods. Again, he makes a weak joke about Spain and stowing himself in Louis’ suitcase, then reminds Louis that he really should get going. Louis nods, not moving for a second, but then he launches himself off the unit he’d been slumped against and makes his first step towards the kitchen door.

“So, cheers for coming out today, was nice.”

“Of course,” Harry nods. “Wouldn’t miss it.”

“Don’t need alcohol to have a good time, see?” Louis jokes softly.

Harry laughs. “Wow, a certified Dad Joke!”

They walk towards the front door, out of the small kitchen and into the narrow hallway, towards the light streaming in through the small panel in the front door.

“Right, so I’ll see you as and when then?” Louis says, knowing he’s stalling now but he’s unable to control himself.

“You will do,” Harry says, and he steps forward one footfall, Louis instinctively moving forward too to meet Harry halfway, their third hug in as many hours.

This one goes on longer than the two in the pub had. Just the mere action of being close to Harry makes Louis’ heart beat too fast and he wonders if Harry can feel it knocking between their bodies.

“Have a lovely holiday,” Harry says, his chin still hooked over Louis shoulder, his hands still positioned on his back strongly. It sends a shiver down Louis’ spine. “Try not to miss me too much.”

It’s meant as a joke, of course, Amy had said the same thing, but when Louis tries to laugh casually nothing comes out.

Louis pulls away first, the fear that his heart is about to come bursting through his chest wall making it hard for him to concentrate on anything. But then Harry’s hand is off his back and up around his cheek, drawing his attention up. Their eyes meet and Harry’s lips press lightly against his. Louis shivers in his arms and subconsciously licks his lips, the very tip of his tongue brushing over Harry’s lips.

Then they both speed up and start moving, like someone pushed the fast-forward button. The next kiss, the first proper kiss, is much more tangible; Louis’ eyes flutter closed as Harry firmly moves his lips against Louis’, quickly prompting his lips apart with the tip of his tongue. Louis obliges, letting Harry in.

He takes note of things like Harry’s taste and the burn in his calves as he tiptoes to Harry’s level, the feel of their skin touching and what the rub of his stubble might feel like for Harry, all in all affording far too much of his attention to the moment.

With his eyes still closed he draws back and rests his forehead against Harry’s. They stay together like that for a second then Louis rocks back down to flat footed with a resigned sigh, his breath warm on his parted, kissed lips.

“Harry…” He stammers, his breath catching on the first syllable with nothing much else on the remaining syllable.

“I know,” He says, not moving. His hands still hold Louis and there is still an ignited glow at the point at which they connect.  “I’m sorry. I- I shouldn’t have done that.”

They separate silently, avoiding eye contact for a while until they’ve inevitably got to look at each other again. Harry steps aside to open the front door and Louis ducks over the threshold onto the outside step. Still raining.

“I mean it,” Harry says. “Have a lovely time. Enjoy yourself, yeah?”

“I will. Take care, yeah?” Louis replies, bunching his fist into his jacket sleeve. “I’ll see you soon?”

“You will.”

*

“Oh shit shit shit shit!” Louis groans loudly at himself as soon as he’s safely in his car and the door is slammed shut. “You stupid fucking idiot! You weren’t meant t’do that!”

He can still feel Harry on him, can smell him on his clothes. He slams his palms against the curvature of the steering wheel and leans forward, holding his head in his hands.

“He’s your fucking friend you stupid bloody twat!

He regrets letting himself backslide. He’s angry at himself for allowing it to happen, for recognising and blatantly ignoring several warning signs in the lead up to their kiss. He doesn’t regret the kiss though. It was good and it was sweet and he’d live a million lives if it meant he could have Harry’s kisses in all of them.

But he’d thought they were getting good at the friends things now. He’d thought that in time the lingering feelings he had that he’d been stomping down with his foot would eventually disperse into unrecognisable mulch and he’d be free.

He was bloody wrong.

*

The icy, prickly indifference that he gets from Jess compared to the warmth and comfort of Harry that he’s just left makes him feel cold as he stands in the hallway of a house that is still unfamiliar and sterile to him after all these years, waiting for his children.

Emilia has darted down the hallway to see him, promptly called back by Jess to finish whatever it was she was doing when he’d arrived. As he listens to Jess bark orders at Emilia, he sees an unmistakable tuft of white-blonde hair pop up around the door frame to the lounge, and a second later his son’s mischievous face appears.

His sons’ blue eyes practically shimmer as he spots Louis, and Archie giggles excitedly as he shuffles unsteadily across the laminate wood flooring towards him. Louis dashes forward, scoops Archie up and exclaims loudly as he lifts Archie into the air and settles him on his hip.

“Hey bud, I missed you!”

“Gahhhh!” Archie shrieks, reaching forward to grab Louis’ nose; he’s completely unfazed by the sticky, slobbery attack.

“Oh no! You got dada’s nose! Give it back! Gimme gimme gimme!” Louis cries in a high pitched voice, tickling his tummy as Archie babbles happily. “Where’s that sissy of yours, eh? Shall we go and see what she’s doing?”

“Yannnn!” Archie squeals, which Louis takes to mean yes.

He treads gingerly down the hall, Archie wriggling in his arms, dying to get free. Since he started shuffling about on his hands and knees about two or three weeks ago, he’s constantly wanting to be on the move now.  Louis sets him down on the floor and watches him propel himself along on his pudgy little legs and arms.

“Hey little lady, almost ready?” He addresses Emilia, who is currently dispersing a pile of story books into a mess over the floor.

“Yeah,” She says, though she doesn't have her shoes on and her favourite blankie is still sitting on the sofa cushion. “Can I take my books, daddy?”

“I don’t know, better ask mummy, babe.”

“Ma-ma-ma-ma-ma!” Archie shouts as Jess appears back in the room, another thing that’s new.

“Wh-when did he start doing that?” Louis asks.

“What, the ma-ma-ma thing? Oh, just recently.” Jess says casually. “And yes, Emmie you can take a book as long as you look after it.”

“Oh,” Louis nods at her non-answer. “You, uh, don’t you think you coulda told me? That’s like, a massive milestone for him, Jess.”

Jess’ mouth twists at the corner and Louis thinks maybe he might recognise a flash of guilt in her expression.

“Sorry, but I didn’t think it was like, a proper first word, y’know?”

“Well it is,” Louis snaps, rolling his eyes and looking away, to the photo of the kids, Jess and her parents that sits on the windowsill. It irritates him no end.

They’re saved from having to interact any more by Archie pulling a catalogue off the side onto himself and bursting into tears. Louis rushes to his side instinctively, which puts Jess’ nose out of joint, but Archie is obviously fine and Jess begins finally to round Emilia up.

She makes a huge show of saying goodbye to the kids, even more than Louis did when she took them to Cornwall for the week. Louis stands in the corner, gripping his left elbow with his right hand, working to keep his breathing controlled. Finally, after far too much dramatics, they’re in the car and on their way home.

*

The holiday begins at 4am in dark and drizzly North West England, Emilia desperately trying to stay awake and soak up every single second of the experience. Archie had barely stirred when Louis lifted him out of his cot and into his car seat five minutes before the off.

Both Emilia and Archie are asleep before they’ve hit the main road.

The thing about airports that has always been interesting to Louis is the fact that no matter what the time of day, they’re always bustling with people and it feels like it’s the middle of the day. The social constraints of the clock have no bearing in airports; he’s guzzling Coke and eating a Whopper and chips from Burger King at five in the morning while Archie gums on a fry and Emilia picks uninterestedly at her nuggets. There is a machine outside Boots across the waiting area with a flashing light on top that measures your height and weight, which she was most put out to find she was not allowed to have a go on, so she’d had a face on ever since.

Lottie’s lash extensions and semi-permanent eyebrows help her to look the most awake out of any of them, but there is a far away glaze in her seafoam coloured eyes that reveals just how tired she is too. She’s got her face in her phone, ignoring Jay’s multiple attempts at getting her to put it away.

“Leave Tommy alone, love, let the lad sleep!”

“He text me first, leave it out!”

Louis tunes it out, not prepared for any more bickering this side of 6am. He does sort of feel for Lottie, he’d be texting Harry right now if he could - but he can’t and there’s more than one reason for that. At least Lottie and Tommy have their shit together enough to actually be in a proper relationship together, which is more than can be said for him. At nineteen, his little sister has her life together better than he does at twenty six.

Perfect.

“Do you think they’ll sleep on the plane?” Louis asks his mum, who sits opposite him, an arm around Archie in his high chair and her other hand clutching a steaming coffee.

“You’ll be lucky!” She snorts. “Archie, maybe, but my bet is Emmie will be far too excited. It’s a new experience, all those new things to fiddle with! The lights out the window, she’ll have a whale of a time.”

Louis nods, processing it. He hasn’t flown in years and he has certainly never flown with children. He hopes for the best.

*

As it turns out, after the stress that was check in, passport control and queuing up to actually get on the plane whilst keeping Emilia under control and Archie from screaming the place down, the actual flight is the easy part.

Lottie’s sitting two rows behind them on the other side of the plane, and after take-off once the initial excitement has worn off, Emilia stands up in her seat, gripping the head rest and shouts, “Auntie Lott-Lott, where’s yoooou?!”

Louis cringes at the attention drawn, and mumbles several apologies as he pulls Emilia back down into her seat and tries to placate her with the iPad.

The seat that he’d had to pay for for Archie goes largely unused as the young boy spends the majority of the flight sitting on Jay’s knee in the window seat, staring down at the twinkling lights below in the darkness. It gets progressively lighter as they travel on, and the sky is waking up and dressing itself in peachy pinks as the announcement of the start of their descent comes over the Tannoy.

Archie’s popping ears bother him as they land, and it pains Louis’ heart to him crying and not be able to do anything to help. He holds Archie’s dummy in place for him as he sucks on it furiously, hoping it will help him to pop his ears free. Emilia must pick up on the slight unease because she starts to whimper too. Louis clutches her hand and smiles weakly over the two kids to his mum, who has taken over caring for Archie.

Emilia cries properly as the plane bounces and screeches to a halt as they touch down in Spain, but once the plane has slowed right down to a taxiing pace towards the terminal, she’s happy again and wanting to get out of her seat and go and tell Auntie Lott-Lott all about the plane jumping.

As they had had priority getting on the plane in England because of the kids, they get to pile off in the first wave of passengers too. Security and baggage claim isn’t too bad this side, and Archie’s pushchair appears on the baggage carousel early on so they decant him into there and that only leaves Emilia to deal with. It’s now just before ten am, local time, and she is past the point of tired.

With Emilia on Lottie’s shoulders and his mum with Archie, it’s his job to get the bags onto the trolley and get them to the coach that’s taking them and many others to their hotels. Unloading the bags for a third time and dismantling the pushchair is a job, and the coach is stiflingly hot, it takes two hours to do a full drop of all the guests to eight different hotels, and theirs is last on the schedule, of course.

It’s a lovely day by the time they step off, though. Archie is awake but happy and Emilia has slept for most of the coach trip too so she’s refreshed and in a seemingly amiable mood. Lottie and Jay have one room and he and the kids have a family room; a double bed, a single bed and a travel cot inside a cool, tiled space. He can see guarantee now, the single bed will not be slept in by Emilia once.

They’re only one floor up, and the view is of the dusty Spanish street, but it’s better than home. Emilia sits on the balcony with the iPad and the remaining sour cream and chive Pringles she’d got on the plane, while Archie sits in his buggy shaking a rattle about noisily.

Louis takes the time to unpack. He thinks back to his last holiday abroad; the obligatory lads holiday to Magaluf when he was eighteen. That holiday had been one of the last times he’d seen his mates of the time - Niall and Zayn the only two left standing. The last thing he did there was unpack. In fact, he’s pretty sure he didn’t ever  unpack, just picked a clean t-shirt out of his suitcase whenever necessary. Now though, he takes the time to hang everything up on the hangers he’d brought from home, and folds all of the kids’ tiny little outfits onto the shelves built into the wardrobe. He sets up the travel bottle steriliser in the bathroom and displays all the bath products.

His mum will be proud.

*

Jay is indeed very chuffed when she and Lottie shuffle down the corridor from their room to his an hour later, keen to check out his room and compare it with theirs.

“It’s bigger than ours!” Lottie moans, looking around with her arms crossed.

“Yeah, it’s a family suite, what do you expect?”

“Your view’s a bit shite,” She comments, wandering over to the balcony, dropping a swear even though Emilia is sitting right there.

“Lottie,” Jay warns. “Language please.”

“What’s your view like, ‘en?” Louis asks, sitting down on the edge of the bed.

“Good,” Lottie replies smugly. “We can see the very edge of the pool.”

All three of the adults laugh, prompting Emilia to do the same.

They head out to the town, perusing the shops on the front and admiring the beach. Archie is passed out with the parasol covering him, happy to be pushed around in the warmth all day. They take it in turns to entertain Emilia, and then eventually head back to the hotel with a carrier bag full of familiar looking bottles of Coke and Fanta and packets of Haribo and crisps in the European versions of their packaging.

Once Emilia has realised there is a swimming pool at their hotel, however, they can’t get her to talk about anything else but it. Her hair is a matted mess and stinking of chlorine by the time they manage to get her out of the water at six o'clock. Holiday or not, bath time is still a very real thing and the evening routine is fraught to say the least until they finally get out of their room and meet Lottie and Jay for dinner.

The dining hall is all set up for dinner when they arrive, cutlery clanging against ceramic and the low hum of chatter in several different languages. Kids screech and scream and Louis knows they’re only going to add to the hubbub.

The microwave has several large signs up around it saying ‘treat me with care’ that Louis finds humorous as he stands waiting for Archie’s little bowl of jarred baby food to heat up. Emilia is back at the table with a big plate of fries doused in ketchup. She’d eaten a large bowl of pineapple and mango earlier, and a bowl of sorbet. Basically, nothing proper at all.

It’s only half nine when he crawls into bed - half eight back at home - not a time he’d usually crawl into bed, but with the tense stress and early start combined with their flight and coach journey, he’s bloody knackered. Emilia has fallen asleep in her own bed but he doesn’t know how long that will last.

He picks up his phone where it is connected to the charger, which is plugged into the wall via the European converter. He goes straight to Harry first, tapping out a message that requires no thought whatsoever.

’If anyone ever suggests you fly with a baby and a toddler, don’t listen to them okay? Promise me. Hope you’re okay anyway, I’m in bed already, only half nine. Knackered ain’t the word x’

*

Predictably, Emilia crawls into bed with him at some point in the night, and Archie wakes him up screeching over the top of his cot with tear-stained cheeks and a pet lip at half past six. Still, Louis feels refreshed for a decent night’s sleep, his earliest night since infancy, and his phone alerting him to an unread message from Harry makes everything feel extra fine.

Haz: ‘I’ll remember that advice. Hope you have a lovely time, bring some sunshine back with you. Speak soon xx’

They FaceTime Jess on her way to work, Emilia charging around the place with Louis’ phone in her hand giving Jess the guided tour of the room plus the less than spectacular view from the balcony, Louis’ heart in his mouth the entire time.

The first full day is a good one. They’re one of the first families to breakfast, just the three of them so Lottie and Jay can sleep in. Without the stress of other people around to perform for, Emilia sits and eats strawberry yoghurt, two pieces of marmalade on toast and a ‘breakfast cake’ nicely while Louis feeds Archie his own breakfast. Before they leave he stashes a secret supply of the breakfast cakes in Archie’s bag.

They spend most of the day by the pool. Lottie guides Emilia around the pool in her float, holding onto her hands tight as they venture towards the deep end. Afterwards she shouts proudly across the pool to him, “I did it daddy, I’m brave!”

Louis himself bobs up and down gracefully in the shallow end clutching Archie close. The young boy’s skin glows white with suntan lotion and he’s wearing his blue and green bodysuit with floats built into it.

Jay sits in the sun happily reading her book, glancing up every few minutes to Emilia’s cries of “Nanny! Look, look at me and Lott-Lott!”

*

There is entertainment after dinner, which Archie doesn’t take kindly to, and Louis ends up pushing him around the Spanish streets, the little boy eventually giving in to sleep just as they reach the town square. Perching on the edge of an elaborate but ultimately dried out water fountain, Louis pulls out his phone and sends a quick message to Harry and a variation on the same message to Zayn, Amy, Niall and Tina from work.

Harry texts back first, just as Louis was silently hoping. Harry tells him all about the weather back home, what he’s been up to and asks all about Spain, even though it’s only been a day. Harry tells him that he’s had the day off today, and done absolutely zero. Louis curses himself that his first thought is that they’ve both had the day off at the same time but haven’t been in the same country to spend any time together.

Emilia is asleep too, on Lottie, when he returns to the complex at half ten.

*

Emilia doesn’t wake in a good mood at all on Wednesday, day three of the holiday. In fact, they have to turf Archie out of his own pushchair and onto Jay’s hip so Emilia can ride in it, just so they can get out of the hotel.

They take towels, buckets and spades and a carrier bag full of overpriced sweet treats to the beach, managing to find a spot in the masses. The little girl cheers up immensely on the beach, patting out sand pancakes and building impressive sand structures. The sea, despite the sweltering heat, is still freezing and Emilia doesn’t enjoy that nearly as much.

Louis creeps to the shore with Archie in his arms and kneels down for the little boy to dip his own toes into the cold water. Archie grips Louis’ arm in fear as they approach, continuously peering his little face up at his dad for reassurance.

“It’s okay bud, dada’s here.” Louis reassures him. Archie looks back down at the water and Louis lowers him so his legs dangle in the shallow, shallow cool water the slides over the darkened wet sand. Archie’s face is a picture when the cold hits him, and Louis laughs to himself as Archie’s eyes bug wide and he thrashes his little legs about trying to escape.

“Oooh was that a bit cold, mate?” Louis says as they back away from the water, shifting Archie round and cradling him close as the young boy whimpers and kicks.

“Nyuhhhh, ma-ma-ma-ma-ma!” Archie tells him earnestly, looking back over Louis’ shoulder then up at him again.

“I know, mate, tell me about it.”

*

“Are you sure?”

Louis repeats himself for the fifteenth time.

“Are you sure you’re sure?”

“Yes, of course I’m sure! Go and have a lovely time out with Lotts, let your hair down a bit. I will watch the kids.”

“But, are you sure you don’t mind? You’ll be okay with them both?”

“I wouldn’t have offered if I minded, love!” Jay laughs. “I’ve raised five kids almost single-handedly, I think I can handle my grandkids for a few hours.”

And so, at Jay’s insistence Louis heads back to his room, childless, and sets about getting ready. He showers; the spray is pitiful but it gets the job done. Choosing what to wear without the distraction of two scheming, screaming kids is a luxury, and he goes for rolled up navy chinos and a white t-shirt with a column of pinky-purples and blues down the centre.

He throws his arm around Lottie’s shoulders as they make their way towards the nightlife, most of the shops selling the cheap tourist tat and beachwear still open and blaring out Spanish radio stations that overlap each other and sound like a nightmare. They pass by knock off football shirts for all the European National teams and laugh at the perfumes labelled Amporio Ermani and Dior é.

They’re certainly spoiled for choice on where to get a drink, the entire promenade is abuzz and lit up, teeming with people with dark tans and skimpy clothes. They choose a place with an outdoor seating area underneath a thatched gazebo adorned with fairy lights. There is a sandwich board out the front and a waiter in black trousers, clicky shoes and a white shirt greets them.

He’s so quintessentially Spanish, cute accent, dark skin and hair. He’s objectively very handsome, and Lottie wiggles her eyebrows at him as they’re led through the tables to somewhere that’s free.

“You’ve got a boyfriend!” He reminds her.

“Yeah, but you don’t!”

“Urgh,” Louis rolls his eyes and drops back behind Lottie, guiding her through the crowds by her shoulders. He almost corrects her, until he remembers.

They’re seated right on the corner, overlooking the beach. It’s just about completely dark out and a rainbow of neon lights reflects in the lolling ocean; pinks, reds, yellow, greens.

They order from the drinks menus conveniently thrust into the faces as soon as they sit down, and the waiter scurries off with a charming smile singing something Spanish as he goes. The same waiter returns five minutes or so later with their drinks, grinning widely as he places down the showy beverages carefully, one at a time.

“Happy couple here on this beautiful island for holiday?” He asks in his adorably broken English.

“Oh, uh, no!” Louis laughs. “This is my sister!”

“Oh, my many sorry!” The waiter holds the now empty tray against his hip and throws his head back with laughter. “But you enjoy Spain, yes? Make many happy memory?”

“Oh yes, it’s lovely here.” Louis smiles. “Very lovely.”

“I’m glad you’re enjoyed.”

He disappears off after that, laughing and muttering about something that gets obviously lost in translation.

There are little bowls of complimentary snacks on the tables which they pick at as they chat. It is very busy and noisy around them, drinks arriving with sparklers in them and noisemakers going off everywhere. They don’t notice it though. A bit of time later, Mr Flirty Waiter arrives back at their table unprompted, holding up his round tray with a glowing pink drink on, a stick of pineapple chunks and glace cherries sticking out the top, and a little pink glitter streamer.

Louis’ eyes bug in confusion; he hadn’t ordered anything. Louis looks up at the waiter, about to open his mouth when-

“Is on the house, sir.” The waiter explains with a dashing smile. Louis just about bursts into flames of embarrassment as he thanks the guy profusely, willing him away with his eyes.

“Oh my God, he’s flirting with you!” Lottie claps her hands and laughs out loud. “This is class. Only you could come to a foreign country and pull within five minutes!”

“Shut up, that’s not what this is!” Louis counters weakly.

“Pah!” Lottie scoffs unconvinced as she slurps up the dregs of her own - expensive - drink. “We’ll see about that.”

*

They finish a second - third in Louis’ case – drink and Louis makes Lottie flag down the waiter for the bill. Inside the leather bound slip are two pieces of paper; their bill – thirty seven and a half euros for four drinks! – and a second one, a ripped off corner of receipt paper with something written in black permanent marker pen.

“Wh-what is this?” Louis says urgently, thrusting the small slip of receipt paper at his sister with wide eyes. “Lottie, what is this?

Lottie snatches it from him and studies it, eyes wide and then she looks up at him in disbelief, snorting with laughter.

“You’re in there, bro!”

“I’m not ’in’ anywhere, Lotts, cheers!”

“Why?” Lottie asks, stopping laughing and eyes narrowing. “Not like you to turn down free strange?”

“Oh my God, don’t say it like that, you heathen.”

“Well, still, what’s going on?”

“I don’t need anyone’s number, do I?”

“Oh?” Lottie questions, clearly unconvinced.

Louis might have slightly put his foot in it there, he realises when it’s too late. “Yeah, I’m… I’m busy with work an’ all that, aren’t I?”

“No, sorry. I call bullshit. You can’t use work as an excuse on holiday, the two things aren’t related.”

“I can if I want to.” Louis argues weakly.

“No no, that’s not it.” Lottie says, throwing down two ten Euro notes. “I know what it is though.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah. Your over the top reaction just now wouldn’t have anything to do with a certain someone you’ve been seeing recently, would it?”

Louis’ blood runs temporarily cold. He hasn’t told anyone about Harry, in that sense, anyway.

“What?”

“Alex?” Lottie says, looking at him as if he’s lost it.

It takes Louis a moment to realise who Lottie is on about, shamefully. God, Lottie thinks Alex is still on the scene! That’s laughable. He hadn’t heard from Alex since the night they spent together, and it only just dawns on Louis now how that must’ve looked to Alex. They’d been interrupted precisely five times by Harry trying to call, and each and every time Louis had stopped paying attention to her to look at his phone. It hits Louis in waves; that actually maybe he’s a lot more gone for Harry than he would like to admit. Maybe this stupid idea he’d got into his head that they could just be friends isn't going to work. Maybe that’s why he doesn't want to go back with this waiter after his shift finishes.

“Yeah, you’re right.”

He hears himself say it. He hears himself not correct Lottie when she assumes that he is seeing Alex, and he hates himself a little bit more than he did before.

“C’mon, drink up, let’s head somewhere else, I can’t cope with this!”

*

They drink a handful more cocktails each at the next place before turning in, Lottie sashaying down the corridor towards her room and Louis smiling to himself as he watches her go. He lets himself into his own room. His mum is sitting out on the balcony, the door propped open with Emilia’s rucksack. He peers in at Emilia spread-eagled in the middle of the double bed, just the thin white sheet covering her little body; cheeks pink and chest bare. Archie is curled up awkwardly in the foetal position in the top left corner of the travel cot, flat out and sweaty.

He creeps through and steps out onto the balcony, running a protective hand over his mum’s shoulders as he sits down next to her. It’s quarter past eleven, still very warm out, and the far off beat of the nightlife hums in the distance. The street down below is relatively quiet now, save for the odd dirt bike going past.

“Hey babe, had a nice evening?”

“Yeah, was good,” He smiles. “Lotts is down in your room now.”

“Okay love, I’ll be getting back to her soon then.”

“Thanks for watching the kids again, mum.”

“Anytime, sweetheart.”

Jay collects her book, phone and room key and Louis stands in the doorway again, making sure she gets back to her room safely.

“See you in the morning, love!”

*

Set back from the pool is a swing set for the kids. He’s pushing Emilia as Lottie stands off to the side slightly, squinting in the sun as they talk. Thursday, their penultimate day, has been a nice day so far, quiet. After breakfast, Emilia had wanted to go straight to the pool, so that’s what they’d done.

Archie had grown to love the pool, no longer scared of the turquoise lilt in the safety of Louis’ arms. They garner quite an audience together, Archie laughing his head off at Emilia splashing about with Lottie and the girls pretending to be dolphins.

Now it’s after five and the sun is slowly beginning its descending arch down towards the horizon. The temperature has dropped, but Louis is still roasting from the outside in. Lottie is glowing with tan, as is Jay. Louis looks across the pool at his mum sitting cross legged, half in and half out of the sun, pushing a sleeping Archie back and forth in the shade while she reads her book.

“Sucks that it’s the last full day, hey?”

“Yeah,” Louis replies, though he’s not sure he’s being completely honest. “Be a shame to leave.”

“Next big thing is Archie’s birthday.”

“Yeah,” Louis smiles, doing the obligatory wonder at how Archie is already almost  a whole year old. “Bless him. Can’t believe it’s almost that time already.”

“Did mum tell you about dad?”

“What about him?” Louis asks, tensing up immediately. “What’s he done now?”

“Nothing,” Lottie answers. Lottie has always been the most neutrally-opinionated of all his sisters when it comes to Mark. “Mum told him about the birthday tea you’ve got planned for Arch. He’s gonna come along.”

“He’s what?” Louis repeats, hands slipping off the metal casing of the swing. Emilia’s shrieking suddenly seems so far away as his ears fill with the angry sound of his own blood flow. “He’s bloody well not, what the hell Lotts!?”

“Calm down, Lou,” Lottie warns, but he’s seen red and it’s too late. “It’s not the end of the world!”

“What’s she doing inviting him?” Louis explodes. “If I wanted him there I’d ask him, and I haven’t fucking asked him have I!”

“Ask mum not me!” Lottie holds up her hands and then steps towards Emilia, taking over the pushing that Louis has abandoned.

“Mum!” He barks as he approaches. She looks up from her book, surprised, and pushes her sunglasses onto the top of her head.

“What’s the matter?” She asks, watching as he approaches, her initial smile turning to something more guarded.

“What’s this about Mark wanting to come to Archie’s birthday do?” He snaps, not even stopping to notice he should be grateful there is no one around that speaks English. “When were you gonna tell me that? Just turn up with him?”

“I didn’t think there was anything to tell, Louis, it’s not a big deal is it?”

“Yes it is, he’s not coming!” Louis protests. “Why the hell would I want him there?”

“Archie is his grandson, Louis, you can’t stop him. He’s perfectly entitled to come.”

“No he isn’t! It’s my son, my party, my rules!”

“You’re being ridiculous, and you’re making a scene.”

“I’m not,” Louis looks around then back at his mum. “For fuck’s sake, this is a bloody joke!”

“Can you be quiet, you’re going to wake the baby and scare him!” Jay hisses, putting her book down on the sun-baked tiles, face down so the spine splits to save her page. “You of all people should know how it feels to be left out of things your kids are doing, Louis! This is disgusting, childish behaviour!”

“I’m not his kid! He’s got Lottie and Fiz and the twins and that’s it!”

“You’re being ridiculous, Louis, you should be ashamed of yourself! Mark was there for you for over seventeen years, when somebody else I could care to mention did his disappearing act! How can you stand there and deny him when you go through the same thing week in week out with Jessica?”

He can see the hurt in his mums’ eyes and her voice cracks on the second ‘week’. The discomfort of guilt and self-loathing creep up on Louis like an Olympic sprinter. He’s realising more and more that it’s not going to be easy, maybe even not even possible, to let his feelings for Harry go. It’s been gestating in the back of his mind and affecting everything he does, and he can’t deny that it’s not part of the reason why he flipped so quickly about the Mark thing. But he can’t exactly tell his mum that, can he?

“I’m sorry,” He says immediately. “Shit, I’m sorry, I am. I shouldn’t’ve gone off like that.”

He lunges forward, throws his arms around his mum and holds onto her tightly.

“It’s okay, love,” Jay says, accepting him into her arms and soothing his back rhythmically. “I should’ve asked. I’m sorry too.”

“No, it’s- it’s okay.” He says somewhat reluctantly, but the look on her face makes it worth it. “I overreacted. I feel like shit. If Mar- if dad wants to come along, he absolutely can.”

“Okay love,” Jay nods and smiles. “Maybe when we’re back you could text him? Let him know? It’d mean a lot coming directly from you, love.”

“I will do,” Louis agrees, rubbing his mum’s back again and apologising, again.

*

They have dinner away from the resort as it’s their last night. They stroll down to the town; it’s earlier than when Lottie and Louis had passed through yesterday evening, just before seven, and it’s still light and busy as ever. Lottie pushes the pushchair and Emilia walks along hand in hand with Jay. Louis’ feet scuff the dusty terracotta tiled path as he texts and walks, currently spilling probably slightly inappropriately detailed amounts of his dirty laundry regarding the situation with Mark to Harry.

His phone bill is going to be astronomical this month.

“Put your phone away daddy!” Emilia’s voice cuts through his subconscious and he looks up, smiling straight away at his little girl who is looking back over her shoulder, the cutest scolding look on her face. She’s giggling though, so the effect is lessened.

“Sorry, little miss!” He exclaims, making an exaggerated face at Emilia then slipping his phone into his pocket.

“Who is it that’s got you so interested in your phone all of a sudden then?” Jay asks, leaning into him and nudging his shoulder with her own. God, she’s fishing for gossip, great. Wondering if he might finally have met The One and want to settle down with this one.

She’s right.

He has.

Shut up, he tells himself.

“It’s just a mate,” He says weakly, thankful that Lottie is occupied and about five or six paces ahead of them so cannot stick her oar in with any smart aleck comments. “Harry?”

“Harry?”

“Yeah, remember?” Louis waves his hands around his ears for emphasis. “With the hair?”

“Oh, from the sports centre?” Jay asks after a moment’s contemplation. It’s not like Louis’ ever known another Harry in his life.

“Yep, that’s him.”

“And what about Niall and Amy? Zayn? Have you heard from any of them?”

“Uh, yeah, they’re fine I guess?”

“You guess?”

“Well, I haven’t… the last I heard from Niall is when I text him before we got on the plane. So, I mean he’d say if there was a problem, right?”

“Okay,” Jay smiles quizzically.

“What!” Louis cries, feeling his defences creep up through his bones. “What’s ‘okay’ supposed to mean?”

“Nothing!” Jay squeals, picking up the pace and pretending to run with Emilia, leaving him in their dust.

He rolls his eyes and watches the girls and Archie, noting the similar way his mum and Lottie’s ponytail’s swing side to side with their movement, and the way Emilia clutches onto his mum’s hand tightly, in her Little Mermaid flip flops and white denim dungaree dress.

*

The food is delicious though the restaurant doesn’t seem to have one specific theme. Lottie has spaghetti, Jay the seafood platter and Louis and Emilia have cheeseburgers - one big and one small, of course. Two beers go down nicely and they head back to the resort at ten with Archie asleep in his buggy and Emilia sprawled across him, her legs dangling by his side and her feet slapping into his thighs with every step.

He’d thrown all of their clothes haphazardly into the suitcase earlier on, and now that the kids are flat out he drags it out onto the balcony, onto the tabletop and folds everything up to fit in, leaving out something for all three of them to wear tomorrow to travel back in.

He makes the most of the last of the warmth. Sure, it won’t be arctic when they return to the UK, not for another couple of weeks yet, but this is a different kind of warmth here.

After he’s done, he lifts the suitcase onto the tiles and uses it as a footrest. The plastic garden chair he’s sitting in is far from comfy and the static makes his skin tingle, but it’ll do. He picks at a bag of sour watermelon sweets and turns his phone over and over in his other hand, bouncing it off his belly.

After much deliberation and with a ragged breath out, he unlocks his phone and taps on his pictures. Scrolling up, past the millions of little thumbnails from this week, he taps on the pictures he has with Harry in them. He’d been quite innocuous in attaining them, always making sure to include the others in the photos at the same time. They’re mostly against a pub backdrop; rosy cheeks pinched with colour thanks to the booze, dishevelled hairdos and wide, wide smiles of laughter.

Smiling fondly down at them, Louis taps away from the pictures and back to his messages, picking up where he’d left off with Harry some hours earlier.

‘Thanks for listening to me whinge. Calm now :)

Harry’s reply is almost instantaneous.

Haz: ‘Good, glad to hear it! How is your last night? Bet you’re gutted to come home x’

I’m really not, Louis thinks to himself as he smiles and replies to Harry’s message.

Haz: ‘Can I phone?’

“Hiya Lou,” Harry’s voice comes through the speaker into Louis’ ear a few moments later. It sounds so clear and so crisp, despite the miles that currently separate them. “Not interrupting anything am I?”

“Nah, just sitting out on the balcony. Making the most of the warmth before coming home.”

“What time's your flight?”

“Half two in the afternoon. We have to be out of here by ten. Two hours to the airport, two hours on the plane, half an hour to home.”

“Home in time for tea?” Harry jokes and Louis smiles.

“Jess is taking Emmie and Archie on Saturday morning instead of Sunday, because of the inconvenience of me taking them abroad,” Louis mutters sarcastically, feeling irritated that he hadn’t been more of a menace and messed Jess around when she took the kids to Cornwall.

“Oh,” Harry says flatly. “Fancy some company then? If you’re gonna be on your own. I mean, you’re probably gonna wanna-”

“N-no, that’d actually be really nice,” Louis stops Harry’s ramble, unsure of whether to reprimand himself or congratulate himself. “I mean, we can arrange something on the morning of, right?”

Harry agrees, and Louis tries not to read too far into the haste with which Harry seems to agree. They chat for a bit longer, Louis checking in on the kids periodically. The air finally starts to cool at the stroke of midnight, the temperature dropping to something a little less stifling. Though Louis insists that he’s not tired and Harry’s not keeping him from anything, they wrap things up and Louis is left for a few moments in silence after saying goodbye, falling in what is almost certainly love with a boy a thousand miles away, on a small little 3x3 foot tiled balcony in Spain.

*

Louis doesn’t remember a single thing about the Spanish airport, and it’s not even a full week since they were last here. Archie cried almost the entire coach journey, had been passed between each adult to no avail, and finally fell asleep ten minutes out from the airport and had awoken when Louis lifted him up. His bottom lip trembled and then he was off again, most displeased with the disruption.

Passport control and airport security passes by in a blur, his stress levels reaching peak point. Emilia scurries along hand in hand with Lottie, aware that now isn’t the time for tantrums too. Bless her heart. Louis makes note to give her an extra big cuddle once they’re home and settled again. It’s only once they’re on the plane and they’ve taken off and they’re silently, smoothly cruising at thirty five thousand feet can Louis finally relax.

*

It’s just approaching quarter to five in the evening when they touch back down on British soil.

It’s eight before they get home and waving his mum and Lottie off after unloading their luggage from the boot of Jay’s people carrier feels a lot harder than it should do. After all, they’re only going two minutes up the road, but the past five days have been so lovely, waking up and seeing them every day, his mum especially.

By ten o’clock, the dirty laundry from the suitcase is piled up on the kitchen floor in front of the washing machine and both kids have been fed and are now soundo in their beds. For Louis, sleep is difficult to come by initially; he’s grown used to having the kids with him and constantly being semi-alert to their wellbeing. To be alone and free in the dark, cool room is uncomfortably unfamiliar.

The blue light of his phone screen soaks the room as he picks up his phone restlessly and sends Harry the home emoji. Harry sends him back the grinning emoji a minute later. Louis stares back at the two little images within their bubbles and first rolls his eyes at their own idiocy, but then smiles. He feels embarrassed, as if anyone can even see him, and he has to bite the inside of his cheek. He’s well and truly blurred the lines between friend and something more now; the waters have officially become muddied.

You are gone , Tomlinson.” He mutters to himself, locking his phone, pushing it under the pillow and running his hands back through his hair. “So. Fucking. Gone.”

-

-

-

-

Chapter Text

 

Harry

 

Harry would be lying if he said that he wasn’t a little bit disappointed that nothing changes in the week after Louis returns from Spain. They’d seen each other on that first day back, the Saturday, and it had been nice. Good. But the revelation of Louis’ affection that Harry was half hoping for never came, and though he hadn’t yet fully admitted to himself that he wanted it, he’s disappointed not to get it. That being said, he hasn’t made any moves either, so maybe he’s not being fair.

Liam asks him, quite innocently, one Tuesday afternoon during a quiet spell if he’s seeing Louis again anytime soon, and he promptly shuts Liam down. The other boy looks back at him with confusion and surprise at the outburst, but Harry just looks away and mumbles a sorry under his breath. His own hostile reaction and the look on Liam’s face tells Harry everything he needs to know.

On Friday he’s already made plans to go round Charlie’s when Niall invites him and Liam out for last minute drinks. He feels a sick sort of petulant reluctance as he’s forced to decline the invitation, and Niall is disappointed but ultimately understands. A few more messages in the group chat pop up but he leaves the chat without reading them.

The pavement scorched from a day of unadulterated sunshine. Harry leaves his air conditioned work place for the dry and sweltering outdoors, feeling too hot in his baggy tank top and knee length jogger shorts. By the time he gets to Charlie’s flat, he’s about ready to keel over.

As per usual, he doesn’t have to buzz to get in because the heavy front door isn’t shut all the way. He traipses up, not even trying to hide the fact he’s almost coughing up a lung by the time he gets to the top floor. Charlie is alone, for once, when he arrives. The window is wide open, a small breeze whipping inside, and the distinct aroma of weed smoke sits stoic in the air.

“Partaking?” Charlie asks as he throws himself back down into the armchair and reaches forward.

Harry just smirks and shakes his head. “No thanks.”

“Okay,” Charlie nods. “Beer?” Harry nods to that. “Help yourself.”

“Thanks,” He says quietly, plodding across Charlie’s messy flat towards the small little box kitchen.

“Get me one!” Charlie shouts from the chair. “Thanks babes!”

The first beer goes down easily and the second one begins to make Harry’s socked feet feel tingly. He sighs multiple times, and each time Charlie rolls his eyes but won’t ask what’s up.

“Harry, you seem ill at ease. Is there anything wrong?” Charlie finally asks a good while later, sarcastic with a punch-in-the-face worthy grin.

“How big is too big?” Harry asks, the thoughts from his brain tumbling out of his mouth before he’s had time to order them. Charlie raises a bemused eyebrow and Harry sighs with a frown. “I mean for an age gap.”

“Oh!” Charlie splutters. “Well, it depends doesn’t it?”

“On what?”

“Variables.” Charlie says after a pause.

“Helpful,” Harry sighs. “Well, how much older would you date?”

“Anything this side of forty, I’m not fussed, mate!”

Harry smiles weakly. “Fair enough but I’m serious, like, if you were gonna see this person long term. Date ‘em, the whole she-bang.”

“’She-bang’,” Charlie mocks under his breath with a laugh. “I dunno mate. I guess I wouldn’t go more than three years younger. Eighteen or older, wouldn’t want anyone getting the wrong idea, y’know?”

“What about if it was two blokes?”

“Are you asking for ‘a friend’?” Charlie over pronounces the last two words.

Harry blushes. “Might be?”

“And how old is this ‘friend’?”

“Twenty one?” Harry mumbles, avoiding Charlie’s glance.

“So I guess I’d still say two or three years either side at most.”

Harry’s heart sinks and he tries not to let it show on his face but it must do because-

“That’s not really the answer you were hoping for is it?”

Laughing at himself with embarrassment, Harry shrugs. “I told you, it was just a hypothetical question.”

“You met someone then, H?”

Harry considers trying to keep up this most unconvincing charade, but decides it’s pointless ultimately. He nods and looks back at Charlie sheepishly. “Was invited out with him tonight.”

“So – and no offense mate - but what the hell are you doing here with me then?” Charlie asks, smiling but looking a bit bewildered. “Wanna tell me about him?”

“So… he’s called Louis. I met him in May, at speed dating.”

“Speed dating?” Charlie repeats incredulously.

“Yes, speed dating, shut up.” Harry says. “We… y’know? A few times then he freaks out and goes ghost.”

“What you mean you’ve already slept with him?”

Harry hesitates before nodding.

“Right… why did he drop you then? What’s his issue?”

“There’s two,” Harry says. “Or a million.”

“Okay…”

“Firstly, he’s twenty six. A very mature twenty six year old at that. More than a few times he’s made the odd, off-the-cuff remark about age and I just feel… maybe it’s a big deal for him. I don’t know, I haven’t asked him. I thought at first maybe, shit, I dunno. There’s too much going on in my head.”

“What kinda things does he say? About your age.”

Harry shrugs his shoulders and groans at the memory being reawakened. “Right, so… like, there’s a bit of a story to it but basically his mate added Liam on Facebook, arranged a night out behind both of our backs-”

“What a modern day matchmaker.”

“Hmm, well.” Harry shrugs again. “Anyway, when Louis found out he was all like ‘what are you, fourteen?’ and… it just. Well, y’know. Embarrassing, isn’t it.”

“That’s not that bad,” Charlie says skilfully. “It wasn’t aimed at you was it, was probably aimed at his mate. He was the one that did the Facebook stalking.”

“I guess,” Harry sighs. “But… well, it’s not just the age thing. There’s something else too, another thing.”

“What thing?” Charlie asks, eyebrows furrowing. “Age difference aside, what’s the other issue?”

“It’s a big one.”

“Go ‘head, Haz.” Charlie says, holding both hands up dopily. “Hit me with your best shot.”

“Okay,” Harry says slowly gearing up to the big reveal. “So, he’s got two kids.”

“What!” Charlie yelps almost immediately, letting the foot that was resting on the coffee table slip down and slap the floor. “He’s got kids? Mate! That’s… what the hell have you got yourself involved with?”

“I dunno!” Harry exclaims, throwing his hands in the air and letting them fall back down into his lap. “I didn’t know that when I met him, obviously! I didn’t know until he told me he couldn’t see me again, that’s when he told me the truth. He said he couldn’t have a relationship ‘cause his kids have to come first. It was already too late by then though.”

“Makes sense.”

Harry nods solemnly. “Yeah. But then… I dunno, we said we’d stay mates and that worked for a bit but then I started thinking maybe he was like, he was coming round to the idea, maybe? He just went to Spain and before he went we kissed but now nothing.”

“But he invited you out this evening?”

“No, his best mate did. They’ve all sorta become mates and Liam and one of Lou’s mates have got something going on, I reckon, but that’s neither here nor there.”

“Okay…” Charlie says slowly, like he’s trying to make sense of it all. “That’s cute, you called him ‘Lou’. And you’re already friends with each other’s friends?”

“Liam was with me the night we met, y’know?”

Charlie nods. “But the kids’ man, that’s massive. What’s the deal there? Are they with the same girl? Is it an ex-wife or girlfriend or what?”

Harry shrugs. “I don’t really know the story there. I don’t think they were ever properly together. The kids were… an unplanned thing, I guess?”

Harry cringes, firstly at how it sounds and then at the look the passes over Charlie’s face.

“Right.” Charlie says. “But an unplanned thing twice? How does that work?”

“I dunno. I’ve driven myself mad coming up with all these stories, I don’t even wanna think about it anymore. But the kids are almost one and almost four, so it’s not like the two events were close together.”

Charlie looks at him sceptically. “That’s worrying.” Charlie says, and Harry nods miserably. “And that’s okay with you, is it?”

“Things happen, don’t they? I mean, I don’t know the full story so I can’t really judge.” Harry says, pausing to pick at the dropped hemline of his tank. Charlie is in contemplative silence. “I just… God, I don’t even care, y’know? About the kids, about the age difference. It doesn’t bother me but him, he just can’t see past it.”

“Well, it’s not that bad, in my opinion. Just think of it like this: when you were five and starting primary school, he was almost eleven and off to secondary school.”

“Urgh, don’t put it like that you idiot!”

“Sorry, had to!” Charlie is rolling around in the chair laughing. “So, are you going to tell him you like him? Try for another chance?”

“What if he still says no?” Harry asks.

Charlie shrugs, and Harry goes on to explain the long, late night conversations and the kiss that they’d shared before Louis had gone away. Harry is ninety percent sure he’d been the one to initiate it but the memory sort of melts and curves in on itself at the edges and he can’t be sure that Louis wasn’t already kissing him back as their lips met in the middle. They hadn’t immediately leapt away from each other but it hadn’t exactly ended in fireworks either.

The big question is whether he likes Louis enough to potentially take on the responsibility, at least part of the time, of two children. That’s what is holding Louis back, and Charlie explains it to him quite philosophically. Charlie asks more questions about the kids’ mum, questions that Harry can’t answer because he doesn’t know. It knocks Harry’s confidence and makes him feel like he could just throw in the towel and forget it all, but then he pictures Louis in his mind and those feelings slip away.

“We’ve had good times. He takes care of me when I’m stupid drunk. I’ve even met his mum. Not in an official capacity, but I’ve still met her.”

Charlie smiles. “He’s not gonna ever put anyone before those kids, I can guarantee that, and you have to be prepared for that. They’re always gonna be his priority.”

“Yeah,” Harry agrees. “I know it’s massive. Like, I haven’t even told my mum. Gems’ knows, has met him, but doesn’t know the whole story. If we could give it a chance, that’s all I want.”

“You seem pretty gone for him mate. And if he’s not interested after all that, you should just let him go and move on. You deserve better than half of someone’s attention, mate.”

Harry smiles reluctantly. “Thanks, Charlie. Means a lot.”

*

Turns out, Liam went on ahead without him on Friday night. Harry finds the evidence on Liam’s Instagram which leads him eventually to Niall’s Snapchat. He’s looking for Louis, but he’s not admitting to himself that he’s looking for Louis. But then he sees him, blurry in the background of a few doodle-adorned snaps. Then he hears him in a few ten second clips; his voice sticks out amongst the others, high and airy and languid. If italic font was a person, it’d be Louis and how he speaks.

There’s a picture of him then, the flash of the camera illuminating him and two other girls. The background of the club is plunged into darkness behind them, save for spikes of green and red strobe light here and there. One of them is Amy; her red hair curled and over one shoulder, and the other Harry doesn’t recognise.

His stomach lurches for a second, for quite a few seconds. Louis’ in the middle between the two girls, arms around their shoulders and grinning so wide his eyes are just crinkly little slits. There is a flush high on his cheeks, he looks distinctively more dishevelled than previous Snaps and the timestamp is just five hours ago.

There’s no more after that. Harry has nothing more to go by.

“For fuck sake…” He mumbles, his relatively good mood shattered in a heartbeat. He tosses his phone away, getting it lost in the covers as he pulls the duvet up over his shoulders and burrows into the pillow, wanting to fall asleep for twenty four hours at least.

Luckily, sleep does come, but he’s rudely awoken far too soon by his phone vibrating against his cheek. He grunts and chokes on his own breath as he lifts his head off the pillow and tries to work out what the hell is going on.

Blearily, he answers Gemma’s call. “’Ello?”

“Hi brother, you almost ready?” Gemma is far too chipper and clear for this time. Saying that, what time is it?

Harry makes an inhuman noise. “What? Ready for what?”

“Harry!” Gemma screeches through the phone, making Harry wince. “It’s moving day! Tell me you didn’t forget!”

Realisation hits Harry and he leaps out of bed onto fragile, creaky limbs. Gemma is shouting down the line at him, cursing him and telling him how stupid he is and that she can’t believe it. He hops about trying to get his leg in his jeans while keeping his phone wedged between his shoulder and his ear.

“Fuck, shit, just, let me go and I’ll be there in twenty minutes, okay?”

“Forget it, I’ll get mum to come and pick you up. She’s leaving now, okay. Ten minutes. Be ready.”

*

At least it isn’t raining today like it had been the last time Harry was at this flat. He finds himself actually at a loss to remember what the place is like inside as his mum pulls the car up outside and they jump out. Anne had warned him the Gemma is a bit frantic, and she wasn’t lying.

They make it to Gemma’s floor; the front door is propped open by stereo speaker and inside the living room space is dotted with boxes and carrier bags with random stuff in. There are piles of flat-packed Ikea furniture in one corner, still waiting to be unboxed. The kitchen, Harry can see, is scattered with a variety of utensils, cleaning products and non-perishables.

“Welcome to chaos, pick an area and get started!” Gemma greets him hurriedly, before disappearing into one of the bedrooms.

Harry turns to look at his mum, bewildered and out of his depth, having only just woken up twenty five minutes ago.

“You know how she is love,” Anne placates diplomatically, quietly. “I’m going to go through the kitchen stuff. Fancy getting all this floor space cleared and these boxes unpacked? Then we can start getting all the little clutter bits put away.”

“Yeah, fine,” Harry agrees, idly trying to push a box marked ‘lounge’ with his foot. It doesn’t budge.

“Oh, and dad will be here later on to help.”

“Oh cool,” Harry perks up. It’s been a good while since he’s seen his dad, and now that they’re divorced he and Anne actually get on quite well, so it’s never too atmospheric. “Best crack on then.”

*

Dad arrives at about one, ready to help shift the big stuff like the fridge and the washing machine. Gemma’s bed is in bits on the bedroom floor; she’s obviously waiting for their dad to help with that too. Harry hugs his dad tight. He’s long since surpassed his dad height wise and they must look a bit strange; long and gangly versus stocky and short.

They all go quiet as they work on their individual projects; Des on connecting the gas and getting the furniture up, Gemma’s in the bathroom, Anne in the kitchen and Harry is still working on his flat-packed furniture. At least now it’s all out of the boxes and the empty boxes and bubble wrap has been thrown into the spare room. He can now get started on some actual constructing; prove his worth.

With a break to eat KFC at about three and then again to say bye to their dad at five-ish, they work tirelessly and by the time they stop at half nine, Gemma’s new place is pretty much completely up together. Harry is very proud of the coffee table, nest of end tables and TV unit that he’s single-handedly assembled.

He sends a picture of his handiwork to Louis, justifying it as relevant because Louis had played a part in the process of Gemma getting this flat. He slips his phone back into the pocket of his dusty jeans, feeling it vibrate not long after. He leaves what he assumes (hopes) is Louis’ response unread against his thigh for a while longer, wanting to savour it.

Then he reminds himself about the picture of Louis with Amy and the other girl and his mood is soured again.

He stays behind at Gemma’s flat while she runs to the 24 hour Tesco for some essentials, and Anne heads home. He walks around the place aimlessly. The bathroom is all stocked up with bath products and neatly folded towels that smell of his mum’s laundry detergent.

A quick peek into Gemma’s new room shows a reconstructed bed perfectly made with all her pillows and stuffed animals. The walls, like all the rooms, are painted magnolia but there is a splash of colour from the teal curtains and canvas picture of a glittering peacock feather above the headboard.

The brand new copper utensils and saucepans sit gleaming in their places in the kitchen, the window open though no breeze is coming through. There is still a box on the countertop needing to be unpacked, as well as a whole load of cleaning supplies that need to go into a cupboard, but the rest is pretty up to scratch. There is even a fridge magnet on the fridge.

When Gemma returns with tea bags, bread, milk, butter and - most importantly - Galaxy chocolate, they plug in the kettle, fill their mugs to the top and reconvene on the sofa. It feels good to finally get a comfy seat.

“How’s life then, brother?”

“Meh,” Harry shrugs. “Okay, I guess. Work is work.”

“Seeing anyone?”

“Obviously not.” Harry mutters, giving Gemma a Look.

“Still saving yourself for the Mansion Mogul?”

“Is that what you’re calling him now?”

“Would you prefer Housing Hero? Accommodation Angel? Property Pri-”

“Please stop.” Harry interrupts. “And let’s not even go there with Louis, eh? It’s a mess again.”

“How so?” Gemma asks, her gaze narrowing with sisterly concern.

Harry sighs and proceeds to tell her the story, the same story he’d regaled to Charlie the night before, adding in the Snapchat-related drama of the last sixteen hours or so.

“Lemme see the picture,” Gemma orders, holding out her hand expectantly. Harry goes to his camera roll and shows her the picture. “You screenshotted the Snap? Oh, Harry love.”

She scrutinises it for a minute before looking up. “Which one is which?”

“Louis is the one in the middle.” Harry deadpans, and Gemma smacks his thigh. “The one on the right is Amy, Niall’s girlfriend.”

“They look quite similar don’t they?”

“Do you think?”

“Yeah. Same hairdo.” Gemma surmises before handing back the phone. “Mate, I’m not being funny but you really need to get the full story before jumping to conclusions. You don’t even know who this girl is.”

“Well, why would he have his arm around her if she wasn’t a… a conquest?”

“Conquest?” Gemma repeats with a snort. “Honestly Harry, do you hear yourself sometimes?”

“Shut up, I’m tired and fragile. It’s been a long day.”

“You don’t say,” Gemma mutters sarcastically. “Look c’mon, I can’t offer much but I’ve got tea and choccy. Let’s have a chat, yeah?”

It feels like all Harry has done in the past twenty four hours is chat but it also feels good to get some perspective. He doesn’t mind repeating himself; he could talk about Louis for years. Gemma doesn’t agree with him that the age gap is anything to worry about, and she doesn’t think its holding Louis back either. She thinks it all boils down to the kids and Louis being stubborn, resistant to his own happiness.

It’s late by the time the conversation reaches its natural conclusion and Gemma has graduated from stifling yawns behind her hand to full on open-mouth, head back gulps of air.

“It’s too late to get in the car, I’ll just walk home.”

“No you won’t,” Gemma insists. “The bed in the spare room hasn’t been made yet - hell it hasn’t even been put up yet, but there is a perfectly good double mattress you can take for the night.”

*

Gemma’s flat becomes a bit of a second home to Harry after that. The week approaching is Louis’ week with the kids, if Harry’s calculations are correct (which he knows they are). Every day apart from one evening where he goes home to begrudgingly do his washing, Harry stays with Gemma at her flat. He watches as she makes dinner every evening, sits alone watching her telly when she goes out and has a life, and pretends not to be listening when their mum rings for a chat.

He’s just pulled himself up onto the worktop to keep Gemma company as she’s preparing her – their – tea when it finally comes to a head.

“Harry, you’ve been following me about like a lost sheep all week. Now it’s not that I don’t love you being here, because I do, but it’s a bit pathetic, all over a boy. Man up and talk to him!”

Harry makes a dramatic sigh and hugs his knees closer to his chest. “What’s the point? He would’ve said something before now if he cared, right?”

“Wrong,” Gemma argues. “You can’t go and make decisions for him. The only way you’re gonna get anywhere is by talking, Harry. This isn’t primary school. He’s not psychic either.”

“Well he should be.” Harry says petulantly, shifting back as far as he can go with the limited counter space as Gemma swats at him with a tea towel.

“Where’s your phone?”

“Front room, why?”

Gemma looks at him and he looks at Gemma, just half a second behind her scheming ways. She licks her lips quickly, cunningly, and then bolts, throwing down the tea towel in her haste.

“Gemma, what are you- no! No no no, don’t do it!”

Harry vaults off the unit, landing quite uncomfortably on his tired feet, and races after her on the slippy kitchen lino. He screams after his sister, throwing himself onto her back to try and pluck his phone from her grasp. He really regrets telling her his passcode now.

“Stop it, don’t you dare!”

“Ooops?” Gemma splutters, wrestling herself free and handing back his phone with a smug grin.

Harry snatches it back and reads the message, fairly innocuous in its presentation. Nothing more than a simple ‘hey, when are you next free’ , maybe a few too many kisses on the end for Harry’s liking.

“Gems! What did you do that for? I don’t need you to fight my battles for me!”

“If we waited for you to make a move we’d be here til we’re a hundred!”

“I hate you.”

“I guess you don’t want any tea then? If you hate me.”

His phone pings with a reply from Louis at the same time and he glances down at it cautiously. He can only see the first few words, but he can’t help the smile that instantly draws over his face. He looks back at Gemma sheepishly and she throws a ‘told you so’ look at him.

Lou: ‘Hey :) good to hear from you. Am free all next week apart from Friday if you’re about? Let me know xx’


Louis


Harry’s text arriving when it did had been the kick that Louis had needed. After a week of writing text messages and never sending them, as it goes Harry is actually braver than he is.

Work ends up being a real shitter; he stays late three evenings out of five and can’t help but feel that Andy takes the piss a bit when he knows Louis doesn’t have his kids. Archie’s birthday is fast approaching, only three days away now, which leaves Louis precisely one evening free (the current one is already a write-off) to get the party food sorted. He wishes he’d never agreed to do it now.

So when he sees Harry’s name flash up on his phone screen the next evening, just as he’s coming in from work, he groans to himself and immediately brings his right index finger up to his mouth to stress-bite around his nail. He’d completely forgotten he’d promised Harry a sliver of his time this week, and he’s completely unprepared for it.

He answers the call anyway, of course.

“Hiya, sorry I’ve been completely shit this week!” He greets Harry apologetically, the man laughing on the other end.

“It’s okay, I uh, I hope I’m not disturbing anything?”

Louis thinks Harry sounds a bit breathless, but he ignores it.

“No, not re- well, I’m in a bit’ve a pickle to be honest.”

“Oh? Anything I can help with?”

“Archie’s birthday tea thing is tomorrow,” Louis starts, and Harry hums in acknowledgement. Louis has mentioned it before, hell he’s spilled his guts about his step-daddy issues surrounding the party, so Harry is well up to speed. “I’m supposed to be bringing a bit of food but I haven’t even thought about a list yet.”

“Oh, sounds like quite a task.” Harry says. “What’s the theme?”

“There isn’t one?” Louis finds himself almost asking Harry. Harry just laughs. “Do I need a theme?”

“I suppose not.” Harry laughs. “What’re your ideas then?”

“I don’t have any of those either.” Louis confesses, sinking down into the nearest seat. “God, I’m shite aren’t I. I had one job. I’ve turned myself into a meme!”

“Lou, calm down.” Harry’s voice cuts through again and he takes a breath in, resting his head in his hands.

“I’m sorry I haven’t left enough time to do something together, but I mean, if you’re free, we could- could do it together? I uh, I mean b-buy the food together.”

Louis feels ridiculous the second the words are out of his mouth. Rejection is imminent, he’s sure.

“Yeah!” Harry’s positive agreement surprises Louis into stunned silence for a second. “I mean, if you don’t mind?”

They arrange, Louis still slightly shell-shocked, where to meet and when. They agree that the 24 hour Tesco is the best place to go, with the most variety, and its close enough that Harry can walk there and meet Louis.

Louis’ poorly contained excitement makes giving the ground floor of his home a quick tidy a breeze, and by the time he’s rolling into Tesco car park he’s almost passed out with giddy exhilaration. He doesn’t abuse his power and park in the parent and child priority spaces, even though he’s got a badge to say he can, instead choosing a space all on its own in the corner, away from any other cars.

He heads across the car park, watching a young couple push their trolley lovingly together, each with a hand on the trolley handle. He rolls his eyes but then smiles anyway. He loves love, what more can he say?

Harry is leaning against a chrome bike stand, long legs out stretched and crossed at the ankles. He’s not looking, rather looking up the other end of the car park, so Louis has the opportunity to stare unabashedly. No one will know but himself.

Harry is dressed in a powder blue t-shirt and a chunky brown cardigan, dusty skinnies and his scuffed brown boots. His arms are crossed over his tummy and he’s gripping his right elbow as he leans over slightly and peers up the car park. Louis feels a bit underdressed in his all black Adidas ensemble.

“Hey stranger,” Louis says as he approaches, drawing Harry’s attention in and ending the secret staring.

Harry turns around, looks up at Louis and his face breaks into a smile. He pushes himself off his perch with his hands and immediately envelopes Louis in a hug. Louis steps onto his tiptoes to make life easier for the both of them, and takes stock of a few things; the familiar smell of Harry’s shampoo returning and the scratchy feel of his Cobain-style cardigan.

“You ready then?” Harry asks as they release, motioning towards the double automatic doors with his head.

*

Louis was ready, but not for the picture of exquisite domesticity that this little trip paints in his head. With the basket digging into the crook of his elbow, they head first towards the bread aisle and work their way round produce, picking up a loaf of white and a loaf of brown, a tub of spread and a bottle of vanilla milkshake because Louis can’t resist.

“Louis, if I told you that my favourite food was fish, would you believe me?” Harry begins slowly as they walk down the frozen aisle. He stops, leans down and reaches for a bag of something. Sheepishly, he turns back round. “Or would you say it was… a load of old Pollocks?”

Harry holds up a bag of frozen Pollock portions and smiles smugly with obvious delight at his terrible pun. Though terrible as it might be, Louis feels all warm inside as he throws his head back and cackles with laughter.

“Oh my God, that was appalling, Harry!” He howls, clamping one hand across his belly. “I’ve changed my mind, I don’t wanna be associated with you anymore!”

He lengthens his strides and picks up pace, Harry jogging to catch up and calling after him dramatically. Together, they amble towards the back of the shop where the fresh bakery produce and boxed cakes are.

“I used to work here, did you know?” Louis offers as they walk side by side, Harry now holding the basket.

“No!” Harry exclaims, and bless him he seems genuinely interested. Louis can’t help but smile to himself. “You never told me that. What did you do?”

“Shelf stacking. Friday and Saturday night shift. I wasn’t very good at it.”

“When was that?”

“When Jess was pregnant with Emmie.” Louis explains. “It only lasted a few months, it almost killed me, what with working full time at my proper job too. I still remember Mr Moon calling me into his office to sack me.”

“Who’s Mr Moon?”

“He was the night shift supervisor. Still is, I believe.”

Harry smirks, and Louis’ lip quivers quizzically. “What’re you giggling at, Smiley?”

“Mr Moon?” Harry repeats, and Louis nods, not sure he’s getting the joke that Harry quite clearly is.

“What’s so funny?”

“Mr Moon the night shift manager?” Harry says yet again, and it takes a second but the penny drops and it finally hits Louis.

“Oh! Oh my God, I never, ever picked up on that! Even in all these years!”

“That is a great name, I am impressed.”

The conversation trickles out naturally as they come to a halt in front of rows upon rows of boxed celebration cakes, Swiss rolls wrapped in cellophane and boxes of chocolate cake.

“Don't really know what to pick,” Louis says, glancing over the shelf at his and then to Harry. “There's so much choice!”

“Mmm,” Harry agrees, gaze fixed straight ahead.

“Any recommendations?”

“I mean, these look good?" Harry says half-heartedly, picking up a packet of coconut and chocolate covered marshmallow biscuits.

Louis shakes his head, grinning widely. “That was so insincere.”

“You know me too well!" Harry quips, and the idea that Harry might actually think that about the two of them and their friendship is something that takes Louis aback. “I mean, if I'm being lame just tell me but I thought maybe something homemade? Little fairy cakes, maybe something with chocolate? Nice little triangle sarnies to balance out the sweet?”

Louis watches Harry closely as he talks enthusiastically, and Harry catches his eye as he trails off, cheeks visibly reddening. It feels like Harry has actually given some thought to this, and Louis doesn’t quite know what to do with that realisation.

“Sorry, I uh, got a bit carried away there. Ignore me.”

Harry reaches out for a plastic wrapped packet of iced cakes but Louis stops him.

“No no, I really like that idea. I mean, I would but I'm shit at cooking.”

“I'm not," Harry says quietly, looking down. "I mean, I don't mind helping?"

Some quick mental maths in his head tells him that baking the stuff from scratch, cooking it and then waiting for the stuff to cool and decorating will take much longer than simply buying a load of pre-packaged stuff and chucking it on plates. That means he’ll have Harry for longer, assuming he sticks around of course.

“I mean, the extra effort will really impress them all, won’t it?”

Yes, Louis knows that was the flimsiest excuse in the history of flimsy excuses but Harry is smiling and guiding him towards the home baking aisle, they’ve got the evening ahead of them, and that's all that matters.

Besides, it's just cake baking between friends. Nothing more.

*

Harry is full of stories and useless factoids as they peruse the home baking aisle, picking up different types of flours, food colouring, marshmallows, vanilla essence and chocolate drops.

“When you think about it, this stuff is all probably cheaper than a load of boxed stuff, anyway.”

“Yeah, and better too. Well, assuming your baking skills are as good as you claim they are.”

“Have to prove myself, do I?”

“Was that a baking pun?” Louis asks. He’s been an avid viewer of Bake Off since the start; he may not know how to bake, but he does know the lingo.

Harry barks out a laugh, delighted with the recognition. “That was completely accidental but I am very impressed you picked up on it.”

“Not as green as I am cabbage looking, my dear.”

Louis smiles, awkwardly, fleetingly; he’d had ‘my love’ on the tip of his tongue but he’d just managed to stop it in time.

The lady who scans the shopping through is clearly very uninterested and doesn’t ask them what they’re planning, and Louis feels a bit deflated at that. He wants to tell everyone about Harry’s ideas and his creativity, his enthusiasm to make the buffet the best it can be, even if he’s not directly involved with the actual celebration.

That thought gives him a funny feeling in the pit of his stomach. The do tomorrow is only family, not even Niall and Amy are coming, but something inside Louis makes him feel like Harry should be there. As more than a friend. But that would be getting ahead of himself.

“You okay, Lou?” Harry asks, knocking Louis out of his trance. He blinks a few times and refocuses. Their bags are packed and Harry’s clutching them both, the cashier looking away and waiting for the next customer to approach.

“Yeah, sorry.” Louis puts his debit card back into his pocket and takes one of the shopping bags from Harry, slipping his fingers around the plastic handles. Harry smiles curiously but pushes off on his back leg and leads the way.

*

They’re doing really well. Or rather, Harry is doing really well. Louis is merely spectating at best, helping out with basic things like passing Harry a spoon or taking the butter out of the fridge.

An hour or so in and they have twenty little fairy cakes in delicate white paper cases cooling on the rack, three bowls of sandwich fillings cling wrapped and chilling in the fridge, savoury scones made and what will eventually be lemon drizzle cake baking away in the oven.

Harry’s got flour in his hair and Louis an icing sugar handprint on his backside. The lemon drizzle glaze is smelling lovely, ready to go in a small ceramic bowl on the window sill, out of harm’s way. The bag of marshmallows that they’d bought end up opened but not needed, as plans for sticky marshmallow rice crispy bars were shelved early on.

“Stop it!” Harry mutters as Louis throws one at him. It hits him with a soft pat and falls to the floor. He bends down, the crack of his kneecaps undeniable, and picks it up, chucks it into his mouth.

“Er, that’s been on the floor!”

“I trust the cleanliness of your kitchen enough to eat a marshmallow off of it,” Harry says, “Besides, five second rule and all that.”

“That’s not a real thing!”

“It is!”

“Well luckily for you, the kitchen floor is pretty clean. Well, it was before the flour and icing sugar started flying.”

Harry smiles with a little shoulder jig. “Sorry about that.”

Louis just smiles; surprised that Harry doesn’t try and shirk his responsibility for the commencement of the flour fight. “I’ll let you off, just this once.”

Harry smiles too, but then his grin loses power, like his supply has been cut off. He licks his lips and Louis sees Harry’s eyes flicker over his face momentarily. Louis’ own smile fades and he’s suddenly aware of how fast and loud his heart is beating. He can’t pretend he doesn’t see Harry’s eyes move over his lips. It’s harder to breathe now, and his heart is expanding and choking him and-

“D’you wanna lick my attachment?” Harry asks suddenly, sticking his tongue out of the corner of his mouth and holding up the whisk attachment caked in batter mix.

The tension drops away immediately and Louis bursts out laughing, feeling his shoulders sag in relief.

“You haven't even taken me out for dinner yet, Styles!” He shrieks, pretending to be scandalised. He sticks his finger into a globule of batter that is about to drop off the end of the whisk anyway.

Now the moment has gone Louis is okay with that. He’s not sure they should even be having ‘moments’ so it’s probably best that nothing happened. He’s painfully worried that if he and Harry do kiss again, he might not be able to let the curly boy go again.

Harry points to the cupcakes, asking Louis without words to pass them, which he does. Harry takes the marshmallows and pulls one out of the bag, balancing it on top of a golden baked cupcake.

“Perfect fit,” Harry hums satisfactorily to himself.

“What’re you doing?” Louis asks, his voice just a throaty gasp.

“Wanna see a trick?” Harry asks, in lieu of an actual answer. Louis nods all the same. “Pass me that lemon glaze? Please?”

Louis does so, and watches Harry dip the end of the marshmallow just under the surface of the lemon and sugar mix that is meant for their cake. He press it onto the fairy cake. He puts it on the baking tray and does the same with six of the twelve little buns. They sidestep each other with nervous soft giggles and Harry puts the tray of cakes back into the oven on the top shelf, pushing the door gently closed and turning to smile at Louis.

“Wait til you see how they come out. They taste amazing and look so cool too.”

Indeed when Harry brings the tray out a minute or two later, the pale pink marshmallows have melted and spread to form perfect little discs of icing for the tops of the cupcakes.

“Marshmallow topped vanilla and lemon cupcakes!” Harry says proudly once all the cakes are back on the cooling rack.

“You clever soul,” Louis smiles, unable to tear his eyes off the delicate, bite size little treats. “They look really great. Better than I could ever do.”

“Just takes practice,” Harry says, ever the peacekeeper, but clearly not much of a realist. Louis snorts and throws up a sceptical eyebrow, but Harry rushes to his defences once again. “You never know if you’re good at something ‘til you try it. You could do this, easily.”

Louis doubts that very much; he doesn’t have a creative bone in his body, but Harry. Harry’s talents never seem to end.

They ice the remaining six cakes with regular icing, though Louis doesn’t feel his own efforts come anywhere close to the marshmallow ones.

“Do you have any sweets?” Harry asks, smiling down at Louis’ cakes as if they’re the best thing he’s ever seen in his life. Louis wants to tell him he doesn’t have to humour him, but he doesn’t. “Little ones to pop on top of the icing?”

“Harry, I live half of my time with a three year old, of course I have sweets.” Louis deadpans as he opens the cupboard nearest to him and pulls out an old tin of Roses that is filled with packets of every sweet and chocolate known to man.

“Perfect!” Harry says with a smile. “Will she mind me taking some?”

“No, she won’t even notice they’re gone.” Louis says truthfully. There are so many treats in Emilia’s tin that she is unlikely to notice one packet missing. Harry selects a mini size bag of foam bananas and rips them open enthusiastically.

“Continue on the fruity yellow theme, I guess.” He explains as he drops a foam sweet into the centre of the white glossy icing perfectly. “It’s a shame sherbet lemons are so crunchy, otherwise that’d’ve make a great topper.”

“You’re really putting thought into this, aren’t you?” Louis leans one hip against the nearest counter and puts his weight on one elbow. He can feel the heat radiating off Harry’s body that he hadn’t been aware of a moment earlier. Harry pauses after adding the final banana.

“I just want it to be perfect.”

That statement holds a lot of weight and Louis doesn’t digest it all straight away. There’s more silence as Harry fiddles unnecessarily, pushing one of the bananas over a fraction of a millimeter, turning the tray they sit on round slightly to get a better look.

“It will be.” Louis promises. Harry doesn’t look up.

The final thing to do, aside from the sandwiches which Louis will fill tomorrow, is to turn the cake into a lemon drizzle.

“Just pour?” Louis asks for a third time, convinced that Harry is setting him up to fail. “Like, all over the cake? Won’t it go soggy?”

“Yes, but in a good way.”

“There’s a good soggy?” Louis asks, sceptically. “I know a certain Mrs Berry that would disagree with you.”

Harry laughs, head back and mouth wide open. “Trust me on this one, Lou, just pour. Nice and even, okay? Get it all covered.”

Louis looks at the Pyrex jug of warm lemon and sugar mix then at his cake. It’s come up well, nice and golden on the top, raised with an aesthetically pleasing crack on the surface.

“Okay, here goes nothing.” He says as he slowly pours the liquid out of the spout and onto the cake. It splashes ever so slightly, and he almost jumps back as he watches it pool on top of the cake and start to drip down the edges to collate in the corners of the loaf tin.

“Am I, this is wrong, right?” He stammers, not making sense. He tips the jug up the right way and holds it aloft, staring at it like it’s about to hurt him.

“No, c’mon, you’re doing good.” Harry’s tone is soothing, but the feel of his skin is electric, and Louis almost blacks out as Harry guides his hand in his as they pour together. Harry keeps him steady, sets the pace, and even though the point of contact feels like fire and Louis’ sure he’s trembling just a little bit, Harry keeps his cool.

Louis can feel Harry’s controlled breathing against his cheek; he tries not to let it be the only thing he can focus on as the last of the sugary syrupy liquid slips out of the glass jug and into the cake.

“There we go,” Harry whispers. “All done.”

Harry lets his hand fall away and Louis’ exposed skin tingles in the air. The atmosphere feels stifling and his body feels weak and for a second, he can’t move. He’s aware of Harry moving though, taking the jug and putting it in the sink under a stream of warm water.

“I made a couple of these lemon drizzles for Liam’s mum and dad’s twenty fifth wedding anniversary,” Harry says slowly, turning off the tap. The pipes creak and groan and then the only sound between them is their breathing. “They went down a treat, so… I hope your guests will like them too.”

Louis nods, smiling wistfully. He pictures Harry presenting lemon drizzle cake to Mr and Mrs Liam for their anniversary. The faceless, nameless parents and their anonymous friends, gushing over Harry’s delicious cakes and the boy himself lapping up the attention and the affections of the older people. Louis can see it now.

“What’re you smiling at, Dreamer?”

Louis blushes, blindsided by the nickname. He turns around, to face Harry. “Sorry, just… that story is really cute.”

“S’not that cute,” Harry mumbles bashfully. He looks away, grabbing at whatever is closest. It just so happens to be the bag of marshmallows. It crumples under his fingers, making a small noise that hardly affects anything. He watches Harry for a moment, his smile slowly fading from his lips but still lingering, his cheeks dusted with pink.

He looks away, feeling a sense of intimacy in the moment that he isn’t sure is welcome just yet.

“Speaking of Liam,” He says slowly, glad for the opportunity to change the subject that has presented itself. His burgeoning inkling that a certain Mr Payne and a certain Mr Malik might also be sailing the good ship friendship into muddy waters is the second most consuming thing on his mind and he has to tell someone. Tell Harry.

“Has he said anything to you?”

“About what?”

“About… Zayn?”

Harry’s eyes bug. “No! Why?”

Louis feels his smug, satisfied grin intensify as he rewinds his brain back to the start of his official Realisation.

“I think those two might be… fooling around?”

“Oh my God, you see it too! I thought it was just me!” Harry exclaims, and they share all of the evidence that they’d both apparently been unofficially collating for the past few months. They screech with laughter and enthusiasm as they realise what’s been going on under their noses.

In the clinical bluish light of the kitchen, in the late evening dusk, their laughter dies down and they fall into a momentary relaxed silence. Louis studies the pale makeup of Harry’s face; the iridescent and almost angelic hue to his skin that causes Louis to reflect on himself, the reddened bridge of his own nose that is now home to several more freckles than it had been when Harry saw him last.

“Did they really think they were that slick they could get one past us?” Harry muses, shaking his head in apparent disbelief.

“So Liam hasn’t even said anything?”

“Nope, not a word,” Harry confirms. “What was the last thing Zayn said about it?”

“Deflected the question,” Louis replies. “He uh, it was at that barbecue Nialler arranged. They spent the whole day with each other practically, stood up at the grill like a couple of old gossips. God, I can’t believe we didn’t both say something sooner!”

“It’s funny isn’t it?” Harry says, slightly more serious now, and Louis feels the heat leave his body. “We were the ones that were set up for speed dating, and it’s our friends that end up getting together.”

Thing is, nothing that has just come out of Harry’s mouth is actually funny. It feels like a punch in the gut and he doesn’t like the look on Harry’s face as he says it. He just looks sad, in a way that Louis can’t say he was unprepared for. How things have changed in just a few seconds.

“Harry…” He tries, reaching out, his fingers touching the gathered material of Harry’s t-shirt. Harry cocks his hip away, so Louis’ fingers fall short.

“Don’t worry about it, Louis. Honestly.” He says, almost indescribably quietly. He shakes his head and pushes his chin right into his chest. “I should go. I hope Archie has a lovely birthday.”

“Harry, wait!” Louis speaks, louder than anyone has for several minutes, and moves across the room to stop Harry going, wrapping his fingers around Harry’s slender wrist to anchor him down. “I’m sorry.”

“You don’t have to apologise, Lou. You’ve done literally nothing wrong.”

Harry looks at him, for a beat of one two three seconds and then snatches his hand away, shaking himself out of Louis’ precarious grasp.

“This was a mistake, coming here. I’m sorry I interfered. You don’t have to text me, don’t have to keep seeing me. I understand it’s easier that way.”

Harry is moving towards the door, he’s using words like mistake and interfered; Louis is staring losing Harry in the face, he knows it. Panic sets in and all the loose ends that had been troubling Louis for weeks now about Harry and what he means to him are beginning to tie themselves. He has to act quickly.

“Don’t leave,” He says, cutting in front of Harry, slamming into the back of the door with a wince. The plastic edging digs into the bumps of his spine and the glass panel is cold. “Please don’t leave.”

“No! I can’t do this, Lou, this is killing me. I know what you want and I know what I want and they don’t match. Someone’s gonna get hurt, what’s the point? I thought… I thought after you got back things’d changed. I mean, we- we kissed, and I thought… I guess I thought wrong. All of this, tonight and pretty much every minute I’ve spent with you really, it’s been like a dream. But I can’t keep doin’ this to myself if it’s going nowhere. Being your friend is harder than I thought it would be. I thought I could do it but it’s too much. I can’t do it.”

Harry’s words barely touch the sides; Louis’ head is swimming by the time Harry stops to take a breath. Louis’ glad he’s propped up against the door because he fears otherwise his legs might give out on him.

“Can you please move?” Harry speaks again, looking desperately past Louis. He’s soft and pleading in his delivery but Louis doesn’t budge. “Lou, please?”

“Don’t go now, please. We need to talk ‘bout this.”

“Why?” Harry asks forcefully. “Just so you can tell me again that it won’t work. That you only do one night stands. I can’t hear that again, Lou, and I can’t keep seeing you if that’s all we could ever be. It’s not fair. Just… just let me go, please?”

Harry sounds so resigned. His shoulders have dropped as if the weight of the world is on them and it’s finally got too much.

Louis reaches out, presses his flattened palm against Harry’s tummy. Harry backs off, letting his head hang. Louis lets his hand drop back down by his side. Harry’s hair falls forward into his face and he rakes his hand back through the dropped curls before gripping the back of his neck with both hands interlocked. His arms shield him from Louis’ gaze.

“I’m terrified, Harry,” He continues, and Harry looks up then, ashen and wide eyed but still blank and hopeless looking. “You’re the only person that’s ever made me feel something, ever. For years now I’ve shut out anyone who comes along, but then you come in and completely turn my world upside down and I’m so confused because I don’t know how to stop shutting you out.”

“You don’t have to rush anything, Lou, you know I’d wait forever for you.”

“Do I?” Louis counters, and Harry’s hands slap the air in frustration. “I don’t know that you’ll always be there. I don’t know that if we give this a go and you meet the kids you’ll still be here in a year, or even a month!”

“I’d be with you in a heartbeat, Lou, you know that. I’ve never been interested in anyone like I’m interested in you. I never cared before ‘cause it’s never felt worth it but with you I know it would been. Yeah fine, it’d ‘ve been easier to fall for someone ‘normal’,” He throws that around quotation marks with his fingers. “But I don’t want normal, I want you! I don’t care what baggage you come with, I would’ve embraced that baggage. I want to make it my story too! But that’s not what you want right now, maybe ever and I can’t sit and wait and hope that one day you’ll change your mind, watching what I could’ve had slip past me! It’s too hard.”

Louis is stunned into silence by Harry’s revelation. ‘ Fall for someone…’ ‘make it my story too.’

“So you can let me go. I’ll deal with this. You don’t need to feel guilty about it anymore.”

That same ride-or-die feeling is back; if Louis doesn’t speak up he’s going to lose this fledgling chance with Harry before it’s even fully formed.

“But… but what if I can’t let go?” He tries, pitifully and breathlessly.

“Don’t do this, Lou. Neither of us is gonna win here. It won’t work, that’s your own voice saying that. Time and time again you’ve told me, I know it all now. Space and time is what we need. When it’s not so fresh, we’ll be able to move on. Separately.”

Harry’s words send a wave of nausea through Louis.

“Harry, please!” Louis snaps, his desperation growing steadily. “I need help! I can’t help the way I feel about relationships but I can’t stand the idea of not being with you. Talking about Zayn and Liam just now, it got me fucking blind with jealousy, because that should be me and you!”

He gestures between their bodies.

“Why isn’t it us then?” Harry cries, clearly exasperated. “The only thing stopping you is you! Someone said to me that it sounds like you’re resisting your own happiness, ‘cause you don’t think you deserve it or you don’t feel you’re allowed what everyone else has.”

Louis gawks; opens his mouth to protest immediately but then shrinks back again. That’s eerily accurate. It’s also something he’d never admitted to before, not even to himself. He’s always maintained he didn’t want a relationship, not that he couldn’t have a relationship.

“Thanks. Thanks for that psychoanalysis. Do I get a say at all?”

“Of course you do,” Harry collapses down from his rigorous, passionate performance, letting his shoulders sag. “I’m sorry. I’m outta line. Sorry.”

He lifts his head, and Louis watches him closely. “I don’t think you’re even wrong. What you said, ‘bout not deserving it. You’re probably right.”

Maybe there is more to be said and maybe they should be saying it now, not diving head first into kissing, but Harry crowds into him, presses him further up against the back of the door and now is definitely not the time for talking. Not anything that makes much sense, anyway.

Harry pins Louis in place, hips to hips, but keeps an air of space in between their chests. Harry’s arms are between them, one forearm pressed flat against Louis’ chest, fingers sliding into the neck of his t-shirt, and the other sitting firmly on his hip. Louis hasn’t shaved since Friday and he knows Harry will feel the prickle against his own smooth skin. He wonders if it drives him crazy.

“Show me your room?” Harry asks, and it occurs to him that Harry hasn’t been in his room yet. That stirs up a lovely feeling in his gut, and he makes a point to ignore the fact that thirty seconds ago they were arguing, to forget the turmoil of this precarious situation. He nods and the involuntary noise he makes as Harry nips at his neck is coarse and guttural.

They switch places as they make the short journey from the front door to the stairs, Louis leading. Harry follows close behind, Louis’ legs feeling like lead and not cooperating. Louis pushes his bedroom door open forcefully and Harry spins him back around as they enter the room. Louis treads backwards carefully, putting all his faith in Harry guiding him in.

“Nice,” Harry murmurs between kisses, his eyes darting around the room in inspection. “Very nice.”

The bed hits the backs of Louis’ legs and he falls back onto it, his legs falling open naturally into a V shape. He digs his heels into the mattress to shuffle up a bit and Harry drapes himself between Louis’ legs and moves with him; perfectly in sync.

Harry props himself up on his elbows, the weight of his body heavy but good. Louis is quickly filling up in his joggers and imagines that under the restrictive denim Harry probably is too. He shuffles his bum down and lets his legs fall outwards at the hips as far as he can go without causing himself an injury. He hooks his ankles together at the small of Harry’s back and that seems to spur Harry on even more. He gyrates his hips down on Louis’ dick in little pulses; Louis fattening up even more with the contact, as minimal as it is.

Harry’s kisses are filthy; Louis’ not been kissed like that in a long time. Actually, he’s not been kissed like this since the last time he was with Harry, and he has to wonder, in the heat of the moment, why he spent the last few months dicking around quite as spectacularly as he had. Of course, he knows why, but that isn’t an issue for right now.

“I’m sorry,” He rasps, thoughts spilling out into words. “For… for before.”

“It’s okay,” Harry says, nudging his nose against Louis’ cheek, his breath warm. “Got loadsa time to talk.” He pauses. “Later.”

He drops a kiss onto Louis’ cheek and then rolls back onto his knees, Louis’ legs falling away to the side. His t-shirt is already ruched up around his middle and Harry brings the rest of it up exposing his tummy. He feels momentary self-conscious; a relative blob in comparison with Harry’s sleek and chiselled frame.

But Harry disappears from his eye line, starting his trail at the bottom of Louis’ sternum. His nibbling kisses are somewhere between a bite and a kiss, and the air is cool on each mark that Harry leaves behind.

He tenses slightly as Harry drops lower, kissing around the right side of his bellybutton. Harry inhales slow and deep as he first runs his cheek then the tip of his nose through the trail of hair that disappears past the waistband of Louis’ boxers.

“Love this,” Harry murmurs, the warmth of his breath sending goosebumps scattering over Louis’ exposed tummy. “Softer than your beard.”

Louis can’t really form a response, just lifts his head up off the mattress briefly to see Harry nuzzling his happy trail; eyes closed and expression completely mesmerised and serious.

He ventures even lower, rubbing the curvature of his cheekbone against Louis’ firm length that lies hard and to the left. Louis reflexively tenses his muscles and his cock pushes up against the materials that are trapping it down. The pressure and the friction feel good, but the resistance that he meets from Harry’s cheek feels better.

“Can I?” Harry asks as Louis’ head hits the mattress again. Staring up at the ceiling until it all goes blurry, Louis nods and rasps a throaty “fuck, yes please”.

His feet slide down the bed as Harry sits back on his heels and pulls the first layer of clothing down easily. Louis’ hard on becomes freer with the removal of a layer, and he feels exponentially harder just from the feeling of release. Harry tugs down the waistband of his boxers with his two index fingers and Louis lifts his bum to assist. He sees Harry licks his lips as he does so, already lowering himself back down and shuffling down the bed to get more comfy.

His cock has barely sprung up from against his thigh before Harry’s mouth closes around the top, taking advantage of the fact that he’s rock hard and ready to go. His foreskin rolls down inside Harry’s mouth and he can’t help but cry out. Harry applies just the right amount of pressure; takes him all the way down until his nose is pressing against his palm that is splayed out around the base of Louis’ cock, keeping it in place.

Harry loops his hair over one shoulder, keeping one hand vaguely slotted through the curls to keep them away from his face. The other hand works in tandem with his mouth, his tongue free to work over Louis’ head. It’s filthy dirty, the way Harry runs his tongue around the perimeter of his head and flicks it effortlessly over the top, catching every sweet spot and flexing between flattening the muscle down to capture more surface and using the point of it to get to the specifics.

He goes about half way down, if Louis were to hazard a guess, keeping his attention focussed solely on the head for quite some time before finally taking his hand away and deep throating apparently without any effort, filling the warm and wet cavity of his mouth. Louis feels the gentle give of the very back of Harry’s throat encase his cock head and he can’t help the yelp that escapes him.

Harry carries on, shifting positions as nimbly as he can without ever leaving Louis. His nose presses down against Louis’ tummy as he sinks all the way down, fly away hairs tickling Louis’ sensitive skin.

Harry’s hand suddenly flies out of his hair and to Louis’ thigh, his palm slapping against the skin and his fingertips digging in with a sense of urgency that makes Louis’ tummy twist with desire. He lifts his head and shoulders clean off the mattress; his muscles strain and burn but he doesn’t care as he watches Harry sink right back down to the base, curls cascading off his shoulder and into his face.

He feels Harry’s frustrated grunt vibrate through his entire lower half before he hears it, and watches in slight bewilderment for a second as Harry pops off the top of his cock with a slurping sound as the thickened head falls from his lips.

“Shit, sorry, lemme just- one sec.”

Louis watches Harry reach up, drag his hair into a messy pony tail, snap the hair tie off his wrist and tie his hair back into a messy, lop-sided bun on the crown of his head. The little ridges of his ribcage bloom under his pecs as he stretches his body up and his shoulders and biceps look more defined than ever from this angle.

“That’s better,” Harry murmurs softly to himself as he folds himself back down again and nudges the head of Louis’ cock back against his plush lips.

Harry rests the very tip just past his lips, like a kiss. Louis shudders as Harry, now free to use both hands to assist, takes him all the way back down again, just the right amount of pressure and teasing of his most sensitive areas.

The sensation creeps up on him quickly after that, and he lifts his hips involuntarily with rigid thighs as he comes, one hand clamped tightly over his eyes and the other gripping on to Harry’s shoulder for dear life.

Once the peak of his orgasm begins to subside, Louis drags his arm away from his face and peers down his nose, unable to move much more than a few muscles at a time. He watches Harry proudly pop off the top of his cock with his bottom lip bitten outrageously.

“C’mere,” Louis manages to utter, reaching out blindly for Harry with his other hand and guiding his body up. Their lips crash together and Louis fumbles with the fly of Harry’s jeans, without the benefit of sight or fully functioning limbs.

Eventually, with his jeans pulled down awkwardly to mid-thigh, Harry suspends himself over Louis, holding still and steady as Louis brings him to orgasm with his hand. Harry comes on Louis’ belly, their lips pressed statically together as he rides through it, little whimpers coming from the back of his throat.

Afterwards, he collapses on his front, just to the side of Louis, their legs entangled. The mess is rapidly going cold on Louis’ belly but he doesn’t move immediately to clean himself off like he might’ve wanted to.

Harry slouches, face pressed into the mattress. Louis watches the small ripples of muscle in his back squirm as he breathes heavily, and when he finally looks up again he is red in the face and doe eyed.

“Okay there mate?” Louis asks innocuously, laughing. Harry just smiles dopily and nods, mouthing a soft ‘yes’.

Harry cranes his neck up for a kiss, and the one that they share is light and delicate, just a soft touch of lips together, but it’s loaded with intent and a memento of the emotional downpour that is about to hit them.

“I’m uh, I’m sorry for coming on your belly.” Harry says sheepishly, smiling out of the corner of his mouth and letting his eyes travel bashfully.

Louis snorts softly. “It’s okay, didn’t give you much choice did I?”

Harry shakes his head. “No, ‘spose you didn’t.”

“C’mon, let’s clean up.”

Louis shifts his leg free from Harry’s, edges his way off the bed without getting anything on the duvet, and pulls himself to standing. He wriggles out of his t-shirt and uses it to pat down his tummy. He then turns to look over his shoulder at Harry; he’s rolled onto his back now and his jeans are still half way down his legs, one slightly bent at the knee. His head lolls to the right and his cock rests calmly up against his left thigh. Even going soft, he’s a sight to behold.

“Coming?” Louis asks, too sated to play up the double entendre. “To the bathroom, I mean.”

Harry springs up off the bed, tugging at his boxers and jeans. He puts himself away and covers his bum but leaves the buttons undone, waddling behind Louis. Inside the bathroom, their hands wonder and they’re both fully head again quickly, but they don’t go again, not this time.

They each clean the other’s body respectively, teasing each other with unexpected cold water and, in Louis’ case, the odd flick of a nipple. It’s once they’re dry and fully dressed again that the fairy tale ends and they come back to reality. Louis watches Harry looking at the photographs up on the walls as they walk back down the stairs and when they reconvene together in the living room.

He’s looking at the pictures on the sideboard; baby Emilia, baby Archie, toddler Emilia and slightly less baby Archie, a picture of the two of them with Lottie taken in Spain, and a picture of his mum.

“Wonderin’ what you might be lettin’ yourself in for?” Louis asks, sounding bold but not feeling anything like it.

Harry looks round at him, blinks profusely, and then smiles. “No, quite the opposite actually. I was just thinking how much I’d like to meet the kids. Properly.”

Louis makes a face and Harry’s falls.

“I don’t mean right now or anything,” He clarifies. “I don’t even know when. There’s no time frame on it, I don’t think.”

“We… what are we now? Like, what just happened, that changes things right?”

“Right,” Harry agrees softly as he nods. “I mean, it does for me. I hope that maybe you’re on the same page now? Or at least, getting to be on the same page.”

“It’s not just a one night thing anymore, is it?”

Harry pauses briefly. “It hasn’t been a one night thing for months, Lou.”

He’s right. Louis knows he’s right. Letting go like this, though, standing on the edge and looking down into unknown territory is really scary. His first relationship, potentially, since the last year of school. Surely Harry understands the magnitude of that. Well, Harry would understand the magnitude of that if Louis actually grew a pair and told him the truth.

Not now though; it’s too heavy.

“I’ve got loads on my plate with Archie and this party, y’know? The thought of havin’ both families together is stressing me out.”

“I understand” Harry says immediately. Louis pauses, mid-thought, and looks at Harry. He’s certainly not like any other twenty one year old lad, not in this moment at least.

“But after it’s all died down, we can talk? If you want to, I mean? If you think we should.”

“I do think we should, yes.” Harry confirms, chuckling to himself. It’s very endearing. “Just… tell me one thing?”

“Okay…” Louis murmurs, waiting and bracing for what Harry might ask.

“Are we- just so I know, are we… I mean, there’s no one else is there? We’re as good as exclusive now?”

“Y-yeah,” Louis confirms, his throat feeling a bit thick with unexpected overwrought emotions. Thank God Harry has finally pulled his finger out because if they were waiting on him it’d probably never have happened. “You can assume that, yeah.”

Harry’s entire face relaxes and lights up as he drops the tension from his shoulders and smiles broadly. “That’s, that’s great. I’m… thank you, Lou.”

“You don’t have to thank me, you nutjob.”

Harry blushes. “Well, still. I mean it. I know there’s a load to work out, stuff to say, but for now, I’m happy.”

“Me too,” Louis smiles, happily genuine for the first time in a long while. “And thank you , anyway, for helping me tonight, with the party stuff. I’d be stuffed without you, I really would.”

And he means it, in more ways than one.

Louis drives Harry home and they kiss again in the car, Louis waiting until Harry is across the busy road and in his flat before driving off. He shakes himself off to try and clear his head; he’s got a massive day ahead of him tomorrow, a day that he really needs to be focussing one hundred percent on his family for, and things with Harry are still so brand new and fragile they could break apart at any minute with one false move. That doesn’t, however, stop the giddy little spark of hope and excitement from igniting in his tummy.

*

They’d fallen asleep texting, and come morning he has a text from Harry wishing Archie a very happy birthday and good luck for the tea party later.

He replies to the message first then pees, showers and calls Jess on her mobile, waiting patiently for the FaceTime call to connect. When it does, Emilia answers and he can hear Archie screeching in the background.

“Oh dear, what a noise!” He marvels, watching his daughter giggle mischievously. “Hi Emmie, how are you babe?”

“Good!” She coos. “It Archie’s birthday, daddy!”

“Is it? Ooh, good job I phoned when I did! He doesn’t sound too ‘appy about it, what’s going on?”

“Mummy not lettin’ him have cake for breakfast.”

“Oh dear!” Louis exclaims theatrically. “On his birthday and everything! What a mean mummy!”

“I'm right here, I can hear what you're saying, Louis!" He hears Jess in the background and Emilia giggles uncontrollably. "Emmie darlin’, can you put Archie by the phone so daddy can talk to him? Thanks babe."

There is a lot of shuffling and commotion, the image on the screen distorting and freezing up as Emilia scrambles over to Archie but finally the image of his son and daughter sitting side-by-side on the sofa grinning becomes clear.

“Happy birthday, baby!” Louis coos to Archie. The young boy, from what we can tell with Emilia’s shaky camera skills, is still in his pyjamas, balled up wrapping paper scattered everywhere and he’s fighting with a scrap of blue star patterned paper in his podgy little hands.

"Yah daaab-dah!" Archie proclaims happily, and Louis just pretends that he's saying hi daddy.

"Have you opened your pressies, baby?"

"He got building blocks and a talking teddy bear and loads of money and a Manchester coat from Uncy-Robbie." Emilia provides, Archie looking up at her with ever present adoration.

“Wow, that sounds good!" Louis says, giving Archie a thumbs up that he happily copies. "Daddy will be there later, okay, I miss you two loads."

Emilia vaults off the sofa with the phone in her hand; all he can see are bits of ceiling and chin and hand as Emilia runs off. He doesn't even get to say a proper goodbye to Archie, and the next thing he sees is a rather disgruntled looking Jess. The conversation is clipped at best and they make disinterested small talk before confirming the plans for the afternoon. Jess has taken care of everything else; the planning, the birthday cake, the decorations. All Louis and his family have to do now is turn up. With the food, of course. It’d be just Louis’ luck to mess up the only thing he’d been entrusted to do.

He shakes off his irritation and goes about his day, arriving at work just about on time to a small package wrapped in metallic yellow paper on his desk from Tina. He’s leaving at lunchtime so has a hectic morning; his panic levels rise steadily the nearer to one o’clock it gets.

At ten past, he dashes out of the office with Tina’s gift, several new entries for the website that he has to proof read over the weekend at some point, and a layer of nervous sweat across his hairline that he could really do without.

In the space of two hours and twenty minutes he has to get home, shower and change, get Archie’s gift in the boot of the car, fill the sandwiches, pack up all the food, check that the rest of the Tomlinson’s are on schedule, pick up Lottie from mum’s and get to Jess’ house.

He’s in a blind, mad rush as he drives home across town, flies in the front door and upstairs to the bathroom. He lets his hair air dry as he gets the sandwiches prepared and then picks out an outfit. He loads the car up and the last thing to do before getting back in his sweatbox of a car is to text Lottie her five minute warning and style his hair. He slicks his fringe across his forehead with a tiny bit of product, just because it’s easiest, and runs out the door.

He calms down once he pulls up outside his childhood home, seeing the twins out the front waiting. He winds down the window and sticks his head out of the window, cutting the engine.

“Hey girls, where’s dad?” He shouts, Daisy wandering over with her arms crossed and an irritated look on her face.

“He’s not coming now, he cancelled last minute.” Daisy says bitterly.

“What?” Louis yelps. “What do you mean, cancelled? After all that fuss?”

The call to Mark a few weeks ago to formally (reluctantly) invite him to Archie’s party hadn’t been a fun one, and now to hear that Mark isn’t even coming feels like a slap in the face. Phoebe approaches the car, arms folded too.

“I dunno why you’re surprised, Lou.” She says.

“I know,” Louis agrees sadly. “Sorry girls, hope you’re not too disappointed.”

They both shrug, but then the front door opens and Fizzy and Jay appear, his mum looking stressed. He reassures her that he’s okay, or that he will be when Lottie gets her arse outside, and his panic finally subsides once they’re all on the road. Lottie travels with him and the rest of his sisters go with mum in the people carrier.

He and Lottie chat as he drives; Lottie asks him if he’s dreading this as much as his face says he is, and he pales at that. He doesn’t often feel guilty for the situation that he and Jess have ended up in, as far as Archie and Emilia are concerned, because this is a damn sight better than them trying to form a relationship just for the sake of it and being miserable together. But when it comes to times of celebration and the two stilted families coming together, it reminds him of all the spontaneous, natural family times the kids will miss out on because they’re split between two homes. The thought of bringing someone else into that mess on top of everything else is overwhelming; even someone as beautifully lovely as Harry.

“Lou?” Lottie asks, concern in her voice. He peers over at her briefly, taking his eyes off the road for a second. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to upset you.”

“You didn’t, Lotts, it’s okay.” He reassures her, trying a smile. “It’ll be fine. It’s only one afternoon, right? And it’s not about me it’s about Arch; he’ll have the time of his life, I’m sure.”

They talk a bit about Mark, both of them with an equal amount of distaste for their estranged parent. Louis must admit that he’s a little bit relieved he’s not coming, even though he wishes he hadn’t bothered to ask in the first place. It’s embarrassing, but most of all he feels for Archie and Emilia. As much as it pains Louis to admit, Mark is their grandfather and while Jay is more than enough of a grandparent to the kids, they shouldn’t have to miss out on a family member just because of Louis’ issues.

Louis doesn’t want to think too deeply about it; he’d all but written Mark off when he’d left his mum and the girls. The twins were only young, they didn’t understand. It still makes his blood boil to this day, despite how well the girls have turned out. That’s all thanks to Jay.

*

His mum’s dark blue car is already parked up outside Jess’ house when they arrive, but just barely as they’re all still piling out of the vehicle. Louis parks on the driveway behind Jess and approaches the door first, knocking softly and turning to look at the ladies behind him. He gives the twins a reassuring smile and returns his mum’s sympathetic and anticipative look with an eye roll and an eyebrow wiggle.

Jess answers the door with Archie on her hip and he squeals in delight when he recognises his daddy. They exchange Archie and pleasantries quickly, Archie quickly getting passed to Auntie Fizzy.

His lot fill up the place, of course, and Louis’ glad the weather is still nice enough that they can spill out into the garden. He calms his nerves with deep breaths as he unloads the car, and lets Jess go about getting it all situated on the serving table. He leaves Archie’s gifts by the door and heads through the lounge.

He slaps his hands together with false confidence and holds his tummy as Fizzy and Lottie give him funny looks. He wills them away with his eyes and carries on to the double doors out onto the patio.

The couple that never quite become his parents-in-law are in the garden making small talk with his own mother and Emilia. She comes rushing over to him when she spots him in the doorway and that gives him the confidence boost he needs. They head back over towards Jay, Mike and Carole.

“Daddy, Nanny Jay is here and Grandma and Grandad! This is so cool!” Emilia enthuses.

“I know, pretty cool, huh? Hi, Carole, afternoon Mike.” He hugs Carole politely and shakes Mike’s large, outstretched hand.

With the greetings over, the rest of the afternoon is actually a whole lot less stressful than Louis had been anticipating. He settles down and Jess even gets him a drink; colour him surprised. Inside, she’d unwrapped all of the food and decanted crisps into glass bowls. There are options slightly healthier than those that he and Harry had provided; carrot sticks and cucumber, salad and coleslaw and cold chicken pieces.

The birthday cake sits in the centre of the table with a 1 shaped candle; it’s not until he sees that the reality of the situation hits him. He has a one year old. His son is a whole year old; and what a year it’s been. He seeks Archie out and scoops him into his arms, holds him close and breathes in his smell. Archie is, surprisingly, not fussed about being cuddled and Louis whispers into his ear.

“Happy birthday buddy, I love you so much. I hope you know how special you and big sissy are, even though me and mummy don’t live together we both love you so, so much. You got that?”

“Nyuhhh, da-da-da-da-da-da!” Archie says back to him, like he completely understands.

“Good boy,” Louis kisses his forehead softly and sets him back down. Archie shuffles across the floor to soon be commandeered by Daisy and Phoebe. Both girls are snapping pictures on their phones and Archie is loving it. Emilia appears like she’s been summoned and demands to have her picture taken too, inspecting the selfies with her twin aunties scrupulously.

“Did you make this stuff, Lou?” Jess asks, the informality a little bit surprising. “Looks really good.”

“You say that like it’s a surprise. If it looks good I couldn’t have made it.”

“No, I didn’t say that!” Jess cries, laughing.

“Well, yes I did make them, sort of. I had help.”

The idea of mixing Harry and Jess together seems very impure in Louis’ mind now that he’s said it, and he balks a little, hoping Jess won’t press him for more information.

“Oh well, thank you for doing it. It all looks great.”

They haven’t shared many tender moments over the five or so years they’ve known each other, but this moment comes close to perhaps the nicest they’ve ever been to each other.

“It’s for Archie, so, y’know. I’d do anything for my kids.”

“Of course,” Jess agrees, looking away. She picks up a marshmallow cupcake and begins to peel off the paper case. “These are delicious.”

*

Later that evening, once he’s home and all the festivities and stress have passed, he can still feel the ghost of a sleeping Archie in his arms and on his chest. He knows they’re coming back on Sunday, and he’s lucky to have got an extra afternoon with them, but leaving had been harder than ever before.

With a cup of tea and the dregs of a bag of Doritos that were left over from the party, he sprawls across the sofa absent-mindedly not really watching the telly that is on. His phone rests on his belly; he’s texted Harry and he’s just waiting for a reply. He tries not to count the minutes that he goes without a reply, but it’s hard not to.

Overnight, Harry has become the person Louis wants to speak to whenever something is on his mind. And the funny thing is there isn’t really anything specific on his mind, it’s just a mish-mash of emotions that have bubbled up over a very confusing yet enlightening twenty four hours or so.

In the end, Harry calls instead of replying.

“Hey, sorry I was having a bath and didn’t take my phone with me.”

Louis imagines that for a second. “It’s okay,” He says breezily. “Are you all right?”

“Yeah, I’m really good. So how did it go?” Harry asks of the birthday party.

“Not bad yeah, once I managed to round up all the Tomlinson’s and get them all in the same place at the same time. Archie and Emmie loved it, so that’s all that matters, right? Mark didn’t show up in the end, after all that.”

“Oh I’m sorry,” Harry says. “Are you all right?”

“Yeah yeah, ‘course!” Louis dismisses it, abnormally breezily. “The girls were disappointed I think.”

“It’s a shame,” Harry agrees. “Did your cakes go down well?”

“You mean your cakes?” Louis asks, and they both chuckle. “But yeah, they went down really well. Even Jess complimented me on them.”

“Wow, praise indeed!” Harry remarks, and Louis sighs. It still feels weird, mixing his two worlds together. “The lemon drizzle was a hit, yeah?”

“Yeah, and the marshmallow cupcakes especially. Everyone loved ‘em. I didn't even get a chance to try one.”

“Ah,” Harry says sharply, and Louis wonders what he’s up to. “I left a surprise. Go into the kitchen, the cupboard where the beans are."

Rolling his eyes at Harry’s cryptic instructions even though no one can see him, Louis hauls himself up. “Okay, you’re on loud speaker and I’m leaving you in the front room. Be back in a sec.”

Harry laughs and agrees. Louis trots to the kitchen, pushing open the door with stealth silence. He opens the cupboard directly next to the extractor fan, where the aforementioned beans and other tinned goods live. In a little Tupperware pot is one of the marshmallow cupcakes.

Feeling suddenly quite wobbly, Louis laughs softly to himself and reaches up for the pot. He opens it and takes the cupcake out; completely fresh from the seal on the pot that has housed it in secret for the past day.

He takes it back to front room, speaking out loud to the open space, to Harry.

“Hello,” He announces his return. “I’m back.”

“Hey,” Comes Harry reply, filling the room. “Did you find it?”

“Yes I did, thank you.” Louis smiles as he talks, sits back down on the sofa next to where Harry sits on the arm of the sofa. “Very thoughtful of you.”

“Oh, it was nothing,” Harry says dismissively, and Louis can almost hear the shrug in his shoulders and the blush in his cheeks.

They chat for a good while longer, off speaker phone so it feels more intimate. Louis didn’t ask in so many words if Harry was free tomorrow but he reveals spontaneously that he’s spending the day with Gemma and his mum, so there goes that. Sunday, of course, the kids come back, so it will be a week at the very earliest before they can see each other.

Reluctantly, they end the call just before eleven, and Louis is shocked to see the timer on his phone; one hour, thirteen minutes and fifty two seconds. He tries to push Harry out of his brain for a while; picks up the empty cake case and concertinas it into folds. He really should make some plans for tomorrow instead of sitting around feeling sorry for himself.

If he sees Amy he knows he will spill, so that might not be best. He ends up sleeping in until half eleven the next morning, then doing the food shopping and heading to his mums. Lottie is out so it gives him the rarest of opportunities to spend some time with his other siblings, the twins in particular.

Jay makes them lunch, happily cooing over having her youngest babies and her oldest baby home for lunch. Jess sends him a picture of Archie in his new ball pit, which he shows off to all and sundry like the proud father that he is. He only heads home once he remembers the proofing he has to do for the new load of properties about to go live on their website.

He downs three cups of tea and inhales a microwave pizza while he works; sticky fingers on the keys and all. His brain is thrumming and wide awake as he tries to settle in to bed, and the only way he ends up settling is with another late night catch up with Harry. He finds out all about his day and compares it with his own. He pictures one day maybe them sharing the same memories.


Harry


Harry is really happy.

Nothing could make him feel bad.

The only thing that could make things any better would be if they could have their Talk and settle into what Harry hopes will be the start of an amazing relationship, but he knows that will come in good time, all being well. Louis needs time and Louis will always need time because of the unique time at which their lives interspersed.

He’s not going to say anything to Liam just yet, but he can’t keep the news completely to himself. After work on Wednesday evening his mum picks him up and they go for dinner out.

“Now, it’s not that I don’t love being taken out to dinner by my favourite boy, but to what do I owe this pleasure, Harry?” Anne asks once the waitress has taken their order.

“I’ve got some news?” Harry says, watching his mum’s face quirk with anticipating excitement. She puts down her glass and nods for him to go on. “It’s not one hundred percent confirmed just yet, but, I think I might’ve met someone.”

“Oh?” Anne says, smiling. “And is this a special ‘someone’?”

Harry blushes and tries to keep his lips clamped together. “Yes, very special.”

“Tell me more, then. Give me all the goss!”

Harry smiles smugly. “Well, it’s a boy. His name is Louis. I met him four months ago.”

“And this is the first I’m hearing about him?!”

Actually, Harry has mentioned Louis quite a few times in the four months since they first met, but it was always on a nameless, casual basis in passing, Louis’ existence dropped into conversation like it was nothing.

“Well, he sounds great. I’m really pleased for you. Do we get to meet this one?”

Harry cringes. He may only be twenty one but that doesn’t mean that he hasn’t had his fair share of heartbreak, and his mum is plenty aware of that fact. He’d had his first girlfriend at eleven, first (secret) boyfriend at fourteen, and may have once been prone to jumping straight into things with the first person to show even a whiff of interest.

The girls and the boys – mostly girls, to be honest – that had captured his affections between the ages of fifteen and twenty had been the subject of many excitable ramblings to anyone who would listen, but it’d inevitably end with a poorly judged tryst or disappointment. No one that Harry ever enthused about materialised to be anything more than a couple of shags; not that Harry hadn’t tried. After that, he’d given up.

“If things go well, I’m sure you will yes.”

“Is he nice then? Tell me more about this Louis character.”

Harry starts off with the basics; a description, Louis’ job, his age. Anne winces a bit at the age gap but ultimately is forgiving. He’s slowly building up to the big one. He’s decided he’s going to get that titbit of info out in the open early on, to save any deception or nasty surprises. And who knows, in five years’ time these kids could be calling her Nanny Anne.

“Well he sounds perfect. What aren’t you telling me?”

Harry tries not to let his face fall too far, as he prepares to give the news.

“Harry, I was only joking.” His mum interjects, sensing his unease and giving off plenty of it herself. “I didn’t mean there had to be something wrong with him.”

“I know that, but… there is one thing I want to tell you.”

“Oh?” Anne says, Harry’s nerves hitting a fever pitch. “Go on.”

“Promise not to freak out?”

*

The way that Harry had thought, just a few hours ago, that nothing could possibly dampen his good spirits? Yeah, he was wrong. This has done it.

His mum hadn’t taken the news well. In fact, she’d shouted so loudly the next occupied table across the other side of the room heard. It was humiliating; she was adamant that he is in over his head, not thinking straight and being frankly ridiculous. She asks him if he’s got his head in the clouds, if he’s gone insane and just what the hell he thinks he is doing?

It’s even worse that they have to sit through dinner together. Harry doesn’t feel like eating anymore; he picks at his chips and has a few mouthfuls of his chicken only.

The car journey home is stilted and his mum apologises though maintains that she doesn’t like the idea at all. Harry can hardly accept that apology but he shrugs anyway. He can’t even talk about the disagreement with anyone, because it’s Louis he wants but he can’t risk freaking him out by telling him that his mum already hates their relationship.

In the seclusion of his own bedroom, he burrows himself down into the mattress, duvet covering his shoulders and touching his chin. His tummy rumbles but he still doesn’t feel up to eating. Mikey pokes his head round the door at some point during the evening but Harry shrugs him off, accepts a beer and goes back to moping again.

*

Harry is over his funk by Sunday the eighteenth. Louis had talked him down from his sulk earlier in the week, though Harry hadn’t been honest about the reason for his mopey mood. As far as Louis was concerned, it was work related.

After a few days of persistent hassling, Niall’s finally managed to get them all on board with a night out down the pub. Harry wasn’t resisting it at all; he couldn’t wait to see Louis and spend some time doing nothing productive - it’s the others that had to be difficult.

He asks Louis if they could go together, and when Louis gently reminds him that they’re not out to their friends and should probably keep any public displays of affection until after that time, he nods solemnly and agrees that he will just meet Louis there with the rest of them then.

He puts any feelings of dissatisfaction to one side as they arrive in dribs and drabs; Niall is already there when Harry arrives. It’s just the two of them for a short while before the other three arrive together. Harry tries not to let the pang of jealousy he feels towards Liam and Zayn for getting to arrive with Louis get the better of him, and they share indeterminate smiles in greeting as they all sit down.

They poke fun at Niall for finally being ‘allowed off his leash’ and he comments back rather matter-of-factly that Amy hadn’t wanted to come anyway, and that she did have friends of her own, you know? Harry thinks that sounds an awful lot like Amy’s words coming through Niall, but he doesn’t comment.

Things feel a bit better after the first beer goes down, when the boys return from the bar and Louis sits down next to him. Their knees knock together under the table and the point of contact feels hot and electric, makes Harry’s skin sizzle, though he’s still wishing for more.

The five of them have a real laugh and the edges where Niall, Zayn and Louis meet Liam and Harry blend seamlessly together and you’d never be able to tell who’s known who for twenty plus years and who’s only known each other for four months.

Harry feels richer for every little snippet of information he picks up on, when an anecdote reveals the meaning behind an inside joke, or a glimpse of the Louis, Niall and Zayn of days gone by shows through. He’s not pining for the touch that he wishes he could have from Louis or give to Louis, he’s not.

But when he’s left at the table by himself, Niall on the phone in the corner, Zayn and Liam at the bar and Louis in the loo, he takes the opportunity to scram. He follows Louis’ path over to the men’s toilets, through the door to find Louis lingering in the dim light. It’s like déjà vu.

He guides Louis into the cubicle, slinking into the corner behind the closed door. Part of him feel ridiculous, part of him doesn’t care. A tiny little segment of him is sad that they’re hiding out just to get in a little kiss and a cuddle.

“Hi,” Harry smiles, beams , even though he’s been in Louis’ company for hours now.

“Hi yourself,” Louis smiles, and Harry presses their lips together in a kiss quickly; he can’t stand to be tempted by having Louis to close but so far one second longer.

“What was that for?” Louis smiles sheepishly as he pulls away, turning his cheek so Harry can’t get to his lips. Ouch. Panicking only slightly, Harry slides his hands down around Louis’ waist and gathers them in the small of his back.

“Missed you,” He says quietly, feeling considerably more cramped in this confined cubicle than he had a second ago.

“Did you?” Louis asks, and Harry nods earnestly.

“Wish we could just go out there, tell ‘em, not a care in the world.”

Louis’ expression drops a touch and he looks away. “Me too,” He says. “Soon, yeah?”

Harry tries not to let his disappointment shine through. But being rebuffed for the third time in one day will do that to a person. He lets his own gaze drop, down to Louis’ chest, where his collar bones protrude through the neckline of his t-shirt. He likes that bit. He keeps looking, only for something to focus on. A few seconds later, he looks away, down at the scuffed and frankly disgusting toilet floor.

Louis’ finger comes up to his chin a moment or two later, crooked in the middle, and he guides Harry’s attention back round to him. He’s slumped down the wall, appearing smaller than normal, and he looks up at Harry sincerely through big round eyes.

“You okay?” He asks, roughly and his voice catches. “It’s all right, yeah?”

Harry nods, because it is. It’s fine. Harry knows that this is the way things have to be, and that they won’t always be this way. That is enough to placate him for now.

“Good,” Louis says softly, then he straightens up and leans back in for another kiss, his hand dropping down to the neckline of Harry’s t-shirt, fingertips gripping the hemline.

One more for the road, is what it feels like.

*

Harry is impressed with his rate of recovery once they’re back out with the boys and laughing and drinking. He tries to keep up with Zayn and Liam, to see if there is anything that gives them away, but he doesn’t say anything because they seem to be playing the same game as he and Louis; pretending. The Great Pretenders.

He catches Louis’ eye a fair few times, sometimes when they’re laughing over what joke Niall has cracked, or sometimes when he’s in the middle of a sentence and their worlds collide for a moment, when all that he truly cares about is deep within this boys blue eyes.

When the others boys take centre stage, he shrinks back himself. He enjoys his beer and their company, their anecdotes and witty stories that he can only aspire to. Louis leaves to answer a call, and Harry feels instantly on edge, pictures her on the other end, but then a moment later his own phone vibrates in his jeans pocket and he straightens his leg out under the table to fish it out, kicking the table leg in the process.

Lou: ’You know I can’t wait to show you off and be open with people right? Im please just asking for a bit more time. I promise I’ll be worth it. You look amazing tonight by the way x’

Harry reads it twice and looks up, hoping he’s not being watched. No one around the table catches his immediate eye, and he can’t see Louis anywhere. His blood feels like it's been replaced with helium and his fingertips prickle under the clammy plastic of his phone.

It's enough to make the things his mum said feel not so significant anymore. It's enough to make the hiding things feel not so troubling. But it won't be enough to make Louis walk out of the doors, walk up to him and kiss him or hold him or even touch him at all.

“H, comin’ to the bar, mate?” Niall’s voice cuts into his conscious, and he looks back up to see him signalling across the table. Harry must admit his first feeling is confusion as to why Niall is singling out him and not someone closer to him like Zayn or indeed Louis. Nonetheless, he nods and makes his way over to the bar behind Niall.

“Y’alright then?” Niall asks, settling one elbow down on the bar. Harry doesn't really care for the look on his face.

“Yeah, I’m fine,” He answers. “You?”

“Yeah,” Niall nods, smirking still.

“What’s the look for?”

“What look?”

“That look!” Harry exclaims, pointing up at Niall’s smug mug. “What’s that look for? What do you know that I don’t know?”

“Them two,” Niall says eventually, nodding over at where Zayn and Liam have just returned from wherever the hell they’d been.

They’re looking at each other like there’s no one else around and it’s quite honestly sickening. Harry can’t deny he’s relieved that Niall hasn’t cottoned on to him and Louis yet, though. Not that he’d mind, but he thinks it might upset Louis a bit if they’re exposed on their first outing.

“Oh?” Harry tries to feign nonchalance, and Niall scoffs at him.

“So you’ve picked up on them too?” Niall laughs. “Glad it’s not just me.  Although, they’re not very subtle are they?”

“No, uh, L-Louis said he thought somethin’ was up too.”

Niall’s eyes light up. “No way!” He laughs. “God, they think they’re so smart don’t they? Not sure why they feel the need to sneak around, though.”

“Don’t say anythin’, eh?” Harry tries to bargain with Niall, itching uncomfortably at the phantom prickle underneath his skin. “Let ‘em figure it out ‘emselves, yeah?”

Niall looks at him suspiciously, but the barman appears and Harry is saved from having to answer any potentially embarrassing questions for the time being. Niall orders five beers and five Jägerbombs.

“Missed you the other night, anyway, where were you?”

Niall’s referring to that Friday night a few weeks back that Harry had spent with Charlie. Harry fidgets uncomfortably; he wishes Niall would drop it already.

“Nothing, I just. I was seeing my mate Charlie. I don’t see him often and had already made the plans.”

“Ah, shame man. It was a good night. Those two, Christ, I tell ya it wasn’t subtle at all.”

“Gutted,” Harry muses, not feeling gutted at all. His stomach is in knots as Niall continues to prattle on, the barman appearing periodically with beer after beer after beer. Harry nods and agrees with things, watching the barman move out of the corner of one eye, and Niall’s animated gesticulating out of the other.

“Sounds like you all had fun anyway,” Harry muses, feeling a lot less confident. “I saw the pictures on your Snapchat. Looks like you all had a good time. Bet you and Aims felt the odd ones out, though.”

“How so?”

“Well, y’know, Zayn and Liam getting close and Louis pulling – you and Amy are old news now there’s hot new gossip, right?”

“Well, I wouldn’t say that!” Niall laughs. “Anyway, what you on about, Tommo didn’t pull! Don’t be mad.”

“Looked like it,” Harry says bitterly, trying not to let his heart get ahead of his heart.

“What are you on about?” Niall asks, the barman now beginning to work on their Jägerbombs. “He spent all night giggling over stupid shit with Amy and her sister, mate. And unless he wants a slap from Nat’s husband, I don’t think Louis would try and go home with her!”

Harry feels his heart slow down and then speed back up again.

Louis was with Amy and her sister. That’s why the other girl looked familiar. That’s why Gemma had thought the two girls looked similar. Because they’re sisters. Harry feels embarrassed, but also can’t recall paying much attention to Natalie on the few occasions he’d briefly met her. That means… Louis probably isn’t seeing anyone else, just like he’d said he wasn’t.

And yeah, this whole not letting his heart run away from him isn’t going too well. Harry feels like he could scream for joy at what Niall is telling him.

“Oh uh, I…” Harry stammers, unable to play it cool. “That’s cool. Didn’t recognise her.”

“Are you for real? You’ve met Amy’s sister! You know what she looks like, Harry!” Niall laughs, getting ready to pick up the tray of Jägers. Harry is just about to reach for the beers when Niall suddenly stops and proceeds to bang the bar with his palm. The drinks shudder and Harry jumps.

“Hold on, I’ve just… you’re jealous! Unbelievably jealous!” Niall says, looking round at him with a menacingly self-righteous grin.

“No I’m not!” Harry protests weakly.

“Yes you are!” Niall insists, and Harry feels about an inch tall. “Oh my God, do you like him?”

Harry doesn’t answer; he’s not going to rat them out.

“Course I do, he’s my mate.”

“Thinking about it, now you come to mention it, I’ve just remembered something earlier.”

“What?” Harry asks with a sigh. He’s in too deep.

“Earlier on, yous lot were talking, I dunno what about now, I can’t even remember – no offence – but you were talking and laughed about something, and Lou just reaches out and tucks a strand of your hair behind your ear as you’re talking.”

Harry freezes, trying to pinpoint the moment Niall is referring to. “Did he?” He rasps, almost inaudibly, and the look on Niall’s face tells him that his new Irish friend has everything he needs to know now.

“Harry,” Niall says, his smile dimming slightly, becoming serious and caring. “You really like him, don’t you?”

Harry looks away, feels his cheeks burning. His mouth is dry and it hurts trying to swallow. Almost undetectably she shakes his head. “’Course not.”

“H,” Niall presses further, but Harry runs his hands through his hair and looks back at Niall fleetingly, his eyes pleading and Niall’s expression changes in a heartbeat. “It’s all right, Haz, it’ll be all right. Say no more, okay?”

Harry nods gratefully and picks up the tray, gripping it tightly at 9 o’clock and 3 o’clock, desperately worried that he’s going to drop it. He watches the beer heads slip and slide inside the glasses, but he gets away with only minimal spillage.

*

They go home together that night, after some not-so-crafty staggered exiting. Harry is sure they’re convincing precisely no one, and at this point he really doesn’t care. He doesn’t even think the others would care, Niall pretty much knows anyway, and Liam and Zayn only have eyes for each other. He’s only keeping this up for Louis’ sake at this point.

“What is the matter?” Louis snaps, pulling himself off Harry and sinking down into the cushion next to him.

They’d been kissing, and sure it had been really nice. With Louis compact and lithe in his lap, straddling him and pinning him into place with his knees, it had been good. Harry had lifted his gaze heavenwards and bitten down on his lip as Louis’d kissed and suckled his neck. His hands had gripped Louis’ bum as they’d kissed, and his finger tips had dug into the skin through the material of his boxers. It had all been fine, but he’d sighed maybe a few times too many. Looked away for longer than he should’ve. And that wasn’t good.

Louis has flung himself off of Harry, gaze accusatory yet hurt. Harry’s stomach churns.

“Nothing, why?” Harry lies, suddenly feeling quite exposed without his t-shirt on. He crosses his lanky arms over his body awkwardly; it doesn’t help one iota.

“You keep sighing and going quiet. And that look, Christ, you could kill puppies with that look, Haz.”

“Sorry,” Harry says with a sigh that he hadn’t meant to be so forceful. “I mean, sorry for my face. I am okay.”

“No you’re not,” Louis challenges. “You were fine earlier. What’s changed?”

Harry wasn’t going to say anything, because he knows he’s being a tad unreasonable, and that Louis’ hands are tied and there’s nothing he can do at the moment above what he’s already doing. But it comes out in the end.

“Harry, I’ve told you the situation! What’s the point in tryin’ to rush me?”

Louis’ on his feet, pacing the floor. His arms gesticulate wildly as he talks then switch to running through his hair. He’s still in his boxers and t-shirt and Harry can’t help but feel a little conflicted.

“It’s not like you didn’t know that I couldn’t just dive into one hundred percent commitment straight away, you literally knew that. You know that I care about you but it’s not just you, or me and you, that I have to think about!”

“I know,” Harry says feebly, wishing he’d kept his mouth shut now.

“I wish it wasn’t like this, I wish we could just dive straight into this and not worry about anything but I just can’t do that, I’m not gonna fuck this one up by being an idiot, there’s too much at stake! I’m trying to do this in a way that no one gets hurt!”

“I know,” Harry repeats quietly. “I’m sorry.”

“Y-you don’t need to be sorry,” Louis deflates, dropping his arms to his sides. He moves back towards the sofa, next to Harry. “It’s not your fault. If anything I should be sorry for gettin’ on at you. I’m flattered that you think I’m worth the hassle, by the way. I mean, assuming you still think I’m worth it?”

Harry smiles, nodding bashfully into his shoulder. “Yeah, ‘course I do.”

“Good,” Louis smiles too, reaching out and taking one of Harry’s hands that he’s gathered in his lap. He runs his thumb over Harry’s knuckle and gives his hand a reassuring squeeze. Then he climbs back into his lap, throwing one leg over Harry’s two.

Louis kisses him again, pulls his hair from the temporary bun he’d tied it up into and spreads his fingers through the tight corkscrews that sit at the base of Harry’s neck. Between kisses they make tentative plans for the precious little time they will have together in the next few weeks. They don’t try to put a date on anything or create deadlines for themselves. It’s hanging over them, though; they’re both aware of it, but for now Harry is happy to let it linger.

-

-

-

-

 

Chapter Text

Harry



Harry wakes up in Louis’ bed the next morning. The scent of fabric softener clinging to the bed sheets is familiar but in his sleep-muddled brain he can’t figure out where he is for a moment. He opens his eyes wide, riding through the sting, and stares up at the ceiling. Louis’ ceiling. He can’t help but smile.

He rolls over to see Louis asleep on his belly, his face pressed into the pillow all scrunched up and small. He’s hugging the pillows and his hair goes in all directions. Harry watches him for just a moment, before it starts to get creepy and then carefully reaches out to touch Louis’ arm.

His skin is red hot to the touch, but Harry already knew that because they’d been sleeping next to each other all night. Louis’ been chucking out heat all night long and even with the duvet pushed down to his waist, one leg sticking out and being in just his boxers, Harry is still hot.

Louis doesn’t react at all to Harry’s hand on his arm so, gently, Harry shakes his shoulder. “Lou?” He says softly, his throat still thick from the night’s sleep. “Louis?”

It takes a minute, but Harry sees an eyelid flicker and Louis’ breathing becomes quicker and shallower, indicating arousal from sleep. He grunts into the pillow and Harry smiles warmly to himself.

“Morning to you too,” He says, catching Louis’ cheek rise up with a hidden away smile. When he finally lifts his head, his cheek is pink and creased from the pillow. He smiles again with his eyes still closed and then drops his head back down on the pillow, facing Harry now but eyes still closed.

“What times it?” Louis asks, opening his eyes a fraction then closing them again.

It’s just gone six, sinfully early. Thanks to their impromptu sleepover Louis has to get Harry back to his own place so he can shower and get ready for work, before he can go to work himself. Harry feels guilty for the added inconvenience but Louis had shot him down immediately the night before when he’d tried to protest.

Harry lays in Louis’ bed, propped up on all the pillows, listening to Louis in the shower. He scrolls lazily through his phone, notes the 12% battery and makes a mental note to take his charger to work with him. Louis appears in the doorway five minutes later, droplets rolling off the ends of his hair onto his shoulders. Harry does his best to keep his eyes up, but he can’t resist sneaking a peek at Louis’ body, where the fluffy towel sits low on his hips.

*

Harry learns two new things about Louis that morning; he doesn’t eat breakfast and he colour-coordinates the shirts that hang in his wardrobe. It feels good, having a few more titbits of information to store away. He takes the good feeling with him to work; after Louis has driven him home, waited in his room for him and then driven him to work before heading off to his office.

Arriving so early, before anyone else, is both a blessing and a curse because he wants everyone to note his swagger and see him arrive with Louis, let the seeds of intrigue grow in their minds, but he also knows they need to keep this from as many people as possible while it’s still so brand new.

So, he pushes open the doors and heads across his empty foyer to his empty desk. He powers up the computer, makes a cappuccino in the coffee machine out back, and gets out his phone to plug in to the USB. If he texts Louis now, it will play via the stereo in his car. Harry likes the fact that he knows that, and the thought of it makes Harry smile, and he taps out a quick message for his boy.

The reply from Louis comes twelve minutes later, presumably from his office not his car.

*

They spend Tuesday evening together until about one am when Louis drives him home. Mikey is still up playing PlayStation in the front room when Harry gets in, and they stay up until almost three playing and talking. Harry doesn’t spend nearly enough time with Mikey, so it’s nice. And, by the time Harry crawls into his bed, there is one less person who doesn’t know about him and Louis.

*

It's Thursday evening after work and they're in the takeaway. The fact that this week is almost finished sticks around in the back of Harry's mind but he tries his best to ignore it. Harry had spent the entire evening at home the previous evening for the first time all week, and he'd missed Louis dreadfully - as pathetic as that might be.

Now, they're waiting for their food and even though it's been less than twenty four hours it’s felt like a lifetime. They chatter away together, as quietly as their excitement to be reunited will allow. The world goes on around them as they stand in the corner of Jade Garden waiting on their noodles and rice.

“So, don’t kill me, but Mikey knows about us.”

They’re standing very close, just a hairs breadth between them and Louis has been idly running the zipper of Harry’s jacket up and down the track as they talk. He doesn’t stop, but he doesn’t look up straight away either. Harry winces slightly.

“Mikey your flat mate?” Louis eventually asks.

“Yeah,” Harry nods, running his fingertips over Louis’ belly, keen to re-establish contact. “That’s okay, right? He was up when I got in the other night, and…”

“Harry, ‘course it’s fine.” Louis says, brightening up and the relief washes through Harry; he can’t stop himself from smiling. “What did he say?”

“He was happy for me. For us.” Harry summarises briefly. Mikey had said a lot of things, some of it not so favourable in view of Louis’ previous reluctance and Harry’s turmoil at said reluctance, but Harry leaves those parts out.

“I’m sure he knows all of the gory details,” Louis says with a smile that doesn’t quite reach his eyes. “Will I have my work cut out to convince him my intentions are honourable?”

Harry chuckles softly, aware of the man behind the counter appearing with a carrier bag full of takeaway containers. “He will love you, I’m sure. If I’m happy with you, he will be happy for us. The food’s ready.”

Louis smiles and then turns, stepping away from Harry. He takes the bag and Harry thanks the man profusely as they head out the door, the bell overhead chiming as it’s hit. It’s not late enough to be getting dark yet, but it’s been an overcast day and natural light is compromised due to cloud cover so it feels a lot later than it actually is. It’s cosy, though, to take the food back to Harry’s flat and eat it in bed. The windows are open to alleviate the smell of deep fried food and the air is chilly. They can hear swirling wind and the pitter-patter of rain on the pane, but with the duvet over their legs they’re warm and toasty.

“I’m dying of thirst,” Harry complains loudly after pushing his empty plate onto the bedside cabinet. Louis could use a drink too; he’s always gagging for a drink after eating takeaway.

He waits while Harry makes the tea and after the first sips the drinks go largely forgotten about as they slip down under the covers. His tummy aches a little bit, lying down so soon after eating, but he ignores it in favour of the feeling of Louis so close. Their bodies lay parallel in the middle of the mattress. Harry slots his ankle between Louis’ legs and Louis grips his t-shirt under the covers, like he had done in the takeaway. It seems like that is one of Louis’ things , and Harry loves it.

When they’re not kissing, their foreheads bow together and touch lightly; just being close is enough.

“What’re you staring at?”

“Nothin’,” Harry says bashfully. “Why, am I not allowed to look at you?”

“I suppose it’s okay,” Louis shrugs. “Guess I’m not used to being admired yet.”

That admission makes Harry retract in disbelief; he can’t imagine a world where Louis isn’t admired by every single person he meets. He concludes that it’s probably a case of Louis being too modest to notice that everyone around him is in awe of him.

“Good, ‘cause I like lookin’ at you. Plan to do it a lot.” He says, matter-of-factly.

“Yeah?” Louis asks, noticeably trying to tame the smile that automatically casts upon his features.

Harry feels a warmth bloom in his chest at Louis’ reaction. He loves making Louis feel good, whichever way he can and as often as he can. That’s the plan.

“Yeah.” He confirms. “Like looking at you. Being near you. Your eyes.”

“Flattery,” Louis says, pausing for a kiss. “Will get you,” Another kiss. “Everywhere, Styles.”

“What do you like about me ?” Harry asks.

“Nothing, can’t think of anything.” Louis says, poking his tongue and rolling onto his back to try and evade Harry as he lunges at him, squawking with indignation.

They lie like that together for a while; Louis flat on his back and Harry propped up on his elbows at his side, peering over. Louis makes Harry laugh without even trying, and even though it’s probably just Harry being over-zealous on purpose, it feels good.

“No, not really. I like your laugh. It’s sort of like… a honk?” Louis tells him, probably quite earnestly but Harry’s mouth drops open and his eyes widen.

“A honk?!” Harry yelps, completely mortified. “What the hell, a honk !”

Louis’ back is arched off the bed as he laughs, hands interlocked casually over his soft belly. “I mean that in a nice way!” He insists as he sinks back down into the mattress, turning his head to look directly at Harry.

“You’re answers are rubbish Tommo!”

“Urgh, don’t call me that, it doesn’t sound right coming from you!”

“I’m glad you said that, ‘cause that felt weird.” Harry says, pulling a face as if he’s just tasted the most disgusting delicacy.

Louis rolls his eyes and snorts. “See!” He exclaims, making Harry pause. “It’s things like this. Random, weird, bit odd. I really like that about you. ”

“This is supposed to be things you like about me! This is all embarrassing stuff!” Harry cries, putting on a pout.

“Shut up, it is stuff I like about you!” Louis repeats.

“You think I’m embarrassing?”

“No! I like that you’re quirky. You’ve got personality.”

“That’s just a friendly way of saying I’m an ugly weirdo.” Harry frowns, putting it on a bit.

“Yes,” Louis replies sarcastically, pressing a kiss to Harry’s cheek, just to the side of his nose. “You truly are the ugliest weirdo I’ve ever had the misfortune of meeting.”

He pauses to lean back. He lifts a hand and gently wraps a loose tendril of brunette curls around his index finger. “Your hair, it’s so long and curly and shiny and out of control, it’s awful.” He drops the curls and slides his hands into Harry’s hair at the root, tugging ever so gently.

He leans in and ghosts his own lips over Harry’s. “These pink lips are far too pink and kissable. Not attractive at all. And don’t even get me started on those green eyes. Green eyes? What’s that all about? What were they thinking when they made you, seriously?”

“Okay, okay, I get the point!” Harry exclaims, cutting Louis off. He’s feeling suitably embarrassed now and he’s sure the colour of his cheeks reflects that.

“Good.” Louis says with a self-satisfied little harrumph .

“Wanna know what else I like ‘bout you?” Harry asks, oozing a self-confident charm that comes from being under Louis’ watchful stare.

“Go on then.” Louis nods, smiling.

“Okay,” Harry untucks one hand where it was propping up his chin and holds it aloft, sticking up his first finger. “Number one. I like the way you just… are.”

“Oh, good, and there's me worried you'd be vague!” Louis interrupts him, eyes crinkling where he's laughing.

“Let me finish!” Harry squeals, avoiding the jab that Louis languidly gives him. “Second thing: I like this little bit, here.”

Louis flinches instinctively as Harry reaches up and runs his finger along the line of his cheek where his beard fades out.

“You’ve got this little triangle of freckles, it’s like a constellation or something.” Harry explains, running the very edge of his index finger between the three points, examining Louis’ skin closely. Harry revels in being afforded the luxury of being so close to Louis, being able to study every single pore and every single eyelash.

“Your eyelashes, too, in the outer corner they tangle together. ‘S cute.”

Louis just looks at him, their eyes locked for a moment or two of silence, before he rolls the same blue eyes heavenwards and sighs. “You notice the strangest things.”

Harry doesn’t think they’re strange things. Harry thinks they’re the things that make Louis who he is. They’re the things that he’ll catalogue and remember forever, he thinks.

“These are all very superficial things too Haz, I’m starting to think you’re only with me for my obvious good looks!” Louis carries on, noticeably over-intoning the last three words for effect.

“Nope, that’s just an added bonus.” Harry says, leaning up for a chaste peck on the lips. Blimey, he’s a smooth bastard.

Louis rolls his eyes and gets increasingly bashful and embarrassed as Harry carries on, counting things on his fingers. Harry is so maddeningly endeared he feels he might choke on it. Harry now has his whole hand outstretched; he's listed five out of a possible one billion of his favourite things about Louis.

“Is that everything you can think of?”

“For now,” Harry lies. Really, he could rattle off his next fifteen points in a millisecond, easily.

“Okay,” Louis nods, and Harry suddenly realise he still has his hand in the air. He's just about to move it when Louis moves first. Louis reaches up and presses his own palm to Harry's. His skin is red hot, unsurprisingly, when it touches his own.

Harry examines Louis’ hand pressed against his; Louis’ hand is about half a fingertip’s length smaller than his. Louis catches his eye; he looks up and Harry blushes. Trying to bite down on his smile, they separate hands and Harry looks away.

“You know what they say about big hands,” Louis says, and Harry looks back round at him like his neck was on a bungee cord. “Big gloves, of course! Get your mind out the gutter, Styles!”

*

They fall asleep somewhere past one am, and wake up on opposite sides of the bed, facing away from each other, with a track of empty space in between their bodies and they’re still too hot.

The unprecedented warm spell in late September isn’t exactly welcome, especially if Louis’ reaction is anything to go by. He grunts at the alarm clock and twenty minutes and two snooze alarms later, he hauls himself up, chucks himself over towards the window and drapes himself over the cool glass with an otherworldly howl.

Harry watches, bemused, from where he’s sitting on the edge of the bed, already boiling hot in just his little pants. He crosses one leg over the other but the heat at the point of contact is enough to make him unfold his limbs again. He watches the condensation pool on the glass from Louis’ open mouth, and calls out to him, afraid that he’ll fall asleep again and do himself an injury somehow.

“I’m awake!” Louis mumbles, unconvincingly.

It takes Louis considerably longer to get ready that morning than it had at the beginning of the week. He suggests three times that they should both call in sick and spend the day together, but Harry vetoes the idea. They head out together, and it feels as domestic and natural as ever. As soon as he’s out of Louis’ car and heading into work ten minutes later, he’s missing him already.

*

The first whiff of something being up happens just after ten o’clock that morning. Harry knows it was ten o’clock because he’d just finished waving off the kids from the primary school that come in to swim from 09:15 to 10:00. A trio of official looking men in suits – Louis looks good in a suit, his brain supplies – catch his attention and he watches them unobtrusively as they brush past looking brisk and unapproachable.

No one says anything when the same three men are spotted leaving an hour and a half later. No one says anything about it for the rest of the day, and Harry has no choice but to push it to the back of his mind and forget about it.

Louis picks him up from work at half five.

"How was your day?" Louis asks as they sit in rush hour traffic, going nowhere fast.

Harry remembers the men in suits and awakens his curiosity again, but he doesn’t say anything. After all, there isn’t anything too out of the ordinary about men in suits in a meeting room, so he figures there’s no point in even mentioning it. So instead, he talks about the school kids who came in for their swim, about the great sandwich debate of 2016 that Kate had launched at lunchtime, and then something else pops into his head that he can't believe he'd forgotten about until now.

"Oooh! I just remembered something, I can't believe I forgot to tell you! Guess who has 'big plans' this weekend?"

"Dunno," Louis says with a shrug. "You?"

"No! Well, yes maybe, but that's not wh- Liam, okay! It’s Liam!"

"Right..." Louis says, though Harry’s sure he’s just winding him up at this point by being purposely dense.

"When I asked him who with, he just said "some mates". Like, he couldn’t even be bothered to come up with fake names."

"Maybe he didn’t want to offend you by admitting he has friends other than you?" Louis asks with a smirk. They move forward about half a car length and then slow back down to a stop again. The headlights of the car in front of them illuminate Louis in lovely red light, his eyes glowing indigo.

"C'mon, you know what I’m saying Lou! You have to text Zayn and pretend you wanna go out tomorrow night and see if he blows you off!  If he does, we know that he's seeing Liam!"

"I think someone's been watching too many 90's high school films!" Louis says, sing-song, as they move forward another inch or so. They’re stuck two cars behind traffic lights now, so once they go green again they should be able to make a relative amount of progress.

Harry lets it go, simply because he doesn’t want to annoy Louis and he’s not sure how far he can push him. They switch to talking about something else then, but Louis gives him a look to say that the previous conversation might not be over just yet, and Harry can work with that.

*

Saturday mornings in bed with Louis might just be Harry’s new favourite thing. He still can’t get enough of this boy; it doesn’t feel as if they’ve spent one day shy of a whole week together as they lay there together, touching softly at random points on their bodies, to remind the other they’re still there.

There’s nothing even really happening, they’re just lying there staring blankly at the telly, being quiet between themselves, Louis changing the channel periodically to try and find something decent on at nine thirty on Saturday morning.

“Ha, Jeremy Kyle!” Louis snorts softly as he flicks over to ITV2 to find repeats of the tasteless talk show. “Look at the state of some of these poor people.”

“Makes you realise how good your own life is, right?” Harry muses with a small smile.

“Exactly,” Louis nods enthusiastically. “Like, I may be a bisexual man with two kids by a homophobe I can’t stand, but at least I’m not on the Jeremy fucking Kyle show!”

Harry pales a bit at that; he doesn’t like the thought of Louis not being one hundred percent happy at all times. He knows just from being around the man for five minutes that his kids are his absolute lifeblood, but the circumstances are far from ideal and anyone can see that.

“Is it that bad between the two of you?” Harry asks, not really thinking about the weight of the question he’s asking. They’d mutually agreed they weren’t going to get into anything too heavy, this week at least, and Louis must be thinking the same thing given the way his face falls a little and twists uncomfortably.

“Well, it’s hardly a bed of roses, let’s put it that way.”

“I didn’t mean to pry.”

“You’re not prying, I just… I don’t want to get this new lovely nice thing with you get muddled with all that shit with her. It’s… they’re two completely different things to me.”

“That’s fair,” Harry nods, trying to put into words what he wants to say, but Louis beats him to it.

“We will sit down and talk about all this. Everything you need to know. But not yet, eh? I need to give myself at least half a chance to make a good impression before scaring you off.”

You could never, Harry thinks. “It’s fine, Lou, I completely get it.”

Saturday is their last full day together. Harry’s been dreading it the closer it’s got but he supposes it will be good practice. It won’t always be this way, either. He hopes.

They’ve big plans for the day, but they materialise to nothing.

“Why would I bother getting up and going out into the world and seeing people when the only person I want to see right now is here with me?” Harry reasons.

Louis rolls his eyes, in that bashful and embarrassed way that he has a habit of doing, but rolls himself onto his front anyway and shuffles up the bed so they’re close. They’ve been awake for a few hours now, got out of bed briefly but returned. It’s almost three in the afternoon now and though they’ve done nothing of note Harry feels like he’s accomplished a lot.

Harry’s become subconsciously hard as he’s been laying there, legs slightly parted and Louis sitting between them drawing patterns on his shin with his finger. And it’s not like he can hide it, either, because he’s completely naked after his shower. Louis had called him an exhibitionist and he’d offered to get some clothes on but Louis had ignored the offer.

It’s never been a source of obsession for Harry, sex. He’s thought about when they’ve been together in the past, remembered how Louis had felt and his responses and the deep blue of his dreamy eyes, but he hasn’t found himself unable to cope without it. He doesn’t want to think about whether Louis has gone as long as he has without it, because that’s none of his business but also he can’t bear the thought of him possibly being with someone else.

He closes his eyes and wills away the thoughts as he feels Louis moving; he scrambles onto his front so he is now laying in the space between Harry’s knees, keen but not rushed.

“All right down there?” He asks, lifting his head slightly to see Louis looking up the bed at him, his eyes heavy-lidded.

“Yep,” Louis pronounces perfectly, rubbing his cheek up against the knobble of Harry’s right knee. “Never better.”

Harry’s pretty sure Louis hasn’t shaved in over a week. He can feel it in the prickle that brushes over his skin with Louis’ movement; the contact elicits goosebumps all across Harry’s skin. His cock jerks away from his body once or twice with steadily building interest as Louis gets closer, dragging his chin and his cheek ever so gently over the tender skin of his inner thigh, and at other times pressing soft little biting kisses to the affected area.

Harry can only muster nonsensical one syllable murmurings; Lou, I, oh, babe, yeah. Louis carries on, obviously taking Harry’s stuttering as motivation, and Harry is so glad. Louis is very close now; he nudges the length of his cock with the tip of his nose and presses a kiss to the concealed tip.

Harry’s breath catches in his throat and he bounces with interest off his thigh as Louis lets his lips fall open and warm breath spills out over his cock.

“Okay baby,” Louis murmurs, so soft Harry almost misses it. But he doesn’t miss it, and the words make Harry exponentially harder against Louis’ lips. “Just lie back. It’s okay, gonna take care of you.”

Louis starts at the head and works his way down slowly, Harry’s foreskin retracting in his mouth as he sinks down, his hand looped lightly around the base for stability. Harry is rock hard as Louis slides all the way up to the top with the width of Harry’s shaft held between his lips. The slick of the spit on his skin feels cool in the air, but Louis’ lips are a source of warmth as he closes his mouth back over the head and deepthroats Harry again, absolutely no effort required just like the last time.

Harry’s legs have subconsciously opened wider as they’ve been going and now his knees are clean off the mattress, heels digging into the surface to keep them from slipping. Louis is shifting too, just minutely, and he continues to suck Harry as he moves, somehow. His boy is a genius, Harry concludes.

Louis pops off the top and moves one knee so he can push himself up the bed, over Harry, to meet their lips together. His hand is between their bodies, flicking absently at Harry’s nipple as they kiss lazily.

Harry has always had a thing about his nipples, and it’s no different with Louis. He wriggles and writhes under Louis, blissfully sated with the combination of his nipple being played with and the exposed head of his cock catching occasionally against Louis’ tummy.

“I’m so hard,” He mumbles blindly; it’s the first thing that comes into his head but it’s pointless.

Louis makes a noise above him and hangs his head between their bodies, looking back down at Harry’s cock firm between them.

“Yes you are,” Louis agrees, rolling back down Harry’s body and lapping his cock back up into his mouth again and sinking right down with his tongue pressed flat against the surface. Harry has barely focussed on that feeling before he feels something else up against the perimeter of his exposed head.

Louis has slicked up the pads of two fingers with spit, and Harry didn’t even notice him do it. His back arches as the warm and wet pads sweep over his hole teasingly, just over the surface.

“Fuck Lou,” He blurts, feeling his tummy muscles tighten even more with the added sensation.

Harry has always been presumed to be the top and only the top, and he’d had far too many blokes whisper in his ear regarding the size of his cock to wonder why that is. That hasn’t ever bothered him, but with Louis’ fingers ghosting over his hole he suddenly wants nothing more than to lay back and let Louis open him up, works his way up to three fingers deep and then thrust into him slowly and calculatedly.

“I’ll give it all to you,” Louis mumbles, letting Harry’s cock fall from his mouth. He replaces them with the two fingers that had just been teasing Harry’s rim, sucking on them intently for a second before dragging them out with a filthy slurp. “Take you out, wherever you wanna go, whatever you wanna do. And then I’ll give you everything.”

“I want that.” Harry says, feeling more like he’s desperately pleading.

Harry isn’t far away at all when Louis sinks back down for a third time and brings him to the brink. He shoots down the back of Louis’ throat with one hand balling up the duvet cover and the other digging into his thigh.

When he does the same for Louis a few minutes later, it’s much more rushed and he can’t afford his new boyfriend the luxuries that he had been given himself, but they’ve both got to where they want to be, and the naked cuddles afterwards that turn into a two hour long nap are absolutely the best.

Harry doesn’t want this week to ever end, but he knows it has to.



Louis



One week into their new relationship isn’t the time for Harry to be meeting the kids, they both agreed on that. But that means that in stark contrast to the departing week, they’re not going to get to see each other at all in the upcoming week. Louis knows that was his own choice, and in the end his excitement to see Emilia and Archie wins out, obviously, but he does feel a heavy reluctance in his chest to let Harry go on Saturday evening.

He can’t even remember now why they’d agreed not to spend Saturday night together. He’s sure they had a reason for their decision, but he doesn’t know what it is now and he’s lived to regret it for sure.

However, the kids are coming home in less than an hour and because it’s another lovely afternoon, he’s agreed to meet them at the park by Jess’ house and take them home from there afterwards.

Louis pushes his Ray Bans up his nose where they’ve slipped. He’s more than a little bit hot and bothered as a result of deciding to walk over to the park instead of driving. He’s been too reliant on the car of late and its showing now. Taking a few deep breaths and discreetly wiping his brow, he carries on through the estate, past all his old haunts, past the turn to where Jess’ house is, and down the small hedge lined alley between the houses.

He emerges on the playing field, the small area of playing equipment segmented off in the far corner. He spies their silhouettes in the distance; the pushchair, Emilia shouting, Jess pushing her on the swing. They don’t notice him until he’s almost right upon them. He lets himself in the gate of the enclosure, the yellow paint peeling and the hinge squeaking, and heads across the bouncy rubber floor towards his albeit fractured family.

“Daddy!” Emilia spots him from her vantage point in mid-swing. She kicks her legs out and the swing goes skew-whiff with her excitement. Archie spots him next and begins to holler excitedly too.

He greets Jess as amicably as he can and then scoops Archie out of his buggy and into his arms. He wonders why Jess isn’t letting him have a go on the swing too, but he doesn’t say anything, just goes right ahead and puts him into the vacant baby swing next to Emilia.

“There we go!” He coos to his boy. “That’s better, hey? You can swing like big sissy now.”

“I was just letting him have a rest for a while.” Jess points out defensively, and Louis just shrugs.

“It’s okay, I wasn’t implying anything.”

He pulls Archie by the bar that goes across the front of the swing, letting him sway back and forth gently. He claps his little hands together wildly and his little legs are rigid with excitement.

“Nyahhhh! Da-da-da-da-da!” He shouts, amongst other unintelligible noises as he swings. Louis’ heart expands in his chest as he pushes him, matching Archie’s enthusiasm with big wide smiles and whooping noises.

Jess pushes Emilia alongside them, his little girl demanding to go higher and higher. They must paint a picture of real domestic perfection, to an outsider. He watches Jess out of the corner of his eye. She’s familiar to him, they’ve got some good memories and he wouldn’t want harm to come to her. But he doesn’t feel like he knows her when he looks at her. He knows the basics, of course, and he knows their history. He knows Five Years Ago Jess quite well, but their lives haven’t moved forward on the same track, apart from the one obvious incident one year and nine months ago.

“Wanna go slide now!” Emilia demands a short time later, and so Jess stops the swing and heaves her out onto the ground. Once her feet touch the floor she’s away, dashing over to the slide in the centre of the play area and beginning her ascent.

Archie’s attention follows Emilia immediately, it’s bloody adorable, and as soon as he realises she’s not coming back to swing he starts to wail, wanting to follow his big sister. Obligingly, Louis lifts Archie out of the swing and places him down on the floor, his little feet in his little Nike’s. Archie grips onto Louis’ fingers tightly and together they walk over to Emilia, Archie’s legs moving quicker than he can control in his excitement.

Jess won’t let him let Archie go down the slide from the top, even with Louis stood on the steps to stop him falling, but he is allowed to go from half way down the slide and though Louis feels Jess is being unfair, Archie is none the wiser and loves being allowed to do the same as his big sister.

Emilia starts climbing up the slide in her shoes, the soles squeaking and leaving marks, and in the end they have to move because Archie wants to copy and he’s getting most distressed as he keeps on being picked up and stopped. Emilia jumps on one of the ride on toys and rocks back and forth and side to side, the big metal spring creaking underneath her. Jess crouches down beside Archie and rests her hand on his back as he has his own go on the other ride on toy, a spaceship to be precise.

“Go Archie!” Emilia shrieks over and over, and the siblings giggle and chatter to each other as they play. Louis takes a picture of it, cursing himself for slipping recently with the picture taking. Since coming back from Spain he’s only got a handful of candid snaps of the kids, even including on Archie’s birthday.

Louis walks Jess home because he’s not a monster. He walks along hand in hand with Emilia and Jess pushes Archie in his buggy. Archie plays excitedly with the brightly coloured crinkling butterfly plush attached to the bar of his pushchair.

“Have you booked the place for the you-know-what?” Louis asks, having to be cryptic otherwise Emilia will cotton on that they’re talking about her birthday and won’t shut up about it for the next three weeks until the big day.

“I’m going to do it on Wednesday when I get paid,” Jess replies, clipped as ever, and Louis feels his irritation brewing.

“It’s okay, I was only asking.” He says, and Jess nods. They don’t make eye contact at all, and Louis feels like he’s banging his head against a brick wall. They’re never going to get over this, he’s sure. He’s not quite sure quite how they managed to be civil long enough to make one baby, let alone two.

The place they’re hiring out for Emilia’s little party is an exciting arrangement of soft play equipment, wiggly slides and bouncy castles. The fifteen kids in her playgroup class are invited, plus all of their families, Niall and Amy. Zayn isn’t really one for kid’s birthday parties. He’s glad really that the two events that require the two sides to come together annually are close together, gets them out of the way.

“If Ems comes back from nursery with any RSVP’s can you let me know please?” Jess asks, as if that is something that Louis would keep from her.

“Yes, you know I will.”

“Okay good.” Jess says shortly. “Thank you.”

“It’s fine. Don’t stress about it.”

“I’m not!” Jess says a bit briskly, clearly lying, and Emilia looks up at them with concern at the sudden snap. “It’s all right, Emmie, love.”

“Mummy’s got her silly hat on today, Ems.” Louis says, making the little girl laugh and look up to inspect her mum’s imaginary hat. She then gives him a funny look and Jess tuts, but she’s smiling slightly. Louis will take that as a win.

It’s awkward, as it always is, when they arrive in front of Jess’ house and the three of them carry on up the road while Jess goes inside alone. Louis watches Emilia closely as they say goodbye to Jess; she looks narrowly out of her beautiful eyes, quite stoic and neutral on the exterior and Louis wonders how she feels inside. If it’s any consolation, he thinks to himself, Emilia has never known any different.

*

The week passes by quite slowly for one with the kids. It’s unusual. He gets a couple of replies from other parents about Emilia’s party, and pins them to the board in the kitchen for safe keeping, lest he lose them and forget to tell Jess. Harry calls mid-week, Wednesday night to be precise, and Louis has to bite back an ‘I miss you’.

“I'm not interrupting am I?” Harry asks. Louis is in the kitchen putting something together for his tea. The kids have been in bed an hour and fingers crossed they’ll both sleep through. “Are you making your tea?”

“I’m just putting chips on a tray in the oven, it’s not haute cuisine.”

“Oh well, if you’re sure?”

“Yeah I’m sure,” Louis says, smiling at the cupboard door. “It’s nice to speak to someone older than four.”

“Oh, I think I just about qualify,” Harry deadpans, and Louis barks out a laugh. “How has your week been? What’s new?”

“Not much. My weeks been okay,” I miss you. There it is again. “I’m on the periphery of the midst of planning another birthday party, so that’s exciting, but apart from that it’s all normal.”

“Oh, another birthday! How exciting!”

“Hmm, I’m not sure exciting is the word I’d use. Stressful more like. Fifteen four year olds plus all of my family and all of Jess’ lot. Again. I’ve only just recovered from last time.”

Harry giggles and then asks Louis all about the party. He seems to care more than Louis himself does and that’s a bit worrying. Louis resolves there and then to be a bit more tolerant of festivities, but he doesn’t know how long that will last. He does, however, feel a bit better about everything after hanging up with Harry. It’s late now, he’s eaten his tea and they’ve been talking, he’s moved the dirty plates from the table to the kitchen (he’ll wash up tomorrow) and he’s made his way to the bathroom to pee and brush his teeth.

*

Another new month rolls around on Saturday. They’re into October now, and someone (Louis’ money is on Fizzy) has alerted Emilia to the fact that her birthday is this month, so her excitement has gone into overdrive and no matter how many times Louis explains that it’s still a little under three weeks away, Emilia doesn’t stop. Louis knew the secrecy was too good to last.

*

Sunday’s quickly become their thing. On the weekends they spend together, Sunday means something nice for breakfast and then very little else. On the alternate weekends, Sunday means Harry coming over at about six or Louis going to him, long periods of time just spend in each other’s arms, kissing and holding each other and anything else that might take their fancy.

It’s going well until the Sunday before Emilia’s birthday, the sixteenth of October, and Louis’ stresses have reached fever pitch. When Harry turns up at half six, Louis’ already had an earful from Jess about precisely nothing he can pinpoint and Archie has been in one of his moods all day - hell, all week.

“What’s up?”

“Nothin’, just… I’m fine now.”

“C’mere, let me make it better.”

“You think that’s all it’ll ever take?” Louis snaps, his mouth running away with him a bit and he can’t stop it. “Think all you have to do is wave your cock in my general direction and that’ll be it, hop on Louis, now it’s all better again?”

Harry recoils and Louis feels personally responsible for the hurt, surprised look on Harry’s face, because he is personally responsible for the hurt, surprised look on Harry’s face.

“I… I didn’t mean it that way.” Harry utters, dumbfounded.

Louis opens his mouth a few times to say something back but he can’t get past the stumbling block in the way of his words. He sighs, lifts his hand to his face and presses his balled fist into his right eye socket.

“Should I go? You’re obviously not in the mood for company.”

“No, stay. Sorry, I… I was outta line.” Louis pulls his hand away from his eyes and blinks away the splodges that distort his vision.

“Are you gonna tell me what’s up?” Harry asks, chewing the corner of his mouth as he looks at Louis closely.

“Just family shit and this party coming up next week, Emmie’s birthday. It’s a lot, okay.”

“Okay…”

“I wouldn’t expect you to get it, or to listen to me.” Harry laughs then, humourlessly, which Louis isn’t expecting.  “What was that for?”

“Just… are you always gonna say things like that? ‘I wouldn’t expect you to get it’ or ‘you wouldn’t understand’. Like, it makes me feel really shit, Lou.”

“Harry, we talked about this, we said we weren’t gonna rush into things.”

“It’s been over a month, Lou, and you’re giving me nothin’ in return. What’s more, given the fact we actually met in May, it’s actually closer to five months. And you’re still shutting me out, making me feel like I’ll never be enough.”

“I’m sorry, I-”

“If I’m wasting my time here trying to get in and you’ve got no intentions of letting me in then tell me now and I’ll be gone.”

“No,” Louis says abruptly. “I’m sorry, look, I… I didn’t know I was being such a twat. I didn’t mean to hurt you.”

“Tell me when things are bothering you. Tell me when you’re having a shite day and I can try and make it better. And no , I don’t just mean with sex.”

“I do want that,” Louis says, listening to Harry’s words and agreeing with every single word. “I’m sorry for being a knob.”

“I think it’d be a good time to have our little talk now.” Harry says, and he’s bold for making the first move but he doesn’t look very brave.

They weren’t going to put dates on anything, set any goals, but Louis can realise now that maybe it’s what they both need, to be open and honest with each other. So, Louis nods.

“Don't look so worried. I mean, we're okay, right? It's not a break up talk is it?”

“Yeah, you're right. I just, well what if you decide it's not worth it, or you don't want me?” Harry says, and Louis feels his stomach twist into knots. Harry may have just declared that he’d ‘be gone’ but Louis senses his bravado was actually a bit misplaced, because the look on his face now and the words coming out of his mouth don’t match that previous vibe at all.

“Spoiler alert, I'm not gonna decide that.” Louis says, hoping to be reassuring. “But the odds are stacked against us, aren't they? I think that's fair to say.”

Harry nods.

“I’m not saying it's impossible. It's just... gonna be hard work at times. It's not just one thing is it, it's loadsa things. A lot of people have exes but a relationship where an ex is and always will be involved? It's a lot, Harry. Especially one that doesn’t support the new relationship.”

“I know,” Harry agrees. “But it's not like either of you still have left over feelings? Is it?”

“No, definitely not. I can promise you that.” Louis doesn’t know that the feelings were ever there to begin with, let alone being left over now.

“Well then,” Harry says, sounding brisk like he thinks that’s the end of it. “I'll do my best not to be a jealous cow.”

Louis chuckles lightly. “You've got nothing to be jealous of, trust me love.”

“I used to feel jealous of Niall and Zayn, that they could talk to you and touch you and go anywhere they wanted with you but I couldn't.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, it used to drive me crazy.”

“That's sweet,” Louis says. “You're sweet. Too good for a tosser like me, I'm sure.”

“Don't say that, Lou.” Harry says softly.

“Sorry.” He says. “There is another thing, okay? The kids. On top of being in a relationship where I can never put you first, you've got the kids to consider too.”

“I can't wait to meet the kids, you know that Lou.”

“Maybe so, but it's one thing to meet them and spend an hour or so messing about but if... if things get serious there are gonna be nights where Emilia climbs into bed with us, Archie keeps us up all night crying. They get colds and they wet the bed and-”

“Lou, I'm not gonna run a mile the second things get the tiniest bit difficult. Believe it or not I'm actually quite looking forward to bonding with the kids.”

“R-really?" Louis is stunned by Harry's open honesty.

“I mean, yeah, if you’ll have me. I’ve been gettin’ used to the idea for five months now. I’m raring to go now. I’m sorry if that’s weird or anything…”

Louis can’t help but smile. He feels like half of the weight has been lifted off his shoulders. It’s not resolved yet, they haven’t just waved a magic wand over their situation and that’s that, but it feels a bit better.

They make tentative plans for Harry to come along to Emilia’s birthday party the next weekend; Niall and Amy will be there and they can make it as low key and casual as they need to. Harry agrees and with a few deep breaths and pinching himself to make sure it’s real, Louis adapts well to the plans and finds himself looking forward to them, even.

*

He doesn’t have Emilia for her birthday and spending forty five minutes at Jess’ house having a piece of birthday cake and a cup of tea while she opens her gift just doesn’t cut it.

He leaves Jess’ house and he’s never felt more alone in his life. Distraught sobs tear through his body; it’s hard to breathe and even harder to see. He pulls furiously at his hair and smacks his hands against the leather of the steering wheel but he doesn't feel any of it. He screams to himself, wrangled and wet with emotion. The noises he makes are inhuman, pained and cut off, strangled yelps as it all overcomes him but he hears nothing, just feels the sandpaper scrape in his throat as he swallows thickly.

He somehow finds his way to his mum’s house and cries hard on her shoulder, emotions that have been pent up since Emilia was born.

“I miss my babies, mum, and I- I can’t, I hate this! And everything’s changing and I can’t, I dunno!”

Jay lets him cry, let’s him get it all out. She holds him tight, never faltering once. Only when his sobs have calmed down to infrequent hiccups and dried tracks down his cheeks does she pull back, still holding him, and look at him closely.

“What’s changing darling?”

He looks at her, bites his lip and lets out a frustrated noise. “I met someone.”

“Is it that lass Alex that you took out a few weeks back?”

Louis squints back at her, feeling guilty when it takes a moment to remember Alex. It’s like Harry has come in and completely obliterated his memory of anyone else he’s ever been with.

“No, uh, it’s not her. It’s… remember Harry, from the leisure centre?

“With the hair?” Jay asks, motioning around her shoulders, and Louis remembers doing that before. He smiles distantly and nods. “Ri-i-ght… what about him?”

“It’s, it’s him, mum. That’s who I’m seeing.”

His mum’s grin grows rapidly and Louis suspects that she’s not even surprised.

“I’m not even surprised, I must say!” Jay exclaims, confirming his theory. “He’s a lovely lad, sweetheart. How long has this been going on under my nose then?”

“On and off? Five months.”

“What!” Jay exclaims, slapping her thighs with her hands. “Louis William! That is far too long to be holding out on gossip for your old mum! I bloody knew it, after Spain! He was the only one you kept in touch with that whole week, I had a feeling you had a bit of a crush!”

“It’s not a crush, mum, God you make me sound like I’m twelve!”

“So five months, he’s met the kids then? How do they feel? Is that why Jess has been so funny lately?”

“No,” Louis replies glumly. “No, she doesn’t even know yet. That’s just normal Jess.”

Louis explains, in a roundabout way, the situation as it currently stands. Jay yelps with excitement when he tells her that Harry will be at the party on Saturday, but he makes her swear over and over again that she won’t do anything embarrassing.

She promises, and he feels better once he’s on his way home, has an hour or so FaceTiming with Harry and then sleep.

Thursday morning finds him much happier than Wednesday.

*

He arrives at the soft play centre at quarter past one on Saturday afternoon to be greeted first by Jess’ mum Carole. That will never not be awkward, but he’d rather her than the dad, Mike. Archie is asleep in his pushchair in the corner, isolated and ignored, and Louis creeps over to his son.

He peers in at the pink cheeked boy sprawled out in the reclined seat, one arm clutching his blanket and the other above his head. He’s dressed very smartly in elasticated jeans and a little checked shirt, and he doesn’t stir as Louis reaches in a gently rubs his cheek.

“Mind, don’t wake him. He’s had Jessie up all night by all accounts!” Carole says somewhere close by behind him.

Louis rolls his eyes instinctively, hating the fact that he doesn’t know absolutely everything about what his kids are doing and how they are. Speaking of which, he hasn’t even seen Emilia yet.

“No problem, he’s not stirred.” Louis says, brushing Carole off as he straightens up and gives her his best fake smile. “Gonna go and find Ems, okay?”

He crosses the floor, the carpet threadbare and beaten down with years and years of children’s thunderous footsteps making tracks all over.

He spots Emilia jumping about like crazy on the bouncy castle. He walks over, forming a proud grin as he gets closer. He stands by the edge, not saying a word, waiting for her to notice him. Her hair is bouncing around her shoulders and the party dress she is wearing balloons out with every downward jump.

She chatters away to herself as she goes, bouncing all around the small enclosure, and she turns in his direction once without spotting him before she jumps back around in his general direction, looks up and instantly recognises him.

Her eyes go wide and she squeals, forgetting to jump but instead starting to run across the uneven surface.

“Hi daddy!” She exclaims, leaping into his arms and wrapping her legs and arms around him tight. “I didn’t know you were coming!”

“Of course I would come, I wouldn’t miss your big birthday party!”

“Can you come on the boun-bouncy castle with me, daddy?”

“Ooh, I dunno, I think I’m a bit big. It’s made for boys and girls not big grownups like me.”

“It’s okay; they won’t tell you off, daddy.” Emilia reasons with him, and he has to laugh.

“No, I better not, if I bust it they will make me pay lots of pennies to fix it. I will watch you bounce though.”

“Okay,” She says reluctantly, but he throws her carefully back onto the bouncy castle and she whoops with joy. “Watch me do a seat drop!”

Louis watches as she does indeed do a seat drop and then a few more spins in mid-air, before she starts purposely throwing herself about. He watches for a bit longer before he spies his mum and everyone arriving.

He makes a beeline for them and by the time they’ve greeted each other and Emilia has come screeching over like a banshee, Archie is awake and grizzly in his buggy.

Jay goes for him first and Emilia takes Fizzy’s hand, leading her over to the ball pit. The twins find the nearest seat and sit down together, heads bowed over their phones. Lottie eyes him up and motions him over with a ridiculously long neon green fingernail.

“So mum tells me you’ve got a secret lover?”

“Oh my God, that woman I swear- no I don’t have a secret lover. Don’t say things like that.”

“Yes you do. His name is Harry.”

“No, I don’t actually. I don’t even know a Harry.”

“I must admit I thought it was gonna be that Alex girl when mum told me.”

Louis rolls his eyes with an aborted sigh. There is obviously no point in trying to deny anything now.

“Fine, yeah, I’m seeing him. But it’s low key, okay? Not that you’d know the meaning of low key.” He says, tugging gently on a curly lock of white platinum hair. “Keep it under your hat.”

“I’m not wearing a hat.”

“You know what I mean, Lottie!”

“What’s the big secret for?”

“We’re taking it slow. He’s not met Archie and Emmie yet, today will be the first time-”

“He’s coming today?!” Lottie exclaims, her eyes and grin widening with glee, and Louis mentally slaps himself. He didn’t know Lottie didn’t know.

“Yes!” he hisses. “No embarrassing me or I’ll show Tommy the pictures of me, you and Fiz in the bath when we were kids.”

“All right, keep your hair on grandma, I won’t say anything!” Lottie reconciles, obviously loving the fact that she’s got him so wound up.

*

The majority kids from the nursery seem to arrive en masse, just a few stragglers arriving five minutes or so later. The music from the sound system picks up – Louis realises he is very old when he doesn’t even know the artist – and there are suddenly screaming kids everywhere.

He tries his best to keep an eye on the birthday girl but she’s scurrying around amongst groups of her friends, going down the slide into the ball pit, climbing to the top of the apparatus and jumping on the bouncy castle.

Niall and Amy arrive soon after; he’d told them not to arrive bang on 2 o’clock as there would likely be a lot of waiting around. Louis’ got Archie in his arms when he greets them, and Amy takes over right away.

“Hello baby, come and see Auntie Amy!” She coos as she takes Archie and places him on her hip, carefully taking Archie’s waving hand in hers and kissing it. “Let’s leave daddy and Uncle Nialler to it, let’s go and find something fun to do, yeah?”

“Nyahhhhhhh ba-da-da-da!”

“Aww, he’s saying ‘bye dada’!” Amy squeals. “That is so cute!”

“Bye bye Archie, see you soon!” Louis waves off his son.

“So, y’alright mate?” He asks Niall, who looks away from where Amy is stalking off with Archie. “Cheers for coming. You don’t have to stay to the end if it gets a bit much.”

“Are you kiddin’ me, I’ll never get Amy away now she’s got Archie!”

They both laugh in agreement. “True. Well, c’mon, let’s get a drink. I’m afraid I can only offer you orange squash or blackcurrant squash.”

Niall chuckles. “I’ll have a beaker of the hard stuff. Blackcurrant.”

With their drinks they sit down on a bench on the periphery of the toddler area so Louis can do the responsible thing and keep an eye on things. Well, one eye at least. He keeps the other on the door as they’re chatting, whilst trying not to be too obvious. He pulls out his phone, discreetly sending Harry a message while still listening to Niall.

Ten minutes later and there’s been no reply and the message is unread. He sends another one, and a few minutes later they’re both read but not replied to. His palms start to get itchy and there is a little girl in a sunflower print dress asking him something but he can’t concentrate on what she is saying.

His mum and Carole are chatting at one of the tables and Jess – who hasn’t even greeted him – has hold of Archie. He wants to snatch up his kids and just get the fuck out of here. Instead, he excuses himself and charges across the room to the loos. He sends a third message, his mood switching from irritation to hurt, and he doesn’t even need to go; he just stands behind the cubicle door gripping his phone tight in one hand.

He takes a few deep breaths to calm himself down and shoves his phone in his pocket. He’s convinced himself now that Harry had played him for a fool; his anger is rising inside and he’s so glad that he never introduced the kids to him.

He pats his face down with cold water from the tap and then storms out, right into Lottie.

“Is he here yet?” Lottie asks, not sensing his bad mood until it’s too late. Her face changes and she recoils. “What’s happened, Lou?”

Louis shrugs, feeling completely done. “He’s not turned up. What did I fucking say, I knew I was stupid to- Lotts, what the hell was I thinking?”

“If you want me to hate him, I will.” Lottie says, and Louis has to smile, albeit weakly, at his sister coming to his defence immediately. “If he’s just gonna mess you around he’s not worth it Lou.”

“I thought… Christ, I thought he was different you know? He was so convincing!”

“Don’t let it get to you and ruin the day. It’s about Emmie, right? They’ll be bringing out the food soon, nick yourself a cheese barm and some Jaffa cakes. That’ll make you feel better.”

His stomach lurches at the thought of ingesting anything more than blackcurrant drink. “Love you, Lotts.”

“Er, don’t go overboard mate,” She deadpans, but her look is fond, and she quietly adds, “Love you too, my brother.”

Louis sends one final text, and it feels very final too, then puts his phone in the bottom of Archie’s changing bag underneath the pushchair so he won’t be tempted to keep checking it. Harry’s obviously not coming now, he’s almost an hour late.

*

The kids sit down for their food not long after, which is an ordeal in itself. Between him, Jess, Jay, Carole and Lottie they get through it though. There are several Jaffa cakes smushed and handfuls of crisps trodden into the carpet and two little girls fight over the last Capri Sun, but besides that they make it through unscathed.

Keeping them off the play equipment while the ‘DJ’ plays the accompaniment to pass the parcel is tough too, but he is ordered to calm the hell down and if the little darlings want a gift they’ll sit down, and if not they simply won’t get one.

Louis skulks off to the sidelines and throws himself down in one of the tiny kiddie chairs. He stares at the floor, seething inside, and try as he might he can’t stop looking over at the doors. No one else turns up though.

His mum doesn’t ask but he presumes she’s been filled in by Lottie because she rubs his arm sympathetically as he’s standing by the gift table with a rubbish bag full of used paper plates.

He watches Amy and Niall wistfully as they sit with Archie, the little boy bouncing on Niall’s knee happily as Amy plays peek-a-boo with him. Soon after, a balloon goes bouncing past and Archie kicks out his legs and claps his hands to let Niall know he wants to go after it. Niall places him down on the floor on his bum and Archie scrambles onto his knees, crawling across the floor like lightning to reach it.

With the balloon in his clutches, he sits with his legs in a W shape underneath him and squeals happily as he handles the balloon, looking at it like it’s the most fascinating thing in the world. Then a short time later he loses it, so goes crawling madly after it. He pulls himself up onto his feet and walks along holding the edge, his little legs slightly bowed and his tiny socked feet pointing inwards as he totters. Louis watches Archie proudly as he pulls himself up onto the foam padded edge of the play area and go tumbling over the other side.

Archie springs up immediately and goes crawling off towards the slide. Phoebe and Daisy go trailing after him, one sitting at the top of the slide (it’s really no more than two feet high) and the other at the bottom as Archie goes sliding down with the biggest smile on his face. Louis wonders what Jess would say if there wasn't a crowd to consider.

Emilia has obviously got a bit over excited as Louis spots her sitting in the corner on a foam filled yellow cube eating a ham sandwich and looking perturbed. He heads over to her before anyone else can get to her and kneels down next to her.

She looks up at him and smiles; so sweet. “Hi daddy.”

“Hey Emsie, you okay babe?”

She nods woefully. “Am getting bit tired now, daddy.”

“It’s quite tiring being the birthday girl, hey?”

She nods again, chewing slowly. “Is it time to go home yet?”

“We’ve gotta have birthday cake first, Ems.” He reminds her and she does perk up a bit. “Then you can go home. Have a little nap if you want.”

“Are you coming home with us?”

“No, still one more sleep at mummy’s, babe. You’ll be coming to daddy’s tomorrow, remember? Sunday tomorrow.”

“I remember,” Emilia says sombrely. “We do cake now?”

He smiles. “Let me go and ask mummy.”

*

Louis holds onto hope that Harry will show up right until the very last minute. But it doesn’t happen. They bring the birthday cake out and sing happy birthday to Emilia, Archie screams the place down and Carole slips outside with him, pushing him to sleep in his buggy. His mum asks if he fancies coming back to hers for a cuppa and a chat but he politely declines.  It takes forever for all the parents to arrive for the kids, and by the time the last little darling has been picked up it’s quarter past four and Louis is ready for his bed already. His bed or a very large bottle of vodka.

“Can we meet Summer and Hayley in town, mum?” Phoebe pesters Jay, who is moving around with a bin bag collecting rubbish and looking irritated.

“No! I’m not going in that direction, Phoebe - get the bus or walk or give up!”

“We can’t walk it’s too far!”

“We don’t have money for the bus!”

“What about money from dad, I know he just gave you both a tenner!”

“That’s for shopping and a Maccie’s!” Daisy argues.

“I don’t care, get one of the other mums to do it!”

“I’ll take ‘em, I don’t care!” Louis butts in, willing to do just about anything to shut his little sisters up whining.

“Yay, thank you Lou!” Daisy squeals.

“At least someone cares!” Phoebe says pointedly at their mum, who just sticks her tongue out and goes back to collecting paper plates and empty Capri Sun cartons.

Amy and Niall have already gone, and now all the kids are finally gone too, Louis’ ready to leave too. Emilia clings tight to him as they cuddle goodbye and it’s hard to let her go. Archie’s asleep again so he risks waking him to kiss his cheek. He, Daisy and Phoebe say goodbye to their mum and slink off quietly.

Daisy takes the front seat and Louis is surprised that Phoebe doesn’t kick off about that. Daisy plugs her own phone into the AUX and puts her music on full blast while Phoebe takes selfies in the back. Louis has never felt older than he does when he drops the twins off in the middle of town and they go scuttling off with their crop top wearing friends.

“Sorry we’re late; we’ve been at our niece’s birthday party!” Daisy tells them loudly.

“Your dad’s got a nice car!”

“That’s our brother not our dad!” Daisy exclaims, just before they fall out of Louis’ earshot. Louis’ eyebrows shoot into his hairline, offended at being mistaken for someone old enough to have fourteen year old daughters.

He goes to McDonald’s drive thru since he’s over that side of town and has been thinking about it ever since Daisy mentioned it earlier. The car is left stinking of deep fried crap but he doesn't care.

The next thing he can’t get out of his head since thinking about it earlier is vodka, and he stops off at Tesco before home to get a bottle, plus some Fanta orange. Fanta vodka was his drink of choice for getting smashed fast in college, and tonight he wants to get drunk fast and forget about stupid idiot boys.



Harry



Harry wakes on Sunday morning feeling as crap as he did when he finally fell asleep the night before. He doesn't remember dreaming that night. He seems to remember learning somewhere along the line that you always dream you just don't always remember it, but he could be remembering that wrong. He's not really sure of anything as he rolls over and pats blindly around the carpet for his phone. He finds the charger wire first and follows the trail to his phone plugged in the end.

He pulls the charger out one-handedly and rolls back onto his other side, looking at the screen for the first time.

The messages he'd read but not acknowledged yesterday are still there in all their glory.

Lou: ‘Hey, hope you haven't got lost! Call me if there's any problems, see u soon!’

Lou: ‘Harry, are you okay? No sign of u yet’

Lou: ‘Are you even coming?’

Lou: ‘Forget it and fuck you. Cheers for proving me right.’

Harry had had the route to the venue saved in his most recent searches on Google Maps for the past week. He'd taken several screenshots just in case his mobile data should fail him on the day. He had no intention of missing it, but he’d woken up on Saturday morning in a dark place and things had only got worse from there.

He’d managed to work himself up into more of a frenzy as the morning had wore on, and by the time it was time to start heading out he’d convinced himself he was setting himself up to fail and that him being there would only cause tension and trouble for Louis and Jess.

As Louis’ texts had come through yesterday, he’d been lying in bed under the covers clutching his knees to his chest and keeping his eyes tightly shut. The last one, ’cheers for proving me right’ , that had hurt so much and he’d had to blink away the tears.

Louis thinks that he purposely let him down. Let the family down. Harry doesn’t know if anyone else knew he was supposed to be at the party, and the thought of letting people down hits him with a wave of nausea.

Harry’s at Louis’ front door now. He doesn’t recall getting here really, just knows that he’d made the decision to go and acted upon it before he could talk himself out of it.

It’s been raining all night and all morning, the paths are soaked and there are still splatters of droplets on the stained glass panels in the plastic front door. Harry has knocked, but so quietly he’s afraid he hasn’t been heard. He’s just about to turn and bolt when he sees movement behind the glass panels and hears the lock turn inside.

Louis doesn’t open the door all the way, and Harry can only see half of him. His hair is pushed back by a black headband and he’s drowning in a massive hoodie. He doesn’t look pleased to see Harry at all.

Louis looks almost right through him, his eyes are so cold and emotionless. “Oh, look who it is. Only a day late.”

“Lou, I’m sorry. I’m really sorry. I had to come and tell you to your face and I’m sorry for just turning up but I thought that if I tried to call you’d tell me no.” Harry blurts, and obviously he’s been holding everything in for so long now it’s all going to come spilling out at once.

Louis just shrugs, and Harry can feel his anxiety rising. “Doesn’t matter now.”000

“Can I come in?”

“Why?”

“Because I wanna talk to you.”

“Talk to me here.”

“Lou, please!” Harry hisses, looking around him. There’s no one about. “I need a chance to explain myself.”

“What’s the point, Harry? Yesterday you made yourself quite clear. From where I’m standing you don’t care and you’re either here now to confirm that or you’r e here to tell me ‘it was a misunderstanding’ or you’re really ‘sorry’ and it’ll ‘never happen again’.”

“It’s not… it’s not that. Please can I come in?”

Louis looks at him again, his gaze firming up a bit but his eyes are still cold.He doesn't look convinced, and Harry is just about to ask again when Louis raises his eyebrows tiredly and shrugs one shoulder. “Fine.”

Louis leaves Harry to let himself in, the door slowly closing on him. Harry reaches out and pushes it open again, steps inside and kicks off his boots. He catches his reflection in a photo frame up on the wall. He looks pathetic.

Taking a deep breath, he moves towards the living room and peers around the door. Louis is sitting on the sofa, curled up in the corner with his legs tucked up under his chin. He looks up briefly as Harry enters and gestures vaguely to the other sofa.  Harry sits down obediently and runs his palms down his jeans nervously.

“Talk then.” Louis says tersely, looking over at Harry and holding his gaze for more than a beat for the first time. There's focus and fiery irritation behind his eyes. Harry’s not sure if this is worse than before or better.

Harry takes a deep breath as he looks back down at his knees. He presses his palms in firmly and then looks back up.

“I wanted to come yesterday. I was going to. I was looking forward to it, even. But. I woke up yesterday morning and I just… I started panicking . I like you so much and-”

Louis scoffs and Harry pauses, pleading with his eyes for forgiveness.

“I like you so much I wanted to be there, I wanted to meet the kids and wish Emilia a happy birthday and spend the day with you! ‘Cause that’s my favourite place to be, with you.”

Louis looks at him then and Harry captures his stare, glad to be held in it for even just a short time. Louis seems to soften a bit, but Harry knows he still has a mountain to climb.

“I panicked. Got myself completely worked up and in the end I just couldn’t face it. I couldn't even get outta bed. I couldn’t bear the thought of being there and seeing you ‘n her together.”

“Me and- who, Jess!?” Louis explodes, becoming the most animated that he's been all day. He spits out her name like orange juice after toothpaste.

Harry nods solemnly. “I just feel like… like an imposter really. She’s been where I am and obviously made quite the lasting impression.”

“Harry, did you miss the times I told you how awful she is? How wrong we were for each other. Harry, she didn’t even speak to me yesterday apart from when I asked her when the cake was being done. No hello, no goodbye, no word on how the kids were - nothing.”

Harry has been picking subconsciously at the skin around his thumb and it hurts now. He looks down and sucks the end of the digit into his mouth. “I’m just terrified that they won’t like me.”

“You'll never know if you never turn up to meet them?” Louis counters.

“This is only the first time. It's not like I keep doing it, Lou.” Harry says, feeling he should defend himself a bit.

“Oh, well that makes it all right then!”

“That's not what- I want to do this. I really want to, Lou.”

“Well, I don’t see the point if you’re just going to freak out. I’ve not let anyone close to them their entire lives because people leave. My dad left, my step-dad left. I won't let them go through that. I can't give them a ‘proper’ family, whatever one of those is, but I can give them love. That's what this is all for, why I live my life. It's for them. I'd love for you to be along for the ride too but if you’re not serious then we can’t go on, Harry.”

The words choke out of Louis unstably and they make Harry’s chest hurt with how tight he is constricting his breathing.

“Archie might be young enough not to notice if you're there one day and gone the next, but Emilia will love you, I just know it. You're right up here street, fun and silly, a bit of a dreamer. She will get attached to you, I know it. I know my own baby girl. And if the slightest mention of Jess is gonna send you running then we've got issues. Jess is always gonna be around, Harry. We’ve had this discussion before and you said you were fine with it!”

“Does Jess know about me at all?” Harry asks, looking back down at his lap.

Louis shakes his head. “I haven’t told her yet. I didn’t want to until I knew for sure. And I tell ya, this time twelve hours ago I was thanking my lucky stars I didn’t.”

“Do you mean that?”

“Yeah” Louis says. “But as angry as I wanna be right now I can't sit here and say I don't care. Of course I wish you'd come yesterday. I'm well gone for you now, Harry, surely y’know that by now?”

He pauses and Harry nods, head still down. He can't see Louis’ face and it feels better that way.

“But it’s all or nothing with me, it has to be,” Louis continues. “And I’m sorry if that scares you or if that’s not conventional. I mean, I know it's not conventional.”

Harry smiles self-deprecatingly. “I don’t think our relationship is very conventional full stop, Lou.”

Louis smiles, laughs softly out of his nose almost reluctantly, almost in spite of himself and Harry looks up at him as Louis repeats, “Relationship?”

Harry’s cheeks deepen with sudden panic. “I mean, I don't want this to be it for us. We're only just getting started. I don't wanna leave.”

Louis stares deeply at him. Harry looks back, the inside of his lip bitten down to stop himself from crying, but it’s no good. A tear escapes past his lashes and he sniffs violently to try and stop himself breaking down. He flares his nostrils in a desperate, futile attempt to stop himself.

“Don’t you fucking dare leave,” Louis mutters again, stiffly under his breath, and he scrambles up off the sofa. He cuts the distance between them in half and Harry springs up instinctively, taking Louis into his arms as the man comes crashing into his arms. He wraps himself around Harry tight ly, his hands clasped around his back and digging in firmly.

Harry feels like he can breathe again with Louis in his arms. His struggling, laboured breaths produce more tears that he can’t stop, but he is sure he can feel Louis trembling under his fingertips too.

“Promise me this is what you want?” Louis says into his chest, breath warm. He then peers up, looking so serious and more beautiful than Harry has ever noticed before.

“Of course!” Harry nods eagerly, voice a mere rasp. “I promise.”

Louis lets go only to reach up to Harry’s cheeks, runs his fingertips under his eyes gently and smiles as Harry automatically flinches. “C’mon, wipe these away.”

“I’m sorry about yesterday, I really didn't mean to let you down.”

“It’s okay, I know that now. I believe you, I do.” Louis soothes, and Harry hopes that he really does. “I didn't think it’d affect you like this. I didn't think.”

“Can’t believe I get a second chance.”

“It’s not just about your second chance though,” Louis says. “I know I’ve hardly made things easy. I didn't stop to think how you'd be feeling through all this.”

“Can we just be difficult, awkward old sods together?” Harry asks, smirking as Louis throws his head back laughing.

“I think that sounds good.”

*

The kids are coming back in about three hours. They both decide between them that they’re not ready for that, so they defer it for at least a little bit longer. Harry sits at the kitchen table as Louis sterilises Archie’s milk bottles and gets Emilia’s dinner out of the freezer to defrost.

“Can you stop watching me!” Louis exclaims with exasperation but it’s fond. “I'm scrubbing scabby old milk bottles, that's all!”

“I’m sorry, it’s just… nice?”

“The bottles? There’s ‘owt nice about that, lad.”

“The domesticity I mean,” Harry amends, smiling at Louis’ expressions and the way they just slip out. “Feels nice.”

“Yeah?” Louis smirks over his shoulder, eyebrows raised. “Feels good does it?”

He leaves what he’s doing, one bottle with a tea towel still stuffed inside, on the counter and moves across the floor. It’s not far, and he’s on Harry in a second, perching himself in his lap and looping one arm around his shoulders.

“Shall I tell you what else feels good?”

Harry’s stomach flips and he screams at himself internally not to get an immediate hard on. “Uh, yeah?”

Louis grins ever so slightly as he licks his lips and he knows exactly what he’s doing, the little git. Harry’s own breathing is so shallow and light now he feels a bit dizzy with it. His hands hang by his sides unnaturally, so he places one on Louis’ bare leg and the feeling is electric.

Louis make a tiny noise in the back of his throat as Harry does so, and then leans in, nudging Harry’s chin up gently so he can press a soft kiss to his lips. It’s lingering and it hangs between them, the contact so slight and minimal.

“These lips,” Louis explains. He still hasn't pulled away. Harry can even feel the very soft vibration of Louis’ words. “These lips feel good.”

“Could’ve been kissin’ you every day for the last five months, Lou.” Harry murmurs.

“Hmm. Got enough time to make up for it now.” Louis tells him, leaning back in. “Not now though.”

They separate and everything feels real again. No, there is no time for getting frisky now, of course. It’s almost three now and it's raining again. The droplets are pelting the glass panel of the back door and the window pane steadily. The noise is relaxing and Louis’ presence is a comfort. He could quite happily crawl up under a blanket with his boy now and he’d be happy.

But he can't do that this evening. One evening soon though, he will be able to.



Louis



A chat, a cuppa and a chocolate digestive with mum always makes things better.

The journey to his mum’s had been unscheduled and unexpected but Louis is scared he might explode if he doesn't get this out.

Archie is happily in his Jumperoo plucking at the toys around the outside and screeching into the void, and Emilia and Fizzy are at the dinner table colouring in pictures. The youngest twins are out, as too is Lottie, so it give him the rarest of opportunities to make the most of his mum’s (almost) undivided attention.

“So I hate to ask love, but what happened at the birthday party Saturday?” Jay asks, folding herself into the corner of the sofa, just like Louis does himself. Her tea rests on her knee. “You walked outta that place with a face on, what happened?”

Louis sighs, building himself up. “Long story.”

“I’m guessing by the fact you’re here that you wanna talk about it?” She asks, and he nods sheepishly. “Well I’m all ears then, babe.”

“Okay,” Louis begins. “So I guess, to start with and clarify ‘cause I’m clearly a shite liar, yes me and Harry are seeing each other.”

“I knew it.”

“We’d planned for him to come to the party, introduce him in slowly. Approach it with caution, yeah? The more I think about it the more bitter I am ‘cause it would’ve been the perfect introduction for Emilia, but oh well.”

“Can’t change it now.” Jay agrees.

“Exactly. And when he didn't show,I was- Christ I was mortified. I thought he'd completely mugged me off. Let us all down. Last night, God I was livid. Started going on that he’d proved me right and I was right to keep him at arm's length-”

“You thought he would mess you about?”

“Yeah,” Louis confirms. “I was worried what would happen if Ems got attached. Even Archie, to a lesser degree. But, I’d finally taken that step and thought, y'know, that the wheels were finally starting to turn and then to have him not show up hurt.”

“I can imagine, sweetheart.” Jay nods sympathetically and takes a timid sip of her tea. “You didn't look happy at all.”

“But. He came by today. Explained everything.”

“So what happened? Why was he a no show yesterday?”

Louis explains, having to pause several times to untangle Archie from his toy and to placate Emilia over the fact Fizzy has started using the same orange felt tip that she wanted to use next. His mum listens dutifully through it all, verbally reserving judgement, though God knows what she thinks in her head.

“So what’s the plan? Are you going to tell Jess?”

“Yeah, ‘course. I wouldn't keep it from her, can you imagine the shit she’d give me for that?” Louis exclaims, wide eyed, and Jay laughs. “Dunno when or how, but I will.”

“Are you gonna do it before or after Harry meets the kids?”

“Not sure,” Louis admits. He asks her opinion, and she says he should let them get acquainted first, but not leave it for too long, lest Jess get wind of it from Emilia’s absent minded chatter.  Louis dreads the idea of telling her; can’t imagine the hassle he is going to get and hopes it doesn't put Harry off too much.

*

Later that night when they’re home and the kids have been fed and are both in bed, Louis sits down and dials Harry immediately.

It rings and rings and rings, and Louis tries not to be despondent but it's hard not to be. However, not a second later, the jingle of an incoming FaceTime call sounds.

He’s trying to tamp down his embarrassed grin as he answers. Harry is lying down, sideways on the screen, hair splayed out over the pillows behind his head. “Hey!”

“Hi love, all right? You look comfy.”

“I am,” Harry confirms proudly. “Are you all right?”

Since he saw Harry nine hours ago, a lot has happened but nothing that Louis can really pin down. He doesn’t really want to be admitting that he’s already confessed their whole story to his mum, so he doesn’t mention it. They just talk casually as they always have; it comes easily and nothing feels forced. They make tentative plans for the following week but leave things open ended and that’s absolutely fine for now .

*

The nursery and schools are closed the next week for half term holidays, so they decide that that’s not the best time for Harry to come by after all. Besides, before Harry meets the kids, Louis thinks it’s probably best to tell Amy and the boys. He’s sure that no one, especially Zayn, will be surprised, and he can imagine the smug ‘I set you up’ look on Amy’s face already, but it’s got to be done. At the end of the week, on Friday, Jay has the kids – as she has for most of the week – and Harry and Louis are reunited for the first time all week.

Louis is jittery as he waits for Harry in the car park of the pub. He’s parked round the back of the building, right in the corner, avoiding being seen by any of his friends, for some reason. There is method to his madness, but he’s not sure right now what possesses him to be hiding away.

But when his new boyfriend emerges from the alley way between the pub and the housing estate behind it, he brightens up. He jumps out of the car, the car with the steamed up windows and the half-drunk Fruit Shoot drink in the cup holder.

“Hey babe,” He greets Harry, and they’ve never used ‘babe’ outside of the bedroom before but it just sort of comes out and it feels fine. “How are you?”

He lifts up onto his tiptoes and Harry kisses him up against the side of the car. “Good yeah.” He mumbles with a satisfied little smile as they pull apart.

“You ready?”

“As I’ll ever be.”

“I don’t think anyone is gonna be surprised.”

“No, probably not.” Harry agrees with a light chuckle. “So, how are we doing this? What's the plan?”

“Let’s see,” Louis says, central locking the car and beginning the walk around to the front of the pub to the doors. He holds out his hand for Harry and Harry slips his palm into his, fingers intertwined.

They’re still holding hands as they push through the swing door of their local.

Amy realises before they’ve even said anything. She spots them as they’re approaching the table and her smile turns into a wide eyed, shit-eating grin and she raises her eyebrows. She’s repeating something over and over, and as they get closer she stands up.

“Well well well, what do we have here?”

“Hi Aims, y’alright love?”

“What’s this?” She asks, ignoring Louis’ greeting and going straight to the questions. “Don’t tell me- they are! Oh my God, they’re holding hands! They’re- lads! Look, I was right! I was right, I win!”

“What do you mean you win?” Harry asks as they drop hands instinctively. Harry sits down in the seat next to where Amy had just sprung up from and Louis pulls a chair from the table next to them and sits down between him and Niall, Zayn next to Niall.

“She’s been goin’ on about this for weeks, saying that she knows you two are made for each other and if yous don’t get your arses in gear she’s gonna lock you both in a room until you’ve no other option but to tell each other how you feel.” Niall explains as Amy sits back down and folds her arms, frowning at her boyfriend.

“Don’t say it like that, pillock!” She retorts. “But anyway, it doesn’t matter because I didn’t have to do that; they did it ‘emselves! C’mon boys, I wanna know everything! Who asked who, where, when, how? Come on!”

“Calm down love!” Louis says, and he sits back and smiles, maybe a little embarrassed at times, as Harry stumbles his way through an abridged but barely abridged version of their talk a few weeks ago and the turning point on the day of the birthday party and then the day after that.

Amy listens contently throughout, injecting her own questions and remarks and gushing awws . She asks them about their plans for Harry meeting the kids, and it’s there that Louis realises that’s still their stumbling block. They haven’t quite got to it yet, despite all their best efforts.

“What’re you waiting for?” Amy asks him when they’re on their own at the bar. “You like him, right?”

Louis nods. “Be a bit awkward if I didn’t.”

“Well then, don’t waste time waiting for the perfect moment, get him in there! Take him to meet the kids, he’s gonna be fab with them, Lou, I just know it.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah!” Amy says, eyes dazzling with enthusiasm  “There’s no doubt he’s crazy about you, Tommo. Can see it in the way he looks at you. It’s quite sickening really. To think me and Nialler used to be like that!”

“Yeah, you did. And don’t you forget it, mate.”

“This isn’t about me anyway, it’s about you and Harry. Take him back with you tonight to pick up the kids. He’ll be grand, I promise.”

Louis considers her words for a moment, plays with them in his mind, and he can’t help the excited little bubble of hope that jumps up through his throat. He swallows it down and packs on his biggest smile.

“Yeah, I, I think that’ll be good. I’ll ask him if he’s up for it.”

“He will be.” Amy promises, and she picks up the first two beers and he follows with the other two.

He sits back down and while Zayn is staring down at his phone and Niall and Amy are talking across the table to each other, he slips his hand into Harry’s under the surface and squeezes reassuringly.

“All right?” He whispers, and Harry nods. “I was just thinking, I mean feel free to say no, it’s fine, but I’ve gotta get the kids from my mum’s at nine.  Do you wanna come with? It’ll just be a quick in and out, say hello then drive back. They’ll go straight to bed so you’re welcome to stay for a bit. You don’t have to but we're waiting for the right time and maybe there is no ‘right time’.”

“Yeah no, I’d love it. Yeah, that sounds really good.”

“I promise my mum won’t be too embarrassing. Well, I hope she won’t anyway.”

“It’s all right, Lou, I can’t wait to meet her properly. She seems really nice.”

“She is,” Louis smiles. “If you come home with me, it just means I won’t be able to drive you home later.”

“That’s okay, that doesn’t matter.” Harry says, smiling reassuringly and Louis smiles back. Things have slotted into place well. Now, all he can think about is getting to his mums and introducing Harry properly and starting a life hopefully as a four piece.

Mumma ♥: ’Will be with Harry when I get the kids, please be nice. Won’t be long now, I love you mum xxx’

Louis watches Harry discreetly out of the corner of his eye as he laughs and jokes with Louis’ friends, fitting in like the missing puzzle piece that nobody knew was missing until it turned up.

He’s got a good feeling about this one.

-

-

-

-

Chapter Text

Harry


Louis is visibly nervous as they drive; he’s muttering gibberish to himself under his breath and his attention flits between the rear view and straight ahead. His attention lands very briefly on Harry as they’re approaching an amber light about to go red, and it turns out a reassuring hand lain over Louis’ own is what it takes to calm him down.

“It’s okay, Lou, no need to be nervous.”

Louis chuckles through the release of a pent up lungful of air. “I apologise in advance for anything that any of my lot might say or do, okay?”

Harry smiles and accepts Louis’ advance warning, though he’s sure he’s being unduly ridiculous. They carry on past the turn to Louis’ house, the foliage that slips past the car window familiar to Harry now, even in the darkness. They carry on a minute or so up the road before Louis turns and quietly lets him know that they’re a few seconds away. He pulls onto the driveway of a fairly large house; one wide set of windows downstairs illuminated from behind curtains, and all the upstairs windows a lit also.

“Okay, here goes nothing!” Louis says quietly as he steps out of the car and clunks his door closed, Harry following suit.

Louis lets them in with his old door key and shuts it softly behind Harry. The house is peaceful, quiet and warm. Light spills out from underneath an ajar door to their left. Harry assumes it’s the living room, he can spy a very large kitchen at the end of the hall, leading to what he can only assume is the conservatory-cum-dining room.

Louis nods towards the nearby door, putting on a brave face and a smile. He motions for Harry to follow, which he does. Louis peers around the door and then steps into the room, leaving space for Harry to follow. He lingers in the doorway for just a moment, watching Louis from behind as he makes eye contact with someone and breaks into a sheepish grin.

“My daddy!”

Harry hears a small voice call out, and then footsteps spring to life across the thick, plush carpet. Louis effortlessly lifts that little whirlwind into his arms as if she weighs nothing and squeezes her tight. The little girl burrows her face into Louis’ neck and he rocks back and forth on the balls of his feet as they embrace as if they’ve been separated for days.

Louis talks softly to his daughter. Harry purposely tunes out because this reunion, no matter how little time they’ve been apart, feels poignant and personal. She responds to Louis’ questions, mumbling into his shoulder, then lifts her gaze and looks directly at Harry. He smiles softly because it’s the first thing he can think to do, and she continues to look up at him pensively.

“Daddy, who ‘at?” She asks Louis quietly, blinking slowly but not taking her eyes off Harry. He tries another cautious smile but she doesn’t waver.

Louis puts Emilia back down on the ground and turns towards Harry, stepping aside and motioning for him to come forward. He does so, perhaps not as bravely as he thought in the car he would be.

Louis crouches down to Emilia’s level and looks up at Harry before back down at the girl. “This is Harry, Ems, he’s very nice.”

“Hi Emilia, I’m Harry.” He hunches his own shoulders too to make his height seem less, and wiggles his fingers in a careful greeting. She looks at Louis for reassurance and he sees him nod.

“Hi,” She says quietly, like a water droplet in the ocean.

Louis has sprung back up and is looking over at the familiar brunette lady who is currently untucking her legs from under herself and getting up off the sofa with a giddy expression on her kind face. “Mum, this is Harry. Harry, my mum Jay.”

“It’s lovely to meet you,” Harry says politely, bringing his arms up and around Louis’ mum as she moves in for a hug immediately. Her hair smells fresh and her cuddles are so quintessentially motherly. Also, Louis is small in his arms but Louis’ mum is even shorter.

“It’s my pleasure, sweetheart. It’s lovely t’meet you after hearing so much about you from our Lou!”

Emilia watches him solemnly, clinging to Louis’ leg. Louis’ arm rests around her shoulders and his hand is a reassuring comfort on Emilia’s arm. Jay is lovely, just as Harry imagined she would be. She asks them about their evening and if they had fun, tells them about her evening with the two little ones and makes sure Harry knows how much she likes his hair. He blushes profusely but feels like he is making a good impression. What she’d said earlier, about hearing so much about him from Louis, that resonates with him too.

Emilia carries on watching them closely, and Harry witnesses a darling little exchange between her and Louis, wordless in its essence, just a little exchange of smiles and a reassuring shoulder squeeze, but after that the little girl comes out of her shell a bit. She bombs it back to the sofa where Jay was sat and snuggles herself under the fleece blanket strewn over the cushion.

“Don’t get too comfy there, Ems, home time soon.”

“But am watchin’ the telly.” She pouts, little accent all bubbly and soft like her dad's. Harry marvels at it, something as simple as an accent. He should’ve known she’d have one too, he’s not sure why he’s so surprised, so taken by it.

Louis steps around him and crouches down beside the baby asleep on the sofa behind him. Harry whirls around to see the boy asleep in the corner of the sofa, hair fluffy, cheeks pink and dummy firmly in his mouth. Louis rubs the crook of his index finger against the smooth skin of the baby’s cheek and his eyes flicker under his closed lids but he doesn’t stir.

Louis peers up at him and gives a reassuring smile, as if he’s checking in. He gives a small smile back and then the moment is shattered by Emilia shouting-

“My Fizzy!”

Emilia squeals and scrambles back off the sofa. Harry spins around to watch her dart across the room towards a brunette young lady stood in the doorway looking frankly puzzled. She lifts Emilia up onto her hip as effortlessly as Louis had, and looks directly at Harry and then to Louis and finally Jay in stunned silence.

“What’s- who? Mum?”

“Bloody hell- Harry, this is my little sister Fizzy. Fiz, ‘s Harry.” Louis mutters, motioning between the two of them exasperatedly. Harry smiles politely to the sister, who glowers at her brother defensively as he hisses at her.

“I just came down for a drink!” Fizzy protests. “What’s going on?”

“Fizzy’s my middle sister. It’s short for Felicite, spelled weird but said normally. Not much else to tell, and she’s going now, aren’t you Fiz?”

“What’s all the- oh!” Another new voice sounds, and another long haired brunette appears in the doorway just then, sending Louis well and truly over the edge. “What’s goin’ on, Fiz?”

“Oh my God, this isn’t- I’m so sorry Harry, I didn’t realise the entire tribe would turn up!” Louis exclaims, throwing his arms up in despair. “Is anyone else hiding out there with you, Dais? Shall we invite Nan round too? Mark maybe?”

Jay is laughing and clucks around her children, divvying them off in separate directions; Fizzy to the kitchen, Louis to the sofa to calm down and the younger girl, twin Daisy, back upstairs muttering to herself about what is and isn’t fair.

“Lou, don’t worry,” He says softly as he perches next to Louis on the sofa. Emilia watches them like hawks but through all the commotion Archie has not stirred once.

There are no more unscheduled sister visits once Fizzy traipses back through with a glass of milk a few moments later, and Harry can only stand around feeling useless as Louis fights Emilia to get her coat on over her pyjamas and Archie awake enough that he can put him into his car seat to go home.

Emilia clutches a blanket close to her face, nibbling on her thumb behind the soggy material, despite how many attempts Louis makes to get her to stop. Jay carries Archie to the car and Emilia goes with Louis, Harry following behind feeling a bit stupid.

Jay gives him a comforting rub on the forearm and smiles. “Go steady, boys. I hope to see you again soon, Harry.”

“B-bye Jay, it was nice meeting you.”

Harry climbs into the passenger seat, only now realising as he goes to grip the belt how clammy his hands feel. It’s a feeling of relief though. Louis gets in next to him, the interior light fading out. The sky is inky around them but they’re well illuminated by the glow from the open front door.

Jay waves them off and Harry waves back politely until they’ve turned onto the next street and the house is out of sight. Emilia kicks his chair from time to time. The radio drones on unobtrusively between them and the kids are quiet in the back. The air feels thick but it’s not with tension or nerves but something similar to that, that fizzles and dances like champagne bubbles.

They turn back onto the familiar main road and Louis heaves a big sigh broken up by a chuckle. He runs his hand quickly through his hair before going back to gripping the wheel. “So you’ve met Fizzy and one twin, just the other one plus Lottie to go now. That’s officially half my sisters in one go. Well done, and I am so sorry!”

Harry smiles at Louis’ embarrassment. “Lou, you’ve got nothing t’be sorry for, I liked meeting them. It was a lot of girls - I felt quite outnumbered but it was nice. They’re all sweet girls.”

“You’re only saying that ‘cause you don’t know them properly yet.”

He laughs again and goes back to looking out the window. It’s a short journey, and by the time he’s settled in its time to get out again.

“We ‘ome, daddy?” Emilia asks, snuffling and struggling to sit up straight as the car comes to a stop and the music cuts out.

“Yeah, we’re home, babe.” Louis says softly, shifting in his seat to look over his shoulder at her. “C’mon, let’s get inside and to bed.”

They get out and Harry makes moves to get out of his way but Louis stops him, reaching out for his arm and pulling him close.

“I’ll just take her in and then come back for Archie, put them to bed then we can settle in, okay love?” He says softly, apologetically.

“I can take Archie, if you like?” Harry offers, dropping his gaze as soon as he’s sad it, afraid he might’ve said the wrong thing. “I mean, only if it helps?”

But Louis breaks out into a grateful smile and nods. He gushes his appreciation and undoes the new-fangled seatbelt contraption that Harry is sure he would not be able to manage himself. He hoiks Archie’s seat out and holds it out for Harry, warning him in advance how bloody heavy it is.

With Emilia snuggled on Louis’ hip, they traipse into the house together. It feels eerily domestic to Harry and his giddy thrill is poorly contained as he grins at the back of Louis’ head, feeling his heartbeat climb. Louis vaguely gestures where to put Archie down and then disappears with Emilia, the tired little girl refusing to give Harry a good night wave.

“One kid down, one to go!” Louis jokes softly as he appears back in the living room, heading straight towards Archie, who has thankfully been sleeping soundly during his time in Harry’s sole care.

Harry watches Louis move around in awe. He lifts Archie out, changes him without waking him and nestles him in the crook of his arm as he blindly grabs a blanket and a soft grey plus rabbit with droopy ears. He signals he’ll just be a minute, and disappears again, coming back down ten minutes or so later in joggers and a fresh white t-shirt.

They sit down, teas on the coffee table cooling, the telly on low and a fleece blanket over their entwined legs. “You’re so good with them. Like, I knew you would be but to actually see it, like, it’s really cool. Perfect really.”

“Perfect?” Louis repeats, the hint of a blush forming under the high planes of his cheekbones.  “You really think so?”

“Yeah, definitely. I hope they like me. Do you think Emilia liked me? Or is it too early to tell?”

“Too early I think, babe. She will like you though.”

Harry smiles wistfully. Hopefully.

They finish off watching First Dates on channel four and then head up to bed. Harry’s got no pyjamas, but that’s not an issue. He’s got no clean clothes for tomorrow either, which might be an issue but they can deal with that tomorrow.

With Emilia and Archie sleeping not ten feet away they slip into bed side by side and into each other’s arms. Harry brings Louis close to him, one hand resting in the groove of his hip. His fingers trail around Louis’ side and massage carefully, slowly, as they whisper-talk to each other in the bluish silence.

“Thank you.” Harry whispers earnestly, and he leans in for another kiss before Louis can ask what for. “For everything. I’m happy we did this tonight.”

Louis smiles, nods slightly. “Amy gave me the push I needed. Told me to stop dicking around and just get on with it. She’s right – I wish I’d not spent so long draggin’ me feet.”

“You didn’t need to rush anythin’, Lou. I’m happy we’re here now though.”

They take a while to settle down. Louis throws himself around trying to get comfortable, and just as they’re gearing towards sleep, one of them will say something and their focus will be pulled back again. Eventually, though, they both fall into silence, Louis on his back and Harry next to him on his side, breathing steady and even.

It takes Harry a bit of time to go off but a short while later Louis is completely still and quiet behind him. Harry wonders if he’s actually asleep. His apprehension and nervous excitement for the morning are keeping him from sleep. This is sort of like the first day of the rest of his life. Meeting your boyfriend’s children is massive , something he’d never pictured himself doing ever . How can he be expected to sleep with that on his mind?

Minutes that feel like hours later, Louis rolls over and pins himself to Harry’s back. Their bodies are close together, bum pressed to groin, and Louis drops a sleepy kiss onto his shoulder. The prickle of his beard gives Harry goosebumps, but the comforting presence behind him is enough to make sleep finally arrive not too long after.

*

Harry wakes once in the night; his phone blinds him through the dark to tell him it’s just gone half past three. He’s only been asleep about an hour and a half but he feels completely dead. He’s just about aware enough to realise Louis isn’t next to him, but he’s already asleep again by the time Louis slips back into his side.

When he wakes again it’s just beginning to get light outside, and this time Louis is there next to him. But he’s awake already, and there’s a distressed whimpering coming from across the landing. Harry is disorientated at first, wonders what the hell is going on. He has no idea what time it is. The light shines through the thin curtains turning them pale, and the room is shadowy. He rolls onto his back then onto his other side, facing Louis.

“Lou?” He asks, brain still waking up. “S’wrong?”

“It’s all right, go back to sleep. S’just the baby.” Louis croaks, and if Harry is not mistaken Louis still has his eyes closed as he moves wearily to a sitting position. “Go back t’sleep, love.”

Louis sighs and winces as he pulls on some shorts and heaves himself up to standing. He stumbles out of the dark room and Harry hears him go downstairs, and Archie’s crying intensifies some. Harry feels as if he should be doing something to help, but imagines that Archie being greeted by a strange man that he doesn’t know first thing in the morning while he’s desperate for a bottle might just make things worse.

Harry hears the microwave whirring around through the floor and then it pings; after a moment Harry can hear Louis ascending the stairs again. Footsteps pass by the door and for a few seconds Archie’s cries get louder before they stop all together. Harry can hear whispered tones and he pulls himself up to sitting so he’s propped up against the headboard. He grabs his old t-shirt from the floor, moving a bit too quickly for this early hour, and covers himself up.

His heart is in his mouth as the door swings open and Louis appears in the frame. Louis has Archie on his hip, one arm slung around his little body. The little boy is completely adorable; dressed in a faded blue onesie, hair fluffy and white and cheeks bright pink. He’s got his bottle clutched in his little hands, guzzling it back furiously as if his life depended on it.

Louis smiles softly, blearily, as he gets back into bed with Archie in his lap. The little boy shuffles back into his daddy’s arms and continues to drink his milk, apparently unfazed by Harry’s presence.

“You’re gawking.” Louis says flatly with a small smirk. He runs his fingers through Archie’s hair, the little boy squirming to get free from the torture.

“I just…” Christ, Harry wasn’t expecting to feel this way about this situation so soon. Seeing Louis with Archie makes him feel a tonne of ways, all of them good. “I didn’t realise what this’d be like. To like, watch.”

Louis rolls his eyes and looks away briefly. “You’re weird in the mornings, y’know that?”

They fall into another stretch of quiet as Archie hurtles his way through his milk. Harry watches in awe and Louis sits with the boy in his lap, smoothing his hand over Archie’s leg. About three quarters of the way down the bottle, Archie lets out a big gulp of air and turns momentarily red.

Harry’s heart immediately begins to pound in his chest and his palms feel tingly with terror but Louis calmly tips Archie forward and pats his back steadily. The child then burps and a little spit up of milk gathers in the dimple of his chin before all is well again.

“Don’t worry, he always does that.” Louis explains casually. “He can’t get it down quick enough, little gannet.”

“Is that normal?” Harry blurts out.

“No, not really!” Louis says, and he’s laughing, obviously not at all bothered. “He’s okay with it though, so I don’t tend to worry.”

“What time does Emilia normally wake up?” Harry asks next. He sort of hopes Louis will say soon.

“She’s not normally too far behind Archie. Had a late night last night though, but that doesn’t necessarily mean anything. She’ll probably start stirring as soon as she hears voices.”

Archie’s bottle begins to whistle as it empties, and he plucks the empty thing from his mouth with a look of disdain on his serious features. He throws it and looks up at Louis.

“Aw-goh!” He says to Louis. “Aw-goh dada.”

“Yep, all gone mate!” Louis replies, and Harry’s heart just about explodes in his chest. “Go down and get you some porridge soon, yeah?”

“Nyahhhhhh!” Archie squeals, and Louis smiles at him as if he’s understood every word.

“How’s that bum, does it need changing?” Louis sets Archie down on the bed and it's then that Archie seems to notice Harry for the first time.

“Have you spotted him, Arch? Took you long enough, darlin’! That’s Harry. Can you say hi?” Louis asks, making an exaggerated waving motion with his hand, but Archie just looks at him with confusion and then screws up his face. Harry is convinced that the boy is going to burst into tears, but seconds pass and nothing comes.

“Hi baby," Harry coos softly, holding out his index finger and wiggling it. Archie reaches out for it grips it tight, trying to draw it toward his mouth to bite down on.

“No Archie baby, no biting." Louis leaps in, putting his own hand between Harry's hand and Archie's mouth.

Turning to Harry he smiles apologetically. “Sorry, everything goes straight in the gob.”

“It's okay, he's alright.” Harry coos, taking his hand away from Archie's face. “He’s bloody adorable, Lou, honestly. I can’t get over it.”

“See if you’re still saying that by the end of today!” Louis remarks. “I have to change him, the stuff’s downstairs. You ready?”

“Yeah,” Harry stands up, looking around for yesterday’s jeans. “Should we wake Emmie?”

“Nah, she’ll come down when she wakes up, don’t worry. She won’t be far behind, I’m sure.”

When Emilia does show her face, she waits behind the living room door and won’t come in when she realises they’re not alone. Louis tries to coax her out, smiling reassuringly and using the softest voice imaginable, but Emilia won’t budge. Harry can see the corner of her fluffy but worn looking blanket and a lock of blonde curl around the door but that’s it.

“Is she okay?” Harry hisses to Louis, who nods reassuringly and waves a dismissive hand.

Louis puts Archie down on the carpet – the young boy propels himself over to the coffee table immediately and pulls to stand – and creeps over to where Emilia is stood. He whispers softly to Emilia and she replies in her own tiny little voice. Harry can’t really hear much but he’s trying to keep out of the private moment.

He watches Archie instead. The young boy is standing very confidently, one hand on the coffee table edge for support and the other waving wildly about. He looks over at Harry a few times as he stands there and Harry smiles, giving Archie a little wave. To Harry’s delight, Archie gives him a broad gummy smile in return and bends at the knees with excitement a few times before toppling to the ground.

Harry is just about to call for help when Archie springs back up again and confidently returns to his standing position. His gait is wide and his feet point inwards; Harry assumes that’s normal.

Before he can worry too much more about it, he spots Louis coming back into the room in his periphery. He turns to him and smiles; it’s an automatic reflex at this point. Louis has Emilia with him, hands on her shoulders prompting her into the room kindly.

Her hair is quite messy, falling out of the ponytail it was in yesterday, and she’s wearing a Frozen nightie.

“Emmie, remember Harry from yesterday? Say hi?”

“Hi,” She says in a tiny little voice, not making eye contact.

“Hi Emilia, how are you?” Harry asks, smiling at the little girl just in case she decides to look at him. He wants her to know he is friendly.

“Good,” She says quietly, gripping onto Louis’ leg.

Louis shakes her off and moves across the room to sit back down next to Harry. Emilia climbs straight into his lap and puts her thumb in her mouth, the fingers of the same hand clutching the soggy blanket tightly. “Did you sleep well, love?”

“Yeah,” Emilia mumbles behind her hand. Louis must have perfected the art of understanding her over the years, because Harry is falling over himself trying to understand and he’s tired already. “Didn’t know where you was when I woked up, daddy.”

“You know I’m never far away, Ems.” Louis says.

Emilia ponders his words for a moment, and Harry can feel her eyes on him. Louis notices too and smiles apologetically. Emilia contemplates him for a while and then leans in to murmur something to Louis. To Harry's untrained ear sounds like 'he'd like to have more Pringles, daddy'.

Louis smiles and gives a soft little chuckle before tweaking Emilia’s nose and then looking over at Harry again. “I suppose he does, doesn't he?"

"What did she say?" Harry asks quietly, directed at Louis.

“Say it again, Emmie? It'll make Harry smile, I promise." Louis tells her, tweaking her knee for support.

Emilia looks at her dad and takes her thumb out of her mouth, a bashful grin on her clamped together lips. She peers at Harry cautiously and he tries a reassuring smile, to show her she can talk to him if she wants to. She giggles into her shoulder and looks to Louis one last time.

“Go 'head, babe."

Emilia takes a deep breath, a few false starts, but then looks at Harry, takes her hands away from her face and says clearly, "I like your princess curls, Hally."

Harry beams, instantly reaching up to touch the nearest ringlet. “Oh thank you!" He smiles. "Your hair is very lovely too."

"Fanks," she mumbles shyly into her hand that is back up around her mouth, and she curls back into Louis' side.

“It’s a nightmare when it’s knotty though!” Louis exclaims, jiggling Emilia and she bursts out laughing, attracting Archie’s attention.

To Harry’s sheer relief, Emilia seems to only carry on getting more and more relaxed around him. He and Louis drink tea on the sofa as Emilia and Archie play. Archie charges about on his bum with a fistful of soggy jam on toast while Emilia’s own breakfast goes largely untouched. She hauls the little boy around like a bag full of bricks, lifting him up by his underarms and plonking him down quite unceremoniously. Archie topples off the sofa once, but lands on Emilia’s blanket and no one seems bothered, so Harry tries to dial his worrying back a bit.

It’s quite hectic and Harry feels exhausted after an hour, though they haven’t even done anything. He observes most of the activity - there isn’t much opportunity for him to get involved, but Louis sits back too and Harry reminds himself that this is the everyday for Louis (most of the time). It’s only Harry himself that is experiencing all of this stuff for the first time.

Archie naps around lunchtime and while Louis is upstairs putting him down, it’s just Harry and Emilia.

"Are you my daddy’s friend now, Hally?" She asks him. He is surprised by her confidence, but pleased. He adores the way she slightly mispronounces his name.

"Yeah, we're new friends. That's why this is the first time I’ve come round to your house."

"Uncle Niall comes here lots. Is him your friend too?"

"Yep, and Auntie Amy and Uncle Zayn too. I bet they come here lots."

Emilia's eyes widen. "You know my Amy?"

"I do indeed,"

"She's no my really auntie though."

"No, just a pretend one. You've got lots of real aunties though, haven’t you?"

Her eyes positively sparkle. "How you know that, Hally?"

“Your daddy told me, Ems.”

She nods in understanding. She licks her lips and tilts her head. "Do my daddy tell you lotsa things?"

“Quite a lot of things, yeah. That’s what best friends do.”

“Him your best friend?” She asks in adorable excitement.

Harry nods and smiles. “What about you, d’you have a best friend?”

Emilia contemplates this for a very long time, putting her finger into the dimple in her chin to think really carefully about her answer. “Well, prob-erly my mummy. She always tells me I’m her best friend too.”

“That’s sweet,” Harry muses, remaining expertly neutral. “What about daddy and Archie?”

“Not Archie!” Emilia laughs, rolling her eyes. “All he do is poo and cry! Daddy can be my best friend too if he wants.”

“I bet that would make daddy happy.” He says to her, and she nods with an almost sparkle in her eyes.

“Making friends I see?”

Harry and Emilia both look up at the same time. Louis is in the doorway, sans Archie this time. Harry gives him a smile and when they lock eyes it’s so warm and so intense, Harry could just leap up and into Louis’ arms. He doesn’t though.

“Daddy, is Hally going home yet?" Emilia asks, perfectly innocently. Harry isn’t offended but Louis pales and hisses at her. “I mean I want Hally to stay.”

“Well, I think he’s gonna stay for a bit longer but I’m sure Harry has stuff to do at his own house so he will need to go and take care of that later, Ems.”

“I can stay for a bit longer, yeah.” Harry says, feeling smug again as Emilia grins up at Louis. This is going better than he could ever have imagined. “I mean, so long as daddy doesn’t mind?”

Louis rolls his eyes but they share a moment over the top of Emilia’s head. “Course I don’t mind.”

*

When Archie is awake again, Louis makes them lunch; cheese spread sandwiches cut into triangles with a banana and a kid’s yogurt. Archie’s is cut into smaller bite size chunks but Emilia’s is still recognisable. He sits next to Emilia swinging her legs and Archie is in his highchair.

One thing becomes apparent; Emilia is a painstakingly slow eater. Archie grabs and smushes handful of cheese sandwich and banana like he hasn’t eaten for a week but Emilia is another story. She eats most of the yoghurt but ends up dipping the banana into it, and the fruit ends up going to waste after two tiny nibbles.

After trying multiple different ploys to get her to eat, Louis lets out a loud sigh and stands up, pushing the chair back across the kitchen floor with a screech. He opens a cupboard and stands right on his tiptoes to reach a wicker basket on the top shelf. Harry smiles, maddeningly endeared, as Louis grabs a bag of crisps and opens them for Emilia.

“Don’t judge,” Louis says with a smirk as he passes them to her and sits back down. Those she wolfs down no problem.

Harry holds up his hands in defence and Emilia giggles at him. It seems he’s got a new mate already.

*

Although nothing really all that monumental happens it feels like a big day, and by the end of it Harry is exhausted. Archie goes to bed first at just about half past seven, and Emilia sits at the table scribbling and chatting away as Louis does the necessary upstairs with the baby.

Harry sits at the end of the table observing her playing. She uses the green felt tip to colour everything in. It’s messy and she has no regard for keeping inside the lines but her concentrating face is the cutest thing Harry has ever seen.

His phone vibrates; it’s Louis texting him from upstairs, the Zzz emoji, the baby emoji and the ’soon’ emoji. Harry smiles down at the coded message, and when he looks up Emilia is smiling at him as if she knows.

“Who that?”

“Just daddy. He told me Archie is almost asleep.”

“Urgh,” Emilia rolls her eyes but goes back to drawing. “That means I have to go to bed soon.”

“D’you not like bedtime?” Harry asks her. Emilia shakes her head in disgust, still colouring ferociously. “How come? I love going to sleep; it’s the best time of the day.”

“No, silly! Playtime is the best time! I goes to nursery an’ we do lotsa play there.”

“Cor, I bet that’s fun. I wish I went to nursery.”

“Silly Hally, no growned ups can go to my nursery apart from Skye and Lucy and Justin and Claire, Hayley and Lizzie.”

Harry assumes they are the nursery teachers. As they even called teachers? Harry doesn’t know.

When Louis returns, he’s made to be the bad guy again as Emilia tries to resist bedtime. Harry, again, sits back and lets Louis do his thing. Harry has no possible way of helping, he is as useless with kids as he is with sports, and that’s saying something. The irony is of course that he works in a leisure centre. Oh well, he observes the sports not participate in them. Kickabout’s with Liam with the foam balls don’t count.

“Sorry, I’ll just be a few minutes, love.” Louis whispers to him. Emilia is half way up the stairs, reluctantly, and so Louis sneaks him a quick kiss.

Harry smiles and tells him it’s okay, and moves over to the sofa. He takes a moment to look at his phone again. Mikey has text him.

Mike: ‘How’s it going step-daddy???’

Harry both smiles and rolls his eyes, leaving the message un-responded to. He can hear Emilia arguing with Louis and Archie chattering, presumably in his cot, but after the sound of teeth brushing and bedtime story selecting, it all goes quiet. Louis has things under control.

Ten or fifteen minutes later, Louis is back; flopped down on the sofa with a loud sigh.

“I’m knackered; I don’t know how you do this every day!”

“I don’t do it every day, do I?”

Louis turns to him, a bit awkward as he bites the inside of his mouth. Harry’s heart drops when he realises.

“I didn’t, shit Lou, I didn’t mean for it to come out like that.”

“It’s all right, I’m okay with it. You don’t need to worry, Haz.”

“I am sorry though.” Harry says, and Louis accepts his apology by way of leaning in close and resting his head on Harry’s chest. Harry puts an arm around his shoulders and they shuffle down the sofa to get more comfortable. Louis’ sofas are so plush and bouncy they’re like being in bed. They’re quite low to the ground as well, and Harry’s back will certainly suffer for it later.

Louis talks softly and slowly; the vibration through his chest wall tickles the side of Harry’s face but it’s perfect. They talk about how the day went; how the kids feel and how they might broach the subject of their relationship with Emilia.

Harry goes home at about eleven, and spends the entire taxi drive home on the phone to Louis. Whether that is pathetic or not, well that’s for someone else to decide.

*

Monday is Halloween. The leisure centre has been decorated with all the orange and purple themed bunting they could find at the party shop in town, as well as glittery spider webs, pumpkins and witches hats. It is also the last day of the half term holidays, much to Harry’s relief. It means things will go back to normal soon.

There are fun swims on for the morning, then trampolining, karate and netball - though who would want to be outside freezing their face off playing netball in October, God only knows.

Sunday is the first Sunday for a good few weeks that Harry doesn’t spend with Louis. His own flat feels cold and lifeless; empty and greyish blue when everything he’s come from is luscious, rich and vibrant red. He wants to check in every second of the day with Louis, find out how things are going and when they can see each other next.

Halloween passes quietly – the joys of living in a flat with secure entry – and overnight it becomes November. Somewhere along the line he makes half-hearted resolutions to try and survive a little bit of time away from Louis, but then Louis invites him over and he tries to reason with himself that it’s okay to be keen if the other person is keen too as he heads over to Louis’ house.

On Saturday evening, the fifth of November, it is Bonfire Night and fireworks burst and bloom in the inky sky all around them as they make their own fireworks in bed, pressing Louis into the mattress, heels digging into his lower back, fingertip-shaped marks on his flushed skin.

Afterwards he holds Louis tight, clean and fresh and dressed in soft tracksuit bottoms under covers on the sofa. They open the wine and they go through all of the stages. Loud and outspoken and falling onto their sides laughing at stuff probably quite un-funny to a sober onlooker. They order Domino’s even though it’s nearing midnight, and then go quiet and cuddly and talk for probable hours but likely minutes. The wine bottle is empty now and the pizza box has nothing left to show for itself but grease stains and crusts.

“I feel so lucky that outta all the boys and all the girls, you picked me; little old me.” Harry muses, sighing contently and looking down at his fingers where he’s picking absentmindedly at his thumb. He’s sprawled across the sofa on his back, head in Louis’ lap, Louis arm wrapped casually over his shoulder.

Louis laughs softly above his head. “You’re somethin’ else, y’know that? Like, really.”

“That doesn’t sound good.” Harry pouts. Maybe he’s drunker than he thought.

“No, it’s very good.” Louis leans down and kisses him softly on the temple. Harry can feel his lips linger after he pulls away. “Believe me it’s good.”

*

Another week passes; they manage to coordinate ten minutes together on Tuesday afternoon by way of Harry taking an unscheduled work break and Louis going back to his office after a viewing via the leisure centre. The three of them (Harry, Louis and Emilia) FaceTime on Thursday evening, and on Sunday evening Harry arrives with the next day’s work clothes and his phone charger in a carrier bag.

Louis is particularly soft with him that evening, quiet and without his usual buoyancy. They go straight to the sofa; he tucks himself as far into the corner as he can and Louis lays alongside him, feet between ankles, and they just lay there in silence for a while. Harry puts his arm protectively around Louis’ body, resting his hand in the small of his back.

“What’s up, Lou?” He asks eventually, making sure to be soft and quiet with him. Louis has his head buried in Harry’s chest. He can feel the warmth of Louis’ breath.

“Missed you. Miss my babies. I can’t wait ‘til we can just… be together. All of us, whenever we want.”

Harry smiles. He rests his chin on the top of Louis head, in his soft, recently washed hair. “Same here,” He says quietly. “It’s all I want.”

Louis shifts beneath him and he shuffles back, allowing the older one to look up at him. “You mean that?”

“’Course,” Harry whispers. “Can’t wait for all the little adventures and stuff we’re all gonna get up to together.”

“I was a knob to ‘fink this wasn’t worth taking a risk for, weren’t I?”

Harry has to laugh, softly to himself. “I wouldn’t call you a knob, m’love, but I am glad you gave it a chance, yeah.”

Louis like this is equal parts good and bad. It’s nice to have him calm, focussed and reactive, but his usual spark is missing and that’s like him losing a limb; it’s noticeable, debilitating. They talk their way down memory lane; it feels like a good opportunity to learn a bit more about each other. They’re learning every day, about their ways and their quirks, habits and traits but it’s nice to have some history with which to strengthen the foundation of their relationship; inside and out.

They talk coming out, girlfriends, boyfriends, mates, families, embarrassing anecdotes and cute little stories. They talk about school, briefly, and it’s already evident to Harry that school wasn’t Louis’ finest moment. Louis rolls his eyes as he talks, laughs, grimaces, hides behind his hands with embarrassment.

“I didn’t know what I was,” He admits, speaking low as if he’s worried. “Sometimes I felt like my attraction to girls was enough to push away the feelings I had for boys, and sometimes I felt like I was just pretending to like girls because I was scared to be gay.”

Harry listens, hearing the microscopic changes in Louis’ expressions as he talks. He keeps quiet; it feels like this isn’t a topic Louis has covered much, and he knows first-hand how therapeutic talking things over with someone you trust can be, so he just nods and grips Louis’ hand in his own firmly to let him know he’s really listening.

“I didn’t really think about being bisexual, like, that was what girls in porn who kiss other girls were. I couldn’t relate to it at all for ages; I feel like shit for admittin’ that, still to this day. Oh, fuck, I remember once in school, God it was pretty much the worst day of my life - I felt so embarrassed and ashamed. We were in science class and, God I don’t even remember what the teacher was talking about, bones or somethin’, and they said the such-and-such bone was ‘short and bent’.” Louis pauses and laughs softly even though it’s clearly not amusing.

“Lou…” Harry isn’t trying to interrupt, or add his own input to Louis’ story; he just wants him to know that he’s there, though they aren't facing one another.

“An-and someone shouted out, just like Tommo!’ Everyone laughed their heads off, thought it was a right laugh. But finding out that the people had started noticing something that I thought I was doing so well hiding, it was so humiliating.”

“I’m sorry that happened, Lou,” Harry says, knowing his input is rather useless at this point.

“I hadn’t even come to terms with how I was feeling myself and suddenly it was the talking point of the whole school. Like, I didn’t even know I wasn’t hiding it well. I can look back now and laugh a bit, like it all turned out fine, but sometimes it doesn’t, y’know? That sorta thing can destroy people.”

Harry nods morosely. “Teenagers can be such wankers.”

“You say that as if you never used to be a teenager!” Louis snorts.

“Well I never was a wanker. I was always nice. Too nice, probably.”

“Sounds like there’s a story there?” Louis asks him, and Harry balks at the thought of telling Louis about his past. He doesn’t need to be coming across as a creepy, clingy weirdo just yet, thank you.

“Not really, just, y’know. I’ve never been good at this sorta thing. Being ‘normal’ in relationships. I tend to go full force right away and end up getting dumped for being ‘too clingy’ or too ‘much’. Like, that’s so vague. Is it just me in general, do I repel people?”

“Really? You really feel that way?” Louis questions, and Harry nods, sort of relieved that he can’t see directly into Louis’ soul through his eyes. He feels Louis’ heart though, pumping away just under his cheekbone as they lay there together. “You think that’s gonna happen to us?”

“I hope not,” Harry says immediately, truthfully. He can only wince at his speed to answer but the words are out now.

“It’s obvious, I hope, that I’m not just interested in one thing. And I can confirm that you don’t repel me. Whatever the opposite of repel is, that’s what you do to me. Un-pel? Un-repel?”

Harry smiles to himself, lifting his head off Louis’ chest and craning his neck to look up. He can just about see the silhouettes of the furniture around the room; the paused TV screen has gone dim and the light filtering in from the ceiling lamp in the hallway is barely worth mentioning.

“Lay back down, love.” Louis coaxes him back down, runs a hand through his hair, miraculously not snagging any knots, and keeps it there, fiddling gently without saying anything.

Harry’s spine is screaming out to him in pain, particularly the very bottom where he has been laying awkwardly on it all evening, but he’s not going to move until Louis does. They continue to lie there together; sometimes Harry blinks awake again and realises he dropped off for a few seconds, and other times Louis’ hand will pause in his hand for a while and he’ll wonder if his boy is nodding off too.

In the end, he has to stop it. He turns his head, presses his ear to Louis’ chest again and looks up at him. Louis is weary and bleary-eyed, just about keeping himself together. Harry forgets sometimes how tiring Louis’ life must be, both physically and mentally.

“Shall we go to bed? I’m almost asleep here.”

Louis nods and Harry pushes through the pain in his spine to get up off the sofa. He feels a million times better in Louis’ bed. Louis drapes himself over Harry’s back, the chill that hangs in the November air meaning it's comfortable enough for them to do this now.

In the dark of the night, several unidentified hours later, Harry is aroused from sleep by the feeling of Louis’ fingertips tracing his hips. They then disappear into the deep V of his pelvis and he shuffles back into the curvature of Louis’ body without thinking about it.

They fall back to sleep disgusting and then rinse and repeat quite literally in the shower two hours later. Harry’d remembered clean clothes this time, so no one at work has to know that he had a sleepover and hasn’t been home to his own place. Louis drops him off at work and Harry realises that if it isn’t his clothes that will give him away, it will be the fact that he’s always suspiciously early when he’s been with Louis the night before.

Harry’s boss is around all day on Wednesday, which is rare because normally they don’t see sight nor sound of him. He and Kate work quietly and unobtrusively as a result. There isn’t quite chatter around the place yet about what’s going on but Harry and Kate exchange a few looks when Boss Man comes out of the meeting room and loiters in the foyer for a while, phone pressed to his ear and pacing.

Nothing comes of it, again, and for a few days Harry is quietly irritated to keep having his interested piqued just to be left high and dry, but eventually he forgets about it.

Winter is always a much quieter time for sport and leisure; no one is interested in keeping fit and doing laps in the pool when they could be at home with a marshmallow-topped hot chocolate watching the soaps on telly. That’s what his mum has always maintained, anyway. Come January, things will pick up again when the nation is experiencing the post-Christmas bloat and New Year’s resolutions are still being adhered to.

*

Before they know where they’re at, it’s almost the end of another month. December is hot on their heels, as is their one month anniversary. Harry knows it’s ridiculous to celebrate the meagre milestone, and also it feels like Louis’ been his for months and months already, but Harry still isn’t going to let the moment pass without event.

The month has been a good one, overall. The weather has been awful, yes, but during Louis’ free weeks they’ve spent the short, overcast days texting and the long, dark nights pinned to each other, kissing and cuddling and trying to get even closer.

They’ve still got to formally introduce Louis to Harry’s mum, and tell the kids and Jess about Harry’s new position in Louis’ life, and go out for the official First Outing As A Couple that Amy had been badgering them about all month. Then there’s Louis’ birthday and Christmas, then the start of a new year and Harry can’t even picture beyond that point. The possibilities for the year ahead of them are endless and massive and it’s a little bit daunting, but mainly exciting.

The kids went back to Jess the day before, and Harry had been sitting at home all day wondering what they were doing and how Louis was and why he wasn’t there with him. They’ve tried to keep it cool, slowly building up the amount of time he is around the kids to get them used to him, and it’s working well but Harry’s itching for more and he’s confident in his feeling that Louis is too.

After work on Monday, Harry goes straight to Louis’ house. The bus route is so familiar to him now it almost feels like his way home. The window pane on the rickety old banger bus is grimy and rain splattered. It’s dark outside but the shadowy night is broken up by illuminated shop fronts and street lamps and further down the road, homes with lights on and lit up windows. Some places have even got their Christmas lights up already, which Harry scoffs at. He likes Christmas as much as the next person but it’s not even December yet!

The walk from the bus to the house isn’t far but tracksuit bottoms are next to useless in winter and he’s chilled right through to the bone by the time the familiar front door comes into sight.

Louis looks like coming in from the cold personified in the most oversized hoodie Harry has ever seen, trackies tucked into socks and product-free hair. Harry backs him across the short space of the hallway and crowds him up against the bannister of the stairs, tilting his focus up with a gently forceful hand. He feels Louis try not to smile as they kiss, bodies pressed together.

“Happy month-aversary,” Harry murmurs against Louis’ lips, dissolving as Louis finally breaks his focus and bursts out laughing.

“Oh God, we're not going to be one of those couples are we?” Louis shakes himself free, looks away with a reluctant giggle and runs his hands across his tired face.

“No, you're right, that felt weird.” Harry agrees, following Louis into the kitchen. He sits down at the table as Louis heads straight for the kettle and flicks it on to boil. It’s still steaming slightly from his last cup, Harry notes. His boyfriend is addicted to tea.

“At least Emmie has finally learned to say your name right.” Louis says after a little while of silence. He’s leant against the counter waiting for the kettle to boil, hugging himself tightly in his massive hoodie, hands completely hidden by the gargantuan sleeves.

“I dunno, I think I’m gonna miss Hally. It was cute; my own special nickname.”

Louis’ face is wistful and fond as he nods and smiles; Harry wonders what he is thinking about. Wonders if his mind is travelling to the same places Harry’s is.

*

Harry makes dinner for them, as it’s a special occasion and all. Louis doesn’t take much persuading and spends the entire time going on about the usual frozen rubbish he consumes and Harry is sure he’s trying to guilt him into cooking his meals all the time.

Once their plates are clear and the rubbish TV has been watched and more tea has been drunk, they move to the bedroom. Harry is completely warmed through now, the cold chill outside the door a distant memory of earlier in the evening, and he lays back in the centre of Louis’ bed with just his boxers low on his hips and his boy lain over him in just his hoodie. Louis’ cock presses up against his hip as he drapes himself over Harry and they kiss slow and unhurried, unrushed because they have all the time in the world.

Louis leaves damp little marks on Harry’s exposed skin and blurts steadily as they kiss. Harry can’t help but whimper as Louis moves down, away from his lips to his neck. Louis goes for his neck softly; Harry doesn’t suspect there will be any broken capillaries beneath the surface but it’s enough to know that Louis is there.

Harry lifts his legs up and digs his heels into the bed, bringing Louis closer. He runs his fingertips through the small little smearing of pre-come on his hip and brings his hand round to the soft, rounded skin that is exposed beneath the fabric of Louis’ hoodie.

He uses the moisture on his fingertips to break in between Louis’ cheeks and carefully run the flat pad over his hole. Louis falls away breathlessly with a high, melodic outwards breath.

It’s been months in the making, this moment, and Harry’s dedication to making it the best he can is paramount. The last time they’d been together Harry hadn’t know would be the last time, and he certainly hadn’t been doing anything to try and make it special. But this time, this is going to be different. Every time after today is going to be dedicated to making Louis feel the best he can.

Once Harry has the feel of Louis’ skin and the slick crevice of his bum memorised, he’d ready to move.

“Have you-?”

“Yeah.”

They communicate succinctly but they both know exactly what to do. Louis leans over the edge of the bed to rummage through the bottom drawer of the table next to the bed. He drops the bottle onto Harry’s chest and it’s cold; he yelps automatically and Louis laughs at him.

Anything remotely resembling humour or laughter quickly dissipates though as Harry uncaps the lid and drizzles a small amount over the same fingers. He returns to the area and massages it briefly before slipping just the very tip of his middle finger past the border.

Louis’ breathing is laboured for a while as he adjusts to the intrusion. It sounds as if it’s taking a lot of effort to stay calm; he murmurs something hotly against Harry’s neck that sounds like ‘missed this’ and Harry couldn’t agree more.

Louis is impossibly tight as Harry goes two fingers deep and the implication of what that means, how long it’s been for him, is a driving force for Harry. Louis gradually relaxes; he pushes himself down, rocking his hips deeper onto Harry’s digits, arching his back with a whine as Harry changes his angle. Louis grips his biceps wildly and with every settling bounce, the cushiony swell of his arse slaps against his hand and makes Harry want to turn Louis over onto his hands and knees and devour the perfect cleft and puckered pink hole.

Instead, though, he drags his fingers from inside Louis and strokes around the curve of his bum and hips, over his thigh and to his cock, though the action is mostly concealed by the superfluous material of hoodie that gathers around Louis’ tiny waist.

“Get this off,” He motions, tugging at the hem with his other, forgotten, hand.

Louis grunts as if he was thinking exactly the same thing, and leans back, resting all his weight on Harry’s trembling thighs. Harry marvels at the sight of a completely naked Louis in his lap, cock standing to attention, slightly to the left and away from his body. His skin is practically bronze in comparison to his own and stretches over an unnecessarily perfect and compact bone structure. His hair, messy and fluffy, catches the light filtering in from behind them.

Louis’ shoulders sag as Harry takes hold of his cock. He rocks up onto his knees and inches forward, Harry’s hand still wrapped loosely around the length. “Really want you,” He says, head hanging between his shoulders, voice mumbled and breathy. It’s fucking unbelievable.

“Want to feel you, wanna be close.” Harry rasps, giving Louis a few tugs and running his thumb through the splatter of pre-come at the head.

“Uhhh,” Louis cries out nonsensically; Harry’s not sure if it’s the slow flick of his fingers over Louis’ cockhead that is doing it, or the fledgling dirty talk, all he knows is that he likes the reaction. “It’s you, it’s- oh, it’s only you, Haz.”

Harry has a feeling he knows what Louis is trying and failing to express. “Only wanna be with you, Lou. Condom. Do we- we don’t, right?”

Turns out, Harry’s not much better at expressing himself, but in his defence Louis is grabbing his hand and forcing himself back down on three slick digits as Harry’s trying to communicate. Louis grips tightly inside, causing Harry’s mind to go temporarily blank. Louis’ shaking his head, biting down on his bottom lip and squeezing his body with his thighs as he fucks himself on Harry’s fingers.

“No condom,” Louis manages to utter, and Harry blinks to focus back on his boy. “We don’t need one, do we?”

“S’only you,” Harry says again, in lieu of a proper answer. Louis feels too good to pay attention to much else. “Always you.”

They’ve mutually agreed it now, and they’ve told each other previously that theirs is a real life commitment to each other. So Harry carefully removes his fingers, uncaps the lube a final time and decants a good amount into his palm and works it over himself steadily. His hand feels good but it’s nothing in comparison to how good it’s going to feel in a minute, with Louis.

He looks up at Louis, who is focussed on the point where Harry is tossing himself, getting prepared. “Ready?” He asks softly, more like a soft noise than a real sound.

Louis nods and lifts himself up onto his knees, rolling forward and lifting his hips so the head of Harry’s cock is brushed lightly up against the swell of his bum. “Yeah babe,” Louis responds breathlessly, and Harry feels him shift just slightly, the head of his cock nudging up against Louis’ head. “C’mon, love.”

The residual slick that is in and around Louis meets the drizzle around Harry’s cock and eases the transition but Louis is still tight and curses fluently under his breath as he gradually sinks down. Louis feels amazing around Harry; a tight, white hot heat but with little soft spots that break him down and have him whimpering and dropping his mouth open in sated bliss.

That thin layer of latex that would once have been between them may not’ve been detectable but to experience their love without it now is more than Harry could describe or prepare for. He feels a million times more sensitive, like he can feel every crevice and limit within Louis. Louis rides him effortlessly, like it’s nothing to him, and Harry lifts his hips up off the bed to meet Louis’ downward bounce.

Most of what they murmur to each other in the moment doesn’t make sense and probably couldn’t be repeated anyway, but they’re halfway down the bed and Harry’s hand is awkwardly between their flagging bodies as he tries to bring Louis to orgasm with him. It all goes white behind his eyes as he tips over the edge and gets his unencumbered release.

He’s breathless and Louis is loud as they blossom and bloom together, the glossy ribbons of pearly come between them like petals falling in autumn.

“You’re ‘mazin’,” Louis falls forward, mumbles into the mattress. His weight is steady and comforting on top of Harry, despite the mess between them. Harry slips out of Louis with the change in angle and he lets his feet slip out and his legs flatten on the mattress.

The mess on their bodies goes cold and their skin develops goosebumps as they lay close together, kissing and touching each other’s chests, shoulders, jaws. The delicacy of the moment between them hangs in the air for a while as they share more kisses and reaffirm their commitment to each other.

They’re in no hurry to clean up, so do so only much later on when Louis begins to shiver in his arms. They shower and Louis changes the sheets, they both agree that despite the hassle it was worth it, and they fall asleep certainly too close to getting up time.

*

“I wanna tell Jess about us.”

The words hit Harry far too hard for so early in the morning. Sure, Louis’ tackling the issue early on, which Harry supposes he should be grateful for, but he still doesn’t like hearing that name come out of Louis’ mouth. It makes the air around them stink like rotten eggs.

It’s half past six, still pitch black outside, and they only feel asleep a few hours ago. Harry’s eyes keep slipping shut, but Louis’ bold statement has certainly helped wake him up.

“Okay…” He says slowly, blinking several times in the dimness to try and adapt. Logically, he knows it has to happen. He knows it’s likely that he and Jess will end up meeting if things go well. But he just doesn’t want to apply logic just yet. Not if it means he can keep living in his family-shaped bubble with Louis and the kids. “When?”

“Soon,” Louis says, and Harry’s heart sinks. “Get it over and done with before Emilia can drop us in it herself. Jesus knows what Jess would do if she found out from anyone but me personally.”

“But Emilia doesn’t even know yet?” Harry points out, his tiredness making it sound like a question.

“No, but even so, all she’s gotta do is mention you in passing and Jess will be on it like flies on shit. Sorry.”

Harry supposes this is true. Jess doesn’t sound like the most reasonable and understanding ex-partner. “Yeah, that’s… true I guess. Do you want me to be there, or…?”

“No, probably best not to,” Louis says. He’s out of bed at this point, shivering in just his t-shirt and boxers. Harry wants to call him back to bed for more cuddles. “I don’t know how she’s gonna react, what she might say. I don’t want you to have to deal with her, it’s not fair.”

Harry nods. That sounds fine. “Okay love,” He agrees, running his hand idly over the warmth of the mattress next to him where Louis was lying a second ago. “You’ll let me know, though?”

“’Course,” Louis smiles over his shoulder. He’s now stood aimlessly in front of the wardrobe looking at shirts, though the light isn’t on and the curtains are still drawn so they all look the same sad shade of grey. “Urgh, it’s too early. Why did we stay up so late last night?”

Harry grins to himself as he reminds himself what they were doing up so late last night. He’s half-hard under the covers, resting up against his thigh heavily. “You weren’t complaining last night.”

Louis groans with laughter and drops his head onto the wood-effect wardrobe door. “You’re terrible,” He mumbles coyly.

Over the course of the next forty minutes or so, Harry eventually drags himself out of bed; they turn the bedroom light on and get dressed slowly. Louis refuses to kiss him until he’s brushed his teeth, but he’s harping on about Nutella on crumpets first so he won’t be brushing them anytime soon. Therefore, Harry has to make do with a cheeky bum grope and a couple of light kisses pressed to Louis’ bare shoulder before he puts his shirt on.

Downstairs as Louis is toasting his crumpets under the grill, Harry picks a banana that’s just about to turn out of the fruit bowl.

“They’re Archie’s bananas,” Louis points out as Harry unpeels the fruit.

“I’ll pay him back?” Harry says, dropping the skin into the bin and sitting down.

“Luckily for you, I don’t think he’ll notice.” Louis says, sitting down too with his plate and two mugs of coffee in one hand.

They eat silently, as Harry has discovered Louis likes in the morning, but after coffee Louis is much more amenable to discussion and activity. They finally brush their teeth and Louis kisses him; it’s definitely worth waiting for. Harry lets it hang and catalogues every detail so he can remember it all day at work.

Louis drops him off as he does every time he stays over. Liam isn’t around, hasn’t been for a while actually, but Harry assumes it’s because they just keep missing each other. Though he and Zayn are almost as good as official, Liam still hasn’t brought it up in conversation. Maybe if Harry sees him today he’ll just be bold and ask him himself. Now he’s come clean about his relationship, he doesn’t see why Liam shouldn’t too.

The morning is a silvery blue sky and birdsong, crisp air and bare branched trees. Outside it’s Baltic and every time the main doors are pushed open – which admittedly isn’t very often – a cold chill whips around the foyer and Harry shivers. He pulls the strings of his hoodie tight around his neck to try and stop the draft getting on his chest. It’s a slow morning and Louis’ texts are sporadic at best. He’d mentioned consecutive viewings he had lined up for the morning and Harry knows he’s wrong to expect constant attention. He’s relieved to see Liam’s car pull into the car park, but when he pitches up in black trousers, shirt and jacket, he’s surprised and something uncomfortable prickles the back of his neck.

“What’re you doing all dressed up?” Harry calls across the empty foyer to Liam as he strolls over awkwardly. Harry’s unrest piques. “Where are your casual clothes?”

“All right Haz? I uh, I had an interview.”

“For a job?” Harry squeaks incredulously. “Where? Why? Why are you leaving me?”

“It’s coaching the under 11’s regional team, it’s a big gig. I dunno if I’ll get it, though. I mean, I’ve only had my qualification two years, there’s guys and girls out there much more qualified and experienced than me. It’s the second round of interviews though, so maybe- I dunno, we’ll have to wait and see.”

Harry doesn’t hear that, he just hears ‘interview’. “Second interview?” Harry repeats, mouth agape. “Liam, why is this the first I’m hearing of this?”

“I didn’t wanna say anythin’ at first, you know. That’s understandable, right?” Liam asks, and Harry reluctantly has to nod his head in agreement. “I mean, I might not even get it.”

Harry scoffs. Liam has been working at various leisure centres and footie camps and after school sports clubs since finishing his (obviously very useful) engineering diploma four years ago. Harry has been to watch a few of his matches too; Liam’s got this way of getting on a level with the kids that he’s never seen before in someone so vehemently against ever having a family of his own as Liam is.

“You’ll get it, superstar.” He says drily, and Liam smiles softly. Harry’s frozen heart thaws just a bit. Talking of frozen- “Will you buy me a hot chocolate from the vending machine? I’m cold, Leemo.”

Liam cocks his head and smiles fondly at him. “Sure thing, boss.”


Louis


December starts with Tina reminding him that his birthday month has now begun. He doesn’t want reminding that he’s about to turn twenty seven, thank you very much. Twenty seven is closer to thirty than he’s comfortable with.

He changes his date stamp to 31st November and stamps four documents before realising his mistake, and the day just gets worse from there. The property that he is currently in the process of getting added to their roster is the home of an elderly gentleman who passed away the month before, and the daughter of the man is Louis’ client. They’ve already had two very teary telephone conversations and he’s sat in silence, murmuring the occasional it’s okay for seven whole minutes while she wept. He supposes it’s selfish of him to be only worried about himself when this poor woman has just lost her dad and is already having to sort out the estate.

He’s half tempted to pick back up his smoking habit of his school days, but a coffee and a flapjack from Tina’s secret stash will have to do. He doesn’t care if it’s only ten am.

The icing on the cake comes after lunch (stress eating a Big Mac in his car) when Andy bursts out of his office with a timid looking blonde girl behind him. Shit, the new starter! Louis had completely forgotten about this. He’d been told, but it had slipped his mind. He groans when Andy makes eye contact with him and palms the girl off onto him without pause for thought.

Her name is Charlotte and he has to stop himself from automatically shortening it to Lottie. She’s nineteen and it’s her first job; he tells her about his early days with the company, makes a few comparisons between their situations and what it’s like to be the new person somewhere.

Later on at home, he tells Harry about Charlotte in passing, not even caring much himself, and the reaction he gets is one that surprises him. He’s never seen Harry quite like this before, and what starts out as a joke seems to take on a bit of a serious turn.

“She’s just turned nineteen, Harry! This is her first job out of sixth form.”

“So? I’m only twenty one, is there much difference?”

Louis didn’t even mean anything by what he’d said. It was more a point of conversation, stating a simple fact. “You know I didn’t mean it that way, Haz, I wasn’t even thinking of it in relation to you.”

Luckily, it dissipates quite quickly, and they end up laughing about it eventually. “Sorry, I don’t mean to get jealous. I don’t normally…”

“It’s quite sweet, I suppose. At least you care.”

“I definitely care,” Harry says, reaching out to touch his fingers to Louis’ leg briefly, as if offering up a reassurance, an apology of sorts. “Anyway, guess what?”

“What?” Louis asks.

“Liam’s got a new job. He’s leaving me, Louis, leaving me!” He sighs dramatically. He slaps his thighs with his hands and looks to Louis for sympathy but Louis just rolls his eyes. “What! C’mon, feel sorry for me! I’m sad!”

“You’ll live, Harry.” Louis offers, sympathetically of course. “What’s the new job?”

Harry tells him all about it, sounding reluctantly proud for his friend. Louis feels particularly jealous; he’d have loved to get into something involving sports, but no, instead he’s stuck in a letting agency office nine to five staring at a computer all day.

Before the end of the evening, Amy has made them all plans to go out on Saturday night and celebrate Liam’s big news.

“News travels fast.” Louis remarks as Harry reads the plans out aloud to him from the phone screen. The white light illuminates his face and the unmistakable dusty mark of tired eyes. “Tired love?”

“Huh?” Harry puts his phone down and looks up at Louis, blank for just a beat. “No, I’m, well no more than usual, no.”

“Let’s get an early night,” Louis suggests.  It’s half eleven so it’s hardly early, but the sentiment is the same. Harry looks at him, half with trepidation and half with exhausted reluctance, and Louis shakes his head. “Just to sleep. No funny business tonight.”

*

It’s Saturday and Louis is well on his way to fucking smashed. He knows he’s going to pay for it tomorrow when he’s got Emilia climbing all over his alcohol-soaked body and Archie playing the drums on his toy box lid.

He’s not one hundred percent sure what’s going on around him but he’s managing to keep track of Harry, which is good. Very good. But his boy is pretty much glued to his side the entire night so it’s not hard. Harry’s always got one hand on his hip or the bottom of his back of his arm; Louis can feel him tugging the back of his t-shirt when they have to move through the crowd, and at the bar he stands nice and close, again always with some part of his body attached to Louis.

Liam and Zayn finally get their big reveal, which pleases Amy no end. They both look as sheepish and shy as each other when they finally look down at each other’s hands and join them together, shooting Amy the same look.

“There you go, you happy now?” Zayn shouts, barely heard, over the music. By the way Amy is clapping and squealing and grabbing at Niall’s arm, Louis would guess she is very happy.

They catch up later on on the smoking deck. Zayn is the only current smoker amongst them, but Louis’ cravings come back once in a while and he is surprised to see Harry and Amy share a stick.

“How long has this been goin’ on for?” Amy asks, still shouting although the volume level has dropped considerably with their move outside. “We all knew anyway!”

Liam blushes and Zayn just continues to smoke broodily. “A while?”

“A while?” Amy repeats. “’A while’ is not good enough, boys!”

“Well… look, we decided early on we’d wait to say anything ‘cause of Harry and Tommo.”

“Don’t bring us into this!” Louis bleats, drunkenly and not really understanding where Liam is going with this. “Wait, whaddya mean ‘cause of us?”

“Anyone with eyes could see yous two were gone for each other. You just… needed a bit of time t’work it out for yourselves. We didn’t want to steal you guys’ thunder so we didn’t say anything.”

“Wait, what? We were… since May!” Louis stammers, looking at Harry for support. “How long since we- it was May weren’t it, babe?”

“Y-yeah, May!” Harry confirms shakily. “You didn’t sleep together that same night, did ya?”

Louis laughs at the scandalised look on his boyfriends’ pink-cheeked face. Louis can proudly say that he didn’t sleep with Harry the first night they met. He’d waited four days, that’s much more respectable.

“No!” Zayn chips in for the first time, stubbing out his fag and running one hand through his recently shaved hair. “Since July, all right? Since that barbecue at Tommo’s.”

“Just before it.” Liam corrects, and Zayn’s stony expression turns to a reluctant grin.

“Oh my shitting fucking God!” Amy exclaims, attracting the attention of the people around them. Niall smiles proudly at her. “Six months! Six bloody months, I was way off! I was gonna say October at the very earliest!”

“Sorry guys, didn’t mean to keep it from yous for so long, just… well, if you’re gonna blame anyone blame ‘em  two!” Zayn says, stabbing the air in Louis and Harry’s direction with his lighter. “If they’d got their arses in gear quicker we could’ve told you then!”

“Oi, in my defence I ‘ad other things t’worry about!” Louis slurs indignantly, before being shushed by Niall. Everyone is laughing at him and he’s suddenly very tired. Time for home. But first, a kebab.

*

Louis is feeling very delicate on Sunday morning. Harry woke him up earlier that morning in a painstakingly chipper mood, but he has since crashed on the sofa and has been there since eleven.

It’s now quarter to two and Louis is still dazed and confused on the sofa, one hand comfortably under the waistband of his shorts. Now he may be hungover but he’s not going to shelve his plans to tell Jess about Harry when he picks the kids up later.  The longer he puts it off, the more censored their relationship will become, and once Jess knows they can properly tell the kids and not live in constant fear of being too friendly or too soft with each other.

Jess: Can I come over early? Need to talk about something.’

Jess calls him back almost immediately. He winces at the sound, at the thought of hearing her voice. He considers ignoring it and forcing her into a text conversation, but decides against it at the last minute.

“Hello?” He answers softly, peering over at Harry who is still curled up in the foetal position, hugging a cushion. “Everything okay?”

“Yep, fine. Why do you want to come over early, what’s happened?”

“Nothing’s happened I just wanna run something by you.”

“Why, what have you done?”

“Jess!” Louis says firmly, and he sees Harry flinch awake. “I haven’t done anything, it’s nothing bad okay? I just want to speak to you about something.”

“Speak to me now then.”

“No, not on the phone.”

“Why not? What’s so serious that it can’t be done over the phone? What the hell are you up to, Louis?”

“Look, why don’t I just come over now? Take the kids an hour or so early, is that okay with you?”

She sounds like she’s absolutely seething, which she most probably is. It takes a moment for her to answer and he can hear Emilia in the background bossing Archie around in her own indiscernible toddler babble. Eventually, after a big sigh that just sounds like a load of static in Louis’ ear, she agrees.

He shakes Harry awake gently, kneeling down by the side of the sofa and resting his chin on Harry’s ribs. “Haz? Harry? Wake up, love.”

Harry rolls onto his back somewhat reluctantly. It’s a good job his sofas are so low and deep otherwise Harry could well do himself an injury. “Who was that on the phone?” He asks sleepily. Harry stretches in his half-awake state, face going all squishy and arms extending above his head awkwardly.

“Jess,” Louis replies glumly, and Harry’s eyes open fully at that. “I’m gonna head over there now, tell her. Then it’s done, right?”

“Yeah,” Harry agrees. “Do you want me to go home?”

“Not if you don’t want to, love.” He says simply, and Harry looks reassured by that simple response. “Stay here; wake yourself up with a coffee or something. Go and run around the garden if you want. I’ll be about an hour? Maybe less, depending on how it goes. If I don’t come back you know she’s killed me.”

“Shut up,” Harry rolls his eyes bashfully and pushes Louis’ shoulder. “I’ll see you soon then? I can’t wait to see the kids. Dunno how you do this every week.”

Louis sighs wistfully. He doesn’t either. “Me too. Look, I’ll be back, okay? Help yourself to whatever you like.”

*

Emilia is beside herself to see Louis and won’t leave him alone when he first arrives, but eventually she calms down and he and Jess manage to get into the kitchen alone to talk.

“What’s so urgent that it couldn’t wait another hour, then?” Jess asks coldly, sitting down at her round kitchen table and folding her arms. Louis perches uncomfortably on the edge of his chair and runs his non-existent fingernail over the edge of the wood.

“I’ve met someone.” Louis says boldly, though he’s feeling far from confident in his approach.

Jess laughs, though she clearly doesn’t find any part of this funny. Louis knows how she feels. “Typical. Bloody typical. Who is she then? What joy! A new step-mum for my kids to try and replace me with!”

Louis shouldn’t be surprised that the first conclusion Jess jumps to is that he has a new girlfriend. He rolls his eyes and moves his hands together, slotting his fingers amongst each other and gripping his skin with his thumbs.

“Who is she then? Has she met the kids yet?”

“It’s not ‘she’, it’s he,” Louis says, not looking up from his tightly clamped together hands. “His name is Harry.”

Jess is stunned into silence and Louis looks up. Then, she snorts and laughs, sinking back in her chair. “You what?”

“It’s a bloke, Jess, what’s the massive surprise?”

“This is- you can’t just! Jesus, Louis, you can’t expect me to take this seriously! A boyfriend? Really!”

“Yes, that’s what I said isn’t it?” Louis says, calmly but firmly. This is deteriorating quickly. “I’m sorry if you’ve got a problem but-”

“Since when were you gay?”

“I’m not,” Louis points out, feeling his arms tighten with tension. “I’m bi and I have been since I met you. Before I met you!”

Jess makes a face at that. “So what was I to you then, if you’re suddenly interested in boys now!”

Louis has to laugh, because if he doesn’t he’ll scream. “Do you not understand the concept of- Jesus, I’m not going through this with you, Jess, I just wanted to do the right thing and make you aware so that you don’t find out from someone else.”

“How thoughtful of you,” Jess says sarcastically, and Louis rolls his eyes again, so hard he’s worried they’ll get stuck. “Don’t you think it’s a bit…”

“No,” He replies immediately. “No I don’t at all, whatever you were going to say I do not agree at all. Do you hear yourself right now? D’you know how you sound?”

Jess scowls, cheeks pink. She looks away. “Sorry. Just… whatever. I can’t stop you, can I?”

“No you can’t,” Louis mumbles, unclenching his hands. “I’ve done the right thing in telling you first before starting anything, I’ve not gone behind your back - the least you can do is show some respect back!”

He doesn’t feel like he should have to explain himself and the fact that he is doing so is making his chest feel tight.

“I’m guessing that’s who ‘Hally’ is, that Emmie kept going on about?” Jess says, and Louis’ heart does a flip. He can’t quite compute the information yet, so just nods blindly. “Your boyfriend. Your bloody boyfriend.”

“Yeah!” He cries. “Get used to it, okay, ‘cause he’s not going anywhere anytime soon, all right?”

“And I guess you’re going to start conveniently being too busy for the kids? They’re gonna start staying with your mum more so you can go on dates and stuff, weekends away? You’ll forget you’re a dad once you’re out and about with him.”

“Fuck you, you don’t get to dictate how much I love my children just because you’ve got your nose outta joint! And you don’t know anything about Harry, or what we’re like together, or how we’ll be with the kids! They’re happy with me, and they’ll be happy with me and him.”

“Oh please, d’you think I’m jealous or summat?”

Louis screws his face up in desperate confusion. “No! Why the hell would I think that? I mighta known you’d make this ‘bout yourself!”

“You’re selfish, you know that? You’re not even thinkin’ of how this could affect them!”

“I’m selfish?! Are you hearing yourself right now, Jess? I’ve thought about this. All of it. I’ve thought about it until my heads caved in; killed myself tryin’ to do the best thing for everyone, including you , for some fucking stupid reason! This isn’t some quick decision, and if you think I’ve just rushed into it without thinking of Emmie and Archie then you’re even more fucking blind and stupid than I thought!”

“Why’s you shoutin’ at mummy?” Emilia’s tiny indignant voice comes out of nowhere and Louis backs down immediately. He shrinks back down into himself and nausea washes over him.

Emilia is stood in the doorway looking concerned, staring at him with wide, unforgiving eyes.

“Emmie, babe, it’s okay, I didn’t-”

“Now look what you’ve done!” Jess hisses at him, and he turns his back on the scene, bringing both hands up to his face and hiding behind his palms. He can hear Jess pick Emilia up and placate her.

“I’m sorry Emmie baby, I didn’t mean to shout at mummy. We were just having a chat.” He tries, turning back and avoiding Jess’ glare. “It’s okay.”

“Don’t like it when you shouting, daddy. Makes me really sad.”

“I know, baby, I’m sorry I really am. It makes me really sad too.”

“Does it make you not want to go to daddy’s house?” Jess says quietly to Emilia, and Louis sees red. He, foolishly, is always surprised every time Jess hits a new low, but this seems dark even for her. Luckily, Emilia shakes her head and wriggles to be put down.

“Jess, that was fucking disgusting. Where do you get off emotionally manipulating her like that? You’ve no right to say things like that to her, what the fuck?” He hisses once Emilia has scuttled off. “You should be ashamed.”

“Says you,” Jess argues petulantly. “You really think what you’re doing is right, Louis? You’re no saint, despite what you may think the sun doesn’t shine outta your arse and you’re not fucking special.”

Louis can’t stay after that. His self-restraint not to do something he’d really bloody regret amazes him as he wordlessly packs the kids into the car. He’s got tears in his eyes by the time they’re driving off, Jess not even bothering to wave the kids off from the door. He watches Emilia through the rear view mirror; she looks out of the window forlornly, blinking slowly every once in a while.

“I love you, Emilia Rose.” He reminds her, voice cracking, and she looks at him sadly through the mirror. “My best girl, I promise.”

“Love ‘ou too, daddy.” She whispers, as a single tear finally breaks over Louis’ bottom lashes and slides down his cheek determinedly.

*

His devastation is turning to anger once he’s home and in Harry’s arms. Emilia settles in front of the TV quite amicably and Archie pushes around his toy truck with a bag of crisps in the back. He and Harry sneak into the kitchen and Harry has his arms so tight around Louis’ trembling shoulders that they’re almost a single entity. “I just can’t- fuck, I can hear her voice in my head repeating and it’s like- ah I’m so fucking mad I’m shaking, Harry!”

“It’s all right, Lou, you’ve done what you had to. It’s her in the wrong not you.” Harry soothes him, releasing his hold when Louis wriggles out of it to get free. He looks up at Harry and tries to blink away his angry tears. “Don’t listen to the things she says, you don’t deserve to hear those things. They’re not true, okay?”

“I know, I just, God I upset Emmie too. That just feels the worst. I always said I’d keep my problems away from the kids, it’s not their fault I did what I did with Jess!”

“It’s okay, Emmie will be okay. She’s fine now, right? These things happen, it doesn’t reflect on you.”

“My dad was a twat. Mark wasn’t much better for the girls and me mum. I didn’t wanna be like them! I said I would never but I’m actually no different from them!”

“Shhh,” Harry pulls him back close. Harry has no way of knowing what Mark was like, or what his dad put his mum through when he was a baby, but that doesn’t stop Harry from pulling him in and wrapping his arms around him again. His large hands sweep slowly over the expanse of his back and shoulders and Louis feels like he has everything he’s ever wanted or needed right here.

“Thank you,” He whispers once he’s calmed down in Harry’s arms. His breathing has returned to normal and his trembling limbs have stilled. “Thank you for being you.” He laughs softly; he’s embarrassed. “I know that’s naff but I just… I’m so glad you’re here.”

Harry smiles too. “Wouldn’t be anywhere else, Lou.”

*

Harry stays until the evening, while the kids have tea and Louis continues to calm down in his presence. Harry heads home just before Emilia’s bedtime, and the little girl is sad to see him go. It melts Louis’ heart to witness, and the cuddle that his boy and his big girl share on the sofa before Harry’s ‘going home time’ is truly something to behold. Harry sits right back on the sofa and Emilia sits across his legs, her head resting on his chest as he loops one arm loosely around her body and rests the other on her calf reassuringly.

“I’ll see you soon, okay? Maybe at the weekend before you go back to mummy’s?”

“That a long time ago, Harry.” Emilia points out, meaning to say ‘away’ not ‘ago’. “Will you come back if I’m happy again?”

“I will come back if you want me to. If daddy says it’s okay.”

“Daddy?” Emilia doesn’t move her head but looks up at him with her eyes, pleasingly.

“I’m sure that’s okay with me, yes. Maybe Harry might want to come for tea on Wednesday night?” Louis says, directing it at Harry really but looking at Emilia.

“Oh, that be nice!” Emilia perks up with that. His previous hurt at the situation with Jess is trumped entirely by this perfect little image that is unfolding in front of him with Harry. “Plus, my nursery’s doin’ a Christmas singing play soon, Harry come to that too?”

Louis deflates a bit with that, because that just won’t be possible this year, as much as he wishes it could be. Jess will be there, and it’s in less than two weeks. He can’t imagine things suddenly resolving with Christmas spirit and the three of them being able to stand in the audience and cheer Emilia on together.

“Maybe babe, we will wait and see, yeah?” He says quickly, looking briefly at Harry who is still smiling confidently, not letting anything slide. “Shall we let Harry get going then? I bet his own flat is missing him lots.”

Emilia nods acceptingly and scrambles off Harry with one last squeeze of her arms around his neck. Louis sends her upstairs to start getting her pyjamas on (not that she will obey his instruction when left unattended) and the kiss that he and Harry share by the door is so sweet, so soft. One of Harry’s hands cups his cheek delicately and the other is lightly pressed to his chest, fingertips brushing over his collarbone.

“Bye love,” Harry says, not letting go. “See you soon?”

“You will,” Louis agrees, letting their fingers brush together briefly as Harry’s hands finally fall away from his body. “Text me later, okay?”

*

“I sawed you an’ Harry kissin’ by the front door,” Emilia says quietly as she snuggles down into her pillow half an hour later. She says it so quietly Louis almost misses it but doesn’t dare ask her to repeat herself. He bites the inside of his cheek in contemplation as he looks down at his biggest baby, safely and soundly falling asleep. She’d said it so simply, so plainly like it didn’t even faze her.

He kisses her temple goodnight and drops a gentle ‘I love you’ into her ear.

*

Emilia doesn’t ask him about the kiss that she saw, not the next day or the day after that. Not even when Harry comes over for tea on that dark, rainy Wednesday evening. He tells Harry, discreetly, that he thinks Emilia might be onto them but she was half-asleep when she told him and hasn’t mentioned it since. Harry smiles, his reaction is a good one, and Louis couldn’t be more enamoured if he tried.

Harry meets the rest of the Tomlinson sisters that weekend; Lottie whispers to Louis afterwards that she is ” very impressed ” and though Daisy and Phoebe try and trick Harry into believing one is the other, Louis won’t let that happen. Emilia and Archie stay with Jay for a few hours while Harry and Louis go on to the pub for dinner.

It’s slightly less formal than a date because it's impromptu and they’re just in skinnies and t-shirts and Louis’ hair could probably have done with a wash like, yesterday, but it’s time just for the two of them and they talk about everything. Harry asks him if their relationship is putting too much strain on Louis’ life, and Louis vehemently disagrees. They talk about lighter subjects, like their friends and their jobs and Christmas, Liam and Zayn’s sickening Facebook updates now they are public, and inevitably Louis’ birthday - no matter how much Louis wants to avoid the subject. Harry wants to arrange something, wants to know his ideas and any special requests, but Louis won’t commit to anything and Harry rolls his eyes at him fondly.

*

The kids go back to Jess on Sunday and Jess doesn’t even speak to him during the chaste exchange. He finds himself stood awkwardly at the door once he’s kissed the kids goodbye, and Jess just lets the door shut on him. He gets back into his car before his anger can take over.

*

Jess doesn’t acknowledge him at all at Emilia’s Christmas concert the following Thursday. She stands in the audience on the other side of the gangway with Archie babbling noisily in his pushchair, completely blanking him. He laughs miserably at how pathetic it is, because if he doesn’t laugh God knows what he’ll do. He tries to push out the absurdity of the fact his son is just across the room from him but completely out of his reach and focus on the concert.

The little people in Emilia’s group are largely very good; a bit out of sync with each other and a bit off key but it’s very cute and enjoyable. Emilia shines, of course, third from the end in her angel outfit, a crown of gold tinsel in her long curls and another strip tied around her middle.

She stops singing and waves proudly to him when she spots him, but he can see her eyes scouring the crowd for her mummy with a bit of a panic. He points in Jess’ direction and she follows his finger carefully to where her mummy is stood.

“Hi mummy!” Emilia mouths while the rest of the kids continue to sing. She waves excitedly and Louis just hopes that Jess gives the same enthusiasm back to their daughter.

The nursery children are allowed to go home after the concert. Louis had made the executive decision to just go straight up to Jess and Archie; his presence is not for Jess’ benefit, he doesn’t even want to speak to her, he is just here for Emilia and to see Archie.

He crouches down next to the pushchair and pinches Archie’s little cheek tenderly. “Archie James, hello handsome chap.”

“Dada!” The little boy squeals repeatedly with delight, and Louis smiles broadly. Archie brings his hand up and points his index finger up in the direction of the performance stage. “Sit-ah! Sit-ah!”

“Yeah, your sister’s here, that’s right!” He coos softly. “She was really good, huh?”

“Sit-ah!” Archie repeats again, and Louis peers over his shoulder to see Emilia bounding over to them, still in her angel costume with her purple Converse and coat on over the top, looking far less angelic than she had up on stage. Emilia hugs him tight but she doesn’t ask after Harry’s whereabouts, much to Louis’ silent relief.

He holds Emilia’s hand and walks towards Jess’ car with them, strapping her into her car seat as Jess sees to Archie. She mutters a dismal thank you and then walks around him to get to the driver’s side door, scowling as she reaches for the handle. He waves solemnly to Emilia through the window and watches as Jess backs out of the space and drives slowly towards the exit. He can see Archie through the window as the car turns; his face quirked with an inconsolable grizzle.

The sound of tyres crunching over gravel sticks with him as he watches them until they disappear from sight. Time seems to drag once he’s home. Afternoons off work aren’t all they’re cracked up to be, after all. Harry comes over later on and having him there after the afternoon he’s had is the sweetest kind of redemption that he’s sure he doesn’t deserve. He lets it all out to Harry, and Harry listens to his every word with a reassuring hand resting on his knee the entire time.

*

Christmas always creeps up too quickly, even when one's birthday is on Christmas Eve and the celebrations are divided. Emilia and Archie come back on the eighteenth of December, and Louis has his first proper conversation with Jess in weeks.

“So, obviously it’s a week ‘til Christmas.” She says, speaking quickly. “I don’t see why we should disrupt them more than necessary so you can have them on your birthday and overnight; just bring them to my mum’s on Christmas Day, all the family will be at mum and dads so that’s where I’ll be. Please.”

Louis nods. That was… relatively painless. “Is five okay? Just gimme time to get all the visiting done.”

Jess shrugs. “Fine by me. Then they’ll stay with me until New Years? The dates work out well this year, no need for messing around.”

“Okay fine,” Louis confirms, and that’s that. She leaves and he closes the door.

-

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-

 


 

Tumblr masterpost!

Chapter Text

Harry

 

There isn’t much time to see Louis and the little ones during Christmas week. Harry works every day and on Monday evening he sees Charlie - a reunion that has been far too long coming - on Tuesday he sees Gemma, on Wednesday he sees his mum and on Thursday he hits the shops for some very last minute Christmas shopping.

But Friday is their day. The twenty third of December two thousand and sixteen.

In the interest of festive cheer, they’re allowed to go home at three pm. Liam - who still hasn’t heard about the job, much to Harry’s chagrin – leaves with him, dropping him off at his flat. On the way they talk about their new relationships and the positive outcome of the speed dating that had seemed such a terrible idea to Harry at the time. He hates agreeing that Liam has been proven right, but in this instance he has to. They’ve both, surprisingly, found happiness after that night and there’s no denying that.

The plan for the weekend is clear. He’ll head over to Louis’ in a few hours, the rest of Friday evening dedicated to takeaway food and Christmas telly with Emilia until she goes to bed, after which the evening is theirs.

His bedroom floor is still awash with torn off wrapping paper scraps and there are strips of Sellotape dangling off the corner of his bedside table where he’d got a bit carried away last night. His carefully segregated piles of gifts have taken on a mind of their own and he has to go through them all again to divide them up by person.

The gifts for his mum, Gemma and grandma are put to one side to take with him on Christmas Day. The boxes that he’s wrapped for Emilia and Archie are the ones he spent the longest on, to be honest. Why, though, he doesn’t know because the paper will just get excitedly torn off and crumpled into a bin bag at the end of the day anyway. And he’s not even going to be there to witness it.

He found a quaint little children’s toy shop online and travelled on the bus to find it, one day in November when he wasn’t with Louis. Their website was quite barren, only a few images along the side to go by, so he supposes he’d been taking a bit of a risk travelling miles to a shop that might be a load of rubbish.

It hadn’t been a load of rubbish, though. He’d walked through the doors and it was like stepping back in time. The lighting was warm and yellow, low ceilings and everything was wooden; the counters, the shelves, the cladding on the walls. The floors were rickety and plushly carpeted, and Harry wandered around silently, the only noise being the bell chiming over the door as he’d arrived.

A man with a rotund stomach and an argyle jumper had appeared through a low doorway and greeted him pleasantly. He’d spent a solid half an hour looking at the rows and rows of perfectly hand crafted wooden children’s toys. Everything was intricately painted and glossy and smooth to the touch, perfectly finished.

He’d had a hard time choosing something, but he’d done so eventually. Now, the gift sits before him, wrapped in dark blue paper with glittery snowflakes that had seemed like a good idea at the time but now he was sitting in a shimmering pool of dust. He’d chosen the most beautifully presented box of chocolates he could find for Jay, and Emilia’s present had been delivered from Toys-R-Us online yesterday, talk about cutting it fine. Thank God Mikey’s girlfriend was about to accept the package.

Louis is coming by to pick him up from the flat, and as he will have the kids with him it's easier if he just waits by the kerb, so Harry is half listening out for his phone vibrating the entire time. He’s at a bit of a loose end waiting around; he hasn’t got time to do anything and there isn’t anything outstanding that he hasn’t yet done, so it’s just a case of waiting. He checks and double checks the gifts anyway, making sure he hasn't mis-labelled anything or forgotten one.

He’s got his charger, spare clothes and his Christmas jumper in his backpack by the door, and his belly is too jumpy to face food.

His heart is in his mouth with nerves and excitement as he finally gets that short, succinct ‘here x’ from Louis, and he scampers towards the door, shouting a quick “bye, merry Christmas!” up the stairs to Mikey. They’ve already exchanged cards stuffed with non-descript gift cards, and will probably see each other next somewhere between Boxing Day and New Year’s Day.

Louis had popped the boot of the car automatically for him and he chucks his stuff in, Emilia peering over the back of her car seat at him with a cheeky grin. He pokes his tongue out at her and she giggles behind her hand.

He gets into the front and has to remind himself not to lean straight in for a kiss, though it’s all he wants to do. He sees Louis fidget in his chair a bit too, pull his hand back from a subconscious movement he was about to make. Instead they settle on nice smiles and whispered hellos.

Emilia sings We Wish You A Merry Christmas in the back, or at least her own special version of it. “Good eyes we bring, for you and your king, we wish you the Merry Christmas, an’ a happy New Year!”

Harry smiles and peers over his shoulder, the little girl suddenly going shy and covering her face with her hands.

“That was lovely, Ems,” Louis calls, watching her through the rear view. “Archie sing too?”

The baby starts to shrill loudly, no sense to be made of his gibberish, and Emilia shouts over him, sticking her fingers in her ears. It’s all very chaotic and noisy and Louis mouths an apology to him but Harry is having the time of his life.

They’re soon at the house anyway, headlights sweeping over the tarmac and onto the brickwork of the driveway. Emilia gets herself out of the car and scrambles to the front door alongside Harry while Louis follows with Archie in hand.

The Christmas tree at his and Mikey’s place is a battery powered 20cm tall one that sits on the kitchen window sill, but the one that takes pride of place in the corner of Louis’ living room is really impressive. The colour scheme, well there didn’t seem to be a theme, and the decorations seem to be a hodge podge of homemade ones and various Baby’s First Christmas ones, one of which looks so old and fragile Harry would hazard a guess that it’s from Louis’ very own first Christmas.

On the telly that evening is Miracle on 34th Street which Emilia has little interest in, and they find themselves watching it more for their own nostalgia than for the children’s benefit. Once they switch to Muppet’s Christmas Carol, Emilia becomes much more interested. With the little girl sitting on her bean bag seat in front of the TV transfixed, and Archie asleep upstairs, they take the opportunity to steal a cuddle. Louis sticks his foot between Harry’s ankles and rests his head on his shoulder, running his thumb over Harry’s knuckles comfortingly.

“All right, love?” Louis asks quietly, not disturbing Emilia.

“Yeah, I’m good.” Harry replies, returning Louis’ little glance. Quietly he adds, “The best.”

*

“I don’t wanna go bed! Y-you said I can stay up late as it's Cis-mas!” Emilia stammers, looking up at Louis as if he has just told her Santa isn’t real. He’s standing over her, holding out his hands to get her to stand up. She crosses her arms and won’t budge.

Harry sits on the sofa watching the exchange, trying not to smile. He’s sure there’s actually nothing less funny than trying to get a petulant child to do as they’re told.

“C’mon Ems, don’t forget it’s my birthday tomorrow, please don’t upset me just before my birthday.”

Harry thinks that was probably a low blow, and Louis rolls his eyes with a naughty smirk as Harry raises his eyebrows at him with a smirk. It gets Emilia to move though; she gives him a good night cuddle and then he waits dutifully with his cuppa as Louis disappears off upstairs with her.

 

Louis

 

“She’s flat out,” Louis confirms with a grateful smile once he’s back in the room. “Now, I can properly say hello.”

He sinks down on one knee on the sofa and hooks the other leg over Harry’s lap. He settles into his lap and grips his shoulders as he settles, moving one hand around to cup the back of Harry’s head.

He tugs gently on his curls and Harry lifts his focus up to meet his; a playful grin toying with the corner of his mouth and his eyes dark with anticipation. Louis presses their lips together urgently, remembering how Harry’s skin feels and how he smells up close. He deepens the kiss, working his way into Harry’s mouth steadily but gently, his hands gliding restlessly across broad shoulders and through wild hair.

“Hello,” He says as he tears away to take a breath. “Missed you so much, Haz, you have no idea.”

“I think I do,” Harry murmurs back, reaching up to run the edge of his index finger over Louis’ jaw and then dropping it down again to hold his side lightly. “Missed ev’ry part of you, Lou.”

Louis can’t help the noises that he lets out as Harry coaxes him down closer, hands urgent and insistent under the material of his jumper. He throws his head back, exposing the column of his neck as he marvels over how good Harry’s hands feel on him and how quickly he’s filling up in his joggers. Harry nips at his neck casually, the minimalist stubble on his chin and upper lip slightly grazing his skin, causing goosebumps.

Harry pulls the elasticated waistband down over the swell of his bum and it snaps against the backs of Louis’ thighs, resting just under the swell.

“Commando?” Harry remarks against his neck hotly, laughing softly to himself before massaging a handful of flesh with his fingertips, lifting the skin and settling his fingers back down just on the horizon of Louis’ crack.

Louis mumbles something unintelligible with a blush as Harry grins at him. He breaks the delicate moment with another kiss, pressing himself urgently into Harry, tasting him and paling the skin with his insistent pressure.

They creep upstairs, careful not to awaken any sleeping infants, and continue to exchange lazy kisses. Harry’s hands wander as they do, covering every inch of his body at least twice over. His fingers fuss over the tassel tied at the waist of Louis’ joggers and Louis less than ceremoniously wriggles out of them under the covers, leaving them a tangled mess at the bottom of the duvet.

Harry rolls him onto his back and clambers onto his knees, edging back down the bed and lifting Louis’ hard on into his mouth. Louis clamps his teeth down into his fingers and tries to keep his hips from bucking up off the mattress as Harry makes a determined start; wetting the area with his tongue and then closing his mouth snugly around the tip and taking him all the way down.

Harry’s hands splay over Louis’ thighs, fingertips digging in vigorously every time Louis’ head hits the back of his throat. Louis comes quickly, embarrassingly quickly, but when Harry lets his spent cock fall from his lips and falls into the space next to him, he’s rock hard and Louis can feel the wet patch of pre-come drizzled on the thin material of his boxers.

He turns over quickly, tugs Harry’s boxers down and, bent around in a sort of S-shape and resting on one elbow, he takes Harry into his mouth. Harry goes to the edge and over quickly too.

At some point as they’re lying there together, it clocks over to the twenty fourth. “Happy birthday m’love,” Harry whispers, his forehead pressed to Louis’ chest, the point of his nose pressing into the flesh.

“Thanks,” Louis mouths back, not managing to gain any volume.

“Can’t wait for tomorrow, s’gonna be good - I hope.” He adds on, and Louis feels his cheeks rise up in a smile against his skin. He swallows and softly clears his throat.

“It’ll be the best,” He assures Harry quietly, tightening his loosened grip around his shoulders encouragingly.

“Sleep now,” Louis says, almost unconsciously, and his arm twitches and he feels his head loll. “Night babe.”

“N-night, my birthday boy. I love you, Lou.” Harry murmurs, though Louis has slipped out of consciousness before he hears Harry finish his sentence.

*

There’s no rest for the wicked. Louis is up and back at it at quarter to seven the next morning, his birthday. He slaps around the bedside table blindly for his phone in the dark, before recoiling from the harsh light as he unlocks the screen.

He staggers across the hallway to the baby’s room and blinks to adjust to the light. Archie has managed to reach the curtains from his cot and has pulled one open so the room is doused in natural, early morning light. He rubs his eyes and smiles wearily at his son, who is standing gripping the top of his cot looking pleased with himself.

“Morning, bugger-lugs,” He greets him informally, lifting the boy onto his hip.

He takes Archie through to the bedroom, where Harry is already up and about, pulling a long sleeved top on.

“What’re you doin’ love, you don’t have to get up just ‘cause we are.”

“Don’t be mad, I’m not sleepin’ through your birthday, Lou!” Harry says, frowning as if it was obvious, and Louis smiles softly to himself. “Need me to do anything?”

“Can you take Archie downstairs? I need a wee, like, ten minutes ago.”

He checks for any sign of hesitation from Harry, and if there is any it’s minimal. He looks determined as he steps forward and holds his arms out. Archie looks at Harry, clutching his toy rabbit tightly, but transfers from him to Harry without fuss.

“Just plonk ‘im down, I’ll sort his bottle in a sec. S’alright, love?”

“Yeah, no problems at all. We’re fine, aren’t we Arch?”

“Fine, fine!” Archie parrots, nestling his head against Harry’s chest, and Louis’ heart flips at the mere sight.

“Okay, won’t be a sec!” Louis hurtles out of the room towards the loo, hearing rustling and commotion in Emilia’s room as he does so.

He flushes the loo and wanders across to her door, pushing it open and poking his head around it. She spots him immediately, of course. She scrambles out of bed with a sheepish grin and they go downstairs together, hands held.

“Morning Emmie!” Harry greets her, sing-song and sweetness, and she grins bashfully behind her hands but scrambles to sit next to Harry, as always. His daughter has definitely got a soft spot for his boyfriend, there’s no denying that. There’s no denying the feeling that gives Louis, either.

He looks over at Archie quickly, behaving for once, and heads out towards the kitchen, the sound of Harry’s voice stopping him in his tracks.

“And where are you going?”

“Kitchen?” He says, turning around in puzzlement. “Is that… okay?”

“No,” Harry says firmly, and Louis looks at Emilia, who’s smiling at him knowingly. “Sit down, this brekkie is on me. Can I have a little helper please?”

He looks at Emmie who is already nodding indulgently. “Me help, daddy?”

“Yeah, I… I guess, just- just whatever you two have got planned, don’t annoy Harry too much, okay? And don’t jump out at me or set off a party popper in my face or ‘owt!” He grumbles, smirking affectionately at Harry as he goes to sit back down.

“Don’t worry, we won’t!” Emilia chimes as she dashes past him.

“We shall return in a moment with your hot milky beverage, sir.” Harry enunciates exaggeratedly, earning him a light slap on the arm and an eye roll.

*

Harry brings him a tea, and Emilia follows a few minutes later, flanked by Harry, carefully carrying a plate of toast.

“Peanut butter on them ones and Nutella on them ones!” She says proudly once the plate is safely deposited on the coffee table.

He beams at his daughter, thanking her, and then looks up at Harry who is observing with a proud, satisfied grin on his face. “And thank you to the big chef, too.”

Harry smiles and prompts Emilia with a hand softly on her arm. “Go on, Ems.”

“’Appy twenty s-seven birthday, daddy!” She mumbles, suddenly going all shy and giggling into her elbow as she passes him a rather crumpled yellow envelope.

“Thanks babes,” Louis sits forward and taking the card. He slips his finger under the seal and pulls out a card with a teddy bear holding a big bunch of multi-coloured balloons. At the top in gold pressed script it reads ‘Happy Birthday to the best Daddy in the World’. Inside, Harry’s spaced out, blocky handwriting and Emilia’s messy crayon scribble make his eyes fill with unexpected, overwhelming adoration.

He pulls her into a bear hug. He holds her tight, feeling her tiny body in his arms. “I love you, and your brother, and my lovely brekkie. Thank you.” He glances up at Harry and mouths his thanks, to which the younger boy just blushes.

Harry sits cross legged on the floor with Archie while Louis eats his breakfast. Emilia helps him, sandwiching together a Nutella slice and a peanut butter slice, the way Louis likes, and handing them to him with her concentration face on. He saves a bite or two from each slice for her, and she nibbles thoughtfully.

Archie passes his building blocks to Harry methodically, and Harry stacks them up. Archie observes him closely and must decide that what Harry is doing is acceptable because he then clambers onto his knees and shuffles over to a block that is to the left of Harry and settles back on his bottom, hands Harry block and watches him patiently.

“Thank you, kind sir,” Harry says softly to Archie, who breaks into a smile and lunges at the tower, clapping as they all tumble down. He picks up two of them, a blue and a red and bangs them together, the red one going straight in his mouth.

Louis watches the little scene unfold happily, smiling distantly. “So, uh, Haz? What’s the plan for today? Assuming there is one?”

“Of course,” Harry shuffles around on his bum to face him, grinning broadly. Archie makes an indignant noise, so Harry reaches for the blocks and drags them across so they can still play together. “I’ve booked us lunch at half one, then a walk around the Christmas market, assuming it’s not too busy. Thought maybe we might find some last minute goodies to eat. Then I’m liking the idea of hot chocolate, so stop and get one of them - extra marshmallows!” He adds for emphasis, and Emilia makes a giddy giggling noise. “And then home to watch telly and eat all our market treats?”

“Sounds like a plan to me!”

Louis claps enthusiastically and looks at the time on his phone; it’s still only half past seven. Harry carries on playing with Archie, sitting cross legged with his fluffy hair up in a bun, chattering away, and even though the young boy doesn’t respond anything intelligible, Harry perseveres.

Emilia thankfully isn’t aware of Louis’ obvious infatuation, as she sits lounging about on the sofa next to him watching My Little Pony steadfastly. Harry catches his eye a few times; the silent giggly smiles they exchange are nothing short of teenage embarrassment, but Louis can’t find it in himself to care.

*

Harry showers and Archie goes down for a quick nap though it’s late by the time he falls asleep, almost pointless. Louis jumps in the shower and leaves Emilia playing with Harry. After that he has the thankless task of getting her washed and dressed – but, in Harry’s presence, she doesn’t put one toe out of line and it's completely stress free.

By some remarkable feat – Harry , Louis thinks, Harry is the remarkable thing here - they make it out the door and into the car by one o'clock, on time to make it to the pub for their one thirty lunch reservation. Normally, you wouldn’t need a reservation but as it's Christmas Eve it’s different. Christmas decorations fill the warm environment with red and green and gold festive cheer as they wait to be seated. They’re guided over to a table in a quiet corner, flanked with a reserved sign, a highchair for Archie and a kids pack at one of the place settings for Emilia.

“Can I get you guys drinks?” The chipper young waitress asks, and Louis can’t help but scan her face for any sort of confusion or prejudice at their set up, but she shows no signs of even being bothered. Relief seeps out of his pores as they sit down and order Cokes and a juice for Emilia.

“Of course, I’ll be over with those in just a mo!” She says, snapping her notepad closed dramatically.

They have to strip Archie of his coat and jumper to be able to even get him in the high chair, and his little cheeks are bright red and he’s a bit sweaty as Louis unravels him. He sits on one side of the table next to Archie and Harry and Emilia sit opposite them.

“Open it up then, Ems, let’s see what’s inside your kids pack!” Harry prompts her, showing much more enthusiasm than Louis could muster himself.

Louis watches as Emilia dutifully rips open the cardboard box and out falls a small pack of colouring crayons, a kids menu, colouring sheets and a small plastic giraffe wrapped in plastic. The giraffe fits perfectly on the end of Harry’s index finger and he makes it gallop across the table, the waitress returning and eyeing Harry with an endeared, fond smile as she places down the three drinks.

Louis feels quite smug in the moment; this man is his , he gets to live this life, hopefully for a long time, but certainly for now at the very least.

“I don’t think giraffe’s gallop, love,” He says to Harry, letting the affectionate pet name slip out before he can stop himself. Harry looks up, perhaps tense for just a second, and Louis finds himself frozen too, but Emilia doesn’t even bat an eyelid.

“They don’t goes ‘woof woof’ either!” She points out instead, criticising Harry’s admittedly poor impression of the giraffe. “That’s doggies!”

“I thought cats went woof woof and doggies went meow?” Harry asks, putting on a serious confused expression, which Emilia laps up.

“No, silly Hally!” She exclaims, letting the old nickname slip. “Woof woof’s a doggy! Cat goes meow meow!”

“Oh! Silly me!” Harry cries, slapping a hand to his forehead comically. “I got confused for a sec there! Good job you were here to help me out!”

Emilia grins up at Harry like he’d hung the moon and the stars in the sky; adoration and admiration. She eats her lunch perfectly too, under Harry’s watchful glance. Archie is less well behaved, and the only way Louis can get to eat his own food is to have Archie on his lap, chewing on soggy chips and making the occasional disgruntled wail.

When Harry pushes his empty plate back first, he offers to take Archie so Louis can finish up. They exchange the child over the table and Archie bursts into tears as Louis was expecting.

“I’m sorry, he’s just ratty. Probably tired.”

“I’m sorry,” Harry says, struggling a bit with Archie. “I should’ve booked the table a bit later so he had time to nap properly.”

“No, love, it’s not your fault. That’s not what I meant.” He replies, Emilia again not picking up on the term of endearment.

“Shall I take him outside? Push him in the buggy, that might send him off? I mean, if you like?” Harry offers, shrugging noncommittally, like he’s afraid of being rebuffed.

But Louis nods gratefully; handing Harry Archie’s dummy and blanket. He watches as Harry fights with a reluctant Archie to get into his buggy, Emilia looking like she’s desperate to get out of her seat and interfere too, but he stops her with a curt look.

“Archie, you are ruining daddy’s birthday dinner!” Emilia strops. “Stop it!”

Louis can’t help but smile at the funny things that come out of her mouth sometimes.

“It’s okay, Ems, Harry’s gonna take him outside.”

“Can I have an ice cream sundae?” Emilia jumps to another topic, seemingly no longer bothered by her younger brother now he’s being taken away. “Please please please?”

“We’re going to be eating sweets later, Ems, I don’t think it’s a good idea.”

“Ohhh!” She sulks. “Not fair!”

In the end, he relents and orders her a single scoop of vanilla with strawberry sauce. He sits back, one eye on the doors, wondering how long it will be until Archie wears Harry down and he returns looking bedraggled and weary.

Emilia’s ice cream comes and Louis takes a second to reply to some birthday messages, and when he looks up Harry is heading across the room with the buggy weaving in and out of hectic waiting staff to their table. Archie is reclined and flat out, head back and mouth open, tucked into his blankets snugly.

“Did you get him with the chloroform?” Louis jokes as Harry sits back down, quietly triumphant. “No but seriously, thanks. I… I dunno what we’d do without you.”

Harry smiles knowingly; they let their little glances linger for a second as Emilia continues to chow down obliviously.

*

“Merry Christmas!” All the market sellers call to them as they pass by.

“It’s not Chri-mas, it my daddy’s birthday!” Emilia corrects them petulantly. Her little voice gets lost in all the hubbub but Louis hears it and that’s all that matters.

He pushes Archie’s buggy and Emilia trots next to him on one side with Harry on the other, Harry’s hand lingering in the small of his back occasionally as they weave their way through crowds. It feels good not to be hiding it. It feels like the best damn feeling in the world.

Emilia clutches the jumbo pretzel she’d shrieked and pleaded for as she wanders around, Harry politely reminding her to be careful every minute or so. After another ten minutes, she complains that she’s tired and Harry offers, quite promptly, to carry her for a while. Louis’ waiting for her to insist she wants her daddy, but she doesn’t. Harry lifts the girl up over his head onto his shoulders, letting her legs dangle down his chest. He holds onto her knees and cranes his neck to look at Louis, giving him a clumsy thumbs up.

“Okay? We’re ready!”

Louis glances up at Emilia who has her hands resting in Harry’s hair and she’s looking around over the top of the crowd. He doesn’t think he’s ever been more ready for something in his life.

“Hot choccy time!” Emilia sings happily as they slowly meander down towards the exit, Archie kicking his feet happily out in front of him as they clear the gangway.

The snowy grey sky is beginning to grow dark already, though it’s barely half past three. Every available pillar and post is wrapped in twinkling fairy lights and Christmas tree shaped illuminations overhead light the way. They find a small café on the next street over from the market street and manage to squeeze their way in. The pushchair is folded away and stashed in a designated corner, at the polite request of the shop keeper, and they settle around a circular pine table in the corner.

The tablecloth is that patterned, that plastic-coated style of years gone by that reminds Louis of Nanny Tomlinson’s house as a kid. He looks over at Harry, who has insisted on paying and is standing at the till waiting on their drinks. They share a quick smile across the room and soon he is ambling over, tray carefully balanced, to join them.

Emilia has ripped the remaining pretzel into sections and has speared one with a fork, brandishing it about and doing anything but eating it. She’s put away an impressive haul of food today - mostly crap - Louis’ never seen her scoff so much. Jess would no doubt have something to say, but what she doesn’t know can’t hurt her.

“Can I have some of your pretzel?” Harry asks, eyeing it playfully. Emilia shakes her head cheekily. “Ohh! Please?”

Emilia shakes her head again, giggling. “Nope! All mine!”

“My-my-my-my!” Archie repeats, grabbing handfuls of his own sliver of cake. He’s sitting quite happily now that he’s got cake, and Louis can finally relax a bit.

Emilia pops the pretzel piece in her mouth, just to spite them, and stabs at another piece with her fork. She holds it like a dagger, like she means business, and they both smile at her.

“Are you sure you can’t spare one little bite for me?” Harry asks, and Emilia looks up at him with a firm but giggling stare. She shakes her head and chuckles, looking away.

Harry pauses and then taps her shoulder. She looks up at him again. “Emmie, look over there!” He tells her, pointing to their left. Emilia looks over in the direction Harry’s pointing, at nothing, and while her attention is off him, he leans in and bites the piece of pretzel off the prongs into his mouth.

Emilia turns back around, a perplexed frown on her face, and quickly spots the empty fork.

“Ahhh, Harry!” She squeals, glowering at him in disbelief as he swallows his mouthful. “That was so cheeky!”

Louis laughs loudly, disturbing the serenity maybe just a bit. Emilia folds her arms and Harry squeezes her shoulders; she tries not to laugh, and Archie just continues babbling and smushing cake into his face.

“Well, I just wanna say thank you to my favourite people for such a wonderful birthday day out!” Louis says, peering in at Emilia and engaging her. “I’ve had a very lovely day.”

She grins broadly. Harry’s arm is slung over the back of her seat, his fingers lightly playing with her curls. She’d scream the place down if Louis tried that. He catches Harry’s eye and the other boy gives him a knowing smile. They nod, agreeing telepathically over the table what they’re about to do.

“So!” Louis starts, gathering his hands together on the table top. “Emmie, Harry and I want to tell you something very big and very important.”

Emilia nods like she thoroughly understands but then her face folds into confusion. “Okay…”

Louis carries on with trepidation; he can feel his heart beginning to thud under his t-shirt. He looks to Harry again and he gives him an encouraging little half-smile.

“So, you know how a little while ago Harry became our friend?” He starts, still quite unsure of exactly how he’s going to word this. She nods. “Well, it’s been going well, hey? We like Harry, don’t we?”

“Yeah,” Emilia gushes up at Harry, nodding earnestly. “Even though you tricked me we’re both princesses, ‘ent we?”

“Definitely,” Harry confirms, nodding and tugging on a spiral of hair resting on his shoulder.

“And you know how Auntie Lott-Lott and Tommy are boyfriend and girlfriend?” Emilia nods. “Well, that’s what me and Harry are now. But boyfriend and boyfriend, because we’re both boys.”

Emilia looks at him stoically. “What, yous two are boyfriends like Lott-Lott and Tommy?”

“Yeah,” Harry steps in. “Me and daddy are still best friends, but we like each other more than friends as well.”

“Like when I sawed you kissin’?” Emilia asks bluntly, and both he and Harry snort with laughter.

“Yeah, babe, that’s… yeah.” Louis knows he’s blushing because Harry is laughing at him.

“Do you still love me?”

“Of course,” Louis says immediately. “I’ve got room in my heart for all of you. You’ll always be my number one girl and my number one boy.” He rubs Archie’s cheek; the little lad completely unaware and unaffected so long as he has cake.

“So is Harry part of our family now?”

“Yeah, you could say that. I mean,” Louis looks at Harry. “If Harry wants to be part of our family he is more than welcome, right?”

Emilia nods proudly, and Harry reaches across and grabs hold of Louis’ hand, separating his fists and slotting their fingers together neatly. “I’d love to be part of this family, yeah. You have a very lovely, big family, Emmie.”

“So, is it that you are my daddy too now? So I have a mummy and a daddy and ‘nother daddy and a baby brother?”

Louis lets out a nervous, panicked giggle but Harry just smiles, continuing to look calm. “Well, sort of. After a bit more time, maybe?”

Emilia goes back to her hot chocolate and pretzel bits quite unaffectedly after that, clearly not realising quite how big this has been for her dad. He and Harry continue to hold hands across the table until Louis has to eventually pick Archie up and take him to have a nappy change.

“You’ll be okay here with Ems for a sec?” He checks in with Harry who nods, eyes sparkling. “Okay love, just a minute.”

Louis hurriedly changes the dirty nappy and heads back to the table, pausing behind the partition wall when he hears Emilia chattering away to Harry. Archie sits on his hip quietly, sucking furiously on his dummy, so Louis stays there and eavesdrops a bit on the conversation.

“They telled me at nursery that if you love someone you don’t want them to get hurt and you want to see them lots and you want to make sure they are always happy.”

“That sounds about right, bub, yeah.”

“My daddy is always happy now that you come to stay at our house. Does that mean he loves you?”

He freezes, panicking. The blood in his veins runs cold.

“I don’t know Ems, I think that it can take a long time to love someone new, but I know that daddy loves you and your brother very much. He tells me so all the time.”

“I am daddy’s fave-rit girl. Because him and mummy don’t be friends ever. So I get to be his best girl.” Louis hears her say, and his heart is in his mouth, he feels sick as a dog all of a sudden.

He darts out from behind the wall before she can say anything else, plastering on a fake smile.

*

It’s dark blue and freezing cold all around them as they emerge from the little café onto the street. Plumes of condensation immediately start to billow from their mouths and Archie begins to grizzle at the sudden cold.

“It’s all right little guy, we’re not far from the car.” Louis tells him softly as they make the short journey back to where they left the car.

Emilia is quiet and forlorn during the journey, and when they get back to the car they make the heart-wrenching realisation that they’ve lost her blanket somewhere along the way.

“I need it!” Emilia howls, disturbing Archie too. Louis is about ready to blow and Harry looks nervous and a bit panicked. “I’m cold, daddy, I’m cold! Where’s my blankie gone?”

“Shhh, c’mon, it’s all right, let’s get into the car, it will be warm there.” Louis tries, even though the car has been sat in the cold air all day, it’s going to be frozen inside until he can get the hot air blower going.

“No!” Emilia cries, actual tears. Both kids are at it now and Louis doesn’t think he’ll be far behind them if this carries on.

“Hang on, I’ve got an idea.” Harry interjects. Louis watches in bewilderment as Harry shucks himself out of his coat and peels off his cardigan, looking decidedly chilly without cover. “Ems, have my cardi, yeah? It’s my nice and soft fluffy one, see?”

Emilia stops howling and looks at it sceptically. Miraculously, she calms down and finally allows Louis get her into the car. He loads Archie in next while Harry fights with folding down the pushchair and they stop very briefly, both kids safely stowed away in the car, to share a kiss.

“I’m sorry this has been so stressful.”

“It’s been lovey, what you on about?”

“No, ‘course, I’ve enjoyed it. Just… well, sorry for my little monsters.”

They kiss again, quickly, Louis mindful that Harry has lost a layer, and get into the car. Louis eyes Emilia closely as he backs the car out. He pokes his tongue out and she smiles tiredly.

When they pull up onto the driveway fifteen minutes later, Harry’s baggy heather grey cardigan is lain over Emmie, one arm stretched across the gap between the car seats, Archie tucked up tightly asleep with his face nestled into the sleeve.

Louis nudges Harry’s arm softly and nods to the back seat. Harry peers over his shoulder and his face breaks out into a grin as he does so.

Louis has considered love before, but that was before he’d felt like the word could be applied to Harry. He barely recognises the person from a few months ago who built up barriers and made things as difficult as he possibly could, just to avoid the very real possibility that he could find a deep and honest love with someone so kind and sweet and gentle.

“They’re perfect.”

*

Harry leaves a Tesco bag for life with Christmas gifts in it, discreetly smuggled in and hidden on the top shelf of Louis’ wardrobe. Louis knows he’s coming back late tomorrow night, he really shouldn’t miss him, but he does.

Their plans for a night watching films and eating their market treats with Emilia fell flat as the little girl crashed out not long after they got home. With both kids in bed, they still ate all the crap they’d accumulated though, and the telly is on but it’s not really being watched. With sweet, sugary mouths they kiss until their lips are numb, until their jaws hurt and cheeks ache from trying not to smile, laugh. It’s pretty perfect.

“You’ve done something remarkable,” Louis tells him just before he’s going, putting on a serious face. Harry comes over all serious too, and Louis can’t help the lurch his heart does. “You made me feel okay about turning twenty seven. One step closer to thirty.”

The tension visibly leaves Harry’s face and his shoulders sag. “Don’t be so hung up on reaching thirty, Lou. I, for one, happen to think it’s very sexy.”

Louis snorts. “Oh do you?”

“Yeah,” Harry nods easily, his dimples popping out of his cheeks as he smiles broadly. “Thirty, flirty and thriving!”

“Oh my God, did you just quote 13 Going On 30 to me?” Louis shrieks indignantly.

“Hey, it’s a good film! And you recognised that quote enough to know what film it was from, so don’t judge me, Tomlinson!”

“I don’t- it was just a guess!”

“Yeah right!” Harry cries with laughter. “You knew the quote, that’s enough proof for me, love!”

They laugh some more, but Louis wants to make sure Harry really knows. “That’s hilarious an’ all, but seriously, thank you for today, Haz. Thank you for everythin’ over the past few months. You’ve come in and fitted in so well with the kids and me and… just thank you.”

Harry’s broad, raucous grinning laughter has subsided now into something a lot calmer, gentler.

“Lou, you know I’m crazy ‘bout you, and those kids. Archie will warm to me – I hope – and Emmie, well, God Lou she’s the best little girl. So sweet.”

“Thanks,” Louis blushes, an overwhelming surge of emotion washing over him. He bites down on the inside of his lip. “She likes you too. Archie, well, Archie doesn’t like anyone. Even me!”

Harry tells him that’s not true. Harry cups his hands around his face and tells him he’s everything, that he’s the best thing he’s had. Louis jokes that he’s just giving him a big ego, but the feeling of more is tugging at his conscious.

“I’ll miss you tonight. And tomorrow.”

“I’ll come by in the evening,” Harry promises. “After the celebrations have died down. We can get drunk on mulled wine and cuddle. Sound like a plan?”

Harry’s voice is soft and sweet and high, completely unlike his normal speaking voice. The feeling that he’s getting something from Harry that no one else is makes him roll with excitement.

“Sounds like a plan, babe.”

*

In stark contrast from yesterday, Louis finds himself actually having to wake Archie and Emilia up on Christmas morning. It all feels a bit empty and for a second he feels like he could cry, waking up to an empty bed and a quiet house. He pictures the ideal of next Christmas, wonders where they’ll be then, and who might be with them.

Archie is in his usual state of mute bewilderment at the goings on around him but Emilia is beside herself with excitement to see that Santa has been. Breakfast is reindeer shaped chocolate and Haribo, but Louis figures it’s just for one day. Plus, any sugar induced tantrums at bedtime are Jess’ problem later, not his.

They open mountains of presents, the slaves to consumerism that they are; plastic dolls and related paraphernalia, racing cars, Lego, Play Doh, board games and copious amounts of clothes. Louis intentionally keeps Harry’s presents by until last because he wants to savour the moment.

Harry had texted him just after he’d left last night and told him, rather cryptically, to look in the boot of his car.

’Is it a body? ’ He’d replied while stuffing his feet into old Nike’s and scuffling outside to his car. Inside had been a box wrapped in the same paper as the smaller gifts, filling the boot. He doesn’t know how and when Harry got it in the car without him noticing, but he lifts it out and hauls it inside, reading the tag dangling off one corner as he sets it down.

’To Emilia, with Christmas love and hugs, Harry xxx’

Louis slides Harry’s gift to Archie across to him, the young boy pulling wildly at the paper with his podgy little fingers. Louis tears a corner to help get things going, and Archie begins to rip chunks off.

This gift has been hand crafted. It looks expensive. It’s a wooden crafted ark with two of each little animal, perfectly shaped and painted in bright, bold colours. Each one fits in the top of the ark through correspondingly shaped holes.

“Bloody ‘ell,” He gasps under his breath as he helps Archie rip off the final corner of wrapping paper caught on a strip of Sellotape.

“Daddy, look!” Emilia shrieks, pulling his attention away again. He glances around at her; she’s kneeling next to the gargantuan mystery gift, now unwrapped and showing a box with the image of toy unicorn on the side.

It’s the one she’d been eyeing up in the catalogue a while ago. The one that she’d mentioned in passing a few times. The one with the white body, purple hooves, light up rainbow mane and wings that actually move, a heart pendant around its neck and batteries under its belly to make it ‘gallop’.

“How did Santa know I wanted this?!” Emilia gasps in disbelief, throwing herself at the box and hugging it. “I’m so happy!”

The excitement and happiness on Emilia’s face could never be quantified and Louis is torn because he’s so thankful for Harry but he also wants to chastise Harry for buying these beautiful gifts - he knows how much that unicorn is in the shops.

Emilia poses with the box and he has to send a picture to everyone on WhatsApp at her request. She has a tough time deciding what three - small! - toys she will take with her to nanny’s, and Archie misses his mid-morning nap again in all the excitement.

It’s all catches up to Archie quite quickly and he crashes out in the car on the way to Jay’s. There they enjoy her renowned (at least in Louis’ opinion) Christmas dinner and he’s bombarded with late birthday presents that he knows are nothing more than an afterthought purchased four days ago.

“I thought you’d invite that boyfriend of yours!” Jay says, at the table, in front of everyone. Emilia looks up, bowing her head Louis knowingly, pleased as punch to be ‘in on the secret’.

“What, and scare him off completely? Yeah, of course mum. C’mon, pull the other one, Johannah!”

“Yeah, Jo-nana, pull the other one!” Emilia copies, creasing everyone up with laughter. She giggles too, thoroughly unsure of what she’s supposed to have done that’s so funny.

“When ya seein’ him again?” Lottie enquires, looking up from her phone briefly.

“Tonight,” Louis answers succinctly.

“Harry comin’ my house tonight?” Emilia asks, looking excited.

“Yeah, but you’ll be at mummy’s remember?”

“Ohhh!” Emilia grumbles, crossing her arms and pouting exaggeratedly. “I don’t wanna go mummy’s, I wanna see Harry, I love Harry not mummy!”

“Ems!” Louis warns, and Lottie and Fizzy both snort.

“Don’t you let mummy hear you say that!” Fizzy remarks, ignoring their mum’s attempts in vain to get them to stop.

“Don’t care!” Emilia begins to mumble, but Jay cuts her off.

“Right!” She claps her hands loudly; Emilia loses her train of thought and Archie jumps out of his skin at the sudden boom. “C’mon, plates are clear now let’s get onto pudding!”

*

Mark shows up just after they leave the table. It’s the first time Louis’ spoken to him since he was a no-show at Archie’s birthday party, and it's as awkward as he had expected it might be.

“Gan-dad!” Emilia runs to him when he appears in the door with Jay, and he grabs her unsteadily. “What you doin’ here?”

“Came to see all my favourite girls of course!” Mark answers, and almost immediately he tags on, “And my two lads as well, obviously!”

Hmm, too little too late.

“Hi Mark,” Louis greets him sourly, not getting up.

“Hi Louis lad, how are you kiddo?”

Louis nods. “My daddy got’n boyfriend now!” Emilia answers proudly for him, and Louis’ heart immediately flies up through his throat and out of his mouth.

“He’s uh- what? Wow!” Mark stammers, stopping what he was doing and staring awkwardly at Louis. “That’s uh, really?”

Louis sighs, feeling the heat surge to his cheeks. “Yeah. It don’t matter though.”

“You never told me,” Mark turns to Jay, looking at her expectantly. She shrugs and looks back at him pleadingly. “Well that’s nice news. I’m happy for you son. You uh, wow!”

Louis picks at the skin around his thumb with his nail, wishing the ground would swallow Mark right up and not spit him back. Casual homophobia? Check. ‘Son’? Check. Ruining everything? Check.

“Archie’s getting so big, I hardly recognised him! Hello kid, it’s your grandad!”

“Hard to remember someone you never see.” Louis mutters, and he knows Mark heard because he visibly stills his hand playing with Archie.

“Louis, enough!” Jay hisses and he backs down immediately. He’s only backing down because it’s his mum though. He’d do anything for this woman.

*

Mark leaves not long after and Louis and Fizzy paint the air blue with profanity at his expense once they’re alone. The kids have been in their element with all of their aunties and their nanny to play with, so Louis has had a bit of a day off of sorts.

At ten past five they finally get bundled into the car, running a bit late to get to Jess, but she isn't even angry when they arrive, amazingly.

“I love you, I love you, I love you.” He repeats to Emilia as he attacks her cheeks and neck with kisses. She shrieks and tries to slap him away, giggling like mad. Archie watches them wide-eyed and Louis holds out a hand for Archie to come up too. He bum-shuffles over and clambers up on Louis’ leg.

He scoops the little boy up and deposits a handful of smooches onto Archie’s sweet smelling skin too. “I love you as well little dude, I love you more than food, and I'm not being rude, but you’re such a cool dude, even when you’re in a bad mood!”

The kids both giggle and smile, and he doesn't spare a thought for Jess’ reaction.

“Can you tell Harry I sayed hello?” Emilia asks him, and that does make him look up at Jess.

She continues to stare resolutely ahead, not faltering. Louis nods softly and presses one more kiss to both of their foreheads.

“I have to go now. I will see you at the weekend, okay? Sleep well my angels.”

“I want to meet Harry,” Jess announces boldly behind him as he’s leaving.

Her words surprise him because he didn't even know she was following him to the door, to be honest. His words are stuck in his throat because he’s been blindsided.

He doesn't want this. He knew this was coming but he doesn't want it.

“Y’know, if I have to share my kids with him I at least want to meet him. Make sure he’s nice.”

He nods silently because he’s too numb to find words. “That’s… okay.”

“We can arrange a time soon, okay?” She says, and there clearly is no wiggle room here. He just nods and she nods too.

“Merry Christmas anyway,” Jess says, shrugging and moving to grip the door handle.

“Uh, you too. See ya then.” He says, and she closes the door softly on him.

*

“I couldn’t find mulled wine so I just got ordinary wine, is that okay?” Harry says as soon as he bursts through the door, holding up two bottles of red wine.

Louis takes the bottles gladly and lets Harry in, leading him to the kitchen. While he’s searching for a corkscrew, Harry silently creeps up behind him and places his ice cold hands up his t-shirt. Louis yelps and wriggles around to face Harry. Crowded against the countertop, the edge digs into his cold skin.

“Merry Christmas, babe.” Harry offers him softly against his lips before pressing one solitary kiss in. “How was your day?”

“Oh y’know. Okay.” Louis says vaguely, the Mark thing can be a story for a different day. “Glad you’re here now. How was your day?”

“Good!” Harry says enthusiastically. “We all went to Gemma’s flat, she cooked! Well, she cooked and mum supervised, interfered whatever. But it was nice. Saw nan, Skyped my dad, whatever.”

“Harry, the gifts that you got for the kids, they were so lovely. You’re so lovely. Thank you.”

Harry blushes, smiling with his twinkling eyes. “Did they like them? I couldn’t chose what to get for Archie, there was so much choice! We should go there for his next birthday, buy some more of their stuff!”

The fact that Harry can picture them still being together in another nine months makes Louis spin with some sort of feeling. Now they’d agreed they wouldn’t do presents for each other, on account of Christmas being about the kids now, but when Harry dons a sheepish look and passes him a small box, Louis’ heart both sinks and soars.

“Haz, we said we weren’t doing presents! I haven't got you anything.”

“No worries,” Harry smiles, “It’s not even a Christmas pressie, it’s a belated birthday present.”

They sit down in the living room and Louis opens the box gingerly. It’s quite heavy, unmarked manilla. Inside is filled with streamers of red tissue paper, and what looks like a glass jar. He pulls it out by the lid; it’s a mason jar full of gummy bears, a red ribbon around the jar and a handwritten tag reading ’without you life would be unbearable’.

Louis snorts, clutching the jar in both hands and looking up at Harry. “Haz! It’s...” He’s lost for words, truly.

“Sorry, it’s cheesy I just… thought it was cute.”

Louis can feel his chest expanding to accommodate his heart. He rolls the cool glass around in his hands, still looking up at Harry. “That is the… the best thing I’ve ever got. Thank you, babe.”

Harry smiles back, bashful and pink cheeked, as Louis reaches for a bottle of wine, holding it between his knees as he pulls the cork out, somewhat dangerously.

“Love, can I… can I tell you something? Before we start drinking and getting silly.”

“Sure…” Harry says slowly, looking suddenly cautious. He takes the glass Louis holds out for him and holds it stiffly, resting the base on his leg. “What is it?”

Louis screws his face up in trepidation but he lets it go again and confesses all. “Jess wants to meet you. I- I’m sorry, but, I thought I should tell you sooner rather than later so she doesn’t cause trouble.”

Harry seems to be considering this and Louis has lost all control of his breathing.

“That’s fair,” Harry says eventually, and Louis exhales sharply. “I mean, I get where she’s coming from. I don’t, well- I’m gonna respect her wishes. They’re her children too and she doesn’t know me from Adam.”

“I’m sorry. I know this is all heavy shit, you didn't sign up for this.”

“Lou, I didn’t ‘sign up’ for anything, I wanted and still want to be with you. I’ll do whatever it takes.”

Louis nods, already hating the thought of having to mix Harry and Jess together. Jess who is cold and black hearted and cruel, a fountain of bad memories; and Harry, bright and beautiful inside and out, who makes Louis feel like he could rule the world.

They agree that they’ll discuss the finer points of the plan later. Right now is their time to be together, not thinking about exes.

*

The red wine goes right to Louis’ head. Harry’s cheeks are ruddy too with intoxication and Louis’ obsession with his boy just continues to grow as they drink together, laugh together, kiss and make stupid jokes, slap their thighs and stitch their sides with laughter. It’s truly a lovely evening under the glow of the Christmas tree lights.

Christmas Day becomes Boxing Day and they make their way upstairs, leaving the empty bottles on the coffee table, the tree lights on and the front door unlocked.

Harry’s jeans come off in the middle of the landing and Louis doesn't care to check where his t-shirt lands as Harry tugs it off of him recklessly.

They crash onto the unmade bed, not bothering to turn the light on, Harry sprawled out underneath him. His body is firm and constant and he wriggles to sit up. Louis pulls Harry's t-shirt off over his head, a bit uncoordinated and a lot desperate.

Harry's skin is responsive as Louis runs his flattened palms up the now exposed plane of skin. He can feel goosebumps spring up under his fingertips and Harry's nipples go hard immediately as he sweeps over them lightly.

Harry grips his hips, writhing about underneath him, fussing over the waistband of his joggers in the dark.

“Wait,” He says, snatching his palms up off Harry’s body and leaning over the bed to reach the lamp switch.

He finds it, eventually, and the room is propelled into an amber glow that they both have to blink to adjust to. Before returning to Harry, he cocks one leg out and pulls his baggy joggers off, pulling the other leg half way down to his knee and letting it stay like that.

“There we are,” He mumbles as he sinks back down against Harry’s body, nudging Harry’s focus back onto himself with his nose. “Kiss me.”

Harry does, very nicely too. His hands dip into Louis’ boxers and trace filthy patterns on the sensitive skin; completely the opposite of the sweet and delicate kisses that his mouth offers. He’s keeping control; letting his tongue slip into Louis’ mouth for just a beat, just enough to send him wild then he takes it away. The kisses become closed-mouthed and chaste, still amazing, but different.

“Tease,” Louis mumbles, more as an inadvertent vocalisation of his thoughts rather than something he had intended on dropping from his lips.

“Swap,” Harry murmurs plainly, turning his head away so Louis can’t kiss him again. He coaxes Louis to move with his urgent hands on his hips, and Louis does as he is told. He unhooks his leg from around Harry’s body and takes the opportunity to pull off the remaining trouser leg and throw his trackies across the room. He gets back on his hands and knees and moves as Harry gently guides him; body pressed to the mattress but hips lifted and bum in the air.

Harry knows where the lube is already, and his sharp hip bone digs into Louis’ bum as he reaches across for it. Louis hardly hears the cap coming off and the liquid being deposited. The next thing he feels is Harry pressing his face into the cushion of his left cheek as he works one finger slowly inside. The noises he can hear coming from Harry are obscene, right from the pits of his belly, and he nibbles, bites and sucks the skin up as the first digit sinks all the way in.

Louis thrusts his bum up and back into Harry’s finger, folding his arms over and resting his forehead against his arm, mumbling nonentities into the mattress. Harry moves his finger back and forth, just the single one for now, moving easily with the slide of the lube.

“Lemme put my mouth on you, Lou,” Harry says, so brazen and raspy that it makes Louis’ cock immediately jerk and blurt out a pearl of pre-come. “Please?”

Louis can’t help but smile at the politeness, even when they’re right in the thick of it. He lifts his head and nods, because his heart is hammering at the thought of it. “Yeah, Harry, fuckin’ hell, yeah.”

Louis moves again, letting Harry lay under him. It’s only for a few seconds that he feels embarrassment at the intimacy of the position; the proximity of his junk to… well. Harry grips both Louis’ hips to pull him in close, the bridge of his nose nestled between Louis’ cheeks and the tip pressing against the skin just above his hole.

Harry grabs large handfuls of cheek, squeezes and massages, digs his fingers in. These fingers. Louis’ had these fingers before; he knows the feeling of each bump of knuckle joint as it slips past the rim of his hole and how the entire digits feel inside. He's had each finger inside him at one time or another. Once, for a brief moment he'd had all four at once.

Louis gasps as Harry leans in, breath hot and licks a stripe, mouth wide open before channelling his attention to the hole, causing a shiver to run through Louis and his mouth to involuntarily water. Harry uses his finger and his tongue, Louis too blinded by desire to be able to differentiate one from the other. He feels it when Harry slips back inside with two fingers, though. The burn of the stretch is quickly replaced with the comfortable fullness of Harry’s two digits.

Even though they've been here before, it feels all brand new. Louis thinks of his favourite lyric by Brand New, ‘pale white like the skin stretched over your bones’ , and how well he can apply it to Harry; it’s the most damningly accurate thing his mind has ever thought of, honestly. Being with Harry, after realising his feelings, makes Louis feel alive; he’s alive and his nerve endings are alight.

"I- I feel like," Louis stammers, if only he could get his damn words out. "Fuck, feels so good. Like our first time. Feels so good."

"Gonna do it right this time.” Harry lets out hurriedly, kissing Louis’ cheek and going back in with one finger again. “Make you feel so good. Give you everything you I've got, s’all for you. "

“S’always right,” Louis stammers. “S’always good, Harry.”

“You ready?” Harry murmurs, stilling his fingers that had been flexing in and out and wriggling together against the gradually relaxing limit of Louis’ walls.

Louis makes an involuntary guttural noise as he nods, yes he’s ready. They move once again, Harry lining himself up and nudging his head just against the puckered indentation of Louis’ hole.

Harry works his way in slowly, the breath catching in Louis’ throat and his heart beating against his chest wall heavily. Harry’s right hand smoothes its way up and down his spine as he is bottoming out, stopping and holding fast, secure. Harry goes as far as he can go, burying himself inside Louis thickly and steadily.

“Okay, love?” Harry asks, Louis nodding desperately to get him to carry on, words failing him.

Harry moves again, drawing his hips back then pushing in again. Louis forces his shoulder into the mattress, lifting his bum at an angle so Harry can get as close as possible.

There is something to be said for the thrill of the unknown with a one night stand; the anonymity, the freedom of knowing you're not going to see the person again so you can really go for it, let go. But hell, Louis was not prepared for the feeling of being with someone that you’ve slipped into the deepest sort of love with.

His forearm glistens with spit where he’s been biting down on his flesh; Harry feels so good inside him that he almost can’t handle it. Harry comes, making short, succinct little strangled noises as he does, hands squeezing Louis’ hips so tight it feels like the skin might bruise.

Then, Harry is heaving loudly for air and they’re crashing down onto the bed together, Harry’s hand between their bodies wrapped around his cock it only takes him a few short pulls to have Louis coming too; their respective contributions making a mess on their bodies but it doesn't matter.

Louis’ heart beats fast and he can hardly hear anything over the ‘I love him’ repeating against the overriding rush of the blood through his veins.

*

Harry is off for the entire week between Christmas and New Year, and though Louis has to go back to work after Tuesday, Harry stays with him for the whole week.

“You sure you don't mind hanging about here on your own?” Louis asks as he pulls on a shirt. He’s going for dark navy today, pearlescent buttons and a hidden stripe on the underside of the collar.

“Why, you offering to skive the day off to stay with me?” Harry asks with a hopeful wiggle of his eyebrows.

“I wish,” Louis scoffs, moving to reach Harry with a kiss. Harry is currently sat up in bed, naked as the day he was born, nursing a cup of tea and the telly remote. “I’m thinking back to all those mornings I woke up next to you, not fully appreciating the art of not having to go to work.”

“That was only yesterday you weirdo!” Harry snorts, letting Louis kiss his cheek only. “I’ll be here when you get home, love.”

“You’re not planning on moving all day?” Louis asks, eyebrows arched, and Harry nods proudly. “Fair enough. I’ll try not to be too jealous.”

He pulls on charcoal trousers and waves a small goodbye from the door. “See you later love.” I love you, his brain supplies. There it is again. “Have a good day.”

*

It’s quiet, because of course no one is looking to move house two days after Boxing Day. There's a tonne of typing to do that he really shouldn’t let spill into the New Year, as well as filing and in short, the shit that he’s been putting off for too long already.

Tina had the foresight to book the entire week off, and Andy being boss man isn't around either so it's just him, Nahal who normally works in the field, and Charlotte (who it turns out prefers to be called Charley so that helps with stopping his brain automatically wanting to call her Lottie).

Over the weeks since first meeting her, Charley has become his relationships biggest sponsor. She wants to know all about their Christmas celebrations and who got who what, what the kids did and whether there were any mistletoe kisses.

“No, who actually does mistletoe kisses? In fact, I don't even know where you find mistletoe!”

“You Grinch!” Charley exclaims, throwing a paper clip at him.

“No but seriously, can you get it from the garden centre or what? D’they sell it in shops or what?”

She shoots him a ’ shut up ’ look and folds her arms. “So you've got a beautiful boyfriend, lovely kids and it's just been your birthday and Christmas and you still can't raise a smile?”

Jess’ request is what's keeping Louis from being fully relaxed, but he isn't about to burden Charley with that, and he’s not going to talk about his ex-step dad or he and Harry’s bedroom antics, so he just shrugs. Then, something dawns on him. “Hey!” He exclaims, sitting up in his seat. “Did you just call my boyfriend beautiful?”

Charley claps her hands as she throws her head back. “I have eyes, so yes obviously! But don't worry, he's all yours, my honey bunch.”

Louis rolls his eyes, remembering Harry's initial jealous reaction to Charley, but that's just too weird to bring up now so he bites his tongue.

“It's almost two,” Louis announces a while later, looking up from his screen. They'd all arrived that morning to an email letting them know they could finish at three for the week, in the spirit of the season of goodwill. “The final stretch.”

The three of them chatter vaguely about what their plans for the rest of the week are while continuing to do the bare minimum of work.

Louis goes to his mums before going home; each and every one of his sisters are home and ready for a debate.

“I see where Jess is coming from, I'm sorry love.” Jay says, tilting her head and smiling apologetically.

“I sorta agree with mum, sorry Lou.” Lottie says diplomatically. “If it was us and me and Tommy split, I'd go mental if he had another girl round our kids without me knowing.”

“I hate her. That's all.” Fizzy announces, crinkling her nose in distaste.

The twins aren't really old or aware enough to have an opinion but they both giggle at Fizzy’s comments.

“But why do I have to? I don't wanna!” He whines petulantly. “Why can't they just… I dunno, FaceTime or summat?”

Lottie snorts and Jay tuts. “You’re poutin’ like a child, my love.” His mum says. “Suck it up and get it over with. You’ve always been the bigger person in this situation, no need to stop now. Those little ones will thank you for it as they get older.”

“Ooh, was that mum’s attempt at shading Jess?” Fizzy says and she and Lottie laugh amongst themselves.

“I’m not ‘shading’ anyone, whatever that means, I’m just being honest!” Jay defends herself.

“We’ve never been in this situation before, me and Jess, I don’t know how I feel about it.”

“As far as you know you’ve never been in this situation. You don’t know what she gets up to when she’s got ‘em, or who she was seeing on the sly when Ems was little!”

The thought makes Louis’ skin crawl and all of a sudden he can see Jess’ point of view, as much as it pains him to admit.

“Fine!” He huffs. “I guess I can see where she’s comin’ from.”

“Good boy!” Jay smiles.

“Still ‘fink she’s got it in for me, though.” He mumbles under his breath.

*

“Hiya!” He shouts as he slams shut the front door and kicks off his shoes. “Sorry ‘am late, went to me mums!”

No response.

Louis heads down the hallway; pokes his head around the living room door. Nothing.

“Harry?” He calls again, trying the kitchen. He pushes the door open with his toe and steps inside to find Harry at the hob, a plume of steam billowing out of whatever is bubbling away in the pan. “What’re you doing love?”

Harry spins around, pulling his earbuds out and letting them slap against his chest. He’s in a white t-shirt and jeans. It’s rare to see him out of tracksuit bottoms.

“Lou!” He exclaims, visibly shaken still. “Sorry, I wasn’t, had my ears in. Hello! Surprise?”

“Are you cooking us tea?” Louis asks, popping his hip and reaching out to grab the back of the nearest chair.

“I am,” Harry nods proudly. “It’ll be about twenty minutes yet. I’m sorry, my timing isn’t great. That’s my downfall really, getting everything ready at the same time.”

“It’s okay, Haz. I… thank you, for doing this. What a nice surprise.”

*

“So… that was our first date,” Harry informs him as they settle down their forks on their empty plates.

Louis sits back in his seat, stretching his back out. “Was it?” He asks sceptically.

“Yeah,” Harry says plainly, smiling simply. “Look, we didn’t really ever do the whole ‘dating’ thing did we? So I’m making it up to you now.” Harry explains, like that’s something everyone does. “So here we are, just finishing up dinner on our very first date!”

Louis tries to bite down his grin, nodding along with the fantasy Harry is forming.

“Just so you know, on the inside I’m flipping out because you’re so bloody gorgeous and I can’t believe you’ve let me take you out.” Harry explains. “Thank you for the restaurant recommendation, by the way, and thank you for offering to split the bill even though I refused.”

Louis snorts softly and nods along with it. “A gentleman as ever.”

Harry nods, smiles. “Of course. I’m tryin’ to make a good impression.” He reaches around for his backpack slung over the seat and hauls it onto his knee. He pulls out a (slightly battered) white cardboard box. “We’ve just got dessert from a little patisserie down the road.”

Harry opens the box and holds it out for Louis. Louis peers in to see two decadent looking creamy slices; a double chocolate slice and a strawberry gateau slice. “Which ones mine?”

“I guessed the chocolate?” Harry says with a grin and Louis nods.

“You guessed correctly.” He takes the chocolate one and takes a timid bite, chewing slowly.

“Nice?”

“Very,” Louis confirms with a smile. He doesn’t trust himself with anything more informative.

“Great,” Harry puts the cake box to one side and reaches back into his backpack, pulling out a grey speckled jumper that Louis instantly recognises. “We’ve just had our second date, we’ve just had a nice night in with a film and a bottle of wine. This is your jumper – I hope you don’t mind I borrowed it – that I accidentally on purpose took and kept for myself because it smelled like you.”

“When did you get that?” Louis murmurs softly to himself, feeling like yes, he might just bloody well cry.

Harry smiles before continuing. “This is your favourite chocolate, right? I remember you telling me so i bought some for you after our fourth date. I don’t know where we’ve been but I do know that anywhere is fine as long as you’re there too.”

Louis can feel the golf ball in his throat growing. “Harry…” Louis is truly lost for words. He takes the purple-wrapped chocolate from Harry, Cadbury Dairy Milk with Daim pieces. He tries to stop the tremble; Dairy Milk with Daim is his favourite.

“Fifth date?” Harry says, picking up his phone, unlocking it and tilting the screen towards Louis. It’s open on Google Maps, more specifically the cinema at the retail park, singled out by a big red marker. “Our fifth date would’ve been here. We wouldn’t have seen much because we’d only make the late showing and the cinema would’ve been nearly empty so we’d have the freedom to do a commentary and throw popcorn in the air and catch it in our mouths.”

Louis laughs into his hand, his eye stinging with happy tears he is trying to repress. “And is that all we’d do in an empty cinema?”

Harry gives him a scandalised look and quirks his eyebrows with pretend exasperation. “If you’d let me finish,” He says slowly, putting his phone down and standing up. He motions for Louis to stand too.

“C’mere,” He says softly, and Louis steps closer to him, feeling as light as a feather and Harry wraps one arm around his waist delicately and nudges his chin up with the crook of his other index finger, moving to slot his fingers into his hair and cup his cheek. Harry touches a delicately intimate, soft kiss to his lips. It hangs between them for a moment or two before Harry draws back half an inch or so. He presses their foreheads together, keeping his hand on Louis’ cheek. “That is the kiss I would have given you at the end of the night.”

Louis’ eyes are wet and he knows if he blinks the tears will spill over his eyelashes. “Bloody hell, Harry, this is…”

“I’m not done,” Harry whispers almost inaudibly. He licks his lips and Louis hears him swallow thickly. “We’d spend months together, Lou, every minute of the day I’d spend with you or wishing I was with you. I’d do anything for you, Lou. It wouldn’t - it didn't - take me long to realise, to be absolutely sure that you are the best thing that has ever happened to me, when I knew for sure that you’re the most special person in my life. I would tell you…” Harry pauses again, reaching forward for one solitary kiss that has a tear finally spilling over Louis’ lashes. “I would tell you that I love you.”

He pauses, and Louis can’t breathe.

“Because I do. With or without nice dates and fancy restaurants and time for just the two of us, I love you more than I ever thought possible. I love you and the two little ones with all my heart and I- I need to know that you understand.”

Louis’ definitely not breathing. His heart is hammering hard under Harry’s fingertips, he knows, he can feel it himself, but his breathing is so shallow it's almost non-existent.

“Harry, I- I love you too, so bloody much!” Louis releases the breath he’d been unwittingly holding on to and it feels like such a relief. “God Harry I can’t believe you’ve done all this for me it’s… I can’t…”

“I’ve known it for a few weeks now. I… I first told you when you were sleeping. Bit of a cop out, I know, but I just wanted to try it out. Hear it before I… well, whatever.”

“I love you,” Louis repeats, liking how it sounds. The words fill the air and then pop like majestic bubbles. “I can’t believe you did all this for me. I’m… I’m just me, I’m shit!”

Harry shakes his head resolutely, not even willing to entertain Louis’ self-deprecation. “You’re the world to me. The moon and the sun and the stars and the grass and the buildings and the oceans.”

“What did I do to deserve you, eh?” They sit back down, Louis dragging his chair next to Harry. He reaches out for his hands, cups them together on the table tip and rests his cheek against them, staring up at Harry.

“You’ve always deserved love, Lou. Everyone who wants love should get to experience it. There’s nowt like it.”

“You sound like me,” Louis remarks, smiling silently. His neck sort of hurts in this position but he doesn't care. “Wait til I tell the girls this story, they’ll be beside themselves.”

*

Charley melts at the story when Louis tells her the next day at work. When Jay phones he tells her and she and the twins melt at the story. Fizzy apparently ‘reluctantly smiles’ at the story and Lottie’s immediately texting Tommy to tell him he needs to up his game.

Harry makes the tea again on Wednesday evening, and though Louis tells him he’ll have a hard time topping Tuesday’s meal it’s still lovely.

*

Jess: Robbie and Lisa are coming over on NYE at 9 so if you want to come round before that you can see Archie and Ems before they go to bed.

Jess: With your boyfriend.

It’s Thursday morning and Louis is getting ready for work again. Messages from Jess he’d received late last night play on his mind, putting an automatic dampener on his already souring mood. The way she’d felt the need to say ‘your boyfriend’ instead of ‘with Harry’ or ‘together’ rubs Louis up the wrong way, makes his skin prickle with irritating anger.

“What’s up?” Harry asks, still lounging in bed looking both sinful and heavenly at the same time, with his hair splayed out over the pillow and his perpetually perky little nipples on show, duvet gathered around his waist.

“Jess’ brother and his girlfriend are going over hers for New Year and she’s said we can go over before they get there.” Louis explains sourly.

“Right…” Harry says slowly. “So soon, God I’m nervous. But okay, fine. Get it over and done with I suppose.”

“You sure?” Louis asks, wishing this wasn’t happening. He’ll be wishing this wasn’t happening until they’re stood in Jess’ house face and face, he’s sure. “I’ll pop in and see the kids anyway, so it’s okay if you do or you don’t come. Your choice, babe.”

“No, I’ll come. I wanna do the right thing.”

Louis nods, taking a second to appreciate this boy in front of him, in all his floppy haired, gangly limbed goodness. His heart flutters in his chest and he sighs, taking his phone out and unlocking the screen.

’Fine. Will pop in at about seven.’

Jess: Okay.

He heads off to work feeling less than enthused.

*

The week draws to a close, and what a weird one it’s been. The office has been dead most of the week and Louis has consumed his body weight in Roses and Celebrations. Andy shows his face on Friday morning and Louis’ heart sinks with the thought of having to spend the whole day here looking like he’s working, but Andy goes off at eleven, wishing them a happy new year, so it’s obvious he’s gone for the long weekend. That just leaves Louis, Charley and Nahal.

He leaves work seven minutes before three and Harry is waiting outside for him. They pop into town, coming away with nothing apart from takeaway Starbucks lattes.

They spend most of Saturday day time sleeping because if he’s asleep he’s not worrying about Jess. At least he’s not at the stage where he’s having nightmares about her.

Louis makes them scrambled egg and bacon for lunch – it can’t be classed as brunch, if anything it's actually closer to tea time – and they sit opposite each other at the table, eating quietly and just waiting for it to be quarter to seven so they can make a move to Jess’.

They reconvene to the sofa for a while, leaving the dirty plates on the table. “Ron can do that. Later-on.” Harry cracks a poor, poor joke and Louis snorts incredulously, shaking his head.

Louis tucks his legs up to his chest and curls into Harry’s side pulling the blanket up over them. His hand grips Harry’s t-shirt under the cover. They share a handful of simple, closed-mouth kisses, smiling at each other like nutters. The clock continues to creep slowly closer towards six thirty and Louis finds himself wishing it would slow down. It fell dark at about quarter to five but instead of getting up and putting lights on they turn on the telly, muting it and using the flickering image for light.

“You still nervous?”

“No,” Harry says, though his clipped answer might suggest otherwise.

“Are you sure?”

“I’m not… nervous, per se, I’m just apprehensive. What if she don’t like me and decides to make things tough for you? That’s… that’s the opposite of what I want. I want you to be happy.”

“And I am as long as I’m with you, so don’t worry.” Louis says, and it sounds so plain and easy, and he wishes for a beat that it could be that easy. But for as long as Harry is feeling doubtful, he’s going to pretend he’s got his own emotions in check, even if he hasn’t.

“Can I… uh, I wanna ask you something?”

“Yes, you are distinctively bigger than the average, Harry.” Louis deflects with humour, earning him a shove on the arm. “No but, go ahead. I’m all ears.” He cups his ears for effect.

“You an’ Jess, how did it all happen? Like. Once I can understand, but…”

“But twice?” Louis finishes for him, exhaling deeply. Harry nods apologetically. “Are you sure you wanna know? I mean… it’s not a pleasant story.”

Harry nods assuredly. “I’m sure. I can handle it.”

Louis twists his mouth up, chewing the inside of the corner of his lip as he thinks about how to answer Harry’s question. There is nothing he wants less than to have to talk to Harry about his tumultuous relationship with Jess. He makes a few false starts, opening his mouth to speak and then changing his mind again, brave little deep breaths amounting to nothing.

“So, bit of background. My last relationship, the one I’ve told you about before - sort of - was with a boy called Nathan. We started going out in year eleven and we were together all through college. Then… well he went off to uni and I didn't. That was it. I was angry, humiliated. I'd been in a relationship for three years while all my mates were out there having fun and I’d been so happy in love with this boy that just… just dropped me when he realised I wasn't good enough for him. So I just sorta, put me self out there. I swore off relationships, just… well y’know.”

“Yeah,” Harry whispers.

“We were out for my twenty first when I met Jess. We... well, I don't need to tell you that. " Louis pauses and Harry nods, and it's obvious he wants him to continue. “For about a year it was on and off, a uh, shit, a friends with benefits - is that what they call- well, no we weren't even friends really so that's not-”

“I understand, Lou, it's all right.”

“Yeah, well... we uh,” He coughs awkwardly. “We didn't use anythin' when we... you know. Stupid I know, I bloody know. But just after new year, actually I remember it was January ‘cause we were off out for Mally’s birthday - she told me she was pregnant. The boys thought it was the end of the world but my God I was so chuffed, excited even?”

Harry is smiling absently, nodding softly.

“It wasn't part of the plan, obviously, but I always wanted to be a dad, coming from a big family, and I was sold immediately. But everything I tried got shot down and she kept saying ‘just wait, just wait’, that we’d be a family once the baby came. So I kept trying but, nothing was enough for her and now I know why. She had no intention of trying to be a family.” Louis pauses, one of the more painful memory of Jess’ first pregnancy coming back to him. He laughs sadly though it's not funny. “You know, when it was time for the scan, the one where we could find out the sex, the hospital rescheduled it and Jess ‘conveniently’ forgot to let me know and I missed it.”

“I'm really sorry, Lou.” Harry says.

Louis shrugs. “S’okay. It wasn't the worst thing t’happen.”

Harry's sympathetic look hurts.

“I kept telling meself the nearer we got to the birth, things would just slot into place. Baby makes three and all that. But she was born and I was there and I held her hand and I held this tiny little thing in my arms and smelled her hair and touched her tiny little cheek but then Jess took her away. They were discharged from hospital and she told me I could visit once things had settled down.”

“Settled down?” Harry repeats, looking incredulous and confused. “How long was that?”

“Few weeks or so? God, I’ve never cried so much in my life, honestly.” He laughs humourlessly with embarrassment. “Eventually I was allowed. It started off half an hour or so every couple of days, then my mum stepped in and totally kicked off. Good old mum, eh? Anyway, in the end I gave up trying to make something happen. Being an absent dad was so against my own beliefs, my own wishes. I never had my dad and I hated his every fibre for what he did to my mum. I was becoming the same, though, she forced me to become what I hated. I still hate being away from them but I know now it’s for the best.”

They share some silence, Harry’s arms a comforting presence around his body. Louis’ heart is pounding fast with adrenaline; he’s opened a can of worms now and he can’t stop it, he wants all of his demons out.

“And I know what you're thinking. If you hated her that much why'd you shag her again?”

“I...”

“I hate myself for that. I love my son but I hate what I did.”

“Lou...”

“It was my birthday, Emmie was with my mum and Jess turned up early, one thing led to another I don’t even really remember, and... well. Nine months later we had Archie James. My favourite biggest regret. That’s awful of me to say isn't it, fucking ‘ell.”

“That's.... I feel really conflicted.”

“Why?” Louis rasps, feeling his chest tighten and his blood run cold.

“Well on the one hand, I’m sorry that you went through what you did, but at the same time I’m glad that things didn't work out because you might not be here with me now if they did. I’m sorry, is that selfish of me?”

Louis smiles, appreciating the sentiment. “No, I get where you’re coming from, love.”

“I just don’t get why didn't she want to even try, though? Like, you’re so lovely and- I almost feel bad for her.”

Louis snorts. “Thanks, I think! No, but seriously, we were never meant to be a couple. If she hadn't have got pregnant we wouldn't have been together, it would’ve fizzled out eventually. I guess she didn't believe a baby would change that. She's... she's just not a nice person. I don't doubt she loves the kids but..." He trails off and shrugs. "I dunno, I guess I'll never get it."

"Thank you for telling me, Lou. I’m sorry for prying it all out of you.”

“It’s okay,” Louis shrugs. “It feels hellish unnatural to be telling such a defamatory story to someone you're trying to impress, by the way.”

Harry laughs, throwing his head back and releasing an endearingly loud snort. “I can tell you my own embarrassing past. Even the score?”

Louis doesn’t want Harry to feel like he needs to do that, but he nods anyway. He supposes it’ll be nice to learn a bit more about each other. “Okay then.”

“So you know I’ve never really been in a relationship either?” He starts, and Louis nods.

“Yes, I remember you telling me about Olivia when you were babies.”

“Yeah, good old Livvy!” Harry laughs. “Well, seriously, I don’t have any long term boyfriends or girlfriends to speak of. Not that I didn’t want a relationship, I would’ve, but I just… didn’t know how to be in one without scaring the person off.”

“Really?”

“Yeah,” Harry nods sagely. “Too clingy, too needy, too interested. ‘Too much’ was my favourite line, like, that’s so vague. I was so confused, how can I be too much when I’m just being myself? I can’t stop being me, that’s not fair!”

Louis nods. “You shouldn’t change for anyone Haz, not even me. Especially not me.”

“I gave up and I was happy that way. Then Liam, thinking he was being helpful, suggested that bloody speed dating.” Louis laughs. “I almost didn't go, I was so angry by the time I got there.”

“I was the same,” Louis says honestly. “But you were very charming. Bet you got a loada numbers that night.”

“Only one that matters,” Harry says smoothly, and Louis scoffs again.

“Speed dating went out with the Macarena! But I’m glad I went. I bet Liam is glad we did too.”

They both laugh, and Louis thinks about Mr Mysterious himself Zayn, and how easily he and Liam had met and fallen for each other. “I did not see that one coming.”

“No, nor me! I didn’t even know Liam liked boys!”

“You’re kidding! He was straight?”

“Yep!” Harry nods. “But not quite as straight as he thought, apparently. But anyway, that’s my story. Not that interesting, but it’s a bit of background.”

“Can I just say, for the record, how anyone could find you ‘too much’ is beyond me. I’ve never met anyone like you.”

“I’ve heard that a few times,” Harry admits. “It’s not always a good thing though, is it?”

“No, not always,” Louis agrees. “But it’s good in this case. Really good. Like you said earlier, as cruel as it sounds I’m glad you didn't end up with anyone else but me. And I certainly wouldn’t call you ‘clingy’, by the way.”

“We’re both a bit worn down, a bit cynical, right? We go well together.”

Louis likes that way of thinking. “Yeah, I suppose we do.”

*

“Now are you sure you’re okay? You can wait in the car if you like, I can tell her-”

“Lou, it’s fine!” Harry interrupts. “We’re doing this. C’mon.”

Harry follows him, across the road and onto the opposite path. It’s pretty quiet for New Year’s Eve, too early yet maybe, and the unmoved cars are covered in glistening, twinkling frost. Louis knocks softly, making a small, strangled noise of reluctance. Harry puts a comforting hand on his shoulder and squeezes.

The kids immediately scurry down the hallway; Louis can hear them scampering about like excitable puppies upon hearing the doorbell. He and Harry share mutual smiles that soon turn stoic again as the taller image of Jess looms in the glass panel.

“Ready?” Louis asks a final time, Harry giving an indiscernible nod as Jess opens the front door.

“Daddy!” Emilia shrieks as Archie babbles dada ‘ere over and over again, standing against the door frame bending at the knees excitedly.

“Harry!” Emilia notices Harry stood there. Innocently, she says, “What you doin’ ‘ere, Harry? This my mummy’s house! How you know where my mummy lives?”

“Uh, we’ve come to say hi, Ems.” Louis jumps in, sensing the momentary look of panic on Harry’s face. “Let’s go in, yeah, it’s freezing out here!”

Jess walks Archie back down the corridor, the little boy barely even holding onto the ends of her fingers. He’ll be off and away on his own soon, without a doubt.

Emilia and Archie go back to watching the music channels on telly and Harry, Jess and Louis make their way to the kitchen.

It is as awkward as Louis imagined it would be.

“So, uh, I’m Harry, it’s nice to meet you.” Harry offers one of his large, gawky hands for Jess to shake, which she does so rather quizzically.

“Hi, yeah, thanks for, y’know, I just thought seeing as though you're gonna be around my kids a lot more now we should meet so it’s not weird.”

Louis hates her tone, the snide underlay of her words, and Harry looks mildly horrified too but he keeps a cool and calm exterior as he opens his mouth again.

“Of course, I completely agree. The kids come first, that’s what I’ve always said, isn’t it, Lou?” Harry turns to him, and he nods nervously. He sees Jess’ expression change almost undetectably.

“Well thanks, it means a lot. Hopefully this will be easy then.”

“Yeah, I don’t want to tread on anyone’s toes, of course. I’m glad we got the chance to meet; I hope things won’t be too difficult going forward. Of course I just want the best for everyone which I’m sure you do too, of course.” Harry rambles, looking mildly like a rabbit caught in headlights.

He’s saying ‘of course’ a lot, Louis notices. He reaches out and slinks his arm through Harry’s, reassuring him with a gentle brush of fingertips.

“Yeah, I mean, Emilia and Archie come first. If they’re happy and safe and cared for with you two then I’m fine with, it.” Jess says, and he’s not sure about Harry but Louis absolutely doesn't miss the slight pause before she finished her sentence, wonders what she might’ve said had she not had her filter engaged.

“Definitely!” Harry exclaims, obviously not calmed quite yet. “I mean, they’re happy right, Lou?”

Louis nods. “I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t think they were happy, if this wasn’t worth it. They know they always come first, and that’s not changing.” He looks pointedly at Jess.

“That’s fine. That’s fair.”

“Right, well shall we get going? This has been a delight, as always.”

“Louis, can I have a word? In private?”

Louis looks at her and then at Harry, mild panic setting in. “Uhh…” He flounders.

“Harry, maybe you wanna say hi and bye to the kids?” Jess addresses Harry personally and Harry looks up in surprise. Eventually he nods, and looking a bit puzzled, he scurries away.

Louis listens to his big clumsy feet carrying him away down the passage into the living room. He hears Emilia screeching and jumping on him immediately, Archie crowing away too.

“What is-” He begins.

“Are they gonna call him ‘dad’ too? Is it gonna be the three of us turning up to parent’s evening once Emilia starts school? Him in between us like Piggy-in-the-fucking-Middle?” Jess asks brusquely, her voice a clipped, tense hiss.

“I haven’t even thought that far, Jess, I don’t know!” Louis shrugs, though the thought had crossed his mind once or twice, regarding the name thing. “I’m not making your life difficult, why’re you already trying to make ours hard?”

“I just… I can’t believe you’re taking this so lightly. This has turned my world upside down, Louis, God knows what it will be like for them!”

“They’ve got parents who love them, and they’ve got a whatever the hell they end up calling him in Harry who is the kindest, nicest most generous person I’ve ever met. He adores them and I’ve got no doubt that he’s gonna be there for them, whatever they need whenever they need it. And if you think this has been easy for me, that I’m ‘taking it lightly’, well you’re wrong. You know how much I’ve thought about this, how much I’ve agonised over whether it’s the right thing to do, you’ve no fucking right to tell me I’ve not thought about everything here!”

Louis feels like pulling his hair out, he’s been over this time and time again with Jess, he feels like he’s repeating himself but she just doesn’t seem to get it.

“Yeah, we’ll see!” She scoffs, as if she doesn’t think Louis is completely serious about his relationship with Harry.

“There is nothing ‘to see’ about, Jess, this is happening and it’s real.”

Jess scoffs. “Yeah, okay! Says the guy who hasn’t been in a relationship since school! Says the guy who shags anything with a pulse within a ten mile radius - girls and boys apparently!”

“Oh shut the fuck up, you know a fraction of my life, Jess, a fraction! And you’re included on that so-called ‘anything with a pulse’ list, so what does that make you? The only reason I avoided relationships was because of the kids, not that I need to explain myself to you!”

It’s certainly hard to keep his voice down, he’s shaking with rage.

“Well aren’t you the honourable one? Parent of the year!”

Louis could cry with frustration. He blinks away angry tears that burn the backs of his eyes. “You won’t kick me down, Jess, I know that I’m doing the best for my children, and I know Harry loves me and them both too, and I’m in love with him too. As far as I’m concerned this has got nothin’ to do with you at all.”

Jess’ head snaps back and her expression changes in a second. “In love?” She echoes.

“Yeah,” Louis says plainly, shrugging his shoulders defensively and shrinking down. “If this is a game then you’re the only one playing, Jess. Those kids might not have the family I envisioned for them but me and him will give it our best fucking shot. I’m going. I’ll be home all day tomorrow so just drop the kids off when you’re ready. Take the day with them if you like, I don’t care.”

He storms away, headed for the living room. He wipes furiously at his eyes, determined not to upset Emilia’s night. He takes a deep breath and smiles reassuringly at Harry who peers up when he enters the room. Harry is perched on the sofa while Archie stands holding onto Harry’s knee with one hand and holding a toy tambourine with the other. The little bells clink on the edge as he waves it around, and his face lights up when he spots his dad.

“Dada, up!” Archie cries, letting go of Harry’s knee and taking three shaky steps over to Louis unaided before tumbling forward with a crash of the tambourine. “Uh oh!” He mumbles as he drops the instrument and heaves himself back up onto his knees, holding his arms up for Louis.

“Did you just-”

“Did he-”

“Oh my God!”

Jess stands in the doorway, just behind Louis, Harry staring in awe from his seat on the sofa. All three of them speak at once, delirious with excitement at the realisation Archie just took his first steps in front of all three of them, plus Emilia. Not that she’s very impressed.

“Well done, baby boy!” Louis swings him up, lifts him up to the ceiling and then settles him on his hip. “Daddy’s clever little guy, that was so good!”

“Guh guh!” Archie repeats proudly as Louis smacks a kiss onto his temple. He’s so relieved he didn’t miss this; relieved that Jess didn’t get to witness it without him. He doesn’t care if that makes him petty or a bad person. Having Harry there to see it too is just the cherry on top that he didn't realise he needed.

He and Harry say their stilted goodbyes and Louis says to Emilia he’ll see her again next year, which she doesn’t understand. Harry is still profusely polite to Jess, which she doesn’t deserve, and Louis just gives her a meagre head nod as they step outside. Jess closes the door quietly behind them and they get into the car sharpish, the bitterly cold night air around them biting at their skin and reddening their cheeks.

“Well that wasn’t so bad was it?” Louis says airily, snorting when he sees Harry’s expression. “What!”

“I heard what she said, Lou.”

“I’m sorry you had to hear that stuff, Haz. It wasn’t- don’t take it personally, okay?”

“I’m sorry you have to put up with that, Lou. I… I hope in time she relaxes a bit.”

Louis sighs resignedly; he can’t ever imagine that, but he does hope for it. “Me too.”

“I heard what you said, though, about me, about love and being in love and loving the kids. It’s all true. I love you and everything that comes with you. I promise I’m here for you, Lou, whatever happens.”

Louis sits in the driver’s seat, surrounded by the starry night, feeling quite overwhelmed. He’s found the love of his life, his son has just taken his first steps, they’re on the precipice of a big wide open new year; it’s a lot.

“Fuck, I’m gonna cry if you keep going, Haz.” He laughs wetly and turns away briefly with embarrassment. Harry’s hand reaches out and grabs his, pulling it away from the steering wheel and into his lap, and Louis turns back round.

“C’mon, let’s get home. See in the New Year and go to bed, just me and you. Sooner we go to bed the sooner it will be tomorrow and the kids will be on their way back home too.”

Harry rubs his thumb over the knuckle of Louis’ index finger, smiling encouragingly, though still soft.

“Yeah, c’mon. Let’s get going.”

*

Quiet New Years Eve’s have become commonplace in Louis’ life since becoming a father, and this one is no different but there’s honestly nowhere in the world he’d rather be than drinking beers in tracksuit bottoms under a blanket with Harry, watching Jools Holland and the fireworks on BBC One.

“Hey, Lou?”

“Hmm?”

“Don’t forget I love you.”

Louis smiles. No matter how many times he hears that, he’s never going to get bored of it. “Hey, Haz?”

“Hmm?”

“I love you too.”

-

-

-

-

 


 

Phew! Cheesy ending alert!

This is the official ending, but there is another part to come, a long part, starting at the beginning of the New Year in this verse. There is still loads to go between this funky little family, so please stay with me!

The scene where Harry re-enacts how their dates would’ve gone, I wrote for a different fic that I ended up shelving, almost two years ago! But I just couldn’t let that bit go, I was very proud of it, so I re-jigged it a bit and used it here! Inspiration as taken from Bridget Jones’ Baby and How I Met Your Mother.

Thank you for everything everyone! Please leave a little comment if you wish, and the Tumblr post for this update is here! I am always happy to speak to people so don’t be afraid, I am nice I promise!

Amy x

 

PS - Did anyone catch my impressive(!) alliteration during the café scene?!

PPS - I’ve never written rimming before, so i hope it wasn't too embarrassing, even if it was only brief!

PPPS - The bear jar is here - so cute!

Chapter Text

Over the first four months of the year, Harry experienced as many lows as he did highs.

Going back to work in the New Year had brought the news that the leisure centre was going into administration, and they’d all be out of their jobs by the end of February. One look on Liam’s face when he tells Harry he got the coaching job and Harry realises. Liam didn’t want to look for a new job; he had to look for a new job.

Amy had organised a night out for them in joint celebration of Liam’s new job and Zayn’s birthday, not realising the fate of all the other employees. They’d still gone though, and he and Liam had a minor exchange of words. His cheeks streamed with tears and admittedly he was a bit drunk, but his emotions weren’t – in his opinion - unjust.

Harry moved out of his house with Mikey at the end of January and back in with his mum. His redundancy money, if you could call it that, was not going to go far, so he’d had no other option.

His twenty second birthday in February fell on a dismally cold and rainy Wednesday, and he stayed in with Louis and the kids and had a chocolate caterpillar birthday cake and three presents wrapped in red and white striped paper.

His last day at work fell on the twenty fourth of February and they go out with a fizzle rather than a bang. The lobby furniture was auctioned off in March, the vending machines switched off and emptied and the pool drained. It was a horrendously sad day and Harry still feels sick at the smell of chlorine two months down the line.

One day in April, Archie tottered over to him quite happily and said, “’ iya ‘arry ” as clear as a bell and it’d made Harry happier than he’d been in weeks. He’d been to job interview after job interview and nothing had come of it, he’d trawled the online ads and looked in the paper, even casually enquired at a few little shops and cafes, to no avail.

Being out of work is killing him; the only thing keeping him sane is his family.

 

+ + + + + +

 

“Harry, I’d appreciate it if you could bring your plates and glasses downstairs when you’re finished with them, love.” His mum sighs as she appears in the doorway with the dirty washing basket under one arm and three tea plates and an empty glass stacked up in the other.

He just nods and sighs internally, looking past the mess and ignoring the request.

He’s fed up.

He loves his mum, of course he does, but living back at home after having a taste of freedom absolutely fucking sucks. Not having the money to do anything fucking sucks. Not being able to find a job fucking sucks. It’s May so he’s been unemployed for three months now and it’s really beginning to drive him around the bend and up the wall.

This ridiculous routine reminds Harry of having a day off school sick when he was a kid; no one to talk to all day until school was finished. Except it’s like that every day. He visits his Nan; he walks aimlessly around the shops not daring to spend a penny of his money; he sends text messages that go unreplied to. He longs for the evenings when he can go to Louis’ and see him. He longs for the nights when he stays with Louis, though they’re not as frequent at the moment as he would like.

“Have you actually done anything today, Harry?” Anne asks, interrupting his steady stream of self-pitying thoughts.

He blinks up at her, trying in vain to remember something that he’s achieved today. He’d phoned up about a job at the garden centre- oh no wait, that was yesterday.

“I folded the washing,” He lies. Anne looks at him with an arched eyebrow.

“You may be twenty two but you’re not too big for a good old fashioned telling off, young man.”

“I’m going to Lou’s soon, I’ll be out of your hair then. Then you’ll know what it’s like to miss me!”

“Chance would be a fine thing!” Anne exclaims with a wry little grin on the corner of her mouth. “How long are you staying there?”

Harry shrugs his shoulders. “It’s the kids’ week with their mum, so…”

“How is that going?” She asks. They don’t really talk about Harry’s new position within the family; it’s always something that’s accepted and implied but never really addressed. When Louis met Anne for the first time he’d really impressed, as Harry knew he would, and he charmed his way into her good books but he knew his mum had to be a tiny bit sceptical of their relationship, even if she wouldn’t admit it out loud. Even when she saw how good they were doing.

“It’s fine. Why wouldn’t it be?”

“I’m not accusing, H, ‘am just asking.”

“Well, obviously the no job thing puts a bit of a dampener on things. I don’t have the money and the freedom to see him so much; do things I wanna do for them. But it’s okay otherwise.”

“How are things with their mother?”

“Fine,” Harry says again. “We don’t have anything to do with each other. Not since… well, just not since we met. We were civil and I showed her I am serious about Archie and Emmie, and that’s that.”

“What were you going to say then?” Anne asks, eyeing him suspiciously. “You said ‘not since’ and then trailed off. What is it?”

“Nothing, mum! I wasn’t gonna say anything.”

“Harry!” She warns.

“Okay! Fine!” Harry sighs. “She… Louis showed me some messages she sent him. This was months ago now. January. Right when I found out about the job.”

“What sort of messages?”

“They’re a bit… blue?” Harry sighs, bringing a hand up to his face and rubbing at his eye.

“Harry, between you and Gemma there is nothing that can shock me now, I can assure you.”

“Okay, well… she started sending Louis messages saying that I’d never be able to give him what he wants or needs, and that he’ll never be able to have a family with me, for ahem, obvious reasons. That he’d get sick of me eventually once he’s over his ‘phase’. Like… no matter how many times he tells her she can’t seem to grasp the fact that he wasn’t hiding being gay, he’s not ‘suddenly’ gay, he’s bisexual and that’s how it works! He was interested in her at the ti- oh God, this is messed up, I’m sorry.”

“Well, maybe you don’t have to tell your old mum everything . The only advice I can offer you is to remain the bigger person, keep her name out of your mouth around Louis and the kids, and just keep those bonny little loves as your number one priority. Then nothing can come back to bite you.”

Harry thinks about the messages that they’d written together and sent back to Jess. That hadn’t been keeping himself out of the drama, that had been sticking his nose right in and stirring the pot. He couldn’t admit them to his mum, not in a month of Sundays; that Louis had everything he needed in Harry; he could fuck and be fucked and that there isn’t anything he could possibly need that Harry couldn’t supply.

Harry shakes those thoughts away. “After that, it just sort of… stopped. If I’m there when the kids come home she doesn’t come in. She doesn’t come in anyway, though. They barely even talk to each other, mum.”

“I can’t imagine being in a situation so fraught,” Anne admits. “At least me and your dad are civil, even friends maybe? Despite the divorce. I feel for Louis sometimes, I really do.”

“Me too,” Harry agrees sadly. “He told me splitting up with her wasn't his idea. H didn’t want to be a single dad and he didn’t want Jess to go through it alone. It was all her. Wouldn’t give him a chance to try. Even after everything, all the secrets and lies and hurting him, he always wanted the best for the kids. I mean, I’m glad now but it's just not fair is it? He’s… he’s lovely and she’s so awful, mum.”

“He’s a special boy.” Anne says. “A very lovely lad indeed.”

“Family means a lot to him, that’s obvious. Not just the kids but his mum and sisters, and- and me.” He adds the last bit on timidly. “His dad wasn’t there for him or his mum and he didn’t want to be the same with his own kids but she didn’t even give him a choice, mum.”

“Is a family something you’ve talked about with Louis?”

“No, not really. Not beyond the two kids we already have. I mean- he already has.” He corrects his freudian slip, although it doesn’t feel necessary to be honest.

“There are options out there, of course there are, but-”

“Don’t worry mum, you’re not going to be a grandma just yet. ‘Less Gems surprises us one day.”

They both chuckle. “I doubt that!” Anne exclaims, before tossing a bath towel in his direction. “Go and have a nice bath, relax a bit. Get that tension out of your shoulders.”

“I haven’t-” But he stops himself as he notices for the first time the tense grip ghosting over the top of his spine. Anne smiles at him softly. “Cheers, mum. See you soon.”

*

Harry feels better for a bath, just like his mum said he would. He puts his damp hair up into a tight bun and changes into faded black skinnies and a Nirvana t-shirt.

His mum is watching telly on the sofa when he appears, and he drapes himself over the back of the sofa and hugs her tight.

“I’m off now; do you need anything before I go?”

“No love, you go off and have a lovely time. Say hello to your boy for me.”

Harry blushes, his heart going wild. “I will. Text me if ‘owt ‘appens, okay? I’ve got me charger.”

Anne giggles as he straightens up to head for the door. “You sound just like him sometimes, you know.”

Harry hadn’t even noticed himself slowly merging into Louis’ habits and quirky little ways, but he replays what he’d just said in his head and admits that yes, maybe that was a bit Yorkshire.

“Sorry,” Harry says, on purpose now. “T’ra love, see ‘thi later!”

“Don’t rush home will you!” Anne calls, and Harry laughs as he lets himself out of the house.

He’s too skint for a taxi and won’t accept Louis picking him up so he gets the bus. It’s quarter past six, the tail end of the rush hour so the bus is still fairly packed. He puts in his earbuds and ignores the crowds.

A hand on his shoulder two and a half songs later makes him jump.

“Harry!” A female voice is saying, and he pulls his earbuds out and swivels in his seat in confusion to see a familiar face grinning back him.

“Kate!” He exclaims, finally recognising the face. It wasn’t that he didn’t remember his old colleague, it’s only been a few months, but he just wasn’t expecting to see her and seeing her out of context is confusing.

“How are you! What’re you up to? How’s life?”

She asks a million questions and after her initial excitement to hear he’s on his way to his boyfriend’s house, it becomes clear that she’s done a much better job of moving on with her life than he has, and it stings a bit.

She tells him about her new job and he tells her that sadly, no, he is still searching. She asks if he still sees anyone from the leisure centre, and he says just Liam, and she nods as if that’s sad. Maybe his life is sad. But then he thinks about the kids and Louis and he decides that no, his life is not sad.

Luckily, she gets off at the next stop and he waves her off with a kind smile before putting his music back on and shutting out the world again. He’s quite riled up by the time he gets to Louis’ and Louis spends half an hour or so calming him down.

“Meatball linguine for tea,” Louis says softly in his ear. “Here, that sounds dead posh don’t it?”

“Very,” Harry smiles, though he knows for a fact there’s nothing posh about it. “And garlic bread?”

“Of course,” Louis promises.

*

Louis doesn't ask him how the job search is coming along. He doesn't ask how the last interview went, if he’s heard back from anyone yet. He knows that Harry is at his breaking point with such questions and Harry is grateful.

“How is Anne anyway?” Louis asks. “Did you thank her for the stuff she sent over for the kids?”

“Yes, Lou, and she got both your texts too.” Harry replies drily, though he smiles as he rolls his eyes.

“Good,” Louis just shrugs him off. “Is she all right?”

“Yeah, fine.” Harry nods. “I was windin’ her up, talking like you. Text me if ‘owt ‘appens, t’ra love, see ‘thi later!

“Oh my God I don’t sound like that!” He shrieks, but Harry is insistent that he does.

“Lou, y’can either agree with me or you can be wrong!”

“Cheeky gobshite!”

“Do you know what we were doing this time a year ago? Well, this time a year ago yesterday?”

Louis looks quizzical and then his face falls. “Shit, I’ve forgotten another anniversary haven’t I?”

Harry chuckles to himself and nods. “It’s okay, I’ll let you off.”

“Is it really a year since we met? Hard to believe isn’t it?” Louis muses. “A lot’s changed in a year, hey?”

A lot has changed, not just for them, though they’ve come a long way together as a quirky little family of (sometimes) four. Zayn and Liam are engaged, for Christ sake! Nothing can top that. Gemma’s been promoted and is thinking about buying a place. Lottie and Tommy are four months into a six month adventure in Australia. The only people that don’t seem to have developed much are Niall and Amy. They continue on down their own little path together, not seeming to be doing anything ever but still remaining the most perfect example of a couple that Harry has ever come across, himself and Louis included.

“Yep! Next stop, the Ziam wedding!”

“I told you, stop calling them Ziam!” Louis protests. “It’s weird!”

“No, you’re right; but we should keep up calling him Zayn Payne!” They both chuckle at the name, remembering the look of horror on Zayn’s face when he’d realised. In no uncertain terms they’d agreed then that Liam would be the one taking the surname. “That’ll really piss him off!”

It’s a long way off anyway; Zayn and Liam have set a date in 2019 so Harry has a while before he has to start thinking about a suit, or his best man speech. Not that Liam has officially asked him yet. It’s only a matter of time though.

“You’re the devil, you know that?”

“Yes, but you love me for it. Think how boring your life would be now if you didn’t have me, love.”

Harry doesn’t actually want to think about that. He knows Louis is joking, being facetious, but in reality Louis and the kids have been the only thing keeping Harry sane through his period of unemployment. Harry spends a second too long thinking about it and Louis obviously catches the frown that is troubling his expression.

“You okay, Haz? Spaced out for a minute there?”

“Y-yeah, I’m fine. Sorry.”

“Okay,” Louis nods, looking suspicious. “C’mon, let’s go and sleep away our food babies.”

Of course, they don’t go straight to sleep.

*

Louis’ been out of the house for precisely forty two minutes and Harry is bored already. He makes sure his phone is on loud, just in case he should happen to hear back from anyone important, and settles down on the sofa with a bowl of honey Cheerios and a cuppa.

He leaps out of his seat when his phone pings but it’s a junk email from a social media account he hasn’t used since school. Sighing loudly, he throws his phone down and returns to the kitchen for another cup of tea. He stares at the pictures up on the wall as he waits.

There’s picture of him there now too - well, of the four of them. Harry’s got Emilia on his hip and Louis is leaning down slightly holding onto Archie; they were at the zoo when it was taken and you can see the back end of a giraffe in the background. The jar of gummy bears sits on the window sill, the script on the tag faded a bit from the sun. Louis hasn’t opened it; refuses to. Says it’s too nice to open, and that once the sweets are gone the jar will be meaningless. Emilia was not pleased to hear that.

Harry spends his afternoon scrolling aimlessly through the job sites and listening to crap afternoon telly; A Place in the Sun, Countdown, Come Dine With Me. At four he starts on the tea, and Louis is home at half past five.

“Another quiet one?” Louis asks, diplomatically, as he pulls himself up onto the unit and kicks off his shoes without undoing the laces. “What’s for tea?”

Harry feels useless in that moment; completely void of all his purpose. “Ask me anything about today’s episode of Countdown, I can tell you everything that happened.” He jokes weakly.

“It’s all right, babe. Things will turn around soon.”

He has admittedly had the chance to up his cooking game during this bleak period of unemployment, and Harry could quite confidently say that Jamie Oliver has nothing on him now. Well, maybe.

He cooks chicken for tea and tries to ignore the fact he’s torn between a rock and a hard place; the encouraging sounds Louis makes during the cooking process and after are nice, an ego boost if you will, but it does feel a bit like he is being patronised.

*

The world continues on around him, despite the funk he is stuck in. Louis goes to work and Harry goes to sofa. Louis earns money and Harry earns worry lines around his eyes. He’s got a job interview next week to look forward to, but that doesn’t lift his spirits any.

Every evening he makes the tea and Louis eats it and they watch telly and cuddle and then go to bed, sometimes he’s in the mood and Louis isn’t, sometimes Louis’ in the mood and he isn’t. Rarely are they both in the mood at the same time.

The following week is better; the kids come back on Sunday and Harry arrives after they’ve gone to bed so when they wake up on Monday morning there is much excitement. He goes to the interview that day and stays at Louis’ until Thursday; they all leave together on Thursday morning. He’s sort of relieved, in a weird way, to see his mum, though not having Louis by his side makes him feel anxious. Being so torn between two polarising emotions is exhausting. Gemma comes round after work on Friday, and Harry decides listening to the successful older sibling go on and on and on about her new job really is his favourite thing to do.

He goes home to Louis on Saturday morning, greeting him at the door with a kiss before the Tornado of Tiny Tomlinson Tearaways hits him full force.

He’s relieved to be back, and it all goes well until half past eleven.

A mere hour and a half Harry has been here, and it’s probably the last time he’ll ever be allowed to set foot in the place. If Louis doesn’t kill him, Jess might.

He’d sat down with Louis to relax for a bit, after a good solid forty five minutes of playing. He remembers hearing a snipping noise, and Emilia’s content little humming noises, but he didn’t think to look. Louis doesn’t seem alarmed; he doesn’t react to the suspicious serenity either, so they carry on lounging about on the sofa, scrolling through their phones and periodically reaching out for their teas.

“Look, daddy!” She calls out proudly, and they both look up in unison to see Emilia standing up, scissors in hand, the hair on the left side of her face level with the bottom of her ear and the hair on the right side of her face in line with her mouth.

“Shit!” Louis leaps up, Emilia recoiling in surprise at the sudden movement. “Emilia, what the hell have you done?”

She bursts into tears immediately, and that sets off Archie, and all hell breaks loose.

"My princess curls!" Emilia’s wailing overtakes the hubbub, and she cries hysterically as she realises what she’s done.

Harry clutches Archie who is beside himself with the commotion, while Louis picks handfuls of blonde curls up from behind the toy box. He’s absolutely raging and Harry feels sick to his stomach.

“For Christ sake, Emilia, this is all I bloody well need!” Louis booms, completely overcome with emotion. “Jess is going to kill me! She’ll take away my access, for sure. Christ, I’m never gonna hear the end of this!”

He throws the hair down on the side and runs his hands through his own hair, flat and product-less.

“I’m so sorry Lou, I really am, shit I’ve messed up!”

“Harry, it’s okay,” Louis says rather stoically, but there is some warmth in his eyes. “I wasn’t paying attention either. I’m her dad, I should- God, it’s not your fault, okay?”

“I was playing with them and I wanted a break, I left her to play by herself!” Harry panics, remaining solid as Archie begins to wriggle and kick. “I don’t even remember seeing any scissors!”

“Look, we’ve just gotta get this sorted. That’s all that matters. Where’s there a hairdressers round here?”

Harry has a list up on his phone and Louis is making calls around; the first place doesn’t do kids hair, the second place is full and the third place can do it but only if they can be there in ten minutes. With two kids there is no way. Fourth time lucky, they find a place that can fit them in at one o'clock.

“I hope they employ miracle workers.” Louis says as they get in the car at twenty to one.

*

Emilia won’t get out of the car. When they finally do get her out of the car she won’t go into the hairdressers. Louis is getting angrier and angrier and Harry can’t do anything but stand there feeling pathetic. Every other word is a swear word by Louis and its tense to say the least.

“We are going in!” Louis says, enunciating every word. “You don’t get a say in this Emilia, it’s your fault we even need to be here in the first place.”

Harry’s not sure assigning blame and getting angry is the best way to be but he can’t intervene and he can’t promise that he wouldn’t be exactly the same as Louis if it was him.

“Don’t want you daddy, you’re horrible! Want Harry!”

“Ems, c’mon, let daddy go with you this time, hey?” Harry interjects, feeling a blush creep up on his cheeks. The last thing he wants is for Louis to resent him too in this situation.

“No! Harry! Harry!” Emilia pouts, Louis’ unease and irritation growing obviously by the second. “Hate you daddy!”

“Emilia Rose, enough!” Louis hisses, gripping her shoulders to try and get her to stop thrashing. “We’ve got to go in, the appointment is starting now and we’re about to be late, stop this now! If you hadn’t cut half your hair off we wouldn’t be here now, would we?!”

“Lou, don’t shout at her, it’s not her fault.”

“Look!” Louis straightens up with exasperation and spins around to face Harry. “I’m tryin’ me best here, Harry!”

“I don’t mind going in with her, if that’s what she wants and if you don’t mind. If it keeps her happy that’s all that matters, right? You take Archie over to those swings over there and we’ll go inside.” Harry says, pointing out a small enclosure with a swing and a slide across the road.

“I don’t- are you… oh Jesus, fine. Here, here’s twenty quid, it won’t be more than that.” Louis thrusts two tenners into Harry’s hand and they exchange one child for the other. “Thanks, Haz. I appreciate it.”

*

“Hi um, we’ve got an appointment at one. Emilia Tomlinson?”

The receptionist, a young girl with perfectly winged eyeliner, brows and flame red hair looks through the books for them and smiles when she finds them. “Take a seat, they won’t be a minute.”

They’ve barely sat down before a nice, older looking lady appears from behind the scenes, dressed in a black tabard with hair slides pinned around the neckline.

“Hello! You must be Emilia! Are you ready?” She addresses Emilia, crouching down to her level. She seems very maternal, a grandma maybe. “It looks like you’ve had a real go on this yourself, little miss!”

Emilia goes shy again, shying into Harry’s side.

“It’s okay, Ems, this lady is going to fix your hair for you with magic.”

“With magic?” Emilia echoes in wonderment, looking up at Harry and then over at the hairdresser timidly.

“Yep, I reckon we can fix this no problem. Do you want to come and sit in this big chair here and pop on this funky gown?”

With a bit of gentle prompting from Harry, Emilia slides off the couch and gets onto the hairdressers chair, enjoying the spinning that the hairdresser demonstrates for her.

“Don’t leave me!” Emilia says urgently as Harry goes to sit back down on the sofa.

“Shall we get a seat for daddy too?” The hairdresser asks, obviously anticipating another freak out. Harry is just about to smile and politely correct her when Emilia pipes up.

“Oh, that’s not my daddy, that’s my daddy’s boyfriend.” Emilia explains, following the hairdressers every move with her eyes in the big mirror before her. “He’s not my other dad yet, but soon.”

Harry blushes and waits for the well-meaning older lady to have an adverse reaction, but it doesn’t come. “Oh, I do apologise. Shall we still get dad’s boyfriend a seat or should we make him stand?”

Emilia giggles profusely. “No, him can have a chair, that’s mean!”

Harry sits down in the spare chair in the station next to Emilia as the hairdresser puts the obnoxiously patterned cape around her shoulders and ties it loosely at the back. She smoothes down Emilia’s chopped hair and spritzes it with some water. She picks up strands of Emilia’s hair and makes a funny face in the mirror. Emilia seems quite relaxed now. Louis would probably spit.

“And does dad’s boyfriend have a name?” She asks Emilia but looks at him.

“It’s my Harry,” Emilia says immediately, and her eyes travel over to him in the mirror.

“Okay, Harry, so I think the easiest way, the only way really, is to get it all to one length all over, which unfortunately is going to be this length.” She picks up the shortest chunk and runs her fingers through it, loosening the curl. “I’ll shape it inwards on the bottom so it sits like a curly bob. A cob, if you will.”

Harry smiles; he likes that term. He nods, feeling a bit overwhelmed as far as the hair goes. “That sounds fine. Not much else you can do, right?”

“Unfortunately not,” She agrees. “So little lady, are you ready to get started?”

Emilia nods, and she seems fine; she lets the hairdresser squirt a bit more water onto her hair to make it easier to cut. But Harry can see her starting to fidget her hands and her legs, and as the lady gets her scissors out she begins to look uneasy.

“It’s okay, Ems,” Harry offers, inching as close to her as he can get. “It’s all right, babe. Don’t worry.”

“Where’s my daddy?” She asks in a tiny, wobbly voice.

“At the park with Archie, remember?” Harry says. “I’m here, it’s okay.”

“I don’t wanna get another haircut, Harry.” She sniffles. “I miss my princess curls they’re all gone! I’m so sorry I cut ‘em all off, I’m sorry I really am!”

The hairdresser waits patiently, gazing sympathetically as Emilia scrambles out of the seat and cowers in Harry’s arms. He holds her tight, repeating over and over it will be okay, the little girl not placating at all. Then, an idea hits him.

“Excuse me, sorry- do you have anyone else free right now? For me?”

*

Everyone in the salon is absolutely enamoured with the two of them by the time they leave, if Harry does say so himself. Emilia exudes confidence and happiness now, and they’ve made a lovely job of her hair. Objectively speaking, it looks great, but whether Louis – or Jess, for that matter – will agree is another matter.

Harry pays and tips generously, and Emilia leaves with a Chupa Chup lolly and a three year old copy of a hairdressing magazine that she’d taken a shine to because of the turquoise haired lady on the front cover.

“Is that gonna be your next hairdo, Ems?” Harry jokes as they step out onto the street, leaving behind the smell of hairspray and ammonia.

“Can I really? Do you ‘fink mummy will let me?”

“I don’t know just yet, Ems, maybe when you’re big.”

“When I’m sixteen?”

“Maybe.”

They head across the road hand in hand towards the park.

“I’m gonna call daddy, let him know we’re coming. Show him our surprise.”

“Make him cover him eyes, then we can show him together.”

Harry laughs as he waits for the call to connect. “Hiya love, yeah all done… we’re just behind you- don’t look round, it’s a surprise! Cover your eyes please… okay.”

He can see Louis, back to them sitting on a bench as Archie toddles about happily.

“Okay, go on then, love.”

“Daddy!” Emilia throws her head back and shouts across the field. “You must stay sitting down and shut your eyes, okay?”

“Why?” Louis calls back, making an exaggerated show of covering his face with his hands.

“’Cause I said so! Is they shut?” Emilia says as they pull up to a stop in front of Louis’ bench.

“Yes!” Louis trills with an audible sigh. “You gonna show me or what?”

“Hang on! We gots good news… and bad news, daddy. Keep your eyes covered!” Emilia tells Louis solemnly, pronouncing each word carefully. Louis still has his hands over his face and is shaking his head slightly behind his palms.

“Okay…” He says, muffled of course. “C’mon, put me outta me misery!”

“You ready?” Harry asks her softly, wrapping his arm around her shoulders, bare now with the lack of hair. Emilia nods, licking her lips triumphantly.

“You tell him,” She whispers, so Harry nods.

“Okay, Lou, you can look now.”

Louis separates his fingers and peers out through the gaps, then slides his hands down his face. “Oh my… Harry!”

“The bad news is they couldn’t put my long hair back together again but the good news is Harry got his princess curls cut too! Now we match!”

“I… I can see that, yeah.” Louis stares blankly back at them, between Harry and Emilia. He’s unblinking. “Bloody hell… what did you… Harry your hair!”

“Do you like it?” Harry asks, reaching up to run his hands through the top, which while a huge step away from what he had this morning, is still relatively long and curly on top. The sides fade down to a four and it’s nice and neat around the back of his neck. “I think we look very smart together, don’t you Ems?”

“Yep!” Emilia nods enthusiastically. “What you fink, daddy?”

Harry can tell Louis is in shock. He hasn’t even really taken in Emilia’s hair yet, he’s too busy gawking at Harry. Archie comes tanking over and barges past them to Louis. Louis lifts him onto his knee completely blindly, still staring.

“Your hair looks lovely Ems, much better. You look fab, babes.”

“Yep, the hairdresser done magic to fix it, didn’t she Harry?”

Harry nods, smirking at Louis’ still shell shocked expression. He’d not really thought about cutting his hair off, but the second he suggested it to Emilia her face lit up and became a million times happier about her own hair disaster. And so, the hairdresser has twisted his hair into a ponytail and chopped it clean off. Then she trimmed the length on the top, faded the sides with the clippers and run her fingers through the curls with product the revive them. He’ll never be able to replicate such glamour but it feels nice to have fresh hair, his first haircut in three years or more.

“I miss my curls and feel sad that they’re gone.” Emilia says forlornly.

“Princesses can still be princesses with short hair,” Harry tells her, running a hand through the chin length blonde curls that tuck neatly behind her ear. “We’re still a team, right?”

“Yeah - can I play for a bit? Daddy will you push me on the swing? Oh Harry, look at the slide!” She runs off, distracted, and Archie follows her, bellowing her name over and over.

Harry smiles at the scene, glad to be past Emilia’s tantrum. He shuffles back on the bench, the slats digging into his thighs but he doesn’t mind. He can feel eyes on him though, and he looks out of the corner of his eye to see Louis, staring fixatedly at him.

“What!” He exclaims with an explosion of giggles, humoured by the shocked expression still painted on Louis’ face. “It’s just hair!”

“I’m… I can’t- I’m in shock!” Louis stammers, reaching up to run his fingers through the imaginary hair around Harry’s shoulders. “It’s all gone, I can’t believe it! What did- why did you do it?”

Harry proceeds to tell Louis about Emilia’s melt down; how difficult it was to get her into the chair and then how she’d calmed down enough only to be set off again once the scissors came out. It had seemed like a good idea to join her with the snip.

“It’s a bit extreme!” Louis says, but his eyes are soft. “You really did that for her though? You… you’re her hero. Mine too.”

Harry smiles.  “It’s only a haircut.”

Louis shakes his head vehemently. “It’s not, well it is, yeah, but it’s more than that. I don’t know anyone else who would cut off their hair just to make someone’s kid happy.”

“She’s not just a kid, Lou. I… she’s special to me, you know that. I’ll do anything for all three of you. Once I’m back in work I’ll prove it to you.”

“You don’t have to ‘prove’ anything to me, Haz, you know that right? Just you being you, being here, it’s enough.”

Harry will never feel like he’s enough, but he nods anyway. It’s easier to agree. “That doesn’t mean I’m not gonna strive to make things even better, though.”

Louis slides along the bench, they’re as close as they can be, and hooks one leg up and tucks it under himself and leans in to Harry. “Love you, Baldy.”

Harry snorts, rolling his eyes but bringing an arm up and looping it loosely over Louis’ frame. “Love you too.”

*

“You did what?” He hears Jess ask down the line, clipped and simmering with a soon to be exposed rage.

He’s trying his best to concentrate on what Emilia and Archie are doing, trying not to listen to Louis’ conversation. Thankfully, not too long later Louis gets up and continues the conversation in the kitchen. He can hear Louis’ voice but he’s purposely not trying to make sense of the words he’s hearing.

He puts on a brave face for Emilia, whose eyes keep wandering over in the direction of the door as Louis and Jess’ conversation continues.

“It’s all right, Ems, c’mon let’s finish up what we’re doing here and then we can get the Play Doh out.”

“Pay-doh!” Archie echoes, scrambling to his feet and running unsteadily towards the toy box. He pulls out a purple haired Barbie, completely unrelated, and Harry smiles.

“Yep, but we gotta tidy one thing up before another, okay?”

*

Harry doesn’t go with Louis to drop the kids off with Jess on Sunday, he doesn’t dare. The thought of the onslaught Jess is going to give Louis for this is enough to make him sick. He chews nervously on his thumb and lets his cuppa go cold as he sits and watches the window for any signs of Louis’ return.

It seems to take forever, he’s sure the exchanges never normally take this long, and by the time he finally hears a car door slam he almost jumps out of his skin in his haste to rush to the front door.

Louis has his key poised as Harry throws open the front door. He surveys Louis’ stony, tired expression, fearing the worst.

“How did it go?” He asks nervously.

Louis trudges in and kicks off his shoes haughtily before letting out a high sigh and forcing his way into Harry’s arms. He clings around his middle and burrows his face into his chest.

“I hate her!” He moans. “I literally, honest to God hate her. She’s… why did I ever go anywhere near her? She’s horrible, bloody horrible!”

Harry makes sure he holds onto Louis, let’s him calm down in his arms.

“Let’s just get takeaway for tea,” Louis says as he pulls away, already pulling up Just Eat on his phone. “No questions asked, it’s my idea. In fact, it is my insistence that we have greasy shite for tea - not literally, mind.”

Harry doesn’t argue, and when their food arrives just shy of an hour later, he’s bloody ready for it.

Once they’ve finished eating and the telly has turned to rubbish again they lay down across the sofa, Louis’ legs parted lazily and Harry between them, head resting on his chest. Louis’ hands absentmindedly run through the short hair fading down into Harry’s neck. The motion makes Harry shiver and so Louis keeps on doing it.

“Still can’t believe it’s gone,” He says quietly, pinching his neck ever so gently. “I miss it already.”

“You’ll get over it love,” Harry muses. ”It was just hair.”

“It wasn’t ‘just hair’!” Louis cries in mock upset. “Wash your mouth out!”

“It looks smarter now, and it's already easier to cope with. Plus, might help me get a job.”

“Hmm, well that’s all well and good but I still miss it.” Louis replies with a pout. Harry lifts his head up, and softly Louis adds on, “I miss pulling it.”

Harry’s eyes twinkle. “Is that so?”

Louis nods silently.

Making a sharp little ‘aha’ noise, Harry turns onto his side and shuffles down the sofa, his feet hanging off the arm awkwardly as he adjusts himself into the confined space, and minutes later as Louis’ head hits the back of Harry’s throat, Louis reaches down and makes a pleased little harrumph when he finds that there is in fact still just enough hair to have a bit of a gentle tug as Harry brings him to orgasm.

*

They run into Amy and Niall in Asda on Wednesday evening buying wine. Amy spots them first, dashing over and throwing herself at Louis.

“All right, Aims, how’re you m’love?”

“Harry’s got new hair!” Amy shrieks, drawing attention to their little group. “Looking good, H! I almost didn’t recognise you! Was about to box this one’s ears for going about with a mystery man!”

“Uh thanks?” Harry blushes, tugging on a strand self-consciously, still not used to the change.

“This calls for a celebration! We need a night out!”

”Harry’s hair is not a good enough reason for a night out, Aims.” Niall points out, finally getting a word in edgeways over his bubbly girlfriend.

“Oh come on, old man, let your hair down. Ha, pun definitely intended!” She says with delight, nudging Harry’s arm.

“We’re going out for dinner Friday night, so can’t.”

“Well Saturday then! Lou, you get in touch with Zayn Payne and his hubby to be!” They all pause to giggle at the nickname, clearly still not over it yet. “Come to ours for pre-drinks and we can get a taxi into town!”

Reluctantly they agree to a night out on Saturday, and spend the rest of the evening periodically bemoaning the flurry of social activity and mourning the loss of two relaxing evenings.

 

Louis

 

On Friday they have a table at eight. They both order steak, Harry the rib eye and Louis the sirloin, and spend the evening sharing bites off each other’s plates.

On Saturday morning Louis wakes with a deep set ache from a busy week, amplified by the adventurous (by their standards) sex that they’d been having well into the small hours. He rolls over and goes straight back to sleep, opening his eyes briefly to consider the day, but with no kids to get up for he’s staying in bed.

They get up properly at eleven and Harry sneaks into the bathroom with him, appearing behind the shower curtain tentatively and stepping over the edge of the bath to join him.

“You’re overly affectionate, what’re you up to?” Louis asks as Harry stays plastered to his back, arms around his shoulders and hands resting on his chest. The water droplets are hitting his tummy and missing Harry completely.

“Nothin’,” Harry replies sleepily, dropping his cheek onto Louis’ shoulder and nuzzling. “Just love you.”

“Love you too babe,” Louis reassures him, reaching up and slotting his fingers between Harry’s.

“Will you still love me if I’m still unemployed next month?”

“Of course.”

“What about at Christmas?”

“Yep.”

“Next year?!”

“Always, Haz.”

Harry sighs and Louis wriggles around, side stepping so they’re both under the spray, his back precariously close to the cold tiles and the water pinging off Harry’s shoulders into his eyes, but it’s okay.

“Thank you for dinner last night, by the way.” Harry says. Louis knows it’s a sore spot for him to be in financial difficulties, and getting him to agree to anything where Louis will be the payer is difficult. “Love you.”

Louis can’t hear that enough.

“Love you too. C’mon, let’s get clean and get food. I’m starved. Someone ate half of my dinner last night.”

*

Louis has changed four times, and he’s still not one hundred percent happy with his choices.

Harry has poured himself into black skinny jeans and a semi-sheer dusky pink button up shirt, except a lot of the buttons aren’t actually buttoned up. He’d walked straight into the wardrobe and selected the outfit from the pieces that have made their way over from his mums place, not a concern in the world.

Louis looks down at his own burgundy scoop neck and skinny jeans combination and makes a face. It’ll have to do though, he couldn’t find the right t-shirt to wear under his favourite jean shirt and the blue that he’d been leaning towards looks better with a lighter jean, so this will have to do. Besides, they’ve got to be at Niall and Amy’s in twenty minutes and it’s a fifteen minute walk at best.

The walk is subdued but when they arrive at Niall and Amy’s the atmosphere is electric and it's impossible not to get swept along in Amy’s enthusiasm and loudness that fills the room.

There is a bottle of vodka that someone has carelessly left unattended so Louis picks it up and unscrews the cap. He pours a generous glug into a pink plastic tumbler and welcomes himself into the fridge to try and find something to go with it. Harry has taken up with Amy and seems to be just fine. Niall follows him through to the kitchen and doesn’t even bat an eyelid as Louis helps himself to the bottle of lemonade in the fridge door.

Liam and Zayn arrive not long after. They all take shots and pose for pictures with Amy and then pile into a taxi at half ten. They’re a trio of couples, the majority of them pushing thirty, but they manage to keep up with the teenagers around them just fine. Amy makes friends with everyone, as she so often seems to.

Harry’s expression seems to change a little when Louis brandishes a twenty pound note between his two fingers and motions for him to get them drinks, but he goes anyway and Louis is too submerged in strobe lights and pounding bass to think too much about it, about anything.

The majority of the night is a drunken blur to Louis; sometimes Harry is nearby and other times he’s not. He blends in so well with the rest of the group that it’s not overly concerning to Louis, and it’s nice to see the others properly for the first time in months; nice to let his hair down. It’s funny winding Liam and Zayn up; they’re both as socially awkward and painfully shy as each other. Louis goes to say something on a similar tangent to Harry, but he’s not there. He frowns to himself drunkenly but ultimately presses on with the evening.

Getting home he doesn’t remember; but he remembers suddenly not being in the loud club anymore. He doesn’t remember crawling up the stairs on his knees but he remembers leaving Harry on the bed to go for a wee, planning maybe a sloppy blowie or a hand job upon his return, but when he’d got back Harry was asleep.

The next thing Louis knows it’s Sunday morning and it's bright and his head hurts but thankfully Harry is still next to him.

There's no need for them to get up early and still Harry is awake at stupid o'clock for no apparent reason.

“H, what you doing?” Louis asks blearily.

“Needed a wee and a drink so got up and now I'm too awake to go back to sleep. I'm gonna get up, all right?”

His tone is soft enough that Louis doesn't pay it too much mind. “Okay, mind if I stay in bed?”

“No that's fine,” Harry nods and stands up. Louis has a cheeky look at his naked bum before dropping back off.

An hour or so later, Louis isn't really sure, he wakes again and the bed is empty next to him. It takes a further ten minutes or so to pull himself up and out of bed, into the shower and downstairs.

Harry has his head tipped right back on the back of the sofa, and so Louis sees his opportunity and leans in to sneak a kiss on his forehead, eyes closed.

“Fuckin’ hell babe!” Louis just manages to duck out of the way in time to avoid Harry's inadvertent head butt.

“You scared me!” Harry cries defensively, and although he's acting a bit weird and things feel a bit tense, Louis ignores it, counts himself lucky he didn't just get twatted in the nose and shuffles into the kitchen to make a cuppa.

“Tea?” He shouts to Harry across the rooms.

Harry shouts back a grunt that Louis assumes is a yes please and Louis flicks the switch and waits for the water to come to a boil.

When Louis goes back into the living room, Harry is sitting up and shuffles over so Louis can sit down next to him. Louis takes a hearty gulp of too-hot tea before speaking.

“Surprised you let me sit with you to be honest.”

“I’m fine,” Harry says, and it’s not really an answer to Louis’ not really a question.

Louis sighs and puts his tea down and reaches for the Sky remote, flicking the telly over to Sky Sports News. Harry doesn’t flinch. Louis tries his best to concentrate on the scores, waiting patiently for the League One scores to scroll past to find out how Doncaster are faring. When he looks over again, Harry has fallen asleep.

“What’s the point in getting up at the arse crack of dawn just to fall asleep on the sofa?” Louis mutters to himself as Harry’s arm twitches suddenly in his sleep.

Harry is still asleep when Louis has to leave to get the kids. He considers his options and in the end scribbles on a scrap of paper and leaves it on the coffee table for Harry.

He drums his hand on the sun-warmed leather wheel as he drives across town, chewing his lip thoughtfully and trying to shake the funny feeling in his gut. Jess is no less sour today then she was a week ago, and the exchange is brief. She can’t resist getting a jab in before they leave.

“Try not to bring Archie back with an eyebrow piercing. A tattoo! Try not to let Emilia break her leg, okay?”

Louis continues to stare ahead stoically as she goes on. He closes the car door carefully behind Emilia and opens his own, not looking at Jess and giving her the satisfaction of a reaction. Inside though, he’s seething.

“Daddy!” Emilia shouts, and he realises she’s been calling him for some time now.

“What?!” He snaps, hating himself immediately. “S-sorry, what Ems? What’s up babe?”

“Mummy don’t like my new hair.”

“It’s okay, she’s just getting used to it.”

“Do she still love me? Now my hair’s short?”

“Of course she does babe, why would you think she doesn't love you?”

“Well she don’t love you, and you don’t love her. I’m scared yous don’t love me either.”

“No Emilia Rose, I love you very much. You’ve got a whole family of people that love you and Archie. Don’t you ever forget that. What happened with me and mummy is something that isn't because of anything you’ve done wrong, okay?”

His eyes flit quickly between the road ahead and his daughters’ reflection in the rear view.

“Okay, Ems?” He asks again, looking for confirmation. He feels sick.

“Okay,” She answers unconvincingly.

“You know, Nanny Jay and Grandad aren’t in love anymore are they, but they still love you. Even if you don't see someone much, everyone in your family loves you. Me, nanny, all your aunties, Harry and Gems and Nan-Anne.”

Harry’s mum and sister had taken Emilia and Archie in as if they were their own, quickly becoming Gems and Nan-Anne. The fact that the kids are already calling Anne ‘nan’ while Harry is still just ‘Harry’ is neither here nor there, Louis will deal with that soon. Plus, Archie almost tripping over himself with excitement shouting ’nan-Anne’  over and over is officially the cutest thing he’s ever seen.

The smile on Harry’s face, the tears gathering in the corners of his eyes the first time he’d done it is something Louis will never, ever forget.

She smiles at that. “Is Harry at home?”

“Yeah, babe. He’s your favourite now isn't he? You like him more than daddy!” He pretends to be upset.

“I love that you love him and me and my baby brother.” Emilia tells him frankly, and his grin disappears. “It’s nice to have two dads. Am I allowed to call him that now? It’s been aaaa-ges since him been your boyfriend. The hairdresser ‘fought him was my daddy, did you know?”

Wow, information overload. Was Emilia reading his mind just now? “Uh, no I didn't know that. How silly of them.”

“I know!”

“About the dad thing, we really need to talk to Harry about that. One day. Not today though, Harry is a bit tired today I think. I bet he’ll just wanna play games tonight.”

“All right,” Emilia agrees with a small unaffected shoulder shrug. “I can cope with that.”

Louis smirks to himself and wonders if his daughter is four or fourteen.

*

Harry is still asleep when they arrive home, but not for long. Emilia charges at his sleeping body curled up on the sofa and Harry jerks awake, obviously disorientated for a moment before blinking away his slumber and realising where he is.

Louis holds his breath for a moment in fear that he’s going to shout at Emilia, but he doesn’t. His confusion breaks for a broad, sleepy smile and his eyes are just a few seconds behind the rest of his face in awakening.

“Emilia Rose!” Harry hoots, entrapping her in his arms and dropping a kiss onto her forehead. “The world’s most wriggly alarm clock, Emmie Tomlinson!”

Not one to be outdone, Archie clambers his rigid limbs up onto the sofa and dives onto Harry and Emilia. Louis watches with a weary smile and thinks that maybe a sleep was all Harry needed.

But maybe not.

After Emilia’s exhilaration at seeing Harry again has died down and they’ve gone on to entertain themselves, Harry goes back into his shell again. Scooby Doo is on Boomerang and the kids may not be watching it but Harry seems quite engrossed in it.

“Harry, you all right?” Louis asks eventually, prodding his thigh to get his attention.

Harry ignores him for a beat and then looks around, perhaps a slight flash of irritation behind his eyes.

“Nothing, I’m watching Scooby Doo.”

“I know,” Louis agrees. “But in general, you’ve been off all day. When you’ve not been sleeping.”

“Is it a crime to sleep?” Harry asks.

“No, I’m just- fuck it, don’t worry. Sorry I asked.”

“I’m fine, Louis, you don’t need to keep askin’. You don’t need to worry about a thing.”

“What’s that supposed t’mean?”

“What?”

“Was that a dig?”

“No, I was just telling you not to worry. I’m not in a bad mood, I’m just fine , okay? Peachy.”

“Yeah whatever.”

Harry doesn't respond, just gives him a venomous look.

“You’re acting like an idiot, to be frank.” Louis tells him curtly.

“Oh I’m an idiot now, am I?”

Louis just glowers at Harry, very much aware that they’re not alone right now. “What else am I supposed to say, you’re hardly a joy to be around.”

Harry looks away, presumably over at Emilia and Archie. He looks torn, like he doesn't know what to do. His eyes flicker and his expression is blank, face pale. Then, he shrugs and stands up. “Fuck off then.” He mutters under his breath, just audible to Louis.

He leaves the room, and Louis’ skin itches with anger but he stays put, only because of Emilia. He watches the door sway gently on its hinges where Harry had just barged through it, and Emilia catches his eye as he drags his eyes away from the scene.

“Where’s Harry going?” Emilia asks looking up, mouth hanging open and eyes wide.

“Just upstairs for a bit, Ems,” Louis says. She gets up to follow in Harry’s footsteps. “Leave him alone for a bit, babe.”

“Why’d you upset him?” She asks accusingly.

“I- don’t worry about it, Emilia. He’ll come back down soon.”

Emilia looks at him, almost with disappointment, and then goes back to what she’s doing. Louis sighs and pushes himself as far into the corner of the sofa as he can. He scowls down at his hands gathered in his lap, picking at his finger with his thumbnail.

He waits as long as he can. Archie has fallen asleep on the beanbag chair and Emilia is playing nicely with her dolls house. She’s moved in her plastic T-Rex and he’s currently having a tea party, but she’s playing nicely so that’s all that matters.

“Ems, stay here okay. I’m just going upstairs,” He tells her softly. “Shout for me if you need anything and keep an eye on your brother.”

She nods and doesn’t look away from her play.

Louis takes the stairs two at a time; avoiding the creaky one three steps from the top. He heads for their bedroom, pushing the door open carefully without knocking.

Harry’s got his back to him, but he’s tense and stiff like he obviously knows Louis is in the room. Louis smiles reluctantly to himself; he can’t help it. He crosses the room to the bed and drops onto one knee, clambering across and laying himself down behind Harry, pinning their bodies close together, front to back.

“I’m sorry,” He says against Harry’s spine, feeling the slight vibration bounce back at him. “Are you okay?”

He can feel Harry’s heart beating but he’s holding onto his breath, petulantly. Eventually, he lets it go and his shoulders sag. “Yeah I’m fine.”

“You said that already.”

Harry tries to keep stony faced but he’s already smiling. “I… I dunno, I just feel pathetic, Lou. This not having a job shit is really getting to me. I apply everywhere and I just don’t hear back from anywhere, and even if I do get an interview nothin’ comes of it! I can’t do anything for you and the kids; I’m back livin’ with my mum. I can’t afford drinks or dinner when we go out so it's all on you. I just… it makes me feel even more far removed from you than I normally do. It’s doing my head in!”

“What do you mean, far removed?” Louis’ face falls; he feels the ache in his cheeks from smiling disappear abruptly.

“I don’t mean, I just… the age gap. Normally I can push past it but right now it just feels a million times bigger than me.”

“If it helps,” Louis says after a considering pause. “I don’t notice the gap. Not now and not ever. Hardly ever. You can be a bit of a baby when there’s a good chick flick on, but aside from that… you’re man enough for me.”

Harry looks at him in disbelief and they both snort, piercing the bubble of tension. “That was horribly cheesy, Lou, Jesus Christ!”

Louis laughs, pushing his fingers underneath Harry’s side, grateful to be allowed access again. “Things will turn around, Haz. I promise. And I’m sorry I pushed it.”

“It’s okay,” Harry says, and he rolls over slowly so they’re facing each other. “I’m sorry too. I didn’t mean to sound ungrateful. That wasn’t- I wasn’t trying to say I don’t appreciate what you do for me.”

“I know babe,” Louis nods. “It’s all right.”

“As soon as I get a job, my first pay cheque I’m taking us all out for the day, on me.”

“You don’t have to do that, love. The kids know no different, and I don’t mind opening up me wallet. If I minded I’d say so, okay?”

Harry nods. They stare at each other for a moment, eyes roaming all over the high points and shadowy lows of each other’s faces. Harry leans in first, smiling as he does so. Louis can feel the smirk on Harry’s lips as they share a misaligned kiss.

“Stop it, both kids are downstairs!” Louis giggles against Harry’s lips as Harry begins to slide his hands over his hips and under the waistband of his jeans, trying his luck.

*

As it turns out, Harry only needed a little bit of faith and things would, as Louis had put it, turn around. The morning that they call, he and Harry are both fast asleep even though it’s a Wednesday and it’s ten past nine and Louis should’ve been at work ten minutes ago.

Harry answers his phone groggily, Louis’ eyes closed still but the rest of his senses slowly coming to. Louis’ only half listening to Harry, but he gets the fright of his life when Harry suddenly leaps out of bed.

“Yes, of course, that’d be- that’s great, thank you so much. Of course I can be there at ten, that’s perfect. Thank you so much, thank you. Okay, bye!”

“Wh- fucking hell Harry, it’s ten past nine!” Louis exclaims, throwing down his phone and accommodating the blind nauseas panic at realising he’s running late. “What was that? Who?”

“I’ve got an interview! Fucking hell, Lou, an interview! That one I applied for last week, the café and farm shop? It was them!”

“Ahh, see I told you!” Louis takes a moment to pause, he smiles and squeezes Harry’s arm supportively. “Ten? You’ve gotta be there at ten?”

“Yeah, I better get ready it’s- shit Lou, it’s quarter past nine! You’re late!”

“I know, I know, shit, c’mon, get ready. We can eat brekkie in the car!”

“No, too nervous to face food!” Harry whines as he peers at himself bleakly in the little mirror. “Oh my God, what do I do with this hair, I still don’t understand this hairdo!”

Louis still isn’t used to Harry’s new hair, still mourns the loss of his favourite pull-able chocolate curls, but he’s got no time for moping, he’s got his own drama to deal with: being late for work. He doesn’t think about what he’s going to wear, just goes straight for bog standard grey trousers and a white shirt.

He has Harry text Tina for him when they’re in the car, and finding out that Andy isn’t in today is sweet music to Louis’ ears. He takes Harry as far as he can en route and drops him off to make the last few minutes of the journey on foot. He blasts into the office at 09:41 and in all the hubbub he realises he forgot to kiss Harry goodbye.

’I forgot to kiss you. Good luck this morning babe, you will smash it. Let me know. Love you x’

*

Harry is on edge for the rest of the week, the tension and excitement dwindling to resigned despondence as the week drags on. Saturday they spend quietly ambling around the shops, holding hands and not talking about it. Any of it.

On Sunday his big girl and his little boy come home to him for Father’s Day, which is just about the best gift Louis could’ve asked for. Jess’ mum drops the kids off, which is new, and she offers no explanation for it further than Jess was busy. Louis just shrugs, accepting his children back and saying a polite goodbye to his estranged ex-sort of mother in law.

Harry gets a call back the next evening, Monday the nineteenth. They offer Harry the job at the farm shop and they’d appreciate it if he could let them know by mid-week.

Harry does not match the enthusiasm and relief levels that Louis had been expecting. Instead, he looks rather dejected. To be fair, Harry had come back from the interview very keen but had grown rather despondent. He’d been going off the idea the longer he’d waited to hear, but now he’s heard and it’s supposedly good news he’s still torn.

“I can’t exactly afford to be choosy can I?” He asks Louis. “If I turn this job down, the first offer in four months, I might not get another chance. Money is money at the end of the day, and that’s what I need. Get my life back on track. I didn’t even wanna work at the leisure centre when I first started but I grew to love it. Maybe I could grow to love retail too?” He sighs and his shoulders sag. “Sorry, I’m rambling.”

“S’okay,” Louis says. “You don’t want to take any old job if it’s not what you want. It’ll only make you miserable.”

“What would you do if you were me?” Harry asks. Louis doesn’t want to answer that; he looks down at the floor with a shrug. “Thanks, big help.”

“Sorry love,” He says. “I think you should do what your heart says. It doesn’t have to be forever, does it, and if you don’t accept then something will come along eventually. It has to.”

Harry does take the job, agreeing eventually with Louis that it doesn’t have to be forever and he might learn to love it.

“No way!” Emilia swoons, wide eyed when Harry tells her the good news. “I’ve got a pretend till and a pretend kitchen with food and money, I can help you practice!”

 

Harry

 

Emilia’s guidance and practice runs obviously worked wonders because Harry hits the ground running at his new place. That’s what he tells Emilia, anyway.  Everything feels a little easier after that first pay cheque; Harry’s happy again, feels younger for it. And he understands how contradictory that is, considering how much of a fuss he’s made about their age gap in the past.

The second half of the year flies by after going back to work, and before they know where they are they’re at the end of another year.

Archie and Emilia have their birthdays; it’s wild to think they’ve now got a five year old and a two year old. Four days before her fifth birthday, Emilia started school. Louis was braver than Harry thought he’d be, keeping it together whilst the three of them dropped her off for her first day, how funny they must have looked. He’d had to talk Louis down from the ceiling where his emotions were running so high, and even Jess was supportive when he began freaking out that all of the staff were talking about them and their unique set up.

Over the summer months the occasional ‘daddy’ had slipped out from Emilia while addressing Harry, but it didn’t seem to be a solid development, so they’d let it be. Archie was still only babbling, making the occasional ‘dadada’ but that was easy enough to ignore until one of them was brave enough to address the issue and talk about how they were going to proceed.

Anyway, by the first half term holiday the week of Halloween, Emilia has settled in and is loving school. She talks about the teachers and the teaching assistants, the rules in the playground, the games they play, the dinners that are served and all her little friends – of which there seems to be hundreds.

Bonfire Night has always been one of Harry’s favourite times of the year. The farm shop is gearing up for Christmas, of course, and Bonfire Night is the last big hurrah before everything becomes cinnamon scented and covered in fake snow.

Harry works on Saturday, the last working day before the Bonfire Night fireworks display on Sunday the fifth. Before working here, Harry had seen signs for the farm shop fireworks display of previous years but he’d never been here to see one. Being part of the planning, part of the behind the scenes takes a little bit of the sparkle away. He has to fill in forms for everything; the out-of-hours opening of the kitchens, the overtime for the staff, the insurance to have a bonfire and fireworks, order forms for said fireworks and fencing off the safety zone so no one could get too close.

Thankfully he wasn’t in charge of moving the animals away for the duration of the display, although watching Jason and Lisa herding up the goats was hilarious.

He finally leaves at seven, an hour after his usual finishing time. He’s spent the last hour or two of his busy day tidying the kids’ play area and putting up the decorations. The glass double doors that lead out from the kids’ area to the outside seating area will be open as a thoroughfare tomorrow, so he’s been busy with the Windolene.

He’s ready for his bed as soon as he falls wearily through the door, but both kids are still up and excitedly chattering about school, in Emilia’s case. She and Archie are both in their kangaroo pyjamas that Lottie and Tommy brought back from Oz, looking cute as buttons but Emilia’s motor mouth is second to none. Actually, maybe second to Louis’ mum. She could talk the hind legs off a donkey.

“Are you looking forward to coming to my work tomorrow for the fireworks?”

Archie looks at him with confusion, so Emilia takes the question – surprise surprise. “Yeah! Does there going to be a Guy Fawkes?”

Both he and Louis had been surprised to find out – only after telling Emilia an abridged version of the tale of Guy Fawkes – that they don’t teach it to children in schools anymore. Luckily she hadn’t been too concerned about the story of gunpowder, treason and plot, and their extra-curricular enlightening hadn’t landed them in any hot water, but Emilia hadn’t forgotten about it.

“No love, just a bonfire and fireworks.”

He and Louis share a smile, and then Emilia starts talking about what food she wants to get from ‘Harry’s café’. Archie asks pointedly and repeatedly for a ‘chee-bur’, and Harry ends up promising them both they can have cheeseburgers for their tea.

Now that there are two of them to do bedtime it’s a lot quicker. Louis pokes his head round the door, Archie down for the night now, just as Harry is finishing up Emilia’s third and last story.

“Sleep time now sweetheart, we’ve got an exciting day tomorrow then back to mummy’s.”

“Today was quite boring wasn’t it daddy?”

Louis snorts and rolls his eyes. “Yeah, I suppose it was.”

“Tomorrow will be fun, I promise.” Harry says, and his two biggest Tomlinson’s look at him with stars in their eyes. “Night then, sweetheart. See you in the morning.”

She kisses them both goodnight and they creep back downstairs undetected.

*

The farm is open until four but Harry doesn’t have to work. All of his handiwork has probably been undone by the Sunday staff, but Louis has told him in no uncertain terms not to worry about it. He’s not sure if ‘it will be dark, no one will notice’ is supposed to reassure him or destroy him, but it’s a curious mixture of the two. Louis kisses the pout off his face with an indignant chuckle.

Admission is from five thirty and the fireworks are at six forty five. They’ve promised to have the kids to Jess by seven thirty, so all in all it’s a bit more of a rush than Harry would’ve liked, but it’s magical all the same.

The play area has a sign above it written in brightly coloured letters spelling out ‘Conkers’, and is draped in fairy lights. The café is open and the smells coming from Julie and Maria’s kitchen are delightful. There’s a huge gas barbecue outside too, and Harry can already see people milling around with hot dogs and burgers in hand.

It takes Archie precisely one minute to start screaming for a ‘chee-bur’.

It’s bitterly cold out of course, it’s November; but the skies overhead are clear and perfect for fireworks. Harry’s worst nightmare was that it’d be raining and all of his plans and hard work would be for nothing, so he doesn’t mind suffering a bit of chilblains safe in the knowledge that it’s all going to go as planned.

There are quite a few familiar faces that say hello to him as they sit around the picnic bench, and Louis laughs at him for all the little old ladies that stop to admire him and the kids, conveniently not stopping to ask who Louis is.

“Surely being ignored is better than being asked if you’re my brother!” Harry reasons, watching as something flickers over Louis’ face, but then he nods, smile a little stale now but still there. Harry reaches out and takes Louis’ gloved hand, leans forward and drops a kiss onto his lips. The tip of his nose and his pout are cold from the air. “I love you.”

“Love you too, Hazza.” Louis pulls away, rests their foreheads together. Steam billows from their mouths into the dark sky above them before evaporating.

“Stop kissing!” Emilia’s shrill little voice interrupts their moment, and they both turn to see her staring at them both incredulously, eyes wide. Laughing, they apologise and she goes back to what she was doing, turning around to check on them every once in a while.

When it’s time, Harry and Emilia head over to the bonfire, hand in hand.

For the actual fireworks they’ve got ear muffs for Archie. He lies back in his pushchair in his coat, scarf and hat under a blanket, ear muffs over the hat and hands over the ear muffs and watches the display in silent mesmerisation.

Louis holds Emilia on his hip, arms wrapped tightly around her tiny frame as they watch the fireworks overhead. Louis oohs and ahhs and points out the sparkling explosions of colour. Harry moves closer, next to Emilia, reaching his arm around the both of them and slipping his hand into Louis’ back pocket. Louis turns and peers over Emilia’s shoulder at him; the smile they share is simple and understated.

Harry’s love for fireworks grows a little bit more that year.

*

It’s April and spring has definitely sprung; the last few days have been the first nice days of 2018. In some ways it doesn’t feel like nearly a year since Harry got his life back on track, almost two since they met - so much has happened in that time, and yet it’s nothing all too monumental. They haven’t found a cure for a horrible disease or overthrown an evil dictator, but together it feels like they’ve done all that and more. He couldn’t imagine his life without Louis now.

Sure they have their ups and downs; there are some days when the kids grate on his nerves and Archie is particularly difficult. They exchange clipped, terse blows at each other and Louis knows how to hurt him with his words just as Harry knows exactly how to make Louis feel equally as shit. Sometimes Harry will go home to his mum’s for the evening and ignore Louis’ texts until it’s three in the morning and they should both be sleeping. Work gets to them both; sometimes Harry misses all of the weekend because of work and sometimes Louis brings too much of his own work home with him and their child-free weekday evenings become long stretches of them sitting on opposite ends of the sofa like bookends, Harry staring aimlessly at the telly and Louis’ head buried in his laptop.

But in the end they always come together, desperately clinging to each other like limpets, each one tripping over their tongues in their haste to make sure the other one knows they’re loved. They’re a family.

Archie was nineteen months when the first innocuous ‘dada’ towards him had slipped out. That had prompted Louis to feel responsible for having ‘the talk’ with Harry; perhaps a bit sooner than he would’ve liked Harry guesses. He’d gone with the apologetic angle, justifying himself that he couldn’t exactly stop Archie, couldn’t train him to call Harry something else when his instinct was to call him dad. That Archie didn’t know the difference between a ‘real’ parent and Harry. Hell, Harry was a real parent as far as he was concerned.

Surprisingly, when it came to Emilia it was more difficult. She had kept calling him by his proper name long after Archie had stopped. The three of them had sat down and they’d asked Emilia outright what she wanted to do and how she felt. She’d looked apprehensive and chewed on the inside of her cheek while they talked, not really willing to give up anything. Her keenness was replaced with nerves and it had been a good six months or so before the first ‘dad’ had slipped out.

Over time it had evolved to papa because of the confusion, and after a bit of crossover Archie had adapted to what he was hearing round him and Harry officially became their papa. His mum had tears of happiness in her eyes the first time she’d heard it.

The nice weather results in an impromptu drive to the coast, because isn’t that what all Brits do when the temperature goes above fourteen degrees? Well, that or throw a barbecue in Bermuda shorts, of course.

The countryside that whizzes past the car window as they travel is barren and largely leaf-less, but the sun shines through sporadic white clouds on an otherwise clear blue sky.

The beach is just about bearable if they keep their coats and scarves on; the kids build a few sandcastles with the sloppy wet sand and they creep up towards where the water laps the shore, barely braving the ice cold chill of the sea before dashing back up the beach, feet dirty and sandy.

They clean up, a laborious and stressful experience for all, and then head for the chippy. After a toilet stop and a look around the gift shop, they get back into the car at about five o'clock, the light still remaining but starting to diminish as they complete the journey home.

Both the kids are zonked out in the back seat when they pull up outside Jess’ house.

*

Despite the dawning of the first bouts of sunshine of the year, it’s bitterly cold in the house that has stood empty all day, and they seek solace under the blanket on the sofa with beers and a takeaway. Every once in a while he catches Louis watching him, a faraway smile on his face sometimes, and he begins to feel self-conscious.

“What?” He exclaims, giggling nervously as Louis repeatedly dismisses him, insisting it’s nothing.

As the night goes on, Louis seems to be building up to something, becoming more and more on edge, and Harry’s nerves and expectations begin to grow with every passing minute. He feels like he might explode.

Louis finally does it at half past eleven during the advert break halfway through Family Guy on ITV2.

“Haz?” He says tentatively, hitting the mute button on the telly remote. Louis shifts on the sofa next to him, tucking one leg under the other and turning to face Harry. “Can I ask you something?”

Harry’s blood runs cold as his brain begins to run on ahead without him. Holy hell, is Louis going to ask him to marry him? His palms go itchy and his throat feels thick as he nods instead of speaks.

Louis seems nervous, a bit. He’s fiddling with the sleeve of his grey Adidas zip up hoodie. Harry can barely see he’s so exhilarated.

Louis goes to say something but instead he reaches into his jacket pocket and brings something out. Harry’s heart is beating hard in his mouth as he looks down, expecting to- oh.

It’s… well it’s not a small black or brown or navy leather box like he was expecting. It’s, well it’s a crumpled pink and white striped paper bag. Harry’s heart is hammering in his chest, and he can’t deny that he wasn’t a tiny bit disappointed, deflated, from the realisation that what he thought was happening now was in fact not happening.

“A little something for you,” Louis says, and Harry’s not sure what the hell is going on. Since when did someone prefix giving someone a tacky seaside gift with can I ask you something?

He unfolds the top of the bag where it was concertinaed over and out falls a novelty key ring. It’s cheap bendy plastic, tacky and unbelievably cheap looking. It’s a capital H, blue with yellow piping and red and green polka dots, the -arry scrawled up one column of the H in what looks like Comic Sans font.

“I love it,” Harry says, smiling quizzically. “It’s uh, it’s very nice. Thank you.”

Louis watches him, his body still and his expression fixed for a beat, one two three, before he dissolves with a loud, nasal snort and a loud clap of his palms together. “Do you not understand it?”

“I uh,” Harry looks back down at the key ring in his hands still not getting it. He looks up. “What am I missing?”

“Oh love!” Louis exclaims, laughing. “It’s not just the key ring! There’s something to go with it!”

Louis reaches into his other pocket and produces a key. It’s just been cut recently, that much is obvious from the way it shines, the intricate edges sharp and paper tag from Timpson’s where it was cut.

The penny drops and Louis is nodding encouragingly. His heart rate begins to soar as he looks at his key ring, now automatically his most treasured possession, and then at the key that Louis is holding out to him.

“I - we - would very much like it if you would come and live with us and never leave us,” Louis says, pressing the key into Harry’s palm and closing his fingers over it before clutching Harry’s fist and resting it in his own palm. “We all love you very, very much, me especially – and you belong here with us, we’re a family now and families stick together. If you accept, I’d very much like to keep you.”

Harry’s heart is beating out of rhythm and he feels overcome with emotion.

“Is that okay? Is that yes?” Louis prompts, his own eyes glossy too.

Harry just nods, giggling nervously as the tears shed and he watches Louis smile as he threads the key onto the key ring, the tip of his tongue bitten between his teeth in concentration.

The beauty of not having any real worldly possessions is that is doesn’t take more than one car journey, two medium sized boxes and a small suitcase of his clothes to get Harry moved from his mums house to Louis’ place. Having sold the minimalistic second hand furniture he’d had at his place with Mikey, he only had bits and pieces, his clothes and some fancy kitchen gadgets that had been in bags under his childhood bed for the past months.

His things fitted in easily at Louis’, because if truth be told he’d been feeling like it was his home too for a while now. They just hadn’t, until this point, done anything to make it official. His clothes are in the wardrobe, he’s in the family photographs that adorn the walls and the side boards, his shoes are by the front door and his favourite foods are in the fridge. He’s home.

*

Towards the end of the summer, Harry meets up with Charlie and Chloe and is surprised but also thoroughly unsurprised to find Chloe sporting the beginnings of a baby bump under her t-shirt. While the two of them aren’t together they’re going to raise the kid together between them. They’re happy with the idea and they’re both obviously so in love with their unborn child already. Plus, who is Harry to judge unconventional families?

It hits him how they’re all growing up now; Mikey and his girlfriend are officially living together now - thanks to Facebook for telling him that, Chloe and Charlie are about to become parents - which is wild, and he and Louis are living together with two kids. Zayn and Liam are less than a year away from getting married and Niall and Amy wrote the book on successful long term relationships.

He never would have thought that at twenty two years of age he’d be a step parent to two wonderful little children, in a steady relationship and living with the man of his dreams, but he feels lucky to be here; the best version of himself living the best version of his life he could ever have dreamt of.

 

Louis

 

 

On the morning of Zayn and Liam’s wedding, Saturday 15th June 2019, they all wake up late. Harry has been fretting all week that they’re going to oversleep on the day, and that’s exactly what’s bloody well happened.

“You jinxed us with all your worrying!” Louis mutters as he leaps up and tries to acclimatise himself.

“Your alarm didn’t go off!” Harry retorts, cracking his back and knees and ankles as he stretches. “Don’t blame me!”

Louis hates the sound of crackling bones and joints, and he throws his pillow across the room at Harry.

“Just be thankful all we’ve gotta do is turn up!” Louis exclaims.

Just like Louis, Zayn and Liam between them have sisters in abundance so there was no shortage of bridesmaid options, but when it came to choosing a best man it became a little more difficult. By the time they’d been over the seating plans, procession order and list of jobs for the best man to be responsible for, Louis and Harry were more than happy to hand over responsibilities to Niall.

This pleased Louis because then he’d have Harry with him all day instead of losing him to best man duties. He’d been checking in with the grooms to be periodically over the last few weeks, not really interested in hearing about colour schemes and cake flavours and organza bags full of sugared almonds; he’s got his own stuff on his mind.

Yesterday evening he had a haircut and last weekend his mum had dragged him to the shops to buy outfits for the kids, so to say that he was organised and raring to go would be a lie.

They manage to get Emilia and Archie to eat their breakfast by plonking them in front of the TV, during which time Harry showers first and then Louis jumps in after, not appreciating Harry’s request to shower together one bit.

Harry’s hair hasn’t ever got back to as long as it once was but he’d let it grow again with Emilia, and it sits in dark, wet ringlets just past his ears. Tendrils around his hairline are beginning to dry and go fluffy, catching the light and making him look like Annie. Harry will take longer to get ready, what with all the dawdling and faffing about, so Louis shoos him away whilst simultaneously decanting shower gel into his palm and finding his toothbrush.

“You’re disgusting,” Harry remarks as he leaves the steamy bathroom with a grin.

Their suits are both navy; the darkest, richest variation of the shade going. Harry’s suit flares slightly on the legs whereas Louis’ is skinny fit; both shirts white and Louis’ tie thin navy silk with an unobtrusive grey dot pattern to go with Harry’s shimmery grey one.

Once Emilia is in her dress and Harry has got Archie dressed in his little suit – the cutest thing in the world – they can get dressed too, and that’s a big worry off Louis’ mind. Emilia’s hair sits in ringlets around her shoulders; the left side clipped back and held in place with a sparkling slide. Her lilac dress that they’d eventually found in Monsoon is slightly on the big side but with a white bolero over the top nobody will be able to tell.

“I’m hungry!” Archie protests. “Dada, I’m hungry!”

Louis looks up, but it’s Harry this time that Archie is addressing. It still thrills Louis to see the kids accept Harry as if he’s always been a part of their lives. Just over three years down the line since the first day he and Harry met, their unique little family is complete; the kids have more love within their so-called ‘unusual’ family than some of the ‘normal’ families out there; they have him and Harry - daddy and papa - and Jess and her partner Adam.

That revelation had been an eye opener. Louis’ knee-jerk reaction was one of anger, defiance. Then he remembered how difficult Jess had made things for him and Harry and he wanted to do the same for her, just out of sheer pettiness.

But then Jess had formally introduced Adam to not just him but Harry too, referring to them as ‘Louis and his partner’ and the guy had shook both of their hands, he’d treated the kids well and Harry had encouraged him to let go. After a few months passed and Jess’ apology came, things all fell into place. They’d talked more than they’d ever talked in the best part of a decade that they’d known each other.

“You’re not to eat anything in your wedding clothes, that goes for everyone!” Louis insists now, directing his attention to Harry too, and shaking his head vigorously when Archie points longingly towards the kitchen door.

“But I hungr-”

“I don’t care mate; you’re not spilling anything down your front!”

Archie looks to Harry again, bottom lip pouty and eyes showing pure devastation. “Papa, you get it for me?”

“No, Archie, you must listen to daddy. As soon as the ceremony is done we’ll get you something to eat.”

“When will that be?” Archie asks, throwing his arms down by his side and looking angrily at Louis.

“Later, we gotta get there first. Is everyone ready, Emmie where are your shoes, love? The nice ones Nan-Anne got you?”

“Can I wear my Converse; they match as they’re both purple.”

“No love,” Louis answers steadily, though his temperature gauge is rising. “Posh shoes with your posh dress.”

Emilia looks on the brink of a tantrum too, and they quell it by agreeing to let her take the Converse for the evening reception. Harry whispers to him that he thinks the glitter Converse would look cool with the dress and Louis almost clouts him.

Somehow, miraculously, they make it to the venue on time. Well, just in time - by the skin of their collective teeth.

“Who the pissing hell gets married at a hotel with such a small flamin’ car park?” Louis demands, gripping the steering wheel tight as he manoeuvres the car into a narrow slot, half on a grass verge and half on the gravel, under the weight and darkness of a large tree.

“Naughty words, dad!” Emilia reminds him, tutting from the back seat.

They pile out, Harry lifting the kids out one at a time over the muddy grass to Louis standing in the clearing of the mess. Their little corner of the car park couldn’t be further from the main entrance, and Louis trots on ahead with Harry bringing up the rear.

“C’mon, quick! Hurry up you lot!” He calls over his shoulder, watching as Harry dashes along hand in hand with Archie on his left and Emilia on his right.

They dash through the foyer, Louis barely taking in anything of the rustic décor, towards the Marlborough Suite where the ceremony is taking place. They’re not the last ones in, thankfully, but it’s pretty hectic and Archie’s loud complaining burns Louis’ cheeks a fierce shade of crimson.

Inside is beautifully done out; fresh white flowers on a background of luscious dark green fronds, thick patterned carpets and intricately detailed wood cladded walls. Chandeliers hang from the high ceilings, erupting from ornate ceiling roses that definitely have not been dusted this side of the millennium.

“Impressive,” Louis murmurs to himself as they all sit down, taking up a whole row of seats.

They bookend in the kids in the middle, keeping Archie quiet with his dummy in his mouth, and if anyone dares judge him for his almost four year old having a dummy, well then so help them.

He smiles and they both say a courteous hello to two of Liam’s work friends that they’d met at the stag do, and Emilia whispers quite unceremoniously ‘who’s that?’ to Harry, which makes the two blokes smile.

Zayn is loitering at the front with Niall; he appears to be pretty calm and collected at this point but Louis notices him running his flattened palms down the legs of his trousers as they talk distractedly. Niall’s eyes dart around the room as he makes jokes; Louis can’t hear what they’re saying but he’s obviously doing his best work to keep Zayn calm.

The families are all sat up front; Louis can recognise Zayn’s parents and two people Louis can only assume are Liam’s parents on the opposite side. They’re chatting softly across the aisle, families mingling beautifully. Zayn turns and looks over his shoulder, surveying the crowd. He spots them then and gives a reassuring thumbs up and that cheeky half-grin that Liam no doubt fell in love with immediately. Hell, Louis could fall in love with Zayn just with that grin.

It’s only a few more moments of quiet waiting before someone signals to the officiant and the mothers rise from their seats and head towards the grand double doors, which are promptly pulled shut. Niall stays put at the end of the aisle, just off to one side, sending Zayn off with a reassuring clap on the shoulder. Zayn moves to his place at the top of the aisle, behind the congregation.

Zayn and Liam had decided to go with a different approach and have Liam enter with the bridesmaids and both their mothers, Zayn waiting for them at the head of the aisle, and together the four of them plus the four sisters as bridesmaids will head down the aisle to the waiting best man and officiant.

Liam’s a giggling wreck as two well-dressed staff members open the double doors back up and the music starts up. It’s not Here Comes the Bride, for obvious reasons, but a twinkly little ditty that is harp music if Louis isn’t very much mistaken. Everyone turns and the atmosphere changes, oohs and ahhs as Liam, Karen, Trish and the bridesmaids make their way in carefully.

“Ah that’s so cool!” Emilia swoons under her breath. “Papa, look at Uncle Liam!”

Louis watches Harry nod to her with the broadest smile before looking back at the entourage. The look on Liam’s face as he’s walking towards Zayn is truly something to behold, it takes Louis’ breath away a little. He thinks back to that stupid speed dating, the night the respective couples met, and how for so many months no one had a clue that these two had basically fallen immediately in love with each other. It sort of makes Louis pine for the same simplistic, easy fall. He hates himself for the path that he and Harry had to travel to get to the same place.

The two mums go arm in arm up the aisle first, both dabbing at their eyes with hankies in their spare hands, smiling and giggling nervous hellos to familiar faces in the congregation.

Liam’s older sisters accompany one of Zayn’s younger sisters next, the four of them making their way up the aisle in beautiful dresses with just the very barest hint of a pink sheen to the swishy material.

Last but not least, the two grooms head up the procession, hand in hand and grinning emotionally from ear to ear.

The ceremony isn’t too long, just the way Louis likes, and a mere fifteen minutes later they’re looking at the new husbands. As was his choice to take a step back from the wedding party, after they’ve checked into their room for the night there is a lot of standing around after that point, sipping on the complimentary Bucks Fizz and keeping the kids in line while the families pose for pictures and exchanges pleasantries and congratulations.

“Papa, I’m hungry. You sayed to me I can have food once the cere-ce-nony was over!” Archie says, clinging onto Harry’s trouser leg insistently.

“Have you got a quid, Lou?” Harry asks, turning to him. “I’ll get him some crisps from the bar.”

Louis finds a fiver in his wallet and hands it over, the smallest he’s got. Emilia eyes it wickedly and he nods for her to go with Harry to get some crisps too.

Louis mingles for a while, grabs an opportunistic glass of champagne from a passing usher and waits for his brood to return. He smiles to ladies that pass him by, shakes hands with Liam’s sister’s boyfriend and makes idle chit chat for a while until the bloke moves on and Harry and the kids come back.

A while later, somewhere in the distance he can hear an unfamiliar voice calling his name, and Harry’s too. He frowns at Harry, who looks equally as puzzled before his face breaks into a grin and he nods in the direction of the voice.

Louis turns to see a woman with a camera – the photographer, obviously – dashing up to him with a look of desperation

“Are you Louis and Harry?” She asks, breathing a sigh of relief as Louis nods to confirm that they are. “Oh perfect, the grooms have requested you both for a picture! Right this way!”

“C’mon, come and see Auntie Amy, we’ll hang out here for a bit while daddy and papa are gone!” Amy appears out of nowhere and rounds the kids up effortlessly and Louis and Harry slip off to be photographed.

They must look hilarious; Niall in the middle and the newlyweds to his left and Louis and Harry to his right. They do serious poses and then the photographer asks them to let out a loud cheer, and she snaps them all mid-laugh. Louis can only hope that not all of his chins are on display for the world to see.

For the last shot of their little mini-shoot they all scramble up onto a nearby wall. With a wide lens the photographer snaps them, from the waist down, sitting next to each other along the top of the wall. Liam sits centre with Zayn and then Harry on one side and Niall and himself on the other.

Pulling their trousers legs up, they reveal a rainbow of socks: Louis in yellow, Niall in orange, the grooms in pink and green and Harry in blue. They’re all laughing their heads off joking around with each other out of shot; the idea being one of Amy’s that she stole from Pinterest.

The wedding breakfast is nice, if a little small, with soup for starter and for the main just one single breast of chicken, a little egg cup full of gravy, miniature carrots, green beans and the most useless curl of mashed potato he’s ever seen. The kids fare a bit better with the kids menu and they wolf down burger and chips. Louis finds himself longing for a bite himself.

They eat pudding – cheesecake – and listen to the speeches, Liam’s dad making the whole room erupt with laughter, and Niall likewise. The mums say a quick bit each, and Louis finds himself patting his eyes by the time they’re raising their glasses to the happy couple. Archie puts a delicate hand on his arm when he sees his eyes watering, and that sends him right over the edge. Emilia and Harry laugh softly at him and he giggles with embarrassment, but after the dinner Harry pulls him to one side and kisses him intensely.

“I love you,” He says as he pulls off. “Just in case you needed a reminder.”

Louis smiles. “I love you too.”

*

More guests arrive for the evening, the newlyweds’ respective work colleagues, friends of their parents, generally just the people not quite exclusive enough to get an invite to the main event.

After a torturous hour and a half of wandering around the grounds of the hotel and keeping Archie from toddling off into the wilderness, paying out of the nose for drinks and fielding a million questions from an inquisitive Emilia, it’s finally time to go back into the main reception room, where the meal had been held.

It’s been transformed, in the sense that the chairs and tables are now pushed to the edges and there’s a dance floor in the centre of the room. A disco ball rotates above it and spot lights jump around the room in erratic shades of neon. The DJ is set up and current chart music filters out from a deserted laptop.

“Oh wow!” Archie enthuses with wonderment as they walk through the door. “This is magic!”

They take the nearest table, depositing all of their paraphernalia. Louis heads back to the bar, returning with the beers in his hands and bottles of juice in his pockets for the kids.

“All right Lou?” Harry asks, peering at him over the rim of his frothy glass. “You seem on edge?”

“What? No, just uh, just looking out for our mums,” He replies, punctuating his point by looking back the doors, watching three young boys in skinny jeans and polo sweaters heading inside, beers in hand and gel in hair. He assumes they’re from Liam’s academy.

“Okay,” Harry nods, putting his glass down and looking around himself.

Emilia is leading Archie around the dance floor, the only two on it at this early stage, but they’re doing a fabulous job of charming absolutely everybody in the room.

A lady dressed in a floral dress and impressive fascinator is watching them, absolutely smitten. Louis watches the scene unfold, feeling unfathomably proud. He can hear Emilia bossing Archie about, telling him not to do that and to follow her lead and to hurry and concentrate!

Emilia goes all shy when she realises the extent of her audience.

“I bet your mummy and daddy are proud of you little Munchkins!” The woman says, smile broad. Louis prickles immediately, a reaction he’ll never be able to quell no matter how many times he hears it.

“No my mummy’s not here today, that’s my daddy and papa over there actually,” Emilia tells the lady, matter-of-factly. She points them out and Louis nods embarrassedly. “That’s who we’ve come here today with.”

“Ooh, I say! Another couple! I’m starting to feel a bit outnumbered here!” Louis hears the lady say, laughing at her own ridiculous joke.

“That’s the dream,” Louis mumbles to himself. “One day LGBT couples will overrule the straights.”

“Huh?” Harry asks, straining to hear him over the music that has just suddenly crept up a few decibels. Louis just shakes his head and smiles. It’s the Macarena. Shouting this time, he moves to stand up, beckoning Harry in. “Come on!”

Harry groans and tries to decline but Louis gets him up on his feet in the end. Between them they’ve sunk just the right amount of alcohol to still be aware and responsible but also able to have a really good laugh. A crowd joins them, forming lines and all performing the dance moves with slightly different timings, but it’s a good laugh and Emilia tags on the end, trying to copy. Archie just charges about the floor, eventually losing interest and wandering back to their table to have a drink.

Their mums arrive together, both looking radiant in their evening gowns, make up done and hair styled.

“Nanny! Nan-Anne!” Emilia shrieks when she spots the ladies in the doorway. She charges at them, throwing her arms around both of her grandmas. Archie follows behind and Anne picks him up, showing him with kisses, as does Jay.

“Hi loves, all right? This is right swanky int’it?” Jay greets them, sitting down and resting her clutch bag in her lap.

“All right, mum?” Louis greets her, leaning over to kiss her cheek.

Harry gets up from his seat and cuddles his mum before creeping up behind Jay’s seat and slinking his arms around her shoulders. “Hiya Jay, looking lovely as ever.” He smacks a light kiss to her cheek and then sits back down next to Louis.

They chat for a while, as best they can over the music and Emilia and Archie’s constant demands for attention. Harry takes Emilia onto the dance floor and they dance to Sia and Rihanna and Justin Timberlake. Louis films bit of it even though all he can make out is blackness, crazy strobe lights and tinny pounding music.

Over the course of the evening they lose each other a bit, one of them off sorting a child out or getting drinks or being sociable with the other guests.

Zayn and Liam’s first dance comes and goes, and the DJ calls for all the couples to come up and join them for the next slow dance, but he can’t find Harry so he holds his hand out for his mum.

“Everything okay my sweetheart?” She asks him, her voice vibrating through his body with how close they are. He nods reassuringly. “You look very handsome tonight.”

“Stop embarrassin’ me!” He whines softly, and they both laugh.

“If I can’t embarrass my only son at every turn am I really his mother?”

“It’s not a requirement, you know!”

”You’ll see, when Ems and Archie are bigger, you’ll be exactly the same as me, maybe worse!”

“I won’t, I can assure you!” He says, though that’s likely untrue. He hooks his chin over his mum’s shoulder and clings on tight; he might be almost twenty nine but he’ll never be too old for a good old cuddle off his mum. “Thanks for everythin’ mum.”

She pats his back soothingly and when they separate she smiles up at him. “Of course, Lou. You don’t need to thank me.”

*

Archie is overtired to the point of impossible by the time Jay takes the kids home at half past ten. Emilia in her glitter Converse would’ve been happy to keep stomping around the dance floor and eating cupcakes and chicken nuggets off the buffet, but Archie is flitting between screaming fits and clinging to Louis’ leg with sticky fingers and a snotty nose, so home it is.

“Be good, I love you lots,” Louis promises them both as he walks out to the car with his mum, leaving Harry and Anne inside.

“I’ll see you tomorrow, sweetheart, have a lovely rest of the night. Don’t get too drunk!”

“Dutch courage, right?”

Jay just smiles. “You don’t need none of that, babe.”

“I’ll see you tomorrow then?”

“You will. Night-night my sweetheart. Good luck.”

He waves them off, feeling a bit of a lump forming in his throat. It’s chilly now, despite it being June, and the only people around him are the ones coming out for a cigarette. He nods and smiles to someone that apparently knows him, and then heads back inside.

He finds Harry and Anne back at their table, deep in shouted conversation, but the music is loud enough that he can’t hear what they’re saying despite the shouting.

Harry and Anne both beam back at him, so similar with their dark hair and smiles mirroring each other. Harry’s beer is fresh and Anne’s wine glass full, and a third beer is next to Harry’s. He passes it over and their fingers brush as they exchange the ice cold glass, and for a second it’s like being a school boy with a crush, vowing never to wash his hand again because his crush touched him in passing for a vague millisecond.

They share an embarrassed smile, and not long after, Anne disappears off to the toilets with Liam’s mum, leaving just the two of them. Harry scoots round a seat so they’re sitting next to each other, and he lets his legs fall wide open so their knees are touching.

“Love you!” Harry shouts in his ear.

“You’re drunk!” Louis retorts.

Harry shrugs exaggeratedly. “Yeah, but I still love you!”

“Y’know, we’re alone now.” He nods towards the sofas in the lobby where Anne and the rest of the mums are now sitting with their champagne flutes laughing their heads off noisily. “Just the two of us.”

“What are you insinuating?” Harry asks, with obvious added shock.

“It’s dark, find a little corner, no one will notice!” Louis jokes, although he might only be half-joking. “Fine, instead can I have this dance? See how many feathers we can ruffle?”

“Seeing as though this is a same-sex wedding, I’m guessing not many.” Harry remarks, grinning from ear to ear because he knows he’s winding Louis up. He gets to his feet, standing in the V of Harry’s legs and clinging to the lapels of his suit jacket for support. Maybe he’s a bit drunker than he thought?

“Shut up, d’you wanna dance wi’ me or not?” He says, leaning in as close as he can without accidentally falling into his boyfriend's lap.

“I wanna dance wi’ you,” Harry says after a beat, softer this time, more intimate.

“Well c’mon then!” Louis feels a whoosh of excitement as Harry takes his hands off his chest and holds them tight, pulling himself up out of his chair.

Harry steps into his orbit and Louis walks backwards, feeling for the break between the carpet and the parquet dance floor. The song that’s playing, I Gotta Feeling by the Black Eyed Peas, isn’t really a slow dance sort of song at all but they move around together in their own little bubble anyway.

Louis pins his arms around Harry’s waist and presses his hips against his body; their legs slot together and their feet move around the dance floor with little mis-stepping.

Louis supposes though that he does gotta feeling tonight is gonna be a good night, so it’s quite apt. He smiles to himself and Harry asks him what he’s smiling at, looking inquisitive and a bit pre-cautiously self-conscious.

Before he can answer, the Black Eyed Peas fade out to the happy-go-lucky, steadily building intro to God Only Knows by the Beach Boys.

Harry’s eyes bug and he grins widely. Louis knows this song. He knows this song because Harry knows this song; it’s from Harry’s favourite ever film and over time what’s part of Harry has become part of Louis too, and vice versa. He feels the force of some sort of serendipity out there, bringing this lovely moment together for him.

Harry pulls him in closer, removes the space between their upper bodies and laces one arm around his back and the other around his shoulders. Louis places his head on Harry’s chest, his ear pressed to the material of his shirt. He slides his arms down so one is looped around Harry’s lower back and the other hand rests in the waistband of his trousers, under his jacket.

Harry’s a warm, reassuring presence in his life both physically and emotionally; he listens to the words and relates to the singer. He’d be nothing without Harry because he was nothing before Harry. He knows it’s dangerous to invest so much in someone, but he can’t help it. His head and his heart are both racing away from him, alongside each other for once. It shouldn’t feel this easy, should it?

God only knows what I'd be without you.

The same line resonates around the room, and Louis couldn’t tell you if there was anyone else around them because for him the whole world in this moment is just him and Harry. All the outside components, their kids, their jobs, their home, they’re right there in his heart too, of course, but to just hold Harry close and soak up every ounce of him, there’s nothing quite like it.

God only knows what I'd be without you.

The song fades out and the DJ starts blabbering on, too close to the mic. The moment may have passed now, but that doesn’t mean they’re leaving the dance floor.

Louis feels a hand slink around his shoulders and then Zayn is upon him, thrusting a drink into his hand – ‘no drinks on the dance floor’ sign be damned. Liam comes jogging over too, slapping an arm around Harry and beckoning to Amy and Niall. Amy comes toddling over in her heels, drink in hand.

They throw their hands up into the centre and clink their glasses together, noisy and boisterous. Then, they hear the opening few bars of the next song and Louis and Amy both simultaneously start shrieking.

The clunking intro bars to Dirrty by Christina Aguilera and Redman play out and Louis’ eyes light up. He thrusts his empty glass into Harry’s hand and spins off with Amy, grinding back into her as she shrieks with delight behind him, her hands gripping his waist as she moves too. As the fast paced, quick fire hook continues, Louis is quite impressed with his ability to still being able to get right down to the floor.

The Beach Boys might not have ruffled any feathers but there’s a good chance Dirrty might. He cocks his hip out as he springs back up and shakes his arse as he dances round and round in circles with Amy and shimmies into the middle of Zayn and Liam before spinning his way back towards Harry, head thrown back with laughter.

“Was wonderin’ when you’d remember I was here,” Harry purred into his ear as they slid into each other’s arms.

They stomp along to C’mon Eileen and make idiots of themselves doing the YMCA and the Time Warp, the six of them together having the time of their lives.

They leave the dance floor after four or maybe five songs, Louis can’t quite keep track. Amy and Niall sit back down, Amy now holding her shoes by the sling backs and waving them around dangerously. Liam and Zayn are escorted to the bar by someone from Liam’s family, again Louis can’t keep track, and that just leaves the two of them again.

“What shall we do now?” Louis shouts over the music.

“What time is it?” Harry asks, but neither of them answers the others question.

“Wanna go outside?” Louis asks instead.

“Sure,” Harry agrees, heading towards the doors, away from the pounding music and into the quiet corridors.

They find Anne in the corridor, holding her phone in one hand and an empty glass in the other. She lights up as she spots them.

“Oh hi loves,” She says softly. “I was just coming to find you two. So I’ve called my brother, he’s on his way to get me, just wanted to come and say bye bye.”

“I’ll walk mum to the front, okay?” Harry says, turning to Louis once he’s hugged Anne and kissed her cheek. He hopes he doesn’t smell too badly of booze.

“Yeah ‘course. I’m gonna find a loo; meet you back here in ten?”

“Okay babe,” Harry agrees, and Louis kisses Anne’s cheek goodbye again, thanking her for everything.

He dawdles around a bit as Harry and Anne make their way off, arm in arm. He looks around a bit fast and a wave of drunken nausea washes over him. He takes a deep breath and decisively he walks over to the lifts and presses the up arrow.

*

Probably closer to half an hour later, they are reunited in the foyer. Louis feels calmer now and Harry too appears to have sobered up a bit, if that’s possible in less than thirty minutes. He looks at Louis with a renewed focus and insistence.

“Hi babe. Did mum make it home okay?”

“Yeah,” Harry nods with a faraway smile. “She’s fine, my uncle picked her up.”

“Good,” Louis nods, satisfied with that. “Shall we walk?”

“Walk?”

“Yes Harry, walk. Don’t look so surprised.”

Harry laughs at him but nods and holds out his hand. They slot their fingers together and walk idly back through the noisy party to the balcony.

Leaning their elbows on the stone wall looking out over the grounds they chat for a while. It’s dark but the night sky is clear overhead, cloudless so the stars and the moon shine down and it’s not impossible to make out the landscape. Plus, the towns in the distance twinkle red and orange on the horizon.

They share jokes and they make remarks about random things, laugh at each other and chat about random shit that makes no sense whatsoever.

After an undefinable amount of time they head down to the ground level, taking the stone steps carefully. They follow the natural flow of the gravel footpath that goes beneath the massive stone structure. There are flowers trailing all over the columns and spotlights strategically placed between the foliage, creating a golden glow and it's absolutely still and silent around them, secluded.

Between a nondescript flowering trail and a well-placed spot light within the foliage that bounces off the stonework is a bench.

“C’mon, let’s sit down.”

“S’a bit quiet here, Lou. You plannin’ on murdering me?”

Louis snorts softly with laughter. “No love, this was an expensive suit, I’m not ruining it.”

“Fine,” Harry agrees, sitting down next to him. The view is of the grounds, the odd tree here and there, the gravel path that trails off around the corner and into the darkness. The bass from the disco thuds very, very slightly through the structure, making the place vibrate almost. Louis knows how it feels.

His hands are trembling with nervous energy, clasped in his lap and clammy.

“You okay, Lou?” Harry asks again, the same concerned look on his face from earlier at the table.

He offers up a bright smile, feeling some of his nerves wash away automatically. He’s being ridiculous; this makes so much sense it almost blinds him. “Yeah, am good. The best.”

“Good,” Harry smiles, still looking a bit unsure. “You seem jumpy. Missing the kids?”

“No, well I mean yeah of course! But that’s not why I’m being weird- I’m not being weird, I’m- shit. I’m rambling.”

Harry laughs gently and lifts his hand up to Louis’ forehead. “You do feel a bit hot. Maybe you’re coming down with something? Or you’re just drunk.”

“I’m not drunk,” He promises, and Harry looks a bit taken aback by the sudden sincerity to his voice. “I know what I’m saying.”

“I know babe,” Harry reassures him hoarsely, dropping his hand and smiling.

“Harry?” He says, feeling his voice quiver slightly, a lump building itself in his throat steadily. Harry looks back at him with eyes wide and focussed, by way of a response. Louis smiles, because that’s what he does when he looks into Harry’s eyes. He makes him happy. “Hi love.”

“Hello Lou,” Harry says slowly, deeply.

Louis lets out a strangled laugh, a strange mixture of embarrassment and nerves and excitement. “Harry, I… I love you. Very much indeed, you know that?”

Harry nods. “Lou, w-what are you…”

“I’ve got all this planned in my ‘ead and if I don’t say it now I’m gonna forget an important bit,” Louis says quickly, reaching out for Harry’s hand. He holds one of Harry’s hands in both of his; his grip is weak and he trembles. Harry brings up a second hand to cover them both and Louis immediately feels calmed.

“It’s okay Lou,”

“Ever since I was in school, I’ve only been good at one thing, and that’s houses.” Louis starts, thinking about the sign on the door at his office that used to read Andy Hinton, Office Manager and now reads Louis Tomlinson, Office Manager. “I can get people houses, I can sort ‘em a home out. But until I met you I didn’t realise that home could be more than just a roof over your head, it could be a person too.”

He doesn’t dare look at Harry, he just carries on, the words flowing easily because this is by far the easiest most natural thing he’s ever done.

“I told myself I wasn’t looking for anything – anyone - as you know. But you came along and made it impossible for me to ignore you. You put up with so much, Harry, just for me. Thank you for sticking with me, for giving me a chance.”

“Of course, baby.” Harry rasps.

“You’re my home, Harry; you took everything I thought I knew and turned it on its head. And I mean that in the best possible way, darling. You make it really easy to love you because you’re just so nice. So kind, so caring, I- I couldn’t have asked for a better boyfriend. A better parent to the kids.”

As he’s talking he loosens his grip from Harry’s and reaches into the inside pocket of his jacket and pulls it out, keep his palm clenched tightly around it. He takes a deep breath and opens his palm back up. He finally braves looking up at Harry, his heart thumping louder and heavier in his chest than it ever has before.

“Lou…” Harry breathes heavily as his eyes drop to the scene unfolding in their laps.

Louis can barely grasp the ring, his hands are shaking and his skin feels almost wet with nerves. He focusses all of his attention of getting the curvature of the band between his thumb pad and his two fingertips, desperate not to let it slide out of his grip.

“Marry me, Harry? Please?” He rasps, his emotions overcoming him as he becomes aware of Harry’s shoulders beginning to shake.

He peers up at Harry for the first time; he’s biting down on his lower lip to keep his emotions in check but he’s quivering harshly and his eyes shimmer with unshed tears. They lock eyes and Harry’s waterworks open; he laughs wetly, quite obviously very overwhelmed, and Louis breaks then too.

They’re both red-eyed and wet-cheeked as Harry accepts, as Louis’ heart bursts out of his chest with relief and as he slips the band around the ring finger on Harry’s left hand.

“I… I can’t believe you just did that!” Harry exclaims, eyes popping open as he stares at his hand, as if just seeing it for the first time. Harry pulls him into his lap, and his knees hurt a little bit knelt on the stone bench but he ignores it because he’s with Harry and that’s all he cares about until tomorrow morning. “C’mere.”

They kiss, Harry’s hands holding his face. They kiss for a while, a long while really; their first kiss as an engaged couple. Who knew they’d still have firsts after all this time? Once they separate, Harry rests his forehead against Louis’ and holds up his hand between them, making a fist and admiring the ring, showing it off to Louis.

“I really, really love it.” He says dreamily. “I can’t believe we’re gonna get married. That’s insane.”

“Good insane?” Louis double checks, Harry nodding profusely. Harry sings a few lines from Insane in the Brain by Cypress Hill, obviously triggered by the word, and Louis shakes his head.

“Can I change my mind? Is it too late?”

“Yes, it’s too late. It’s too late to apologise!” One Republic. Harry’s eyes shine as his mind races. “Is it too late now to say sorry?” Justin Bieber.

“You’re lucky I love you, Styles.”

“You won’t get to call me that for much longer, mate.”

“Oh, so you’re takin’ my name are you? You’ve decided that already?”

“Yeah, ‘course!” Harry says without hesitation. “The obvious choice, int’it. We’ll all have the same name then.”

That leads to some more kissing, some more teenage groping under the cover of darkness, and though it's still hurting his knees a little (a lot), Louis doesn’t care. He has a feeling there’s going to be a lot of moments like this where Harry just stops him and pulls him in for kisses over the next couple of weeks, while the proposal is still shiny and new.

“We should head back, although I doubt anyone’s missing us. We’re not the newlyweds – yet.”

“I can’t wait to tell people. D’you think they’ll be excited?” Harry asks with a childlike enthusiasm that Louis finds so endearing.

“We won’t tell Zayn and Liam that I did it at their wedding reception mind, they’ll never forgive me,” Louis says with a wet chuckle, head resting against Harry’s chest. His fiancé’s chest. Husband to be. God.

They walk very slowly back along the gravel path, hand in hand. Harry muses with a dream like expression about telling the kids, about telling everyone, about the actual day. He seems to have given his future wedding day a lot of thought, and while he doesn’t exactly bombard Louis with ideas and plans just yet, he can tell they’re on the tip of Harry’s tongue. It’s nice to be met with such passion.

When Louis tells him that Jay, Anne and Amy knew about his intentions, he receives a well-meaning but slightly powerful clout on the arm.

“They don’t know I’m doing it tonight, I mean done it, but they knew I had the ring and was just waiting for the right moment.”

Harry asks a million questions: how he chose the ring, when he got it, how he kept it a secret when he decided he was going to ask, how long his mum has known for, how Amy reacted when she found out.

By the time they make it back up to the party, the numbers have depleted severely. There are a few hangers on sitting drunkenly in their seats staring at their feet, Zayn’s sisters and their friends on the dance floor still drunk enough to be having a good time, and one lonely man by the bar finishing a beer.

Zayn and Liam are nowhere to be found, no one else recognisable is anywhere near the lobby or the function room.

“Shall we head up?” Louis asks, waving the room key in his hand. Harry nods gratefully and together they find the lift, kissing lazily up against the wall as the rickety old thing trundles up to the fourth level.

*

There’s an ache in their bones and in their heads when they wake the next morning. It’s still morning – just. A shower helps wake Louis up, his neck aching with his efforts to support his heavy head. He can’t help but smile to himself though as he stands under the spray and Harry steps in behind him, sliding his arms around Louis’ body and clasping his fingers together and holding him tight. Their bodies press together, back to front and front to back; Harry is hard already.

Louis isn’t ashamed to say that a few scattered kisses on his neck, skin warmed from the water, and a blind feel of the new metal around Harry’s finger is all it takes to get him there too.

“Let’s do it again,” Harry murmurs in his ear, sultry and fucking hot, where did that come from? “Think you can go again?”

Louis would agree even if he thought he couldn’t go again, let’s be real. He nods and turns his head, craning his neck to get a look at Harry. His hair is damp only on one patch, the rest of it dry and frizzy from the steam. They kiss just once at the awkward angle before hilarity ensues as Harry holds on – rather uselessly – to Louis’ thigh as he angles himself out of the bath to reach the toiletries bag that is tossed in the sink.

It’s a slow and careful procedure, Harry obviously holding back for fear of killing the both of them. The slippery tiles don’t make for very safe handles, but with one of Harry’s hands holding firmly onto his hip bone and the other gripping his shoulder, the shallow and prolonged fucking in and out feels too good to worry too much.

When Harry finally releases, it’s been such a long time coming – delicious pun completely intended – that he throws his head forward and clamps his teeth down on the juncture of Louis’ neck and shoulders, biting hard with a muffled, insatiable groan against his skin.

“Sorry bathroom,” Louis says afterwards to the shower, imagining the scandalised looks on the faces of the tiles and the shower head, if such a thing were to be possible of course. He shakes his head at how deliriously stupid he feels talking to the tiles, and looks round to see Harry wrapped up in a fluffy hotel towel smirking at him.

“This is what being engaged to you has done to me, it’s made me weird.”

“Sweetheart, that wasn’t me that did that, that’s all you.” Harry responds, walking back into the bedroom area. He drops his towel onto the bed as he goes, revealing his bare bum.

It’s beautiful to have a few hours just for themselves; no need to watch what they say or do or worry about the distinct lack of clothes that Harry is currently wearing. Jay has told them not to head back to hers to fetch the kids until after five as she’s taken them and the youngest twins out for the day, so they’re in no immediate rush. They pay to have check out time pushed back to three pm and then after that, with the bags loaded in the back of the car and feeling a lot calmer than they had the last time they were here, they head out of the car park to find somewhere to get lunch.

“Shall I tell the waitress we just got engaged? We might get a free ice cream sundae or summat?” Harry suggests, looking out across the room.

Louis tries to stop him, cheeks burning with embarrassment, but to his horror Harry does exactly that. The waitress is obsessed with them after that, and although they don’t get a free pudding but they do get 25% off their bill, which is probably better.

It’s five to five when they set off from the restaurant, having spent far too long in the disabled toilet kissing up against the door. When they pull up, it’s behind a silver car that it takes Harry a moment or two to recognise.

“Is that… oh my God, Lou that’s my mum’s car!”

Louis nods. “I couldn’t face doing the big reveal to our mums twice, so I got ‘em both here at once.”

“You little… oh you bloody angel, how did you do that?” Harry leans over the handbrake to drop another kiss upon his lips. Conscious that they could well be being watched, Louis cuts it short and nods for him to get out of the car.

It’s suspiciously quiet as Louis lets them into Jay’s home and they tread through the hallway tentatively, Louis the first one to push the door open. He sees his mum first and then Anne a very close second; they both move forward to the edges of their seats with hands clasped to their chests in proud anticipation.

Louis grins embarrassedly into his chest as Harry steps in the room nervously behind him and makes a small noise conveying equal measures of nerves and embarrassment to match his.

“Well?!” Jay is the first to let go, her voice wobbly and shrill with poorly contained excitement.

Both mums are looking at them expectantly, fit to burst. The kids just sitting there on the carpet staring up at their parents in a sort of confused awe. Louis turns to look at Harry over his shoulder; he has no plan for how to confirm the lovely news, so they just go for it in the end. At the same time Louis exclaims “We’re engaged!” Harry lifts his hand to proudly show off the new addition.

Both mums yelp and jump up off the sofa, Louis just catching sight of a rather bewildered looking Archie getting to his feet before Anne scoops him up into a huge hug and his own mum goes for Harry. Out of the four of them there isn’t one with a dry eye.

Of course, there’s still their army of sisters to tell, their friends and work colleagues and the slightly less appealing task of telling Jess, but Louis isn’t thinking about her right now; this moment is too perfect to tarnish. The highest priority people are here in the room right now, their mum’s and their kids, and they’re all happy and accepting of the news, which is all Louis and Harry could ever have wished.

In fact, the biggest concern of Emilia’s is whether or not the five friends will all be wearing rainbow socks again.

And of course, they definitely will be.

 

End.